The pain was easing somewhat but she was still very weak. The doctor had said she could leave her bed today and move around the house a bit.
“Hey, Sunshine!” Johnny strolled in from her front room where he had spent another night sleeping on the couch. He’d been up and dressed for a while, waiting for her to stir. He rubbed his hands together briskly. “Ready to eat a meal at a table like regular folks? I figured I’d make us some bacon and eggs.”
Johnny had been staying with her ever since the attack. Initially Murdoch had been reluctant to allow it for fear of causing gossip, but neither she nor Johnny cared very much what other people thought. Johnny wanted to care for her, and she needed him there. When she was strong enough they would take her to the hacienda to recover further, but until then there was no one else she wanted with her.
Besides, she was pleasantly surprised at his cooking. She disliked cooking, herself. It was easy to skip meals since her husband had passed away, or just have a piece of bread and a cup of tea.
She had learned that Johnny’s attitude towards eating was equally haphazard. If there was work to be done or horses to ride, neither of them remembered to plan ahead to eat. They just went hungry until they ended up somewhere with food.
But since she had been hurt Johnny had made sure there were three meals a day even if he had to cook them himself.
“Morning, Johnny.” She smiled as he kissed the top of her head. He steadied her as she swung her legs over the side of bed and sat up. Moving hurt; but then so did lying in bed. Abrasions and bruises covered her body; she had a broken rib; and her face hurt, too. She had begun to wonder what she looked like.
“I’ve been thinking about looking in the mirror today,” she said to him. “Should I be afraid?” She was trying to make light of it.
“You’re still pretty banged up. Lotsa pretty colors there, though…” His voice was joking, but his eyes were concerned. He helped her to her feet.
She steeled herself to look in the mirror at her swollen face. She was expecting the cuts and the bruising, but she gasped and reached up to her hair. She hadn’t realized her attackers had cut so much of it off. Johnny stepped close to her and turned her away from the mirror as her tears began to fall. He ran his hands through what remained of her hair as she cried quietly into his chest.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “God, I’m so sorry.”
“They made me ugly.”
“No, no,” was all he could think of to say.
She shook her head. There was no lightness in her any more. “I feel ugly. I hurt all over. I hate this. I hate them. I’ve never hated anyone before and I hate them so much…”
“I know. I know. It’s OK…”
She caught her breath and stilled her tears. She continued more quietly as she relaxed into his arms.
“Did they catch them?”
He stared at her, not understanding her words and fearing briefly for her sanity.
“Is there going to be a trial? Am I going to have to tell everyone what happened?”
Then it hit him-she didn’t know! She had been barely conscious in the barn when he killed them, and in the days since then no one had spoken of what happened, at least not in front of her. Oh god…
“No, no trial. They’re dead.”
“Both of them?”
“Yes. Both of them.”
She said nothing for a long time. Finally she sat back down on the bed. “I don’t know how to feel about that. “
He sat beside her, put his arm around her. He carefully drew her close and waited.
“What happened, Johnny? How did they die?”
He shut his eyes for a moment. “Does it make a difference?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything right now except…how bad I feel. There’s a part of me that wants to know that they suffered. It’s an ugly thing…oh, god, they made me ugly on the inside, too!” She buried her face in her hands and cried again. He held onto her. “It’s OK,” he repeated again and again. Today was the first time she had cried.
She looked at him, suddenly doubful.
“Are you sure they’re dead?”
“Did you see them?”
“It was me that killed them.” His voice was both quiet and hard.
“Oh.” They had talked about his days as a gun for hire. He had confessed to her that for him, at first, killing a man seemed so easy. It was only as he had grown up that he began to realize how it damaged his soul. “Oh. I’m sorry…sorry that you had to do that.”
“No, I saw what they had done. They were going to die.”
Johnny let the memory rush back in. The gun he saw pointed at her head, his reflexive jump to knock it away, how he grabbed it without thinking and shot across her. And how he beat the life out of the guy whose gun he used-slamming his head again and again on the hard floor until his terrible rage at what they had done to her was spent. Shooting a man was bad enough; he had gotten used to that way of death. But smashing a man’s head until he died? He wasn’t ashamed, exactly…but he didn’t want her to know. She had been hurt badly by the ordeal, and he was still trying to protect her as she came to terms with it.
He took a deep breath. “I hated them too, you know. What happened…what they did to you… I had to stop them from hurting you anymore. And I did.”
