Driving the Chariot

Or five times when Johnny shows some sense

Vintage

"Johnny! Johnny, where are you?" Scott came through the doorway into the great room, bottle in hand. He paused, smiling. "Well, I wish Murdoch were here to see this! You're doing the books and you didn't have to be bullied or bribed into it?"

Johnny looked up from the papers and ledgers scattered on the big desk. He had a smudge of ink on the end of his nose – something that Scott decided to say nothing about – and his right forefinger was inky. His hair was almost standing on end. Scott was willing to bet that those inky hands had been run through the hair more than once and that the air had been sulphurous with profane Spanish. Johnny hadn't changed much over the years. Keeping the accounts was still his least favourite job.

Scott's smile broadened. "Working hard, little brother?"

Johnny grinned back at him. "Someone has to do it, and you seem to spend all your time drifting around California these days, like some saddle bum with a road stake." He dropped the pen into the leather pen tray that he'd crafted for Murdoch one Christmas and closed the silver lid on the heavy cut-glass ink bottle. He flexed his fingers. He always complained that holding a pen made them cramp up. "Thought you were back tomorrow."

"The train service is so fast now." Scott crossed the room to the side table near the fireplace, to collect a couple of glasses and the corkscrew. "Remember when it took two or three days to get to Stockton?"

"My backside does. There's something to be said for a comfortable train seat."

"You're getting soft," jeered Scott. He put bottle and glasses onto the desk top, pushing aside some of Johnny's papers. "This is it."

They stared at the bottle, neither speaking, both of them intent on its tall, slim shape. After a moment, Johnny picked it up, holding it to the late afternoon sunlight streaming through the big arched window behind his desk. The bottle glowed red in the sun. "Looks good, Boston."

Scott nodded. "John did a good job," he said, with restrained pride.

"He sure did. Have you tried it?"

"Not yet. John wanted me to taste it, but I held firm. He's had some, of course, and he's very pleased with it. He sent complimentary cases around to all the wine merchants in San Francisco and Sacramento and he's had good comments back from them. Quite a few orders, too." Scott took back the bottle and worked the corkscrew into it.

"We'll at least break even, then, this year?"

"There's a lot of up front investment in a vineyard, Johnny, you know that. I know we got the vineyard cheap after the root louse disease struck, but restocking with new vines and waiting for them to mature... John says we'll definitely be in profit next year." He saw his brother's teasing grin and shook his head. He didn't really need to justify himself or rush to John's defence, but Johnny could get to him like no one else. He grinned back. "Or maybe the one after."

Scott was always the one to push for new and innovative ways of doing things, and always had been. Johnny was more like Murdoch. He was more interested in the land and cattle and horses than branching out into fruit or town property or the railroads or, the latest venture, buying land up in the Napa Valley and setting up their own vineyard under the management of Scott's eldest son. Not that he vetoed the projects that Scott suggested, not once he'd gone over the business case for them anyway (he was really so like Murdoch in that regard that Scott found it slightly disturbing), but his real enthusiasm was for his horses and for the ranch that was the hub of the Lancer enterprises as well as the home for both their families. Scott always found himself a little nervous when he and Johnny talked business. He thought it was a hangover from all those years of dealing with Murdoch.

"John came back with me, by the way. We brought a case with us so we can all have some at dinner this evening after the children have gone to bed, but this first tasting – this is for you and me, Johnny." Scott uncorked the bottle and poured the wine.

Johnny picked up his glass and sniffed at it. It reminded Scott of a cat faced with something it wasn't sure of. Johnny had never developed much of a taste for wine. He still drank milk with his meals to cool the fiery chilli that Jessamie, taught by Maria Morales who'd been housekeeper when he and Johnny had first come here, made to please Johnny's palate – the rest of the family preferred something a little less caustic. But then, Johnny's favourite tipple was still tequila; he liked caustic. He drank wine whenever Jessamie and Scott's wife, Beth, got it into their heads to entertain the neighbours with one of their fancy dinner parties, but even then he drank sparingly.

"What do you think?" asked Scott, when Johnny had taken a few sips.

"It's good." Johnny frowned and rolled the wine around in his mouth before he swallowed. He sipped again, and licked his lips. "It tastes kinda lean and tart, like the limes you use in a good guacamole. There's a lot of fruit in there. Not strawberries though, not sweet fruit... blueberries, maybe. Fruit that has a bite to it. And somethin'... somethin' that reminds me of that mineral water you made Murdoch drink when he got the gout that time. Yeah. That's it. It's got an... an attractive minerality that speaks of stones and fresh rainwater and sometimes a chalky note that's oddly reminiscent of clean seashells on an ocean beach."

