There it was again—a faint whiff of sweetness on the breeze. The pinto picked up on it too, and snorted as the scent tickled his nose. Johnny breathed deep, then turned the gelding towards the peach orchards of Tubac.
The big rancher north of town was getting ready to push out his smaller neighbors, and they knew it. Both sides would be recruiting guns any day now; Johnny planned to be there when the hiring started. He didn’t expect any trouble signing on—being Johnny Madrid counted for something finally.
But being Johnny Madrid didn’t do much for today’s empty belly. His last job hadn’t paid much, and he was down to his last few coins. He wasn’t worried, exactly, but he sure hoped the hiring happened sooner rather than later.
It didn’t take long to hide his camp between Tubac and the orchards. Stomach growling, he strolled toward the peach trees. He’d never picked peaches before, but how hard could it be? He would eat his fill and then pick more to sell or barter in town.
Only a few people were picking today. Johnny watched them from a distance before he slung his rough sack on his shoulder and moved down the lane, away from anyone else. He figured he picked a good tree when he moved the branches aside and saw a bunch of peaches right there. He grabbed them all in hopes of a quick harvest, but instead of breaking loose from the branch the overripe fruit squished into a pulpy mash.
Shit. A flick of his wrist sent the mess flying.
As he sucked the juice dripping from his hand he heard something the next row over. Someone was laughing and he was pretty sure they were laughing at him. Looking through the twisted branches he caught a glimpse of dark twinkling eyes surrounded by well-used laugh lines. With a shake of a tree limb an old woman limped out. Her smile showed more gum than teeth; Johnny smiled back with a sheepish shake of his head.
She crooked her finger at him and spoke words he didn’t understand, inviting him closer. With energetic hand signals she showed him how to pick a peach, and the next time he tried it came away in one piece. She clapped her hands together as he offered it to her with a bow and a hand hitched behind his back. Her curtsey in return made him chuckle, and her quick kiss to his cheek made him blush.
They made a good team. Johnny did the picking while the old woman collected the peaches in her skirt. She never quit talking as she arranged them in careful layers in her baskets. Neither of them cared much that Johnny didn’t understand a word she said. Every so often he smiled at her and nodded; she’d grin and her words would come even faster.
At the end of the afternoon the rest of the old woman’s family showed up. One of the youngsters spoke a little Spanish but mostly they talked in the same strange language as the old woman. They shared their dinner with Johnny and made sure his sack was filled to bursting with the best peaches. Then they drove away with their ox cart stacked with baskets of fruit, waving and shouting.
Johnny’s new friend shook her finger at him from the back of the cart, still talking. She was giving him advice, he was sure of it, but he didn’t have a clue what it was about. He figured it was just as well.
The money from his peaches lasted a couple of days—long enough for Johnny to nurse a beer or two in the cantina each afternoon, waiting for something to happen. Other drifters with guns wandered in and out. Johnny had worked with a few of them before. Lucky Morgan nodded at him and Bushrod Smith bought him a beer.
Late one morning the rancher’s agent set up a table across from the wooden plank that was the cantina’s bar. The news spread fast; gunmen began to shuffle up to the hiring table. The agent knew his stuff, Johnny noticed. He hired the best guns quickly, negotiated lower rates for the unproven, and passed over some known troublemakers. Then there were the locals who thought they could shoot – wild boys who ran in gangs and caused trouble. Johnny knew the type. Hell, he’d been one of them not so long ago. A couple of them got signed on as well.
Johnny wondered if any of the toughs would recognize his name. He was pretty sure none of them would be caught dead picking peaches. And he hoped they weren’t related to his new friends from the orchard.
About the time the agent started packing up his ledger Johnny sauntered over. He splayed his hands on the table to lean in close and he spoke low so only the agent could hear him.
“Need anybody else?”
The man looked up. “Like who?”
“Like Johnny Madrid.”
“You him?” The agent looked doubtful.
The man looked him up and down before re-opening his ledger. “Heard the name.” The agent squinted at him, pen poised over the page, then wrote as he said, “Madrid. Six dollars a day and keep.”
Johnny straightened up. “Nope. My gun’s worth more than that.”
“How much more?” The agent didn’t bother to hide his annoyance.
“Oh, I don’t know. I guess nine bucks a day—and keep.”
The agent laughed. “Sorry, boy. No gun is worth that.”
Johnny smiled. “Okay. You tell your boss that you sent Johnny Madrid to the other side because you were too close-fisted with his money.” He turned and jammed his hat on his head.
The voice came from behind before he even made it to the door. “Wait. It’s a deal.”
Johnny signed the ledger, took his advance, and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. He touched his hat with a nod as he strolled out of the cantina.
Steak and eggs went a long way to make up for days of nothing but beans. Tubac’s restaurant only had a few chairs so most folks ate standing at upended barrels, ignoring the dogs and chickens scavenging underfoot. Halfway through his meal Johnny was able to snag a chair; he decided it was an omen of better things to come. He ordered pie for dessert and lingered to enjoy the feeling of a full belly and nothing to worry about until the job started tomorrow.
