Word Count 7,125
Whoa, horse – I know, I know, you’re scared and you hurt but I’m only tryin’ to help here. Stop pullin’ – I ain’t strong enough to hold you if you keep pullin’ thataway. I got a bit of carrot here, mebbe – yeah, thought that’d do it. Now, let’s get this saddle off you and rub you down, guess you’ll be a mite happier then.
That saddle seen better days, ain’t it! I wonder where he got that. And yer saddle blanket – he been sleepin’ on that? It’s all mud on this side. Least he tried to clean it off. And there’s blood on it too, on the pommel here. That ain’t goin’ to be so easy to clean off.
Hey, doc’s leavin’ – what’s Pa sayin’ to him? You wait here a minute, horse, I’ll be back with some more carrots in a coupla minutes. No, don’t you go follerin’ me, I ain’t your boy. He ain’t recovered enough yit to say his name and I cain’t see it nowhere here so I don’t know what to call him. I reckon he’s same age as me, mebbe sixteen, mebbe younger. Looks like he’s been on lean pickin’s for a while.
Right now, that’s clear – if he lives, he lives and if he dies, he dies. And we had to pay the doc for that opinion. Well, and for takin’ out the bullet. Pa, he’s too kind I reckon, takin’ in a boy like that. I seen his gun, put it away safe, I have. Didn’t like even touchin’ it, looked like a rattler to me. Pa says it could go off if I breathe too hard on it but he was jus’ joshin’ me like always. Anyway, we got him dressed in Joe’s nightshirt and into bed, and Pa’s seein’ to him while I see to you. I think I’m gonna have me a time over the next week seein’ to ya and him. I hope we got enough stores to keep us all goin’. Pa, he’ll make light of it like he does everythin’, but he knows what to do all right. Held that boy down so’s he couldn’t move, made it easy for doc. And I cleaned up everythin’ real good, jus’ the way Ma showed me when – well, that time.
Now, I know you hurt yerself, this leg feels hot right here, yeah, that’s the place. Now I am goin’ to rub this stuff there and it will make ya feel a whole lot better. Then I’ll put you in the corral with Robbie. He’s a gentle ’un so you don’t need to worry ’bout bein’ smaller than him. And I’ll find you some of the best hay we got, fatten ya up a bit. There now, how’s that feel? Good, huh? I am goin’ to curry you tomorrow until your coat shines, all them different colours. Pinto. Someone in town told me they called horses pintos cos they looked like they’d been painted all them different colours. I reckon you’re one of the prettiest I seen. There now, like havin’ yer nose rubbed, don’t ya, and yer ears pulled – oh yeah, someone done that to ya before, ain’t they? I wonder how long you and him bin together. And if your boy dies, mebbe Pa’ll let me keep you for my own horse. Joey, I’ll call you Joey after – after my brother. He’s away from here right now but we expect him back any day. Any day now. Pity Ma couldn’t hold on for that, but she’s still around the place somehow, and we look after her grave real careful. Jus’ me and Pa here, so won’t no-one hurt you or work ya too hard.
I gotta go now, make some broth case your boy wakes up. Best be gettin’ him back on food soon as we can. He’ll be all right, long as his fever don’t get no worse. I ain’t sure what got him this far, and gave him the strength to shout to us but I reckon it’s for a reason. Mebbe he’s got the strength to live. Now ya jus’ make yerself right at home, Joey, and I’ll be back later on. You don’t mind me talkin’ to ya like this? Hope not. Cos I ain’t had anyone ’cept Pa to talk to for three months now, since Ma died and Joe went away. And your boy, he ain’t exactly in his head so it’s no use talkin’ to him right now. Yeah – you’re a sweetheart ain’t ya – now get along with ya, go right along, I cain’t be fussin’ and pettin’ you all night.
