Word count 9,120
Call it holiday madness – I NEVER write short stories, let alone Christmas ones, and certainly not while I have a major story still unfinished!! – but this came to me in the night and wouldn’t let go. It’s barely edited, just written quickly from the heart. Hope you enjoy it.
He’d left his brother to it. Choosing the damn thing had been bad enough – what did he know of books, for Christ’s sake? – but wrapping it; that was a whole different kit and caboodle. He’d gone along with Scott’s idea of sharing the cost of the book, an eye-watering $75, for their father’s Christmas present, though he’d just as soon’ve bought Murdoch cigars or a pair of gloves – the Old Man was always wearing out gloves pitching his new Bronson around those bends.
Still, it was done now, and his brother had assured him that ‘A Christmas Carol’ was a good story, at least; not like those Scottish history books his father had been reading lately, as heavy as a tombstone and a darn sight less interesting. Scott had read him a passage or two, and he’d had to admit he’d wanted to hear more about this Scrooge feller. He’d liked the description of the London streets, the strange foods and the bitter cold, liked the ghost appearing out of the door knocker. Still … $75! Jesus, that was about a month of Saturday nights out! Scott had yammered on about something called first editions, but he hadn’t really listened. No book on Earth was worth more than three beers and a half hour roll on Rosie’s bed at the Silver Dollar.
He shivered outside. It wasn’t cold compared to up in the mountains, but it was chilly enough to make him glad his father had left a new thick jacket at the end of his bed a few weeks ago. At first he’d ignored it. Kinda wanted to rile up Murdoch and his damn tune-calling. The Old Man had been on at him about stopping by at George Stills’ place to kit himself out for winter, but, hell, no man was going to tell him what to wear, not even the Old Man! His father was damn sneaky though. Hadn’t said a word about the jacket. Hadn’t badgered him to wear it, just waited for the weather to turn. He’d resisted at first, let himself get cold, rubbed his arms, drank more coffee, until the damn moment came; he’d faced a whole day out there fixing fences on the North Range. After orders, he’d stomped upstairs, grabbed the jacket and walked past his smiling father. Not a big smile, but one of those little victory smiles of his. ‘Darn it, why don’t ya just do a little jig to go with it, Murdoch,’ he’d snarled. But it’d seemed the Old Man was happy enough with his smile.
Johnny walked across the yard to the small corral. Hell, it was a good jacket, though, the kind that warmed a man up just right, made being outside ok – better than wrapping up Christmas presents anyway. Girls’ work, for sure. Told Scott that very thing and his brother’d just raised his brows and sighed in his know-it-all way.
Outside the house, trestle tables were being set up and pure white cloths draped over them. Murdoch was throwing a party tonight for local ranchers and neighbours – coloured lanterns already lined the hacienda’s walls and Maria was baking up a storm in the kitchen. Jelly had been set to polishing glasses and spoons and his father was fussing like an old woman over the men’s punch. He’d let Maria do the ladies’ fruit punch, but the mixing of wine, spirits and spices was Murdoch’s special chore. The Old Man’d let him taste it, but he’d spat it out quicker’n a bad nut. He’d been waved away then, like he was an irritating little kid, and he hadn’t been sorry to go, the punch’s taste still souring his mouth.
He did up the top button of the jacket and vaulted the fence. Inside the corral, a cow with a swollen foot and her calf lay on a wedge of hay they’d pulled out from the feeder. The cow looked happy enough, chewing her cud, and the calf was snuggled up tight by her. He saw her eyes widen as he approached, her ears point back, her shoulder muscles stiffen as she prepared to rise.
“Easy, girl. Just goin’ to take a look at that old foot of yours.”
She came up quickly then, and he felt regret at disturbing her. They’d brought her in the evening before, a two mile push with her hardly able to walk by the time they’d got home and the calf trotting alongside. If she’d been any further from the ranch, he’d have shot her and brought the calf back, laid over his saddle. His father’d taken one look and said that’s what he should’ve done anyway. Johnny watched her hobble a few steps from the hay feeder and wasn’t sure he’d disagree, though he’d sassed his father at the time and got his ears warmed good for his trouble.
The foot was swollen worse than ever. He’d put the cow in the chute, last night, even though his belly had grouched for its supper, and dug around while the cow wriggled and bellowed. Finally, he’d yanked out a fearsome looking thorn, slapped on some iodine and let her go, but his only thought as he looked at her now was his rifle.
Sighing, he looked up and out to the range. It was a dismal day, cold and likely to rain. He looked harder when he saw something moving that was neither man nor cow. Crossing the corral, he leapt the wall and saw the donkey, coming up past a stand of pine trees and onto the track to the ranch. Its head was hanging low and its belly was huge with a coming foal. Johnny watched the creature make its faltering way along the track. Then he went to it. For some reason, his heart was beating faster as he approached the beast. His muscles were as tense as if he were turning over wood in search of a hidden rattler.
As he got close, he expected the donkey to jerk away, maybe even to run, but this was as beaten down a creature as he’d ever seen in his life. Its eyes were dim with suffering and though its belly was full with foal, a man could’ve played a tune on its ribs. Worst of all, in Johnny’s mind, was the state of its feet; all four hooves curving up like a sultan’s slippers, so that walking was nothing less than a weary pain.
The donkey blinked but kept moving along the track. Pity squeezed his heart. Right there and then, he thought about just lifting his pistol. One clear shot to the head and her suffering would be ended. He would have the terrible memory of the sight of her misery, but she would be in a dark and peaceful place.