Scott's mouth dropped open.

Johnny sipped his wine again, tilted his head to one side as if considering, and then gave a decisive nod. "Not blueberries, but those cranberries you get shipped here from Boston every Thanksgivin'. Yeah, cranberries. They go well with the seashells."

Scott's mouth may have fallen open a little further.

Johnny's expression was entirely serious, but there was a twinkle in his eyes that Scott knew only too well. He looked at Scott and waited, expectant.

"You're making that up!"

"Not me, Boston."

"That innocence goes very ill with a man of your years, John Lancer."

"You mean I got it all wrong? No cranberries?"

"And no seashells. Where on earth did you pick up that nonsense?"

Johnny laughed. "You didn't see that story in the San Francisco Call, then? I hoped you'd miss it. Grady sent me a few editions in last week's mail and there was some man writing about wines in one of 'em, talkin' all about the new vintages being brought here from France. Jess and me thought it'd be a good joke to jumble up what he wrote into something to say to you when you got back with this." There was a note of pride in his voice. "She wrote it. All I had to do was learn it."

"It worked. You had me bewildered for a few minutes, there." Scott laughed. "What do you really think of it? I didn't think that it was at all bad for a first vintage."

Johnny reached out and touched the bottle again, tracing the name on the label with that inky forefinger.

Lancers.

"It tastes just fine, Boston," he said. "Of course it does. It's ours."

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Where the heart is

When Johnny stumbled over the barn threshold, tired and chilled to the bone from the cold rain that had sluiced down all day, he took a deep breath of air that smelled of warm hay and lamp oil, old leather from the harnesses and the earthier, animal smell of horses. Even the horseshit smelled... well, not good. But not bad either. It was warmth and safety.

He'd always liked barns. He'd slept in a lot of barns.

And there was something else. He sniffed again. Turpentine?

Yeah. Turpentine. And somethin' that was like them smellin' salts ladies kept handy for having the vapours. And somethin' else, just like that stuff Maria and Teresa had made him breathe when he took cold that time. They'd pushed his head over a steaming basin of it and covered him with a towel until he'd thought he'd choke on the steam and stench. He would never allow that it eased that damned cough and made him feel better. The women didn't need any encouragement when it came to fussing.

Liniment. The barn stank of liniment, the special embrocation that its inventor hailed as a sovereign remedy for everything from pneumonia in people, to white line in horses. There was only one person he knew smelled like all those things tumbled together.

"Well, an' what time o' day do you call this, Johnny Lancer?"

Jelly.

Johnny wasn't surprised to find the old man was on the watch for him. Jelly had a length of harness draped over his knees, and a leather needle and beeswax in his hands, but by the time a weary Barranca and even wearier Johnny came through the barn doors, the working day had been long over. Jelly should have been in the great room playing chequers with Murdoch or reading the newspaper or arguing over anything and everything with anyone and everyone, not sitting out here in the half-dark barn pretending he was mending harness.

"Hell, it's worse'n being married and having a wife waiting up for a man." Johnny led Barranca into his stall and started to unsaddle him and settle him down. "What are you doin' out here this time of night, Jelly?"

Jelly raised the harness and rattled it at him. "What does it look like, you blamed fool?" He scrambled up from his seat on a hay bale and came to help. "Where've you been, Johnny? Teresa was worried."

"Oh Teresa was worried, was she?" Johnny rubbed over Barranca's back where the saddle had sat. The palomino, head held high with strain, began to relax under hgis hands as the big muscles untensed. "Good old fella," he said in the horse's ear. Barranca twitched the ear at him and snorted.

"Sure was. And the boss was huffin' and puffin' about you missin' supper. Course he was only making like he was mad—"

"Because he's Murdoch and he was."

"Because he was worritin' like Teresa was, that you were so late." Jelly took a couple of soft, well-washed grain sacks from the pile outside the stall and tossed one to Johnny. He started drying Barranca off, sweeping the old sacking in long, smooth strokes across the palomino's broad back and down over its haunches. " 'Specially in this weather."

"Scott didn't say nothin' then?"

"Waal, he was plumb off his feed, I'd say, worritin' hisself into an early grave. He was all for settin' out to look for you."

"That so? But you weren't?"

"Me? Why'd I worry? I knew you'd turn up, like a bad injun-head penny. You allus do." Jelly sniffed in scorn, sticking out his chin until that scrubby bristle he called a beard stuck out stiffer than porcupine quills. "Why, it's real likely I'd bother my head about Mister Smart-Alec Johnny Lancer, ain't it? Hmfph. Real likely."

