by Karen and Nancy
Tommy leaned back against the warm rock, cradling the .22 rifle to his chest reverently. He gazed worshipfully at the man beside him, tilting his own hat to match the angle of the hat on his hero’s head. He was happy and content, having spent the afternoon with Johnny learning how to use his new rifle.
On their way back to the hacienda, Johnny suggested they stop at his “special place” to watch the sunset. Tommy felt very grown up and excited. Johnny had given him the rifle—a boy’s rifle, but it made Tommy feel like a man—and his first lessons in gun safety and marksmanship, then revealed his secret place and Tommy felt he was on top of the world.
He glanced sideways at Johnny and plucked a blade of grass. He didn’t really like the taste of grass, but Johnny seemed to—he was always chewing on a piece, anyway—and Tommy wanted to be just like him. “The ranch sure looks purty from up here, Johnny.”
“I think so. I like to come up here, watch the sun go down. It’s so still and peaceful, let’s me think, you know?” Johnny was stretched comfortably on the ground, shoulders leaning against the big rock.
He surreptitiously observed the way the boy handled the small rifle; pleased to see that Tommy remembered the safety measures they’d discussed that afternoon.
Tommy nodded vigorously. “I like to watch the stars. You can sure see ‘em good from here. Do you like the stars, Johnny?” Tommy scooted over until his shoulder touched Johnny’s.
“Yep. My brother, he knows all about the stars—their names, what he calls constellations…”
“What’s a consa … consallation, Johnny?”
“It’s a group of stars that form a picture in the sky. A long time ago, these fellas called Greeks figured out the pictures and made up stories about ‘em. See, that one’s called the Big Dipper.” Johnny traced the outlines with his finger. “And that’s Leo, the Lion. And there’s the Dragon, Draco.”
Tommy traced the images with his finger, “Golly! Show me that dragon again, Johnny.”
The boy was whispering; his voice full of awe as his eyes followed the outlines of the constellations. He laid his forefinger and hand on top of Johnny’s, tracing the lines of Draco along with him. “Did Scott show you these star pictures, Johnny?”
“Yep. And I’ll bet if you ask him, Scott will tell you them stories the Greek fellas made up.”
“Scott’s real smart, ain’t he?”
“Oh boy, Tommy, Scott’s real smart, but he’s also what you call ‘educated.’ That means he’s got lots of schoolin’. Scott knows an awful lot about lotsa different things.”
“You sure are lucky to have a brother like Scott.” Tommy’s voice was wistful.
“I sure am.” Johnny agreed wholeheartedly, thinking just how inadequate those words were to express the splendid fortune that had dealt him Scott Lancer as a brother.
Lady Luck was in one heck of a good mood that day!
Tommy was silent for several moments, the two stargazers enjoying the coolness of the early evening and the spectacular view. Tommy broke the silence, turning his head to look at Johnny. “Johnny, how’d your Ma die?”
Johnny was so shocked by the question that he answered it immediately, “She, she f…f…fell and hit her head.”
He barely had time to reflect that he’d never shared that piece of information with another living soul when Tommy responded tearfully.
“That’s what happened to my Ma, too. The wheel on the buckboard broke and the horse spooked and run off. I got throwed off, but the wagon turned over on top of Ma. I tried to make her wake up, but she wouldn’t…she wouldn’t…” he began to sob and Johnny gathered him close, clasping him tightly.
He didn’t try to speak, knowing there were no words that could soothe this grief. Instead, he simply held Tommy, letting the boy cleanse himself with bitter tears.
Tommy’s sobs gradually tapered off and he sat up, cheeks flushed with emotion. “Johnny, does the hurtin’ ever stop?”
Johnny pushed himself more upright so that he could be face to face with the boy. “I wish I could tell you that you’d wake up one day and everythin’ would be okay, Tommy.” He paused, placing a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. “But it won’t. She’s gone, and knowin’ that, thinkin’ about it, is always gonna hurt.”
“Reverend Aimes said that I’d get over it in time. He said ‘time heals all wounds.’” Tommy’s voice was a forlorn mixture of doubt and hope.
“Well, Tommy, I ain’t disagreein’ with the Reverend.” Johnny cupped the boy’s face in his hands, trying to speak from his heart and at the same time overcome the anguish of talking about his own mother. “I can only tell you what it’s like for me. And when I think about my Mama, it still hurts. But what time did was change the way it hurts.
“You know what it’s like when you fall down and skin your knee?” He patted Tommy’s knee. “It hurts a lot at first, then a little less the next day, and even less the day after that. But even when it’s healed, it leaves a mark.”
Tommy's eyes were wide as he nodded. He had skinned his knee many times and knew exactly what Johnny meant.
“Well, losin’ Mama left this big scraped place inside me and when I think about her, that place is raw, like when you first skin your knee. But just like with a skinned knee, you gotta walk on it, keep on goin’.” He swallowed hard, fighting the lump rising in his throat.
“When I first lost Mama, the pain was different—whenever I thought about her, it was like I had rocks in my stomach, like somebody was stabbin’ me in the heart with a big knife. Sometimes it hurt so much it took my breath away and I couldn’t stop cryin’. It was really hard to keep goin’ then, but I did.” He cupped the back of the boy’s head. “And you gotta, too. That skinned place is always gonna be there, Tommy, but its gonna get easier to walk on it.”
Tommy’s fingers subconsciously rubbed his knee as he considered Johnny’s words. “I just wish I could talk to Ma.” He paused for a moment, then scrambled to lean back against Johnny’s shoulder, hugging his rifle. “Where do people go when they die, Johnny?”
Johnny wished fervently for his brother. Scott would know how to answer. “Well…I…ah…where do you think they go?”
“My Pa says Ma is an angel now, that she lives up in heaven. Where is heaven, Johnny?”
Johnny hesitated a moment and then pointed up at the evening sky. “Scott calls the night sky ‘the heavens.’ And I always thought that folks goin’ to heaven must turn into stars.”
“Is your Ma a star, Johnny?”
“I like to think so, Tommy. See that one? Right up there?” He pointed at a brilliant point of light low on the horizon. “That’s her. That’s my Mama Maria. She’s the Evening Star.”
He turned his head to look at the boy. “And lots of times I sit out under the stars and I talk to her.”
“How come you think she’s that star, Johnny?”
Johnny swung his gaze upward to the glittering canopy. He was silent for so long Tommy thought he might not answer. When he finally spoke, his voice was very soft and the boy knew that Johnny was feeling the pain in that scraped place inside him.
“’Cause that’s the first star to shine every evenin’. All the other stars follow that one. And when they’re all shinin’, none of ‘em burn any brighter than that star.”
He took a deep breath. “My Mama was like that, Tommy. Everybody followed her and she always shone the brightest. When my Mama was in the room, you didn’t want to look at or listen to nobody else. She could light up a room with just her smile.” His breath caught in his throat and he was thankful that it was dark enough to keep the boy from seeing the suspicious wetness in his eyes.
Tommy was silent a moment, then he pressed his little hand into Johnny’s. “Your Ma sounds real nice, Johnny. Bet her and my Ma woulda got along real good.” He looked at the star again and turned back to his friend. “You got any other special stars, Johnny?”
This kid just never ran out of questions! Johnny cleared his throat. “Yeah. See that one? That one’s a special friend, a man who was like a father to me when I wasn’t much older than you.”
“But didn’t you already have a Pa?” Tommy was clearly puzzled.
“I didn’t grow up at Lancer, Tommy. When Ma was killed, I thought I was an orphan. I didn’t know about Mur…my Pa.”
Tommy considered this carefully. “Oh. So, this friend, he was like a Pa?”
“What was his name?”
“So how come you think that star is Pablo, Johnny?”
“That’s the North Star, Tommy. The North Star is very special ‘cause if you know where the North Star is, you can always find your way, even in unfamiliar territory. Pablo, he taught me a lot of things, things that helped me find my way when I was so lost I thought I’d never get back. Pablo, well… he’s my North Star, Tommy, and so there ain’t no other star in the sky that he could be.”
“Gosh.” The boy relaxed, pillowing his head on Johnny’s shoulder and clasping his rifle tightly. He studied the twinkling tableau for some time and finally pointed out a sparkling star that appeared to be haloed in gold. “That’s my Ma, Johnny.”
“It’s all golden and warm lookin’ and purty like my Ma, so it must be her.”
“Well, Tommy, now you know where she is and you can talk to her whenever you need to.” Johnny smoothed Tommy’s bangs away from the boy’s eyes.
“Do I gotta say it out loud or can I just think it?”
“Oh, stars don’t need you to speak out, just think about what you want to say. She’ll know.”
Tommy lay quietly for a while, his sniffles breaking the silence at intervals. Johnny’s shoulder was wet, but he didn’t speak, merely kept his arm around his young friend.
Finally, Tommy spoke in a quavering voice. “She heard me.”
Johnny nodded gravely. “I know she did, Tommy.”
The boy suddenly turned his head and hugged Johnny tightly. “Thanks, Johnny.”
Johnny ruffled the sandy hair. “Talkin’ to the stars, that helps, you know? But it’s good to talk to a friend, too.” He smiled at the boy.
“Yeah.” Tommy nodded and then stared hard at Johnny. “You know, you’re like what you said about your Ma, Johnny.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like you said about her lightin’ up a room with her smile. You do that.”
“Aww, Tommy…” Johnny felt his cheeks grow hot with embarrassment.
“No, I mean it. You did it just now.”
Johnny jumped up and held out a hand to the boy, determined to ignore this observation. “Well, we oughta be gettin’ back to the house. Scott will be worried about us.”
He backhanded Tommy affectionately in the stomach after hoisting the boy to his feet and pointed at the rifle. “He’s liable to think I shot you for askin’ so dern many questions.”
Tommy giggled as he fitted his new rifle into its scabbard. He let Johnny toss him up onto the sturdy black and white pony and reined his mount alongside Johnny’s palomino. “You think your Pa’ll be back tonight, Johnny?”
“Naw, Tommy. We won’t see him for a day or so.” The boy knew Murdoch was away, but they hadn’t told him where. “Now let’s git on home before Scott eats up all that chocolate cake Maria was gonna bake this afternoon.”
The two friends loped towards the glowing, brightly-lit hacienda, both pairs of eyes fixed on their special stars shimmering in the night sky.
The pale shaft of moonlight peeking through the half-open draperies illuminated the tossing, murmuring boy on the bed. His head turned restlessly on the pillow, hands clenching on the covers, knuckles white. The nightmarish memories replayed in his mind, as they had countless times before, and his body responded to the agonizing images; cold sweat drenching his face and chest, soaking his thick hair, heart racing, and breath rasping in panting gasps. He wanted, needed, to wake up, but he couldn’t. He could only relive the horrible event again and again; hoping for a different ending that never came.
“No! Mama, wake up…please wake up.” The memories finally wrenched the hoarse cry from him, but it brought the dreamer no peace. His body continued to writhe across the bed, the damp black hair plastered to his forehead as he relived the events conjured up by his discussion with Tommy earlier that evening.
“How’d your Ma die, Johnny?”
“She fell and hit her head.”
Hit her head… Hit her head…
But it was so much more than that. She’d been protecting him from Jeeter. Jeeter, the man with money enough to keep them in a small house, keep Maria from having to work in the cantina. The man who wanted Maria, but resented her son. The harsh man Johnny knew he had to hide from because whenever Jeeter got a hand on him, there would be a painful session with his fists or belt. But usually, Johnny could stay out of his way. Until that night.
He heard Jeeter ordering Maria to go away with him, leave her “half-breed bastard” behind. He listened as his mother refused to abandon him, flinching at the sound of a hard fist on flesh. After Jeeter stormed out, he saw the bruises on his mother’s tear-streaked face, her split lip and puffy eye. She held him tightly and he knew what he had to do. He was afraid of the big, violent man, but he would have to be brave and force him to leave them alone. He would have to be the man his mother depended on.
Jeeter wore two guns. He’d been cleaning one of his pistols and left it lying on the table. His big Sharps buffalo rifle leaned in the corner. When the man returned, Johnny met him at the door with the rifle. He was small for his age and the rifle was taller than he was. And so heavy he could barely hold it straight.
Jeeter took one look and laughed. “That rifle’s bigger’n you, kid.” His face turned dark and angry. “Ain’t I tole yuh ta never touch them guns? Yuh allus do things the hard way, doncha, boy? Reckon I need ta whup some sense into yuh.”
Jeeter moved so quickly that Johnny couldn’t follow him with the rifle barrel. Suddenly the man was towering over him, grasping the weapon, raising it…Johnny refused to release his grip on the stock, hanging on tightly as Jeeter shook the big Sharps, lifting Johnny’s feet off of the ground and finally wielding the rifle like a club, slamming him into the wall.
He slumped dazedly on the floor, trying to scramble backwards as the huge man stalked towards him, slowly drawing the wide belt through its loops. His mother cried out, stepping between them as the man raised the belt. She faced Jeeter angrily, refusing to let him strike Johnny, buying her son time to get away.
He saw it, then and forever, as a series of single frames, frozen hideously in his mind. Jeeter’s huge fist struck Maria square on the side of the face, smashing her head back and throwing her sideways off her feet. She screamed as she fell, glorious hair streaming around her, arms windmilling as she sought to keep her balance.
He would never forget the sickening crunch as her head impacted with the iron fireplace grate. Her body bounced when it hit the floor and then lay limp and still. He stared at her face, her lovely, animated face with its exquisite, fiery eyes—a face now slack, the dark eyes blank and lifeless.
“Mama! Mama, wake up. Please wake up.” He knelt beside her, begging her to be all right, knowing that she never would be again.
