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Doc

 

 

Payback
Part of the Widow series. Click here for the order of stories

OK, here's my crack at the Lancer Writers Summer 2012 Bingo Card Challenge. I chose the horizontal line 4: Cantina, Stranded, Decision, Lies, Scar

“Mrs. Morris!”  Johnny saw Emily look up when he shouted her name, but the sun was at his back and she didn't appear to recognize him. She shaded her eyes as he approached; when she recognized his jaunty walk he saw her smile.

“Mr. Lancer,” she said with a small nod of her head. He stepped onto the boardwalk beside her as he touched his hat politely.

“Ma'am, are you free for lunch?” he asked quickly as he took her elbow and gently steered her into the cantina without waiting for an answer.

“Moving a little fast, there, aren't we?” Emily commented. Johnny grinned but said nothing. He guided her to a small dining area in the back of the cantina, winking at a young lady carrying a tray of dirty dishes and making a gesture to indicate where they would be sitting.

“What brings you to Morro Coyo?” he asked as he held her chair for her.

“What are you avoiding out there?” she countered.

He slid onto a bench across from her. “What? Oh, nothing-I mean, it's probably nothing.”

“What part do I play in keeping it ‘nothing'?”

Johnny laughed quietly. “You play the part of the lovely lunch companion who gives the man avoiding trouble an excuse to disappear into a quiet cantina.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Well, like I said, probably nothing.”

“Has anyone ever told you how infuriating you can be?” Her smile belied her words.

“Yeah.” He smiled back at her. Their eyes met for the first time that day; he held her gaze for a split second more than was proper. Then with a glint in his eye he asked her how hot she liked her chili.

They lingered for a while after they finished eating, enjoying the coolness and quiet of the now nearly empty cantina. Johnny got a kick out of how animated Emily became as she told him about the horse she had ridden into town today. Jughead was a small bay mare who bit when anyone tightened her cinch. She would lie down when spurred or kicked hard, and she had been known to scrape up against fences and trees to get rid of a rider she disliked. They laughed over the mare's antics and discussed various ways to deal with her problems.

When there was a lull in the conversation, Johnny got a thoughtful look on his face and was quiet for a moment. “You know that trouble I was avoiding?” he asked.

Emily nodded.

“It's a fellow called Benton. I saw him outside the hotel just before I saw you. I'd just as soon stay away from him. He's not the most honest guy in the world. And he's not the brightest, either. He's a practical joker and…” Johnny showed her his right hand, pointing to a crescent shaped scar on his wrist. “…he goes too far. I got burned when a joke of Benton's went bad.”

“Ouch. What do you think he's doing here?”

“Don't know. I'm hoping he didn't see me.”

“What if he did?”

Johnny frowned. “I guess I'll say hello and see what it'll take to get him on his way.” He stood and came around to hold Emily's chair as she rose.

When they came out into the bright sunlight, Benton was leaning against a post in front of the hotel. Johnny looked right through him, expressionless. He took Emily's hand as they walked to a small house several blocks down the road; she was writing letters for some old folks today, and this was her first stop. Johnny promised to return in an hour or so. Then he went to see why Benton was hanging around.

“You lookin' for me, Benton?” Johnny drawled as he sauntered down the street.

“I wasn't, but I'm glad to have found you, Madrid.” Benton remained seated on the bench in front of the hotel.

“I just bet you are,” returned Johnny without expression. “And the name's Lancer.”

Benton raised one eyebrow. “Well, now, that name's not going to do me any good,” he said. “I need Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny shook his head. “I don't hire out anymore, Benton. Find somebody else.”

“Maybe you should hear about the job before you turn me down, Madrid.”

“Don't need to. I'm not interested.”

“It's right up your alley...”

Johnny leaned over the seated man and spoke softly into his ear. “I don't care. I don't want your job and I don't want to have to look at your ugly face. Get out of town and leave me alone.” Johnny straightened, turned around, and strode quickly away. He didn't look back.

“Shit, Johnny!” Benton jumped up and yelled after him. “I just wanted you to look at my goddamn horse! He's lame and I'm stranded here till I can ride out!”

Johnny spun around, smiling despite himself. “Well, why didn't you say so, Benton, you son of a bitch!”

The two men met in the street, laughing and slapping each other on the back.

