AN ALTERNATE SCENE FOR THE EPISODE ‘PERSON UNKNOWN.’
Johnny shut his eyes.
It felt like everything inside him had just turned to mush and been dumped at his feet. Hell, if there was one sound he hated more than anything else, it was that sound – that dull click that told him there was no bullet in the chamber.
Count your bullets.
He’d learned the hard way when he was starting out that you had to count your damned bullets – so why was it he always tried that seventh time just in case? Damn, if Lucrece hadn’t been out there with him when Nevill’s men first started shooting, no way would he have wasted four bullets just trying to get them both back inside the barn in one piece.
Lucrece. It was her fault that he was in this mess. Of all the stupid things to do: trusting Tom Neville.
Well, at least the shooting had stopped a soon as his gun had gone quiet. Peering out the door he could see a rider coming towards the barn.
Nevill’s man sure didn’t waste any time. Looked like he’d come prepared – sticks with white flags didn’t exactly grow on trees.
“Boy. Oh, boy! You wanna talk?”
Johnny let him ride up close to the barn. Hell, not as if he had any choice. How many times had he done just this; stood still with his face set to keep from showing that his heart was thundering in his chest.
Nevill’s man smiled at him - real friendly like. “Hey, you can’t be doin’ too good in there.”
Well, Johnny was doing just fine, thank you very much. “Can’t complain.” Who wouldn’t be with an empty gun and a hole in his leg and a man trying to kill him for a murder his own worthless son had done?
“Nevill wants to make a deal with ya. You surrender to us – we’ll turn you over to the sheriff.”
Oh, sure they would.
“Then what? You get together a lynch mob?”
“No, no, no. You’ll get a regular court trial.”
Hell, he must be thinking Johnny didn’t have a brain in his head. “An’ how’s Nevill gonna stand that?”
It must’ve been a pretty good joke the way he smiled at Johnny.
“Well, you won’t be convicted…but you won’t convict Tom Nevill, either.”
Oh yeah? Johnny wasn’t smiling any. “I’m sure gonna try.”
“Aw, he’s got all us ta witness in his favour. Nevill ain’t too worried. I reckon you can trust me, Lancer.” He held up his right hand, real smooth. “My word.”
Johnny didn’t move an inch. Just what sort of game was Nevill playing anyway?
“I never had nothin’ against you personal,” the hand went on, taking off his hat and scratching his head. “Or you can just…lay in there an’ die. That girl too, maybe.”
A lead weight dropped into Johnny’s gut. Hell, he hated being beat. Was it even possible that Nevill’d just let him go? Nope - not when Johnny knew the truth about his son. Then again, maybe he figured no one’d listen to a Mex anyway, least of all over who killed another Mex. And then there was Lucrece standing here behind him; maybe if it was just himself he’d think about making a fight of it but he couldn’t risk it when she was in here as well. Mierda.
The hand was watching Johnny real close – hell, it wouldn’t take a genius to sense that Johnny was wavering. “I don’t see the point,” the hand called across.
Damn it all, nope…no point at all.
Johnny stared up at him for a long moment – the man he was trusting his life to - then looked away, hefting his gun in his hand. Hell, an empty gun had saved his life more than once…but it was no use to him or Lucrece this time.
He threw the gun out the door. Dios, he had a bad feeling about all this; and that bad feeling doubled when he saw that look of satisfaction on the hand’s face when called over to his boss.
“All right, Mr Nevill. He wants to make a deal.”
And while they waited for Nevil to come across, Lucrece walked straight out and looked up at Nevil’s man. “Janks. Did Tom Nevill kill that man?”
And right then Johnny didn’t give a damn about the fix he was in – he stared up at Janks just like Lucrece was doing.
Janks’s smile barely slipped as he looked down on her from up on his horse. “That’s nothin’ for a young girl ta worry about.”
Lucrece was spitting fury. “Listen – you give me the truth.”
Johnny watched Janks real carefully of a sudden - the man looked to be considering his words. Johnny held his breath.
“Yeah - I reckon he did, Miss Normile. But you know him…he was just drunk.”
Just drunk. Dios, he damn-well killed Man because he was ‘just drunk’.
“Oh, yeah…sure,” Lucrece spat back.
