An episode tag for “Jelly”
Many thanks to my sister, Jane, for being my editor.
Word count 22,835
As Johnny Lancer crested the rise overlooking Lancer Ranch, he had a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. With the help of the local churches, he had found good homes for all of Jelly’s kids. Eight orphaned children, who had each been found wandering the countryside by Jelly Hoskins, were now legally adopted by good citizens from the towns near Lancer Ranch.
Jelly Hoskins was a cantankerous but affable drifter who collected stray kids along his travels like most people would collect pets. He had a soft spot for lost or abandoned children. He couldn’t provide them with much, and he may have done so through nefarious means, but he was well intended and kept them fed and clothed. Jelly came to work on Lancer Ranch to pay off a debt to Johnny’s father, Murdoch Lancer. When the debt had been paid, Murdoch invited him to stay on. Johnny came to consider Jelly a friend.
Johnny met Jelly’s kids when he was bushwhacked by some sharp shooters avoiding a posse and the kids came to his rescue. They carried him to their shack and looked after him for a few days. They varied in age and ethnicity, but they formed a band of brothers who looked out for each other. Johnny was impressed by their collective intelligence. They reminded him of the days he spent on his own as a child. During his few days with them, he formed an affectionate attachment to them, and the feeling was mutual. He was very touched when several of the boys gave him gifts when he left to return to Lancer. He was particularly taken with the small blond boy they called Sawdust; he seemed to have an unnatural knowledge of guns and gunfighters for a child his age.
The day had been filled with difficult goodbyes to the last group of boys being introduced to their new parents and homes. Johnny had been assisting with the process to help ease the boys through the transition.
It was close to dinner time when Johnny arrived back at the hacienda. Johnny led Barranca, his trusted palomino, into his stall. He was glad to see Jelly in the barn, working on some tack repairs.
“Hey, Jelly, how are ya doin’?” Johnny asked.
“Oh, I’m doin’ okay, Johnny. Tryin’ to keep busy. I sure miss those boys.”
“I know you do, Jelly, but you know you did the right thing. Those boys need good homes and now they all have them. You know you can visit them anytime you want.”
Johnny set about bedding Barranca down for the night, while keeping an eye on Jelly.
“No, that wouldn’t be right. Those boys need to get used to their new parents. They don’t need me pokin’ my nose in their lives no more.”
“Well, suit yourself, but I don’t think a visit now and again is gonna hurt anybody,” Johnny said, as he continued to brush Barranca’s coat.
“So how did it go today? Any problems with that last bunch?” Jelly asked.
“No real problems,” Johnny said, keeping to himself the heart wrenching scene when Sawdust went to meet his new family. He had clung to Johnny and refused to go in the house. He begged Johnny to take him back to the ranch, back to Jelly. Johnny eventually got the boy calmed and convinced the child to try it just one night and he would check on him the next day. It was beyond the role Johnny had intended to play in any of the adoptions, but it was the only way he could think of to get Sawdust to stay. He thought it would only worry Jelly if he told him about Sawdust not wanting to stay with his adoptive parents. But Johnny did have some questions.
“Jelly, how long was Sawdust with you?”
“Oh, let me think, just under a year, I guess.”
“How old do you think he is?”
“I reckon about 6 or 7 years old. He couldn’t tell me, so it’s just a guess. Could be older but small for his age.”
“Where did you find him?”
“We was down around Bakersfield when we came upon what looked like an abandoned camp. Only thing there was Sawdust and an empty food bag. Looked like the little guy hadn’t eatin’ in a month a Sundays.” Jelly became wistful, but continued. “He cried when I tried to take him with us. Kept sayin’ his pa was coming back.”
“Did he tell you his pa’s name?”
“Naw, couldn’t even tell me his real name. Why you askin’ so many questions about Sawdust?”
“I don’t know, there’s just somethin’ about him. Most kids his age don’t know how to clean a gun or about gunfighters.”
“What cha talkin’ ‘bout?”
“The day I woke up in that old shack of yours Sawdust asked me if I was a gunfighter. Said he knew because I wore my gun low on the leg like one. Don’t know where he came up with that. Somebody must have told him all gunfighters wear their guns a certain way. But there’s nothing to it. I just wear my gun like I wear it, nothing special about it. Anyway, when I left, he gave me my gun and holster and said he’d wiped out the barrel and oiled the leather. Jelly, I think his pa might be a gunfighter.”
Johnny finished with Barranca and now sat on a hay bale next to Jelly.
“Do you think he’s still out there someplace?” Jelly asked.
“Don’t know, but I think we need to find out. I’m gonna go talk to him tomorrow, see if I can get any information out of him. He has to remember something.”
The following morning Johnny left right after breakfast and headed north toward Spanish Wells. Sawdust’s adoptive parents, Dick and Jean Smith, lived about five miles on the outskirts of town. They worked a small farm. Johnny thought it was a perfect place for Sawdust. When he arrived mid-morning, Sawdust was in the yard with the Smith’s two sons, ages 8 and 10. Sawdust was running toward him before he even reached the house.
“Johnny! You came back!”
“Of course I came back,” Johnny said, as he dismounted and tethered Barranca to the post. “Didn’t I tell you I’d be back today?”
Sawdust said, sadly, “My pa told me he’d come back, but he never did.”
“Well, I’m here, and I’d like to talk with you, if that’s okay. But let me say hello to Mrs. Smith first, okay?”
“Okay, Johnny,” Sawdust said.
Johnny went up to the porch and knocked on the door. Mrs. Smith called from the kitchen for him to come in.
“Why, hello, Johnny, I didn’t expect to see you this early. Can you stay for lunch?”
“Sure, but I’d like to take Sawdust someplace to talk first, if that’s okay with you.”
“That’s fine. I’ll serve lunch at noon.”
“Thanks, ma’am. We’ll be back by then.”
Johnny left the house and called to Sawdust to follow him to his horse. He picked Sawdust up and sat him on Barranca’s saddle. Johnny climbed up behind him and said, “Let’s go for a little ride.”
They rode about a mile down the road to a small grove of trees with a small pond. Johnny lifted Sawdust down and led him to the shade of the oak trees. He took a small bundle out of his saddle bag and handed it to Sawdust. “Teresa sent you some of her biscuits. You can only eat one of them now, or you’ll spoil your lunch. Don’t want your new ma mad at me,” Johnny said, as he patted Sawdust on the head.
“So how did it go last night?” Johnny asked.
“Okay, I guess,” Sawdust said, talking around the edges of a biscuit.
“Just okay? Did they feed you good?
“Yeah, Johnny, they fed me good.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Think you can stay awhile?”
Sawdust hesitated, but finally said, “I guess so Johnny, since you said I can’t go back to Jelly.”
“Sawdust, this is your home now. Jelly has a new home, and all the other boys are at their new homes. You’re part of the Smith family now. You understand what I’m telling you?”
“Yeah, I understand. I gotta stay here.”
“I’m glad you understand. Sawdust, I want to talk to you about where you were before you were with Jelly.”
“Do you remember who was with you before Jelly found you?”
“My pa was there. He had to leave, but he told me he’d come back for me. ‘Cept he never did.”
“Do you remember your pa’s name?”
“Ma called him Bill. Ma called me Billy.”
“Why didn’t you tell Jelly your name?”
Sawdust shrugged and said, “‘Cause I thought just Ma called me Billy. Pa called me Sawdust, so that’s what I told Jelly.”
“Okay. Did your pa tell you where he was going when he left?”
Sawdust shook his head. “No, he just put on his gun and rode off. Pa’s a gunfighter, like you, Johnny.”
“Well, I’m not a gunfighter anymore. Is your pa the one who showed you how to clean a gun?”
“He sure did. Said I was his helper.”
“Did he tell you he was a gunfighter?”
“No, I heard Ma tell it to Pa. She said he shouldn’t be one anymore.”
“Okay. Can you tell me about your ma?”
“Ma died. Pa said the baby died and made Ma die, too,” Sawdust explained, his head hung low.
“Do you know when your ma died?”
Sawdust shook his head again. Johnny could see the strain building up in the child.
“That’s okay. I’m real sorry your ma died, Sawdust. And your pa didn’t come back for you.”
“Guess that’s why I gotta get ‘dopted.”
“Yes, that’s why you got adopted. Mr. and Mrs. Smith are your parents now.”
Sawdust started to cry. Johnny pulled him into his arms and held him, letting him release the pain. After a few minutes, Sawdust’s sobs subsided and only a few sniffles were left.
“You did real good, Sawdust. Thanks for telling me about your ma and pa.”
Sawdust nodded his head and smiled.
“What do ya say we go back and see what your new ma has fixed for lunch?”
“Can I keep these for later?” Sawdust asked, holding up the bandana wrapped biscuits.
“Sure, but you might think about sharing them with your new brothers.”
“Okay. I’m used to sharin’ things. Jelly always made us share.”
Johnny laughed and said, “And I’m sure he got real sore at ya if you didn’t!”
“He sure did, Johnny!”
“Bill Campbell, you said?” Val asked, with a confused look on his face. Johnny had stormed into his office, firing questions at him about an old acquaintance of theirs.
“That’s right,” Johnny said. “He was a few years older than me. I remember him ‘cause he had that long yellow hair.”
“Oh, I remember him all right, it’s just been so long since I heard his name. So why ya askin’ me about him?”
“One of Jelly’s kids, the one they call Sawdust, is the spitin’ image of him. I think he might be Bill Campbell’s kid.”
“Ya don’t say! Well, how did his kid end up with Jelly?”
“Jelly found the boy alone in an abandoned camp near Bakersfield. The boy told me his pa went off and never came back. Seems his ma died giving birth some time before that. Baby died, too. So I’ve been thinking, what if Bill Campbell is out there looking for his son? I mean, who knows why he left the boy alone, but maybe something happened to him that kept him from going back.”
“So what are you gonna do about it?”
“Well, Val, I thought maybe you could check with some of your sheriff buddies, see if any of them have heard the whereabouts of Bill Campbell. If he’s dead, some sheriff may know about it.”
“So you expect me to send a wire to every sheriff in the state?”
“Well, no, of course not. Maybe start with Bakersfield, and other towns near there.”
“All right, Johnny, I’ll send out a coupla feelers, see if we get anything back. But hasn’t the kid already been adopted?”
“Yeah, but if his real kin is found, I think it would be undone. So you’ll do it today?”
“Yes, I’ll do it today. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear something, that is, if I hear something, which I don’t believe I will.”
“Why ya always gotta be so negative, Val?”
“Guess I was born that way. Now get outta here and let me get some work done.”
Johnny doffed his hat at his friend and with a smile said, “Gracias, mi amigo.”
Several days later, Johnny rode through a pouring rain to the Smiths’ farm to check on Sawdust. Without announcing himself, he watched from across the yard as Sawdust’s adopted brothers romped on the front porch. Sawdust was off by himself, sitting in a chair. He showed no interest in joining the other boys in their play.
Johnny could tell that Sawdust was troubled about something, but he chose not to pursue it. Perhaps time would work its magic and Sawdust would adjust to his new situation. Johnny turned back and started the ride home.
Val Crawford was a regular guest at the Lancer Sunday dinners. As Johnny’s friend from his gunfighting days and now the sheriff of Green River, he was a welcome addition to their family gatherings. Johnny was hoping today Val would bring news of his enquiries into Bill Campbell.
The family was gathered in the great room of the hacienda awaiting the meal when Jelly burst in the front door.
“Johnny! Where’s Johnny?” he asked, as he stepped into the room.
Johnny rose from the couch. “I’m right here, Jelly. What’s all the commotion?”
“Johnny! I was cleanin’ out some of the stuff I was carryin’ around when we were on the road, and I found this,” he said, excitedly, as he handed Johnny a small book. “I plum forgot Sawdust had it with him when I found him.”
Johnny stepped to the window for better light and opened the book. “It looks like a diary,” he said. He read a few passages, turning pages at random. With a startled look on his face, he turned to Jelly, “I think this is his mother’s diary.”
“That’s what I thought, too,” Jelly declared.
Teresa, who was Murdoch’s ward and like a sister to Johnny, stepped up to Johnny’s side, and asked, “Does it have her name in it? Check the front page.”
Johnny flipped to the front of the book and found the inscription. He read it aloud: “Sarah Logan, it says, then it looks like the name Campbell was added later. He is Bill Campbell’s son!”
He turned the pages to the last entry and read: The baby will be here soon. I feel his little feet kicking me, like he’s fighting to get out. I wish my friend Imelda was here like she was when Billy was born. I hope I am strong enough to do this on my own. Bill is restless and wants us to keep moving north. He seems to think our future is in South Dakota. It seems a long way from here, and I’m so tired.
“That’s it, the last entry. There’s no date,” Johnny said.
“But now we know his ma’s name. That’s a start,” Jelly said.
“Didn’t you think to read this, Jelly?” Johnny asked.
“Like I said, I plum forgot about it. I was so dern busy takin’ care of those kids, I didn’t have no time for readin’ diaries,” Jelly said, indignantly.
“All right, Jelly, I’m sorry. I’m gonna read this later. There may be clues about where she was from. Where her family might be,” Johnny said.
Val arrived and stepped through the French doors.
“Hey, Johnny, I got some news for ya. Bill Campbell is dead.”
“How do ya know?”
“Got word back from the sheriff in Bakersfield. He was on the losin’ end of a shootout. Nobody knew he had a kid. They buried him on Boot Hill.”
“Well, I figured as much. But we got a lead on who his ma was,” Johnny said, holding the book up to show Val. “Jelly said Sawdust had this when he found him. It’s his mother’s diary.”
“No kiddin’,” Val said.
“Yeah, at least it’s a place to start,” Johnny said.
Maria, the cook and housekeeper, announced that dinner was ready. Everyone headed for the table.
