A Stranger Until You Become A Friend by Olley

Word Count 8259

 

Johnny is 19 and Scott is 25. They have been at Lancer three months.

1st in the Hettie Series

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Chapter 1

Johnny leant down and patted Barrancas neck, “Sure is a pretty day ain’t it”

Barranca nodded his agreement, an early summer day plenty of good grazing and his compardre in a rare good mood.

They plodded along, the fencing had been finished without any problems and they should be back at the hacienda in plenty of time for the evening meal deadline, so no reason for Murdoch to get in a pucker about time keeping.

Barrancas ears pricked forward and Johnny sat up his right hand automatically dropped to his colt.

Raised voices from over the rise on the left where the Green River road ran.

Down below two boys not much younger than him on horses circling round a Mexican boy leading a mule on which sat a younger girl and another girl on foot.

Johnny could hear the insults and they took him back to his childhood before his reputation made the bigots back off.

He rode down and waited until he had the groups attention, “Seems a cowardly thing you two are doing, maybe I should ask the why of it?” Johnny’s deep blue eyes pinned the two boys. Both wore guns but it was obvious they weren’t gun hawks.

It was the Anglo girl who spoke up and she stepped up to one of the boys and pointed, “estos tontos no son sino baja por intolerantes y matones” “these fools are nothing but low down bigots and bullies”

Johnny raised an eyebrow at her use of Spanish and her bravery, she could have been in danger but was on a mission facing down these two.

Johnny stayed on his horse a quick look at the Mexican boy probably 14 or so showed he had been pushed around some, the Mexican girl was only a little thing maybe 7 or 8 and looking fearful. The two young cowboys weren’t saddle tramps, in fact looked all smarted up. “Well I’d better introduce myself names Lancer, Johnny Lancer” he gave one of his cold smiles to the boys but inside laughed ‘boy, can make it sound almost as dangerous’.

He kept on his smile as he saw the reaction.

There was a silence until the brave Anglo girl with the mass of honey coloured curly hair spoke, “Hola Johnny, I’m Hettie Baxter and this here is Carmella and her brother Julio DeSalvidora. And these” and she pointed at the two on horseback, “are the Mortimer boys Harvey and Norman”.

Johnny studied them “From the Mortimer spread?” The Mortimer ranch was on the other side of Green River, Murdoch had told him and Scott all about the local ranches and businesses, but although he had come across some of the Mortimer ranch hands hadn’t met the owner Neville Mortimer.

The older of the two probably about a year younger than Johnny settled his horse, “Yep I’m Harv Mortimer an’ this is my brother Norm.”

Johnny guessed Norm was about 15.

“So what you doing over this side of Green River giving these here kids a hard time?” Johnny asked.

“Ain’t none of your business what we are doing with our staff” said the younger Mortimer.

Johnny stiffened and as he moved the saddle creaked and Barranca pawed the ground, “Staff uh” and looked at the two Mexican kids, the girl her eyes wide, the boy his fists clenched at his side.

Hettie stepped towards the little girl on the mule and took her hand, “Julio and Carmella are coming to visit at my house, and are doing some extra school work. Norm here who can hardly write his own name thinks he can order them around so has got his brother along to stop the extra lessons. The Mortimer’s seem to think Mexicans don’t need an education.”

“Well they don’t and everyone knows you’re a crazy kid whose brain got fried in the sun. These two live on our ranch and should be there working they don’t need to get any schooling”. Norm Mortimer was furious, how dare crazy Hettie Baxter talk to him like that.

“Whoa there, let’s calm down some. First off, boys shouldn’t be picking fights or bullying girls ‘specially little ‘uns like Carmella there. Second off, two cowboys like you two shouldn’t be pushing ’round anyone just ‘coz they are getting some schooling. Are you employed on the Mortimer spread Julio?” Johnny looked at the boy.

“No signor my papa works there but wants Carmella and me to go to school until we are at least 15. Mz Edwards at the school says I am good enough to go to college, so Signoretti Hettie gives extra schooling”

Johnny looked closely at the boy, skinny, angry and he saw something of himself when he was about 10 years old. Being treated as less than others by the nuns in the orphanage, no matter how hard he tried at lessons there was always a reason to rap his knuckles or even feel the switch on his backside. Then at 11 being sent out to work for Don Carlos for nothing but a bed and poor food and even worse treatment. He knew he deserved better, was better and that’s when he ran away full of anger at the world that had left him without family.

Johnny sighed pushed his hat off his head to hang down his back, “Well this is what’s ‘gonna happen you two,” he pointed at the Mortimer boys, “are going to go on your way back to your place, and these three are going to Mz Hettie’s place, ‘coz if a body wants schooling they should get it.”

The two Mortimer’s looked at each other, the older of the two staring daggers at Hettie but not looking into Johnny’s eyes. “Come on Norm” he said to his younger brother. They turned their horses and trotted off, their heads together talking.

Johnny knew in his bones he had made enemies, only two kids, but their Pa was a rancher friend of Murdoch’s so as Scott would say there’s bound to be consequences.