Jeeter stared down at Maria in shock, then rounded on Johnny. “It’s your fault, yuh little brat. I never meant ta hurt her. Look what yuh made me do! Yuh made me kill her.” He started toward Johnny with fists clenched, murder on his face.
Johnny ducked under the man’s first punch, darting to the table and lifting the heavy revolver, whirling to face Jeeter. The man came at him with a roar. “Don’t point that thing at me unless yuh intend to use it, boy!”
“Back off!” Johnny cocked the gun, holding it with both trembling hands, heart slamming against his ribs, mouth dry. There was something red and hot in Jeeter’s eyes and Johnny instinctively knew that look meant one of them would not leave the room alive. The man kept coming, reaching for him with the same hand that had punched his mother and he saw her blood on the big knuckles.
He pulled the trigger. The thundering crack of gunfire made his ears ring as the big pistol bucked in his hands, pushing him backwards. When the smoke cleared, Jeeter was sprawled on his back, a gory red hole gaping in the middle of his chest.
Johnny crept to Jeeter’s side in horror, staring down at the man he’d hated, the man who had killed his mother, the man he’d shot down. Jeeter sneered up at him, voice weak and raspy. “Reckon I’ll see yuh in hell, boy. Yuh done killed a white man. They’ll hang yuh fer sure.”
“You killed my mother.”
“Yeah, but she weren’t nothin’ but a Mexican whore. I got friends. They’ll see yuh hang. Yuh mark my words, boy, you’re a killer and yuh’ll h…” Jeeter’s head rolled to the side as he died, those hateful words on his lips.
The gun fell from Johnny’s shaking hands and he bit his lip to choke back a sob. He didn’t want to hang—he had to get away from this place, had to run. There was only time to kneel briefly beside his mother’s lifeless body, closing her once dancing eyes.
Then he fled like a thief in the night into the teeth of a wind that moaned like a tortured soul.And he could almost hear his mother calling out to him, begging him not to leave her there alone…
Scott tossed and turned, unable to get to sleep as his agile mind sought a solution to Tommy’s problems. The boy had certainly made his presence felt at Lancer, having a noticeable impact on all of them. But he had made a profound impression on Johnny.
Scott realized that interacting with Tommy, as well as watching Murdoch with the child, catapulted many of Johnny’s traumatic childhood memories to the forefront. He worried about the effect on his younger brother. Johnny was working so hard to overcome his past and build a new life, yet whenever he tried to help Tommy, he resurrected painful relics of long forgotten or suppressed events. Scott ached as he watched his brother grapple with the detritus inadvertently washed ashore by the child.
Folding his pillow in half and punching it several times didn’t bring the relaxation he required for sleep. Scott sighed in frustration, knowing he needed the rest in order to meet the hard day ahead of him. He finally decided to go downstairs for a glass of brandy. Maybe a nightcap would relax him enough to get to sleep.
Full glass in hand, he was returning to his room, padding softly down the dark hallway. A sharp cry of distress from Johnny’s bedroom startled him and Scott wrenched open the door, almost falling inside in his haste to reach his brother. He quickly lit a lamp and stood transfixed at the bedside.
Johnny thrashed wildly, his body soaked in sweat, the bed covers tangled. His face was chalk white, the expression one of pure horror. The white knuckled fists clenched and unclenched on the sheets as he murmured and whimpered. He was obviously trapped in the throes of some terrible nightmare and Scott knew he needed to awaken him immediately.
“No! Mama! Mama, please…. Please wake up…. Why won’t you wake up?” The sudden cry startled Scott and the anguish in the desperate voice broke his heart. His breath caught in his throat as he realized that Johnny was dreaming about his mother’s death.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he grasped his brother’s shoulders and shook him gently. “Johnny! Johnny! Wake up, little brother. It’s a dream, just a bad dream. Come on, boy, wake up.”
But Johnny fought him, struggling violently and striking at Scott, succeeding in twisting from his grasp. “Let me go! YOU killed her… Why? No…No… You back off! I’ll kill you if you come any closer… Nooo…”
Scott frantically wrestled with his brother, fighting to control the frenzied movements. He could feel Johnny’s heart racing and the cold and clammy skin, slick with perspiration, worried him.
He pulled his brother into his arms, using every ounce of strength to curb Johnny’s wild flailing, speaking softly and calmly into his ear. “Hush, Johnny. It’s all right. It’s Scott…. I’ve got you…You’re safe, Johnny. You can trust me. Come on, little brother.” He continued to murmur soothingly while doggedly restraining Johnny until he felt the agitated struggles begin to lessen.
After what seemed an eternity, he finally found himself staring into his brother’s dazed blue eyes.
“Scott? What…?” Johnny gasped for breath, disoriented and confused.
“Easy, Johnny. You’re all right.” Scott felt Johnny slump against him, as though he had no strength to sit up on his own. He supported the dead weight, pulling the discarded quilt up around his brother’s trembling shoulders. “You had a bad dream, Johnny. You just needed to wake up.” Johnny’s skin was ice cold to the touch and Scott began chaffing his upper arms in an attempt to warm him.
Johnny lay against him limply, breathing as hard as if he had just run for miles. His damp forehead rested heavily on Scott’s shoulder. “Scott… He…he killed her…. He killed her and I k…killed him…”
“You had a nightmare, Johnny. It was just a bad dream.”
“NO, Scott! I killed him. I shot him…then I ran away.” Tremors racked his body and his breathing was harsh and ragged.
Scott suddenly realized exactly what Johnny was admitting and it chilled him to the bone. His brother had killed the man who murdered his mother and was punishing himself because of it. Well, rats tended to travel in packs and this was obviously another rat—albeit a two-legged one—skulking in Johnny’s past, ever ready to attack, slashing and gnawing with razor sharp teeth.
“Okay. It’s okay. You did what you had to do. Come on…” he helped Johnny sit up against the headboard, tucking the quilt snuggly around him.
Johnny leaned his head back, eyes shut tightly. He was shaking so hard his teeth chattered.
Scott held the glass of brandy to his lips. “Take a sip of this, Johnny. Easy…”
Scott skillfully coaxed the entire contents of the glass down Johnny’s throat. He stripped the towel from the wash stand with his other hand, using it to wipe Johnny’s dripping forehead and face. The blue eyes were still clenched tightly shut, but at least his breathing seemed easier and his teeth no longer chattered. Scott pulled a brightly colored Indian blanket from a nearby chair, adding its heavy bulk to the quilt covering his brother.
“Scott…I didn’t even say… goodbye…. I just ran. I…I don’t…even know where she’s b…buried…” Johnny’s voice faltered and his breathing quickened again, becoming shallow. His eyes remained closed as his head swiveled restlessly from side to side as though he sought escape from some harrowing vision.
Scott closed his eyes briefly. He was relieved that Tommy had been persuaded to move to a guestroom—after Murdoch explained that it was a grown-up thing to do. At least he wouldn’t be forced to contend with Tommy’s reaction to Johnny’s anguish. He had no idea of what to say to his brother, how to react, and for a moment he wished desperately for Murdoch. But Murdoch was with Tommy’s father and that meant Scott had to sustain Johnny through this crisis on his own.
Here I go again, riding the trails of Johnny’s past on that skittish colt…
He took a deep breath, determined that no matter how difficult or disturbing, he would do whatever was required in order to support his brother. Johnny needed him now. He concentrated on the task at hand—convincing the boy to talk about what had occurred. “It’s all right, Johnny. Tell me what happened. Why did you run?”
“I…I killed…” Johnny’s eyes flew open and he gazed at Scott in horror, as though he had just realized what he was saying.
He gasped and desperately fought his way free of the blankets wrapped around him, half-leaping and half-falling out of bed. Trembling fingers fumbled with the buttons on his pants as he dressed quickly, refusing to meet Scott’s eyes or even look at him.
Scott sighed, standing slowly and preparing to do battle.
Time to kill another rat. I’m beginning to feel like the Pied Piper.
But he’d been wrong about the first task. Before he could talk to Johnny he had to keep him from running. The signs were clear—the skittish colt was preparing to bolt off of the trail. He walked over to the door, cutting off that escape route.
Johnny was there immediately. “Get out of my way, Scott.” His unbuttoned shirt was plastered to his back and he carried his boots and gunbelt in his left hand.
“No.” Scott refused to budge. He would not allow Johnny to flee; they would confront this rat together.
“Scott… MOVE.” Johnny’s voice and eyes pleaded with his brother, desperation and despair etched in every tense muscle. His overwrought body betrayed him and he nearly sank to his knees.
Scott gripped Johnny’s arm to halt his attempt at escape, but the support helped his brother stay on his feet. “No, Johnny. Not until we discuss why you’re so upset.”
Johnny jerked away from him. “I ain’t upset, Scott. Now, move.”
Scott stepped away from the door to stand toe-to-toe with his brother, looking directly into his eyes and forcing the smaller man to take a step backwards. Johnny couldn’t meet that look and hung his head.
Scott placed his hands on Johnny’s shoulders. “Not upset? Look at yourself, little brother. You’re making yourself sick. And you’re going to tell me why.”
“Scott… I don’t think I…”
“Johnny, you’ve kept this thing locked inside you for too long. You have to tell someone. So tell me.” He turned Johnny back toward the bed, keeping his hands firmly on his brother’s shoulders.
Johnny let himself be steered gently to his bed where he sat and stared morosely at the floor. He wrapped his arms around himself tightly, shuddering at the memories.
Scott sat beside him silently and waited, watching Johnny relive the incident in his mind. He wished he had more brandy when he saw his brother begin shaking again, violent tremors rippling throughout his entire body.
Johnny was suddenly sick, retching painfully for several long minutes as Scott supported him while he leaned over the washbasin. When Johnny was finally still, Scott helped him lie down on the bed, covering him with both the quilt and the Indian blanket.
Johnny’s face was chalky again and fear for his brother sharpened Scott’s wits. He remembered that Johnny always carried a pint of “medicinal” whiskey in his saddlebags and rummaged through them until he retrieved the bottle, losing no time in getting several sips down the trembling boy’s throat.
He was tempted to fortify himself by downing the rest of the bottle. Instead, he sat down, leaning back against the headboard, lifting his legs onto the bed, and putting his arm around his brother.
Johnny resisted, but when Scott’s grip tightened, pulling him closer, he allowed himself to be held as though continuing to struggle was too much of an effort.
Scott spoke softly, but the cavalry officer’s hint of command was evident. “You said you killed someone and then ran. What happened?” He felt Johnny brace himself, as though expecting a blow and there were several minutes of silence.
“Johnny? I asked you a question.” Johnny moved slightly and Scott looked down to find the dark head buried in his shoulder.
“His name was Jeeter and he killed my mother. Then I killed him.” Johnny’s voice was muffled through Scott’s shirt.
“Go on.” The ring of command was clear.
Johnny lifted his head in sudden anger. “Why do you want to hear this? You want proof I’m a killer? Well, that’s what I am, Scott, a killer. And Jeeter was just the first man I ever killed. The first in a long line.”
Scott looked him straight in the eyes. “Yes, Johnny, you’re a killer. And if killing someone makes a man a killer, then I’m a killer. And so is Murdoch. And so is Val.”
Johnny looked away, shaking his head violently. “No Scott, it ain’t the same. You and Murdoch and Val, you ain’t killers like me. You don’t know…” he broke off abruptly and bent double as his stomach cramped painfully.
“Are you going to be sick again?”
“I…maybe…” Johnny fought valiantly, finally winning the battle with his stomach. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Good. Now, I don’t understand how you killing someone should be evaluated with a different set of criteria. Please explain to me what makes your killing different from mine or Murdoch’s or Val’s.” He paused a moment, then continued before Johnny could reply. “I know… I know… we didn’t hire our guns out for money. I’ll grant you that.”
He pulled Johnny’s body back to rest against his shoulder again and the tone of his voice changed from commanding officer to concerned brother. “Johnny, I know there are things you’ve done that you don’t want to talk about—and that’s okay. But not if you won’t talk about them because you’re afraid of what I might think. I only hope that someday you’ll trust me enough to talk to me.”
Johnny’s face was hidden in Scott’s shoulder again and he gave a strangled sound, somewhere between a moan and a whimper. “I can’t, Scott.”
Scott’s frustration refused to remain silent any longer. He tightened his grip on Johnny’s shoulder painfully, shaking him. “Damn it, Johnny, I wish you’d have some faith in me. I won’t judge you—I haven’t done it yet and I’m not going to start now.”
He felt Johnny stiffen, sensing the hurt behind the harsh, angry words. Then his brother sat up, wrapping his arms around himself again, keeping his back to Scott. Johnny spoke in the barest whisper, low and fast as though he had to tell the story quickly before he ran out of breath—or nerve.
“Jeeter lived with us. He wanted my mother, but he didn’t want me. He whomped on me every chance he got. Mama tried to protect me from him…” He paused as though gathering strength to continue his story.
“That…that night, she was tryin’ to protect me…give me time to get away. He…he took his belt off…he was gonna use it and Mama… she s…stepped between us. He…he…” Johnny had to stop for a moment, biting his lower lip.
He began to rock himself slowly, struggling to get the words out. “Oh God, Scott… He hit her! Punched her so hard that…that she didn’t get up…I begged her to wake up…but she…”
His voice faltered again and Scott longed to put his arms around the desolate figure, try to comfort him. But Johnny still had more he needed to tell. The skittish colt needed a firm, supporting hand on the reins, not a soothing pat, so he steeled himself to remain silent and absolutely still. Only his clenched fists, knuckles as white as Johnny’s, betrayed his own turmoil.
