Written singly in answer to a writer’s group challenge, this serves as a surprising companion piece to my “Little Things,” which should be read first. 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 cowboy tipped the already half empty bottle of whiskey and refilled her glass. Maria wanted to stop him, not really interested in continuing to encourage his clumsy advances. Fresh into town from a day spent burning brands into cattle for a local estancia, the young vaquero smelled of singed hair and cow manure. But he was generous with that bottle, and she wanted another drink. *Needed* another drink . . .
“Gracias.” She drew the word out lasciviously in a well-practiced tease. Maria leaned into the cowboy and stroked a playful hand over his smooth-cheeked face. In a fluid motion she reached down and scooped up the glass. She closed her eyes as she slowly brought the glass to her lips, savored the familiar taste of the liquor as it flowed over her tongue, burned the back of her throat, offered a promise of escape, if only for a little while.
A contented smile spread over her lips as Maria opened her eyes. The batwing doors of the cantina flapped back and forth in front of her as a fat vaquero stumbled his way through and disappeared into the night. A bright flash drew her gaze beneath the door panels, to the edge of the porch, just within the spill of light flowing from the saloon. A small hand reached forward, briefly illuminated as it pulled at a short hunting knife imbedded there in the boardwalk.
Her mood dipped as she waited and watched. Within seconds the knife flashed again as it sliced through the night. The tip of the weapon buried expertly into the rough planking. Sharp and deadly, the blade gleamed with reflected light.
The small hand reached forward out of the darkness to once again pull the knife from the wood.
Maria had to turn away. She could feel the young cowboy’s fingers stroke her neck under her long black hair, but she had no desire this night to offer him any further liberties. Her son was waiting to walk her home, protect her with his newfound skills with that knife. That damned knife that cut through her deceit of innocence and stabbed her with guilt.
A grievous mistake needed correcting, but Maria saw little chance for resolution. She’d done too good a job making her son forget his father. Murdoch Lancer meant nothing more now to Johnny than a reason to hate. Maria had made sure of that, spinning lies that branded her and the boy poor victims of Murdoch’s unjust wrath. But the curses she’d placed on Murdoch’s soul now darkened her own with regret and fear.
Maria had fled a life she thought oppressive, only to find a harsh existence that posed no future for Johnny. Her own fate she could accept with indifference, had for years as she willingly spiraled down into a numbed semi-drunken haze. But Maria could no longer ignore the danger her choices had created for her son.
Her recklessness had pushed Johnny into manhood before his time. Her motherhood was a sham. She couldn’t even remember how old he really was . . . eleven, maybe twelve. What difference. She’d no right to steal his childhood only to anger Murdoch Lancer.
Maria had selfishly pulled Johnny along on a vagabond’s trail that left him with no family and no friends – no one else to depend on, care for, or love. Left with no alternatives, Maria had become the boy’s life. Johnny wouldn’t see her faults, and the more careless she became the more the boy clung to her. Her latest indiscretion had left her battered, and while her bruises healed Johnny had been compelled to buy that knife through his own earnings with a vow to protect her. She dreaded the day when he could afford a gun.
Had she left even a small glimmer of hope in the boy, Maria might have been able to send him off now to live with his father, leave her alone to wallow in a self-gratifying state of detachment. But it was too late for that – too late for her, much too late for Johnny.
“Another drink, por favor?” She dipped her head demurely and batted her eyes at the naïve cowboy.
“My pleasure, señorita,” he said with a lazy Texas drawl. He reached for the bottle, the back of his hand not too subtly brushing against her breast along the way.
*‘Señora,’* Maria thought sadly. *‘Esposa de Murdoch Lancer y madre de Juanito Lancer. And I should be despised by both.’* Except, Johnny refused to hate her, adding to the stain on her soul.
“Drink up, pretty lady,” the drawl encouraged. “There’s more where that come from.”
The knife slashed yet again. Maria hadn’t realized she’d been watching for it. She willed her gaze away and sought solace at the bottom of the whiskey glass. She downed the drink quickly and fought back stinging tears as she slammed the glass back onto the table.
“Whoo-eee! That’s my girl!” Texas wrapped an arm too tightly around her waist as he refilled her glass.
The cantina walls bowed, and she started to feel ill. The odors of sweat and cattle and cigars and vomit all reached her at once, the stench overwhelming.
Maria stood abruptly. Her chair pushed backward to wobble precariously before it settled upright. One hand reached out to grasp the cowboy’s shoulder, steadying her, as the back of her other hand ran shakily over her forehead. “I must go now.”
She took a step forward, but the cowboy grabbed her wrist and yanked her back. “Wait a minute! You just wait a minute now, pretty lady. I don’t think we’re quite done yet tonight.” He stood and pulled her to him roughly, his body pressed against hers as he wrapped an arm around her back and let it drift low over her hip and down a little more.
