The Black Widows
A prequel to Every Dog Has Its Day. Criminal cohorts Sarah and Lucy arrive in California and become determined to snare Johnny in their web.
The Black Widows
“Ere, now, give over!” With a ferocious frown, the blonde woman elbowed her diminutive companion, sending her flying across several laps into a rotund man with a bald head. Winded, she sprawled across him, her hat fallen over her eyes. The conveyance jounced on down the rutted toad. Atop it, the driver, Sam, spat a used wad of tobacco over the side.
“Floozy!” the spinster in the opposite seat muttered to her sister, who nodded, even as she drew her skirts tighter. She put a hand over her mouth, leaning closer to whisper in her sister’s ear.
Recovering, Sarah sat up straight, shoving her broken hat brim out of her eyes. Since leaving the east coast, three thousand miles away, she had endured her companion’s nonstop whining, grumbling and hogging the window seat, among other things, for weeks.
It was the last straw. She struggled upright, snatching a hat pin from the ruined chapeau. Startled, the stagecoach’s other occupants looked at each other in alarm. The beleaguered girl took a deep breath, then launched herself across the seat’s other inhabitants to drive the long pin through layers of cloth into her tormentor’s sizeable buttock.
The blonde woman’s howl penetrated the coach’s roof. It reached the driver’s ears, even over the thundering hooves of the team. Cursing, Sam pulled the horses up and jumped down, leaving the guard riding shotgun frozen in his seat. In two strides, the driver had reached the door and flung it open. Two female bodies tumbled out, skirts and hair flying, joined by means of the small one’s grip on her opponent’s throat. Landing atop the blonde, the brunette clung with the tenacity of a burr as they hit the dirt road, landing in a puddle left over from last night’s rain. Dirty water sprayed as the two pummeled each other.
In an uproar, the other passengers jumped out to watch the two flailing in the road in a welter of petticoats, ruffled pantalettes and stockinged legs. Cursing and shrieking, the two women rolled in the deep wagon ruts, pulling hair and scratching as they went.
“Go Sarah,” yelled the fat man.
“My money’s on Lucy,” came the voice of wealthy rancher Eric Downey. The blonde had flirted with him relentlessly all the way from Kansas City, granting him favors while the other passengers slept. “She’s got the reach and the weight. Ten to one!”
“I’ll take it!” said the fat man, Harold Gould by name. “Sarah’s small but she’s tough.”
Male voices mingled with the shrieks and the driver’s curses as other passengers placed their bets.
“Don’t just stand there!” yelled the driver. “Get down here and help me!”
Released from paralysis, Spike jumped down. Shouldering roughly through the crowd, he snatched the smaller woman from atop her prey, setting her down hard on her feet while keeping a precautionary hand on her elbow. Locks of dark hair straggled from the girl’s bun and her cheeks were flushed with anger beneath smears of mud.
Still flat on her back in the puddle, the blonde flailed about, trying to get up. Each grasping an arm, the driver and the guard heaved her out of the mud puddle and hoisted her to her feet, panting.
Mudstained and livid, the blonde lunged forward before being restrained by the two men, who seized her around the waist.
Giving her a shake, Sam yelled, “All right, show’s over! Everybody back in the coach!”
The semi-circle of men scattered. Sniffing, the spinster and her sister gathered up their skirts and seated themselves again in the coach. Still in the dirt road, the men settled their bets and climbed in.
“Not you, Sarah!” said Sam, restraining the smaller one as she lifted her foot, preparing to ascend.
“You, either,” he said to the blonde, Lucy.
Wide-eyed, they paused, looking at him for explanation.
“When you got on in Kansas City, the other driver warned me you’d been bickering all the way from the east coast. I bin listening to you two argue since then. Now I’m done.”
He jerked his head toward the guard. “Spike—climb up there and unlash the luggage. Throw theirs down.”
Recovering, the brunette looked at him. “Sam, she started it!”
The blonde stamped her foot, full bosoms bouncing. “Did not, did not! It’s not my fault, Sarah!”
