Word count 31,305
8th in the It All Adds Up series
Thanks so much to Lacy and SadieRose for all their help with this story. You two are very patient ladies!
Disclaimers – Johnny and Val were created by Sam Peeples, the rest by me
The shot that rang out sounded overly loud in the now quiet saloon. The young dark-haired man looked at his killer with wide eyes. His hand slid from the grip of his Colt and his mouth moved as if to say something, his thoughts now known only to God, as the youth stumbled then collapsed in a heap at the feet of his friend.
“You bastard, Clyde Lylteman! You had no call to shoot him. You egged him on. You knew he was still healing!”
The customers in the saloon began to murmur among themselves. Their buzz was as irritating as flies before a rainstorm. Clyde walked over to the young dead man on the floor and toed him with his boot. He looked up at the fallen man’s friend, “You got anything more to say?”
Several of the saloon’s patrons had started to come closer after the shooting, their morbid curiosity outweighing caution. Hearing Clyde challenge the other man, they hastily scuttled away to their darkened corners like roaches.
The man left standing in front of Clyde wiped the sweat from his forehead, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed. He looked down at his friend and tightened his mouth and looked up. He straightened his shoulders and licked his lips.
“Clyde!” A voice called out from the back of the saloon and several chairs scraped the floor.
Clyde looked toward the lean man who was now sauntering toward him. His cocky walk made Clyde smile.
Johnny stopped in front of Clyde, a little to his right. Clyde turned to face Johnny. He saw two men standing a ways back of Madrid. They weren’t smiling and their eyes never left him or Johnny. Clyde was aware of a young girl coming out from behind the two older men and walking over to the dead man’s friend. He heard soft murmurs and sensed rather than saw the girl drawing the friend away.
Clyde didn’t really mind that that particular prey had scurried away. Madrid. Now that was a worthy opponent!
“Long time no see, Johnny boy. Last I heard you liked to have gotten your scalp taken in New Mexico. What ‘cha doing down here in Texas?” Clyde shifted his heavy girth and smiled, holes in his smile where he’d lost teeth over the years.
Johnny smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Well, ya know Clyde, I got kinda tired of the yellow bellied snakes in New Mexico so I thought I’d give Texas a try.” Johnny’s eyes narrowed and he quit smiling. “Looks like Texas has its own right here.”
The crowd gasped and moved further back.
Clyde’s face turned turkey red. “Now look here you mestizo, I got that kid fair and square. He was reaching for his gun, not my fault he was slow as molasses.”
Johnny glanced down at the dead man, a kid really. He probably hadn’t even been shaving regularly that long.
“Oh I’m sure you kept it legal, Clyde. I’m just wondering why you bothered?” Johnny rocked back on his heels, his hands in the waist of his pants. “ Course, it ain’t like I heard of you getting a reputation from gunning anyone big, Clyde Lytleman.”
Clyde heard the smirk in Johnny’s voice and saw a slow grin begin to spread across Madrid’s face.
“Did your momma name you right, Clyde? Are you a ‘little man’? Maybe we need to ask some of the ladies here at the saloon.”
The crowd began to twitter. Clyde’s face turned purple and the veins in his neck stood out. He ground out the words, “Outside, Madrid.”
Johnny nodded and removing his hands from his belt, he made a little bow. “Age before beauty.”
Johnny’s calm voice irritated the hell out of Clyde.
Clyde growled, spun around and slapped open the batwings of the saloon. He stepped down from the boardwalk and walked down a ways. He heard the crowd of people spilling out from the saloon and their arguing over who would get a choice viewing spot.
He turned around to face Johnny and realized that his anger had gotten the better of him. He now faced the sun and Johnny Madrid.
No matter. He had more experience and he vowed not to let Madrid goad him further. He’d shoot when he was good and ready. Let Madrid sweat a little and he would lead this dance.
“You ready to die, mestizo?”
“Ah, Clyde, is that the best you can do? Is the little man used to someone else leading the dance?”
The anger in Clyde boiled over. No one questioned his manhood and lived to tell about it. His hand reached for his gun but something knocked him down before he could clear leather. He blinked and saw a shadow blocking the sun.
As his world grew dark he heard the shadow whispering in a hard, ice-cold voice. “I don’t like bullies going after untried kids and I sure as hell don’t like being called a mestizo.”
“Damn it, Johnny! Why did you do it?” Val’s voice was harsh and his movements jerky as he loosened the cinch on his saddle.
Johnny paused, Toni’s saddle in his arms. “What the hell are you talking about, Val?” Not waiting for an answer, he carried her saddle over to the campsite they had selected for the evening. Setting the saddle down, he looked the campsite over with a critical eye. It looked like a good place to sleep to him, but he’d learned to double check with Toni on things like that. Seemed to him that women could be mighty particular about some things.
He caught her eye as she knelt around the sticks and dried grass she’d collected to start the campfire. “¿Esto esbueno?”
Toni glanced at where he’d left her saddle. Never pausing from slowly adding tinder to the rapidly spreading flame, she answered, “Sí, it’s good.”
Johnny headed back toward the horses. Val and Jack looked up from talking and watched him walk toward them. Val’s face was flushed and his jaw clinched. Jack had a worried ‘v’ above his eyebrows.
“So what’s up your butt, Val?” Johnny brushed past Val and went over to attend to his own horse.
Jack spoke first. “I think Val wants to know why you went after that Clyde bastard, Johnny. It weren’t none of your business and you dragged us all into another man’s fight.”
Johnny gave the two of them an incredulous stare and shaking his head, pulled the saddle off his horse with a jerk and carried it toward the campfire. His saddle landed with a thud next to Toni’s. He looked at her, frowning as Toni gave a small shake of her head.
“Most people would have left it alone, kid.” Val carried his saddle to a place opposite the campfire from Johnny and Toni’s spot. He set the saddle down and rising back up, he turned to face Johnny across the fire.
“I’m not most people, Val.” Johnny’s voice was hard.
Toni stood up and moved to stand beside Johnny. The two faced Val and Jack together.
“Look, you can’t fix everything, Johnny. I’m not saying Clyde didn’t deserve it, he did. But did it have to be you?
We were all set to have a nice few days out of the saddle, finally a chance at a good meal, for once a few nice ordinary days. And now look.”
If possible, Johnny’s eyes narrowed even more until they were mere slits in his face. He stood rigid and began to breathe hard. Toni tried to rest her hand on his arm, but he took a step away.
“Well, go on, finish it.” Johnny managed to grind out the words through clinched teeth.
Jack set his saddle down next to Val’s. “Val,” he warned.
“Well, hell! It’s about time someone said it. Look at you two. You’re both crazy kids without a lick of sense sometimes. You wouldn’t know ordinary if it came up and bit you in the ass. Instead of worrying about other people, you need to worry about yourselves. You’re going to get yourself killed and her, too.”
Val waved an arm around the campsite. “You call this taking care of her?”
One minute Johnny was standing next to Toni, the next he was running toward Val and slamming his fist into Val’s jaw. As Val stumbled back, Johnny head butted him and they both tumbled to the ground. Stunned for just a moment, instinct kicked in and Val began to block Johnny’s punches, throwing some of his own.
The two men rolled over and over in the dirt. Val was bigger and heavier, but Johnny was in a rage. He felt someone lift Val from him. Jack was shouting for them to stop. Johnny started to get up and get in another punch while Jack had his arms around Val’s middle when he felt Toni’s arms encircle his own waist.
He struggled, wanting to be free, but aware enough to not want to hurt her.
“Enough!” Toni’s usually quiet voice rang out clear and final.
Jack slowly released Val and after waiting a minute, Toni did the same with Johnny. Both men stood there, their bodies heaving in air, their breaths ragged.
Toni walked around Johnny, her arm squeezing his as she passed him. Johnny saw Val and Jack eye her warily. Their eyes grew wide and Jack’s mouth dropped opened as Toni stepped in front of Val and slapped the shit out him. The slap rang loud in the clearing and Val now sported Toni’s red handprint on his face.
Despite still trying to get air into his lungs, Johnny smiled as he heard her voice loud and clear.
“Don’t EVER question how Johnny takes care of me,pendejo. You might be our friend, but you went too far. You think we don’t wish things were different? You think we don’t know we’re different from other people? Well, guess what?” Toni paused and jabbed a finger in Val’s chest. “Our parents made sure we didn’t have a hell of a lot of choices, Val. We’re doing the best we can.”
She turned and made her way back over to Johnny. Wrapping her arm in his, she gave him a brilliant smile that warmed his heart. Looking back at Val and Jack she continued her lecture. “I’d rather have a man who tries to make the world a little better than someone who sits out life being safe. If that’s what being ordinary means, then you can have it. And if you can’t accept us the way we are, then I guess you and us are two people.”
Johnny looked down at his champion with warm eyes. He wrapped his arm around her and turned her away from the camp toward the waterhole. As he led her away, she turned her head back toward Jack and Val. “Don’t let the fire go out and make some coffee. We’ll see you two later.”
Grey shadows were chasing the reds and yellows of a brilliant sunset away when the four friends got together again around the campfire. Johnny sat back against his saddle, his fingers nimbly braiding a new set of reins for Toni. He paused and reached behind him for a pouch out of Toni’s saddlebags. Leaning over he offered it to her.
“Gracias,” she barely looked at him as she grabbed the pouch. He wasn’t too sure what she was putting in the pouch, but she sure had been excited when she found that plant out by the watering hole. All she would say was that it would be good for the next time he got shot or knifed.
Johnny snorted. What made her think there would be a next time?
Suddenly, he cocked his head. He stood up, his hand on his gun. Jack and Val stopped cleaning the two brush hens they had snared and turned in the direction Johnny was watching. He glanced down at Toni and jerked his head toward the back of him. She nodded and grabbing her gun, she stepped into the shadows.
The sound of someone approaching became louder. Jack and Val now stood, guns drawn.
“Hello the camp!” A voice rang out as riders came into view. There were three of them, two older men and the young friend of the murdered boy from the saloon.
“What can we do for you, gentlemen?” Jack asked.
The riders stopped their horses at the edge of their camp. One of the men rested his crossed wrists on the saddle horn, the reins loose in his fingers. “My name is Wilkens. Dave Wilkens.” He nodded to his companions. “This is Ben Sanders and his boy Will. I think you’ve already met Will today in town.”
Mr. Wilkens shifted in his saddle, the leather creaking. “We’d like to talk to you about a possible job if you wouldn’t mind us sharing your camp. Since it was late when you left town, we were hoping you’d camp nearby. Will here is a pretty good tracker.”
The young man spoke up, “Ma sent some supper!”
Johnny shrugged at Jack and Val’s questioning looks. Val gave him a frown and turned back to the guests.
“Sure, y’all tie your horses over there.” Val grabbed his saddle as he spoke. Jack did likewise and they both moved their things to Johnny and Toni’s side of the campfire.
Toni stepped out from the shadows and began repacking the plants she had found.
As Val started to walk back to help the newcomers unload, he leaned by Johnny and spoke low. “Why didn’t you say something?” he asked.
Johnny looked down and fingered the bracelet he wore for a minute then looked back up at Val. “Guess I figured I’d let you two call the tune this time.”
Val huffed. “Quit pouting, kid. Maybe I went too far this time, but I worry about you two. I don’t know why ‘cause you’re as ornery as a mule. Guess it’s because she’s easier on the eye than you or Jack.”
Johnny slowly smiled. He backhanded Val across the stomach. “Ah, Val. You don’t need to worry about me. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll go up California way and something will happen to my old man. I’ll inherit me a nice big ranch then and become all respectable.”
Jack let out a bark of laughter. Toni snorted and giggled. Johnny grinned as he watched Val walk away muttering, “Damn smartass kid.”
Johnny set his spoon down in his empty plate. Between the brush hens Val and Jack had snared and the food the strangers had brought, that gnawing in his stomach had been satisfied. Now the gnawing question he’d been thinking on since the strangers had announced themselves was ready to be satisfied, too.
“So what kind of job were you men thinking about?” Johnny asked as he stood and grabbed Toni’s empty plate and placed his and hers in a pile next to the fire.
“Well, let’s get down to brass tacks,” Dave Wilkens began.
He handed off his things to the young man, Will, who started collecting everyone else’s eating utensils.
“A year ago, there were six small ranches around the town of Brackett. The town was growing and got a new sheriff, Sheriff Mooney.” Mr. Wilkens fumbled in his saddlebag and pulled out a pipe. He lifted it up and looked at Toni. “You mind, miss?”
Toni gave a start and looked at Johnny with wide eyes as he sat down next to her.
Turning her head to Mr. Wilkens she stammered, “Uh, no. I don’t mind.” She ducked her head and began picking apart the cuff of her shirt. Johnny grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze. She lifted her eyes to him and mouthed, “Miss?”
“We met the sheriff when he threw us out of town this afternoon,” Johnny let go of her hand and shifted closer to her so that they sat shoulder to shoulder. He felt Toni let her breath out slowly and relax.
Mr. Wilkens lit a match. “Well, you couldn’t know but you killed a friend of his.” He put the match to the pipe’s bowl and puffed.
Mr. Sanders spoke up. “About six months ago, someone came up and bought the Randolph place. Clyde Lytleman became foreman. Next thing we know, things started happening to the other ranches: accidents, stampedes, no more credit at the stores. Two other ranches folded. Those ranches were added to the Randolph place.”
Mr. Wilkens waved his pipe. “Sheriff Mooney made it tough for our hands in town. Every time our men went into town, the big ranch hands would start a fight and it was our men who got thrown in jail. Clyde hired all new men, strangers to this area.”
“Gunmen?” Val asked.
“No,” answered Mr. Sanders. “Clyde was the only gunman. But things got so tough, that our men quit. Our three ranches each have only got about three hands left besides us.”
Dave Wilkens burst out, “Damn it! They’re squeezing us to death!”
“This new ranch owner got a name?” drawled Johnny.
“It’s some corporation called the Sol y Luna Ranch,” Will spoke up. “Their brand has two circles connected. Nobody knew except Clyde who the owners were and I guess he ain’t talking now.”
The men chuckled at that.
“Well, I guess I still don’t understand what exactly you want from us.” Jack leaned back on his saddle.
“We need money. Me, Ben here, and Frank Betts, the father of the boy that was killed by Clyde, need cash money to pay our taxes and keep our ranches afloat.” Mr. Wilkens stopped talking to puff on his pipe.
“Since the war ended last year, Texas has cattle all over the place. We can’t give them away. I’ve got a friend who has this idea of moving a large herd up to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. Fort Sumner is holding a large group of Navahos and needs a way to feed them. My friend, Charles Goodnight and another man, Oliver Loving have been gathering up cattle and are already on their way. I got word that if we can get our cattle to Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos River, he’ll buy them and add them to his herd.”
Val leaned forward. “Now wait a minute! We ain’t cowboys.”
Ben Sanders put his in two cents. ”You gonna tell me that you ain’t ever worked cattle before?”
“I didn’t say that. We’ve all done some work with beeves but a trail drive?” Val looked over at Jack and Johnny.
“How long you talking about and what about horses? All we got are the ones we’re riding.” Jack sat back up.
“All told about a month,” answered Wilkens. “And between the three ranches, we’ve got plenty of horses, good sturdy cow ponies. We just don’t have the men to ride them!”
“There’s you three, uh four?” Wilkens faltered.
“Four,” answered Johnny firmly. “Toni will ride with the remuda and be the cook’s helper.
Wilkens nodded. “Okay, there’s the four of you and we can send five and a cook. We’ll stake you and pay you each seventy-five dollars for your work.”
The sound of the fire snapping was the only sound in the camp.
“Fifty dollars and our pick of a horse when the job is done.” Toni’s voice broke the silence.
“¿Qué?” Johnny asked her.
“We need better mounts, Johnny. These we got in Mesilla to replace the ones killed by the Indians are a bunch of plugs. When the job is finished, Jack’s going all the way back to Louisiana to tell his folks about what happened to his brother and the rest of us are going back to the border towns. The horses we got won’t make it and we got a lot of miles to cover in Indian territory before we get back home.”
Johnny saw Val and Jack slowly nod. Toni was right. They did need new horses.
“Well?” asked Johnny to Val and Jack.
Val and Jack looked at each other. Jack shrugged. The ranchers leaned forward and Dave Wilkens even quit smoking his pipe.
Val looked at Johnny but his words were for the ranchers.
“Well, I guess you’ve just hired yourself two cowboys and two vaqueros. Guess it won’t hurt none to help someone out and it sure sounds like you men need some helping out in a big way.”
Dave and Ben slapped each other’s backs and Will grinned. They began to make plans as Jack joined in. Toni got up and squeezed Johnny’s shoulder as she walked past to gather the dishes to wash. Johnny saw a question in Val’s eyes as he continued to look at him. Johnny nodded at Val and smiled as Val grinned back.
“You four will stay at my place.” Dave Wilkens led the friends through the entrance to his ranch. “I’ve got more room.” He stopped at a hitching post in front of a nice clapboard house. “I’ve got the best horses, too.” He grinned and swung off his horse.
The door to the house swung open and a middle-aged woman ran to greet her husband. Grabbing his face between her two hands, she brought his face to hers and gave him a kiss.
“Miss me old girl?” Dave grinned and gave the woman a big hug.
He swung her around to face the newly hired ranch hands.
“Maddie, I want you to meet the people who’s gonna get our cattle to market.”
He pointed to the group who watched from their horses. “That’s Jack, Val, Johnny, and that’s Toni.”
Jack, Val and Johnny touched their hats. “Ma’am.” Toni gave a little nod.
“Everyone, this is my wife, Maddie.” Mr. Wilkens gave Maddie an extra squeeze.
“Well, what are y’all doing just sitting there? Dave, you show the men where to put their horses and their gear. Thanks to the Sol y Luna Ranch, you’ll have your choice of beds in the bunkhouse.”
The four dismounted and started to lead their horses to the barn.
“Oh, Toni!” Maddie called out.
The friends stopped and waited as Maddie hurried over to Toni. “Oh, my dear. You come with me. I’ve got just the place for you.” Maddie reached out a hand to grab Toni’s arm. Johnny braced himself as Toni backed up and glued herself to him.
“Uh, ma’am,” Johnny cleared his throat. “We appreciate your hospitality but Toni stays with me.”
“Nonsense, young man. A young woman doesn’t belong in a bunk house.” Maddie took Toni’s arm and began to pull her back toward the house.
Johnny watched Toni throw him a look of desperation as she ran to keep up with Maddie to prevent her arm from being pulled out of its socket. When Toni disappeared into the house, Johnny sighed and grabbed the reins of Toni’s horse. “Let’s go and get the horses settled so I can go rescue her from a crazy gringa.”