Johnny took a deep, fortifying breath. “Mama hit her head when she fell… I reckon she broke her neck. He said it was my fault. Then he…he came after me…” He paused again and began rocking faster and faster.
“He was gonna kill me. I…his gun was layin’ on the table and I…I…” His voice rose sharply in both volume and pitch, bewildered and angry, a lost soul seeking elusive answers. “Why did he keep comin’ at me? I just wanted him to go away. But he kept comin’, so…I…I…I shot him… I killed…” His voice broke on a strangled sob.
Scott could no longer remain still. He hugged his brother close, knowing that for this brief moment, he was holding not the tough young man who had made himself a legend, but a frightened child. A child who had witnessed his mother’s brutal murder and then been forced to defend himself violently against the same fate. A child who had judged and condemned himself for a necessary act of self-defense. A child who had just lost the only person in the world who cared about him. A child who was shivering so badly that Scott was afraid of dropping him. He held on to that child for dear life, rocking his brother, alarmed by the fact that Johnny actually let him do it.
“I can still hear him…what he said as he lay there dyin’ he said he’d see me in Hell… that I’d h…hang. He said I was a killer…” Johnny was panting again, breathing like a lathered horse that had been run off its legs.
“Well, he was right about…about seein’ me in Hell…. That…that’s where I’m headed…my mother died because of me…the only father I ever knew died because of me…and I…I been k…killin’ ever since!”
Johnny’s body heaved again and Scott barely got the basin to him in time. He supported his brother quietly as the adrenaline and raw emotion wreaked its physical toll on the young man, wondering how Johnny had managed to keep such intense feelings buried for so long. Just watching his brother in such distress was acutely painful.
When Johnny finally collapsed against him, spent and trembling, he pulled the quilt around him and offered more whiskey. Then he sat for long minutes, silently holding his brother in his arms, making sure Johnny knew he wasn’t alone.
Scott listened to the uneven breathing and occasional hiccuping sob as Johnny battled for control. He could feel the struggle being waged inside the tense figure, marveling as Johnny visibly mastered his rebelling body and regained command. Slowly Johnny’s breathing returned to normal and a hint of color chased the chalkiness from his face. The tremors receded, but he made no move to pull away from Scott’s sheltering arms.
When Scott felt that the child was gone, that Johnny was back with him, he spoke softly. “Johnny, you defended yourself. You did what you had to do. I would have done the same thing. Murdoch…”
He didn’t get the chance to finish the sentence. Johnny jerked upright, grasping Scott’s upper arms urgently. “Don’t you tell Murdoch. Don’t tell him Scott. I don’t…he can’t know what… what I did.” Johnny was distraught, almost panicked, eyes wide and pleading.
“I won’t tell him. I won’t. I promise.” Scott waited until Johnny calmed a bit, then gently removed his arms from his brother’s death grip, leaning him back against the headboard. He forced Johnny to maintain eye contact.
“Johnny, you don’t have to be afraid of what Murdoch will think. I know he would understand that you were protecting yourself. If he were here right now, he’d tell you that himself. He would be thankful that you had the wits and the guts to survive—just as I am.”
“Don’t you see, Scott? I know he’s happy I survived. He just wishes I’d done it different. He… he don’t approve of the choices I made, of the things I done. He don’t like havin’ a killer for a son.” Johnny caught sight of the whiskey bottle on the nightstand and snatched it up, taking a large swig.
Scott watched closely, assessing the situation, reading the signs. The nervous colt was back on the trail, still poised to bolt at the slightest provocation, but at least moving forward instead of sideways. Johnny’s fears about Murdoch’s disapproval would have to wait for another day—one rat at time. The issue at hand was the boy’s traumatic experience with Jeeter. Johnny was composed enough to listen now so it was time to make his point.
He held out his hand for the bottle, taking his own deep swallow of whiskey when Johnny handed to him. “Scoot over.”
When his brother obligingly moved, Scott leaned back against the headboard again. “Johnny, do you remember that picture of me in uniform?”
“The one you keep in your room? With that General Sheridan?”
Scott nodded. “That’s the one.”
Johnny managed a slight smile, little more than a twitch at the corners of his mouth, but it was a start. “You think a heap of him, don’t you, Scott?”
“Yes, Johnny. I admire Phil Sheridan as a leader and as a man. I’m lucky I had the opportunity to serve with him.” He paused, thinking through exactly what he wanted to say.
“Johnny, that war was hell on earth. There aren’t words to describe it, the screams of the dying and wounded, the smell of decay, burning, and death. And the bodies…so many bodies… I had to lead men into battle knowing that many of them wouldn’t be alive when it was over.” Scott paused for a quick sip of the whiskey, grateful for the warmth it trailed down his throat.
“At Trevilian Station, I was ordered to lead a group of fifteen men in a flanking maneuver. Our situation was desperate and we had little chance of success, but no other options.” He could feel Johnny’s eyes fixed on him keenly.
“I watched twelve of those men fall, brother. Four of us got through the lines, but at such a terrible cost.” He took a gulp of the whiskey and turned his head to his brother. Johnny’s whole being was focused on him and Scott had the odd sensation of being cradled and comforted by the compassion—and love—in those sapphire eyes.
“After that battle, I couldn’t live with myself. I didn’t want to be responsible for the death of any more young men. Johnny, when I watched one of my men go down, I felt as though I had killed him myself. Intellectually, I knew that wasn’t true, but emotionally, it felt just the same. It nearly tore me apart.”
He paused again when he felt Johnny’s hand lightly touch his forearm, the same way he would trail his hand over Barranca’s hindquarters to let the horse know he was there. The hand rested there softly, Johnny’s way of maintaining contact, letting Scott know he was listening.
“One evening in camp, General Sheridan talked with me about it, explained how he had faced the same doubts and uncertainties and how he coped with them. I’ve never forgotten what he said.” Scott turned his head and locked eyes with his brother.
“He told me that all a man can do is his best. You make the best choices you can and soldier on. He said the hardest lesson a man has to learn is that his best will sometimes disappoint the people he cares about and that there are times when his best just isn’t good enough. And it’s never easy to accept that, but the true measure of a man is how he reacts to that lesson.”
Johnny was quiet for several long minutes, deep in thought, and Scott could almost see him thinking through those words, turning them over and examining each one as he would a tracking sign on a trail. He studied the display of expressions racing across the animated face—a breadth of emotions ranging from puzzlement and uncertainty to doubt to comprehension and understanding. Finally, Johnny looked up and smiled at Scott.
“You’re sayin’ a man has to play the cards he’s been dealt the best way he knows how and then be satisfied with the results. Even if he don’t win the pot.”
Scott returned the smile, hope growing inside of him. Maybe, just maybe he was getting through to his little brother. “I like that. You play the cards you’re dealt. Yes, that’s what it means, Johnny.”
Johnny put his arm across his brother’s shoulders. “That Sheridan is a savvy fella, Scott. I’m glad you had him to talk to. You don’t talk much about the war, but I reckon you saw some awful dark times.”
“Yes, Johnny, I did. There were many occasions during that war when my best wasn’t good enough… Those were the darkest hours. It took a long time for me to accept that.” He glanced sideways at his brother, preparing to drive his point home. “Are you disappointed in me?”
Johnny gaped at him incredulously. “Disappointed? In you? Hell, no, Scott. You always give it your best shot. You ain’t got it in ya to disappoint me…,” his voice trailed off as he perceived exactly where Scott was leading him.
“Thanks, brother. I think the same about you, you know.” Scott practiced his poker face as he watched Johnny finally figure out that his older brother absolutely refused to apply a more rigorous set of standards to Johnny’s behavior than to anyone else’s.
The young man sat upright, clenching his hands in his lap and looking from them to Scott’s face and back again. Finally, Johnny gave him a short nod and wry smile, his way of acknowledging that he understood Scott’s point.
Scott wasn’t quite finished. He leaned toward his brother. “Johnny, you made the best choices you could given the circumstances. Do you agree?”
Johnny stared down at his hands and nodded.
Scott touched Johnny’s forearm, mirroring the gesture his brother had made to him earlier. “Then you have to stop second-guessing yourself and accept what happened. I know it isn’t easy for you, Johnny, but if you keep tormenting yourself this way, torturing yourself over choices you made years ago, you’re going to make yourself sick.” He let those words sink in and then reached out suddenly to tousle the dark hair. “And frankly, little brother, I don’t want to be stuck doing your work while you lay around in bed all day.”
The blue eyes that swiftly rose to meet his sparkled with mischief. “You know, Boston, you’re just plain lazy.”
“I’m lazy? Because I don’t want to do your share of the work?”
“Yep.” Johnny flashed a big grin at his brother, then suddenly hung his head again. “I don’t know why you put up with me, Scott.”
Scott gripped Johnny’s forearm, hard. “Because I happen to like the man who is Johnny Lancer. I like that man even if his best sometimes isn’t good enough. I like that man even if he made choices he’s ashamed of. I’m not ashamed of him—or the choices he made. I’m proud to call that man ‘brother.’ If General Sheridan knew you, Johnny, he’d say you’re the kind of man he’d want to ride into battle with. That was his highest compliment.” Scott shook the tense forearm. “Look at me.”
He waited until Johnny met his eyes. “Johnny, I’d be proud to ride into battle with you.”
Johnny looked back down at his hands and took a deep, shuddering breath, pondering Scott’s words for a moment. Scott watched anxiously, imagining he could actually see the pain and tension flowing out of his brother.
“Thanks, Scott,” Johnny whispered. He glanced sideways at Scott and suddenly leaped off the bed and began rummaging through the drawers in the chest, moving on to rifle through the wardrobe, and finally making quite a show of looking under the bed.
Scott stared at him in utter confusion for several moments before realizing that they were now playing a Johnny-game. The rat was gone and his little brother, the scamp, was back. He knew the rules and dutifully responded to his cue. “What are you doing?”
“Lookin’ for a bugle.”
Johnny cocked his head and grinned at Scott. “And you a cavalry man, Boston… Just how are we supposed to go ridin’ off into battle without a bugle?”
Scott relaxed back against the headboard and laughed with heartfelt, bone-melting relief. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather not ride off to battle on an empty stomach, bugle or not. Look outside. It’ll be dawn soon. What do you say we head for the kitchen and get a jump on breakfast? Maybe we can even enjoy a relaxed cup of coffee before our energetic, inquisitive little houseguest wakes up.”
Johnny nodded his head. “I get so proud of you sometimes, Scott. Now that’s a good idea. We’ll grab a cup of coffee and go sit in the garden, watch the sun come up, and listen to the birds sing. Come on.” He retrieved his boots and gunbelt and headed out the door, walking with those familiar, cocky strides.
Scott stood slowly, limp with relief and exhaustion. What he really wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep for days. But that wasn’t in the cards he’d been dealt so he’d just have to soldier on.
Together he and Johnny had survived the mental gunfight with the rat, Jeeter. He smiled at the sudden vivid image of his brother, expertly spinning his revolver around his finger before holstering the weapon. He could visualize himself making that same gesture with a wooden flute. The rat slayer awarded himself a psychological pat on the back.
Nice work, Mr. Pied Piper. Now holster that magic flute and put it away for another day… another rat…
Grinning, he followed Johnny toward the first rays of light that heralded a bright new day.
Murdoch Lancer poured another cup of coffee and settled back into the armchair in front of the fire, appreciatively stretching his long legs out onto the footstool. He smiled wryly, remembering this room three days ago—sitting in it would have been impossible due to the combination of dust, dirty clothing, empty bottles and other clutter.
Restoring Pete Adams’ house to a livable condition had required a concentrated effort that Reverend Aimes had coordinated. The Reverend’s congregation responded—albeit belatedly—to Adams’ plight, working together to help him stay sober and repairing and cleaning the house and barn. The men labored extra hours in the farm’s fields to rectify the effects of Adams' neglect.
The endeavor had consumed ten long days, but Murdoch could truthfully say that the house was once more comfortable and appeared well cared for while the fields were ready for the spring planting. His concerns now centered on Pete’s state of mind and his willingness to overcome the tragedy of his wife’s death.
Without a doubt, the Pete Adams he had found kneeling beside Miriam’s grave was a man in trouble. Johnny hadn’t exaggerated in describing Pete’s grief and apathy. The man was depressed and despondent, ignoring the state of his surroundings, wanting only to drink, sleep or sit next to his wife’s headstone and cry. He hadn’t responded to conversations with Reverend Aimes so Murdoch found himself in the uncomfortable role of counselor, helping Adams work through his sorrow and continue with life.
It was a situation he found unpleasant and he was often tempted to abandon the effort entirely. But the memory of the relief and trust shining from a pair of blue eyes motivated him to keep trying. The owner of those eyes was counting on him, relieved he had volunteered to talk with Tommy’s father, and Murdoch was determined not to disappoint his son. So he forced himself to open up to Adams, sharing private thoughts and memories with the man.
Fortunately, he had always liked and respected Pete, knowing him as a man who worked hard from first light to moonlight, building a good life for Miriam. Yet he’d been out of touch with the Adams family, his last personal contact with them had been just after Tommy was born. He, Paul, and Teresa had visited, bringing gifts for the new baby. Murdoch reproached himself for letting the friendship wither, for not staying in touch, for being away at the time of Miriam’s death and missing the funeral.
Although he had planned to visit and pay his respects, he just hadn’t found the time. Truth be told, he was ashamed of the way he’d let the Adams fade from his life and that shame had kept him silent when Scott explained who Tommy really was. But he was here now and he had to help this apathetic shell of a man find the Pete Adams he had once called friend.
