Johnny ran over to Polly pushing the people that had gathered around her away. All he could see at that moment was how her body looked out of shape, as if everything was not lying at a normal angle. He heard her give a soft moan and gently brushed her hair from her face, saying “Polly?” She opened her eyes and tried to smile at him, but closed her eyes again. He felt himself pushed aside and went to push the person back until he recognized the doctor, Sam Jenkins.
“Let me take a look at her Johnny – we have to move her out of the street and before we do, I want to know as much as possible about how injured she is,” the doctor said.
Johnny stood up and moved a bit out of the way and felt a hand squeeze his shoulder. Turning his head, he recognized Val Crawford, the sheriff. Uncertain what to do he looked back at Sam and glanced anxiously down at Polly.
Sam looked up at Val and said “get the stretcher from my office. We’ll have to be very gentle. Luckily she’s unconscious right now, and hopefully she’ll stay that way while we move her.” Val went running back to the doctor’s office, and quickly returned with the stretcher. Following directions from Sam, Johnny and Val carefully lifted Polly and placed her on the platform. They then went to either end and carried it back to Sam’s, with Johnny at Polly’s feet the entire way. He watched her anxiously the whole time, and noticed that she didn’t seem to waken.
Sam had them place her, still on the stretcher, on the table in his examining room. He then pushed Johnny out saying “you can’t be here for this. I’ll call you when I need you.” Johnny went to sit on a chair in the waiting room, his elbows on his knees, his head resting on his hands. He felt Val sit in the chair next to him. Val patted him awkwardly on the back and then standing, said “I’ll ride out to your place and tell everyone what happened … get someone to come back with me. We’ll be back soon.” Johnny looked up and nodded his thanks, looking back at the door to the examining room and wondering what was happening inside.
***** L ***** L *****
Three hours later, Johnny was leaning back on two legs of his chair with his arms crossed against his chest and his eyes closed. He heard, recognizing the footfalls and other sounds, his father, brother and Val enter the doctor’s office. Murdoch walked over and crouched down in front of him, placing his hands on Johnny’s knees. “How is she son?” he asked gently.
Johnny thought of all the things he didn’t want to say to his father – how Sam had come out shortly after Val had left, shaking his head at him. How Johnny had gone into the room after that, and held Polly’s hand, telling her about Theresa’s offer, and how they were going to be able to set up their own place, and then about their trip to San Francisco. How he knew the exact moment she had taken her last breath, but he had still continued to sit there, talking to her, until Sam came and patted his shoulder, and then he suddenly had to get out of the room, away from that unmoving body that was no longer Polly. And here he was now, waiting. Johnny composed himself, opened his eyes, and looking directly into his father’s eyes said tonelessly “she died, Murdoch. I’m just waitin’ for the undertaker to come get her.”
“Oh Johnny,” Murdoch replied, a look of grief crossing his face. “I’m so sorry” and he stopped, seemingly uncertain what to say next.
Johnny stood up, making his father move back. He did not want to talk to them about this, nor did he want to hear their expressions of sadness. What he wanted was to get on Barranca and disappear. But he knew he couldn’t do that – not quite yet anyway.
***** L ***** L *****
Time passed in a blur for Johnny. He sat through the funeral, barely managing to contain himself as people came to him, expressing their condolences. A letter arrived from Sue, she hadn’t been able to attend the funeral, but he simply put the letter aside, unwilling to open it. He did not purposely avoid Martha, but found it hard to see her ghost-like face, and left caring for her to Theresa and Maria. A week after the funeral, he returned to his old room across the hall from Scott, as he couldn’t bear the memories any longer. He reasoned that Theresa was close by if Martha needed anything.
He began avoiding all members of his family, rising before them and grabbing whatever he could find for breakfast, if he bothered to eat, and then returning after everyone had gone to bed, sometimes eating the food left for him in the warmer and sometimes not. He noticed that his clothes were starting to grow loose but he didn’t care, nor did he pay much attention to the weather or the spring rains, except as it would affect Barranca. He grew accustomed to feeling numb, and started to find an odd solace in falling exhausted into bed, to rise in a few hours to go through the same thing again. Because he was riding around so much, he was managing to find things to do on the ranch - fixing fence, finding stray cows and whatever else he came across - without actually having to talk to his father or brother.
