Beta: Lacy. As always I’m grateful for your expertise and friendship.
Dedication: With love for my 1 year-old twin grandbabies, Victoria & Alexander.
February 1st, 2016
“How’d you get into this fix?” asked Scott, glancing across the checker board at his brother, Johnny, who was contemplating his next move.
It was after breakfast. Both boys were sitting in the Great Room by the blazing fireplace drinking a cup of coffee as they each waited for a specific person. Killing time, they began a checker game.
With a bit of anxiety in his blue eyes Johnny pleaded his case. “Well, ya know when you’re sick and then you start…”
Scott cut in, “Sick? Brother, do you have any idea just how ill you were?”
Johnny felt his face become warm. He had a pretty good idea from what he could remember of it. Somewhere he’d lost three days. His body had ached from head to toe. He’d been burning hot one moment, then freezing cold the next, all the while afflicted with a nonstop cough he was still trying to get rid of. I thought for sure I was gonna hack up a lung before it was all over. And for what? Cause I fell into a creek trying to save a family of beavers that had stopped the water flow. He listened quietly as Scott ranted on.
“You know all this could’ve been avoided if you would’ve just shot those varmints? Then came back to the house and changed into some dry clothes. After all, it’s winter outside and the nip is in the air.”
“Shot those varmints?” croaked Johnny, in the loudest voice he could reach with his scratchy throat. He cleared his throat, coughed and cleared it again. “I happen to like animals and I can’t help it that it took the whole day to trap ‘em and relocate them to the swamp lands.” He picked up his coffee cup and took a sip and set it back down. “Besides, what self-respecting cowboy wears a beaver hat and coat?”
They both pictured Johnny in beaver furs, then grinned at each other.
“Scott you know as well as I do time wasn’t on our side. It had started to rain and I needed to get that creek open and flowing.”
“You could’ve asked for help.”
“Everyone was already busy doin’ their assigned chores for the day. I just came in and grabbed the wooden traps and some bait and went back out.”
“Well, you should’ve grabbed your rain gear too.”
“What for? I was already soaked.”
Scott moved a single red checker behind another red checker and blocked Johnny’s next move. “Well, that’s water over the dam. Now you have to pay the price.”
“Don’t remind me,” moaned his brother, as he moved a black checker to the edge of the board. “King me.”
Scott reached over to the side of the board and picked up a game piece and put it on the single black checker. As he did so, he studied his brother. He might be up and around, but he still looks like hell to me. His coloring is better, but he’s pale with dark circles under his eyes. And he still sounds like a fog horn when he coughs and talks. Best thing Doc Jenkins did was give orders Johnny couldn’t step one foot outside of this house.
“So, brother mine, tell me how you got into the mess you’re in now.”
Johnny cleared his throat of the phlegm for what seemed like the thousandth time since he became sick with the crud. “Ya know how ya start feeling better, but you’re not up to turning the world upside down?”
“You mean you’re on the edge?” asked Scott, reaching for his coffee cup.
Looking over the rim of his cup, Scott asked, “Did you read that book I gave you?” I have no doubt what the answer is going to be. To his amazement, Johnny’s eyes lit up.
“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? Yeah, it was great!”
Scott about choked on his coffee. He’d never seen his brother so animated about a book before. “So tell me about it.”
“Boy, it had all kinds of stuff in it. I could picture you as bein’ Tom Sawyer and me as Huck Finn. It was packed with adventure.”
“Don’t stop there. Go on.”
Grinning as he recalled the epic, Johnny launched into the story, “Well it had romance, grave robbers, and a murder in the graveyard. Then they landed up in a cave lookin’ for hidden treasure with Injun Joe out to get ‘em.” Johnny was nearly out of breath by the time he finished telling Scott everything he could remember. He had to momentarily stop talking and hack a few coughs, swallow, then continue. “Ya know the best part?”
“No. What?” asked Scott, fascinated. The best part is watching you describe it.
“Huck got adopted even if it was by a widow. He got a home.”
Scott smiled for he’d had Johnny in mind when he bought the book on a whim. The author, Mark Twain, had been in Spanish Wells on a layover stop. Their stagecoach had needed repairs and to pass the time the author had set up a small stand in front of the general store.
“So, when can I read it?”
To Scott’s surprise, Johnny lowered his eyes and became silent.
Feeling a bit foolish, Johnny moved a checker and said, “I, ah, kinda wanted to read it again to see what I missed the first time.”
“Okay. When you’re ready then.” He reminds me of a kid with a new toy. Who would’ve guessed?
Johnny lifted his eyes and implored, “You’ll take good care of it?”
Scott, a bit insulted, “Johnny, it’s a book. I take care of all my books just like Murdoch does.”
“But, this is my first book. The author signed it and everything. He even put my name on the inside cover…that it was to me.”
“You’ve never been given a book before?”
“Can’t say I have. As a kid I usually got socks or hand-me-downs. If I was lucky, I’d get a worn pair of boots that weren’t too snug. And as a gunfighter, well, if ya got anything it was usually a bullet.”
Scott thought he was kidding, but by the seriousness of his brother’s face, he knew he wasn’t. Even after all the years they’d lived together, Scott still didn’t know much about Johnny’s childhood. Murdoch had filled him in with some of the particulars, but it was precious little. Once in a while, like now, Johnny would open up about his tender years and willingly talk about them. Thus giving Scott a glimpse into his past.
“What about school? Didn’t you get books there?”
“No Scott. The schools I was allowed to attend down in the border towns and in Mexico were poor. You didn’t get to take a book home with you ever.”
“Cause books were scarce and they usually belonged to the teacher.”
Scott, feeling like he was on a roll, asked, “So, if you couldn’t read books what did you do with your time?”
Johnny picked up the silver coffeepot off of the table next to fireplace and poured them both a fresh cup of coffee. Still holding the pot, he shyly smiled and said, “When I was little, I played in the dirt a lot.” At Scott’s stunned expression, he laughed out loud.
“Brother, I didn’t have a silver spoon like you did.”
Johnny set the shiny carafe down on the table beside the game board, then glanced at his brother and noticed the tips of his ears were red. Don’t be embarrassed for me, Scott, and don’t be feeling guilty cause you had what I didn’t.
“According to my mama, I was lucky to have a pot to piss in.” He waited for Scott to make a move on the board then continued his story. “I guess you’d call it a sand box now a days. Well, mine was a dirt box and I had to make up all kinds of things in my head to amuse myself.”
“Didn’t you have any toys?”
A sad expression crossed Johnny’s face and Scott wished he hadn’t asked.
“Don’t get me wrong, Scott. We weren’t dirt poor. But, my mama had to have pretty dresses to wear at the cantina where she worked and my step-father used most of the money they had on his next poker game. I got very good at foraging for things to play with.”
“Oh, you know, items I could fill with dirt. Things like discarded tin cans, glass bottles and broken crockery. I once found a bent rusty spoon and tin cup that worked good for a shovel.” Without breaking his narration, he moved a checker on the board. “I was given a couple beat up old wooden horses, one had a missing tail, and a cow with the paint all peeled off. So, I often pretended to have my own ranch in the dirt.”
