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Sandra

 

 

Friends And Enemies

Part 6 of the It All Adds Up series
Thanks to Lacy for all the help and encouragement. Thanks to Adrianna for cleaning up my Spanish.
Disclaimers – Johnny and Val belong to Fox.  Toni, Russ and Jack belong to me

Enemies by Shinedown

Listen up!
There's not a moment to spare
It's quite a drop
From the top
So how are you feeling down there?
It's a cold, cruel, harsh reality
Caught, stuck, here with your enemies!

You started something that you just couldn't stop,
You turned the ones that you love into the angriest mob.
And their one last wish is that you pay for it
And there's no way you're getting out of this!

Who do you think you are?
Tearing us all apart
Where did you think you could go?
'Cause everyone already knows
It's twenty to one
Yeah, so you better run

You got the world on it's knees
You're taking all that you please
You want more! (You want more!)
But you'll get nothing from me
You're like the burden we bear
You love the hate that we share
You want more! (You want more!)
But you'll get nothing from me
But enemies! Enemies!

 

Chapter 1

Val Crawford shifted around on the hard ground and tried to get comfortable. He felt as wrung out as a dishrag, but then, it had been a hell of a day.

He knew the men Johnny and he had worked with on the last job were asses, but who’d a thought they’d meet up with them in El Paso and one of them would be stupid enough to call out Madrid? Before he could blink, the other bastard had back shot Johnny when the dance was over.

Val smiled at Johnny and Toni curled up together across from him. Now that was a surprise to find out that the person Johnny Madrid had meant to meet in El Paso was a girl. Too bad he hadn’t known it before he’d hit her. Val frowned. Johnny wasn’t going to like that too much, but how the hell was he to have known?  They’d both been trying to protect Johnny from each other.

He was about to get up and put another log on the fire, when he heard Johnny moving restlessly. Toni got up and walked over to the fire. She added that log he’d been thinkin’ about, then started going through her saddlebag.

“Need help with something?”

Not stopping what she was doing, she answered. “Can you go fill the canteens for me?”  She poured what was left of the water into an empty pan and without looking, she thrust the canteen in his direction.

Throwing off his blanket, he walked over and grabbed the canteen she was holding out like a flag. He snagged his own canteen and gave his horse a pat on his way to the stream. When he returned, he squatted beside the fire and handed Toni one of the canteens. Toni was crushing some kind of leaves and throwing them into the pan. He recognized the smell of basil, something his momma had used when she would make the best stew he’d ever eaten.

Looking behind him, he saw Johnny trying to throw his covers off and heard him mumbling in Spanish

“Fever?”

“Yep. It don’t take much for him to get one so when I’m riding with him, I come prepared.”

Now Val’s momma had always used Willow Bark tea for fever, but he didn’t reckon he’d seen anyone use basil leaves before. He figured he could always learn something new as he watched Toni strain the basil, then add black pepper to the mixture and return it to the fire.

“You can pour it up if you a mind to while I get some rags to wet down.”

Val grabbed the pan, hissed and jerked his hand away. He put his fingers in his mouth and with his other hand grabbed the wet rag that was being thrust in his face.

“It was on the fire, it’s hot.”

“Well, no shit. Tell me something I don’t know,” he groused.

“It was on the fire, it’s hot. You could burn yourself.”

He shot up, glaring at her. When she smiled at him, he grabbed a canteen and stomped over to Johnny. Sitting down beside the kid, he poured more water on the rag and wiped Johnny’s face.

“Damn smart alecky woman.”

Val stopped his muttering when he saw that she was now standing over him with a cup of tea. He scooted over to make room for her to sit beside him and lifted Johnny as she tried to get some of that tea into him.  She was able to get a fair amount into the kid before he lowered Johnny back down. She didn’t fumble or nothing taking care of the boy, so she must have done this before. Now wasn’t that a damn shame?



********

Johnny slowly woke up to the smell of bacon burning and the sound of a sweet voice turning the air blue with cussing. Damn, Toni was cooking again. He leaned up some and saw Val stirring.

“Val?”

“Well, good morning Sunshine.” Johnny watched with narrowed eyes as Val got up and walked over. He slapped Val’s hand away as he checked his forehead. “You ain’t got no fever this morning. How ya feeling?”

Johnny grabbed Val’s wrist and hung on. “Listen Val, you gotta go over there quick and help Toni. You just don’t know.”

“Are you feeling loco this morning?  What are you talking about?”

Johnny looked past Val and watched as Toni carried some plates over to them. He pushed Val’s hand out of the way.

“Ah, hell. You’re too late. Here she comes now with breakfast. Now don’t forget, I tried to warn you!”

“I hope you men are hungry but we’ve got to lay in some supplies. Guess we left El Paso a mite too quick to get any. But don’t worry, I snared a couple of rabbits for dinner.”

Johnny groaned as he struggled to sit up. Val helped him get situated and asked Johnny if he was hurting any.

“I’m fine, why?”

Val reached over to grab the plates out of Toni’s hand. “Well, generally when a man’s been shot and starts groaning, that usually gives me an idea that he might be hurting.”

Handing Johnny a plate, Val took his and sat down.

“That ain’t why I groaned. You’ll see why in a minute.” Johnny took a deep breath and started gulping his food down. He stopped when he noticed that Val wasn’t eating, just staring at him. “What?  Trust me, it’s the best way to get it over with.”

Val took a big bite and his eyes widened.

Johnny watched as a slew of expressions made their way across Val’s face. He leaned over to the side but stopped when he saw Johnny put his hand on his gun.

“Swallow it, Val. It’s the only way. Make it quick, here she comes with coffee. And Val?  You better lie good to make up for that bruise on her jaw.”

Val sighed. He visibly swallowed and looked up at Toni with a smile plastered on his face. “Good breakfast, Toni. Appreciate it but you didn’t have to go to all this trouble.”

She handed everyone their coffee. “Oh it weren’t no trouble at all.

Val looked over toward Johnny who just smiled weakly at him. Looking down at his coffee, he gave a shudder. Val lifted the cup and closed his eyes as he took a sip. His eyes popped open and he smiled as he drained the cup. Johnny smiled back and gave him a salute with his own cup.

“Fine coffee, Toni. Reckon that’s the best I’ve had in a coon’s age.”

Toni’s dazzling smile lit up her whole face. “Why thank you, Val. You want some biscuits with that?”

“Guess I do at that.”

“Oh, wait. You men will need some more coffee. I’ll be right back”. Toni jumped up and walked over to the fire.

Val raised the biscuit, ready to bite, when Johnny grabbed his arm.

“No, Val. I can’t let you do it. Just crumble it up into your coffee. That will soften it up some and the coffee will mask the taste. Trust me on this.”

With some difficulty, he managed to break the biscuit apart and dropped it into the cup. He’d almost finished when Toni came back with more coffee.

“Look, Johnny. Val does the same funny thing with his biscuit. I wonder where you two learned to do that?  More coffee?”



********

Val stood up and stretched. He rubbed his belly and grimaced.

“So Toni, how about I give you a break and fix dinner tonight?  I roast a mean rabbit.”

Johnny started to grin and ducked his head; maybe Val’s dinner tonight would make up for that god-awful breakfast.

“So you reckon we need to go back to El Paso for you to see the doctor, Johnny?”

“What for, Val?” Johnny sat up from where he’d been resting.

“Well, with being sick and all, El Paso is closer than Mesilla.”

Toni dropped the bundle of clothes she had collected and twirled around to face Johnny. “What do you mean you’re sick?  What haven’t you told me?”

“I ain’t sick.”

“Val said you were and he don’t seem the lying kind.”

“Oh, and I am?”

“I ain’t saying you’re lying, but you and me both know you leave a lot of stuff out sometimes. So what’s wrong with you?”

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with me. I don’t like it when someone don’t believe what I say.  You…..”

A shrill whistle split the air. Dropping his fingers from his mouth, Val stepped toward them. “You two make more noise than a braying jackass. When I said Johnny was sick, I meant he had been shot. You two do remember that don’t ya?”

The two kids just looked at him with a puzzled look on their faces.

“Ah, hell, Val. That ain’t being sick, I was just shot and it weren’t even that bad.”

“Yeah, Val. He’s had a lot worse. The bullet’s out, I stitched it up, his fever’s gone…what else could a doctor do than charge us money we don’t have?”

Toni turned to Johnny. “You know him better than me,” she nodded toward Val. “Is he always this fussy?”

“No, don’t reckon I’ve seen this side of him before. In Mason, he was always pretty calm.”

“Well, I wonder what’s got him all riled up?”

“Riled up?  Riled up?  I’ll tell you what’s got me riled up, you two!” Val pointed at both of them. “You two kids are crazier than a Betsy Bug. Most people, when they get shot, see a doctor and stay in a nice bed.”

“Well, Val,” drawled Johnny, “If it was serious, I would have seen a doctor, if that makes you feel any better.”

“Yeah, Val.” Toni moved over to him and patted his arm. “You’re a good friend. Don’t worry about us; we’re good at taking care of ourselves. Now, both of you strip and give me your clothes to wash. If we’re taking today off for Johnny to rest up, might as well do some laundry.”

Toni picked up the clothes she had dropped and grabbed a bar of soap out of her saddlebag.  She began to hum a tune and sashayed toward the stream.

Johnny laughed at the stunned look on Val’s face. “Don’t worry, Val. She washes clothes better than she can cook.”


********

Johnny looked over toward Val who was messing with the rabbit. He’d rested off and on all day and was feeling a lot better. He was leaning against a tree, Toni sitting in between his legs.

“One braid or two?”

“One, por favor.”  She motioned to the shirt she held in her hand. “Butterflies or flowers?”

Leaning over her shoulder, he looked at the shirt she was beginning to embroider. “Mariposas.”

Val made his way to them and squatted by Toni. Reaching out a finger, he lightly touched the swirls she had already made on the shirt.

“She making you a new shirt, kid?”

Toni smiled and ducked her head.

“Nah, Val,” drawled Johnny. “I already have an extra shirt. She makes these to sell. Helps out between jobs. Hand me that string, will ya?”

Grabbing the string from Val, he finished off the braid and kissed the back of Toni’s neck. “There, all done, querida.”

Johnny sighed with contentment as Toni settled back and leaned against him. The smell of the roasting rabbits filled the campsite. He closed his eyes and listened as Val and Toni began to talk about places they’d been. He smiled as he heard Val try to explain what a typical gringo house looked like. Other than a saloon or a boarding house, Toni had never been inside one. She sure was picking Val’s brain about it now. He thought the three of them would do pretty well in Pinos Altos.



********

“Hello the camp!”

Johnny’s eyes snapped open and he stood and reached for his gun in one swift move. He figured he’d fallen asleep at some point because Val and Toni were now standing by the fire.

He moved over and stepped in front of Toni as he watched a rider move toward their camp. Val moved closer to him, blocking Toni from the unknown cowboy’s view.

The stranger rode to the edge of their camp. Johnny felt a small hand slowly ease out the gun hidden in the back of his pants.

“That’s far enough mister.”

“Is that you Madrid?  It’s Russ. Russell Brown. We rode with Day Pardee, remember?”

“I remember.”

Russell crossed his hands over the horn of his saddle and leaned forward. “Is that Toni I see hiding behind you?”

“What are you doing this way, Russ?  Last I heard Day was in Arizona.”

