The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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BarbA

 

 

Just A Dollar

The mission bell woke him. So loud it vibrated the window pane. Johnny's head felt heavy. Hurt, too. Bitter bile threatened at his back molars. As far as he knew, he hadn't thrown up. Yet. So he kept his eyes closed, took stock.

He was in bed. Naked. Left arm asleep, except for a few pinpricks running down to his fingertips. He was warm, blessedly so, the blanket and sheet heavy over hips and belly.   

The linens smelled of sweat and tequila and coupling. That was reason enough to open his eyes, but he didn't. Then a female body shifted, spooned into him, skin smooth against the rough hair of his thigh and chest. A flood of hot tingles rushed up to his shoulder from his dead arm and hand.

And with no effort on his part, yesterday slid back, as jarring as the peal of Christmas mass.  

^+^+^+^+^+^



Johnny was tied to the land by a piece of paper and a promise, but that didn't stop him from wishing he was someplace warmer and drier than Morro Coyo in December. It had rained every damn day since the second.

The work wasn't going to break him—he liked  that . It was all the other: manners at dinner, smiling through cattle meetings, the big holiday fandango Murdoch was throwing tomorrow. How many people were going to be there? Twelve? Twenty?

He stamped the cold out of his feet and stepped into the mercantile. 

“Stop him!”

Johnny whirled and jerked the kid halfway off his feet. There was nothing to him except a yard of dishwater blond hair and big green eyes. At least he thought they were green, right now they were pegged to Eli's floorboards.  

Eli came around his counter, a little breathless. “Thanks, Johnny.” He tipped his head. “It's Tim Sweeney, Jeb Sweeney's boy.”

Name meant nothing to him, but the look on the kid's face.  Dios .  

“Open his coat.”

The kid made a little sound of disgust when Johnny reached for the buttons.  

Hunched with hands on knees, Eli got himself a good look. “I thought so.” A small bag of coffee was stuffed inside, between the boy's arm and belt. “What else has he got?”

“Nothin' else, I swear!” The boy bit his lower lip, chewed. Freckles were stark spots of brown against too pale skin.

Eli took hold of a coattail and dragged him closer to the counter. “Came in two, three times this week. Always looking in my glass case.” Pushed his wire rims up higher on his nose and dug a hand into the boy's pocket. “I had a feeling he might try something.”

Out came a penknife and a palm-sized velvet bag. 

“I got money.” The boy shuffled in place, pulled out a crumpled bill and a few coins.

Eli jabbed at the pennies. “Not near enough.”

Johnny angled out a hip, sighed a question. “How much?”

“Reckon all told, it's seven-fifty for the lot.” The storekeeper shook his head. “Sweeney hasn't paid his tab in five months. But any given Tuesday I can find him over at the saloon. I have to make a living, too, Johnny. Am I supposed to give out charity to everyone?”

He dipped his head. “No one is asking you to stake Morro Coyo, Eli.”

“Maybe I can see him the coffee, but that jewelry and penknife are going back into the case. Boy was gonna sell them on the street, I bet. That brooch came all the way from St. Louis.” He patted back a bit of stray grey hair and groused, “I should turn him over to the sheriff.”

Tim eyed the knife like a dog waiting for suppertime. “Let me go.”

The attitude was full of bristles. He was the type of boy who'd bristle even more if attention was drawn to it, so Johnny let it slide. But as soon as the boy looked away, Johnny saw a change. He was scared of something, either the law or Pa.

Johnny knew that was how it started.

“You can't hurt anyone with that letter opener. For that you need this pig sticker.” Johnny picked up the gleaming silver bowie knife from the case. Hefted it, felt the balance. It was true.

Eyes widened. “Don't mean to stick anyone; just want to carry it around.”

“Uh-huh, so the knife's just for show then. Well, how about a gun? A gun can do some real damage.” He took his pistol out and spun the cylinder, slid his hand along the side of the barrel. It was truer than the knife. He flipped the butt end towards the boy. 

Tim took a step back.

“Fair enough,” he grinned, and pushed the gun back into his holster. “I hear Rosa's serves real good food. You hungry?” And he timed it.

Took all of three seconds. The boy gulped, straightened his back and stuck out his thin chest. “Nope.”

