FEATHERS 3 : HOPE SINGS

"Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul,
and sings the tune without words, and never stops at all."

Emily Dickinson

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Jessamie stirs, slipping out from under the covers and letting in the cooler air. It lifts the hair on his arms and sends a shiver down his spine, enough to bring him out of a lazy, comfortable doze. He groans and rolls over. None of these gringos appreciate a good siesta. None of them.

The window's at eye level, giving him a small picture of the world. The curve of a tree branch frames the hard corner of a barn where the roof meets red-painted walls. The sky beyond darkens as the clouds roll across the window pane, scudding in from the coastal mountains before a westerly wind. The first drops of rain on the shingles make a faint pattering, a short flurry before dying away within a minute or two. He cocks his head towards it. Rain on a roof always sounds like squirrels scampering about up there, like something wild and free having fun and living life hard. He likes the sound of rain.

There'll be more any time. That little shower is just the start.

"There's a storm comin' in. I saw it when I rode into town. The clouds were buildin' up in the mountains behind me."

Jessamie snorts. "The storm blew in here a couple of hours ago. It blew me right off my feet."

Damn right! He did, at that. He laughs and stretches out his arms and legs. The covers are tousled and mussed. He's surprised that they made it as far as the bed for their second go. The first time he thought they might break the kitchen table. What was it Jess had been saying, breathing it in his ear until she couldn't say anything for panting and those sharp little cries she makes. Something about a pastry board and her abuela?

He scratches at his chin, grinning. Women! They worry about the strangest things. He wouldn't have cared if they broke the whole damn table. She won't need any of it at Lancer anyway. Life won't be so hard for her at Lancer, not with Maria to help, and Teresa and any of the other women on the estancia when she needs it. Life will never be hard for her again, not if Johnny Lancer has anything to say about it and if he falls short on the job, Johnny Madrid will step right in.

Jess is at her mirror, trying to do something with her hair. It's a good dark red lit with coppery-gold and he wonders what their kids will look like, between his colouring and hers. He'd like lots of kids and he has a yen to see Jessamie big-bellied, swellin' up with a child and blooming. He had to wait a helluva long time for a brother and it's not right to make Grady wait that long. Johnny likes the thought of little girls with Jess's hair, although Grady might have something to say about that.

His pants are in a heap on the floor. He fishes his watch out of a pocket. "What time's Grady out of school?"

Jess twitches the watch out of his hand. She has shapely hands. They're rough and worn with the work she did to keep her and Grady alive when she was on her own and hiding, but still shapely for all that. They'll pretty up even more when she realises she and Grady aren't alone no more and that Johnny's there to do the hard work for them, to work for them and protect them.

"Not long. You'd better get up."

He smiles and rolls back on the bed. He stretches out his arms above his head and arches his back.

She taps a foot. "Johnny Lancer! Get up and get dressed this instant!" But her mouth looks like she's trying not to laugh and she won't look at any place other than his face. She won't look south and her cheeks are pink.

"Hell, but a man gets tunes called on him whichever way he turns."

"Some men need keeping in line more than others." That foot tap-tappity-taps, but she can't keep her mouth from turning up, and it's so sweet that Johnny jumps up to kiss her.

"That's what Murdoch says." He mouths it into her hair. Her breath ghosts warm against his neck as she leans in close. Makes him shiver. "You sing the tune a mite higher than he does, and damned if the pay ain't better..." He forgets what he's going to say for a minute or two, because when Murdoch calls the tune, he's wearing a sight more'n a lacy chemise and a pretty smile.

"I should hope so!" says Jess, laughing, when Johnny finally stops kissing her and gets around to mentioning this.

"Yeah. Murdoch in a chemise'd scare the horses, that's for sure. It'd scare me." Johnny grins, thinking that the next time Murdoch gets to yelling, it'll sure take the stuffing out of him, never knowing why Johnny's sniggering. Pity he can't share it with Scott. "You now... well, a man could get to like the tune you're calling."