“Well now, Johnny, if you’ll let a body get down, I’ll tell you all about it. How about it?  Got an extra cup of coffee for an old friend?”

Johnny looked over at Val but he just shrugged. “Sure, Russ. Tie your horse over there with ours and come share supper.”

Johnny turned to Toni and held out his hand for the gun he kept hidden. He lifted an eyebrow as she ignored his outstretched hand and tucked the gun in the waist of her skirt.

“My pants are still drying and I can’t wear my gun belt with this skirt. I’ll just keep this for awhile.”

She walked over to where he’d taken a siesta and began to gather up her sewing.

Johnny followed and stood behind her. He lightly rested his hands on her shoulders. “Miel, we can’t ignore someone asking to share our campfire, you know that.”

She started to fold the shirt, only to wad it up in a ball. “He rode with Day.”

“¡Mierda!  In case you’re forgettin’, I did too.”

You left.” She pushed past him and put her things in her saddlebags.

“Arghh!”  Throwing his hands up in the air he spun around and strode over to Val. “Come on and grab your stuff.”

Val grabbed his saddle as Johnny snagged his bedroll. He followed him without a word as Johnny led him back past Toni over to their own set-up. A little ways on the other side of Toni’s gear, Johnny pointed, “Put your stuff here.”

He left Val to rearrange his things and walked over to the fire where Toni was getting out the plates. “Happy?”

Toni tilted her head up toward him and stared. She shrugged and went back to dishing up supper.

Johnny met Russell as he carried his gear from his horse. “Just put your stuff here.” He pointed to the spot just vacated by Val.

“Well, this sure smells good. Mighty nice of you letting me camp with ya’ll tonight.”

Russell sat by the fire and took the plate Toni offered. “You always was a special cook, Toni.  I tell you Johnny, a pretty woman who travels with you, someone to take care of you and put up with your shit… yep, you sure are a lucky bastard.”

Toni handed Val his plate and taking her own, sat next to Val across the fire from Russell. Johnny shook his head and got his own plate together and sat in between Russell and Toni.

Val tossed a stripped rabbit bone into the fire. “So, I’m guessing you three know each other?”

“Yeah, Val,” answered Johnny. “Russ and me worked with Day Pardee ‘while back near San Diego last year. I didn’t care for Day’s way of doing things so I left when the job was done. Russ stayed.”

“I didn’t stay too much longer, Johnny. Got to looking around and decided that there were easier ways to earn money than Day’s way. I’m headed to Mesilla. I heard about you getting bushwhacked in El Paso. Saw your campfire and wondered if it was you.”

Johnny got up and grabbed the coffee pot from the fire. “You hiring out in Mesilla?” he asked. He raised the pot toward the others to see if anyone else needed a refill.

“No, I plan on taking a load of supplies across Cook’s Mountains. Seems the Apaches are keeping things stirred up and this stuff is needed. Where are you three headed?”

Setting the coffee pot back on the fire, Johnny sat back down to finish his meal. “We heard the miners in Pinos Altos was hiring protection. Thought we’d look into that.”

“Ya know Johnny, as much as I’d enjoy riding with you, you might want to stick around Mesilla awhile before heading out, heal up, ya know? They got soldiers riding escort back and forth from Mesilla to Fort Cummings because of the Indian problem. Ain’t like riding in Mexico. You and me always got along, just thought I’d let you know what you’ll be up against.”

“I’ll remember that, Russ, but I don’t think we’ll stick around there long. Got to earn some money. ¿Sabes?”

Toni stood up and started gathering the plates. Johnny went over to Toni and began walking with her to the small stream. Before leaving the campsite, he looked over his shoulder at Russ.

 “We’re heading out tomorrow if you want to ride with us.”



Chapter 2

Toni turned in her saddle to look back at Johnny. “This trail sure is narrow. Are you sure Russ heard right?”

Johnny took off his hat and raised his right arm to wipe the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve. “That’s what the man said. Russ said that the man he talked to in Canutillo said that the Rio was flooded so bad, some towns got wiped out. Easier on the horses to ride in the mountains, and then cross over to Mesilla. Longer but easier.”

“Guess it was a good thing we stopped there to get those supplies we needed then.”

Johnny scanned the surrounding area as the horses picked their way through the narrow trail. Up ahead while Russ rode point he was riding drag, with Toni and Val in between. He wished he had had a chance to talk to the man Russ had gotten his information from, but he’d been busy at the livery at the time. Well, they weren’t on no timetable so an extra day or two wouldn’t make much difference.

Johnny heard shouts from the men ahead and stopped his horse. Standing in the stirrups, he tried to see what was happening ahead. Russ’s horse was agitated and was backing up. Not having much room to maneuver, Val’s horse was sidestepping and began to crowd Toni’s horse.

“Toni!  Get off Viaje now!”

Toni threw him a frightened glance but quickly got off her horse and held the reins tight. It looked like Val was beginning to regain control of his skittish horse when suddenly Russ’ horse reared up, slamming into Val’s horse as he came down. Val’s horse bucked hard and his back legs slipped on the loose rocks on the edge of the trail.

Toni’s horse squealed and jerked its head so hard it was all Toni could do to hang on to the reins. Jumping off Apoyo, Johnny ran over to help by grabbing Viaje’s reins. Johnny looked in horror as the back legs of Val’s horse went down. The jolt threw Val out of his saddle and over the edge of the ravine. Johnny ran to grab the reins of Val’s horse as the horse struggled to get back up without slipping over, too.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It couldn’t be helped.”  Russ slid off his horse and ran to peer into the ravine.

“Val!”

Johnny felt someone grab his belt as the place where he was standing began to crumble.

“Thanks, Russ.”

Johnny looked around and sighed. The trail was so narrow and the sides of the ravine so steep, there was no way a horse could ride down to rescue Val.

“How we going to do this, Johnny?” Toni stood next to Val’s horse, patting his neck, trying to calm him down.

“We’re going to have to lower Toni down, Johnny.”

Johnny turned to Russ, his hands on his hips. “She ain’t going down there, Russ. Are you crazy?”

“No, listen. You’re still healing. That shoulder don’t have the strength to lift or lower someone by yourself. But you and I together can lower her down and pull Val back up. The trail’s too narrow to use the horses as leverage. It’s the only way, Johnny.”

Toni stepped next to Johnny and put her hand on his arm. “I’ll go Johnny. Russ is right, it’s the only way.”

Johnny leaned over, “But you know how you hate heights, miel.”

“Well, I’ll just close my eyes. Val’s our friend, it would take too long to ride down and backtrack. It’ll be okay, I’ll be careful.”

Decision made, Russ and Toni moved toward their horses, him to get some rope and her to grab her medical kit. Walking back to Johnny, she held up the well-used sack. “Guess someone else other than you will be able to use this,” she said with a cheeky grin.

Johnny took the rope from Russ and proceeded to tie it around Toni. He double-checked the knots twice.

Giving her a quick kiss on the nose, he and Russ walked back away from the edge.

Grabbing the rope, she once more adjusted the medical sack she’d hung around her neck. Giving Johnny a shaky smile, she stepped off the edge.

Johnny acted as anchor, rope wrapped around his waist. Russ, able to use both arms, let out the rope inch by inch. At one point, Toni called out for them to hold on, the rope had gotten caught between some rocks. The taunt rope suddenly loosened and a shout of ‘all clear’ from Toni let them know to continue letting out the rope.

It seemed like forever to Johnny, but finally he and Russ both felt a jerk on the rope and heard an ‘I’m here’ from Toni. Dropping the rope, both rushed to the edge and lay down.

“How bad is it?” Johnny shouted down to Toni.

“Well, Johnny, near as I can figure, he looks pretty good. Must have hit his head ‘cause he’s pretty fuzzy right now. Shoulder’s messed up but I don’t think it’s broken.”

“What about his ribs?”

“Looks okay. I’m gonna strap them just in case any are cracked. Give me a minute and I think he’ll be okay to lift up. Not sure how much he’ll be able to help you going up though.”

Johnny and Russ scooted back from the edge before standing.

“So what the hell happened, Russ?”

Russ ran his hand through his hair. “I don’t know. One minute everything was good and the next minute, my horse got all skittish on me. Something must have spooked him.”

Johnny looked hard at Russ. “Never knew you to have trouble controlling a horse before, Russ. Val’s a good friend and you know what Toni means to me. So what spooked him?”

“Well, I ain’t exactly sure. You know how horses can be. Look, I feel bad that Val had to get hurt ‘cause of me. I’m just glad it weren’t worse. From what Toni says, sounds like a week or two of rest in Mesilla will do the trick. It was just an accident, could have happened to anybody.”

The discussion was dropped when Johnny saw the rope jerk. “We’re ready,” shouted Toni.

The men took their places and began to haul up Val. Val was dead weight and the men had to strain to pull him out of the ravine. Johnny was relieved when they saw him reach the top. Johnny stayed in place and braced himself as Russ let go of the rope and ran forward to grab hold of Val and pull him to safety.

Russ quickly untied Val and laid him down, then threw the rope back down to Toni. “Holler when you’re ready.”

In a few minutes Johnny heard a yell from Toni and felt a jerk on the ropes. Hauling up Toni was much easier than hauling up Val so it wasn’t long before Johnny saw a hand blindly feeling the top of the edge for something to grab hold of. Russ lifted her up and moved her away from the edge.

“How’s he doing?” she asked as she began untying the rope wrapped around her waist. Not waiting for an answer, she undid the last knot and let the rope fall as she walked over to Val.

Val was starting to come around. He groaned and put his hand to his head.

“Here Val, drink this. Help me lift him Johnny.” Toni held the canteen as Val took a drink. “Well, he probably shouldn’t ride now, but we ain’t got no choice. We can’t stay on this narrow ledge. That dislocated shoulder needs fixin’ and there just isn’t room here.”

“Give me a second, I can ride. Help me up.”

Johnny and Toni helped Val to his feet. His right leg buckled but Johnny and Toni managed to keep him upright.

“You okay, Val?” Toni asked in a worried voice.

“I’m fine,” Val groused. “Must have hurt my knee some. Where’s my hat?”

Toni began dusting off his shoulders. “I didn’t see your hat down there, Val. Guess you’ll have to get a new one in Mesilla.”

“Humph, I liked that hat. Had it broke in just right, too.”

“Well, I ain’t going down there again to look for no estúpido hat. You’re lucky I went down there to save your sorry hide, you viejo gruñón.”  Toni whirled around and strode back to her horse. She took the medical bag from around her neck and slammed it back into her saddlebags.

Johnny looked from Toni to Val. “You were pretty grumpy, Val. She was worried about you.”

“Ah, hell, I know it. Just not used to fussing by some female.”

Johnny slapped him on his good shoulder. “She’ll be okay. Just brag on her biscuits tomorrow morning.”

All three men snorted and Russ let out a bark of laughter.

“What’s so funny?” Toni asked as she walked back to the men.

“Nothing, miel. Just men talk.”

Toni looked at Johnny suspiciously. “Really.”

He looked at her without blinking an eye.

“Well, you three better do some men talk and figure out how we’re gonna get down from here. We need to make camp soon so I can check on Val’s knee and ribs.”

“I can ride if you help me on my horse and quit talking.”

Toni went back and mounted her horse. She watched as Russ and Johnny helped Val mount his own horse. After everyone was ready, Russ again led the way. This time, nothing seemed to spook his horse.