Dave caught up with the three men and showed them where to stable their horses. After they cared for their mounts, Dave showed them the bunkhouse. Val and Jack threw their saddlebags on the bed of their choice.
“Men, take a few minutes to get settled and let me check on a few things then we’ll get together to plan this shindig.
Sanders and his men will be here in about two hours and we’ll start planning this out. Will Sanders went over to Frank Betts’ ranch to let him know y’all agreed to help. He won’t be here until day after tomorrow, his son’s funeral you know. He’ll go along with however we decide to work this.”
“Mr. Wilkens?” The boss had begun to walk to the door when Johnny called his name.
Johnny met Mr. Wilkens at the door. “Mr. Wilkens, I appreciate your missus trying to take care of Toni, I surely do. But see, the thing is, Toni and I stay together. I can see where your other men might not want her staying in the bunkhouse so we’ll just find us a nice place to camp after our meeting today.”
Holding Toni’s and his own saddlebags, Johnny stood before Dave. He never wavered while Mr. Wilkens stared at him.
Finally, Johnny got a nod. “Come with me. I’ll tell the wife that there’s been a change in her plans.” Mr. Wilkens continued to talk as he walked toward the house, Johnny beside him. “Maddie might not like it, but she’d like it even less if she thought that young lady had to sleep another night on a bedroll.”
Johnny stepped into the house behind his new boss and scanned the room for Toni. It was a nice room, very different from what they were used to: curtains in the windows, little glass statues sitting on small tables, a rug on the floor, a couch in front of the fireplace. He could hear Mrs. Wilkens talking ninety to nothing from a back room.
She stepped into the front room ironing her skirt with her hands when she heard her husband call her name.
“Johnny, did you get all settled? Did you bring Toni’s things in? I’ve been showing her around and we were just in the kitchen beginning to get supper ready. With so many new mouths to feed, I’ll have to be sure to cook plenty. It’s been awhile since I’ve had to cook for so many. Hope I haven’t lost my touch!” She gave a giggle and took a breath.
“Here, I’ll take Toni’s things and put them in her room. She sure seems like a sweet thing, awfully quiet though. Does she speak English? She just keeps saying ‘¿Que?’
I tried to get her started on firing up the stove, but she doesn’t seem to know how. And don’t you worry about the broken plate. She probably isn’t used to glass if y’all been on the trail a lot and used tin plates. She’s in the kitchen if you want to see her.”
As Johnny walked to the kitchen, he heard Dave tell his wife that there had been a change in plans. As Johnny stood in the kitchen doorway, he saw Toni sitting at the table. She was staring at nothing, her eyes wide and dazed.
“¿Querida?” he softly called.
He watched her turn her head toward him and blink. Jumping out of her chair, she ran to him and buried her face in his shirt. “No me dejes.” He heard her whisper.
Dropping the saddlebags, he folded his arms around her and rested his head on top of hers. “I won’t leave you.
He’s telling his wife now that we’re staying together.”
Johnny shifted his hands to her upper arms and pushed her back so he could see her face. He frowned as he looked at her. “Why didn’t you talk to the lady in English? She thinks you only speak Spanish.”
He saw Toni blush as she lowered her eyes. “I forgot how for a minute.”
Johnny let out a bark of laughter and pulled her to him again. He rocked her from side to side as he chuckled.
“The gringa seems nice enough but her tongue does flap at both ends.”
Johnny let Toni go and reached down to pick up their saddlebags. Walking into the front room with Toni by his side, he asked the couple where he should put their things.
Maddie stepped forward and, grabbing one of the saddlebags, she led the way down a hall. Opening a door, she ushered Toni and Johnny into a vacant bedroom. Coming up behind them, she set the saddlebag next to the bureau.
“Just put your saddlebag right here, Johnny. Dave told me all about it. I’m so sorry that I didn’t realize you two were married. Of course you want to be together. Why I got lonesome just having Dave gone one night. Now I’ll leave you two to get settled. Johnny if you wouldn’t mind telling Toni that I could use her help later, I’d appreciate it. I speak a little Spanish so we should do fine.”
“I can speak English, ma’am.” Toni softly spoke up.
“Oh, that’s wonderful! It’s not often I have another woman to talk to, usually it’s just Dave and the hands. Of course, you’ve probably figured, not having someone to talk to doesn’t stop me from practicing!” Maddie walked to the door. “You two need anything, just holler!”
After the door closed, Toni dropped down onto the bed. Johnny joined her and grabbed her hand. There was blessed silence in the room. After a minute, he heard her heave a big sigh and saw her chin go up and her shoulders go back.
“Well,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to see inside a gringo’s house. Guess now’s the time.” She patted the bed. “This sure will beat a bedroll tonight.”
He watched her stand and wander around the room, her hands lightly trailing the wood of the furniture.
“They must be rich, Johnny.” She nodded back to the bed. “They even got sheets and pillows on their bed like that fancy hotel in Mesilla.” She fingered the curtains. “And look! They’ve got curtains!”
She came around the bed and sat back next to him.
Johnny patted her on her leg. “It will be fine, miel.”
“You think so?”
Giving her leg a squeeze, he answered. “Yep, you’ll do fine.”
Later that afternoon, Johnny joined Jack and Val at the corral fence. Two of Mr. Wilkens’ ranch hands had just brought in a string of horses to add to the ones already in the corral.
Johnny crossed his arms on top of the fence rail and rested his chin while looking over the horses. Mr. Wilkens had been right, he did have some pretty good horses. He was eyeing a black gelding that looked pretty good to him.
“If anyone asks, Toni and I are married,” he announced.
Val and Jack stared at him in surprise.
“Well, when the hell did that happen?” groused Val.
“Yeah, I didn’t get invited. Did you get invited, Val?” Jack asked.
“Ah, shut up you two.” Johnny straightened up and pushed himself against the fence rail to get the kinks out of his back. “You know we ain’t married. When we do, I promise, you two will be the first to know.”
“The missus likes respectable?” Jack turned toward the house and rested his back against the fence.
“Yep. Seemed like the only way we could be together and I wasn’t leaving her alone in there.” Johnny took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Johnny. Toni seems awfully nervous about all this. Does she have a bad feeling about this job?” asked Val.
Johnny sighed and stared across the yard. “Well, she’s just not used to how you gringo’s live. You’ve been in the border towns. You know how everyone lives. This is the first time she’s been in an ordinary gringo’s house. It’s a lot different from a campsite on the trail.”
Johnny smiled as he saw the front door of the house open with a bang and Toni come flying out.
“Besides, big strange men make her nervous and you got to admit, Mr. Wilkens and that hand of his, Yates, are pretty big men.”
“We’d take care of her, Johnny!” Jack sounded hurt.
“She knows that and I know it. Don’t make the bad memories go away though.” Johnny opened his arms and smiled as she ran into his embrace.
“Maddie had to go to the outhouse and I snuck out.” Toni grinned.
The three men broke into laughter. They were still laughing as Johnny helped Toni sit on the top fence rail.
“Y’all see any horses you like?” she asked the three men.
The four friends discussed the merits of the different horses as they watched the herd mill around the corral.
Toni whistled and a little sturdy chestnut mare walked toward her. The men watched as Toni reached out and scratched the white star on the mare’s forehead. Toni crooned to the mare as she ran her hands over the horse’s head.
“Toni!” Maddie’s voice carried really well from the house to the corral.
The horse Toni had been looking at jerked her head and moved back among the herd.
“Damn. She found me.” Toni’s voice sounded forlorn.
Johnny couldn’t help it, he began to laugh and helped her off the fence.
Toni took her hat and tried to beat the dust off her pants. As she began to walk back to the house she turned and walked backward. “Johnny, cut my new horse out and start working with her.”
“You sure you want that one?” he yelled.
“Well, yeah. Star will suit just fine.” Toni turned back to face Maddie standing on the porch. “I’m coming, ma’am.”
“You already named her?” Johnny asked. Toni didn’t stop but shrugged and raised both hands in the air, palms up.
“Isn’t that just like a woman?” Val turned around to watch the horses again. “They can take hours to decide something that don’t mean nothing, but she,” Val jerked his head back toward the house, “picks out a horse that will last her for several years in ten minutes.”
Johnny and Jack both nodded their heads in agreement. Johnny didn’t think he could add anything to what Val had just said.
It had been a hard week for everyone. Johnny didn’t mind hard work but this getting up at the crack of dawn was for the birds. Sure the regular meals were great, and relaxing in a soft bed each night beat sleeping on the hard ground, but he wasn’t so sure it balanced out having to account for every minute and staying in one spot each day. This visit tonight in town was just what he needed.
Johnny finished brushing his horse and grabbed his saddle and blanket. Throwing it onto the horse’s back he began to cinch the saddle. He patted the horse’s neck. This new black gelding was going to work out fine. Unlike Toni’s new horse, this one still needed a name.
“How about you boy? You ready for that cattle drive next week? Ready to move on and see the country?”
Finished saddling the black, he had begun to get Toni’s horse ready when Jack and Val walked into the barn.
“I thought Maddie was making Toni stay here and take some more cooking lessons?” Val grabbed his saddle and threw it onto his horse.
Johnny snorted. “A lot of good that will do. Maddie makes her stay right there in front of the stove and watch the food. We all know that once she’s on her own, Toni will get distracted and forget about what’s she doing and burn everything again. Mrs. Wilkens said she hadn’t realized that you even could burn a cast iron skillet before Toni came.” Johnny finished saddling Toni’s horse and walked back to his own horse’s stall.
Jack kneed his horse to tighten up the cinch. “You know, Toni seemed right surprised to see that biscuits aren’t supposed to be dark brown and black on the bottom. After all this time, I think she kinda prefers them that way.”
The men laughed and led their horses out of the barn. Val raised his eyebrows when he saw that Toni’s horse was still in its stall.
Johnny noticed. “She’ll be along later.”
Jack leaned across Val to ask Johnny, “How’s she gonna get away from Maddie?”
Johnny shrugged. “All she told me was that she was gonna tell Maddie that she wanted an early night because her belly was hurting. She seemed pretty sure Maddie would understand that excuse.”
Johnny stopped his horse and mounted. “She’ll figure something out. She’s like me, this has been a nice break, but she’s beginning to feel closed in. Ain’t what we’re used to.”
The men turned their horses toward town. They had agreed to meet Sonny and Miles Yates at the saloon. Sonny and Miles were two brothers who worked for Mr. Wilkens. Johnny didn’t particularly care for either of the men but it seemed they had worked for one of the smaller ranches that had been swallowed up by that cooperation. With Mr. Wilkens losing his ranch hands, he’d hired the brothers about four months ago. Both men had assured the three friends that the sheriff would have gotten over his snit by now.
Johnny, Val and Jack hadn’t been riding long when they heard a rider galloping behind them. Johnny smiled as Val and Jack edged their mounts over to make a space next to Johnny.
Toni slowed her horse and slid right into the slot that had been opened for her. “You three got further ahead than I expected,” she said breathlessly.
Val reached into his pocket and handed her his handkerchief.
“Thanks,” Toni said as she wiped the sweat from her face. “¡Mierda! It’s hot!”
“Reckon you got away alright.” Val waved his hand no when Toni tried to give the handkerchief back.
“You know, I really hate to trick her like that. Maddie’s been awfully nice to me. Better than I’d thought a gringa would be. It’s just that she keeps trying to make me into an ordinary housewife,” Toni complained.
The men laughed. Toni, ordinary and housewife just didn’t seem to go together.
Toni looked to her left at Val and Jack. “And what is with those little glass and china statues sitting all over the place? Let me tell you, it don’t take nothing to break one. She’s got me trying to keep the dust off those things every day like that’s gonna happen.”
“Knick knacks,” Jack commented thoughtfully.
“Excuse you?” Toni replied.
The men let out a shout of laughter. Toni looked over at Johnny. “Like you know what the hell he said,” she huffed.
“Well, I’ve seen what you’re talking about and someone told me that’s what they’re called, knick knacks.” Johnny grinned.
Toni frowned. Johnny could see her mouthing the new word. “Well, that’s a pretty stupid word and they’re pretty useless things to have around. Why all the time I have to spend wiping them down, I could be outside watching Johnny break in the new horses or riding or doing all kinds of interesting things.”
Toni ducked her head. She said something but she spoke so low, Johnny couldn’t hear her. “What did you say?” he asked.
Her head shot up and she spoke loud enough that Maddie could have heard her back at the ranch house. “I said that I was getting tired of the sad look Maddie gives me when I break something. I don’t mean to but she says I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing. She sure sets store on some of those knick knack things.”
“Well, haven’t you seen anything you like?” Jack was curious.
“Well, I do like that clothesline thing she’s got to hang clothes on instead of bushes. That’s right handy. The bed is nice. Oh, and she’s got this garden in the back where she grows all kinds of herbs and things. I like playing in that. I’ve learned all kinds of new concoctions to make for you men when you’re ailing.”
The men groaned and Toni’s laughter peeled out.
“Oh, and she has this box that’s the prettiest thing I ever saw. It’s made of this shiny wood and has all this fancy carving on the outside.” Toni stopped her horse and it took a minute for the men to realize she wasn’t riding with them. They stopped and waited for her to catch up.
Johnny could hear the excitement in her voice as she continued to talk about the box.
“Well go on, finish telling about this box,” he demanded.
“Like I said, it’s real fancy on the outside but,” Toni dramatically stopped a minute before continuing. “But when you open it, it plays music! Isn’t that the beatenest thing you ever heard?”
“A music box.” Val nodded at Jack’s declaration.
“A what?” Johnny asked.
“A music box. That’s what they’re called,” replied Jack. “My momma had one.”
The four clicked to their horses and began the trek to town again.
“I’ve seen ‘em but they cost too much for my family to have one.” Val added.
“Well, out of all the things I’ve seen, I got to say that’s the best thing you gringo’s have invented,” Toni answered in a wistful voice.
“But how am I going carry one of those in a saddle bag?” she sighed and shook her head.
It was a comfortable quiet for a minute then Toni looked at Johnny and slowly grinned. She took off her hat and brought it down on her horse’s rump. “Race you!” She took off as she spoke.
“You little minx!” Johnny spurred his horse and raced after her.
Val and Jack looked at each other and shook their heads.
The sun had barely peeped over the horizon when Johnny stepped down from the front porch and headed over to the hitching post and the waiting horses. The front door banged and he saw Toni walk out followed by the Wilkens. She quickly gave Maddie a hug then practically ran down the steps to her horse. The boss followed at a more leisurely pace after giving his wife a big hug and what Johnny supposed were last minute instructions.
Everyone was there, horses were saddled, bedrolls and saddle bags strapped on, the cook’s wagon all packed, all in preparation to drive those cattle to Horsehead Crossing and save the ranches.
They were leaving later than the ranchers had wanted. It seemed that everything that could go wrong had. Just yesterday Will Sanders had been helping the cook, Tad, grease the axles of his wagon when the wheel broke. A broken leg would now keep Will from joining the cattle drive.
Johnny looked over the cowboys waiting to ride out. It was nothing he could put his finger on but something just didn’t seem right.
“Bout time we left here. I was beginning to think this drive had a jinx or something.” Val walked past Johnny and untied his own horse. Grabbing the reins, he swung up into the saddle. He turned his head toward Johnny. “To my way of thinkin’, some of the stuff that’s happened don’t seem like ordinary ranch accidents.”
“Yeah, I’m thinking that the owners of Sol y Luna wouldn’t mind this cattle drive failing,” replied Johnny. “But if you’re right, where’s it coming from?”
Jack pushed Johnny’s horse back from crowding his so he could mount. “I don’t know about you fellas, but I’m thinking to keep a watch on more than just the rear end of a cow on this trip.”
Once Mr. Wilkens mounted, the group began to ride out and join the others who were watching the cattle that had been gathered from the three ranches the previous days before. As the only owner going, he was going to call the tune on this drive. Mr. Betts seemed to have given up after his son was killed and Mr. Sanders had chosen to stay to keep an eye on the other two ranches.
Val and Jack took positions beside the line of cattle that were quickly beginning to stretch out from the crowded bunch they’d been kept for the past few days. Johnny decided to ride with Toni driving the horses ahead of the cattle. Gunnar, a ranch hand from the Sanders’ ranch was supposed to be good with horses and had been assigned remuda duty also. Johnny wanted to see the cut of his ilk before he left Gunnar alone with Toni.
It was a tired group when they finally camped for the night. Johnny figured it would take a few days to get into a decent rhythm. Hopefully they could pick up some speed and not waste so much time pulling out.
Tad, the cook, plopped a big spoonful of beans onto Johnny’s plate. Johnny grabbed a couple of biscuits off a plate on the tailgate of the wagon and carried his grub over to where Val and Jack were sitting. He watched as Toni rummaged through the wagon for things Tad wanted. He caught a few of the cowboys eyeing her, but no one seemed to bother her.
“Tell me again why we’re doing this?” Jack spooned another bite of beans into his mouth.
Val swallowed. “I don’t know about you, but after eating all that dust today, I have a feeling someone assigned me a penance for something I done and forgot to tell me.”
Johnny snorted. “I think it would take more than breathing dust all day to make up for all you’ve done, Val.”
“Last call for seconds,” Tad called out.
Jack stood up.
Johnny tilted his head back to see him better. “You still hungry?”
Jack wiped a hand on his pants leg. “I thought I’d wander a bit by the campfire and see if I hear anything interesting.”
Johnny nodded, “Good idea.”
Jack made his way back to the cooking pot over the fire, passing Toni as she made her way over to Johnny and Val. Balancing her plate in one hand and her cup of coffee in the other, she lowered herself next to Johnny. Johnny grabbed her cup to hold it for her while she ate. After she’d finished eating, he threw one arm around her shoulders and played with her braid. He chuckled at the looks Val and Toni both gave him.
“Hey, I figured it wouldn’t hurt for them,” he nodded toward the rest of the camp, “To see who you’re with.”
Dave Wilkens stopped by. “Everything go okay today?” he asked.
“A bit slow, but I figure it’ll get better,” Val spoke up.
“Well, as long as we get there on time to meet Goodnight, that’s the main thing.” Dave pushed his hat back and rubbed his forehead. “We just got to get this herd there and sold!”
Val stood up and stretched, he had first watch and needed to get ready. “I’m just curious about something though. Let’s say you get your taxes paid and you’re set for the winter. What’s going to keep this other ranch from hitting on you again? It’s not like you got the sheriff backing you.”
Dave rubbed his chin. “Everyone figures the sheriff is somehow mixed up in all this. Hell, I don’t know, maybe he’s getting a kickback. If we could get the town’s people to back us on running him out, I have the feeling a lot of what’s going on with the Sol y Luna ranch would quiet down.”
