Meeting

Johnny understood why Murdoch wanted to throw a big fiesta. He really did. He just didn't want to be there. It had been a year since the brothers had come home to Lancer, and Johnny was glad his father felt a celebration was in order. But big parties made him uneasy, and being one of the guests of honor put an uncomfortable burden on him.

That burden was made heavier by the realization that eligible young ladies would be there sizing him up for a wedding suit. Johnny was still coming to terms with the fact that women of a certain type were suddenly... available... to him. Now that he owned a third of the biggest estancia in the valley he'd become quite a catch, even with his disreputable past. And just as he hadn't been able to tell if a woman was attracted to him because of his notoriety when he was a pistolero, he now found he had no idea how to tell if a young lady wanted him only for his money. His legendary ability to read a man's intentions did not apply to women.

His brother Scott was used to dealing with high class women. Johnny was used to dealing with saloon girls and whores. He didn't know how to make small talk with respectable young ladies...or their fathers. All he could do on the night of the party was melt to the edges of the gathering, keep an eye on Scott to see how it was done, and try to disappear before he made a fool of himself.

The festivities were to begin late in the afternoon and continue until midnight. Many of valley's residents would be staying the night; extra rooms in the hacienda were converted to guest rooms and dormitories. Ranch hands volunteered in shifts to take care of the horses and carriages. When Johnny found out about this he offered to be one of the livery men, but Murdoch had just laughed at him as if Johnny was making a joke.

By three o'clock on the day of the party all was ready. Johnny had no idea how it was coordinated, but as the guests arrived so did long tables full of food, along with plates and napkins and utensils. The women of the estancia had a grand time as they served and cooked and cleaned and served some more. There were fruits and vegetables in abundance, barbecued beef and pork and chicken, beans and rice, tortillas, tamales and bread; and desserts sweet enough even for the children-and for Johnny.

The brilliant hues of the women's skirts complemented the colorful paper flowers on the tables; they reminded Johnny of his childhood in Mexico. The setting sun brought a cooling breeze to chase away the heat of the day. The partygoers were bathed in soft pastel light from the paper lanterns. The band played softly at first. Gradually, as the sky darkened and the stars came out, the music got louder and faster, the laughter of the guests more raucous.

When the festivities were well under way Murdoch spotted Johnny walking back from the corral. He waved him over and introduced him proudly to several cattlemen and tradesmen. Johnny didn't even try to remember their names, but he smiled at them and shook their hands. Conversation was strained, and he was glad when he was able to get away-politely, of course. He made his way through the crowd near the dance floor until he saw Scott, surrounded by women; Scott beckoned him over and made a point of introducing him as "my kid brother". Johnny enjoyed mild flirtations with a few of the more forward ladies until some drinking buddies of his walked by and pulled him away. Jokes were told, plans made for a card game later, and a bottle was surreptitiously passed around.

Then from out of nowhere Teresa looped her arm through his and pulled him to the dance floor. He danced with her because it would have caused a ruckus if he had refused. Then another young lady-one of the more forward ones, of course-pretended to think he had asked her to dance, and so there he was dancing again. At last he caught Scott's eye and grimaced to him; to his relief his brother maneuvered over to him, cut in, and Johnny was able to blend back into the crowd.

The constant buzz of voices and music in his ear was wearing him out. He found a dark, quiet corner with a good view of the dance floor and tried to relax as he watched his father and brother dance with all the eligible women of the valley. Scott charmed all the younger ladies but Johnny noticed he danced only once with each one. He did dance with Teresa several times, until young Matthew from the bank arrived and cut in. Scott laughed and kissed Teresa on the cheek before inviting another young lady to dance with him.

Smiling to himself, Johnny looked to see if his old man showed anything other than polite interest in the older ladies he twirled around the floor; but as expected Murdoch was the picture of propriety. Shortly after his father danced with Aggie Conway-with whom the Old Man appeared very comfortable, Johnny noted- he was surprised to see his father with a much younger lady. Johnny didn't recognize her. She wasn't very tall; she had a nice smile and pretty light brown hair; and she was quite a good dancer. Murdoch did most of the talking, but once when they waltzed closer to Johnny he heard the young woman's voice as she responded to something the Old Man said, and it was a nice voice, too.