“Right think it best if Julio rides the mule and you two ladies can ride with me,” Johnny grinned at the three.

“I don’t ride” announced Hettie.

“What!, How’d you get about?” asked Johnny.

“Walk or drive a buggy” she said frowning at him.

“Well there ain’t no buggy an if’en you walk I’ll have ta walk ‘coz it ain’t mannerly for me to ride while you walk”. Johnny turned to Carmella, “you ‘wanna ride with me on Barranca chica?”

Brown eyes popped open wide “Si signor”.

“Right, it’s settled you’re out-voted Hettie Baxter”. He grinned with delight at her.

Julio lifted his sister from the mule to sit in front of Johnny and then Johnny took his foot out of the stirrup and reached down to the stubbornness bravest girl he had come across in a long while. “Come on hop up Hettie”.

There they were a boy on a mule and Johnny with two passengers. Barranca snorted as Johnny told him to be good with young ladies on board. “So where we going?” he asked.

Hettie sighed at being out smarted “Just along here then the right hand road takes you to my folks place”.

A real pretty wooden ranch style house with a sign on the gate ‘Charles E Baxter, Veterinarian Surgeon’.

Johnny lifted Carmella off and let Hettie hold onto his arm as she slid to the ground. He turned to Julio, “You ‘gonna be okay Julio? Get you Papa to come to Lancer there will be work and a home for you. No discriminación está bien”. No discrimination okay”.

Julio nodded, “Señor Si le digo muchas gracias”. “Si signor I will tell him, thank you”.

Of course he was now running late for the ol’e mans tune calling evening meal time table.

“Never you mind none Barranca you’ll have extra oats for your good deed an’ a real good rub down”. Barranca nodded as they made their way to Lancer at a steady trot.

Scott found his new little brother in the barn talking softly in Spanish to his cousin Matteo, Cipriano’s youngest boy, one each side of Barranca grooming the palomino.

“Hey there Johnny you have trouble at that fence?” Scott asked.

“Hey there Scott” replied Johnny, “Nope just got held up some on the way back”.

Scott waited wondering what that hold up was, but Johnny didn’t elaborate, just gave a lop sided smile.

Scott couldn’t help but smile back at this newly discovered younger brother, there was so much more to him than the silent, at times, insolent gunfighter. He was hoping the head butting with Murdoch wouldn’t get so bad it drove the boy away.

“Our father wants to talk to you”.

Johnny groaned it was a real test of his patience when Murdoch lit into him.

Scott held his hand up, “He is taking me with him to a cattleman’s meeting in Stockton”.

Johnny raised his eyebrows, “How long you gonna be gone?”

“We leave the day after tomorrow on the stage from Green River, and will be gone for a week”.

Johnny didn’t know if he should be annoyed, once again being over-looked and treated like just another vaquero, but then two days in a stage there and back with Murdoch, and then sitting still in a room with men he didn’t know Dios no. He and Scott were walking from the barn towards the hacienda his eyes slid sideways, “Lucky you Boston”.

“That’s Scott, Boston is where I lived, and a week in such close proximity with our father is more of a challenge than luck I think”.

“Sure Boston, not sure I want to know what being in close proxy monity with the ol’e man would be like”.

Scott laughed, “I’m sure you have been in very close proximity with the girls in Rosas cantina, and it’s Scott”.

They were through the front door laughing and gently pushing against each other.

Murdoch looked up, it had surprised him how easily these two completely different people had started to build a friendship, ‘No’ he told himself, ‘not people his sons’.

“You had anything to eat yet?” he wanted to say son but at the last moment said, “Johnny”.

Johnny watched this huge man, his father, get up from his chair by the fire with a drink in his hand, ‘Dios he is a big man’ “Nope saw to Barranca, hope Mamacita has left something in the kitchen”.

“Go and eat boy then I’ll bring you up to date with my plans” Murdoch tried to make it sound less like an order, but years of being the tune caller he found it hard.

Murdoch had finished his drink and looked again at the time on the long case clock, Johnny and time-keeping are not close companions he thought. Scott was about to speak but Murdoch held up his hand, “It’s okay Scott I’ll go to him”.

Murdoch did wonder if the boy had disappeared back to that horse of his, but no, there he was in the kitchen washing his used dishes. ‘He is house trained, stop you old fool’ he told himself, thinking of him as some half wild creature. But where did he learn the good manners, he caught glimpses of, why can’t I just ask him? Instead Murdoch silently took a drying cloth and dried the wet dishes and stacked them ready for Maria in the morning.

Johnny watched unsure of this quiet Murdoch he played with the bracelet around his left wrist and waited.

“Do you want a drink with me and Scott, or more coffee, there’s tequila?” Murdoch made an effort to keep his voice quiet.

“You got tequila?” Johnny blinked in surprise.

Murdoch smiled, a small success, “Had Cip fetch some from Morro Coyo, been a while since I drank it and maybe we take time introducing Scott to it eh?”

