The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link
subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link
subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link
subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link
subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link
subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link
subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link
subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link

Doc

 

 

Calle De La India Triste

(The Street of the Sad Indian Girl)

Many thanks to my beta, Margaret P. I couldn’t have done it without her.

Prologue

Something flapped in the hot wind; Johnny caught the motion out of the corner of his eye. The pinto did too and tried to duck out from under him, snorting and whirling. The horse kept him busy and the wrongness of what he saw didn’t hit him until he had control again.

Brightly colored stripes shouldn’t be fluttering fifty feet off a little used trail.  The pinto tossed its head as he rode closer to the dark form. 

She was just stiffening up. Nothing but ants had found her yet. She lay on her back, sightless eyes staring at the sky. Her hooked nose and strong chin marked her as Indian, but her blouse and skirt were definitely Mexican. Her lips were cracked, her feet blistered and bloody. She hadn’t carried anything with her on her barefoot walk away from Tucson. Then Johnny noticed a bulge under her colorful skirt—she was carrying something after all.

He wasn’t packing anything like a shovel, and there weren’t any stones around to cover the body, but he couldn’t just leave her. Johnny cut the rest of the torn ruffle from the bottom of her skirt. When he lifted her head to wrap the makeshift shroud around her face, a chain moved on her neck. He undid it and clutched the crucifix in his fist as he tried to pray for her.

He wondered about her the rest of the way into Tucson. He nearly went back to sling her over his saddle but common sense won out. Folks would likely be suspicious of a gunfighter showing up with a dead girl. He’d just keep his ears open in hopes of finding Dolores’s next of kin—he’d started thinking of her as Dolores as he rode to town—so he could return the crucifix to them and tell them where she was. 

 

Chapter One

Johnny double checked the slip of paper he’d carried from Nogales and shook his head. He was looking for Calle de la India Triste—the street of the sad Indian girl. The name meant nothing before he’d found Dolores. Now it felt like a punch in the gut.

He found the house with the right number and stomped his boots on the mat. When he knocked, hot dust drifted from his jacket sleeve onto his boots. Before he could whisk it off the door was opened by a man whose dark black skin was set off by an immaculate formal suit. The man looked at him expectantly but didn’t say a word.

 “I’m Johnny Madrid. Dab Runkle sent me.”

With a bow and a flash of teeth, the butler stepped aside, ushering Johnny into a small foyer. Then he disappeared through a beaded curtain to the next room. Johnny heard hands clap and a quickly fading rustle of petticoats. He parted the beads with his trigger finger and looked through.  

Tufted red velvet furniture and gold floor lamps crowded the room. A bar of carved mahogany gleamed to his left. Love seats and upholstered chairs hugged the walls, and a huge crystal chandelier hung over a circular sofa covered with tasseled pillows. Johnny blew a soft whistle—there had to be room for eight, maybe ten people to sit around that thing. Hell, if this wasn’t a bordello his name wasn’t Johnny Madrid. That rustling he heard must have been the girls leaving. It was early yet; maybe they had to go get dressed. Or undressed.

A door opened in the back; a stout woman in a green dressing gown came through. Her lips were the same reddish-orange color as her hair, and she carried a stick with a pair of spectacles on the end. She used the stick to hold the glasses to her eyes. “Please, come in, Mr. Madrid.” She’d probably practiced that smile a lot. Strands of beads caught up in his hat brim when he walked through, but she ignored them.

“Ma’am.” Johnny wasn’t sure if he should shake hands with her. He reached up and took his hat off instead.

“I’m Florrie Westcott, Mr. Madrid, the landlady of this house. Thank you for answering my summons so promptly. My friend Mr. Runkle recommends you highly.”

“Uh, yes, ma’am.” Her summons? He’d assumed it was a man sending for him. Always had been before. He wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it.

“This is Silvano.” The butler, now standing behind her shoulder, bowed slightly. “He doesn’t speak, but he understands both English and Spanish.”

This time it felt right to offer his hand. Silvano grasped it firmly with a slight nod of his head. Johnny almost asked the man why he didn’t talk, but he stopped himself in time.

Johnny turned back to the madam. “Mrs. Westcott, I gotta say this is a first for me.”

“No.” She raised her eyebrows in exaggerated disbelief. “Surely not your first time inside a brothel, Mr. Madrid!”

Johnny snorted. “No, ma’am, I wouldn’t say that. But it’s the first time I’ve been hired by a woman.”

“Is that so? And it’s the first time I’ve hired a gunfighter.” She peered at him through those silly glasses on a stick. With that contraption near her face she looked like a dying owl. “I wasn’t expecting you to be so good-looking. My girls will appreciate that.”

“I wish I didn’t have to say this, but if I’ll be working for you it wouldn’t be right for me to…to take advantage.” Damn.

Mrs. Westcott raised one eyebrow, looked hard at him, and smiled that fake smile again. “Shall we discuss business over a drink, Mr. Madrid?”

She swept to the back of the bar to produce a bottle and two glasses. “Rye?” She poured a shot in each glass and held one out to him. They tossed back the first pour and she refilled the glasses.

“Mr. Madrid, I’ve had several offers for my business over the years, but none of them were attractive enough to make me decide to sell. I’m very proud of what I’ve built here, and I intend to keep working as long as I’m able.”

She finished her second drink and poured herself a third. When she held the bottle over Johnny’s glass he spread his hand on the top and shook his head. He hadn’t had a thing to eat today and he didn’t want to fuzz up his head.

“A man here in town has been trying to buy me out. I keep turning him down. Several weeks ago this man presented me with an ultimatum: accept his offer or be driven out.” Mrs. Westcott brought her glass almost to her lips. “I refused. Since then there have been a series of small disasters that lead me to think he’s working up to something serious.” She took a quick swallow of rye.

Johnny thumbed his glass. “Disasters. Like what?”

“Broken windows. Shots fired outside at all hours. Grocers not making promised deliveries. Customers discouraged from visiting.” She raised the stick and used it to look at Johnny again. “Last week the girls found a stray dog and started feeding it; yesterday they found it on our front porch with its throat cut.”

Well, except for the dog the disasters didn’t sound very threatening. “Who is he?”

“Jake Dunham. He goes by ‘Big Jake’. He owns the dry goods emporium.”

“Respectable business man, huh?”

Mrs. Westcott choked. “You could say that.”

After another sip of rye Johnny straightened up. “What does he want with this place?”

“As I said, I’ve built up a very good business here. I suppose he wants the money.”

“And you want protection, is that it?”

Mrs. Westcott’s eyes narrowed. “No, Mr. Madrid. I want you to kill him.”

Whoa. Johnny took a moment and studied his hands. “Why?”

“I should think it’s obvious.”

Why was she so quick to go to killing? “It’s obvious you need protection. I can make him back down.”

“For how long, Mr. Madrid?” Florrie Westcott’s eyes flashed. “What happens the minute you leave town? This isn’t a game. Dunham is out to get rid of me, and I’m not going anywhere. From where I stand it’s him or me.” 

Johnny studied Florrie’s face. She might have reddened under all her make up as he tried to figure her out. He finally gave up. “Killing a man don’t come cheap.”

“Money’s not a problem. Name your fee.”

Johnny huffed out a laugh. “Usually when people say that, it’s because they don’t plan on payin’. No offense.”

Mrs. Westcott reached somewhere behind the bar and brought up a strongbox in a chain that ran to the floor. Then she reached down her bosom and brought out a key. She opened the box and spun it so Johnny could see the notes, poker chips, and gold coins in orderly rows.

He whistled again, and she snapped the box closed. “Name your fee.”

Johnny chewed on his lip. He knew nothing about Big Jake, had no idea how to work in Tucson—hell, he didn’t even know if there was law in this town. He needed to know more before he could make this happen. “I tell you what. Thirty-five up front for expenses ‘til I set it up. Then a hundred and thirty-five just before I shoot him.”

The madam didn’t turn a hair until he added, “If I take the job.”

Mrs. Westcott raised one eyebrow. “If?” She opened the box again, counted out thirty-five dollars, and laid it on the bar in front of him.

Johnny didn’t touch it. “If.”

When her lips pursed together it made tight lines in the powder around her mouth. “Are all gunmen as squeamish as you? I’ve already agreed to the fee. How long will you need to think about it?” She slapped the cash, hard. “You’re leaving me in a spot, Madrid. Who knows what could happen while you’re ‘thinking about it’?”

“I know, I know. It won’t be long.” He got why she was angry, but it wasn’t like he could just walk into the dry goods store and open fire, and Johnny Madrid didn’t shoot men in the back. Killing people wasn’t easy if you wanted to avoid the hangman.

Mrs. Westcott swayed slightly behind the bar; she gulped the rest of her drink and poured herself another without a word. Silvano stepped forward from somewhere and Johnny knew it was time to leave. He settled his hat back on his head.

“You be careful, Mrs. Westcott.”

She didn’t look up as Silvano led him through the back door. The hallway split in two, and the butler pointed to a passage leading underground. Apparently clients could come and go privately.

Nice touch.

Johnny came out in a recessed entry facing a whole different street. It confused him a bit, and he walked half a block north instead of south before he got it worked out. Feeling foolish and not wanting to change direction in the middle of the street, he kept going to the corner, which turned out to be a good thing. It led him past an alley, and down the alley a battered sign saying “Dunham’s Dry Goods” leaned against a wall.

He walked closer; the sign stood next to an open door. From the shadows on the other side of the alley, Johnny could see into a room like a storage room or office. There was a desk with a lot of stuff on it, and a guy with a booming voice giving orders. If that guy was Big Jake Dunham, he looked like a dry goods merchant should—fat and balding, with whiskers that reached all the way to his top vest button and a big cigar in his mouth.

Dunham didn’t look like a bad man, but there you go. Sometimes you just couldn’t tell.

Johnny ambled around to the front of the store and took himself in. Mercantile buildings were usually stocked to the rafters, but this one was more crowded than any he’d been in before. Johnny could barely fit himself between the tables covered with clothes and trail supplies. The walls were lined with shelves where you had to dig to find what you needed for farming, ranching, mining, and whatever else people did in Tucson. Cooking utensils and bolts of fabric were stuffed in odd corners, and locked glass cabinets displayed knives and jewelry.

Johnny fingered his way around the store, not sure what he was looking for. Big Jake didn’t come out of his office in the back. After a while the clerk noticed Johnny and offered to find him what he needed.

Johnny shook his head. “Just lookin’, thanks. I’m new in town. Heard you could get anything you wanted at Big Jake’s.”