Chapter 3

The four weary travelers finally reached their destination. It had been a long week and everyone was ready to find a room, get a bath, drink a beer and sleep in a nice soft bed, in that order.

“I’ve never seen a town so big, have you Johnny?” Toni reminded Johnny of a bird, darting her head this way and that to look at all the new sights.

“No, I thought Nogales was a pretty big town but Mesilla is the biggest I’ve ever seen.”

Val rode up beside them. “I hear tell that there’s pretty close to eight thousand people here.”

Johnny chuckled at the look on Toni’s face. “Close your mouth, querida, you’re gonna catch flies.”

They rode to the livery and after taking care of their horses, made their way to the hotel recommended to them by the livery owner, The Texas Pacific Hotel. It was a novelty to Johnny having more than one to choose from.

Johnny led the group into the hotel and walked up to the desk. Toni stood behind him. The clerk looked up but continued to file papers. Val reached across Johnny to ring the bell on the counter. Russ moved beside Val and raised his voice, “Hey mister, we’d like a room.”

Putting down his papers, the clerk made his way to the front desk. He looked at Val and Russ. “Do you gentlemen need one room or two?”

“I don’t know about those two,” Johnny nodded toward Val and Russ, “but I need one room.”

The clerk, who had turned to look at Johnny when he began to talk, turned back to Val and Russ. “One room or two, gentlemen? I do have a room with two beds if you’d like.”

“Mister,” a small hand pressed on Johnny’s back and he lowered his voice. “I don’t appreciate you ignoring me. Now I told you what I needed. Do you have rooms for us or don’t ‘cha?”

The clerk turned back to Johnny and with his nose wrinkled up, replied. “Not for your kind.”

The fingers that had been restlessly tapping his gun since the clerk had first ignored him, stopped. He felt the small hand on his back press harder. Without a word, he swung around and left the hotel with Toni following.

Val opened his mouth to say something, then, shaking his head, turned around and followed his friends. Russ bent down to pick up his saddlebag and as he straightened, looked at the clerk. “Mister, you don’t know how lucky you just got.”  He too walked out.

Russ joined Johnny and Toni further down the boardwalk in front of a store. Coming out of the store, Val told the group that the storekeeper had recommended another hotel the next street over. Johnny gave a little nod and Val led the way.

Arriving in front of the new hotel, the four were about to go in when a young man walked out of the lobby, laughing and joking with an older man. He bumped into Toni and they both fell in a heap.

“Jean!”

“Toni!”

Both Johnny and the older man called out too late to avert disaster.

The younger man who had been called ‘Jean’ by the older man untangled himself from the wreck and stood. “Oh my gosh, ma’am. I’m so sorry. Here, let me help you up.” He bent down and once he helped Toni up, he looked at her closer and with a surprised “Toni?” enveloped her into a big hug.

The older man came forward. “Johnny! Good to see you!”

Johnny met him with outstretched hand. “Jack, how are you?”

Jack grabbed his hand and pulled Johnny into a quick hug and slapped his back.

“Fine, fine. What are you doing here?  Are these two with you?” Jack nodded toward Val and Russ.

“Yeah, Jack. This here is Val Crawford and Russ Brown. Guys, this is Jacques Daumas and his brother Jean. Toni and I have known them for a while, we’ve rode together some.

“Just call me Jack. I’ve been away from the bayou too long to remember to answer to Jacques.”

Johnny looked over toward Jean and Toni. “Hey, amigo! You can let go of her now.”

Slowly, Jean dropped his arms from around Toni and grinned at Johnny. “Ah, Johnny. You can’t blame a man for trying.”

Johnny moved over to Toni and put his arm around her shoulders. “Get your own girl, Jean. Healthier for you, compadre.”  He smiled at Jack. “You should have a talk with your little brother, Jack. He’s being annoying again.”

“Hey!  That’s what little brothers are for,” protested Jean. “You two staying here?”

“Well, we’re gonna try.”  Johnny looked down at Toni and smiled. “Let’s see if we can find a room in this town without me having to shoot somebody.”


********

Johnny finished scrapping his chin with the razor and patted his face with the towel. He still didn’t have to shave every day, but he hated that itchy feeling when he didn’t. He smiled a crooked smile; Toni didn’t like that scratchy feeling either.

Looking behind him through the mirror, he saw the other men in various stages of dress. Val was emptying his tub and rinsing it out. He stopped when he saw Johnny looking at him through the mirror.

“Thought I’d get a tub ready for Toni since she was nice enough to wash our clothes while we had our baths.”

“She’ll appreciate that, Val.”

Johnny put his shaving kit away in his saddlebags then leaned against the wall. Russ was telling Jack and Jean how his wild stallion had rammed Val’s horse and caused Val to tumble off the edge of the ravine.

“I’m a little fuzzy on some of it, but that isn’t exactly how I remember it.” Val stood next to Johnny and nodded toward Russ.

“Nope. Not how I remember it either.” Johnny stared at Russ, his fingers tapping his thigh.

A knock at the door and an “It’s me” got Johnny’s attention. He cracked the door open and smiled at Toni. “Can’t let you in yet, miel, or I’ll have to shoot some of them.”

“You better not shoot anyone, Johnny Madrid. Not after I just washed everyone’s clothes. Y’all about finished?  A nice long soak is sounding pretty good to me now.”

“Go get your clean duds and we’ll be ready by then.”

Johnny shut the door and turned around to the group. “If you don’t want her mad at you, y’all better hurry up.”

Russ paused from stuffing his shirt into his pants. “We going to the saloon next? I’m getting real thirsty.”

“You four go ahead. I gotta stay here until she’s finished.”

Jack shoved his boot on. “We’ll wait with you, Johnny.”

Russ frowned. “Oh. Well, okay. Yeah, we’ll wait.” He finished buckling his belt and bent over to grab his hat.

“Everybody decent?” called out Toni.

Johnny opened the door and let Toni in. “Val’s got your bath all ready. We’ll wait outside for you. Jean, grab one of those benches and put it outside, Russ you get the other one. We might as well be comfortable.”

“What?” Johnny saw that Toni’s hands were behind her back and she had a smug smile on her face.

“Figured you’d be waiting, so I got this to help you pass the time.” She brought her hands around front and held out a bottle of tequila and some glasses.

Russ clapped a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “I said it once and I’ll say it again. You’re one lucky bastard.”

********

The five men sat outside the bathhouse, leaning against the walls, enjoying tequila and each other’s company. If Johnny noticed that some of Russ’s stories put him in a better light than he remembered, he didn’t let on. It was unlikely he’d ride with Russ again. He still didn’t feel right about Russ’s explanation of why his horse spooked.

“What’s she singing? Catchy song.” Val took another drink. When asked, he’d told them that his knee and shoulder were bothering him some but the tequila sure was helping.

Johnny listened for a moment then shrugged. “I don’t know, Jean here taught it to her last time we rode together. Have no idea what the words mean, but she sure likes it.”

Jean started to cough then snickered. His brother, Jack, gave him a hard look.

“Tell me you didn’t. You taught her that song?”

Jean continued to snicker and snort. “It’s in French and Val’s right, it is a catchy tune.”

“Jack?” Johnny’s voice left no doubt that he wanted an answer.

“Well, Johnny, let’s just say she probably wouldn’t sing that particular song if she knew what the words meant.”  He frowned at his brother. “Hell, I don’t even sing that song.”

“Johnny!” Toni called out from inside the bathhouse in a singsong voice. “Are you coming? I’m ready.”

“Ready for what?” asked Val in a shocked voice.

Johnny pushed himself off the bench and looked at the stunned looks on the other men’s faces. “Ah, quit thinking with your cojones. She just wants me to help her wash her hair.”

He could feel their eyes follow him to the door. “Hey, it’s called being together. You old men ought to try it sometime.”

Before opening the door, he took off his hat and whacked Jean across the head. “That’s for teaching her that song.”

********

Johnny, Jack, Jean and Russ walked into the saloon. Val and Toni had gone back to the hotel. Despite the tequila, Val’s knee and shoulder were bothering him. He knew he needed to get some rest if he wanted to be ready to ride out in a few days to Pinos Altos. Toni had gotten the hotel manager to let her borrow the irons and was ironing all their clothes. She’d told Johnny that if they were going to stay in such a fancy town, they were not going to shame her by wearing wrinkly clothes.

Johnny and Jean crossed over to the bar while Jack got a seat at the back table. Russ decided to play poker at an adjoining table.

Johnny pushed his hat back. “Give me a beer.

Jean elbowed Johnny and pointed with his chin at the picture of the reclining woman au naturale that graced the wall behind the bar. “Two beers.”

Johnny and Jean turned to face the room and leaned against the bar while waiting to be served. They turned around when they heard the barkeep set glasses down behind them. In front of Jean were two ice-cold beers. In front of Johnny, there was nothing.

“I guess you didn’t hear me, I said I needed a beer.”

“I heard you, but we don’t serve your kind here.” The barkeep looked past Johnny and nodded as a cowboy behind Johnny shouted for a whiskey.

“Mister, you’ve got just as many Mexicans in here as Anglos!” exclaimed Jean.

The barkeep looked Johnny in the eye. “Look, we serve to Mexicans and we serve to Anglos. What we don’t serve to is half-breeds.”

The immediate area around the bar grew quiet. Jack stood up to get a better idea of what was going on.

As Johnny stared at the barkeep, he reached down with his right hand and unhooked the tie down on the hammer of his gun. Other than Jean, men around the bar all took a step back. Johnny slowly lifted the gun from the holster. The men took several more steps back. The only sound now heard in the saloon was the sound of chairs scrapping against the floor as the men at the tables closest to the bar stood up and moved out of the way.

Jack walked up in time to see Johnny lay his gun in front of him on the bar, his hand still on the grip.

“This is the second time today I’ve heard that and it’s getting old.”  Johnny’s voice was hard, cold and flat. “Now I’m thirsty. You can either serve the Mexican half or the Anglo half, I don’t care which, both halves are thirsty. But this gun ain’t going back into its holster until I get that drink. ¿Comprende?”

The barkeep swallowed, his eyes darted around and saw Jean and Jack standing behind Johnny. He slowly reached down and grabbed a glass. Filling it up with beer, he placed the glass on the bar in front of Johnny.

Johnny put the gun back in its holster and grabbed his beer. He threw a coin onto the bar then walked to the back table. He sat down, his back to the wall. He kicked the chair next to him out as Jack and Jean started to sit down.

 “I was afraid you were going to shoot him.” Jack sat down next to Johnny.

“I promised Toni I wouldn’t shoot anybody tonight.” Johnny took a drink then sat the glass down. “Looks like we’re about to have company.”  He jutted his chin forward. The three men watched the sheriff walk over to the bar and talk to the barkeep. It wasn’t hard to know who he was talking about as he kept pointing Johnny’s way. Giving a nod, the sheriff made his way to the back table.

“Gentlemen.” The sheriff’s greeting included all the men, but he stared at Johnny.

“Sheriff.” Jack glanced at Johnny.

“You having a problem tonight men?”

Johnny looked at his glass of beer, his finger going around the top of his glass. He tilted his head and looked up at the sheriff. He smiled a half grin. “No sheriff. No problem.”

“Some people might think otherwise.”

Johnny’s hand stilled and he looked straight at the sheriff. “I wanted a beer, I got a beer. End of story.”

The sheriff and Johnny stared at each other. The sheriff was the first to look up. “Well, I don’t want no trouble here.”

