Word count 10,442
“Gringo! Gringo!” The laughing shouts echoed down the alleyway as a mob of little boys chased along on the heels of a lone child, who only escaped because he could run faster and dodge quicker than they could. He skidded through the door of the shack he was currently calling home and appealed to his mother to help him. They spoke in the corrupted Spanish of the border town where they were both trying to make a living.
“Papito, what have you been doing this time? Look, those pants of yours, all ripped again. Come here – let me look.” The boy’s mother held him by one arm but he squirmed away from her, anxiously concealing his face. His mother saw through the tactic quickly. “You been fighting again?”
“No, Mama, no! I ran away this time, honestly I did.”
Using the word “honestly” was a mistake. Maria knew immediately her son was lying. “After you’d bruised a few faces yourself, I suppose. Oh, Johnny, look at your eye! It’s half-closed already, so another black eye, I suppose. I don’t know what your uncle is going to say.”
That quieted Johnny down. He was not to cause any more trouble, he’d been quite clearly told that – any more trouble and his backside would feel the belt and he wouldn’t be sitting down for a week. He decided to try to distract his mother. “Don’t call me Johnny, Mama! I’m Juanito here – I want to be called Juanito!”
“Oh, child, what difference will that make? They will always know you are not one of them – your blue eyes will always give you away. Now don’t start crying and cussing, your uncle will be back any minute. Go and curl up on your bed – perhaps he won’t notice you.” Maria, who had been preparing the evening meal, scooted her small son to the corner of the room, which was nominally his bedroom. They only had one room and it did for everything, cooking, eating, sleeping and everything that Maria and Johnny’s uncle did, which Johnny tried to ignore. When he couldn’t, he slept outside; but he was prey there to every drunk who passed by, every child who knew he had gringo blood – just because of his blue eyes. He hated them. He wished they were deep brown; then his olive skin and black unruly hair would blend in and he would cease to be the instinctive enemy of the Mexican and the white boys alike. He had absolutely no friends.
Just over a year passed. Johnny turned nine without much celebration of the day itself, although his mother did give him a new red shirt she had made and which he wore with great pride. The life lessons had become harder, the fights longer and Johnny had learned to throw all of himself into those fights. More often than not he won, until at last all the local boys remembered to respect his territory. He was swift to take offence, watched keenly all the other boys until he knew their strengths and weaknesses; knew when they were likely to try him and when they would back down.
He had never lived so long in one place before, that he could remember, although he knew, because his mother had told him, that they had been at his father’s ranch longer than that. It meant nothing to him. He could remember nothing of such a time. Since then, his mother had trailed him from one town to the next, never satisfied, always saying the next town would be better, and always trying to keep her son out of trouble. They rarely talked for long about the past; but Johnny heard the story of leaving that man’s ranch at least once a week, whenever his mother was drunk and maudlin enough to tell it. Somehow the details shifted with time, became exaggerated or changed completely, according to his mother’s moods, and he came to doubt the detail was right. But there was one certain story at the core of it, his Ma had been shown the road one day, and his father had said, “Hold on, what about Buster here?” and Buster had been him. And his father, the great property-owning, white gringo, who had married his mother and then thrown her out for – well, for no good reason, was still living in California, caring not a whit for a small half-breed boy, who existed between worlds, not Mexican, not American, able to participate fully in neither world. Johnny knew with a deep passion that he would go to hell rather than go to his father for help, however bad their circumstances. He was the one man he dreamed of killing, every week, when his mother cried because of the cruelty of a man Johnny tried never to think of as “father”.
Then one day, a new family moved in down the street, and the two eldest boys began to sort out their places in the local pecking order. They took on one boy then another, and won by the simple method of making one boy fight both of them. They took no notice whatsoever of protests about this, although it was a close-run thing when four of their enemies teamed up and tried to surprise them. The brothers had merely shown they could take on four smaller boys; after that, no-one questioned their right to be cocks of the walk; except a small, good-looking, blue-eyed peon, who assessed the boys pretty coolly, from a distance it was true, but with no apparent fear.
One morning, the brothers were going to market with enough money to have some fun. As they trailed through the narrow passages, up ahead they saw the small boy who had been avoiding them so far. He leaned against the wall nonchalantly, apparently unaware of them until they came up close.
“Out of the way, gringo,” one said, using the familiar term of abuse. Johnny did not move. “I said, get out of the way. This is our street – you don’t go blocking it up if you know what’s good for you.”
“My Ma says, I never know what’s good for me,” Johnny answered, studying the two brothers as if they were a rather interesting but completely harmless type of insect. “I’m always in trouble, I am. Always over my head in trouble.”
“Yeah, well now we’re your trouble,” the other brother said, squaring up to Johnny, who, though small was well-muscled and carried himself with a confident swagger. If only they had known it, the swagger was pretty much a bluff and Johnny had only one plan to get one up on the two. If it didn’t work, he was in trouble.
“You are? I dealt with everyone before you two came – everyone.”
“Yeah? Well I guess we heard something like that though I don’t see how anyone woulda credited a gringo like you with doing that.”
“Ah – but I’m not a gringo. I’m a peon, like yourselves. A simple peon. Can I help it if my Ma has good blood and so I get blue eyes?”
It was a calculated risk and the boy was hoping he could rein in his temper at the inevitable reply. Losing his temper right then would not have been a good move. So when the boys laughed, and called his mother bad names, and then took a step towards him when he pretended he was mad and upset, he was cool and they were over-confident. He kicked back and the door he had been leaning on swung open so that he practically fell backwards into the room. He was on home turf and his prediction about the result of kicking open Mama Rosa’s front door came magnificently true. She was two hundred pounds of very angry Mexican womanhood, and she was yelling at the two boys and beating them with a broom just as Johnny, scattering dishes, jumped on the table and then out through the high window. He could hear the furious yells. First stage of the plan accomplished. They were mad; maybe mad enough to start making some mistakes. He needed an edge and their uncontrolled anger was that edge.
