Word count: 4,165
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Johnny snapped, pulling his jacket up higher around his neck. How he hated the cold weather. All this fuss over one stupid bird. And to make matters worse, he could feel a cold coming on. Warm Mexico sounded mighty inviting right about now.
“Guess ya wouldn’t, seeing how’s it’s yer fault in the first place that we gota go find another bird two days afore Thanksgiving. And here we was goin’ ta surprise Teresa with a turkey dinner with all them fixin’s. Kind a hard when ya ain’t got a turkey.”
“Jelly.” Scott couldn’t hold back the snicker at Jelly’s consternation. “It wasn’t Johnny’s fault altogether. I think that turkey had something to do with it too.”
“Well, he didn’t have ta pump five shells in ta him, did he? I mean…he could a shot him once, then we could a dressed ‘im and had that bird all ready fer cookin’”
“He got me mad.” Johnny pulled Barranca to a stop. “He was after Barranca.”
Jelly snorted. “As if’n a full growed horse couldn’t a taken care of a puny ole turkey.”
“If you two are going to keep harping on me all afternoon then I’m going to go my own way,” Johnny warned.
“All right.” Scott raised his hand in a solemn promise. “No more harping. It’s just lucky we ran into that farmer.”
“Still sticks in my craw that we had ta pay him twenty bucks fer one turkey.” Jelly harrumphed.
“You want Teresa and Murdoch to come home with no turkey on the table?” Scott asked. When he didn’t get a reply from Jelly he nodded. “I rest my case.”
“Still sticks in my craw…”
“Jelly!” both brothers said in unison.
They rode in silence for another thirty minutes when finally Scott pulled Charlemagne up. “We should have been at that ranch by now.”
“He said north east of town. That’s this direction.” Johnny looked down at the road and sneezed, wiping at his nose. “There’s not many tracks here.” He sniffed. “But they’re made by the same wagon wheels. Let’s follow these for a while, if we don’t spot anything in a few miles we can turn back.”
“Yer comin’ down with a cold, ain’t ya,” Jelly tisked. “I knew it. I told ya it was gonna snow the other day. But noooo….would ya listen ta ole Jelly? Ya leave with a flimsy jacket and got froze to the bone.”
“Jelly, I ain’t much warmer right now,” Johnny sighed. “Let’s just find that turkey so I can go home and sit in front of that roaring fire in Murdoch’s study.”
“Yer goin’ straight to bed when we get home, Johnny Lancer,” Jelly ordered. “An I won’t take no fer an answer. Youngins,” Jelly shook his head as he kneed his horse forward. “Ain’t got a lick a sense, and too dumb ta know it.”
Scott chuckled as he let his two ‘partners’ head off first down the road; Jelly sitting in the saddle with a new purpose, he had a patient to care for now, and Johnny, his head sagging toward his chest, feeling more miserable by the second.
Thirty minutes later they came upon a rundown fence, the gate hanging on by one hinge.
“Ya reckon this is the place?” Jelly asked.
“Only one way to find out.” Scott leaned down and carefully pulled the gate open, being careful to support it against the rest of the sagging fence so it would not snap the other hinge.
The house they eventually came upon looked no better than the fence. The porch sagged and the roof looked like a strong wind would turn it into kindling. A buckboard, with one wheel missing and another with broken spokes sat by a barn that was partially caved in on one side. And beside the wagon, strutting around inside a pen, was the largest turkey anyone from Lancer had ever seen.
“Whoeee….would ya look at that,” Johnny said.
“That bird will feed half the state of California. What do you say now, Jelly…worth twenty bucks?” Scott grinned.
Jelly nodded his head in appreciation. “Got ta say it is, Scott.”
“It’s got ta weigh… ah shoooo….it’s got ta weigh…ah shooo… at least ah shooo…. fifty pounds,” Johnny finally got out.
“Yer taking some of my ‘coctions when we get home,” Jelly ordered. “Ya shouldn’t be out in this cold in the first place. I told ya to stay home.”
“Hey…” a small voice came from inside the barn. A little boy, not more than seven, stepped out cautiously. His blonde hair was cut even and combed back, his face scrubbed clean. The coveralls he wore were filled with holes, but clean. He nibbled on a carrot as he stared at the three strangers.
“Hi there,” Scott called. “You live here, son?”
The boy looked up, squinting at the sun behind Scott’s back. “Yes, sir.”
“My name is Scott Lancer, and this is my brother Johnny and.” He pointed toward Jelly, “This is Jelly Hoskins.”