Johnny laughed and gave his attention to making Barranca more comfortable.

"Where was you, Johnny? No trouble?" The old man came up close, looking Johnny over with anxious eyes. It was like he moved in a little cloud of that embrocation of his.

"No, Jelly, no trouble. Barranca threw a shoe right over at Chuparosa creek. I had to walk him back, real slow and careful." Johnny laughed, rueful. "I'm played out, that's all, and my feet hurt more than his right now."

"What you need is some of my liniment—"

"Hell, no! No, thanks. I dunno what you put in it to make it smell like that, but I ain't going to bed with no liniment smellin' feet. Teresa would have a fit, me gettin' that stuff on her sheets." Johnny sniffed the air, making sure Jelly saw him do it. " Smells awful strong of embrocation in here tonight. You been drinkin' it, Jelly? All that turpentine keeps you regular, I expect."

That was enough to send Jelly off into the spluttering rage that was his usual way when anyone—usually Johnny—teased him. Johnny finished drying off Barranca and let the old man's indignant voice rise and fall in the background, not really listening.

"And it's sovereign good agin the pneumonie," finished up Jelly as Johnny checked Barranca's hoof one last time. "Even Doc Jenkins swears by it."

"Well, he swears about it," said Johnny. "Everyone does."

There was no damage that he could see. The shoe had come away clean and easy, no cracks or chips in the hoof wall. There was no heat in the leg that would point to a strain. If Barranca walked out sound the next morning, he'd take him down to the forge and either Murdoch or Isidore could reshoe him. Might not be a bad idea, anyway. Waiting on Barranca to be reshod would give them both a later start and an easier day. It'd been a long hard walk back for both of them.

He sneezed.

"And the pneumonie's just what you'll have iffen you don't get out of them wet things and get something hot to eat! You don't have the horse sense Barranca has. Go on up to the house and put them all out of their miseries, worritin' theirselves about you. Not that you're worth it. Not worth a bent cent." Jelly came closer to give him a push towards the door and there was a waft of turpentine strong enough to cover up the smell of damp horse. Hell, the stink itself was enough to keep a man regular. It was a wonder Jelly's eyes weren't watering from it. "Go on, git. I'll put his blanket on him and I might even give him a hot bran mash with a little molasses in it."

Johnny grinned down at the angry little man. Jelly didn't like showing his soft side, not realising he did it all the time. Fact was, Jelly didn't have any other sort of side to show. "Thanks, Jelly." He slapped the old man on the shoulder. "You know what's best about you waitin' up for me and not a wife? I don't have to kiss you good night."

Jelly stared. And Jelly spluttered. And Jelly reached for a handy pitchfork. So Johnny, laughing, made his escape before he got skewered and needed more than just the stink of Jelly's liniment to welcome him home.

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Baa Baa Bathtime

There are candles in sconces and one lone lamp on the chair beside the tub. The corners are full of shadows – shifting, moving, deepening, retreating as the flames twist on their wicks. Only the lamp burns steadily and it's turned low, the flame a weak yellow under the glass.

Steam mists on the lamp glass, running down it like the water running over broad tanned shoulders. He throws his head back and sighs, eyes closing. He's sprawled in the wooden tub, the back of his neck resting on the rim, his breathing slow.

She crouches in the shadows, watching, her eyes wide in the dim light.

He straightens after a while, pushing his shoulders back to flex his back. A little drop of water meanders down the side of his neck. He scrubs his face, long fingers moving over skin and stubble, then soaks a sponge in the hot water and rubs a bar of soap against it back and forth, back and forth.

Strong brown fingers squeeze the sponge until it's thick with foam. He runs it slowly up and down his arms and shoulders. He wriggles to rub the lathered sponge across his back, sliding it against the long scar below his left shoulder blade. He dips the sponge into the water, rubs it against the soap again – back and forth, back and forth – and runs it across his chest and stomach. One leg lifts out of the water to be soaped, then the other.

She watches from her corner, quiet and safe.

He's smiling now. He lets the sponge soak up water, raises it above his head and squeezes it, laughing. He shakes his head like a dog, drops of water showering around the room.

She doesn't flinch when the drops spatter against her.

When he stands up, water streams down his chest and flat stomach, running down his thighs and legs. It glistens on his skin, shimmering over muscle and sinew and bone. His body gleams, limned by lamplight, when he steps out of the bath and reaches for the pile of rough towels. He's singing under his breath and rubbing the towel across his chest when he sees her. He freezes.

"Wha—? Well, hell. How did you sneak in here after me?"