“I hoped you would be gone when I got done with lunch, asshole.” Johnny's drawl was exaggerated. “You're nothing but trouble, you know that, don't you? “

“Ah, hell, Madrid, you live for trouble!” Benton stepped back, arms up in mock surrender. He was quite a bit shorter than Johnny, and a lot rounder. “What are you doing here in this hole-in-the-wall town anyway? And what's with the fake name?”

“It's not a fake, Benton.  Turns out it's my real name. I live on a ranch near here with my father and my brother.”

“You don't.” Benton's surprise was genuine.

Johnny nodded. “I do. I'm a rancher now. I truly don't hire my gun out anymore. But I'd be happy to look at your horse. The sooner he's sound and you're on your way, the better!”

Benton's horse had a bowed tendon. Johnny straightened from running his hand down the animal's leg and looked disgustedly at Benton. “You did it again. Rode too hard and too fast for too long and ruined another perfectly good horse. Damn it, Benton!”

Benton didn't look contrite at all. “I was in a hurry.”

Johnny looked at him with narrowed eyes. “What have you done this time?”

“You askin' because you want to help me out?” For an instant Benton looked hopeful.

“No, I'm askin' because I don't want any trouble. Look, Benton, I like you. You're a fun guy. But god damn it you get yourself into shit every time you turn around, and I want no part of you or your schemes. ” Johnny stared hard at the other man. “I looked at your horse. You get yourself another one, and then I really want you to ride out.”

“Can't say as I blame you.” Benton's gaze was drawn to the scar on Johnny's gun hand which had nearly ended their friendship. Hell, it had ended it. Since then, when they encountered each other Johnny was friendly, but wary.

Benton continued, “But here's the deal. I'm on my way to see a man who owes me money. We're going to meet this afternoon at the crossing. Problem is until he pays me I got no money to get another horse. And now I got no way to get to the meeting place.”

Johnny shook his head. “Why don't I believe you?”

Benton looked aggravated. “You don't need to believe me. But I do need a horse. Help me out with that and after I get my money I'll come back, settle up, and ride out.”

Johnny blew out a breath, then relaxed his shoulders. “I'll find you a horse to borrow. Then you'll ride out, deal?”

“Deal, Johnny.” Johnny winced. Nothing good ever came of being on a first name basis with a guy like Benton.

The sign at the livery said the stable man would be back in an hour; there was no horse to be had until then.  Benton went back to the hotel to get his gear for the short trip to the crossing, and Johnny decided to spend more time with the Widow Morris.

He found her where he had left her, talking and laughing with the elderly man for whom she had been writing letters. As they walked down the block to Emily's next appointment, Johnny explained the situation with Benton.

She had taken a dislike to the man after seeing the burn on Johnny's wrist; hearing that he was thoughtless with his horse only strengthened her distaste. “Do you suppose it's possible to get a fellow like Benton to quit misusing his horses?” she wondered.  Then a thought came to her; she couldn't believe she was considering it. She tried to put it out of her mind, but it came back... she decided to share the idea with Johnny, who brightened instantly as he agreed it was too good a joke to pass up.

Although Emily was not thrilled to lend a horse to someone Johnny didn't trust, she felt better about it when he swore he would keep an eye on Benton the entire time. Assured that the mare wouldn't be mistreated, she just wished she could be there to watch.

Benton was waiting with his saddle in front of the hotel when Johnny led Emily's bay mare up. “Ain't she a purty little thing?”Johnny said. “Name's Jughead.” Benton looked the mare over without a word. He couldn't put his finger on it, but there was something suspicious about this deal.

Johnny shoved an apple in the horse's mouth when Benton tightened the cinch; she crunched loudly into the apple instead of turning and biting the guy. “This horse trots rough but lopes real smooth,” Johnny added, his face impassive.

Benton mounted the horse and reached down to shake hands.  “Well, Johnny, I thank you,” said Benton.

Johnny ducked his head as he replied “You're welcome, Benton. See you when you get back.”

Benton jogged off on the mare. Johnny waited a few minutes before he mounted Barranca and followed. He waved and winked at Emily when he rode by.

Johnny tailed Benton and Jughead to the crossing, and kept an eye out from a safe distance as Benton entered a shack set off the road a bit.  In a few minutes the man came out again and remounted. Instead of heading back the way he had come, he trotted in the opposite direction. Then with a whoop he kicked the little mare into a gallop, riding hell bent for leather away from Morro Coyo.

