Tramp turned his head with a throaty nicker; the gelding’s sides shook as he called out to whoever had just ridden in. The ugly old dog had already scooted out of the barn. Emily smiled to herself as she threw the brushes into the grooming bucket—her animals couldn’t have announced Johnny and Barranca’s arrival more clearly if they’d spoken English.
She tarried just long enough to pull off Tramp’s halter and hang it on a nail but, as usual, Johnny was quick-when she emerged from the barn Barranca was already hitched to a corral post. Johnny was planted in a rocking chair on the porch, the old dog sitting beside him.
Emily waved at him with a cheerful "Hey, there!" as she hurried toward the porch.
Johnny waved back, then dropped his hand to absently rub the dog’s ears. Emily settled in the other wooden rocker and waited for him to tell her why he was visiting her unexpectedly in the middle of a work day afternoon.
After a silence of several minutes she gave up. "Hungry?"
Johnny tilted his head to look at her. “Not really. Thanks anyway.”
They rocked in silence for a few more minutes. Emily began to feel slightly exasperated; she was glad to see Johnny, but she had work to do. Pushing away her irritation she got to her feet. “Well, I’ve still got some things to do in the barn.”
Before she’d taken two steps Johnny stood and gave a little bow as he swept an arm toward the barn, his other hand behind his back in mock courtesy. She grinned as she sidled past him; he grabbed her and gave her a quick smooch on the cheek before letting her go with a smile.
Except for some quiet words to the horses, neither of them said much as they finished cleaning the barn. With both of them working the chores were finished in good time. Deciding to make good use of the unexpected break in her routine, Emily turned to Johnny and said, “C’mon. Let’s go for a ride.”
Tramp had been out that morning so she saddled her little bay mare, but Jughead and Barranca did not get along. If they rode side by side Jughead pinned her ears and nipped at the palomino; if she was in front she squealed and kicked if Barranca got near her. For a while keeping Jughead a full length behind the gelding kept the peace, but, as Johnny irritably pointed out, the whole point of riding together was riding 'together'. So Emily trotted the bay back up to Johnny’s side, and the bickering between the horses resumed.
Both riders were just about fed up with the squabbling horses when Jughead snaked her neck one more time to take a chunk out of Barranca. Unbalanced, the little horse tripped over a tree root and went to her knees. In another step she was back on her feet, but Emily dismounted immediately to check the mare’s legs.
Jughead’s knee was skinned a little; her ankle was already feeling warm. Emily led her for a few steps. The little bay mare’s limp was obvious.
Johnny smacked his hat on his thigh before he stepped down from the saddle. “Great. This day just keeps gettin’ better.” He glanced at the sun, already low in the sky, and frowned. “I’ll walk Jughead in. You ride back to Lancer on Barranca. Maybe you can send somebody with a lantern so I can see my way home once it’s dark.”
“I’d rather walk in with…” Emily stopped when Johnny glared at her.
“Darn it, Emily, don’t argue with me. Just go.” He thrust Barranca’s reins at her. “We’re six, maybe seven miles from home, it’s gonna be dark before long, and I don’t want to be stuck out here with a lame horse and a girl.”
She stepped back from his outstretched hand and his angry voice, nearly as shocked as if he had raised his hand to her.
“ ‘Girl’? ‘A lame horse and a girl’?” Her voice matched his in volume. Barranca tossed his head, eyes rolling.
Johnny stared hard at her for a second before his hand dropped.
“I’m sorry, Emily,” he said in a voice that had lost little of its harshness. ‘”That’s not what I meant at all. Look, it’s a long walk back, and it’s late, and I don’t want anything to happen to you, that’s all. That’s all I meant by it.”
“That’s not how it sounded. You’ve been moody all day, and now you just barked out an order and expected me to jump. And you called me a girl! You made me feel like I don’t count, like I’m not important to you.”
Johnny looked away from her, but she saw something flash across his face just before shook his head and sighed. “Mrs. Morris, you are very important to me.” He glanced at the sun once again as it slipped behind the western hills. Dusk was nearly upon them.
"Ever camped out before?" His unexpectedly gentle words surprised her. They disappointed her, too - she had hoped he would expound on how important she was to him.
She shook her head. "Well, no. I trust that you have."
"Oh, yeah." Johnny looked down the trail. "Listen, why don't we go as long as we can, and I'll find us a spot to make camp before it gets too dark?"
“Camp? You mean sleep outside? Tonight? ” It sounded uncomfortable. Even on the journey out West she’d always slept in the wagon. “I don’t know. I don’t have any…” She didn’t even have a word for what people might need when they camped.
“Gear? You don’t have any gear? No nightie? No feather bed tucked away in your saddle bags?” Johnny’s quicksilver mood change made Emily’s head spin. He smiled a teasing smile, and she realized it was the first real smile she’d seen all day.
