Using March 2013 Challenge Montage Number One
What Happened Before: Last Train for Charlie Poe
Warning: one bad word because it's the only one that fit
Near Sasabe, Arizona
Aware of nothing except the need to stay in the saddle, Johnny Madrid trusted the horse to save him. The mare's head nodded low with each plodding step. When the pistolero finally lost his grip on consciousness and toppled from the saddle, the mare stopped. She stood beside him as if waiting for him to get up.
Johnny came to with dirt in his mouth. He lay still, trying to recall what had led to his current circumstances. Riding...he remembered riding for a very long time. A quiet snort beside him confirmed the presence of a horse. He opened his eyes but saw nothing; terror grabbed his heart and he began panting. He slammed his eyes shut. He concentrated on breathing deeply through his nose until the panic receded; only then did he open his eyes again. This time he forced himself to stare hard until he could make out different shades of darkness. It was night.
Good. It was night, he could see and hear, and there was a horse he had been riding. There was dirt in his mouth so he must be laying on the ground. He wanted to get the dirt out of his mouth but didn't have any spit-couldn't even summon some up when he tried. Water would be good. Maybe the horse carried some. He wasn't sure. He couldn't remember what was on the saddle, except for the rifle.
Rifle. Gun. His Colt-he grabbed for his sidearm and felt a rush of relief to find it right where it belonged. He didn't know what kind of trouble he was in but at least it wasn't THAT kind of trouble. He pushed up to his hands and knees with a groan, then stopped to gather his strength. He hurt all over but nowhere in particular; nothing seemed to be broken or bleeding. He was weak, there was a ringing in his ears, and his head felt fuzzy and detached.
He had to pull himself up by grabbing the stirrup fender, but he finally convinced his body to stand. He fumbled around the saddle with his hands until he located a water skin. It was dry. He identified saddle bags and a bedroll. He wished he could remember what the horse looked like, but it was there, and he found immense comfort in its presence.
Bracing himself against the horse's near shoulder he took a step, then another. The horse moved with him. Together they trudged forward although for the life of him he couldn't think why. The horse seemed to agree that moving along was a good thing. The road was nothing more than a lighter strip of dark in the blackness of the moonless night, but it was a path, and he could only hope it led to water.
It led to a shadowy clearing. He could see better in the clearing, and he saw a pump sticking up out of the ground. Johnny thought it was strange to find a water pump in the middle of nowhere. He thought about calling out in case someone was around, but he decided not to, in case someone was around.
He stopped the horse by putting a hand on its chest, then marshaled his strength to walk forward on his own. He reached the pump and hoped he had the strength to work the handle. He did, barely. He pumped until the water flowed and then he knelt under it, rinsing the dirt from his mouth and his face and drinking great gulps. The water restored him enough that he remembered to fill his hat and offer it to the horse, who sucked it up eagerly. Johnny stumbled back to its side to loosen the cinch; he couldn't make it budge. He apologized to the horse as he turned back to the pump and collapsed.
Johnny awoke to the sun shining on his face. He shrugged himself a little deeper under the covers, enjoying the warmth and softness surrounding him. He felt better than he had last night. Amazing what a good night's sleep could do for a body...his eyes flew open as he remembered collapsing on the cold hard ground. How did he get on his bedroll, covered with a quilt, with a feather pillow under his head? He sat up quickly-too quickly, it turned out, because he had to fight off a wave of dizziness before he could take stock of his surroundings. He saw the pump in the middle of nowhere that had saved his ass last night. The pump was 50 feet away from a small house. He'd have laughed out loud if he felt better-he'd passed out just steps away from a barn and a fuckin' house!
Although calling it a house was a stretch-it was a small cabin that had seen better days. As he regarded it the back screen door swung open and a small, straight backed woman walked out, frowning in his direction. Her dress was faded, her hair was falling out of the bun on the back of her head, and she held a rifle pointed squarely at his chest.
He smiled at her and raised his hands, palms out. He was trying for charming, but he felt like a sitting duck . "I reckon I have you to thank for my accommodations," he said. His voice came out raspy and faint.
She looked less severe when her frown softened. "You were a mite too much for me to tote you into the house," she said in a musical drawl. She didn't lower the rifle. "And there was no way you were going to walk."
He looked around, not moving his hands. "Did you happen to find my horse?" he asked. He was pleased that his voice came out a little stronger.
"In the barn," the woman said, nodding in that direction as she fixed him with her big clear eyes. "Funny thing-that used to be my horse. Never figured to see her again, and certainly never figured to see her bringing in a stray drifter burning up with fever."
He would have chuckled but ended up coughing instead. "I'm Johnny, ma'am," he said when he could catch his breath. "And I'm grateful your horse brought me here."
"My name's Mollie Poe," she said, lowering the rifle a touch. She had a weary face and a strong chin; he judged her to be in her forties. "My man Charlie is coming back any time now. And the horse is yours, I reckon, unless you stole her."