Did you think I was never comin’ back? Now go along with ya, Robbie, you ain’t got a sore leg. Well, I tell ya, I’m tuckered. Bin up all night with your boy and I still don’t know his name. Well, Pa spelled me so I guess all night is a stretcher. Your boy, he’s sleepin’ now but he didn’t sleep last night, he stayed awake and he was real quiet at first, jus’ them eyes open and lookin’ at us. Like bits of sky they are. Only Pa says he reckons they seen too much. Don’t know how he knows that but he’s mostly right about sich thin’s. Then he got restless, too hot one minute, shiverin’ the next, and we was afraid he’d open up that hole we went to sich trouble to sew up tight. And he was ravin’, sayin’ thin’s I never heard before. Pa said to never mind, the words didn’t mean nothin’. Pa’s like that – doesn’t try to shield me from thin’s, says it’s a mean old world and I got to get used to that.
I’m goin’ to yawn again – and once I get to startin’ that, I’ll be yawnin’ all mornin’. Hey, that rhymes, don’t it! Well, worst was about three this mornin’. He was runnin’ with sweat and we was tryin’ to get him to drink somethin’. We managed it but seemed like he couldn’t stomach it, and he was real sick for a half hour or more – and I was worryin’ in case he was goin’ to bring up blood, like – well I know’d it’d be bad if that happened. But he didn’t have much on his stomach anyways. Made him real tired and so white – I never seen a sun-burned skin like his go so – gray, I guess it was. I felt for sure we’d lost him, specially when we finally settled him down again. He seemed to stop breathin’ a couple of times, and there was a stillness about him I seen a couple of times in other people. Then he got to breathin’ again, and Pa and me we kinda breathed too.
Now, I am gonna get me that curry comb and the brushes and I am goin’ to make ya beautiful. I think it’s gonna be good practice for when I have to take a comb to your boy’s hair. It’s a wonder he can see at all with it like it is.
There now, don’t that feel good? Yeah, go on, you make fun of me if you like but you know you’re enjoyin’ this. I betcha you’ll jus’ walk round this corral lookin’ real pleased with yerself, won’t ya? Wisht you could tell me his name. We asked but it ain’t like talkin’ to jus’ anyone. Seems he don’t trust us an inch. And like I said, the fever means he don’t really know what he’s sayin’ any more than we do.
Right now, you go on, I gotta get back to work, stop playin’ with you. Still favourin’ the foot, ain’t you. Near three days now I reckon since you did whatever it was and you’re only a bit better. Still, I reckon you’ll be fine. And he’ll be ridin’ you again before you know it. Gotta get myself back in there now, see Pa’s doin’ all right. Pa’s got to work in the fields today but he says he’ll come back for the – well, the chores. I ain’t bashful about those thin’s but your boy sure is! He may not be sure who we are but he knows I’m a female all right! Kinda funny, with me wearin’ these duds, lookin’ more like a boy. But he didn’t make no mistake about it.
I’ll come and see ya this evenin’ so don’t ya go gettin’ into no mischief, will ya!
Come here, Joey. Come on – you ain’t quite forgot who I am, have ya? I got a tiny bit o’ sugar for ya here. That’s right, ya nibble on that. You look like you’ve fattened up some. Said I’d be back, didn’t I? Didn’t know it’d be four days, did I? Pa been lookin’ after ya, has he? Yeah, you got fresh water and feed. And Robbie for company. Bet that’s the best you bin for a while, huh.
Your boy’s still alive, too, though I have to say I don’t know how we did it. Must have some sort of extra strong willpower, he must. We was goin’ on jus’ fine until he took to throwin’ up again, all the time. Don’t know what caused it, neither. Couldn’t keep nothin’ down and he needed to drink somethin’, I know’d he did, Pa know’d it – mebbe even he know’d it. I jus’ kept close by, held his hand when he’d let me, sat by when he was too restless. Pa took turns too but seemed like, after a while, he was searchin’ for me. Don’t know why – he pushed me away soon as he found where I was, then he’d go back to searchin’ for me. Don’t like people bein’ sick, though, not like he was sick. Jus’ retchin’ and retchin’ and nothin’ we could do seemed to stop it. He looked at me sometimes like he was angry I couldn’t do nothin’. But I didn’t know what to do – I would have done somethin’ if I’d a known what. We tried a coupla thin’s but nothin’ seemed to work. And he hated it so much, I could tell that, havin’ to be looked after like a baby. He didn’t say nothin’, he jus’ tried to keep himself – well, how do I mean it? Secret. Not that he could. Johnny. He told me, last night, late. Told me his name was Johnny.