There was a well stocked dessert table near the front door of the hacienda; Johnny planned to snag a piece of pie once he was done watching the dancing. Knowing he was on his way to the peace and quiet of the house helped him relax. He stopped to talk with a couple of the hands and found himself listening to a very tall tale about mountain lions and pea shooters; when he glanced over to check on his dessert he saw Murdoch's mystery lady going inside, alone. He slapped the teller of tall tales on the back, and with a big grin and a shake of his head he strolled after her, dessert forgotten.

The library was lit by a single lamp on a side table. He saw the young lady holding a candle and peering closely at the books on the middle shelf, gently running her index finger over the spines as she searched the titles. She didn't appear to have heard him enter; he took advantage of the opportunity to look at her a little more closely. She wore a simple dress; her hair was partly tied back by a satin ribbon that matched the decoration on her sleeves. The overall effect was one of modest elegance.

She became aware of his presence, glanced over at him, and smiled a little.

He flashed her one of his best lady-killer smiles and said, "Didn't mean to bother you..."

The young lady did not appear to notice his killer smile. "That's all right. I'm looking for a book to borrow...Mr. Lancer is very generous with his collection."

Johnny hitched himself up to sit part way on the table behind him. "You must like to read, then," he drawled.

"Yes, I do." She looked at him with a level gaze. "Do you enjoy reading?"

He shook his head with a soft snort. "Naw, I'm not much of a reader. My brother, now, he reads all the time."

She nodded and turned her attention back to the books. She didn't ask him about his brother. He watched as she chose a volume and removed it from the shelf. "Why isn't a pretty lady like you out there dancing?" he asked. Her eyes glittered in the candlelight when she looked over at him.

"I was," she answered. "And I saw you take a turn or two. Why aren't you out there dancing?" She smiled as she spoke to show she didn't mean to be rude. He liked her smile, and he didn't feel she was being rude at all. He also liked that she didn't act all fluttery when he called her pretty.

"Well, there are a lot of nice people out there havin' a good time, and I just like watchin' that." He tilted his head and scanned the tops of the bookshelves, avoiding her eyes. "It makes me happy to see folks enjoyin' themselves." He looked down at her briefly, suddenly self-conscious and not sure why.

She nodded. "I know what you mean," she said simply. She had a sweet, low voice. He'd like to hear more of it, but she didn't seem to be much of a talker. Kind of a relief, actually, although it meant it was up to him to keep the conversation going. "Miss, I've been around here for a year or so and I don't remember seeing you before. Are you new in town?"

She bowed her head. "No," she said. "I've lived here for a number of years with my husband. He passed away, and I've only recently finished my year of mourning."

"I'm sorry," Johnny said softly.

So much for keeping the conversation going.

She moved past him without meeting his eyes. "Thank you," she replied. She carried the borrowed book in the crook of her arm. "Good night," she said with a quick glance at his face; then she left. Johnny sat in the dim room, alone.

Cipriano regularly assigned ranch hands to help Lancer widows with chores or heavy labor. When Frank got the job of riding to the Morris place one day, Johnny offered to go instead. When Frank asked why Johnny wanted to go see the crazy animal lady he just laughed and said it was about time he took his turn, which was true as far as it went. But Johnny wondered if the Widow Morris might be the quiet young lady he'd met in the library weeks ago. He'd thought of her several times since then. He couldn't say why, but he wouldn't mind meeting her again.

The lane leading away from the hacienda widened to become the road to Morro Coyo; before it did, a turn off led to the Morris place-still on Lancer land, but set well away from any other house. Like most of the other homes on the estancia, the Widow Morris's house was made of adobe. Unlike the other houses, it included a wooden porch wrapped around the south and east walls. As Johnny and Barranca approached the house a small, ugly dog roused himself from a sunny spot just in front of the steps. He ran towards them, barking.

Barranca eyed the creature and snorted a warning; Johnny stopped the horse and spoke softly to both animals. Barranca calmed down when the dog quit making noise. Johnny dismounted, walked out to the length of his reins, knelt down and held out his hand. The old dog came up to him quickly, wagging his tail and ducking his head. Johnny scratched the dog's ears and the dog melted happily onto his back for a tummy rub. Johnny laughed; the dog opened his mouth in a grin.

"Faker," Johnny said to the dog. "All bark and no bite...that's what they say about your kind." The dog continued smiling and wagging his tail, and he jumped to his feet to follow Johnny as he led his horse into the corral.