“Yeah ol’e man not sure his Boston taste buds could cope” Johnny gave him one of his rare genuine smiles and the ol’e man had a note of affection not an insult.

So, with drinks in hand the three men looked over a map of the northern section of Lancer. Murdoch pointed to two ponds, “These are essential for watering the stock in summer, but the creek feeding them has dried up and should be in full flow at this time of the year”. He pointed to North Creek ridge, “The water source is up there some place, not sure if it was Pardee’s doing or a natural event but it must have got blocked or diverted. Now Johnny while Scott and I are in Stockton I’d like you to go and survey the ridge and try and find what’s happened and make a list of what we need to do to get the water flowing back to the ponds. Can I trust you with this Johnny?”

Johnny looked up from the map into Murdoch’s eyes, what was there? He was good at reading a man but not this one, and it worried him, “Yeah ol’e man” Dios he thought to himself stop being so prickly with him.

Next day Murdoch’s orders kept both Scott and him close to the hacienda. Johnny took to actually hiding in the loft to avoid Murdoch once more telling him about that damn blocked water source. Scott found him, “Well at least you won’t be late for the evening meal today little brother. Come on you can’t hide out any longer”.

“What’s with him, fussing like an old lady? You’d think he’d never left on a business trip before” Johnny couldn’t get a handle on it.

“Well it’s the first time he’s taken a son with him. But maybe he’s worried you’ll still be here when he gets back” Scott asked the question his grey blue eyes looking into Johnny’s sapphire blue ones.

Johnny gave that some thought, was that what happened when his Mama left? “Ain’t going nowhere, this here is mine” he grinned, “At least one third is”.

Over the evening meal was when Murdoch asked about the fencing from the day before. Johnny kept his calm, ‘pect Tio Cip told him it got done, instead said “You know a rancher name of Mortimer?” watching for a tell, yep there it was, ol’e Murdoch his eyes narrowed and a twitch, so he don’t like Mortimer much.

Murdoch took a sip of his wine to collect his thoughts, “Yes Neville Mortimer of the double M, got a spread the other side of Green River. You come across him son?”

“Nope but met two of his kids, boys name of Harvey and Norman, they don’t take to my kind do they?” get to the point see what happens when you prod a man, usually worked.

But it was Scott who re-acted, “What do you mean your kind?”

“Mean Mexican or in my case mestizo Scott not everyone has time for us” Johnny pushed the last of his dinner away his appetite gone.

“Was there a fight Johnny? Norman’s only 15?” Murdoch had that frown on his face.

Best not tell him I was even younger than that, “Nope, I kind’a stopped a bit of a fracas. Those boys were giving Julio DeSalvidora a hard time. You know a Hettie Baxter, the veterinarian’s daughter?” Johnny didn’t wait for an answer, “Boy for an Anglo, she sure does have a lot ‘a Latino temper in her. She gave them boys a real tongue lashing. How old is she Murdoch?”

Murdoch took a breath, no gun play thank the lord, “Yes I know the Baxter’s and Hettie is going to be 16 in a few week. Very intelligent gone through all the grades the Green River school can provide and her parents are deciding on where her next school should be. She is quite a character”.

Johnny raised an eyebrow, more there about Hettie than ol’e Murdoch was letting on then.

Murdoch fretted again after the evening meal and again all through breakfast about the surveying. Johnny had stopped listening, amazed at how polite Scott was being.

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Chapter 2

The three Lancers rode into Green River, Johnny slightly in front his right hand loose by his colt his eyes taking in the people and surroundings. Habits hard earned and not easily abandoned.

Murdoch felt his short fused temper lit, the boy couldn’t or wouldn’t lose his Madrid persona. He was worried, he had decided to take Scott with him to the cattleman’s meeting, knowing his eldest son had the education and manners to ensure he would have no problems meeting the men who were important business associates of Lancer. No he wasn’t worried about Scott, his worry centered on Johnny who was staying behind, would he stay away from trouble, would he take the opportunity to leave? The trouble was he didn’t seem to be able to talk to his youngest without it resulting in loud voices head butting and Johnny usually stomping out to the barn to visit his horse.

Johnny was aware that they were being watched by the folk out and about in Green River. He couldn’t detect any danger just curiosity, him and Scott not having been long at Lancer. The stories about fighting off Day Pardee and his gang still hot gossip, but mostly he was aware of the talk about the differences between Scott the Harvard educated wealthy easterner the decorated soldier, and him a mestizo gunfighter.

He dismounted outside the stage office and patted Barranca’s neck, “You’re a good fella”. Barranca nodded in agreement and nuzzled at Johnny letting him know he had a least one friend in this world.

Scott tied his horse to the hitching rail and patted Johnny on his shoulder and quietly said in his ear, “Want a small bet on how many times Murdoch tells you about your orders while we’re away?”

Johnny allowed a grin to creep across his face and looked sideways at this tall fair Gringo from Boston, his brother who would have thought it. They were still sizing each other up, but both had a common view that Lancer was theirs and worth making a change in their lives for.

