Not mine; don’t care; Fox doesn’t seem to give a damn, we do. Rough Language, some graphic sex; Johnny meets Val for the very first time.
Author’s note: No intention here of offending anyone, but I’ve always had a problem with two theories regarding Johnny: the idea that he spent any great length of time with Native Americans (who prefer to be called Indian, and have their own terms re: their own -- apples are those who are red on the outside, white on the inside; while skins are traditionalists); and the medal he wore.
Being raised border Mexican, Johnny would have grown up with an inherent hatred for the Indians who raided both north and south of the border. The Mexican government was every bit as aggressive as the US government in their campaigns of genocide against the tribes, and offered hefty rewards for Indian scalps. Retaliation was a reality on both sides; and -- for the tribes -- unarmed, isolated Mexican peasants were easy targets, with tragic and horrific consequences. (Mexican children were not accepted lovingly into tribal culture: they usually ended up as slaves. Johnny, with his blues eyes, would not have fared well: in affect, a victim of a ‘double whammy’, white and Mexican blood.) Today in the southwest, many tribal members have Mexican surnames, a result of assimilation, but the old prejudices still exist. As to his beads: the Mexican indios (-- think Aztec, Mayan, Olmec, Zuni and the Turquoise Trail--) also used beads, for trade as well as for personal decoration.
The other thing that always kind of seemed skewed to me was the references to Johnny’s medal. I’ve seen in some stories it was supposed to be a St. Francis, as in: Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace, or St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. Mexico traditionally has a strong belief in the Virgin; in particular, Our Lady of Guadalupe; whose basilica near Mexico City is still -- today -- the most visited of all the Christian sanctuaries. Our Lady is the patron saint of all Mexico, and has been since the 1740’s when she was declared patroness of “all New Spain,” which embraced the regions from northern California to El Salvador. She is also the protector of the unborn and children in jeopardy.
Her feast day is celebrated December 12th; a prelude of sorts to La Posada and other Christmas celebrations. Johnny was a December baby, his mother was Catholic. He grew up in Mexico, and would have known about Nuestra Dama de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe); the tradition would have been his.
So, I’ve given the Lady her due.
And as for Val
as the community clown. Think of Val sitting in his bed, reading, and when he
hides the glasses when Criswell comes in and the line, when Criswell calls him a
‘clown’: “That don’t bother me one way or the other. Maybe I use that to my
Where My Heart Will Take Me
It’s been a long road, gettin’ from there to here.
It’s been a long time, but my time is finally near.
I will see my dream come alive at last, I will touch the sky,
And they’re not gonna hold me down no more, no they’re not gonna change my mind.
‘Cause I’ve got faith of the heart
‘Goin’ where my heart will take me…
I’ve got faith to believe, I can do anything.
I’ve got the strength of the soul; no one’s gonna bend or break me.
I can reach any star….
I’ve got faith, I’ve got faith of the heart.
The young Texican sat at a small table in the darkness in the far corner of the cantina; his back to the wall, a half-full tumbler of warm beer between his long-fingered hands. There was a weariness about him, yellow trail dust still evident in the creases of his dark pants and shirt, the battered brown Stetson coated so thickly it appeared to be tan. Only the band of partially dried sweat above the brim retained the original color; dark mahogany, the same color as the man’s dark hair.
His age was indeterminate. He was young, certainly, in his physical prime; his legs and thighs well muscled, his upper torso clearly defined beneath the chambray shirt. A well-trimmed mustache adorned his upper lip, as dark in color as the man’s hair, which lay in tight curls above his ears. There was a rugged handsomeness to the man’s face with his high cheekbones and strong chin, his expression neutral.
The dark brown eyes were a different matter. They scanned the room, settling briefly on every face; registering everything but betraying nothing.
The batwings at the front of the saloon drew his attention, and instinctively his right hand dropped to disappear beneath the table. His hand resting lightly on the ivory grip of the Colt Patterson, he stared over the brim of his glass, watching as the doors swung open. A large shadow, back lit by the later afternoon sun, filled the opening; striding across the threshold without hesitation. The newcomer called out in greeting, “Hola, amigo! Como estás?”
“¿Bien, bien, Y tú?” (I’m fine. And you?). Relaxing slightly, the man at the table nodded, the words coming with a soft drawl, a hint of something intangible in them; mostly amusement over the fact the other man had just exhausted his limited supply of Mexican words, and his easy use of the word ‘friend’. Friendship, he thought, had nothing to do with business. And his relationship with this man had been just that: business.
Boyd Ashton stopped at the bar long enough to buy a bottle; the good stuff with a tinfoil label that the bartender kept out of sight. Average sized, in his mid-fifties with graying hair and pale skin of a man who spent the majority of his time inside, he was dressed in a well-tailored business suit. He rejected the first two glasses the barkeep handed him, waiting until the man supplied him with something cleaner, and then continued his way to the corner. There was a sound as the empty chair was pushed out with a well-aimed boot, and he sat down. Reaching into his vest pocket, he laid two pieces of paper on the table. “Clear deed on the Caldera place,” he said, his finger tapping on the larger of the two documents. The finger moved to the second sheet of paper. “And that’s the bill of sale for the mares.” He filled the two glasses and shoved one across to his companion.
Silence. Ashton leaned back in his chair, waiting for some response from the other man. “You really serious about breeding those mares with that Appaloosa stallion you got corralled?” Still nothing. “Jesus Christ, Crawford!” he swore. “You’ve worked for me for the past nine months; you’d think you could answer one simple question!” Finally removing his hat, the graying norteamericano shook his head. He had hired the former Texas Ranger to lead the crew of men who had protected his ranch and livestock during a border dispute. It had been one of the smartest moves he had ever made; but the man sitting across from him still remained an enigma.
Not that Ashton hadn’t done his homework. The land he had struggled to hold had been in his family for years before the Gadsden Purchase; part of a long neglected Spanish land grant that had come to his father through an arranged marriage: nouveau riche American to the daughter of a cash-strapped but land wealthy Spanish Don. Ashton’s acreage now extended from San Luís across the border into southern California, and after a string of near disasters with so-called pistoleros that had almost cost him his life as well as his holdings, he had sought out the best. And the best was Val Crawford.
This much he knew about the man. Crawford was one-half Cherokee; his mother a survivor of the Trail of Tears, his father a brutal white man who had abandoned his son to relatives after the death of his wife. As a youth, Crawford had lied about his age to join the military; served two years, was wounded and discharged only to re-enlist to act as a scout, and then moved on to the Rangers. He was a natural leader; a chameleon that often played the fool; and one of the most efficient men with a handgun Ashton had ever seen. And he had seen plenty.
“Come on, Val,” he coaxed. “I just closed the land deal for you and sold you ten of my best brood mares. I thought we were friends.”
Crawford smiled, and the chestnut eyes warmed a bit. He lifted the glass of whiskey, and saluted his companion. “Told you when I agreed to go to work for you,” he drawled. “I don’t mix business with friendship.” Taking a drink, he spoke again; his tone less severe. “Also said I don’t drink with a man unless I know him.”
Ashton grudgingly accepted what he knew was a left-handed compliment. “So, you found water yet?” The Caldera’s place was just outside of San Luís; a fair sized parcel of land that had been poorly worked and lacking in water.
“Sunk a new well; just below that rock outcroppin’ behind the house. Hit sweet water less’n fifteen feet down. Windmill’s goin’ up soon as the last of the casing comes in.” Crawford was smiling again as he took another drink. He knew Ashton had been thinking about buying the place, but the seeming lack of water had put him off.
“How the hell did you know?” Ashton breathed. Crawford was full of surprises. There wasn’t a man in town that didn’t figure the regulator would be gone once he was done taking care of business, and yet he gave every indication now he was planning to stay.
“Been across as many deserts as me, you recognize the signs. There was rust on those rocks; didn’t come from rain,” Val answered. “So you ready to settle up?”
Ashton nodded. “The job’s still open,” he said. “Foreman’s job.” He took out his billfold, hesitating; almost hopeful.
“Can’t run your place, and see to mine,” Crawford declared. He was still surprised at himself; at his decision to stay, something that had never occurred to him before. But this time things were different. He’d found the right piece of land, and the right stallion.
He’d found a home.
The rancher began counting out the money; American dollars, not pesos. “This is a lot of cash,” Ashton intoned. “You plan on staying, you should consider opening a bank account.”
Crawford was counting as Ashton stacked the bills. “Don’t trust banks,” he said.
This time, Ashton actually laughed. “Hell, Val. I own the bank.” It was true. In spite of the name on the front of the building and the Spanish surnames of owners -- Banco de San Luis, Méjico (Bank of San Luís, Mexico) -- Ashton was the major stockholder and the man in control. “That’s like saying you don’t trust me!!”
“No offense, Boyd.” Val began picking up the cash. Then, flashing a smile that lit up his entire countenance, “I’m goin’ to pay some bills,” he said. “Pick up some things I need. I’ll bank the rest. You let yourself get robbed, though,” the grin widened, “I’ll take whatever you were holdin’ for me out of your hide, and kick your sorry ass from here to Mexico City!”
Ashton stood up and stuck out his right hand. He knew that anyone foolish enough to rob a bank that had Val Crawford’s money in it would have a Hell of a lot more to worry about than he ever would. “You ever need anything, Val,” he began.
Crawford was on his feet. His right hand closed around the other man’s. In the nine months he had known the older man, he had come to respect him. Still, he wasn’t in the habit of letting anyone get close. “You need a segundo, Boyd,” he said, his tone serious, “Ramón Sanchez is still in town. He’s been lookin’ for a regular job and he speaks American,” the one thing he didn’t understand about Ashton was his reluctance to learn the language of his home country, “and he knows cows. All you got to do is ask.”
Coming from Crawford, Ashton realized, the words were as solid as gold. “So where do I find him?”
That easy grin again. “I’ll be seein’ him later,” Val answered. “I’ll send him out to your place. Tomorrow mornin’?”
Ashton nodded. He seemed reluctant to leave, but knew the time had come. “Good luck, Val,” he said finally. Picking up his hat, he turned on his heel, resisting the urge to look back.
Val took care of business, including depositing the majority of his cash -- five thousand dollars -- in Ashton’s bank. And then he sought out his friend Sanchez. He found him at the bordello they had frequented on occasion during their time with Ashton. It was high dollar, a far cry from the usual drab whore house where the back room cribs had straw beds and no windows and an abundance of vermin. Constructed of adobe brick that had been white-washed with mica flecked paint, the building was U-shaped, the cantina taking what would be the bottom of the U; the center, an open patio, and the side wings reserved for the prostitutes. The place was clean; the quality of the liquor more than fair, and there was entertainment.
He saw her when she came out onto the dance floor; before the music had even begun. There was a feral grace to her, and she moved like a great cat. Her hair was long, loose around her shoulders and hanging well below her waist; dark as a raven’s wing, framing eyes that looked more gypsy than Mexican. She knew she was being watched, and he could see her posture changing; her back a bit straighter, her shoulders back.
Her body was magnificent. Val felt himself becoming aroused just looking at her. He liked his women with a bit of flesh on them; not fat, but certainly not string-bean thin. All the curves were in the right places on this one; her breasts full and threatening to tumble out of the gauze camisa she was wearing. Her skirt was floor length, and it swept the plank flooring as she walked; something more sensual in the fact that -- unlike the other women in the room -- her lower body was completely covered.
And then the music began.
Sanchez had just downed a shot of tequila and was reaching out for a slice of lime. “Tomorrow morning?” he asked.
Crawford nodded, and got right down to business. “Tell him a hundred bucks a month, keep, a string of four horses; that cabin I was usin’ by the main house and a girl to cook and clean for you. He’ll dicker you down on the money -- don’t go any lower than seventy-five -- but stand firm on the rest. It’s fair, and he’ll pay it. And Ramón? Don’t fuck this up.” When Sanchez started to speak again, he shushed him; his eyes on the woman.
Sanchez persisted. “Ella es costosa, amigo,” (She's expensive, friend,) he whispered; as if he knew. The slim Mexican was smiling, his fingers teepeed beneath his nose as he leaned forward with his elbows on the table. “Le llaman Ángel; Angelita” (They call her Angel; little Angel.)
Val found himself believing it, that she could be an angel; although the music coming from the flamenco guitar was certainly not harp like. The woman was dancing in perfect rhythm to the song, the tempo increasing, as much fire in the music as in her eyes when she began to spin, her skirt lifting to reveal slim thighs the color of a fawn’s skin. A hand slapped against the guitar as the music ended, and the woman finished her dance, her back arched and head back. Her hair reached the floor, and she held the position as if she were a marionette suspended from invisible strings, her eyes locked on the upside down image of the man sitting only inches from her face.
She saw the glimmer of gold in his right hand, a coin held between his thumb and forefinger; and she rose up slowly. As languid as panther, she turned to face him; sweeping the long hair from her eyes and meeting his gaze.
Val flipped the five dollar gold piece, watching as the woman plucked the coin from the air and dropped it between her breasts.
The second gold piece bought him an invitation to her room. Sanchez had laughed outright at him, calling him crazy; but it hadn’t mattered. Val simply took the woman’s hand and followed her through the crowded room; totally oblivious to anyone or anything else.
She was even more beautiful without her clothing. Val held the woman cradled in his arms, his chin resting on the top of her head; her fingers toying with the thick hair on his chest. He relished her touch, the way she used one finger to trail across his skin, beginning at the hollow just beneath his Adam’s apple to draw an invisible line down his breast bone to his belly button and beyond. Her explorations beneath the blanket were gentle, unhurried; and he felt himself growing hard a second time.
He kissed her then, full on the mouth, probing the depths of her with his tongue as he felt the button hardness of her breasts against his chest. There was another sensation then; a sudden, damp warmth against his skin and at first he didn’t understand. And then he realized it was milk.
For some reason, the thought of her full breasts excited him even more, and there was a sudden need to possess her. She was beneath him now, opening her arms and her legs to him. Their lips parted, and he used his tongue to trace the fall and rise of her face and throat much as she had done with her forefinger against his body; his head lowering as he sought out her breasts. Her back arched, and he could feel her trembling; her long fingers entwining in his hair and pushing his head farther down on her body.
Their coupling was even more intense than the first time; Val’s lean frame covering the entire length of the woman’s, both of them lost in an ecstasy of rediscovered passion. The man closed his eyes against the pain as his toes cramped, not giving a damn. He’d never been with a woman; not like this, and he didn’t want to let go. Ever.
He woke with the sensation someone was watching him, the woman asleep and still in his arms, her back cradled against his chest. Holding her in place, he lifted his head; his instincts telling him that whatever he was about to see was no threat and nothing to be feared. He was right. Staring at him from the side of the bed were the most incredible pair of blue eyes he had ever seen; brilliant blue like cut gems set in small mounds of snow.
Crawford rose up on one elbow, the smile coming slowly as he met the child’s wide-eyed scrutiny. Long dark curls cascaded across the kid’s forehead and ears. It was hard to guess his age; although Val knew the boy was very young. He was also the obvious product of mixed breeding; a mestizo, something rare in this part of the country where blue-eyed half-breeds were particularly abhorred. Although the boy was not as dark as the other children Val had seen playing in the streets, he sure in hell wasn’t fair-skinned enough to pass as white. You’re gonna have a rough road ahead of you, kid, he thought, and there ain’t gonna be many places that will make you feel welcome. Keeping his voice soft, he greeted the youngster. “Hey.”
The blue eyes narrowed slightly as the head came up a little; enough that the child’s nose and the petulant frown were in clear view. “Mejor no lastimes a mi Mamá, gringo.” (Better not hurt my Mama, gringo.) There was a sound as the kid’s right hand came into view, skimming lightly across the sheet. The too-thin, too small fingers were closed around the rawhide bound haft of a fifteen-inch Bowie knife.
Unable to help himself, Val laughed. Here he was, bare-assed naked and unarmed, being braced by a tadpole carrying a weapon that looked like a sword in the small hands! And then it hit him; what the child had said: Better not hurt my Mama… His eyes never leaving the youngster’s face, he touched the woman’s shoulder and shook her; just a bit. “Angel,” he murmured.
He watched as she slowly came awake, her arms rising high above her head as she stretched, her naked breasts exposed as the blanket fell away from her body. Carefully, Val pulled the multi-colored quilt back up around her shoulders. He nudged her again, this time with his knee against her rump; the move subtle, quiet and totally hidden from the child’s view. “Angel,” he called out again; this time a bit louder.
She rose up from the bed, the blanket clutched to her chest as she familiarized herself with surroundings that were still new to her; a frown appearing when she saw the child. “Juanito. ¿Qué haces aquí, chico!?” (Johnny. What are you doing here, boy!?)
She smacked his face, her fingers leaving a row of crimson ridges; something more than embarrassment fueling her bad temper. “Vete ahora,” (Go now,) she ordered. “¡Regresa a Rosa!” (Back to Rosa!)
The boy immediately retreated, backing out of the room, his hand instinctively going to his left cheek; the Bowie knife forgotten. The velvet fringed eyes were wet with unshed tears, the child biting his bottom lip in his determination not to cry out. Still, the pain -- as much emotional as it was physical -- was evident in his face; and he hesitated for a time in the open doorway.
It was Crawford’s first chance for a really good look at the kid. The boy was small in stature, his body compact; older than the man had first thought, but not by much, and dressed in the loose fitting garb common to Mexican peasantry; the clothing too big. Still, he didn’t look to be more than four or five; and certainly not old enough to be on his own in a place like this. Val sighed. Part of this, he knew, was his own fault. Not his decision to be with the woman; she was a prostitute, this was her trade. But he sure in hell hadn’t known about the kid. He had, however, purchased the liquor the woman had consumed with such gusto; enough that he recognized she had a problem.
The kid finally left. Turning, he fled the small room, the sound of bare feet padding across the packed caliche and into the distance.
Val rose up from the bed, nothing urgent in his movements. He began dressing, saying nothing to the woman; waiting her out. She was restless; propped up against the headboard of the bed, running her fingers through her hair and then burying her head in her hands. The sound came softly at first, muffled by her hair and fingers; the sobs becoming more intense.
He left the room, heading for the back door of the cantina’s small kitchen. It didn’t take him long to rouse the cook, and even less time to get the woman to reheat a pot of strong, day old coffee. Grabbing a pair of mugs and the pot, he headed back to room.
She was sick; twice. He held the basin for her and then mopped her face; and for the second time in as many months, made a decision so unlike himself, that even he was surprised. Helping her dress, he turned her around, one hand on each arm just below the shoulder. “¿Quién es Rosa?” (Who's Rosa?) he asked, the words spoken softly. When she wouldn’t look at him, he cupped her chin with his hand; bringing her head up as he repeated the question, struck again by her feral beauty. “¿Quién es Rosa?” (Who's Rosa?)
“Ella cuida al niño para mí,” (She watches the boy for me) she answered.
“No mas,” (Not anymore,) he announced, the smile coming slowly as he stroked her cheek. “Empaca tus cosas. Vienes a mi hogar con migo.” (Pack up your things. You’re coming home with me.) He picked up the Bowie knife and left the room.
He found the little boy sitting in the dirt in the shadows of a dying sun; his back to the still warm adobe bricks at the rear of the building where his mother worked. Hunkering down to bring himself near eye level with the kid, Val sat back on his heels; his hat shoved well back on his head. He kept his tone soft; neutral. “Olvidastes algo cuando dejastes a tu Mamá, niño.” (You forgot something when you left your Mama, boy.) Reaching back, he pulled the Bowie knife from his belt, presenting it haft first to the youngster; the blade lying across his flat palm.
Johnny’s arms were wrapped tightly around his ribs, his hands balled into fists; his chin tucked against his chest. The downcast blue eyes, however, were busy. They crawled across the older man, starting with the cavalry style boots and lifting to examine, long and hard, the five-shot cap and ball pistol that hung within easy reach on the man’s right hip. He carried a knife as well, a fringed and beaded sheath hanging from the belt on his left side, two letters carved into the leather haft; the handle smooth from use. Just as the holster was well worn.
The man was tall. Johnny had seen that as the gringo lay in his mother’s bed, his head well above his Mama’s, bare feet sticking out from the blanket at the foot of the bed. That memory tore at the boy. Another man, another stranger, in his mother’s bed. She danced in the cantinas, he knew; men paid her to dance, paid her with many coins, some gold, some silver. But there never seemed to be enough money; just like there never seemed to be enough for his mother to drink. His stomach growled, and he remembered what else there never seemed to be enough of, either.
Val heard the muted rumble, suddenly wondering not only where the boy had been all day, but if he had ever eaten. Rosa, he had discovered, was in the same business as Angelita, and she was a real screw-up in the kid watching department. Reaching out, he tapped the youngster’s chin gently with a crooked forefinger; taking note that the boy had still not looked up. “¿Tienes hambre?” (You hungry?)
It was a question Johnny hadn’t expected. He bobbed his head just once before he caught himself and pride turned the nod into a stubborn shake. “No,” he lied. In truth, his belly was empty; had been since he had woken up.
The older man shook his head. He hefted the Bowie knife in his palm; suddenly flipping it and catching it by the haft. Reconsidering his previous offer, he reached back and shoved the knife into his belt. “Te digo cómo va ser, chico. Yo no te menteire y tu, no me mentiras Por ninguna razón. Yo te ofrezco algoy tu no lo tomas; figuro que no lo quieres. Si cambias de opinión necesitas decirmelo,” (Tell you how it's going to be, boy. I won't lie to you; you don't lie to me. About anything. I offer you something, and you don't take it; I figure you don't want it. You change your mind, you need to tell me,) he thumped his own chest with a rigid forefinger, repeating the final word. “A mi.” (Me.)
Pulling himself erect, Crawford reached down and picked up the youngster. He fought the smile when he saw the look on the kid’s face, holding on tight as the boy tensed against his chest. “Vamos a encontrar tu Mamá, Johnny.” He purposely used the Anglo version of the kid’s name. “Y entonces vamos a mi casa para la cena.” (We're going to go find your Mama, Johnny. And then we're going home for supper.)
Ramón Sanchez was driving the rented wagon, Crawford’s new woman sitting beside him. There had been no conversation between them, and he knew the woman had been listening when he argued with Val. He’d known Crawford for two years; had worked beside him, and he respected the man. Enough to tell him that he was a damned fool; and that he was making a mistake. The argument had fallen on deaf ears, and Sanchez finally gave up. It was too late now. If the woman hadn’t suckered the man in, the belligerent little boy had certainly done so.
Crawford was aboard his bay gelding, the kid sitting in front of him; finally still and seemingly content. At least while the horse had been moving. That changed when they pulled up to the hitching rail in front of Val’s small house. As soon as the kid’s feet hit the ground, he took off at a dead run and disappeared into the barn.
Sanchez kept his seat, looping the reins around the hand brake. “You going after him?” He spoke in English, knowing it annoyed the woman that was seated beside him; not even bothering to hide the smile.
Val dismounted. “No point,” he answered; switching to Spanish. “El vendrá bastante pronto cuando huela algo cocinanado. Y si no…” He smiled. (He'll come soon enough when he smells something cooking. And if he doesn’t…) He tied off the gelding, moving to the side of the wagon and lifting the woman down from her seat.
“Señor.” A petite woman stood at the open doorway to Val Crawford’s kitchen. Esperanza Fuentes was a gentle and good natured person who cheerfully cooked and cleaned; the wife of Val’s hostler, Jesús, and mother of the teen-aged boy, Carlos, who was learning to be a master of many trades. Normally she greeted Val with a warm smile, but tonight the smile was not there. It had faded when she spied the woman; knowing from the manner of her dress just who and exactly what she was.
“Señora Fuentes,” Val took off his hat and put on his best smile. “Esta es Angelita,” (This is Angelita.) He nodded his head toward the barn, aware the Johnny was watching them; peering out the door. “Y el chico pequeño en el granero es su hijo, Johnny. Ellos estarán viviendo aquí ahora.” (And the little boy in the barn is her son, Johnny. They'll be living here now.) He had been very careful in his choice of words. Fornication was a lesser sin in this woman’s eyes if she viewed it as a prelude to marriage.
For a long moment, Val wasn’t sure if the older woman had bought it. He needed to put a lock on it. Guiding Angelita toward the porch, he led her up the stairs; pausing just long enough to incline his mouth to the cook’s ear, keeping his words quiet. “El chico pequeño.” He gestured toward the barn. “El no ha comido en todo el día. Pienso que me tiene miedo.” (The little boy. He hasn't eaten all day. I think he’s afraid of me.)
Behind him, he could hear Sanchez snort; and he shot his friend a dark look. Out of consideration for the two women who were standing with him, he addressed the man in English. “You plan on sittin’ there grinnin’ like a jackass all night, or you gonna give me a hand unloadin’ the fuckin’ wagon?”
Sanchez raised his arms in a gesture of surrender. “Guess if I plan on gettin’ any supper,” he complained, “I better give you a hand.” He followed Crawford and the woman into the house.
