Chapter Four

The morning after his arrival in Green River, Charles had just settled into a corner of the hotel dining parlour for a civilised late breakfast when Scott Lancer walked in. At least, the man looked a little like Scott Lancer. Charles stared, taken aback.


Scott started toward him, beaming. "Charles! You're the last person I expected to see here, so far south of the fleshpots of San Francisco. I'm delighted to see you."

Charles frowned. "Who are you?"

"What?"

"You have a faint resemblance to a gentleman of my acquaintance, but he is a Boston Brahmin of the finest stamp. A gentleman, as I said, and he dresses like one." Charles poked an accusatory finger into the sleeve of Scott's jacket. "This never came from Brooks Brothers."

Scott laughed and used his hat, a very new-looking broad-brimmed affair, to whack dust out of his brown work trousers, ignoring Charles's observation that all that did was settle the dust all over his, Charles's, breakfast ("Although it may be a condiment that actually improves the flavour."). Scott wore a plain beige calico shirt under a darker beige jacket, with a blue handkerchief knotted around his neck. He looked tanned and healthy and his eyes were bright.

He was wearing a gun.

Charles forbore to comment on the gun directly but he made sure Scott saw him looking at it. He grasped the hand that Scott thrust out at him, holding it in both of his for a moment. "My dear Scott! How very rustic of you!"

"It's protective colouration." Scott grinned and dropped into an empty chair when Charles released him. "Do you remember the young man we saw in San Francisco and how out of place he looked? Here it's exactly reversed. I blend in—if not quite seamlessly—whereas you, Charles, are a touch conspicuous."

"Clothes, if not manners, make the man, you mean. You're a rancher now, I take it?"

"My... " Scott stopped, shook his head and started again. "I was told, when I rigged myself out western style, that I was all hat and no cattle—"

"Not a compliment, I take it?"

"You may indeed take it, Charles. And since Johnny later let his horse walk all over my hat at the end of the roundup and then made me buy this one, I don't suppose he was too impressed by the hat either." Scott shook his head again, but now he was laughing. "Still, these days he allows that I have the hat and maybe the odd little dogie to my credit. In other words, Charles, I most certainly wasn't a rancher when I got here, and I'm not one yet, not by a country mile. But I'm learning to be one. I'm learning fast and I'm learning well."

"I hope this Johnny person is helping?"

Scott hesitated. "He isn't a rancher, either. I guess you could say we're learning together. He knows a little more about ranching than I do, from living out here. As for the clothes—" and again he gave that snort of laughter "—he didn't think much of those, either. They aren't the style in these parts, he said. He's right, too. You can't dress in a bespoke suit to rope and hold down calves to be branded. Well, you can, but if I had, and my tailor saw the results, he'd have refused to allow me through his hallowed portals ever again. He doesn't make suits, you understand, so much as create art. He'd have the vapours over what a roundup does to a man's clothes."

Charles grinned. He had never seen Scott so animated. What had happened to the languid young man of the train journey? "Branding calves? Good lord, how... how physical! This is what's keeping you from returning to Boston?"

Scott hesitated, but only for an instant. "Yes. Yes. It's part of it."

"And your critic, Johnny?"

"He's a part of it, too." Scott picked up the coffee pot and shook it. "But what are you doing here? I was astonished when your telegram arrived yesterday evening."

"Yesterday evening? I was here in Green River by then. I sent that telegram when I left Sacramento two days ago."

"This is the country, Charles. Things take a little longer."

Hmmph. And that was just an excuse for inefficiency. "I'm delighted that they treated it with all due urgency."

Scott grinned. He twisted in his chair and raised the coffee pot to attract attention. The hotel manager was busying himself at one end of the room, fussing over a table setting. Scott appeared to know him. "Good morning, Mr Phipitt. Could you arrange for more coffee, please? I don't want to steal all Mr Nordhoff's and it's hours since I breakfasted."

The manager bobbed up and down. "Someone'll be right on it, Mr Lancer."

"Hours since? Stiff necked Puritan," mocked Charles.

Scott turned back, settling himself in comfortably. "I'm told the Puritans had a very strong work ethic."

Charles snorted.

"Hearsay knowledge only, of course."

Charles gave another snort. Louder.

"Don't mock! I'm learning to get up early these days and I've usually done half a day's work by the time I used to roll out of bed in Boston. It's part and parcel of ranching, I'm told."

"No doubt by Johnny."

Scott's turn to snort. "He's far less of a Puritan than I am! Now, delighted as I am to see you, Charles, I had no idea you planned to come this far south."

"I thought I might go to the area around Los Angeles and perhaps even San Diego," said Charles, a touch mendaciously since he hadn't had any thoughts of the kind.

"We're a long way north of both, and one would usually go by sea from San Francisco."

Charles grimaced. Bluff called. "You aren't far from Tulare Lake." He waved a hand in the vague direction of a window and swept it around in a circle, all the better to indicate his weak grasp of geography. "There are Trees there, I'm told. Somewhere over there, anyway."

"And you didn't get your fill of trees at Yosemite?"

And double bluffed. "Well, there's no denying that one tree looks very like another." Charles let his hands make tall tree shapes in the air, watching Scott's mouth twitch as the younger man tried not to laugh.

"I say the same about cattle." Scott looked up with a smile to thank the waiter who brought the coffee. He waited until it had been served and the waiter gone again before he prodded a little more. "Charles?"

Charles drew out his notebook. It attracted a raised eyebrow and a Filled up the other one, have you? —a deliberate provocation that he ignored. He unfolded the newspaper page tucked inside the cover and pushed it across the table to Scott. He had used his blackest pencil to ring the article about an attack on a ranch in the San Joaquin valley, in which the name of Mr Scott Lancer, lately of Boston, featured in the recorded heroics.

Scott smoothed it open. He looked absurdly guilty, like a school boy caught near a broken window, bat in hand. "Ah."

"You said in your letter that you'd an exciting time, but this surprised me."

"It surprised me too, at the time." Scott laughed. He shook his head. "And you're looking for a story."

That stung. "I was concerned for someone I had come to think of as a friend," said Charles, sharp as glass.

Scott was the one to grimace this time. The tips of his ears went pink. "I'm sorry, Charles. But.. yes, it was exciting. I wasn't expecting to find the ranch under attack. One expects an invitation to a reunion... well, one gets one, anyway, however unexpected. And there's nothing unusual about being invited to a ball or dinner or"—and here he laughed—"a shooting party, but I hadn't expect to be invited to a shooting party of quite this kind! There was no time to think about it. I was thrust right into the middle of it all, without warning, without the chance to prepare. I had to act, to do something to stop what was going on. It all came to a head within a couple of days and then... and then it was over." He shrugged. "Pardee was dead, his men scattered, and the ranch just picked up almost as if Pardee didn't matter. A few weeks later, the spring roundup started and that just took so much work it pushed Pardee and what he was, and what he did, right out of the picture."

"The newspaper talks about a land battle." Charles tapped the newspaper sheet. "Dawn, April ninth. Land war in the San Joaquin."

"I doubt it lasted fifteen minutes, Charles. It wasn't much of a battle. I knew what I was doing, you know. I was in the War. Those were real battles; battles that make what happened here seem less than a skirmish, the sort of thing that back then I wouldn't have even remembered the next day." Scott swallowed visibly and he raised the coffee cup to his lips, but if he intended to hide the sudden tremble, it didn't work. "I've seen a lot worse. I've been in a lot worse."

Ah. Thought so. Thought that something like the War was at the back of whatever troubled Scott Lancer. Charles had seen all too many young men march cheerfully off to fight a cause they thought right and just, faces shining with an innocence that was painful in its naiveté. The innocence hadn't lasted long and none came back unchanged: sorrier, older, wiser and with the eyes of men who'd looked on death and horror. No. None came back as innocent as when they left, those that came back at all.

And he knew why.

His mouth was dry, all of a sudden. It must be this half-built little western town with only dirt roads and wooden sidewalks: the dust got everywhere. He coughed, and sipped at his coffee to wet his lips. "I wasn't a soldier but I was there, for a little while towards the very end. I did some reporting on the campaigns for the newspapers back home in New York. I saw the aftermath of the Waynesboro battle, and Five Forks."

Scott's mouth twisted and he looked away. "I was otherwise engaged by then. A non-combatant."

"The point I'm trying to make is that I have some idea what it's like. Just a little idea, mind you, but enough. I…" Charles hesitated. "I dream about it sometimes."

Scott nodded. Charles remembered the semi-darkness of a stateroom on the express, and a soft, educated voice explaining that its owner preferred his privacy. Charles could well imagine why,

"I was concerned to be sure that all was well with you," he added.