“I am sorry, señor.” She shook her head feebly and tried to smile. “I do not feel well.”
“You seemed to be feelin’ pretty good when you was drinkin’ my whiskey!” The cowboy’s drunken grip on her wrist tightened. He moved his face closer to hers, stroked his lips against her cheek. His crotch rubbed against her, the bulge there betraying his need.
Any other night, Maria might have obliged him. Would have obliged him. She again shook her head and pushed her free hand against his chest. “I will be sick on you. I must go. Some other night.” She twisted her arm within his grip. His fingers burned her skin as she broke from his grasp. Maria kept a wary eye on him as she backed away a few steps.
“If that don’t beat all,” Texas exclaimed in affected disappointment to the curious cowhands at the surrounding tables. The cowboy swiped up a glass and banged it deliberately several times against the tabletop. He held it out at Maria in judgment. “You owe me, señorita. You just remember that.”
“You tell ‘er, Will!” a sympathetic vaquero called out above an uproar of drunken laughter.
Maria took another step back. “Sí, señor. There will be other nights. Gracias.” She turned to flee, but pulled up short. The batwing doors were ajar, a pair of small legs in too long pants showed beneath, a mop of unruly black hair and a concerned face peered between. Maria’s little protector, Johnny, come to her rescue. And that is what Maria feared – that Johnny’s misplaced courage would one day mean his death. The nightmare haunted her dreams constantly now, ever since he’d armed himself with that knife.
She lurched forward to the doorway. Johnny backed out onto the porch with her approach, but held a wing open for her. She pushed it open further as she exited, purposely forced him to back away or be hit by the door. She continued off the porch without a look behind. She knew he would follow.
“I told you to stay home, did I not?” She refused to face him, just plodded along toward their rented room. *Home.* Another sham.
“Wanted to make sure you wasn’t bothered is all.”
Maria turned on him sharply. Her feet danced to conflicting rhythms beneath her, but she forced herself to steady as she pointed an accusing finger at the boy stopped behind her. A bonfire set in the street nearby flickered across their faces. “No one molestia me who I do not ask! You are not to come to the cantina again, do you hear me?” She knew she was shouting but only the boy paid attention, the rest of the town unconcerned by the commotion.
Johnny stood before her, a hand behind his back. His teeth worried at his lower lip. His eyes – those lamentable blue eyes of his father – looked up at her with a child’s confusion. “But mama . . .”
“No! You do not follow me, ever again! And give me that knife.” She held her palm out to him.
Any confusion in Johnny’s eyes disappeared. The child was gone. At first Maria thought it was a trick of the flickering firelight, just her imagination, a delusion of her muddled senses. Johnny’s face was now emotionless, unreadable. But his eyes were set on her with a focus she’d rarely experienced.
“No. It’s mine.” He told her quietly, evenly.
Maria was stunned. More than stunned. She was afraid. This was the man she had helped craft, but did not know. She had sat with seasoned vaqueros, banditos even, who spoke with such confidence. But this was her son. Johnny. From him she did not expect such a challenge.
“I do not like that you have it.” She also didn’t like the way her voice wavered. “You are too young.”
“It’s mine,” he repeated. His eyes did not blink, he did not move. “You don’t have to worry. I’m good with it.” The arm came out from behind his back. Johnny’s hand moved smoothly as he tucked the knife into a little sheath he had made from scraps of leather and tied to his belt. He finished putting the weapon away and faced her again. “I’m keepin’ it.”
*‘Dios. What have I done?’* Maria didn’t know what to say.
“Make any money today?” The fearsome little man was gone, as quickly as he had appeared. Left behind was the boy who still depended on her . . . she, who couldn’t even take care of herself.
“Any left?” he asked tentatively.
“No.” It was the frequent answer to a common question. Her guilt deepened.
“Oh.” His head dipped, and his arms came up to cross over his chest, a too familiar gesture. “Then we should get home. Gonna get cold fast now.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence, side by side. The evening’s liquor continued to flow through her, and she welcomed the sedating affects. Maria stumbled once, but Johnny, barely tall enough, was there to steady her.
They shared a single room at the back of a shopkeeper’s house near the edge of the burgeoning Texas border town. Johnny opened the door for them and left it open as he led Maria to the small bed. She kept a hand on his shoulder as she kicked off her dusty shoes, then lay down on her back, an arm covering her eyes.
A blanket was set over her. “Goodnight, mama.”
“Te amo,” she sighed, and adjusted herself upon the mattress.
Johnny shut the door, and Maria heard him briefly move about in the darkness. He settled, and there was silence.
Maria turned so she could stare over to where Johnny huddled within his own blankets set upon the floor. Her eyes finally adjusted to the darkness of the room, and she could make out the shadowed outline of Johnny’s small body. A hot tear flowed unnoticed down her cheek. *‘Lo siento. God forgive me for your life, my son.’*