Mason was swearing and slamming me across the face, and when that didn't knock me loose, he rolled off and brought his fist down hard in the middle of my stomach. I gasped for air, doubling up. I couldn't move. I lay there, waiting for him to finish me off while I couldn't breathe.
Mason just sat there, holding his arm, panting. When I was sure he had quit the fight, I turned over and lay face down, my head resting on my arm. I was hurting real bad. All my energy was gone. I think if the house had been on fire I wouldn't have had the strength to leave. I was crying and too tired to keep from it
I didn't move. He took hold of my shoulder, easy, to let me know he wasn't fighting any more, but I jerked loose.
"Look, I didn't mean to ... dammit, Tex, I just want to see if you're hurt."
"I ain't hurt." My voice sounded weird, I think it was because I couldn't breathe through my nose. I stayed still, waiting to get my strength back, trying to make some sense out of what happened. I couldn't figure out what had happened.
"Lookit, Tex, it wasn't you--I mean, I didn't aim to take it out on you like that."
I didn't know what he was talking about and I didn't care.
"I'm going to get my horse back," I said. Pop wouldn't let you sell those horses if he were here."
"Pop isn't here!" Mason shouted. "Can't you get it through your thick skull that all this happened because Pop isn't here!"
I flinched a little. For a second I thought I felt his hand on the back of my hair, then he muttered, "Well, hell."
Pretty soon I heard the back door slam and the pickup engine start. He'd go drive up and down the highway for a while. He always did that when he was mad.
I couldn't seem to stop crying. I cried because I was hurting and because I wanted to kill Mace, and he was my only brother and I didn't really want to kill him. I cried because Mason had never beaten me up before. Mostly we got along pretty good. Finally I thought about Negrito being gone and Pop being gone and I bawled like a baby. I never cried much before and I wasn't used to it and I didn't know how to stop.
I sat up after a while, wiping the tears off my face with my sleeve. Blood came off with them. A back tooth had come loose so I went ahead and pulled it. It was one I was going to lose anyway.
The kitchen looked like a wreck, with the broken window and shattered glass all over, the table turned over and blood splattered around. It was a real mess. I didn't like looking at it. I got to my feet. I hurt all over. When I was helping Lem Peters break his Appaloosa colt, I got thrown probably ten times a day, and I never felt this bad. I was shaking. I stumbled to the john to look in the mirror.
I looked like Donald Duck. My nose and mouth were swollen, my lower lip cut. I didn't look much better after I washed the blood off. One side of my face was darkening to purple. My left eye was swollen shut. If it'd been Halloween I could of got by without a mask.
I wanted to change to a clean shirt, but I didn't have one, so I changed to one that at least didn't have any blood on it. It smelled like horse, and almost set me off crying again.
I walked around the front room for a few minutes, slowly. It hurt to be moving, but I couldn't sit still. I kept trying to think what to do next. Finally I put on my jacket and started down the road.
It was getting dark. Once in a while a car would whiz by, but nobody stopped. Mostly it was quiet, except for a whippoorwill that I finally left behind. I walked as fast as I could, but once in a while I'd get a pain wave that'd slow me up for a second.
I heard the cycle coming up behind me, but I was thinking about other things. When it stopped and a voice said "Tex?" I couldn't even remember who I knew that had a cycle.
"Where you goin'?"
I stopped and stared at Johnny and his sister Jamie like I'd never seen them before.
"Good Lord!" Jamie swung off the back end of the cycle to take a better look at me. "What happened to you?"
It seemed like so much time had passed since I'd seen Johnny last, I was surprised he didn't look older.
"Tex?" Johnny hopped off the cycle to push it alongside me. "What's wrong?"
I kept on walking. "Mason sold the horses and beat me up, and I'm gonna find them."
"Tonight? You know where they are?"
"Nope. But I'm gonna keep looking till I find them."
A car drove by and slowed down curiouslike, then drove on. Johnny and Jamie practically had to trot to keep up with me. I'm pretty long-legged.
"Tex, you're being crazy. You can't just walk around the countryside till you find the horses," Jamie said.