Quietly proud, Val gave the grand tour of his small home. The house was an anomaly in a place where the usual construction material was native adobe brick. Sitting atop a natural rock foundation with a broad front porch, the building had plank flooring, lathe and plaster interior walls, and clapboard siding. A stone-faced fireplace dominated one wall of the open space that served as front room and kitchen; a cook stove directly opposite. Beyond the main area, completing the layout, were a pantry and two bedrooms separated by a narrow hallway that led to a back porch.
The furnishings were not new, but they were clean and serviceable; comfortable, not formal. Gently, Val led the woman to the larger of the two bedroom; standing back as she went inside. He did not follow her.
Hunger won out over stubbornness. The boy left the barn, enticed by the variety of smells coming from the open kitchen door. It was getting colder, too; the night air unforgiving under the frigid light of a narrow new moon. Moving with the same feline grace as his mother, Johnny slipped silently through the screen door.
Without saying anything, Val Crawford toed out the empty chair at his right hand side. He watched as the kid rose up on his tiptoes and climbed into his seat; amused when he realized the boy’s feet dangled inches above the floor. Still silent, he filled the youngster’s plate with a generous portion of beef stew, suppressing a smile as the kid frowned at the collection of vegetables. Taking the time to butter a still warm biscuit, he added a chunk of comb honey and set it in front of the boy.
A single small finger jabbed at the honeyed biscuit. One quick taste, and then the biscuit disappeared. Still chewing, the kid looked up, a slow smile coming as he caught the cook’s eyes. She was pouring the gringo a cup of coffee. “Más.” (More.)
The woman found herself staring into the face of an angel, a dirty face, but still angelic; and she melted. She put down the coffee pot and reached out to the plate of biscuits, slathering a second piece of yeast bread with butter and an even bigger chunk of honey. She presented it to the child like an offering; but not before giving the child’s mother a disapproving glance.
Angelita left the table to disappear behind the bedroom door.
Val waited until the child reached out, the fingers of his right hand closing gently around the kid’s left wrist. “No,” he said softly. He nodded at the boy’s still full plate. “No hasta que comas parte del estofado.” (Not until you eat some of the stew.)
A belligerent pout appeared where there had once been a smile. Johnny’s head turned slightly as he looked first at his mother’s empty chair, then the cook; and finally the big man sitting at the head of the table. The gringo was still holding on to his arm. “No me gusta.” (I don't like it.)
Val smiled. The kid hadn’t even tried the food. “Ningún estofado, ninguna galleta.” (No stew, no biscuit.)
Johnny was in no mood for bargaining. He looked at the plate for a time, and then, with his right hand he shoved it away. The gringo shoved it back. This time, using his arm, Johnny swiped the plate from the table.
Why, you little piss ant! Val raised his hand to the cook, his palm flat; shaking his head as the woman bent down to pick up the mess. “Preparale otro plato, Señora. Por favor.” ("Fix him another plate, Señora. Please.)
Never one to miss an opportunity, Johnny’s hand darted out, picking up the forgotten biscuit the cook had dropped on the table. The sweet tidbit disappeared immediately. Insolently, Johnny grinned up at the man sitting to his left.
Figuring it was a good time to make himself scarce, Ramón Sanchez stood up. “Can’t say it hasn’t been interesting,” he grinned. “Thanks for supper, Val.” The smile widened. “Hope you get a chance to enjoy yours.”
Val watched as his friend departed, leaving the words that were tripping across his tongue unspoken. He turned back to the kid. Señora Fuentes had placed a second plate in front of the boy. Val tested the temperature of the food with the tip of his forefinger and found it lukewarm. Smiling, he tapped the plate with the same finger he had used to test the gravy. “Come,” (Eat,) he ordered.
Johnny’s chin was firmly resting on his chest; his mouth drawn down in a petulant pout. Again, he pushed away the plate; shoving it toward the center of the table. This time, the man shoved it back, waiting until the last moment to upend the dish.
The plate of tepid stew fell into the kid’s lap; landing first against his chest, then spilling onto his lap. “¡Hijo de puta!” (Son of a bitch!) Johnny started to rise, only to find himself held in place by the man’s strong hand.
“Señora,” Val called, the word whisper soft. His first instinct, after the boy’s cursing, was to ask for a bar of soap. Instead, he asked for another serving of food. “Otro plato, por favor.” (Another plate, please.)
The woman looked at her employer as if he was crazy. At the rate the man was going, the stew she had intended to last for two meals would be gone. Sighing, she did as he requested, this time a smaller serving; recalling her own experiences with her son when he was young and difficult. She ladled out only a small portion of gravy, a single piece of potato which she cut in half, one small carrot and two pieces of meat; intentionally leaving out anything that appeared to look green, and no tomato. This she put in a bowl with a spoon. She placed the bowl on the table.
Johnny sat squirming in his chair; gravy running down the inseam of his trousers, bits of vegetables clinging to his shirt. The frown on his face was a magnificent thing to behold. He could feel his body betraying him, the need to eat beginning to triumph out over the need to win. Deep down in his stomach, he felt the all too familiar rumblings, and a wave of nausea came over him. The small grin came then, and he promptly threw up.
Val swore. He called out to the cook again; this time for a rag. “Mejor calentar agua para un baño, Señora,” (Better heat up some bath water, Señora,) he groused, his patience wearing thin.
If he thought getting the kid to eat was a great battle, the bath was a major war. Two hours later, Val was soaking wet and mopping up the floor. Johnny, naked as the day he was born -- his new nightshirt in a tangle at his feet -- was sound asleep on the rug in front of the fireplace.
For weeks, the battles waged; between Val and the child, between the child and his mother. The woman, Val realized, had problems beyond her drinking. He had allowed her to settle in, putting his own desires aside and giving her room to find some small remnant of peace. She slept in his bed, alone; Val using the extra bunk in Johnny’s room to sleep.
The relationship between the young boy and his mother was tenuous, and mostly one-sided. The child adored his mother, and it didn’t take long for Val to realize that a lot of the kid’s behavior was a result of his needing his mother’s attention. Her reaction to him depended on her mood, which could be explosive. There was no middle ground. She would verbally and physically berate him, and then the guilt would come and she would be heart-wrenchingly remorseful.
Val had been shocked the first time he saw the woman try to make amends for a temper tantrum that had occurred at bedtime. Johnny had ignored her orders to go to bed, feigning deafness and dawdling over a set of wooden animals Val had carved for him; and before Val could stop her, she was on the boy. She pushed him to the floor; yanking at his hair until he cried out, and the next thing Val knew, she was weeping hysterically and had pulled Johnny to her chest. And then, lifting her blouse, she had encouraged him to suckle; rocking back and forth as she held him, his head hidden beneath her shirt.
His stomach rolling, Val had taken the child from her. Johnny had fought him at first; crying and clinging to his mother as he tried again to disappear beneath her gauze blouse, to hide from the world. Pulling him away from the woman was not a vindictive move on Val’s part, just something the man instinctively knew needed to be done. He had wondered about the fact the woman was still lactating, something he had dismissed in the heat of passion when he had first bedded her; but this was too much. The boy was long past the age when he should have been weaned. The kid didn’t need to hide from the world; he needed to be properly comforted.
His decision to take the boy outside for a walk that night had proved a good move. The milk cow Val had just purchased was down in her stall, in the first pangs of labor; and together they had watched the animal giving birth. Water spurted from between the bovine’s hind legs, quickly followed by the calf’s head; the sack still intact. Val had opened the gate to the pen and allowed the boy to follow him inside, explaining what was going on; taking Johnny’s hand in his own as he cleared the membrane away from the calf’s nose. The mama cow, a docile beast, soon took care of the rest of the cleaning job; Johnny’s face shining as the newborn heifer finally struggled to its feet and began to nurse.
The boy stood leaning against the side of the stall, his face pressed against the horizontal slats; watching the calf. Val studied the kid’s face, marveling at the flawless purity he saw in the finely turned mouth, well-defined chin and smooth cheeks and forehead. The boy’s eyes, however, were different. On the few occasions Val had actually been able to make eye contact -- when, in fact, he had lifted Johnny’s chin to force the kid to look at him -- he had seen not innocence, but a mirror to a soul grown old before its time. And sadness; a gut-wrenching glimpse of a child with no sense of belonging.
Clearing his throat, Val pointed to the brindle-colored suckling. “Becerra,” he said, and then translated. “Calf.”
This was a new game between the man and the boy. Johnny’s brow furrowed. “Calf,” he repeated.
Val hid the smile with his shirt sleeve, dragging his arm across his upper lip. He smiled. The kid was an eager student, and a quick learner. “Vaca.” Again, he made the translation. “Cow.”
They continued the game; Val picking Johnny up and slinging him across his back and grabbing the kid’s legs; one in each arm as he piggy-backed the boy across the yard. Johnny’s arms locked around the man’s neck, and he turned loose only occasionally to point at things asking “¿Como se llama eso?” (What is that called?) as they headed toward the house. When they reached the porch, Val lifted the boy up and over his head, turning him around before setting him down on his feet. He pointed over the kid’s shoulder, his head canted. “Bed,” he whispered, nodding toward the door. "Cama."
Johnny ignored what he knew to be a command, wanting to play the word game a bit longer. He reached out; his left hand coming to rest on the revolver on Val’s right hip. “Pistola,” he murmured.
Val’s face hardened, the frown marring the otherwise gentle countenance. “Pistol,” he answered, taking the child’s hand in his own and lifting it away from the weapon. “Jamás lo toques otra vez,” he breathed. “Don’t ever touch it again.” With that, he picked the boy up again and carried him into the house and straight to bed.
The woman came to him in the middle of the night; laying her fingers against his lips as he came awake and then withdrawing them to cover his mouth with her own. He responded to her kiss, his entire body coming alive. When she moved to join him on the narrow cot, he shook his head. He didn’t consider himself a prude, but screwing the kid’s mother in the same room where the boy was sleeping… It wasn’t going to happen. Getting up, he stood tall above her for a long moment before he swept her into his arms.
She was incredibly light. He carried her through the doorway and across the hall into the larger room, depositing her onto the unmade double bed and collapsing on top of her. There was an urgency in him as he undressed her; a hunger that had been denied much too long. She writhed beneath him, her fingers snaking underneath his summer long johns to caress his hardness, a small sigh whispering across his cheek as she continued to play.
He buried his head in the soft sweetness of her long hair, closing his eyes as she manipulated him to an ear-pounding release. Just as quickly, her long fingers brought him alive a second time as she guided him to that secret place between her legs. It was, he thought, like being eaten alive. She drew him in, his body as well as his mind, and he felt her heart pounding against his chest; a more intense throbbing at the place where they were joined.
She fell asleep in his arms; her back cuddled against his belly, and for the first time in a long two weeks, Val was content.
Johnny woke as the first pink rays of a rising sun came through the multi-paned window above his bed. He yawned, kicking the tangled covers off and squirming his butt against the mattress as he attempted to untwist his night shirt.
He hated the heavy cotton shift. Lying on his back, he pulled at the threads that secured the buttons at his throat. The battle with the gringo over the night shirt had been intense; almost as bad as the fight against the weekly baths. In the end, he had yielded, but only because the nightshirt and the bath were things his Mama wanted him to do. As for the man…
Johnny turned over on his side, staring across the room to the other cot. A sudden, strange panic gripped his chest as he realized the bed was empty; the dread quickly replaced by a familiar fear: the fear that, once again, he had been abandoned. Scrambling up from his bed, the boy dropped down to the floor. Something wasn’t right. The man’s clothes were still laying at the foot of the bed, along with his boots. And there, hanging from the back of the chair between the beds, the man’s gun belt and pistol.
The explosion ripped into the early morning quiet, Val bolting upright in the bed. Scrambling into his long-johns, the man was already on the move. He lifted his long frame up and over the woman, heading for the hallway, a sinking feeling deep in his gut. From the kitchen, he heard Señora Fuentes stifle a small scream.
She joined him in the hallway, averting her eyes slightly at the state of her employer’s near undress. Still, she followed after him as he entered the smaller of the two bedrooms.
Johnny was standing between the beds, both hands wrapped around the Navy Colt. A thin vapor of smoke was dissipating around the boy’s bare feet, a gaping hole scorched into the flooring just to the right of his big toe.
Val gathered the kid up into his arms in a tight hug, quickly exploring the small frame with his hands and eyes. Johnny was still holding tightly onto the pistol, his face impassive, but a strange light firing his eyes. He lifted his head slightly, seeing his mother in the doorway; and just in front of her, the cook. The smile came then, a mischievous, boyish hey look at me smile.
His examination finished, Val turned to the two women and waved them away. He waited until they were gone before setting the boy back down on the bed. Reaching out, he took the pistol away from the youngster; staring at the piece a long moment before returning it to the holster that was still hanging from the back of the chair. As far as he knew, Johnny had only seen him fire the weapon one time; when he had killed a snake that had slithered out from beneath the woodpile while they were gathering kindling. That one time had been enough. The kid had figured out just how the pistol worked: cock hammer, pull trigger.
“I told you not to touch it,” he murmured, his voice flat. Seeing the kid’s smirk, he spoke again, this time in Spanish; knowing full well the boy had understood him. “Yo te dije que no lo toques.” The kid dropped his head, the smirk becoming a smile.
Val reached out, upending the boy; the tails of the night shirt lifting. Bare hand to bare bottom; five measured swats, a sixth one for good measure. The kid was shrieking at the top of his lungs. Feeling not one mote of guilt, Val sat the youngster back down on the bed. “Look at me,” he ordered.
Johnny was sitting with his head down, both hands at his sides; his fingers knotted in the bedclothes. The crying had stopped. Sniffling, his lower lip jutting out in a stubborn pout, he remained as he was; chin pressed into his chest.
“Look at me,” Val ordered again, his hand resting lightly on the kid’s shoulder.
Something in the man’s voice stirred the boy to obey. Hesitant, he looked up, meeting the older man’s gaze head on.
Val fought the smile, his eyes narrowing a bit as he stared into the sapphire blue orbs. “Next time you listen to what I tell you, buddy, and you mind me,” he said softly; repeating the words in Spanish. Taking out his handkerchief, he mopped the kid’s face, pausing at Johnny’s nose long enough for the boy to give a good blow. Wadding the cloth up and shoving it back in his pocket, he picked up the kid’s pants from the floor; shook them out and handed them off. “Need to get dressed if you figure on havin’ breakfast and goin’ into town,” he announced.
Johnny watched as Val turned and headed for the kitchen. He reached back with his left hand, massaging his rump. His eyes were drawn to the holstered pistol still hanging on the back of the chair, and in spite of the spanking, he felt the familiar tingle in his fingers; the one that always came when he was about to touch something he shouldn’t, the temptation strong. He had liked the feel of the gun in his hands; the strange feeling of power that had seemed to flow from the cold steel and through his entire body.
“Don’t even think about it, boy!”
The child jumped, his eyes widening as he heard Val calling to him from the kitchen. Scrambling to put on his pants and shirt, he headed for the hallway.
Boyd Ashton was in the general store when Val Crawford, the woman and the child entered the building. He raised his hand in greeting; “Val?”
Crawford nodded, reaching up to take off his hat when Señora Vincente came out from the curtained back room. “Mornin’, Boyd.” He watched as Johnny headed over to the counter where the penny candy stood lined up in rows of clear glass canisters. Angelita was moving towards the shelves of fabrics. “You work out a deal with Sanchez?”
The rancher was going through a stack of invoices. “Seems like he had some schooling in the art of negotiation, Val. Two minutes into our conversation, I felt like I was talking to you.” There was no bitterness in the man’s voice; if anything, he had found the entire incident amusing.
Val allowed a small laugh. “Johnny,” he called. He waggled a finger at the youngster.
Boyd watched as the boy turned to face Crawford, the morning quiet cut by his sudden intake of breath as he saw the kid’s eyes. Cerulean blue orbs stared back at him for a brief moment before the boy’s head dropped, his eyes hidden by a fringe of black velvet lashes. “Christ, Val. A breed?”
Val’s jaws tensed. When he spoke, his words came in a harsh whisper. “My mother was full blood Cherokee, Ashton. What’s that make me?”
Ashton’s face reddened. He had known about Crawford’s mixed heritage when he had hired him. But the fact was, Crawford looked just like his own Scotch-Irish cousins: not fair, not dark, with mahogany colored hair and eyes. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I was out of line, Val.”
Val nodded. He called out to Johnny a second time. “Ven aquí, Johnny. Ahora.” (Come here, Johnny. Now.) This time, the boy did as he was told. Val reached out, laying a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Johnny, this is Mr. Ashton. He’s a neighbor of ours. Say ‘hello’.”
There was a moment’s hesitation as Johnny considered Val’s request. This was a new experience for him. His life with his mother had been one of secrets; of avoidance and hiding. The men had wandered in and out of their lives like dandelion seedlings in the wind, and he had -- for the most part -- remained invisible. He looked up at Val, not sure what to do; the question evident in his eyes.
“Asi, hijo,” (Like this, son,) Val said, putting out his right hand; taking Johnny’s small hand in his own and shaking it.
Johnny shrugged. It seemed like a stupid thing, but he stuck his hand out to the man Val had called Mr. Ashton. “Hello,” he drawled.
Ashton’s face lit up in big smile. He took the boy’s hand and shook. “Less than a month, Val, and he already sounds like a Texican!” Fishing into his pocket with his left hand, he dug out a pair of Indian head pennies and handed them to the youngster.
Val was grinning like a Cheshire cat. He patted Johnny’s shoulder and gave him a small push toward the candy counter. “Give me a year,” he bragged. “The kid will hold his own with anyone; north or south of the border!”
Johnny was outside on the boardwalk, his face and fingers sticky from the two candy sticks he held, one in each hand. One stick was bright red, cinnamon sweet with a bit of a bite; the other striped peppermint. When he had first purchased them, he’d been torn by a decision he had never faced before: which piece of candy to eat first. Resolution came quickly for him: he took a bite out of each, rotating the flavors as he sucked first on one stick and then the other.
A dark shadow appeared on the plank walkway beside him; soon followed by a second and then a third. “Mestizo.” (Half breed.) The single word, whispered. “Bastardo.” (Bastard.) This word from a second, different voice. “¡Su madre es una puta!” (Your mother is a whore!) The third shadow moved in closer, and a sandaled foot kicked out at Johnny’s shoulder.
He dodged the first kick. The second one connected with his ribs. Angry, Johnny pushed himself to his feet, the sticks of candy forgotten. Head down, he charged the largest of his three tormentors; his fists pummeling the older boy’s chest and neck. He felt other hands grabbing at his legs, and he began kicking. One thing he had learned from years of seeing too much of the fighting that went on inside the brothels and the saloons; the vulnerability of a man’s crotch. Instinct told him the effect would be the same with the ten-year-old who had tried to grab his right leg, and he kicked out as hard as he could; grunting in pain as his foot connected.
The scuffle was increasing in its intensity as two older boys stepped in; their curses filling the air as they added more verbal insults to those already being chanted. Johnny had said nothing; his anger held inside and fueling the fury with which he was fighting. It was a hopeless cause. He felt himself being picked up, his body spread-eagled between four of the five youngsters who had assaulted him. They were carrying him down the stairs into the street as he kicked and bucked. And then they reached the communal watering trough.
He knew he was dying. As young as he was, his brief life flashed before him as they forced his body into the water; a fist between his shoulder blades shoving him deeper into the trough. A brief vision of a huge fireplace and a blazing hearth assaulted his brain as he was hauled to the surface and then -- before he could take a deep breath -- plunged back into the depths. His face collided with the bottom of the tank, his ears pounding as he hovered on the brink of unconsciousness.
Val stormed out of the general store, his long legs carrying him down the stairs. There was no sign of Johnny; just a group of five street urchins -- the eldest perhaps twelve -- huddled around the watering trough, their arms elbow deep in the water. And then he saw, floating in the stagnant water, dark curls. His heart shrunk as if a great fist had closed around the organ, and he stepped into street and began grabbing arms and legs. And then, fearing the worst, he plunged his arms into the algae topped water and pulled out his boy.
Johnny felt himself being pulled toward the light. No longer able to hold his breath, he opened his mouth and swallowed a huge gulp of the slime-filled water; and felt it flooding his lungs. Suddenly, he was upside down, a broad hand slapping his back between his shoulder blades; the foul liquid being forced from his lungs. He felt himself being brought right-side up; a man’s rough cheek brushing against his own as he was pulled in a tight hug.
Val stepped over the stunned children laying at his feet and headed again for the mercantile. Without saying anything to anyone, he grabbed a pile of cotton toweling from the display table, and headed for the curtained back room; Boyd Ashton right on his heels. The rancher wasted no time in issuing orders; frustrated as the store-owner and his wife hesitated. “Doctor!” he yelled; pointing toward the front door.
The youngster lay atop a small table in the backroom; his wet clothes being pulled from his body. Val was rubbing hard at the boy’s cold skin, working to restore circulation in limbs that had been starved for oxygen. He called out to the woman; “Frazadas! ¡Necesito frazadas!” (Blankets. I need some blankets!) When she hesitated, his voice rose, a desperation in him as Johnny’s lips remained a sickly blue. “Ahora!”
It seemed forever before the physician arrived. Val stood back, one hand on Ashton’s shoulder, his other arm extended, the fingers of his right hand stroking the little boy’s head. He watched as the doctor poked and prodded; seeing the frown as the older man lifted one of Johnny’s eyelids and saw the blue eyes. The physician withdrew his hand as if touching something unclean; a move that did not go unnoticed by Crawford or the rancher standing by his side.
Ashton reached out, grabbing the medical man’s arm. It was his backing that had brought the English-speaking, Mexico City aristocrat to San Luís to practice medicine, and he was about to collect his due. “You treat him like he’s one of your own, Ibarra, or so help me God; you’ll be on the next coach out of town!”
Val drove his own point home with his customary bluntness. “He won’t make it to the coach,” he growled, “and it’ll be one Hell of a funeral.”
For three weeks, the house smelled of eucalyptus and camphor; a funereal pall hanging over the people inside. Johnny’s bed had become a canopied steam chamber, Señora Fuentes, Val and Angelita keeping a constant vigil as the boy hovered in the nether world between life and death. They fought the fever first, and then the congestion deep in the child’s lungs; struggling to force spoonfuls of beef, chicken broth and bitter herbal teas between parched and cracked lips. And gradually the boy came back; a little more each day.
Val was sleeping beside Johnny’s bed, his long legs stretched out in front of him, his arms folded across his chest. He came awake suddenly, aware of a change in the boy’s breathing, and rose up from his chair to perch on the side of the bed. Johnny’s eyelids fluttered, his right hand going to his throat. “Me duele,” (Hurts,) he croaked.
The big Texican nodded. “I know, buddy,” he whispered. He reached out, taking the glass of water from the table beside the bed. Gently, he pulled the boy into a sitting position, allowing his head to rest against his chest. “Drink,” he coaxed.
Johnny felt the water sliding down his throat; his ears hurting, the pain easing the more he drank. Finally, Val took the glass from him. He held the boy for a time, his chin resting atop the mop of dark curls, relieved when he felt no fever; his eyes closing as he breathed a silent thank you to a God he had just recently rediscovered.
“Mamá?” the boy asked.
Val eased the boy back onto the pillows. “Sleeping,” he said. It wasn’t too much of a lie. The woman had found a half-pint bottle of whiskey the night before and had drunk the entire contents of the jug before passing out.
“Mear.” (Piss.) Johnny said the single word, his face showing his discomfort. “Necesito levantar...” (I need to get up...) Already, he was trying to push himself away from the pillows; his legs kicking at the quilt that completely covered his torso.
Shaking his head, Val bent down and pulled the chamber pot from underneath the bed. “No todavía, Johnny. No hasta que Doctor venga y diga que puedes.” (Not yet, Johnny. Not until we get the Doc out here and he says it’s okay.)
The boy was still struggling against the covers. Losing his temper, he kicked his feet free; the anger growing as he realized he was wearing a diaper. A string of swear words poured from his mouth as he rolled off the bed. He shimmied himself free of the offending garment, and before Val could catch him, headed bare-assed naked for the kitchen and freedom beyond the screen door.
Val caught up with the little boy at the bottom of the porch stairs. Johnny had stopped just long enough to relieve himself, attempting to take off as Val reached down and swept him off his feet. “Damn it, Johnny,” he swore. He pulled the kid tight against his chest and was rewarded with a solid punch to his ear.
“¡Dejame!” (Let me go!) Johnny continued to struggle, but he was beginning to tire; his breath coming in short gasps that rattled deep in his chest. Val was pretending he hadn’t heard the boy say a word.
“Val.” Boyd Ashton was mounted on a big dun gelding, his manner relaxed. He was dressed in the garb of a gentleman rancher; his tack more suited to the hunt than to roping cattle. He touched the brim of his Stetson in greeting, pulling the hat down a bit in an attempt to hide the smile.
Crawford was having none of it. He stared up at the man, his eyes narrowing, and then drifting to the filly the man was leading behind his own horse. Johnny was perched on Val’s left hip now, and he was patting the kid’s back as if he was burping him. “Got somethin’ on your mind, Boyd?” he asked.
