First Dance by Margaret P.

by Margaret P.

This story is dedicated to the memory of Melanie Maben, a Lancer fan who lost her battle with cancer in May, 2020. It was written when she was still with us and posted along with stories by other writers on the Lancer FanFiction Facebook site in an effort to bring her some pleasure in her dying days.

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“You need to ask someone. It’s expected.”

“No one in Green River wants to go to a dance with me.”

“You’re part owner of one of the biggest ranches in the San Joaquin.”

“Yeah and that would be the only reason.” 

Scott frowned. “You can’t know what the girls in this town think about you until you walk out with a few.”

“Pfft.” Johnny slapped the porch post as they came to a halt. He wasn’t blind or deaf. Murdoch could introduce him as his son all he liked, but most townsfolk in Green River saw him as Johnny Madrid or a rich rancher’s mistake. “Unless their pas want to get in Murdoch’s good books real bad, they’re not going to go anywhere near me.”

“They’re not all like that. Lydia isn’t.”

Johnny bit his tongue and turned to look down the street. His brother’s escort to the dance had a pretty face—two of them. Scott was no fool though; he’d work it out eventually.

“No need to feel insecure just because I’m better looking.” Scott straightened his jacket.

Then sidestepped fast as Johnny made a swipe for him.

“In your dreams, Boston.”

“You’ll find someone if you actually ask the question.” Scott dropped down onto the road next to his horse. “Ask today, Johnny. The dance is tomorrow night, and Murdoch wants us both to have local girls on our arms.”

“I know, I know.” Johnny waved his brother away. He could do without this, but he’d promised Murdoch and somehow that mattered.

Walking on, he glanced in shop windows and scanned the street for a pretty girl who didn’t look like she’d turn her nose up at him just because he was part Mexican. He saw one, but she was all of five years old.

Why couldn’t Murdoch be satisfied with him turning up and asking a few ladies to dance on the night? They were less likely to snub him with Murdoch, Scott and Teresa standing in plain sight. What was all fire important about Green River’s annual town dance anyway?

He hadn’t had a lot of experience, but he wasn’t scared of inviting a respectable young woman to walk out with him. It wasn’t that, even if Scott thought it was. The real reason was he hadn’t met the right girl to ask; he was beginning to think he never would—not in this town at any rate. He wanted to escort a young lady who enjoyed his company, not some stuck up miss who lowered herself to accept the invitation simply because his old man owned a lot of land.

It was funny how he still thought of the ranch as Murdoch’s and not his as well. He’d signed the contract giving him one third of it. He’d even reinvested most of the one thousand dollars his father had used to get him here. Maybe he didn’t truly believe he’d earned the title of landowner or rancher yet. God only knew how often he felt like a fish out of water, and that didn’t come natural; not after he’d been at the top of his trade for so long.

Johnny stopped to let the cooper roll a barrel across the boardwalk to a waiting cart, and then he strolled on, picking absentmindedly at a callous on his hand. How many fence posts would it take? The fracas over the ranch a few weeks ago didn’t count. He’d put his life on the line for other people’s land too often; there needed to be something more for Lancer to feel like it belonged to him.

“Yeee-ooow!”

Shit. Jumping back, something large and black shot across his path. It whacked into the side of a parked wagon before sliding to the ground between it and the boardwalk.

“Get out and stay out!” The butcher, sleeves rolled up to the elbow and a broom in hand, cursed from his doorway.

Johnny’s head swivelled between the wagon and butcher stomping back into his shop. What the hell?

Cautiously, he crossed the boards and peered down into the gap between boardwalk and the wagon.

“Poor kitty.” The little girl, who’d been kicking her heels on the bench seat outside the dress shop, came to stand next to him. She bit her bottom lip and blinked back tears.

“He might be all right.” Johnny stepped down into the gap. “Look, he’s still alive.”

The cat’s chest rose and fell rhythmically, even though there was no other sign of life. It seemed to be out cold.

“He’s not bleeding.” Johnny picked the cat up gently and examined it. “Do you know who he belongs to?”

The girl reached out and stroked the cat’s fur. “He’s Miss Melanie’s cat, Cinder. I gave him the last of my milk and he followed me. Mamma shooed him away when she saw him.”

“He must have gone into the butcher’s shop looking for more food.” Johnny hunkered down to the child’s level. “Don’t cry.  He’s breathing—see. Where does Miss Melanie live?”

 “Next door to me.”

“Where’s that?”

The little girl pointed south.

“Do you know your address?”

Rubbing out a tear with the heel of her hand, the child puffed out her chest. “My name is Hildie Lawson and I live at 14 Third Street.”

“Bravo. That was very well remembered, Hildie.”

“My house has blue shutters and a swing. Miss Melanie’s house has green shutters. She doesn’t have a swing, but she has a pretty garden and three cats.” Hildie smiled, and then sighed and looked solemn. “I wish I had a cat, but Papa says he doesn’t want cat hairs on his best suit.”

“Some people are like that. I found a dog once, but I wasn’t allowed to keep it for the same reason.”

“It’s not fair.” Hildie sniffed and her bottom lip trembled.

“No, it’s not, but this little fella does have a home, and now thanks to you I think I know where it is.”

Every time he went along Third Street he smelled roses. They were planted in a neatly kept garden outside a small cottage. A path edged with whitewashed stones and ornaments led the way up to the porch, and he’d often seen a cat or two sunnying themselves by the steps.

Hildie still looked sad.

Johnny cocked his head, making faces and smiling, until he made her smile back. “Does the garden have pink and white roses?”

Hildie nodded and stoked the cat again.

“Thank you, Hildie.” Johnny got to his feet. “Don’t worry; I’ll find Miss Melanie, and she’ll know what to do. You skedaddle back to your seat now before your Mamma misses you.”

