Johnny Madrid, Gunfighter by Cat

#8 in the Jamie Series

Word Count 39,947

This is the sequel to “Francie” and is set in that universe. Johnny is married to Francie, has a son, Jamie, by his first marriage to Sarah and a daughter, Jessie, with Francie, who is pregnant again.  Scott is married to Charlotte.  She has a son, Jack, and a daughter, Lily, from her first marriage and a new baby, Garrett (otherwise known as Bug).  Lily died of a long illness and Scott and his family have gone to San Francisco for her funeral.  Jamie is ten and Jack is eleven in this story.

Johnny was injured in an incident with Jamie’s pony and has lost some of his sight again. He is waiting for a consultation with a doctor who is taking his time to come from San Francisco to see if an operation will restore his sight. 

While I fully appreciate that some readers like their Lancers unmarried, for some reason this story has taken hold of me and won’t let go!  Mind you, it’s been a very long time in a WIP state.  However, I think the changes I have made mean it makes more sense – as much sense as the cure in Blind Man’s Bluff makes, anyway (ie not a whole lot!).

So, if you prefer unmarried Scott and Johnny, beware!  Here be a much extended family! 

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 Part 1  In Harness    One month after the end of “Francie”

“Whatchadoin’, Pa?”  Jamie leaned forward just a little more, until his stomach rested on the table top and his feet swung free.  Then, when he got no answer, he asked again, “What the heck are ya doin’?”

“You mind your language, Jamie.  You can see what I’m doin’.  You want to go get some milk and a cookie from Francie?  She’s in the kitchen.”

“I see whatcha doin’, just don’t think I even seen you check the tack on the dining room table b’fore.”

The huge table had been covered with a couple of oil cloths, and a horse blanket over that.  Spread over the blanket was, to Jamie’s eyes, a snakes’ nest of leather traces, bits, harness and everything else that usually lived neatly in the barn.  His father had a strap in his hand and was running it through his fingers, checking the buckle and the stitching.

“Don’t tell Francie,” his father said conspiratorially.  “And don’t kick the table leg.”

Jamie swung his feet more carefully.  “You mean she don’t know?”  He watched as

his father set the strap on the table by his right hand and reached for another from a pile on his left.  He didn’t quite get hold of it, and Jamie reached across to push it closer.

“Thanks,” said his father, who held the leather in his left hand then reached across with his right.  “What’ve I got here?”

Jamie wondered for a moment if his father was helping him understand the complicated workings of the leather and metal they used to work the horses.  Then he realised his father simply didn’t know.  One of his bad days, then.  His father’s sight came back a little and went again, each day a bit different. 

“I think it’s that harness Jelly bought last month.  Ya know, the one he said was a bargain.”

“Okay.  Well, now, let me see.  Feels okay.  You wanna get me some milk, if you don’t want any?”

“Sure, Pa.”  But Jamie just went on leaning and his father went on working at the leather, pulling it through his fingers.

“It’s worn here, right by this buckle, see?”  His father held the strap and Jamie finally slid back off the table to get close enough to see properly.  This had the unfortunate effect of dragging the oil cloth with him and then next he knew, there was a slither of leather and his father was trying to catch the stuff, warn Jamie and tell him off at the same time.

“Jamie? What’ve you done? That’s a damned fool thing to do!”  His father grimaced and Jamie knew it was at the bad word.  Jamie watched wordlessly as his father gathered up something in his hands and thumped it back on the table, reaching for more tack but grasping at air.

Jamie stood, blushing, wanting to help but not knowing how.  Francie chose that moment to walk in.

“Johnny!”  She stood, hands on hips, and Jamie held his breath.  She was good and mad, just as he knew she would be.

Pa had succeeded in pushing most of the cloth back across the table, but he stopped his efforts to pick up the harness when he heard her voice.  He winced as something with a buckle clattered to the floor.

Then Jamie saw something he had rarely seen before: Francie hauling in her temper.  He saw her bite her lip, put her hands down and saw the fight go out of her.

“Oh, Johnny,” she said, and began to laugh.  “What’ve you got yourself into this time?”

“Seemed like a good idea.  Had a couple of the hands wash down the tack, thought, since I wasn’t allowed out today, mebbe if they brought it in here.”  There was a little roughness in Pa’s voice still, from being mad with Jamie, and his hands were gripping a strap hard enough to make his knuckles white, but he seemed to be calming down.

“Why not the kitchen?”  Francie asked, grinning broadly.

Jamie sidled up to his father and started to move the harness from the floor, trying to be quiet as he put it back on the table.  He waited silently for his father’s reply.  This was their conversation and he was going to keep out of it.  That way, he might stay out of trouble.

“With Maria in there baking?” his father said, dead serious.

“You afraid of Maria?”

“You bet your life I’m afraid of Maria.”

“But you ain’t afraid of me?”

“Nope.”

Jamie giggled.

“You afraid of her, Jamie?”  His father reached out and Jamie leaned into him, and felt his father’s arm go around him.

“Nope.”

Francie smiled at him, and rested her hands on her stomach.  “I’m gonna make sure this one is afraid of me,” she said, and Jamie knew she was talking of the new baby.  “You want some milk, Jamie?  How’d your first day at school go?”  She moved to the other side of the table and started to pull the cloths straight.

“Why does everyone want me to drink milk?” Jamie asked, frowning.

“Cuz you’re way too skinny.  Lookee here, I can get one hand clear round you.” And his father started to tickle him, making him squirm.  “And how did school go, anyway?”

Francie had managed to get the cloths straight and the stuff on the table sorted out a bit and smiled at Jamie.  She turned and left, so he had Pa to himself again.

“Mr. Henry let me read my book to the whole class.”

“He did?” His father had pulled a halter towards him and had begun to run the leather pieces through his hands. 

“Yeah.  And he said I was good at figgerin’.”

“That’s right.  You are.”

“And I finished the test before everyone else.”

“You be sure to tell Grandpa that.  He might even forgive me making a mess of things here if you tell him his lessons helped you.”  Now his father sounded tired.  Jamie knew that voice well – tired, and a bit sad.  Something was wrong and Jamie wished he could help put it right

“Is he gonna be mad?”  Jamie asked, leaning in close to his father again.

“I don’t think so.  Joe tried to keep me out of mischief, setting everything out for me.   Almost worked, too.  Now, what else did you do?”

“Oh – oh – I have to ask you all about – well, I don’t know where to start.  But I have to take a story I’ve written about you, or the ranch, or Grandpa, or …”  He tripped over the words, trying to ask a question which wasn’t clear in his mind.

“You have to read out a story in school, right?”

Jamie was grateful for his father’s good guess.  “Yeah, that’s it.  There’s gonna be a prize, a big prize, for a story about – about the history of the state, Mr. Henry said.  But first I have to take a story to school.  About you. And I’ve got a whole month to find out but I wanted to get a start on it today.”

His father went quiet.  Jamie looked at him, but it was harder to understand his father’s mood when he couldn’t look him in the eye.  All he could do was start asking the questions that had been on his mind since that morning.

“Is there a story I can tell everyone about you, Pa?  A story from when you were my age?  Or something real important you did.  You must have done some important things!  You were real famous, weren’t you?”

His father still didn’t say anything.  He was looking down now, his hands working at a buckle; maybe he was thinking.  Jamie waited impatiently.  Maybe he was wondering which was the best story he could tell.

His father finally spoke, so quietly Jamie had to lean in to listen to him.  “Yeah.  I was famous.  But not here, Jamie.  Along the Border.  You won’t be wantin’ stories about that to read to the other kids.”

“Why not?”

His father sighed.  “Did I tell you how I was a schoolteacher once?”

“You were?”  Jamie’s disbelief came straight out with the words.

“I sure was.  I got a gold star, too.  I reckon it’s still around somewhere.  You think you’d like that story to take with you tomorrow?  The real teacher was a famous man, in the end.”

“If it’s part of California State history, I reckon it’d be fine to take.  Did you have to do what Mr. Henry does – make everyone behave?  Stop fights, stuff like that?”

“I sure did.  They were having themselves a fracas.”  His father smiled then he put aside the halter he’d been working on, reached out and felt round for something else in the tangle of tack.

“How did you stop it?” Jamie asked, pushing a strap close to his father’s hand. 

“I could run faster than them.”

“Oh, Pa!”  Jamie laughed at his father’s joke.  “Did you wear your gun? Did you scare them into behaving themselves?”

There was that pause again, that time when his father looked away from him, as if he was searching for something.  Jamie knew him so well that he could wait until his father was

prepared to give him an answer.

“I don’t think I frightened them.  Does Mr. Henry frighten you?”

“No.”

“But you do what he says?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, that’s what happened with these kids.  I guess we had us some mutual respect.  And before you ask, that means we respected each other.  I was their teacher and they were my pupils.  We got along all right.  But I didn’t know much more than they did, not then.  Had to be taught the lessons the night before, then teach it to the kids next day.  Boy, was I worried they were gonna catch me out!”

“You were?”

“You got any more questions in that head of yours?  Cuz I reckon I’m on the point of saying you asked enough questions for one day.”

Jamie judged his father was not quite all worn out, so willing to answer another question or three.  “You gotta tell me more!  You ain’t told me near enough for me to make it into a real out and out adventure story.”

“All right.  I’ll tell you some more.  But no more questions.”

“Not even one more?”

His father smiled.  “You’re too sneaky, son.  No, not even half a one more.  Now, just you be quiet while I get this straight in my head, remember the names, things like that.  Well, it was me and Murdoch, and we were just meant to be visiting the son of a friend of the old – of your Grandpa’s.”

For a quarter of an hour Jamie listened to the story of getting to know each child, and Annabelle and her gold star, and answering the question before she’d thought out the answer properly, and all the amazing things his father had done, like sorting out the bad parents who wouldn’t send their kids to school.  He’d even helped to keep the school going when if he hadn’t, it would have closed for sure.

At the end, Jamie had a million questions to ask, not the one hundred he had thought about asking as he had run home from school.  But his father had already called for Francie and looked like his head was paining him, like it had been more than just a story he was telling, it was something that needed a lot of thought to get right.  So Jamie took the glass of milk that Francie gave him, and drank it down then ate his cookie, also courtesy Francie.  She was speaking to his father quietly while she sort of guided him over to the couch.  Pa sat down and laid his head back.

Francie looked up at Jamie.  “Go get Joe – tell him to put the tack back in the barn.  Any special way you want it, Johnny?”

“Yeah,” Pa said, closing his eyes.  “All the pieces on the right, they’ve been checked.  Things on the left still need looking at.”

Jamie looked at the pile of tack, muddled up now because some of it had been pulled off the table, which his father seemed to have forgotten.  He was about to say something when Francie shook her head at him.  He clamped his mouth shut.

“All right – we’ll take care of it.  You just rest there a while.  Be time to eat in an hour or so.”

His father looked like he was already asleep.  Jamie wandered out of the room, head full of images of his father teaching school, a slate in one hand and a pistol in the other.  Maybe he hadn’t said it was like that, but Jamie was sure that was how it had happened.

All he needed to do now was go over the story a couple more times, then his homework would be mostly done and, in a month, he’d be ready to face the class, with a tale out of family history which no-one outside his family knew about.  Except the children and the lady teacher and her husband and probably most of town knew too.  Maybe one day, he’d go to the town and look up those people and talk to them about his father, who’d had a name with a fine ring to it.  Johnny Madrid, gunfighter.  Jamie grinned.  It would be a fine moment, telling the class about him and knowing Johnny Madrid was his own father.  He could hardly wait.

Part 2    A Family Story   One Month Later

Jamie trailed along the hot road, his slate, primer and lunchbox in one hand, a large stick in the other.  He was trying to see what it might be like to be his father.  He used the stick to steer himself and keep his eyes half-shut, but he was managing pretty well and had only ended up in a ditch once. 

His pa had spent some time carefully explaining how much he could see.  Light and dark for sure.  Sometimes the light was too bright and he had to stay indoors.  Shapes, much clearer than they were.  Movement better than things that were still.  Not enough to say for sure who someone was when they were on the other side of the room, though he said he’d know Jamie anywhere.  “Too small to be Jack, too big to be Jessie, too quiet to be Francie, and too quick to be Murdoch.”  Jamie revolved the words proudly in his head.

He opened his eyes and watched his boots appear under him regularly, one then the other, swinging forward as if they wanted to go back to school.  He sure didn’t.  He didn’t feel in the least bit ready, even after Grandpa had helped him read the story in his new primer on Sunday.  His spelling was pretty shaky too, and grandpa had helped out, making up ways to help him learn the difficult words.  He’d also earned twenty cents for his figgering.  Seemed he was better at that than at finding his way through the maze of words those in charge of primers and readers had decided he must be able to read.  He had moved up a whole grade and it was feeling like a step too far.   

While he trudged forward, he thought about Jack’s laughter and pranks, the way he ran ahead and dawdled behind, shouting out what he’d found or thought of or wanted to do.  It was very quiet without him and he felt like he was all alone.  The other children from the ranch had set out earlier than he had.  He’d been helping Pa, who’d been making up Jamie’s lunch pail and he hadn’t noticed the time until the big clock in the great room struck the half hour. But he was still not inclined to hurry and had purposefully walked the longer way round the road to spin out the time.

And he even had with him his father’s story, carefully copied for the third time under his grandpa’s supervision.  Grandpa had even given him a few more details because he’d been there, at least some of the time.  It made a fine story.  But the telling of it would not have Jack for an audience and that was making him feel sad.

He looked back down at his feet.  He tracked through in his mind everything they’d done over the weekend.  His pa didn’t need ropes to guide him any more so he’d helped to take them down.  But his father still needed the doctor and maybe even an  operation next week.  He knew his father was worried about that because he had been inclined to be a bit crosser and tireder than usual all weekend. 

Francie was working extra hard to cheer Pa up, but she was busy working on another baby and didn’t have as much energy as she usually had.  He couldn’t be more pleased about the new boy – he was sure it was a boy – to play with, even if he was going to be a baby, because he’d make up for Jack not being there.  Francie herself didn’t seem so happy.  He tried to puzzle that out.  He had never seen mother cows being ill when they started to grow babies.  Arabella the ninth always looked pleased to be having more babies.  Even the mother cat had been fine about her kittens.  So how come human mothers got sick?  It was one of those puzzles he would just have to ask someone about sometime soon.

He glanced back up and grimaced.  He was nearly there, the one-room schoolhouse with its shade trees standing at the crossroads, and around it the children were playing, children from the Lancer ranch, from Aggie’s place – she had three children, Christopher, Ben and George – and from two other small ranches.

It had been a long while since the beginning of the school year, and so much had happened.  He had wanted to stay home then, mostly, but Pa and Grandpa had explained that he had to attend school.  It was the manly thing to do.  Now here he was again, still trying to at least look manly, even if he didn’t feel it.  He glanced over at the other children.  Little Caroline was there, with her fair ringlets and blue dress.  She sat on the steps, looking cool and fresh, and Jamie went to sit next to her.

Mr. Henry hadn’t rung the bell yet, so they got to talking about the weekend.  Jamie was still keeping back his big news about his father. He believed his father’s accident was a secret only known to his Pa, Francie, himself and Grandpa, and he had resolved to keep it quiet.

At the start of the year he’d had to share news about Lily’s death.  There was some sympathy expressed and Jamie had nodded and said his thanks, as Francie had instructed him.  That felt like a long time ago now, and he wondered again when Jack would return from laying Lily to rest – a phrase he had heard the adults saying and which sounded better than being buried. 

Caroline told him about the cow that had had twins, and the tree that blew down right across their outhouse and the fact that she had lost another tooth.  He was just working himself up to tell her he was going to have another half-brother or sister when the cries of, “Fight!  Fight!” drew him to his feet.

“Who’s that?” he asked, looking at a boy he had never seen before.  The boy had his fists up and was circling with Raul, the eldest of Maria’s four grandchildren.

Caroline looked and sniffed scornfully.  “That?  That’s Dan Keefer.  He’s new.  He’s

been rude to just about everyone and he was only dropped off a few minutes ago.  Two men brought him in a wagon.”

The fight was on the point of resuming when the schoolteacher appeared.

“Boys!  Boys!”  The middle-aged man, formidable and, even in the children’s eyes, an excellent teacher, walked quickly to part the two.  “Now, who started this nonsense?”

“It was Dan, Mr. Henry.  He was calling Raul some bad names.”  Caroline stepped forward, unafraid, and Jamie was made aware again just how cool she seemed.

“Dan – get along inside.  You have an extra five minutes’ recess, children, and that’s all.  Raul, go wash your face.  I’ll see you in a minute.”

Mr. Henry had everything calmed down within his five-minute deadline.  He directed the children to file in past Dan, who was sitting alone at the front of the room looking rather red.  Mr. Henry would give him some tests to see which grade he was in.  Jamie wondered if the new boy would have to sit with the little ones at the front.

Everyone else sat down in their grade places and set to work on various Math tasks the teacher had put up on the boards.  Jamie figured his pretty quickly, Murdoch’s training standing him in good stead, then he sneaked his copy of “Tom Sawyer” onto his desk and surreptitiously opened it.

“James Lancer?”

He was lost in the scene in the mines and it had been a long time since he had been required to answer to that name.

“Jamie – what are you doing?”

“I’m reading, Mr. Henry.  I done my sums.”

“You have done your sums.  All right, bring them here.”

Jamie did as he was told, and had his answers checked.

“Next time, just bring them up when you’re done.  You have a good head for figures, young man.  Now, when can we expect your cousin back in this house of learning?”

The man settled back in his hard wooden seat.  How could he wear his jacket in such heat, Jamie wondered.  And how could any man be as thin as his teacher and still walk and talk and move around?  How come he always asked questions, too?

“Not till next week at the earliest, sir,” he managed, remembering what Grandpa had told him to say.  He said it rather more quietly than he had intended. 

“All right.  You’ll have to help him catch up.”

“I will, sir.  He had to dash off real sudden, but last time we talked he promised to bring some paper and pencils from San Francisco so we can all do something…”  Jamie’s voice trailed off as he realised everyone was looking at him. 

“I got my own paper and pencils,” Dan said crossly.  He looked sullenly at Jamie.  “I don’t need no boss’s son giving me no paper.  My Pa gets me everything I need for drawing and we brought it all with us when we come here last week.”

“That’s enough, Daniel.  That’s a kind thought, Jamie.  We need something to make a Thanksgiving display, if you think he will be back by then.”

Jamie thought.  Thanksgiving was weeks and weeks and weeks away.  Surely his cousin would be back before then.  He looked at Jack’s empty place on the bench and thought how lonely it looked.  He was used to seeing Jack’s cheery grin and hearing his answers to so many of the questions.

“Yeah, I guess he might be.” 

“Children, I’m looking forward to hearing your stories after lunch.  I hope you all have something.  Daniel, you weren’t here when I told the group what to do, so perhaps you could bring a story to school by the end of the week.”

Jamie watched Dan, who was scowling.  “Yes sir,” Dan said, quite politely, even though he still looked a bit cross.

At lunchtime they got up an impromptu ball game and Jamie began to enjoy hitting and running and catching, stretching his legs for the first time in a couple of days.  He whooped encouragement to Caroline, who was mighty handy with a bat as well as being a fast runner, despite her skirts, and for a good half hour Jamie’s thoughts were filled with the score and his pitching, which had improved over the summer.   His father had been coaching him until … well, he’d coached him.

As they all sat resting happily in the shade, glad of a cool breeze which lifted the leaves of the tree, they took to exchanging more stories of their adventures in the summer vacation.  Jamie kept quiet for a while and noticed Dan doing the same.  Dan was sitting on the edge of their group, clearly listening to the stories of ranch life, which were comforting and familiar to Jamie.  And Jamie felt himself slip a little bit away from the difficulties that had seemed so important that very morning.

Just as he began to think he might share the story of Jack and the apple tree, Mr. Henry called them all in for afternoon school.

So Jamie went back into the classroom and listened while two children read their stories – they were pretty interesting, too, especially Raul’s, because his family had lived in the area longer than anyone else’s.

When it came to his turn, his heart was thumping with excitement.  He was wishing again that his cousin was there to hear him read the story.  Grandpa had helped him make it sound like in a history book, almost, but Jamie worried that the other children would be bored and wouldn’t see the image he had of his father, gun in hand, taming the children and their parents and the whole town, teaching them to respect him and the teacher who’d run away. 

So, when he read his story to the class, he added a few bits, a couple of ideas of his own that Grandpa had told him weren’t needed, until he knew he had the whole class listening to him.  Mr. Henry was listening carefully, too, so he knew he was telling the story well. 

“So that was how Johnny Madrid, my father, helped to bring civilisation to the West.”  The last words he’d adapted from what he remembered Grandpa saying.  “He was the best gunfighter and the best town tamer, and …”

“Thank you, Jamie,” Mr. Henry said, loudly.  “I’ve met Mr. Cameron more than once, so it’s very interesting to hear the story from – well, from another point of view.  Did your father read through that account when it was complete?”

“Yes,” Jamie said, truthfully.  “I read it to him myself.” 

“And did he hear what you said in the last part as well?” 

Jamie thought back.   “I added a couple of words in when I read it out, Mr. Henry.    But it’s all true.  My father was Johnny Madrid, and he ought to have his name in the history books like everyone else.” 

“I’m sure the whole Lancer family have a part to play in the history of California, Jamie.  Very well, you may sit down.  I’ll talk to your father tonight, if I manage to leave the town meeting in time.  It will be – interesting to hear what he’ll say about your additions.”

Jamie blushed, trying to remember now his exact words, and whether his father would be happy to hear what Mr. Henry thought of it.   He didn’t like the way Mr. Henry said “interested”, either – twice.  He was beginning to learn the word didn’t mean quite what he had thought it meant. 

“Yes, sir,” was all Jamie could manage before he went to sit in his place.  He was feeling his story hadn’t been quite the success he’d hoped, until a little boy at the front began to clap, then everyone was clapping, and Mr. Henry let them until he held up his hand for silence. 

“Thank you, children.  You have had your instructions for the work you should do at home.  That will be all for the day.” 

So the great moment had passed, the one he’d anticipated for the better part of a month, and he felt tired and not as happy as he had thought he would.  Even with the applause fresh in his memory, he left the room feeling he should have done more, made the story even better, so that Mr. Henry wouldn’t have needed to interrupt him.

He walked out into the bright sunshine and his mood lifted.  The children crowded round, ready for more stories of Johnny Madrid, Gunfighter, and Jamie felt the pride in his father return and fill him with eagerness to satisfy their curiosity.

Part 3  Being the Son of Johnny Madrid   Monday after school  

“He was!”  Jamie shouted, fists clenched, eyes furiously blue.  “He was a great gunfighter!  He fought bravely in Mexico and was nearly shot in a – a firing squad!” 

Jamie had no idea what a firing squad was, but his father had defeated them. He’d heard his father talking about it once with Uncle Scott.  It sure sounded brave.

“He was more famous than anyone!”  Jamie shouted, and now children who’d been walking along the road home were running to see what was going on.  “I don’t care if you haven’t heard of him – you’re, you’re just stupid!”  He’d wanted to curse but he’d been lectured about that by Grandpa more than once.

Dan scowled at Jamie.  Jamie tried to size up his chances against him.  They were about the same height but maybe Dan was heavier.  Suddenly Dan took a step back and before Jamie could even hold up his fists Dan had punched him, hard, on the nose.  Jamie fell back into the roadway.

“Johnny Madrid, my ass,” he said scornfully.  “Never even heard of him.  And my pa, he was a gunfighter in his day and he’s never said nothin’ about no Johnny Madrid.”

