Johnny bent over and picked up another stick. He straightened and juggled it into the precarious pile already cradled in his arms. He looked back toward their camp, set up within a small grove of trees, and was pleased by the reassuring glow of a roaring fire.
A coyote howled, off to his right. He listened for a full minute, until he was sure it was really just a coyote. He’d spotted Indian signs pretty regularly along their way, and a fresh trail crossing theirs that morning doubled his caution.
His mother refused to say why she had dragged him out of Texas, across northern Mexico, on through Arizona and into California. They had skirted below the Mojave Desert, and were working their way into the southern entrance of the San Joaquin Valley. Despite traveling in early spring, temperatures some days still ran pretty high. They’d suffered through miles of hot sand and, for the past week, days of heavy rain that had gone a long way to dampen Johnny’s mood.
He was used to a vagabond life, but Maria normally let him know where their next stop would be. Her steadfast secrecy had him nervous. She’d even saved enough money to buy them a mule for this long trip. Money usually went through Maria’s fingers like water. She had to be leading them someplace important for her to expend such an effort, but she got very angry every time he asked about their destination. He had some troublesome suspicions, but when it came down to it Johnny really had no idea where they were headed.
Johnny kicked up another stick that had been hiding in the darkness. As he reached for it he remembered another thing that had been different recently. A few months back Maria had mentioned Murdoch Lancer. Johnny couldn’t remember if he was twelve or thirteen just now, but he did know that it had been years since his father’s name had passed his mother’s lips. They had been in church – another rare occurrence.
”Juanito,” she’d whispered, “do you remember your papa?”
“Nope,” he answered, his angry vehemence drawing glares from a pair of old women on a bench in front of them. “Why should I?”
Her answer was a profound silence that drew his own attention. Maria had her head bowed low. A shawl covering her hair veiled most of her face. “Because I loved him once.” Johnny had to strain to hear her. A teardrop fell onto her hands, clasped around a rosary.
“Mama?” He was at once concerned and confused. “You said he threw us out.”
Her head bobbed slightly – but then shook as it lowered ever more. “But there was love with him, too. With Murdoch Lancer, we had love . . . .”
Maria would say no more, and after church had ordered Johnny back to their rented hovel as she rushed off toward a cantina. Then she’d started saving money, and soon they had the mule, a few supplies, and had set off on this strange journey.
“Juanito.” Maria’s voice carried through the night. He was startled from his remembrance. “We have enough firewood. Come back. Now!”
Johnny moved skillfully across the shadowy landscape, with only a still rising crescent moon to guide him. The mule brayed a greeting at him as he entered the campsite. Johnny dropped his armload of wood onto a bounteous stack next to the fire. He used one of the sticks to poke at the blaze, sending the flames higher.
“We will be very warm tonight,” Maria said. She reclined on a nearby blanket, propped up on an elbow.
“I set some snares. Maybe we’ll have meat in the mornin’.”
She laughed softly. “Then I will dream of a feast. Now eat your supper and go to bed. We have much walking tomorrow.”
“To where?” Johnny dared. He didn’t face her, just kept poking at the fire.
He heard her shift to lie down. “You will see,” she said, soundly implying an end to the conversation.
Disappointed, but not surprised, Johnny moved to sit on his own blanket, determined to stay awake as the night watch. He unfolded a kerchief beside him and found a dried biscuit and small piece of cheese. He leaned back against a tree trunk and ate slowly, savoring each bite. He listened to the sounds from the evening and scanned the inky blackness until he memorized every bump and shadow. His eyelids grew heavy, and still he kept sentinel – until about three in the morning, when he lost the battle with his fatigue and lay down and slept.
L L L L L L L L
“Juanito, wake up. Wake up!”
Johnny jerked awake to find the sun already climbing the sky. He jumped up and found his mother standing. He didn’t have to ask what had her excited.
In every direction, for miles and miles, as far as they could see, there were wildflowers. Overnight the long grass had sprouted an endless variety of colorful blossoms, where before there had only been sporadic dots of color. The flora display was so all encompassing it was as if God had spilled paint down from the heavens.
Johnny turned in a slow circle and everywhere he looked he found something different. Clusters of red blended into great swaths of orange then yellow blooms. There were seas of one color with islands of another in the middle. Delicate pink rivers meandered through lush plots of stark white buds. Intense blues faded to light purple then burst back into yellow. The view was awe-inspiring.
Mother and son stood hushed for minutes. They’d moved from one dirty and raucous town to another for so long that the natural splendor left them stunned and speechless. Serenity flowed over them in comforting waves.
“It’s beautiful,” Johnny finally whispered.
“Sí,” Maria answered. “I think this would be a good place to rest a day.”
“Sí,” Johnny said, happy beyond belief at her decision.
Johnny left their camp to check his snares. As he came upon the first he heard Maria singing softly in the distance. The trap was empty, so he left it untouched. Far from disappointed, he was remarkably content. His mother hadn’t sung with such joy in a long time, and it cheered him.
As he walked toward his second snare he began picking wildflowers. He had a sizeable multicolored bouquet by the time he reached the trap – and found an unlucky rabbit caught and waiting! He grabbed up his prize and jogged back to the camp, the wildflowers bouncing in his arms.
“Mama! I caught a rabbit!” He held up the snare to her and she clapped proudly.
“So, you make my dreams come true, mi hijo querido.”
He held the flowers out to her. “I picked these for you, too. Special.”
Maria accepted the spray with great pleasure. She buried her face into the blooms and sniffed deeply, then clutched them to her chest. “Gracias,” she said, and then gave him a kiss on the cheek. She laid the flowers on top of the bundle of clothes she’d used as a pillow. She selected a bright yellow daisy, snapped the stem off short and placed the bud behind her ear.
They worked together preparing what, for them, was a grand meal. Johnny skinned, gutted and skewered the rabbit onto a makeshift spit over the fire. Maria boiled some dried beans. She hunted out wild onions and added them to the pot.
They feasted and rested, lazing the day away amongst the calming ocean of wildflowers. For supper they cut the remaining rabbit into pieces and added it to the beans with more onions. As they ate Johnny thought his mother was the happiest he’d ever seen. He bet in all Maria’s mysterious planning she had never guessed their path would bring them to such a moment of simple delight and peace.
Their day ended as sunset and a light breeze washed over the garlanded countryside, creating a kaleidoscope finale of vibrant shifting hues. Maria put an arm around Johnny’s shoulders and pulled him closer. They sat, side by side, in silent wonder as night’s curtain descended over day’s glorious performance.
Within a week Maria would be dead, the mule traded for a handgun, Johnny would kill his first man and be on his way back to familiar Texas border towns to fulfill his destiny. But for this moment he had a belly full of roasted rabbit, his mother’s love, and the unforgettable grandeur of the California wildflowers.
THE END ~ ~ MP, December 2009