Disclaimer: No, I don’t own them. Wish I did though.
Rated: PG for language.
Feedback: All feedback welcomed both on the site and in private.
Special thanks to KC who always helps me to see the errors of my ways.
“Well, I, for one, just don’t think you should go right now. The rumors in town are that this “The Gun” person has been heading north since he escaped from Territorial prison last week.” Rolling his eyes at her, Johnny then turned and walked away from Teresa as she nagged at him. “They say he’s likely to be heading this way, Johnny. Mary Simms said her mother’s cousin’s dressmaker said that she heard the awful man’s mother used to live somewhere around these parts. They say maybe around Spanish Wells.” She continued, following in Johnny’s footsteps across the greatroom, dogging him.
He stopped short on his way to the kitchen and turned to look at her, to see if she was really serious with this talk about him not going, and Teresa nearly bumped into Johnny’s chest when he came to such an abrupt stop in front of her. He had his saddlebags across one shoulder and was buckling on his rig, readying himself to leave. He could see from the look on her face, very near to his at this point, that she was, indeed, dead serious. “Teresa, honey, if Coltrane really did escape, which we don’t know for sure, and if he is heading in this direction, which is even more of a mystery, then who do you reckon we oughta send as a better person to go than me? I didn’t want this job in the first place, but I said I’d do it, and I will.”
“He’s not known for his quick draw, Johnny. You know that. He’s not really a gunhawk. Everybody says he’s a backshooter and pretty much the devil in human form from what I hear. No one should go, not right now.”
“First of all, I’m thinkin’ that you have been ‘hearin’’ way too much—you know, spendin’ too much time a gossipin’ in town, Missy. And second, if he’s not known for his quick draw, then he ain’t likely to be lookin’ for Johnny Madrid is he?” He rested one hand on the back of one of the tall dining room chairs and the other on her warm, soft shoulder, and looked her fully in the eye. “It’s real nice of ya to worry about me, Teresa, but I can handle myself just fine querida. Been wipin’ my own nose clean for years now.”
“I’m just saying that it might be a good idea to wait a few days, that’s all. You know trouble always seems to find you, Johnny. Why do you want to invite it on in? Murdoch, tell him he needs to wait,” she called over her shoulder as she glimpsed her guardian entering the greatroom from the hallway.
“Murdoch, tell HER she worries too much.” Johnny countered.
“I’ll tell you both to leave me out of this, whatever it is. And no, I don’t want to know.” Murdoch had learned many hard lessons over the last year and a half, and one of the most important ones was that often it was best to simply stay out of it—well, sometimes he had learned this lesson; sometimes he still stuck his big ol’ foot in his mouth; sometimes he just couldn’t help himself. This time, however, he turned purposefully on his heel, away from the two arguers, and walked quickly right back out of the room as though the hounds of hell were on his tail. He could always look for that pesky misplaced piece of correspondence later.
Johnny couldn’t help but smile at Murdoch’s abrupt departure and was smiling still when he turned back to look at his surrogate sister. “Look Teresa. This will be a fast and easy trip. This whole thing was your idea in the first place, remember?” As he saw her begin to shake her head, he continued, “You can’t deny that you ‘volunteered’ me for the job.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to go today, Johnny. ‘Volunteer’ means you can do it when it’s best for you.”
“I said I’d do it this week, so this week it is. I’d just as soon get this particular chore over with. Listen, I’ll be back in a week, maybe less, and two children will have a family when they didn’t have one before. Surely you don’t want those two poor little orphans to be put off startin’ their new lives any longer than they have to.”
At this, he turned a very sad look on her, a practiced “little lost boy” look, one that he had learned on the streets of the border towns all those years ago. It was the look he used when he wanted an extra sweet from Maria or a favor from Jelly. It was the same look he had used with varying degrees of success as a child when he was near to starving and begging for food or work. He knew he was fighting dirty, but he was packed and ready to go. It had taken every ounce of internal strength he could muster to prepare himself for this chore, so he needed to get it done and over with. And, as an added bonus, if he left today, this trip would get him out of nearly a week’s worth of the “home” chores Murdoch had planned. He would much rather be driving two children around the countryside than cleaning out the chicken coop, beating rugs for Maria and, most particularly, digging out the outhouse.
He saw Teresa smiling at his antics and knew he had won. As he turned to walk out of the door, he called back to her, “I’ll be home in a week, Teresa. Now, stop your worryin’.”
In reality though, no matter how diligently he tried to delude himself, this trip wasn’t just about getting out of a few chores; Johnny was no stranger to hard, dirty work, didn’t mind it all that much. The truth was, he really did want to help by driving these two children to their new home up north in the tiny town of Redemption, was, well, not happy that Teresa had ‘volunteered’ his services particularly, but happy that the children would get a new Ma and Pa. And it seemed fitting somehow that he should be the one to take them from being alone, save for the good nuns and Father Donal of course, to having a ready-made family, like something he just ought to be the one to do.
So, not three hours later, before the sun had reached its highest point in the sky, Johnny pulled the wagon up to the hitch rail by the large adobe orphanage and jumped to the ground. The dust swirled all around him, stirred up by his passing. The day had gotten much hotter throughout the ride over, as the sun climbed higher, and Johnny could feel the grit at the collar of his shirt. He pulled a bandana from his pants pocket and mopped it across the back of his neck as he slapped his dusty hat against his equally dusty pants in a futile attempt to make himself more presentable. He could hear a confusion of children’s voices, shrill and loud in play, out in the back of the building where he and Scott had hung swings in several trees not three or four months before and guessed that it must be lunchtime for the school aged children.
He hadn’t been to St. Barbara’s often, tried to avoid it really, didn’t know these particular children, brother and sister, by name, or probably not even by sight. Teresa had talked about them, he was sure, told him their names very recently, no doubt, but it hadn’t really registered. He hadn’t let it register, he guessed. He tried very hard not to let himself get personally involved here. He knew himself, knew it would be too hard. Right now, to him, these children were just two of the many poor small souls he could not take under his wing, to whom he could not give a home. He may have seen them running and chasing on the hard packed grounds surrounding the orphanage when he had reluctantly ventured this way on one chore or another, but because he could not help them all, he tried not to “know” any of them. He made his contributions to their welfare, usually, from more of a distance.
But, with this particular task, he was more than willing to help Father Donal. He was pleased to be able to help these two young children get to their new family. The trip from Lancer to the orphanage only took a few hours. The trip from the orphanage to Redemption, where the Flannigans awaited their newly adopted children, would take nearly three days, but he had brought along plenty of provisions—blankets and food—to keep the children warm, fed and safe.
Johnny glanced up from where he was tying off the team to see the beaming face of Father Donal as the rough-robed Padre came striding across the dirt “yard” towards him. Johnny looked at the man and was struck again, just like always, by the pure piety he saw there. He didn’t believe he had ever met anyone who reflected the light of the Lord from a smiling face more thoroughly than did Father Donal. The striding priest was nearly as long-legged as Murdoch, and he walked quickly forward, looking at Johnny from under the brim of his floppy straw hat. Johnny smiled when he could tell that the man was talking even before he could hear him.
And then, as the priest got closer, Johnny could hear the words from the always smiling, chattering mouth. “John Lancer. So good to see you again my boy. You really should come around more often. Shame on you for being such a stranger.” The tall, thin priest bustled around Johnny, pumping at his hand and slapping him on the back. And, even though Johnny had planned to wait right where he was, here by the wagon, for the children, Father Donal was pulling him inside to the courtyard and then through an archway into the cool shadows of the building before Johnny quite even knew that he was moving.
The priest swept off his hat as he entered the building, and then he gave Johnny a look that meant he had better remove his as well, but Father Donal didn’t actually say so; he had moved rapidly on to another topic before he could lecture Johnny about removing his hat. He was used to controlling his children with a look and unconsciously expected instant obedience and understanding from Johnny as well. “And how is the lovely Teresa,” he continued, but he didn’t stop long enough for Johnny to let him know that Teresa was fine, just fine. “Come in. Come in. Have a seat while I get Cal and Opal Ann. Lovely to see you my good young man, just lovely.”
The Father ran a hand, which looked surprisingly graceful at the end of its raw-boned wrist, across the top of his mostly bald head. He had long sand colored wisps of baby-fine hair combed across the top of it, nearly from ear to ear, and his hand disturbed the careful arrangement of those wisps, sending them in several different directions and making the gentle priest appear both wild and crazed. As he looked on at the prattling priest, Johnny stood awkwardly in the dead center of the Father’s office holding his hat in his hands and looking every bit like a small boy who was about to be reprimanded for some bit of mischief.
But, Father Donal was too busy talking to take notice of Johnny’s lack of comfort with the situation. “Help yourself to some coffee, over there on the sideboard, Johnny my boy.” He gestured in the direction of the window beside his desk, oblivious to the disheveled image he now presented, and Johnny could, indeed, see a coffee set on a white ceramic tray in the direction the man had indicated. “Don’t worry; I didn’t make it. Sister Mary Ignacious takes care of keeping me in drinkable coffee. The cups are right there; do you see? I won’t be a moment. The children are so excited; I’m sure they’re ready.”
Father Donal babbled on even as he left the room. Johnny had the vague feeling of having survived a powerful windstorm. He could hear the man talking still, to whom, if anyone, Johnny didn’t know, as he walked down the plastered hallway outside of his sparse but comfortable office, and he could easily picture the priest still gesturing with his hands. The talkative padre found it difficult to express himself without throwing his hands every which way. And, from what Johnny had seen, the man was constantly expressing himself. Once he had even knocked Johnny’s hat right off of his head in the midst of an explanation of the best way to roast a pepper.
Up to this point of his visit, the bemused rancher hadn’t had a chance to say even one word. Did the talkative man ever breathe? As he made his way to the coffee pot, preparing to wait for the priest’s return, in spite of the uncomfortable feelings dredged up by this place, Johnny shook his head with amazement and more than a little bit of fondness for the good Father.
Johnny sat in the Father’s office, perched on the edge of a hard, straight backed chair, drinking Sister Mary Ignacious’ coffee and waiting. His whole body was amazingly still, except for the fingers of his right hand, which were nervously tapping, tapping against his thigh. He was trying very hard to distance himself from his surroundings, but the characteristic scents of the orphanage had him suddenly remembering vividly what before had been less of a memory and more of a vague feeling. The memory which was stirred was the one of why being here at St. Barbara’s was always difficult for him, in spite of his affection for the long-winded priest.
The bitter aroma of the strong coffee in his hand nearly drowned out those other odors, but not completely. They were there, winding around him insidiously. Foremost, he could smell the beeswax, which he could tell had been used to polish all of the exposed wooden surfaces in the Father’s office to a shimmery gloss, save the rough plank floor. It brought back a strong sense memory for him of the highly polished pews and hard, wooden kneelers from his childhood. He could recall the nuns, most days, soft white cloths in their strong hands, rubbing, rubbing the wood until it fairly gleamed.
There was also the distinctive smell of lye soap. He’d never met a cleaner bunch in his life than nuns. They were always soapin’ and scrubbin’ away at somethin’—the floors, the tables, the children’s clothing, him. And though vague, or possibly even imagined, he could also smell the odors of candle smoke and incense, which he knew would be strong in the chapel. And it was the combination of those things, incense and candle smoke, along with the others which triggered his anxiety. These innocent things combined to make him so very uncomfortable in this place which was supposed to bring comfort.
And even though he was truly glad to make sure these children got to their new home, he was definitely, so very obviously, not all that anxious to actually to be here in the orphanage itself, and the feeling was getting worse with each quietly passing moment. Most times, he carefully avoided being here, inside, most times, handy excuses practiced and ready, avoiding the memories along with the place. And really, he didn’t actually mind being on the outside looking in; it was being on the inside looking out that he couldn’t quite abide. He knew for sure that if Father Donal didn’t hurry, didn’t come back right now, right now, his fear and weakness would win. He would have to escape, have to run right through that arched doorway and into the open air.
Johnny deliberately blew on and then sipped at his coffee in an effort to calm his jangled nerves. He didn’t really want to reveal his cowardice. To run screaming from the room might prove to be a mite bit embarrassing, but these past 15 minutes, all at one sitting, constituted a record for him for staying inside of St. Barbara’s. If he stayed much longer, he was sure that he would crack. No amount of coffee could be distracting enough. He drummed his fingers even more quickly, almost violently, against his thigh.
He knew, of course, that it was his own residency at St. Nicholas Orphanage in Casa Grandes, Mexico, at the age of ten which had inadvertently colored his view of such places, even though his experience there hadn’t been all that bad really. It had just been a very, very sad time, no, more of an incredibly angry time, in his life.
Unfortunately, this particular orphanage here, Father Donal’s pride and joy, through no fault of its own, looked like the one he had lived in for nearly a year, the twin of it, in fact; it was built in the Spanish style, low and fashioned of adobe brick, sprawling around a central courtyard, with deeply arched doorways all around. The chapel sat in one corner of the large building, and its steeple, sporting a huge wooden cross at its peak, towered above the rest of the structure. There was even a well in one corner and a large fountain in the middle of a central courtyard, just as there had been at St. Nicholas.
He and his mother had been living, well, barely existing actually, in Casa Grandes for nearly six months, an eternity for them, when she died, and the good Father there, he remembered the priest’s name was Father Antonio, and the Sisters, had taken him in, generously, lovingly. And sure, life in an orphanage was regimented, necessarily so he guessed, but, with extraordinary kindness and understanding, no one had pushed him to “get over” his mother’s bloody death, not one of them. For many weeks, no one forced him to leave his bunk in the boys’ dormitory if he didn’t have the inclination to do so. No one made him eat or sleep or go to school against his will. They encouraged cooperation rather than demanding it. They all moved cautiously around his silence. He saw that those in charge could be harsh at times; he had witnessed that harshness with some of the other children, but they handled him always with kid gloves, and he suspected, even then, that their attitude towards him had something to do with his presence at the scene of his mama’s murder.
The priest and nuns at St. Nicholas had only tried to offer him comfort and the time to get better, the time to, hopefully, heal. They had tried subtly to reach the sullen and grieving little boy. And, after a while in their care, he had tried too, tried to cooperate, tried to get on with his life—with the smell of beeswax and strong soap, candles and incense following him through his days. Eventually, he had slept and had eaten and had even gone to school some, but he just couldn’t stay there; he just couldn’t.
He knew now, with the perspective of an adult, that they had all, the Sisters and the Father, really tried so hard to help him, such a lost boy. But the small, blue-eyed child was too angry, too broken. It was surely his fault that he couldn’t get past what had happened in the latest hovel he and his mother had called home. And he couldn’t help but believe that he should have been able to stop what had happened. That was really the biggest part of the problem. At the time, as they tried to give him the room to heal, all he could nourish, secretly, in his heart was black anger and a grim determination to find a way towards vengeance. Their words of love and forgiveness, turning the other cheek, didn’t quite reach him, didn’t fit with what he had in mind, no matter how often or how well they said them. Not at all. Not then. Not for a long time.
Johnny was shaken from his nervous reverie by a chattering voice coming down the hall towards the office. Surprisingly, the voice Johnny heard did not belong to Father Donal. “Father, how long will it take to get to the Flannigans’?” Even though he couldn’t see it yet, Johnny could hear the approach of the small entourage as it made its way to the arched doorway of the Padre’s office. He glanced up just as both the Father and a young boy attempted to go first through the one-person opening. “Do you think I should call them Ma and Pa right away, Father Donal? Or maybe I should wait until they say so. What do you think?”
The boy continued talking and moving forward, looking up and up into the Father’s face, too intent on his questions to even realize that he was in the middle of a tiny doorway war with the priest. For his part, Johnny was truly amazed that someone else was talking, and that Father Donal wasn’t. He looked up fully then from his intent study of his coffee to see the Padre finally winning the contest to be first in the door. Johnny thought for a moment that the priest would admonish the boy for his lack of respect, but he could tell that the man really couldn’t find an empty space between the child’s words to fit in a reprimand.
So, Father Donal entered first, tugging carefully at the base of his robe as he did so. And, now following him into the office there trailed a young boy with the whitest blonde hair Johnny had ever seen and, apparently, a rapid fire mouth to rival the Father’s. With no trace of hesitation, no shyness at all, the boy peered into the cool, shadowed corner where Johnny had taken refuge, smiled a huge, bright smile, looked Johnny right in the eye and continued talking without the slightest break. “Are you Johnny Lancer?” Johnny could barely nod before the boy continued. “Father Donal said that you’re our ‘ride.’ Did ya bring a wagon? My sister can’t really sit a horse yet. Well, you know, not without help. She’s only three. I can ride though.” He puffed out his thin chest slightly. “I’m seven. I remember my Pa onc’t said I was a nat’ral horseman. How long does it take to get to Redemption, Johnny? And isn’t that an interesting name, Redemption? My name’s Cal. That’s what people call me anyways. My real name’s Calvin Merrill. Although, I suppose I should get used to sayin’ that my name is Calvin Flannigan now, huh Father?”
Madre de Dios. From the similarities, if he hadn’t known that Father Donal had been a priest for over twenty years now, he might have thought the man had been the actual father of this child. They certainly are two peas though, he thought. The boy even looked like he might grow to be tall and skinny like the good Father. And he was fidgety too, with flighty hands that were in constant motion, another uncanny similarity.
As he pondered the boy’s paternity, barely hearing the words that continued to flow rapidly from the child’s mouth, Johnny notice a small, equally blonde head peeping at him from behind Father Donal’s robes. When Cal saw that Johnny had noticed his sister, he introduced her. “That there’s Opal Ann.” He gestured towards the little girl. “She’s my baby sister. She’s three. She can talk, but she just don’t too much.”
Johnny wondered how she would ever manage to get a word in edgewise even if she wanted to. Then, he caught a mouse-soft voice coming from somewhere within the robes. “I not a baby, brudder.” The last word was given an inflection of anger. And at last, with that, glaring slightly back at his sister, the gangly blonde boy fell blessedly silent.
Before Father Donal could pick up the thrown gauntlet of a space to fill up with words, Johnny stepped forward. He was intrigued by the tiny person behind the Padre and had suddenly completely forgotten his earlier panic about being within the walls of the orphanage. He got down on one knee in front of the little girl and looked straight into big, blue eyes, which reminded him of a fine, early morning summer sky. She pulled the Father’s robe tighter around herself and dropped her glance to the rough hewn wooden floor, but Johnny didn’t back away. He slowly, ever so slowly, held his hand out to her, his palm held upward and open, his fingers loose. He was whispering, Spanish mostly, soft, a bit of singsong nonsense. Long moments passed, but Johnny was ever so patient.
Both of the chatterers in the room, momentarily, miraculously, held their peace, interested in the drama unfolding, wondering what would happen between man and child. Johnny smiled, liquid sunshine. Then he crinkled the corners of his eyes as that smile traveled up to lodge in them as well, and he focused those laughing eyes on the tiny girl.
Finally, her plump little hand hesitantly snaked out towards him from the protection of the good Father’s robe. He took that offered hand very gently, carefully, knowing what a precious gift he had been given, and placed a whispering kiss in her palm, which made her giggle softly. “My name is Johnny.” He spoke quietly, just for her ears.
And then, muffled but distinguishable, they all heard, “Yonnie.”
“That’s right, you little livin’ doll. Now what’s your name?” His question got no answer. The little girl dropped her eyes to look at the floor again. “Well, let’s see. If you can’t tell me your name, I guess I’ll just have to make one up for you. Can’t go around callin’ ya ‘hey you’ all the time, now can I? Oh, I know, how about Frank? Had me a fine piece of horseflesh name of Frank. Sure do miss him. He had big eyes and silky hair just like you. He looked at her expectantly, his eyes wide with questioning, as though this might be the best idea he’d had in weeks. Slowly, one side of her tiny mouth quirked up just a little bit, and she shook her head slightly at his choice. “No? Well, I’m just a little bit insulted. That was one great horse, and I do like that name. I guess it is kinda boyish though, ain’t it?” This time she nodded a small nod. “Oh, I’ve got it. How about Teapot? Now that’s as good a name as any, I reckon, and not boyish at all. My sister’s got herself a real pretty teapot, all gold and blue, kind of reminds me of you actually. That’s a girly name for you—Teapot.”
With a big grin, she answered him. “Opalann,” she whispered in a small, sweet voice, the sounds of the name all strung together.
“Opal Ann,” he said right back to her, quietly, again just between the two of them, as he softly held her dimpled hand. “Pretty name,” he whispered. And then with more authority, sweeping his arm in a big circle, announcing her to the room, “Opal Ann Teapot.” As Father Donal laughed out loud, the tiny girl smiled fully at Johnny now and reached out for him, instinctively knowing that this man would never hurt her.
“Well, would you looky at that Father. Opal Ann talked to a stranger. She wants him to hold her. Hidey, I ain’t never seen the like. Don’t that beat all?”
“Doesn’t surprise me in the least, Cal, not in the least.” Father Donal whispered down to him as he clapped his long, thin hand on the boy’s shoulder.
Once Opal Ann had been so thoroughly charmed, and had so thoroughly charmed in return, it took very little time for the threesome to get on the road. Father Donal and Johnny packed the children’s meager belongings, although one or the other of them had the tiny girl attached to his leg at all times, which slowed things down a bit. And then they all climbed aboard. Opal Ann was loathe to leave Johnny’s side, so the children rode up in the front with him, on the high wooden seat, rather than in the nest of blankets he had carefully arranged in the back for them before leaving Lancer. Still the blankets would come in handy when they stopped to make camp for the night.
Most of the nuns and the children of Saint Barbara’s stood with Father Donal to watch the children leave. With much waving and calling of “good-bye” and “be sure to visit,” along with “we’ll sure miss you Father Donal,” from Cal, Johnny finally slapped at the horses, and they started their three day trip. He couldn’t help but feel a slight bit smug that the day had gone off without a hitch. He very much looked forward to relating that information to Teresa.
As they left the grounds of the orphanage, Opal Ann wrapped one fist in the material of Johnny’s shirt, pulling it from the waistband of his pants, and hitched up the soft material to rub at the side of her face. Then she very deliberately stuffed her other thumb in her mouth and snuggled into his side as close as she could get. He looked down at her in her tiny blue flowered dress and buckled black shoes, and fell head over heels in love. And for her part, she seemed content and unafraid. Next to her on the seat sat Cal. He apparently knew no fear, seemed to have never known fear. The boy was nothing but excited. “Johnny, will we be sleepin’ out on the ground tonight? I’ve never camped out before. It’ll be lots of fun, won’t it? Did you bring us some food? I’m a mite hungry right now.” Johnny answered him—whenever the boy left an opening for it.
But then, a little later, as the day wore on a bit, and Opal Ann dozed at Johnny’s side, her eyes drifting closed, her tiny mouth working at her thumb, Cal must have felt it was okay to drop his brave “big brother” face for a moment and showed the first crack in his facade. It had been quiet in the wagon for at least five minutes, an eternity for the small chatterbox. Then, “Serious and true, Johnny, I wonder how things will be for us now,” he speculated in a small voice, “me and Opal Ann, with a new family and all. Everything will be different won’t it?” Johnny knew it was, indeed, a serious and true question when the boy actually waited for an answer.
“Sure, everything will be different Cal, that’s the truth of it. Things are always changin’ anyway, but, I’m thinkin’ things will be just fine for you and your sister. And maybe things will even be better than you can imagine.”
Then, Johnny spent the rest of the afternoon answering 247 questions. Actually, there were probably a few more than that, but he hadn’t thought to start counting right away.
They moved ever northward on their trip to Redemption, and the terrain became more hilly and forested the farther they traveled. They were following a ridge which wrapped around a huge valley. They could see the smoke from fires in the distance, on the floor of the valley, and the road seemed to be fairly well traveled, although they didn’t meet any other travelers the entire afternoon. It was a rough ride, that was for sure, even bone-jarring in spots. There were thick stands of trees stretching along both sides of the trail, oak mostly, and the overhead branches of those trees crowded out the sky and often met in the middle above their heads, creating a leafy ceiling for hundreds of yards at a time, dappling their faces with shadow and bits of sunshine.
They were kept in shade most of the afternoon, which was fine, but as the day wore on, the temperature dropped as the sun did, and, at one point, Cal climbed into the back of the wagon to retrieve his jacket and Opal Ann’s little knitted shawl. Finally, towards suppertime, Johnny spotted a likely camp spot, and when he could get a word in, he told Cal that they were stopping for the night.
Soon, around a soul-warming fire, they ate the meal that Teresa had packed for them at Lancer that morning, and then Johnny fixed the two children up with bedrolls for the night. As he helped his sister into her nightgown, Cal speculated that he would be “just too durn excited to sleep a wink,” though Johnny told him “you’d better get that notion right out of your head, Cal.” Once she was dressed in her nightdress, and clutching what Cal called her “Nighty Bear,” a roughly-sewn, ragged stuffed creature that may have once looked like a bear, Opal Ann suddenly plopped down in front of Johnny, her back to him, and she reached around, handing him a small cream colored hair brush. Johnny sat there for the longest time just holding the brush, staring at it, without moving. He was, quite simply, thunderstruck. Finally, she turned back to look at him again, a doe-eyed look if he’d ever seen one. She was curious about the lack of brushing, so, he carefully unplaited her braids and brushed out the little girl’s baby-fine hair. Once the hair had been brushed to everyone’s satisfaction, Johnny gave both children a drink from the canteen and made it clear that there would be no more delays. Opal Ann carefully sat down her bear, looked at him carefully as if judging his possible reaction and then threw her arms around him where he sat and hugged his neck tightly. She then lay down next to him as Johnny pulled a blanket up around her.
Not five minutes later, however, quite abruptly, after Johnny had thought they were finally truly settled in for the night, Cal hopped up without a word and made his way to his sister’s side. “Cal, I’m gonna jerk a knot in your tail if you don’t settle down,” Johnny tossed at him quietly, but then he held his tongue as he saw the boy help Opal Ann kneel next to the blankets to say her prayers. As he knelt next to his sister, Cal looked over at Johnny expectantly, but the man turned away and determinedly ignored the boy and his sister.
