Part 6 of the Match Unsurpassed Series
For Rosey, with gratitude, for loving Johnny and Jesse almost as much as I do.
Word count: 3,130
“I’m gonna miss her.” Johnny smiled at the filly nuzzling her mother’s side. His eyes roamed the perfect markings on the year-old paint palomino. Bailamos was the perfect blend of Barranca and Jack. A soft smile crossed his face remembering his conversation with Jesse about her mare’s name – ‘I figure if a boy’s name is good enough for me, it’s good enough for my horse’ – he missed her sense of humor and the laugh that bent her double.
“Nothing is carved in stone, Johnny.” Scott’s hand rested on Johnny’s shoulder. “You could still keep her.”
He reached his hand through the slats, calling the filly to him. “You gonna tell the new owner the deal’s off?”
Scott’s hand brushed through his hair as he sighed. “Well…I mean…”
“I thought as much.” His fingers traced the blaze on the filly’s forehead. It wasn’t long before Jack approached for some attention too. “Hey, that’s a good girl. You want a treat?” Fingers pulled sugar cubes from his pocket and presented them to the horse who lipped them from his hand. “You know there’s no one else I’d give your baby to, don’t you?”
“You have such a connection with her.” Scott’s hand brushed at Jack’s mane. “She knows.”
A horse and buggy heading through the Lancer arch caught their attention. Johnny jumped the fence into the corral to lead the horses into the barn. “Have fun, Boston.”
“Wait, how do I look?” Scott brushed imaginary dust from his royal blue shirt.
Johnny chuckled. “You look pretty as usual.” He patted Jack on her rump until she was heading through the barn door with Bailamos and him close behind.
Scott took a deep breath as the buggy pulled to a stop in front of the hacienda. It had been a long time since his heart pounded the way it was at this moment. God, he was acting like a school boy. He tried for a casual walk across the yard, but stopped in his tracks at the sight of her smile.
Anna Maria Dallasandro jumped from the carriage, hand holding her elaborate feathered hat in place, smiling broadly. “Scott!”
His steps picked up pace until he had her in his arms, lifting her from the ground, twirling her around. “It’s good to see you, Anna.” Gently setting her back to the ground, he smiled down at her. “You’re as beautiful as ever.”
Anna batted her eyelashes. “And, you, sir, are a flatterer of the worst order.” She raised her tiptoes to softly kiss his cheek. “But I wouldn’t want you any other way.”
“It’s been too long.”
“I know and I’m sorry. With the ranch doing so well, I needed a more experienced foreman. It took some time, but I finally coaxed the best in the area to come work for me.”
“Coaxed?” Scott’s brows raised.
Anna’s hand flew to her chest. “Are you suggesting improprieties on my part? Well, I never…”
“Oh, yes, you have.” He sidestepped her attempted swat at his arm. “I’m teasing. You remember teasing, don’t you? Spent most of your time doing just that to me several years ago.” He grabbed her matching leather valises from the buggy, then noticed a worn, rather ratty, saddlebag next to them. “I thought you said the ranch was thriving?” He nodded to the sad bag.
“Hmmm?” Her gaze followed his to the remaining bag. “Heavens, that’s not mine. It belongs to my new foreman, Carlos Martinez. He’s wrapping up some business in town, but will be here by dinner. I can’t wait for you and Johnny to meet him. Especially Johnny.”
“Why especially Johnny?” He headed for the large door with Anna next to him.
“Carlos grew up with Jesse. They were best of friends so he has…” She inhaled deeply. “He has wonderful stories of their childhood together that have helped me miss her a bit less.”
As they crossed the threshold, he smiled down at her. “I’m glad you found someone to remember her with.”
She gave his arm a fond squeeze then turned to Murdoch who was heading her way. “Murdoch, it’s so lovely to see you again.” She brushed away his extended hand and wrapped her arms around his waist in a hug. “I’m hoping to pick your brain about a few business matters while I’m here.”
Murdoch smiled. “I’d be only too happy to help. How was your trip?”
“Completely uneventful.” She removed her hat and set it in the blue chair before heading to the decanter on the sofa table. “But I wouldn’t turn down a small sherry to wash the dust down.”
