The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Clementine

 

 

Wild Horses, Wild Boys

There were more wild horses on Lancer than you could catch in a lifetime. But it would be fun tryin'. And fun breakin' ‘em… I was crazy to start, but Murdoch was real intent on making me wait till I filled out a bit more. At fifteen, I was still skinny as a stringbean, even though I ate as much as he and Scott put together.

Murdoch was also real intent on me not settin' foot off the ranch for a whole month, that bein' part of the consequences of some previous ‘foolish' behavior. Him and his damn consequences. Though, it sorta had been pretty foolish, turned out.

But Willard Cheswick had invited me to try my hand at bronc bustin, on the quiet like, on his Pa's ranch. It abutted Lancer on one corner. This was an offer I couldn't turn down. So it was Murdoch's fault that I would need to disobey him, on account of I had to leave the ranch to take up Willard's offer. Willard was seventeen, and he was allowed to break horses. I was older than him, when you thought about it, in all my experiences, so I was well ready. I might have waited one more week, which woulda gone some way to appeasin' Murdoch, but for one thing.

Two weeks prior, when out riding, I had come across a small band of mustangs near Black Mesa. I wasn't supposed to be anywhere near there, but it was a wild part of the ranch that really drew me in. This herd was a little band of bachelor stallions, and was not prime horseflesh, except for one particular. I'd never seen such an Appaloosa since I'd been in California. He was cream, with the prettiest grey and browny coloured leopard spots anyone could imagine. I spent over an hour runnin' after him, and he sure led me a merry dance, but in the end I'd dropped my lasso around his beautiful neck, and he was mine.

I'd brought him home, and told everyone I'd caught him on a different part of the ranch. Every minute I could those two weeks, I'd worked with him and could see he was goin' to be a fine mount. I was itchin' to ride him though, and I wanted to be the one that did.

Murdoch was keeping a pretty tight rein on me these days. Keepin' me too busy to have time for ‘idle hands'. That was his take on it. For someone like me, who only a year past had had the freedom to do whatever I damn well pleased, well, it was a might constraining.

That's how come I was guiding Pancho along the trail that led off Lancer and onto the Cheswick spread. I had Serampion on a lead rope, and he was acting quite well-mannered. It was a fine day, with a soft breeze which smelled of the peppermint trees that were common on this part of our ranch. Underneath that was the smell of horse and cow, something you could usually smell most parts of Lancer. And the grasses too. All smells that went good with the feel of the sun on your neck and your back, and the sound of the birds that fussed when they heard a rider comin'.

Murdoch and Mr. Cheswick should both be having a nice, pleasant type of ride themselves, as they both headed from their homes and into Green River for one of them Cattleman' s Association jawfests. Being as it was Monday, I didn't have a lesson with Clayt Aubrey, so it was all settlin' nicely into place for me, like it was meant to be.

When I neared the Cheswick homestead, I dismounted and tied Serampion to a tree, and ground tied Pancho. I found a spot in the stand of trees where I could watch the house and surrounds. I hadn't been there before, as I'd only met Will and Thee, the son and daughter of Mr. Cheswick, just over a month before. Murdoch had made me attend a church christenin', and the lunch after, and I'd met Thee there. Thea and me had had some fun ‘riding' a waterfall, which turned out to be more dangerous than we'd allowed, and on account of that Murdoch had taken some hide off me. Thee's Pa had told her she weren't allowed off their ranch for three months. This was the reason I wasn't Mr. Cheswick's most favoured neighbour, so that's why I just didn't ride straight on in.

Their house was a solid, log built structure, with a big barn off to the side, and a few smaller out buildings. Everything looked straight and well cared for, just like Murdoch liked to keep things at our place. I spotted Will coming out of the barn. He was carrying a hessian sack that looked real heavy. I skirted my way down towards the chicken coop at the back that he was headin' for, and when I got closer, I gave him a soft whistle.

His head jerked up, so I stepped out where he could see me.

“Johnny!”

I ambled over then, still keepin' a watchful eye out.

“Hey Will, you keepin' your powder dry?” I gave him a grin.

He grinned back, droppin' the sack he was carryin', and pushing his hat to the back of his head.

“Sure am, Boy. What about you? And what are you doing here? Where's your horse?”

I jerked my head to indicate it was back aways.

“Your Pa gone to the meetin' in town, Will?”

He folded his arms then, smiling.

“Well Boy, I'm guessing here that that means you're here wanting to sit astride a wild horse. That the case, Johnny?”

“Well, now that you mention it, I seem to recall you invitin' me here to do just that. You ain't changed your mind, have you?”

See, even though Will weren't directly involved in me and Thee's stunt, his Pa had taken some hide off of him, too. I felt bad for him, but couldn't do nothin' about it.

“Understand if you've changed your mind, Will.”

I looked off at the chickens busy scratchin' and cluckin' in the run, so I wasn't looking at him if he felt embarrassed. But he laughed.

“No, happy to oblige, Johnny. I must say though, that having met your Pa, I'm quite impressed by your audacity.”

Now he was talkin' like Scott. When he saw the puzzled look on my face he laughed.

“Johnny, I know he doesn't want you breaking horses, and I know you are not supposed to be here – so I'm wondering at your playing with the fire that is Murdoch Lancer. You sure you want to do this?”

“Wait till you see the horse I brought with me, Will!”

I took off for the trees then, and I mounted Pancho, and led Serampion down towards Will. He whistled with real appreciation when he saw the Appaloosa, and I grinned over to him.

“Well, man afire, Johnny, that is one fine looking piece of horseflesh! I don't wonder at your wanting to break him – come ahead!”

He walked off then, leading the way to further away behind the house. I saw the corral there, with a separated area fenced off. That's where he led me to. He opened the gate and I led the stallion in, and then tied him to a post. I rode Pancho out, and made him comfortable, before putting him in the corral with several of the Cheswick stock. They were all interested in him, and also the Appaloosa they could see over next to them.

I was gettin' excited now, so close to bronc bustin', like I'd been wanting to have an attempt at for so long. Willard and I discussed the gentling I'd been doing so far, and then we headed back to the barn to get the tack we needed.

“How's Theodora, Will?”

“She's just fine, Johnny. She'd be pleased to see you, but I don't feel comfortable letting her. I don't want her going against Pa's wishes. You understand?”

He looked ahead as he said it, and I did too.

“Sure I do, Will. I don't want her getting in no more trouble than what she's got already. Say hey for me though, won't you?”

“Say hey yourself, Johnny Lancer!” Thee's voice came from behind us.

Will and I spun around, and there was Thee, standing there at the corner of the barn that we'd just passed. She had a big grin on her face, and she stood there with her hands on her hips.

“Well howdy do, Miss Cheswick. I'm pleased to see you dry!”

“Thee! You get into the house!” Will's voice was firm.

Thee tossed her head, and those springy curls shifted around.

“I'm going, Will. I was coming down to help you with the fence, when I heard voices.”

She looked at me, and then she looked down at the boot she was scruffin' in the dirt.

“I'm sorry you got into trouble on my account, Johnny.”

I coloured up, I could feel it, ‘cause I knew she woulda heard about me gettin' a hiding, just like I'd heard about Will.