“It never is, Lucy,” said the brunette with a weary sigh. “Sam, what about taking just me?”
“Don’t have time to argue, Sarah,” said the grizzled driver as first one, then the other battered portmanteau landed in the dust at their feet. “You two have made me late already.”
“Well, you can’t just leave us here!” sniped the blonde. “In the middle of nowhere!”
Feeling two pairs of irate female eyes boring into his back, Sam went around the horses and swung himself into his seat.. Gathering up the reins, he looked down at the bedraggled women, both much the worse for wear.
“Ain’t the middle of nowhere,” the grizzled man said, jerking his thumb to the west. “Lancer ranch is nearby. Reckon they’ll be glad to help you out.”
“You mean walk?” said Lucy, aghast.
“Yep, shank’s mare,” replied the driver. “And you better hurry up, it’ll be dusk soon.”
With a crack of the whip, he gave the horses their heads. In a cloud of dust, the stagecoach soon disappeared.
Coughing, Sarah waved a hand before her face to dissipate it. She looked grimly at her companion, now seated morosely on one dusty trunk, chin in hands.
“I told you we should have taken the train!” Lucy complained.
“And all the train stations was being watched, I told you that. Our description’s been wired all over the eastern seaboard, it was.” She put her hands on her hips. “I told you not to murder that guard at the station! Couldn’t you just have had sex wiv’ him in the broom closet and left it at that?”
Lucy huffed, sticking out her underlip and blowing strands of artificially blonde hair away from her face.
“Couldn’t help myself,” she explained. “Somethin’ just come over me.”
“Well,” Sarah said. “It better not come over you again. We was lucky to escape Scotland Yard and get out of England in one piece.”
Sniffling, the blonde removed a hanky from her pocket. “What’ll we do, Sarah? That beastly man!”
Looking at her companion, Sarah heaved a sigh. Since leaving London, they had adopted new personas designed to cover their criminal pasts. As the latest incident proved, they were still finding it difficult to settle into them.
Sarah’s lip curled, remembering. For starters, she and Lucy had had a considerable row over their respective roles of companion and heiress, with the blonde immediately claiming the showier role.
Worn out, Sarah had finally given in, if only to shut off the insistent voice. In truth, she realized that the role of vapid heiress was probably better suited to Lucy, anyway. She herself was better able to pull off the more difficult role of paid companion.
“Well, Luce,” she said through gritted teeth, “It looks like we take the man’s advice and hoof it. Unless you got any better ideas?”
As usual, Lucy shook her head. When the chips were down, she always deferred to Sarah, knowing that the petite brunette was the real brains of the outfit.
“Well, then,” Sarah snapped. “You best get up. Help me drag these cases off the road before anybody comes along.”
When the trunks were hidden in the woods, the two women looked at each other. With one accord, they opened the valises and took out small bars of soap, filched from the last hotel they stayed at, washcloths and a change of clothes. Shaking the garments out, they draped them over bushes. Clad only in their underclothes, they made their way down the steep bank to the river flowing briskly past. Scrubbing the mud from their traveling clothes, they laid them over some boulders to dry.
Birds twittered overhead as they waded into the stream to bathe, gasping at its coolness.
Seating themselves in the sun, they let it dry their hair before helping each other to arrange it in fashionable styles. Glancing at the sun, Sarah noted the time. Daylight was fleeting, the rays taking on the long angles of late afternoon.
Dressing in their stylish outfits, they covered their trunks over with leaves and grasses and set off, their shoes tied together and dangling over their shoulders.
“Can’t walk far in these, “ Sarah had said, indicating the high-heeled shoes more suited to a soiree than a five-mile hike down a dirt road. “Besides, don’t want to ruin ‘em.”
Both accustomed to the rough and tumble life of London streets, the girls set off sturdily, their tempers much improved. Some time later, topping a rise, they beheld a valley. For a moment, they stood there, enjoying the beautiful view.
