The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Clementine

 

 

Stubborn Is As Stubborn Does

Sequel to ‘Wild Horses, Wild Boys'

Her eyes swept over me from head to foot, lingering where they had no business lookin'.  Those eyes were big and brown, deep brown like my horse's right rear hoof.  Her long hair was black and shiny and clean looking, and I could imagine how it would feel slidin' over my face, as she lay on top of me, pressin' that beautiful body hard down on mine.

“Johnny,” she breathed the word so soft, but soft was not the effect it was havin' on me.

My breathin' was starting to get heavy, and then when the tip of her pink tongue came outta her mouth and moved ever so slow across her top lip, well, the moan from my lips was not all that quiet soundin' at all.   My body was startin' to hot up all over, and that's when she reached one hand up and pushed the top button on her dress through the buttonhole, while still lookin' straight into my face.  The material across her chest was strainin' over her bosoms, and openin' that one button only made the next one look more stretched.  Her hand moved to that one, opened it, and moved to the next.

Jesus, ol' John Thomas was drainin' all the blood from my head, felt like, and I was ready to leap forward and catch ahold of this first woman I was goin' to bury myself in, and my ears were ringin', I was that excited.

“Johnny” 

 She said it louder, and her voice was deep.  Deep with the want of me I knew.  I was ready, but I wanted her to finish unbuttonin', which she was just doing.

“Johnny” 

She was sounding real insistent now, and I moaned again, as I started to throb in the most pleasurable way, and my eyes were just about mistin' over  with my wantin', as she put both hands either side of her bodice and slowly started to pull the dress open.  The firm rounds of the edges of those bosoms were bein' revealed to me, and the honey skin looked so warm and invitin' that my mouth started to water.  One more bit of a second and I'd be seein' her ni-…

“Johnny!  Wake up, Boy - you're having a nightmare!”

Jesus!  I shot up in my bed and nearly went for a bad tumble as the blanket trapped my legs.  Scott grabbed ahold of me, and I was so confused I almost punched him.  I drew back my fist, but he yelled whoa to me.  I felt my readiness to be beddin' a woman and the discomfit of that was bad.  Jesus… I fell right back on the bed and brought my knees up and pulled the blanket with me.  Bein' woken like that sure put a dampener on John Thomas's full salute, so I was just left lyin' there with only the memory of that enticin' senorita…

“Jesus Scott, I weren't havin' a nightmare!  I was havin' the best dream I ever had in my whole fuckin' life!  What did ya wake me up for?”

I cracked one eye open and there stood Scott, arms folded and a smirk on his clock that I wanted bad to wipe off with my fist.

“I'm sorry, Little Brother, but our Father instructed me to wake you.  In his present mood of extreme displeasure with his offspring, I thought it best to comply with his wishes.”

“Huh?”

“Murdoch said that we two should fix ourselves something to eat in the kitchen, and then do our evening chores.”

I groaned, and stretched.  Fuck, my rear end was painin' me bad.

“Aggie still here?”

“Yes, Mrs. Conway is still dining with our Father.  We are not invited to join him.  In fact, he specifically requested that we keep our distance. “

Scott dropped down into the chair by my bed.

“He's pretty angry, Johnny.”

I hugged myself tighter under that blanket.  I was still a bit sore from all the spills I'd taken bustin' my new horse, and on account of Murdoch not approvin' that bronc bustin', my rear end was real regretful too.  I sighed deep and opened my eyes and gave Scott a look over.

He had a bruise under one eye, and a thick ear, looked like, though his hair was longish these days and covered his ears.  He never wore it as long as me though, as I usually never got round to sittin' still long enough for the town barber to scalp me.  Last time I'd come back unshorn from town with Scott, Murdoch had given me a trimmin' down, real loud, and then a trimmin' up, with Maria's scissors.

Scott looked godawful pale, and bog eyed, not at all his usual full of pepper self.

“Murdoch sure was thunderin' up a storm at ya, Boston.  What the hell did you go and do last night?”

Scott got to his feet, rubbing his hands over his face.  He grabbed the corner of my blanket and ripped it off, chucking it down the end of my bed.

“Come on, Little Brother.  Let's have at some food, and get those chores done, so I can go back to bed.  I'll tell you the sorry tale of a Boston gent, who got in a fight over a bet, then jumped his steed into a corral, unaware that said corral held a prize bull, which took fright and broke out, and  apparently is now  still running, and is halfway to San Francisco.”

Jesus!  Any wonder Murdoch had been roarin' his lungs out at his first born earlier.  I slowly got up and went and washed my face before I followed that ‘said' brother down the back stairs to the kitchen. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

While we ate our supper, we filled each other in on the events of the Saturday night and Sunday.  There was a real lot to tell.  Scott couldn't hardly shake his head disapprovin' at me, seein' as how he had disgraced himself in town, and brought the Lancer name into disrepute, like Murdoch said he had.  Ol' Boston hadn't intended to get a skinfull again, but he sure had over indulged, and then him and Sheldon Fogg from the Lonely Pine Ranch, had got to bettin'.   Then the bettin' had turned into fightin', and when that didn't resolve anything at all, Scott had decided to prove his side of the bet and the fight, by jumping his horse over the fence into the livery corral.  Which was supposed to be empty.  Only it weren't. 

Cyrus Tarrant, from the other side of Miz Conway's, had bought himself a bull, and it was minding its own business in the corral.  That bull was settled in for a nice quiet night in its temporary home, when a former cavalry officer on a big, feisty, chestnut, came sailing over the fence, and just about landed on top of him.  Scott said he didn't know who got the biggest surprise, him or that stud.  Scott and his horse Kirkland had a hard time keepin' together, ‘cause that bull roared up and took off straight at the farther fence, and he didn't stop when he got to it, he went right on through, and he kept goin'.  Scott's a real good rider, but Kirkland is a real proud horse, and he musta had a gutful of Boston's foolishness, ‘cause he threw Scott without any shame at all, and if Scott hadn't been three sheets to the wind, he might have felt that fall.

By the time he got to his feet, all the drunks from the saloon had swarmed around, and they were all enjoying the entertainment no end.  Scott had won the bet from Sheldon, but he also won a night in jail, ‘cause when Sheriff Creane arrived he was none too pleased with Scott's antics.  Then Mr. Tarrant had come outta the boarding house, where he'd been almost asleep (in Miz Potter's bed we reckoned, but that's another story), and he took to beratin' Scott real loud and real insultin'.

Sheriff Creane said he would have sent Scott home, with a well deserved boot in his rear, if he hadn't already been in trouble that month.  Also Mr. Tarrant was demanding that Scott be thrown in the caboose for life.

“Jesus, Boston, it ain't safe for you to go into town drinkin' without me.  When's Murdoch going to realize that, and let me go with you?”

Scott just snorted.  He said after the blast he'd had from Murdoch earlier, he didn't think he'd have the nerve to leave the ranch again till he was old – twenty-five at least.

“And, Little Brother, I assume that as you're eating your supper standing up, our Father found out about your illicit activities?”

It was my turn to snort.

“I don't know about that, Boston, but he sure found out what I was doin' on the quiet and sneaky.  Jesus, he just about wore his belt out on me. “

I told him how Senor Perez had paid us a visit, and why, and how he had been the one to make that damn belt Pa had used on me.  Scott thought that was amusin'.  ‘Ironic', he said.  Oh yeah, real funny.  He was sure surprised that the Senor had got him mixed up with Willard Cheswick, and had been eyeing my skinny brother up for a wedding suit for Scott to marry Senorita Perez in.  Lucky he had had me to sort out that misconception.

“So, Boston, you know what Pa did to me – what's he given you to make your life miserable?  You on pigpen duty the rest of your life?”

Scott sighed and put down the glass he'd just finished glugging on.

“He hasn't finished with me yet, Little Brother.  He could see I was battered down to a mere vestige of my usual self, and he advised me to go to my room and lie down.  His suggestion that I do so was so loud the plaster in the study ceiling cracked.”

Scott shook his head slow and mournful, as he carried his plate and glass over to the washing-up bowl.

“Come on, Boy, let's get these chores done, and try and avoid running into Murdoch.  You finished?”

I carried my dishes over as well, and followed Scott out the back door.  I was sore and sorry for myself, and just wanted to go on back up to my room and go to sleep.  It had been a helluva day.

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

Miz Conway had stayed the night on account of comin' for supper instead of lunch like had been the plan the day before.  So she had breakfast with us.  She was too polite to mention how Scott had a dinged up face, or how I ate my breakfast standin' up.  One of her hands, Randy Bass, he'd come looking for her the night before, seein' as how she'd been expected home.  Her people kept a good look out for her.  Randy got her buggy hitched and they took off.  He and I had a quick word, and he told me something real exciting, before he had to go.  I agreed to slip out Saturday night, and meet him on the road to Spanish Wells, about ten.

Pa had given out the orders for the day, so Scott had gone out with a crew that was layin' salt licks.  I was to do my usual Monday jobs, and Murdoch told me to not even think of riding anywhere that day.  Dios, the way I was feelin', ridin' was the last thing I wanted to do.  Murdoch was gruff, but he weren't one to hold a grudge, and fortunate for him, I wasn't one to do that neither.  Well, mostly.  So when he put a hand on my shoulder as he was talking to me, it felt almost comfortable, even though I still couldn't look him in the eye.  I still found it easier to deal with Murdoch hollerin' at me, or whacking me, than him patting me in that gentle, father kind of way.  It felt good, and I liked it, but on top of that I felt annoyed that I did like it.  Hell, it was enough to make a man want to punch something, the way I felt angry that Murdoch treated me like a kid, but then sometimes I just wanted to be a fuckin' kid.     

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

I thought Sunday had been a helluva day, but turned out Monday night was worse.

I'd had a real earful from Maria, first at lunchtime, and then at suppertime, ‘bout the horse-breakin' almost bein' the Johnny-breakin', and she gave me her opinion on ‘muchachos, desobedientes tontos' (foolish, disobedient boys).   Then Pa made me wash all the damn supper dishes.  Soon as I finished those and went into the Great Room, Murdoch snapped his book shut and Scott looked up from his book, and looked wary.  And rightly so.

“Scott, Johnny, I want to speak to both of you.”

I groaned and threw myself belly down across the ottoman.

“Jesus, Murdoch, ain't you bawled us out enough already?”

“No my Son, I have not.  I would not usually take either of you to task in front of the other, but as you're both well aware of what the other has been doing wrong – well, I think you can hear this together.”

I groaned again, and propped my head on one hand and looked at Scott, and rolled my eyes.  He just closed his, and sat up straighter in his chair, closing his book and placing it on the table next to him.

Murdoch stood up, finishing his scotch and putting the glass on the mantelpiece.  He turned towards us, and put his hands in his pockets.

“Scott, on Wednesday, first thing, you're to ride over to Cyrus Tarrant's place, and you're to work for him till Friday.  No pay from him or me for those three days.  On Saturday, you will work at the livery, and again, no pay.  I've added the cost of the timber for the fence, two saloon chairs, and one fine, to your debt to me.  Clear?”

Scott was sitting very still, leaning forward in his chair, elbows resting on the chair arms, and looking at his hands that were clasped in front of him.  He didn't look up when he answered.

“Yes Murdoch.   Clear.”

“I also want you to give me your word that you won't touch hard liquor for the next three months.”

Scott looked up at Murdoch then, and Pa held his gaze.  I don't like bein' told what to do, but even though Scott has that real polite and easy going way about him, I know he don't much like it either.  I waited to see if he would buck, but then he sighed, and looked back at his hands.

“Alright, I agree, Sir.”

Murdoch nodded, and pulled his hands out of his pockets, and crossed his arms.

“Scott, I know you well enough now to feel confident that you will not break your word.  However, I have been surprised and disappointed in your behavior lately, and so I will add an incentive for you.  If you disappoint me in this, then eighteen or not, I will punish you.  Understood?”

Jesus, Scott looked like thunder, and he got real red, real quick.  When he looked like that was when he looked a whole lot like our Pa.  He was pure proud too, and it was even harder for him than me, I reckoned, to accept that Murdoch still saw him as a kid, in spite of him havin' been in the cavalry and war and all.

“Murdoch I –“

But Murdoch cut him off.

“Scott, you have nothing to protest about if you will only do as you have promised.  Isn't that so?”

Scott folded his arms now, and was breathing heavy.  I felt upset, ‘cause I knew how Pa felt, but I sure knew how Scott felt, too.  I knew he wouldn't break his word, but he didn't want to not break it ‘cause Murdoch thought he was afraid of what he'd get if he did.  Times like this, I wished I was alone in a desert somewhere.  But that feeling would only last for a few seconds mostly, these days.

Scott slowly got to his feet.

“Murdoch, I have given you my word.  I will keep it.  With respect Sir, I do not need to be threatened like a child in order to do so.”

Murdoch drew himself up to his full six foot five goddamn height, and put his hands back in his pockets.

“I'm not sure I agree Son, but I have every faith in you.  Please don't disappoint me.”

Then Murdoch turned to me, and Scott sort of deflated a bit, and sank back in his chair, looking real peevish.

“Now, John.”

I'd been so busy watchin' the tussle Pa and Scott was havin' that I'd forgot I was also in the firin' line.  I shimmied back so my knees were on the ground, and I was leanin' on the ottoman on my elbows.  I didn't look up as I groused.

“Madre de Dios, Old Man, I already paid a high enough price.  You damn well nearly killed me.  Ain't that enough?”

“I most certainly did not nearly kill you.  You deserved a licking, and that's exactly what you got.  And no, that is not enough.”

Murdoch sat down then.  He'd been usin' his bossy Pa voice up till now, but when he spoke next, it was a bit quieter.

“Johnny, I realize that you and Scott have had a lot to learn these past ten months.  I have too.  About ranching, for you two, and about being in a new family, for all of us.  Now Son, I have taken you to task when you've done the wrong thing, but warming your backside has still not gotten through to you that I make rules for you two, and for the ranch in general, to keep everyone safe.”

“Jesus, Murdoch, I know that.  Do we havta talk about it so goddamn much?”

I lay forward on the seat again, buryin' my head in my arms, fed up to the gills in bein' lectured.

