Word count: 8,200
Still don’t own them. Promise to return then unharmed.
Thanks to my beta Lyn. All remaining mistakes are mine alone.
Johnny Lancer hooked his left knee over the pommel of his saddle and took the top from his canteen. As he gulped the tepid water his blue eyes watched the scene before him. Thousands of cattle were grazing peacefully in the large meadow that spread out from a good sized pond. The pond had been created by damming up a narrow creek. Among the cattle rode vaqueros cutting out cows and calves. Near the pond was a fire in which the branding irons were heated. The scent of burnt hair hung in the air.
For months the Lancer Ranch had survived serious harassment, sometimes outright violence, with a skeleton work force. Those who had stayed loyal to Murdoch Lancer through the winter and early spring of 1871 were almost to a man members of three families who had lived on that land for more than a century. They, like the stubborn Scotsman they worked for, were not going anywhere.
Their victory over the land pirates was due in the end to a miscalculation on the part of the mercenaries. An attack on the heart of the ranch, the hacienda, was to have killed Murdoch Lancer and, in all likelihood, the families of those who had stayed. But the hacienda was unexpectedly well defended and with the land pirates’ leader’s death the immediate danger disappeared.
There was no time to celebrate the victory. The small work force had to reclaim the ranch and its cattle. The spring round up was more than a month overdue. Thousands of calves had been born and not yet branded. Soon the hot dry weather would wither the grass in the valley. The vast herd had to be moved into the mountains for the summer months. Strenuous physical work was what was called for; days in the saddle; nights on the hard ground.
Johnny had done ranch work before; he even had a certain talent for it. As a rider he could meld with his horse to work the cattle. His skill with a lasso was almost as impressive as his skill with a pistol. He had never before felt the sense of purpose that owning the land gave him. But it was Murdoch Lancer who still called the tune and it was a tune with a lively tempo. More than once Johnny looked up at the beckoning horizon and considered riding straight for it.
Now what he saw on the horizon made him grin.
A group of about fifty cows were moving steady towards the main herd; pushed along by three riders and a pair of black and white cattle dogs. Two of the riders, the ones on either side, were Cipriano’s sons. The third, riding drag and eating dust, was Johnny’s half-brother Scott.
Scott, his board brimmed hat pulled low over his forehead and a red paisley bandana tied around his lower face, looked as differently as possible from how he’d looked when Johnny had first seen him. Johnny had seen men in every form of dress from Mexican peasants in dingy white homespun to buckskin clad mountain men to grandees in velvet jackets trimmed in silver embroidery. Once he saw a Russian count getting off a boat in San Francisco dressed in a sable coat that went down to the toes of his shiny back boots.
Even so the memory of Scott, in a tight, stiff collar and perfectly tailored three piece suit trimmed in dark red suede with its matching bowler hat, crammed into the corner seat of the stage, still made him chuckle. He’d never seen a man look less cut out for life on a cattle ranch; if asked Johnny would have said Scott had never ridden a horse or handled a gun in his life. It had all taught him an important lesson. It is never wise to judge a man by his clothes.
Slowly Johnny recapped his canteen and unhooked his leg. Clucking softly to his horse he cantered towards them to help.
A few minutes later the brothers stepped down from their horses.
“Good size bunch,” said Johnny, nodding in the direction of the cows now being kept together by the alert little dogs.
Scott had taken his hat off and was vigorously swatting at his dusty clothes. He looked up at Johnny with red rimmed eyes and coughed. “I thought cows were herd animals. That bunch was ranged over a hundred acres. I’ve never been so thankful for a dog.”
“Yeah, I love to watch a cattle dog work; ain’t got no fear of the big animal and its sharp hooves; just keeps doing the job.”
Johnny realized Scott’s attention had wandered. Scott was looking at Cipriano and Carlos, the older of his two sons. Carlos was a handsome youth of about twenty who, although neither remembered it, had been Johnny’s playmate as a toddler. He was standing with his head down while his father was lecturing him.
Scott turned to Johnny saying, “Did we do something wrong? Why is Cipriano upset?”
Johnny noticed the ‘we’. Scott was saying that if Carlos was in trouble then he should be too. There were things about this big brother of his he was starting to like.
He strained to hear, “Sounds like he’s mad cause Carlos made you ride drag. He’s saying a lot of things like proper respect for the patron’s son.”
To Johnny’s surprise Scott almost marched over to the pair. Johnny frowned. He had no idea what Scott’s intentions were but interfering between a man and his son wasn’t what Cipriano was likely to consider proper behavior on the part of the patron’s son. He followed somewhat reluctantly.
“Good morning, Cip,” said Scott, pleasantly if a little louder than necessary.
The Segundo turned immediately to Scott and returned the greeting. Carlos and his younger brother Mateo stood silently by with their heads hanging down.