The late afternoon sun stretched out his shadow when he strolled to the livery. His pinto gelding would be glad to get back to…Johnny’s idle thoughts were interrupted by the whisper of a boot in the sand behind him. His senses sharpened and his blood heated up. Without changing pace he shifted his gaze to search the dusky shadows lining both sides of the street. To his right he caught a glint of steel. Nothing else grabbed his attention, but it stood to reason if they were behind him and to his right…
The street was empty except for one stray dog scratching its ear with a back foot. Itch satisfied, the dog stopped, foot hanging in mid-air, staring at something above its eye level. Johnny followed its line of sight and there was another one, off to the left, on the roof of the crumbling mission church. Good dog.
Three men at least—five bullets in his gun—he would need to reload. He could take cover by the big wooden barrels in front of the general store where he’d bartered his peaches. Every detail of the scene was as clear in his mind as rain-washed air.
Johnny didn’t recognize the voice behind him. He kept walking. If he didn’t get ahead of at least one of the others he’d have to spin like a top to take them all out, and he wanted to get closer to those barrels.
“Madrid, I’m talkin’ to you.” Harsher this time. Young. Cocky.
Johnny stopped and turned around. He could do this. His plan was in place. With a deep breath he lifted his chin to look at his challenger.
It was one of the border toughs who’d signed on for the fight. Shoot, he was just a kid – no older than Johnny.
“You cost me a job.” The kid’s boots were worn, his hat grubby with sweat around the band. The thickness in his tongue suggested he’d had a drink or two since Johnny’d last seen him in the cantina.
Johnny didn’t say anything and the kid kept talking. “After they hired you they let me and my friend go. Said you were worth two of us anyhow. I intend on showing them they’re wrong.”
Johnny cocked his head. “What if they aren’t wrong?” He flexed his right hand. “You really want to find out?”
“Hell, yes.” The boy had nothing to lose. Johnny knew the feeling. “I’m taking you down.”
Johnny dipped his head for a second before he looked hard into the boy’s eyes. “Okay.” He grinned but there was nothing happy about it. “You can try.”
The kid made a show of spreading his legs and planting his feet in the dirt. Johnny waited, ready. When the boy made his play Johnny dove to the left and drew his Colt; the kid’s bullet whizzed past his shoulder. Johnny fired twice from the ground at the gunman across the street. Without waiting to see the result he twisted the other way. Bullets sprayed around him, kicked dirt into his face. He shot once at the boy facing him, then twice at the guy on the mission roof as he dove for the cover of the barrels.
Blinking fast to clear the sand from his eyes, he huddled behind the barrels and reloaded. He filled all six chambers this time. When he peered over the barrel tops he could see the body that had pitched off the roof. It wasn’t moving. The kid with the worn boots crawled toward it, leaving a trail of blood and yelling, “Rico! Get up, Rico!” The gun was still in the kid’s hand; he stumped the butt down in the dirt as he pulled himself forward. A quick volley from behind the water trough across the street forced Johnny to duck for a second.
Then he leaned around the barrels and took quick aim at the crawling boy. He fired. The kid jerked and folded down on himself. He didn’t move again.
The shots from the trough weren’t coming so regular anymore. Johnny crouched behind the barrels, breathing hard, waiting. The gunfire stopped altogether. Nothing moved. The dog was long gone. Johnny fired once to draw out the guy behind the trough but there was no answer except a gurgle of water escaping through his bullet hole. Pulling the hammer back on his pistol he rose slowly to check the bodies for movement and the street for activity.
Johnny drew in a breath and darted out, keeping low, zigzagging his way across the street. Throwing himself behind the trough he landed on a body that screamed. He scrambled back to face a kid with blood streaming into his eyes from a gouge in his head. The boy tossed his gun away and kept screaming but Johnny couldn’t understand what the kid was saying.
He didn’t try to figure it out—Johnny fanned his Colt at the kid’s chest and blew him back into the street.
His ears rang with the silence. No one was shooting at him now.
He couldn’t catch his breath. His heart pounded.
No one was shooting at him.
A sudden weakness drove him to his knees in the bloody sand and he shuddered as the fire that had been racing through his veins cooled. Someone put a glass in his hand.
“Drink up, Johnny.”
Lucky Morgan’s face was lit with a mixture of admiration and fear. Johnny looked away in confusion. Hadn’t that last kid thrown his gun away? What had he said?
“You got’em all, Johnny. I never saw the like of it. Three of ‘em!”
Lucky grinned like the fool he was. Johnny tossed back the whiskey, took a deep breath and got to his feet. He nodded his thanks as he sagged into a post and methodically reloaded his gun.
Maybe it was the whiskey, or maybe it was because his heart wasn’t pounding out of his chest anymore, but Johnny wanted to just curl up right there in the street. Instead, he holstered his Colt, shoved himself upright and stepped around the trough on his way to the livery.
Somehow the street had gotten longer since the first time he walked down it. With every step the weight of hidden watchers pressed down on him – people who stole looks at him from behind their curtains. If he looked at them they always glanced away.
Except one didn’t. The old woman from the peach orchard stood in the frame of an open door in a dilapidated house. She wasn’t talking now, and she wasn’t smiling. Had she seen the whole thing? It bothered him to think that she’d quit smiling because of him, because of what he’d done. Oh, god – what if that last one had been her nieto?
But when she met his eyes he didn’t see what he feared. Instead she crossed herself with a sad smile as she spoke words he understood at last.
“Dios te bendiga, Johnny Madrid.”