Far below, movement caught their eye as a black-haired man swung himself onto a golden horse. The stallion danced, impatient to be let loose. The man held him in easily, surveying the fence he’d just been building. Satisfied, he smiled, teeth flashing in his dark face. Even from this distance, that grin was contagious.
Slack-jawed, the two girls faced each other. The man below them was the most gorgeous thing they’d seen in ages. Quickly, they turned back, determined not to miss a thing.
Satisfied, the handsome stranger turned the horse toward the setting sun. With an exuberant leap, the steed stretched out in a run, pale mane and tail flashing in the last golden rays. Soon, both he and the cowboy were out of sight.
With one accord, the girls faced each other.
The Black Widows
With a bark of greeting, the gray and white dog met Johnny and Barranca as they entered the courtyard, tail wagging a mile a minute as the young man dismounted.
Johnny knelt, rubbing the silky ears as Lucky licked his face. Laughing, the young man swiped a hand over his chin, wiping off the moisture. “Hey, cut that out, willya?” he told the animal. Flopping to the dirt, Lucky presented his belly, tail swishing. Pink tongue lolling over his white teeth, the dog peered up at Johnny, his large dark eyes shining through his long hair.
After rubbing the dog’s belly for a minute, Johnny stood up. Lucky scrambled to his feet, turning in a circle before yelping at the young man, urging him to play. The dark-haired Lancer laughed down at him, enjoying the animal’s exuberance. The gray and white dog he’d found as a pup had grown into a faithful companion, making Johnny wish he’d had a dog long ago. As a child, his blue eyes had immediately and irrevocably made him an outcast. Growing up on the outskirts of society in Mexico with a mother as erratic as Maria, a dog’s unconditional love would have meant the earth to him.
Shaking his head to clear it, he threw a stick, laughing as Lucky galloped off to fetch it.
Rubbing the silky ears a last time, Johnny headed for the hacienda. He was here now and so was Lucky and that was all that mattered. The dog accompanied him, looking up eagerly in hopes of being admitted.
Reluctant to disappoint the animal, Johnny opened the door, tossing his hat on the table before making his way to the kitchen. Close behind him, Lucky’s nails clicked on the tile floor.
Maria was at the stove, stirring a large pot. He came up behind her, bending low over her shoulder to peer into it. “Whatever it is, it sure smells delicious!” he told her.
At the sight of the dog, the cook flapped a hand at him. “Dios mio, a dog in my kitchen! Shoo! Shoo! I must hurry and finish, your father and brother will be home soon!”
Behind them, Rosita smiled, even as her nose wrinkled. Seeing it, Johnny chuckled.
“Smell like cows, do I? Well, I aim to fix that right now. Gonna go get washed up before dinner.”
From the dining room, the clatter of dishes told Johnny that Teresa was setting the table. Filching a warm biscuit from a platter, he took a bite. With his mouth too full to speak, he paused in the dining room to greet the girl.
“Whew,” she told him.
He grinned, blue eyes bright as he swallowed the biscuit. “I know, I know. I’m on my way outside right now.”
“Take your time,” she added. “Scott and Murdoch are running late. We’ll hold dinner until you get cleaned up.”
“In that case, I’m gonna take a bath, not just use the pump.”
“Good idea,” the girl agreed wryly. “I’ll bring up some water for you."
Johnny nodded his thanks as he stuffed the rest of the biscuit into his mouth. “Thanks, honey. I’ll go stable Barranca and be right back.”
Closely followed by Lucky, he made short work of grooming and feeding the horse. Returning to the great room, he admonished the dog. “Stay here.” Obediently, Lucky flopped to the floor, putting his head on paws.
Smiling, Johnny hurried to his room, whistling. True to her word, Teresa had prepared a bath in the old copper tub, leaving towels, a pitcher of rinse water and a bar of soap on the stool beside it. Steam rose, beckoning him. Always thoughtful, the girl had lit the candles in the wall sconces as well.