Johnny grinned widely; he kicked Barranca into a run as well, waiting to enjoy the show.

Benton looked back and saw a rider on a flashy palomino behind him; he lashed the little mare and spurred her harder. Her legs weren't very long and he wasn't expecting a lot of speed, but he sure didn't expect what happened next-she disappeared from underneath him as she lurched to a stop, folded her front legs, and dropped to the ground. He hadn't heard a gun, but Benton thought the horse had been shot out from under him.

Suddenly he was straddling the horse lying on her chest with her legs folded neatly under her. He was actually standing on the ground, feet in the stirrups, reins in his hand. He looked down at her in total confusion. Where had she been hit? Why didn't she fall over? Why didn't she get up? The mare looked completely at ease. She shook her head and snorted contentedly.

Still not sure what was happening, Benton finally realized he was going nowhere fast. He couldn't figure out how to get the horse to move. He decided to make a run for it on foot, but discovered that dismounting a recumbent horse wasn't an easy task. He kicked his foot out of the right stirrup but was completely overbalanced when he swung his leg over the saddle; he collapsed next to the horse, foot still in the left stirrup.

 The rider on the palomino came up as Benton scrambled to get to his feet.  “Hey, Benton, did your horse decide to take a siesta?” 

As Johnny dismounted the man on the ground realized it had been Madrid chasing him. It took a long minute before he made the connection between the fallen horse and the laughing man now helping him to his feet.

“Jesus H. Christ, Madrid, you set me up! I coulda been killed! The damn horse went down. I nearly broke my own leg!” Benton was angry-no doubt about it.

"Well, at least you won't ride this one until she bows a tendon!" Still laughing, Johnny pretended to swat the dust off Benton's clothes with his hat.

In a flash his voice turned deadly serious. “And just where were you going, there, Benton? The road to return this fine piece of horseflesh is that way…” and he pointed back the way they had just come.

Anger turned into fear. Benton began to babble, “I was just goin' for a ride, Johnny. I swear to God I was just taking this sweet horse for a little ride and then I was gonna return her to you just like we talked.”

Johnny was shaking his head. “You lying asshole, Benton. You were stealing this horse and running out on your hotel bill and god knows what else. Did you at least get the money you came for?”

Benton was reluctant to admit it, but he did have the money. Johnny suspected he may have more than that, but since no one else was chasing Benton he decided to let that go.

“We'll take this horse back. Then you can pay your bills, you can buy a new horse, and you can ride the hell out of town just like we talked.” Johnny wasn't laughing any more.

He made sure Benton and Jughead made it safely back to town. He even gave Benton three bucks for the horse with the bowed tendon-he figured Emily would be able to fix it and resell the horse at a profit. He watched until Benton had settled all his debts, switched his gear to a new horse, and rode off. He didn't wave good-bye.

Emily was waiting for him on the front porch of the hotel once he saw Benton out of town. Johnny related how Jughead had foiled Benton's attempt to steal her. “Boy, I wish you could have seen the look on Benton's' face when ol' Jughead went down! He just stood there for the longest time; and when he tried to get off-he swung his leg up real high just like that horse was still standing 15 hands tall-and he fell in a heap.  She just laid there as calm as you please, enjoying the show. I swear she gave him a horse laugh! ”

Still chuckling at the image of Benton standing astride the horse with his reins in his hand, they returned to the hitching rail where Jughead was resting. Her hip was cocked and her eyes were half shut. After checking the horse carefully once again, Emily hoisted her saddle up.  When she tightened the cinch Jughead came around with teeth bared; Emily raised her left elbow and jammed it into the bars of the horse's mouth. With a grunt the horse swung her head back.

 “Whoa! Remind me to stay clear of you when you're angry,” said Johnny, stepping back in mock fear.

“I do throw a pretty mean elbow,” Emily agreed. With a final squeeze of Johnny's hand and a big smile she mounted up and rode out, urging the mare to an easy lope-without using her heels.

Johnny watched appreciatively. Jughead was sure a sweet little mare-if she had the right rider. He grinned again as he shook his head. Payback was sweet, too.

 

~ end ~

Part of the Widow series. Click here for the order of stories

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