And then, as “the mouth” at long last quieted, breathing deeply for a while, and then when he finally slept, Johnny lay on his back next to Opal Ann appreciating the silence. He looked up through the branches of the trees, the small spaces between them filled with white-gold moonlight. Next to him on the blanket, Opal Ann sighed in her sleep, and then turned onto her side towards him. In the light of the moon, he could see her freshly brushed hair all fanned around her face, so pale it glowed in the shimmery moonbeams. He could also see, and he was coming to know that it was inevitable, that she had her thumb planted firmly in her mouth. As she settled down once more with another tiny sigh, she abandoned “Nighty Bear” and reached out without really waking to gather a part of his shirt in her other hand, pulling it to rub against her face. Johnny moved closer to her for easier shirt manipulation, and quite soon, he drifted off to sleep as well.
As he came awake the next morning, Johnny couldn’t see the sunrise—hills and trees blocked his view, but even if the gray-lightening of the sky hadn’t told him, he would have known it was morning because Cal started in on his inevitable questions almost before his eyes had fully opened. The boy barely stopped long enough to shove Teresa’s buttermilk biscuits into his constantly moving mouth. Amidst his clatter, they broke camp, and Johnny began packing the wagon. It pleased him to see that Cal was so very good with his little sister. He not only helped her get dressed and braided her hair, he also took her to the bushes. Johnny had to smile when he could hear her little voice as she admonished him to “turn ‘roun’ brudder.” And finally, after one more cup of coffee, Johnny hitched the horses, and they all started towards Redemption once again.
Several hours passed, and Johnny decided that Cal was a well that would never run dry. The boy sure could find plenty to comment on----the trees, “what kind of tree do you make that one to be? It’s got some funny shaped leaves, don’t it Johnny?”----the interesting shapes which made all manner of pictures in the puffy clouds, “I’m sorry Cal, I really can’t see a woman standin’ on the back of a horse”----the raccoon that lumbered to the side of the trail as they passed, “wonder if raccoons make good pets?”----the Flannigans and his speculations of the new life the two children were beginning. “I hope they have kittens on their farm. And my ma always let me help her plant the garden. I want to plant a garden again.”
In spite of his best intentions to be so, Johnny was becoming less and less patient as the monologue continued to flow. He and Opal Ann didn’t stand a chance under the onslaught. Fortunately for Cal’s continuing health, as the sun rose in the sky and the thick trees thinned out a bit, it was so warm on their faces, all three of the travelers, including the talkative boy, found themselves nearly dozing in their seats. Johnny had tried to persuade Opal Ann to crawl into the back for a real nap in the reassembled nest of blankets, but she seemed to have convinced herself that she was only safe if she pressed herself to Johnny as closely as possible with his shirttail balled in her fist, and, truthfully, he didn’t mind. With Cal nearly asleep, the quiet and the tiny warm body cuddled next to him seemed pretty close to heaven.
Then, quite suddenly, as the wagon came over the top of a rise and moved on around a snaking curve in the rock strewn road, Johnny pulled up sharply on the reins and all three occupants of the wagon were instantly wide awake. There before them lay what appeared to be an incredible and unexpected scene of carnage and devastation.
A small buggy lay crumpled on its side; the one wheel that was left on the vehicle was turned up towards the sky, slowly turning, creaking in the still of the day. There was no sign of a horse; it must have gotten free and taken off. Over the eerily creaking wheel, he could hear the accelerated beating of his own heart as he reacted to the scene before him.
His first thought was that the children should not be witnesses to what appeared to be the end result of a horrible accident, to apparent violent, bloody death, so he reached for Opal Ann and turned her face into his side, cupping his hand around the back of her silken head, to keep her from seeing the sight on the road. Then, he turned her towards Cal, who was apparently stunned into rare speechlessness, had even stopped his constant movement for a change. “Calvin, don’t look.”
Cal, ever the big brother, held onto his sister as Johnny handed her over to him and hid her face, much as Johnny had, and he closed his own eyes in an attempt to obey Johnny’s command. Johnny knew that his seven year old curiosity would not be satisfied without looking though. He could see the tiny slits that Cal tried to hide. “Stay here,” Johnny ordered, and he jumped from the wagon. Then, he took tentative steps towards the death and destruction lying there in front of him on the side of the lonely road.
As he got closer, he saw, there next to the buggy, a person, a woman. She was lying on her back, her unblinking eyes staring up at the puffy clouds floating across the noon sky. Contrary to the scene on the road, song birds sang happily in the trees around him as he took another step closer, and, incredibly, he could tell that this person was someone he knew. It was surely the Widow Powell. He recognized her easily, had known her from nearly the first few days of his coming to Lancer.
In the few moments it took for him to walk to the widow’s body, Johnny mentally kicked himself for all of the times he had purposely avoided the poor old soul, ducking into doorways if he saw her swaying her way down the boardwalk toward him with her distinctive gait.
He had to admit that he had never had any patience with the widow, couldn’t abide her really—couldn’t charm her—didn’t want to. She was Green River’s resident gossip and town scold, but he found himself regretting that lack of patience now, wishing that he had shown her some bit of kindness. Typical that those types of feelings come on a person too late, he guessed. He remembered that she was particularly fond of berating Val, who, uncharacteristically, took her abuse with a bemused smile and a gracious tip of his battered hat. The penitent man standing here on this rocky road to Redemption now wished that he had been as gracious to the widow as his normally ungracious friend had been. Instead, he had studiously avoided her in public and complained about her in private.
To Johnny, it seemed as though he could hear her loud and grating voice even now. “John Lancer, haven’t you got any damn manners at all boy?”
He vividly recalled that the woman could make the strongest man quiver in his boots with that voice of hers, bring women to tears; children had been known to cower or to run from her, and rumors of witchcraft persisted. Although, really, those were mostly fueled by Jelly. Johnny was entirely sure he didn’t believe those rumors, well, nearly sure anyway. And, my oh my, everyone who had ever met her knew that she could cuss like a drunken cowhand on a Saturday night in town, when the mood hit her.
But still, she was old and alone—Johnny knew he should have had more charity in his heart for the poor woman, and regretted that it took her death on this lonely back trail to make him realize it.
He walked closer, and as he moved to the front of the buggy, he could see her more distinctly. She was obviously fancied up for visiting. Her dress was a dark blue color with those little white dots so many woman favored scattered randomly on it. A white flower was pinned to her bosom. She had been wearing a straw hat with some sort of geegaws on it, and the poor flattened bonnet lay in the dust on the side of the road. It appeared that the hat had met its end as well, a victim of trampling by frightened horse, if he didn’t miss his guess.
Blessedly, it looked as though the end had been quick for the widow. He couldn’t see any blood, just her, lying there peacefully on one side of the broken buggy. Then, he let go of a startled gasp as he saw that while most of the widow lay on one side of the buggy, there on the other side of it lay the Widow Powell’s leg.
“Damn it anyway, boy. Get my leg for me. Are you plumb stupid?”
With a jerk, Johnny realized that the “dead body” had left off staring blankly at the sky and was now looking straight at him and talking to him as well. He stood with his mouth open, gaping first at the Widow and then at her curiously detached leg. “John Lancer, are you jest gonna let an old woman lie here in the road in pieces? What the hell’s got into ya boy?”
“Mizz Powell? Your leg, it’s….”
“Damn it boy. I guess you are dense. My leg’s right there, over there, plain as the nose on your face. Fetch it for me. I’ll swear, it must be all that gunfightin’ you used to engage yourself in—turned your brain right into mush. Or maybe you just take after that big dumb galoot of a father of yours more than I ever guessed. Move a bit faster than a snail, would ya? It’s put me one hell of a ways out of sorts you seein’ me like this and all.”
Johnny felt like he had been jumped up and slapped. His mouth couldn’t have dropped open any further if he had worked at it. He looked over at the children who both now stared back at him with impossibly large eyes. They seemed to be having as much trouble accepting the talking, one-legged corpse as he was. “Mizz Powell, I…” he really couldn’t think of what he ought to say.
The widow Powell was pushing herself up slowly with both elbows, and then her hands were under her and finally she sat upright in front of him. Her hair was disheveled, and she was covered in road dust. Most of all, she looked more than a little put out that he hadn’t offered to help her sit up. She pointed imperiously across to the recalcitrant body part. “My leg,” she said in a voice that brooked no disobedience. “I’m workin’ on strainin’ somethin’ waitin’ on you to make a move, boy.” So Johnny, even though he felt as though he must surely be dreaming all of this, reached down to pick up the detached limb.
The things you don’t know about people, he mused as he handed Gertrude Powell her leg. It was carved out of wood that leg, fitted with a black stocking and a high-topped pearl-buttoned shoe, and it was pretty as you please. Leather straps and buckles flapped around the top of it, about mid thigh if he judged correctly. He wondered fleetingly how the leg could have possibly come unbuckled in the accident, but it obviously had, and that was all that mattered at the moment, he guessed. So, he gingerly handed the widow her leg and stood there unmoving, fascinated, watching her fuss with it a bit. He couldn’t help but be curious as to the mechanics of attaching leg to widow. But, after a moment, she looked up at him sharply. “Do ya mind? I’m not about to strap this damn thing on with you gawpin’ at me, John.”
He jumped like he’d been shot and guiltily turned away from her, toward the trees on the far side of the road. “Sorry, ma’am. Sorry, I, um…….”
“Oh, quit yer stammerin’ and just stand there quiet like ‘til I need ya to give me a hand up, John. And you, boy,” her loud voice carried easily to Cal in the wagon, “you turn around and quit starin’ at an old woman yourself.” Johnny knew without a doubt that Cal would be turning away. Then he could hear her rustling around behind him. It only took a moment. “Now, turn around here,” she grated at him, “and tell me what the hell you’re doin’ out here in the middle of nowhere with two children in your wagon, John Lancer?”
She reached her hand out to him, and he helped her to get up. They started to make their way towards the wagon, Johnny’s arm under her elbow, but by the time they had taken only a few steps, she was walking completely on her own and waved him away. “You want to make yourself really useful, John, you’ll fetch my bag. I think it’s flung over there in the weeds. Had a kit fixed up for campin’ too, if you can find it.” So Johnny spent some time searching for the widow’s “flung” gear, and then made his way to the wagon behind her carrying a black valise and a large canvas bag.
“Are you okay, Mizz Powell?” he asked as he caught up with her. “From the looks of your buggy, you had one heck of an accident.” He was looking at her for obvious injuries but could find none.
“I’m fine. I’m tough as a guinea hen and twice as ornery. You should know that by now, boy. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with me that a stiff shot of whiskey wouldn’t cure. You got any?” She looked up at him, a very serious look on her face, and saw Johnny shaking his head, so she turned away muttering. “Stupid damn horse.”
He also spent some time, as they made their way along, checking the road for signs of the missing buggy horse. He could see tracks that veered quickly from the trail and headed, he was really only guessing at this point, down the slope and into the valley below. The horse would be trailing harness, but must not be injured badly if it could take off like that. Johnny hoped that someone would find the horse quickly and keep it from further harm.
“Mizz Powell, I can’t help but wonder--what are you doin’ all this way from home all by yourself?” Johnny asked as they reached the wagon.
“On my way to visit my brother in Hesperides if it’s any business of yours, John Lancer. You think I’m too old to go visiting do ya? I’m quite capable of travelin’ a few days on my own, thank you. I’ll have you know I come across the Oregon Trail with the late Mr. Powell before you were even a sparkle in your daddy’s eye, so don’t you tell me where I can and cannot go, young man.”
“No ma’am.” Johnny found himself thoroughly chastised and hung his head to look at his boots. No one but Murdoch had ever made him feel so much like a naughty child.
As they reached the wagon, inevitably, a remarkably recovered Cal started in on the widow. “Howdy ma’am. You surely scared us some. We thought you was dead as a doornail. And your leg was a way over there. Is that a wooden leg? I ain’t never met anyone with a wooden leg before. Well, I saw a man with one onc’t. He had on a Reb uniform, and his fake leg was just straight, you know. My ma called it a pegleg, like those pirates she read me about.” Johnny was standing behind Widow Powell making gestures at Cal, shaking his head, flapping his arms around some, trying to get him to be quiet, but the boy was on a roll.
It appeared that the widow was perfectly capable of dealing with one chatty, seven year old boy though. “Take a breath child. Didn’t anyone ever teach you that it’s rude to ask so many questions? All that squawkin’ you’re doin’ll beat the bobcat in the thickets.”
“Actually, ma’am, my ma taught me that a body cain’t learn nothin’ without askin’ a few questions,” Cal shot right back at her.
At this, Johnny stepped between Cal and the widow. “Come on down here Cal and help me drag that buggy off to the side of the road so we can get by.” He could see Opal Ann starting to panic at the thought of being left alone with Widow Powell, but there was nothing he could do about it except hurry. As he and Cal yanked at the small buggy and eventually pulled it under the trees at the edge of the road, Johnny watched the little girl the whole time. She sat folded into herself with one arm wrapped around her chest in a self-hug, the other busy holding her hand to her mouth. She stared at her feet whenever she wasn’t looking over at him and Cal.
The widow, on the other hand, stood with her hands on her hips, calling orders to them the whole time, sometimes punctuating her words with an index finger shaken in the air. “You two watch what the hell you’re doing. Senor Martinez is going to have a fit when he sees what has happened to his buggy. And that stupid nag he rented out to me---well, it’s all that useless horse’s fault this happened. Would you two at least try not to tear the damn seat leather…” It was at this point when Johnny finally successfully tuned out the cantankerous old woman. He’d had some tuning out practice on this trip, and it was getting easier all of the time.
As Johnny and Cal made their way back to the wagon, he heard his name in a snatch of her running monologue. “So, where exactly are you headed John? Are you a listenin’ to me? I do declare, I guess if you hadn’t come along, I’da been plumb stuck out here. I’ll be needin’ a ride, of course.”
After considering the repercussions of leaving her stranded here in the middle of nowhere, Johnny reluctantly moved around to help the widow climb into the back of his wagon. If his father ever found out he’d ridden off without Gertrude Powell—and he would find out, of that Johnny was sure—well, the wrath of Murdoch outweighed, barely, the satisfaction he would feel to leave her standin’ out here by her crumpled buggy.
When he could wedge a word in, he answered her original question. “I’m takin’ these two to their new family in Redemption, Miss Powell. Picked ‘em up yesterday morning from St. Barbara’s.” And then, hesitating, he added, “You’re welcome to ride there with us.”
“Orphans, huh? Shoulda knowed it. That boy is a rude one. Needs some parentin’ for sure. You need a haircut boy,” she snapped at Cal.
“The boy has a name,” Johnny said in a small, tight voice. “It’s Cal.”
“And you, girl, cat got your tongue? It’s polite to say ‘hey’ to a person, don’t ya know? Although I guess that boy talks enough for both of ya.” Opal Ann visibly cringed, looking toward Johnny for support, and he accommodated her by climbing up and taking his seat on the wagon and then pulling the small girl tight to his side as Cal scrambled up the other side of the wagon. He figured if he didn’t hurry and grab hold of her, she was liable to suck her thumb right off. He smiled down at her, and winked. Johnny decided that his best strategy was to ignore the rude, old woman in the back of the wagon, for now. His regrets concerning his lack of charity for her before she died in a horrible buggy accident were completely forgotten.
The widow seemed blissfully unaware of the magnitude of her rudeness. “Just so happens that Hesperides is just about three or four hours east of Redemption, John. You’ll take me there. My brother can get me back home somehow. He always manages to find some way to get me home after a few days.” Johnny turned to look at her with a knowing look of sympathy for her brother, but he didn’t say a word. He had gotten into the habit of not getting a chance to talk on this trip, and it didn’t seem as though things were going to improve anytime soon. “Well John, can ya drive this damn wagon or can’t ya?” And with that, Johnny turned back toward the front and urged the horses forward.
As they started off down the trail once again, Johnny sighed and rolled his eyes as Cal turned around to face the bed of the wagon and their new passenger, who had made herself thoroughly at home. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am. My name’s Calvin Merrill, soon to be Calvin Flannigan,” he said to the widow, “but folks generally call me Cal. It’s my ‘nickname’ is what Father Donal says. Ain’t that a funny word, ‘nickname’? I turned seven years old last March the ninth, so this bein’ June, I guess I’m well on my way to eight, aren’t I? And that’s my sister there sittin’ next to Johnny. Her name is Opal Ann. She’s three, but nearly four now, really—more than half way to four, I guess.”
“Gertrude Powell,” she interrupted him, “but I’ll thank you to call me Mrs. Powell, boy. And you got no business what so ever knowin’ my age. You keep that clear in your mind, you hear? Did no one ever teach you that children should be seen but not heard?”
“Well, no, no they didn’t. Hadn’t much chance to go to school ‘til we got to the orphanage, though. Guess I musta missed that lesson. So, just wondering mind you, what caused that buggy crash anyway, ma’am?” Calvin asked pleasantly. The boy grinned broadly at Widow Powell as he spoke. “It looked to me like there weren’t no reason for it.”
“Well, I reckon that just goes to show you that an old woman knows one hell of a lot more than a rude, cheeky youngin’, don’t it then? Besides, it surely is none of your business, boy.”
“Excuse me for sayin’ so ma’am, but I reckon you really didn’t answer my question, did ya? I mean, what ya said didn’t say why ya crashed, did it? Did somethin’ run across the trail in front of ya? Or was there some big ol’ hole in the road, which I don’t recall seein’? Did the buggy break? That happened to my Pa onc’t.”
“Boy, I’m thinkin’ we all would have been one hell of a ways better off if that Pa of yours had whupped you a few times for sassin’ at your elders.”
Johnny could plainly tell that this conversation was rapidly escalating into something ugly. He was sorely afraid he might be forced to make a rash of very rude comments himself when he should hold his own tongue, and he made a decision to stop things right here and right now. He had finally, at long-suffering last, reached his limit. He leaned across Opal Ann to tap Cal on the leg. In a voice that had stopped many a gunfighter flat in his tracks, Johnny quietly admonished him, “Calvin, let it go. Please, can ya just be quiet for a while? And you,” he turned and looked over his shoulder at Gertrude Powell, who was sitting like a queen in her nest of blankets, “excuse my blunt talk ma’am, but you need to clamp it shut for a while too.”
“Well, I never….”
“No, ma’am, you probably never did, but I’m askin’ ya to now. I’m sorry to be so plain, Mizz Powell, but Opal Ann and me, we’re just lookin’ for a little bit of peace.” He looked down at his new friend, and she pulled her thumb from her mouth and smiled back up at him, the biggest smile he had seen yet. Then she popped that thumb right back in and nodded her head firmly. In the rest of the wagon, stunned silence reigned. All Johnny could think as he turned back to concentrate on driving the wagon was ‘thank you God for small favors.’
And so the already odd trio had become an even more unlikely quartet. They all spent a long, tense day of travel over the rough and rocky terrain, heading ever onwards toward Redemption, with Cal and Widow Powell at last holding their tongues, mostly—no matter how unwillingly—and towards dark, the ragtag group found another passable spot and prepared to spend the night.
Teresa had sent along more than enough food for this short trip, “girl must ta thought I was packin’ off a dozen kids to a new home,” Johnny said to Cal as they unloaded some supplies and set up camp that night. However, Johnny decided he wanted to hunt down some fresh game anyway. Reflecting on this desire led Johnny to the knowledge that it wasn’t really meat he was after, but more likely a bit of solitude. So he approached the sulking widow with a proposal. “Mizz Powell, if you’d like some fresh meat for dinner, I’d be obliged if you’d keep about half an eye on Cal and Opal Ann while I did a little huntin’.”
“You want me to tend to your brats, boy, after you had the gall to sass a poor old widow woman this afternoon? That’s a hell of a thing. You’ve got some guts, I’ll give ya that.”
“Just askin’ for a little help ma’am. They take care of themselves pretty good. Personally, I don’t mind jerky and beans myself, if you’re not up to it.”
“You’re a piece of work, John Lancer.” But she grinned at him just a little bit when she said it, and she reluctantly agreed to watch the children, “but, only if you hurry yourself about it, boy.”
Cal held Opal Ann’s hand as Johnny gathered up his rifle from the wagon. He looked over to see two blonde heads following his every move. The boy had tried so hard to keep his questions down to a minimum all afternoon, and Johnny could see him struggling to continue to do so now. Finally, Cal’s nature got the better of him. “Where ya off to Johnny? Kinda late to be wanderin’ off don’t ya think? Can Opal Ann and me come too? We won’t be a lick a trouble.”
Johnny leaned down to the children as they stood holding hands in front of him, the very picture of goodness and innocence. “Don’t worry Cal, the widow’s noisy, but she don’t bite.” He grinned at the boy and was rewarded with a smile in return. “I’ll be back so fast you won’t even know I’m gone.” As he stepped off into the surrounding woods, he could hear Widow Powell grumbling at the two of them, and he considered just letting it go. Beans and jerky would do. But then he could hear a quiet, but long and rambling, response to her mutterings, and he smiled and kept on his path knowing that Cal would give back as good as he got.
So, the widow kept a wary eye on the children for the short time he was gone, and he suspected that the children kept a wary eye on the widow as well. He was surprised that once he had skinned the two plump rabbits he had shot, Widow Powell grudgingly volunteered to help him to roast them for their dinner, though not without turning the air blue around them as she cursed at Johnny, the rabbits and the fire the whole time.
Then, as the stars started to fill up the darkening sky, Johnny saw that both of the children were beginning to nod, much earlier than the night before. It stood to reason that they would be tired. It had been an exceedingly strange and busy day. Cal and the widow had both generally worked towards holding their tongues in check for him after his outburst, with some measure of success, and even though he regretted his anger some now, it had done its job fairly well. Johnny strongly suspected that holding himself still, a completely unnatural state for the boy, had taken quite a bit of effort on Cal’s part and probably contributed to his exhaustion.
For Johnny’s part, the quiet afternoon and his little hunting expedition had gone a long way towards settling his frazzled nerves, as had the warm presence of Opal Ann. So, as the dark deepened, he got the children busy with their nighttime rituals, and when he saw Widow Powell yawning, he gave up his blanket so that she could get some rest. “Mizz Powell, I want you to take this blanket. I’ve brought plenty.”
“You don’t have to coddle me, boy. I’m not the durn fool you take me to be, John. I can see that’s the last one you got. I have my own damn blanket here in my kit. That’s all I’ll be needing. I’ll be just fine here by the fire. I told you before that I’m tough. . . ”
“. . .as a guinea hen. Yes ma’am, I remember. Please just take the blanket. I’d be much obliged. I can’t offer you a drink Mizz Powell; can you at least let me try to act the gentleman?” The widow looked mighty surprised, but she shut her mouth, took the blanket and shook it out flat, lying down on it and throwing her own around her shoulders. She took up one side of the fire, the children the other.
Johnny had brushed out Opal Ann’s hair again, just like the night before, only with much less hesitation, and he saw the widow looking on with a strange expression on her face; he couldn’t read the meaning behind it, but he really didn’t care what she made of his newfound maternal skills. She kept her big mouth shut about it, and that was a relief. Once the little girl was settled, had said her prayers with Cal just like the night before, Johnny lay down next to her until she slept. He knew at last that she was deep into it when she began sighing softly with each tiny breath. And, as soon as he was sure that she was soundly sleeping, he carefully, patiently, untangled her fist from his shirt, hooking it around “Nighty Bear” instead. Then, he moved away from the fire and sat leaning against one of the wagon wheels, watching the children settle down to deep sleep.
As he slumped there nearly dozing, the sweet, lingering smell of roasted rabbit gave him a sudden, unexpected pang of homesickness. He thought of Teresa, who had the best recipe for rabbit he had ever tasted. And that brought him round to thinking of the rest of his family gathered around the supper table, talking out the day’s events, arguing, laughing. He had to grin at himself. Two nights of sleeping out, and big, bad Johnny Madrid was homesick. What would some of his former “associates” think of that, he wondered. He snorted softly at the ironic twist his life had taken. Then he looked at the two sleeping children, and his grin widened. And if those same men could see him brushing out Opal Ann’s hair, well, he guessed he’d probably have to shoot someone.
He shifted his head back against the wheel and stared up at the cluster of stars above him. Lately, standing on the portico at Lancer with his brother, with nightcaps in hand, Scott had been trying to teach him the names for some of those bunches of stars, for the shapes they made, although Johnny couldn’t quite fathom why they “needed” names. He had spent a lot of time lying out under the stars in his life, a lot of long lonely nights with only those stars for company, but it wasn’t until he had a permanent roof over his head that he found out people had connected those lights in the sky and given them names, and stories—The Hunter, The Crab, The Seven Sisters—some he could “see”; some he just really couldn’t. The thing was, he kind of thought it was the spaces between the stars that were important, not the stars themselves, but he couldn’t really explain that to Scott; he hadn’t even tried. He wasn’t even sure he could explain it to himself.
He looked back towards the fire and could see the widow’s black eyes reflecting the light of the fire, knew she was awake and looking intently at him. Earlier in the day, her sharp words had not really felt like an attack when she had scolded and picked at him. But this void without words, it felt as though she was attacking him somehow with her silence, accusing him of something. It was surely a puzzle, an annoying one, but he ignored her instead of worrying at it, pulling his hat down to hide his face.
Before starting this little trek, he had imagined this trip to Redemption as a chore to get done and over with, something better than digging out the outhouse, and as a favor for the good Padre of course. But, in many ways, so far, the trip had been a pleasure. Who knew how much he would enjoy having a little blonde three year old, no wait, a nearly four year old, cuddling next to him? And Cal could be a little bit tiresome, okay that was something of an understatement, but he was a great kid really, with a curious, quick mind and a loving heart, and he loved his sister dearly, a definite plus in Johnny’s book.