“Yes, sir. Anything at all.” The clerk’s eyes got all shifty, like he was waiting for Johnny to say something.

Whatever it was, Johnny didn’t have a clue. 

 

Chapter Two

Starting in the middle of town, Johnny circled his way to the edges. Tucson was a lot bigger than he expected, and he must have walked for a couple hours. The place must have grown since they made it capital of the territory. In the newer parts, most of the houses were built out of wood planks, Anglo style, and all he could think was bringing the lumber down from the mountains must have cost a fortune.

The biggest church he’d ever seen had its own plaza, like the town squares he knew in Mexico. Saloons and gaming houses were scattered everywhere, but all the bordellos seemed to be on Calle de la India Triste.

And boy, there was plenty of law. There were more soldiers than he expected; protection against the Apache, maybe? He came across a courthouse made from adobe, with a sign out front telling him there were three thousand people in Tucson. He tried to imagine how many that was. Right next door was a new wooden building with “Sheriff” scrawled on the outside wall, and just beyond Mexican laborers were building something else. By the sturdy construction and the location, it had to be a jailhouse. Tucson was surely up and coming if they were gonna have their own jail. He’d have to account for that in his thinking about the job.

Johnny debated going in to the courthouse to tell the law about Dolores, but once again decided against it. Lawmen were usually Anglo, and not kindly disposed toward half-breed gunfighters.

Mexicans lived in this town first, but they were being crowded out by rich white men waiting for the railroad to come by and make them even richer. Johnny could see it as he walked to the edge of town; the adobes got more run down, but the people got friendlier. Best of all, the smells coming from the houses reminded him of home. He could surely find some decent tamales in this part of town.

And there was a good chance he could find someone who knew something about Big Jake Dunham. Gringos tended to let things slip in front of Mexicans; they didn’t stop to consider that the original inhabitants of the area were likely to speak more than one language.

Most Mexicans were okay with that.

Johnny would have walked right by the cantina if two vaqueros hadn’t nearly run into him as they came out, laughing and lighting cigarillos. The building was painted bright yellow but there wasn’t a sign on the red door. When he stepped inside to check the place out, a boy of about eight or nine approached him right away, led him to a seat, and recited the menu. He was a cute kid, real serious about his job, and he didn’t give Johnny a chance to say no.

“Are your tamalesany good?”

The boy nodded energetically but still didn’t crack a smile. “Si, señor. My abuelo makes the best in town.”

Every cantina Johnny’d ever been in claimed they had the best tamales in town. “That’s what I’ll have, then.”

The kid nodded and backed away. Johnny adjusted his hat brim to shade his gaze so he could look around without offending anybody. Nearly every seat was taken and there wasn’t a woman in sight—just men relaxing after a hard day’s work. Johnny should be thinking about Florrie Westcott’s offer, but instead he listened to snatches of every day talk about families and bosses and women.

Sometimes being around regular folks made him sad, reminded him of what he didn’t have. But not tonight; tonight it felt okay. Comfortable, even. He thought about his mama and papa, and he felt sort of warm inside. He could imagine his stepfather enjoying a place like this.

The tamales were as delicious as he had hoped they’d be, just like his mama used to make. Johnny asked the boy to take his compliments to the cook, and the man himself came out of the kitchen, balancing plates of botanason his arms.

All the customers around Johnny started grinning and shouting.

“¡Hola!Armando! If I say nice things about your cooking can I get free food, too?”

“Hey, Armando, I love your pozole. Can I have more?”

“Frijoles churros! You make them better than even my wife!”

“¡Cabrito! ¡Cabrito!”

Armando took a bow once his arms were free, and shouted over the other voices, “What makes you think it’s free?”

Laughing, Johnny passed the botanas around and threw some money on the table. When Armando brought more food for the rest of his customers, he stopped at Johnny’s table to shake his hand. “I’m Armando Rodriguez. I cook here. I also own the place.”

“Johnny Madrid.”

Armando stared hard. “No. Not The Johnny Madrid?”

Johnny kept his voice low, hoping Armando would do the same. “Afraid so. You don’t need to spread it around, though.”

Armando nodded, and a huge smile appeared under his moustache. “I understand. You should know my wife’s family thanks you for what you did for them in Hermosillo. I’ll say no more. Enjoy yourself this evening, my friend.”

Johnny had no idea what Armando was talking about, but it was always good to hear someone thought favorably of him. He’d spent a lot of time in Hermosillo; any one of his jobs there might have benefitted Armando’s wife’s family, whoever they were. He nodded his thanks and smiled back.

The mood in the cantina grew more festive as Johnny finished his dinner. Soon all the tables were pushed together for card games and dominos. As the beer and mescal flowed the men began to sing; it felt like home, and Johnny wondered why he ever left Mexico. For a moment he could pretend he had friends and a place to call home. He hadn’t enjoyed a night out like this for a long time.

But these working men had families and responsibilities, and all too soon the party broke up. Finally only Johnny and the cook were left.

Armando walked past with a tray of dirty plates, heading for the kitchen. “Johnny Madrid, why are you here?”

Johnny toyed with his empty glass. “To have some of your good tamales, amigo.”

Armando laughed but when he came back with his tray empty, he pressed on. “A man like yourself has a reason for visiting a town. Do you have a job here?”

“An offer. I’m thinkin’ about it. I need to know some things first.”

Armando swept an arm around the cantina. “Too bad you didn’t ask before everyone left. If someone here didn’t know it, God himself doesn’t know it.”

Johnny chuckled and shook his head. “Well, I don’t like my business to get around, you know?”

“You could ask me, Johnny. My wife says I gossip worse than a woman.”

At first Johnny almost said no, but he liked Armando. What better place to get the information he needed? “Okay. First question. Anybody missing a girl, about fifteen or so, looks Indian?”

Armando pushed his lower lip out and gave the matter serious thought. “No, I haven’t heard of any missing girls. Is that why you’re here?”

“No, it’s just something I promised someone I’d look into. I got another question for you, though. What do you know about Big Jake Dunham?”

Armando grabbed a chair and sat down across the table. “Dunham’s a big fish, my friend. He owns a lot of business in this town. He wants to own more.”

“He owns more than the dry goods store?”

“He owns most of the brothels in Tucson and a fair number of the saloons.”

Well, there was a different slant than what he’d got from Florrie. Maybe she didn’t know. “So why’s he want Florrie Westcott’s place?”

Johnny was thinking out loud, but Armando levelled his bushy eyebrows and answered him. “Because he’s greedy. And because since he threw her over, he can’t stand to look at her.”

Johnny looked up sharply. “What do you mean, threw her over?”

“Oh, those two carried on for a couple of years. Then he found someone else, so the story goes.”

Johnny remembered Florrie’s snort when he’d called Dunham ‘respectable’. “He’s not married?”

“Oh, he’s married all right. Fancy wife and three daughters.”

This wasn’t the picture he had at all. “Do you suppose he wants to get rid of Florrie so she can’t spill the beans to the wife?”

“Maybe. But my Rosa says Mrs. Dunham knows all about it, that she’s too smart to throw away such a rich man.”

Johnny settled back deep into his chair and studied the cobwebs in the corner of the ceiling. “Well, that makes a sad kind of sense, don’t it?”

So Florrie had been less than straight with him. It was a lovers’ quarrel, and Johnny knew better than to kill a man over that. Hell, maybe she was just making up the “disasters” she told him about, to try to convince him to kill Dunham.

He was getting irritated with Florrie Westcott.

Armando broke into his silence. “Which one of them wants to hire you?”

Johnny shook his head. “I haven’t decided whether to take the job. Too soon to talk about it.”

He stood up and stretched his back. “Where’s your broom? I can help clean up.” And maybe get rid of the cobwebs.

Armando narrowed his eyes. “You’re a guest. Don’t offend me.”

“No offense, amigo. Just tryin’ to thank you.”

Dismissing Johnny’s offer with a wave of his hand, Armando got to his feet as well. “Where are you sleeping tonight, Johnny?”

“Got a room in town.” He’d already stashed his saddlebags there. It wasn’t fancy, but all he needed was a place to lay his head.

“You’re welcome to stay here. We have a cook’s room in the back. No one sleeps there.”

“Nah, I’m good.” Johnny stuck out his hand, and Armando grasped it.

“If you need it, you’re welcome here anytime, amigo. Nice to meet you.”

“You, too, Armando. You’ve got a real nice place. I had a good time. Thanks.”

Walking back to the heart of Tucson, the songs of the family men rang in Johnny’s ears; he even hummed a little tune to keep himself company. In his small room on its dusty bed he fell asleep trying to remember what family felt like from the inside.

*******************************

Must have been because he’s had a bath and shave as soon as he woke up, but the smell of the Rusty Spur made Johnny’s eyes water. It was the smell of cowboys and drifters—sweat, tobacco, and piss. He wiped his face with his shirt sleeve, pushed up to the bar, and wrapped his hands around a mug of beer. As familiar as the smell was the mirror. Seemed there was always a mirror over the bar in the bigger towns. He used it to check out the room. No sign of trouble, and no sign of any one he knew, either, not that he knew many folks in Tucson. Johnny chugged his beer, rubbed the foam from his lips, and headed to the lunch board to eat. 

He settled at a table with a plate of sausages and nachos; the saloon girl brought him a bottle of tequila. He poured himself a shot with the idea of thinking things through, but then a cowboy blew through the saloon door, grinning and yelling at someone behind him in the street. Johnny recognized Isham right away. When Isham caught sight of Johnny his grin grew wider.

“Woo-hoo, now there’s a sight for sore eyes! Johnny, what are you doing here?” Isham swiped a glass from a nearby table, grabbed a chair, and reached for Johnny’s hand as soon as he sat down. “How you feeling?”

“Hey, Isham, I hoped I’d see you here. And I’m good.” While Johnny recovered from the bullet he took in Nogales, Isham got itchy feet. He rode north a few weeks ago, eager to get further into US territory.

“That’s good. Glad to see you, amigo.”  Isham poured himself a shot from Johnny’s bottle, then leaned across the table and lowered his voice.

“Johnny, you’re gonna love this.” Isham looked around, making sure no one was listening. “I got me a job here, and it’s a real beaut.”

“Yeah? That’s good.”

Isham tossed back the tequila. “There could be room for another gun, if you wanna. I kinda thought you’d be showing up here.”

Johnny shook his head. “Naw, Isham, I got something already, if I want it.”

“Well, you are quick, ain’t ya? But ooh, Johnny, you’ll love this one.”

