Taking a break, Johnny Lancer patted Barranca’s neck as he removed his canteen from the saddle. Tipping it back, he took a long drink, then swiped his forearm over his face, pushing the heavy hair from his eyes. Muscles rippled under his tanned skin and his naked torso gleamed with sweat in the fading light. He’d been clearing debris from a small creek on Lancer property since early morning and hadn’t stopped all day.
One look at the overcast sky made up his mind. He’d been so busy he hadn’t noticed but the afternoon was growing dark. Swollen clouds squatting low on the horizon promised rain, and the air was thick and humid. Far away, thunder growled. Barranca stamped his feet nervously, tail swishing. “”It’s OK, fella, we’re going,” Johnny murmured to the agitated animal, smoothing his hand along the pale mane. He returned the canteen to its place and shrugged into his blue shirt. The conchos down the legs of his black pants picked up the faint light of the rapidly-fading sun. With a practiced leap, he was in the saddle and urging Barranca to a run.
From his current location, he was actually closer to town than to the Lancer Hacienda, and he decided to go for a drink before heading home. The first spits of rain darkened his shirt as he neared and lights began appearing in windows. By the time he reached the main street, the storm had begun in earnest. Rain dripped from his hat brim and pounded his back. Arriving at the livery stable, he jumped down and led Barranca to an empty stall.
“Just for awhile, Fred,” he said, flipping a coin to the owner.
“Sure is comin’ down,” replied the grizzled, heavyset blacksmith whose shirt bore ancient sweatstains and traces of his last meal.
“Yeah,” Johnny replied. “Good night to stay inside.” He removed the saddle and then brushed the horse down himself.
“I’ll take care o’that, Johnny,” said Fred, reaching for an armload of hay, “You go on, have yourself some fun.”
The young Lancer nodded his thanks and set off across the deserted street to the barbers. Cold rain lashed him and thoughts of a hot bath hurried his steps. He’d have a drink and a big dinner, give the rain a chance to let up before heading home.
A short while later, he was ensconced in a bathtub, drink in hand, and his clothes steaming before the fire. He leaned his head back on the rim, eyes closed, while the barber lathered his face up.
Back at the Hacienda, Theresa lit the lamps early against the gathering gloom. Warm pools of light forced the darkness back as she pulled the drapes. Heavy footsteps echoed in the hall as Murdoch and Scott entered, brushing the rain from their shoulders and laughing at some private joke. The enticing smells of fresh tamales and posole wafted from the kitchen, mingled with the aroma of some beef dish that Maria had put in the oven earlier. “Well,” she greeted them, “where’s Johnny?”
Kissing her gently on the forehead, the older man replied, “We rode by the creek but he’d already left. Guess he went into town before the storm started."
“Yeah,” Scott replied. “I’m sure he wanted a break by now.” Both men disappeared into their rooms to get ready for dinner.
A second later, Jelly bustled in, taking the newspaper he’d been holding overhead and tossing it into the fire. “Evenin’,” he nodded at Theresa.
“Hungry?” she asked him.
“Starved…I could eat a bear!”
“Well, let’s not keep the man waiting then,” boomed Murdoch’s voice from behind them. “Let’s eat!” Soon they were all seated at the table, the clinking of silverware and laughter filling the room.
Johnny Lancer slipped back into his clothes, tightening his silver and turquoise belt around his lean hips and buckling on his gunbelt. Placing his hat on his head, he hurried along the rainswept sidewalk to the hotel, where the sounds of revelry were already coming from the saloon next door.
Tossing his hat onto a chair, he slipped behind the table with its crisp white cloth and candle burning brightly. A red flower sat in a tiny glass vase. Nodding to the other patrons, he quickly placed his order and then leaned the chair back on two legs, surveying the room. On the opposite side, he noticed two women deep in conversation. One was tall and blonde, the other, petite and dark. Their clothing and discreet jewelry were expensive; their hair was done in the latest style. From the looks of them, their conversation was serious. To his left was an older couple, to the right, a family celebrating someone’s birthday. A heavy-set man in a suit and tie and a thin young lawyer-type were the only other patrons on this rainy evening. He sipped from the scotch in the heavy glass in his hand, feeling its pleasant warmth spread through his body.
His steak arrived and he put the glass down and dug in. As he ate, he could not help but notice that the two women were casting discreet glances in his direction. The food was excellent and he savored every bite of the rare steak and mashed potatoes. When the waitress came back, he ordered cherry pie for desert. “House special tonight,” grinned Noreen, the waitress. “Valentine’s Day.” He’d heard of the holiday since he’d been at Lancer, but it really meant nothing to him. Growing up in the border towns of Mexico, and in his later career as Johnny Madrid, gunfighter, sentiment had not been as important as survival.
Finishing his meal, he called for another Scotch. The two ladies, he noticed, had abandoned discretion and were now looking him up and down quite boldly. He’d seen that look plenty of times and knew what it meant. Finishing his drink, he picked up his hat and headed for the door, nodding as he passed them on his way to the saloon. “Ladies,” he murmured.
“Oh, good evening,” the tall one fluttered.
The smaller one eyed him up and down and spoke quickly. “We were just heading to the bar. Care to join us?”
He smiled, that slow, charming smile that had made so many women go weak in the knees and decided to change his plans for the evening somewhat. “I was just heading that way, myself.” They got up and came around the table, each taking an arm. Behind him, the married lady sniffed disapprovingly.
