Many thanks to Karen for being a wonderful beta!
The small fire burning in the grand fireplace was just enough to take the chill out of the air. It was an unseasonably cold evening in late summer. Johnny relaxed in an overstuffed chair, one leg hooked over the arm. He stared into the flames, twirling his empty wine glass by its stem. Scott and Murdoch glanced at him from time to time. It was unusual to see Johnny nearly still, deep in thought, for such an extended period. A small smile played on his lips. It was gentle, and it softened his eyes.
Watching Johnny in repose was far more interesting to Scott than the book he was trying to read. Finally Scott caught Murdoch’s eye with a wink and asked, “She pretty, brother?”
Johnny’s smile widened a touch, his eyes still intent on the fire. “Yeah, she is. Smart, too.”
“A dangerous combination. Anyone I know?”
Johnny chuckled. “I’m not sure I want to tell you. Don’t want you beating my time. “
“Would I do that?” Scott tried to look offended.
“You might.” Johnny twisted in the chair to look at his brother. “Probably wouldn’t have too much luck, though. I think she kinda likes me.”
Silence settled comfortably once again. Johnny resumed gazing into the fire; Murdoch returned his attention to his book. Scott was struck by how relaxed and content his brother looked.
“I gotta say, Johnny, I’ve never seen you so smitten. The young lady must be quite a prize.”
“She is something, Scott. I never met another woman like her in my life.” Johnny paused. For a moment Scott thought he was done talking, but then Johnny continued. “She speaks straight, you know? She don’t flirt or play games like a lot of women do. She knows who she is…“
Another pause. When Johnny continued his voice was softer. “…and she makes me feel like she knows who I am, too. Not the little stuff, you know, like what I like for lunch. She gets the important stuff, the deep down stuff…” his voice trailed off. He seemed a little embarrassed.
Murdoch shifted position on the couch. “She sounds like a remarkable woman, son.”
Johnny set his glass down and took a left-over dinner roll from the basket beside him. His fingers pulled it apart as he spoke. “You know her, Murdoch. It’s Emily Morris.”
Murdoch looked at him in surprise. “Really? I didn’t know you knew her.”
“She was here a couple of months ago at the fandango you threw for the locals.” Johnny popped a bite of the roll into his mouth.
“Yes. It was nice to see her again. I don’t recall introducing her to you.”
“Yeah, well, I was making myself scarce when I saw her come into your library. I followed her to kinda keep an eye on things.”
Scott was amused. “Were you afraid she was going to steal something?” Johnny ignored him.
“So we talked a little, and she was real nice. Different. Not like the kind of girl I usually…”
Scott snorted. Johnny threw what was left of the roll at him with a grin.
“Anyway-a couple of weeks later Frank was headed to the Morris place to do some repairs, so I traded him chores for that day. She and I had a real nice visit. She makes good cookies.”
“She always struck me as rather quiet, bookish...” almost mousy, dull, Murdoch was thinking, but he kept it to himself.
“Yeah, she does love her books. She writes, too. She watches wild horses and writes notes on ’em that some professor back east uses for…I don’t know…whatever it is professors do. ”
“I knew about her interest in animals,” said Murdoch. “There are those who say she’s a mystic of some sort-that she talks to them.”
Johnny glanced quickly at him. “She told me she doesn’t talk to them, but what she does is watch them. Keeps her mind quiet without making it up ahead of time of what they’re trying to do. Each little movement or motion is like a word in a sentence, and she can learn what they mean by watching what happens next. It’s really interesting.”
Scott rolled his eyes. “If you say so, brother.”
“No, really, Scott. You should hear her talk about how animals think and why they do what they do. You know, I can do it with horses, some. She does it with horses, and dogs, and goats, and chickens… She’s gentle and calm, and they just love her. She knows how to help hurt animals get better. They get over the bad stuff that’s happened to them and start trusting people again by trusting her.”
Did Johnny realize he could have been describing himself? Murdoch wondered. If the Widow Morris could help Johnny “get over the bad stuff” he had encountered growing up alone she was a special lady indeed.
“You should invite her to visit, John-bring her over for dinner so we can get to know her better.”
“Maybe. She told me how grateful she is to you for letting her stay on after her husband died, Murdoch. That was a kind thing you did.”
“Well, I don’t think she had anywhere else to go. Has she mentioned any other family to you?”
“She said her folks died when she was 15 or so. She married Morris soon after that, so it doesn’t sound like there’s anyone else. “
Murdoch sighed. A young girl orphaned at 15, widowed not so many years later, no children, no relatives…perhaps she needed Johnny as much as his son might need her.