Johnny unsaddled Barranca and turned him loose; the horse immediately rolled in the dirt. With a rueful shake of his head Johnny walked up on the porch. There was no answer when he knocked on the front door. Looking around for a sign of the widow, he saw a covered plate on a small table between two rocking chairs. "You mean you didn't help yourself to these?" he commented to the old dog when he raised the cloth to find freshly baked cookies. Under the plate was a note in small, neat feminine handwriting.

Hello! Thank you for coming today. Please help yourself to some cinnamon cookies.

Here are the jobs that seem to be beyond me: The corral gate is swinging crookedly and hanging up a bit; there's a wiggle in the ladder leaning against the west wall of the barn; the water trough in the corral is leaking more than a little (I've left it empty to make it easier for you to fix, so if your horse is thirsty there's a bucket by the pump); and I wonder if you could take down some of the brushy overgrowth in the back of the house.

I'm out this morning and should return before you are done, so please if you have any questions just wait until I get back. You've probably figured out by now that the dog doesn't bite, but the bay horse in the barn does. Thank you! Mrs. Emily Morris

Johnny finished the assigned jobs in good time under the watchful eye of the ugly old dog. He found a few other odds and ends to keep him busy as he waited for the widow to return. The place was neatly kept up, the animals clean and well fed; there were chickens and goats in addition to the dog, and horses in the barn. He visited with the horses for a while-none of them appeared to be anything special to Johnny's eye, and he wondered what a widow needed with three horses.

Johnny was walking up the porch steps when the old dog took off like a shot, running towards a horse and rider trotting in. The horse stopped and the rider dismounted to kneel down with arms flung wide. The old dog moved faster than Johnny would have thought possible and launched right into the waiting arms. Laughing, the young woman stood up with an armful of wiggling dog. She boosted him up onto the saddle, swung easily up behind him, and scooped him again into her arms; then the horse, rider, and dog walked quietly to the house.

Johnny stood in the yard with his hands on his hips as they approached. He couldn't help smiling at the happy trio. When they were closer he touched his hat and said, "Ma'am, I'd say that dog missed you while you were gone."

The Widow Morris was smiling, too. "You'd think I was gone for a month instead of just a morning!"

Johnny reached up and took the old dog from her, turning his face away from the dog's flicking tongue. The young lady dismounted before Johnny could get the dog to the ground. She unlooped the halter rope from the saddle horn to hitch her horse to the rail, and quickly wiped her hands on her trousers.

"Hello-I'm Emily Morris," she said, extending her hand to Johnny.

"Mrs. Morris. I'm Johnny Lancer," he replied, taking her hand gently. He lifted it gallantly to his lips and gazed boldly into her eyes. He was pleased she returned his gaze with a look of amusement.

"I know, Mr. Lancer," she acknowledged with a small smile. "We meet again."

Johnny inclined his head as he released her hand. "Mr. Lancer is my old man," he said. "I'm Johnny."

"And I'm Emily," she responded. "Thank you so much for coming over today."

"When I heard the Widow Morris needed a hand today I pictured someone older," Johnny said. "But I been thinking for a couple of weeks about that nice lady I met in the library. I thought there was a chance it was you, but I didn't expect you to make such good cinnamon cookies."

"Thank you." She smiled up at him."Would you like some more cookies? Some water?"

"No, thanks, I'm good." Johnny was smiling, too, and looking once more into her eyes. They were gray-he hadn't been able to tell that when they first met in the library. Her cheeks were turning a little pink as he gazed at her. Johnny's smile got bigger when he noticed.

Emily cleared her throat and looked down. "Please, have a seat on the porch while I take care of Tramp; then I'll join you."

"Oh, no, ma'am." He shook his head as he grabbed the horse's halter rope. "I'd be happy to tend him for you. You should sit and pet that poor lonely dog of yours."

She looked like she was going to refuse, but changed her mind. "That would be nice. Thank you. And it's Emily-not ma'am."

He touched his hat again with a cheeky grin. "Yes ma'am," he said, eyes dancing, as he led the horse to the barn.

Emily had two glasses of cool water waiting on the porch when Johnny finished putting Tramp away. The dog lay at Emily's feet; his tail thumped when Johnny joined them but he didn't get up.

"That old dog was my best friend this morning," Johnny said, sitting down in the rocker and picking up a cookie. "But I guess he was just stringing me along until he found something better."

Emily nodded. "He's pretty much a one person dog," she agreed. "Other folks may do in a pinch but when I'm home he doesn't usually get too far away from me."

"They say that you have quite a way with animals," Johnny said conversationally.

"They do, do they?" She laughed a little. "What else do they say?"