Hell, even though Janks’s answer was everything he’d been expecting, the truth still kicked at him like a boot rammed into his gut. Why the hell hadn’t Johnny won the coin toss for once then he would’ve been the one to go into the saloon to buy the drinks. Not Man - not Man and a knife that mostly got used for whittling and a gun that had never been fired at anyone. Of all the senseless, stupid ways to die…
Right then Lucrece ran off towards the house like she was washing her hands of the lot of them and who could blame her? If ever Lucrece had any doubts about loving Tom Nevill, Janks’s words put the final nail in that coffin.
Tom Nevill made as if to grab at her as she ran past but Lucrece pushed past him and maybe Tom would have followed her but Old Man Nevill rode up just then. “Let go a’her.”
Nevill had a mean growl and a mean face. There wasn’t a thing to like about him. He’d dealt with too many of the ‘Nevill’s’ of this world. He put on his best poker face as he watched Nevill ride towards him. Oh yeah, he’d met plenty of men like Nevill before, knew exactly the type of man Sheriff Kling talked about – little better than barroom thugs who bullied everyone into submission. Could never understand why anyone would give them so much as the time of day in the first place.
Nevill stopped his horse in front of Johnny then looked up. “That beam oughtta do right nice.”
Without moving a muscle in his face, Johnny looked up as well. Mierda. Nevill had a point all right – the hoist swinging from the beam looked just perfect to tie a hangman’s noose.
“Nevill. We made a bargain.”
Johnny’s eyes flicked to Janks as soon as he heard his words. Well, that was a surprise. Maybe not everyone around here was willing to bow to everything Nevill said. Looked like this ‘Janks’ might have a conscience after all. Dios, he hoped so. He was even going to dare let a sliver of hope stick in his heart.
“People call me Mr. Nevill.”
“You sent me out ta talk for you. He gave up square.”
Well, the hand had guts - he’d give him that - but Nevill was looking real smug. “Well…I reconsidered.” Nevill didn’t even bat an eye.
“Well you ain’t gonna hang no man like this!”
Hell, Johnny sure hoped not…
One of the hands rode up just then and stopped behind the two who’d already dismounted. Looked like the types who’d always be firing from the back lines. But if they supported Janks that’d be four against two…
“Then you’all move aside and I’ll do it.”
Johnny swallowed. Nevill sounded like he meant it all right. And it wasn’t the heat making that bead of sweat dribble down his back as he looked back to Janks.
“No. Supposin’ we tell it on you.”
Johnny held his breath. Janks was digging his heels in. ‘We’ sounded like those other men must’ve been in the saloon when Man was killed, too. Maybe…just maybe the cards were starting to fall Johnny’s way.
“You men wanna search for work come slack season? Stand aside – it don’t concern you.”
Dammit – that’s low. Not many men’d make a stand for someone they didn’t know if it meant their families going hungry. Desperation was beginning to claw at him now. “We made a deal,” he yelled out. Mierda, he’d seen lynchings before.
Janks turned to the other three hands – the ones looking like they wanted Johnny and the whole darn mess to disappear or something …anything as long as they didn’t have to dirty their own hands. “Well? Whatdya say?” he called to them.
Hell, Janks coulda been rousing them outta bed before dawn on a Sunday morning for all the good his words did.
Nothing. Not one of them looked man enough to stand straight let alone go up against Nevill. Sure, they didn’t look too proud of themselves the way they suddenly started looking anywhere except at Janks but their guilty consciences didn’t stop them from holstering their guns.
But Johnny stared at Janks - didn’t take his eyes off him. The man was his last hope.
Johnny could see the muscles knotting in the Janks’s jaw. Janks looked to Johnny then looked to Nevill.
Damn-it Janks, tell Nevill to go to hell.
“Well, I got nothin’ ta do with it.” And Janks’s shoulders slumped and that sliver of hope Johnny’d been clinging to turned into an arrow tipped with ice cold fear.
Johnny swallowed – hard - as his shoulders dropped. That lead weight in his gut just got twice as heavy. Dios…he had to think…if he made a move maybe… just maybe Janks’d follow his lead…
But Tom was on him before he had a chance, yanking his arms back and wrapping that long bandana he’d had tied to his arm about Johnny’s wrists. He couldn’t even put enough weight on his bad leg to stand, let alone letting it take all his weight to kick out at Tom, and he figured they’d be just as happy to shoot him at close quarters with that shotgun Tom was holding on him all the while. And then Tom was pushing him onto the crate and Nevill was fooling with the rope and Johnny’s mouth was going real dry.