Johnny found it amusing that Scott seemed unaware of the Madrid reputation, but impressed that for an easterner dude he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and learn how to be a rancher, “Well,” he drawled pushing his hat off his head to hang by the storm strings down his back, “It was three times at breakfast, an twice on the ride in, reckon he’ll try for at least twice more”.

Johnny toed the dirt with his boot his head down as Murdoch approached, “Now John remember what I said, stay out of trouble and I’m hoping you will survey over at North Creek ridge, since the trouble with those high riders the water from there to the north pasture ponds has dried up. Any problems your Tio Cipriano will be there for you”.

Johnny kept his head down, Dios I’ve looked after myself for nearly 10 years and have organise men in range wars and uprisings, well okay that last one went wrong, but hell being spoken to like I’m a little kid don’t sit to well.

He blinked when he heard his father say his name loudly, “John did you listen boy?”

“Yeah ol’e man I heard you, Tio Cip’s in charge, stay out’a trouble, find why the water source dried up, anything else?” Dios I sound like a little kid, how does he do that to me?

Before Murdoch could say anything, the stage arrived in a cloud of dust and stamping horses hooves.

Scott turned to him, “Only once little brother”.

Johnny back slapped Scott’s belly, “Yeah but you get his close proximity for the next week, think I’m on the winning side Boston”.

Scott snorted and climbed in the coach not looking forward to the journey. Murdoch paused half in and turned to Johnny, “Johnny that water source is important to the ranch do your best son”.

Johnny blinked taken by surprise at the gentle tone not a gruff order and being called son here in town for anyone to hear, “Kay, enjoy the meeting”.

He leaned forward so he could see Scott and held up two fingers and grinned, yeah love winning a bet.


The stage left in another cloud of dust and noise. He looked over at the saloon, a beer would be good and maybe some friendly company. He became aware of being watched and slowly turned to see a solemn young girl sat on one of the seats outside the stage office looking at him. A mass of honey coloured curly hair tied back and bright pale blue eyes studying him. She had a note book open on her lap and had obviously been writing.

“Hola Mz Hettie” Johnny said and tipped his hat at her.

She put a hand up to shade her eyes while she looked up at him, “Hola, Johnny, I hope you are okay. Where are Uncle Murdoch and your brother off to?”

“Uncle Murdoch, have I got more relatives I don’t know about?” he asked.

“Your Pa is my Godfather” she explained.

Johnny blinked, surprised again first being called son and now this girl calling Murdoch his Pa. Need to get used to that living here, he thought.

“Didn’t you know about your relatives?” she asked.

“Boy, you always this nosey?” but he grinned, he thought her interesting. So far most folks in Green River treated him with suspicion, and some downright hostility but this girl was just honest and straight forward with him.

Hettie’s eyes went down “Sorry” her voice quiet.

“No no it’s okay, just, well I didn’t know nuting ’bout having a brother till I got here. I knew I had Mexican kin someplace just didn’t know they would be here as well”. Johnny paused what was it about her that had loosened his tongue, he wasn’t ever given to talking ’bout his self. “An Murdoch and Scott are off to a meeting in Stockton for a few days”.

She looked up at him leaning against the hitching rail thinking he looked sad and wondering why.

He looked at her thinking she looked way to serious for someone so young. There was a look about her that spoke of pain and loneliness, a look he recognised.

“There has probably been a rock fall at North Creek ridge that has blocked the spring up there”.

Johnny grinned at her, “You heard him issuing his orders uh, you know up there?”

“Yes used to go exploring all over when I was a kid” she said.

“When you were a kid, you’re still a kid” he studied her, his head going to one side, “You’re not yet 16”.

She smiled and looked into his eyes so deep blue and knew he would understand her, “I’m nearly 16 on the outside but I’m 24 on the inside”.

Johnny pushed himself away from the rail and went to sit in the seat next to her, “Why 24?”

“Dunno just seems like as good an age as any, and I hope to stay that age on the inside until I die of old age on the outside”.

“Hot dang Hettie Baxter I like your thinking” he grinned.

At that moment a smartly dress woman came down the boardwalk, “Hettie you ready to go home, and where is your bonnet?”

“Yes Ma” she got up putting her note book and pencil in a pocket of her skirt and fished a crumpled up bonnet from beneath the chair.

Johnny stood to greet the girls’ mother. A petite attractive woman, “Johnny Lancer is it, well I’m so please to meet you. I was beginning to think Murdoch was keeping you to himself” she held out her hand and Johnny taken aback at this genuine friendly greeting took her hand and simply said, “Ma’am”.

“You’ll have met my husband I think Charles, he’s the veterinarian in these parts”.

“Why yes Ma’am he was out looking at the ol’e, sorry Murdoch’s new bull last week”. Charles Baxter had been at the ranch Murdoch proudly showing off a new bull. Murdoch had introduced Scott just as proud of his number one son. He himself had stayed in the background he was filthy and sweaty having spent the day pulling stupid cows from a muddy pond and moving them to some place they couldn’t get into any trouble. He wasn’t fit to be in company.