"I dare say. But will you dance to it?"

He takes a step back to hold her at arms length, looking her up and down. Scott's been doing what he calls 'widening Johnny's horizons' and making him look at what Scott also calls art; art that Johnny reckons they both hide from Teresa's eyes for fear of what Murdoch might say. Hell, they've been hiding the art from Murdoch's eyes, for that matter. The old man would have a conniption fit. Still, can't be denied the art is quite something. Classical beauties, Scott calls them; what a man looks for in the perfect woman.

Jessamie's not like Scott's beauties. She isn't very tall, but she's slender and she moves real light when she walks. One of the chemise straps slips from her shoulder and she's all pale skin and lace. Her hair's red, not gold, and it's coming down again after he mussed it some more. The Art has hair in a fancy chig-non and side curls; Jessamie pushes the long waves of it behind her ears and twists it up out of the way. Blue eyes, big and dark blue; too big, maybe, for what Scott says is the classic style, but it's a style that suits Johnny. He loves the way they darken and widen when he pushes into her, how they soften and lose their sharpness when her breath catches in her throat and they're moving together harder and faster.

She puts him in mind of one of them slim June lilies; willowy and white, with flashes of copper. Not the prettiest woman he's ever known, but the most beautiful.

She's perfect.

And she calls a sweet tune. He smiles. "I'll get the preacher to write it into the service."

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She lets him have a cup of coffee before she sends him out in the rain to find Grady. The kid's late back from school. Not so much of a surprise to Johnny—what kid Grady's age ever comes home when he could be out making mischief?—but Jessamie's fretting. She'll be a long time learning to put her fear for Grady behind her, Johnny knows that. But she's fretting about what to tell the kid, too. She's getting that worn look again, the one that shows she's thinking about this too much. Even rock gets worn down by fast rivers and, strong as she is, she has the look of something being tossed in the flood and drowning.

"I don't know what to tell him," she says again. It's all she's said for the last half hour. "That's why I told you not to come. That's why—"

Johnny drains the coffee and leans his chair back on two legs to put the mug near the sink. The chair drops back with a soft thud. "Let me talk to him."

She nods, but her hands twist in her lap like two wild things caught in a trap. He puts his own hand over them, stilling them, gathering them into the warmth of palm and fingers. He raises her hands to his mouth and kisses them.

"I've lied to him for so long... what do I tell him, Johnny? He's only just eight. He's still..." Her voice trails off and her hands twist under his to grasp them tight, palm to palm. "Innocent. That's what he is. Innocent and fresh and clean." She laughs, but it sounds more like she's hurting. "Life's clear and sweet and shiny for him, as if he's still new and nothing's touched him. I want him to stay like that. I don't want the bloom rubbed off. I can't tell him what his pa... what Matt Hobart did... I can't call that man the pa of a boy like my Grady and I can't tell Grady I shot Hobart down as soon as I could get to a gun...I can't put that on him."

"Let me talk to him," Johnny says again. "Let me try."

Johnny knows what it's like to be lied to by the one person a kid trusts above all others. Mama lied to him for different reasons, but at Grady's age the 'why' wouldn't matter. Kids see things in black and white. Grey's a colour that comes with age and some days, when he thinks about what Mama said and did, Johnny doesn't think he's old enough yet to get it. Grady sure as hell won't, but maybe there's a way to tell him that'll take the edge off it.

"He's going to be so confused about everything. Even his name."

"Maybe." Johnny's had a few names, himself. "Maybe. Thing is, Jess, his name will be Lancer as soon as we get to a preacher."

She stares at him, her mouth working and the hands in his twitching. "The preacher here, Reverend Somers, already thinks our name is Lancer. I don't want to tell him."

"No reason why you should."