“When did it happen? Where was I? I don’t remember it. “
“That’s good. Best if you don’t.“ Let me do the remembering for you, Johnny thought. I can handle it. It’s all my fault, after all.
“No, I need you to tell me. What happened?”
He sighed. “I rode in and they met me. I asked about you. They said you were in the barn. I found you there.” He faltered for an instant. “I looked up, and one of them had a gun…so I grabbed it and killed them. Then I forgot about them and took care of you.”
“Are you in any trouble for killing them?”
Right to the point, as always. It was one of the things he liked about her. “I talked to the sheriff, explained what happened. He shook my hand and that was that.”
“Am I supposed to thank you?” He smiled at her, hearing a little spirit back in her voice.
“I reckon that’s up to you, pretty lady.”
She looked directly into his eyes and said, “Thank you for saving my life. I’m sorry you had to kill them, but I’m sorry because of what it does to you, not because they’re dead. “
He lowered his eyes. It’s all my fault, he thought. “Come sit in the kitchen while I make breakfast,” is what he said.
“So who taught you to cook?” she asked as he lit the stove. She sat at the kitchen table, the old dog at her feet. She wore a cotton wrap over her night clothes.
“Lotsa people.” He warmed up a skillet and started the bacon frying. “My mama, a little. I learned campfire cooking on the trail. I learned a lot from Renaldo…” he stopped.
“You’ve never mentioned Renaldo before.”
Johnny smiled. “He took me in when I was about 12, I guess. I haven’t thought about him for a while. It was south of the border. ..”
His small size and his smart mouth attracted trouble from a gang of older kids; they jumped him on the outskirts of town, beat and kicked him bloody, and one of them stuck a knife in his side. He thought he was going to die right then, but the gang scattered when an old peasant passed by with a mule, leaving Johnny moaning on the ground.
The old man took him home and cared for him. It wasn’t clear why.
He awoke not knowing where he was. He heard someone moving slowly not far from him. He opened his eyes to the sight of a bent-over white-haired man with a basin of water approaching him as he lay on a cot. He considered bolting but he felt far too weak to move. “Where am I?” he asked. The old man knelt beside him and said “You are in my house. I found you by the road. Where do you live, young man? Your mama and papa must be worried.”
He didn’t answer. The old man touched his shoulder, then lifted him to a sitting position and began unwinding the bloody bandage that covered the wound on his side. With gentle hands he washed the wound and rebound it. Johnny caught his breath at the pain but did not make a sound. The old man gave the boy some water, then laid him back down on the cot.
He must have passed out again, or maybe he actually slept, because the next thing he was aware of was the smell of beans and rice. The old man scooped some into a bowl and brought it to him. Johnny realized he was hungry. “Gracias,” he said to the old man, who nodded gravely.
He watched the old man cleaning up from the simple meal, wondering when the questions would start. Usually when folks helped him they wanted to know stuff about him, stuff that wasn’t anybody’s business but his own. But after his lack of response to the old man’s initial question about where he lived, there had been no further attempts to force him to talk.
The next morning Johnny felt better. He sat up in his cot as the old man fixed breakfast. “Are you feeling better, my young friend?” his host asked. Here it comes, he thought. Better make the first move.
“I’m not your friend,” said the boy. The old man seemed not to have heard him. He handed Johnny a bowl of beans and rice. “Nothin’ but beans again, old man?” Johnny sneered. The old man said nothing but took Johnny’s bowl out of his grasp and set it aside. “Hey! What are you doing?” the boy protested.
The old man looked at him impassively. “You will eat when you show me respect,” he said with a small shrug. Johnny laughed and launched into a tirade of smart remarks and threats. The old man continued eating, ignoring him. Johnny’s words became coarser, more insulting as his anger grew.
He got up out of bed and moved towards the bowl of beans, but the old man was there before he could reach them. He took the bowl and quickly tossed the beans out the door.
“Son of a bitch!” Johnny shouted, and he grabbed the old man by the arm. The peasant did nothing to defend himself. “Shit,” said the boy. He couldn’t bring himself to hit the old man. The peasant looked into Johnny’s eyes without anger or recrimination, but he didn’t offer him any more food. In a little while the old man left the hut without a word.
Johnny was weak, hungry, angry, and confused. He rummaged through the hut but there was precious little of any value. There was nothing else to eat. He figured maybe he could at least steal the mule, but when he headed outside he ran into the old man sitting in the sun, braiding strips of leather together.