“Your boys certainly know their business. It is a distinct pleasure to watch them work with the dogs. I’ve seen dogs work sheep but never cattle before I came out here. It is very impressive how responsive the dogs are to Carlos and Mateo’s commands.” Scott’s voice was low, firm and commanding. It seemed to Johnny Scott was making an effort to sound even more ‘Boston’ than normal.
Cipriano was thrown slightly off stride to have the objects of his tirade being complimented. “Gracias, senor.”
“Nice job of leading us back, Carlos,” continued Scott, shifting his attention to the boys. “I’d gotten so turned around out there I’d have taken us by way of San Francisco.”
Both boys’ heads came up. They looked first at their father as if seeking his approval. Then they turned to smile at Scott.
Scott’s canteen was hanging over his shoulder. He took hold of it and frowned. “I guess I better refill this.”
“I’ll do it, senor,” exclaimed Mateo, grabbing the canteen. “Senor Johnny, I take yours too, yes?”
“Sure, Matt. It is hanging over the horn,” said Johnny, inclining his dark head in the direction of his horse.
A smile lit Cipriano’s round face as he watched his younger son run off toward the freely running water of the small stream. He placed his hand on Carlos’s shoulder and said, “They are good boys.”
There was a shout from the group of vaqueros branding the calves. Cipriano and Carlos walked off towards them, Cipriano’s hand still on his son’s shoulder.
Scott’s question broke in on Johnny’s thoughts. He shook his head in answer. “Nothing.”
“Or maybe something like that is a nice image of a father and son.”
Johnny raised a dark eyebrow and gave his brother a sidelong glance. “Well, Cip raised his sons. He’s got a right to fuss them or be proud of them.”
“Agreed,” said Scott firmly. It pleased him that he had guessed Johnny’s thoughts; had in essence shared his thoughts.
“Why’d you jump in like that? Cip had his reasons, you know. Those boys work for you. It matters how they treat you.”
“They work for us,” corrected Scott. He untied the bandana from around his neck and used it to wipe the sweat from his forehead. He spoke again softly, almost to himself, “And yet you get to be friends with them.”
Johnny gave a snort of laughter. “Well, me and them got a lot in common.”
Johnny’s blue gaze became a glare as he said, “The old man complaining that I’m spending too much time being friendly with the help? Maybe you think they ain’t good enough to be friends of a Lancer?”
Scott swallowed a groan of frustration. The truth was that he was jealous that Johnny could communicate so easily with the vaqueros. Of all the difficulties he faced in adapting to this new style of living not understanding what was said much the time was the most worrisome to him. He spoke fluid German which was of absolutely no use at all in translating the Spanish around him. His French was good and it was helpful but it took time to tease the meaning out of the words that were similar in Spanish and French. Latin was the most help in understanding what was said; but it was little help in making himself understood. He was determined to learn to understand and speak Spanish just as soon as possible. But even with the miraculous book of Spanish words compiled by his long dead mother he’d discovered on a high shelf in the great room it was not possible to study the language when he was so bone tired all the time.
What he said to Johnny had come out wrong and now instead of sharing a moment of understanding with his brother there was friction again. “No to both questions. These are good, hard working men who stayed when others walked away. Because of them Lancer still exists. I’d be honored if they were my friends. And,” he paused, took a breath and went on more calmly,“I know if I expect them to take orders from me I have to keep a certain distance.”
The army had taught him that. At seventeen he had been put in charge of a squad of cavalry recruits, his only qualifications being his ability to stay in the saddle under almost any condition and the commission his grandfather had bought him. Scott had lived in a world of older adults; his grandfather, the household servants all of a more formal generation than the parents of his friends. It had developed in him a gravitas unusual in someone so young. Speak with conviction, his grandfather had often told him and most people will do as you say. The recruits never realized their serious lieutenant was younger than most of them.
“You think I should too,” Johnny said angrily, his blue eyes narrowed to slits.
Scott took a deep breath and blew it out in something close to a sigh. “I think they already respect you. Me they tolerate because they don’t have a choice. Cipriano lectured his boys because he is concerned I will complain to the old man about getting covered in dust. Put you in my place and he wouldn’t have said a word. He would have assumed you’d chosen to ride, what did you call it? Ride drag? Since it was me he thinks the boys took advantage of my ignorance. I stepped in just now because the boys did nothing wrong. I’m not a complete idiot, Johnny. A company of cavalry churns up just as much dust as a small herd of cattle. I knew what was coming. Carlos knew how to get here. That’s why he was in the lead. Before we get a herd this size up into the mountains I imagine we all will have eaten quite a bit of dust.”