Swallowing hard, he thought of the foal inside her, waiting to be born, a perfect new creature. Unlike its mother, it could have a chance to live a better, kinder life. The ranch didn’t keep donkeys. The Mexican hands considered then fit only for peasants, an embarrassing reminder of their lives before horses. Donkeys were a joke. Their ears were too big, their tails too small. They were beasts of burden, forced to carry packs twice the size of their bodies. Johnny remembered them from when he was a little kid, making their slow, sad way up dusty hills in border villages. He’d always felt sorry for them, but in those days, it’d been enough to keep his own ribs from busting through his skin.
He placed his hand on the mare’s bony hip and followed her. When, after half an hour of hobbling, they reached the small barn by the forge, the donkey stopped. By that time, his father was out of the hacienda and walking towards them. Johnny went up to the mare’s head and fussed her ears and brow.
“Where d’you find her, John?”
“Out on the track, just walkin’ up here like she knew where was headin’. Jesus, Murdoch, I never saw an animal hurtin’ so bad, not even Amo.”
His father placed his hand on the donkey’s back, stroked the grey hair chock full of dust.
“Poor creature, and she’s about to foal, too.”
“Her hooves …”
“Hmm, they’re about as bad as I’ve ever seen. I’ll take a look at them tomorrow.” His father fingered the ‘v’ cut in the mare’s left ear. “Well, she’s got an owner. Her ear’s clipped.”
“He’s a goddamn sonuvabitch, whoever he is, Murdoch, an’ if he comes round here layin’ claim to her, I’ll clip more’n his damn ear.”
“Take her in the barn, Son. Bed her down. I’ll take Jelly off house duties and …”
“No, Murdoch.” Johnny felt the blood rising in his skin. “I found her an’ I’ll care for her.”
His father sighed.
“You know what I’m expecting of you, this evening, Johnny, you and Scott. Jelly’s perfectly capable of caring for this animal …”
“I don’t give a damn, Murdoch. I have to do right by this mare. It was me who found her, and she came by this way for a reason. I ain’t abandonin’ her to make ‘how d’you do’s’ with a bunch of old men in their party suits.”
He’d expected the change in his father’s skin colour, the glare, and the tightly folded arms, but it still scared him a little.
“And I suppose the fact that you’d do almost anything, John, to avoid obeying my wishes regarding this party has no bearing on your decision?”
Johnny was stroking the mare’s ears. Her eyes were closed and she was very still, breathing more gently now, like she’d found some kind of resting place at last. He wondered if she’d ever had a tender touch in her life. He looked down, away from his father’s gaze.
“You know I ain’t no good with parties, Murdoch. I’d just mess it up, like I mess up your fancy dinners. The more you try to organise me, the more I’ll mess up. Just can’t seem to stop myself.”
“You mean the more you won’t even try to stop yourself!”
His father was deeply angry. He could feel the anger shaking the very marrow in his bones. He kept his own voice low and quiet, hoping to calm the storm.
“I do try, Murdoch.”
“Not hard enough, boy. You know how much it means to me to have both my sons at my side tonight.” His father hesitated then, came round to face him and grasp his arms in a grip that was damn near painful. The disappointment in Murdoch’s voice was worse, though. “How can we expect our friends and neighbours to trust in you as the future owner of Lancer, Johnny, if you refuse even to socialise with them?”
Johnny pulled away.
“If you’d just quit pushin’ so hard, Murdoch, an’ let me find my own way there. You got one kid who’s happy to do all that stuff, hell, he was born to it! Can’t you just be glad you got Scott dressin’ up an’ charmin’ the neighbours without raggin’ on me to be somethin’ I ain’t ever goin’ to be?”
He walked away then. When he returned from the barn with a head collar, his father had gone.
He put the head collar on the mare and led her slowly into the barn. There, she accepted the warm bran mash that he made for her, took long, deep draughts of water from a pail. Her bones hadn’t yet dropped, but he couldn’t believe her far from birthing her foal. He took a brush to her and began at her head and neck. There were scars there, like she’d been tethered a long while in the past and the tether had worn into her neck. The feet he could do little about right now, maybe after she’d foaled, but he brushed every inch of her and sang a little to her, and the whole time, she closed her eyes and seemed to sway to the rhythm of his song and his brush strokes. It felt like some kind of healing, and not even fighting with the father he loved to a point of hurting could take away the sweetness of it.
The preparations for the party went on all through the long afternoon. He spent his time taking advice from older Mexican hands on tonics he could give to the mare. Mid-afternoon, he rode out to a neighbour’s small ranch and got dried celery from Martha Bills to mix in with the red clover and various oils old Pedro Vama had supplied him with. As usual, Martha’d fussed him with pie and coffee, chattered away about the party at Lancer tonight. It was a running joke between him and his brother that the widow had Murdoch in mind for her third husband. Scott claimed she’d talked the first two to an early grave. Johnny liked her wild spirit, and thought maybe she’d been just too much woman for simple ranching men to handle. She had four daughters, too, all red-haired, the two eldest on the look-out for husbands. He liked the third one, Jessie, the quietest, but her mother kept the girl close by her side.
He was dosing the mare when Scott came into the barn. The donkey was lying in the straw now, her head in his lap, fighting nothing, taking all that Johnny did for her, swallowing the tonics in little gulps, breathing hard through her nose.
“Murdoch said I’d find you here,” Scott said. Johnny smiled up at his brother.
“Boy, you look good enough to eat, brother!”
Scott looked down at his polished shoes, smoothed his hands down the front of his new suit jacket.