On the other hand, Mrs. Gertrude Powell was proving to be an exasperating burden, the chore he had envisioned at the start of this trip had turned out to be not two small children, but instead was a mean, loudmouthed hag. His tired, drifting mind could imagine that she had a hard, wooden heart creaking away in her chest like an old rocking chair, and that wooden heart was crippling her much more thoroughly than her wooden leg ever could.
He was very, very glad that they would be rolling into Redemption by dark tomorrow. And, even though he hadn’t broken the news to the irritating, old woman yet, he had no intention of making a side trip to Hesperides. The widow could just hire herself another buggy. In fact, the widow could jump on her broomstick and fly there for all he cared.
Johnny lingered awake for a long time, contemplating the dark between the stars and the widow’s strangely punctuated silences. He watched the night around him grow very late before he finally drifted off. And then, it seemed like only moments later when the sound of Cal’s voice asking questions woke him, just as it had the morning before.
The sky was starting to lighten as he blinked the sleep from his eyes, and he could see instantly that they would have fair weather again for this last leg of their trip—a blessing to be counted. He groaned a little from the feeling of having slept upright all night leaning against the wagon wheel. His neck was stiff, and there was a spoke poking at him right between the shoulder blades. As he came fully awake and stretched a little, he realized that he had picked up a bit of company in the night, Opal Ann of course. She lay against Johnny’s side, with his poor overworked shirttail in her hand, as usual. She had dragged Nighty Bear and her blanket through the camp and had thrown that blanket across the both of them.
He speculated that he must have been as worn out as the children, or getting way too comfortable with his new life as a rancher to be let out on his own without a keeper, if a tiny, baby girl could get the drop on him. He looked down at her, and she was looking back up at him, her hair mussed and her face still soft with sleep. The look of complete trust in her eyes made his breath catch for a moment, and he reached down for her and picked her up in his arms as he stood up, to cover the emotions he was feeling. He held her on his hip, and she burrowed her little face into his shoulder, wiping the lingering sleep from her eyes on his shirt, as he moved toward the center of camp.
It suddenly occurred to him that if he and Opal Ann were here together, and if Cal was talking, which he definitely was, then the boy must be either talking to himself—Johnny had noticed that he would do that very thing if there was no one else to listen—or he was talking to Widow Powell. Then he could hear a caustic voice answering the boy, and he hitched Opal Ann up more securely and hurriedly made his way towards their other two travel-mates, sure he would be needed to act as buffer between woman and child once again.
But instead of finding the two engaged in verbal warfare, he found them engaged in making breakfast—amicably and together. Cal was stirring up the fire, adding some wood to it; the widow was busy making coffee. And they were chatting about this and that, as though it were the most normal thing in the world. Johnny looked over at Opal Ann and imagined that his face was the mirror of hers. They were pretty much, well, amazed covered it well enough. The two breakfast makers acted as though there was nothing unusual in their actions, that they had each found themselves a kindred spirit. In fact, when Opal Ann and Johnny stopped in front of them, struck speechless, Cal and the widow both turned around at the same time and said, “What?”
Johnny wondered briefly if two people could be bound together in friendship simply by their level of noise and the number of words they could string together without taking a breath. But he could see that their conversation had give and take, that the tone of it was pleasant. Maybe it had taken another rapid talker to win a spot to jabber with either one of them. Johnny had a sudden flash of Father Donal momentarily hushed by the boy, listening intently to him, and he realized that was what had been going on with those two as well.
Rather than question it further, Johnny decided to count this new development as the second blessing of the morning to go along with their fair weather. So, after a quick breakfast and some trips to the bushes, the foursome, at last, packed up and then got settled to move on down the road. Cal, adding to Johnny’s amazement and amusement, climbed into the back of the wagon to sit with the widow.
Right after they got rolling, in a very exaggerated manner, Johnny started looking down along the sides of the wagon at the road as they lumbered along. He would look back at Cal and Widow Powell, then he would sweep his eyes up and down the trail, leaning out to look over the side as far as he could. Then he would look at the two passengers in the back of the wagon once more and begin the performance again.
Because the widow and the boy were so very busy interrupting one another behind him, it took more than five minutes, but finally, Cal asked him the question Johnny had been waiting for, “Whatcha lookin’ for anyway, Johnny?”
“You are addle-pated, John. Sometimes I don’t believe you got anything under that hat of yours ‘cept hair and too much of that as it is. It’s come on ta summer. You ain’t gonna find nary a speck of ice around these parts in June, boy.”
“She’s right as rain, Johnny. Ain’t gonna find no ice this time a year.”
“I surely will Cal, what with you and Mizz Powell getting along so dang good back there.”
“What are you talkin’ about Johnny? Me and Mizz Powell, we’re just talkin’ and cuttin’ up some.”
“Yep, I can see that, so I’m just lookin’ around tryin’ to be the first one to see what it looks like.”
“To see what ‘what’ looks like ya durn fool?”
“Why hell freezin’ over, ma’am.”
The widow exploded with a loud, rip-roaring laugh, and after a quick moment, Cal got the joke and joined her. In fact they were still chuckling at Johnny’s foolishness a few minutes later when they could see two people on horseback coming towards them down the long sloping hill which stretched ahead of them to the north. It was a little bit unexpected; except for the widow, these were the first travelers Johnny had come across in two days of travel. It was a public road and all, but just in case, even if it turned out later that he was being overly cautious, Johnny quickly whispered to the wagon in general that every one of them should hold their tongues and let him do all of the talking for a change.
As they pulled closer, Johnny used the instincts he had honed in an earlier life to assess the pair. But, he soon figured that it really didn’t take an ex-pistolero to tell that these two were nothing but trouble. They had stopped dead on the road in front of the wagon. One man wore his hat pulled low over curly, red hair; the other, gangly and thin, had on a well-worn fringed jacket, and as soon as the paint horse he was riding stopped, that man pulled off soft leather gloves and then took the makings out of his coat pocket and calmly began to roll a cigarette.
“How do friends.” The red-headed man sat his big black gelding casually, taking in their little traveling troupe with a look of amused interest. But, he wore a low slung gun belt and had a rifle with a fancy stock in the boot on his saddle.
“Howdy,” Johnny answered, keeping his gaze open and casual, his posture loose and unthreatening. He held the reins in one hand; the other he laid across his knee as he leaned forward a bit.
“Nice day for a drive.” At Johnny’s nod, he continued. “This your family? Young’uns don’t look much like you, do they?”
“Adopted,” he said in a clipped manner, “but really, that would be none of your business, friend.” Johnny emphasized the word “friend” hoping to make it clear that more questions would not be welcome.
“No offense, friend.” Holding up both hands in the universal symbol of surrender, the man mocked Johnny’s tone and smiled at him, a slick, practiced smile, reminding Johnny instantly of a sneaky rattlesnake he had tangled with once in Yuma—he had nearly died from that damned smiling snake. He figured if he waited long enough, he would eventually hear the rattle from this snake too. But, he also knew that once a person heard the snake’s rattle, it was already far too late.
Johnny smiled back at the man. “Well, nice talkin’ to ya. We’ll just be on our way then.” He was very sure that he did not want anything to do with these two men. He clearly recognized their kind. Their eyes were flat and long dead, especially the red-head’s. He now stared openly at Johnny, wide eyed. The other one looked on, baring his teeth in what he must have believed was a smile. These two were predators, pure and simple. As calmly and as innocently as possible, Johnny clucked at the horses and started forward, forcing the two men to move aside or be bumped.
Then from the back of the wagon, he heard the widow’s loud and grating voice. “Hey, you’re that “The Gun” fella everybody’s been jawin’ about, ain’t ya?”
The other man, the one in the fringed jacket, not the one Gertrude had pegged as “The Gun,” reached out and grabbed the nearest wagon horse by the harness to halt their progress. Johnny felt his heart sink clear to his feet. Involuntarily, he hunched his shoulders a bit as if he were expecting a blow. Gertrude Powell’s big yammering mouth was going to get them all killed; he was nearly sure of it.
“Now Ma’am, I’m right powerful sorry you noticed that little detail.”
“Well, you’re not exactly bein’ all sneaky about it then, are ya boy? Why’nt ya get a different horse or cut off some of them long, red curls or somethin’ stead of advertisin’ yourself? Everybody up and down the valley’s talkin’ about your description and all—big black horse, red hair, droopy mustache, fancy rifle. You must be right proud of your name, boy, wantin’ it on everybody’s lips.”
“You don’t know nothin’ about me. You don’t have no right to talk like you do know me. So, you just shut your big fat mouth you old hag.”
This situation was about to get bad, very, very bad. Johnny reached down, turned and pushed Opal Ann into the back towards Cal, had time to see the boy grab her in his arms. “Get down flat,” he hissed at them. Because the little girl had been near him, attached, nearly permanently, to his right side for the last 48 hours now, he had left off his gun belt, kept it out of the reach of small, curious hands. Now, he needed it desperately, but it was shoved up under the wagon seat, not within an easy reach, as he would have liked, as he desperately needed at this moment.
The nice weather they had enjoyed, the company of the children, even taking into account the dead widow they had acquired, everything taken together had worked on lulling him into uncharacteristic carelessness. Before he could grope his way to his rig, the man on the big black gelding, “The Gun,” had pulled out that very fancy rifle, which Johnny, and obviously the widow as well, had noticed in the boot.
“No sudden moves, friend.”
“Nope, no sudden moves, none at all,” Johnny repeated as he slowly raised both of his hands above his head. He had to think fast, or Teresa would have an eternity to say “I told you so.” Madre de Dios, the children.
“What’s goin’ on Johnny? What does that man want? I ain’t never seen such a fancy gun before. Have you, Johnny?”
“What the hell? You got no call to go pullin’ that damn rifle on us. We ain’t done nothin’.”
And softly, starkly in contrast to the background of discordant noise, he could clearly hear a tiny voice, “Yonnie?”
“Everybody just shut up. Shut up. I want the whole yammerin’ bunch of ya to get down outta that wagon. Right now. Go on, get down.”
“Do you have any idea who the hell you’re messin’ with Buster.” Widow Powell wasn’t quite through digging their graves.
Johnny turned sharply on the seat and leaned back towards the widow. He very well knew he was making a “sudden move,” but right now it was infinitely more important to get Widow Powell’s full attention than to obey that particular instruction. He just knew what was coming. He had to stop her somehow. He raised his left arm and reached towards her. If he could just reach her, he was perfectly willing to lay her out flat in the wagon bed with a crack to the jaw if it would keep her from saying what he knew was coming. He was reaching towards her, but he had a sinking feeling that he wouldn’t be fast enough, couldn’t reach quite far enough. “Why, this here’s Johnny Madrid, ya damn fool.”
At the very second that the name “Madrid” left Gertrude’s mouth, “The Gun” shot Johnny clear out from under his hat and off of the wagon seat, laying him flat out, face down on the dusty road. One minute Johnny was seriously contemplating cold cocking an old woman, and the next he was bleeding out on the road to Redemption.
He couldn’t really feel anything at first, but the rest of his senses were working just fine, thank you. He could quite clearly hear Opal Ann and Cal screaming his name; the sound was mostly vowels, high pitched and frantic, and it broke his heart to hear it. And, of course, he could hear the widow. She was madder than a wet hornet from what he could hear. “What the hell didja do that for ya bush poppin’ cow waddy?” drifted around him from somewhere far above, the words like broken glass shattering in the air around him. Johnny noticed that the very air she was peppering with words shimmered around him where he had smacked the road and stirred a small haze of dust with his landing, and after a moment, it came to him that where he lay smelled of dirt and green weeds.
He drifted some; except for the noise and his new position on the ground, the day seemed to be moving on as if nothing had happened, flies buzzing around, clouds floating lazily by. He had noticed that very thing before actually, when he had been wounded in this town or that place. The day moved on. Through barely open eyes, he could see that a warm breeze stirred the leaves of the trees on the side of the road, stirred the empty places between the leaves as well. He had been wishing for a little bit of a breeze as they had been riding along earlier, so he figured maybe he ought to be glad to get his wish. Although, now he was of a mind that he surely should have asked for something a little more important if it was to be his last wish.
He had the strongest urge to cough, but he still had the presence of mind to think that it might be prudent for him to play dead, or at least to play unconscious. He had a thought that one of these two men might think to finish what they started with him if he brought any attention to himself, although he was hard-pressed to keep his peace when he thought about the innocents left in the wagon. But, he determined, somewhere within his drifting thoughts, that he could help them more if he were alive than if he were dead.
His ever more disjointed thoughts of Cal and Opal Ann, those two men, his inability to do anything about the events that were unfolding, weighed on him heavily, and he felt a hot, stinging tear slip out and travel down his cheek to the dusty road. He tried hard to hold onto what was happening around him, but the sounds of the day were fading to a whisper. Most troubling of all was that he really couldn’t think straight with the sudden, cruel thrust of the hot poker that someone was suddenly trying to shove straight through his side. Where the hell was his gun?
Normally Hiram wouldn’t have wandered so far from home. He wasn’t scared, nope, not Hiram Jessup, no sir, but he knew that Davey would be worrying about him. It was the empty fish traps and bird snares that had started it all. He couldn’t remember the last time everything had been so barren. He wondered briefly what had caused the emptiness, but it didn’t really matter, he guessed. What did matter was that, because of the emptiness, he had gone farther than normal to set new snares and to place the traps upstream a ways more. And that’s when he had seen the tracks.
Now, it was coming on to evening, and he was very sure that Davey would have slid right past worried by now and on into hoppin’ mad, but it was those darn out of place wagon tracks that had kept him moving farther and farther away from home. In all his born days, he had never seen wagon tracks crossing his woods before, and he had a strong desire to find out where they came from, who they belonged to and where they were going.
Something just wasn’t right in the woods around him. He could feel it. Hiram knew that he wasn’t the brightest man alive without anyone even telling him. But he had a way about him in the wild. Davey said so. Hiram could feel everything around him living and breathing, could feel the change in the weather long before the raindrops hit the ground. Most times, he knew when those fish traps would be empty before he even pulled them up. He knew where the best berries would be growing thick and sweet and where the mushrooms were hiding in the Spring. He could look up to search for the hawk making lazy circles even before the hawk knew it was going make them. For him, even the rocks and streams were alive, with stories to tell him. Hiram couldn’t manage to read those books his brother set such store by, couldn’t write more than his mark, couldn’t cipher much, just never had been able to learn, but Davey made Hiram proud when he said his brother was the smartest reader of sign anybody ever saw, and Hiram surely could watch and listen to and read the plants and animals around him. And today, all this watching and listening and reading had convinced Hiram that something just wasn’t right.
Davey’s gonna have my hide if I don’t turn back right now, he thought as he continued on. I can see him now. I surely can. He’s likely pacing in front of the cabin, with Ol’ Poke following his every step, pantin’ away. Poke’ll be mad he was too dang lazy to come with me this mornin’ when I tell him how far I come. Or maybe not. That dog is just too lazy for his own good. But Davey, when he sees me comin’ into the clearing, he’ll jump down offen the porch and run out cussin’ a blue streak. Then he’ll swat me with his hat like he always does. It’s funny though, now he has to reach way up to swat me stead a down like when I was a kid.
Hiram stopped dead in his tracks and listened close. He could hear sounds ahead of him that had nothing to do with the normal way of things in his woods. After listening for a moment, he knew that there were at least three people in the clearing up ahead of him. Someone was hurt, pretty badly; he could smell blood and sickness. He could feel fear, too, like he did when he went to collect the trapped birds. Then he heard a voice, soft, young. The voice said what sounded to Hiram like “Yonnie.” Davey was just gonna have to be mad. He had to find out who was there in that clearing.
The first thing Johnny knew, after the darkness had claimed him on that hot morning, was the quick impression of something small and cool against his face, and then it was gone. He clearly felt the emptiness that was left behind, more clearly than the something that had touched him. By the time he had struggled to form the thought that the feeling must have been his imagination, it came again, like butterfly wings across his cheek. Slowly working his way through voids and shadows and closer to the surface of his consciousness, he took a moment, and he listened. He had learned long ago that, particularly in certain situations, it was a good idea to listen before letting anyone know that you were awake, or, and often more importantly, that you were conscious. This would definitely be one of those situations—not knowing where he was or when he was.
But listening did him little good this time. All he could hear was the sound of a persistent whispering, whispering, somewhere close by, off to his left, and an odd roaring in his ears that came and went like a slow heartbeat.
Still holding himself quiet and careful, he let the feel of the air around him slide across his skin, opened himself up to pay close attention to the sensation of it. It was cooler than he might have thought, for some reason. Then he remembered that when he had last been aware of it, the weather had been hot, that he had been grateful for fair skies, that he had wished for and gotten a cool breeze. But now he could feel that it was nighttime, or working its way towards being so.
A snatch of memory nagged at him. And then that memory stabbed him in the side with a flaming brand, and he groaned. However, the white agony cleared his mind some, and he remembered that two men had stopped them on the road. One had been Teresa’s backshooter. Seems he was a sideshooter, as well.
Finally, he opened his eyes, reluctantly letting in the shards of pain he had been keeping at bay. He found it was, indeed, dark, not a complete dark though; so he figured that meant maybe he wasn’t quite dead yet. And, remembering the situation on the dusty trail, he couldn’t help but wonder why he wasn’t dead.
Stars blinked at him straight overhead. Huh, was that the Seven Sisters? It seemed like he had just spent some time looking at these very stars. And then it had been morning. Where had the day gone?
“Yonnie?” He could hear Opal Ann’s small, whispering voice. He could feel the soft, cool flutter against his cheek once again. And that sweet voice made him so very sad. The children had seen it all, the brutality of gunplay. The regret he felt at that was overwhelming. Opal Ann sounded frightened. He had failed Father Donal. He had failed to safely deliver his precious cargo. He had just failed, period.
Suddenly, her innocent face hung over him, replacing the stars, and she peered at him with her thumb stuck firmly in her mouth, a very serious look showing around it. Her eyes held a worried frown, which tore at Johnny. She was too young to have such a look.
“Opalann,” he began, and then he cleared his throat a bit and started over when the words came out as more of a thin croak than anything else. “Opal Ann…you okay?” And then at her solemn nod, “where’s Cal?”
“Here Johnny.” Opal Ann’s face was replaced with Cal’s. “You scared us for sure.” For the first time since Johnny had met the boy, he looked solemn, frightened.
“Where are we? Don’t know for sure.” Cal’s voice was hushed. “We’re in the woods. Those two men had themselves one heck of an argument about what to do with us. The one with the long, dark hair hangin’ down his back said he wouldn’t be a ‘party to killin’ an old woman and a couple of brats, no matter how annoying they might be, Gun.’ So Trudy, she says to them, ‘You boys just let us be. You can be t’other side of the state afore we can do ya any harm,’ and then they did. And Johnny…they…you…the blood…it was…”
“I’m okay, Cal; s’okay.” Again he had to clear his throat. In spite of his every effort, the sound of it mingled with a breathy groan. Then, when he could, “Who’s Trudy? Where’s…” Johnny was having some trouble keeping up with Cal’s explanation, even though the boy was really very subdued. There was that roaring in his ears to deal with, and more importantly, he had to contend with the stars, which had tangled themselves in the branches above his head and were spinning and looping around. His stomach wasn’t real happy about it. “Where’s….” he managed to grind out again between clenched teeth.
“They loaded us all in the wagon and pulled off the main trail and into these here woods. We went along a good long while, and then they dumped us out on the ground and left. Just like that. Left us here in the woods. What kind of desperados leave witnesses behind like that, Johnny?”
“Where’s Widow Powell?” He got his question in between Cal’s words as his stomach lurched again.
Above and behind him he heard, “Cal, is he awake?”
“Yes, ma’am. He’s awake, kinda.”
Then Cal’s face was gone and the widow Powell’s was there. She looked worried. “You look a little green. You gonna be sick, John?”
“Yes’m.” And then he was, with her helping him, holding his head, wiping his face with the hem of her skirt. And he lay back with one arm flung across his eyes as she covered over the mess with dirt and leaves. So there it was, another thing to regret having the children to be witness too.
“Feel better now, boy?”
“No ma’am, I truly don’t,” he whispered. But the widow and Cal tugged at him anyway, pulled him up by the arms and helped him to lean against the trunk of a tree. He used his left hand to press against the pain exploding in his side. He could feel something under his shirt, some kind of bandage tied around him, and his hand came away hot and wet from touching it. Even though it was too dark to see, the smell of it and the feel of it told him that his hand was wet with blood.
The thought of that made his world reel again for a moment, and then it righted itself, shaky but fairly still. He looked across the small clearing around them and saw Opal Ann looking at him from across the way. She looked so very scared and infinitely sad. It nearly broke his heart to look at her. “Opal Ann. C’mere.” So, she ran to him and sat down on his good side, rubbing her face against his shirt.
“John, I reckon I’ve put us in one hell of a mess. I’ll swear I shoulda listened to my brother and stayed put at home. I really hate it when he’s right. You all wouldn’t be in this damn mess if weren’t for my mouth. I just...”
He raised his head from where it rested hanging down to look her in the eye. “Mizz Powell, you surely should have kept your mouth shut, but it’s too late now. No use kickin’ that dead horse, ma’am.”
“I been doin’ some thinkin’ on it, though. I need to make this right. I’m gonna start walkin’, get back to the trail, hope somebody passes on the road.”
He looked up to see Cal sitting Indian style in front of him and the widow standing above him, looking down. Through a strange red fog that had formed around him, Johnny struggled to make sense of their situation. “Tell me what happened, what those men said. Can’t believe we’re not all--” he whispered, and then he stopped suddenly and looked down, remembering that Opal Ann was sitting there beside him.
Widow Powell worked her way down, using the tree for support, and sat beside him on the side not occupied by the little girl. “Well, the one called Sloane argued against hurtin’ us. He said you were a dead man anyway, and that he couldn’t abide killin’ a woman and two kids. Said he’d be witness to the fact that he’d killed Johnny Madrid.” Johnny glanced over at Opal Ann again, but she seemed to be more interested in Nighty Bear than with what the widow had to say. “So, they flung you up into the wagon and bumped us along for a helluva long while—up into the woods, not down into the valley. And from what I could tell, we was headin’ east the whole time. Then they let us gather up a few things—they made sure they had all the damn weapons though.” She saw him reach down towards his boot and put out her hand to stop him. “Nope, they got that knife in your boot too, John—and they took off with the wagon and the rest of our stuff.”
“My side?” He grunted softly as he reached to touch the flame which was burning him.
“Bullet went straight through ya, boy. Big ol’ hole in the back. You’re surely a mess. Tore plumb through skin and muscle there below your ribs. I’m surely no doctor, but I don’t think it got any of your vitals.” As the Widow Powell spoke, Johnny began untangling Opal Ann gently from his side and started to push himself up the trunk of the tree, just as the widow had used it to ease herself down. "Whoa there, John. You’ve lost near a slop bucket full of blood, boy. Got a damn fair knot on your hard head too.”
“We’ll all walk to the road.”
“No, I’ll walk to the road and catch the next ride that comes along, get help.”
“I said, we’ll all walk to the road.”
“Well, I’ll swear John Lancer, you are the stubbornest, most infuriating man I have ever laid my eyes on.”
“Yep. And don’t you forget it.” And then leaning against that tree and fighting for every bit of his consciousness, he grinned at her a little and added, “Ma’am.”
And just as he managed to get the grin and the inflection of the word just right, he slid back down the trunk and landed with a jolt on the seat of his pants. The sharp landing was softened just a little by the widow’s hand under his arm, but it still dragged a tight, startled breath from Johnny as he hit the forest floor. It was a small yelp, but one that made Cal and Opal Ann both jump. As he came to his sudden halt, he closed his eyes and just kept leaning over from where he sat until he was flat out on the ground once again. “Mizz Powell, I can’t walk.”
“Nope, John, I don’t reckon you can.” But even as the words left her mouth, Johnny was out once again.
Rather than the gradual awakening he remembered most recently—in the woods he thought, with Opal Ann looking down at him with her poor, sorrowful little face—this time Johnny woke abruptly, with a slight jerk. He was unclear about what had startled him awake, but it was something quick or bright or loud, and he had a brief thought that the not knowing should have him reaching for his gun. Why couldn’t he reach for his gun?
As he worried vaguely about the fact that his arm wasn’t obeying his brain, the reasons for his constant sleepings and wakings came to him. He slowly rolled around the thoughts in his mind—that they had met up with “The Gun” Coltrane, that he had been shot clean off the wagon seat amidst a fiery, streaking flame, that the children had witnessed him being shot. As he went through this catalog of recent memories, he realized that right now though, at this moment, all he knew for sure was that he was moving, but not under his own power.
Then, as his senses gradually came back to him more completely, he realized that he was swaying, being held, carefully, like a baby, to his supreme humiliation. Whoever was inflicting this indignity on him was taking slow, careful steps, carrying him along—to where he had no idea. It was almost too much to think about. It was almost easier to just fall back into the sleeping rather than to stay with the waking. But, he was bone tired of the empty spaces in his memory, so he tried very hard to concentrate.
He was definitely being carried in thick, steady arms, and his head rested against rough hewn, scratchy material covering what he believed to be a sturdy shoulder. He could feel his legs being held under the knees, and he had one arm dangling, gently bumping with each step. He could also feel big hands gripping him, one against his thigh and the other high up on his side, under his armpit.
He opened his eyes to mystery again, just as he had before—yesterday? only a moment ago? Really, this had to stop. He looked up into the face of a stranger—a very large stranger. It looked to Johnny as though this face must belong to one of those giants Scott had told him about—Titans, he thought. They were called Titans. This Titan’s broad face was neither smiling nor frowning. Rather, he seemed to be concentrating very hard on something. He had a black beard and mustache, which were both liberally sprinkled with gray, and he wore a wide-brimmed felt hat and a brown homespun light weight jacket. As he moved along carrying his burden, this giant’s breath puffed in and out, rhythmically, through pursed lips, which were partially hidden by his bushy beard. Johnny didn’t remember anything about hats in that story of Scott’s.