Murdoch sipped his coffee reflectively, thankful that Pete was once again showing interest in his home and land. But most importantly, Pete was missing his son. Adams wasn’t really a drunk; he was drinking to numb his pain, seeking answers at the bottom of a bottle. Slowly, he was coming to the realization that his son represented a different way to ease that pain. His remorseful attitude was a relief, especially given Murdoch’s initial conversation with Pete concerning Tommy.
“Tommy’s at Lancer, Pete. He ran away and my son found him.”
“He your boy then, Murdo? Wondered where he come from.” Adams seemed to ignore the fact that his son had run away.
“Pete, your son was out on his own for at least a week. Johnny said you didn’t even realize he was gone. That’s not the Pete Adams I know.” Murdoch was unable to mask his disapproval.
“Well, it ain’t none of your business, is it?” Adams didn’t appreciate the obviously judgmental tone.
“Yes, it is my business because I feel responsible for that little boy. My son found him and he is a guest in my home. But needs his father, he hasn’t got anyone else.” He waited for Pete to respond and when the man turned his head away, Murdoch continued gruffly. “Pete, what would Miriam think? She would want you to take care of her son.”
“Shut up. Just shut up. Please, Murdo. You just don’t understand. I can’t do it! I just can’t, not without her. I miss Mim. God, I miss her so much…her voice, her smile, the way she laughed.” Adams’ sorrow diverted him from the discussion of his son as he sobbed for his dead wife.
Murdoch shook his head ruefully. That initial conversation had been repeated again and again, day after day, until he’d been sorely tempted to shake Adams until the man’s teeth rattled. Looking back at Pete’s attitude and demeanor, the attempts to ignore any responsibility for Tommy, he was astonished that Johnny had been able to curb the desire to punch him. He had to force himself to keep speaking calmly, and ten days later, although he was hoarse from talking, it seemed that Pete was finally listening.
“I lost two wives Pete. I know just how much it hurts to lose the woman you love—it feels as though your heart has been ripped from your chest. You want to have her back so much that you would sell your soul to the devil for just one more minute with her. You replay it over and over in your mind, wondering what you could have possibly done to prevent it. You wish that you had died with her, that your souls were together somewhere. There is nothing anyone can say to ease the heartache.
“But Pete, that intense pain will diminish with time. Yes, time. And it happens oh, so slowly, but it will lessen and you’ll be left with your happy memories of her. God knows it isn’t enough, and nothing will ever be enough. Nothing or no one will ever replace her.
“You were lucky to share the time you did with her and that’s what you have to hold on to now. Remember the time you did have and the fact that Miriam wanted to share it with you. Think about just how much that special woman loved you and what she would want you to do now. Miriam would want you to go on without her, Pete. She would tell you to be strong, to get on with your life.”
Murdoch had been uncomfortable letting Adams see the depth of feeling behind those words. He had only spoken those thoughts aloud to Paul O’Brien and Nate Benedict, his closest friends. But Pete nodded, listened and seemed to respond, so Murdoch continued.
“Miriam gave you her two most precious gifts—her love and her son. Your son, Pete. A son who misses her just as much as you do. He’s unhappy and he’s afraid and he needs his father, he always will. Pete, you have to be strong for that little boy. You have to put your grief behind you now and think of him. Think of Tommy, Pete, before it’s too late.”
Murdoch hesitated a moment, not wanting to speak about the history of his relationships with his own sons. But Adams obviously accepted the fact that Murdoch could understand what he was feeling. He was listening to Murdoch when he wouldn’t listen to Reverend Aimes or Dr. Jenkins.
The rancher took a deep breath and continued. “You know, I lost both of my sons. I didn’t see those boys from the time they were babies until they were grown. I can honestly say that losing the woman you love is unbearable, but Pete, there is something even more agonizing—the loss of your child.”
Adams stared at him for a long time, then his tears begin to flow and he turned his head away. “Lord knows I love my boy, Murdo, but he reminds me so much of Mim. He looks like her, talks like her, laughs like her. He has her eyes and her smile. I can’t stand to talk to him… it hurts too much. Just looking at him brings the pain back. I can’t stand it. I can’t be in the same room with him.” He covered his face with his hands.
“I can’t be with him now. I don’t want to be with him. I know it ain’t right and it ain’t fair to him, but I don’t know what else to do. The boy will be better off with someone else.” Pete’s voice rose sharply as though he was begging Murdoch to understand.
“Better off with someone else?” Murdoch slapped his hand on the table. “No, Pete, you’re wrong. I can tell you that from personal experience. When Catherine died, I convinced myself that my older boy would be better off with her family. I thought they could give him more than I could, that he would be safer back east. Logically, I was right. But life isn’t all about logic, Pete. And every single day of my life I’ve second-guessed my decision to let another man raise my son.
“Not a day has gone by these past twenty-five years that I haven’t regretted giving him up. And it wasn’t fair to Scott, either. He still questions why he didn’t grow up with me, wonders why I didn't want him. I deprived my son of knowing his father’s love, the special bond only a father can offer a boy. Scott never had that and I didn’t either. And telling myself that Scott was better off out of my life never made me feel the least bit better. So, Pete, you think long and hard before you let yourself believe that Tommy will be better off away from his real father. He’s your son, your blood, and the best place for him is with you.”
Pete was silent for several minutes, thinking hard. “I know you’re right Murdo. I really do. But he reminds me so much of Mim…and it hurts…”
“I can understand that it hurts to look at Tommy when he reminds you so much of Miriam. My younger boy, Johnny, the boy you saw, is the spitting image of his mother. When he first came back to Lancer, it was all I could do to even talk to him. Whenever I looked at him, I saw Maria, and it brought back all the torment and anger associated with my memories of her.
“Pete, I came very close to squandering the second chance God gave me with Johnny. I nearly let my own pain and self-pity keep me from building a relationship with that boy. I hurt him; too, because of the way I reacted to his likeness to Maria. He couldn’t possibly know how just looking at him made me feel. And I’ve never been able to tell him. My son grew up believing that I didn’t want him and when he first came home, I know that the way I acted towards him just confirmed that in his mind.” Murdoch paused a moment and placed a hand on Pete’s shoulder.
“After Johnny came back from talking to you, he sat on the couch next to his brother and told him that you said you didn’t want Tommy. Pete, he was devastated by your comment. I had to listen to Johnny tell Scott that nothing in his life ever hurt as much as thinking that his father didn’t want him. I’ll never forget the look on his face or the sound of his voice when he said that. Never.
“And it hurt to think that I was responsible for so much anguish! It hurt even more than losing his mother. Believe me, Pete, you don’t ever want Tommy to look and sound like that because he thinks you don’t want him.”
Murdoch had to pause a moment and regain control over his emotions. He didn’t relish exposing his own and his sons’ pain to anyone, but Adams was listening intently, caught up in the narrative. In fact, Murdoch judged the time ripe for pushing Pete a bit.
“Now, if you really don’t want your son, I’ll take Tommy and raise him myself. He’s a fine boy and we’d be proud to call him a member of the Lancer family. But you’d better be sure, Pete, because you can’t say you don’t want Tommy today and later decide you made a mistake.” Murdoch locked eyes with Pete, shaking him slightly.
“So what do you want to do? Are you going to abandon your boy simply because he looks like the woman you loved? Are you going to tell yourself that your own flesh and blood will be better off being raised by someone else? When you’re my age, are you going to regret that you didn’t watch your son grow up? Are you going to let your boy believe you don’t want him?
“Or are you going to thank God for giving you precious time with a lady like Miriam and for giving you a fine son like Tommy? Are you going to behave like the good, strong man you are and help your boy deal with losing his mother? You decide, Pete.”
Pete met his eyes for several long moments, then whispered huskily, “I want my boy, Murdoch. I want my Tommy.”
Remembering that breakthrough of two days ago, Murdoch sighed with relief. He honestly believed that Tommy and Pete’s story could have a happy ending now. It wouldn’t be easy, but the foundation for building a new beginning was in place and Pete was filled with remorse and shame about his actions. Even more importantly, the man understood that he had to rectify his mistakes with Tommy and not with Murdoch or Reverend Aimes or anyone else. He thought about that conversation.
“Murdo, what if Tommy don’t want me? I ain’t been so easy to love lately. I ignored him, drove him into runnin’ off… He…he might not want to be with me no more.”
“Pete, Tommy has every right to be angry with you, to say he doesn’t want to stay with you any longer. But he doesn’t feel that way. He wants to be with you as badly as you want to be with him. You need each other, you love each other.” Murdoch broke off and shook his head, remembering the ups and downs of his relationships with his own sons.
“There is just something about a boy’s love for his father… I can’t explain it, Pete. I don’t know why it happens, but a son loves his Pa with a love that can withstand a lot of stretching and bending. A man has to work awfully hard to kill his son’s love. And I suppose that men like you and me—fathers who have tested that love to its limits—should hit our knees and thank God that our sons are willing to forgive, to overlook our shortcomings as fathers.
“You and I are lucky men, Pete. Our sons love us in spite of our mistakes.” He paused again, bemused by a sudden realization he voiced a moment later. “Lately, I’ve been telling myself that I must try to be the father my sons think I am. That’s an awesome responsibility, one that means I sometimes have to apologize and admit that I was wrong.
“That’s a hard thing for a man like me to accept, but it’s amazing how effective that simple admission can be in overcoming misunderstandings and arguments. You explain your mistake to Tommy, Pete, apologize to him and tell him you love him. I think you’ll be surprised at just how much he misses you and wants to come home.”
“I’ll do that, Murdo. I’ll tell my boy just what a fool I’ve been. And I’ll make damned sure I don’t let him down again—or you either.”
“Pete, don’t you worry about letting me down. You concentrate on keeping your promises to Tommy and to yourself. You do that and I’ll be satisfied.”
“My hand on it, Murdo.” Adams extended his hand and the two men shook solemnly. “You been a good friend to me, Murdo. Reckon I needed more’n a kick in the pants, and you give me what I needed. I thank you and I won’t never forgit it.”
Murdoch squeezed his friend’s hand. “You’re welcome.” He could see the determination and thankfulness in Pete’s face, but there was also an intense embarrassment there. Murdoch decided to lighten the atmosphere and slapped Adams on the back. “Besides, Pete, that boy of yours asks more questions and gets into more mischief than a barrel full of monkeys. Getting him home with you is the only way I’ll ever get any peace and quiet.”
Pete laughed delightedly. “Ain’t he a regular little dickens? A real handful, that’s my Tommy. I sure miss him! What kinda mischief my boy been into?”
The two men had spent a comfortable couple of hours chuckling over Tommy’s antics, particularly the toasted pants. Since that time, Adams had thrown himself into cleaning and repairing the house and barn, concentrating on creating an environment fit for his young son. He still visited Miriam’s grave daily, but instead of sitting and sobbing endlessly, he stood quietly with head bowed for several minutes. Then he arranged the fresh flowers and went back to work. He was learning to cope with his wife’s death, finding a way to go on with his life.
Murdoch listened to Adams’ gentle snores—the snores of a man tired from a hard day’s work and not the harsher, more erratic snores of a drunkard. Pete was sleeping the sleep of a man who put his head on the pillow knowing he had done a good day’s work, done the best he could—the sleep of a man who looked forward to tomorrow.
He smiled and finished the coffee remaining in his cup. The fire was slowly dying and Murdoch wondered what was happening around the fire in the Lancer hearth. The thought of his own boys and little Tommy drew an even broader smile and then a sigh. He missed them with an almost physical ache and wished he was with them now. Murdoch rose slowly, stretching his back muscles. It was time to turn in for the night. Maybe tomorrow he could go home to his sons.
The fire in the Lancer hearth crackled merrily as Scott stirred it, focusing intently on building the blaze in a futile attempt to ignore the sounds of incessant pacing echoing off the tiles in front of the French doors. The restless cadence had started immediately after dinner and continued without pause despite all attempts at diversion. Scott was completely exasperated and his efforts to distract himself were in vain as the monotonous rhythm seared its way into his brain. He soon had a headache throbbing in time with the impatient footsteps.
Step… step… step… step…
pull aside curtain…
nose plops against glass…
five seconds of silence…
step… step… step… step…
pull aside curtain on other side of door…
nose plops against glass…
five seconds of silence…
sound of disappointment…
step… step… step… step…
Scott slammed the poker back into its holder, forcing himself to take a deep breath and calm down before turning to the fidgety pacer. His frustration faded at the sight of the forlorn figure gazing wistfully into the silent courtyard. The early evening shadows accentuated the emptiness. Shaking his head, he walked over and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Johnny will be back soon, Tommy.”
The big brown eyes stared up at him hopefully. “But what’s takin’ so long, Scott?”
“Why, that colt is just smarter than they are and it’s taking Johnny and Cipriano longer to catch him than they thought. You remember how hard we worked to round up those horses yesterday?”
Tommy nodded, grinning. Scott and Johnny had let him ride along and watch as they rounded up part of a herd of wild horses. It was the most thrilling thing Tommy had ever seen—until this morning when he hung on the fence and watched as Johnny and two other wranglers took turns “bucking out” several of the captured horses. Tommy was mesmerized by the calm, sure way Johnny worked with each horse before saddling and mounting it. Scott explained that Johnny was earning the horse’s trust. He took the extra time because it meant the horse was less afraid and this approach was much kinder than simply saddling and riding it. Afterwards, Scott showed him how to make the pony back up in a straight line. All was right with Tommy’s world.
Except that afternoon Johnny swore he just had to have the grulla colt that had escaped them the day before and headed off to catch it with Cipriano’s help. Johnny steadfastly resisted all of Tommy’s pleas to go along, leaving the boy with Scott. The afternoon passed quickly as Scott watched Tommy practice with his rifle, showing him how to adjust his aim when firing toward an uphill target. But now it was after dinner and there was still no sign of Johnny. Tommy sneaked another peek out the window, pouting a bit when the courtyard remained empty.
