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Clementine

 

 

A Race of Young Scoundrels

Third in the Following Fathers series

 

Murdoch had smacked my mouth for me that morning, for backchatting and cussing. Mainly for the cussin’, ‘cause my back chatting was ‘my natural style of communication with my elders and betters’, as my smart alec brother told me.  The slap didn’t hurt much, ‘cause the Ol’ Man saved his hard hitting for when he was aiming at my duff. 

It still smarted though, and pulled me up short like it was intended.

What he intended too, was to remind me that he was the man and I was the kid.  I sure didn’t need no reminding of that, it being the case that I couldn’t put a foot wrong without hearin’ ‘John!’ from Pa, ‘Johnny!’ from Scott and ‘Juanito!’ from Val and Maria.  And Cip as well.  Jesus!

We’d been back at Lancer a couple of weeks, and Val was still only talking in Spanish.  And he seemed to think sometimes that he was still my papi.  I guess when he’d woke from his ‘comer’, which is what the doc had called it, I was the only person who was familiar to him. So even though I was a whole lot growed from the little tacker he’d lived with all those years ago, he was thinking we’d been together the whole time.  If Murdoch yelled at me I would see Val’s eyes get mad, but he would clench his jaw and not say nothin’.  When Murdoch had smacked my mouth I think he got in just before Val was goin’ to do it.

Murdoch would notice Val’s reactions to how he reined me, and he would sort of look uneasy.  Scott would look from one to the other like he found it real interesting.

I talked about it with Sam.  He had come out to check Val over first day we were home, and frequent after that.  Sam reckoned Val held his tongue because he was still some jumbled in the head from his injury. And he wasn’t sure of his place. Also he was beholden to Murdoch for all of his care, and he was minding his manners because he was a guest in Murdoch’s home.

 Like the doc back near Merced had said, we just had to be patient.

“Val was a father to you at one time Johnny – was it for very long?”

I rubbed at the beads around my wrist – beads that Val had given me – and I thought briefly on that time when Mama and me was with Val. I knew I could talk to Sam and that he kept things his patients told him to himself. But I was not used to tellin’ no-one nothin’.  Even though I was able to trust a few people now, I still wasn’t able to tell about myself very much…most of the time.

I looked at Sam and tried to decide what to say, but he dropped a hand to my knee and patted me.

“It’s alright son, your father and brother think highly of the man, and I’m truly glad that he was in your life at some time.”

Sam was real fascinated with the hole in Val’s head. It was healing well.  He’d got Murdoch to tell him every detail about the ‘trepanning’ and asked a hundred questions about it as well.  Every time he checked it he looked like he was looking at a beautiful girl or something. I think he said he was goin’ to write to Doc Fielding as well. He sure was excited about it.

^+^+^+^

Murdoch, Scott and Val weren’t the only ones who saw me as a kid still.  I had been looking forward to seeing Adela back at Lancer, and I’d been havin’ some real impure thoughts about what she was like under those clothes of hers.  When we got home though, and I’d real cagey asked Maria about her, Maria had told me that Gervaso had commenced to cortejar (woo) Adela while we’d been gone.

Fucking Gervaso!

I was so wild I coulda spat brimstone. It didn’t help that Maria had rolled her eyes at me and given me some free and stupid advice.

“Mi querida eres demasiado joven para estar cortejando.” (My Darling you are too young to be courting)

I’d scowled at her and then she got that severe look on her face and told me to concentrate on being an obedient and dutiful son to my papa, and to catch up with my learning. And to wipe that insolent look from my face or she would apply the palma de su mano (palm of her hand) to my culo (bottom).

That riled me even more and I smarted off at her and mierda, did that set her off, and I had to skin outta there with her threats so loud every horse in the corral took fright.

I’d just hoped Murdoch wasn’t close enough to hear.

^+^+^+^

Cipriano had kept everything goin’ fine while we’d been away, but Murdoch was still edgy as hell as he liked to know every detail of what was happenin’ on every inch of his ground.  Me and Scott hardly had time to spit, he kept us so busy with getting everything just so.  God knows what the other hundred hands on the place were doing, seemed me and ol’ Boston had to do everything our damn selves.

“Earn yer keep so you kin eat” Old Ced chortled at us when we were grousing.

Scott was real sorry about Rusty.  Turned out he belonged to young Luke McMasters, and Isidro had taken him to the McMaster’s spread after he’d seen the notice tacked up outside Sheriff Creane’s office.  Scott pretended he wasn’t upset, but I knew him too well to be fooled by the false smile and acceptin’ words he threw Cip’s way at the tellin’.  I decided right then to go see the McMasters and see if maybe they’d be willing to breed Rusty to some likely female and sell me one of the litter.  I didn’t have any deniro, as fuckin’ usual, but I figured Murdoch for a soft touch if I got to him when his belly was full and his scotch glass was empty. 

I needed to do it when I hadn’t been in any trouble either, and that seemed to me to be the biggest hurdle, me bein’ in trouble every damn time I turned around.

^+^+^+^

When we’d got home there had been a wire from Millertown, and a letter too.  The sheriff there had wired to towns he hoped we’d visit on the way home, but the wire missed us each time.  He had been warning us to look out for a gang member of Beardsley’s who he believed was on our trail.  Dios, had he been right about that.  The letter was sent much later, after he’d heard from the law in Merced that Val had been shot.

It said what had happened was Beardsley’s wife Primrose had come into Millertown to see the doc because she had been beat up.  She wouldn’t say nothin’ about how it had happened, but the doc and the sheriff suspected one of Beardsley’s fellow road agents had come looking for him and the money they’d stole together. He had given her a go over and probably she’d been able to convince him that we had found and taken the cache of lucre when we took her outlaw husband.

Soon as Primrose was some recovered she and her kid went into Millertown again, sold their wagon and horses and left town on the stage.  Probably heading for some city where she could disappear and live high off the hog with the money she had kept hid from everyone – we’d never know.  And she’d probably never know that Murdoch had killed that no good sonofabitch compadre of her husband’s, and she would never have to look over her shoulder waiting for him to come after her when he found out she’d had the money the whole time.

^+^+^+^

Another letter arrived after we got home, this one from Jim Court’s new wife, Della.  Jim was doing real well, and had enjoyed the letter from ‘young Johnny’,  but they were all grieved that Val had ended up shot.  They couldn’t thank Murdoch enough for all he had done.  Jim was frettin’ fearful though, and wanted Val back to Bluffs Crossing where they could take over his care.  So Della’s younger brother, fella called Alex Everton, and Della’s sixteen year old son, Caleb Carpenter, would leave for our ranch the minute they heard from us that we were home.  They would take Val home with them back to Bluffs.

Well, I got real riled and told Murdoch they could all go to blazes, and woulda said a lot more but he sure stopped my running mouth pronto with a few low but pretty strong words.  Then he pointed out, kind and patient like, that as much as I wanted to keep Val with us, it really was up to Val where he felt best to be.  And what really shut my mouth, was him saying we had to think of where Val would feel most comfortable and so would perhaps recover back to his old self best. 

I felt all torn, but even I could see that though Val was getting strong, he still wasn’t anywhere near bein’ back to his old self.  That did worry me, ‘specially when I could see that Val knew that something about him was all awry.  I’d see the worried look in his eyes, and that was a pain to me.  I’d even come on him in the tack room one day and I was pretty sure his eyes were misted, and even though he grinned at me and then squalled at me, like usual, I knew he wasn’t good. When I’d left him there I’d gone and hid, trying to get a grip on how upset it made me.

So Murdoch talked to Val, and Val said he thought it best to go back to Bluffs ‘cause he remembered most everything there, but Lancer felt strange to him.

When Pa came and told me that, I felt my hands clench up into fists and I fought to keep the sting behind my eyes from getting loose.  I leaned forward and hugged my knees.

Pa dropped a hand on my shoulder and squeezed, just like I was squeezing my eyes tight as I tried to breathe steady.

“Johnny,” Pa’s voice was so kind and warm it made me feel even more rattled.

I made myself raise my head a little as Pa rubbed my neck.

“Son, he said something else.”

I looked at Murdoch then, ‘cause of the feeling I could hear in his voice.  He ran his other hand over his face and cleared his throat.

“Well?  I’m listenin’.”

Murdoch looked down this time, but didn’t take away the hand that was still holdin’ tight to my neck.  He cleared his throat again before he answered.

“Johnny, he asked me if I wanted you to stay at Lancer.  Because if I didn’t mind either way then he would be pleased to take you back with him and he would be proud to try and be a pa to you.”

I felt the tears start to spring and I dropped my head onto my arms. I tried to breathe even, and I tried not to think of the hitch I had heard in Murdoch’s voice when he had said the word ‘pa’.

Jesus, caring about people was more fuckin’ painful than bein’ shot full of bullets.

^+^+^+^

Six days later I was sitting on the corral fence with Val standing beside me, his arms folded on the top rail.  We were watching Heyton work with a clean-limbed buckskin mare. 

The air was full of dust and the wonderful smell of horse and leather.

Scott came up behind me and I was too intent on the mare to be wary, so he was able to grab hold and land me in the dust at his feet.  He did do it careful  so I didn’t get bent too much.

Before I could give him a brawl, or even a mouthful of advice, he hauled me up and told me riders were coming.

The three of us turned then, and waited as the two visitors we’d been expectin’ made their way into the home-yard.

Alex Everton and Caleb Carpenter.

“Mr Everton?”  Scott asked, as he strode forward all straight and tall.

“Yes, son.  And this here is my nephew, Caleb. Caleb Carpenter.”

“Pleased to meet you – I’m Scott Lancer.  Please light.”

They unforked and Scott stepped forward to shake hands, and then he turned to us and both of them followed him, them whacking at themselves to get rid of some trail dust.

The older one, Everton, swiped his hat off as he approached and I saw his face light up when he noticed Val.

It was then that Val spoke in English for the first time since he’d been shot.

“Well, I’ll be damned!  Howdy Alex!”

^+^+^+^

Alex and Val shook hands real warmly while me and Scott looked on, taken aback at Val’s sudden remembering of how to speak in English words.  What else is, Val didn’t seem to realise what he’d done.

“I’m Caleb.”

This nephew of Alex’s had stepped forward and had his hand held out, so I took it and shook, and gave him my name.  He turned to Scott while I looked back at Val.  He was grinnin’ happy, and he took a handful of my shirt sleeve and drew me to him.

“This homely young cully is Johnny – he’s my-“ 

Val stopped and swiped a hand across his mouth as Mr Everton and I shook.

“Johnny Lancer.” Val mumbled.

Ol’ Ced came over and fetched the horses and the visitors thanked him as we all moved towards the hacienda.