Scott set the luggage at the base of the staircase then poured her a glass. “Here you go.” He sat next to her on the sofa as Murdoch settled into his leather chair. “Tell us more about Carlos.” He turned to Murdoch. “Anna’s new foreman. He’s also a childhood friend of Jesse’s.”
“He’s everything the ranch needs right now. Smart, assertive.” She sipped the sherry. “And such wonderful ideas to get the ranch back to its former glory just as Jesse wanted.”
“Well, it sounds as though you have things well in hand.” Murdoch smiled the way a father does when his child learns a new skill. “Jesse would be very proud, I’m sure.”
“I certainly hope so, Murdoch. You know how terrified I was when the lawyer told me Jesse had left the place to me, but people have been so kind with help and advice. People who knew Jesse’s grandfather tell me the ranch is surpassing even the best of those days now.” She touched Scott’s arm. “I can’t thank either of you enough for your guidance over the past two years. I wished you’d visit soon.”
Scott held her hand in his lap. “We’d like that very much too.”
The front door opened and closed. Spurs jingling against the tile announced Johnny’s entrance better than anything else could. “Hey, Dallas, welcome back.” He hugged her tightly. “Boy, you are a sight for sore eyes. Ain’t she, Scott?”
“Indeed.” Scott shook his head at Johnny’s phrasing, but couldn’t argue with the sentiment. He knew Anna was his ‘one-that-got-away’ and always would be. “She’s brought company with her too.”
Johnny looked around the room then to Anna with a puzzled look
“He’s not here just yet.” Anna chuckled. “I’ve hired a new foreman, Carlos Martinez, and he’ll be here as soon as he concludes some ranch business at the bank, including securing a draft payable to Lancer for the filly.” Her hand raised to silence the male grumbling that had started. “No, all of you stop your protesting right this minute. It’s only fair that I pay for her.”
“That’s not what I want.” Johnny sighed. “I have Jack. It’s only right that you take Bailamos.”
Her head tilted to one side. “Bai…what?”
“Bai…” She repeated.
“Lam.” She drew out the ‘ah’ sound longer than needed.
“Ohs. Bailamos?” Her voice rose slightly at the end.
Johnny grinned. “That’s it. You know with a foreman named Martinez, you should work on your Spanish.”
Anna nodded. “Well, Lord knows he’s trying to teach me more than the basics I’ve already picked up in Nevada, but apparently I’m a slow learner.”
Johnny settled on the ottoman near the large fireplace. “I doubt that. But, back to the point, I’m not taking your money. The filly is a gift. If not from me, then consider it from Jesse.”
“I…” Anna nodded as her eyes filled with tears. “Well, I guess I’d best take her without a fuss now that you said she’s from Jesse.” She brushed her eyes as she laughed. “Damn woman haunts my dreams enough as it is with advice about…everything.” She kneeled in front of Johnny. “Gracias, mi amigo.”
“De nada, mi amiga.” He kissed her cheek whispering in her ear, “She comes to me in dreams too and I love her all the more for it.”
Dinner was more boisterous than usual with the two extra diners at the table. Johnny found himself laughing easily at Carlos’ stories about his antics with Jesse as kids. His pain lessened a bit with each happy story from her life.
“Did she ever tell you about her run-in with the Sisters of a Benevolent God?” Carlos paused to take a bite of roast.
Scott stopped mid-bite. “She fought nuns?”
Carlos nodded. “Oh, si. She fought anyone she thought was being unfair, especially to children.”
Johnny made a tsk sound. “Battled a few members of the church myself. Some of them have funny notions about what it means to be Christian.” He turned to Carlos. “Jesse and I saw eye to eye on that. Still, I don’t remember her telling me she fought nuns. Did she win?”
“Well, winning, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, but she got her point across. It started when a family moved into the abandoned homestead next to the boundary of the ranch. They had challenges settling into the town, especially the kids at Immaculate Heart school.” Carlos ran his finger around the top of his wine glass.
Johnny smiled at the familiar hum from that small action – one that Jesse was fond of as well. The more he listened to Carlos and watched him, he saw Jesse. “I take it the school was run by these Sisters?”