Unbuttoning his shirt with a sigh of relief, Johnny let it fall to the floor before sitting on the bed to pull off his boots. They hit the floor, spurs clanking. A moment later, his black pants with the conchos down the legs followed them.
With a sigh of relief, the young man slipped into warm water. Sinking below the surface, he emerged with his black hair dripping. Taking the soap, he lathered up. Irridescent bubbles caught in the black hair of his chest, gleaming like miniature rainbows. A moment later, he washed his hair. Eyes closed, Johnny felt over the tub’s side for the pitcher of rinse water. Finding it, he tilted his head back, letting the warm water run through his thick hair.
Leaning his head back against the rim, he closed his eyes. Life was good
A tap on the door roused him as Scott stuck his head into the room.
“Johnny, dinner’s ready!”
“OK,” the young man agreed. “Be right there.”
Withdrawing his head, Scott closed the door gently behind him as Johnny emerged from the tub. Drying off and dressing quickly, he hurried downstairs, eager to join his family.
Still far away, Lucy and Sarah stumped stolidly on, gooseflesh rising on their arms in the chilly night air.
Below them, they saw lights come on in the hacienda. It looked wonderfully warm and beckoning. The girls’ mouths watered as they imagined the wonderful meal that the unknown Lancers were probably enjoying at that very minute.
“I gotta stop.” Lucy announced.
“Again?” Sarah asked, irritated. “I told you not to eat all that fruit!”
The girls had come upon an apple tree awhile back. Fruit still hung on the branches and to the hungry travelers, it smelled wonderful, making their empty stomachs growl.
Although a trifle wizened, the fruit had tasted as good as it smelled. Sarah had made herself stop after one but greedily, Lucy had continued on, consuming five as Sarah shook her head.
With a shrug, Lucy hurried off the side of the road, hoisting her skirts as she went.
Sarah sighed, rolling her eyes heavenward. Given to egocentric behavior and childish fits of pique, Lucy often made Sarah wish she’d never laid eyes on her. This was one of those times.
Delayed by Lucy’s frequent rest stops, the girls finally approached the hacienda. Shivering in the dark, they watched its lights go out one by one.
Sarah rounded on Lucy. “So much for puttin’ on our shoes and goin’ in as fine ladies! They’ll be sound asleep by the time we gets there!”
Disinterested, Lucy shrugged. “I gotta lay down, Sarah, can’t go another step.”
When the hacienda was totally dark, the girls crept into the barn. After their long trip, both were exhausted and even soft, clean hay would be a luxury after so many miles in a jolting stagecoach.
Pausing in the doorway, the Lucy and Sarah looked about. Finding an empty stall, they entered, closing the door behind them.
From his position beside Johnny’s bed, Lucky lifted his head, ears pricked. With the French doors closed, he failed to pick up the scent of the two strange women. But the hacienda’s walls were thick and after a minute, the dog laid his head back down.
Around midnight, the dog rose, turning in a circle. Making his way downstairs, Lucky went to the great-room window, peering out into the dark.
Inside the barn, Lucy and Sarah fell into an uneasy doze. Lucy turned over, mumbling and was immediately asleep once more. Her snores filled the air but Sarah was too tired to care.
With a sixth sense honed by a life outside the law, Lucy roused from her heavy slumber. It was pitch black in the barn but something told her it was time to go. Rolling over, she poked Sarah in the ribs. Grumpily, the other girl roused.
“What the bleedin’ ‘ell is it now?” she snapped.
“Bloody cheek, Sarah! It’s time for us to go, it’s gettin’ late.”
“Don’t you want to meet them, maybe get breakfast?”
Lucy shook her head. “Not anymore. I just want to reach San Francisco and meet some rich pigeons, ready for plucking. We can leave from Morro Coyo, like we was plannin.’
Sarah flopped back into the clean straw, trying to wake up. She’d have given anything to remain here for another eight hours; she’d never been so tired in her life.