Johnny’s expression softened as Scott spoke. It was true. The vaqueros didn’t know what to make of him. They respected how Scott had managed to turn a small group of rather frightened men and boys into a force that repelled the mercenaries who had threatened the ranch but that did not make him a wrangler. Being a horseman capable of taking a green-broke horse over a four bar fence did not mean Scott knew how to work cattle. The sort of riding Scott excelled at was of little use in cutting a cow and calf out of a herd. Riding drag was exactly where an inexperienced cowboy was going to find himself.
Inexperienced he might be but Scott Lancer was the Patron’s son and Cipriano was not willing to take any chances with him. As near as Johnny could tell Murdoch Lancer was well respected by his vaqueros. He was thought of as a hard man but fair. Still the vaqueros expected Lancer to take his son’s part over them. Johnny wasn’t sure that would hold true when it came to him; as for Scott, well, maybe.
Most of the vaqueros spoke very little English; to them Scott was a foreigner. And Johnny knew he hadn’t helped by referring to Scott as the tin soldier or the Eastern dandy. That it appeared it was natural to him to be quiet and keep to himself didn’t help matters either.
Johnny shared language and much of his heritage with the vaqueros. He could sing with them and joke with them. But his reputation as Johnny Madrid gave him just enough of that distance Scott was talking about to be able to give orders and expect to be obeyed.
Unable to think of anything else to say, Johnny asked, “You hungry?”
“Yes,” responded Scott with a nod. He settled his hat back on his blond head; thankful for the wide brim that shaded his tired eyes from the midday sun. “I do believe this hollow feeling in my stomach is hunger.”
Johnny shook his dark head; grinning he said, “You do have a peculiar way of talking, Boston.”
“I might say the same of you, brother.” Scott was relieved. Johnny had called a truce.
They walked back to where their horses stood quietly. Johnny wasn’t riding the big palomino he had fallen in love with but a well seasoned cutting horse. After lunch he would take another well seasoned horse from the small herd they’d brought with them. The horses worked a half day, men worked a full.
Scott grabbed a handful of his horse’s mane and stared briefly at the stirrup. Lifting his foot to it was going to require some effort. He glanced at the cook fire about a hundred yards away atop a small hill. He considered just walking. Johnny had already mounted so taking a breath Scott did too; silently cursing his tired muscles.
Everyone was working hard; no one else appeared to be in danger of collapsing. Mateo couldn’t be more than fourteen; he’d ridden all morning and just look at him running back from the stream with the full canteens.
Scott neglected to take into consideration that he had taken the second watch the night before which meant he hadn’t really slept before his watch, was on horseback for three hours in the middle of the night and then slept less than three to be among the first in the saddle in the morning to ride out with Cipriano’s boys to gather strays. Johnny on the other hand had taken the first watch, slept well for the rest of the night and had spent the morning cutting calves out of the herd. He too was tired, hungry and looking forward to taking a brief siesta.
As he rode Scott admired the efficiency of the branding process. Although he had never witnessed the process before he knew that most male cows like male horses were castrated. It made for a more manageable animal and in the case of cows a beefier one. A calf was cut away from the herd and its mother. Sometimes that meant a vaquero or maybe one of the dogs needed to keep the cow back. The calf was then roped by the hind legs and drug over to the fire. If it was female it was quickly branded with Lancer’s encircled L and let loose to rejoin its mother. If it was male it was upended, castrated, branded and then turned loose. Over and over it was done in less than a minute when they got a little cooperation from the unsuspecting calf.
Because they were so late in the season some of the calves were quite large. They were roped around the neck first and then caught by the back feet. It was hard, somewhat dangerous work.
“Today on the bill of fare we have prairie oysters,” said Johnny, gesturing toward a frying pan of cornmeal dredged testicles sizzling in bacon fat.
Oysters, thought Scott. He closed his eyes and counted the weeks since his last meal at the Union Oyster House. Could it have only been eight weeks since he had sat in the cozy, smoky room sipping stout and eating cream rich oyster stew while discussing the latest news of malfeasance in the Grant administration with two friends from Harvard? That day Murdoch Lancer had been no more than a name on a few letters. Johnny, Teresa, the ranch itself had not existed for him.
Shaded by the brim of his hat, Johnny watched Scott close his eyes. Dios, he’s scrawny, he thought, those fancy Scottish britches of his would fall right off of him now. “You know there must be something else to eat.”
“What?” asked Scott, jerking his attention back to Johnny.
“Well, um, calves’ er, nuts ain’t exactly everybody’s idea of good eating.”
Scott smiled what Johnny had started thinking of as his real smile, the one that crinkled the corners of his eyes. The one he’d seen only once or twice before.
“Have you ever had a real oyster?” asked Scott, slipping his feet from his stirrups. He threw his leg over and dismounted.
Johnny shook his head. “I’ve seen them out on the coast. They look like slugs. I ain’t ever been that hungry.”
“And here I thought you would eat anything.”
