A missing scene for ‘Goodbye Lizzie
Murdoch held the reins with a steady hand, putting a good few miles between them and town.
They must have travelled a third of the way to her house before the miseries began to settle in her stomach and she noticed anything other than her own world of worry.
“You’re awful quiet, Murdoch. What happened - cat got your tongue?” She tried to sound sassy, but then she always tried to sound sassy or knowing or high-fallutin’. Whatever it took to get the job done, right? But could she fool Jenny? Jenny had real learning now, just as fine as cream gravy. She’d be educated and mannerly with soft white hands in pretty lace gloves. But would she wonder? Would she look in her mama’s eyes and see years of lying and lawlessness?
‘Mrs Elizabeth Cramer.’ Johnny said it sounded so proper.
She realised Murdoch hadn’t answered. He looked across and smiled down at her but his gaze lingered on some other place or time. She knew that feeling. She clutched her shawl to her shoulders as goosebumps broke out on her skin. Not even the sun could take away a dread of cold bars.
What was it Murdoch had told her? I believe in new beginnings - Johnny taught me that.
Oh lawdy, lord. Damn those boys of hers. She clenched her shawl even tighter. She should never have told them she was coming back here to Green River. What in God’s name had she been thinking? Well, they weren’t her boys no more. Not now - not ever.
“I’ve been thinking about Johnny.”
Her stomach was in such knots she’d almost forgotten Murdoch was beside her in the buggy. “He’s a fine boy, Murdoch. You oughtta be mighty proud.”
“I am. He’s had his struggles - but he’s made a life for himself here at Lancer.”
It caught her by surprise when a chuckle rose up in her throat. “I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw Johnny Madrid standing there by your fire, just a’sipping your wine like he was born to it.”
“He was born to it.” Murdoch’s face relaxed some. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound snappy.”
She put a hand to her forehead. “Well I know he was born to it now, but with those blue eyes of his flashing at me like that, seemed like the whole world had turned topsy-turvy. I thought for the minute he was about to ask me to join him on the street.” She laughed again but Murdoch didn’t. She slapped his arm. “Oh, don’t you pretend you never saw that look on his face. You might know him as Johnny Lancer but I can tell you now, that scowl was all Johnny Madrid.”
Murdoch grinned this time, like he knew something she didn’t. “No, I saw a son who thinks he has to keep a lookout for his old man.”
Thinking back on her conversation with Johnny, Murdoch was probably right. “Well, ain’t that the devil. So you’ve got yourself a champion after all these years.”
“Two of them.”
And didn’t he sound proud. And no wonder.
Murdoch clicked the horses on. It was easy to sit back in the buggy and watch the grass go by. Sometimes it bent sideways with the breeze but mostly it stood tall and proud as they rumbled past. If only the buggy could carry her far enough away so she could be sure the last eight years would never come back to bite her. She told Johnny she didn’t nudge easy. Well, time to make good on that boast. It was no use falling in a heap every time she got a little bump. Whatever it takes - wasn’t that always her plan?
Murdoch cleared his throat then shifted his weight on the seat and she couldn’t help smiling to herself.
“Elizabeth, would you mind telling me where you met Johnny?”
Talking about yesterdays felt a whole lot easier than worrying about tomorrows. And this was one memory that didn’t sting. “Now that I can tell you. We were in a two-bit border town. You know the kind; mostly all people do is drink deep and die hard. Why, Johnny was not much older than…”
Only now she’d scrubbed that name from her memory. Thankfully Murdoch didn’t seem to notice her words had trailed off. He looked to be struggling with other matters. Not that she could see it sure-fire clear in his face but there was a certain perplexity in his eyes that seemed to darken their colour and make him look kind of sad.
“And…Johnny was one of your ‘boys’?”
So that was it. She sniggered. “No, Murdoch. He was never one of my boys. Not that I wouldn’t have had him join the fold. I asked him - but he’d already made a name for himself by then, even though I didn’t know who he was at the time.” When Murdoch didn’t answer she reached up and forced his head around to look at hers. “Now what’s this all about? I told you, Murdoch, I’m done with that time in my life, just like Johnny is.”
“I’m sorry, Elizabeth.” The words rushed out - well, as fast as Murdoch Lancer would ever rush his words. “I didn’t mean to pry. It’s just that…” The buggy passed one clump of cheery daisies, then another. “Elizabeth, I lost seventeen years of Johnny’s life. I guess I’m feeling jealous.” He glanced at her just the once before staring ahead again. “Jealous that you knew Johnny when all I had were memories of chubby feet running barefoot in the dirt.”
