Written singly and first released in “The Lancer Great Room Bookshelf, Vol. 2” from Yucca Flower Press (April 2006), this serves as a surprising companion piece to my “Sharp Edge,” which should be read second. My muse has fed me the loose plot for a third more directly connected story – a decidedly dark piece that I shall have to ponder on for a bit. But in the meantime, “Vested Interests,” to be published first by Yucca Flower Press in 2007 and subsequently posted publicly, should prove an equally satisfying alternate bookend for this trio of tales from Johnny’s life.
L L L L L L L L
The kid was back.
Horace Gant looked up from his accounts ledger and caught sight of the kid just before Ben Jeffries’s buckboard pulled up right in front of the store and blocked his view of the street. Gant reflexively glanced over to the clock sitting atop the far end of his counter.
*‘Three-ten today,’* he noted, but had no idea why in all the heavens it mattered. *‘Kid isn’t keeping a regular schedule is all.’*
*‘Regular schedule . . .’* Horace shook his head and huffed out a scoffing breath as he finished noting his last customer’s purchase. *‘Since when do the comings and goings of some dirty ragamuffin kid matter to you, Horace Gant?’*
To his surprise, “HG” found himself giving the question a sincere moments thought. *‘Since the kid don’t come and go . . . just appears and disappears. Stands there in the street in front of Morgan’s saloon every day for a week, watching you, then he’s gone. Most likely scouting you for thievery, HG, so you just keep on watching that little snip back.’*
“H’ay do?” Jeffries greeted as his impressive bulk filled the entranceway. He pulled his well-weathered hat off and used it to beat the top layers of dust from his clothes before he passed on through the open door.
“Do fine,” HG answered as he closed his ledger and spared one last glance out the window. But his view hadn’t miraculously cleared. “Do better if it were just a little bit cooler.”
“That’s a churchyard fact,” Ben agreed as he clomped across the planked floor toward HG.
“What’ll it be, Ben?”
As if Gant didn’t already know. He knew all his customer’s regular orders. In the small, lazy Texas border town of Burfield it was easy to keep track of who would want what and when. Nothing more exciting than an occasional bar fight happened in the area. The Mexicans around town might throw a raucous fiesta from time to time, but you had to go all the way over to Eagle Pass to get your blood stirred up any on a regular basis.
*‘Maybe that’s why the kid keeps niggling at me . . . he’s new. Different. Hell, the kid’s darn right intriguing.*
*‘Intriguing . . . now that’s a word I have never considered using here in Burfield,’* HG mused.
“Is she pretty?” Jeffries’s hat landed with a hard plop on the counter next to Horace.
Startled out of his considerations, Gant jumped. “What? Who?” he stammered.
“Whoever or whatever is more interesting than me,” Ben said. “Come on, HG! You gonna daydream all afternoon, or get me my tobacco?”
Horace was flustered and embarrassed that he’d let his mind wander. He reviewed the pile of goods in front of him, but had no clear memory of having assembled them. *‘Damned kid.’* HG noted the sugar, flour, bacon and coffee already on the counter. “Sure . . . sure. Right away.”
HG picked up Ben’s empty tobacco pouch and headed toward a small barrel set on a bottom shelf in the corner. “Grab a bag and measure out your beans,” he instructed over his shoulder. “I’ll get your molasses.”
Jeffries marched down to the opposite end of the counter and snatched one of Gant’s newfangled paper bags from a stack next to a big wooden barrel filled with dried beans. With a deft snap of his wrist he whipped the bag and popped it open. Gant glanced over at the sound, and watched off and on for a minute as Ben’s oversized hands dug into the barrel and scooped several piles of beans into the bag. He measured out six handfuls.
Horace repositioned his ladder and climbed up three rungs to pull down Ben’s jar of blackstrap. He had most of his attention focused on the tricky task at hand, but still heard it when those hard beans were manhandled a couple more times.
“Anything else today?” HG asked as he set the bottle of sweet blackness and now bulging tobacco pouch onto the counter, just as Ben set down his hefty bag of beans.
“Nope. That’ll do ‘er.”
Gant opened his ledger and began to tally. “How much beans?” he asked, not looking up.
“Six handfuls.” Ben spoke his lie, then suddenly found the new shipment of hats in back of him worthy of a try on.