“It seems we do, as you continue to defy me.  Johnny, I've decided that you will not disobey me over the horse breaking, and then go ahead and profit from your wrongdoing.  Tomorrow Walt is going to take the Appaloosa to Senor Cabrera –“

Well, I boiled up off that ottoman so fast my neck cracked, and I felt the blood surge through me.

“The fuck you will!”  I yelled. 

I was goin' to yell more, but Murdoch could move like lightnin',  considerin' his size and age, and he came at me, and his hand shot out like a bullet, and he boxed my ear hard enough to make it ring.

“Apologise!  Right now!”

“The fuck I will!” 

I was so angry I was not thinkin' straight at all. Everyone in my life for years, if I had got angry at, it was a cold mad, and I would always be in control.  But with Murdoch, and even Scott, they could get me so riled, but it was a hot, infuriating kind of mad that made me do and say things I didn't even plan to.  Now was one of those times.  My left ear was smartin' bad, and I was rigid with fury, with my fists clenched and my eyes blazin' my wrath at Pa.  And he was blazin' right back at me.

“Apologise right now, or by God, you will be back in that barn in one minute.”

You'd think that bein' not one day past my last session in the barn with Murdoch, I would be real leery of going back for seconds, but I was so mad I was not willing to give one inch, and wouldna, only for one thing.  Scott's voice penetrated my thick skull, even though his voice was soft.

“Johnny…”

Murdoch and I stood there, facing off, both of us fumin', but I could feel Scott's worry, even though I weren't even looking at him.  It took every ounce of control to unclench my rocked up jaw, but I did it.

“Lo siento.”   I couldna said it any more quieter, or any more resentful, if you'd paid me.  But I did say it.

Murdoch took a deep breath.   I did too, and I glanced at Scott as he sat back down, lookin' relieved.

“Johnny, I am not giving your horse away.  I'm sending him to Senor Cabrera to breed –“

“Fuck, Murdoch, I caught ‘im, and I broke him and –“

“You watch your mouth!  And that breaking of him is precisely why you are not going to have access to him for the next three or four months.  Senor Cabrera will finish his training, and hopefully your horse will get a foal on his Appaloosa mare, and on another part- Palouse he owns.  He will keep the pure breed, and you will get the cross.  Next year, we'll do it again, and you'll get the pure.  Now, I will ask you what I asked your Brother.  Do you understand me?”

Jesus, but this bending my will to Murdoch's was fuckin' killin' me.  I'd been thinking all day on how good I would feel riding Serampion around the ranch, and into town.  I loved that he was the first horse I'd broken, and that he was the finest horse on the whole spread.  Hell, in the whole San Joaquin.   And he was mine.  Now looked like I wouldn't get to have him for months.   But then, when he did come back, it might be with the promise of his babies comin' to me.  I was sure conflicted, but overriding everything, was the stubborn resistin' of doing what I was told by Murdoch.

 I guess I was goin' through an ornery stage of my life.

I stood there, lookin' at the Old Man's boots, huggin' myself tight, and trying fuckin' hard to get control of my feelings, and my mouth.

“John, I'm waiting.”

Jesus!  I felt the blood surge through me again, but I kept breathin' deep and fast, and I felt the tears sting the back of my eyes, and that made me want to throw my supper up.  If I got any more roiled up, I was afraid I might bust out crying, and then I would have to shoot Murdoch and Scott.  Holy Mother of God, I hadn't cried in front of anyone since I was maybe six.  That was the last time Val had dusted me. I got it for goin' to the creek by myself.  I'd howled out all the cusswords I knew when he was doin' it, and then when he'd set me back on my feet, I'd busted out bawlin'.  He'd scruffed my hair, and then led me back to the house.

Now here, ten years later, and I was near to cryin' like a girl in front of Murdoch and Scott. What was wrong with me?  What in the name of the devil would they think of me if even one tear leaked?  I had to get outta there fast, so I did what I had to.  I nodded.

Then I bolted.

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

I went out to the barn and brushed Pancho till he was gleaming.  I couldn't even bear to go and stand at the corral fence and look at Serampion.  Scott came and asked if I was okay, and I said I was, even though I wasn't.  I told him I didn't feel like company, and he stood leanin' against a post, lookin' at his horse, and thinkin'.   He told me to come talk to him if I was a mind to, and I just nodded, and he left.

I went and leaned on the same post, and I felt my frustration and my cantankerous build.  I'd looked after myself most of my life, Mama bein' not too good at takin' care of us.  From twelve to fourteen I'd been entire on my own, and had lived as Johnny Madrid, till Murdoch and Scott found me and brought me home.  In the back of my mind, I knew comin' here was the best thing that had ever happened to me, but standin' there in the barn, I wouldn't admit that.  I was old enough to make my own fuckin' decisions, and if I gave up the reins to Murdoch, well, I might forever be a weakling under Murdoch's  thumb, the rest of my life.  And I was not goin' to give up Serampion.   Sonofabitch, I'd broke my back catchin' him, and nearly broke my back breaking him.  I'd taken a hiding from the horse and from Murdoch, and now I was goin' to just say yessir, give him away?

No.   I was obviously gettin' soft livin' at Lancer, and I should leave.  Take off and live my own life, and come back in a year or two, when Murdoch would accept that I was a man.  My voice would be full broke and I would be as tall as him.  Maybe taller. The more I thought about that, the more set I became on that bein' the only course of action I could take.  Jesus, I was four kinds of stupid.  But I wouldn't admit that till later. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

Four days on and I was as miserable as it was possible for a body to be.  I knew I would miss Maria's cooking, but I didn't expect to miss Maria like I was.  And Scott.  Jesus, I missed ol' Boston.  I wouldn't hardly admit it to myself, but I missed the Old Man too.  I couldn't hardly credit it.  Doin' whatever the hell I pleased, when I pleased, weren't as satisfyin' when I couldn't see how it riled Murdoch.   Sleepin' in didn't give me no pleasure when I was sleepin' on the hard ground every night.  Jesus, but I wasn't the man I'd once been. 

Same with not goin' to those lessons with Clayt Aubrey.  I still kicked to Murdoch about goin', but truth to tell, sometimes they was real interesting, and sometimes I could talk to Scott about something I'd learned, and it felt good.  The Aubrey's was somewhere it was a pleasure to be.  They were such good people, and I hadn't had a lot of those in my past life.  I liked bein' around their kids, even Estelle who looked at me constantly, but never said a word.   I couldn't figure whether she thought maybe I was goin' to steal something if she didn't keep an eye on me.  Girls are real hard to read.

The only thing I was enjoying was working with Serampion, schoolin' him each day.  But even that wasn't making up for the things I was missing.  I was fuckin' lonely.  That was the truth of it, and I thought about turnin' right around and going home.  Because that's what Lancer was now.  My home.  But Jesus, I was stubborn, too.  The merest thought of admitting I was stupid to have left, and stupid to stay away, and my dander would get aggravated, and I would push those feelin's right away.  I had to stick to my guns, or I would never be able to live with myself. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

I had left in the dead of night.  Lucky I could be as quiet as a Comanche when I needed to be.  I'd thrown what I needed in my saddle bags, and had helped myself to all the grub I could carry.  The hardest part was rounding up Sera, and leadin' him out behind me and Pancho.   Pancho was used to sneakin' off with me, but Sera wasn't.

I'd done the right thing and left a note.  Told Murdoch I needed to make my own way for a while, and I would be in touch when I settled somewhere.  That I couldn't stay, ‘cause he treated me like a fuckin' kid.  Only I left out the ‘fuckin'', as I wanted to be respectful.  To please say my goodbyes to Scott and Maria, and tell them not to worry, as I could take care of myself. 

I'd left the note on my bedside table, and I'd felt real upset thinkin' on Pa and Scott readin' it, but I put that out of my mind.  I thought how mature I was nowadays.  Not just lighting out in a temper, but doin' it calm, and bein' considerate to leave a note, so's none of ‘em would get in a pucker worrying.

I was heading north, up to a place called Bluffs Crossing, near Red Bluff on the Sacramento River.  One of our hands was from there, and always said how he'd one day go back and start his own small ranch, once he'd saved enough dollars.  It sounded like a pretty place, and there were ranches there where I could get work.  It was far away from the border towns where Johnny Madrid was known.  I was not no way goin' back to my former profession.   For one thing, my fightin' rig was back in Murdoch's safe.  But for another, I didn't want to make a livin' by the gun.  I would go by the name Johnny Greenwell, and I would do ranch work so's when I returned to Lancer one day, I'd be ready to run it with Scott, as Murdoch was gettin' older by the minute. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

By the time I reached Bluffs Crossing, I was sick to death of eatin' rabbit and such.  I had avoided towns the whole way.  If Murdoch had tried to trail me, he wouldn't have been able to get a fix on me.  I knew too, that Serampion was the surest way to draw attention to myself, so the one time I did go into a town, to buy coffee, I left him hid. 

Bluffs Crossing was bigger than I'd thought it would be.  I put both horses in the livery, and then I went to the barbers, and had a hot bath.  Jesus, but after two weeks of spit washes, that sure felt good.  Then I had a proper meal in the little chop-house in the main street.  The lady that ran it was a draggled lookin' woman, but the meal was better than anything I'd cooked myself.  I asked her if any of the local ranches were hirin', and she said to try the Tuttle spread, and gave me directions. 

I left there, and decided to go to the saloon.  I'd been to the saloon with Murdoch and Scott, and in my old life I'd had a beer a couple of times.  Back then I had been real careful about drinkin', as I had to be on my guard all the time.

 I didn't have much money left, but I didn't want to be alone in the room at the hotel where I planned on spendin' the night, before heading out to the Tuttle's in the morning.  I was hoping to get into a card game, maybe.  Anything to take my mind off the heavy feelin' that seemed to be ridin' with me all the time.

I ordered a beer at the counter.  The bartender barely glanced at me as he put the drink in front of me.  Telly in Green River wouldn't've served me even one beer, account of knowing Murdoch.  I stood at the end of the bar and sipped my drink, while watchin' the whole place.  Three fellas were havin' a game.  They looked pretty harmless, so I wandered over, and they invited me to join them.   I was doin' alright, but an hour later, this big, grubby lookin' yahoo bellied up to the table and asked to play.  The old codger on my left decided to leave, and this new man sat down, and introduced himself as Cran Potts.

Luck was with me, and it seemed I couldn't lose a hand.  The original two fellas was chiacking me, good natured like, but Potts was looking more and more unhappy.  I decided it was time I left, but when I said that, Potts got surly.

“That's low down, Boy, pulling when I's about to start gettin' my cards right.”

I paused.  I didn't want no trouble, so I said as I'd stay for two more hands, give him a fair shake.  He just grunted.  Course, what happened, he lost both those to me, and he swore real dirty and mean.  I gathered up my winnings, and Potts was still grousing away.  I said for them to have a good night, and I headed out.  Soon as I got outside, I ducked down the alley, and I kept in the shadow.  I had a wary feelin', and sure enough I was right. 

Potts came out, and he stood on the boards, lookin' up and down the street.   He was looking for me, I knew it sure.  I kept real still, and then watched as he walked down onto the street, where he could keep quiet, and he headed towards the livery.  I slipped out and followed him, keeping to the shadows.  He went into the livery, must have checked I wasn't sleepin' in there, and then he went back to the saloon, mounted his horse and left.  I waited five minutes, and then when another old codger came out and started walking to the other side of the street, I headed over to the hotel and went up to bed. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

That fuckin' bastard stole Serampion.  Weren't no doubt in my mind at all that he had come back and stole my horse.  I went to the Sheriff's office, to find out if he knew Potts, ‘cause the livery man said he didn't.  The Sheriff was out, but the deputy, a prickly old man named Jim Court, said Potts was working an old silver claim east of Bluffs Crossing.  He told me to leave it to the Sheriff to go see the miner, if he hadn't already hightailed it with the horse – that's if he had indeed been the one to take it.

“Fuck that.”  I said it under my breath, but the Deputy got riled.

“Now you just hold on, Sonny.  Boy your age oughtn't be using such language.  And you just leave this here matter to the Sheriff.  He'll be back in about an hour, and he'll look into it for you.  He don't hold with horse thieves, I promise you.”

“Yeah, well, I don't neither!”

I had no trouble picking up that bastards trail.  Murdoch himself had shod Serampion, and he'd used these notched shoes, so Sera left tracks that a shaver could have followed.  Potts was heading east, so I guessed he was goin' to head back to his mine site and gather up his kit.  It took me three hours to get to where he'd been, but of course he'd cleared out.

I trailed him all day, only stopping to let Pancho drink and graze.  Sometimes I lost that ladron asqueroso's (filthy thiefs) tracks, and would have to cast around till I picked them up again.  By dusk I was starvin' and tired.  I made camp by a rocky outcrop over a creek, and the sugar pines soughed what sounded like a mournful tune to me.  I ate some jerky after I'd seen to Pancho.  I didn't make a fire, not knowing how close to my prey I might be.  I cleaned my gun, and wondered if I would have to kill Potts in order to get my horse back. 

Those dark thoughts added to all the others I'd been carryin' since I'd left Lancer.  I sacked in, wedged against the warmth of a big rock, and I felt low in my spirits.  I thought of Maria doin' the dishes in the kitchen, while Scott and Pa had coffee by the fire.  I had to put those thoughts outta my head.  I had to get used to fending alone…

Jesus, I'd left home on account of not wantin' to have my horse taken away from me, and it had happened anyway.  Was this a curse on me for bein' a poor excuse of a person?  I knew one thing.  I was a poor excuse for a son.  Even if I wanted to go home, Murdoch would probably not want me back.  I felt even lower.  

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

I heard the twig break, and my eyes shot open.  I lay perfectly still, and held my breath, as I peered into the darkness.  I had my gun in my hand, and my bedroll was wrapped around it, and me.  Someone was there, I could feel their presence, and the hairs on my neck and arms were all standin' up.  I couldn't see Potts, but then I heard his voice.

“Stand up, and toss your gun away.  Do it slow, or I'll blow your head clear off your damn, fuckin' shoulders.”

I still couldn't see him, so I had no choice.  I got to my feet, and the blanket fell off me.  I slowly held my arm out to the side and I pitched my gun.  I couldn't believe that dirty, slob of a no ‘count piece of trash had got the drop on me.  I had underestimated him real bad.