Mr Everton looked to be about thirty I thought.  Real light hair and clean-shaved, tall and broad in the shoulder.  Caleb was fair too.  A shade taller than me and with an open, honest look about him. 

But after a quick eye-over of them two, I was more interested in watching Caleb’s horse as Ced led him away. 

Jeez, even after his long trip and looking all tuckered out, I could see as he was a top-sawyer looking animal.  A strawberry roan with a deep chest and long quarters.  His neck rose in an easy curve and I could make out his fine thrown back shoulders.  And those legs – real bony, but fine and straight. 

“Johnny?”

Scott’s puzzled voice broke me from my studying on the roan.  I’d dropped behind the others and was stood still in a ponder.  I started towards the house again and trailed after the others.

I glanced back to the horse before I reached the porch. Hot dang.  That animal looked like it could maybe leave Ambrose Cotter’s fleet-footed Shadow in his dust.

Now wouldn’t that rile old Ambrose right down to his gizzards.

^+^+^+^

When Val used English to introduce our visitors to Murdoch, the Ol’ Man’s face was a picture.  He peeked his eyes at me and Boston, but was real careful to act like nothin’ was different.

Everyone palavered about the trip down from Bluff’s, and Maria soon appeared with coffee and a big plate of fresh baked bread sliced and dusted with sugar and cinnamon.  This was to tide our guests over till lunch, but it was an hour since breakfast and it was a favourite of mine.  I was just reachin’ for a fourth slice when Pa and Val both chipped me –

“Johnny!”

‘Course they both swallowed hard as they looked at each other, and we all looked at them. Scott wiped a hand over his face to hide his smirk, and everyone started talking again and I quickly stuffed my mouth.

Pa told me and Scott to get on with our chores and he got Maria to show the gents to their rooms.  I’d hoped to grab the last bit of bread but Caleb was quicker than me, and all the way out of the house Scott pointed that out, askin’ me what had happened to my ‘lightning hands’, the bastard.

^+^+^+^

Those two had planned to stay one night and then hie back home, but Murdoch talked them into staying three days so’s Val could have a little extra time before hitting the trail, and also there was a horse sale in Green River on Saturday which Val had been looking forward to.  Both Everton and Caleb’s eyes lit up, and they straight away agreed to stay longer.

I was pleased to keep Val biding with us a few more days, and I was turning over something else in my mind.

Ambrose’s horse Shadow was the fastest in the valley.  He reckoned it was got out of this famous race-horse name of Rattler, and it sure had a high and mighty refined look about it.  Ambrose’s Pa had won it in a card game in Sacramento and he gave it to his son.   Mr Cotter was too heavyset a man to ride it himself.  He favoured a grey gelding called Davey which was as solid as he was.  Ambrose said the horse’s real name was Davenport –named for a blacksmith his Pa admired. 

Every man in the San Joaquin – hell – every man who set eyes on Shadow had tried to buy him, and all of us waddies who didn’t have any money had tried to gamble for him, but Ambrose loved that horse and was keeping it. 

A couple of times Ambrose had raced it against yahoos who thought they had a faster horse.  Those fellas found out different.  Me and Scott had been to the last race and about twenty other sons and young ranch hands and townies had been there too – word sure could get around when horse-racing and gambling were offering.  Everyone had heard about the race sneaky, account of horse racing only being allowed at proper organised town picnics, and gambling not allowed at all.  ‘Course none of us there cared a hoot about that.  Scott had spotted me two bucks and I’d won two on Ambrose, but had had to give ‘em to Scott anyway, still bein’ in debt to him.

^+^+^+^

After dinner that night, when we was all barely able to move after the spread Maria had put on, I suggested to Scott that we go give our horses some carrots.

“Comin’ Caleb?”

The three of us raided Maria’s vegetable box on our way through the kitchen. She and Caparina were up to their elbows in suds as they washed up all of the plates.

“Juanito, no llevas puesta una camiseta, entonces ponte la chamarra. No haré que te dé un resfriado.” (Juanito, if you are not wearing an undershirt then wear your jacket - I won't have you coming down with a cold.)

“Jesus, Maria”, I complained –in Spanish - “if Caleb spoke Spanish he’d wonder if I was five instead of fifteen!  Stop treatin’ me like I’m a damn kid-“

Maria cut me off with a blast as she spun away from the sink and put her wet hands on her hips, finishing with threatening to tell my papa I was being sassy and cussin’.

Scott hustled me out, throwin’ a big smile at my tormentor and telling her he’d see to it.  At the front door he grabbed my jacket from the hallstand.

“Little brother, why is it so hard for you to just nod and smile?  Your relations with women will always go smoothly once you learn to do that.”

I took a swipe at Boston’s head but he ducked and then came back up and threw the jacket over my head.

I pitched it to the ground while telling Scott he was a fuckin’ annoying clot-heid. I told him that in a mixture of Spanish and Scots talk.

Caleb was laughin’, but then he come out with something that made me stop in my tracks.

“Juan, las madres siempre molestan.” (John, mothers always fuss) he said.

I felt my face get hot, ‘specially when Scott hooted a laugh.

Caleb was looking real pleased with himself.

“My Mama and Uncle Alex learned Spanish when they lived in San Juan when they were kids,” he explained. “Mama taught me.”

I kicked my jacket outta the way and stomped off across to the barn.  I lit the lantern and headed over to Pancho.  He was real pleased with the carrots and so were the other horses as Scott and Caleb fed them.

“Caleb, you ever raced that horse?”

He smiled at me and I could see he was pleased that I admired his horse.

“I’ve had him two years, and when we go at it there’s not a horse around can catch us.”  He kept his voice level, but of course the pride was there.

I considered this, and I saw that Scott had leaned back on Kirk’s stall and folded his arms across his chest.  And he was already figgerin’ odds in his head. Scott don’t mind a bit of betting at all.  I scratched Pancho behind his ear as I went on.

“Friend of mine, he’s got a horse like that.  Reckons it being from fancy stock back East.  I sure would like to see your horse kicking dust over ol’ Ambrose Cotter.”

Caleb fed the last bit of carrot to Noah and then looked from Scott to me.

“We talking ‘bout this in the barn because them in there don’t hold with racing?”

“Them in there don’t hold with nothin’ – their idea of excitement is a damn ledger book that’s balanced.”

Caleb laughed as he rubbed Noah’s cheek.

Scott clapped his hands and rubbed them together.

“Gentlemen, I do believe we could make some money here!  Now let’s go back inside – I expect coffee has been served.  And Caleb, don’t worry your head – my younger brother and I will arrange matters and none of the more conservative members of the community need know a thing.”

Which went to show that Scott could fool himself every bit as much as I could.

^+^+^+^

I picked up my jacket on the way to the hacienda, givin’ it a good shake out. I let Scott and Caleb go on ahead into the Great Room. I kept goin’ down the passageway and slipped around the corner into the kitchen, hangin’ my jacket back on the hallstand first. Coming up behind Maria I put my arms ‘round her and rested my chin on her shoulder.  She leaned her head on to mine and then flicked the dishcloth she was holding at my head as she soft scolded me like usual.

I danced out of reach and pulled Caparina’s hair as I skirted past her and cut through the breakfast room back into the main room.  I’d never known a place to have as many rooms as the hacienda had. Hundreds of them.

Val’s eyes lit up when he saw me. My innards grinched me – it pleased me to no end that he was always glad to see me, but it hurt too, knowing that he would soon be leaving. Mierda, I never wanted to be always alone like I had been for a long while, but this caring about other people sometimes gave me these sharp lurches inside my chest which made me feel balky as hell.

^+^+^+^

When Scott got back from town next day he came and found me and Caleb where we were laying salt licks near Wolf Creek.  Caleb had volunteered to drive the wagon and I did the placing.

Me and him had talked a bit about Jim.  Caleb said as how he’d not been happy when Jim started courting his Mama, but his Uncle had pointed out how many men had come a’courtin’ her since Caleb’s Daddy had passed away eleven years before. She had never given any of them much of a run, even a big bug rancher who had been keen as mustard to rope her.

So Alex reckoned that his sister saw in Jim the things that she valued, just like when she had spurned many beaus when she was young, and in the end chose Caleb’s Pa. 

“Uncle Alex was right. I studied on Jim, and I watched how he was with Mama, and how she was always happy to see him. “

“I tell you, Caleb, that if Val counts on Jim, then he’s a man to ride with.  I didn’t know him long, but he sure had my trust real quick.”

I climbed back onto the wagon seat after pulling a salt block out of a mess of buckwheat where I’d carelessly thrown it.  Caleb went on with his talking.

“Thing I ‘preciate ‘bout Jim is, that he doesn’t try and daddy me.  He said for me to call him Jim, and he leaves Uncle Alex to-“

He stopped talking and I looked at him before I filled in the rest.

“Leaves your Uncle Alex to ride you and boss you and order you around and stop you doin’ whatever the hell you want?  To call the tune and expect you to dance? Yeah, I only been home not even a year and Scott not much more, but our Ol’ Man sure got that sort of daddyin’ honed to a fine art, as my big brother would tell you!”

He laughed and agreed and it was then that we saw Scott riding towards us.  He’d got the horse race set up easy as pie.  After the horse auction we’d probably all have lunch in town.  Soon as the old people left us in charge of herding home whatever horses they’d bought (we hoped), we’d leave them horses in town while we went out to meet Ambrose on the road to the Roger’s place. We would hold the race there.

Two days after the last time we’d gone to a race gathering, Murdoch had come home from town on the prod after hearing something of it from Sheriff Creane.  Seems Miz Crocker had got wind of the illegal meeting from her youngest kid who had ratted out his older brother. She had gone straight to the Sheriff to squall about it.

Murdoch didn’t ask us outright had we been, but he made it clear what he thought.  Horses were working animals, and risking them, and more importantly, the rider’s necks, was foolish and downright irresponsible, and he never wanted to hear of anyone at Lancer taking any part in these smoky goings on.  He’d raked his eyes over us two when he’d said that.  Me and Scott had concentrated on our grub and kept our heads down.  He went on about how also the gambling that went on was illegal, and likely to attract undesirable sorts.  So we’d be well advised to save any interest we had in horse racing for the properly run events at town picnics.

He knew that our horses Kirkland and Pancho were both fine cow ponies, but not fleet enough for us to be racing, so I guess he was feeling safe that we wouldn’t be involved in none of that. 

Scott was never as willing to break Murdoch’s rules as I was, but when we parleyed about it later, he surprised me by scoffing about Murdoch’s stand.

