The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Barb A

 

 

FBelonging

Johnny Madrid drew back against the corral, eyeing the flashy sorrel. El Gato. For the better part of twenty minutes, he watched the way the horse danced, how the muscles rippled at the shoulder and haunch with every step. The first day in town he'd gone to the corral exactly four times—the pull of the Sonora rodeo and its doings proving too good to miss.

Hair past his collar, boots with run-down heels, faded work pants and a patched cotton shirt made Johnny a distinct contrast to the immaculate reds, yellows and browns of the rodeo vaqueros, but the differences didn't end there.

They were cocks of the walk, looked it, acted it, and wanted it known. They were heroes of the rodeo and Johnny was an unknown. Although with his pistol strapped low when he wasn't working—low enough to make most folks uncomfortable—he was getting known a little, too. But now he had a dollar to his name and a job handling stock for the rodeo.

Manuel Mora and his girl halted by the corral and peered through the horizontal bars to watch the milling horses.

He glanced at Johnny, who leaned against the corral, eyes for nothing and nobody except the sorrel. "El Gato is plenty of horse, isn't he?"

"Not really."

Dislike flashed across Mora's face. He was used to being yessed by the help. He nudged the girl. "I suppose you could ride him, boy?"

Johnny bristled. He disliked being called 'boy'. He was seventeen, with a few rough years behind him already.

"I could. He's easy compared to Abogado." Johnny nodded to a lean-faced grulla that stood alone at the far wall. "Abogado would pitch circles around him."

"Just for fun," Mora said, "and since you're such a good rider, I'll bet you ten dollars you can't stay up on El Gato."

"I can ride him."

"Then put your money in the hat, mestizo!"

Johnny could feel the heat rush to his face. "I said I could ride' im." But he glanced to the left and right, looking for an escape.

"Come on! Put up your money! Let's see you do it."

Several people had gathered around, and among them was a tall gringo.

The girl started to pull on Mora's elbow. "Maybe he doesn't want to ride, Manuel. Let him go."

The bystanders started to make noise behind them and she pulled harder. Mora's hard face softened, but kept his eyes on Johnny. "For you, Margarita." He turned and dropped a peso at Johnny's feet.

The crowd and its laughter drifted away and Johnny kicked the peso across the corral, head down. He'd been made to look like fool. But how could he admit he didn't have ten dollars or even five?

"You think that horse can buck?" The voice was deep, friendly.

"You can bet on it."

"Have you seen him?" It was the gringo, brown face seamed and wind worn under grey hair.

Johnny hesitated. "Not exactly."

"But you know horses."

"That's right."

"I see. Been around long?"

"A few days," Johnny admitted. "Why all the questions?"

The man shrugged. "I was looking for Señor Jaime Abana. He has a stallion I'm looking to buy. Thought you would know where he is."

"Never met' im. Just got to town and talked the saddler into a job feeding and watering the stock."

"Have you got any money?"

Johnny's head came up, could feel his eyes narrow. "That ain't any of your business."

"If you had money, I guess you wouldn't be so upset about it. Figured you might need a few dollars to tide you over until payday."

Johnny studied him then dropped his eyes. He palmed his empty hip. "What do you want me to do for these dollars?"

The man waved his hand towards El Gato. "Put a saddle on him and I'll pay you to ride."

"How much?"

"Oh, say ten dollars?"

"Why do you want to see me ride him?"

"I figure the only reason you didn't get up on that horse a few minutes ago is because you didn't have the money." The gringo smiled, all white and gleaming. "I just want to see if I'm right."

"Old man, you're too much. Where's the money?"

He gave an indulgent smile. "In my pocket. You ride, I'll pay."

Without another word, Johnny went off to the barn.

He came back trailing a saddle grasped by the horn, and a halter over one shoulder. With the help of the old man, he saddled and haltered the sorrel. The arena was empty at the early afternoon hour and Johnny clambered between the bars of the chute to mount the horse. He dropped into the saddle and grabbed the lead rope, nodding to the old man.

El Gato made a desperate run for the side of the corral, skidded to a halt and threw down his head. When Johnny stayed in the saddle, he hip-hopped front to back, finally sunfishing for a full four seconds.

The gringo yelled time, and Johnny unloaded. Together they caught up the sorrel and unsaddled him.

Breathing hard, he ran his fingers across the saddle leather, once, twice. "They might raise a fuss if they knew I rode that horse."

"I wouldn't be too worried. I know the owner of the rodeo." The old man dug into his pocket. "Here's your ten dollars. You handled the horse well."

"Gracias." Johnny grinned. He gripped the money in one hand so hard his knuckles turned pale.

"Ever figure on riding for a ranch?"

Johnny looked up, hesitated, then shook his head. "Not for me, mister. I'd better go, I've got a lot of work to do before the fandango tomorrow and I want to get into town for a little bit!"

He was going to say adios to the old man and thanks again for the money, although it was a sucker's bet, with Johnny holding all the cards. But he didn't say anything. Mostly because the gringo was standing in the corral, staring at him. Face milk white. Eyes plate big, and he didn't say a word.