The boy looked at Johnny and a big smile spread across his face. “My name’s Johnny too,” the boy said with pride. “My daddy named me after a famous man.”
Scott took the bait. “And who might that be?”
“Johnny Madrid,” the boy answered, as if everyone should know that. “My pa says Johnny Madrid kin draw faster and shoot straighter than any man alive. He…”
“Johnny! You get in the house right now!” Little Johnny turned and looked at his mother standing on the porch. She was short, slightly built with long blonde hair pulled away from her face and cascading down her back. Like her son, her clothes had seen better days, but they were clean.
“Get in the house right now and wash up for supper.”
“Can they stay for dinner, Ma?”
“Johnny, hush. Now get inside.”
Little Johnny scuffed at the pebble in the sand then reluctantly headed for the house.
“I’m sorry, gentlemen, Mary Ellen Washburn,” Little Johnny’s mother said, wiping her hands along her skirt nervously. “We don’t see many strangers this far out. But my husband will be here any minute. You can water your horses than I’d appreciate it if you were to turn around the way you came.”
“We aren’t staying,” Scott reassured her. “We just came to pick up the turkey.”
Mrs. Washburn looked toward the turkey in the pen, surprised.
Little Johnny burst out of the door. “What do you want with Bartholomew?” he demanded.
“Bartholomew?” Jelly’s voice quivered. Shades of Dewdrop in his head.
The boy’s shoulders squared off defensively. “Best gal dern turkey in the whole gal dern world. Pa said so.”
“Johnny! Watch your mouth.”
“Pa said so.”
“Your Pa says a lot of things not worth repeating,” Mrs. Washburn snapped.
“It sure is a right good lookin’ turkey,” Jelly offered quickly.
“Ma named him. Said it was a man she read about in a book once. He was big and strong just like my Bartholomew.”
Scott’s heart sank. There went their twenty dollars and their turkey. Beside him, Johnny was in a midst of a sneezing fit that had Barranca prancing around nervously. The horse’s hind leg suddenly struck the pen, scaring the turkey and it began to gobble hysterically. That scared Barranca even more and he bumped into Jelly’s horse and the old handyman held on for dear life as his horse reared back and if not for Scott quickly grabbing the reins, Jelly would have been in the next county.
Little Johnny rushed off the porch, heedless of the horses, and jumped into the pen with Bartholomew, chasing the big bird around trying to calm him down.
Johnny’s sneezing fit finally stopped followed by a chest rattling cough that had both Scott and Jelly staring at him.
Mrs. Washburn stood motionless throughout the calamity, her eyes on little Johnny until she was sure the boy was safe inside the pen and he had his arms around Bartholomew, the turkey settling down as if it were a trained dog.
Johnny walked Barranca away from the pen and the now calm turkey and waited. He just wanted to get back on the road and headed home. Somehow the thought of turkey dinner didn’t set well with him anymore.
Scott tipped his hat toward Mrs. Washburn. “Sorry for all the trouble. I think we’ve got the wrong ranch.”
Mrs. Washburn looked passed Scott at Johnny hunkered down in his jacket, his head bent low against the rising wind.
“No trouble, gentlemen. Please, come in for a cup of hot coffee, it is bitter cold out here.”
“Thank you ma’am, but…” Johnny began but Jelly was already climbing down off his horse.
“Don’t mind if we do. Thank ya, Miss Washburn. Johnny here could use a bit of warming up before we head back.’
“Jelly,” Johnny warned, but Scott was already dismounting Charlemagne.
“We have a long ride ahead of us.”
Johnny grumbled and rode back, grabbing at Scott’s reins…”I’ll see to the horses…”
“Oh no you won’t,” Jelly huffed. “Yer as sick as a pup with colic. Yer nose is as red as one of Teresa’s Christmas ornaments. You get inside and get yerself warmed up. I wish I had some of my ‘coctions with me.”
“I have my own special elixir, Mr. Hoskins,” Mrs. Washburn said.
Johnny looked pleadingly at Scott, who simply shrugged and turned away to hide his grin.
Johnny found himself sitting in front of a spindly fire with a cup of fiery liquid that burned as it went down but soothed his sore throat and calmed his congested chest.
Mrs. Washburn was beside him, feeling his forehead and covering him with a blanket. “You’re running a fever. You shouldn’t be out in weather like this.”
“I’m feeling better already,” he lied.
Little Johnny rushed into the house slamming the door behind him. The windows shook and the door threatened to come off its hinges.
