Word Count 4,375
It wasn’t his intention to take a swim in the Pacific. It wasn’t his intention to be seaside, nor anywhere near the California coastline. But he had to travel far and fast to get the taste of a landowner skirmish out of his mouth.
After the battle his body needed healing as well as his mind. He had long given up on his soul. When Calligan’s men turned on him-after saving their damned lives and property-he did what he had to do, then mounted up and rode hard.
Unconscious a good part of the time. It was wherever his horse wanted to take him. But Canyon was a good horse and must have been feeling his roots because he’d come to in a soft bed of sand. The sound of waves and seagulls in his ears. He looked around, saw his horse standing in a clump of trees by a freshwater basin, chomping on sweet grass.
Well, hell, it looked like the horse knew better than he did how to take care of himself. He stood. Stretched. And immediately regretted it. Well, at least he wasn’t shot or knifed up this time. A few fractured ribs. A lot of black and blue marks. Suddenly, soaking in the saltwater under a clear blue sky and warm sun was more than inviting.
He stripped the saddle and gear from his faithful, long suffering, transportation. Rubbed him down a bit. Drank some water himself. Laid out the bedroll. Then stripped off his clothes and walked into the water. He floated face down, then face up. Letting the saltwater do its natural magic. He could almost feel the soreness seep from his body.
He must have stayed in for an hour. Maybe longer. His imagination let him float away, down the coast, all the way to Mexico. Dios! The way his luck was running the Rurales would probably be on the beach waiting for him to make landfall. Reality took hold and he flipped over. Swam to shore. Sitting on his bedroll, he pulled jerky from his saddlebags. Hard tack and more water. “A Hero’s meal.” he spoke aloud, telling himself he was talking to the horse. Canyon chewed silently on the grass, looked at him as if to say ‘Then maybe this hero stuff ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, amigo.’
It wasn’t hard to get a fire going. The driftwood making an easy flame. He didn’t even bother dressing as he led Canyon to the shore. Let him walk chest deep into the water and have his play before leading him back to his comfortable grove. He used his shirt to dry the mustang off. Then carried that back to rinse out in the seawater along with his pants, socks and anything else that would be considered clothes before placing them all over rocks to dry.
He sat on the blanket, au naturelle, sipping coffee and eating more hard tack. Thinking about fishing and deciding against it. He was all alone, as far as he knew, on this stretch of beach. But who knew whose attention he might draw once he went shooting at fish? He soaked in the sun. The warmth feeling good to his bruised skin and battered body.
He had put on his socks, pants, and shirt, leaving the shirt untucked as he sat on a driftwood log and pulled his boots on. Then started to contemplate his options. He could turn toward Mexico. Be there in a day and half if he rode hard. He could head north. Spend some time in San Francisco. The Calligan’s plan to strip him of his well-earned money failed so he had a good stash. Only what he earned. But more than he took from the sons who waylaid him on the trail.
“We want what’s ours back, spic!”
Their words soured in his memory. “Your old man know about this?” he asked. Feet on the ground, hands in the air.
“Pa never should have paid you off!” The oldest, Nels, said.
“Seems you had a different opinion two days ago.”
“Ain’t no one worth $500.00 for 2 days work.” The youngest, Marshall.
“Just get on with it!” George, the middle brother.
He should have just shot them. Got it over with fast and easy. But he had liked the old man. Calligan couldn’t help having stupid sons. 3 on 1 were never good odds but for all their bravado and once the guns had been knocked out of their hands, they were clods, and it was mismatched in his favor.
He took everything they had, including their boots and pants. He wrapped up their gear. Stashed everything in their saddlebags, along with a note to their Pa, telling him everything that happened and where they could be found. Walking, if they had any gumption at all. He smacked the horses on their rumps and sent them on the way home. Separating his $500.00 from a very reasonable amount of cash, he put his in his pocket and the rest in a small sack.
“You just gonna leave us here?” Nels asked, wiping blood from his mouth with his shoulder.
“Probably in better shape than you’d planned for me.” He nodded as he saddled up. “I figure if you work together you can get out of those knots in about an hour or so and start following your horses home. You might catch up with them but more n likely they’ll already be tucked in their stalls with feed bags and fresh water.
