The ladies served the midday meal al fresco.
The tables were set under a stand of oaks in a green meadow liberally dotted with little yellow flowers. The wide canopy of leaves cast a welcome shade. Every table was festive with a cheerful red checked cloth and a jug of wildflowers, every place had a plate set upside down over the silverware and a glass or tin mug ready, every seat was a hay bale. Very rustic. Idyllic, of course, but rustic.
Lunch was a mix of Mexican and American. The ladies ran back and forth with platters piled high with browned, fragrant steaks and fried potatoes or Mexican delicacies, plates of apple pie or the little fried Gebäck that Scott called churros, and jugs of fresh lemonade. Everyone had more than they could eat, and if the meal was wholesome and unsophisticated, the fresh air and excitement made everyone ravenous and appreciative and had them clamouring for second helpings.
Scott did his best to identify the Mexican dishes as platters arrived on the table but a certain amount of experimentation was in order, he said, since he was still learning his way with the Californian cuisine.
"And all Johnny will ever tell me about something I haven't tried yet is that it'll be hot." Scott offered Charles a bowl of diced peppers and tomatoes. "He's been uncannily accurate so far."
Loath to let any dish pass untasted, Charles learned early to share Scott's assessment of Johnny's veracity. The pitchers of cool water were a godsend. So refreshing! He liked the lemonade, too. With these nectars to hand, he could quench the sudden heat his experiments brought him and look upon the scene with a kindly, satisfied eye. All these fresh-cheeked ladies and maidens in their simple clothes and aprons and bright eyes; all these strong sons of the soil... it was so delightfully pastoral.
It seemed appropriate to burst into rhapsodies about the delights of the rural idyll. Charles had a lot to say about Schiller's golden words on the pastoral myths and was positively lyrical about Giorgione painting in bright, clear colours. He let his arms making large sweeping movements, like the brush against the canvas, as he spoke.
"Pastoral, eh?" agreed Scott. "Very true. Although if we're taking the literal meaning of the word, then I have to warn you that sheep are not at all welcome in cattle country."
Scott nodded, solemn-faced. "And while I'm as fond as the next man of pastoral paintings, the ladies here might balk at serving the meal whilst clad only in a gauzy scarf and a bright smile."
Scott tilted his head to one side and Charles followed his pointed gaze. Together, they considered the stout lady of indeterminate age who, at that precise moment, bustled past with a basket piled high with fresh baked bread in one hand and a jug of lemonade in the other.
"Hebe in flannel petticoats and a paisley shawl," said Scott, and smiled.
Charles held up a hand in the fencer's gesture of defeat. "I concede the point. The current convention for all-enveloping-clothing has some benefits and advantages. Not all the ladies are nymphs and sylphs."
Scott poked a disrespectful finger at Charles's middle waistcoat button. "Nor are all we gentlemen lithe young Adonises."
Charles ignored the provocation. "Not to mention that the usual lack of clothing common in paintings of the pastoral genre carries obvious risks for those areas of the human form where an intruding hay wisp might inflict the most damage. The bright smiles painted onto Giorgione's ladies may mask an intense personal discomfort, don't you think? Hay is so very insidious."
Scott laughed so much that he almost choked on his steak.
Gratified, Charles remarked that sitting on a hay bale wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as he'd anticipated. He'd have to brush himself down later but his suit, while perhaps more appropriate to the cool of an Eastern summer, at least protected him from errant wisps of hay. That his appetite was astonishing was a revelation he kept to himself, given Scott's malicious suggestion that he was growing a trifle stout. He might enjoy his victuals but he most certainly wasn't a glutton. His enthusiasm for the local cuisine must have been whetted by the fresh air, which was laden with the scents of good food and flowers and the sharp green smell of crushed grass.
"Hunger is the best sauce," said Miss Teresa when she arrived, squired by Johnny, and Charles presented her with his compliments on the meal. Her eyes sparkled. "That's what Mrs Reagh said when she was trying to be modest about her apple pies. Please mention to her how very tasty you found them, would you? She says she has her doubts about the pastry and I'd hate her to be worried."
"I ate three pieces," said Johnny. "Nothing wrong with it that I could tell."
"Expert opinion there, Teresa," murmured Scott.
Teresa beamed. "Everything's going well, don't you think?"