“You know her husband was killed at the beginning of the trouble with Pardee, don’t you? He was the second man we lost.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“I suggested she move into town for her own safety, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She said that the place she had shared with her husband was her home, and she would rather stay there.” Murdoch chuckled briefly. “I believe those are the most words I ever heard from her at one time.”
Johnny considered the woman he was getting to know and wasn’t surprised that she insisted on staying home. After all, her animals were there. “Yeah, that’s her all right. Pretty independent, maybe a little stubborn even.”
“I take it you’ve seen her more than once or twice?” Scott asked.
“I been riding with her a couple of times. We ran into each other in Morro Coyo, too, one time.” Johnny laughed to himself at some private memory. “She’s got a mean sense of humor once you get to know her.”
He stood up, stretched, and yawned. “I do think it’s time I invited her to dinner,” he announced as he headed to his room. “Sweet dreams, Murdoch. You, too, Scott.”
They watched the youngest Lancer as he went off to bed, then looked at each other in amusement.
“Did he just wish us sweet dreams?” Scott asked in disbelief.
“I believe he did,” Murdoch replied. “There must be more to the Widow Morris than I ever realized.”
It was a small herd. There were three chestnuts and one roan; the roan kept to the outskirts of the group and was frequently run off further by the largest of the other horses. She had been watching them for several hours as they grazed near a creek bed. The last time she had studied this particular group there had been only two chestnuts, and the roan had seemed to be on a more equal footing. It wasn’t easy identifying which horse was the newcomer, and she hadn’t yet confirmed the gender of all the horses. These small bachelor herds were usually young males honing their skills before challenging an established stallion, but she had observed that occasionally fillies, driven out of their original herd, could show up in the bachelor herds for a short time.
Shouting and the sound of a galloping horse interrupted her concentration. The wild horses heard the noise and fled to the west. She watched them run off, tails streaming behind them, heads held high.
She turned her own horse toward the noise that had disturbed them. Her heart sped up just a little bit when she recognized Barranca. Of course it was Johnny doing the whooping and hollering and hat waving that had spooked her herd. The horse she was riding danced just a bit at the commotion, but old Tramp never did dance very much. That was one of the things that made him the perfect horse for riding out to watch herds-he was steady as a rock, unimpressed with the wild horses, and possessed of a smooth, easy trot that made riding him a pleasure.
Barranca slid to a stop beside Tramp with a snort and a shake of his head. Annoyed, Tramp laid his ears back and nipped at the younger horse with long yellow teeth. Johnny shoved his hat down on his head with a jerk of his chin. “Hey,” he said with a grin. “Hey yourself,” she replied. “Thanks for scaring my herd away!”
“Naw, did I do that?” he said, looking after the wild horses with an exaggerated expression of concern that disappeared instantly. “Well, I guess that frees you up to take a ride with me, don’t it?”
“Yes, I guess it does. I suspect that was your plan all along, right?”
“Yep, you’re right. The lady is always right. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years, it’s that the lady is always right.”
“You remember that.” They rode side by side at a walk. She was dressed for horse watching in a plaid cotton shirt, a red bandana, and plain men’s trousers. A wide brimmed straw hat should have protected her face from the sun but hung down her back instead. She had tied her hair in a simple ponytail caught at the nape of her neck, but riding and a gentle breeze had loosened some tendrils to blow about her face.
Her features weren’t beautiful in a conventional sense, but the intelligence and good humor which shone in her gray eyes made people remember her as attractive.
She had ridden horses all her life and she rode well. Johnny had told her she looked right at home on her horse. She rode astride in a western saddle; she sat tall and often dangled her feet out of the stirrups, a holdover from when she rode bareback as a child. She loved to ride, loved how the slightest shift in her weight or the smallest movement of her hand holding the reins caused her horse to respond. If Tramp made any sudden movement at all her feet would find the stirrups unerringly. She was not an easy rider to unseat.
She smiled to herself, remembering how Johnny had described the way she rode as “walking the trot”. Tramp had a trot so easy it was nearly an amble, and she would sit a tiny bit deeper in the saddle and just let her hips move with the motion of the horse’s back. It was far less fussy than posting to the trot like cavalry riders did, and according to Johnny, it looked a while lot more interesting from behind…
She was just wondering if Johnny was contemplating trotting horses when he spoke.
“Murdoch wants me to have you over for dinner sometime.”
She hesitated just a bit. “I hate to tell you this, but your father scares me a little.”
Johnny laughed. “Yeah, well, he scares me, too!”
“When Mr. Morris and I called on him once, I don’t think I said two words. He must have thought I was very dull.”
“Because you were scared of him?”