They settled at a table and the ladies told him a bit about themselves. Their accents were strange to him. The blonde’s was slow, charming as honey, with the dropped endings typical of the Southern states. The petite brunette’s voice was brisker, more clipped, and she spoke quickly as though someone might cut her off. He noticed their frequent covert glances about the room and put it down to concern for their reputations but as the bar was empty and the liquor flowed, they spoke more freely.
The blonde was an heiress, she told him, seeing the world after the completion of her finishing school education. The brunette was her paid traveling companion and chaperone. San Francisco was next on their itinerary.
Rain streamed down the windowpanes as they talked and laughed, telling him anecdotes about their travels and the people they’d met. He nodded and smiled, his slow drawl mingling with their increasingly shrill voices.
The blonde leaned closer. “My name’s Lucy,” she whispered, brown eyes wide, putting a caressing hand on his arm.
“And mine’s Sarah,” said the brunette, staring into his eyes. Her eyes were green, slightly tilted, and reminded him of a cat.
“Johnny,” he replied, although he knew already that his name wasn’t important to them. His pedigree was clearly not of concern to the ladies, either, even less so as they became somewhat the worse for drink. Blonde curls were slipping from Lucy’s chignon and Sarah’s cheeks were flushed and her eyes glassy as the evening continued. The rain continued as occasional flashes of lightning illuminated the window. The pane rattled from the rolling thunder.
Sometime later, the bar’s manager, a slight, timid man with a balding crown, came by the table. “Last call, folks,” he said, eying the ladies and winking at Johnny, who stood up and took his hat from the chair.
The ladies were instantly on their feet, tottering slightly. Once again, they took his arms. “Will you see us to our room?”
He supported them up the stairs, waiting to see them safely inside, and turned to go but found the small one barring the way. “Leaving so soon?” she purred, trailing her fingers down his chest. She undid the top button, then another, exposing the soft black hair on his chest. She shut the door and locked it.
“Sarah! I saw him first!” Lucy said, stamping her foot and threatening to spill out of the low neckline of her dress.
He was momentarily diverted by the sight and it was all they needed. They swarmed over him like bees, unbuttoning his shirt, unbuckling his belt, kissing him ravenously, while hair pins, petticoats, and other articles of female apparel flew like confetti around them. Their combined weight bore him further into the room. The back of the bed hit him behind the knees and he landed on his back in the bed, the blonde atop him, the brunette wrapped around him and kissing his ear.
Conscious thought left him and he reacted instinctively, knowingly, as the three of them tumbled on the bed. He’d learned many things in the border towns of Mexico and he’d been in this scene before.
Suddenly, there was a loud pounding on the door. “Johnny! You in there?” He paused to listen and recognized the sheriff’s voice. The pounding grew louder. “Johnny!” Cursing under his breath, he pushed the two girls aside and slipped into his pants.
Opening the door with an uncharacteristic scowl, he greeted him with “This better be good, Dave!” Two men in bowler hats and tight cravats stood behind the sheriff. He recognized them instantly as Pinkertons. Two more burly men in short-sleeved white smocks stood behind them. His scowl darkened. “What the hell is going on here?”
Dave stopped, abashed, his eyes going behind Johnny into the darkened room. “Uh, sorry, Johnny,” he muttered. His halting words were drowned out by a piercing shriek and the sound of the window being hastily thrust open. The burly men swarmed into the room, knocking Johnny aside and raced toward the two women. Screams of dismay and anger filled the air. They fought back, kicking and screaming, as the white-coated men attempted to subdue them. One of the burly men stepped back, hand cupping a cheek where four bleeding scratches marked him; the other was locked in a desperate struggle to restrain the chemise-clad ladies, whose sole desire now appeared to be to flee into the dark and stormy night. They fought like frenzied cats, shrieking at their tormentors, but were eventually subdued and dragged forward to stand beside Johnny.
“What’s in your hand, girl?” demanded the sheriff of the blonde. “Show it!”
She shook her head and tried to knee the man, succeeding in making minimal contact as he stumbled back. The white-coated attendant put her in a headlock and dragged her aside.
“Dave!” Johnny demanded, “tell me what’s going on right now!”
The second burly man yanked the smaller one forward into the light spilling from the hallway. He pulled her hand from behind her back. The bleeding scratches on his cheek glowed red in the half-light. She bared her teeth at him and hissed like a cat as he pried her fingers open. Clutched in one small palm was an icepick.
“That’s what I bin trying to tell you, Johnny!” said the sheriff, smoothing his ruffled groin. “They bin killing folk left and right! They’re mental patients! Escaped from Bedlam last month”
Lucy and Sarah (their names have been changed to protect the innocent) were given injections of a recently-developed barbiturate, strait-jacketed, and put in chains for their trip back to England where they stood trial for mass murders on two continents. They were found guilty by reason of insanity. Lucy and Sarah now reside in the bowels of Bedlam, the famous old insane asylum, in the deepest, darkest dungeon reserved for the most seriously deranged. Here, they are chained to a wall and their food is pushed through a slot in the door once a day, while they drool, cackle and snicker. Judged a major menace to society, these sick and evil murderers will never see the light of day again.
They also had to pay the largest fine ever levied in the history of the Humane Society for the savage pitchfork murder of a dog in California.