Word Count 2,287
#6 in The Surrogate Father and Adopted Son series
I took in the details of the stranger. A big man who filled the doorway with his size; not a gunfighter—leastways not one I had come across or who matched any description told to me. An Anglo, so a mite out of place here, but didn’t seem to me to be dangerous.
Johnny had his head down, scraping up the last of his eggs, but I knew he had taken a good long look from under his eyelashes. He had glanced up at me, worry plain on his face, seeming to be waiting for me to say or do something. I smiled at him, hoping to reassure him and carried on drinking my coffee.
The stranger gave us the once over as he walked past to the bar, where Mamacita fussed at the prospect of an early morning customer and offered him coffee and breakfast or even perhaps a beer.
“Café por favor y tal vez algo de información.”
I knew him speaking Mexican and being polite while asking for information would be appreciated, along with the coins he placed on the counter.
“I’m on the trail of a woman who could be singing and dancing in cantinas, Maria Alicia Santos del Ruiz, and her son John or Juanito. He is twelve years old with blue eyes. They are travelling with a gambler, Roberto Sanchez.”
Mamacita is shaking her head and telling the man no such people have been in this cantina. He would have better success in El Paso del Norte.
While I sipped my coffee and listened in, I could see Johnny’s head sinking further down till his ears were almost touching his shoulders. As if he knew I was watching, he pulled his hat from where it hung down his back and pushed it low on his head.
He tried to sound cheerful as he stood up, but his eyes gave him away. “I’ll be getting the wagon ready. Day’s a-wasting, Papi.”
He didn’t look back at the man and I didn’t miss him calling me Papi.
Seated next to me on the wagon bench, I could sense he was wound up tight and as quiet as a mouse hiding from a cat. He was careful not to look back to see if we were being followed until we were well out of town.
I pulled the wagon to a halt near a stream where there was grazing for the horses. “Reckon here’s a good spot to give these two hard-working horses a break.” I grinned at him. “And Mamacita sent me on my way with some bread, cheese and boiled eggs, ordering me to feed a growing boy.”
If there was any way to get him to relax, it was through grub. After we had eaten and sat a spell, I leaned back, watching him sucking on a grass stalk. “So what you make of that man in the cantina?”
I didn’t think he would answer for a minute, but he threw the grass away and frowned. “Maybe he’s a bounty hunter?”
I shook my head. “Didn’t wear his gun low or smell like one to me.”
He cocked his head. “Do all bounty hunters wear their guns low?”
“No, but most do.”
“Maybe he’s a lawman after the gambler, though his badge is no good his side of the border.”
I gave his idea some thought. “Must have been some really bad crime for a gringo lawman to come this far south.” I tossed a pebble into the stream. “Could be he’s a husband searching for a runaway wife and son.”
The boy tried to hide it, but I saw the shock. He laughed, not a boyish joyful laugh, something harsh and too old for his years. “You’re crazy, Val. No gringo rancher will come traipsing over the border for a Mexican woman and mestizo boy.”
“Did I say he’s a rancher?”
“Aww, Val, he might have been trail dusty, but he was wearing good duds and boots, and he sure didn’t look like any preacher or businessman I’ve ever seen.”
Well, I got to give the boy full marks for observation ‘cos I’d have a small bet on him being a rancher as well. “Still, seems like he’s on the lookout for a boy with blue eyes about your age.”
Anger oozed from him. His fist clenched as he jumped up. “Maybe he is one of those who prey on orphan boys.”
It struck me then; something had happened before our paths had crossed. It wasn’t only vengeance and anger brewing in him. There was the need to protect himself from those who preyed on stray boys, especially good looking ones like Johnny.
I rubbed my hands together and spoke quietly. “There are gringos who are happily married to Mexicans and raise families.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, well, it ain’t me he’s looking for ‘cos I’m just a mestizo orphan travelling with a scruffy, broken-down gunfighter.”
He stepped away as I got up to chase him, hitting him a few times with my hat. “I’ll have you know I’m not broken down.”
The tension was broken, but it worried me that the boy was so aware of the danger his wandering life could lead to. I knew then it was going to be up to me to at least teach him his first lessons in using a gun as protection.
I sat back down and took my gun out and emptied it of the bullets. “Let’s see how much your hand has grown.”
He looked hard at me to be sure I was serious then reached for it. “Still too big for your hand, weighs more than you think, doesn’t it?”
He hefted it up and down in his right hand. “Only a little, would soon get used to it with practice.”
Boy, was he confident. I took the gun back and put one bullet in it. I pointed to a tree over by the stream. “Find a pebble and draw a target on it.”
He did as told and came to stand by me. I think he was kind’a surprised I didn’t show off my shooting skills, but I handed him the gun.
“Safety catch is off. All you have to do is point and pull the trigger.”
He stood real quiet and squinted at the target and did just that. By all the saints and sinners, I tell you he damn near hit the centre of that mark. He might just be a skinny kid, but once that gun was in his hand, he changed into something dangerous. It was chilling to see.
He sniffed as I took the gun back. “I’ll get better with practice.”