He landed like a cat, sure of his ground and with the next step of his plan crystal clear in his mind. Over the wall – a good six feet but he’d climbed higher and he jumped, clung and scrambled onto the top then ran lightly along the narrow top, dropping down into the alleyway which ran parallel to the street where he’d waited for the boys. Now he had to split them up. Take down one at a time. They would be just gathering themselves again, ready to come searching for him as Mama Rosa slammed her door in their faces, just as she had done to Johnny a couple of times. He paused momentarily for breath in the cool, deep shade, mentally going through how the next part was supposed to happen. He ran as fast as he could to the end of the alley then took a sharp right ending deliberately close to the boys. He skidded to a halt, looked at them while feigning surprise that they were still there, and made to double back. He saw their hurried consultation. Then both set off after him, despite the inevitability of them being separated as they ran. It was too easy.
He had devoted a whole week to his plan, every minute he could get when he was not working at the market or helping his Mama keep the place clean. His “uncle” had departed, leaving them destitute for a while, but Maria had managed to keep down a job at the cantina for more than a month without getting into serious trouble, and Johnny helped out in the market, running errands, watching stalls when their owners were away and being paid in food and a few pesetas – enough so they didn’t starve. Enough so his Mama didn’t have to do – that – just to earn something for their food. His Mama had promised, no more uncles, not at least until they had enough money of their own for a bigger place and Johnny could have his own room. It was a treasured dream of his, his own room. But first, he had to sort out the brothers. They had been doing too much damage to the boys in the neighbourhood; the boys he hesitated to call friends but who at least had stopped calling him gringo. Someone had to stop them and he had nominated himself. So he had lain awake at night, waiting for his Ma to come home, and he had thought out how he could defeat them. The plan had the virtue of simplicity but relied on luck in one important detail – and try as he might, he couldn’t eliminate the element of luck.
He ran, faster than he had thought he could, drawing the now detached brothers deeper into the maze of alleyways behind main street. He noticed one or two adults watching him as he ran but gave that no thought. This was not for adults – this was between the boys. They had never intervened before. Now. Now was the moment to stop. He placed himself right in the middle of the wider road he had been working towards, and stood, chest heaving, trying to steady himself. He knew who would be there first – the taller of the brothers. He was taller but thinner and much easier to handle. Johnny had watched him time and again rely on his smaller but far meaner brother to finish the fight, usually with one more kick or blow than was necessary. He seemed particularly to enjoy that, and Johnny saw in his mind’s eye the boy’s grin; and the way he was quick to defend himself with “He started it!” whenever anyone called him to account. So, deal with the easy one first, get him out of the way, then the see about the other. It would work, with that little bit of luck.
Sure enough the taller of the two brothers came into view, a good ten seconds later, and almost tumbled over Johnny, who waited for him patiently and impassively.
“You wanna fight now? Don’t know why you’re chasing after me nohow.” Johnny kept his voice as steady as he could. Betraying any weakness would spoil the next step.
The boy didn’t wait for another invitation but piled straight in, clearly hoping to overwhelm the opposition. But that opposition was not easily overwhelmed, rode the wildly aimed blows and stood his ground, then grabbed his opponent by the arm and threw him as hard as he could against the wall. There was a muffled cry and the boy went down, winded. Johnny took one look at him and knew he had done enough damage to keep him out of the way for a moment at least and just as well, because the boy’s brother, smaller but heavier than his brother, ran into the street.
“What you done to my brother?”
“Less than he’d’ve done to me. I only winded him. You gave Jesus a broken arm and blacked his eye so bad he won’t be seeing anything for a month.”
“Yeah. So? It’ll be nothing compared to what I’m going to do to you.” The boy was furiously angry, relying on stock phrases to match Johnny’s accusations. It was now or never. As he took a step towards the boy, his luck broke. Either that, or he had miscalculated, and that gave him pause for thought weeks afterwards. The boy drew a knife. Johnny had never seen him with a knife before and knew that it was a measure of the boy’s respect for his reputation that made him draw it now, despite the increasing crowd. There were murmurs from that crowd, seeing Johnny pull himself up to his full height. He was well known to them all for his hard work and his devotion to a less than worthy mother; and the new boy was disliked, accused of thieving and beating up small children with the aid of his brother. It was clear from the start they would not interfere; but that they were on his side, he did not doubt.
“Put the knife down,” Johnny urged. “We can fight this out fair.”
Enrique, watching him carefully, seemed to be thinking about it. He made as if to put it down, then lunged across the space between himself and the hated enemy. It was a wild stroke, easily side-stepped. Johnny had seen knife-fights; but his knowledge was no use because he had no knife himself. Nothing about this fight was going to be fair unless he made it so. He tried again.
“I ain’t got a knife. I guess it’ll go hard on you if you cut me, if I don’t have a knife to fight back.”
But his words only seemed to enrage the opposition; and Enrique suddenly, desperately, threw the knife at Johnny. There was a collection gasp from the crowd. Johnny fell backwards, unable to grasp what had happened.
Stunned for a moment, Johnny sat in the hot dust. Somewhere, he hurt a lot, more than he’d hurt when a belt had been taken to him by some man or other; but he couldn’t figure out where, since the pain was fire-hot and beginning to take his senses from him. He tried to stand and managed it, to discover the knife buried in his right thigh. Moving caused the blood to flow and the throbbing pain was trying to take over most of his thinking. But he was not going to be defeated that way. He could still stand. He knew not to take out the knife; that would make the blood flow faster and he couldn’t do anything about wrapping it in front of the audience. Better to leave it there.