“Maybe partly…but mostly because they were going on about things I didn’t know about-metals, and tooling, and ship building, things like that. I tried to listen but I was bored to death.”
“Sorta like when Murdoch starts talking about shipping schedules, or financial reports. My eyes glaze over and my head feel like the fourth day of a three day drunk.”
“Then you understand.” She didn’t know what a three day drunk felt like, but she got his point. “When we left, Mr. Lancer seemed to look at me as if he had forgotten who I was or why I was even there!”
“He thinks you’re pretty quiet. I figured he has you mixed up with somebody else, because oh, boy-one thing I know is that you sure can talk!”
She made a face at him. “I like to talk with you because you really listen to what I say. Many of the men I’ve known don’t seem to value what women say, so I’m not very forward, usually. You’re just unfortunate enough to say the right things to keep me chattering away all day!”
“Well, that’s because I love to hear your voice.”
She lifted her rein hand ever so slightly, bringing Tramp to a halt. “You do?”
He turned Barranca so they were facing each other, knee to knee. “It’s one of the first things I noticed about you, that night in the library. Your voice is so pretty. It’s real easy on a man’s ears. And you don’t put on airs-you say what you mean straight out. ”
He leaned toward her and took her hand. She met his eyes and blushed. “I could say exactly the same thing to you. I never thought a man could have such a soft voice and still be so strong. And I like how you speak to me as an equal.” He looked away, embarrassed and pleased. He spun Barranca around and trotted away; she and Tramp followed.
They rode in silence until they reached a shady grove of ash trees; there they dismounted and loosened the cinches to let the horses rest for a bit. Barranca would stay where Johnny left him; she unbridled Tramp and hobbled him. She and Johnny walked slowly through the shade, arm in arm.
“I do want you to come with me to dinner tonight.”
“Tonight? Not a chance. I’m dressed for horses right now. I am not meeting with your family looking like a tomboy. Besides….”
“I know, I know. Murdoch scares you.”
She drew a deep breath. “You know how people talk so politely at dinner when there’s a visitor there? And how you’re not supposed to discuss politics, or religion, or anything that offends anyone else at the table?”
She laughed at his unexpected answer. “What do you mean, ‘nope’?”
“I don’t know about any of those rules. Now Scott, he knows ‘em all.” Johnny was lighthearted when he talked about his brother. “I just let him do the talking. I eat. Sometimes I smile and nod. Mostly I eat.” He demonstrated the smiling and nodding; she laughed again.
“Well, that’s no help! Johnny, I’m hopeless at making polite conversation. I can talk myself blue in the face about things I know and care about, but I can’t just talk for the sake of talking. I’m a horrible dinner guest. Your family will think I’m dumb as a post. “
The family dinners of her childhood were filled with spirited conversations. Her parents were abolitionists with politically active friends. Race, slavery, economics, women’s suffrage-she learned a great deal about the world from dinner table discussions as she was growing up. But the conversation was organic, growing out of the convictions and passions of the people at the table. Arguments arose all the time; there was never “small talk”.
She had been surprised to learn at college that ladies were expected to limit the topics of their conversation during meals.
“What did you and your mother talk about at dinner time?”she asked Johnny.
Johnny didn’t reply for a long time. She didn’t mind; she knew he often had to sort out his thoughts about his childhood before he could put them in words. His silence wasn’t meant to be rude or dismissive. She waited.
“I think I remember family dinners when I was really little, but after Papa died…well, there weren’t meals anymore. There really wasn’t much food at all. And if I got something to eat I pretty much ate it as quick as I could ‘cause I was so hungry.”
Johnny was four years old. Mama was bringing food for the evening meal. He would meet her as she walked up the lane to their house. When she saw him she would smile a big smile that lit up her face. She would ask him if he could help her carry the market basket; he would proudly grab the handle as they walked home together. Soon the smells of cooking would fill the house. His step father would come home and they all would sit together and eat. They talked and laughed. When it was bedtime Mama would tuck him in. She would sing a lullaby as he fell asleep and dreamed sweet dreams.
When Johnny was seven there wasn’t much food in the house. Mama worked at the cantina; sometimes she got left over food from the kitchen there. That helped, because most of the money she made went to pay for his step-father’s medicine. Papa couldn’t work anymore, and Johnny helped take care of him while his mama was at the cantina. Mama was so tired from working and tending to Papa that most nights she fell asleep in a chair. He went to bed by himself, whenever he wanted. Mama smiled at him when he had earned a few pennies to give her or when she noticed he had been doing chores without being told. He knew she gave him as much food as she could.