Johnny shrugged, left him alone with Eli and leaned on the counter. Made a study of the fancy tins and burlap bags and white beans in mason jars. Tuned back in when he heard the storekeeper ask the kid if he was through with taking things that didn't rightly belong to him. Eli added a finger poke to the boy's shoulder at the word ‘steal'.

He scuffed his boot on the floor, shifted weight onto one leg. “You done?”

Eli shoved his hands into frayed apron pockets. “Yeah, I guess.”

Tim blinked once. “I'm going now, Mister. You can't make me stay.” Tough little man.

“Take this.” Johnny shoved a tin into the boy's hands. “Coffee isn't good without sugar.” He wouldn't refuse, not now. He wanted to, raised his chin a little, met Johnny's eyes. Then nodded.

Johnny fished into his pocket for a few dollars. “Go home, all right?” He kept his voice low, but the kid shook his head to the money. “I'll be okay,” he said and it twisted something inside Johnny.

The boy stumbled out the door, took off like a shot.

Eli huffed, sounded like he was bothered and long suffering. “Maybe Sweeney put him up to it. Funny what some people'd do for a dollar. Eleven years old and Alice already has her hands full with that boy. He's a bad seed, if you ask me.”

Johnny didn't want to think about it, didn't want to think about where Tim was going, now or ten years from now. He checked the clock above the door. Another hour and it'd be dark.  

“So what'll it be?” Eli asked.

“Murdoch needs a few more things for that big dinner he's throwin' tomorrow.” He dug a list out of his front pocket. “And let me see that piece you took off the kid.”

He turned it over in his hand. A bright white stone was carved into the shape of a lady's head. He rubbed a finger over her hair—real elegant, dainty even. Teresa would love it.

“It's an opal. Like I said, came all the way from St. Louis. Only one of it's kind in the store.”

“You don't have to give me the particulars, Eli. It's pretty enough, I'll take it. Make a nice present for Teresa.”

“You want it in a box?”

“No, just put it back in that little bag. Can't see that she'd want the box for anythin'.”

Johnny rubbed a thumb across the rough planking of the counter. “So where does Sweeney live anyway?”

Eli raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

Johnny lifted a shoulder, shrugged. “Just wondering is all.” He counted out his money to pay. “Seems like it would be best to avoid the man if at all possible.”

^+^+^+^+^+^



He found the place easy enough, right above the smithy. Had a sour odor about it from the alleyway. Ten rickety stairs led to the mean door. Someone had put a clay pot under the window, maybe for flowers or vegetables. He could see how it would get the afternoon sun right enough, but all it held was a few straggles of brown.

Grabbed hold of the railing, took one step up. Johnny bit the inside of his mouth hard. The kid was fighting whatever or whoever had a chokehold on him. Begged, too, in his own way, for time to fix things.   

Johnny could give the boy that much and hope it wasn't a mistake. He took his foot off the step, looked up and saw the lamp doused in the small window.

Music piddled its way down the street from the Gem, one tinny piano and he realized his mouth was dry as cotton. If there was any luck to be had, he'd see Sweeney in the saloon.   

^+^+^+^+^+^



Johnny smacked away the thoughts of yesterday. The bed he was on wasn't exactly comfortable, mostly because a spring had worked loose from the cotton ticking, under his left hip. He dragged himself upright, back against the iron headboard, not much better than the mattress. Bea protested the loss of heat with a soft mewling, curled in and scrabbled the sheet and blanket over her head. He thought about whether or not to chance the cold water in the basin to wash up, but decided against it.  

The window had six triangles of white frost, and it made him think of the boy with the big green eyes somehow. Let him be, Johnny murmured to himself, and scratched under his armpit for nothing better to do. He closed his eyes and felt a ray of sun find his face through the grey gauze of curtains.        

The church bell rang a second time and he just couldn't shake the thoughts loose. He slid his feet to the floor, found his pants wadded up under the bed.

^+^+^+^+^+^



The woman with her back pressed against the wall of the stage depot looked old enough to have seen too many hard times. She was thin, ruddy cheekbones sharp and high. When he got close enough, Johnny could make out her motley, threadbare coat. The top two buttons were missing and it gapped open to the chill. She grimaced, clutched at her throat with one hand and worried her neat collar like something should be there. Not finding it, she let her hand fall away and hitched up her carpetbag.