For a moment there he felt kind of numb – hell the sun was shining and the birds were singing and ain’t that always the way when your life’s about to be snatched away from you? But when they dropped the rope around his neck and he felt the scratch of the fibres on his skin he jumped up like his ass was on fire. Shit, he wasn’t going down without a fight. But Nevill grabbed hold of his arm and threw off his balance and next thing he knew he was doing all he could to keep his weight off his bad leg and he was calling out with the pain of it all before he could stop himself.
Then Nevill was pushing at him some more and gripping his arm with both hands as Tom pulled on the end of the rope and, Dios, the pain was spiking all the way into his head as his leg took the brunt of his weight for a second time. Somehow he managed to hop onto the crate on one leg and that left him standing, more or less, not knowing if was about to puke or pass out.
He had to think…he had to do something…had to be a way. Mierda, he wasn’t going down like this…
“Cut him loose. I’m gonna shoot either one of you. Now you just cut him loose.”
He could’ve sworn someone just took a knife to all that panic in his head and just cut it off from the rest of his body.
What a sight for sore eyes - Lucrece standing there with a shotgun big enough to clear a whole street.
Nevill barely spared her a glance. “It’s just a girl,” he growled at Tom.
Johnny held himself tense on his good leg. Tom wasn’t looking exactly like he agreed with his old man’s words about Lucrece.
“Yeah, but she’s a girl who can shoot that gun better’n I can.”
Good ol’ Lucrece; she was a smart girl but who would’ve known she had talent with a shotgun?
“Then gun her down.”
“Gun her down? The men ain’t gonna stand fer that.”
Hell and neither would Johnny. Lucrece would have to listen to him for once if it came to that. But boy, she was looking awful steady with that shotgun.
“Either he hangs or you do. Now…you just get in between.”
Nevill didn’t sound like he was blustering - but he was certainly fond of getting his son to do his dirty work - and Tom looked like he was used to it too because straight away he turned towards Lucrece and talking in that slimy drawl of his. “Honey…ahhh…”
Lucrece’s finger tightened on the trigger. She looked mad through and through. “You just put your gun down.”
“You mean lay it down, here?” Tom sounded all innocence – like he was asking where to put her wrap.
“You…come on,” Lucrece snapped, raising her voice and sounding and looking like she meant it. But could she shoot a man in cold blood if she had to?
Tom let his shotgun drop to the ground and Johnny threw a quick look towards Janks and the other three still sitting their horses. Damn it - not one of them had made a move. Not even Janks.
Tom kept his eyes on Lucrece – which was real smart considering she was holding that shotgun on him and looked like she was about to use it. “I’m all done,” he told her.
If ever Lucrece looked like she was no longer in love with Tom Nevill, it was right that minute. All Johnny could see in her eyes was pure loathing. “You just turn around…and cut him loose.”
“Now honey…all I’m askin’ for is just give us one minute.”
Tom was walking towards her…slowly…that slimy smile that matched his voice plastered on his face.
Watch it, Lucrece, now…don’t let him get too close…
Hell’s fire! Johnny jumped when the gun fired and so did everyone else.
But it wasn’t Lucrece’s shotgun.
Tom jerked around then ran back to Johnny. Nevill had drawn his gun. Janks and the others dropped from their horses and took shelter next to the water tower and Lucrece took shelter by the barn.
Johnny peered through the trees to the meadow beyond. Riders – and lots of them. Could it be…?
Tom grabbed at him around the waist, forcing Johnny to hop back to keep his shaky balance on the crate but, mierda, Johnny struggled all the harder. There was no doubting who the big man on the horse was, riding towards them with all the confidence of a man who had a whole regiment behind him - not just a useless sheriff. Dios, Murdoch, what the hell are you doing?
“Well…go on an’ fire at’em. Take your gun out an’ fire at’em!” Tom was sounding panicked and Johnny was beginning to feel that way too as he tried to twist his way out of Tom’s grasp. He was so far back now that his bad leg was dangling off the crate. But Nevill was running forward with his gun drawn and Johnny just had to do something. That was his old man out there…
“Fire at’em,” Nevill shouted to Janks and the others. Damn it all to hell, Johnny squirmed even more but Tom was holding onto Johnny like his life depended on it and Murdoch was still riding up. And now Nevill was heading for the cover of the water tower where he’d get a clean shot at the two riders who were waay too close now. It’d be easy pickings.
“Don’t you move, Mr Nevill.”
