(Sequel to Identity)
Canned peaches, jerky, and a canteen of lukewarm water: dinner in their cold camp left a lot to be desired. Then Isham snuck something out of his saddle bags, and Johnny hooted when he saw the half-empty bottle of whiskey.
“I knew there was a reason I let you come along.” Johnny reached for the bottle, but Isham didn’t let it go.
“Oh, no, Johnny Madrid. This comes at a price. You got to pay up if you aim to drink.”
Isham was smiling, but Johnny yanked his hand back.
Johnny clipped out the words but Isham didn’t seem to notice. He took a long pull on the bottle before he glanced sideways at Johnny. “A name.”
“What name?” Johnny thought of the Pinkerton envelope in his pocket. His heart sped up.
“The name of the man who taught you to shoot. How’d you get so fast? Where’d you learn the trade?”
Whew—for a minute there he got Isham’s question all mixed up with the letter he carried. No way would Johnny talk about Murdoch Lancer, not until he figured out what he was going to do about him.
So he smiled and snatched the bottle. “In jail. I learned the trade in jail.” He took a long swig without swallowing much. Being a drinking man was good for getting along; being a sober man was good for staying alive.
Isham snorted. “In jail? What were you doing in jail?”
He gave the bottle back to Isham, settled back on his elbows and crossed his legs at the ankles. It sure felt good to stretch out after riding all day. “Ninety days for vagrancy and assault. I must’ve been…fourteen?”
He’d held up travelers using his empty gun. He figured he couldn’t lose—if he got away with money he could buy food, and if he got caught he’d get two meals a day in jail. “They put me in a cell with a guy who called himself a gunfighter. Turned out he wasn’t, really, just thought he was…but I was a stupid kid and I believed him. He got me practicing, you know, and, well, here I am.”
That wasn’t the half of it, not really. Johnny practiced shooting until he couldn’t hold the gun any more, practiced his draw ‘til the Colt leapt into his hand without him thinking about it. He got consistent and he got fast—real fast. But it was sheer dumb luck that kept him alive until he learned to use his head. After every job he holed up somewhere and thought through everything that happened, looking for what he could do better. He kept practicing, but mostly he kept thinking. And no one taught him that.
Isham rolled the whiskey bottle between his hands. “You’ve made some name for yourself, Johnny boy. You’re getting’ right up there with the big boys. Now me, I learned my lessons from one of the best—Sexton Joe Hughes himself.”
Who the hell was that? “Is that right? Ol’ Sexton Joe, huh?”
Isham nodded. “When I joined up with him I could shoot, but I was pretty wet behind the ears, you know? Thought I knew everything.” Isham squinted into the distance. “He taught me to follow orders because that’s what we’re gettin’ paid for. Taught me the business end of the trade, how to negotiate a fair deal for my services. Taught me to see the job through to the end. ”
Johnny nodded, more to show he’d heard Isham than to agree with him. What Isham said wasn’t news to Johnny. Every gun Johnny met knew that stuff. He’d learned about following orders when he was in the Mexican army—he learned he wasn’t any good at it. Didn’t matter, though; they were just passing time. And the bottle.
After another few belts Isham started laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
Isham snickered a little more. “I heard a story the other day.”
He didn’t say anything else so Johnny played his part. “Well, go on, let’s hear it.”
“It’s a hoot. So this cowboy rode up to a hitchin’ post and tied his horse there. Then he walked around back, lifted up the horse’s tail, and planted a big old smooch right there where the sun don’t shine. Another fella walked by and saw it. He looks at the first cowboy and says, ‘Did I just see what I think I saw?’ And the first cowboy says, ‘I reckon you did, because I got me some powerful chapped lips.’ And the second guy says, ‘And does kissing your horse’s asshole make ‘em better?’ And the first cowboy says, ‘Hell no, but it sure keeps me from licking ’em!’”
So did Johnny. It had been a good long while since he’d let himself get loose and laugh it up some. Maybe he should do it more often.
It was dusk the next day when they rode into Mesilla. Johnny lost the toss, so he took the horses to the livery while Isham checked out the accommodations. He chose the Majestic Hotel with its wraparound front porch, two floors of rooms to let, a restaurant, and a bar. A sign in the bar promised a show on Saturday night with “Maeve and her Can-Can Girls”.
“It ain’t the nicest hotel in town, but the location can’t be beat. It’s right across from that new bawdy house we came here for.” Isham punched Johnny on the arm. “I got us each a room. Let’s eat.”
The slim pickings on the trail were forgotten when the waiter brought out juicy steaks with all the fixings. Johnny bolted down most of his dinner before he realized Isham’s plate was still nearly full.
“Somethin’ wrong with your food?”
Isham winked and forked a big bite of steak into his mouth. But he left quite a bit of his meal untouched when they headed out to the porch. Johnny ponied up for a couple of fancy cigars to enjoy in the rocking chairs with thick leather cushions. They settled on the side of the porch facing the new brothel.
The door was painted pink, and the shingle said “Gentlemen’s Club—Please Knock”. Johnny and Isham rocked and smoked and watched trail-worn cowboys work up the nerve to do just that. After a while Isham started telling dirty jokes, and before long they were both making up stories about the patrons of the bawdy house.
