Scott watched Johnny heading for the barn once again. Ever since the Foley incident the boy had found an excuse to spend the last part of his day tending to Barranca or mending tack that – according to the boy’s story – couldn’t wait until the next morning. Scott had come to the conclusion that whatever was bothering his brother had something to do with Polly and the secret they shared. As was his habit, Johnny was staying pretty closed mouth about whatever had occurred, and until he decided to talk, the problem was going to continue to fester. His reluctance to share, Scott knew, was a remnant of a brutal past that had taught him not to trust anyone; and one of the few things he hadn’t quite learned to give into after the several months of being at Lancer.
Johnny seemed fine to anyone who really didn’t know him well, but his family had picked up on his unease rather quickly after they had returned from Maria’s with Polly and the baby. They were small things, but to Scott and Murdoch they spoke loudly of a young man who was in a quandary as to what he should do. Neither of the two older men had approached the boy, but Scott instinctively knew something had to be done to finally put his brother’s mind at rest.
Scott didn’t think Johnny held any real ill will towards the new mother but he didn’t seem very comfortable around her and often found a reason to be somewhere else whenever Polly was around. Work in the barn served two purposes for him. It gave him the excuse he needed stay away from the house, and provided him a sense of comfort he drew from small tasks like grooming his horse or working with the leather.
The baby seemed to hold his interest when she was among the family, usually in the Great Room after supper. Johnny seemed comfortable with little Martha Ann and she appeared to be just as fascinated with him when he would talk to her using that soft voice he always used when speaking to the women in the hacienda and the children of the families who lived at the ranch. He had the ability to sooth her when she became fussy just by telling her about something he had seen or done that day. It must have been like music to her, as she would fall asleep, often grasping one of his fingers.
Once the baby was taken away and put in her bed, Johnny would slink off quietly to be seen no more the entire evening. Scott picked up on the routine rather quickly and knew his father was wondering as well what was going on with his youngest boy. He was sure Murdoch was aware of Polly and Johnny’s previous acquaintance but doubted the older man had any more details than what he himself had learned on the day they had found Polly by the creek.
Scott wanted to respect his brother’s privacy and it wasn’t imperative to know all the details of that early relationship; but whatever had occurred in the past was troubling enough to push Johnny away. If it would help to talk about it then Scott wanted to make it known he was there and willing to listen.
He approached the barn, hesitating just inside the door and hidden by shadows. A smile ghosted across his lip as he thought about how things had changed over the months since he had come to Lancer; had come home. Home, he mused. The simple word had such a new meaning for him now.
The smells that he once found pungent now held the same feeling of comfort and security for him as they did for his brother. Sweet smelling hay, the recently soaped leather of saddles, the sweat on horse blankets that were drying for the next day’s use; the aroma of fresh straw.
As he observed the meticulous movements of his brother as the boy groomed his horse, Scott was relieved that his sibling seemed to be in good spirits. Johnny was singing softly, keeping time with each brush stroke as he continued to pamper the palomino. It was one of those small chores Scott knew his brother enjoyed when something was on his mind.
Before he could make his presence known Johnny called out to his brother. “Well, are you gonna just stand there in the dark all night or you gonna get it off your mind.” There was a slight smile on Johnny’s face as he continued to brush the pale coat of his beloved Barranca.
Scott ducked his head for a moment; a smile of his own appearing on his handsome face. Johnny had always said he didn’t have a poker face. Or maybe his little brother was beginning to pick up on his habits. Nevertheless, it was a good opening to dive right into what was uppermost in his mind. “Since you already seem to know why I’m here, why don’t we get to it then, Brother?”
Johnny shifted and paused for a moment; holding the brush just above Barranca’s coat. The smile was gone but the look of total defiance was absent. With a sigh he tossed the brush in the bucket and then turned towards the gate of the stall and quickly slipped through it. He found a hay bale and with a slight gesture with his hand invited his brother to sit with him.
For a long time after their arrival at Lancer, Johnny had resisted any attempt from Scott to talk about the past or a problem. He had always carried his own burdens and to let someone in was foreign to him. But as his relationship with his brother had grown, Johnny had found it helped to talk it out with the older man. He’d even approached his father a few times when the occasion arose; knowing Murdoch would be answer him honestly and without prejudice.