“There are some rules, Little Brother, that are so old-fashioned, and so based on disproportionate parental fear for one’s offspring, that it behoves us to disregard them, but to do so quietly so as not to worry said sensitive parent.”

Jesus, but could my brother roll out a stream of words to break your teeth on. And he did it so natural, and so expecting that I would understand every one of them words.  When I’d look blank or make some sarcastical remark, then he’d turn the forty dollar words into two bit ones. 

Which meant that Scott and me and Caleb was none of us going to do what we was told, and we were looking forward to a fine race and some real satisfactory winnings.

^+^+^+^

Maria put on a feast again that night, and then we all had our coffee in the Great Room like usual.  Mr Everton had had Murdoch’s proud tour of some of the ranch and they talked on that.  When they got onto the horse auction we all joined in.

After Murdoch retired early, some of the talk got around to Val and me havin’ history, because Mr. Everton and Caleb knew a bit about that, and with Murdoch not being with us it didn’t feel so uncomfortable to talk about.  Val told how I’d nearly burned down the barn once, and another story of finding me tryin’ to shave with his cut-throat razor.

“Which reminds me, Johnny – I found my shaving brush out in the barn a couple of days after that – must’ve been you playing at shavin’ again, was it?”

Val fixed me with a narrow eye.  I pulled at my ear as I thought back, and the memory surfaced and I grinned at it, thinking of this nice picture.

“Nah – I’d found a nest of real cute baby mice and they was covered in wood shavings, so I used your brush to tidy ‘em up.”

Everyone bust out laughin’ - except Val of course.  He looked horrified, and that made me laugh too, as I watched him run a hand down his face and mutter ‘Jesus’.

“I’m keeping my shaving-brush under lock and key from now on,” Scott said.

“Too late Boston – I already used it on a nest last week!” I joshed, and Scott grabbed me by the scruff and we had a tussle.

^+^+^+^

On Saturday we all trundled into Green River.  Murdoch, Mr Everton and Val all went in the buggy and me, Scott and Caleb rode. 

The town was buzzy as hell with plenty of people wanting to buy horses and plenty who just liked the spectacle.  All of the horses for sale had their tails up and so did a lot of the people there for the show. Murdoch spotted Miz Conway right off and looked downright keevie – which was his old Scots way of saying he was in ‘high spirits’.  Aggie looked keevie too, as the two of them liked each other a lot and also liked to try and steal prime horseflesh away from each other at these affairs.

We let them gas on while we looked over the stock – not only the cavvies butthe girls who always took the chance to come into town days like this.  Once we’d chosen which horses we fancied we ambled over to the boardwalk and let our eyes rove and our mouths talk loose and lustful. I slipped into the store and bought a penny’s worth of Twizzlers Licorice which I shared with Caleb. Scott didn’t like it.

Ambrose wasted no time in finding us and running his eyes over Noah to see was he a threat to his horse staying the winner.  All the yahoos who were in the know about the race gave us a wink or a nod. Ben Teller grinned over at us as he rubbed his hands together, and I shook my head at him, the damn tonto.

Claudine and Marnie Cluney stopped to twitter away at us, and we introduced them to Caleb.  I still saw Marnie as a kid – a kid who could kiss like fury, but still a kid, but Caleb’s eyes lit up when he lightly shook her hand.  I gave her another sweep, and was surprised to realize she did look more like a real girl than she had the last time I’d seen her.  And when she looked straight back at me she sure had a womanly cast to her eyes and lips – and she knew it. I was wearin’ my new calzoneras and fancy shirt and felt good, but also felt a bit overheated when Marnie ran her eyes over my pants and said as how she liked them.  I was glad I had my hat in my hand and was able to quickly cover myself.

I was lost in my thoughts but they got swept away when Orris Braithwaite clanged away at his bell and welcomed us all to his sale of ‘the finest horseflesh to be had in California’.  He was standin’ in the back of the livery wagon which he’d draped with all this fancy material. He was spruced up in his goin’-to-church pants and such. 

Mr Everton bid on a roan but lost it to Mr Kelly who ran the Freight Office.  He did better when he bid on a bright-eyed chestnut.  Murdoch and Miz Conway bid like loons on three cutting horses and Scott rolled his eyes at me when Pa got them and gave Aggie a smug smile. I didn’t think Pa had heard Boston’s mumbling of ‘no fool like an old fool’ until Murdoch smoothly dropped back behind us and I heard a loud crack.

Scott jerked forward a pace.  My brother’s face reddened up a treat, and Caleb and me nearly gave ourselves twisted insides from clamping down on our laughing, which of course caused Scott to get even madder.

I think Scott woulda stalked off in a huff, but Murdoch dropped a hand to his shoulder, shoved some cash into his hand and pointed him to the queue at the table where Mr Braithwaite’s partner was seated and handling all the figuring for the sales. 

Everyone else milled about, palavering for a while, catching up on news, and gradually drifting off to get on with their day.  Val and me hung back, content to watch the goings-on.  I was watching Marnie Cluney walking along the opposite boardwalk when Val laughed.

“What you sniggerin’ about?” I snipped at him.

“Why nothin’, Son.  Just wonderin’ if maybe you’re brewing up some calf-love for that little girlie with the red through her hair?”

I tried to look outraged as I struggled to think of a sharp word to shut him up.

“I ain’t interested in scrawny kids, Val, I’m hankering to fu-“

The way Val straightened up and flashed his eyes at me stopped me running my mouth immediate, and I dropped my head, fuming.

He laughed again though, and roughed up my hair before slinging his arm around my shoulders and steering me towards the others.  I saw that Murdoch was watching us, and I saw that concerned look in his eyes.  I gave him an awkward grin. He smiled back, but it was a hesitating smile all the same.

^+^+^+^

I was glad I wasn’t going to be riding in the afternoon race because I was able to stuff a fair sight of food in, right down to my toes. I finished with two helpings of peach pie which the hotel restaurant did so well.  The peaches had cinnamon on them and the pie crust was sprinkled with crunchy sugar.  It smelled like heaven.  I drowned the lot in a river of custard. 

“Good God, John, poor Pancho’s legs will buckle when you mount him!”

Scott spoutin’ that out drew everyone’s attention to my bowl, and I stopped pouring the custard knowing the Ol’ Man would straight away be fixin’ me with that disapproving look of his. Before he could get out a sour word Mr Everton asked Caleb why he was eating so little – he wasn’t ailing was he?  That took everyone’s eyes off me so I could enjoy a big spoonful of dessert and enjoy the yelp from Boston when the toe of my boot caught him a good thump to his skinny shin.

^+^+^+^

There were about thirty of us out on the road which led to the Roger’s place.  Word sure had got around, and money was changing hands at a steady clip as Caleb and Ambrose stood by their horses, fussin’ them.  Everyone who bet – which was most everyone there - contributed four bits which would go to the winner.

We had left town soon as we saw our elders hie for home.  Scott let Burt at the livery know we would collect the four new horses directly, and we had set out on the North road as a ruse, before cutting back cross country to reach the race area.

I ran my eyes over the crowd as I chewed on a stalk of grass.  Some I knew quite well, some I knew only by sight.  There were about three I couldn’t recall seeing before.  One wasn’t heeled at all.  Another one had his pistol in a holster which had slipped askew – so they were not likely to be a threat to me.  The third walked past me and never even gave me a glance. He was wearing a Dance and Brothers forty-four – only the second one I’d ever seen. His clothes were just about worn out, his hat brim frayed and torn.  He wasn’t that old, but looked pretty beat down by life.  I watched him put money on and then hunker down under a tree, rubbing his eyes and yawning.  I relaxed and turned to watch Scott walking towards me. I rubbed my stomach and swallowed my spit.

“Little Brother, you look rather bilious – are you regretting that second helping of pie?”

Scott sounded half worried and half tickled.

He was right though, because riding Pancho straight after eating so much had churned up my gizzards awful.  I wasn’t about to admit that to my uppity brother though, and opened my mouth to set him down when a commotion erupted with Ambrose and Shadow.

Shadow had squealed and reared up violent, and his hoof must’ve caught Ambrose on the back of his head, ‘cause he pitched forward.  Caleb was closest and he jumped to grab the upset horse’s reins and quickly got him settled.  Ben Teller had rushed to Amb and spun him away fast, and then eased him down to the ground.

As Ben was checking Amb’s head, some yelling erupted and everyone looked over to see Brad Hoppler shouting at and shaking his little brother Evan.  Evan started to bawl and Brad stopped yellin’ but collared the sprout and hauled him over to us.

“Is Ambrose alright?” he asked anxiously.

As he did, he held up a slingshot, looking down disgusted at the kid who then blubbered louder.

“Shut up Evan, you damn brat,” Brad hissed.

“I was aimin’ for the horse but I never thought I’d hit him” Evan squalled between hitched sobs. “I never hit nothin’ I aim at!”

“Skin’s not broke, but he’s got a fair lump coming up,” Ben announced as he felt around his patient’s head.  “Hey, Ambrose,” he said soft as he turned Amb’s face towards him, “you feel up to riding?”

Scott huffed out a disapproving snort, just as Ambrose answered the question – and showed straight off he would not be riding.

“Ben, this is my favourite hymn, and you shouldn’t ought to be talking right in the middle of it.”

With a sweet smile on his clock he started singing ‘Strength to my fainting heart, my zeal inspire, as thou hast died for me…”

He stopped then and cast up his accounts all down his front.

 

^+^+^+^

Ben insisted that the race go ahead as so much money had changed hands, and we all were eager to see if Caleb had the horse which could finally beat Amb’s Shadow.

“So we just need someone to ride Shadow,” Ben called.

“Guess I should do it.”  I offered straight off.

No you will not.” 

I was taken aback at Scott’s furious words.  Taken aback, but instantly mad.  I swung around to face him, and I was loaded for bear.

“Where’d you get the idea you could tell me what I can do, Boston?  I’m going to ride that fucking horse and –“

“Defying Murdoch to watch a race is one thing, Johnny, but he would not countenance you participating in the race, and I heartily concur. I will ride Shadow.”

Now I was shocked.  I opened my mouth to deny him but Ben interrupted.

“Johnny is probably the friend who Amb would pick to ride his horse Scott.”

“Well he’s not going to-“

“You think you can stop me Scott?” I challenged him, fuming, and stepping forward to brace him.

Scott’s head dropped and his shoulders slumped, and to my satisfaction I saw he was giving in.

Or maybe not.

His right fist flashed forward in a blur and landed right in the middle of my belly – my belly which was already churny with licorice and oysters and beef fricassee and mashed potato and peach pie and custard.  My older brother had suckered me good, and known exactly where to do most damage.