She's silent, pressing back against the adobe.

"Ain't right, watching a man in his bath." He chuckles. "Or doin' other things." He's rubbing himself hard with the towels, his eyes half-closed in pleasure. He doesn't let it last long. He wriggles into his pants and comes over to her.

Her hair's matted and dirty. He touches it, fingers gentle and kind. "You could do with a bath yourself, cariña."

He laughs and gets up, flinging open the door. "Lincoln! Can't you even keep your blasted lambs outa the damn bath house?"

"Baaaah," she says.

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Noli Me Tangere

Isabella's hands ran down the niño's arms and legs, pressing through the softness of clothes and flesh to the solidity of the bones beneath, feeling for bumps or jagged edges. She ran her hands over Juanito's chest again, to be sure no ribs were broken. His breathing hitched a little, but nothing grated or moved under her pressing fingers. Bruising, almost certainly. He would ache for days from that fall.

"He came down hard," said the Patrón. "One of them shot him off his horse."

Isabella knew that. Like the little Teresa, she had been loading and reloading guns for the hacienda's defenders. She had seen the moment when Juanito had taken the barely-broken palomino over the fence, Pardee's men hurtling down the hillside in his wake, and the moment later when he had crashed to the ground. Her hands had gripped the rifle butt so tightly that she had thought she could feel every mark in the polished wood. When she'd put the gun down, reloaded, she had expected to see the grain of the wood marked on her palm. She'd thought him dead and even in the midst of the fighting, she'd felt a sharp pang of grief for the niño she'd known and loved.

"I think Pardee shot him, but there was so much shooting..." The Patrón's voice trailed off.

Like all men, he feared to speak of things of the heart. Even Cipriano was a little remiss in this regard, but the Patrón was worse, being one who prided himself on having his head rule. So the Patrón could not say what he felt. Instead he rested his big hand on the niño's shoulder for a moment, letting the touch of his fingers speak for him, his hands only a little less mute than he was.

Isabella took pity on him. "Nothing is broken. I am sure of it."

The Patrón nodded. His hand closed gently on Juanito's shoulder as if the touch assured him that it was real flesh and bone he touched, not the ghost that had haunted the hacienda for so many years.

There was no blood on the white linen shirt over Juanito's chest. The bullet was still inside, somewhere. They would have to be careful when they moved him. She beckoned to Teresa to come forward. "We must turn him, and stop the bleeding. We cannot wait for el médico."

The Patrón leant his cane up against the table to free up his hands, and with his help the niño was turned onto his stomach. Teresa had a bowl and towels ready to hand, and a pile of long strips of linen, torn from an old sheet. In the kitchen, Maria Morales was heating more water and scrubbing the big table to get it ready for el medico. She was berating someone – Paciencia, probably – for wailing rather than doing something sensible and useful. The time for wailing will come later when we can all draw breath, when the injured are tended and the dead are washed and shrouded. ¡Ándale! Isabella had considerable respect for Maria, who was seldom less than practical and capable. Paciencia, on the other hand...

The niño's charro jacket was very fine. The suede was soft as butter under her fingers, of a quality that no vaquero could afford. This was worthy of a son of the estancia, the sort of jacket that a Don would wear. It was a shame to cut it but it was spoiled anyway with the hole in the back, and doubtless the lining was soaked with blood. She took the knife that Teresa handed her, the blade wickedly sharp, and ripped every seam until the jacket was in pieces that could be slid from him without moving his shoulder and arm and hurting him further.

The shirt beneath was red and wet. It was warm and soggy, and she lifted her hand, rubbing her fingers together to rid them of the feeling. But only for a moment. It was foolish to be so fastidious about the feel of the linen, not when his life was still uncertain. The shirt was less fine than the jacket, a good but coarse linen. Ripping this away mattered less and Isabella grasped it in one hand, using the knife as swiftly as she could.

The bullet had hit just below the left shoulder blade, an ugly little hole still trickling blood. She wadded up the remains of his shirt and pressed the pad onto the hole, bearing down on it. She ran a fingertip over the new marks on his back, frowning. The bruises from his fall were forming already, but there were older hurts there. The skin was ridged and in places there were fine red scabs where it had been cut, rough under her fingers no matter how gently she pressed.

"What is this?" She glanced at the Patrón. "He has been beaten."

The Patrón looked sick. "I don't know. He didn't say anything about it."

Isabella could only shake her head. Men. They spoke always of things that did not matter and kept their silence when it would be more sensible to speak. "He is too thin."