“Well,” Dave hitched up his pants, “y’all better turn in. Don’t you and Jack have first watch?” Dave looked at Val who nodded. “Sonny and Miles have last. Wake me up if anything happens.”
Everyone said their goodnights and bedded down while Jack and Val went to saddle fresh horses. Johnny threw his bedroll near the wagon beside Toni. Tad was asleep under the wagon and the old cook had said he’d watch out for Toni when Johnny had his turn at night watch. As Johnny lay down and settled his hat over his eyes, he wondered if the problems they’d encountered at the ranch would follow them on this drive. He frowned. He didn’t like the direction that thought was taking him.
The start of the day came early for the cowboys. Sonny and Miles rode in just as breakfast was being served. Tad had breakfast well in hand so Toni took care of their horses so they could eat before saddling up again. She was frowning, her hands on her hips when Johnny walked over.
“What’s wrong?” he asked as he handed her a cup of coffee.
“Gracias.” She blew on her coffee before taking a sip.
He saw her glance around. “Everyone’s over at the campfire. You can talk.”
“Look at that.” She waved her cup toward Sonny’s and Miles’ horses.
Johnny thrust his cup at her then made his way around the pair of horses, giving them a pat as they nervously shifted.
“Someone’s done some hard riding.” He wiped his hand down the neck of one of the horses, pulled it away and looked at the sweat left behind on his palm.
“You do that kind of riding just pulling a night watch?” Toni asked, handing his cup back.
She finished her coffee and handed Johnny her cup. Grabbing a blanket, she began to rub Sonny’s horse down.
“No,” Johnny said thoughtfully. “Not usually. Either they forgot the time and hurried back to get breakfast or…”
“Or what?” Toni asked as she began wiping down the second horse.
“I don’t know. It’s not like there’s anything around to go to. Town’s too far away now to sneak back for a quick drink. The ranch is closer but if they forgot something, you’d think they would have told someone.”
Johnny gulped down the last of his coffee and turned to walk away. “Don’t say anything to them. I’ll talk to Val and Jack when I can and see what they think. Meanwhile, you stay away from them.”
“You expecting trouble, Johnny?” Toni raised an eyebrow.
As Johnny walked away, he turned his head back to her. “I always expect trouble, querida.”
They hadn’t been on the trail long that morning when Johnny heard a yell from behind him. The cowboy riding drag rode his horse up the line and pulled up beside Johnny. Pulling down his bandana, he pointed to a dust cloud behind them that was gaining rapidly. “Someone’s coming in fast.”
With that, the cowboy pulled the neckerchief back up over his nose and whirled his horse around and rode back to his position at the end.
Johnny stood up in his saddle and searched for Val. Seeing Val on the other side of the herd, he whistled and waved his hat. Val waited for an open space between the cattle and rode over to join Johnny.
“What’s up?” he asked Johnny.
“Trouble,” answered Johnny. He pointed to the dust cloud behind him. “No one rides like that to deliver good news. Let’s go find Jack and Wilkens.”
Both men urged their horses to go faster and rode along side of the herd searching for their boss and Jack. They found both near the front.
Pulling along side the two, Johnny pointed behind him. “Rider coming.”
All four men waited and watched the dust cloud form the shape of a cowboy on a gray horse as it got closer.
“That looks like Ben Sander’s horse.” Dave Wilkens gave Johnny, Val and Jack a worried look.
Ben Sanders pulled back the reins hard and his horse slid to a stop beside Dave. Both he and his horse were sucking air as he tried to talk to Dave. “You got to go back, Dave.”
“Maddie?” questioned Dave frantically.
“She’s alive but she’s hurt, Dave. Someone burned your house down last night while she was asleep.” Ben took the canteen Jack offered.
Dave swung his horse around but was stopped when Johnny reached out and grabbed the reins.
“Wait Mr. Wilkens,” Johnny said calmly. “You should hear first what Mr. Sanders has to say.”
“Well, tell me man!” Dave shouted.
Ben wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Bob brought her over to our place at first light in the wagon. You know he was to stay in your house at night while you were gone? Anyways, he had gotten up early to go visit the jake when he heard some riders. He couldn’t see who it was, you know his eyesight ain’t worth spit. But he could tell there were three of them. They shot him but it just grazed his head. Guess they thought he was dead ‘cause they left him alone.”
Ben took his handkerchief and wiped his face. “They threw lit whiskey bottles through the windows of the house. Once it looked like the house had caught, they rode out. Bob said he was able to get through the back door and make his way to your bedroom. By then the flames were pretty bad so he had to throw Maddie out the window and he followed. Wasn’t nothing he could do about the house so he hitched up the wagon and drove her over to our place.”
“How bad?” Dave’s voice shook.
“She’s got a few burns and some cuts that gonna need stitching from being thrown out the window but the main thing is the smoke that got her. I sent my youngest for the doctor. He should be there by now.” Ben reached over and laid his hand on Dave’s shoulder.
“I think she’s going to be okay, Dave. But I knew you would want to know and go be with her.” Ben waved his hand as if to encompass the whole herd. “Go on home. I’ll see this through. You look after the women at my place. We’ll worry about your house when you get back.”
Dave clinched his jaw and looked past the men.
Johnny figured the man was stunned from the look on his face. He leaned over, reached out his hand and tapped Dave on his leg. Startled, Dave focused his eyes on Johnny.
“Go take care of your wife. She’ll be fine and we will be, too. Ben here will take care of your interest and we’ll make sure these cattle get delivered. Go on now. Take care of Maddie.” Johnny spoke more calmly than he felt.
Dave Wilkens didn’t hesitate. “Thanks y’all.” He whirled his horse around and leaning forward, spurred his horse toward home.
Johnny looked at Maddie’s husband, riding away, then turned in the saddle toward Jack and Val. He thought for a minute then nodded to himself. Yep, Toni would want to know.
“You two fill Mr. Sanders in. I’ll see you in a bit.”
He urged his horse forward toward the remuda and Toni.
When Johnny saw her up ahead, he gave a piercing whistle.
She turned around in her saddle and stopped her horse when she saw it was him.
“What are you doing up here?” she exclaimed in surprise when he caught up with her. “I thought you trusted Gunnar now.”
“Looks like a good place to stop up ahead. Let’s give the horses a rest and I’ll tell ya.” Johnny broke away from Toni and together with Gunnar the three herded the remuda to a sheltered spot.
“Gunnar!” Johnny hollered. “Keep watch for a minute. Let’s go over there,” he commanded Toni and pointed to an area away from the herd.
Johnny could see that Toni had a puzzled look on her face but she urged her horse to follow his anyway. Stopping at a place away from the horses and Gunnar’s prying eyes, he quickly dismounted and went to her horse. He grabbed Star’s bridle and Toni started to dismount. Her foot had barely cleared the last stirrup when he grabbed her in a big bear hug.
“What’s wrong, Johnny?” she asked in a frightened voice, her voice muffled from being squashed against his chest.
Johnny let her go and ran his fingers through his hair. His fingers tapped the butt of his Colt as he began to pace.
He stopped his pacing for a bit and quickly told her what had happened. “All I could think of was that it could have been you if you’d have stayed there. When I saw how Dave looked while Ben was telling him about Maddie, I could understand how he felt.” He hit his fist against his thigh. “Damn it! Even on an ordinary ranch, Dave couldn’t keep Maddie safe.”
Johnny stalked back over to his horse. Grabbing the saddle horn, he started to swing up but stopped and rested his head against the saddle instead.
He heard Toni move behind him and felt her lightly caress his back. “It’s okay, mi Corazon,” she crooned. “Bad things happen to even ordinary folks. Dave didn’t let Maddie down. All she’s gonna care is that he’s with her now. She knows he’s doing the best he can.”
Johnny turned and cupped her face with his hand. Toni grabbed his hand and gave his palm a kiss. “I trust you with my life, Johnny. Even if something happens to me, I’ll know you’ve done the best you can. That’s all anyone can ask in this world.”
Johnny tenderly put his arms around her. Whispering in her ear, he asked, “Have I told you today what you mean to me?”
“Not since this morning,” she answered with a sigh.
“Eres mi todo,” Johnny murmured against her lips.
Johnny stopped his horse for a moment and watched as the herd ambled by. He could hear the whistles and yells of the other men as they urged the cattle to keep moving.
It had taken a few days but everyone now seemed to know what to do and the drive was going much smoother.
Johnny wrinkled his nose as a steer walking by popped out a cow patty. He’d worked with cows a few times before but never for such length of time as this. So far he hadn’t seen nothing on this drive that would make him change his mind about stupid, smelly, slow cattle. He’d take horses over beeves any day.
He grinned as he thought about what his bastard of a father would say if he took over his ranch and replaced those stupid cattle with fine horseflesh. Johnny didn’t often think of Lancer unless he was cursing the name, but occasionally he did let his thoughts wander and imagine an easier life for him and Toni raising horses. Of course, he’d probably have to get rid of the old man first, but that wouldn’t be a problem for Madrid.
Johnny was startled out of his musings by the sound of shots being fired. He realized that most of the herd had passed him by and only a few stragglers were left.
He watched as Miles Yates rode toward him, a dead newborn calf draped across the back of his saddle.
“Not much meat on this,” Miles gestured to the dead calf, “but I figure Tad could get enough out of this one to add to the pot of beans tonight.”
“Seems a shame to have to kill them before they even have a chance,” Johnny replied. “Got to say I’m glad I didn’t get that job.”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” Miles leaned over his horse and spit.
“Dead is dead, don’t matter none if it’s just born or old. ‘Sides, these babies the heifers are dropping would just slow us down. Coyotes would probably get them anyway.”
Johnny always thought a man should be proud of a job well done but Miles seemed a bit too happy go lucky about his for Johnny’s taste. Still, he guessed it had to be done.
“You gonna ride drag now while I take this up to Tad?”
“Well, I’ll see you later at supper, Madrid.” Miles spurred his horse and rode toward the front to catch up with the cook wagon.
Johnny heard the bellow of the mother cow as she looked for her baby. He nudged his horse to move behind her and forced her to walk with the rest of the stragglers.
Yep, one more reason to hate working with cattle.
Later that night as everyone was sleeping, Johnny, Val and Ben Sanders rode in from the first night watch. After taking care of their horses, they strode over to the campfire and the ever-present coffee pot. Tad and Toni kept the pot filled continuously throughout the night for the men who came and went on their night watches.
To be fair, each of the men rotated the shifts watching the cattle at night. Jack, Miles and Sonny had the second shift, the hardest one to Johnny’s way of thinking.
“Everything okay out there?” Toni asked as she poured each of the men a cup of coffee. She set the coffee pot back on the hot stone and sat down behind Johnny and Val. She then scooted and wiggled her way in between the two.
“Ya comfortable now?” Val asked snidely.
“Yes, thank you.” Toni replied all prim and proper.
Val snorted then drained his cup.
Ben Sanders spoke up. “You know, I’ve been on lots of cattle drives but I can’t ever remember being on one so short of help. If we somehow manage to get these cattle to Horsehead Crossing, you men will have earned every penny.” He looked across the camp. Tad, the cook, was already asleep under the wagon and the four cowboys that were left sat on the other side of the fire, playing dominos.
“Well now, Mr. Sanders, when you got the best there is, numbers don’t mean so much,” Johnny drawled.
Ben chuckled. “Quality, not quantity, huh?”
Val leaned past Toni and thumped Johnny on his leg. “What he means is that if you’re good, size don’t matter.”
“Well now Val, maybe so, maybe not. I can think of times when both have their place.” Johnny smirked and looked at Toni. The flickering fire cast shadows on everyone’s faces, but it wasn’t enough to hide the blush that rose on her cheeks.
She scrambled up, snatched off Johnny’s hat and whacked him across the back of his head before setting the hat back in place. She then marched over to her bedroll by the wagon. The other men left in the camp hadn’t been close enough to hear what Johnny had said, but the sight of a young girl bushwhacking Johnny Madrid was pretty funny and the camp rang out with good-natured laughter.
“Hey, Toni!” called out Carl. “You got any extra cups? I’ve been using mine for my chawing tobacco and could use some more coffee.”
Toni paused from straightening out her blanket next to Tad. She jerked her head toward the wagon next to her.
“There’s an extra one or two in a box at the bottom of a pile in the right hand corner of the wagon.”
“Well, will you get it for me?” Carl asked.
Johnny nudged Val with his elbow. He figured he knew how Toni would answer.
“Get it yourself, Carl. I ain’t your momma.” Toni didn’t disappoint Johnny.
“Ah, Toni,” Carl whined. Johnny watched him look down at his spitting cup then over to the coffee pot. Johnny guessed that Carl really wanted some coffee because he did get up and go to the wagon.
Toni must have really been in a snit because she didn’t relent and help Carl look for that cup. Johnny smiled as he watched her get her nest all ready to her satisfaction and lie down. He frowned. Neither she nor Tad were going to be happy from the mess Carl seemed to be making while looking for that cup. It sounded like he was tearing the wagon apart trying to get to the thing.
Johnny stood up and stretched. He had just decided that it was time for him to turn in when he heard a terrible scream. He spun around to face the wagon and saw Toni and Tad scramble up from their bedrolls. He rushed toward the wagon as Carl continued to scream.
“Get it off! Get it off!” he yelled. Carl faced the men at the campfire and seemed to be doing a macabre dance, reaching his arms around his back as his body twisted this way and that.
Johnny saw Toni seemingly frozen in place, staring at Carl’s back, her hand covering her mouth. At one point in his crazy dance, Carl turned his back to the other men. Once Johnny saw the huge rattlesnake hanging from the back of Carl’s neck, he now knew the reason for Toni’s horror.
As one, Johnny and Val rushed to Carl’s aide. Carl’s screams had turned to whimpers as he fell to the ground. His body began to twitch and shake as the venom coursed through his veins. And still the snake didn’t let go!
Johnny grabbed the blanket Toni held out for him and he tossed it over Carl’s back and the snake. “Careful, Johnny,” he heard someone say.
Together Johnny and Val grabbed the snake through the blanket and tried to pull it off Carl. It was stuck. Reaching for his boot knife, Johnny sliced the snake’s head off and threw the body into the bushes. Tad handed Johnny a pair of his thickest leather gloves. It took some careful maneuvering, but Johnny was finally able cut the head away from the fangs that were embedded in Carl’s neck by his spine.
Once the danger was past, Toni grabbed her medical kit and knelt beside Carl. The other men formed a ring around the two. Carl wasn’t making any noise now except for the horrible rasp of his breathing. Johnny could see Toni trying but he knew her efforts wouldn’t do any good.
He knelt down beside her and put his hand on top of hers.
She looked at him with tears in her eyes and nodded.
“Turn him over on his back,” she told the men.
Once Johnny and Val had turned him over, Toni got off her knees and sat beside Carl. She grabbed Carl’s hand and held on. Johnny rolled up one of Tad’s dishtowels and gently put it under the cowboy’s head. The group stood sentry around the dying man and Toni, hats in hand as they waited for the inevitable.
It didn’t take long. When it was over the men who had been playing dominos put their things away and got out shovels. There was a full moon tonight and it didn’t take a lot of light to dig a grave.
Ben and Val carried Carl to the edge of the camp and wrapped him in his blanket. With the grave being dug tonight, they could bury him first thing in the morning.
Johnny wouldn’t let Toni help, but he and Tad carefully emptied out the cook wagon to check for any more unwelcome surprises. He gave a shudder as he thought that although he was sorry for Carl’s passing, he sure was glad Toni had gotten in a snit and didn’t go looking for that cup herself.
The men finished digging the grave and laid weary heads down to catch an hour of sleep before time to start the third watch. Toni and Tad crawled back under their blankets and even Ben Sanders called it a night.
Johnny knew he should try to get some sleep but he also knew that wouldn’t be likely. He sat cross-legged in front of the fire, a fresh cup of coffee in his hands. Val poured himself some coffee and joined him.
“Val?” Johnny asked. “I know Texas is full of rattlers. As many as I’ve seen on this trip, I’m wondering if that’s all this part of the country can raise.” He circled the top of his cup with his fingers.
“But I’m wondering with all the banging and shifting and noise that cook wagon and Tad makes, what are the odds that a rattler that big would just happen to curl up and wait in that wagon?”
Val drummed his fingers on the side of his cup. “Ya know, Johnny. I was thinking the same thing.”
Ben Sanders joined Johnny, Val and Jack on a small rise. The four men could easily see the herd as it plodded by. “We’ve been lucky so far fellows, but those clouds look like they mean business.” Ben pointed to the dark rolling clouds that were gathering behind them.
Jack pulled his sweat-drenched shirt away from his body. “Saw that. I was hoping we’d only get a nice gentle rain to cut this humidity.”
Ben let out a laugh. “Son, there ain’t nothing gentle about this part of Texas. You either have rain or you don’t.” Ben nodded toward the rapidly approaching storm. “That right there looks to be a real gully washer coming.”
Johnny stood up in the saddle, his eyes searching for Toni and the remuda. Once he spotted her and Gunnar in the distance, he settled back into the saddle. “Too bad this couldn’t wait until we got to Fort Lancaster.”
Ben nodded, “Yeah, I figured we’ve come about a hundred miles give or take a few miles either way. Another two days should see us at the fort.” He took a long drink from his canteen. “Not bad for eight days with a skeleton crew.”
The boss recapped his canteen and stretched his back. Picking up the reins he turned his horse toward the front of the herd. “Well, let’s hope we can get settled before all hell breaks out. Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep the cattle from stampeding.”
As Ben started to ride away, he called out over his shoulder. “I’ll get Tad to start looking for a good safe place to stop for the night. Johnny, go help Toni and Gunnar get those horses out of the way. If the cattle do stampede, we don’t want to lose the horses.”
Johnny worried the stampede string of his hat in his mouth. “I don’t like this amigos.” He waved his arm at the black clouds hurrying to overtake them. Lightening streaked down, illuminating the darkness.
Johnny felt a blast of cooler air as the wind picked up, dust and sand swirling around the men. Already nervous from the heaviness of the thick air, his steed now danced and jerked his head. “Come on, we need to get down there. I’ll ride forward to catch up to Toni. You two…..”
Johnny didn’t get a chance to finish what he’d planned to say as several shots rang out toward the back of the line. They were answered by shots coming from the middle of the herd.
“What the hell?” shouted Val.
“They’re running!” yelled Jack.
Johnny and his friends spurred their horses down the rise. Lady Luck wasn’t with them as the heavens burst open. The thunder, lightning and wind threw the already spooked cattle into a frenzy. The bottom fell out and water poured from the sky so fast that the ground couldn’t absorb it all. The cattle and horses slipped and slid in the mud churned up by hundreds of hooves.
“Get ahead of them!” yelled Val. “Try to turn the leaders around!”