“I see,” said Scott, though he didn’t.
“It was fun to build your own homestead. I learned to mix water with the dirt and together with the cans and stuff I collected I found you could build a house and barn. I had a stick corral for my horses and a pasture for the cow that kept tippin’ over for he was short a hoof.”
Scott was having a hard time picturing his brother in the mud. It was totally foreign to him, for he was never allowed to get a speck of dust on himself. “How old were you and didn’t your mother get upset with you for getting your clothes soiled?”
With a bite to his tone, Johnny asked, “Ya really want to know?”
“Yes,” answered Scott, softly. He recognized the pain in Johnny’s voice and knew the subject was coming to a close. His brother always used his temper to cover the hurt. Easy brother, I know I’m getting too close, but I can’t help myself. You’re my only sibling and I’m drawn to you like a moth is to a flame. You are an enigma to me and I know so very little about you.
Scott moved his last single checker to Johnny’s side of the board. “King me.”
Johnny did as bid. Staring at the board, Johnny refused to bring his eyes up to meet his brother’s. Don’t pity me Scott, please don’t feel sorry for me. He cleared his throat again, then answered, “I was five or six or seven. Hell, I don’t know. I only remember my mama not caring what I did. As long as I didn’t get under her feet and stayed out of her way she seemed happy with me.” He quickly jumped two of Scott’s kings, then added, “And I was never, for any reason, to wake her or my step-papa up before noon if I didn’t want a beatin’.”
Shocked, Scott didn’t know what to say. Instead, he jumped the last two of Johnny’s kings and won the game.
“Play again?” quietly asked Johnny. He was angry at himself for bringing up the subject of his past. See what ya get? Awkwardness. No one knows how to handle it, including you.
With his mind reeling from all he’d learned, Scott replied, “Sure.” One things for certain, I need to change the subject quickly or he’s going to buck.
As they both set up the game, Scott once more inquired, “So Johnny, tell me about this fix you’re in.”
The flames in the fireplace popped loudly, spreading embers across the hearth. The sun was peeking out across the sky. Scott and Johnny could hear the ranch coming to life as they played another round of checkers. Murdoch and Jelly had left for the barn immediately after breakfast. Scott was to join them shortly, when the hay wagon was brought to the barn, to unload the bales and store them in the loft.
“So far so good, the rains have held off,” said Scott, as he waited for Johnny to pour his third cup of coffee.
The boys could hear Teresa and Maria in the kitchen cleaning up after breakfast. A clanging noise, sounding much like a pile of pots and pans falling over, was heard hitting the floor.
Johnny jumped and coughed at the same time spilling some of his coffee over the edge of his cup. “Any minute now, Teresa, the slave driver, is gonna bring me a bucket of water and vinegar.”
Grinning, Scott said, “Doesn’t that stuff help clear your stuffy head?”
Distressed, Johnny quickly added, “Do ya have any idea how many windows are in this house?”
“Not a clue,” answered Scott, pondering his next move on the checker board. “Maybe you should’ve stayed in bed where you belong.”
“Dang it Scott! That’s how this whole thing got started three days ago.” He absently moved a checker without thinking. “And the reason I’m in this mess is because I came down here and said I was bored and sick and tired of sleepin’!”
Scott chuckled. “So, how’d you get put to work?” He could have jumped Johnny’s checker, but decided on a different move.
“I made the mistake and said it in front of Murdoch and Teresa.”
“And nothin’. They looked at each other as if they’d been expectin’ me days ago. Murdoch even flipped Teresa a silver dollar.”
Scott, chuckling hard, asked, “What did Murdoch say?”
“He said I was late and thought I’d be down here sooner. I probably would’ve been, but I got caught up in that book ya gave me.”
“Then what happened?”
“He gave me a list of chores I could do in the house.”
“Like I told ya before, I’m feelin’ fine, just not turnin’ handsprings. I could be out there helping in the barn and not in here doin’…women’s work.” He angrily moved another checker.
This time Scott took advantage and jumped his brother’s checker as he said, “You do remember what Murdoch threatened you with if you so much as open that door to the cold air outside.”
Paper things. Johnny looked over at Murdoch’s desk piled high with paperwork and shuddered. Resigned, he stated with less fire, “Yeah, I remember.”
“And didn’t Murdoch use that same ploy when ordering you to do whatever Teresa asked?”
Johnny glared at his brother. “Yeah, he did.”
“Then a little bit of housework isn’t so bad? Is it?”
“Well, when you put it that way…”
“So Johnny, besides taking a three hour nap every day, what chores have you done?”
Johnny gritted his teeth, “The nap was not my idea. That order came from Doc Jenkins.”
Scott smirked. “Seems to me you have it made. Nice comfy couch, warm fire and all you have to do is a little bit of house chores.”
Johnny exploded. “A little bit of house chores? Let me tell ya there is NO such thing as a little bit of housework! A woman’s work is never done around here!”
“How so?” innocently asked Scott with his arms folded. The checker game was now forgotten as his brother launched into a tirade.
“Ya want to know how bad it is. I’ll tell ya how bad it is. The first day Murdoch ordered me to clean all the guns and rifles in the gun cabinet.”
“What’s so awful about that? You like guns.”
“Yeah, that was easy. I even cleaned out the gun cabinet and re-arranged the ammunition and took account of everything we had in there.”
Scott shifted in his chair. “So, there’s an exception in there somewhere. Right?”
“Yeah. Didn’t ya notice the tablecloth looks brighter?”
“No, I can’t say that I did.”
“Didn’t notice, huh?” grumped Johnny, sounding put out. “Can’t ya see how clean it is? I worked my fingers to the bone getting’ all the gun oil and food stains out of it.”
“How’d you get gun oil all over it?”
“By bein’ careless when I laid all the weapons on the table, just freshly oiled, to clean out the cabinet.”
“So Teresa made you wash the tablecloth?”
Johnny nodded affirmative.
“Where’d you wash it since you can’t go outside?”
“In the barrel in the wash room. Teresa made me use a washboard too. See my knuckles,” he held his hands up for Scott to see, “there ain’t no skin left on ‘em. And the tablecloth was just for starters.”
“Oh, no,” sympathized Scott, rubbing his fingers over his forehead so that Johnny couldn’t see the mirth in his eyes.
“Ya have me to thank for your clean comforter too. I did everyone’s in the house!” The last was said with a shout.
Scott perplexed, “So while you were doing all that what were Teresa and Maria doing?”
“Hmm, they’re canning Teresa’s winter garden before the temperature drops and freezes everything. Didn’t ya notice all the blue jars all over the place in the kitchen? All the pans with boiling water? The glass lids and seals?”
“No?” asked Johnny more than perturbed. “Ya got blinders on Scott? How can ya miss all those piles of food? I have never seen so much food at one time in my whole entire life.”
“Sorry, I didn’t notice.”
“Do ya know how much work there is to that Scott?”
“No idea, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”
“Damn right I am. Those women had me choppin’, and a slicin’ and a dicin’ every vegetable imaginable. And that is only the beginning! Now they have to sterilize all the jars and lids and make brine.”