Scott smiled. "Thank you, Charles."

Charles grinned back. "And to get the story, of course."

Scott stared. Then he threw back his head and let out a crack of laughter so loud that the hotel manager poked his head through the doorway to see what was going on.

Charles waved the man away, still grinning. "So it was a light skirmish, but you're still feted as a hero after shooting the man responsible for so much trouble."

Scott shook his head. "I'll be content to be a rancher, thank you! Heroics don't last, but a man can build something out here. Something worthwhile."

"Are you being modest or was this completely exaggerated?" Charles tapped the page again. "I do wonder, sometimes, about the journalistic standards in the far-flung reaches of our wonderful, but vast, country. Did these people never learn to check their sources?"

"They tell stories, Charles." Scott gave him a sly look. "You understand that, I'd have thought."

"Behave, or I'll make a story out of it that will make sure you don't ever dare to go back to Boston." Charles refilled his coffee cup. "So. The gentleman you never met. Your father."

"Charles..."

And there it was: the doubt that a journalist's friends all felt at some time or other, that they were no more than amusing or dramatic copy. For some reason, his was not a profession deemed to be honourable or sincere.

After a moment, Charles said, "My article is going about as well as I could expect. It's all about giving the railroads a puff of course, and most of it will be extolling the virtues of the railroad companies and the businessmen behind it. They aren't interested in anything else and I'm not so innocent that I believe the piper doesn't call the tune."

Scott's mouth twitched into a brief smile, but his gaze was watchful.

"That's my bread and butter job, and that's why I'm here. But I'll be honest: I do hope to write my novel one day. I said to you once that I take things from the strangers I see, those I watch—a look here, a word there, anything from their accent to the fact that their lapels are dusty with snuff. A writer's task is to craft those little things, to merge and meld them, into something bright and new." Charles leaned forward to look Scott in the eye. "Do you fear that anything you tell me or I learn, I'll put down plain and unvarnished on the page? No. Never that. But it sinking into here and here"—he tapped his temple and then his heart—"and becoming a part of that great well of things that I draw upon... then yes, that is possible. But if it ever emerges again, I'd defy you to recognise it as just you and you alone, if ever you read it. The most you'd feel is a moment of familiarity, like a fleeting memory of something you saw once. I'm not a biographer, Scott. I hope to do more than that."

Scott sat back, watching him doubtfully.

"You aren't a stranger, you see, from whom I can take those little things with impunity and they never know it. I wasn't exaggerating when I said that I'd come to consider you a friend."

Scott looked away, towards the window. A man went past, a silhouette against the glass. The heels of his boots could just be heard against the boards of the sidewalk, it was so quiet. Charles let it lie, allowing the silence to stretch until Scott was prepared to break it. There was nothing more he could say.

Scott took a long sip at his coffee cup, although it had to be cold by then and pretty unappetising. "I came to town in the buggy, today."

What? Charles blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

"Lancer is more than a hour and half from here by buggy since we'll have to stick to the road. I think that you'll like the ranch, Charles."

Charles was far too old to blush, but gratification had him imagining that the tips of his ears were growing warm. "My dear Scott."

"When I told Murdoch you were here, he insisted on me coming in to invite you to stay with us. It's a good time for you to visit. We've finished the spring roundup and the pace of work has slowed. In a couple of days, we're hosting a wedding for one of our vaqueros and there'll be a fiesta to celebrate, starting tomorrow. There'll be a lot for you to put into that notebook of yours. I'm told a Californio wedding is something to behold."

A snort was in order there. "Richard Dana already beheld it, I believe." And when Scott turned his head, grinning, Charles added, hurriedly, "But you can never trust those rich Bostonians to get anything right. I'd better check his account for accuracy."

"Good. We'll be delighted if you do." Scott tossed down the last of his coffee. He took a thin letter from his breast pocket. "Listen, I have to get this into the Eastbound mail and pick up the ranch's mail. If I come back in fifteen minutes, can you be ready?"

"I can." It would be the work of a moment to shove all his belongings back into his valise and pay his bill.

"Good." Scott got up, stretching his already long frame. "Fifteen minutes."

"I'll be ready. But Scott—"

"Yes?"

"I'll be delighted to come and see how you're faring as a rancher but first, satisfy my curiosity about one thing."

Scott stiffened, the doubtful look back.

Charles spoke in the most earnest tone he could manage. "What in heaven's name is a dogie?"




It was a quiet trip.

Scott had another thin envelope in his hands when he and Charles met again, the twin of the one he'd said he was sending East. He pushed it into a pocket when Charles approached him in the hotel lobby, but his mouth was tight and his lips thinned down. The open contentment of an hour ago was gone, and it took some time, and they were several miles out into the country, before whatever troubled Scott was pushed back under the surface and he responded to Charles's remarks with more than mere courtesies. While they didn't quite reach the conversational heights of those evenings on the train or in San Francisco—and, mind you, they weren't helped along by brandy and cigars in the buggy—Scott managed a spirited account of the recent roundup in which the aforementioned Johnny figured more than once, along with some fish from the creek. Charles enjoyed the fish joke and Scott laughed so much at the recounting of it that he almost fell off the buggy seat.

Long after they crossed the ranch boundary, the Lancer house—the hacienda, as Charles must learn to call it—came into view. It sat on a rise at the head of a small valley, gleaming whitely in the sun. The road wound around the lower slopes of the San Benito mountains, cutting through meadows filled with yellow and orange poppies mingled with blue and white lupines. The stands of trees were much sparser than at Yosemite and a great deal less imposing.

"Oaks, of some kind," said Scott, although he was vague on the species. "I haven't had much in the way of lessons on arboriculture, although I do know that every good blade of grass on the ranch has been cultivated with a great deal of anxious care."

Uncertain what to make of that, Charles glanced around. "It's very lush," he agreed. Indeed, it was very pleasant. Far less wild and untamed than Yosemite, and more human as a result.

One side of Scott's mouth curled up. "Very." He waved a hand towards a bunch of cattle, all turning white faces to look at them pass. "For their benefit."

"They look very... sturdy."

Scott choked out a laugh. "They are that. Particularly when you're trying to wrestle one down to the ground. Murdoch tells me that they aren't pure Hereford, but crossbred with Californian longhorns. That makes them hardy, but still good beef cattle."

"I see," said Charles. Again, Scott had referred to his father by name. And yet Scott wasn't innately disrespectful. Interesting.

"What, not taking notes? You're getting into bad habits, Charles."

"I suspect that Mr Lancer will tell me it all again when we meet. Gentlemen are apt to want to impress new acquaintances."

"I'm sure he will."

Mmmn. Charles glanced at Scott sidelong, but Scott seemed intent on his driving, flipping the reins and encouraging the nearside horse, which seemed inclined to shy at the dust blowing about its feet. "It's a big ranch, I understand."

"Biggest one in this part of the San Joaquin certainly." Scott waved a hand behind them. "The hacienda sits up here, where it's a little more protected, but most of the ranch spreads out into the San Joaquin valley proper. Over a hundred thousand acres of it."

Charles had worked very hard in his professional life to cultivate an air of never being impressed by mere size and wealth, but how big? That was a very large tract of land indeed.

The road turned on itself, starting to switchback down the slope towards the house. Scott had a deft hand with the buggy horses, turning the little carriage neatly.

"You'll find that Murdoch's very proud of what he's built here." And there it was again, that little touch of acid in Scott's tone. "As of course he should be. It's been his focus for many years."




The road passed under a large adobe arch, with an ornate capital L incised into it.

"The Lancer brand." Scott indicated it with a nod. "As I said, it's used on all our cattle as our mark of ownership and branding the new calves is the reason we do the roundup. The cattle roam freely for the most part, although we're fencing pastures nearer the hacienda. Without the brands, we'd forever be at war with our neighbours over who owns what. We'll be at the hacienda in a few minutes."

The house was enormous. Adobe, Charles surmised, like so many houses of the area: the thick, dried mud walls ensuring it was cool in summer, warm in winter. Tall windows studded the ground floor with smaller ones in the story above, topped with a tower and a red-tiled roof. Despite its solidity, it wore a gracious look.

"It's about fifty years old, I understand; built by a Don Velásquez. He sold the land and the house, which was then only half-finished, to Murdoch and my mother before the Mexican War." Scott glanced up at the tower as they drove along a narrow lane, bordered with lupines and other early summer flowers. Someone was up there; Charles saw a hat waved in the air. Scott relaxed. "We're still being careful," he said, and drew up in front of the main door.

A giant came out to meet them, a young girl in his wake. Großer Gott! What a man! Six and a half feet, he must be, at the very least.

Charles flicked a glance at Scott. "And I thought you were more than tall enough," he murmured, preparing to get down.