“Neither do I sheriff. Have a good night.”

The sheriff started to walk away but stopped when Johnny called out. “You might want to tell that barkeep that Johnny Madrid will probably be back tomorrow night and the night after. I’ll expect to get what I ask and pay for.”

The sheriff nodded and walked back to the bar. Leaning over to talk to the barkeep, the barkeep’s head shot up and he stared at Johnny. Johnny smiled and raised his glass in a salute. As the sheriff left, the noise in the saloon began to swell and the patrons went back to enjoying the night.



Chapter 4

“¡Hola!” Johnny called out to his friends who were already seated at the back table of the cantina. Toni and he made their way over and waited while the other four men scooted their chairs over to make room.

Johnny was ready to order a large lunch since he’d missed breakfast. The poker game the night before had lasted until the wee hours of the morning. Val’s knee had been troubling him some so Jean, Jack, Toni and him had enjoyed a night of gambling in Val’s room. Russ had opted to stay at the saloon where he said he had met some new friends.

As the waitress took their orders, a commotion up front caught Johnny’s attention. Everyone at their table paused from ordering to see what was happening. Two drummers, with their arms full of their wares and suitcases, were talking loudly to the owner of the cantina. The owner finally threw up his hands and with a wave, began to walk to the back of the cantina, the drummers following.

The waitress turned to Johnny, but before he began to order, he asked, “So, y’all have rooms to rent here, too?”

“Not usually, señor. The Texas Pacific Hotel had a problema this morning and everyone is leaving. Now what would you like eat?”

Johnny thought for a minute. “I’ll have some papas con chile with chorizo.”

“Me, too,” chimed in Toni.

The waitress left then returned with a bowl of cacahuates cocidos. As the men reached into the bowl and grabbed handfuls of the boiled peanuts, Val asked the woman what kind of problem the hotel had.

“Oh, senor, a family of mofetas got into the lobby and stayed all night. “

“Skunks?” Val asked.

Si, mofetas. Now if you will excuse me, I have to get back to the kitchen.”

As the waitress left, Val, Jack and Russ turned their heads to stare at Johnny, Toni and Jean. Jean’s head was bowed and his shoulders were shaking. Johnny and Toni both looked at the older men with innocent looks on their faces.

“What ‘cha staring at Val?”  Johnny reached for more peanuts. “This place is crawling with skunks. Bound to happen sometime to someone.”

“So where were you three after the poker game last night?” interrogated Val.

Jack thumped his little brother, Jean, on the back of the head. “Answer him.”

Other than a yelp of pain, Jean just continued to snicker.

“Now Val, do you really want to know what Toni and me did late last night?” Johnny wore his ‘innocent little boy face’ and Toni just stared at Val wide-eyed. Jean’s snickers turned to howls and snorts.

Val looked over at Jack and said in disgust, “I ain’t going to get anything out of him.”

The waitress returned with their food and the group began to enjoy their meal. Johnny glanced at Toni and shared a smile.

After finishing their lunch, everyone began to gather their hats and pay the waitress. “Are you going to the fiesta tonight?” she asked as she took their money.

“A fiesta?”  Toni’s eyes brightened.

Si, a quinceañera. It is for the Señor Ascarate’s youngest girl, Rosita. Everyone is invited to the fiesta after the mass.” With a “see you there” flung over her shoulder, the waitress hastened to the kitchen to retrieve another order.

“Do I even have to ask if you want to go, miel?” Johnny motioned for her to walk in front of him as they made their way through the maze of tables.

Once outside the cantina, Toni stopped and grabbed his arm. “Can we?”

“Sure, Toni. Why don’t you guys join us?” Johnny’s look included the other men.

“But Johnny, I thought you’d come over to the saloon tonight.” Russ’s voice had a whiny quality.

Johnny looked down at Toni with a smile. “I don’t think so Russ. I think Toni would rather we go to the fiesta.”

“Well, hell, Johnny. What do you want?  You can’t say you’d rather go to some party instead of a good poker game with the men?”

Johnny looked up at Russ, his smile now gone. “Yes, Russ. I’d rather be with Toni than you. What is so special about the saloon tonight?”

Russ ignored Johnny’s icy tone. “It’s just that I met some good men last night and was telling them about you. I told them you’d be there tonight to play.”

“You mean they want to meet the gunslinger, Madrid. That it, Russ? You planning on showing me off like some prize bull? I don’t put on a show for nobody, Russ. So sorry to disappoint your new ‘friends’, but if they want to see me tonight, they’re gonna have to watch me dance with my girl.” Johnny put his arm around Toni’s waist and drew her close to him.

Russ opened his mouth as if to say something more, then shooting a glare at Toni, spun around and walked away.

Jean spoke up to ease the tension. “So what’s a qin-see-air-a?”

Toni giggled. “It’s a party for Mexican girls when they turn fifteen. They have a big ceremony and mass to show that the girl used to be an innocent child but is ready now to be a woman. The parents throw a big fiesta afterwards.”

Her eyes sparkled. “They have a band and dancing and lots of food. They have lanterns everywhere. Everything is fixed up nice. The girls all wear their best hoping to catch the eye of a handsome young man. The men all strut around like peacocks hoping to steal a kiss. ¡Es muy divertido!

Val grinned, Toni’s smile and sparkling eyes lit up her face. “It does sound like fun, honey. So did you have one of these parties when you turned fifteen?”

Toni’s eyes grew dull and her face grew dark as her smile died. In a flat tone, she answered. “I weren’t never no innocent child.”  She jerked away from Johnny’s hold and walked away from the men.

Val gave Johnny a miserable look. “I’m sorry, Johnny. She was just so excited telling about the party, I didn’t think.”

Johnny stared at the retreating back of Toni, his fingers drumming on his leg. He gave a shudder and pulled his gaze back to Val.

“That’s okay, Val. You didn’t know. Guess we forget sometimes we ain’t like most people.”  Johnny gave Val a friendly slap on his arm. “You guys go get cleaned up and meet us later this evening in the plaza. I ain’t too sure I’ll feel safe enough to dance in a crowd, but…”  Johnny’s eyes lit up with mischief, “if you’re lucky, I might just let you have a dance with the prettiest girl there.”

Jack, Jean and Val all chuckled, although Val looked a little green at the thought of having to dance. With a “see ya”, Johnny walked away in the direction Toni had taken earlier.

“It’s a damn shame.”

Jack looked at his younger brother. “You got something to say, Jean?”

“It ain’t right. We chose this life, they didn’t have no choice. You’d think that just once, they could have a good time like any other couple.”

Val eyed the store across the street. “You’re right, Jean and I got an idea.”  Waving his arm, Val started across the street. “Come on. “

********

Val, Jack and Jean watched as Johnny stopped in front of them by the bathhouse. “Guess you didn’t find her.” Val leaned over to spit.

“Nope, looked all over.” Johnny dropped his hat behind his head and ran his fingers through his hair. “Look, it’s getting late. You go ahead and get a bath. I’ll….” His sentence cut off as he saw Toni heading in their direction. He left the men and met her halfway, grabbing her in his arms and giving her a hug. With his arm across her shoulder, they walked together toward the other men waiting.

Ducking her head, Toni mumbled, “I’m sorry for being upset.”  She raised her eyes to Val. “You didn’t say nothing wrong, Val. Guess I’m just touchy about some things.”

Val reached over and tugged her braid. “You two talk, we’re going to get cleaned up. Can’t be escorting the prettiest lady in Mesilla looking like this.”

The three men grinned at her and went into the bathhouse.

Johnny and Toni walked back to their room to get their things. His voice soft and low, Johnny asked, “I looked everywhere. Where were ya?”

Lo siento. Just bad memories sometimes, ya know?”

Johnny shook his head yes. There had been too many nights of interrupted sleep from nightmares for both of them. They reached their room and Toni began setting out their clean clothes.

“Johnny.”  He stopped from brushing the dust off his calzoneras. “Russ got upset with me this afternoon and I don’t know why.”

Johnny went back to brushing off his pants. “He just wanted to act like something he’s not. Don’t let it worry you.”

Toni put her hand on his shoulder. “No, not today in front of the cantina, this was this afternoon. I was just walking around and didn’t pay no attention to where I was and I seen him behind the store that Sam Bean owns. They were loading these boxes in a wagon and one of the big boxes fell. A bunch of smaller, skinny boxes with writing on it fell out. Russ started hollering at me to get out of there and mind my own business. He weren’t too happy.”

Johnny put the brush down and stood up. He put his hands on her shoulders and looked down at her. “Don’t worry about Russ. I think he’s leaving the day after tomorrow to deliver those supplies and we won’t be seeing him no more.”

He whirled her around and swatted her behind. “Now get your duds and come on. The guys should be finished washing by now and we need to get a hustle on if we want to be ready in time for the fiesta.”

She grabbed her stuff and they both stopped by the door. “Besides,” he gave her a quick kiss, “I want to show everyone that Johnny Madrid is not only the best with a gun, I’m also the best at getting the prettiest girl in the territory.”

By the time the two had returned to the bathhouse, the other men were waiting on them. “You two go ahead and get ready, we’ll wait,” Jack said as he sat down on one of the benches outside.

Johnny gave his three amigos a smile and held the door open for Toni. “Sorry I don’t have no tequila for you, but we’ll be quick.”

“I reckon we got plenty of time before this shindig starts.” Val sat and leaned back against the wall.

“No singing,” Jean yelled out as Johnny followed Toni.

“You reckon she’ll like it?” Jean asked as they waited on the couple.

“I think she’ll like anything we give her.” Val answered.

“Hey, y’all want to play a quick hand of poker?” Jean asked with a smile as he held up a deck of cards.

********

True to their word, Johnny and Toni stepped from the bathhouse in record time. The other three men whistled and smiled, as they looked Toni over. Although her skirt and blouse were plain, she looked beautiful to them with her wavy dark hair, for once unbound, cascading down her back. She blushed and smiled before ducking her head.

Jack pushed his little brother forward. “Ah, Toni?” Jean held out a package. “We,” he nodded at the two older men behind him, “wanted to give you this for being so nice about washing and ironing our clothes.” Jean thrust the package at Toni.

Her eyes wide with surprise, she took the package and looked over at Johnny. He just shrugged. “Well, go on, open it.”

She tore into the package and dropping the paper, held up a shawl with long fringe around the bottom. Her eyes pooled with tears as she mumbled, “Gracias.” The three men cleared their throats and shifted nervously as they watched her hands stroking the delicate shawl.

Looking up, she gave all three men a huge smile and threw herself at them, giving each a hug and a kiss. Moving back to Johnny, he rested one arm on her shoulder while he fingered the fringe. “Thanks, amigos.”

Val stepped forward. “Well,” he cleared his throat, “we three decided to give you two a treat.”  Val patted the gun he wore. With a nod toward the Jack and Jean, he continued to explain their surprise. “You two are ordered to dance all you want tonight and have a good time. Toni, if you want to save a dance or two for Jack and Jean, I’m sure they’d appreciate it. Otherwise, don’t worry about nothing, Johnny. Your amigos got your back tonight, kid. The only thing you got to worry about tonight, is how many times you’re gonna step on Toni’s toes.”

Johnny and Toni looked at each other with mouths opened. “Val…” Johnny started to speak. Holding his hand up, palm out, Val stopped him. “Nothing to be said, Johnny. Our minds are made up. Now, you two come on, I hear the music starting and I’m looking forward to seeing if Johnny Madrid is as quick on his feet dancing as he is at his draw.”