I was finished with one punch because I was struggling to breathe and soon as I got in a breath it came back out and everyone near me jumped back a mile as all my days vittles’ gorged up out of me in a mighty disgusting stream.

I fell to my knees, knowing more was on its way up, and I heard Scott’s pleased voice…

“As you can see, my younger brother is in no condition to ride that horse with any degree of competence. I will ride. Make way, gentlemen.”

^+^+^+^

By the time I’d thrown up twice more the race was half over.  Scott and Caleb and Frank Turner had trotted down to the starting point one mile distant.  Frank saw to a fair start and everyone else started roaring advice and encouragement from either side of the road next to the blue oak which had been set as the finish line.

I shoved in next to Will Cheswick who was yelling hard for Scott to win.  Scott had bet on Ambrose, but my money – well, my loan from Scott – was on Caleb. The horses were stretched out glorious, neck and neck, and both riders were stretched out too. They looked long and lean and like they were almost floating just above the horses, only their hands and boots attached to their rides.

I felt the excitement surge up in me, but I was so draggled I couldn’tve yelled a word.  I had wanted Caleb to win, but watching Scott ride I couldn’t help but know he’d give a good account of himself, and in spite of wanting to punch his lights out as soon as I possibly could, I found I wanted him to win.

The yahoos all around me were thundering up a storm as the riders came closer, the pounding of the horse’s hooves and the sight of those powerful animals doin’ their best and the two riders urging them on – I could feel the jolt of excitement making me want to jump out of my skin.

I thought I roared ‘Go Scott’ but it came out more like a door creak, and it did no good anyway, because with a plucky as damnation surge Caleb’s horse Noah pulled forward and crossed the finish line just a head and neck in front.  There was delighted yelling and there was real dismal groaning.

I turned on my heel and hot-footed it to Kirk and Pancho where I used my canteen to clean my mouth and drink. I emptied the rest of the water over my head.  Jesus, I felt dauncy as a lamb with the scours.

^+^+^+^

Will Cheswick and Randy Bass came to see was I still living.  I was improving, my innards were anyway, but I was roiled up about Scott.  I knew he had dropped me because he was lookin’ after my welfare, like always, but I was still peevish as hell about it.  It was fuckin’ annoying that Murdoch spent every waking hour figgerin’ ways to boss my every waking hour, but I was not goin’ to be managed by Scott as well.  He was hardly any older than me, when you took into account that I was Johnny Madrid.

Randy took his leave, but Will lingered to say something.

“Johnny, I know you’d like to have raced, but I know your Pa too.  Scott was looking out for you, you know.”

I gave Will a dark look, but he just laughed.

“Well, I’ll get going.  I have my own problems living with a sibling – Thea can rile me to the point I’m ready to forget she’s a girl and clean her plow for her!”

“She okay?  I didn’t see her in town today.”

“She’s gone to our Aunt Hannah’s for two weeks.  Pa’s hoping Aunt will be able to make a lady out of Thea.”  Will’s grin said he doubted that.

He clapped me on the back and took off.  Everyone else was leaving too.  Two of Cip’s sons, Platon and Andres waved to me as they left. Probably heading in to Morro Coyo, no doubt planning to raise a little hell.

I fetched Scott’s canteen and drank from it, and spat again, and watched as Scott and Caleb made their way to me, one either side of Ambrose.  They had him by his arms, and they were leading Shadow and Noah behind them.

Scott’s eyes were on me, and I thought how he was right to be wary.  If I hadn’t sicked up so much I probably woulda jumped him.  Instead I kept my eyes on Ambrose.

“How ya feeling, Amb?” I asked.

“Christ Johnny, I feel like I been kicked in the head.”  He managed a weak smile.

“Once our horses are rested we’ll head back and accompany Ambrose to Sam.”

“Well, if Boss Boston thinks that, then I guess we’d better all toe the line.”

I couldn’t help myself – I was sulking sure enough.  Boston annoyed me even more by not looking sorry – the bastard rolled his eyes.  Caleb grinned and Ambrose looked confused.

Scott held some coins towards me, my winnings, and I took them without a word and dropped them in my top pocket.

“Good ride, Caleb – Noah did you proud.” I held out my hand and we shook.

He thanked me and there was a pause, but no way in hell was I goin’ to tell Scott that he’d rode well. 

He took his canteen from me and was about to take a belt, but he hesitated after a glance at me, and pulled out his handkerchief and carefully wiped the top. After he drank he suggested Ambrose sit down while he and Caleb took the horses down the hill to the stream.  I went and fetched Ambrose’s and Caleb’s canteens and such.  They were in a pile next to the blue oak.  I sat with Ambrose.  We waved off the last stragglers and both of us leaned against the cottonwood and rested – we both needed it.

^+^+^+^

I only closed my eyes for what felt like twenty seconds, but must’ve been longer.  When I opened them I sat up straight and fixed my eyes on Scott and Caleb – and whoever that was right behind them.  Scott and Caleb were on foot, leading the horses, but whoever was riding behind looked to have his gun pointing right at my brother’s head.

I whipped out my Colt, but mierda – I couldn’t risk a shot.

As they got near I saw the stricken look on Scott’s face, and the scared expression on Caleb’s.  I could see now that the bastard who had them covered was the mangy looking varlet with the worn-thin clothes and the ratty hat.  Soon as they got close he told me to toss my gun well to the side or he would put a bullet in my brother’s brain.

“He don’t look nothin’ like you, but the way he done you, I guessed, an’ I asked an they said he was.  If you was to hold that punch agin him, then maybe you don’t care if I shoot him?”

I kept my face stony, wondering how I was goin’ to play this.  He’d already disarmed Caleb and Scott, and now he ordered me to take Ambrose’s gun and toss it.  As I did, Ambrose barely stirred from the doze he’d fallen into. 

“Now you boys all empty your pockets.  Every cent you got, and your watches if you got ‘em.  Tie it all up in a bandana and put it in that saddle-bag and tie it to this yere roan.”

He indicated Noah, and so this sonofabitch was a horse thief as well as being a fucking ordinary thieving prick.

“What the hell?!”  Ambrose had finally woke and realized what was happening.

Scott moved fast and grabbed Ambrose because he was still not quite himself, and it was a worry what he might do.

“Empty his pockets too, and get hasty – I got places to be.”

“Like prison, you mean?”  Scott jibed at him scornfully.

The bastard loosed a shot straight at Scott’s feet.

“Shut your trap and move!”

We did as he said, and Scott put the bundle into Caleb’s saddle bag and tied it on to Noah.

“Git back with the others, and all of you woodpeckers kneel down and put your hands on your heads – and be quick about it.”

There was nothing we could do but what he said, but I was burnin’ with the want of catching up to him once he’d left.

And catch him I would.

He unforked and reached into his own saddlebag, took something out of it and  removed his rifle from its boot.  He emptied the chamber and flung the shabby looking Springfield away before mounting Noah.

“Now you, chilli-bean, you fetch me them rifles from your two horses back there, and then give them horses both a fuckin’ hard slap and send them for home. And don’t get stupid – my gun is aimed right at your brother’s heart.”

So I had to do that, and I handed both rifles to him and went back to kneel with the others, now knowing he figgered to take Shadow as well.

He now was holding his Dance revolver on us and awkwardly hugging two rifles to his chest while still holding Noah’s reins.  But it was when he leaned sideways and grabbed hold of Shadow’s reins with his gun hand – that’s when all hell bust out.

“NOOOO!” screamed still-addled Ambrose as he jumped up.

Scott flung himself at Ambrose’s legs and brought him down, but the mangy thief panicked and sent a shot towards the two of them, and when Boston gasped and grabbed at his leg I jumped up and so did Caleb.  Lucky for all of us, Mangy had his hands full and decided now was the time to cut a shuck out of there, and he lit out while all us four tried to sort ourselves out.

Ambrose was fighting to get Scott off him, and Scott was bleedin’ and I was raging and Caleb was off and running the opposite direction to the thief.

“Scott!  Lie still! Let me see where you’re hit!” I yelled, frantic.

Scott rolled off Ambrose who jumped up and started running around in circles.  I jerked the knife from my boot and ripped it up the leg of Scott’s pants.  Blood was pouring out of the bullet wound just above the top of his right boot.  Blast it to hell, there was no exit wound.

I tore the bandana from ‘round Boston’s neck, knowing it would be cleaner than my handkerchief.  I made a pad and jammed it against the wound, ignoring how Scott groaned when I did that.

“Ambrose!  Get the fuck over here and help Scott!”

Scott was telling me he was alright, and Ambrose kept yelling ‘Shadow!’, as if the fuckin’ horse was going to come trotting back when he heard his master’s voice.  But then he stopped and suddenly was kneeling next to me, and he seemed to come to his senses again.  He ripped his left sleeve right off his shirt, and soon as the bleeding slowed, he did a fine job of bandaging Scott’s leg with it.

I looked up at the sound of horses, and there was Caleb, riding Pancho and leading Kirkland.

“I knew they wouldn’t be far, Johnny.  How bad is Scott?” He asked as he dismounted.

“Scott has been better, but will survive a flesh wound thank you Caleb.”

My brother was trying to calm us all down with this cool answer, but he was pale and I could see the pain plain in his face when he tried to smile.

“Jesus, Scott – that fuckin’ bastard, sonofabitch coulda killed you.  He’s fucking going to pay for this – I’m going to gut him belly to brisket and-“

“John! Take a breath! Now, as much as I appreciate your wish to extract vengeance on my behalf, I would thank you to moderate your language and to help me mount Kirk. We need to return to town so that Ambrose and I can see Sam and you and Caleb can report this little fracas to Sheriff Creane-“

“You and Amb will see the doc and Caleb can see the Sheriff, if he wants, but that mangy pendejo will be a dead man by the time you lot are halfway to town!”

I was running for the area where I had tossed my gun and soon found it.  Scott had stopped being all reasonable and was yelling.

“Johnny don’t you even think about following him – you will not!  Leave it to the sheriff.  You get your ass on Kirk right now, and help me up behind you!”

I was stuffing my Colt in my holster, having checked it, and next I fetched Mangy’s old Springfield and was checking that.

“You two got any bullets will fit this?” I asked, ignoring Scott.

Caleb and Ambrose shook their heads and I cussed as I flung it away.

“John Lancer!  Will you listen to me?  You will not follow that man! You will-“

“How you goin’ to stop me Scott?  Punch me again?”

“Why you little bastard – don’t you dare make this a payback for me embarrassing Johnny Madrid – surely you’re not that childish-“

“That varlet shot my brother – that’s all I know.  I maybe won’t kill him –‘less I have to – but I sure ain’t goin’ to let him get away with that.  I’m sorry you don’t see it that way Scott, but I do-“

“I’m going with you.”  Caleb’s voice was steely.