“I should never have let you anywhere near that waterspout, and I'm the one who should be apologisin' –“

“What do you mean – let me? Why I –“ But Will cut her off.

“Thee! Would you please go in the house?”

“I know, Will. I'm going.” And she made to go past us.

But she stopped as she got to me, and again she looked down.

“Johnny, how's Scott?”

I couldn't help the smile that quirked my mouth, because I could see the colour creepin' up her neck and turnin' her face all pink. She had some fancy on my big brother, and he had no idea.

“Why, Thee, I'm glad you asked, ‘cause Scott has had this shockin' rash of pustules break out all over his face, and the way he squirms in his saddle, I'm thinkin' those pustules has broken out on his –“

“Johnny!” Will's voice cut me off, though I could hear the laugh in his voice.

Thee though, was lookin' at me with absolute horror.

“Oh no! Poor Scott - how dreadful for him –“

“Thee! He's joshing you. Now for the last time – please go!”

Thee's face was red, and she sent me a look that told me she wasn't sure whether to believe me, or believe Will. I gave her a purely innocent smile, but that just made her eyebrows fly together like two swallows, and her mouth to get real pouting annoyed. She did a huffing sound and tossed her head again, and went marchin' off like she was a soldier.

I watched her as she headed back to the house. She was wearin' baggy pants, with braces. From the back like that, if it wasn't for the mess of long, curly hair, she coulda been a boy. From the front though, I knew she was filled out in the chest like a lady. I quickly put those things outa my mind, as thinkin' on the shape of women, was causing me a lot of discomfit lately.

Will was heading into the barn, and I quickly followed, doin' my best to put bosoms right outta my head. Jesus, it was real hard though. And then it was harder…and then I had to turn tail and rush out to the horse trough and splash my face with water while I tried to get control of myself. Fuck! Well, yeah, exactly, I thought, as I sat there on the edge of the horse trough, feelin' like all kinds of a frustrated mudsill. Will came outta the barn, carrying the tack, and looked over at me with a question on his face.

“Got hot.”

“Oh.”

I got up and went and took the saddle from him, and we trooped back up to the corral.

Now my excitement was building again, only not about bosoms for a change. I carried the saddle into the corral, and put it down near Serampion. I talked to him with a soothing voice, givin' him all the compliments a fine, young stallion deserved. I petted him and showed him the bridle and reins and the blanket, like I'd started doin' the first week.

Will stood on the other side of the fence, leanin' his chin on his arms, which were on the top rail. He kept real still and quiet.

Serampion, was nervous, but listening to my voice. He was eyeing the saddle, and woulda moved further away from it if he could. I gradually put the blanket on his back, and after another half an hour of smoothing his neck and withers, slowly moved to put the bridle on, an' he accepted it. I moved the saddle closer, and he fussed, but I kept talking and let him see it wasn't goin' to eat him. When he started edging to it, and then put his nose to it and started sniffing and blowin', I picked it up. His ears went back, and he trembled all over, but he let me stand next him, and then, careful as anything, I lifted it up and gently settled it on his back. I kept talkin, heart in my mouth.

I knew I was rushin' him, but I was so impatient to mount, that I was pressin'. I held the saddle in place as he sidestepped, and I moved with him, sweet talkin' the whole time. As soon as he settled I gave him the sugar I'd withheld all week. I started getting the saddle cinched then, takin' my time again, and gradually tightening, tightening, pressin', pressin'.

I couldn't believe how far I was getting with him. I got Will to come in then, real slow, and front on, so the horse could see him approachin'. I tried to stay calm so the horse would, but now I was getting ready to mount, well, I was buzzing inside. Will, was following my lead, talkin' soft and standing at Serampion's head, holding him steady. I kept my hands on the horse the whole time, never losin' contact, and then I looked over at Will, and nodded.

In one smooth action I stepped into the stirrup and swung up onto his back. I barely even registered Will swinging himself up onto the top of the fence, before all hell broke loose.

Jesus! That horse that had been so cooperatin' for two weeks, even acceptin' the saddle so easy, now decided that the yahoo who had been his sweetcheeks for two weeks, was now just a aggravatin' lump of dirt that he wanted to buck off, and then tromp into the ground. He not only pigrooted, and then twisted like into a figure ‘S' in mid air, but he landed with a shuddering jarring,and then had his back legs back up so quick, and so far off the ground I felt his like his hocks must be goin' to take the back of my head off.

Well, I was real determined and I stayed with that horse like a parson's hand on a dollar, for, well, I reckon, all of …five seconds.

I hit the dirt so hard I saw stars, and I couldn't a moved if you'd offered me a naked lady. I couldn't even breathe, but I could hear the horse snortin' with rage, and Will's voice as he chased the fuckin' bastard away. I was just draggin' in an almighty big first breath when I felt Will grab me under one arm and haul me up. He was still yellin'.

He got me leaning up against the fence, and my head was clearing.

“Blazes Johnny! Speak to me, Boy!”

I shoved myself upright, shakin' my head.

The stars had gone, and I was breathin' more normal.

“Jesus, that fuckin' pendejo!” I gasped.

Will laughed then, but he still had hold of my arm.

“Holy Hell, Johnny, you scared me. Let's get you up to the house –“

“No! Just give me a minute, and I'll be ready to go again –“

“No, you will not – “

“The hell you say!”

I shook myself free of his arm and stretched out my arms and leaned forward to stretch out my back. Serampion was doin' much the same thing on the other side of the corral.

“Johnny – “

“Help me hold him again, Will.”

I walked purposefully, if a mite crossways, towards the horse. That bastard shook his head at me, tellin' me to forget it. But no fuckin' crow bait like him was goin' to get the better of me. It might only have been five seconds up there on his back, but they were a wild, satisfying five seconds!

********

Half an hour later, and what felt like forty falls, the horse looked more subdued, and I looked like a war casualty. I was debatin' whether to go again, but Will said if I even tried, he was goin' to get his Pa's horsewhip, and it wouldn't be the horse he was aimin' at.

He made me go into the house with him. Lucky that Thee wasn't in there, or she might have fussed at me bleedin' on her tablecloth. It was only a small cut on my hand, where I'd landed on my arm, and my belt buckle had torn me. Will put a bandage around my hand, and he got a chunk of ice to put on the two lumps on my forehead.

When he saw the trickle of blood run down my neck, he fossicked about, and found the top of my ear was split, but not too bad.

“Hell, Johnny, I'll give you credit for sand, Boy.”

He got me a drink of water, and offered me some pie. I was surprised to hear myself say no to pie, but I found I was not hungry. I felt pretty bad, truth to tell. Will got another chunk of ice, and I held that on my lumps. I noticed that I had torn a rip right across the left knee of my pants. I also had lost two buttons on my shirt, and it was ripped too. Maria was goin' to be mad.

“Johnny, you're best to keep moving. After bronc busting, I always have a hot bath, and I keep moving, otherwise your muscles get stiff.”

I nodded and stood up.

“I'd best get back to mending the chicken fence. Do you think you could hold the rail while I nail it?”

“Sure.”

I followed him out of the house, and it was then that my stomach did a flip on me. I rushed over to a garden pot and tossed up my lunch in it. I groaned and stood up, and leaned against the hitchin' rail. Willard came over to me with a ladle of water from the bucket on the porch. I swilled and spat, and then drank again. I did feel better though.