I don’t think I like him, Joey. No, don’t shake your head like that, it ain’t helpin’. I don’t want to think this – but I know he’s makin’ a livin’ with that gun. I cain’t think of that bein’ right. He’s so silent to me, too, like he wishes I wasn’t there. Least, I think that’s why. How can I tell when he don’t say nothin’? Not even to Pa. Is he too ill, mebbe? Ma – well Ma changed when she was ill.
So I am here to see the sun for a minute. And to give him a chance to rest without me bein’ there. Mebbe he’ll be happier now. I ain’t. I wisht he’d never come here.
There now, you’re a nice boy, ain’t ya. I bet you wouldn’t object if I jus’ took a little ride on your back now, would ya? If’n you jus’ come this way I can – yeah, there you see, that wasn’t so bad. Now don’t jus’ stand there, Joey – you gotta do what I say. There, that’s how, boy, gentle now. Don’t go movin’ on so fast. I gotta get me a saddle. Whoa up there now, you jus’ stop right there and then I can jump down, no trouble at all. That was good – rode my troubles out a bit, gave me somethin’ else to think about ’sides sickness. I want to change the sheets he’s lyin’ on but Pa says he cain’t be moved at all jus’ right now.
It seems mean but I don’t want to go back to him. Seems like without tryin’ he’s took over my life and Pa’s; and we both got chores to do and enough work jus’ keepin’ the place runnin’. Shouldn’t need to worry about him too. There, now I said it, it does sound awful mean. And I have to go right back there now and spell Pa again. Pa, he gotta see to the field or we won’t have no harvest. And then we would have to move right into town and I guess I wouldn’t like that too much. Here –you have this carrot too, why don’t ya? I’ll go and see to your Johnny some more. Mebbe if he’s still sleepin’, it won’t be so bad.
Hey there, Joey. Now you come here – yeah, I got a carrot for you. Lemme look at your leg. Well, I cain’t see a thin’ wrong with that now. Taken a while, not sure how long. And I cain’t see your bones no more. You rounder’n a barrel with all that good hay I gave ya, and no-one to ride ya miles a day.
Well, I guess you’ll be wantin’ your report on your boy, right? Mebbe I ought not to tell ya – mebbe you’ll jus’ be wantin to stay right here, and if your boy gets well, that’s not goin’ to happen, is it? I mean he ain’t gonna stay if he’s fixin’ to git better now, is he? Nothin’ to hold him in a place like this.
Yeah, I know, I was quiet there for a bit. Jus’ thinkin’. Well now, your boy sleeps a lot of the time now but it seems he’s decided to live after all. He’s very quiet when he’s awake and he looks round like he don’t know who he is or where he is. I watched him, and he knew I was but he didn’t say nothin’. He lay dead still, jus’ breathin’ and lookin’. His hair was so dark against the white pillow, and his face still grey and – well, it’s so thin, it’s like you c’n see the bones. His eyes, so blue. Well, after a while he began to talk to me. Like he wasn’t really talkin’ to me but jus’’ talkin’. Pa had asked him if there was anyone we should be tellin’ about where he was, but that made him quiet and he didn’t say nothin’ at first. That’s what he’s bin doin’ a lot of, and it’s like he’s wonderin’ whether he can trust us. Or whether he can trust himself, cos he has a way of chawin’ down on his lip, like he’s stoppin’ himself from showin’ his feelin’s.
You gotta wait a minute here, I ain’t myself at all this mornin’.
Well now. The polite ladies in town, they have kerchiefs they keep in their hands, they don’t use their sleeve like me.
He talked about his mother. Jus’ a few words, said she died long time ago, seemed to him, and there was no-one to tell. Jus’ so we’d know not to worry ourselves about that. Then he started in on thankin’ me, and I stopped him right there and said we’d have done the same for anyone come to us in a state like that, and he said, mebbe we shouldn’t’ve if we’d’ve known what he done.
I said, you mean those folks that got killed? Cos Pa he found them soon enough, tracked the pinto back to where he come from and Pa buried the dead men there. He said he could jus’ tell by lookin’ at them how mean they was. And he said the law, what there is of that around here, wouldn’t want to be takin’ any notice of sich folks.
