Word Count 29,450
3rd in the It All Adds Up series
Thanks to Darla, Maddie and Margaret P.
Warning: They had a tough life and life wasn’t always kind to them. Some adult situations. Something to note: Toni and Johnny are young, about 14. However, due to where life put them, they don’t act like your typical teenagers. It’s a case of a kid in an old soul.
Disclaimer: Fox owns Johnny, I own Toni.
Put your hands in the air
If you hear me out there
I’ve been looking for you day and night
Shine a light in the dark
Let me see where you are
‘Cause I’m not gonna leave you behind
If I told you that you’re not alone
And I show you this is where you belong
Put your hands in the air
One more time
Shinedown – Unity Lyrics | MetroLyrics
The night slowly enveloped him as the last fingers of light were chased away. The darkened sky began to come alive as millions of sparkling stars peeped out from where they had hidden from the sun. Their light was only noticeable if you looked up. At a man’s level, the scene was one of shadows, dark and gray, the only light coming from a small campfire.
Johnny settled back against his saddle watching the sparks of the fire carry themselves upward, as if they were trying to leave the oppressive darkness and join the sparkling lights up above. It wasn’t the first time that he’d wish he could join them. He wondered what it would be like to escape the dark and join the sparkling lights above.
Looking around his camp, he saw his horse quietly standing asleep, one back hoof cocked in rest. It wasn’t a great horse, but it was his, well, after a fashion. The previous owner wouldn’t be needing it now and he did. He had a lot of miles to travel and he had learned over the years that riding beat walking any day.
Just him and his horse. He sighed and fingered the rawhide and turquoise bracelet that was always on his wrist. It shouldn’t have been this way, him being alone. Yes, he was used to it, but that still didn’t make it easier.
Now restless, he grabbed the brush from his saddle bag and walked over to his horse and started grooming him.
“You got to look good Apoyo. Tomorrow, maybe, we’ll reach Sonyota and Benito’s cousin’s ranch. Good thing we stopped by Sasabe and saw him again. It’s been almost three years since I seen him, guess I’ve grown ‘cause he said he wouldn’t have known me until I smiled and he saw my eyes. Would have like to have visited him longer, but we couldn’t take the chance anyone from the orphanage seeing me.”
Finished grooming his horse, Johnny gave Apoyo a pat on the rump and a scratch between the ears. He slowly walked over to the beat-up coffee pot on the fire. Opening the top, he saw that there wasn’t much left. Pouring the last into his tin cup, he set the now empty pot back down and stood there cradling the cup in both hands.
“I sure hope he has some work for me ‘cause we’re almost out of coffee and you know how grouchy I get in the mornings without my coffee. You’d probably like some nice oats for breakfast for once too, wouldn’t you boy?
You know, the more I think on it, I think we’ll just skip town and go right on out to the ranch. Got no money for even a beer much less food for both of us. Maybe I can time it to get there about supper. Then if he don’t have a job, we’ll at least get a free meal. Think that‘s a good enough plan, amigo?”
Johnny took one last drink of coffee, savoring the last drops. He set the cup down and walked back to the saddle and blanket. He dropped down and crossed his legs, his arms resting on his thighs. Unconsciously, his hand started playing with the beads of the bracelet again.
He looked into the shadows surrounding the camp, his mind wandering over what had happened since he last saw Toni.
He hadn’t stayed long after she was forced to leave the orphanage. They’d told him that she was being taken to Naco, some distance away. He snorted as he thought of himself then, a crazy kid determined to find his friend. There had been nothing wrong with his determination, just the facts of life had tried to beat the hell out him. What business did an eleven year old boy have starting out on a 200 mile journey? No horse, no supplies, hell, he didn’t even have boots then, just some ragged old sandals. But he had tried. He’d never had had a friend before and he had been bound and determined not to let her go.
Scooting forward, he lay back, using his saddle as a pillow. He smiled as his thoughts turned to Toni. She sure had been feisty and easy to talk to. They had had some good times, two lost kids trying to grab at life any way they could.
“You know, Apoyo? You would have liked her.”
He sighed, “I tried to find her ya know. Finally got to Naco last year but she wasn’t there no more. That Mrs. Porter died and her husband took Toni and moved on. The woman in the cantina, Rosa, thought maybe they headed back west toward San Diego. He didn’t leave many friends behind, that’s for sure. I got a bad feeling about that fellow from what Rosa said.”
Johnny frowned. “Or maybe it’s what they didn’t say that gives me a bad feeling.”
Johnny had wanted to find out more but hunger had been his undoing.
Damn, I should have been more careful stealing that meat pie. It was good, but not sixty days in jail kinda good.
But now that he thought about it, the sixty days hadn’t been so bad. He had had a roof over his head, three meals a day and the company of a surprisingly good gringo friend. Mac had spent the time teaching him chess and improving his English. He’d enjoyed the strategies of chess. He’d learned to watch his opponent, read his mind, play with his mind, and strike hard. Lessons learned that helped him in his travels.
Yep, Mac had been a good friend, sorta took him under his wing. Too bad that before his own sixty days was up, it was time for Mac to hang. One more lesson to learn, don’t count on anything to last.
He’d learned some more lessons when a week after Mac was gone, the Republic guard had come into town. Juarez’ was in exile and although most of the battles against the French were occurring in central Mexico, skirmishes between the French and those loyal to Juarez’ were happening all over Mexico. The Mexican Army wasn’t picky who they took as long as it was a warm body. No matter how green, something could be found for a young boy to do to help the cause.
Johnny had learned real quick that the Army wasn’t for him. For a boy with nothing, it was hard to get excited about a cause that was thousands of miles away. He didn’t mind stepping up for people for the right of it if he could see and know them. Fighting for an ideal was something different.
Besides, he didn’t take to being ordered around and made to follow a schedule. That for sure wasn’t for him.
He had wondered how he was going to get out of that mess when fortune smiled on him. Johnny snorted, Shit on everyone else, but smiled on me.
He had been made to look after the horses, something that he hadn’t minded one bit. His group had been ambushed by a French column and slaughtered. He had been shot and had fallen. The man next to him had been shot also and fallen on top of him. When Johnny had finally come to his senses, he realized that the French had left everyone where they lay.
Johnny shuddered as he thought back to what had brought him around. A vulture had taken a nice hunk of flesh out of his shoulder. Thank God, he’d fallen face forward with his face plastered against the sand or it could have been his eyes the vulture had gotten. He tried to scramble up but it had been hard getting out from under the man covering the rest of his body.
Pedro? Was that his name?
Poor Pedro had been heavy, stiff and hard to move.
Somehow he’d crawled away and after taking a breath of fresh air, he’d surveyed the carnage. As far as he could tell, he’d been the only one left alive. The French obviously didn’t have a problem leaving everyone for the coyotes and vultures.
Guess they didn’t notice me. Thank God they didn’t decide to burn everyone instead of leaving us where we fell.
He’d gathered what supplies he could, including a gun and some ammunition. He’d even found asmall lame paint horse that had been left.
Hell, I even finally got those boots I’d always wanted.
It had taken some time, but he and the horse had healed and he’d traveled from town to town picking up whatever odd jobs he could. He had gotten into the habit of asking about Mr. Porter and Toni in whatever town he landed.
It was a long shot, but he needed her and he had the feeling that she needed him.
Johnny sighed, took one last look around the camp, covered his eyes with his hat and closed his eyes. The sooner he got some sleep, the sooner the sun would be up. He had hopes that tomorrow would find him a lasting job doing what he dreamed of doing, working with horses.
Johnny stood beside Apoyo looking down at the small valley below. It would soon be dusk and the land was beginning to darken from the mountains that encircled three sides of the valley. He could see the Rio Sonyota make its crooked way across the valley. It wasn’t quite spring so the river was full and the land ready to bust into bloom. Pipe Organ cactus mixed with mesquite and ironwood trees helped keep the edge of the Sonora desert back.
“Isn’t that something, Apoyo?” Johnny asked his four-legged friend as his eyes continued to scan the scene before him. As far as ranches go, this one was small. But below him lay a small house, barn and a corral with a half dozen horses inside. It looked perfect to him.
His mind searched for a word to describe it all. “Permanent.” He waved his hand in a general sweep of the whole scene. “Yep, permanent. This is a place that has roots, a place to belong to.”
His eyes narrowed as he thought of his father. “Did I ever tell you, Apoyo, that the man that sired me is a rancher off in California? Mama never told me anything else, just that. I wonder if his place is as fine as this? I’ve always hated him and wanted to kill him for all he put my mother through. Wouldn’t that be something if one day we were rivals? Him with his ranch on the American side and me on the Mexican side of the border?”
Apoyo blew out a breath in agreement and nudged Johnny’s back with his head. “Wait a minute boy. We’ll be leaving in a minute, I promise.”
Johnny wrapped the reins around his hand and walked to the side of his horse. He grabbed the saddle horn and swung himself up. As he settled his feet into the stirrups he spoke again, “I’ll tell you something, Apoyo that I’ve never told anyone else, not even Toni. If I do ever get that ranch, you better believe I’ll be going up to California and rubbing the Old Man’s face in it. I’ll show him. He didn’t want to deal with me all that time ago when I was little. Wouldn’t that be something if he had to deal with me full grown on my terms? That might be even better than killing him.”
Johnny smiled at the thought and clicking to his horse, urged Apoyo forward toward the ranch below.
As Johnny rode up to the ranch, he saw an older man emerge from the barn with some tack. “Hello, are you Tomas Madrid? Your cousin Benito said to look you up if ever I was this way. I’m Johnny Lancer.”
The man walked over to Johnny and looked up. His eyes took in the well cared for paint and the well-worn saddle and tack. He settled his eyes on Johnny’s face and studied it for a minute before nodding yes. “So you know my cousin Benito, yes? And what is Benito up to now?”
Johnny shifted in the saddle and smiled at the man. “Well, he’s still at the livery in Sasabe. Bow-legged as ever, but almost bald now. He’s taking to wearing that hat of his almost all the time now. Says without hair, the sun fries his brain too much and he has little enough of his mind left now that he’s older. He figures he better take care of what he has left.”
Tomas barked out a laugh and slapped his hand against his thigh. “Yep, that’s Benito all right.”
“Do you mind if I get down and water my horse, Mr. Madrid? We’ve traveled a bit today.”
“Call me Tomas, son and yes, get on down and take care of your horse.”
Johnny swung his left leg over the saddle horn and jumped down. He took the reins and led Apoyo over to the water trough. As the horse drank, he leaned back against the fence post. “Pretty place you have here. About three years ago, I was in the orphanage in Sasabe and they hired me out to Benito. I liked taking care of the horses and Benito seemed happy with my work. When he heard I was heading in this direction, he told me about you and said you might have a job for me.”
Tomas hung the tack he had been holding on the fence and looked over to Johnny. “ Three years? It took you three years to travel a hundred miles?”
Johnny dipped his chin to his chest and scuffed the toe of his book against the dirt. “Well, it weren’t no straight shot. I kinda got waylaid by the Mexican Army and some other things. When I found myself no longer in the army, I snuck back to Sasabe to talk to Benito and told him I was looking for a job with horses. I couldn’t go back to work for him since I didn’t exactly part on good terms with the Sisters at St. Catherine’s. I’m 14 now and figure I’m too old and too independent to go back to them. Benito told me about you.”
Johnny pushed his hat back and looked straight into Tomas’ eyes. He wanted the man to see what he would be getting.
Tomas quietly took in the dark blue eyes in the young man’s face. He studied Johnny for a minute then turned his eyes to look at Johnny’s horse.
Johnny could feel his heart in his chest and held his breath as he waited to hear judgment.
“Well, I tell you son. I’m looking at you and I can tell you don’t have a pot to piss in but looking at your horse, I can also tell that you’ve taken real good care of him no matter your circumstances. You even asked to water your horse before you took care of yourself. I also know that Benito is picky and don’t go telling just anyone about me unless he saw something in you that he thought was worth something. So I figure if you’re willing to listen and learn, you got yourself a job. Besides, my Sofia would have my hide if I let a skinny kid like you leave here without fattening him up.”
Johnny let out his breath and smiled his biggest grin at the man. “Yes sir, I know I have a lot to learn and I’m willing to learn all I can if you’d just be patient and teach me.”
“Well, I guess we got a deal. Come on now and let me show you where to store your gear and put up your horse. Then we’ll go in and let Sofia start feeding you and get some meat on those bones of yours. You timed it good, supper is almost ready.”
Johnny grabbed Apoyo’s reins and followed behind Tomas. He could hardly believe his luck…acceptance and a job. Things just didn’t get much better.
“Juanito! Get up!”
Johnny rolled over in the bed and stretched. He had been on the ranch almost a month and although he enjoyed the work, he still hated getting up in the morning. He put his hands behind his head and laid there thinking about all he’d learned so far. Tomas was a good teacher and always took the time to explain things. He didn’t demand anything, just asked and then explained things in that patient way he had. Johnny smiled to himself. He felt that he’d been given a gift, for once in his life he could see a future and he liked it.
Johnny jumped out of bed and reached for his pants. And another thing he learned was that if Sofia starting calling his full name, he’d better get up pronto!
“Good morning, Sofia,” Johnny called as he leaned down to the tiny woman and gave her a kiss. “Need any help getting breakfast ready?”
“No thank you, nino. See if Tomas is coming. Breakfast is ready and you need to eat before it gets cold.”
Johnny looked out the door and sat down at the table. “He’s coming.”
He reached over and grabbed a biscuit. He was hungry and now that he was finally awake, didn’t want to wait. “Pop” went the wooden spoon over his knuckles.
“What did you do that for?”
“You need to wait for Tomas, be respectful, Juanito.”
“Ahh, Sofia,” he pouted. “I’m hungry and everyone knows you make the best biscuits in the world. It’s your fault that you cook so good, I forget my manners.”
“Thank you, Juanito. But your flattery goes nowhere. I know your monkeyshines, nino”, Sofia answered as she wagged her finger in Johnny’s face.
“Is Juanito at it again my dear?” asked Tomas as he came in. He walked over to his wife and gave her a quick kiss before sitting down to breakfast.
“Juanito, when are you going to learn that you can’t put anything over a Mexcian woman?”
The three finally sat down together and began to eat.
“Juanito, when you are finished, I need you to take the bay for a short ride to settle him down and then clean him up really well. Don Carlos is coming sometime today to look at him and the bay mare.”
“Sure, Tomas. Think we’ll get a good price for the matched pair?”
Tomas stood up and took his plate to the sink. “I think so, Juanito. You’ve done a good job breaking them both and Don Carlos has a good eye for horse flesh. I think he’ll appreciate the pair. I don’t mind selling them to him either. He treats his animals well.”
“Wonderful breakfast as usual my dear,” and he bent over and gave his wife another kiss.
“Yes, Sofia, thanks,” Johnny replied as he too, carried his dishes to the sink.
Johnny’s eyes widened as an entourage arrived with Don Carlos. He watched as Tomas went out to greet the powerful man. Tomas called Johnny over to him. As Johnny observed the two men side by side, he could tell that Don Carlos was a very wealthy man who was used to commanding any situation. Although a less imposing figure, Tomas carried a confidence about him that showed everyone that although he respected the position Don Carlos held, he himself, was master of his own property.
“Don Carlos, I’d like for you to meet Johnny Lancer. He’s the one who broke and trained the two horses.”
Johnny reached out his hand but awkwardly put it down when he realized that Don Carlos made no effort to shake it.
“Lancer. Are you related to Murdoch Lancer near Moyo Coro, California?”
“Yes, he’s my father.”
“I see. So you now have an apprentice? You know, Senor Madrid, I too had considered raising horses. That is one reason I decided to come pick the horses up myself. With your reputation as a mustanero, I couldn’t hope to compete with your ranch. Since you are older now and have no sons to follow you, I had thought to offer you a place with me. You could train my men your way with horses.”
Don Carlos twirled his moustache and looked around him at the small ranch.
His eyes narrowed as he saw Tomas Madrid walk over to stand next to Johnny, his hand resting on Johnny’s shoulder.
“You honor me, Don Carlos. However, I may not have sons by birth, but this one here is like a son to me and plans to learn all he can from me. Besides,” Tomas said with a chuckle, “I do not think that my Sofia will ever leave here. You know how sentimental women get about their homes.”
Don Carlos looked at Tomas Madrid and Johnny for a minute, then bowed his head a little as if to concede defeat. “Well, Senor Madrid, I think those two will do very well. Should we go inside and discuss the price?” And with that, Don Carlos dismissed Johnny and turned around and started walking toward the house. Tomas turned to look back at Johnny with a look of apology on his face as he hurried to catch up with Don Carlos.