Isham leaned back in that way he had, waiting for Johnny to jump in and ask a question. It was annoying, but Johnny played the game to get the story out.

“Okay, okay, what’s special about it?”

Isham’s voice was barely above a whisper. “Saloons, Johnny Madrid. Saloons and bawdy houses.” He smiled big like a horse lipping the air, showing long yellow teeth. “Think about that—gettin’ paid to hang out in bars and bordellos.”

Johnny’s ears perked up at the word “bordellos” but he didn’t let it show. He shook his head and laughed out loud, lifting his glass in a salute. “To the perfect job for you, Isham.”

Isham knocked his glass into Johnny’s. “For me? C’mon, Johnny, you know you want in on this. Just you, me, bars, and bordellos.”

“Like I said, I already got a job.”

“Doing what?”

Johnny smiled around a bite of a pickle.

“Not gonna spill it, huh?”

Johnny leaned forward confidentially. “Nope.”

Isham frowned. “Well, shoot, I already told Mr. Dunham I had a friend.”

Dunham? Shit. Johnny kept his face still, but he couldn’t stop the sudden sweat on his palms.  “Dunham? Isn’t he the guy that owns the dry goods store?”

“Sure is, Johnny boy, along with most of the whorehouses in town. Not to mention a couple of saloons and gaming houses.”

“What’s he need guns for?”

“Lookin’ to expand, I reckon. I’m softening up some of the other places so when he makes his offer they’ll be inclined to accept.” Isham tossed back another shot of tequila.

“Softenin’ up?” Johnny thought of what Florrie had told him; he hated to think Isham went around killing dogs. “What kind of softenin’ up would that be, Isham?” There was an edge in Johnny’s voice he hadn’t known would be there.

Isham must have caught it. “Just the usual,” he said, and his eyes narrowed. “What’s it to you?”

Careful… cover your tracks, and fast. Johnny leaned his chair back until it touched the wall behind him. “Nothin’. Just wouldn’t want to get caught up in any of your business.” He hoped smiling would do the trick, and it did. Isham laughed and slapped the table.

“Always thinking about them soiled doves, aren’t you, Johnny?” He laughed a little longer and Johnny laughed with him. Then Isham lowered his voice. “You might wanna keep away from The Westcott House on Calle de la India Triste Street.”

Johnny nodded. “Good to know. Thanks.”

Damn. It was a range war, but the fighting was over bordellos, not water rights. And his buddy Isham was signed on for the other side.

Florrie Westcott had lied to him, and he still didn’t know anything about the dead Indian girl.

Tucson was leaving a bad taste in his mouth.

 

Chapter Three

Big Jake Dunham walked like he owned the sidewalk, right down the middle of the boards. Oh, he nodded and greeted folks, like a fat patron pretending to be nice to his campesinos, but he carried a walking stick and he shook it to get the peons out of his way. His stick looked like a larger version of the one Florrie Westcott used for her glasses.

Isham was nowhere to be seen. Dunham’s clerk was running about half a step behind his boss, skipping every few steps to stay caught up. They headed down Tucson’s main street, a street so wide it had a trench running down the middle for water and waste. Johnny watched from behind a post on the hotel porch. Florrie Westcott sent word that a noose had appeared hanging from her porch, and she wanted Johnny to make his decision right now whether or not to take the job.

He was leaning against it.

Johnny just watched, getting the measure of the man. He had no intention of approaching him. But when Dunham started to cross the street he stepped in front of an old Negro man who couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. Dunham pushed him into the muck in the trench.

Johnny couldn’t let it go. He jogged across the street to get ahead of Big Jake, then stepped in to block his path. “You got bad manners.” He kept his voice real quiet, but he knew Big Jake heard.

The clerk gawked at Johnny open-mouthed, but Big Jake didn’t look at him right away. He waited until he’d had a big drag on the stogie clenched between his teeth. When he looked at Johnny he blew the smoke right in his face.

“Who the hell are you and what the hell are you talking about?” The man sure had a booming voice.

Johnny ignored the smoke. “I’m Johnny Madrid, and I’m talking about how you just pushed that fella there into the street.” He shrugged his shoulder in the direction of the old man, now on his feet and limping away, overalls stained with muck.

Dunham tapped his walking stick hard against his hand. “That nigger was in my way. I’d say he has the bad manners.”

Johnny shook his head. “No, that ain’t what I saw. I saw him step aside and then you pushed him with that stick. Where I come from that ain’t polite.”

Dunham puffed on the cigar a few more times, looking Johnny up and down. “I don’t know where you come from, greaser, but here in Tucson colored folks know their place. I’m thinking maybe you need a reminder yourself.”

Johnny stepped in closer and grinned. Dunham’s face got red real fast and he backed up half a step when Johnny leaned in eye to eye with him. “Okay. But I’m gonna be watching you, Dunham. You step outta line and I’ll see you again.”

Johnny tipped his hat and turned to go. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Dunham reach into a pocket of his gray suit coat. Johnny spun back around, drew his Colt, and thumbed the hammer back in one smooth motion before Big Jake’s hand reached the bottom of his pocket.

Johnny waited a beat before he grinned.

Dunham swallowed hard and took his hand, empty, out of his pocket. He stared daggers at Johnny as he slowly raised it above his belt. After another beat, Johnny released the hammer and holstered his Colt. He took two steps back, winked, and walked away. He turned down the next street real quick to get out of Dunham’s sight.

Damn, that was fun. Maybe he’d take the job just to be able to make Big Jake Dunham sweat. If only Isham wasn’t working for the guy.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Johnny still wasn’t exactly clear on his next step, and he was worried about Isham, but it was time to mix a little pleasure with his business. He chose a brothel as far away from Florrie’s place as he could.

The parlor of the Four Queens was gloomy, and it was a good thing, too. Where the light was good the velvet looked as tired as the girls. Johnny took the watery whiskey he was handed and sipped it, smiling at the whores who looked his way. When one of the girls—she said her name was Brandy—wiggled close, he paid the madam and followed Brandy upstairs.

Afterward, Johnny reached for her and snuggled up. She relaxed into him, but only for a few minutes.

“Sorry, honey, time’s up.”

“Aw, can’t we just lay here and talk for a while?” It had been a long time since he’d laid with a woman. It felt good.

When she shook her head her wavy brown hair bounced around her face. “It’ll cost you.”

Grumbling, Johnny reached down to the floor and snagged his jacket. He pulled a couple of bills out of his pocket and flashed them at the girl.

Brandy grinned and grabbed the money. Setting it on the table on her side of the bed, she rolled back to him and propped herself on an elbow. “What do you want to talk about?”

“Oh, I don’t know. You, I guess.” He scooted over more on his side to see her face better. She was older than him, he decided, but not by a whole lot. Not bad looking except for all that make up.

“Me? Most fellas talk about themselves. And their wives.”

Johnny laughed. “Well, there’s not much to say about me, and I’m not married.”

“Okay, what do you want to know about me?”

Johnny pretended to think hard. “What’s your name?”

She giggled. “It’s Brandy, silly.”

“Not your working name, silly.” He tweaked her nose. “What’s your real name?”

This time it was Brandy who pretended to think hard. “Sary.”

“Sary. Like Sarah?”

“It’s what my sister called me when she was little. It kinda stuck.” For the first time she looked more like a girl and less like a painted lady.

“It’s a nice name. Do you see your sister much?”

Sary shook her head. “I haven’t seen her since I started here. She’s still with ma and pa…”

“I bet she misses you.” He stroked her arm, running his finger up and down it.

Sary shut her eyes. “I miss her, I know that.”

He watched, but no tears leaked under her eyelids. “It must be hard for you, bein’ away from family.”

“Are you away from your family, cowboy?” She opened her eyes and laid down on her back with a thump, staring up at the ceiling.

“Nah, I don’t have one.” Not anymore. Not really.

“No family?” Sary sat up, holding the sheet over her breasts. “Everybody has family.”

He laid out on his back and stretched his arms over his head. “I don’t. Not for a long time.”

“Well, that sounds lonely.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Mama and Papa were long gone, and he barely even thought of Murdoch Lancer these days.

Sary snuggled down, her head on his chest. He stroked her hair and found himself wondering about Dolores, about her family. Was anyone looking for her? Did anyone miss her? Maybe she didn’t have any family, either.

And he thought about Sary, right here, who didn’t see her family because she was a whore. Did they still count as family? They had to. Just because they weren’t together didn’t stop them being a family.

And if he followed that thought to the end…he decided not to do that.

They were quiet for a few minutes. Then Johnny pushed her away to raise himself up on one elbow, head resting on his hand. “You know, I’ve always wondered. Do you girls talk about us men?”

She smiled at that. “What’s the matter, cowboy? Afraid of me telling tales?”

Johnny laughed a little and shook his head. “No, no, I just wondered…”

The painted lady was back. “Well, Madam says we shouldn’t, but we do.”

“You do, huh? What kind of things do you talk about?”

Her eyes lit up. “Some customers want things you’d never think on, so we talk about that a lot.”

“Yeah? What kind of things?”

Sary snorted. “We got one fella who comes every Monday night, and he takes a girl upstairs and gets naked, and then he dances.”

Johnny tried to picture it. “Dances?”

“He dances around her. Like an Indian, you know? She’s naked, too, and he is, and he prances all around making Indian noises until…you know.”

Johnny rubbed his eyes and laughed. “No. Really?”

Sary giggled. “Really. And for a while we had an Injun girl working here, and he always asked for her.”

Now there was a coincidence. He thought fast. “You know, I heard there was an Indian working here, but I didn’t see her downstairs. Name of Dolores.”

“No, her name isn’t Dolores.”

He reached out to touch her hair. “Your name isn’t Brandy.”

Sary pulled away. “She calls herself Willow. She came here for Madam to give her some stuff to get rid of the baby she was growing, but it didn’t work. She tricked here a while, until she got too big.”

Oh, shit. It couldn’t be.

“Where did she go?”

“Away from here, cowboy. Away from here.” Sary rolled out of bed. She was cleaning up with water from the basin while Johnny chewed on what he had found out.

“When did she leave?”

Sary shrugged. “I’m not sure. Not that long ago.”

“Where was she from?”

“I don’t know. I thought you said you knew her?”

Johnny sighed. “I never met her. Just somebody asked me to look her up.”

Sary’s eyes narrowed. “You working for Big Jake?”

Johnny sat up with a start. “Big Jake? Why did you say Big Jake?”