The Patrón didn't answer. Well, there was little enough for him to say, but he put his hand back on the uninjured shoulder and kept it there while they worked, and helped to lift the niño when they needed it. His fingers trembled, Isabella saw, as if they strained to break through the mute distress their owner could only voice with a touch. She said nothing about it.

Teresa offered her a clean cloth, wrung out in warm water strewn with cleansing herbs. For a few moments she and the niña worked together to clean the wound and bandage it tightly. The strips of linen were smooth and worn as thin as muslin, soft against Juanito's bruised skin, but still strong enough to hold a pad in place and slow the bleeding until it only seeped.

"How's he doing?" Señor Scott spoke from behind them. He had been out with Cipriano, overseeing the clearing up. He smiled at Isabella, but his eyes were grave and anxious. "Señora Roldán, isn't it? Cipriano's wife?"

"Si, Señor." Isabella gave him a nod in greeting and laid her hand against the niño's brow. It was hot and a little damp. "Too warm, already. But the bleeding has slowed."

"Cipriano sent that older vaquero—Toledano, is it?—to find the doctor." Señor Scott's voice grew sharp. "What happened to him?"

He touched Juanito's back with gentle fingers, his pale Easterner's face flushed with anger. He looked very like his mother; she too had been tall and thin and blonde, her eyes the same cool pale blue. Catherine Lancer had died before she had thrown off the chill of the northern city she came from. She had had no time to learn to belong here in the warm south. Her son had that chance now. Isabella hoped he'd take it and stay. The estancia needed its heirs, its future.

"We don't know." The Patrón released his hold on Juanito's shoulder and Isabella's glance flickered over to study his face for a second or two. There was something there... guilt, perhaps? Anger, too, but not directed at the young one face-down on the table but, possibly, at himself. "Sam will take care of it, when he gets here."

Isabella tied the last knot on the bandages. "I can do little more for him now. He would be more comfortable off this table, Patrón."

"Thank you, Señora Isabella. And you're right—"

Señor Scott took a step forward, his arms already lifting. "I'll carry him up to his bed."

The Patrón put out a hand to stop him, resting it on Señor Scott's coat sleeve. Only for a moment, though. With this son, words seemed to come easier and his hands had no need to talk for him in touches that longed to be speech. "No. There's no point. Sam will need to get that bullet out and he'll want to do it down here. He'll use the kitchen table."

"The kitchen table?" Señor Scott looked shocked.

The Patrón managed a laugh. "This is a big estancia, Scott, but I don't run to a hospital here. There are very few hospitals here like the ones back East. Out here, we make do. Sam's used that table before now, and I expect he will again."

Isabella lost interest in them. Juanito was stirring, and even as she leaned over him, taking a hand in hers and using her other hand to smooth back the thick black hair that was as soft and silky as a girl's, his eyes opened. They had the look of the milky, vague eyes of a very young infant gazing out on its new world and not knowing what it was it saw, eyes that were without expression or understanding. He did not see her, not at first although his gaze, wide and unblinking, wandered over her. His eyes shut, opened again, and this time they saw her. She smiled, seeing the life spring into them, bright and vital. Too bright, perhaps, if the fever was starting.

His hand, which lay slack in hers, closed up and clung for a moment. She was used to the touch of hands that worked hard, Cipriano's hands and her sons'; hands that bore the marks of labour in every callus, that said without words that its owner used rein and rope. The calluses she felt on Juanito's hand were in different places. Most likely they came from his gun.

"Be still, niño," she said, stroking his hair and his temple with her finger tips, and letting her voice croon as she'd crooned to the children who'd sucked at her breast. She dipped her fingers quickly in the herb water, to cool them and to bring the scent of the herbs to him, and stroked his hair again. "You are safe now."

He blinked at her, and after a moment while his eyes measured her and considered her, he nodded.

"Let's get him to the sofa," suggested Señor Scott.

"No!" Juanito's hand closed painfully on Isabella's. "Chair."

For the next few minutes, while the Patrón and Señor Scott tried to reason with him, the word Chair was all he said, over and over until they gave in. Isabella bent her head to hide her smile, remembering the wilful, stubborn child of twenty years before. He hadn't changed in that at least. He was as stubborn as the Patrón.

They moved him slowly, his papa and his hermano, careful of the wound and the bandages. He was white and shaking when they'd finished, but still would not allow tense muscles to relax. He insisted on having his gun, too, and coiled the smooth leather belt on his knees, the butt of the gun where he could reach it without effort. Isabella felt something in her chest contract painfully when she saw how those shaking hands stroked and caressed the gun belt as a man might caress a lover. That touch frightened her.