“Come on, Jamie – no use fussin’ with a guy who uses his fists.  He ain’t gonna believe you.”  Christopher, Aggie’s eldest, stood by Jamie, offering what help he could, though he was only nine.

Jamie got up, put his hand to his nose and tried hard not to cry.  The blood dripped steadily into the dust by his feet.

Dan backed off.   He must have had enough sense to know they were not going to like him if he did more damage to a Lancer boy.

“Boss’s baby,” Dan said.  “S’ppose you’ll run home to old man Lancer now, have us turned off our bit of land.”

Jamie stood facing his enemy, legs shaking, chin and shirt reddened with splashes and drops of blood.  He began to pull off his bandana to catch the drips.  “My grandpa wouldn’t do that,” he said with a quiet intensity that stilled all the children.  “But my pa might have a word with your pa.”

“Your pa’s blind.  He won’t be going anywhere and he sure couldn’t beat my pa to the draw!”

It was too intense a feeling for Jamie to contain; the words cut him, tore him up inside.  He flung himself on Dan with a furious onslaught which tipped the other boy onto his back, astonishment on his face.

But it didn’t take Dan long to re-assert himself, pinning Jamie to the ground, both boys red-faced and wild-eyed.

“Say you give in!” Dan yelled.

“No!”

“Say it!”  Dan leaned closer.

“Won’t!  I won’t never give in to you.  You’ll see!”

Suddenly it was over.  Mr. Henry was driving his buggy along the road towards them, and that was enough to scatter the children into the landscape, leaving Jamie in the middle of the roadway on his backside.  He dusted off his pants and ran for home, unwilling to face Mr. Henry.  In the afternoon heat, he tried to bury his fury at himself for losing, with Dan for winning and finally, at his father for being just what the bully had said – blind and helpless.  And everyone knew his father couldn’t see worth a lick.  His secret wasn’t a secret at all. 

As soon as he got within shouting distance of the ranch he checked for movement. 

There were a couple of hands working the new horses and two women sitting in the shade of the washhouse.

“Hola, niño!  What have you done to your shirt, Angel?”  Some of the Spanish women used his second, Spanish name in preference to his first, though he was never quite sure if they were teasing him with it a little.  He was a pretty battered angel right now.

“Banged my nose.  Got it bloody,” he said, trying to avoid the truth.  “Don’t tell Pa!” he added.  “Can you wash my shirt for me?”

“For sure, chico.  Pilar, you have a clean shirt for him?  Come here, Angel, let’s go in the washroom and clean you up.  Your Papa, he doesn’t need to know.  I understand.”  Lucita had been his wet nurse after his mother’s death.  There was not much he could slip past her but he could trust her.

He let himself be hugged and led into the cool interior of the washroom.  Lucita took off his shirt and gave him a cloth and a basin of cold water.  Jamie wiped his face.  His nose was sore and he wondered what he looked like, but there was no mirror in the place.

“Does it show much?” he asked.

“Miss Francie will see what has happened,” Lucita said tactfully, taking something from Pilar.  “You will have one, maybe two black eyes, I think.  What happened?  Did you trip and fall?  You’ve grown so fast, chico.”  Without warning, Lucita pressed an ice-cold cloth to his nose, and one large, comforting hand behind his back stopped him flinching away.

All he could do was nod.  Then Pilar was helping him into a clean shirt and looking sympathetically at him when Lucita let him up for air, before turning the cloth and holding it to his nose again.  His eyes were watering and he was desperate to get away from the smothering cloth but she’s doctored him before and he knew she was doing the best she could for him. 

The women sat him down on a stool, instructed him on where to keep the cloth and then disappeared for a few minutes.  He knew where they’d gone but he still looked up curiously when they came back.  They had brought Francie with them.  Jamie felt his face go hot with embarrassment and felt a little worried when Pilar and Lucita left him alone with his stepmother.

“What have you been up to?” she said, easing the cloth from his face. 

“It all kinda went wrong, Francie,” he said, feeling the tears creeping up on him again.

“Looks like it.  Tell me,” Francie said.

“Well.”  Jamie put down the cloth and looked at the floor.  “I told them Pa’s story, the one where he was the teacher and he tamed a whole mess of kids.”

“Yes?  Did the other children like the story?”  Francie had come to sit by him, dragging a second stool across the floor and settling herself calmly.

She had said the right thing.  All the happy memories of the laughs, and the admiring eyes and the applause came back to him, salving his misery.  “They loved it.  Especially the part where he shot the toy snake.  Everyone was impressed.  I had to tell that part twice.”

Francie suddenly looked very serious.  “You did tell them – about him saying he was angry with himself when he did that?  That he told the children they had to learn to think things out instead of acting on instinct?”

Jamie lowered his head.  “I guess I forgot that part.”

“Go on.”  Francie was not happy with him.  She had her hand on her stomach and she looked a bit pale in the shady room.

“Mr. Henry said I told the story well but he didn’t let me finish.  I did real well at some figgerin’ too.”

“Math, Jamie.  Mathematics.”

“Yeah, we did that,” Jamie said, happy to be doing something to please this woman, who looked at him as if she knew every thought in his head.

“So when did you get to fighting, Jamie?” Francie asked.

“It was on the way home. Sammy was getting me to tell the story again, and there were some other kids there, then Dan came up and started hitting me.”

“Hold on – who’s Dan?” 

“He’s new.  Caroline said he came early yesterday – two men brought him.  He’s bigger than me.  A bit.  Are you going to tell Pa what happened?”

“I don’t know yet, Jamie.  I’m not sure we can hide this from him.  Maybe, if it’s not too serious he doesn’t need to know.  So this Dan just started hitting you?”  Francie looked at him.  He couldn’t get anything important past her.

“He said – he said he didn’t believe Pa was Johnny Madrid, and he wouldn’t believe me, no matter what I said.”

“Well, more fool him.”  She grinned suddenly, and Jamie remembered that she’d known his father when he was Johnny Madrid, which is more than he had done.

“Then – he said…” Misery began to take him again.

She took his hand and was very gentle with him.  “Yes?” she encouraged.

“When I said Pa would talk to his father about what he’d done to me, he said, he said he knew Pa was blind and wouldn’t be going anywhere.”  Jamie felt a fierce pain as he remembered the actual words Dan had used but he tried not to give in to it.  Then he felt Francie pull him close.

“Oh, Jamie,” was all she said.

Then she held him while he sobbed and didn’t say anything else until he’d gathered himself a bit.

“Are you mad – you know – at what’s happened to Johnny – to your father?” she said finally.  He looked at her with surprise, then saw the tears in her eyes.

“You mad at Pa?” he asked, trying to guess at some truth that was a little out of his reach.

“No, Jamie – not at him.  At the way things turned out.  Just at that.”

“It’ll be all right, won’t it?” Jamie asked, more unsure of the answer than he had ever been.

But she didn’t reply.  They waited each other out in silence, until finally she spoke. “How about some lemonade and a cookie?  I reckon your Pa’ll be awake soon.  Then maybe you have some studying to do?  Grandpa can help you with that.  Oh – I have a surprise for you – Jack’s due on the morning stage on Friday, so you’ve got a day off to come with me and Grandpa to fetch him.”

Jamie rubbed his eye.  “Jack’s coming home?”

“Yes.  And probably Uncle Scott.  Telegram came at midday.  I’d have told you straight away if you hadn’t come home with a black eye.”

“You gonna tell Pa?”

She looked at him, not really smiling, just something like it.  “I reckon we’ll keep this quiet for now.  Johnny’ll be seeing the doc from San Francisco in the middle of next week.  I don’t think this is going to bruise too badly at all after Lucita’s treatment.  But I think you’ll have to tell Mr. Henry what happened.  He can deal with Dan’s parents.”

“Will I have to talk to Grandpa too?  He’ll see what happened.”

“We’ll speak to him together.  But you know your pa’ll know there’s something wrong if you go close to him, so you’ll have to take care not to let him see.”

He knew that was true.  But then, he’d never had to do anything like this, keep a secret so his father could be easy in his mind.  His father had always taken whatever he’d told him, good or bad, and it hadn’t been any use holding back the truth.

“You remember – your pa’s birthday?  You kept the surprise from him for two whole days, never gave it away all that time?”  Francie asked.

Jamie smiled.  Francie had found the answer.  “You mean – keep it like a surprise?  Tell him when it’s all sorted out and Dan’s apologised?”

It was Francie’s turn to smile.  “Hmmm – I wouldn’t count on that, young man!  But yeah, until we have it sorted out.  See what Mr. Henry can do and if you have trouble telling him I’ll go down there myself, have a quiet word.  Now, come on, we’ll go and talk to Maria, then we’ll have a word with Grandpa, see if we can’t keep this secret.  I’ll talk to your father, tell him you ain’t feelin’ so well.”

Jamie laughed as Francie dropped back into her old ways of talking, which she’d been trying to improve.  She unexpectedly hugged him tight for a minute, then guided him out into the hot, windy sunshine.

His father was lying on the couch, asleep, when Jamie went to tell him he had a headache and was going to bed – which was completely true.

“Pa?” he said.  He waited a moment and sure enough, Pa woke.

“Jamie?” he said, pushing himself upright.  “How you feelin’?  Francie said you weren’t feelin’ too chipper.”

“Got a headache, Pa.  Ain’t too bad.  She’s given me some of that tea we hate.”  Jamie hung round at the bottom of the stairs, hoping he was too far from his father to be seen clearly.  “Ain’t nothin’.  Stayed too long in the sun, Francie said.  Fried my brains, she said.”  He laughed.  She had said that, too, when they’d walked back to the house together.  So no lying, not yet.

“You sound like you got a cold comin’ on.”

“No, I’m all right.  No.  It’s windy out there, I got dust up my nose.”

“Well, you go get some sleep. Maybe tomorrow, we can think of something I can do for you, for when you get home.  Maybe I can make you a lead rein for that pony of yours?”

Jamie knew his father could do that without straining his eyes.  He’d been wanting to have a new lead rein for a while, but his father had always been too busy.  “Sure thing!  I was using one so wore out I thought it’d break every time I tugged on it.” 

“Right then, lead rein it is.  Bring me the makings tomorrow morning, all right?  Now, get along with you,” his father said, lying back again and closing his eyes.

“Yes, Pa.”  Jamie glanced at Francie, who had been standing in the doorway.  She nodded at him.  He’d done fine.  Grandpa knew, and he’d said they were doing the right thing.  So it was all right.

He slept the sleep of the just that night.

Part 4  Snowstorm   Wednesday evening and Thursday   

The middle of the week passed mostly uneventfully for Jamie, with a lot of time spent with Grandpa at his desk, with his back to where his father sat so that Jamie could hide his hurt nose and black eye.  Francie was giving him his meals separately, too, but he didn’t usually eat with the rest of the family anyway unless it was a special occasion. 

On Wednesday evening, Grandpa started working with him on the next story in the Primer.

“Johnny’s First Snowstorm,” Jamie read out loud.

His father, the leading rein growing in his hands, snorted suddenly.  “Johnny’s first snowstorm, eh?”  his father said.  “And just when did I see this snowstorm?”

Jamie grinned at his Grandpa.

“Go on, Jamie, read it for your father.”

“‘Johnny Reed was a little boy who never had seen a snowstorm till he was six years old.’  How old were you when you saw your first snowstorm, Pa?”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any snow, except at the very top of high mountains.  Always been pretty warm where I’ve lived.”  His father put down the rein and leaned back.  “Go on with the story.”

“Before this, he had lived in a warm country, where the sun shines down on beautiful orange groves, and fields always sweet with flowers,” Jamie read carefully but he didn’t bother with expression.  That was mostly for the girls to put in so it was embarrassing when the boys did the sing-songy stuff.  Anyway, he had to be real careful to get all the words right.

But Grandpa wasn’t going to let him get away with just words.  “Let’s cheer this up, shall we?  It’s about oranges and flowers – it’s not my cattle tallies.”

Jamie twisted his mouth and sighed.  He tried again.  “BEFORE this, he had LIVED in a warm COUNTRY…”

He stopped when he heard his father laughing – quietly, but he was definitely laughing.

It was Grandpa’s turn to sigh.  “Jamie.  Come on, you know how to do this.  The words are put into groups, so that they make sense together.  Again.”

Jamie tried hard, but the third time he was too loud, and the fourth time his father interrupted his efforts.

“Before this,” his father said, “he had lived in a warm country, where the sun shines down on beautiful orange groves, and fields always sweet with flowers.”  In his father’s soft voice the picture came alive in Jamie’s head, with all the colours of the rainbow laid out before him.  Then his father added:  “I don’t know about orange groves – maybe more cactus than oranges.  But flowers, yeah, there’s been flowers,” his father said, like he was remembering.  “What’s next, Jamie?”

Jamie, too astonished to do anything but continue reading, managed to put aside his embarrassment and made what he thought was a reasonable stab at the next section.

“But now he had come to visit his grandmother, who lived where the snow falls in winter.  Johnny was standing at the window when the snow came down.  “O mamma!” he cried, joyfully, “do come quick, and see these little white birds flying down from heaven.”

“Again,” said his grandfather, and this time, the pictures came into his head as he read, just like when Pa had said it, and although he had no idea what snow looked like, he did know about white birds, so that helped.  

This time, a question came into his head.  “Where did his grandmother go?”

There was a sudden silence.  Jamie looked up at his Grandpa, who looked puzzled.

“I don’t know what you mean, Jamie,” Grandpa said. 

“Well, Johnny was staying with his grandmother but now he’s speaking to his Mamma.  How come he’s not speaking to his grandmother?”

“Good question, Murdoch,” Pa said, sitting up and looking across at them.  He was smiling, a kinda half smile that Jamie remembered from before his father’s accident.  It usually meant he was planning something, like a joke on someone.

“Ah – where indeed is his grandmother?”  Grandpa said, leaning back in his chair.  “I think she must be downstairs making supper for a good little boy who’s seeing his first snowflakes.”

“Tell me about my grandmother!” Jamie said with sudden enthusiasm.  If nothing else, it would put his reading off for a little while.

“Which one, Jamie?  You have two, you know.”

“I do?”  Jamie thought hard, and realised the beautiful lady in the picture on Grandpa’s desk was one, and the other lived in Sacramento.  “Oh yes!  I don’t remember ever seeing them.”

His father joined in the conversation again.  He was leaning forward now, like he was more interested. “Your mother’s mother, Sarah’s mother, she saw you when you were a baby but it was a long way to come and your mother – it was her funeral, Jamie.”

Jamie knew his mother had died and was buried in the family plot.  His father had told him all about her when he was old enough to understand some of what he was saying, but he’d never thought of her having a mother. 

“Oh.  Can we see her again soon?”

“Maybe,” his father said, in that way that meant no. 

Jamie thought about protesting but gave up on that idea.  What his father said was not to be questioned, not when he had a lot on his mind, even when he had been laughing.  So he thought until another question came into his head.  “What about my other grandmother – can we see her?”

This time Grandpa answered.  “We don’t know where she is, Jamie.  She went away a long, long time ago.  Now, go on with your story.  It’s nearly time for you to go to bed.”

Only half satisfied by the answers, he knew when Grandpa meant what he said, so he continued reading, aware that both the important men in his life were listening to his efforts.  His father was leaning back again and Jamie remembered they had been talking about his father’s mother.  The mother who had not been with him all the time he was growing up. 

Finally he came to the last part.  “The next day Johnny had a fine play in the snow, and when he came in, he said, “I love snow; and I think snowballs are a great deal prettier than oranges.”   Jamie pulled a disgusted face. “‘Prettier’?   I never heard a boy say ‘prettier’, not in my whole life!”

This time, both his father and his grandfather laughed, and he pouted. 

“You think the girls in your classroom are pretty, Jamie?” his father asked, a warm smile in his voice.

“No!” Jamie said, but that seemed rude.  “Well – maybe one or two.  Caroline – and Elisa, I guess.” 

“Who’s prettier?” his father asked.

Jamie fell neatly into the trap, realising just after he’d said, “Elisa’s prettier but Caroline’s a faster runner,” that he’d been caught.  “Pa!  That was a trick!”

“Off to bed, now, Jamie.  You’ve got a lot of growing up to do before you can lay down the law about what boys say and don’t say,” Pa said, kindness still in his voice.

Grandpa had closed the primer and piled Jamie’s books on the corner of the desk.  He put his hand on Jamie’s shoulder.  “Go on.  I’ll be up in a few minutes to wish you goodnight.”

Jamie stood, reluctantly, wished his father goodnight and headed for the stairs.  As he climbed the wide stone steps, he heard his father and grandfather talking to one another.  “Maybe it’s time I wrote Sarah’s folks.”  His father sounded a little sad now, the laughter gone from his voice.  “We could take a trip to Sacramento maybe in a month or so?  It’s been too long.”

“Good idea, son,” his grandfather was saying as Jamie reached the top of the stairs.  “I’ll just get out some paper.” 

As Jamie was getting ready for bed, he wondered what else his father and grandfather might be talking about. He would like to have heard more about his grandmothers.  He knew about Maria only from her picture. His father had told him nothing about her, and now Jamie really wanted to know who she was and why they couldn’t go and see her.

Then his thoughts sort of flipped over in his head.  His father and grandfather were leaving him out of their conversation just as everyone was leaving his father out of what had happened, the fight and the black eye and everything.  Was it fair?  He wanted to talk about it with Grandpa but he didn’t get the chance.  Grandpa came in for a moment to see if he was settled in bed, wished him goodnight, then he left him in the darkened room on his own, without a cousin to talk things over with. 

That night, Jamie had trouble sleeping.  He kept thinking about a mother he would never meet and two grandmothers.  And then it occurred to him that Francie must have a mother too.  He fell asleep thinking of the cold that could freeze rain, and three grandmothers, all making him supper.

On Thursday, Jamie walked back home over the hill, past the pond where the children often gathered to fish and play games and lie around doing nothing in particular. 

Francie was in the yard helping Lucita put some wet sheets up on the line to dry.  She was unusually quiet when Jamie said hello, but then she was being sick quite a lot, so Jamie put it down to her condition.  That’s what Lucita had told him, anyway.

“Don’t worry, it is her condition,” she had said, when Francie had left in a hurry again. “She is better than she was with the first one, I think.”

“Will you do the test, Lucita?  See if it’s a girl or a boy?”

“She doesn’t believe in that – you know that, Angel.”

“Oh.  But you were right with Pilar’s baby,” he said, not meaning to contradict her.

Lucita shrugged.  “She has her own ways.  She’s being a good Mama to you, isn’t she?”

“Sure.  I reckon.  She’s nice but she has a temper, don’t she!”

“She feels very deeply, chico.  Now you go see your Papa.  I think he needs help to pass the time.”

Jamie nodded and sauntered to the house, dragging his feet through the dust.  He paused by the hitching rail.  His father was leaning against the doorjamb, looking thoughtful.  He was carrying Jessie on his hip and she was looking around in that way she had, as if she already knew everything.

“Hi, Pa!” Jamie said.  His father looked over at him, but he was in the shadow of the barn and felt the secret of his black eye was still safe. 

“Hi, Jamie.  Had a good day at school?”

“Yup.  We learned some history.  Mr. Henry told us about Jesse James – got killed last year, he said.  And Billy the Kid year before that.”

His father turned to go inside and Jamie ran to catch him up so he wouldn’t miss his father’s answer.

“Yeah.  Times are changing, changing fast.  They won’t be taking cattle cross the country like they used to, and this barbed wire is…”  He stopped to swing Jessie high in the air, then sat down carefully in his favourite chair and settled Jessie facing him.  “How you doin’, little ‘un?  Your ma’s been hours doing chores.” 

“Yes?  Pa?  Barbed wire?”  Jamie wanted his father’s attention even though he knew Pa was being extra careful to keep Jessie happy.

“It’s making some guy one heck of a lotta money.  Wish I’d thought it up.  Should have spent more time studying when I was your age.”

Jamie collected the paper and pencil he needed to do his homework from Grandpa’s desk and then settled at the dining room table.  “What were you doin’ at my age, Pa?” he said.

His father brought Jessie closer to him and blew a raspberry on her stomach.  Her hands grasped at his hair and she giggled.  His answer was a mite muffled.

 “Bit of this, bit of that.  Makin’ a living.”

“You meet anyone famous?”

“Maybe. This part of your essay-writing?”

“No.  Just interested is all.”  Jamie picked idly at a loose thread in his shirt cuff.

“Well, you need to ask your Uncle Scott who he met when he was your age.  I bet there were some important people around in Boston when he was there.”  Pa settled Jessie against his shoulder, and she bounced up and down on her round little legs.  “Me, I met a few, here and there.”

Jamie fell silent.  He wanted to know some more about his father’s history.  All he’d had to hold on to so far was a few hints, and the stories people had told him.  But now was just not the right moment.

“Francie!” his father suddenly shouted.  “Francie!  Your daughter needs her diaper changing!”

Jamie laughed and Johnny joined him, making exaggerated faces at his daughter.

“Well?” Francie appeared, hot and perspiring, with wisps of hair crawling down the side of her face.  “What?”

Both males snorted their laughter.  “This little one’s all wet,” Johnny said.  “And I ain’t changing her.”

“You want me to change her?  What would you like her changed into?”  Francie tried to look cross as she took Jessie, who promptly began to cry.  “You’re a real daddy’s girl, you are.  Stop crying – I’ll give you back to him when we’ve sorted you out. Supper’s in about half an hour, you two.  Keep out of trouble till then.”  She tucked Jessie into the crook of her arm and left them alone again.

Johnny settled back into the chair and closed his eyes, but Jamie knew he was just stalling.  He had at least four good questions and he was going to get them answered this time.

“Were you really, truly Johnny Madrid, Pa?”

Johnny opened his eyes again.  “You got any reason to doubt that?  Anyway, it wasn’t anythin’ so special.”

“Pa!  Jelly told me…”

“Jelly never met Madrid, Jamie.  Oh sure, I used that name when I met him, but – well – no one except Francie really met him.  You know that.  Not even when I first came here, that wasn’t all that I was when I was Madrid.”

“What do you mean?  You were Johnny Madrid – you just said so.  How could anyone not meet him when they met you?”  Jamie was deeply confused.  Maybe he was hearing things wrong.

His father sighed.  “No one except Francie met him, I said.  He was another person.  When I got on the stage and sat on your uncle – tell you about that one day – I tucked Madrid away.  Oh sure, I used his skills sometimes, and I called myself Madrid a time or two, even after I signed on as a Lancer.  But only Francie really knew me as Johnny Madrid.”

“I don’t get it,” Jamie confessed, feeling a little miserable at his lack of understanding.

“No – I don’t either, really.  But looking back, I can see it now.  Even when your Grandpa and me first met, I held back.  He said I had a bad temper, something like that.  He was right – but he’d never have said that if he’d really seen Madrid.”  His father paused and shifted, slapping a hand against the arm of the chair.  “But you wanted to know something about what I was like at your age?  Well, now, I wasn’t much like you, that’s for sure.”

“What were you like?”

“Smaller.  Thinner.  Lots and lots of hair – spent my life pushin’ it out of my eyes but never thought to get it cut except with my own knife.  I knew a good many ways to stay alive and out of trouble back then.  I remember one time…”

Jamie shuffled up the couch to be ready for one of his father’s stories.  Even his way of speaking seemed to change.

“I remember comin’ into a town one day after a big storm.  Never seen lightnin’ like it.  Thunder near deafened me.  And I nearly got swept away in a flash flood.”

“Were you all on your own?”  Jamie asked, drinking in the details like cool water.