Chapter 5

Johnny looked up from eating lunch and saw Jean making his way toward them.

“Sorry I’m late.” Jean slid into the empty chair next to Jack and hung his hat on the back of the chair. The waitress came over and he quickly gave his order.

“So where you been, little brother? You were up early.” Jack handed Jean some silverware.

“Oh, I decided to go for a ride. Thought you were gonna sleep all day. Did we tire you out last night at the fiesta, big brother?”

Jean said “gracias” as the waitress placed his food in front of him. Digging in, he only paused a minute to look over toward Val. “Hey, Val. How’s that knee of yours?  Think you could ride?”

Val was slow to answer. “Well, I guess it’s pretty good. Yeah, I could ride. Why?”

Jean swallowed his last bite and took a drink of coffee. “Well, I ran into Russ and he wants to hire me to drive his supply wagon. He said he’d rather have me than the man he first hired and he’s leaving at first light tomorrow.”

Jack leaned forward. “Jean, we were planning on traveling with Johnny, Toni and Val at the end of the week, you know that. We made our plans at that all nighter poker game.”

“Yeah, I know. That’s what I told Russ. But he said he’d welcome the company, for all of us to go.”  Jean wiped his mouth with his napkin and looked over to Johnny. “He said it would be like old times riding with you and Toni and it would probably be the last time y’all get to. Said after this, he figures to make enough money to head to Colorado. Jack, he’s gonna pay me $20!  I can tie my horse to the back of the wagon. It wouldn’t be out of the way, we gotta go through Mowry City to get to Pinos Altos anyways.”

Johnny looked down at the table and drew circles with his finger in the moisture that had sweated from his glass of water.  He looked up and locked eyes with Val. “Now that’s interesting. Now he wants us traveling with him.”

Val nodded, “Yep, sounds like he’s changed his tune, but why?”

Jack looked puzzled. “What are you two talking about?”

Johnny leaned his chair back on two legs against the wall. “See Jack, when Russ first joined us, he wasn’t too eager for us to ride with him.”

Val spoke up. “Well, I’m ready to ride when y’all are. Tell the truth, I’ve about had enough of this town. It’s been nice and all, but I need to get to Pinos Altos and earn some money.”

Johnny sat the chair back down and stood up. After throwing some money on the table, he grabbed his hat. “Leaving now suits me fine, but first I want to talk to Russ.”

Johnny led the way out of the cantina, the rest of the group following. He stopped once outside and looked up and down the boardwalk. Spying Russ over at the livery, he walked that way.

“Russ! I want to talk to you.”

“Johnny!  Amigo! Did Jean give you my message?” Russ nodded at the rest of the group.

“Yeah, Russ, he did. How come you want us with you?  You didn’t seem like you wanted us to tag along before.”

“Ah, Johnny!  I was just concerned about you and Val not being healed up before. It’s gonna be a rough ride from what I hear, you got to keep a sharp lookout for Apaches. That’s all, I swear!”

Johnny walked over to the corral and leaned back, crossing his arms across his chest. The rest of the group stood next to him. “So what changed your mind, a-mi-go?”

Russ cut his eyes from Johnny to Toni. She took a step closer to Johnny and put her hand on Johnny’s arm.

“Well, this is kinda embarrassing, but I need some guns, Johnny. I can’t wait for that soldier escort to Ft. Cummings. There’s another couple coming with me, a storekeeper and his wife. He’s as worthless as teats on a bull as far as protection goes. I can pay Jean here for driving, but can’t hire anyone else. You’re the best Johnny and since you’re going that way anyway…” Russ’s voice trailed off.

Johnny looked at the other men. Slowly, one by one they all nodded yes. Johnny pushed himself off from the corral fence. “Well, guess we better get some supplies, then. We’ll meet you here first light tomorrow.”

Johnny turned and started to walk back toward the hotel. He stopped and faced the men behind him. “You guys go ahead and get what you need. Toni and I will see you in the morning.”  Grabbing Toni’s hand, they walked together back to the hotel.

Once in their room, Johnny stood by the window, his body tense, his mouth worrying the stampede string of his hat.

Toni began to gather their things and pack their saddlebags. “I don’t like him.”

Johnny turned his head from the window and looked at her. “I don’t either.”

He walked over to the dresser and picked up his extra shirt and handed it to her. “Look, I’m going to go for a walk and ask for myself about this Apache business and listen for anything else that might be interesting. You okay here by yourself?  Got your knife close?”

Toni folded his shirt and stuffed it his saddlebag. She patted the waist of her pants. “It’s where it always is.”

Johnny walked to the door and opened it. He paused before going out. “Make a list of what we need. See how much ammunition I got. I’m thinking we might need to get extra. I’ll be back in an hour or so and we can go to a store before they close.”

“Be careful, Johnny.”

He nodded and left the room.



Chapter 6

Johnny took his hat off and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his arm. ¡Dios, esto está caliente! He took a drink from his canteen, swishing a mouthful and spitting it out to clear the dust. It was so hot, even the water in his canteen was warm. The best that could be said was that it was wet. After settling his hat back on his head, he put both hands on the saddle horn and pushed himself up in the saddle to have a better look see. The group had stopped so Jean could check one of the wheel hubs of the wagon he was driving.

Johnny settled back into the saddle and twisted his back to ease the kinks. Val came up beside him and grinned. “Sure will be glad to reach Fort Cummings this evening. I’m hoping they have some beds to sleep in.” Val jutted his chin toward the wagon in the lead that held Mr. and Mrs. Crutch. “I’m betting those two get first dibs.”

Johnny snorted and shook his head in disdain.

“What?” Toni stopped her horse on the other side of Johnny.

“Oh, Val was just saying that he bet Marigold there gets a bed tonight.” Johnny held out his canteen to Toni.

“No, I’m good.” Toni shook her head at the offer of the canteen. “I’m sure Marigold will find a way to get whatever she wants.”

Val leaned over to look past Johnny at Toni. “I thought her name was Marilyn?”

Johnny and Toni both burst out laughing. “Yeah, Val. That’s her real name, but Toni and me call her Marigold. She seemed real pleased when we told her she reminded us of a flower.”

“Huh?” Val lifted an eyebrow.

Toni couldn’t quit snickering so Johnny decided to explain. “You ever seen one of those marigolds, Val?”

“Yeah, I reckon I have.”

“Well, they are pretty, I’ll grant you that. But they sure do stink!”  Johnny hooted with laughter.

Val chuckled. “She is something, isn’t she?  I feel sorry for that little maid that’s going with them to Mowry City. I never see Mrs. Crutch nor her husband talk to Camilla except to give her orders.”

“Camilla’s all right. They must pay well ‘cause I think she’s been with them awhile. Jean said they talk while she’s riding with him in the wagon.”  Johnny’s horse shook his head and stomped its foot at a pesky fly. Johnny patted Apoyo’s neck.

“Well, the Crutches don’t talk to the likes of me but they must be expecting to make a killing at his new store. Look at that!”  Val waved at the three wagons ahead of him filled plumb full with supplies.

“Well, she for sure don’t like me none,” sniffed Toni. “She only talks to me if she wants something. Good thing we’re in a desert. That woman’s got her nose so far up in the air, she’d drown in a rainstorm.”

Val and Johnny started to chuckle. Those chuckles turned to howls when Russ rode up and said that Mrs. Crutch wanted to know if Toni would watch out for her while she stepped away for bit of privacy over by those rocks. Seems Mrs. Crutch had noticed that Toni wore a gun and would feel better if another woman guarded her rather than some man.

Toni narrowed her eyes and clinched her jaws. She shot Johnny and Val a look then rode toward the wagons and Mrs. Crutch.

Wiping his eyes, Val tried to bring his laughter under control. “So Russ looks like you know Mr. and Mrs. Crutch. You going into business with them in Mowry City?”

“Nah, I expect to drop the supplies I’m hauling off soon and then head to Colorado. My dealings with them will end then.”  Russ settled his hat and rode over to his wagon. Jean had finished with the wheel and was climbing back into the driver’s seat.

Johnny and Val chuckled some more when they saw Toni arguing with Mrs. Crutch and finally pushing her in front of the rocks Marigold had just visited. Toni grabbed the maid’s arm and both disappeared behind the same rocks.

“I sure am glad I’m a man,” observed Johnny. “Me, too,” agreed Val.

********

It was late afternoon when the group rolled into Fort Cummings. Since the whole purpose of Fort Cummings was to provide protection for supply trains and the stage, they were prepared for the tired group. With three wagons to slow them down, it had taken four days instead of three to travel from Mesilla. The trip had been long and hot, the water barrels they’d brought along almost empty.

Captain Dresher came out to welcome the group. Under his command, the camp ran like a well oiled machine and in no time, the wagons were parked, horses stabled and quarters assigned for the night. Since Toni, Mrs. Crutch and Camilla were the only women, they were to share a room in the officer quarters. Extra cots were found for the men in the group to bunk in the tents with the enlisted men. Johnny didn’t mind, a cot beat the ground any old day.

They were all invited to eat dinner with the Captain and his junior officers. After a delicious meal, Johnny asked the question that was on everyone’s mind. “So Captain, what are we looking at tomorrow?”

“Well, gentlemen, the Apaches hate whites and Mexicans alike. Doesn’t matter who you are, if they attack they will have one purpose, to steal what you have and then kill you. They take no prisoners. The only thing that will stop them is if you can outgun them.” Drescher paused and lit a cigar.

“Cooke’s Spring is the only water between Mesilla and the Mimbres River on the other side of Cooke’s Canyon. The Apache know this and lay in wait. Just a few months ago, in January, I had a detachment of men out to gather firewood. Six men left and only two managed to escape. Frankly, I’m surprised the Apache let them get away.”  Drescher tapped his cigar on the edge of his plate. “When we went out to recover the bodies, we had to bury them in a common grave. They’d been mutilated so badly that we couldn’t tell who was who.”

Gasps came from two of the women.

Drescher looked over at Mrs. Crutch. “Sorry ma’am, I would say that I didn’t mean to scare you, but that would be a lie.”  His eyes swept the entire group. “The Canyon will be the longest six miles you’ve ever traveled. I’ll send a detachment with you for more firepower. Be vigilant. If you are attacked, show no mercy because none will be shown to you.”

Drescher stood and his junior officers did likewise. As the Captain walked toward the door, he stopped and turned to face the group. “You have three women in your group. You men need to make a decision. I’ll see you all in the morning.”

Mrs. Crutch stood up. “Well, I’ve never!  What a rude man!  Harold, you need to find out who he reports to. Camilla, come along and help me get ready for bed.”

She gave Toni a withering glance. “Don’t be late coming to bed and wake me up.”   Gathering her skirts, she swept around the chairs and flounced out of the room, Camilla and her husband following.

Russ wiped his mouth with his napkin and scraped his chair back. “I need to check on the wagons. Guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”  He threw the napkin down and left.

Johnny, Toni, Val, Jean and Jack sat in silence at the empty table. Johnny tapped his fingers on the table. Val twirled his fork.

“What decision?” Jean broke the silence.

Johnny’s fingers stilled. Toni stood up and moved behind Johnny. Putting her hand on his shoulder, she answered Jean. “You four have to decide who will kill us women if we are overrun by the Apaches.”  She lightly caressed Johnny’s neck.