Jelly excused himself to go eat dinner with the ranch hands. “I’ll talk to ya later, Johnny. Hope there’s more in that book to help ya figure out where Sawdust came from.”
“Thanks, Jelly. See ya later,” Johnny said.
His eyes tired from reading by lamplight, Johnny marked the page with the attached ribbon and closed the diary. He rested his head against the back of the chair and thought about what he had read. Sarah Logan’s memories conjured up some of his own. He had known Bill Campbell had a wife and child, but, to his memory, he had never met them. But Sarah’s diary entries proved his memory wrong. He opened the book again and found the entry.
23 May 1866 Bill brought a friend home with him for supper tonight. His name is Johnny Madrid. He’s a handsome man, and very polite. Not like Bill’s usual friends. He’s soft spoken, didn’t offer much in the way of conversation. He seems like a man of intelligence. He showed a surprising interest in the baby. Even got down on the floor and played with him while I got supper on the table. Bill never does that. He seemed real easy going, not tense all the time like Bill. I liked him. Maybe he’ll be a good influence on Bill.
Then, several days later:
4 June 1866 Bill’s friend Johnny Madrid stopped by today to say goodbye, but Bill wasn’t here. I offered him coffee, but he said he couldn’t stay. I found myself quite disappointed! I’d never want Bill to know this, but it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that kind of attraction to a man. I blame that on his beautiful eyes, The color of them remind me of the big Ohio on a brilliant summer day. Guess it’s just as well he didn’t stay, but it still felt like a missed opportunity. I know he’s a gunfighter like Bill, but there is something about him that suggests a good person lives inside him. But I suppose he’s gone from our lives now. He said he’s moving on. He thanked me for the nice supper he’d had with us and wished us luck. He gave the baby a little tickle under the chin before he left. He’s one of the kindest men I’ve met since leaving Cincinnati. Goodbye, Johnny Madrid.
Johnny tried to remember where he had been six years ago. It may as well have been a lifetime ago. He’d had a lot of dinners at the tables of strangers and met a lot of people along the way. He wished he could recall meeting Sarah Logan. The thought of Sawdust being the baby he had briefly played with brought a wide smile to his face.
A wave of fatigue washed over him and he was glad he was in his room. No climbing the stairs to get to his bed. He stripped off his clothes, doused the light and crawled under the covers. Sleep was upon him in an instant.
The following morning, as Johnny joined his family at the breakfast table, Scott said, “You look tired, Johnny. Burning the midnight oil again?”
Johnny held up the book he had in his hand. “Yeah, I stayed up reading the diary again. I think I got a good a lead about her havin’ a family. She mentions Cincinnati and the big Ohio. So, I’m assuming she was from Ohio.”
“Sounds like a reasonable assumption. What’s her last name again?” Scott asked.
“Logan. Sarah Logan.”
“Probably a lot of Logans in the Cincinnati area. How do you plan to go about finding out if she has family there?”
“Haven’t thought it through yet, short of going there myself.”
“I can give you my contact at the Pinkerton Agency,” Murdoch said. “I haven’t needed them since you boys came home,” he said with a warm smile. “But I’m sure the contact information is still accurate.”
“That’s a great idea. Thanks, Murdoch. Oh, and it seems I met Sawdust when he was a baby,” Johnny said.
“What? You’re kidding!” said Teresa. “When and where?”
“It was five or six years ago in El Paso, Texas.” He opened the book to the marked page. He handed the book to Teresa and said, “Here, you read it. Right there,” he pointed out, “that entry.”
Teresa read the passage aloud, smiling as she read the girl’s glowing comments about Johnny.
Scott let out a roar of a laugh and said, “Boy, you must have been on your best behavior that night! Quiet, little conversation, easy going! You sure fooled her, brother!”
“Stop it, Scott,” Teresa chastised her brother. “I think it’s very nice what she said about Johnny. And she got the handsome part right,” she said, with a smile. “And the baby was Sawdust! That’s so sweet!”
“I agree with Teresa,” Murdoch said. “Johnny, you obviously made quite an impression on the young woman. Does she write anymore about you?”
“Yeah, there’s one more entry, but it doesn’t have anything to do with Sawdust,” he said, as he reached for the book.
Teresa held it back and said, “No, wait, Johnny, I’ll find the next entry.”
Johnny sat back, crossed his arms across his chest and rolled his eyes.
“Oh, here it is,” she said, and again, she read aloud, “4 June 1866 . . .”
When she finished, Scott refrained from laughing, finally saying, “Seems you left a bit of a ripple there, Johnny.” The brothers exchanged a look of mutual understanding, each recalling a conversation early in their relationship.
Johnny had purposefully stayed away from the Smiths’ home for several weeks, hoping Sawdust would settle in, given time. He was concerned his visits were interfering with his adjustment to his new home. Since he had finished his errands in Spanish Wells early, he decided to ride out to the Smith house and visit Sawdust.
Johnny hadn’t reached the yard when he saw Sawdust running toward him.
“Johnny! Johnny!” As he walked Barranca into the yard and dropped from the saddle, he noticed Sawdust was sobbing, his body shaking, his face washed with tears.
“Slow down there, buddy. Tell me what’s wrong.”
Through his sobs, Sawdust said, ”I hate it here, Johnny. Please take me home with you.”
“Now, now, calm down a minute. Come on, let’s sit under the tree here,” he said, as he guided Sawdust to the large oak in the front yard.
When the boy had stopped sobbing, Johnny asked, “Why do you hate it here?”
“They treat me bad. Them boys, they hit me and call me names. Say I’m a orphan and nobody wants me.”
“Are you sure they’re not just teasing you, Sawdust?”
He shook his head vehemently. “No, Johnny, they’s real mean. And my new ma makes me sleep on the porch. Makes me eat out there, too. But only when they had their fill. I get what’s left.”
“But I saw the bed they had for you with the other boys.”
“They moved it to the porch. Said I should sleep with the dog.”
Johnny, trying to remain calm, felt the boil of anger rising in his throat.
“Sawdust, show me where you sleep.”
Sawdust led Johnny to the back porch. Shoved in a corner behind a wood pile, was a small bed, no linens, only a thin, ragged blanket.
“I’ll bet it gets cold out here sometimes.” Johnny was fuming inside, but tried to stay calm.
“It sure does, Johnny. That old dog helps keep me warm.”
“Are you going to school with the other boys?”
“Yeah, but they leave without me. I walk there by myself.”
“Does your ma give you a lunch to take with you?”
Sawdust shook his head and started to cry. Johnny put his arms around the boy and said, “Okay, Sawdust, no more questions for now. I want you to go back and sit by the tree and keep Barranca company for a few minutes, okay?”
Swallowing his sniffles, Sawdust nodded his head, then walked off the porch and headed toward the front yard.
Johnny straightened himself and took in a deep breath. He turned and rapped his knuckles on the back door. After four failed attempts to draw the attention of someone inside, and finding the door locked, he went to the front door, but got no response there either. The front door was locked as well. Next, he went to the barn and found it empty of a wagon and horses.
He returned to Sawdust. “Do you know where the Smiths are?
Sawdust shook his head. “They left in the wagon. All of ‘em.”
“When did they leave?”
“Why didn’t you go with them?”
“They told me to stay here.”
“Did they tell you when they’d be back?”
“No, Johnny, just said they were goin’ on a trip.”
“Okay, that does it. Sawdust, we’re going into town and we’re going to talk to some people. You’re gonna need to tell them how you’re being treated here, okay?”
“Okay. Do I have to come back here?”
“Not if I can help it.” Within seconds he and Sawdust were atop the horse and heading for Spanish Wells.
“They abandoned him, Murdoch!” Johnny said, as he paced the floor in front of his father’s desk. “The place was locked up tight, wagon and horses gone. I’m tellin’ ya, they’re not coming back for him. They didn’t leave a speck of food for him. They make him sleep on the porch. And those other boys? They beat him up! You should see the bruises on him!” Johnny stopped pacing for a moment and lowered his head. “Why didn’t I check on him sooner? I shouldn’t have let this happen.”
Murdoch raised his hand to quiet his son. “Johnny, you can’t blame yourself. The Smiths put on a good show of being good adoptive parents. There’s no way you could have known they would treat Sawdust this way.”
“Well, he’s never going back there!”
“Okay, Johnny, you don’t need to convince me. Try to calm down. You’ve already got the legal process going, that’s all we can do right now. He’s safe here for now. Let’s hope we get some news from the Pinkertons soon.” Murdoch studied his son as Johnny resumed his pacing. “You know, John, wearing a path in the rug isn’t going to resolve anything,” he said with an understanding grin. “I admire your passion for the boy’s situation, but you’re going to make yourself sick if you keep this up. Stop blaming yourself. Try sitting down for a few minutes. Take some deep breaths.”
Johnny stopped moving and looked at his father. He knew he was probably driving him crazy with his pacing and ranting. Hell, he was driving himself crazy. He sat in one of the chairs and sighed, then concentrated on his breathing. He felt himself start to calm. He relaxed into the chair and rested his right ankle on his left knee.
“When the judge gets here and hears my complaint, I’m going to ask for temporary custody of Sawdust,” Johnny said. “I can’t let them put him with another family.”
“I’ll support you in any way I can. The boy’s been through enough. He needs to be where he’ll be loved and cared for, and between you and Jelly and Teresa, he’ll have more than he needs,” Murdoch said.
Johnny felt his eyes fill, reacting to the warmth in his father’s voice, and the words of support. This was a side of his father he didn’t have much experience with. Eventually he managed to speak.
“Thank you, Murdoch. Your support means a lot. I think I’ll go see if Jelly needs help setting up Sawdust’s bed. Jelly thought Sawdust should bunk with him for now.”
“Alright. See you at dinner, son.” Murdoch watched Johnny leave through the French doors, and felt his chest swell with pride. He smiled, remembering what the girl had written in her diary; “there is something about him that suggests a good person lives inside him.” Indeed. He marveled at the man Johnny had become, through no influence of his own. He was gaining a new understanding that perhaps his son had always been a good person, but one driven to do bad things to survive. And for that he would never be able to forgive himself.
The following Tuesday the circuit judge set up court in the closed saloon. All but one table had been cleared to the side and only chairs remained for the participants of the confidential hearing. In the front row sat the entire Lancer family, Jelly, and Sawdust, who was sandwiched between Johnny and Jelly. Sitting behind them were supporters of Johnny’s complaint, Sheriff Jayson of Spanish Wells, the local school teacher, Miss Lowery, Dr. Sam Jenkins, the local physician and, in case a character witness for Johnny was needed, Val Crawford.
Judge Edward Bates tapped his gavel on the table and called the court to order. “The first item of business is the review of a complaint filed by Mr. John Lancer in the adoption of Minor William Campbell. It is highly unusual for an adoption to be contested, let alone by a non-relative. But due to the compelling evidence presented in the complaint, I am granting a hearing in the matter. Would the complainant please stand.”
Johnny stood up.
“For the record, please state your name, where you live and what you do for a living.”
“Johnny Lancer. I live on Lancer Ranch a few miles south of here. I’m a rancher. I own a third of the ranch, along with my brother Scott and my father Murdoch.”
“Thank you, Mr. Lancer. Please state briefly for the court why you filed the complaint against the adoptive parents, Dick and Jean Smith.”
“I rode out to visit Sawdust three weeks ago. I hadn’t seen him for a while because I thought he needed time to get used to living out there.”
“Okay, just for the record, Sawdust is the nickname for the adopted child.”
“That’s right, Judge. I found Sawdust locked out of the house with no warm clothes or food. He told me the Smith family had left that morning for a trip and they told him he had to stay home. Sawdust told me about some other things, but he should be the one to tell you about them. Since that day, no one has seen or heard from the Smith family. I believe they abandoned Sawdust and they won’t be coming back.”
“Thank you, Johnny. You may sit down.”
The judge looked at Sawdust and said, “Young man, you are William Campbell, correct?”
‘Yes, sir, but my Pa called me Sawdust.”
“Very well, Sawdust. I need you to stand there so you can tell me your story.”
With a nod from Johnny, Sawdust stood in front of his chair. Johnny placed a reassuring hand on the child’s back.
“Now, Sawdust, I’m going to ask you some questions and I need you to answer them truthfully,” Judge Bates said.
“I always tell the truth. Jelly would tan my hide if I ever told a lie,” Sawdust said.
“I’m sure that’s true,” the judge said, struggling to hide a grin. “It’s just really important here because we are in a court of law. The truth is very important. Do you understand, Sawdust?”
“Yes, sir,” Sawdust said.
“Sawdust, did you like living with the Smiths?”
The boy shook his head and said, “No.”
“Why didn’t you like it there?”
“They were mean to me.”
“Please tell me how they were mean to you.”
Sawdust looked at Johnny, and received another nod. “Go ahead, tell the judge everything you told me,” Johnny said.
“They made me sleep on the porch with the dog.”
“Okay, how else were they mean to you?”
“I had to eat on the porch. They gave me what was left when they ate. I was hungry a lot.”
“Did the Smiths send you to school?”
“Yeah. I had to walk alone. The other boys didn’t want me with them.”
“Did the Smith boys let you play with them?”
Sawdust shook his head.
“Young, man, You need to say your answer, not just shake your head,” the judge said kindly.
“No. They made fun of me and called me names.”
“What names did they call you?”
“Orphan boy or dog boy,” Sawdust said, as his lower lip began to quiver.
“Okay, Sawdust, we’re almost finished here. Can you answer a couple more questions?”
Johnny gave Sawdust a reassuring touch on the arm and whispered, “You’re doing great, Sawdust.”
Sawdust nodded and said, “Yeah, more questions are okay.”
“Sawdust, is there anything else you want to tell me about living with the Smith family?”