“Now you can empty out all your pockets.  I aim to get back all the money you cheated from me, you whore's son.”

I slowly started emptying out my pockets.  As I pulled out the small wad of cash, he finally came close enough for me to see.  I could smell him, too, and he smelled of old sweat, and new whisky. 

“Please mister, don't hurt me.  I got more money in my boot.  I'll give it all to ya.  Keep the horse, just let me go.”

He stepped closer again, and he glanced at my boots. 

“Get the money outta your boot.  How much you got?”

I bent down and shoved my right hand in my boot.

“I got a hundred dollars mister, you can have it all –“

“Damn right I'll have it all!” That's when he raised his gun to point straight at my head.

I threw the knife from my boot with every ounce of strength I had.  It struck him right in his fat belly and was just enough to throw his aim off, and his bullet went whistling past my head.   I felt it scorch the top of my right ear.  But I was already charging at him and I hit him full force and we went tumbling back down the slight slope.  We had both roared at the same time, both of us enraged, and both trying to kill the other.  His gun had flown from his hand when I winded him.  That was all that saved me from a bullet to the brain.  But he was about three times the size of me, so my only hope was that the knife had struck something vital, or else I needed to get away as fast as I could. 

I was in a red hot fury, but so was he, and it was then that he smashed his big fist hard into my face.  His fist was like a ham, and I felt my nose break and I saw stars and everything started to go black.  I tried to stay conscious, and I tried to scramble away.  He'd knocked me to the ground, and I rolled onto my hands and knees, feeling the blood gush from my nose.  Then his hand grabbed my upper arm, and he started to pull me up.

“Did ya think this little tooth pick of a knife would hurt me, Sonny?”

 His low laugh chilled my innards.  I couldn't see a thing, but through my arm I felt his movement, and I knew then that he had pulled the knife out of himself, and had drawn his other arm back and was about to plunge the blade straight into me.

When I heard the gun start firin', I thought for a second that he had another gun somehow, and I wondered why the bullets weren't slammin' into me.  But it was his body that was jerking, and his stinkin' breath that was blowing in my face as he grunted.  His hand had tightened on me something fierce, and I think the pain of that was all that kept me conscious.  But then he was falling, and even though his grip was failing, he still took me with him when he collapsed down, and I got jerked and flattened, as he rolled over the top of me.  Then he was still, and I could feel his blood soaking my chest where his weight was on me.  And then I did pass out. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

Water was dribbling down my chin, and I got a mouthful as I roused. 

“Come on Kid, you're fine, take some water.”

I swallowed again.  I couldn't see a thing, my eyes were both swelled completely shut.  My whole face felt awful bad, and I had to breathe through my mouth, on account of my nose being broke.  I couldn't hear too good either, and my gut felt achy as hell.  I could smell blood, and wasn't surprised, seein' as how much my nose had bled, and how sticky my chest felt from Potts bleedin' all over it.

My rescuer was holdin' me around the shoulders, but now he eased me up against the rock I'd been caught nappin' under.  Jesus, I had nearly bought my ticket with my carelessness.  I felt my nose, and it was sideways on my face.  Fuck, what a mess.  I think I musta passed out again, because what I next knew, the man with me had his thumb and a finger joint either side of my nose, and he suddenly jerked it.  Everything went black again.

Some time later I woke.  I was wrapped tight in my bedroll, and a fire was roarin' away and the heat was sure welcome.

“Just lay still, kid.  I'm the Sheriff of Bluffs Crossing.  It's a goldurn shame you couldn't leave the law to me, like my Deputy told ya.  Anyone ever mention to ya what a stubborn little cuss ya are?”

“Horse…”  I croaked out.

“Jesus, you got a one track mind or what?  You look like a train hit ya, and there's a dead miner over there, with a stab wound and four bullets in him.  I'll find the blasted horse when it's light.  You just concentrate on breathin' and not dyin' on me, so the county don't got to pay for two buryins.”

With that he held a bottle to my lips, and I took a deep pull of the whisky.  Only it made me splutter, and that nearly made my head explode off.  But the alcohol settled in my stomach, and it took away about one bit of a hundred of the pain.  It was a long night.

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

Seemed I would doze a bit, but then the Sheriff would wake me.  I heard the word ‘concussion', but I wasn't aware of much else.  I sensed that it was near sunup when the Sheriff was holding me again, givin' me a sip of water.  He was movin' around, sounded like he was packing things up.  I realized that I was in clean clothes, and couldn't believe he'd changed me and I hadn't even known it.

“Horse?” was all I could croak.

“Goddamn, Boy you think more o' that animal than you do of your own hide, don'tcha?  You keep real still, Kid, and I'll be back with your horse, and his.”

Everything sounded like it was through a blanket, I didn't know what the hell was wrong with me.  I was not wantin' to move a muscle.  My head and face throbbed something awful, and it felt like my stomach had been twisted around my lungs.  I couldn't see, and could barely hear.  I was some kind of mess.

I heard him comin' back, and the blessed sound of more than one horse.

“Got your damn pony, Boy, so you can just sit back and relax while I do all the blasted work.”

There was lots of moving around then, and he told me what he was doin'.   Which was heavin' the body of Potts up onto his horse, amongst other things.  He gave me some beans and coffee, holdin' me while I ate.  I couldn't get much down though.  I did thank the Lord that my mouth and teeth had escaped damage.

When I tried to stand, he came and helped me while I relieved myself.  I tried to get free of him so I could do that private, but he laughed.

“You'll fall in your own stream if I let go of you, Son.  ‘Sides, I stripped you last night, so you got no secrets from me.  Your clothes was all soaked with blood.  They been tethered in the crick all night, so I'll fetch them out next.  Fortunate you had a spare set, or I'd a bin takin' you home wrapped in a blanket, like your Mama mighta!”

He finished up with all his packin', and then he came and eased me to my feet.

“Last night ya told me your name was Jay.  That right Son?”

I just nodded.  He was lifting me up onto his horse, and I was strugglin' fierce not to cry out, so I couldn't think back to him even asking, and I sure didn't care what he called me.  It was all I could do to hold tight as he mounted behind me.  I thought about protesting that I could ride my own horse, but I weren't sure that I could, and didn't think he'd take no notice of me anyway.

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

The trip back to Bluff's Crossing was something to forget.  When I was awake it was hell, even though he was takin' it easy like we was moseyin' along to a church picnic.  We must have looked a sight.  The Sheriff cradling a yahoo in his arms, and that yahoo with a head the size of a melon, felt like.  Trailing behind us was Pancho, Serampion, and last of all, Potts's dead body, across the back of his nag.  The sheriff hardly said a word, that I could remember anyway.  He lifted me down about every three hours, and gave me a drink, and put a wet cloth over the bits of my face that was swelled, which was really the whole top half.  He would dribble cold water over my hair, so's it cooled my face off.  First time we stopped I gorged up all them beans, but he tended to that as well.  Lunch time he made me chew on some jerky, and I at least kept that down.

He told me we'd be home by six, as we was goin' more direct than we'd come.  That couldn't come soon enough. From bein' held against him, I judged the Sheriff was about six feet, and real lean and ropey.  He had no trouble moving me off and on his horse, and he kept me tight held next his chest, and I felt real secure.  I tried to hold my head up, but hardly could, and every time I woke, I found my head just about wedged under his chin.  I stopped botherin' to try and hold myself, and just melted against him.  I didn't have the strength to do anything else.

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

Strong hands were liftin' me, and I vaguely heard the sound of voices.  I heard the name ‘Jim' and then I was stretched out on a bed, and after that trip on horseback, it felt like I was on a cloud.

The next two days were all mixed.  I tasted laudanum, so I slept a great deal.  Sometimes a lady's soft hands gentled me, but I mighta been dreamin', I wasn't sure.  I heard the Sheriff's blurry voice, and felt him holding my head up while he held broth to my mouth and ordered me to drink.

The third day I found my head was startin' to clear.  I lay there and took stock.  My chest was bound, and I felt that my head was bandaged.  I tried to open my eyes, but I could only see a fine line of dim light, and fuzzy shapes.  I put a hand to my face, and I was still godawful swelled up, and my skin felt ready to bust.  I was ready to bust too, so I began to push myself up on my elbows.  I felt giddy, and moaned.  Jesus, I felt bad.

Footsteps hurried towards me from somewhere.

“Take it easy, Kid.  Let me help you.”

I didn't have much choice, so I let myself be half carried out into the fresh air, and it was Jim Court who held me upright while I relieved myself, not far from the door we'd come through.  He got me back inside, and he eased me back into the bed.  He put a big cushion behind my pillow, and so I was propped up, which relieved the pressure in my head a bit.

“Here, Jay, Doc said for you to have a small dose a laudanum.”

“No. Don't want it.”

Jim snorted.

“Didn't ask if you wanted it, Boy.  Open your mouth.”

I clenched my mouth shut at that, of course, but then I found I couldn't breathe, account of my nose bein' full clogged.  So I kept my mouth shut for another  few angry moments, and then of course I had to open it up to gasp in a breath, and straight away the spoon emptied the laudanum in my mouth, and a big hand clamped over my mouth and tipped my head back.

“There's a good boy, Jay.  Nice to have a young fella that co-operates so polite like you.”

So Jim was one of those comical mudsills.  

“Now Son, I'll go and rustle up some vittles for you.  You can eat something more than broth, now you're improvin'.   You sure were a sorry sight when Range brought you in.  You don't look that pretty still, but Doc said you'll mend fine.”

I heard him clanging about in the kitchen.  The medicine had taken the edge off my discomfort, and I realized I was hungry.  Jim brought me stew, and a hunk of bread.  It hurt my face every time I opened my mouth, but I ate everything, and then he gave me a small mug of coffee which tasted real good.

“Whose place is this?” I asked when I was done.

Jim was back in the kitchen, washin' up the dishes, sounded like.

“This is Ranges's – the Sheriff's place.  Just down from the Sheriff's office.  Came with the job.”

“He workin'?”

“Yeah, he's outta town for about three days.  So I gotta get back to the office.  You need anything ‘fore I go?”

“I need my gun.”

“Gun ain't gonna do you no good when you cain't see a damn thing, Kid.”

“Still want it.”

“Well you ain't gettin' it, not till you can see ifn' you're aimin' it at me or the hatstand, anyway.  Kid, you want me to let anyone know what's happened?  You got kin who'll be worrying ‘bout you?”

I thought about my kin, and my heart clenched up inside of me, and I struggled to keep the lump outta my throat.

“No.”

There was silence for a few seconds, and then Jim's voice prickled at me.

“See, that there hesitatin', and then that there ‘no', that was a lie.  Who you tryin' to fool, Boy?  Me?   Or yourself?”

I could feel my jaw workin', and I tried to keep still.  I heard a soft sigh, and then Jim spoke again.

“What age are you?”

“Seventeen.”

Jim made a ‘pah' sound.

“Yeah sure.  So am I.  You don't even look fourteen.”

“I'm fifteen!” I protested.

“Lordy, fifteen, and roamin' Californy and gettin' near killed for a pretty horse.  What is this world comin' to…”

He clomped off and I heard the door open.

“I'll be back later.  There's a glass a water next to the bed.  And I've put the pot on the chair next to you too.  You use that if you have to.  Don't you even think about getting' outta that bed, or you'll answer to me.  Got that?”

“Sure.”

But he didn't leave, and then he spoke again.

“Listen Kid, I mean it.  Me and Range haven't spent the past few days lookin' after your scrawny little backside to have you undo our nursin'.  You set one foot outta that bed, and you'll get it.  Understand?”

Jeez, he sounded like Murdoch!  And just like when Murdoch ordered me around, I felt that same defiance rear up.  So I answered, but I couldn't help the sass that edged my voice.

“I said sure, didn't I?”

“Why you blasted little devil!  I know what you'd get if you was mine!  You watch your tone, or you'll reap what you sow, soon's you're on your feet, and make no mistake about it.”

He was trimmin' me down, but I could hear the amusement in his voice.

“I'll see you later, Jay.” And off he went, whistling what sounded like ‘Amber Tresses'. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

I did like I was told, it bein' near impossible for me to get myself upright, and then not being able to see, if I could.  So I drank all the water, and then later had to take a leak in the damn pot.  And weren't that mortifyin' later, when I woke with a lady's hand on my forehead, and she whispered did I need to use the pot ‘again'?   Jesus!  She patted my arm, when I had squeaked out that I was fine, thankyou.

“I'll just be a minute, then.”

I heard her pick the pot up, and she went off and then came bustling back, and she put the blasted thing away under the bed at least.

“Jay, I'm Mrs. Alsweiger.  My husband is the doctor who tended you.  How are you feeling?”

“Fine, thank-you Ma'm.”

“You do look a bit better, I must say.  I've brought some sugar cookies for you.  Would you like some milk, too?”

“Why, yes please, Ma'm.”

So I sat up and had me a little feast.  She didn't stay, said she had to get back to the surgery.  Not long after though, Jim came in and made us some supper, and I ate all of that too.  He said Pancho and Serampion were having a high ol' time at the livery, and it was just as well I had money on me, ‘cause they were runnin' up a bill, and I owed the Doc as well.

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

Over the next three days the swelling in my face finally started to go.  My skin didn't feel like it was goin' to split open, and I could finally see, and my hearing got back to normal.  I'd had a headache constant, but that was eased back to just a dull pain.  I still couldn't breathe through my nose, but the doc said it should clear in time.  At least it was straight, and not spread from one ear to the other, like it mighta been.

I could get up and go sit out in the sun behind the little house.  Couple of days later, Jim walked me slow like over to the barbers, and I had a bath, and it was good to be clean and dressed again.  Everyone looked at me aghast though, and when I took a look in a mirror, I could see why.

I was still puffy, so my eyes were narrow, and with the swollen nose, and the black and blue bruises turnin' yellow – well, I was enough to frighten children.  I'd taken the bandage off my head.  I had a small cut above my ear that I couldn't even account for.  My ribs was all bruised, so the doc had said to leave the bindings on.

The sheriff still hadn't returned.  Jim said he'd taken a prisoner to Red Bluff for trial, and it must be takin' longer to decide to hang the bastard than they'd figgered.  Range had to testify, else he woulda come straight back.