Lucy sat up, yawning mightily. Standing, she stretched, opening the stall’s door. Looking up and down the row of sleeping horses, she made a selection. The golden horse with the pale mane and tail looked at her, snorting slightly.
Sarah, finally wide awake, came to help.
In the great room, Lucky woke up. One floppy ear flicked back as he heard Maria leaving her room off the kitchen and beginning to light the fires.
Another sound reached the dog’s keen ears, causing him to scratch at the door. Hearing him, Maria came quickly, convinced the dog was heeding the call of nature. Released, Lucky streaked for the barn.
Arriving in the doorway, the dog’s hackles went up at the sight of the two strange women trying to saddle the reluctant stallion. Barranca was Johnny’s; therefore, he was part of Lucky’s pack and needed his protection.
The dog padded forward, his lips curling back from his teeth in a low growl. A gentle animal, the snarl was more for show than anything else but the frightened girls didn’t know that.
Lucky’s growl rose in intensity as he came nearer, head lowered. The sound made the already-edgy Barranca more so and he began to dance, trying to pull away.
“We gots to shut that dog up before he wakes the dead!” Lucy snapped. Her eyes fell on a pitchfork lying nearby.
“We ain’t doin’ any such thing,” Sarah muttered. “No need to hurt the dog, just get on the bleedin’ horse, willya?” Agile, she climbed into the saddle, extending a hand down. “Come on, come on!”
Hesitantly, Lucy put one foot into the stirrup. Behind her, Lucky raced forward, grabbing her hem in his teeth. Bracing his forelegs, the dog yanked. Off-balance, Lucy fell backward, bumping her head hard. Seeing red, she clambered to her feet and grabbed for the pitchfork.
“Stop it!” Sarah hissed. “Just get on!”
Her expression ugly, Lucy waved the weapon at the dog. Behind her, Barranca grew more agitated as other horses began to awake, snorting and stamping.
Jabbing the weapon at the dog, Lucy taunted the animal snapping at her heels. Raising the pitchfork high, she drove it downward. An anguished yelp penetrated the barn as she withdrew the weapon. The yelping stopped. Sarah kneed the horse forward, sickened. Wrenching the pitchfork away, she tossed it out of Lucy’s reach.
“If you aren’t on this horse in one second,” she snarled, “I’m leavin’ without you.”
Grimacing, Lucy looked from her to the dog in its death throes. Grabbing Sarah’s hand, she swung onto the palomino. A moment later, they disappeared into the blackness.
Johnny came down to breakfast, whistling. Seeing Cipriano’s face as he conversed with Scott and Murdoch, he came to a halt, his smile fading.
Scott glanced at him, concerned, as Murdoch spoke up. “Something’s happened to Lucky. And Barranca’s gone.”
“Gone!” Johnny said. “How—what happened?”
The burly foreman twisted his hat in his hands. “Some time in the night, Senor Johnny. It looks like two people stole the palomino. Lucky must have tried to stop them.”
Johnny went pale under his tan. “Show me.”
The four of them made their way to the barn. Once inside, Cipriano led them forward, halting in front of the dog’s corpse. The bloodstained pitchfork lay nearby.
Murdoch glanced at his son. Johnny’s face had turned to stone. He knelt beside the dog’s body, one hand reaching to touch it. Lucky was cold.
The dark-haired Lancer gathered up the dog’s body, clutching it to his chest as the dog’s head rolled limply. His blue eyes were shuttered, giving nothing away.
Turning sharply on his heel, he strode out of the door, Lucky’s head drooping over his arm.
Scott glanced at Murdoch. “I better go see if he needs any help.”
Murdoch’s brows drew together in an expression of concern as he nodded. “We’ll go looking for Barranca.”
An hour later, his sons had buried Lucky on the knoll overlooking the river. It was a place where the dog had often sat with Johnny while he fished for trout.
Sitting next to the grave, Johnny dropped his head on his crossed arms, black hair ruffling in the breeze off the water. After a moment, he lifted his head, looking his brother in the face. His blue eyes were dark with grief and Scott’s heart went out to him.