“You’ll get dead if you carry a gun and act cocky without learning. Using a gun is a trade like any other.”
I reloaded with five bullets, explaining it was best to leave one chamber empty, so a fella didn’t shoot himself when he had to draw from a holster. He blinked at that piece of information.
“Go set up five targets. If you’re going to use a gun, you need to respect it and the damage it can do. It’s easy to kill a man Johnny but impossible to bring him back to life, comprende?”
I’ll give him his due. He took his time to aim and fire, no showing off or trying for speed. Got three out of the five, then lowered the gun and spent ten minutes practising drawing it from his hip as if from a holster. He turned to scowl at me. “I let my hand drop, so missed the last two.”
“That’s cos your arm and hand ain’t used to the weight. A man needs practice and a whole lot of calluses before he becomes an expert with a gun. You practising to be a quick draw Johnny that’s a skill for a pistolero and a gunfighter, is that you want?”
Those nimble fingers of his had no trouble twirling my gun over his finger. “I saw one once; everyone in that little town walked quiet around him. Called him sir, got out of his way, never even talked about him behind his back. I want that Val to be treated with respect, not being pushed around and insulted, treated like dirt on the sole of a boot.”
Oh boy, all that pride and anger in one so young. “There’s a world of difference ‘tween respect and fear.”
He shrugged. “That don’t matter none to me, so long as folks walk quiet around me.”
I shook my head and took my gun back from him. “You ain’t afraid of me, are you Johnny?”
He cocked his head to one side and that sly smile of his appeared and he drawled. “Wellll, maybe sometimes.”
“Boy, you have too much sass to be scared of me. I’m hoping you have some respect and trust in me.”
I raised an eyebrow wanting him to be honest.
“Yeah, I guess so, Val, ‘cos you have shown me useful stuff like tracking and how to build a rabbit trap. And you trust me to practice with your gun.”
It ain’t in my nature to be soppy, but it was good to hear this stray boy admit that I had earned some trust. I took a breath and a chance. “You trust me enough to tell me the truth as to why that gringo stranger set your instincts off.”
He stood and glared his face hard with anger. At that moment, I was pleased my gun wasn’t loaded and in his hand.
“He’s looking for my Mama and me, and I ain’t ready to be found. It’s too late to find Mama, cos she died running from the gringo who fathered me and the men he set on her trail. One day when I’m good and ready, I’ll face him and kill him.”
Well, I’ve got to admit I wasn’t too surprised, but mostly I was pleased that he trusted me with the truth. Worried me though his anger and need for revenge would turn a good-hearted boy into a cold-blooded killer. I rubbed my hand through my hair to give myself time to think on the words that could drive him away or keep him from doing something foolish.
“I ain’t going to tell you, Johnny, that you maybe have some true reason for feeling that way, but ….”
He opened his mouth and I held my hand up. “Just hold on to your temper and hear me out, okay?”
We were camped halfway between town and the ranch, so he had no place to run to, leastways I hoped not. “Like I was going to say, a gun hawk who is good at his trade will listen to the other fella’s side of a story. Hell Johnny, your kind of anger makes a man deaf and blind to danger and consequences, but more importantly, usually gets a man buried in an unmarked grave.”
He started pacing up and down, not looking at me. “When I’m ready, I’ll face him man to man and tell him why I’m going to kill him. Don’t think there’ll be anything he could say that’ll change that. Anyway, I reckon I best be moving on, and you need to find a job that pays.”
I sighed, knowing putting that thirst for revenge away was not going to be satisfied until the day he did meet whoever his father was. “Thought you were happy at Senor Hernandez’s place learning the ways of a mustanero?”
“Yeah, but I ain’t ready to be found. When I get to meet Lancer, it’ll be on my own terms.”
“So you know who he is?”
“Was told his name after Mama and my stepfather were both dead.”
There was a story there, his face giving away the pain he was trying hard to hide. I sat still and stirred the dust at my feet with a twig while I let him find some calm. “You know, kid, all those feelings running through your gut of wanting to be full-grown, they ain’t there just cos of your killing desire some would be happening anyway.”
“Huh?” his eyebrows went up as he looked down at me.
“You see Johnny, it ain’t just your hand and feet growing. You’re growing from a boy to a young man.”
“You going loco Val. What you trying to tell me? I know about the birds and bees and how it is between a man and a gal.”
Now ain’t that the truth; how was I expected to tell this boy there was more to being full grown. “You’ve seen how those young colts out in cannons of Senor Alberto’s act all prancing and showing off. They are taking the time to test themselves, getting ready for when they are full grown. Well, you, my young friend, are like those young colts still growing and learning and testing my patience.”
Johnny laughed. “Senor Alberto told me if a good colt is allowed to run wild and free, he’ll turn into a fine stallion.”
I thought it best to stop right there cos if ever a boy was wild and free, Johnny was.
I sniffed and cleared my throat. “So if you an’ me are going to keep moving on, you need to keep your sass under control. Else I’ll not let you keep practising with a gun. Have we a deal?”
He stood with his hands on his hips and pursed his lips. “Yeah, you know I ain’t too good at following orders, but I guess we have a deal.”
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