I wanted to leave, go out to the Tuttle spread and see could I get work, but the Doc said I wasn't to ride yet, on account of the concussion.  Jim said I was to do like I was told, or he'd give me another concussion to go on with.   I went and checked my horses.  They were gettin' restless, like me.

 I had plenty of time, lyin' in bed, and then sittin' out in the sun, to think about home.  To think about Murdoch and Scott, and Maria.  And all the other people I knew back in the San Joaquin.  I couldn't seem to figure how I had decided I should leave.  What had been so all fired important about not sending that horse away for a few months?   ‘Specially  when he woulda been doin' what I was all in a lather to do myself, which was go cavortin' with a willing female.  And while I sure didn't want no offspring, till I was old, twenty-five maybe, the thought of the beautiful foals that Serampion would father – Jesus!  What a fool I was.  It had been the best thing that had ever happened to me, and I had made a fuckin' mess of it.  The weight of the gloom that settled on my head was ten times worse than that headache had been. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

The Doc had said two more days, and I could ride.  Jim was holdin' me to it.  He was mostly at the office, and we'd talk a little when he made supper, before he went back to his own place.  He'd be back each mornin' to cook breakfast for us.  We were sittin' having our last breakfast together, as that was the  morning I was going to pack up and leave for the Tuttle place.  Jim said he was sure Tom Tuttle would give me something, and I should mention that Jim Court could vouch that I had a small brain, and a small pecker to match.  I told Jim he wished he had the fuckin' God- given gifts I had, and Jim said if I kept up the sassin', swearin', blasphemin' and lyin', then he would tan me six ways to Sunday, and let me see how I would enjoy  ridin' out to the Tuttle's then.  We were both grinnin' and grousin', and just then the door opened.

I looked up at the man who was standin' in the doorway, and I froze.  He was pushing his Stetson back from his eyes, and those brown eyes lighted on me, and he froze too.  He was studying on me with a confused as hell look, and his mouth opened, but then he closed it, and not a word came out.  I slowly got to my feet, and his mouth opened again, but still nothin' came out.

“'Bout time you showed your ugly face back here, Range-“

Jim started to talk as he looked around. But Jim stopped talkin' too, as he looked from Range to me, then back again.

“You two gone dumb or somethin'?  What the hell?”

I took a step forward, and Range took a big breath, and he finally spoke.

“Them's sure a pair of blue eyes you got there, Boy.  I cain't hardly believe it.”

His eyes were locked to mine, but then they ran up and down over me, and he shook his head, and his voice came out quiet.

“It is you, isn't it?  I'd know those eyes anywhere.  Jesus.   Christamighty.   Jesus!  Johnny… Johnny.”

I was five again, and I rushed to him, and I grabbed him by both arms, and my heart just about leaped right out of my chest.

“Val!”

His arms came ‘round me then, and those arms that I remembered from ten years ago, were crushin' me to his chest, and I was bawlin' like I was still five, and Val's head was pressed against the top of mine.  I was cryin' and hiccupping, and my nose was hurtin' shockin', where it was pressed against Val's vest. But I didn't care.  I was shocked and confused as hell, but I was also feelin' like I'd felt when Mama and I had lived with Val, all those years ago, and that feelin' was happy.  Real happy.

Val finally put his hands on my upper arms, and he held me back from him.  His face was wet, his eyes were red, but he had a big smile goin' under his moustache.  He looked older, but not a whole lot.  He was still brown and frizzled looking, and the hair pokin' out from his hat was still curly.  He did his best to frown, and his face was goin' every which way.

“Jesus.  Juanito!  Look how you've grown!  Jesus, I cain't believe it.  And to think you've been in my house for a week, and I didn't know it!”

He pulled me into a hug again, but I yowled this time, and he quickly turned me loose, and he stood with his hands on his hips grinnin' at me.

I wiped my shirt sleeve across my face, and then he pulled a kerchief outta his pocket and grabbed me by the back of the head and swiped me over the face, like I was still five.

“Jesus, Val, quit it would ya!”

“Well, blast it all, you two know each other – and didn't know each other?”  Jim was fidgeting next to us.

Val answered him, but didn't take his eyes off of me.

“Well Hell, Jim, his own Mama wouldn't a knowed him, the way his face was busted up.”

At the word ‘mama', Val had had a troubled look flit over his face.

“And Jim, I couldn't hardly see, and couldn't hear too good, either, otherwise I woulda recognized Val's Texas drawl, I reckon” I added.

Val and I looked at each other grinnin' like fools.  I started to feel a bit shaky then, and Val's grin turned to a panicky look, and he grabbed me and eased me down to sit.

“Take it easy, Boy.  You still ain't right, are you.”

I breathed deep, and then took the glass Jim shoved under my nose.  I swallowed the whiskey, and coughed a bit, and then looked back up at Val, who was hoverin' over me.  He took his hat off, and pitched it over to the bed.  He scruffed up his curly hair, and then dropped into the seat across from me.  His face looked angry, and he clenched the hand he had on the table.

“What the hell were you thinkin', Boy, goin' after a big, dangerous, skeesick like Potts?  And on your own!  Ain't you got any sense?”

“That bastard stole my horse, Val!  Who was goin' to catch him if I didn't?”

“Me, of course!  I'm the dadblamed, goddamned sheriff, in case you hadn't noticed!”

I couldn't help it.  I just broke out in a big smile again.  I was so delighted to be sittin' there, across from Val.  I was amazed.  Val was looking daggers at me, but then he just bust out a smile too.

Jim threw his hands in the air. 

“You two are loco!  I'm goin' to the office, Range, and you can tell me all the guff later.”

Jim stomped off.  Val shook his head at me.

“Holy hell, little snot-nosed, skinny, no-account, chaval (boy).  Why, you ain't changed a bit!”

“Well you sure have, Val – you got old!”

Val flicked his hand at my ear, but I dodged him, but then had to blink to clear my vision.  Val stopped grinnin' and looked worried.

“Jesus, Johnny, to think how close I came to losing you for good, before I even knew I had ya back.  I trailed ya all day, and finally caught up, but I didn't know Pott's was layin' in wait for ya.”

“Whyn't you make yourself known to me?”

“'Cause next mornin', I was goin' to get the drop on you and take your horse and gun, so's I could catch up to Potts and deal with him without interference from some hot headed fool of a kid.  I never thought a deadlouse like him would have got wise to bein' trailed.  I heard him beard ya, and it was all I could do to get in position to drop him, needs be.  And it was needs be.  Hell.”

Val looked down, and we both thought of my close call.  Then he cleared his throat, and asked awkward like,

“Johnny, where's your Mama?”

It was my turn to look down, and I wrapped my arms around myself tight, but that hurt my ribs some.  I just shook my head.  The silence was loud.

“How long ago?”

“Three years.”

Val got up then, and started clearing the dishes away. 

“You want anything else to eat?”

“Naw…”

“I gotta eat.”

He went into the tiny kitchen and put the frypan on the stove to heat.

“So, what were you, eleven?  When you lost your Mama?”

“Twelve.”

“Who took care of ya?”

“They put me in an orphanage, but I lit outta there.  Then I headed back to you.”

Val had his back to me, and I saw that back get stiff as a board.  He started breathin' heavy, and then he turned around.

“Did you get back to the ranch?”

“Yeah, I did.  They told me where you mighta gone.”

Val looked down.

“I tried to find you and your Mama, Johnny.  I wasn't goin' to bother Maria, if that was what she wanted.  But I wanted to know you were safe.  Hell, I don't know what I coulda done.  But Johnny, your Mama just wasn't cut out for taking care of a youngun'.  Don't know why, just was the way she was.”

He looked up from under his brow then, checkin' to see what I might be thinking.  I just nodded.  He kept his eyes on me for a moment, then turned back to the stove and broke some eggs into the pan.  He was still breathin' deep.  He put a hand towards his face, and seemed to be rubbing his eyes.

“You call yourself Jay now?”

“Nah, I musta been ramblin'.  Still Johnny.  Johnny Greenwell.  Jim calls you ‘Range'?”

“Jim and me, we go way back.  Used to call me Ranger, account of the Texas Rangers, me bein' one for a while there.  Ended up short to ‘Range'.   He's a good man to have at your back.”

Val was throwin' various things in the pan.

“Who's been at your back, Kid?”  He asked it real soft.

“I can take care of myself.”

“Oh yeah, I'm sure you can… mostly.”

He emptied the mess from the frying pan onto two plates, grabbed a couple of forks, and came and sat down.  We both started eating, even though I'd said I weren't hungry.

“You got two sets of quality, store bought clothes, Johnny.  They all been mended, and the mendin' is done very pretty.”

I kept my head down, concentratin' on my food, but thinking of Maria sitting at the kitchen table, her sewing basket next to her, and the pile of mending.  Usually mostly my clothes.  My heart hurt.

Val got up and got the coffee pot, and he poured two mugs.  He had a deep drink and then swiped the back of his hand across his mouth and moustache.

“Damn, but Jim makes a fine cup of java.”

He took another bite of food, and continued talkin'.

“You also got a razor which is better than any I ever owned.  Got the initials ‘J.L.' inscribed, real nice.”

“Jesus, Val, you right?  Goin' through  my things like a fuckin' highrider?”

Val had been taking another chug of coffee.  His hand stilled and his eyes went narrow.  He put the mug down slow, and damn if I didn't feel myself goin' to blush.

“Now, let's us get a couple a things straight, Boy.  You don't use that language.  You don't use that tone.  You don't sass me.”   He cut a look at me that was fierce as hell.

“We clear?”

Why did everyone think they could boss me?  I hated it.  But this was Val, and I was real clear on what he expected from me, even after all the years that had passed.

I nodded, and I looked up through my eyelashes, checkin' on his look.  He nodded then, and commenced to eating again.

“I like to know who I'm takin' into my house, Johnny.  I don't see that as unreasonable.”

He finished his food and pushed the plate away.  I'd slowed down, and was pushin' the last bits around the plate.  Val wasn't finished with his pondering.

“You're also the owner of real fine, new saddle.  Woulda cost a pretty penny.   Two prime horses.”

He reached across then, and took one of my hands, and turned it over in his.

“Your hands ain't soft, kid, but they ain't the hands of someone who's been workin' hard at ranchin' or such.”

He released my hand.

“So, I'd be interested to hear.  Who's been at your back?”

I wondered about tellin' him.  But seein' him after all these years, sortin' out in my head that it was him that had saved me, that he was sittin' there in front of me, large as life.  That he didn't know about Madrid.  My head started achin' again, and I couldn't speak.  He did.  He spoke soft and gentle.

“It's alright, Johnny.  You don't know how many nights I've thought about whether you were safe.  Where you were.  I'm just purely pleased that someone has had your back.”

Madre de Dios, but I felt like I was goin' to choke on the lump in my throat.  He hadn't forgot me, like Murdoch never had neither.  I just was not deservin' of the thoughts these two men had had for me.  Neither of them knew all that I had done when I went to gunfightin'.  They were good men, and I wasn't. If they ever saw that fact, then they would be riddled through with disappointment, and I couldn't survive the looks they would throw my way.  I knew Scott would be disappointed, but somehow I knew that Scott would still stick by me.  Wouldn't matter what I did, I was Scott's brother, and he couldn't see past that.  Maria, too.  But Murdoch and Val were men who stood high in the world of men, and I wasn't fit to be associated with them.

“Juanito.”

I looked up then, at Val's soft voice.  He looked like he was wrung out some, too.

“Why did ya come to Bluff's Crossing?  What's your plans?”

I took a few breaths to calm me down.

“Heard it was a nice place.  Heard from a fella down south.  I'm lookin' for ranch work, and am goin' out to the Tuttle place to see if they'll hire me.”

Val scruffed his hands through his hair, and it stuck out all over the shop.  He never was a neat sort of person, and nothin' about that had changed.

“I have to go to the office, check on things.  Whyn't you go collect your horses and put them round back with mine?  I want to talk to you about what we goin' to do.  You're too young to go workin'-”

“The hell I am-“

“Watch yourself, Kid.  I already talked about you runnin' your mouth.  I don't like to repeat myself.”

“Well, I ain't too young to work on a ranch.  How old were you when you started workin'?”

“Weelll, that was different-“

“Aha!”

Val looked peeved.

“I went to trail driving on the Loving drives.  I was fourteen - but I went with my Pa.  Year later, he went back to Lavaca, and I stayed on.  But I had a whole crew of twelve men, plus cookie, who all kept me in line.  They saw to me bein' safe, and learnin', and if I didn't mind, I got leathered by any of ‘em.  So in a way, I had thirteen daddies.  Shoot, that was me, back then.  We talkin' ‘bout you, now.  Now do what I ask, would ya, and go fetch ya horses?”

I thought on it, but was taking too long for Val.

“Jesus, Kid, could you just do it!  I'll be back in a couple of hours.  I want to find you here.  Okay?”

“Okay, Val, I'll wait.”

Val looked frazzled, and went and swept his hat from the bed and jammed it on his head.  He stood at the door, looking at me, shaking his head, and then he crinkled his eyes and his mouth quirked up.

“I'm real pleased to see you, Johnny, real pleased.”

I grinned at him, and he left. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

I went and paid the Doc's wife, Miz Alsweiger, colourin' up when she answered the bell, and I thought on her emptying out that chamber pot.  Jeez.  Then I went and fetched Pancho and Sera from the livery.  It was lucky I'd won at cards that night, with all these bills I had to settle.  I took the horses back to Val's, and then I saddled up Sera, and I rode him for an hour.  I set out on the road that led to the Tuttle Ranch.  I was uneasy about what I should do.  I was supposed to be goin' forward on my new independent life, like I was headed for when I left Lancer.

 I gave Sera a good run, and then sat easy for a while, thinkin, while he cropped at the grass.  I felt weary and sore, but that would not normally stop me on any course I'd decided.  Trouble was, I couldn't make any decisions.  I thought on Val's small house.  There was only the one bed, and no room for another.  First two nights I'd been there, he musta slept in a chair, or maybe at the jail, while Jim tended me.  I had only a few dollars left now.  I didn't know how much a sheriff earned, but I sure didn't want Val payin' to feed me, plus two horses that were used to a pretty fair life.  No, I had responsibilities, so I needed this ranch hand job. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

Mr. Tuttle was on his back porch, churnin' butter.  He hardly had a hair on his head, so you could see this purple birthmark he had that was real big.  It was on one side of his head, and petered out at his right eye. 