She pulls a hand free and rubs it against her temple. "It's his right, as a preacher, to know who's he's marrying. He's going to be confused about it, if I'm Lancer and you're Lancer. He'll want to know what this is all about if I have to tell him that I'm really Jessamie Kavanagh. He'll know that Grady... that I wasn't married... he's going to think that you and me..."

The preacher wouldn't be wrong there, although Johnny knows better than to say so. "Well, as Jelly says, confuzzlin' folks is what keeps 'em stepping one step behind you, and makes sure that you're the one leading the way."

She forces a smile. "I have a lot of people stepping along behind me, then."

"That's how it should be."

She tries to keep things light. "Who's Jelly?"

"According to Jelly, he's the one who runs the entire estancia. According to the pay roll, the old buzzard's our handyman. You'll get to know him when we get home, when we get back to Lancer." She's frowning, and he captures her hand again and squeezes. "We don't have to do it here. We have to pass through Stockton on our way south and we can get married there by a justice of the peace or a preacher if we can find one, where no one knows us and no one needs to know anything but that you and me are getting married." He waits, watching her doubt and fear cloud over her. "And we are getting married, Jess."

She straightens up and finally she meets his gaze. The smile is small and strained, but it's there. "After the welcome you got, I don't suppose I can say that it was all a mistake?"

He grins. "Depends. Who'd you mistake me for?"

"Well, the schoolmaster lodges with the Widow Wright, my neighbour. She tells me he's sweet on me."

"Is he now? I guess he looks a lot like me, this schoolmaster? "

The little smile grows. "He's short and stout and has yellow hair."

"I can sure see how you'd be confused when I walked through the door, then."

"You didn't walk through the door. You blew in, like that storm of yours."

"It's a summer storm," says Johnny. "It'll be over soon."

"Then what's left, when it's gone?" She's very still.

"Calm and quiet and green things growin'."

She draws a long breath. Something in her, the strained thing that was likely Matt Hobart's doing, seems to drain away. "Oh."

"A safe place." Johnny smiles. A wisp of hair's escaped the twist she put it in, and he smoothes it, tucking it behind her ear. Her hair's soft and smells like Teresa's herb garden in the afternoon sun. "It was no mistake, Jess, and you and me are gonna make it legal. Here or in Stockton. I abide by your choice on that."

She nods and her fingers tighten on his. Her shoulders dip, and she sighs. She looks tired and he thinks that it's time she had him to look after her. Well past time.

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"You'll be Mister Vincent, the schoolmaster?" Johnny pauses just inside the door of the schoolroom, whacking his hat against his leg to shake the water from it. The storm's already rolling on east towards the Sierras, but the rain it brought came down heavy. The drops from his hat spatter against the pine walls, leaving dark ghosts to mark their passing.

Vincent's cleaning the black-painted board at the front of the schoolroom. He's lit the lamps against the dusk. Some of his face is in shadow but the light catches on a high forehead, shining there in a way that probably has the kids fighting not to grin and catch a licking for disrespect.

Johnny knows a lot about getting a licking. He didn't go to school for long himself. He had a year or so, maybe a little more, in the one at the mission orphanage where Tadeo Madrid left him after Papa died. His mama had been dead for months before that and there was no one but the nuns to care for him. They hadn't lost much sleep prayin' for him. They didn't pray much for orphans of his variety. He rubs fingers that remember the sting of the switch used by that old bruja, Sister Aurelia, when she taught him his letters.

It was a rare day when he wasn't held back after school was out. He can't remember how many times he got a clip around the ear or a switch to the backside before they set him to writing out his punishment because he talked too much, laughed too loud, didn't pray hard enough, hadn't known his sums, had a filthy gringo for a father. Sore fingers had laboured a thousand times: Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra...words that meant nothing, just something to recite in church, in writing that looked like chicken scratches in the dirt.

Impresses the hell outa Scott, that he can rattle off the Latin like that.

He reckons the nuns didn't mourn too much when he ran off to make his own way. How old had he been? Twelve, maybe? Something like that. Life hadn't been too clean and sweet and shiny then, that was certain. Not much bloom to rub off.