While they were talking the men started gathering around Miequel, the camp cook. As the ‘oysters’ finished cooking he tossed one to a man. That man then juggled it back and forth between his hands until it had cooled enough to pop it in his mouth.
The truth was they didn’t appeal to Scott very much but he’d felt the same way about escargot in Paris . That experience had turned out rather well. It may have had something to do with the Champagne and the company of a particularly lovely if rather too artful dancer with whom he had been sharing dinner.
Damn, I’m tired, thought Scott. I can’t seem to keep my mind on the present.
He untied the girth strap and pulled the saddle off his horse. Johnny stepped down and did the same. They turned the horses loose with the small herd on the far side of the hill the cook’s camp was set up on. Johnny’s palomino was tethered to a large tree some distance away. He could not yet be trusted to stay where he was put. When he saw Johnny he neighed loudly and pulled hard at the rope. Johnny laughed and said something to the horse in Spanish.
Then the brothers joined the semi-circle of men around the cook. When his turn came Scott could feel the sidelong glances of the men. Another test for the greenhorn, he thought. He tossed the hot morsel back and forth between his hands and distracted himself with thoughts of the artful little Parisian dancer.
A few of the men had had their meal earlier. They now saddled fresh horses and went to watch the herd. The rest ate. Then one by one they found a place under the trees, lay down and pulled their wide hats over their faces.
The concept of a siesta was entirely new to Scott. In Boston only small children and old ladies took naps after lunch. It had taken him completely by surprise the first day he worked on the range with a crew of men. They all just ate their lunch and went to sleep leaving Scott to stare at them. Now he understood it was simply the way they worked; they were not slacking off because Murdoch Lancer wasn’t with them.
Scott looked at Johnny who was stretched out with his back against a tree and his hat over his face. His right hand rested on the handle of his gun but he did look relaxed, well, as relaxed as he ever got. Scott sighed. He couldn’t do it. If he lay down he would never get back up and there was still a day’s work to be done if they were going to start moving the herd into the mountains in the morning.
“Why doesn’t that poor boy at least sit down,” said Miequel to his brother Cipriano quietly in Spanish. They were sitting with their backs against a large cottonwood.
Cipriano pushed his sombrero up with his forefinger and studied Scott. He was standing with his hands on his hips looking out over the herd.
“He is like the patron. He can’t stop if there is work to do. At least they are kinder to us than they are to themselves.”
“They are kinder to their horses than they are to themselves,” said Miequel with a snort of laughter. “You watch; he will be in the saddle in five minutes at the most. And he barely ate. Mama is not going to be pleased when she sees him.”
Cipriano chuckled deeply. “When Mama can see with her bad eyes that a man is scrawny, that is really scrawny. Are you surprised she has taken such a liking to him? All the other women are doting on Johnny.”
“Ah, but Mama remembers La Senora.”
“La Senora had more sense than her son. She stopped to rest when she was tired.”
“I don’t remember her so well as the other one but I like my memory of her better,” said Miequel thoughtfully. “He is a little like her when you think about it.”
“You think?” asked Cipriano in surprise. His memory of Catherine Lancer was of a small woman with a very soft voice. While not so large as his father Scott Lancer was tall; his voice was low and very loud when he wanted it to be.
“Yes. I thought maybe he would be the type to sit back and give orders. The kind that thinks because he is the rich man he knows everything. But he isn’t. His mother, she was respectful of Mama. She knew this was a new place and her ways might not be the best. I remember digging the garden for her. She would have kept everything separate but Mama said it is better to put the corn, beans and squash together. La Senora asked why and then she said yes. The other one never set foot in the garden.”
“Ah,” said Cipriano with a slightly leering smile. “But she was beautiful.”
“Yes, even when she was angry she was beautiful. But even though she was not so beautiful most of the time when she smiled La Senora, ah, that was true beauty.”
Cipriano pushed his hat back and raised an eyebrow at his younger brother. “You remember her pretty well.”
Miequil smiled broadly. “You were already chasing after girls in those days. I was a boy; she was a lovely woman who was kind to me. I would like to see her son smile; he is much too young to be so serious.”
“Yiyi , there he goes to saddle a horse,” said Cipriano with a shake of his head. “Why does he do this to himself?”
“Maybe because he thinks he needs to do so much more than the rest of us because he is not very good at cowboying. I think he is used to being very good at things.”
“You remember when he jumped the golden one over the fence? ”
“Of course. It was a very stupid thing to do,” answered Cipriano angrily. “Nine out of ten, maybe nineteen out of twenty horses would have run into the fence breaking both their necks.”
“I think Senor Scott knew that but he saw it as a chance he had to take. He needed us to respect him if he was going to lead us. He had to do something that would win that respect. If you think about it already in less than a day we were dismissing him and looking towards Johnny even though he is so young.”
“But his reputation we know. Johnny Madrid is no stranger to trouble. About Senor Scott even the patron knows very little.”