He went awful quiet then and still. Then he tried to turn away from me but he couldn’t, not with the hole in him an’ all. And he had to cry right in front of me, cos I wasn’t gonna leave him alone, no sir, though he told me to go. I jus’ sat by his bed an’ let him go right ahead an’ get all those bad feelin’s right out of him. When he was done, I took a washcloth and wiped his face, with him screwin’ up his eyes and pullin’ his face away from me. But it settled him, and pretty soon I could see his eyelids were closin’ again. Then he said, clear as anythin’, “Don’t ya go tellin’ yer Pa ’bout me doin’ that. It’s jus’ with bein’ sick, I ain’t myself.”
Oh – there now, that’s jus’ what I said ’bout myself, right now! Must have remembered what he said. Well, I cain’t help it. Somehow, thin’s he says and does jus’ seem to run through my mind most of the time now, though I try hard enough to keep it quiet. I think Pa’s beginnin’ to notice and he’ll speak to me about it, I know he will. I don’t want to feel like this. He’s jus’ a boy, and a boy dreamin’ of gunfightin’, which is a bad choice, I reckon. Pa says most gunfighters die young. Well, we’ve saved this one and mebbe, for me, that’s gonna turn out bad.
Now, you go for a run round. I’m off to talk to Pa afore he talks to me.
Full moon shinin’, pony. You asleep? I snuck out. I cain’t stand it in there no more, tryin’ to sleep with these thoughts runnin’ through my mind. Had to tell someone. You can go back to sleep if’n you want, I don’t mind.
Pa said what I knew he was goin’ to say – you watch what you’re doin’, he said – this one’s a killer and started young. It ain’t fittin’ for you to feel about him the way ya do. I was jus’ gonna “But, Pa!” him and he said I wasn’t to try none of that, it was plain I was feelin’ too much for him already and he was puttin’ a stop to it right there. He wasn’t angry – he said he c’d see how it mighta happened and he was a blind fool himself not seein’ what was happenin’, right off. Then he said he thought Johnny mighta bin all right, if he hadn’t done what he did. Then my Pa, my dear Pa, said he thought Johnny wouldn’t return my feelin’s anyway, him bein’ set on a course and bound and determined to follow that, wherever it took him. Which meant that until he was old enough to know how important it was to be with a good woman, he wouldn’t let himself say he liked me as much as I liked him. Then he said youth was wasted on us young folks, and that Johnny was a fool boy. And I guess he saw my face then, cos he hugged me tight and let me cry a mite, cos I didn’t really have any hope but I jus’ burn inside for him, I do, pony, I really do.
It’s no good, this ain’t makin’ me feel any better. Mebbe if I jus’ go and look at him one time before I go to bed, and think real hard about what Pa said I can get myself to thinkin’ he ain’t worth this. There, good Joey, good pony, you need to be movin’ on and take that boy with you, or I don’t know what I’m goin’ to do.
Got yer curry comb here. Got to make ya look smart. Johnny’s comin’ out to give ya a look, said he wanted to get outside and back to his life. Movin’ on, he said. Next town, next job.
Stand still! No, this ain’t too hard for you, you need a good curryin’. Wantcha to look smart. I think Pa’s gonna hafta carry Johnny out here. He tried walkin’ this mornin’ and there jus’ ain’t no way he can move easy, not even with Pa on one side of him and me on the other. He feels so light, Joey, cain’t hardly feel ’im but he was touchin’ me all the way down my side and I jus’ know’d he must have felt how my heart was beatin’. It catches my breath, the way I feel, like hot coals all through my insides and I wanted to reach round and kiss him right there. And I want… No, mustn’t think of that, better jus’ to get you ready and think where he’s gonna sit to watch while I walk you round.
There now, see, yes, that’s still him. I know he changed a mite since you saw him last. There, he whistled to you – and look at you, you know who it is. Those ears of yours jus’ pricked right forward. Go on, then, it’s still him, even if he ain’t walkin’ yet. My Pa’s a tall man, he looked like it’s nothin’ to carry that boy. There, you run over and see him. He sure wants to see ya.
