Tabula Rasa

The thing is, Johnny, I'm a city boy. I'm not used to living out in the countryside like this. I grew up with cobbled streets and row houses, cabs, crowds and hustle and bustle... a place where something is always happening. I didn't look out of my window there and see nothing but grass and cows. There'd always be something going on. People coming and going, street hawkers selling everything from fresh fruit to silk handkerchiefs, a boy on every corner shouting out the day's news, friends only a ten minute walk away... shops and theatres, the library, booksellers... the club, cigars, a good wine merchant... There's always something going on or somewhere to go or someone to supply whatever it is you fancy. Oh, and we have gaslight in the houses and all the streets are lit. And we have indoor plumbing.

Do I miss it? That's a good question. Do I miss Boston?

Well, I miss the indoor plumbing.

No, no. I know what you want to know.

Although I really do miss the indoor plumbing.

I don't know about the rest, Johnny. It was all I knew, really. It didn't feel the same after... after the war. But it was home. I guess what I'm feeling is that I ought to miss it.

I lived in a big house on Beacon Hill all my life, with all the amenities. I didn't know anything about the countryside. Although Grandfather did have some friends who owned a country estate. They'd spend the summer there, pretending to be farmers. I stayed sometimes, a week or two at a time. It wasn't real. I think they used to bathe the cow so the ladies wouldn't be offended by the smell.

They used lavender water.

You may well laugh. But I thought that's what the countryside was. When I was six, I thought all cows smelled like old-ladies' soap.

A city boy, remember?

At least, that's what I thought until the War. What I saw of Virginia then didn't exactly make me long for the rural idyll. It was all so... so squalid. So foul and repulsive. It might have been pretty once. But by then, it was just small, dirty farms and small dirty people. They lived in shacks and ruins, mostly; all that was left. Most of the children had lice and were scrawnier than plucked chickens. They were one half starved and the other half starving. Everything was filthy. They were filthy, their houses were filthy, their clothes were filthy, their children were filthy. Like I said: squalid.

I don't suppose they had the energy to care about things like that when every day they fought their own war to survive. They were frightened all the time. What we did there... fighting backwards and forwards over their little farms for years, foraging until there was nothing left for them... it wasn't very idyllic then. Sometimes they got caught up in battles, too. They had nowhere to escape to. At one farm, we got there just after another unit had gone through it and the childre—

Well. War happens. I couldn't wait to get back to Boston when it was over, even if Boston didn't feel quite the same. It wasn't quite the same.

Or I wasn't.

It was a long time ago, now. But that's what I remember about the real countryside. Everything was muddy. And everything smelled of pigs.

Well, yes, Johnny. Of course Boston smells. Not usually of pigs, though. Coal fires, mostly. The smoke can hang around for days. And too many people. Boston definitely smells of too many people. And you're quite right. I can't complain about that here. Just take a look out of that window. No people for miles. Nothing to see but cows.

Cipriano told me they're our milk cows and the main herds are out on the range. I'm sure there's a difference, but I'm also sure that they smell just as ripe. I can smell them from here. It's enough to make your hair curl.

I think I prefer the lavender water.

No, actually. That's not true. I prefer cows to be on a plate. That was the best thing I knew about cows before I came here. Medium rare, with the juices still flowing.

And that's another thing that's different. The food here! It's so... so hearty. All inch-thick steaks and fried potatoes. It seems like months since I ate something like an onglet cut steak, for example, with panaché de legumes, and epinard forestieres. Or perhaps the foie de veau grillé au poivre. And a nougatine glacé to follow.

I'll admit to being a little taken aback by our supper that first night. It was damned uncomfortable. The Ancients used to determine innocence or guilt by trials of fire and water, did you know that? Well, I contend that we may add 'supper at our father's table' to those classical tortures—that first meal, at least, the one before I knew that you were Johnny Madrid, and you and he kept sniping at each other all the time. Remember? It was almost enough to make me head home the next morning.

It surprised me a bit, when I realised that was an effort to serve a fancy meal. Still, they tried. It was all good and tasty. But as I say, it was hearty.