Johnny eyed the pathways worn into the meadow by dozens of busy feet. "Except for that, carina," he said, with a nod to the crushed grass and wildflowers. "There'll be a few grey hairs lost over that."
Scott almost choked again.
Teresa's frown was very pretty. "What do you mean?"
"Nada, carina. Nada." Johnny smiled that wide, charming smile again. "You're right. It's all going very well. You should be proud."
"Oh, it wasn't me. The Señora did it all. All Maria and I had to do was whatever she suggested." Teresa laughed. "She does it so gently and sweetly, but everyone rushes to do what she wants. I do love her, but I wouldn't dare argue with her."
Charles looked from one to the other. "The Señora?"
"Señora Isabella Maria Dorotea Muñoz de Roldán," said Johnny, rolling out the euphonious name with relish. "The Señora."
"She's the wife of Cipriano Roldán, our foreman. And, of course, the mother of the groom at tomorrow's wedding." Scott's mouth curved into a smile. "She is the grandest of Grande Dames in this part of the valley, Charles."
"I remember Murdoch mentioning her husband earlier. Didn't Cipriano start off the racing?"
"Don't remind me of the morning's ignominy." Scott glanced along the length of the table to where the Lancer hands sat in a group. Simpson and Travis were there, both looking sulky. "But yes, he did. Cipriano's as respected amongst the ranchers as the Señora is amongst their wives and the Californio community. They both add considerable lustre to the Lancer ranch."
Johnny snorted. "That they do." He knocked Scott's hat off, and ruffled his hair. "Which, you know, is one helluva lot more than the Lancer sons do."
Scott tried to fend off Johnny's hands and rescue his hat. "You speak for yourself, John Luis Lancer. I'm as lustrous as they come."
"I was, Boston." Johnny gave Scott's hair one more vigorous ruffle. His smile was rueful. "I surely was."
Johnny left them ten minutes later, saying that he needed to go and talk to Jaime, the bridegroom, who had, he said, "...some fool notion that he's going to ride in El Paso de la Muerte this afternoon."
"That's riding an unbroken horse bareback, right? Good Lord." Scott shook his head. "It's good of you to keep him out of trouble, Johnny."
"Where'd you get that idea, Boston? I'm thinking about joining him." And Johnny was gone before Scott could do more than splutter.
As one, they turned to watch Johnny walk the length of the table with a swagger that Charles felt—hoped—was assumed to further aggravate his brother. He paused by the Lancer hands to talk to them.
"He won't really, will he?" Teresa had paled and her eyes were wide. "Murdoch will be so worried."
"Surely not," murmured Scott. "I don't think Johnny is the right shade of green to produce grey hairs."
"Not nearly enough chlorophyll."
Really, this was intriguing. Scott had said something yesterday, too. Just what was behind the Lancer brothers' fascination with grass?
Teresa frowned and looked uncertain, but glanced away when Mrs Conway called her. "Coming, Ma'am!" She favoured Scott with a stern look. "Don't let him do anything that will upset Murdoch! You can't let him do anything dangerous."
She darted off to see what another of the district's grand ladies wanted. At the other end of the long table, the object of her solicitude said something that had the Lancer hands roaring with laughter. Wes Rollins slapped the table with both hands in obvious glee and Beedie Simpson's face turned so deep a red that Charles could see the flush even at that distance. Tipping his hat at the hands, Johnny walked off, and if ever the human back could signal satisfaction, his did. Every step Johnny took was jaunty. Smug, even.
"Oh!" said Charles, reminded. "I must tell you what Johnny said earlier. We were talking about how you handled those two and I asked him how he'd have dealt with them."
Which Scott ruined. "I expect he said he'd shoot them."
"Oh," repeated Charles.
"He was joking. Just like he was joking about riding in the charreada. I'm sure he was joking."
Charles said nothing. But he hadn't forgotten that frisson of unease he'd felt when he'd met Johnny the previous day. He'd been charmed by Johnny's easy friendliness since, but, well, to his mind it seemed that Scott was protesting a little too much.
Scott got up, gesturing to the charreada ring where the men were beginning to gather and suggested that they head over to see what was going on. Charles had no objection.
Halfway there, Scott broke the companionable silence. "Well, I'm almost sure he was joking."
Yes. Protesting a great deal too much. How interesting.