Cain’t stay tonight much. Cookin a meal like I haven’t done since Ma got sick. It’s been all soups and broths, that’s all he could manage. Now we’re gonna try and see if he can take a meal with somethin’ for him to bite down on. He said he was sick of the food I was givin’ him and I sassed him and said he was jus’ sick, and I was feedin’ him all he needed to git well and he should be grateful. And he laughed! I made him laugh! I still ain’t sure why but it was a good sound. Before I know’d it, I was there by his bed and huggin’ him, and laughin’ too, and cryin’ mebbe, but I was happy and they weren’t sad tears.
Then he kissed me full on the lips. I ain’t never been kissed jus’ like that before. He pulled me real close and we cuddled up. I had my head on his shoulder and I could feel his breath on me. He was so close and even with all that illness in him still, he was so strong and sure of himself. I felt like I’d been waitin’ always and always to be with jus’ him, like it was right, what we were doin’. Natural. I never wanted that moment to stop but Pa was jus’ outside and the pot was boilin’ over, the pot on the stove – mebbe I meant that? So I had to whisper to him to stop and to let me go. Nothin’ else I could do ’cept send Pa fer the preacher. And that was jus’silly – him sixteen and me the same, why, I know’d a coupla girls married at sixteen and they’re both of them draggin’ kids round now, had no chance to grow up theirselves. Johnny a Pa! I know’d it wasn’t gonna happen, he’d never stay even if I did have a baby and I couldn’t let Pa down.
But I sure want to find out what lyin’ with him means. Heard the gals in town once laughin’ ’bout that, lyin’ with a man. One of them, one that got married, she said it was all noise and fuss, and she didn’t know why some folks blushed about it so cos it warn’t nothin’ but what the animals did. We all were blushin’ like crazy of course, and the thin’s she said – well, I ain’t gonna say them, not in yer ears.
So I know enough to know what happens, pretty well, and I sure look forward to findin’ a good steady man one day, and lyin’ with him and havin’ babies. But with Johnny, I want it to be different, like somethin’ we do together and don’t think of the future, jus’ that moment. But Mother Nature, she’d sure play tricks on me if I did. Anyway, I reckon he’s still a deal too sick to do anythin’ like that. But he keeps watchin’ me now, like he was hungry for me, and I have to watch what I say or Pa’s jus’ goin’ to have Johnny moved into town, sick or not, and outta temptation’s way, as the preacher would say.
It’s like I got an itch here, Joey, and it’s gonna jus’ get worse while he’s lyin’ in that bed, lookin’ at me. Mebbe it would be easier to be an animal. I guess in the wild, you’d run round with a lot of fillies and never miss one if they left you. But I know it now, even feelin’ as happy as I do, that this is goin’ to end soon. Mebbe I should jus’ try to remember each minute we have to ourselves, and that has to be enough, don’t it. Joey. I swear, you’re not listenin’. This is important. Mebbe if I jus’ rub yer nose here – yeah, that makes you laugh. Wonder how else I can make our boy laugh.
Hey, pony. Early, ain’t it. Sun’s jus’ up. I reckon I gotta start early with you cos Johnny, he’s so impatient to ride you he’s strugglin’ up all on his own, even though Pa said he’d help him. I don’t know as I think this is sich a good plan but his royal highness – that’s what I’m callin’ your boy jus’ to tease him, cos we waited on him hand and foot, see – he wants to ride you this mornin’. I don’t see how’s he gonna git on yer back, yer so round and he’s so spindly and don’t move so good. He says the exercise’ll be good for him.
Now, you jus’ stand still while I put this over yer head. Been a while since you had a bit in yer mouth, huh. Open up. You chaw on that for a while and don’t play no games. I got to get ya rid round a coupla times, see if ya still have enough manners for my – for Johnny. Wouldn’t be so good if you threw him now, would it? Now, this saddle blanket on yer back. Huh! You think that’s a neat trick, pullin’ that off again, dontcha. He teach ya that? I don’t reckon. You’re naughty, Joey, you stop that! There. That’s better. Now the saddle. Right. Tighten the cinch, and you needn’t think of blowin’ yer round little belly up like that, I know’d that trick. Robbie pulls it all the time.