"You don't need that here." The Patrón seemed to be stiff with anger and outrage, but what she heard in his voice was worry and concern, and perhaps even anguish.

Juanito's glance flickered at his father, and then away again. His fingers continued to smooth and stroke the leather, as if it comforted him. "I always need it."

The Patrón shook his head and put out his hand again, to rest it again on the niño's uninjured shoulder. But Juanito flinched away, as if his father's touch scorched him. The Patrón stepped back, his hand dropping, his face set.

And that made the clenching thing in her breast hurt all the more. In her mind's eye, Isabella saw the little bright-eyed child who'd loved to be caressed and touched, who could never greet or leave his papa—or anyone in his world—without putting up his arms to be picked up and held, whose small hands had once reached for his papa's with such trust.

In that, he had changed all too much.

"Mama?"

She turned to the French windows, blinking against the light and the tears that threatened her. Jaime stood there.

"Papa sent me. He needs your help with Arturo." Jaime hesitated, glanced at Juanito and away again. "He says it will not be long."

Another clenching of the heart, more grief and sorrow. Isabella sighed. The old man was as dear to Cipriano as an uncle, had stood almost like an abuelo to their sons. His loss would be a sad one.

"We'll manage until Sam gets here, Señora." The Patrón was gruff with kindness. "You should be with Arturo. Tell Cip that I'll come when I can."

Isabella nodded, thinking that the Patrón would have too much to do in dealing with his sons to worry about Arturo. And in truth, Arturo would be with his family, where he belonged.

She could leave Juanito to his family, perhaps. But he was stiff with uncertainty and suspicion, his over-bright eyes fixed on the Patrón. He was wary and distrustful. So much so, that Isabella frowned as she watched him. Who knew what Maria Martínez de Lancer had told her son? One thing was clear: the gringo son would not be the only one who would have to learn to belong.

There was only one way to teach. To speak of things meant little, it was action that counted. So she showed the Patrón and Juanito how it was done.

She stooped quickly, and with one hand stroking the niño's hair, she used the other to still the restless movement of his fingers caressing the gun. His hand was warm under hers. "Welcome home, niño," she said, and kissed his brow. "You have been much missed." She straightened, smiling at the look of surprise on his face, and her eyes met the Patrón's. "You have been very much missed."

"Yes," said the Patrón, with difficulty, his hands clenching so hard on the cane that his fingers whitened. "Yes."

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Little pitchers

If he's very careful not to make any noise, he can get out of his bed in the loft above the main room and creep to the top of the ladder – careful not to stand on the creaky board – until he can lie flat and peer over the edge down into the lamp lit room below. Mama and Papa sit on each side of the fire. Papa dozes, tired after a day in the fields. Mama puts tiny, even stitches into shirts for Papa and him, covering the brightly coloured linen with flowers and birds and, sometimes, bugs. Juanito likes the bugs.

Most nights, Mama reads to Papa from the books she keeps on the shelf near their wide bed in the corner, the shelf that's so high above Juanito's head that he has to stand on the bed to reach it. He's not supposed to touch the books. Mama has special books for his reading lessons—the bible for Anglo and his own book, the one that has his name in it in handwriting he doesn't recognise, for Spanish. The first time he climbs on the bed to reach the other books, Mama catches him and Papa turns him over his knee and spanks him. He minds Mama better after that, and always waits until he's alone in the house before looking at the books again. He's careful to put them back exactly as he finds them, too. He doesn't like it when Papa spanks him.

When Mama reads, she tilts the book towards the lamp to get the best light, and gets lost in the stories, as if she wants to be in them. She has a pretty voice, low and sweet, and it sounds like something smooth and clear, like the stream near the house. It runs fast and deep, but Johnny can stand on the edge and see the stones tumbling about on the bottom and gleaming in the sun, and sometimes, if he is very lucky, a little shoal of tiny fishes. Mama's voice is like the stream, running over deep places.

Sometimes she reads long sad poems about love and pretty girls, rivals and angry fathers. Papa laughs, and says that while he supposes that if you have to have poets at all, then Espronceda is a good one, but the poem about singing to Teresa is silly. Juanito thinks Papa's right. Papa is always right. Papa (and Juanito) like other things better, the stories about knights and fighting and honour and courage. Those are more for boys than silly poems about girls and love.

It's better when she reads the big book about the knight and the spear and the horses. Juanito likes the horses. Or the fortunes of Lazarillo de Tormes because that one makes Papa get excited and shake his fist in the air, and Juanito has to muffle his mouth so they don't hear him giggling. And when Mama reads things like that, or like Man of the World, or Cesar, she makes all the people in the books have different voices, deepening her voice for the men and making it wavering and quavering for the old ones. She's very good at it.