Johnny ducked his head. "Well, I guess they say you talk to'em."

Emily didn't seem at all upset. "Do they say I'm a witch who put spells on poor animals to force them to do my evil deeds?"

Johnny nearly choked on a bite of cookie as he nodded vigorously. "Yep. That's what I heard."

Emily shook her head and drew in a breath, but before she could respond Johnny continued, "I told'em that my life would be easier if I could talk to the cows instead of havin' to chase'em all over kingdom come, and I hoped you'd be able to teach me how to put a spell on'em to quit goin' through fences."

They chuckled together, then sat in silence for a short while. Emily watched Barranca nosing around the corral as she rubbed her dog's ears. "I am fascinated by animals. I like to try to understand them. If I clear my mind and watch what an animal is doing without applying human standards to it, I can often figure out why it's doing what it's doing."

"What does that mean, about not applying human standards to it?" Johnny asked.

"Well, a dog can only be a dog-he can't imagine being a person. So when I see a dog do something, I ask 'What does the dog get out of this?', not 'What would I get out of that if I was a dog?' Does that make any sense?"

Johnny shook his head with a smile. "Almost. Try it again another way."

Emily returned the smile. "If my dog jumped up and ate all the cookies while I was gone, it would be because those cookies were just too tempting. It wouldn't be because he was mad at me for being gone. He's a dog-eating cookies is its own reward for him. Being mad and eating the cookies because he was mad-that's how people think, not how dogs think."

Johnny considered this for a moment. "You know, that makes sense," he said. "Your dog and I had a conversation this morning about those cookies. I asked him why he didn't help himself, but he never answered me."

"I'm not quite sure." Emily grinned and patted the top of her thighs; the dog happily jumped up into her lap. Johnny could have sworn the dog winked at him. "I think it's because it never occurs to this dog to do anything that I haven't specifically told him to do. He's not the smartest dog I've ever had."

"He might be the ugliest." Johnny regretted saying the words as soon as he spoke them, but Emily smiled in agreement. "He was better looking when he was younger," she said. "But you're right-he's gotten pretty ugly in his old age."

"You had a lot of dogs?" Johnny tried to make up for his thoughtless comment.

"My grandparents always had a couple of farm dogs, and my father always liked having a house dog in town." Emily's face grew contemplative.

Johnny waited, but she was quiet. "You grew up in a city?" he asked. He though it was unusual to have to ask a girl questions-most of them chattered away with no urging.

Emily nodded. "Not much of one-a town called Oberlin. Back east in Ohio. My father grew up on a farm near there, and I spent a lot of time on the farm with my grandparents."

"Brothers and sisters?"

"I had an older brother, and some cousins about my age." She grinned. "We all grew up pretty wild, really."

Johnny raised his eyebrows and couldn't stop a little chuckle. "Wild, huh?"

"Wild," she insisted. "My parents believed that children were naturally in a state of grace and could do no wrong; they also believed in living close to nature and God's handiwork. What that meant is that we were pretty much left to run loose all summer long and on school vacations-Grandma provided the meals and a place to sleep, and other than that, my cousins and I did just about whatever we wanted."

"What kind of wild stuff did you do?"

Emily thought for a long time before answering, and Johnny had the feeling she was choosing her words carefully. "I was almost always with the animals. I learned that if I didn't want to be kicked or bitten or scratched I better learn how to understand them. And as soon as I was big enough to climb on a pony I started to ride. We'd just jump up on horses in the field and kick them-no saddle or bridle, just lots of running and jumping...and falling off. Learning how to fall off was real important."

"That's the truth," Johnny said. He considered what she had said. "But weren't your folks afraid you would get hurt?"

Emily sighed. "I don't really know what they were thinking. My upbringing was far different from that of my friends, but I didn't understand enough to ask my folks about it until it was too late."

"Too late?"

Emily leaned over and gathered the ugly old dog into a hug. "My parents died when I was fifteen-influenza. My grandparents had passed away before that...then my brother died in the War Between the States." Her voice trailed off.

When Johnny spoke his voice was soft. "I'm sorry. That's a lot of loss for a young lady."

Emily nodded. "I was sixteen when I married Mr. Morris. He was an acquaintance of our family, and a good man. He needed someone to tend his house, and I needed...someone to look after me, I guess. He made sure I completed my college degree. We moved West five years ago. And here I am."

She looked up to see Johnny looking at her intently. "I'm glad you're here," he said simply.