“So,” Miequel shrugged dramatically. “He showed us; he shows his father. He has courage even daring. And he is a very good judge of horses.”
“Yes, you’re right. But what about now? This working so hard is not courage or daring, it is stubbornness.”
“He is Murdoch Lancer’s son. Stubbornness we should expect.”
Scott watched with amazement as the loop of rope sailed through the air and fell over the head and shoulders of a large brown and white calf. Startled the calf put on a burst of speed and ran down the muddy bank and into the pond. Scott’s horse, better trained than his rider, stopped and started to back up. Stunned by his success Scott forgot to wrap the end of the rope around the saddle horn. Tightly gripping the rope in his gloved hands Scott was pulled off the left side of his horse. Realizing his mistake he kicked his feet out of the stirrups as he went; landing awkwardly on his left foot. He released the rope, made a windmilling attempt to regain his balance, stumbled down the bank to land face first in the soft mud.
Silently he cursed in four languages.
Johnny’s first reaction was that his brother’s flailing long arms and legs made him look like the marionette of a berserk puppeteer. His second as Scott hit the ground with an auditable splat was to feel his stomach clench. He ran forward thinking, come on, Boston , get up! Somewhere in his mind was a voice asking what the fuss was all about. Johnny had seen a lot of men take bad falls. He’d never felt like it was happening to him before.
The silence was deafening. Most of the vaqueros had been waking up from their siesta and slowly making their way back to their work. They’d stopped to watch Scott rope the calf. During the weeks he been on the ranch he had made numerous tries at lassoing with little success. Although they did not laugh aloud they did consider his attempts good theater.
As Johnny came to a sliding stop beside Mateo on the bank above Scott it seemed to him even the insects and birds had gone quiet. To his relief Scott was pushing himself up. His upper body came out of the mud with a sucking sound. He sat back on his heels; his face and chest thickly covered in soft gray mud.
Using both hands Scott wiped mud off his face and slung it away. He spat and made a choking sound; then another, louder.
With a mixture of shame, pity and disappointment, Johnny thought, He’s bawling. Poor hombre is just worn plumb out.
Scott was not sobbing. He was laughing; slightly hysterically it was true, but laughing none the less. He rolled to his left side and looked up at Mateo. The expression of pure horror on the boy’s face made Scott laugh all the harder.
He shifted his gaze and caught sight of Johnny. Johnny realizing that Scott had not dissolved into a puddle of tears was starting to laugh himself.
Scott fell on over onto his back. He picked up a handful of mud and threw it at his brother. It hit Johnny square in the middle of the chest.
Johnny’s blue eyes widened in surprise; he tossed his hat off, dropped his gunbelt to the ground and pulled his boots off. He slid down the bank, grabbed a handful of mud and pelted his brother.
The two of them were throwing mud and laughing like fools while the hands continued to look on in amazement. The Lancer brothers simultaneously turned and pitched mud at Mateo. Within a minute every hand under the age of thirty was part of the mud fight. The older men stood on the bank laughing, every one of them thinking, no one had laughed like this at Lancer since before the night Paul O’Brien had been killed in the first serious trouble with the land pirates.
The battle ended with the combatants taking a swim to remove some of the clinging mud. As he moved through the water with long, even strokes Scott realized that he felt better. That something about recognizing the absurdity of his situation had taken some of the burden he felt away.
He broke through the surface of the water and shook his blond head; droplets of water sparkled around him. Seeing Johnny on the bank, he clambered up beside him. Scott collapsed with a gasping laugh. He lay on his back and stared up at the high blue sky.
“You’re loco,” said Johnny, tugging his shirt off over his head.
Watching his brother wring water from his red shirt, Scott asked, “Does that mean what I think it means?”
In answer Johnny leaned across and tapped Scott’s forehead. “Few things loose in there.”
“I think you may be right,” he said softly, closing his eyes and enjoying the sun on his face.
He laid there for a few minutes until something blocked out the warmth of the sun. Scott thought immediately of his father. Murdoch was not with them. He had been forbidden by his doctor to ride a horse for at least two weeks. But Scott felt sure it was his father looking down on him with disappointment. His foolishness had cost them precious time. It was his responsibility to set a good example for the younger men, especially Johnny.
Scott opened his eyes, prepared for a dressing down.
The shape silhouetted against the high sky was not large enough to be his father. There was no relief in that as he recognized Cipriano. He couldn’t see the expression on the foreman’s face. Scott pushed himself up on his elbows and squinted against the sun.
“I apologize, Cipriano,” he said somberly. “I know we don’t have time to waste. That was entirely my fault. I’m, I’m sorry.”
Johnny had rolled over on his side, propped up by his elbow. His mouth gaped slightly as he looked at his brother. All the laughter had drained from his face, leaving only tiredness. Already, in a matter of seconds Scott had gone from playful and a little crazy to what? The good soldier? The obedient son?