“I was, except for my horse.  I was given him – but that’s another story.  Anyway – there I was, my clothes clingin’ to me, makin’ me look even skinnier than usual, my hair in my eyes, and hungry enough to eat anythin’ I was offered.  I made my way down the street – no one around, too wet for most folks – so I went and tied up outside the cantina.  I was ready to work for my supper, though I was hopin’ maybe food would come before the work – so I went right in the front.  Never did hold with goin’ round the back, always felt too much like beggin’.”

“Was there lots of folks in there?  Was there anyone famous?”

His father laughed.  “No.  No one real famous.  Though I wouldn’t have known even if there was someone there with a reputation.  I went right on up to the bar and asked if they needed any jobs doing.  Well, there was this woman behind the counter.  She seemed friendly, unlike a lot of the people there, who seemed of the opinion that I have to have somethin’ catchin’, lookin’ like I did.  They kinda drew back,” Johnny gestured with his hands, moving two invisible lines of people aside, “and I guess I felt about yeh high.”  This time his hand showed how tall he was feeling.

“Did she give you the job?”

“Hold on, I’m gettin’ to that.  The nice lady, she told me to come with her and she’d give me a job all right.  Some of the folks laughed.  I thought maybe they were laughin’ at me, lookin’ like I did, but they was laughin’ with her.  She took me around the back, threw me out in the rain and shouted, ‘There!  Sweep up that mud! And don’t come until it’s all done!’  Then she threw a broom at me.”

His father was quiet again, and Jamie knew he was remembering.  He knew too that the story would have a happy ending, because all Pa’s stories ended that way.

“Then she said, if I wanted a job, I had to come round the back.  Not drippin’ water right through her nice clean bar room.  And she wouldn’t give me a job if I was the last boy on earth.’”

“Oh Pa – she was mean!  What did you do?”

“Went round the front, took me that old broom, went up to the bar again and then started back towards them batwings, brushing out my footsteps.  I heard a few men laugh, then a whole lot of them.”

“Did they take you back in, give you a meal and somewhere to stay, after you made them laugh?”

Pa’s mouth twitched.  “You want it to end that way, Jamie?  I guess I never really told you a story that didn’t end with a laugh.”

“No, never.”  Jamie felt as if he’d pulled a horse too quickly to a stand.  Surely his father had triumphed, even small and wet and only the same age as him.

“Well – didn’t do any good.  The woman, she didn’t take to what she called my sass.  Pushed me right into the street – near scared my horse off.  I had to ride on.”

“But you were only little!  People shouldn’t be mean to others like that!”  Jamie was incensed.  “All you wanted was a bit of food.”

“Jamie – it wasn’t like that.  I lived the best way I could, and I didn’t always make good choices.  All I had to do was do as she said, apologise maybe, she’d soon enough give me a job washin’ dishes, something like that.  I just had to have my joke.  Last laugh was on me.  You never had to go three days without food, did you?”

“When I was sick, I did.”

“You didn’t feel like eatin’. Jamie.  It ain’t the same.  Nothin’ seems more important than findin’ somethin’ to eat.”  His father paused again.  Jamie tried to imagine what it would be like to be hungry for days on end but he couldn’t do it.  His father started again, this time with an instruction, so Jamie knew it was the end of stories for that night.

“Now, you go and lay the table.  I think Miss Francie has enough on her hands right now,” his father said.  It sounded funny when he called Francie “Miss Francie”, like she was a guest, not part of the family.

Jamie stood up, his mind full of new images and ideas, not all of them squaring with his previous ideas about his father.  He went to fetch the flatware out of the drawer in the huge sideboard.  He had forgotten his original questions in the rush of new information.  But then an important one popped into his mind.

“Were you wearing a gun, Pa?”

“Don’t be silly, Jamie.  Couldn’t have kept the belt from dropping round my ankles.  Anyway, I didn’t have enough money for food – how was I supposed to get myself a gun?” 

“I don’t know.  I just thought – it’s just, whenever I think of Johnny Madrid, I think of him wearing his gunbelt.”

That silenced his father.  There was no comeback at all and Jamie had to look to see if his father was still awake, or even still there.  He was staring into space, and Jamie had to wait a while before his father spoke again.

“I wasn’t Johnny Madrid then.  I was some whelp who thought he was a whole lot smarter and braver and stronger than most folks.  Which I wasn’t.  But I did think that night how they’d respect me more if I did have a gun.  That was my idea, at least.  Don’t you ever go makin’ that mistake, Jamie.  If people respect you only for the weapon you carry and use, well, that ain’t the kind of respect that’s worth havin’.  Took me a long time to learn that, and a lot of people got hurt along the way.”

Jamie didn’t know what to say.  His view of his little world had been changed subtly and he didn’t quite feel as if he was in the same place.  He went back to putting down the flatware with a great deal of attention to where it all should go and welcomed the interruption Francie brought with her in the form of his still vocal little sister.  Who of course settled as soon as she was placed in her father’s arms, much to Francie’s annoyance.  Of course, she didn’t always do that – when she’d had the earache, she cried her way from one member of the household to another until she’d driven them all to their beds.

So the thoughts his father had planted in his head slipped to the back of his mind as he ate supper, did his chores then went to bed.

But the image of a small boy, making the wrong choice and going hungry, haunted his last waking moments.

Part 5  Friday Morning     Jack

When Jamie awoke, he listened to the birds singing and the cows complaining.  Then he heard, muffled and not as familiar as it once had been, raised voices.  His father discussing something with Francie.  That’s what his father called it – discussing – though to Jamie it sounded like arguing.  Their bedroom door must be open for him to hear them from all the way across the corridor.

His heart began to thump.  Maybe she’d told him their secret and Pa was mad with him?  In that instant, he knew he’d been wrong to keep anything from Pa, and he had a fierce desire to run to him and tell him about the fight, whatever the consequences.

He stood by his bedroom door, staring at Jack’s empty bed and looking forward to being able to talk things out with his cousin.  Jack’d be bound to know what to do, or have a good idea at least.  When he heard footsteps, he went to the washstand and picked up the soap.

“Jamie?  You awake?”  It was Francie, outside the door.

He hurried his drawers on under his nightshirt and then called for her to come in.

“Oh – good!  You’re nearly ready.  Well at least someone in this family is being sensible.  I reckon we’re a half hour late already and Jack’ll be wanting to come home straight away after his journey.”

“You think Jack is coming by himself?” Jamie asked, puzzling over the information.

She shrugged.  “I don’t think so.  The letter wasn’t very clear.  But if he does, you mustn’t say anything.”

“Long way to come all on his own,” Jamie said, not taking in what Francie had just told him.  She was busy looking in the middle drawer of his tallboy.

“Well, Uncle Scott is probably coming too,” she said, pulling out his new blue shirt. “Like I said, we’re not sure.  Your uncle didn’t write a very clear letter.”

Jamie busied himself with his socks.  “I remember them coming the first time.  We went to a hotel and waited ages for them.  That’s before Pa found you again.”

“You make me sound like a lost lamb, young man!” she said, grinning.  “Maybe I found him.”  She passed the shirt over to him.  Jamie pulled it on and did up the buttons then suddenly remembered what he’d heard just before she’d come in.

“Francie – did you tell Pa our secret?”

She looked surprised.  “No.  I haven’t said a word.  Least said, soonest mended, my mother used to tell me.  Why?  Oh – because we were having words?  No, it wasn’t about you – don’t worry.”  She tried another smile but it wasn’t quite right, somehow.

“Is he scared of the operation?”  The question was out of Jamie’s mouth before he’d had time to consider it properly.  He hastily stepped into his pants, turned his back to do them up then started tucking in the tail of his shirt.

Francie sighed.  “You never ask the easy questions, do you?  I wonder who you learned that from!  He’ll be fine.  At least he knows it came out right last time.  Maybe it’s just a blockage or something, I don’t know.  Maybe he won’t even need an operation.”

Jamie grabbed his jacket and hurried after Francie.  Despite carrying his brother inside her, she was still pretty fast on her feet.  He was sure the baby was going to be a brother.

Grandpa was already having breakfast.  Jamie sat down and Maria put his breakfast in front of him.  Francie was bustling around, preparing a basket of food and talking to Grandpa, something about who was going on the trip and why.  Jamie was too busy being excited about the prospect of having Jack around again to listen properly to what they were saying, until Grandpa asked him a question.

“Huh?” said Jamie, stopping between gulps of milk.

“Pardon,” said his grandfather, before he took a sip of coffee.  “I said, did you want some more eggs?”

“Sorry, Grandpa,” Jamie said, nearly choking on his milk.  “No thank you.”  Jamie paused to take another mouthful and swallow it.    “It’s gonna be good having Jack home, isn’t it!”  The thought was something that just had to be shared with his grandfather.

“Well – just give him a chance to settle back in.  He’s been on a long trip and he’s going to be tired.”

Jamie nodded, hurrying to the back door and pulling on his boots.

Grandpa stood and left the kitchen.  Jamie found himself directed to go to the outhouse, because they were getting later by the minute and there was going to be no stopping on the way for young men who forgot to go.  When he returned he found the spring wagon ready, his Grandpa holding the reins and Francie ready to help him into his place between them.  He smiled at them both, happy to be going too, though he’d never been allowed a day off school before without being so sick he was in his bed.  Francie didn’t seem very happy about something, and he looked up, following her gaze.

Lucita was standing in the porch, with Jessie on her hip.  She was waving Jessie’s little hand and talking to her.

“Where’s Pa?”  Jamie asked, realising his father was the one who should be holding Jessie.

“He’s not feelin’ too good this mornin’, Jamie.  He’ll stay in bed till we get back,” Francie said, looking up at the window of their bedroom.

“Oh – I should have said goodbye,” Jamie said, looking up at the same window.  “Or should I stay home in case he needs me?”

“No, Jamie – he didn’t want anyone.  He just wants some peace and quiet, he said.  I guess he deserves that when he’s not feelin’ well.”

Francie looked at him and he was surprised to see her eyes looked kinda watery.  Then she grasped his hand for a moment.

“He’ll be up by the time we get back.  You can go see him then, I promise.”

“All right,” Jamie said, though he was reluctant to leave without at least saying goodbye to his father.

Even though Grandpa had kept the horses moving at a good pace they were still nearly an hour late into town, by Grandpa’s watch. 

“Why didn’t they hire a buggy, Grandpa?  Why did we come to fetch them?” Jamie asked, sitting nervously on the edge of the seat.

“Jamie – be careful.  Sit still.  If it is only Jack, and Uncle Scott couldn’t come, he can’t go hiring himself a buggy and driving himself out to the house now, can he?”  Francie’s tone suggested she wasn’t too interested in arguing with him about it.  But it was still puzzling, despite her sensible answer.

Grandpa pulled up the horses, parking the spring wagon carefully in the roadway then wrapping the reins around the brake handle.

Francie climbed down and excused herself.  It had been a long trip for her but she hadn’t complained.  Jamie jumped down after her and was about to head for the stage depot when he heard his Grandfather’s voice.

“Get the weight, Jamie.”

Jamie ran around to the back of the wagon and then to the horses’ heads, to hook on the weight.

“Can I go find Jack now?” he shouted, unable to contain his excitement any more.

“Go on, then.  I’ll wait for Francie.”

Jamie whooped and set off at a flat run down Main Street, dancing past the people and horses, focused on the door of the front office where he knew Jack would be waiting, fresh off the morning stage from the railroad station.  And Uncle Scott too, and maybe Aunt Charlotte, and Bug too.

He jumped the steps onto the sidewalk and skidded to a halt, nearly crashing into Jack who had suddenly appeared at the door.

“I won’t!  I won’t!” Jack was shouting, his red hair bristling and his face beet red with emotion. 

Jamie stepped back, his greetings dying in his mouth, and watched while Jack continued to shout at someone in the office.  Then Uncle Scott came to the doorway and stood there, his face unreadable to Jamie.

“That’s enough, Jack,” his uncle said, not shouting, just saying it like he meant it.  “We’re going to the ranch now.  Look – there’s your cousin.  Jamie – it’s good to see you again.”

Jack had stopped shouting but he was still fighting mad.  Jamie wasn’t sure what to do.  He’d seen Jack lose his temper before, and they’d play-fought and argued as much as any boys, but he’d never seen him like this, and he was a little scared of the boy who was now staring at him.  But he was not a coward and he didn’t back down from the challenge.

“Hi – I’m glad you’re back,” Jamie ventured, hoping Jack would answer him like his old self.  “I’ve got some good stuff to tell you.”

Jack looked him up and down.  “Hi,” he said, without being friendly.

Jamie panicked.  “Where’s your Ma?  Uncle Scott, where’s Aunt Charlotte?”

“She isn’t coming!” Jack shouted, making Jamie step back.

Scott looked at Jack and grimaced.  “Jack,” he said, and Jamie heard the warning in his voice.  “You’ve got no call to be mad with Jamie.  Now go get your bag.”

“Come on then, if we have to.”  Jack disappeared into the office, brushing past Uncle Scott and then returned, holding his bag.

“Jamie – Aunt Charlotte will be coming home in a couple of weeks.  She had a few things she needed to do in San Francisco.  How’s everything at the ranch?”

“Fine, Uncle Scott,” Jamie said, looking sideways at Jack.  His cousin was holding his bag and jigging up and down.

“We going, then?” Jack said.

“Yes, son, we’re going now,” said Uncle Scott.

Jack pulled a face but said nothing.  Jamie was suddenly aware of Grandpa standing right behind him and he saw Jack clamp his mouth shut.

Uncle Scott also went inside and returned with his own bag.  He put his hand out to direct Jack down the steps but Jack shrugged him off and went his own way, Jamie trailing behind him, feeling increasingly miserable.

Jack was respectful to Grandpa, greeted Francie politely but with no smile and refused altogether to talk to Uncle Scott.  They loaded up the bags and a couple of things from the hardware store that Grandpa had bought.  Then came the question of who would sit where.  It should have been easy, him and Jack on the back seat and the adults up front, but with Uncle Scott coming too, Francie came to sit between him and his cousin.  Grandpa and Uncle Scott sat up front and they were pretty quiet.  In fact, far from being a happy time catching up on the news, it was an almost silent trip until they stopped for the food Francie had brought.

Jamie at last found himself alone with his cousin as they trekked over to wash their hands in the stream that trickled down from a steep hillside. Jack seemed better for the cool water.  Jamie began to relax, too, out in the countryside he loved.

“Been tough?” Jamie asked quietly, looking at the path.  “I’m sorry your Ma didn’t come with you.  And Bug.”

“Yeah,” said Jack, all the fight gone out of him.  “I didn’t want to come here.  Wanted to stay home with Ma.”

“Oh.  All right,” Jamie said, not understanding.  “But this is home.”

“Not like San Francisco is home.  But she said I had to come back here and – and she said she’d be along soon.  But I dunno, Jamie.”

Jamie had no idea what to say.  He had no way of guessing what it was like to be separated from his blood relations for any length of time.   He tried to imagine how miserable that would be but he was having trouble even thinking of it.

They walked silently back to a cool, shady spot where the adults were sitting.  They looked as if they had just stopped talking and now Uncle Scott looked angry about something.

“Feeling better now, Jack?” said Grandpa, and Jack shrugged.

“I guess.”  Jack went to sit next to Grandpa and Jamie sat down near them.

Uncle Scott and Francie didn’t say anything, but the two boys began to talk to their grandfather, not about much, just the new colt that had been born while Jack was away, which Jamie had only seen a couple of times.  Then, just as they were packing away, Jack seemed to wake up to the fact that Jamie had a black eye, though it was going green and yellow now as the bruise faded.

“What happened to you?” he asked, really interested in something for the first time.

“New boy at school.  He’s mean.  I punched him back but he’s bigger’n me.”  Jamie put his hands to his face self-consciously.

“What’s his name?” Jack asked, picking up the basket without being told.

“Dan.  No one likes him.  He said mean things about – about Pa.”  Jamie picked up the blanket they’d been sitting on and heard Francie thank them both.  The adults headed back to the wagon, leaving the boys behind.

“I’ll see about that,” Jack said, in a tone of voice Jamie had never heard before, a tone which left him wondering what Jack was thinking of doing.  “If I have to live here, I don’t want no darn loudmouth boy saying things about my family.”

“You hafta remember, though, not to say anything to Pa.  He’s got enough to worry about, Grandpa says, what the doc coming out next week.  For the operation he might have to have.”

“He’s having an operation?  What for?”  Jack asked.

Jamie looked at him.  “For his eyes.  He don’t see so good now.  But the operation will make him better, I think.”  Jamie was puzzled.  Had he forgotten to tell Jack, or had it all happened since he’d gone?  He couldn’t remember.

“Oh,” Jack said, but he didn’t seem all that interested.  He shrugged and went back to the wagon, Jamie trailing behind him.

Jamie threw the blanket in the back of the wagon and went to climb up.  This time Francie got in the front seat and Uncle Scott sat next to the boys.  Jack jumped on board and threw himself next to Jamie, making the springs bounce.  Jamie laughed, and Jack did it some more until Scott told them to stop playing around.  Jack scowled but settled.  Jamie noticed his Uncle’s set mouth and how tired he looked.

Jack began to tell him a few odd things about the trip, just how long it had taken and how many people there were in San Francisco.  Jamie told Jack more about the fight, until Grandpa told him to stop exaggerating and Jamie blushed.  Then he remembered something else he had meant to tell Jack.

“Dan didn’t believe me – he don’t think Pa was a gunfighter!  He said he never heard of him.”

“The boy’s a fool,” said Uncle Scott, smiling at them at last.

“Yeah,” Francie said, turning round in the front seat to speak to them.  “He was a gunfighter – good at his trade, too.  No need for anyone to doubt that.”  She smiled.  “But he’s a rancher now, and he’s pretty good at that, too.  Right, Scott?”

“Not too bad, Francie.  Not too bad.  As long as it involves hard work and not too much paperwork!  I think Jamie might be taking that side of the business over before too long anyway – what do you think, Jamie?”

Jamie kicked his feet.  “I’d rather be out with the horses,” he said.

“Just like your father,” Grandpa said.  “Perhaps Jack will be the one to take care of the books?” 

Jack didn’t say anything, and the adults went back to talking adult stuff.  Jack and Jamie were quiet most of the way back to the ranch, but it was an okay quiet most of the time.

Once they were back at the ranch the time sped by as they got Jack settled in their bedroom, and then they went to play with the new colt before they had their evening meal.  Jack was quieter than usual, and Jamie caught him out a couple of times with questions Jack didn’t seem to hear, but at least he’d stopped being angry and seemed mostly just worn out with the travelling and even before that, probably, with the funeral and suchlike.

Jamie dropped in to see his Pa as soon as they went back into the house.  His father didn’t look much better for having a day in the bedroom.  The closed shutters made the room gloomy and stuffy.  But at least he was out of bed.

“Well?” said his father.  “How’s Jack now?”

“He’s all right.  I guess.” 

“Scott says he didn’t want to come back to the ranch,” Pa said, settling himself more comfortably in the rocker.  He was dressed but he hadn’t shaved, and the dark stubble on his face made him look like he’d not fully woken up.  Jamie knew his father was tired of being sick.  He got like that sometimes.

“I think he’s all right about it now.  But he sure was mad with Uncle Scott about something.”

“Scott said he still is mad, Jamie.  You gotta help him with that – we all gotta help him, best we can.  Scott is mad with me, too, so you walk soft round him, all right?”

“He is?”

“We kept my little problem from him before he went and he only found out this afternoon.   He’s thinking we should have told him.  Francie did her best to explain, but it was hard on him, not knowing and then being told like that.  I guess I should have said something.”

Jamie’s heart thumped suddenly.  That was like him not telling Pa about his eye.  Had they made sure Uncle Scott wouldn’t tell?  What could he say to find out?  Nothing came to mind so he nodded, then remembered he had to say something because nodding wasn’t enough.  Not when his father was all the way over the other side of the shadowy bedroom.

“All right, Pa,” he said.  “I’m going downstairs now.  Can I fetch you something?”

“No, Jamie,” his father said, leaning back further in the rocker and closing his eyes.  “You just go and help out best you can.”

“I will.”  Jamie left his pa there.  The sick feeling in his stomach that he should have said something right then about the fight lasted all the way through supper.

About eight, Jack said he wanted to go to bed and Uncle Scott said he would go up with him and see he was all right.

Jack had been holding a glass of milk.  When it crashed to the floor and spilled, Jamie hadn’t seen what had happened.  Then Jack started shouting.

“I’m not a baby!  I can do it myself!  You – you’re not my father!”

Jamie tried to say something, but Jack’s temper was gone and it was no use reasoning with him.  All Jamie got out of him were a few harsh words, which had made Jamie pout and feel stupid.

Scott was on his feet but Francie was there too, swiftly steering Jack out of the great room and up the stairs.  Jamie could hear him complaining and shouting all the way and wanted to run after him, but Grandpa had hold of his arm.

Uncle Scott had gone pale.  He went to lean on the fireplace and stood there, his back stiff and his head down.

“Jamie.  Just go and get a brush and a pan, all right?  Be careful.  Fetch a cloth, too.  Doesn’t do to let milk lie.”  Grandpa’s quiet voice got Jamie in motion, and, when he went back into the room, Uncle Scott and Grandpa had gone outside.  He could hear them talking as he cleared away the broken glass and the spilt milk.

Something was very, very wrong.  The last few days hadn’t exactly been good, what with the fight and everything, but it had been quiet and he and Pa and Francie had been, well, pretty happy.

So Jack wanted to go home?  Well, just maybe, if that’s what he wanted to do, then he should.  Just until he was himself again.  That had been a phrase Jamie had never understood.  Now he knew exactly what it meant.

Part 6  Friday night and Saturday morning    Secrets

Jamie had been listening to Jack’s sobs for too long.  He lay in bed, hoping his cousin would fall asleep again.  He didn’t know what to do.  He had toyed with the idea of getting up and going to talk to him, but that didn’t seem right somehow.  Probably Jack didn’t want him to know about it and wouldn’t welcome his attempts to cheer him up.  He had thought about going across the corridor to wake Francie or Pa.  Maybe they would know what to say.  But indecision left him lying miserably in the near dark, listening to his cousin and wondering when everything had gone so wrong.

The story that his father had told him drifted back into his mind.  If he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could see his Pa standing there with a brush in his hand, soaking wet, and really hungry.  He knew Pa was telling him it was a bad place to be and that he hadn’t been able to do anything about it.  But Jamie’s mind kept showing him another picture of his father, broom in hand, laughing at all the cowboys then frightening them to death with a display of shooting skills the like of which they had never seen before.  And they would talk about the boy with the gun for ever after and tell their own children and it would be fine to hear.  That had to be nearer the truth of it.

So why did he feel, right in the pit of his stomach, that the picture he was trying to make in his head was untrue?

Someone came into the room with a candle, and Jamie saw Francie.  She looked at Jack then glanced across at Jamie.  She put a finger to her lips then went out again.  Jamie had known not to say anything but Francie had reassured him.  Help was on the way. 

A few minutes later, Uncle Scott, in long nightgown and carrying a candle, came and sat next to Jack, right on his bed with him.  Jamie turned onto his side, closing his eyes tight and trying not to listen, while his cheeks burned.  There were just some things a man didn’t need an audience for, and talking to his Pa like that – even when he wasn’t really his Pa – was one of them.

But he couldn’t help overhearing a couple of things.  Only what he’d known before, about Aunt Charlotte staying in San Francisco, and Uncle Scott said yes, he was sure she’d come back to the ranch, and it was wise to leave her just for a while, and that they’d both have to make the best of it.  Then there was a long quiet time, then a murmur of voices too quiet to keep Jamie awake.  He drifted off, and began to dream, confused dreams of people and places he hardly knew, and who all seemed to ignore him, or give him things he didn’t want, or ask him to do things he didn’t know how to do.