“Cause he’s the one that knocked her up. She was a maid in his house, and she don’t want nothing to do with him.”

He forgot to breathe for a second until Sary threw a wet towel on his lap and that made him suck in some air. He turned his back to her while he wiped himself clean, glad she couldn’t see his face. His mind was racing while he pulled on his clothes.

“Well?” Sary stood in front of him now, dressed in her fancy working clothes, hands on hips. Johnny pulled on his shirt and fumbled with the toggles.

“What?”

“Are you working for Big Jake Dunham? Is that why you’re asking about Willow?”

“No. No, I’m not working for him.” He reached into his pocket for another coin. “She worked at his house?”

“For a while. Figure that’s where they first started…you know.” She took the money and dropped it on the table with the other money he’d given her. She looked over at him and smiled. “Hey, know what, cowboy? You can come back to see me anytime.” She pushed herself against him and wiggled. “You aren’t bad to look at, you smell pretty good, and you pay real well.  We can talk all you want to.”

 

Chapter Four

Johnny’s boot heels cut into the dust of the street. His spurs jangled up the porch steps to the Westcott House; at the top he shoved the door open. When he split the beaded curtain with his hands, a few half-dressed girls and the men ogling them looked up. He ignored them all.

There was no sign of Silvano or Florrie Westcott. Johnny prowled around the room, brushing the red velvet of the round couch with a finger, picking up a pillow, tickling its tassel over his palm. The carpet under his boots was worn; nobody paid the floor much mind when the room was full of whores. The side tables were marked with pale rings from glasses set down and forgotten.

He’d circled the room all the way to the bar when Florrie Westcott came down the stairs, Silvano close behind. The madam’s bosom nearly spilled out of her fancy dress. She wasn’t carrying the stick with the glasses today, and her eyes looked smaller when she smiled her fake smile.

“Mr. Madrid. What a nice surprise. Shall we go into my office?” She breezed to the back door, smiling at some important client. Johnny and Silvano followed, but as Johnny crossed the threshold to the back hallway, the butler reached in and closed the door behind him.

The tunnel Silvano had shown him was to the right; Florrie turned left instead. Johnny hadn’t paid much attention to that leg of the hallway. She led him to a room just barely big enough to be called an office. A desk and a chair took up most of it. She moved behind the desk and opened a drawer. “I see you’ve come to accept my offer.”

“Mrs. Westcott, you lied to me.” Johnny slammed the door of the tiny office.

The madam’s smile froze. “What are you talking about?”

“You didn’t tell me you and Dunham had a history.”

She lost her smile. “Jake Dunham is trying to run me out of business. It may be related to our previous relationship, but it doesn’t change the fact that his thugs are interfering with my livelihood.”

Johnny took a deep breath. “You didn’t tell me Dunham owns other whorehouses.”

“No, I didn’t. I didn’t think it mattered.”

“What about the Indian girl Big Jake got in trouble?”

“What possible interest is that of yours?” Florrie’s eyes narrowed. “And how do you know?”

“That don’t matter. Do you know where she is right now?”

Florrie lifted her chin. “She went somewhere to get rid of the baby. I don’t know where.”

“I don’t believe you. I don’t believe a damn word you say.” He took a step toward her. Florrie shrank back from him until her back was against the wall—it wasn’t very far—but when she spoke her voice was steady.

“It was an ugly situation. Jake was infatuated with her. He always is attracted to Indians, Mexicans, the darker… His wife got suspicious, you know. He was too stupid to cover his tracks, and the girl was too in love to care. She actually expected him to marry her.”

“Not like you.” Johnny locked his eyes on hers.

“Of course not. If I were to get married my money would no longer be my own. The arrangement I had with Jake Dunham was mutually beneficial on many levels, and marriage would have ruined it.”

A sharp business woman, all right. Cold as steel. “What’s her name?”

“Who?”

Florrie gasped when Johnny slammed his hand into the wall beside her head. “Who are we talking about here, Florrie? What’s her name?”

“Felicia. Felicia Cortes.”

“Where’s her family?”

“How should I know?”

“So he dumped you for her?”

Florrie’s mouth turned down.  “He’s had other flings…this time he didn’t come crawling back. Felicia was a wild one. She had a job in one of his saloons. She played on Jake’s fascination for Indian girls and she…”

Johnny’s words were clipped.  “I heard she was a maid working for him when he got her in trouble.”

“I wouldn’t know.” Florrie sniffed. “I know he’d go to see her at the saloon, and later at one of his brothels. When she told the landlady she was expecting, she helped her get rid of it. That’s all I know.”

Johnny exhaled with a hiss. “Why didn’t you tell me about you and Dunham before?”

“I suppose I thought hiring a gunman meant just that. I didn’t expect I’d have to justify myself to you.”

“No, but I expected you to be honest with me. I’ll take your job but my fee just went up, lady. Two hundred even, plus expenses. Dunham is a bastard, all right, but you’re not smellin’ too sweet yourself.”

Florrie’s eyes flashed as she pulled an envelope from the drawer and slapped it into Johnny’s hands. “Your expense money as agreed. Thirty-five dollars.”

Johnny hefted it, then shoved the envelope into his pocket. “I’ll be back for the two hundred. Just before I kill him.”

“And you will leave town immediately afterward.”

If he hadn’t been rattled about Dolores—no, Felicia—he’d have been pissed at the dismissal. Instead he jerked his head in agreement as he grabbed the doorknob and got the hell away from Florrie Westcott.

Silvano was in the hallway just outside the office, a fireplace poker held in his fist. Johnny brushed by him and headed for the tunnel. When he came out the street was dark, but he wasn’t turned around this time. He headed to the nearest saloon for a drink.

Maybe Dolores hadn’t just wandered into the desert. Maybe somebody made her do it.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++

In his dreams that night he followed a cloud into a desert. The cloud was full of colors but the colors didn’t come through to his eyes; they stayed on the inside. The soul of the sad Indian girl was unanchored, alone and frightened. Johnny needed to see the colors but the harder he looked, the fainter they got. As the cloud blew away it asked him to be kind. That was all. Just be kind.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++

When he woke up he checked out of the rooming house and headed to Armando’s to take him up on his offer of a place to sleep—the Mexican side of town would be safer for him if something went south.

Then he hurried back to Dunham’s Dry Goods Store. He got there just as the clerk unlocked the front door. Johnny smiled as he breezed in.

 “Mr. M-M-Madrid.” Johnny didn’t recall the clerk stammering the first day he’d seen him. Of course, that was before the fella saw him pull his gun on Dunham.

“That’s me. What do they call you?”

Johnny was trying to be friendly, but the man gulped a couple of breaths and sidled away from him. “I’m Percy.”

Johnny wanted to laugh. The name fit.  “Mornin’, Percy. Mind if I look around?”

“N-no. Let me know if you n-n-eed any help.”

“Thank you kindly.” It hit him what Percy meant that first day, after Johnny told him he was new in town. Percy was fishing to see if Johnny had any…urges…so he could direct Johnny to one of Big Jake’s bawdy houses.

You really could get whatever you wanted at Dunham’s Dry Goods.

Johnny rooted through barrels of farm implements to find the shovel and pickax he needed. He paid, then asked Percy if he could leave them there at the counter and look around more. Percy nodded before hurrying off to help two ladies who’d just come in.

Using the crowded aisles as cover, Johnny slipped to the back of the store, to the room he’d scoped out from the alley yesterday.

Isham was standing in front of the desk, his back to the open door. On the other side of the desk sat Big Jake Dunham, a cigar in his teeth and a ream of papers in front of him. Johnny stepped up to the doorway and knocked on the wall.

As Dunham looked up, Isham spun around, reaching for his gun. He stopped when he saw Johnny leaning against the door frame, grinning.

“Hold on, now, Isham. You can relax. I just want to talk to your boss.”

Isham hesitated but Dunham jumped to his feet, pulling his cigar from his mouth and setting it on the desk.  “Who let you in here?”

“Mr. Dunham, I told you I’d see you again.” Johnny kept a smile on his face. “Isham, I don’t mean Mr. Dunham here any harm. Can you leave us be for a little while?”

Isham smiled uncertainly. “Mr. Dunham? This here is Johnny Madrid...”

Dunham slammed his desk; cigar ashes went flying. “I know who he is! Anything we have to discuss can be said in the presence of my bodyguard here.”

“Isham, you got a promotion to bodyguard! Good for you. You know, you can stay, that’s fine with me. Okay, Isham?”

Isham’s gaze shifted from Johnny to Dunham and back. “Sure, Johnny. Why don’t you come on in?”

Isham was a professional again—a professional on the other side, Johnny reminded himself. Isham took up position beside the door, gaining control of the room as Johnny stepped inside.

“What do you want?” Dunham wasn’t booming as loud as he had on the street yesterday, but he looked just as full of himself.

Johnny made a show of looking around the office, avoiding Big Jake’s eyes for the moment. “Someone wants me to kill you. They’re willing to pay a pretty penny, too.”

Dunham picked up his stogie from the desk. He swiped his hand where it had burned the top before he stuck it back in his mouth. “Why aren’t I dead, then?”

“You’re worth more alive.” Johnny smiled. He looked Dunham right in the eye. “For now.”

Dunham blinked. Johnny heard Isham move to the side.

Johnny picked up a paperweight from Dunham’s desk and hefted it in his hand. “Tell me about Florrie Westcott.”

“I don’t have to tell you anything.”

“Okay. Tell me about Felicia.” He set the paperweight back down.

“Who?”

“The Indian girl you left Florrie for. Willow. I heard you turned her bustle around.”

Dunham’s eyebrows went up. “I don’t have to tell you anything.”

“You already said that, Dunham.” Johnny pressed his lips together and sighed. “But I’m tryin’ to figure out whether to kill you or not, and I think you want to be nice to me. Right, Isham?”

Dunham cleared his throat. “What do you want to know?”

“Tell me where Felicia is now.”

“I don’t know.”

Johnny grinned. “I do.”

Dunham frowned and started to say something, but Johnny talked over him. “When was the last time you saw her?”

“I don’t…a week ago.”

Johnny nodded. “Uh-huh. Where did you see her last week?”

Dunham thought. Johnny waited. He kept a faint smile on his face—his working smile. He knew it got to people. He could see it getting to Dunham, the way the man was trying to finesse his answer. Johnny could hear Isham breathing in the doorway.

“I guess it was at the Four Queens.”

“Nice place.” Johnny winked. “Did you talk to her? Or did you just fuck her?”

Johnny heard Isham’s sharp intake of breath behind him.