He looked up, and caught me gazing at him.

“Hello, young fella.  Yes, look your fill – I know it's surprising.”

I was about to say I'd seen birthmarks before, but he kept talkin'.

“Yes, it's not often that you see the big bug rancher, doing the churning.  But it was my job when I was a boy, and I think it's a fine thing to see the cream turn into butter.  You should never be ashamed to do any task, Boy, no matter how humble.  Now, what's your name, and what can I do for you?”

I concentrated on lookin' him in the eye, though my eyes were tempted to stray to that impressive birthmark.

“Names Johnny Greenwell, Mr. Tuttle, and I'm lookin' for work, if you have any.”

He stopped churnin' and took a kerchief and wiped his brow.

“Well, first thing you can do, is step up here and start churning.”

I stepped up and put my hat down on the boards, and I started makin' butter.

“You look like a strong enough boy.  You worked as a hand before?”

“Well Sir, I can turn my hand to most anything.  I have two horses – I do like to work with horses.  But I'm willing to take what you offer?”

“Keep churning, Boy.”

He went and sat on the rocking chair close by, and he started to rock.  He rocked and I churned, and ten minutes went by.  My arm was tiring fast, my ribs were painin', but I didn't want to slacken, as he might think I wasn't up to much.

“Two horses you say.  Well, it's been my experience that a boy your age eats as much as two horses, so if I take you on, I'd be feeding three horses before I got any value out of your work. “

Jeez, I'd never thought just how much of a burden I'd been to Murdoch.   And I was more determined not to be for Val, if that was even in his mind.

“Tell you what.  I'll pay you three dollars a week and found.  You will work with Matthew on building two new windmills.  What say you?”

“Yessir, thankyou.  I'll have to go back to town, fetch my other horse and such.  I'll be back later today.”

“Well, then Johnny Greenwell, when you return, find Basil around the yards somewhere, and he'll assign you a bunk.”

I thanked him, glad to leave him to that blasted butter churn, and I headed back to Val's. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

I let Sera have his head on the way back to town.  When we slowed, I thought on how even a good flat out gallop hadn't lifted me.  I now had a job, and somewhere to stay, so once again, I had started an independent life.  So why did I still feel like I was weighed down.  Why did I feel that I wasn't provin' that I was a man, but showin' instead that I was a kid, who was doin' things just to lock horns with his Pa?

I missed Scott.  I missed Maria.  Murdoch…Jesus, I missed Murdoch. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

“Where you been?”

Val's voice was irritated.  I glanced at him as I came to a halt outside the Sheriff's office.

“Went out to the Tuttle spread, Val.  Got me a job.”

“That's what I thought.  You couldn't wait to talk ‘bout it?  Not even one day?”

“Val, I-“

“You got bigger in the last ten years, but Boy, you surely are just as obstinate now as you was then.  Come inside.”

“I just have to go and switch tack over to Pancho, Val, and then I'll come in.”

“You fixin' to ride back out to the Tuttle's then?”

I nodded.  Val was chewin' on his bottom lip, lookin' as irritated as he sounded.   He shook his head, sighed, and then turned and walked through the open door of his office. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

I was petting Pancho, telling him what a handsome fella he was, and not to feel neglected ‘cause I'd had to give Sera a run first.  As I was transferrin' the tack to him, the hairs on the back of my neck started to prickle me.  I stood still and listened.  Sera was enjoying his drink, and Pancho was snortin' and whickering softly.  I could hear birds, and the usual sounds of town.  Voices, wagon wheels, a door slammin'.  I felt real uneasy though, and decided to brush Sera down later.  I finished saddlin' Pancho and then led him up the alley to the front street.  As I reached the main street I heard horses start to runnin', and I looked back down the alleyway and saw a group of riders pass the end.  I didn't see how many, but I ran the rest of the way to Val's office and then through the door.

Jim was sprawled on the floor, tryin' to raise himself.  He had a hand on the back of his head, and I could see the blood between his fingers.

Val was not there, and the back door was wide open.

“Jim!  What happened?”

Jim was groanin', but tried to get up himself as I helped him to stand.

“Jay – they got Val!  Get help – quick.”

“How many?”  I shook Jim, tryin' to get him to focus.

“Four, Jay.  Quick, Boy, get help!  It was –“

I didn't wait to hear what ‘it' was, I rushed back out the front door and flew up into the saddle, thanking God that Pancho was fresh.

A couple was just coming along the boardwalk, a lady smilin' at her gent, and I screamed at them.

“Get a doc to Jim!  Val's been taken!”

I hoped they would stop lookin' shocked and would start to act, but I didn't wait to see.  I thought I heard Jim yell my name, but I was already ridin' flat out down the main street in the direction I'd seen those horsemen heading.

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

I picked up the tracks just outside of town.  Five horses all galloping in a bunch, why anyone coulda tracked them.  They'd headed straight from the end of town towards the hilly country to the east, and then they had veered off the main wagon road, and were heading through the lightly forested area that grew thicker as the hills got closer.   I saw that they had veered again, and were skirting the first rise of the hills, I guessed because they wanted to keep bunched together.  I cut off and headed Pancho up the slope, which slowed us down, but I figgered that I would be keeping close enough and would now gain ground and position.  Soon as I judged I was high enough I urged Pancho on, and we picked up speed again.  I could hear the distant drumming of their horses, we had got that close.

And then I saw them.  They had slowed, probably thinkin' no one had even raised the alarm yet, and that they were far enough away from the town, and had veered enough to confuse the average posse.  I eased back on the reins, and I slowed to match their speed.  They were all on a wagon track through the forest, but I was well above them, and far enough back that they would be hard pressed to spot me in the dappled shade, and with the sun behind me.

They were slowin' right down, and then they stopped.  I slid off Pancho and ground tied him.  Then I started slipping down towards them, quiet as a Yaqui, and just as deadly.  I didn't know why they'd taken Val, but I knew that it was the last thing some of ‘em would ever do.  I stopped behind a huge tree, and quickly checked my gun, cursing Murdoch for having taken away my fightin' gun.   I had my rifle, but it was a backup weapon.  I'd be doing my killing with my Colt.

I could hear them talkin', and then Val's voice.

“Killin' a lawman – you'll all hang.”

“Gotta catch us first, Mr. Lawman.  And no-one even knows who we are.”

“You fixin' to tell me who ya are?”

“Why sure Mr. Lawman.  We's all compadres of Shad Boothe.  Well, used to be, see, before they hung him dead yesterday.  That was your doin', Lawman, and now you goin' ter find out jest how that feels.  I rode with Shad since I was a sprout, so I'm aimin' to avenge his death.  How do you like that, Mr Lawman?  You happy you done Shad in now, are ya?”

I slipped closer, and then I saw what one of ‘em was doing, and my blood ran cold, and then hot.

One of them had dismounted, and he was throwing his rope up over a branch on the tree they was all settled under.  Val was sitting easy in the saddle, like he didn't have a care in the world.  He was bare headed, so I could see his whole face, and he looked calm as could be.  The breeze lifted some of his curly hair and then dropped it down again.  His hands were tied to the pommel of his saddle.  The leader looked from Val to the only man on the ground.

“Hurry up Texas, let's get this over with so we can move.”

Texas?  I studied the man on the ground, but he was turned away from me, as he had another attempt at pitchin' the rope. 

“Christamighty, Texas, you can see you never done a day's honest work with cattle.  You throw that fuckin' rope like a fuckin' woman!”

The other two men laughed, but as they did, the rope finally spun over the branch, and then they all hooted.

Val was looking away now, and I could see he had got stiffer.

I considered what was best to do.  The rope thrower was now making a hangman's noose, with advice from the fucking scullions he was with.  If I picked off one, or even two, from cover, the other two would have time to get their own cover, and one of them could plug Val, even if he was quick to bolt.  There was nothing for it but to step out.  So that's what I did.

“You fuckin' pendejos got nothin' better to  do?”

Texas got such a shock he tangled his arm in the rope as he went for his pistol.  The other three all jerked around to look at where the voice was coming from, all of them reachin' for their guns.

“You all hold it steady.  First one moves a muscle will be the first one dead.”

“Jesus, it's a kid!  What the fuck do you think you're doin' kid?  Cain't you even count?  There's four of us, cain't you see that?” 

The friend of Shad's looked at me disgusted.  I glanced at Texas, and sure enough, he was someone I'd known a couple of years back.

“Texas Joe, long time…”

“Jumpin' Jesus!  It is you!  How are ya, Johnny?”

“Why Texas, thankyou for askin'.  I'll tell you how I am.  I'm fast.  Real fast.”

Texas Joe was as thick as he was slow with a gun.  I was sure surprised he was still alive.  He was looking at me, blinking like a hoot owl, and I could see he was thinkin'.

The leader was looking from me to Texas, kind of astounded at the parley we was havin'.

“Jesus Christ, Texas, this ain't no social!  Finish off that damn noose!  We gotta hang this sonofabitch and get goin' afore the posse finds us. “

“I don't know, Stant, this here is Johnny Madrid.  I wasn't friends enough with Shad to go up against Johnny Madrid!”

Suddenly Val's voice cut across the other two, and he spoke straight to me.

“Kid, I thank you for troubling, but I'd be obliged if you would just ease on back and get the HELL OUTTA HERE!”

Goddamn but Val could yell as loud as Murdoch.  Texas took a step back, and nearly fell, and the other three yahoos all had to settle their horses.  As they did I saw Stant reach for his gun, and all the furies rained down on that clearing.  I shot Stant and then threw my gun at the one on his left just as he reached.  He pitched back as I flung myself hard left, and my third shot went into the right arm of the third man.  He was sideways, so that bullet musta passed straight through his arm and on into his heart, because he dropped forward and was probably dead before he hit the ground.

Texas was scrambling so fast backwards I didn't have to worry ‘bout him, but as he was mounting his horse to get the hell outta there, the second man was rising up from where he'd fallen, and his gun was still in his hand.

Val screamed my name, and I swung my arm and got the bastard in the middle of his forehead.  His head jerked back, but he still sat in place, and then slow as molasses, he crumpled backwards, and his body made a soft thunk sound as he hit the ground.  I swept my eyes around, and the only movement was Texas takin' off for parts unknown, and Val's horse pitchin' and pig rootin',  and Val cussin' up a streak which woulda made a mule skinner blush.

I went and checked each of the bodies, and sure enough, that's all they were.  Dead as maggots.  Then I went and stood back at the tree I had come out from earlier.  I holstered my pistol, and I stood with my arms wrapped around myself.  I was gettin' my heart rate back to normal by breathin' slow but steady.  Val was still swearin' but I could see his mount was just about finished with playin' around, and he finally settled, blowin' and stamping, and Val used his legs to guide him to walk him in a circle.  He was controlling his horse, but he was looking at me.  He was glarin' at me, and I wasn't feeling comfortable with the set of his mouth.

“Jesus fuckin' Christamighty, Johnny !”

 He roared it out, and then he started breathin' like he was choking.  I dropped my arms, and watched as he had to get his horse under control again.  I was feelin' somewhat overwrought, and it appeared that Val was feeling that way too.  He started jerkin' out a few words to me then, a bit quieter.

“Do you think, Johnny…that is… Mr Madrid…that you could fu- that is, I'd be much obliged, if you was to untie me.”

“Well, I could Val, but I'm just wonderin' if I might not wait-”

Fuckin' untie my fuckin' hands right now you fuckin' little bastard , before I rip my hands outta these binds myself and fuckin' strap you till the cows come home !”

“Now Val, there's no need for you to get in such a pucker-“

“Jesus!  Not get in a pucker!  Jesus!  Johnny Madrid?  Fuck!”

Val suddenly slumped forward, like all the bones had gone from his body.  I rushed forward then, and grabbed the knife outta my boot, and made quick work of slicing through the ropes.

“You okay, Val?”  I started to shake then, and I barely even noticed that my voice had cracked.

Val was rubbin' his hands.  He was still slumped, and he was workin' on evening out his breathing like I had just been doing.  I had one hand on the saddle, and one on his leg.  I think he could feel me tremble, ‘cause then he looked down at me, and he reached out a hand and dropped it on the back of my neck.  His hand felt warm, hot really, from the blood pouring back into it after being tied, I guess.   He let go of me, and I wanted his hand back on my neck again - it felt calming for me.  He dismounted then, and he put a hand on my shoulder.

“Jesus, Johnny.  I can't believe what you just did.  You saved me, Kid.  Took on four –“

He stopped talking, and ran a hand down his face.  Then he dropped that hand on my other shoulder, and he pulled me to him.  I stood there, and he hugged me to him, and I wanted to stay held forever. 

And I wanted to go home.  

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

After he let me go, he made me go and sit back up where I had left Pancho.  He first thing wanted to know was Jim alive.  Then he was once again busy lifting dead bodies onto the horses those dead bodies had once ridden.  When he had that done he whistled for me, and I came back down and took one laden horse, and Val took control of the other two.  I noticed he'd even taken the rope down from the tree, and it was coiled on his saddle horn.   He saw me look at it, and gave me a grim smile.

“Waste not, want not, my Pappy always said.”

I couldn't raise a smile.

“Johnny, you goin' to be fine.  I'll make you some fine fryin' pan coffee, and –“

He suddenly went quiet, and rubbed his hand over his mouth.

“Johnny – you sure Jim was okay?”

“He was yellin' at me when I left, I'm pretty sure.”

“Well,” Val swallowed loudly, “well, fancy that, him yellin' at a sweet, biddable child like you.”

“You bein' sarcastical now, ain't you, Val?”

He gave me a glare I had seen so many times before.  Head down, one eyebrow up.

“Come on Kid- lets go.” 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

We were almost back to Bluff's Crossing when we came across the posse Jim had formed.  He had ridden part way with them, and then passed out, so we had to collect him on the way back to town.  He was laid out under a tree, and Val gave him a trimming down, but I don't think he much heard it.  He had one helluva bandage around his head.  He couldn't even sit his horse, and ended up slung over the gunsmith's horse while that man held tight to him.