Anyone tell you how smart you look? Now, you jus’ stand still. No – you don’t turn away like that. We’ll have Johnny in the dust if’n you do that. I ain’t gonna let you off the leadin’ rein, not no way. Don’t care what he says. Right, trot now, and you pick up yer heels, get movin’, Joey. You ain’t very smooth, is ya? Walk, that’s what Mr. Johnny Madrid is goin’ to have to keep to. And he ain’t gonna like that.
Here he is. Now you behave, or no carrots this week. And here’s Pa, walkin’ right behind him, like he’s expectin’ Johnny to fall right over. Looks like he might too. He makes me laugh, he does, he tried to pretend it’s a swagger when all it is, is he can’t move his legs jus’ like he wants yit. Good to see him upright, though. I better shut up now. Here he is.
Well, that warn’t too bad. Hold still. Here goes the saddle. Heavy old thin’, I know. And the cloth. I’ll give you a quick brush down in a minute but first I gotta ask ya. Did he feel strange on your back? He sure looked it. Perched up there, tryin’ to keep a straight back and pretend he was in control of ya. Couldn’t even kick ya on properly – good thin’, I think. Much better I kept that leadin’ rein on ya. I could feel his eyes on me, though, and he can manage a frown when he wants, that boy. What’d he say? “You can let him go now. I got him.” In a pig’s eye he got ya! I jus’ made like I hadn’t heard him and tried not to laugh flat out at his pride. Boys! They’re all the same when it comes to bein’ in charge. You hafta let them believe they are, then you can git what ya want. Learned that, first week he was here.
There, all that leather gone now – I’m even gonna take yer head collar off fer a while cos ya bin good and ignored what he was tryin’ to do, kick ya on like that. You listened to me instead and his language, it got colourful again, and I guess I laughed and Pa laughed too. I stole a look at your boy. He was way up there on your back, makin’ out he was jus’ fine, keepin’ that big nose of his in the air and lookin’ ahead, not at me. In a book once, I saw a picture, a little creature sittin’ in a tree or somethin’, cain’t rightly remember. Anyway, the book said he was called an imp, and he had black hair and he was real thin, jus’ like our boy, with a sharp face and the wickedest eyes, jus’ like they was boilin over with mischief. But the imp, he was grinnin’ and our boy, my Johnny, well, his mouth was a hard line like he was mortified havin’ to be led. It sure wasn’t my fault, I’m tellin’ ya. He was ridin’ like every part of him pained him, jus’ like he did when he come to us. I never seen him ride good but I guess he can. He sits right, like he was part of you, but with his body held to protect himself. I bet he wouldn’t have done that if he could have forced himself to ride like he usually did. Some thin’s it jus’ ain’t possible to fight,you’re your body betrayin your hurts is one of them.
And he looked so small up there, all leg and arm and skin and bone, like they say. A black thundercloud of pride and pleasure and annoyance, none of his feelin’s was hid like I thought they might be. Seems with me, he weren’t afraid too much of showin his feelin’s, and he’s about brimful of feelin’s, this boy. Cold-blooded killers, they say these folk are, people who kill other people for money. This one sure ain’t cold-blooded, I can tell ya that fer free. But most of the time you cain’t tell it and soon as he know’d I was lookin’ he got control of himself pretty darn quick.
Johnny wanted me to let you have yer head, but I know’d it warn’t safe and when I asked Pa, should I, Pa said no, you jus’ keep that boy on that leadin’ rein or we’ll be stuck with him another three weeks. Which was calculated to make Johnny say somethin’, like he was sorry to have bothered us and he did say that, but with such a look of shame I felt like apologisin’ for Pa right straight off. Then I said it. “Best three weeks of my life since Joey left.” It was so bold of me to say that right off, without really thinkin’ that much of it and I went red, I know I did. But he looked at me and he smiled, and it was a gentle smile, one I’d not seen before on him, made him look real young and – and if he does much of that I will never be able to let him go, never. I will end up tyin’ him to the fence or the bed or somethin’, and makin’ a fool of myself by beggin’ him to stay.
