The Smile

 

by

 

La Juan

 

 

 

 

 

Pictures provided by LaJuan

 

 

 

As I read the newspaper Grandfather sent me, I'm watching him across the Great Room.  He has been teasing and teaching Teresa how to play chess for the past half hour.  I know he's aware of my gazes.  How could he not?  With the life he's lived all his senses must be overactive, just like he is.  We've only known of each other's existence for four months and one of those was when he was healing from that bullet in the back.

He's not what I've been used to.  My friends in Boston knew and followed the convention of good dress and manners.  I knew what to expect from them.  But him?  He called me a dandy when I first met him, but I hazard a guess that he hasn't looked in a mirror lately.  No.  Scratch that.  He probably has. With his cockiness he knows what he looks like and the impression others have of him. 

Okay, with him living in Mexico so many years I can see the concho buttons down the side of the pants.  For practicality, the leather pants, the spurs and the storm strings holding his hat on his back make sense.  Even the embroidery on the shirts are a cultural thing stating he comes from down south of the border.  But pink and red shirts?  I need to work on him and his penchant for female colors.  He makes me think of a Bantam Rooster.  Short, compact and so very sure of himself.  But deadly.

He's a black panther and just as dangerous.  I've never seen someone so fast with their reflexes and economical too – so  smooth.  When he draws his gun the entire process is a blur.  He disappears at times risking the wrath of our father and I hear the sound of gunfire.  It's not safe to be there when he's out practicing.  Not that he's reckless, no.  He's very accurate.  The danger is facing his alter ego, Johnny Madrid.  I've only met the gunfighter twice now and both times it chilled me to the bone.  I don't know the man and I'm not sure I want to.  The hard stare, loose stance, and all knowing smile is scary when Madrid takes over.  Yeah, that's it.  Madrid takes over his body.  I much prefer to know my brother, Johnny Lancer.

Johnny is the baby brother I've always wanted.  He's fun loving, obnoxious, hard working, opinionated, stubborn, smart, caring and shy.  He's a risk taker, walking on top of fence lines, baiting Murdoch by calling him Old Man, and throwing himself fully into any activity he tries.  The boy is a walking magnet for disaster.  That's just why he needs an older brother to guide, intercede and protect him.  Even when Madrid takes over.  I plan to be there to protect his back.

There it is again.  That slight smile with hooded eyes, he gives me every time I look at him tonight.  What's behind that smirk?  It's a puzzle I intend to solve, little brother, the next time we get alone.

  

*********************

 

I miss my Dad so much.  He and Murdoch would sit with me at night in this room, while drinking their whiskey and scotch and talking over the ranch activities.  They were always fine-tuning how to improve the herd and the land.  The fireplace would pop and I could smell my Dad's pipe tobacco, a cherry rum that he ordered from Chicago.  Murdoch always smelled of spicy cologne and leather.  Leather.  That and soap is what I smell from Johnny as he bends over to make his move on the chessboard.  Dad always said to get Murdoch to teach me, but then things happened and I lost Dad to gunfire and Murdoch was shot.  With finding his sons, trying to save the ranch from land pirates, and the recovering period, there was no time to sit down to chess.

I was surprised and pleased when Johnny challenged me to a game tonight and proceeded to teach me.  I've watched him play with Scott and their styles are so different.  You would think that Scott was planning a major battle, the way he methodically plans his moves so slow and deliberate.  On the other hand, Johnny acts like he doesn't care and is lightening fast on his moves.  He acts so recklessly in his playing, but there's strategy behind it.  There has to be.  Why else would he win so often with Scott?  His mind works differently and he's smart.  He has to be to survive this long with the trade he practiced before coming to Lancer.  I've never seen him as Johnny Madrid.  They tell me he's dangerous, but I can't fathom that.  What I see is the brother I've always wanted.  And in this case, I got lucky and got two.  So different, like night and day.  Scott is all sunshine, steady and calm.  Johnny is dark, moody and fun.  They both love me, but where Johnny makes me laugh 'til it hurts, Scott makes me giggle behind my hand.

I feel a slight touch on my hand and look up to see Johnny smiling at me.  I've been woolgathering and it's my turn.  Studying the board I attempt a move only to hear Johnny's quiet drawl telling me a better strategy to take. Patiently he shows me how, in three moves, I could checkmate his pieces. 

This time when I look at him he bestows on me his wide toothy grin.  The man has such a collection of smiles, the large toothy one, the crooked one when he steals my cookies, the fun loving one, the shy one, the slight one when he's gunshot and the sexy one with the slight grin and lowered eyelids.  Every once in a while tonight I see it, usually right after Scott has turned a page in his newspaper reading.  Both of the guys are handsome and sexy, but Johnny is the one my girlfriends rave about.  They say that grin melts more than their hearts.  It affects their legs too.  It gets to me also, but can I turn to jelly and still be his foster sister?  Hmm.. I'm going to have to think about that. 

If he turns that sexy grin on Scott again I think I'm going to start laughing.  Scott has such a delicious scowl on his face whenever he catches sight of Johnny's face.  Johnny must still be in a good mood to be teasing his brother like that.  He came in early from the east pasture this afternoon covered in cow manure.  It seems that a snake spooked Barranca into running just as Johnny was throwing his rope at a cow.  The abrupt turnabout caused Johnny to lose his seat and he got bucked into a fresh section of cow patties.  He came stomping down the lane not long after Barranca came running into the barn.  Johnny was cursing a blue streak in Spanish and English but he shut up when he realized I was watching and listening.  He sure does know some interesting Spanish phrases.  Come to think of it, he knows some great English ones too. 

