Word count 4,170
It didn’t matter where Jamie sat, stood or ran. Wherever he went, he was under someone’s feet.
His father had dragged him out of bed at five, a full half hour earlier than usual and he had stumbled down for breakfast, his hair unbrushed, his shirt hanging out, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles until Aunt Teresa had sent him back to his room to sort himself out. When he returned to the kitchen table, everyone was sitting round it looking very solemn as Grandpa had been saying grace. Grace over breakfast? Jamie yawned, slipped into his seat and kept his mouth shut.
He knew it was an important day. Apart from it being New Year’s Eve, Uncle Scott had spent a lot of time away recently, and today he was due back. They were all going into town to meet his the stage.
Over the last week he had helped make Uncle Scott’s room as bright and cheerful as it could be. He had drawn him a new picture of two horses running across a green field, and Jelly had made a frame for it and told him he’d never seen anything so good. He’d even helped Aunt Teresa to put clean sheets on the bed, though he grumbled it wasn’t man’s work, at which she had told him that when he was a man, he could stop doing it. Being six and three-quarters didn’t count. So he had pulled on the big sheet until he could bounce a dime off it, and then Teresa had bounced the dime too and then somehow they got into a pillow fight, with his Aunt laughing until the tears ran down her face and Grandpa came to find out what all the fuss was about.
Two more rooms were opened up, too, and they told Jamie some more people were coming with Scott and they needed rooms too. They were small rooms and needed a thorough cleaning because they’d never been used before. They were right next to Jamie’s own room. He wondered who Uncle Scott’s friends were but everyone smiled when he asked, and said, “All in good time,” whatever that meant. So he hung round the rooms, when he had a spare moment, and tried to think whether Scott had told him in his letters about any really important gunfighters he might have met in San Francisco, or sea captains, or railroad bosses, or anyone else it might be worth meeting. He was hoping for a sea captain or two.
So he had passed the last two weeks with a growing sense that something very important was about to happen, and it made him jittery. He did his chores with renewed energy, hoping that if he were good someone would let him know what was really going on. But the adults clung on to their secrets and smiled at him and shut up when he went into a room. He knew better than to pester them.
On the last afternoon before Uncle Scott was due back, he had been helping Pa with grooming Barranca. He was big enough now to reach right up and sweep the curry comb across the horse’s broad flank. He did one side and Pa did the other, and then they compared and Pa would say which side was shinier. He was fair about it, too, and Jamie always agreed with him, nodding his head and saying, “Yes – you got a real nice shine on him today,” if his Pa won. His Pa would look down at him, his face full of pride in his work, least, that’s what Jamie thought, and he would nod back.
“Soon have to put him out to pasture and break in a new mount, Jamie,” he would say, patting Barranca’s neck. “But maybe he’s good for one more year.”
“Yes, Pa – one more year,” said Jamie sagely, happy to follow Pa’s lead. To him, Barranca looked much as he had always done, golden, muscular and big, a horse from the story books, with his Pa the knight in the shining armour. Or maybe that Napoleon fellow – or, who was it, Wellington. Yes, or George Washington. Or Johnny Madrid, pistolero, who could make wicked folk fear him as he passed by on his way to help poor folk in trouble.
He knew he was bad for thinking about that. His Pa had told him over and over it was nothing to dream about, that he had not been a hero but Sheriff Crawford and Jelly had told him lots of stories and he knew better. His Pa was just being shy.
When they were done, Pa took Jamie into the corral and walked with him out into the pasture. There was damp in the air but it was pretty warm still, not like summer heat but he was comfortable enough, brushing through the grass and chewing on a stem thoughtfully, just like Pa was doing.
“Jamie,” Pa said, looking ahead and taking the grass stem out of his mouth. “You know why Scott went to San Francisco?”
“And you know what we have to do when he comes back?”
“Oh yes, Pa, I know. It’s like last year, when you …”
“Yes, Jamie. Just like last year,” Pa said, looking more thoughtful for a moment. “I guess you’ve had some practice in this, haven’t you.”