Enrique stood staring at what he had done, seemingly as surprised as Johnny that he had actually thrown the knife. He didn’t press his advantage but seemed rather in awe of the boy who now stood before him, very evidently in pain but still appearing perfectly confident the fight was not over. How much fight was there left in him? Enrique had never met a boy who hadn’t given in after he’d got the upper hand – and surely he had it at that moment, didn’t he? Puzzled, Enrique looked around at the silent crowd.
“He deserved it!” he shouted hopelessly. “He hurt my brother.”
“Son! He did what?”
“He hurt Carlos, Pa.”
That was the one thing Johnny had prayed wouldn’t happen – interference by an adult. Both boys were bullies and they’d learned all their cruel tricks and thievery at their father’s knee. He was tall, broad-chested and – a gringo! Johnny, surprised beyond measure by this turn of events, realised he’d only ever seen the two boys with a woman. Their mother. Now he had a gringo to deal with and all the hatred for the man who should have been his father boiled over. He tried to reach the man who now stood behind both boys but could not bear much weight on his leg.
Then he took his greatest gamble. He looked round at the eager crowd and appealed to them for help wordlessly. Now was the time to sort out this family, send them on their way, just as so many people had wanted to do. Several men stepped forward and Johnny’s hopes rose. They would help him – they would actually help him. The gringo saw that too.
“Don’t go one step towards the boy. You do and you have me to answer to. I learnt a few things about dealing with folk who crossed me in the worst jail in the district. You think I survived that as an American just to have you protect some breed boy who wants to hurt my sons?”
Johnny was suddenly overwhelmed by half-understood, conflicting feelings. If only he had a Pa who would protect him like that, who would be strong enough to protect him from everyone who wanted to hurt him. Yet he hated him too, for stopping the fight which needed to happen, as the only solution to the pain this family were inflicting on the whole neighbourhood. With a wild despair he watched the crowd start to look round for ways of escape. This man would rule the place now; there was nothing Johnny could do about it. He was too young. He had no means of facing the man fairly, with some chance of winning. He sank onto his backside again, wincing from the pain, his blood falling into the dirt of the street. His Mama would be mad; his pants would need mending again.
Just as the crowd began to melt away, one lone voice spoke up in Johnny’s defence.
“You gonna make the boy take you on?” The words were not spoken loudly but they carried to everyone in the street. There was a stillness of expectation which made Johnny sit where he was, when he might have been inclined to try to get while the going was good.
“Thought I killed you.”
“Nope. Now you leave that boy alone. All he did was outsmart your boys. You, boy – what’s your name?”
“Juanito – Johnny.” The man he was speaking to was an American. He was dressed in the style of a Mexican gentleman, simply but elegantly, and he wore a fancy gunbelt the like of which Johnny had not seen before. Johnny was unsure whether to be Mexican or American for him – it usually paid to fit in with adults.
“Johnny? Or Juanito?”
“I was named John. I’m Juanito here.”
“All right, kid. Now, you think you can move off to the side of the street. This man and I have some business to attend to and I wouldn’t want you gettin’ more hurt than you already are. Yeah, that’ll do.”
Johnny shuffled away to the shade of a building. The townsfolk moved away from him. His rescuer, once he was sure Johnny was safe, turned his attention back to to Enrique’s father.
“You gonna leave the boy alone?”
“You goin’ to make me?”
“If I hafta. I don’t want to. You can go on your way, let me take this boy home and that’d be all. You think you’re man enough to do that?”
Johnny observed the stranger who had stepped in on his side with an intentness he could bring to bear on anything which fascinated him. The man appeared calm and relaxed but there was something about the way he stood that said he was anything but. And the handle of his gun was an inch from his hand – an unmistakeable gesture and all that was needed. Johnny was filled with an amazed, thrilling excitement. Someone dangerous and armed and willing to fight for him. Him! A little half-breed boy with a knife in his leg because his plan had failed.
There was dead silence for longer than he could have imagined in a busy town. He was holding his breath. Then his enemy, the gringo he hated, backed down, cussing and grabbing for his sons, already letting out on them the frustration of not being able to deal with the gunfighter who had faced him down.
Johnny let out a long, shaky breath. He looked up and his eyes met his rescuer’s and found them surprisingly kind and, in some way, mischievous.
“You need a lift home, Juanito.” Johnny found himself being lifted off the street, and carried home, when he had given directions. With head buzzing and half-fainting, he knew he was being put on the bed, that his Mama was somewhere around, then a huge pain in his thigh put paid to any attempts he might have made to stay awake and thank the man, the first man, who had genuinely, selflessly, risked his life for him.
It was late when he woke. He was flat on his back, with his leg lifted on a rolled up blanket. His Mama was close by, and came to him as soon as she saw he had opened his eyes. She was not quite smiling but there was an air about her he saw from time to time. It was an expression he worked hard to earn; he knew she was proud of him. She brushed his hair from his forehead and laid a cool hand there.
“You were brave, Johnny. The man who brought you here, he said you were very brave.” She seemed genuinely pleased with him; but Johnny knew her pretty well and there was bound to be a “but” sometime soon. He decided she was putting the moment off by wringing out a cloth and placing it on his forehead. He shifted in the bed then screwed up his face and cursed, reaching down automatically, to find his thigh bound and sore. He mother moved his hand away from the bandage. “Be quiet, son, you’ll pull out the stitches. The doctor put in four stitches – he said you were lucky, it didn’t cut anything that won’t heal right. You’ll have a scar.”
“Is that good, Mama? Do brave men have scars?”
Johnny had seen his mother cry for many things but never so abruptly. He wanted her to stop crying but had no idea how to make her, so he waited until she drew a hand across her eyes and quietened slightly. She spoke softly but her tone was bitter. “Your Pa, he had scars. He was a brave man. Brave enough to treat me like he did.”