Yes, I know you enjoyed it. You ate as if you were half starved yourself. I think you were, too. But somehow I don't think you'll tell us what that was all about.

I thought not.

You're not much of a conversationalist, are you? You don't say much about yourself. Not until you're ready to, perhaps. So maybe I'll never find out why you got here so worn and hungry. Sam Jenkins was worried though, when he saw you. He said you'd probably been living on trail rations for a while. If they were anything like what they used to feed us during the war, you have my heartfelt sympathy, little brother.

Little brother.

That was a shock, you getting into the stage like that and turning out to be my brother. I still don't know what I think about that.

And the way you were dressed! I'd never seen anything like that. All the clothes out here are odd. I mean, look at me! In this get up, I look like a rustic swain. All I need is a straw to chew. Boston society would swoon, en masse, to see me dressed like this. Not to mention my carrying a gun all day. I haven't done that since the war.

And the way the women dress! All right, there are some very fashionable ladies in San Francisco, I'll grant you that. And man to man, some of them were very fashionable and they weren't ladies. I had a very pleasant time in San Francisco. But back in Boston, no one I know would dress the way Teresa does. It's so simple. And so sparse. And not sparse in good way, if you know what I mean.

Yes, I thought you would.

She said to treat her like a sister. She said that he wouldn't show us what he felt. She's the only one of us who knows him.

And you're right there, Johnny my boy. There's no point in going down that road. As the man said, it's past and gone. So she'll be our sister and I'll not ask questions about why she knows him and I don't. I don't think I'd get much in the way of an answer.

I don't want to think about her now, anyway. It's hard enough getting used to the idea of a brother.

And no, no one would think of calling your way of dressing 'sparse'. Or rustic. More like 'peacock'. That works, brother; that works.

Brother.

I always wanted a brother. Mind you, I wanted one three years older than me and big enough to whop Miles Hendry at school, so you disappointed me a bit there. I wasn't expecting one three years younger in a pink shirt.

Hmmph.

I think I've been talking long enough. It's a bad habit of mine, Johnny. It's my way of clearing my mind. Like wiping the slate clean in school. You set it all out, the problem you're trying to solve, and you weigh up all the arguments. You write down the pros and cons. It helps you work out who you are, when you sit down like this and remember where you've come from. And then you wipe the slate clean, and decide who you're going to be.

You make yourself a sort of tabula rasa, a blank slate ready to be written over again.

And maybe give yourself a new beginning.

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"Did anyone ever tell you that you talk too much, Boston?"

Scott jerked upright in the bedside chair. "Johnny!" He moved a lot faster than Johnny could, leaping forward to push him gently back against the pillows. "No, don't try to move. Lie still."

Johnny licked at dry lips, swallowing hard. "Thirsty."

"I'll bet you are. Hold on a second. I'll do it." Scott manoeuvred Johnny upright, supporting him against his shoulder. It was hard to move him without hurting him, but beyond a tightening of his lips, Johnny made no complaint. Teresa had left a jug of water set ready on the little stand beside the bed, obedient to Sam Jenkins' instructions to pour as much into the invalid as possible.

Scott got most of a glassful down him before Johnny turned his head away. He'd not managed as much the first time Johnny had woken from the fever, eyes still bright and vague. Johnny hadn't been nearly as alert back then and had been even less tractable. Scott didn't force it, but lowered him carefully back onto the banked-up pillows.

"All right?"

"I've felt better." Johnny's gaze wandered around the room for a second. He frowned. "Wasn't the old man here a minute ago?"

Scott laughed. "Try about twelve hours ago. He was persuaded to go to bed when Doctor Jenkins assured him that you were over the worst." He nodded towards the window. He'd pulled the drapes back an hour earlier, when he'd arrived to replace Teresa. "The sun's coming up. He'll be back soon."

"Right." Johnny's frown deepened. After a moment he said, "Day? You got him?"

"I did, but not before he got you. I thought you told me the Code of the West was to do it them before they did it to you?"

"Yeah. I got that one wrong. How bad?"

"You were lucky. The bullet tore the muscle, but didn't break your shoulder blade. Sam says you'll be fine now that the fever's broken—if you stop moving around, anyway. Lie still, Johnny."