And at the very moment when Johnny was looking up, studying him, the big man was looking down into Johnny’s half-opened eyes, smiling broadly now with even white teeth, and speaking to him. “Hey,” he said. That was all, just “Hey.” His voice was surprisingly velvety soft around the edges.
Johnny thought to answer, but couldn’t quite. Beyond the bearded face, he could see oak and cedar trees sliding past. Okay, a mistake, it was a definite mistake to watch the sliding trees. His stomach started to roll, and with a vague memory involving stars and tree branches, he slammed his eyes shut to avoid further embarrassment.
He swayed along for awhile in the sheltering arms, unable to do much else, focused on calming his stomach, slow even breaths, no sudden moves. Although he was troubled by the position he found himself in, he was grateful for the big man’s careful, soft-footed steps. He was starting to get so hot. And, Dios, he ached—his head pounded like he had been on a three day drunk. Although, he figured that he would be in much prettier arms, yes, much, much prettier, if that were truly the case.
The woods around him seemed overly quiet, and that thought was troubling for some reason. Even though he could hear some birdsong and the rustling of leaves as the giant trudged along, something was missing. There was an emptiness he couldn’t quite put his finger on, a problem he couldn’t puzzle out. He was unsure as to what the problem might be for several long moments as he rolled it around in his brain, but then it came to him that someone ought to be talking. Cal. That’s it. Cal should be talking—or, Widow Powell should be. Or they both should be talking over and around each other. He squirmed a little, carefully aware of his stomach, and tried to shift his weight some in the giant’s arms so that he could lift up a bit and look around.
From directly above him, a deep rumbling which he could feel in the chest he rested against accompanied a voice, “Ma’am, are you and the little bits doing alright? Do we need to stop?”
And then, although it was a sudden thing, now that he had thought of it, Johnny started to panic. The children. He thrashed about in the cradle of the giant’s arms, with the Titan trying to soothe him with soft words, like he might gentle a wild animal found in a trap. But Johnny would not be soothed. He desperately needed to find his traveling companions, to check on them; particularly, he needed to see that Cal was all right, that Opal Ann was all right, to get that look of sorrow off of her face. They had placed so much trust in him, and he had done a pretty poor job of living up to that trust.
He wondered if the children were tired or hurt, and then, out of the blue really, if they had been eating all right. He felt a small shock of shame that he hadn’t thought of it sooner. They would have to forage for some food very soon. He wondered how the widow was getting along with that wooden leg of hers as she tromped around in the woods. What an odd bunch they had become—A 60 year old widow with a wooden leg, an ex–gunslinger with a big gaping whole in his side—two scared and lonely children—and an extremely large man who was toting Johnny around like a baby—Oh, and of course he couldn’t forget to include Nighty Bear.
He made another quick movement, a more determined movement, and it became abundantly clear to him once more why he would even need to be carried as pain erupted in his side and traveled across his chest and down into his left leg. The pain was very sudden, but complete, and it contributed quite negatively to his stomach woes. A groan was wrestled from his throat, and he laid his head back against the scratchy shoulder again, finding that it was far too heavy to hold up any longer.
“Johnny? Wake up, Johnny.” From the tone of the voice, he could tell immediately that it was the widow pestering him. He wasn’t moving and swaying any longer; he wasn’t being held in big, safe arms. Instead, he was lying down. On the ground? He opened his eyes slowly. Damn, he had passed out again. The skies above him were dappled with thin clouds—a clearing in the woods? It was still daylight, late afternoon would be his first guess from the quality of the light. He could hear the pleasant gurgle of a running stream nearby, and then he felt something cool and damp against his forehead. “You need to drink some water, boy. Wake up for me for just a minute. Come on, Johnny.”
“Uh.” It was the best he could do. Then he felt his head being held up, something touching his bottom lip, cool water trickling down his throat. He was so thirsty—desert dry—and he drank deeply after he realized that he could.
“Slow down, boy. You’ll make yourself sick again. You’re doin’ just fine, John. Hiram says we’ll be there soon, that Davey will know what to do for you. Hold on just a little bit longer, and we’ll take damn good care of you, boy. Everything’s gonna be okay.”
Johnny nodded his head vaguely in the direction of the voice. “Mizz Powell?” He managed. “The kids…?”
“Are fine. You don’t worry about them; you hear me? You gotta think about keepin’ yourself still. We got that bleedin’ stopped now; let’s keep it that way, boy.”
Without really thinking about what he was doing, Johnny tried very hard to sit up. He put one elbow down on the ground and pushed. The water had helped some; his mind was clearer than it had been for some time. He knew that they needed to walk to the road. Or maybe they had walked to the road—he wasn’t completely sure about that exactly. He clearly remembered talking about walking to the road; it was the actual walking part that seemed to be escaping him. But he felt someone push at his shoulder, push him with great care back down flat on the ground, and he looked up into the eyes of the gentle giant whom he now remembered had been carrying him earlier.
“Johnny Lancer,” he whispered up to the man looming over him, and he really concentrated and tried to hold his right hand out to the man.
“Hiram Jessup,” the giant whispered back to him, taking the offered hand and shaking it softly and briefly. Johnny thought that Hiram Jessup seemed a strange name for a Titan. “Pleased to make your acquaintance,” the man continued.
“You’re helping us.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes sir, I am.”
“Thank-you.” Then, Johnny was a little startled to hear Cal in the background asking quietly if it was time to get going, and when the Widow answered the boy in the affirmative, the injured man tried to sit up again in preparation for standing. As he struggled to get his body to obey him, Johnny felt the giant, Hiram Jessup he corrected himself, begin to slide his arms under and around him, and he had flung his arm out, the one that would obey him, to stop the man and had told him right then and there, in no uncertain terms, that he could “walk just fine, thank you very much.” He continued to go on and say that he “won’t be needin' anybody to carry me, no matter if you are a big one, Hiram.” At Johnny’s quiet but insistent outburst, Hiram sat back on his heels, looked quickly over at the widow, and then down at his well-worn, thick soled boots. He was clearly conflicted about what he should do next.
The widow’s voice floated down to Johnny from somewhere above. “John Lancer, you know damn well you can’t walk. Do you want these children to spend another night out in the woods when Hiram says we can be to his cabin in just a while?” At her words, Johnny stretched his neck around and looked over to check on Cal and Opal Ann. Calvin was unnaturally quiet, his eyes large and very serious. Opal Ann looked exhausted. She leaned against Calvin where they sat against a tree, clutching Nighty Bear. Both children were tired and scared, probably worrying about him, how he was having to be carried like a child; it was easy to see those things about the children as he studied them, even with the ground swaying and bucking beneath him the way it was.
“I can make it,” he insisted again. But, of course he couldn’t. Hiram and the widow both looked at him with knowing eyes. He could read in those eyes that they very much doubted his ability to walk, but he struggled to stand anyway, and Hiram even gave him a hand up. The widow was clucking at him the whole time. “I said I can make it, so just stop your fussin’ at me,” he whispered as he caught his breath, and then, before he had taken more than two or three steps, he found himself scooped up into Hiram’s arms once again. He had just enough time to realize that his stubborn pride was about to receive another blow, which he could add to the others he had been collecting on this short trip to Redemption, just as his eyes rolled back in his head and the black closed in—again.
It seemed to Johnny that he had been reaching for some reality to hold onto for a very long, confused lifetime now, waking up on the road to Redemption, waking up on the ground in the woods, waking up in Hiram’s arms.
Although he couldn’t be positive about how much time had passed, the disjointed and painful coming and going of the past day or so, past few days maybe, reminded him of those first fever-filled nights at Lancer, after he had fallen from Pardee’s bullet. The ache in his back and side, which ebbed and flowed over him and the fact that he was now in a bed, rather than on the forest floor, added to that illusion.
So, waking up this time fully aware meant that it didn’t matter to Johnny that it was dark and quiet, that he was so obviously the only one awake. He was just so incredibly tired of waking up and not knowing quite where he was, how much time had passed him by, or what exactly was going on that knowing those things now was a relief.
He was lying on his right side with a flattened feather pillow under his head. He could tell that the mattress was thin, straw stuffed, but it was infinitely better than camping out on the hard ground, or sleeping upright next to a wagon wheel. He suspected that his accommodations were putting someone else out of a bed, so he really had no room to complain. A blanket covered him to the shoulder—he was bare-chested under it and could feel the wrap of a bandage around his middle. He lay there simply taking everything in. It was a warm night, and he could only assume that someone had draped the blanket over him to ward off the fever induced chills of which he had a vague memory, and probably as a concession to modesty as well. The familiar feeling of having a fever, that gritty feeling behind his eyes and the vague ache in his bones, in his head, was still there, but better, much better.
As he lay there, he could see out of a small window set high in the wall next to the narrow bed, was looking right out of it when he had opened his eyes earlier, in fact. Curtains—which had been crudely fashioned from dyed and, surprisingly, hemmed flour sacks—fluttered softly in a slight breeze that came through that window and caressed his heated skin. He inhaled as deeply as his wound allowed and could smell the pine woods that crowded around the cabin on the breath of air that skimmed softly over him. The sounds of the woods filtered in with the breeze too—branches shuddering in the moving air, an owl calling over and over, the lonely undulating howl of a far off wolf. However, as he lay there listening, as he had so many nights stretching into his past life, he knew that it was really the silences between that sounds that defined the night.
His carefully nurtured internal clock told him that he had awoken in the deepest part of the night. In the past, in his wandering days, it was not unusual for him to find himself awake and alone at this hour. He had heard people say, “in the dead of the night,” and he figured he was in it right now. He had always been a light sleeper; it was a professional hazard. Even now, he couldn’t quite give up and relax into sleep like an innocent man might, and he often found himself looking into the sky during the part of the night which had inspired the viejas abuelas of the villages he had lived in as a child to talk about noche de bruja—those eerily quiet hours when one’s soul is so precariously tethered to the earth by only the slimmest of threads, spider web slim, just waiting to be snipped.
It had always seemed to Johnny that during this “witching hour,” the whole world was holding its collective breath, waiting for. . . something. And, as he lay there, more awake and aware than he had been for some time, he too was waiting for that something, and he thought that if he just knew what it was, he would be a much wiser man. He could see a small square of sky through the window, and as he gazed out into the night, it seemed to him that the stars must be farther away than he remembered—so far away, mere pinpoints above the wind ruffled tops of the trees. He took another long, cleansing breath and felt his wounds pull and ache, but the searing agony from earlier had faded, from the truly nasty tasting tea Davey had forced on him, he suspected.
Around him, inside of this clean and amazingly well-appointed cabin in which they now found themselves, the sounds of sleep filled the room—the rustle of blankets, soft breathing, sleep sighs, husky snoring. And the sounds comforted him
He sent a quick prayer, a thank-you, into the night; his head was finally clear for the first time in, hell, he wasn’t sure how long it had been since their run-in with Coltrane. He remembered that they were all, relatively, all right though—not counting himself, he admitted reluctantly—and that a kindly giant named Hiram had carried him to his home, or possibly it had been one of those Titans Scott had gone on about that one evening last winter. Things were kind of tangled up in his mind. He remembered thinking about Scott’s Titans, and he remembered being embarrassed about the carrying part. One thing he knew without a doubt was that everything was all kind of jumbled still. The large man’s name was Hiram Jessup; Johnny did remember that for sure. The man had very politely introduced himself.
And then some measure of time later, he really had no idea how long, the whole ragged bunch of them had trudged into a small clearing containing this cabin, and Hiram had proudly presented his armload of ex-gunslinger to his brother as though Johnny were a lost puppy that had followed him home.
As Johnny’s thoughts drifted in this dead time of the night, he remembered their arrival at the cabin—the sudden appearance of Hiram’s brother as they made their way into the clearing and up to the rustic-looking, isolated cabin, the redbone hound dog that had tried to jump up on Hiram as he crossed to the porch, its baying loud to Johnny’s pounding head, and Hiram turning his back on the dog so that Johnny would not be hurt by its enthusiastic greeting. And although he had been hurting and weak, unable to walk, Johnny had been awake for their arrival.
He had, in fact, been dozing fitfully in steady arms when a voice calling Hiram’s name had snapped him fully awake. “Hiram? Hiram, dear God, I’ve been so worried about you.”
“Davey, don’t be mad, okay? I’ve brought some company. This man’s hurt.”
“I see that. What on earth has happened? Bring him inside. Ma’am? Are you all right? The children?” Although it was hard to tell from his current position, Johnny thought that the man was big, but not nearly as big as Hiram, more like Murdoch big, and he bustled around them all, walking ahead so he could hold the door open for Hiram and Johnny to enter. Johnny remembered being amazed that Hiram had been forced to stoop to get through the door.
The widow had been walking behind them with the children. She turned to the bundle of energy that had turned out to be Hiram’s brother. “We’re okay—pretty damn tired and hungry is all. You’re Davey?” the widow asked, and Johnny could hear the exhaustion clearly in her voice. At the man’s nod, she had repeated, “We’re okay, but, Johnny needs help. He’s been shot through. Hiram said you would be able to help him. Said you were a healer of some sort.”
He didn’t think the man answered her, but there was a sudden flurry of activity around Hiram and around Johnny who was still being held in Hiram’s sure grip, so he may have missed it in the commotion. As they made their way slowly forward, the redbone yapped and jumped, while Hiram kept saying “Down Poke. Get down, dang it.” And somewhere across the way, Johnny could also hear the braying of a mule and the confused scolding and flurry of chickens. The man, the one who had come running from the cabin to meet them, was now ushering the small crowd back into that cabin, turning down one of the two beds that sat in a small lean-to attachment to the main room, directing Hiram to lay Johnny down carefully.
Then they all left him alone there for a moment, busy with other things, and through a haze of fever and pain, Johnny had turned his head back to look through the open doorway into the interior of the bigger room, searching, searching for Cal and Opal Ann. He could see that all around the walls of the cabin’s main room, from floor to ceiling, wherever there was no window, no door, no fireplace, there were bookshelves jammed-packed with all manner and sizes of books, and he couldn’t help but wonder how they had all gotten here to this isolated spot in the woods. The sight of the book-lined walls also made him think of his father and brother. Had he been gone too long, long enough to worry them? He needed to let them know that they were all okay. And the Flannigans—Mizz Powell’s brother—Father Donal.
At last he could see Cal and Opal Ann being directed to a table in the middle of the main room, could hear Hiram’s brother, whose name he now knew was Davey, telling Hiram to get the medical bag and when he had finished with that to get their guests a cool drink and some food while he took a look at their patient. And even though Johnny’s world was becoming ever more fuzzy and wavering, he remembered that he needed to check on the children, on the widow. Looking in at them, he could see that they all looked so very tired. The widow was obviously limping as she began to help Hiram gather up food from a blanket-draped pantry. Opal Ann could barely sit upright at the table she was so weary. And Cal, his face streaked with dirt, was silent and still, and Johnny had worried on that for a while as he waited for someone to return to him.
Farther across the room, Johnny watched as Davey fussed with a satchel, and pulled some dried herbs from a hand-woven willow basket hanging up high by the back door of the cabin. Then the man filled a kettle with water from a barrel in the corner and put it on a very modern-looking wood burning stove after he had stoked up the fire. To Johnny, it seemed as though Hiram’s brother was like a coiled spring, his energy seeping into the room as though his body couldn’t contain it all, and he noticed that the children and Mizz Powell were energized some simply with the very force of his will and his quiet, coiled strength. Soon he thought he could hear Cal asking questions, and the up and down cadence of the young boy’s voice was the best medicine Johnny could imagine.
So Davey had returned, and Johnny had done his best to keep a silent vigil with his pain as the man poked and prodded and poured. The cold fire of alcohol washing into the wound had nearly been his undoing though, and a low moan had filled the cabin through Johnny’s gritted teeth. A whispered, “sorry—sorry,” had floated over him, but Davey had continued to torture him, in spite of his apology.
After a while, hands, Hiram’s hands, had propped him up carefully, pushing folded blankets behind him to help him sit up, and Davey had forced the awful tea on him, had stood over him until Johnny had swallowed every bit of it. And through the force of his personality alone had even gotten the wounded man to choke down a cold biscuit, even though Johnny really had no desire to do so.
It was while he was forcing himself to finish drinking the tea, as the sun set and darkness seeped into their cabin in the woods, that Opal Ann had come to him. He had looked up from the noxious cup to find her standing behind Hiram’s leg, much as she had stood behind Father Donal at the orphanage. He cleared his throat and, trying to keep his voice steady, he softly called to her, “hey Teapot.” He had held his hand out to her, and she had come to him, climbed up beside him in the bed.
She was there even now, curled in the crescent his body made as he lay on his side. He looked down at her, and in a patch of moonlight on the blanket, he could see her thumb hanging slack in her mouth as she breathed easy in her sleep, Nighty Bear abandoned at her side.
And here and now, in this empty hour of the night, more than anything else, Johnny wished that he had on a shirt for her to hold in her fist and to rub on her face.
“You sound like my brother.” Johnny was propped up on the folded blankets again in the narrow bed, as he had been briefly the evening before. He was hurting still, but the ache was dull and throbbing, not sharp and biting like it had been. He knew that Davey, or at least he assumed it was Davey, had stitched him up at some point last evening, could feel the stitches pull as he shifted against the blankets, but he had no conscious memory of it.
Drinking yet another cup of the supremely nasty tasting herbal tea, he made an obvious and exaggerated face at the taste of it, hoping that Davey would look in his direction and see his disapproval. But, in spite of his complaints about the drink, he could tell that his fever was nearly gone, so he kept downing the vile stuff. Between sips, Johnny called his comment about Davey’s accent, about how he sounded like Scott, into the main room of the tidy cabin where the man was now alone, bustling around cleaning up after their breakfast.
As Johnny studied Davey, he estimated that the man was older than Hiram, by at least ten years, maybe more. And, though he figured his age to be near 65, and he could see that his hair had gone completely gray, Davey appeared to have nearly as much get up and go as Cal. And, as he watched him interact with his guests, the man’s dark blue eyes jumped and sparked with intelligence and mischief. Johnny couldn’t quite understand why, but here in the deep dark of the woods, at just after 7:00 in the morning, for no apparent reason, Davey wore gray dress pants, an immaculate white shirt, and a string tie. It even appeared that he had polished his boots.
The man had apparently arisen while it was still-dark early, dressed in his fancy duds, and started breakfast before any of the rest of them had stirred. Soon, however, the sleepers were encouraged to rise by the smell of fragrant coffee and frying bacon, and then the small cabin had been near to bursting at the seams with two resiliently recovered children—one of them bouncing in his seat and asking a million questions, the other insisting that she be allowed to climb in the bed to “eat wit Yonnie”—and an opinionated widow, who insisted that she could fry her “own damn eggs.”
“I sound like your brother? What do you mean?” Johnny was pulled back from his reverie when Davey spoke to him as he looked in at his patient. He was carefully drying the last of the breakfast dishes. Not long ago, he had sent the children out with his brother to feed the stock. With the directive from his brother, Hiram had jumped up from the table as though he had been released from a hated chore and had donned his hat. As he had moved through the door with the children following, Johnny had heard him telling them all about Louisa May, the mule, and Cal had laughed loudly at something just as the door was swinging shut.
The widow had eventually wandered outdoors too—after lingering at the table over strong, steaming coffee and good conversation with Davey for a while—saying that she wanted to take some scraps to Poke, and then she had laughed and said she had better get out there to deflect some of Cal’s questions, or he would drive Hiram crazy, although, Johnny suspected that she had simply come to feel responsible for the children’s welfare, just as he did.
As Davey turned a questioning look at him from where he stood at the kitchen sink, Johnny quirked a grin at him. The tall man had tucked a colorful piece of cloth, which was covered with the print of large red roses on a green background, in the front of his fancy pants to act as an apron, and it hung down nearly to his knees. Johnny couldn’t even begin to imagine what two old bachelors would be doing with such a fancy piece of fluff, but the fact that they had it pleased him for some reason.
He pulled his attention from the cloth when he realized that Davey had asked him a question. “What? Oh, my brother, Scott, he’s from back east, you sound like ‘im.” Johnny could hear familiar inflections, when Hiram and, even more particularly, when Davey said certain words, and they used certain expressions that struck a very familiar chord with him too.
“Oh? Well, Hiram and I grew up on a small farm just outside of Concord, Massachusetts. But we’ve been right here in this very cabin a good long while though, ever since our parents died, nearly 20 years ago now. I guess I never thought about still carrying the accent. No one in Hesperides really ever comments on it. And the two of us don’t get to town much anyway; we mostly talk to one another.”
“Conquered, Massachusetts? Is that near Boston?” Johnny thought that he might just swing his legs around and get out of bed, so he threw the quilt back and reached towards the bedside table to set his cup down. But, as he stretched his arm across to do so, a sharp pull at his side had him thinking better of it, and he simply stayed right where he was and held onto the cup instead.
Davey saw what he was up to, but he kept his own counsel and didn’t comment on Johnny’s aborted attempt at rising. Instead, he continued their conversation. “Pretty near Boston, yes, about 20 miles away from the big city, I guess. When I was a very little boy, and sometimes even later, after Hiram came along, we would take trips to Boston each year, to shop, see the sights, visit the museum, the theater. Have you been there?” As he spoke, Davey methodically put dishes away on the open shelves by the stove, wiped the table with his dish cloth, and pushed in the ladderback chairs with a scrape across the rough plank floor. He even grabbed a broom and swept away their breakfast crumbs.
“Me?” Johnny laughed a little, and then stopped short with a gasp when the action of doing it made him catch his breath in a surprise of pain. Damn. He continued then, when he could; a few steadying breaths was all it took—with Davey looking at him with a worried frown. “No,” he finally answered, “never been east of Kansas myself. My brother grew up in Boston.” At Davey’s raised eyebrow, Johnny added, “it’s a long story.”
So the man continued without pressing the matter. “Actually, although it’s not all that big of a town, Concord is pretty well known. The author Ralph Waldo Emerson lived and worked there. So did Henry David Thoreau. Have you ever heard of them?”
“Yes, I know of them. My brother has talked a lot, and I do mean a lot, about that Thoreau fella. Has some books by him. I wouldn’t be puttin’ a stretch on it to say he’s pretty high on him.”
“He’s one of my favorite writers too.” Davey had moved into the room with Johnny and sat on the bed against the opposite wall, pulling up a red and blue quilt and smoothing it before he settled. Johnny could smell the citrus scent of the soap on the man’s hands, which he had been using to clean up the dishes and the kitchen table, another surprise from this house of men.
“Well, going to jail for something he believed in, that I can understand.” Johnny continued the discussion. He had enjoyed that reading when Scott had pulled it out around the fire one night.
Ah, his Resistance to Civil Government. He was protesting supporting the War in Mexico.”
“I remember, he wouldn’t pay a tax or something right?” Davey gave him a nod. “But, the other thing, going to live in a shack in the woods when he didn’t have to live like that? Don’t get me wrong. I understand needin’ to be alone, but, a good long gallop through the hills ought to be enough.”
Davey stood next to Johnny now and grinned down at him. “Our little farm was very near Walden’s Pond.” Davey retrieved the abandoned cup. Johnny was beginning to understand that the man had as much trouble sitting still as he did.
“So, you feel a kinda kinship with this man?” Johnny asked. Davey gave him another brief nod before he turned toward the larger room. Johnny spoke to his retreating back. “Lotsa people have worked very hard not to live poor like he did. I don’t get it. Scott was pretty excited about the whole idea though.”
“It’s not for everyone I guess. The way I understand it is that maybe he felt like it was the only way for him to know himself, to know who he was. Thoreau, and the other Transcendentalists meditated about nature. He needed to be alone, not to have distractions, to do that—it’s the idea of self-knowledge as the beginning of all knowledge. And, he thought that he could learn the secrets of life by studying the secrets of nature.” Again, Davey came into the room where Johnny lay, and he sat across from him, gave him a long steady look. The sounds of the mule braying, Poke yapping up a storm, and Cal’s voice raised in glee could be heard filtering in through the small window.
Johnny turned from Davey and took his own long, slow look around the interior of the cabin. He was much more aware than he had been last night, when he had seen everything through a haze of fever. And too, he could see everything now with much sharper edges than he could when he had been examining things in the moonlight during his “witching hour” thoughts. He could see quite clearly in the sunshine that filtered through the windows that this home wasn’t a shack, that was for sure. It had been tended lovingly and filled with the necessities and with personal treasures too.
He could feel Davey’s eyes on him as he looked around carefully at his surroundings. The brothers had plenty of niceties and conveniences—that modern stove, which was fancier than the one at Lancer; in fact, Teresa and Maria would be jealous if they could see it. There were those sewn and dyed the curtains at the windows, and someone had woven several rag rugs which were thrown in various spots around the rooms. He suspected Davey was the weaver. And Lord knew there were enough books filling the walls to last a man several lifetimes. Johnny had to think that some of those books were surely by that Thoreau fella—because the way Davey and Hiram lived here was more than just “out” in the woods; it was down right isolated.
And he could certainly understand that a man might need some space and silence, might need to study on a bit of emptiness before he could figure out how he wanted to fill it. But it seemed to him like Davey had been studying on his emptiness for a good long while now—a good long while. Hadn’t Scott said that Thoreau had only lived on that pond for a couple of years? Twenty years seemed like more than enough time to study those secrets of nature old Thoreau was looking for and maybe even enough time to find out about the silences that wedged themselves between the words and the noise.
But he knew from recent experience, such a new precious feeling, that there surely did come a time when people needed the company of their fellow men. He spoke suddenly, “So, Davey, have you?”