Johnny ran his fingers through his hair and smiled. “I tell ya Scott, that brine works better than the boiling water kettle method for those breathing treatments they force me do.”
Scott, trying not to smile, “Wow, I didn’t realize. And here, we lowly men only worry about the horses and cows growing their winter coats.”
“Stop making fun of me!”
“I’m not, but you are sure in a pucker.”
“Well, there’s more. Ya want to hear it?”
Not really. But, Scott nodded yes anyways.
“Yesterday, I cleaned out the ashes in this fireplace we’re sitting in front of. That led to a scouring of the fireplace mantel and surrounding stone for it ain’t been done since last winter. Don’t ya think it looks spiffier?”
“Well, now that you mentioned it I can see a difference.”
Johnny gave his brother an annoyed look. “How can ya not notice that?”
Scott shrugged his shoulders.
Johnny continued, “Then, Teresa decided all the fireplaces and Franklin stoves needed to have their ashes taken out. Which meant, all the wood bins had to be refilled. I couldn’t go outside so Jelly brought in piles of wood and exchanged them with me for the endless buckets of ashes. I then filled up every wood box in the house.”
“We all do that at one time or other,” said Scott. “So, what’s the big deal?”
“What’s the big deal?” asked Johnny sarcastically. “We don’t do all the fireplaces at one time. AND furthermore, we don’t replace the wood in the boxes everyday…only as we need too.”
“Okay, I see your point.”
“Oh ya do, do ya?” Before Scott could answer Johnny went on. “Do you have any idea what a mess we made?”
Scott shook his head no. But, I’m about to find out.
“We had wood chips from one end of this house to the other. Maria made me sweep the whole house including the rooms we don’t use. And if that ain’t bad enough, Teresa made me dust and polish every stick of furniture with beeswax. I was exhausted when I got done. That couch never felt so good!”
Scott was practically rolling on the floor with hilarity. He could just see his gunfighter brother with a feather duster going about his business. Boy that will teach him to come in out of the weather. His laughter was cut short when Teresa walked in from the kitchen to stand beside Johnny, holding a bucket and a pile of rags made from old sheets.
“Okay Johnny, here’s your first bucket of water and vinegar. I want those windows to sparkle with no streaks.”
“Teresa,” said Scott, “I can already see the windows’ diamond brilliance clear from the arch.”
“That’s because somebody did the outside ones a few days ago. Now, it’s time to get the inside ones done.” She handed Johnny the bucket who reluctantly took it.
He looked down into the pail noticing the scrub brush and got a whiff of vinegar. He immediately jerked his head up and rubbed his nose with his shirtsleeve while he blinked his eyes and quickly shook his head.
“Smells worse than hell on house-cleaning day,” mumbled Johnny, as he threw the rags Teresa had just given him over his shoulder.
“What did you say Johnny?” sweetly asked Teresa with her arms folded.
Johnny grumbled, “I don’t see why we need perfectly clear windows. The rain is just gonna cloud ‘em up anyways.”
Teresa came back with, “I don’t care if it rains all winter, I want to be able to look outside and see it.”
“How long’s this gonna take?” he asked, not happy with this chore at all. My hands are dry as powder from all the work ya put ‘em through yesterday. I’d rather be out mending fences any day of the week.
“If ya quit collecting dust, you’ll probably be done by noon.”
Stalling, Johnny gave her a scowl and set the bucket down by his feet.
“Oh, and don’t forget to tie the blinds down in the empty rooms to keep the heat in and the cold out.”
Teresa turned to Scott. “Jelly said they’re waiting for you out in the barn.”
Scott got up and put his coat and hat on. Seeing the envious look on his brother’s face, Scott commiserated and patted Johnny on the shoulder as Teresa started to walk away. “Well, at least you don’t have to clean the attic windows.”
Teresa stopped in her tracks and whirled around. “Oh Scott, thanks for reminding me.” She looked directly at Johnny, who turned and glowered at his brother. “You need to make sure all the windows are shut and locked too, especially in the attic. Jelly says the north wind will be tearing down from the mountains soon. He can feel it in his left big toe. Since the attic door is in your room you don’t want the cold air coming down the stairs and making you sick again.”
Johnny mumbled again under his breath, “Yes, yer royal pain in the ass. I’ll get right to ‘em.” They’re gonna be last so I can climb into bed and never get up again.
“And while you’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt you to wash the windows up there either.” She spun back around and left for the kitchen.
“Thanks a heap, Scott.”
Not having any choice, Johnny picked up the wooden pail and followed his brother to the glass doors.
Scott turned and said, “Don’t let her sink her hooks into you too deep.” He gave a hasty double tap to his brother’s cheek with his hand, then added, “We’ll finish the checker game later after I do some man stuff.” Snickering, he opened a glass door and stepped outside.
Johnny had to restrain himself to keep from pouring the bucket over his brother’s head.
Johnny came slowly through his bedroom door. He was exhausted. Glancing at his bed, he’d give anything if he could fall into it and bury himself in the covers.
No such luck. Teresa the workhorse, will find me wherever I am. Maybe I should call her Teresa the Hun after Attila the Hun. She’s ruthless. How can one woman come up with so dang many chores? How many hours have I been cleaning windows? I don’t even want to think what she’s got in store for me next. I swear I’ll never, ever say I’m bored again!
He set the bucket down on top of the table next to his windows and peered outside.
Oh, there’s Jelly greasing the hay wagon’s axles. They must’ve gotten all the bales tucked in tight.
He moved the curtains to each side of the window and pulled up the blind to its highest position. Next, he reached into the bucket, grabbed the brush, turning it so some of the water stayed in the bristles, then applied it to the upper window.
How can so much grime get on one window? They’re as dirty as a flop-eared hound.
The wind blew and rattled the set of windows he was working on. He looked over to the roof of the barn to the new weather vane they’d mounted a few weeks ago.
Boy that horse sure is flying around that pole. It can’t make up its mind which way it wants to point, north or northwest. Those little cups under the horse are spinnin’ like crazy. Looks like Jelly called it right. Jelly might not always be right on some things, but his joints are never wrong.
Johnny dropped the brush back into the pail and picked up the soft, lint-free rag. He wiped dry the window with the aid of the sun, which was now full on the south side of his room. Yawning, for the room had become warm making him drowsy, he said out loud, “One pane done, three more to go, then I’m sacking in for a couple of hours before I tackle the attic.”
An odd noise disturbed Johnny’s nap. He had just started to doze off when he heard it.
Johnny popped his head up and slowly looked around his room with his hand on his gun butt under the pillow.
What was that?
A gust of wind raced around his bedroom outside on the southwest side of the house, making the clean windows clatter in his room.
“Just the wind.” Johnny relaxed and laid back down on his back. He started coughing as soon as he did. He flipped over to his right side. Cursed ailment anyways. I can never sleep layin’ down anymore. My lungs just fill up and let me know they’re sore at me. Finally, the spasm ended and once more he started to drift off in the warmth of his room.
Again the noise came, disturbing his slumber.