Scott smiled at the boy, well aware of just how eager Tommy was for Johnny to return. “Well, you saw how cleverly that colt got away from us the first time. He’s making it hard for Johnny and Cipriano to catch him, that’s all. Don’t worry, Johnny will be back before you know it. He knows Maria baked an apple pie this afternoon and he’s not about to let you and me eat the whole thing!”
Tommy giggled. “Johnny likes apple pie, don’t he, Scott?”
“That he does, Tommy, that he does. But I know something Johnny would like even more than apple pie.”
“Johnny would like you to draw a picture for him. Didn’t I hear him telling you a story about a magic dragon last night? Well, if you’ll sit down in that chair, I’ll get paper and pencils and you can sketch a picture of that dragon for Johnny. He’d really like that.”
“Really, Scott? He really would?” Tommy was already heading for the armchair by the fire.
“He will if he knows what’s good for him,” Scott muttered under his breath as he collected paper and pencils from Murdoch’s desk. Aloud he replied, “He really, really would.”
Scott relaxed against the cushions of the couch, trying to ignore the pair of brown eyes that watched him intently from the leather armchair. His artwork ploy had consumed little more than half an hour. After drawing two different pictures of what he claimed was a dragon, Tommy was quickly becoming bored again—the indications were obvious. And still no sign of Johnny and Cipriano.
Well, at least it was dark enough to really see the stars and Tommy had been begging Scott to show him the constellations and share the stories the “Greek fellers” made up about them. Scott attempted to read, all the while waiting for the inevitable. It soon came.
“Whacha doin’, Scott?” Tommy jumped off his chair and crawled up next to Scott, snuggling close.
Scott sighed inwardly while smiling warmly at the boy, putting an arm around the small shoulders. He mentally prepared himself for another question and answer extravaganza.
Here we go again.
“I’m reading a book, Tommy.”
“What’s it about, Scott?”
“It’s a book about astronomy.” Scott regretted saying that word the moment it left his lips. Why couldn’t he have just said ‘the stars’?
“What’s astra… astromony, Scott?
“Astronomy, Tommy. It’s the study of the universe…” He mentally slapped his forehead and chided himself.
I did it again. Just say ‘the stars’ next time!
“But what’s a universe, Scott?”
Scott felt himself tumbling into a Tommy “what-and-why” trap. He racked his brain for of an explanation of the universe that a seven-year old boy would understand. “Well, the Universe is…it’s a…ah…” Scott struggled.
Tommy stared at him in astonishment, clearly disappointed. “Don’t you know, Scott? Johnny said ya wuz real smart an edicated… You just gotta know.”
Scott snatched desperately at this slight diversion. “Johnny said that, did he? What else did my little brother have to say, Tommy?”
“He said you wuz the smartest feller he knows.”
Scott looked at the boy skeptically. “Tommy, are you sure Johnny didn’t say I was a know-it-all.”
The big brown eyes opened wide. “Gosh, no, Scott. Johnny wuzn’t teasin’ ‘bout ya. He meant it. He said you wuz real smart and edicated and that you knowed lots ‘bout lotsa stuff. ‘Specially ‘bout the stars. Me and Johnny got us some special stars, Scott.”
“Johnny has a special star…?”
“Yep. It’s called the Evenin’ Star and it’s real purty.”
“The Evening Star. You know, Tommy, it’s often called the Jewel of the Sky and many people know it as Venus. It was named after the Roman Goddess of love and beauty. It is a beautiful star.” Scott congratulated himself on dodging the definition of the universe while avoiding a discussion of stars versus planets.
“What’s a goddess, Scott?”
“A goddess is a very special, important lady, often a ruler like a Queen. The Greeks and Romans believed the Gods and Goddesses had certain powers, sort of like magic.”
“Gosh.” Tommy considered this.
Scott took a chance. “Tommy, why is the Evening Star special to Johnny?”
“‘Cause it’s his Ma, Scott. She’s the Evenin’ Star now. Johnny says it’s the first star out an all t’other stars foller it, an it shines the brightest, just like his Ma. Johnny showed me his Ma and he helped me find my Ma up in the heavens, too. And he showed me how to talk to my Ma like he talks to his.” Tommy suddenly hid his face in Scott’s chest. “Why did my Ma die, Scott?”
Scott was surprised—and dismayed—at the sudden change of topic. His thoughts lamented the unfairness of life, how all three of them had been robbed of their mothers. Why? He had no answer although he had frequently asked himself that same question.
Considering his words carefully, he lifted Tommy onto his lap. “Well, Tommy, I believe that some people are…well, they are too special for this world and so God takes them back to his world to…”
“Heaven…that’s God’s special place, ain’t it, Scott?”
“Yes, Tommy, God’s very special place.” He stroked the boy’s soft hair tenderly.
“And my Ma’s there with Johnny’s. Johnny said your Ma’s there, too. You miss your Ma, Scott?”
“Yes, Tommy, I miss her very much. But in a different way than you and Johnny miss your mothers. You see, my mother died when I was born. I never knew her so I don’t have any memories of her. You can remember what your mother looked like, how she spoke, the little gestures she used… I have to rely on pictures and other people’s memories for that. I regret not having had any time with her… I wish I could have known her, even for a short time…” Scott’s voice trailed off quietly as he realized anew just how much never knowing his mother hurt.
“You sad, Scott?” Tommy wrapped his arms around Scott and hugged him sweetly. “When I wuz sad, my Ma would hug me tight an say ‘A hug is the best medicine for tears and troubles.’ Like this.” The blond head rested on Scott’s shoulder.
Scott squeezed the boy hard; wrapping his arms around the child and softly patting Tommy’s back as the tears fell on his shirt. “Oh, Tommy, your Ma was right. A hug from a brother is good medicine.” He felt Tommy stiffen.
“A brother, Scott?” The boy’s voice was full of hope and disbelief.
“Sure, Tommy. You can think of me and Johnny as brothers.”
Tommy sat up quickly. “You mean that, Scott? You and Johnny…my big brothers…GOLLY! I been wishin’ I had me a brother like you or Johnny…Johnny loves you, Scott. He says you’re the best gift he ever got, the best brother ever. He said sumthin’ ‘bout how it’s ‘cause some lady wuz in a really good mood, but I don’t know what that’s got to do with it…”
Tommy frowned. “Scott, Johnny says he’s real lucky to have a brother like you, but that he don’t deserve it.”
Tears filled Scott’s eyes and he pulled Tommy closer to his chest so the boy wouldn’t see them. “Johnny said that… Well, Tommy, Johnny is the best gift I ever received, too. This lady, did Johnny call her Lady Luck?”
“Yeah, Scott! That’s right. Johnny said Lady Luck was smilin’ an happy when she gave you to him fer a brother.” Tommy sat back and grinned up at Scott. Then his face turned serious again. “But you and me gotta make Johnny believe he is deservin’, don’t we, Scott?”
“Yes, Tommy, that we do. Johnny is terribly hard on himself, sometimes. Part of being a good brother is helping him understand that we love him, no matter what. And that he deserves our love. Will you help me do that, Tommy?”
“You bet I will.” Tommy nodded vigorously.
Scott ruffled his hair. “Johnny and I are proud to call you brother, Tommy. Just don’t forget that I’m the oldest and, of course, the wisest one. You have to remember that, Tommy. Brother Johnny has a habit of forgetting it and I have to remind him now and again. Say, you can help me remind him.” Scott grinned back at Tommy.
“I won’t fergit, Scott, I promise. An I’ll be sure Johnny don’t, neither. He says you got the brains, but he got all the looks and charm.”
“Oh he did, did he?” Scott lifted Tommy off of his lap, plopping him back onto the couch and tickling the boy.
Tommy wriggled and squealed, finally managing to gasp, “What’s charm, Scott?”
The questions just never ended! Scott took a deep breath, “Well…”
Tommy bounced beside him. “Oh, oh, I know. It’s like what Johnny said ‘bout his Ma. ‘Bout how she could light up a room just by smilin’. And Johnny does it, too. That’s charm, ain’t it, Scott?”
“Tommy, I’d say that’s a pretty good description of charm—and of Johnny. Did you tell him that?”
Tommy nodded and giggled. “Yeah. Johnny don’t like it when you say nice things ‘bout him. His ears turn red and he hangs his head an acts like he don’t hear ya.”
Scott nearly choked on his laughter. “Yes, that’s exactly what he does. You’re an observant boy, Tommy.”
“What’s obs… observint, Scott?”
“It means that you notice things about people.”
“Oh.” Tommy nodded thoughtfully. Then the observant boy noticed a forgotten tear on Scott’s face and gently wiped it away with the tip of his small finger.
“You still sad ‘bout your Ma, Scott? Don’t worry. Johnny says it’s like when ya skin your knee. You’ll always have a scraped place an sometimes it’ll sting bad, but if ya keep walkin’ on it, it’ll get better. Here, I’ll kiss you and that’ll make it feel better.” The boy kissed Scott’s cheek softly and settled down beside him again.
“Thanks, Tommy. It does feel better.” Scott hugged him tightly, swallowing the lump in his throat and thinking what a special child this boy was. “Hey, it’s nice and dark outside now. Why don’t we go look at the constellations and I’ll tell you those stories you’ve been asking about.”
“Oh, boy!” Tommy leaped to his feet and tugged Scott’s hand. “I wanna hear ‘bout the mean dragon guardin’ the golden apples. Johnny tells me stories ‘bout a magic dragon, but he said you know a story ‘bout a evil dragon. He said them Greek fellers made it up.”
Scott held the boy’s hand as they hurried toward the French doors and out into the cool evening. “Sure, Tommy. I’ll tell you that story. The stories the Greeks created are called myths. The myth of the dragon guarding the golden apples is the story of the Eleventh Labor of Heracles, sometimes called Hercules. You’ll want to hear the whole story of Hercules. He was a very strong man who had many exciting adventures.”
“I just love stories ‘bout ‘ventures. I wanna hear all ‘bout Herclez an the myths.” Tommy pulled Scott along. “Hurry, Scott.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming. Take it easy, those stars aren’t going anywhere.”
Scott marveled at Tommy’s boundless energy and enthusiasm. It reminded him of Johnny’s exuberance and vivacity. Perhaps he was so drawn to Tommy because the boy seemed exactly like Johnny must have been at that age. Perhaps subconsciously, interacting with Tommy represented an opportunity to actually be the big brother he wished he could have been for Johnny.
“Look, Scott. That’s my Ma, right up there. See?” Tommy pointed upwards to a golden star. “Scott, does my Ma’s star have a name?”
Scott positioned himself behind Tommy, taking care to be sure he had the right star. “That one? Yes, Tommy, that star is Maia, one of the Seven Sisters of The Pleiades. She was known for her beautiful golden hair and was the mother of Hermes, or as the Romans called him, Mercury. There are myths about him, too.”
“Golly. I knowed that wuz my Ma’s star. She had purty golden hair, too.” Tommy climbed up onto the low wall and pointed at another star. “Lookee, Scott! There’s the North Star. That’s Johnny’s other special star.” He stood on the curved wall and climbed up onto the taller post, still pointing.
“I see it, Tommy.” Scott moved quickly to make sure Tommy didn’t fall, then leaned his shoulders against the post next to the boy. “Why is the North Star special to Johnny?”
“It’s his other Pa.”
“His other Pa?” Scott’s voice was faint with shock—he wasn’t sure he had heard correctly.
Tommy didn’t notice. “Yeah, his friend, Pablo. ‘Fore he knew you and Uncle M, when he wuz a orphan, Pablo wuz like his Pa. Johnny says that if ya know how to find the North Star, ya can always find the way home. He says Pablo told him stuff that helped him find his way when he wuz really lost an that’s why Pablo is the North Star.
“But Johnny says that sometimes the North Star ain’t enuff, that ya can still git really lost if ya don’t got a compass.” Tommy’s steady flow of words faltered as he noticed the rush of the emotions flitting across Scott’s face.
“Yes, you should always carry a good compass,” Scott forced a smile and nodded encouragement to keep the boy talking.
Reassured, Tommy chattered on, eyes now gazing up at the twinkling stars. “Johnny says you and Uncle M are his compass, Scott, ‘cause ya keep him pointed in the right direction.” The boy didn’t notice Scott’s dropped jaw
Scott swallowed hard. “Johnny said that? My brother, Johnny?”
“I don’t know no other Johnnys, Scott.” Tommy replied seriously.
Scott gaped at the boy in astonishment. This seven-year old child had managed to find out more about Johnny than Scott had ever been able to drag out of his close-mouthed brother. He had never even heard of the mysterious Pablo!
//Guess the Pied Piper needs to do more than simply play his flute and slay the rats…//
“Tommy, how did you get Johnny to tell you all of this?”
“Gosh, Scott. I just asked him is all. How ya gonna find out anythin’ lessin’ ya ask?” Tommy stared at Scott in amazement.
Scott shook his head in bewilderment. “How, indeed. So you just asked Johnny about, oh, about his mother, and he… he just told you? And he talked to you about Pablo?”
“Sure.” Tommy paused and giggled. “Johnny’s always threatnin’ ta shoot me ‘cause I ask so many questions. But he ain’t done it yet, and I don’t think he’s gonna.”
Scott gave a bemused sigh. “I see. Yes, I think you’re safe. Johnny won’t shoot you. He might tickle you to death, though.” He poked the boy in the tummy.
Tommy giggled. “That’s how the Prince in Johnny’s stories chases off the bad men—he tickles them!”