She met his gaze. "That's nice of you to say," she said. He noticed her cheeks flushing again, just a little. The dog wriggled out of her grasp and jumped down to the floor.

"So where were you this morning?" Johnny asked, looking away from those gray eyes. "Tramp didn't look all that worked up when I put him away..."

"I was watching a herd of wild horses," Emily answered. "It's not hard work, and Tramp is very good at it."

"Watching horses, huh?" Johnny was surprised. "Why do you watch wild horses?"

"For one thing, I love doing it. For another, I take notes on what I see and send them every month to Dr. Philpot at Miami University. He studies animal behavior and uses my observations in his work. I get a small stipend, and get to spend time outdoors and with horses."

"A stipend, huh? That mean you get paid to watch horses?"

"Yes, that's exactly what it means. Pretty nice deal, isn't it?"

Johnny nodded. Emily Morris kept surprising him. He didn't think he'd ever met anyone quite like her.

"I have to submit my notes under my late husband's name, of course. Academics don't believe a woman has the brain necessary to contribute to the study of natural science." Her voice, still pleasant, nevertheless betrayed a hint of annoyance.

"Well, that ain't right. It seems to me you've got plenty of brain." He had to grin at the sharp nod of her head. He almost thought he heard her say "Damn straight!" But of course she hadn't.

She also didn't seem to need to talk just to fill a silence. Johnny was surprised to discover that he did. "So what kinds of things go into those notes that you send?"

"That part gets a little boring. Things like the numbers of horses in a herd, whether they're male or female, where they spend most of their time in the group, numbers of matings and births...stuff like that." Johnny grinned slyly when she mentioned matings, but said nothing. "Then I watch things for myself. I watch how the horses act and see if I can figure out what's going to happen next. That's what's really fun for me."

Johnny felt a spark of recognition. "You know, I know just what you're talking about. I do it too, except with people. Just sit back real quiet and watch what's going on, so I can figure out what's going to happen." Unconsciously Johnny leaned back in his chair, real quiet.

"Really? So you understand what I'm talking about? I've never really met anyone else who was interested in all this." She sounded skeptical.

"Well, me neither. I mean, I never thought a person could make money making notes on wild horses, but I sure get it when you say you learn by just watching." Johnny leaned forward toward Emily, his hands opening up to her. "You see what's going on, then you wait to see what happens, and after a time you start to be able to predict what people are going to do."

Emily leaned forward a little in response. "And if you do it mindfully enough, you see things other people gloss over. You get to where you can take in a lot all at once, maybe not even knowing you're doing it, and somehow you know what a certain animal is going to do in a certain situation, most of the time."

Johnny scratched his chin. "Mindfully...that's a good word. It explains a lot."

Her dog stood up to look toward the barn, then lay back down again.

"Why do you watch people?" She enjoyed turning his own questions back at him, didn't she? Made him chuckle again.

"In my former line of work it came in pretty handy," he said evenly, wondering how much Mrs. Emily Morris knew about Johnny Lancer.

"Your former line of work being gunfighting?"

She knew.

He sighed, but looked directly at her. "Yeah."

"I can see it being advantageous to be able to predict what other gunmen might do, most of the time," Emily said thoughtfully. There was no recrimination in her tone.

Johnny laughed out loud. "You got that right."

She grinned back at him. They continued talking about watching and learning as the ugly old dog fell asleep on the porch floor. After a while Emily helped him clean Barranca up. By the time his horse was saddled and bridled he realized he really didn't want to go. He couldn't remember ever feeling so at ease with a woman.

As Johnny reluctantly mounted up Emily said, "Thank you so much for helping me out today. Please thank your father for me, too."

"It was truly my pleasure, ma'am," Johnny replied. He hesitated. He looked down at her, noticing for the first time she wore men's clothes. He hadn't noticed before, but it made sense if she was riding and watching horses. Funny he hadn't realized that...funny she hadn't apologized. He knew women who wore men's clothes when necessary, but if anyone saw them they always had to say something about it. Not this one. She was different.

"Emily..." her name felt strange in his mouth-pretty and new. "I'd like to see you again."

She smiled shyly. "I'd like that, too," she said.

Johnny grinned. "Good," he said. He touched his hat and nodded his head, then squeezed Barranca into a trot. She waved as he rode away; he turned in the saddle and waved back. Yes, he did want to see her again. He'd never met someone like her-someone who could somehow put words to what was in his head, who shared his way of looking at the world. He couldn't wait to know her better.