Johnny was nine. His step-father had died and they had moved to a different town. Mama said there wasn’t enough money so why didn’t Johnny get a job and help her out. He did, but most of the time Mama didn’t buy food with his money. She spent it on bottles, and she drank so much from the bottles that she didn’t have a job any more. Once, when he used his money to buy food for them instead of giving it to her, she slapped his face and told him he was stupid. He started giving her only part of the money he earned, and using the other part to buy food, but it wasn’t enough, and he cried at night because he was hungry and Mama didn’t seem to care.
By the next year he had lost track of how many times they had moved, each move to a smaller, shabbier, dirtier place. The men who came to sleep with his Mama didn’t want him around, so she kicked him out when one of them was there. He spent a lot of time with other kids who had nowhere to go. They had some fun and after a while some of those other kids started to feel like friends, but his friends always seemed to disappear when trouble came. Sometimes some nice lady would take pity on him and give him something to eat. He scrounged through trash and stole when he could. Seems it was just enough to keep him alive but never enough so that he wasn’t hungry. He didn’t sleep much in Mama’s house any more, either. Mama didn’t care where he was as long as she had the men and the booze.
She was surprised to realize they had ended up sitting on a log near where the horses grazed. She had been engrossed in Johnny’s recollections and didn’t remember walking there. She was silent for a long moment when he finished.
“I guess worrying about being able to make dinner conversation is pretty frivolous when you get right down to it.” She tried desperately to keep her voice steady. “I can’t imagine what it would have been like to go hungry.”
He didn’t respond. She took a moment before asking, “Does your family understand how difficult it was for you? Do they understand how difficult it still is?”
Johnny shook his head. “Not really, no. But I think you do. That helps,” he said to her softly. He reached over to put his arm around her. “I don’t like to burden them with how things were for me. We got enough other stuff to work out, and besides, Murdoch says what’s past is past.” He took a deep breath as he clasped his hands together around her. “I don’t know how you do it, Emily, but I tell you things that are really hard to tell and you don’t feel sorry for me. You don’t run scared from me, and you still seem to like me.” He pulled her closer. “It means a lot, you know?”
“It means a lot to me that you tell me these things,” she replied. She laid her head on his shoulder. They stayed that way, each lost in thought, for a long time.
It was mid-afternoon when they mounted up again. Leaving the shaded glen for the bright sunlight helped lighten their moods, and before long Johnny tilted his head to the side to look at her and said, “So, pretty lady, what’s it going to take to get you to come to dinner with me tonight?”
“You are persistent, aren’t you?”
Johnny just smiled.
“I still need to change my clothes.”
“Why? You look fine. You look just like you ought to.”
“I will not join you for dinner unless I can go home and change into a dress. Just because you don’t care and I don’t care how I dress doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect other people’s standards. It would be an insult to your family to do otherwise.”
Johnny sighed in annoyance. “I hate it when you’re logical. And reasonable. And respectful.”
He laughed. “…and right!”
Dinner was not the fiasco she had feared. She had ridden home to change her clothes while Johnny exchanged Barranca for a one horse driving rig; when he picked her up she noticed he, too, had changed out of his work clothes. When they arrived at the hacienda Johnny had offered his arm to a surprised Theresa while Scott escorted Emily to the table. She was amused to see that although everyone else drank wine with dinner, Johnny drank milk. The food was plentiful-something she doubted she would have even noticed if not for her conversation with Johnny that afternoon.
Scott did indeed guide most of the conversation. He was so charmingly talented at it that Emily felt far less tongue-tied than she usually did in such circumstances. She and Murdoch reminisced about her late husband. Although Emily found it hard to talk about Mr. Morris, she was grateful to hear that Mr. Lancer had held him in such high regard. The discussion turned towards books and literature, and finally to the subject of horses. Scott included everyone in the small talk but, true to his word, Johnny mostly ate, smiled, and nodded.
Still, Johnny and Emily were relieved when the dinner was done. “I guess that didn’t go all that badly,” she ventured as they started away from the hacienda in the surrey.
“Coulda been worse.” He still did not seem to feel comfortable talking; he held the lines and stared out over the horse’s ears, shoulders hunched, his elbows on his knees. With distance and the setting sun he was able to relax bit by bit. By the time she was home they were comfortable again.
Dusk had darkened nearly into night. Johnny walked her to the front door, smiling as she greeted her old dog who had been waiting for her on the porch. The dog grinned and wagged all over when he saw her, and wagged some more when he saw Johnny. “That kind of welcome home just makes everything better, don’t it?” Johnny said.
She nodded in agreement. “I don’t know what I’d do without him,” she said. “I don’t feel nearly so alone when he’s around.”
Johnny pulled her gently into his arms. “You aren’t alone anymore, Emily,” he murmured, just before he kissed her. “And neither am I.”