Mrs Baxter was smiling at him, “Did I see Murdoch getting in the stage, where’s he off to?”

“Him ‘n Scott are off to Stockton for a Cattleman’s meeting” replied Johnny.

“So you’re in charge that’s good” she said.

Johnny was having nothing but surprises sprung on him, “No don’t think so Ma’am, that’ll be Cipriano, me, I have to go find a missing spring up at North creek ridge”.

“John Lancer you’re the Patrons son, so with him and your brother away even for a few days everyone on Lancer will look to you as being the boss. It will of course take longer for the towns folks here in Green River to get used to you, but patience that’s all you need”, and she patted his arm, his gun arm at that.

Johnny stepped back, she sure was being friendly, it was all a bit un-nerving and he wasn’t used to that feeling.

“If I remember right, that spring can be sneaky to find, you need to get up to the ridge edge and probably move some rocks”, said Hettie.

Molly Baxter smiled affectionately at Hettie, “My daughter here was quite the young explorer a few years back.”

Johnny grinned and shook his head as he watched the two on their way down the boardwalk.


Two days of looking for a dried up spring without success, “Dios Barranca, where’s that damn spring?” He kicked the ground in frustration his hands on his hips and squinted up at the sun. “Guess it’s time to ask for some help old fella?” He patted Barranca before mounting.

The Baxter place he decided had a real homely feel to it, “Hello the house” he shouted as he dismounted.

Charles Baxter the only truly qualified vet in nearly 100 square miles came from round back “Why it’s John Lancer, is there a problem?”

“No, well not with the stock, just could do with some help that Hettie might give” Johnny found he was being offered a hand shake, something he didn’t normally do with men he didn’t know, but this seemed different.

Charles let out a bellow, “Hettie, we’ve got a visitor. Come on in John, a glass of cold lemonade and fresh cookies?”

It wasn’t as if he had a chance to refuse, and there he was visiting just like any honest regular cowboy.

Hettie appeared her hair all over the place like a cloud of honey, “Hola Johnny how you doing?”

So Johnny found himself explaining he hadn’t found the spring and maybe Hettie could draw him a map.

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Chapter 3

Well Johnny Madrid used whatever resource was available when he was on a job, so why couldn’t Johnny Lancer?

And if that meant asking this Hettie Baxter for help so be it, “Looked for that missing spring for best part of two days” he explained to Charles and his daughter, “Hoping Hettie can maybe draw me a map”.

Hettie got her note book and pencil and began to draw a map, “It’s a bit of a sneaky thing ‘cos the spring is underground and changes where it comes above ground but it should find its way out down over rocks into a holding pond before then going down into the creek”.

Charles looked at his daughters map, “It’s an important water source for the northern pastures isn’t it Johnny?”

Johnny nodded “Yep Murdoch says the creek feeds two ponds that we’ll need in summer”. Odd thought Johnny, I feel like I might let him down if I don’t find this, an’ I don’t like to fail at anything I do.

Charles knew the land, it was hard work repairing the damage the high riders had done during their raids. “Hettie you know up there perhaps you should go with Johnny”.

“Whoa Mr Baxter is that such a good idea, just me an’ Hettie” Johnny was surprised being trusted like that.

“I’m sure you’ll be safe with her, even though she attracts misadventures like honey attracts a bee”. Charles Baxter was actually smiling at him as though he had told a joke.

“Pa I don’t anymore” complained Hettie.

“Hettie can you help Johnny with this or not?” her father looked stern. Johnny was watching this play out, there was a lot of love and affection going on here even if Mr Baxter did have a strict tone to his voice.

“Well, I guess so” she was blushing her eyes down and kicking her shoe against the table leg.

Johnny suddenly got the feeling that was what he must look like when his ol’e man was in a pucker with him over time-keeping and wearing underwear and other things Johnny couldn’t come to terms with.

So that’s how he found himself with Hettie, once again riding double on Barranca, “You gonna tell me why you don’t ride?” He felt her take a breath and waited, he didn’t mind silence, not like Scott who seemed to fill silence with his fancy eastern $5 words.

“I was 9 and had this little old pony called Bumble we went all over, I wasn’t afraid of anything just curious about everything, you know?”

Johnny nodded, yeah he knew.

“One day I climbed up to almost the top of the right hand side of the dos arroyo canyon, on the other side was an eagle nest I was watching. Well there below two cowboys came pushing some cows in. Turns out they were rustlers, and one of your Pa’s men was on their trail. I could see what was going to happened and couldn’t stop it. I shouted a warning, but they shot and killed him and then they turned around to look for whoever had shouted. They hunted for me like I was a jack rabbit for a day and a half”. Hettie stopped her voice all dried up.

Madre Dios the fear still there Johnny knew it, had felt it himself when he was very young and on his own hiding out in alleys and the desert.

Without a word he halted Barranca, putting his leg over the horses’ neck to slide to the ground. He reached up and lifted Hettie down. He offered the canteen and waited.