Ashton remained where he was sitting. He turned slightly in his seat, nodding at the black. “Heard the boy was on the mend,” he ventured. He was silent a moment. “Will’s,” he said, his voice cracking as he mentally berated himself for his stubborn refusal to accept the truth; that his son had died without ever having seen the horse. “Thought the boy could get some use out of her…” It wasn’t too much of a lie. The real truth, however, was that he couldn’t bear to watch the animal thrive on the same ground where his son was buried.
Val stopped patting Johnny’s back; aware the kid’s head was now resting on his shoulder. “The boy’s got a name, Boyd. It’s Johnny.” He softened the words with a smile. “I’ve got coffee,” he offered.
“Out of a frying pan?” Ashton snorted. Val’s trail coffee was legendary; the kind you strained through your teeth as you drank it, knowing that sleep was impossible after the first half cup.
“Señora Fuentes made it fresh this mornin’,” Val snorted, as if he was truly insulted. “She’s got dulcitas, too.”
Ashton dismounted, pausing to pull a bundle from behind his saddle. Although his preferred foods were the more traditional Anglo meals his father had insisted on while he was growing up, the man had developed a fondness for certain Mexican delicacies. Dulcitas, the cinnamon and raisin tamales, topped the list. Stretching against the dull ache in his back, he followed Val up the stairs.
Val handed Johnny off to the housekeeper, smiling as the woman unleashed her tongue and scolded the youngster, alternately hugging him and swatting him lightly on his bare bottom. He watched as Ashton deposited the packet he had been carrying on top of the table. Reaching out, he fingered the sack. “Trade goods?” he joshed; familiar with the older man’s fondness for bartering.
“The boy…” he corrected himself, “Johnny’s still speaking Mexican to you.” It was more a question than a statement.
Val was pouring coffee. “Only when he’s pissed at me. He speaks it to his Mama, and the Señora.” He took a long drink. It was true. The more Johnny recovered the less Spanish Val had spoken to him. Not that he wanted to deny the boy his Mexican heritage. There was just a genuine need in the man to give the kid an edge for the hard times that would eventually come as he got older, no matter how much he watched out for him; when the blue eyes betrayed him as a mestizo. There would be little need for the youth to explain himself if he could respond to the taunts in English as well as in Spanish.
And then there was always the little trick of playing dumb; pretending that all you knew is what people assumed. English would be Johnny’s ace in the hole.
Ashton pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. He waited for Val to join him and the pushed the bundle toward the man. “Luisa,” he began. “She put some things together for the boy,” he finished. Taking out his pocket knife, he sliced through the hemp twine, unfolding the oilcloth covering.
An assortment of child-sized camisas in bright colors -- reds, blues, a startlingly white one -- tumbled out from the packet; the fabric soft, intricate embroidery and carved wooden buttons adorning the fronts and the cuffs. There were also several pairs of calzoneras, boy-sized pantalones in the style of the vaqueros, silver buttons running down the outside seam of both legs. At the bottom of the bundle was a brand new pair of boots.
Val reached out, fingering the shirt nearest him, working the buttons. He stared across at his companion, thinking how much the rancher had aged since they had first met. “Boyd,” he began, not quite sure what to say; something rare for a man usually so out-spoken in his thoughts.
Ashton wiped a broad hand across his face, the movement stopping just beneath his nose as he composed himself. He purposely avoided looking at the stack of clothing. “My wife wanted to come,” he said, his voice soft. “She’s…” the words faded off into nothingness.
Val knew exactly why the woman had not accompanied her husband. She was still in mourning for the son she had lost; her only son, collateral damage in the border war that had hit too close to home, and he knew she was frail. “I’ll bring Johnny by,” he said, the words coming slowly, “for a proper thanks.” The next words were spoken with more firmness. “You tell me what you want for the filly and the tack,” he raised his hand when the rancher started to protest, “and I’ll square up then.”
Ashton finished his coffee and stood up. Crawford was a proud man; one who insisted on a fair price for services rendered when he hired out; even more stubborn in his determination to pay his own way. “One hundred,” he said. He forced a smile. “American.” The dollar was far more valuable in Mexico than the peso. Putting on his gloves, he searched out the other man’s face. “The woman. How…”
Val’s right eyebrow arched. Ashton was pretty close to trespassing, but he felt he owed the man something for his kindness toward the kid. “She’s comin’ around,” he breathed. It wasn’t too much of a lie. Angel -- he had stopped calling her by the diminutive, Angelita -- was doing better. They had taken on some semblance of family life and Val knew only too well from his own experiences rough spots were to be expected.
The rancher stood for a moment, considering his next words. “You plan on her staying here, Val; you make yourself a life with her, people are going to talk.”
Behind him, Crawford could hear the gentle scolding as Señora Fuentes was putting Johnny back to bed. “Then the people can go to Hell,” he declared. “She’s had a hard life, Boyd.” Not that the woman had told him much about her background; anymore than she had shared anything with him about Johnny. And he hadn’t asked. “Hard life, hard choices. I mean to change that.”
Ashton nodded. “For the boy,” he murmured; knowing it was true, and that he had probably gone too far.
“For both of them,” Val answered firmly.
It had been almost four months. Johnny, the man thought, was actually going through a bit of a growth spurt; although he was still smaller than the other boys his age, more compact. He would never be a tall man, Val mused; he had inherited his mother’s diminutive frame, but he was well proportioned, and his body was beginning to catch up with his appetite. And his appetite was fierce.
Johnny sat astride the black mare, bareback, Val working the animal on a lunge line. The filly had been green-broke when Ashton brought it to the ranch; and Val had taken his time gentling her. She had a good disposition and the makings of a first class cowpony, and she was just right for Johnny.
The kid was a natural. He rode well forward on the horse, his legs gripping the animal’s sides, looking -- Val thought -- like a young Comanche buck. Johnny’s back was ramrod straight, but there was an ease about him; his body becoming one with the horse.
Val clucked softly to the mare, urging her into a trot and then into a gentle lope. Johnny leaned forward a bit, the mare’s mane lifting as the wind caught the long hair and lifted it away from the animal’s neck. The coarse hair brushed against the boy’s face; the same color as his hair, the sun catching the coarse strands of horse hair and the softer curls of the boy; turning them a raven’s wing black.
It was a magical thing, watching the kid astride the little mare. Val took it all in, making the slow turn as he worked the lunge. Johnny’s face said it all. It was as if the boy had been transported to another time, another place; and he and the mare were wild things free on the open range. Bringing himself back to the here and now, Val called out to the child. “Rein her in, Johnny,” he instructed.
Reluctantly, Johnny slowed the mare to a trot and then to a walk. When the mare came to a complete stop, he leaned forward, his arms going as far around her neck as he could reach. He began to talk to her; the way he had seen Val talk to the horses he worked, his voice a soft sing-song.
Val lifted the boy from the mare’s back. “You ready to try her with the saddle?” he grinned. He was recoiling the lunge line as he spoke.
Johnny’s forehead wrinkled as he considered the man’s question. The mare was saddle-broke; but he preferred riding her without tack. “Don’t need a saddle,” he said finally; the words coming with a slow drawl and only a slight trace of an accent.
“This is a working ranch, Johnny,” Val intoned. “Can’t work horses or cows when you’re ridin’ bareback.”
The boy’s head dropped, and he worked the buttons on his shirt between his fingers. “Can too,” he said stubbornly.
Val took off his Stetson and took a swipe at the kid’s head; not hard, just enough to make the boy’s dark curls rise and fall across his forehead. “Get your rope,” he ordered.
Johnny took off like a shot for the barn. When he came back, he was carrying a thirty foot braided reata. Val swept him up off his feet and onto the mare’s back; handing him the reins; smiling at the sight. There was way more rope than there was boy; and the boy was about to get a hard lesson.
They rode out together, Val dropping back just long enough to secure the gate. Johnny already knew where they were going, and urged the mare into ground-eating lope. It was permissible, he knew, to run the mare when he was heading out. Running her back to the barn, however, was a different matter; he thought ruefully. Val sure got mad when he ran her back to the barn.
Val rode after the boy, holding his breath as he saw Johnny drop the knotted reins across the mare’s neck and stretch out his arms to catch the wind. The kid was keeping his seat with his legs; his thighs and calves clenched soundly against the black mare’s ribs. It was a breath-taking sight; the total recklessness of child that had absolutely no fear.
Johnny’s reata was slung over his head and left shoulder and it bounced against his back as the mare moved into the dense pasture. Val kicked his horse into a dead run, catching up with the boy. “Johnny!”
The boy’s arms dropped and he picked up the reins, pulling the mare up as Val came up beside him. They topped a small rise together, Val taking the lead with his big gelding as they started down the steep incline. Cutting across the side of the hill at an angle, Val looked back just long enough to see Johnny barreling straight down the hill full bore.
When they arrived at the bottom, Val pulled his bay to a complete stop. He sat, taking the time to regain some control over his temper, and then addressed the boy. “You think you can rope the calf?” He pointed to the spotted heifer.
The kid lifted his rope over his head and began shaking out a loop. The heifer had become his training tool when he graduated from fence posts and rain barrels. She could get cranky, Johnny knew; and -- like her mama -- wasn’t the smartest animal on God’s green earth. But he’d roped her many times in the corral and it had been no big deal. In fact, it had gotten boring. He started to dismount, raising his right leg over the mare’s neck and intending to drop to the ground; but changed his mind when he saw Val shake his head.
“You’re on a ropin’ pony,” Val said, straight-faced. “Rope.”
Johnny settled back onto the mare. Without picking up the reins, he nudged her forward with his heels. And then he made the toss, and all Hell broke loose.
He roped the calf. The minute the loop settled over the animal’s head, he knew he was in trouble. Val had taken him roping in the open before, but he had sat behind Johnny; allowing the boy to ride in the saddle. He’d even taught Johnny how to dally his rope around the saddle horn after they’d made a catch. Only Johnny didn’t have a saddle horn.
Rope-smart, the heifer bawled, and then tested the slack. And then she began to run. Stubbornly, Johnny held on, just long enough to realize that the mare -- feeling the rope against her neck -- had set her hind legs and had come to a complete stop. And then she dropped her head.
Johnny went sailing across the mare’s withers, the slick leather pants he was wearing adding momentum to his flight. Too stubborn at first to let go of the rope, he found himself hitting the ground and tumbling ass-end over elbow in the knee deep grass.
When he finally got to his feet, Val was standing over him. Angry, Johnny looked up at the man and then aimed a booted toe at his shin, only to find himself tipped back onto his butt when Val hooked his other leg and dumped him into the dirt.
Val pulled him to his feet. “Rule #1,” he began, turning the kid around and dusting off the seat of his britches, “you need a saddle. Rule #2,” the fanny dusting turned into a solid smack. “You ever run your horse down a hill like that again, I’m puttin’ her back in the barn and you’ll find yourself walkin’. Understood?”
Johnny was rubbing his butt. It seemed he did a lot of that lately. He nodded. The silence was deafening. He tried again, in Spanish, even though he knew it would rile the man. “Si.” Still nothing from the older man, and Val’s hand was way too close to his butt. “Yes.” The man’s hand was hovering now. “Sir.”
Val nodded. He lifted the boy up, and swung him up onto his shoulders. “Let’s go catch a horse,” he proposed.
The boy was deep in thought, his hands wrapped loosely beneath Val’s chin. He had never experienced life like this, not that he remembered. The only constant in his life had been his mother; and even that relationship had never been stable. He knew she drank too much. He knew about the men who came and went. He also knew that somewhere he had a gringo father who hated him; who had kicked his mother out and sent them packing.
What he didn’t know was why.
His hands closed a bit tighter around Val’s neck, and he held on with everything he had.
They came back to the house just in time for supper. Angel was waiting for them; wearing the new dress Val had purchased for her in San Luís. It was a more elaborate gown than a town woman would have worn; but it suited her. And it was red.
Johnny approached her almost reverently. He reached out, tempted to lose his fingers in the soft folds of her skirt, but hesitating. “Te ves muy bonita, Mamá,” (You look pretty, Mama) he murmured. He turned, looking up at Val. “¿No se ve bonita?” (Doesn't she look pretty?)
Val looked at the boy. “In English, Johnny,” he prompted.
A frown appeared on the boy’s face. It was confusing for him sometimes; the man’s rules about using English. Val never corrected him when he talked to Señora Fuentes or her family, or his mother. But more and more, when Val spoke to him -- or he spoke to Val -- it was in English, and only English. “¿Por qué?”
Val inhaled. “Because I said so,” he replied, waiting.
Johnny stood between his mother and Val, his arms wrapped around his chest in a tight self-hug. It was as if he was trying to make himself invisible; to somehow squeeze himself out of existence. It wasn’t working. “Doesn’t she look pretty,” he said, his voice flat.
“Yes,” Val answered. He reached out, rubbing the boy’s shoulder. “She looks very pretty.”
They were in bed, Val and the woman. Their love-making had been as passionate as ever, the woman insatiable. Now, in the dark quiet with only the moon for light, they were talking; something they had begun to do more and more. Val kissed the top of the woman’s head, smiling at the sensation of her hair against his nose; the sweet smell of lavender that radiated from the warmth behind her ear. “¿Qué edad tiene Johnny, Angel?” (How old is Johnny, Angel?)
The woman shifted slightly, a great sigh coming. “¿Por qué?” (Why?)
Val’s fingers were tracing the contours of the woman’s face. “Boyd Ashton ha empleado a un maestro de San Francisco. Este otoño él planea empezar una escuela en San Luís...” (Boyd Ashton has hired a teacher from San Francisco. Come fall, he plans on starting a school in San Luis...)
The woman pulled away. She sat up in the bed, the blankets falling away from her body as she drew her legs up to her chest, her arms resting across her knees. “Hay maestros en la misión,” (There are teachers at the mission,) she whispered, “Sacerdotes.” (Priests.) She laid her head against her forearms. “Soy Católica. Juanito es Católico.” (I am Catholic. Juanito is Catholic.)
Under any other circumstances, Val would have laughed. He’d never been a particularly devout man, in part because of the hypocrisy he had witnessed in organized religion. Like going to confession and doing penance could really change the fact they were fornicating; and were doing it on a more regular basis than any trips to mass or the confessional. He shook the thought from his mind, not wanting to offend the woman; although he already knew his next words were going to set her off. “Los sacerdotes en la Misión enseñan el latín, y las clases son en español. Johnny necesita ir a una escuela donde las clases son en inglés.” (The priests at the Mission teach Latin, and the classes are in Spanish. Johnny needs to go to a school where the lessons are taught in English.)
He had placed his hand on her back, and was massaging her shoulders. He could feel her tensing beneath his fingers. “Angel…”
She levered herself off the bed, pulling the topmost cover with her as she went to the window. The sky was clear, and the moonlight bathed the woman’s face; the natural light from the full moon kinder to her than the harsh light of the daytime sun. She was a beautiful woman, and -- Val thought -- still young, but the harsh reality of her life had marked her. He slipped out of the bed to join her, going behind her and pulling her close against his chest. “Qué edad tiene, Angel. Por favor.” (How old is he, Angel. Please.)
She sighed, knowing it was useless to argue with this man. He was kind to her; always kind and she knew he cared for her. Not that it mattered. He could never care enough to make her care. She had stopped caring a life time ago. “El cumple seis en diciembre,” (He will be six in December,) she murmured.
He nuzzled her neck. “Gracias.” (Thank you.) The next was going to be harder. “Yo lo voy a mandar al colegio, Angel.” (I'm sendin' him to school, Angel.)
Johnny lay in his bed on his back, listening to the rumble of Val’s voice and the soft replies of his mother. He couldn’t make out what they were saying; his door was partially shut, but there was something comforting in the sound. More and more, it had become a part of his life: this night time communion between his mother and the man. Val, he corrected himself. He didn’t think of Val as a gringo so much anymore.
Life had taken a comfortable turn for him. He lifted his hand, using his flat palm to rub his belly; feeling the small mound just below his navel. It wasn’t that long ago, he remembered, when his stomach was always tight with hunger; a constant rumbling beneath his fingers that never seemed to go away. But not anymore.
When they had first come to the ranch, he had pilfered food from the pantry; stashing it beneath his pillow or under his bed, always afraid there wouldn’t be enough, or that it would disappear. The variety never failed to surprise him. Señora Fuentes had a large garden between Val’s house and the smaller adobe house where she lived with her family, and she grew a variety of vegetables and herbs. Fruit also appeared with a surprising regularity.
Milk; every day there was fresh milk and home-churned butter. Sometimes, when he’d done something the Señora didn’t like, she made him help with the churning; but afterwards she would give him small glasses of buttermilk as a treat. She baked, too. In the outside domed oven when it was too hot to cook in the house; indoors in the evening when it was cooler.
For the first time in his memory, Johnny was going to bed with a full stomach every night.
As if in affirmation, the boy burped. He giggled, turning over to press his face into his pillow, belching a second time and catching the scent of the carameled flan Señora Fuentes had prepared for dessert. On his stomach now, his eyelids began growing heavy, and he reached up with his hand to hold the lid of his right eye open. The yawn came then, and he felt himself drifting.
He heard his mother yelling. He quickly came awake; wary, old memories flooding back of other times and other places; of other men. Rolling off the bed, he made his way to the doorway, hesitating as he realized his mother was not crying out in pain. She was angry; her voice rising as she yielded to her temper, the words coming so rapidly that he couldn’t keep up with what she was saying, catching only bits and pieces of the tirade.
He knew he’d heard enough when she screamed the words: “Yo me lo llevare lejo...” (I will take him away…)
Panicked, he opened his bedroom door and ran across the hall, pushing through the entrance to the larger bedroom and running to the side of the bed; Val’s side of the bed. “Hurts,” he whispered, touching his belly.
Val swung his long legs over the bed and reached down to pick up the boy. He knew the kid was lying, and didn’t care. His next move was deliberate as he pulled the youngster up onto the bed, and settled him next to his mother. “It’s all right, boy,” he whispered.
Johnny snuggled in; reaching out to touch his mother’s arm. He pressed his face against her shoulder, feeling Val’s breath warm across his neck as he eased back against the pillows; the man’s long arm reaching across his body to rest at the woman’s waist.
Somehow, they reached a wary truce; Val and the woman going through the motions. More than once, he thought himself a fool, realizing that there was something lacking in the woman. In his heart, he felt that she was hiding some great pain that still haunted her; but a different truth was beginning to nag at his mind. Angel was sometimes extremely distant; not just with him and the Fuentes, but -- more often than not -- with her own son. She just didn’t seem capable of feeling; of being happy. Worse, it sometimes seemed she didn’t even want to try.
The flip side of the coin, however, was that Angel still wanted him in her bed. In that regard, the woman was voracious. It caused a problem at first -- Johnny’s need to sleep in their bed was as intense as it had been the night he had heard Val and Angel arguing -- but in the past few weeks that had changed. Johnny was in his own bed again, sleeping through the night, and Val and the woman were alone.
He stomped into his boots; leaning back as he felt the woman’s fingers against his spine. It was still dark; the sun resting below the eastern horizon, and there was a chill in the air. He reached back, caressing the woman’s face. “Necesito preparer a Johnny para la escuela,” (I need to get Johnny ready for school,) he smiled.
Stretching, she sighed; finger-combing her long hair. Although she had argued against the boy attending school; she had relented once she realized that there was an advantage to having the child out of the house. It was a different kind of freedom for her: knowing when Johnny would be gone and when he would be back; having a measure of time when there was no chance at all the boy would be intruding on her privacy or watching her. nd he was always watching her.
She swung off the bed, reaching down to the foot to pick up her nightgown. It was getting colder at night, and Val had bought her a soft flannel gown that felt like silk against her skin. She slipped it over her head and followed him as he headed toward the kitchen.
Señora Fuentes was already preparing breakfast. She was dressed, and the wood stove was fully stoked. As usual, her greeting was reserved for Val, with only a cold nod of the head to Angel. For her part, Angel simply smiled, making it a point to prepare Val’s plate and to serve his coffee. And then she would pull her chair as close to the man as she possibly could, and eat from his plate.
“Johnny!” Val called out for the youngster, watching as Señora Fuentes prepared a bowl of avena (porridge) for Johnny, cringing in anticipation of the battle he knew would be coming. Johnny hated porridge; Señora Fuentes thought it the only fitting meal for a boy on a cold damp morning.
There was no noise coming from the hallway, and Val shook his head. For some reason, it was getting harder and harder to drag Johnny out of bed in the morning; even on the weekends. He took another sip of his coffee, rising up out of his chair before putting it back down, and then headed to the hallway. “Boy, you better be gettin’ dressed!” he scolded.
Johnny was still lying on his stomach when Val entered the bedroom, both hands above his head; his right hand under his pillow, clenching the Bowie knife Val had returned to him. His right leg was dangling over the edge of the bed, his bare foot not quite reaching the floor. Val reached out, tapping the kid lightly on the butt with the back of his hand. “C’mon, Buddy. You got a long day ahead!”
“Mmmph…” Johnny’s head disappeared beneath his pillow. “Tired.”
Val pulled the blankets and the pillows from the bed, dumping them on the floor; laughing as Johnny curled himself in a tight ball and attempted to burrow into the warmth left by his own body. “Not workin’, boy,” he lifted the child up from the bed and tried standing him on his feet; the kid’s legs like rubber. Giving up, he sat the boy on his lap and began dressing him; his socks first, then his pants, pausing as he removed the kid’s nightshirt. Johnny yawned, but not before he got the word “red” out, keeping his arms down at his sides when Val shook out the blue shirt and tried to put it on him. “Red!” he repeated.
“Red shirt’s in the wash,” Val said, his voice taking on a no-nonsense tone. “Put out your arms.”
Reluctantly, Johnny did as he was told, but he still protested. “Don’t like blue,” he pouted. Not plain blue, anyway.
“Boots,” Val said, pointing to the floor.
Johnny stretched back against the man; still feeling tired. Reluctantly, he slipped off Val’s lap, fumbling with the boots. He yawned again.
They went into the kitchen together, Val lifting Johnny up and over the back of the chair and setting him down. He felt the kid tense, silently mouthing the words he knew were coming. Ain’t hungry!
“Ain’t hungry,” the boy pouted. He tried pushing the steaming bowl of porridge away.
Val pushed it back. “We’re not doin’ this,” he tapped the bowl with his finger, “…this mornin’,” he declared. “Eat.”
Johnny sighed, his head coming forward to rest on his arms. “Tired,” he said for the umpteenth time.
Angel reached out, pushing a cup of tepid coffee in front of her son. “Tómate esto, mi bebé,” (Drink this, baby,) she crooned. The sooner the boy was out of the house, the sooner she would figure a way to be alone with the man… To entice him further, she spooned several measures of sugar into the mug.
He drank the coffee; his nose wrinkling at the strong aroma and taste. But the fatigue seemed to be fading, and he willingly finished the rest.
Val shook his head; unsure about the wisdom in filling Johnny with a brew that would only add to his energy before the day was over. But what the Hell, he thought, if it’s the kick in the butt he needs to get him movin’ on a cold mornin’…
The coffee would soon become a morning ritual. Like the glass of warm milk Angel had begun giving him every night, just before bed.
By the end of November, the little family had fallen into a comfortable routine. After just more than two months at the little school house in San Luís, Johnny was thriving. He was a quick study; something Val had known from the beginning. The street smarts were already there, and the kid’s mind soaked up the other like a sponge. He could read and write in English now, almost better than he could do with his Spanish; but Carlos Fuentes was helping him with that.
Not that there hadn’t been a bump or two along the way. Seven hours inside the four walls of the one-room school house with only a short lunch break and afternoon recess left Johnny restless and on too many occasions, bored. There were five other youngsters about Johnny’s age attending the school, in addition to a dozen or so older children; more girls than boys, and Johnny was already displaying a whimsical, shy charm. What amused Val was that the little boy seemed drawn to the “older” ladies, the nine and ten year old daughters of a local merchant, who followed the boy around and insisted on smothering him with what Val could only hope was harmless affection.
But Johnny also had a penchant for getting in fights, and more than once Val had arrived to pick up him up after school only to find the kid sporting a black eye or cut lip. Johnny never talked about the fights, but Val knew what was going on. The kid no longer dressed like a border waif in the loose fitting gauze shirts, the ankle-length trousers and huaraches; but the blue eyes and slightly darker skin was still an issue for the boy. It didn’t matter that the other children who attended school with him were also of mixed heritage: the caste system was there. Johnny was white and Mexican. The other children, like Ashton and his off-spring, were considered high-born as a genteel mixture of Anglo and Old World Spanish.
“I’ve told you that you need to learn to walk away,” Val scolded softly, wiping the edge of Johnny’s mouth with his handkerchief. They were both on the front seat of the wagon, on their way back to the ranch.
Johnny was rubbing his flat right hand over the skinned knuckles of his left fist. “He hit me,” he complained.