Vincent's spectacles wink in the light when he looks up. "I am. And you are?"

Johnny gives his hat one more whack and dons it. He nods and smiles. "I'm looking for Grady Lancer."

Vincent looks surprised. "Grady Lancer?"

"About this high. Tow headed. Talks a lot."

"I know who he is. I don't know who you are—"

"Miz Lancer asked me to look for him. He's late gettin' home and she thought you maybe kept him back."

Schoolmaster Vincent folds the cloth he's been using to clean the board, corner to corner, pressing the creases in hard with his fingers. He takes his time, getting it just so. Then corner to corner again, press hard, get it just so. He looks down at the cloth like he's never seen one before and his mouth's thinned down so far his lips are white.

Uh-huh. The man's sweet on Jessamie all right.

Vincent unfolds that thin mouth. "You're a friend of Missus Lancer's?"

Johnny leans up against the doorpost. He tilts his hat over his eyes a fraction, rolling his shoulders to relax them. "Sure am." He grins.

The cloth gets put down onto the table top. Not just anyhow, but real careful and neat. Vincent lines up the edge of the cloth with the box of chalks. His mouth's thinning up again. "I have to ask. I'm a neighbour—"

"Yeah. She told me you lodged with the Widow next door." Johnny lets the smile widen. "Real good of you to look out for her like that."

Vincent lines up his books now, to match the cloth and the box of chalks. "It's my duty as a God-fearing man to care for the widow and the orphan, as the Good Book requires of us. And it's a privilege."

Johnny lets his mouth twitch and makes sure Vincent sees it. "Well, it's real neighbourly of you."

Vincent's mouth twitches too, but Johnny doesn't reckon it's to hide a smile. Vincent nods, real stiff, and his mouth draws in again. He has a prissy mouth. Jelly would say that it looked like a hen's behind. Jelly would be right, and it isn't often a man can say that.

The hen's behind opens a mite. "I don't think you're from around here?"

"Nope. Since you don't have Grady here, I guess I better look elsewhere."

The schoolmaster's gold-rimmed spectacles hook around his ears. He unhooks them one leg at a time and folds them, before using a silk handkerchief to wrap them. He brings each corner of the handkerchief over the spectacles in turn, taking care with the folds, the way he did with the cloth. "You're visiting Missus Lancer and Grady, I take it, Mister—?"

"For a day or two. I don't reckon on it taking longer than that. Guess I'll try the forge, then. Jessamie—Miz Lancer, that is—said Grady's fast friends with the blacksmith's youngest. Likely he's there. Forges are excitin' places when you're his age."

"Yes." Vincent gathers his books into a pile and winds a leather strap around them. "He and Billy French are often together. It's quite likely he's at the forge."

Hell, but this one talks near on as fancy as Scott. Johnny raises a finger to his hat brim. "I'm obliged for the information. Thanks."

Vincent sniffs but tells Johnny that he's welcome. He tightens the leather strap with a hard jerk. Kinda like he wishes it weren't books he was tying that noose around.

"Real obliged," says Johnny and he's on his way, letting the door swing shut and leaving the schoolmaster glaring behind him. He grins all the way to the forge.

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Like most men in the trade, the smith's big and beefy, swinging a hammer that looks like it might weigh near on as much as Johnny does.

Grady's dancing about in a corner of the forge with another tow-headed shaver, well back from the fire, watching as the hammer comes down on a long ribbon of glowing metal. The smith's making a wagon tongue, by the look of it. The hammer strikes iron, and red and gold sparks leap up from under it, spitting and sizzling. The kids let out shrill squeals every time the hammer hits. They couldn't make more noise if the Apache had taken 'em. Johnny's damned if he knows how the smith can endure it.

The hammer strikes again with a dull clang, more shrieks from the boys, and another shower of fierce little sparks.