“I guess someone from the ranch will be along soon enough. ‘Lessen your pa does the right thing and lets you walk all the way back. Don’t mistake anything.’ He stared at them coldly as he turned Canyon back toward the trail. “You’re only alive because of him.”
There was a church orphanage a few miles away. He stopped long enough to drop the money bag into a donation box and say a quick prayer at the altar.
The front he showed the Calligan boys had started to fade as he had ridden away from them. It sapped completely as he left behind the orphanage and any eyes that might be watching. He passed out cold. The horse did the rest. Somehow depositing him on this quiet stretch of beach.
The sun was starting to lower in the sky and he decided to stay put for the rest of the night. He would make up his mind which direction to travel in the morning.
Was it the sudden breeze in the trees? It sounded like cries. He sat up and looked around in the pale morning light. Damned he had fallen asleep hard. Now a breeze had picked up and was blowing a storm in off the water. Already misty, threatening a hard rain. Maybe that was what awoke him…No. There it was again. He looked toward his horse. Standing still by the trees, Canyon’s ears were pitched forward. Maybe an animal? He pushed himself to his feet and followed the sound past the rocks. Into the trees. Onto the beach. He should get back, he told himself. Pack up and ride out. Try to stay ahead of the storm he could feel coming. But the sadness of soft cries drew him forward.
When he saw her, it still took him by surprise. Copper haired and tanned, she sat perched upon a shale ledge. Wearing a long white cotton dress, she clutched a dark blue shawl about her trembling shoulders. Face lifted to the gray skies; the tears came freely. Softly. It was a poetic mixture of beauty and sadness that struck a memory of the Madonna paintings on the church walls he used to kneel and stare at while his Mama prayed… He stood in silence and watched her. Feeling like an intruder but unable to tear himself away. Was it the rustle of his clothes in the breeze or the innate feeling of being watched that made her suddenly turn in his direction? Then, startled, jump from the rocks and back away?
“It’s alright Ma’am.” He held his hands up. Talked softly. Gently.
She bit her bottom lip and studied him. He realized he must look a sight. Hair mussed. Shirt open. Quickly, he began buttoning his shirt. Tucking it in and running a hand through his dark mass of hair. “I won’t hurt you…I heard you crying and wanted to make sure you were alright.”
She looked about her, then past his shoulder.
“Who are you?” she asked, her voice low with a slight lilt. “Where did you come from?”
“Back that way.” Johnny pointed a thumb over his shoulder. “I camped on the beach last night. I heard you crying…It woke me up.” He flashed her a smile. The smile that he used so often to soothe hurt feelings, ruffled feathers or just get his way. Meanwhile, taking in her reaction to his words. She seemed to calm slightly. The cornered animal look faded from her eyes and her features relaxed. She was quite beautiful, he thought.
“Are you okay?” he asked softly.
She stared at him. Her intense look searching out his bruised but handsome features. The kindness in his brilliant blue eyes. Her fear dissipated and she smiled slightly. “Just momentarily giving in.”
She didn’t explain what she meant. He thought better than to push for an explanation.
“Are you from around here?” he asked, looking around at the barren stretch of beach, rocks, and scrub trees.
“I have a cottage just back that way.” She brushed a hand over her shoulder. “I’ve been staying there for a while …but I must leave soon…and I don’t want to. I guess you could say I came out here searching for answers and feeling sorry for myself.”
“Why do you have to leave?”
She hesitated, then slightly shrugged. “It’s time.”
Johnny felt drawn into the sadness in her eyes. The depth he had never seen before.
“My name is Madrid. Johnny Madrid.” He spoke. “What is yours?”
“My name is Johnny.” He spoke. “What is yours?”
“Meredith.” She hesitated slightly. “Meri.”
“Meredith…Meri.” He savored the name. Repeating it slowly. “Where are you from, Miss Meri? Your accent is not from around here.”
She smiled softly and Johnny thought again of the paintings in the churches.