"Your front door is open and you left the lights on," Johnny said, like that was real important. I could tell they thought I'd flipped out.
"You're going home later though?" Johnny asked. "Tonight?"
"Not till I find the horses."
"Look, Tex, you can't sleep out here on the road!"
"I ain't sleepy."
"Listen," Johnny said, "I'll take Jamie home and come back for you, okay?"
I turned to face them. "Can't you two understand English? I said I'm lookin' for Negrito! Now get lost!"
They were shocked. I'm not a bad-tempered person mostly. In fact mostly I'm real easy-going. Standing still was making me shiver again, so I started on.
"Tex..." Johnny gave it one more try.
"Johnny, wait..." Jamie said. They had stopped and I was too far down the road to hear what they were saying. Pretty soon the cycle started up again and headed back in the other direction.
I was glad they were gone. I liked them both, but I had things to think about.
Every time I passed a pasture with horses, I'd stop and look. I'd know Negrito in the dark. But I was pretty sure Mason wouldn't have sold them to anybody close by. He knew I'd just go get them back. Well, it didn't matter where they were. I'd still get them back.
Another car came by, slowed down, and stopped. I looked over, figuring to tell the driver I didn't need a ride, when I recognized the truck. I started running. The door slammed. I hadn't got far when Mason pulled me up by my jacket.
"Get in the truck," he said. My heart was pounding so hard I could barely hear him.
"No," I said.
I was shaking, not from being scared of him, just shaking for no particular reason. Mason must have thought he was causing it, because he let go of my jacket. But when I didn't move, he said, "I'll tie you up and throw you in that truck, Tex."
I can't stand being tied up. Even when I was a little kid, playing cowboys and horses, I couldn't stand being tied up. It made me sick. Mason knew that. He wouldn't do that to me. But I'd never thought he'd pound on me, either.
I walked past him to the truck. I wasn't about to sit up front with him. I climbed into the truck bed and leaned back against the cab. I'd thought I was all cried out, but tears kept running down my face. The wind dried them up real quick, though.
When we pulled into the driveway, I hopped over the side before the truck stopped. Johnny's cycle was parked in the yard. I figured he and Jamie would be inside, waiting to see if I got home. I had one last thing to say to Mason.
"You can't keep chasing me down all the time. I'll just go looking for them again tomorrow."
Mason came around to my side of the truck. Apparently he stopped at the Safeway while he'd been driving around, because he started hauling out sacks of groceries.
"You can leave for Timbuktu tomorrow for all I care," he said. "But you're not gonna find the horses and you're not gonna give me any more trouble tonight. Now shut up and take some of these sacks."
Now while Mason had always been a sarcastic person, he'd never been out and out mean before. It was hard to believe what I was hearing. I almost told him what he could do with the sacks. Then a bruise on my face gave a big throb, and I decided to keep quiet. I took a couple of sacks of food and went on in the house. I hadn't seen that much food all together at one place for a long time, and I wondered where Mason got the money. Then I reme
mbered, and almost dropped the bags.
Johnny and Jamie were sitting on the floor in the front room, playing cards. Johnny jumped up to push open the door for me. His mouth fell open. I reckon I looked a lot worse in the light
"Did Mason...?" his voice trailed off as Mace came in behind me. I marched to the kitchen, slammed the bags down on the counter, and marched out, kicking an overturned chair out of my way. Thank God for the Collins. I wasn't looking forward to being alone in that house with Mason.
I sat down on the floor with them. "Deal me in."
"I think you ought to call the cops," Jamie said. Our house is so small Mason could probably hear her even in the kitchen. "Have Mason arrested for assault and battery."
I just shook my head. I stared at the hand I was dealt, kept a three, and threw away a pair of jacks. I wasn't exactly in prime poker form.
I could hear Mason cleaning up the broken glass and stuff in the kitchen. I couldn't tell if I felt worse about him or losing Negrito, and I swear, if the Collins hadn't been there, I would have started in bawling again.
Footsteps sounded on the front porch, and Bob Collins, Johnny and Jamie's older brother, stuck his head in the door.