Davey had risen from the seat he had taken on the bed once again and was fussing with something Johnny couldn’t see in by the stove. Johnny saw him jerk like someone had prodded him with a stick. “What? Have I what?” Davey asked him, as though he had lost the trail of the conversation, although Johnny really thought that he hadn’t. He had just expanded on it in his own mind, just as Johnny had.
“Have you found them, those secrets you were lookin’ to uncover?” It was a guess on his part, but Johnny was pretty sure that he had it right.
“No---no I haven’t,” and as he turned to look at Johnny, Davey looked so very sad.
“I think maybe you gotta slide up on this one kinda sideways, Davey. I truly think you have found what you came out here lookin’ for. But, I think sometimes we need people to supply the words and the noise, so we have something to look between for those empty places.”
Davey finished what he was doing at the stove and walked in to Johnny carrying another cup of the damnable tea. He had a far off look in his eyes, and Johnny had to reach up and take the tea cup from his hands as he stood over him holding it and staring out of Johnny’s window. He seemed to pull himself from sleep when he spoke, “Johnny?”
“Does your Trudy Powell have a beau?”
A beau?! A beau??!! The only time Johnny could remember being more surprised was that one time when he had been standing next to a stagecoach in Morro Coyo, and this little bit of a girl informed him that, without question, a Fancy Dan from Boston wearing a ruffled shirt and looking down his very proper nose at him was his half-brother. And now, here in this home in the woods, with the suddenness of Davey’s question, Johnny sputtered his surprise and nearly choked on his tea. The coughing fit which ensued had him wrapping his arm protectively around his side, squeezing his eyes tightly shut, and working hard to cover a moan.
“MY Trudy Powell?” he finally managed to gasp after several false starts. He peered up at Davey, who suddenly stood directly over him, taking the precariously sloshing cup of hot tea from his hand and attempting to offer him a glass of cool, freshly pumped water which he had set on the bedside table only moments before, but Johnny waved him off, still coughing in small bits and pieces. No matter that he thought to repress it, he knew that he must have an incredulous look on his face. But, in spite of Johnny’s amazement at the question, it didn’t take long for him to see that the man was not trying to pull his leg. The look on Davey’s face told Johnny that this educated loner was falling hard for one foul-mouthed widow woman.
He took a moment to test out several things in his head that he might say while the poor man stood nervously by waiting with what must have passed for patience in Davey’s world. After rejecting, ‘are you crazy?’ and ‘you’ve been out in these woods far too long,’ Johnny finally settled on, “Well, Davey, I don’t really know her well enough to know if anybody’s courtin’ her.” Amazingly, he managed to get this statement out without laughing, or even smiling. Johnny definitely did not want to hurt this gentle man’s feelings.
“Oh, well, I just thought, well, um, you know, you came here together and all, and, well, she was so, um, worried about you when I was working on your wound. I just assumed, you know, that you two were, well, um, confidantes, I guess.” Then his eyes got kind of glazed and he said, nearly reverently, “That woman’s got enough spunk to power a steamship.”
Suddenly, Johnny didn’t feel at all like laughing anymore. “I’m sorry. I really just don’t know. We’re not exactly close.” He could definitely see, and, especially, he could hear that Davey was dead serious. Johnny knew he needed to swallow his amazement and treat this issue in the manner Davey deserved. So, he took a moment and contemplated the idea of the thoughtful, soft-spoken man paired up with “Trudy,” tried to visualize the two of them spending their days together. Did the widow like to read? Was she educated?
Johnny suddenly realized, sadly, that he seemed to know more about Davey in a day and a half than he did about Gertrude Powell in a year and a half. All he knew of her was that she had a wooden leg, a colorful vocabulary and a brother in Hesperides, and two of those things he had learned on the road to Redemption.
Stranger things had happened, he guessed. Stranger couples had paired up. You know, what about Edwina and Clement Blasko? Edwina could practically carry Clement in her valise, literally. Not only was he a tiny man, but she was strong as an ox. The soft spoken, giggly Edwina had won nearly every arm wrestling match in the county. And Clement, whose voice sounded like a bullfrog calling for its mate, always got the prize for the best apple pie at the church picnic each year—the women in Green River hated him for it for weeks. And, those two, as oddly matched as they seemed, got along like kittens and cream. Everyone knew that the two of them couldn’t keep their hands off of one another. He could almost hear the rattling tongues that must discuss that very thing at some of those “ladies’ charitable group” meetings. And it was true that it wasn’t any wonder that they had six children.
Well, and then there was that little matter of the meeting up of two brothers as different as could be. Ruffles, Johnny gave his head a tiny shake, he didn’t know if he would ever get tired of teasing Boston about that. But the two of them, odd couple that they were, they had surely made that relationship work, not without some bumps, but bumps made a thing more interesting.
With a mental shrug, he finally said, “Why don’t ya just ask her?” The more he thought about the idea, the more he warmed up to it, could see the sense of it. Davey could provide the widow with a nice home here with lots of modern conveniences. He could also offer her interesting conversation, and she would be nearer to her brother. On the other hand, it was for sure that the widow could provide Davey with the words and the noise that Johnny had suggested were missing from his life. Besides, they were of an age, and both alone, as far as Johnny knew. Widow Powell surely would liven up this neck of the woods, of that there was little doubt.
Davey was walking in a tight little circle and looking at the ceiling as he walked. His hands were stuffed firmly in his back pockets of his nice gray pants. “Well see, the thing is. . . you see, she’s such a fine looking woman, I’m pretty sure she’s got enough, um, attention without mine. I’m afraid I may have to get in line. I was hoping maybe you could tell me if there was someone, well, specific, you know.” Davey was blushing all the way up to the roots of his gray hair and looking anywhere but at Johnny. “Don’t have much to, uh, offer a woman,” he continued, “you know, out here in the, um, woods and all.” And even though he had stopped his circular movement, he was now shifting his weight from foot to foot, and the standing still was starting to wear on Davey, to make him even more restless than usual.
“Davey, I think you would make many a woman a right fine choice, including Gertrude Powell.”
After a moment, he began fussing with the quilt Johnny had thrown off of his legs earlier. “I just. . .it’s just. . .” And then he just lost all of his words. He dropped the corner of the quilt back over Johnny’s legs, turned, and walked abruptly out of the small room. Without looking back at Johnny, he added, “Would you talk to her for me, please, Johnny? I know she cares about you, has a lot of respect for you, no matter how many words the two of you have exchanged; you should have heard her go on about you and the children last night after you all were asleep. She’s really very fond of all three of you. We had such a wonderful talk.”
Really? “Talk to her? You mean ask her if you can court her?” Johnny felt like maybe he was still unconscious, was imagining this conversation in a fever dream. But he knew it was just wishful thinking on his part. “Davey, I don’t think so.
Davey gave a small, sad laugh, “You’re right, of course. Whatever was I even thinking? I’m a bit old for a schoolboy crush. She probably can’t keep all of the men straight who are asking her to spend time with them. I’m just an old fool, aren’t I Johnny?”
“What?” Johnny tried to sit up higher on the blankets behind him, to see into the small kitchen area of the cabin where Davey had taken refuge. “No, no, that’s not what I meant. Can’t say a man’s ever too old for female company, nor a woman too old for a man’s. I just think you should tell it to her yourself is all.”
Davey had wandered into the tiny room once again, back to his restless pacing. “Ahh. Like Spenser said, ‘Gather therefore the Rose, whilst yet is prime, For soon comes age, that will her pride deflower: Gather the Rose of love, whilst yet is time.’”
“Grab it while you can, yeah. Gotta go along with your friend Spenser on that one.”
Davey stopped suddenly at Johnny’s words. His back was to the bed, and he stood very still for nearly a full minute. Johnny was just about to speak again, to break the deep tension in the room, when Davey finally had worked through his thoughts, and he said, “Hiram was gonna hitch up the wagon and take Trudy on to her brother’s in Hesperides this afternoon. I think maybe I should be the one to do that. Will you be okay here with Hiram and the children for the afternoon, Johnny?”
“Yep, reckon I’ll be fine. Just don’t forget to leave me plenty of that tea.” Davey didn’t even acknowledge Johnny’s angelic look or his sarcastic words; he just started to wander away. Johnny could see that he was thinking very hard, his face easy to read. He watched as the nervous man unconsciously ran his hand across the bed’s headboard and then around the frame of the open doorway as he moved out of the room, but Johnny had a sudden thought and called him back. “Davey. What day is this?”
The question stopped the man’s distracted wandering and earned Johnny a very strange look. “Well, it’s Thursday, I guess. Why? Do you have people who will be worrying by now?”
“No. Not yet. I’ll be home before they get the chance.”
“And when will they start worrying, if I might ask?”
“Not before Sunday at the earliest, I’d say.”
“I had better send a telegram then. You definitely will not be home by Sunday.” As he spoke, the widow came back inside, and Johnny didn’t get a chance to contradict his caretaker. She smiled broadly at Davey as she came in the door. Johnny was sure for just a moment that he saw something in the air between the two of them, a shimmer of some sort. Then she moved on beyond them, and they could hear her fussing with something in the kitchen as the two men continued their conversation.
“How far is Redemption from here, Davey?” Johnny asked, without acknowledging the man’s comment about Johnny’s inability to travel soon.
“By wagon it’s about an hour to Hesperides. Redemption is another three or four hours from there.”
“I was thinkin’ maybe you could send a telegram to the Flannigan’s; I think Father Donal said their names are Boyd and Faith, but we can ask Cal to be sure. It would be a full day trip; I don’t know if they can leave their farm right now though, even for a day—that’s why I was makin’ the trip in the first place.” As he spoke Gertrude came into the room carrying a cup of coffee, which she handed to Davey. Johnny gave her a pitiful look. “Hey, why can’t I have some coffee? I’m pretty well tired of tea.”
It was all the opening she needed. “John Lancer, you should be ashamed of yourself. Davey’s done everything he could to get you better, and all you can do is be damn rude about it, bellyachin’ about that healin’ tea. You should have your hide tanned. You’re not too old or big for me to whup you, you know.” Johnny could see Davey standing behind her, grinning like she was some kind of goddess or something, so he put on a suitably contrite look and mumbled, “Sorry.”
“Damn right you’re sorry. You scared the life outta me boy. And those children, they were so scared. Now thank him proper too.”
“Yes ma’am. I do thank you, Davey, you and Hiram both.
At that very moment, a silvery blonde whirlwind whooshed its way into the cabin, taking over all of the room and any air that was left within it. “Johnny. Johnny. They got themselves the prettiest mule, Johnny, named Louisa May, she is. They gots two goats too and a cow and a bunch of pecky chickens. Opal Ann just loves the goats. Hiram’s been helpin’ her feed ‘em—gave her a ride up on Louisa May’s big old sway back too. And when she got tired a that, he put her up on his shoulders. Howdy, Johnny, she’s up there yet, and that’s a ways up, I’ll tell you.
It wasn’t long before Davey and the widow shooed Cal back outside with the promise of lunch, if he’d just give them some breathing room, and they were now working side by side in the small kitchen to prepare that very thing.
Johnny, from his spot on the bed, couldn’t see them very well, but he could hear them as they worked companionably. He felt no shame about eavesdropping on the couple, as he figured he’d had a hand in the making of it. There was the sound of rattling pans, and he could hear that someone was definitely building up the fire in the stove. If he listened really carefully, he could also hear the tiny tap, tap of something hitting softly against wood—someone chopping something on a wooden block would be his first guess. Really, it sounded to him like Davey and the widow had been doing this very chore together for years. He could hear their light conversation as they worked, and they had a relaxed way between the two of them that spoke of a comfort in one another’s presence.
“Trudy, I have to say I’ve never seen anyone more deft with a knife.” Johnny heard from beyond his doorway.
“Did you just say I was daft, man?” The widow’s voice nearly sounded to Johnny, and he was amazed to think it, as though she were flirting with Davey.
“Deft. Proficient.” Johnny figured she must have looked as puzzled as he felt by the man’s words because he tried one more time, “Skilled?”
“Oh, why, I thank you Davey Jessup. I’ve been usin’ a knife, choppin’ at onions enough years that’s for sure. I’ve probably chopped damn near a wagon load of onions in my time, I guess. Cried enough tears from it to put out the fires of hell, too.”
“Well those years have been very kind to you, Trudy.” Johnny held his breath at the very personal compliment Davey had managed to deliver. He could see the widow’s back stiffen just a little at the remark and then, just as suddenly, relax. Johnny grinned widely all alone in the bedroom. He could barely believe it, but the old gray-haired, book-reading devil was pretty smooth. Here in this tiny bedroom, in this comfortable cabin in the middle of the woods, Johnny felt like he was privileged to be allowed to witness the blossoming of tentative, new love.
He was extremely interested in the widow’s reaction to Davey’s words, and, even from the next room, with his limited view on the scene, he could see that she had turned partially to face Davey, showing Johnny her profile, but she was looking down hard at the onions on her chopping board. And though Johnny couldn’t see clearly, he could swear she was blushing, with what he hoped was pleasure. From next to her, Davey’s arm came into Johnny’s view as the man handed her a crisp, white handkerchief to dry her onion tears. Once she had wiped at her eyes, she used the hanky to hide her blushing face as though she were a schoolgirl.
“Go on with yourself, old man. Are you getting fresh with me then?”
“Would that be a bad thing, Trudy?”
At this point, even though he lay very still and strained his ears to hear, all was very, very quiet in the kitchen, and Johnny was about to burst with the not knowing of what was going on in there. Gertrude had moved over towards Davey to the point where Johnny couldn’t see her. Then, after a short time, the widow moved completely into his line of sight again. She was carrying a stack of plates to set the table for their lunch.
“Mizz Powell,” Johnny called to her.
She looked up, and he could see from the look on her face that she was miles away from him. Then, as he studied her, he could see the exact moment when she was finally really seeing him, and she sat the plates down on the table and started towards him. “Don’t you think it’s about time you started callin’ me Trudy, boy?” she asked as she moved towards him and laid her hand briefly on his forehead, using her bluster in an attempt to hide her small inspection of his health.
Johnny smiled at her. “Yes’m,” he said softly, “I expect it is.”
“Well, ya got me the hell in here, John. What do ya want?”
“Miss Pow . .Trudy,” Johnny said deliberately, “now that you and Davey are getting’ on so well,” and at this she gave him a quick, sharp look, but he gave her back a Johnny grin and pressed on, “I was wonderin’ if you might get him to let me up outta this bed?”
And to Johnny’s delight, after much cajoling, and Trudy’s influence, Davey relented and said that Johnny could spend some time sitting on the cabin’s wide wooden porch, “just until lunch is ready and then it’s straight back to bed with you, and I don’t want any arguments.”
Johnny felt so much better that he was ready to declare the man a miracle worker until he tried to stand on his own when Davey left him to call for Hiram’s help. Trudy had gone back to the kitchen to keep an eye on the potatoes Davey had been frying, so with no one to stop him, Johnny figured he would just get this show on the road. He threw back the quilt as he had before and turned to dangle his legs over the side of the bed. He was moving slowly, but deliberately, testing out his aches and pains, his ability to keep his balance.
He was dressed only in his pants and his socks. He was pretty sure his shirt had landed in Davey’s rag bag—considering how it had collected bullet holes and plenty of bloodstains. He looked around for his boots, but they were nowhere to be seen. Well, there was nothing for it. He would just have to walk around half-dressed. A little thing like not having a shirt or boots was not going to keep him from getting out of this bed.
Johnny pushed off with his right hand and managed to stand up next to the bed. As he stood up fully, he grabbed the headboard which Davey had worried earlier when he had considered courting the widow, had come to a decision about it, with the help of some guy he knew named Spenser. Johnny stood there holding on with his eyes tightly shut for a slow count to 20 before the room stopped swaying and dipping around him.
Just as he was getting ready to release the headboard and step forward, Davey hurried into the room with Hiram hard on his heels, “Hang it all anyway, Johnny. You would test the patience of a saint. Hold on now. Let Hiram and me help you.”
“I’m tired of bein’ helped, Davey. Please let me do this.” It had been days since Johnny had done more for himself than eat and drink—and bleed, he thought. The humiliation of having his most intimate needs taken care of by near-strangers was softened only by the fact that those near-strangers were men, very nice men. But the time had come. He was more than ready to take back at least some of his dignity.
So, Hiram and Davey stood near him. Hiram looked puzzled about it, but rather than reach out for Johnny, he stood very still and looked at Davey to make sure he was doing the right thing. Davey, on the other hand, fluttered around Johnny like a very large bird, hovering near him, ready to grab on if necessary, but he didn’t touch him either.
With his arm held close to his side, slowly, ever so slowly, Johnny breathed steadily, carefully and slid his sock-covered feet across the floor. Davey moved ahead of the injured man when he had apparently decided that Hiram would catch Johnny if he started to fall and pushed pieces of furniture and rugs out of his path. To Johnny, it seemed to take forever, but at last Davey was opening the door, and, with a sigh, he was passing out into the brightness of the day.
The sun had settled far enough past noon to have crept across the porch a little, and as he moved into a rectangular patch of light, Johnny could feel it instantly warming and healing, tugging the corners of his mouth into a heartfelt smile.
Across the clearing, Poke saw Hiram and came bounding towards the three men on the porch, but his friend was expecting him and had him by the collar before the dog even knew he was had. As Davey settled Johnny in a willow rocker that he had pulled into the soft shaft of sunlight, Hiram dragged Poke across the clearing and tied him to a tree, under which stood a dog house with a peaked roof and the words “Poke’s Palace” painted above the square-cut door. The dog seemed slightly perplexed to be tied up in the middle of the day, and he yapped loudly for while, but when he saw that no one was paying any mind to him, he gave it up and settled down flat next to his house.
Johnny felt like he had been released from a long prison sentence. He could see Cal and Opal Ann as they chased the squawking chickens across the yard, and when she saw him, Opal Ann smiled and waved to him. “Those chickens have probably been scared out of a week’s worth of laying,” Davey complained from somewhere over Johnny’s left shoulder, but when Johnny craned his neck to look up at him, the man was smiling fondly.
“How soon is lunch, Davey?” Johnny asked very quietly as he watched Hiram walk towards the children, calling to them and laughing.
Davey turned to head back inside. “I’ll see what I can do about holding it off as long as I can, Johnny.”
Johnny smiled softly at Davey’s consideration, and took the time to consider that maybe his delay had nothing to do with Johnny’s contentment and everything to do with the chance to spend more “alone time” with Trudy Powell. But really it didn’t matter why he was getting this small chance at Paradise; it only mattered that he was getting it. After catching his breath, he took the opportunity to finally study his surroundings. The cozy, little cabin was off to one side of a fairly large clearing. The two men had chosen their home site really well. There was a gurgling brook running within 15 feet of the cabin, and the trees were numerous and varied. The woods were old enough and big enough to have created a canopy of sorts around the edges of the clearing, and fiddle-head ferns grew beneath all of the oaks and evergreens.
They had planted a small garden in a patch of the cleared area, and Johnny could see evidence of many different vegetables growing in raised beds—onions, tomatoes, beans, carrots and potatoes were easy to recognize, but there were also numerous herbs and such which Johnny couldn’t name. He suspected, though, that some of them were responsible for the God-awful tea. There were also different types of flowers growing in various spots across the yard, including two fully loaded rose bushes right by the porch steps, which added their fragrance to the air around him. He could also make out an apple tree and a well-tended grape arbor. If he leaned forward and looked to his right, he could see the famous mule, Louisa May, and he could just see the thin swishing tail and hindquarters of the milk-cow Cal had enthusiastically described to him when he related his adventures with milking that morning.
Johnny’s short inspection had nearly worn him out, so he leaned his head against the back of the chair, closed his eyes, and simply enjoyed the heat of the sun on his bare chest, the slight breeze which ruffled his hair, and the sound of the children chasing and being chased by the chickens. He wanted very much to sleep here in the sun, but he was determined that he would not give Davey the satisfaction. Heck, the skittish man might decide that he couldn’t make the trip to Hesperides if he thought Johnny needed help. He might just get it in his nervous head that he should send Hiram after all, and really they couldn’t have that.
But, in spite of his best intentions, he did drop off—a calm, healing sleep, and then, and it was way too soon when Hiram stood at his elbow to help him back inside, and this time Johnny did lean on the man as he made his way across the porch, across the cabin and back to his bed.
After lunch, Trudy came to take her leave of Johnny. He had been dozing again, but woke as she pulled up a chair to sit beside him. “It’s time for me ‘n Davey to leave, John. He needs time to get there and back afore dark. Are you sure you’ll be all right? I damn well could stay if you need for me to.”
“You can see for yourself that Davey’s about got me fully mended.” Johnny was really kind of surprised by how much he would miss the tough old guinea hen.
“Well, I don’t think I’d go quite that far, but he has done one hell of a job, hasn’t he?” She hesitated for a moment, and then, unable to meet his eyes, she continued, “it’s been a real experience getting to know ya, John.”
“It certainly has been at that.”
“You think you might come see me sometime when we get back home?”
“Yes’m. You can count on it.”
She had stood and squeezed his shoulder, and then she was gone, and he could hear her calling to the children as she walked out of the front door.
Not long after that he heard the wagon rattling its way away from the cabin, and almost immediately Cal, Hiram and Opal Ann all descended on him as he lay listening to its departure. “Johnny, Hiram says I can go with him to check his fish traps if it’s okay with you. He says he doesn’t want to leave you, but the traps surely do need to be checked, don’t you think so too, Johnny?”
“Sure Cal, I’ll be fine, just fine. What do you think, Opal Ann? Want to take a nap with me?”
“Yeth, a nap.” Opal Ann nodded firmly, and then she headed for the kitchen table and retrieved Nighty Bear from his resting place on one of the ladder back chairs.
“How long will you be gone, Hiram?”
“I don’t rightly know, Mister Johnny. It takes a while, I guess. Davey always let’s me go by myself, though. It’s okay.”
“You’ll keep a careful eye on Cal?”
“Yes sir, I surely will.”
“Please Johnny. Hiram’s real good in the woods. Can I go, please?”
“You’ll do whatever he tells you to do out there, right?”
“You bet I will. Thanks Johnny. Thanks,” the last was thrown over his shoulder as the excited boy headed out of the door, pulling at Hiram’s arm to hurry him along. Johnny could hear him chattering well after the door had closed behind them.
Then, after a few minutes, he could hear Poke yapping his pleasure as Cal and Hiram untied him, and they all started off into the woods. Opal Ann was climbing up and snuggling in next to him, sticking her thumb in her mouth and rubbing her face against him, her eyes heavy—the whole thing feeling so very familiar to him—and his eyes were sliding closed too. His thoughts wandered as sleep started to curl around him. He wondered how Davey and Trudy were doing with their courting. He wondered about Hiram and Cal, if they would have fish for supper. He wondered how things were at Lancer. He wondered if the Flannigan’s would come for the children soon. He wondered how his life could possibly go back to what it was before he knew them, what he would use to fill the empty spaces in his heart.
And just as he had nearly wondered himself to sleep, a call from outside had him fully awake in one terrifying instant.
“Madrid. I know you’re in there. You and me, we got some unfinished business.”
Johnny lay silent, unmoving—vainly hoping that he was imagining this particular nightmare. It couldn’t be anyone but Coltrane. The man wanted to dance. Then, he heard the voice again, “You hear me Madrid? I knew you weren’t really dead. Damn that lyin’ Sloane anyway. But he’s not here to save your sorry ass this time.”
Johnny stole a quick look down at Opal Ann. She was looking back up at him; her sunny blue eyes were wide open and questioning. The voice from outside had obviously startled her into full awareness too. He made a soft shushing sound while holding his finger to his lips. Even though he knew she wasn’t the chattiest thing, even under normal circumstances, he couldn’t take the chance that she would suddenly find her tongue.
His heart was pumping hard. He was trying desperately to clear his mind and think this problem out in the very limited time he was sure he would be allowed. His first priority was to get Opal Ann out of harm’s way, of course. Then, he needed a weapon. Or, maybe it should be a weapon and then Opal Ann—the one making it easier to take care of the other. He looked through the doorway and searched the spot across the room above the mantle, hoping that Davey and Hiram kept a rifle there, as many people did, but, though there were hooks for hanging a gun, they were, very unfortunately, quite empty, leaving just an expanse of brick.
Slowly, Johnny untangled Opal Ann from where she lay plastered to his side. She moved away from him fractionally, and he used his elbow to push himself up. After a moment to wrestle the swaying bed into submission, he scooted to the edge, and carefully slid to the floor between the bed and the wall. Tiny lights played behind his eyelids, and he sat down heavier on the floor than he intended when he lost his balance for a moment.
With a barely repressed groan, he reached up to pull Opal Ann down too and sat her beside him towards the corner. He could feel the pulling at his stitches, but he was far too busy to worry about it much. He figured if Coltrane started shooting at random, it wouldn’t matter how much his side bothered him anyway, and he knew they would be safer down low.
It was apparent to him that he needed to get the two of them out of the cabin. While the heavy log walls did offer some protection, it was a false security. They were sitting ducks. Not only would it be easier to “disappear” in the surrounding woods, there were just so many things the escaped prisoner could do if they stayed caged here, and none of them were to Johnny’s liking. Besides the very real possibility that the man may soon be peppering the building with lead, Johnny figured that if he didn’t walk out to face Coltrane soon, he might even eventually decide he needed to burn them out.
With a jerk, he realized that his chin had been resting fully on his chest. How long had they been sitting here beside the bed? Johnny had a really bad feeling that he had actually dozed off for a while. He looked to Opal Ann, but she hadn’t moved from the last time he had looked at her, so he figured he couldn’t have been unaware for very long. He had to figure something out fast. His head was swimming a little, making it hard to think. He had to think. He just needed to close his eyes for a minute, and then he would figure this out. But this time, just as he felt his eyes sliding closed, he felt a tug at his arm, and he looked down at the trusting face of Opal Ann. For her, he would maintain. He had to.