It was well on into morning when he woke again.  Saturday.  Usually the best day of the week, when he was with Pa or Grandpa, doing stuff with the horses, or watching the ranch hands work, and being shown new tricks of the trade with the cows.  And there was the new foal to go and see and maybe they could go fishing.  He shrugged off the covers and started to get ready. 

“Jack?” he said, anxious to share his sudden enthusiasm for life with his cousin.  “Jack!”  He washed his face vigorously with his hands, then reached for a towel.  As he dried the water out of his eyes he looked at his cousin’s bed.  It was empty.

Dressing hastily he went down to the kitchen and found Francie there, preparing some vegetables while Jessie sat on a blanket at her feet, playing with a carrot.

“Well, hello there, sleepyhead.  I thought you might be going to sleep away the morning.”

“Am I late?” Jamie said, going immediately to the stove to get some breakfast from Lucita.

“It’s past nine, Jamie.  We thought you’d be better for a rest, what with all the excitement of the last few days.”

Lucita filled a plate with leftovers for him, which he brought carefully back to the kitchen table.  He set the plate down then fetched knife and fork from the drawer, taking them back to his place opposite Francie.  Between mouthfuls he asked, “Where is everyone?”

“Let me see.”  Francie put down her knife for a minute.  “You’re here, that makes one.”

Jamie grinned at her.  This was an old game of hers.

“And I’m here, so that’s two,” she continued.  “And there’s a sister of yours around here somewhere, oh yes, there you are!  Hello, baby!”  Francie looked at Jessie and smiled just as Jessie threw her carrot away.  “That’s three.”

“Pa?”

Francie gave Jessie a new piece of carrot to keep her from bawling.  “Pa’s still in bed.  Said he was feeling too lazy to get up so we all decided to leave him be for the moment.  That’s four.”  She seemed happier than the day before about his father staying in the bedroom again.

Jamie watched the bright edge of sunlight on the floor, the place where the sun ended and shadow began, and tried to see it moving across the stone tiles.  Francie’s family count-up continued, which told him that a few things at least were the same as always.

“Grandpa is sitting in the great room pretending to read through his mail, but I caught him staring out of the window.  Bad Grandpa!”

Jamie laughed then choked, then tried to cure the problem by drinking some milk, only to spray that over the table when he coughed again.

Francie stared at him then handed him a cloth she had handy.  He wiped the table.

“Uncle Scott went out early to speak to Cipriano, I think.  He’s probably off to the south pasture to check on the horses we’re going to sell.  That’s – um – I lost count.”

“Six,” said Jamie, taking the cloth to Lucita. 

“Oh yes.  Jelly is showing Jack the new foal, which is your job really, but Jack couldn’t wait for you.”

“Francie,” Jamie said, pausing to look back at the shadow on the floor.  It had moved, just a little.  He frowned at it.  “Is everything going to be all right?”

Francie sighed, and moved the bowl of carrots she had been cutting up from her lap to the table.

“You mean, is everything going to be the way it was before?”

“Yeah.”  He scraped his plate noisily, gathering up the last few crumbs, while keeping half an eye on the shadow-sundial on the floor and daring it to move without him seeing it.

“No, it’s not going to be the same.  Things don’t stand still – don’t mean they’re getting worse though.  You can’t stop the consequences, Jamie. You know, something in the past making things the way they are?  You hafta sort of work with it.”

“But – nothing’s right.  I didn’t want any of those things to happen, like the fight and Pa not seeing so well, but they still did.  I don’t know how to say it.”

“You’re doing fine, Jamie.  Now go and play with Jack for a while.  I have an idea he wanted to go fishing up at the pond with you.”

“Six – soon gonna be nine, isn’t it?”  he said as he went to the door, carefully avoiding the line he had been watching, which had somehow moved again.

“Nine?”

“Yeah – seven and eight when Aunt Charlotte brings Bug back, and nine when my new brother’s born.”

Francie snorted.  “Go on with you. And if you need some food to take to the pond with you, don’t you go forgetting it like you always do.  I’m not going walk all that way to bring you sandwiches when you’re dying of starvation.  Don’t be late back – you’ll have to do your chores this afternoon.”

Jamie stood by the door a moment, taking in the scene in front of him.  A little, safe piece of his world was still intact.  In the great room his grandfather was doing what he always did, working and thinking and sometimes stopping to look out the window.  Upstairs, his father was there, even if he was too tired or too lazy to get up.  Jamie refused to think of it being anything else that kept his father to his room on such a bright, fresh Saturday.  He changed his mind about the shadow line and jumped on it a couple of times until Francie looked at him, the expression on her face that said she knew what he was up to.  Pulling a face, he went out into the sunlight to find Jack.

Up at the pond it was shady and breezy.  Jamie sat with his feet in the cool water and held his fishing pole out over the deeper water.  The cork float bobbed, he struck and another fish joined the two he already had on the bank.  Jack had three already.

“It’s too easy,” Jamie said.  “I almost feel sorry for ’em.  It’s like they wanna get caught.  Even a girl could catch fish today.”

Jack grunted, and pulled his pole back over the bank, landing another silver, wriggling fish.

“Let’s take a break and have somethin’ to eat,” Jamie said, putting down his pole.  “Francie said I had to go back this afternoon and do the chores I missed this morning on account of I was so late to wake up.”

“You were snoring like a pig when I woke up.”

“Was not.”

“Were.  Even Scott doesn’t hardly snore at all, not compared to you.”

“Why’d you call him Scott?  You called him Pa before.”

“Well, you call Francie, Francie.”

“Only cuz she told me to.  Uncle Scott, well, you used to call him Pa.”

Jamie leaned back and grabbed at the neckerchief which was tied round their sandwiches.  He took out a meat one, divided it in half and gave half to Jack, who nodded his thanks before taking a great bite.

“I just don’t want to call him that any more.  I don’t think he even likes my Ma now and he doesn’t act like my Pa.  He – we – had a talk this morning but he’s gone now, hasn’t he?  Didn’t come fishing like I asked him to.”

“So?  Neither did my Pa.”

“That’s different.  He can’t come right now, he’s still sick.”  Jack stuffed the last bite of sandwich in his mouth and reached for the second one from the neckerchief.

Jamie fell quiet.  His father was on his mind a lot, but just while he was fishing, he hadn’t been thinking of him and now he felt sorry he’d forgotten.  “Dan said – he said Pa won’t be goin’ anywhere ever again.  He knows he can’t see so well.  I thought it was kinda like a secret.”

Jack leaned right back, his feet still in the water and looked up at the sky.  “You ever think,” he said, letting his hands slip to his sides but still keeping careful hold on his sandwich.  “You ever think he won’t get all better?”

“No,” Jamie said emphatically.  “No.  I never thought that ever, even when he couldn’t see me at all.”  He shook his head.

Jack bit into his sandwich.  Jamie looked out across the pond and tried to put Jack’s question out of his mind.  They sat peacefully munching for a while.

“Well, then,” Jack said, breaking the silence. “Do you think that maybe my Ma won’t come back?”  He splashed his feet in the water, sending waves in rings across the pond.  Then he spoke again, more fiercely this time. “And that – it’s their fault everything’s all wrong and different and …” 

Jamie looked at him.  “How’d you know all that?” he asked, astonished.

“Huh?  Know all what?”

“All that about it being their fault?  I was just thinking the exact same thing, just now, only I didn’t feel right thinking it.”

“Do you think the doc will be able to make your Pa better?”

“Francie and Grandpa and Uncle Scott and Pa, they all said it happened before and he got better.  Took a while, but he did it.”

“Well?  You ever think they might be lying to you, you know, about him getting better this time?”

Water lapped gently against the shore as Jack moved his legs.  It was very still and very quiet.  Jamie felt his heart beating faster.  Jack seemed to know something that he didn’t know, and he was unhappy even thinking about the question he’d been asked.  But there was only one answer.

“No.  I never thought that.  Dan lies about everything.  You and me, we tell a few stretchers, we don’t always tell everythin’ we done.  But no – my Pa don’t lie.”

Jack was silent in his turn and Jamie wondered what was going through his mind.

“You wanna go back now?” Jack said at last.

“Yeah.  All right.  We can go play with my colt some more if you want.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m going to make sure Dan don’t say anything bad to you again,” Jack said, nodding his head at his own decision.  “We’re going to put him right about Uncle Johnny, one way or another.”  He stood up and put his fish in the sandwich neckerchief. 

“Thanks.”  Jamie grinned at his cousin.  They would set things to rights, the two of them.

“We’re gonna find a way to do it.”  Jack marched on ahead of Jamie, whose own fish glittered as they dangled from a string.

Jamie felt that, at last, things might be going to get better.

But on the way back, a thought struck him.  Pa couldn’t be lying to him – but he was lying to Pa.  He’d have to tell the truth about his black eye, right after lunch tomorrow.  In the afternoon.  He’d tell him, right out.  Then everything would be all right again.

Part 7  Saturday afternoon   A Bad Word

It wasn’t the easiest place to sit, the main stairs in the Lancer hacienda.  But it was where Jamie had ended up, listening to the minutes swing by with the ticking of the grandfather clock, until it struck three o’clock.  He would have moved somewhere else, but he’d been told to wait, so here he was.  And just yesterday he’d gone in straight after knocking. 

Jack and Scott had walked by him on their way downstairs, and Jack had paused for a moment.

“What are you doing there?” he asked, staring at him then glancing up at Uncle Scott.

“Waiting for Pa to let me in his room,” Jamie said.

“He won’t let you in?” Uncle Scott asked, stepping back up one step.

“He said to wait.  So I’m waiting.”

“All right.  But if you want me to go and remind him…”

“No, no, it’s all right.  I’ll wait.”  Jamie put his chin in his right hand and rested his right elbow on his knee.

“Well, wait another couple of minutes then knock again.  We’re going to write to Jack’s mother,” Scott said, looking happy for the first time since they’d got back to the ranch. 

“Then we’re going to name Jack’s colt.”

Jamie felt his heart lurch.  Hadn’t that colt been his?  “Jack’s colt?” he asked, just managing to stop himself voicing a protest at this unexpected turn of events.

“Well, yes.  His sire’s that stallion we hired last year, and Sally’s my mare.  So he’s Jack’s colt.”

There was no arguing with that, but Jamie felt disappointed.  He knew his uncle was right, and that he had no claim on the colt, but he had watched him being born and – why hadn’t his Pa told him it was not going to be his?

Jamie nodded.  Jack looked too happy to be worried about what he thought about whose pony it might be.

“Come on, Scott, let’s go and write that letter!  Ma’ll want to come back as soon as she gets it, I know she will!”

Jamie was looking at Uncle Scott’s face and saw him wince.  At what?  He wasn’t sure.  They started off downstairs again and Jamie went back to waiting.

After a few more minutes he was at his father’s bedroom door, trying to think what to do.  It had been much easier when he could just go in and see him whenever he wanted without knocking and waiting.  But that had been a long time ago now.  He didn’t know where Francie was, only that she’d been in a particularly bad mood at breakfast, arguing with Grandpa then stamping around with Jessie on her hip, before disappearing altogether. 

The first time he’d knocked, a good half hour ago, his father had shouted to him that he’d be out in a while and he was to wait, which he had been doing patiently enough.  This time there was no response at all.

“Jamie?  What are you doing there?”  It was Grandpa, who was standing at the top of the stairs.

Jamie felt he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t and looked down at the worn carpet.  “Pa won’t answer the door,” he said quietly.

“He’s not very well, Jamie.  He might be asleep.  Shall I go in and see?”

“Grandpa – what’s wrong with him?  He was fine just, well, a couple of days ago and now he can’t get up even!”

Grandpa took his hand and led him back to the stairs.  “I know, Jamie.  He’ll be well again soon.  The doctor’s coming on Wednesday to look at him.  Maybe just be patient with him?”

Jamie sat down on the step.  “But I wanted to tell him about my fight.  It don’t feel right not telling him.”

Grandpa eased himself down to sit on the step.  He was too tall to do that really and looked uncomfortable.  “I know it doesn’t, Jamie.  But maybe you should hold off for a couple of days more.  Your father’s got a lot on his plate right now.”

Jamie nodded miserably.  He wanted the fight off his conscience but it was just not going to happen.

“Tell you what,” Grandpa said.  Grandpa understood everything so he would know about how his first grandson felt.  Jamie looked up at him hopefully.  “I’ll go and find Francie.  She’ll know if he’s getting up soon.  Then you can talk to him in a little while, if he feels up to it.  All right?”

Jamie nodded, satisfied that at least something would be done.  Grandpa stood and eased his back.

“You have to stop sitting on the stairs, Jamie.  I’m getting too old for this.”

Jamie smiled but he felt like crying.  It was a good thing he was too old to cry, unless he absolutely had to.

It took another five minutes or so before Francie came.  She looked good and mad again, grabbing her skirts as she stepped quickly upstairs to where Jamie was sitting.  She didn’t have Jessie with her and she looked like she meant business.

“Well now,” she said.  “I think it’s time Pa got up, don’t you?  Nothing wrong with his mood a few hours out of that bed wouldn’t cure.”

Jamie wondered for a moment what he had started.  He nodded dumbly.

“And – and I think you and I, we can do it together.”

“I already tried.  He won’t let me in the door.”  This time, however manly he was, his tears escaped him.

“Oh, won’t he, now.  Well, I reckon that’s far enough, Mr. Johnny Lancer.  Come on, Jamie.”  She took his hand and set off for the door.  “Don’t worry, I’ll only be as hard on him as I need to be.”

Jamie paused by the door while Francie went ahead of him, into the close darkness of the room.  She tripped over something, used a word she shouldn’t have then went to the bed.

“Johnny,” she said, quietly but firmly.  “We need you to get up now, Jamie and me.  I need to change these sheets and air out the room and your son needs you to talk to him.”  She left him and went to open the curtains a little way, then the window.  The air that flooded in was hot but at least it was fresh.

For a moment, there was no movement from the lump of his father on the bed.  Then there was a sort of groan, and his father turned over and sat up.  He was rubbing his eyes.  Jamie couldn’t remember ever seeing him look so tired or sad. 

“Francie – I was asleep.  You know I didn’t sleep too good last night,” his father complained, trying to run his fingers through his untidy hair.

“I know, Johnny – believe me, I know.  But you need to get up now.  You have to make that lead rein for Jamie and I told you, he needs to speak to you.”

“Is he here now?” his father said, rubbing his eyes again. 

“Yes, Pa, I’m here,” Jamie said, hanging back.  He was not so sure now that he wanted to tell his father anything.

“Well, can’t this thing wait?  I don’t think I can get up today.”

“No, Johnny, it can’t wait.  He’s been waiting for ages on the stairs and you wouldn’t even let him in the room!”  Francie had come back to the bed and did something to him that she had occasionally done to Jamie.  She stripped the bedding off him, then took his arm and, reaching down, swung his legs over the edge of the bed, taking his father by surprise.  Jamie knew that because she always caught him by surprise when she did it to him.

Then she did something that made Jamie embarrassed.  She leaned forward and kissed his father, right on the lips, something she never did when there was anyone else around.  She whispered something to him and Jamie saw his father grin, somewhat half-heartedly, but grin anyway.

“All right, all right, woman,” he said.  “Let me talk to my son first, though, huh?   Give me a little while.  I’ll talk to Jamie in an hour or so.”

“No – you get up now.  Jamie, go wait for your father downstairs.  Johnny – come on.”  She was hauling on him now, grasping hold of his hands and dragging him to his feet, and he wasn’t co-operating all that much.  And he wasn’t grinning any more.  Jamie backed out of the room and left them to it.

It was another half hour before his father finally made it down to the great room, where Jamie had been waiting, fidgety and unhappy, listening for part of the time to Uncle Scott helping Jack to write his letter, then watching them go outside to name the colt.  He went to stand by the window.  Good smells were beginning to come from the kitchen as the evening meal was being prepared, and his stomach was rumbling when he heard a heavy tread on the stairs.

“Hey, Jamie – you still there?  You waited all this time?”  His father came into the room, walking slowly across to his favourite chair.  He seemed to have lost some of his confidence somehow.   He looked neater – he’d shaved, and his hair was brushed, and his clothes were clean.  But he didn’t look like Pa, somehow.  He looked like he had lost something important.   

Jamie wondered again whether he should be telling him anything about what happened.  His father didn’t seem at all in a good mood, didn’t even say anything about Jamie still standing on the other side of the room. 

Then Francie came down the stairs, took one look at Jamie and then shook her head.  Jamie wasn’t sure if she meant him to keep quiet so, more confused than confident, he stayed silent until his father spoke.

“What did you want to talk about, Jamie?  And why are you all the way over there?  Come here.”  His father sounded like he was not happy at all.  “She went to the trouble of getting me down here so she could air the room or something, so you might as well come here and tell me what it is.”

So he hadn’t noticed Francie.  She looked like she was making a great effort not to say anything and Jamie noticed she’d clenched her fists. 

Well, he had no choice now – it was tell Pa or run away, and that wouldn’t help anyway.  He sidled over to stand in front of his father, who looked into his face, then took Jamie’s cheek in his hand and moved him until Jamie knew he was looking right at his bruised eye. 

“What’s this, then?  This why you’ve been hiding from me all week?”

Jamie knew his father was angry now.  Francie had stepped closer but it was in Jamie’s hands to put this right, so he tried to say the right thing.   He told the whole story, Dan, the fight, the way they’d all kept it from his father – there was no point in keeping anything back.

His father was completely silent.  Jamie waited, his heart bumping, wondering what

punishment he was going to get.  He’d done extra chores in his time and been spoken to by all of them.  But he had never had to face silence.

Finally, his father spoke.  “Well, now.  And I suppose everyone else knew.  Of course they knew,” he said, sighing.  “They can all see you.  Damnit, they can all see you – can’t they, Francie!  I know you’re there, just looking at me!”  His father stood, his hands on Jamie’s shoulders.  “The poor blind man, can’t even know his son’s been in a fight, just in case he might get upset!  Think I can’t handle something like this!  My own son – I can’t see him until he’s right here so I can’t look after him, is that it?”

“Johnny!”  Jamie heard the sorrow in Francie’s voice and didn’t know who to go to first, his father or her.  “Don’t say it like that!”

His father didn’t even reply and Jamie had no idea what to say.  His father’s hands held him until he wriggled away, and with quick steps went to Francie.  He hated what Pa had said to make Francie sound so sad, and now look so upset.  She was angry, too, like she had been all afternoon, and Jamie just knew something even worse was going to get said any minute.

His father seemed to lose track of him for a moment, and stood, looking to Jamie like if he had his gun, he’d be drawing it. 

Jamie had a choice and for the first time, he chose his mother over his father. “It wasn’t Francie’s fault.”

“Whose fault was it then?  Yours?  Mine?  Who took the decision to leave me out of things, anyway?”  Jamie couldn’t answer his questions.  He looked back at Francie, who was crying but not saying anything to help either of them.  “Pa – I don’t know what you mean.  I don’t, really – I don’t.”

“No.  You don’t.  You don’t understand.  No one does.  But you – you …”  Then he said something so bad, Jamie flinched.  He knew the words, just never heard his father say it like that, with such anger in it, and at him.  At him.

He wasn’t quite sure what his father did next.  When he said that awful thing, Francie took Jamie’s hand and led him outside, leaving him there for a moment.

“Murdoch!” she shouted.  His grandfather was by the corral.  He looked up then came hurrying over.  “Johnny,” she said, brushing away tears.  “In the house.”

All Grandpa did was nod before he walked to the door and went inside. 

Francie took Jamie through the archway into the vegetable garden.  Jamie was angry and he hurt so bad, and he stood and threw stones and wouldn’t talk to her.  But she stayed with him anyway, and threw a few stones of her own, until he felt a bit easier in his heart.

She told him, seriously and slowly, several times, that he hadn’t done a thing wrong.  That it wasn’t so bad, that his father was hurting too and shouldn’t have said what he did.  In the end, she said he was right to be mad at something, but maybe he should remember not to be mad at himself.

He couldn’t do it.  He just couldn’t.  He was mad with his father and didn’t know how to deal with making everything worse for him.

In the end, Francie had to go and speak with Pa, and it was Grandpa who brought him some lemonade, sat him down in the shade and talked about the good old times.  He told him about starting out, and putting the house straight, and about Uncle Scott being in Boston.  He talked about having a baby in the house, a black-haired blue-eyed baby, who was like a whirlwind, Grandpa had said.  And in the end, Jamie began to calm down, surrounded by familiar stories, pushing the new, unfamiliar, unwanted present into a safe place away from him.

“Jamie – your Pa is going to be saying he’s sorry to you later on.  And you are going to listen to him – do you understand me?”  Grandpa was very serious. 

Jamie drank down the last of the lemonade and saw Jack over by the barn, leading the colt around, with Uncle Scott watching him.  He shook his head.  “I don’t understand, Grandpa.  I don’t understand how the words he said hurt so much.  I don’t even really understand what he said, not really.”

“Well, don’t you go figuring on it too much, young man.  People say things they don’t mean.  You just have to live with it sometimes, specially when they’re sick.”

“I suppose.”

But even after everything Francie had said, and everything Grandpa had said, he was still mad with his Pa inside, and mad with himself, and mad with the events which had put him in this bad place.

He was lying in bed, just falling asleep, when Francie came to fetch him.  She practically had to carry him, he was so sleepy.  She took him through to their bedroom, which felt cool but cosy and tidy now, and with none of the sickroom smells he had so hated.  She pushed him towards his father and left them alone.

They talked for a long time.  It took a lot of doing, too, listening to his father saying he was sorry about what had happened.  He said it simply and like he meant it, so Jamie came to sit next to him on the bed and confided some stuff that had been weighing on his mind, and his father told him some things he was worried about too, and by then it was real late.  So Francie came to put him to bed again, and tucked him in and kissed him on the forehead, which she hadn’t done in a while.  Jack was sound asleep in the next bed, so he wouldn’t get teased for her doing it, either.

He felt a little better.  But it was not gone yet, not all that anger, and he didn’t know what to do to make it go away.  He lay on his bed and thought of an animal, an angry and hurt animal, and he tried to imagine it going to live in the wild, but all night long he could still hear it, growling, unhappy, and it just wouldn’t go away.

Part 8  Sunday    A Barn and a Stone

Sunday, after prayers in the great room, with their special thoughts for the doctor’s visit on Wednesday, Jamie and Jack did their chores together and chattered about stuff, just as if nothing had happened.  Jack told a couple of stories about his time in San Francisco and Jamie told him some more about Dan.  But at the back of his mind, there was an image of Pa standing in the middle of the room, angry and saying things to him that hurt, and like someone not his father. 

They were called back into the great room an hour before the midday meal, and then it was time for Murdoch to lead the family discussion.  That was a serious time, planning out the week, making sure everyone knew what was going on, and the boys had never sat in on the meeting before.  But here they were, that morning, at the dining table and there was Pa, sitting where he always sat and Francie was right next to Pa and had pulled out a chair for Jamie on her other side.  Uncle Scott was sitting over the other side of the table next to Jack. 

Some of the talk was difficult to follow but Jamie tried hard not to fidget, and Jack had never been so still.  The matter of Dan and his family came up and Jamie had to stand and tell everyone what he knew of the boy.  He was hoping the adults would go to his father’s place immediately and tell him off, but Murdoch was speaking very seriously and Jamie listened with care.