Johnny opened one eye and glanced around his domain.
Another burst of wind from outside, then, more rattling. Johnny sat up with both eyes wide-open and honed in on the sound. The attic door. I forgot it makes a hell of a lot of noise when the wind comes from the north. The draft funnels straight down ‘em steps and practically knocks on the door. He turned over onto his stomach and threw the covers over his head.
Unfortunately, his lungs didn’t like the position they found themselves in and he began to hack non-stop. The door creaked and rattled, then he heard flap…flap…flap over his spasm of coughing.
“Where in world is that flappin’ noise comin’ from?” He zeroed in on the attic door that was slightly moving back and forth. Sounds like its comin’ from above.
Something rolled across the floor in the attic. Shake, rattle and roll. Next thing I know I’ll be hearing music… He lay back down on his left side and eyeballed the loft’s door which was to the right of his nightstand. One more time door and I’m gonna plug you with a bullet smack dab in the middle of the doorknob.
Something fell over above his head upstairs.
“Hell’s bells! What in tarnation is goin’ on up there?”
Johnny jumped out of bed and wrenched open the door to the upper room.
“Look out attic. Here I come!”
He stopped half way up the steps when he heard, flap…flap…flap…flap…
Hearing the noise and recalling a tunnel in the not too distant past, Johnny prayed, Please, tell me that is not a bat? Don’t bats usually sleep during the day? Like, I’d like to be doin’ right now. I can’t believe I’m even thinkin’ that, but I’m plum worn out.
He turned around and went back down to his bedroom and picked up the pail of vinegar and water with the rags. Just in case the critter decides to come after me. Besides, if I’m goin’ up there I might as well do the windows and get it over with.
Johnny crept to the top of the stairs and scanned the big open room. For good measure, he gave it the once over again, especially observing the rafters for hidden bats, before stepping onto the wooden floor. The room was high enough he could easily walk around the furniture, trunks, crates and cast-offs without having to bend his head. A row of windows were on the north and south sides of the chamber for ventilation and he immediately found the problem.
Teresa had been right. A couple windows on the north side were partially open letting in the cold blustery wind. Johnny’s stuffy head instantly took exception to the moving dust particles the breeze was kicking around and he sneezed a few times. A sheet flapped and rose up exposing a collection of baby furniture in the middle of the room, startling him.
He jumped back and splashed himself with the smelly contents of the bucket.
“Darn it all anyways!” I’m as nervous as a prostitute in church. Or as Cal would say, “I’m as jumpy as a frog in a lily pond.”
Johnny’s lungs burned and he ambled over to the north windows and found what had fallen above his head while he was in bed. A tall brass floor lamp with its glass shades now broken lay on the dusty floor. Stepping around it, he reached up and closed each window and locked them, then proceeded to clean each pane.
Finishing the north side, Johnny moved over to the south side windows where the sun was pouring in, making the room feel cozy. As he wiped down the glass, from his viewpoint, he could see over the entire barnyard. Murdoch was working on the anvil pounding on something Johnny couldn’t quite make out. Scott was sharping tools of axes and knives on a grinding stone wheel. Jelly was still greasing the axles of the big green wagon. A buckboard was parked next to the wagon awaiting its turn. Cowboys were herding a group of cattle out to the range and a lone ranch hand was raking the corral clean of manure. Man chores. Everyone’s out there working, but me.
Disgruntled, Johnny walked over to where the sheet was catawampus over the baby furniture. He pulled at the material where it was caught between the baby bed and a high chair, freeing it. He started to cover the dark stained pine crib when something caught his eyes.
Teeth marks. Baby teeth marks were on the rails, headboard and backboard. Are these mine? He pulled the sheet the rest of the way off the bed to find the wood of the crib matched the bureau down in his room. My baby bed? He slowly ran his hand over the chew marks on the rail. So many. Was I a gnawer? He grinned at himself. I still like to put stuff in my mouth. A picture of straw came to mind, along with blades of grass and stems of weeds.
Curious, Johnny pulled the covers off the surrounding furniture around the bed to find quite a collection. Wow, a rocker that matches the bed. Did Murdoch ever hold me and rock me in this? A moment later he discovered a long wooden porch swing sitting on top of two trunks with a small infant swing resting on top of another ornate trunk. Why isn’t this big swing on the veranda? He could easily picture himself laying on it and rocking in the summer breeze. Did Murdoch and my mama ever spend time on it? He closely examined the baby swing and found more teeth marks. Did I sit out there with them? Did we watch the sunset in the evenings as a family? Closely he examined each piece of furniture, searching for the tell-tale sign of teeth marks. “Yup, they’re on the back of the highchair. They’re on the arms of the rocker. It’s no wonder I like beavers so much.” A minute later he found a real prize hidden in the shadow of the big trunk where the baby swing sat on top.
A child’s rocking horse.
Almost reverently, Johnny bent down on one knee and carefully touched the head of the golden horse, making it move. Barranca? It was in pristine condition as if it had hardly ever been played with. He could only find one set of teeth marks on the white mane. Why? Had mama left before I got a chance to break him in?
Johnny slowly sat down in the wood rocker, thinking. Well, I did live here almost two years. We had to of been a family at least for a little while. Murdoch did tell me they had a whirlwind romance. They must’ve loved each other once upon a time. So, what went wrong? A caustic laugh erupted from his throat. My stepfather is what went wrong…
Bitter memories abounded. As he thought about his past, he rocked in the chair, staring at the lavish trunk in front of him. It was huge and black in color with silver decorative wood trim all around the piece. I wonder who this belonged too. Scott’s mother? It’s too fancy to be my mama’s. Old man Garrett probably paid a pretty penny for it and made sure his daughter traveled in style even if he hated my father. Why is it mixed in with the baby furniture?
More than inquisitive, Johnny stood up and moved the baby swing off the trunk and opened the lid.
Hot dang! A treasure-trove from the past! He was so excited he didn’t know what to examine first. I feel like Huck Finn.
He picked up two identical hard covered books that had been sitting on top of a pink blanket and laid them on the floor. Fanning the pages of one of the books, he noticed it was full of handwritten paragraphs. They must be journals of some sort. I’ll come back to them. He dropped the volume on top of the other one on the floorboards.
Casting the pink blanket aside, he found a wooden brush and comb set obviously for a very tiny infant. Feeling the soft bristles with his thumb he pictured Murdoch brushing his unruly mass of thick hair. Not mama that’s for sure. She wouldn’t take the time. Maria maybe. After all, didn’t Murdoch tell us once Maria practically came with the ranch when he bought it? She sure mother hen’s me enough.
Next Johnny pulled out a plate, bowl, cup and spoon all made of silver. Hey, Scott, ya weren’t the only one born with a silver spoon in your mouth. He closely examined the bowl and cup noticing several dings and dents in the metal. Thrown off the highchair multiple times? No teeth marks. But silver would be pretty hard to bite into and make a mark.
He pulled another book out of his treasure chest entitled, Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes. Jack and Jill came to mind, as he stared at the lady with a tall, pointed, black hat on her head sitting on a goose. Johnny looked over at the rocking chair, imagining the big body of his father sitting there, holding him, as Murdoch read the stories to his little son. Not mama, never mama.