Johnny was suddenly left alone among Don Carlos’ outriders. Other than the disgusted looks sent his way, he was ignored. He turned his back to them and went over to the two horses. He was so angry, he tried to calm himself down by patting the horses and speaking softly to them. He knew that this sale was important to Tomas and Sofia and didn’t want to let his bad temper get in the way.
After a few minutes, Don Carlos and Tomas came out of the house. Don Carlos putting the bill of sale in one of his jacket pockets and Tomas counting his money. Don Carlos called to his men to change out the bridles of the horses and get them ready to leave. He walked by Johnny without a word or look and got back on his own horse.
“Senor Madrid. It was a pleasure doing business with you.” With those final words, Don Carlos turned his horse around and began to ride out, his men following him with the two bays.
“Get off that horse, Juanito!”
“No, Tomas. He needs working with and right now I need to be doing something.”
Tomas walked over to Johnny and the new horse and grabbed the bridle. He walked to the side of the horse and put his hand on Johnny’s knee.
“Get down, son. You won’t do the horse a bit of good working him while you are so angry. A horse or a man can tell another man’s feelings when they are as expressive as they are on your face. You can’t do anyone any good like this. Get down.”
Johnny sat for a moment, then shook his head yes. He got off the horse and took the saddle and bridle off and slapped the horse on the rear.
Without looking at Tomas, he picked the saddle up and left the corral and started walking to the barn.
Tomas fell in step with him. “Johnny, I wish I could make the world different, but I can’t. Unfortunately, there will always be people like Don Carlos and his vaqueros who will see only what they want to see and will ignore the man inside. Neither you nor I can change that. The only thing that can change is how you react to people like that. “
“I saw you today and you were so angry, it poured off you, nino. I was proud that you didn’t act on it, but Johnny, men like that feed off strong emotions. You gave them an edge boy.”
Johnny felt all the hate that had been in his heart bust out. He stopped walking and swirled around to face Tomas. “You don’t know what is like, Tomas. I hate them all! Sometimes when I think of my mama leaving me, my father kicking me out, the way I’ve been treated over the years just because I was born, them taking Toni away from me, I……”
“I understand, Juanito. God forgive me for saying this, but you have a right to hate like you do. You’ve had much to happen to feed that hate. But Johnny, you have to somehow channel that hate. I’m not foolish enough to tell you to ignore all of this. I don’t know anyone strong enough to do that.
But you have to quit giving them a weapon against you. Too many of those people are like pack dogs. If anyone shows any weakness, they pounce on that and use it to their advantage. They prey on any weakness. Somehow, you have to find a place in yourself to push it all back. Empty yourself of everything. Turn your fire into ice. Whether you feel it or not, let yourself pour out confidence. Later, you can let your feelings go to someone you trust. But to those who want to hurt you, empty your mind and heart, concentrate on their weakness because every man has one. Turn it to your advantage. I wish, son that it didn’t have to be that way, but at the rate you are going, that fire in your belly will turn on you and you’ll burn yourself out. You have to find another way to cope. Do you understand what I’m saying, Juanito?”
Johnny bowed his head, then shook his head yes. He slowly started walking back to the barn. His whole being bent over with a heavy burden.
“I understand, Tomas. You mean stare and smile at them.”
“You remember me telling you about Toni don’t you? Well that’s what she told me she did. She said that she would stare them down then slowly smile at them. She said it drove them crazier than if she had said anything.”
Tomas walked next to Johnny and put his arm around his shoulders. “Sounds like Toni was pretty smart. If you don’t listen to me, sounds like maybe you need to listen to her.”
Johnny turned his head to look up at Tomas and smiled. “Yep, she was and I guess I should.” He looked intently into Tomas’ eyes. “It’s hard but I can see what you’re saying. Guess you’re right though, I can’t change them so it’s gotta be me that changes. I guess I got so used to being here with you and Sofia, I kinda forgot how the rest of the world sees me.”
“Well, Johnny. As long as Sofia and I are here, we’ll back you up every time. We think of you as the son we never had. You don’t have to worry about things as long as we’re here, son. Now come on and let’s put that saddle and tack up. I’m sure Sofia has lunch waiting on us and you know her! We sure don’t want to make her mad.”
“Reckon I should try some of that ice on her?”
“Are you kidding son? A mountain of snow doesn’t stand a chance with a Mexican woman. Her fire will melt anything and that’s something every young man should know. You find the right one and not only will you not mind getting burned, you’ll come back for more! So remember that when you get older.”
They started laughing and with a lighter heart went to get ready for lunch.
Johnny slowly rode Apoyo into town. It was a Saturday and Tomas had given him the day off. He hadn’t been to town since he’d started working at the ranch a month ago. He’d been earning good money, but had so enjoyed spending time with his new family, he hadn’t felt the need for outside entertainment earlier.
It was a small town with the usual saloon, cantina, church, and a few stores. It was kinda early for the regular Saturday night crowd of local ranch hands coming in to let loose after a hard work-week. Johnny decided to get a drink before things got too rowdy. He didn’t really plan on staying long, so he rode Apoyo to the hitching rail in front of the saloon. After dismounting, he tied the reins to the hitching post and walked to the opening of the saloon. Pushing aside the batwings, he strode in, his eyes adjusting to the darkened room. He walked to the bar and ordered a beer. After flipping the barkeep a coin, he walked over to a table in the back. Settling into his seat, he sat quietly nursing his beer, observing the other patrons of the bar.
He had just taken a drink when out from the kitchen area of the saloon, a young woman walked by him with a load of clean glasses for the bar. Johnny watched as she hefted the heavy load onto the bar, then turned around, wiping her hands on her skirt. Her eyes scanned the room from left to right. As her gaze fell on Johnny, her eyes widened and she let out a gasp. Feeling something in the pit of his stomach, Johnny pushed his hat back and really looked at the girl’s face. Eyes shining brightly, his grin spread from one side of his mouth to the other. “Toni”, he whispered.
The two sat at the back table, heads bent over talking quietly to each other. Toni ‘s hand clasped Johnny’s wrist and played with the beads on the bracelet. “You got it,” she said with wonder in her voice. “I hated to leave without telling you goodbye, but they didn’t give me a chance.”
Johnny reached into his cartridge belt where a bullet should be and pulled out a small rolled up piece of material. She watched in fascination as Johnny unrolled the small square to reveal a crudely drawn heart. Toni caught her breath and reached out to touch the cloth.
Johnny gathered her hands into hers. “I never forgot and I’ve looked everywhere for you,” he whispered.
The sharp, angry voice startled both of them and they quickly let go of their hands and dropped them in their laps. Johnny quickly rerolled the drawing and replaced it in the bullet holder. Toni looked toward the bar. “What do you want, Mannie?”
“You get back to work, girl. It’s Saturday night and you and me will be busy soon enough so you better get your chores done now.” Mannie jerked his head toward Johnny. “If you want to socialize with your friend there, tell him to come back later and he can talk to you all night if he is willing to pay for it. Now get!”
Toni slowly turned to Johnny. The sad look in her eyes almost took his breath away. “I gotta go back to the kitchen now. It was good to see you Johnny. If you are staying around here for awhile, maybe I’ll see you again.
I’m usually free days.”
She turned and walked past him toward the back door. Johnny reached out and caught her wrist. “Toni, I’m not going anywhere. I’ve looked too long for you to leave now. Let me go with you to the back. As long as you do your work, he shouldn’t mind me talking to you.”
Toni looked at Mannie and then back to Johnny. Thinking for a minute, she then nodded yes and continued to walk toward the back kitchen. Johnny went over to the bar.
“You got any problems with me talking to her while she works?”
“Hell, boy. You pay me the two bits we charge for her and you can do what you want.”
Johnny looked at the man without any emotion. “Two bits?”
“Yeh, I mean the boss got a lot more for her the first time and all, but now she’s not a novelty anymore. Most men like them more developed and experienced if ya know what I mean. She don’t bring in much money now.”
Johnny continued to stare at the man, his blue eyes hard as ice. Mannie started to fidget. “Look, I like the girl, I just do what the boss man tells me. He’s the one who calls the tune.”
“This boss man have a name?”
“Yeah, his name is Pedro Rodriguez. He won her off some gringo in a poker game. He’s off on business and won’t be back until next week.”
Johnny reached for the small pouch he kept behind his belt. He opened it up and took out two dollars and laid it on the bar. “All weekend,” he said.
“This is for all night tonight and all day and night tomorrow. No one bothers us for anything. You find someone else to do chores for her. You got that?”
“Sure son, whatever you say.”
“Don’t call me that,” Johnny spat. “I may be my father’s bastard but there’s no way in hell I’m a son of yours.”
“Uh, okay mister.” Mannie picked up the money and stuffed it in his pocket. “And this will take care of the weekend. Weekend is about the only time she works the customers anyways. She’s got a room out back by the kitchen since she isn’t a regular. You two go have a good time now.”
Mannie’s voice died on the last sentence as he looked back up at Johnny.
If possible, the ice in Johnny’s eyes grew colder and Mannie couldn’t help but shiver. “Damn, who is this kid?” he asked to Johnny’s retreating back.
Johnny walked into the kitchen and leaned against the doorway as he watched Toni finish washing glasses. “What did he say?” she asked as she moved efficiently around the small work area.
Johnny pushed himself off the door and walked over to her. He caught her by the shoulders and turned her to face him. “No one will bother you tonight and he’s going to get someone else to finish your chores for tonight.”
He took the glasses out of her hands and set them down on the table.
“Shhh now.” He put a finger to her lips. “He told me enough and I paid him $2 so no one would bother us this weekend.”
Toni looked up at Johnny with solemn eyes. She started to speak but swallowed instead and nodded yes. Taking off her apron, she laid it across a chair and started walking out the back door. “My room is this way.”
She led Johnny to a small room outside the back kitchen wall. She opened the door and let Johnny walk in first. Walking toward the bed, she lit the kerosene lamp that was on a small table by her bed. It didn’t help the darkened room much, Johnny noticed. He looked around and saw a tiny room, one much like he and his mama had growing up. A bed, table, and two chairs was all that was there. It wasn’t much, but it at least was clean. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, memories returning of a time long ago.
He opened his eyes as he felt Toni come to him. He watched as her eyes filled with tears and her hands moved to his chest to unbutton his shirt.
Johnny drew in a breath and put his hands over hers to still them. His eyes, now warm as he looked down at her bowed head.
“No,” he whispered.
Toni looked up at him, unsure at what to do now.
“This isn’t us, querida. I didn’t pay for sex. I paid for us. Maybe someday the time will be right for you to freely give yourself to me. But not now, not tonight. This weekend is just for us, two friends of the heart.”
Toni eyes pooled with tears and spilled over like a dam that had burst. She leaned her head against Johnny’s chest. He tilted her head up and with his thumb, wiped a trail of tears away. Leading her toward the bed, he picked her up and sat her in his lap. Toni wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her head in his shoulder. She cried until she was exhausted, the tears of the past two years finally giving way. Johnny settled her back down and laid beside her. He murmured softly to her as he stroked her hair, trying to settle her down as he would a wild colt. Slowly Toni began to quiet, her crying stopped and her breath coming in little hitches. Johnny put his arm around her shoulder and she turned toward him and snuggled against him, her hand on his heart as she quietly fell asleep.
“Shit!” Johnny’s eyes popped opened and he quickly sat up.
“Johnny?” murmured Toni. “What is it?”
Johnny rolled over to the side of the bed and got up. “I forgot all about my horse. He’s still hitched to the front of the saloon, if he’s still there.”
Johnny walked to the door and opened it. He turned to Toni who was getting out of bed also. “Guess we didn’t sleep too long, it’s just dusk.”
Toni walked over to him and put her hand on his arm. “Come on. I know the man who runs the livery, he has a room just above. If he’s closed, he’ll open up for me. You are staying aren’t you?”
Johnny looked down at her and grinned. “Well, I figure I still have about $1.50 worth of time left, so I guess I will.”
“You nut!” Toni answered back as she slapped at his arm. “Since when did you get worried about getting your money’s worth?”
“Hey!” he answered as he followed behind her and closed the door. “I know a good bargain when I see one.”
Laughing, they both walked behind the saloon to the front. Johnny was relieved to see Apoyo still there. “I’m sorry, fellow, for leaving you here so long.” Johnny untied the reins and followed Toni toward the livery.
“Hello, Juan,” Toni called out. “Got room for one more tonight?”
The old man turned around and watched as Toni and Johnny walked toward him. “Who is this, Toni?” he asked.
“Juan, I want you to meet Johnny. He’s a friend from way back and we just ran into each other again today.”
“Well, chica, I can tell from your beaming smile that he is a welcomed old friend, yes?”
“How do you do, Senor Juan?” Johnny reached out to shake the old man’s hand. Without hesitation, Juan took Johnny’s hand in return.
“So what are you doing in Sontoyo, young man?”
“Well, sir, I’m working for Tomas Madrid breaking and training horses. I came into town for a beer and found Toni again.”
“Tomas Madrid, huh? Well son, you must be pretty good for him to take a stranger so young. Come on in and we’ll take care of your horse.”
As Toni and Johnny followed Juan into the barn, Toni looked up at Johnny.
“Johnny, you didn’t tell me you were working for Tomas Madrid! Oh, Johnny, you got to do what you wanted to do way back in Sasabe. I’m so happy for you!”
“You know Tomas?”
Her eyes twinkled as she answered, “Well, I don’t know him in any biblical sense,” she paused, “But everyone knows about the horses he raises. He’s pretty well-known around here.”
Johnny snorted, “You don’t know his wife, Sofia, or you wouldn’t even try to joke about ‘knowing’ him.”
They three reached the stall Juan indicated was for Apoyo and went about getting fresh water and feed for the horse. Johnny took off the saddle and began to brush Apoyo. “How much do I owe you?”
“No charge young man. Seeing a twinkle in my chica’s eye and a smile on her face is payment enough. How long will you be here?”
“Thanks! It will just be tonight. I think tomorrow we’ll go out to the ranch.”
Johnny looked over to Toni. “They’ve heard enough about you, ‘bout time they get to meet you now. We’ll come back tomorrow evening and then I’ll have to go back for Monday morning.”
“Well, if I don’t see you again young man, it was good meeting you. Toni, you take care now.”
“Yea, thanks Senor Juan. I’ll be seeing you again next weekend, so hold a stall open for my friend here.” Johnny replied as he patted Apoyo’s neck.
“You planning on making a habit of visiting on the weekends?” Juan asked with arched eyebrows.
“Yep, we’ve got a lot of lost time to make up.”
Juan chuckled and walked away to his own quarters.
Toni turned around. “Johnny Lancer, you can’t come back every weekend. If you do like you did today, you’ll go broke! And by the way, what makes you think you can just decide what I’m doing tomorrow without asking me? Maybe I don’t want to go visit this Tomas and Sofia.”
“Don’t you want to go for a ride on Apoyo here and see where I work?”
“That’s not the point. You may have paid for my time this weekend, but that doesn’t mean you own me.”
Johnny found himself backing up as Toni advanced, shoving her pointed finger in his chest. He thought of what Tomas had told him about fiery Mexican women and grinned in spite of himself. He soon discovered THAT was a mistake.
“Do you think this is funny? Things may have changed for me but always before we were partners.”
Backed against the wall, Johnny could only stand there as Toni jabbed her finger into his chest with each word.
“And partners, don’t go making decisions for the other person without asking. “
“Are you finished?” Johnny asked.
Toni folded her arms across her chest and nodded yes.
“Partners, huh? Guess Sister Inez would have said partners in crime would be more like it.”
Toni’s eyes widened and her face broke out in a big smile as she remembered. “We did have some fun then, didn’t we?”
“Yep,” Johnny answered. “And now that we’ve found each other, things can only get better. Now how about something to eat? I got some money left for supper.”
The two left the livery and started off towards the cantina.
“Hey Johnny, you don’t have to pay. I know of a way we can get a free meal.”
Johnny stopped right in the middle of the street. He held up both hands, palms up and out. “Oh no, I’m not doing that again. That is one lesson I learned the hard way. I won’t be stealing any food no matter how hungry I get.”
Toni looked at him with a puzzled glance. “What ‘cha mean?”
Johnny took her by the arm and pulled her along. “Come on, I’ll tell you about it over supper.”
Johnny woke up fairly early considering how late he and Toni had stayed up catching up on the two years they had missed. He stretched, then reached over to shake Toni’s shoulder.
“Come on sleepy head. Time to get up.”
“Go away,” came the muffled sound of Toni’s voice. He couldn’t see her, she was so buried under the covers. He found the edge of the blanket and pulled it down to the end of the bed.
“Heh! What’s your hurry?” she asked in an outraged voice.
“We got to get going. I didn’t tell them I would be staying in town all night and they’ll be worrying.”
Toni rolled over and looked up at Johnny. “How come?” There was genuine puzzlement in her voice.
Johnny shrugged, “I don’t know. That’s just what they do. Tomas says it’s all part of being a family.”