Lucrece. Lucrece with that big shotgun of hers jammed bang slap against Nevill’s neck. Now that’d make any man think twice.
It was clear that Nevill wasn’t willing to call her bluff, not with the sheriff and Murdoch bearing down on him. And just maybe Johnny could start to breathe again.
Murdoch rode in at a fast pace. It looked like he thought Lucrece had Nevill in charge because he only seemed to have eyes for Johnny as he swung down from his horse and brought his gun out as he walked forward.
Dios, Johnny had never been so glad to see anyone in his entire life. Except for maybe that Pinkerton man.
Just then Tom jumped forward, heading for the shotgun.
“Drop it,” Murdoch growled.
A man’d be a fool to mess with someone who spoke in a tone like that. His old man meant business.
The sheriff brought his horse up close to Tom then swung down while Murdoch held his gun on the skunk who’d killed Man. Tom Nevill was gonna pay.
The sheriff seemed to hesitate a second, looking back at Murdoch, then he turned back to Tom and Johnny thought he saw a new set to the sheriff’s shoulders. “Come over here,” the sheriff told Tom, feeling around in his pockets as he spoke then bringing out a set of keys and a pair of handcuffs.
Johnny could see Scott and the Lancer hands they’d brought with them riding up now. Murdoch threw Lucrece a look - she still stood there with her shotgun pressed against Nevill’s neck - and then those long legs of his old man covered the distance across to him in a few fast strides.
Johnny bent his head for Murdoch to slip the rope from about his neck and when he straightened, Murdoch was staring up at him, which was kind of unusual in itself, and looking at him as if he hadn’t seen him in a year. One hand took hold of Johnny’s arm to help balance his shaky stance.
Johnny grinned. “You sure got good timing, Murdoch.”
“Here, let’s get you down from there.”
He needed the hold Murdoch had on his arm as he lowered his butt back down to the top of the crate – all his limbs had turned to jelly. For a moment he let his head drop and squeezed his eyes shut. That had been close. Way too close.
“Kling! Tell this girl to put the shotgun down. Damn things likely to go off!” Nevill – still thinking that he ran the world.
Johnny looked up to see Scott almost at Lucrece’s side and looking at her real admiringly. “Oh, I think she looks like she knows what she’s doing,” Scott told Nevill as he holstered his gun. The Lancer hands had ridden in behind him with guns drawn and sat waiting for the word.
Murdoch looked across to Janks and the three other hands.
“You’ll get no trouble from us, mister,” Janks called across. His eyes settled on Nevill. “I got no respect for Nevill…or his son.”
Murdoch stared up at Janks for a moment then called out to the Lancer hands, “Put your guns away, men.”
“Sheriff, where do you want this one?” Scott had taken over for Lucrece and was now prodding Nevill forward with the tip of his gun. He raised an eyebrow as he got closer to Johnny. “I see you’ve been having yourself a bit of fun.”
His head was starting to buzz and little black spots in his eyes were making it hard to see but he managed a grin. “Just a little, brother.”
Nevill curled his lip at Johnny as Scott prodded him forward to stand next to his handcuffed son. “Kling, what’s the meaning of all this? That boy killed a man in the saloon the other night and was trying to escape. We were just trying to see justice done.”
“That ‘boy’ is my son and you know damned well he didn’t kill anyone.” Murdoch had a growl that’d make a grizzly jealous.
Nevill threw Murdoch a look of pure hatred. “Murdoch Lancer. You always were too damned big for your boots – but you got no say in this county.”
“When a man tries to lynch my son, I’ve got plenty to say, Nevill – and I’ll be saying it all the way to the judge until you’re behind bars.”
“Now, come on, sheriff. You ain’t gonna do this.”
“This is exactly what I intend to do, Mr Nevill.” The sheriff took a breath and looked straight at Nevill. “I intend to arrest your son for the killing of that Mexican boy…and I intend to arrest the both of you for attempted murder.” Then his eyes took in the other Nevill hands. “And anyone else who was involved in this lynch mob.”
“Tom, are you just intending to stand by and listen to these lies?” Nevill jabbed his son in the side with his elbow. “Speak up, boy.”
Tom licked his lips and shuffled his feet a bit. “Aw, come on, sheriff. The boy was just a Mex. He just couldn’t take a little fun, that’s all.”