Hettie drank from the canteen and wiped her lips with the back of her fingers, “When I was sure they had left I went down to the cowboy and put some rocks over his head to stop the vultures that had started to circle getting to him. I sat down next to him and said a pray and then wrote everything I could remember in my note book, I thought I might die so wrote goodbye to my Ma and Pa. Guess it was the vultures that led my Pa and yours and the others out looking for me to the canyon. I was pretty worn out when they found me, and they worried that the sun had got to me and damaged my eyes, so they were bandaged for nearly a week”. She paused and looked past Johnny into the distance and played with the ribbons of her bonnet held in her hands.

“That really scared me, to be blind not being able to read or write any more, not to see”. She gulped and Johnny put his arms around her and rested his head on top of hers, “I know it don’t change anything Hettie but a hug off someone who understands may help some”.

So she let this young man until a few days ago a stranger hold her until that old fear that gripped her heart passed, he was a friend who understood. “Thanks Johnny, you want to hear the rest?”

“Sure if you want to tell it” They walked with Barranca following

“I’m not blind but Ma frets about me wearing a hat, I do so hate these bonnets I look like my Grandma Millie in them. Now don’t get me wrong I loved her, but I don’t want to look 80 years old”.

Johnny laughed, sure is a funny girl he thought.

“Anyway” Hettie continued, “The rustlers were caught but had left the cows when the posse started to close in on them, but your pa insisted they have a fair trial”.

Johnny raised an eyebrow, “Surprised they weren’t hung right off, not much in the way of law round back then”.

“They insisted their innocence said my note book wasn’t enough to hang a man. So on my 10th birthday I’m there in the saloon in Green River having to swear to the truth and pointing them out as rustlers and bushwhackers. I am very observant and told the circuit judge all I could remember of that day. I remember them rustlers were smiling thinking they were going to get away with it, when it suddenly came to me that my pony was missing, and I looked at the judge and asked what had happened to him. I heard my Ma let out a sob and I knew. They’d taken him along with the cows, but because he was old and slow they shot him”. Hettie stopped walking and looked into Johnny’s eyes, “they could have just let him loose it was downright wicked what they did. I tell you Johnny in that moment if I had a gun I could have shot them”.

Johnny shook his head, “No you wouldn’t have Hettie”.

“What I did do was leap out of that chair and I was in front of them saying they deserved to hang for being murdering bushwhackers, rustlers and horse thieves and then I walked out. So now most folk think I’m a crazy girl who had her brains cooked or even worse. And that’s when I decided no more riding off on adventures, didn’t want to feel like that ever again and didn’t want my family to worry like that ever again”.

Johnny now knew what she meant when she said wasn’t a kid, she had left her childhood behind, sure is a lot more to the girl than most folk think.


Well there it is, damn sneaky water source just like she said, Johnny was looking over a ridge “Watch out below, need to clear some rocks and brush”.

Hettie was clearing small rocks from the small outlet from the holding pond into the creek and looked up, just as the water flowed over creating a pretty waterfall. She slipped and fell backwards with a splash.

“Oh shoot” Johnny practically fell down to get to her, “Hettie you ‘kay?”

Dripping wet hair plastered to her face she sat up, “Oh shoot, I’m all wet”.

Johnny couldn’t help but laugh as he helped her up, “What happened, I told your Pa I’d look after you?”

“I stepped back to watch the waterfall and slipped, told you me and horse rides lead to trouble”.

They waded to the bank and looked at the waterfall filling the small pond and then through the outlet flowing downhill into the dry creek.

“Ain’t that a pretty sight?” Johnny said what is was thinking out loud. He looked over at Hettie “Come on I’ve a spare shirt in my saddlebags at least”.

Hettie sat and tugged off her boots and emptied water from them, she pulled her hair back and twisted in away from her face.

She looks about 10 years old thought Johnny.

He had built a fire, she was wearing his spare shirt and wrapped in Barrancas’ saddle blanket while her clothes dried off in the sun and by the fire. She had her notebook out and was carefully separating the wet pages in an effort to dry it out without causing too much damage.

Barranca came nosing by and Hettie rubbed his nose, “Your Pa came by after the trial and tried to give me a pretty palomino mare to replace old Bumble, but like I said I was determined going riding around just led to trouble so I said no”.

“But you walk and drive in a buggy so what’s the difference?” asked Johnny who couldn’t understand how anyone wouldn’t want to ride if they had a choice.

“Dun’no just another of my oddities” Hettie was concentrating on her notebook.

“You’re not odd Hettie Baxter, you’re interesting and funny and smart”, Johnny was lying flat down chewing on a piece of grass, he tuned his head to look at her. “What do you write in that little book of yours?”

“My observations, and ideas for stories and anything I find interesting” Hettie looked over at him, “I want to be a writer”.

Johnny sat up, “You read about Madrid, Hettie?” He played with the Indian bracelet around his wrist, he found he was nervous about what she would say.

