Word Count 1,953
There were no two ways about it….he was getting soft! Johnny Madrid had spent weeks living rough on the trail without giving it a second thought, but after only six days out at the line shack, Johnny Lancer was looking forward to enjoying some of the comforts he’d gotten used to in the past few years.
Instead of sleeping on the ground, he would once again be cradled by his feather mattress. And Teresa and Maria’s fine cooking beat the hell out of beans and jerky. Tomorrow being the first day of November, this recent cold snap wasn’t going away soon, and the blazing fire in the great room seemed to be calling his name. If he was to be honest, though, he probably missed his family most of all.
Home was just beyond the crest of the next hill, but even before the hacienda was within sight, he could hear a frenetic, high-spirited yipping that gave further proof that he was—indeed—going soft.
Growing up dirt poor, Johnny had never even thought about having a pet…..no money to waste on something that wasn’t gonna either ease their drudgery or get eaten. And living as a hired gun was a pretty solitary affair. While a good horse might be a companion of sorts, it also did more than its share to earn its keep.
He’d just never seen the point of saddling himself with an animal that required feeding and tending, but didn’t do a lick of work. Jelly might be happy to put up with a pesky goose following around on his heels all day. And there was always a passel of small, furry critters around the place for Teresa to cuddle and fuss over. Even Scott sometimes told stories about a cherished Shetland collie that had slept at the foot of his bed when he was a boy.
But Johnny had never been tempted by such foolish ways…..until Lobito.
The name wasn’t really accurate. It meant ‘little wolf’ and the whelp was most likely coyote—at least half of him was. During the tail end of last spring, he’d come skulking onto the ranch—a scraggly pup couldn’t have been but a month old. Fighting off the rest of the litter, he’d managed to win a place at the teats of one of the stable yard bitches. It was his coloring, as well as that curious yipping bark that marked him as a cross between a common cattle dog and a coyote.
Back then, Johnny hadn’t paid him much notice, except to agree with the rest of the family—it was amazing that so young and helpless a creature hadn’t perished in the wild. But as the puppy grew older, everyone had an opinion as to why he’d survived.
After fending off yet another attack on his precious Dewdrop—Jelly had groused loudly that it would take more than a couple of mountain lions to kill such an ornery mutt.
And Scott had held on to his temper when he’d discovered a pair of his favorite boots had been chewed and mangled, merely quoting the well-known proverb about only the good dying young.
Even sweet, tender-hearted Teresa had stopped defending the culprit, once he’d started in on her chicks, hens and beloved tame rabbits.
It was after one of these ill-advised forays that Johnny paid a visit to the small shed where the prisoner had been confined. Lobito whined a bit and licked the proffered hand, but mostly just waited expectantly—whether for mercy or punishment wasn’t quite clear.
“You’re sure living by the code of the West, ain’t ya, boy? Do it to them….before they do it to you.”
Squatting down, he ran one silky ear between his fingers over and over as he continued, “I understand that instinct….it kept me alive for a lot of years. But when you got a family…a place to belong, you just gotta change your ways!”
From then on it was taken for granted that Lobito was Johnny’s particular responsibility. A brief but spirited battle of wills ensued between man and dog, in which patient training, true emotional bonding and an occasional well-deserved whupping played a part. But the outcome was never in doubt…..Lobito’s behavior improved enough that people stopped complaining about him, and Johnny came to adopt his first real pet.
In the months that followed, Lobito had slipped up a few times. Still Johnny had felt no qualms about leaving him behind when he’d left to do a sweep of the fence line. His faith in the dog’s newly learned manners had to be tested sometime.
That excited yipping seemed to be coming closer, and Johnny stood up in the stirrups, scanning the nearby hillsides. There was a violent rustling in the bushes off to his right, followed by a veritable explosion of sound as a yellowish-brown blur of motion streaked out of the underbrush.
“Hey, boy, I’m glad to see you too,” he grinned, secretly tickled by the animal’s exuberant welcome. “Hope you’ve been staying out of trouble while I was gone…!”
Unfortunately, that’s when he noticed the small brown bundle of fur that Lobito had dropped on the ground while cavorting and leaping. Slipping from the saddle, Johnny bent down to get a closer look and let out a long, low whistle.
If this had been once of the rabbits that grazed in abundance over their range, there would be no problem. But it wasn’t….no mistake about that…!
After all the grief he’d given Teresa over those damn bows, he had no problem recognizing the pink ribbon that hung—bedraggled and dirty—from the neck of this muddy corpse.
“Now why did you have ta go and do that?” he groaned. “Teresa’s gonna have both our hides, and this time I don’t think Murdoch’s gonna lift a finger to stop her.”
Lobito had quieted now, sitting with a puzzled expression on his face, as though wondering what had happened to their happy reunion. Johnny had been on the verge of cuffing the dog thoroughly, but instead he fell back into his habit of stroking those silky ears.