“They really consider you family?”
“Yea, they do,” Johnny answered with a hint of wonder in his voice.
“Even though you are a mestizo?”
“They don’t seem to care. You know, Toni, for the first time I’m not on the outside looking in. Even with mama, I didn’t have a place to belong, a place that was mine. She was too busy just surviving herself to worry about me. But now,” his voice grew quiet and he tried to swallow the big lump that was now in his throat. “Now, I have people that truly like me, who really want me and treat me like I’m something. I’m doing what I like and earning my own money doing it. I’ve got choices now, Toni. Choices to be like everyone else. I don’t have to just ‘make do.’”
Toni got up and started brushing her hair. “You always going to work for Tomas?”
“See, that’s just it, Toni. Tomas has been hinting around that he might make me a partner one day ‘cause he don’t have any sons to pass his ranch to. This could be something permanent! Can you imagine that?”
“Permanent. Never thought I’d hear that word describe people like us. Got a nice ring to it,” Toni answered as she paused brushing her hair.
She put the brush down and started plaiting her hair into braids. Her hair still hadn’t grown all the way back like it had been before Sister Inez had chopped it off three years ago, but still, it was long enough to plait and she knew she’d need to keep it out of her face if she planned on riding with Johnny today.
“So what about your customers, Johnny? You might be good, but will they do business with a mestizo? People are funny that way.”
“See, that’s the beauty of it. It wouldn’t work if it was just me there, but with Tomas and me both, it’d be okay. I’d break the horses and he’d do the business side. And it wouldn’t be just me, Toni. You would be in it, too. I don’t know how we’ll get you out of this place, but you and me belong together as long as you want. Partners, remember?”
Johnny and Toni walked to the livery to get Apoyo. After saddling him, Johnny led him out to the yard.
“Guess you’ll have to ride in back like before. Remember?”
“I remember,” Toni grinned. “I’m looking forward to this.”
Johnny took a really good look at the skirt Toni was wearing.
“Don’t you have some pants?”
Johnny jumped into the saddle and kicked his leg out from the stirrup. He bent over and reached out his left arm to grab hold of Toni’s forearm. Swinging her up and over, she settled behind him, trying to lower her skirt over her legs.
Johnny looked around to see why she was wriggling so much, saw the expanse of leg showing and frowned. “Are you sure you don’t have any pants you could wear?”
“No, I don’t. And I don’t see why it matters to you. It’s not like you’ve noticed that I’ve grown since before. All you seem to notice is your horse.”
“Hey, just because I don’t think we’re ready to do anything yet, doesn’t mean I haven’t noticed. I’ve got eyes in my head don’t I? I’ll have you know Tomas thinks I’m almost an expert in judging a horse’s legs.”
“Oh!” spluttered Toni. “So now you’re comparing me to a horse?”
“Now, don’t go twisting my words. Believe me, you don’t have legs like a horse. I’m just saying that I’m a pretty good judge of legs and after seeing yours out there for everyone to see, I think you need some pants. You don’t want some man to get ideas do you?”
Johnny huffed and continued muttering to himself about girls in general. He glanced again at Toni’s legs and pursed his lips. We’re not riding down the middle of the street. I’ll go the back way and cut around to the ranch. And before we come back to town, you WILL be wearing a pair of pants somehow.
Toni was quiet as she noticed the back way Johnny was taking out of town. She smiled and reached her arms around his waist. “Still in a grump, Johnny?”
“No,” Johnny answered in a grumpy voice.
Toni reached up and kissed the back of Johnny’s neck and squeezed her arms around his waist. “Thank you,” she said quietly and laid her head against his back.
Johnny kept looking forward, but his face wore a big grin. He patted her arms around his waist. “You’re welcome.”
“Didn’t I tell you it was something?” Johnny spoke with pride.
Johnny and Toni looked across the valley and the small ranch below. Even though he had been there a month, the site of it still filled him with pride and wonder. He had stopped Apoyo there at the rise so that Toni could get the feel of the place.
“It’s beautiful, Johnny. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a prettier place.”
Johnny clicked at Apoyo and they slowly started down toward the ranch.
As they rode into the yard, they saw Tomas and Sofia come out of the house and watch them ride in. Johnny stopped Apoyo and jumped off. He tied the reins to the hitching post and walked back to the horse. Reaching up, he grabbed Toni’s arms and helped her down. She smoothed her skirt nervously and turned to follow Johnny to the front of the house. As he stopped in front of the two older people standing there, she moved a little to the back and side of him and waited.
“Tomas, Sofia. I’m all kinds of sorry I didn’t come home last night, but I had no way to let you know that I got held up. See I met an old friend and we had some catching up to do.”
Johnny looked beside him and saw that Toni had nervously moved behind him. He reached out and took her arm and pulled her beside him.
“Everyone, I’d like for you to meet Toni. I finally found her!”
Tomas and Sofia looked at each other and then looked again at the young couple. They both smiled at the same time, their faces open and welcoming. Toni let out the breath she had held and smiled shyly back. Johnny could tell by her posture that she was more relaxed now that she could see for herself the same acceptance he had found.
Tomas stepped forward and gathered Toni in a big hug before she knew it.
She cut her eyes over to Johnny and his smile reassured her.
“Toni! We are so glad to meet you.” Tomas let go and stepped back as Sofia walked toward her and grabbed hold of her hands.
“Chica, it is good that you two have finally found each other. I know that this has made Johnny happy and we are happy for you both. Now both of you, come in and wash up. It is almost time for lunch and you both look like you could do with a few good meals. Come!” Sofia took her husband’s arm and began to walk into the house, Johnny and Toni following.
The four of them had a wonderful lunch getting to know each other. Toni and Johnny entertained the Madrid’s with stories of their adventures at the orphanage. They would have continued sitting there all afternoon talking, until Sofia noticed the time.
“Johnny, go take care of the chores and let us women clean up before you two go out riding. I’m right that was your plan, yes?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll have to take her back to town tonight so we can’t stay too long, but I wanted to show her around unless you had something else for me to do?”
“No, no, Juanito. Sofia is right as always. Let’s get out of their way and go do the chores. Then you can saddle that dun mare for her and you take my black. Give Apoyo a rest so he can take you both back tonight. Come on now, I’ll help you so you can be finished faster and spend more time with Toni. “
Johnny and Tomas walked out the door and toward the barn while Sofia and Toni stayed in the house to wash up.
Toni watched Johnny as he walked in the house. She was standing on a stool wearing a pair of loose cotton pants. Sofia was sitting on the floor, pins in her mouth, as she held the bottom of one of the legs. Both women looked up as he walked through the door.
“Hey! You’re wearing pants!” he exclaimed as he walked over to them both.
Toni looked down at Sofia. “He used to be quicker at observing than this. Old age must be getting to him,” she said apologetically. She looked back up at Johnny and grinned.
“I don’t know what’s so funny. You made all kinds of fuss about wearing pants coming over here. You thought wearing just your skirt was all fine. And now I come in here and there you are just as calm as can be letting Sofia fit you out into some pants. “
Toni put both hands on her hips. “Johnny Lancer! Where in the world did you get that story? You was the only one making a fuss about my skirt. I never said I didn’t want pants, all I said was that I didn’t have any.”
“Well you sure didn’t agree about the pants!”
“And just would have been the point carrying on about something I didn’t have? That would have been a waste of time.”
“So, you knew you needed some pants and you didn’t say nothing about agreeing with me? You just let me worry and carry on for nothing?”
“Well, it wasn’t all for nothing, I got kinda tickled about it myself. You were working yourself up into a right old grouch,” answered Toni with a smile.
Johnny just stared at her with an open mouth. He then pursed his lips and slapped his hat back on his head. He tried to give her an icy glare to show how put out he was with her, but all she did was look back at him with a twinkle in her eye and a smile. Disgusted, he turned around and walked out the door, allowing it to slam behind him.
It was quiet for a minute, then both ladies burst out laughing. Sofia laughed until she had tears in her eyes. She used the edge of her apron to wipe her eyes and asked Toni, “Does that boy know that you’ve chosen?”
Toni looked down at Sofia with a grin, “Not yet. He’s still coming into his own. I can wait.”
Sofia nodded. “ I remember how it was with my Tomas. You might have to wait a while for him to think the idea is his.”
Toni stepped off the stool and looked at her feet to make sure the hem was even. “Maybe. But I’ve decided that I’d go through hell with him if I have to. Because, ya know what? It’s been even worse without him these past three years. You might be thinking I’m too young to know my mind and maybe that’s true. But I know my heart and my soul and he’s the other half.”
Sofia nodded. “I know, chica. I was fourteen myself when I met Tomas. I just knew. Now mind you, normally my Tomas is a smart man, but he was kinda dense about us. It took him three years before he admitted I was right and we belonged together. We’ve been together ever since, almost forty years now.” Sofia grew quiet and a little smile played at her lips as she remembered. Then she looked up at Toni and grinned. Getting up off the floor, she used her hands to smooth her skirt. “Let’s hope for your sake that Juanito is a faster learner than my Tomas!”
Both women peeled off with laughter again. Their voices carried across the yard to the corral where Johnny was waiting for Toni to join him for a ride. Tomas saw Johnny looking perplexed.
“What is it son?”
“What are they finding so funny? I told you about our argument about the pants? Well, she just laughed at me and twisted it all around to blame me!”
“Juanito, I’ve been married almost forty years and I still haven’t figured out women. Save yourself some worry, nino and don’t even try. Just enjoy the ride.”
Tomas made his way to the water trough and sat on the edge. “Does she know that you’re keeping her?”
“No, not yet. I mean, I’m not ready to think about marrying her, Dios! I’m only fourteen! But I’m not letting her go. I don’t know how to describe it Tomas, but I just know deep down that we belong together. Her and me together last night and today, well, it just felt right. Is that crazy?”
“No, Juanito, it isn’t crazy, just look at it as a gift you aren’t ready to open yet. You’ll know when the time is right. You know, I worried about you when you first came. You were so full of anger and hate. But now, I see the man you can become. You, here with me and Sofia and now Toni, getting a good reputation working with horses, there’s no limit to what you can do. Sofia and I have often talked of it. I shudder to think what would have become of you if you didn’t have us.”
Johnny bent his head and wrapped his arms around himself.
Tomas stood up and walked over to him and put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “ We’re proud of you son.”
Johnny looked up at the man who had given him so much and impulsively threw his arms around the older man’s waist. “Te amo,” he whispered.
Johnny and Toni slowly rode back to town. The day had been wonderful. Neither could remember when they had had a better time. Tomas and Sofia accepted Toni and went to great pains to make her feel at home. Even though Johnny knew in his heart that Tomas and Sofia would have done that for anybody, he felt that they had really liked Toni and that pleased him.
“I sure had a good time today, Johnny,” Toni quietly spoke. “You were right. Tomas and Sofia treated you and me just like I imagined a family would. I hope I get to see them again.”
“Well of course you will. You wait. I’ll figure something out to get you out of that saloon and away from Pedro.”
Toni didn’t say anything for a minute and the two rode in silence.
Toni felt that she had to bring it up, but it was hard to say the words aloud.
Taking a deep breath and throwing her shoulders back, she finally decided to ask. “Johnny, do they know that I’m a.. a…”
Johnny stopped Apoyo and turned around as much as he could in the saddle to look at Toni. “Don’t you say it. Don’t even think it! You are NOT a whore and I don’t ever want you to say that again. You hear me?”
“But Johnny! You know what I’ve had to do and…..”
“I mean it, Toni. Don’t even think it. Do they know what you’ve been forced to do to survive? Do they know how you are treated by scum? Yes, I told them. I thought they should know in case they come to town and find out from some ‘do-gooder’.”
“Guess it couldn’t be kept a secret,” Toni said sadly. “What did they say?”
“Oh they were disgusted and mad all right.” Johnny hurried to assure Toni as he realized how his words might be taken wrong. “Not at you. I thought Tomas was ready to come into town right then and kill Pedro. He’s going to help me figure out what we can do. He said that shouldn’t happen to no kid.”
Johnny turned back around in the saddle and flicked the reins to let Apoyo know to start walking again. As far as he was concerned, the matter was closed.
“Johnny, I haven’t been a kid in a long time, but that was nice of them to not think badly of me. But Johnny, I hope you don’t let him nor you either do something stupid. Pedro is bad and he has lots of friends who are even worse. I don’t want no one to get hurt over me. It isn’t worth it. I’ll make it just knowing you are nearby.”
“Antonia, I’m just gonna say this one more time. What was done to you wasn’t your fault and shouldn’t have happened. You are not a whore and yes, you are worth it. I promise I won’t go looking to kill Pedro, but I don’t mean for you to stay there any longer than you have to. I don’t know how I’ll work it yet, but I will get you out of there. I promise.”
“Okay, Johnny. I’ll let you handle it and I do trust you.” And she tightened her arms around his waist as they rode into town.
The ride to town seemed shorter each time. Johnny had gone every weekend to see Toni for the past month until now he and his horse could make the trip blindfolded. He still had yet to meet Pedro, seemed he was never around when Johnny showed up. Mannie the barkeep was still okay with taking Johnny’s money for the right to Toni’s company for the entire weekend. It was expensive, but Johnny was determined to protect her as much as he could. He wished he could get her out of that place, but until he was able to talk to Pedro, they had to make do.
Johnny stopped Apoyo in front of the saloon. This weekend he intended to bring Toni back out to the ranch to visit with Tomas and Sofia so he didn’t need to leave the horse at the livery. Tomas and Sofia really liked Toni and he knew that Toni felt comfortable with them and enjoyed their company also. If he didn’t think about it too much, it was almost easy to pretend that they were all a part of a family. The four of them at the ranch…it was a nice, comfortable feeling that didn’t allow the outside in. It was the first time Johnny and Toni had had those feelings.
Johnny tied off Apoyo and then walked into the saloon. He noticed that there were several men in the corner. The men were loud and laughing at something the biggest man in the middle was saying. He could only catch a word or two, but he felt sorry for whomever they were talking about. The words being used to describe this person wasn’t something he’d ever whisper in front of Tomas or Sofia.
Johnny walked over to the bar. “Hey, Mannie! Is Pedro around this time?”
“No, kid. He isn’t here. Was here earlier today but rode out about an hour ago. Don’t know when he’ll be back. You wanting to see Toni again?”
Mannie had been looking at Johnny as he was talking but suddenly trailed his eyes to look at the men in the corner. Johnny turned around and watched as the biggest man in the back of the room, stood up, his chair scraping the floor as it was pushed back. The laughter stopped as the man walked over to Johnny.
“I overheard you asking for Pedro.” The man towered over Johnny and he looked Johnny over from head to toe. There was something in his eyes that made Johnny inwardly give a little shiver and a sinking feeling in his stomach. He had dealt with men like this when he lived with his mother and knew the kind of man that stood before him.
“Yeh, I’ve been wanting to talk to him about Toni.” answered Johnny.
“Oh, so you are the mestizo who has been sniffing around her lately? Should have known the little bitch would find her own kind. You’re kinda young aren’t you ‘breed? Guess she’s about your speed. You probably wouldn’t even know what to do with a grown woman.”
Johnny was so angry at this man, he wanted to fly at him and pummel him into the ground for talking about Toni like that. His fists clinched and he took a deep breath. He knew that attacking this man would only get him killed. He pushed his feelings away and imagined a waterfall of ice water wash over him. He looked up at the man with icy eyes and a calm appearance.
“Where’s Toni?” he asked.
“Well see, Toni ain’t feeling too good. She’s probably in bed with a belly ache right now.” The man answered Johnny loud enough for the men in the back to hear. They all broke out in laughter and snickers. Johnny turned around to look at Mannie, but the man wouldn’t look up at Johnny, he just kept wiping up the same spot on the bar over and over.
Johnny turned back to the man. He continued to stare until the man finally started to speak.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do for you boy. Seeing how you are faithful to your favorite, I’ll let you have her for the whole week….free! Pedro and me are friends and when he’s not here, I have the say so about his property. Me and him are like brothers. Mi casa, su casa, you know? So you just take her back to that ranch of yours for a little vacation. You know, give her time to get over this stomach thing she’s got.” At that speech, the man and his friends all erupted in laughter. The man turned from Johnny and walked back to his friends. As he sat back down, he repeated, “ a vacation for that stomach thing” and the men started laughing again, one even slapping the table as he laughed.
Johnny turned back to Mannie. “Mannie?” he quietly asked.
Mannie still wouldn’t look up at Johnny, but Johnny did hear him whisper, “Go look after her, boy.”
Johnny turned around and quickly walked back out the front doors of the saloon. He untied his horse and walked him to the back of the saloon where Toni’s room was located. He tried to open her door but it was locked.
“Toni, open up. It’s me, Johnny, “ he called as he knocked on the door.