Johnny nodded. "Oh, I'm no horse thief, ma'am. And I'll ride out as soon as I'm able." He tried to stand but gave it up when the dizziness washed over him again. Mollie Poe hurried over to steady him; she didn't lose the rifle but at least it wasn't pointing at him anymore.
"You need to rethink that," she said briskly. "Let me help you into the house."
"Don't want to put you out," he tried to protest, but Mrs. Poe was already helping him up. He had a coughing fit as they walked slowly to the small house, where she settled him at the table with a cup of hot tea. She busied herself in the kitchen and before he knew it there was a plate of eggs and biscuits in front of him. He hadn't known he was starving until he started eating.
Mollie Poe watched him intently. "You know you're in no shape to ride," she said as he set down his fork. Johnny nodded reluctantly. Now that he was fed his eyelids were heavy; his chest hurt when he breathed.
She reached across the table to pour the last of the tea into his cup; he saw the moment kindness won out over common sense. "I can make up a bed for you in the barn if you don't mind sleeping with your horse," she said with a sigh. She stood, then patted him on the shoulder. "Wait here, Johnny." She headed out to the barn; he struggled to stay awake until she returned.
He ended up staying over a week with Mollie Poe. At first he tired easily as coughing fits sapped his strength. Mollie plied him with hot tea and good cooking; when he recovered he showed his appreciation by doing hired hand work. He slept in the barn and took his meals in the house. There was no sign of Charlie Poe. The general disrepair around the small homestead suggested the man had been absent for a while. Mollie didn't mention him again but Johnny caught a sadness in her eyes when she didn't know he was watching. It went away when she smiled, and she smiled more as they got to know each other a little.
They talked mostly about the chores that needed to be done. Johnny let her think he was nothing but a drifter passing through. He rode out on the mare that had brought him in; he carried a sack of biscuits and jerky at Mollie's insistence. He left behind a good fence, a roof that wouldn't leak, a large stack of firewood, and a sad, strong woman who missed her man.
Lancer Ranch, a couple of years later-
It was Sunday. His chores were done and there was territory east of the ranch that Johnny Lancer hadn't explored yet. He turned Barranca toward the late morning sun and headed out at a slow trot. The horse was content to jog; Johnny was content to empty his mind of everything except the landscape surrounding him.
The land was not as green as Lancer. When he saw a few empty-looking houses off the main path, something niggled at the back of Johnny's mind - a dispute involving the ownership of the land, maybe?- he hadn't paid attention when Scott and Murdoch discussed it earlier. Whatever it was, it wasn't important to his enjoyment of this rare time off.
The temperature began to climb and Johnny welcomed it. He missed the arid heat of Mexico. The chill that had settled deep in his bones during the rainy season began to burn off. As Barranca headed toward the foothills Johnny kept his eyes open for a creek or pond. Old habits were hard to break, and knowing the terrain in which he traveled had served him well. When they stumbled upon a deer trail Johnny let his horse follow it, making a bet with himself that it would lead to water eventually.
He was right. Spring runoff from the mountains had created a picturesque stream in a shallow gully. He stayed in the saddle while Barranca bent a foreleg to plunge his muzzle into the cold water; Johnny laughed out loud when the gelding finished his drink by shaking his nose in the water and pawing so that Johnny got wet, too. Johnny guided him all the way into the temporary creek and Barranca snorted and danced, splashing to his heart's content.
As they climbed the hillside on the far side of the gully, Johnny heard a small noise he couldn't place. Wondering if it was a California bird he wasn't familiar with, he pulled Barranca up and dismounted with a quiet creak of saddle leather. The horse stayed ground tied as Johnny crept off the path to locate the source of the sound.
It was no bird. It was a woman, crying-a thin woman, half hidden behind a flowering shrub, her graying hair in a bun. She sat on the ground, sobbing softly with her face in her hands. Johnny hesitated for a moment. She didn't appear injured, and he didn't want to interfere, but he couldn't just walk away if the woman was in need.
"Ma'am? You OK?" She startled and looked up at him, wiping her tears away with the hem of her skirt. Johnny recognized her as soon as their eyes met.
"Young man," she said, getting hold of herself with impressive quickness. "I'm just havin' a good cry, out here where no one will ever know."
Johnny nodded as he touched his hat. "Then I'll pretend I never saw you, Mrs. Poe, " he said. He turned to walk away, hiding his grin.
"Wait! I'm sorry," the woman called to him. "You know me?" She dried her hands on her skirt as she got to her feet.
He turned back to her, still grinning as he said, "You and a horse of yours saved my life one night near Sasabe."
Mollie Poe brightened. "Johnny!" she exclaimed. "Oh my goodness, Johnny Lancer!" She closed the distance between them to grab his hand in both of hers, clasping it warmly. "I didn't recognize you all filled out and cleaned up! Oh, I hoped I'd see you again someday, boy."