The boy hung his head and whispered, “I was scart bein’ there.”
“Why were you scared, Sawdust?”
“Those boys kicked me and hit me. And the pa yelled at me all the time.”
“Okay, how did the ma treat you?”
“She didn’t yell. She didn’t talk much either. Gave me food at night after they ate supper. Same time she gave food to the dog.”
“All right, Sawdust, the court has heard enough. Thank you for answering my questions. You may sit down now.”
Sawdust looked up at Judge Bates with pleading eyes. “Judge, I don’t want to go back there.”
“All right, son, now take a seat.”
Johnny eased Sawdust into the chair and hugged him to his side. “You did real good, Sawdust,” he whispered in the boy’s ear.
“Sheriff Jayson, are you aware of anyone available to represent the interests of the adoptive family or anyone who would like to present an answer to this complaint?”
“No, Your Honor. No one has seen hide nor hair of the Smiths for a couple of weeks now.”
Judge Bates said, “Hearing no counter argument to this complaint, the court will render its decision. Having heard the testimony of Mr. Lancer and the child, and having read the affidavits presented by Sheriff Jayson, Miss Lowery and Dr. Jenkins, all attesting to the veracity of the complainant’s allegations, the court deems there is sufficient evidence to temporarily remove the minor from the adoptive home. A public notice will be published giving the adoptive parents 30 days to respond to the complaint in this court. A final hearing in the matter will be held one month from today. That brings us to the issue of where the child will reside in the interim.” Judge Bates looked at Sawdust and asked, “Young man, please tell me where you have been living the past few weeks.”
“I been at the Lancer place, with Johnny and Jelly,” Sawdust said, smiling widely.
“Do you like being at the Lancer ranch?”
Beaming, the child responded, “Yes, sir! Johnny and Jelly take real good care of me. And Miss Teresa and Mr. Scott, too! And Mr. Lancer!”
“Are you attending school?”
“Yes, sir. Miss Teresa gives me a lunch everyday and Jelly takes me to school. The other kids let me play with them. I like goin’ to school!”
Judge Bates, grinning at the boy’s enthusiastic response, said, “Thank you, Sawdust.” The judge surveyed the members of the Lancer family. “The court recognizes the Lancer family for their generosity in providing a temporary home for this young man. It is clear that the child has adjusted well to being there. The court cannot, however, grant temporary custody to a family. Are any of you willing to take on the responsibility of temporary guardianship of Master Campbell, pending the final outcome of this matter?”
Johnny stood up. “Yes, Judge Bates, I’d like the court to give me temporary custody of Sawdust.”
“Thank you, Johnny. You may sit down. While it is highly unusual for the court to grant custody of a minor to a single person, I am well aware of the relationship you have with this child. The court is also aware of the support you provided in the adoption of the other children who were previously in the care of Mr. Hoskins. Johnny, do you feel you have the full support of your family in providing for this child?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
Murdoch stood and addressed the judge. “Your honor, I feel I can speak for my son Scott Lancer and my ward Teresa O’Brien that we will do everything we can to help Johnny. And of course, Jelly Hoskins is delighted to have the child with us. Johnny has our full support. In fact, we can think of no one better, other than Jelly, to look after Sawdust until his future can be determined.”
“Thank you, Mr. Lancer. Please take a seat.”
Judge Bates shuffled some papers and jotted some notes before proceeding.
“The court hereby grants temporary custody of Minor William Campbell to Mr. John Lancer until the final hearing in this matter one month from today. I want to thank the witnesses for their testimony. This hearing is now concluded. Sheriff, if you would please step forward, so we may discuss any criminal matters to bring before the court.” The judge tapped the gavel on the table. “Court is temporarily adjourned.”
Sawdust jumped up and fell into Johnny’s arms. “Are you my pa now, Johnny?”
Johnny said, “No, Sawdust, I ain’t your pa. But I am responsible for you just like a father would be. So you have to mind me and everyone at Lancer, just like you’ve been doing. Now, go with Jelly while I talk to the judge for a minute.”
Johnny stepped up to the table and extended his hand to the judge. “Thank you, Judge Bates, I appreciate you doing this. I’ll make sure Sawdust has everything he needs. And, I think you should know, I’ve hired the Pinkerton Agency to locate a family in Ohio I think might be Sawdust’s blood.”
“That’s good to know, Johnny. Good luck with everything. I’ll see you back here next month.”
Lawrence and Marilyn Logan arrived at the Lancer Ranch late morning, weary from the long journey from Cincinnati, Ohio. The Pinkerton agent had located them several days after Johnny had been awarded temporary custody of their grandchild. The letter they received from Johnny Lancer was a shock, first learning that their daughter had died, and second, the knowledge that they had a seven year old grandchild, who was in the custody of an apparent stranger. They made immediate arrangements to make the trip to meet and claim their grandson. They knew that the court hearing to determine Sawdust’s future was scheduled in four days.
Murdoch welcomed them into the great room and settled them in the seating area. Teresa was in the kitchen preparing cold drinks.
“Johnny and Scott should be home for lunch shortly. I know Johnny is very anxious to meet you. As is Sawdust.”
“So you’ve told him about us?” Marilyn Logan asked.
“Oh, yes, Johnny has told Sawdust everything. He has tried to prepare him for meeting you. He understands that you are his mother’s parents.”
“And where is he right now?” Larry Logan asked.
“He’s at school. He’ll be home a little after 3:00. We didn’t want to disrupt his routine on the chance you didn’t arrive today. Though I’m sure he’s been squirming in his seat all day,” Murdoch said, with a laugh.
Teresa entered the room bearing a tray of lemonade and glasses. As she served the beverages, everyone turned as they heard horses approaching at the front of the house.
“Here are the boys now,” Murdoch said. “They were working nearby this morning so they could be here for lunch.”
“How large is your ranch, Mr. Lancer?” Mr. Logan enquired.
“Please, call me Murdoch. We have 100,000 acres here. My sons and I have equal shares.” He turned as Johnny and Scott entered through the main entrance, having left their hats and gun belts in the hallway.
“Johnny, Scott, come meet the Logans. They arrived a short while ago.”
Johnny stepped forward, with a wide smile on his face. “I sure have been looking forward to meeting you! I’m Johnny Lancer. This is my brother, Scott.” He offered his hand to Mr. Logan. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Logan.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, too. And please call me Larry. This is my wife, Marilyn.”
Johnny shook her hand, with a nod of his head, “It’s a pleasure, ma’am.”
“Nice to meet you both,” Scott said, shaking their hands in turn.
“Boy, Sawdust was so excited this morning, we could barely get him to school,” Johnny said. “School lets out at 3:00. Jelly will be bringing him home.”
“Jelly?” asked Mrs. Logan.
Murdoch offered, “Please, everyone sit down until lunch is ready. Thank you for the drinks, Teresa.”
“You’re welcome. I’ll go see if Maria needs any help,” Teresa said as she left for the kitchen.
“Jelly is the man who found Sawdust about a year ago down near Bakersfield. That’s a couple hundred miles south of here,” Johnny explained.
“What was Sawdust doing there?” Marilyn asked.
“He was traveling with his father. When Jelly found him, Sawdust was alone at a campsite and looked like he hadn’t eaten in a few days. Sawdust told him his pa had left and said he’d be back. It took Jelly a couple of days to convince Sawdust to go with him. You see, Jelly used to be a drifter and he rescued lost and abandoned children along his travels. When I met him a few months back, he had eight of them. He didn’t have much to give them, but they were always fed and had clothes to wear.”
Teresa appeared at the door. “Lunch is ready.”
Johnny stood, saying to the Logans, “It’s a long story. I’ll tell you everything while we eat.”
Following lunch, Teresa showed Mr. and Mrs. Logan to their room so they could get settled and rest. Mrs. Logan opted for a nap, but Larry wanted to learn more about their hosts. He wandered down to the great room and found Murdoch at his desk.
Murdoch looked up as he heard him enter the room.
“Larry, is there something I can get you? Is your room acceptable?”
“Oh, no worries there, everything is great. You’ve made us feel very welcome.”
“Glad to hear that. Is Marilyn resting?”
“Yes, she’s pretty worn out from the trip and all the excitement.”
“That’s understandable. Do you feel like walking a bit?” Murdoch stood and walked to the door, “Come with me, I’ll show you around.”
They stepped out onto the veranda and crossed the road to the barn area. As they approached the corral they saw Johnny atop a palomino, taking it through some turning paces. Scott was sitting on the fence, observing.
“How’s your brother doing, Scott?” Murdoch enquired, as he and Larry approached the fence.
“Just fine. Keeping himself busy. I think he’s a bit tense about Sawdust meeting his grandparents.”
Murdoch turned to Larry, “Johnny just broke that horse yesterday. He’s training it to be a cow horse; one that can work with the cow herds. You missed the show. Johnny’s something to watch when he’s breaking a wild horse.”
“He looks very capable.”
“Oh, he is. He has a natural gift with horses. He’d turn this whole place into a horse ranch if he had his druthers,” Murdoch said, with a grin on his face.
“He seems to be an exceptional young man. It’s a remarkable story he told us. He seems to really care about the boy.”
“We all care about Sawdust, but Johnny has a special bond with him. It won’t be easy for him to say goodbye, but he knows Sawdust will be better off with his own family.”
“I’m anxious to meet the boy. Guess it won’t be long now,” Larry said, checking his watch. “It’s almost 3:00. I’d best go see if Marilyn is ready.”
“Sawdust, say hello to your grandma and grandpa,” Johnny urged him. Everyone was gathered in the front of the house. Jelly had just delivered Sawdust home from school.
Sawdust hesitated, staying close to Johnny. “Go on now, remember what we talked about last night. They’ve come a long way to meet you,” Johnny said, as he nudged Sawdust on the shoulder.
“Okay,” the boy said meekly. He stepped forward and said, “Hello,” as he looked shyly at the strangers standing in front of him.
Larry knelt down on one knee and shook Sawdust’s hand. “It’s very nice to meet you, Sawdust. I know it doesn’t make much sense to you right now, but I’m your grandpa. And this is your grandma. Do you know what that means?”
Sawdust nodded his head. “Johnny said you are my ma’s ma and pa.”
“That’s right. We loved your mother very much. And we love you because you are her son.”
Marilyn, tears filling her eyes, hugged the boy. “I am so happy to meet you, Sawdust.”
Murdoch noticed Jelly standing back, fidgeting where he stood. “Larry and Marilyn, I’d like you to meet Jelly Hoskins. This is the man who rescued Sawdust. He’s been anxious to meet you as well.”
Jelly stepped forward. “Howdy, folks. It sure is nice to meet you. Here we thought Sawdust was all alone in the world.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jelly. Johnny told us how you happened upon Sawdust and took care of him. We are mighty grateful,” Larry said.
Murdoch cleared his throat, getting everyone’s attention. “Now that introductions have been made, I believe Teresa has some refreshments for us in the house. Sawdust, why don’t you show your grandparents into the great room? Then you can tell them about your day at school.”
“Yes, sir,” the boy said, smiling and looking proud, like he had been given an important job. Then, with furrowed brows, he looked at Johnny, “you and Jelly comin’ too?”
“Of course, Teresa made cookies. We’re right behind you!” Johnny said, giving Sawdust a reassuring smile.
After everyone enjoyed a snack of Teresa’s oatmeal cookies, Johnny saw to it that Sawdust was settled in with his grandparents in the sitting area, then he, Scott and Murdoch backed away to the area of Murdoch’s desk. He talked over some ranch business with them, while keeping an ear open to the conversation in the sitting area. The Logans had several small gifts for the boy, all toys that had been his mother’s. Sawdust appeared to be enjoying the attention and talked excitedly about what had happened at school. Johnny thought it was going well until he heard Larry ask Sawdust about his father. Johnny’s heart sank. He realized he hadn’t finished the entire story with the Logans, as Marilyn had excused herself immediately after lunch to rest.
“Sawdust, tell us about your father. We were very sorry to hear he died. We never got to meet him.”
Sawdust hung his head, eyes downcast. “Johnny told me that’s why he didn’t come back for me. He’s dead now, just like Ma.”
“We’re very sorry, Sawdust,” Larry said.
“My pa was called Bill. Pa was real tall, and he carried a big gun. My pa was a gunfighter, just like Johnny!”
Marilyn gasped, her eyes wide as quarters. “A gunfighter? Johnny’s a gunfighter?”
Sawdust fidgeted, sensing he had done something wrong.
Johnny moved to the sitting area, “I can explain,” he said to the Logans.
“Yes, you better explain yourself, young man,” Larry said, an edge of anger in his voice. “Seems you left out some important information in your storytelling.”
“No, I didn’t leave it out, just never got to it.” He put his hand on Sawdust’s shoulder. “Sawdust, go find Jelly and help him in the barn.”
“But Johnny . . . “
“Don’t ‘but’ me. Do as you’re told. I’ll come get you in a bit. Now, go help Jelly.”
“Did I do somethin’ wrong, Johnny?” he asked, lower lip quivering.
Johnny knelt down to look Sawdust in the eye. “No, you did not do anything wrong. I’m sorry I snapped at you. I’m not upset with you. I need to talk to your folks alone for a few minutes, okay?”
“Now, give me a hug before you go.”
Sawdust smiled and fell into Johnny’s embrace. Johnny whispered in his ear, “Grab another cookie on your way out, and take one for Jelly, too.” With a wide grin, Sawdust hurried out of the room, cookies in his hand.
Johnny turned to the Logans. “Okay, now, let me tell you the part of the story I didn’t get to at lunch. I met Bill Campbell about six years ago down in El Paso, Texas. He was already married to your daughter when I met him. And Sawdust was about a year old. I was a gunfighter then. So was Bill. We met when we both signed on with the same rancher in a range war. Bill invited me for dinner one night, and according to Sarah’s diary, that’s when I met her and Sawdust, but I don’t remember it.”