“Thought I’d make a particular effort, John, seeing as how important this party is to our father.”
“Murdoch send you in here?”
His brother peered down at a bale of straw before sitting down on it carefully.
“Careful, Scott. Wouldn’t want you to mess up your outfit.”
Damn, but his brother wasn’t playing the game. He looked as serious as a judge, leaning his elbows on the creases of his fine pants.
“I think you should come to the party, Johnny.”
Johnny stroked the donkey’s throat to ease down the last of the tonic.
“I can’t leave this mare, Scott. She’s goin’ to have her foal anytime, and I think she’ll need help.”
“For God’s sake, we’ve got over fifty hands who can do that job, Johnny, probably better than you! Murdoch wants you at that party and I think we owe him our loyalty.”
“This mare came to me, brother. I owe her.”
“Not much, I know, but this could be her last night. I’ve been there, Scott. I know her feelin’s. Murdoch’ll have plenty more parties he can drag me to. Hell, I might even put on a tie, but not tonight. Tonight, I’m stayin’ here.”
His brother hesitated. He placed a hand on one of the donkey’s twisted hooves and stroked upwards along the deformity.
“I guess I’m mostly just mad at you for leaving me to deal with the Reverend and Mrs Jones by myself,” Scott said, smiling a little. “Not to mention the Bills girls.” His smile widened. “If I’m engaged to either Louisa or Clemmie by the end of the night, I’ll hold you responsible.”
Relieved to his bones, Johnny grinned.
“Don’t worry, big brother. I’ll just tell ‘em about your laudanum addiction and your bad breath. That’ll see ‘em off.”
“Very amusing, little brother.” Scott stood up, brushing at invisible dust on his jacket. “I’ll see you later. I might even sneak you in a plate of food from the tables if you’re lucky.”
“Thanks. Just make sure it ain’t anythin’ green.”
His brother laughed and left the barn. Glad again of his winter jacket, Johnny lay back in the straw, the mare’s head in his lap and waited for the foal to begin.
He woke with a start. The donkey had lifted its head and let out a long and mournful bray. From the hacienda could be heard the sound of fiddles playing a lively dance. Someone laughed so loud, it was like a cleaver cutting through the cold night air. Johnny stroked the mare’s head and laid it gently in the straw. He got to his feet. In the lamplight, he saw that the foal was coming. Steam rose in clouds from the damp straw and a single tiny hoof was visible at the mare’s opening. She was breathing deep and hard and he wondered if she’d have the energy to push the baby out. Kneeling down in the straw, he felt around the opening for the other foot, plunging his fingers further into the cavity when he found nothing. His heart beating hard, he touched the tongue and then the nose.
The mare groaned from deep within her body. Laying there in the straw, her belly seemed as if it was about to burst with its load.
“He’s goin’ to have to go back in for a spell, old girl.”
His own breath quickening, Johnny grabbed the foal’s foot. It was hot and slippery, the tiny hoof as soft as a mushroom stalk. He pushed hard. The motion set the mare pushing back against him.
“No, ya dumb creature. It’s gotta go back in. Quit fightin’ me.”
He pushed again, gasping with the effort, his boot scrabbling for grip on the barn’s dirt floor. Nothing budged.
“¡Mierda!, ¡maldito sea!”
He tried again. Finally, out of breath, he sat back in the straw and gazed at the mare. She brayed again, starting loud enough to wake the dead, before fading into an exhausted moan. Johnny’s gaze went to the foal’s pale hoof. For all he knew the baby was dead; all this effort gone to waste on a corpse. But then, what if it wasn’t? What if it came out all gangly legs and big ears, making everyone laugh in a day or so as it jumped around in the straw? What if the mare lived, even if it was just long enough to fuss and suckle her baby for just one night?
He had no choice. He sure didn’t want to do it, but he had no choice. He left the barn and headed towards the hacienda. The place was ablaze with light. The lanterns strung along the walls shone out in bright colours that hardly seemed right for a working ranch. The fiddlers were bowing another dance tune and the hubbub of voices told of many guests having themselves a heck of a good time. His father sure knew how to throw a party.
Just inside the entrance, Jelly was turning a whole hog on a spit and for a moment the smell of the roasting meat made his mouth water and his belly crave food. On tables were Mexican Christmas treats – romeritos, Rosca de Reyes, and, Jesus, Maria had even made chocolate caliente to chase away the cold. He’d only ever dreamed of tasting it, and there it was, steaming into the night like an offering to heaven. There seemed to be food everywhere, piled high like Scott had told him about from that $75 book – chicken, corn cobs, mincemeat pies and fruit cakes; iced cookies and wobbling jellies for the ranchers’ kids. He saw a bunch of the little critters, screaming and chasing one another in and out of the adults, sticky pastries in their hands.
“You changed your mind ‘bout ‘comin’ to the party?” Jelly said. He was ladling hot fat over the hog roast. Hell, even old Jelly was done up in a suit and tie. “It’s one heck of a shebang, I can tell ya!” He raised a glass of something golden and smiled. It was pretty clear the old man was half-way roostered. “This Ponche Nadiveño is sure goin’ down better’n the bug juice Will Clutterman served me las’ Sat’day night.”
Johnny was scanning the area for the presence of his father. He was never too hard to spot, being taller than almost anyone he’d ever known.
“Navideño, Jelly,” he said.
He looked at the old man impatiently.
“It’s Navideño, not Nadiveño.”
“Well, I don’t rightly care if it’s called the Devil’s Brew, boy.” He belched loudly. “It’s darned good!”
“Where’s Murdoch, Jelly?”