He reached up and grabbed her hand. Giving her hand a squeeze, he looked up at her. “I’m sorry to get you into this, miel.”

Toni leaned over and whispered in his ear. “Confío en ti.”

Johnny smiled and kissed her hand. “Trust might not have anything to do with it.”  Releasing her hand from his, she caressed his cheek then moved to the door. She called out, “Good night, fellows,” before leaving.

Sounds drifted into the dining room from outside; men talking, wagons being driven past, the neighing of horses, but inside the room not a word was said.

Val cleared his throat and looked at Johnny. “Johnny, I….”

Johnny shook his head. “Thanks, amigo, but no. I got her into this mess; I’ll…” his voice trailed off sadly.

“Jack?” Val looked across the table. “Jack!”

“Huh?”  Jack slowly looked at Val. He gave a little shake of his head as if to clear his thoughts. “I’ll be riding close to Jean so I guess Camilla is mine.”

“But Jack!” Jean protested. “She’ll be right next to me, shouldn’t I be the one to….” He couldn’t quite finish the sentence.

Jack shook his head. “No, you’ll be too busy handling the team. Besides, little brother, you’re only just seventeen. I’d rather you not have that on your soul.”

Jean stared into his brother’s eyes then lowered his own and nodded his head.

Val sighed. “Guess that leaves Mrs. Crutch to me.”  The sound of Val’s chair scraping the floor as he stood seemed overly loud. “I think I’m gonna turn in. You men coming?”

The Duamas brother’s stood and grabbed their hats. “Reckon we’ll hit the hay ourselves,” answered Jack.

“Johnny?” Val asked.

Johnny drew circles on the table with his finger. It was a minute before he answered without looking up. “You guys go on, I’ll be there in a minute.”

“Don’t be too late, I think we’ll need all our wits about us tomorrow.” As Val walked past, he reached out and gave Johnny’s arm a squeeze. Jack and Jean followed. “’Night, Johnny,” Jean called softly.  Jack stopped behind Jean and patted Johnny’s shoulder. “Good-night, amigo.”

Johnny lifted his hand in acknowledgement. Soon he was the only one left in an otherwise empty room. Head down, he hugged himself and slowly rocked back and forth in his chair.



Chapter 7

“This sure is a good horse, mister.” The private who had led Johnny’s horse, Apoyo, from the stables handed Johnny the reins. He handed Viaje’s reins to Toni and patted the horse’s neck. “This here is a good one, too. Had them long?”

“Johnny?”

Johnny looked up from checking the cinch on the saddle. “What?” His voice was hard and impatient.

“The man asked if you’d had Apoyo long and was nice enough to bring them to us.” After checking her cinch, Toni swiftly mounted

Johnny scratched Apoyo between the ears. His voice softened just a bit. “Yes, he’s been with me for a long time. He’s been a good friend.”  Johnny looked over at the young private. “Thanks for taking good care of him.”   Johnny mounted and giving Toni a hard look, tapped Apoyo with his heels and moved away.

Toni watched as he rode away, with a frown. She looked down at the private and smiled. “Thanks for your help. Both of these horses mean a lot to us. They’ve saved our hides plenty of times.”

“Yes, ma’am, I understand. You be careful today.” The young man turned and trotted back to the stables.

Val led his horse and stopped beside Toni. Nodding his head toward Johnny’s retreating back, he asked, “What’s up his butt?”

“Oh, you know him. He’s worried but he won’t let on. He’s on full Madrid mode today.”  Toni gave Viaje a pat as the horse shifted her feet. “Look, Val. About today. If anything happens, will you take care of it?”

Val opened his mouth but stopped when Toni began to speak again.

“I know what his decision was last night, I know him. But because I know him, I know that it would kill him if he had to…do anything. It would eat at him forever.”

Toni looked at Val in the eyes. “Would you?”

Never looking away, Val slowly nodded.

“He’ll hate you.” Toni kicked Viaje and started moving forward.

“Rather me than himself.” Val pulled himself into his own saddle and followed.

Joining the others, the group pulled out of the fort. They stopped at the springs to fill the water barrels. The brothers, Russ and Blake, the driver of the second wagon filled the heavy barrels. The women took a minute to stretch their legs. Johnny and Val stayed mounted and stood guard over their friends. Two of the soldiers rode in from reconnaissance and reported to the lieutenant who was leading the cavalry escort. The lieutenant rode over to Johnny. “We’re getting ready to leave. My scouts didn’t see any Indian sign but that don’t mean they aren’t there. Have your guns ready and stay sharp.”

Johnny turned his horse and rode back to the others. “The lieutenant said it’s time to go. Better saddle up Toni.”  As Toni settled into the saddle, he turned to her, “Leave your gun free and stay close to me.”  Slowly the group began to pull out and enter the canyon.

The lieutenant and a scout led the way, Jean and Camilla following in the first wagon. Jack and Russ followed behind. Johnny, Toni and Val followed the second wagon that was driven by Blake, someone Mr. Crutch had hired out of Mesilla. Four soldiers followed the last wagon, driven by Mr. and Mrs. Crutch.

The group was quiet. The only sounds were the creaking of the wagons and the jingle of the harness of the horses and hoof beats. Johnny turned his head this way and that, constantly scanning the walls of the canyon. Although called a canyon, it was really more of a chute or valley between hills. There were no trees but the landscape held plenty of bushes and rocks for someone to hide behind.

Johnny turned in the saddle to check on Toni when he heard a scream ahead. Swiftly turning back around, he saw the lieutenant fall from his horse. The scout threw out his arms and tumbled backwards off his horse. He tumbled almost on top of one of the horses pulling Jean’s wagon. The startled horse reared up. Johnny could see that Jean was doing all he could to keep the horses from bolting. Camilla began to scream and continued to scream when Jean tumbled into her lap, an arrow through his head.

Jack screamed his brother’s name as he tried to race to his brother’s side. With no one to hold them, the horses bolted. They didn’t get far before hitting some rocks. The wagon tilted, throwing Camilla out as the wagon tongue broke and the wagon turned on its side, cargo spilling out onto the ground. The horses ran further down the canyon in fear.

Panic ensued as everyone began to fire their weapons. A soldier from the back passed Johnny and shouted at the driver of the second wagon to pull over. Another soldier led the third wagon beside the second, another soldier at the reins. Mr. and Mrs. Crutch were nowhere to be seen.

At the first sign of trouble, Johnny, Val and Toni had grabbed their weapons.

“Over there!” Johnny waved his gun toward the soldiers who were now tipping over the two wagons to form a barrier. His heart stopped when he heard Toni scream. He swirled his horse next to her, Val stopped on the other side and continued to shoot.

“My leg!” Toni cried.

Johnny saw that an arrow had struck her left thigh. He reached out to see the damage when an arrow that had been intended for Val grazed Val’s horse. The horse reared and Val fell. Before he could scramble back up, the horse had run off.

Johnny jumped off his horse and handed the reins to Val. “Keep Apoyo beside us.”  Val grabbed the horse’s reins and holding onto the mane, kept the horse blocking him and Johnny from the arrows.

“It’s stuck!” Toni clawed at the arrow embedded not only into her leg but also the saddle. Johnny tried to grab hold of the shaft, but his blood-slick hands couldn’t get a grip.

“Jack! Jack! Come help us!” he shouted in desperation.

He heard a grunt and saw Toni slump forward, an arrow now in her shoulder; it had gone all the way through. Jack rode over sliding off his horse and grabbed Viaje’s reins.

“Shoot the horse, shoot the horse!  Johnny, she’s a sitting duck like that!”

Johnny ran to the front of the horse and grabbing it’s forelock, cocked his gun and shot the horse in the head. As Viaje fell to her knees, Johnny ran to the other side and helped hold Toni up. Jack had grabbed Toni’s right leg and lifted it up over the saddle horn so it wouldn’t be trapped under the falling horse.

Apoyo reared. Now that the element of surprise was gone, the Apache were now adding gun power to their fight. Johnny’s horse was being hit as the enemy tried to get a clear shot at Val, Johnny and Jack.

Johnny grabbed his knife from his boot and cut the arrow shaft as close to Toni’s leg as possible. Together he and Jack were able to lift Toni’s leg up and away from the saddle.

Two soldiers rode out to them, shooting to give them cover.

Lifting Toni into his arms, Johnny shouted at Val and Jack to get their saddlebags and his rifle. They would need the ammunition the bags held. Throwing Toni across the nearest soldier’s saddle, he slapped the horse’s rump. Running to grab Apoyo’s reins, the horse let out a scream as a bullet slammed into its head. Knowing it was too late, Johnny turned and ran with Val and Jack toward the overturned wagons. Jack stumbled and fell as a bullet tore into his back.

Val and Johnny stopped and each grabbed one of his arms and dragged Jack the rest of the way.

Russ, the driver of the second wagon, Blake, and the remaining two soldiers, laid cover fire for the trio. The soldier, who had carried Toni, made it to the wagons and leaping off, carried her behind the makeshift stockade and laid her down. His partner, now riding behind Johnny, Val and Jack almost made it. He was shot as he tried to dismount by the wagons.

Johnny, Val and Jack threw themselves behind the wagons. Val helped Jack down beside Toni and he and Johnny looked after their wounds.

“She’s alive”, Johnny said with relief as he grabbed her saddlebags and got out the medical supplies. Knowing the others needed their firepower if they were to get out of this alive, Johnny quickly wrapped her leg tight and breaking off the feathered part of the arrow, pulled the arrow free from her shoulder. Applying a pressure pad, he wrapped her shoulder. It wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do for now.

Johnny looked over at Val and Jack. “He’s okay Johnny. It didn’t hit anything serious,” Val answered to Johnny’s unspoken question.

“You guys go on,” Jack struggled to sit up. “Give me my gun. I’ll stay here and watch her.”

Val found a place at the wagons and after Johnny took one last look at Toni, he joined Val in the battle. Seven men against who knew how many Indians.



Chapter 8

Johnny crawled back from checking on Toni. As Johnny settled back against the overturned wagon, Val glanced down from his sentry position. It had been quiet the last hour and the seven men were taking turns watching for the enemy. The two wagons formed a ‘V’ so that their sides were somewhat protected.

“How’s she doing?” Val continued to scan the land before him as he talked.

Johnny checked his bullets. “Not good, Val. I was able to do a half ass job stitching her up so at least the bleedings stopped for now. She’s getting a fever and is going to be in trouble if we don’t get more water.”

Johnny stood up beside Val. “You sit for a moment.”

Val slid down, his back against the wagon’s belly. “Jack?”

“The bullet just hit on his side and went right through. He’s better off than her.”

Johnny knelt back down as he saw one of the soldiers make his way toward them, bending low to be less of a target. “How are you on water?” the soldier asked.

Val shook the canteen beside him. “Not much left.”

“Things are quiet now but it’ll pick up before sunset. When it gets dark, we all need to talk.”  The soldier started to move away but stopped at Johnny’s next question.

“So what happened to the storekeeper and his wife?  Things were happening so fast, I didn’t notice and haven’t had time to ask until now.”

The soldier spit. “Hell if I know. When the shooting started, my horse reared up and I fell off. Thank God I was able to jump away. The next thing I knew, the woman had gotten on my horse and started to ride back the way we came. Last I saw, her husband was running after her.”

Val was curious. “Your compadre didn’t go back after them?”