Johnny closed his eyes. He had heard the words so many times before and he was tired. Besides, his leg was throbbing. Then his mother stopped talking about his Pa; that in itself was so unusual at those moments that he stole a look at her through half-closed eyes. She knew he was looking but was still silent. Finally, she said the word he had been expecting.
“But Johnny – he might have killed you.”
“No, Mama – I had it all planned. And I’m safe, ain’t I?”
“When he carried you in here, I thought you had deserted me too. Like all the other men, when I needed them.”
Johnny did not know what to answer. She had never said such a thing before. He was not sure he wanted to know about this and he was not sure she should be speaking to him about her life. But it seemed she was going to talk about it to him, come what may; and he knew that stopping his mother was an impossibility. In his pain, he resorted to petulance.
“Mama – I’m tired. I want a drink. Where’s that man, the one who carried me here?”
His mother smiled a little, though her cheeks were still marked with her tears. She was not so easily diverted. “You are all I have left in the world, Johnny – all I have left.”
He did not want to be all she had left. Somehow it was too much of a responsibility; yet he felt a strange pride in that distinction. Above all, he wanted to be worthy of her pride in him. He wanted to live up to the role she had assigned him – helper, companion in trouble, saviour from the outside world, which seemed full of troubles for her. He would be what she wanted him to be and, more than anything, he wanted her to love him and be proud of him. He had never doubted her love, not even in the darkest moments when she had pushed him away, declared him a bother to look after and a hindrance to her. He had just worked harder to be of use to her and she had soon forgiven his failings and then he was back in the sunny warmth of her love for him.
He waited for his mother to say more, then realised her attention had been diverted. There was someone else in the room – the man who had rescued him. Johnny tried to sit up but found that couldn’t be done just yet without making him feel pretty sick, so he lay still and tried to work out what was going on.
“I brought the medicine, ma’am. He should sleep easier now. Whoa, there, son, Johnny – you still awake? How are you gonna get better if you stay up all night talking?”
“Are you staying?” It was such a straightforward question, born of an immediate instinct. He knew the sort of men his mother usually took to her bed, and this one was certainly in the right area. He had his fingers crossed. This new “uncle” might prove better than most.
“I am. You ain’t safe here now – it’ll take more than one humiliation to keep Marchant off your back. Soon as you can travel, you’ll be on your way. Now, ma’am, let me help you.”
Johnny managed to prop himself up on one elbow and tried to see what was going on. What he saw made no sense. The man was piling some blankets on the floor near the fire. He had a saddle there and seemed to be planning to sleep close to that. What was wrong with his mother’s bed? It was the best bit of furniture they had, way more comfortable than the floor. The question was asked before he could stop himself.
“Don’t you like my Mama?”
The man stopped what he was doing and looked at him. “Sure I do, Johnny. It’s just – well, we’re hardly acquainted yet.” The man hadn’t missed his meaning but seemed somehow to skirt around it. He would be sleeping alone, there was no doubt of it. Well, it was a new experience for Johnny and he was always willing to learn. It was somehow – well, it suggested respect, that was the word he was fishing for. Yes, respect. This man respected his mother. Johnny lay back, wondering how his mother felt about this situation. Would she feel good about it? Or would she go staring in that broken mirror of hers, like she did every time a man left her, as if she was wondering what was wrong about her face, or her hair, or whatever it was women worried about. Then she was there by his side again, changing the compress, which had become mysteriously warm since she had put it there. He wondered if the faintly light-headed feeling he had was a fever. It didn’t matter; he’d ridden out fevers before, been back on his feet in a couple of days mostly. He didn’t stay sick long. Now the man was settling down with a cup of coffee. He had chosen a very particular place, Johnny thought, facing the door, back right up to the wall. Anyone wanting to get at his mother or himself would have to go through this man, who had placed his gun within easy reach. It was another mystery, this feeling of security that washed over him, one that he’d not had for a long time. Usually, the man inside the house was as much a threat as the men outside it. Johnny smiled. Maybe, this time would be different.
He mother brought him some water, laced with the medicine which he drank thirstily, making a face at the taste. Then she undressed quickly, down to a shift, and went to her own bed, praying quietly for a few moments before settling down. The man blew out the light. Suddenly, Johnny had a thought.
“Say, mister. What’s your name?”
“Davy Hernandez. I have other names but that’s the one I was born with.”
“So you got an American name and a Mexican one, just like me! Johnny Ruiz. That’s my right name.”
Then his mother said something she had never before said. Johnny was not sure he’d heard her right.
“Johnny Lancer. Your right name is Johnny Lancer.”
“Mama?” Johnny felt his heart beat faster. His name was Ruiz – it had always been Ruiz. Lancer – what did she mean?
“Your father was Murdoch Lancer. Now go to sleep. You need to get better as quick as you can, Johnny.” And his mother blew out the light, as if telling him his right name was nothing important. Sleep! How could he sleep? With his right name throwing every single belief he had held out of kilter and the man who had helped him sleeping on the floor, so that Johnny could hear his steady, even breathing. He knew his mother was awake and heard her shifting restlessly. He wanted so much to talk to her but Davy was there and he had no choice but to keep his confusion to himself. He finally fell asleep, hot, tired and troubled, wondering who this strange person, Johnny Lancer, might be.
As soon as he woke the next morning, Johnny sat up, ready for the day’s adventures. A sharp tugging pain in his thigh made him wince and put an immediate halt to his habitual tumble out of bed. He swore in Spanish and American until he heard a man’s soft laughter.
“Next time, Johnny my boy, think before you do what comes by habit. You never know what’ll be there when you wake up.”