Putting the book aside, Johnny dove back into the trunk. On the right side he found a stack of baby nightshirts, some so tiny he couldn’t believe he was ever that size. Under the gowns were various bib overalls, plaid flannel shirts mixed with denim blue shirts and a couple Sunday go-ta meetin’ shirts of bright red, pink and white with stitches of embroidery on the collars. Obviously, Maria made these. Mama didn’t know how to sew. Said she was bored with anything that had to do with a needle. And what’s with the pink? Maybe that’s why I’m so attracted to the color. I wore it a lot as a baby. Maybe mama wanted a girl instead of a troublesome boy. Would she have liked me better?
A couple pairs of scuffed cowboy boots followed his discovery of a few cowboy hats in various sizes. Digging deeper, he found a brown coat, and a pillow that went inside his crib with a pillow slip now yellow from age. A baby quilt made with patches of orange, red and yellow completed the bedding ensemble. At the bottom of the trunk he found a genuine stick pony resembling a bay horse made of pine for a small child. Yup, they’re there. Teeth marks all over the ears and mane. He checked the end of the stick and grinned. There too.
Moving to the other side of the trunk, he found a few glass baby bottles, complete with the rubber nipples still attached, laying in a nest of bibs. I bet mama never even shared her tit to feed me. She was always so worried how her body looked. But, then why would she? I was nothing more than an unwanted burden to her. He fancied himself being held by Murdoch or Maria, as they rocked and fed him his bottle.
Putting the bottles on top of the clothes, Johnny rooted around for the next items and pulled out a set of small wooden blocks painted in bright colors of red, blue and yellow. One block had the numbers one through six painted in black on each side and another had seven through twelve painted the same way. The ABC’s were on a few more blocks. One special block had the name, Johnny. One capitalized letter per square going around the block of wood with the extra N on the top and a Y on the bottom. He broke into a wide smile upon seeing it. Well, I’ll be danged. I wonder if that’s how I learned to spell my name.
Still smiling broadly, Johnny reached into the trunk for the last prize. A big hat box, reminding him of the gift his former gang members had bestowed upon him when the sheep had come to Lancer. Dying to find out what was inside, he hurriedly pulled the lid off. He froze in mid-action with his hand hovering over the contents.
With a trembling hand he pulled out a hand-carved wooden black stallion rearing on his back legs. The life-like workmanship was exquisite. The horse was the size a little kid would play with for hours in a sandbox. Or in my case a dirt box. I’d a played with this all the time and it looks like, for a while, I did. The horse was well worn around the smooth edges and the paint was faded in places. Most likely from being constantly outdoors. Did I have a sandbox? Teeth marks were on the head and tail.
Johnny chuckled and pulled out the next horse that was a roan. A palomino painted yellow followed with a brown bay and a black and white paint. To complete the menagerie, there were three cows with horns, one painted brown, one black and one brown and white. A dog resembling a golden lab, for herding the cows no doubt, along with two identical calico cats. A red banny rooster and a white laying-hen completed the set of figurines. Sorry Dew Drop. There ain’t no goose in here.
“My ranch. I had my very own ranch!” exclaimed Johnny, in seventh heaven. He couldn’t get over it. Carefully, he picked up each critter and thoroughly scrutinized it. Gnaw marks were on each animal. Oh mama, why couldn’t you have left me here? Why couldn’t you have left me where I was loved? Instead, you had to spite Murdoch and take me away…then, you had the nerve to lie to me all those years that he didn’t want me.
Still in awe of his find, Johnny sat there and let the memories, some sweet, but most bitter, flow over him. Memories of things better left forgotten. No wonder Murdoch wants to keep the past in the past. Best left there and forgotten. It hurts less that way. His hand brushed the two journals lying on the floor. Curious, he picked up the top one and opened it.
Scott Garrett Lancer was inscribed on the inside of the cover. Johnny immediately recognized his father’s bold and distinct handwriting. He almost put the book down, but something drove him to read farther.
Scott, if you should ever find this book, know it was written with love by your Mother’s own hand. I only contributed a little here and there when asked to do so.
Johnny, unable to help himself, read the first entry.
My precious little one,
I sit here on the porch swing so happy I could burst. Maria and I just returned from visiting Dr. Jenkins. What a nice doctor and friend he is turning out to be. He gave me the news that I am with my first child. I know deep down in my heart that you are going to be a boy. Wait until I tell your father. He is going to be so thrilled. On a whim, Maria and I stopped into the mercantile and bought two skeins of yarn. One was blue for sure and not wanting to test the fates, I picked up a pink one too, along with a spool of wide silk ribbon. These will be my first baby blankets I will knit for your blessed event. I also picked up two books, one of which I am writing in at the present. I want to write a diary of my thoughts from the time I first met your father until after you are grown. It’ll be my greatest gift to you.
Johnny stopped reading and closed the book, wishing with all his heart his mama could’ve been like Scott’s mother. What a shame Scott never had a chance to know his mother. With reluctance, he gently put the book aside on the highchair to give to his brother later. It’s really Scott’s to read. He should be first to see what’s all inside it.
Remembering the part about the pink blanket, Johnny dug into the trunk again, extracting the soft material. He could plainly see that the ragged piece of cloth had been well loved. The ribbon, which he was sure had been white at one time, was now dark in color with gaping spaces along the seam where little fingers must have poked holes between the stitching. He unconsciously rubbed the ribbon between his fingers, drawing comfort from the movement.
Why, mama, did you leave this behind? It obviously meant the world to me. Couldn’t you have left me with just one scrap of security after taking everything else away from me? Did you hate my father that much or was it me? Was I, an innocent baby, your competition mama? Did you make Murdoch squirm with the knowledge that I had absolutely nothing that I treasured from home? Or did you leave it in a rage of jealousy because Murdoch’s first wife had made it? You always had to be the life of the party. You had to bask in the light and pouted when you had to share it with someone, especially me, unless you benefitted from my company.
Picking up the second book, Johnny sincerely doubted he’d be lucky enough that the book would be for him. A yellow envelope fell out of the pages and landed on his lap. Sitting the book aside, he lifted the stationery in his hand and read, Johnny’s first haircut. Very carefully, he turned the brittle packet over and opened the flap. Inside was a clump of dark, thick hair. In disbelief he asked, “My hair?” His heart skipped a beat as he fingered the baby soft curls.
Still holding the snip of hair, he stood up and picked up the pink blanket along with the pillow and the book. He stepped over his ranch of animals and tossed the pillow in the corner of the unused porch swing by its armrest. He dropped the scrap of softly knitted cloth onto the pillow, then laid down on his back with his dark head cushioned upon the baby bedding.
Now, holding his breath and feeling butterflies in the pit of his stomach, Johnny opened the book he hoped was his and began to read once more.
Inside the cover, written in Murdoch’s handwriting was his full name. Johnny Madrid Lancer. Johnny stopped and thought a moment. Madrid from my mother’s side of the family.
It was followed with an inscription on the next line.