“Toni!” screamed Johnny as he finally saw her up ahead. The rush of cattle had caught her and Gunnar, swirling around the pair and the remuda like a leaf in a whirlpool.
He held his breath as her horse stumbled. He began to breathe again when he saw her shift her weight to help her horse keep its balance. “Let ‘em run! Get to the side!” He didn’t know if she could hear him, between the noise of the terrified cattle, the screams of the horses and the storm breaking overhead, he could barely hear himself.
Johnny saw Toni begin to edge her horse to the side when her horse slipped again. Gunnar reached over and grabbed her horse’s bridle. He was forced to let go when a steer slammed into his horse. Pressed on all sides by the stampeding cattle, his horse reared up. Gunnar fought for control but was thrown from his horse as it was hit again in the side from a crazed steer.
The herd of cattle rushed over the spot where Gunnar had once been like a wave on a shore.
Finally Toni was able to make it to the edge of the stampede. “Come on!” Johnny shouted as he led her further away from the cattle. He didn’t even consider sticking around. For one thing, there wasn’t a thing he could do. For another, Toni was more important to him than a herd of cattle. Most of the time stampeding cattle ran straight ahead but he wasn’t taking any chances.
He led her to what he hoped was a safe distance away. They sat on their horses and watched from afar as the cattle ran themselves out. Someone must have gotten to the front because he saw the herd begin to turn. Turning the herd slowed them down. With the storm beginning to blow itself out, the exhausted cattle allowed themselves to be led bit by bit to a walk.
Finally feeling it safe, Johnny dismounted on shaky legs. Toni’s knees buckled as she stepped down from her horse. He caught and held her. She buried her face in his shirt and trembled. Although he wouldn’t admit it, it helped his own nerves to calm down by holding her in his arms.
He patted her on her back as she cried and called out ‘Gunnar!’
That was the first, and he hoped the last time, he’d see a stampede. He decided right then and there that he’d rather die in a shoot out than a stampede.
Johnny made Toni wait until he was sure the cattle had settled before they mounted their horses and rode back to the herd. He was anxious to see how Val and Jack had fared.
Johnny saw the two friends navigating around the cattle that lay dead or dying. He whistled and waved his hat so the two men would stop. As he rode closer to Val and Jack, he could see that both men were smiling.
“Kid, you sure are a sight for sore eyes.” Val exclaimed as Johnny stopped his horse along side of Val’s. “Is Toni okay?”
Johnny nodded, “She’s fine, Val. Shook up but okay.”
The three watched as Ben Sanders made his way to the friends. “You all okay?” he asked.
Johnny nodded. “We’re okay but Gunnar didn’t make it.”
“Wade neither,” replied Jack. “His horse fell and he was able to jump free but a steer gored and knocked him down.
Johnny and the others were quiet. He saw in his mind’s eye the two men they had lost as they were last night, both of them laughing over a stupid game of cards. The two men were lousy card players but made up for it by their antics.
Johnny was the first to break the silence. “What I want to know is who fired those shots?” He continued to spit out his words. “Anyone see anything?”
“Well Johnny, the only one behind us before the storm broke was Miles Yates. Everyone else was ahead,” Jack’s voice was just as hard as Johnny’s.
Johnny narrowed his eyes, nodded and started to swing his horse around.
“Wait!” Val grabbed hold of Johnny’s horse. “That can wait. We got other things to do first.” Val looked over at Mr. Sanders.
“Val’s right Johnny,” Ben agreed. ”Nobody’s going anywhere. We need to see how Tad and the cook wagon made out. We need to find the horses,” he paused, “And we need to see if we can find Gunnar and Wade.”
Ben wiped a hand over his eyes. “If you haven’t seen a stampede before, you’ll know there’s probably nothing left of those two men.” He let out a big sigh. “But it’s our Christian duty to find something we can bury. Gunnar has a mother back in Brackett.”
Johnny put the lid on his anger. He’d stoke the fires of his rage later if he found that this could have all been avoided. He had an idea of what had happened, but he would wait to hear it from Miles. God help him then.
It was late before everyone was able to gather around the hastily erected camp. Normally they’d eat in shifts while someone took watch but not tonight. Mr. Sanders figured the cattle were too exhausted to run anymore and he wanted an accounting of what had happened.
While Johnny ate, he looked around the camp. Clothes were spread across every bush in order to dry out. By tacit agreement, the men had gone one way, while Toni went another, to change into dry clothes. Tad, who had already changed while waiting on the group to gather, had kept a look out for Toni’s privacy.
Johnny snorted. The grizzled old man had taken a shine to Toni and had become her protector. Toni had told him that Tad said she reminded him of the daughter he’d once had.
Ben gave his empty plate to Toni and stood up. Everyone except Miles and his older brother Sonny stopped eating.
“We lost two good men today,” Ben pointed in the direction of the two newly dug graves. He’d been right, there really hadn’t been much to bury: a piece of shirt, a boot, a few bits of flesh and bone. They’d only been able to determine what belonged to whom by the location.
Ben continued. “We also lost about fifty head of cattle and five horses. Now I know a storm can cause a stampede, but shots were heard before the storm even broke.” Ben put his hands on his hips. “Now I want to know what the hell happened?”
Johnny stood up and stared at Miles. “You were the only one in the back. What the hell were you shooting?”
Miles jumped up, his plate flying off his lap. “You have no right to question me you mestizo gun hawk so back off!”
Johnny stepped forward, fists clinched. He heard a noise behind him and craned his neck to see Jack, Val and Silas standing behind him.
“And you,” Johnny looked at Sonny Yates. “You were near where I heard the second set of shots.”
“Madrid, you can’t prove anything. Now why would I be stupid enough to shoot a gun near a nervous herd of cattle?” Sonny continued to eat. “I’ve been called a lot of things,” Sonny said calmly, “But stupid ain’t one of them.”
“How about it, Miles?” Johnny heard Silas behind him. “Your brother might not be stupid but I can’t say the same about you.”
“Why you!” Miles began to reach for his gun. He abruptly stopped when he saw Johnny’s gun pointing at his forehead.
Sonny started to stand up, his hand grabbing his Colt. The click of the hammer of Val’s gun must have changed his mind because he slowly moved his hand and sat back down.
“Now,” Johnny began. “I think we’re all waiting to hear what you have to say.”
Miles flushed and looked down at his brother. Sonny just shrugged. “Well, you see,” he stammered. “This heifer had just dropped a calf and I was just doing my job.”
Johnny eased off the hammer of his gun and slid the Colt back into its holster. “You telling me that all this started because you were culling the herd?” he asked in disbelief.
“Silas was right. You are a stupid son of a bitch.” Johnny swiftly moved in closer to Miles and belted him one. Miles was caught by surprise and didn’t have time to defend himself. He dropped like a stone.
Johnny lifted his leg to give the man a kick. “Johnny!” He turned to the sound of Ben Sanders voice. Ben strode over to where Miles lay. He looked at Sonny.
“Thanks to your asshole of a brother, we’re down two men. If I could, I’d let both of you go. But God help me, I need both of you to get these cattle to the Crossing. I’m telling you now though, when this is over, you two can find somewhere else to go. We don’t need you in Brackett.”
Sonny snorted. “Old Man, I don’t need you telling me anything. You don’t have to worry about me and my brother. We’ll stay on this drive because I like to see a job to the end.” Sonny stood and brushed by Val. He stood in front of Johnny and stared him in the eye. “As for you Madrid, you’ll find that the Yates’ brothers have long memories. You might want to think on that.”
Sonny grabbed a cup of water and splashed it onto his brother’s face. As Miles came to, Sonny helped him up and the two of them went to their bedrolls on the other side of the campfire.
Johnny, along with the others, watched the two men pull their blankets over their heads as if to shut out the disapproving stares.
Silas moved his things away from the brothers and settled himself by Ben Sanders’ gear. Ben patted Johnny on his back as he walked past to his own bed.
Johnny felt Toni stand beside him and slip her arm around his waist. He looked down and toed his boot into the dust.
“Better watch your back, Johnny,” Val warned.
Johnny just nodded. He looked back up at his friends and sighed.
“You should have let me kill him. Now I’ll just have to wait until later.” His voice grew hard. “’Cause I’ll tell you now, he ain’t the kind to let it go and I’m just the kind to oblige him.”
Gauntlet thrown, Johnny moved Toni’s arm and walked away from his friends.
The day after the stampede, the group limped into Fort Lancaster. The fort had been used before the War Between the States, but had been abandoned when Texas joined the Confederacy. Johnny looked at the almost deserted buildings. He could see that some places were occupied, squatters he supposed.
Ben Sanders rode up beside him. “Nice location for a fort, isn’t it?” he asked Johnny. “Plenty of water and grass here. I heard a rumor that the Army might just reclaim this fort next year.”
Ben swept his arm toward the hills surrounding the fort. “Comanches have been giving this area fits. They steal the settlers’ stock, kidnap their womenfolk and children, then trade it all to the Comancheros.”
Johnny nodded. He’d heard how cattle was stolen and sometimes even sold back to the original owners! “You think we might have some trouble?” he asked.
Ben rested his hands on the saddle horn and stretched his back. He stared at the herd for a minute, then turned to Johnny. “With the way our luck’s been on this trip, I wouldn’t expect anything less. I hope I’m surprised, but pass the word that we need to be on the lookout. Besides the Comanche, there’s plenty of renegades out there; outlaws, army deserters, ex-Confederates. Those damn Comancheros will trade with anybody.” Ben snorted his displeasure.
“We’re a pretty skimpy bunch, someone might think we’d be easy pickings,” Johnny mused.
“Well, we’ll stay on this side of the Pecos and follow it up to Horsehead Crossing. That’s where Goodnight will have to cross. We only got about eighty miles to go. If we’re lucky we should only have to babysit these beeves another six days.”
Ben looked at Johnny and grinned. “Makes you wonder why people go into the ranching business, doesn’t it?”
Johnny grinned at his boss. “Mr. Sanders, if I ever have to look at a cow other than the one on my plate, it’ll be too soon for me.”
“Ha!” Ben snorted. He started to turn his horse. “You may be right at that, Johnny. You just may be right.”
Johnny watched Sanders ride away. His grin died as he began to worry his stampede string. He scanned the herd and searched for Toni. He frowned when he saw Miles Yates helping her with the remuda. It was a given that Miles was an asshole, some people were just born that way. What he couldn’t figure out though, was if Miles was more than that.
Well, he didn’t trust Miles or his brother and wouldn’t until something proved otherwise. He’d get Silas to help with the horses. Silas was a good guy, but wasn’t so great at handling cattle. That way he, Val and Jack could keep an eye on Miles and Sonny.
Johnny nudged his horse forward. He wanted to tell Val and Jack his plan. Six days babysitting these cows was six days too many for his peace of mind.
Except for the sounds of forks clanking on tin plates, the camp was quiet. Val sat beside Johnny and Toni and handed them some biscuits he’d grabbed. “I don’t know about you two, but I’m plumb tuckered out. Look yonder,” Val nodded his head toward Silas. “That boy has fallen asleep with a fork in his hand.”
Toni got up and took the plate and fork from Silas’ hand. She gently laid him on the ground and covered him with his blanket. The kid never even woke up.
She started to walk back to the cook wagon but stopped in front of Val and Johnny. “You two need anything else?” she asked. Johnny noticed the dark circles under her eyes and a pinched look around her mouth. Her hair was more undone than braided and her shirt was all catawampus.
“Why don’t you go on and turn in miel? We’re good.” Johnny grabbed her hand and squeezed.
“Yeah, Toni. Go on. We’ll put these plates in the soaking bucket. You’re looking pretty beat.” Val stood and picked up his things.
“Val Crawford! Are you trying to tell me I look a mess?” Toni gave him a tired grin.
Johnny chuckled as Val began to backtrack. “Uh, no honey. You look fine, real fine. I just thought I’d do you a favor.” Val waved his hand at Toni’s hair. “I just thought you might want to fix your hair,” he now waved his hand toward her clothes,” Or fix your clothes or rest a bit.” Val’s voice trailed off as Johnny and Toni both burst into laughter.
“Comedians. That’s who I’m riding with, comedians. I try to be nice and….” Val muttered as he snatched Johnny’s mess kit out of his hands, stomped toward the cook wagon and dumped everything in the bucket of soapy water. He continued to mutter as he walked past Johnny and Toni, grabbed his bedroll and saddle, and fixed his bed for the night.
Johnny’s hand still in hers, Toni pulled him up. Together they walked to their own gear. As they both settled down for the night, Johnny could hear Val’s and Ben Sander’s snores. He smiled wearily. They’re as loud as a train. It didn’t matter, tonight he would be able to sleep through anything. They only had enough hands left for two night shifts. He, Val, Silas and Ben had watched the cattle and horses while Jack, Miles and Sonny came in, got a bite to eat and slept for a few hours. They had switched around midnight. Johnny tried to get comfortable. Eighteen hours in the saddle wasn’t something he was used to.
“Johnny?” Toni called softly to him.
“When we get the money delivered can we please go back to Mexico?”
“I thought you wanted to see how ordinary gringos live?” Johnny teased.
“I don’t think I’m ready to be ordinary, Johnny.” He thought she almost sounded disappointed.
He settled his hat over his eyes and started to drift off.
“What Antonia?” he answered from under his hat.
“If we ever do get to be ordinary, will you promise that we’ll never have cows?”
“I promise princesa. Will you go to sleep now?”
“Si. Buenas noches, amorcito.”
Johnny woke with a jerk. Pulling on his boots, he shouted for the others to wake up. He could hear shots being fired in the distance. “Saddle your horses. Toni, pick out a horse for Tad.”
Johnny ran to the string of horses. Toni hurried to catch up.
“Saddle one for you and one for Tad. Don’t bother hitching up the wagon. Stay here but be ready to ride out if you see trouble.”
Toni turned around and hurried back to the wagon to get Carl’s saddle and tack. The lighting of the sky let her find the saddle quickly. She paused for a minute and sighed, then tugged the saddle free and carried it back to the horses. Val, Silas and Ben had joined Johnny and were cinching up their horses. They quickly mounted and reached down to take the extra ammo Tad held up to them.
“Toni!” Johnny called out. She ran to him and laid her hand on his thigh. Bending over, Johnny gave her a kiss. “Get your gun out and be on the lookout.”
“Be careful, Johnny!”
He nodded to her and pulled on the reins. “Keep her safe, Tad!” he called. Val moved beside him as they rode toward the herd. Johnny could still hear shots being fired. He had a good idea of what had happened as he remembered his earlier conversation with Ben Sanders at Fort Lancaster four days ago.
It didn’t take long for the four men to reach the herd. Johnny quickly saw that the attackers had divided into two groups. One group was even now driving part of the herd north toward the Llano Estacado. Jack and the Yates brothers were fighting the second group to keep them from successfully making off with the rest of the herd.
“Surround them best you can!” Johnny yelled at the men with him.
Spurring his horse, he rode into the middle of the fray. Now that he was closer, he could see that this wasn’t a Comanche band but rather a hodgepodge mix of everything. He raised his gun and sent a Mexican to his Maker while Val was ahead chasing an Indian with light brown hair.
The Indian fired and Val’s horse stumbled and fell. The Indian swirled his horse around and charged Val. “Val!” Johnny shouted.
Val threw himself to the ground as Johnny rammed his horse into the side of the Indian’s horse. The breed’s horse fell as he jumped free. Just as he brought his rifle up to fix Johnny in his sights, the Indian fell backwards from the force of the bullet to his head, his rifle dropping from lifeless hands.
“Grab his horse,” shouted Johnny to Val. Val holstered his still smoking gun and ran to gather the reins of the now ownerless horse.
Once mounted, Johnny pointed up ahead. Silas’s horse was running away from the chaos. Johnny didn’t see Silas anywhere.
Ben Sanders was now trying to fire his gun left-handed, his gun arm hanging limply by his side.
Johnny motioned to Val. “Go help Sanders. I’ll see to this group here.”
As Val rode off, Johnny caught up with several of the renegades attempting to drive off the remaining horses. Miles and Jack were giving chase. Johnny got in position ahead of the chase. As the renegades were busy fleeing those behind them, they now had Johnny Madrid waiting for them ahead.
The cast-offs pulled back on their horses. Their horses reared and spun around only to be met by Miles and Jack. Boxed in, the rustlers tried to force their way out with firepower but they were no match for a determined Johnny and Jack. Miles hit one rider, Johnny and Jack took care of the rest.
As Johnny twisted in his saddle to see where he was needed next, he saw a lone renegade riding hell bent for leather. “Never mind him!” Johnny called out to Sonny. Johnny, Jack and Miles watched Sonny stop giving chase. He reached for his rifle. “It’s too far,” thought Johnny.
“What the hell is that?” Johnny asked Jack and Miles as he watched Sonny pull out the longest rifle Johnny had ever seen.
“It’s a ‘Mississippi Rifle’,” replied Jack.
“He’ll make it,” smirked Miles. “That thing has a range of 600 yards.”
Even as they spoke, Sonny stood in the stirrups and sighting his prey down the long muzzle of that gun, fired. Johnny watched as the outlaw flung his arms out and pitched forward. His horse never stopped running as its master now lay on the ground.
“See! I told you he’d make the kill. Me and my brother never miss.” Miles bragged. He spurred his horse to catch up with his brother.
Johnny looked at Jack, eyebrow raised. “Never misses, huh? Now that’s interesting.”
Johnny and Jack both looked down at the one lone outlaw killed by Miles.
Johnny jerked his head back up at a shout from Val. His friend, Silas and Mr. Sanders were riding toward them. Val and Silas were riding double, Silas being held by Crawford.
“How is he?” Johnny asked.
“He’ll be okay once Toni has finished doctoring him. Got a new part in his hair and it’s made him loopy.” Val shifted his hold on the young man.
“Mr. Sanders?” Johnny looked at his boss.
“Shoulder, clean through. What about you two?” Ben asked.
“I’m fine,” replied Johnny. “Looks like the same barber wanted to work on Jack’s hair, too.” He grabbed his handkerchief and handed it to Jack.
“Just a crease,” Jack said as he took the offered rag.
“I’m guessing those two are okay?” Ben waved toward Miles and Sonny who were still whooping and hollering over the shot Sonny had made.
The men looked toward the brothers. Johnny saw that he didn’t seem to be the only one with questions.
Ben sighed and did his best to wipe the sweat from his eyes one handed. “Well, near as I can tell, we lost some cattle and horses, but it could have been worse. Let’s get back to camp, take care of our wounded and figure out how the hell what’s left of us are going to drive this herd to Horsehead Crossing.”
Mr. Sanders turned his horse toward camp, Val following. He shouted to Miles and Sonny and waved his arm for them to go with them. Johnny nudged his horse to walk behind the group.