“There’s been some trouble in Morro Coyo.  Keefer and his brother broke up a council meeting with complaints they were being treated unfairly.  They’re saying the land they’re living on they bought in good faith from us only to find it’s worthless.”  Grandpa paused and Uncle Scott took over quickly.

“The hands are all talking about him.  They say they’ve let the place to go to ruin and threaten anyone who goes near them.  We’ve lost a couple of head from the herd in the last week but I couldn’t say it was them.  Just that they were close by.” 

Everyone was quiet for a minute.

“Seems to me,” and that was Pa, talking quietly but sounding more like himself than he had in a while, “someone needs to go and speak to them.  Make sure they know where we stand.  They have to live somewhere, I guess, but maybe not right here.”

Grandpa was nodding, then looked at Pa and said, “Right.  But it’ll be done fairly, through the law.  That means we keep an eye on them, make sure they know they’re being watched and keep the law involved.  Someone needs to go and see if we can help them out.  I want this done right.”

“Yes – I agree.  Johnny – what do you think?”  Uncle Scott said.

Jamie looked up.  Hadn’t his Pa just said what he thought?  Didn’t Uncle Scott hear him?  Jamie glanced at his father but couldn’t make out what his expression meant.  Then he knew Uncle Scott had been concentrating on Jack and hadn’t been following the conversation at all. 

Suddenly it was Jack speaking, loudly.  “I think they ought to be run off their land,” he said.  “Dan attacked Jamie.  I think they’re all bad.” 

“Jack,” said Uncle Scott, and the warning was clear in his voice.  “You’re here to learn, but not to speak unless we ask you to.  I explained that to you.”

Jamie was puzzled.  Nothing had been explained to him, not one single solitary thing.  How come Jack got the explanation and not him?

Jack didn’t look like he was backing down, so Jamie did his best to stop him getting into trouble. “It’s okay, Jack,” he offered,   “Maybe he won’t even come to school anymore.”

Jack opened his mouth but Uncle Scott put a hand on his arm and after a moment, Jack sat down and went quiet.

“Well, let’s see if Jamie’s right.  After what that boy did yesterday, he’d be a fool just to turn up, wouldn’t he?” Francie said. 

Grandpa nodded.  “I agree.  Someone’ll take you two to school in the morning, then we’ll know if the boy is going to cause more trouble,” he said.  And that was it, they were talking about the herd and the crops, and Jamie wasn’t interested any more.

“You think he’ll be there?” he whispered to Jack, checking to see if anyone was taking any notice of them.

“I hope he is,” said Jack, then shushed Jamie.  He seemed to find the talk of cows and profits really interesting.

It had been the longest, most boring, hottest, dullest afternoon.  Ever.  Usually, Jamie liked Sundays as much or as little as the next boy.  But today he had hated every living minute in that afternoon.

It was his own fault.  He’d been rude to Francie and then rude to Uncle Scott too.  All he’d wanted was to talk to Pa about the colt but he’d sort of got tangled in what he was trying not to say, and in the end his feelings had overwhelmed his ability to be polite.  He seemed to remember saying something about the colt being his colt, and why had Jack suddenly got it when no one had asked him.  And he remembered asking where Pa was.  And then maybe he’d said things about people ignoring him, which he hadn’t meant.  The anger, that wouldn’t lie still in him confused him so much that nothing he said came out right.

Then Grandpa had taken his hand and led him away from them all, and told him to sit in the great room, read, draw, do what he pleased except he wasn’t to leave there without permission.  He was told it was thinking time but all the thinking he’d done, even after Francie had joined him there and tried to reason with him, was how much he wanted the colt to be his, how much he wanted Dan not to be at school the next morning and how much he wanted Pa to be well again.

Now it was right at the end of the afternoon and he was hoping that he might have a chance to apologise to someone, or at least have a little time to talk to someone, because his anger had cooled and he’d begun to realise his father hadn’t spoken to him. Instead, it was Grandpa who came into the room, put his hat on the hat stand and sat down at his desk, then pointed to the place where he wanted Jamie to stand.  It was a place on the carpet Jamie was coming to know well.

“And what have you got to say for yourself, young man?”  Grandpa asked, in that way he always had.  Jamie knew he’d be able to speak about anything and his Grandpa would understand.  He was a fine grandfather.

“I’m sorry,” Jamie said unhesitatingly.  “I got confused.”

“You know you already have a yearling, don’t you?  And you can have any other colt you want, within reason.  But that one, that’s Jack’s.  He doesn’t have a whole lot right now, and he’s hurting.  That colt will help him remember there are good things in life as well as bad.”

Jamie nodded.  It made sense when Grandpa said it, like it always did.  “But maybe someone could have asked me?  I’d have given it to him, really, I would.”

“Yes.  I think maybe someone should have spoken to you.  Well, consider yourself asked, Jamie.  Will you give Jack the colt?”  Grandpa had a strange smile on his face. 

“Oh yes!  Sure!  Should I go and tell him?”

“No.  I’ll do that for you.  And don’t go telling him it was yours, all right?”

“Thanks, Grandpa!  Can I go and talk to Pa now?”  Jamie had a feeling in the back of his mind that talking to his father had been something he’d been dreading for a while.   Now, even after what had happened only the day before, it was all he wanted to do. 

Grandpa’s mouth twitched.  “I think you’ll just have to wait awhile.  He’s out in the barn, seeing to the horses.”

“But he’d have to go out in the bright sunlight to get there!  He’s not supposed to do that!”

Grandpa snorted and coughed, both at once, then cleared his throat.  “I think Francie bound his eyes,” he explained.  “I saw her leading him out there earlier.”

“Oh well, if he’s just in the barn!”  Jamie pulled away from his grandpa, who asked him to stop then followed him through the great room.  Jamie was intent on finding his father and was pleased when he heard Grandpa calling across to the barn.

“Johnny!  Your son’s on his way!”

It was an odd thing to say but Jamie paid it no mind as he scampered over the hot ground.

“Pa!” he shouted.  “Pa!”

He startled a horse in the corral but no one answered him.  Then he saw Francie coming out of the barn, brushing down her skirts and then fixing her hair as she strode towards him. 

“Francie!  I’m sorry,” Jamie offered, seeing that she still seemed a bit annoyed with him.

She stopped for a moment, her hands busy tying a ribbon on her braid.  Jamie had never seen her hair down during the day before.  “That’s all right, Jamie,” she said, glancing into the barn.  “Apology accepted.  I think we all needed a little time, didn’t we.  Has Grandpa spoken to you about the colt?”

“Oh, yes,” Jamie said.  “I understand now.  I didn’t then but I do now.”

Suddenly something caught Jamie’s attention, something he saw out of the corner of his eye.  He looked at the patch of shade and narrowed his gaze but couldn’t pick out anything for sure.

“All right, then.  Now, you bring your father into the house in a few minutes.  Let it get a bit darker, but don’t wait till the light’s all gone, all right?” 

“Yes, Francie.”

She nodded and went on her way, her hands now busily pinning the braid into its usual place around her head.

Jamie went forward into the slightly cooler dark of the barn, where the heady smell of hay and the dust made him sneeze.  He found his father lying on a pile of the soft, sweet hay, a thin stalk in his mouth.  He looked relaxed, happy even, and Jamie went to sit next to him.

“This business of the colt,” Pa said slowly, taking the straw out of his mouth.  “It all settled to your satisfaction now?”

Jamie suddenly felt hot.  “Yes,” he said quietly, the shame of his bad temper now glowing inside him like an ember from the fire.

“Good.  Now, Grandpa told you just how important this colt is to Jack?  He lost his father and his sister, and he’s lost his mother too, for all he knows.  He needs something.  You can have your pick of colts, you know that.”

“Yes, Pa,” Jamie said, barely whispering this time.

“Well, then, let’s say no more about it.  You want me to tell you a story?”

“Oh, yes!” Jamie said, delighted by the unexpected change of tone in his father’s voice.  The telling off had finished, then, and hadn’t been too bad at all.

“I remember, a long while back, waiting in a barn like this, with a girl who was just crazy for wild animals.”

“Yeah?” Jamie said, lying back and picking up his own straw.

“Oh yeah – she had lots of the durn things, all in little cages she’d made herself.  I reckon she wasn’t quite straight in her mind, you know, but she helped me all right.”

“She did?”

“She sure did.  Kept me away from the bad guys.  But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about.  She kept all these animals and birds and made them well, and then she let them go.  She had a natural gift for it.”

“Like you had with a gun?” Jamie asked, in all innocence.  He already had Pa in his mind, meeting this girl with a gun in his hand, rescuing her from the bad guys.  And not at all like his Pa had been yesterday. 

His father went still, stopped chewing and said, firmly, “That isn’t a gift to be proud of, Jamie.  You gotta understand me.  It just isn’t a gift at all.”

“Sure, Pa.  I understand.”  His father was too modest.  It was just silly sometimes.  But if that’s what adults did, be modest, then Jamie was happy to see it that way.

“All right.  You remember.  I may have been Johnny Madrid, gunfighter, but that was a long time ago now.  Come on, I’ll tell you more about her and her animals in the kitchen.  I need a cup of coffee.”

“We should be going back to the house now anyway, Pa.  Francie said you weren’t to be out here in the dark.”

Jamie heard his father’s snort before he looked at his expression.  His father had a strange half-smile on his face but he didn’t say anything.  He just stood and followed Jamie to the door of the barn, shutting it behind them when they went out into the rapidly fading evening light.  Jamie stopped suddenly, sure he’d heard something but one of the horses was stirring in the corral, so it must have been that.

“Not far now,” Jamie said.  “Forty steps to the kitchen.”

“I know.  I can see a lot better than I did, remember?”  There was a smile in his father’s voice that hadn’t been there the day before. 

Then his father put a warm hand on Jamie’s shoulder, just as he had done when he could barely see at all. 

Not ten steps further on, Jamie knew he had an audience.  Two more steps and Dan walked casually out from the side of the barn.  The boy, his face unreadable in the half dark, was playing with something in his hand.

“Hey there, mister,” Dan called.  “Can you see your way clear to letting me have a word with your boy there?”  The insolence cut Jamie right through.

His father paused.  “What are you doing here, son?” he said.  “Go on home now.”

“You goin’ to make me go home, mister?  My pa told me to come and watch ya stumblin’ about in the dark, and I seen ya all right, being led around by your boy there.”  Dan shied a stone in their direction and Jamie moved to stand in front of his father.

“I’m not doing anything, son, just asking you to be on your way.  You don’t need any words with Jamie right now.”  There was something in his father’s tone, like he was certain of himself, that had been missing from his voice for a while.

“Sure, I’ll be on my way.  My pa said to make sure you wasn’t no gunhawk.  And you ain’t.”

“Let’s go back to the house,” Pa said, taking his hand off Jamie’s shoulder.  “The boy has done his talking.”

Jamie turned, not thinking clearly because he wanted Pa to – to what?  To challenge Dan to a shooting contest?  To catch him and make him say he was sorry?  Anything except just leave him there.

Dan threw another pebble at them, close enough to make Jamie step backwards as it hit the ground in front of him.  Then it happened.  His action unbalanced his father, who took a step sideways, his arm out, then another step, trying to keep himself upright.  His father walked right into the sharp corner of the horse trough and fell onto his knee, his left arm out and connecting hard with the ground. 

Dan’s laughter came as a whip to Jamie, making him turn from his job, which should have been helping his father up.

“You coward!” Jamie yelled.  “You creepin’, slimy, big-mouthed coward!”

Lights were coming on in the house and the kitchen door opened.  Francie was running towards them and Jelly was coming out of his own little place too, and then Jamie saw Dan take one last look at his father, still on one knee in the dust, then run, off across the paddock and into the darkness beyond.

Part 9  Monday morning     The Plan

Monday morning again.  Pa was up and having breakfast in the kitchen when Jack and Jamie ran in.  Francie was tying a sling at the back of Pa’s neck and he was grumbling about it until she told him she was tired of him complaining about his shoulder.  Then she poured Pa’s coffee and laughed in a silly way.  Jamie didn’t think giggle was the right word for Francie but it was close.

“How long was he there, do you think?” she said, as Lucita brought a burrito for him.  “Maybe the barn wasn’t such a good idea…”

His father shrugged.  Then, for some reason, his Pa smiled the broadest smile, but he didn’t say anything.  Jamie was mystified.  What were they talking about?  How long was who where?  He sat down and picked up the burrito Francie put in front of him.  As he ate, he puzzled over his memory of previous evening for some answer but came up blank. 

“Uncle Johnny!” said Jack, impatiently. “When is anyone going to deal with Dan?  Aren’t you mad at him for what he did to you?”

“What he did to me?” Pa said.  “He made me take a wrong step and I have a sore shoulder.  Not as light on my feet as I was. Boys like Dan, they don’t know any better.  He’s only doing what his father tells him to do.  Mornin’, Jamie.  Cat got your tongue?”  His father drank his coffee all in one go and that made Francie laugh again.  Seemed like everything he did made her laugh.  “Good coffee, Mrs. Lancer, thank you.” 

“You’re very welcome, Mr. Lancer.” 

Even Lucita was laughing now. 

“Mornin’, Pa,” Jamie said, glad to see his parents so happy.  It seemed a long while since they laughed together like that.

“Yeah, I know, but it don’t make it right!” Jack was carrying on as if he hadn’t heard anything except Pa’s explanation.  He was mad again this morning, somehow, but excited too.  Jamie had no idea why – the grown-ups were going to deal with Dan and there was nothing more either of them could do about it, even if they were both still feeling how wrong it was.  But there Jack was, gulping his milk and red-cheeked and bright-eyed.

His father was easy to read, sitting forward, empty coffee cup in hand being waved in the air to make his points. 

“Well, you boys, you both leave him alone now, you hear.  Best way is just to leave him be.  Likely he won’t even be there today and that’ll make it a lot easier on all of us.”

Jamie had said the same thing himself but he’d been more hopeful than sure.  Somehow, Pa saying it didn’t make it any more likely to happen.  What was his father trying to say – that what had happened didn’t mean anything? 

“All right, Uncle Johnny.  Is Scott – is Pa…”  Jack was struggling, and there was a moment’s pause, like he was making a decision.  “Is Pa going to take us to school?”

There was a noise in the doorway.  Uncle Scott walked into the kitchen, his gloves and hat in hand.  He looked a bit more like his old self, tall and busy and purposeful. 

“I am.  I’m going to take you there, have a word with your teacher and then I’m going to leave you to behave yourselves.  Is that all right with both of you?”

Jack nodded, smiling at last.  Jamie tried to remember the last time he’s seen Jack smiling like that.  He remembered to nod, but he was thinking of so many things at once, he didn’t say good morning to his uncle properly until his father reminded him to.

Jack was already on his feet, taking his dish to Francie, who thanked him and gave him his lunch pail, then ruffled his hair.  Jamie got the same treatment, without the hair ruffling.  Instead, she gave him a long, steady look.

“Remember, your father has enough to think about right now,” she said quietly.  “Enough!  Don’t go freshening up that black eye, all right?”

She grinned, and he did just what he felt like doing.  He hugged her tight.  She let him, for a moment or two, then she stood him back on his feet.

“All right, boys – who’s got their books?”  That was Uncle Scott, and Jamie knew it was time to go.  He had put his books on his grandfather’s desk the night before but he didn’t want to think about that right now.  Everything after his father’s fall was a bit blurry, and still made his heart race with a complicated mixture of feelings.  Standing in front of that desk while Grandpa spoke to him had not been the happiest experience of his life, even though it wasn’t a telling off.

He was just steeling himself to go and fetch his books when Grandpa himself came through into the kitchen.  He had tied the books up neatly and made them easy to carry.

“Thanks, Grandpa!” Jamie said, taking them.  “Will you help me with my reading again tonight?”

“I certainly will.  Now go along with you.  Jack must be outside, ready and waiting.  It’s his first day back at school, so you remember to make it fun for him.”

There was an awful lot of remembering to do now, and he was just walking out of the door, heavy with the weight of it all, when he heard his father’s soft call.

“You goin’ to leave without saying goodbye, Jamie?”  He turned on the threshold.  His father was holding a hand out to him, and his face was gentle.  Last night, Jamie had watched him being taken upstairs after his fall and had wished for a moment to speak with him.  Now he had it but he was reluctant.  He had not even begun to forgive himself for keeping the fight a secret.  The memory of his father standing there, so angry with him, held him back.   So he waved, said his goodbyes and went out into the bright sunshine, where his father should not go.

“Did you ever see Uncle Johnny use his gun, Pa – his real special gun?”

“Oh yes,” said Uncle Scott slowly, in answer to Jack’s eager question.  “Now and then.  Not as often as you’d think, though.  Why?”

The horse was travelling at a fine trot, guided by the experienced hands of his uncle, who held the reins, not seeming to do anything yet keeping everything in balance.  Jamie watched the horse’s rump move, the skin stretching and catching the light in different ways as they made good progress.  It was a fine way to travel.

Jack was taking his time answering Uncle’s Scott’s question.  Then he said “Oh – I’ve just never seen it is all.  A real gunfighter’s gun.  Maybe it ought to be in a museum, like that one we saw, you know.”

“Yes, I remember.  But that was a museum of very old things, Jack, and that gun isn’t so old.”

“I guess.  I just wondered.  Can you tell me about Uncle Johnny using that gun?”

Uncle Scott pulled his hat down more firmly and jiggled the reins.  “I don’t think I will this morning, son,” he said.  “Anyway, if you really want stories of Uncle Johnny using that gun, why don’t you speak to Aunt Francie?  She knew him when he was using it as a gunfighter uses a gun.  But don’t ask her today.  Save the question till after the doc’s been, all right?”

Jamie saw Jack pouting and trying to hide that from his stepfather.  It didn’t work.

“Come on then, Jack, say it.  We’re nearly there.”

“If Johnny had had his gun last night…”

Jamie looked across at Jack, astonished.  He had called Pa Johnny, which was just as disrespectful as calling his own father Scott.  Then he had asked the very idea that had been on his own mind all night.  If Pa had had his gun, he’d have made short work of Dan.  It would have been done in a blaze of glory.  But in Jamie’s mind it had all been fair, because somehow Dan seemed older in his memory of what had happened, or maybe he’d missed Dan’s father, standing in the shadows, and they’d both clearly had their own guns.  And that was the point at which, each time, his silly story had fallen apart, and all he’d had left was his father, kneeling on the ground and complaining that his shoulder hurt.

Uncle Scott looked sharply at both boys, and his voice had an edge to it as he spoke. 

“Dan’s just a boy.  Johnny would never have used a gun on a boy.  What’s this foolishness?  Jamie?  You don’t think your father would use his gun against a boy, do you?”

The schoolhouse was in sight.  Jamie had to find some answer.

“No.  No, I don’t,” he answered.  It was the truth.  It was near it, anyway.  Jamie knew right down to his boots that he was making something up that was a way from the truth but he couldn’t just let his father be seen as a blind man who fell in the dust and did nothing, could he?

Uncle Scott slowed the horse.  “He’d never have done that.  Whatever you’re imagining get it right out in the open now.  You can’t go on believing that a gunfighter’s gun is anything more than it is, a tool in the hands of a professional.  Is that clear?”

Jamie wasn’t listening.  He nodded automatically when Jack did.  But all he could see was Dan, standing in the schoolyard, talking to a group of kids.  They all laughed.  It wasn’t a product of his anxious imagination, either – it was happening right there in front of him.  So he’d turned up!  After throwing stones at his father!  Jamie tried hard to control angry words.

“Is that Dan?”  Uncle Scott looked at Jamie, then across the schoolyard.  “The tall boy with brown hair?” 

Jamie nodded.

Uncle Scott pulled up the horse, climbed down carefully, rubbing his bad leg, then helped the boys down.  He tethered the horse.

“You stay here,” he said.  “If Dan’s any trouble, shout.  I want to make sure your teacher knows just what’s going on.  If he says to take you home, that’s what I’ll do.”

As Jamie waited in the shade of the tree where the horse was standing, he wondered what Uncle Scott would say to Mr. Henry.  Jack was watching Dan, and Dan was sure watching them, but he didn’t come close and he didn’t say anything to either of them.

Uncle Scott walked over to the schoolroom and disappeared inside.  A few minutes later, he and Mr. Henry were standing in front of the cousins.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Lancer.  I’ll make sure everything is under control, and I’ll keep them here until you collect them.  I’m sure everything will settle down again soon, so long as Dan’s father is a reasonable man.”  Mr. Henry sounded as if he knew just how to deal with the situation.  Jamie relaxed just a fraction.

Uncle Scott had his hat pushed back off his forehead, and he nodded, then he shook Mr. Henry’s hand.

“I know they’re safe with you.  But if you need any help, or you need us to school them at home, you say so.  I’m going to see Dan’s father now.  I’m sure Keefer will see reason so long as we can talk fairly.”

“I hope you’re right.  Well, good luck with the man.  At least Dan comes to school sometimes, and I know it’s his father making him do that.”

Uncle Scott untied the horse and stepped up into the buggy.  He settled himself with one foot up on the splashboard and set off, waving to the two boys as he went.  Jack waved back and so, after a moment, did Jamie.

“Go and play for a few more minutes, boys,” said Mr. Henry.  “I won’t baby you but you come to me if there’s trouble – anything, all right?   Don’t go making trouble where there is none, you hear me?”

Jack looked up at the man.  “No, sir,” he said, and as far as Jamie could tell, he meant it.   Jamie knew Jack had a lot of respect for Mr. Henry.

So that was it.  They were back at school, and they played with their bigger group of friends and Dan talked to his smaller group of friends until it was time to go in, and nothing out of place was said or done.  In a way, it was almost a letdown.

That is, until Mr. Henry said it was time to check their reading homework.  Everyone got through theirs all right, with a few fumbles and corrections, and Jack showed off a bit like he always did, word perfect, and his voice up and down just like Mr. Henry did when he read to the class. 

Then it got round to Dan.  He was older and a bit ahead of the others, as Mr. Henry had found out when he tested him, so he was sitting at the back of the class.  Mr. Henry opened his book and glanced at the title – then he did something he’d never done before.  He shut the book and said it was time for recess, even though the clock at the front of the class was well short of recess time.  No one was going to argue over a few extra minutes’ recess – no one, that is, except Dan.

“But Mr. Henry,” he said crossly.  “I learned my part.  I liked the story, the bit I read anyway, it was about a boy who threw stones and it was funny.  The bit I learned went, ‘No sooner did the naughty boy find himself free again, than he began to pelt the stranger with dirt and stones.’  And I thought that was …”

“That’s all, Dan.  That’ll do.”  Mr. Henry was as angry as Jamie had ever seen him.  “Off you go, children.  Dan, you stay here.  And Jack Lancer, you can take that grin off your face right now.”

“But Mr. Henry!  He didn’t read the end of the story, did he!  I read ahead and it don’t end well for James Shelton, oh no sir!”  

Jamie had taken a sharp breath as soon as Dan had stopped, because he suddenly realized that’s where Dan had got his idea.  But no one else should know about what happened, and here was Jack, right in front of the class, just about to make a big mistake.  He grabbed Jack’s arm to stop him but Mr. Henry had come striding right across the room and now stood tall over Jack.

“Not another word.  Out you go, both of you.  Now!”

Jamie stood, pulling his cousin with him, and along with a shuffle of other children they went out in the hot sunlight. He didn’t know whether to be angry with Jack for nearly blurting out what had happened, or relieved Mr. Henry had stopped him.  But Jack seemed to be thinking, hard, and didn’t even go to their usual spot for lunch. 

Jamie waited a moment, then nudged him.  “What did you do that for?” Jamie asked.