Threading their way through groups of hands and ranchers, they found Johnny talking with a young Mexican of about his own age. He beckoned them to join him, shaking his head as they approached. "Scott, you tell him, will you? Magdalena's not going to take kindly to him turnin' up for their wedding night, all stove up and not able to—" Johnny stopped and glanced sideways at Charles. "Well, all stove up."
Charles remarked that his own wedding night might be fifteen years behind him, but he could still remember the duties and responsibilities required of the groom. "And, of course, the delights and privileges."
Johnny grinned widely, no trace of the cold and watchful expression Charles had seen the day before. "A man better not forget those duties, 'less he wants to be reminded with a skillet around the ears. Come to think on it, that's a damn good reason to stay single. With Eugenia, I get all those delights you mention, Charles, and no fryin' pans."
And Johnny sighed and smiled. The young Mexican sighed and smiled. Scott sighed and smiled. Charles stared.
Scott took pity on his bewilderment. "Eugenia is a very beautiful girl..." and the shape Scott drew in the air with both hands had Johnny grinning and the young Mexican sighing again. "And when she walks, she sways her hips." Scott's hands yawed from side to side like a sloop in high seas. "She is a sight to behold, Charles, I promise you. A true delight."
Somehow Charles sensed Elizabeth and Eugenia might not be kindred spirits. "I hope I have the opportunity to meet the young lady."
Johnny looked smug again. "She's a friend of mine, Charles."
So that was they called it these days, was it?
Scott returned the brotherly hair ruffling, and as Johnny danced out of his reach, he put a hand on the young Mexican's shoulder. "By the way, Charles, this is Jaime Roldán, who's getting married tomorrow. I don't think you've met."
Jaime bowed politely. He and Charles exchanged expressions of mutual esteem and courtesy, before Jaime fired off another round of rapid Spanish in Johnny's direction.
Johnny threw up his hands. "Hell, Jaime, Lena'd be in the right of it if she skilleted your fool head flat to your shoulders."
"Johnny's right," said Scott, "And believe me I don't like having to admit to that. It's not the greatest idea you've had, Jaime."
Jaime drew himself up into the sort of stiff necked pride Charles associated with young men of that tender, self conscious age. "I am the best horse breaker on the estancia, Scott. I am better than Eduardo. I am better than Toledano. I am better than Johnny. I am—"
Johnny rolled his eyes. "Takes less time to name the ones you ain't better than. Fact is, we all know you're a damn good horse breaker, but that don't make it any the less knuckle-headed to ride this afternoon."
Jaime folded his arms across his chest and huffed. "Lena will understand. It's not honourable for the estancia not to put forward its best and not to win. The Patrón's honour demands it. Our honour demands it."
"Uh-huh." Johnny raised his shoulders in an eloquent shrug. "Then are you going to tell your Mama or am I?"
How interesting to see the colour drain from a man's face like that.
"Johnny!" There was hurt there, and betrayal.
Johnny patted young Jaime on the shoulder. His smile was brilliant. "You're a brave man, amigo. I know I wouldn't want to do anything the Señora wouldn't like."
"Too scared she'd find out, little brother?"
Jaime gave him a look of scorching reproach. His mouth tightened, lips thinning down until they whitened. "This is not playing fair, Johnny."
"What the hell does that have to do with anything? If I play at all, I play to win." Johnny threw his arm around Jaime's shoulders. "Come on, amigo. You know we're right and you'll just have to let today go by. Let's go and watch the charreada. You can pity all those poor fools who maybe get to fall off their horses in the ring—"
"For the glory of the estancia," murmured Scott, sotto voce.
Johnny gave that a nod. "Sure, but remember they ain't the man who's marryin' Magdalena Ruiz tomorrow morning."
Jaime's mouth twitched. "That is true. Lena is a very beautiful girl."
"Yup," agreed Johnny.
"I am the luckiest of men.""
"She is beautiful and good and every man in the valley will be envying me tomorrow."
"The Roldán men sure know how to pick 'em."
"And you are right, amigo. She is probably a mean hand with a skillet. Mama will teach her how." And Jaime laughed, allowing Johnny to pull him away to the edge of the charreada ring, so they could find the best viewpoint.
Charles sighed even as he and Scott shared an amused look. "That was like watching two schoolboys squabble. It's been many years since I could be curbed by a threat to tell my mother of my misdeeds...a lifetime of years. They are such very young men, those two, that they make me feel as ancient as Methuselah."