“I asked her where she was going to go. She said she wanted to stay…”

“She expected you to do the decent thing.”

Dunham’s nostrils flared. “Decent thing? Where did you get that idea?”

Johnny raised his voice again to interrupt. “Especially since she couldn’t get rid of it.”

Dunham flinched. “You know a lot about the situation.”

Johnny stopped smiling. “I try to keep up.” He searched Dunham’s face, but he didn’t see anything like murder in it. “What about Felicia’s family?”

A look of confusion crossed Dunham’s face. “I have no idea. She just showed up. She never mentioned a family.”

Johnny stared coolly at Big Jake for another few seconds. “Fair enough.” He turned and walked to the door. Isham stood aside, and their eyes met. Johnny decided not to say anything. Not yet.

After he was through the door Johnny looked back at Dunham and shook his head. “It’s a woman wants you dead. Might be Felicia. Might be Florrie Westcott. Might even be your wife. I’ll leave you to figure out which one. Maybe you can try to talk ‘em out of it.”

That ought to hold him for a while.

 

Chapter Five

Johnny shouldered the pickax and shovel as he left the store, blending in with the miners and other working men choking Tucson’s streets. He dodged riders and wagons and folks walking like they were headed somewhere important. Well, he was too.

The squealing of irritated horses got his attention; he was close to the livery, and a low cloud of dust rose from the big corral on the corner. A black and white pinto was causing a ruckus, neck snaking out and teeth bared as he charged the other horses. Johnny yelled; the horse stopped in mid-bite and trotted to him. Leaning his tools against the slats of the corral, Johnny climbed up to rub the special spot behind the gelding’s ears. The horse twisted his head, grunting in delight.

“You’re a good boy and you and I are going to go for a ride, okay? I just gotta go get square with the man in the barn before I come saddle you up. You stay here and keep these other cayuses in line. Quit pickin’ on ‘em. And keep an eye on my equipment, here.” 

It didn’t take long to pay the livery man and collect his gear. Johnny led the pinto out of the corral and tied him to a post. He checked his feet before he swung the saddle blanket on his back. The horse stomped a back foot at an imaginary fly, then tried hard to shake the blanket off. Johnny was wise to his tricks and held it in place until the horse’s skin stopped crawling. When Johnny hefted the saddle up the pinto tossed his head, but didn’t move away. After strapping up the cinch, Johnny waited a moment, then kneed the gelding in the side. He grunted out a big breath of air and Johnny tightened the cinch the rest of the way.

It wasn’t easy getting the pickax and shovel safely packed, but piggin’ strings and gun boots got the job done. The pinto could barely contain himself as they rode out of Tucson; it took all Johnny had to keep the horse to a trot. Felicia’s remains lay south, but Johnny headed north. Laying false trails had become a habit.

Clear of town he let his horse choose its own pace; after a few bucks to show Johnny who was boss, the gelding jumped in a just-shy-of-flat-out run that ate up ground in no time. Johnny eased him into a rocking-chair lope and gradually reined him in a large loop until they were heading south. He spurred the horse faster for about a half mile, and then let him settle.

They jogged easily now, and both he and Johnny felt better for blowing out of town.

It took a couple hours to get to the general area Johnny had left Dolores—no, Felicia. He had to do some fancy searching but he finally found her, or what was left of her. It wasn’t much. Desert scavengers had eaten well.

Digging the trench was hot, dirty work. Once he scraped Felicia’s remains into it he shoveled, tamped, and shoveled some more until all that was left was a small mound. He stood beside the grave, sweating, head bowed. He thought he should pray, but he was sort of numb inside; words didn’t come. Instead, he dug a little depression in the dirt on top of the grave and laid the crucifix in it.  He mounted up and turned back to Tucson.

On the ride back he thought about Big Jake Dunham. Johnny would rather not have to kill anybody, but he took the job because of the connection between Felicia and Dunham. Was he looking for retribution? He guessed he was. Killing men was what he got paid for, but it was easier when the man was scum, that was for sure. Big Jake may not have killed Felicia outright, but he sure set her up for it.

Confronting Dunham on the street and in his own store had got the juices flowing; it also gave Johnny a glimpse of how the man responded to pressure. He thought back over each encounter, looking for weaknesses. He ran through plans in his head and rejected most of them, but by the time he got to town he knew what he was going to do.

At the livery he waved the man away and took care of the pinto himself. Tending horses made him happy. The soft grinding noises as they chewed their grain, the stomp of a hoof and the swish of a tail when a fly nagged, even the smell of them...it settled him, helped him leave his world for a while.

He didn’t hurry. When he was done he headed to the Rusty Spur. He knew Isham would have something to say about Johnny’s little talk with Dunham that morning.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Isham was already there. Their eyes met across the room, but Isham didn’t say anything until Johnny sat down and threw his hat on the table.

Isham’s lips were pressed into a line across his face as he leaned close. “What the hell was that all about?”

“What was what about?” Johnny knew how to talk without saying anything. The less he said, the more he learned.

“You knew I was hired on with Big Jake. I told you. You said you had a job but you never said it was with Florrie Westcott.”

Johnny held up a hand. “Hold on, Isham. I still didn’t say it was with Florrie Westcott.”

Isham scoffed. “No, you didn’t. Sly dog, aren’t you, Johnny? Always one up on ever’body else.” Isham shook his head. “Dammit. If you’re gonna kill Big Jake Dunham you’re gonna have to go through me.”

Johnny sighed. “I know, I know.” He waited until Isham’s eyes came up again. “Look, Isham. It’s a job, okay? You know how it goes. We knew we’d end up on opposites sides one day. In our trade it has to happen. A man does what he has to do.”

Isham glowered at him.

Well, Johnny didn’t expect anything else. He let the silence sit between them for a minute. “I want to ask you something, though.”

Suspicion flashed in Isham’s eyes, but he settled back in his chair.

Johnny drummed his fingers on the table and searched for the right words. “I asked Dunham about an Indian girl, name of Felicia.”

Still wary, Isham nodded.

“Some folks called her Willow. Did you know her? Do you know anything about the situation?”

Isham tilted his head to the side, lips pursed. He didn’t answer.

Johnny was tired of beating around the bush. “I want to know if someone killed her.”

Isham’s eyes got wider. “Whoa there. She’s dead?”

“Since before I got here. And what I want to know is, did Dunham or Florrie Westcott or somebody make her take a walk in the desert, or was it her idea?”

Isham played with his glass, turning it and looking at it like he could find words there. “Not me, Johnny, and not anybody I know of.” He shook his head slowly. “Truth is she was just some whore Big Jake took a liking to. She wasn’t much of anything to anybody. Not worth the trouble of killing, know what I mean?”

That was close to the saddest thing Johnny ever heard. He stayed quiet a long time. Then he looked Isham in the eye. “I had to ask, you know? I never thought you would kill a dog, either, but…”

Isham looked confused for a minute. Then he leaned closer. “Oh, hell, Johnny, I never killed that dog. I found him dead already, not a mark on him. Now, I did cut his throat. More for effect, you know? But I didn’t kill him outright.” Isham smiled a real smile. “Two gunhawks worried about a whore and a dog. Aren’t we just a pair?”

Johnny snorted. “Yeah…you know, we could just walk away.”

“Sure, we could do that. Walking away before the job is done sure will help our reputations. Why didn’t I think of that?”

It was feeble, but it was a joke. Johnny got to his feet and offered Isham his hand. Isham took it and gave it a short, hard shake.

“I can’t wish you luck, Johnny, but I can tell you to be careful.”

“Fair enough. Same to you, Isham. Maybe I’ll see you when this is done.”

When he turned his back to Isham Johnny felt a twinge of concern, but Isham was no back-shooter. When Johnny was free of the saloon he rolled the tension out of his shoulders and kept on walking.

 

Chapter Six

Tucson’s richest poker game took place every Friday night at the Starlite Gaming Hall. Thanks to Armando and his regulars, Johnny knew Big Jake Dunham never missed it. He also knew Big Jake sat in the same chair every week. Johnny got to the Starlite early and waited outside, watching the street, making sure he was seen by the gents going in. Their eyes flicked to the gun tied low on his leg; they made disapproving faces, but no one said anything.

When Johnny saw Dunham and Isham heading his way, he walked into the Starlite with the confidence of a man looking forward to a big night. He made straight for Dunham’s chair. When he sat down, he sank some. Dunham must have padded the chair special.

The dealer was on him right away. “Hey, you can’t sit there.”

Johnny looked up innocently as the man kept sputtering. “This seat is reserved.”

“Oh, you mean for Big Jake?” Johnny exaggerated his Anglo drawl. “Big Jake said it was okay for me to sit here. Said it just the other day. Told me to sit right here in his chair and have a drink on him. So if you’ll bring me a beer I’d be all set.”

It was funny how the dealer’s mouth moved but no words came out. Then he blinked and darted his eyes over Johnny’s head. Johnny didn’t have to look back to know that Dunham was coming up behind him.

“Mr. Dunham!” The dealer stumbled past Johnny. “Mr. Dunham, this Mex claims to be a friend of yours…”

“What is this?” The booming voice was back. “This man is no friend— “

Johnny rose and turned with a smile.

“You!” Dunham turned red. Isham moved up to stand beside him, glowering.

Johnny swept his hat off his head. “Dunham. Here you go. I warmed your chair up for you.” He bumped the man with his shoulder and added, “Nice an’ cushy!” before he strolled out of the gaming house, winking at Isham on his way by.

No one followed him out.

An hour or so later Johnny came in through the back door of the Starlite Hall. The janitor he’d met at Armando’s pointed out a place to sit, right in Big Jake’s line of sight if a few men moved their heads. Johnny sat down, ante’d up, and played a halfhearted game of poker with the other low-rent players. He checked his sight line every few minutes. Heads moved this way and that until, midway through the second hand, he could see Big Jake clear as a bell.

Right away Johnny hooked his spur on his chair leg and jumped to his feet. The chair hit the ground with a bang; Dunham looked up as Johnny grinned and pointed an imaginary gun at him. Isham had cleared leather, but Johnny ducked low and made for the kitchen. The janitor hid him in a broom closet; after a few quiet minutes he let him out again. Johnny couldn’t help but take a peek; the room had settled back down to serious poker playing, but Dunham looked kind of rattled. Isham just looked pissed.