“You sure you're okay, Johnny?”

Will looked worried. I nodded and then got myself upright. We both glanced at the pot. Will went and got the bucket, and chucked the whole contents into the pot. Then we went back to the chicken run and I helped him fix the fence. We put the tools back in the hessian sack, and then he helped me mount Pancho, and he rounded up Serampion, and he handed me the lead rope. That fuckin' horse was real quiet now.

“Johnny, you sure you're okay to ride home? It's just that I can't leave Thea here alone-“

“Naw, I feel much better since I gorged up. I'll be fine. Thanks for helping me with the bronc. ‘Preciate it. You get any time off, come over to Lancer. Scott'd be glad to see ya, and if I can get away, we could work some more with Serampion.”
“Serampion?”

“Spanish for ‘measles'.”

He grinned up at me.

“You're real fluent in Spanish, aren't you Johnny?”

“Well, I oughta be, seein' as how I'm half Mex, and grew up there!”

“Well, I'll see you. Take care, Boy. Don't know what you're going to say to explain your state, Johnny. Good luck!”

********

I was worried that Murdoch would be home before me, so I hustled along. Didn't know he was staying in town to have dinner with Miz Conway after the meetin'. I turned Serampion into the corral, and settled Pancho in the barn. I was plum wore out, but kept goin'. As I walked over to the bathhouse, I could see one of the crews returning for the day. I wondered if Scott was with them, but turned the corner, and Scott's whistle met me. Then he peered ‘round the corner, a big smile on his clock, which sudden turned to a big look of horror.

“My God!”

He rushed at me and started fussin', and I pushed his hands away, and answered that I'd been bucked. Well, weren't that the fuckin' truth. I was glad he was there, turned out, ‘cause he got my bath ready, and then he went up to my room to fetch me some duds.

I was in the tub when he came back in, and he whistled a different tune when he saw the bruises starting to appear. The hot water felt real good, and my innards felt better, so that I was startin' to feel hungry.

Scott dumped my fresh clothes on a chair, and then he stood looking down at me, his arms folded. I looked at him through my eyelashes, and waited.

“So, Pancho bucked you?”

I didn't answer.

“Pancho, who never bucked anyone in his life?”

I ignored him.

“And then, when you got back up onto your feet, Pancho felt guilty, and he put a bandage on your hand?”

I dropped the bandaged hand under the water. Damn!

“Okay, Boy, spill it.”

“Fuck off, Scott. I'm in pain here, and I don't need you spoutin' off at me.”

I closed my eyes, letting the water's heat soak into my insides. I could feel Scott's gaze on me, and knew he was thinkin'. Then he worked it out.

“The Appaloosa.”

I groaned, and then I opened one eye and looked at Scott's frownin' face.

“Yes, the fuckin' Appaloosa. Just as well I bounce.”

“Jesus, Johnny. What were you thinking – oh, wait, that's the problem isn't it. It's always the problem with you. Not thinking –“

“Boston, would you just shut the fuck up? I'm goin' to break that horse, and Murdoch don't need to know a damn thing about it.”

“You stubborn, little bastard, Johnny. Why can't you just be patient for a change? Another six months and Murdoch would probably let you start –“

“Well, I ain't waitin' another six months. I started today, and I'm goin' to finish what I started.”

Scott sat down on top of my clothes, and he braced his arms against his knees, lookin' down at the floor.

“Do you know what Murdoch is going to do to you if he finds out?”

“Yes, I know exactly what he'll do. Which is why I'm bein' real careful that he don't.”

Scott rubbed his hand through his hair.

“Tell me who helped you.”

“Went over to the Cheswicks. Willard helped me.”

Now Scott shook his head, slow, while he sighed.

“So you left the ranch, when you're not supposed to, and you visited the Cheswick's, when you're not supposed to see Theodora, and you rode a wild horse. Anything else?”

“Didn't see Theodora – well, hardly at all.” I paused, and then I smiled.

“Theodora was askin' after you. She is mighty interested in your well bein', Boston. That girl is sure sweet on you, ya know –“

“She's a child.” Scott stood up, picked up my discarded clothes, and headed for the door.

“And so are you, Little Brother. I'll be back with some liniment and a clean bandage. You get yourself on that bench, and I'll give you a rub down.”

********

The rub down had helped. Maria noticed me walkin' stiff, but I got by her easy enough. I ate a huge dinner, and then Scott said he'd do my evenin' chores, so's I could get up to bed before Murdoch came home.

When I sank down into that bed it felt like heaven, and I was asleep so quick I barely had time to think about my sore places. And how next time that fuckin' horse was not goin' to throw me, not even once.

********

Next mornin' I couldn't move real well, and of course, the Old Man fixed his eagle eye on me the second I walked into the kitchen. I did my usual hug of Maria at the stove, but I was too slow even to get some bacon from under her quick hand. I retreated and tried to walk cocky over to the table.

“What have you done?” Murdoch weren't growling, but his voice brooked no nonsense.

“Got bucked.”

Murdoch frowned at me, and I heard Scott slurp his coffee. That was so unlike him, that Murdoch and I both looked at him.

“Er, excuse me.” He made a fuss of pattin' his mouth with his napkin.

Murdoch's gaze swung straight back to me, and he pinned me with a look.

“Should I send for Sam?”

“Jesus, Murdoch, don't fuss. I'm fine.”

“I've heard that before, Young Man.”

He eyed the bandage on my hand, but then Maria came and put a plate full of food in front of him, and then Scott. They thanked her, and I sat still and quiet as a mouse, till she gave me my grub. My hair was pretty long, so the fringe hid the lumps on my forehead, and also the split on my ear that hurt like a sonofabitch. I had my sleeves rolled down further than usual, so my clothes covered my bruises. I had quite a few makin' an appearance. I'd looked in my mirror before gettin' dressed.

Murdoch gabbed on about the meetin' the afternoon before. Scott asked a couple a questions, but I concentrated on eatin', and not groanin' when I reached for the hot biscuits. Maria told me not to reach across the table. She was always givin' me instructions at the table, and if she didn't, I got it from Murdoch. Scott had real fancy manners, but he never said anything to me. He saved his advice for other occasions.

When we finished breakfast we all got up to go out to Orders. Murdoch usually led the way, his great, long legs stridin' out, fit to beat the band. He was real cagey though, and this mornin' he stood up, and then when he reached the back door, he stood aside and held one arm out.

“After you, Boys.”

He fixed his eyes on me again, as I did my damndest to stroll past easy.

“John – you sure you are okay?”

Scott intervened then.

“Murdoch, I checked him myself last night. He'll be fine.”

Murdoch looked like he was goin' to say something, but then he did that ‘hmmph' thing he did sometimes, and he walked on past us to where the men were waiting for the day's instructions. I gave Scott a grateful look, but he looked back at me with that disapprovin' frown of his that made him look so much like Murdoch it was scary.

That night I went up to bed earlier than usual again. Half an hour later, Scott slipped in to my room and I raised my head up. He shook the liniment bottle at me and smiled. He gave me another rub down, bein' careful of the bruises, and then he slipped back to his room. I thanked every saint I'd ever heard about, that Scott was my brother.