He was confused that she knew his full name. It must have shown on his face because Mrs. Poe laughed with delight as she swatted his arm. "Oh, I found out who you were back there at the old place. The man at the livery couldn't wait to tell me he sold my mare to Johnny Madrid! Lord, it was a shock to realize that the drifter who fell senseless in my yard was a famous gun hawk!"
Johnny cocked his head, still confused. "But you said Lancer just now."
She tsked at him. "Do you think anyone living in these parts doesn't know all about Murdoch Lancer's long lost sons coming home? The Eastern dandy and the Mexican gunfighter?" Her voice sobered. "I was real pleased to find that out, you know, because I had heard Johnny Madrid got himself killed down Mexico way."
"Yeah, I get that a lot," Johnny said, looking down uncomfortably. There was a short silence; Johnny needed to change the subject. "Mollie, what are you doing here in California?"
"Why, me and Poe got a piece of that Spaniard's land when he was selling it off." Mollie's eyes sparkled. "We're ranchers now!"
Johnny smiled broadly. "Ranchers, huh?" He paused for a heartbeat, then looked at her with a lift of his chin and a gleam in his eye. "That the reason you're out here cryin'?"
When she smiled back he remembered how that smile always chased away her sadness. "You're a fresh one, now, aren't you, Johnny?" She took his arm and they started back to where Barranca waited.
"See me home, won't you? I want you to meet Charlie Poe. He knows all about you."
Johnny liked Charlie right away. Maybe it was because Mollie lit up like a school girl with a crush when she spotted her husband, and maybe it was because Charlie scooped her up into a big hug as if she'd been gone for a long, long time. Charlie kept his arm around Mollie's waist while she introduced Johnny like an old friend. Soon they were settled on the small porch of the Poe's house, eating pie, drinking coffee, listening to Charlie talk.
And Charlie Poe was a first-rate talker, no doubt about it. Johnny listened, amused, as Charlie regaled him with tales of fortunes won and lost, of gamblers and conmen, of cities toured and oceans crossed. Mollie sometimes chimed in to confirm some outrageous thing her husband said; her eyes danced when she laughed with him. They gave no explanation of Charlie's absence, and underneath their contentment Johnny felt a hint of sorrow, like the sadness that had haunted Mollie's eyes in Sasabe.
Johnny spent as much time as he could with the Poes. He hadn't known many happy couples in his life, and Charlie and Mollie fascinated him. He studied their endless bickering; never mean-spirited, it reflected their joy in being together. He watched as they shared winks and secret smiles. They couldn't keep their hands off each other, and that charmed him, too. He saw them fight and make up in the space of a few minutes. They seemed to think alike about everything-everything except how to deal with the land title dispute.
"You see, Johnny," Charlie explained one afternoon on the front porch, staring at the lit end of the cheroot in his hand, "Mr. Marks claims this land was never the Spaniard's to sell, so we all have to vacate. He's the legal owner." Charlie took a last drag on the stub. "He did say he'll compensate us when we leave."
Mollie snorted. "It's a bald faced land grab is what it is. And what Marks is offering isn't enough to start over again on. It's not right and you know it!"
Charlie dropped his smoke on the porch floor and ground it under his heel. "Oh, it's right, all right, woman," he said. "Marks is a lawman-the judge made him one. He's got every right to do what he's doing."
Johnny shook his head, irritated at his friend's complacency. "That's not what I heard, Charlie. You bought this land fair and square. Are you just gonna let this Marks run you off, you and everybody else? Aren't you gonna fight for what's yours? I'll help you, Charlie. So will Murdoch."
But Charlie just looked down at his hands spread flat on his knees. When he spoke his voice, so animated when he told his stories, was flat. "No, Johnny, I'm not gonna fight. I can't win, and I'm..." Whatever he was going to say was lost when Mollie knelt beside him. She gripped his arm tightly.
"You could fight, Poe," she said fiercely. "We could fight." Charlie slowly shook his head, still staring at his hands.
Johnny, uncomfortable at the intimacy of the scene, looked away. After a moment of silence Charlie sniffed as he stood up; he left the porch without another word, his eyes downcast. Johnny noticed for the first time that Charlie walked with a limp.
Mollie watched her husband disappear into the barn. "Oh, Poe," she sighed. Her eyes were damp, but no tears fell this time.
Johnny turned back to her. "Why won't he try, Mollie?" he asked, frustrated by Charlie's lack of outrage. "Doesn't he care?"
"He used to," was all the answer she gave him. "He used to."
They were sharing a jail cell when Johnny finally learned the truth. Charlie Poe had served twelve years at hard labor for train robbery. Mollie had been serving her own sentence of loneliness when Johnny first met her. Those years had strengthened Mollie, but they seemed to have broken Charlie.
It took the death of a friend before Charlie found the spirit they all thought he had lost. Charlie Poe found the will to fight back, and he found he had one more train robbery in him...