“Well, that, and there are the animals back home…” Her other horses were still in the barn, and her dog was shut in the house. “They need to be fed, and let out.”
“It’s okay – they’ll survive a night. So will we. It might get a little chilly, and we might get hungry, but it makes more sense to let Jughead rest, and for us to not risk our necks travelin’ in the dark. I’ll help you clean your place tomorrow.”
He was right, and after all, she had been the one to refuse to ride back without him. Suddenly Emily grinned. “You are a schemer, aren’t you?”
Johnny shrugged. “Just always lookin’ to stay one step ahead, that’s all.”
Johnny chose a campsite near a grove of sycamore trees beside a small stream. While he set up a picket line for the horses, Emily unsaddled Jughead and walked her to the water. The little mare drank her fill and splashed playfully as she soaked her injured ankle.
Johnny arranged stones for a fire ring and Emily, humming softly to herself, hobbled both horses to allow them to graze for a while. Then she helped Johnny gather wood for the fire. They didn’t talk much but Emily felt comfortable in the quiet. The small fire caught quickly and the scent of the wood smoke reminded her of quiet evenings spent alone, reading.
She set up Johnny’s bedroll and spread out the saddle blankets while he filled their canteens at the stream. When he came back he dug into his saddlebags and pulled out a small frying pan; he poured in water, added ground coffee from a small tin, and set it to boil.
“Are you always this well prepared?” Emily nodded at the coffee in the frying pan.
Johnny stopped rummaging through his saddle bags long enough to wink at her. “Yep.” He pulled out a linen cloth tied with a string. He opened it to reveal two crumbling biscuits.
“Dinner is served.” He held up the biscuits with a flourish.
After they made short work of their dinner Johnny unhobbled the horses and tied them to the picket line. When he was came back the coffee had boiled; he poured some into his tin mug and carried it to where Emily sat huddled on her saddle blanket, smiling at him.
"What’s funny?" He produced a small bag of sugar from his pocket and added some to the cup.
"You have done this before." Emily reached out to take the tin mug from him; Johnny plopped down on the blanket beside her.
“Hmm. You cold?” He scooted close beside her and put his arm around her as if it was the most natural thing in the world. When he squeezed her shoulders she spilled a few drops of coffee; he drew back with an “oops”.
They shared the coffee in his lone cup as night fell. Emily was conscious of Johnny’s nearness - his warmth, his scent, how he felt where their bodies touched...
Johnny seemed unaware of his effect on her.
“So.” Emily needed to talk to keep herself from doing something unladylike. “Why did you come over today? And why have you been such a bearcat about everything?”
“Not a bearcat,” he said with a shake of his head. “Porcupine. Jelly said I was pricklier than a porcupine today.”
Johnny always took his time answering her questions. She knew not to rush him. Hurrying Johnny was a surefire way to get his ire up and lose any chance of further communication.
After a sharp inhalation, Johnny spoke. “I was thinking about Mexico.”
“About where you grew up?” Emily swallowed the last of the coffee-her favorite part, rich with the sugar that had settled to the bottom.
“Nah. I was thinking about when Murdoch’s Pinkerton agent found me.” Johnny fiddled with a pebble before flicking it into the fire. “It all came back to me last night for some reason - I laid awake all night, remembering.”
Emily had heard the persistent rumor of a last minute rescue from a firing squad; she’d thought it implausible. “I heard you were fighting a revolution.”
Johnny snorted. “A bunch of peons led by a worn out pistolero fighting a band of thugs-if that’s a revolution, then yeah, that’s what it was.”
He looked sideways at her. “It’s not a pretty story. Are you sure you want to hear it?”
“If you want to tell it, I’d be privileged to hear it,” Emily said; but a chill of trepidation crept up her back.
“Okay then.” He took a deep breath. “The people in the village asked for my help when the rurales started going after the women and their patron wouldn’t do anything. As for the ‘revolution’….well, we did what we could with what we had. We got a few licks in, made life miserable for the rurales for a while…” Johnny’s voice dropped. “But after that we mostly got ourselves killed.”
Emily watched the reflection of the flames burn in his eyes. Death had been Johnny’s companion for much of his life before Lancer, but he’d rarely spoken of it to her. The night seemed to get darker. She suppressed a shiver.
“Finally they caught some of us. Said they were going to make examples of us. ”
Emily chanced a look at Johnny; his eyes were hard, his lips set in a grim line. She felt queasy, dreading what he was going to say next.
“They lined us up against a wall. They fired and I waited for a bullet that never came.” He rubbed his hands roughly across his face and continued in a voice devoid of emotion. “Luis and Chus went down, but they weren’t hit. The bastards had fired into the air.
“The rurales laughed. They left ‘em layin’ in the dirt when they dragged the rest of us out to the fields.”
He shuddered and fell silent. Emily was paralyzed by the chilling scene Johnny described. She imagined the terror of men so sure they were going to die they collapsed when they heard the shots. She tried to comprehend the bravery of those who remained standing.