“I’m going alone,” I replied while Scott started on protesting some more.

“The hell you will,” ground out Caleb while we both ignored Scott. “He took my horse and my money, but he also shot one of my friends. You’re my friend too and I’m not letting you handle this on your own. And I know you were Johnny Madrid – Jim told us – but I can still help.”

“Jim’s got a big mouth, don’t he?” I groused as I swung up into the saddle.

Scott wasn’t giving up and tried again.

“Johnny, for God’s sake, you’re not Johnny Madrid any more – you’re Johnny Lancer.  If you won’t listen to me, think about what Murdoch would say – and Val!”

That did give me pause, but then I thought of seein’ Mangy shoot at Scott and Amb, and the feeling I’d got in my chest when Scott gasped.  Right now I was Johnny Madrid and I wasn’t risking Mangy getting away.  I gave Caleb some orders.

“Find yours and Scott’s and Ambrose’s Colts, and bring ‘em, but give Scott his.  Then come on, if you’re determined to.”

He ran towards the creek.

“Ambrose, you and Scott hustle to the doc’s – fast as you can on that bastard’s nag.  Caleb and me will be back soon as we can.”

Ambrose nodded, wide-eyed, and Scott roared, yellin’ that Pa would tan the hide off me and he hoped Val would too, and he was sure goin’ to, and the rest of his caterwauling faded as I headed after Mangy.  Caleb soon followed on Kirk.

^+^+^+^

We caught up on Mangy before the hour was out.  He was obviously no hardened desperado; he hadn’t taken any precautions about anyone following him, and when we were trailing him he didn’t even cotton on to that.

Maybe he had tried to push Noah and Shadow, but they were probably still tuckered from their race and not getting enough time to blow after.  He most likely thought none of the bunch of sprouts he’d robbed would come after him, even if they had horses and guns, which fact he’d thought in his pea-brain he’d taken care of. Yeah, real dumb and real careless.

We only had to keep him in sight until he stopped to water the horses.  He did that another hour later, and I got Caleb to unfork and drift into the trees bordering the little group drinking at the creek.

I tied off Pancho in my stand of cottonwoods and watched until Mangy dismounted. He went just upstream from his two mounts to hunker down and scoop some water up for his own drink. 

I cat footed it out of cover, my Colt ready.

“Stand up real, real slow, Mister. And your hand goes anywhere near your piece and I’ll drop you dead where you stand.”

He flinched at the sound of my voice and the cocking of my gun.   He did like I told him, and tried to look not worried, but his twitching eye and clenched up mouth gave him away.  Soon as he saw it was me he relaxed a bit.

“Shit boy, you sure you want to risk me gettin’ real upset with you?  You ever even shot a pistol, kid?”

“You fuckin’ sonofabitch – ease your gun out with your left hand and toss it or you’ll be as dead as lead can make you.”

I could see the varmint deciding whether or not to try me, and the bad part of me hoped he would.  Just as I saw the flicker of him deciding he would, Caleb’s voice carried to us.

“Do what he said, Mister!”

Mangy sure was a failure as a road agent, because instead of making him pause and reconsider his play, soon as he heard Caleb’s voice he panicked and went for his pistol.

My bullet tore his hand well away from his holster and he howled and dropped to his knees, fetching the hand to his chest with his other one.

He cussed a blue streak and gasped when he checked the wound which was spilling blood down his shirt. He looked at me in shock, but barely spared a look at Caleb as he came out in sight.

“Now, you mangy deadlouse, shed that gun like I told you or the next bullet will knock your front teeth out,” I ground out at him.

Caleb stood across from me, his hand steady on his gun. It crossed my mind that maybe he never had used it, but Mangy wouldn’t be thinking about that now.

“I’m hit – bleeding like a stuck pig here!” he moaned – but he did reach across his front and carefully remove his pistol before throwing it aside. He watched me carefully while he did it, still taken aback at my shot.

“Now lie on your belly and put your hands behind your back.”

“But I’m bleeding!”

“You’ll be bleeding from your skull if you don’t shut up!  Do what I said!”

I told Caleb to take the leather thongs from my saddle and to tie Mangy’s hands – tight.  And to do it from the other side of the tonto, so I had a clear shot at his head should he move one inch.

Soon as he was tied I holstered my Colt and went and checked the bindings and the wounded hand.

“Jesus – all you got is a gouge!” I said, disgusted.

“It hurts like holy hell!” the scum whined.

I took my grubby handkerchief and tied it around his hand, sort of, and then I hauled him up.   Caleb fetched Kirk and us two chucked Mangy up on to him. Caleb rushed over to Noah then and started fussin’ him and talking sweet to him.  I waited while he also went to Shadow and checked him over and led both animals back to Mangy.  I said to Caleb to mount his horse and aim his Colt at Mangy while I led Kirk back to Pancho.

“Just who the hell are you, kid?”  Mangy sounded real unhappy.

“Madrid. Johnny Madrid.”

He scoffed. “You’re too blamed young to be him.  And too far north.”

I needed the skeesick to be real wary of me so he wouldn’t cause us no trouble on our way back to town.  I surely didn’t want Caleb to get hurt. So I spun around and shot Mangy’s hat right off his head.  While he turned white and Caleb’s mouth dropped open, I spun back ‘round and kept walking.

There was not a sound behind me as we reached my hidden horse.

I mounted and told Mangy to ride in front of us two, and one wrong move and we’d deliver him to the undertaker instead of the jail.

“How come you didn’t kill me back there?” he asked.

“Because my brother is a thousand times better than you, and he don’t like killin’.   Me though…I’m quite partial to it. Now move out.”

That about me likin’ killing was a lie.  And now as my blood cooled, I was startin’ to think about Murdoch.  And Val.  Dios, I had me two pa’s back at home, and neither one was going to be happy with me and Scott and Cal organising the illegal racing and betting, and they sure as hell were going to be right peevish about me and Cal going after Mangy. Scott had been right about that.

Likely they wouldn’t pound on Scott, ‘cause he was injured, but me?

At least all that was hours away.  They were probably at Lancer, wondering why the hell we were taking so long to get home with a piddly herd of four new horses…

^+^+^+^

One hour later I noticed a faint dust cloud barely making it above the trees a mile in front of us.  It would have to be a few men to raise dust like that.  I couldn’t figure on it already bein’ a posse from Green River out after Mangy – it was too soon by my reckoning.  I guided us off the Rogers road and into cover, and had a gag ready for Mangy should it be needed.

Not long later the group of men was close enough for me to make out the rider in the lead. There was no mistaking Murdoch’s tall frame.  My stomach dropped, as did my head, and Caleb asked was I alright.

We drifted back onto the road and before long they were on us – Murdoch and Mr Everton and about five of our hands.  The hands all held back as Pa and Mr E both came right up to us.

“You’re not hurt – either of you?”

Pa was running his eyes over me and threw a quick look at Caleb.

“We’re fine – Scott okay?”

“These boys is fine – but that bastard shot my hand!” complained Mangy.

He shoulda kept his mouth shut, because that whining drew Pa’s attention to him. Murdoch edged Chief over to him and looked him over, including the hastily bandaged hand.

Pa’s left hand shot out then, and he backhanded Mangy so hard he was knocked right out of his saddle.  Pa turned back to me, and I wondered was he going to do me the same.  He sure looked mad enough to.

“John, I have been angry with you before, but I don’t think I’ve ever been quite this furious.”  He looked hard at me, totally ignoring the moaning and struggling of Mangy in the dirt behind him.

“We’re just fine, not a scratch…Pa,” I tried to reassure him.  Adding the ‘pa’ was in my interests, I figgered.

“Caleb, you just wait till we get back to Lancer.  I’m going to wear you out Boy, and that’s a fact.” Mr Everton’s voice was terse as hell.

Caleb coloured up immediate, and studied his hands real close, as I dropped my head and thought about my near future.

“Frank, Alfonso – get this - this miserable cur back to Green River, please.” Murdoch was all business now.  “You may meet the Sheriff and a posse on the way, if Burke alerted them quickly enough.”

“Sure thing, Boss.”

Frank was quick about dismounting and tossing Mangy back into Kirk’s saddle.

That thievin’ skeesick looked a might dazed, and sleeved off the blood that was trickling from his nose.

“Frank – leave Kirkland at the livery.  In the morning you and Alfonso can head into town and drive home Kirkland and the four new horses for Lancer that are still waiting at the livery.”  He gave me an angry glance.  “The four includes one Mr Everton bought.”

Frank gave Pa a ‘yessir’, grabbed Kirk’s reins and set out.  Mangy grabbed the pommel so as not to fall right back out of his seat. Alfonso rode just behind them.

It was as the men all parted to let them through that we saw another rider headed at us hell for leather.

Jesus – it was Val.

He barely looked at Mangy.  He rode straight to me.

“What in hell were you thinkin’ you damn, hellacious little scutter?  What in God’s name did you think you were doing?  Johnny Madrid or not – you’re damn well not grown, and you got plenty of full grown men to go to for help!! But you’re too fuckin’ pig-headed to ask for help ain’t ya??  Still!!  Well, Johnny Lancer, by the time I’ve laid my belt across your backside about a hundred times, maybe then you’ll give pause to think next time-“

And Dios, Val started on unbuckling his belt there and then, jumping down from Rip as he did, and looked like I was going to get a leathering right in front of everyone.

Val!”

Mr Everton’s voice wasn’t loud, but it sure was stern and urgent.  Val looked at him, and Mr E spoke kindly then.

“Val, why don’t we all get back to Lancer.  Johnny’s and his Pa are anxious to see Scott.  Had the doc arrived yet?”

Val was breathing heavy.  He looked down at the belt in his hands, and suddenly crossed his arms and kicked at the dirt.  He turned and looked up at Murdoch and nodded.

“Scott’s all comfy in his bed, Mr Lancer.  I know I said I’d wait with him, but Maria was riding herd on him and I couldn’t do nothin’ useful there, and I was mighty anxious about this shavetail here.”

All the anger seemed to have drained out of him, and he raked me with a look that was so upset that I felt like telling him to go ahead and whip the daylights outta me.

“I understand, Val.  Completely.”  Pa’s voice was firm, but real kind.

He swung ‘round to face the hands.

“Okay, men, let’s get back to Lancer.” Pa called out and waved the men on.

They headed out, Pa and Mr Everton following them. With a last glare at me, Val swung aboard Rip and followed the others.

I looked over at Caleb and he tried to grin bravely, but I just shut my eyes and sighed.

^+^+^+^

Seein’ Sam’s buggy tethered to the rail at our front door was the best I’d felt for hours. 