“What?  Oh, put Dan in his place?  He’s stupid, didn’t read the whole story – it’s all full of moral stuff about being nice to people so of course he finds out he threw stones at the wrong person.  I didn’t think much of the ending of the story – the man turns out to be his uncle and he gets a gold watch!  I mean, what kind of punishment is that?”

“But you nearly gave away what happened!  I don’t want them knowing Pa fell over and didn’t tell Dan off for it!  It’s bad enough they think he can’t see so well!”

“Oh that,” said Jack with a wave of his hand, like he was shoving the idea away.  “What do you think Dan was telling his gang this morning?”

Another stone in the wall of self-defence Jamie had built round himself and his father had gone, leaving him feeling his safe world wasn’t nearly as safe as it had been.  He didn’t know which way to turn or what to say, until Jack whispered, “Don’t worry.  I’ve got a plan.”

Mr. Henry kept Dan inside while Jack and Jamie, who was somewhat reassured, went to eat their midday meal with the others.  No one was speaking.  They all knew Dan was getting some kind of lecture but no one seemed to feel like talking about it much.

Then Caroline spoke up.  She smiled at Jamie and asked whether she could come and see the new colt.

“It’s Jack’s colt,” Jamie said, looking down.  He felt a bit shy of her.  “You’d better ask him.  He’s a dandy colt – he’s got one white sock and he’s all over brown apart from that.”

“I’m going to call him something special,” said Jack.  “I haven’t decided what yet.”

“Are you goin’ to fight Dan again?” little Samuel asked, and looked hopefully at Jamie.  One or two other kids tried to shush him but when he got no answer he asked again.  “You gonna?”

Jamie didn’t know what to say.  There were so many remember-not-to’s in his head.  One of them surely was a “remember not to fight.”

Jamie started to answer but Jack spoke over him. What he said so amazed Jamie that he grabbed Jack’s arm.  He tried to tell him no, we can’t, we can’t do that.  But Jack went right on speaking.  When he finished up all the kids stared at them.

“Tomorrow,” Jack said, his eyes bright.  “We’re gonna do it tomorrow, aren’t we, Jamie.  You be there and you’ll see something fine.”

That set all the kids talking all right.  Jamie knew the news would be back to Dan, soon as Mr. Henry finished with him.  They’d both look like fools if they didn’t do what Jack had promised to do.

Jamie dragged Jack away from the excited children.  He was truly mad with him, because in all his own foolishness over his father he’d never thought of doing what Jack said they were doing.  Tomorrow.

“We can’t do that!  My Pa’ll ground me for life!”

“Baby,” said Jack crossly.  “It’s a sound plan.”  He was beginning to talk like Uncle Scott, Jamie thought, as Jack plunged on.  “It’ll show that Dan, once and for all, and then he’ll go away.  And my Ma’ll come back this week – they’ll all be busy getting ready for her!  Who’s to know anyway?  No one’s going to miss an old gun, even if it was Uncle Johnny’s special gunfighter’s gun.  It won’t have bullets in it or anything.  I bet it doesn’t even fire now.  You’ve got to do it.  I’ve said we will now. Come on, it’ll be easy and – and I want you to.”

It was kind of lame, the way he said it, but when Jamie saw how upset Jack was, and when he remembered what his grandfather had said about giving Jack the colt, he felt he had to do it.  For the sake of the family name, and for Jack, and most of all to prove to Dan that his father had been Johnny Madrid, gunfighter, he’d somehow do what Jack had just told everyone else he was going to do.  It made him feel a bit sick, but he’d do it.

Part 10   Monday afternoon   Bathtime

“Can we borrow your saddlebags?” Jack asked Uncle Scott as he drove them home at the end of a long afternoon. 

Jack had explained the rest of his plan to Jamie, and Jamie knew this was a major part of the plan.  But here they were, and now they were both keeping secrets from the whole family, and Jack didn’t seem in the least worried that he was fooling Uncle Scott.  Jamie had to work hard to keep quiet. 

“‘May we’, Jack.  And yes, you may, so long as you give me a good reason,” Uncle Scott said.  He’d been listening carefully to the boys’ accounts of their day.  He hadn’t said anything about his visit to Mr.Keefer, but he looked all right so he couldn’t have had a fight with him or anything, Jamie concluded.

“The paper and pencils we brought back for everyone from San Francisco.  Mr. Henry  says I can take them tomorrow and we can have an afternoon drawing bugs and plants and stuff.  It’ll be easier to put them in the saddlebags to carry them.”

Jack had asked Mr. Henry about the paper and pens that afternoon, but Jamie knew it was all a kind of trick.  The saddlebags were for the gun, because that was the next part of the plan. 

Uncle Scott looked at Jamie.  “You’ll enjoy that,” he said.  “You’re good at drawing.”

Jamie nodded, doubt tickling the back of his mind.  The plan was sort of exciting, like playing at robbers or pirates or something, but it was still not sitting right with his conscience. 

 “All right,” Uncle Scott said.  “They’ve been with me on a few adventures, those saddlebags, I can tell you.  Did I tell you about the time your Uncle Johnny and I had to go and fetch a young lady from a camp in the mountains?  She didn’t want to come at all.”

Jamie listened to the story, which he’d heard a couple of times before but he knew Jack hadn’t heard it, and it was a funny story, especially the pig wrestling.  Then his mind drifted to the plan for the evening.

His father was going to have a bath – that much was certain, since Francie had told them that a couple of days ago.  Well, she’d told Pa and they’d overheard his response.  Jack had built most of his plan round this fact.  The boys were going to look after Jessie while Francie helped him.  Even with their new bathing room it took a while to organise and the boys would have at least an hour when they’d be left to their own devices.  It was Monday, and that was the evening Uncle Scott and Grandpa did paperwork, or said they did, because some Mondays there seemed to be more talking than working.  Anyway, as Jack had explained, Uncle Scott and Grandpa and Francie and Pa would be out of the way. 

Taking the gun was a challenge, but Jack persuaded him that was the easy part of the plan, and Jamie was confident he could get it. Putting it back into its place in the bottom drawer of the dresser wasn’t going to be so easy, but he thought they’d be able to come up with a way.  Showing the gun to Dan and the others had to be done tomorrow. After that, Pa might be confined to bed for a while, Francie had said, whatever that meant, and it wouldn’t be nearly so easy to into the room without being seen.

As the ranch house came into view, Jamie ran over in his mind just what he was going to do, and tried hard to set aside any doubts. After all, it was only an old gun, like Jack had said and if showing it to everyone would shut Dan up for good then he didn’t need any more reason than that.

At half past five, Jessie, fed and changed, was handed over to them.  There was to be no taking her out to see the foal, no getting her over-excited and no bouncing on the bed.  They’d both nodded and then Jamie carried his baby sister upstairs.  She was getting quite big but she was very good, and didn’t wriggle as he held her carefully.

He put her down on his bed.

“All right,” said Jack.  “I’m going scouting.  You stay here.”

Jamie was playing with Jessie quietly, tickling her feet and making her squirm, and trying to still the voice in his head that told him he was in the wrong.  Finally, Jack reported back, in the guise of a sergeant.  Jamie was the Major, according to their agreement, which made him feel very important.  It was to be another military operation.  They’d played soldiers before and it was his turn to be in charge.  And anyway, it was his Pa’s gun.

“Everyone in position, sir,” Jack said, saluting smartly.

“At ease,” said Jamie.  Jack had been coaching him in military protocol.  Jamie knew that Jack’s real father had been in the Union army and of course Uncle Scott had been in the army, too.

Jack stood at ease, awaiting further instructions, while Jamie collected his thoughts.  He was the Major and he couldn’t let himself get nervous about this, however awkward his conscience was being.

“Take over duties with Miss Jessie,” he said in the end.  “I will return in five minutes.  Hand me the saddlebags.”  Jamie was beginning to enjoy his role.

“Yessir.  Saddlebags, sir.”  Jack handed them over.  “Good luck, sir!”

“Thanks – thank you, sergeant.  You may stand easy.”

Jamie took the big saddlebags, each with three buckles, and undid one side ready.  He moved to the door, opened it quietly and peered out.

The hall was empty.  There really wasn’t any reason for thinking anyone else would be there but all the same, he’d do things by the book, as much of it as they’d been able to work out between them.  So he was on his guard for people called Hostiles, and he had in his mind a map of his route but in the end, he just went to his parents’ bedroom, knocked once to be sure and, when there was no answer, pushed the door open.

He went straight to work, time being of the essence (one of Jack’s phrases) and knelt in front of the dresser.  He pulled open the bottom drawer, where his father kept a few of Jamie’s real mother’s things.  There was the faintest scent of lavender in the drawer, where a few, carefully folded items of clothing lay alongside a small box, which he knew had some jewellery in it.  His father had shown it to him once.  Jamie picked up the towel that lay over his father’s old gun belt and the gun.  They both looked polished and important, and the belt was coiled neatly.  He grasped the belt but it unwound in his hands and the gun was heavier and bigger than he’d thought, and it took him a while to get it stowed in the saddlebag.  He was just pushing the drawer closed when a noise in the hall caught his attention.  Swift, light steps. Francie!  What was she doing here?

“Aunt Francie!”  That was Sergeant Jack.  The footsteps stopped.  Jamie shoved the saddlebags into the drawer and pushed it shut.  He tried to take a deep breath to slow his thumping heart.  Jack sounded so calm, though, and Jamie knew he had to live up to his job now.  Major Jamie couldn’t panic, not with a danger like this to be lived through.

“Yes, Jack?  Is Jessie all right?”

“Yes, ma’am.  But Jamie went to get her toy.  We thought it might be in your room.”

“Well, it might at that.  All right – I’ll help him look for it.”

Never had Jamie been so aware how smart Jack really was.  His admiration nearly swamped his fear and he managed to make himself go to Jessie’s crib and start looking.

“Hello, Jamie,” his new mother said.  “I hear you need Jessie’s favourite toy?  I think I left it on top of her box.  There.”

Francie looked flushed and her hair was damp.  She opened the second drawer in the dresser and pulled out two towels.

“Thanks,” Jamie said.  He went to pick up the toy, breathing out his relief.  Hostiles.  Well, Francie was hardly a hostile but he was in enemy territory, on a dangerous mission, and she was the next best thing.  It was all a matter of keeping one’s nerve.

“Your father managed to drop the best towel in the water,” she said, smiling at him.   “Later, after Grandpa’s helped you with your reading, you should come and tell your father what you’ve been doing today.”

“Yes.  I will,” he said, taking the knitted toy cat from the top of the painted box in which all Jessie’s clothes were kept.

“All right.  We’ll be another half an hour, I reckon.  Maybe longer.  I’ll come get Jessie then.”

“Yes.  We’ll take good care of her,” he added, making sure he kept to the truth.  No sense in trying to lie to Francie.  As it was, she looked at him steadily for a moment before she left the room. 

Once she was away down the stairs, Jamie pulled the drawer open again, dragged out the saddlebags and tried to put everything straight.  Then he made it back to camp, crossing desert that was crawling with rattlers, past the burned out wagons and the gold miners’ camp, to be greeted by a smiling Sergeant Jack.  His heart gradually stopped trying to climb out of his mouth.

“All present and correct, sir.  Permission to speak freely, sir?”  Jack was standing at attention but there was no mistaking his excitement that everything, mostly, had gone to plan.

“Granted,” said Jamie, passing over the saddlebags.  Jack put the drawing materials in the empty bag, and then took out the gun and the gunbelt.  He grabbed a bit of cloth he’d liberated from the barn and wrapped it carefully round the gun before putting it back into the other bag.  He wound the belt as tight as he could and packed it in the same bag.  He hesitated for a moment, then put the saddlebags by the door.  No need to hide them – they had permission to use them, after all.

“I believe we both deserve medals for our actions this evening,” Jack said.

“We could make one each.  We’ve got that card.  Do you know what a medal looks like?”

“My Pa had three,” Jack said, his manner changing a little, his face more serious.  “I know what one of them looks like, anyway.”

“Uncle Scott has medals, too, maybe,” said Jamie, though he’d never seen any and never heard anyone talk about medals.

“Maybe,” said Jack.  He didn’t say any more about it.

It took the boys a while, and they had to borrow a couple of pins from Francie’s sewing basket, but the medals looked fine once they were done.  They were just in the middle of a smart ceremony, Jack pinning Jamie’s medal onto his shirt, when Francie knocked and came in.

“She’s asleep, then?” Francie said, going over to the bed.  “You being generals?”

“I’m Sergeant Jack,” Jack told her, “and Jamie’s Major Jamie.”

“Ah,” said Francie, picking Jessie up.  “Jamie’s your superior officer, then?”

“Just for today,” Jamie said quickly.  “We’ll swap tomorrow.”

“I see,” she said.  “Well, your Pa’s clean, now all I need to do is make sure this one is clean too and we’re done for the day.”

Jamie grinned and looked at Francie, who carried his little sister and the new baby inside her, and looked tired but all right.  She’d been so cross in the last few days.

“Supper’s in about fifteen minutes, gentlemen.  Dress properly but no swords at the table, you hear?”  She was always good at playing along and Jamie saluted, closely followed by Jack. 

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and he stood to attention as she left the room.

“Stage one complete, sir,” said Jack.  “Easy.”

“Yeah,” said Jamie, dropping suddenly out of character.  “Easy.”  He suddenly didn’t feel so good about it being easy to fool here – all because she was good at going along with their games.

Jack sat down on his bed.  “Can I see the gun?  Tonight, when everyone’s in bed.”

Jamie thought about it for a few moments.  “I don’t think we should look at it.  I want to, but maybe we should leave it alone.”

“All right.  It’s your gun,  We’ll see it tomorrow, anyway, same time as we show it to Dan.  That’ll spike his guns.”  Jack grinned and Jamie knew he was pleased to be showing off another of his new phrases.

Jamie lay in bed, listening to Jack sleeping.  It was later.  He’d heard everyone going to bed, and then someone had been laughing.  He thought about the story he’d read to Grandpa, about Uncas and the hiding place behind the waterfall.  It had been slow going, with so many long words, but he’d made it through a whole page then listened while Grandpa read him two more.  Then he’d been to see Pa, and sat with him for a while, but his mind had been half on the drawer, with the space in it where the gun should be.

Where it should be.  It was under his bed in the saddlebag but he still felt the weight of it in his hands.  Jack had told him again that what they were doing was right, and he’d been so sure about it that it had been easy to listen to Jack and go along with the idea.

Now, in the dark room, doubts began to gather again, doubts about whether what they were doing was stealing, and whether it was right to be keeping secrets again.   Then he thought of his father, on his knees in the dust, and he remembered Dan’s laughter, and the doubts fled.  In five minutes, he was asleep. 

Part 11  Showdown   Tuesday morning

“Come on, boys!  Time to get up!  No one to take you to school, remember – you’re walking!” 

Francie’s knock and shout woke Jamie from about the only sleep he’d managed that night.  He felt that way, anyway.  He’d heard the clock in the hall chime every hour since he’d startled awake at two o’clock.

The gun lay there, in its holster, inside its saddlebag, like those snake-charmer’s snakes, or no, that wasn’t right at all.  Like what it was.  Proof of his father’s heroism, his father’s fame and nobility, and it would defeat his enemies again.  But such thoughts didn’t help him to sleep, or even dispel his worries.  So sleep had been elusive.

Jack, on the other hand, had been sound asleep all the time Jamie had been awake, and now he sat up in bed, yawning and stretching.

“Today, Private Jamie, we shall defeat our common enemy and gain the day with a great victory!”  He jumped out of bed and began to dress hurriedly, so Jamie copied him, letting Jack’s self-confidence carry him through the task.  But his hands were shaking and his heart was beating too fast. 

“Attention!” said Jack, in his role as Field Officer, Colonel Jack. 

Jamie stood straight, saluted, submitted to having his shirt tidied and waited for orders, glad to have all responsibility lifted from his shoulders. 

“Meet you in the kitchen,” said Jack, as his normal self.  “I’ll bring the saddlebags down when no-one’s looking.”

“Why?” Jamie asked.  Then he knew.  They didn’t look anything like saddlebags with pencils and paper in them.  They looked like they contained something large and heavy.  “Oh, I see!”

Jack nodded and grinned, then as Jamie left the room he picked up the saddlebags and began to pack the paper and pencils into the second bag.

Downstairs, he could hear Uncle Scott and his father talking about something.  They sounded happy to his ears, but Jamie only heard Uncle Scott say, “Don’t tell him.” 

“Morning, Pa!” Jamie said.  It was on the tip of his tongue to ask what he shouldn’t be told but he stopped himself just in time.

“Morning,” said his father, reaching out his hand to Jamie, which Jamie was glad to take.   A large, warm, reassuring hand it was, one that had held that gun long, long ago, but now held his hand and pulled him to the table to sit next to his father.  “You ready for a long march to school, then?”

His father knew all about the soldiers game and was playing along for the first time in a long while.  Jamie remembered the doctor was coming the very next day – perhaps Pa was excited about that.  In truth, it wasn’t much of a march – it was only a couple of miles to school if you went by the pond and up over the hill and down the other side.  The road was further.

“Yes!” said Jamie, then he grabbed his milk and took a long swallow.

“And you’ve got all the drawing books and pencils?”

“Yes, and …”  Jamie choked.  He’d so nearly given everything away.  He coughed, cleared his throat and tried to redeem himself.  “And Uncle Scott’s saddlebags,” he said, wincing at the truth he wasn’t telling. 

“Well, eat up, then.  Morning, Jack,” Francie said, as Jack came into the room.  She put a plate of eggs in front of Jamie then went back to helping Maria.  Jamie was surprised she hadn’t said he looked tired or something, but she did have Jessie on her hip and lots of breakfasts to dish out.

Jack joined them at the table, said “morning” to everyone, and dug into the food Francie brought for him. 

In just a few minutes they were ready to go.

“Where are the saddlebags, Jack?” Uncle Scott asked, looking around, while lunch pails were put into the boys’ hands by Maria this time. 

“I put them in the shade by the barn, so we wouldn’t forget them.”

“You sure you can carry them, along with your books and your lunch?”  Uncle Scott asked, handing them their strapped piles of books. 

“Oh yes,” said Jack.  “We can put the books in them, anyway, and carry it between us if it gets heavy.”  He seemed just as calm as he could be.

“All right,” said Uncle Scott.  He grabbed his hat and gunbelt and followed them out, and then Jamie saw that a horse and buggy was ready outside, with a ranch hand just checking the harness.  “I’ll see you later, then.”  And pulling on his gloves, Uncle Scott stepped up into the buggy, took hold of the reins and got the horse moving.  Where was he going, Jamie wondered, that he couldn’t at least take them part of the way like he often did.

But he didn’t have time to think that through because Jack was tugging his sleeve, getting him moving and then they were off on their Manoeuvres or whatever Jack called them, running through the long, dewy grass and over to the pond where they’d meet all the children at the end of the day.

The saddlebags were proving heavier even than they’d imagined, and they paused for breath at the bottom of the lower slope of the hills, where a creek pooled before the clear water ran off into the great river in the valley.  The sun was just creeping up over the hills and the pond was golden in its light.  The whole landscape was shining.  A brand new day again. 

Jack didn’t seem to be taking any notice of the sun coming up, though.  He was squatting with the saddlebags on the ground in front of him, looking at them.

“You know,” he said thoughtfully, looking up at Jamie.  “If we take them all the way into school, there’s a chance someone’ll poke around and find the gun when we’re in the classroom.  And that would be fatal to our plan.”

“What does that mean?”  Jamie asked, wondering what “fatal” meant.  Jack was ahead of him in reading.

“We’ll be found out.  Mr. James will be very angry and he’ll take the gun and report us to Scott and Uncle Johnny and there’ll be hell to pay.” 

“Oh,” Jamie said, wondering what Jack had been reading.  “So we leave the saddlebags here and then they’ll be ready for later on.”  He wasn’t stupid – he had the solution long before Jack.

“All right,” said Jack, agreeing quickly with the plan.   “We can hide them in that hole we found in the roots of that old tree.”

They took out the drawing paper, pencils and their books, folded up the saddlebags as neatly as they could and shoved them into a hole that was barely big enough.  Then they dragged a dead branch across the hole and stood back to admire their handiwork.

“Couldn’t see it if you didn’t know where it was,” Jack said.

“Come on then,” said Jamie, feeling a burden had been lifted off his shoulders.  “Race you to the top of the hill!” 

They set off, dead-heated it and then wandered more slowly down the slope to the schoolhouse  The bell to ring them into the classroom sounded just as they reached the edge of the flattened earth they used as their school yard. 

Once inside, with the register checked, Jack and Jamie went to the teacher’s desk and put the paper and pencils down.

“Thank you, boys.  Now, children, this morning, I’m going to test each grade on their spelling, once I’ve heard you read,” Mr. James told them, holding up his hand to hush the sighs and protests.  “And while you’re waiting your turn, the rest of you can work on the math sums I’ve put round the boards for you.  And, when that’s done, we’ll go out at lunchtime and search for bugs.  This afternoon, we’ll draw them – and now we have the very best equipment, I’m sure we’ll all produce some wonderful work, yes?”

There were smiles all round the classroom.  Even Mr. James seemed happy about it.  And then Jamie noticed that Dan was sitting at the back of the class, scowling.  Jamie remembered what Dan had said about the paper and not wanting to use it because they were rich ranchers’ kids or something.  Maybe he’d refuse to use it.  Then he’d be in trouble.  Jamie couldn’t help hoping something like that might happen.

“Well, children, I’m sure that since you have that to look forward to, you’ll all do very well in your tests.” 

And so they slaved away all through the morning, Jamie happy to puzzle out the sums, and happier still Grandpa had coached him in his reading and writing, though the spelling test proved a real challenge.  And Mr. James seemed like he wasn’t enjoying it much either, with all the different grades. Teaching seemed like hard work and Jamie had long ago crossed it off his list of possible future jobs.  Ranching came top, of course, but it was fun to think of being maybe a desperado, or a sheriff, or maybe a lawyer and earn lots of money. 

Every now and then he glanced at Dan, but his enemy seemed for once to be concentrating on his spelling and figuring, so maybe their plan was going to be kept secret and it would all work out for the best. 

At long last recess arrived, lunch pails were retrieved and with much chatter, everyone went outside, found a shady spot and told each other about the tests. 

Jamie’s mind was so full of the mistakes he’d made, and plans to improve that it was only when Jack nudged him, hard, that he realised he was being spoken to.

“See Dan talking to the teacher?  You think he’s going to give us away?” Jack whispered, sounding at last a bit nervous.

Jamie stared at the two and noticed they were talking to each other.  It didn’t seem like Dan was looking at them, nor was Mr. James.  More like Dan was listening while Mr. James told him something Dan thought was interesting, least, that’s how it seemed to Jamie. 

“I think – I think Mr. James would be heading this way right now if he’d been told,” said Jamie, nodding to emphasise his point.  “Look – he’s giving Dan the jars for bug-catching.”

They both watched Dan, somehow now a teacher’s pet, giving out the jars to all the children and at last coming their way.

“Here you go,” Dan said.  “Go catch a bug.  Any old bug except a cricket – I’m goin’ to draw one of them, I reckon.”

Jamie looked for some threat in the words but there really wasn’t one.  Dan didn’t even seem to be the same boy from yesterday.  So Jamie just said, “all right” and “thanks” and took his jar, like it was anyone else in the class giving it to him.  Jack did the same, but without the thanks. 

In the afternoon, bug-hunting they all went, the older ones supervising one younger child so that they didn’t go trying to catch anything poisonous or something.  Jamie caught a pillbug and put it in his jar with a leaf over it to give it some shade, then helped little Agnes with her pretty orangey-coloured beetle.  With her in tow, he went back inside, to find paper and pencils on his desk. 