Johnny, if you should ever happen upon this book, know it was written with love.
Johnny sniffled, then coughed. Dang lung inflammation anyhow. It’s got me all maudlin inside.
He soon found out Murdoch was rather entertaining when he wrote. Much like Scott’s mother was.
My precious son, the key to my heart, you were born on a Wednesday, on a dark and stormy night. December 23rd, the year of our Lord, 1847. According to Mother Goose, Wednesday’s child is full of woe. I surely hope she is incorrect in that analogy.
Johnny grinned. “Sorry Murdoch, she hit the nail right on the head. She knew what she was doin’ when she wrote that crazy rhyme.”
You arrived howling like the weather outside. In my arms, I could feel how strong you were. Johnny, you lifted your head up and took in the world around you, then stared up at me and wailed. I got the impression you were hungry. Your mother couldn’t feed you, so Maria, our housekeeper and your future nurse fashioned a bottle to feed you with. You drank the goat’s milk like you were starving…and like this was going to be your last meal on earth.
“Oh Murdoch, if ya only knew how hungry I was growin’ up. Never knowin’ where or if I was gonna get a next meal. Going to bed on an empty stomach and waking up to the same. So many times mama forgot about me. I know in retrospect it’d be called neglect, but at the time, well, I just thought she had to please my step-papa. He seemed to be her whole world and I was just her half-breed son, whom she was saddled with.”
“Johnny!” yelled Scott, from the bottom of the attic stairs.
A moment later Johnny heard his brother’s tread on the steps. Coming into view, Scott stopped in his tracks.
Throwing an arm wide to encompass all the things on the floor, Scott asked, “What’s all this?”
“Our childhood,” said Johnny with his head still buried in his book. “Watch out for my horse ranch.”
Scott, careful not to step on any of the toys, moved in closer to Johnny and reminded him regretfully, “Maybe yours. Remember, I didn’t start out here.”
“Think again, Scott.”
Seeing his brother’s confusion, Johnny lifted the book off of the highchair beside the swing and gave it to Scott. “One good deed deserves another, brother.”
Scott slowly sank down in the rocker and opened the book. A few moments later, Johnny heard the first snicker.
“She called him a lout,” said Scott.
“Who?” asked his brother.
“Murdoch. My mother called him a big lout when he crashed into her on the wharf where they first met.” Scott laughed out loud. “Then, she kicked him when Murdoch called her a lassie.”
Both boys pictured in their minds their big father getting kicked in the shin by a lowly girl.
Scott brought his eyes up to his brother’s. “Did you read this?”
“No, only the beginning. It’s your book Scott.”
Curious, Scott asked, “So what book are you reading?”
“Hmm, my baby book. It looks like it was written primarily by Murdoch, though our housekeeper Maria has entered some things too.”
Scott almost asked why his mother didn’t do it, but wisely buttoned his lip. After our last conversation on the subject, it’s smarter if I just don’t know. Instead he queried, “Like what?”
“Oh, like the first time I smiled at our old man. Seems Murdoch waved a bottle in front of me and I burst into a happy grin.”
Laughter from both men.
“After that I always smiled at Murdoch and Maria and cried when my mama showed her face.”
“Don’t know. Maria just said I seemed afraid of her for some reason.” With good cause if I knew the truth. If only I knew back then what I know now. Course, I was just a baby, but my instincts for survival must’ve been kicking in even back then.
Scott read from his book. “Seems Grandfather was not happy with Mother for falling in love with Murdoch.”
“No surprise there,” flatly stated Johnny. He didn’t like me either.
“He tried to bribe Murdoch into breaking it off with her. But instead, it backfired and she married him anyways.”
“Smart woman, your ma.”
Johnny snorted out loud and Scott asked, “What?”
“When I started crawlin’ the adults soon found out how vocal and head strong I could be. Stubborn is what they called it. I constantly crawled into the kitchen and pulled out every pot and pan I could find. I banged them together and had a gay old time, driving my mama to bed with a headache.” Even then, she didn’t like noise.
“Murdoch and my Mother decided to come west by wagon train instead of taking a ship. That way it would save months of travel time. Grandfather was against it, stating it wasn’t safe.”
“Probably wasn’t with all the hostiles along the trail west,” added Johnny.
“You’re right about that Johnny. Mother said they were met with much diversity on the route here. Murdoch taught Catherine to shoot a rifle. He said she got so good she could shoot the spots off a lady bug.”
“Grady told me that fib once too about his father,” said Johnny, remembering when he and the boy were out mending fences.
“You mean the son of the lady who called herself Mrs. Lancer? The one you sold some Lancer land to for a dollar?”
“Yup, that be the one. Always wondered what became of them.”
Mother writes she is having a good pregnancy. She has not had any morning sickness like so many other women have. My son, you are an active baby. I think you are doing somersaults inside of me. Dr. Jenkins estimated our reunion as mother and child will be around Christmas time. What a special present you are going to be. Your father and I are so looking forward to meeting you in person.
Johnny sat straight up and read out loud, “First experience with a horse: Johnny, you toddled off the porch where your mother was preoccupied with writing a letter to someone in Mexico and walked right up to my Appaloosa horse named Rebel. Maria about had a heart attack and I couldn’t get to you fast enough. It so happens, the horse knocked you down on your backside with its huge muzzle when you reached for him. You didn’t cry, but dug in and got back up, then hugged the horse by his nose before he could knock you down again. From that time on, Rebel felt he was your guardian when you were outside. He often followed you from inside the corral from one point to another, keeping all the other horses away from you when you slipped inside the gate or under the fence. That old warhorse loved you until his dying day.”
“Well, what do you think of that?” asked Johnny, not taking his eyes out of the book.
“Makes good horse sense to me,” replied his brother, doing the same thing. He turned a page and said, “Murdoch writes, I about kicked him out of bed one morning when my mother, heavy with child, was lying next to his back. He was so surprised by my strength, he rolled out of bed and almost fell on the floor. Mother laughed until she cried.”
“Looks like I really latched onto this pink blanket,” stated Johnny, feeling it behind his head with his fingertips. “It went everywhere with me even when I rode with Murdoch on his horse. All the hands and vaqueros could see us comin’ because of the color. No one dared tease me about the color or the blanket or they had Murdoch to contend with. He didn’t see anything wrong with my favorite color being pink.”
Scott had to secretly snicker. A gunfighter liking pink. “Do you know where all this baby furniture came from?”
“Not a clue.”
“Remember Charlie? We called him the fix-it man.”
“Oh, Charlie, the one who single-handedly built the jail in Spanish Wells,” recollected Johnny, stretching the kinks out of his back from laying in one position too long.
“Well, it seems Mother and Murdoch hired him to make all this furniture. He had a carpenter shop back then. Looks like he made the chest-of-drawers in your room to match our baby bed also.”
Now understanding how the furnishings came to be, Johnny asked, “You think he crafted all these wooden toys too?” He glanced at his brother. How hard is it for him to read about what might have been? Probably hurts him as much as it does me. If only mama could’ve been content.
“Could be. Remember how he liked to work with wood?” questioned Scott.