Well now, what happened then? Oh yeah, I know. I walked you on round, real slow, draggin’ you back more and more jus’ to annoy him. In the end he gave in and said would I please let his horse walk on a bit faster. I told him that since he asked nice, I would, and then I was nearly runnin’ round, you remember? He didn’t like that much either, musta hurt some, but you wouldn’t catch him sayin’ nothin’. It was the little grunt he gave made me look at him. I didn’t say nothin’, jus’ eased you back and glanced at Pa.
Johnny didn’t seem worried one bit. In fact I’d go so far as to say he was enjoyin’ himself. Mebbe he was thinkin’, now I’ll be on my way and leave Sarah alone. I ain’t thinkin’ about that at all, Joey, not the day he has to leave. He’s here now and we agree about what’s between us and he ain’t pressin’ me for any more, not even sayin’ stuff, like you’d think a boy his age might do if’n he had a chance. I reckon that’s cos he respects me.
Then when we stopped, he couldn’t git down. Pa and me, we stood lookin’ at him and waited for him to do somethin’ but he sat there like he was a statue. Somehow, Pa and me agreed without sayin’ anythin’ that we were jus’ gonna wait until he asked for help. So he went on pretendin’ it was jus’ normal to sit on a horse with two people starin’ at you and you admirin’ the scenery, or whatever it was he was pretendin’ to do. He shifted in the saddle – I could see how sore he was, though he looked happy too. Finally, he said somethin’ like, “I reckon I need to get down now,” somethin’ like that anyway.
Then my Pa says, come on, son, to him and he looked kinda startled for a minute. He hadn’t said a word about a Pa, and I guess my Pa and me, that was somethin’ else we’d agreed, that he didn’t have one he could rightly name. But there was somethin’ in the way my Pa said that word, Pa, that seemed to get his dander up fer jus’ a second. If’n you’d spent three weeks watchin’ him for how he was feelin’, you’d have seen it too, Joey. Don’t think Pa did though. Pa helped him off, near lifted him off yer back, didn’t he? He looked a little worried about Johnny, did Pa. But once Johnny was standin’ on the ground he shrugged off my Pa’s help and jus’ slowly made his way back to the house. He settled himself in the rocker and fell asleep right off. So I left him and came here to unsaddle ya and make ya all comfortable again.
Another step on the road there, Joey. Another step towards sayin’ goodbye.
I know that this evenin’, Joey, was one of those times I’ll remember for always. I knew it while it was happenin; I stored up every minute. I ain’t told ya everythin’ that went on these last couple of weeks, because most of what we said to each other and did together, it was what most folks do when they get on well and have plenty to say. He told me all about himself, ’bout his Ma, and the Pa he has who lives in California and don’t want nothin’ to do with him. He didn’t seem sad about that. I think he’s mainly angry and there’s a lot of hurt pride, like he wants to say, I’m good enough for anyone to know, so why does my Pa ignore me? He says he sometimes dreams about him.
But that’s not what I came here to tell you. He’s leavin’ tomorrow, bright and early. He still cain’t move jus’ right but he’s fixin’ to go anyway. Seems like he thinks mebbe if he doesn’t go now he never will go. Joey, your coat jus’ shines now. I brushed and brushed you this mornin’ and you carried us both out to the pasture – well, it’s that bit of rough grass, by the creek, which still has jus’ a little water in it. I rode up behind Johnny – he reached down for me and pulled me up, and I put my hands round his waist, and when he looked round at me, I smiled, biggest grin I could manage, so I wouldn’t spoil anythin’. Pa, he trusted us, and yet he looked kinda sad, like he felt he wasn’t needed or somethin’. He looked lonely goin’ back in that cabin. I’m glad he’ll be there when Johnny’s gone. He’ll understand how I’m feelin’.