He walked to the bookcase behind the dinner table and took a small book from a shelf. He handed it to Marilyn.
“This is your daughter’s diary. Sawdust had it with him when Jelly found him. It’s how I tracked you down. I should have given it to you earlier. I’m sorry. She mentions me in there a couple of times, that’s how I know I met her.”
Larry looked incredulous. “Why would a judge make you, a gunfighter, temporary guardian of our grandson?”
“Mr. Logan, I haven’t been a professional gunfighter for over two years. I’m finished with that life.”
Murdoch approached them and stood next to Johnny.
“Larry, I feel I need to give you some history about our family. Neither of my sons grew up here with me, for reasons that aren’t important here. I tried for many years to find Johnny, but I was not successful until two years ago. In the meantime, he essentially raised himself. He taught himself a trade and became one of, if not, the best at it. That trade happened to be professional gunfighting. He made enough to live on, and that’s about it. You’ll see the name Johnny Madrid in that diary. That’s the name he went by before reclaiming his family name. When he came home two years ago, he left that life behind. He is now an important part of this family and our business and he’s a respected member of our community. Judge Bates knows all of this. Johnny has never made his past a secret.” Murdoch put his arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “I am very proud of the man my son has become.”
Johnny felt his eyes pool, and tamped down the emotion rising in him. Never had he heard his father speak of him like this, actually defending the life he had lived before coming home. He didn’t think he could speak. His brother, as usual, rescued him.
“And if I might add,” Scott offered, “my brother had no obligation to step in and help Sawdust. But he saw the boy needed help and here we are.”
Johnny silently thanked Scott for giving him the breathing room to continue.
“So, that’s the rest of the story about me and how I knew Sawdust’s father. But I can’t see how any of it matters now. You’re here to claim your grandson, that’s all that matters.” With that, Johnny quietly left the room, only the jingle of his spurs filling the air.
After a few moments of silence, Marilyn spoke. “I think we’ve upset him. Should one of us go after him?” she asked, looking to her husband for guidance.
“No,” Scott said. “He’ll be fine. He’s used to people looking down on him because of his past. It stings for a little while, then he moves past it.”
“Well, it seems that Johnny has turned his life around,” Larry said. “I’m sorry if I jumped to conclusions. I’ll apologize to him.”
“He’ll appreciate that,” Murdoch said.
“So he grew up without a family?” Marilyn asked.
“His mother left here with him when he wasn’t yet two years old. She died when he was young, nine or ten years old. He lived on his own for about ten years, until he came home to Lancer,” Murdoch explained.
Marilyn’s face relaxed, her eyes full of empathy. “I think I’m beginning to understand why he cares so much about what happens to Sawdust. He doesn’t want him to end up like he did.”
Scott looked at Murdoch and recognized the look of regret and self recrimination on his father’s face that he had seen so many times when they talked about Johnny. “My brother has a heart of gold,” Scott said. “If you want to hear some stories about Johnny’s good will in those border towns, talk to Val Crawford. He’s the sheriff in Green River. He knew Johnny back in those days. You’ll meet him. He always joins us for Sunday dinner. Now, I think I’ll go check on my brother, if you’ll excuse me.”
Marilyn Logan smiled as she listened to Johnny’s friend Val tell stories of Johnny’s life when he was a young man. In spite of being a gun for hire, apparently Johnny went out of his way to help people who, in his mind, were being mistreated or neglected.
“People didn’t realize the only thing quicker than Johnny’s gun was his brain. He could out think most of the other gunfighters and the ranchers who hired them. He always argued for more talking and less shooting when it came to range wars, but most of the big shots didn’t want to hear him. Angry men like to shoot their guns, not talk it out. He went off on his own a few times and only worked for the downtrodden side of a dispute, usually with no pay. He was a bit of a hero in some of those dirt towns.” Val took a breath and yawned. “Well, I’m sure Johnny don’t want me going on about his celebrity down there, so I think I’ll head back to town. It was good meetin’ you, Mr. and Mrs. Logan. I’ll probably see you at the hearing on Tuesday.”
“Good night, Val. It was good meeting you, too,” Larry said
“Val, I’ll walk you out,” Scott said.
Marilyn decided to find Teresa and ask for a cup of tea to take up to her room. She found her in the kitchen with Maria, the housekeeper and cook, talking at the kitchen table. Teresa greeted her.
“Hello Marilyn! Had enough of Val’s yarn spinning?” she asked with a laugh.
“Oh, he’s very entertaining! He just left. I was wondering if I could bother you for a cup of tea. I’d like to take it up to bed. It’s been a long day.”
“Of course. You go on up. I’ll bring it to you when it’s ready.”
“You sweet girl! You do spoil me,” Marilyn said, with a warm smile.
Marilyn wearily climbed the steps and headed for her room. As she passed Sawdust’s room, she heard voices coming from within. She stepped closer to the door, which was slightly ajar, and saw Johnny sitting on the side of the bed, talking softly to her grandson.
“Johnny, do I really have to go live in Ohio?” the timid voice asked.
“Well, sure you do. That’s where your grandparents live,” Johnny replied.
“But I like it here.”
“I know you do, but we’re not your family, Sawdust. You belong with your own kin. You want to be with your ma’s family, don’t you?”
Sawdust frowned and looked up at Johnny with mournful eyes. “I guess so.”
“It’s a happy thing that we found your family. You know, when I was a young boy, not much older than you are now, I didn’t have a family. But now I have Scott and Murdoch and Teresa.”
“Yes, and Jelly. They are my family and I’m happy I’m with them now. I think you’re going to be very happy living with your family, too.”
“Okay, Johnny. I’ll try to be happy.”
“That’s all I can ask. Okay, now, head on the pillow. It’s time for sleep. You have school in the morning.”
“Aw, Johnny, do I have to go?”
“Yes, tomorrow is a school day, and there’s no getting out of it,” Johnny said, as he tickled Sawdust in the ribs, which produced a squirming mass of giggles.
Marilyn smiled when she saw Sawdust hug Johnny around the neck. “G’night, Johnny,” he said sweetly.
“Goodnight, Sawdust. Have happy dreams.”
Johnny adjusted the covers over the boy’s slight body, then stood and doused the lamp and moved to the door. He stopped for a moment, looked over his shoulder, taking one last look at the child before leaving the room.
Marilyn quickly stepped back, but she was still close when Johnny came out of the room. “I’m sorry, Johnny, I heard you talking with Sawdust and I couldn’t tear myself away. I don’t usually eavesdrop on people.”
“Oh, that’s okay. Come sit down for a minute,” Johnny said, as he led her to a small bench in the hallway.
“I hope he’ll sleep. He’s getting restless about the hearing coming up,” Johnny said.
“The poor child. No youngster should have to go through what he’s been through.” She paused a moment, considering what Johnny must have gone through as a child. “You’ve very good with him. You have the instincts of a father.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. I just try to help him understand things. He’s a smart kid. He probably got his smarts from his mother. And I figure I know who she got her smarts from,” he said, offering Marilyn a cunning smile.
“Johnny, you are a charmer,” Marilyn said, flashing her own smile back at him, a slight blush rising up her neck. “I enjoyed meeting your friend Val. He told us some stories about when he knew you before. He thinks very highly of you.”
“It’s all a show. Can’t believe a word he says,” Johnny teased.
They both turned when they saw Teresa approaching them, carrying a tray bearing a teapot and a cup.
Smiling at Marilyn, she said, “Well, you didn’t make it very far. I assume Johnny has been charming you.”
“That’s exactly what he’s been doing,” Marilyn said, her smile revealing she was enjoying herself very much. “He’s very good company. But, I need to get to bed.” She smiled at Johnny, then attempted to stand, but she fell back onto the bench.
“My goodness, I must be more tired than I thought.”
In an instant, Johnny was on his feet. “Here, take my arm. I’ll walk you to your room.”
“No, Johnny, that’s not necessary.’
Johnny gave her a stern look. “Take my arm.”
Without another word, she laced her arm through his and allowed him to lift her to her feet. She leaned against him as he led her the few feet to her room. He opened the door and made sure she was safely in the chair. Teresa was right behind them.
“Thank you, Johnny. I’m fine now,” Marilyn said.
Teresa poured tea into the cup and placed it on the table next to Marilyn. “I’ll stay a few minutes while you drink your tea, then help you prepare for bed.”
“Thank you, dear. I wouldn’t mind the company.”
“Well, I’ll just go see what the men are up to . . .” Johnny said, grinning, as he backed his way to the door. “Goodnight, ma’am,” he said. He closed the door as he left.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a sweeter man,” Marilyn said.
“Yes, that’s Johnny. He all rough and tough on the outside, but on the inside he’s as sweet as a kitten. I just adore him. And Scott, too. I love them like they really are my brothers.”
“You’re a very lucky girl.”
“We’re all lucky we have each other,” Teresa said. “We may be a makeshift family, but we love and care for each other.”
“Then you are very lucky indeed. I think I’m going to miss you all very much when we go back to Ohio.”
Johnny left the barn, having just finished loading hay bales up to the loft with Scott. He headed for the kitchen, expecting to find Sawdust there having his after school snack. He stepped into the kitchen, finding it empty.
“Teresa? Anybody here?”
Scott came in from the front entry. “Where is everybody?” he asked when he saw Johnny.
“I have no idea. I’m gonna go check the garden.”
Johnny passed through the courtyard and entered the garden behind the house. He stopped when he saw the small figure sitting on the bench, a rag and a gun in his hands. He slowly approached the bench. Sawdust was engrossed in his task and did not hear the jingle of Johnny’s spurs.
Softly, Johnny said, “Hey, Sawdust, whatcha doin’?”
Sawdust looked up, startled to see Johnny standing before him. He gave Johnny a wide smile, he said, “Hi, Johnny! I’m cleanin’ your gun for you.”
“So I see.” Johnny leaned over and gently removed the gun from the boy’s hands. “Let’s put this aside for a minute while we talk.” Johnny checked the chamber, then put the gun into the holster and placed it on the ground and sat next to Sawdust. “Sawdust, do you remember when we talked about guns when you first came here?”
Sawdust nodded his head, then said shyly, “Yeah, Johnny, I remember.”
“Can you tell me what we decided then?” Johnny wasn’t surprised to see the boy’s lower lip quiver as he lowered his head. He knew the boy was hearing in his head the things Johnny had told him.
“I don’t touch a gun without you with me,” Sawdust said.
“That’s right. Do you understand why I don’t want you touching a gun?”
“‘Cause a gun is dangerous. Are you mad at me, Johnny?”
“No, son, I’m not mad at you, but I am disappointed that you didn’t do what you promised. Look, I know your pa taught you how to clean a gun, and you’re good at it, but it’s not something I need you to do for me.”
“I was just helpin’.”
“I know, I know, but if the gun had been loaded, you or someone else could have gotten hurt.”
“I was real careful, Johnny.”
“I’m sure you were, Sawdust, but that’s not the point. The point is, you are not to touch a gun if I’m not with you.”
“But, Johnny, my pa said I had to practice, so his gun was always clean. He said to be good you gotta practice. I cleaned his gun so he could practice shooting. You gotta practice, too, Johnny.”
“Your pa was right about practicing. And I do practice, but not where other people could get hurt. I do it away from the house and the barn, where no one can hear or see me.”
“You don’t clean your gun, Johnny.”
“Sure I do, you just don’t see me do it. I clean my gun everyday when I’m alone.”
“Okay. I won’t do it again.”
“I’m happy to hear that.” Johnny sat quiet for a few minutes, letting Sawdust digest what they had discussed.
“Does cleaning a gun help you remember your pa?”
Sawdust nodded. “I miss my pa.”
“I know you do. Maybe we can find some other way to help you remember him. Let’s think about that, okay?”
“He was a good gunfighter,” Sawdust offered.
While Johnny thought otherwise, he couldn’t deflate the boy’s image of his father. “You know, Sawdust, being a gunfighter is a hard way to live. Your father died because he was a gunfighter. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t good, but someone else was better than he was. It’s a dangerous way to make a living.”
“But you were a gunfighter.”
“Yes, I was for a time. But I got tired of it and I wasn’t very happy. I was lucky because I got to come home to Lancer and I didn’t need to be a gunfighter anymore. Now I use a gun to hunt for food when I have to and to protect my family and our home.”
Sawdust looked up at him, his blue eyes wide as saucers, and said, “I wish you could be my pa, Johnny.”
Johnny smiled at the boy, then lifted him onto his lap. “Wouldn’t that be something? But it’s just not possible. You have a family, and you’ll probably be leaving with them soon to go to Ohio. But I’ll always be your friend, Sawdust. Your grandma can help you write letters to me until you learn to write, okay?”
“Okay,” he said, as he relaxed against Johnny’s chest.
“Did Teresa give you your snack?”
“No, she wasn’t there.”
“Well, let’s go raid the kitchen and find something to eat.” Johnny lifted the boy and placed him on his feet. “You go ahead, I’ll catch up.”
Sawdust went running toward the house as Johnny collected his rig and strapped it around his hips and buckled it. He would finish cleaning the gun later.
In the kitchen, Sawdust was at the table and Teresa was at the sideboard cutting pieces of cake onto plates.
“Where did you disappear to?” Johnny asked her.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here when Sawdust got home. Maria’s daughter is sick so I took her some broth.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“I’m not sure. If she’s not better in the morning, I’m going to send for Sam.”
“Good idea,” Johnny said, as he walked up behind his sister. Grinning, he said, “You’re really giving us that before dinner?”
“It’s to make up for not being here earlier.”