Scott was silent for a moment, watching Johnny and Jaime from a distance as they rough-housed and joked. His expression grew grave and more than a little sad. "No. No, you're wrong there. Johnny only looks young. But in truth, I think it's been a lifetime of years since he was."
According to the cartographer, Morro Coyo and Green River were separated by only fifteen miles of good road running through foothills and valleys green with sweet grass and early summer flowers. In reality, they were of two different worlds.
Green River was of the new world. The pine boards of its houses and shops were still heady with the scent of resin, just now silvering as the Californian sun bleached out the gold. It was an Anglo town, deliberately built without so much as a nod to the past. It was brash and a little too cocky; an adolescent town, reminding Charles of a boy trying, with swaggering aggression, to prove he had the right to walk with men.
Morro Coyo, on the other hand, was old. It was very old. This was a town that had settled into the land and merged with it, heavy with the weight of California's Spanish-Mexican heritage. Morro Coyo was all thick adobe walls, whitewashed and red-shuttered; secret, shadowy alleys overlooked by the blank-eyed stares of dark, fathomless windows; and a church in its main square that towered over the town with all the bulk and importance of a young cathedral.
"I think you get drunk on words," said Scott when Charles shared his geographical observations. But he was smiling as he brought the buggy to a stop beneath the wide-topped trees of the town square. Half a dozen buggies and small carriages were already parked there, the horses dozing in the shade, hips cocked and tails swishing against the persistent flies. A dog crossed the street towards them, its coat a riot of brown curls, one ear flying disreputably and red tongue hanging.
"As does every sensible, educated man." Charles clambered down as nimbly as he could. "Poetic inebriation means you're unlikely to wake the next morning with a head pounding so badly you wish you'd died in the night. Words are the glory of mankind, my boy."
Scott laughed and stooped to scratch at the dog's ears as it sniffed at his boots. It curled its lip at him and managed a desultory tail wag before wandering off to throw itself into the shade under their buggy..
They joined the crowds on the church steps awaiting the arrival of the bride, working their way towards where Murdoch towered half a head above his nearest rival. Himmel, but the man was a giant. At least, he was easy to spot in the crowd. Gave them something to aim for. He had Mrs Conway on his arm again, Charles noted. He seemed to make a habit of appropriating the fascinating widow. Then again, Mrs Conway made a habit of allowing herself to be appropriated.
They watched the sacrificial lamb being hustled into the church, dressed in his best clothes and with a few of his friends, Johnny included, to keep him company and probably to keep him from bolting. The little group manhandling a pale young Jaime looked rather splendid in the formal clothes typical of the Mexican community: embroidered and braided jackets cropped to the waist, form-fitting pants, some in short breeches with gold or silver lace at the knee worn with fine leggings, and wide-brimmed hats so heavy with silver embroidery that the men glittered in the sunlight. Johnny was the least extravagantly dressed amongst them, while still outshining Charles and Scott in the sartorial stakes.
It amused Scott when Charles mentioned it. "I met Johnny on the stage to Morro Coyo. He was wearing that pink shirt of his and I'd never seen anyone quite so colourfully dressed. Indeed, I mentally called him the 'rose pink peacock' all the way into town, at which point I discovered that I should really have been calling him the 'rose pink fraternal surprise'." Scott chuckled. "He looks almost underdressed in comparison to some of the others today."
"Whereas we look positively drab." It would be interesting to see Elizabeth's reaction to his returning home in an outfit such as Cipriano Roldán was wearing, complete with silk cords and tassels and one of those glittering wide-brimmed hats.
"It's a very traditional form of dress, Charles," said Murdoch.
Mrs Conway looked rueful. "They all look very fine, don't they? I feel quite dowdy."
Ha. She couldn't fool Charles. Fifteen years of marriage to Elizabeth had taught him to recognise a hint when he was bludgeoned about the head with one. He provided the required admiration of Mrs Conway's style and her choice of outfit and managed a spurious sincerity, not to mention a spontaneity of manner and a felicitous turn of phrase. Mrs Conway favoured him with an equally spurious blush and a gracious smile, but Murdoch looked thoughtful and drew her in closer, patting her arm in a proprietorial way. She could fool some, then.
Scott glanced from his father to Charles. The boy was born to be a diplomat, he was so discreet and tactful in the way he changed the subject. "I hope you're up to this, Charles. I'm told that Mass is hard on the knees."