“Oh, Murdoch.” She dropped her sassy tone. If only she’d met Murdoch before she and Dolf got married. Murdoch had a nobility about him that Dolf never had. Half the time Dolf looked too scared to talk let alone admit to something buried deep inside. She put a hand on Murdoch’s arm. “Would you like me to tell you about it? When I met him that first time, I mean?”
Murdoch started to shake his head.
“I won’t tell any secrets behind his back, Murdoch, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
He had his eyes on her face but she could see him weighing his words before he spoke. She liked that about Murdoch. “Johnny’s a private person. He hasn’t said much about his life before coming here. Not to me, anyway.”
“I’ve seen the way he looks at you, Murdoch. I’d say he doesn’t feel a need to tell you. Acceptance is a precious commodity. It’s something we’d all like - especially those of us who walked the other side of what’s right.”
“How old was he?” And wasn’t that like Murdoch. He’d taken her side against the whole town when Dolf got caught but he still wasn’t brave enough to accept a compliment from her.
Lizzie thought back to that time. It must’ve been three years ago maybe? Her skin had a few less wrinkles - and her hair was mostly dark. But Dolf had been dead five years by then and Jenny was a‘ blooming and soon she’d be finished school and Lizzie had to make a way to bring her home.
She had a good nose when it came to sniffing out trouble, born of a strong sense of self-preservation. That’s what kept her and the boys out of jail all these years. And this time the smell was so powerful she pulled up short when she came out of the general store and looked around. It was like sensing the crack of a storm in the air.
The boys and her were in Burnett, Texas; a hole of a town filled with rowdy drunks and small-minded folk.
Zebulon Walker. Now there was a bad egg. He had a mean mouth, a slick hand with a gun and there wasn’t anyone in town brave enough or stupid enough to stand up to him.
She never knew what the fight was about. With an ornery type like Zeb it could be because you nudged his drinking arm or he didn’t like the colour of your socks.
Zeb liked to put on a show, so he made sure he took his arguments to the middle of town. She saw Zeb step out of the saloon with a glass of whisky in his hand. He balanced the drink on a hitching post, said “Now don’t you go away,” then lumbered across to the centre of the street.
There were so many men coming out of the saloon it was hard to tell who Zeb had picked a fight with this time. She never got her thrills seeing some poor saddle slicker’s blood spilled on the dirt, so in spite of the growing buzz she aimed to move – until she saw this young Mexican kid. He was sauntering down the saloon steps, adjusting his gun belt. She only gave him a quick glance then looked for the man dumb enough to take on Zeb but no-one else showed. Something made her eyes go back to the kid. You wouldn’t call him tall, and by the look of him he still had some filling out to do before he was man-size, but he carried himself like he knew who he was and where he was going. And right now he was ambling down onto the street, looking like he didn’t have a care in the world.
One or two of Zeb’s cronies called out a few jeers. The kid just shrugged and kept walking. When he got close enough to Zeb he looked up at the sky and said, “Nice day for it.”
“Sure hope that horse of yours ain’t buzzard bait ‘cause the undertaker charges twenty dollars for a buryin’.”
The boy wasn’t smiling exactly, but he had this look on his face like he knew some private joke as he pulled a black glove on his left hand. “Seems a fair price.” A ripple went through the townsfolk. There was something ominous about that one gloved hand. Zeb looked at it real close then made some comment about jumping beans and even though his laugh sounded as vicious as always, she could’ve sworn he shrank in size an inch or two. Meanwhile the kid took his place at the end of the street, pushed his hat back from his eyes, then stood there with his hands hanging loosely by his side.
Sometimes the darndest things grip a person with a powerful hold. Shoot, she didn’t know this boy from Adam, yet here she was a-worrying and wishing he was gazing into his sweetheart’s face not staring down a gun barrel.
Just then Clayt came up to her. “Lizzie, you know who that is?”
“Shut up,” she ground out. Even a whisper might cause the boy to lose his concentration. He was staring at Zeb now and the smile had gone from his eyes. His stampede strings hung loose under his chin and swayed the tiniest bit with the breeze.
Men, women, children, dogs; they all came out to watch the action, each one a’hankering for some bloodletting. It was enough to make a body sick.
She only caught the merest flick of his hand and then the blast of gunfire made her jump a foot in the air and she clapped both hands to her mouth. Lord almighty.
Clouds of smoke drifted from both guns but that was the only movement in the whole town. Not even a tail wagged.
She looked at the boy. He just stood there, staring at Zeb.
She looked at Zeb - and he was staring right back at the kid.
Everyone must have seen it at the same time - a wet patch spreading out across the chest - because a murmur swelled up from the crowd.