“The P…Pr…Prince in Johnny’s stories?” Scott stuttered as his thoughts whirled, overwhelmed by all the new information he was discovering about his brother.
“You know, Scott. The Prince who rides the flyin’ golden horse and owns the magic dragon, Draco.” Tommy’s tone made it clear that anyone as ‘edicated’ as Scott was supposed to be should certainly know about the Prince.
“Oh, that Prince.” Scott shook his head in wonder. His younger brother was truly amazing. “And I suppose this flying horse has big white wings and surely the Prince has blond hair?”
Tommy stared at Scott in disbelief. “Gosh, no, Scott. Oro don’t need no wings ‘cause he’s a magic horse and it’s the magician got the blond hair. The Prince got black hair and blue eyes.”
“The magician has the blond hair?” Well, it was Johnny’s story…
“Yeah. See, the Prince’s magician con…conjures up all the magic the Prince uses when he flies ‘round savin’ the Hope of the World.” Tommy paused and proudly pointed to his chest. “That’s me. I’m the Hope of the World. The Prince an Oro an Draco go all over savin’ me an the world an reskin’ scared ladies.”
“Ah, you mean rescuing damsels in distress?” Scott chuckled as Tommy nodded.“And I suppose the handsome Prince charms these fair ladies after his daring rescue?”
Tommy made a face. “Yeah, all the time. Johnny likes them kinda stories, but I allus make him tell me ‘bout savin’ the Hope of the World and fightin’ the bad men. I don’t know why anybody’d wanna save scared girls, nohow.”
Scott laughed. “Ah, Tommy. Believe me, one day you will understand. Of course, you could ask Johnny to explain it.” He paused. “Do you want to hear the story of Hercules?”
Tommy bounced up and down in eagerness. “Yeah, yeah.” He paused suddenly, listening intently. “Scott, you hear that?”
A shrill whistle cut through the evening air along with the sound of galloping hoofs as Johnny and Cipriano loped into the courtyard. Johnny led the coveted grulla colt while Cipriano held the ropes of a pinto colt and a bay filly.
“Johnny, Johnny.” Tommy leaped down and ran toward his friend.
Johnny dismounted, moving smoothly between Tommy and the nervous colt prancing at the end of the rope in his hand. He hugged the boy with his free arm. “Hey, Tommy. You save me some pie?”
Tommy stuck out his tongue. “I wasn’t gonna, but Scott made me.”
Johnny ruffled the boy’s hair. “Little squirt. Now, I told you Scott takes good care of me, didn’t I?” He handed the colt’s rope to Cipriano as the stalwart segundo leaned over to take Barranca’s reins.
“Take care of them for me, amigo? Gracias. We’ll work the colt in the round corral tomorrow mornin’.”
Tommy tugged on Johnny’s hand for attention. “Hey, Johnny, Scott says I can be your brother and his brother.”
Johnny slung the boy up onto his shoulders. “That’s a great idea, Tommy. Scott has those, you know?”
“Yeah, and Scott give me another idea an I drawed you a picture of Draco, Johnny. Let’s go see!” Tommy clucked to Johnny as though he were urging on a horse.
“Okay, let’s go see. Didn’t I tell you Scott has great ideas?” Johnny grinned at his brother and started towards the door, holding Tommy’s legs to keep the excited boy from bouncing off his shoulders.
Tommy snatched Johnny’s hat off, placing it on his own head and nearly choking Johnny with the stampede string in the process. “That’s ‘cause he’s the oldest and wisest brother.”
Johnny stopped suddenly and his eyes met Scott’s. “Oh yeah? Who said so?”
“Scott did. He said ya keep fergittin’ and I promised to help remind ya.”
Scott raised his eyebrows and shrugged, unable to resist flashing a smile of triumph at his brother.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed and his drawl became more pronounced. “Oh, he did, did he? Now, Tommy, before you go remindin’ me, just remember that Scott’s sure as shootin’ the oldest. And he has the biggest mouth, too. But wise? Well, there’s smart and then there’s smart…”
“Are you sayin’ Scott’s a know-it-all, Johnny?” Tommy interrupted, his voice a deceptively innocent sing-song.
“Would you stop puttin’ words in my mouth? I never said that. I just don’t think bein’ the oldest means Scott gets to call the tune all the time, that’s all.” He turned his head to look up at Tommy, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial whisper that he made sure was loud enough for Scott to hear.
“You gotta be real careful ‘round older fellas like Scott, Tommy. If ya upset ‘em, it ain’t a pretty sight. See, ol’ Scott’s gettin’ that thundercloud look on his face. Any minute now he’ll be comin’ over here to teach us a lesson. And we don’t wanna have to hurt the old fella, get him all wrinkly.” The blue eyes Johnny locked with his brother’s danced wickedly.
Scott straightened leisurely and sauntered towards the door. “This older fellow just developed a fierce hunger for that remaining piece of apple pie. I did intend to save it for a certain brother, but I don’t see him, just a smart aleck.” He shook his head sadly. “Guess I’ll just mosey into the kitchen and eat that pie up.”
Johnny grinned as he swiftly lowered Tommy to the ground. “C’mon Tommy, help me stop him! Us brothers gotta stick together!” He sprang on his big brother with the lithe grace and power of an attacking jaguar, tackling Scott as Tommy piled on top, squealing with delight.
“I got him, Johnny. Help, he’s ticklin’ meeee….”
The three young men rolled and scuffled beneath the stars in mock sibling combat, thoroughly enjoying themselves as the hacienda rang with the music of their joyous laughter.
“Yes, I agree.” Scott nodded, nonchalantly buttering a biscuit while covertly watching his brother out of the corner of his eye.
He knew his words weren’t important, simply his indication of listening. His teeth were firmly closed on the inside of his lip, restraining the smile that begged to burst forth. Johnny rarely showed this kind of passionate excitement about anything and when he did, it was a rare treat, pure joy to his older brother.
The blue eyes glowed with an almost incandescent fire and the air around Johnny seemed to crackle and snap with energy. He talked a mile a minute, hardly pausing for breath, punctuating his words with his hands, one holding a fully loaded fork. His entire body seemed to quiver with restless eagerness.
“I’m telling you, Scott, most of that herd, and especially that colt, trace straight back to the horses the Conquistadors brought with them from Spain—the Andalusian. You ever seen an Andalusian, Scott?”
It was a rhetorical question and Scott was given no opportunity to reply.
“Well, they’re the most… the most…” Johnny searched for the right word, “magnificent horses you’ll ever see. All mustangs have some of that blood, but sometimes you find a herd that has stayed pretty well isolated and the bloodline is pure, like this one. There are some fine mares and foals in that herd and the grulla is the best of the lot. That colt has all the qualities to make a great cowhorse.” Johnny’s hands flew as enthusiastically as his tongue.
“You ever wondered why some horses are great cuttin’ horses or strong at herd work while others just can’t be trained to work cattle? A cowhorse got ‘cow’ in him, Scott. He’s got cow sense. And he either has it or he don’t. If he don’t, you can’t teach it to him. And ‘cow’, well, that comes from them Spanish horses, bred for hundreds of years to work in the bullring.
“These ponies have stamina, they move like a cat; they’re smart and even-tempered. If we can cross ‘em with somethin’ that’ll make ‘em just a tad faster over a short stretch, we’ll have cowhorses people will come from all over to buy. There’s a market for horses all over the West. It ain’t just ranchers who need good horses, the army does, too. Boy, I think we could make a good profit sellin’ the right kind of horses, might give us a cushion in years when the price of beef drops. Crossin’ Spanish mustangs onto thoroughbreds would give us some impressive stock. I wish Murdoch would give me a chance to make it work…” He trailed off in sudden frustration.
Scott felt a flash of anger at their absent father. Johnny had twice attempted to share his ideas about getting Lancer into the horse business with Murdoch and both times the older man dismissed him abruptly and cavalierly. Murdoch had the unfortunate habit of treating Johnny as though he were a child, making his younger son prove everything, speaking to him with a condescending “you’ll understand when you’re older and wiser” tone and attitude.
Scott was fairly certain their father wasn’t aware he did this, but that was no excuse. He knew it must silently rankle when it seemed Johnny could do nothing right while Murdoch frequently praised his older brother’s ideas and business acumen.
Scott spoke privately to Murdoch, asking him to offer Johnny the opportunity to succeed or fail in some limited fashion with the horses, but Murdoch flatly refused to consider the request, claiming that a successful horse business demanded the right stallion—something Lancer no longer had. Murdoch was unwilling to invest any money into a venture that reminded him of how Paul O’Brien had died. And he hadn’t forgotten the trouble caused by another herd of wild horses nor could he quite accept that Johnny was a good judge of horseflesh after the boy had been suckered by Wilf Guthrie.
He informed Scott that making money with horses required specific talents. The man acknowledged Johnny’s equestrian abilities, but declared that a horse breeder needed more than the capability to sweet-talk a horse and stick on a determined bucker.
Sometimes, Murdoch just doesn’t see past the nose on his face. He never pays close attention when Johnny works a horse. Everyone on the ranch discusses Johnny’s exceptional talent with horses—except his own father!
Scott remembered when Cipriano’s twelve-year old grandson came to live at the ranch. Cipriano wished to mount the boy on a prime animal and picked out several candidates from the many wild herds roaming Lancer range. The stalwart old segundo sought out Johnny, requesting the assistance of “Señor Mustañero.”
When Scott questioned Johnny about the unfamiliar title, his brother blushed and replied, “Nuthin’, it don’t mean nuthin’. Just sayin’ I’m good with horses is all.” But Scott knew it was much more than that.
When he taxed Cipriano with the question, he discovered that Johnny possessed something reverently referred to as “The Gift.” Cipriano said he was a horse-talker. He also told Scott that few men merited the title of mustañero, and rarely one so young as Johnny.
Cipriano summoned him to watch Johnny gentle the horse they’d chosen for Luis. Even now, he still couldn’t quite believe what he’d witnessed that day. Within the space of about two hours, Johnny had taken a completely wild mare and gentled her to the point where Luis could ride her safely. He hadn’t used a harsh rope, quirt, or blindfold. The mare hadn’t even bucked. Scott was dumbfounded. He knew how to achieve a similar result over the course of several weeks on a young horse reared with human contact. But Johnny had accomplished his feat in less than two hours on a horse bred, born, and raised wild. It was, quite simply, magical.
His brother established some kind of communication with the animal using his posture, eye contact, and voice. His voice! It was deep and rich, a singsong that was almost a chant. Scott hadn’t recognized one word, but the velvet tones and hypnotic rhythm had almost put him under Johnny’s spell, too.
Johnny was embarrassed by Scott’s earnest compliments, but explained his actions and the reasons behind them to his brother. He even worked with Scott to teach him some of the techniques. Scott had no illusions of ever trying to use this method on a wild horse, but he applied what Johnny taught him to achieve better communication with every horse he came in contact with.
Scott tried to describe Johnny’s approach to Murdoch, but their father laughed at him, dismissing what Scott had seen by declaring it a fluke. Frustrated, Scott found an opportunity to support his brother while on a business trip to San Francisco. He met a horse breeder in need of cash and struck a bargain to purchase four beautiful thoroughbred mares, bred from the finest bloodlines in Kentucky.
He couldn’t recall any occasion that had thrilled him more than presenting the young mares to his astonished and overwhelmed brother and informing him that they would form the nucleus of a new herd, owned by the two of them. Scott used his own money and would have gladly paid four times the already exorbitant price of the horses just to see the look of joy and love on Johnny’s face.
Murdoch had little to say beyond some mutterings about “foolish investments.” But Johnny had been avidly searching for just the right stallion ever since the mares arrived at Lancer. Scott fervently hoped that the grulla colt would prove to be everything his brother sought. Regardless of his ultimate worth, Scott instinctively knew that this colt would afford him the opportunity to watch Johnny work his own brand of magic again and he was eager to see it.
“You just watch, Scott. I’m gonna get this colt goin’ so good the Old Man will have to give us a chance with the horse business. He’s always lookin’ for me to prove what I can do and I’m gonna do it with this colt!” Johnny slammed his hand down on the table so hard that the bite of ham on his fork flew off.
Scott smiled encouragingly at him. “That sounds like a plan, little brother.” He motioned to the untouched breakfast on Johnny’s plate. “You’d better eat. Once Tommy comes down there won’t be anything left.”
“Ain’t that the truth. That kid is like a bottomless pit.” Johnny tucked into his full plate with gusto, making short work of its contents.
Look who’s talking, brother…
“I’ll get Tommy dressed and fed this morning. We’ll meet you down by the corral. Don’t you get any ideas about working with that colt before I get there! I’m anxious see this and it’ll be a treat for Tommy.”
Johnny grinned at him and ducked his head, pleased at his brother’s praise of his ability and grateful that Scott hadn’t made a big deal out of it. “Thanks, Scott.” He gulped the remainder of his milk and headed for the door. “See ya’.”
“Please, Scott. Please tell me ‘bout the s’prise!” Tommy skipped along beside Scott, his enthusiasm reminding Scott of Johnny’s exhilaration at breakfast.
In fact, he’d remarked on the resemblance between the two earlier while watching Tommy wolf down his second helping of eggs. Both were forever hungry…forever eating. They burned off so much energy, never still, always on the go, living every moment as if it was their last… Scott didn’t want to follow that thought to its conclusion and instead turned his attention to Tommy’s pleas.
“Okay, okay. We’re going to watch Johnny gentle that colt he and Cipriano caught yesterday.” Scott’s long strides had little trouble keeping up with the skipping boy.
“Oh boy! Like we saw before? That was great!” Tommy bounced with excitement.