“Go away, Johnny. I’m not feeling too good.”
“I’m not leaving Toni so you might as well open the door.”
He started looking around for a way to get in her room in case she didn’t let him in, when he suddenly heard the lock turn in the door. He slowly pushed the door open and cautiously walked into the room. The lamp hadn’t been lit and all he could see was a lump in the middle of the bed.
“Toni?” he asked as he walked over to the table and lit the lamp.
Turning around he saw the mound of covers in the bed move so he assumed Toni was underneath, hidden. He looked around the room and saw that it was a mess. There was the coppery smell of blood and the unmistakable smell of vomit in the room.
He walked over to the bed and shoved a bucket of vomit to the side.
“Toni?” he whispered. He pulled the covers back and cringed when he saw how bad she looked. She was very pale, covered in sweat and had a nasty bruise covering one side of her face.
“Go away, Johnny. I don’t want to see you now. Please,” she whispered.
Suddenly she gasped and leaned over the bed, her hand reaching out to grab the bucket. Johnny scooped it up and held it for her with one hand as he held her hair back with the other. Afterwards, Toni let out a groan and grabbed her stomach and curled up as tight as she could.
“I’m taking you to Sofia’s,” he told her as he put the bucket down.
“No,” Toni moaned. “I can’t see anybody now. You and them won’t want to see me when you find out what’s happened.”
“What? What do you mean, Toni?”
Toni refused to answer, she just curled up tighter and began to cry.
Johnny ran his hand through his hair. He knew Toni needed help and the only one he trusted was Sofia. His mind made up, he left Toni’s room and walked to the kitchen. Poking his head in, he saw Maria working in the kitchen.
“Maria! Toni’s sick and I’m taking her to the ranch. I don’t know how long we’ll be gone. Could you clean her room for her? Here’s two dollars.”
Maria reached out her hand for the money. She shook her head yes. “I’m sure she is sick after today. I’ll take care of her room, you just get her to the Madrid’s. They’ll know what to do.”
Johnny nodded his thanks. “Could you ask Mannie to come out here and help me get her on my horse? Tell him to be quiet, I don’t want those men in there to know.”
“Okay, Juanito. Go get her ready. We’ll be right there.”
Johnny turned around and walked back out toward Toni’s room. When he walked in, he saw that she was still as he’d left her. He strode over to the bed and sat her up. He grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around her shoulders. As he started to pick her up, he was scared to see that her skirt was covered in blood. He folded the blanket around her and picked her up and walked out the door. It scared him even more to see how easily he was able to do this without any protest from her.
Mannie and Maria stood by Apoyo. Johnny handed Toni to Mannie while Maria held his horse still. Johnny got on and reached down to grab Toni as Mannie held her up toward him. It took a moment for Johnny to settle her across his lap, her head laying on his shoulder. Saying thanks to Mannie and Rosa, he turned Apoyo around and headed out of town to the ranch.
The ride back to the ranch had seemed twice as long this time. Thankfully, Toni hadn’t gotten sick again. Johnny wasn’t sure what he’d do if he had to get off Apoyo. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to get him and Toni back on.
For the most part, Toni had remained unresponsive during the ride. He’d talked quietly to her, talking about nothing, even singing her a lullaby he’d remembered from somewhere. He wasn’t quite sure if she was unconscious or if she just was refusing to talk although she did speak up once.
“I’m damned. Sister Inez was right. I am going to hell.”
Johnny stopped his horse and reached up to stroke her tear-stained face.
“No, you aren’t. I know you won’t tell me what’s going on, but I know you haven’t done anything wrong. They did this to you. They are the ones going to hell. And when I find out, I’ll send them there.”
“Tomas! Sofia!” Johnny shouted as he finally rode into the ranch.
His voice must have carried some of the urgency he felt, because he immediately saw Tomas come out of the barn and Sofia out of the house.
“Help me. Toni is sick,” he called.
Tomas ran to Apoyo and reached up to grab Toni as Johnny lowered her down. Toni, who had been so quiet on the trip there, started to struggle when she realized that someone new was holding her.
“NO! NO! Let me go!” she shouted as she struggled to get free.
Johnny quickly hopped off Apoyo and took her from Tomas. “Shhhh. I got you. It’s okay. That was just Tomas. You remember him don’t ‘cha? Shhhh. “
He carried her into the house and took her to his room, laying her on his bed. Once down, Toni immediately curled back into herself as she had done in her own room at the saloon. Her groans sounding in the background as Johnny quickly explain what had happened.
Tomas’ and Sofia’s eyes shown with concern as they listened.
“You can help her, can’t you? She’s hurting bad,” said Johnny as he finished his tale.
Sofia turned to Toni and knelt by the bed. She turned her head to the two men.
“Tomas, go heat up some water and get some rags. Juanito, you go take care of your horse. I’ll call you if I need you.”
“But, Sofia, I can’t leave her.”
“Go, Juanito,” Sofia said sternly. “And stay outside. You did good bringing her here, but now it is my turn to help her. I’ll talk to you later.”
Johnny reluctantly left the room with Tomas. He walked outside as Tomas made his way into the kitchen to gather what Sofia needed. Johnny went outside but made it no further than the front door. He could hear Tomas knocking on his bedroom door with the supplies for Sofia. He could hear muffled talking and then a door closing. In a few minutes, Tomas walked outside. His head was bowed and he looked very sad.
Johnny rushed over to him. “What is it? Is she gonna be okay?”
“Come on and help me, Juanito. Sofia wants us to get some stones to heat. She thinks the warm stones against Toni’s stomach will help her pain.”
“Well, has Toni said anything to you or Sofia?”
“Sofia is talking to her, nino. She is refusing to talk to me.”
“Look, Juanito. Toni is hurting in many ways right now. When I find out more, I promise I will talk to you. Right now, this is what we need to do for Toni. So help me get these rocks into the house and on the stove. The longer we stand here talking, the longer she is in pain. Talking can come later.”
Johnny bowed his head and nodded yes. He knew that Tomas was right but he also knew that later, he’d demand to know what was going on. He’d promised to protect Toni and he’d failed.
It seemed forever before Tomas came out of the house. Johnny had brushed Apoyo until even the horse had gotten tired of the attention. He’d done all the afternoon chores and was now just sitting on the corral fence as still as a sentry. Normally, he had trouble sitting still, but dynamite couldn’t have moved him from his post.
Finally, he saw Tomas coming out of the house. Johnny jumped down from his perch and met him.
“Is she okay?”
Tomas sighed. “She’s going to be fine. She’s sleeping now.” Tomas led the way back to the corral. “Let’s go over here and talk. I told you there would be a time to talk and now is the time. But I want you to listen to all I have to say.”
Johnny looked at Tomas with a scared and puzzled look. Tomas sighed and passed his hand over his eyes.
“Juanito, the people in the saloon found out that Toni was pregnant. They forced her to drink something to lose the baby and to make sure that would work, they punched her in the stomach several times. The stuff she drank was what was making her throw up. She tried to get away from them that is why she has the bruises on her face. She’s okay now, it is just going to take some time.”
Johnny erupted. “Why didn’t she tell me she was pregnant?”
Tomas answered sadly, “Son, she didn’t even know for sure she was. She was scared and asked one of the other women there some questions. They told on her. God, Johnny! She’s only fourteen and lived in a Catholic orphanage all her life. What does she know? She wouldn’t have kept it from you if she had known for sure.”
Johnny turned away from Tomas in a rage. He could feel the hate and anger begin to burn as if to consume him. He started to walk away from Tomas toward the barn. His whole body was stiff and tense from rage.
“I’ll kill them! I’ll kill every one of them. Toni told me she was going to hell. Well, I’ll show them hell. I’ll make sure they pay for this.”
Johnny suddenly felt his arms pinned as Tomas rushed behind him and encircled his arms around him.
“Juanito! No! You can’t do this. I won’t let you.”
Johnny struggled to break away from Tomas’ clasp but was getting nowhere. “Let me go! They deserve this and you know it! What if this had been Sofia?”
Tomas let go of Johnny, spun him around and took him by the shoulders. None too gently, he shook Johnny.
“Listen to me, Juanito. I agree with everything you have said. It would give me great pleasure to put a bullet in their heads. But what would happen to Sofia and Toni if we did that? It would be counted as murder. The law would be on their side, not some poor girl’s side with no family. We would be hung and Sofia and Toni left to fend for themselves. Do you want that?”
Johnny stared at Tomas and then relaxed. He put his arms around Tomas and did something he hadn’t done since his mother had been killed, he cried. “I failed her, Tomas. It is all my fault. I promised I’d get her out of there and I didn’t.” Johnny clinched his right hand into a fist and pounded Tomas’ back. “It isn’t fair, Tomas. None of this is fair.”
Tomas brought his arms around Johnny and rubbed his back in circles, trying to calm him.
“I know, nino. I know. I don’t know why the world is this way to some people. The world you and Toni were born in can be a cruel place for people like you. Somehow you two have to find a way to survive it. And you can start by being there for each other. Son, right now she needs you to be strong for her until she can be strong for herself. SHE is what is important right now, not revenge.”
Tomas pulled away from Johnny and looked into his eyes, his hands softly now on Johnny’s shoulders.
“Can you do that, Juanito? Can you put aside what you want to do and do what you need to do to help Toni?”
Johnny lowered his head to his chest. His emotions were all over the place. The hate was still there, but what Tomas said made him think. Toni needed him and that was all that was important. He’d failed her once, he wouldn’t fail her again. He’d tuck that fire of revenge away until later when the time was right. Now he needed to focus on helping Toni heal. Slowly he lifted his eyes to Tomas and nodded yes. Toni now, revenge later.
It was late at night and the house was quiet. Since Toni was in his room, Johnny was supposed to have slept in the barn. He hadn’t stayed there, though. Once he had been assured that Tomas and Sofia were asleep in their own room, he’d returned to the house and laid out a blanket on the floor by Toni’s door. He felt the need to be closer to Toni. He was almost asleep when he heard soft crying coming from her room.
Quietly he got up and opened the door. “Toni?” he called as he walked into the room. Sofia had left the lamp on low so there was enough light to see Toni. He walked over to her bed and sat on the floor. She was on her side facing him, one arm out from under the covers. Johnny took her hand and held it.
“Please, Johnny. Go away,” she said softly as she tried to pull her hand away. When she saw that he wasn’t letting go, she sighed and closed her eyes.
“Toni, I’m sorry this happened. It’s all my fault. I should have gotten you out of there.”
Her eyes popped opened and she looked sadly at Johnny. “It isn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. The priests would say this is my sin.”
“I don’t care what the priests would say. They ain’t God and I can’t believe He would blame you for this. You didn’t do it, it was done to you and I didn’t stop it.”
Johnny looked down at the hand he held and mindlessly rubbed his thumb in circles over her hand.
“So you don’t blame me? You don’t think bad of me?”
“How can you even think that? Don’t you know what you mean to me? The only thing I can even think about being mad at you about it that you haven’t been telling me the truth.”
“I didn’t know Johnny. I’m so stupid, I didn’t even know I was pregnant!”
“No I’m not talking about that. You let me believe that you weren’t having to work anymore like that with me paying them on the weekends. We promised a long time ago that we would always tell each other the truth, no matter what!”
Toni was quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry, Johnny. You’re right, we did promise that. But Johnny, I was just so ashamed. You say you don’t think badly of me, but I feel bad about myself. I feel dirty, Johnny. When I’m with you, I can forget all of it and pretend it doesn’t happen. I didn’t want to ruin our time together.”
Johnny shook his head yes. “I can understand that. But don’t you see, if we’re going to trust each other, we gotta tell each other the truth, even if the other person doesn’t like what we’re going to say. We can’t worry about what the other person will think. You were probably worried about what I would do if I found out, weren’t you?”
Toni nodded yes.
“I tell ya. I’ve never been so angry in my life except when my mama was killed. I wanted to go right out and kill them all. But Tomas made me see that I couldn’t just think about what I wanted right now. I had to think about you too. So see, you could have told me. I wouldn’t have liked it, but maybe we could have figured something out. I mean it, Toni. From now on, no more secrets, okay?”
“Okay, Johnny. No more secrets.”
Johnny got up from the floor and walked over to the other side of the bed.
“Scoot over,” he ordered. He laid down beside her and wrapped his arms around her. He could feel her stiffen and begin to struggle.
“No, Johnny, please get up. I don’t like this.”
Johnny leaned his mouth to her ear. “Shhhhh.” He took his hands and placed them on her arms and softly rubbed his hands up and down her arms. “Trust me, Toni. This is me, not anyone else.”
He started to hum a lullaby he knew but didn’t remember from where. From somewhere deep inside it came to him and he softly hummed it to Toni. Slowly he felt Toni begin to relax. When he heard her breathing quietly, he knew that she had fallen asleep. Only then did he allow himself to do the same.
Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Sofia went back into her bedroom and woke Tomas. “Come Tomas, I want to show you something.”
Grumbling, Tomas got out of bed and followed his wife across the hall to Toni’s room. He noted the blanket on the floor and recognized it as belonging to Johnny. Putting her finger to her lips, Sofia slowly opened the bedroom door. Looking over her shoulder, Tomas could see Johnny and Toni asleep in each other’s arms. He started to say something when he felt Sofia grab his arm. Shutting the door, she led her husband back into their own room.
“Sofia! We can’t let him sleep in her bed. That isn’t proper!”
“Tomas, after all she’s been through, if she can still trust Johnny to allow him to hold her like that, then that is wonderful. That tells me that she is beginning to heal. Johnny is acting very proper. He’s on top of the covers and they both have their clothes on. She needs comfort, she needs to feel safe, and she needs to feel accepted. Johnny is giving that to her now. Today they were in a very dark place, my husband. They need this.”
Tomas got back into bed and reached over to his wife. He gathered her in his arms and whispered to her, “You are right as always, querida.”
The ride back to town was a quiet one. Toni had stayed with the Madrids for a week. She would have liked to stay longer, but knew that Pedro would come looking for her. The Madrid ranch was a special place where she felt safe and accepted. She didn’t want to mar that feeling with Pedro coming to get her.
Johnny and Toni reached the livery. Sofia had insisted that she ride sideways across the saddle horn. Toni had to agree, she didn’t think she could straddle a horse and ride behind Johnny right now. She was feeling better, but still had some healing to do.
Juan came out when he heard them ride up.
“Hey Juan, could you help Toni down?” asked Johnny.
“Sure, Juanito,” answered the old man as he walked to the side of Apoya and held up his arms to catch Toni as she slid off. Juan then walked to the horse’s bridle and started to lead Apoyo into a stall after Johnny had jumped off also. “How long you gonna stay?”
Johnny followed Juan into a stall and got his saddlebags and bedroll off before uncinching the saddle. “Not sure, maybe a week,” he answered as he handed Juan some money. “We gotta get back to Toni’s room. Will you rub Apoyo down and give him some oats?”
At Juan’s yes, Johnny grabbed his stuff and started walking toward the saloon. Toni hurried to catch up.
“A week? What do you mean a week?” she asked.
“Yep, a week if it takes that. Two weeks if needs be.”
Toni stopped right where she was, her mouth opened. “You can’t stay away from the ranch that long. What will Tomas say?”
Johnny kept walking forward. “He knows all about it.”
“But why?” asked a puzzled Toni.
Johnny stopped and turned around. He walked back to Toni and looked her square into her face. “I’m tired of missing Pedro and I’m tired of you being here. I’m gonna wait here as long as it takes to see Pedro and find out how to get you home to the ranch for good. I got my bedroll here and I’ll sleep on the floor in your room until then. You won’t have to worry about any ‘company’ if I have anything to do about it.”
Johnny shifted his saddlebags and bedroll on his shoulders, turned around and started to walk away. Toni, who had just stood there with her eyes big in surprise, watched him walk away. She blinked and realized that she was still standing in the middle of the street, alone. She hurried to catch up to Johnny.
“But Johnny! You can’t confront Pedro like that. You have to listen to me.”
“Tomas needs you. I’ll be okay, I promise.”
“Johnny Lancer, listen to me!” shouted Toni as she reached out to grab his arm.
Johnny stopped and looked down at Toni. “Toni, I ain’t listening to ya on this one. I’m doing this and my mind’s made up. You ain’t going to talk me out of this or tease me into changing my mind. This is the right thing to do and nobody, not even you are stopping me.” With that, Johnny walked away again toward the back of the saloon where Toni’s room was located.
Toni followed behind him and didn’t speak again. She opened the door to her room and followed him in. As they walked in, they both noticed that the room had been cleaned while she had been at the ranch. Johnny put the saddlebag and bedroll in the corner. “Looks like Maria did a nice job cleaning up in here.”
Toni turned around. “ So now what?”
“Now I go look for Pedro.” And Johnny walked out of the room.