“Johnny, how many times do I have to tell you not to slam the door? One of these days you’re going to break it. Then what? It’s cold enough without losing that door too.”
“Excuse me ma’am,” Jelly looked up from the pot simmering on the stove. “But why don’t yer man fix that door…and some of the other things around here. He looked like a right able bodied man.”
Mrs. Washburn looked away embarrassed. “He has other things he has to take care of.”
“Yea. He’s helping the sheriff in town. The sheriff says any man who is a friend to Johnny Madrid is a good man to have on his side. My pa is a good man.”
“Ya know,” Jelly guided little Johnny toward the kitchen table, “I once saw Johnny Madrid myself,” he said, and the boy eagerly plopped into a chair next to him, his face glowing with delight as the old man began an animated conversation with him.
“I guess you’re here for Bartholomew,” Mrs. Washburn sighed. “I can’t rightly turn down the money. How much did my husband say he wanted for her?”
Scott glanced at Johnny. “Twenty dollars.”
Mrs. Washburn nodded. “That’s a goodly sum. At least it’ll put flour and beans in our pantry for a spell.”
Johnny looked around the dilapidated room and shook his head. “Your husband leave you and the boy here alone a lot?”
A moment of fear crossed her face then she smiled. “I guess there’s no need to lie. If you three were in a mind to harm us there’s nothing we could do about it. Charles comes home every now and then to see if we’re still here. If he hasn’t spent all his money on drink he brings us some food. But not often enough. And with that wagon broke out there now…well…we are pretty well trapped.”
Johnny looked into the meager fire that barely warmed the room. “A man like that doesn’t treat his woman kindly,” he said softly.
Mrs. Washburn’s face paled. “That’s for me and Charles to know, no one else.”
Johnny nodded. But he had his answer. . “A boy hears a lot more than you think.” Johnny said reflectively.
Little Johnny suddenly jumped out of his seat, and crouched into an imaginary gunslingers stance and drew his imaginary gun. He fanned the gun three times fast and returned it to its imaginary holster. “Like that?” He grinned at Jelly.
Jelly nodded. “Jest like that.”
“Wait ‘till I tell Pa that you know Johnny Madrid too.” And he quickly climbed back into his seat to listen to more stories.
Jelly averted his eyes when he saw Johnny’s angry expression. The youngest Lancer hated to think of another boy walking in his shoes. But, by Jelly’s way of thinking, little Johnny Washburn had so little, and a bit of hero worship wasn’t going to hurt anyone.
A heavy cough raked Johnny’s chest again and Mrs. Washburn looked at him with concern. “You shouldn’t be out in this cold weather like that. You three can stay here the night. Tomorrow is soon enough.”
“Ma’am, thank you, we can’t impose.” Johnny began.
“It’s not imposing. I could use the company. And.” She looked over to see little Johnny hunkered down listening to Jelly. “My Johnny needs the company too.”
Scott nodded. “Jelly and I will bunk down in the barn if you don’t mind Johnny staying near the fire tonight.”
“I…ah shooo…can talk for myself, Boston,” Johnny snapped.
“Sure you can little brother.” Scott laughed.
“No one will sleep in the barn. There’s enough room on the floor out here for the three of you. I can’t offer you more than beans and hardtack, but at least you’ll be warm eating it, and then we can discuss that twenty dollars and the turkey.”
Scott glanced at Johnny and saw the slightest of nods. “No time like the present.” Scott stood up and fished the twenty dollars out of his pocket. “Here’s the twenty and…”
“Scott…didn’t ya already pay…” Jelly began.
“Shut up, Jelly,” Johnny snapped.
“You paid Charles already?” Mrs. Washburn snatched her hand back.
“Please take it,” Scott urged.
“I don’t take charity, Mr. Lancer.”
“It’s not charity,” Johnny said. “That bird is twice the size of any bird I’ve ever seen. He’s worth twice the price.”
“Please,” Scott urged again. “For your son.”
Mrs. Washburn took the money reluctantly. “Thank you. You two are kind beyond words. I just wish I could feed you better.”
Bartholomew gobbled once outside and both brothers cringed. They had lost their appetite for turkey.
Johnny listened to the wind howling outside, rattling the windows and thumping the poor excuse for a door against the jamb. Memories of houses just like this taunted him. No child should live like this.
“A penny for your thoughts.” He heard Scott whisper next to him in the dark.
“Can’t sleep?” Johnny asked.