“Nope. They want to commit suicide, that’s their problem. We stand a better chance fighting in a group. Least that’s what the army says anyway.”  The soldier made his way further down the barricade and Johnny could hear him talking to Russ and Blake. Val stood back up to scan the surrounding hills since Johnny was checking his gun.

The sun was hot and beat down mercilessly. It seemed like the sun was teasing them, staying in one spot and not getting any lower. Johnny felt the heat sucking the energy right out of him; it was hard to stay focused. He looked over and saw Val swaying where he stood.

He tapped Val’s leg. “Hey, amigo. Wake up. You sit a spell and I’ll stand.”

Johnny stood and offered Val his canteen. As Val reached out to take it, shots began to ring out. Puffs of dust popped up from the ground in front of the wagons where the bullets hit. The men shouldered their rifles and began to fire.

“Cease fire!  Cease fire!” one of the soldiers called out.

Slowly the men lowered their weapons and crawled toward the middle of the barricade. Russ, however, popped back up and began to fire some more. The soldier, who had yelled, grabbed Russ’s belt and pulled him down.

“Quit wasting ammunition!” the soldier yelled.

The sound of the Apache guns grew silent.

“They’re just playing with us,” one of the other soldiers groused.  “They want us to use up our ammunition. As long as we are here, they can’t get us from the hills up there.” He waved toward the hillside in front of them. “They’ll come down tomorrow when they think we’ve weakened, then you can shoot.”

Russ and Blake began to mutter but moved back to their places. Johnny and Val took advantage of the lull and crept over to Jack and Toni.

Checking her for fever, Johnny lightly caressed her cheek.

“She looked like she was trying to come around a while ago, Johnny but that didn’t last long,” Jack told him as he shifted to a new position.

“How you doing, Jack?” Val offered him some water. While Jack drank, Val told him what he and Johnny had been told. Together, he and Johnny then tried to get some water down Toni. As high as her fever was getting, it was imperative that she drink.

“Wish I had enough water to cool her down,” Johnny said sadly. He held Toni’s hand and looked up at Val and Jack. “Also wish I hadn’t gotten her into this mess.”

Jack sighed. “Me too. I wish I’d never heard of Pinos Altos. Then maybe I’d still have my baby brother.”  He wiped his hand over his face and with a hitch in his voice, “I can’t believe that he’s gone.”

Val put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Jack.”

“I hate just leaving him out there, ya know?” Jack spoke sorrowfully.

“I know, Jack. I promise, the minute it’s safe, I’ll bring him back. I swear.”  Johnny let go of Toni’s hand and patted Jack on his knee.

“Come on, Val. Let’s go wait these bastards out. Take care of her Jack.” Johnny grabbed his canteen and kept low returning to his place by the wagon. A spate of shots let them know that the enemy was watching.

Johnny looked up at the sky. Finally it seemed that the laws of nature had won and the sun had given up its relentless assault. As the sun lowered, the temperature began to drop. The desert could get cold at night, but there would be no fire tonight.

Johnny was startled when he heard the sound of running horses coming closer. All of the men sat up and peered over the wagons, rifles ready. Even though the soldier had said that the Apache wouldn’t attack at night, it was still light enough for an assault.

Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he saw Val’s horse and one of the soldiers’ horses run into the clearing. Val yelled out to his horse and it stopped. The soldiers’ horse stopped running also and moved to stand nervously by Val’s horse.

A gasp came from Blake as the men realized that the burden the horses carried on their backs were the naked bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Crutch, tied face down over the saddles. Although their faces couldn’t be seen, it was obvious from what the men could see that the couple had died a horrible death.

Blake rushed out from behind the wagons. The soldiers, Val and Johnny all shouted, “No!”  Blake ignored their shouts and reached for the reins of Val’s horse. Shots rang out from the hillside and Blake clutched his chest then fell.

“The fool!  Now there’s one less of us. I told you they would try to draw us out!” The eldest soldier took off his hat and slapped it against his thigh.

The men watched as the horses settled down and wandered to the other side of the hill, foraging for whatever they could find. It seemed like a nightmare, the bodies began to gleam white in the increasing moonlight, moving whenever the horses shivered at a biting fly.  Johnny looked back at Toni and his hand caressed the butt of his Colt.  He hadn’t liked Marigold but nobody should have to die that way.

The men waited in silence as darkness overtook the land, the moon their only light.

“Men, let’s talk.” The soldier who had assumed leadership motioned for everyone to gather where Jack and Toni lay.

“I’ve seen this before. The Apache value their horses as much if not more than we do. They aren’t going to take the chance of injuring one by attacking us at night. Now,” he paused, “Now tomorrow is another thing. You can bet that they’ll come at us with everything they’ve got.”

Johnny spoke up. “So what do you suggest?”

“One of us has to go back to Ft. Cummings and get help. I figure it’s only about six miles from here. If I leave right now, I should be able to get there and sound the alarm. The regiment can be mounted and ready to head out. They would be able to reach us not long after first light. Let’s check our ammo but I think you should be able to hold out until they get here.”

“Be better if two of you go, just in case,” Val mused.

The soldier looked around and saw the other men nodding at Val’s words.

“Okay, then. Me and Walters there will go. We’ve been posted here the longest and know the terrain best.”   He stood up and unbuckled his gun belt and handed it to Johnny. The soldier called Walter handed his to Val.

Johnny and Val each looked down at the gun belts they held and then back at the soldiers.

“Look, you’ll need everything you got to hold them off tomorrow before we get back. If either of us, “ the soldier waved his hand between himself and Walter, “Come up against the Apache, we’ll be dead before we can even draw our guns out of the holster. So you use them.”

Giving a final nod, the two soldiers grabbed a canteen and disappeared into the darkness.

“Russ, why don’t you and…. what’s your name?” Johnny motioned to the one soldier left.

“Michael.”

“Okay Michael, you and Russ bring those two horses in. Val and I will cover you. It’s dark enough now.”

Val and Johnny got into position. Val called for his horse and the horse began to walk over to Val, the other horse following. Russ and Michael didn’t have to move far from the barricade in order to grab the reins. Bringing the horses around the wagons, they stopped by Jack and Toni.

“Don’t leave them there!” Johnny growled as the two men untied the bodies and let them fall to the ground. “Carry them behind us and put them with that other soldier who died.”

Johnny stalked away, Val following. “I’m getting tired of Russ’s shit, Val. I wish he’d never ridden into our camp that night.”

By the way Johnny was pacing, Val could see that he was about to explode.

Putting his arm on Johnny’s, Val tried to divert the kid’s thoughts. “Come on, Johnny. I think it’s safe enough to go bring Jean back. We probably should get Camilla, too. It would be the right thing to do.”

Johnny stopped pacing and dropping his head, let out a big sigh. “You’re right, it’s the least I can do.”  Johnny looked up at Val. “You go tell Russ. I don’t want to talk to him.”

“Okay, Johnny. I’ll be right back.”

While Johnny waited for Val, he checked his gun. He put it in the holster when he saw Val walking back with Russ and the soldier, Michael.

“You ready?” he asked Val.

At Val’s nod, both men slipped out into the night. Stealthily they made their way to the body of their friend and the little unlucky maid. Both had been thrown clear from the wreckage so their bodies were easy to reach. Quietly, Johnny pointed to Val, then to Jean. He stepped over the spilled cargo that had been thrown from Russ’s wagon and reached Camilla. Lifting her up he started to carry her back in his arms when he stumbled over one of the many boxes that littered the area. He kicked the offending box and froze at the sound. Laying the body down, he bent down and examined the box. There was enough moonlight to make out bright white words painted on the sides.

Val waited. He shifted to get a better hold on the body he carried. Johnny picked up Camilla and slung her over his shoulder. He held her in place with his left hand. Reaching down with his right hand, he grabbed the rope handles of the box he’d just examined. Staring straight ahead and without a word he stalked back to the wagons dragging the box behind him.

Dropping the box, Johnny laid the maid gently down by the side of the camp. Any gentleness he might have had was gone when he straightened back up. Val laid Jean’s body beside the girl’s and stood waiting. Although Johnny hadn’t said a word, the anger and tension poured off him in waves.

Johnny bent over and grabbed the box with his left hand, his right on his Colt.

As he advanced toward Russ, the soldier swiftly moved to the side out of Johnny’s way. Russ began to back up when he saw Johnny coming at him. As Russ frantically looked from side to side, he saw that to the right of Johnny was the soldier, Val had moved to the left.

Johnny stopped a few feet in front of Russ. All eyes were on Johnny as he picked up the long skinny box and threw it at Russ’s feet. The box burst open as it hit the ground. A dozen brand new rifles tumbled out. The writing outside the box said ‘Winchester Rifles 1866 model’.

“Why?” Johnny’s voice was as cold and as harsh as Val had ever heard.

“Now Johnny. Let me explain! I told you I could make more money delivering supplies than riding with Day. I just didn’t tell you what the supplies were. Mr. Crutch was going to sell them to the Indians. All I had to do was help deliver.”  Russ’s voice stumbled and halted as he tried to explain.

“You knew us Russ. We were friends once.” Johnny took a step closer.

Russ backed up some more. “It wasn’t my fault!  I tried to get you to wait, remember?  I even rammed my horse into Val’s. I thought if one of you were hurt, you wouldn’t leave without the other.”

Johnny advanced forward again. His fingers did a mad dance on his Colt.

Russ took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his eyes. His voice was trembling. “It isn’t my fault. It’s hers!”  He pointed toward Toni. “She saw the boxes the day I was loading them. She saw the writing on them. Until she saw those boxes, I thought I could keep you out of it. Now I had to have you come with me, she would tell, she’d be a witness against me!  That’s why I hired Jean to drive. I knew you’d ride with Jean and Toni wouldn’t leave you.

Russ’s words tumbled out of his mouth in panic. “Mr. Crutch had a deal with the Indians. They were going to give Mr. Crutch safe passage and me. The Apache would take care of the rest. This wasn’t supposed to happen!  It’s not my fault!  It’s hers!”

“You fucking bastard!” Johnny yelled. “She can’t read!”

Johnny launched himself at Russ as Russ turned to run. Landing on Russ’s back, Johnny turned the man over and began to beat him without mercy. Anger made his fists lethal as his pummeled Russ.

With the breath knocked out of him, at first Russ was slow to return the blows. His attempts at protecting himself and winning were no match for Johnny’s anger.

Val and Michael stood silently watching. Only when Russ was unconscious did Val speak up. “Johnny. Johnny!”  Worried that Johnny would go too far, Val stepped next to Johnny. Not wanting to startle him, Val straddled the prone body of Russ so that Johnny would notice him. Calling his name hadn’t seemed to penetrate Johnny’s anger.

Johnny raised his fist back for a final blow but stopped when he noticed legs on either side of Russ’s body. He lifted his head and blinked when he saw Val.

“Come on buddy. You’ve punished him enough. Let it go.”

Johnny shook his head, his body still coiled tighter than a spring.

Val looked over at Michael. Michael shrugged, “He can go ahead and finish him off for my part.”

Val sighed. “Toni needs you, Johnny. You should go see her.”

Jack, who had been watching from the side, joined in. “Yeah, Johnny. I think she’s waking up. She’ll want to see you when she wakes amigo, not my ugly mug.”

Johnny slowly lowered his fist. Head bowed, he gave a shudder and stood up. Ignoring Russ, he stood and stumbled to Toni. Sitting down heavily, he pulled Toni into his lap and held her. He rested his chin on her head as he slowly rocked back and forth.