Horace glanced up knowingly and, sporting a smirking smile, wrote Jeffries down for owing on seven handfuls of beans. Even with that he knew he was being cheated.
“Going to pay any on your account today, Ben?” HG’s pencil hovered over the ledger.
“Not today, if you don’t mind. Gotta pick up seed, and you know Clyde won’t take a marker.”
“That’s a churchyard fact,” HG concurred. He set his pencil down and closed the book. “You going to be able to carry all that?”
Ben had already gathered most of his goods up into his beefy arms and stowed a few other items within a variety of pockets. “Yeah. I can get it. Got an empty crate out in the wagon. Be nice if I’d remember to bring it in with me once in a while.”
Horace laughed as Jeffries turned to leave. “See you next week, Ben.”
“That’s a churchyard fact,” Jeffries agreed as he plodded out the door.
The ladder was set back safely out of the way and a box of baking soda that had been pushed askew was faced properly front. Horace heard Jeffries’s wagon rumble away as he scanned the rest of his shelves for anything else out of place. Everything found to be in order Gant fed his curiosity and turned to see if that kid had moved yet.
He sure had. The kid now stood right smack dab in the middle of the entrance to the Gant Mercantile. Where Jeffries’s massive body had filled the doorway, the kid barely cast a shadow.
*‘Scrawny,’* summed up HG’s initial impression.
He was indeed on the skinny side, but on further consideration Gant realized the kid looked extra small because his clothes were at least one size too big for him. A white shirt patterned with little blue flowers hung low off the kid’s shoulders. The sleeves were rolled back several times and bunched into a mass of material atop a pair of thin, dark-skinned forearms.
*‘I’ll bet he’s got that shirt properly tucked just to help keep his pants on,’* Gant surmised.
The kid’s pants were mostly held up by the grace of God and a too-long black leather belt. The strap was laced through a simple buckle and then wrapped twice more around itself so the end dropped down to lay flat against the kid’s thigh. The look may have been considered a might rakish on an adult, but on the kid it just drew attention to the poor nature of his clothing. The pants showed too much wear on the knees.
*‘Religious as hell, or a hard worker . . . and what does any of this matter, HG?’* Gant could not believe how fascinated he was by this kid.
A pair of simple Mexican peasant sandals peeked out from beneath the kid’s pant legs that had been turned up about three times into cuffs. The footwear completed the kid’s outfit, and just happened to be the only thing that fit him proper.
The kid stood perfectly still, watching Gant watching him for a minute, then he purposefully leaned back a little and turned his head to scan both directions down the boardwalk. Apparently satisfied with the circumstances, the kid faced Gant again and in a clear, strong voice asked, “You sell to folks like me?”
HG didn’t hear anger in the unusual question, just matter of fact caution. “What’s ‘like you,’ kid?”
“Mixed. I’m mixed.”
The way the kid said it kind of pained HG deep in his chest. He didn’t particularly consider himself an intolerant man, but he’d never stood up for any half-breed he’d seen being bullied, either. By Gant’s reckoning the kid was nine years old . . . maybe ten at the most. *‘The kid knows what he is, and is just trying to avoid trouble.’* Somehow HG judged that sad . . . very, very sad.
“Do you have any money?” HG asked, and found he had to clear his throat after.
*‘Polite cuss.’* “Well then. Welcome to the Gant Mercantile. Come on in.”
The kid moved forward, betraying no special effort but treading quiet as a cat. He kept his eyes firmly on HG the whole way over to the counter. As he drew nearer, Gant found himself riveted by the clearest, deepest blue eyes he’d ever seen, peering out at him from under a ragged mop of raven black hair. *‘Damn. Kid’s got a right to be cautious. Eyes like that on a Mex could get a body hanged in some parts.’*
“You new in town?”
“Got a name?”
“Well, what is it?”
The kid’s eyes narrowed. “You gotta know for me ta buy here?”
*‘Secretive cuss.’* “No. No I don’t.” *‘And might just be better for me if I didn’t.’* Stupefied, Gant passed a hand through his thinning hair, then set both palms flat atop the counter. “What do you need, kid?”
“I’d like some flour.”