**********************

Saturday, Dunham took his pretty family on a picnic. Big Jake, his wife, their three daughters, and two servants spread their rugs and blankets on the banks of the Santa Cruz. They opened hampers of food prepared by a Mexican cook who had sent word to Armando about the family’s plans. Johnny, hidden behind some scrubby trees on the other side of the river, watched the picnickers set up. Once they were well settled, he mounted and loped his pinto back and forth on the river bank. When Dunham saw him Johnny fingered his hat with a smile before he disappeared over a rise. 

Half an hour later he appeared on the same side of the river as the picnic, jogging his horse slowly past them, smiling and nodding, well out of pistol range. When Big Jake made for his rifle, Johnny pointed the imaginary gun at him, pulled the imaginary trigger, and then spun around and galloped away.

**********************

Sunday morning, Johnny sat in the Dunham’s usual pew in the adobe church with the big courtyard. He watched as Big Jake and his family made their way up the aisle. Being in church mellowed Dunham’s approach; he didn’t boom when he saw Johnny, just sort of sidled down the pew and loomed over him. Johnny jumped up, apologized for sitting in the wrong place, and gallantly and conspicuously surrendered the pew.

Then he sat in the very last row, near the exit. When the service was over Dunham turned to leave; Johnny caught his eye and grinned. Dunham tried to push through the congregation but Johnny left the building before Big Jake got clear.

**********************

“Johnny Madrid, you have well and truly angered Big Jake.” Armando smiled under his moustache, but his brows were knitted with concern. It was Monday morning and he’d made a quick breakfast for himself and Johnny.

“Good. What have you heard?” The coffee was flavored with cinnamon—café de olla. Mama used to make it sometimes in special clay pots; it had been a favorite of his papa. Johnny had stolen a sip whenever he could; it was sweeter than the coffee they usually drank.

“I heard he won’t let his family leave the house, and he won’t go anywhere without his gringo bodyguard.”

Johnny frowned. Accounting for Isham was the trickiest part of his plan.

“He has asked the sheriff to lock you up, but the sheriff says you haven’t broken any laws. Now Big Jake is asking for volunteers to find you, to teach you a lesson.”

Johnny relaxed back in his chair. He’d made the right move, staying at Armando’s, but he was beginning to worry about his pinto at the livery on the Anglo side of town. “So it’s gettin’ hot.”

“Too hot, my friend. You know I can’t vouch for every man who comes in here. One of them may be willing to help Dunham if the price is right.”

“Don’t I know it.” Johnny didn’t want to tell Armando he was more or less counting on it.

Armando opened his hands, helpless. “So what are you going to do?”

Johnny stood up, tossed some money on the table, and settled his rig just right around his hips. “I’m gonna go tend my horse.”

**********************

Johnny whistled a bit as he strolled down Main Street. He touched his hat to the ladies he passed, and nodded to the men, searching the street without appearing to. He was pretty sure the first encounter with Dunham wouldn’t involve guns. Not completely sure, but pretty sure.

He was surprised he got to the livery without incident, but he figured he’d been spotted now and something would happen soon. He stopped long enough to give his horse the carrot Armando had sent, then climbed into the hay mow. There was a small window way in the back. It was a tight fit but he managed to climb through it and scramble down to the ground unnoticed. Creeping along the side of the building, he could see what was happening in front of it.

A knot of men huddled across the street. Johnny recognized the type: drunks and opium eaters who would do anything for a nickel. Standing upwind were Big Jake and Isham. Dunham talked to the foursome, using his walking stick to point up and down the street, and the fellows started trotting off in various directions. Dunham and Isham drew their guns and watched the livery’s double doors.

One of the derelicts headed between the livery and the leather shop next door. Johnny snuck back to intercept him.

“You lookin’ for me?”

The guy looked like he was going to throw up, but he reached for a gun. Too bad Johnny already had his pointed at the man’s gut.

“Hey, I’m not looking for any trouble. How about I give you fifty cents and you pretend you never heard of me?” Johnny tried to look friendly.

The guy nodded. Johnny handed him a coin and sent him on his way.

By now another guy stood behind the livery, looking up and down the alley. Johnny snuck up on him and went through the same routine, but this guy had a stronger sense of duty; Johnny had to konk him on the head. The third man turned the corner on them just then. He ran away as fast as he could; didn’t even waiting for his fifty cent piece.

That left only one man unaccounted for. The odds were better now. Johnny ran past the livery, snuck up the side a few buildings down, and crossed to get behind Isham and Dunham. They peered into the darkness of the stable, guns in hand. He could hear them talking to someone inside. To him, maybe?

Johnny took a deep breath, plastered a smile on his face, and shouted, “Hey, Isham, need any help?”

Dunham and Isham whirled around. Johnny stood before them, hands on hips, grinning.

“How the hell…?” Isham hustled over to him, cursing under his breath, just as the fourth man showed up. When Johnny saw just how big the fellow was he wished he had taken care of him, too.

“Get his gun. Now!” Dunham barked, and Isham reached down to relieve Johnny of his Colt. Johnny didn’t move.

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing, Madrid, but I’ve had it. The law won’t do anything about you, but I sure can.” Dunham nodded. The fourth man sprang into a boxer’s stance in front of him, leering. The man’s hands were as big as hams. As Isham moved behind him, Johnny opened his mouth like he had something to say. He bought himself a second so he could throw himself back. He knocked Isham down and the big guy piled on top of them. Johnny got untangled first and rolled to his feet.

Then he ran like hell.

**********************

Calle de la India Triste wasn’t as crowded as Main Street; Johnny didn’t need to keep ducking and dodging. He walked slow to catch his breath before he knocked at the front door of the Westcott House. No one answered.

Stepping off the porch he looked up and down the street; still no sign of Isham, the ham-handed guy, or Dunham. Johnny went back up and knocked again, harder. Nothing. Feeling a little panicked, he knocked and shouted for Silvano. Finally he heard something on the other side of the door.

“Silvano! Open up. It’s me, Madrid.”

At last the door opened. Silvano bowed as Johnny brushed past him, headed for Florrie’s office. “What took you so long?” Johnny didn’t break stride, but when he winked the butler smiled at him.

Florrie Westcott was dressed in the same green dressing gown as the first time Johnny met her, and she held her glasses to her eyes with the stick. “So today is the day. Am I right, Mr. Madrid?” She could have been discussing the weather instead of a man’s killing.

“Unless you changed your mind.”

“I rarely change my mind.” She led Johnny behind the bar. She didn’t offer him a drink today, just reached for the key, brought up the strongbox, and opened it. She removed an envelope and started to hand it to him, then drew it back with a smirk.“Were your expenses less than thirty-five dollars?” Her tone might have been coy, but her question was dead serious.

Johnny snatched the envelope. “Thirty-five. To the penny.” He opened it and thumbed through the bills, counting. Two hundred even, as agreed. He folded it and stuck it in his inside jacket pocket.

Florrie held the glasses to her eyes as Johnny nodded to her. She didn’t say good-bye. Neither did he.

**********************

Johnny cooled his heels far away from Main Street. Waiting was the worst part of any job, but he’d learned long ago not to rush anything. When the time was right, he’d take action; until then, he was pretty good at keeping his nerves under control—as long as he could keep moving. 

After a while he found his way back to Main Street. The constant to-do in Tucson’s streets made hiding in plain sight a cinch. He passed by the Dry Goods store a few times until he saw Dunham and Isham come out. Keeping in the shadows, he followed them at a distance to the Congress Hotel. Must be going for lunch; the Congress was a popular lunch spot for Anglos.

Giving them time to get settled, Johnny studied his approach. He had to be charming enough to not get kicked out of the restaurant, at least not right away…but he had to be irritating enough to rile Dunham up good. Johnny took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and swaggered into the hotel restaurant with a dopy smile.

Walking towards the table where Dunham and Isham sat, Johnny smacked his hands together before he shouted across the room, “Hey, Isham, you still have my gun?” He swung his arm in a big circle and ended pointing at his empty holster.

The whole room of diners looked up in alarm. A man in a white waiter’s coat hurried toward him, then put out his arm to block Johnny. “I’m sorry, sir, we don’t allow…”

Johnny knocked the waiter’s arm away. “What? What don’t you allow? Shouting? Being Mexican? Well, do you allow thievin’?” He pointed at Isham. “Because that fella there took my gun and I want it back.”

Isham got to his feet and put his hands on Johnny’s shoulders, hard, even though he smiled a little like he thought Johnny might be funning. “Now, Johnny, I’ll be glad to give you your gun back, but not here.”

 He tried to turn Johnny away from the table but Johnny slipped away from him. 

“If you won’t give it to me now, I’m just gonna sit right here until you do. A man ain’t nothin’ without his weapon, Isham.” Johnny dropped into the empty seat across from Dunham. He raised his eyebrows at the waiter and made a face when the man stepped away; then he turned a big grin on Dunham.“Well, howdy do, Big Jake. Since it was you asked Isham to relieve me of my gun, I’ll just wait with you until you ask him to give it back.” From the corner of his eye Johnny saw the waiter gesturing in his direction to a man in a suit. Johnny was about to get thrown out; it was time to end this on his own terms.

He reached over and picked a piece of Dunham’s beefsteak right off the plate and popped it in his mouth with a wink.

It worked. Big Jake jumped over the table and grabbed Johnny’s shirt. Johnny twisted out of his grip like a fish, stood back, and pointed an imaginary gun.

“You want a piece of me, Dunham?” Johnny’s voice was deadly serious. “You want to finish this? Let’s take it outside.”

Johnny turned and strode from the restaurant. He pushed the door hard, satisfied when it slammed behind him. Once he was in the middle of the street he pivoted to watch Big Jake approach.

Dunham hesitated as he came through the hotel door, scanning the crowd gathering to see the showdown. When he stepped off the boardwalk Isham followed a step behind him. About half of the hotel’s guests and staff were behind Isham.

“You don’t have a gun.” Dunham’s voice carried so everyone could hear him. “Are you crazy?”

Johnny stood relaxed and smiling. “Probably.” His blood was rushing now. The time was here, and he was in complete control.

Isham’s hand hovered over his gun. “Hey, now, Johnny. I can’t let you shoot Mr. Dunham.”

Johnny tilted his head and let his smile grow. “You can’t stop me. If you shoot me now you’ll hang, because I don’t have my gun.” He looked Isham in the eyes and lowered his voice. “And I know you don’t wanna hang.”

Isham’s face fell. His hand moved away from his gun. Dunham pressed his lips together and tossed his walking stick to the ground.

“Then what do you expect, Madrid? Fisticuffs?” Dunham sounded bolder now.