Juanito loves to listen to her voice.

"I could have been an actress," she says, one night, and laughs when Papa kisses her and tells her that he's glad she's not and that she's his instead. Juanito wriggles back to bed that night with the feeling that perhaps Mama's reading Papa too much poetry, for him to be so silly.

But some nights, she just talks.

Juanito doesn't like those nights, the nights she talks about his real father, the gringo who threw them away like a Don might throw away an old pair of shoes. Murdoch Lancer didn't want a Mexican wife and a mestizo son, she says. Mama is very angry with Murdoch Lancer. She talks of others, too, and he listens to those strange gringo names: Paul O'Brien and Aggie Conway, Marcy Dane and Sam Jenkins. And Catherine, Catherine, Catherine. Always there is Catherine. He repeats Murdoch Lancer's name to himself over and over, and remembers the things the gringo did to Mama to make her cry. Lancer is the worst of all the gringos Mama talks about. Mama is so beautiful and so good that the gringo must be very bad not to want her.

Lancer is his name, too. It's the one written in his own book. He asks Papa one day if he can be Madrid, instead. He doesn't want to be Lancer like the man who didn't want Mama.

Papa looks up at the sleeping loft and he looks thoughtful, as if he knows Juanito has been listening to things that he shouldn't, but he doesn't get angry. He says You can be whoever you want to be, and all that matters is that you are Juanito. And Do not worry about Murdoch Lancer; he is nothing to us. And best of all: You are my son now, and together we will make Mama happy, you and I. He puts an arm around Juanito and hugs him tight. Juanito doesn't much mind that Papa is stern with him when he's naughty and sometimes even spanks him to teach him better manners and not to disobey.

One night, when Papa is away meeting with the other men about what the village needs and what they should say to the Don, he asks Mama why Murdoch Lancer sent them away.

In the light of the lantern that she's brought up to the sleeping loft, Mama looks sad. She is still very beautiful, but she is very sad, too. Murdoch Lancer should be the one who is sorry.

"We were not good enough, m'hijo. Not for the high and mighty Murdoch Lancer." Her voice changes, is gruffer and deeper as if she's reading one of the books to Papa, as she tells him what Murdoch Lancer said, trying to say it in Murdoch Lancer's voice. "Catherine did it like this, and you must too, if you want to be one of us. Marcy can help you. Catherine dressed like this, and you must too, if you want to be one of us. Marcy can help you with that too. Catherine cooked meals like this, Catherine planted her garden like this, Catherine did her sewing like this..."

And when Juanito asks who Catherine is, Mama looks sad and angry, both at once. "A ghost," she says, at last. "A ghost that walks."

And then she laughs, because Juanito is trying not to be frightened and she knows it and is sorry that she scared him. She pulls up his blankets and tucks them around him and kisses him, until he forgets about the ghost that walks.

"It does not matter anymore. We have Papa now." She reaches for the book, the one that is Juanito's own. "So," she says, "which story shall we let Señor de Samaniego tell us tonight?"

And Juanito slides away into sleep, listening to Mama's sweet silvery voice keeping him warm and safe and following him down into his dreams.

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And one time when he doesn't

A Sense Of Adventure

Scott took a mouthful of his buñuelos, the sweet little fritters dusted with sugar and cinnamon that Johnny loved so much. The fritter melted in his mouth, sweet with the agave syrup he'd poured over them.

"Dear Lord, these are so good. They might even be better than Maria's."

"Don't let her hear you say that, big brother. She's pretty mean with that wooden spoon of hers. Wooden spoons to the butt hurt." Johnny forked up some of his own buñuelos and his expression became blissful. "These are damned good."

"I'll need the exercise running from Maria's wrathful spoon, just to avoid getting fat. I can't believe how much food I eat here, and how rich it is."

"Workin' with those beeves keeps it off."

Scott grinned. "It does indeed. And I never thought I'd ever be grateful to a cow for anything, except the steak on my plate. And dammit, Johnny, I'm back on food again."

But Johnny wasn't listening. The cantina door had opened behind Scott as he had rhapsodised about his buñuelos. Johnny was staring over Scott's left shoulder, his gaze on one of the tables near the window.

"That Sairy Williams is real pretty."