"Hey are Johnny ... Tex, what happened to you?"
He came on in. I didn't look up. Jamie said, "Why don't you ask the child abuser? He's in there." She jerked a thumb toward the kitchen.
Bob looked at me uneasily. "Mason didn't do that?"
"Robert!" Mason called from the kitchen, "come here a second."
Sometimes Mason called Bob Robert. He was the only person who did that. Bob didn't like to be called Robert. He took a lot off Mason, though.
"By the way," Bob called, "Cole is looking for you two. I have the feeling there's going to be some butts blistered."
"Aw, Bobby, why didn't you say so?" Johnny frowned. His father would still whomp him one if he thought Johnny needed it, and hardly a week went by that Jamie didn't get spanked or grounded or both. Bob, being seventeen, could get away with more.
"Let's get going," Johnny said, picking up his helmet.
"Oh, we're going to get it, anyway, so we might as well stay."
"If Cole finds us here, we're dead ducks."
Cole Collins didn't like his kids hanging around me and Mason. He thought we were bad influences. He might have found out Pop had been in prison once, too, but I wasn't sure. I never told anybody, not even Johnny. Mason said he'd skin me if I did. But Cole might have found out, anyway. There were a lot worse people than me and Mason, but you couldn't tell Cole that. He judged a lot by money, and we sure didn't have any.
"I want to make sure Mason's through beating up on people for the night," Jamie said. I looked over at her and realized I liked the way she cut her hair. It looked like somebody had put a bowl over her head and cut around it. She had almost-black hair. It looked good with blue eyes.
"What could you do about it if he isn't?" Johnny said.
"I don't like my friends getting pounded on."
"He's my friend," Johnny said.
"My friend, too," Jamie said.
I felt kind of dumb, sitting there being talked about like a dog or something. I was real tired, too. I felt like I had a headache all over.
"Maybe you better go home," I said. "I don't want you guys to get into trouble."
"Yeah, Jamie, if we get grounded this week we can't go to the Fair."
"Well, okay. Just wait a minute." Jamie went to the door of the kitchen. "If you ever hit Tex again I'll..."
I don't know what she was going to threaten him with. Mace just cut her off short. He said something he doesn't usually say to girls, but with four brothers I doubt that it was anything Jamie hadn't heard before.
And Bob said patiently, "Jamie, go home."
"All right. Come on, Johnny. Let me drive, huh?"
"Cole said you weren't supposed to."
"Cole," she said sarcastically, "is not here. You don't exactly knock yourself out to obey his every rule, anyway."
"Girls..." Johnny began, and Jamie snapped, "You give me any of that garbage and I'll make you sorry."
Johnny gulped in mock fright but handed her the keys and the helmet. Jamie had the reputation of being a really mean person. "Bye, Tex. Seeya."
I just nodded.
"Come on," said Jamie, "I bet I can hit sixty between here and home."
They only lived about a half a mile away.
"You better not," called Bob. Big brothers are all alike.
I almost felt like going to bed, I was so tired and achey. But it wasn't time to go to bed, so I picked up a Western Horseman magazine off the floor and crawled into the big chair to look at it. That put me right next to the kitchen wall and I could hear everything Mason and Bob were saying. I hadn't planned it that way, but I didn't move, either.
"...swear I could have killed him," Mason said. "It was like I blew a fuse or something. And it wasn't his fault. Damn Pop--he's the one who ought to be punched out. God, I didn't mean to hit Tex like that."
"Well, he looks like he'll live. Forget about it, Mace. He will."
"I'm not so sure. I wouldn't."
"You're not Tex. Mason, we could have bought the horses. You know Cole is already looking for a way to get Johnny off that bike, and Jamie's going to start hounding him for one pretty soon."
"Yeah, sure," Mason said bitterly. "You think I could take knowing you guys had our horses on top of everything else you've got?"
They were silent. I always thought the Collins couldn't help having a lot of money any more than we could help not having any, but whenever Mason thought about it, it really hacked him off.