“Why you filthy, lying…” Johnny flung himself at Tom. Somewhere through his rage he heard the other man squealing like a cat with its tail caught in a door as Johnny’s hands clamped around his throat. He guessed this time with it being daylight, Tom could see the look on his face. Good.
It really didn’t take much for Murdoch and Scott to haul him off.
Sure a small part in his brain wanted to choke the life out of Tom Nevill but most of him was happy to see the man in handcuffs and on his way to jail. Still, the sight of Tom struggling for breath and clutching at his throat helped a little. He hobbled away from Tom with Murdoch’s help and Scott hauled Tom to his feet.
“You saw that, sheriff!” Nevill yelled. “The Lancer boy’s obviously dangerous. He tried to kill my son.”
Sheriff Kling stared at Nevill. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Nevill went red. Looked like he wasn’t too happy when someone else played his own games back at him. Nevill suddenly looked across to his hands. “These men can testify that Tom didn’t kill the Mex. They were with him at the time. They saw the whole thing. Ain’t that right, boys?”
It was amazing that even in handcuffs Nevill thought he could bully everyone to get what he wanted.
“That’s right – they was all there, weren’t you boys.” Tom was trying but he didn’t have his old man’s nerve and it ended up sounding like a whining plea.
“And there’ll be a hundred dollar bonus to any man who speaks up,” Nevill added.
Scott let go of Tom and flexed his hand like he was itching to close Nevill’s mouth with his fist.
But every time Nevill opened his mouth he made it clearer to Johnny that he wasn’t worth even that much attention. “A lousy hundred dollars? That all your son is worth to you?” Boy, Johnny had been worth a thousand dollars for just an hour of Murdoch’s time. Was it any wonder Tom Nevill turned out like he had. “You heard him, sheriff. That’s bribery.”
Sheriff Kling didn’t look too upset about having another charge to add to his list, not by the way he slapped the handcuffs on Nevill.
“Tom Nevill’s right, Sheriff. We were there an’ saw the whole thing.”
Everyone went quiet and watched Janks as he dismounted. Nevill had that greedy gleam in his eye again and Tom was back to licking his lips. Was it any wonder Lucrece didn’t like kissing him.
“You can make your statement in my office, Janks,” Kling said, pushing Nevill towards his horse but Janks didn’t take any notice. He had his eyes glued fast to Tom.
“We all saw it, didn’t we,” Janks went on, looking at the other Nevill hands. The other three nodded their heads and looking like any minute they’d be saying ‘baa baa.’ “That’s right,” Janks said, speaking up nice and clear. “We saw Tom Nevill kill that Mex. Said he wanted to see how far a chilli bean’d jump and started firing bullets all over the place. The Mex only had a knife in his hand by then and he drew it and tried to make it to the door…” Janks looked the once at Johnny then he dropped his voice even lower. “The Mex never had a chance.”
Dios. And all they’d wanted was a beer and a couple of beefsteaks. That grip Murdoch had on his arm got that little bit tighter.
“Tom was drunk all right – but seems ta me that don’t make a good enough excuse.” Janks looked at Tom, standing there with his head bent and looking awful white. “He knew what he was doin’ – an’ he didn’t care.” He looked at Johnny. “Probably would’a tried to do the same thing to you if it’d been you that came into the saloon first.”
“Kling, I’ll have your badge for this and every thing you own if you go ahead and believe these lies,” Nevill yelled.
“Well that’s the problem, ain’t it, Nevill. I’ve been believing these ‘lies’ for too long – and it’s time I stopped. Mr Lancer, can you an’ your men help me escort these two back to town?” He looked at Johnny. “I’ll need your son, here, to come and make his statement. And you boys as well,” he added to the Nevill hands. “Miss Lucrece, I’d like to thank you for your help.”
Johnny stared down at the ground and took a deep breath. Finally, it was all over. Now all he had to do was watch Tom Nevill hang…for Man’s sake.
“Lancer…Mr Nevill’s got your horse at his ranch. A fine animal like that – I’m sure you’ll be wanting him back.”
He hadn’t heard Janks walk up. But now he looked at him. “Yeah. I will. And thanks.”
Janks nodded. “I’ll arrange for him to be taken to town. You can pick him up there.”
Johnny nodded but truth be told his mind was on other things. The ride into Truro…the stupid story Man had told him about the salesman and the cactus. His own complaint that he never got the luck. Only it was Man who didn’t get the luck this time - and somehow Johnny had once again managed to escape an execution at the eleventh hour. Boy, he hoped he wasn’t going to make a habit out of that.