Something Coltrane had said was important. There was something—
“Madrid. I’m not a patient man. I saw them all leave you—that old foul-mouthed biddy and the gray haired man drivin’ away in the wagon, and then that boy and the big dummy walkin’ off into the woods. I know it’s just you and that baby girl in there. You want somethin’ to happen to her? Huh, Madrid?”
Johnny slowly, carefully started to move away from their place between the bed and the wall on his hands and knees, intent on finding a weapon. Just as he was about to move around the end of the bed, he felt a tug at his pants leg. Opal Ann was following him. He gestured for her to stay put. But she emphatically, stubbornly shook her head “no” at him, and followed anyway. It was the first time Johnny had ever seen her be anything but compliant, at least when the situation did not involve her ‘brudder.’ There was nothing for it. She wasn’t going to let him leave her behind.
With a small sigh, Johnny turned and sat next to her again. “No way, huh?” At the shake of her head, he rose to his knees and scooped her up onto his right hip. “Hug my neck, honey. Hold on tight,” he whispered right into her ear, and she nodded her understanding and lay her head on his shoulder. It was a shame that he couldn’t hold her with his left arm and keep the right one free. It was almost as regretful as not having his gun, but Johnny didn’t really have time to worry about things he couldn’t change.
Moving in a slow, shuffling crouch, trying very hard to ignore the pain blossoming brilliantly across his midsection, Johnny worked his way through the bedroom toward the main part of the cabin. He felt as though he was moving through water, pushing against a resistant force. His legs were just so damn heavy. Then, as came to the main room, time slowed down for him, just as it did each and every time he had faced down an armed man on some dusty street, in some dusty town, and he was able to absorb the details around him with amazing clarity between one heartbeat and the next.
As he moved into view of the kitchen, he noted that someone had tidied up after their lunch, had even neatly folded the red-checked napkins they had used in their laps, which had covered the food on his tray, Davey of course, and that the entire little cabin, actually, was spotless, nothing out of place, except that missing long gun, he guessed. He could see that it must be close to 3 or 4 in the afternoon from the angle of the sun shining in patches on the floor from the front windows of the cabin, which meant that he and Opal Ann had been lying together for maybe an hour or so. He had no idea how long Cal and Hiram would be gone, but he passionately hoped they wouldn’t walk into the middle of this mess. Although, even though he’d never seen him with a gun, he wondered if Hiram might have the one with him that should be on the empty hooks over the fireplace. His fingers itched to hold it.
Just as Johnny, with Opal Ann in his arms, crossed the threshold into the main room, a shot tore through one of the windows, exploding the glass in a spectacular display. Both Johnny and Opal Ann jumped at the sound. As he heard the bullet imbed itself in one of the books on the far side of the room, dust and paper flying, Johnny instinctively turned so that the child was on the side towards the back of the cabin, blocked from Coltrane’s gun and flying glass by his body. He dropped low below the level of the windows and crawled, Opal Ann clinging to him like a little possum. He could see that she had her eyes screwed tightly shut and her sweet little mouth was opened in a perfectly round circle. But, in spite of her obvious fear, she kept her peace.
Just moving this small distance from the bed had him sweating like crazy, and the child’s hands were slipping some as she entwined her fingers on the side of his neck and held on for all she was worth, Nighty Bear squished between them. He could feel her trembling some, or it may have been him; he wasn’t completely sure.
“Madrid. I’m beginnin’ to think you don’t have yourself a gun. Or maybe you can’t use your gun hand. Is that it? You hurtin’? I saw ya sittin’ there and rockin’ like an old man, all bandaged up. You got a gun Madrid? Can you use it? Huh?”
Johnny figured that silence was his smartest option at this point. He was slowly and painfully working his way across the kitchen. He could see a wooden block with several knife handles sticking up from it sitting on a small shelf next to the stove. If he could figure out a way to get Coltrane in close, he might be able to fight him, use a knife on him. If he could figure a way—if he could stand up without help—if he could stay conscious.
He reached an arm up and blindly withdrew a knife from the block. As he brought it down in front of him, he could see that he had managed to choose a puny little paring knife. He wouldn’t be doing much damage with it, but he held onto it anyway. On his second try, as he managed to pull a particularly nasty looking knife out, he worried Coltrane’s words around and around in his mind. Something the man had said was nagging at him. Something about his partner—the widow had said something about Sloane, and then Coltrane had said something about him too. Trudy had said that the other one, the one called Sloane, had talked this man out of hurting them. Sloane’s not here to save you. That was it. That’s what he had said. Unless the man had picked up some other friends along the way, Coltrane was alone, and he was hidden in the trees on the far side of the clearing.
Johnny knew from his earlier inspection that the cabin butted up against the woods on this side, and, if he had any luck whatsoever—Dear God let him have enough luck to get Opal Ann out of this mess—the man was alone out there, with no one to watch the back door.
Johnny was sitting on the floor of the kitchen, near the back wall, his bare back up against the rough logs there and Opal Ann still stuck to his side. He got a firm hold on her and scooted on his butt to the door. “Opal Ann, we’re gettin’ out of here,” he whispered. “I’m gonna put you down, and when I tell you, I want you to run straight back into the woods.” He slid the door open just a bit with his foot and looked around at the layout of the back of the cabin. It pained him to think about it, that he wouldn’t be able to shelter her with his body, but he knew that she would have a better chance running across the small expanse herself than if he was trying to carry her. He pulled the little girl up next to him again, her blonde head next to his dark one. “See out there? Down the steps and just run like crazy for the woods. And as quiet as a little mouse. Do you understand, sweetie?”
With a nod she answered him, “Yeth, Yonnie. Unnerstan.”
He continued in a hush. “Once you get into the underbrush, drop down on the ground real flat and wait for me to get there, okay?” Again she nodded, one arm still wrapped around Nighty Bear and her thumb back in her mouth now that she wasn’t holding onto Johnny’s neck. He reached out and pulled her to him for a second, and then he planted a big wet kiss on her cheek. “When I say ‘go’ okay?”
She squeezed through the narrow opening of the doorway and squatted down, poised just outside of the door on the tiny back porch. “Go,” Johnny whispered. She stood abruptly and tiptoed down the stairs. Once she was on solid ground, she took off running towards the foliage. She was more than half way there. Another shot split the air, and Johnny’s heart nearly stopped when he saw her go down hard onto the packed dirt of a path which had been worn there going towards the outhouse. He had to bite his tongue not to call out to her, not to scream his agony. How could Coltrane have seen her? Only moments before, he had been shouting from the other side of the clearing. He couldn’t have gotten around to this side so fast. Johnny was staring out at Opal Ann so hard, willing her to move, to be all right, that he felt like he might split in two from it.
And then she did move, and Johnny whooshed out a breath he didn’t even realize he had been holding. His precious little girl stood up, brushed at her knee for a second, picked up Nighty Bear from where he had spilled, and she ran the last few feet to the sheltering woods and disappeared. With the world coming back into focus around him, Johnny realized that he had to wipe tears from his eyes before he could do anything else.
My turn, he thought.
It shouldn’t be this hard. Johnny needed to get his butt up and moving, and it shouldn’t be this hard. His head bowed forward, and his eyes fluttered and nearly closed. He had been sitting here on this kitchen floor for a while now. Here on Davey’s floor. For a while. Just how long “a while” was, he wasn’t exactly sure anymore. Not too long, though. Not too long. Opal Ann was out there. Out there in the woods. She had run across the open space and melted into the trees.
Just as he finally convinced himself that he needed to push up from this freshly swept floor and follow her, to open his eyes, to get himself started up the wall and to his feet, Johnny’s body quietly rebelled, and his eyes slowly slid closed again. His energy was just flat-out gone. What he really needed to do was to have a nice warm cup of Davey’s God-awful, healing tea, or, even better, to wake up in his own bed at Lancer with Teresa hovering over him. What he needed to do was rest. Just for a minute. Dear Lord, just for a minute. It shouldn’t be this hard.
Opal Ann was out there alone. Alone. Probably scared. He wrapped his arm tightly around himself, holding his wound. It felt wet and hot against his hand, as it had when he had come to awareness in the woods, staring up at Opal Ann, staring up at the stars tangled in the branches. He tried to reason out how long ago that had been, but it was just too hard. There was nothing for it though. He had to get to the tree line, had to get to Opal Ann. It was the knowing that she was out there waiting which was ultimately drawing him onward.
He opened his eyes again. Peering out of the partially opened door, he looked across the yard’s void and focused on the thicket into which his brave little girl had disappeared. It was as still as death out there. Not a single leaf stirred. She was following his instructions to the letter, lying flat and staying quiet, such a good girl, such a smart girl.
Then, Johnny shifted his attention and looked down at his hand. In that moment, it almost seemed like it didn’t really belong to him. With fingers that felt too thick, he was awkwardly grasping both of the wooden-handled knives he had acquired earlier, and he didn’t quite remember from where, or why he had them.
He nearly abandoned both of them. What use could they be against Coltrane’s gun? With a small shake of his head, he dropped the tiny paring knife to the floor next to his leg, and moving the nastier, deadlier butcher knife to his right hand, he finally made a move and forced himself up, slowly, his elbows scraping along the rough logs behind him, his sock-clad feet providing some leverage against the floor. By using the wall for support, he managed to get himself relatively straight. He concentrated on pulling himself taller, inch by inch. He narrowed his world and forced himself to think in inches, in moments.
Once upright, Johnny squared his shoulders with a deliberate effort and pushed off of the wall. He lurched drunkenly forward. In two steps, he grabbed the doorframe with the hand he had been using to hold his side. With the other, he pushed the door fully open. For a moment, after he moved his hand from where he had braced himself, a bloody print—sloppy and lurid on the wooden frame—startled him, drew his full attention, and he stared at it in fascination.
But then, before he had time to think about the possible disaster which could be the result of what he was about to do, and calling in every reserve he had, Johnny walked through the opening. He stumbled down the steps. His feet were so heavy, too heavy, as he started across the wide-open expanse between the cabin and the woods.
It was miles to the underbrush. The empty space from the porch to the surrounding woods was immense. That space had seemed so much less open when he had been contemplating it from the kitchen floor.
And very suddenly, over to his right, “I see you Madrid; John—ny, I see—you; I see—you.” Coltrane was calling to him in a much too cheerful, sing-song voice, like a bully in the schoolyard. Mocking him. Too close, too close. And, in spite of his good intentions, Johnny was fading. He wasn’t even two paces past the steps, damn it, and his energy was fading. As his foot hit the patch of grass at the base of the porch, his knee buckled, and he went down hard, landed on his right side. Flames licked at him, burned through him. He expected that Coltrane would put a bullet in him any second now, was braced for it, wondered why he hadn’t done it already.
His breath had caught sharply, from pain and from fear, when he fell, and Johnny could feel a familiar blackness threatening to pull him under. But Opal Ann was out there. Opal Ann was out there. Through sheer will, he staggered to his knees. “Madrid. Where ya goin’ Madrid? I see—you; I see—you. Are you on your knees to beg me, Madrid? Oh John—ny.” The man was playing with him. Johnny forced himself to straighten up some, to get his feet under himself more firmly. He shuffled one foot slowly in front of the other, stumbling—moving on pure stubborn. He was trying to crouch low, make himself a smaller target, but at this point, any way he could get across the yard was fine with him. Crawling would be his next option. “I see—you. Look over here Madrid. I see you; John—ny. I see you.”
Johnny tried to force the voice away. Shut up. Shut. Up. Please, just shut up.
“I see—you; I see—you.” Then, Johnny’s own internal voice kicked in, drowning out the maddening, childish sound of Coltrane. Just keep moving, Johnny boy. Just keep moving.
And into the emptiness left behind when Coltrane did, indeed, shut his big, mocking mouth, a shot split the air. Something fast, something deadly, whipped past Johnny’s thigh, plucked at his pants, and moved on to kick up dirt next to him, close to his nearly naked foot, too close, too close.
He was almost there. So close. With one last desperate effort, Johnny lunged headlong, a flailing, ungraceful belly flop of a leap, into the dense thicket in front of him. As he leapt, he held onto the butcher knife as though it was his only link to reality, gripping it so tightly that his hand ached with it. Thin branches grabbed at his face and arms as he fell forward into the brush. He came to a jarring stop, face down with fiddlehead ferns and all manner of greenery waving around him, hiding him, nearly hiding him. His breath came in heaving gasps, and he worked hard to control it, to slow it, to listen.
Abruptly, within seconds, hot lead whipped through the foliage above and around him, just above his head, tattering the leaves and weeds, thumping into dirt and trees, creating a racket in the surrounding peace of the woods, seeking flesh. By inches, Johnny pulled himself, awkwardly, with his elbows, further into the sheltering underbrush.
And then, just as abruptly, there was silence. No sing-song voice. No whistling bits of lead. The leaves were still. The birds were quiet. It seemed as though the day had ground to a screeching halt. For Johnny, there was only the late afternoon sunlight filtering through the spaces between the leaves above him and the smell of the decaying plants and rotting wood on the forest floor next to his head. And with his face lying in the scattered debris around him, he breathed long, slow breaths, once, twice, getting himself back under control, fighting the fear.
Opal Ann is out here. Trying very hard to be quiet, succeeding some, Johnny heaved himself to his back. He was torn with indecision. He had to get to his girl. But, he didn’t want to lead this madman to her either. As he lay there willing himself to move, to get up, to make a decision, he could see a tree branch which stretched above him like a bridge. A small gray squirrel had ventured onto it with the return of the quiet to go about his business, and he was looking down at the man sprawled so unceremoniously beneath his tree. The squirrel was twitching his bushy tail and chattering noisily at Johnny, angry, no doubt, at having his day disturbed. He figured the little guy’s memory of the deadly gunshots was short-lived. Yep, the world was again moving on. The world always moved on. The rest of the wooded area around him was starting to stir again too, like the scolding squirrel. Birds were hopping across the branches, calling their songs; he could see a dragonfly on a nearby fern. Opal Ann is out here. Where is she?
There was a low rustling all around him, the woods coming back to life, tiny creatures living their lives—then, specifically, a rustling of leaves right next to him. Tensing, Johnny struggled to rise, readying himself to try to run, or, failing that, to turn and fight if he had no other choice—readying himself to meet Coltrane face to face.
And then, from the thicket next to him, Poke emerged. His tail was wagging so hard it moved his rear end back and forth right along with it. His tongue was hanging, impossibly long, lolling, slobber splattering the ground in front of him. Johnny sighed his relief. “What’re you doin’ here Old Son?” he whispered. He was very much afraid that Poke’s arrival could only mean that Hiram and Cal were close behind. They wouldn’t know what was going on. If they were anywhere near at all, they had to have heard the volley of gunshots. They would be walking into the middle of this unaware. He hoped that they would surely act with caution rather than with curiosity. Poke moved in closer to where Johnny lay and nuzzled him, sniffed at his wound. Johnny levered himself up onto his elbow and reached up to scratch at the place between the dog’s ears where he had seen Hiram scratching when Johnny had sat on the porch before lunch.
“John—ny. Gotcha now, Madrid. I’m done messin’ around with you. I know you ain’t armed. You’re hurt, and I know you don’t want nothin’ to happen to that little girl, so come on, come outta there.”
Johnny closed his eyes for just a second. He just needed one tiny space of time to think. But he was real sure that Coltrane wasn’t going to give him that time. Before Johnny could even form a complete thought, the man barreled into the brush right in front of him, too close, with his pistol drawn, ready to fire.
Poke jerked his head up to look at the intruder. Then he snarled with a sudden and amazing ferocity. In an instant he was on the escaped prisoner in a fury, leaping at him, grabbing his arm in snapping jaws. Coltrane’s gun was knocked aside, just as a single shot was thrown wide by the dog’s attack. And then, the pistol was flying from his grasp completely, sailing over the weeds near Johnny. But so far away. So far.
Johnny could hear Coltrane howl and thrash as he tried to shake his arm loose from Poke’s mouth, and he took his opportunity and scrambled through the brush, pulled himself along, trying to at least get to his hands and knees. He was desperate to reach the gun first. In the background, beyond this battle, he would swear that he could hear other voices. A child’s voice. Opal Ann is out here.
He glanced back to see man and dog, to see if they were still locked together, and when he did, he saw Coltrane as he cocked his left arm back and used his fist, hard, on the side of Poke’s head. The dog went down instantly from the blow. Johnny turned again, frantic, sifting through the undergrowth for the gun. He had to find the gun. Opal Ann is out here. He felt someone next to him, right next to him, and he looked up into the unforgiving eyes of Frank “The Gun” Coltrane, and remembered, at that moment, as he looked down the barrel of a colt, that the man wore two guns.
Opal Ann is out here. With every ounce of strength left in him, Johnny heaved himself from the ground and surged forward, coming in close, falling into Coltrane hard, pushing his right arm forward with the last of his strength, impaling “The Gun” on Davey’s wickedly sharp butcher knife.
And the sound of the pistol was so very loud in the woods.
Johnny could feel the violent disturbance of the air as a bullet streaked past his head. So close. It passed so very close. He would swear it ruffled his hair, and the sound of it echoed chaotically in his ear, momentarily deafening him. So close.
But, he ignored the close call and continued to plow his way into Coltrane, coming up and forward, driving with his legs, pushing himself on with a strength that surprised him, a strength he didn’t really believe he still possessed. He locked his knees as best he could and forced his shoulder into the man’s chest, grabbing for and holding his gun hand as he plunged the knife ever more deeply.
Johnny had fought with a knife before, but it had been a number of years ago. At one time, he had been nearly as good at wielding a knife as he had eventually become at brandishing a gun. As a nino, he had learned to use a knife before he had ever even dreamed of getting his hands on a gun, and having a knife, showing it, using it sometimes, had saved his hide a few times, that was for sure. A talented man with a blade, sharp and deadly, could make it seem like art, like a complicated and deadly dance. But there was no art to this particular thrust, no time for technique, no space for finesse. It was pure desperation which guided Johnny’s hand this time.
The feeling of the butcher knife sliding into soft, yielding flesh was unmistakable—familiar, vividly familiar, a hollow and vacant memory—and when impossibly hot blood welled up and covered his hand, Johnny knew that his aim had been true.
As the two men stood there, frozen, almost tranquil, for the briefest of moments, he could smell the sharp scent of ignited gunpowder in the air near him, and, over the dying echoes of the single, popping gunshot which was still ringing in his ears, Johnny could just barely hear a pained grunt from Coltrane, or imagined that he could.
He managed to pull his head up to look into Coltrane’s face just as the man’s eyes rolled up, the whites filling in his sockets. His mocking mouth gaped open, and he gasped faintly—a strangled sound. This man would not be playing his deadly games with anybody else ever again. His big, fat mouth was permanently silenced, not even capable of flinging a final taunt at his executioner. He had become simple dead weight, leaning into Johnny now rather than the other way around, and the two of them were connected, linked to one another by steel and wood. And Johnny couldn’t even shift to get out of the way as they collapsed as one, solidly, onto the forest floor.
Johnny groaned as he and Coltrane, in their macabre embrace, made hard contact with the littered ground, branches and acorns crunching and crackling under him as he bore the brunt of the weight. The handle of the knife was still in his hand, the knife still between them, and the blade ground even deeper into Coltrane as the man’s body came fully and heavily down on it and on Johnny. As they came to their final stop, Johnny found himself being pressed more fully into the earth, and the pressure of the knife’s handle pushing into his side forced another pained groan from him as his wound erupted in icy flames.
And then, after a long moment of complete silence, he found his voice. “What do you ‘see’ now, Coltrane,” Johnny managed to grind out as he held on tenaciously to his awareness of the day around him and struggled to get out from under the dead man, the body. He pushed and prodded and pulled and scooted, tears of pain and frustration blinding him. Surely he wasn’t destined to die now, not now when the threat of Coltrane was finally gone, to die pinned under him like this, with Opal Ann out here somewhere, maybe seeing it all, seeing this.
The thought of her gave him the courage and strength for one final effort. He needed to get to Opal Ann, to see her sweet face, to hold her, and then he was somehow finally lying beside Coltrane rather than under him. He had pulled the knife along with him, and the sound of it sliding along the ground as he moved reminded Johnny once again of that damned rattlesnake in Yuma, sibilant and deadly. And in spite of being dragged through the ferns, the blade was still heavy with blood, just like the ground around the two men, soaked with it, and the smell of it was thick in the air, easily overpowering the smell of damp rot and the fresh, green smell of the trees and vines and crushed ferns.
But Johnny knew that he was done—this was all he could manage. Getting out from under the burden of Coltrane had depleted him. He knew that, at this point, he wasn’t going any further, and really, he was grateful just to be lying free of the weight of the man, free of the weight of the day. He didn’t even have the strength to pull himself away from the rapidly spreading pool of blood gathering under and around them, working its way to Johnny, under Johnny. This was it, period. He had simply used everything that he had in him to stumble across the yard, to defend himself and his precious girl. Sweat plastered strands of bloody hair to his forehead, and his breath heaved still with the exertion of it all.
Dios, what a mess. Johnny had blood smeared across his chest and down his arms. More of it was strung in his hair and coated the filthy bandage wrapped around him—and not all of it belonged to Coltrane. Damn, bleeding again. His strength was leaving him now completely, right along with the blood from his freshly flowing wound.
So he lay there, peering up and around, trying to orient himself, trying to gather some strength from some untapped reserve, to get up, to do something, and he could barely make out the shape of Poke lying about five feet away, lying on his side in the weeds where Coltrane had dropped him with his fist. And try as he might, Johnny couldn’t tell if the dog was breathing or not. He wanted to believe that he was, that the dog was just out cold, but he couldn’t be sure that what he took to be a rising and falling of Poke’s side wasn’t wishful thinking on his part.
Concentrate Johnny. It shouldn’t be this hard. The day was starting to spin away from him. Something. Something important that he was missing. Yes, something is missing. He felt empty. From deep within himself, he pulled the thought of what it was, what was missing, and panic struck him then.
He gasped for breath as he realized that he hadn’t found her, hadn’t seen her for so long now. How much time had passed? Where is Opal Ann? She had been so quiet for so long. He threw one arm up, reaching, reaching for something, trying to find the strength to get up, to find her. What had she thought as Coltrane peppered the woods with shot? Had one of those bullets meant for Johnny found its way to her? Madre de Dios, she has to be all right. He pushed against the ground and tried to work himself up—looking for the strength, praying for the strength to find Opal Ann, to take care of her—but the ground spun around him relentlessly, spun away from him. He found himself flat again, staring up at the trees, their branches criss-crossing above him.
And now his world was tearing and tattering around the edges. He was just so damn cold. He thought that he could hear voices, familiar voices, but he wasn’t really sure. Murdoch? But he was far too busy being cold to worry about the voices. And, he was drifting, trying to stay connected to the earth, but drifting still. It was just so hard to stay connected. From a void, a voice was calling his name, a scared, shaky voice. Another deeper voice calling too, calling out ‘Mr. Johnny.’ He should get up from here. He should get up and---and---something. But, his arms and legs were too heavy. And someone---he needed to help someone, or maybe he needed to hurt someone. It’s so cold. Opal Ann is out here.
Johnny was sleeping; he thought he was sleeping, or thought that he had been sleeping. But he could feel something, something soft and wet. He concentrated hard for a moment, struggling to make sense of his surroundings, and realized that he was lying down, lying down on something soft, and something, someone, was licking his hand, his hand, which lay curled up next to his face. Johnny twitched that hand away from the wet, tickling sensation instinctively. There it was again. Licking. His hand. His mind swam around the problem for a moment. And here I am, again, he thought, waking up confused, again—a habit he would be pleased to break. He felt an all too familiar confusion, waking up, again, without remembering going to sleep, waking up because someone, something was licking his hand.
He began to feel his way slowly back into the world. As always, he kept his eyes closed and allowed his surroundings to wash over him, an attempt to figure out where and when he was before anyone knew that he was back among the conscious. He was too warm, as though he might be lying in a persistent patch of sunshine, and his side hurt like hell, but that seemed to be “right” somehow.
Then, with sudden clarity, his very ugly afternoon among the ferns and streaking bullets began coming back to him—his girl disappearing into the brush, his stumbling, awkward flight across the yard, his encounter with Coltrane, the knife, the gunshots, Poke lying in the weeds, a voice calling—calling for Mr. Johnny, calling for Opal Ann, and then the ensuing darkness.
He felt the licking again. It must be Poke. Poke isn’t dead. But, Coltrane, Coltrane was dead, a gaping hole in his gut from Davey’s butcher knife, from Johnny’s hand wrapped around that knife. Coltrane had used his fist on the dog, laid him out cold. Johnny finally cracked his eyes open—it was so very hard; they felt gritty and swollen. He was lying in “his” bed again, the one in Hiram’s and Davey’s cabin. He was mostly on his stomach, and his face was turned toward the interior of the room. A feather pillow, just the blue ticking, no pillowcase, was in front of his chest, and the hand which wasn’t being licked was wrapped around that pillow.
There, standing right in front of him, with his head resting on the embroidered sheets, Poke was staring at him with sad, brown eyes. As Johnny blinked, trying to bring his surroundings into clearer focus, the dog’s tongue darted out and licked his hand once again. “Poke.” He thought he had said it aloud, but the dog didn’t react, so maybe he hadn’t.
As he came even more awake, he opened his eyes fully to the early morning light, which was, indeed, pouring in on him directly, a square of light across his shoulder. It shouldn’t be this hard; opening his eyes shouldn’t be this hard. Poke moved to the side a little as Johnny slowly lifted his hand to scratch at his ears. “You’re a hell of a dog, Poke, old son,” he croaked at his savior. “Thanks for th’ help.” As Poke moved aside, he found he was looking directly at Cal, who sat propped up on several pillows in the bed across from him, pointing the full force of a big grin at Johnny.
