Word count 2,955
#5 in The Surrogate Father and Adopted Son series
“There it is, kid.” I reined Solo to a halt and waved my hat at the river.
He peered around my back. “Rio Grande? We going into Mexico?”
“Yep, that friend I told you about has a place near El Paso del Norte.”
I could feel him shift. “The one who has horses?”
“That’s the one, name of Senor Alberto Miguel Hernandez. He’s from the old school and will expect a chico like you to show respect. Comprende, Johnny?” I used my ‘I’ll take no-nonsense voice,’ not that he normally takes any notice.
“Si,” followed by some Mexican words a boy his age shouldn’t be using muttered into my back; it would have to do for the time being.
He kept his peace until we had crossed, then, in a quiet voice, asked if I spoke Mexican.
I smiled and kept Solo at a nice steady walk. “Can get by, learnt a few more words listening to your muttering and cussing.” I felt the breath from his sigh as he realised he might be in for a lesson in good manners. I let him stew on that for a while, then changed the subject. “Did you know the Rio Grande is the border between America and Mexico? But the funny thing is, the river has a mind of its own and changes course depending on the amount of water and weather and who knows what else? Makes it important to pick your crossing with care.”
I felt his head nod against my back. “Knew it was the border but didn’t know that sometimes the land is Mexican and sometimes not.”
I took a few minutes before I spoke again. “You have folk this side, Johnny?” His background was still locked away in his silences and shrugs.
I thought he wasn’t going to take the bait. I guess if he wasn’t riding double with me, he wouldn’t have.
With that, he let himself slide off the back of my horse and he landed in the dust. I let Solo go a few feet before I reined to a half and turned back to look at him. He was back on his feet, hugging himself, head down the dirt being stirred by his boot.
“Okay, kid, you going to stick to our deal?” I waited him out.
“Stay out of trouble and I get a pony—that deal?” His head had come up and he was squinting his eyes, giving me a hard look.
Boy, that look and the tone of his voice… for a kid no more than eleven or twelve years old, he sure could look and sound a mite older. “That’s the deal. You ready to meet your side of it?”
“Sure am Val, let her buck.” He ran those few steps and I had to quick smart grab his arm to haul him on board. I was so taken by his ability to switch mood it wasn’t until we had gone a ways that I realised he had dropped Papi for Val, and I frowned, figuring how I felt about that.
Senor Alberto is old enough to be my Pa, but with a much younger man’s strength and dignity. He wears his Mexican heritage well, from a well-cut jacket and trousers with concho buttons down the edge, and silver spurs.
I had known him since I was a green kid making a living best I could up and down the border. He had taken pity on a footsore cowboy who had lost his horse to a broken leg. Don’t rightly know what he saw in me, but we hit it off and I put in some work at his estancia to cover payment for my board, keep, and a new horse. So after he had berated me for too long an absence, I explained to my old friend I was visiting to acquire a pony for this stray boy I had happened upon.
That stray boy never fails to surprise me. His polite manners when I introduced him to the Senor were not those of an uneducated peon orphan. Someone somewhere, before me, had sown the seeds that were giving him the self-confidence he would need to make his way in the world.
He accepted Johnny’s greeting with a smile and a friendly clasp to the boy’s shoulder, telling him before he let him have a pony, Johnny would need to show he possessed vaquero skills.
Johnny looked up at him and nodded. “Si, Senor Alberto, I will prove my worth.”
So instead of just acquiring a pony and going on our way, we stayed on, with Johnny soaking up every morsel of knowledge Senor Alberto passed on.
The kid had been allowed to choose his pony from a string of half-broken youngsters; it was no surprise he picked out a spirited pinto that showed its teeth every time I got too close. I said, at the time, they were a well-matched pair.
Alberto told him there was a world of difference between having stable skills and becoming a true horseman, then asked him if he had the time and patience to be his good student. Knowing the kid’s quick temper, I was more than a mite surprised at how readily he agreed to Alberto’s terms.
Like with everything Johnny set his mind to, he sure put in the hours and work. Under Alberto’s tuition, that pinto and him were becoming something more than just a boy and a pony. One day, as Alberto and I watched him schooling the pony, Alberto asked me why I had taken this boy on.
I scratched my chin. “Don’t rightly know; I do know he has some hurt and anger deep down and once he has a gun, will more than likely go looking for vengeance.”