********

At breakfast next mornin', Murdoch was puttin' preserves on a hot biscuit, and he wasn't even lookin' at me when he sent me a question.

“Do you want me to give you a liniment rub tonight, Son?”

I looked up sharp, and he looked up at me, holding the biscuit steady in his hand. If he didn't see the guilt flash on my face he was not a real pa. And I knew by now, that Murdoch was a real pa. I knew too, that the smell of the liniment was well gone by mornin'. That meant that he had been in to check me when I was asleep. Probably before he retired for the night.

There had been years when no-one could come within a hundred yards of me when I was asleep, without me knowin', less'n I was real sick, or wounded. Christamighty, when had that changed? Murdoch had come in to my bedroom to check me many times since I had come home. I would hear the softest knock, and then a few seconds later he would quietly come in. I would pretend I was asleep. First few months, reason being, I was waitin' to see what he was about, and I'd be ready to jump. What he was about, I discovered, was standin' there, lookin' down at the lump in the bed that was me. Most times he would then pull the comforter up on my shoulders, or touch my hair, light as a feather. Then he would go.

At first it made me feel all roilin' in my innards, and that would make me edgy as hell. I thought about shovin' my dresser up against the door before I got in bed. But then Scott wouldn't be able to come swingin' in come the mornin', like he often did. I didn't know why, but I liked Scott comin' in, even when I was surly to him every time, in those early days.

I gradually got used to Murdoch's night visits. I still never let on that I'd woke at the knock. And now it seemed I was so used to it that I wasn't even waking. That was a surprise to me, and I wasn't sure if that wasn't a dangerous thing for me.

Murdoch was waitin' for an answer, still holdin' the biscuit.

“No Sir, I'm okay.” The ‘sir' was a mistake, another sign of me havin' guilt about somethin'.

His eyes narrowed straight away.

Christ, the thought of Murdoch givin' me a rub down, and seein' all my bruises, all in different areas, he'd know straight away I'd had a lot more than one fall. And there I'd be, lying there with not much protection on my backside, and Murdoch's big, hard hand way too close for my safety.

I think I actually gulped, and then Murdoch did a bit of a scoff, ate the damn biscuit, and flicked a glance at Scott. Scott looked real interested in his coffee dregs.

********

By Friday I was feelin' quite good. I'd always been a quick healer. Maria had soaked and patched my messed up clothes, and I was wearin' them again. I had been gentling Serampion all week. Murdoch had watched me, which he did sometimes, and he always complimented me on my horse handlin'.

“Don't you think he's ready for breaking yet, Son?”

“I want to do it.” I kept my eye on Sera, but I was watchin' Murdoch out the side.

“Any of our good wranglers can do it. Don't start on that again.”

“No- one but me's goin' to break ‘im, Murdoch. You ain't being reasonable.”

“You are not breaking that horse, John. End of discussion.”

And he went marchin' off, all stiff backed, and I called out some sass. But not too loud.

I was wonderin' when I could get Will to help me again. Scott had flat out refused when I'd tried to talk to him about it. He was off soakin' in the tub, at the end of the workweek, as he was plannin' on heading into town after supper. That's when Will arrived. He asked how I'd got on with my ‘deception', and was pleased I'd got away with it, and that I was almost mended. I wanted to take him straight over to rope Serampion, and maybe spirit him away for a bustin' session, but Will said no.

“I need to go and visit with your Pa, Johnny.”

I sometimes forgot all the rules that people hereabouts kept to. I took him in to the hacienda, and he made polite talk with Murdoch, and then asked if Scott was planning on goin' into Green River that evening. Murdoch invited Will to stay to supper, which he did, and then Scott invited him to accompany him to town. All real nice and polite .

Will wanted to talk to me though, and he did outside, while Scott was in the barn saddlin' Kirkland.

“Johnny, I know you're not allowed off the ranch till Sunday, but could you meet me in Spanish Wells tomorrow afternoon?” He kept his voice low.

I wasn't about to say no when Willard had been such a help to me.

“Sure I could. How come?”

“I wouldn't ask, but you're the only one I could think of who could help me. See, there's this girl, and she's Mexican, and I really want to talk to her.”

I couldn't stop the grin on my face.

“Will, if she's a cantina girl, you don't need no Spanish to tup her, you just need money!”

He looked appalled.

“Johnny, she's no cantina girl – her parents own the saddlery.”

“Jesus, Will, you talkin' about Estephania. Her Mama and Daddy won't let her outta their sight. I know – I tried!”

Will laughed, and pushed me.

“Well, Johnny, you maybe weren't as determined as I am. I want to meet her all aboveboard, but first I want to talk to her privately, see if she thinks her parents would let me visit her properly. And if she wants me to. But I need you to speak Spanish to her. How about it?”

“I'll do it Will, but I'm afraid that given the choice between you and me, you ain't goin' to stand a chance. You realize that?”

Scott came outta the barn then, leading Kirk, and he asked us what we was laughin' about.

“Why Boston, he was just askin' if you have to pay double to get a fuck from the girls at the bordello, you bein' so homely.”

Scott's right fist shot out and he knuckled the muscle in my arm hard, and then when I grabbed hold of it, he suddenly shot a leg out and swept my feet from out under me. Lucky I fell on my left hip, my right one still bein' pretty sore.

“You fuckin' bastard, Scott.” I howled as I scrambled to my feet. You would never think of Scott knowing how to pull sneaky moves like that, but he was adept at ‘em.

“Well, Young Man, you keep a civil tongue in your head –“ he dodged around me – “or there's more where that came from.”

He was laughin', and had no trouble dodgin' me because he knew I was still sort of stiff. He swung up onto his horse, and was still laughin' as he took off, faster that Murdoch would have allowed inside the arch.

Will was laughin' too, as he mounted. He looked down at my fumin' face, and pulled his horse around to face me.

“Can you be there at two, Johnny?”

“Yeah, I'll meet you at the town sign. That suit?”

For answer he yahoo'd real loud, and took off after Scott, full gallopin', which Murdoch woulda bellowed about, if he'd seen it.

I looked back into the open door of the house. I could go in and have a game of checkers or chess with Murdoch. They got to go off to drink, and play cards, and probably bed whores. Jesus, checkers or whores. I stood there feelin' powerful conflicted, and felt like goin' upstairs and packin' my saddle bags, and heading for parts unknown, where maybe I could do all those things, ‘cause no-one knew I was Murdoch Lancer's kid.

I felt like punchin' something, real hard. Instead I went to the bath house for some private time, and made sure to lock the door behind me. If I didn't get to bed a woman soon, I was worried I was goin' to wear myself out.

********

How Willard knew that Estephania had English lessons at one o'clock on a Saturday, I do not know. I was too busy tryin' to get him to tell me all about the girls he and Scott had been with the night before. He was tight mouthed though, tellin' me my time would come. Jesus, not soon enough.

We were outside the school room in Spanish Wells, lurking in the trees, when Will's fancy came out, chattering like a magpie to her friend. Will went the same dark red Murdoch goes whenever he's about to grab hold of me for something he's got riled about. I poked Will in the side, and he hissed at me.

“Now Johnny! Get her attention!”