The old man waved the ladle at the open front door.
“Oh, somewhere inside, jawin’ his head off ‘bout the railroad or somethin’. Man cain’t even quit talkin’ business at ‘is own party.”
He found Scott first by the Great Room’s fireplace, charming some peach of a girl Johnny had never seen before. She smiled at him with her almond shaped eyes, but her smile faded a bit when she took in his soiled hands and the straw flakes in his clothes. He realised he probably smelled pretty high, too.
“Hey, brother. Are you joining us?”
“No, Scott. Where’s Murdoch?”
“In his study, I believe, holding court with a group of our neighbours.” His brother glanced at the girl and smiled. “Thankfully, not the pretty, interesting ones.” His smile turned into a frown. “Are you alright, John?”
“The mare’s foalin’ and one of its legs is bent back. I can’t shift it. Murdoch’ll know what to do.”
Scott excused himself from the girl and put an arm around Johnny’s shoulders.
“Well, she certainly chose her moment, didn’t she,” his brother said. “You get Murdoch. I’ll fetch a pan of hot water from the kitchen.”
“Sorry, brother. Didn’t want to break up your romancin’.”
“Don’t worry,” Scott whispered. “She thinks the Reverend Jones is inspirational. Not quite my type, I think. Go get Murdoch. I‘ll see you in the barn.”
He heard his father before he saw him, holding a cigar and laughing out loud at something Jackson Crouch had said. The room was full of smoke, and old men gone red-faced with good cheer and whisky. The banker, Joshua Black was there, as oily and round as a butterball. Johnny recognised several ranchers, a lawyer from Stockton, Green River’s Justice of the Peace, Charles Howitt; there were others who were strange to him, but they all had something in common in his eyes – they knew their place in the world and they were damned pleased about it. His heart shied a bit before he walked in; it was like busting in on a bunch of priests or schoolteachers. Only the thought of the foal wanting to be born kept his feet moving. Murdoch was listening hard to another of Jackson Crouch’s tales of when he’d been a lawman in Carson City.
“And this old feller, must’ve been eighty years of age if he was a day, he swore blind he’d seen off Three-fingered Jack McDowell with nothin’ but a skinnin’ knife!”
“McDowell?” Murdoch said. “Didn’t he run with the Daly gang in the …”
Johnny touched his father’s sleeve.
“Murdoch, I need to talk to you.”
His father turned and looked down at him. Jesus, if there was one damn thing he’d change about the man, he’d chop a few inches off his height for sure. His eyes were a little misty with his best scotch, probably a good thing when it came to it. Sure enough, his voice came out a little fuzzed at the edges.
“Later, Son. Charles is about to read his yearly round-up of Green River’s ‘deeds and doings’ as he terms it. Have you eaten?”
“No.” Howitt, several sheets of paper in his hands, was clearing his throat loudly, and the men in the room had fallen into murmuring. “Murdoch …”
“Shhh,” his father said. “We’ll talk later.” He rubbed Johnny’s neck. “Go and eat.”
“Damn it, Murdoch, the donkey’s foalin’ an’ it ain’t comin’ out right! I need you to … you can fix it. I’ve seen you do it before.”
That’d done it alright. The old men were looking straight at him like a bunch of cantankerous turkeys.
“Donkeys, Murdoch?” Crouch said, laughing. “You’ve been keeping that one under your hat. Horses too uppity for you nowadays?”
There were roars of laughter. His father was staring at him and he honestly couldn’t say that he wasn’t about to have his ears boxed.
“What’s the problem?” Murdoch said. He was frowning and the whisky-soft edge to his tone had vanished.
“One leg’s back. I tried to push the foal back in, but it wouldn’t budge. Scott’s fetching hot water.”
“We’ll need soap as well.” His father looked over at Charles Howitt. “Excuse me, Charles. Go ahead and read your report. I’ll catch up with it later.”
His father didn’t even wait to change his clothes. He walked straight out of his party, fetched a bar of soap from the kitchen and strode across the yard and into the barn. Somehow, he’d known Murdoch wouldn’t refuse him, but he’d never expected it to be like this, unquestioning, absolute and as pure in action as a man walking out to a gunfight.
His heart thudded all the way across the yard. It kept up its drumming as Murdoch knelt in the straw behind the donkey. Scott was there with the pail of steaming water. Their father threw off his dress jacket and rolled up his sleeves, plunging his hands into the water. He soaped his arms up to his elbows, working up a lather.
“Go to her head, Son,” he said to Johnny. “This won’t be easy for her. Hold the lamp so I can see what I’m doing, Scott.”
His brother obeyed Murdoch as silently and as instantly as he had. Scott knelt close by and held the lamp so that its light cast their shadows huge on the barn’s wall. Johnny stroked the mare and watched his father’s face as he worked. Even with his strength and experience, it was clear that the task was taking everything he had. It looked almost like pain. Sweat beads popped out of his father’s skin and he even cussed a little, until at last he let out a gasp.
“Got it! I’ve got both feet now. Give me the rope, Scott. We’re going to have to give this poor beast some help.”
He’d been at difficult births before, but this one was the hardest of all. It took all he had not to weep at this mare’s efforts to push, and her long bellows of exhausted agony. He spoke softly to her as his father and brother waited for each push and then pulled hard on the ropes looped around the foal’s ankles. When the foal’s head and shoulders were through, the rest of it slid out in its bloody gloop onto the straw as easily as a fish. Johnny realised how hard he’d been gripping the mare’s neck and head. Now he looked down at her. Her eyes were closed and she was breathing softly through her nose. Her breath was warm on his hand. Almost lost in the steam of birth, his father was pulling mucus out of the foal’s mouth, while Scott rubbed the baby with a handful of straw.