He watched the little girl until she was sitting safely back on the bench outside the dress shop, and then he headed towards Third Street. He got more than a few odd looks as he strode along cradling the cat in his arms. No one said anything though. No one asked what had happened or offered to help. Green River was a strange town. It hadn’t taken long to break the ice in Morro Coyo, but Green River was different—respectable and white. Johnny stood out, even when he wasn’t carrying a cat.

He looked up at the Californian blue sky. Not a cloud in the sky. Not much hope of rain or anything else that would ease the heat surrounding him. Maybe he’d made some progress today with a child, but how long would it take for the adults here to get used to him? How long would it take for him to get used to them?

It had been nearly three months since he’d officially signed away his old life, and almost two weeks now since he’d chased a wild horse and truly decided to stay. He’d visited Green River several times; the townsfolk knew who he was and he knew many of their names too. He never felt comfortable in their company though. They were all polite manners and forced smiles, scared looks or snide ones. What did it take for a man with a past to earn a real smile?

Arms full of cat perhaps.

As he approached number twelve a fair-haired woman pruning roses in her front garden looked up at him and beamed.

Seconds later her face fell. She dropped her secateurs and rushed to open the gate. “Oh my goodness, Cinder— what happened?”

“The butcher swept him out of his shop. I think Cinder banged his head on the side of a wagon.” Johnny lay the cat down on the porch. “Hildie Lawson told me he was yours.”

“Oh, you silly cat; what were you doing so far from home?” She sat down on the stoop and rested her cheek against Cinder’s head as she stroked his back and tail.

Johnny wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw the animal move. “Hildie said Cinder followed her into town after she gave him some milk.”

Still stroking, Miss Melanie sat back and gazed up at Johnny. “Cinder loves his food.”

“That’s not all he loves. Look, his eyes have opened.”

“Oh, thanks be.” Miss Melanie rubbed the cat’s ear and Cinder gave a loud rumbling purr. Then he lifted his head, stretched and got unsteadily up onto his feet. Blinking twice, he walked drunkenly over to a basket by the open front door and curled up in a ball to sleep.

Johnny tipped back his hat. “Well, what do you know? It looks like he’s okay.”

“Thanks to you.”

“No, I think he recognized your voice and decided life was worth another shot.”

Miss Melanie laughed. “Either way, Mr Lancer, I thank you for bringing him home.”

“You know who I am?”

“Of course. You and your brother have been the main topic of conversation in Green River for weeks.” The young woman smiled. “Before you arrived, I was thinking of getting a drink of lemonade. Would you like to join me?”

“Yes, ma’am, thank you; if it’s no trouble.”

“Oh, quite the opposite, I assure you. I don’t get many visitors.” She led the way onto the porch. “Please do take a seat. I won’t invite you inside, if you don’t mind. My parents are having their afternoon naps. It will be much easier to talk out here.” She disappeared into the gloom of the house and Johnny sat down in the wicker chair next to Cinder’s basket.

When she returned, Johnny helped transfer cookies, glasses and a heavy jug of lemonade from a tray onto a small table between their two chairs. First making sure the door was slightly open so she could hear if she was needed inside, she sat down and poured out the lemonade, chatting away as if she’d known him for years. They talked and laughed about all sorts of things. There was no awkwardness, no embarrassed looks or carefully courteous comments. Miss Melanie—Melanie—was a really friendly, down to earth lady.

“Are you looking forward to the town dance, Melanie?”

Melanie glanced away and worried the corner of her apron with her fingers. “Sadly, I can’t go. My parents are too ill to attend, you see, and I can’t leave them alone.”

“No, but—“

“It was easier when my sister lived here, but she moved to Stockton with her husband and children last year.”

“I see. That’s too bad, but I think I know someone who could stay with your parents.”

“It’s a nice thought, Johnny, but you’ll find everyone in Green River is going to the dance.” She touched his hand and smiled with resignation. “Even if you persuaded someone, they probably wouldn’t be suitable. It’s not easy nursing two old people at the same time.”

“Our housekeeper, Maria, has a lot of experience nursing folks of all ages. I know she isn’t going to the dance; all her friends and family are in Morro Coyo. I’m sure she’d be happy to help. I could bring her into town with me and take her home afterwards.” Johnny put his empty glass down on the table. “You could come with me to the dance, Melanie. I mean, you don’t have to. I would ask Maria to look after your parents whoever you went with, but would you come with me? I’d be honoured if you’d let me escort you.”

“Johnny, I would love to go to the dance with you, but wouldn’t you like to ask someone closer to your own age?”

Johnny blinked and smiled. He hadn’t even thought about it; he felt so at ease with her that age didn’t seem to matter. She was an attractive woman, maybe not as young as him but youngish. She had pink and white skin like the roses in her garden, and her blond wavy hair framed soft blue eyes. Best of all she genuinely enjoyed his company; Lancer or Madrid it clearly didn’t matter to her. She liked him for himself, and he’d be proud to have her on his arm. “I want to go to my first dance in Green River with a friend. You are my friend now, aren’t you, Melanie?”

“I most certainly am, Johnny, and if you’re quite sure, I accept your kind invitation with pleasure. I would be honoured to go to the dance with you.” Melanie’s eyes shone. She leaned forward and squeezed his hand. “You wouldn’t believe how many young ladies around here have got their sights on you. They’ll be so jealous of me, and I’m going to enjoy every minute.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere, Miss Maben, but it will be me who’ll be envied. Every bachelor in Green River will want to dance with you.” Johnny lifted Melanie’s hand and kissed it goodbye. “Until tomorrow.”

~end~

2020

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