Johnny quit cussing and looked with interest at the man he was rapidly coming to regard as someone worthy of his intense assessment. Davy sat on a stool, coffee cup in hand, wearing his pants but no shirt.
“Your Ma, she’s washing my shirt right now. Got some lemons for you – said she was making lemonade soon as she got through making me pretty!” Davy laughed softly again. It seemed to spring from him like clear water, this laughter. It fascinated Johnny, more used to men who looked angrily at the world and rarely seemed to take any pleasure in existence.
“Mama makes good lemonade,” Johnny offered, mouth dry with the slight fever he was running. Davy took the hint immediately, set down his cup and came to give Johnny a drink. Then he made him more comfortable with no complaint about such a menial task and Johnny was happy that it was not his mother dealing with the business any more. He was nearly a man now and he liked having a man to help him out. He felt a little cooler and more wide awake when he’d been washed, and Davy found a newish nightshirt for him; just a man’s shirt, but it was clean.
Then a knock at the door made Davy whirl and walk two paces to pick up his gun. He went to the door and opened it a crack. Whatever he saw, he glanced back at Johnny with a huge grin on his face. What he said made Johnny’s eyes widen.
“Well come right along in, ladies. I guess he’s just about fit for company now. You timed it just right to miss his ablutions.”
Johnny had no idea what ablutions might be but blushed anyway. Davy opened the door wider and two small girls, both about seven or eight, edged nervously into the room. One carried a bunch of flowers, the other, two large oranges. They stood silent until an older girl, who had followed them in, pushed them forward.
“We brought you some presents, Juanito,” she said, smiling prettily. She was carrying a small bundle of fur, which whimpered and wriggled. “I brought you a pup. I reckon, a boy like you should have a pup. We all think you done just the bravest thing.” She giggled and handed over the puppy. Johnny was completely tongue-tied but knew he ought to do something to thank her. So he grasped her arm, pulled her towards him and kissed her full on the lips. As she dropped the puppy in his lap, she grabbed her two little sisters, both still clutching their presents, and ran half-giggling, half screaming from the room. Davy was doubled over with laughter; when he finally stopped and stood, there were tears in his eyes.
“What’d I do wrong? I thought she’d like to be kissed. All women like that, don’t they?”
There was a momentary sadness in Davy’s eyes. Johnny was so puzzled he almost forgot the puppy, which had begun to scramble too close to the edge of the bed. He caught it just before it fell and held it to him, its animation and smallness a wonder to him. He had never had a puppy before – and it didn’t look like he would keep this one because Davy took it from him.
“It’s too young to be away from its mother yet, Johnny. If you really want one, why don’t you ask your Ma?”
“I don’t think she wants me to have one. What’d I do wrong with that girl? I don’t understand.”
“You could charm birds out of the trees with your good looks, Johnny – but you can’t keep them in your hand if you’re going to be just plain rude to them!”
Johnny was beginning to feel too warm again, and tired. He didn’t understand any of it. He was full of questions that needed answers but somehow, his brain couldn’t latch onto any one long enough to ask it. But he was content to let them wait. Davy would answer all his questions, he just knew he would. As he fell asleep again, he saw Davy heading out of the door, the puppy in one hand. When he came back, Johnny would sit him and his mother down and question them until he had the answer to all the mysteries. And with a bit of luck, he would have a dog of his own, at long last. He fell asleep smiling.
He woke again at midday. Davy was not there but his mother was and as soon as he shifted position and opened his eyes, she was there with his present.
“Look, Johnny! Look what Davy found you!” A ball of enthusiasm was placed into his arms and immediately started to lick his face. Johnny laughed, hugged the puppy and then looked shyly at his mother, feeling the need for reassurance.
“Can I keep’um?” he asked.
“Yes, Johnny, he’s all yours. What are you going to call him?”
“Lancer. Can I call him Lancer?” He used the American name, pronouncing precisely as he thought an American would. He looked at his mother and knew immediately he’d said the wrong thing. She was biting her lip, evidently trying hard not to be angry with him.
“No – no! I don’t want your father’s name called round the place! We gotta keep quiet about it – I though you were old enough to understand that.”
Johnny’s head dropped and he spoke quietly, while his mother fetched his lemonade. “I don’t understand. I have another name and you never told me. I thought my father was called Ruiz.”
“How could he be? I told you, he was a gringo, he lives on a ranch in California. He couldn’t be a gringo with a Spanish name.”
“I’m a gringo with a Spanish name.”
His mother wouldn’t continue the conversation. She left him holding the lemonade and the puppy and went back to the cooking fire, stirring something when made his stomach growl. Unfortunately, puppy and a cup of lemonade didn’t mix, and Johnny, in trying to stop one jumping up, spilled the other. His mother, clearly angry, took the cup and the puppy from him. He responded to that angrily, feeling it really had not been his fault, and tried to get out of bed to retrieve the puppy. He ended up on the floor, with his mother cursing him just as she helped him carefully back into bed. She grabbed the puppy, put it back in his lap and went back to the fire, giving him an apparently never-ending diatribe. She fed him his soup, gave him a full glass of lemonade and checked his bandage. When that proved to be a little blood-stained, she sighed.
“If you don’t lie still, Johnny, I told you…”
“I know, Mama. I just wanted my pup back.”
“We’ve been here a whole year. A whole year! And no-one’s found us. But maybe we can’t live here any longer. I don’t know. And don’t be bothering me with any more of your questions! I’ve got to think what we should take and get something packed, in case we need to leave in a hurry. Though how we’re supposed to leave with you like this, I don’t know.”