“Is it alive, Murdoch?”
His father nodded. Johnny saw the foal lift its head, shake its crazily long ears. He smiled. God alone knew why it mattered so much to him to see that little creature alive in the straw, but it did. Scott continued to rub away the birth mucus from the foal’s coat. Johnny looked at his father. Murdoch was exhausted, his muscled arms smeared with blood and mucus, his big hands splayed on the knees of his dress pants, but what he’d done had pleased the hell out of him. That was clear. He met Johnny’s gaze, and his smile got wider.
“Look’s like you’ve added another stray to your collection, John. What’re you going to call him?”
“Well, I reckon he should be called after the man who birthed ‘im but one Murdoch’s enough around here.” Johnny smiled up at his brother. “So I reckon he can take your second name – Angus.”
“A very fine name,” his father said. The foal was making its first attempt to rise. Murdoch got to his feet and took it in his arms. He placed the foal by its mother’s head.
“Don’t reckon she’s goin’ to make it, Murdoch,” Johnny said, his hand resting on the mare’s cheekbone.
“Give her time, Son. You’d be amazed what the feeling of a parent for its young one can do. Let’s leave them to it for awhile. We can’t do any more for them tonight.”
He nodded. He allowed his father to take his hand and pull him up from the straw. He was dog-tired and hungry as hell. Still, it was a crazy feeling to walk out of the barn with his father and brother and see those party lights still blazing and people still having a good time, talking, laughing, filling themselves up with pork roast and hot punch. It felt like a dream. Something did anyway. Maybe it was the shadows in the barn. The circle of yellow light which had seen the foal’s struggle to be born. His brother’s silent vigil. His father’s iron resolve to save a small life. The mare’s gentle breaths on his skin at the end of her agony. He didn’t know. He just knew it felt different enough to the party to be almost like another world, another life.
He ate like a bear after winter hibernation. Jelly had cut him a mighty slice of the hog roast, spooned on some apple sauce and slapped it between two slices of bread. It tasted so good he almost choked on stuffing it down. Around him, guests were piling their plates with food or dancing to the fiddlers. Some were too far gone to do much but smile stupidly at the air. Others, mostly the old men, their opinions heated by liquor, were arguing loudly. His brother was making a mash on Ike Kinsey’s oldest girl, Dora, leaning in just that little bit more closely than any other man would dare. She was loving it, though; he could almost see the quivers under that pale cream dress of hers. Elsewhere, the kids were either dancing awkwardly with adults twice their size, or playing with whatever creature they could find – Bess, his father’s old Labrador, his own dog, Tequila, Jelly’s fractious goose or one of Maria’s hens which’d somehow escaped the coop. The hen was under one of the trestle tables pecking for crumbs. Neither the noise nor the kids seemed to bother it. It might as well have been in the orchard on a summer’s day scratching for worms.
Murdoch had gone upstairs to wash and change, but he’d said nothing about his son’s clothes. Still, after the sandwich had eased his craving gut, Johnny got hot water from Maria and went to his room. He did his best to scrub away the worst of the gloop and sweat. He looked at the few clothes he possessed, ignoring the suit Scott had made him buy a few months before. If he was to ‘socialise’ as his father wanted, then he at least had to feel something of who he was. Stiff collars and ties made him feel as trapped as a fox in a snare, a stranger to himself. He could understand how a creature might chew off its own leg to escape.
He chose the only shirt he liked which had never seen a working sweat, white with red embroidery down the front. He’d be willing to endure the smart dress pants and shined up boots for that shirt. After he’d dressed, he looked at himself in Scott’s full-length mirror. Jesus, but he couldn’t decide if he looked the part or not. What man worth his salt cared about such stuff? Yet his father and brother did, and they were worth a hell of a lot of salt when it came to it.
Downstairs, he ladled hot punch into a glass and drank it quickly. The brandy hit after the first taste of fruit and spices and he ladled out another one.
“Johnny! Hell, it’s about time ya showed your ugly face, boy! Where ya been all night?”
It was that easy. His friend, Tyler Crouch, whomping his shoulder and breathing liquor in his face. It was that easy to be dragged in among faces he knew and pretty much liked all round, to start jawing about girls and horses with Tyler and Jack Salter, to tell little made-up stories to the wide-eyed ranchers’ kids, to flirt a little with the county’s women, even with some of the older ones. The shirt helped. The unwed girls touched the embroidery with a smile and looked for the symbols in it; the wives asked who among them was capable of such fine needlework.
Harder was mixing it with the old men, the ranchers and big bugs of the town. He didn’t blame his father for practically grabbing him and making sure they knew he was just as much Lancer as Scott, just as much heir to all Lancer represented for the community. He hated it, though, squirmed like a bug under their turkey eyes, stiffened in the grip of their bony hands. Some, like Jackson Crouch, he knew and respected, though there was a world of difference between dosing spring calves with Jackson on a hot August day in the pens and exchanging small talk with him at a party. Others, like Joshua Black, might as well’ve been Chinamen for all he could think of to say to them.
“Well, my boy,” Black said, shaking his hand. “Murdoch sure is a fortunate man to have two fine sons to work alongside him. A man needs sons in this country. What do you think of the railroad? How will it affect the future of our community and our town, d’you think?”