Johnny leaned in to kiss her cheek. “Sawdust, it’s our lucky day! We’re having chocolate cake for our snack! I think we’ll need some milk with it,” he said, as he went to the cooler.
“Oh boy, my favorite!” Sawdust declared.
“Mine, too!” Johnny said. Teresa set a plate in front of Sawdust and set another one next to him for Johnny. Johnny delivered two glasses of milk to the table and exuberantly swung himself into the chair. “Let’s eat!”
Teresa stood leaning against the sideboard, arms hugging herself, smiling at the picture before her. Johnny and Sawdust were two peas in a pod, each matching the other as he savored every morsel of the rich, sweet confection. She felt her eyes water as she thought about Sawdust leaving. Pushing her emotions aside, she sliced herself a piece of cake and joined the impromptu party.
Marilyn entered the kitchen from the great room to find Johnny and Teresa with Sawdust sitting at the table laughing and eating chocolate cake. She smiled when she saw chocolate frosting smeared across her grandson’s face.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Johnny, but Larry and I would like to talk with you for a minute,” she said.
“Sure. Teresa, you’ll keep an eye on him? Or take him to Jelly. He’s in the barn.”
“I’ll take him out to Jelly when he’s finished with his cake.”
“Thanks,” Johnny said, and quickly devoured the last bite of his cake. He turned his attention back to Marilyn. “Larry’s in the great room?”
Marilyn nodded and they walked together to join Larry.
“Oh, good, you found him,” Larry said as they entered the room.
“I was in the garden with Sawdust having a talk, and then there was a chocolate cake involved.” Johnny smiled. “Please, sit down.”
Larry and Marilyn sat on the couch while Johnny sat on an ottoman facing them.
Larry wrung his hands as he started to talk. “Johnny, we have something very important to ask of you.” He gave his wife a quick glance then continued. “We’ve given this a lot of thought, in fact, we were awake half the night talking about it. Now, we don’t want you to get the impression that we don’t love or want Sawdust. We adore the boy and we would give him a good home. But from everything we’ve seen here, he already has a good home.”
“We’ve done everything we could to make him feel wanted,” Johnny said.
“And indeed you have,” Marilyn said. “Johnny, when we came here we didn’t know what to expect, you being a complete stranger to us. But now we consider you a good friend, family even. After reading Sarah’s diary, I find myself wishing she’d met you first, instead of Bill Campbell.”
Johnny laughed. “She’d have gotten no bargain there, trust me. At least not back then. But thanks for the compliment,” he said, smiling.
Larry leaned forward, his eyes intent on Johnny. “Son, we’ve watched you these past few days and have seen how it is between you and Sawdust. The boy loves you, and it’s clear you love him.”
Johnny took a deep breath, wondering where this conversation was going. “Yeah, we’ve gotten pretty close. I can’t say it’ll be easy to see him go.”
“That’s just it. We don’t want you to have to say goodbye to him. We want you to adopt him,” Larry said.
Johnny felt his head swim as he tried to comprehend what he just heard. At the risk of keeling over, he stood and braced himself against the fireplace. He turned back to the Logans. “You can’t be serious.”
“Johnny, we are very serious,” Marilyn said. “For all intents and purposes, you’ve been his father since the day you removed him from that awful home. I can’t believe you’d treat a son of your own flesh and blood any better than you’ve treated Sawdust. The opportunities you could offer him here far exceed what he would have if he lived in a city with us. He loves this place. And we know you would raise him to be a fine man like yourself.”
“Now hold on a minute,” Johnny said, his right hand in the air. “Slow down a bit. Let me get this straight. You want me to agree to adopt Sawdust and have him live here. But you’re his kin, not me. Why do you think I went to all the trouble to find you?”
“Because you did the right thing under the circumstances. And we are forever grateful to you for bringing our grandson into our lives. But blood isn’t everything, Johnny,” Larry said. “We’re not young anymore, and we’re not sure we have the stamina to raise another child, particularly one with his energy level,” he said with a grin.
Johnny moved back to the ottoman and sat down. “Look, even if I thought this was a good idea, no judge on this earth would agree to it. Giving me temporary custody was one thing, but adoption is a whole other can of worms. They don’t let people who aren’t married adopt kids, it’s that simple. And certainly not former gunfighters.”
Marilyn smiled at him. “There’s a first time for everything, Johnny.”
“I think you’ve both lost your minds.”
“Who’s lost their mind?” Scott asked, as he came in from the main entrance. Murdoch was behind him. Johnny had been so engrossed in the conversation he hadn’t heard them come in. He stood, as they joined them in the sitting room.
“You’re not gonna believe what they want me to do,” Johnny said, a look of relief on his face. His brother and father would help him talk sense to the Logans.
“Suppose you tell us, brother,” Scott said, as he tapped Johnny on the arm on his way to the sofa in the corner.
“Murdoch, you’re gonna want to sit down for this,” Johnny said.
Murdoch took a seat in his corner chair, as Johnny returned to his previous stance by the fireplace.
Johnny looked at the Logans. “Go ahead, Larry, tell them.”
Larry shrugged. “Be happy to. Murdoch, Scott, we’ve asked Johnny to consider adopting Sawdust.”
Scott, eyebrows raised, head tilted, asked, “Why would you do that? You’re his family.”
“That’s exactly what I said!” Johnny said.
Larry continued, “As we were telling Johnny, we think Sawdust would be much better off being raised here than in the city. He loves the wide open spaces, and he loves all of you. We think it will hurt him less in the long run to say goodbye to us than it would to say goodbye to all of you, particularly Johnny.”
Marilyn added, “When I saw Johnny putting Sawdust to bed last night, I saw the love between a father and a son.” She looked at Johnny. “I know you never would have considered this possibility, but I think we can convince the judge that being raised by you is the best thing for the boy. Life has just about worn us out. Larry and I can’t see ourselves raising another child. You’re young and healthy with your life ahead of you. And you’re a very good father to the boy.”
“I took care of him, that’s all,” Johnny replied, his head lowered, eyes on the floor.
Murdoch leaned forward and looked at this son. “Johnny, I think you don’t give yourself enough credit. Marilyn’s right. You’ve done more than taken care of Sawdust. You’ve loved him and taught him things and given him a normal life. I think I understand what the Logans are saying. I certainly wouldn’t entertain the prospect of raising a small child at my age. If it was necessary, of course, but here there may be an alternative. But it’s all up to you, son.”
“No, Murdoch, it’s not,” Johnny said, frustration in his voice. “It’s up to the court, and there’s no way that judge is going to consider letting me adopt Sawdust. We’re just wasting our breath here.”
Scott stood up and said, “Johnny, come outside with me for a minute.”
The brothers walked together to the French doors and stepped out onto the veranda, closing the door behind them.
“Well, brother, this is certainly a change in the situation,” Scott said.
“I know, can you believe it, Scott? They’re actually serious about this!”
“Yes, I can see that they are. And I can see their reasoning. They are a bit old to be raising a youngster. And I suspect that Marilyn has some health issues. I think they’re trying to find a graceful way out of taking Sawdust back to Ohio. They think it wouldn’t be good for them or for him. I’m not sure I can disagree.”
“Not you, too! You were supposed to convince them this is a bad idea!”
“I was? Well, sorry to disappoint you. Think of the alternative. If the Logans feel they can’t take him, and you don’t want to adopt him, the court will have no choice but to find another adoptive home for him.”
“I never said I didn’t want to adopt him,” Johnny said, dark eyes on his brother.
“Well, do you?”
“Well, sure I would, if I could. But that’s the whole point, Scott, I can’t. Nobody’s listening to me. I ain’t married and I have a less than respectable past. What court would give me a kid?”
“Johnny, I don’t disagree it’s a long shot. You may be right. But isn’t it at least worth a try?”
Johnny scuffed his feet in the dirt, walking back and forth a few paces.
Scott went on. “Personally, I think it’s a great idea, but I think you should be clear about your motivation. I know you well enough to know that you have a do-gooder streak in you a mile long. Maybe you have a need to atone for past deeds and taking care of Sawdust helps accomplish that.”
“No, Scott, it’s never been about that. It’s about giving Sawdust a shake at a good life,” Johnny said, vehemently.
“Okay, okay, calm down. You know I like to play big brother and protect you, even from yourself. I have no doubt that Sawdust staying here is the best thing for him, but is it the best thing for you? Like Marilyn said, you have your whole life ahead of you. Maybe it would be wrong for you to tie yourself down with parenthood right now. I know I’m contradicting myself, just trying to see this from all angles.”
“Scott, I care about what you think more than any of the others. You really think I’d be a good father?”
“You’ve already proven that. Sawdust has thrived since you brought him here.”
“That’s not just my doing. Everybody has helped take care of him.”
“But it’s you he looks to for guidance. His trust is in you. He loves you, Johnny.”
Lips pursed, head shaking, Johnny quietly replied. “The thought of him leaving is tearing me apart inside.”
“Well, then, brother, I think you have your answer. But there is one more thing you need to consider. If the court allows it, and you become his father, he will be your heir.”
“My heir,” Johnny said softly, more as a statement than a question. He paced some more, considering the implications.
“He would share your legacy equally with children of your blood.”
“I’m not very good at worrying about what might happen in the future. Most of my life I’ve spent just trying to live through the day. If he’s my son, he would deserve to inherit whatever I have.” He stopped for a minute, kicked more dirt into the air. “Boy, oh boy, Scott, if you would have told me a year ago I’d be standin’ here talking about being a father and having an heir, I woulda shot ya just for being stupid! This feels kinda like a dream.”
“It’s a dream we could try to make come true, if that’s what you want.”
Johnny stopped moving, placed his hand on his hips and looked at his brother. “I’d be proud to be Sawdust’s father.”
Scott smiled and threw his arm around his brother’s shoulders. “You could have just said that from the beginning! Come on, we have a court hearing to prepare for.”
As they walked to the door, Johnny teased, “Or maybe you should adopt him, Boston. He looks more like you than me.”
“No thanks, brother, I’ll let you do the fathering. I’ll be very happy just being Uncle Scott.”
The day of the court hearing finally arrived. Johnny woke up early and started his day with a breakfast of a biscuit and some jerky in the saddle as he rode Barranca to his favorite place for solitude, a small grove of oak trees near a pond a couple of miles from the house. He needed time alone to center himself. Regardless of the outcome of the hearing, his life would be forever altered. If the Logans were given custody of Sawdust, the boy would be leaving for Ohio in a matter of days. Or, if the court approved his adoption of the boy, Sawdust would remain here with him at Lancer at least until he became an adult.
He was now so accustomed to Sawdust being in his life, he couldn’t imagine him not being there. The affection he had felt for him the day Sawdust returned his gun to him back at Jelly’s old shack had evolved into a love he was only beginning to grasp.
Not so long ago, when he was Johnny Madrid, he couldn’t allow himself the luxury of letting people get close. His life was at risk everyday. He couldn’t ask another person to bear that risk with him. And if he were to die, it would matter to no one. But now, as Johnny Lancer, he had a stable life, a family that loved him, more riches than he ever dreamed of, and something to offer another person. In this case, the other person was a seven year old child. The idea of Sawdust becoming his son filled him with a sense of awe and hope, but an inner voice said he shouldn’t get his hopes up. As Scott had said, it was a long shot.
The dappling light of the morning sun through the trees reminded Johnny he needed to get back. He wanted to have breakfast with his family before they left for Spanish Wells for the hearing. And he knew Sawdust would be looking for him. That thought alone warmed his heart.
Johnny came bounding into the front hallway and tossed his hat and gunbelt on the coat rack. With his long strides he was in the dining room in an instant. Everyone was already at the breakfast table and all eyes turned to him as he entered. He noticed the two empty chairs.
“Where’s Sawdust?” he asked.
“We thought he was with you,” Scott answered.
“No, he’s not with me. He was still in bed when I left early to take a ride.”
Johnny turned and ran to the stairs and bounded up to Sawdust’s room. The mound under the covers looked just as it had when he looked in on Sawdust earlier. He pulled the covers back and found a heap of clothes and blankets the size of a small child. He ran down the stairs, his silver spurs ringing like an alarm, and reentered the dining room.
“He’s gone. He put a pile of clothes under his blanket to make it look like he was sleeping.”
“Oh, dear,” Marilyn murmured.
“Where do you think he’d go, Johnny?” Teresa asked.
“I don’t know. Teresa, go get Jelly. He might know if Sawdust has any favorite hiding places.”
“I’ll go look in the barn,” Scott said as he headed for the door.
Larry followed Scott, “I’ll help you, Scott”
Johnny started to pace, his mind racing with thoughts of impending doom. What if he got lost out on his own, where would he run to, why did he leave?
Jelly and Teresa ran in from the kitchen.
“Jelly, did you see Sawdust this morning?
“No, Johnny, I figured he was with you. I saw Barranca was gone, and that small mare you’ve had him ridin’ gone, too. Thought you’d taken him out for an early ride.”
“Where do you think he’d go?”
“I don’t know. He never ran off before.”
Marilyn offered her input. “Johnny, when children run away they look for a safe place. Before he came here, where was the last place he felt safe?”
Johnny and Jelly looked at each other and said in unison, “The old shack!”
“Come on, Jelly, we’re ridin’ out there. If he’s not there, one of us will come back here, the other will keep looking.”
Scott and Larry returned via the kitchen. Scott provided their report. “We checked the barn, the garden, and the storage shed. No sign of him, the mare he’s been riding is gone.”
“Yeah, Jelly told us. That’s why he thought he was with me. We’re riding over to Jelly’s old shack. It’s the only other place he knows around here. And no way would he go back to the Smith’s house.”
“Want me to go with you?” Scott asked.
Murdoch spoke up before Johnny could answer. “Scott, I think you better ride into town and tell Judge Bates we may be late to the hearing. You stay there. We’ll send someone ahead when we find him to let you know when to expect us. And don’t tell Ed why we’re delayed unless he asks.”