“First?” Val asked, clucking to the team. He was watching the boy out of the corner of his eye.
The boy debated lying. “He called me a name,” he answered, avoiding the man’s question.
“That’s not what I asked you, boy.” Val urged the team into a trot. Sometimes Johnny had a habit of dancing around the truth. “Did he hit you first?”
“It was a really bad name,” the kid came back. He was staring straight ahead, his fingers now curled around the edge of his seat.
Val took in a lung full of air. “I can turn this wagon around and go back and ask Mr. Edmunds what happened.” Edmunds was the teacher Ashton had hired; a middle-aged Englishman who spent his off hours sketching and painting the local natives and desert landscapes. When the boy remained mute, Val made like he going to make an about face, calling out haw to the team.
“I hit him first,” Johnny admitted quickly. He didn’t sound the least bit sorry. It was his lack of remorse that was, he knew, going to get him in trouble.
Val corrected the team and urged them forward, hiding the smile. “Then I guess you’ll be spendin’ tomorrow in the house thinkin’ about how you’re gonna handle it next time,” he observed. Tomorrow was a Saturday.
One thing about Juanito when he was in a bad mood, Señora Fuentes mused as she cleaned up after breakfast, was that he behaved the same way with everyone while he was sulking. It was only a matter of time, she knew, before his mother would be angry with him and the ranting would begin. And where was Señor Crawford while the storm was brewing? Out and about on the ranch; away from all the trouble.
The housekeeper busied herself with the dishes, rolling up her sleeves and attacking the dirty plates as if she was going to war. With Johnny fussing in the background -- the boy making a dozen trips to the doorway and back to his collection of toy animals in front of the fireplace -- she continued with her scrubbing. Once the dishes were all washed, she began wiping them dry with the same gusto, turning around to watch as the little boy stalked over to the door one more time and stood at the threshold debating. She knew he was thinking seriously of leaving the house, in spite of what the man had told him.
Johnny was pouting. His arms were now crossed in front of his chest, and he was standing with one leg slightly cocked, the other foot planted firmly on the floor. His posture was a miniature Val Crawford when the man was deep in thought: and the housekeeper stifled a laugh. He turned to face her, the pout turning into a childish frown. She shook her finger at him.
A soft tread in the hallway caused the woman to turn away from the sink. She was wiping her hands, her chore finished; and she was anticipating going back to her own home. What she was seeing now, though, caused her to reconsider.
Angel had come into the room. She was dressed in a split riding skirt, wearing the boots Val had bought her; along with the new deep red camisa and the short black jacket. Her long hair was pulled back away from her face and secured with a scarlet ribbon that matched her shirt. Saying nothing, she strode across the room, past the cook; and right past her son. She never even looked at the boy.
Nothing. Angel opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. She was down the stairs and across the yard before the boy called after her again; and she disappeared into the barn. When she came into view again, she was mounted on Johnny’s small mare. She kicked the horse into a run without as much as a backward glance over her shoulder.
Angel slowed the mare to a walk, reaching out with her hand to stroke the animal’s neck. She had forgotten how much she enjoyed riding; had actually resisted the first time Val suggested they ride out together. Lately, however, they often spent many hours together, riding the high country, especially when Johnny was in school.
She laughed. Stolen hours, she thought. Time when she could pretend her life was what it once had been -- a woman sheltered away from the rest of the world, with no concern about a roof over her head, where her next meal was coming from: with a dresser full of clothes, a man who treated her with kindness, who bought her fine things. A child she could leave in someone else’s care for the bulk of the day… Yes. She needed these stolen hours. Stolen hours she could spend indulging herself in a need to prove she could take any man she wanted; play them for a fool and move on…
Her head came up as she heard the quiet clatter of small rocks cascading down the side of the hill, watching as the familiar gelding moved warily down the steep incline. Smiling, she called out to the man. “Hola, querido.”
Ramón Sanchez dismounted from the big grey. He stood for a time, staring at the woman; drinking her in, loving her and hating her at the same time. Hating himself even more for the treachery that niggled at his soul. But looking at her, the feeling passed. His own needs had always surpassed the needs of others.
Still mounted, she held her arms out to him; knowing he would come to her. That was her power; had always been her power, from the time she was just a child.
She was taking a bath in their room when Val came into the house; washing away the scent of her afternoon transgression. She could hear his quiet conversation with the cook; the first question he asked the woman. “¿Dónde está Johnny es?” (Where's Johnny?) Smiling, she lounged back against the sloped end of the copper tub. He would be coming to her. Soon.
Val went first to Johnny’s room; surprised that the boy was already sleeping. But there the kid was, dead to the world on his belly, his left thumb close to his mouth; the pillow beneath the digit still damp. The man smiled, reaching out to pull the covers up around the boy’s shoulders. The kid still sucked his thumb at night sometimes; when he was fighting sleep; but it was happening less and less.
Reaching out to the small table beside the bed, he turned down the wick on the kerosene lantern; hesitating as he saw the empty glass. There was still a small amount of milk in the bottom of the vessel, and he debated taking the glass back to the kitchen.
He changed his mind when he heard the soft swoosh of water from across the hall. It had become a Saturday night ritual. Johnny’s bath in the kitchen first, Señora Fuentes bathing the youngster in the galvanized washtub she used to do laundry; while he and Señor Fuentes hauled the larger copper tub into the main bedroom.
Pulling off his boots, he padded across the hallway; opening the door fully and slipping inside the room. The smell came to him immediately; lavender, always the sweet scent of lavender. He smiled, dropping his boots and moving to the side of the tub; bending down to bury his face in the long hair she had piled atop her head.
She reached up, her wet fingers trailing across his cheek. “Usted necesita un afeito, mi amor,” (You need a shave, my love,) she whispered. “¿Ha tenido usted su cena?” (Have you had your supper?)
“No hambriento,” (Not hungry,) he answered. At least, not for food.
She laughed, raising up from the water and scooting forward in the tub. “Me une,” (Join me,") she murmured.
He was out of his clothes in less than a heartbeat. Later, after they had finished their bath, she had shaved him; and they spent the rest of the night making love.
It was December 12th, Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe; patroness of all New Spain and Mexico. Even though it was early, the streets of San Luís were filled with people; images of the Lady everywhere, paper roses festooning the street venders’ carts. Hand painted replications of the blessed tilma fluttered in the early morning breeze, the corners of the cloths already becoming tattered by the touch of the passing devoted. Above the crowd, Val could hear the preaching of a penitent, repeating the words the Virgin had spoken to Juan Diego that long ago day on the hill at Tepeyac: “¿No estoy aquí yo, que soy tu madre? ¿No estás bajo me sombra y resguardo? ¿No soy yo la fuente de tu alegria? ¿No estás in hueco de mi manto, en el cruce de mis brazos? ¿Tienes necesidades de alguna otra cosa?” (Am I not here, who am your Mother? Are you not under my protection? Am I not your health? Are you not happily within my fold? What else do you wish?)
Johnny was perched on Val’s shoulders, enjoying a birds-eye view of the festivities. They had come into San Luís with the Fuentes family, Angel declining Val’s invitation to come with them into town; the woman still uncomfortable with the whispers that usually marked their infrequent visitations. It was something, the man hoped, that would diminish with time.
Right now, he and Johnny were headed for the doctor’s office. Val hadn’t said anything to Angel about his plans, or the boy for that matter; and he was relieved that Johnny had received all his treatment in the back room of the general store and his bedroom at home. The kid’s long illness had left him with a real aversion to the doctor; and just the mention of a visit put him into near frenzy.
Val reached out, his fingers closing on the door knob, and he ducked a bit as he opened the door to keep Johnny from bumping his head. The sudden downward swoop caused the boy to grab onto him even tighter, evoking laughter from both man and boy. Val reached up, grabbing the boy’s arms, and then swinging him lightly to the floor.
When Val looked up, he found himself face to face with Boyd Ashton and his wife, Luisa. There was an awkward moment as the three adults composed themselves. “Boyd,” he greeted. He turned his gaze to the woman, and reached up, taking off his Stetson. The woman was dressed in black from head to toe; her face covered by a dark veil that reached to her chin. “Ma’am,” he greeted, the single word coming softly. He kept his hand on Johnny’s shoulder, aware that the boy had backed up against him and was standing stock still.
“Val,” Ashton’s face colored; the embarrassment he was feeling showing beneath his tan. He had sent word to Val that it wouldn’t be a good idea to bring Johnny by the ranch for that proper thank you; not giving any reason why, something he regretted. Tentatively, he reached out his hand, gratified when Val accepted. When they finished the hand shake, he extended his hand to Johnny; smiling when the boy reached up and returned the gesture.
Mrs. Ashton remained silent. And then she sighed, audibly; her breath coming in a soft gasp as she spied Johnny. Reaching out with her left hand, she fingered the edge of Johnny’s collar, just below his right ear; recognizing the embroidered red shirt as one that had belonged to her son; a shirt he had outgrown that previous spring. “Así que este es Juanito,” (So this is Juanito,) she murmured, her hand lifting to caress his face.
Before Val could speak, Johnny reached up and took Mrs. Ashton’s hand in his own; holding it against his cheek, enjoying her touch. “Johnny,” the little boy said softly, looking up at the woman with something akin to awe. In spite of the dark veil, he could see she that she was very pretty; not as pretty as his Mama, but pretty all the same.
She couldn’t take her eyes off the child. He was, she thought, incredibly beautiful for a boy. So different from her own child; her fair-skinned, brown eyed Will. This one’s eyes were filled with the same innocence she had seen in her son, but they were so remarkably blue. Still staring into the child’s face, she spoke to Val. “He’s beautiful, Mr. Crawford.” She smiled then, facing the man. “You must bring him to the ranch sometime, so he can play with our Will.” Her eyes turned back to the little boy. “You’d like to play with my little boy, wouldn’t you, Johnny?” she asked sweetly.
Ashton cleared his throat, his head dipping against his chest as he avoided the other man’s eyes. There was nothing he could say, but he knew somehow Crawford understood. “We have to be going, Luisa,” he said, gently taking the woman’s arm. “Val,” he nodded his goodbye and led his wife out the door.
“Can I?” Johnny asked, watching as the man and the woman disappeared behind the closed door. He tugged at Val’s shirt sleeve.
Absently, Val answered the youngster. “What?”
“Can I go to their ranch and play with her little boy?”
Val inhaled, considering the boy’s question; speculating on how he should answer it. How did you tell a kid that a woman thought her dead child was still alive? He was still contemplating his answer when the physician, Dr. Ibarra, came out of his office.
“Mr. Crawford.” The greeting was cordial, in spite of the formality.
Johnny looked up and bolted for the door. Val grabbed him and picked him up; holding him tight against his chest.
Ibarra’s opinion of Johnny, as well as the big Texican who cared so much about the little boy, had changed substantially over the past months; and they had reached the place where they shared a mutual respect for each other. And Johnny… Johnny had proved to be a fighter and he had beaten the odds. By rights, the boy should have perished sometime within the first forty-eight hours of his illness; and there were two other times during the long siege -- when the boy’s small body had been ravaged by fever -- it had been a miracle that he had survived.
He reached out to the boy. “Johnny.”
Neither man was prepared for the scream. Johnny’s body went board stiff against Val’s chest and the man’s reaction was almost comical. He wrapped his hand around Johnny’s mouth, only to be rewarded for his effort with the sensation of his thumb being chomped on by a caged wild cat. “Dammit, Johnny,” he snapped. He popped the kid on the rear-end, just hard enough so that Johnny would open his mouth to holler, and thereby release his throbbing digit.
“In here,” Ibarra said, pointing toward the rear examining room. He grabbed a piece of penny candy from the bowl on top of his book case, and followed Val and the boy through the door.
Val sat Johnny down on the examining table; no easy task when the boy was still holding himself as rigid as a board. He finally gave up, laying the kid out flat on his back, holding him in place with a firm hand on his chest.
Ibarra held up the stick of penny candy; showing it to the little boy. When Johnny reached out for the treat, he shook his head. “You let me take a look at you, Johnny, and then I’ll give you the candy. All right?”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he weighed his options. He hadn’t eaten much breakfast; Señora Fuentes had made porridge again and he’d managed to dump it into the slop bucket when she left the kitchen to fetch more milk from the well house. Reluctantly, he nodded his head.
Val watched as the physician went through his routine; fingering Johnny’s throat to check his pulse, listening to his chest and then having him sit up so he could listen to his back. He nodded, lying the boy back down and palpitating his stomach. And then he checked his throat. “What am I supposed to be looking for, Val?” he asked.
Crawford was standing right next to the table. “You’re the doc,” he snorted. Then, relenting, “he’s been sleepin’ good through the night, but he seems to have trouble wakin’ up in the mornin’. His Mama’s been givin’ him coffee to get him goin’, but Edmunds -- the teacher over at the school -- has been tellin’ me he falls asleep sometimes durin’ school; and…”
Ibarra interrupted him. “What time does he go to bed at night?”
“Seven, eight o’clock.” Val answered
“And he gets up when?”
“Six-thirty. Every mornin’.” He reconsidered. “We let him sleep in sometimes on Saturday and Sunday.” It was true. A couple of times the kid had slept right through breakfast and damned near into lunch.
Ibarra nodded. “Does he go right to sleep when you put him down for the night?”
Val was beginning to hate all the questions, unsure as to why they were getting to him. “Angel gives him a glass of warm milk every night, and he’s out by the time he finishes it.”
“But he’s still tired when he gets up in the morning?” This time Ibarra was looking at Johnny’s eyes, lifting each lid. He reached out to the small cabinet at his back, taking out a small lantern with a mirror on one side, and a magnifying lens on the other. He checked the wick of the short, thick candle and lit it. “Pull those curtains closed, Val,” he ordered, nodding at the windows on the far wall.
Val did as he told; surprised how dark the room became. He watched as Ibarra pulled Johnny to a slight sitting position and waved the bright lantern back and forth in front of the boy’s eyes. He blew out the candle, and handed Johnny the stick of candy. “Come on with me, Johnny,” he said; heading for the back door. When they reached the porch, he turned Johnny into the full sun light, moving his hand back an forth in front of the boy’s eyes; intently watching the changes in the kid’s pupils.
Ushering the boy back inside, he set him back up on the table. “Anything else?” he asked.
“He coughs some; late afternoon. I give him that medicine you left; the
“…expectorant,” Ibarra finished for him. “Any other medicine?”
Val detected something in the man’s voice that bothered him. “Like what?” he asked, his tone matching the other man’s.
Ibarra thought for a time before answering. “Has Mrs. Fuentes been making her herbal teas, giving them to the boy?” He tried to keep the sarcasm out of his voice, but was not doing a good job. The rural folk remedies used by the peasants were a source of annoyance to the man: their theory that the fouler smelling and the fouler tasting a concoction, the better the cure. He was also aware of their danger. Peyote and belladonna were a part of the native culture, and could be deadly in the wrong hands.
Val was getting pissed. Señora Fuentes cared for Johnny as if he was her own; and had been a god-send when the boy was sick. “We don’t have anything at the house other than the… expectorant.”
The physician’s fingers were closed around Johnny’s wrist. Johnny had lain back on the table and was actually dozing off. The man’s voice lowered. “His pupils don’t respond to light like they should,” he announced. Trying hard to put things in laymen’s terms, he took a deep breath and decided to just spit it out. “Look at him,” he ordered. “It’s not even ten o’clock in the morning, Val, and he’s asleep!” His hand moved to the boy’s chest. “There is some congestion in his lungs, but it hasn’t got anything to do with what happened to him when those ruffians tried to drown him in the watering trough.
“He’s being drugged, Val,” he stated, not mincing words. “I’m not sure with what…” It hit him then. “Laudanum,” he breathed. When Val started to object, he raised his hand and silenced him. “The women at the bordello,” he began, stopping as he saw the look on Crawford’s face.
“What the hell are you saying?” Val growled.
The physician realized he needed to amend what he had been about to say. “Many women take tonics for the discomfort they experience during their monthly sickness…for headaches; cramping.” For God’s sake, the man thought, why the Hell was it so difficult to discuss something as natural as a woman’s menstrual cycle? He was fumbling around like fool! He took a deep breath. “Those tonics are usually alcohol and narcotic based. They can buy them off the shelf in the mercantile. Some of the women become dependent…”
It was beginning to fall into place for the Texican; although he wasn’t about to give voice to what he was thinking. “Don’t explain what’s happening to the kid,” he murmured.
Ibarra shrugged. “It does if his mother has been using some form of tonic, and -- somehow -- Johnny has gotten hold of it.” He saw the frown on Crawford’s face and continued. “Some of the patent medicines are sugared and flavored with everything from mint to licorice. If the boy happened to find some, and took a taste, he could have developed a liking for it. Like sarsaparilla…” He let the words drift off and then continued. “It would explain this,” he said, pointing to the still sleeping boy. “And why the coffee seems to bring him around.” He was quiet again for a moment. “Will he tell you, if you ask him? If he’s been getting into things that belong to his mother; that he might have found in her room?”
Val was shaking his head. One thing Johnny didn’t do was mess with his mother’s things; any of her things. He had been aware of that from the moment Angel and the boy had come to live with him, and now had the feeling it had been a lesson learned the hard way. “So how am I gonna fix this?” he asked.
Ibarra wasn’t sure he had an answer. He knew that drug addiction existed -- had worked for three months in an asylum, a veritable snake pit, on the Continent where many of the inmates were alcoholics or opium fiends -- but those had been adults. “Find out what he’s taking, and make sure he doesn’t take it anymore.” It sounded so simple.
There was a sound as Johnny stirred; his breathing changing a bit as he rolled over on to his side and curled into a ball. Val reached out, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Johnny,” he coaxed, shaking the boy. A little louder the next time. “Johnny!”
Sleepy eyed, the little boy raised up on one elbow. His eyes widened as he tried to focus, and it took a little time for him to realize where he was. He sighed, deeply, and then forced himself up into a sitting position. Stifling a yawn, he rubbed at his eyes with his hands. Then he remembered the promised candy. “You said you’d give me some candy,” he complained; pinning the doctor with a petulant glare.
Ibarra smiled. “A promise is a promise,” he announced. He pulled the stick of candy from his pocket and handed it to the boy. Giving the child a final pat on the knee, he turned to face Crawford. “You need to find out what’s going on, Val. And I’d like to see him again next week.”
Val nodded. He helped Johnny down from the table, keeping hold of his hand. “Next week,” he said.
He was still holding Johnny’s hand when they left the physician’s office. The streets were becoming more crowded now as the noon hour was approaching; the food vendors competing for space with the street merchants hawking religious items.
Johnny was fascinated with it all. He had learned as a toddler that festivals of any kind -- the pagan fiestas of the native indios or the Christian celebrations -- could be a source of unexpected income and compassion. He’d been adept at begging, and was well rewarded for his efforts: coins, trinkets, and an abundance of food.
A display in the window of one of the small shops that lined the main street drew his immediate attention, and he tugged at Val’s hand, pointing at what he saw. Carefully arranged on a pillow of black velvet were a collection of religious medallions of varying size and shape. The shop owner had been very clever in his showmanship, the dark pillow propped up at an angle to catch the rays of the high-noon sun, the gold showing at its most brilliant.
Val stood for a time, looking at the trinkets. Two pieces caught his eye: an intricately worked crucifix with a lace-like quality, and a coin-sized likeness of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Checking his inside vest pocket for his billfold, Val led Johnny into the shop.
Johnny stood back, aware of the jeweler’s frown. The boy’s fingers were tacky from the candy stick he had been worrying; and his attempt to wipe the gooey mess from his hands had just made matters worse. Sighing, he jammed his fingers into the waistband of his pants and waited.
Val seemed uninterested at first; taking his time looking at first one piece, than another. He was content to browse, occasionally commenting about the quality of the work, but purposely avoiding the two items that had originally drawn his interest. A half-hour passed, enough time for the man to realize that no-one else had come into the shop to look or buy. Smiling, he pointed to the cross, and the negotiating began.
When he indicated he was also interested in the coin-sized medallion, the bargaining became even more intense. Val picked up the medal, secretly impressed by the workmanship and the detail. Once during his travels deep into Mexico, out of curiosity, he had stopped by the basilica that housed the original cactus cloth tilma of legend and had seen the brightly colored image of the Lady. The pendant he now held in his left hand bore the same image, the detail of the face, the hands and the Virgin’s gown as intricate as what he had seen in the original.
He turned the medal over, one finger tracing the delicate script centered on the piece: No estoy aquí, quién soy tu Madre? No estás bajo mi protección? (Am I not here, who am your Mother? Are you not under my protection?)
He purchased both pieces. The cross for Angel, and the medallion for Johnny.
The merchant wrapped the crucifix and placed it in a small, velveteen pouch. He started to do the same with the medallion when Val shook his head. Taking the medal, he dropped down to one knee and placed the chain around Johnny’s neck. “For you.”
“Mine?” Johnny’s eyes were transfixed on the gold piece. He touched it and felt the warmth of the gold beneath his fingers.
The merchant was watching. “Usted lo debe tener bendecido por el sacerdote,” (You should have it blessed by the priest), he declared. “Así ella siempre lo protegerá.” (So she will always protect him.)
Val snorted. And then he saw the look on Johnny’s face. Twenty minutes later they were at the small cathedral, the medal was properly blessed, and Val was twenty more dollars poorer.
Ramón Sanchez lay naked on the wide bunk in the tidy adobe hut that marked the border between Boyd Ashton’s estancia and Val Crawford’s small ranch. The woman was with him, nestled beneath his arm; his fingers entwined in her hair. “¿Y dejarás al chico con él?” (And you will leave the boy with him?), he asked for the second time. Part of him wanted to believe that he was doing a noble thing for Val Crawford, insisting that she leave the boy behind, but the truth was he wanted the woman, and he intended taking her; with or without the child.
It was just that without the child, it would be so much easier.
Cat-like, Angel stretched; careful to keep full contact with the man’s body. He had been one of her first lovers when she arrived in San Luís; before she had started dancing at the cantina. He was a good lover, but he was poor. She sighed, no regret at all in her voice. “Sí. Dejaré al chico.” (Yes. I will leave the boy.) Reaching out to stroke the man’s belly, she spoke again. “Necesitaremos dinero, querido,” (We will need money) she whispered. “Muchísimo dinero.” (A great deal of money.)
He felt himself responding to her touch. “Tendremos el dinero,” (We will have the money) he promised. Boyd Ashton, in honor of the Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the coming Posada observances, was going to give each one of his one hundred employees a bonus: a fifty dollar gold piece per worker. Five thousand dollars in gold coin would be arriving at the ranch; gold coins Sanchez himself would be transporting from the bank in San Luís. He repeated the vow. “Tendremos el dinero.”
She looked at him for a long moment. “¿Cuánto?” (How much?) she asked.
“Cinco mil dólares,” he answered. "Dinero de posada de Ashton." (“Five thousand dollars,” he answered. “Ashton's posada money.”)
Val watched the woman’s face as she opened the small pouch; saw the familiar light in her eyes as she spied the gold. The fact the piece of jewelry had religious significance moved her not one mote; it was the mineral, the refined purity of the treasure she was holding in her hand that commanded her interest. Demurely, she held it out; turning and lifting her hair away from her neck to allow him to fasten the chain. Once the crucifix was in place, she turned back to face him. “Gracias, mi amor,” she breathed. (Thank you, my love.) She came into his arms then, aware of a strange hesitancy in the man as he seemed to resist her touch; pushing the thought aside as she realized the boy was watching them.
Johnny had seen his mother’s reaction when Val gave her the gift; something he had observed many times in the past, with many other men. What troubled him was that he saw nothing different in her face -- her eyes -- than he had seen before. As young as he was, he was aware there was a difference in the way his mother acted with Val than what he had seen transpire between Señor and Señora Fuentes. The Fuentes had something unspoken between them, something that didn’t require words but was obvious in the way they touched and smiled. He had seen that same thing -- felt it -- in Val, but not in his mother, and it bothered him. If Val was no different than the other men who had been with his mother… He shut his eyes against the dark thought, his right hand rising to clutch at the medal that was hidden beneath his shirt. ‘Our secret,’ Val had told him when they left the church. He knew instinctively the man was talking about the medallion; not the blessing.
Supper was a quiet affair. Señora Fuentes had prepared a slow cooking stewing hen with instructions to top off the pot with the raised buttermilk dumplings she had made earlier in the morning. Val did the honors, Johnny watching as the man adjusted the fire in the cook box, adding a bit more kindling and bringing the covered kettle to a boil. The house was filled with the aroma of rich broth as the pot lid began to dance.
Val hid the smile behind his checkered napkin as he watched Johnny eat. His plate was littered with chicken bones, the nub of a drumstick showing where the boy had gnawed away the cartilage. He was now trying to spoon up the last of the thick broth. Val reached out, tipping the kid’s plate up a bit to pool the broth at the plate’s bottom, calling out a mild hey as the boy lapped up the liquid like a thirsty pup.