I whistled out an old Spanish melody of a folk song my Mama used to sing sometimes, and straight away, both girls hushed up and looked over. I stepped forward and took my hat off and swept it in front of me. I politely asked them how they did, and would they forgive my forwardness, but would Estephania be kind enough to spare a moment to talk to my friend. I was as charming as could be. I thought I sounded like a real prince.

Estephania and her friend sort of moved closer together, and they looked all around, and then they whispered at each other, glancing at me. I was keepin' the smile on my clock, and it was startin' to hurt, when Es spoke soft to me.

“Quien est tu amigo?” (Who is your friend?)

I straight away turned and grabbed ahold of Will, and pulled him forward. He was still red, and he didn't take his eyes off his heart's fancy. She had her head down some, but she was lookin' him over with that little smile girls get. He suddenly realized he still had his hat on, and he grabbed it off and held it in front of his chest.

“Voy a hablar con tu amigo, Senor, si el per favor me das u nombre.” (I will talk to your friend, Senor, if he would please give me his name.)

“Introduce yourself.” I instructed Will.

I didn't think he could get any redder, but he did. But he was no coward, and he stepped forward and held his hand out to her.

“How do you do, Senorita Perez. My name is Willard Guthrie Cheswick. I am pleased to meet you.”

********

Well, that was the beginning. Es and Will had it for each other from then on. She thought he was all she wanted, and he thought she was an angel from Heaven. She liked him too much to risk introducing him to her folks, and havin' them forbid her to see him, a gringo. She was sixteen, and they were wantin' to marry her off soon, but to a second cousin who she had known all her life. Neither of them wanted to marry, but goin' against family wishes, well…

So I would slip away sometimes, and go with Will, and me and her girlfriend, Cata, would chaperone them. Cata and me talked our heads off, and we helped them with their Spanish and English, but it was a bad situation, I knew. I told Will he needed to go right on in to the saddler and do it right like he had intended. Es, though, she talked him out of it. Small place like Spanish Wells, I knew they would be lucky to keep it on the quiet for even a month.

********

The best part of this for me, was how grateful Willard was to me, which made him help me with breakin' Sera. We would skive off from our chores at each of our homes, and meet somewhere where we could work my horse. Or I would go to his ranch when his Pa was off somewhere. That horse was the most stubborn caballo every born. He was so well mannered doin' everthing I asked of him, until the moment I mounted, and then he would go demented.

Like Scott did every time I came limping home.

Boy, did he give it to me. I told him to mind his own fuckin' business, and one day he got riled and said if I didn't quit, he would have no choice but to tell Murdoch. Well, I called him some nice names and took a swing at him, and he ducked, and then he swung me round and booted me fair in my backside. So that enraged me, and I charged him, and we were havin' us a real ding dong scrap when Murdoch roared at the two of us, and picked me up by my belt.

He hollered at us both to sort out our differences without brawling in the yard like two uncivilized muckle gypes, or he would sort them out for us in the barn, and we ‘wouldna' enjoy the experience. Scott and me were glarin' at each other, but when he came out with those words from where he grew up in Scotland, and his accent suddenly appeared like that, well, it always made us both feel like bustin' out laughin'. Neither of us felt that laughin' right at that moment was wise, but Boston got that surprised delight spring into his eyes, and he saw the same in me, ‘cause straight away we looked at each other, and the fightin' was forgotten.

Murdoch was standin' with his hands on his hips, looking like thunder. But he saw the change that came over the two of us, and he looked from Scott to me, confused. He musta wondered sometimes what on earth he'd been thinkin' to want the two of us at Lancer. Now he did his ‘hmmph' noise and turned on his heel and stalked off.

I straight away grabbed my stomach to try and stop laughin', fit to be tied, and Scott was doing that chokin' thing he did when he was tryin' not to laugh as well. He grabbed me around the neck and we went scuffling off to the barn, the opposite direction to our Pa, whose back was rigid and offended looking, which only made us get more helpless with laughter.

********

Next day was the day I finally rode Sera. Me and Will met outside Spanish Wells, and Cata and me sat together while the lovebirds sat nearby, and real close to each other. They held hands and spoke soft, while me and Cata laughed ‘bout things. Cata was seventeen, so she was already engaged, and she was goin' to get married in three months time. Her fiancé was older than her, and he lived on his own ranchero a distance out, so she only saw him once a month.

We never stayed long, else the girls would be missed. Soon as we left there we headed towards Will's place. Will would be real quiet when we left his girl, ‘cause he was conflicted about sneakin' around the way they were. He would come good after a while though, so by the time we got near his place that day he was gabbin'. He had come up with a new plan to break Serampion.

I'd heard about water bronc bustin', but never seen it, and neither had Will. We were mighty keen to give it a run though, and Will said he knew the perfect spot. I'd been leading Sera, and now we took him out to a spot I was familiar with. Thee had brought me to this place, called Devil's Spit, for that wild riding of the waterfall. Will and me didn't go that far up the waterway though. Will led me to a spot further downstream where the water ran wide and, he said about up to my chest.

We took the tack from Pancho and I let him go grazin'. I got Serampion tacked and then led him out to the middle of the river. I spent some time talkin' and pettin' the horse. Will had dismounted and then had perched himself on a big rock and started chewin' on a stalk of grass.

Then he'd got impatient.

“Let her rip, Johnny!”

By now I was feelin' the cold of that water, but I was filled up with anticipation too, and so, with a last prayer to all the Holy Saints, I took ahold of the pommel and leapt up. Sera was not happy. He tried to buck, but found he couldn't. He twisted and turned, but the water stopped him movin' like the fury he usually was. If he did manage to buck me, I was in for a much easier landing than I'd been gettin'. He kept jumping forward, but it was no more than the jumping any horse did when crossin' water. Pretty soon he found that he wasn't unseating me, which he was used to doin' every single time. He kept stopping, but then he would jump forward again. I could see he was confused by this turn of events, and I kept talkin' to him, and I was givin' him commands, tryin' to get him to connect what he'd been learnin', with what to do when he was gettin' the commands with me on his back. After about a half hour of me riding him this way and that, and him actually responding, I headed back towards the bank, wonderin' what was goin' to happen on dry land.

As we pulled out of the river, he found that his movement was no longer hampered by the water, and he got real frisky again, but nothin' I couldn't handle with my eyes shut. I was so thrilled to have finally stayed on that damn, ornery bastard, and I felt like whooping up a Commanche yell, and a quick glance over to Will, and I could see he felt the same.

I rode Sera off back the way we'd come down to the water, and I kept schoolin' him, kept demandin' he do what I asked. He felt like a full house draw, and ridin' him was every inch the goods I'd expected it was goin' to be, and worth every damn bruise and cut I'd got from him.

I turned him ‘round back down to where Will was waitin'. I was keeping him on a tight rein, but I knew now he had accepted me on his back, and I had me a good ridin' pony, and what's more, I'd broke my first horse. It was not how I'd imagined it was goin' to be, but Jesus, it felt good.

“You did it Johnny! Never seen the like before – but damn if it didn't work! How does he feel?”

“Like he's goin' to be a winner, Will. A damn, blasted, fuckin' winner!”