“Yeah. Too bad the bottle got to him. Though he left a nice legacy behind.” I’ve spent more time in that jail than I care to remember.
Johnny coughed and yawned. The warmth of the sun and the quiet up in the attic was making him sleepy. Still, he read on.
A list of firsts was entered on a page in his father’s handwriting. Johnny smiled to himself as he read down the lengthy page.
First word, horse then, papa.
First pony, a white palomino named, Spirit.
First Christmas, slept through the entire day.
First teeth, two top and two bottom. Johnny spent most of the month gnawing on a wooden clothespin.
First birthday party, Johnny ate a big piece if chocolate cake and smeared the icing all over his face and hair. He then threw his new silver plate on the floor and said, “More.”
I had a real party. My only party till I came back to Lancer to live. Maybe that’s why I always hated organized fun.
Johnny grinned and tried to visualize what it might have been like, sitting in the highchair with the whole world at his beck and call.
He read further down the list of achievements in his first year of life.
Johnny said to his brother, “Listen to this. First steps, they happened the day after his first birthday. He tried to follow a horse that had gotten loose. Discovered the horse trough instead and tried his darnest to climb in. But, he couldn’t quite figure out how to get his short legs over the edge of the trough. When that didn’t work, he leaned over the water too far and fell in.”
“How do you think I did that?” asked Johnny puzzled.
“You were top-heavy. Your waist is above your legs. You leaned over too far and the weight of your upper body pushes you in.” Scott let out a short chuckle and remarked further, “You want to know what Dr. Jenkins told me is the most dangerous thing to an infant under the age of three is?”
“Sure, what?” asked Johnny, looking up from his book.
“A bucket of water.”
“A bucket of water?” repeated Johnny, surprised. “Why? Women leave them all over the house.”
“That’s just it. Babies like to stick their heads in the bucket. Problem is their head is top-heavy and they don’t know how or can’t pull themselves out of the bucket. So they drown.”
“Shucks! Who would think of that?”
“Never gave it a thought myself, but an inch of water alone can drown a baby.” He pointed a finger at Johnny. “And never, ever leave a baby unattended in a bathtub for even a moment.”
“Okay, if we ever have kids, we’ll never leave an unattended bucket or bathtub around the house. Do you think that applies to Jelly?”
Scott snickered, “Why?”
“Do you remember when the kid dunked Jelly’s head in the tub when Jelly was scrubbin’ the boy down?”
“Yes. I thought Jelly would be blowing bubbles for a week afterwards.”
“More like spoutin’ bubbles,” laughed Johnny as his eyes dropped down to his journal.
He then read more to Scott from his book, “First major fall, Johnny had climbed the corral fence and tried to walk across it at twenty-two months. Seems, he had witnessed one of the vaquero’s sons doing it previously. He made it to the top of the fence and fell off. That didn’t deter him, for the very next day he tried to slide down the banister on the kitchen stairs. Fortunately, I caught him standing on a foot stool reaching for the rail at the top of the stairs before he could attempt the feat. From then on the term, ‘fearless’ is how I thought of his personality.”
“I think I made a habit of that,” added Johnny, turning the page.
Scott, only half listening, sat up straighter with a serious expression on his face. “Oh no, here comes the part about Haney’s raids.”
It seems, my precious son, that things that are too good to be true or things that are going along too well are not meant to last. Such is my time on Lancer. My father has paid us an unexpected visit. He is continuously arguing with Murdoch to move me to a safer place east of here. I believe the town is called Carterville. You are strong my little one and I think my time to deliver is almost here. Judd Haney wants us to pay protection money to him and Murdoch refuses to give in. I have naturally sided with your father. Haney has come to the conclusion that Murdoch is all that stands between Haney’s raiders and complete control of the area. Because of that, Haney has increased his raids. We are in dire straits. As I sit at your father’s desk, writing this, I feel comforted. I know to the bottom of my soul Murdoch loves us both, and wants what is best for us. We have decided to name you Scott Garrett Lancer and heaven help us if you turn out to be a girl. After much haggling between Murdoch, my father and me, it has been decided that Paul O’Brien, Murdoch’s foreman and my father will leave in a few hours with me for Carterville. This is only to be a temporary move and I hope we are back on Lancer before you arrive. Time is short and I must pack what I need. I think, just in case you deliver early, I will bring your blue blanket along with the layette I have prepared for you.
“Well,” gloomily said Scott, “we both know how that turned out. Who would’ve dreamed one decision would change the lives of so many people?”
Johnny silently nodded. He knew Scott didn’t want his pity only his understanding and support. Sadly, he read the last entries to his own book.
My dearest son, you have been a true delight to me. I am constantly reminded by all your antics that there is an older brother in Boston waiting for me to claim him. I am his father and his grandfather has raised him long enough. I will unhappily miss your second birthday for the trip will be long. Therefore, I am giving you part of your birthday present early. I hope you like the hobby horse. Charlie did a fine job on creating it. When I get back, you’ll meet your brother, Scott, who will be five a few days before your 2nd birthday. He is the other part of your gift, for you boys belong together.
December 23rd 1849. This is a late entry for I was on the trail home. With regret I returned empty handed. I am sorry my son. I also came home to an empty house. You, my light, the key to my heart were gone. My heart is broken. How can I live without you? I promise my little one, I am looking for you. No rock is going unturned. I will never give up!
December 23rd 1850. I am still looking for you, Johnny. I have not given up. All the extra money I have goes in a fund to keep the Pinkerton agents on your trail. So far, no such luck. But, know this, I will never give up.
December 23rd 1851…
Johnny, sniffling, read through all the dated entries right up to the year Murdoch had found him. Some years there had been leads and others nothing at all. Murdoch had often followed up on some of the tips himself. He often told of his travels and the hope of finding him and the disappointment of when they didn’t pan out.
He’d never given up. But, in the end, his perseverance had paid off. Sixty seconds worth in time. Sixty seconds was all that was left of my life before the Pinkerton agent showed up…saving me from the firing squad.
Not wanting Scott to see his unshed tears, he threw an arm over his eyes and pretended to be asleep.
Scott was coping with his own sad ending to his book. Murdoch’s last words said it all. They explained all the answers to the questions better left in the past.
Scott, my precious first born. Your mother was my first love and the love of my life. When I lost her I almost gave up. But, knowing you were safe, loved and protected in Boston by your Grandfather, gave me hope to carry on.
How do I explain to a son of five the decisions I’ve had to make? I can’t, but if you’re reading this as a man, maybe they will make sense to you.
I was so naive and yes, arrogant, when I came to Boston to claim you. I never dreamed I’d be denied my own son. I had attained lawyers, but in reality was unprepared to do battle in court for your guardianship. I just thought it was a given. After all, I’m your father. No one knows that better than I did. I hadn’t taken into consideration the love your grandfather had bestowed upon you. The years in court it would take to break his custody of you nor what it would do to you, my son. I didn’t want you torn apart, Scott, between two warring families. I wanted what was best for you all around. So, with a heavy heart I left you in your Grandfather’s care to return home to Lancer and regroup.