“Sorry, senor? Sorry to make us all laugh?” Cipriano shook his head. “Oh, no, senor, when a man has no time to laugh then there is much to be sorry about. I only want to make, what do you call it, a suggestion? That the next time you go,” he paused and looked towards the pond. “Swimming. You might want to take your boots off.”
All three men looked at Scott’s sodden boots. He caught one heel with the toe of the other; as he pushed water streamed out of the boot. Scott collapsed again with laughter.
“That’s your third one!” exclaimed Johnny as he tossed his lasso and caught the calf by its back feet. “I think you’ve finally got a feel for it.”
Scott was twisting the rope around the horn of his saddle. “Feel is the right word. It’s like learning to cast a line or swing a bat. You have to train the muscles.”
“Why’d you be swinging a bat?” asked Johnny, urging his horse towards the fire.
Scott followed along; they dragged the big calf between them. He shouted, “A baseball bat.”
“What kind of bat?”
Scott laughed and shook his head. “I’ll show you some day. You’d be good at it; quick reflexes and a good eye. Yes, you’d make a good ball player.”
As they held the calf from either end the vaqueros cut it and branded it. Then the ropes were removed. As he recoiled his rope around his hand to his elbow Johnny said, “Damn, Boston, half the time I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
They branded until the last rays of the sun disappeared. The day that had started before daybreak was not over. Johnny took Barranca out for a hard gallop just before supper was ready. He planned to ride the palomino while he was on watch and he didn’t want him dancing about because he had been tied all day. Scott watched from the hill top as he sipped bitter coffee.
He was still a little jealous that the palomino had picked Johnny. And that’s how it seemed to him because from the very first Barranca had responded to Johnny’s voice differently than anyone else’s. Scott hadn’t yet settled on a favorite mount.
He thought about horses he’d had over the years. His grandfather had never understood his passion for horses. Although brought up on a farm, Garrett was a city man; he liked to walk and his passion was for the railroad. Scott was fascinated by horses from a very young age; he would describe each one he’d seen when he was in the park with his nanny. So to his delight he got his first pony when he was six. From then on he always had a horse. There was the bay named Patriot who he learned to jump on. And there was Black Magic on whom he rode to war. Who was left to rot on a battlefield with so many other corpses.
A shiver went through Scott. It always saddened him to think of the friends he had lost. But when he thought of Black Magic, big and powerful, willing to do anything for him; then he felt guilt. He pushed the thought away. He had to sleep tonight; he had to keep the nightmares away.
Watching Johnny and the golden horse silhouetted against the pink and blue of the sunset Scott forced his thoughts away from the war to the horse he had in Boston . Deacon wouldn’t make a very good cattle horse; he was long and rangy, built to run. On beaches, across fields and down country roads they had done a lot of running in the past five years.
Scott took a deep breath and finished off his coffee. He had a friend who’d shown a lot of interest in Deacon. Scott would write his grandfather and tell him to sell the horse to the friend. It would upset his grandfather greatly because it would mean that Scott meant to stay in California for some time.
For a moment he was back in his grandfather’s study on the morning after the Pinkerton agent had told him of Murdoch Lancer’s offer of a thousand dollars for an hour of his time. Harlan Garrett had said, “I’ll give you two thousands not to go.” It had been a serious offer. Scott had considered it. He had also considered simply ignoring Lancer’s offer. But in the end curiosity drew him west; at least curiosity was the only name he had for the impetus he felt.
His grandfather wasn’t going to understand why he was staying. Scott expected a letter any day listing all the reasons why he should return to Boston . He hated the idea of hurting his grandfather. He was likely to see this decision as Scott’s choosing Murdoch Lancer over him. It wasn’t that. It was the land; the openness, the clean, dry air. How the hell could he explain any of it? Surely, if nothing else, his grandfather would understand he had earned the right to pick his own future.
“Come on, Scott, let’s take first watch,” said Johnny as he sopped up the last of the juices on his plate with a piece of stale bread and popped it in his mouth.
Scott was sitting cross legged by the fire beside Cipriano. He had a small ledger open on his knee and was writing down the numbers of cows gathered, calves branded and how many of each sex. He looked up at his brother. “I normally take second watch, Johnny.”
“I know but tonight you take first. Come on. The boys already have our horses saddled,” his brother answered pointing to Mateo and Carlos who were each holding the reins of two horses.
Scott considered arguing. He knew from his army days that second watch was the hardest and he felt he should take it. He decided there was no reason to contradict Johnny. He had as much right as Scott did to give an order. Slowly he came to his feet, his still damp boots squeaking a little.
There were six of them on watch not including the dogs with Carlos and Mateo. Not enough for the size of the herd but it would have to do. They placed themselves about 50 yards apart between the cattle and the camp. If the cattle did get spooked they would at least be able to turn them away from their sleeping companions.
