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Suzanne

 

 

This Is Home

This story was written for a Lancer Writers@groups.io writing challenge where we were asked to write a story using a song as our inspiration. My song of choice was THIS IS HOME by SWITCHFOOT (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0ykm1v9xbU). An episode tag for Shadow of A Dead Man

“Come on, boy. We’re nearly there.”

Barranca was tiring and Johnny didn’t need a piece of paper from Harvard to know why. Truth was he’d been pushing him all morning. But Barranca was savvy and the last half dozen miles, he hadn’t needed any urging.

He hadn’t wanted to go in the first place. Done everything he could to talk Murdoch out of it. He hated those paper things. Scott was good at that. But old Murdoch—once his mind was made up, well, that was that. ‘Course, if he’d known he was sending Johnny into a passel of trouble he would have insisted Scott go along, too. Or maybe he wouldn’t have sent Johnny at all and said be damned about the whole thing?

Murdoch had told him and Scott how mad he was with Melissa’s father for tricking him and letting Murdoch send them off to Humboldt County that time, knowing they’d be riding into a powder keg. And it hadn’t been an act. Both him and Scott could see how bad Murdoch felt about it. It was kind of a strange for Johnny. He couldn’t ever remember a time anyone cared about sending him into danger. Heck, it had been his bread and butter since he’d been old enough to hold a gun.

That Jessamie. She sure had a lot of grit. Although, how the hell she could trust a curly wolf like Harner and not Johnny was something he’d never understand. Then again, understanding women had never been his strong point. All the same…

‘Whoa, boy. Ease up, some.” He sat back in the saddle. Barranca’s stumble had pitched him forward. “We’ll be there soon enough.”

He moved his left arm into a better position, then tried to reposition the sling. The darned thing had a way of digging into his neck but it was better than an aching arm.

Oh boy.

He closed his eyes for a second.

The dark. Harner out there.  Grady crying for his ma. Bullets thudding into the wall. It all felt too real. If he sniffed he’d probably smell the gunpowder.

 

Dios, he’d been so scared he could barely take a breath. His heart was starting to pound by just seeing it all in his head again.

He couldn’t believe it when Jessamie threw his gun out the door leaving him with no way to defend them or get Grady back from Harner’s clutches.  He’d been so mad he was ready to strangle her. Just about did.

‘Course, it turned out she had her reasons—and all that anger melted when he heard what she’d been through—but it left him with one heck of a choice. A choice he didn’t want to have to make.

“Send me out that woman, or her kid’s gonna die.”

There’s always that one moment when you think all is lost. When everything inside your head screams that you don’t have a chance in hell. That was the moment when everything used to become real clear. Like time slowed down and then ideas would start going off in his head like firecrackers. Wes used to say, “Johnny, you got that look again,” and then he’d wait to hear Johnny’s plan.

Only it hadn’t happened that time behind Jessamie’s door. There was just noise and smoke and the sting in his hand telling him the next bullet was finding his heart—and Grady was out there and Dios, he had to do something…before Harner killed them all.

Nope, all he could feel was a panic that robbed him of any smart idea. For the first time ever, his only thought was to light a shuck for home. If he could’ve passed the buck, he damn well would have—without a second glance.

He didn’t want to die. He wanted to be away from it all. Safe. At home.

With Murdoch and Scott. And Teresa and Jelly. And riding fence and roping steers and all those jobs he told himself he hated when he had to crawl out of a warm bed at sunrise.

He didn’t know where it came from but somehow he scrambled about in his head and dragged up an idea. “I’m gonna take a chance. I’m gonna go for the rifle. The moment he shoots, I’m gonna fall as close to the rifle as I can.”

“No!”

The look on her face, those wide eyes of hers, told him she was thinking the very same things his mind was telling him: It’ll never work. You’re gonna die here. You’re never gonna see home again. Not Murdoch…not Scott…not…

“Now I’m hoping he’ll hold off with his second shot, then come out to finish me off.” Oh yeah, great idea, Johnny. “And when he does, I wan’t you to step out and scream.”

“I only need a split second.” Worst damn idea he’d ever had.

No-one was more surprised than him when he hit the ground still breathing. Then he had to lie there, with his hand just itching to lay hold of Jessamie’s rifle. It was so close to him his whole body was hurting wanting to grab it. But he had to be sure. He only had one chance to get Harner or be shot—again—himself. And then Harner would kill Grady and Jessamie. Only a man like Harner wouldn’t just kill her. No, just killing her would be too easy for a man like Harner.

Boy, he hated that man.

So he lay there. Tried to still his breathing ‘til it was almost nothing, and somehow, over the pounding in his ears, he had to listen…

What was Harner doing?  Would he wait? Maybe he’d take the kill-shot from over there? Maybe this really was a dumb idea. Where was Jessamie? Why hadn’t she come out?  ‘Oh Lord, I’ve never asked for much, but—‘

She did them both proud—she screamed with everything inside her.