“Well,” he sighed, “I guess we got us some more work to do—teaching you the difference between real prey and a gussied-up dude. Right now I’ve got to figure some way to get us out of this mess.”
Examining the carcass more carefully, he found that the rabbit’s pelt was pretty much intact. Lobito hadn’t inflicted any obvious injuries. He’d seen the dog play a game with mice, rats and voles—an endless repetition of ‘chase’, ‘catch’ and ‘release’—it often ended with the victim dying of plain exhaustion. The rabbit might have shared their fate.
Scooping up the dead rabbit and heading for the river, he stopped only to fix Lobito with his best ‘Madrid’ glare. “Nope, you ain’t coming with me. You get back home and keep your nose clean. If this stunt works, it’s gonna cost me another night sleeping on the hard ground, so you owe me big….now git!”
As the dog high-tailed it back to the ranch, Johnny set to work. Once he’d rinsed all the mud and saliva from the rabbit’s fur, he used some toweling to fluff it up. Pleased with his results, he turned his attention to the pink satin ribbon—washing it, drawing it repeatedly through his fingers to smooth out the wrinkles and finally tying it into a perky bow.
When he was finished, he took the time to chow down on his last piece of jerky before crawling into his bedroll for a few hours sleep. He wouldn’t be making his move until full dark.
It was late morning when he sauntered into the Lancer kitchen to find his father and brother engaged in some kind of furtive conversation.
“Expected you back yesterday, brother,” the blond remarked with a lifted eyebrow.
“Well, you know how I am about punching a time clock,” Johnny joked easily.
“Did you run into any problems……with the fence line?” Murdoch asked the question perfunctorily, as if he wasn’t really interested in the answer.
“Nothing a work crew can’t take care of in less than a week. I made notes of all the places that need repairs.”
“That’s fine, son, fine….” His father replied distractedly.
“Is there something wrong?” Johnny asked, subjecting both men to a searching gaze.
Scott simply shrugged, leaving it to their father to explain.
“Not really,” Murdoch’s denial sounded weak, and he still seemed troubled. “It’s just…..Teresa. She’s a bit upset because one of her rabbits died.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Johnny said, with perfect truth. “But I suppose it’s kinda bound to happen now and then…..the critters take sick sometimes.”
“That’s not all…..and you know it, Murdoch…..! You too, Scott….!”
Teresa swept into the room. Agitated and overwrought, she seemed completely unnerved, casting fearful glances towards any shadowed corner. Maria followed close behind, muttering in Spanish and keeping one hand clutched around the crucifix that lay across her bosom.
The Lancer patriarch tried to pacify his young ward, pressing her into a chair and patting her shoulders rather ineffectually.
“Now, Teresa, you’re making to much of this…..this…..!” he sputtered.
“That’s right, Murdoch….this what? What do you call it? How do you explain it?” she argued.
Turning to Johnny, she rushed into speech. “It’s not just the rabbit dying. Taffy had been sick for a few days, so I wasn’t really surprised when I found her dead the day before yesterday—sad, but not surprised. I brushed her and put on her best pink bow and buried her in my garden.”
At this point she paled and became visibly shaken, “And then, this morning, she was back in her cage…..not a speck of dirt to be found and the ribbon still tied neatly around her neck! Explain that……!”
Johnny didn’t need to do any faking to put a confused, baffled expression on his face. He was flabbergasted. “Well……..” he began slowly.
“You know that last night was Halloween,” she interrupted. “I’d never really believed in spirits walking before, but after this….”
Crossing herself with great fervor, Maria added her mite to the disorder, babbling loudly about sorcery, witches and summoning the dead.
“I keep telling you that it’s nothing to get excited about,” Murdoch attempted to quell this little spat of hysteria. “Someone was just playing a joke. You can’t really believe……”
“Oh. Murdoch, who would do such a thing…..take all that trouble just to scare us?” Teresa protested.
“I can’t think of anyone……at least, no one who’s been here for the past few days.”
Scott’s pointedly wry comment was lost in the pandemonium, and only Johnny heard it. Quirking his lips, he threw his brother a quick grin and wasted no time in making his escape.
“You don’t need me getting in the way here,” he offered in a concerned tone. “I’ll just go find Lobito and start in on my chores.”
Grabbing an apple in one hand and a discarded soup bone in the other, he hurried out the door, eager to let his charge know that it had been a close call, but they were both in the clear…..thanks to a Halloween miracle.
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4 thoughts on “A Halloween Miracle by Dori”
Really neat story. Lol 😆
I am glad you enjoyed it. Long ago we had a dog named Lobito and it was fun to make her namesake the star of this piece.
Finding out that Taffy had died and Teresa had buried her was a surprise for Johnny. Seems like Scott suspected Johnny of something.
Leave it to Johnny! LOL!