Half-expecting Dan to make a fuss, Jamie glanced back to watch – but Dan simply picked up a pencil, smoothed a piece of paper and, after staring at his cricket for a moment, begin to draw. 

Puzzled again, Jamie shrugged and set to work with his own drawing.

After that, the afternoon just flew.  Jack was making some headway drawing his caterpillar, but it kept moving, so he had about five goes at drawing bits of it.  He had the colours almost right but the whole thing looked more like a twig than a caterpillar, and he was clearly unsatisfied with it.

Jamie liked doing the curves of his pillbug, but couldn’t quite get them all to fit together in the right way, so it looked in the end like the bug had a huge front and a really small back end, which wasn’t right at all.

Finally, the children came one at a time to the front of the class, showed their drawings and talked about what they’d learned.  Some were pretty good, too, but Jamie wished he’d done a bit better and was having to search in his head for things to say about it, more than just its name and the fact that it rolled up.

He went back to his seat and waited for Jack to take up his picture to go to the front.  Then Jamie noticed a doodle Jack had done in the corner of his page.  A gun.  He’d doodled a gun, a revolver, and it was better drawn by a long way than the caterpillar.

Jamie tried to catch his attention, but Jack trailed to the front, holding up his picture – and his fingers were right over the tiny doodle, hiding it from everyone.  Jamie could scarcely breathe, but Jack was ploughing right on with his explanation.  

When he sat down again, he winked at Jamie.  There seemed something so underhand, so – well, rude to Mr. James about Jack’s action, Jamie wasn’t sure how to respond. 

His moment to say something, however, was lost as Dan walked to the front with his piece of paper.  When he held it up, all the children gasped.  It was the most beautiful drawing Jamie had ever seen – every little detail of the bug was there, carefully shaded and coloured, looking like the real thing.  And he knew a lot about it, too, where it lived and when it made the noise and what it mostly ate, all kinds of stuff, like Dan was – Jamie checked the blackboard – an entomologist. 

Everyone applauded loudly when Dan sat down, looking a bit red in the face but pleased too. 

What had happened to the boy who’d thrown a stone at his father?  To the boy who’d come all the way over to the barn to do just that?  It was too puzzling.  He wanted to talk to Jack about it but there was no chance in the classroom. 

Finally Mr. James told them to pack up, leave their drawings on his desk and go on home.  Jack quickly folded his drawing, put it inside his primer, piled the other books on top and stood up.

“Last one to the pond …”  he started – but Mr. James stopped him.

“Ah – that’s where you’re going, is it?  And the last one to the pond will be one of the littlest ones, won’t it, Jack.  What forfeit were you planning for them?”  It was quietly said, but it stopped Jack dead in his tracks.  The room was completely silent.

Jamie thought hard.  What could he say to save Jack from the embarrassment of having to back down?  “We thought the last one to the pond …” he tried, desperately searching for the right idea, “should be me.”  It was a feeble idea but it was the best he could do.  “I’ll make sure the littler ones know the way.  All us older ones have been there heaps of times.”

“Thank you, Jamie.  Your father’s taught you well.”  Mr. James said, though it seemed odd that he picked out his father. 

“The sooner we get there, the sooner we can have some fun all together,” he said, though he felt Jack tense beside him.

“I’ll help Jamie.”  And that was Caroline.  “I have a younger sister that doesn’t know the way anyway.” 

The idea went through the class like wildfire, and soon everyone was offering to supervise younger brothers and sisters, and Jamie began to feel good about his idea.  Maybe his father had taught him that thinking of other people might be good. 

Mr. James stood tall and severe at the front of the class.  Then he suddenly smiled. 

“Well done, children.  Yes, very well done.  Jack – I apologise for interrupting you.”

Jack looked down at his desk then back up at the teacher.  Then he said, “That’s all right, sir.  I’d forgotten what we’d agreed.”  

“Go on, then.  Have a good time.”

Jamie waited for some more remembers, like, remember not to get muddy, or remember it’s history quizzes tomorrow or something, but Mr. James simply sat down and began looking through the pictures they’d drawn.

Outside, it was hot and dusty, and some of the kids went to the outhouse first, so that took a few more minutes.  Finally they set off, small hands in larger ones, trailing up the hill, over it and finally reaching the pond.  Even one or two of the boys helped, mainly by chasing round and round the group – herding, they called it.  Dan had no brothers or sisters and walked slowly up the hill, not saying anything to anyone. 

The water looked cool and inviting, but with a mixed crowd the children were shy of doing anything more than throwing off shoes and stockings and dangling their feet in the water. 

It almost seemed like they’d forgotten why they were there. 

But Jamie had not forgotten.  Any minute now, the truth about his father would be plain for them all to see.  All the worries, all the nagging of his conscience, all the effort to be helpful to Jack, to be a good soldier, faded from his mind.  In their place, a vision of his father standing tall, fighting the bad guys with a Colt in his hand, a hero who was his father, not Jack’s father, but his. 

He stood.  “I’m going to get the gun right now,” he said loudly.  “Anyone who wants to see it, come over here.”

Jack looked up at him, clearly angry.  “I was going to say that!” he said under his breath. 

“It’s my Pa’s gun and it’ll be mine one day.  I’m going to do this!”

“You don’t know how it works!”

“I do!  I watched Pa use it lots of times!” 

His announcement and their argument were drawing the children closer.  Sensing it was now or never, Jamie marched smartly over to the tree, kneeled down, pulled out the saddlebags, then the gun belt and stood up. 

“Line up there!” he ordered.  “Don’t stand in the way!”

He put his hand on the grip and tried to hold the revolver steady, pointing it carefully away from the children.  Finger on the trigger, he was ready to show them what it meant to fire at the enemy.  He had no thought for whether it was loaded, whether he could even pull the trigger – it was enough that he stood there, as like his father as he could hope to be, holding the precious gun. 

Everything after that happened too quickly for him to do anything to stop it.

Dan had stepped forward.  He was saying something about an old gun, and how did they know, and what did it prove, then Jack ran at Jamie, grabbed the gun and was shouting about it being a real gunfighter’s gun and Dan was stupid.  And between the two of them, both hands on the gun, there was a sudden, dull sound.

There was a scream.  Both boys dropped the gun.  And with the sun in his eyes, Jamie, his imagination filling with the horror of what had happened, turned to face the result of his actions.  

Part 12  Tuesday afternoon

Jamie ran to the ranch house as fast as he’d ever run in his entire life. 

“Run!  Go on – get help! ” Dan had yelled at him, and Jamie had done just that.

As soon as he was in sight of any of the buildings he was shouting, screaming for help, taking in as much air as he could and shouting again.

He ran into a bees’ nest of people.  There was Uncle Scott, just taking a bag off the back of the buggy.  And Aunt Charlotte!  Aunt Charlotte?  And Francie, carrying a small bag and there was Pa, and he was talking to a stranger. And there were ranch hands there, and and – and why was Pa outside? 

And in the middle of the dizzying swirl of people, there was Grandpa, already striding towards him, then reaching down and catching him, saying something, he couldn’t hear for his own shouts.

“Jamie!  Jamie – be quiet!  What?  What are you saying?  Calm down!  Juan, saddle a couple of horses – quick now!”

Jamie took one almighty breath and said, “Accident!  There’s been an accident!  Up at the pond.”

Jamie’s father, looking somehow different, was walking towards him.  “Is that the shot I heard?”  he said.  Jamie realised his father was wearing some funny black glasses, so he couldn’t see his eyes.  That seemed important somehow.

“Yes,” he said.  “Come quick!”

His grandfather had moved away, leaving Pa to take him in his arms and say something to him, he couldn’t hear what because he was crying now with the relief that they were all there to help. 

People were moving, and he tried to keep track but it was too difficult, and he buried his face in his father’s chest.

“It’s all my fault,” he said, shuddering now with the effort to say what he had to say. 

“Hush, Jamie – hush now.  Tell me later.  We’ll get up there and it’ll be all right.” 

Then he was being put in the back of the buggy, and Uncle Scott was riding and Aunt Charlotte had the reins and was waiting for Francie and his father to climb into the buggy.  Then the stranger was getting into the front seat and Grandfather was standing there with Bug in his arms and there was Jessie on the ground next to him and they left him behind and were on their way.  Jamie was surrounded by people and being taken back to the scene of his crime.  He wanted the earth to open up and swallow him. 

“What happened?” his father said.  “Jamie – what happened?”

“We shot Caroline!  I had your gun and Jack grabbed it and there was a bang and she was on the ground and Dan told me to run!”

“You shot Caroline?  You had my gun and shot Caroline?” 

“To show everyone!  To prove you were a gunfighter!  Oh, Pa!”  Jamie felt sick.  The whole plan had been so stupid – why had he ever – if only he hadn’t… 

His thoughts drowned out everything except his father, who had turned to Francie.  They were speaking but Jamie couldn’t make sense of the words.

In moments they were all at the pond.  Jamie sat, head down, until someone told him what to do, and in the end it was Francie who came over and spoke to him.

“Come on.  You have to see this,” she said. 

So he jumped down and followed her to where a few children were crowded round, not nearly as many as there had been.  The stranger was there and he was kneeling by Caroline, who lay on the ground dead still. 

Jack was talking to Uncle Scott and Pa.  Aunt Charlotte hurried across to them but Uncle Scott stepped over to her and took her arm, pulling her away from Jack. 

Then Pa was speaking and everyone else was suddenly silent. 

“So, boy, you don’t think I’m Johnny Madrid?”

Jamie felt Francie put her hand on his shoulder.  She stood right beside him.

There was Dan, and there was blood on his shirt, and Jack, standing off to one side, looking like he wanted to defend himself from the enemy when they were playing gunfighters or soldiers or something.  Jamie knew that look too well. 

“No I don’t,” said Dan.  “My Pa said… ” 

“Your Pa said, did he?”  Jamie watched his father move, taking a pace forward in a way he’d not seen before, sort of lazy and yet like he was ready for anything.  As if he knew exactly what to do.

Dan started to speak but Pa ignored him and turned to Jack.

 “And you, Jack – you thought my gun would prove that?  Were you expecting a pearl handle with notches on it?  Don’t you know it’s the man holding the gun that’s important?” 

Jack said nothing but somehow the fight was going out of him.   

“Stay right there, boys.  I think we need us a practical demonstration.  Doc, is the girl all right?”

Jamie looked and there was the stranger, carrying Caroline, whose leg was tightly bound.  She was crying quietly but she was alive.

“Could be a lot worse,” the stranger, no, the doctor said.  “I’ll do what I can here then we’ll put her in the buggy.”

“Good.”  Pa seemed like he had lots of time, somehow.  All the time he needed.  “Scott, my gun.  Check it for me.”

Aunt Charlotte was moving the rest of the children back behind the buggy.  Francie stood firm by Jamie’s side.

And there, where the sun off the water was bright on their faces, stood Dan and Jack, enemies now united by his father’s presence.  Was his father going to shoot them, right then and there?  And him too?   Except his father didn’t seem to be taking any notice of him at all.

Uncle Scott had reached down and carefully picked up the gun.  He clicked it open and said, “Still five rounds in here.”

“All right.  Where’s my gunbelt?”  It was like his father was in control of everyone and everything. 

Uncle Scott brought him the belt and his father snugged it round his hips and did up the buckle.  Dan could have run away, or Jack, but they seemed like they were tied to the ground.  Uncle Scott handed Pa the gun, he checked it himself then, in front of them all, he took all the shells out of the gun, putting them one by one in his jacket pocket.  Then he put it into its holster. 

“All right.  Now.  You want me to do any more than just wear this gun like a gunfighter?  How about we play a game?  Dan, come here.”  He took off his dark glasses and handed them to Francie, who reached forward for them.  He didn’t seem to have a single worry about what was happening.  He stood, loose and somehow not like his father at all.  Powerful and – scary.  Francie’s grip on his shoulder tightened until it was painful.

Dan stepped forward as if he couldn’t have done anything else to save his life. 

“Put your hands apart.  Now, clap.” 

Dan looked puzzled, then did as he was told.  And before his hands could meet, the gun was between them, and Dan was looking, just looking at what had happened. 

“Jack,” his Pa said, leaving Dan wringing his hands.  It must have hurt, clapping his hands right onto hard metal.

Uncle Scott stepped up to Pa.  “You want me to do anything?” he asked.

“No,” said his Pa.  “This is my mess.”

Jamie had no idea what he meant, since it had been Jack’s idea and Jamie had gone right along with it. 

“Boy – you want me to do some fancy shootin’?  I can’t see as well as I did but I

could make you dance.” 

Then his father took one bullet from his gunbelt and loaded the gun. 

That was all it took.  Jack’s head was down, and he was saying something, Jamie couldn’t hear what. 

“That’ll do, Johnny.  You’ve made your point.”  Uncle Scott said, walking over to stand by Jack.

Johnny Madrid, Gunfighter put his gun back in his holster, slick, easy, like he’d done it a million times and knew exactly what he was doing.  He nodded.  “That right, boys?  Did I make my point?”

Dan said, “Yes, sir,” quick as anything, and Jack was only a moment behind with his, “Yes, sir.” 

“Good.  So let’s forget about Johnny Madrid, boys – all right with you?”

Jamie chimed in with his own, “Yes, sir!” And as he did, his father turned and became his Pa again, reaching for him. 

“Jamie?” 

“Here, Pa,” Jamie said. 

“We need to have words.” 

The “words”, it turned out, were going to have to wait.  Doctor Tennant was dealing with the wound on Caroline’s leg and her needs now came first.

“You did an excellent job, young man, binding it up like that.  It might be a bad scar though,” the doctor said, supervising the removal of Caroline back to the hacienda to wait for her parents to arrive.  

So Dan was the one who’d bound up her leg.  Jamie was so stunned by this information he didn’t know what to say.  Should he thank Dan?  And where was Jack, anyway – he’d know what to do.

And for the first time, it struck Jamie that he’d been the one to run for help, and Dan had saved Caroline – so what had Jack been doing?

Jamie helped as best he could, supervising the few children who hadn’t already run home, making sure his father was all right and then sitting down in a shady spot to gather his thoughts.

He looked around for Jack but he wasn’t there, nor was the buggy or Uncle Scott or Aunt Charlotte.

Just how silly had their idea been in the first place?  A wave of hot shame swamped him, and he was crying onto his knees when Francie came to find him.

“Come on,” she said, more gently than he was expecting.  She put her hand out and Jamie saw it tremble.  “Let’s start back to the ranch.  Your Pa’s just here, look.”

Jamie looked up at her.  She stood right in front of the setting sun so that it shone all round her, but left him in the shade. 

“I’ve done something very bad,” Jamie said. 

“Not so bad, not really.  Nothing that can’t be mended.” 

Jamie stood, feeling out of touch with the real world, but he took Francie’s damp hand and they walked to where Pa was standing next to Uncle Scott’s horse.  After a brief discussion about Francie being too big to ride, and how Pa wasn’t going to ride when Francie was walking, and some other stuff Jamie was too overwhelmed to understand,  Pa helped him up into the saddle then took Francie’s hand.

“No point in giving the horse an easy ride just because we can’t agree,” his father said, smiling.  He had the dark spectacles on again.  They set off back to the hacienda just as the light was going and darkness was creeping up the sides of the valley. 

No one said anything all the way back.

All three boys were to be punished, Grandpa explained. But it would have to wait until well on into the next day.  Doctor Tennant told them he had to examine Pa in a good light, so he’d do that in the morning.  He’d be taking a history, at least that’s what he’d said, and write it all down, then go to town and wire another doctor he knew.

Jamie had sat quietly in the great room with Grandpa, Francie, his father and the doctor, while the talk went on and on.  There was no sign of Uncle Scott or Aunt Charlotte or Jack or even Garrett the baby.  Jamie didn’t know whether he was glad or sorry he couldn’t talk to Jack and wished he knew where his cousin was. 

Eventually he fell asleep. 

It was dark when he woke.  He was lying on something harder than his own mattress, wrapped in blankets.  Then he heard a familiar snuffling.  His little sister was lying near him in her cot.  He was on the floor near her.  He vaguely remembered being carried there and someone telling him he’d have to make the best of the floor and some cushions, because he was not to be left alone with Jack. 

Not in his own room, not in his own bed. 

Francie and his father were talking, very quietly, so that he only caught the odd word, but he could tell they weren’t happy.  He fell asleep again, the word “fault” the last word he heard, and his Pa saying it.  “My fault.”

Part 13  Hope   Wednesday morning

The next morning there was a knock on the door, and then Grandpa entered.

“Jamie?  Are you awake?” he said quietly.  In the half-light of early morning, he looked very big.  “Bring your clothes and come and have some breakfast.”

Jamie wanted very much to talk to his grandfather, but he was hushed through washing up and dressing and even through breakfast, until he thought he would burst with the words in his head. 

“I’m going to check the south pasture.  You’re coming with me.” 

Of course there was no arguing with that, so he caught and rigged his pony while Grandpa saddled his big horse, and they rode together away from the ranch house into the wide morning light.  A new day but no escape from the day before.

After half an hour or so, Grandpa spoke.  “Your father is going to have his eye examination this morning.  He needs complete quiet.  Jamie – you know his eyesight’s been better sometimes and then not so good again?”

“Yes,” said Jamie, though he hadn’t quite realised he knew. 

“And you know this doctor might not be able to help get your father back to full health again?”

“You mean he might still not be able to see very well?”

“Yes.  He may go completely blind, or have a little sight, or he might get better altogether.  So he has a lot of thinking to do.”

“And is he having the tests now?”

 “Yes.  I know you wanted to be there but your father needs complete quiet so he can concentrate.  Francie won’t be there either, you know.”

“Oh.”  So it was all right for him to be out here, where him being a bad boy didn’t seem quite so terrible.

“He might need to go to San Francisco to have an operation,” Grandpa said, finally stopping and getting off his horse.  “This is one of my favourite places on the ranch,” he said, looking out across the greenest part of the valley, where the river cut through the pastures. 

“I love it too,” Jamie said.  “I hope it always stays this way.”  It was on the tip of his tongue to say sorry for his behaviour again, but he’d been told to stop saying that several times already. 

“One day, keeping it as wholesome and productive as this will be your job, Jamie.  Maybe Jack’s as well, if he wants.”

Jamie thought about that for a moment.  He knew this was an important talk, and maybe more important than anything.  But he wanted to know what was going to happen to him, after yesterday.  Were they going to send him away to prison?  Jack said they were horrible places where everyone was locked away all day long and you only got bread and water. 

Grandpa continued before Jamie could think of what to say.  “When that’s done, the sheriff is going to be here for a while, and he’ll want to talk to you about what happened.”

“Aren’t you going to tell me off?” Jamie asked, feeling this was the one sure event in a future that was throwing him off balance. 

Grandpa put his hand on Jamie’s shoulder and turned him, so that Jamie knew he had to look Grandpa in the eye.  He’d been there often enough to know that was what to do. 

“No, Jamie, I’m not.  Not yet.  I don’t know why Jack would lead you the way he did.  I thought you knew enough not to follow …”  Grandpa stopped speaking and sighed.  “No – that’s for your father to say to you.  I’ll be taking you back in a while to let him do just that.  And you’re going to try to understand how bad he’s feeling about this, and that he’s tired and sick.  Aren’t you.”

“I’ll try,” said Jamie, making a big effort to forget his fears and remember that his father needed him.  He’d done a pretty good job of helping him out before, he was sure of that, but his own feelings were so strong, and so confusing it was hard to think of someone else.

“All right. Now – what should we do with those cows?  They’ve grazed the grass down to the roots, and fertilised the pasture.  What’s next?”

And with that question, Jamie reached safe ground for a while, talking with his grandfather, who knew everything about ranching and about this piece of land, a hundred thousand acres that belonged to their whole family – Uncle Scott and Aunt Charlotte, and Jack and Bug, and to Jessie and Francie and his father.  Not Johnny Madrid, gunfighter.  Just Pa.  For which Jamie was grateful, right down to his boots.

When it was time to head back to the hacienda, his Grandfather told him to be brave, which sort of made him feel more nervous. 

He dismounted by the barn and Grandpa said he’d look after his pony for him.  He was to find his father quickly and listen carefully.  It didn’t take long.  His father was in the great room, sitting in his usual chair by the fireplace.  The doctor was by the big window packing up some boxes.

Jamie said hello, politely, and the doctor nodded. 

“I’ll be out of your way in a moment,” the doctor said loudly, and his father nodded. 

“Come here,” his father said.  “Pull up the footstool closer, where I can see you clearly.”

Jamie did as he was instructed.  He tried to tell what his father’s mood was but it seemed like a mixture of lots of things.  He waited to hear the worst.

“We’ve got a few minutes,” Pa said.  “So, listen hard.  We all share the blame for what happened, all of us.  You’re not to take it all on yourself, like I know you will if we let you.”

“No, Pa!  It was us – me and Jack!  You couldn’t know…”

“You be quiet now.  I’m going to tell the whole story to the sheriff this afternoon and then talk it out with the family later.  But this is enough for now.  Jamie, I was wrong to leave that gun where it was, and worst of all, to leave it loaded.  It’s away in the gun cabinet now, locked away, and I want it to stay there.”

Jamie was aching to interrupt, to put things straight and take the blame away from his father, but he couldn’t find the right words to set against the truth his father was telling him.

“I thought I’d got through to you, and you’d understood that guns are dangerous tools, and make a man deadly when he should have walked away, or tried not to use it, or gone some other way to avoid killing.”

“You really tried not to use it?”  Jamie was beginning to make headway now, listening to his father and finding some sense in what he was being told.

“I tried very hard, sometimes when I wanted to take the easy way and use it, instead of talking, or listening better.  Jamie, a gun makes a small man feel big – but it’s a lie.  The man holding the gun still needs to learn human nature, and know when not to use it.  Gunfights should be the last place to go, not the first.” 

“I thought you were Johnny Madrid and that you always killed the bad guys.”

“I see that now,” his father said, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes.  “And I was a fool not to see it before.”

“No!  No,” Jamie said, still trying to catch up with what his father was telling him. To hear Pa call himself a fool was too much to bear.  “How could you see it, when you couldn’t see and I lied to you and wouldn’t listen to you and only heard what Jack was saying!  Oh, Pa – please, I didn’t mean to.”

His father slowly sat up.  He looked sadder than Jamie had ever seen him.  “Not a fool, then – but blind to important things I should have been able to see, and put right.  Murdoch told me, and Scott, Francie, she kept saying it, and …” 

Jamie looked at his father’s face, and saw the truth of what he was being told.  He reached forward and put his hands on his father’s knees, to stop the awful pain he saw.  Then his father laughed in a quiet sort of way and the pain seemed to just vanish.

“Seems like we have a lot in common, boy.  People keep telling us things but we’ve not been listening.  No – I’ve only been listening to myself and you’ve only been listening to Jack.  Would you have done anything he said – jump off a bridge, or try to break a wild horse?”

Jamie wanted to say no, no he wouldn’t have done those things but he couldn’t even say why he’d stolen the gun, forgotten to check if it was loaded and then taken it to show other kids.  Little kids!  But he kept quiet because his father was still talking.

“We have to do better, boy.  We all have to do better.  Now, please, go ask Francie to come here, and then you have something to eat in the kitchen.  You look half-starved.”

“Only if you’ll come and eat too, Pa.  You’re too skinny.”

His father snorted, genuinely laughing this time.  “All right.  Let me talk to the doc again then I’ll come through.  Go on – we have a way to go but it’s going to work out.  You’ll see.”