Scott had to twist in his seat to take a look. It wasn't that he hadn't seen the charming Miss Williams before, of course, and he knew just how pretty she was. He had even been allowed to take her out onto the dance floor once, as long as he remained under the vigilant eyes of Case Williams and his three very large sons. Those careful gentlemen provided the girl with a protection that even Johnny hesitated to try and breach, no matter how Sairy flirted and come-hithered. And Sairy certainly did a lot of come-hithering. She knew exactly how pretty she was and what most men wanted. Pleasing Sairy with a compliment was easy enough, but far too likely to call down the wrath of the Williamses on the object of Sairy's smiles. There wasn't a man in the Valley who didn't give them a wide berth. Case Williams was bigger than Murdoch, and his boys were much the same. Scott preferred to admire the lady from a distance and look elsewhere for someone to flirt with. He figured he'd live longer that way. As Johnny said, Sairy was more dangerous than Wes Hardin on the prod.

"She is very easy on the eyes." Scott frowned. Most unusually, Sairy was unaccompanied by one of her hulking siblings. He turned back to his plate.

Johnny took a long, slow breath through his nose. "She's wearin' rosewater."

"You can't possibly tell that over the smell of the chilli in here."

"Yeah, I can, Boston. Rosewater." Johnny leaned forward slightly. "She's takin' her gloves off."

Scott fought with the urge to roll his eyes.

"She has real soft hands," said Johnny.

"How in hell do you know? Johnny, Case Williams—"

Johnny obviously didn't fight the urge to eye roll. "You weren't the only man to take a stomp with her at the Howells' shindig last month, Boston. You think Williams or his boys would let a man touch anything else?"

That was what worried Scott, because he had an active imagination and a very good idea of how Case Williams would view a man flirting with his daughter. He shrugged and scooped the last of the agave syrup with his spoon. "Don't try it."

Johnny's grin widened. "I wonder what else is that soft."

"The girl is spoiled and doesn't do a scrap of real work. Williams wants her to be a lady. All Sairy does is a little fancy sewing." Scott caught the look that Johnny gave him. "What? Teresa told me."

"Well, I wouldn't mind those soft hands touching me." Johnny dropped his spoon onto his plate, and stood up. "There's a dance next week. I'm gonna ask Sairy if she'll go to it with me."

"Johnny, no! Don't be a fool! The Williamses will kill you!

"Pfft," said Johnny.

"Listen to me. Please listen to me—"

But Johnny, beaming so wide it was like the sun coming up, paused only to ruffle Scott's hair and two seconds later was bowing over Sairy's little hand and raising it to his lips. The hand's owner smiled demurely, the satisfaction pouring off her almost as visible as mist.

Scott gave a moment's thought to banging his head off the table, on the grounds that it would be less painful in the long run. "Johnny Lancer, you don't have the sense you were born with!"

He looked up quickly as the Williams clan, all four of them, darkened the door.

Case Williams paused taking in the scene in front of him: Johnny Lancer holding his daughter's hand in his and smiling in a way that would give any father pause for unquiet thought. Williams growled and took two giant steps into the room to dwarf a startled Johnny with his bulk. Case's hand closed into a fist.

"Oh Lord," said Scott.

He had little choice about it really. None at all, when it came down to it. He hurled himself forward to join his little brother, thus proving beyond all doubt that a lack of any sense, except the taste for danger, was a Lancer family characteristic.

But then, Lancer always looked after its own.

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~end~
7411 words
March 2011

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A few notes

The traditional five senses are the "five material faculties" (pañcanna indriyāna avakanti) in Buddhist literature. They appear in allegorical representation as early as in the Katha Upanishad (roughly 6th century BC), as five horses drawing the "chariot" of the body, guided by the mind as "chariot driver".

As for Vintage... well I don't think that the wine writers of 1900 (if they existed!) would be quite so pretentious as they are today, but it amused me to have Johnny spout some of their nonsense to confound Scott. The real Lancers wine was, I'm told, a staple for college students once. It's pretty much undrinkable and is, I think, Portuguese not Californian, but why let little facts like that stand in the way of fiction?

In Noli Me Tangere, Isabella is my OC from the Hackamore Series: Isabella Muñoz de Roldán, Cipriano's wife and mother to Eduardo and Jaime, both of whom work on the Lancer ranch. Isabella is the local Grande Dame, hugely respected by the Californio population.

In Little Pitchers, the books Maria reads to Edgardo Madrid are Jose de Espronceda's poem 'Canto a Teresa' (Song for Teresa, about his affair with Teresa Mancha); Cervantes' Don Quixote, of course; Ventura de la Vega's plays El hombre de Mundo and La Muerte de Cesar; and the anonymous picaresque novel, La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades (The life of Lazarillo de Tormes, his fortunes and adversities). Juanito's own book is a volume of the fables written by Félix María de Samaniego.