Johnny straddled a chair and watched Toni wash dishes. It was a busy Friday night and there was a mountain of dirty glasses to wash.
“Hey, Juan said that there’s a special mass tomorrow for the christening of the Diego baby and a fiesta afterwards, want to go?” asked Johnny. “The food should be pretty good and I’ll even dance with ya if you want.”
Toni looked over her shoulder toward Johnny, as she rinsed a batch of glasses. “I’ll go to the fiesta but no thanks to church.”
Johnny stopped in mid-bite of the apple he’d been eating. “I thought you liked church! You seemed to like it pretty good at the orphanage even if we were made to go. I thought you’d like to go, that’s why I asked. You know I never cared for it.”
“Oh please,” snorted Toni. “I learned my lesson real quick on that. Kinda hard to feel all good and church-like when you have one of the town’s upstanding citizens kneel beside you in Mass with their family all holy acting and you remember that the night before he had just paid Mannie extra to stay the whole night with ya. I haven’t been back since.” She carried an armful of glasses over to the table and started drying. She looked over to Johnny and saw that he had gone all quiet and still.
“Johnny, don’t feel bad. It is what it is. We can’t change nothing, just got to hope the next day is better. I would like to go the fiesta if you’d go with me. You know how I love to dance and I know you don’t. So if you’re offering, I ain’t going to turn that down!”
She gave Johnny a big smile and he found himself smiling back. “Well, guess I’ll go see about helping Juan in the livery some. You need anything?”
“Nope, I’m good. I’ll see you later.”
Standing up, he twisted the chair around back under the table with one hand as he tossed the apple core into the trash bin with the other hand.
His “see ya” echoed in the kitchen as he walked out the door.
The Diego family had pulled no punches about the party. Food and drink were abundant, a band played in the background, and it seemed that the entire village had decided to come.
Johnny and Toni walked on the fringes of the crowd, enjoying the fiesta- like atmosphere. Neither were comfortable talking to the other villagers- Johnny, because he didn’t know anyone and Toni, because she did. So the two of them enjoyed themselves by observing the other partygoers while partaking of the wonderful free food. They moved around the edges of the crowd, moving to a new spot when they saw that their presence had been noticed by the others. Both had learned the hard way that their kind wasn’t usually wanted among polite company and rather than ruin their own fun, they took the easy way and just moved on.
“Oh look, Johnny! They’re getting ready to dance. Come on, you promised!” And Toni grabbed his arm and pulled Johnny into the crowd.
Her eyes sparkled with anticipation as she waited for the music to start. Johnny, not being crazy about being in the middle of a crowd, resigned himself to having to keep his promise. It wasn’t long though before Toni’s infectious smile of joy and the upbeat music caused him to shake away his hesitancy and he threw himself into the dance and fun. For a few moments, both of them forgot about everything except enjoying themselves dancing the Jarabe Tapatio.
It was late when they returned back to Toni’s room. They both were laughing about the sight the mayor had made, trying to dance when it was obvious he was more than a little tipsy. Their laughter came to an abrupt stop when they both noticed a note pinned to Toni’s door.
Johnny reached up and took it down. As he was reading, Toni looked over his shoulder and asked, “What does it say?”
As Johnny crumpled the paper, he answered her. “It’s from Pedro. Says he’ll meet me tomorrow in the saloon around noon.”
He turned to Toni and gave a small half smile. “Well, this is what we wanted. Now we just have to wait to see what he says.”
It was a few minutes before noon when Pedro noticed Johnny walking through the kitchen into the saloon proper. He’d never seen Johnny before, but it wasn’t hard to figure out that the young, cocky, half-breed was the boy he was supposed to meet. Johnny walked over to him and with his most icy stare, looked at the man.
“You Pedro?” he quietly asked.
Pedro looked up at the young man before him. He kicked out a chair and indicated that Johnny should sit down.
“So, you are the kid who has been keeping my Toni busy?” he questioned. “Mannie! Bring the kid a beer. I have a feeling he wants to do some business.”
Mannie brought over a glass of beer for Johnny and another for Pedro. Pedro picked his up and took a deep drink. He noticed that Johnny hadn’t started on his drink. “Well go on boy, have a drink.”
Pedro watched as Johnny looked down at his drink and started running his finger around the rim of the glass. Johnny seemed to be ignoring him, something he wasn’t used to.
Then he heard Johnny speak very quietly. “Thanks, but I’m kinda particular who I drink with. Besides, this ain’t a social visit, I’m here to do business.”
Pedro could feel the heat rising up his face over the insult. He was about to snap back at him when Johnny lifted his head to stare at the man. He was taken aback at the icy stare that came from the young man’s blue eyes. There was something about those eyes. They weren’t dead, but so icy cold that Pedro felt himself give a little shiver. Those were eyes that had seen too much and didn’t fit into such a young face.
Pedro mentally gave himself a shake. Why was he letting this kid get to him? He started to speak again in the only way he knew how, loud and arrogant.
“Yeah, well I hear you’ve been paying a lot to keep company with Toni. She don’t normally bring in that much money, but maybe since you two are both ‘breeds, you got something going. Maybe I need to check her out again to find out what you find so interesting,” laughed Pedro.
The laughter died when Pedro noticed the blue icy eyes continued to stare at him. Even though he had figured to get a rise out of Johnny, he could see that it had failed. Johnny just continued to stare at him with no emotion showing on his face. The sounds of glass clinking and boots walking across the wooden floor were the only sounds heard in the saloon.
Pedro, used to getting a rise out of his opponents, was flustered. Normally, people either kowtowed to him or were afraid of him. The steely gaze of indifference he saw on Johnny’s face wasn’t something he was used to. Before he knew it, Pedro found himself grabbing his beer and taking a deep drink to hide his confusion.
“Okay, you want to talk business, so talk,” he spouted.
“How much?” asked Johnny quietly.
“How much what?”
“How much for you to turn Toni over to me?”
“Are you serious? I got good money invested in her! Why should I let her go?” spluttered Pedro.
“You just told me that she doesn’t bring in much money and that she isn’t popular. I’ve got a use for her so I’m asking again…how much? See I figure we can do it one or two ways. You can sell her to me and you can get someone else more to your liking or I can camp out in her room so you’ll never make any money off of her again. I’m betting that the upstanding men in this community would find three in a room a crowd.”
Pedro just stared at Johnny, shocked that someone would stand up to him.
He glared at Johnny and waited for him to back down. After a moment or two, he realized that Johnny’s threat was real and that keeping Toni might become more of a bother than he wanted to deal with.
Is this kid for real? I’ll call his bluff and that will take the wind out of his sails.
“Fifty dollars. I paid that fellow she was with fifty dollars for her. He drifted into town and got fleeced in a poker game. Couldn’t settle up so I paid him fifty dollars for her so he could pay off the boys and had some money left to get out of town. You can have her for that.”
Pedro waited, sure that Johnny would back down. His eyes widened as Johnny nodded and reached in his pocket and drew out a pencil and a piece of paper. He slapped it down on the table and pushed it over to Pedro.
“I want it in writing,” he said.
“You wanting a bill of sale?” asked Pedro asked incredulously.
“Yep. I don’t have the money now, but I’ll get it. She can stay here and work in the kitchen, but no more visitors. Here’s ten dollars to seal the deal. You go ahead and write it out on that paper and sign it. You can keep the paper now, but when I finish paying this, I want it. I don’t want someone later saying ‘your property’ high-tailed it out of here.” And Johnny took out a ten dollar bill and laid it in front of Pedro.
Pedro looked at Johnny. He could see that there would be no backing down from Johnny. For once in his life, Pedro felt like someone else was calling the tune and he didn’t like that feeling at all. Damn it, the bitch sure isn’t worth all this trouble.
Picking up the pencil, Pedro wrote out the bill of sale and signed it. He pushed it over to Johnny. “This what you want?” he asked.
“That’ll do,” answered Johnny as he stood up. He looked down at Pedro, “Now you remember what I said, leave her alone.” Pedro’s eyes narrowed as he watched Johnny turn and walk over to the bar.
“Give me a beer, Mannie”, he heard Johnny order the barkeep. He continue to watch as Johnny took the glass Mannie gave him and walked back across the room to the door leading to the kitchen.
As he passed Pedro, Johnny tilted his hat good-bye to him and took a big drink of beer. Pedro was left with no doubt to the meaning of Johnny’s actions. Johnny would drink by himself before drinking with him. Pedro steamed as he watch Johnny smile and walk away. Mad at himself for letting Johnny get the best of him, Pedro stood up and shoved his chair back. Grabbing his old, felt, tan hat, he shoved it on his head and stomped out of the saloon
Turning his head around, Johnny watched Pedro leave. He slowly smiled and as his eyes crinkled up, they lost their icy glare. He turned and walked through the saloon door into the kitchen.
Toni watched him walk in and put down the spoon she had been using to stir tonight’s stew Mannie had made and walked over to Johnny. “Did you talk to him?” she asked hesitantly.
Johnny put down the glass of beer. The gulp he had taken in front of Pedro had been for show, he was so uptight it wasn’t sitting well on his stomach. It had taken all of his might to keep calm and relaxed while talking to Pedro. The conversation with Pedro had so enraged him that it was all he could do to not let it show. Even now, he fairly simmered underneath his calm demeanor but he didn’t want to worry Toni.
“It’s all taken care of, miel. I gotta get some money together to repay him for what he gave to that Porter gringo when you got here. Until then you have to work in the kitchen, but that’s it. You don’t have to worry about any callers.”
“How you gonna get fifty dollars Johnny? ‘Cause I know that’s what he gave Porter for me.”
Johnny walked over to Toni and gripped her shoulders lightly. “You let me worry about that. You just try to keep out of his way as much as possible. It might take me awhile, but I’ll get the money and then you can leave this place.”
Johnny gave her shoulders a squeeze to let her know that everything was going to be all right, then started to walk to the door. His hand was on the doorknob when he heard Toni speak.
“Are you okay, Johnny? Where ya going?”
He opened the door and before leaving he answered her. “I’m going out to shoot something.” And he shut the door behind him.
Johnny hitched his horse to the post outside of the saloon. He hadn’t seen Toni since he’d left after talking to Pedro. After releasing his anger on an unsuspecting cactus, he’d gone back to the ranch to talk to Tomas’. Together, they had come up with a plan for Johnny to earn the fifty dollars to secure Toni’s release from Pedro’s hold. Today was the first time he had had time to come see her and tell her of his plans.
Walking into the saloon, his eyes adjusted to the dim light. Since it was the middle of the day, the only person there was Mannie, doing what Mannie seemed to do best, keeping his head down and wiping off the bar.
Johnny strode over to him and ordered a beer. As he took a drink, Mannie told him that Toni wasn’t there, he could find her at the livery.
“What’s she doing there?” he asked.
Mannie lifted Johnny’s glass and wiped the bar underneath. “She’s been helping out Juan with a lame horse. She’s pretty good at fixing up hurt things, so Juan sends for her now and then.”
“Yeah, Toni was always messing with plants and stuff. Came in handy a time or two when we were younger.” Johnny smiled remembering when the good Sisters at the orphanage had experienced firsthand Toni’s expertise in various plants. He finished his drink and handed it to Mannie instead of setting it on the bar. He figured that would be one less spot Mannie had to wipe.
Saying thanks over his shoulder as he walked out, he left the saloon and turned toward the livery. No one was in the corral so he figured Juan and Toni were inside. As he walked through the open doors, he could hear them over in the back stall. He leaned against the post and watched them working. Juan was holding the bridle of a chestnut gelding while Toni was bent over wrapping the horse’s front left leg. Neither of them had even noticed that Johnny was there.
“Better watch out for anything with cactus in it, Juan. Toni seems to think that’ll solve all kinds of problems.”
“Johnny!” Toni let out a surprised yelp as she suddenly stood up at Johnny’s voice. “Don’t sneak up on us like that.”
Johnny pushed himself off the post and sauntered over to Toni. He picked up the bucket that was on the floor beside the horse and smelt what was inside. “Phew! If the worse something smells means how good the medicine is, that right there should work pretty good. What is in this stuff?”
“All kinds of things, but I saved the cactus for you,” answered Toni as she jerked the bucket from Johnny’s hand. She reached her hand in the bucket and spread the thick paste on a length of cloth. Putting the bucket back down, she continued to wrap the cloth around the gelding’s leg. When she had gone as far up as she felt was needed, she reached in the waistband of her skirt and drew out a knife.
“Hey!” Johnny exclaimed in a surprised voice. “You still have your protection knife. You never told you still kept it there. You ever get to practice?”
Toni used the knife to split the top of the cloth and tore it straight down several inches. “Here,” she said as she shoved the knife toward Johnny. She took both ends of the cloth and tied the wrap off. Standing up she patted the horse on his shoulders. “You can let go now, Juan.”
She bent down to pick up the bucket and took the knife back from Johnny. Walking outside to the water trough and putting the bucket down, she placed the knife back into the hidden pocket she had sewn into the waistband of her skirt. Johnny, who had followed her, started pumping water for her as she washed out the bucket.
“Well, to answer your question, no, I don’t get to practice as much as I would like to. If you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been a little busy in this town. And what about you,” she nodded toward his gun. “You haven’t talked about that either. You said last week you were going to shoot something. Do anything about that?”
Johnny stopped working the handle of the pump and shrugged sheepishly.
He tilted his head up to her and slowly grinned. “Well,” he said. “Let’s just say that there is one less cactus living in this world now.”
Toni looked at him in surprise and then started snickering. She tried to contain herself, but the more she tried to hold it in, the worse it got.
Johnny looked at her, his eyes twinkling. Soon he started laughing too.
“Oh, gosh Johnny! Did you call it out or did it call out the famous Johnny Lancer?”
“Oh, I was much faster. It didn’t even have a chance to clear the holster before I got off my shot.”
Toni had a hard time speaking, she was laughing so hard. When she was finally able to compose herself, she asked Johnny in a halting, tight voice, the laughter just under control, “So, just how did the slow drawing cactus meet his end?”
Johnny turned his back to Toni to try to stop his own laughter. Once he felt he could actually answer her, he turned around and looked her in the eye.
“Gut shot,” he said in a very solemn voice. Their laughter could be heard throughout that end of town.
Johnny waited outside Toni’s door while she changed into her pants. He had come to town to take her back with him to the ranch but had gotten sidetracked at the livery. “Hey, bring your knife too. Maybe we can get in some practice,” he hollered at her through the door. “And you better bring a hat, I plan on us doing some riding around the ranch.”
Toni opened the door and asked him in a sarcastic voice, “Anything else you need to tell me to do? You know, you don’t own me.” She walked outside, pulling the door behind her shut.
“Yet,” smirked Johnny.
Toni looked up at Johnny with a puzzled look on her face. “Huh?”
“I don’t own you yet. But I figure I will in about a month if everything works out. I’ll even have a paper to prove it.” Johnny stood there grinning.
Toni let out a gasp, then narrowed her eyes at Johnny. “I ain’t some horse for sale, ya know,” she hissed.
“Well, you sure as hell are as expensive as one,” he replied as he started to walk away.
Toni stood still and watched Johnny walk away. She felt a slow burn travel up her neck as she started to grow angry with Johnny. She ran up to him and grabbed his arm. “So now you’re comparing me with a horse?” her voice rising in pitch.
Johnny stopped and looked down at her. His eyes were twinkling with mischief as he leaned over and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “I happen to like horses, remember?” He smiled at her and continued walking to the front of the saloon where Apoyo was tied. Once there he grabbed the reins and jumped onto the saddle. He looked down at Toni who had followed him. He leaned over and held out his left arm and kicked his leg from the stirrup. Toni grabbed his arm and stepping into the stirrup, he used the momentum to help swing her up behind him. As Toni was getting settled he clicked to Apoyo and turned to ride out of town.
Wrapping her arms around his waist, Toni leaned forward so he could hear her speak. “You and that paper, you’re never gonna let me forget this, are you?”
“Nope,” answered Johnny. “I figure if you ever start to get uppity with me, I’ll just pull this paper out to prove who the real boss is. We won’t even have to flip a coin anymore, I’ll always get the last word.”
“In your dreams, Johnny Lancer. In your dreams,” muttered Toni as she shifted around to find a more comfortable position on the cantle.
Johnny stopped his horse. Toni straightened up and looked around her, the ranch was still several miles away. She couldn’t see anything but cactus and ironwood trees. Everything was quiet, nothing it seemed to warrant Johnny stopping. She looked down at the ground and twisted and turned, trying to see if there had been something wrong with Johnny’s horse. Sighing, she looked back up.
“Okay, I give up. Ya want to tell me why we are just sitting here in the sun?” she asked.
“Well, I thought you might want to pay your respects,” answered Johnny with a smile in his voice.