It wasn’t the cold making her tremble, but she fed more sticks to the fire anyway. The flames sparked and snapped as she sat down closer to Johnny, grabbing onto his arm for warmth, for comfort. How could he tell this story so calmly?
When Johnny spoke again she felt an ocean of sadness in his words. “We knelt there for a long time. I remember hoping my legs would hold me when I got up… hoping it wouldn’t hurt too much.”
Then a grim ghost of a smile crossed Johnny’s face. “I jumped when they shot Julio. ¡Dios! He was such an ass. He kept shouting ‘Viva la revolucion’ … they probably did him first just to shut him up.”
There was another long silence; even the horses were quiet. Emily didn’t want to hear anymore, but knew she had to. “Then it was my turn. It took everything I had to stand up and walk to where I was going to die.”
He pulled his arm from Emily’s grasp and buried his face in his hands. Emily stopped herself from reaching out to him. Who was she to offer solace to this man who had seen friends executed, who had faced his own death? What comfort could she possibly offer him? She wrapped her arms around her knees and shivered again.
Johnny looked up and saw her shaking. His next words were about her. “I shouldn’t have told you this. I’m sorry.”
Emily grabbed his arm again. “No, don’t say that. There’s nothing for you to be sorry for. What a horrible thing to go through! I can’t imagine how you felt. I can’t imagine…”
He looked at her gravely. “You’re babbling.”
“Yes, I am.” Emily stopped, embarrassed.
Johnny smiled-a small smile, a reluctant smile, but a smile nevertheless. When he pulled his arm out of her grasp this time it was to drape it over her shoulders and pull her against him with a long sigh. Emily snuggled into him, feeling a hint of warmth for the first time that evening.
“And then…” His voice strengthened and his tone lightened. “When I got up a fat gringo came in a buckboard. He asked for Señor Madrid, and he handed over a bunch of cash to the rurales.”
“So you really were that close to…” Emily couldn’t speak it, shaken by the realization that she might never have known what had been lost in an unknown field in Mexico.
He pulled her closer. “The Pink said my father wanted to see me. I wasn’t thinking real clear at that point, and I thought of my Papa…my stepfather. Then I realized he meant Murdoch.”
Johnny shook his head, clearing his thoughts. “Before I could think any more about it I saw the rurales were going to fire on us. I grabbed the Pink’s gun and started shooting, shoved Roman into the back of the wagon, and hightailed it out of there.”
The horror of his story began to dissolve; a sense of melancholy lingered. Johnny paused briefly before heaving another sigh. “They were nice people, good people. In the end… Julio died that day, but Roman and Luis and Chus were alive when I left. I guess that’s something.” Johnny’s brow furrowed. “I just hope I didn’t make it worse for them.”
There didn’t seem to be anything to say to that.
They sat in silence until the fire needed tending. Johnny stoked it this time; Emily felt the cold breath of the night air across her shoulders, where his arm had rested. When he turned from the fire he smiled to see her rubbing her arms.
“Mrs. Morris, I hope you take this offer in the spirit in which it is intended, but I would love to keep you warm tonight.” He managed to speak without a hint of innuendo. His light eyes sparkled in the firelight.
Emily found herself trembling once more-not from fear this time, but not from the cold, either. “Mr. Lancer, I daresay you are going to have to explain yourself.” She tried to smile but couldn’t quite yet.
Johnny waved at the bedroll. “It’s getting chilly, and we only have one tarp. We have two saddle blankets and one bedroll blanket. I think…” and he took her by the hands to guide her to her feet. He pulled her close, his breath tickling her neck as he spoke softly “…that if we both shared that tarp and those blankets we could keep each other warm.”
Emily relaxed into Johnny’s embrace. He was so solid, so real. So alive-thank God, so alive. “Just to sleep, right?”
Johnny chuckled. “Emily, I’m so worn out that’s about all I’m capable of right now.”
“Then I accept your kind offer.” There was no place else she would rather be.
They settled down on the bedroll, Emily closest to the fire and Johnny beside her. He spread the thin blanket over them and slipped his arm under her head for a pillow. His warmth spread around her and the last disturbing memory faded; she decided to stay awake as long as she could to enjoy this delicious feeling to the fullest.
When he spoke again his voice was soft in her ear.
“You know, I didn't mean for us to not be able to get home tonight. I didn’t expect to tell you the story of my life. But now that it's happened, I'm glad. I really like sleeping under the stars once in a while. I love looking up at the sky on a clear night, listening to the wind in the trees, to the little noises the critters make...and I always wondered what it would be like to share it with someone special."
He was behind her but she knew he was smiling. "Thanks for listening to me. And thanks for sharing tonight with me.”
His arms tightened around her in a hug. Soon his breathing slowed, his arms relaxed, and he snored softly in her ear. Emily had never heard such a relaxing sound; soon she, too, was sleeping.