“Si, as is the custom, schools are almost always set up by a religious order.”
Scott’s brows knit together. “Seems to me the church would want to help a family like that. What was the problem?”
“The father wasn’t of the Catholic faith.”
Anna poured herself and Scott more wine. “Whatever could the father’s faith have to do with being unfair to children?”
“You’d be surprised at the prejudice in the church.” Johnny reached for the wine decanter. “If you don’t meet their standards…”
Carlos held his glass up so Johnny could fill it. “Unfortunately, Johnny is right. The father was of an English faith…” His fist tapped his head. “How to say…prostant?”
“Protestant?” Murdoch offered.
“Ah, si, that is it.” Carlos shrugged. “I’ve never understood why religion matters when God is God. He answers everyone’s prayers no matter what we call ourselves or Him.”
Scott raised his glass. “Very true, Carlos.”
“Not if you’re Catholic, Boston. We’re taught from day one that Catholics are the one true religion. Rest of the world is no better than heathens.”
“But the children were Catholic, weren’t they?” Anna leaned forward. “Why would the nuns have treated them badly?”
“Because they were…” Carlos looked from Anna to Johnny.
“Bastards.” Johnny’s jaw muscles clenched.
“John, Ianguage.” Murdoch scowled.
“I wasn’t cussin’, Murdoch.”
Scott cleared his throat. “The appropriate word is illegitimate.”
Anna shook her head. “I’m confused. Were the parents not married?”
“Not in the eyes of the church.” Carlos’ chin hit his chest. “To the church, the parents’ marriage was…ah, the word…”
“Like it never happened.” Johnny sighed. “Catholics aren’t allowed to marry outside of the religion unless the nearest bishop says it’s okay. Without that blessing, they aren’t married and the kids are nothing more than bast…” He looked across the table to Scott.
“Thanks. One thing I know about nuns is they can be pretty harsh to kids that don’t pass muster.” Johnny’s fingers drummed the table. “And the thing I know about Jesse is she’d be out to teach ‘em a ‘do unto others’ lesson.”
Carlos chuckled. “That she did. When she found the youngest, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed querida named Lily, crying by the stream, she asked what was wrong. Lily told her Sister Sienna said mean things about her parents and wouldn’t let her have strawberries and cream like the other kids did at lunch.”
“I have a bad feeling about this.” Anna rested her chin in her hands.
“Jesse waited with Lily until her brother and sister showed up. They told the same story, but none of them dared repeat the foul things the nun called their parents.” Carlos shook his head. “The gist was none of them got anything but stale bread to eat and that came with the news they were all going to burn in hell for their sins.”
Scott inhaled sharply. “That’s…there aren’t words.”
“No, but knowing Jesse there were actions.” Johnny smiled remembering how she hated bullies and wearing a habit wouldn’t have spared someone from her special brand of revenge.
“Jesse decided if Sister Sienna wanted to keep the strawberries and cream to herself so badly, she should get her wish. So, while the nuns were at vespers that evening, she snuck into the convent, found Sister’s room and…” Carlos chewed on his bottom lip to hold back his laughter. “Covered every square inch of it with smashed strawberries she stole from the church garden.”
“No, she didn’t.” Anna gasped.
“Then she coaxed the milk cow into the room with a note tied to its bell saying she trusted the good sister could figure out how to get cream to go with her berries.” Carlos chortled until tears ran down his face. “Oh, what that cow did to the room!” He caught his breath for a split second before bursting into laughter again. “And did you know that cattle and berries don’t mix, stomach-wise?”
Murdoch was doing his best to stifle a grin, but finally gave in to the humor of the situation. “Well, I learned something new this evening.” He laughed a bit harder. “Never feed the stock strawberries.”
“Especially if you’re driving them to market.” Anna held her nose. “The smell…the flies…bad enough generally without adding complications like that.” She shuddered.
Carlos stared at Anna. “You’ve been on a cattle drive?”
The room grew very still at that question.
“Did I say something wrong?” Carlos looked from face to face.