A couple of the men asked questions, but Val said he'd make his report to the Mayor, and didn't care to talk none on what had transpired.  Not for the moment, anyway.  He cut a look at me when he said that.  I looked over to Stant's body, and gazed at the blood trail down the side of his horse.  I felt so tired I was like to fall off Pancho.  But of course I didn't ever fall off any horse. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

Back in town Val let the posse take the dead men to the undertaker.  We stopped outside the Doc's, but the board outside said the Doc had gone to the Slipper Mill, and he wouldn't be back for three hours. So Val and Mr Clutter, the gunsmith, carried Jim into Val's house.  I found I could not get down from Pancho.  I seemed to be too tired to even dismount.  Val came straight back out, and when he saw me sittin' up there, eyes closed, he grabbed a hold on me and pulled me gentle off my horse.  He was half carryin' me to the door when I warned him I was goin' to bring up both my breakfasts.  He rushed me to the alley at the corner of his house and I heaved up everything .  Although there wasn't much to heave, which made it feel worse.   Val held me till I stopped, and then he got me inside and propped me in a chair. 

Mr Clutter said he had to get back to his shop.  Val thanked him for comin' lookin' for him, and Mr C said it was the least he could do, and he hoped Jim would be recovered quick.  Val tended to Jim, and then came and gave me water to swill my mouth out.  He threw a cushion on the floor, and told me to lie down.  When I started to protest, he told me to get laid down and shut the hell up, ‘cause he had enough to do without arguing with no boy.  So I lay down, and he covered me over with a blanket, and as soon as my head sunk in that cushion I went straight to sleep. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

It was dark when I woke.  A lamp burned low, and I wondered for a few seconds where I was.  When I sat up, I saw that a lady was sittin' next to the bed.  I realized it was Miz Alsweiger.  She heard me stirrin', and turned around.

“Don't you be getting up too quickly, Jay.”

“No Ma'am.  How is Jim?”

“He'll be as good as new in a few days.  He needs that head stitched though.  He let my husband bandage it earlier, but he was in too much of a hurry to find Val, and wouldn't wait to have the stitching done.  If Vance isn't back in the next hour, I plan to do it myself.”

She rose and went into the kitchen.  I got to my feet, and had to lean on the wall for a moment. 

“Here, Jay, come sit at the table, and eat this sandwich.  I'll make some fresh coffee.”

I didn't much feel hungry, but started eating, and soon finished the food.  The coffee smelled real good, and tasted better.  The Doc's wife had a small cup herself, and then she asked if I felt up to sitting with Jim, as she had children to tend to.  She said Val wouldn't be long, and he knew to wake Jim every couple of hours the rest of the night.

Jim had a clean bandage on.  When we'd collected him from under that tree, the bandage had been bloody and dirty.  I nursed my second cup of coffee, and I did my best not to think about what had happened out in the forest.  I didn't want to think of Lancer either, but faces from home kept floating into my mind.  And then a noose would float in there too.

I went to the wash basin and gave my face and hands a good scrub, and was dryin' myself when Val came in.  I had drawn my gun the second the door knob turned, so Val was facing my gun as he came through the door.  He just raised his eyebrows, and I quickly stowed my pistol, and turned away from him.

“We're all a might jumpy, Johnny.  It's to be expected.”

“I should get goin', Val, get out to the Tuttles –“

“Goddamn it, Boy, you ain't goin' nowhere, and that's a damn fact.  I brung a pallet from the jail, and you'll be sleepin' on that here tonight, so just set yourself down on that blasted chair, wouldya, and stop givin' me grief.  You and me, we got some talkin' to do.”

“Well, you don't got to be so cranky ‘bout it, Val.”

“Cranky!  I'll give you cranky!  Now sit your scrawny backside down on that chair while I eat something.  You ate?”

I nodded I had and he fixed himself some supper.

The Doc arrived while Val was eating, and he stitched up Jim's head, had a shot of whisky with Val, and then left us.  Val left me mindin' a very crotchety Jim, on account Val wanted to do a round of the town.  When he came back he poured himself another drink and checked that Jim was back asleep, and then he told me I should sack in after what a busy day we had had.  I didn't argue.  Once I'd shimmied down on the pallet on the floor, Val turned the lamp low.  He was sittin' at the table, looking down into his glass.

“Johnny, I want you to tell me how your Mama died.”

I'd been expectin' questions about Madrid, not about Mama.  I hadn't spoken about the night she died to anyone, ever, not even Murdoch.  But Val's history with my Mama was more recent than Murdoch's, and it wasn't as dangerous territory somehow, as I felt it was with my Pa.  I still didn't know if I wanted to think about it, let alone talk about it.

“Johnny, I'd like to hear you tell it.”

I half buried my head in the crook of my arm, and I looked up at the silhouette of Val at the table.

“She seemed to get sick all of a sudden.  But she would only throw up in the mornin'.  But she was not herself at all, sitting rockin' herself all the time, sayin' ‘I can't do it, I can't do it' over and over.  I asked her what she couldn't do but she would only moan.  I don't remember how long this went on, but then one night she told me that a curandera bruja (witch healer) was comin' that night and she would fix her.  That old lady came to our choza (shack), and she told me to wait outside, but not to go anywhere, as my Mama would need me.”

I glanced at Val, and he had thrown back the rest of his whisky, and was staring down at the table.

“I waited outside.  It wasn't that long.  Then that old bruja came out and said she had fixed my mother's problem.  I was to stay close to Mama and look after her till she was well enough to get out of bed.  She hadn't taken to her bed before this, so I was surprised when I went in and Mama was in bed, and looked to be awful sick, and in pain.  She moaned all night, and I didn't know what to do to help her.”

I'd closed my eyes, but could see too much of that horrible night on the back of my eyelids, so I opened them again.  I was tryin' to keep my voice steady.

“She was even worse in the mornin', clutchin' my hand, real feverish.  She was rolling around and then she pushed the covers back and –“

I had to stop, but then I girded up, and went on with my story.  Val had turned towards me, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, and his eyes on me.  I looked at the dusty floor next to my pallet.

“There was so much blood...so much…I panicked, and I ran to the fountain and asked the women there to help, and two of them came with me, and one went to get the bruja.  But none of them could do anything to help.  They just bathed her face, and kept crossin' themselves, and talkin' about ‘interferin' in the will of God', and suchlike.  Mama would get still, and I'd think she was improvin', and she would clutch my hand and say ‘you must go to your Father'.  When she said that it scared me, because she had never said that my whole life.  But soon she wasn't sayin' nothin', she was too fevered and weak to say anything at all, and then it was all over, Val, and she went still and white as can be, and those women all kneeled there, and pulled me down to kneel, and they prayed and prayed.  But I didn't pray Val, ‘cause I'd prayed plenty when I was a kid, and none of them prayers ever got answered, so I knew I wasn't goin' to get no help from no-one but me.”

I swallowed a couple of times.  I woulda been alright.  I coulda been alright, and just kept breathin, and put that story back in the back of my mind, and pretended it didn't hurt.  I woulda been, but when I looked up Val had dropped his face into his hands, and that rattled me.  I sat up and leaned to him, and put a hand on his knee, and asked if he was alright, and he looked at me shocked, and moaned,

“Me? Me alright?  Ah Jesus, Johnny, you poor little bastard.”

Him sayin' that, I couldn't stay alright, and all this deep, clawing pain suddenly got me in a vice, and I wasn't alright, and I crumpled forward and started to choking, and then all these tears bust out, and suddenly I was howling, but howling so hard I wasn't even making a sound, and I was clingin' tight to Val's knees, and Val had one hand on the back of my neck, and one hand on my head, and he just kept stroking my hair, while I tried to get a breath.  And he was sayin' ‘cry, cry for your Mama, Boy, and cry for yourself, and cry for all the lost boys.  God knows you have a right to, Boy, God knows.  Or maybe, maybe God don't know, Juanito, maybe he don't.  So you cry, and maybe I will too'.   

I cried so hard I thought I could never stop.  I soaked Val's knees, musta drenched him.  I cried about Mama, and losing Val, and losing Javier, and being hungry so many times, and I cried about nooses, and loneliness, and killings.  And I cried because I wanted to go home to Lancer, and I didn't know how. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

I woke next mornin' and couldn't remember how long I'd blubbered before I'd finally got exhausted and sleep had got me.  I remembered waking once, and seeing Val shaking Jim, and asking him if he could tell him the name of his horse.  Jim was either ornery as hell, or else maybe his horse was called a cuss word Murdoch woulda cracked me one for sayin'.  Val seemed pleased though, and dropped back into the chair by Jim's bed, and I dropped back to sleep as well.  I had sure slept heavy, and didn't get any of the nightmares that usually plagued me whenever I was involved in gunplay.

When I stirred up it was because of the smell of bacon fryin', and I roused out pretty quickly.  Jim was half sittin', clutching a mug of coffee like it was his best friend.  Val was muttering, and would break off only to grumble about things, which sounded real familiar to me.  I didn't want to meet their eyes.  I didn't think Jim had been awake and heard me caterwaulin', but he mighta done.  And I wanted Val to see I was a man now, and he already seemed to think I was still six, so after last night he probably was even more sure I was still that little shaver he used to live with.

I came back from the outhouse, and I stood just inside the door, worrying the fraying cuff of my shirt.

“Stop standin' there lookin' like a goddamn mudsill, and sit down.”

“Val, I –“

“Don't start with me Boy.  I hardly had a wink of sleep, what with you snorin', and Jim needin' to be comforted every two hours, like a blasted helpless female, so I ain't in the mood for arguing.  Just sit and eat your goddamn breakfast.  And you think of goin' anywhere and I'll sling your blasted little keyster in jail so fast your head will spin.”

I looked over at Jim, and he just grinned and took another chug of coffee.

“Better do like he says,Ja- Johnny, he's right cantankerous in the mornin', even at the best of times.”

“Your head doin' okay, Jim?”

“No it ain't.  My noggin's throbbing like a sonofabitch.  It's just lucky for me those scullions didn't want to draw attention, else they woulda shot me.”

“Lucky for you they hit you over the head.  They didn't know your skull is solid right through to your tiny pea-brain.”  Val offered.

“Well, no-one with any brains would stick around you, Crawford, so be thankful.  Now I'm goin' back to sleep, and I'd appreciate a little hush.  I'll see you at lunchtime, Range, when you come back to wait on me some more.”

Jim put his mug on the stool next to the bed, and then settled back on the pillow, and closed his eyes.  I cut a glance at Val, and he scowled at me as he plonked a plate in front of me.

“Eat.”

“Val, I need that job and –“

“Eat, I said.  Mr. Tuttle will hold your goddamn job if I speak to him.  But keep quiet so Jim can go to sleep.  Then you and I are goin' to my office for a little parley.  Comprende?”

I didn't answer, just started in on the grub. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

“Okay, Juanito, I know you are set on bein' independent, and I got no problem with that.  But you been in my town hardly more'n one week and you've had your horse stole, been nearly killed by one scum -sucker, and coulda been killed by four others.”

I went to say something, but Val held up his hand.

“Now maybe this is the way things go, for Johnny Madrid, but I'm here to tell you that I don't believe that this is the way you want to live.  And you goin' by ‘Greenwell'  -  you tryin to start fresh?”

I just nodded and looked down at my hands. 

“Well I'm glad, Johnny.  Only thing is, I got to wonder, are you startin' fresh ‘cause that's what you want, or because you have left somewhere you maybe should have stayed?”

I felt myself gettin' hot, and thought of just gettin' up and leaving, but something kept me in that chair.  Maybe it was Val's voice.  Kind, but with iron under.

“That fine mending on your clothes – same lady as did that, took up the legs on both pairs of your britches.  And you been in one spot long enough to grow, and that nice lady has let down those hems once.  Now a sod-buster's wife, she might be able to do that fancy stitchin', but she wouldn't have the time to be takin' up and lettin' down pants.  So this lady we're talking about, she lives in a more refined sort of set-up.”

I glanced at Val, and he leaned back in his chair, his brown eyes steady at me.

“Johnny, you steal any of your possessions?”

“What?  No!”  I protested hotly.

“Simmer down, Son.  I didn't think you would, but that leads me to another conclusion…”

“You think you're pretty smart, hey Val,” I groused.

“You better believe it, Johnny.  Now, your gun, your rig, they're quite a few years old, and they're ordinary rancher style.   Your belt is not as old, but it is older than that fine saddle.  Thing is, all those things was all made by the same man.  He takes pride in his work, and he stamps his initials, ‘J.C.P.' on all his leatherwork.  Except on his saddles, Boy, which he stamps ‘Julio Castro Perez * Spanish Wells'.

Hearing the Senor's name, and his town, my town, it was all bitin' me, and made me think on all the recent events that had lead to me leavin' Lancer.  I looked at Val, and he was studying me close.  I dropped my head, and I thought of Maria, stitchin' my britches, and Murdoch, warmin' them, and Scott, scuffling with me, or talkin' to me and makin' me laugh, and sometimes makin' me want to cry.

“Talkin' about initials, as I said previous, you got ‘J.L.' stamped on your razor.  So you made up the name ‘Greenwell'.  And if you look on a map of California, and find Spanish Wells , there in the San Joaquin, then not that far away you'll see another town name of Green River. Interesting.  Then, look at your horses, both of them got that big ol' ‘L' brand on them .  I asked old Bill Fendow, did he know that brand.”

I jumped up then, too restless to stay still.  Val jumped up too, and came around his desk, and took hold of my arm.

“I wish you would trust me Kid, and tell me why you left a good home.  Why did you, Johnny Lancer?” 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

I spilled to Val, then.  I told how after Mama died I had taken up a gun, just to stand up for myself, but ended up standin' up to other gunfighters in the dance, and found that I could earn more money, and respect, by hirin' my gun out to anyone who'd pay for it.  They wouldn't take me serious, a skinny, half-growed mestizo, but they learned to take my fightn' gun serious, and then they'd forget how young I was, or wouldn't care.  And I soon didn't feel young, no sir.  I felt old and dirty, and low down, but that was on the inside.  Outside, I was now clean and had good clothes, and I sure as hell didn't get kicked around no more.