Jack rode beside him and gave him a look.
“What?” asked Johnny.
Jack eyeballed Johnny’s side. “You’re bleeding. I thought you said you were fine.”
“I am fine. I ain’t dead, am I? I’m still riding a horse, ain’t I?” groused Johnny.
Jack snorted. “I’ll let you be the one to tell Toni.”
Johnny’s eyes widen as he realized who he’d have to fight next.
“Ah, come on, Jack. Don’t tell. Really, I’m fine. Give me my handkerchief back so I can fix this up.” Johnny kept begging as Jack rode away.
Jack turned his head and shouted back to Johnny. “If you don’t tell, I will and that’ll make her even madder. You know it puts her in a bad mood when you forget to duck.”
Johnny caught up with Jack. “Fifty dollars and you don’t tell.”
Jack snorted. “You don’t have fifty dollars. Besides, my momma didn’t raise a fool. I don’t want Toni mad at me.”
Jack spurred his horse to go faster. “Just think, you know she’s been itching to try out those new potions Maddie taught her.”
“Amigo! Por favor!” Johnny was desperate. Right now he’d rather face the bandits who had gotten away than Toni. Jack knew it too. That asshole was laughing his head off.
Johnny sighed and hung his head. “Well, might as well let her buck.” He spurred his horse toward camp to face the inevitable.
Johnny had never been so glad to see another herd of cows than those belonging to Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. Those two had had a time getting their cattle across Horsehead Crossing. The cattle had panicked and between the melee and the quicksand at the crossing, Goodnight had lost about three hundred head of cattle. Ben Sanders’ arrival with cattle to sell had been at just the right time. Sanders got a good price.
The two groups had parted ways early this morning. Without the herd, the group going back to Brackett was making good time. Tonight was the first night since the cattle drive had begun that everyone ate at the same time. Johnny stretched out, his back against his saddle, legs crossed at the ankles. As he lifted his cup, coffee sloshed over the side.
“Watch it!” he grumbled as he wiped his hand down his shirt.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to bump ya,” Val said as he scooted over. He’d just sat back down from getting seconds in the chow line.
“Toni told me to tell you that we’re going to have start hunting. Rations are getting scarce.” Jack sat down on the other side of Johnny, leaving a space for Toni in between.
“Yeah, I wonder how those sacks got holes in them? We must have left a trail of beans from Horsehead Crossing to here. Reminds me of a story my momma used to tell me about two kids who got lost in the woods.” Jack used his last biscuit to sop up his beans.
“What are you three talking about?” Toni asked as she sat next to the men. Everyone did some shifting as Tad, Silas and Ben Sanders tried to join the four friends. Toni held Mr. Sanders’ plate for him as he awkwardly sat down, his arm in a sling throwing off his balance.
Miles and Sonny looked at the group, their plates in their hands. No one bothered to make a place for them. They settled themselves across from the group.
“Oh,” drawled Johnny, “we were just talking about how we’ve made a lot of critters happy with a trail of rations leading to here.”
Miles spoke up, flecks of biscuits shooting out of his mouth as he talked. “Mighty careless of you Tad. I didn’t aim on having to go hungry when I signed up for this.”
“Why you…” Tad angrily bit back.
Johnny interrupted. “Lots of things happened on this trip that most of us didn’t sign up for, Miles. I don’t think you can blame Tad for the holes in the food sacks anymore than you can blame him for the rattlesnake hiding in the wagon or the stampede.”
“You trying to lay the blame on someone else, Madrid?” Sonny barked.
Johnny uncrossed his legs and sat up. The sounds of spoons scraping on tin plates ceased. “I’m not trying anything. Just thinking out loud, Sonny.”
Johnny saw everyone’s head turn to look at Sonny.
“Acts of God, that’s what it was. What else could it be?” Sonny began shoving his food in his mouth.
“Well now, Sonny, ‘Acts of God’ wasn’t quite the way I would have said it.” Johnny leaned back across his saddle again and his hand adjusted the holster on his leg. “But maybe you’re better acquainted with Him than me.”
Sonny stood up and faced Johnny. “You got a fast mouth on you, boy. You better watch it.”
Johnny set his cup down and settled his hat over his eyes then crossed his arms over his chest. “It isn’t my fast mouth people have to watch out for Sonny, or haven’t you figured that out yet?
Clyde learnt that lesson a little too late.”
The veins on Sonny’s neck bulged and he took a step forward. Other than Johnny, the rest of the group stared hard at him.
Sonny turned around and kicked his brother. “Come on,” he growled. Still shoving food in his mouth, Miles got up and followed. By the wagon, Sonny put his plate down and knocked the plate out of his brother’s hands. Grabbing Miles by the arm, he dragged his brother toward the horses.
The group that was left quietly resumed eating.
“You made an enemy, Johnny,” said Val.
Johnny spoke from beneath his hat. “He’s always been the enemy, Val. Just haven’t got it all figured yet.”
“I don’t want you by yourself. You stick with Tad and Mr. Sanders. This country is poor pickings for hunting. Reckon it will take the rest of us to hunt supper. We’ll let Miles and Sonny guard the rest of the remuda.”
Johnny took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his eyes with his sleeve. He looked at Jack next to him. “You reckon Val and Silas are having any luck?”
“I sure hope so.” Jack leaned over and spit on the ground. “I’m still picking out rattlesnake from my teeth from last night. That was the stringiest yet. Good thing we’ll be in Brackett tomorrow. These past few days with little food have been tough.”
Johnny put his hat back on his head and grabbed his canteen. “Wish Sanders hadn’t sold all his cattle. A nice juicy steak would go down good right now.”
Both men laughed but stopped when they saw several horses running free ahead of them.
“Isn’t those ours?” Jack asked in a surprised voice.
Johnny fought down the panic he felt in the pit of his stomach. He turned his horse toward camp. “Go get Val and Silas and see if you can find Miles and Sonny. Meet me back at camp. I’m going to check on Toni.”
Not waiting to hear Jack’s answer, Johnny spurred his horse toward camp. Toni, Tad and Ben Sanders had stayed with the cook wagon and had stopped to try to fix something for lunch. They’d been hoping the men would find something better than rattlesnake to eat. Game was poor in this part of the country and Johnny, Val, Jack and Silas had to travel further afield to even find tracks.
Johnny could see the camp up ahead. There was no place for cover. His eyes scanned the area as he slowed his horse. Lying on the ground beside the wagon was Tad. Ben Sanders was lying motionless beside the campfire. Sonny was standing in the wagon, grabbing things, tearing through them then throwing them onto the ground.
He readied his gun and stopped his horse just shy of shooting range.
“Toni!” he yelled.
Sonny stopped and straightened up. He didn’t bother reaching for his gun but yelled instead for his brother.
Coming around the front of the still harnessed horses, Miles appeared with Toni. His left arm encircled her shoulders, his right hand held a gun to her head. Johnny could see that her shirt was torn down the front and she had a red mark on the side of her face.
Sonny jumped down from the wagon and walked over to Toni. He trailed his hands over her opened shirt as he grinned at Johnny.
“Drop your gun and get off your horse, Madrid.”
Hoping to buy some time until Val and Jack showed, Johnny did as he was told. He walked toward Toni and captured her eyes with his. He tried to tell her without words to hold on. Sonny met him half way.
“I was hoping you’d show up. I owe you something for killing my cousin Clyde.” Sonny drew back his fist and slammed it into Johnny’s jaw. The blow knocked him down and made him fuzzy headed but didn’t knock him completely out.
Johnny was aware of being dragged and propped against the wagon’s wheel. He felt hands grab his arms and tie them to the wheel. He felt the wagon sag as someone climbed back in.
“Miles, come help me find that money. We got to go!”
Johnny finally felt that he could open his eyes without his head falling off. He saw Miles pull Toni by the arm toward the wagon.
“Let her go, Miles. She ain’t going anywhere.” Johnny could hear Sonny above him.
Miles pushed Toni down beside Johnny and climbed into the wagon with his brother.
“Escapar!” he frantically whispered to Toni.
“No te dejaré,” Toni worked at the ropes binding his arms and began to reach for her boot knife.
“You have to leave me! Toni, please!” Johnny begged.
“Found it!” Johnny and Toni both looked up at the sound of Sonny’s voice.
She crouched away from Johnny when she heard the wagon creak. Looking around the wheel, Johnny could see two pairs of boots hit the ground and walk around the side of the wagon.
“Hey!” Miles shouted.
Toni jumped up and ran. Johnny watched as she almost made it to his horse. Miles caught up with her and reached out and jerked her to the ground by her braid. She scrambled up and tried to get back to the horse. Miles grabbed her around her waist and lifted her up as he walked back to the wagon.
“¡Déjeme en paz!” Toni kicked and tried to push his hands away from her waist.
Miles threw her to the ground in front of Johnny. “I’ll leave you alone bitch when I’m through playing with ya.”
Sonny stood by Johnny. “See there Madrid? If you’d have been like anybody else and minded your own business, none of this would have happened.”
Sonny nodded to his brother who stood over Toni. “Looks like you’re going to get a fine show today before my brother sends you to hell.”
Sonny hefted the heavy money sack into the air. “Me? I’m going to go into the town and deliver this to Mooney.”
Sonny looked at his brother. “Miles, when you finish with her, kill them both and join me in town. I’ll be with Della. Mooney owes me. I’m getting pretty tired of pretending to be just a cowboy.”
Miles was surprised. “You don’t want some of this? It’s free.
Sonny snorted. “Miles, you’d rut with anything. Free or not, I’m not dirtying myself with no half-breed. I’m more particular than you.”
“You didn’t always used to be so picky, big brother. You’re thinking you’re pretty big now, don’t ‘cha?” Miles saw that Toni was trying to crawl away and he gave her a hard kick to stop her.
“Besides, Sonny, Mooney ain’t going to share Della with you.”
Johnny looked up sharply at Sonny with narrowed eyes.
“You son of a bitch.”
Sonny smiled. “Ah, I wondered when you would figure it out, Madrid.” Sonny went to his horse and put the money in his saddlebag. He hefted himself into the saddle. Before he rode away he looked one last time at Johnny. “Too bad you didn’t figure it out before now.” Sonny nodded toward Toni and Miles.
“My brother doesn’t play very nice.” He laughed then rode out of camp.
“You’re dead, Miles. If not by me, then by my friends.” Johnny ground out his words.
Miles laughed and grabbed Toni’s legs. She kicked him and he loosened his grip. She got on her hands and knees and started to stand when he grabbed her braid and jerked her back to him.
“Leave her alone, Miles!” Johnny shouted.
“¡Déjeme en paz!” she shouted.
Johnny could only watch as Toni continued to try to get away from Miles. Every time she was successful at wrenching away from his grip, Miles would grab her braid and fling her back down.
Finally tired of toying with her like a cat with its prey, Miles flung her hard on her back. Winded, she lay still as Miles straddled her and began to unbutton her pants on the side. He then sat back on his heels and undid his belt.
Johnny watched as Toni brought her hands down and fumbled with the waistband of her pants. Her hands closed into fists, she turned her head to Johnny and looked into his eyes. He gave a nod and mouthed, ‘Te amo’. She turned her head and as Miles lowered himself over her body, she took her fists and pushed as hard as she could against his chest.
Johnny watched as Miles sat up and looked down at the knife that now protruded from his chest. Like so many others Johnny had seen, Miles had that same look of disbelief on his face when he collapsed on top of Toni.
“Toni! Toni!” Johnny called as he struggled to free his arms to no avail.
He panicked when she didn’t answer him. “Toni! Answer me!”
He watched as she slowly scooted herself out from under Miles and sat beside the body. She was covered in blood, dirt and bruises. Her clothes were torn to shreds. She ignored Johnny’s continued calls and reached into her boot and brought out her other knife.
As Johnny heard the sound of horses riding hard into camp, he watched Toni grab her braid and saw it off with her knife. When done, she dropped her knife and braid and sat with bowed head.
It was late afternoon when the stage pulled into Brackett. The stagecoach gave a jerk as the grizzled driver pulled hard on the reins, stopped, then pulled back on the brake. The tired horses jerked their heads, worried their bits and stomped first one foot then another as they began to settle from their hard run. They were well-trained horses and regulars to this route. They knew that supper, fresh water and a roll on the ground would soon be coming.
Brackett was small enough that the arrival of the stage was still one of the most interesting things of the day. Some town folk, like the sheriff, didn’t try to mask their curiosity at who had arrived in town. Others, like the two men holding up the front wall of Douglas’ Saloon two doors down weren’t as blatant about their intentions.
A scuffling, a slap and a child’s cry sounded from the stage as the express agent opened the door. A man wearing a religious collar emerged from the stage first. A rather large woman with a small child squeezed her way through the door. She waved to a small man standing not far away. “Papa!” “Elmer!” The express agent placed some steps underneath the stagecoach for the woman to walk down.
A stylishly dressed young woman emerged from the stage next. As she ducked before stepping down, her overly large hat brushed the top of the door opening. One hand on her hat and the other on her skirt, she had difficulty maneuvering through the opening. She was small, but getting out of the stage with her hooped skirt required some skill. The express agent held out his hand for her to grab before stepping down but she seemed hesitant about where to put her feet. The driver leaned over from his seat on top, “Hurry up, lady! Ray, get her down.” Finally the express agent grabbed one arm and pulled while a shadowy figure still in the stage pushed. The woman popped out of the stage door like a baby foal being born. The express agent grabbed her left arm while the reverend hurried over and grabbed her right. Together, both men lifted her up and set her on the firm terra.
The remaining passengers, an older gray-haired man and a short rotund man with shabby clothes, disembarked from the stage a tad bit more gracefully than the ladies.
Baggage was collected from their perch atop the stage and greetings were called out as the passengers were met by friends and family. The portly man patted the young woman on her arm and grabbed two bags before both headed past the saloon to the hotel down the street.
The two men in front of the saloon looked at each other with puzzled glances. “Wasn’t that the right stage?” Jack asked.
“That’s what I was told,” replied Val.
Jack sighed and began walking toward the stage. “He isn’t going to be too happy if we lose her.”
Val followed and the two men stopped in front of the stage driver.
Now that the passengers had all departed, the sheriff and other nosey spectators had left, supposedly to resume their daily routine.
Jack looked in the empty stage. He peered under the seats.
Val slapped his arm. “She ain’t hiding.”
“Say mister,” Val asked the driver. “Did you see anyone in Fulton who had planned to make the stage but didn’t?”
The driver paused from unhooking the horses from their traces. “Nope, the station master didn’t say anything about anyone missing. Six passengers paid and six got on.” The driver dismissed Jack and Val and continued his work.
The two men walked toward the hotel. Val rubbed his hand over his stubbled chin and Jack rubbed the back of his neck.
“The woman rides hundreds, no, make that thousands of miles across Mexico and the border states without a compass or map or anything. How in the hell does she get lost stepping into a stage, sitting her butt down and letting someone else drive her to Brackett?” Jack’s shoulders slumped. “He’s gonna kill us.”
Val laid a heavy hand across Jack’s shoulders. “Let’s go get something to eat. He won’t be in until late. Maybe we can figure out something to tell him by then.”
A good meal was followed by several rounds of drinks as the two friends tried to agree on a good enough story that would keep Madrid from staring them down. “Shh,” the desk clerk called out as they noisily tried to climb the stairs to their room. “You’ll wake the other guests.”
“Sorry,” burped Val.
Giving them a look of disgust, the clerk lifted the bar of the counter and dropping it down firmly behind him, walked through a door in the back.
Val and Jack reached their room and Jack fumbled with the key. As Jack opened the door, he turned to look at Val behind him “We never did come up with a good story to explain how we lost her.”
“Lost who?” a familiar voice came from inside the room.
Val reached around Jack and putting his hand over Jack’s hand, pulled the door closed. “Think fast.”
They both looked at the doorknob as it slowly turned and the door creaked opened. “Who did you lose, amigos?” Johnny stepped back from the door and waited for his friends to enter the room. He shut the door behind them.
Johnny leaned his back against the door; arms crossed, one foot on the floor, the other bent at the knee, the sole of his boot marking up the door. He stared at Val and Jack.
“Well, you see Johnny, it’s like this.” Val began. “We waited just like you told us for the stage. We watched all the passengers get off the stage until none were left!”
“I even looked under the seats!” Jack nodded earnestly.
“And she wasn’t there?” Johnny asked.
“No! There were only two women on the stage, one was an older large woman with a squalling brat and the other was a young lady dressed real fancy, hoop skirts and everything!”
Jack interrupted Val. “And there weren’t no young men on the stage either, just old men and a preacher. Val here, even checked with the driver to make sure they hadn’t left her in Fulton.”
Johnny uncrossed his arms and pushed himself away from the door. He walked to the connecting door of Val’s and Jack’s room and turned the knob.
“And this young lady dressed all fancy,” he began as he opened the door. “She wouldn’t have looked like this, would she?”
Jack and Val crowded behind Johnny and peered over his shoulder.
Sitting in a chair in her fancy dress, eating a sandwich, was the lady in question. No longer wearing the oversize hat, her short hair was pulled back with a becoming ribbon. She laid her sandwich down and grinned at the two men. “Val. Jack,” she nodded at the two men. “Had supper, yet?”
“Toni!” both men exclaimed.
They pushed Johnny out of the way and stood beside her. Johnny left the room and returned with two chairs from Val’s and Jack’s room. Ignoring Johnny, the two men sat down and scooted their chairs closer to Toni.
Sitting in the empty seat beside her, Johnny picked up his own sandwich and resumed eating. His eyes twinkled as he listened to his two friends try to out talk each other to get their questions answered.
“Look at you,” Jack said admiringly. “You’re all dressed up like an ordinary city woman.”
“Where did you get that outfit?” Val asked.
“Maddie and Ben Sanders’ wife, Betty, fixed me up.” Toni drank some coffee. “Will Sanders leg was well enough for him to drive me into Fulton. I got on the stage there.”
“Well, I never would have believed it!” Val was still amazed at the difference in Toni’s look. He suddenly frowned. “Uh, Toni?” He cleared his throat. “I don’t mean to insult you or anything, but how are you gonna pass? Johnny here will keep Sonny so busy at the Sol y Luna ranch you probably won’t run into him and blow your cover.” Val cleared his throat again. “But if you’re to keep Mooney occupied while Jack and I work on the town folk, well, I’ve heard what he thinks about Mexicans. And, well, you’re too dark to be just a gringa.”
Jack turned to Val. “Yeah, but look at her now. Her face is as red as a beet.”
Val tilted his head to the side and stared at Toni. He then looked at Jack. “You’re right. Her face is all red. Maybe she’s sick. I bet she’s got something in that carpet bag she brung that will fix her up.”