Chapter 9

Johnny looked up at the star filled sky. The sky was being to lighten, soon the sun would be up and he wouldn’t be able to see the stars. Their night reprieve from the Apache onslaught would soon be over. ¡Dios! He hoped the soldiers arrived in time!

Val sat down by Johnny and nodded at Toni, who was lying against Johnny’s chest. “She awake yet?”

“Yes, she is.” A weak soft voice answered Val. “I can answer for myself, Viejo.”

“Hey!  I’m not old, it’s just that you’re still just a niñita,” Val teased.

Toni snorted. She turned her head to look at Johnny. “Our amigo has been in the sun too long.”  She tried to smile but clinched her teeth instead and grabbed Johnny’s forearms and squeezed.

“Shhh, it’s okay.”  Johnny bent his head and whispered into her ear. He knew the worst of the pain had passed when she began to loosen her grip on his arms.

Val shared a worried look with Johnny then moved away from the couple. Val moved over to Russ who had begun to come around from the beating he’d received from Johnny. Johnny moved next to him then squatted on his heels.

“She’s out again,” Johnny explained to Val. Taking a stick, he idly drew in the dirt. Val squatted down next to Johnny.

“What are we going to do with him?” Val asked.

Johnny stopped drawing and pointed the stick at Russ. “I’m not gonna give him the chance to back shoot us while we’re fighting the Indians. We’re all witnesses now.”

Johnny called to Michael, “What do you think?”

“I hate to lose a gun but while I’m shooting at the Apaches, I don’t want to worry about being picked off by him,” the soldier replied.

Johnny nodded. “Val, see if you can find something to tie his hands.”

Val grabbed some rope then tied Russ’s hands up tight.

“You know he’s going to be saying something when he comes to,” Val mused.

Johnny settled his hat on his head, “I don’t care. I hope the Indians kill him so I don’t have to look at him ever again.”  He went one last time to check on Toni and Jack, then made his way back to the wagon barricade. He wondered for the hundredth time if the soldiers would make it on time.

********

The sun was beginning its daily journey. No birds were around to announce the coming day, only the flies. Millions of them hovered around the dead, both horses and people. The eggs that they had laid yesterday now hatched into a writhing mass of movement. Johnny pulled his bandana up against his face but it was no use. Nothing could block the smell of death in this place of horrors.

Johnny, Val and Michael all waited. They knew the Apache would come, but when?  Seemed the Apache were real good at drawing a man’s nerves out.

Not looking back, Johnny called behind him. “Jack, you look out for Toni now, I’m trusting you amigo!”

Toni answered, her voice thin and stretched out from the fever, “I’m okay Johnny. I can look after myself.”

Johnny smiled to himself.

“Johnny, are we going to visit Tomás and Sophia today?”

Johnny muttered, “I sure as hell hope not.”

Val looked at him with a puzzled expression.

Johnny tried to explain. “It’s the fever talking, Tomás and Sophia were sorta like our adoptive parents.” Johnny shifted his weight to his other leg. “They’ve been dead awhile now.”

“Hey, who’s going to look after me?” fussed Russ. “You have me tied up here and I can’t protect myself.”

Johnny rolled his eyes and continued to stare straight ahead.

“I mean it, Madrid. This isn’t right. A mans got a right to protect himself. If you and your girl had minded your own business, I’d be in Mowry City by now. And why did you bring those bodies over here?  They stink!  You hear me Johnny?”

Johnny turned his head toward Val. “Now tell me again why you didn’t gag him when you tied his hands?”

Johnny shouted out to Russ. “Shut up Russ. I swear if you don’t stop flapping that mouth of yours, I’m going to plug you.”

“I’ll look the other way,” Michael promised.

Johnny and Val chuckled. They both turned around when they heard Jack yell. Russ was standing beside Toni, his foot in the air. Jack had a gun pointed right at Russ’s knee, “You kick her and I swear to God, I’ll destroy your knee.”

Johnny grabbed his gun and pointed it at Russ. A disturbance in the air passed by Johnny. His mouth dropped open as an arrow hit Russ in the face, the arrow passing through both of Russ’s cheeks. Russ let out a howl unlike anything Johnny had ever heard before. Jack dragged Russ to the ground and broke the arrow off and slid it through. Using what was left of their bandages, he wadded up a piece and stuffed it in Russ’s mouth to help stop the bleeding. Johnny, Val and Michael turned around to face the enemy.

Arrows and bullets flew fast and furious. The smell of cordite added to the other smells of death. A haze of smoke enveloped the men. Suddenly, the shooting from the other side stopped. Johnny gripped his gun tighter as he tried to peer through the smoke. From beneath his feet a rumbling began to grow.

“Here they come!” Johnny shouted. Johnny picked off the first Apache as he galloped on his horse past their overturned wagons. Val and Michael followed with shots to the Apaches next in line.

Johnny fired six shots, then dropped down and reloaded. He’d stand back up and Val would duck behind the wagons to reload. Over and over it continued in a macabre kind of dance.

Johnny jerked and let out a groan as a bullet slammed into his left arm. He barely glanced down, if they didn’t win this fight, that bullet hole would be the least of his worries. He took a second to glance at Val and Michael. Val’s head was bleeding and Michael’s left arm was hanging lose by his side. Johnny wished he knew what was going on behind him but he didn’t dare turn his back. He could only hope that Jack and Toni were all right, he didn’t give a damn about Russ.

“How much ammunition y’all got?” Johnny yelled.

Val fired his gun and an Apache on a speckled horse tumbled to the ground. “Getting low,” he answered.

“Me too,” shouted Michael.

Suddenly, there were no more Apache riders and the guns on the hills were quiet.

“What’s going on Michael?” Johnny yelled as he took advantage of the lull and reloaded.

“They’re regrouping,” Michael replied.

“Great.”  Johnny looked at Val. “The next time I say ‘Hey! Let’s go to Pinos Altos for a job’ kick me into next November.”

“Johnny, I’ll kick you into next year!” Val smiled.

“Well men, let ‘ur buck!” Johnny wasn’t particularly religious, but he did cross himself just in case. He figured it couldn’t hurt.

The next round of attacks came in a storm of Apache riders and gunplay. A barrage of arrows kept the men from being able to fire as accurately as before.

Johnny saw stars as a bullet grazed his head. He heard Val grunt and Michael let out a shout. Behind him, he heard Jack’s gun firing and a string of cussing.

Johnny was almost out of bullets. He vowed to not give up even if he had to use his rifle as a club. He wiped the sweat and blood from his eyes with his sleeve. He’d been functioning on pure adrenalin, but even that seemed to be waning. He stood his rifle next to him as he got ready to empty his gun.

Suddenly, the sweetest sound Johnny had ever heard cut through the noise of death. It was a cavalry bugle! The ground thundered with the sound of many horses’ hooves. The Apache gave a few parting shots and fled, the main body of the cavalry rushing past the battle scene to chase the enemy.

A large group of soldiers stopped in front of the overturned wagons. Johnny rushed over to Toni while Val and Michael just slid to the ground, their backs resting against the wagons.

Johnny sat beside Toni and picked her up in his arms. He frantically looked her over to see if she had any new injuries. He watched as she opened her fevered eyes.

She swallowed and tried to speak. “We aren’t going to eat supper with Tomás and Sophia today?”

Johnny pressed his lips to her head and wrapped her in his arms. “Not today micorazón, not today.”



Epilogue

Johnny, Toni, Val, Jack and Michael sat in the saloon nursing their drinks. The trial had been quick. The commander of the fort had wired ahead for the Marshall and circuit judge to meet them in Mesilla. It took almost two weeks for Toni and the rest of the wounded to heal before heading back to Mesilla. By the time Johnny and his friends arrived in Mesilla, the law was already there. Now all that was left was to hear what the jury had to say.

Everyone at their table looked up as a young boy burst through the batwings. “They said for everyone to come back,” the kid announced breathlessly. “The jury’s back.”

Chairs scrapped back, hats were put on, rigs checked and a final drink taken before their glasses were set on the table. “Let ‘ur buck!” announced Johnny as he led the way back to the courthouse.

The group of five took their place on the front row. Johnny’s eyes narrowed and his face grew hard as he watched Russ shuffle in, hands and ankles shackled. Johnny felt Toni reach over and grab his hand. He gave it a squeeze and smiled at her and continued looking into her eyes until she finally gave him a small smile in return.

Squeezing her hand again, he turned to face the jury who had now come in.

With satisfaction, he heard the jury declare Russ guilty of selling guns to the Indians. Murmurs broke out among the people in the gallery and the judge banged his gavel to get everyone’s attention.

“Russell Brown, please stand,” the judge began. “You have been found guilty of aiding and abetting in the selling of guns to the Indians, a federal crime. While I strongly suspect that you had a bigger part in this, the evidence only points to you knowingly helping to deliver these rifles to the Apache.  Quite frankly, I think you should hang by the neck until dead. However, there isn’t enough evidence since the only witness who could collaborate your involvement happens to be dead. Therefore, you are hereby sentenced to twenty years at hard labor at the nearest federal prison, the Missouri State Prison in Jefferson City. The Marshall will escort you there immediately.”

The voices of the spectators swelled as they talked among themselves about the outcome of the trial. However, the five people most affected by Russ’s actions stood silently, taking a final look at the person who had tried his best to tear them all apart.

As a deputy reached out to grab Russ’s arm, he jerked away and stepped in front on Toni. Johnny pushed her behind him with his left arm as his right hand reached for his gun.

“You!” Russ hissed, his anger spitting out with his words. He leaned over to look around Johnny at Toni. Johnny shifted to block Russ further. A guard grabbed Russ’s arm and began to drag him away.

“You see this, you little bitch?” Russ raised both cuffed hands to point to his now horribly scared face. “This is your fault. All of this is your fault and I won’t be forgetting that.”

A second guard grabbed Russ’s other arm and together they dragged him to the side door of the court. “Madrid! You better watch your back. I won’t forget either one of you if it’s the last thing I do.” The door slammed on his last words.

Toni sat down heavily, her head bowed. Johnny sat beside her and put his arm around her shoulders. Michael cleared his throat. “Well, I’ve got to get back to Fort Cummings.”

Johnny held out his free hand and Michael shook it. “I hope we meet again in better circumstances, Johnny.” Michael shook Val’s and Jack’s hands also. Tipping his hat at Toni, he told them all, “Be seeing ya.”

“Can we go now?”  Johnny had to lean over to hear Toni’s question.

“Back to the hotel?” asked Johnny.

“No,” Toni stood up and stared at something past Jack. Johnny stood beside her worried. He touched her arm and she turned to face him, her eyes wide.

“I want to leave Mesilla. I want to leave New Mexico. I want to forget that we were ever here. Can we please go back to the border where we belong?” Her eyes begged Johnny to say yes.

Johnny looked at Val and Jack and the two men nodded yes. He looked back down at Toni and nodded. “Sure, miel. Give us time to get some horses and supplies, then we’ll leave as soon as possible.”

Toni looked at the three men watching her anxiously. Taking a deep breath, she straightened her shoulders and smiled. “So I’m going to have to look after three men now instead of just one?”

She turned and began to walk out of the room. Val and Jack followed. Johnny hung back for a moment and grinned as he watched his amigos argue about who was going to help Toni with the cooking. He briefly wondered if the border towns were ready for the four friends.




 

~ end ~
June 2016

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