Hettie looked him in the eye so deep blue with that sad look she had seen before, “Oh yes, a bit lurid I’d say, not the sort of writing I want to do”.

“Lurid uh, you sound like Scott he said something along ’em lines about the ones he read.” Johnny was confused she wasn’t afraid of him treated him like she’d known him all his life and was at ease with him.

Hettie looked at him “If I’m going to be a writer I need to practice so I have tried writing a couple of dime store novels and articles for newspapers”.

“Yeah I understand about practicing at your trade, but Hettie you an’ me we’re friends ain’t we, so can I ask you to promise not to write about me an’ Madrid?” Johnny looked serious at her.

“I can sure promise that Johnny I won’t write a story about you, I do keep a journal and I’ll just have to write up this little adventure, you can read it if you like and add your own comments”. Hettie grinned at him and put out her hand to shake on the deal.

Johnny grinned back and shook, “Thanks for helping me with this chore, it was important to Murdoch, come on I’ll get you home”.

Molly Baxter took one look and rolled her eyes, no bonnet but at least wearing Johnny’s hat. She wouldn’t hear any arguments Johnny was to stay for supper.

It was past sun down when Johnny said his farewells to the Baxter’s having stayed after supper listening to Charles and Molly tell stories of life in the San Joaquin before he was born, and of how they had known him and his Mama before she left with him.

Johnny let Barranca lope back to Lancer, ‘Sure got a lot to think on old fella’.


Johnny rode into Green River the next day leading Murdoch and Scott’s horses, having been sent word they were due in on that’s day stage. He left the three horses at the livery and looked out over the town, nice and quiet no sign of trouble. Oh lookee there’s Hettie, wonder what she’s up to?

Spurs jangling, he strutted down the boardwalk, tipping his hat to Mrs. Higgs as he went by her store. He smiled at her startled look ‘sure keeps ’em guessing when I’m using my polite manners he thought’.

“Hola Hettie nice bonnet” he pulled a chair up to sit next to her outside the stage coach office.

She didn’t say anything, just had a faraway look in her eyes. He leaned back to look over at the note book on her lap, “Watch’a writing?”

“About people in a small town and how some think they are more important than others”.

Johnny nodded as they both watched Mayor Higgs, busy puffing out his chest and talking to another shop keeper. They sat quietly together watching the town go about its business, Johnny liked quiet and the fact this girl didn’t think it necessary to chatter and was comfortable with the silence put him at ease.

The mood changed as Sheriff Gabe McIntyre rode in with Neville Mortimer and his two sons.

Johnny sat still seemingly still at ease but every nerve now on full alert, he pulled his hat low and narrowed his eyes as Gabe approached him. Gabe McIntyre was as honest a sheriff as Johnny had ever come across, but the Mortimer’s were another matter.

Gabe looked at Johnny and saw his hands were relaxed in his lap his fingers playing with the Indian bracelet he wore on his left wrist, “Hettie might be best if you run along, me and Johnny have something to discuss”.

Hettie looked from the sheriff to the Mortimers, “No”.

Gabe blinked in surprise, Johnny smiled the cold Madrid smile straight at the Mortimers and waited.

Neville Mortimer couldn’t resist, “Arrest the murdering half breed sheriff” and pulled his gun out to point it at Johnny.

Gabe glared at Mortimer, “Come on Johnny let’s go to the office, don’t want the whole town involved eh, and I’ll take your gun”.

Johnny took a breath and pursed his lips all the time keeping an eye contact with Neville Mortimer, he knew he could take him, but with his left hand took his colt and handed it to Gabe.

“Let’s get this over,” he stood up and swaggered across the road to the sheriff office spurs a jingling, with the others following. The town came to a half as they watched, most thinking that boy of Murdoch nothing but trouble.

Mortimer was no sooner in the office when he was demanding Johnny was arrested for murder and locked up. Gabe was very close to losing his temper, “Put your gun away Mr. Mortimer or I’ll be arresting you for disturbing the peace”. He looked at Johnny, “I need to know where you were at about 5 o’clock yesterday afternoon Johnny?”

Johnny leant against the doorway leading to the cells, arms crossed his eyes dark, “Why’s that Gabe?”

“Seems you and that horse of yours were seen by these boys leaving the scene of a shooting over at the Double M boundary with the river.”

Johnny’s face didn’t give anything away thinking ‘being set-up, nothing new about that. Mortimer sure don’t like me, or maybe not even Murdoch’.

Hettie spoke up having followed into the office, “Johnny has an alibi”.

Johnny grinned, “Yep I have one of ’em”.

At that moment the office door burst open Murdoch, Scott and Molly Baxter crowded in.

‘Boy the ol’e man looks like he’s about to explode’ Johnny stood up straighter and waited just knowing Murdoch would let rip with his bellowing.

“What’s happening Gabe, why’s Johnny in trouble?” Murdoch bellowed.