What did he think of the railroad? It wasn’t the only question he struggled to answer. They came at him like bullets: The merits and pitfalls of winter calving? Putting French breeds rather than Herefords to shorthorns? The rights and wrongs of government policy towards the Native Indians? Fair water sharing agreements? Best treatment for blowflies? Quarter horse bloodlines? (At least, he’d had some thoughts on that one; not that the old coot who’d asked for his thoughts had listened.) By the time his father considered he’d done enough ‘socialising’ and let him go back to his friends, his face hurt with the effort of looking polite and interested.
He escaped when the guests began to leave, while the ranchers’ wives were gathering their kids like fussy hens with their chicks, and Tyler Crouch was being chewed out by his Old Man for being too liquored up to drive their buggy home. The ‘Merry Christmas’s’ rang out in the cold air as neighbours drove away into the night.
In the barn, he held his breath while he lit the oil lamp. He blew out the match and raised the lamp. He let out a sigh of relief. The mare was up on her crooked feet, suckling the foal. Her head was turned to nuzzle its rear end. The crazy little tail was swinging as the foal suckled and it was as if she was trying to catch it with her tongue. Her ears were still down at unnatural angles in her exhaustion, but her eyes were brighter.
“Good,” his father said, coming up behind him. “I was worried we might need to latch him on while she was lying down.”
He held the lamp while Murdoch picked up the afterbirth and slung it in a pail. His father shook more straw into the stall to cover up blood and damp.
“That should do it.” He straightened up and smiled at Johnny. “Enjoy the party, son?”
Nodding, Johnny smiled back.
“Most of it.”
“Uh huh. Which parts in particular?”
“Well, the food, I guess, and the caliente. I finally got to taste it after all these years. I always wanted to.”
Johnny almost laughed at the memory of his reaction to the drink. He’d gone straight to Maria and lifted her off her feet. She’d scolded him good for it, but she’d laughed as she chased him away.
“Oh yeh, Murdoch. It was real good.”
His father smiled. Then he placed his hand at the top of the mare’s tail and scratched it.
“I suppose I don’t have to guess which aspect of the party wasn’t quite so pleasant for you.”
“I guess not.”
Murdoch nodded. He picked up the pail of afterbirth and squeezed Johnny’s shoulder as he walked past him.
“You did fine, son. Anyone who can listen to Joshua Black blether on for longer than three minutes without wanting to shoot him is a first rate man in my estimation.”
“Who said I didn’t want to?”
His father laughed out loud as opened the barn door.
“Don’t stay out here too long, boy. You’ll catch your death in that shirt. You should’ve worn that new jacket of yours.”
Johnny smiled as the barn door closed behind his father.
Some days seemed made for special happenings. Most days went by, one after the other, with nothing to remark them, unless a man took a real close look. Other days, life seemed to spring out all over the place like green shoots after rain in a drought.
The day after the party, Christmas Day, he hadn’t expected much of. In the past two weeks, Scott had already fussed over the tree, decorations and presents for longer than Johnny thought owed to one day. Maria had gone from cooking for the party to preparing a feast for lunch, but it promised nothing so fine as the caliente or the romeritos, just turkey and too many damn greens than was good for a man’s digestion. Worst of all, Murdoch had invited the Reverend Jones and his wife to Christmas lunch after church. Jesus, he’d even been tempted to shoot himself in the foot to escape that trial!
The day had started good, though. Murdoch had unwrapped that seventy-five dollar book and, truth to tell, it had been worth every damn dime of the thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents he’d paid as his share to see his father’s face. He’d given Scott a book of songs for the piano Sven Bergson had recommended. He hadn’t been any more certain of Scott’s reaction than Murdoch’s, but his brother had seemed as happy as a hog over it. It had set him on telling stories of evening singsongs from when he was a kid in Boston, until their father’s unhappy look had stopped him.
His own best present, as unexpected as the Huevos Rancheros at breakfast, was the Holley pocket knife Murdoch had given him. He’d craved it ever since he’d seen it under a glass case at Bergson’s, ivory scales, two knives that folded into the body with a snap, so neat he’d be able to carry it anywhere. First chance he got, he went outside, the knife in the top pocket of his winter jacket. It was a fiercely cold morning. Three pairs of long johns someone had left outside on a line were stiff as clapboard. Like magic, there seemed no trace of last night’s party and he wondered how early Maria and her crew had risen.
In the small corral, the injured cow was pulling at hay, her calf suckling, stomping a little foot at the pleasure of it. Steam rose from both their mouths, and when the cow moved, she put weight on her injured hoof. She still limped, but the swelling had gone down. He could tell by the cow’s face, too, that her suffering had eased. Though he’d been laughed at by Old Tick Arkwright for it, he could see pain in an animal’s mouth as well as its eyes. The cow’s eyes were bright and her mouth was relaxed and easy as she chewed on the hay. He was keen to use his new knife, so he went into the hay barn and picked up a bale. His breath steaming into the morning air, he dropped it down into the corral, leaping in after it. It was pure joy to open the knife, feel its sharp blade slice the twine with just a touch. Best of all, was the way the knife snapped to and slid back in his pocket like it lived there. He piled hay in the feeder and went to the barn.
He’d already been out before sun-up to check on the mare and foal. They’d both been resting, the foal curled up close to its mother, its eyes closed. He had to admit it was the prettiest little creature he’d seen in a good while. It occurred to him that there’d be plenty of girls in town who’d practically faint with the pleasure of seeing it. Delia Kinsey was known to give little squeals over kitten and puppies. He was still getting used to the ways of ‘nice’ girls, but it sure wasn’t too hard when they practically peed themselves over a cute little critter. It tickled the hell out of him to imagine Delia’s reaction to the foal, and he wondered how he could persuade her father to let her visit.