The vaqueros sang soft songs in Spanish. Sometimes all of them including Johnny sang, sometimes just one. Scott had been intrigued by the singing the first night they’d had the large herd together. He asked if it was to keep the men on watch awake. Cipriano had told him with great seriousness that it was to sing the cattle to sleep. The theory seems to be that the constant singing would keep the cattle from being spooked by a sudden noise.
The songs were beautiful. Although Scott didn’t understand the words he appreciated the music. He missed music. In Boston there was always some place one could go to hear good music be it Mozart for a chamber orchestra or Bach in a church or something less edifying in a beer garden. Before the war he had been a fair pianist himself.
One of the boys called out to Johnny in Spanish and a minute later Johnny started singing,
Green grow the rushes, O;
Green grow the rushes, O’
The sweetest hours that e’er I spend,
Are spent amang the lasses, O.
Scott was startled to hear a song in English and one that he knew. When Johnny sang the verse he joined him. Their voices blended well together. Johnny had a clear tenor. Scott, veteran of church and school choirs, was a well trained baritone.
They sang two verses and choruses. Scott sang the third verse on his own and Johnny joined him for the chorus. So Scott sang through all the stanza that he knew ending with
Auld Nature swears, the lovely dears
Her noblest work she classes, O:
Her prentice han’ she try’d on man,
And then she made the lasses, O.
By the time their watch was over Scott was bleary eyed with exhaustion; a bath, a shave, a glass of brandy, oh, what he would do for those simple comforts. His clothes had been dirty before the fall in the mud; now despite his swim they were stiff and smelled faintly sour. He reminded himself, as he climbed off his horse, that he had in his life been more miserable than this.
“You sure do know that song,” said Johnny as he pulled the saddle off of Barranca.
“What?” asked Scott as he pushed the girth strap up through the ring to loosen it. “Green Grow the Rashes?”
Johnny slipped a halter over the palomino’s head and tied him to a tree. He arranged his saddle and blanket under the tree. “Yeah, I didn’t know there were more words. Where’d you learn it?”
“Oh, that’s hard to say,” said Scott still struggling with the girth. “We sang it in school; we sang it in the army. But I probably first heard it when I was very young. It is a well known song. Maybe Robbie Burn’s most famous except for A Red, Red Rose.”
“Here, let me get that. You’re all thumbs,” said Johnny as he pushed Scott away from the horse. “Who’s Robbie Burns?”
“Robert Burns,” answered Scott through a yawn. He looked around the campsite. A few of the men were asleep; others were smoking and several were playing cards. “He was a Scottish poet; he lived just about a century ago. I believe he is thought of as the unofficial national poet of Scotland . Have you ever heard the phrase ‘the best laid plans of mice and men’?”
“Yeah; this old rancher I did some work for a couple of years ago used to say that.”
Scott couldn’t stop himself from wondering what kind of work Johnny had done for that rancher. “That’s from one of Burns’s poems.”
“You don’t say,” said Johnny as he dropped Scott’s saddle a few feet from his own. “I thought he’d come up with it himself. Course, I don’t know nothing about poems.” Johnny turned Scott horse loose with a slap on its rump. The horse ambled away toward the others.
“You know Green Grow the Rushes. How?”
Johnny shrugged and dropped gracefully to his blanket. “Don’t know. One of those things I’ve always known.”
“Senor Scott, here is your blanket,” said Carlos, spreading out a ground cloth and then the blanket over top it. Scott thanked him and sat more slowly than Johnny had. He pulled at his boots.
“Le Patron de la canta.”
“What did you say, Matt?” asked Scott, looking up at the boy.
“Le Patron, he a” Mateo looked at his brother to supply the English word he didn’t know. Carlos finished the sentence, “He sings that song. I’ve heard him too.”
“Murdoch Lancer sings?” said the Lancer brothers together.
The men around the campfire laughed.
“Everybody sings to the cows,” said Carlos with a shrug. “Le Patron and Senor Paul sang mucho songs together. Sometimes what they sang not in English but something else from their old homes such sad songs, but for the cows good slow songs.”
“It was probably Gaelic,” said Scott through another yawn. He had finally managed to get both boots off. He tossed them aside, dreading how they would feel when he pulled them on in the morning. At least he had an almost clean shirt in his saddle bag. He’d put it on now if it didn’t mean standing up and finding his saddle bag. “It is still spoken in parts of Ireland and Scotland.”
Miequel, who was sitting near by smoking, said something in Spanish
“What did he say?” Scott asked Johnny.
“I didn’t hear him very well.”
Johnny’s response was terse. Scott gave him a side long glance. What the hell was he touchy about now, he asked himself.
“Tio said Le Patron sing,” said Mateo slowly, practicing his English. “the song to la senorita when she was a little girl and to you, Senor Johnny.”