Bob understood him, as usual. "You had to sell them, Mason, and you knew Tex would take it hard. You're going to have to quit brooding about it."
"If I hadn't sold them, they would have starved, or we would have. I am not going to quit school and get a full-time job. I'm not even going to get a part-time job till basketball's over with. Basketball is my out. I'll sell anything I have to to make it through this winter. I have got to get out of here, man ... Bob, I've had three different scouts talking to me already. If I can get through this winter, I can go anywhere."
I went to bed, more to get away from that conversation than anything else. If Mason could get a good price for me, I wondered how long it'd take him to make out the bill of sale. Before today I didn't really think he could go off and leave me here by myself if Pop didn't come home. Now I knew. He'd go so quick it'd make my head spin. And Pop--but he had to come home. He always had. He'd just forgot about how long he'd been gone. Anyway, if he knew Mason was gone, he wouldn't leave me here by myself. I couldn't imagine being here by myself.
The house was colder than a frog's tail. I decided to sleep with my clothes on, which I do sometimes anyway, if I don't feel like taking them off. I piled all the quilts on top, instead of saving one to sleep on, and a mattress button bit me all night. We didn't have any sheets. Sheets get torn up real fast, especially if you take a nap with your spurs on.
I woke up at six, just like always, pulled on my boots and jacket, and stumbled out the back door to the garage, where we keep the feed. I noticed we were low on grain, and thought about reminding Mason to get some. Then I went up the well-beaten path to the corral. It wasn't till I got there, wondering why nobody was nickering, that I remembered.
I stood staring at the empty corral, shivering. The horses were gone. Negrito was gone. I'd never find them. It was final.
Once, a couple of years ago, I got into trouble with the law. I borrowed a car that somebody had left the keys in. I took it back, but the police were waiting there for me. They let me sit in a jail cell a couple of hours to think about it before they called Pop.
I remember seeing his face, when he came to get me, almost like he had written me off, like I wasn't his kid anymore. I remember thinking, "This is the worst thing that'll ever happen to me."
And here I was, wrong.
down at the kitchen table, sore and dazed and half-surprised that the world seemed to be rolling along as usual. Mason, came into the kitchen with a bottle of iodine. I looked away while he dabbed some on the cut above my left eye and on the raw knot on my forehead. I couldn't think of anything to say to him.
Then he laid the back of his hand on my forehead and said, "You're running a little bit of a fever--you want to stay home from school today?"
"All right," I said. Then I said, "I'll tell everybody I was sleep-walking and fell down the back steps."
I still wouldn't look at him, but after a second he reached out and patted me on the head like a puppy. I knew we were made up. But things weren't the same.
I knew, in the back of my mind, that Mason had changed a lot during the last couple of years, but now it seemed like I really didn't even know him too well anymore. He used to laugh more and yell less and while he always had been a reserved kind of guy, at least he used to talk to me like I was another human person. Nowadays he was constantly surprising me. I couldn't tell how he was going to act, what he was going to do next.
Like a couple of days later, he announced he wasn't going to the Fair. I was as shocked as if he'd said he was going to skip Christmas.
"How come?" I was sitting in the kitchen, riding a chair backward, watching him make the weekly batch of chili. Mason was really good at chili-making. A funny thing, though, when people tried asking him for the recipe, he never could remember how he did it. I'd watched him a dozen times before, and he never did make it the same way twice.
"Why should I go? It'll just be the same as last year. And the year before that. Rides and crummy sideshows and gyp games and livestock shows..."
His voice trailed off. Any time the conversation got near horses, a funny kind of uneasy silence would drop on us like a cloud promising thunder. Since the fight both of us had to work at it to sound like we were carrying on a normal conversation, but now he was thinking the same thing I was. Last year I'd entered Negrito in some of the Western classes at the Fair and won three ribbons, one of them a first place. And Mr. Kencaide, of Kencaide Quarter Horse Ranch, came up to me after and said, "You've done a lot with this little horse, kid. You've done a real good job." Mr. Kencaide is the kind of guy who doesn't go around talking to a lot of people.