Earlier, not wanting to disturb their rest, he’d left the mare and foal to it while he went for breakfast. Now he carefully pushed open the door. The early morning sun poured a beam of winter light through the gap and through the small holes in the barn’s boards. It lit up the dust in the barn’s dim interior so that it sparkled like frost.
He knew the mare was dead, though, before he got there. Death always made itself known in a place, and he’d known it often. Still, he was surprised by it here and now, shaken by its cold full stop on his hopes. Kneeling down, he placed his hand on her flank. She wasn’t cold yet. His gaze went to her twisted hooves and the thought of her pain filled journey to him almost undid him then. Biting his lip and letting out a breath, he placed his hand over the foal’s head.
“Hey, little feller.”
The foal nuzzled at his hand. Did an animal know when its mother was dead? The baby got up on shaky legs and stretched. The mare’s teats were still wet from his suckling. Johnny hoped it had been enough to get him started. Suddenly, the foal tried a leap away from him. It stumbled, nose down into the straw, and tried another. The little creature’s energy startled him, made him smile despite himself.
“Oh, that’s a damn shame.”
Johnny kept his gaze on the foal prancing about the straw as his father went to the mare and rested his hand on her belly.
“She was alive before breakfast, Murdoch.” Johnny said.
Resting on his haunches, his father nodded.
“She lived long enough to see this little one started, anyway. He’s got his first milk. Are you alright, Son?”
“Yeh, I guess.” Johnny sighed. “I kinda hoped … y’know?”
“Yes, I know.” His father smiled then, when the foal stopped by him and stretched out its neck to sniff at him, its tail swinging. He put out a hand. The foal licked it before leaping away. “Well, we have to decide what to do about Angus now. He’s going to take a lot of time and effort to raise without a mother.”
“It’s winter, Murdoch. We got time.”
His father stood up.
“Let’s try something, Johnny. It’s not ideal. Mare’s milk, even goat’s would be better, but a cow might do the trick and she’d give him something to warm up to. Orphans die as much through lack of a warm body as anything else.”
They brought the injured cow and her calf inside the barn. Johnny stood back and watched his father pick up the foal from beside its dead mother. He would hardly dare to believe either that the donkey would suckle or the cow would allow him.
“What’s going on here?”
He turned and smiled a little at his brother.
“The mare died and Murdoch’s tryin’ to hook up ‘Gus with a cow. Must be Christmas, brother.”
He felt Scott’s hand go to his neck.
“I’m sorry about the mare, Johnny.”
“Yeh, well, she lived long enough to know her baby for a little bit. I guess that’s somethin’.” He smiled as his father struggled to latch the foal onto the cow’s teat. For her part, she stood still, munching at corn. That was miracle enough. “Murdoch, we’re goin’ to have to raise ‘im in the house by the fire on a bottle. Y’know it.”
“Oh, that’ll go well with my evening of songs and piano pieces I’ve planned for New Year’s Eve,” his brother said.
“We’re not raising a donkey in the house, Johnny,” his father said, his face now red with his efforts. “And that’s final.”
“It’s cold out here and you said yourself he needs …”
“I’m not discussing it.” Again the foal struggled against taking the teat. The cow’s calf watched wide-eyed and rigid in the straw. “Come on, you wee bampot.”
“Bampot?” Scott said, grinning. “Can I use that on Johnny when he oversteps the mark?”
Johnny elbowed his brother. Murdoch scowled and seemed about to throw back a rebuke when he suddenly smiled.
“Ah, that’s it. That’s it. You go for it, little feller.” He turned, his face sweating from the struggle and smiled widely at his sons.
“Persistence, boys. That’s all it takes.”
“That,” Scott said. “And the idea of having a donkey running around the house.”
Amazed, Johnny watched the foal suckle the cow, and she didn’t seem to give a damn, not even when her calf joined in on the other side.
“Of course, we’ll have to watch him for scours,” his father said. “Maybe take him off her for a few hours each day and give him goat’s milk instead.”
He was hardly aware of what his father was saying. It was too good watching that cow take to the foal, even turning her head to lick a swathe along his downy grey coat. He’d never seen the like of it. He stayed until the cow was lying down and the donkey and the calf lay together in the lee of her belly like brothers.
Lunch in the hacienda had been good as long as he concentrated on the food. Reverend Jones had got into a discussion with Murdoch about plans for a mission school for Indian kids and Mrs Jones had fallen easy prey to his brother’s charms. Oh sure, she’d tried her grease on his wheels, jawing about Christmas in Mexico, as if could tell her what ‘place settings’ they used for ‘the Yuletide dinner’, for Christ’s sake! Still, he’d got away without a ticking off from his father the entire meal, not even a throat-clearing, and that had to be a first.
It was after lunch that the unexpected visitors came, just when the older adults had settled in the Great Room with their brandy and cigars.
They were a ragged group, two men and a woman, grease in their clothes and grime in the pores of their faces. They were leading a troupe of donkeys, all five of them as ill-used as the dead mare, hooves curled up, eyes dull and their heads pitched low like they were already looking for the end. Johnny came out of the barn at the same time his father and brother emerged from the house. It was still cold and the clouds had cast over the blue sky of early morning, threatening rain.
“What can we do for you?” his father said. Johnny was surprised to see a rifle in Scott’s hands.
The oldest of the three, a man of about his father’s age, his chin raw with cuts from bad shaving, glanced at Johnny before answering Murdoch.