Johnny burst out laughing and Toni narrowed her eyes and frowned first at Johnny, then at Val and Jack.
“She is feeling just fine. Her face is all red because she is wearing forty pounds of clothes in the middle of Texas in July!” Toni took another gulp of coffee and sat the cup down, the china cup making a cracking noise as it hit the china plate underneath.
“Oh.” Val studied his boots.
“Well, glad to see that you made it,” Jack said brightly as he stood up. “You going back out tonight, Johnny?”
“No, not tonight. Order breakfast in tomorrow for the two of you. Toni will order in, too. Between the three of you, there should be enough for me. We’ll make some more plans then.”
Val and Jack stood and grabbed their chairs to return to their room. As they left, Val stopped by the door and looked over at Toni.
“Toni?” Val hesitated. “You do look awfully pretty in that get up.”
Toni smiled. “Thanks Val.”
Val ducked his head and gave a little nod before pulling the door shut behind him.
Some time later, Val had finished cleaning his gun, pulled off his boots and shirt and started to unbuckle his belt. On the bed across from him, Jack had one boot off and was beginning to pull off the other boot.
For the past half hour, Val and Jack had been hearing strange noises coming from Johnny and Toni’s room. Val wasn’t worried that the other hotel guests would hear anything, Toni’s room was the last on the hall by the back stairs, their own rooms connected.
The walls weren’t so thin that he could tell what was being said, but Val recognized the tone in Johnny’s and Toni’s voices. Both of them were growing increasingly frustrated and had a disgusted tone to their voices.
Suddenly, the door to the connecting rooms opened and Johnny’s head popped through the doorway.
“Val! Jack! Come help me get Toni out of her clothes.” Johnny’s head disappeared back into his own room.
Val and Jack didn’t move, they just stared at each other.
They did turn their heads toward the connecting door when Johnny appeared in the doorway again. This time his voice was snippy.
“Will you two hurry up? We want to go to bed. Come in here and help me get her clothes off.” Johnny disappeared back into his room.
Jack dropped his leg that still wore a boot and slowly stood. Val slowly moved his way to the door. Jack followed haltingly behind, one boot on, one boot off. They both were startled when Toni called out to them from the other room. “Hurry up! I can’t wait much longer!”
Hesitantly, they stood in the doorway and watched as Johnny grabbed Toni’s knife from her hand.
“If you don’t hurry up and get me out of these clothes, I’m going to cut them off!” she exclaimed.
“Oh, no, you’re not!” Johnny ran a hand through his hair. “You mess up those clothes and you won’t have much else to change into and you’ll have to explain the ruined clothes to Maddie.”
He looked toward the door and saw Val and Jack. “Don’t just stand there, come help. She’s got to pee and we can’t figure how these clothes work!”
It was a wonder that all the guests in the hotel weren’t woken by the laughter that rang out from Val and Jack. Val had to lean against the door jamb to steady himself and Jack bent over and held on to his knees.
“Are you two finished?” Val’s and Jack’s laughter quieted down to snickers as they faced a disgusted Toni and Johnny Madrid.
“How did you get into the clothes if you don’t know how they work?” Jack walked over to Toni and helped her undo her many petticoats and the hoops she wore underneath.
Val whispered to Johnny. “Haven’t you ever been with a gringa before?”
Johnny whispered back, Toni was already mad enough. “Well, yeah but they was just saloon girls. They don’t wear these kinds of clothes.”
Jack turned her around and began to unknot her corset.
“Wait!” Toni pulled away from him and ran to Val and Jack’s room, slamming the door behind her. “Don’t come in!” she yelled.
A few minutes later, the door between the rooms opened and a calmer Toni walked into her own room. She walked to Jack and turned her back to him. “You can finish, now.”
“Uh, Toni?” Jack haltingly asked. “You know how those pantalets are made, right? Why didn’t you just lift your dress up and go?”
“Yes, I know how these things are made. That’s why I’m wearing long johns underneath,” Toni answered smugly.
“Long johns! Toni you aren’t supposed to wear long johns underneath. No wonder you were about to roast!”
Seeing the puzzled looks Johnny and Val were giving her, Toni waited until her corset was off before walking to her carpetbag. Reaching in, she pulled out a pair of pantalets and holding them out exposed the slit crotch.
“Do you see what thesegringas wear? I guess they just stand and pee right there. Those hoops hold their skirts out enough that it don’t matter.”
“All these ordinary women turn their noses up at me for wearing pants, say I’m not ‘lady’ enough with the way I dress. Some of them have even questioned my morals because I don’t dress like they do.” Toni waved the offending article of clothing like a flag.
Val and Jack began to back their way to their room.
“Well, I’m never gonna let it bother me again. I’m covered more decent than they are. And what if someone should jump them? At least with my pants, while they’re trying to get the buttons undone, I got more time to get away.” Toni continued to rant.
Johnny followed Val and Jack to the door. Val whispered to Johnny. “You want to stay in our room tonight? She sure is riled up.”
Johnny could hear Toni still fussing about so-called ‘good women’. He grinned. “Thanks Val but I don’t think so.” As he started to pull the door shut behind Val and Jack, Johnny paused. “Better make it a late breakfast.” The door clicked shut behind Val and Jack.
The next morning after breakfast, Johnny waited in Val’s and Jack’s room while a maid helped Toni dress. Jack thought it would look less suspicious since Toni wasn’t supposed to be traveling with anyone and no one was supposed to know Johnny was there.
“You can come in now,” Toni called out.
Johnny walked into the room and over to the bed. He lay on his side across the bed making sure his spurs hung off the edge. Toni had called him on it the first night at that hotel they’d stayed in, Mesilla, and he always made it a point to remember the things that put her into a snit. Thank God there weren’t many! He propped his head up with his arm and watched Toni brush her hair at the bureau.
“Val was right last night, you do look fine in those clothes.” Johnny reached his arm out as she put the brush down and walked over to the bed. Grabbing his hand, she sat beside him.
She gave him a little smile then looked down at their clasped hands. Johnny sat up and lifted her chin. He stared into her eyes. “But then, you always look fine to me.”
Swinging his legs off the bed, he stood and pulled her up with him. “Ready to get the good sheriff eating out of your hand?” he asked.
“I…guess so.” Toni walked back to the bureau and played with the brush.
Johnny stood behind her and rested both hands on her shoulders. As he gave her shoulders a squeeze, she looked up and stared at their reflection in the mirror. Johnny could see sadness in her eyes.
“You don’t have to do this now, ya know, “he spoke to their reflection and began kneading her shoulders. “We can figure something else out. It hasn’t been that long since….”
Toni put down the brush, reached up and stilled his hands on her shoulders. “It’s okay. It needs to be done. I need to do this.” She gave him a little smile. “Who knows? Maybe we both can slay some of those giants Jack’s always telling us about in those stories of his.”
Johnny kissed the back of her neck. “I hope so.”
The townspeople of Brackett were all aflutter. The young lady who had arrived on the stage the day before had finally emerged from the hotel. The women in town suddenly remembered why they, too, needed to visit the store when the lady in question entered Brackett’s Emporium. The storekeepers decided that their doorsteps needed sweeping or that now was a good time to clean their front windows. It was too fine of a day for the saloon regulars to drink indoors, so they sat on the benches that lined the front of the saloon and drank their beers there instead. They made room for the scruffy-looking cowboy who had been hanging around lately.
It was some time before the young lady emerged from the store. Roy, owner of Jenkins Dry Goods located next to the saloon, saw his wife talking to the young lady. She pointed down the street and after a few smiles and nodding of heads, the young lady turned away and walked in the direction Sally had pointed her. “Well, I saw that you met the new lady in town in my competitor’s store.” Roy Jenkins greeted his wife as she made her way to him.
“Now Roy, you know I wanted to meet her. We don’t get many visitors to our town and she’s such a lovely young lady.” Sally frowned. “Her ways are kinda strange though, she didn’t know a lot about the household goods Oscar had just gotten in.”
Sally Jenkin’s best friend, Mary, joined the group. The men from the saloon didn’t even pretend they weren’t eavesdropping.
“Now Sally, I told you, it’s plain as the nose on your face, the poor dear must have had money and lost it. Anyone can see that she’s a gentile, refined sort. I bet she’s used to having servants do all of her chores.”
Both women glared at the scruffy-looking cowboy as he snorted and guffawed. His laughter died under their steely gaze and he quickly took a gulp of his beer.
“You know, I bet she came from a plantation before the war. Mabel told me that she had some cousins that had a plantation and they never had to do a lick of work. They lost everything during the war and now they can’t do nothing but sit there and wring their hands while they stay in some boarding house.” Sally spoke with authority.
Mary nodded in sympathy. Sally was right about most things, well, at least she thought she was right about most things and that was the same thing. “Look Sally, here comes Mabel. Maybe she found out something else.”
Mabel didn’t bother greeting her two friends, her news was too important for niceties. “Ed was talking to Sheriff Mooney when that poor woman came by. He heard her tell the sheriff that she was looking for her brother. Seems he came out this way after the war and told her to meet him here. She was asking the sheriff if he’d seen him. Seems her brother was going to invest in a ranch out this way.”
Sally gave Mary a smug look. “I told you she was probably someone down on her luck after the war.” Sally looked back at Mabel. “Did Ed hear her name or where she was from?”
“Well, she looks Mexican to me so how can she be from the South?” Roy interjected.
Mabel gave him a disgusted look. “Well, Roy Jenkins, that shows how much you know. You’re no better than the sheriff, questioning that poor girl. He asked about her accent too. The girl asked him if he’d ever been to Louisiana and he said no. Ed said the girl then told the sheriff that was too bad because that’s where she’s from. She then asked the sheriff if he’d ever met any Cajun French people. Sheriff Mooney owned that he hadn’t. She said that was what she was.”
“Well, she still looks Mexican to me,” asserted Roy
“Roy!” All three women called him to task. “I’ve read about those French people around New Orleans. All you have to do is look at that poor girl and see that she’s no Mexican. Ed said that she even started saying a few things in French. He didn’t know what she said, but he would have recognized Spanish if he’d have heard it.” The look Sally gave Roy dared him to voice his opinion again.
“Well, did she ever say her name?” Mary thought Roy would have known better than to argue with his wife.
Mabel spoke up. “Yes, it’s Antoinette Lancer.
Val and Jack were already eating in the kitchen of the cantina when Johnny slipped in through the back door. Turned out the owner was a cousin of a man Johnny had helped in Mexico. Señor Mendozawas more than happy to repay the favor by letting Johnny slip in and out undetected.
“Well, I can see that you two waited on me,” Johnny said sarcastically.
Val paused with his fork in midair and grinned, “Like pigs at a trough!”
Johnny rolled his eyes and sat down. Before he could ask, a plate of food was placed in front of him. “Gracias,” he thanked Señora Mendoza.
“Well, how did it go today?” Johnny asked his two cohorts.
“Better than we’d imagined,” Jack replied. “Seems the women in town have decided to take her under their wing. They’ve decided that she’s some poor orphan from Louisiana.”
Jack took a drink of tequila. “Oh, and she’s French.”
Johnny sputtered, “French? How the hell is she pulling that off?”
“Oh, she just turns that smile on everyone,” Jack waved his hand in the air, “Says something in French every now and then and bats those blue eyes of hers.”
“And they believe it?” Johnny was astounded.
“Hook, line and sinker,” Val nodded.
“But she doesn’t know any French,” Johnny shook his head. “The only French she knows is that dirty song Jean taught her.”
Johnny’s eyes grew wide. “Don’t tell me she’s saying that!”
“I told you, you should have told her what the song meant. She just drops one of those words in the conversation like they were jewels and everyone eats it up. Before this is all over, this town is going to have the bawdiest talking ordinary folk there ever was!” Jack couldn’t hold the laughter in another minute.
Val had to set his glass down, he was shaking from laughter so much, beer was sloshing over the side.
Johnny grinned, ”So where is my poor orphan ‘French’ lady now?”
Val and Jack howled. They tried to muffle their laughter after the owner came in and tried to shush them. “You mean Antoinette Lancer?” Val wiped his eyes.
“Lancer! Don’t tell me she’s going by that name!” Johnny didn’t even try to eat anymore.
Jack nodded his head. “Yep, right now Antoinette Lancer is eating over at the hotel dining room with our good sheriff. I guess she remembered me telling her once that Antoinette is the French way of saying her name.”
Johnny looked hard at both his friends. “How’s he treating her?”
“I’ve been keeping an eye on her. He’s pretty well smitten and treating her well.” Val handed his empty plate to the Señora. “From what I can see, she’s the only one in town who’ll have anything to do with him.”
“How’s that going?” Johnny held out his plate for seconds.
“I’ve been able to talk to several storeowners. The banker hates Mooney’s guts. They all do actually. But they’re scared of him after seeing how he used to sic Clyde on anyone who tried to take a stand against him.”
“Yeah, Val’s right, Johnny.” Jack laid his fork on his plate and put his napkin on top. “I think we can do this legal if Toni can get some proof on who we think they are. It would be better for the town when all this is over. I found out that the Marshall is coming to Fort Clark in about two weeks.”
Johnny thanked the Señora for the second helping of tamales. “I guess you’re right, but if they step over the line just a bit…,” Johnny left the threat hanging in the air.
“You find out anything?” asked Val.
Johnny nodded and swallowed. “Sonny is pretty much staying at the Sol y Luna ranch. Seems he likes being a big shot now and sends everyone else to do the work.” Johnny snorted, “The cabrónhasn’t even noticed that his herd is slowly disappearing at those two ranches the Sol y Luna absorbed.”
“Won’t the hands tell him?” questioned Jack.
“I don’t think so,” Johnny grinned. “I had a little talk with them and they fear Madrid more than Yates.”
Chuckling, Val and Jack stood. Val stretched and patted his stomach. “Well, that was sure good eating. I think Jack and I am going over to the saloon and play a little poker. You need anything, Johnny?”
“I’m good. I’ll just sneak back to the hotel and wait for Toni in our room. I’m real interested to hear her version of how today went. Oh, wait. Bring back a bottle of tequila, will ya?” Johnny asked.
Jack clapped a hand on Johnny’s shoulder as he and Val walked past him to the door and left. The Señora asked Johnny if he wanted thirds but he declined. “Señora, I’m so full I’m about to bust. My friends were right, that was some good food. Gracias.”
Johnny shook hands with the owner and walked toward the door. Cautiously, he opened the door and looked both ways before entering the alley. As quiet as a cat, he made his way to the back of the hotel, climbed the back stairs and entered his room to wait for Toni.
A cry from next door woke Val. He looked at Jack and saw that it had awakened him also. They both lay there and listened to the sound of crying, then the sound of someone being sick. Val could hear the low tone of Johnny’s voice murmuring. Quietly, Val got out of bed and walked over to the connecting door. He tapped lightly. “Johnny? Everything okay?” The murmuring stopped and Val heard the pad of bare feet walk to the door.
Slowly the connecting door opened and Johnny stood there with the water jug. “We’re okay, she just had a nightmare. Do you have any more water?” Johnny asked as he handed Val a water pitcher.
“Sure Johnny,” Val moved over to the pitcher stand and poured some water into Johnny’s water pitcher.
“Jack?” Toni called out in a shaky voice.
“What honey?” Jack got out of bed, pulled on his pants and walked into Johnny’s and Toni’s room. Val shoved the pitcher of water into Johnny’s hand, grabbed his pants and tried to walk and dress at the same time.
When he made it to their room, he saw Johnny sitting up in bed, his back against the headboard. Lying against him was Toni. Jack stood at the foot of the bed.
“Will you tell me the story again, Jack, about the brave kid who made clothes and outsmarted all the giants?” Toni asked in a small voice.
“You mean The Brave Little Tailor?” Jack walked over to the bed and pulled up a chair. Val followed and pulled up the remaining one.
Jack reached out a hand and smoothed Toni’s hair from her face.
“You mean you want a bedtime story?”
“Please, Jack. I like that one. I like hearing how a kid was able to outfox the big evil giants and kill them,” she replied with a hitch in her voice.
“All right, mon petit chaton. You two scoot on down into bed and I’ll tell you a story about killing the giants. I’ll make sure they don’t come back tonight.” Jack stood and tucked the covers over her and Johnny. Both kids lay on their sides, spooning, as they waited for Jack to begin his story.
“Promise, Jack?” Toni asked hopefully.
Jack sat down and scooted his chair so that it touched Toni’s side of the bed. “I promise.”
Johnny enjoyed playing with scum like Sonny Yates. He considered it one of the perks of his job. Sure, having the reputation of one of the fastest pistoleros was fine, but getting someone’s goat was more fun. And when it was someone he personally hated, like Sonny Yates? Well, it just scratched an itch he felt inside at the ugliness in this world.
Johnny wiped the dirt from his hands onto his pants. “I think this well has had it, don’t you?”
Jack threw the shovels and picks into the back of the wagon. “Yep, it’s going to take some work to clean this well out so that it’s usable again.”
Both men leaned against the wagon and Jack grabbed the canteen.
They shared a drink and looked across the horizon.
“How many wells does that make now?” asked Jack.
“That’s all on this property. I think it’s about time to move on to the main ranch, don’t you?” Johnny capped the canteen and tossed it to Jack.
Jack looked at what was once was a thriving small ranch. It looked a lot different now. “I wonder when Yates is going to notice?” Jack waved his hand as if to encompass the whole area.
Johnny untied his horse that was hitched to the wagon. “Toni is going to get Mooney to take her for a drive. She’s supposed to get him to drive either here or over to the Bateman place. I reckon he’ll notice then and tell Sonny.”
Jack climbed into the wagon as Johnny mounted his horse. “He’s going to be mad. Guess I better think of a new bedtime story to tell her…and you.” Jack cut his eyes at Johnny and his mouth twitched as he tried to hold back a grin.
“You’re a good story teller, Jack. It helps keep the giants away at night.” Johnny urged his horse next to Jack sitting in the wagon. “Gotta admit, I like them, too. My momma was never much for telling stories.”
Jack let out the grin he’d been holding in.
“But!” Johnny shifted in his saddle and narrowed his eyes. “If you ever tell that, I’ll shoot ya and that’s not a threat, that’s a promise.”
Jack began to laugh. “Don’t worry, Johnny. No one will ever know that the feared Johnny Madrid has to be tucked in at night with a bedtime story.” He slapped the reins of his horses and the wagon began to roll. “I’m leaving this at the Sanders’ place. I’ll see you tonight.”
“I wasn’t kidding, Jack!” Johnny yelled at his friend’s back.
The rented buggy rolled and jerked over tough scrub grass. Six months ago there had been a rough road located here, now unattended, the wild Texas land was reclaiming its own.
“Sorry,” the large man apologized as the buggy wheel hit a deep rut.