When I returned home, I found my former life in an uproar. My wife, who is the mother to my younger son, Johnny, and your brother, packed up and left with a gambler from her tender years. Your baby brother is only two-years old and is defenseless. His life is in the hands of a couple who care very little about his welfare. All I can think about is how are they treating him? Is he hungry? Where is he sleeping? Are they hurting him? As the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, with no word on his whereabouts, the unanswered questions gnaw at me constantly. I am frantic to find him.
Even after five years, the ranch is still struggling to re-cooperate from the losses of Haney’s raids. Money is in short supply even though I’ve taken on a job as a deputy. Any extra money I manage to scrape up goes into a kitty to keep the Pinkertons on the almost nonexistent trail of your brother. I am finding I cannot fight a costly battle at both ends of the country. So desperate times calls for desperate measures. I’ve had to make a heart-rending decision.
You are happy and safe with your Grandfather. God forgive me Scott, but I left you there for him to raise. And I’m grateful. I don’t know how long it will take to locate your brother, whether it’ll be a few weeks or a lifetime. But, I’m determined not to alter from this course until I find him. In any case, I will not give up! Then, depending on the outcome of his existence, maybe, just maybe, we can become a family. It is my most fervent desire and I hope yours too.
Scott silently closed the book and hugged it to his chest. His eyes automatically wandered over to his brother laying on the porch swing with an arm over his eyes.
I know you’re not sleeping Johnny. You’re not fooling me. Your breathing hasn’t changed. After all these years of living together, I know you better than you think I do. Just like you’re trying to be stoic and not show any emotion, but it won’t work with me.
In his mind from what Johnny had described, Scott pictured his brother playing on the dirt pile and in the mud. He thought about him being alone and hungry. Defenseless. But, only for a while. You’re a survivor Johnny. Against all odds, you survived.
“He made the right decision,” softly said Scott, feeling somewhat bereft.
Not taking his misty eyes off his brother, he thought. How can I not feel that way some? I spent my whole childhood out in New England and not here. I can’t help but feel cheated, but on the other hand, if Murdoch hadn’t made the sacrifice…I wouldn’t have my brother. And to me he’s the most wonderful person in the world, flaws and all. Hell, we all have them.
“What?” asked Johnny, his voice muffled under his arm. He still couldn’t look at his brother. He was just too choked up inside.
“He found you,” replied Scott with genuine warmth and emotion in his voice,
“Yeah, he did and not for lack of tryin’ either.” Johnny took out his handkerchief and blew his nose as he sat up. “All those years, alone and lookin’, coming up empty handed time and time again. A weaker man would’ve broke.” He fiddled with the blue cloth in his hand. “I owe ‘im. I owe him everything.”
Scott grinned and agreed, “We both do.”
A scrape of a boot on wood gave way to the presence of their father as Murdoch stepped into the room. Seeing the open trunk with the baby stuff spread all over the floor and a book in each of his son’s hands, he lightly said, “Reminiscing about bygones?”
“Bygones?” asked Johnny, rubbing his nose again with his hanky. He sniffed again and spouted, “Dang cold anyways.”
His family chuckled and to Johnny the sound was like music to his ears. My family. My home. My life.
“Yes bygones. Things of the past. Sometimes better left forgotten,” replied Murdoch, taking in his son’s flushed face and shiny eyes. Fever? No, his eyes are glowing with excitement and emotion. Still, he felt his son’s forehead, much to Johnny’s annoyance, before he sat down on the swing next to his son.
“As in let bygones be bygones?” asked Scott, not catching his father’s actions.
Johnny, touched by his father’s caring move, quipped, “Or as in these books?”
Murdoch let out a sigh, “I’d almost forgotten about these books. When you first came home the time didn’t seem right. I wanted us to come together as a family on our own merits not because of something I wrote or didn’t write in a book.”
“In other words, ya didn’t want us to be swayed one way or another?” asked Johnny.
“Yes,” said his father. “We had a lot to work out between us.”
For a few moments they all thought about their homecoming, then Scott asked, “If Mother always wrote in this book why did I find it here? Why didn’t she take it with her when she went to Carterville?”
“I don’t know son. I found it on my desk after they’d left. I don’t know if she left it here intentionally or not.”
“Hypothetically, maybe for safe keeping,” stated Scott. “Women have a six sense about things. Maybe she was afraid her father would lose the book.”
Murdoch shrugged his shoulders. “Any other questions?”
“Just one,” replied Johnny, staring down at the book in his hands. “Mama didn’t write anything in here.”
A sad expression crossed Murdoch’s face. How do I tell my son, the key to my heart, that his mother didn’t want much to do with him? That she barely tolerated him at the best of times.
“Your mother was terrible sick during most of her pregnancy. Her health was totally opposite of Scott’s mother’s. After a long labor and rough delivery, she…had an even longer recovery. I don’t know all the particulars, but she’d changed in personality…”
Johnny cut in and let his father off the hook, “Besides, I’d forgotten. She spoke the English language, but she didn’t know how to read or write it. She wrote all her letters in Spanish.”
Murdoch visibly relaxed. “Yes, I’d forgotten about that too.”
Teresa yelled up from Johnny’s room. “Murdoch, you up there?”
Teresa’s light steps could be heard coming up the stairs. When she reached the top she said, “Jelly needs you in the barnyard.”
“Okay, on my way.” The older man got up and walked a few steps, then turned. “You boys enjoy those books. They’re yours now.” A moment later, they could hear Murdoch’s heavy tread going down the stairs.
Teresa pointed at Johnny and said, “When you’re finished up here with all of this,” she spread her arm out over all the things on the floor, “I have another chore for you after your nap.”
Johnny groaned and coughed for effect.
An eyebrow went up on his adopted sister’s face. “After your nap,” she stressed, “you can clean the wine cellar and dust all the bottles.”
Teresa heard more sniffling and deep wracking coughs. “Maybe we should have Doc Jenkins come out and take another gander at you. You’re lookin’ kind of peaked.” Not giving Johnny time to answer she went back down the stairs.
Both boys heard her giggling.
Johnny sighed. “I tell ya Scott, she’s got a one-track mind to...to…I don’t know where, but I’m gonna be dead before I’m thirty if this keeps up.”
Scott took pity on his brother and offered, “Look Johnny, if it makes you feel any better, I’ll help you with the wine cellar.”
“You will?” Johnny hacked a real cough. “What’s it gonna cost me?”
“Hmm, how about a dollar or so?”
Desperate, Johnny said, “Deal.”
The brothers put their books aside and began the task of putting everything back in the trunk.
“What do you want to do with your horses?” asked Scott.
Johnny picked up the black stallion. It felt good in his hand and a warmness crept over his heart. His first thought was to display them in his room with the white horse that sat on his credenza. They’d look good sittin’ on the striped scarf that fancies up that piece of furniture.
Hesitating, he replied, “I guess put them back in the box. I’ll know where they are if I want them.”
Scott, hearing his brother’s wistful tone, asked, “Yer sure?”
“Yeah,” said Johnny. He heard a horse nicker outside in the corral. “I don’t need them now. I have the real thing.”
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