Man's prone to trouble as the sparks fly upwards. That's in the Good Book too, someplace, along with the schoolmaster's care for the widow and orphan. True saying, thinks Johnny. Hell, Mama always used to say Trouble was his middle name. Not exactly gospel truth that, though. It was Luis, after his dead abuelo, but maybe that was one lie he could forgive Mama for. All things considered, the way he'd turned out, she likely had a point.

"Grady! Hey! Grady."

The kid wheels around, and hell, but Johnny's never seen anyone look that pleased to see him. Grady stares, then his whole face just lights right up, and he leaps to hurl himself on Johnny. He grabs a leg and hangs on, just like he did at the train stop in San Francisco. Bad habit the kid's getting there.

"Johnny! Johnny! I didn't know you were coming to see us! Have you seen Ma, Johnny? She'll be awful glad you came, I'll bet. Have you seen our new house, Johnny? I like it better'n the farm, 'cept Ma makes me go to school to learn how to figure sums and suchlike. School lasts an awful long time, Johnny. Takes up most of the day and it gets awful warm and heavy in there, figuring sums. I can spell up to the fourth page in my book, Johnny. Did Ma tell you? I'm the best for spelling. I'm not so good at figuring. Did you go to school when you were little like me, Johnny? Did you like it? I'll bet you didn't like it. Did Ma know you were coming? She's been awful blue since we came home. Oh! Did you bring Barranca, Johnny? I was telling Billy and Mister French about Barranca. He's an awful smart horse, isn't he? Right pretty, too. I'll bet even Mister French hasn't seen a prettier horse than Barranca, has he, Johnny? Say, do you think Barranca will 'member me? It's been an awful long time—"

Johnny clamps a hand over the kid's mouth. He glances at the smith. French puts the wagon tongue back into the fire and nods. Johnny grins and looks back down at Grady. "You got any three-legged mules around here, Grady?"

He takes away his hand and Grady's off again like he never has to breathe. " 'Course not, Johnny! All the mules around here have four legs on 'em. Have you ever seen a mule with three legs? I'll bet you haven't. They'll be awful scarce. Mister French, have you ever—"

Johnny's forced to use the hand again. "I only ask, Grady Lancer, 'cause you can talk the hind legs off one. Quiet down, now." He waits and the kid's eyes crinkle up with laughing. "Promise?"

Grady nods hard. Johnny gives him a little shake and takes his hand away again, but he holds it ready, just in case. He doesn't say anything about Grady holding onto his leg, though. He nods at the smith. "Afternoon."

French gives him a grin. "I kinda don't listen to them, myself," he says. "Billy here's my youngest, out of six, and I stopped listening round about number three. Name's Geordie French. I'm just guessing, mind, but I reckon you might be Johnny somethin' or other."

Johnny takes a hand that's hard as the iron it works all day long, and tries not to let the wince show. Just as well he's out of the game these days. It's gonna take a week for the tingles to get out of his gun hand. "Yeah. I sure am Johnny somethin'-or-other."

"This is Johnny Madrid, Mister French. He's our friend. Mine and Ma's. Aren't you, Johnny?"

French stiffens and his gaze drops to Johnny's rig. That's a name he's heard. Johnny puts his hand on Grady's shoulder and squeezes; not to hurt, but to tell the kid to keep quiet. Not that it'll work. Not with Grady. He'll have to gag the kid with his bandana, likely. Billy hasn't said a thing, he notices; just stares with big round eyes. Figures Grady's friend is a quiet one. Likely Grady doesn't want the competition.

"You're a friend of Miz Lancer's?" French hefts the hammer in his hand, and now his brown eyes meet Johnny's, narrowed and watchful.

"This town's real neighbourly." Johnny tousles Grady's hair and the kid beams up at him. "Yeah. I'm a friend, here to visit. Miz Lancer sent me to round up her stray here. She's a mite anxious about him, bein' it's so long since school was let out."