He twisted around and offered his arm to Toni. She grabbed it and slid off the back of the horse. Once down, Johnny hopped off, also. Leaving Apoyo ground tied, he started walking toward a tall cactus standing by itself. Toni followed, curious.
She looked at the cactus in front of her, it had been shot to hell. Johnny had been right when he said the cactus had been gut shot. The cactus was as tall as a man, actually about as tall as Pedro, now that she thought about it. Where a man’s middle should have been, there was nothing there now but a churned up hole.
“Looks like he didn’t die easy,” was all she said.
“Nope,” said Johnny walking over to the cactus. He started to touch the hole, but his hand only hovered for a minute before falling to his side.
“Looks like you got it pretty well centered.” Toni looked around at the ground around the cactus. “Don’t look like you missed any. You sure used up a lot of bullets to get the thing done. He’d been just as dead with a bullet to the head or heart. Quicker, too.”
“This was more satisfying,” Johnny answered in a clipped voice.
Toni wrapped her arms around her middle and bowed her head in thought. She used the toe of her fringed moccasin boots to dig at the dirt. She finally looked up at Johnny. “Satisfying, maybe. But gut shooting an unarmed cactus, even if he is as big as say, Pedro, could be a hanging offense. Would hate to think what would happen to you and me if that happened. Wouldn’t be worth it to me.”
Johnny walked over to Apoyo and rested his head against the horse’s neck.
“Some things are just plain wrong. Don’t you think something so wrong needs justice, even if you have to do it yourself? I killed the man who killed my mama and I still say it was the right thing to do, no matter what the consequences were for me. I’d gladly put up with that blot on my soul, and I’d do it again for anyone else I cared about.”
Toni walked over to Johnny and put her hand on his shoulder. “Well then, guess you just have to be sure ‘cause something like that, well, there ain’t no taking it back.”
Johnny gave a nod and without looking at Toni, grabbed the reins and jumped back up onto the saddle. Without a word, he helped Toni back on Apoyo and started to ride away. Toni turned around as best she could and looked back at the bullet torn cactus. She gave a shudder and turned back around, looking forward to getting back to the ranch.
Johnny and Toni rested their arms over the top corral rail as they looked at a beautiful black stallion. The horse, both proud and wild, pranced around the enclosure shaking his head putting on a show for the humans who watched him.
“Well, there you go. That,” indicated Johnny with a nod to the horse, “is what is going to get me the rest of the money to pay Pedro.”
“Where did you get him?” asked Toni.
“One of the hands at the Cordova ranch told me about him. Seems nobody could break him. They was either going to let him go or shoot him. I convinced him to let me buy him with last month’s wages. When I break him, I’m going to sell him for fifty dollars. That will pay Pedro off and leave me with ten dollars to give to Tomas for the feed this guy has been eating. It will take me a few weeks to break and train him like I want. If I sell him green broke, I can’t ask as much for him.”
“Tomas is okay with this?” asked Toni.
“Yep, he helped me come up with the plan. Come on,” he said with a jerk of his head toward the two horses saddled nearby. “Let’s go riding!”
The two of them mounted their horses and rode away from the ranch. Both horses were frisky and wanted to run. Johnny worked the reins as Apoyo danced with unleashed energy. Toni had the same problems with Viaje, the dun mare she always rode when at the Madrid ranch. Finally Johnny gave up. “See that grove up there?” he asked Toni. “Let’s let them go and get to it.” Toni nodded yes. “Alright, on the count of three….one…two…. Hey wait a darn minute!” he shouted as Toni gave Viaje her head and started racing early. Johnny’s horse kept fidgeting until he too, gave a swift kick to Apoyo’s sides and leaning forward, urged the horse to run and catch up with Toni and Viaje.
Johnny and Toni leaned so far forward on their horses that they seemed to meld into one being. The wind blew their hats back and caught around their necks by the stampede strings. They didn’t need to use spurs or whips to urge their mounts. The horses knew their humans trusted them and vice versa. There was no timetable, no schedule, no restraints. All they had to think about was the sense of freedom they got from flying as fast as they could.
When they got to the grove, they both slowed their horses down. “There’s a stream over that way, let’s walk them to cool off,” said Johnny. When they got to the stream, they both got off and led their horses to water. After the horses had gotten their fill, they led their horses to a protected stand of trees. Leaving Apoyo and Viaje ground tied, Johnny and Toni made their way over to some trees.
“Hey, get your knife out and let me see what you can do. Now’s a good as time as any.”
Toni took the knife from the hidden pocket in her waistband and looked around. Her eyes settled on a particular tree. “There,” she said, nodding and pointing to the tree she meant. Standing still with her feet slightly apart for balance, she held the knife by the blade. Raising her arm up by her head, she moved her wrist forward followed by her arm. As her arm stretched out, she let the blade slip from her fingers and it spun blade over handle until it sunk into the tree.
Both she and Johnny walked over to the tree to examine the hit. “Damn. I was aiming there,” Toni pointed to a spot on the tree to the left. She grabbed the knife and pulled it out.
“Do it again and I’ll watch closer,” said Johnny.
Toni took the same position again as Johnny watched from the side. Before, he had followed the trajectory of the knife as it sliced through the air. This time he stood arms across his chest and stared at Toni’s body posture. Although it was hard not to follow the track the knife made once it was released, he kept his eyes on Toni. After the throw was complete, they again went to the tree to see where the knife had hit. “It did it again!” Toni announced in a frustrated voice.
Johnny grabbed her arm and led her back to the spot she had been throwing. “I know what’s happening, you’re a little off balanced. When you let go, I saw you shift just a mite to the right.”
He stood beside her and tried to imitate her stand. “Move your left leg over a bit and shift your weight just a little more to that hip. That should balance things out when you throw. Go ahead and try it.”
Toni stood beside him and did as he had suggested. This time when they went to check where the knife hit, both were pleased to see that it had landed exactly where Toni had wanted.
“Now you try,” she encouraged Johnny.
Johnny reached for his boot knife and threw it. It was a good throw, but he was surprised to see Toni shaking her head in disgust.
“What?” he asked puzzled.
“So, you’re in a fight and you bend down to get your boot knife, you telling me the other guy is gonna just stand there doing nothing while he waits for you to stretch back up, get into position, then throw?” Toni asked in a sarcastic voice.
“Well, I’m taller than you and you’re just getting your blade from your waist. I got more distance than you,” huffed Johnny.
“Well, no shit! That’s my whole point. That’s all fine if someone is close, all you gotta do is stick them as you move up. Use that motion to give you leverage to throw your hand out. Just grab the handle instead of the blade.”
Toni crouched down and stood, demonstrating her throw. “What if the guy is further away and is about to throw his knife at you? You got to learn to aim from lower down and throw the knife up and out. Get ‘im before he gets you.”
Johnny narrowed his eyes and went over his actions in his mind. Shaking his head yes, he walked over to the tree to get his knife. As he pulled it out he spoke, “I see what you’re talking about. Makes sense. Guess I never thought about it that way.”
He bent over to replace his knife in his boot. As he straightened up, he started to walk over to the horses. Looking back at Toni, he continued. ”Might need to think about some of that for gun shooting. If more than one is shooting at me, I got to practice taking different shots in different positions.” He grabbed his canteen and some food he had in his saddlebags. As he walked back toward Toni, he pointed to a nice place under a tree. “Let’s sit there and get some lunch.”
After they had eaten, Toni leaned over and drew Johnny’s gun out from the holster. As she examined it in her hands, she asked, ”So where did you get this?”
“Oh, I got it about a year ago. While I was drifting around, I worked some at different ranches doing odd jobs. Some of the men there let me practice with their guns. When I had saved enough, I got my own.” He leaned back against the tree and settled his hat over his eyes.
“So, you gonna stick with raising horses and the Madrids?” she asked.
“Remember when we were kids and you wanted to be like that gunfighter Alvarez? And I remember you were planning on finding and killing your gringo pa.”
“Well, what made you change your mind? I mean I saw how you can take down a cactus, you were pretty accurate.” Toni put Johnny’s gun back in the holster.
“Are you going to keep jabbering and asking questions or you going to let me take a nap?” he asked in disgust.
“Jabber. Jabber. Jabber.” Toni lifted up his hat from his eyes. “Jabber,” she said as she grinned at him.
“Fine,” said Johnny in a pissed voice. He reached up and settled his hat on his head. Turning to Toni, he narrowed his eyes. “What is it you want to know?” he hissed.
“So how come you changed your mind?”
Johnny looked around and then taking his hand, he moved it in a sweeping motion. “All of this.”
Toni looked at him, waiting patiently for him to continue.
“Don’t get me wrong, I still hate Murdoch Lancer and if he walked right by me now, I’d have a hard time not putting a bullet in him. But now that it seems I got all this, I ain’t in any hurry for revenge. I’m happy here, I feel like I belong and the Madrids truly like me and respect me. That’s all I wanted before anyway. I keep in practice with my gun ‘cause being out here on a ranch, you need to know how to shoot. I’m very accurate. That part seems to come easy to me. But I ain’t fast enough to be a pistolero. You got to spend hours learning that and I’m too busy working with my horses to do that. I guess you could say that since I got all this, I don’t need to be anything else.”
Johnny reached for the canteen and took a big drink. As he finished, he offered some to Toni before he put the cap back on. Suddenly, he whirled around to face Toni.
“Did I tell ya that I seen him?”
“See who?” Toni asked.
“Alvarez! He was in a little town to the east, almost to Texas. I was heading toward Sasabee and had stopped at the cantina there for some supper, when I saw him.”
“So how’s he doing?”
“He’s fine. Asked about you and I told him what all had gone on. He seem right sorry about what happened.”
Toni bowed her head a minute, catching her bottom lip with her teeth.
Softly she said, “Me, too.”
“Anyway, he asked if I wanted to be a gunfighter like I did when I was a kid. I told him that I thought I might have a good thing going with Benito’s cousin, then told him about hoping to get this job with horses.”
“He seemed real pleased at the idea and said he didn’t blame me for wanting to be a part of this. He said he wished he had had a chance like this when he was younger. Said since he hadn’t, gunfightering was about the only thing left for him to do.”
“That’s sad,” murmured Toni.
“Yeah, I know. You know, I ain’t very religious, but you gotta wonder sometimes why some things happen to one person and something else to another!”
“So, you two said your goodbyes and went on your ways?” asked Toni.
“Yeah, he said he was heading toward El Paso. Heard there were some jobs around there on the American side. Seems to be more ranches there than here. He said if I ever changed my mind, to look him up. He wouldn’t mind giving me some pointers on his trade.”
Both were silent for a minute when suddenly Toni looked up at the sky and saw the position of the sun. “Hey, we gotta get out of here and back to the ranch! I gotta help Sofia with supper.”
Both stood up and started gathering their stuff. Johnny started snickering.
“What?” asked Toni.
“If you’re helping Sofia with supper, I ain’t in any hurry to get back, thank you.”
“Are you hinting that I can’t cook, Johnny Lancer?” Toni asked in a miffed voice.
“I ain’t hinting, miel. I’m flat out saying it. You got a lot of good qualities, Toni, but cooking ain’t one of them and you know it!”
Toni dropped her head to her chest. Slowly she brought her head up and looked Johnny in the eyes. She couldn’t keep serious long, before she knew it, she was grinning big. “Well, I do know how to set the table, so I guess that’ll be it for tonight.”
They walked to the horses and after tightening the cinches, started to climb into the saddle. As they were riding away, Johnny slowed his horse so that it was right beside Toni’s. “Yep, you’re right, Toni. You are the best table setter in all of Northern Mexico. Ain’t nobody can beat you at table setting.”
Giving her a snicker, he urged his horse to ride on ahead.
“Just you wait, Johnny Lancer. One of these days you’re going to be stuck eating my food, and you better hope I don’t find any cactus nearby!” she shouted at his back.
Toni hummed a tune while she washed dishes. She had just put a new batch in the soapy water when she heard her name being called. As she looked toward the door it burst opened and Pedro strode in. Startled, she gave a small jump and fought hard to keep down the bile that churned in her stomach.
“So where’s that half-breed whelp and my money?” growled Pedro. He walked across the room and stood in front of her. Toni schooled her features into emptiness. She forced herself to continue standing there instead of following her instinct to back away.
“He’s bringing it tomorrow,” she replied. “The man he’s sold the horse to is bringing the money tomorrow morning. He’s coming right on. He’s gonna take me back to the ranch after he pays you.”
“So, you’re really going to leave me.” Pedro moved closer and reached out his hand to touch the curve of her jaw. “You know, you and I have some unfinished business.” He moved his hand downward until he reached the swell of her breast. Leaning forward he spoke into her ear, “You haven’t forgotten how to be with a real man, have you? I bet you remember what I like.” He straightened up and removing his hand from her breast, he grabbed the back of her neck and held her as he leaned down to grind his lips into hers, his tongue forcing her mouth to open and accept him.
Toni tried to be as passive as possible, hoping he’d get tired of her lack of response and go away. It had worked before, she had hoped it would work now. However, the more he pressed himself against her, the more her stomach churned. She began to struggle and tried to pull away. Becoming more distressed, she began making gagging noises. Alarmed, Pedro released her and stepped back just as she lost the fight with her nausea. The contents of her stomach spewed out of her mouth and onto the floor, splattering Pedro’s shoes.
“You bitch!” he yelled as he slapped her across the face. Toni staggered back against the kitchen sink. She reached behind her to try to grab hold to something to steady herself. She felt her fingers curl around a knife she had yet to wash. Quickly she brought it around and held it in front of her.
“Get out of here, Pedro, before I kill you. Johnny’s bringing the money tomorrow and then I’m gone. Now git out of here and don’t touch me again!”
Pedro just stared at her in disgust, then quickly turned around and walked out the door. Toni stared at the knife in her hand and looked wildly around the room. She suddenly dropped the knife and rushed over to the trash bucket, her stomach problems not over yet. When there was nothing left, she got a glass of water and rinsed out her mouth. She walked back to the sink, both hands griping the edge of the counter, her head bowed. She took a deep breath and straightening out her spine, she gave herself a nod. “Just one more day. You can handle one more day, Toni. You’ve had worse.”
Johnny reached out to shake Alberto’s hand. “Thanks for coming early. You’ve got yourself a real good horse there. Take care of him now.” Tomas and Johnny stood there and watched Alberto get on his own horse. Johnny handed him the reins of the now newly sold gelding. “Oh, wait a minute, Alberto!” Johnny hurried into the house. He came back fairly quickly. Tomas noticed that he had a piece of paper in his hand.
“Here ya go,” he said as he handed the paper to Alberto. “I almost forgot to give you a bill of sale.”
“Thanks, I’d forgotten too. I might need that,” Alberto chuckled as he folded the paper and put it in his pocket.
“Believe me,” said Johnny wryly. “I’ve learned just lately the power of a bill of sale.”
“Well, thanks again. Nice doing business with you. You know, this used to be Don Carlos’ horse. None of his men could tame him. The Cordova ranch got him in a trade, but couldn’t do nothing with him either. Hear he about near killed one of Don Carlos’ men. Boy, is he gonna be surprised seeing someone riding him now!” With that, Albert rode out of the ranch, leading the black gelding back to his new home.
As Alberto rode away, Tomas turned to Johnny. “You going ahead tonight to take that money to Pedro or you going to wait until tomorrow?” he asked with a grin.
Johnny didn’t answer. He just walked to the barn. In a few minutes, he returned, Apoyo and Viaje all saddled up. Leading the horses to where Tomas stood, he swung into the saddle. He leaned over to Tomas. “What do you think?” he grinned. Swinging Apoyo around, he noticed Sofia standing at the door of the house. He waved goodbye and shouted, “We’ll BOTH be seeing you later!”
After confronting Toni, Pedro stalked angrily out of the kitchen. He stomped over to his friends who were sitting in back of the saloon. One of them looked up as Pedro walked to their table.
“I thought you were planning on being gone awhile,” he snickered.
Pedro glared at the man. “Never you mind,” he said. “Get your hats and come on. We’ve got a job to do.”
“What do you mean a job,” asked Jose’. “I thought our only plan tonight was to play cards while you had a bit of fun.”
“Plans have changed,” snarled Pedro. “This has to be done tonight. We’re getting paid good money for this. Besides, I’m getting an added bonus if everyone is taken care of. When this is over, I can take my fun with her whenever I want. Now git up and come on.”
The two men stood up and walked behind Pedro. Before leaving, Pedro called out to Mannie, the barkeep. “If Jesus comes looking for me, just tell him I’m taking care of things now. I’ll see him tomorrow for my pay.” Mannie nodded and watched the three men walk out the door of the saloon.
Johnny pushed the batwings aside and strode into the saloon. Once inside, he paused at the door and looked around for a minute as his eyes adjusted to the dim interior. Looking toward the corner back table, he saw that Pedro and his henchmen were not in their usual spot. In fact, they didn’t seem to be in the saloon at all. He walked over to the bar.