“Hey Johnny. You finally wakin’ up? You been sleepin’ a real long time.”
“Your arm. . .” Johnny could see that Cal’s arm was pretty thoroughly bandaged and that it was supported in a snowy white sling. The beds were close enough together so that he could even just make out that the sling had little fancy yellow flower things embroidered on it, which probably matched the yellow design he had become so familiar with, in the last few days, on the border of the sheets on his own bed.
The boy’s hair was tousled, as though he had just awakened, the silky, blonde strands jutting out at odd angles. He had a heavy, blue ceramic mug held by his good hand, but resting on the bed between his legs, like he was trying to ignore it. Johnny could see that he had high color spotting each of his cheekbones, but he seemed to be in fine spirits—excited, actually.
“Yep, gonna have me quite a fancy scar accordin’ ta Davey. Called it a badge a honor.” The sound of self-importance in his voice was hard to miss. “Said the kids in my new school will be m’pressed. Bullet went clean through my arm just like a hot knife through butter. Felt like hellf . . .heckfire burnin’ through me, but I didn’t holler. Nope not at all. Not too much. Hey,” –the boy hurried right on, although whether from habit or to distract Johnny from his slightly blue slip of the tongue, or, most likely, to cover his admission of “hollerin’,” Johnny didn’t know— “don’t that awful tea of Davey’s taste like the devil hisself brewed it?”
“Caught a stray bullet,” Johnny spoke softly, breathed the words, and he could feel the weight of all that had happened pushing down on him.
“Reckon so. See, me and Hiram was a comin’ back. Hiram said he had a bad feelin’. He knew somethin’ was wrong ‘in his woods’ he said. So we come on back without checkin’ that last trap. Then, when we got close, Ol' Poke took off a runnin’. Next thing we know, there’s all these gunshots. And Hiram said he was tryin’ to get to me, but afore he could drop the fish we trapped and get me pushed behind him, one a them bullets knocked me flat on my butt.”
Johnny looked at the boy carefully, assessing his true condition, feeling guilty that Cal would have had this happen to him. Then, of course, the injured boy relentlessly chatted on, “Hoo boy, blood was spurtin’ out ever which way from my arm, just like when you got shot off’n the wagon seat, Johnny. It was really somethin’. Hiram clamped his big ol’ hand around my arm, and then, when things got all quiet, he carried me straight into the cabin; he was runnin’ Johnny. Didja know Hiram could run, Johnny? Wouldn’t let me see nothin’, but he said that Gun fella was dead for sure. Said he was real dead.”
As soon as he could, Johnny broke into Cal’s explanation. “But you’re okay?” With a nod, Cal took a big breath to continue, so Johnny hurried with his next question, “Where’s Opal Ann, Cal?” He was struggling to get himself untangled from the bedding and to sit up. He needed to find out if Opal Ann was okay.
Cal opened his mouth to answer but was very suddenly vocally overpowered.
“And just where the hell do you think you’re goin’, John Lancer? I’ll swear you ain’t got the sense God gave a giddy, gray goose. Get them hairy legs a yours back under the damn covers.”
Johnny jerked his head towards the doorway with pure astonishment, and standing there smirking at him, bigger than life and ornery as that guinea hen she was so fond of comparing herself to, stood Gertrude Powell. Poke danced around her legs, threatening to spill her, and she windmilled her arms to keep her balance. “Damn it, Poke. Who let you the hell in here? C’mon dog. Out with you.”
Cal pleaded the hound’s case. “Oh, no, Trudy. Let him stay. Please. He was hurtin’ just like me n’ Johnny. Davey needs ta doctor him too.” To Johnny, as though they were conspirators, the boy added, “Davey even made Poke drink some a that tea, like us,” and then Cal pulled a sour face which expressed perfectly the taste of the concoction. But the widow continued to shoo the dog out of the room.
“Mizz Powell---Trudy---where’s Opal Ann?” Johnny’s voice sounded rough and unused, but he needed to get it said. Right now finding Opal Ann, finding out about her, was really all that mattered to him.
The widow turned back to him. She moved across the room, was standing next to him now. Her face was unreadable. “You gotta quit doin’ this, boy.” She shook her head at him. “That big ol’ daddy a yours will have my scrawny neck if you keep drippin’ your blood the hell out all over the territory.” She laid her hand on his cheek as she spoke, and her voice almost sounded gentle.
“Opal Ann.” Now he was whispering, scared, so scared.
“She’ll be all right, John. She’s not hurt,” and then she dropped her voice a bit lower, “not hurt.” The widow turned to Cal. “Calvin, do you wanna get outta that bed?” And Cal had his bare feet on the floor before he even realized he was standing there in front of her in his skivvies.
With his face turning a bright, fire red, he turned his back to her. “Trudy, I ain’t got no pants on. Do ya mind?”
“Hell no, I don’t mind, boy. You think I ain’t never seen underdrawers before? And anyway, just how the hell do you expect to get your damn pants on one-handed without my help? Quit bein’ such a big ol’ baby and let me help ya.” To Johnny she added, “I think he’s been takin’ lessons from you.”
Cal’s desire to get up and out overpowered his embarrassment, and he finally did allow the widow to help him get dressed. As she carefully worked to ease his pants on him and then hang his shirt around his shoulders, she told him that Davey had said he wasn’t to go beyond the porch until later in the day. He shouted “Yes ‘m” over his shoulder and called for Poke as he opened the front door of the cabin.
By this point, Johnny’s need to see and hold his girl was so very strong, growing ever stronger, but the widow just kept right on talking like she hadn’t even stopped to help Cal get dressed. “So, Hiram was pretty much beside himself, I think, when all this was goin’ on.” She fussed with the linens on Cal’s bed as she talked, keeping her back to Johnny. “He knew he had Cal with his arm laid open, Coltrane dead as a stone, and you lookin’ like a damned slaughtered pig with all that blood on ya. He didn’t quite know what to do first, from what he said.” She turned and made her way back to Johnny’s side of the room. “He was near tears with the tellin’ of it, John. He looked and looked and finally found her curled up under a pile of leaves about five or six feet away from where you had been layin’.”
Johnny needed to go to her. Now. He had to see her. Right now. Wherever she was, it was too far away. Where is she? He made a move to get out of bed.
The widow pushed him back down easily and gave him a stern look as she continued. “Had her eyes screwed up tight and her hands over her ears, she did. Hiram said she wouldn’t come out, even though he sweet-talked her and gentled her like he would a frightened critter.”
Johnny had closed his eyes now, was attempting to close out the words she was speaking, but she just wouldn’t stop. “He had to brush the leaves off and try to scoop her up. It was touch and go for a while too cause she got a grip on a tree root that woulda done a tick proud.” Johnny knew what was coming, could read it in the echoing spaces between her words. “He tried, Johnny, he tried so hard, you know he did, to keep her from seein’ you, from seein’ Coltrane.”
“Mother of God,” he whispered, in a voice that carried such a heavy weight.
“She’s not hurt.” And then she said it again, “she’s not hurt, but you need to show her that you’re okay. We made sure that she saw you last night, saw that you were alive, but she hasn’t hardly let go of Hiram since he picked her up from that pile of leaves; she hasn’t asked to be with you yet, hasn’t talked much at all. Davey said we need to have you awake and aware, lettin’ her know you’re gonna be fine, before she spends any time with ya.”
“How can I---How can she---?”
“How can she what, boy? How can she forgive you?”
Johnny hung his head and studied his hands, which were clasped in his lap. “Yeah.” That was just exactly what he had wondered.
“You stop that right now, John Lancer. None of this was your fault. If we’re assignin’ blame, I guess maybe I outta get the lion’s share. And Coltrane isn’t exactly blameless either.”
“No ma’am. It’s me. It’s Johnny Madrid. Everything I touch---”
“Fine. You want to wallow, you go right on ahead. Personally, I think that Opal Ann deserves a hell of a lot better from you, boy. She needs to talk to you, touch you. And she needs you to be okay for her, not eaten up with guilt.” Trudy had pulled a chair up to the bed while she lectured him, and now she reached out and twined her fingers with his, pulled his attention to her face. “She won’t eat. She won’t talk. She won’t let go of that damn bear of hers for a second. She needs to talk to you, John—to know that you are all right. She needs you.”
Johnny looked into her black, black eyes. He was reminded of that first night with her on the trail, when he had felt her staring at him across the fire. That night, he thought, that night, he had wanted her to jump on her broomstick and fly out of his life pronto. He had felt then that her eyes were cold and accusing, that she had been attacking him with her heavy silences. Looking at her now, at the compassion he saw flowing back at him, he wondered how he could have been so wrong about her, why she had always seemed to hold everyone at arm’s length with her sharp tongue and her rough ways.
“Davey’s gone back to Hesperides to see if we got any answers to the telegrams we sent yesterday, but he said that if you were up to it before he got back to have Hiram go ahead and bring that baby in here to you. Are you, boy? Are you up to it?”
Johnny sat there with the silence stretching out between them. Now that he had the chance to see Opal Ann, he wasn’t sure that he could. What had he done to that little girl? How could she get over this? He should have made her stay in the cabin. He should have drawn Coltrane away from her. He should have---
“John? I never took you for a coward.”
For Opal Ann, he could do this; he could be okay. In a small voice Johnny answered her, “Please bring her to me, Trudy.”
And in a very short time, Hiram stood in the doorway with Opal Ann in his arms. Johnny studied her for a moment, and she wouldn’t look at him; instead, she buried her face in Hiram’s shoulder. “Opal Ann? Opal Ann, I’m okay. Look at me, honey. Please----Please.
Johnny could see Hiram looking at him from the doorway, his eyes wide and deeply sad, his manner almost pleading. Johnny couldn’t take the time to think too strongly on Hiram though, couldn’t spare him those moments, unfortunately. Instead, he used every ounce of energy he had to look carefully at Opal Ann, concentrating, studying her, checking to make sure she was all right, to make sure they hadn’t hidden some hurt from him. Hiram’s quiet voice reached out to him, “Mr. Johnny. She won’t talk to me. She’s just too quiet. Can you help her, please?”
Hiram’s manner frightened Johnny more than crossing that expanse of yard had stirred up his fear yesterday. The gentle man was just plain scared for Opal Ann. For Hiram’s benefit now, as well as for his best girl, Johnny schooled his features into a calm mask. With a steady voice and more confidence than he felt, he spoke to the frightened man who held the frightened child, “I’m sure gonna try, Hiram. I sure am gonna try to help her.”
He could see that Opal Ann clung to the big man. She had her legs and arms wrapped around him, and her face was pushed into his shoulder still. The sun streaming through the doorway from the big open room behind them created a shower of light around Hiram and cast Opal Ann in shifting, liquid shadow. But, even though Johnny couldn’t see her clearly, he knew every inch of her lovely, tiny face by heart anyway. And he knew without even looking, could easily imagine that most of all she was still scared, that because of him, she had a right to be terrified.
“Hiram.” His voice cracked and he started again. “Hiram, come closer.”
With a worried frown, Gertrude looked between Opal Ann in Hiram’s arms and Johnny lying in the narrow bed, and then, as Hiram moved from blocking the doorway, she gave Johnny’s shoulder a squeeze and faded away, her uneven gait echoing hollowly in the intense quiet of the room.
Without hesitation, Hiram crossed to the bed and stood before Johnny, towered above him. “Set her here on the bed, Hiram. Set her here,” and he patted at the bunched cotton sheets, “next to me.” Hiram tried to do just that, but she gripped him tightly, clutching his flannel shirt in her small, determined fists, and he gave Johnny a look filled with confusion. Johnny was whispering now, “Hiram, kneel down next to the bed, kneel here where I can touch her.” And when he did, when he knelt close enough, Johnny started to murmur sweet, sweet sounds to the child, nonsense and bits of Spanish, “Lo Siento, chica, my little Teapot, te amo Opal Ann,” and then snatches of an old song the vaqueros always sing to the cows on long drives.
Time passed outside of the room, but not in it, not for Johnny and Opal Ann and Hiram. Johnny’s voice spoke the words of a lullaby his mother had sung to him, and he would have sworn he didn’t remember. So very softly, he repeated the words of a poem Scott had read aloud one evening, a poem full of knights and fair maidens, which Johnny had enjoyed enough to look at again and remember. But it didn’t matter what words he spoke; it only mattered that he did.
He reached out and touched her quietly—on her shoulder, her hand, her hair. And all the while Hiram watched him, lulled by the hypnotic tone of Johnny’s voice, mesmerized by it. The rise and fall of the sounds he made washed over the big man just as it did the young girl in his arms. Johnny kept talking, talking, whispering—“such a good girl, such a smart girl, so brave, so brave.” Hiram’s eyes were half closed with the ease of it.
As the words he wove fell around them, because of his intense scrutiny of the girl, Johnny noticed that Opal Ann’s hair hung in disarray. The baby fine waves were tangled and twisted. Had no one thought to brush it out for her last night? Had she not allowed it?
So intent was his observation of the moment, Johnny could see exactly when Opal Ann began to relax, just a little. Her grip on Hiram was slacking some, her knuckles not quite so white, her arms not quite so stiff, and ever so slowly, in amongst the rhymes and the lovely fluid sounds of Johnny’s gentle litany, he started to change what he was saying. With amazing patience, he slowly began to get to the black heart of the matter. “Opal Ann, can you look at me now? Everything is fine now, just fine. You’re okay, sweetheart. Can you see that I’m all right too? Look at me, Opal Ann.”
He still got no response, so he whispered to her some more, the calming words and tones again—nonsense and love notes. “Chica, te amo como el viento ama las olas. Opal Ann, mi corazon, don’t be afraid.” Then, after another long while, he saw a true relaxing of her shoulders, so he tried again. “I need to know something, something important,” he began, his voice little more than a sigh, “only you can help me; only you can know the answer to this question.” He saw those tiny shoulders which had borne so much, too much, tighten again, so he waited a beat, left the air empty and silent around his words, let her calm once more, and then, very quietly, “Is Nighty Bear okay? Is he scared? Did the loud noises frighten him? I’ll bet he was really scared. Did you take care of him? Is he sad?”
Johnny could feel Hiram staring at him, but he couldn’t take his eyes from Opal Ann to reassure him with a look, couldn’t take the time. He stared at her so hard, willing her to look at him, to see him. And with a tiny hiccuping sob, she finally did; she turned in Hiram’s arms and faced him full on, and he watched a tear slide past the curve of her cheek to splash onto Hiram’s big hand. Then Johnny tore his eyes from that tear in time to see Hiram look down at the wet spot with wonder. Ever so carefully, working against the pull of the stitches in his side, Johnny reached his hand out slowly to touch her again, up and out towards Opal Ann, towards Hiram.
“Yonnie,” such a tiny sound. “Yonnie,” louder this time. And with a surprising suddenness after so much stillness, she reached both hands out to him, and Hiram knew immediately what to do as he gently settled her onto the bed. “Yonnie.”
Johnny spared one brief moment to look at Hiram and found him smiling that big, white smile of his, the tears coursing down his cheeks unashamedly, and then, just as Trudy had earlier, he turned on his heel and disappeared quickly from the room.
Opal Ann scooted and squirmed and closed the space between herself and Johnny, molding herself to him as she had done so often before. “Yonnie.” Johnny could hear true contentment in the sound of his name on her lips, could feel a mirror of that sentiment in his heart.
Johnny kept his voice pitched low, the conversation just between the two of them. He ran his hand down her hair, petting her, so glad to have her next to him again. “Opal Ann? Tell me about Nighty Bear. Was he scared yesterday?”
“Yes, scared---really, really.”
“The loud noises?”
“He don’t like dat.”
“Yeah, me neither. I was scared too, like Nighty Bear.”
“You were hurt. Again,” she accused him. She lifted her face from his side and looked him flat in the eyes, searching, no doubt, to assure herself that he was going to be all right.
“I’m okay now. Davey fixed me right up.”
“Dat man. De bad man. He hurt you. You di’n’t move. De bad man. . .”
She was starting to get worked up; tears were threatening again, so Johnny interrupted her, “Won’t ever hurt anyone again. Can’t hurt you. Can’t hurt Nighty Bear. We’re all gonna be fine.”
“Nighty Bear cried.”
“You know that man can’t hurt us now, right? We’re all safe.”
“He was here las’ night.”
“De bad man. In de dark, when we was sleepin’.”
“A nightmare. You had a bad dream. I have ‘em sometimes too. But dreams can’t hurt you. Nighty Bear is here to take care of you, and you can take care of him, huh?”
“And me, Opal Ann, I’ll take care of you.”
The front door slammed suddenly, and Opal Ann’s body became instantly rigid. The lethargy Johnny had worked so hard to achieve was gone in an instant. He looked down at her, surprised that the noise of the slamming door could create such a sudden change and found her ducking her head, pushing even closer into his side and clenching her eyes closed.
He could hear Cal talking to Davey, who had obviously just returned from his trip to town, discussing whether or not the boy would be released from the prison of the front porch before he was “too old to want to play with the dang chickens.” And then the widow’s voice joining in with “instructions” for the boy---very specific instructions for how he should be behaving with the man who had “saved his damned bacon.”
“Opal Ann. It’s just Cal and Davey. They slammed the door, honey. It was just the door. Open your eyes and look at me. It’s all right….it’s all right. . .it was the door.” She did open her eyes, and the fear in them was raw and sudden. And then, he was rocking her in his arms, soothing her, humming softly, and slowly she relaxed again, slowly she allowed herself to be comforted.
Together they settled deeper into the bed, folding themselves together. Mingled with the soft and reassuring thump-thump of their hearts in rhythm, they could hear the sounds of the cabin around them---clucking chickens outside, and a clucking widow inside---the softer background murmur of Davey’s voice as he talked to Hiram.
Johnny allowed himself to drift, watching lazy splinters of sunlight, which jumped from crystals hanging on a fancy table lamp near the bed and lingered in patches on the floor. He heard a soft sigh and saw that Opal Ann had closed her eyes and was expertly clutching Nighty Bear, wrapping her arm around him and then tucking her thumb into her mouth, the action so familiar and so comforting to him. With her other hand, she pulled a corner of the yellow-edged sheet into a ball in her fist and rubbed it against her face. Satisfied, and with the background noise falling ever farther away, Johnny closed his eyes and slept.
Johnny felt kind of . . .scattered.
He was riding Barranca across Black Mesa. It was that one spot—a flat, grassy, open meadow—where, each time they came upon it, man and horse had always loved to let it all loose for a few heart pounding, incredible moments. Given his head, Barranca would open up his stride, and Johnny would lean forward, low over the horse’s neck, the two of them acting, feeling, as though they were one being, and he had a strange, fleeting sense of longing that left him slightly puzzled.
The day around them was bright and warm, dry, although it must have rained recently, yesterday. The ground felt slightly spongy, obviously wet, but not worth slowing down for, nope, not worth that. The breeze created from their wild romp pulled Johnny’s hat from his head, and it dangled and flopped on his back as they surged forward. He could feel the golden horse’s muscles bunch and relax, bunch and relax, beneath his thighs.
Everywhere around them, the flat of the mesa was showing the new life of autumn, and it blurred past them as they nearly took flight. It was one of those days which was sometimes generously gifted to the people of the valley during the rainy season, and with it, they were all allowed to dry out a bit. “A day for gettin’ the mildew scraped off,” came to him in the blustery tones of Jelly Hoskins.
After a measure of time, blowing and snorting, the horse slowed to a walk, and Johnny took a moment to study his surroundings more carefully. Birds of prey circled the long grasses, searching for hiding, scrambling field mice, and those birds, their swoops and dives, drew his eye upward. There, in a huge sky which felt close enough to touch, big, fat, lazy clouds drifted by, promising him that there would be no rain falling on this day.
He thought about how Scott couldn’t quite adjust to the fact that autumn meant new life in these parts. He had explained to Johnny about how, where he came from, spring was the time of rebirth and new life, how everything dried out and turned brown in the fall and winter back East, how there was a period of dead plants and cold, cold weather. The idea of everything dying out so completely seemed very odd to Johnny.
He had, of course, lived in places where very little grew at all, but there was always life, if a person knew where to look for it. And here at Lancer, everything was always growing, cycling through life. There was no true “growing season,” which is what Scott had asked about when he first arrived. When did they plant? Why weren’t they planting alfalfa in the Spring? When did they harvest the wheat? Here in the San Joachim, they had explained to him, an industrious person could plant all year round, harvest all year round, but the summers were often very dry, so, really, most of the planting took place starting in early December, and in the springtime, usually in March and April, that was the best time to harvest. But other crops, oranges, cotton, melons, other crops pretty much grew year round.
He had noticed that Scott had a pretty hard time accepting the way of the rain here too, and the lack of it as well—complained louder than anybody when it rained for days and days on end. Then, he complained when it didn’t rain at all. He couldn’t seem to get used to it. It surely was feast or famine when it came to water around these parts, Johnny thought. But, he had never known any other way of it. For him, it seemed odd that the people of a place would just expect it to rain every so often and would never have weeks and weeks without it. He marveled at how amazing it had been for him, the learning of the sames and the differences of his instant brother, and for some reason, thinking of Scott made him want to hurry Barranca on home.
He had thought he was alone here on the mesa, but someone kept calling his name, nagging at him like a buzzing mosquito.
Johnny and Barranca worked their way down to the foothills, moving towards the valley below, towards home, and that peculiar longing was plaguing him again. Barranca picked his way carefully down the rocky hillside, and they passed the evidence of Scott’s new venture, his grand plan for the ranch, row upon row of newly planted grape vines, nearly 20 acres of them, something called a “German reezling” grape, according to Scott. The memory of the loud and long discussions between his brother and father on this particular topic made Johnny smile. It wasn’t that he wanted to see his brother in trouble, exactly, it had just been nice to have the Old Man’s ire focused on something besides him for a change. It was actually kind of entertaining. And, for some reason, thinking about the Old Man’s bellowing voice had him pushing Barranca even more.
On several evenings, he had sat on the floor in front of the massive fireplace and followed the “vineyard” discussions with interest, when they hadn’t deteriorated into who could shout the loudest, and he had to agree with Scott that a man shouldn’t put “all of his eggs in one basket.” He hadn’t said much though, although he had made it clear at the onset that he was in favor of the experiment, had let Scott and Murdoch both know that he thought it was a good idea, especially now with the newly completed railroad close by for shipping. This was Scott’s vision, though. When it all worked out well, and Johnny had faith that it would, he wanted his big brother to get all of the credit and to be able to deliver all of the “I told you so’s.”
“John, are you hungry?”
Yes he was hungry, actually.
He had been thinking seriously about his hunger as he moved on out of the foothills and onto the valley floor. He had high hopes that Maria would be working on “traditional” for supper. He got a little tired of steak and roast, but he would never, ever let his cattle ranching father hear him say that, would deny it with his dying breath. Arroz con pollo sounded great, some refried beans on the side. Tortillas would be nice. He could almost smell the mingling scents of his conjured meal. Maria would probably scold him for being late, and for some unfathomable reason he was looking forward to her scorching tongue and wagging finger.
“John, wake up boy.”
The smells of sunshine and sweat-covered horse faded, and Johnny suddenly realized that he was sleeping, had been sleeping, that Trudy Powell was the mosquito which had been pestering him. He wasn’t at Lancer. He wasn’t riding Barranca. He wasn’t going to get arroz con pollo. He opened his eyes to find her looking down at him. “You been sleepin’ all damned afternoon, John. You want some supper?”
Recovering slowly from his dreaming and drifting, he looked to his side immediately, looking for Opal Ann, worried about her, of course. It had become a habit. His concern was obvious, and the widow answered him before he could ask. “She’s been up for a couple of hours, John. She’s fine. At least she’s on her way to bein’ fine. She’s been jawin’ at her brother and followin’ Hiram around. Even sat that damned bear down long enough to let me wash her hands for supper.”
So, she helped him up from the bed and even helped him get a shirt on, one of Davey’s, which hung on him as though he were a child playing in his father’s clothes. The widow had chided him for his frown, “Quit yer fussin’ John. It may be a bit bland for your tastes, but it’s the loudest we could find.” The shirt was beige, and her grin was contagious.
His side ached some, the stitches pulled when he tried to move too much or too fast, but it was good to be up and about, albeit slowly and carefully. He realized that he felt better than he had for a while, that he was actually very hungry, ready to heal. He ran a hand across his face, feeling the stubble there, and he longed deeply for a bath and a shave. Then he combed his fingers through his hair in an attempt to tame the wildness of it.
He leaned on the widow, his arm slung around her shoulders and smirked a bit when he thought of the irony of his situation—he had never, never in a million years imagined that he would be in a position to allow this feisty, little woman to help him get dressed, to help him walk across the room, and not be the least bit embarrassed by it, well not too embarrassed anyway. He never even imagined that he would know her first name, let alone call her by it. And he was absolutely positive that he had never imagined he would think of her fondly.
But here he was leaning on her surprisingly sturdy and steady shoulder as he shuffled his feet across the room, feeling that he was still weak, but that there was definite progress. And finally, after they had put on a show for the rest of the cabin’s inhabitants, she settled him into one of the ladderback chairs.
The rest of the group sat waiting for him, waiting to eat chicken baked golden, and with it, savory brown rice with a side of beans, all set out in abundance in matching blue crockery bowls and on a big white platter. He looked around at each face, and they looked back at him in turn—Cal, amazingly quiet, Hiram and Davey smiling up at him from where they sat, and Opal Ann, who, as soon as he was seated, suddenly climbed from her chair, with its stack of books to make her taller. She stood studying the arrangement for a second, scooted her chair closer, right next to his, and then, satisfied, climbed back up to sit again.
After another space of silence as everyone settled in, Davey blessed their meal, which was followed by a chorus of “amens.” And then . . .