Val was lookin' down at his folded arms, but I could see how tight he was holdin' those arms, and holdin' his jaw.  His mouth looked grim, but he kept it shut, never said a word.

I told him how that driftin' life had stopped for me nearly a year before, in a town called Paguay, where I was recovering from being backshot.  Turned out my real Father, Murdoch Lancer, had been searchin' for me for twelve years.  He'd finally tracked me down, and he'd arrived and bundled me up and took me home.  And with him was a skinny, blonde dandy from Boston, my older brother, Scott.

“So that's who Scott is.”

When I looked a question at Val, he told me I called out for Scott, those first two nights when I'd been bad beat. 

 We was interrupted then, by a plump lady in a flowery dress.  She opened the door and I reached for my gun, and wasn't surprised to see Val did, too.  She was carryin' a basket, and had a girl with her.  The girl looked ‘bout sixteen, and was she a looker. 

“Sheriff Crawford, I've bought some soup for Deputy Court, and a cake.  How is he?”

“Why howdy, Miz Appleby, Miss Appleby.  He's goin' to be just fine, thankyou.  And much obliged, ladies, for the vittles.”

Val had gone all pink, but I was more interested in Miss Appleby, who had given me a shy smile.  Jeez, but did she have a dandy smile, and did she fill that dress out just impressive.

“Er, ladies, this here is Johnny Ma- that is, this here is Johnny.”

Both of them gave me a smile then, and I made my howdies, nice and polite.  Miz Appleby kept talkin' to Val, something about chicken and dumplings from Miz Someone, but I was studyin' on what could I say to the girl, something that would make her jump right into my arms.  But I couldn't think of one damn thing.   I didn't have to, ‘cause she spoke to me.

“Your face is very much better,  Mr -?”

“Call me Johnny.  Please.”  Call me into your arms, is what I thought.

“Why, I suppose that would be acceptable, as the Sheriff has introduced us.  You may call me Clarissa.”

“That sure is a pretty name,” I purred.  And those sure are pretty milkers, I thought.

She blushed then, and I did too, thinkin' as how she maybe could read my thoughts, and I needed to try and control my thinkin' when I was talking to a girl.  Her Mama's voice cut through my thoughts.

“Come along, Clarissa, we need to get our errands done, and the Sheriff is busy.”

I noticed then that the old lady gave Val this real heavy lidded smile, and when I looked at him, he had gone real pink again.  The two ladies then went sweeping out of the office, their skirts all swayin', and a few seconds later, Val cleared his throat, and I realized we was both standin' there, still looking at where those ladies had been.

“I'm goin' to make some coffee, and have some of this here cake,” said Val, peekin' under the cloth.

Once we'd eaten half the cake, Val wanted to hear some more.

“Okay, Johnny.  So you been livin' with your Daddy, and your brother, for some time.  You got a step mama?”

“No, Maria is the house-keeper, but she knew me from the day I was born, and she treats me like I'm still two, like I was when Mama ran off.”

Val brushed all the cake crumbs out of his moustache.  I noticed then how scruffy he looked.  He hadn't shaved for about three days, and looked all rumpled.  Thinkin' on that, I hadn't shaved for a week, and I had just combed my hair with my hand.  It's a wonder those ladies didn't take fright at the two of us.

“So, you was nearly two, when your Mama ran off from Murdoch Lancer.  And now, you're fifteen, and you've run off from him, too.”

I looked at him, and he was looking back at me, and it was a hard look.  I was all over feeling like a rank, cowardly, no good sonofabitch, what with him sayin' it like that.  Sayin' what was the fuckin', goddamned truth.  I swallowed hard, and I dropped my eyes, and I could feel the sting at the back of them.  When Val spoke again, it was harsh.

“He treated you real bad did he?”

“No.  He never did.”

“He gave you clothes, horses, a home , he musta been a real mean sonofabitch, for you not to be able to stay there, Johnny.”

“It wasn't like that, Val, ” I protested.

“He beat you, huh?”

“Yes!”  But I couldn't lie, and I knew that was not what Murdoch had ever done.

 “Well, naw… no.   He- well – no.  He didn't exactly beat me.”

“So what he did do, he walloped your britches, when he thought you deserved it?  That more like it?”

I nodded, miserable as I could be, and Val gave me his thoughts on that.

“See, I have no trouble at all, thinking on you deserving to have your pants warmed on a regular basis.  Fact is, I seem to remember that bein' exactly the case when you lived with me.  And you were only a little tacker then.  But you was stubborn – boy, was you stubborn.  And you know, that ain't changed one bit, has it, Johnny?”

“You should meet my Old Man, or Scott, Val.  I sure ain't the only stubborn cuss at that ranch, let me tell you,” I complained.

“Family trait, then.  It don't surprise me.”

We got interrupted again then.  The undertaker came in to hand in three boxes, each one full of the stuff he'd taken from the dead men's pockets, and their saddle bags.  Val signed a sheet for him, and they jawed a bit before he left.  The three boxes were on the floor against the wall, and I wondered at them bein' all that was left of those men's lives.  Their horses and tack would be sold to a horse trader, to pay for their buryin', which was the way of things in most towns.  Val didn't even glance at the boxes. He was more interested in the living.

“So, Johnny.  Why'd you take off?  Man musta done something powerful mean, for you to go like that.  What was it?”

I mumbled what it was. 

“I cain't hear you, Boy, but I surely can read you.  What did he do?”

“He was goin' to send my Appaloosa away!”

I'd yelled it, and Jesus, how pathetic did it sound!  Fuck, I couldn't look him in the eye, and the silence in that room spoke loud of what a fuckin' useless, ungrateful whelp I was.  I squirmed in my seat, and tried to make it sound better.

“He treats me like a kid, Val, that's the real reason.”

“Jesus, Johnny, maybe he does that, because you are a fuckin' kid, and if he needed any proof of that, you sure obliged, didn't you?”

I didn't answer, couldn't answer.

“Didn't you!”

I still couldn't answer, and Val got up, and he grabbed me by my arms and hauled me to my feet, and he gave me a mighty shake.  I kept my head down, ‘cause I couldn't meet his eyes, until I had to on account of he took hold of my chin and pushed my head up.

“You and me, Johnny, we're goin' over to the telegraph office, and you're goin' to send a wire to let your family know you're safe.  And that you'll be home soon.”

I jerked away then. 

“I can't do it, Val.  I don't think Murdoch will care one way or the other, now.  I've done it all wrong – I know it!  But a man like Murdoch, straight down the line man like that, he won't want me back.  He won't want no truck with me, now.  He'll look at me like I'm a disappointment.  I don't think I can look at him.”

I had my back to Val, so didn't know how he took me admittin' the truth, until he decided to let me know his thoughts.   His boot connected with my rear end and lifted me off my feet.  I went sprawling forward across the floor, and my head butted one of those three boxes.  I rolled over and scrambled to my feet, some flabbergasted.  Val stood watchin' me, hands on his hips, and glarin' at me like thunder.  He pointed to the chair in front of his desk, and I felt real surly, but wasn't willin' to risk not doin' what he wanted.  I sulkily went back to the seat, rubbing my backside on the way.

“Jeez Val, you'd no call to do that.”

Val sat back down in his chair, and scrubbed his hands through his hair, so it looked like a curly mess.

“I did that ‘cause I'm too damn tired to do what I should, which is tan your goddamn hide.”

“That's a fine thankyou for savin' your fuckin, scrawny neck –“

Val shot to his feet and his chair fell backwards, and I nearly did too.  He glowered at me, and held his hand up with the thumb and forefinger almost touching.

“This close, Johnny, this close.”

Well, I been told I'm reckless, but I ain't no fool, so I kept my mouth shut, and looked at my boots like they was real interesting.  They were the first boots Scott got after coming to Lancer, and were hardly wore in before he grew outta them.  A feelin' like a ripple went across inside my chest.

Val picked his chair up and sat down.  When he spoke he'd stopped yellin', but he still talked at me like I'd better pay close attention, or else.

“Johnny, something you gotta realize.  Not all men want to father the children they got.  But when a man chooses to father his kids, or anyone else's for that matter, then he does that job forever.  Your Pa wouldn't a searched all those years if he didn't want that job.  And when he found ya, and you was an ornery, stubborn, wrong-headed little bastard, he kept that job.  Not because he hasta, or the law says he hasta, or any damn thing like that.  He kept it because he wants to.  You listenin'?”

I was, and I nodded. 

“You're still between hay and grass, Johnny, whether you know it or not.  Just because you had a hard time, a damn, blasted hard time, I know, and have had to look out for yourself, you still ain't a man yet.  You made a mistake runnin' off, but hell, you goin' to make mistakes.  We all have, and we still do.  But that don't mean your Pa is goin' to quit on you.  So question is, Boy, you goin' to quit on him?” 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

Val and I stood in the telegraph office.  The operator, Wally, was waiting to write down my message.  I was all a jitter.  Val stood behind me, only his heavy hand on my shoulder keeping me from weakening.

“Ten words, Johnny, that's the minimum.”  Val's voice was low, but still pushin'.

Val had already put the two dollars and fifty cents on the counter.  It was a shockin' amount of money, but he told me to just shut up and get on with it. I didn't need to say where I was.  The operator in Green River would know where the wire came from.  Between Val and me, and Wally, we finally sent the message:

‘TAKING SERA TO SENOR CABRERA STOP MAY I COME HOME STOP JOHNNY.' 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

Four days later, Val and I set out for Famosa.  We had been arguing for three days.  I wanted to go and work for Mr. Tuttle to earn some money, even though I hoped to soon be going home.  I would need money for the trip.  Val was against me bein' out of his sight, and was even more fuckin' determined than Murdoch to keep me on a tight rein.  We stayed in Jim's house, it bein' slightly bigger than Val's, and Jim stayed at Val's. 

I was so edgy about the wire I'd sent, and what might come back, or worse, might not come back, that I was probably not a cheerful companion.  Val was grumpy as hell, account of all the ladies in town plyin' him with food and attention.  He relished the food, as did I, but he was havin' a hard time with all the attention.  Jim got better awfully quick on account of eating better than he ever had in his life, he said. 

Three days after I sent my wire, one had come for me.

‘DEAREST SON PLEASE COME DIRECTLY HOME STOP APPALOOSA TOO STOP PA STOP SCOTT'

When Wally's boy delivered the wire to Jim's house, I took it outside, and it took me five minutes of starin' at the vines on the outhouse, before I could look down and read.  After I read it, I sat down on the porch step, and I buried my head in my arms.  Val was right.  Murdoch hadn't quit on me.  He was callin' me ‘dearest son', when he shoulda been sayin' ‘you little bastard'.  He was telling me to bring Sera home, even though I knew I didn't deserve for him to grant that back to me.  He'd signed it ‘Pa', even though he knew I mostly only ever called him that when I was just tryin' to placate him after I done riled him to the end of his temper.  Regularly. 

He wanted to have me back at Lancer, and he had said for me to please come straight home.  All the misery that had been wound around my heart since I left home, well, that started to unwind right as I sat there.  The heavy weight started to leave, and I felt such relief that I felt lighter right through me.  I folded the wire and put it inside my shirt pocket.  I went back inside and did all the chores I needed to do.  Then back outside to chop enough wood so Jim wouldn't have to do that for weeks.  Did all this washin', just like Miz Conway's housekeeper, Estralita, had taught me back at their place.  Got the latest stew we'd been given, and had that simmerin' away on the stove when Val finally showed up.

He looked around the place, and then scratched his head.

“You goin' to make a fine wife for some little gal, one day Johnny.”

Then he saw my saddle bags, sitting on the bed, open.

“You heard.”  He wiped his hand over his mouth.

 I stopped my grin, because I'd seen the look of pain that crossed Val's eyes, and I was confused.  He had brought this about, and yet, looking at him, he looked like I had been feeling for weeks.  He felt me lookin' at him, and he looked up, and he tried this grin out, but Jesus, it looked like he'd got the dropsy.  I wrapped my arms tight around myself.

“You were right, Val, he wants me to come home.”

“Jesus, Johnny, thank the Lord that that man is willin' to own you, ‘cause I gotta say, you're too much of a mucoso (brat) for me to put up with much longer.”

He strode on over to the stove, and I looked at his back as he tasted the stew there.  It hit me then, that I was goin' home to Lancer, but that meant I would be losing Val.  Losing Val, again.  He was the first man who had been a father to me, that I could remember, anyway.  He'd done all those things that fathers are supposed to, and all that time with him and Mama, I had been fed, I'd been warm, I'd been safe, and Madre de Dios, I'd been loved.  And hardly none of that had come from my Mama.  It had all come from Val.

Why was life so complicated?  I sank down onto the bed, and I kept ahold of myself, and I wondered how I could be happy to be leaving.  Val glanced around, and I looked at my boots.  I could feel those dark eyes of his, considerin' me.

“Johnny, I don't know why things pan out the way they do.  I ain't got the medicine on why you didn't get to grow up with your Pa, or grow up with me.  Wishin' things had been different, well, that's a lean lead for a man to follow.  I'm thankful that now I know that scruffy little cabrito I worried about all these years, that he finally has a home.  You know, you have a home with me too, but you need to be with your blood, Johnny.  You need to grow up with your Pa, and with this brother you got.  You stop this thinkin' on whether you deserve that life, and start thinkin' on how he deserves the chance to be a Pa to you.”

There was a knock at the door which then opened to show Wally's errand boy.  He gave Val a wire, ‘for Johnny, Sheriff', and Val gave him a penny.  Val handed the piece of paper to me, and watched while I read it.

‘MONEY WIRED TO RED BLUFF STOP WAIT FOR ME STOP PLEASE REPLY STOP'

“Should I wait for a reply, Sheriff?”

