(One Year later - Johnny . . .)
Johnny felt the ladder shift and suddenly, he was falling. "This was not supposed to happen," he thought, as he hit the ground . . .
Darkness fell swiftly over the mountains and with it, came the cooler air. The night was alive with a myriad of shadows, casting pools of shifting purple underneath the cypress trees.
Johnny opened his eyes and lay still for a moment, waiting until the world swung back into focus. It had not been a good idea to try and fix the shutter alone. With hindsight, he should have waited until the others got home. At the very least, he ought to have strolled across to the bunkhouse and asked one of the men to hold the ladder for him. How many times had he been told that pride always came before a fall . . .
He waited another second before trying to move, but his head soon put paid to that notion. The ground rolled beneath him like a log on the rapids, and he sank back down with a groan.
"Damn . . ."
By his own reckoning, he must have been lying here for at least an hour now. He'd ridden home before sundown when enough light remained in the sky. The evening had been golden, the air warm and mellow, filled with the quick flash of darting swallows as they dived and swooped for flies.
Murdoch, Jelly and Scott had departed at first light. The three of them heading into Morro Coyo to meet Teresa from the afternoon stage and bring her back home to Lancer. The ranch had been without her for nearly a month, and in his own way, everyone of them had missed her.
Johnny opened his eyes and stared up at the sky, the new moon had nearly risen. By his own estimation, they should all be home soon, but this was not the kind of home-coming he'd planned. The shutter had been on his mind for some time. One of those minor irritations. Johnny knew it would be one of the first things Teresa would notice upon her return to her beloved home, so this evening he'd been determined to fix it. He winced and pulled a wry face - the shutter had fixed him instead.
The night was filled with a million stars, and here, from his unwanted vantage point, Johnny lay staring up at them. He had lain and admired this particular view more times down through the years, than he could remember. Rarely with another person, but more usually alone. He'd travelled the length and breadth of the borders, but the stars seemed somehow brighter now he was home.
Home - the word was filled with so many connotations. It was almost one year exactly, since the day he'd returned to Lancer. Not that he could ever recall having left it, his earlier childhood memories were lost somewhere in time. And the returning had not been easy, or something he had taken for granted. At first, it appeared he had walked back into the biggest mistake of his life.
The issue had always been Murdoch - the man who was his father. The man whom he had hated with an all-consuming fire for so many long, hard and bitter years. Even now, Johnny was unsure of his real motives for returning, let alone staying. Curiosity maybe, and perhaps a need for revenge. Or it might have been the tiny part of him which had wanted so much more. And then, there had always been the thousand dollars . . .
He smiled painfully up at the sky. It wouldn't have been the first time in his short history he was paid that much for a range war. But Murdoch Lancer had surprised him and shattered his preconceptions. The man was as tough as the land he had tamed, as hard as hickory wood. But under the uncompromising, granite exterior, Johnny had sensed a lonely man.
He shifted and clutched at his aching head. He would never forget that first day when he walked into the great room at Lancer. He had come home for a thousand dollars, but stayed for so much more. Slowly and painfully, they had stripped down the layers to expose who they really were.
And Scott had helped of course. His unexpected, Boston brother. Johnny smiled again as he recalled that first, cramped stagecoach ride into Morro Coyo, but if there was one lesson life had taught him, it was never to judge a man by first impressions. Scott might have been dressed like a dandified swell, but beneath the fancy waistcoat beat a heart of solid gold. If it hadn't been for Boston, then Johnny might not have stayed. He was honest enough to admit that now. Things had been fraught between him and Murdoch but Scott had helped to make up for it. For two such polar opposites, they were brothers in more than name. Both of them had lived such different lives, but fate and serendipity had brought them back together, to arrive at the same point in time.
The temperature was falling rapidly, and with it came the dew; silvering each blade of grass like a diamond, as the crickets started to sing. Johnny rolled cautiously onto his side and managed to push himself up. He crawled slowly and painfully towards the veranda, using the rails as leverage. His head throbbed mercilessly and forced him to stop, leaning cautiously against the steps and giving it up as a bad job.