And at first he didn’t believe it himself—but it was over. Woah.

Harner was dead. And Grady and Jessamie were safe.

Dios, he could barely move.

Somehow he dragged himself up until he was sitting. And to be honest, he said just about the sweetest words he’d ever said. “He didn’t miss. But I’m still alive.”

And that meant only one blessed thing right then—he’d be going home.

If it hadn’t been for his arm, he just about would have lit out for home right then. ‘Cept it was dark and he had to do something about burying Harner.

Grady was staring at the blood on his hand and shirt. And the stain on his shirt was getting bigger by the minute. Then there was the fact his legs were so wobbly he needed Jessamie’s arm about him to walk back to the house.

Anyway, he stayed the next day. Jessamie washed his shirt and tended his arm and together they dug a hole deep enough so that neither man nor beast would ever find Mr Harner again. And damn-it-all, good riddance to him.

Poor Grady. The kid was so damned lonely. He would have done anything for Johnny to stay. “I’m sorry, Grady. I’ve been gone too long already.”

“But you’ll come back to visit us, won’t you Johnny?”

“Sure I will.” And he’d ruffled the kid’s hair, then mounted up. Well, he was about to, when Jessamie stopped him.

“I don’t know how I can ever thank you for everything you did. I was such a fool. I—.”

But he put a finger on her lips. “Hush, now. We’ve been through this already. You did what you thought was right to protect you and Grady. That’s the best anyone can do.”

She shook her head, though. “I wanted to believe you.” Then she looked right into his eyes with those big eyes of hers. “I wanted to believe you so bad.”

When she’d looked at him like that, he’d almost wondered if he should leave?

“Ma, you forgot the biscuits,” Grady said of a sudden, tugging on her apron.

She turned and went back inside and when she came out again with the biscuits, the big hand was no longer on the twelve. “I thought these might sweeten the deal. Here, I’ll put them in the saddle bag for you.”

Her last words to him were, “Have a safe trip home—Johnny Madrid.”

He had a pretty good idea Grady was sitting on the fence watching until Johnny was no longer in sight. Maybe Jessamie was standing right there with him?

But leaving felt right. It was the start of a new day and Grady and her had to start living again, instead of being cooped up on the farm. Jessamie deserved to meet a man who’d love her for who she was and not give a damn about her past. And Johnny was too young to be the pa of an eight year old kid, anyways. It wouldn’t work. But being a big brother felt like a good fit.

Whoever that man was, he’d be a lucky son-of-a-gun. That Jessamie sure was something…

It was funny—he just about had butterflies in his stomach now that he had only a few miles to go. The couple of nights on the trail had felt awful long. The days even longer. When he first came to Lancer he used to dream about riding the trail with nowhere in particular to go. That road past the Lancer arch was always calling to him. Wanting him to go back…

But go back to what? Week after week, he used to ride into another two-bit, broken-down border town; take on a job, whatever the odds, and never give a thought to how it’d turn out.

Win. Lose. Live. Die. It all seemed pretty much the same.

“Hmph.”

Who was he kidding? Truth was, he didn’t ever really believe he’d live. That somewhere, someone, had a bullet with his name on it. It would only be a matter of time before it found him. Only it didn’t scare him none, back then. Maybe he almost looked for it?

But now…

Oh boy—look at what he had now!

He started grinning. Must’ve looked pretty dumb riding along with a stupid grin on his face. “What d’you think, Barranca. You think I’m loco?”

Things would be humming at Lancer right now. Most likely it would be about midday by the time he rode in. Scott was gonna work on that new section of fence while Johnny was gone. He’d be sore. Johnny grinned again. No doubt he’d complain that Johnny got himself busted up just so as he could get out of work.

He could see Murdoch in his head—maybe standing by the big front door? “Welcome, home, John.”

How many times had he heard those words—and it was still never enough. They turned his insides to mush every time.

Just the other Sunday the padre had preached about that prodigal son. Funny how it was about the only bible story Johnny ever remembered. He’d sure wanted that pa to be his—the one who yelled out for the ‘fatted calf’—instead of the father who threw him  and his mother out the door.

And then it turned out Johnny was the prodigal son after all. And Murdoch was…well…he was…

Johnny looked up. Barranca was slowing as they rounded the bend. It was like he knew what Johnny was thinking. Johnny patted his neck. “You’re a clever boy, aren’t you.”

And there it was, stretched out before him; the white hacienda, the cattle grazing, the horses in the corral and to top it all off, the sun was shining.

He took his hat off, wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt, then let out a whoop.

“Let’s go, Barranca. We made it. We’re home.”

 

~end~
January 2020

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