“From across the pond, ” she said. “But so many eons ago. And where are you from, Mr. Madrid? A handsome stranger who shows up on a deserted stretch of beach in my darkest hour. Are you my knight in shining armor? Galloping in on a White horse?”
He studied at her bemused smile. Debating with himself whether she was laughing at him. But his senses said no. It was just her way.
“The name is Johnny. I don’t have a suit of armor, but I do have a horse. Only he is copper red, not white.” He bit his lip in earnestness and tipped his head slightly. ” But he does gallop real good and he brought me here.”
Meredith looked hard at him. Then broke into a smile and her laughter rang out in pure joy. Johnny found himself laughing along. Seemingly, the seagulls and waves accompanied them. Just as sudden, her laughter faded, and the melancholy returned as she stared back out at the sea. Johnny moved to sit next to her on the shale ledge. Close, but careful not to touch her. He watched her profile, waiting for her to say something. Anything. But she only seemed to grow more distant.
“Meredith…Meri…” he spoke softly. “Why so sad? “
It drew her attention back to him.
“Your eyes are so blue…Bluer than the ocean.”
“My mama said they came from my father.”
She stared at him, contemplating a look she had saw behind the smile. In the depths of those blue eyes. Suddenly, she took his hand and slid from the rock, her bare feet sank into the sand. “Walk with me, Johnny. Please.”
He didn’t ask questions, just took her trembling hand as they headed toward the water’s edge. They walked in silence along the shore. Ignoring the light sprinkle. The lapping waves. Soon, the rain stopped, and the sun peeked through the silver clouds. The sky turned more blue than grey, and the sea calmed. They stopped to watch glittering’s of light bouncing off the waters.
“I do believe we’ve chased away the rain, Johnny Madrid.” She took his arm in hers, the touch seemed so natural.
“Why are you here?” Was all he could ask.
She leaned against him, safe in his strength. He could feel her take a deep breath and waited patiently.
“I’ve missed so much in life.” she said. “I came to this country as a young girl. My mother died and my father placed me in a convent…For safekeeping, I suppose…It was so lonely. So far away from everything. He said he would return but he never did. The sisters kept me there and it just seemed the way life would be. Then one day I woke up and I knew I had to leave. That there had to be more than the cloistered existence. There was an elderly doctor that visited the convent whenever there was illness and I asked him if I could leave with him. He arranged a position for me in the town he lived in and I thought that I might be free.”
She seemed tired. Johnny steered her toward a driftwood log and sat her down. “A throne for a queen.” He smiled. Then knelt on the sand beside her. “Tell me more.”
“So inquisitive.” she murmured and stared out to the sea. “There is such energy here. The ocean is so alive. It makes me feel alive…. Mother Celestine contacted my father and he insisted I was to return to the convent. That he would come for me. I didn’t want to. The doctor offered me his cottage to get away and think everything over…Oh, Johnny Madrid…there is so much I want to do before I can’t. So much I haven’t done. I’ve never even ridden a horse. I’ve never danced…” She looked upon his upraised face, biting her lip as she touched his cheek. “I’ve never ‘known’ a man.”
Johnny felt his heart beating as he saw into her sadness. Knowing there was more to the story but right now what he heard was enough. “You wait right here,” he said. “Don’t you go anyplace.”
Her questions were silenced as he took off at a run. He wasn’t gone long. Riding across the wet sand on Canyon. Shimmering in the sunlight and surf. Meredith brought a hand to her mouth in delight as he rode toward her.
“Oh, my dear. you are a knight in shining armor!” She exclaimed as he dismounted.
Johnny grinned. Sweeping his hat off his head, he bowed dramatically. “Mademoiselle, your steed awaits.”
She felt no nervousness as Johnny helped her mount the magnificent horse. His manner was so steady and sure. Canyon responded in kind. Johnny swung up behind her, one arm around her waist as he held the reins in his free hand. They raced down the beach. Meredith ‘s hair flew in the breeze. Her laughter music to his ears. Canyon’s hooves kicked up the wet sand and then they trotted into the surf. Water splashing up and around them. Suddenly, Johnny pulled to a stop and dismounted. He handed the reins to Meredith.
“Oh, no, I couldn’t…” She started.