“Hey, Mannie. Is Toni here?” he asked.
“Yep. HEY TONI!” bellowed Mannie toward the back of the saloon.
“What ‘cha hollering about, Mannie?” asked Toni as she walked out of the kitchen into the saloon, wiping her hands dry on her skirt.
“Someone here to see ya,” said Mannie with a jerk of his head toward Johnny.
Toni’s eyes lit up and she gave a gasp. “Johnny!” she called out as she ran to him. She threw her arms around his neck as Johnny caught her up around her waist and swung her around, her skirt swirling around their legs. He grinned at her, glad to see her so happy. As he slowly lowered her down to face him, he impulsively leaned over and kissed her. Toni’s eyes grew big.. Johnny, suddenly afraid he’d done the wrong thing, lowered his eyes then half-cocked his eyes up at her. Toni smiled and leaned forward and returned his kiss, letting him know in no uncertain terms, he’d done nothing wrong. Grabbing her hand he walked over to the bar and got two glasses and a bottle of tequila from Mannie. He led Toni to the unoccupied back corner table where they both could talk with privacy.
Pouring them each a drink, he lifted his glass in salute. “So what are we celebrating?” Toni asked coyly.
“Your freedom, us, our new family, a new life, take your pick,” answered Johnny. “It’s all true and all good enough reasons.”
Toni smiled and lifted up her glass. “To a new life that gives us all the other,” she said.
Johnny smiled and nodded as glass touched glass and the two of them downed their drinks.
Toni set her glass down and crossed her arms on the table. “So, Mr. Lancer, hear that you have some business to discuss. Rumor has it that you’re in the market to buy a pretty, dainty, smart mare,” she teased.
Johnny poured himself another drink and snorted. “Well, I don’t know about that, but I guess I can honestly say that she isn’t a jughead and she ain’t crow-bait neither.” Picking up his glass, he gave Toni his little devil grin and downed his shot.
Toni’s mouth opened and then closed as her eyes narrowed. She began to splutter, “Why… why you….”. She stopped when Johnny reached over and put his hand over hers. “Tomas and Sophia are looking forward to you coming home. You’re gonna take my old room and Tomas and I fixed up a room next to the tack room in the barn for me. I brought Viaje with me so you could ride her home. Tomas said she was your horse anyways, you’ve spoiled her so much, said no one else would want her. Her and Apoya are over at the livery.”
Toni looked down at Johnny’s hand covering hers. A tear slipped out and hit his hand. Reaching over, he took his free hand and lifted her chin. As her head came up, he saw that her eyes looked like a mountain lake he’d once saw, so blue they were and pooled with tears. Another tear slipped down her cheek and he caught it with his thumb.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. He had figured she’d be happy to see him and he’d expected her to be excited, the kiss now, that was a bonus but he certainly hadn’t expected tears. He frowned, perplexed at what was going on.
“Nothing’s wrong,” sniffed Toni, as she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I’m just so happy.” She beamed at him, her whole face shining.
“Happy?” asked an amazed Johnny. “You’re crying and you’re telling me that you’re happy?”
“Well, yes. People can cry when they are happy.”
“You’re crazy! I ain’t ever seen no one cry ‘cause they’re happy. Name one. Name one person who cries when they’re happy.”
“Johnny, women do it all the time. Sometimes we get so happy, we cry. And before you say anything else smartass, yes, I’m a girl so I guess I should know.”
“Well, I know you’re a girl, it’s not like I make it a habit of holding a guy’s hand.” Johnny stopped for a minute. “So why?”
“I don’t know,” shrugged Toni. “That’s just the way it is.”
Johnny decided that since he still had no idea what Toni was talking about, the best thing he could do was start talking about something else.
“So, ah, where is Pedro?” he asked. He moved his hand and poured himself and her another drink and quickly downed his.
“I don’t know. He came in the kitchen earlier and I….uh… well, I told him you’d be here tomorrow and he got mad and left.” Toni rushed the last bit of her sentence so much so that Johnny raised an eyebrow as he looked at her.
“Anything else you want to tell me?” he asked Toni softly.
Toni began to squirm in her chair and wouldn’t look Johnny in the eye.
“Oh, alright, if you got to know,” she said in a rush. “He came in to bother me and I told him you’d be here tomorrow and he started to kiss me and I threw up on his boots and threatened him with a knife and he left.”
Toni watched Johnny’s face as she told him what happened and saw a host of expressions cross his face.
She paused her thoughts as she watched Johnny slowly begin to grin.
His eyes twinkled as he asked, “So you threw up on him?”
“Well, not him, his boots.”
Toni grinned, “Got ‘em pretty good, too.”
Johnny snorted, then burst into laughter. Toni joined him and the two had so much trouble calming down that others in the saloon kept looking at them. Finally, when their laughter wound down, both wiped their eyes and sat there, snickering. Johnny reached into his pocket and pulled out something.
“Oh, here,” he said. “Give me your arm.” He opened his hand and there was a delicate horsehair bracelet in the palm of his hand. As he tied it on her wrist, he explained where he’d gotten it.
“I found this when I was cleaning out my room for you. Remember that day you left the orphanage and I was late coming home from working at the livery? Well, I had been making this for you and had to finish it up. I had planned on giving it to you then but well, you know….you was already gone when I got back. I kept it all these years in case I ever saw you again. Figured this was a good time to give it to you….you know…sorta like celebrating being together again.”
Toni looked down at the intricate details Johnny had so painstakingly woven into the bracelet.
“You’re crying again,” Johnny said accusingly.
Toni leaned over and kissed him again. “Thank you, mi cielo. This means much.
Johnny, now that the saloon was filled, was a little embarrassed, but also secretly pleased. He stood up and grabbed what was left of the bottle of tequila. “Well, ah, I guess I better go. Think I’ll go down to the livery and check on the horses.” He nodded at the now full saloon. “Guess you’re gonna be busy for awhile.”
“You coming back?”
Toni walked with him to the front of the saloon.
“No, I don’t think so. Juan said I could bunk with him and well, I’m thinking maybe I better do that tonight. I’ll see you in the morning, querida.” Toni watched him leave the saloon and smiled, her hand fingering the bracelet he had made and kept for her.
It was mid-morning and Johnny was up helping Juan take care of the horses stabled at the livery. Hearing the sound of several horses riding into town, Juan and Johnny stopped work and watched Don Carlos proudly riding into town in front of a wagon. Riding with Don Carlos were several of his vaqueros.
Don Carlos stopped in front of the undertaker’s, his entourage standing guard as he dismounted. He was too important to visit such a lowly town often; the fact that he was there, on a workday, at the undertaker’s, with so many of his men, drew the curiosity of the townspeople.
Mannie, who was next door at the laundry picking up his wash, asked the driver of the wagon what was happening. He blanched at what he was told and dropping his laundry, ran toward the saloon, calling out Toni’s name.
Startled, Johnny and Juan ran toward the saloon. They weren’t quite there when Toni hurried out to meet Mannie on the steps.
She rushed to the undertaker’s and threw off the tarp covering the back of the wagon. “No!”
Johnny reached her as she fell to her knees. He knelt down and grabbed her by her shoulders, scared to death. “What is it, Toni? What is it?”
Toni looked up at Johnny. “They’re gone Johnny, they’re gone!”
Johnny slowly stood up and turned to the buckboard. He looked inside and saw that the cargo this wagon carried were the bodies of three people, Tomas and Sophia Madrid and Alberto, a friend of Pedro’s. Johnny stumbled back and looked around as if he could find someone to explain what he was seeing.
One of the outriders turned his horse around and rode back to the saloon. The vaquero dismounted and walked in. The townspeople were gathering outside the store and church, whispering and pointing.
With her arms wrapped around herself, Toni was silently rocking back and forth. Johnny knelt down and grabbing her by the shoulders, helped her stand. She leaned against him as he put an arm around her.
They watched as Don Carlos came out of the undertaker’s business and stood by the wagon. Padre’ Miguel and the local lawman had also arrived. Looking into the wagon, Padre’ Miguel gasped and made the sign of the cross. They all looked to Don Carlos for an explanation.
“I went this morning to visit my dear friend, Tomas Madrid. I found him and his wife, Sophia, dead.” Don Carlos jerked his head toward the body of Alberto, “He was nearby. I didn’t see anyone else. I sent one of my men back to my ranchero for more men. We hooked up the wagon and decided to bring them to town.”
Don Carlos turned to Johnny. “I was surprised you were not there also. Where were you last night, mestizo?”
Juan stepped forward. “He was with me all evening and stayed the night. The boy could not have had anything to do with this, Don Carlos. Tomas and Sophia treated him as their son. He would not have harmed them.”
Don Carlos gave Juan and Johnny a disgusted look and turned away to the local official. “Well, it seems to me that Tomas and this man must have killed each other and Sophia got in the way. It is a terrible tragedy. Padre’ Miguel, I want to see to it that the Madrids have a special mass said for them. I will pay, of course. The Madrids were such good friends of mine.”
Don Carlos turned back to Johnny. “The officials will want to sort the legalities of their property soon. Until then, my men will watch the ranch to make sure nothing else happens. You better come tomorrow after the burial and get your things before moving on.”
Johnny and Toni just stared at him as he mounted his horse, and he and his vaqueros rode away. Johnny and Toni turned as they heard the undertaker order some men to carry the bodies into the building. They stood together silently. Their eyes followed their loved ones as they were carried into the building. Leading Toni, Johnny followed them inside. The undertaker tried to stop him at the door.
“This is no place for you. You can come to the burial. The Padre’ will let everyone know the time later.”
Johnny looked up at the undertaker. “This is my family. We want to be with them for a few minutes.”
The undertaker backed against the wall and motioned them in. He directed the men carrying the bodies to a room in the back with tables. Another man came in carrying a few personal belongs. “These things were in the wagon with them.” He set a hat and two gun belts down on a chair.
As the men filed out, the undertaker started to follow then stopped. “I’ll give you a few minutes to say goodbye,” he said, looking over his shoulder. He then walked out the doorway, pulling the door closed behind him.
It was still and quiet in the room. Johnny and Toni stood against the wall. Tentatively, Johnny walked over to Tomas, his steps heavy. He stretched out a shaky hand to touch Tomas but then let his arm fall to his side.
Turning, he faced Sophia. Toni stepped over to stand beside Sophia and started to straighten out her skirt. She picked up Sophia’s hands and placed them neatly over her chest.
Johnny didn’t have to look hard to see how they had been killed. Sophia had been shot in the chest, Tomas in the forehead. Suddenly, it was all too much. His body started to shake and his legs seemed unable to support him. He sunk to his knees. “Why? Why? We were going to be a family.” Tears ran down his face.
Toni sank to the floor and put her arms around him. The only sounds in the room were the heartfelt sobs of two hearts breaking.
Finally, their sobs quieted. Wiping the tears with his sleeves, he slowly stood back up and reached down a hand to help Toni stand. Head down, shoulders slumped, he faced Sophia and reached out to put his hand over hers one last time.
His eyes wandered over Sophia’s face and hands to remember her. Something caught his eye. He pulled the sleeve of her shirt further up. “Madre de Dios,” he gasped.
“Toni! Look at her wrists!” He pulled up the sleeve of Tomas’s shirt. “Look, he has it too!”
Toni turned back around to Johnny. “What is it?
“It’s rope burns. They were both tied up.” He started pacing, his mind racing.“ It don’t make sense. How can Tomas shoot this Alberto if his hands are tied? And if there is only this Alberto, how did Sophia AND Tomas both get tied?”
He walked over to the chair and laid aside the gun belts that were there. Picking up the hat that had been left, he sat down. Twirling the hat on his hand, he tried to think out the puzzle of the ropes. Suddenly, he stopped and stared at the hat, an old, tan felt hat.
“Toni, come here and look at this hat.”
“That’s not Tomas’ hat.” She looked over her shoulder at the third body on a table. Alberto’s hat hung off the table, held on to his body by the stampede string. “He’s still got his hat so whose hat is this?”
“Pedro. It’s Pedro’s hat.” Rage poured through his veins. He didn’t know how or why, but his gut told him that somehow Pedro was in on this and he was going to find out why. Johnny picked up Tomas’ gun and gun belt. He walked between Tomas’ and Sophia’s bodies and stood there silently, his head bowed.
Johnny strode down the street toward the saloon, Toni running to keep up with him.
Johnny burst through the batwings with such force, the doors swung back with a snap. He faced Pedro and his friend sitting at their usual back table, several feet away.
Without saying a word, Johnny tossed the tan felt hat toward Pedro’s table. Everyone watched it sail through the air to land in the middle of Pedro’s table. Pedro stared at the hat.
“Funny thing,” said Johnny in a very soft voice, “that hat was found at the Madrids’ and brought back with them. Now it isn’t Tomas’ hat and it sure as hell isn’t Sophia’s. That dead friend of yours, Alberto, is still wearing his.”
Johnny took a step forward, scanning the saloon before his eyes locked onto Pedro again. “Now I just wonder…whose hat is that? Seems like you’re the only one in the room without a hat and this looks like one I’ve seen you wear before.” Johnny paused, “Now how in the hell did your hat get in the same wagon with three dead people? ”
Pedro and his friend stood up so fast their chairs tipped over. As if one, the whole saloon took a step back, all except for two. Toni moved to stand beside Johnny and he actually took another step forward
“You bastard mestizo,” hissed Pedro. “You’ve caused me nothing but trouble.” He reached for his gun. The patrons of the saloon scrambled to get out of the way. Pedro brought his gun up toward Johnny as Toni yelled to him, “Duck!”
Pedro was able to get off the first shot as Johnny drew his gun and threw himself to the side, pushing Toni out of the way. The bullet didn’t quite go harmlessly by as it grazed Johnny’s left arm. Pedro knew he had hit Johnny and hesitated a second to see if he was going down. Just that extra second gave Johnny the advantage and angling up he aimed his pistol and fired, the bullet hitting Pedro, square in the forehead.
Pedro stood there a moment, his dead eyes staring at Johnny, a surprised expression on his face. Johnny watched as he started to slump down. Pedro’s friend reached for his gun, but his arm suddenly jerked back and up, the bullet harmlessly hitting the ceiling. He grabbed the knife in his shoulder, and his eyes widened as Toni smiled at him. Then, a shot rang out. The bullet slammed Pedro’s friend back against the wall. He was dead before he slid down the wall to the floor.
Johnny saw Don Carlo’s vaquero holster his gun.
“Why did you shoot?” asked Toni. “He wasn’t a threat anymore with that knife in him.”
The vaquero walked past Johnny and Toni and stood by Pedro. Kicking him with the toe of his boot, he moved over to Pedro’s friend. He bent down and pulled out the knife. Wiping off the blood on the dead man’s shirt, he finally answered Toni. “He was becoming a liability.” Handing the knife back to Toni, he tipped his hat to her. He pushed past the people beginning to gather around the bodies and walked out of the saloon.
Obviously, word had spread throughout the town about the shoot out. The already crowded saloon was now packed with the curious. Everyone had known Pedro, friend and foe alike were now coming in to gawk at the bully’s body.
Johnny watched as nervous glances were thrown his way.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Grabbing Toni’s hand he led her out of the saloon and around back to her room.
Leaning around her, he opened the door. Instead of following her into the room, he stood in the doorway, looking out into the night. Walking back to him, Toni laid her hand on his arm.
“You okay? Come on in and let me look at that arm.”
“I’m fine, Toni. Look, I need to… I need to get some air. I’ll be back in a bit.”
He looked down at Toni and gave her a sad smile. “You gonna be okay by yourself?”
Toni nodded and walked back into her room. “Wait a minute.”
Johnny watched her return to the doorway with a clean shirt. Tearing off a strip at the bottom, she wrapped it around the wound on his arm. Leaning up, she gave him a quick kiss. “Tenga cuidado.”
Giving her a nod, Johnny walked away toward the livery. In just a moment, he was leading Apoyo out of the barn. Jumping on, he spurred Apoyo into a gallop and away from town.
It was late when Johnny arrived back at Toni’s room. He wasn’t surprised when she opened the door right away. He had a feeling she’d be waiting up for him. Pulling him into the room, she wrapped her arms around his neck, and burst into tears. Hugging her tight, Johnny stroked her hair and whispered softly in her ear.
“Here,” she said, finally pulling away. “Sit down and let me look at that arm.”
Toni went out and got some water from the kitchen. She brought a bowl back with warm water and some clean cloths. Making Johnny sit at the small table, she took off the bandana she’d wrapped around the wound and cleaned it.
“I think it needs a few stiches, Johnny. It’s still bleeding some.”
She reached in the pocket of her skirt and drew out a bottle of tequila she’d snuck out of the bar. Going to her sewing box, she took a needle and some thread. Heating the needle over the lamp, she threaded the needle.