Murdoch unbent enough to laugh. "Damned hard! As I know to my cost."
Scott grinned at him. "Did you go to Mass with Johnny's mother, sir?"
"No, with yours. Your mother and I turned Catholic when we came here. It was a requirement of buying the land, taking Mexican citizenship and the True Faith."
"Really? Good lord! And me brought up a fine Presbyterian!"
"Technically, you're as Catholic as Johnny, since California was still under Mexican government and your mother and I were still attending Mass. You were born before we entered the Union, you know, just as the war with Mexico was starting."
Scott blinked. "I never really thought about it, but of course I was. Does that mean I was born a Mexican citizen, too?"
Murdoch nodded. "You were."
"Good lord," said Scott, again. From his stunned expression, it took him a moment or two to digest this new idea, before he shook his head as if to clear it. He looked wry. "It's as well that one particular boyhood ambition didn't last beyond puberty, then! It's an insuperable bar to the Presidency, not being born an American."
"I have American citizenship, too. I just didn't have it at the relevant time. So, since a wife and children take the citizenship of the husband, you're American now."
"Then I suppose that should I lose my mind entirely and enter politics, if I can't grace the White House then it's at least some comfort that I can still aim for the Senate."
"Maybe you should start small, son. How about the state senate and work your way up to the governorship?"
Scott sighed, but his chagrin did not seem genuine.
Charles patted his arm, consolingly. "You'd have had my vote."
"Thank you! That's very comforting too."
Murdoch looked amused. "Johnny, however, was born after the Mexican war. He's the only natural-born American in the family."
"Then we'll have to put all our political ambitions on his shoulders." Scott and his father exchanged looks, and it was several minutes before they could stop laughing long enough to continue. "I don't think I'll be the one to suggest it. He'd probably shoot both of us! I wonder what he'll say when he realises that I'm the Scottish Mexican at Lancer?"
"You can discuss it later." Mrs Conway prodded Murdoch in the ribs and spoke over a rising murmur of voices. "Don't talk about politics at a wedding when there are more important things happening. The bride's here."
If the groom and his attendants, and, indeed, all the Mexican men present, looked resplendent in their finery, it was as nothing compared to the gentleman riding slowly up the street. Silver and gold thread embroidery from head to toe, he glittered in the sunlight. Even the horse glittered, the saddle fittings as rich in gold embroidery as the rider. Dazzled, Charles shaded his eyes. Perhaps Elizabeth wouldn't object to the wide-brimmed hat?
The bride was carried before the rider, swathed in a cream cloak. Her feet rested in the loop of a length of pale green silk that had been twisted into a rope and tied to the saddlebow, the knot wreathed in flowers. Almost nothing could be seen of her. Even her head was covered in a veil against the dust.
"No carriage?" murmured Charles, under cover of the applause that greeted her appearance.
"More tradition." Murdoch nodded towards the rider, who held his horse rock steady as the bride's father and brother lifted her down. "Magdalena's uncle. It's a great honour to bring the bride to her wedding."
The bride's mother and attendants, Teresa among them, rushed forward to unwind her from her wrappings. Very romantic to be sure, but it was all too reminiscent of one of the illustrations of The Great Belzoni revealing one of those elaborately embalmed bodies he'd found in Egypt. Both Scott and Murdoch choked with gratifying amusement at this observation, but Mrs Conway fished a ridiculously small square of be-laced linen out of her reticule and applied it to her eyes.
"Oh! How pretty!"
There was no arguing with that sort of sentiment. They followed Mrs Conway and the crowd of well-wishers into the big old church, instead. It was a dark and mystic place, the light streaming in the high windows dimmed by the thickness of the green glass. The air was sharp with incense, thick to breathe and catching at the back of the throat. Sandalwood, Charles thought, with an undertone of the Damask roses his father used to grow; the red ones, whose heads always drooped in the sun with the burden of their rich scent. At the altar, a large marble affair with a gold canopy that was probably worth as much as the Lancer ranch and everything in it, Jaime Roldán turned a tense face towards the door. His pallor had a greenish caste. No escape now, poor boy.
Mrs Conway did a little more dabbing with her lace handkerchief.
Odd how women insisted on weeping at weddings, when every man present knew that they were secretly rejoicing and triumphant. Strange creatures. Charles sighed and turned his attention to the business starting at the altar, remembering when it had been him waiting on Elizabeth wafting down the aisle towards him. The fifteen years since had been happy, on the whole, if unremittingly domestic.