One morning, about three weeks after the funeral, he came downstairs and was surprised to find Murdoch at the kitchen table. He didn’t say anything to his father, preferring to pretend he was not there and get himself ready for the day. However, when his father said “Johnny”, he knew he had no choice but to acknowledge the man, and turned to face him.
He felt suddenly embarrassed about his appearance. He knew he looked like he had been ‘ridden hard and put away wet’ – he couldn’t remember the last time he had shaved and his clothes hung on his frame. But he made eye contact with his father, almost daring him to say something about the way he looked.
“Johnny”, Murdoch started again, “We need to talk about Martha”.
The opening surprised Johnny – he had not seen the girl for a few days and was suddenly worried. “What’s wrong with her Murdoch?” he asked, concern throughout his voice.
“She misses her mother” his father replied gently. Johnny felt himself retract at that statement. “Have you thought what you’re going to do with her?”
“What do ya mean ‘what I’m gonna do with her?’” he replied angrily. “Is there some problem with her? Is she sick’?”
Murdoch looked at his son, his face closed to the sudden burst of emotion. “I mean what are your intentions? Do you mean for her to stay here? Are you thinking of sending her back to Polly’s friend? Does Polly have any family that might care for her?”
“I ain’t sendin’ her away, Old Man” Johnny said, anger strong in his voice. “I don’t know much about how the law works in these situations, but I was married to …“ Johnny gulped, feeling unable to say Polly’s name “her mother and I aim to keep her.”
“That’s fine, Johnny, but who do you expect to be responsible for her?”
“What do ya mean, Old Man?” Johnny’s guilt at having avoided the girl coming to the front and making him want to pick a fight with his father
“I mean, Johnny,” Murdoch replied, not rising to the bait, “who do you expect to take Martha to school in the fall. For that matter, just make sure she is going to bed on time, is eating, has shoes that fit … all those regular things children need.”
“’Cause you know so much ‘bout that, Old Man?” Johnny couldn’t help but say, feeling half guilty and half happy at the look of pain that flitted across his father’s face.
Murdoch took some time to compose himself and then continued, “be that as it may, Johnny, Scott and I are going out to check a couple of the line shacks tomorrow – we’re worried they need to be re-built. And Theresa has been invited to stay with the Anderson’s for the weekend. And, as you may or may not know, Maria is at her sister’s right now. So, you’ll be the only one around to look after Martha for the next few days.”
Johnny felt shock at the news. He could care for the child – he knew how to cook, could read her a story, make sure she didn’t get hurt - but he could start to feel the numbness he had surrounded himself with since Polly’s death change at the thought of interacting with the girl. “I can go to the line shacks, Old Man,” Johnny replied.
“Be that as it may, Johnny, Scott and I are going. All the regular hands will be here to look after the ranch – it’s only in the house that things won’t be normal. And someone needs to look after Martha.”
Johnny knew the truth of his father’s statement, but did not want to face what he was being asked – truth be told, he’d rather be going up into a gunfight with only six bullets. “Why can’t Theresa stay then?” he asked, knowing that he sounded like a child trying to avoid chores.
“Johnny”, Murdoch replied, “Theresa, and Maria, have done a fine job looking after Martha, but truth be told, they’re both strangers to that girl, just like Scott and I are. You’re the one that she knows the most out of all of us. So, I think it would be best if you stayed. Now, we’re leaving tomorrow. We’ll say goodbye at breakfast. It’s my decision Johnny, and I’ve decided. Remember, as much as things may have changed around here, I call the tune.” And with that, Murdoch turned back to his paper.
Realizing that he would be unable to change the Murdoch’s mind, Johnny turned and stalked out the door.
***** L ***** L *****
The next morning, Johnny walked into the kitchen for breakfast with his family. He smiled slightly at Scott and took his usual seat at the table, noticing Martha’s pale face, and how she was picking at her breakfast. Theresa brought him over a plate with eggs and sausage, and he nodded his thanks, not really feeling sure about eating. He looked over at Martha again and saw her staring at him, and he winked and then motioned towards her plate, starting to eat himself, surprised at how good the food tasted.