HG had fully expected a child’s typical request for sweets, not household staples. *‘Yes, sir . . . intriguing.’* “Got it right here.” Gant turned and paced down his shelves a few feet. He pulled off a small sack of flour he’d portioned out just that morning, brought it back and set it on the counter. “That big enough?”
The blue eyes stared at the bag, then up at Gant. “How much is it?”
“Two bits for that size. I have larger bags too.”
“No, sir. This’ll do.” The kid reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small assortment of coins. He selected the biggest and slid it across the wide wooden counter.
“Salt. We could use some salt.”
*‘We . . . hmmm . . . At least he isn’t alone.’*
“Just a little,” the kid clarified.
“All right.” Gant paced down his shelves again and pulled off his smallest package of salt. He set it on the counter next to the flour. “That’ll be a nickel.”
The kid selected another coin and placed it next to the quarter. “Do ya have any beans?”
“Whole barrel full of them. Follow me.”
Gant headed down his side of the counter while the kid mirrored him down the other. HG swung around the edge and stood behind his big barrel of dried beans. “How much would you like?”
The kid looked into the barrel, those blue eyes wide and wanting. He raised a cupped hand and appraised his remaining funds. Looking a little hangdog, he held the hand out toward Gant to reveal two worn flying eagle cents. “How much can I get for this?”
Gant gazed at the coins and shared the kid’s bleak expectation. HG thought himself a fair Christian man, but he’d never been known to run a charity. “Hand those over and let me see your palms.”
He eyed Gant suspiciously, but the kid gave over the money and held out his hands. Gant considered the small palms before him, then grabbed and opened a paper sack. “My customers usually serve themselves. You take this bag . . .” The kid took the sack. “. . . and get yourself three handfuls. These . . .” HG held up the coins, “. . . should cover that much.”
Instruction provided, Gant walked away, back down his counter. *‘Now I find out how honest this kid is.’*
The kid held the sack in his left hand, over the center of the barrel. He reached down into the pool of dried beans and carefully closed his fist. As the hand rose and traveled toward the gaping opening of the paper bag, a couple of beans escaped his grip and fell to freedom back into the barrel.
Gant crossed his arms over his chest and leaned a hip against his counter as he watched closely. He found himself silently cheering the kid on. Most of his customers scooped the beans up haphazardly, unmindful of how many might fall from their grasp back into the barrel – or onto the floor for that matter. But not the kid. His movements were being carefully controlled. He refused to rush.
It was a challenge to keep those slick beans in his little fist, but the kid seemed willing to buck the odds. He lost five beans back to the barrel with his first fistful, only two with his second scoop, but three with the last handful. He wrapped both his hands around the top of the bag and sealed it tightly, then carried his precious bounty back over to Gant and set it on the counter next to his little sack of flour and portion of salt.
HG pulled open the bag and peered down at the contents. Snatches of brown paper could still be seen shouting out at him accusingly from under the beans. *‘Nope. Don’t seem fair at all. Do it?’*
He looked up, leaned forward and again set his palms flat against the counter. “This isn’t right, kid.”
The kid stared at Gant. As his eyes widened his mouth gaped open – only to snap shut into a tight line. His anger and confusion flowed. “I done what you said. I only took three handfuls. Honest!”
“Settle down there! I know you did. But I figured the size of your hands wrong. You gave me two cents, but don’t have more than a penny’s worth of beans here.” He picked up the bag and held it out to the kid. “You best go get three more handfuls.”
The kid’s eyes narrowed. “You sure? I wouldn’t want ta cheat ya.”
Gant grinned, almost laughed. “You’d be my first customer today who didn’t. No. You get another three. That’ll make us square. Go on now.”
HG found himself on the receiving end of a lopsided smile that was one of the most cheering he’d ever had the pleasure to witness. His own mood brightened perceptively.
“Thanks, mister!” The kid grabbed the bag and headed over to the barrel. Three fresh handfuls were carefully added to the sack, then the kid brought it back for inspection. HG peered into the bag, and those loudmouth snatches of brown paper had been appropriately silenced under a layer of beans.
“Looks better now, kid. Anything else today?”
HG tightly folded down the top of the paper sack and held it out to the kid, who’d already gathered up his other small items. “You going to be able to carry all that?”