When he pulled his face away the plate, Johnny’s nose was shiny with chicken fat. He didn’t resist when Val reached out to mop his face with his napkin.
Angel was getting restless. She had eaten very little and sat fingering the cross at her neck. It was an old anxiety; a mixture of boredom and excitement. Boredom with the little house, the little life she was now living; excitement over her impending departure with Ramón. But right now she needed a distraction.
She rose up from the table and headed into the bedroom. When she came back to the kitchen, she was wearing a small, pocketed apron around her waist. Without saying anything, she began clearing the table.
Johnny had slipped down from his chair and was doing his I- need-to-go-pee dance. Val waved him off towards the front door. “Straight to the jake,” he cautioned, “no stoppin’ off at the barn!” He knew damned good and well the kid wouldn’t mind him, but he didn’t really care.
Johnny did go straight to the outhouse. But once his business was done, he took the circuitous route back to the house. He stopped in to say goodnight to the Señora and her family, put the chickens to bed, checked on the scorpion killing cat that was living beneath the house, and then went into the barn to say goodnight to his mare.
When he got back to the house, the table was cleared and Val was setting up the dominos. He climbed into the chair next to the man and they began to play. Angel watched them, and the clock that sat on the mantle above the fireplace. As soon as the big hand jumped to the 7:30 mark, she went to the stove.
Val watched as she took out the small saucepan and ladled a cup of milk from the stoneware container sitting next to the sink. She had her back to him the entire time, using a wooden spoon to stir the milk as it heated. Content that it had reached the proper temperature, she removed the small pot from the stove and set it on the sideboard; taking down a glass. She filled it, and then turned around. “Juanito. Es tiempo para la cama,” (It's time for bed) she smiled.
Shaking his head at Johnny’s usual last-minute plea, Val stood up. He smiled across at the woman, “Let me,” he offered, taking the glass. He had watched the woman closely, unable to see what she had been doing when her back was to him, but he had noted a small bulge in the apron’s pocket. He turned to the boy, “Johnny,” jerking his head in the direction of the hallway. Reluctantly, the kid slid down from his seat and headed for the bedroom. Val was behind him, watching the boy; thinking of how the kid reminded him of a condemned man marching off to face a firing squad.
Once they were in the room, Johnny poked along as much as he could, going so far as to neatly hang his pants over the foot of his bed, his shirt over the back of the chair. Val watched as he lined up his boots just so; then lined them up a second time, squaring up the heels against a narrow gap between two sections of the plank flooring. He finally took his nightshirt from the bedpost, putting it on inside out first, correcting his mistake, and then doing up the buttons wrong. Val let him fumble on.
Johnny plopped down on the edge of the bed. Expectantly, he held out his hands for the glass of milk, surprised when Val shook his head.
“Not yet, Johnny,” Val said. He put the glass of milk down on the table. Pulling out the chair from the foot of the bed, he sat down; directly in front of the little boy. Elbows resting on his thighs, he looked squarely into the kid’s eyes. “Have you been goin’ into our -- your Mama’s -- bedroom?” he asked.
Puzzled, Johnny shook his head.
Val tried again. There was no way to be subtle in his questioning. “Has your Mama been takin’ any medicine?”
Medicine. It was a word with multiple meanings for Johnny. Sometimes, when his mother drank, she called the mescal ‘medicine’. But his Mama hadn’t had any of that medicine in a long time. She did have something she called an -- his brow furrowed as he tried to remember the word -- elixir. He said the word, the way his Mama said, trilling the ‘r’ a bit. “Elixir?” He’d seen her take it once, straight from the bottle; the brown bottle with the fancy label on it. She had several bottles she kept in the carpet bag she kept hidden beneath the bed.
Val’s forehead furrowed as his eyebrows came up. “That’s a word for medicine,” he said, explaining. The next question was a bit more difficult to put into words without sounding as if he was accusing the boy of doing something wrong. He assumed, however, since Johnny knew the word, there was some basis for that knowledge. “Johnny, you ever mess with your Mama’s medicine?”
Johnny’s eyes widened. No way would he touch anything of his Mama’s. He shook his head. “No.”
The directness of the boy’s answer was all the man needed. “Okay,” he said. He stood up, remembering the milk. He picked up the glass and handed it to the boy. And then, not even understanding why he changed his mind or why he was even considering the possibility, he lifted the glass to his nose. There was an odor other than milk; something intangible he couldn’t place. Taking a sip, he felt a minor sensation against his tongue; and the inside of his mouth seemed to go numb.
Val opened the bedroom window. Aware the boy was watching him, he dumped the glass of milk on the ground outside. When he turned from the window, he looked directly at the boy, forcing a smile he didn’t feel. “Must have let it sit too long,” he apologized. He was quiet for a moment. “Johnny, your Mama’s elixir. Do you know where she keeps it?”
Johnny’s face betrayed the confusion he was feeling, but he trusted this man. “Under the bed,” he answered, “in her big bag.”
Val reached out, giving the boy’s shoulder a quick hug. “Thought I might surprise her,” he said. “Pick up some more for her when I go into town.” Remembering his promise to never lie to the boy, he decided he would pick up more of the elixir. Still, it bothered him. “Our secret,” he finished, putting one finger to his lips; realizing this was the second time he had said those same words to the boy.
Smiling, Johnny nodded. His Mama liked surprises. “‘Night.’” He closed his eyes; but sleep would be a long time in coming.
Val carried the empty glass back to the kitchen and placed it in the sink. He could feel the woman watching him, but said nothing. Going back to the table, he began picking up the wooden dominos, carefully placing them in their box. When he was finished, he returned them to their usual place atop the mantle; and then stooped to rearrange the log that was burning on the hearth. He added a second piece of firewood; knowing that before the night was over it was going to become much colder.
Angel moved to his side. She stared into the flames for a time, the fingers of her right hand caressing his left shoulder. Something wasn’t right; she assumed it to be the long day. Val had been up before dawn to help attend to chores, to offset the work that wouldn’t be done while he and the Fuentes were in town. She smiled. It was, she thought; time to thank the man properly for the gift he had brought her. Standing up on her tiptoes, she blew in his ear.
The man felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. As certain as he was Angel had been drugging Johnny, he still wasn’t completely convinced she was aware of what she had been doing: at least, that it could be dangerous for the boy. The part of him that still wanted the woman -- loved her -- prompted that thought. The other part of him -- the part that had made it possible for him to survive an abusive father and a rough transition from childhood directly to manhood -- was telling him something else; that he needed to find out the reason why.
He leaned into her touch, all too aware of the intense animal-like sexuality that was so much a part of the woman. In spite of what his mind was telling him -- that there were things about Angel he now knew he had turned a blind eye to in his need to love her -- his body still craved to possess her.
Then, as if someone had taken the key to his heart and plunged it into his soul, turning off all feeling; he felt the familiar coldness sweeping through his long frame. If she was playing a game, he would play it, too.
He found her stash of drugs the next morning, after she had left the bedroom to go to the outhouse. A trip to Ibarra’s office after dropping Johnny off at school confirmed what he suspected: Angel’s so-called ‘elixir’ was a vegetable compound, eighteen percent alcohol and laced with a generous amount of laudanum.
Ibarra was frowning as he looked down at the brown bottle. “And the woman has been putting this in warm milk; giving it to Johnny at bedtime? How long do you think this has been going on?”
During the long ride to town, Val had done a lot of thinking; putting pieces of the puzzle together. He knew exactly how long Angel had been giving the boy the drug. “Awhile,” he said, shrugging. There was no need to tell the physician Angel had been using the drug to put Johnny to sleep and out of their -- her -- bed. “It won’t be happenin’ anymore.”
Ramón Sanchez sat mounted on his big grey, hands resting across the pommel of his saddle; watching as Boyd Ashton came out the front door of the main house. He greeted the man, touching the brim of his hat. “Patrón.”
Ashton looked up at his segundo. “Have you decided who you’re going to take with you when you go to the bank?” he asked.
Sanchez nodded. “Pablo Ortíz.” The man shifted slightly in his saddle, gesturing toward the barn with an outstretched arm. Ortíz was just coming out of the paddock, leading his distinctively colored leopard appaloosa.
The rancher considered the man’s words, satisfied with his choice. Ortíz had been one of the men who had ridden in with Val, and he had asked to stay on after the border dispute was settled. He was a good ranch hand, and more than capable with a handgun and rifle, but he was getting older, no longer filled with the wanderlust of a younger man. “Good,” Ashton said. “You’ll be back in time for supper?”
Sanchez laughed. The smell of pit-roasted beef and pork was already heavy on the morning air. Supper tonight meant the pre-Posada banquete (feast) Ashton hosted yearly for his employees and their families. It was also the time when he distributed the gold coins. “Well before,” he answered.
Pablo Ortíz joined the two men. A quiet man, he greeted his employer with a single nod of his head.
Ashton waved the men off; other things on his mind. Ordinarily, he looked forward to the yearly celebration. This year, however, his wife’s tenuous health had cast a pall over the festivities. He sorely missed the woman he had married.
The ride into San Luís was uneventful. Sanchez was mentally congratulating himself on his plan; all of his plans. The robbery, of course, was the first thing on his agenda. Once he had the money, had it safely stashed away, he would arrange for Angel’s departure, and then -- after a suitable amount of time -- he would follow her, and they would finally be together.
Ortíz reached out, tugging at Sanchez’ sleeve. They were in front of the bank.
Embarrassed at his daydreaming, Sanchez grinned across at his companion. He dismounted, grabbing his saddlebags, pausing to wait for his companion; and together they waded through the people still crowding the boardwalks; the seasonal festivities still in full swing. Sanchez patted his pocket, and then pulled out the letter Ashton had given him authorizing the withdrawal. Opening the right-hand door, he stepped over the threshold. In less than fifteen minutes the transaction was completed, and he and Ortíz were on the way back out the door.
Sanchez handed the saddlebags off to Ortíz, and watched as the man arranged the bags behind the cantle, securing the pouches with the rawhide thongs. Satisfied the gold was secure, he mounted up; and together the two men moved out.
He waited to make his move until they were twelve miles outside of San Luís. Sanchez was familiar with the country, having ridden out on scouting missions during the border war. He was a skilled tracker, and his distant past -- unknown even to Val Crawford -- had included time with Mexican scalp hunters who had pursued the hated Apache. That time had given him an appreciation for the land and its secrets.
At his suggestion, they left the main road; taking a short cut Sanchez assured Ortíz would cut their return trip to the ranch by several miles. Ortíz had no reason to question the segundo’s proposition, and willingly followed after him.
Less than tenth of a mile from the small box canyon and the hidden cave he had discovered during his solitary forays into the desert, he made his move. He dropped back a bit, allowing Ortíz to get ahead of him. And then, drawing his pistol, he shot the unsuspecting man in the back of the head. Ortíz’ head came back the moment the bullet impacted his skull, and then the man swayed forward, toppling from his horse, his fingers still wrapped around the right-hand rein. His horse came to a complete halt.
Sanchez moved quickly. He had a great deal to accomplish. Disposing of the body was not going to be any big problem. The small cavern he planned on using to hide the gold had a number of small anti-chambers, some pitted with shoulder deep pits. Those pits had reminded him of the catacombs in the hills surrounding some of the villages he had lived in as a youth; burial chambers the peasants had chiseled out of native rock.
He dismounted from his horse and led the animal to where Ortíz’ body lay in the dirt. There was no compassion in the man as he used his reata to bind the dead man’s feet; and he secured the rope to the fallen man’s saddle horn. Gathering up the reins of both horses, he led the animals into the brush at the opening of the arroyo leading into the box canyon and the cave.
Ground-hitching his own horse, he led Ortíz’ mount into the cave; the horse balking at the entrance but yielding to the man’s quirt. Behind the man and animal, Ortiz’ body scraped against the packed caliche.
Just inside the entrance, Sanchez tied off the gelding and sought out the lantern he had left inside the cave on an earlier excursion. He lifted the globe, touching a match to the wick, and adjusting the flame. Flipping up the mirrored reflector, he sat the lamp on a flat rock, the glow pushing back the shadows. He untied the rope from the saddle horn, jerking it free, and dragged the body the few feet to the passage way leading to a small antechamber. Bending down, he relieved the dead man of his pistol, and stuck into his waistband at his back.
Still stooped over, he began rolling the dead man’s body over and over until he reached the edge of the precipice. Straightening up, he gave the corpse a shove with his right foot; listening until he heard the muffled thud.
He returned to the main room of the small cavern, his attention now on Ortíz’ gelding. Pulling the saddlebags free, he hefted them over his shoulder, and picked up the reins. Leading the animal to the front of the cave, he paused just long enough to place the saddlebags in a smaller sandstone pit just inside the entrance; along with Ortiz’s pistol. He bent down, straining to wrestle a large chunk of sand-colored flagstone into place across the top of the pit; disguising his handiwork and covering it with the litter from the cave floor.
His next task was one he considered particularly repulsive: disposing of the dead man’s horse. He had planned this as well, although reluctantly. Mounting his own animal, he headed out of the box canyon, leading Ortíz’ horse as he guided his gelding up a steep incline. Soon they would be above the small canyon, following an animal trail up yet another hill. Another two miles away, they were above yet another canyon, this one branching south. Sanchez kept his gelding at a bone-shaking trot, urging the animal along the trail. The canyon was on his right, ragged and red in the setting sun; growing deeper as Sanchez moved even farther into the high country.
The landscape was as breath-taking as it was desolate. There was no water; very little vegetation, and a total absence of wildlife except for a lone condor; sailing high above the cliffs, gliding effortlessly to disappear into the clouds. Finally reaching the plateau, Sanchez was now on a rocky escarpment. There was no way he could go any farther in the direction they had been moving; his only recourse would be to retrace his path the way he had come.
Ortiz’ horse was still on his right. He began crowding the animal with his gelding, watching as the horse began to scrabble for it’s footing at the edge of the precipice. Dropping the reins, he kicked out at the gelding’s head with his right foot. Instinctively, the panicked horse backed away; the sound of iron shoes digging into unstable rock carrying across the rocky terrain. The animal’s right rear leg lifted, and when the horse put the leg down, there was nothing there but air.
Sanchez watched as the great beast attempted to bolt forward, the weight of the hind quarters causing the loose shale to collapse beneath the animal. The brown eyes widened in white-ringed terror as gravity dragged the horse into oblivion.
The animal’s scream echoed into the desert silence; Sanchez reminded of the terrified wails of the Apache women and children he had slaughtered. He dismissed the memory; much the same as he had dismissed the Indians and turned his horse to retrace his recent journey.
Once he reached the canyon floor, he paused to rest. He pulled the gelding to a complete halt, considering his next move. The money was his now, and soon he would have the woman. Only one more thing was required of him: to make certain that Ashton -- and more importantly, Val Crawford -- believed his story about Ortiz’ betrayal and the robbery. Once the tale was accepted, he and the woman would simply bide their time; allow things to cool down. He would leave first, and then the woman would join him.
Sanchez dismounted and tied the gelding off to a small sapling. And then, deliberately, he pulled his revolver from his holster and pressed the barrel of the gun against the fleshy part of his upper left arm; carefully adjusting the weapon at what he presumed to be the right angle. Clenching his teeth, he pulled back the hammer, and squeezed the trigger.
It was past midnight when Val Crawford was roused from his bed. He had thought at first Johnny, again experiencing his late night restlessness, had gotten up out of bed to come to their room, and had fallen in the hallway. And then he realized someone was calling out to him from beyond the kitchen door; calling for help. He bolted from the bed, dressed only in his long johns; pausing only long enough to grab his pistol and holster from his bedside post. Johnny was right behind him when they reached the door. “¿Quién es?” (Who is it?), Val shouted.
“Ramón… Ramón Sanchez,” came the answer, the voice sounding distant; weak. “Help me…”
Val waved Johnny away and unlocked the heavy wooden door; and then the screen door beyond. Reaching to turn off the lantern that was still burning beside the door, he bent down and surveyed the yard beyond the porch. Assured there was no one else on the perimeter, he stayed low and moved out to help the wounded men.
Sanchez had managed to bandage his upper left arm, but it was clear that he had lost a substantial amount of blood. Val grabbed him by his right arm, and pulled him along the porch floor and into the kitchen. “Johnny,” Val called, gesturing for the boy to join him. “I need you to go over to the Fuentes and ask the Señora to please come; and to bring Señor Fuentes. Hurry, Johnny.” Immediately, the little boy did as he was told.
Angel was now standing at the bedroom door; her hand clutching at her throat. Steeling herself, she crossed the room and rushed to Val’s side. “Permíteme ayudar,” (Let me help,”) she murmured.
If Val was surprised by the woman’s offer of assistance, it didn’t show. “Ayúdame llevarlo al cuarto de Johnny,” (Help me get him into Johnny's room,) he said, helping Sanchez to his feet and wrapping his arm around the man’s waist. Together, he and Angel guided the man across the living room and into the hallway.
The Fuentes arrived quickly, disheveled, but fully aware. Quickly, the wood cooking stove was fired up, and Jesús was toting great kettles of water for heating. The Señora was busy collecting the stores of medical supplies she knew would be needed; and had already begun brewing her medicinal teas.
Val eased Sanchez onto the extra bed in Johnny’s room, doubling over the pillow to provide support for the wounded man’s head and Angel busied herself arranging the blankets. Standing back, she watched as Val removed Sanchez’ shirt; the man moaning in pain as his wounded arm was pulled free from the sleeve. “What happened?” Val asked. It was more a need to keep the injured man from losing consciousness as it was curiosity.
Sanchez inhaled, gritting his teeth against the pain as Val worked to untie the blood-soaked bandage. “Pablo Ortíz,” he breathed. “We picked up…money…from…” the words came haltingly, “…the…bank in San Luís. Posada money…” Closing his eyes, he fought the pain. In control once more, the words tumbled from his mouth. “He went loco; pretended his horse had picked up a stone and got behind me. Son-of-a-bitch shot me; took off with the money.”
Val’s head tipped in a single curt nod. He was working the make-shift bandage from the man’s arm. “Meant to back shoot ya,” he concluded, waiting for the man’s answer.
Sanchez’ nod mirrored the other’s. He was breathing easier now. “Heard him cock the pistol,” he murmured. “Tried to duck,” he laughed.
“Yeah,” Val said. He was probing the wound. “Clean through,” he surmised. “You’re a lucky bastard,” he grinned.
Sanchez crossed himself. “Amen to that, amigo,” he grimaced. “Hurts like hell.”
Señora Fuentes bustled into the small room; carrying a supply of bandages and a steaming pad filled with a poultice she had created from her collection of herbs and medicinal pastes. Her husband was right behind her with a kettle of hot water.
Val cleaned the wound with a practiced hand, looking up once to see Johnny standing in the doorway. He gave the boy a quick, reassuring smile, and then turned back to the chore; cleansing the wound and stemming a renewed flow of dark, red blood. Applying the poultice, he nodded to Angel; signaling for her to hold the pad in place as he bound Sanchez’ arm.
He stood up and moved away from the bed; grateful when the Señora moved in and began cleaning up the mess. Looking down at Sanchez, he took note of the man’s appearance. For all the wear and tear, the man was looking far better than he should have.
Sanchez suddenly became aware of the other man’s quiet scrutiny. He looked up, unable to read the expression on Crawford’s face. “Ashton,” he breathed. “I need to get word to Ashton.”
Val nodded. “I’ll take care of it in the morning. Goin’ to send for Ibarra, too.” When the other man started to protest, he raised his hand. “We ain’t in the field anymore, Ramón. Besides, Ashton pays Ibarra a pretty decent fee to keep him on hand; he’ll be wantin’ to make sure he gets his money’s worth.”
Sanchez nodded. When he looked up, he saw that the cook had returned to the room and had a mug in her hand and was waiting expectantly. He took the cup and made like he was going to drink. “Appreciate your help, Val.”
“De nada,” Val answered. He turned toward the doorway, his eyes narrowing as he saw Johnny. Moving across the room, he left the women to tend to the wounded man, and picked up the youngster. “C’mon, buddy,” he said, patting the boy’s back. “Looks like you’re bunkin’ with me and your Mama tonight.”
Angel said nothing. She cast a covert look at the man in the bed, and then turned her attention to Val and her son.
Johnny snuggled into the cold sheets, shivering a bit. He felt the big bed shift as his mother, and then Val, levered themselves down onto the mattress and settled in. Turning his back to the man, he put his arm out and lay it across his mother’s waist; feeling the contentment as Val’s long arm came to rest across his shoulder.
Val lay still as he heard the woman’s breathing ease; waiting until the same regular sound came from Johnny. He remained awake for a long time, working things over in his mind; more questions than answers coming as he finally drifted off to a restless sleep.
Val rose at dawn, carrying his clothes to the front room and dressing before the smouldering remainders of last night’s fire. Once dressed, he added a sufficient amount of wood to the fireplace; and stoked it to get it going. He then turned his attention to the cook stove. The ash from last night’s fire was a cold grey now, and he raked the debris into the ash bucket, and filled the firebox with fresh kindling. Señora Fuentes came through the door just as he replaced the grid plate. “Morning,” he nodded. “I’ll be headin’ out to Ashton’s place. You need anything before I leave?”
The woman could sense the man’s fatigue. He rarely spoke English to her, knowing she preferred her native tongue; but she was willing to forgive his small transgression. He’s such a good man, she thought; but such a fool sometimes. “No,” she replied. “Carlos will help me. Will the boy be going to school?”
Val shook his head. “He’s still asleep,” he said. He smiled then, “Una noche larga,” (Long night), “para todos nosotros, Señora.” (for all of us, Senora.)
She was reheating the pot of coffee she had made the night before; strong coffee. “Si,” she answered, returning the smile.
Knowing he would need the boost, Val waited until he could smell the coffee; realizing warm would have to do it. Instinctively, the woman filled a mug for him, watching as he downed it in a single swallow.
A quick detour to Johnny’s bedroom was next on the man’s agenda. He moved lightly into the room, studying the injured man in the dim light from the still-burning lamp. They had removed Sanchez’ outer clothing the night before, and he was naked from the waist up; the bandage a stark white against his dark skin. His face was pale, but his breathing was regular. Val left without waking him. When he entered the kitchen, he called out to the woman; not breaking stride as he head toward the front door. “Necesito que mandes a Jesús al pueblo para que traiga al Doctor Ibarra." (I need you to send Jesús into town to fetch Doctor Ibarra.) The woman nodded.
Ashton’s housekeeper ushered Val into the large library, where the rancher was seated at his desk. “Boyd,” he greeted.
Ashton looked up. He hadn’t shaved yet; something unusual for a man who was usually very fastidious about his appearance. “Val.”
Val got right to the point. “Ramón Sanchez showed up at my place late last night,” he began. “He’s wounded. Says that Pablo Ortíz shot him and took the posada money.” Like everyone in the area, Val knew about Ashton’s tradition of rewarding his workers; a custom that had been begun by his father. “Arm wound. I patched him up and he seems to be holding his own, but I’ve sent for my man for Ibarra.”
Relieved, the rancher stood up; raking his long fingers through already unkempt hair. He seemed almost relieved. “I expected him back in time for the festival. When he didn’t show up…” He looked across at the man. “I thought maybe the two of them…”
“…took off with the gold,” Val finished.
Ashton nodded, his face registering a flicker of guilt. “The border war,” he began. “I lost so many men; good men. Hard to trust the new ones,” he declared.
“Yeah,” Val acknowledged. For now, he was keeping his own thoughts -- his doubts -- to himself.
“I need to shave,” Ashton said.
Unable to help himself, Val laughed. “Sanchez ain’t goin’ to care one way or the other, Boyd,” he observed.
They arrived at Val’s place just as Ibarra’s buggy pulled up into the yard. The physician was climbing down from the small hack, picking up his satchel from beneath the seat. “Mr. Ashton,” he greeted. “Val.”
Together, the three men climbed the porch stairs. Val opened the door. “Ramón Sanchez; Johnny’s bedroom. He was shot yesterday.”
Ibarra said nothing; just headed toward the hallway, Ashton and Val following in his wake. When they entered the room, all three men registered their surprise as they saw Angel standing beside the bed, a glass of water in her hand. She offered them her best smile. “Lo oí pidiendo agua,” she lied. (I heard him call out for water.) She put down the glass and left the room.
Sanchez nodded. “Thirsty as hell,” he grimaced; repositioning himself on the narrow cot. He turned to smile up at the woman. “Gracias, Señora.”
Ibarra moved to the side of the bed. He sat down his bag, bending slightly to place the back of his hand against the man’s forehead; then quickly moving to untie the bandage on Sanchez’ upper left arm. Frowning, he pulled the poultice away from the wound, and then gingerly probed the area, careful not to press too hard. “I need to look from the other side,” he said. “Can you lift your arm?”
Gritting his teeth, Sanchez complied; relieved when the physician helped ease the arm back down to his side. Satisfied, the doctor took fresh linen strips from his bag and rebound the wound. Turning to face Val, he smiled. “You missed your calling, Crawford. Maybe you should be hanging out a shingle.”