Theresa came back over to the table, saying “Martha, eat your breakfast, please. We need to go collect the eggs before I leave today.”
Martha frowned at Theresa’s statement, asking, “When will you be back?” in a quiet tone.
Theresa looked over at the girl, concern on her face. Glancing at Murdoch she replied “the Anderson’s will bring me back after lunch on Sunday.”
“What about church?” the girl asked, poking at the food on her plate.
Theresa sighed, sitting back down to her own breakfast. “I’ll take you next week.”
Johnny was suddenly taken back to a conversation he had had with Polly about church. It had been the first week after her arrival and she was getting ready to go, while he lounged on their bed.
“Why do you go?” he’d asked, surprised after what he had told him about her childhood, and her father, that she attended church. He was playing with the ribbons and flowers on a straw hat of hers.
She took the hat from him, clucking her tongue at how he had played with the decorations. “It’s good for Martha,” she responded, taking the hat to the closet.
He’d raised his eyebrow at that “what’d you mean?” he’d asked, knowing that she did many things for the girl, but uncertain what the connection was here.
“Well”, she started, “people expect ya to go to church – it’s part of fittin’ in. And not all …” Johnny smiled at how she as obviously struggling for the right word, “religious people are like my father. The minister that married us” she turned and looked at Johnny and he smiled remembering the day, “he was real nice – not all fire and brimstone.” Johnny snorted, remembering some past experiences with fire and brimstone types. “Anyway, Theresa teaches in the Sunday school, and it’ll give Martha a chance to meet some of the others children before she starts school in the fall.”
As she went to sit at the vanity to brush her hair, Johnny smiled at her. “What ‘bout me?” he asked.
“What about you?” she’d replied, obviously uncertain what he meant.
“Do you want me to go with you?”
She’d stopped in the middle of brushing her hair and smiled. “No,” she’d replied simply.
He’d been surprised by that “why not?”
“Because, I know you don’t want to. Johnny, you don’t have to do everything with me. Martha and I’ll be fine with your family. If you want to come, you can, but I don’t expect you to do this – I know how you feel about churches.” And then smiling she’d said “I figured I was lucky gettin’ you to agree to bein’ married by a minister.”
He’d chuckled at that and reached over to take the brush from her hand, brushing her hair for her.
Johnny shook his head, bringing himself back to the present. He noticed that Martha was just moving her food around her plate, not really eating anything.
***** L ***** L *****
Johnny smiled at Martha as Theresa walked out the door, noticing how the girl looked down at her feet rather than at him. He cleared his throat and saw her look up, catching a glimpse of Polly in her eyes that he hadn’t noticed before. Seeing that glimpse of Polly made his chest constrict and he coughed, trying to push his emotions back into check. Knowing he would feel better if he was doing something, anything, he headed over to where his coat was hanging and said to the girl, his back to her “I’m goin’ out to the barn to do some chores. You stay here and play. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Cain’t I come with you?” the girl asked, fear in her voice.
Johnny turned and looked at her, surprised that she seemed scared. Shaking his head he looked out the window and said “it looks like it’s gonna rain soon – you wait here. I don’t want you to get wet. I’ll be back as soon as I can. If you need anything, you can just yell for me out the door and I’ll come right in.”
Martha started to protest again. Johnny looked at her, remembering how Polly had always said that she could be stubborn – and that he had seen that side of her. He held up his hand to quiet the girl. “You need to stay here.” When the girl looked ready to argue some more, he continued “I ain’t talkin’ about this anymore. You stay here.” He realized he was being unfair – there was no real reason the girl couldn’t come with him, but he really needed the time alone. Being with his family again, seeing Martha, remembering Polly, he just felt that he couldn’t cope.
The girl looked at him with a pout on her face. She then crossed her arms across her chest and looked down at her feet. He noticed that her eyes were a bit glassy and wondered if she was going to cry. “I’ll be right back”, he repeated and walked out the door to the barn.
***** L ***** L *****
Johnny was back in the house in less than an hour, his guilt over leaving Martha hurrying him through his work. He called for the girl and was surprised when he did not hear a response.