French looks uncertain. But Johnny reckons Grady himself swung the blacksmith's thinking with the way he greeted Johnny, showing the trust that kids his age have in those they know and love. And Johnny knows the kid loves him.

He ruffles Grady's hair again. "Come and help me get settled in at the hotel, and then you and me will go home to your ma."

"I didn't mean to be late," says Grady, virtuous all of a sudden. He runs to the corner and gathers up a slate and a book. "Is Ma mad?"

"Just worried." Johnny's still trading looks with the smith, but French nods and puts down the hammer.

"We look after each other in this town, Madrid. It's a real friendly place." French picks up the bellows, turning back to his forge. "I reckon you don't mean no harm to Miz Lancer, goin' by how Grady here is actin' around you, but my wife'll call on her later."

"I like to meet the neighbours." Johnny grins and offers his hand again. French hesitates, then shakes.

Hell, make that two weeks to get the tingles out.

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Johnny checked into the hotel before he went to find Jessamie, but it's a good excuse to get the kid somewhere they can talk. They go by the stable first so Grady can greet Barranca, and the kid's right: that's one smart horse Johnny's got there. Barranca cocks one hip and flicks an ear at Grady while the kid talks to him, but he pays Grady about as much mind as he does a fly buzzing him. Barranca's far more interested in the bucket of feed Johnny brings him.

It's still spitting down with rain, although the storm's mostly over now, so they run through the mud and dirt to the hotel. A couple of chairs stand on the porch. Johnny steers Grady towards them and fishes a bag of peppermint sticks out of his pocket. Grady sucks on one, red and white striped. It'll make him sticky, most like, and get Johnny into trouble with Jessamie. He'll have to get used to that. He and Grady will both have to get used to that.

"Best not to tell folks my name's Madrid," he says. "It tends to get 'em nervous."

The peppermint stick slows Grady down some. He takes it out to show Johnny that the end's already sucked down to a point. "You are Johnny Madrid though, aren't you, Johnny? " He frowns. "But when we were in San Francisco, they called you Mister Lancer."

"Sometimes I'm Johnny Madrid. Sometimes... well, sometimes I used to use my mama's name, and be Johnny Martinez. Or my middle name, and be Luis Madrid or Luis Martinez. It all depended on what my brother Scott calls the per-tin-ant circumstances. But mostly, these days, I'm just plain Johnny Lancer. And that is my name, Grady. Johnny Lancer."

"Are you my pa?"

Johnny shakes his head. He always knew that one day Grady would ask. "No, Grady, I ain't."

"Oh." Grady looks down at his feet, and kicks at the chair leg. His chin wobbles. "Oh."

Johnny waits, lets the kid find the words.

"I thought you might be." Grady looks like the light's been squeezed outa him. He looks at the candy stick in his hand and lays it carefully on the arm of his chair. "I thought—" His chin wobbles some more. "I thought you might be."

"No, Grady. Your pa's dead, just like your ma says."

"We've got the same name!"

"Sorta."

Grady sniffs, rubbing at his nose with the back of his hand. But Johnny knows better than to touch him yet. They have to get through this first.

"Did you know him, Johnny? Was he kin?"

"No. No, I didn't know him. We weren't kin." Johnny feels the kid's aching. He knows what it feels like, to want something that bad. He wanted to be Papa's boy so bad, when he thought Murdoch Lancer had thrown him and Mama to the street. He wanted to be Edgardo Madrid's boy and never think about being a Lancer. He remembers the stories Grady told Johnny about the father he'd never seen. He knows how much Grady wants a pa to look up to and be proud of. This'll hurt the kid. This'll hurt like hell.

"Ma never talks about him." Grady's eyes meet Johnny's and there's no guile in them, nothing but his want. "I think she's mad at him."

"She is." Johnny rubs his chin, thinking. He nods. When he sees Gus Guthrie, he'll have to beg pardon for what he's going to say next, for she's one of the few women who can swing a hammer with the best of them. "Your friend Billy's pa, the smith. He's a big strong man, isn't he?"