Johnny couldn't stop the shiver down his back. He shoved the crumpled bills into his pocket and edged around the chute. He backed away three steps, then turned and jogged towards the barn.

 

+^+^+^+^+^+

 

Johnny wore his new shirt, wiped his sweaty palm on new trousers, and after a good meal of beef and fried potatoes, still had three dollars leftover from the gringo's money. Eventually, as he knew he would, he loped into saloon, hoped that Elena wasn't working tonight, because he didn't want to disappoint her, and didn't want to get talked out of the inevitable. He hadn't come for a free bowl of gristly stew tonight. So he thought about the wad of cash in Richards's hand, a hundred dollars, maybe more, and how carelessly he peeled the bills away, one after the other. Didn't answer to anyone, called his own shots. Somewhere in Johnny's gut, he knew those were all lies. But he couldn't wait anymore, so he pushed open the door to the Alhambra.

Tate Richards leaned over the faded green felt, his rings of polished agate catching the lantern light to send flickers of yellow against the plywood wall of the saloon. With one bent finger, he showed Johnny where he should take his next shot. Johnny wasn't in the habit of taking pointers about his pool game, but this was different. Richards noticed Johnny's uncommon acceptance of advice and pulled a quicksilver grin over the terrain of his craggy face.

The pool table was tucked away to the side of the bar, like an afterthought, shimmed with scraps of wood so it was level. The two of them circled it, each other. He turned the cue over in his hands, intent on not letting Richards get a shot in, and made the pistolero watch as he cleared the table. Every day since coming to town, and this was only the second time he'd done that—skunked the wily Tate Richards.

They weren't playing for money. Richards reached into the braided leather pockets, fetched out the balls. They clacked as he arranged them on the felt.

"You know, I like you, Johnny. We're the same underneath it all, you and me," Richards said, tipping back his beer.

Johnny swallowed, mouth dry as dust. "Yeah? You like me so much, how come you haven't offered me a job?" Five days of Richards's schooling and now Johnny gave it back, signaling class was over. They were dancing and both knew it.

"Tell you why, but you're not gonna like it." And he looked mournful for a moment, those bottomless brown eyes almost kind.

"You got belonging written all over you. You're a pup, not a big dog. And I'm of a mind to only hire big dogs."

Johnny watched as Richards placed the white ball just so, drew back and made the break with a crack like an oncoming spring storm.

"I don't belong to anyone, just myself. And I'm looking to hire on."

Richards shook his broad hands free of cue dust. "Is that so?" His expression changed—mercurial—and there was that grin again. "There may be hope for you yet."

 

+^+^+^+^+^+

 

On the short ride to the rodeo grounds the next morning, only one thing bubbled to the surface. He was safe. Murdoch's mind snagged on the word 'safe'. His head rang, but he wasn't going to think of the past. After the boy—Johnny, he reminded himself, not some random child, but one with a name, one who mattered—had left, he'd gone to the rodeo office and learned from Abana that Johnny indeed had been hired by the saddler as a roustabout. Taken on a trial basis because there'd been enough trouble to earn Johnny somewhat of a reputation.

"Lo siento," Jaime had murmured. "You didn't need to hear about all that. God only knows this is a tough town."

But now something was happening at the corral beside the arena. Jaime and another man were arguing, all waved arms and reddened faces. Murdoch and Paul fell into a loaded silence, and pulled up well short of the action. Murdoch pushed his way through the vaqueros, horses and rodeo spectators, going toward the sound of shouting.

Jaime turned, his face dead serious. "He's gone," were the first words out of his mouth and the only ones needed.

At that moment, not a yard from the tip of Murdoch's nose, a whoosh of air and color flexed inward and outward. He stumbled back, startled, mind not quick enough to comprehend what was being said. Then his mind caught up. It was his heart that didn't. He couldn't draw breath.

"You didn't tell him?" Not a question at all. Murdoch's eyebrows lifted, pinned Paul where he stood, mouth gaping. What part of not recognizing his own son until too late was all right to say aloud?

The arena with its southern mid-morning sun was like an anvil, a skimpy breeze not making a dent in the furnace. All the blood rushed to his face, leaving him flushed and shaking.

And suddenly he wanted to feel again, needed to hear her voice, and it was so far away, all of it. He wanted it back. He wanted his son.

I am no good at being alone, he thought, committing to memory the way Johnny moved, how he stood. Murdoch gulped air remembering the threadbare shirt, the faded jeans held up with a bit of leather, all the while watching the slow pan of horses and people in the arena, listening to the damn fiddle music playing on and on.

Better that he stay angry for a while—it would help. Anger was better than despair. It was the only thing that let him keep going, building the legacy. Murdoch above all had cause to know that.

Lost, he looked down, could feel Paul stare at him, waiting for orders. Well, he'd give them, damn it. They'd tear Sonora apart if they had to because if he found Johnny once, he could find him again.

 

 

~end~
8/23/2014

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