“I know what to do. I’m much older than I was last year – I know a whole lot more.”
“Yes, Jamie, you do.” Pa had an odd look on his face, somewhere between laughing and being sad. “Well, there’s a treat for you, tomorrow. At least, I hope you’ll think it’s a treat.”
“There is? Is it what everyone’s not been telling me all week?”
Then his Pa did laugh, making Jamie look at him closer. He had known his Pa had been tired that week, and had tried to be good though he couldn’t have helped leaving that gate open and he had only realized the horses had got out because of him when his Grandpa had explained it to him. His Pa had spent quite a while rounding up the horses and he had been ashamed for forgetting a rule he had been taught since he was old enough to walk. But he had got most other things right.
“Yeah, I guess it must be. Uncle Scott’s bringing some people home with him.”
“Oh, I know that,” Jamie exclaimed, feeling a little disappointed that it wasn’t some more exciting news. “Are they going to be sea Captains?”
His Pa stopped in his tracks and looked steadily at him. “Who?”
“Captains. Of ships. On the sea,” Jamie explained carefully, wondering if his father had forgotten about the stories he had brought back with him after his trip to San Francisco last year, when he had been away for weeks and weeks and weeks and …
“No, they’re not sea Captains. There’s a boy, a little younger than you, and a girl, she’s four. And a lady.”
“A lady? What d’you mean, Pa? Is he bringing another lady to live here? What will Aunty Teresa do?”
“Aunty Teresa is getting married next spring, Jamie – you haven’t forgotten that, have you?”
“No. I thought she’d go on living here and Tom would go on visiting her like he always does.”
“Mr. Stone to you,” Pa said, laughing again. “No, she won’t go on living here. The new lady is Scott’s new wife. Her name’s Charlotte. She’ll be taking over running the house.”
“Well, that’s mighty convenient,” Jamie said, echoing a phrase a school friend of his had learned from his Ma.
His Pa suddenly kneeled down and hugged him. “Yeah,” Jamie heard his Pa say. “It worked out just fine for them.”
When Pa stood up, he walked on, heading for the pools of water where they came fishing once in a while. Jamie knew it had been his Ma’s favorite place.
“And the two little children, Pa? Do they come with her?” Jamie had to walk quickly to keep pace with his pa.
“They’re her children. She was married before and her husband died. She was very sad but then she met Scott and they made each other happy again. Uncle Scott, well, it’ll take a while yet but he’ll be fine again. He wrote and said he had recovered well from his operation.”
Jamie had stopped, suddenly realizing what his pa was telling him. “You mean, Scott and – and Charlotte – and two little children…”
“Yeah. They’re called John and Lily. Yeah – another John in the house. We’ll have to call him pipsqueak or somethin’, just so’s I know who wants me and who wants him. And you mustn’t call Scott’s new wife just Charlotte. Call her – call her Aunt Charlotte.” Jamie’s father stood by the edge of the pool and looked out across the still water. “It’s going to mean a lot of changes. You’re goin’ to have to work hard to help out and make it a happy time for them. They lost their father two years ago and now Scott is going to take over that job.”
Jamie tried to puzzle over everything his pa had told him. He needed time to think but right now he had to throw something. He picked up a stick and tossed it as far as he could, then watched the ripples trace the impact of the stick back to his feet. He was bursting to ask dozens of questions but Pa didn’t quite look in the mood for answering them. He tried to think of one question which would sum up all the others in his mind but it was too much to contain in a single thought.
A skein of geese flew overhead. Jamie loved their honking calls, which made him think of faraway, mysterious places, where people wore different clothes and saw snow every year. Uncle Scott had shown him pictures of lands like that in a big book, before he had become ill and gone to San Francisco to be cured. His Pa looked up, too.
“I wonder if they’ll stop here for a while, like they did last year,” Pa said. “When I got back, remember? There was more than twenty of ‘em grazing that grass, with their beaks movin’ so fast and making that noise.” His Pa put his hand on Jamie’s shoulder and pulled him a little closer. “Remember?” he said again.