“What, mess up your fancy coat there? Naw, I can’t see you fighting me mano a mano, Dunham.”

“Then I really don’t know what you want from me.”

Johnny felt the crowd listening. “I called your bluff. I want a showdown.”

“But you’re unarmed.”

“Think so?” Johnny grinned and aimed his finger at Dunham’s heart. “Bang.”

“God damn it, stop that!” Dunham pulled a pistol out of the waistband of his trousers. Isham yelled “Don’t!” as Dunham fired, but Johnny had already moved two steps to the left and pulled a gun from his jacket pocket. Dunham’s bullets hit the dirt beside him and Johnny fired three shots in return. Then he pitched his gun down into the dirt and threw his hands way up.

Amid shouts and shrieks from the crowd, Dunham collapsed against Isham. Johnny darted through the gun smoke to grab the front of Dunham’s bloodied shirt. He helped Isham ease him to the ground.

Isham hissed, “Don’t crowd me, Johnny.” But Johnny wasn’t done; not yet.

Dunham struggled for breath. Johnny kept hold of his shirt and shook him until Dunham managed to focus on him. “For Felicia, you son of a bitch.”

Recognition sparked in Dunham’s eyes as he breathed his last.

Johnny released his grip and stepped back, raising his hands again as the crowd got louder. Isham sprang up and shoved him hard into the middle of the street.

“God damn it. Damn you, Madrid!”

What the hell? Johnny left his hands high. Isham backhanded him with a snarl, knocking Johnny to the dirt.

He stayed down. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. Isham stood over him, panting. Johnny reached up to wipe the blood away just as Isham pulled Johnny’s Colt out of his jacket pocket. A woman screamed and for a split second Johnny steeled himself for a bullet. Instead, Isham threw the gun beside him, turned, and spat on the ground as he walked away.

 

Chapter Seven

It was the helplessness that got him. That, and knowing how much could go wrong for a half-Mexican gunfighter in a white man’s jail. The sheriff was out of town until tomorrow and the new jail wasn’t ready yet, so they put Johnny in a storeroom inside the courthouse. The small iron cell was clean enough, with a thin blanket on the cot and basin of water with a tin cup.

His lip had swelled up and his chin itched. When he scratched it he got flakes of dried blood under his fingernails. He wetted his bandana in the basin and scrubbed cautiously. Wringing out the bandana turned the water pink. Once his face was clean, he folded the cloth, dunked it again, and pressed it gently on his aching jaw. Isham packed a punch, even in his backhand.

The bite of beefsteak from Dunham’s plate was the last thing Johnny had eaten. It didn’t count for much, and he was getting a headache from being hungry. He had saved some clean water in the tin cup; he downed it in hopes there would be something more filling before too long.

He’d about decided he was gonna go hungry when Deputy Lormer brought in a lamp and a visitor—Armando’s grandson, carrying a plate covered with a napkin. The boy moved real slow and got all bug-eyed when he spied Johnny in the cell. Lormer took the plate and pulled off the cloth before he handed it in.

“Gracias. You thank your abuelo for me.” Johnny took a deep whiff of the beans topped with tamales. They smelled like heaven. “This looks real good. Muchas gracias, mi amigo.” He would have given the niño a tip but he didn’t want the deputy to know he had Florrie’s gun money stashed in his boot. The boy nodded as he backed out the door; once he was clear he turned and made tracks out of there. Johnny laughed, and even the deputy smiled.

Johnny shared some of his unexpected dinner with Lormer. Then they played a card game or two through the bars until lights out. The lawman let Johnny keep the deck, but it was already too dark to see the cards.

Stretched out on the cot, fingers laced behind his head, Johnny let his thoughts wander. He’d set the job up pretty well, if he did say so himself. No one else got hurt. Too bad Isham was so mad, not that Johnny blamed him. Except for that, it was a good job.

The rush had worn itself out, though, and now he felt drained. Numb, like he’d been off and on since he found Felicia. He wished he had been able to find her family. He wished he knew her whole story. Was she just a whore, like Isham said? Sary thought she started as a maid in Dunham’s house. Had Big Jake taken advantage of her?

And now she was dead, and no one gave a damn. Hell, Johnny only cared because he’d stumbled across the body. Someone must care, though. A family, a mother and father...

Well, now. That wasn’t necessarily so. Murdoch Lancer hadn’t cared, had he?

**************************

Johnny was grateful for the deck of card once he woke up and had enough light. He kept busy practicing sleight of hand tricks while he waited for the sheriff. He’d just about mastered a one-handed triple cut when the storeroom door opened and Deputy Lormer showed Isham in.

Johnny took a moment to straighten the deck before he stood up.

Isham stopped a few feet away from the cell, fiddling with his hat. “Johnny. You doin’ okay?”

“Pretty good.” Johnny stuck his arms through the iron, resting his elbows on the crossbar, trying to get a read on Isham. “Ready to get the hell out of Tucson, you know?”

“Seen the sheriff yet?” Isham looked down at the floor.

“Naw. I thought you might be him.” Johnny huffed a little laugh.

Isham ignored it. “Figure you’re in any trouble?”

“Hope not. It was a fair fight.”

“Yeah, about that.” A muscle in Isham’s jaw jumped. “How did you know it was gonna turn out like that?” Finally he looked straight at Johnny. “How did you manage to take me outta the game without firing a shot?”

Johnny sighed.  “Luck, Isham. Just luck. I saw a chance to keep you out of it when you took my gun.”

Isham’s eyes narrowed. “Now, how did you know I would take your gun?”

“I didn’t.” Johnny had considered something like it, though. How could he explain the way he planned a job? Imagining different things that could happen, thinking through each possibility until no matter what cropped up, he was ready… even if he had the words, it would be loco to share them with anybody. Even Isham.

“When you said I’d hang if I shot you, I gotta tell you, it took the wind right out of me.”

The resentment in Isham’s voice irked Johnny some. “Well, that was the idea. It kept you out of the fight.”

Isham jutted his chin out and stepped close to the bars. “Maybe I didn’t want out of the fight.”

“What?” Johnny reached out to grab Isham’s sleeve, but Isham pulled away. “Why not? You saying you wanted to shoot me?”

“I wanted to do my job.” Isham jabbed his finger towards Johnny. “If I had to shoot you to do it, that’s what I shoulda done. You said it the other day: a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

“Even if it means killing a friend? Come on, Isham.”

“No, I mean it. I’m glad you’re alive, don’t get me wrong. But you…you made me look bad.”

“Well, I’m sorry your feelings got hurt.” Damn it. Johnny had worked hard not to shoot Isham, took risks he wouldn’t usually take, and the man was griping about it. It was a good thing Johnny was behind bars or he’d be returning that sucker punch right about now.

Isham started to say something else but clammed up when Deputy Lormer and another man came in.

“Are you the man that worked for Jake Dunham?” Deputy Lormer’s face was red; the other man looked kind of amused.

“And if I am?” Johnny could hear the tension in Isham’s voice.

“Come with me.” Lormer led the way out of the storeroom. Isham glanced at Johnny before he followed the deputy out. The new man grinned and yelled, “I told you so!” after them. He was a tall man, with one of those beards that only grew from his chin.

“I’m Sheriff Blackstock.” The sheriff was dressed to the nines with a pistol on each hip, a vest, and a string tie. “I’ve spent my morning talking to everybody who saw what happened between you and Jake Dunham. Now I want to hear your side of it.”

Johnny put on his most sincere face. “Well, Sheriff, I was having lunch with Big Jake and my buddy Isham, there, waiting for Isham to give me back my gun that he had borrowed. Dunham took offense to something I said.”

Was Blackstock buying it? So far so good. “I asked him to take it outside, and he did. Then he drew on me and shot at me.”

Johnny stopped for a heartbeat. “He thought I was unarmed. Lucky I had another revolver in my pocket.” He shot a quick glance at the sheriff; the man’s face hadn’t changed.

“He missed. I didn’t.”

Sheriff Blackstock nodded. “Well, I heard there was a little more to it than that. But no one disputes that Dunham drew first.” He narrowed his eyes. “Now, I know what you are. Jake Dunham told me how you were bothering him. Setting him up, weren’t you?”

Johnny figured it was smart to keep quiet. When Blackstock pulled out a key and unlocked the cell door, he knew he’d been right.

“You’re free to go. You’ve got one day to get out of town. Don’t come back.”

That was one piece of advice Johnny intended to follow. “Thank you, Sheriff.” As he stepped through the open cell door he considered asking Blackstock about Felicia. He didn’t, though; couldn’t risk the man making any connections he shouldn’t. 

Johnny walked out as quick as he could and stopped by the desk in the front room to retrieve his gear. After checking his coins and filling his pockets, he strapped on his gun belt. Pulling the buckle tight, he flicked his gaze across the way. There was Isham, sitting up real straight in an open office while Deputy Lormer talked at him. It didn’t look like a friendly conversation.

Johnny caught the clerk’s eye and tilted his head toward the office. “What’s going on?”

“Some lady swore out a warrant on him last night.”

“What for?”

“Uh…” The clerk held out a pen for Johnny to sign a form that he’d gotten all his stuff back. Then he pawed through some papers, found the one he wanted, and held it up. “Says he destroyed her property and her business. Malicious vandalism.”

Damn Florrie Westcott. What game was she playing now?

The clerk chuckled. “Nice of the guy to stroll right in here today. Saved Lormer some running around.”

Johnny didn’t think it was funny. A voice in his head told him to take off, to get out of town while the getting was good. Lord knows he’d like to do that, but he couldn’t just leave Isham here, not with Isham in jail and things bad between them.

Damn that woman. 

Lormer steered Isham toward the cell with a hand on his elbow. Johnny stepped forward, but Isham turned his head away. Biting back his irritation, Johnny handed his weapons to the clerk and followed as the deputy locked Isham in the cell.

“Shoe’s on the other foot, huh, Isham?”

Isham ignored him. Johnny tried again. “You got more to say? Well, here I am.”

He waited until he was sure Isham wasn’t going to talk to him. Then he sighed. “Listen, Isham, I‘ll be back in a while. We can talk then.”

Johnny collected his weapons once more. Then he headed for the Westcott House. 

**********************

When Silvano answered the door and saw Johnny, he frowned and stepped in front of him.

“I need to talk to Florrie.” Johnny pushed his way past but Silvano held up a warning finger.

“What?”

Silvano pressed his hand against Johnny’s chest, then pointed to a board beside the door. In crude letters it said ‘Closed. No Girls.’

“That’s not why I’m here. What’s going on, Silvano?”