********

I rode Sera almost to home, and then I stopped and transferred the tack from him back to Pancho, and rode Pancho the rest of the way. I saw to both horses, and by that time I wasn't so wet, but I couldn't wait to get outta my damp clothes. Walt asked where I'd been swimmin', and I gave him some lip. I almost made it up the back stairs, but Murdoch came outta the kitchen, and gawped at me.

“Johnny, I've never seen a boy get as dirty and disheveled as you seem to manage. How did you get so wet?”

“In the river.” I offered.

He looked exasperated.

“The bathwater is already heating. Hurry up, so your brother can have his bath.”

He shook his head and headed back into the kitchen.

While I sat soakin' in the tub, I thought ‘bout how I could claim to Murdoch that someone had broke Sera for me, so I could start ridin' him. As things transpired next day, I would not have to make up any stories.

********

Sunday mornin' everything started out fine. Nice fresh mornin', and Murdoch had cooked us our usual breakfast. He wasn't headin' in to church, as he'd invited Miz Conway to come have lunch with us. Caparina was goin' to make lunch, as it was Maria's day off. Scott hadn't come home the night before, but I knew he wouldn't have got drunk, ‘cause he knew we had guests for lunch. I'd done my morning chores, and brushed Pancho and Serampion till they shined like new dollar pieces. I felt like a rich man. Two horses of my own, one of which I had caught and broke myself. I was singin' “Blue Juniata” and, Milton told me I sounded like a strangled coyote.

I was heading back to the house with an armful of kindling when I saw the buggy comin' through the arch. I took the kindling into the kitchen, and then went back out to see who was comin'. I knew it wasn't Miz Conway's rig.

As it got closer, I saw the shape of the hat. A sombrero. I still wasn't wary, but as the rig neared the house, I started to feel a bit concerned. It was Senor Castro Perez, Estephania's daddy. I wondered if Murdoch had ordered something from him, ‘cause otherwise I didn't like thinkin' on what he might be callin' for.

I decided to hang back and do some surveillance, which is the name Scott calls spyin'. Murdoch came out to see who had arrived, and he greeted the Senor nice and friendly. The Senor was nice and friendly back, and Murdoch invited him in for a coffee.

I slipped around the back and through the kitchen, and put my finger to my lips at Caparina. She rolled her eyes, but ignored the fact that I was at the door eavesdropping on the Great Room. She took another cup and saucer through for our guest.

Murdoch and Senor Perez palavered on with all that polite malarkey, and then he got to the point, real polite like.

“Senor Lancer, I wish this visit was only a social call between friends, but I am afraid that that is not the case.”

Murdoch put his cup down, and murmured more polite stuff.

“I am aware, Senor Lancer, that your sons did not grow up here with you, and that they therefore have not had the benefit of the guiding hand of a loving father.”

O-oh.

“I have the utmost respect for you, Senor Lancer, which is why I have come to talk to you calmly, though I am afraid your son's behavior has made my heart very angry.”

Murdoch's voice was no murmur with his next words.

“Senor Perez, what has Johnny done?”

Jesus! If that didn't beat the lizard's gizzards! Blamin' me straight up!

“No, Senor, I speak of your other son, Scott.”

Murdoch in the Great Room, and me in the kitchen, both jerked our heads up.

“Scott!?”

“Yes, Senor. Your son Scott has been paying court to my daughter, Estephania. He is doing so without having come to me for permission. I know he is perhaps not familiar with our ways out here, but I am still most aggravated that he is seeing a good girl, of tender years, in such a secretive way. It is most inappropriate, and it must cease.”

“Why Senor Perez, I am astounded! I can assure you I had no idea. I must say though, that I can hardly believe that Scott would behave so badly.”

“I'm afraid that he has behaved very badly, and my daughter has also not acted as her Mother and I would have wished. I understand that the young people at least had the decency to not see each other without being chaperoned, but there again, her young friend, and your younger son, are hardly suitable chaperones. Had they not been present at each meeting though, I would be here to insist that Scott marry Estephania. I would require it as a matter of honour.”

Jesus! Senor Perez thought Willard was Scott!

Murdoch's cup and saucer clattered to the table.

“Johnny was with Scott? Senor, Scott stayed in town last night, but Johnny is here, and we will get to the bottom of this, I assure you.”

I heard Murdoch's big feet go clomping across the Great Room, and I slipped out of the kitchen, and shot up the back stairs, as I heard Murdoch bellow my name up the front stairs. I hot footed it down the hallway and appeared at the top of the stairs with an innocent as an angel look on my face.

“Johnny! Come down here please. This instant.”

Murdoch turned away, so I slid straight down the banister, and practically landed on his heels. He flinched, and then gave me a death stare, and stomped back into the room where Senor Perez was.

I nodded polite to the Senor, and he did the same.

“Johnny, have you been accompanying Scott to make illicit calls on Senorita Perez? I want the truth.”

Madre de Dios! I didn't want to land Will in the fire, but obviously the game was up.

“No, Sir, I ain't.”

“You haven't.” Murdoch was correctin' me, but Senor Perez gasped.

“Why, this is disgraceful! The boy is not telling the truth.”

“Well, if you'll let me explain –“

“John –“

“I have been goin' to Spanish Wells, but it weren't with Scott. It was with Willard.”

Murdoch abruptly sat down, but the Senor stood up.

“Young Man, who is Willard?”

Murdoch pinned me with a severe look.

“Johnny, do you mean to tell me that you have been aiding Willard Cheswick to pay court to a respectable girl, behind her family's back?”

“Who is Willard?!” The Senor sounded right agitated.

Murdoch got to his feet again, and I edged away a bit, feelin' all the tension flyin' around.

“Senor, Willard Cheswick is, I believe, a fine, young man. He has behaved badly, as you say, but he is from a good family. He is seventeen, so still a minor, and I'm sure this can all be sorted out quite amicably. His father's ranch adjoins ours in the north east corner. I would be happy to escort you there, if you wish.”

The old man sat down, and shut his eyes, breathing heavily. I looked at Murdoch, worried, but didn't take no comfort in the glare I got back.

The grandfather clock suddenly started its loud gonging of the hour, and the only other sound was the Senor's heavy breaths. He finally opened his eyes and looked at Pa.

“Does this Willard, and his family, speak Spanish?”

See, all this palaver between the three of us had all been in Spanish, it bein' the only language the Senor spoke.

“Nah,” I offered, “none of ‘em do.”

“Senor Lancer, it seems I have done your son, your older son - “and here he cut a frown at me –“an injustice. Johnny was identified, and I assumed the tall, blonde boy with him was Scott. I have not yet spoken to my daughter about this matter.”

“That is quite alright, Senor Perez, the confusion was understandable. And of course, my younger son has had a hand in this.”

I got hit with another disapprovin' frown.

“Yes, as this is indeed the case, I accept your offer to go to the Willard family with me. I should like to go now, if that is convenient.”

“Certainly. I won't be a moment. Johnny, you are coming with us.”

“What? Why do I have –“

“Do not say one more word, Boy. Go and get in the back of that buggy, now.”

So I did.