“Not quite like we saw before, Tommy. You’re in for a real treat. Instead of a pretend story, your Prince is going to work some real life magic.”
“Whacha mean, Scott?”
“Well, Johnny is going to gentle this colt in a way you’ve never seen before. There aren’t many people who can do this, but Johnny can. In fact, I’ll bet you that if there were any Greeks around to watch, they’d make up a myth about the way Johnny works with this colt.” Scott smiled at the look of wonder on Tommy’s face.
“Golly! What’s Johnny gonna do, Scott?” The brown eyes opened wide.
“He’s going to talk to the horse, Tommy, and he’s going to listen when it talks to him. He’ll win its trust without scaring or hurting it in any way. You saw him do some of that before, but not like this. To really understand why this is such a treat, you need to know how most cowboys break a wild horse. Do you know?”
“Me and Pa seen some bronc busters come through Green River and buck out a few head. But they wasn’t gentle like Johnny was.” Tommy’s face was thoughtful.
“You’re right, Tommy, very observant. Those busters used the typical method and ‘break’ is the right word. They break the spirit of the horse and it’s hard and often cruel to the animal. They rope the horse and encourage it to fight the rope until it nearly strangles itself. Then they use the ropes to throw the horse to the ground, bruising it and knocking the wind out of its lungs.
“While the horse lies there stunned, they jump on top of it and one twists or bites its ears to keep it still while others blindfold it. Sometimes they saddle and ride it right away, other times they tie a rope from the hind leg to the tail and let the horse stand up. When it tries to run away, the rope throws it to the ground again.
“A horse is a prey animal, Tommy. That means other animals like mountain lions or wolves eat them for food. The horse’s main defense against these killers is staying with the herd and running. If it is separated from the herd or can’t run, the horse is unlikely to survive. Think how frightening it must be for a horse to be taken from its family and thrown to the ground.”
Scott realized that he was allowing some of his own prejudice against these barbaric methods to show in his voice. He’d learned many strange new customs and methods here in California, but nothing he’d seen bothered him as much as the way the wild horses were routinely traumatized.
“That’s mean, ain’t it, Scott? I felt sorry for them horses the busters worked.”
“I don’t believe the men intend to be cruel, but the horse is terrified and often harmed. When they do saddle and ride it, they rake it with spurs to make it buck, waving their hats and shouting. They force the poor animal to buck until it is exhausted. I much prefer the way Johnny handles a wild horse. He never hurts them and although they might be a bit scared at first, they aren’t terrified and beaten like a horse whose spirit is broken by a buster. You’ll see Johnny convince the colt that humans are part of his herd. When Johnny is done, he and the colt will be friends, all without choking or throwing the horse to the ground.”
“Golly.” Tommy pointed to a small holding pen beside the barn. “Lookee, Scott. There’s Johnny and the colt.” He took off at a run. “Johnny!”
Johnny turned away from the fence and caught the boy in a big bear hug. “Mornin’, Big ‘un. I’ll sit you up on the fence, but you gotta stay still, okay? You talk loud or bounce around and you’ll scare the horse.”
“I’ll be still, Johnny, I promise. Quiet, too.”
Johnny met Scott’s eyes over the boy’s head, both of them struggling not to laugh at Tommy’s unrealistic promise. He swung the boy onto the top rail and he and Scott leaned against the fence, gazing at the horse.
“I never seen a horse that color, Johnny! Why he looks kinda like my Ma’s silver teapot when part of it got that black stuff on it.” Tommy piped up.
“That color is called grulla, Tommy.”
Tommy’s brow wrinkled. “Grew-ya?”
“Yep. It’s a Spanish word for a kind of slate-gray colored crane—a bird.”
“He’s beautiful.” Scott admired the colt as it pranced back and forth at the opposite side of the enclosure. “Moves nicely. You know, Tommy, I’ve never seen a horse with this coloration, either. We both learned something today.”
The early morning sun highlighted the dark pewter tones of the colt’s body. Scott stared, intrigued by the unusual color. The horse wasn’t a gray, but more of a slate color with a distinctive blue cast. His head, mane, tail, and lower legs were jet black and there were some interesting black markings on his back, withers, legs, and ears.
A thick black stripe ran along the colt’s backbone from his withers to the base of his tail. At the top of the withers, another stripe branched off, running down each side to mid-shoulder. The upper legs had black bars running from knee and hock halfway up toward shoulders and hindquarters. Scott thought they looked like the stripes on tigers he’d seen in a circus that came through Boston. The blue-gray ears were edged in black, as though someone had delicately painted a line around them. At the base of the short ears, the black color feathered out into more black bars.
The colt had a huge white star in the center of his forehead and a neat white snip on his nose between his nostrils, running down over his upper lip. There were two perfectly matched white socks on his back legs.
Talk about your horse of a different color.
The colt pranced up and down the fence line, all pride and power, his long crested neck arched regally. The thick, wavy mane fell almost to his knees and his tail was long and lush, set low on his hindquarters. His head and neck were strikingly noble, made even more so by the crown of the abundant forelock. The broad forehead was straight while his nose was more convex; not exactly roman-nosed, but definitely curved. Scott was struck by the sudden thought that the colt reminded him of Johnny—handsome, athletic, dark, dangerous, and untamed. There was an aura surrounding him that proclaimed the observer was in the presence of something very special.
“Ain’t he somethin’, Scott? Look at them shoulders and hindquarters, that short back. This boy will git his hocks under him. He’ll turn around on a quarter an give ya back fifteen cents change! An’ he can run, too. Me an’ Cipriano found that out yesterday! I reckon he’ll top out at around fifteen hands. You ever seen such straight, clean legs?” Johnny’s eyes sparkled.
“When ya gonna gentle him, Johnny?” Tommy swiped Johnny’s hat; placing it on his own head and tilting his head back so he could see.
“How ‘bout right now. I’ll let you hold on to my hat, there, cowboy. C’mon, let’s go find you a seat in the op’ra house.” Johnny backed up to the fence so that Tommy could climb onto his shoulders.
“What’s the op’ra house?” Tommy asked Scott.
“That’s what the cowboys call the top rail of the main corral when they sit on it to watch someone work an animal inside.” Scott explained.
“Oh boy, I get to sit in the op’ra house!” Tommy bounced up and down as Johnny boosted him up onto the rail.
“Yeah. Now you remember what I told you about bein’ still and quiet when the horse is close, okay? And don’t even think about jumpin’ down inside the fence unless Scott or me tells you it’s all right.”
“I promised, didn’t I, Johnny?”
“Yep. You sure did. Adios, amigo, I gotta go work this colt.” Johnny ducked through the rails and whistled to Cipriano.
Scott climbed up to sit beside the boy, the sun warm on his back, but an even warmer feeling swelling in his chest. When Johnny worked with a horse, he became totally engrossed, no bad memories or heartaches penetrated through his intense concentration on the animal. It might be only for a short while, but it eased Scott’s concerns for his brother during that time.
“Lookee at all the ranch hands, Scott!” Tommy gestured to the many vaqueros and other hands clustered around the corral, waving at the men he knew.
“I promised you something special, didn’t I? These men want to watch it with you.” Scott wished his stubborn, judgmental—well, to be precise, Murdoch was usually open-minded and fair with everyone except his younger son—father could see Johnny’s talent for himself. The man would learn a few things and it would certainly help him see Johnny in a favorable light. Scott thought that Murdoch would be amazed and deeply proud of his son.
“Golly, I can’t wait.” Tommy quivered with eagerness.
“I know just how you feel,” Scott thought to himself, his heart pounding with excitement.
Cipriano herded the colt into the main corral, shutting the gate firmly behind him. Johnny stood in the center of the pen, loose and easy, balanced lightly on the balls of his feet. He held a horsehair rope he had braided himself, coiled and ready for use. The horse eyed him warily, snorting and backing its ears.
Johnny began speaking quietly to the animal, a lilting, musical mixture of Spanish, Indian, and melodic sounds. His voice was soft and rich, rising and falling in a hypnotic rhythm. The colt took two steps toward Johnny and halted abruptly, baring his teeth and pawing menacingly. The man never moved and the hushed singsong continued without pause.
The grulla reared suddenly, bugling a challenge and striking out with his front feet while balancing gracefully on his hind legs. Johnny waited until the black forelegs touched the ground, then moved purposefully toward the colt with shoulders squared and his eyes fixed unerringly on the colt’s eye.
The young horse threw up his head, backing off rapidly—this human was telling him, using the same aggressive posture his own mother would have done, that he’d done wrong and was about to be punished. He turned and began to canter around the perimeter of the corral, staying as close to the fence as he could and as far away from Johnny as possible.
Johnny continued to press the colt into flight, his shoulders held back and upright, square to the colt’s body, maintaining direct eye contact. He flicked the horsehair rope at the grulla, never touching him with it, but driving him forward at a gallop. The light weight and suppleness of the rope allowed him to place it precisely where he wished. And throughout his performance, Johnny’s melodious chanting never faltered.
The colt continued to gallop, his head up, searching for a means of escape, one ear and eye on Johnny, the other looking over the top rail. Going in circles made his body ache on one side. He could run for miles in a straight line, but this was something different. He wanted the punishment to stop, he wanted the human to stop that threatening stare so he could relax.
Johnny drove the grulla around the corral at a brisk gallop for several minutes, then began to test his communication with the animal by dropping his eyes back to the lathered neck, then the shoulder, and finally, the hip. The colt slowed and turned away from the fence, his head nodding and his mouth opening as he tried to ask forgiveness. He started toward Johnny, but Johnny stared him in the eye again and the colt returned to the rail, increasing his speed to a fast canter. One black-tipped ear was fixed on Johnny while the left, outside ear, swiveled and flicked forward and back, tuned to the surrounding area.
Johnny snapped the horsehair rope in front of the colt, stepping forward to be in front of him. His eyes remained locked on the colt’s, preventing the horse from coming off the rail. The grulla skidded to a halt and whirled, galloping off in the opposite direction. His muscles felt the relief of running in a different direction, but again his inside ear was fixed on Johnny, who rewarded him by coiling the horsehair rope, now keeping the horse moving forward only by slapping the rope gently against his leg, and after a couple of circuits, allowing the speed to drop to a trot. His soothing singsong continued unchanged.
The colt trotted, tail flagged and inside ear listening carefully. The threat was diminishing, he would try to ask for forgiveness again. He stuck his tongue out, licking around his muzzle, and began to chew with his teeth, the heavily muscled jaws rippling with the action. After another circuit of the corral, the grulla lowered his head, trotting forward slowly with his nose nearly touching the ground. Please let me stop!
Johnny moved slowly and purposefully, breaking eye contact with the colt, but this time turning his whole body so that he looked at a point roughly twenty feet in front of the animal. He relaxed, allowing his shoulders to slump and bent forward slightly from the waist, softening the lines of his body, making himself rounder. Tommy noticed that even his fingers were curved gently toward his palms.
The colt stopped at once. The threat had gone. Was something else catching the man’s attention? Was it something he should know about? He stood for a moment, staring at Johnny and then took two tentative steps toward him. Johnny remained still and rounded, the soft voice crooning enticingly. The colt’s ears pricked like daggers and he shook his head up and down, stomping and snorting, demanding that the man take notice of him again.
Johnny immediately straightened, regained eye contact and squared his shoulders back to the horse’s body. The colt leaped back into a canter, hugging the fence again. Johnny drove him around the corral for two more revolutions and then broke eye contact, repositioning and rounding his body. This time, the colt walked right up to him, stopping only when his nose was roughly four inches from Johnny’s shoulder.
They stood that way for several moments, Johnny totally motionless except for his steady flow of comforting murmurs. Then he deliberately took several measured steps, watching for the colt to follow him. The grulla moved with him, keeping his nose at Johnny’s shoulder as he once would have followed his mother when she had finished punishing him for his coltish antics.
Johnny walked in a slow circle and the grulla paced behind him. When he started a circle to the left, the colt hesitated as if to go the other way. Johnny resumed his threatening posture again, squaring his body to the colt and locking eyes with him. The grulla understood the signal—he was now to be punished for not following exactly—and began cantering around the corral while hugging the fence. The young horse soon dropped his nose to the dirt, flopping his tongue out of his mouth. Please, please forgive me and let me back into the herd.
Johnny rewarded him with the rounded body posture, welcoming the colt to join him in the center of the corral. This time, the grulla came to him immediately and Johnny slowly raised his hand, resting it on the big white star between the wide eyes. The colt blew noisily through his flared nostrils, but didn’t pull away. Johnny continued stroking the colt’s face, trailing his hand down to the quivering muzzle. The horse rolled his eyes, but stood still. The velvet voice continued its litany of soothing whispers as Johnny bent slowly, blowing into the colt’s nostrils.
The grulla tossed his head and snorted sharply before bumping Johnny’s shoulder with his nose. Now Johnny rubbed the big jaws, then the neck, stroking the colt gently, scratching under the jaws, chin, and in front of the withers. He reached up and touched the flickering ears, scratching lightly behind them and pulling each gently. He worked slowly, but methodically, softly rubbing and stroking along every part of the colt’s body—neck, withers, shoulders, back, sides, belly, flanks, and hindquarters—with both hands.
The colt appeared nervous at first, but soon relaxed, actually seeming to enjoy the gentle hands and soft voice. Johnny made several circuits of the horse’s body, always touching, rubbing, and chanting. When the colt stood quietly, accepting his touch without resistance, Johnny moved to the left foreleg and slowly ran his hands up and down the sinewy leg, finally grasping the pastern and lifting the foot. He repeated this action on the right front foot and then moved on to the rear legs. The grulla tensed a bit, he could not run if he couldn’t use all four legs, but decided to accept Johnny’s gentle handling.