“Are you feeling better?” the old man asked.
Johnny bit back the retort that came to him. “Pretty sore,” he admitted.
“Is there someone you should be getting back to?”
Johnny’s answer was bitter. “Who would want me?”
The old man looked searchingly at him. “You may stay here for a while.”
“What’s your name, old man?” The old man looked at him a long time without answering.
“I am Renaldo.” He finally spoke. “And you are…?”
“Johnny, it is a pleasure to have you as my guest.”
He looked for the sarcasm he expected from the courtliness of the reply. Instead, he saw the old man looking at him intently, expectantly.
“Uh, Senor Renaldo, thank you for taking me in.”
“You are welcome, Johnny.”
And that was the start. Johnny found it hard to believe at first, that someone who had nothing to gain from it was helping him. It had been so long since he had lived with another person who cared about him, so long since he hadn’t had to fight for…anything. He would smart off at the old man, but Renaldo never replied. The only time the he talked to Johnny was when Johnny spoke respectfully. For a while it was a game for Johnny-see how rude he could be before Renaldo lost it and hit him like everyone else did. But there was nothing that Johnny could say that got the old man’s goat. He also only got food when he was polite. Gradually he quit trying to screw it up.
After his wounds healed he was in no hurry to leave since he had nowhere to go. The hut was spare but clean; there wasn’t a lot of food, but for the first time in a long time he wasn’t always hungry. The old man didn’t beat him, but he didn’t talk much, either. That suited him fine. This old peasant man just went on about his life.
There was a garden Johnny learned to tend. There was a shed where the mule and the tack were kept; he liked cleaning the shed and keeping the mule and the tack shiny. He learned to cook. Renaldo worked for a hacienda nearby as a stable hand; on days he didn’t work, he took Johnny fishing, or taught him to hunt. For the first time Johnny held a rifle. He had a talent for hitting his target.
Renaldo had several books-a Bible, a copy of Don Quixote-but his eyes were going dim. He asked Johnny to read to him. At first Johnny read slowly, with difficulty, but with time he got better. He and Renaldo discussed what he read. Sometimes Renaldo dictated a letter for Johnny to write for him to a relative who lived far away.
Renaldo watched the boy he had saved grow away from the anger and grief he brought with him. He treated Johnny with respect and kindness, and insisted he be treated the same way. Their relationship deepened. Once or twice Johnny called him his abuelo.
Renaldo took Johnny to the patron for whom he worked and asked if the young man could work with him. Johnny learned quickly, worked hard, and stayed out of trouble. He learned to love the horses he helped care for. Some of the men gave him a hard time because he was mixed, but mostly he was appreciated for his hard work and because of his relationship with Renaldo.
Time passed. Johnny spent the night at the stable assisting at the birth of one of the blood horses that were the pride of the Patron. The foreman had thanked him for his help and sent him home for the day to sleep. He looked forward to the breakfast Renaldo would no doubt have ready for him.
“Hola, Renaldo!” he called as he came through the door, but there was no answering voice. He saw the old man lying in bed and his heart caught in his throat. He watched for the rise and fall of the thin blanket…but there was no movement. He forced himself to walk to the bed. Renaldo was as still as death. “No, abuelo, no,” he whispered. He touched the old man’s forehead and drew back with a sharp intake of breath. Death was hard and cold. Johnny dropped his head and fell to his knees.
“I’m glad Renaldo found you that night,” she said. “He sounds like a guardian angel. “
“Pretty sure I’d have died if not for Renaldo. I learned a lot from him,” Johnny said. “He showed me what dignity looked like. When I was with him I didn’t have to fight all the time. It was the only peaceful time I had growing up.”
“Did you enjoy Don Quixote?”
Johnny was tickled. “Leave it to you to ask about the book! Yeah, I did. At first the language was a little tough, but Renaldo knew how to speak formal Spanish and he helped me get the hang of it.”
“I envy you being able to read the book in its original language. Do you remember much of it?”
“Bits and pieces. I remember ‘En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordame...'. 'In a village in La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to remember...' That's the first line."
"You have a remarkable memory, Johnny. Do you ever forget anything?" She meant to tease, but her comment touched a nerve-for both of them. He had so much in his past he did not wish to remember. She, too, hoped to forget something, in time.