Johnny knew enough to leave his mother in peace when she was in such a mood. He played with the puppy until it was as tired as he was, and he let it curl up beside him while he tried to find a cooler place in the bed. He had finished his soup but it lay heavy in his stomach. He wanted to get up and run around, or at least have someone to talk to. He took to mulling over what Davy had said. Good-looking? He had always considered himself too different from the other kids to be what could be called good-looking. But it was true that he’d noticed recently that girls looked at him quite often. They didn’t interest him especially, although he accepted they were part of the human race. He tried to give a little thought to the future, when he might be old enough to take some interest in girls. Maybe in a year or so. He thought carefully about what Davy had said. Being rude to girls – he’d been rude to her. As far as he knew, that was how men treated women they liked. They saw, they took and, after a while, they moved on. That was the natural order of life. So why was Davy not behaving like that? Maybe it was because of his age. Johnny had no good measure for how old adults were – his mother was older than him, that was as far as he had thought. But it seemed, when he thought it over, that Davy was younger than his mother. He would add that to the list of questions to be asked.
“Could I have some paper and a pencil?”
She sighed. But she had taught him herself and he had picked up easily enough what she had cared to teach – some figuring and some writing. He liked writing although he wished he had learned some American as well as the Spanish. Never know when that might come in handy. He could read a few words but most of it was a puzzle to which he did not hold the key, although he understood it well enough when it was spoken to him. Meanwhile, his mother had found him some old packaging and the stub of a pencil he had bought himself out of his earnings at the market. He set to, writing a long list of questions the adults in his life were just going to have to answer.
Johnny put up with lying in bed as long as he could but by early evening he was begging his mother to let him sit up for a while. He had run through three or four of his favourite arguments but she had been adamant and he had fallen silent, wondering what he might try next. Davy had taken his puppy out with him down to the livery, for what reason he wouldn’t say. Johnny had noticed him talking quietly to his mother, although he’d still been puzzling over the wording of the third question he needed to ask and hadn’t listened to what they were saying. He knew he could hold the questions in his head easier if he’d got the words to go together well first.
He was just preparing to ask his mother why he couldn’t get up – which he knew stood every chance of irritating her but he had to try it – when Davy slipped back into the room and put the puppy he was carrying onto the bed. The puppy looked a little beat-up and sorry for himself and Johnny looked accusingly at Davy, wondering what had been done.
“I didn’t tell you where I found him, did I? Well, when I took that one your girl gave you…” When he paused, Johnny realised he was watching for a reaction to the teasing “your girl”. It was only by the greatest self-control that Johnny managed not to show his embarrassment. “When I took back that little pup and put him with his mother, I came back here and right by the door was this tyke.”
“Mebbe not right by the door but close. He looked like he needed somewhere to call home so I let him follow me. Then I had to leave him here while I went to do another little job and when I came back, you had him. But he looked like there was something wrong with him – mebbe kicked or something, guy at the livery said. So we done the best for him we could. Wasn’t easy holding him down, neither; he seemed to be all teeth when we tried it. Did the other job while we was at it. Livery guy’s done enough horses, so dog weren’t no trouble. He’ll be all right now. Better off, probably. I didn’t think your Ma would want another whole male under her feet.”
Johnny was appalled. He looked the puppy over, found the relevant parts missing and looked back at Davy. “You didn’t hafta do that! How’s he gonna have pups of his own now?”
“He’s not gonna miss them. They don’t stay around to look after the pups much. He was a bit like you when I found you.”
“What d’you mean, a bit like me?”
“Don’t worry, I’m not thinkin’ you should have this little op too.”
Johnny was on the verge of tears. He didn’t care so much about the pup, which seemed fine and would make a better house dog as he was; but something about the way he hadn’t been asked, and something else, was deeply troubling. He couldn’t think what it was.
Davy seemed somehow a little disappointed in him, as if he had been expecting some other kind of response to his joke. “Johnny – think. If I had asked you, would you have let me take him?”
“And do you think he’s worse off than he was?”
Davy came to sit on the bed silently. “Still hurts, don’t it, even when you know it’s right.”
Johnny looked into his eyes, searching for what the man meant. His mother was busy as always, but she seemed to be listening and was smiling her rare, beautiful smile.
“Yeah?” Davy was playing with the puppy, which had been fed and was looking much happier again.
“I got a coupla questions I need to ask.”
“Fire away. Don’t promise to have the answers.”
Maria settled at last, handing Johnny the last of the lemonade and resting, chin in her hands, nearby.
Johnny reached for his list; but he knew what to ask. Some for his mother and some for Davy. He started with Davy.
“Are you stayin’ for a while?”
“If your mother’ll put up with me, I guess I’ll stay. She cooks good, your Ma.”
“That all right, Mama?”
“Yes, Johnny, that’s all right. We do better with three of us here. And two of us to keep an eye out for you. I wish you had an older brother to keep you out of the scrapes you get yourself into.”
That was it! That was what had been troubling him. He wanted Davy to be something like an older brother might be. He was used to people who called themselves relatives who appeared quickly, stayed in his life a few weeks demanding this and that of him and then disappearing. Nothing about that had been good. But to acquire a brother overnight – heck, that had to be a good thing. Even one more than twice as old as him. He glanced shyly at Davy, wondering how he could make sure the promise to stay – for that was how he saw it – would be kept.
Well, that was out of the way. He hadn’t quite expected it to be so easy. Now, another one for his mother. “We stayin’ here?”
“I don’t know, Johnny. Maybe.”
“Aw Mama, why d’ya always hafta say maybe?”
His mother, unexpectedly, smiled again.
“Mama – you don’t smile enough.”
“You don’t either, Johnny,” she said quietly, reaching out to touch his hand in a rare show of affection.
“No, he doesn’t, Mrs Ruiz. You think we can make him smile now? You tried to do a good deed yesterday, and got yourself in this state for your trouble. Did you know everyone in the whole place is talking about what you did, taking on those two boys? Every girl is sighing over you, and every boy is wishing they had thought of doing what you did. There, now, you embarrassed enough to smile?”