“Kind of hard with all this noise. You sound restless, the noise bothering you or is your fever higher?”
“A little of both I guess.”
There was silence for a long time and Johnny thought Scott had drifted back to sleep. Then… “How does a man do this to his family?”
“How does a mother?” Johnny asked.
“Mrs. Washburn is a good mother.”
“So was my mama until things got bad. When there wasn’t enough food ta keep your belly from aching. When a bottle became more important than your boy. When men got you that bottle and maybe enough food to share with your boy.”
“Johnny, I can’t begin to imagine the hell you went through. But that doesn’t mean that every mother who is faced with the same adversities as your mother would do what she did. She was weak, Johnny. You know that now. She was weak when she ran off with you and left Murdoch, she was weak when she took to the bottle and she was weak when she took men into her bed. But Mrs. Washburn is strong.”
“Little Johnny worships Johnny Madrid,” Johnny whispered bitterly.
The irony was not lost on Scott. He saw the anger and the hurt in his brother’s eyes as he watched little Johnny living almost the same life he did. And the boy’s idolization of Johnny Madrid. Scott knew that hurt the worst.
“Johnny, just because he loves the myth of Johnny Madrid doesn’t mean he is going to follow in his footsteps. He needs something to hold onto now. He heeds a hero. His father certainly isn’t one.”
“His footsteps? Don’t you mean mine?”
“No. Johnny Lancer is who you are now. Little Johnny would be a lucky man if he were to follow in the footsteps of the man I call brother.”
“We can’t leave them here like this.” The anguish in Johnny voice was palpable.
Silence filled the darkness again and each man knew the other was staring at the ceiling. Sleep wouldn’t come easily tonight for either man.
Johnny reached over the table and squeezed Mrs. Washburn’s hand. “You can’t stay here, like this.”
“But this is my home. Little Johnny’s home.”
“And you are barely surviving here.”
“Johnny’s right,” Scott sat beside his brother. They had discussed what they would do this morning late into the night. “This place is falling down around you. That storm last night was nothing compared to what will happen in the months to come.”
“If Charles cared he would be here with an armload of food bought with that twenty dollars we gave him. You know that’s not going to happen,” Johnny spat.
“But where will I go? I have no other family.”
“You come stay with us for awhile until we find you and little Johnny a place,” Scott said gently.
“I can’t do that. I can’t impose…”
“You’re not imposing. We are inviting you. And if ya say no, then Scott and I will just have ta stay here until you say yes. Now do you really want to make our father mad at Thanksgiving?”
Tears welled up in her eyes… “I don’t know…”
“Mrs. Washburn…I didn’t grow up with my father. I lived with my mother in Mexico. I know what it’s like to be hungry. To be scared. I ended up doing a lot of things I’m not proud of before I finally found my way back home. I don’t want to see Little Johnny walk down the same road I did. Please, let us help you.”
Mrs. Washburn could no longer hold back the tears. “All right, for Johnny.”
“Good.” Scott slapped the table. “Get what you need for the next couple days. We’ll come back with a wagon to get the rest later.”
“I’ll go saddle the horses…” Johnny began to stand when both Mrs. Washburn and Scott pushed him back down in the chair.
“You stay right here little brother,” Scott ordered.
“And I’ll get more of that elixir. It calmed that cough real well didn’t it? But you’re still running a fever so you’re not over it yet.”
“Ah, come on, that stuff tastes horrible.”
“Do I have to call Little Johnny in here to show Big Johnny how to take his medicine?”
The look on Johnny’s face sent Scott roaring with laughter out the door.
Murdoch pulled the surrey to a stop outside the front door of the hacienda.
“I’m sorry Teresa,” he said patting her knee. “I know you wanted to be here early enough to cook Thanksgiving dinner.”
“That darn train.”
“Delays are common this time of year. You can cook turkey dinner tomorrow. I’m sure the boys won’t mind waiting one more day.”
“I know,” she sighed. “I just hope they aren’t too disappointed.”
Murdoch swung Teresa down off the surrey and they both headed for the front door.
Murdoch opened the massive door, happy to be home at last, and a small blonde haired boy looked up at him…both amazement and uncertainty written on his young face. “Are you Uncle Murdoch?” he asked.
“Uncle…?” Murdoch looked back at Teresa.
“And you’re Aunt Teresa. Ma says you keep a real clean house, but she don’t know how ya do it. I think ya gets help from Big Johnny and Uncle Scott.”