His passenger held onto the side of the buggy with one hand while her other hand held onto her hat. “Sheriff Mooney, how much longer until we get to the ranch you wanted to show me?”
“Well, it shouldn’t be much longer, Miss Lancer. As a matter of fact, we should have been seeing the house from here by now.” The Sheriff braced his leg as the buggy hit another rut in the road.
“I’m not so sure my brother would like a place that would obviously need so much work upfront, Sheriff Mooney.” Toni gave up trying to hold onto her hat and gripped the seat with both hands. “Now who did you say owned this ranch?”
“It’s part of the Sol y Luna ranch. I know the owners personally and know for a fact that they would love to have your brother buy this place and the two of you move in.” The sheriff transferred the reins to one hand and stretched out his now free arm toward Toni.
She gulped and tensed her body as his arm settled across her shoulders. She breathed a sigh of relief when the wagon rolled over a rock and jerked. The sheriff hastily moved his arm and used both hands to steady the horses.
The sheriff slowed the horses as the buggy rolled to a large bare area. He stopped the buggy and looked around. He twisted and turned in the buggy looking this way and that.
“Sheriff Mooney?” Toni tried to get his attention.
Ignoring her, Mooney jumped out of the buggy. The horses began to move and Toni reached down and grabbed the reins. “Whoa.”
She watched as the sheriff walked, then ran hither and yonder. Toni looked around. There was nothing to see but bare earth.
“Sheriff Mooney?” She tried to get his attention again. “Sheriff?”
The sheriff took off his hat and slapped it against his thigh. He stomped back to the buggy. “It’s gone!” he exclaimed in disbelief.
“Excuse me? What’s gone?” Toni asked.
Mooney stretched his arm out toward the barren landscape.
“The ranch! The house, the corrals, the barn, the bunkhouse, the cattle, the horses….it’s gone!”
“Sheriff Mooney, are you trying to say that this is the Bateman place you thought my brother might be interested in?” Toni shook her head. “I believe I told you earlier that my brother wouldn’t be interested in something that needed so much work upfront.” Her eyes scanned the ‘ranch’. “There’s nothing here, Sheriff.”
“I know that!” The angry man faced Toni and spit out the words. Toni shrank back into the seat of the buggy. He took off his hat, grabbed his handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his face. Putting the hat back on his head and stuffing the handkerchief back in his pocket, he took a deep breath.
“Forgive me, Miss Lancer. This has all been a surprise. My partner, I mean my friend who owns this ranch must have made some changes without telling me.” The big man climbed back into the buggy and took the reins from Toni. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to go see that other place I told you about. It isn’t far from here.”
“Apology accepted, Sheriff Mooney.” Toni rested a hand briefly on his arm. “You do look like you’ve had quite a shock. Are you sure you don’t want to go back to town?”
The sheriff turned his attention to Toni. “Uh, no ma’am. I think I’d better check out that other ranch.” Slapping the reins, he turned the buggy around and headed back toward the poor excuse for a road.
He ignored Toni as he muttered to himself. “It’s all gone. How in the hell did it disappear? Not a stick of wood, not even the well is there. All I could see was bare earth. We haven’t had a tornado, least not one that I know. Now that could have carried off the buildings and fences, but even that would have left the well!”
It was a much longer outing than Toni had intended when the sheriff finally pulled the buggy up in front of the hotel. He gave her a half-hearted wave and pulled away before she had completely gotten out of the buggy. Luckily, a scruffy cowboy had been standing in front of the hotel and grabbed her away from the buggy before it rolled over her foot.
“Why thank you sir,” Toni replied graciously to the cowboy as he picked up her hat from the ground and handed it to her.
“You all right?” the cowboy asked.
“Yes, I’m fine thank you. I’ve just been on an interesting drive and I think I’ll go inside now and lie down. Thank you again for your help.” Toni walked to the door and waited as the cowboy held it open for her. With another word of thanks, she walked through the lobby and up the stairs.
“It’s gone, I tell you! Everything is gone at both places: not a stick of wood, no buildings, no cattle, no horses, no men…nothing!
“It can’t be. Are you sure you didn’t have too much to drink?”
The first man who spoke, his tin star catching the moonlight, smacked his hand against the back door of the jail. “Damn it! I haven’t been drinking. I was with Miss Lancer! I know what I saw and what I saw was NOTHING!”
The second man rubbed his chin. “I don’t like this. It didn’t all disappear into thin air! Someone is on to us.” The large man growled at the other. “You haven’t told that fancy lady about us have you?”
“Look, I might be smitten, but I ain’t stupid! She said her brother was looking for a place to settle. I thought maybe one of those two places would suit. That way she’d settle down here. How come you haven’t been seeing to things?”
“Because I have other things to do. I did my part in this earlier, I deserve a break.” The second man paused. “What did you say that woman’s name was?”
“Lancer, Antoinette Lancer,” the first man told his friend.
The second man grabbed the reins of the horse that had been patiently waiting. He swung up and adjusted his large frame into the saddle. “Well, I don’t recognize the name. You just see that you don’t forget your part in this while you’re running after that skirt.”
He turned his horse toward the open prairie. “You keep a lookout in the saloons for any of our missing hands. I’m going back to the ranch and see if I can find out anything there. “
As he watched the horse and rider disappear into the shadows, the man with the tin star pondered the same question he’d been asking all afternoon.
“Where in the hell did it all go?”
The cantina was closed but wasn’t empty. Señor Mendoza had guests in the kitchen.
“So then, what did he say?” asked Jack.
“He just kept asking, ‘Where did it all go?’ The men laughed at Toni’s rendition of her afternoon drive.
She picked up the glass of tequila Johnny had poured for her. “Oh, oh, wait. He kept looking at the sky and muttering, ‘There hasn’t been a tornado in months!’”
The three men howled with laughter.
After taking a drink, Toni stretched out her pants-clad legs and stretched. She smiled as she rubbed her hand down her leg, enjoying the feel of more familiar clothes.
Johnny leaned over. “Don’t get too comfortable in those. Miss Antoinette Lancer still has work to do.”
Toni frowned at him and took another drink.
“So how did you pull it off?” she asked Johnny and Jack.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t mind knowing that myself,” Val agreed.
“It’s surprising what can be accomplished in a few days. The ranch hands were persuaded to look elsewhere for a job after they helped dismantle everything. The Comancheros were glad to get the cattle and lumber and trade us the horses we needed for our next project. What the Comancheros didn’t take, we used to fill in the wells.” Johnny stood and pushed his chair under the table.
Val snorted. “Those ranch hands didn’t get a helping nudge from Madrid, did they?”
Johnny grinned. “Maybe.”
“Since when are you friendly with the Comancheros?” Val asked.
Johnny shrugged, “Oh, you’d be surprised how many cousins Señor Mendoza has.”
Everyone laughed until Toni’s yawn split her face. Johnny took the glass out of her hand and set it on the table. Grabbing her arm, he helped her up and pushed her chair under the table.
“Well, it’s been a long day fellows.” Johnny settled his hat on his head and handed Toni her hat. “Say goodnight, Toni.”
“Goodnight,” Toni yawned.
“You two go on up. I’ll be up later to tuck you in.” Jack snickered.
Toni blinked her eyes and yawned again. “Don’t wait too long, Jack. I might not be awake.”
Johnny led her to the door. “Goodnight everyone and thanks again SeñorMendoza.
The door closed behind the couple with their friend’s farewells echoing in the night.
Johnny looked up from brushing his horse as Val walked into the livery. “You get the money?” he asked.
“Yep, right here.” Val patted his pants pocket as he leaned against the post next to the stall.
Johnny put the brush in his saddlebag and grabbed his horse’s blanket. “Is it enough?”
“It should be. You know, Johnny, the people in this town aren’t so bad. Just about everyone contributed and the ones who couldn’t are doing their part in keeping Mooney busy.” Val laughed. “This town has been having a rash of saloon fights, thievery, vandalism… Why even yesterday the sheriff had to break up a fight between Roy Jenkins of the Dry Goods Store and Oscar Brackett of the Emporium!”
“I thought you said that those two contributed money for the cause?” Johnny paused in the middle of saddling his horse.
Val chuckled, “Yeah, they did. I think the two have been looking for an excuse to fight for years. We just gave it to them. You should have heard his wife! She ripped him up one side and down the other. He kept saying ‘It was for the cause, dear.’ Nobody in town believed that malarkey.”
Val and Johnny shared a laugh.
Johnny finished saddling his horse. “So what’s Mooney saying about all this?”
“Toni just got in from eating dinner with him and she said that the sheriff kept looking up in the sky. She said she asked him what he was looking for and Mooney said he had thought there might be a full moon tonight.” Val snickered.
Johnny just shook his head. “Toni said that the ladies have been nice to her once they found out her part in all this.”
“I think they were worried she might really like Mooney! They got some quilting bee or something she’s going to tomorrow,” Val reported.
“Good,” Johnny led his horse from the stall. “You know that’s something she should actually be able to do. I know she’s been feeling kinda lost.”
Val looked out of the livery door to make sure the coast was clear before Johnny led his horse outside. Val handed Johnny the money and after putting it in his saddlebag, Johnny mounted his horse. He looked down at Val, “I’m sure after tonight Sonny will be in town to see Mooney tomorrow so make sure those ladies keep Toni out of sight.”
“Jack meeting you with the horses?” Val asked.
“Yeah, he’s waiting at the Sander’s ranch.” Johnny clicked to his horse.
As his horse began to move forward, he heard Val call out, “Tell Maddie and the others hi for me.” Johnny waved as he spurred his horse toward the end of town.
Johnny and Jack waited in the shadows until they saw the bunkhouse door open and close three times, the light from inside spreading across the darkness of the West Texas night.
“That’s the signal.” Johnny kicked his horse and Jack followed.
As they rode into the ranch compound, the bunkhouse door opened once again and cowboys spilled out, some to grab the string of horses Johnny and Jack had brought, others to string together the ones waiting inside the corral.
As Johnny and Jack dismounted, the ranch foreman walked toward them, hand outstretched. “Mr. Yates is in town like planned. Seems he was invited to a poker game at the saloon.” He shook hands with Johnny and Jack. “I’m Walter,” he introduced himself to Jack. He’d already had dealings with Johnny.
Walter looked at the horses that were now in the corral and whistled. “Long time since I’ve had to ride something like that.”
Finished with exchanging the horses, the rest of the ranch hands gathered around Johnny and Jack. Johnny passed out the ‘hush’ money to the cowboys. As the cowboys counted the bills and put them away in their pockets, Johnny spoke up. “Don’t forget your part tomorrow when Sonny gets back home. Your horses will be at Dave Wilkens’ ranch. The house is gone but the barn, bunkhouse and corrals are still good. Who’s leaving tonight?”
Three cowboys raised their hands.
“Okay, ride over to the Wilkens’ ranch and keep out of sight. All you have to do is watch over all of your horses until this is over,” Johnny told the three volunteers.
“Anyone want out of this for good? Speak now and no hard feelings.” Johnny scanned the crowd of men. “Okay, good. Remember, when this is over, the Sanders, Wilkens and Betts ranches will all need good men to help them get back on their feet.
You won’t lose out.”
Johnny watched as the men nodded and murmured in agreement. He had an idea they were having fun with all of this and who wouldn’t rather have a guaranteed job working for someone else?
“Anyone inside?” Johnny asked the foreman as he looked toward the ranch house.
“No, he’s pretty well run all the help off except us. He’s been having to come to the bunkhouse for meals,” Walter said of his boss.
Johnny nodded toward the ranch house. “Let’s go,” he said to Jack.
As the two men walked to the house, Johnny called over his shoulder. “Someone see to our horses, this may take awhile. Just make sure you don’t get ours mixed up with the ones we’re leaving you!”
The ranch hands laughed and the cowboys scattered.
As Johnny and Jack entered the darkened house, Jack asked, “I thought Toni was going to come out here and look around after you diverted Sonny.”
Johnny lit a lamp. “Thought about that, but since she can’t read, we weren’t sure she would get the right papers.” Johnny opened the door to a room that held a desk. “Jack! Over here!”
Jack closed the door of the room he’d just opened and followed Johnny into what must be the ranch office. He walked over to the window and pulled down the shades as Johnny lit another lamp.
“Rather be safe than sorry,” he told Johnny.
The two lamps enabled the men to see clearly the mess of papers that lay across the desk. Obviously, the ranch didn’t have a meticulous office manager.
Johnny went through the papers on top of the desk while Jack opened drawers. It was quiet in the room except for the rustling of papers. “Got it!” Johnny dropped the documents he’d been holding and saw Jack holding aloft a handful of papers.
The two men looked at the papers Jack held. “Is that proof enough?” Johnny asked.
Jack scanned first one sheet then another. “Yep, it’s all here.” He pointed to the top of one sheet. “Look, they even got the ranch brand printed here on top, the Sol y Luna Ranch.” He pointed a finger at the bottom of the sheet. “Here are their signatures.”
“Reckon that’s enough?” Johnny asked.
“I think so. The bank manager’s already told Val he’d testify who opened the ranch accounts,” Jack replied.
“Val’s getting along well with those town folk, isn’t he?” Johnny asked thoughtfully.
There was a minute of silence before Jack spoke. “Yeah, he is but you know Val.” Jack folded the papers he held and put them in his shirt pocket. “He’s good at what he does and after being under Mooney’s thumb, everyone in town trusts him.”
Johnny turned his lamp out. “Yeah, he is good and he treats everyone the same.”
Jack took care of his lamp while Johnny lifted the shades. The moonlight that filtered in through the windows was enough light to let them see their way out. As the two friends walked out of the house, Jack spoke, “I don’t think Toni suspects, do you?” Johnny paused before shutting the door.
Johnny snorted then pulled the door closed behind him. “Jack, Toni is having a hard enough time dealing with you leaving us and going on to Louisiana when this is over. She believes that if you ignore something, it isn’t happening. She’ll deal with it if she has to.” Johnny checked his gun and settled his hat more firmly on his head. “She always does.”
Sonny Yates rode underneath the archway of the ranch. He smiled smugly at the name written overhead. It was almost dawn and already the chimney from the bunkhouse was smoking. He hoped the cook was fixing a big breakfast; an evening playing poker of one kind or another always made him hungry.
He rode his horse to the corral and after dismounting, he tied the reins to the fence. He wasn’t one to take care of his own animal if an underling could do it for him.
Smug in his own conceit, he didn’t notice at first the horses that nickered to his own. When he did, the roar he made had everyone dash out of the bunkhouse to see what was the matter.
“Look!” Yates shouted, pointing at the corral.
The ranch hands ringed the corral and looked at the horses with open mouths. The early morning light revealed what the night hadn’t shown…crowbait. A sorrier looking herd of horses no one had ever seen now milled within the confines of the corral. There wasn’t a keeper in the bunch.
The dead silence that accompanied their first astonishment gave way to a crescendo of sound, as the cowboys and Yates commented and exclaimed over the horses that now seemed to belong to the Sol y Luna ranch. Each horse carried on its’ flank the brand of the ranch, two-circles intertwined.
“What the hell is this?” shouted Yates to his foreman.
“We didn’t bring them here, boss, honest!” Walter wiped the sweat from his face. He scanned the group of cowboys. “Whitey, Buck and Pedro are gone.”
One of the cowboys spoke up. “I don’t know what’s happened to my horse, but I ain’t staying around here anymore. Disappearing horses, disappearing cattle, disappearing men, you even said that our pay had disappeared from the bank. I’m leaving this chicken shit outfit.”
The rest of the men murmured in agreement. Sonny’s face turned bright red as the veins on his neck buldged. “You can’t quit!” he yelled.
The cowboy stood in front of Yates. “I just did.” He turned around to the men behind him. “Anyone else joining me?” he asked.
“Anywhere is better than this.”
To a man, the whole outfit walked back to the bunkhouse. Walter and the cook followed behind.
“You’re leaving, too?” Sonny yelled in surprise.
Walter stopped and walked back to Sonny. “Either you have the worst luck of any boss I’ve worked for or you’ve made someone awfully mad. I’m not staying around to find out the answer.” He left Yates standing in the now empty yard as he walked back to the bunkhouse.
Only a few minutes passed before the workers of the ranch left the bunkhouse, their saddlebags packed and slung over their shoulders. Some of the men caught four of the nags in the corral as the others made ready the wagons. It didn’t take long for the men to hitch the horses to the wagons. The cowboys threw their saddles into the back and climbed in.
Walter climbed into one of the wagon seats. “Mr. Yates, we’ll be leaving the wagons and horses at the livery in town. I reckon you can figure a way to get them back.”
“But you can’t leave! How can I run the ranch without ranch hands?” Sonny pleaded.
“That, Mr. Yates, is your problem.” Walter slapped the reins of the horses and the first wagon pulled out, the other following. As the wagons carrying his ranch hands made their way under the ranch entrance, Sonny Yates was left with an empty ranch except for a handful of broken down horses.
Johnny and Jack sat at a back table in the saloon nursing a beer. They watched as Val walked to the bat wings of the saloon and peered out, first to the right then to the left. Val shook his head, grabbed his beer from the bar, then walked toward the two and sat down next to Johnny.
“Any sign?” asked Johnny.
Val swallowed the beer. As he sat the glass back down, he answered, “Nothing. Say, how long do those sewing meetings last anyway? Shouldn’t she be back by now?”
Johnny shrugged. “You’re asking the wrong person. I think Maddie was supposed to have come in for this sewing shindig so Toni’s probably trapped listening to her. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Sonny either and I thought sure he’d come in town mad as a hornet.
Jack leaned forward as if to say something when the sound of someone punching the bat wings of the saloon open rang across the room. Johnny, Val and Jack looked to see who was in such an all fire hurry to get a drink. All three stood up as Sheriff Mooney practically ran toward their table shouting, “He’s got her!”
“What do you mean he’s got her?” Johnny asked in a hard voice.
“Sonny stopped by my office this morning and was so mad he could have spit! He said that he’d seen all three of your horses in the livery when he went there to ask about buying some new stock. Seems someone pulled a trick on him and switched his good horses for crow bait. He went over to the hotel and beat on Trey, the clerk, until Trey owned that the four of you had been here all the time.” Mooney took out his handkerchief and wiped his face.
“He’d already told me everything that went on the cattle drive and at our ranch.” Mooney looked hard at all three. “Yes, Sonny and me is the Sol y Luna Ranch but I’m guessing you already figured that one out.”
Johnny took a step toward Mooney, one hand on his gun, the other clinched in a fist. “Where is she?”
“Look, I don’t give a damn about you three and now I know that she didn’t really care about me, but I don’t care. I was pretty smitten by her, don’t matter who she belongs to, she’s mighty special. I know what Sonny is capable of and I don’t want to see her hurt.” Mooney stuffed his handkerchief back in his pocket.