Janks was looking like he was about to say more. His eyes met Johnny’s and he opened his mouth to speak but then he closed it and turned to walk away.
“Hey, Janks! You the one that put the bullet through my leg?”
Janks threw a quick look at Murdoch. “Yeah…I reckon I was.”
Johnny nodded. “Well, I guess you just made up for it.”
“Oh my goodness…whatever is goin’ on here?” a woman’s voice called out.
Murdoch made a face as he watched Mrs Normile drive into her yard. “Oh no. I was hoping to be out of here before she turned up.”
Johnny stared up at him. “You know Mrs Normile?”
“Yes, Johnny. Scott and I both know Mrs Normile. She very kindly tried to bribe me into either offering Scott’s or your hand in marriage or give her a pile of money – all for the privilege of seeing you home safe and sound.”
“Well, what did you say?”
And then Scott was grinning at him. “As I recall it was something about you not being worth the dynamite it would cost to blow you up with?”
“He said what?” Johnny looked at Murdoch.
Murdoch cleared his throat but for now all he had eyes for and was Mrs Normile who looked to be coming their way. “Johnny, we’ll talk about my methods later. Right now, we need to get you into town and see if there’s a doctor to look at your leg. Scott, you go deal with Mrs Normile.”
Scott didn’t look too happy about the job he was given but he headed off to talk to Mrs Normile anyway.
“Johnny, can you ride? Maybe I’d better find a buggy or a wagon?” Murdoch looked around for one but he was already shaking his arm free of Murdoch’s hold.
“No need for that, Murdoch. Lucrece did a good job on it. Speaking of Lucrece…where is she?”
Johnny looked around. There was no sign of her outside. Kling was hustling Nevill onto a horse - no easy feat with his hands tied behind his back – and Scott was herding Mrs Normile into her house even though the lady didn’t look too keen about going.
“Johnny…” Murdoch began.
“Give me a minute, huh, Murdoch.”
He limped across to the barn door. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dark after being outside, but once they did, he could see Lucrece standing by the old table where she’d done all her nursing.
She turned around. Two long tears streaked down either cheek.
The next moment she was in his arms and sobbing against his shoulder.
“Johnny, I don’t know what I was thinking to go and trust Tom Nevill. I nearly got you killed.”
He let her cry. Didn’t have the heart to stop her – and he had a pretty good idea she was crying about more than just her foolishness in trusting Nevill. Darn, she was a sweet girl…
Finally, her put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her back a little ways.
“Lucrece.” He said the word as gentle as he could. She’d been through so much – he didn’t want to hurt her more.
“What?” The word was muffled in the last of her gulps under all that hair as she stared down at the straw on the floor of the barn.
“Lucrece?” He said the word even gentler this time.
She looked up.
“You gotta stop gettin’ so attached to every critter you bring into your barn.”
She gulped again as she wiped the back of her hand across her nose.
“You don’t love me, do ya Johnny?”
Dios, he didn’t want to hurt her. He took one end of the pink ribbon in her hair that had fallen forward and put it back where it belonged.
“What’s love anyway, huh? You know I like you a whole lot, Lucrece – and you saved my life. Twice. Why, if it wasn’t for you, Nevill probably woulda captured me at the water hole not to mention him putting a rope around my neck and…”
“Don’t say it, Johnny. I don’t ever wanna hear you talk about what coulda happened.”
“You were a brave girl Lucrece, doin’ what you did.”
“But you don’t love me.”
He had to slip his finger under her chin to get her to look at him.
“I don’t…I don’t know a whole lot about love myself. Except that it usually takes time. That those first stirrings aren’t always to be trusted - that it can almost mean as much if those first feelings turn into friendship…”
Her mouth turned down even more at those words and he had to force her chin up a little more.
“…and that’s a whole lot better than having those feelings turn sour.”
Mrs Normile had to have the worst timing in the world.
Lucrece wouldn’t look him in the eye – not properly.
“That’s mama calling. I’d better go.”
She ran out of the barn, lifting the hem of her dress to wipe at her eyes as she went.
And then his leg gave out on him.
At least he saved himself from landing on his butt by grabbing hold of one of her crates. Seeing as standing was a challenge right now, he hauled his butt onto the crate and sat there for a bit. And then a bit longer. He could feel a band around his head – like he’d been out in the blazing sun wearing a hat that was three sizes too small.