Tim huddled close to her, not nearly warm enough in the thin jacket, not with the cold and the wet left over from the rain. It struck him, and Johnny had a moment of confusion so strong he pulled himself away from the edge of the boardwalk, afraid for a second he'd fall right off.

He tipped his hat. “Mornin', Ma'am.”

Hazel eyes could've been pretty if they weren't so tired looking. She slid the old bag behind her hip, kept it there with a good grip. After a loaded minute, she nodded back. “Morning.”

Johnny tipped his head to the boy. “Excuse me, Ma'am, but could I talk to him?”

Startled, her eyes widened. “Tim?”

“I'm Johnny Lancer and nothing's wrong. I just want to talk.”

She studied him, tried to get a read, and he felt his face redden. She unbent and relaxed back into her hunch. “You'll stay on the platform.”

He and the boy walked away a few paces.

“She your mother?”

“Yeah, that's her.” The words came out strangled and soft, different than they were in the store.

Johnny caught Tim looking back at Alice Sweeney. Watched her—guarding. The boy was scared all right. He could almost smell it. Johnny bent down, put his mouth close to the boy's ear. “How'd you get that?” He gestured to the half-moon purplish bruise on the boy's cheek, under the left eye. New since yesterday and it was gonna spread into a shiner.

Green eyes bolted left, and Tim shut up.

Johnny straightened. “Well, I guess it don't matter, seein' as how you're leavin'.” He pushed the brim of his hat up with two fingers. “Takin' the east-bound?”

Tim nodded. “Wichita, soon enough. We got people there.”

Took Johnny a minute for it to soak into his tequila-ed brain. “Soon enough?”

“We got tickets as far as Arizona.” The boy went quiet, tried to dodge. “It'll work out.”

Johnny moved to the side as two churchgoers hurried past in their finery, but he watched the boy out of the corner of his eye. Not there yet. But hungry, out on the street. Anybody's guess to when it would happen.

He thought about the dollar in Tim's pocket, of how they'd get on the stage and start new, how they'd get far enough away so Sweeney would never find them again. Somewhere in his gut, he knew they were all lies.    

A whip cracked from outside of town. The stage swung between the bigger ruts of the street and into the depot at a spanking trot.   

Tim squirmed as he looked down the twin lines of boardwalk towards the smithy, panic in his young face.

“Hey kid, hold on. Here.” Johnny thrust the small blue bag into his hand.

“I can't pay. Don't have enough,” he whispered, eyes as big as eggs.  

Johnny pushed the bag into the Tim's pocket. “Doesn't matter.”  He tipped his head to the woman. “Just take care of her.”

He stepped away when she called to the boy, and walked to the depot window.

A few minutes later, Dave hustled out the door, apron ties swinging. He called to the stage, “Wait up! They can't leave.”

Johnny watched the color drain from Alice Sweeney's face.

She found her voice after a time, full of shiver and worry. “What's wrong?”

“There was a mistake. Those tickets are no good.”

A sudden gasp and her hands were making circles in the air. “No, no…we paid good money for them.”

Dave tapped his chest. “I'm the one who made the mistake, Missus. Your money's good to Wichita, not Tucson.” He bobbed his head and smiled at the ground. “Aw, the company's always changin' them signs. I just misread the ticket price is all.” Did a handsome salute with two fingers to his visor. “Sorry for the trouble.”

Alice stared at Dave, then her white rimmed eyes darted behind him to Johnny. Her face shone in the odd half-light of the morning, and Johnny could almost see a younger woman on top of the old. Maybe what she had been before.

The clerk slammed the coach door home and waved to the driver.

The dullness of the boy's eyes had made Johnny's stomach roil. Thoughts were slippery now; no sooner had he caught the edge of one than it fled. Then time stuttered. So sudden it was like being hit from behind, he remembered. Another stage depot, the smell of ash and beans, mama squeezing his hand so hard it hurt.

The stagecoach gained rhythm as it passed the last house at the edge of town, matched the roll and surge of the wheels. He watched for a while, long after it had left, tried to remember, tried to forget. Should've gone back to him, should've never left…

Dave shuttered the depot window, came outside huffing on cold fingers. “You stayin' around, Johnny? We're gonnna be closed for the rest of the day, this bein' Christmas and all. You're welcome to come to dinner.”

He shook his head. He didn't want to be here. He wanted to be home.

The only trail led forward, and it smelled good.  

 



~end~
Dec 2011

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