Val dismissed the compliment with a bemused grunt. “Right. So he ain’t goin’ to die.”
“No,” Ibarra said. He reached into his bag, pulling out several individual packets of medicine. “For the pain,” he said, speaking now to Sanchez. “You’ve got a fever; nothing unexpected.”
Ashton moved forward slightly. “How soon can I take him back to my place,” he asked.
Ibarra considered the man’s question. “Val’s place is closer to town than your ranch, sir,” he observed. “I’d prefer he stay here,” he looked across as Val, “at least until the fever is gone.” He was quiet a moment. “Any gunshot wound, even a relatively minor one, is prone to infection.
“How long were you out?” he asked, shifting his attention to the wounded man.
Sanchez hesitated for a time before answering. He had carefully planned everything, including the self-inflicted wound. What he hadn’t anticipated was the ungodly pain he experienced when the lead ball nicked the bone before exiting the fleshy part of his arm. “Not sure,” he said. “Took a little crawlin’ around in the dirt to get back on my feet; to find my horse.” He cleared his throat and nodded toward the glass of water, taking a long drink as the physician held the vessel. Refreshed, he began rubbing at his arm, just at the elbow. “Damned near bled out, though,” he lied.
“Val?” Ibarra called out to the man. “Do you have a problem with him staying here?”
Val shook his head. “Nope,” he answered.
Ashton looked thoughtful for a long moment, and then nodded his head. “I’ll send one of my men over with some of your things, Ramón. Clean cloths.” He rubbed self consciously at his chin; the stubble beginning to itch. “Do you need anything else?”
Sanchez hid the smile with his hand, swiping his nose with the back of his hand. “No, sir,” he answered. He turned the smile on Val. “Looks like I’ll be winning a little money playing dominoes, amigo,” he grinned.
There is was again, Val thought. That word friend, tossed around with such ease. “I’ve been teaching Johnny to play,” he joshed. “Maybe I’ll have him give you a few lessons.”
Señora Fuentes appeared at the door. “He hecho café fresco,” she announced. “Y hay churros.” (I've made fresh coffee, and there are churros.) The three men followed her back into the kitchen.
Val was standing beside the physician’s buggy, his hands stuffed into his pockets; Boyd Ashton standing to his right, smoking a cigar. Ibarra seemed to be stalling. “You look like a man with something on his mind,” he observed, speaking to the physician.
“Then you must be looking in a mirror,” Ibarra snapped back. “That wound…”
There was a sound as Val scraped at the dirt with the toe of his right boot. “Bullet went in the front of his arm, and came out the back,” he said, matter-of-factly.
Ibarra stared across at the man. “You know…”
“Know what?” Ashton interrupted, his face darkening as he considered what he was hearing.
Val’s jaws tensed. “I know that a lead ball makes a small hole goin’ in, and a bigger one comin’ out,” he said quietly, the fingers of his right hand tapping the walnut grip of his pistol. “If Ortíz had shot him from behind,” he lifted his right arm and pointed to the fleshy part just below his shoulder, “the wound would have been in his right arm; not his left.” There was more, but he chose not to say anything else.
Ashton’s eyes narrowed. “Why would he lie?”
Val was shaking his head. “Don’t know yet,” he answered, “but I sure in Hell intend to find out why he did.”
“You’re going after Ortíz,” the rancher said. It was more a statement of fact than a question.
“Somethin’s not right,” Val said. “Sanchez still had his pistol when he rode in,” he continued. The man’s holster and weapon were now hanging on a peg beside the front door. “If Ortíz is out there, he’s the one with the answers.” The next words came more deliberately. “And the money.”
Ashton was quiet for a long time, the cigar clenched in his teeth. The smoke had gone out, and he was chewing on it, deep in thought. “Is it possible Ortíz got the drop on him; took the money, and he’s just too damned proud to admit the man got the gold away from him?”
Both men were looking intently at Val, and he did something that surprised them. He took out a bag of tobacco and a packet of papers, and began building a smoke, his movements slow, deliberate. “Maybe,” he said, not believing it; still working the thing over in his mind. He was rolling the cigarette now, the paper curved around his forefinger as he tamped the tobacco into place. Twisting the ends, he lit up. The next words came one with a stream of blue smoke. “Sure in Hell ain’t goin’ to find out standin’ here doin’ nothin’.”
Ibarra considered the man’s words. It was plain Crawford had no intention of saying anything else; at least not to him. He started to climb into the buggy, and turned back to face the man. “How’s Johnny doing?” he asked.
Surprised, Val looked across at the man. “He’s not sleepin’ as good as he was, but he’s comin’ along.”
The physician nodded. He stepped up into the buggy. “Anything changes with Sanchez, send Jesús and I’ll come.”
Ashton watched as the buggy headed down the roadway. “I can get someone else to do this, Val,” he said, nodding toward the house. “You’ve got the boy to think about now,” he hesitated, “a family.”
Val took another long drag on his cigarette and then tossed it to the ground; grinding it out beneath the heel of his boot. “There isn’t anyone else,” he breathed. “All you’ve got are the federales. By the time you send for them, Ortíz will be long gone. He’s already got damned near a day on me as it is.” He inhaled. “Nope. I’ll handle this.”
Although he didn’t say anything, Ashton was relieved. What Crawford had said was the truth: five thousand dollars of his money was out there, and time was a commodity that could not be wasted.
Val was in the barn and dressed for the trail. Carlos Fuentes had stabled Ramón Sanchez’ gelding after the man had been attended to; and the horse was making himself right at home. The man unlatched the gate to the stall, and moved inside. Patting the animal’s rump, he moved forward to the gelding’s head and methodically began picking up the horse’s legs; right foreleg first. When he came back to the animal’s rear end; he picked up the left hind leg, cocking the hoof on his knee as he fingered the shoe. The piece of iron had been forged in a unique bell shape; a lip formed at the rounded top that extended upwards in an attempt to protect an area of the hoof that showed evidence of a sand crack; the metal filed to fit. There was an indentation above the hairline gap; man-made, another attempt to stop the damage. Val had seen this kind of shoeing only once before, and knew the pattern to be unique.
He backed the gelding out of the stall, turned it, and then led it out of the barn. Heading for the damp ground at the base of the watering trough, he maneuvered the animal until the gelding walked through the thin layer of mud, his eyes locked on the tracks left behind. Finally satisfied, he led the animal to the stock corral, opened the gate and turned the gelding loose.
Johnny looked up as Val came into the kitchen. The child looked sleepy-eyed; understandable since the house had been in a state of turmoil ever since Sanchez had ridden in, and he was picking at his breakfast. Reaching out, Val tousled the kid’s hair as he passed him, heading for the stove and the coffee pot. Addressing the cook, he kept his voice low. “I’ve got some business to take care of,” it wasn’t a complete lie. “May take awhile.”
The woman poured the coffee, watching as Val blew into the mug. “¿Desayuno?" (Breakfast?) she asked.
He considered the question and shook his head. “Apenas me empaca alguna cecina, algunas galletas, si tienes. (Just pack me up some jerky; some biscuits, if you got any.) He finished the java; deciding not to drink a second cup.
Johnny slipped from his chair. He could sense that something was going on. Crossing to the stove, he tugged at Val’s shirt sleeve. “I wanna go with you,” he implored, staring up into the man’s face.
Val dropped down to one knee, his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You be a good boy, Johnny.” There was ‘good’, and there was ‘good’, he thought; but he knew the kid would try. He tapped the boy’s nose with his finger, and then looked up at the housekeeper. “Si no regresa, lo apreciaría si usted mantengaria Johnny en su lugar. ¿Puede hacer usted eso?” (If I don't make it home tonight, I'd like you to keep Johnny at your place. Can you do that?)
The boy didn’t like what he was hearing. In the time they’d been together, Val had never gone anywhere that required him to be away from home overnight. “I wanna go with you!” he repeated, his tone and manner belligerent. He stomped his foot to make his point.
Señora Fuentes had finished packing Val’s meager trail supplies. She reached out, handing the packet to the man. Then, turning to Johnny, she tugged a bit on his right ear; the same way she did when she was bathing him and checking to see if it was clean. She was frowning. “Su papá dijo, ‘no,’ chico, Usted necesita obedecerlo.” (Your papa said, 'no', boy, You need to obey him.) The use of the word ‘papa’ came so naturally, the woman and the man didn’t even realize it had been said. But Johnny heard it, and it was etched upon his heart. He nodded. And then, impulsively, he hugged the man, not wanting to let go.
Reluctantly, Val pulled away. He stood up. Angel, he knew was still sleeping; and he decided not to wake her.
Returning to the barn, he saddled the big gelding, waiting until he was out of the barn before swinging aboard and heading out at a trot. Johnny was standing on the front porch when he passed by the house, and he touched the brim of his hat; giving the boy a wink. Then, clear of the yard, he kicked his horse into a gentle lope; enjoying the feel of the horse beneath him; enjoying even more that he could still sense the boy’s eyes on his back.
He didn’t pull up to a walk until he reached the road leading into San Luís. Sanchez’ story, when he told it, had been precise; almost too detailed. The stop at the bank; the return trip heading back to Ashton’s place. The story that Pablo Ortíz had dropped behind him; shot him, and had taken the gold.
Val had two problems with the man’s story: the wound was in his left arm, and the location where the robbery supposedly took place. The first problem, the wound, had been suspicious from the outset. There had been powder burns on the man’s shirt sleeve, in addition to the fact the entrance wound was in the front of the arm, not the back. Also, Ortíz was right handed. If he had shot Sanchez from behind, the wound would have been in the man’s right arm; not his left. Val knew in his gut the wound was self-inflicted.
The next problem was the where Sanchez said the attack had occurred. Twelve miles outside of San Luís; on the main road leading out of town. A road that was heavily traveled because of the festival.
Val dismounted. Tracking on the roadway would be an impossibility, even with the distinctive shoe on Sanchez’s horse; but he was looking now for other sign. The weather had been good during all the travel that had occurred; and there had been no rain. Even after a day, if Sanchez had been shot and left to bleed out on the roadway, there would have been signs. And there were none.
Patiently, Val began back-tracking, leading his horse. Head down, his eyes swept the side of the road. He had walked almost a quarter of a mile when he saw the first signs. A disturbance in the dirt at the side of the road; a break in the bermed earth that edged the well-traveled roadway. He caught the subtle change in the terrain, the place where two horses had cut away from the main thoroughfare; indentations where the hooves had cut into the dirt, a slight furrowing that indicated the animals were at a walk.
Following the trail, he remained on foot; catching a glimpse of an occasional scarring of iron shoes against soft shale. Further into the brush, he saw the first tell-tale sign of Sanchez’ gelding, a faint but readable imprint of the animal’s rear hoof. Mounting up, Val followed the other signs. A pile of horse apples, the ground beneath them still moist when Val dismounted to check.
Back in the saddle, he continued on; aware that the sun was setting. He turned slightly in the saddle, unlacing the straps securing his bedroll just long enough to pull his serape free. Shrugging into the woolen blanket, he continued tracking. A broken branch here; a displaced rock there, the signs teasing him now as darkness made them harder to read.
He made camp, debating if he should turn back and ride home. But the problem kept niggling at him; that and the burden of more than a measure of guilt. He had recommended both Sanchez and Ortíz for their jobs at Boyd Ashton’s ranch; and he felt responsible. One way or the other, he was going to solve this riddle. He was also going to recover Ashton’s stolen gold.
Señora Fuentes was standing at the stove; her arms crossed in front of her breasts, a defiant look in her eyes. She was doing a supreme job of holding her temper, but only because of the boy. Her right foot was beating a steady tattoo on the floor; and she was chewing on her bottom lip. And then she spoke. “Sr. Crawford me pidió que lleve al chico a mi hogar, y eso es lo que haré.” (Mr. Crawford said I was to take the boy home with me, and that's what I'm going to do.)
Angel’s face was a mask of false indignation. This was a game she often played with the woman she considered nothing more than a criada (maid); at least when Val was gone. “¡El es mi hijo! Soy la unica, que decidirá donde él se queda.” (He is my son! I am the one who will decide where he stays.)
Johnny stood by the front door, watching the two women. He was torn by what he was hearing. He didn’t feel comfortable in the house when Val was gone; especially with the wounded man sleeping in the extra cot in his bedroom. The thought of having to sleep in the same room as Sanchez bothered him. He didn’t like Sanchez; knew the man was a liar; pretending to be Val’s friend and playing like he didn’t know his Mama. He knew her alright; had hung around her plenty before she started dancing at the cantina. And his Mama was pretending, too.
Shoulda told Val, he thought. His entire body began to quake, and he felt sick to his stomach. He couldn’t tell Val. If he did, the man wouldn’t want his Mama anymore. Wouldn’t want him. And they would have to leave.
If Señora Fuentes was intimidated by Angel’s stiff-backed arrogance, it wasn’t showing. She smiled a sly smile that sparked a small fire in her dark brown eyes. “¿Y dónde dormirá, señora?” (And where will he sleep, madam?), she asked, the words coming whisper quiet, the disdain evident. “Sr. Sanchez no se ha recuperado todavía. Y Juanito está inquieto de noche. Usted sabe lo qué el Doctor Ibarra dijo...” (Mr. Sanchez is not recovered yet. And Juanito is restless at night. You know what Doctor Ibarra said...)
Angel’s eyes flickered with a fire of their own. She hated the housekeeper; had hated her from the first day. The woman was always watching her; always judging her. Un campesina, juzgándola. (A peasant, judging her.) A clever peasant, she realized. “¿Y qué si necesito ayuda con el Sr. Sanchez?” (And what if I need help with Mr. Sanchez?)
Señora Fuentes’ smile grew. “Mi hijo se quedara en la habitación de Juanito,” (My son will stay in Juanito's room) she answered. Carlos was seventeen; a very mature seventeen, and very much his mother’s son. He did not trust or like Juanito’s mother. “Si usted necesita ayuda, él vendrá y me obtendrá.” (If you need help, he will come and get me.)
Johnny watched his mother; tried reading the look on her face. Usually he was very good at gauging her moods. It was something in her eyes more than anything else; if he watched her closely he could see what other’s often failed to sense. She was very good at smiling; using her mouth to convey what she wanted men to see, the same way she used her lips to deceive. But what she truly felt was always in her eyes: anger, hate, disappointment; or, worst of all, the cold emptiness that conveyed a total lack of compassion, of love. Johnny had seen it all; and he still loved her. “Mamá?”
She turned to look at him, her eyes narrowing. “Usted irá con la Sra. Fuentes." (You will go with Mrs. Fuentes.) Then, her face betraying nothing, she turned back to the housekeeper. “Y yo no necesitaré a su hijo.” (And I will not need your son.)
Smiling, Señora Fuentes paused at the front door to pick up a clean night shirt and a change of clothing from the basket of laundry she had washed and folded earlier that afternoon. And then she took Johnny by the hand. She could feel him trembling beneath her fingers. “Estarás bien conmigo, mi pequeñito,” (You will be safe with me, little one,) she promised, “hasta que su Papá regrese.” (Until your Papa comes back.)
There it was again, that word. Papá. Johnny closed his eyes, wishing it was true, and followed the woman out the door.
Sanchez was standing in the shadows in the hallway; leaning against the wall. He watched as Señora Fuentes led the little boy from the house, and -- once the door was shut behind them -- stepped out into the warmth of the kitchen. “Angel,” he breathed.
She turned to face him, the smile coming slowly. The man was wearing nothing but the bottom half of his summer long johns; the cotton drawers resting on his slip hips, sweat damp against his dark skin, revealing not only the man’s well-muscled thighs, but his arousal. Coyly, she crossed the room. “¿Hay algo que usted necesita, señor?” (Is there something you need, sir?) she teased. “¿Agua, quizás, o un alimento. ..?” (Water, perhaps, or food...?)
“Usted,” he answered, “sólamente a usted.” (You, he answered, only you.) He swept her into his arms, following her as she backed into the dark bedroom; the two of them moving like dancers as they two-stepped towards the large bed.
He took her with the urgency of a starving man. There were no words between them, just the guttural sounds of their coupling.
It was past midnight when Johnny slipped noiselessly into the house. He was clad in his nightshirt, and barefoot. Stealthily, he tip-toed across the floor, heading for his bedroom. Old habits died hard for the boy; his need to have the Bowie knife overcoming his wariness. For a long time -- or so it had seemed to the boy -- he hadn’t been sleeping; and his restlessness, his insecurity, had driven him to find the one thing, beyond Val, that made him feel safe.
He was very good at being quiet; had been trained early on that there was a need, always, to remain almost invisible in the world his mother had created. So he moved like a cat, gliding silently across the floor; avoiding the spots he knew could betray him. Quietly, he entered the darkened hallway; backing into the shadows as he listened hard for anything that would betray him. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness, the only light the dying fire in the hearth, the dim glow of the kerosene lantern that sat beside his bed; and a similar stream of muted light beneath the closed bedroom door where his mother slept.
He hunkered down a bit, daring a look into his own bedroom; surprised when he saw that both beds were empty. Warily, he padded softly across the floor to his bed, reaching under his pillow to retrieve the knife; freezing for a moment when there was a sound from the darkness beyond the doorway. Soft, muffled laughter -- his mother -- and then the deeper rumble of a man’s voice. He frowned. Both voices now; inaudible whispers; and then a noise he had heard too many times in his young life: the animal grunts of a man and a woman as they coupled.
He knew what the sound was; knew what was happening in the bedroom. Clutching the knife, he moved back into the hallway. Standing for a time at the threshold to the bedroom, he listened to the sound of their rutting; unshed tears burning at the back of his throat. Angry, he pushed the door open; hard enough it slammed against the wall.
Angel felt the man wilt above her. She turned her head; a cold panic clawing at her heart when she saw the boy. Even in the dim light from the kerosene lantern she could see the expression on his face; the belligerent frown that made the child look old beyond his years.
He backed away, filled with something more than anger; and then he ran. She caught him before he reached the door. Twice, she struck him, hard across the face. “Usted no dirá nada,” she hissed. “¡Nada!” (“You will say nothing,” she hissed. “Nothing!”) When she saw her words were having little effect; she grabbed his arm, bending down so that her mouth was right next to his ear. She whispered the words, but they came with the same intensity as if she had shouted. "Si dices algo, el gringo nos mandará lejos, como hizo tu padre. ¿Eso es lo que usted quiere, chico? ¿Eso es lo que usted quiere!?" (If you tell, the gringo will send us away, just like your father. Is that what you want, boy? Is that what you want!?") And then she shoved him out of the door.
He ran down the stairs and across the yard to the sanctuary of the small adobe house that stood next to the barn.
“El se lo dirá,” Sanchez said. (He’ll tell.) He was sitting up in the bed, the woman lounging against his chest.
“No,” she murmured. She said the words with great conviction. Johnny could be an annoyance, but not a real problem. A few soft words, some pretended remorse, and the boy would be hers again. It was a game she had played with him from the very beginning, and it always worked. She was all he had; all he had ever had, and she knew it. In spite of the gringo, and what he might think.
"Tendremos que cambiar nuestros planes,” (We’re going to have to change our plans,) he breathed; as if he hadn’t heard her. If the kid opened his mouth to Crawford, there would be hell to pay.
The woman shrugged. “Tenemos el dinero,” (We have the money,) she murmured. "Saldremos." (We'll leave.)
Sanchez shifted beneath the woman, pushing her away as he pulled himself up. He wanted a cigarette, almost as much as he wanted a drink. “It’s not that simple,” he announced, speaking English; knowing damned good and well she understood him. She could speak it well enough when she was hustling the many norteamericano outlaws who frequented the saloons south of the border. “If he says anything to Val about this,” he gestured at the rumpled bed, “we can kiss it all goodbye.” He stood up, stretching; wincing at the pain in his arm. “The plan was we’d wait it out for a suitable time; not make any moves until things settled down. The kid seeing us changes all that.”
She responded to him in Spanish. “Entonces lo llevaremos con nosotros,” (Then we will take him with us,) she said.
The man was standing at the window, staring out into the darkness; his back to the woman. He had no intention of being saddled with a half-breed bastard. His jaws tensed, and raked his fingers through his dark hair, his mind racing. “¿Dónde fue Val?” (Where did Val go?), he asked.
There was a sound as the woman rose up from the bed. She joined the man at the window, her hand resting lightly against the small of his back. “¿Que importa, mi amor?” (Does it matter, my love?) What was it, she wondered, that made men so determined to make things that were so simple so complicated? “Tenemos el dinero,” (We have the money,) she murmured, her hand creeping across the man’s back and around his waist, dropping lower as she began to caress him. “Todo lo que tenemos que hacer es irnos.” (All we have to do is leave.)
Cursing, Sanchez pulled away from the woman. Nervously, he began massaging the back of his neck with his right hand; kneading the flesh and creating an intense pain in an effort to drive away the myriad of dark thoughts that tore at his brain. He didn’t know where Val was; what the man was doing. And the woman…
The woman, he thought, was fucking insane. “He’ll come after us,” he croaked. “It won’t make any difference if we take the kid, or leave him. We leave here together,” he turned to look at the woman, realizing for the first time what a fool he had been, “he’ll come after us.
“He’ll know! He’ll know I took the money -- that I took you -- and he’ll come after us!”
It was as if she hadn’t heard him. “Usted -nosotros - consiguiéremos el dinero, y entonces saldremos.” (You -- we -- will get the money, and then we will leave.)
“Dios lo maldice, Angel,” (God damn it, Angel,) he swore. “¡El nos matará!” (He’ll kill us!)
She was behind him again, both arms wrapping around his waist, her fingers busy. “No si usted lo mata primero,” (Not if you kill him first,) she reasoned.
Señora Fuentes was awake before the sun was up, rising from her bed with her customary quiet. He husband, Jesús was lying with his back against the wall, the quilt still tucked beneath his chin; the wrinkles in his face eased somewhat, softer in the muted light. The woman sighed. They had married when she was just sixteen; he the son of a skilled carpenter, she the only child of a moderately wealthy merchant destined to lose his land and his money to yet another revolución (revolution). But it hadn’t matter; not to Jesús. Together, they accepted their lot in life; knowing themselves to be more fortunate than the indios that populated the land.
Providence had certainly smiled on them the last several months. When Val Crawford decided to stay in San Luís after the border wars -- to purchase the ranch from the previous owner -- he had asked them to stay on. At first, she and her husband were reluctant to work for a gringo; there had been bad experiences in the past, but this man was different. He was young still -- in his twenties -- but his soul was old. Despite his vocation, he was a kind man; and he had showed that kindness to her family time and time again. He had moved them from the servant quarters beyond the great barn and into the original adobe house just across from his own home; and he paid them well.
The woman took her time dressing, enjoying the pre-dawn quiet. There was no hurry. With Señor Crawford still gone and Juanito here in her house, she would not be going to the main house this morning. The puta had made it clear she didn’t need any help.
Slipping quietly into the narrow hallway, Señora Fuentes paused at the threshold to her son’s bedroom, carefully pulling aside the heavy blanket that covered the doorway. Small motes of dust danced in the slim, pink light of a rising sun that was just beginning to crawl through the shuttered window, and she smiled. Her son was lying on his back, one arm above his head; the other wrapped protectively about the little boy that was sleeping right beside him.
And Juanito. He was curled up; tucked against the older boy, his left thumb in his mouth. Wound around his wrist was the string of colored beads she had given him the night before when he was fretting. Such trinkets pleased the boy; and he treated all the little gifts she gave him as if they were treasures.
The two boys, she knew, would be hungry when they awoke, and she would be ready. Padding across the floor, she headed for her kitchen. She was singing, softly, to herself when she reached the stove.
The sun was a bright golden ball just creeping above the peaked breasts of the mountains that marked the north-eastern border of Ashton’s vast estancia when Val trotted through the small canyon. He was coon hound tired; as if he had been on the hunt too long and his quarry was still far ahead of him.
He knew this area; hadn’t really been surprised when the cold trail led him to the place. Once, when he’d been on a solitary scout, he’d observed Sanchez exploring the series of interlinking canyons and small arroyos; staying well out of sight as he played a wary game of cat and mouse. Sanchez had never even been aware he was being watched; something Val found secretly amusing. Like most of the men who worked for him, Sanchez had a tendency to underestimate his employer.
It was a matter of trust, Val mused. Long years at his trade had taught him the wisdom of not completely trusting the men who were willing to hire out in a gun war. Too many of them came wanting to play at his table with only a meager understanding that he was buying their loyalty as well as their guns; at least for as long as the game continued. In the end, he chose only the few who could abide by his rules; sure and certain that the ones he rejected would be joining the other side. But he could handle that: it made facing the enemy that much easier, because he already knew their weakness.
Val felt his horse go on full alert, the animal’s ears swiveling forward and peaking as the gelding picked up sounds beyond the hearing of its rider. The bay was prancing now, all four feet lifting as if the animal had suddenly found itself stepping into running water, the black tail swishing nervously. Val felt the gelding mouthing the bit and kept a firm hand on the reins; his head canting as he strained to pick up whatever it was that had spooked the horse.