After all that had gone on the last couple of days, it was hard to believe it was finally all over. It hadn’t really sunk in yet.
He could hear noises outside: riders mounting up, Murdoch’s voice, Nevill doing some last minute ranting, Scott asking somebody, “Where’s Johnny?”
He really ought to call out to them…
The throbbing in his leg was starting to die down now and that was bad. Because now he started thinking about Man and that stupid toss of the coin all over again and Lucrece and that hurt look on her face and all he really wanted to do was get up and kick something.
So he did. He kicked one of Lucrece’s cages that she’d left on the ground. Kicked the door right off it. And would have definitely ended up on his butt this time if Murdoch hadn’t come in the barn right then.
Murdoch didn’t say anything. Just grabbed Johnny’s arm and helped him hobble back to the crate.
He kept his head down but he could see what Murdoch was doing out of the corner of his eye. He picked up the broken door and leaned it back against the cage, then closed one of the other cage doors that Lucrece had left open.
“I’m sorry about Man, Johnny.”
And that didn’t help the ache in his throat.
“Yeah. Me too.”
“By the sounds of it, I’ve got a lot to thank Lucrece for.” And he sounded like he meant it. “She told me a little of her part in all this.”
Hell, he felt so tired he could hardly sit straight. How long was it since he’d had a decent meal and got to sleep on something other than straw or sitting up in that old well?
“Johnny, what happened?”
He looked up and saw the worry on Murdoch’s face. Maybe even saw a few extra lines that had probably been there since Mrs Normile had showed up on Lancer’s doorstep. Now that was one conversation he would’ve liked to have heard.
Murdoch’s eyes were still on him but there was something in their expression that got his tongue working again. He started slowly at first; talked about how he and Man had ridden into town, the flip of the coin – even how he’d wanted to strangle Tom Nevill with his bare hands.
And Lucrece. He told him about Lucrece and her hurt critters and her rock hard biscuits and her bandages and her misplaced trust.
Murdoch heard him out in silence, nodding the once when he got to the end.
“She might have made a mistake trusting Tom Nevill but she didn’t make a mistake trusting you, Johnny. That must have taken a lot of guts. You were a stranger.” He looked around. “So what happened to all her animals?”
Johnny looked around as well. He guessed all the open cage doors told of a pretty quick exit.
“She let’em go. Just like that.”
Murdoch rubbed his nose. “Perhaps she thought she didn’t need them anymore.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s what she thought.”
“A young impressionable girl like that, Johnny…” He let his voice trail off.
“No Murdoch…I didn’t give her any reason to think. Well, to think…”
Murdoch nodded. “Sometimes girls just do.”
He swallowed. “Yeah, but I’m feeling pretty bad about it, Murdoch. And now she doesn’t have her animals and she doesn’t have Tom Nevill and she doesn’t have…”
“You need to talk to her, Johnny.”
And hadn’t he tried that once already?
Murdoch came across and put a hand on his shoulder. Johnny looked up at him. “I’m not sure I know what to say to her.”
Murdoch shook him a little. “The truth is always a good place to start.”
“Yeah, well I tried that.”
“Then you need to try again.”
And wasn’t that just like Murdoch.
Johnny ran a hand down his face. What he really wanted to be was one of her wild’uns that she let go – without holding it against him that he went. And then, just maybe in time, she’d be happy to see him when he came by to visit some time; he owed her that much – and then some.
Murdoch cleared his throat. “Mrs. Normile was making tea for us. I told her I wouldn’t be long.”
“You go ahead, Murdoch. I’ll be inside in a bit.”
“Don’t be long, son.”
Johnny watched Murdoch go before he got up off the crate and tested putting some weight back on his leg. The morning’s goings on hadn’t helped it any but it looked like he’d be able to hobble on it again.
When he got to the barn door he stopped to take a breather and had one last look around. A lot had happened since he’d first woken up on the straw and found Lucrece tending his leg. The barn felt kind of hollow now – like one of those homesteads he’d come across from time to time, when the owners had up and walked away. One time he’d found their dirty plates still on the table.
Darn it, after all Lucrece had done to help him, how could he leave her feeling like this?
Lucrece was a girl that needed something - or someone – to love.
Grabbing onto the doorway he hobbled outside. There was no sign of anyone out here now. Murdoch and Scott must be inside with Mrs. Normile.
And that’s when he saw it: a bunny, hopping up by the road, with a strip of cloth wrapped around its leg.