“Yes, sir. I got it. Thanks, mister.”
“Gant. It’s Mr. Gant, kid.”
“Thanks, Mr. Gant.” The kid beamed him another smile. “See ya later.”
“Hope I will,” HG replied, and really truly meant it.
The kid did end up patronizing the Gant Mercantile on a regular basis. Not regular like HG’s other customers – expected like – but whenever he was able to scrape together a few coins. The kid never bought anything frivolous, just staples. On occasion he’d select a piece of fruit or a vegetable or two, but those cost him dear so were a rare purchase. He always got beans – always, even if it was only a cents worth.
He never came when there was anyone else in the store. The kid would announce his arrival with a hearty and polite, “Howdy, Mr. Gant,” or “Buenos Dias, Señor Gant.” HG found himself actually looking forward to the kid’s visits.
“Where do you get your spendings, kid?” Gant bluntly asked one morning.
The kid looked hurt. “I don’t steal. I work for my pay!”
“Hey. No offense meant. Matter of fact, you look like you’d be a top hand. You want to do a job for me?”
The kid softened. “Maybe. What ya need done?”
“I have a storeroom that needs a proper sweeping, and all the jars and bottles dusted. You afraid of mice?”
“Nope,” the kid announced proudly. “Rats neither!”
Gant laughed. “Well, I better not have any rats back there. I’ll give you a dollar for the sweeping and dusting, and a nickel for every mouse you find and kill. How’s that sound?”
The kid’s mouth scrunched up in consideration. “Can I see the room first?”
Gant laughed again. “Kid, you are a shrewd businessman to want to know what you’re getting into before you cut a deal. Follow me.”
The kid looked over the storeroom thoroughly, then turned and held out his hand. “I’ll do it, sir.”
HG was proud to shake on the deal.
Not once did the kid bother Gant at his counter to help him move anything in the storeroom. The kid did it all himself, and never complained about how heavy some of the barrels were. It took him the whole day. He didn’t break a single bottle or jar – although he pointed out three that had lost their seals and let the contents go bad. He also killed five mice. HG happily handed over a dollar and six bits.
“You gave me too much,” the kid said, holding out a pair of quarters.
“No, you earned it, kid. I believe in paying a man for the work done. You did a good job. You keep that.”
The kid looked at the two extra quarters like he’d been handed a twenty-dollar gold piece. “Thanks, Mr. Gant,” he said softly. He added the coins to his others and then held his fortune out to HG. “I’d like to open an account, please.”
Gant smiled. He also took the money. “If I’d have known you were just going to spend this all in my own store, I would have paid you more!” The kid returned the smile as the pair walked into the front together. “What can I get for you today?”
The kid ended up leaving with some flour, a jar of stewed tomatoes, an onion, a whole dime’s worth of beans, even a small measure of sugar. Best of all, he left with a half inch thick slice of bacon. For the first time HG had to give the kid a burlap sack so he could carry his groceries home.
“Thanks a lot, Mr. Gant,” the kid said on his way out.
“You’re welcome. If I hear anyone else looking for help, I’ll let you know.”
The kid was in town for a couple more weeks after that – until one afternoon, when he came in behaving like vultures had suddenly started circling. Horace had never seen the kid so serious.
“Hey, kid.” HG filled his salute with an extra measure of cheer.
“Hi, Mr. Gant.” There was none of the typical enthusiasm in the kid’s greeting.
*‘This is going to be bad,’* Gant thought. “What’s got you hanging today?”
“Mama wants ta move on,” the kid said as he turned to rest his back against the solid front of Gant’s high counter.
HG set his arms atop the counter and leaned forward to peer over the edge. The kid had his head down, but Gant could feel the disappointment oozing out of him. “How come?” he asked.
A dispirited sigh drifted out from the bowed head. “She says it’s too quiet here. She’s bored.” There was a long pause, during which the kid’s shoulders sagged markedly toward the floor. “I like it kind of quiet.”
“I know you do, kid.” HG was surprised at how bad he truly felt for the young man. “Where you headed to?”
“Mama heard ‘bout some town called Eagle Pass. She wants ta move there.”
What Gant wanted to do was find the woman and throttle her good. *‘Eagle Pass for a breed kid . . . holy angels in heaven . . .’*
“Don’t imagine it’ll be much quiet there,” the kid supposed.