Jamie found Francie playing with Jessie in the kitchen.  Jessie was making the funny little laughing noises she made and Francie was hiding her toy and then bringing it out suddenly, and she was smiling. 

“Well, young man?”  she said without turning to look.  “My turn now, is it?”

“Pa said to fetch you,” Jamie said, settling down at the big kitchen table and making a start on the burrito Maria put in front of him. 

“All right.  Watch Jessie for a minute, will you?”  Francie stood, eased her back and walked to the kitchen door.  Then she turned.  “Jamie – you know we all love you, don’t you?  Just as much as we did before.  Whatever hare-brained scheme you come up with.  Yeah?”  She wasn’t smiling now but she didn’t look cross.

Jamie nodded, beginning to see that might be true, though he wasn’t sure how it could be.  Being alive was feeling a good deal more complicated than it had been just a couple of days ago. 

Francie nodded too, then went through into the great room.  They’d be talking about what the doc could do for his Pa, and Jamie wanted to be there too because he’d been the one to care for his father before Francie had arrived.  But in a way it was good not to know.  That way he could believe that one little operation might put his father right again. 

When his father and Francie came back into the kitchen, they sat at the table and talked about nothing, as far as Jamie could tell.  Well, about household stuff, which was boring, and, right in front of him, love you stuff, which made him cringe.  But he held his ground, waiting for his turn, until he could wait no longer. 

“Pa,” he said, bravely.  “What did the doc say?”

“Are we not being quick enough to tell you?” said his father, with a big genuine Pa grin. 

Jamie didn’t know whether to say yes or no, and sort of said both at once, making Francie look away.  He knew she was laughing though she tried to be silent.

“Well, there were a few mights and maybes, but he said he’d talk to a couple of other doctors and he thought one of them was just the doc to fix me up.”

Jamie got up and went to hug his father, and was hugged right back for the first time since – well, it was quite a while.

“It’s not certainly going to happen but there’s hope, Jamie.  There’s hope.” 

He could feel his father shaking, just a bit, and knew everything else was just put in its place – not forgotten, and not unimportant, but just back where it should be in the list of important things to happen. 

Sadly, that was a feeling that didn’t last very long.  Sheriff Crawford arrived, late, saying the Morro Coyo sheriff was sick so he’d been wired to come over to investigate what had happened.  And he’d be wiring other people and they might need to talk to the boys too, but that wouldn’t happen if he spoke to everyone and decided there was no case to answer, or something.  He seemed to know what he was talking about and Jamie had met him a couple of times, so he wasn’t too uncomfortable talking to him.

Jamie explained every step he’d taken.  Sheriff Crawford told him not to try to say anything about Jack straight off, but to stick to what he’d done.  He wrote down everything that Jamie said in a scrawly kind of writing with a pencil, but when he read it back to Jamie, it was pretty much what Jamie had said. 

Taking Jack out of the picture felt odd, but he didn’t want to land Jack in more trouble, so he did his best to untangle their stories.  Sheriff Crawford nodded, then turned to Pa and asked to see Jack next.

“They’re waiting in the great room, Val.  Jamie, you stay here.  Yeah, I know you have questions but you’ll just need to be patient for a while.  And stay here, you hear me?  Stay here.  Stay…”  Pa made it into a joke, like he was trying to train a dog, and Jamie grinned and nodded.

A few minutes later Pa was back and this time, he was wearing the black glasses.

“Bright in here,” Pa said in explanation.  “Got to give my eyes every chance, isn’t that right?”

“Sure,” said Jamie.  “I think they’re smart!  It’s hard to see sometimes when the sun’s so bright!”

He and his father sat and talked for ages, about everything and nothing, just like they used to, but there were no more stories about Pa being a gunfighter.  Jamie didn’t ask for one, either.  He would never forget that his father had looked and sounded like someone else, someone who used a gun to kill, who was good at that, but it was a scary thing, not noble like Lancelot, or brave and exciting, the way the word gunfighter had made him think.

He loved his father the way he was and didn’t want him to be a gunfighter ever again.

Sheriff Crawford came back into the kitchen, sat down and began drinking the coffee Francie gave him.

“All right,” he said slowly.  “I’ll go over to Dan’s father’s place and talk to them all over there, then to Caroline’s place.  See whether he wants to prosecute.  But I’ve known him a while and he’s a reasonable man.  I’ll talk to the Circuit Judge, get back to you in a couple of days.  You might want to start in on giving the boys some chores to do around the place.  And there’ll be compensation to talk about.”

“We will, Val – we will.  You think the boys can meet up again now?”  Pa asked.

“Sure, sure.  I got everything I need right here.  Thanks for the coffee, ma’am – Johnny, you look after them eyes, all right?”

Sheriff Crawford shoved his piece of paper in his pocket and stood up to leave.  “Ma’am,” he said to Francie, and she said “Sheriff”, and then he was on his way out the door. 

“Jack’s in the great room waiting for you, Jamie.  I think he has something he wants to say.” 

In the end, Jack didn’t say all that much, but he did say he was sorry, and so did Jamie, although Jack said Jamie’d done nothing wrong, it was all his fault, until Jamie declared they were both wrong, and both to blame and they’d both be punished.  That seemed to settle matters and they didn’t talk about it again.

Jamie got permission for them both to go out to see to Jack’s colt, and they spent the  afternoon cleaning out his stall, very gently rubbing him down and, under supervision from Pedro, one of the ranch hands, getting him used to them walking around with him, and holding him.  He was too little to be led around and anyway, Pedro said, he might hurt himself if they tried to pull him on a lead rein.

Jamie knew some of that already but Jack was new to having his own foal even though he’d been at the ranch for ages, so it was good to have Pedro to teach them.

When the foal got tired they went to sit on the fence and watch the other horses. 

“He’s a good colt,” said Jack.

“Have you got a name for him yet?” asked Jamie. 

“Maybe,” said Jack.  “Not sure yet.”

“He’ll need one soon so he can learn it,” Jamie said.  He jumped down, thinking for a moment the pond might be nice, until he remembered. 

“Yeah,” said Jack.  “I wonder when we’ll go back to school.”

Jamie hadn’t thought about that.  It was going to be hard, that’s as far as he could get on that hot afternoon, with his world broken up and putting itself back together in a new and unfamiliar way.  It was like walking on top of the fence, with a big drop on either side. 

“I don’t know,” was the best he could offer.

“Me either,” Jack said.  He was quieter than he’d been before, and said less and didn’t try to tell Jamie what to do any more.  It was kind of peaceful. 

They were left alone until late afternoon, then Uncle Scott came to take them in.  

“When you’ve eaten, your grandfather and I are going to do some reading with you both, and some math.  I don’t want you to fall behind with your studies.  You have to be able to keep up when you go back to school next week.”

“Yes, Pa,” Jack said, with none of the sass he’d have had the week before. 

So that settled that question.  The world was changing all around Jamie.  Whether it was better or worse after what they’d done, he couldn’t yet see.  But it couldn’t go back to the way it was.

Part 14  Consequences   The following Saturday

For all of Thursday and Friday, Jamie felt it was like holding your breath for a very long time.  They were all waiting for Sheriff Crawford to tell them what was going to happen and they were waiting for Doctor Tennant to tell them what the other doctors he knew said, so there was nothing to do but eat, sleep and do lessons until it was all settled.  And chores.  Pa seemed to have a never-ending list of chores. 

By Saturday, three whole, long days after it all went wrong, Jamie was just about ready to burst.  He’d done lessons until his brain hurt, and chores till he had blisters and had talked to his father until he had run out of things to talk about. 

He knew Jack felt like he did, because when he suggested a race across the pasture with a “last back through the gate is a renegade!”, deliberately using Jack’s new word, Jack’s face lit up like it used to.  But then he seemed to just shy away from the idea, lost his grin and said no, he didn’t want to, and maybe next week.  Jamie tried to persuade him but it was no good.  The old Jack had gone away somewhere and Jamie wasn’t sure he liked the new one much better.

So Jamie lounged about, let off chores for a little while because Francie had said he’d need time to heal his blisters, and why didn’t he have a pair of work gloves like everyone else.  He wandered over to the forge and looked at the tools, wondering what they were all for, then went to see if anyone was around in the laundry room.  He tried to figure out how long it was since he’d been there so his black eye could be seen to but it seemed to have happened in another lifetime.

The place was deserted, though, and he remembered it wasn’t wash day.  It was Saturday, the best day of the week and he was wasting it.

Finally his father came out of the front door, put on his new glasses and his hat and shouted for him. 

“Over here, Pa!”

His father walked slowly over to where Jamie leaned back on the rail fence by the road from the Lancer archway.

“Morning,” Pa said.  “Hot,” he continued.

“Yeah,” Jamie said, looking down the road. 

“Thinking of going for a walk?” His father came to stand next to him. 

“No, Pa,” Jamie said.  He hadn’t thought of doing anything much.  “When will Sheriff Crawford come back?”

“He sent a message, said he’d done all his investigating, so I’m guessing it’ll be today.”

“There’s someone coming down the road right now,” Jamie told his father, who certainly couldn’t see that far even with the new glasses.  Jamie stood up and took a dozen or so steps down the road so he could guess who it might be.

“Figure that might be him?” his father said, joining Jamie in the road.  “Is that his horse?”

Jamie squinted, and the horse certainly looked like Sheriff Crawford’s.  In a few minutes, he was dismounting and looping the reins round the hitching post.

“Morning, Johnny.  Jamie,”  Sheriff Crawford said.

“Val,” his father said.  They were old friends, Jamie knew.  “Is it time, then?”

“It is.  Family all ready?” 

“Sure.  Come on in.  Coffee’s hot.”

“Glad to hear it.”

They seemed to have forgotten Jamie, who tagged along after them, listening to the men talk.

“You got Marlene to write everything up neat for you?”

“No, Johnny, did it all myself.”

Jamie knew Marlene was a good friend of Sheriff Crawford’s. 

“Well now, wonders will never cease.  She made you wear that shirt, didn’t she.”

“She did, and I ain’t helping to change no wheels this time.  Gotta look neat and tidy for this afternoon.”

“What’s this afternoon?” Jamie said, tripping over his feet to keep up. 

“Why, my boy,” said Sheriff Crawford.  “We’re going to have us a bit of a trial.  Just to sort things out.”

Jamie’s heart began to beat faster.  “Jack and me in a trial?” he asked, not sure what a trial was like and whether he should be really worried.

They all went into the great room and Jamie was shocked to find everyone already in there, Uncle Scott sitting by Aunt Charlotte with Jack in between them, Francie sitting in the chair his father liked best and Grandpa standing in front of his desk.   Even the babies were there, with Jacinta, Maria’s granddaughter, playing with them.

His father went to stand behind the chair where his mother had settled herself.

“Good morning, Val,” Grandpa said.  “If you’re ready to proceed, we thought, after you’ve freshened up, we’d be glad to get it all done this morning.”

“Fine by me, Murdoch, fine by me.”

Suddenly, Jamie realised there were two other people in the room.  Dan was there, standing by the window. A man stood next to him.  Maybe that was his father?

They all waited for Sheriff Crawford to return from freshening up, though he still looked pretty dusty when he returned.  He stood by the door for a moment, until Grandpa kinda took charge. 

“Good morning, everyone,” he said, like everyone was a stranger he’d not had breakfast with.  “Scott, would you …”

Uncle Scott stood and went over to where Dan was standing.  “Mr Keefer.  Dan.  Please – would you like to stand in front of the desk?”

Mr. Keefer nodded and, with his hand on Dan’s back to guide him forward, took the place Grandpa left for him.  Grandpa went to sit at his desk.  Maybe that’s what a judge looked like? 

“Mornin’, everyone,” Mr. Keefer said, then he coughed, like his throat was dry. 

“Would you tell everyone what you told me, please?” Uncle Scott said.

Mr. Keefer looked at Sheriff Crawford, who nodded.  “Go ahead, Keefer.”

“All right.  We come here three months back, now, after my wife – after she was killed.” 

Dan made some sound, like a sob or something, and his father put his hand on his shoulder.

“Accident.  She got hit by someone who was showing off his gunplay, someone said.  In town.  Lots of people watchin’ him shoot bottles, things like that.  Cheerin’, they said, like he was some kind of sideshow.  My wife, she went shoppin’, took Dan with her and they stopped to look.  She got hit by a ricochet, right next to Dan.  Accident, like I said, no one to blame except maybe that kind of show shouldn’t have been right there on Main Street.”

Jamie looked at Dan, who looked sick. 

“Someone fetched me to town and she was already to the undertakers.  Dan here, he was right there in the same room waitin’ for me. ”   

“Mr. Keefer.  What happened next?”

“Tried to talk to Dan about it.   Didn’t seem like he listened, though.   Told him the man didn’t mean to kill anyone and was real sorry about it.  But I guess he got to thinking about gunfighters.  Started readin’ about them and drawin’ them and suchlike.  Made himself sick with it – got wild after we, my brother and me, we took him to view her, then to bury her.  Maybe he was a bit young or somethin’.  Started fightin’ all the other kids.  Doc said he was tryin’ to find a way to, to make sense of what happened, when there weren’t a lick of sense to it.”

Dan was looking down at his feet.  Jamie imagined the floor opening up for him.  He thought how tough it must be to listen to your own father saying this stuff right in front of everyone. 

Mr. Keefer took a deep breath.  “So I thought if we moved away, we could make a new start, my brother and Dan and me, make a go of ranching in a small way.  And he’d get used to losing his Ma, and being angry with everyone and go back to being my son.  He was a fine boy, and he still is a fine boy.  It was me, I was the one that went wrong.”

Dan put his hand up to one eye and rubbed it.  Jamie sympathised – it was hard when you had something in your eye.

Sheriff Crawford spoke up.  “You did the best you could, Mr. Keefer.  We’re all real sorry about your wife.  Did anyone investigate what happened?”

“By the time we got there the man had gone and with witnesses sayin’ it was an accident, weren’t a thing to investigate.”

“All right.  Now, Daniel, you look up.” 

Sheriff Crawford sounded dead serious and Dan did as he was told.

“You know anything about mitigating circumstances, boy?”

Dan shook his head.  Jamie had no idea what they might be either, but Jack looked across at him, like he wanted to tell him what the words might mean. 

“The Judge said the way things happened to you, and the way you behaved, those were bad things.  Lookin’ to fight Jamie here, it kinda set the ball rollin’ and when you shied a stone at Mr. Lancer, that just moved things along faster.  But you’re not the only one to blame here, or even the most to blame, not by a long way.”

“I thought Jamie was just lyin’ ‘bout his father, or maybe it was just somethin’ I could say to make him mad,” Dan said, and Jamie saw after all that he was crying.   He sympathised even more – crying in front of all the adults was not what he’d want to be doing. 

“We know it was you bound up little Caroline’s leg, and did what you could to help out the other kids,” Sheriff Crawford said.  “Seems like after that gun fired you came to your senses, is that right?”

“Yeah.  I knowed it was wrong but when I said that to Jamie about his father, I just couldn’t stop it from happening.  And I’m real sorry about throwing that stone, Mr. Lancer.”

“I know what it feels like, to be angry,” Jamie’s father said quietly.  “Maybe you need to find a way not to be angry now.”

“I’ll try,” Dan said.  “I will.”

“We understand now, Dan,” Uncle Scott said.  “Our two sons didn’t because they failed to think anything through.  Right, Jack?”

Jamie saw Jack’s eyes open wide and wondered what was going through his head.

Sheriff Crawford took over again.  “So, Dan, you had reason to do what you did and didn’t know that gun would go off, so we’ve found a way to remind you there’s a bad way to do things and a good way.  From now on, you go to school every day. I’ll be checkin’ that you’re making progress.”

“Yes, sir,” said Dan, biting his lip.

“You will help me every Saturday morning, doin’ whatever I want you to do and that’ll be mostly sweepin’ up.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And last, all during the school vacation, you’ll be at Caroline’s place every Wednesday, doin’ whatever they want you to do.”

“Yes, sir,” said Dan again.  “I’m sorry for the trouble I caused.  I’m real sorry.  I’ll do everything you said to put it right.”

Jamie saw Sheriff Crawford nod, then glanced across at his father to see how he was holding up.  To his surprise, his father had his head down, like he was ashamed, and Jamie remembered how his father had called himself a fool, for a reason Jamie couldn’t grasp.

“All right, Mr. Keefer, you can go now,” Grandpa said, nodding to Sheriff Crawford, who went to sit down at the dining table.  “We’ll be over later, see what we can organise to help you build up the ranch.  That’s a good piece of land you have there and I think if we give you a few cattle to start with you can soon be making a living.”  Grandpa was talking to Mr. Keefer like they were old friends, and had changed the subject so quickly, Jamie’s head was spinning.  Dan wasn’t their enemy any more, and they were going to help the Keefers?  Was that what Grandpa was saying? 

The Keefers left the room with Grandpa and Jamie wondered if it was his turn next.  No, Uncle Scott, still standing even with his bad leg, was moving Jack in front of the desk and then stepping back.  But it was Aunt Charlotte who spoke.

“Jack Lancer,” she said, sitting forward in her chair.  “We’ve already spoken about this at length, but I’m going to say it again in case you didn’t hear me.  You let me down.  I sent you here, trusting that you’d behave yourself and not make any trouble.  Now, whose idea was it to steal Uncle Johnny’s gun?”

Jack had gone red.  “Mine,” he said.  Jamie wondered why he was taking all the blame on himself but didn’t dare interrupt.

“And who did all the planning?  Who thought of the game of soldiers?”

“Me,” said Jack.

“And are you now going to say you know why, because I’m tired of hearing you say you don’t know.”  Aunt Charlotte sounded very severe.  Jamie realised she was very cross with Jack but didn’t show it like his mother did. 

“I was angry,” Jack said.  “I was angry with everyone and everything, even Jamie for having everything I wanted.  And I’m real sorry for that because it wasn’t right, what we did, it wasn’t the way to put things right.”

“Thank you.  Now we’re going to do what we can to stop you feeling angry.  You have your father’s temper and you’ll need discipline to make use of that anger productively.  To do good.  But Scott and I, we’ve let you down too, and we’re going to put that right.”

Jack looked at his mother and took a step in her direction.

Uncle Scott held up his hand.  “Wait, just a moment.  Your punishment is this.  You’ll do chores round the ranch until you’ve learned a lot more about the business of ranching.  And if you like it, Murdoch and I will begin to teach you to run the place, so you and Jamie will have the skills to run the whole spread, if that’s what you want to do.  It’ll be hard work, every day, right through the vacation, morning to night, with little time to play.  Then, if we judge you’ve got enough command of your temper, we’ll review your punishment.  Is that agreed?”

“Yes, mother, father,” said Jack.  “I’m sorry.  Everyone, I’m very sorry.”  And Jamie knew he really meant it.

Uncle Scott guided him back to sit between them again.  Sheriff Crawford nodded as if to himself, then said, “Jamie – your turn now.”

Jamie knew where to stand and thought he knew what to expect, but then his father stood and started to speak, just as Grandpa came back into the room.

“I’ve told Jamie this already but I’m still not sure he’s heard.  Johnny Madrid, he’s a part of me that’ll always be there.  A gunfighter, good at a trade I don’t need any more.  I shouldn’t have left the gun in that drawer – and to leave it loaded?”  He stopped speaking for a moment, then went on.  “It’s locked away now, and until I can see well enough to use it, it’ll stay locked away.  But Jamie – taking the gun to show the children was never goin’ to do any good, don’t you see?  It’s a weapon made to kill, that’s its purpose.  It makes a man able to kill, to commit murder in a way he couldn’t if he didn’t have that gun.”

Jamie was listening really carefully.  He saw the gun in his mind’s eye, and knew what it felt like to hold it, and how Johnny Madrid had stood there instead of his father, someone scary, and cold, and – what was the word? – deadly.  Able to make people dead. 

“So I’m sayin’ sorry before you, to the whole family, for not seeing to my boy the way I should have done, and for putting my own worries above my boy’s, and my wife’s worries.  It won’t happen again.” 

His father made his way back to stand behind Francie, who sat on the edge of the chair. Jamie was open-mouthed.  He looked round the rest of the family and saw Uncle Scott move to stand right beside Pa, and saw Francie take Pa’s hand. 

This was the worst punishment of all, to see what he’d done that had upset his father so much.

“I’m sorry,” he said, though he’d learned the words were true only now because he meant them.  With his whole heart, he truly meant them.

Finally, it was Francie’s turn to speak.  Her eyes were shiny with tears and her cheeks were wet and she seemed like she was very angry with him.

“Every morning, Jamie Lancer, you are going to sit at your grandfather’s desk and write out ten, twenty, a hundred times, a gun is not a toy, and guns were made to hurt people and anything else I want you to write.  Then on Fridays, it’ll be your turn to ride over to Caroline’s and do all the chores her family tells you to do, and you’re not to come back till they’re done, you hear?  And all weekend…”

Jamie saw Johnny tighten his grip on Francie’s hand.  He said, “Francie”, just that and no more, and his mother paused and took a breath. 

“And on Saturdays, you and I and Jessie and your father will go down to the river and just be a family, take food and play and be together.  And sometimes it’ll be just us, and sometimes it’ll be the whole family.”

And so the image of the hateful gun was wiped clean from his mind, to be replaced by trips to see Caroline and sunlight and family time by the river.  He saw his father do that half-smile of his, just a lift of one side of his mouth, and knew that whatever was to come, they were through the worst of it now.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door.  Grandpa opened it and Doctor Tennant walked in.

“Oh – I’m sorry to disturb such a happy scene.  I have some good news and wished to bring it straight to you, Mr. Lancer.”

Pa stood.  “Whatever it is, it’s for everyone to hear, doc.”

“Well, I’d rather … But if you insist.  My colleague has agreed to take your case.  He’s been having great success with people with exactly your symptoms.  The only problem is that he is unable to leave his practice, since he’s so busy.  So if you wish to take up his offer, you’ll have to travel to him.”

Grandfather spoke up.  “I’m sure there’ll be no difficulty in doing that, Doctor.  As soon as possible we’ll travel to San Francisco …”

“Oh no, Mr. Lancer.  Not San Francisco.  Boston.  My colleague’s practice is in Boston!” 

End
April 2022

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12 thoughts on “Johnny Madrid, Gunfighter by Cat

  1. Your story contains all the ups and downs that are part of life, which lends realism to this window into the now extended Lancer family. I love your writing style and the additional characters you’ve created for this series. I anxiously wait to read more. Thank you for an excellent Lancer tale.

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  2. I’d read this before on one of the other Lancer sites probably a few years ago. Always finding a story to enjoy a second time is a treasure. I enjoyed the first person account of Jamie – I also liked how there seemed to be no “whippings” of bad boys – or at least none that I noticed. I loved the way the family took responsibility for their own actions with the boys and Johnny’s gun.

    Hoping there will be more to this story – kind of like seeing the Lancers build up that family that Murdoch has always wanted.

    Cathie

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  3. I was thrilled to see this posting having recently re read the “Jamie Series”.
    I throughly enjoyed the continuing family drama . I love the family dynamic and the Johnny/ Francie relationship – they seem so “ right” for each other.
    I sincerely hope there will be more……

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  4. Liked this story. Family, conflict, drama, excitement, and understanding — all well written and all with good focus building to an agreeable conclusion. Now a promise of hope and perhaps new adventures in Boston. Will the brothers be together in Scott’s hometown, will Johnny meet any of Scott’s relatives or old friends?
    Thank you for sharing this story and all it’s characters.

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  5. I’m so happy to have read this again and hope
    hope hope there will be another part. If not, thank you for sharing the blessing of your great talent with us.

    Like

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