Whether he liked it or not, he was stuck here until his family got home. He knew there was no chance of calling out to Maria, she had already prepared the evening meal and left over an hour ago. Her daughter, Esmeralda, had given birth to a son last week, and Johnny had told the proud abuela to finish up early and go home. He had a new appreciation of how precious it was to spend time with your family.
He sighed with resignation, he couldn't even call Jelly. The old man had ridden into town on the wagon, ostensibly to pick-up some vital supplies. But Johnny hadn't been fooled for a minute, and neither were Murdoch or Scott. The fact of it was, Jelly had missed Teresa just as much as the rest of them, and he wanted to be there to greet her when the stage got in.
Johnny leant back against the steps and closed his eyes. Up until a year ago, he had managed to get through life without a single father in sight. Now, between Murdoch and Jelly, it felt like he had two. Murdoch was a patriarch, a bastion of strength, but Jelly was far more paternal - like an ornery, old dad.
Life had treated the old man harshly and Johnny knew what that was like. They had seen the same sights and done the same things - not all of them worth repeating. Circumstances had forced Jelly to build a hard-shell around his heart in order to survive, but survive the old man had, despite, or in-spite of the rigours of his past. The two of them understood each other - it was as simple and straightforward as that.
The pain in his head was subsiding slightly, Johnny's vision became clearer with the night. He lay back and inhaled appreciatively. The air was soft and aromatic, filled and layered with scent. It had been rosemary which had saved him. Rosemary for remembrance. The dark-green, spiky bushes had broken his wild fall. His clothes were stained with the sharpness of it, the astringent, herbal smell. The whole garden was redolent with nodding flowers, their pearly blossoms ghostly, in the pools of pale moonlight.
It had been a long month without Teresa. For such a diminutive person, she had already managed to cast an almighty, long shadow across his life. Johnny felt a momentary pang of sadness. Most of the women he had known before Lancer had been pretty much of a type. The down-trodden, Mexican mamacita's, careworn and old before their time. The lost and the lonely down on the borders, the sad, little cantina whores. Very few of them had been able to carve much out of the hopelessness of their lives.
He had loved his mother with all of her faults, and even as a child, he had known there were many. But in-spite of the men and the crying late at night, she had always made time for him. Maria had been beautiful but sad. A fragile, vulnerable butterfly who had flown too close to the sun. Johnny no longer questioned the rights and wrongs of what she had done, or the wisdom of some of her decisions. Whenever he remembered his mother, he tried to remember her smile. Gentle and soft as the breeze in the morning, precious and all too rare.
Teresa was the very antithesis of Maria. Confident and happy, secure that she was loved. She gave her affections generously, and Johnny had been touched by her warmth. Slowly, and with somewhat less than his usual reticence, Johnny had let her sneak under his defences and into his life. It had been hard on her, losing her father, but with typical strength, she had coped. Johnny loved and respected her more than he could say, and he was glad she was coming home.
Almost as if on cue, he heard the sound of the buckboard approaching. The rumble of wooden wheels as the wagon rounded up to the corral. His family would be with him in a minute or two, fussing over him and scolding all at once. Murdoch would hide his concern with a few gruff words, Jelly on the other hand, would tick him off long and roundly. Scott would be amused and quietly sympathetic, whilst Teresa would work out her worry by organising him up the stairs to his bed. Johnny smiled with gentle resignation. He wouldn't have it any other way.
He lifted his head and looked up at the sky. it was sparkling and studded with light. Even as he watched, a shooting star fell in a graceful arc above him, trailing clouds of silver as it blazed its way through the heavens. Johnny found he was holding his breath. He had never been all that fanciful - his life had been too tough for that. But as the star arched down to earth, there was a brimful of gladness and wonder inside him, and it seemed to pierce his very heart. Johnny lay back on the steps and waited for his family, giving thanks with a profound sense of peace.
It was a year since he'd come back to Lancer. One year since he'd returned home.
Lisa Paris - 2004.