"The lesser son of a mighty sire, am I," said Scott, grinning. Then, louder and cheerfully, no trace of any other emotion in his tone: "Murdoch, this is the friend I spoke of, Charles Nordhoff. We travelled west together. Charles, this is m... this is Murdoch Lancer."

Charles's hand was engulfed and shaken. It hurt less than he feared. The tingling in his fingers went away quite quickly after he worked them, unobtrusively.

Lancer was affable enough, smiling and welcoming. "Good to meet you, Nordhoff. Welcome to Lancer."

There was the merest hint of an accent to his voice and like Charles's own, it wasn't every word, just a slight tinge to show that he too had come to this country from across the world. Scotland, wasn't it, that Scott had said on the train? His father had come from Scotland, thirty or so years before. There wasn't much of the Scot left in there, but a faint ghost sounded in the Guid to meet you ...

The girl came forward, smiling. She was dressed in the simple country clothes that Charles had come to expect in the West. It was the townsman's idea of a milkmaid, personified, but she was pretty and sweet-voiced as she made Charles welcome.

"My ward, Teresa." Lancer laid his hand on the top of her head for a moment, and astonishingly she didn't crumple under the weight. Lancer turned towards the group of hands over by a near by fence. "Carlos! Come and take care of the horses and bring Señor Nordhoff's bags inside, por favor."

"Si, Patrón." A young Mexican slid past Charles, giving him a wide smile as he did so, and went for the horses' heads.

"Come on in, Nordhoff." Lancer waved one of those big hands towards the door under the portico. "Come on in."

"He'll likely offer you a drink," came Scott's soft voice in his ear.

At this early hour? It was barely mid-morning. Charles followed Lancer into the cool, dim hallway of the house and into a very large room. It wasn't a fashionable room but it welcomed him with warm, dark colours that were easy on the eye after the brightness of the early summer day, and the thick rugs on the polished floors cushioned his feet. A dining table and chairs stood to one side, while a long sofa and two arm chairs were grouped for conversation before the large white fireplace. It was a work room too: bookcases lined one wall and a big desk had been set before the open French windows.

No flounces or furbelows, just subdued upholstery and plain curtains without the lace panels and swags that Elizabeth considered so essential to her happiness and wellbeing. Instead, good paintings hung on the panelled walls, the wide mantelpiece held a couple of silver-framed photographs and a pipe rack, and a large model ship stood on a side table. It was a man's room. It reminded Charles of his club in New York: a little shabby around the edges, like an old suit that had worn soft to fit every little vagary of the human form, too threadbare to be fashionable but far too comfortable to throw out. He liked the room. It said a lot about the man who lived in it.

It would be interesting to know if the man's son felt the same sense of welcome. The evidence so far was ambivalent and contradictory.

Charles allowed Murdoch Lancer to usher him towards the sofa set before the fireplace and accepted Miss Teresa's offer of refreshment before lunch.

Scott took one of the easy chairs and stretched out long legs. "You'll need refreshment before I take you on the Grand Tour this afternoon, Charles. Can you ride?"

"Indifferently. I suppose I might manage."

"You can take a buggy up as far as the South Mesa road, Scott." Murdoch Lancer reached for one of the pipes from the rack. "There's a lot of nice country over that way."

There was a surprise intervention. "Or we can find him a nice, quiet horse. That nag you picked out for Boston the first day, Teresa. That might do if it ain't crow bait yet."

Charles jumped. Scott and Murdoch jumped. Teresa let out a tiny squeak. Charles hadn't heard a thing to herald the arrival of the young man standing inside the French windows. It looked like no one else had heard anything either. The new arrival pushed his hat back, never taking his eyes from Charles.

Charles stared back. His first thought that here was someone not quite so tall as Scott and even more dwarfed by Murdoch Lancer; not quite so dark as the Mexican outside, though he was as dark as Scott was fair; not quite so familiarly dressed in his rose-pink shirt, covered in embroidery, that tucked into tight suede pants decorated down the sides with silver coins or buttons. But the thought didn't last past the instant in which it formed. There was suppressed energy in the way the man came into the room and something so chilled and watchful in his eyes, a startling blue in his tanned face, that Charles dropped his gaze, uncertain. There was nothing 'not-quite' about this young man. Nothing at all.

"Hey," said a soft voice.

Charles looked up again just as the young man smiled.

It transformed him. The energy and watchfulness were there, still, but now he was as vivid and as unexpected as his bright clothing. He took off the hat and dropped it onto the desk top, sending a couple of loose papers fluttering in a tiny puff of dust.

"There you are! Giving everyone heart attacks as usual. You should wear your spurs." Scott jumped to his feet to grasp the newcomer's arm, and tugged him further into the room. "Charles, this is the trampler of hats and the disparager of Eastern dandies aspiring to be ranchers—"

The young man's voice was a soft country drawl. "You'll do to ride the range with, Boston."

"I'm honoured! This is the Surprise, Charles. The unexpected relative I mentioned in my letter." Scott smiled, and it was genuine, without restraint; unambivalent. "This is my brother. This is Johnny."

 

 



Chapter Five

Breakfast next morning was at an hour that even the Pilgrim Fathers would think puritanically early. Determined to be a good guest and get there at the unbelievable time that Murdoch Lancer had named, Charles stumbled into the kitchen to find the entire Lancer family watching his progress, each wearing a poorly hidden smile.

"We're having a late breakfast today," remarked Scott, when Charles made it to the table. "It being a holiday."

Charles cast him a look of acute dislike and observed to the company at large that since he'd seen Scott in his natural habitat, crawling out of bed at noon after a night celebrating the successful conclusion of some business for his grandfather, he couldn't believe that someone hadn't had to drag Scott down to breakfast by the heels. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Murdoch Lancer stiffen but when he glanced that way, Murdoch had raised his coffee cup and his face was hidden.

"The first week or two, I heard Murdoch encouraged him along with cold water from the jug." Johnny pushed the coffee pot towards Charles with a slight smile and a nod.

"How would you know?" demanded Scott. "You were lying upstairs with Teresa and Maria running around to indulge your every wish. Besides, if there are worms about out there, they're safe from early birds with bright pink plumage. You got here exactly two minutes before Charles did this morning."

"It ain't pink. It's faded red." Johnny wore the same embroidered shirt from the day before.

"Pink," repeated Scott, grinning.

"Of course." Charles poured coffee that looked and smelled strong enough to fell an entire herd of oxen. "The report in the Record-Union mentioned you'd been injured, Johnny. I hope you're fully recovered."

"Fine, thanks. It's been almost two months and finally they're letting me do some work." Johnny gave Murdoch a hard look. "I ain't used to being coddled."

"I wasn't going to let you work fully before Sam said you could, Johnny. That bullet came close to the bone." Murdoch didn't appear to be unduly concerned, although Charles, in his shoes, would prefer not to have that cold stare turn his way. It was rather daunting.

"Johnny fretted over the restrictions that Sam, the local doctor, put on him," explained Scott. "Although since he's been working a full load for at least the last three weeks, I'm not so sure why he's still gnawing on old bones like that."

Johnny shrugged and grinned. "It's about keeping up with you, Boston."

"There'll be plenty of time to catch up." Murdoch twisted in his chair. "Maria, is there more coffee?"

Scott tutted with displeasure. "I keep telling you that it's Scott, not Boston. Boston is just where I'm from."

Johnny gave him a lazy smile. "Sure thing, Boston. I'll remember."

Maria, the housekeeper, put a fresh coffeepot onto the table and a full plate in front of Charles, offering him a soft greeting in Spanish before whisking herself off back to the stove. Charles looked from his plate to Scott for enlightenment.

"A traditional Mexican breakfast, Charles. Sincronizadas. Tortillas with cheese and ham."

Johnny corrected Scott's pronunciation, with a You told me you want to learn, brother when Scott made a mild protest. He took a big bite of his own breakfast. "Try it. Scott's right about it being a holiday today so there's gorditas de harina with cajeta de membrillo and dulce du leche to come. Maria's a good cook."

She was, if dinner the previous evening had been anything to judge by. It might not have reached the heights of the Beef Richelieu that he and Scott had enjoyed in San Francisco, but it had been a wonderful meal, better than the offerings from most of the hotels he'd stayed in. The sincron-whatevers were excellent, and went well with the spicy eggs that Maria spooned onto everyone's plates. He'd had the eggs several times since his arrival in California, but these were the among the best he'd tasted.