“Okay, and if you don’t find him, then what?” Scott asked.
“We’ll find him,” Johnny said confidently, as much to convince himself as everyone else. “Let’s go, Jelly. We’re wastin’ time here.”
Jelly hurried out and quickly selected a horse from the remuda near the barn, got him saddled and was ready to go. He met Johnny at the front of the house. Within minutes they were galloping toward the old shack that lay on an old useless tract of land about five miles east of the ranch. They rode hard, each lost in their thoughts about why Sawdust had run away.
Johnny was silently recriminating himself for being too stern with the boy about handling the gun. Maybe he had come on too strong and he scared the boy away. But then he remembered the boy’s happy mood eating chocolate cake, and his rambunctiousness the rest of the day, and he dismissed the scolding as the reason he fled.
Then he recalled how Marilyn had asked him if she could put Sawdust to bed. He quickly acquiesced, even though he looked forward to those moments every day. When he told Sawdust his grandmother would be putting him to bed, the boy started to complain, but Johnny stopped him. He reminded Sawdust that his grandmother loved him and she wanted to get used to being the one to put him to bed. Johnny had no idea how it had transpired. But he wondered if the change in routine was the trigger for him leaving. Maybe having his grandmother put him to bed was too much of a reminder that he would be leaving Lancer soon. He couldn’t blame the boy for not wanting things to change. He didn’t want them to change, either.
And there was also the possibility that Sawdust thought if they couldn’t find him to go to the hearing, nothing would happen and he could stay with him. Johnny realized he was floundering, trying to imagine what went on in the head of a seven year old.
He noticed Jelly slowing as they got close to the shack. Johnny rode up beside him and they both reined in to stop.
“If he’s in there and he hears us coming, he might run,” Jelly said.
“Let’s tether the horses over there by the trees and walk the rest of the way,” Johnny suggested.
Jelly nodded in agreement.
As they approached the shack on foot, they silently observed the mare grazing in the field, confirming for them that Sawdust was there.
Johnny reached the front door and quietly opened it. He stepped into the dark interior, and the musty order of decay hit his nostrils with a tickle. Dust motes danced in the air, captured by intermittent rays of sun through a small window and gaps in the wood beams. He looked around and saw no sign of Sawdust.
“Sawdust, you can come out now. It’s just me and Jelly. We came to make sure you’re okay. Where are you, son?”
Jelly stepped in behind Johnny. “Sawdust, we’re just worried you might be hungry. I brought you some bacon and biscuits. I saw you put the mare out to graze. That was real good, Sawdust, but you need to eat, too.”
Johnny motioned his head in the direction where he saw a shaft of morning light shine off a head of blond hair. Sawdust was cowering in the corner behind a makeshift bed. It was the bed Johnny had woken up on a few months ago when Jelly’s boys had rescued him after being shot by bushwackers.
Johnny walked slowly to the corner and crouched down to Sawdust’s level.
“Hey there, Sawdust. How are ya doing?”
Johnny saw the quivering lips, and tears on the boys face for a brief moment before the boy flung himself into Johnny’s arms. He cried into Johnny’s shoulder, his body wracked by his sobs.
Johnny hugged the boy with all his might and said softly in the child’s ear, “It’s going to be okay, Sawdust. Everything will be okay.” He rubbed the child’s back and kept reassuring him. Johnny picked him up and carried him outside into the sunlight. He set him down in the shade of a large ash tree and sat beside him. Jelly joined them.
“How about a biscuit?” Jelly asked. “Nothin’ like one of Teresa’s biscuits with bacon in it to make ya feel better when yer feeling’ down.”
Sawdust nodded his head and a small grin appeared on his face. He took the proffered morsel from Jelly and shoved a bite in his mouth.
Johnny laughed. “Slow down there, buddy, you don’t want to choke.” He marveled how quickly the boy had gone from being an emotional wreck to devouring the biscuit like a starving dog.
“While you finish that biscuit, Jelly and I are going to talk for a minute, then I’ll be right back.” The men stood and Johnny led Jelly near the horses.
“Go back to the house and tell Murdoch we’ll meet them in town. I need to talk to Sawdust, then we’ll head over there for the hearing.”
“Okay, Johnny. I sure am glad he’s okay.”
“Me too. Oh, and bring him some clean clothes.”
“Will do. See ya in town.”
Johnny walked back to Sawdust and sat down. “Feel better since you ate the biscuit?”
“Yeah, I’m not hungry anymore.”
“So why did you come back here, Sawdust?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders and said, “I dunno.”
“Sure you know. You didn’t just happen to make your bed so it looked like you were sleeping in it, saddle Molly and ride all the way out here because you didn’t know what you were doing. There’s no one here. Why did you want to come back here?”
“I didn’t know where else to go.”
“Why did you need to go anywhere?”
“I don’t wanna go to Ohio. I wanna stay here.”
“And you thought if you came here to hide out your grandparents couldn’t take you back to Ohio?”
“I guess so. Maybe they would go without me.”
“I’m sorry son, but that’s not the way it works. You don’t get to decide where you live until you get to be a man. For now, the judge will decide where the best place is for you. If the judge says you have to live with your grandma and grandpa, then you will have to go with them to Ohio.”
“I know . . .but it ain’t fair.”
“A lot of things in life aren’t fair. But we still have to deal with them. We’re going to ride into town and go to the hearing. The judge will talk to us some more, then he will make a decision about where you will live. Can you be brave, like you were before, and answer some more questions if the judge asks you to?”
“Okay. I’ll be brave.”
Johnny appreciated the boy’s response, but he knew his heart wasn’t in it. He thought for a brief moment about telling Sawdust the possibility of the adoption, but dismissed the idea as being too confusing to the boy. Particularly if the judge didn’t allow it. No sense in both of them being disappointed if it didn’t come to pass.
“I know you can do it, Sawdust. And I know you will do what the judge asks. Now, let’s wrap up that other biscuit and take it with us. You can eat it when we get into town. We better get going so we’re not late.”
“All right. Can I ride with you on Barranca?”
“Of course. We’ll put Molly on a lead behind us. Come on now, give me a little smile,” Johnny said, giving Sawdust a tickle under his arms.
The boy couldn’t contain his glee, as he wiggled and laughed.
“That’s better! We better get going.”
“The first matter before the court today is the custody decision for Minor William Campbell. Sheriff Jayson, please provide an update on the Smith family.”
“Your Honor, there has been no sign of them since the last hearing, however, the postmaster received a request to have their mail forwarded to an address in South Dakota. Some of the mail looks to be checks from the State. I think they’re the stipend checks for adopting Sawdust. There’s been no response from the public notice that was published in area newspapers.”
“The Smiths have failed to respond to the 30 day notice, therefore they have forfeited any consideration in this matter. I want the mail seized and the forwarding address brought to me. Sheriff Jayson, you and I can discuss later what, if any, criminal charges may be brought against them for abandoning a child.”
“Yes, Your Honor,” the sheriff said.
“I see that the entire Lancer family is here, and I’m pleased that you were able to make it here on time, but I don’t see the boy.” Judge Bates looked at Johnny. “Is the boy available?”
“Yes, sir, he’s outside with Jelly Hoskins,” Johnny replied.
“Why isn’t he here with you?”
“Well, sir, his grandparents are here, Mr. and Mrs. Logan, and they have a request to make of the court. We didn’t think Sawdust needed to hear us talking about something that might not even happen.”
Larry Logan stood and addressed the judge. “Your Honor, my name is Lawrence Logan, and this is my wife Marilyn. We are Sawdust’s maternal grandparents. We traveled here from Ohio to meet our grandson and to be a part of this hearing.”
“Very well. Johnny indicated you have a request to make.”
“Yes, sir, we understand that the court usually awards custody to the closest blood relative of an orphaned child. In this case, that would be me and my wife as we are his only living relatives. However, we believe the boy would be better off staying here. We ask that the court consider the adoption of Sawdust by Johnny Lancer.”
The judge looked at Mr. Logan for some time, as though he was trying to determine the mental stability of the man.
“Mr. Logan, you would have me believe that you have traveled all the way from Ohio only to relinquish your legal right to raise your own grandchild?”
“Your Honor, that was not our original intent. We truly believed we would be taking the boy home with us. Then we got to know the Lancer family, Johnny in particular. When we saw the close relationship he has with the boy we started thinking about what really was best for Sawdust. My wife and I question our own ability to raise a young child. Our health isn’t what it once was, and, not to sound too morbid, there is a strong possibility that she and I won’t live long enough to see Sawdust reach adulthood. We’d hate to have him orphaned again. The boy needs stability and we believe Johnny can provide that for him. He has a supportive and loving family, one which Sawdust already feels a part of. We think it would break his heart to remove him from the Lancer home.”
“You present a persuasive argument, Mr. Logan. Please be seated. What you are asking is highly unusual and I believe there is no precedent in the State of California for this type of adoption. I must weigh the options for the child’s placement against the current standard for determining adoption decrees.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, Judge Bates, what is the current standard?” Scott asked.
“The placement must be fit and proper for the child.”
“And how do you determine what is fit and proper?” Scott enquired.
“That is totally up to judicial discretion.”
“So, you alone decide? No disrespect, Your Honor, but that doesn’t sound like much of a standard to me,” Scott said.
Judge Bates allowed himself a slight smile and said, “Scott, I don’t disagree with you, but that is what the State has provided for us in making these decisions. Any more questions, Scott?”
“No, sir, thank you.”
“Fine. Now, I’d like to ask you a few questions, Johnny. No need to stand.”
“Okay,” Johnny replied.
“First, I assume you and the Logans have discussed this option in depth?”
“Yes, sir, we have, along with Murdoch and Scott and Teresa.”
“And you agree that Sawdust would be better off with you?”
“Yes, I do. I understand why Larry and Marilyn say they aren’t the best people to raise Sawdust. I don’t know much about the law, but it seems to me if people feel they can’t do something well, the law shouldn’t force ‘em.”
“Okay. Now, from all reports, you have done an excellent job providing for the boy as his temporary guardian. But adoption is permanent. The boy would legally be your son and heir. He would be a Lancer. You would be responsible for all of his needs until he reaches the age of majority. You have considered all of these things?”
Johnny had been smiling since the judge said Sawdust would be a Lancer. “Yes, sir, I want Sawdust to be a Lancer. I want him to be my son,” he said, surprised by the emotion in his voice.
“Thank you, Johnny. Now, I see that some of your friends are here. May I assume they are here in support of this request?”
“Okay. Father Miguel, would you like to speak first?”
As he listened to the testimonials offered by his friends, Johnny sat slouched in his seat, head lowered, eyes downcast. To his ears, it sounded like they were talking about someone else. He felt an elbow jab his ribs.
Murdoch leaned close to his ear and whispered, “Johnny, sit up straight. Be proud of who you are.”
His father’s words jolted him. He lifted his head and shifted in his chair, straightening his back. The words rang in his head. ‘Be proud of who you are.’ Words spoken by his father. He wasn’t sure which shocked him most: the words that were said, or the man who had said them. This was the second time in a handful of days that he heard his father associate the word ‘proud’ with him.
The people who were speaking were saying he was a good and decent person, that he had helped people when no one else would. Why shouldn’t he believe these things, too? Where had his resolve gone, his confidence that he could be a father to Sawdust?
Because his inner voice, the one he thought he had silenced, was laughing at him, jeering at the idea that he could actually believe these things about himself. For hadn’t he perpetrated the perfect fraud? Turned Johnny Madrid into Johnny Lancer, when the unlovable, unworthy, unredeemable being still resided behind the slick, confident exterior. “Be proud of who you are.” The inner voice sneered; you can repeat it as often as you want to Madrid, but it ain’t gonna change who you are.
He sat up straighter and shook his head. He couldn’t let the voice inside him deny him this one pure, good thing in his life. He wanted someone he could love and someone to love him in return without conditions. He felt he had that with Scott, and maybe someday he would have it with Murdoch, but his relationship with Sawdust was different. Sawdust loved him, he knew it in his head and his heart. The boy filled a hole in him he didn’t know existed.
He wanted to be the boy’s father. He wanted a son who would be proud of him, but how could he expect that if he wasn’t proud of himself?
He felt his throat constrict, his jaws tighten. Here, sitting in the middle of a saloon turned courtroom, the revelation struck like a lightning bolt. He had to forgive himself before he could allow the good things he wanted into his life. He had clung to the bad things he had done like a talisman and they were threatening to strangle him.
How did it all start, carrying the weight of having done bad deeds? He was a scared child, hungry, hurt and alone, that’s how it started. His mother dead, stepfather gone, left on his own at the age of ten to make his way through life. Just like Sawdust had been when Jelly found him. But no one like Jelly had ever rescued him. There was Val, of course, but most of his sins had been committed long before Val came into his life. He picked his way through his early life, grubbing for morsels of food and attention. He studied people, learned who were the good ones and who were the bad ones. At fifteen, the gun strapped around his hips gave him power. Power over the fear of ever being scared, hungry or hurt again. The first man he killed deserved to be killed. But that one event set him on the path of a life of ill-gotten gains and unwanted fame. He honed his skills and became feared by others. He had turned the tables. His aim was to look bad, but do good.
He began to see the distinction between his two sides. Johnny Madrid was about survival. He latched on to a profession that initially protected him, but in the long run, it brought him no love and little happiness. He had learned things along the way. Valuable lessons he could pass on to someone else. Perhaps to a child in need of a loving heart and a firm hand.
Johnny Lancer was about living. A new beginning, a second chance. A chance to have a family and a purpose beyond one of survival. And all because his father wanted him to come home. At first he didn’t trust his father’s intentions. But over time he came to understand that his father wanted him. Why hadn’t he understood and accepted that earlier? All the fighting and resistance, for what?