I fought to keep my face serious as I directed him to the bathhouse and ran to fetch him fresh clothes.  By the time I got back he had the tub filled with hot water.  I did remember to knock before I came in but he had only removed his shirt.  I guess he was checking for bruises.  My girlfriends have asked if his dark chest hairs go down to his waist.  I can truly say yes, and from all indications, probably further.  He was cranky over my entrance so I told him that I would make some cookies especially for him for tonight's desert.  I even was willing to start cooking early.  His mood brightened when I told him that I was the only one to see him come in and I wouldn't tell.  He smiled as he ushered me out and locked the door.  That was his fun loving smile.

There it is again, that sexy smile.  Only now it's directed toward Murdoch's desk and not toward Scott.  I look over at Murdoch and now I am confused.  Murdoch has a ghost of the same smile on his face.   Hmmm.  Like father, like son? 

 

*******************

 

His head was bowed over his desk as he relaxed from their evening meal.  It had been a full and painful day.  While his boys had worked in separate pastures repairing fences and cleaning out creeks, he worked at the forge in the barn.  He had shaped horseshoes to fit the wild horses that Johnny had broken the previous day.  His back hurt and he arched it against the sofa pillow he had snatched upon entering the Great Room.  His chair was normally comfortable, but today he needed something extra.  He allowed his head to lean back.

He closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of his family.  His family.  There was a time he had none.  At least not close.  Scott had been in Boston with his grandfather.  At the same time, Johnny was lost somewhere in Mexico on his own and the Pinkerton agents were on the hunt to find him.  It had been such a relief to get the telegram that they had saved him from the Mexican firing squad.  He had Paul O'Brien's daughter, Teresa as his ward, but his sons were gone.  It was quite an event when both boys showed up on the same day.  He wasn't prepared, at least not for both.  He had his speech ready for Scott but Johnny was a wild card that threw him into an abyss.  Everything he said after that wasn't taken well.  He wanted to just crawl back into his bed, come out on the right side and start with a fresh approach. 

Well, the one thing he said to both boys was the truth.  They were like their mothers.  Catherine was so beautiful and he would get lost in her blue-gray eyes.  Her death at Scott's birth had been tough to hear. Maria, ahhh, Maria.  Her fiery temper and zest for life was the attraction for his dead soul.  She brought him back to life and the making up times after her temper tantrums were very good.  A tender smile played across his lips thinking of the perpetual motion machine she had presented him eight months after their marriage date.

Johnny as a toddler went at top speed and when he crashed, he crashed fast.  Murdoch remembered walking into a room and finding his son sound asleep.  The child, from a sitting position, had toppled over completely bent at the waist with his head and shoulders lying on the rug between his outstretched legs.  Picking up his son, Johnny never woke up from his trip to his bed and from being carried in his father's arms. 

He was already working on his smiling attributes at that tender age.  And now he was here all grown up with that all knowing smile of Johnny Madrid, gunfighter.  Gritting his teeth, Murdoch remembered the arrogance of his younger son and the smiling face taunting him to knock the chip off of Johnny's shoulder.  It had been a difficult time at the beginning and even now he often butted heads with Johnny. 

Doctor Sam Jenkins had made an observation to Murdoch that he turned to whenever Johnny got difficult.  He could hear it in his head now, “By watching his mother die, Johnny went from being a young child to an adult within an hour.  He never went through his youth because he was fighting to stay alive.  You weren't there as a father, but you are now.  He's just reverting to being a teenager trying his father.  Deal with it.  The young man is looking for stability, independence, respect, love and boundaries.  Some days he will be an adult and others a teen. Learn to read the signs and adjust accordingly.  You're going through what all fathers go through, just a little later in life.”

Today, Johnny had been both.  While in the barn, Murdoch had seen Barranca come running in.  Opening the horse's stall, he didn't need to urge Johnny's mount in; the horse bolted in.  Going to the barn door,  he saw his son stomping down the lane using the words of a sailor in both of his native languages.  Looking over to the house he spotted Teresa and knew the damage was done.  To Johnny's credit he had shut up when he saw Teresa waiting for him. To her credit, she held her laughter and aided Johnny toward the bathhouse while holding her nose from the smell.  It was pretty potent as it drifted toward the barn and to Murdoch tucked behind the door.  Sam Jenkins' words kept running through his mind.  He would have to have a talk with Johnny over his choice of colorful words.  But that thought was shoved out of his mind when he saw Teresa running back to the bathhouse holding clean clothes for Johnny.  She was knocking as she was barging in.   The boys had said she would walk in on them and he saw they had a valid complaint.

Murdoch could see in through the open door and watched as Johnny talked to his sister, gently ushered her out and loudly locked the door.  The first discipline talk would be with his ward, but he needed to talk to Johnny first.  Waiting until Teresa was safely in the house Murdoch made his way to the bathhouse, knocked and waited for Johnny to answer.  Johnny thought Teresa was back and Murdoch had assured him that his horse was in his stall and he would have no further trouble with Teresa's habit of opening doors too fast.  Murdoch would be having a talk with his young ward.  He couldn't see the smile on Johnny's face but he heard it in his voice.  But his tone of voice quickly turned contrite when Johnny apologized to Murdoch for his choice of words earlier. 

As he walked away to have his talk with Teresa, Murdoch thought that the day would turn out okay after all.  He finally had a clue on reading Johnny.  If he could keep his temper and watch Johnny's face with his many modes of smile communication, there may be a chance. 

Feeling someone's stare on him, Murdoch stopped his scatter shooting thoughts and opened his eyes.  Johnny was looking at him and smiling a soft slight smile with a sleepy-eyed look.  Murdoch knew it was the look of comfort and love that his son had used as a child.  Murdoch returned the smile and sighed.  For now, his family was at peace.

 

The end

 

 

 

 

 

 

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