Fuck, what a mess. Poor lovesick Willard, innocently over at his place, not knowin' the wrath of a Mexican daddy, and the wrath of his own daddy, was all about to rain down on his head. Murdoch weren't too pleased with me, but my part in it all weren't a hangin' offence, so I would probably just get one of them ‘proprietree' lectures again. I heard more buggy wheels then, and I looked back and saw Miz Conway's buggy comin' smartish through the arch. Jesus, I'd forgot she was comin' for lunch. And now I thought of lunch, where was Scott?

Pa and the old man came out then, both puttin' on their hats. Miz Conway wheeled her buggy in a circle and came up next to me. Murdoch trundled over and greeted her and helped her down. She heyed Senor Perez, and if she was wonderin' what was goin' on, she didn't show it. Murdoch apologized, but said he had to go on an unexpected errand, and would she please excuse him, but Scott should be home any minute.

As he was sayin' this, the sound of hoofbeats made us all look back to the arch again. A horse was comin' at a fair old pace, but then slowed as it passed the arch.

“What now?” I heard Murdoch's strained voice mutter.

We all waited till the rider reached us. It was Sandy, one of the younger hands who'd gone into town with Scott the night before. He had a terrific shiner on one eye.

“Good m-m-mornin', B-b-boss. I'm sorry ‘b-b-bout this, but Sheriff C-c-creane said I was to t-t-tell you that he g-g-got Scott in the jail, and he ain't lettin' him out t-t-till you come in and pay the fine and the d-d-damages.” Sandy had a bit of a stutter.

“WHAT!!!”

Jesus fuckin' Christamighty. This was not good. Murdoch had gone that awful, deep red colour I'd seen before, hell, I'd often caused before, and he had a pulse startin' to jump under one eye. He turned to Aggie, and tried to talk calm.

“Aggie, I don't know what to say. After I return from the Cheswick's, I'll have to go into town and get Scott. God knows what time I'll be home this afternoon. I'm so sorry.”

“Nonsense, Murdoch. This is the most interesting visit I've had in years. I'm going to tell Maria to keep the lunch for supper. Then I'm going to go into town for a visit. I intend to come back here for supper. I have a feeling you will need another adult to talk to at the end of today. Now off you go - you have a busy day ahead of you.”

Miz Conway looked like she was enjoyin' all this terrible bother, and Murdoch looked like he wanted to throttle any family member he could get his hands on. I was real glad I was in the back of that buggy.

“Pa, shouldn't we go get Scott first?”

“No, we should not. He made his damn bed, and he can just lie in it for a while.”

He growled that out, and boy, did he sound like a grizzly. He climbed in, and Senor Perez did too, and took up the reins, and we set off, with Miz Conway wavin' goodbye quite gaily like.

I wondered what the hell ol' Boston had gone and done now. He'd been in a fracas in town not that long ago, and he was still payin' off the money he owed Murdoch for that. Jeez, Murdoch would likely bring him home and skin him alive. First Willard, now Scott. I felt quite smug. Usually I was the one in trouble, but, for a change, I was the shinin' light, sort of, of the Lancer family! Who'd a thought?

********

Murdoch and Senor Perez gabbed on while I enjoyed the scenery. I listened when the talk interested me, like when they discussed the harnesses the Senor had made for his old horse and buggy. He did real fine work, simple designs, but a pleasure to look at and to use. Pa had given me a saddle for my fifteenth birthday, and it was one Senor Perez had made, and I loved it. I was a man as liked to work in the outdoors, but if I had to choose another way of makin' a livin', I'd always thought as to how workin' with leather would suit me fine. I already could make some small things, and that was satisfyin' for me.

My mind drifted off when they started talkin' ‘bout something else. I noticed the hills over on the left distance, that I hadn't taken much notice of before. The way one of them swelled up put me in mind of the shape of Estephania's hips when she was walkin' away from…Jesus, I had to grab the hat off my head and shove it on my lap. I squirmed around and was relieved that I was in the back. I tried to think of something else, like Scott had suggested.

He and I had been workin' together one afternoon and he'd noticed my discomfit, and had ignored my cussin' at him, ‘cause he knew it was on account of feelin' so mortified that I didn't seem able to control my body like I'd always been used to.

“Why Little Brother, it just means you are on the road to becoming a man!” He'd teased me, laughin'.

He told me to think of something revoltin', and keep breathin' steady. Reckoned he always thought of the ancient old school nurse, who had warts on her chin. If you got sent to see her, for a scraped knee, say, first thing she always did was come at ya with a giant iron spoon of castor oil. He shuddered with the tellin', whether from rememberin' the warts or the oil, I didn't know.

********

We reached the Cheswick spread, and all clambered down. Mr. Cheswick came out to greet us, and he invited us inside. He and Will and Theodora had been eatin' their lunch, so Pa apologized for disturbin' them. I was lookin' at Will, who was lookin' at the Senor, and poor Will had gone a faint shade of green. As they all came away from the table, Will looked to me, and I rolled my eyes, and he knew he was for it.

Mr Cheswick asked Thea to go fetch coffee for the visitors. There was a bunch of small talk, till Thea came in and served the coffee round. When she gave Pa his cup, she asked shy like, if Scott was better. Pa looked confused, ‘cause he was thinkin' of Scott in that cell, hung over, most like. When she saw his look, she mentioned poor Scott's awful skin condition. Pa looked even more confused, and then her daddy thanked her for the coffee, and asked her to please leave the men for the moment.

Murdoch jumped right in as soon as she closed the door behind her. He said as how he did not want to intrude on personal business betwixt Mr. Cheswick and Senor Perez, but because I had been somewhat involved in the matter, and because Senor Perez had asked for his help with Spanish, yak yak yak.

Then he translated the whole shebang for the Senor again, and this time it was Mr. Cheswick's turn to look horrified.

“Is this true?” The look he gave poor Willard woulda felled a warthog.

Mr. Cheswick was standin' there like a goddamn giant, and the anger was rollin' off him like thunder, and yet Willard, pale as he'd gone, was standin' there and not quailin'. Jesus, he was pretty impressive.

“Yes Sir, it is.”

He straight away turned to Senor Perez, and he made a real pretty speech about how sorry he was, and he took full responsibility for his deceit, and how it weren't none of it Estephania's fault (that was a lie, but a protectin' one), and that he cared deeply for Es, and would do anything he could to make up for his disrespect, and begged the Senor and his wife to please forgive him. Plus he wanted to assure the Senor that he had held Es's hand, but he had never been so bold as to even think of kissing her.

Well I'd thought, if he's anything like me, he mightn't a kissed her, but he woulda thought about it plenty. And what's more…

Murdoch translated all this, and the Senor's face didn't change while he listened. He studied Will, who looked him in the eye like a man, and he seemed to come to a decision. He turned to Mr. Cheswick again. He asked if the boy was, indeed, seventeen.

Yes.

And was Mr. C. aware of what his son had been doing?.

Most certainly not, and he would be making it abundantly clear to his son that his behavior would not to be tolerated, and it would never happen again.

And how did Mr. C. propose to do that?

Mr. C. turned to Will.

“Go and fetch my razor strop. Wait for me in the barn.”

Murdoch had been softly translatin', and now he finished and looked down, his arms folded.

I felt myself go pale. Jesus. I thought of Murdoch's razor strop. It was twice as wide as his belt. I hoped he never decided to try that out on me.