On reflection, he didn't think Elizabeth would take to the hat. Life would just have to remain unembroidered.
"So, did Dana get it right, do you think?"
"I don't suppose he was a bad reporter, for an amateur," conceded Charles. "But there wasn't that much he didn't get wrong. No eggs full of scent, for a start, and the dancing is a little more energetic than he described."
Murdoch had cleared the cluster of courtyards behind the hacienda to give what Johnny called a 'fiesta'. Tables were set around three sides of the largest courtyard, groaning with food and drink, while a fire blazed in a pit in a smaller yard that led from it,with what looked like an entire cow turning on the spit. Dutch ovens set on trivets over the flames baked biscuits and potatoes. The central area of the main courtyard was their dancing floor, lit with strings of red and yellow Chinese lanterns The band, a smattering of local men with a little musical talent and a little more enthusiasm, belted out dance tunes that had the couples hoofing it at a much merrier pace than the stately measures witnessed by Richard Dana almost forty years before.
"I read that bit to Johnny last night." Scott leaned up against a pillar, watching the dancing. One of the yellow lanterns swung perilously close to his ear.
Charles allowed an eyebrow to arch upwards. Couldn't Johnny have read it for himself, then? "What did he say?"
"That you only get cologne in eggs at carnivals and fiestas and only if you're rich. A poor working man can't afford to... er, spoil his clothes with perfume—"
"What I said was that a poor workin' man can't afford to have his only shirt smell like a two-bit whore looking for work on a Saturday night."
Charles bit back a curse, his heart thumping, and Scott started visibly, staring at his younger brother in disapproval as Johnny drifted out of the shadows. "How do you manage to creep up on us like that every time?"
Johnny looked more innocent than the entire choir that had sung anthems all through the mass, and was just as untrustworthy. "I take off my spurs." He turned to Charles. "That Dana fella was at a rich man's wedding, from what Scott told me. Lancer is doing Jaime and Lena proud, but this ain't as grand."
As one, they all turned to watch the bride and groom dancing something that required a great deal of strutting, kicking and flashing eyes to an accompaniment of frantic guitar strumming and snapping fingers. They looked very happy.
"Well, it looks like it's more fun," conceded Scott.
"It is." Johnny took off his hat, weighing it in his hand. He nodded towards a group of Lancer hands. They were grinning and poking each other in the ribs, sharing some joke. "Leastways, it was until I found that fool Wes and half the hands at the cookhouse door, collecting pans and skillets. Like we thought, they're planning on a shivaree."
Scott winced. "Did you stop them?"
Johnny laughed and shook his head. "Let 'em think they'll have their fun. I already arranged with Jaime to get him and Lena away. He's not dumb enough to take her to their new house tonight and none of the hands know where they're going. I'm goin' to get everyone looking at me, and let them slip out. Go over there, will you, and tell him the buggy's ready and waiting where we agreed? He'll know what to do."
"Of course I'll tell him. What are you planning?"
"What do you call it, you military men, when someone calls out a dance right in the open in front of the enemy, so you and your men can sneak around and attack them while they're too busy lookin' the other way?"
"A diversionary tactic."
Johnny nodded. "Well, me and Eugenia, we've planned out our own diversionary tactic. Jaime knows."
"And no doubt I'll find out. I'll tell Jaime now."
"Thanks, brother." Johnny stalked off towards the dancers, his hat in his hand.
"Shivaree?" Charles trailed along behind Scott, reluctant to miss out on the fun.
"Rough music. Johnny said that crowds stand outside the newlywed couple's house and sing, bang pans and play drums. They have to be bribed to go away and sometimes things get very rough, even violent. Not the sort of refined, romantic atmosphere I'd want for my bride on her wedding night, I must say."
"Elizabeth would have been more than a match for any number of pan-bangers." And Charles felt a little glow of pride.
Jaime's happy expression soured for a moment when they told him, and he glanced at the rowdy Lancer hands with evident annoyance. "Thank you, Scott." He pulled Lena's hand through his arm and patted it protectively. "Johnny has been a true friend about this. Thank him for me, will you?"
"With pleasure." Scott bowed with a little flourish. "My felicitations, Señora Roldàn."