“Just ride.” The handsome cowboy said. “Canyon will do the rest.”
And so she rode. Flying down the beach faster and faster as her confidence increased. The horse seemed to sense her excited enjoyment and played along with it all. Bouncing into the surf and gently tossing a head to shake off the salt water.
Johnny perched on the sand mesmerized at the beautiful scene playing out in front of him. The horse and woman figures morphed in and out of a mirage shrouded by sea spray and sunshine against a silvery backsplash. For a few magical seconds it was as if they were one. Meredith’s burnished hair flowing with Canyon’s mane. All in one. Then it was horse and rider again as she rode back to him. Her face and being shone with a happiness she had only dreamt to be true.
She slid off the saddle and came to him as he stood to meet her. Without a word, she threw her arms around him. Johnny held tight to a body both warm and wet. Soft and trembling. Time stood still as her body melted against him. And there, to a tune played by waves washing ashore and thunder in the far distance, they danced. Twirls. Spins. Standing close swaying to the sounds around them mixing with their heartbeats. Her laughter filled the air. Johnny was surprised to hear his own as well. How long had it been since he laughed out loud…and meant it? It was sometime during this thought that he realized he needed her as much as she needed him. There was a freedom in the realization. Taking his hand, she led him back down the beach, toward her hidden cottage. Canyon following behind.
He retrieved his gear when they passed his campsite. Her cottage wasn’t so very far away, and the thought occurred he had been so close to her the night before. He stabled Canyon in a small lean to equipped with straw, adding grain and fresh water. As he brushed the horse down, he could look through the open window of the whitewashed cottage as Meredith set about making tea and “a smidge” to eat, she had said. He leaned against the post rail and watched her bathed in a yellow glow of slanting sun. The smell of the sea and rain now heavy on the air.
“Well, so much for making the rain go away.” he told himself as large wet drops started melting the ground. He gave Canyon one last pat and sprinted for the cottage door.
Chapter 4. Finale.
Meredith had changed out of her sodden clothes and was dressed in a simple pale blue frock. Her hair had been brushed out and pulled back into a single braid. The small table was set with white plates and red gingham napkins. A small platter of sandwiches set in the middle. A white soup tureen next to it. A China tea set, white with tiny delicate flowers, sat on a tray on a sideboard. Steam rising from the pot. A dish of small cakes was beside it. Johnny was astounded.
“You shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble.”
“No trouble.” She smiled. “The soup was already on.”
A sudden thought struck, and he stepped back out the door. When he reentered, he had a fistful of flowers in his hand. His shyness in handing them to her made her smile. The flowers were soon in a small vase on the table and Johnny was seated.
They talked. Rather, she asked a few questions and he talked. He told her more about himself than he ever told anyone. About being cast away by his father. His mother’s love and neglect toward him. The many stepfathers who came and went from his life leaving behind various mental and physical scars. She listened without clinching. Without pitying. Without judgement. Even when he told her about picking up his first gun. Killing his first man…and the death trail that followed him like dust he couldn’t shake. When he ran out of words, he sat staring down at the teacup looking so small and delicate in his larger, strong hands. He thought she might tell him to leave. That he had frightened her. He couldn’t believe he had just poured out his heart and soul to a complete stranger. Just because she asked. He flinched slightly, involuntarily, when she placed her pale, tender hand over his and gave it a squeeze. She stood up and walked to a cabinet, opened the door, and pulled out a brandy bottle. She filled his empty teacup and added a dollop to her own.
“The Doctor says it is for medicinal purposes,” she said, then smiled slightly. “It does help my cough.”
“Will it help you with all the words I just told you?”
She looked at him appraisingly. “I don’t need any help with that, Johnny Madrid. You have lived a troubled life but by God’s grace you have survived to be a sensitive, caring young man. You showed me that side on the beach. So much that I am still having a time of it believing you are real.”
Johnny raised his cup in a toast. The liquor burned his throat. Meredith sipped hers and made a face. Again, they found themselves laughing. The rain turned to a hard pelt against the windows and the temperature dropped. Johnny put more wood into the fireplace while Meredith stood by a white curtained window watching the rain fall and sky dim. Night was coming on. He had hoped the rain would let up before he left. She seemed to read his troubled mind
“It looks like it’s settling in for the night,” she murmured.