Caparina came out of the kitchen soon as we were through the front door, and she told us Sam and Maria were tending Scott.  So me and Pa headed straight upstairs and knocked on Scott’s door.  Pa didn’t wait for permission, he barged straight on in with me hard on his heels.

“Blast it man!” Sam grouched at us over his spectacles.  He had his sewin’ needle and thread drawn tight above Scott’s leg.  “You two get your dusty hides out of here – the boy’s doing fine.  I’ll be down shortly.”

Scott was layin’ with a sheet covering his shoulders, and only barely covering his tackle, and his head was lolled to the side.  There was a bloody towel under his leg and a bowl full of bloody water on the table next the bed.  Blood never worried me usually, but seein’ Scott’s blood made me want to heave.

Maria was holding the lamp for Sam and she turned understanding eyes on us two.

“Tan pronto como se despierte, le diré que está de regreso, Patrón, y que Juanito está a salvo (As soon as he stirs, I’ll tell him that you are back, Patron, and that Juanito is safe)

I stood there not able to move, till Pa hustled me out the door. 

He strode off down the hall and opened the door to the small guest bedroom at the head of the stairs.  I felt bad that I’d forgot completely about Ambrose.  He was in the bed, sitting up and eating soup from the tray across his legs.  Old Ced was snoozing in the chair by the window, but woke when he heard the door.  He gave me a big grin.

Ambrose also looked pleased to see me and he started blatherin’ immediate.

“Johnny – did you and Caleb-“ he paused and looked guilty at Murdoch.

“Yes, Ambrose, John and Caleb apprehended the road-agent.  He’s on his way to jail and thenceforth to prison I would expect.  John and Caleb are headed for a different sort of punishment which will be delivered in the barn.  Your father will no doubt arrive soon, and when he deems you recovered, I imagine you will face your own consequences.  I believe there will be a plethora of young men in the valley with very sore seats, once this day’s work is known.”

Ambrose looked pained as he dropped his spoon in the bowl and pushed the tray away.  Ced, on the other hand, grinned again.

“Didn’t I tell you, Boss, that that there strap would be needed?  Thirteen years ago I give it to ya, and damn I was sure right about this boy of yourn!”

“Yes Ced, you were.”

Ced chortled, all pleased with himself.  I was startled by this tidbit, and wanted to question him, but Murdoch collared me and swept me downstairs.

I found myself outside the back door with Murdoch telling me to wash up.  Back in the kitchen Caparina was pouring coffee, and she told us she would make ‘los sandwiches’ (the sandwiches) for supper, or she could cook some hot food, but she had just arrived so it would take a while.

“Sándwiches serían bienvenidos gracias, Caparina.” (Sandwiches would be most welcome) Pa told her as he tiredly sat down next to Caleb.

Mr Everton was there too, and Val.  I dropped down next to him and gratefully chugged on some coffee.  The smells of coffee and bread and meat and soap lingered around us. Pa told everyone what Sam had said.

I realized I was empty as gettout, it being the case I had gorged up every bit of my lunch hours ago.  But one bite of a big roast beef and green tomato pickle sandwich and it stuck in my craw.  I pushed my plate away.

Pa pushed it back at me.

“Eat.”

One look at his glowering dial and I picked up the food.

^+^+^+^

Sam sat and had a quick coffee with us, but had to leave pronto as he had to go to the Cluney Mill. Young Riley had fallen out of a tree and broke his arm they thought. 

Sam explained that he believed Ambrose only had a mild concussion, but to keep him overnight before sending him home.  The bullet in Scott had been small calibre, so hadn’t done quite as much damage going in, but of course infection was always a worry.  He’d lost a fair quantity of blood, so he didn’t want that young man out of bed the next three days.  He was sound asleep now, dosed up, and Maria was keeping watch while we ate.

“I’ll be back tomorrow to check on him-“

A loud knocking at the front door interrupted him.  Pa went off and came back with Mr Cotter who ‘how do’d’ us all before Pa poured him a coffee and took him off upstairs. By the time Pa arrived back to us we were all sitting still with our faces turned up to the ceiling.

I sure hoped that Ambrose didn’t have too much of a headache, ‘cause his Pa was yellin’ something fearful.  Murdoch cleared his throat, and Sam shook his head and started on giving Pa nursin’ instructions as the two of them headed for Sam’s buggy.

^+^+^+^

When we’d finished chowing down Pa thanked Caparina for the food and asked her to make a sandwich and coffee for Maria, and two sandwiches and another coffee for Senor Cotter.  She could head home then, and leave the cleaning of the kitchen to the ninos.  Her peek at me and Caleb woulda been comical if I wasn’t feeling all grinched up.  I knew that Murdoch was ready to get down to business.  Mr Everton hadn’t said one word to Caleb, so seemed he was leaving Pa to take the lead. But first Pa took the grub upstairs, and I knew he wanted to check how my big brother was faring.

He reappeared in the kitchen and stood over us all, his arms folded.

“John, I want some answers.”

“Me too.” said Mr E

“And me” Val chipped in.

Jesus wept, we didn’t have a chance.

“Your brother said he arranged the race – the illegal race – and I’m not even going to ask if you three participated in the concomitant betting –“

Dios? Was ‘commitment betting’ worse than what we done?

“I do want to know if you rode Ambrose’s horse in that race?”

His voice was real hard and he fixed me with a scowl which dared me to stretch the truth. Never was I so glad to have got a punch in the belly from my brother.

“No Sir.”

“Well, that’s something at least,” Pa said with a dry tone.

“Scott said he demanded that you leave that gun-happy thief to the law, but you refused.”

“’Course I refused!” I bust out, annoyed.  “He’d shot Scott!  I wasn’t taking no chances on him getting away, which he mighta done by the time Alan Creane got the story! And that bastard weren’t no threat to me – he ain’t no hard case – just a scummy chancer who happened to come across a prospect of some easy money-”

John Mackenzie Lancer!”

Christamighty – Pa sure could yell.

“As Val pointed out – you are a fifteen year old boy.  And I’m aware that you have skills and experience beyond your years, but I have tried– we all have tried – to impress on you that those skills are a last resort.  You are well aware of the fact that Lancer is full of men who you are to go to for help.  And there are men in every town around us who you can call on.  And no matter what trouble you are in – whether you have caused it or not – you should first come to me, Johnny!  That is what I’m here for Son, and you know that.  And if I hadn’t been here today, then you could have sought help from Val – someone else you know has your back.  Always has had…”

Pa had been yelling so loud I wondered if the chickens were all bunched in a corner, afraid to lay.  And I could imagine the men in the bunkhouse all enjoyin’ the sound of me gettin’ a furious castigating.  Those last three words though, those words ‘always has had’, those words were real quiet. 

I’d kept looking at Pa as he roasted me, but at those words I looked at Val.  His eyes met mine and he didn’t flinch, but I did, and I bowed my head.

“Johnny, I sincerely hope you didn’t encourage Caleb to go with you.”

Murdoch’s words were a statement really, not a question. He was just checking.

“Jesus no!” I breathed, and at the same time Caleb cried out a ‘no’ as well.

“Johnny didn’t want me to go with him, Mr Lancer, but I wouldn’t be gainsaid.”

“And that, Caleb, is what I’ve been waiting to know.” Growled Mr Everton.

Caleb’s uncle rose to his feet and his hand landed on his nephew’s shoulder.

“It’s commendable that you didn’t let Johnny go alone, and you know I’m not all that against young men racing and betting.  But you obviously knew that the race was against the local law, which is why there was not a word of it. And if you hadn’t been there then none of this brouhaha would have taken place.  And let’s not forget that you were to bring those horses home after lunch and you left that chore undone.  You’re a guest in this house and you’ve behaved badly. Come with me.”

Mr Everton didn’t even wait for Caleb to get to his feet, he just dragged him right up outta his seat and the two of them disappeared.  I looked up at Pa and just as quickly looked back down.  His eyes told me just how displeased he was.

“Mind if I go sit with Scott?” I grumbled out.

“No.  I’ll call for you shortly.”

As if I didn’t know that.

^+^+^+^

Mr Everton and Caleb and Val were supposed to set out for home the day after the auction. However Sunday before lunch Frank and Alfonso arrived back with the new horses, and Frank told Murdoch that Sheriff Creane would try and get out to Lancer directly to talk to us boys about what had happened. 

Caleb was considerably happy not to have to ride for another day.

Mangy was in jail. He’d given his name as Jack Spratt.  When I said that sounded familiar to me Murdoch and Frank both laughed, but didn’t either of them say why.

I sure wasn’t laughin’ about anything.  The night before, soon as Caleb and his uncle had come in from the barn I’d got my turn out there. Murdoch had cinched me under his left arm and used that hard, creaky ol’ harness strap to remind me that Johnny Lancer had best not stray from that straight road his Pa had set him on. 

When I’d finished snuffling into Pancho’s neck I’d trailed across the yard only to find Val waiting for me.

I thought he’d chaff me, or even worse, loose a smack across my breeks himself, but he’d stepped off the porch and thrown an arm around my neck and walked in with me, not sayin’ a word.  He’d given me a soft shove towards the stairs, and I’d headed up and checked again that Scott was alright, and then I’d collapsed in bed, feeling like crying.  Not because my backside was so dreadful painin’, but because I needed Val to stay at Lancer with us, but I knew it was best for him to go home.  For a while, anyway, just till he was back to his old self and could come do the sheriffin’ for Green River.

Alan Creane came out to see us Sunday afternoon, by which time Scott was hurtin’, but alert.  I thought to myself that Caleb and me was a hell of a lot more sore than Scott was, but I knew that was the sulk in me.

Murdoch and Alex and me and Caleb stood in Scott’s room and the three of us told it all to the Sheriff.  Well, what we were willin’ to admit to anyway.  He’d already caught up with Ambrose at lunchtime, account of Ambrose and Mr Cotter returning home after having breakfast with us.  Ambrose had been very quiet that mornin’, and when he’d seen that me and Caleb ate our breakfast standing at the bench, he’d give us a sympathetic grimace.  His pa was another father who believed the Bible was right about licking your kids into shape.

Sheriff Creane had been peevish as hell about me and Caleb going after Spratt, but he knew we’d already heard plenty about that.  He told Murdoch and Mr Everton he should fine every one of us boy’s families for the illegal race and betting which he knew we’d all been out there for, but not one of us boys had mentioned it, and he knew it’d be the same with every stripling in the valley.  We all said we were out there having a friendly chin-wag…and of course what Spratt had spouted about horse races couldn’t be relied upon, said Alan.