“Ready?” she asked.
Stretching his arm out and holding it between her waist and left arm, she poured some of the tequila over the wound. Johnny immediately let out a shout and arched his back against the chair. He instinctively tried to jerk his arm away, but Toni held on tight.
“Madre de Dios!” he yelled.
Johnny tried to be still as Toni put in a few stitches. He knew she’d stitched up some horses before, but figured this was the first for a person. Still, he hissed a time or two over a particular spot. Compared to the liquid fire of the tequila though, the stitching didn’t seem as bad.
Tying off the knots, Toni finished as quickly as she could. Taking a clean cloth, she tore it into strips and wrapped his arm. Suddenly she stood up and turned her back to Johnny, her shoulders shaking. Standing up, he turned her around and lifted her chin up. He saw the tears in her eyes.
Taking her by the hand he led her to the floor by the bed. “Come over here and let’s sit before we both fall over. You look pale and I know I don’t feel so good.”
“I’m sorry for being such a cry-baby, Johnny. It was just that I was scared waiting for you to come back and then sewing you up…..,” she gave a shudder, “I didn’t want to hurt you more.” Looking up at him, she gave him a watery smile. “I don’t think the Sisters’ had that in mind when they taught me to embroider.”
“You did fine, miel.”
Shifting so that her head rested against his shoulder, Toni asked softly, “So how did the ranch look?”
Johnny dropped his head to his chest.
He sighed. “It was hard to believe that they are gone. Everything looked the same until I’d see one of Don Carlos’ vaqueros walking around. They left me alone, but they let me know they were there.”
“Did you go down to the house?” she asked.
“No, I wanted to wait until you could go with me.” He shot Toni a look. “That okay with you?”
Toni shook her head yes.
“What about Pedro? You okay about that?”
“Yeah. I mean it all happened so fast! I was so angry, I almost screwed up. Kinda surprised me when he drew in front of a full saloon.”
He turned his head to look at Toni. “I’d do it again though. Everything he done to you and then to have him do this….”
He drew his legs up to his chest and wrapped his arms around his knees.
“Feels funny though. Got sick out there. Don’t know why, ain’t like he didn’t need killing.”
Toni put her arm around his shoulder and stroked his head. “Maybe he did need killing, but the fact that you feel kinda funny about it means you ain’t like him and his kind, Johnny. It was you or him and I’m awfully glad it was him.”
Toni leaned her head against his shoulder and Johnny leaned his head to rest against hers. Johnny sat there quietly thinking about all that he’d lost.
He glanced at Toni and saw her looking up at him with soft eyes. Leaning down he cupped her head with his hand and brought her face to his as he kissed her tenderly. Slowly he pulled away and looked into her eyes.
Not sure what was right to do, Johnny suddenly stood up. He turned his back to Toni, not sure if he wanted to see what was in her eyes anymore.
“I guess I better go to the livery,” he said. “I can bunk with Juan tonight.”
He heard Toni come up behind him before he felt her place her arm on his. Turning to face her, he looked at her with a question in his eyes.
“Don’t go,” she said quietly. “Stay here tonight.”
“Querida, I don’t know if that would be smart.”
“Then I’m not smart. Johnny, just for tonight I want to feel safe. I want to feel loved. I want to pretend that today never happen and that I’m just like everyone else.”
“You know I love you, Toni. But I can’t promise you anything now, it wouldn’t be fair. I don’t want to use you like those others done.”
Toni moved forward and wrapped her arms around Johnny, her head resting on his chest. He had to bend down to hear her whisper.
“After today, don’t seem like anyone can make promises. Tomorrow is tomorrow. Tonight is tonight.” She leaned up and whispered in his ear. “Besides, you can’t take and use what is freely given.” Johnny looked long into her eyes. He closed his eyes and nodded. When he opened them, he hoped that Toni saw the love and want that was there also. For tonight, it was enough.
It was early the next morning and Johnny was laying on his back, his arm around Toni as she rested half-asleep against his chest. Suddenly he grinned and his chest started shaking with laughter he was trying to hold in.
Looking up at him, Toni gave him a puzzled, sleepy smile.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
Johnny moved his arm and sat up. He looked at her with a big smile.
“Duck? A man is drawing a gun on me and all you can say is ‘duck’?” he asked in wonder.
Toni sat up and drew the covers around her. “It was all I could think of at the time,” she answered haughtily.
Johnny snorted then burst into laughter. “We got to work on some better warnings for you to use, miel. I just don’t see many pistoleros out there being told to duck.”
“So that’s what you’re gonna do?”
“Been thinking on it. Don’t see much other choice, Toni. Ranching is out now. No one would take me in like Tomas done. People respected what I could do with horses. Well, that’s out now. The only other thing I’m good at is my gun. I gotta get faster, but Pedro could probably tell you I was pretty accurate.”
Toni gave Johnny a long look then reached for her clothes.
Dressed, she stood up and faced Johnny. “What about me? You leaving me here?”
Johnny was so surprised, he almost jumped off the bed. Grabbing his pants, he pulled them on and walked over to Toni.
“No, I ain’t leaving you here. I want you to come with me. The other never crossed my mind. But, what do you want?”
“I want to go with you, Johnny. Not sure how it will work but I don’t want to be separated again. If you want to hire out your gun, we’ll figure something out for me,” she answered.
“Well, alright then.” Johnny finished getting dressed. “Guess you better get your stuff together. After the Mass, we’ll go back to the ranch and get my stuff. Guess we won’t come back here.”
He buckled his gunbelt around his waist and put on his hat. Going to the door, he called out to her. “I’m gonna get us some breakfast and see what time’s the Mass. I’ll be back in a bit.
Grabbing a saddlebag, Toni started gathering up her things to pack. “I have a feeling that today’s gonna be a long day.”
The Mass for the Madrids was a crowded affair. Tomas and Sophia were popular and well – liked in the community. It seemed to Johnny that everyone wanted to pay their last respects.
Johnny looked around as the priest droned on with the service. He saw some of the women had gathered flowers and placed them around the coffins. He couldn’t help but compare these deaths with his mother’s. There hadn’t been a Mass for her; she’d barely gotten buried decent.
He jerked when Toni elbowed him to stand. He hadn’t realized the service was over. Together, they and the rest of the mourners followed the coffins to the cemetery at the edge of town. As the coffins were placed near the open earth, Johnny noticed that at the back of the cemetery, beyond the fence, were three freshly dug graves, bare of any flowers or mourners. It looked like Pedro and his friends had gone to meet their maker unnoticed.
After the Madrids were placed in the earth,the priest gave one last prayer, and all of the mourners, except Johnny and Toni, drifted away. The young couple stood before the new graves, hands clasped together, silent. Only the subdued whispers of the departing townfolk disturbed the peace.
With a heavy sigh, Johnny looked one last time at the graves and led Toni away. They slowly walked back to Toni’s room where Johnny grabbed her saddlebags. After stopping to say goodbye to Mannie, they both went to the livery where Juan was waiting, their horses already saddled.
“Sure do hate to see you two leave, but I guess there ain’t nothing to hold ya here now”, Juan said as he walked over to Johnny and stuck out his hand. As Johnny grabbed his hand to shake it, Juan pulled him close in a hug.
“You take care of her now, you hear?”
“I hear ya, Old Man. Don’t worry. I’ll keep her safe.”
Juan looked at Johnny, patted him on his back and walked over to Toni. He grabbed her in a hug, and she hung on. Giving her a final kiss on the cheek, he started to pull away. “Te amo,” she whispered.
He nodded, and then wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his shirt. “Darned dust.”
Holding the reins of their horses, he waited until each had mounted before transfering them over. Toni leaned over to briefly grab his hand one last time. Letting go, she turned her horse to follow Johnny. Neither looked back.
Johnny and Toni took their time riding to the Madrid ranch. Johnny wouldn’t have bothered going back at all except that he knew he had to retrieve his things, he’d said his goodbyes the night before. As he rode, he thought of how he had planned on making this his home, his future. His birth father was a rancher and had snatched his future away from him. Now because of the death of the man who he’d thought of as his father, another chance for a bright future had been taken away.
Reaching the ranch, he saw that Don Carlos was there. Johnny and Toni swung down from their horses and tied the reins to the corral post. Grabbing his saddlebag, they walked to the house. Don Carlos was standing waiting for them.
“Boy, hurry up and get your stuff.”
“Why the rush?” asked Johnny. “They didn’t have any kids. It might take the courts awhile to get things settled.”
Don Carlos ignored Johnny and moved toward his own horse. Grabbing the reins from a waiting vaquero, he mounted, then looked back over toward Johnny and Toni. “Oh, that’s not going to be a problem, not that it is any of your concern.”
Johnny watched him ride away then told Toni to go inside the house to see if there was anything there they might need. “Remember, we might be on the trail for awhile and who knows when I’ll be able to pick up a job. Get whatever you think we can use.”
Turning around, Johnny made his way to the barn. He remembered with a pang in his heart how happy he’d been to move into the extra room in the barn so Toni could have his room in the house.
It didn’t take him long to gather some things together when he heard Toni calling his name. Taking one last look around, he walked out of the barn with a full saddlebag and gunny sack. He was surprised to see that Toni was already waiting to mount up, the gunny sack she’d collected already secured to her saddle horn. He had figured she’d take awhile to decide what to bring.
“You got everything?” he asked, attaching his saddlebag and the gunny sack to his saddle.
“Yes, I’m ready. I just want to hurry and leave, Johnny. Please?”
As they began to ride out, Johnny turned around and took one last look. He was surprised to see the vaquero who had been in the saloon, step through the front door and stand on the doorstep.
He turned to Toni. “Toni, did you…”
Toni cut him off. “Just ride Johnny, I’ll tell you when we get out of firing range. Can’t stop now.”
Johnny opened his mouth to argue, but closed it when he saw the serious look on Toni’s face.
“Let’s go back to our spot by the river,” he said. “That should be pretty much out of the way.”
It didn’t take them long and once they reached their spot, both got down.
Johnny walked over to stand by Toni and her horse.
“What’s going on Toni? Why did you hustle us out of there?”
“Johnny, I think Don Carlos was in on this with Pedro. You know that vaquero of his who shot Pedro’s friend when he didn’t need to? Well, he came into the house and told me that this was gonna be his place. That Don Carlos was his Tio. Said that he was going to use this ranch to raise horses like Tomas done.
Johnny looked at Toni in surprise.
“And that’s not all, he said his name was Jesus. Johnny, Mannie told me while you was gone getting the horses ready this morning before the Mass, that Friday night, the night Tomas’ and Sophia were killed, Pedro told Mannie he had a job to do for a lot of money. Then Pedro and the other two left.
“Yeah, I know. We already figured Pedro’s part in this.”
“But Johnny, Pedro said that someone named Jesus might come by with some money and if he did, Mannie was to tell this Jesus that the job was being done tonight!”
Johnny turned and walked away from Toni. He paced, anger welling up from his gut. Anger was washing over him in waves.
Suddenly he turned toward his horse and grabbed the reins. As he started to mount, Toni rushed over to him and grabbed his arm. Not even thinking about who had grabbed him, he jerked his arm back, smacking Toni in the eye with his elbow.
“Ow!” Toni cried. She let go of Johnny’s arm and held her hands over her eye.
Realizing what he’d done, Johnny rushed to her side.
“Lo siento, Toni. Lo siento.” He kept repeating as he tried to get her to move her hands so he could see her eye. He winced when he was finally able to move her hands and saw the evidence of how hard he’d hit her.
Leading her to the bank of the stream, he sat her down on a rock and wet his bandana in the cool water. Holding it on her rapidly swelling eye, he watched her as she stared at him with her one good eye.
“Lo siento”, he said again.
“It’s okay, I’m fine. But Johnny, you got to get hold of your temper!”
“But Toni!” protested Johnny.
“But nothing, Johnny. You were going to go off half-cocked to the ranch and get yourself killed. They had that place surrounded with their men. You wouldn’t have stood a chance and then what would have happened?”
She put her hand on his arm. “Besides, we don’t have proof about anything! Jesus saw to that. Everyone there that night is dead.”
Johnny handed Toni the cloth and walked over to the stream. She was right. Don Carlos had Tomas and Sophia killed. The mighty patron didn’t care about a small rancher and those who loved him. He only cared about what he wanted and be damned if anyone got in his way. He called the tune and everyone jumped to do his bidding, right or wrong. Tomas and Sophia hadn’t stood a chance. And if Toni and him had been there that night, they’d killed them too.
Johnny looked over at Toni, sitting patiently waiting on him. Her braid was undone, her eye red and beginning to swell, but the look she gave him let him know she had faith in him, believed in him, trusted him. He smiled.
“Okay, querida. I won’t do anything stupid.” He rubbed his hand over his face and sighed. “But I ain’t letting this go, I just can’t. It isn’t right. I can’t do what I want to do, but I’m not letting Don Carlos and his nephew off so easily.”
“Come on. Let’s ride.”
He took the rag and dipped it into the stream again and handed it back to her before they both mounted up.
“So where are we going?”
“There’s a secluded place up in the hills not far from here. Be a good place to camp for a few days while I think this out. Then I guess we’ll head to Texas to find Alveraz. That’s where he said he was headed the last time we talked.”
“So you’re really gonna do it? You’re going to learn to be a gunfighter?”
“Yep. I’m going to be the best there is. By the time I get finished, it won’t matter if we’re mestizos. It won’t matter where or what we come from. They may think it, but they won’t dare say it to my face. I’m never going to be ‘nothing’ again.”
He waited, wondering what she would say.
“Okay. I’m with you. Guess you got to have someone to watch your back.”
She turned her horse forward and started to ride away. She turned around in the saddle to look at Johnny.
“I’ll watch your back alright. But when I say ‘duck’, you’d better duck!”
Letting out a shout of laughter, she spurred her horse forward into a gallop.
Johnny couldn’t believe what she had just said. “Hey!” he shouted. He spurred his horse to follow her.
He caught up with her and leaned over to grab at her reins to slow her horse down.
“You gonna be sassy all the way to Texas querida?”
“Guess you’ll find out Johnny Lancer. You’ll never know just what I might do. Why I even might…”
Toni broke off. Johnny had stopped and was no longer riding beside her. Turning her horse around, she pulled up next to Johnny. “Okay? Why you’d stop?”
“I’ve decided something. I’m not going to be Johnny Lancer anymore. If I wasn’t good enough to live with Murdoch Lancer, wasn’t good enough for him to be a father to me, then I don’t want his name.”
“O…kaaaay. So who ya gonna be?”
“Johnny Madrid. Tomas wanted me, trusted me, believed in me and taught me. He was more of a father to me than Lancer ever was. He deserved a son to carry his name. That hijo de puta named Lancer doesn’t.”
“Johnny Madrid. Hmmmm, you know? I like it.”
Johnny nodded to her and clicked to his horse to go, leading the way to the place in the hills.
Jesus Cordova was awoken to the sounds of horses whinnying and their hoofs thundering out of the corral. He hurriedly pulled on his pants and grabbing his rifle, he shouted to the other two men in the house. Earlier in the week, they’d had a string of bad luck. The barn had burned down with all the saddles, tack and other ranch tools. Fortunately, they hadn’t lost any horses, but they had to keep them in the corral until the barn could be rebuilt. The next day something had gotten into their well and died, fouling the water.
Rushing out of the house, Jesus saw the last of his newly acquired horses run off. He knew it was too dark to chase after the horses and started to go back into the house when an explosion shook the ground. He and the other two vaqueros who were staying at the ranch, grabbed the borrowed saddles from his uncle and began to saddle up their own personal horses. Fortunately, those horses were too well trained to run off as the wild horses had done. The three men rode off toward the area from which the explosion had come .
It didn’t take long before Jesus found the source of the explosion. The stock pond the ranch relied on was no more. As he sat on his horse watching the last of the water run out of the broken retainer walls of the pond, he realized that this hadn’t just been a string of bad luck. Ponds don’t just blow themselves up. Angrily, he jerked his horse around and headed back to the house, his two vaqueros following.
As they got nearer to the house, they saw a red glow in the sky. Urging their horses to go faster, they pulled up short at the front gates of the ranch. Ahead of them, the house and corral posts were fully engulfed in fire.
Jesus could only watch in disbelief as he saw his ‘inheritance’ go up in flames. One of his vaqueros shouted and pointed up toward the ridge overlooking the ranch. By the glow of the inferno that once was the house, Jesus could see the dark outline of two saddled horses and one rider waiting on the rise right behind the house. He watched as a lone figure climbed over the rise and taking the reins from the smaller figure, mounted the second horse. Both riders remain motionless for just a moment before turning their horses east. Jesus watched as the darkness swallowed the two riders, the light emanating from the ruined ranch too far away now to do any good.
~ end ~
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