Scott sat down next to Johnny and clasped his hands together; resting them on his left leg which he had crossed to make himself comfortable. An invitation to sit from Johnny was usually a good indication there would be more than just a few sentences exchanged.
Trying to gather his thoughts, Johnny leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. He trusted his brother and knew he would leave whatever was said in the barn. He also knew Scott wouldn’t judge him or laugh if for no other reason but his older brother most likely had experienced the same sort of encounter himself.
“I guess it was about three years ago. I wasn’t more than a kid then.”
Scott smiled at that…Johnny wasn’t much more than a kid now in his own estimation but he remained silent as his brother continued.
“I rode into this little two bit town that had one general store and two saloons. Not much else was around accept and old run down jail that housed an old run down sheriff.
Johnny paused for a moment and stood up; walking towards the stall where his horse was standing. A habit he had when he was nervous about something. Without turning around Johnny shoved his hands into his pockets and continued.
“I went into the biggest saloon; trying to be more grown up than I was. Just got off a job and decided to celebrate some before heading to the next one. I always took part of what I made and hid it somewhere so if I got caught out and needed some money quick I could get it. I usually took the rest and blew it like there was gonna be no tomorrow.”
Scott cringed at that statement. He suspected Johnny always figured there was a strong possibility there might not be another tomorrow.
“Anyway, I go into that saloon and get me a bottle of tequila…” he turned slightly, a sheepish smile on his face. “Had to threaten the barkeep a bit to convince him I was old enough to drink,” embarrassed now at the memory of pulling his pistol on the man and threatening to shoot him. “Anyway, I picked out table at the back of the room; so I could see everything coming and going, you know, just in case…” Again Johnny paused but this time he turned around fully to face his brother. He sort of seemed at a loss for words.
Scott took pity on him and helped him out. “And then along came Polly?”
Johnny laughed that small laugh that everyone knew was more nervous than humorous. “Yeah. Then along came Polly,” he echoed. “She sat down and we shared that bottle till it was nearly gone.”
Johnny sighed and started shifting from one foot to the other. It was obvious he was not looking forward to confessing the heart of what was really bothering him.
Scott sat and waited patiently. Pushing Johnny was never a good thing and eventually the boy would continue without being prodded. Time was on their side and patience was one thing Scott had learned was all the ammunition he needed when he and Johnny were having a serious conversation like this one.
Finally Johnny squared his shoulders and continued to reveal just how green he had been on that particular occasion.
“I gotta admit, I really hadn’t been with too many girls before that. I mean I knew what to do with one,” he laughed, “but I wasn’t all that knowin’ about what could happen if I wasn’t payin’ attention like I should.” He was quiet again and clearly embarrassed. “Hell, I was lookin’ for a good time, just like any other green kid who didn’t know better.”
Scott smiled, remembering his own youth and how he was always trying find a way to meet some female who was willing to sell her favors to a young man with the right price. Of course, in Boston these young ladies were often housed in discrete places of business and some had special little tricks to draw in a steady clientele.
Johnny sat down next to his brother again and crossed his own leg and started playing with the rowel on his spur. “I knew she had a couple of years on me, but it didn’t seem to matter. She told me she had a room in the back; even had another bottle we could share. So I went with her.
“The room was pretty nice, considerin’. First time I ever saw one of them rooms that had clean sheets on the bed. There were even some curtains on the window and you could look through it cause the glass was actually clean. We finished off that bottle and spent the night together.” He shrugged his shoulders, his voice lowering. “Next morning when I woke up Polly was gone; and so was the rest of my money. I had about a hundred bucks in folding money stuffed in one of my boots; the most money I’d ever had at one time.
“She took it all, Scott.” The soft laughter sounded again, and his cheeks had reddened in outright humiliation. “It’s not like I hadn’t figured on payin’ her, but damn, brother; she sure in Hell wasn’t worth no hundred dollars.”
Scott had suspected it was something of that nature. Johnny was never one to turn his back on anybody who needed help, but his attitude towards Polly had been somewhat of a surprise. Scott figured the history between the two had not been all that good.