It was very quiet for a moment. Mateo looked at his uncle, fearful that he had said something wrong.
Scott watched Johnny. His brother’s face was devoid of expression for a long moment. Then perhaps because he realized Mateo was worried, he said. “Well, I couldn’t have learned it from him. I wasn’t much more than a baby when Mama and me left the ranch.”
“No, I suppose not,” said Scott softly as he laid back and let his eyes close.
“Mateo,” said Miequel in a low voice, “traeme las botas.”
Bird song, a lark maybe; a calf bawling; the impatient stamp of a horse’s hoof; the sounds made him smile, his eyes still closed. He smelled coffee and roasting meat. He rolled his neck, trying to work out the kinks. The ground was so hard.
Scott’s eyes flew open. “Damn!” he snapped, sitting up right.
“Slow down, brother.”
Scott turned and saw Johnny sitting cross legged beside him. He had a dried apple in his hand. Barranca stood behind him, head down, taking dainty bites of the apple. Johnny was grinning.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” demanded Scott, he looked around the camp. The men were up. Some were eating their breakfast, some were in the saddle watching the herd; the others were packing up the camp.
“Brother, Gabriel’s horn couldn’t have woke you.”
“We’re to move the herd today. We have to get started.”
“Why? That mountain pasture going somewhere?” asked Johnny his blue eyes bright with mischief. He was pleased with himself. Scott was a bit of a mess; his shirt was filthy, his thin cheeks were sporting five days of slightly reddish stubble but his blue-gray eyes were no longer red rimmed. He looked if not well rested at least healthier than he had for the past couple of days. Johnny knew the value of a good night’s sleep. He knew Scott often didn’t get one. But last night he had.
It had been a near thing; about an hour after they settled down he heard Scott tossing and mumbling in his sleep. Johnny had reached out and laid his hand on his brother’s shoulder. He’d whispered, “Rest, Scott, ain’t nothing to hurt us here.”
Johnny didn’t know what Scott’s nightmares were. He knew what his own were like, running, faces of the dead, alone in dark places. He knew too that he could keep them at bay if he was sure he was safe.
Scott had rolled towards him, stretched his long body out and quieted.
Now he was rubbing his bristly chin and looking around with a fierce frown. “Where are my boots?”
“There,” said Johnny, nodding his head at the end of Scott’s bed roll. His tan leather boots sat side by side, shining slightly in the morning light.
“They were a disaster last night. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get them on this morning,” said Scott slowly. Then he looked up as Johnny came to his feet. “Johnny, you didn’t need to—”
“Don’t thank me,” protested Johnny as he picked his saddle blanket up and started to carefully place it on Brarranca’s back. “I didn’t clean them. They were there when I woke up this morning.”
“But who,” started Scott as he pulled on the left boot. He winced. His ankle was swollen, a sprain from his awkward landing.
“Don’t know and if I was you I wouldn’t ask. Just take it as a sign that somebody here doesn’t think you are more trouble than you’re worth.”
Twenty minutes later Scott swung up into his saddle. He had a canteen full of fresh water, a hard boiled egg and handful of dried apple slices in his pocket.
“What you reckon your friends are doing back in Boston right now,” asked Johnny as he swung his leg over Barranca’s back.
“Well,” answered Scott slowly, looking up at the clear blue sky. “I suppose given that it is late morning there a few of them may be meeting for lunch.”
“Having some of them real oysters you was talking about?”
“I’m going to give you a piece of good advice, little brother. Never eat oysters in a month without an r in it,” said Scott with a very straight face. “It is more likely they are eating Welsh Rarebit with a nice watercress salad; drinking a crisp Rhineland Riesling; talking about railroad stocks.”
“Sounds like an easier day than spending ten hours in the saddle pushing big dumb animals uphill. Guess you’re wishing you was there.”
Scott raised his eyes and looked at the scene before him. The tan and green land rolled away towards the hazy mountains. The big herd of brown and white cows spread out through the long meadow. The mounted vaqueros and the dogs were ranged along sides the herd waiting for Cipriano to give the signal to move out.
He turned back to Johnny who was looking at him with his head cocked to the side; his wide brimmed hat hung on his back, the wind ruffled his thick dark hair. His cheeks were thickly covered with black stubble that would soon be a full fledged beard. His intensely blue eyes watching Scott, asking for an answer to the question his light tone had barely asked.
“No, brother, there is nowhere else on earth I’d rather be than right here, right now.”
Cipriano shouted; the vaqueros started waving their coiled ropes, the dogs barked and snapped at the heels of the cows. Johnny pulled his hat up onto his head and tightened the stampede cord. He tied his kerchief over his lower face. Scott did the same as he spurred his horse.
Scott joined in when he heard Johnny start singing Old Susannah, that lively tune.
~ end ~
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