And then the swaying started and the gun fell from slack fingers. It was a slow crumple to the dirt. Almost graceful.
“Lizzie.” Clayt was even more urgent this time.
“Shut your mouth, Clayt.”
The townsfolk gathered around Zeb. The bartender prodded him with his boot but he didn’t move any. And that’s when they all started looking twice at the boy. But he just ignored everyone and walked through the crowd, making them stand back to let him go by. It looked like he was heading back into the saloon but instead he headed to the hitching post where Zeb had left his drink. He didn’t make a big show or anything, just downed the whisky in one gulp, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then slipped his gun back in its holster.
She walked across to him and put her hands on her hips. “Boy, you’re either prodigiously lucky or crazy fast.”
He shrugged, almost like he was a mite shy. “I guess I need to be a little of both, ma’am.”
“You got a name?”
“You got another name to put before that one?”
He grinned this time. “Johnny.”
“Johnny Madrid. That name’s got quite a ring to it. I reckon you’re almost fully-growed into it, too.” She held out her hand. “Lizzie Cramer. I think I oughtta buy you a meal.”
He straightened up some. “I’ve got money.”
“How’d you like to make some more?”
His eyes considered her face for quite a while. Finally he said, “I’ve got ears for listening, too.”
“And to think Johnny Madrid was your boy all along, Murdoch. Now ain’t that something.”
Murdoch held the lines with lax hands. The buggy had almost slowed to a halt. “My God. He was gunfighting even back then…at that age?” Suddenly he slapped the reins and made the buggy get going again.
Maybe she shouldn’t have told things exactly like they were. What father wants to hear how their son gunned down a man in cold blood?
“A man has to make peace with his soul whatever life he chooses, Murdoch.” And didn’t she know about that. “He wouldn’t be out there clearing that creek today if he bled inside every time he killed a man. That kind of worrying drains the life out of a person. Makes them slow.”
“And slow makes them dead.”
“Elizabeth, to be honest, I’m glad Johnny was a professional, because it meant he came back to Lancer alive. I’ll never hold that against him.”
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing about that boy of yours, Murdoch, he has a stubborn streak as wide as the Mississippi.” She saw Murdoch’s mouth twitch “Course he probably got that from his old man.”
“Ooh, his mother knew a thing or two when it came to getting her own way.”
“I mean a good kind of stubborn, Murdoch. I saw him stand up to folk he had no business going up against. And sometimes it didn’t go so well for him.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen that myself.”
“So, in answer to your question, no, he was never one of my boys. Your Johnny was only interested in one thing - being good at his...”
She looked closely at Murdoch. “But you already know that, don’t you.”
“He told me that once. Is that why he wouldn’t join you?”
She thought back to their conversation in the cantina. “No, not entirely. I think he said something about money that came a person’s way too easily wasn’t to be trusted. It makes them greedy. Now where do you think he learned a saying like that?”
Murdoch shook his head. “Elizabeth, I don’t know even one tenth of the threads that wove Johnny’s life - but I do like the finished product.”
“Well, we might’ve belonged to the same church, Murdoch, but Johnny and I sat different sides of the aisle. We bumped into each other a few times after that. None of my boys took too kindly to young Johnny being around. I think they thought he was trying to muscle in on their territory. But I’d look him up if I heard we were both in the same town.”
By now they were driving up to the front of her house. She scanned the yard, half scared somehow her boys had made their way out here already but there was no sign of them.
A hand closed over hers. “Is anything wrong?”
“Wrong? Why, whatever makes you think that? I’ve only got to totally rebuild my house, paint it and furnish it before Jenny gets here and we start our new life together.” She gave him her brightest smile.
“We’d better get moving then, hadn’t we, young lady.” Murdoch brought the buggy to a halt then moved around to lift her down. She was ready to start gathering up her packages once he’d released her but he kept his hands about her waist once her feet touched the ground and looked into her eyes. “I want to thank you, Elizabeth.”
“Oh, Murdoch, I’m the one who should be thanking you. Like I said, it ain’t easy to earn a person’s trust. I’m not sure I ever had anyone who believed in me - not like you do. No wonder Johnny turned his back on it all and became Johnny Lancer instead of Johnny Madrid.”
“There’s a new beginning here for you as well.”
It had been a long time since tears pricked the corner of her eyes. “I know it, Murdoch. And I intend to grab hold of it with both hands.”
Clayt, Mossy, Thede, Julio - they belonged to the past. She had new family now. A real family. Her Jenny. And right now she wasn’t about to let anything get in the way of that. “Well, I can’t be standing here jawing all day. Where’s my apron? I’ve got me some work to do.”