Johnny, uncertain about smiling at himself, did so, and found it came easily after all. He felt better for it, too. In fact, it felt so good he decided he’d do it more often, especially as his mother came over and hugged him.
“I did good, didn’t I. Now, can I please please please sit up for a while? My backside hurts from lying on it all day.” He had forgotten the rest of his questions in his closeness to victory.
His mother relented but only because Davy was there to help, as she told Johnny most firmly. So he was eased out of bed, helped to stand while the room swam for a moment or two, then he walked carefully to the one comfortable chair in the room. He sat in it, feeling somewhat like the fancy guards who sat in the dance halls, ready to stop any trouble. Give him a shotgun and he could do that job, he was sure. Soon as he learned how a shotgun worked, that is. He looked round the room, absolutely content, while his mother tidied his bed and Davy dished up the evening meal. This was what he wanted life to be – a quiet world of contentment. Well, not all the time, he liked excitement too; but this quietness was good. And with the two of them there he felt completely safe.
He sat up for an hour before he finally admitted being back in bed to sleep some more was what he wanted. His mother had been sewing. She had been drinking too, but not much, just some tequila she had left in the bottom of the bottle, which she had shared with Davy. Davy had been thoroughly cleaning his handgun, taking great care with it and explaining the mysteries of balance and accuracy and speed until Johnny had a pretty good grasp of the principles of using the deadly tool. His mother would not let him hold the handgun, and no amount of persuasion would move her. Finally, Davy told him to stop pestering his mother – and this time, there was a stab of indignation. Would having an older brother be good? He had a father, and that had turned out no good. His mother was his mother, untouchable by any form of criticism. But here he was, letting Davy tell him to leave his mother be. It was a strange and confusing situation. But he didn’t want to spoil the atmosphere, and he wanted two more questions before he went to bed. He asked nicely for his chance and was granted his wish by both of them. Davy first.
“When did you start bein’ a gunfighter?”
“Long time back, Johnny, before you was born, most like. Too soon – I started too soon. And now I don’t know nothing else. Ain’t a good thing to want to be.”
“Oh. I thought I would maybe do that, when I get to be old enough, then I could stop people like Enrique making other people feel small.”
“Would you kill him for doin’ that?”
“If I could. I’d call him out in the street and I’d make him draw then I’d beat him to the draw. I’d be just the fastest ever. Now, Mama, you gotta answer me one more thing.”
“You ready for bed?”
“Sure am. Clean as can be, I am. Davy did my chores for me.”
“Why we always running from the Pinkerton men? If my Pa threw us out, how come he’s always sending them out to find us? Does he want us back? Do you want to go back?”
He watched his mother compose herself. He knew they were hard questions but she was an adult, so she would be able to answer them. No doubt of that. She was awful slow to answer, though. Davy seemed as interested in what she might be going to say as he was.
Then there was a soft knock on the door. His mother got up to answer it, putting her hand on Davy’s shoulder as she went by, reassuring him that a neighbour regularly dropped round, even this late, to borrow something or other. Johnny watched his mother go to the door, open it and then step outside, apparently puzzled there was no-one there. The door swung shut and Davy, evidently worried, immediately got up. There was a muffled thud, a sharp gasp of pain, then the door was pushed gently open, a steady, easy movement, as if it had all the time in the world.
“Where are you, boy?”
Johnny nearly jumped out of his skin when Marchant spoke. The door had continued to slip open but Davy had blown out both candles quickly and in the dark, Johnny could not see what was happening. He held completely still until a soft weight fell against his bare feet; then he started back, nearly knocking over the chair and making Davy curse behind him.
“Damnit, Johnny! Help your Ma!”
He was pushed forward, towards that ragged, gasping sound, moonlight now streaming across the body which had pushed open the door as it fell. He knew enough about what to do to reach for something to put on a wound. Nothing came to hand.
“Use her skirts! There – right there – press down hard. Now, Marchant, you wanna kill this boy right now or you wanna let him tend his Ma? Mind you, before you’ve drawn your gun to kill him, I’ll have killed you.”
Johnny glanced up from his job of pressing his mother’s skirt against the blood which fell, black in the moonlight, to the earth floor. She had been knifed, high in her left shoulder. It was bad but Johnny hoped. He pressed down as hard as he could and hoped. He saw Marchant and he saw the knife in his hand. He felt the most intense surge of hatred he had ever felt against one human being. His mother had had nothing to defend herself, had done nothing wrong. Yet she lay still on the floor of her own home, her blood staining her own floor, try as he might to stop it.
“I heard rumours you was staying’ with the whore. But I didn’t credit it. You willin’ to take me on in a fair fight?” Marchant was moving cautiously forward. He dropped the knife.
Davy stepped carefully round Maria and stood in the doorway. “Don’t come no closer. I don’t care to kill you unless you make me.”
“You forget I still own half this town. The law hereabouts does what I want it to. You kill me, you’re gonna be hanged fer sure.”
“I am? Well, I guess that’d be about right. If I’m still around to hang. Meanwhile, you’re dead and your boys will grow up without you. You want that?”
“Don’t seem likely. Not when I can beat you to the draw any day.”
There was a pause, filled only by the shallower breaths Maria was struggling to take. Then earth-shattering noise as the two men fired, one fractionally after the other. Johnny heard Davy grunt, then watched as Marchant fell back, uncaring, hitting the ground and lying sprawled in the dust.
“Stay here, Johnny, help your Ma! Give her some water if she wakes. I’ll be back for you in a very little while.”
“Johnny! You gotta do this!” Davy didn’t wait for an answer. He was gone.