Now it was Gant who issued a carefully controlled sigh as he suppressed his anger. It wasn’t his place to take on anyone else’s family problems. “No, kid. Won’t be too quiet there.”
A moment of silence passed between the pair, as the kid kicked a bare toe idly at the floorboards with a sandaled foot. “Turn around, kid.”
It took him a second, but finally the kid did. “When you get to Eagle Pass, you find Jim Campbell’s Trading Post. You tell him Horace Gant said he should treat you right. We’ve been friends for a few years. He’ll do you fair.”
The kid smiled a little. “Thanks, Mr. Gant. I appreciate that.”
“My pleasure. Now. I imagine you’ll want to close your account today. What do you need for traveling goods?”
The kid had enough money left on his account for some jerky and cheese . . . and a final nickel worth of beans. The kid stood over the big barrel of dried beans and too slowly began grabbing up his fistfuls. Gant tried not to stare . . . tried desperately not to care. But with each handful more and more beans seemed to fall back into the barrel than into the bag. When he saw the kid’s shoulders start to tremble, Horace went to lend a hand.
“Let me fill your order, kid. Kind of dusty in here today, and looks like it’s causing you trouble.”
The kid dropped the sack into the barrel, and turned away. “Thanks,” he said quietly, as he swiped an oversized sleeve across his eyes.
Gant wanted to fill that bag to the top, but he knew the kid well enough to know he wouldn’t want that. Just his nickel’s worth, fair and square. HG finished the task . . . then threw in another handful anyway . . . and a bit more.
“All done.” Gant walked back and set the bag of beans next to the strips of jerky and small chunk of hard cheese. As the kid slowly slogged over to join him, HG reached under his counter and pulled out a burlap sack. He loaded the kid’s items into it and then held it out.
The kid took the bag and faced HG, his blue eyes done shedding tears, now full of gratitude. “Thanks for everything, Mr. Gant. I’ll find that Mr. Campbell.”
“You be sure to do that. Take care of yourself.”
*‘You certainly do, kid.’*
The kid hefted his bag and gave a little wave, then turned to leave. Just at the door, Gant called out, “Hey, kid. What’s your name?”
He didn’t turn back, just kind of dropped his head and peered back over his shoulder, bearing that beguiling lopsided smile. “Johnny. I’m Johnny.”
L L L L L L L L
There was still no answer.
“Johnny? Son?” Murdoch Lancer tried a third time to gain his son’s attention. But Johnny just continued to squat near the counter by the pantry. He stared intently at something small cupped in his hand that he’d picked up off the kitchen floor well over a minute before.
Scott hovered in the doorway. Teresa sat next to Murdoch at the dining table. Maria stood at the stove. Murdoch looked to them all but, by the headshakes and shoulder shrugs he received in response, everyone seemed as confused as himself by Johnny’s remote behavior.
Johnny finally stood and turned toward the stove. “You cookin’ beans today, Maria?”
The housekeeper glanced at Murdoch, her eyes wide, clearly embarrassed that she had been addressed while the patrón had been ignored. Murdoch nodded his approval to answer. “No, Juanito. I cook beans yesterday.”
Johnny held up his right hand to reveal a dried bean trapped firmly between his thumb and forefinger. “You let one get away.” He dropped the bean back into his open palm, and again stared at it intently. “You can never have too many dried beans,” he stated philosophically. “They’ll get you through the hardest times.”
He grasped the bean firmly in his fist, and headed into the pantry. The distinctive scrape of a stoneware lid could be heard, then a soft chink as it was set back on its pot.
Johnny came out of the pantry and crossed directly to the outer door. He pulled his hat off a peg and set it on his head as he turned. “You workin’ today, Boston?” he lightheartedly called to his brother across the room.
“Right behind you, Johnny.”
Without another word Johnny opened the kitchen door and closed it behind him.
Teresa picked up her fork and poked idly at her remaining breakfast. Maria turned back to the stove and stirred at the contents of a big stew pot. Scott slowly pulled on his work gloves. Murdoch nursed his now tepid cup of coffee.
All were left to contemplate the value of little things.
*THE END – MP, April 2007*