“Yes, I remember. I remember how one of them tasted, too,” Jamie said, a mischievous grin on his face.
His Pa pretended to be shocked. “You only think of one thin’. Your stomach.”
Jamie patted his stomach, looking gleefully at his Pa. “Yup!” he agreed happily, watching the smile re-appear on his father’s face like sunlight on water after the clouds have passed. “Goose, with all the trimmings. Delicious!” he added, in a fair imitation of his Grandpa. “Teresa, you have outdone yourself!”
“Come here, you little tike – you wait till I tell Grandpa you’ve been makin’ fun of him again!”
Being chased by Pa was one of the best things in the world.
As soon as breakfast was done everyone whirled round, grabbing best hats and coats and heading out the door, Jamie with them, jamming his new hat onto his unruly blond hair. It was a smaller version of his father’s, and had been an unexpected present. His father had muttered something about wanting him to look his best as they stood together in the shop, Pa paying out the dollars and Jamie clutching the purchase proudly.
Outside, a line of buggies and wagons seemed to stretch to the horizon and images of wagon trains with brave settlers heading west filled Jamie’s mind. The horses were restless to be off and so was he.
“You sit with Grandpa, Jamie,” Pa said, handing him up into the big arms of the man who was still everyone’s boss. “I’m riding in ahead of you.”
“How many people are coming to live with us?” Jamie asked, open-mouthed in wonder at the noise around him – horses, people, Spanish being shouted and English, wagons creaking, wind whipping through the valley and bending the trees. He was stunned by the mass of movement around him. Surely, it was an army that was coming to stay.
“Four, son, counting Scott,” Pa said, mounting his horse with the same easy, thoughtless action he has always had. “But they’re bringing their lives with them. And we have to pick up supplies from town. Be good, Jamie.”
“Sure, Pa, sure!” Jamie watched as his father urged Barranca forward. The horse was nervous of all the movement yet his rider soon had him in hand again. With a wave of his hat he was away, trotting the beautiful horse out ahead of them all. Grandpa took the reins in his big hands, shook them and called to the two horses pulling their buggy and then they were off, with shouts echoing back down the line of vehicles – only four, if truth be told, but Jamie was at the head of a vast army now, his grandfather giving orders and he, the faithful drummer boy, ready to do his duty.
He restrained the impulse to ask how long it would take to get to town. He knew perfectly well how far it was, but somehow the journey seemed different, seemed longer and more charged with excitement than it had been before. He was itching to do something apart from sit and longed for a story to pass the time.
“Grandpa,” he said, smiling his best smile.
Grandpa smiled back. “Yes, Jamie?”
“Grandpa – tell me about when Pa first came here. Did he bring his life with him?”
“What’s that?” Grandpa always answered his questions. His Pa said he had had to learn the hard way how to deal with boys but Jamie had not been sure what his father had meant. Only that Grandpa, in the right mood, would help out with even difficult problems, like why his Pa was sad sometimes.
This time, Grandpa seemed lost for words, looking at him with the oddest expression in his grey-blue eyes. “I guess he did, Jamie. He brought the clothes he stood up in, his revolver and a saddle. Not much else.”
“What did he do when he got to the ranch?”
He knew Grandpa had told him that before, and he knew Grandpa knew he knew, but he liked to hear it just the same.
“He saved us, Jamie. He and your uncle. They made sure the land was safe for us, and they worked hard to make it the fine place it is today.”
Always the same words and Jamie said them right along with Murdoch, until they were both grinning.
“I don’t know why you keep asking that, Jamie. You know the answer as well as I do.”
“I like to hear you say it. Will you teach it to the new kids? To John – and to Lily?” He was proud of himself for having remembered their names.
Murdoch sat quietly, thinking about the answer. “If they’ll listen,” he said eventually, seeming not quite as sure of himself as Jamie had come to expect. “I haven’t met them yet. They’re used to city ways. I don’t know what they’ll think of us living all the way out here.”