Johnny trotted ya on, didn’t he. You don’t mind if I sit right here, do ya, close to you? It’s dark and I’m supposed to be sleepin, but I jus’ cain’t. I want to be near him, and he’s sleepin’ sound, I checked. This afternoon, when we was out ridin’ I held on tight and felt so far off the ground, suddenly, that I was gigglin’ so hard Johnny had to hush me in case I fell right off. He asked me what I was bein’ so giddy about and I said I didn’t know, ‘cept I didn’t feel the world was quite the same with him in it, and it was a better place for havin’ him there. He went kinda quiet and I thought he was goin’ to lecture me, like he had done already, ‘bout tryin’ to make him stay. Cos I have done that, Joey, when I was feelin’ a mite low last week, for that reason I ain’t supposed to talk about that gets women down every month. I didn’t beg him or nothin’, I jus’ asked why he was goin’ on when he could stay and help Pa with the farm. He jus’ shrugged, said it wasn’t for him and he’d be gone before I know’d it. He didn’t say nothin’ ’bout stayin’ for me and he didn’t say nothin’ ’bout me goin’ with him, which was two of the little dreams I had.
I’m more full of talk tonight than I know what to do with, Joey. I wanted to talk to him tonight but it jus’ didn’t seem to happen. And I was so happy there for a minute, when I jumped down and Johnny slid off, easy like he’d been born to it – not seen him do that before, he’s not been well enough. And I hobbled ya and we walked into the long grass, then he took my hand for a little way. Grasped it real tight; dunno why, I weren’t goin’ nowhere.
And this is what he said. I remember every word. “You get yerself a good man, Sarah. Get married. Have lots of kids. But don’t ya go forgettin’ me.”
I musta looked at him some special way, cos as soon as he saw the way I was, he looked right down at his feet, then away off into the distance. He was still holdin’ my hand, turned facin’ me he was, and lookin’ far away over my shoulder. I tried to keep from cryin’ – I know’d he was sayin’ that to be kind, not to hurt me, but it did hurt, like takin’ a hot knife and runnin’ it right through me. I come over faint, I think, I weren’t breathin’ right or somethin’, next thin’ I know’d, anyway, I was down on the grass, kinda on my knees, and I was- well, Joey, I could pretend I was brave and smiled and didn’t say nothin’ but you know’d different – you heard me.
He come right down with me, held me by the shoulders, and I jus’ couldn’t get ahold of myself for, I dunno, for so long, until my throat ached and my head was light and I couldn’t see nothin’ clearly. That pain jus’ swamped me. I knew what was good had come to an end and I didn’t want it to. I wanted it to go on for ever. And you know what hurt most? It could go on. It still could. All he’d have to do is stay – but that jus’ ain’t gonna be so.
He waited for me, I dunno what he was doin’, mebbe he shed some tears of his own, or mebbe he jus’ waited for me to stop. Then he let go, and he kinda sighed, and he lay right back in the long grass, crossin’ his legs and squintin’ up at the sky. I kinda crept back to him, lyin’ alongside, until he stretched out his arm so I could lay my head on it. I was frozen inside, not wantin’ the time to move forward, knowin’ this was as close as I would ever get to bein’ with him. To lyin’ with him. We was both quite still, together in the hot sun, my head full of the small sounds round us, you grazin’, insects, one bird – and Johnny breathin, slow and easy, a sound like all the comfort in the world.
I don’t know how I’m gonna do tomorrow. I can still hear him breathin, bein’ next to me. A few more hours only, then a few minutes, and I have to tell him goodbye. Joey. Can ya make time stand still? Can you stop it slippin’ through my fin’ers? Can you stop me hatin’ him for leavin’, and lovin’ him so much the pain of it is worse than any pain I know, worse than losin’ Ma, worse than losin’ my brother Joey.
You hold my secret safe, Joey. I don’t want nothin’ bad to come near my Johnny but I’m afeared of the blackness around me. I know it will go away, in time. But right now I’m at the start of the road I gotta travel and I don’t see no sense in havin’ to go that way when I could go with him. But I won’t.
He’s gone, Robbie. He’s gone. He didn’t look back and I know why, I think. He was tryin’ to be a man. And now I got to try to be a woman and let him go. And in time, take a man, a good man of my own, and have a whole bunch of kids. But right now, Robbie, right now, the ache in me fills my whole world. So I am goin’ to saddle you, and then ride ya over to the creek and find that place where we lay and broke the grasses down. If I’m there for a while I’ll know it’ll be all right. I’ll never quite lose him. I won’t hope for him to come back. I ain’t a fool. But in the long grass, I can aim to fix him in my head so I will never, ever forget him. Seventeen. I guessed wrong. He was seventeen.
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