What's more, that was the longest speech Charles had heard from Johnny since his arrival. Johnny had been friendly enough over dinner, but, in retrospect, Charles could barely believe he'd ever thought that Scott was reserved, not in comparison with his close-mouthed younger brother. A family characteristic, then, that Johnny took to extremes. He'd responded politely when spoken to but he'd seemingly been content to let Scott and Charles run the conversation, with Murdoch, a surprisingly erudite and educated man out here in the wilderness, gamely keeping them company.

Well, such a step forward ought to be encouraged. This was such an intriguing situation—the only information that Scott had let drop was that Johnny was the son of Murdoch's second wife and hadn't grown up at Lancer either—and the only way that Charles would ever get to the bottom of the family mysteries would be to get the Lancers to talk, even about innocuous things. A man, especially one with an intelligent and enquiring mind, could learn so much from casual, inconsequential conversation.

A little encouragement was necessary. "What are the other dishes you mentioned, Johnny? I'm not familiar with them."

"Little corndough cakes, sweetened with sugar or honey. You spread 'em with the cajeta de membrillo – that's quince paste – or dulce..." Johnny frowned. "I don't know how to translate that properly. Dulce du leche means sweet milk, but it's thick and you spread it with a knife."

"Very sweet," said Scott, shuddering. "Too sweet for me. It's like soft toffee, Charles, and used in desserts and sweets. You should try both. The quince paste Maria makes is wonderfully tart."

Charles needed no urging. He was going to try everything.




Well, he amended later, he was going to try everything in the culinary department. The rest of the day's entertainment would be beyond him.

"It's beyond me, too," conceded Scott. "The sort of skills you're going to see are the result of years of training."

While he and Scott had toured the ranch the previous day, Johnny and the vaqueros had roped off a short racecourse, and a large ring with a rectangular section leading off it in a nearby meadow. A charreada arena, Johnny called it. Charles walked over to it with Scott and Johnny, while the latter explained how it would be used.

"It's a contest. The vaqueros will show off how well they can ride, and rope, tame a wild mustang and ride bulls—"

"Bulls?" Charles stared.

"Yup. Bulls. Well, in a real charreada they would. I don't think Murdoch would ever go for that, though, and we can't build a proper arena to hold one, so this won't be a full charreada. No bulls." There was regret in Johnny's voice. "Still, you'll see a lot that won't ever happen back East. We'll have Cala de Caballo—that's controlling a horse just using the rein—and maybe Colas en el Lienzo. That's where the vaquero brings down a bull from horseback, only here it'll be calves. And El Paso de la Muerte—the pass of death. That's jumping from one horse onto an unbroken one, bareback, and riding the bronc until it stops bucking." Johnny's eyes lit up and something in his tone had Scott protesting.

"No, Johnny. No way. Murdoch will kill you if you try that."

"He can't stop me."

Scott's eyebrow quirked up into a quizzical arch. "You want to put money on that, little brother? Toledano will be running the betting, as usual."

"Oh well," said Johnny, and laughed.

Scott glanced at Charles. "Breaking a wild horse is dangerous enough, Charles, without trying to do it bareback. I've not attempted horse breaking, yet."

"I can't ever imagine myself attempting it," said Charles, with perfect truth.

"Pfft." Johnny waved a dismissive hand. "It's not ridin' bareback that's the problem. It's missing the bronc on the jump, but havin' the three riders chasing it around the ring not miss you."

These hearty young men of the soil seemed to be nerveless, because Johnny sounded almost eager at the idea of being trampled by wild horses and wilder riders. Charles stepped carefully over a large cowpat. "Have you tried it?"

"Are you loco? I can break a horse okay, but I'm not that good." Johnny pushed his hat back on his head. "Reckon I'll try the horse races though. We set out a good quarter-mile course close in, and Cip said that other years they've done longer races out to the lake and back."

Scott shook his head. "Every cowboy thinks he has a racehorse in his string. You willing to take a bet, Johnny?"

"I'll see anything you bet and double it. There's not a horse on the ranch can beat Barranca."

"We shall just have to see about that. Quarter mile race? Crusoe's been spoiling for a run. Five dollars says he'll run Barranca into the ground."

"Done."

Charles found himself holding out his hand, to have each brother slap a five dollar bill into it. "I'll try not to lose it. I'm honoured by your trust." He folded the bills carefully and put them away. "You know a great deal about this sort of thing, Johnny, and I notice you seem to speak Spanish very well. The Mexican influence in California must still be very strong."

He thought that Johnny stiffened slightly, but maybe he imagined it. Johnny's fingers tap-tap-tapped on the silver plaques decorating the broad belt around his waist, but his smile was warm.

"I was brought up in Mexico, my mother's country, speaking Spanish. But yeah, California's only been gringo twenty-odd years. The old way of life still goes on, with people like our segundo, Cipriano, around to keep up the traditions. Today'll be a mix of Californio and Anglo things—races, the charreada, races and rope twirlin' for the kids and more food than a man can eat. Whatever we can do to make sure it's a holiday for the hands. Workin' a roundup's hard on a man."

"Well, it's hard on a man if he isn't sitting back watching the day herd all the time," said Scott, grinning.

Whatever that meant, it was a sore spot with Johnny. He said something in Spanish that sounded vituperative.

Charles listened with interest, intrigued by the notion that Johnny had grown up in Mexico. Had Murdoch Lancer raised neither of his sons? "German's very good for cursing in, too. I can say something inoffensive, and it make it sounds so very abusive." He obligingly spat out a few words with as much venomous passion as he could muster. "Mein Onkel hat Mundgeruch und starke Blähungen!"

Scott frowned, his lips moving slightly as he repeated the words. He choked, his German seemingly good enough to get the gist of it.

Johnny tilted his head to one side, grinning. "What did that mean?"

"My uncle's breath stinks and he has severe intestinal gas." Charles smiled reminiscently. "He did too, poor uncle Klaus. He was my father's brother, but I'm glad to say that his problems haven't descended to the next generation."

Scott chuckled and Johnny laughed out loud, slapping one hand against his thigh. For the first time Charles thought that the watchful coldness had gone.

Johnny looked at Scott. "He's all right, this one. For another dandy Easterner."

"Yes, but wait till you see him try to rope a calf."

Charles choked, his laugh dying in his throat. "Wait! What?"

The brothers, side by side, watched him. Scott smiled. Johnny tilted his head to one side again, consideringly this time, and smiled. They looked so dissimilar, one so dark and the other fair, but at that moment Charles detected a most unholy likeness.

Oh yes, they were definitely related.




The neighbouring ranch owners started to arrive by eight-thirty, and within the hour every inhabitant of half a dozen ranches was milling around the ranch house and adjacent pastures. Abnormally early hours were kept in the country, it seemed. Charles could imagine his neighbours' faces if he turned up for a party at a time when they'd be breakfasting, and the mental image was not a pleasing one. Here, the day was already well underway.

The pattern was the same in each case. The women and children came in buggies and wagons, surrounded by their phalanx of menfolk and ranch-hands, many of the latter Mexican. The women greeted each other and bustled off to the big kitchen where, said Scott, Maria and Teresa and their helpers had been cooking for days. The men wandered around the barns and yards, talking about cattle and looking critically at the horses. The hands gathered at the charreada arena.

Charles was left with Scott. Johnny vanished when the first buggy rolled in.

"He doesn't like crowds much," said Scott, unperturbed. "He'll come back when the races start. Come and meet the neighbours."

Charles was introduced to more people than one man, even a man of his own astute intelligence and memory, could possibly remember. "How many people are you expecting, Scott?" he asked when Scott finally ran out of ranching families, and even a few townsfolk, to bring to his notice.

"Couple of hundred, I think." Charles's face must have shown all too much of what he felt, because Scott laughed. "It'll be quieter tomorrow at the wedding. That'll just be our own hands and the bride's family and their workers. I didn't think to ask Jaime if he'd mind if we attended the ceremony in Morro Coyo but I can't imagine there'll be a problem."

Charles watched teams of Lancer's vaqueros carry tables out into the meadow and set them up in long rows. A stream of women ran back and forth with tablecloths and dishes. "Except that I don't have a gift... oh wait. Do you think they'll like a porcelain Chinese goddess?"

Scott was really very bad at hiding when he was amused. "I'm sure they'd be delighted."

"That's a weight off my mind. I can get another for Elizabeth. What's next on the programme for today?"

"The horse races to kick things off, some races for the children—Johnny said they'll use the same quarter mile course but not, one hopes, at the same time—then lunch, and then the charreada this afternoon, I believe." Scott looked up as Murdoch yelled something. "And I think it's about to start."

No one could ever accuse Murdoch of not being tall enough to be seen in a crowd, since he stood a half-head taller than any other man on the place, but he still clambered onto a pile of hay bales to make his welcome speech from an even more imposing elevation. A man with a sense of occasion then. His speech was short, jovial and surprisingly amusing, the slight burr a little more obvious now that he speaking to a large audience. He garnered more than a few cheers when he declared the fiesta open, and led the charge towards the meadow and the short race track, a handsome woman on his arm.