“You mean they might not like living here?” The idea was inconceivable to Jamie. It was the only place in the world he could possibly be.
“Well, maybe to start with. You’ll have to show them how good it is.”
Jamie fell silent. He was busy making a mental list of all the things the new children would have to learn about ranching. He would have to take their education into his own hands. Pa would, as usual, be much too busy for such matters. Pulling himself up straight on the seat, Jamie tried to imagine what it would be like to be their teacher but, since Miss Snell was his teacher he had some difficulty. She was very old and very strict. Nevertheless, the plans kept him quiet until they reached town.
They were a little early. One of the wagons drew up outside the mercantile and the two hands jumped down and disappeared inside.
“Aunty Teresa’s been cooking for days and days, hasn’t she?”
“Yes,” said Grandpa, looking for a place to hitch their buggy. “I think she’s glad to get out of the kitchen.”
Jamie looked around for her and waved when he saw her getting down from the second buggy. Her Tom was there to meet her and kissed her on the cheek, just he always did. Jamie thought she looked very pretty in a new gown and jacket, with a pretty bonnet with two feathers in it. Tom – Mr. Stone – smiled at her. So he must think so too.
Then Pa was helping him jump down and making him brush his pants and jacket. He hadn’t really noticed before, but Pa was looking pretty smart too, wearing a suit of sober black and a tie.
“Pa? Why are you wearing a suit? Are we goin’ to church?”
“You want your Pa to look smart, don’t you? Aunt Charlotte is a high-born lady. She wants to know she’s coming somewhere people know the right knives and forks to use and how to say howdy properly.”
Jamie looked critically as his father. There didn’t seem anything wrong with the way he normally looked, in work pants and shirt, bandana and jacket. And his gunbelt, which he was not wearing now. He looked smart enough but he didn’t look quite like himself. Then there was no more time to ask questions because the stage was pulling into main street and he was following everyone up onto the sidewalk, ready to greet his new relations.
Uncle Scott stepped out of the stage first. He seemed even taller than he had when he had left but he no longer used crutches, just a stick which he leaned on as he turned to hold out a hand.
The woman who took his hand made Jamie look up, she was so tall. When she stood in the street, she seemed almost as tall as Uncle Scott. She wore a green dress in beautiful, shiny material, with tassels and ribbons and loose pieces which stirred in the strong breeze. Jamie felt for a moment that standing behind his father might be the proper thing to do but he was trapped. Then she was saying something to him.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, unsure what the question had been. He looked up hopefully, feeling his father’s hand securely on his shoulder.
“Oh – so I should be pleased to meet you?” She smiled and Jamie smiled back, shyly. He twisted round and looked at his father.
“Did I say something wrong?” he whispered, wanting badly to be out of there and back home.
His father spun him back round, reached across him and shook the lady’s hand. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am. Welcome to Morro Coyo. This is my son, Jamie.”
“I’m so pleased to make your acquaintance. Your brother has told me so much about you. Now, Jamie, perhaps you would like to meet my children. Jack – come on, don’t be shy. Jamie wants to make friends.” A boy, about Jamie’s height but brown-haired and brown-eyes, clambered down the steep steps and looked Jamie in the eye.
“Howdee, pardner!” he said carefully, holding out a hand.
“Howdy,” said Jamie, taking the hand bravely and shaking it. “Do you like cows?”
“I dunno. I haven’t ever met any,” Jack said, a mischievous grin appearing. “Be glad to make their acquaintance though!” And from that moment, Jamie decided he liked Jack.
“And here’s my little Lily. Sleepy-head. Wake up now.”
A few more moments and a girl was holding out her hands, waiting to be helped from the coach. She was thin and small, with piercing blue eyes and blond ringlets. Even Jamie noticed how tired she looked.
“Here, ma’am. Allow me,” said his father, and went to take the girl from the coach. She hesitated one second then her mother encouraged her. She allowed Johnny to pick her up and set her beside her mother, whose hand she immediately grabbed.