He had only peripherally been aware of what was going on in the courtroom. He was vaguely aware when Mrs. Logan read the passages from Sarah’s diary where she mentioned him. She said she felt that her daughter would think it very fitting that Johnny should become Sawdust’s father. Father Miguel from the Catholic Church in Morro Coyo talked about Johnny’s support of the church orphanage, making public for the first time acts he preferred to keep anonymous.
Val, in his jocular way, talked of how, in his gunfighting days, Johnny would study the sides of a dispute in order to place himself on the “right” side of a battle.
“He was the fastest, most accurate gunfighter I’d ever seen. But he didn’t use his skills to help those greedy, rich ranchers. He sided with the people who were strong, hard working souls, trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. He rarely got paid in real money. A belly full of food and a place to sleep were the usual payments for his help.
“I’ve known Johnny for more years than anyone here, no offense, Murdoch, and I’m here to tell ya you’ll never find a better, more honest man. I was a gunfighter for a while. That’s how I met Johnny. Learned it wasn’t the life for me. And here I am, sheriff of a growing town, and I’m not half as smart as Johnny. He just needed a chance to prove who he really is. Well, that’s it, that’s all I have to say. Oh, except, I think he’d make a darned good papi to Sawdust.”
Hearing Val’s final remarks, Johnny slowly became aware of his surroundings. His father’s arm was around his shoulders.
“Johnny, the judge is asking you a question,” Murdoch said next to him.
“I’m sorry, Judge, I didn’t hear your question.”
“I was asking if this would be a good time to take a short break.”
“Sure. Thank you,” was all Johnny could think to say.
“Very good. Court will adjourn for fifteen minutes.”
Scott stood before him with a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, Johnny, let’s get some fresh air.” Scott and Murdoch ushered Johnny to the back door of the saloon.
Murdoch looked concerned. “Are you okay, son?”
Johnny paced, kicking small gusts of dirt into the air, hands on his hips, working up the strength to speak. He turned to his father and brother, “It’s like they’re talking about somebody else in there.”
Scott, brows raised in confusion, said, “But it was all good, Johnny.”
“At first, I was thinking I don’t deserve that kind of support. I did some bad things before I came here. I was thinking they wouldn’t be saying those things if they knew.”
“Why the self doubt all of a sudden, Johnny? That’s all in the past,” Murdoch said.
Johnny shook his head vehemently. “No, it isn’t, Murdoch, it’s still all in here,” he said, tapping his chest. “It’s always been inside me.”
“But, son . . .”
“No, let me finish. Then I got to thinking, a lot of what I did, like stealing and using people to get what I needed, I did when I was a kid, before I ever picked up a gun. I was just like Sawdust when Jelly found him, alone, scared and hungry. It wasn’t my fault I did those things. I had to do them just to stay alive. I figure that’s why I care so much about that boy. I would never blame him if he was forced to do the things I did to survive. It’s like I’m finally forgiving myself because I was just like Sawdust.”
“No, Johnny, none of it was your fault. I am so sorry, son. I am so sorry.” Murdoch reached for his son, but Johnny stepped back.
“It’s not your fault, either, Murdoch. So today, right here, we need to stop blaming each other and ourselves. Ageed?”
With a smile wider than Johnny had ever seen, Murdoch said, “I will if you will,” as he forced his son into an embrace.
“Finally, you two agree on something!” Scott declared. Scott thought Johnny had put the ghosts from his life as Johnny Madrid to bed a long time ago, but apparently not. It was more likely he had pushed them down, out of his consciousness, and recent events had awoken them. He put his hand on Johnny’s back. “Johnny, your friends said those things about you because they’re all true. And I think the judge is going to approve your adoption of Sawdust.”
Johnny stepped back, quickly composing himself. “How can you know that?”
“I’ve been watching him. He’s listened very carefully to everything that’s been said. And he’s been watching you. I think he understands that you’re doing this for the right reasons and he sees how much you want it. And he’s seen how you already treat Sawdust like a son.”
“Well, I sure don’t have any secrets after today.” Johnny released a puff of air through his lips and sighed. “I think I’m ready to get this over with. Let’s go back inside.”
Scott opened the door and motioned for Murdoch to lead the way. He hung back a moment and looked at his brother.
“You’re sure you want to go through with this?”
“Yes, Scott, I want Sawdust to be a part of our family. I want to be his father.”
Scott smiled, “Just checking, brother. Let’s go.” He threw his arm around Johnny’s shoulders and they walked back to the courtroom.
The hearing was back in session and the judge had asked that Sawdust be brought into the courtroom. Johnny was pleased to see that Jelly had made Sawdust put on clean clothes and someone had found a comb to tame his hair. Jelly brought him to sit next to Johnny.
“Hello again, young man,” Judge Bates said. “It’s nice to see you again.”
“Hello,” Sawdust said meekly.
“Sawdust, I’d like to ask you some questions, but I’d like everyone else here to step outside while we talk. Would that be okay with you?”
Sawdust looked at Johnny, his eyes wide with concern.
Johnny touched him lightly on the back and said, “It’s okay. It will be just like last time, only we’ll all be outside. We’ll come back in as soon as the judge is finished talking to you. I don’t think it will take very long. You can be brave for that long, can’t you?”
“Good boy. Just tell the judge the truth and everything will be okay.” As Johnny stood to leave, he kissed the boy on the top of his head. Sawdust looked up at him and smiled.
Sheriff Jayson held the door while everyone filed out of the saloon onto the sidewalk. Johnny found the nearest post and leaned his back against it. He concentrated on controlling his breathing and his nerves. He wished he could hear what was going on inside.
Scott came to stand with him. “Doing okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Did Sawdust tell you why he ran away?”
“He thought if we couldn’t find him, Larry and Marilyn would go back to Ohio without him.”
“Well, with us he has a secure life surrounded by people who care about him. Who would want to leave that and go to an unknown place? It would be difficult for an adult, let alone a child.”
“You’re right about that.” Johnny looked over to where Murdoch was talking with Larry and Marilyn. “I hope they know Sawdust likes them. He’s just afraid of going someplace new.”
“They know. I think this has been hard on Marilyn. She told me she wished they could just give Sawdust to you to raise and not put him through all of this. But she knows it has to be done legally.”
“I sure like those folks, for wanting what’s best for Sawdust,” Johnny said.
Sheriff Jayson appeared at the door. “You all can come back in now.”
“Well, here we go, brother. Pretty soon we’ll be calling you papi!” Scott teased.
Johnny followed Scott through the door, hoping his brother was right.
Sawdust was sitting quietly and smiled as Johnny and Jelly took their seats next to him. Johnny leaned over and whispered in the boy’s ear, “Did it go okay?”
Sawdust nodded and smiled.
“I’m really proud of you,” Johnny said, giving the child an approving pat on the back.
Judge Bates resumed the hearing. “Welcome back, everyone. While all of you were getting some fresh air, the young man and I had an enlightening conversation. He is an intelligent and thoughtful child for someone his age. I am taking into consideration everything he told me, as well as the comments from the individuals who spoke on Johnny’s behalf. I just have a few more questions before I make my ruling.
“Johnny, while only in the most unusual circumstances has a court permitted an adoption of a child by a single person, the fact that you are not married is not of concern to me because you have a supportive family. What does give me some concern is the shadow from your past. From my own observations in social gatherings and from the testimonials given today, it appears you have adjusted well to a life with your family and to the running of the family ranch. But I would be remiss if I did not also consider things that are heard in the community, whether they be true or not. Let’s just say that you still carry a degree of notoriety from your previous life as a gunfighter. I know you can’t prevent the past from rearing its head occasionally, but I am aware that there have been occasions when you presented yourself as Johnny Madrid in order to protect your family. If I am to approve this adoption, I must consider the example you would be setting for a child of an impressionable age. I need assurances that you are indeed finished with that way of life.”
As he listened to the judge’s comments, Johnny knew the decision would come down to how he responded. Since coming back from the break, his resolve had returned and his confidence was intact. He sat up straight and looked at the judge.
“Your Honor, when I first came back to Lancer, I wasn’t sure I’d stay. It wasn’t an easy place for me to be, having to live on a schedule, obeying rules and meeting deadlines. In fact, I left once, intending to return to my old profession. But my brother, Scott, said some things to me that made me think about what I would be giving up. I realized my old way of life had nothing to offer me, other than an early death. The freedom I had in that life was nothing more than a prison of my own making. So I decided to go back to Lancer, if Murdoch would accept me. Luckily he did. We still have our differences, but I’m beginning to learn that happens in all families. I never had a family before, so I didn’t know that disagreements weren’t the end of the world. I never thought I’d say this, but I think Murdoch and I are starting to understand each other.” He sensed Murdoch shift in the chair next to him, then felt a light hand against his back.
“Judge Bates, I’m happy with my life at Lancer and I love my family. I didn’t know I had a brother until two years ago. I wouldn’t give up having Scott for my brother for anything. Since that first time I left, I never thought about leaving again. I have no desire or intention to return to gunfighting. But part of me will always be Johnny Madrid, and I will be him again if that’s what it takes to keep someone from hurting my family.
“And just so you know, I’ve talked to Sawdust about my days as a gunfighter. His pa was one and he died in a shoot-out. I don’t want him thinking it’s a good way to make a living. Isn’t that right, Sawdust?” Johnny asked, as he turned his head to the child.
Sawdust nodded and said, “That’s right, Johnny. Gunfighters don’t live to be very old.”
Johnny smiled with pride. Sawdust had listened to him after all.
Judge Bates suppressed his own smile and proceeded. “Thank you, Johnny, and Sawdust. Now, my next question is for Mr. and Mrs. Logan. You have presented this court with an interesting challenge. It is my observation that you come before this court of sound mind and freely request the adoption of your grandchild by a non-relative. There has been no coercion by Johnny or anyone else that you make this request?”
“No, Your Honor, this was our idea. Johnny resisted the idea at first, said it wasn’t possible. But we, along with his family, eventually helped him see the situation through Sawdust’s eyes. We only want what is best for the boy.”
“Thank you, Mr. Logan. As I said earlier, Sawdust and I talked over a few things. He told me that he loves his grandparents and likes having them around. Furthermore, he thinks the best arrangement would be for his grandparents to come live with him and the Lancers. I mention it only as a point for your consideration.”
Johnny could hear Marilyn crying behind him, and he was on the verge of it himself. He took Sawdust’s small hand into his own and squeezed it.
“Is there anyone present who would like to make additional comments regarding this matter?” the judge asked the small group. After a moment, he said, “Hearing none, I would like to thank all of the witnesses and those who gave testimonials in support of this petition. Everyone is dismissed except for Mr. and Mrs. Logan, Johnny Lancer and Master William Campbell.”
Sheriff Jayson again stood at the door and saw to the clearing of the courtroom.
Johnny looked down at Sawdust and saw that he was still smiling. He wondered what the judge had said to him. Johnny looked over his shoulder as the last person exited the room. His father looked back at Johnny and gave him a nod and a smile.
Judge Bates said, “I am now going to render my decision, but first I will make some comments for the record.” He paused to take a drink of water, then proceeded.
“This case has been unusual and unprecedented from the beginning. It is highly unusual for the court to consider an adoption by a single person. But as I mentioned before, I do not consider the potential adoptive parent’s marital status to be an issue. The court is satisfied that Mr. Lancer has a stable life and environment in which to raise a child. He has demonstrated his commitment to the child while serving as temporary guardian. The court also accepts the sincerity of the child’s grandparents in their request that Mr. Lancer adopt their grandchild. Now, some final questions for each of you for the record. I’d like you all to stand for this.”
“Mrs. Logan, do you voluntarily relinquish your legal right to raise your grandson, William Campbell?” he asked.
“Yes, Your Honor, I do,” Marilyn said, her voice cracking.
“Mr. Logan, do you voluntarily relinquish your legal right to raise your grandson, William Campbell?
“Yes, Your Honor, I do,” Larry said.
“Mr. Lancer, is it your intention to provide William Campbell with a loving home?”
Johnny’s smile spread across his face. “Yes, sir, that is my intention.”
Judge Bates looked down at Sawdust and asked, “William Campbell, do you want Johnny Lancer to adopt you and be your father?”
Sawdust smiled and his bright blue eyes glistened. “I sure do, sir!” the boy said, his voice filling the room.
“Very good. I thank each of you for your patience. An adoption is a delicate matter as it pertains to the well being and future of a child. The court has considered what living arrangement is in the best interest of the child.
“I find that in the case of William Campbell, the adoption of the minor by Mr. John Lancer is fit and proper for reasons I have previously stated. A decree of adoption will be prepared for my signature creating the parent-child relationship between John Lancer and William Campbell. In the decree the adoptee’s name will be changed to William Lancer. The grandparent’s rights as next of kin to raise the orphaned child will be terminated by way of their voluntary consents. The minor is placed with Mr. Lancer immediately. This hearing is now concluded. Copies of the signed decree will be ready for each of you tomorrow. You may pick them up from Sheriff Jayson.” He lightly tapped the gavel on the table.
Sawdust looked up at Johnny with doe eyes brimmed with tears, his lips quivering. “Now are you my papa, Johnny?”
Johnny scooped the boy into his arms. “Yes, Sawdust, now I’m your papa. I love you, son.” He hugged the boy and let his tears flow. He had never felt so happy in his entire life. Joining in the embrace were Marilyn and Larry as they wrapped themselves around Johnny and Sawdust.
“I can’t believe this,” Johnny said, feeling cocooned in the Logans’ embrace.
“You proved yourself worthy, son,” Judge Bates said, as he observed the celebration. “Congratulations to all of you.”