“Hey Johnny, ya look real funny in Davey’s shirt. It’s a mite too big on ya, don’t ya think?” And the boy laughed at Johnny’s sour look. “Did ya know that Davey can sew, Johnny? He sewed all the curtains here, and he makes their shirts too. And he even showed me how he made those raggy rugs on the floor.” Trudy nudged him with a bowl of rice to be passed, which quieted him for a moment. “Can you sew Johnny?”
“Boy, will you just give John a chance to catch his breath? You are the talkin’est damn thing I ever did lay my eyes on.”
“Now Trudy, the boy’s just curious, that’s all. I’m sure Johnny doesn’t mind, do you Johnny?”
Johnny wasn’t quite focusing with his normal clarity. Trudy was right; he needed to catch his breath. But he shook his head at Davey’s question, and then looked down when he felt a touch on his thigh. Opal Ann had laid a supportive hand on his leg.
“Guess what Johnny. Davey found out in town today that our new ma and pa are gonna be here to pick us up tomorrow. In their telegram they said they couldn’t wait to see us again. Isn’t that great, Johnny? I sure do hope that our new ma can sew. That da…durn Gun took all our clothes right along with the wagon. Hey, mebbe we can find the wagon. I sure would like to have my stuff back. . .”
Johnny could hear that Cal was rattling on, but he had stopped listening to the words. The Flannigan’s were coming tomorrow—would be here tomorrow—would take the children to their home with them tomorrow. He could feel a heavy blackness settle over him.
“. . .best dang pocket knife a kid could have. . .” Johnny suddenly felt the room spin just a little bit. How can it be this hard in such a short space of time? He had known these children for only six days, and yet their lives had become so tangled up with his. His life had changed with the knowing of them. Hadn’t it? Could he return to the way things were before he knew them? He wasn’t completely sure that Boyd and Faith Flannigan wouldn’t have to rip them from his clutching, desperate hands when the time came.
“. . .someone named Jelly. I figure though if we leave early Sunday, we can meet up with him half-way, save him a day’s travel at least. How does that sound to you, Johnny? Johnny?”
“Hoskins,” the widow added, and it sounded as though she was clenching her teeth as she said it..
“How does that sound?—Riding along with Trudy and Hiram and me to meet up with this Jelly Hoskins person? We’re going there anyway to pack up Trudy’s things. Does that sound all right to you?”
Johnny stood up suddenly. “Sure, Davey. Sure, that’s fine.” The room was still rolling some, but Johnny grabbed the edge of the table to make it stop. He needed some air. Trudy started to stand, so did Hiram, both of them reaching for him, but he waved them off, with a gesture which was more angry than he intended it to be, and he stumbled in the general direction of the front door. He needed to think, to be alone for a while.
Once outside in a late afternoon which was fading away to dark, he haltingly made his way to “his” rocker, maneuvering around Poke, who lay asleep on the porch, and, reaching it, he sat down heavily. There were clouds above the pines reflecting pink and purple light from the rapidly setting sun, and the soft sounds of the impending night attempted to soothe him. But he knew it would take more than crickets and whip-poor-wills to put this right. He felt like a big ol’ hole was about to be punched in his heart, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.
He heard the creak of the door and braced himself. He didn’t really want to debate this with Trudy, or hear Davey’s calm, sensible philosophy on the subject. Neither of them could know exactly how he felt, neither of them could make this better with their words. He was convinced at this moment that this trip had been too damn full of words for his taste.
Then, from the gathering dark near the cabin, a voice called out softly to him. “Mr. Johnny?”
Johnny leaned back against the bulky leather valise behind him. He had softened his temporary backrest by pushing a folded quilt against it. The wagon bounced relentlessly along, and he had napped his fill. From the small bedroom at the cabin, Hiram and Davey had carried out the narrow mattress that he had slept on for a stretch of nights, without its yellow-edged sheets now, however, and had hoisted it up into the wagon, yesterday, Sunday, just past daybreak.
He had been relegated to that mattress for the duration of the trip, at least until they parted ways on the road that split off to Green River. Discussion about the traveling arrangements had made it clear to Johnny that they expected him to stay here in this wagon even after they caught up with Jelly. Trudy was loudly adamant that “Hoskins don’t need to get his damn hands on this boy any sooner than absolutely necessary, Davey.”
Johnny figured he should be home by Tuesday evening, Wednesday morning at the latest, would have been gone nine full days from Lancer by then. The continuous jarring and rolling of the wagon across the rocky trail, as they followed the ridge above the long valley, was wearing on him more than he would care to admit, undoing the good that the restful sleep had done for him as he lay here in the wagon last night—under his friendly stars with their stories and their spaces—listening to the sweet murmuring of Davey and Trudy, and the soft bass counterpoint of Hiram as they sat around a small campfire.
He could tell that he was well on his way to good health. It was true that he tired easily, that the stitches pulled and ached, but if anyone would bother to ask him, he would be happy to tell the asker that he was feeling fine, just fine. It didn’t matter what he said though, Davey still made him drink the God-awful tea every morning and evening, had even packed up a bundle of it for Johnny to take on home with him. And not a soul among them would allow him out of the wagon unless it was to answer nature’s call.
Trudy sat with him now, had been sitting here in the back of the wagon with him for a good hour or more. They had all traded places off and on, spent time with him, each one entertaining him in his or her own way. And they had all been so very careful with him too, with his emotions he guessed, his fragile heart, as though he were made of glass.
Through it all, Poke had been his steadfast companion, pushed up against his leg, mostly, obviously pleased to be allowed on the mattress, although he did get out and walk from time to time. Johnny envied him that option. The wagon was small, and he suddenly wondered how it would hold all of the widow’s things. He roused himself from his wandering thoughts to ask the question. “Trudy, how you gonna get all your things stuffed into this little wagon?”
The rising heat of the day had caused her to bunch her heavy, silver-shot hair at the back of her head and to secure it with pins. And she was pushing one of those escaping pins back into place when he asked his question. She arranged it to her satisfaction before she answered him. “Well, I don’t need much of my old stuff, John. Seems I found pretty much all I need on the road to Redemption.” She looked up through her lashes at him and smiled broadly. It softened her; Davey softened her, Johnny thought. Then she continued, pulling his attention back to her again. “Hell, I plan on selling most of the furniture right along with my house anyway. Seems I’ve recently come to find that there’s a whole lot more important things in life than a bunch a damn geegaws and doo-dads. Don’t you think so, John?”
“Yes’m,” and Johnny thought about two of those very important things, which were neither geegaws nor doo-dads. Surely they were all the way to their new home, since Saturday evening, in fact. They had even slept in their brand new beds by now, played in their new yard. Before they had taken their leave, the Flannigans had invited him to visit anytime, and he planned to do just that. He hoped they wouldn’t get tired of him visiting them “anytime.” He also hoped that Cal was playing with kittens, that Opal Ann. . .that Opal Ann was happy, that she had slept okay all alone in that new bed. The thought of the children wore on him more than the wound in his side did, more than the rattling wagon. He could almost feel a tiny, phantom hand twisted in his shirt tail.
He would never in his life forget how it felt to watch that wagon roll away on Saturday, carrying a sizeable chunk of his heart with it. He had never worked so hard in his life to stand his ground without flinching.
It had been Hiram. It had been Hiram on the porch that night. Hiram had helped Johnny understand how he could survive this new empty hole in his life.
Johnny remembered, as he and Trudy sat silently now in the back of the lurching wagon, in the warmth of the day, he remembered the cool, still air of the evening on the porch; he remembered that Hiram had left his own supper behind too that night, as Johnny had, and how he had joined Johnny in the gray of dusk, calling softly to him from the doorway.
“Hey,” he answered. That was all, just “hey.” As he greeted Hiram, Johnny’s voice was hushed. He kept it pitched low to match his mood and to allow it to fade into the gathering darkness. It was very hard for him to allow Hiram to enter into his miserable solitude without complaint, but he pulled his feet in some as this new friend moved across in front of him, heading for the other wooden rocker just a little farther down the porch. Johnny heard Poke groan softly as Hiram pushed at the dog with his foot, pushed him out of his way. Then the man slumped into the chair, and the two of them, Johnny and Hiram, sat and rocked without speaking, staring out into the evening for a number of long, quiet moments. Johnny found that, ultimately, he was grateful for the man’s mute, but solid, presence.
He could hear the rise and fall of quiet conversation from within the cabin. It spilled out of the windows along with the soft glow of recently lighted lamps. The cadence of it caressed him, lulled him. He could easily recognize Cal’s voice, ending each time on a rising note, of course. And he could hear Trudy answering him in her ever-dulcet tones. At one point a louder “Damn it anyway, Calvin” echoed across the porch—ah yes, dulcet tones. It all seemed very familiar and comfortable to Johnny, as though this had been the way of his life for years and years.
Though the night was quiet and the air incredibly still, he could hear life being lived, out in the yard and in the woods too, in addition to all of that vibrant life which was going on in the cabin behind him. The old Hereford cow lowed softly, and the owl, which he had listened to on that first night in the cabin, at the witching hour, was just beginning to stir across the clearing, at the edge of the woods, hoo-hooting its wake-up call. The soft swoop of bats disturbed the air near a willow tree by the small, neat barn, the sound of them sitting just on the edge of his hearing. And for the first time since they had come to this place, Johnny realized that there must be a pond nearby. He could hear bullfrogs croaking away somewhere to the north.
And here on this porch, on this border between the inside and the outside, there was only the sound of the creaking of the rockers. Johnny was reminded of his thoughts about the widow on that first night, when the little trio of travelers had become a quartet, had slept out under the Seven Sisters. He had thought then that she must have a hard, wooden heart creaking away in her chest like an old rocking chair, and that that wooden heart was crippling her much more thoroughly than her wooden leg ever could. Thinking of how he felt about her now made him shake his head just a little. He didn’t know when he had ever misjudged someone so thoroughly, and it stabbed at his gunfighter’s ego. In his own defense, Johnny figured that Mizz Trudy may have done a bit of changing on this trip.
Then, after a few more completely quiet moments, he heard Poke sigh and then start moving around, his claws clicking on the wooden floor of the porch. Johnny looked in that direction. Hiram had stopped rocking to allow the dog to lay his head on his lap, and he was scratching at Poke’s ears, but not really paying much attention to what he was doing. In spite of the life Johnny could feel and hear around him, he could also feel the stillness of the evening draped softly around the three of them, here on this porch, like a blanket.
When Hiram spoke, it was so unexpected that Johnny nearly jumped. “Mr. Johnny, am I an orphan?”
He looked back over at Hiram, found him staring back at him, his eyes, in the gloom, seemed very serious; his big hand was rubbing absently at Poke’s ears. Johnny considered the question carefully before he answered. “Well, yeah, I guess so, Hiram. Davey told me your folks have been gone a good long while, 20 years or so, I think.”
“And Cal said him and Opal Ann are orphans too, but that they’re gettin’ a new family.”
“Yep, tomorrow.” It was hard to speak it aloud.
The two men returned to stillness again, and Johnny listened as the frogs all stopped croaking abruptly, and then started calling again moments later, as though their song was rehearsed.
Then Hiram spoke again. “He said you used to be an orphan too, Mr. Johnny.”
“Cal talks too much.”
With that, Hiram fell silent again. Johnny rested his head against the back of the rocker and closed his eyes. He felt badly about snapping at Hiram. The gentle man certainly didn’t deserve to be the recipient of Johnny’s foul mood, and he wished he could call the words back from the air around them. Johnny was about to apologize for his tone, but from out of the rapidly expanding black of night, Hiram spoke again, much softer this time. “I miss my mama.”
Johnny jerked his eyes open and looked over at Hiram. Full dark had fallen, and shadows covered him now, although a patch of newly awakened moonlight, an early moon, was creeping across the porch, and light splashing from the window gathered in a square near his foot. Johnny couldn’t quite judge the man’s mood, even though he was sitting very close to Hiram. He sounded very sad, and the subject of his conversation would seem to lead in that direction, but the darkness was hiding things. Johnny didn’t know what to say, didn’t know how to react, so he simply nodded his head and stared straight ahead, not even thinking about the fact that the darkness may hide him as well, that Hiram might not be able to see his nod. But, the big man plowed ahead. “I miss her every day; mostly I miss the sound of her. She used to sing all day long,” he continued. “Do you miss your mama, Mr. Johnny?”
An image of laughing eyes and long, dark, dark hair came to him, nearly took his breath away. The feeling of soft arms holding him close bloomed in his heart, filled in some of the spaces there. He felt a rush of affection, thought of his mother with a degree of warmth he hadn’t experienced since he was small. “Yeah,” his voice caught just a little bit, “yeah, sometimes I do miss my mama, Hiram, but I have a new family now, a father and a brother, a sister, even a crotchety old. . .uncle.” And he did miss them all, felt a longing that he wouldn’t have expected to feel after only six days.
“Davey says I’m gonna to have new family too. Him and Trudy is gettin’ married.”
He jerked his head towards Hiram once again. Married? He suddenly remembered something about how Trudy, Davey and Hiram were headed towards home to pack up her things. Before when he had heard it, that little tidbit of information had been buried under the enormously suffocating fact that the Flannigan’s were coming tomorrow. Married? He smiled a little and wondered why he hadn’t questioned the widow’s presence back here in the woods earlier after Davey’s intention was to drive her to her brother’s. Married. It was perfect really. “I think that’s great news, Hiram.”
“So, us orphans, we’ve all found ourselves new families, haven’t we, Mr. Johnny?”
Johnny felt a little bit like he had been kicked by a horse. He held himself incredibly still and clenched at the arms of the rocker. His children were headed for a new life with a mom and a dad who wanted them very much. The four of them would be creating a brand new family. Father Donal had told him that the new parents were “just the nicest people you’d ever want to meet, Johnny my boy, honest and hardworking,” had called it a “wonderful opportunity” for Cal and Opal Ann, in fact. Johnny knew in his heart that these were people who were going to love the children and care for them, sing them lullabies and teach them how to grow up right, how to be good people. These two incredibly lucky children had found themselves a new family, a brand new life, a new start.
He blinked twice, very deliberately. “Yes, Hiram. Yes, we have all found ourselves new families.”
After just a bit longer, after they had enjoyed the silence just for a while more, Johnny had turned to Hiram again, “Hiram, do you suppose Trudy threw out our supper yet? I’m a mite hungry.”
“Hold on to me, Mr. Johnny,” and he reached for Johnny’s arm. “I’ll make her fix you more if she did. She likes me,” he added in a conspiracy-laced whisper. And as he reached out to help Johnny up, the two men shared a smile.
Hiram had opened the door for Johnny then, and they had stepped into the warm light of the cabin, had rejoined the others as they all sat lingering over the remains of arroz con pollo in the book-lined, lantern lit room.
And then, with heartbreaking suddenness, the next morning relentlessly dawned. There was a flurry of “sprucin’ up,” after Johnny’s profound silence and Trudy’s surly mood contributed to a tense breakfast. But, the act of brushing up clothes, shining up shoes, and getting things prepared for multiple baths had adequately occupied and distracted the lot of them. With the help of a big wooden tub, which Hiram had toted single-handedly into the small bedroom, and with kettle upon kettle of steamy, stove-heated water and the citrus-scented soap Davey seemed to prefer, they all managed to get the worst off.
When Johnny’s turn had come, there was a smattering of discussion about how he shouldn’t be getting his stitches wet, with the counter-argument, courtesy of Davey, being that it wouldn’t really hurt at this point, and if he hadn’t done so before, this would have earned him Johnny’s undying gratitude. So he was finally allowed to get into the steaming tub. Davey had hung a blanket at the doorway at the beginning of their bathings, and when it looked like the widow wanted to stay and help Johnny get undressed, he had shooed her through it, shooed them all away. “Trudy, the boy can undress himself for heaven’s sake,” he had said as he hustled her from the room. And, slowly, struggling with the task a bit, in spite of his assurances that he “wasn’t a child,” he had stripped out of his borrowed clothes and unwrapped the bandaging from his wound. He stood as God made him and examined it for the first time without the pain of Davey’s probing fingers and quiet “sorry’s” to distract him. And it was healing, puckering pink some around the edges, but he had known that without looking, just from the feel of it. It would surely leave one hell of a scar—scars actually, both front and back—just another piece of evidence mapping a hard-lived life, he guessed. But there was nothing to be done for it.
He had stepped up and over the side of the tub and lowered himself into the warm water with an audible sigh, relaxing into it, a tiny piece of luxury in the middle of the woods, and he nearly dozed off with the steam rising around him, curling his hair. It had been heaven for him to wash off the grime of the last few days—and to shave—he had whispered a small “thank-you,” his eyes cast briefly upwards, as he scraped at his cheeks with a borrowed razor—watching as his face emerged from beneath black stubble in the tiny mirror Davey had provided. Soon, Johnny had called Davey in to redress his wound and had then dressed in another of the man’s too-big shirts, plain gray this time, and, thankfully, his own still slightly damp pants, which had been washed and laid out to dry after he had crawled into bed the night before. He walked out of the bedroom a changed man.
It wasn’t long after that when Cal could be heard complaining, loudly, about how he had “just had a dang bath last week at the orphanage,” but Trudy had shouted him down in no time at all.
By noon they were, all of them, all smarted up, including Poke. After the last dirty, two legged creature had climbed out of the tub, Hiram had carried it to the yard and wrestled the dog into the tepid water amidst a furious shower of suds. Then, once he had been thoroughly scrubbed, with the citrusy soap no less, and had thoroughly soaked Hiram in return, he was released from the torture of the tub to run in frantic circles around the yard until Hiram and Cal had chased him down and tied him out by “the palace.”
Soon they were all anxiously awaiting the Flannigan’s. Cal was so excited, he couldn’t sit still. He would walk to one side of the yard and then cross back in front of the cabin to the other side. Back and forth. Each time he passed he would stop for a second and say something to Johnny where he sat on the porch. “Shouldn’t they be here by now? ---- “I hope they didn’t lose a wheel or somethin’, ---Wonder what time it is now, ” then he would be on his way again. Back and forth. Opal Ann had climbed into Johnny’s lap, and after he had brushed her hair out for her, she had molded herself to him as always. She rested her head against his shoulder and rubbed at his freshly shaved cheek with the soft palm of her hand. It tore at his heart to think of the distance that would lie between the two of them within a matter of hours.
And not nearly enough time had passed for Johnny’s taste when a farm wagon was rattling its way down the path and into the clearing. With the first sight of their visitors, Poke was yapping and jumping, and Davey became that coiled spring of activity, as always, and he had flown from the cabin and had greeted the Flannigan’s with enthusiasm, as had Cal. Hiram, on the other hand, had stood shyly to the side, worrying at the brim of his hat, which was held politely in front of him.
Davey and Trudy had worked together after the morning clean-up and had an ample lunch ready and waiting for their guests, and as Davey ushered the couple from wagon, the first thing he asked them was whether or not they liked butternut squash.
The widow, meanwhile, had, at first, been quiet and cautious, standing off to the side, apparently sizing up the two newcomers as potential parents. Initially, Johnny could see her resistance to accepting these people as guardians of the children. During their leisurely lunch, the Flannigans had been charming and warm, and Boyd was downright talkative. He could see her attitude change as the day wore on.
Faith Flannigan had blonde hair, showing from under a checked, blue and white sunbonnet and though she was no longer a young girl, she had creamy, pale skin. She could have passed for the children’s natural mother. She had a soft, sweet way about her that Johnny thought Opal Ann would soon be attracted to, and she carried a china baby doll swaddled in a scrap of flowered material. Boyd Flannigan was a green-eyed redhead, his hair peppered with some flecks of iron gray, and he had a face full of freckles and an open smile. He was a short, solid man. He looked strong, and his hands were the callused hands of a hard worker.
With one last lurch of his heart, Johnny set Opal Ann on her feet and stood up. As he moved forward to greet the Flannigans, he found that his girl had her arms wrapped around his leg, that she was hidden behind it.
Boyd stepped cautiously forward. He seemed to be intrigued by the tiny person behind the dark man in the overly large shirt. He was smiling broadly, but moving slowly, with care. He had climbed the steps, and then he got down on one knee in front of the little girl and looked straight into her big, blue eyes. She pulled at Johnny’s pants with her hands, trying to get purchase on enough material to hide behind. Johnny looked down and saw her glance down and away, but Boyd didn’t give up. He slowly, ever so slowly, held his hand out to her, his palm held upward and open, his fingers loose. He was whispering, softly, a bit of singsong nonsense, in a pretty language, which sounded like Scott’s poetry to Johnny’s ears. Long moments passed, but Opal Ann’s new father was ever so patient.
Everyone in the yard stopped what they were doing and saying to watch the drama unfolding, wondering what would happen between man and child. Johnny smiled out at them all, a small sad smile, and then he focused completely on the tiny girl, who was looking into the green, laughing eyes of Boyd Flannigan.
Finally, her plump little hand hesitantly snaked out towards him from the protection and comfort Johnny offered. Boyd took that offered hand very gently, carefully, knowing what a precious gift he had been given, and kissed the back of it, as though she were a fine lady. He said, “hello princess,” which made her giggle softly, and then, with a flourish he added, “enchanted Ma’am, my name is Boyd.” Then he spoke quietly, just for her ears. “I’m your new pa. Do you remember me?”
She looked up at Johnny, and he nodded at her. He was so damn close to tears, he thought he might burst with it, but he couldn’t let her see his misery and hesitation. Then he smiled down at her and nodded again, and when he did, Opal Ann reached out and took Boyd’s hand. “Pa,” she said, just a breath of sound.
Cal held Faith’s hand as they moved toward the porch, and, of course, he peppered her with questions. “I was just a wonderin’, should I call you ‘ma’? Do you have kittens? I’d surely love a kitten. Before, I used to help pull weeds in the garden. Is there a garden? Hesperides is a strange name for a town, don’t you think? I’ve been chasin’ these here chickens around. Do you have chickens? Do you know that a man named Gun took all of our stuff? I’m hopin’ you can sew like Davey can. This is the only clothes I got now. And they took my pocketknife too.” Faith followed him easily and answered each and every question, responded to every comment.
They’d had a pleasant enough lunch, although Johnny’d had no appetite as his stomach pitched and rolled. The Flannigans had talked about the new school going up in Redemption, about the two, brand new beds they had ordered for the children from a catalogue, and how they had just received and assembled them three days ago, and about how they had spent some time building a tree house and hanging a swing in the last week or two. But all too soon, it was time for them to leave, to get back to their farm.
Afterwards, as they moved out into the yard, as though it had suddenly become clear to her that Johnny wouldn’t be coming along to their new home with them, Opal Ann had grabbed on tightly to him right before the new little family climbed into the wagon.
It was touch and go for a while. She had that same grip on him that she’d had on the tree root in the woods, but Johnny had walked off with her across the way, talked to her, gentled her with his hypnotic voice, explained to her that this was her new chance, and that he had to go home to his. It took some time. They both had cried a little. And then, after leaving them alone for a while, Faith Flannigan had walked up them and had produced the blonde baby doll again, had asked Opal Ann to help her care for it.
Slowly and carefully, they had all taken their leave of one another. And so it was, as the new family drove off, that Opal Ann, sitting between her new ma and pa, managed to have one arm around Nighty Bear, one around the new doll, and still got her thumb tucked into her mouth as she leaned into her new mama’s side. At the last moment, she had turned and looked over her shoulder at Johnny, one last look.
Just in time to save his dignity, Johnny was jerked back to the present. Quite suddenly, as the wagon came over the top of a rise and moved on around a snaking curve in the rock strewn road, Davey pulled up sharply on the reins. There before them, coming along at a pretty smart clip was Jelly. “There’s Hoskins,” said the widow with a sneer in her voice. And they could hear him calling to them.
“Hello the wagon.” He urged his horses closer. He looked at Davey and Hiram with open curiosity, and nodded his head to them. As he pulled his wagon alongside of theirs, he spotted the dark head turned to him from the back of the wagon, the grinning face, and he called out to Johnny with enthusiasm. “Johnny boy, is thet you settin’ in the back there like a king? Are ya okay, boy? I’ll swear I don’t think you’ll ever get over attractin’ trouble. We been plumb worried ‘bout ya. Telegram was a mite sketchy.”
As the two wagons came abreast and stopped, Johnny and Jelly both reached out to one another, Jelly leaning down towards him where he sat on his mattress, and they clasped forearms. “You okay, Johnny?” he asked, serious now, looking into Johnny’s eyes for the truth.
“I’m fine, Jelly. Real happy to see your whiskery mug. I’m sure Davey’s telegram made this all seem much worse than’t was.” He saw Jelly glance up and knew that Davey was denying it with a shake of his head.
Jelly looked beyond him, and Johnny could tell the exact instant when the older man recognized Trudy seated beside him. He saw the widow turn slowly and look Jelly in the eyes. Jelly’s surprise was complete. “Gertrude Powell,” he said a little too loudly.
“Jellifer Hoskins,” she responded.
Johnny spoke up and broke the tension. “Jelly, I’m gonna stay here in this wagon for a while; turn around and follow us, okay?”
“Sure Johnny, if that’s what you want.” His voice held an unasked question. He cast a suspicious look at the widow, and then worked to get the team and wagon turned around on the narrow roadway.
As they started off again, Johnny settled back against the valise again. He could see Jelly staring at him, his curiosity working overtime. The widow sat very close to him in the back of the wagon and was busy looking back at the bewhiskered handyman with knife-edged eyes. Johnny tapped her arm lightly to get her attention and gave her a wink. Then, he scooted towards her and threw his arm across her shoulders. With a glance to the wagon behind him, he leaned in close and gave her a big kiss on the cheek. Over the clop of the horses and the rolling clatter and squeak of the wagons, over the sounds of the woods around them and the conversation of Davey and Hiram on the high seat of the wagon, he could still hear Jelly sputter and call out “What the hell?”
Let him think about that for awhile. And Johnny grinned broadly as the wagons rattled on towards home.