Scott had to collect his horse from the barn. "Cipriano said he'd have Crusoe saddled ready for me. I'm looking forward to teaching Johnny a lesson in humility."

Charles laughed. "I hope you get the opportunity."

"So do I." Scott grimaced. "Oh, so do I! I'll never hear the end of it if he wins."

The barn was almost empty. A couple of tardy cowboys were saddling their horses, running around with buckets and tack. One brushed past Scott as he hurried out, leading a rough-coated dun horse. He mumbled something as he went that might have been an apology. And it might not. The tone of voice was not conciliatory. The other cowboy followed him, only throwing a glance Scott's way.

Scott stared after them for an instant, his mouth turned down, before shaking his head. He stepped over an empty water bucket and led his own horse out of the stall, checking the saddle and tack were good and tight.

"Who was that?"

"Beedie Simpson and Wilf Travis. They aren't regular workers here, but hands hired for the roundup and summer work."

"They didn't seem friendly."

Scott stood stiff and still, his right hand on the saddle. He used his other to gather the reins, giving this simple task all his attention for a moment. "I think... I think they may have fought in the War. Johnny said he thought they were from East Texas, and they still have their grey greatcoats. I think they were Rebs. They aren't too friendly toward me, but I don't know if that's the War or if that's because I'm a greenhorn."

"A greenhorn?"

"Someone who doesn't know anything about life out here, someone useless, someone who makes more work."

"That's not true, though."

"No." Scott relaxed tense shoulders and led the horse towards the door. "I'm learning and I'm not totally useless. It isn't that I don't know anything, but the truth is that I don't know much."

"As you said, you're learning a new life. I know for myself, that takes time. Coming to America... hah..." Charles huffed out a little laugh. "That was so different I felt I was dizzy with it, for months. And yet here I am, the perfect American. We all adjust."

Scott paused and looked at him. Then he smiled. "I'm glad I took that train, Charles."

Charles grinned back. So was he.




They met Johnny near the race course, where at least a couple of dozen potential riders were collecting together for the first race, the grandly-named Lancer Championship Stakes. He had a pretty golden horse with him of a kind that Charles had heard of, but never seen. "Palomino, and one of the best," said Johnny, when Charles remarked on it and if he puffed out his chest a little, Charles supposed the pride could be forgiven him. If it went before a metaphorical fall, anyway. Charles would be cheering for Scott, of course.

The tall, rangy cowhand with Johnny cast a disparaging look over the horse. "He's too fancy, Johnny. A man shouldn't be ridin' somethin' that's as pretty as a whore's chemise. To my mind, anyways."

"Wes, you don't have a mind worth a cent," said Johnny, laughing. "Barranca's the best horse I've ever owned." He glanced at Charles and introduced them. "This is Wes Rollins, Charles. We worked together a couple of years ago."

"We sure did. A fracas in Sutton County, Texas, back in '68."

"Texas?" Charles raised an eyebrow. That was a very great distance.

"Ol' Johnny here's worked all along the border. Damned if he don't know it from here to Brownsville—"

"Wes." Johnny certainly didn't shout and he was still smiling, but Rollins reddened and shut up. He looked apologetic.

"You aren't racing, Mr Rollins?"

"The name's Wes. Call me Mr Rollins and I reckon you're signifyin' my pa, and he's one I'd rather not be reminded on. He was a mean old rip, was my pa, and even though the old skeezick's deader than a six-day-stunk-up skunk, if I have my druthers I'd never think on him again."

Was the man even speaking English? A sidelong glance showed Charles that Scott had tilted his hat over his face to hide it, but his shoulders were shaking. The corner of Johnny's mouth quirked up, but otherwise the expression he turned on Charles was bland. Were they all having some sort of joke at his expense, making fun of him?

"But I ain't racin', no sir. I don't have no fancy pants horse like this'n"—and Wes jerked a contemptuous chin at Johnny's palomino—"so I'll save my powder for the shootin' games later on. That's if you're set on not joining in, Johnny? Wouldn't be no point shooting against you."

Johnny's right hand settled over his gun butt. "This ain't a toy, Wes. I don't do shootin' exhibitions."

Wes shifted his weight on his feet, shuffling his scuffed brown boots in the dust. "I know, Johnny," he said, peaceably. "I know. I'll go see Toledano and put some dinero on you and fancypants here. A dollar should do it." But for all his apparent scorn, he rubbed a gentle hand down the palomino's neck. "No offence, Scott, if I don't bet on you."

"None taken."

Wes nodded to Charles and ambled off.

Charles watched him go, frowning. "What country is he from?"

Johnny snorted out a laugh. "Arkansas."

Charles nodded. He could believe it.




The contestants walked their horses slowly to the starting point near the Lancer arch a quarter of a mile away, letting the horses warm up. It wasn't a sophisticated course, just a short, wide straight track laid out between two long lines of rope.

Charles joined Murdoch near the finish line and was presented to the handsome woman who was still hanging on his host's arm. Mrs Conway was a local landowner, it seemed, and a widow. Charles smiled and bowed and speculated, but hoped his face showed nothing but polite interest. The local doctor, Sam Jenkins, was nearby and introduced at the same time.

"It's a very short course," said Charles, while his notebook scribbles resolved themselves into words like speed, endurance, grit, courage, great hearts, noble (if rustic) riders, gleaming horses with tossing heads, manes and tails streaming with wind of their speed...

"They're cow ponies." Murdoch gave a little shrug. "And a lot of them are mustangs, anyway. Wild horses, Charles. They're strong and sturdy stock and they're perfect for working beeves, but they aren't race horses."

"What's the prize?"

"Honour and glory, of course!" Mrs Conway had bright eyes, a smiling face and very impressive embonpoint. Charles could quite see why Murdoch Lancer was possessive.

Murdoch chuckled. "Ten dollars and a bottle of my best Scotch for the winner."

"A man likes something to toast his honour and glory with, Aggie," remarked Jenkins.

She rolled her eyes. "When it comes to the Conway Challenge Cup, they will not be getting a bottle of whiskey to drink from it."

"The winner will appreciate the prize money more," conceded the doctor in a tone which suggested he regretted Murdoch's generosity with the Scotch more than the ten dollars. "It's a big field, Murdoch. I hope I don't get any work out of this. Patching up broken bones is not my idea of a fiesta."

Murdoch laughed. "Cipriano will do his best to spread them out, Sam." And to Charles, "There will be more competitors in the other races, Charles. Most of the men prefer a little longer race than the quarter mile, where all that matters is speed. The other races need more tactics and endurance. Aggie's a keen judge of horseflesh—"

"Murdoch and I are rivals often enough, Mr Nordhoff."

"—who has been known to go to any length to get to a likely horse before her friends and rivals—"

Mrs Conway had a pleasant laugh. "He who hesitates, Murdoch. He who hesitates."

Murdoch inclined his head. "You're probably right. Still, Charles, Aggie Conway is not the woman to be beaten when it comes to horses. She's run to the finish line to buy the winner of the race before now."

"Only once, and I got a good line of cow ponies out of him."

How very agricultural. Charles suspected Elizabeth and Mrs Conway wouldn't have a lot in common. "How many races are there?"

"Just the three this year. We'll run the Morro Coyo Derby last and then let the children have a go with their ponies." Murdoch nodded towards a large group of men clustered to one side, so intent on whatever was going on there that they barely had attention to spare for the actual race. "Many of them will have a month's pay riding on their favourites. They'll even bet on the children."

Mrs Conway's fine eyes rolled again. "Toledano is incorrigible." She tensed and stood up on tiptoe to peer up towards the starting line. "Cipriano's getting them all to the line."

"I hope he's got plenty of help," murmured Jenkins.

Murdoch Lancer laughed. "It's Cipriano. Not many men have the grit to stand against Cipriano." He glanced at Charles. "My foreman, Charles, and the father of the groom at tomorrow's wedding. I'll introduce you later. He's a Californio of the old school."

Mrs Conway let out a little squeal and Charles turned his attention to the starting line. A man stood to one side with his arm upraised. The horses were lined up in more or less a straight line.

Mrs Conway danced on the spot. " They're off! They're off!"

A pistol barked once and the man's arm dropped. They were off, to a great roar from the watching crowd, to waving hats and people running and jumping up to get a better view. They were off in a cloud of dust and the hard, implacable drum of hooves on the dry ground.