Johnny moved in front of the sheriff and grabbed his shirt. “Where….is…she?”
“I don’t know, I swear! I knew she was going to the sewing circle and figured she’d be safe. I was going to slip her out of town before Sonny found her.” Mooney gave Jonny a disgusted look. “I was going to leave you three to take your chances. God knows you three have caused me enough trouble. If you hadn’t butted in, with me as sheriff and Sonny running the ranches we’ve acquired, we were going to be able to control this whole county!”
Johnny drew his fist back and before you could say ‘jack rabbit’, Johnny ploughed his fist into Mooney’s face. Mooney fell backward onto the next table, interrupting a game of poker. He slid down to the floor; chips, cards and money covering him like the fallen leaves of a tree in autumn. Other than the protests of the cowboys whose game was now over, the saloon was quiet.
Johnny reached out to yank Mooney up by his shirt when Val grabbed Johnny’s arm. “Wait, Johnny. It seems like he might help us. You kill him and we’ll never find her. We need him.”
Johnny shook off Val’s arm and stepped back. He picked up Val’s drink and flung it in Mooney’s face. Mooney sputtered and shook his head like a dog. Val offered his hand and pulled Mooney up.
“Sheriff, I just saved your hide so you better walk small and help us find Toni.”
The older man grabbed his jaw and twisted his neck this way and that. “I tell you, I don’t know where she is. I saw Sally Jenkins talking to her husband, Roy, and she asked why Antonia didn’t come to the sewing bee. I checked the livery and she hired a rig but never showed up to get it.”
Madrid spoke, “So you’re saying he’s probably had her all day.”
Mooney nodded. “Looks that way.”
Madrid looked at Val and Jack. “Val, you’ve gotten to know the people in town pretty well, put the word out, see if anyone knows anything. You,” Madrid narrowed his eyes and bored holes into Mooney, “come with Jack and me to the livery and we’ll get the horses saddled.”
Without waiting for a reply, Johnny pushed his way past Mooney and stalked out of the saloon. Jack picked up the hat Mooney had lost during his fall and slapped it on the sheriff’s head. “I wouldn’t keep him waiting if I was you.” He gave the sheriff a push toward the saloon doors and followed behind as Mooney finally began to move.
Once outside the saloon, Jack and Mooney made their way to the livery stables while Val began to go from business to business. Toni had made many friends while in town and knowing the kind of man Sonny Yates was, the townspeople were concerned. Roy Jenkins promised Val he would spread the word and get the town looking for Miss Lancer.
As Val stepped out of the bank, Johnny and the others were waiting on him, on horseback. He took the reins to his own horse from Jack and mounted. The four men rode off in the direction Mooney swore he’d seen Sonny Yates last. Johnny had never tracked a dead man before, but whether he knew it or not, Sonny Yates was now a marked man and his hours numbered. Johnny Madrid made himself a promise to see to it.
Johnny slapped his hat against his thigh. “Where the hell is he?”
Val gave the ground another look, then stood. “I don’t know, Johnny, his tracks are all over the place.”
Both men looked to the west as two riders, stirring up dust, rode fast toward them. Jack and the sheriff pulled their horses up and stopped beside Johnny and Val.
“Nothing,” Jack answered Johnny’s unasked question.
Johnny reached down, picked up a rock and hurled it at a lone cactus. “¡Maldita sea!”He stood there for a minute, his lips worrying the stampede string of his hat and his right hand tapping the butt of his gun. His eyes narrowed and he swung around, grabbed the reins of his horse and quickly jumped in the saddle.
“He’s in town, probably been there the whole time.” Johnny’s horse danced nervously as Johnny jerked on the reins. He waved his arm at the tracks on the ground. “He traveled from town to ranch to ranch just to throw us off. He knew I’d come after him.”
“¡Maldita sea! Estúpido! I fell for it!” Johnny reined his horse around to face Sheriff Mooney. “Did you know?”
Val, Jack and the sheriff hastily mounted their horses. As Mooney settled into the saddle, he protested, “I don’t think he’s in town. He’d have no place to go. No one likes him but they do like Antonia.”
Johnny spurred his horse. “He’s there and someone is helping him.”
It was a tense ride back to town. Jack and Val kept looking Johnny’s way but he ignored them. He looked neither left nor right, just stared straight ahead toward town and his appointment with one Sonny Yates.
The four men rode into town and stopped at the livery. Johnny jumped down from his horse, led it into the corral, and after wrapping the reins around the saddle horn, he slapped his horse on the rump. “Move it,” he growled to the gelding. He walked past the livery owner. “Let him cool down before giving him water. Leave him saddled, I might need him in a hurry.”
Not even looking to see if his friends followed, Johnny walked down the middle of the street. “Sonny! Sonny Yates!” he shouted to the town. As he walked toward the center of town, the townspeople stopped what they were doing and peered curiously at Johnny. After getting a good look at Madrid’s face, they pushed and shoved their way into the nearest stores and the safety of good solid walls.
“I’m calling you out, Sonny Yates!” Johnny stopped in the center of town in front of the saloon.
Val, Jack and Sheriff Mooney spread out and kept an eye out for any sign of Mooney.
Suddenly, a shot rang out from one of the second story windows of the saloon. Johnny drew his gun and dove to his left. He came up on one knee and fired several shots at the window. As shots were returned he ducked and dodged to the other side of the street. As the last shot splintered the wood beside the post next to his head, Johnny threw himself down behind the water trough.
He quickly reloaded his gun as Val joined him behind the trough and Jack and Mooney took cover behind a wagon.
“He’s got us pinned!” Mooney shouted as he fired at the upstairs window.
The haze of gunsmoke settled over the street like a fog over a pond. Johnny cautiously peered over the water trough and saw movement at the upstairs window. “Val!” Johnny turned to his friend. “See if you can get him to shoot.”
Val got into a crouched position, and firing his weapon, darted to the wagon next to him. Johnny watched the window and saw the light break through the haze as Sonny fired his gun at Val. It wasn’t night, but the haze had darkened the battle scene enough to show the sparks from Sonny’s gun.
Johnny quickly stood and emptied his gun at the place he’d seen the fire from Sonny’s weapon. A large figure fell forward, breaking what was left of the glass window and wooden pane. The man landed on the sloped roof of the saloon porch then rolled off the edge, landing hard on the ground below.
Cautiously, the four men stood up, guns drawn. Jack took out a handkerchief and began tying it around a wound on Sheriff Mooney’s arm. Johnny and Val slowly walked toward the large man lying crumpled on the street in front of the saloon.
Before the amigos could reach the man, the sound of a roar like a lioness sounded out from above. Both Johnny and Val looked up to see two women tumble from the ruined window. With a scream a saloon girl slid off the slanted roof. Val rushed over and tried to catch the woman. She didn’t land very gracefully on Val as he broke her fall.
Johnny looked at his princess frantically trying to hold on to the windowsill with tied hands. Her feet kept slipping and she seemed to be having trouble maintaining her hold. He could hear the rip of material as she got her boots and skirt tangled.
He made a mental note to never tell her that she was showing the whole town that fancy underwear of hers.
“Toni! Let go. I’ll catch you,” he shouted to her.
Toni stopped struggling and twisting her head to the side she was able to look down and see Johnny below. “You better,” she said as she let go of the windowsill and slid down the roof. She was able to stop herself and dangled from the top of the saloon porch roof.
Walking underneath her, Johnny reached up and grabbed her legs. Toni let go and allowed Johnny to lower her down. Johnny crushed her in his arms and held on.
“Watch out for her Val,” Toni looked over to where Val was trying to get the woman off his lap and stand. “She was in on this, too.”
Jack and Mooney reached the two couples and Jack helped Della up and kept a firm grip on her arm. Val struggled to get up and after brushing off his pants, he bent down and picked up a gun that had fallen off the roof with the woman.
“You okay?” Johnny asked Toni as he untied her hands. He rubbed the outside of her arms and inspected her for any injuries.
“I’m fine, we’ll talk about it later,” she answered.
Johnny looked in her eyes and nodded. He kept an arm around her shoulders as the group walked over to the man lying face down in the dirt and horse manure. Johnny toed the man in the head and getting no response, he used his boot to flip the man over. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Sonny Yates was dead.
One by one the townspeople poked their heads out of their hiding places like prairie dogs looking out of their burrows. Seeing no more gunplay, they left their sanctuaries and began to gather around today’s victors.
Sally Jenkins and her friend, Mabel, rushed to Toni’s side chatting like a bunch of magpies. Her hair was flying about her face, tracks from recent tears streaking down her cheeks, her clothes torn and dirty. She looked a mess. Johnny gave her a smile and a wink and she smiled shyly back. He watched as the women led her away to the hotel. He gave a deep sigh and smiled. She might be a mess, but she looked awfully good to him.
He turned his attention to the group ringed around the body of Sonny. “Better get the undertaker,” he said to Roy Jenkins. “Val, until I can talk to Toni,” he nodded toward Della, “she needs to be locked up. Him too.” Johnny pointed to Sheriff Mooney. “Jack, you reckon you could wire the Marshall to come straighten this mess out?”
“Sure, Johnny,” Jack replied and began to walk over to the telegraph office.
“Come on, ma’am.” Val grabbed Della’s arm and led her to the jail. Surrounded by most of the town, Sheriff Mooney resignedly followed.
Johnny watched his friends leave to do what needed to be done, Some of the townspeople tried to ask questions, but Johnny pushed his way through the press of people and headed to the livery. He didn’t like crowds and didn’t feel like even pretending to be sociable at the moment. Taking care of the horses would give him time to calm down so he could be there for Toni. He had a feeling the giant would come back to haunt both of them tonight.
Being dead didn’t seem to stop some bastards from coming back.
Johnny poked his head through the door of their hotel room. “Are the magpies gone?”
“Yes, and a good thing, too. You would have felt pretty stupid if they’d still been here.” Toni wearily leaned back against the chair.
Johnny walked in and shut the door behind him. He took off his hat and threw it on the bed. Standing in front of Toni, he held out a hand for her to take. Helping her up, he sat down in her seat and settled her on his lap. As she rested her head on his shoulder he murmured, “I’ve already been estúpido once today. I wasted time tracking that bastard when he was already back here.” He gave her a quick kiss. “I’m sorry.”
He rubbed his hand along her bruised jaw. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“No,” she quickly answered. She wrapped her arms around his neck. “Just hold me.”
He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed. He lightened his grip when she gave a yelp of pain. Sighing, he rested his head on top of hers and waited.
“Della was going to shoot you. My hands were tied so all I could think of doing was to push her out the window.” Toni tilted her head to look him in the eyes. “She considered Mooney hers and was feeling neglected when he started keeping company with me. Sonny didn’t treat her well, but,” Toni shrugged, “business was business. When Sonny asked her to hide me, she jumped at the chance.”
“How did he find you?” Johnny asked.
“He saw me coming out of the livery stable. I got sloppy.” Toni sighed and snuggled her head back under Johnny’s chin. “For a big man, he runs faster than you’d think. Caught me, then took me up the back way to the saloon and Della’s room.”
“Anything else you want to tell me?” Johnny had to ask.
“No,” Toni whispered.
Johnny lifted her chin to look in her eyes. “I’ll always love you no matter what, you know that don’t you?”
Toni lowered her eyes as tears ran down her face. “You sure?”
“Si, siempre. Tú eres mi media naranja.” Johnny lifted her head back up and kissed her.
Toni gave him a small smile. “Well, your better half is sore, tired and hungry.”
A knock at the door interrupted the couple. “Johnny? Can we come in?” Val asked through the door.
“Yeah, come on in.”
Val and Jack entered. Both took off their hats and worried the brims. Jack spoke first. “You okay chéri ?”
Toni smiled at her two friends. “I’m fine. Sure would like a bath, though and something to eat.”
Val slapped Jack across his stomach. “Come on, you arrange for a bath up here and I’ll go order us some dinner.” Both men put their hats on as they walked out the door. “We won’t be but a jiffy,” Val called out as he shut the door behind him.
Toni sighed and stood up. She looked at the door then turned back around to Johnny still seated in the chair. “It’s going to be hard to see them go.”
“Them?” Johnny frowned.
“I’ve got eyes, don’t I? I bet you dollars to dimes that it will be only you and me going back to Mexico. Jack’s going back to Louisiana and Val will probably stay here.” Toni walked to her saddlebags to retrieve some clean clothes.
“Miss Lancer? Room service,” a knock at the door preceded the caller.
Johnny opened the door. “Set the tub there,” he pointed to the area in front of the sitting area. He and Toni sat on the bed and watched as several servants emptied bucket after bucket of hot water into the tub. As they left, Johnny pressed coins into their hands before shutting and locking the door.
He helped Toni undress, then get into the tub. The bruises that were coming out on her body explained why she was so tender. He checked her ribs but nothing seemed to be broken.
As he washed her hair, she closed her eyes and drifted off. He almost wished he hadn’t already killed Sonny Yates so he could kill him again, slower.
Hearing a knock at the door connecting his and Val’s room, he poured more bath salts in the water and walked to the door. Cracking the door opened, he eased himself through.
Jack and Val were seated in chairs enjoying a drink. Val poured Johnny a shot of tequila and handed it to him as he walked by. Johnny grabbed the glass and sat on the bed.
“How’s she doing?” Jack asked.
“Banged up some and sore,” Johnny threw back the shot of tequila. “Della was jealous and agreed to hide Toni in her room.”
He leaned forward and held out his glass and Val poured him another drink. Johnny slung that one back, too. “Better think of a good story for tonight, Jack.” Johnny held out his glass for another refill.
Val raised an eyebrow but poured Johnny another shot. “Maybe more than one.” Johnny downed his third straight shot. Jack and Val looked at each other. Val put the stopper back in the tequila bottle.
“Sure, Johnny. Whatever it takes,” answered Jack.
Val moved the tequila bottle further back on the side table when Johnny held out his glass for more. “Supper will be here in a minute.”
Johnny lowered his hand and looked at the bottom of the glass.
He heaved a big sigh. “She was worried I wouldn’t care for her anymore.”
Jack and Val shot each other a look but neither man said anything.
Johnny stood up and sat his glass down beside the bottle. He walked back to the connecting door. “Let me help her get dressed, she’s feeling kinda stiff now. If you don’t mind, we’ll eat in here so they can clear the tub out.” He opened the door and walked back into his own room.
“Well,” Jack didn’t finish what he had been about to say.
“Yeah,” replied Val in a sad voice. He stood and began to get the room ready for their meal.
A knock at their door and their food was brought in. Val knocked on the connecting door. “Johnny, food’s here. Y’all ready for them to get the tub?”
The door opened and Toni and Johnny walked into Jack and Val’s room. Johnny carried both of their chairs. Jack walked past them and brought their sitting table into the other room. Johnny told the servants they could now empty out the tub.
As the four friends began to eat, Val apologized. “Ya know, I can’t believe I was so stupid that it took me so long to realize that Sonny and Mooney were Sol y Luna.”
Toni smiled. “Seems being stupid has been an epidemic around here lately.” She took a drink. “I can’t believe I was so stupid to fly out of a window on the second story.”
The men chuckled quietly, then resumed eating. Johnny looked up when Jack began to snicker. Val had his head bowed but his shoulders began to shake. Toni snorted and his shoulders shook harder. Before long all four friends stopped pretending and let the laughter loose.
“I swear, Toni. You should have seen yourself kicking your legs and trying to hold on.” Jack began to wipe his eyes. “You were so worried about those fancy drawers earlier and here you were today showing God and everyone your unmentionables.”
“What?” Toni looked at Johnny with murder in her eyes. “You didn’t say nothing about that!”
“Thanks, Jack,” replied Johnny, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Wish I could have seen that,” laughed Val. “But I was too busy trying to get one saloon girl off me.”
“Val!” Toni, Johnny and Jack all exclaimed.
“Ah, come on. I bet you looked funny,” Val protested.
Jack looked at Toni and Johnny and began to laugh again. “It was.”
Toni swung her head from Jack to Johnny when he began to laugh, too. “I’m sorry, miel. It was pretty funny.”
Toni looked down at her plate and after a minute began to snicker. She looked up at the men and smiled. “I guess it was at that. I swear though, you won’t ever catch me dressing like an ordinary gringa again.”
The four amigos laughed and enjoyed the rest of their dinner.
Three saddled horses waited in front of the jail.
“You sure you don’t want to come with us?” Johnny asked Val.
“No, I reckon not. I’ve a mind to settle in one place for awhile and just be an ordinary cowboy.” Val hitched up his pants.
“Not such an ordinary cowboy with that badge on your vest,” Toni pointed out.
Val glanced down at the tin star. “No, guess not. With Mooney gone, this town’s without a sheriff. When they asked me to take over, well, I thought I’d try staying in one place for awhile.”
“We understand, Val.” Toni gave him a sad smile. “Doesn’t mean we won’t miss you, though.” She looked at Jack. “You too, friend. Guess me and Johnny just aren’t ready to be ordinary and settle down, yet.”
Johnny cleared his voice. “Well, guess we need to get on.” He walked over to Jack and held out his hand. Jack grabbed his hand and slapped him on his shoulder.
“We’ll meet up again, you two.” Jack gave Toni a hug. “Once I’ve visited my family, I have a feeling I’ll be back west. You two need me, I’ll keep in touch with Val here so you’ll know where to find me.”
Johnny stood in front of Val. “Well, see ya, Val. Go easy on cocky young gunfighters. They ain’t always so bad.” Johnny grinned.
Val punched him in the arm. “Don’t be a stranger.”
Johnny and Jack mounted their horses while Toni stepped slowly in front of Val. She rushed into his arms and held on for dear life. Val patted her on her back. He leaned down and whispered, “You ever, I mean ever need me for anything, you send for me, you hear?”
Toni sniffed and nodded, her head buried in Val’s chest. She let go and backed away, wiping the tears from her eyes. She quickly grabbed the reins of her horse from Johnny and jumped into the saddle. Johnny, Toni and Jack turned their horses and began to ride down the street.
Halfway down, they heard Val shout, “Y’all be careful.” Johnny lifted his hand up in acknowledgement and Toni turned around in her saddle and waved.
At the end of town, the three friends stopped their horses. With a wave and a nod, Jack turned his horse to face east while Johnny and Toni turned west. Val watched until he could no longer see his friends riding away toward their own different paths.
~ end ~
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It All Adds Up Series
Shine A Light In The Dark
A Change In Plans
Misery Loves Company
Friends And Enemies
Good Intentions And All That
I See Fire
Wrong Side of Heaven
One thought on “Ordinary by Sandra”
This is such a great series. Each story is an adventure! Thank you so much for writing it and sharing your stories with us.