When they all cleared off I stayed with Scott.  He shoved my hand away when I checked his forehead to make sure he wasn’t brewing a fever.  I toed my boots off and lay sideways on the end of the bed, still not wanting to sit down nowhere.  Scott wanted to know all the details of what happened after we left him and Amb.  Wasn’t much to tell he hadn’t heard me tell the Sheriff already, but that didn’t mean he didn’t get grouchy again.

“The knowledge that you’ll get a hiding doesn’t seem to dissuade you from doing exactly as you want to Little Brother.  But I’m still glad that Pa gave you one. Inordinately pleased, in fact.”

“Well , Boston, I’m looking forward to Pa-urdoch tanning you, too.  Soon as your leg’s better, I’m bettin’ he’ll paddle your skinny white duff for organising that whole shebang – don’t think he won’t.”

Scott scoffed.

“He most certainly will not.  But he lives in hope that walloping you will eventually turn your hard head away from your stubborn path of ingrained resistance to authority.”

“Well, maybe Pa won’t lick you – but Cip might!”

Scott flushed some and scowled fierce but tried to ignore my spurring him.

I pulled out a biscuit which I’d tucked into my top pocket at breakfast that morning. It was a bit dry but I took a big bite anyway.

“For God’s sake! I’ve told you before about eating in my room – let alone my bed!”

Scott was very particular about keeping his room spruce.

“You’ve got crumbs everywhere, you damn brat – get off the bed!”

He was shoving me while he squalled. I noticed the look of pain which was more than him being a fussbudget – he’d hurt his leg.  So I rolled off the bed.  

I took another small bite, and slowly held my hand out and crumbled the last bit of biscuit on top of his quilt.

Instead of shouting and cussing me, which I was hoping he’d do, he simply went red as a beet but then sucked in a long breath and closed his eyes.  He sunk back into his pillows and started counting real quiet.  I was so disappointed I gathered up most of the crumbs and pitched them in the waste-paper basket by his desk.

When I turned ‘round he was watching me, and he looked a bit too damn pleased with himself.  He wriggled ‘round a bit and then talked again.

“I wish I’d seen him backhand Spratt.  I’m not surprised he lost his temper like that. He was distraught about you going after Spratt, Johnny.  As was Val. And of course Alex was worried sick that Caleb had gone.”

“Yeah, well, it’s a pity you didn’t head into Green River like I told you.  By the time Pa found out that me and Caleb had caught Spratt and delivered him to the Sheriff, he woulda had time to calm down…some.”

“My only concern was getting help to you as soon as I could, and Lancer was closer. Believe me, telling our Father that his child was hunting a shooter – well…”

Scott yawned and I left him to have a nap, while I went to find myself some food.  Maria left the kitchen to go sit with Scott, taking a bowl full of peas she was shelling. 

“Juanito, don’t you go near the pudding I made.  I will be checking.”

I gave her a real charmin’ smile.

Hell, it tasted good, and it was real easy to wrangle the custard and apples and such across the big hole my spoon had made.

^+^+^+^

Next I went searching and found Ol’ Ced helping Osana trim the feet of all of her goats. 

“How’s your sitter, son?” he grinned at me.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you ‘bout.”

He told me that when I was nearing two, a few weeks before I was took away from Lancer, that my daddy had brung me out to the barn to pat his horse.

“Big chestnut he had then, name of Robroy.  Real peach of a horse. If your Pa was at home he’d always bring you out to see the horses after lunch.  But this partic-lar day, soon as he said it was time for your nap you arched your back and set up a caterwauling to set a man’s teeth on edge.  Jehosephat – you pitched a fit!  Not one tear mind – all temper. Your Pa couldn’t do nothin’.  Senora Estrada here came hurrying and grabbed you up and went back to the house, soothin’ you the whole way.”

Ced pealed out a laugh.

“Shoulda seen the look on your Pa’s face.  I ducked into the tack room and came out with a piece of harness strap, and I took up your Pa’s hand and slapped it in his palm. ‘Here Boss’, I said, ‘you’ll be needing this in about ten years’, I said. And I was right of course.  That strap’s been hangin’ on that nail there for years now. Sure had its work cut out for it since you boys came home.”

He cackled again, and old Senora Estrada gave me a smile and a pat on the cheek.

I squidged out of there with their happy laughing following me.

^+^+^+^

Sam came and went, pleased that Scott’s bullet hole was nice and clean and his patient was comfortable, if a trifle surly - not at all like him.  He threw his eyes at me when he said that and I scowled.

“I rest my case.” He said, all dry.  Yeah, real funny.

He was sorry not to be able to stay for the Mexican feast Maria was cooking up. Pozole, black bean chicken and rice, rellenos and tortillas  Then capirotada after.  I could hardly wait.

Sam had to get on out to Aggie Conway’s account of one of her waddies being real sick from needing a tooth to be pulled.

Val helped me get through my chores and before supper I visited with Scott again.  I found Murdoch sitting in there. He was in the chair next the window, arms folded and long as hell legs straight out in front of him.

“We’ve been waiting for you.  Take a seat.”  He stood up.

I looked at Scott and he raised an eyebrow at me. I perched on the end of the bed and waited to hear what trouble we were in now.

“I’ve dealt with Johnny’s ill-advised and dangerous pursuit of Spratt, but not with the outright defiance by both of you in ignoring my orders about attending illegal horse races-“

“Jeez Murdoch, I reckon you dealt with me enough for every wrongdoin’ I’m ever likely to do-“

“Don’t interrupt!  I made it abundantly clear that neither of you were to attend those affairs and yet you went right ahead and not only attended, but organised one.”  He fixed Scott with a heavy frown.

“I apologise, Sir, but I must say I don’t agree with your stance on this matter.“

Holy Mother of God.  I looked horrified at Murdoch’s face and the dark red colour it was turning, and I turned to check the foolhardy and downright challenging expression on my brother’s clock.  Murdoch commenced to yelling.

“Young man, whether you agree with me or not, I am your father and you will respect my wishes and you will damn well do as you are told!”

“Will I?”

Murdoch looked furious, and I was thinkin’ that about now, if it was me and him arguing, I’d a got loud and be as fired up as him.  But that was not Scott’s way.  He was polite as could be, but Jesus, he was every bit as stubborn and vexed as Pa was.  He sat forward, his eyes fiery.

“I most certainly respect you, Murdoch, but in this instance I feel that the town’s decision to outlaw these impromptu and harmless gatherings is near-sighted and tyrannical. I am surprised and disappointed that you were a part of it.”

He wasn’t yellin’ but he had raised his voice.  That was a mighty dangerous tack to take with our Father, I well knew.  Lucky Boston had a bullet wound, else Murdoch might have dragged him outta that bed and straight to the barn.  He still might anyway I thought, seeing Pa’s face had now gone purple.  I stood up, thinking if Pa laid hands on Scott then maybe I might have to jump on Pa’s back.  Fuck, I was scared.

The tension in the room was crushing us all to death, and Pa and Scott were both glaring fierce at each other.  I felt sick. Like other times though, Murdoch surprised hell out of me, and maybe Scott too.  They were both hard for me to figure sometimes.

Murdoch suddenly moved – but not to smack Scott one.  He sat back down on the chair and ran a hand down his face.

“I didn’t vote for that by-law.”  He said it mild, and his colour lessened up.

Now Scott leaned back, his eyes fixed on Pa.

“You didn’t?”

“No, I didn’t.”

I sat back down, slow and careful, and relieved.

“Scott I am not about to sit here and debate town ordinances.  The by-law was passed.  Whether you and I agree with it, it stands.  I do believe that horse racing is best enjoyed at town events.  My concerns that illegal gatherings attract shady characters have been realised.  My wishes as to how my sons comport themselves, my rules for you two, they also stand.”

His voice had got harder, and he fixed us two with a stern look.

“In two weeks Geraldo will be butchering three of our pigs and preparing them for all of their many uses.  You two will spend the week assisting him with that process.”

“But Sir-“

“Scott Lancer – that’s enough!  One more word out of you and I’ll warm your britches!”

I could see Ol’ Boston was outraged, but I could see too, that Pa had finished his very short stint of being calm and reasonable.  I was usually the one riling him past patience, so I recognised the signs which my foolish brother didn’t seem to.  I squeezed Scott’s ankle real hard, and he glared at me.  I shook my head.  He was breathin’ heavy, but he set his mouth real sulky, and he crossed his arms and shut the fuck up – thank God.

Pa was breathing heavy too. 

“Johnny, come along.  Scott, Caparina will be up with your supper soon.  Is there anything I can get you?”

He sounded like he was trying to be pleasant while wanting to wring our necks.  Scott sounded like he was trying to be pleasant while wanting to tell Pa to go to hell.

“No Sir. Thank you, Sir.”

^+^+^+^

I was so used to being the one who riled Murdoch that it was kind of shocking to see Scott aggravating the Ol’ Man to the end of his string.  I thought Scott brangling with our Pa upstairs was enough for one day – but my brother had other ideas.

We’d all eaten like Spanish kings and just started on the capirotada when that cantankerous cripple appeared in the doorway, leaning heavy on a walking stick.

“Jesus!”

I leapt to my feet and rushed to him, and Mr Everton was right behind me. Pa swung around to see what we were doing, and I heard his spoon hit the floor when he jumped upright.

“Scott – what the devil are you doing out of bed!”

Scott the Stubborn was pale and sweaty, but at Pa’s growl he tried to straighten up, a bit hard with me and Mr E holding him by his arms.

“It’s Val and Alex and Caleb’s last night with us, and I wanted to join you all.”

We were already half carrying him to the couch, so Pa grumbling instructions weren’t necessary.

Everyone fussed and we got him propped up and a bowl of dessert in his hands. He looked pleased with himself and Murdoch looked vexed to death. 

Sometimes I’m sure he wondered why he ever thought it was a good idea for him to get us two at home.

^+^+^+^

Val woke me next morning with a smack across my ass and a cup of hot coffee, one of which was welcome.  I’d just been having a real enjoyable dream about the top parts of a girl called Gaynor… 

“Jesus Val!” I groused as I bunched up the bedclothes ‘round my hips.

“Here, drink this and get dressed before your daddy comes looking for ya.  He’s about at the end of his tether.”

I took the mug and we both enjoyed sitting there drinking our first coffee of the day.  I liked that about Val, how we could sit and not say a word and it was such an easy feeling.

Soon as I finished I rolled out of bed and washed up a little.  I considered the pile of clothes in a heap in the corner, but decided against them – Murdoch being so fussy meant he’d get one whiff of them and send me back to change anyway.  In the top drawer I found a new shirt.  Well, new for me…it was one Scott had grown too long in the arms for.  It was brown with a faint check and I wrinkled my nose at how dull it was.  It still held a trace of the scent of the soap Boston favoured. The pants I hauled on next were also old ones of Scott’s – Maria had turned them up to fit me.