In the months afterwards, the minutes Johnny spent with his mother would wake him from sleep, trembling and sweating. He didn’t dare move from her. She lay still, her breaths becoming slower, until he was counting to see when she would take the next. He was not thinking, only concentrating on stopping the blood flow, and at last it seemed to be steadying. She was still breathing, too. He looked around, bewildered, wondering if he was in his own home and whether he should be doing anything else. He wanted to be doing something else. He did not want to feel his mother’s life was in his hands. It was wrong and it was making him angry and confused.
Davy reappeared in the doorway and fell to his knees beside Johnny.
“How is she?”
“Where you bin? You shouldn’t have left me!”
“I know it, Johnny. I had to. I’m going to carry her to the buckboard I got. You gather up some stuff to take – blankets, food, water, just the essential stuff. We already got company.”
Johnny looked behind Davy. Two or three people stood there, watching, talking. They were talking about them. Johnny wanted to go and shout at them to leave them alone. He watched Davy pick up his mother gently, and carry her away. He set to, hobbling around and picking up the stuff his Mama had put ready for them to take. He grabbed his puppy too, tying a string around its neck loosely. Then he went to get the small store of coins they kept hidden, their rainy-day money. Before he knew it, Davy was back, picking up the pile of stuff he had gathered.
“You all right to walk, Johnny? Or should I come back for you?”
He knew right away he was not going to be able to stay there any longer on his own. He would have to do the best he could.
“Don’t go too fast, Davy! Don’t leave me behind!”
“Grab hold of my belt there. I’ll go slow. It ain’t far – just at the end of the street. Come on now, you can make it.”
He did, almost. He saw the buckboard up ahead but fell to his knees before he got there. Davy ran ahead without a word, leaving Johnny sure that he would never return, and Johnny began to pound the ground in frustration at his own weakness. His puppy pulled at his lead and whined. But Davy threw the stuff into the backboard and ran back for him, gathering both him and his puppy up and throwing them both in the back of the buckboard, with his mother and their worldly belongings. Then, just as more people began to fill the street, Davy leapt onto the seat and stirred up the horses, while Johnny tried to settle his mother and cling onto the side of the buckboard.
In the end, he fell asleep, curled into his mother’s side, gripping the folds of her skirt. The rattle of the buckboard and the jolts of the rough journey made him shift and cling more tightly to her; they did not wake him, just as they did not wake his mother.
Twice they stopped to see what they could do to help Maria. She did not speak, or move, or wake. The second time, Davy shrugged.
“I can’t do nothing’ else for her. We got to keep movin’ and I don’t know of a doc round these parts at all. When it’s light, we’ll stop, make her more comfortable.”
Johnny nodded and the comforting roll of the wagon started again, sending him back to sleep.
When he finally roused, it was the absence of sound and movement which had broken into his dreamless sleep. He could hear water running, and looked up to see tree branches lazily crossing and re-crossing in the breeze. Tiny circles of light, like bright coins, fell over the place where he was lying. He reached out for them, and they mottled his hand. He looked around him, wondering just where he was. His mother lay next to him, her eyes on him, a smile on her lips. Her bright eyes – her blue eyes. Never had they seemed so blue. He had never really considered her eyes. They had been the same as his, and he had been teased for his but she had been admired, and sought-after for hers. He was content that she was there and that she was watching him.
“How are you feeling, Mama?” he asked.
She didn’t answer immediately but she seemed to smile at him more kindly. Then finally she whispered, “You stay with Davy, Johnny. Stay with Davy. Be a good boy now.”
“You gonna stay with Davy too?”
But she didn’t say any more. She stared away into the distance, then she sighed, and her body relaxed. Johnny had seen death before. It didn’t frighten him, or sicken him; he knew it was part of human experience and that she had gone somewhere she would not suffer any more. But he didn’t want her to go just then. He wanted time to go backwards, just for a few hours, so that he could have her with him again, even if it meant losing her again. When Davy came to check her, Johnny told him she was dead and he watched as Davy flinched and stared at him, ready for any reaction. Johnny kept quiet, willing Davy to go away, to leave him with his Mama for a while longer. Davy, knowing what was best, left him alone.
They buried her in a little graveyard, with the help of an old man who also checked over Johnny’s leg and the nick Davy had in his left arm. Davy made her a cross and Johnny wrote on it, in his best handwriting, her true name. Maria Lancer. They left a bunch of wild flowers by the grave and paid the man to keep it neat. He looked as if he would do a good job; the place was well tended and quiet.
Davy helped Johnny walk back to the buggy.
“Yeah?” Davy answered in English for the first time. Johnny responded a little hesitantly in the same language.
“Where are you goin’ now?”
“North, I reckon. I have a couple of friends in Texas might be able to find me a job.”
“They find me a job, too?”
“I reckon. You wanna come too?”
“Call me Dave when we get there. They call me that, up north. What will you be called?”
“She called me Johnny. She had blue eyes, just like me.”
Davy looked at him. The boy, who had not cried, looked back steadily, with blue eyes inherited from both parents. He had strength of character, too, enough maybe to help him survive. He would mourn later, in his own way, when the shock had worn off a little. Davy had done the same himself, after his own parents had died.
“Whistle up your dog, Johnny. Time we was going.”
Johnny whistled, and the pup came alongside the buckboard.
“How long does it take to get to Texas?”
“I dunno, Johnny. Not exactly. Here. This is yours now.” He passed a medallion to Johnny. It had been his mother’s. He recognised it immediately and put it around his neck.
“Gracias – thanks, Davy. Dave.”
Davy nodded. He started the horses moving, turning them until they faced north. He flicked the reins and they began their journey. Johnny glanced back once, just before the graveyard disappeared from view, then turned to look up the long road which stretched straight and flat in front of them. Even Davy – Dave – was not sure how far it was. And how far to California? Maybe, one day, he would have to find out.
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