“Who, Scott?” he said. “Who’d want to kill a good dog like that, in such an awful way?”
At a loss, Scott could only shake his head. Finally, he came up with an answer. “Sick people, Johnny. Only someone with a diseased mind could do such a thing.”
He could only guess how his brother felt. Johnny had grown up with so little and had moved around so much. Even the simplest things, like the love of an animal, had been denied him. In the soft voice of the man, Scott heard the echo of the child who had been dragged from pillar to post, ragged, often hungry and alone. Later, as a gunfighter, Johnny Madrid had been forced to keep his heart closed, knowing attachments could be used to hurt him.
Scott looked at Johnny as he dropped his head onto his arms again. Since coming to the hacienda, that stubborn, guarded heart had opened by slow degrees, leaving Johnny Lancer vulnerable. Too vulnerable, Scott thought, looking down at him. Not knowing what to say, he contented himself with putting a hand on his brother’s shoulder.
When the brothers returned to the hacienda, they found Barranca tethered to the hitching post. Relieved, Johnny hurried forward, checking the animal over.
Murdoch loomed in the doorway. “He’s fine, Johnny. Not harmed at all. We found him on the Morro Coyo road, coming back on his own.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “The Morro Coyo road, huh?”
Murdoch nodded. “Two sets of prints, barefoot. One was bigger than the other.”
Scott looked at his father. “What do you think happened?”
Murdoch raised his brows. “Barranca is Johnny’s horse. My guess is that whoever stole him found him too hard to handle and let him go.”
Johnny’s heavy heart lightened. He still had his palomino; it was something to be glad about.
He looked at his father, thinking of the footprints he’d seen in the barn. Reading his mind, Murdoch said, “You’re going after them.”
Silently, his son nodded.
Scott spoke up. “I’ll help you.”
The patriarch put a hand on each sons’ shoulder. “And I will, too. But let’s have some coffee first.”
Flanked by his father and brother, Johnny went into the house.
Sarah and Lucy waited by the side of the road, perched on their trunks. They had put their shoes back on, brushed the straw from each other’s shoulders and repaired their hairdos. Neither looked like the bedraggled waifs who had entered the Lancer barn the night before. Now they sat, unspeaking, waiting for the next stage to come along.
After wrestling with the recalcitrant horse for miles, they had finally given up and slid off the palomino. Looping the stirrups over the pommel, Sarah had turned the animal homeward before giving him a slap on the hindquarters. Soon, the stallion was out of sight.
Thundering hooves told them the next stage was approaching. Crossing their legs, each girl hiked her skirts up, showing her calves.
As expected, the driver yanked his team to a halt.
“Oh, please,” Lucy fluttered, slipping into character. “Our carriage had an accident and the driver took it for repairs. Where is this stage going?”
The driver puffed out his chest, basking in the attention. “We’re going to Morro Coyo.”
Sarah and Lucy smiled. “That’s just where we were headed. Do you have room for us?
The girls waited as their trunks were stowed atop the stage before climbing in. Settling their skirts, they greeted two men, the lone occupants of the stage.
Turning to the gentleman nearest her, Sarah peeped up at him through her long lashes. He immediately leaned forward, smiling.
To her left, Lucy was explaining. “We’re on our way to San Francisco. We’re leaving on a world tour. I’m Lucy. And this is Sarah.”
The man beside Sarah reached into his pocket, withdrawing a small silver flask. Unscrewing the top, he offered it to the girl, who took a long swig before passing it over to Lucy. The strong liquor was bracing and she also took a long swallow before offering it to the second man now smiling jovially down at her.
A few miles down the road, the men’s cravats were loosened and shrill laughter was emanating from the stage.
Sarah leaned closer to the man beside her. Her eyes were glassy and stray tendrils escaped her neat hairstyle. From the corner of her eye, she observed Lucy doing the same thing. Smiling, she took his arm.
“I get the feeling that we’re all going to be friends. Very good friends.”