Grandpa took over, herding everyone to the hotel and for a while, Jamie found himself alone with his father in the lobby. He got up and started to wander round, reading the notices as well as he could then finding the bell at a high desk. The third time he rang it, his father called to him.
“Jamie, leave that.”
But Jamie was tired and bored and tempted, and he rang it again.
“Jamie! Come here.” His father sounded annoyed. “Settle down! What’s the matter with you?”
Jamie judged his father just cross enough to need to be obeyed and went over to him. “Where did everyone go?”
“Upstairs to get cleaned up. They’ve been travelling a long way.”
“They looked all right to me,” Jamie said, somewhat grumpily. He wanted to go home.
“Scott’s tired. He’s resting.”
“He’s not using his crutches any more. Why?”
His father sighed. “I explained that to you. Oh all right, don’t look like that. When he broke his leg it was a bad break. And it never did mend right. He went to San Francisco and a surgeon put it right for him. Now he has to exercise it and get it strong, then he can throw the cane away. Now, you got anything more to ask because it’s goin’ to be a while before I can get to your questions again.” Pa smiled. He sure did understand what a boy needed.
“You are happy they’ve come, aren’t you, Pa?”
“Well, sure I am! What made you think I wasn’t? You got a brother and sister to play with, almost.” But though his Pa said happy things they didn’t match the way his eyes looked.
The next question begged to be asked. “Did you want…”
“Yeah, Jamie, would have been good to have a few more like you. But maybe one Jamie’s enough, huh?” And his Pa laughed after all, losing that sadness suddenly. “And now I got Uncle Scott to do all that book work.”
“Book work – ugh!” said Jamie loyally.
“Yup – ugh!!” said Pa, beginning to tickle Jamie.
They were both laughing when Scott came down the stairs.
“Good to see my favourite brother and nephew again,” his uncle said, coming to sit down near them. “I ordered some coffee.”
“I’ll go and check on it,” said his father. “Be …”
“Good!” Jamie finished. His father walked away. “Hi, Uncle Scott. Is your leg better?”
“Near enough, Jamie. You’re another foot taller, I see.” Uncle Scott was very good at joking without smiling and Jamie thought carefully before he answered.
“You are too,” he said, trying not to laugh.
Uncle Scott grinned then he was serious again. “Are you happy about all this, Jamie? It’s a big change.”
“Think so. Pa explained. I got your rooms ready – well, me and Teresa. Pa’s happy you’re back.”
“Jamie, you’re wise beyond your years,” said Uncle Scott, putting his arm round his nephew’s shoulders. “And, to borrow another saying, you are your father’s son.”
Jamie didn’t have time to work out what that meant because the coffee arrived and then his father and uncle got talking about boring things only they understood. The bell was beginning to look mighty tempting again as he got hotter and hotter in the stuffy lobby but fortunately the whole family came downstairs and, after a short pause, they were off into the street again, Jamie walking next to Jack and keeping a careful eye on Lily. He already felt his responsibilities keenly and pointed out things of interest to Jack as they walked.
They all managed to squeeze into the buggies and the wagon had already been loaded with some bags from the stage and boxes which Pa said had arrived a couple of days before. Jamie sat with Grandpa again, and somehow Jack managed to sit with them. Uncle Scott and Aunt Charlotte and Lily were in the other buggy and Pa rode Barranca. Tom had brought his buggy and Teresa was riding with him.
A New Year. A new family. A bit scary maybe but, as he told Jack everything about cows, with a bit of help from Grandpa, he also watched his father. Then he changed the subject, dropped his voice a notch and said, “Say, Jack.”
“You ever heard’ve a man called Johnny Madrid? Pistolero, down around the border. When he rode into town, men watched what they said and did. And he was the fastest gun there was. Why, I heard tell from someone who saw him draw down on a rattlesnake, and shoot so fast that poor rattlesnake crawled around for three days …”
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