After releasing the left rear leg, Johnny caught Cipriano’s eye and headed to a far corner of the corral. The grulla followed him as Cipriano entered the pen, placing the saddle and bridle on the ground in the center before quickly exiting, latching the gate behind him.
Johnny brought the horse back to the center of the ring and let him examine the tack. The colt rolled his eyes, snorting and blowing, but he stayed close to Johnny. The man hadn’t actually hurt him, and in fact had seemed to act more like a horse. He was a better herd-mate than no horse at all.
When the colt relaxed again, Johnny slowly lifted the jaquíma, letting the grulla smell it before carefully slipping it over his nose and ears. The colt remained calm and Johnny gently flipped the reins over the arched neck. He and the colt walked in slow circles with Johnny’s hand firmly on the mecate leading rein.
Johnny circled several more times in both directions before returning to the center of the corral, halting beside the saddle. He let the grulla smell the saddle blanket, then gently rubbed it down the colt’s neck, across his back and over his hindquarters. He completed three circuits of the colt’s body, rubbing him gently with the blanket, before placing it over the sturdy back, in front of the withers and sliding it slowly backward into place. The horse remained still, listening to Johnny’s calming murmurs.
Johnny hefted the saddle and slowly lowered it into place, careful to keep the stirrups and girth from spooking the colt. The grulla jerked his head up and snorted loudly when he felt the weight of the saddle, but listened to Johnny’s quiet voice and held still. Johnny walked around the front of the colt, stopping at his head to pat him gently between the eyes and blow into his nostrils again before stepping to the colt’s side and making sure the stirrup and girth hung straight. He continued around the colt, trailing his hand across the powerful hindquarters and ending up in his starting position. With sure, deft movements, he tightened the cinch.
The grulla stamped angrily and snorted, shaking his head and baring his teeth. The man might be half horse, but this was too much! Johnny was prepared for the colt’s defiance and squared his body to the horse; locking eyes and driving him back into a circling canter. The colt responded immediately, squealing and suddenly dropping his head, bucking savagely. He pitched and kicked hard for several minutes, but the saddle remained firmly in place. Tiring of the fight, he slowed to a trot.
Johnny invited him back to the center of the corral and the grulla joined him promptly. He patted the broad forehead and moved to colt’s left side, gathering the reins, grasping the left cheekstrap of the jaquíma, and bending the horse’s neck and head sharply to the left. He placed his toe in the stirrup.
The colt snorted, but stood. He had felt the weight of other horses’ heads resting on his back before. Johnny leaned toward the horse, increasing the pressure of his left foot and silently asking the colt if he could put his entire weight in the left stirrup. The colt took a small step sideways to redistribute the weight, but remained still and Johnny deftly stood in the stirrup, leaning his belly across the saddle. The grulla blew a big ruffling snort through his flared nostrils and shook his head up and down, spreading his legs wider to accommodate the unfamiliar weight on his back.
Johnny lay across the saddle for several minutes, still talking softly and rubbing the trembling shoulders and flanks. The colt raised his head, trying to see what was happening. Without being able to see the human properly, he could not read the body language and had no idea of whether he was doing right or wrong. The man did not seem to be talking horse now, although the sounds he made were pleasant.
Finally Johnny straightened, easily swinging his leg over, finding the right stirrup swiftly and standing softly in the stirrups for a moment before sinking lightly into the saddle. The grulla stood like a statue and Johnny stroked his wet neck. The colt stamped his forefoot and Johnny lightly squeezed the sweat-streaked sides with his lower legs, asking the horse to move forward in an easy walk.
Defiance flared in the young horse. The man had gone too far this time! The colt remained still for a brief moment and then Johnny felt the muscles beneath him bunch and coil. He grinned, satisfied that the grulla wasn’t giving up without a fight. He had time for the quick thought that this colt had spirit, and then the world exploded beneath him.
The grulla flung his head up, whistling in shrill fury, then leaped ahead like an arrow shot from a bow. He plunged forward into two impossibly high leaps before seeming to stand on his head, lashing upwards explosively with his hind legs. The colt repeated this move again and again; kicking so high it seemed to the watching men that he would somersault head over heels. But the man on his back remained loose and relaxed, swaying in complete harmony with his mount’s frantic pitching.
The colt leaped high, arching at the top and pile-driving as he came down, legs stiff, all four hoofs striking the ground at the same time, delivering jolting shocks that snapped Johnny’s head back and forth. The grulla began to sidewind, a series of short, stiff-legged jarring jumps that carried him sideways. The impact of the colt’s hooves as they blasted into the hard-packed dirt of the corral was like being hit by a runaway train, but Johnny stayed balanced, shifting his weight hundreds of times in a handful of seconds, never losing sight of the colt’s head, knowing it would telegraph the horse’s moves.
Squealing each time his hooves touched the ground, the grulla went into another headstand, reversing direction completely as he came out of it, his speed an awesome thing. He suddenly sunfished, a violent wriggling motion that was almost a roll in the air, as though twisting his belly up to the sun, before swapping ends and crawfishing, bucking backwards rapidly. When this failed to unseat his rider, the colt switched tactics, alternating determined pile-driving with explosive sunfishing, finally throwing in another huge leap with a corkscrew—a wriggling, twisting motion of his whole body, front to rear—at the top.
Each was a punishing blow, like being hit in the back of the head with a club, but Johnny moved easily in the saddle, one arm out for balance, swaying backward, then forward with the horse’s movements. Johnny’s world was in constant, furious motion, the dust boiling up from the thundering hooves as the fence rushed forward and fell away at a crazy angle. He relaxed his body to absorb the shock each time the colt slammed its feet into the ground, but it still felt as though he was sitting on an exploding keg of dynamite.
He savored the feel of the fighting animal beneath him, the rhythm of the powerful muscles of the grulla’s shoulders, back and hindquarters, the surge of adrenaline that flowed through him, the bawdy encouragement shouted from the men seated on the top rail of the corral. There was something primitive and satisfying about this contest between man and mount and his mouth stretched into a broad grin.
He began skillfully shortening the reins, talking to the colt. “Easy, fella. Steady. Easy now. Whoa.” Johnny asked and cajoled instead of demanding and forcing and the grulla understood.
The colt gave three more half-hearted leaps and stopped, standing quietly and breathing hard. Johnny patted the lathered neck letting the colt catch his breath for a moment, then asked him to walk.
The grulla responded to the pressure of Johnny’s legs against his sides, moving forward in a straight line. There was no punishment, only the soft crooning of the man’s voice. Johnny moved easily with the colt’s fluid cocky strides, using the reins to guide him in large circles, first to the right, then to the left, all the while speaking softly.
After several circuits, he asked for a lope and the grulla reacted to the gentle pressure on his sides and the human’s subtle shift of position in the saddle, instantly stepping into a smooth canter. Johnny let the horse lope several times around the corral in each direction before finally bringing him to a halt in the center of the pen.
The grulla stood squarely and Johnny rose in the stirrups for a moment, balancing lightly on the balls of his feet and offering the grulla a last chance at rebellion. The horse remained rock steady and Johnny brought his leg over, dismounting softly and moving to the big head. He reached up and patted the broad forehead, laughing when the colt responded with a chuffing snort, gently nuzzling his chest. Horse and man had accepted each other as herd members.
Working swiftly, Johnny unsaddled the horse and slipped the jaquíma over his head. When he turned to the fence and walked toward Scott, Tommy, and Cipriano, the colt followed, his nose at Johnny’s shoulder. The spectators clapped, cheered, and whistled, startling the colt. Johnny acknowledged them, smiling his thanks and motioning for quiet, calming the grulla with his hands and voice.
Johnny’s grin was so wide Scott thought he might hurt his face, the blue eyes sparkled with delight, and his entire body radiated his elation. “Look at that colt, huh, Scott? That is one fine horse. What a stallion he’ll make. I can’t wait to breed him to them thoroughbred mares you picked out! Boy, the wildest colts make the best horses and this fella’s got spirit.” His long fingers tangled in the colt’s forelock, tugging gently.
Scott smiled, relishing his brother’s obvious happiness and excitement. “Johnny, that has to be the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen—truly excellent work, brother. And you’re right, he is one handsome animal.”
Johnny flushed with pleasure at Scott’s praise, hanging his head. “Thanks, Scott.”
“Gosh, Johnny, it’s just like Scott said. It was like magic. Can I pet him?” Tommy was doing a creditable job of restraining himself, obviously wanting to bounce with excitement, but remembering that he shouldn’t make sudden moves around the horse.
Johnny held up his arms, lifting Tommy down from the top rail of the corral and standing him in front of the colt. “Stand real still and raise your hand to his muzzle. Slow! Keep your palm up. That’s it. Let him touch you. And talk to him, nice and soft.”
The colt wasn’t quite sure he wanted this new hand to touch him, but Tommy began to talk to him, calling him a pretty boy, and his new herd-mate seemed to accept this small man so he lowered his head and allowed the child to stroke his velvety muzzle.
“Golly, Johnny, he sure is a nice horse. Whacha gonna call him?” The brown eyes shown with admiration for his hero.
“Well, Tommy, I reckon’ a fine colt like this needs a good name. Why don’t you pick one for him.”
“Me? Really, Johnny? I can name him?”
The boy kept patting the dark face, studying the colt and thinking hard. “Well, he’s all sooty and silvery like… How ‘bout Smoky?”
“Smoky.” Johnny pronounced the name theatrically, drawing giggles from Tommy and a toss of the head from the colt.
Johnny addressed the grulla, “What about it, son? You a Smoky?” The grulla bumped him with his nose and began rubbing his sweaty head against Johnny’s chest. “He says he’s a Smoky. What do you think, Scott?”
“The name suits him and I think it’s a good choice. Come on, Tommy, climb back up here on the fence.” Scott was nervous at the thought of Tommy on the ground so close to the colt’s sharp hooves.
Tommy turned around and began climbing the rails, pausing suddenly and shading his eyes against the morning sun. His face lighted up and he shouted excitedly, “Johnny, Scott, it’s your Pa!” The boy ducked through the rails and sprinted to the tall man striding toward them from the side of the barn.
Riding back to Lancer to make certain that Tommy was ready to see his father, Murdoch arrived in time to observe Johnny gentle the colt. He watched in stunned amazement, realizing that few men alive were capable of working that kind of wizardry on a horse. He’d known Johnny had a way with horses, but the boy had never given him a hint that he had this kind of ability! No wonder he was always pushing to make horses a part of the Lancer business. He’d have to speak with Johnny about that again, pay closer attention to his son’s ideas and plans. And where in the world had Johnny gotten that magnificent animal?
“Uncle M! Uncle M!” Tommy raced full tilt into Murdoch’s long legs, and hugged him tightly.
“Murdoch!” Scott and Johnny uttered the name in unison, Scott dropping gracefully from his perch and Johnny crawling agilely between the rails. They hurried toward their father.
“Hello, Tommy, boys.” Murdoch was secretly thrilled at the warm welcome; all three of them so obviously excited to see him. It was quite a feeling, to have sons who were glad to welcome you when you came home.
He laughed as all three began talking to him at once. But he couldn’t take the time to enjoy being the center of their attention. He had something important to say. “Johnny!”
The blue eyes widened in dismay, his son obviously worried that he had done something wrong. Tommy and Scott stopped in mid-sentence. Murdoch ignored them and stepped toward his younger son, gripping the tense shoulder.
“Son, that was extraordinary. I’ve only ever seen it done once before. I knew you had a way with horses, but I had no idea you were so talented. I’m impressed, Johnny.”
Johnny gulped and blushed to the roots of his hair, hanging his head. “T…thank you.” He wondered briefly if Murdoch had been helping Pete Adams drink up all of the alcohol available in Green River. His father had never spoken to him like that before! He felt a sudden hot pricking behind his eyelids, Murdoch was proud of him.
Scott watched with quiet satisfaction, gratified that Murdoch had been able to see Johnny’s accomplishment for himself. The boy’s feat had impressed his father exactly the way Scott thought it would. He made a mental note to privately thank Murdoch for sharing his admiration with Johnny, giving him a much-needed boost to his confidence.
“It was like magic, wasn’t it, Uncle M?” Tommy’s small hand found Murdoch’s large one.
“Yes it was, Tommy. Pure magic.” Murdoch put his free arm around Johnny’s shoulders and shepherded his three boys toward the hacienda. “Now tell me all about that grulla colt. He looks like he might make a herd stallion—that is if someone was interested in getting into the horse business…”
*Special thanks to Monty Roberts for letting Johnny borrow his techniques. Much of the magic performed in this chapter is an explanation of Monty’s “Join Up”. Buck Brannerman and Tom Dorrance also loaned Johnny some techniques.
**Johnny plans to train Smoky in the vaquero or buckaroo way. The California vaqueros prized the qualities of feel, timing and balance in a horseman above all else. This started with the jaquíma (we pronounce it hackamore today) instead of a bridle with a bit. The vaquero way of training is to feel where the horse's feet are and control them; to time a feather-light touch on the reins and have the horse respond instantly; to make the slightest move with the body and get a willing, balanced response. The vaquero way is the path of understanding the horse and educating the horse in a non-fearful, non-threatening way. Instead of breaking their spirit through rough riding, manhandling and generally treating horses as ‘broncs’, the vaquero way introduces the horse to the halter, lead rope, bridle and eventually the saddle in a gentle yet thorough manner. Johnny is combining the vaquero training techniques and philosophies with his abilities as a horse talker to gentle the grulla colt. It is this combination that marks him as a true master horseman or mustañero.