“Papa, I can’t breathe,” came a small voice from the center of the embrace.
Everyone laughed as they stepped apart, giving the boy some breathing room.
“I’m sorry, son, we didn’t mean to crush you!” Johnny said. He turned to Judge Bates and said, “Judge, I don’t know how to thank you. I never dreamed this was possible.”
“You have some very persuasive friends, Johnny. I may have made new law here today. Time will tell. The only thanks I need is for you to give this boy a good life.”
“That’s a promise,” Johnny said.
“And Johnny, it may not be a legal thing, but I think you’ve just been adopted as well,” Judge Bates said, as he nodded at Larry and Marilyn Logan, who were now locked in their own embrace.
Johnny smiled at the thought of the Logans being a part of his family. With Sawdust still in his arms, he walked over to the couple and said, “We should go share the good news before they stampede the door!”
Christmas morning had been a noisy, chaotic scene. Wrappings from the piles of gifts that had been exchanged littered the great room. Teresa was taking a moment to catch her breath before tidying up and helping Maria and Marilyn with the holiday meal. She sat on the couch, assessing the happy wreckage in the room. She smiled when she noticed that the beautiful tree skirt she had embroidered could be seen, now that the gifts had been distributed.
She admired the tree, thinking it was the most beautiful one they had ever had in the Lancer house. But the fact that it was standing upright was a miracle in itself. According to Scott, the search for the perfect tree, led by Murdoch, with Scott, Johnny, Sawdust and Larry in tow, had been conducted with a high degree of hilarity, mostly thanks to the whiskey filled flasks Johnny had packed in his saddlebags.
She recalled entering the great room that afternoon upon her return from a visit to a friend’s house, and finding a trail of pine needles leading from the French doors to a huge California ponderosa pine, unceremoniously leaning in the corner by the fireplace. As she walked deeper into the room, she found four grown men and a small child in various positions of repose, all sound asleep. Murdoch was in his chair, head back, mouth open. Scott and Larry were sprawled feet to feet on the couch, and Johnny was in his favorite napping place, flung across the two ottomans. Sawdust was curled into a ball, nestled under a blanket, on the small couch. With a shake of her head, Teresa left the room. Fortunately, sober minds prevailed later in the day, and the tree was righted and placed in a barrel of water. Now it shimmered in the corner, laden with glass bulbs and garlands of various aromatic plants and food. It smelled and looked wonderful.
Her smile widened when she thought of the small chocolate cake she had hidden in the kitchen cupboard, a surprise treat for Johnny and Sawdust. She derived such pleasure in pampering her family. And that now included Larry and Marilyn. She delighted in helping Marilyn place some Christmas decorations in their cozy little cottage by the pond. In turn, Marilyn shared with her some of her favorite recipes for Christmas cookies. They laughed when they assessed the final products, and declared they would still be eating Christmas cookies on the Fourth of July! She recalled how Johnny, Scott and Sawdust had begged for just a sample when they investigated what was causing the mouth watering aromas wafting from the kitchen. With slaps on their hands, they were ordered to move along.
Teresa’s greatest joy this Christmas was the happiness she saw on the faces of the people she loved. This was the third Christmas since Scott and Johnny had come home. The first two were fine, but an underlying tension had existed in the fragile relationships Murdoch had with his sons. This year felt tension free. She witnessed a change in all of them. A more willingness to listen to each other when they disagreed, more patience and understanding all around. She wondered at the power of a seven year old to change the way adults treat one another. But she understood in her heart what that power was. She watched in awe as Sawdust taught the three men in her life how to love one another. This Christmas he was their greatest gift.
Johnny was on the floor in front of Murdoch’s desk watching Sawdust play with the wooden horses he had carved for the boy. Johnny picked up one of the horses and had it galloping across the mountains made of discarded gift wrapping. Sawdust followed suit, trying to make the sound of a galloping horse. Father and son laughed at the poor imitation.
Marilyn walked over to them and smiled when she saw Johnny on the floor with his son. “Which one of you is the child?” she teased.
With a laugh, Johnny said, “It’s hard to tell, isn’t it?”
He saw Marilyn holding a familiar looking book in her hand. He stood up and Marilyn motioned with her head for him to follow her to the veranda. She handed him Sarah’s diary.
“Johnny, I want you to keep this for Sawdust. I hope it will come to mean something to him in the future. I know you will help him remember his parents, but this will remind him how much his mother loved him.”
“Don’t you want to give it to him yourself?”
“Yes, but I think he’s still too young to take care of it properly. You’ll know the right time.”
He looked in her eyes and understood she doubted she would still be with them when the time was right to give Sawdust the diary. Johnny ran his hand over the cover of the book, silently appreciating the softness of the leather binding. But the tactile distraction didn’t assuage the emotion he felt thinking about Marilyn not being with them. He had grown increasingly fond of her since she and Larry had made their home with them. Six months ago they had moved into what Murdoch called the “honeymoon house,” the small home he and Scott’s mother had lived in while the hacienda was being constructed. It was situated about one mile from the main house, near a pond with plenty of trees and set against a backdrop of hills and mountains. Marilyn said it was the most beautiful place she had ever lived.
“I will keep it safe for him,” he said, as he gathered Marilyn into his arms. He worried that she was thinking this would be her last Christmas. “He’s lucky to have you for his grandma.”
Marilyn loved Johnny’s hugs and didn’t resist. “And he’s lucky to have you for his father.”
Jelly Hoskins awoke from his nap, the smell of hay filling his nostrils. The barn loft was his favorite napping place. He sat up and stretched, feeling sated from food and sleep. As he moved to stand, the pain in his knees caused him to groan. He grabbed for a post to help pull himself up.
“Boy, you’re gettin’ old, Hoskins,” he said to the air.
He looked at the rope that hung from the loft to the barn floor. He marveled whenever he saw Johnny slide down the rope in one fell swoop, landing squarely on his feet. He couldn’t do that even when he was a young man.
“Don’t even think about it, you’ll break your neck,” Jelly voiced.
“Who you talkin’ to, old man?” he heard a voice ask from below. Jelly then saw two feet poking out of the corner stacked with hay bales. He craned his neck and said, “Go back to sleep, Sheriff Crawford. Just me yackin’ at myself about nothin’.”
He took the few steps to the top ladder rung, and slowly lowered himself to the floor, favoring the left knee. It was a quiet day around the ranch, with all of the vaqueros and ranch hands off with their families enjoying the holiday or enjoying the camaraderie in the bunkhouse. The Lancers had insisted he join them for Christmas dinner. They reminded him he was Sawdust’s surrogate grandfather. Well, who was he to argue with that?
He now walked slowly to the barn door that opened out into the corral. He stepped out into the afternoon sunlight and stopped as he saw Sawdust sitting tall and proud in the small saddle on his new palomino. The look of joy on the boy’s face brought a surge of tears to the old man’s eyes.
“Good grief, Hoskins, you must be gettin’ soft, weepin like an old woman.”
He waved to Johnny as he passed by, leading the horse and Sawdust around the corral. Johnny nodded and shot him that famous Johnny Lancer smile. He’d never seen Johnny look so happy. He was as happy for Johnny as he was for Sawdust, for wasn’t Johnny Lancer the best friend he’d ever had?
He blinked as he saw the sun flash off of one of the spurs on Sawdust’s boots. They were his Christmas gift to the boy. He’d had them made special for him, so they would match Johnny’s. Spent all the money he’d saved all year, but the look on the boy’s face when he opened them was worth every penny.
The faces of the other boys he had rescued back before he came to live at the Lancer ranch came to mind; Willy, Pokey, Juanito, Boomer, Chief, So So and Toogie. He thought about them all the time, but today he hoped they all were having as good a day as Sawdust. It would be their first Christmas with their adopted families. If he could see a smile on each of their faces like the one he was looking at on Sawdust’s face, he could die a happy man.
He missed those boys more than anyone would ever know. But at least he still had one of them, thanks to Johnny. Jelly thought it was a miracle that Judge Bates let Johnny adopt him. Boy, was that a happy day. He laughed when he recalled seeing Johnny step out of the saloon, Sawdust in his arms, hugging Johnny so tight he wondered how the man could breathe. Before Johnny could say a word, Sawdust yelled out to anyone who cared, “Johnny’s my Papa!” The small gathering of family and friends erupted in cheers and congratulations were shouted and more than a few tears were shed, his own included. He couldn’t believe they got to keep Sawdust!
Scott walked out of the French doors, in search of his brother. While some people preferred to slip into a comfortable slumber following a large holiday meal, he knew Johnny felt the need to move. He doubted he would find him sleeping in the barn. He didn’t need him for anything, simply wanted to be in his company. He crossed the road to the corral and saw Murdoch leaning against the fence, one foot on the lower rung. The objects of his attention were Johnny and Sawdust. Sawdust was straddling a two year old palomino, with markings very similar to those on Barranca. The horse was Johnny’s Christmas gift to his son. Johnny held the lead on the horse and was leading him around the corral in a wide circle. He was talking quietly to the horse, his words undetectable. Occasionally he would say something to Sawdust and they would share a laugh or Sawdust would nod his head, and say “Yes, Papa.”
Scott joined his father at the fence. He took in the scene before him, his brother in rapt delight, enjoying the moment with his son and a young horse. He could think of nothing that could make Johnny happier.
Scott felt the best gift he had received this Christmas was the look of peace he saw in his brother’s eyes that morning as he sat on the couch holding his son. And the memory of the things Johnny had said months earlier at the adoption hearing. He recalled the conversation he and Johnny had when he found him whiling away the hours in a quiet saloon the day after Johnny left Lancer in a state of anger and frustration, nearly three years ago now:
“You came a long way for nothin’, brother,” Johnny said as Scott entered the saloon. Johnny was sitting at a table by himself, nursing a beer.
“Then you won’t mind if I sit down for awhile,” Scott said, tossing his hat on the table.
“No, go on ahead.”
Scott looked around the saloon, and said, “Yes, sir, I see what you mean, this is really a great life.”
“This place does pretty good at night,” Johnny said.
“Oh, I’ll bet it does,” Scott replied..
The brothers sat a moment, each assessing the other. Scott poured himself a shot of whiskey.
“Did you get those cattle back yet?” Johnny asked.
“No, that’ll take a couple of days.”
“What’d the old man do, let you off for good behavior?”
Scott shook his head. “He didn’t send me,” Scott said, noticing the disappointment on Johnny’s face. He hadn’t known his brother long, but he knew Johnny had a difficult time keeping his eyes from betraying his emotions.
“Oh, yeah, before I forget, you know that small creek on the south side, you know, where it narrows there?” Johnny asked.
Scott nodded; he knew the creek Johnny was referring to.
“Well, there’s an underbrush been pilin’ up. It’s gonna dam up on you if you don’t clear it. I guess it’d take ya about, about a week.”
“It would take us a lot less time if you were there to help us.” Johnny’s facial reaction told Scott his subtle attempt at persuasion wasn’t going to work, though he’d had a moment of hope when Johnny brought up the clogged creek. It suggested he hadn’t totally disengaged from life on the ranch.
“Never mind, I know, forget it, you’ve got everything you want right here,” Scott said.
“No, Scott, I got it other places.”
“You know, it’s a funny thing, I was just riding through town and I never expected to find you here. I mean, with all that talk about freedom. It’s a funny thing to find you all jammed in between these four walls.”
“Well, Wes and I, we’re going to take off tonight.”
“Just, takin’ off . . .”
“Got any plans?”
Johnny didn’t respond immediately, his head down, avoiding eye contact with his brother.
“I said, have you . . . ?”
Johnny looked up. “I heard you. Yeah, we’re going to head south. There’s a range war brewing, and, well, we heard they were hiring guns.”
“You’re just going to kill time, amongst other things.”
“You’ll be dead before you’re thirty.”
Johnny smirked, “Well, that comes to us all, don’t it brother?”
“But when you go, you won’t even leave a small ripple,” Scott said.
“Is that it, brother? I mean, the sermon’s over, ain’t it?”
“It’s the only good thing that ever happened to you in your whole life, and you’re gonna get up and walk away from it, and all for nothing. But I guess that’s all you’ve got going for you from now on.”
Scott stood and offered his hand to Johnny. “It was nice to have met you, brother.” A smile came to Johnny’s face as he accepted Scott’s hand and shook it. “Good luck,” Scott said. He grabbed his hat and walked out of the saloon, feeling a sense of failure and thinking he’d never see his brother again.
Until Johnny mentioned their conversation at the hearing, he never knew his words had struck a chord. Hearing his brother say in public that he wouldn’t trade their relationship for anything had touched him deeply.
The past six months had brought many changes to the Lancer home. The addition of a seven year old changed the dynamic for everyone. Having the boy’s grandparents as part of the extended family was a stabilizing force. Deep in his heart, the biggest change for Scott was that he no longer worried about Johnny leaving. Even as they had grown closer and Johnny appeared to have accepted Lancer as his home, he never stopped worrying Johnny would leave, triggered by an argument with Murdoch, or some other discord. But now, as he watched Johnny in his element, Scott was certain he need worry no longer. His brother was home for good, a home he now shared with a boy bearing the Lancer name.
Scott turned to look at his father and saw a look of contentment rarely seen on the face of the family patriarch. Scott wondered if his father was thinking about some of the same things he had been thinking about.
“It’s been a good Christmas, hasn’t it, sir?”
Murdoch looked at Scott, his eyes glistening.
“The best Christmas I’ve ever known, son.” He wrapped his arm around the shoulders of his oldest son and repeated, “The best Christmas I’ve ever known.”
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2 thoughts on “Sawdust: WHN for ‘Jelly’ by Skyehyker”
A lovely story with a surprising twist. It brought tears to my eyes.
This is a favorite story of mine. I love it and the family relationships shown in it.