“We heard you got some property of ours, Mr Lancer.”
“What would that be, Mr …?”
“My name don’t matter. We’ll be on our way just as soon as you hand the mare over.”
Johnny moved closer. The woman looked at him then, a thin pale face surrounded by long rat-tail strands of hair. She appeared half-starved. He looked at his father who raised his eyebrows at him; it was enough to stop him, to stop the angry words in his craw.
“If you mean that poor abused and wretched creature that turned up here yesterday,” Murdoch said. “She died early this morning.”
“You can go to hell, Mister!” the younger of the two men said. “Hand the damn mare over like my pa says an’ we’ll be on our way!”
The youth had an old pistol, pushed in the top of his pants and like a fool went to it. Instantly, Scott raised the rifle and pulled back the lever. Murdoch put a hand out, but the man had already cuffed the youth hard enough to knock him sideways.
“Billy, shut your damn trap like I told ya. I’ll handle this.” He turned back to Murdoch. “The mare was carryin’. Where’s her young ‘un?”
“In the barn,” Johnny said, before his father could answer. “And you sure as hell ain’t havin’ him, you damn sonuvabitch!”
“Well, look at those animals, Murdoch! Jesus, there oughta be a law against sonsuvbitches like you! If you think we’re goin’ to hand that foal over just so you can beat and starve it to death, you’re damn loco.”
“That your kid, Mr Lancer?” the older man said. “Cus I’d slap his mouth shut iffen he was mine.”
“Yes, he’s mine, but he’s not saying anything I don’t feel myself.”
The man looked at the woman, but she lowered her gaze. The son was holding his face, glaring at his father.
“It ain’t lawful fer you to keep that foal an’ you know it. The mare broke her hobble and what she carried is my property.”
“Name your price,” his father said. The man’s eyes narrowed. He glanced around at Johnny, before turning his gaze back on Murdoch.
“It ain’t fer sale.”
“Of course he is. How much do you want for him?”
Johnny swore he could see the man’s brain turning numbers over in its skull.
“What the hell would a big bug rancher like you want with a damn burro?”
Johnny looked at his brother. Scott still had the rifle raised at his waist. He smiled a little at him. The man was frowning, taken by surprise.
“Take it, Deke,” the woman said. “We ain’t got no food tonight but one of these burros.”
“Shut ya yap, woman. I’m thinkin’. I’m thinkin’ is all.”
“Fifty dollars,” his father said.
“Fifty dollars for all of them.”
Johnny felt his own eyes widen. He took a fresh look at the donkeys. A sorrier bunch of animals he’d never seen, and destined for the cooking pot if what the woman had said was to be believed. His brother had lowered the gun and was practically smirking now. Their Old Man, who would argue a price down to the very last dime and then some, was throwing money at these mudsills for a bunch of scrawny burros.
“One hundred,” the man said. He leered a mouthful of bad teeth at Johnny. “Reckon you’re fool enough to spend that much on a Christmas present for your kid.”
“Seventy-five and that’s my final offer.”
“Take it, Deke,” the woman said. “Please take it.”
This time the man didn’t shut her up. He looked hard at Murdoch and nodded.
“Alright, Mr Lancer. You got yourself a deal, only don’t go thinkin’ you got no bargain offen me here.”
His father looked stonily at the man, before patting Scott’s shoulder.
“Take the donkeys into the main corral, boys. Give them something to eat.” He looked at the family. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll get you your money.”
His brother was still smirking as he took hold of the ropes of three of the donkeys and led them towards the corral.
“Well, brother, I think our dear father has finally lost his mind. Lancer is within our grasp at last.”
Johnny laughed. Behind them, the five donkeys hobbled like old men.
“After a performance like that, Scott, I wouldn’t reckon on us gettin’ Lancer ever.” He shook his head. “Boy, the Old Man’s somethin’ though, ain’t he?”
They put the donkeys in the corral, gave them water and piled hay into the feeder. Johnny fetched scoopfuls of corn from the barn and scattered it along a feed trough. The animals sniffed at the corn as if it might leap up and bite them. Then they began to eat. Johnny watched them, his brother leaning an elbow on his shoulder.
“They’ll have to earn their keep, John.”
“I’ll train ‘em to fill your bathtubs, brother, set out them fancy towels of yours with your name on.”
He ducked away, laughing, from his brother’s hand. Behind them, the family were leaving, the man counting money, the woman carrying a basket covered in a white cloth. Murdoch, his hands in his pockets, watched them go and then walked over to the corral.
“Got them settled in, boys?”
“Yes, sir,” his brother said. “We were just debating the uses we’ll put our new stock to.”
Their father smiled.
“We’ll discuss that after I’ve trimmed their hooves and they’ve got some meat on their bones. Come on inside now. We still have our guests to entertain.”
Murdoch opened the corral gate for them and closed it when they were through. Johnny stopped and looked at him.
“Seventy-five dollars, Murdoch? Jesus, they ain’t worth twenty, not even ‘Gus.”
His father smiled again and put an arm around his shoulders as they walked towards the house.
“I guess anything’s worth what a man’s willing to pay for it, son, and I’d have paid more.”
Johnny looked at his brother who shrugged, an uncertain smile on his face.
“How much more?”
Murdoch laughed and shook him gently.
“I’ll leave you to think about that, John.”
Smiling a little, Johnny nodded, although, as he walked in the embrace of his father’s arm into the house, he wasn’t sure he’d ever know the answer. But it seemed to him that somehow everything in his new life seemed just a little easier than it had been before the donkey’s coming.
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