Old Alberto simply patted me on the back. I stayed looking straight ahead. “A wise man once tried to set me right, telling me taking up the gun trade was a hard path to go down and even harder to turn from it. Just want to show the boy he has options.”
One evening we three sat on the porch. Johnny had been shown how to make a horsehair browband and was now sitting Indian style by my feet hunched over in concentration, his fingers busy braiding hair. Alberto had found an old Anglo newspaper and me and him got to discussing the news of the American War Between the States.
Johnny piped up. “If they are fighting each other, then they ain’t fighting us.”
I tell you me and Alberto damn near choked on our tequilas. “What do you know about the Americans fighting Mexico?” I asked him.
He didn’t stop his fingers working, kept his head down. “Know that the Americans took California from Mexico in a war.”
Alberto looked over at me and I shrugged, so he told Johnny of the war and how it was also Texas and New Mexico that Mexico lost. He went on to tell us word had reached El Paso del Norte that now the French had landed in Mexico looking for trouble.
Well, at that, Johnny put his work down and looked up at Alberto and me. “Who are these French?”
When I told him they were from a European county called France, I could see from his frown he didn’t know where that was. “You know about Spain and how they came to Mexico and America. Likely you and Senor Alberto here have some Spanish blood?”
“France is a country north of Spain, first chance I get I’ll show you a map. It’s way northeast of hereabouts.”
Johnny got that steely-eyed squinty look when he’s angry. “I think we should go fight these French and drive them off Mexican land.”
Alberto clapped his hands and told him it is a noble thing to fight for an honest cause, but one must take care to be sure the cause was indeed true.
His bottom lip pouted out and he sniffed. “Driving out foreign invaders must be a true cause, but I’d need to know how to use a gun.”
I sighed very loudly. The kid was nothing if not persistent.
A few days later, I stood on the porch having an early morning coffee and there was Johnny, arms outstretched, walking along the top rail of the corral. That pinto of his was stock still, ears forward, watching. He took a flying leap at the corner, then tucked, landed, rolled, and sprang to his feet. He grinned at me as I walked over to him, so damn pleased with himself! Mind it was impressive, not that I was about to tell him.
“What in tarnation was that, Johnny?”
“Senor Alberto says before I can saddle break a horse, I need to practice how to fall into a tuck and roll.” He was covered in dust and as happy as a cat with a bowl of cream.
“That is one of the truest things you should learn, kid. Even the best horse breaker gets thrown. Falling without breaking yourself is the secret. Come on, Johnny and get some breakfast. I thought you and me could take the wagon into town and get some supplies for the Senor. You can help me drive the wagon if you know how.”
He brushed the dust off his skinny butt. “Not a wagon but helped drive a buggy.”
A sad, faraway look came over his face and was quickly gone as he turned to run towards his breakfast. Another small piece of his past he had let slip that I filed away.
Once I had the team of two sensible horses set on the road to town, I handed him the reins. “These are honest, well-behaved horses, so all you need do is have a gentle touch and keep them pointed in the right direction.”
He nodded and was happy to do as I had said. Maybe he was learning about obedience from Alberto. I did take over when we got to the outskirts of town. He watched how I handled the team down the street and reined them to a tidy stop by the feed and grain store. He jumped down without being asked and used the weight; yes, he had experienced driving a buggy.
He pulled his hat low over his face and patted the horses, all the while taking in the town and its inhabitants.
I went to stand by him and did the same. “Looks busy but nothing or no one to be concerned about.” I scratched at my chin and looked down at him. “No reason for you to find trouble.”
He shrugged one shoulder up, running a finger under his nose. I decided to accept that as his agreement.
He had stood real quiet and still while I placed the order for the feed and grain Alberto needed but do you know what he did before I handed over any money? He asked the merchant if the gringo could get a better deal if we loaded the supplies ourselves!
The merchant raised his eyebrows and gave me what I can only describe as a sympathetic look. Yep, he would dicker on the price, knowing it would be me doing most of the lifting and hauling those sacks of feed.
We left with a few more pesos and me with some aching muscles. Next stop was the mercantile. Now that could have been a cause of some trouble, as the Senor behind the counter soon as he saw Johnny’s blue eyes ordered the mestizo out of his store.
Johnny stepped away from the counter and made to leave. “Hold on there, Johnny; your money is as good as mine.” I flipped him some coins and glared at the storekeeper. Unless I’m being paid, I don’t often draw attention to my gun or straighten up to my full height, but I did then.