It was a clean breakaway, but in a second or two the horses were already bunched, streaming out after the leaders. Charles could see the flash of gold up there. That looked like Johnny had got a good start, hugging the near side rope and pulling ahead of the bunch behind. Half a dozen others ranged across the track, keeping the others back. It was only a couple of yards at this stage, but the leaders pulled steadily on.

Charles could hear and feel the people around him, the shouts and cries, even a prayer, Murdoch Lancer's Come on, Johnny! Come on! when he saw the palomino had made a good start, Mrs Conway's quickened breathing and her heightened colour, her eyes widening with excitement. But these things were muted, distanced. He caught his breath and held it, his heart thumping as the hoofs sounded louder.

The pace was tremendous. Look at that! A small light coloured dun horse from the bunch behind had broken through the crush and was gaining on the leaders. Charles opened his mouth to yell. He didn't know what. Just to yell something as his heart hammered and his arms rose to wave, caught up in the same excitement as everyone around him. He couldn't see Scott, though, in the bunch of riders.

"Come on, Scott!" he roared it out as the front rank of the horses bore down on the finish line. He still couldn't see him amongst the dust and shapes of men and horses, but what did that matter? "Come on!"

"Yes!" Murdoch Lancer was laughing. "Come on, Scott! Come on, Johnny!"

The dun broke through into the front rank, stretching out its neck and lengthening its stride. Just look at that! Did you see that? Neck and neck with the golden horse, and past it. Neck and neck with a big black, and past it. Pushing hard, faster and faster. Now Charles could see the foam at the horses' mouths, the whites of eyes, and the little dun coloured horse was half a length ahead.

And here they come!

A smothering cloud of dust filled with harsh breathing, shouts and yells, and the little dun put on a spurt of speed that had him across the finishing line, a full length before the black. Johnny next on the palomino, a nose ahead of a bay. The whole meadow was a mass of arms waving frantically, shouts and yells and cheers, hats being waved around heads, groans, children screaming and jumping. The bunch thundered past, big dark shapes in the dust cloud. Barely twenty seconds after it started, the race was done.

Charles turned to watch as the horses pulled up in the meadow past the spectators. Out beyond the bunched up horses, Johnny brought the palomino to a halt, his hat hanging down his back on a string around his neck. Charles could see that he was laughing.

He still couldn't see Scott.

 

Chapter Six

The crowd of also-rans were still bunched together in the meadow, dismounting from their lathered horses; some red-faced from their efforts, most laughing, all of them dusty. Scott was in the middle of them, rubbing a hand down Crusoe's long face and looking rueful. He grinned at Murdoch and Charles when they made their excuses to Mrs Conway, who was in lively discussion with Jenkins about the result, and joined him.

"Well, I'll never hear the end of this! Not quite last, but I thought to do a lot better."

"Couldn't get clear of the pack?" Murdoch smoothed his palm down the horse's neck as Johnny pushed through to join them, Barranca following along behind. Johnny, of course, was grinning widely.

"Not that so much." Scott broke off and turned the rueful look to Johnny. "All right. Crow away."

"Me, Boston?"

Scott snorted. "Well done, anyway."

"I got clear, that's all. Did you see that little dun of Beedie Simpson's? That was some surprise. I'll bet Toledano's none too happy right now." Johnny's grin became thoughtful. "Texan, right? Him and Travis both, I mean. I reckon that dun's got some Copper Bottom in him somewhere. Or Steel Dust, maybe."

Copper Bottom? Steel... oh. The names men gave to their horses. Ridiculous. Ships, now... ships were different. Charles could understand naming ships, but horses should all be called Dobbin, if only ironically. "Famous horses, I take it?"

Johnny nodded. "There's places in Texas where quarter mile racing's taken more serious than God, and those two stallions stand behind most of the good bloodlines. That's no ordinary cow pony Simpson has. Shame it's a gelding."

"I expect the horse has his regrets, too," said Charles, drily. The laughter was gratifying.

"So what happened, Boston? Get hemmed in?"

"No. As I was about to explain to Murdoch and Charles, it wasn't that. Crusoe just didn't want to run. I couldn't get him moving."

"That doesn't sound right." Johnny looked around and waved a hand towards a nearby group of ranch hands. "Wes! Hey, Wes! Take Barranca back to the barn for me, amigo, will you? I won't be riding him again today."

"Sure thing, Johnny." Wes took the bridle from Johnny's hand and touched his hat to Murdoch. "Mr Lancer. Fine race."

"Yes. Yes, it was." Murdoch gave Wes a cool nod. "Thank you, Rollins."

Johnny waited until Wes had moved off with Barranca. He said nothing. The look he gave Murdoch was colder than the one Murdoch had given Wes, by several degrees.

It was a most unfilial stare. The tension was suddenly so thick that Charles could almost see it, almost taste it in the air. A gentleman who hadn't made it his business to find things out might make his excuses and wander politely out of earshot, blandly pretending nothing was wrong. Ah, social grace and etiquette! Where would civilisation be without them?

Charles took a step to one side to show willing.

A small step.

Murdoch's mouth set into a hard line; like a steel trap, if Charles were inclined to think in clichés. Charles could see the tough rancher underneath the skin, the man who'd built up this ranch from nothing, who'd thrown himself into it. A man, from what Charles had managed to piece together so far, who had apparently borne hard losses and made hard decisions along the way.

The steel trap opened a trifle. "I don't like him, Johnny."

"Yeah." Johnny hunched one shoulder, the one closest to Murdoch, and turned away to face Crusoe. He ran his hands over the horse's left shoulder. The brown skin twitched under his fingers, but the horse didn't start or tremble. Johnny touched a short straight scar and looked to Scott. "You think maybe it's bothering him where that bullet creased him in Blood Rock?"

"That was a few weeks ago, now. He was barely lame the next day, and it healed quickly." Scott rubbed the horse's nose. "I wouldn't have run him so hard if I thought that was still a problem."

"I thought he was okay too, but I can't see why else he wouldn't run, unl—whoa!"

Johnny jumped away as Crusoe grunted, straddled his back legs and let loose with a long, pungent stream. Laughing, Johnny backed off out of range. A hoot of laughter came from the nearby group of hands; Charles pivoted on one heel to see what the noise was about. They pointed and stared, and one or two of the looks were derisory. They surely weren't surprised to see a horse stale like that? The pointing had been to Scott, rather than the horse. He turned back to watch the Lancers.

Charles remarked that one felt very close to nature out here in the country.

Scott took off his gloves, slapping the dust off them and tucked them into his waistband. The tips of his ears were red. "Horses piss in the city streets every day, Charles."

"I'm sure they do, but in this case I can only wonder at the animal's bladder capacity and be grateful that there were no ladies present whose eyes should be shielded."

"Try and shield Aggie Conway's eyes and she may let you live to regret it." Murdoch clapped Scott on the shoulder. "There's your answer, Scott. He was probably just too uncomfortable to run."

"I know I would be, all that sloshing about." Johnny grimaced and mimed the sloshing with one hand. They all winced.

A whoop and a cheer had them looking towards the Lancer hands. Beedie Simpson had joined the hands, the fast little dun horse stepping daintily along behind him. A disgruntled Mexican, stout and middle-aged, handed money over to Wilf Travis. Travis was doing the whooping, showing his winnings to Simpson.

Mrs Conway arrived, laughing. "Goodness, what a race! Did you ever see anything like that dun? Shame he's been gelded; I could have used a horse like that to improve my breeding stock. Good race, Johnny and well done." She paused, and said, gently, "I don't suppose... after all, you aren't used to things out here, Scott, but it's best not to water your horse before a race starts."

Scott went scarlet. He bowed slightly. "I'll bear that in mind for next time, Ma'am."

"We can't expect you to get all our ways at once," she said, and administered a comforting pat on the arm. "You're doing very well, considering. I'm going to look at that pony! Come along, Murdoch."

"I'll be there in a moment, Aggie. You go on."

They watched her go. Scott's neck was red now, too, and his mouth was so tight his lips had thinned and almost disappeared. It gave Scott a remarkable resemblance to Murdoch, but in this case, Charles couldn't tell if it were embarrassment or temper or the effort of not telling a lady when she was out of line. He didn't know which he'd feel either. He supposed Mrs Conway meant it kindly.

Murdoch rubbed his temple with one hand, looking from Scott to Mrs Conway. "Aggie didn't... well, I'd better go and present Simpson with his prize." His sons nodded, neither looking as if they intended to go with him, and Murdoch hesitated. "Johnny…"

Johnny's glance flickered to Charles and back to Murdoch. "Not now. I know what you think."

"I don't suppose you do at all," said Murdoch, heavily. He nodded to Charles and walked away to join Mrs Conway, who was talking animatedly to Beedie Simpson and stroking the dun's nose.