"I knew I shoulda shot Day up on that hill." Johnny shifted, wincing with the discomfort.

"If it would've saved me the trouble, then I think that was your bounden duty, little brother."

"I'll do better next time." Johnny yawned. His eyes, still over-bright, met Scott's. "What were you jabbering on about just now?"

"Sam Jenkins said that we were to talk to you a lot. He thought it might help rouse you. You were drifting away a bit at one time, you know. I think I got into the habit then."

"He's a sneaky one, getting you to talk so much I have to wake up to tell you to button your lip and let a man get some sleep."

"He does seem to know what he's doing," conceded Scott, grinning.

"You were talking about Boston. And clothes. And other stuff."

Scott sighed. Somehow he wasn't surprised to learn that Johnny wasn't easy to deflect. "I've been thinking."

"I dunno about that, Boston. But you've sure been talking." That bright blue gaze was knowing. "Wonderin' if you're goin' to stay?"

And trust to Johnny not to beat about the bush.

"I've been looking at everything here and everything there, and wondering what a good Boston city boy will do out west." Scott inclined his head. "Will you stay, Johnny?"

Johnny didn't answer straight away. He turned his head to look at the window. "What's it look like out there?"

Scott frowned. "It looks like it'll be a nice day."

"Tell me about it. Go to the window and tell me what you can see."

Scott gave him a long level look, but Johnny seemed guileless.

He smiled wearily back at Scott. "I can't see it myself, lyin' here in bed."

Scott nodded and went to the window. He didn't think it would take much to send Johnny back into the healing sleep that Jenkins had said was the best thing for him. He supposed that this was the equivalent of a bedtime story, and he was hard put to it to keep the amusement out of his voice. "They start work early here. Cipriano's already out at the corral looking over some horses. I think that's Jaime with him—his youngest son, Johnny. He's about your age, I think. The bunkhouse cook stove must be lit, too. I can see the smoke." He talked on, letting his voice slow a little and talking ever more softly, hoping the sound would lull Johnny back into sleep—where he couldn't ask persistent and uncomfortable questions.

"What're the mountains like?"

Scott raised his eyes above the line of the bunkhouse.

The hacienda had been built in one corner of the ranch, in a huge sloping bowl in the mountains. It was surrounded on three sides by them, sitting in meadows that spread out down through the foothills to where the larger part of the ranch reached out over the San Joaquin valley floor. The sky to the east was just cooling from its first rosy blush into a clear blue. The mountains themselves were outlined in a splendour of gold edges and mauve shadows, and a pale, fresh green; hard against the sky, looking like they were holding it up. The sun was spilling down between the peaks until almost every blade of grass was lit a brilliant emerald and light was glinting off the lake.

He took a breath and just stared.

"Seemed to me when I got up that first morning, it was real pretty," said the soft, tired voice behind him. "I never saw such colours."

Scott had to swallow before he could speak. "It's beautiful."

"A man would have to be loco to walk away when he's offered a piece of that. I never had much of anything; nowhere near anythin' like that. I reckon that if it's worth bleedin' for, it's worth stayin' for. And all the other stuff... well, the old man might have the right of it, leavin' it in the past. Maybe all that don't matter too much."

"Not as much as now, you mean?"

"Yeah. Not as much as what a man can make of things now. Start fresh."

Scott leaned up against the edge of the window frame, watching as the dawn gave way to full day. Johnny was right. It was real pretty.

Perhaps this was the opportunity for him to start fresh too; a chance to find out that fashionable clothes and delicately cooked food weren't as important to him as all that. Boston really hadn't been the same since the war. He hadn't been the same since the war. Maybe it was time to try something new.

"We have a philosopher in the family, then." Scott looked around and smiled. Johnny's face was to the window, to the mountains he couldn't see from where he lay. His eyes were closed and his breathing even.

Scott glanced over his shoulder to the mountains and then back to his brother. Johnny might be right about that, too. A man would have to be insane to walk away from what he was being offered.

From everything he was being offered.

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Tabula rasa.

A new beginning.

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~end~

2666 words