The storekeeper got the message. He wasn’t happy, but money to a businessman doesn’t know anything about a person’s heritage, does it.
I got my tobacco, ammunition, and trail supplies. Johnny was studying a display of silver spurs but had to settle for a couple of liquorice sticks. On the boardwalk, he stuck one in the corner of his mouth then spoke around it. “Used to that word Val. I usually kick against it, but I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”
I ain’t one for getting soppy, so I just ruffled his mop of hair. “Why don’t you go get the horses settled in the livery. You’ll find me in the cantina.”
Well, I was nicely settled playing a friendly game of poker, drinking beer that wasn’t too watered down, with the lovely Carlota snuggled up close to me. I tell you, she was all soft and warm in all the right places. Next thing, Johnny is nudging me and saying hola to Carlota.
He grinned, “Horses are as settled as you, Val.”
Carlota laughed and looked over at Johnny, asking him how old he was.
Said without a pause of any sign of lying, so I say, “Ten.”
The kid let out a squawk.
“Fourteen, but I’m on the skinny side for my age.”
I had to laugh, “He’s rising twelve if he’s a day Carlota, so no teasing him.”
She was a good-hearted gal and reached out to run her fingers through his hair, telling him to come back in a couple of years and she would be happy to go upstairs with him.
It’s me that lets out a squawk. “He’s a mite young for knowing what goes on upstairs.”
“Aww, Val, I ain’t a baby. I know what goes on upstairs.”
By this time, the other poker players were now heads up listening. I took a breath and tried out my fierce glare. “Knowing what goes on upstairs and, and…. .” I had to take a breath, “Doing what goes on upstairs are two different things and you ain’t old enough for that.”
Johnny let out a loud sigh. “I’ll see you upstairs in a year or so, Carlota.”
Damn boy and his smart mouth skipped out of reach as I made to clip him around the ear.
I had not long been back into the poker game when the notes from a guitar could be heard. Carlota shifted to go over to the guitarist. I looked over and it was Johnny. He sat on the floor his back to the wall, head down, his fingers going over the strings.
The tune got louder and faster, and every now and again, he would slap the wood. Carlota and another of the gals took to singing, one of them Mexican songs about long lost love, and then they set to dancing. All stamping feet and skirts a swirling. The whole place had stopped to watch, clapping and cheering as the tune he was picking out got faster and the dancing girls twirled them colourful skirts showing off their legs. Johnny suddenly stopped playing and the dancers stamped and clapped one last time, most everyone in the cantina shouted “ole”.
Well, Carlota and the other gal were all over Johnny petting him and some old guy was wanting to buy him tequila. Luckily the cantina owner’s wife appeared and herded Johnny back to me, scolding the girls, telling them to get back to work and me she was going to take the boy into the kitchen and feed him.
Johnny was blinking, looking embarrassed at the attention he had attracted. I smiled at the Senora. “Gracias, Johnny here does have a healthy appetite. I’m sure he’ll appreciate you feeding him.”
It was daybreak when I stumbled down the stairs to an empty cantina. I stood there, tucking my shirt into my pants, when Johnny appeared from the kitchen.
“Hola, Buenos dias Val, you sure look all rumpled. I guess you need coffee.”
He disappeared and I sat rubbing at my face wondering when he had taken to looking out for me and not the other way round.
“Strong coffee, Val?” He dragged a chair out with his foot as he balanced carrying a hot coffee pot and mug, a wide knowing grin plastered all over his face.
The senora was leaning over him to put a glass of milk and plate of huevos rancheros in front of him. I squinted over my coffee at him. “You look, different boy.”
“New shirt and pants, and boots.” He ran his fingers down the shirt feeling at the fancy stitching that looked like insects. “Boots need some growing into, so I’m wearing two pairs of socks.” I heard his feet stamping in his new, to him, boots.
“How you come by all that boy?”
He looked serious. “I traded my old stuff and some chores with Mamacita Senora Rosa.”
The senora patted him on his head. He smirked as she scolded me for not noticing Johnny had grown.
“Guess if my feet have grown so will have my hands, eh Val?” He held out his hands to show me.
I knew what he was working up to and scowled and pointed to him. “See your hair has stopped growing, though.”
“Me and Mamacita made a deal, so I got just a trim.”
Senora Rosa laughed and shuffled back to her kitchen.
He was spooning the last of his eggs when the batwing doors slammed open and a figure stood outlined against the morning sun.
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