Johnny watched him go, but spoke to Scott. "When did you say you got your first pony, Scott?"

Scott unclamped the mouth a little. "I don't recall ever saying, Johnny, but I was six. It was a birthday present from my grandparents."

"And you were in the cavalry during that war of yours."

"I know that."

"A man who's been riding all his life and a cavalryman to boot... you know better than water a horse before you wanted it to run."

"I do know better." Scott's tone was bone dry. "I didn't water him."

"I didn't reckon you did."

They looked at each other, those two disparate brothers, and again Charles saw the likeness. Johnny's eyes were a deeper blue than Scott's, but narrowed like that, both pair of eyes were the same shape and held the same considering, thoughtful gaze.

Johnny ran a hand through already dusty hair. "No one who knows horses would do it."

"Unless it was deliberate." Scott walked Crusoe a few paces away from the wet spot on the grass. "Simpson and Travis were the last two hands in the barn when I went to collect Crusoe."

"Wait a moment! Are you suggesting foul play?" Charles started forward to follow him. "Over a little race like this?"

"Travis had a bucket in his hand when we went into the barn." Scott looked at Charles. "Remember?"

Charles frowned, thinking back. "I think so. Yes, I think he did. And you stepped over another one to get your horse out of the stall."

"An empty one. I didn't really notice at the time, but you're right. I did. I remember they left in hurry." Scott looked over to where Murdoch was handing over a bottle of the malt whisky he imported from Scotland for his own use– whisky, Murdoch had said the previous evening when giving Charles a generous measure, with no foolish extra 'e' and a taste the gods would die for. Frankly Charles thought that The Macallan would be wasted on ranch hands, 'e' or no 'e'.

"If that horse of theirs is as well bred as Johnny says, then they'd be confident of winning " Charles looked from one to the other. "They wouldn't need to fix the race, would they?"

"Not for that reason, no." Scott's hard mouth twitched. "Fish."

Fish? What did the man mean, fish? Was his brain addled by losing the race such a wide margin, by losing to Johnny, by the laughter of the hands and Mrs Conway's irksome sympathy? Charles frowned. "I don't quite see what fish have to do with it."

"The fish in my bedroll on the first night of the roundup."

Oh, that fish. Charles glanced at Johnny, who grinned back, not looking in the least repentant.

Scott reached up to rub Crusoe's nose. "Like I said yesterday, Charles, it's a tradition. The newcomers to a ranch's crew and the greenhorns come in for a lot of teasing. You said it was to break them in, didn't you Johnny? Like you broke Barranca."

"It's to test them, see." Johnny explained to Charles. "The hands want to see what kind of fella they're ridin' the range with. Can he take a joke, will he get mad, will he get all sulky or will he try and get even. If he wants to pass their tests, then it's all about him standing the gaff like a man."

Charles blinked. The strange speech of Arkansas appeared to be contagious.

"Scott stood it well at the roundup. He laughed along with 'em and he didn't get huffy, no matter what they did. The men respected that, how well he took it."

"Did you?"

Johnny stared at Charles, frowning. "Did I what?"

"Take the teasing well. Scott told me yesterday that you are as new to ranching as he is. I assume they play tricks on you, too?"

Scott choked and Johnny's slow smile widened. "No, they don't play tricks on me," was all Johnny said, but he appeared to find Charles's question deeply amusing.

Charles looked to Scott for an explanation but all he got was Scott making a helpless gesture with his hands, his shoulders rising in a shrug.

"Usually it's all harmless," said Scott. "More frustrating than malicious. Even when it's fish."

"It sounds worse than being at school." Charles had an all too lively memory of his first day at the senior school in Erwitte: the schoolmaster's wooden flute, an inkwell, a second-hand military cape, a dead mouse... the consequences of wanting to belong and be accepted had been regrettable. At least Scott's fish had been edible, which was rather more than could be said about the mouse.

"That's what I said, when Johnny first explained it. I had a few jokes played on me at the roundup, but that was weeks ago and they stopped. I thought I'd proved myself." Scott looked across to the celebrations again, watching Murdoch admiring the winner under Beedie Simpson's gratified gaze. "Except this wasn't quite that, was it? This wasn't more good-natured teasing, but about making the Yankee look a fool in front of people like the other hands and Aggie Conway. She's always going to think that I'm too stupid to manage horses properly. This was about embarrassing me in public, simply because we fought on opposite sides in the war."

Johnny lifted the cord that his hat was hanging from and chewed on it. "Likely."

"Wonderful." Scott blew out a sigh. "So now what? I don't see I have a lot of options here. Either I go over and start a fight, or I let them get away with it."

A fight? Charles was reminded, sharply, that he was fifteen years older than Scott. The sort of thing he himself would now dismiss with philosophical acceptance as being of no importance, was a grievous affront to the amour propre of a young man like Scott. The young were always too conscious of what others thought of them.

"I can't start a fight about it, can I?" Scott's mouth thinned down again. "Not with so many women and children about. It'd just embarrass Murdoch and spoil the day for everyone, not to mention spoiling tomorrow for Jaime and Magdalena. It's just not done. It would be too irresponsible. Damn them!" His hands clenched and he must have jerked on the rein; Crusoe snorted and danced away a step, tossing his head.

"Not to mention that there are two of them," pointed out Charles, purely in the interests of accuracy and to be sure Scott knew what he was contemplating.

"And not to mention that Wilf Travis is near on as big as Murdoch," murmured Johnny.

"That wouldn't stop me."

But the demands of polite society would? Charles, hiding his amusement at the travails and vicissitudes that assailed the perfect gentleman, glanced at Johnny. "You'll stand with him of course, if he does something unwise?"

"I might stand behind him, if it's Wilf Travis he's gonna be unwise with." Johnny's grin was infectious and even Scott couldn't help but laugh. "I'll hold your hat, brother, and watch your back."

"I'm touched." Scott drew a deep breath. "All right. So they think that all I can do is treat it like I did the tricks that got played on me at the round up: show that I've got a sense of humour and take it on the chin."

Johnny's grin broadened. "Well, you're the responsible one. The hands know that."

"What I want to do is knock their teeth down their throats. But I can't. Not without making a bigger scene than they managed, and embarrassing myself for real. I just hate it that they're laughing at me and think they've got me beat." Scott's chin set into a stubborn line. "But I'm damn well going to let them know I'm onto them. They might crow about me not fighting back, but they aren't going to crow about me being so stupid that I don't know what they did. They aren't going to get the last word on this, Johnny. We can't afford to let the hands to be so disrespectful. Not if we're going to make a success of this partnership."

"We're just the Patrón's sons, not the Patrón."

"Still, they'll learn to respect us." Scott's grin was tight. "Me. They'll learn to respect me. They already respect you."

"They're scared of me. There's a difference. Boston, why bother? Do you respect them enough to care what they think about you?"

"Personally," observed Charles, fascinated, "I only worry about what people think when I esteem them and their opinion."

"It's not that so much, Charles. Johnny and I have joint ownership of this place with Murdoch. I'm not stupid enough to think that means they'll automatically treat us with the same respect as they do him. I know we'll have to earn it, the way he did over the years . But if there was one thing I learned in the war, without discipline in the ranks we didn't have much chance. I couldn't allow my authority to be undermined then and I can't allow it now. Especially by two drifters."

"They'll be gone at the end of the summer," said Johnny.

Scott was unforgiving. "They might be gone long before then, if they don't watch their step. Here."

Scott pushed Crusoe's reins into Johnny's hand, turned on his heel, and marched over to the group of people admiring the dun pony.

Charles looked helplessly at Johnny. He had never seen Scott angry before, at least not angry in this way. Scott had been beyond angry in the lobby of the hotel in San Francisco, but that had been cold and bitter; interesting that it took a blow to his self esteem to make his temper boil. "What if there's a fight?"

A flash of a brilliant smile. "He can handle it. He's got a temper and he sometimes lets her rip. He ain't always the responsible one trying to get out of a fracas." Johnny rubbed his chin with his free hand. "He can throw a good punch, can Boston."

For all the confidence Johnny expressed in Scott, Charles saw that he watched intently as Scott talked to the two Texans. Charles couldn't quite make out what Scott was saying, not from that distance, but the tone came over. Scott sounded cheerful and good-humoured, and the two Texans were smirking.

Charles frowned. "A fight would be a very bad thing."

"Messing with a man's horse is a very bad thing, out here. Scott's got the right of it." Johnny blew out a noisy sigh. "There won't be a fight, Charles. Scott's too responsible for that."

Charles took a step towards Scott. Johnny didn't move.

"Aren't you coming?"

"Best not." Johnny looked regretful. "This is one he has to win on his own and I'd just get in the way. I'll deputise you to do the hat holding and I'll take Crusoe back to the barn."