“I’ll help with your chores,” Val was telling me as I dressed. He wiped a finger in his mug to scoop up the last drop of coffee.

“Damn but Maria is a pleasure to sit at a table for” he said with all this feeling in his voice.

I was buttoning my shirt, and thinking on this being the last morning I’d see Val in who knew how long.  My chest and my throat and my belly were all twining awful around the coffee I’d only just enjoyed.

I had to hunt for my boots, and was drawing them on as Val headed for the door.

“And don’t you come downstairs till you’ve sorted out that haystack you call hair.  And brush all of it – not just the front.”

“Dios, Val, when did you turn into an old woman?” I groused.

“I’ll ‘old woman’ you, you pup.”

I ducked as Val aimed a cuff at my head.

“You’re not a border hawk any more – you’re the esteemed son of a big bug rancher, so you got to look the part. And wipe that pout off your damn dial.  Get movin’.  I’ll just go let your big brother know we’ll be in to carry him down to breakfast.  If we don’t he’s likely to arrive by himself again and your Pa might end up with an apoplexy.”

I stopped scowling and grinned.  Val was goin’ to go in and mother hen Scott next, and it cheered my wrought up gizzards to see him wanting to do that.  I picked up the brush from on top of the drawers and started to try and tame my tangled up hair.

^+^+^+^

First thing the Ol’ Man had said when I’d arrived at the table was that I needed a haircut.

He’d also growled about Scott being out of bed again, but he himself fetched the footstool from the kitchen and propped Boston’s leg up on it.  Everyone enjoyed breakfast, except me.  They talked about the trip back to Bluff’s and getting home and such.  I could barely get my food past my throat which seemed to have got small overnight.

Boston kept trying to annoy me, swiping bacon and poking me, but I wasn’t in the mood and he gave it away.  I could feel his eyes on me.

Maria reached ‘round me to fill my glass with buttermilk and I felt her hand light on the back of my neck and her fingers gently muss the hair at my collar.

^+^+^+^

Outside a few of the younger hands who’d been at the horse race called out some goodbye’s to Caleb, and most of the men who were about farewelled Val, if they hadn’t already.  He was real popular in the bunkhouse. 

Cip came over to shake Alex and Caleb’s hands.  He said some nice words to Val before leaving for his work for the day.  Val had been a guest of the Romero Estrada family on a couple of nights.  When Val went and ate elsewhere Murdoch told me not to go with him as he thought it was good for Val to mix about by himself as his head got back to normal working.  So Val had had a bit of visiting around the place.

There was a lot of yammering going on and I shook hands with Mr Everton.  He said something but I found I couldn’t hear very well for some reason. Caleb and I clinched hands and tried to put each other in the dust before grinning and breaking apart.  He swung up on to Noah and I turned on my heel and strode straight to the barn and grabbed up a pitchfork and started tossing hay all over the place.  Pancho looked over his shoulder at me, and he seemed to have a puzzled look in his eye.

“Johnny.”  Pa’s voice at the door was firm, but I ignored him.

He came to me and put a hand on the pitchfork, but I wrested it away from him and kept working.

It was real, real stupid, and I felt like a tonto, but I didn’t seem to be able to stop myself.  I was always so in control and never let nothin’ get me so roiled up that I couldn’t at least pretend I was fine.

Right there and right then all I could do was pitch hay.

Pa wasn’t having that though.  He seized my arm and took the fork from me like I was a button.  He threw the pitchfork onto the pile of hay and took me by the shoulders squeezing tight.  I felt sort of dead.  I gazed straight ahead at Pa’s shirtfront.

“I know how hard this is for you Son, and I wish I could make it easier for you…but I can’t.  You never flinch when faced with physical pain, but I’m honestly glad you do flinch at pain like this.  But you have to march yourself out there and say goodbye to Val.  You have to do that for Val, and you have to do it for you, because this is part of growing up Boy.  And I’ll tell you Johnny, Val is feeling exactly the way you are.  Now, you’re always wanting us all to know how grown you are, well, we don’t expect you to be anywhere near grown for a good long while Son - but I do expect you to do this.”

Pa dropped his hands, and for a second I just wanted to drop too.  But he stood there in front of me, and I could feel him willing some strength into my pathetic hide. 

I couldn’t look at him, but I made my legs obey my head, and I put one foot in front of the other.  Just concentrated on that, and before I knew it I was stepping out of the barn and into the sunlight.

Soon as I was in their sightline I heard yells of farewell from a distance, and I looked towards the sound and saw Mr Everton and Caleb ambling along, almost to the Lancer arch. Caleb was leading the new horse his uncle had bought at the auction.  They were waving their hats and I lifted my arm and just held it there.

Pa strode on by me and he stopped by Val and the two of them talked, both with their heads bent, not lookin’ at each other.  They shook hands, and Pa placed his left hand on Val’s shoulder in a brief touch before he marched off and disappeared into the hacienda.

Val was stood by Rip, and he took his hat from the pommel.  He held it in both hands, and he was studying on it like he’d never seen it before.

I walked on over and picked up a blue and white striated rock which had got kicked up out of the ground.  I studied it close.

It felt like a goddamn hour that us two stood there, until Val got sudden and jammed his hat on his head and grabbed the rock outta my hand.  I looked up at him and he was looking back at me with this angry as hell expression on his face.

“You damned stubborn young scoundrel, Juanito.  I never in my life met a damn cussed kid like you are.  You’d better start behaving yourself and doing what you’re damn well told or you’ll answer to me – you hear me Boy?”

“Well fuck, what you think you’re going to fucking do about it from Bluff’s-“

I didn’t get another word out because Val pounced me.

He dropped the rock and swung an arm around my neck and pulled me to his side, my head tucked tight to him. He was swearing in Spanish, but real low and grieved, the cuss words all tangled in my hair.  I had a handful of the back of his shirt and a handful of the front.  I felt like my heart was goin’ to bust and I wondered if I held on tight enough could I keep Val at Lancer.

But I couldn’t. 

Val put his hands on my shoulders, just like Pa had done in the barn, and he eased me to arm’s length away from him.

“Aw, hell, you’re cryin’ like a goddamn baby!” he said - his own face all wet. “What the hell would Jim think if he could see you?”

He sleeved his face off and I was doing the same until he shoved his handkerchief into my hand.

“Blow your nose and pull yourself together – ain’t like I won’t be back this way within the next few months.  Hell, could be less’n that.”

I blew my nose and took a shuddering breath. Val put one big mitt on my neck and gave me a small shake as I tried to get myself straightened out. I couldn’t believe what a soft sister I was bein’, but damned if I could make my heart harden up like I was accustomed to doin’.

“That’s better – Jesus, I was wondering where the hell Madrid was when we needed him.”

I held the handkerchief out. Val grinned.

“Awww, keep it.”

His hand rested for a moment on my face, and his head dropped.  He turned quick and swung aboard Rip.

He scrubbed a hand across his eyes and dropped that hand onto his thigh as he leaned towards me. His eyes were all shiny still, but full of warmth.  

“We been through a lot, Johnny.  You know how much I reckon on you.  For God’s sake try and give your poor daddy a breather from trouble, before his hair turns completely grey.  And mind your brother – he’s the best brother you could ever have.”

He straightened and hauled on the ribbons and swept Rip around.  As he lightly spurred the horse to move out he reached out and gave me a smack on the back of my head.

“Vaya con Dios, mi hijo.” he murmured before he urged Rip on and was on his way.

I turned away and hugged myself.  Murdoch had been right – me and Val were both of us too full of feeling to part easy.  I felt fuckin’ dreadful.  I wanted to go in the barn and saddle Pancho and take off after my Papi.  I kicked that striated rock across the dirt.  Then I went and picked it up and rolled it between my hands till they hurt.

Some calf was bawling.  I sure knew how it felt.  There was the clanking of a bucket, and the excited chattering of Luisa from around in the courtyard.  A waft of strong smelling soap drifted on the air and then was gone.  Wash day. Darby started yelling real agitated at someone about not being where they were supposed to be, and one of the hands answered in Spanish.  Sounded like Felipe.

I turned around and saw that Mr Everton and Caleb were a distance beyond the arch, and they were sitting easy and waiting for Val to catch them up.  Val’s rangy figure was riding easy in the saddle. 

Watching him ride away brought up a feeling from somewhere like I was six years old.

But then I felt a surge of anger.  Val was goin’ home to Caleb’s.  Jealousy. That’s what it was, pure and simple.  My eyes prickled me and I rubbed them with the heels of my hands. I wanted to pitch my rock through the nearest window of the house. 

What stopped me was Pa’s voice which came thundering out of the open front door.

“Scott Lancer!  If I catch you off that couch again you will not be happy with the consequences.  Now I don’t know what’s gotten into you the past few days but I’m here to tell you that you had better smarten up or I will smarten you up so fast your head will spin!”

Mierda, Pa was sounding like he was going to give himself an affliction, so I hoped my dumb brother was fixing to pull his horns in. 

“Murdoch I am quite capable of deciding whether or not-“

Pa’s bellow drowned out the rest. 

Maria had said that Scott was having a growth spurt (and where the fuck was mine?) but it appeared that his brain was not growing as fast as his fool head.  My usually calm and sensible older brother seemed hell-bent on getting into a contest of wills with our Pa, and the caper-witted fool was loco if he thought that he was any match for our gigantic and iron-willed Ol’ Man.

If I didn’t get in there fast there could be blood spilled - or worse - Pa might mention using his belt – Jesus!  Boston had accepted a licking from Cip, but even the suggestion of one from Murdoch got my brother so angry he would nearly pass out. All pride…whereas me, well, apart from hurtin’ like the devil they didn’t bother me none.

I dropped the blue rock into my top pocket and jammed Val’s handkerchief into my back pocket. I headed towards the house, stopping at the porch to look back past the arch again.  The three figures were a long way away…

“Sir – I am fed up with you treating me like a kid! I was a cavalry officer, and what’s more-“

Hell, Scott was acting crazy and needed me to help him from getting killed by our Pa.  I had to get Pa outta the house so I could talk some sense into my fool-hardy brother. 

Maybe doing that might help ease the ache that was bad troubling my head and my innards…

A ‘diversionary tactic’ – that’s what was needed. A different kind of one than I’d seen in range wars.

I stomped across the threshold, yelling at the top of my voice.

“Hey Murdoch – Walt thinks there’s something wrong with that bull you paid all that money for!”

 

 

~end~
May 2018

“The joy of the young is to disobey.”
Cocteau

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