Walking through the kitchen, he looked into the great room and didn’t see her there. Continuing to call her name, he went back to the kitchen and noticed that her shoes and jacket were still hanging in the vestibule, so he assumed she had not gone outside. Drawing a deep breath, he went down the corridor to her room. Opening the door, he looked and saw no sign of her. Concerned about where she could be, he took a deep breath and opened the connecting door to what had been his and Polly’s room.
***** L ***** L *****
The first thing he noticed was that everything had been put away. He saw the trunk that Polly had brought with her and assumed that everything had been put inside. He found that he could breathe alright in the room, but he still didn’t want to be there.
Taking a further step in, he turned his head and looked at the bed. Finally, there was Martha. She was cuddled up, with a pillow in her arms. It looked like she had fallen asleep crying. Johnny felt a deep sadness at this – remembering Murdoch’s words about how she was missing her mother and they were all virtual strangers to the girl. He went to lie on the bed, his back against the headboard, and gently stroked the girl’s hair while she slept.
***** L ***** L *****
Johnny opened his eyes slowly, uncertain of where he was. Opening his eyes slowly, he noticed that Martha had cuddled into his side, apparently seeking some warmth in the cold room. He looked around, seeing things as they had been not that long ago. Turning his head slightly, he could almost see Polly brushing her hair at the vanity. Turning the other way, he could hear her chatting away to him about thoughts for the future, plans, things that had happened during the day. And he remembered that feeling of contentment he would get as she would talk and he would listen, throwing in the occasional comment, or lightly teasing her. That was what he had loved best in their relationship – the way they could just talk to each other, it had felt so comfortable.
He felt Martha stir at his side and reached down to smooth her hair. He looked at the little girl’s face and noticed that there were definitely tear tracks, but also that she had the same grouping of freckles over her nose that Polly had. Other traits, though, were distinctly her own. He felt himself slightly overcome by a feeling of love for the girl, so young and trusting. He too had been like this, and while he had left her to the care of his family in his grief, he had not taken care of her as he knew Polly would have wanted. He remembered Polly’s tales of her childhood, and how she had wanted so much for the girl – school, family, maybe even to go to one of the ladies colleges that were opening up in the north. “Maybe”, he thought, “the best way to remember Polly, and continue loving Polly would be to take care of Martha, to whom she had been so dedicated.”
He noticed Martha slowly opening her eyes and looking at him sleepily. “Heh, querida”, he said, smiling slightly “how about we go find us some lunch?” Noticing her hesitant smile, he started to stand. Turning and holding his hand out to her, he continued “and maybe after that he could see about workin’ on your ridin’ some more”. When the girl bounded off the bed at that statement, he chuckled to himself and, taking her hand, led her out of the room and towards the kitchen. And while he still felt the ache of sadness around his heart, it was possible that it was a little less.
***** L ***** L *****
Two days later, feeling his ears start to burn, Johnny recognized the sounds of his brother and father returning home. Closing his eyes in an attempt to hold in his embarrassment, he looked over when they entered the great room, seeing the smiles on their faces. Murdoch stepped into the room asking “what are you doing?”
Before Johnny could reply, Martha looked up, smiled at him and Scott and said “we’re havin’ a tea party – would you like to have some?”
***** L ***** L *****
Half an hour later, Johnny recognized the sound of Theresa coming into the house. Sitting himself a bit straighter, he waited a few moments to hear her stop outside the great room, unknowingly asking Murdoch’s question - “what are you doing?”
Martha again answered “having a tea party,” not seeming to notice Scott’s squirming while she poured for him. When she finished, she looked over at the girl and asked “would you like to have some?”
Johnny turned his head and saw Theresa look at the three men, all in various states of discomfort. Johnny could tell she was trying to restrain her laughter at the sight of the three of them holding miniature tea cups and eating cookies. Looking around one more time Theresa said “I’ll play in a bit – I’ll just get you more cookies” and scooping the plate with one remaining cookie off the table, she turned quickly and headed to the kitchen.
Martha looked up, surprised and Johnny said to her “I could use some more, querida”. Smiling, the girl came over to him, leaning in to fill his cup. He came slightly forward and gently kissed her on the forehead as she poured, and smiled at her when she looked up. She smiled back.