Anna sighed. “No, it’s just that…yes, I have been on a drive. The one from here to Putnam.”
Carlos closed his eyes. “Dios, que estúpido…lo siento.”
“Please don’t apologize.” Anna forced a smile. “Everyone understands.”
“We just miss her, that’s all.” Johnny pushed back from the table heading straight to the veranda. The cool night air hit him square in the face. He needed that to keep his emotions in check. As always, he searched for the North Star, breathing deeply when he found it. “Not a day goes by, Jess.” He turned at the sound of footsteps behind him.
“May I join you?” Dallas stepped onto the porch slowly.
Johnny settled into one of the oversize chairs, legs outstretched, hands folded across his midsection.
“Carlos didn’t mean to cause pain.”
Johnny waved her off. “It’s fine.”
Dallas pulled a chair across from Johnny. “Being here…as much as I love all of you…reminds me my best friend is gone.” She half-smiled. “I expect I remind you of your lost world too.”
There was no denying that. Johnny inhaled deeply, but said nothing. What was there to say?
“You said you dream of her?”
“All the time.” He rubbed the silver medallion Jesse had made for him. “It’s like she’s still here sometimes.”
“Is she as bossy with you as she is with me?”
“Well, now you’re just asking for a haunting.” He chuckled.
Dallas laughed. “I’m happy to see her regardless, as I’m sure you are.” She leaned closer to him. “The first time was right after I moved into the house the lawyer had rebuilt on the ranch. She told me, in no uncertain terms mind you, that it was my job to get her family ranch back to what it was meant to be.” Her voice cracked slightly. “Said my fears were messing up her plans.”
Johnny sat up in his chair. “Her plans?” His head shook slowly. “I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I, Johnny, but everything happens for a reason. Even hauntings.”
“Jesse used to say that all the time…that everything happens for a reason.”
“I remember. She didn’t believe in luck or happenstance. Everything was a sign. She couldn’t always make sense of things, but, to her, it meant someone up there was watching out for all of us. Even at the darkest times. That outlook gave her hope that life would go as planned.”
“But it didn’t.” Johnny spit the words out like they were poison. “She’s gone and we’re here wondering what the hell we do now.”
She nodded then sighed softly. “Did you know she wrote a letter to her grandfather’s lawyer about five years after the range war with Dalton?”
Five years? They were working together by that point. Probably around the time of Dona Ana. “No, but…”
“She asked him to keep fighting Dalton then laid out exactly what needed to be done, for years, to make the ranch as great as when her grandfather was in charge.” She stared Johnny square in the eye. “Also said she’d let him know who to give the ranch to as soon as she knew.”
“That sounds like she wasn’t going back.” Johnny leaned against the hitching rail facing Dallas. “But why when it meant so much to her?”
“Because she met someone.”
“Who?” Gripping the rail until his fingers turned white, he waited for her answer.
“She didn’t give a name. Only that he made her feel special, safe and loved.”
“That could be anyone.” His voice cracked at the thought there had been someone else in her life after Taylor had torn them apart.
“That letter was full of things she wanted, including how the ranch should be known for breeding the finest horses in Nevada. The filly you’re giving me is a key to finally making that happen.”
“I’m glad she’ll help, but you make it sound like…I don’t know…a ghost story with Jesse pulling all the strings to match some letter from ages ago.”
Dallas shrugged. “Maybe she is.”
“You don’t believe that. It’s all just coincidence. Don’t make more of it. Neither of us need that right now.”
“I asked Carlos what the filly’s name meant in English. We danced.”
Johnny sighed. “So I named her Bailamos for Jesse because she liked dancing. What of it?”
“You named her Bailamos to honor your first dance together in Dona Ana, didn’t you?”
His chin dipped almost until it touched his chest as he whispered, “Yeah.”
“Well, her letter was postmarked from Dona Ana and her exact words about the man she met were ‘he stole my heart forever’…” She lifted his chin to look into his eyes. Her own were streaming tears. “When we danced.”
Just then their attention was drawn to a star shooting across the inky blackness where it seemed to melt into the North Star. Johnny’s hand found Dallas’ as he mouthed’ thank you again’ to the night sky.
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