Will went from lookin' pale, to goin' scarlet. He looked like he wanted nothin' more than to buck, but he looked from his Pa, over to the Senor. The older man was sitting with a solemn face, and he calmly looked back at Will, waiting to see what he would do.

Will had clenched his hands into fists, but now he uncurled them.

“Yessir.”

He turned and left the room, and as he did, Senor Perez nodded, like he was sure of something, and he got to his feet.

Mr. C. offered more coffee, but the Senor said thanks, but he had kept everyone from their day's activities long enough. He then said to Mr. C. that he would request that Willard not approach his family for the next month. After that, should he still wish to see Estephania, then he was invited to visit, and ask permission to do so.

All the good dayin' and suchlike followed, and Mr. Cheswick went and fetched Theodora out to say goodbye as well. She gave me a worried look, but I just lifted my shoulders a trifle at her. She could get the gaff from her brother later. Murdoch and me jumped aboard the Perez buggy once again, and off we went. I looked over at the barn door which was slightly open, and Jeez, did I feel sorry for Willard. Mr. Cheswick was a big, imposin' man, like Pa. I could feeI there wasn't fear in their house though. I was real good at pickin' up on those things.

********

By now it was well after lunch, and I was starvin' hungry. I couldn't wait to get home and have me a feast. Murdoch and the Senor were talkin', and I was tryin' not to think of what Willard would be goin' through. I was wondering how Scott was farin', and if he was thinking that Murdoch had given up on him, and was just goin' to leave him to rot in that jail. My thinking about Boston was stopped abrupt when I heard the word ‘Appaloosa' drift back from the front bench. I listened up.

“Yes, they are certainly a beautiful looking horse, and my cousin Arsenio was delighted when he heard that Johnny had found one – and a stallion!”

I knew that Senor Arsenio Cabrera was a horse breeder who had a well respected business near Famosa. Murdoch bought horses from him every couple of years, and I was lookin' forward to goin' with him next trip he made.

Murdoch added his several words about how few Appaloosas he'd seen, and the Senor, agreed. Then he cleared his throat, and his next words had me go cold as ice. It actually felt like a chunk of ice was slidin' right down my backbone on my nice warm skin.

“I believe Johnny‘s bronc busting is going well. He has certainly been persistant, which is admirable. When he has finished breaking the horse, I am sure Arsenio would love to breed his mare with Johnny's horse.'

How the fuck was I to know that all the braggin' I'd been doin' to Cata, about bustin' Serampion, while we was escorting Willard and Estephania, she was tellin' her little cousin, and he was tellin' his papi, like it was common knowledge? Murdoch had told me about the ‘Mexican telegraph' that operated around all the ranches, but I'd been careless.

I sat there and didn't breathe. Murdoch had gone real still. I kept my eyes on him, and he didn't move a muscle, but I watched as this familiar scarlet colour appeared over his collar, and moved steady further up his neck, and into his ears. I was froze in place, even when the Senor wondered why Pa hadn't replied to him, and glanced at him, and then seemed to notice how red Pa had suddenly gone. And then, slow as a wet day, Murdoch turned around and his penetratin' blue eyes pinned me to the buggy seat.

I couldn'tve got any more close plastered back against that seat, and I musta looked like a stunned rabbit. He spoke low, but it still rumbled back to me like a goddamn earthquake.

“John Lancer, am I to understand that you have been trying to ride that horse?”

I thought about sayin' no, it being the case that now I had ridden that horse…

“Answer me!”

Jesus, but he could yell. Even the Senor jumped a bit, and the poor buggy horse got a fright.

“Now, Murdoch…”

“Not another word!”

Murdoch swung ‘round to face the front, and the Senor chanced a quick look at him. I heard him sigh.

“Children, Senor Lancer, children…”

********

Arrived back to Lancer, I skirted ‘round Pa and went and hid in my room, forgettin' all about bein' hungry. Yeah, Madrid was a coward when it come to facing a furious Murdoch Lancer. My innards were grinchin' me, and I could feel the sweat breaking out on my forehead and my palms. It was a puzzle to me how I could face a gun and feel cold and calm, but facin' Murdoch got me all in a jitter, like a fuckin' namby pamby. Infuriatin'.

Murdoch was out the front, talkin' to Senor Perez, while the buggy horse drank and had a spell. Soon as the Senor left, Pa roared for me to come downstairs. He marched me out to the barn and tanned the hell outta me. As he took his belt off, I realized that that particular belt was made by the Senor, probably from cowhide bought from our ranch. Tanned Lancer hide, tannin' Lancer hide. Later when I pointed that out to Scott, he said that's what you call ironic. It was what I call fuckin' painful. Once Pa started applyin' that belt to the seat of my pants, I wasn't thinkin' on anything at all.

After he'd dealt with me, he went into town to bail Scott out.

Soon as they got home, I drifted down the stairs and listened to see if he was goin' to haul Scott out to the barn as well. They came in the house, and I heard Murdoch's angry voice directin' Scott to get himself into the study. What followed was what I'd learned was called a ‘tirade'. I wearily climbed back up the stairs, still hearin' Pa blisterin' the ears off Scott. Tellin' him that he hadn't expected to so quickly regret his recent decision to never take a belt to Scott, since he was eighteen, and past benefitting from such parental guidance. Sayin' he had a good mind to reconsider that obviously erroneous judgment, and do just that.

Jesus, I thought, I'm fifteen, so three more years of bein' hauled out to the barn to be guided by Pa….

I went back to my room, shut the door, laid down on my stomach and closed my eyes. Bustin' Serampion had been so excitin', and so satisfying, but the way I was feelin', I never wanted to sit in a saddle again. No doubt Willard was feelin' exactly the same.

I wondered if Scott would come outta that study alive. I would have to get the whole story of Saturday night from him later tonight, and tell him what he'd missed out on at home. Wouldn't he be amazed to hear how Senor Perez nearly had him married off to his daughter! It seemed a lifetime ago since I had spotted the Senor's buggy comin' through the Lancer arch.

As I neared sleep, I heard buggy wheels again. I remembered Miz Conway was coming back out to have supper with Murdoch.

“You'll need to talk to an adult,” she had said this mornin'.

I guess Pa'd had had some kind of a day. Dealin' with two angry fathers. One son in jail, the other doing everything he'd been told not to, over and over. Having to tell his neighbour that his son was bein' a right little bastard, according to ‘proprietree', and mighta been facin' a shotgun wedding. Missin' out on lunch with the lady he'd invited, and instead, travellin' all over the San Joaquin, sortin' out other people's problems.

Then handing out a lickin' to one son, and a tongue lashin' to the other. Jesus, who'd want to be a pa? I shifted slightly, tryin' to find a comfortable position, but gave up, ‘cause that wasn't goin' to happen anytime soon. Just before I finally fell asleep, I heard Scott's bedroom door shut. I planned to go and check on him after I had me a little nap.

It musta been a little later, that I felt someone tuck a quilt around me. All the ruckus of the day seemed to melt away to nothin', as a big hand stroked down my hair. And funny, it didn't even bother me that I didn't spring awake. I guess I'd realized that I didn't have to be constantly on my guard, ready to run or fight, because finally, here at Lancer with Pa and Scott, I felt safe.




~end~
August, 2013

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