He was aware of the swoosh first; the sound unique to the large mountain condors that constantly flew in lazy, predatory circles above the desert in pursuit of carrion. Shading his eyes, he looked up. The creatures were fascinating in a macabre way; a ten foot wing spread carrying them high on the thermal updrafts as they circled. Naked heads and necks dominated a seemingly ungainly body covered with a profusion of black and white feathers; and even from a distance Val could see the giant talons. There were four of the birds circling above the rocky escarpment just ahead of him.
Val picked a point on a rise where he could observe what had drawn the great birds’ interest. Winding the reins of his horse around the saddle horn, he turned slightly in the saddle to retrieve his military issue binoculars from his saddlebags. Lifting them to his eyes, he focused, scanning the countryside. It didn’t take him long to see the carnage atop the rocks at the bottom of the steep cliff. A single horse, still saddled; an animal Val recognized from his days with Ashton. Pablo Ortíz rode a distinctively colored animal; a leopard appaloosa, a gelding that did not have the traditional blanketed rear end, but a white coat with a profusion of darker splotches of grey.
Grimacing, the Texican shoved the field glasses back into their pouch. There was, he knew, no point in retrieving the tack; not now. He had scanned not only the foot of the cliff, but the outcroppings on the way down, and there had been no indication of Pablo Ortíz’ body anywhere on the landscape.
Val retraced his route, returning to the last place where he had found sign. Once again, he picked up the trail of Sanchez’ horse; the bell shoe having scarred the packed caliche and scattered sandstone rocks where the gelding had been held at a walk.
Moving at a slow walk, Val’s eyes were locked on the ground. He urged the bay on with only minimal pressure on the gelding’s sides. Then, as the terrain changed slightly, he dismounted. Leading the horse, he continued to track. The tracks of Sanchez’ gelding would disappear beneath the drag marks of something heavy; a similar pattern to what he had observed as he had ridden into canyon country. Sanchez had been dragging something. He knew, instinctively, it had been Ortiz’ body.
Still on foot, Val shook his head at Sanchez’ audacity. Or, he thought, the man’s stupidity. The drag marks led directly to the opening of the cave.
Val tied his gelding off, securing the reins. Already, he could smell the sickeningly sweet odor of death, and again, the bay gelding was skittish. Moving around to the animal’s side, he dug into his saddlebag; withdrawing the small, collapsible kerosene camp lantern. Manipulating the wire frame, he secured the lamp; slipping the small mirror into place. Almost as an afterthought, he also collected his reata.
Stepping inside the cavern, he lit the wick on the compact lamp, adjusting the braided cord until he was satisfied. The glow, intensified by the mirror and the magnifying lens, spread; pushing away the shadows. Val lifted the lantern to shoulder height, his eyes adjusting to the artificial light. Then, following his nose, he headed into the side chamber. Hunkering down beside the gaping black hole, he fashioned a loop and fastened the lantern to his lariat. Carefully, he dropped the lantern over the edge, feeding the rope foot by foot until the lantern was suspended just above the body.
He pulled the rope back up. Unfastening the reata from the lantern’s hinged handle, he stood up. Again looking for sign on the litter-filled floor, he retraced his steps and headed toward the entrance. It didn’t take him long to locate the hastily covered sandstone pit. Prying the flagstone lid away from the hole, he groped around in the darkness and found what he was searching for; the gold-heavy saddlebags. The pistol was a surprise.
Resting back on his haunches, he considered his next moves. Sanchez, he knew, was as guilty as hell not only of robbery, but murder. And the man was in his house; with his family. The thought was enough to spur the man to action. Lifting the heavy saddlebags from their hiding place, he slung them over his shoulders. Stuffing Ortíz’ pistol into his belt, he headed out of the cave.
Val made the ride to Ashton’s ranch with little regard for his animal. It was an unusual move for the man; to ride a horse hard enough to almost put it into the ground, but there was an urgency in him the made his callousness necessary.
He pulled up in front of the main house, grimacing as he swung his leg over the cantle and dismounted; the familiar tingle coming as his feet touched the ground. Pulling the gold-leaden saddlebags from where he had looped them over his saddle hall, he handed off the sweating bay to the elderly vaquero who normally functioned as Ashton’s doorman. Striding across the front portico; he headed, unannounced, for the front door.
“Val,” Boyd Ashton stepped out onto the tiled porch. The man was impeccably dressed.
“Boyd.” Val stretched. He took off his Stetson, using the hat to rearrange the yellow dust on his britches and his shirt. “I could use some coffee.”
The older man nodded. “You look like Hell,” he observed, opening the door and leading the way to the kitchen.
Val nodded. “Feel like Hell,” he groused. He smiled tightly when the cook nodded in greeting, “Señorita.” The woman returned the smile with the appropriate amount of shyness and handed him a cup; black with two teaspoons of sugar.
Ashton didn’t miss the exchange between the young woman and Val, but he had the good grace not to comment. Val had impressed not only the vaqueros that worked for him; but several of the women on the ranch had found him more than attractive. “Do you want some breakfast?” he asked.
Val shook his head. “What I need,” he said between sips, “is a fresh horse.” Shrugging the saddlebags from his broad shoulder, he deposited the pouches on the table. When he saw the question on the other man’s face, he continued. “Your Posada money,” he said. “Pablo Ortíz’ body is in a cave about ten miles from here.” He took a long drink of the coffee. “I left a trail marking the way. Spotted his horse not too far from the cave; bottom of the cliff at that big escarpment just above Diablo flats.”
Ashton’s brow furrowed as he assessed what the man was telling him. “It was necessary to kill Ortiz?” he asked.
Val snorted. “He was already dead,” he replied. “Sanchez,” he said, no doubt in his voice. He put down his cup.
This time the rancher understood what the younger man was saying. “What are you going to do?”
“Take Sanchez in.” He exchanged a quick look with the older man. “I need you to go into San Luís,” he announced. “Talk to the sindico (municipal attorney); see to the charges when I bring him in.”
Ashton was nodding his approval. For some reason he was relieved that the young man standing opposite him had made the decision to let the local law handle the thief. And then it hit him. “Val, he’s at your place.” Once said, the observation seemed ludicrous.
“He doesn’t know I’ve found this,” Val responded, tapping the saddlebags. “I need to keep it that way for awhile.” Shaking his head at the young cook as she picked up his cup to refill it, he made the request he had made upon arriving. “About that horse,” he began.
“Of course, of course.” Ashton nodded toward the hallway and the front door. “Do you need anything else?”
Val shook his head. He put the Stetson back on, settling it well on his head. “I just need to get home,” he answered.
She knew as soon she saw him ride in. It wasn’t just his posture; or the way he came through the front gate. He was riding a fresh horse, and she recognized the brand: Ashton’s Circle A.
Watching from behind the partially closed door, she saw the child running across the yard from the Fuentes’. Johnny’s shirt tails were untucked, the bright red tails lifting in the wind as the boy ran pell-mell towards the big Texican. Val swung down from the still running horse, matching his stride to the animal’s gait as the boy ran into the his open arms.
And then she heard the child’s voice. “Papi!”
Val dropped down to one knee, his right arm wrapping around the boy’s shoulders. He pulled the child close to his chest, closing his eyes. It had been just two days, and it felt more like two years. “Hey,” he greeted softly.
Johnny turned slightly and pointed to the chestnut mare that was now standing outside the corral at the wide watering trough that extended to reach beyond the corral fence. “¿Dónde esta su caballo, Papi?” (Where's your horse, Papa?) he asked.
Val was shaking his head. Papi. He loved the sound of the word. But it was still too easy for the boy to revert back to Spanish. “English, Johnny,” he admonished softly; still smiling. He tousled the boy’s hair.
The boy giggled. “Where’s your horse?” he asked.
“Rode hard and still wet,” the Texican answered. “I left him at Mr. Ashton’s.” He stood up. “Mama in the house?” he asked.
Johnny nodded. “And the man,” he breathed. The hostility was plain in his voice, but he said nothing else.
“Can you take care of the mare?” Val asked; nodding at the horse.
The boy grinned up at the man. “Yeah,” he drawled, puffing his chest out a bit. He was already working it over in his mind; how he would unsaddle the animal and make the man proud.
“Let ‘er buck,” Val laughed. He stood, watching as the boy scurried off to do as he had been asked.
Angel was still at the door. Instinctively, she withdrew slightly as she saw Val turn his gaze in her direction. There was something in the man’s stance, the way he stood with his weight resting on his left foot; his right hand firmly planted on his right hip, just a fingertip away from his holster.
She closed her eyes, her head resting against the door as she collected herself. Behind her, in the bedroom, she could hear a stirring as her lover began moving around the room, and she was filled with a sudden panic. Desperately, her eyes swept the room, a frown coming as the disarray became apparent; the uncleared dishes from the evening meal and the empty wine bottles still spread across the table. And then she spied what it was she needed.
Hanging from a peg beside the front door was the pistol and holster Val had removed from Ramón Sanchez’ waist after he had carried him into Johnny’s bedroom. Slipping the revolver from the holster, she used both thumbs to ease back the hammer. And then she screamed.
Ramón Sanchez stumbled out from the narrow hallway, his hair disheveled, his clothes rumpled. “Angel?”
It was the last word the man ever spoke. He never heard the report as the bullet smacked solidly into his broad forehead.
Val came through the door with his weapon drawn. Suddenly, he felt the woman slam against his chest.
She was weeping, hysterical; the pistol tumbling from her fingers, the left sleeve of her dress torn at the shoulder seam. “¡Me atacó! ¡Trató de violarme!” (He attacked me! He tried to rape me!!)
There was a noise as Val exhaled, his left hand hovering above the woman’s right shoulder. His gaze had swept the entire room; taking in everything from the dishes that were still on the table, along with several empty wine bottles. Also, other than the torn dress, there was not a mark on the woman, and not one hair was out of place. With a gentleness he didn’t feel, he moved the woman away from his chest. Before he had an opportunity to speak, Johnny came through the door.
Val reached out to the boy, pulling him close to and pressing his head against his waist in an effort to keep the youngster from seeing the dead man. “It’s all right, son,” he breathed. “You need to go back to Señora Fuentes.”
Johnny’s head came up; and he felt Val’s hand cupped against his cheek in an effort to keep him from turning around. Still, he really wanted to look. But Val stopped him. He resisted the temptation to argue, and simply went back through the door and out into the yard.
Val watched as Johnny dog-trotted across the yard towards the Fuentes’ small house. He held his tongue until he saw the boy disappear across the threshold. Without looking at the woman, he finally spoke, addressing her in English. He knew she understood. “You need to go outside,” he said softly. When she hesitated, he spoke again. “I’ll take care of this,” he intoned.
Angel stepped away from the man. Absently, she fingered the tear at her left shoulder. She knew, deep at the pit of her belly, he didn’t believe her. Her first instinct was to tell him she was going to leave; that she was going to take her son and simply go back to the life she had had before, a life where she was in control. But she changed her mind. Threats would not work with this man. So she did the what she had become expert at when she was just a child. She would entice, and if she had to, she would beg. “Querido,” (Darling,) she breathed, moving closer one again; her voice whisper soft, her breath hot against his neck. “Te necesito.” (I need you.)
Val tensed. There it was; that huskiness in her voice that had always set him on fire and preceded the descent of his brain directly to his balls. God, how he had wanted her! His lips lifted in a grim smile as he once again regained control. He addressed her again, in English, just as before; knowing full well she would understand. “I said I’d take care of it, Angel; and I will.” Pulling away from the woman, he by-passed her and headed for the hallway.
The woman stood for a moment; her back to the man. A dozen scenarios flashed through her mind; none of them good. She knew without him telling her he had recovered the stolen money; had surmised as much when he rode in on one of Ashton’s horses. Another woman, one less wise, might not have known; but she did. That was why I had to kill Ramon, she reasoned.
Reluctantly, she stepped outside onto the porch. The man would do the right thing, she thought bitterly. And the right thing, she knew, would be going to Boyd Ashton and the provincial law.
Johnny couldn’t sleep. Val had carried him into the bedroom not too long after supper, and he had scrunched his eyes shut when they crossed over the spot where the dead man had lain. Val had taken Sanchez’ body to town; but not until he had scrubbed the floor and put the house in order.
His Mama had not helped. She had remained distant, sitting on the porch in the old rocking chair; still wearing her torn dress. He thought maybe it was because Sanchez had tried to hurt her; that she had to kill the man. But in the back of his mind, something kept nagging at him. Sanchez had been one of his Mama’s men; one she had welcomed into her bed.
Val’s bed, he grimaced. He shut his eyes against the thought, and when that didn’t work, he slipped out of bed. Padding softly across the floor, he headed first for the big bedroom; stopping at the door when he realized that there was only one person in the bed. He knew from the shape -- the soft curves; the rise and fall of the hips and her narrow waist -- it was his mother. Then, seeing the pale light from the large front room, he moved on.
Val was beside the fireplace in the big easy chair; a large book in his hands. He was leaning slightly toward the hearth, using the light from the fire to illuminate the pages as he read. So deep was his concentration, he didn’t hear the boy at first. Then, seeing the youngster, he wiggled a single finger at him.
Johnny hurried forward, scrambling up onto the big Texican’s lap. When he settled in, he reached out, fingering the page. “No pictures,” he mumbled, his head resting against Val’s shoulder. He could hear the gentle steady thump-thump of the man’s heart.
“Some of the best books don’t have any pictures,” the man said. “This one is called The Iliad.” He had borrowed the book from Ashton’s extensive library. Softly, he began to read: “‘Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus…’”
Johnny fell asleep, the soft drawl whispering in his ears; Val’s breath ruffling his hair as he continued to read.
She rose up from the bed; relieved that the man was finally gone. She had pretended to sleep when he came into the room for a fresh change of clothes, and he had not disturbed her. It had taken him time, of course, to calm the boy down; to tuck him back into bed in the early morning dawn, but finally the house was quiet again.
Her moves were unhurried. She heard Señora Fuentes bustling about in the kitchen, smiling a bit as she realized how fortuitous it was that Val had asked the older woman to go back to the usual routine. The woman was fixing breakfast, the aroma of fresh coffee wafting down the hallway. Angel smiled, her fingers pausing as she fastened the last button on her blouse; the button just above the separation at her breasts. Two other buttons, the ones that would have discreetly covered her flesh all the way to her throat, remained open.
The split riding skirt was next; the black skirt that ended just below her knees. Pulling her flat stomach even tauter, she tucked the red blouse into the waist band, smoothing the fabric. Then her boots; and, finally, the short black jacket with the silver-threaded collar and lapels.
Dropping down to one knee, the woman reached under the bed and groped in the darkness for the large carpet bag she had carried with her when Val had first brought her to the ranch. There were only a few things in the satchel now; she had discarded her old clothing when Val insisted on buying her new things. What she had kept, however, was important to her: the jewelry she had acquired from her various lovers, and of course, the drugs.
Angel knew the boy was still sleeping. She had toyed with the idea of leaving him behind; but had dismissed the thought. He could, she knew, be useful to her. The child had learned many things here at the ranch and at school; he could handle livestock; could read and write. And he had always, when necessary, been a clever little thief.
Today, he was going to be her ticket to freedom.
Digging into the bottom of the carpet bag, she took out the half-empty bottle of laudanum. She would have to find more of the narcotic soon; but there was enough now for her purpose. The child was going to have to be drugged; a minor ruse to convince Señora Fuentes her precious little Juanito was ill.
Moving cat-like into the hallway, Angel headed directly for the boy’s bedroom. She hesitated momentarily at the threshold, inhaling deeply and closing her eyes as she summoned the small modicum of maternal instinct lying dormant in the dark corners of her heart. A subtle change came over her, her features softening.
Sitting on the edge of the boy’s bed, she lifted his head. “Toma, mi, bebé,” (Drink, baby,) she crooned. Johnny roused, the velvet-like lashes fluttering against flush-warmed cheeks like the wings of a black moth, a murmured Mamá? coming as he relaxed trustingly into her arms. Pressing the bottle to his lips and stroking his throat, Angel poured the bitter liquid into his mouth. He gagged, but she held his mouth shut; holding him tight until the struggling stopped.
She waited. The boy’s head was resting heavily against her right breast, and she reached out a long finger to dam the stream of saliva that was pooling at the corner of the boy’s mouth. Grimacing, she wiped the offensive drool from her finger on the boy’s shirt front. Then, satisfied he was sufficiently sedated, she began wrapping him in the heavy comforter; cradling his head against the pillow. He was, she realized as she hefted him up in her arms, substantially heavier than he had been; and she reacted accordingly. Standing up, she pulled the boy from the bed, gathering him in her arms and heading for the door.
“¡Señora! ¡Juanito! ¡El está enfermo!!” (Senora! Johnny! He's sick!!) Inwardly, she smiled; please that her voice carried the proper amount of panic.
Señora Fuentes dropped the mass of dough she had been kneading; fine puffs of seasoned flour rising in the air around her. She felt her throat tighten as she saw the lax body in the woman’s arms; Johnny lying against his mother’s breasts as slack and as loose as a giant rag doll. Her response was immediate. “¡Me lo da a mí!” (Give him to me!) she demanded, reaching out; not caring that her hands were still covered with the yeast bread dough.
Angel clutched the boy even more tightly against her shoulders, and asserted herself both as the boy’s mother and the mistress of the house. “¡No! Que Carlos enganche la calesa,” (No! Have Carlos hitch up the buggy,) she ordered. “¡Ahora! Yo lo llevaré al pueblo, al doctor.” (Now! I will take him to town, to the doctor's.)
The Señora yielded to the younger woman; uncertain but too concerned about the little boy’s appearance to argue. She fled the room, in search of her son and husband.
Angel placed Johnny in the large chair beside the fireplace. Dusting the floor with her fingers, she dropped down before the hearth on one knee and began prying at the mica-flecked rectangle of rock just to the left of the place where the single slab of natural stone ended. Lifting the piece of stone, she reached into the deep hollow and picked up the small flat box; hefting it in her palm.
She had seen Val hide the cash box shortly after her arrival at the ranch; knew that he kept emergency money and the cash he won at the bimonthly high-stake poker games at Boyd Ashton’s estancia. Smiling, she ruffled the cash beneath her fingers. Two thousand dollars, she reveled. And now it was hers!
“La calesa, Señora,” (The buggy, Señora,) Carlos Fuentes stood at the doorway, holding the screen door open as he addressed the woman.
Surprised, Angel attempted to hide what she had taken, folding the bills over and sticking them into her bodice. Standing up, the cash box behind her back, she nodded to her son. “Ponlo en el coche,” (Put him in the carriage,) she ordered, her back straight; something imperious in her tone and her posture.
The young man did as he was told. Picking up the unconscious boy, he turned and carried him out through the door.
Val hated paperwork. Out of necessity, he had always kept meticulous records of his own business; but here he was, sitting in the office of the provincial alcalde (judge), doing what he had promised himself he would never do again after a short stint in the military: provide a detailed report of every minute thing that had occurred. Not only the shooting at his ranch, but the recovery of Ashton’s money; and what he had discovered in the desert at Diablo Flats concerning Pablo Ortíz.
He had left the house early in the morning, wanting to get this over with. Johnny had been unusually persistent; giving him a prolonged hug before doing his usual I wanna go with you dance. When he finally managed to pull away from the boy, a major storm broke loose; and he ended up swatting the kid on the butt. Then there had been the usual peace-making, Johnny looking for a million reasons why Val didn’t have to go; ending with a whiny complaint that he had lost his Bowie knife, and he didn’t have anything to protect the Señora or his Mama from the bad men. In the end, Val had given up his own knife; wondering why it was the kid couldn’t just be happy with a toy instead of something so potentially deadly.
Then he packed Johnny back off to bed; standing at the foot of the small cot until the boy was sound asleep; the child’s right hand wrapped around the hilt of the hidden Bowie knife that was beneath his pillow. The big Texican knew the source of the kid’s distress. Angel had been distant; he had resumed sleeping on the extra bunk in Johnny’s room, and nothing was as it had been before, and never would be again.
Finally finished with the last of the paperwork, Val shoved the documents aside. All he wanted now was to go home; to take back some control in a life that had been so rudely interrupted. Standing up, he stretched; his fist going to the dull ache in the small of his back.
Angel, he thought, wondering at his own stupidity. The woman had caused him more grief than he had ever known, and he had no one to blame but himself. He should, by rights, turn her in for what he knew had been murder, but he couldn’t do it. Despite everything, he knew Johnny loved the woman -- worshiped her -- and he could not bring himself to cause the boy that kind of pain.
Deep inside, Val wished the woman would just pack up and leave; just disappear. But not the boy. Never the boy.
He made the ride back to the ranch full out, not understanding the urgency that clawed at his belly. The finalization of the paperwork had taken longer than he had anticipated, and then there was the sworn deposition that Boyd Ashton witnessed. So, with the moon rising at his back, he left town.
There was a single light burning in the window when he rode into the yard. He was surprised when Carlos Fuentes came out from the main house to greet him, the young man’s face filled with foreboding.
Ground-hitching the horse, Val dropped down from the saddle. He took the stairs leading up to the porch by twos. “Carlos,” he greeted warily.
The young man wasted no time. He stepped away from the door, making way for the bigger man. His mother, he explained was in their own house, inconsolable. She had consulted the tea leaves, Carlos continued, his face serious; and she had seen bad things.
“¿Dónde está Johnny?” (Where’s Johnny?) Val demanded. Just the three words, spoken in a tense near whisper.
“La mujer,” he made no effort to hide the contempt in his voice, “dijo que él estaba enfermo. Ella se lo llevo al Doctor Ibarro. Tomó la calesa.” (The woman said he was sick. She took him to Doctor Ibarra's. She took the buggy.)
Val felt as if he had been gut-kicked by a mule. “¿Cuándo?” (When?)
“Esta mañana, temprano,” (Early this morning,) the young man answered. He hesitated. Then, gesturing towards the hearth, “Ella tomó algo de allí.” (She took something from there.)
The Texican’s eyes went immediately to the stone hearth. The bitch hadn’t even bothered to put the box back into the niche. “Necesito que me prepares un caballo fresco,” (I need you to saddle me a fresh horse,) he announced. He nodded curtly toward the door. He needed the fresh mount; but even more, he needed some time to himself.
He heard Carlos leave. Immediately, he went to Johnny’s room; struggling hard to put away the rage that was building inside his chest. Grabbing the mattress from the boy’s bed -- he was somehow relieved that the heavier quilt was gone -- he pulled the pad away from the rope supports, smiling grimly at the collection of toys and dirty clothes that littered the floor. Bending down, he saw the haft of Johnny’s Bowie knife poking out from a pile of dirty white socks. He picked up the weapon, and stuck it into his belt.
The other bedroom was next. Pulling out drawers and opening cabinets, he quickly assessed what was gone. The covers on the bed had been simply thrown back, as if the woman had just risen, and he smoothed them back into place. Then, lifting the corner of the mattress, he noted that the multi-colored carpet bag the woman had hidden beneath the bed was also gone. On the dresser, the teak-wood jewelry box he had purchased for her was turned upside down; the contents -- all but one earring he realized -- were gone.
He headed back to the kitchen. Going to the locked chest on the far wall, he fumbled in his pocket for a key. His fingers were numb; and he shook his hand before inserting the key in the lock. Then, throwing the cabinet doors back with such force the right one pulled loose from the hinges, he began choosing his weapons. The Sharps rifle first; the short barreled carbine that had served him so well in the recent land war. A second pistol; newer than the cap and ball Navy Colt, and his spare lead, powder and a paper. The bullet molds and the small melting pot were next.
Hearing a noise at the door, he turned slightly, watching as Carlos Fuentes entered the kitchen. The youth was carrying his saddlebags. Val nodded in appreciation and began issuing terse orders. “Café, los frijoles. Las galletas si quedan algunas. Leche en lata, cualquier carne secada que, tenemos.” (Coffee, beans. Biscuits if there are any left. Canned milk; whatever dried meat we've got.) He took the saddle pouches from the younger man, and began shoving the items from the gun cabinet into one side.
Digging into his front pocket, Val took out a fistful of gold coins. He juggled them against his palm for a brief moment before using a finger from his opposite hand to count them. Lifting two of the twenty-dollar gold pieces from his palm, he handed them to the younger man; repocketing the remainder. “Dale el dinero a tu Mamá. Si no he regresado y ella necesita más, llévala al Sr. Ashton. Dígale lo que ha pasado y que regresaré lo mas pronto posible.” (You give your Mama the cash. If I'm not back, and she needs more, take her to Mr. Ashton. Tell him what happened, and that I'll be back soon as I can.)
He finished packing the supplies he would need for the trail. Then, taking one last look at his surroundings, he headed out the door to the front porch.
A full moon greeted him, and he breathed a silent prayer to whatever god might be listening. Moving gracefully down the stairs, he mounted the big black gelding Carlos had selected for him. Then, his eyes tracing the faint twin tracks of the iron-bound wheels of the light buggy the woman had taken, he moved out.