“I’m sure she was trying to survive as best she could by doing the only thing she could think of. Women don’t always have the same opportunities a man has to make their way in this world. I’m just sorry you were hurt by it.” Scott really didn’t know for sure what to say but felt something was called for to let his brother know he was sympathetic to how he was feeling.
Johnny sighed. “It don’t matter no more. It’s not exactly like I blame her for doin’ what she did. Shit, we’d spent a lot of time talkin’ about how we hated the way we were livin’, about what it would take for the two of us to start all over somewhere else away from…” The words faded into nothingness. “Thing is, Scott, she made me out to be a fool. And now when I’m around her again I get a funny feelin’. Sorta like I was that stupid kid all over again, fallin’ for her lies and lettin’ her rob me blind.” Johnny hung his head. While it felt good telling Scott about what had happened, he still felt like a fool.
“Johnny, you are anything but that stupid kid. You’re a strong and honorable young man and you’ve worked hard to leave your former life behind. I’m sure she’s only trying to do the same. With this new baby and the money Foley has given her she’s got a good chance to leave her old life behind and begin again.”
“But that’s just it, Scott. I know a hundred dollars ain’t all the money in the world, but it would have been enough to get her out of that saloon and out of that town.” He frowned. “She was a workin’ girl when she hooked up with Foley’s kid,” he continued. “She took my money and went right back to what she had been doin’ all along.”
Scott remained quiet for a time. He knew he had to very careful in how he responded to his brother’s words and hoped he wouldn’t regret the decision he was about to make. “We all make mistakes, Johnny,” he began, “many mistakes.
“You’ve admitted yourself there have been many occasions in your past where you’ve made bad decisions; that you’ve actually chosen to do something you knew was wrong regardless of the consequences.” He felt his brother tense beside him and reached out to put his arm around his shoulder. “But that didn’t stop you from trying to change, Johnny; or of trying to make a better life for yourself. You learned from those mistakes and you moved on.” His voice lowered. “Think about where you were six months ago, brother; and think about where you are now. Life had knocked you down, but you got right back up and fought hard to try again.” He hesitated; pulling his brother close in a quick hug. “Don’t you think Polly is entitled to another chance, Johnny? Don’t you believe she loves Martha Ann enough to fight just as hard as you’ve fought to make a better life for her daughter as well as for herself?”
Johnny thought on that for a bit. He had no doubt Polly loved her child. He had seen that love in her eyes the moment Polly had held the child in her arms; just as he saw it every day as she tended to the baby’s needs. A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Hell, Polly’s love never wavered; not even when she was changing a crappy diaper or mopping up the puke. That had to count for something.
And then there were the other things Scott had said. He had been given a chance at a new and better life; a chance he had grabbed with both hands in spite of how hard the struggle had been. And now he faced a good future that went beyond riding over the next hill or an early grave.
He decided he was glad Polly was getting the same chance for her and Martha Ann; decided she deserved that chance. “Guess I need to go and tell her I’m sorry for being an ass to her. She did what she had to do back then, just like I did in order to get along.” Johnny stood up and turned, reaching his hand out to his brother.
Scott smiled and took the offered hand; standing with Johnny’s assistance. He placed his arm around his brother’s shoulder and together they started for the house.
Murdoch stood in the shadows beside the corral. He had felt a profound need to check on Johnny, but had stopped himself when he heard voices in the barn. Now he watched as his sons walked toward the light streaming from the porch lanterns; thinking how it was so symbolic that his youngest was able to finally reach the light that had been so elusive for many years.
He smiled; a bit ashamed for eavesdropping, but felt justified because of what he had heard. His youngest had revealed something very private from his past, and in doing so had exhibited a new and stronger trust for his brother; a trust that would certainly grow to include the rest of his family.
Young men, Murdoch knew, no matter where they grow up, have lessons to learn. Some are harder than others and often leave a lasting sting. Johnny was wise beyond his age but there were still some lessons he would need to face in the future. Murdoch was just proud that the lessons ahead would be cushioned by the support of family and Johnny wouldn’t have to face them alone any more.
Binnie & Kit