“Yea. Cause I’m Little Johnny. My pa named me after a famous man. Uncle Jelly knows ‘im. Johnny Madrid. You know ‘im too?”
Murdoch pinched himself to see if he was awake. “Yes. I’ve met him a time or two.”
“You have?” The boy’s eyes opened wide. “You got ta tell me all about it.”
“Where are…Uncle Scott and Big Johnny?” Murdoch asked hesitantly.
“Ma is with Big Johnny up in his room. She put a musket castor on his chest to help with his cold. But he complains a lot. Ma says I’m a better patient.” Little Johnny said proudly.
“I’m sure you are. And… a…Uncle Scott?”
“He’s up there too. He says he’s gonna make Big Johnny behave.”
Murdoch took a deep breath not sure if he should step into his own house…if this was his own house.
“Murdoch, do you smell that?” Teresa sniffed the air.
“Turkey?” Murdoch asked.
“Sure is.” Little Johnny beamed. “Ma said since it was Thanksgiving she thought you wouldn’t mind if she took over yer kitchen. Ma’s a good cook ya know?”
“I’m sure she is,” Teresa said, stepping around her ‘nephew’, and headed for the kitchen.
“Miss O’Brien, I’m so sorry, I wanted to be down here to greet you.” A woman in her thirties rushed into the room, ironing her skirt with her hands. “My name is Mary Ellen Washburn, your brothers were kind enough to invite us to stay here for a couple of days. We had nowhere else to go. I hope you don’t mind.”
Murdoch extended his hand to Mrs. Washburn. “No, of course not. Welcome to our home,” he said, still stunned.
Mrs. Washburn turned to little Johnny. “Go get washed up for supper. And tell Uncle Scott to make sure Big Johnny is dressed warm before he comes down stairs. That mustard plaster will give him a chill.”
Teresa looked up the stairs, suddenly worried. “What’s wrong with Johnny?”
“Oh just a cold. His chest was congested and Scott said he was prone to pneumonia so I thought a mustard plaster would be good for him.”
Teresa nodded. “That’s exactly what I would do for him.”
“Good. Now if you two would like to wash up for supper…I hope you like my cooking.”
Teresa opened her mouth then closed it.
“I’m sure we will.” Murdoch agreed as Mrs. Washburn hustled off toward the kitchen.
“Uncle Murdoch,” Teresa whispered. “Do you think we’re in the right house?”
“I’m wondering if we’re in the right state”
Murdoch Lancer looked at the center of the huge dining table and saw the puniest turkey he had ever seen in his entire life.
“Sorry, Murdoch,” Scott said sheepishly. “It was the only thing we could find. Turkeys were scarce this year.”
“What happened to the turkey that was here when we left?” Teresa asked.
“Big Johnny shot it to smithereens,” Little Johnny giggled.
“What…?” Murdoch looked from one son to the other and finally to Jelly. They all looked down at their plates like repentant schoolboys.
“That’s why they came to our house. They bought Bartholomew from my Pa, but then Big Johnny started sneezing cause he’s got a bad cold and that started Barranca to fidgeting and then Barranca hit Bartholomew’s pen and Bartholomew got real scared. Uncle Jelly near fell off his horse when Barranca knocked into him too. Uncle Scott, he saved them all, didn’t ya Uncle Scott?”
Johnny raised an eyebrow at his older brother. That was news to him.
“Bartholomew?” Murdoch grimaced.
“Yea! Ya want ta see him? He’s right outside.”
“Not now,” his mother scolded. “Mr. Lancer must be hungry.”
“No…no…I would love nothing better than to see this Bartholomew.” He leaned over and whispered in Teresa’s ear. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
As they headed outside to see the great Bartholomew, Scott filled the new arrivals in on the whole story of Mrs. Washburn and Little Johnny. Murdoch patted both his sons on the shoulders. “You did the right thing, sons. I’m proud of you.”
As they rounded the corner of the barn Murdoch nearly knocked into Teresa who had stopped dead in her tracks. Dewdrop was sitting comfortable as could be between two of the longest, skinniest legs ever to set foot on the face of the earth.
“This here is Bartholomew,” Little Johnny beamed. “He’s the best gal darn turkey in the whole gal darn world.”
“Johnny!” Four voices rang out in unison.
“Watch your language, young man,” Mrs. Washburn scolded.
“Well…he is!” Little Johnny said with pride.
“I have to agree with the boy.” Murdoch laughed.
Bartholomew looked up at them and gobbled in agreement.
Happy Thanksgiving 2004!
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