Magdalena blushed a becoming pink, but she didn't have time to respond. Johnny had joined the dancers, dropping his hat onto the head of a very pretty girl in a move that was so perfectly in accordance with Dana's account that Charles was briefly enchanted by seeing it in action. The girl danced on, her hips flowing with such wonderful fluidity that Charles had a sudden difficulty swallowing. The redoubtable Eugenia, no doubt. Scott hadn't exaggerated about those hips one iota.
Eugenia danced for a moment or two, and just as Johnny was taking up position in front of her to join the dance, she reached up and plucked the hat from her head, flinging it across the dance floor to hit one of the fiddle players full in the face. Understandably, the fiddler was a little distracted. His already-strident instrument screeched like a banshee.
So did the beautiful Eugenia. Charles had almost no Spanish, but he didn't need it. The flushed face and flashing eyes, the arms thrown up in the air, the heaving bosom, the voice, full bodied and vibrant with passion, reaching an upper register that had roosting birds falling from trees all over the San Joaquin valley... this was so much like his own Elizabeth that he could only marvel at the essential truth: all women were sisters, under the skin.
Johnny flashed something back in equally vituperative Spanish. The dancers, already faltering, broke like a wave on the seashore and crowded in close with the other spectators. There was much laughter and raucous comment, the on-lookers taking sides and cheering on one or the other of the disputants. The Mexican vaquero, Toledano, appeared to be taking bets. Murdoch Lancer, laughing, was trying to cover Miss Teresa's ears.
Charles would put money on Eugenia, himself. She had the look of a winner about her.
He was vaguely aware that he and Scott had been abandoned. Young Jaime had taken advantage of the furore to slip away into the shadows with his new wife. Scott gave them a few minutes to get away, then let out a shrill, piercing whistle. Johnny, with one glance at Scott, leaned in over the beautiful Eugenia and kissed her, full on the mouth.
The crowd breathed in as one, a sharp "Oh!" sounding in unison, fifty pairs of eyes fixed on the drama before them. Money slapped quickly into Toledano's outstretched palm.
Eugenia took two small steps backward, raising one hand to her mouth. She had a considering look on her face. Johnny waited, grinning that charming smile of his. She pursed her lips, flicked her long hair over her shoulders and moved those hips back in Johnny's direction.
The tension was near on unbearable. Would she accept his kiss or slap his face? Never taking his eyes from her, Johnny stretched out a hand towards the fiddler and snapped his fingers, accepting the return of his property with no more than a nod. He offered the hat to Eugenia...
...who laughed, took the hat and donned it. She grabbed Johnny's hand and pulled him out of the lamplight, into the shadows, to a chorus of jeers and cheers. Toledano folded the money in his hand and pocketed it with ostentatious care. The band started up again.
"I take it Jaime got safely away?" Murdoch Lancer loomed up out of the semi-darkness, Cipriano at his side.
"Several minutes ago, sir."
"Bueno," said Cipriano. "I am grateful, Señor Scott. I will assure Isabella that all is well. If you'll excuse me." He bowed and left them.
Murdoch laughed, softly. "There'll be some chagrined people around here tonight, with no shivaree to occupy them. We'd better have supper, and take the edge off their disappointment." He strode up to the band.
"He likes this," said Scott, as they watched. "He's grown into this, being the Patrón. It suits him."
"He seems rooted here. Settled."
"He's rooted all right. Too rooted ever to travel East, anyway."
Murdoch silenced the band. He faced the dance floor, standing there in the lamplight, genial and smiling, until everyone was facing him, and the chatter and laughter were dying down. "Friends..."
He stopped, frowning, staring over everyone's heads - not a difficult achievement considering his height. The crowd turned too, craning necks and murmuring. A young man stood uncertainly in the entrance to the courtyard, his hat in his hands.
"Buenas noches," said Murdoch. "Can I help you?"
The young man took a step forward. His hands twisted the hat one way, and then the other. He spoke in careful English. "I am looking for the Rancho Lancer, señor. I think that this must be the right place?"
"It is. I'm Murdoch Lancer."
The stranger ducked his head, smiling in obvious relief. "Bueno! I am glad, Jefe. I have travelled a long way to get here."
"Well," began Murdoch, but he didn't get the change to finish.
The young man took a step farther into the courtyard. "I am sorry to disturb your fiesta, but it is most important. I am looking for Señor Madrid, Jefe. Señor Johnny Madrid. I was told that I would find him here."