Word count 1,471
(This story is in memory of James Stacy and Marlene Campbell. Both are greatly missed and neither will be forgotten.
Originally I started this story as a memorial for Marlene, who we lost a few months ago. She was a faithful and active member of LancerWriters and other groups on Yahoo and Facebook that honored the Lancer TV western series. She was an avid admirer of the character of Johnny Madrid Lancer and the actor who played him.
To our added sorrow, James Stacy passed away last month. Since he is the main character of this story, I’m posting it as a memorial for him as well.)
A gust of wind rattled the single sheet of paper. The words blurred, and a memory from the past swept Johnny Lancer back to another early June day, almost a year before his homecoming. How had the time flown by so fast? Seemed like it was yesterday instead of almost fifty years ago.
~ * ~ * ~
A pair of squinted eyes beneath puckered brows stared him in the face. Where was he? And why did his leg feel like a bronc had stomped all over it?
“You okay, Mister?” Concern filled the soft voice. “Took you for dead when I first caught sight o’ you lyin’ there with your arms stretched out and one leg all cattywampus.”
“Fine and dandy.” Johnny shifted his sore leg and sucked in his breath. Was it broken? He hoped not. He could be laid up for weeks.
The face above Johnny leaned closer and strands of hair tickled his nose. “Fine an’ dandy, my eye. Just ’cause I’m a girl, don’t mean I’m dumb.” She let out a sigh. “I’d try to make you more comfortable, but Pa said we daren’t move you till we got something to bind up that leg. He went for Ma and a wagon. Might be a while, seein’ how he ain’t been gone long. He’ll have to catch up the team and get ’em hitched.”
While she rattled on some more about her ma fixing up a bed in the back of the wagon and getting bandages and whatever might be needed, Johnny closed his eyes and tried to remember how he’d gotten into this pickle. Had his horse spooked? Was he on the run? Where was he going? Where had he been?
Answers refused to break through the fuzziness in Johnny’s head, so he opened his eyes and looked up at the girl. “Got a name?” He quickly glanced away. That was a dumb thing to ask.
“Marlene. Marlene Campbell.” She spoke with such pride that Johnny couldn’t keep from fixing his eyes on her again. “And who might you be?” A devilish grin quirked the corners of her mouth. “Johnny Madrid?”
Johnny’s mouth twitched. He bit his upper lip and took in a long breath. “If I am?”
She grasped a fist full of her long, fiery-red hair and twisted it into a tight swirl. “Don’t guess I got much to worry about . . . long as I got this.” Her other hand came into view, a pistol twirling around on her pointing finger.
“Hey. Take it easy with that.” Johnny reached toward her. Pain shot up his leg, and he let out a groan.
Marlene hid the pistol behind her as she scooted backwards. “Oh, no you don’t. You got any ideas about snatching it away from me, you best forget ’em. I’ve plucked the eye out of more’n one coyotee with this here Colt when they come sneaking around Ma’s chickens. Sent a cougar to the promised land just last week. Had his mind set on old Maudie’s newly borned foal. Maudie’s one of Pa’s plow horses. She pulled a tendon a couple springs back, so he turned her into a broodmare.”
Despite the steady ache in his leg, Johnny smiled. “That good, huh?”
Her head bobbed. “Better’n most them gun-toters chasing a reputation.”
Johnny figured that was stretching the truth. Playing along with her might help pass the time and get his mind off of his leg, though. “Think you could take on Johnny Madrid?”
“Might be.” Marlene chuckled. “If you’re him, I’d have to let you heal up some. Wouldn’t be much of a shooting match, otherwise.”
Marlene nodded again.
Johnny studied the girl’s face. How old was she? Thirteen or fourteen? Fifteen at the most from the looks of her. She sure had spunk. He flashed her a smile. “You know something? I think we’re gonna be friends.”
“You do?” She studied him with wary eyes, the color hidden by a shadow that blocked the sun from shining on them.
“Uh, huh.” Johnny licked his dry lips. “If I don’t die of thirst.”
“No danger of that.” Marlene leaned away from him while reaching out to the side. When she sat up again, a canteen dangled from the strap in her hand. She unscrewed the cap and handed it over. “Don’t drink too fast. Wouldn’t want you to choke on it, lying on your back like you are.”
Johnny took a couple swallows of the lukewarm water. “You worried about me?”
“I’d hate to lose a friend before I even knew his name.” She tilted her chin. “That wouldn’t be right, now, would it, Mister uh?”
He took another small drink and grinned. “Johnny.”
Marlene’s brows shot upward. “As in . . . Johnny Madrid?”
“Yeah.” Johnny eyed her. “Still wanna be friends?”
“Oh . . . ” Marlene’s shoulders heaved. “I reckon I can give it a try. Prob’ly ain’t much truth in them stories I heard, anyway.”
Johnny laughed. Her face faded and another scene crowded into his mind. Instead of looking down on him where he lay on his back on the ground, Marlene Campbell was gazing up at him through narrowed eyes while he sat astraddle his pinto gelding. His leg was still sore, but no bone was broken.
Marlene’s lower lip jutted outward “Do you have to go? Pa said he’d give you a job if you wanted to stay on.”
“I made a promise.”
“And you always keep your promises.” She tipped her head downward and scuffed the toe of one boot in the dust. “That’s a thing to be admired . . .” Her head came back up. “But I still wish you didn’t have to go.”
Johnny let out a long breath. “Range fracases never last long. Maybe, I’ll be back this way in a few months.”
Marlene folded her arms. “No promises, though, right?”
Johnny gazed past his horse’s ears. “Man in my trade . . .”
“I understand.” Her voice was soft. “You could write, though. You could promise me that, couldn’t you?”
The pleading tone brought a lump to Johnny’s throat. He wished he could stay, see where this trail would lead. Maybe in a few years he wouldn’t mind being tied down. Not now, though. He had a job to do and a lot more hills to see the other side of before anyone boxed him in. Besides, Marlene had some growing up to do. She wouldn’t be eighteen for another four years. By that time, she might not give him a second look.
Hands gripped Johnny’s arm. “Couldn’t you?”
Johnny leaned toward Marlene. “Write? Sure.”
Her grip tightened. “Promise?”
“Yeah.” Johnny grinned down at her. “I promise.” He glanced at the rising sun and then placed one hand on hers. “I better go. I got a long ride.”
Marlene slid her free hand up Johnny’s sleeve to his shoulder. Her fingers gripped his shirt, and she pulled him toward her.
Johnny didn’t resist as Marlene’s lips pressed against his. What could one little kiss hurt? She’d earned it, doting on him like she had for almost a week while he recovered enough to ride.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
The rustle of paper brought Johnny back to the present. He tried to swallow the lump in his throat. It refused to leave.
He gazed down at the letter. The words tore through him. A tear leaked out the corner of one eye. Gone. His best friend was gone. Life would never be the same.
Johnny leaned against the stone pillar outside one of the sets of French doors of the Lancer hacienda. He gazed out across the valley, his mind fixed on Marlene’s last visit to the ranch a year ago. They hadn’t seen each other more than a handful of times over the years, but that hadn’t weakened the bond between them. A steady stream of letters had seen to that.
“Adios, mi amiga,” Johnny whispered. “I’ll see ya soon.”
~ The End ~
By Desert Sun (Cathy Friend)
October 4, 2016
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