Johnny split the beaded curtain. The butler grabbed his shoulder as if to stop him; Johnny shrugged off his hand. Silvano reached for Johnny’s arm as he made for the back door leading to Florrie’s office and the secret passageway. Johnny threw him off again.

The door stuck and Johnny had to give it a hard pull. Stepping into the hallway, he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye—a figure disappearing behind the door of the tunnel, leaving the sound of rustling skirts and a scent of rosewater lingering in the air.

“What’re you doing here?” Florrie Westcott’s voice was thick, her words slurred.

Johnny turned away from the tunnel; Florrie leaned against the wall outside her office, her green housedress hanging from her shoulders. The robe was only partly fastened, and she didn’t seem to be wearing anything under it. Tufts of orange hair stuck up around her head.

Johnny looked back. The door was shut. Whoever had been there was long gone.

Florrie bumped into her desk as she stumbled into her office. She rubbed her thigh for a second, then leaned on the desk to steady herself as she lurched around it, hand over hand. When she got to her chair she collapsed, her head on her arms.

Johnny stopped at the threshold. The room reeked of whiskey and sweat and he didn’t care to get any closer. He felt Silvano behind him, but the butler didn’t move while Johnny waited for Florrie to raise her head.

When she did, it was to fumble for a cigarillo from a box in front of her. It took her three tries to strike a match to light it. She puffed a couple times before she met Johnny’s eyes.

“What do you want?”

“I’d like you to drop the charges against Dunham’s bodyguard.”

Her eyes filled with sudden tears. “Jake’s dead.”

Had she even heard him? “Yes ma’am. That’s why there’s no sense in charging Isham.”

Florrie’s head wobbled like it was too heavy for her neck. “You killed him.”

Well, shit. This was not going well.

“You hired me to. You got what you wanted.”

“Did I?”

“Didn’t you? You’re the one pushed for a killin’.”

“Not jus’ me.” Florrie stopped. She took another puff of her smoke.

What did that mean?

Johnny tried again. “Isham is a friend of mine. I owe him.” Sort of.

Blinking hard, Florrie lifted her chin higher. “Silvano?”

The butler took a step forward.

“Make him go away.”

Shaking his head, Johnny raised his hand. “I’ll go away once you drop the charges, and I’ll take Isham with me.”

Florrie blinked. When she spoke her voice was squeaky, like a little girl’s. “You will?”

“Sure.”

“Even if sh…” Florrie stopped short. What had she almost said?

“Even if what? Even if she…what? She who?” Johnny looked sharply at Florrie, but she wouldn’t look back; Silvano stayed unmoving behind him.

“Look. Just drop the charges and you won’t have to worry about Isham anymore. Or me.”

Florrie pulled a drawer open in the desk and Johnny’s hand went to his gun. He relaxed when she pulled out a bottle. Using her teeth to uncork it, she took a swig.

“I don’ have to worry about you anyway. Sheriff kicked you outa town.”

“How’d you hear that?”

She raised her eyebrows high as she tried to focus on him. “I have my ways.” She smiled a simpering little smile, followed by a belch. “Scuse me.”

Johnny blew out a breath and leaned against the door frame. “Listen to me. I’ll leave town and take Isham with me. But he can’t leave unless you drop the charges. You understand?”

“Perfec’ly.” She put the cigarillo to her lips, inhaled deeply, and forced the smoke out through her nose. Then she took another drink of whiskey.

There was no way she was going to make it to the courthouse. Johnny turned back to Silvano. “So how are we gonna do this? Can she write a letter or something for me to take back?”

Florrie’s eyelids drooped; her head canted to one side. Silvano studied her for a long second; then he looked at Johnny and nodded. Florrie didn’t seem to notice when Silvano came around the desk, opened another drawer, and set out writing paper and pen. The butler smoothed the paper on the end of the desk opposite the whiskey bottle and picked up the pen.

“Silvano! I didn’t know you could write.” Seems they could have saved a whole lot of sign language and waving of arms, if Johnny had known. When Silvano stopped scratching on the paper, Johnny leaned in to see.

“Bet you didn’t know I can read.” Silvano smiled tightly as Johnny checked to be sure the paper said what he wanted. Then he slid it under Florrie’s nose. “All you gotta do is sign this. We’ll be gone and it’ll all be over.”

Silvano curled her fingers around the pen and pointed to get her started. Blinking, Florrie signed her name with exaggerated care and a couple of ink blots. Johnny picked up the paper, waved it around to make sure it was dry, and folded it. As he slid it into his pocket Florrie sniffed.

“I miss Jake.” A few tears spilled out of her eyes. “She doesn’t.”

“Who doesn’t?” Something tugged at the back of Johnny’s mind. Who else would care one way or the other about Jake Dunham?

Johnny recalled the rustle of skirts and a rich woman’s cologne disappearing through the secret door. An idea nagged at the back of his head, and it made sense, almost.

“Who was it I saw leaving when I got here?” 

Florrie tried to draw herself up straight. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Johnny shook his head. “You never do, Florrie.” He took a stab in the dark. “Was it her idea to get Isham thrown in jail?”

Florrie stubbed out what was left of her cigarillo. “She’s afraid.”

“Who’s afraid? Somebody’s afraid of Isham?” Johnny was having trouble keeping up.

“She’s afraid he’ll hurt her girls.”

“What girls? Isham wouldn’t hurt any girls.”

Florrie took another drink. “Jake hadn’t paid ‘im. She’s afraid he’ll break in and ravish their daughters in their sleep.”

Jesus Christ. Armando said his wife thought Mrs. Dunham knew about Jake’s affairs but turned a blind eye to them. Maybe she didn’t, really.

Jake’s wife and Florrie Westcott were working together, and each one was crazier than the other one.

Johnny slipped the safety thong off his Colt and stepped back from the door. The more he saw of rich people, the gladder he was not to be one of them. It just wasn’t worth the effort to untangle this mess. He got what he came for. It was time to go.

He backed into the hallway, keeping a good eye on both Silvano and Florrie and his hand on his gun. He considered leaving through the secret passageway but decided he didn’t want to expose his back to either one of them. Instead he stepped backward into the red velvet room with the fancy chandelier, and kept walking backwards until he got into the foyer and out the front door. As he turned to head down the porch stairs, he heard the lock turn in the door behind him.

**********************

He was closer to the livery than to the courthouse, so Johnny collected his horse and settled his bill. Taking a last look at Tucson from the back of his pinto, he decided he’d be happier if he went south. Nogales for sure. Maybe even further. He missed the colors in Mexico.

Inside the courthouse he approached the deputy in the open office. He pulled Florrie’s letter from his jacket and let it flutter onto the desk.  “Mrs. Westcott would like to drop the charges against Isham.”

Lormer picked it up and looked it over carefully. Then he shook his head. “This real?”

“Yeah. I watched her man write it, and I watched her sign it.”

“At gunpoint, I reckon.” The deputy’s comment struck Johnny cold, but he smiled as best he could. He was relieved when Lormer smiled back.

After double checking the signature against the original complaint, the deputy led the way to the cell. Isham looked up as they entered the back room. He didn’t say hello, but at least he didn’t turn away.

“You bailin’ me out, Johnny?”

“You don’t need bail. Florrie dropped the charges.” Johnny grinned at Isham’s confusion, and at how quick he got to his feet.

Before Lormer turned the key in the lock, Johnny spoke up. “Hey, Deputy, can you leave him in there a minute?”

Isham glared at him.

Johnny cocked his head to the side. “It’s just that my buddy there has a few words to say to me, and it might be better for both of us if he’s in that cell when he says ‘em.”

Isham smiled, finally. “I promise I won’t hit you again, Johnny.”

The deputy unlocked the cell. Isham stepped out and extended his hand. “I got you to thank for this, don’t I, amigo?”

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, you do. Let’s get outta here.”

After Isham claimed his gear they walked into the hot Tucson sunshine together.

“I keep askin’ you this, but how’d you do it?” Isham looked at Johnny with an honest smile. Seemed they were back on good terms again.

“You’re not going to believe me, Isham.” Johnny punched Isham on the arm and headed for his pinto hitched outside the courthouse. “I’ll tell you the story later.”

Johnny untied his horse and started walking toward the poor side of town, Isham right beside him.

“You and I better leave this town pretty quick, amigo. Once Florrie sobers up she might change her mind about you. And Blackstock wants my ass out of town by tomorrow.”

Isham snickered. Johnny threw his arm over Isham’s shoulders.

“But before we go, it’s almost dinnertime. I know a nice little place with the best tamales in town.”

Isham guffawed. “Sure you do, Johnny. Sure you do.”

“I do, Isham. Best tamales in town. And I’m buyin’.” 

 

Epilogue

Night fell peaceably in old Tucson. The adobe gave its heat back to the cooling air and for a while Armando’s cantina grew uncomfortably warm. After the regulars cleared out, Johnny, Isham, and Armando shared a bottle of good tequila—Armando’s personal stock, not what he sold his customers. It was real smooth. Before long, as it often did, the talk turned to women.

“A good woman is the jewel of God’s creation.” Armando held his glass high. “A real man honors her and treats her as such.”

Johnny thought of Felicia. Then he thought of Florrie, and Mrs. Dunham. “There aren’t many real men around, then.”

Armando shook his head sadly.

Isham took another sip of tequila. “You ever see Big Jake’s wife?”

“Yeah. From a distance.” Johnny hadn’t shared his story with Isham after all. It didn’t seem to matter anymore.

“Fine lookin woman.”

Johnny left it lay for a while. Then he had to ask.

“Hey, Isham.”

Isham’s unfocused eyes met his.

“You ever get your money from Dunham?”

Isham shook his head. “Got my expenses up front. You killed him before he paid me anything else.” He was just stating a fact. “I didn’t think marching up to Mrs. Dunham’s door and asking for money was a good idea, and I got a real good notion I’m not mentioned in his will.”

Johnny bent down and pulled the envelope out of his boot. He counted out a few bills and slid them across the table.

Isham straightened up as his pride kicked in. “I don’t need charity.”

“That’s good, ‘cause this ain’t that. It’s traveling money. To get you further north.”

“Or west. I hear it’s real pretty in California.”

“Whatever way the wind blows, Isham.”

Johnny settled back as Isham and Armando talked. Already the past few days were fading a little. He was with friends, sharing good food and good tequila. His horse was nearby, and he had enough money to get back home to Mexico.

For the time being, at least, the numbness was gone.

 

 

~ end ~

Want to comment? Email Doc