“Naw, Clarence, Johnny will come by later.” 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

I did go by later, and sent a wire sayin' I had already left.  Murdoch would likely pitch a fit when he read that, but I told Val I had to take Serampion to Senora Cabrera.  I would have a hard enough time facin' Murdoch and Scott, and Maria, without takin' that horse home with me.  I wanted to show Murdoch that I accepted that he was right, and I'd been a contrary jackass.  Val was insultingly quick to agree.  He also said he was coming with me.  I was real glad to have him along, but of course, bein' me, I protested loud.  Sayin' I didn't need no goddamn nursemaid and such, and him tellin me to watch my sass or he'd smack my mouth for me.   He said Jim weren't allowed to ride yet, but he could handle things, and deputize the blacksmith if he needed help.  Val could find official business to attend to in Green River, he was sure, and he felt like a ride anyway.  And seein' as how I couldn't stay out of trouble for more than one hour at a time, he felt it was beholdin' to him to escort me home like he woulda done any irresponsible, half-witted, defiant, recalcitrant…and when I protested he just put that fuckin' thumb and forefinger together, in front of my face, and looked at me fierce. 

“'Sides, that Widder Appleby is gettin' too close for damn comfort,” he grumbled.

I bust out laughin' then.

“I thought she looked at you like she would of a hot meal!”  I chortled away.

“Ain't she too old to be man huntin'?”  I next asked.

“What do ya mean?  Too old?  Why, she's about my age, ya damn pup!  I'm around thirty-one or two, near as I can figure.”

“Yeah, old, like I said,” I shot back, but was quick to duck.

“She came by with an invite to supper tonight.  Jim claimed his head's still troublin' him, and begged off, but you and me are goin'.  So get some water heatin', we best have a bath, and dandy up.” 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

I was real happy to be goin' to the Appleby's.  One reason bein', Miz Appleby was a damn fine cook, but the main one bein' her daughter was real enticin'.  Just thinkin' about getting the opportunity to even press my arm up against hers while we sat on the couch…well, those thoughts led to some real impure thoughts and consequences, that's for sure.  I had not been havin' much in the way of those thoughts since I left Lancer, but now that I was going home, well, they sure reared up quick and hot as ever. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

Miz Appleby put on a fine spread, and Val and I did justice to it.  She served up frizzled beef with fried potatoes and boiled carrots.  She also had spinach, which I could hardly stomach, but managed to get it down as it had slices of boiled eggs on top.  The apple pie and custard was bang-up.

Val hardly said a word right through supper, while listenin' to Cherise, as she had asked Val to call her.  She prattled on and on, like lots of ladies that age seemed to like to do.  Ladies of any age, really.  I had never seen Val so scrubbed and neat.  He had a fawn jacket on, and a string tie.  The tie wasn't tied very neat, and neither was the one he made me wear.  They'd both looked worse, until Jim blustered at us and tried to fix them for us.

Jim had also trimmed off some of Val's most ornery curls, and he'd made me sit and get barbered as well.  He said I looked like a damn Apache, and then when he'd shortened my hair up, and it commenced to curl, he grinned and said to Val that I coulda been took for Val's sprog, after all.

Val was all jittery, so he told us he was goin' to the saloon to have a belt, and would then come back and collect me.  Soon as he left, Jim started clearing his throat, awkward like, as he snipped away at my hair.

“You got something to say, Jim?”

“Well, matter of fact, I was just ponderin'.”

“Ponderin' what?”

“Well, son, you being so far from home…and you goin' to the Appleby's this evenin'…”

“Yeah?”

“Well I was just wonderin'… has your Daddy had had a talk to you about women and babies and such?”

“Mother of God!  I don't need no old men tellin' me what goes where, thanks all the same!  Jesus!”  I spluttered.

Jim thunked me on the head with the comb.

“Now you just hold your horse, Sonny.  There will most certain not be anything goin' anywhere, not tonight, and not for you for a good long while.  And ain't no need for you to talk so vulgar! I'm just hopin' your Pa has made it clear to you how to behave if you find yourself alone with a decent young gal, that's what I was gettin' to.”

“Well, you don't got to worry none about that, Jim, he's made that real clear.”  I huffed.

I thought back to how he'd made that clear.  Our barn, his belt, my behind.  Yeah, it had been quite a lesson. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

While Miz Appleby jawed and Val chowed down, Clarissa and I tried to talk as well.  She was fifteen, and I told her I was sixteen.  She had just left off goin' to school, and now helped her Mama in their dress and hat shop.  I said I had finished school and worked full time on my Pa's ranch.  Stretchin' the truth is not the same as lyin'.  She had heard how I'd gone after that horse thief, and thought I was ‘uncommonly brave'.  She loved to ride, and was sorry I was leavin' ‘on the morrow' else we coulda gone ridin' together.  Jehosaphat, I sure would like to have gone riding and got her a long way from her Mama.  I thought as how she had eyes that knew more than maybe they should, so that was keeping me very interested.  And of course, she looked a treat, all clean and smooth.  My hands, and everything else, were itchin' to get as close as they could.

We moved into the little sittin-room to have coffee.  It was served in the tiniest little cups which only held a mouthful.  Miz Appleby was pouring some more for Val, when Clarissa asked her ma if it was alright to take me out to swing on the front porch.  I felt my blood rise straight away, and had to look down, but not before I'd noticed a real panicky look on Val's face.  Miz Appleby tinkled a laugh and said that of course the young people would like to get away from “us older folk', so, we could go out, but not to leave the porch.

Their little porch had this pretty sopha type of contraption, which I had never seen before.  Clarissa sat down, and lucky she was ready when I dropped down, ‘cause I didn't know it was goin' to pitch the way it did.  I nearly fell right back out, I got such a damn surprise, and gasped out ‘Jesus'.  Clarissa gasped with shock, but giggled as she grabbed me to steady me, and that was just dandy by me.  I pretended I was still unsteady and that was why I was leaning so close to her, and I said a soft apology for my cussin'.

I was real close to her face, and we both kept that distance, as she held onto my shirt sleeve, and said she pardoned me.  I could feel my breathin' get heavy, and her breath on my lips.  I leaned in closer and she stayed still as a mouse.  So I moved even closer, and when she didn't move I knew I was safe, and I planted one on her mouth, and then jerked back, in case she was goin' to yell.

There was no yell.  She had her eyes closed, and out of those soft lips came the tip of her tongue, which she ran slow over her top lip.  I could barely swallow my spit when I saw that.  I thought she was doin' it deliberate to make me get roused up, but when I went in and smacked another kiss on those lips, her eyes flew open and she looked surprised.  But straight away she closed her eyes again, and she leaned towards me.  That's all I needed.  I pressed my mouth on hers, and I scooted close up to her and put an arm around her shoulders and pressed her towards me.

She let out a little sigh, so I poked my tongue out a little and touched her lips with it.  She stilled and got stiff, but then she sighed again, and her lips cracked open the tiniest bit, so I pressed a little harder, and she was gettin' the idea, and when my tongue got in her mouth, well, we both groaned.  One of us did, anyway, I was pretty sure.

This was goin' real well.  I'd learned how to kiss like a real expert from a rancher's daughter, and I found I hadn't forgot anything she had coached me in.  Clarissa was eager and enjoyin' herself, I could tell, so that made me bold.  I put my left hand on her waist and drew her to me a bit more, and I pulled my right hand from behind her back and rested it between her shoulder and neck.  I slid it down a little bit, and then I could feel the top of one of her bosoms under the heel of my hand.

By now my pants were gettin' real uncomfortable as ol' John Thomas hoped for action.  I was breathin' deep, and she was too.  I edged my right hand down ever so slow, and she knew what I was doin', and her breathin' got jittery, and her mouth seemed to get hotter.  Jesus, but I was havin' the time of my life!  When my hand stopped it was right over her milker, and I spread my fingers out and moaned with pleasure at the feel of all that soft weight.  I wanted to squeeze that lovely weight, but didn't want to startle her and for her to take it away.  But by now she was gettin' the idea of exploring with her tongue, and that was just about the end of me.

I was groanin, and I squeezed her, and I thought I might disgrace myself right then and there, ‘cause I could tell she loved what I was doin'.   I squeezed gentle again, and I took my mouth away from hers and ran my lips across her cheek and down her neck.  She moaned and tipped her head back, and that's when I knew she was a real adventurous type of girl, so I took her right hand from where it was on my neck, and I planted it on the front of my pants-

Jesus!

The noise of the slap registered in my ears at the same time as the sting of it on my face got to my brain, and the force of it knocked me right off that fuckin' swing to land on the porch.  I was so shocked, to go from bein' in a state of pure, throbbin' pleasurin', to bein' on my backside on the boards, with a ringin' head, a stingin' face, and a mad as hell female leaning over me yellin' something about how dare I and what sort of girl did I think she was and what a detestable varmint I was –

Which all of course disturbed Val and Miz Appleby from inside and the door flew open and Val leaped out like he was ready for a brawl.  Clarissa was fixed on givin' me a gobful, but when Val appeared she stopped in the middle of yellin at me that I was an ‘unprincipled rake', whatever the hell that was, and she did a big ‘ohhh' instead and clapped her hand over her mouth and run into the house.  Val had reached down and hauled me up, and had me held with a hard grip on my arm, and boy, did he look to be in a bad temper.   Miz Appleby was behind him, her eyes wide, but when Clarissa went runnin' past she turned and rushed after her.

“Christamighty, Boy, what the hell did you think you was doin'?” he yelled as he shook me.

“Jesus, Val, I thought she was enjoyin' it!” I fumed back.

“Awww Christ, you damn fool!  Get in there and get your hat and rig, and get outta here.  I'll try and smooth it with her Mama, you dang, blasted dunderhead.  Git!”

Well I git alright, fast as I could.  I was in and out that door so fast I just about knocked Val off his pins as he was coming back in, and he cussed, just as Miz Appleby musta come back in the room, ‘cause I heard her gasp, and Val groan, just as the door slammed behind me. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

When I got back to Jim's house I decided to sack in, even though it was kinda early.  I was very peevish, having thought I was goin' to get me some fine pleasuring, only to get slapped silly.  It had been going so well, but I'd got ahead of myself and misread the dance, and that was intolerably aggravatin'.  Plus, leavin' me achin' in my drawers, and not darin' to fix that with Val back any minute.  Jesus, it sure had been a matchin' sorry end to my troublesome stay in Bluffs Crossing, that was for damn sure.

Val arrived back about an hour later.  I pretended I was asleep.  I was on my side with my back to him, which was foolish, turned out, ‘cause I heard him stand still for a minute, and then pick something off the wall, and that thing was a butter pat, and did it hurt like a bastard when he swung that full force against my backside.  It made a sound like a thunderclap, and my howl was just as loud.

“Fuck!  Sonofabitch!”  I yowled.

“Oh – awake are ya?”

“Real funny, Val.   Dios, what'd you do that for?”

“For givin' me indigestion, that's why.  Now you can go to sleep.  We got an early start in the mornin'.  Goodnight, Casanova.”

“Huh?”

He didn't answer, just muttered real cantankerous under his breath as he shucked his clothes and got into bed.  I was hopin' I would dream of the feel of a creamy, white bosom under my hand, but instead I dreamt of Miz Appleby chasin' me with a gun in one hand and a butter pat in the other.  And she had a moustache just like Val's. 

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^+

The sun was barely up, and someone's cock was crowin'.   I led Serampion and Pancho down the street to Val's place.  Val and Jim were standin' out the front, and as I nearly reached them, Jim let out a big guffaw of laughin', and I looked accusing at Val, who was smiling his head off.

“Good mornin', Casanova,” said Jim with a delighted look in his eye.

So he knew this Mexican fella as well, it seemed.

“Fu- Jesus, Val, what didya have to tell Jim for?” I muttered.

“Jim needs to be apprised of the goings-on in town, Johnny, and he'll be next on Widder Appleby's invite list, so best he knows.”

“S'okay, Kid,” Jim smirked, “we been fifteen ourselves you know, and not as long ago as you young‘uns always think.  It's a shame you're leavin' town, Boyo, ‘cause I coulda given you the benefit of my extensive knowledge of women.”

“Christ Jim, we got two minutes, if you want to give him it now,” Val bust out.

Jim took a swing at his head and Val ducked, and then he turned and mounted.  I stepped forward to Jim and held out my hand, and Jim took it in a strong grip.

“Jim, I'm mighty thankful for you takin' care of me when I was beat.”

“You were an interesting patient, Johnny, and a more than interestin' friend.”

He suddenly pulled me in for a rough hug and then pushed me towards my horse.

“You take care of yourself, Johnny.  I mean it.  And you've already pulled this one's fat outta the fire, so I don't need to tell you to watch his back.  Sometimes he ain't as smart as he thinks he is.”

Val snorted, and I grinned at Jim as I settled my hat on my head.  We turned our mounts, and with a touch to our hats, we started out.  At the end of the street I looked back, and Jim was still standin' watchin' us, and I gave a wave.  We were goin' to Red Bluff to collect the money Murdoch had sent, and then we would get on the road that travelled south.

I had run off from home like a stupid boy, the very thing I was always protestin' about not being.  I had had my horse stole, been beaten senseless, and nearly got killed twice.  I had put three men in the ground.  I couldn't regret that, but it was something I kept hoping I would not be the cause of any more.

But I had also met Jim, and I had saved a man's life.  That the man was Val, and that I had found him after so many years, was a blessing which I knew was of more worth to me than all the gold in California.

I was riding Pancho, and leading Serampion.  He was frisky as hell, and I glanced at him and thought on how he had led me on this journey.  Now I was leadin' him, and soon I would give him up like Murdoch had said I must.  I thought of Murdoch, sittin' gazing out of the big, arched window.  Scott, leaning on the corral fence, with his face turned to the Lancer arch.  Maria, standin' in the portico, drawing her shawl around her shoulders, and looking at Scott.  I had caused a lot of grief, and had to face that I had, and take whatever was coming to me when I got home.

But thing was, it was home I was goin' to.  Lancer was my home, and I didn't ever want to run from that again.

I felt a ripple of I excitement run through me.   I put my heels into Pancho's sides, and he took off, and we started flyin' along that road, me and Pancho and Sera, and I was yahooing when we passed Val. Then I heard his horse's hoofbeats start to pound, and he was soon caught up with us.   He was keeping pace with us, and when I looked over to Val he had a big ol' grin on his face.  Christamighty, if that ol' grin wasn't as big as Texas!

 





~end~
October, 2013 


 

*See “The Gringo” by Kit Prate, for a wonderful story of how Val and Johnny may have met.  When I write about these two characters, it is with that earlier relationship in my mind.*   

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