“I should go…Before it gets to dark.”
“Don’t be so chivalrous.” She came to stand beside him at the fireplace. “You needn’t protect my virtue, Johnny Madrid.” She shrugged. “Besides, there is no one except your horse and a few creatures of the night to see us anyway. “
He knew he was staring at her in wonderment again. it seemed every layer was there to just amaze him. “Well, Canyon can get gossipy…”
He wasn’t sure how it happened. They talked some more. Little things this time. She mentioned growing up in wildflower leas overlooking blue waters of the ocean. He compared that to the dusty border towns where he was raised. They contemplated sunsets and stars in his deserts and her Highlands. The rain was pounding a rhythmic tribal song. The fire crackling away in accompaniment.
He remembered the words “Dance with me…” but wasn’t sure who whispered them. Him or her. His jacket, boots, hat, and gun lay piled in the corner as they did a slow dance in front of the fireplace. The warmth of their bodies outdoing that coming from the crackling fire. Then she took his hand, leading him to the bed, sweeping back the curtains that separated the quilt covered brass bed from the rest of the room. Was it passion or need? Maybe a healthy dose of both. But whatever the equation, they held each other close, made gentle love, then held each other again as if the morning would never come.
Meredith was the first to doze off. Her head on his shoulder, snuggled against him with an arm across his chest. Johnny stared at flickering shadows on the ceiling and thought about the cards fate dealt him in the last few days. Ups. Downs. Ups…He watched her sleeping. What were her dreams, he wondered? What were the secrets she was keeping? His eyes closed and he found himself falling into a safe, dreamless sleep. The first in such a long time.
The rain broke just before dawn. By the time the sun started peeking through the windows, the skies were clear and breezes warm. It was the rustle of the curtains that awoke Johnny. He reached for Meredith only to find the bed empty. He listened for sounds coming from the other room but there was only silence. Quickly he got up and dressed. Checked around the house and then the lean to. Canyon tossed a baleful head. Stomped an impatient hoof. Johnny looked toward the path that led to beach. To the footprints he could see in the sand. He started to follow. Fast, at first, then his own steps slowing down as he realized where they would lead….
The breeze felt good. Closing his eyes, he could almost hear the whisper of raindrops falling soft on the pier. Only in his imaginings because the sun warmed his face. 5 years had passed since he had been back to this place. It was different now. A town and people where there didn’t used to be. A pier that stretched across the strip of beach they had walked along that rain sodden day. He looked toward the rocks in the distance. Wondered if that small cottage was still there.
“Hey, brother.” Scott came up behind him. “What has your attention?”
Johnny turned to face him, leaning back against the wood railing. “All done?”
The elusiveness didn’t escape Scott. “Yes. Telegrams all sent. The bank draft right here.” He patted his chest pocket. “And you, brother? The only time you have that look on your face a woman is involved.”
The statement caught Johnny off guard and studied Scott’s earnest face. Would he understand? Hell, he still didn’t understand himself. He turned back to the water, staring out to the horizon.
“Sometimes I think I imagined it all.” He said softly. “Other times, it’s so real it still hurts.”
“Sound intriguing.” Scott smiled softly. “Why don’t you tell me about it?”
Johnny looked over his shoulder at him. Then back to the ocean before pushing himself away from the rail. When he finished the telling, he stuck his hands deeper into his pants and turned back to the water. The sun glinted off its surface as it had that day.
“I rode into town and found the doctor. Told him what had happened. He didn’t seem surprised. He told me Meredith…Meri…had an illness. He thought that might have been why…” he trailed off, hearing the old doctor’s words trying to explain the unexplainable.
“But you don’t agree?” Scott asked softly.
Johnny stared at a spot far off into the horizon. He could imagine her letting her long strokes take her beyond reach, into the ever after.
“So many secrets she was keeping. ” He shook his head, turning away from the view. He swung an arm around Scott’s shoulder. “Let’s ride, brother. Before the rain comes.”
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