"Uh-huh." Grady looks surprised.

"Do you think your ma could swing that hammer the way he does? Do you think I could?"

"You could, you're a man. But Ma's a lady. She could never lift it."

Johnny isn't so sure he could either. He and Scott leave the smithying to Murdoch for good reason. "That's right. She's not strong enough. Thing is, Grady, women are mostly not as strong as men, right?"

Grady nods.

"That's why we men have to look after them, and make sure they don't get hurt. We use our strength to do the hard work for them and to protect them. It's not right to use our strength to hurt them. It's a real wicked thing to do. We can hurt them real bad, bein' so much stronger."

"Is that why she's mad at him? Did he hurt my ma?"

Hell, but this is one smart, bright kid! There's something warm inside Johnny's chest. Pride, maybe. "He hurt her the worst way that a man can, and so she's mad at him and she'll never forgive him or want to talk about him. It hurts her to think about him, and because we love her, you and me, we won't ever talk about him and hurt her that way."

Grady leans forward, his gaze on Johnny's face. He puts his hands on Johnny's knees, to brace himself. "She doesn't like it if I ask."

"No. Don't ever ask her, Grady. You got a question, you come to me."

Grady nods. His face is flushed and his eyes are big. Too big.

"Anyhow, your pa died, and his family blamed her. They didn't care about the bad things he did or that he hurt her, they just cared about him bein' kin and wanting to blame your ma for him being dead. And in a way, it was sorta down to her, but he deserved it for hurting her."

"I won't let anyone ever hurt her again." Grady sounds little and fierce and frightened, and Johnny wants to just gather him up, him and Jess, and take care of them. But not yet. This has to be done right. They have to start right.

"I won't either. You and me, we'll look after her together from now on. Right?"

Grady nods, and he straightens up a mite, and a spark of something comes back. He's hopeful.

"So. This all happened before you were born. Your ma had to leave the place where she lived, over in Colorado territory. That's a long way from here, back over the mountains." Johnny nods east towards the Sierras. "She had to find a place where she could hide, and she knew you were coming and that she'd have to hide you too and keep you safe. She found the farm, and found out that it was owned by a man called Lancer, who lived a couple hundred miles south and who never came there. So she called herself Lancer and went there to hide, because she knew your pa's folks would look for Jessamie Kavanagh but they wouldn't look on a little farm for someone called Jessamie Lancer. And they didn't find her, not for a long time. She kept herself and you safe for years."

"But they did find her. Is that why that man... last year? That man who came? He was looking to hurt her too?" Grady's chin trembles again and he looks frightened. "She doesn't like to talk about that, either. She just says he that he was a bad man and we're safe now." A small hand clutches Johnny's. "You made it safe."

"Your pa's family's all gone now. They can't hurt her and they can't hurt you."

"Is that why we came to live here in town? Because it's safe now you got that man?"

Johnny swallows back a sigh and nods. "Yeah, I guess so. Thing is, Grady, from before you were born, your ma had to hide to keep you from getting hurt. That's why she calls herself Lancer, that's why she never talks to you about your pa."

Grady sits for a moment, leaning on Johnny's knees. He frowns. "So ain't I Grady Lancer? If Ma isn't? I don't get it. What's my name?"

"What's mine?" says Johnny, real soft.

Grady's eyes are shiny and he blinks to clear the tears. "You're Johnny Madrid. And Johnny Lancer. And them other names... oh."

"Sometimes I'm called one thing, and sometimes another. Like I said. It depends on the circumstances. But I'm always me, Grady. I'm always Johnny. That's my truth, my true thing—that I'm Johnny."

The kid's frown deepens. He nods, but Johnny can't be sure the kid really understands. He's too young for this. Johnny feels a surge of hate for Matt Hobart burning through him. The man ruined everything he touched. Pity he wasn't around so Johnny could take care of him.