Taken by surprise, Charles stared. Johnny got Crusoe moving, the big bay following him willingly. Charles watched him go. What did that mean? After all his talk of watching Scott's back, Johnny was just going to leave Scott without any support like that? Incredible! No time to worry over it now... Charles hurried over to join the crowd. Murdoch and Mrs Conway had gone. They were walking across the meadow to rejoin the doctor, leaving a small number of hands clustered around the winning horse.

Scott, of course, was amongst them. He had pushed his hat right to the back of his head. It made him look boyish. He gave Charles a brilliant smile. "I was just saying to Beedie here that was a good race, Charles. He's quite a rider, wouldn't you say?"

"It was exciting, certainly."

"A surprisingly fast little horse. Did you hear what Johnny said? He thought it had to have something good in its bloodline."

"Well, yes. Not that I'm much of a judge—"

It was beautifully done. Simpson's smirk was fading but he'd be hard put to it to take umbrage from the words. It was all in the bright, admiring tone. The enthusiasm was so patently overdone that it hovered on the edge of an outright declaration of war. Impressive, really, how Scott used that eagerness as a weapon, wielding it as skilfully as a fencing epee. Charles would have to remember to ask if Scott fenced. He was willing to wager a month's salary on the answer.

"Has to be good. You can tell, neat little pony like this." Scott ran a hand down the horse's nose, nodding. "Yes. You can see it in him. Can't you, Charles?"

"Not at all, I'm afraid, Scott. I'm better with boats than horses."

Simpson's smirk was entirely gone, now. He looked uncertain, as if he weren't quite sure what was going on. He glanced at his friend and the other hands nearby. They all looked as uncertain as he did.

"You can't admit that out here in the West, Charles! Take a look at him. Good conformation, good muscles and the strong haunches of a sprinter... a good horse and a good rider eh? So well done, Beedie. Well done. A race well won and all that." Neither Scott's bright smile or the enthusiastic tone wavered. "And thank you for watering my horse before the race, but the next time you touch Crusoe, you and that well-bred pony of yours will be abandoning the sprint for some long distance riding."

Simpson blinked and took a step backwards.

"I don't mind a joke, Beedie, but not when you endanger my horse to do it. I hope we understand each other?"

"You can't fire me!"

"I think you'll find that I can. And I will if you don't get that the joke's over. You want to refight the war with me, then some other time and place, we'll do just that. Just you and me. Not here and not now, not at a fiesta. You want to settle it, Beedie, we'll do that. But you do not touch my horse." Scott glanced over his shoulder and grinned at Charles. "There. I think we've got that all straightened out for now."

One of the hands, the middle-aged Mexican who'd handed money over to a glowering Wilf Travis, frowned. "Señor?"

"Yes, Toledano?"

"He watered your horse before the race, Señor Scott?"

"He did."

There was a discontented murmur from the hands and a few hard, unfriendly looks shot at Simpson and Travis. Simpson was brick red now under his tan. Even his ears were scarlet.

"It was a joke," protested Wilf Travis.

"Of course it was. And very amusing, too." Scott glanced at the Mexican. "Lose much, Toledano?"

Toledano's smile was distinctly unpleasant. "I do not think that I have lost at all, Señor Scott." He waved a hand at the rest of hands. "I do not think that any of us have lost."

"Excellent. Now, I think I'll go and see to Crusoe. I hope you all enjoy the rest of the fiesta."

And Scott patted Simpson on the shoulder with perfect condescension, linked his arm through Charles's and drew him away. He was shaking slightly. Alarmed, Charles looked at him, and smiled himself.

Scott was laughing. Charles had never seen him look so contented.




The barn was warm and quiet, but for the occasional snort from one of its occupants. It took a moment for Charles's eyes to adjust to the dim light inside after the brightness of the morning. A shaft of light from the half open door to the hayloft slanted across the barn, glittering with dust and floating wisps of hay. The scent of hay was strongest, thankfully, but the barn smelled of horse and, yes, the distinctive tang of the fertiliser that enthusiastic gardeners everywhere swore was necessary to their roses. Charles was not an enthusiastic gardener and eternally grateful for having no more than eight window boxes on which to exercise his horticultural talents. Not even Elizabeth could demand roses in window boxes.

Crusoe was back in his stall. Johnny was sitting on a pile of hay bales, leaning back with legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles, his hat over his eyes. He pushed up the brim with his left hand. He grinned. "Crusoe's fine, but I figured he maybe didn't need any more water for a while."

Scott snorted out a laugh. "Damn right he doesn't!" He rubbed the bay's nose. "Poor old horse!"

"Simpson and Travis?" Johnny looked Scott over. "No fracas?"

"No. We avoided that, for the time being at least. I don't know what will happen when they get their breath back, but for now I've left them in Toledano's capable hands. He wasn't best pleased at them having cheated." Scott leaned up against the stall's wooden wall, and folded his arms.

"Well, they didn't do it to win the race. It wouldn't have made any difference. I reckon that dun would've still won."

"I'm sure of it. But it's the principle of the thing, and I'm pleased to say that Toledano, despite his off-colour jokes and his penchant for controlling every gambling operation in the San Joaquin Valley, is a very principled man."

"He's getting his money back, then."

"I'm sure he is."

"Oh." Diverted from the amusement of watching the brothers, Charles dug two crumpled bills from his pocket. "That reminds me. I still have yours."

"Hey." Johnny jumped up and before either Scott or Charles could react, he twitched the bills from Charles's fingers. "Almost forgot this."

Charles stared. Surely Johnny wasn't intending to take the money? It hadn't been a fair race...

"Ah—" started Scott, then he stopped and inclined his head. "Well. Barranca did beat Crusoe, I suppose."

Johnny smiled. "I always aim to win, brother."

Scott's head came up fast. He and Johnny stared at each other.

"It wasn't fair." Charles looked from one to the other. "It wasn't a fair race."

Johnny shrugged. His gaze didn't shift from Scott's. "A fair fight keeps a man from hangin', maybe, but winning counts more."

Scott's eyes widened, and he frowned, watching Johnny. It was a moment before his expression cleared. He nodded. "Here endeth the lesson," he said, softly.

Johnny ducked his head, grinning. "I'm not much of a preacher."

"I remember what you said, though when you fixed this for me and gave me that refresher course in shooting." Scott touched his gun holster. "It's the same philosophy: how to make sure you're the one who walks away."

Gott im Himmel! What on earth were they talking about? They were talking in ciphers, as if they'd forgotten Charles were even there.

"You can't count it if you don't win, Boston. You can't count nothing. You bear that in mind with those two cobardes." Johnny's hand was round the back of Scott's neck now. "But I'll tell you what. You want the chance to win this back?"

Scott nodded. "Of course."

"Then we'll run the race again, just you and me, after the wedding sometime."

"You're on. You're on, little brother. And you'd better look to your laurels, you and Barranca, because Crusoe and I will be burning to win."

Johnny laughed, gave Scott a little shake, and turned back to Charles. "You'd best hold onto this, Charles, until it's all settled. Mind, that's my money you got there."

Charles took the money back. There had been so much going on in that conversation and he had no idea what. Scott and Crusoe might burn to win a race, but he was burning to understand these men, to get under the skin and see what they were. His fingers itched for his notebook. It was a damned shame that the proprieties of being a guest in their house prevented him. Scott gave him a smile and a quirked eyebrow. Yes, there was no doubt that his Boston Brahmin guessed his frustration and was amused by it.

"We'd best get back, before Murdoch misses having someone around to call the tune for." Johnny straightened his shoulders.

"Good lord, yes!" Scott looked alarmed. "I promised Cipriano I'd help start the Conway Challenge race, and I'd better get a move on. Stick with Johnny, Charles, will you? I'll catch up with you as soon as I can. Excuse me!"

He left at a run. Charles and Johnny followed at a more sedate pace.

"He handled it well," said Charles. "He avoided a fight, but he turned the tables on those men."

"Avoided a fight for now." Johnny shook his head. "Well, maybe. But likely, Simpson's going to have his bristles up now. To my mind, the only fight you walk away from whole, is the one you win."

So, Johnny wouldn't have stopped at making Simpson look like a fool then? It sounded like he'd prefer the knocking-teeth-down-throat approach that had briefly tempted Scott before the veneer of civilisation had smothered the impulse.

"Would you have done what he did and make them look foolish? Or... well, you sound as though you'd have pushed for a fight. What would you have done in his place?"

"Me?" Johnny ushered Charles out into the sunlight, back towards the meadow where the crowds were gathering for another race. His smile was wide and charming, lighting up his whole face. "I'd just shoot 'em."

To Part Three--->