He’d been on the road a week before he turned back; riding directly to Ashton’s estancia instead of returning to his own place. Angel and Johnny, it seemed, had been swallowed up into the vast nothingness beyond San Luís. Two days out, he had found the place where she sold the buggy and the horse; and the livery owner who had screwed the woman without even touching her -- he had bought the horse and rig for one third of its value. Yes, the little boy had been with her. No, he did not know where they were going. There was, the old man observed, two stage coaches that left the town that afternoon. One going north, the other going south and west.
His return to San Luís was by no means surrender. He had no intention of giving up his search for the woman; for the boy. But a prolonged search would require money. A lot of money, and he knew exactly where he was going to get it.
Val stood on Ashton’s front porch, easing his gloves on; the fatigue clear in his face and eyes. “About the house,” he said; looking directly at the older man.
“I’m buying the land, Val, and the water,” the rancher interrupted. He didn’t quite know what the younger man was talking about, but decided it wasn’t important. “You can stay, you know. I can send Crockett north, to the new place in California; let him run operations there, and you can take care of this…” he gestured with his arm at the broad expanse of land to the south. When he saw his argument wasn’t working, he attempted another. “She could come back,” he breathed. “She and the boy.”
Crawford was already shaking his head. “She ain’t the comin’ back kind,” he ground out. “And I got no chance of findin’ her or the kid if I stay here.” His head dipped slightly, the dark eyes hidden by the brim of his Stetson; his jaws tensing as he considered the next words. “I turned the stallion loose,” he announced. “Up in the mountains, north of here. Six of the mares came in season, and are carryin’. Come spring, they’ll throw some good foals.”
“Jesus, Val,” Ashton’s voice conveyed his sorrow for his young friend.
The younger man’s face was devoid of any emotion; not a good thing. “You’ll put the Fuentes’ to work?” he asked.
Ashton didn’t even hesitate in answering. “Yes.” The next words came with slow deliberation. “What happened with Sanchez wasn’t your fault, Val.” He was quiet again. “I appreciate that you got the money back.”
Val smiled, but there was no humor in the grimace. “Makes two of them that played me for a fool.” He took a deep breath, squaring his shoulders. “There won’t be a third.” He stuck out his right hand, taking the rancher’s hand in his own for a final shake. “I’m done here,” he said. “You let Ibarra keep givin’ you those Spanish lessons, Boyd. Man lives among people, he needs to know their language; makes it a bit easier to know when they’re lyin’ to you.” He turned then, and strode across the porch to where the gelding was ground hitched. Mounting, he kicked the animal into a run. He never looked back.
Val stood in the parlor of the place he had once considered home, Johnny’s clothes in a pile on the floor in the center of the room; along with the wooden cash box Angelita had emptied. It struck him, how she had managed to take the cash and the trinkets he had bought her; along with her own clothes, and very little that belonged to the boy.
Johnny’s knife had been on the floor beneath the boy’s bed; Val had found it when he had torn the room apart looking for some sign of what had happened, any hint of where the woman might had gone. He was wearing it now; in the beaded sheath where he had carried his own “Texas Toothpick”. He had left his own knife with Johnny, earlier that long ago morning when the boy couldn’t find his own, and he knew -- gut sure knew -- that Johnny had somehow managed to take it. Just like he knew Johnny had kept the medallion he had given him. He hoped the Lady was watching over the boy.
Resolute, Val began removing the glass chimneys from the lamps he had lined up on the table, unscrewing the wick holders and laying them aside. Eight full lanterns; four rooms. Carefully, he moved first into the small bedroom that had been Johnny’s; dousing the bed and floor, taking some small satisfaction in the sound of shattering glass as he tossed the lamp bases against the wall. He repeated the steps in the other bedroom; pausing to pour the majority of the lamp oil directly into the middle of the bed he had shared with the woman. Then he moved into the kitchen and front room. More kerosene, this time directly onto the plank floors, and then the walls.
Four three-foot long torches were beside the door, and he picked them up, lighting one; using that one to ignite the second one. Once the first torch was going, he stepped forward to the threshold of the smaller bedroom and tossed the burning spar inside, watching as fingers of flame crawled across the small bed. The second torch went flying into the other bedroom, bouncing off the wall to land on the fuel soaked quilt, which quickly caught fire. And finally, the small parlor and the kitchen. The varnish he had so painstakingly applied to the pine flooring was already beginning to pop and sizzle, creating an acrid smoke that seemed to pursue the tendrils of yellow-blue flame crawling across the floor and up the kerosene wet walls.
Val backed out onto the porch, a momentary pang of regret causing his belly to clench; and then the pain went away. He stood for a time at the threshold; the growing flames radiating heat and light, beads of sweat forming on his forehead, the light drawing lines that made him look older; harder. “I’m goin’ to find you, boy.” He whispered the promise into the pyre. “I don’t know the where or the when, but I am goin’ to find you.”
The woman could go straight to Hell. In fact, if he found them together and Johnny was hurt in any way, he would personally escort her to the very gates and shove her through.
Boyd Ashton stood on the front porch of his sprawling hacienda, his gaze fastened on the dense cloud of black smoke rising into the western sky. He understood now what had been such a puzzle to him earlier in the evening; Val’s words ‘About the house…’ The man had done more than burn his bridges; he had voluntarily turned one dream into ash, so that he was free -- truly free -- to chase another.
And the boy wasn’t even his…
Green River, California
Early Spring, 1870
Murdoch Lancer was seated behind his desk in the Great Room, a cup of coffee growing cold at his elbow. He lifted his head, looking across to his eldest son who was seated with his buttocks resting atop the back of the couch; his long legs stretched out in front of him, feet crossed at the ankles. The younger man was impeccably dressed; wearing a freshly laundered and pressed dark blue shirt and a pair of light tan pants that seemed molded to his slim thighs and calves. “Did you find your brother?” he asked; no small degree of annoyance in his voice.
Scott smiled, recognizing his father’s tone. Since his recovery from Pardee’s bullets, Johnny had stretched their father’s patience to the limit on an almost daily basis. “He’s in the kitchen,” Scott answered, “charming Maria out of the last of that cherry pie she baked this morning.”
The elder Lancer snorted. “We just finished lunch,” he groused. Still, there was something amusing about his younger son’s appetite. The boy didn’t have an ounce of spare flesh on him, and he put away food like a grizzly preparing for winter hibernation. “Has he cleaned up?” He was talking now about his son’s clothing, not any left over food that might still be in the pantry.
This time, Scott laughed; the blue eyes dancing. “Well, there’s cleaned up, sir, and cleaned up,” he observed dryly. Johnny’s apparel was…different; at least in Scott’s view. His younger brother’s idea of dressed up was whichever of his shirts was the cleanest at the moment, a dusting off of his calzoneras, and a quick wiping off of the toes of his boots on the back of his pant legs.
The soft ring of silver spurs sounded from the hallway, and the youngest Lancer strolled through the doorway and down the steps. He was wearing his favorite red shirt, almost as red as the gob of whole cherry resting just above his right breast. When he saw the looks on his father’s and his brother’s face he pulled up short. “What?” he demanded.
Murdoch leaned back in his chair. “You do know we’re going to town?” he asked.
“So?” Johnny plopped down on the arm of the couch, just to the left of his elder brother.
Scott reached out, his forefinger extended to catch the blob of pie-filling. Grinning, he plucked the cherry from his brother’s shirt and held it out for inspection. “Wearing our dessert now, are we?”
Johnny snatched the bit of fruit from his brother’s hand and popped it into his mouth. “Could happen, you keep askin’ stupid questions,” he threatened, sucking the juice from his fingers.
Murdoch stood up. As was his usual custom when speaking to his youngest, he drew himself to his full height; all six foot five inches. “You need to change your shirt,” he declared.
Johnny pretended to be considering the request. He was rubbing his upper left arm with his right hand, his eyes studying a stray mote of sunlight on the multi-colored carpeting at his feet. Cocking his head, he stuck two fingers of his right hand into his mouth, wet them, and then used them to scrub at the cherry stain on the front of his shirt. When he finally looked up, he was smiling. He pointed to the damp spot. “It’ll be dry by the time we get into town,” he grinned insolently.
Scott was shaking his head. Johnny’s intentional head-butting with his father was becoming an extremely annoying habit. “Johnny…” he warned.
“What’s the big fuckin’ deal?” Johnny asked. “It’s not like I need to go,” he complained. He shot a dark look at his elder brother. “You and the Old Man are the ones that belong to the Association, ya know. Can’t be a member until you’re legal, and we all know that ain’t me!”
Murdoch was standing directly in front of his son now. The issue of Johnny’s not having reached his legal majority had come to the fore just recently, and the younger man was still angry. “John,” he said, the now-familiar ring of parental authority permeating each word, “go change your shirt,” he raised his hand; pointing towards the stairs. “Now.”
Pick your battles, Scott thought; hoping somehow his younger brother would pick up what he was thinking.
“Shit!” Johnny swore. He dipped his head again, avoiding his father’s eyes; and headed for the hallway.
“That went well,” Scott sighed. He could hear Johnny stomping up the stairs and braced himself for the inevitable door slam. It came in a remarkably short span of time; followed by the opening and shutting of drawers and a brief spate of swear words in both Spanish and English.
“That boy would try the patience of a Saint,” Murdoch growled. Upstairs, Johnny’s bedroom door slammed open, slammed shut; and what sounded like a herd of wild horses came stampeding down the stairs.
Johnny came back into the room. He had put on a clean shirt; the white one with the embroidered front; and he was tucking in his shirt tails. “Satisfied?” he snapped, looking at his brother.
“Yes,” Scott answered. He reached out, straightening Johnny’s collar. Johnny slapped his hand away; but not too hard.
“Still don’t know why I have to go,” the younger son complained.
“You are part of this family,” Murdoch answered; a declaration he had made countless times in the past several weeks. “The son of the current President of the Cattle Growers Association. It’s part of your job.”
“I quit,” Johnny hissed.
“Would you care to repeat that, John?” Scott said the words before his father could voice them.
Surprised at his brother’s dead-on mimicry of their father’s voice, Johnny shot another dirty look at his elder sibling. “Nope.” But he wasn’t about to let go of his original argument. “Don’t know what’s so fu… damned important about me meetin’ the new sheriff…”
Scott held up his hand, cutting his brother off. “I think it’s a good idea, little brother,” he began, his voice dripping honey, “to meet the man before he actually arrests you and locks you up for something.” He was only half-joking. Johnny had been in trouble twice in the past two weeks; both times on a Saturday night after some rather exuberant hell-raising.
“Real funny, Scott! Ha, ha!” Johnny took a swing at his brother’s head.
Murdoch threw up his hands in despair, and headed for the front door. “Enough!” he shouted over his shoulder. “We’re all going, and that’s the end of it! Now!”
Val Crawford stood at the threshold of the Green River sheriff’s office, surveying the layout with a practiced eye; impressed that the exterior clapboard siding masked sturdy brick walls. As jail houses went, he mused, it wasn’t a bad building; large and deep. The front windows, which were curtained midway, and the double frame doors allowed a good view of the main street. There was a single, small holding cell in the main work area; and beyond that -- he could see through the open doorway to the adjoining chamber -- two larger cells, and a barred rear door.
On his right, there was a coat rack and beneath the windows a long, wooden bench; and on the far wall, a roll top desk, a safe, and a wooden file case. To his left there was a gun cabinet; well stocked with a collection of long guns, and a larger, flat-topped desk. At the center of the room, a pot-bellied wood burning stove.
He stepped into the room and moved to the larger of the two desks, the one on his left; taking the saddlebags from his right shoulder and laying them flat against the surface. Someone had taken the time to tidy up the place; a sense of order in the neatly stacked papers. Wanted posters, he realized, and Pinkerton sheets; a booklet that appeared to have been printed just recently entitled Ordinances, Town of Green River, Year of our Lord 1870. Year of our Lord, he mused. When it came to enforcing town ordinances, and getting people to obey them, the Lord was usually looking the other way.
He lifted a hand, scratching at the day old beard; wondering if he shouldn’t have bothered to shave before checking in, but then decided it didn’t matter. Plenty of time for all the bullshit later, he reminded himself. And then he took off the Stetson, tossing it towards the coat rack, smiling when the hat settled precariously on the empty peg.
An envelope was on top of the desk; a dark red pressboard expandable container; and Val untied the pale pink cord. The silver badge fell out when he tipped the contents of the pouch onto the desk; along with a single sheet of paper. It was, he knew, the contract he had signed with the Cattle Growers Association attorney in Sacramento.
Pinning the badge onto his shirt front, he pulled out the wheeled chair and sat down. Unfolding the sheet of paper, he read through the terms that had been mutually agreed to; what his salary would be, the option for him to hire deputies on an as-need basis; the keys to the small house at the edge town where he would be living. His jaws tensed as he saw the first signature on the bottom of the document: Murdoch Lancer, President.
Murdoch Lancer. Leaning back in the chair, he rocked a bit; his brow furrowing as he contemplated God’s rather wicked sense of humor. It hadn’t been that long ago he had sat on the ridge overlooking the Lancer Ranch; a ferociously angry Johnny Madrid beside him, the kid hell-bent on riding into the grand hacienda and gut-shooting the father he hated, and then watching him die.
It was the first time Johnny had really opened up to him about what he knew of his mother’s distant past; had told him that he knew Murdoch Lancer was his father, and what the man had done.
Val had stopped the youth; had convinced him to ride away from what surely would have been a murder. And to what? He closed his eyes for a brief moment, wiping at the dull ache at the back of his neck.
He and Johnny had fought after they left the estancia. Val was headed up country to work for a group of ranchers fighting against rogue loggers who were stripping the mountains bare, and he had insisted -- had dragged -- the kid with him. Hell, he’d only just found the sprout again; finally had him back, and he wasn’t about to let him go. Johnny was fifteen, already on his way to creating the Madrid reputation; a boy in a big hurry to be a man without thinking of the consequences.
They’d been in camp only two days when Johnny smart-mouthed him in front of the crew; a snot-nosed kid disagreeing with everything Val proposed. The argument had been long and loud and twice Val had walked away from the kid in disgust, ignoring him. And then, as he began giving the men their final orders, Johnny started again.
“Shut up, Johnny,” he ordered.
Johnny laughed, snorting a “Fuck you, Val!” before continuing on with his yapping.
Val waited until the crew was gone and they were alone. He pulled Johnny into the solitary hay barn he and his men had been secretly using as their headquarters, his left hand knotted around the kid’s collar and a good hand full of too-long hair. And then he took the boy’s gun away from him; upended him over a stack of baled hale, and beat his ass with a doubled over lead rope. When it was over, he made it clear he wasn’t going to put up with any more of his mouth, and if that meant another trip to the barn, than so be it.
He woke early the next morning expecting Johnny’s bunk to be empty, but it hadn’t happened. The kid’s attitude was profoundly changed, and -- once again -- the boy became his shadow.
It lasted two weeks; two weeks of good times and good behavior. Until two of Johnny’s gunfighter- wannabe friends from Tijuana showed up, and the senseless high jinks began. It ended the night the three pranksters decided they were tired of beef for supper, and used dynamite to fish for lake trout.
The explosion caused a minor plate shift; caving in a sandstone shelf and exposing a breeding ground for diamondback rattlesnakes. It was dark, and they could hear them; the night alive with the angry buzz of snakes on the prod, but they could not see them. It took the entire night and most of the next morning to recover the runaway horses and clean up the mess. The uproar had also alerted the maverick lumberjacks to the precise location of Val’s main campsite.
Johnny’s two friends had run out like Satan was on their tail. Val had caught Johnny before he could take off, and he was not in a forgiving mood.
The kid was genuinely repentant, and anxious to make peace. He ground-hitched his mount and followed the older man into the barn where the recovered horses were now stabled, silently watching as Val tended to his bay gelding; even more remorseful when he saw the deep laceration on the animal’s right front foreleg. He cleared his throat, the words coming softly. “I can help with that,” he offered. When the man didn’t respond right away, Johnny wrapped his arms around himself in a tight hug, his fingers kneading the soft fabric of his shirt; his chin resting against his chest.
Val’s jaws were working as he clenched and unclenched his teeth. He was hunkered down beside the horse, his butt hovering just above his spurs; the dark brown pants stretched tight across his thighs. He was cleaning out the wound; preparing to apply salve. Without looking up, he spoke. “I’ve had about all of your help I can take right about now, boy,” he growled, the words coming with barely contained anger. His gelding was not the only animal that had been injured when the horses on the picket lines bolted; running from the noise of the unseen rattlers. Men had suffered, too. “Jake Kelly’s got a busted right arm,” Val continued. It was getting harder to control his temper. He dropped down on one knee, reaching out for the medical kit; digging out a roll of linen bandages. “Fuller’s got cracked ribs and Cookie…” Disgusted, he shook his head and went silent.
Johnny watched as Val wrapped the bay’s foreleg, miserable the gelding had been hurt. “I’m sorry! I didn’t think…” he began.
Val tied off the bandage and stood up. “You’re god-damned right you didn’t think!!” he roared. Nervously, the gelding snorted and tossed its head; only to be immediately soothed by a single pat from Crawford. Stroking the animal’s neck, Val stopped speaking. And then he stepped away from the horse.
He grabbed Johnny’s right arm, pulling the boy close. “This isn’t a game, Johnny; some fucking pissing contest between little boys!” He wasn’t shouting now, but the words were every bit as intense. “I got twenty-five men to deal with fifty, maybe fifty-five lumberjacks; and that ain’t countin’ the small army of hired guns the timber company is tryin’ to bring in. Most I had goin’ for me was that they didn’t know I was here!” He let go of the boy’s shirt and gave him a shove. “Well, you and your fuckin’ idiot buddies blew that all to hell,” he thumped the kid’s chest with a rigid forefinger, the pun fitting but unintentional. “Might as well have led ‘em in here with a marchin’ band!” Another poke, as Val moved forward and Johnny was forced to retreat.
“I said I was sorry!!” Johnny’s head came up, his eyes filled with a mixture of shame and remorse. He’d never seen Val this angry; at least not at him. “Billy ‘n Nick ‘n I just…”
Val snorted, his index thumping against the boy’s chest a third time, this time backing the kid against the plank gate of an empty stall. “Sorry?!” he shouted. “That and a nickel will buy me a warm beer; but sure in hell not the time I’m goin’ need to make this right! And Billy an’ Nick; your fuckin’ amigos! Where the hell are they now?” Val was shaking his head. “Great choice of friends, Johnny. You keep pickin’ yahoos like that to watch your back you’ll be dead before you’re twenty. Hell, you’ll be lucky to make it to eighteen!”
Head down, Johnny pressed his body into the narrow boards at his back. “You told me if I messed up again, you’d beat my ass,” he breathed, swallowing hard. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the coiled lead rope hanging from the stall’s gate. He reached out, pulling the rope free; head down as he offered it to the man; a peace offering of sorts. “Guess I got it comin’.” An ass-whipping was way better then all the yelling.
Val shook his head. He was beyond angry now, as mad at himself as he was at the kid, the words he had just spoken ringing in his head; ‘Hell, you’ll be lucky to make it to eighteen!’ wondering if he hadn’t somehow laid a curse on the kid. He took the rope, shaking his head, and tossed it to the ground. “I haven’t got time for this, Johnny,” his tone was deadly serious now, the good-old-boy vernacular gone, and his manner grave. “I haven’t got time to waste, playin’ Daddy to some wet-behind- the-ears kid that don’t know how to use his brain better than how to use this!” He tapped the boy’s pistol with his forefinger, the disgust -- contempt -- evident in his face. “Not anymore.” He was quiet for a long moment. “You’d better catch up with your friends,” he muttered, remembering that he had caught Johnny just as the boy was attempting to leave. “You know, Johnny. Run; just like you’re always runnin’.” He turned on his heel, leaving the boy standing alone, and headed out of the barn.
Swallowing hard, Johnny bent down. He picked up the lead rope, working the cord between his fingers; Val’s words cutting into his heart and drawing blood. In the past, he’d always been able to seek Val out; to find the man -- usually when he was in trouble, or he’d been hurt. He’d stay for awhile with the man, until…
…until he felt himself getting too close to Val again; too comfortable. Too full of questions he was afraid Val would answer. And then he would run.
And every damned time, he had wondered why Val hadn’t come after him, and why he hadn’t hauled him back home. Not that he’d made it easy. One thing his Mama had taught him, and taught him well; how to hide.
Johnny picked up the lead rope. He headed out of the barn, filled with an anger he didn’t really understand; a rage that had eaten at him for as long as he could remember. Gathering up the reins on his horse, he started to mount, and then changed his mind. Looking around to make sure he hadn’t been seen, he headed for the small line shack just south of the barn; the shack Val slept in when he actually took the time to sleep. Ground-hitching his horse for the second time, he slipped inside the cabin; the lead rope coiled in his hand.
He found a piece a paper on the table that sat next to the narrow cot; and the small nub of a pencil. Using the dim light from the soot-caked kerosene lantern, he began to write: Maybe you shoulda took the time… Johnny
Grinning, the smile failing to reach his eyes, he vindictively placed the rope and the note on the cot.
Val roused himself from his mental wanderings. His eyes narrowed, and he heaved a great sigh. Opening one of the saddle bags, he reached inside and withdrew the coiled lead rope and the brittle piece of paper. He unfolded the sheet and reread the words he had read a hundred times in the past: Maybe you shoulda took the time…Johnny.
The lawman swiped at his nose with his right hand. The last word he had had about the boy was in a letter from Boyd Ashton; his old friend from San Luís who had valuable ties with the government in Mexico City, and one of the few men who knew first hand the story of Johnny Madrid. Word has come Johnny has perished at the hands of the federales…
“Should have taken the time,” Val breathed. He shoved the chair back, suddenly standing up and giving himself a shake. There had been more to his taking this job in Green River than the offer of a long term contract, a decent salary, the right to collect bounty and a place to live. He clenched his hands, drawing them into fists; then relaxing. Someday, he was going to have a very long talk with one Murdoch Lancer.
The rattle of the door knob caused him to turn and face the door. His right hand going instinctively to the pistol on his right hip, he assumed the usual cat-like pose and waited. The door opened, a mountain of a man filling the opening and stepping across the threshold; a younger man right behind him.
“Sheriff.” The big man took off his hat and extended his hand, the smile coming easily. “I’m Murdoch Lancer. This,” he turned slightly, “is my elder son, Scott…” The words seemed to hang there for a moment, his smile slipping as his son backed out the doorway, only to quickly reappear; dragging someone along behind him. “… and this,” Murdoch sighed, reaching out to pull the second youth into the room by his collar; “is my younger son, Johnny.”
Val’s composure broke, but just briefly. He quickly recovered, hiding the smile as he gazed down at the top of the faded Stetson; the youth’s eyes hidden from view by the brim of his hat as he stared hard at the floor. “Boy,” he drawled softly. He reached back to his desk, picking up the lead rope. “I think I got somethin’ that belongs to you…”
Johnny’s head suddenly snapped up, his hat falling off and dropping down onto his back to be held in place by the storm strings; his mouth open in complete surprise. “Val!” He blinked several times, and then reached out; grabbing the big man in a spontaneous, back-thumping hug that was returned in kind. Embarrassed, they parted. The smile came slowly; Johnny’s blue eyes shining as the grin spread across his face. And then he saw the rope that Val was holding, and his cheeks colored. Wetting his lips with his tongue, he reached out to retrieve it, surprised when Val canted his head slightly and refused to let go.
Val turned to the big rancher, smiling when he saw the look on Murdoch Lancer’s face. “We’ve met before,” he explained; as ever the master of simple understatement. His gaze flicked briefly to Johnny and then back to the tall rancher. He reached out, offering the coiled lead rope to the older man. “You might want to keep this, Mr. Lancer,” he grinned. “I got a feeling you might be needing it.”
Scott Lancer leaned back against the door, pushing it shut. The look on his father’s face caused him to smile; Murdoch’s expression a mixture of consternation and curiosity. Johnny’s countenance, on the other hand, was awash with emotions Scott had rarely seen on his younger brother’s face: joy and a strange contentment. It was obvious from his face Johnny knew the lawman; more, that there was some deep connection between the two: a hell of a lot more than a casual we’ve met before.
Scott crossed the room, coming up beside his brother, his left arm going out to rest lightly across the younger man’s shoulders as he drew him close in an affectionate hug and ruffled the dark hair. “So, sheriff,” he hesitated, “Val,” instinct told him that someday he and this man were going to be friends; “could you tell us? Was that meeting on a professional basis…” he was smiling mischievously as he nodded towards the empty holding cell, “or…?” He let the words hang, and then continued. “I mean, if you have the time…”
Val looked across at the younger man, seeing something in the blond’s face and eyes he recognized; a genuine fondness for the young boy that now stood between them. “Oh, I’ve got the time,” he drawled, his smile matching Scott’s. He turned to look at Johnny, the smile growing. “Hell, I’m going to make a point of takin’ the time.”