"You're Grady. For a time, you were called Grady Lancer and not Grady Kavanagh, like your Ma. But you're still Grady. That's your true thing. That's what's important."

Grady nods again, but looks down so Johnny can't see his face. "Is Ma... is Ma mad with me, too? Because he was my pa and he hurt her?"

Hell! He'd hoped like hell Grady wouldn't ask this one.

"Well, she might be a little bit mad with you for not goin' straight home when school let out, and she's going to be plenty mad with me for giving you candy, but... well, what do you think? Do you think your ma's mad with you because of your pa?"

Grady thinks about it for a minute or two, then shakes his head. But Johnny's not sure the kid doesn't still worry about it, a little bit. Only time will cure that one, he thinks. He knows what it is to think you're not wanted. Some days he still ain't sure, himself.

"Okay. Let's take stock of where we are now, so it's all straight. Your pa hurt your ma—"

"And we won't ever talk to her about him, because we love her," nods Grady, and he looks serious. Johnny wants to smile at how the kid's shoulders go back, the way a man's do when he's taking on the weight of what it means to be grown and be responsible. He won't smile though, and hurt the kid's pride. He ruffles Grady's hair instead.

"That's right. There's no one from your pa's family left to hurt you now, so you and your ma aren't hiding no more. And I need your help, Grady. I need your help real bad."

Grady sits up straight, his eyes shiny. The tears spill over without him noticing.

"I want to take you and your ma back with me to Lancer – the real Lancer, where I live with my... er... my pa and my brother. I need your help, Grady, to persuade your ma to marry me. Then she'll really be Missus Lancer, and you—"

Grady blinks and his eyes narrow. "Then I'll be Grady Lancer for real?"

"Yup."

Grady's head droops and he kicks at the chair leg again, scuffing the wood with his shoes. His voice is real quiet. "And then will you be my pa?"

Now Johnny can gather him in, the way he wants to gather them both in. Grady's shoulders are thin and slight, a child's shoulders, and he doesn't have the strength to resist as Johnny pulls him in close. Johnny gets both his arms around the kid, letting him squirm in tight until Grady's on his lap, winding his arms around Johnny's neck, his head tucked under Johnny's chin and his tears wetting Johnny's collar.

"I'll be proud to be your pa, Grady Lancer," Johnny says.

.

.

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The rain's still mizzling down when they get to the new house and Jessamie opens the door to them. Grady dances in, eyes bright and face sticky from ear to ear.

"Ma! Ma! Johnny's going to be my pa and take us to Lancer and he says we're going to live with him and his pa and his brother and T'resa and Maria and an old coot. What's an old coot, Ma? Johnny just laughed when I asked him. Johnny says we're going to live in a hass-y-enda and I'll have a room all to myself. And there's lots of horses, Ma, although none of them's as smart as Barranca, and when I see Uncle Scott's horse, Crusoe, he says I've got to point and say that Crusoe's an old nag. What's an old nag, Ma? Is it the same as the old coot? Johnny just laughed when I asked him that, too. Johnny says he has his eye on a pony that would suit me, Ma, called Toffee. Toffee's an awful dumb name for a pony, but T'resa named him, Johnny says, and we can't do anything about it now. Johnny says his coat looks awful like molasses, like Barranca's only darker. And Ma, Johnny says our name'll really be Lancer when you marry him, so you will, won't you, Ma? Johnny says you'll likely get married in Stockton, on our way to Lancer. Will you, Ma? I think you should. Johnny says you'll be an awful grand wife to have. Johnny's going to be my pa, Ma, did he tell you? Johnny says—"

Johnny puts one hand over Grady's mouth and reckons he'll be doing that a lot from now on. He puts the other on Jessamie's shoulder, closing his fingers on the thin calico covering her pale skin and feeling her warmth. "Johnny says the sooner we get to Stockton and get married the better. What do you think?"

Mrs Lancer smiles. "Yes," she says. "Yes."

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~end~

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