“There was a killing yesterday afternoon, seems the Mortimer boys are saying they saw Johnny riding away from the scene”. Gabe looked at his office full of angry people, well all except Johnny who had a small insolent smile playing across his face, he just knowing Murdoch will think the worse of it.

Murdoch’s face went white thinking, ‘was his youngest ever going to leave gun play behind?’

Scott was shaking his head thinking, ‘can’t leave my little brother alone for a few days and he gets into trouble’.

It was Molly Baxter who spoke, “Johnny was with Hettie most of yesterday, he fetched her home about 4 o’clock and stayed until after sunset”.

Mortimer’s face was stormy, his accusation against this half breed gunfighter was falling apart. He had heard Madrid was out on the range by himself something about clearing a water course and it had seemed an ideal time for taking the opportunity to rid the valley of Mexicans and in particular Johnny Madrid. In his opinion Murdoch Lancer was a fool for allowing Madrid to stay after the Pardee fracas was over, a gunfighter in the community was asking for trouble. But now that interfering do gooder Molly Baxter was spoiling everything.

Johnny glanced over to the sheriff, “Who was killed Gabe?”

“Jose DeSalividora, gunshot in the back” Gabe was worried, what he knew of the Madrid reputation didn’t fit with back shooting, and what little he knew of Johnny Lancer gave him no reason to think he would have a reason to kill a quiet honest ranch hand. But there was a body and it was his duty as the only sheriff for the 3 townships to investigate.

Madrid was then in the room, the temperature noticeable colder, his stance alert his deep blue eyes cold as they stared at the Mortimers.

Hettie though had stepped right up to Neville Mortimer, “You did it, or one of these idiot boys of yours” she looked at the younger ones who both were pale with eyes downcast.

“Pa?” said Harvey he was now terrified, shame that Jose was dead but he was just a no account Mex, but to have Johnny Madrid as an enemy that was a quick way to be on the wrong end of a gunfight.

Hettie turner back to Neville Mortimer, “You did it or caused it to be done and then got these two to lay the blame on Johnny”.

“There’s no proof of that sheriff and everyone knows the girl is half crazy” stormed Mortimer senior.

“You did it and everyone in this room knows it. You’ll pay for it maybe not today but one day you’ll pay” Hettie’s voice was low and clear and full of fury. She didn’t blink but stared down the man in front of her completely sure and unafraid.

Mortimer glared at Murdoch, “You’re a fool Murdoch for keeping that half-breed gun hawk around, mark my words he’s trouble and sooner or later he and you will be the ones paying” with that he turned on his heel and left with his boys following.

The office was silent Molly stepped to her daughter putting her arm around her waist and spoke quietly and led her outside.

Johnny looked over at the father and brother both had grim looks, yep disappointed in him yet again. He looked at Gabe, “We done Gabe?”

“Yes, sorry Johnny” and Gabe handed him is colt.

Johnny nodded at his father and Scott and went outside to stand with Hettie and Mrs Baxter watching the Mortimer’s ride out.

Scott sighed, “They were going to set Johnny up for murder it’s as well he had Mrs Baxter confirm his whereabouts isn’t it?”

Murdoch suddenly was very weary, “Yes son it is, will he ever have the trust he needs to live as Johnny Lancer?”

Scott was certain, “Oh yes, but it will take time and as his older brother I aim to watch his back to give him that time”.


Epilogue

The next morning Johnny was nowhere to be found, Murdoch and Scott tracked down Cipriano to get an update on the ranch.

“Patron, all has been good, Juanito he found the water source and has sent three men out to ensure the creek and ponds are cleared of brush and made safe for the cattle. He has this morning gone to Morro Coyo to represent Lancer at the funeral service for Jose DeSalvidora, a bad death leaving two children orphaned. He has said to the men to stay away from Green River and the Mortimer hands until tempers cool, a sensible thing don’t you agree?”

Murdoch ran his hand through his hair, why did he keep thinking Johnny was un-reliable, the boy had acted as he would have done, “Yes Cip a sensible thing, I think I will ride into Morro Coyo as well, are the DeSalvidora children safe?”

“Si the Padre collected them and they have familia outside Stockton”.

Murdoch nodded and as Cipriano walked away he looked across at Scott, “I will give it a couple of days then I shall have a meeting with Neville Mortimer. The man is, was and always will be a bigot Scott, but he is in the cattleman association and as such we need to have at least a working relationship. I will not however have him drive Johnny away”.

Scott adjusted his hat, “I shall come with you to Morro Coyo, it is right to show respect for Jose, and support for Johnny. Please sir tell Johnny how you feel, I’m sure he knows all he needs to about Mortimer and will say he knows how to deal with him. He does though need to hear from his father of your support and understanding, and please praise him for the good work he has done”.

Murdoch knew Scott was right, his intelligent self-assured eldest, so like his mother Catherine, it was like hearing her voice offering advice and support. As he and Scott rode out to find Johnny, he made a promise to himself to be a better father to his youngest it was going to be a test of his patience and temper but it was the least he could do.

End

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3 thoughts on “A Stranger Until You Become A Friend by Olley

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