“Now lookie there, Johnny. This guy thinks he’s God’s gift to ladies. See? Hair all pomaded, hands all soft, shoes all shined…but he gets with a girl and he’s prettier than she is. He can’t quit thinking that he’s prettier, and he can’t get it up at all. So he tells her it’s all her fault and he tries to get his money back. They’ll be bouncing him out through that pink door going the other direction pretty soon.”
“You think? Maybe. How about that one—see him there? He’s just a kid; shit, he can’t be more than thirteen. I bet it’s his first time and he just hopes he can put it where it goes without making a fool of himself.”
“Are you speaking from experience, there, Johnny Madrid?”
“I’m speaking from YOUR experience, Isham.”
Once the cigars were nothing but ash Johnny looked across the street himself, but Isham just kept rocking. When Johnny stood up Isham waved him away with a smile. “I think I’ll just sit here and rock a while longer, Johnny boy. Kinda tired right now.”
Johnny was okay with that; he sure didn’t need someone to show him around a bordello. Money in his pocket, food in his belly, a willing sportin’ girl in his arms…times like this made a man glad to have been born.
No matter what name he was born with.
Isham never did show up at the bordello. Johnny found him tight as a tick in the hotel bar, singing “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and buying rounds for the whole place. A cluster of drunken cowboys holding shot glasses surrounded him and the saloon girls hung all over him.
“Whoa, that’s enough. C’mon.” Johnny grabbed Isham’s arm to stop him from tossing more coins on the table. Isham’s yell of pain brought him up short. He let go and Isham pulled his arm back with a curse.
“Damn, Isham, is that the arm that got the graze?” It had slipped his mind that Isham got shot during the job in Bullskin. “Okay, let’s see it.”
Isham tried to guard his arm, but Johnny gripped his shoulder and pushed up his jacket sleeve.
The telltale stain covered the whole arm of his shirt. Isham looked away with a grimace and mumbled, “That don’t look so good.” There was a funny set to his mouth and a green tinge to his face. His eyes met Johnny’s just before they rolled back and he passed out in his chair. Isham’s drinking buddies began to melt away as the girls flounced off to entertain other customers.
Shit—a gunfighter with a weak stomach. Johnny remembered Isham’s queasiness when the Pinkerton agent had bought it. Isham was sure in the wrong line of work.
“Does this town have a doctor?” Johnny asked no one in particular. He looked around; he and Isham were alone at the table and no one in the saloon would meet his eyes. He figured that meant no.
Johnny tapped Isham’s face until his eyes blinked open. “Wake up, Isham. Wake up now. Let’s get you out of here.”
It wasn’t easy getting a drunken, queasy Isham to his room, but Johnny managed it. After he poured Isham into bed Johnny went back downstairs to scare up a medicine kit from the clerk at the front desk.
Isham’s arm was swollen from elbow to wrist. Halfway up, on the outside, was a three inch long groove with hard, yellow edges. Its inside was an angry red, and it oozed a cloudy, foul-smelling wetness.
No wonder Isham spent the night getting drunk.
Isham yelped when Johnny washed the gash with cotton and water, but after that he didn’t make a sound. Once the wound was clean Johnny covered the whole thing with yellow salve from the medical bag; it smelled like turpentine. Isham started snoring as Johnny tied off the last knot of the bandage. Satisfied Isham would live through the night, Johnny found his own room.
A quick glance around showed no sign of trouble—not that he expected any; coming to Mesilla had been a spur of the moment decision. No one besides Isham knew he was here. Johnny scrubbed the stink from his hands, took off his boots, and only thought about Murdoch Lancer once before he fell asleep.
The next morning, when he was done with breakfast, Johnny went back and knocked on Isham’s door. Nothing. He pushed it open; Isham was right where Johnny had left him the night before. Shaking him didn’t wake him, and Isham was hot to the touch. With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Johnny set to tend the fever with cold water and wet rags.
He spent the day and half the night coaxing Isham to drink water, changing the bandage on his arm as the infection seeped through, and laying cold towels on his head.
‘Didn’t Sexton Joe Hughes teach you about dodging bullets, Isham?’ Being shot was an occupational hazard. If the bullet didn’t kill you outright, you could still die of infection. If you could find a doctor you were a little better off, but not by much. Docs had a habit of lopping off arms and legs if they got infected.
A low moan interrupted Johnny’s thoughts. “Hey, Isham.” When Isham opened his eyes Johnny gave him water, handed him a cold cloth, and headed back to his own room for some shut-eye.
The next day Isham was awake and complaining about how his arm hurt and how rotten he felt. He lay back on the bed, eyes closed, while Johnny changed the bandage one more time.
“You gonna pass out again?”
Isham answered without opening his eyes. “I might. If I don’t pass out I puke. Good thing I always find someone else to look after this kinda stuff.”
“Yeah, lucky me.”
Isham kept himself well-oiled with whiskey to keep the pain at bay. Johnny changed the bandage every day and saw the discharge get clearer and the swelling go down. Whatever was in the yellow salve really did the trick, even if it did smell like paint thinner.
After three days Isham felt chipper enough to sit out on the porch; that’s where Johnny found him when he came back from the Gentlemen’s Club. He’d visited a couple of times while he was waiting for Isham to get better. He felt bad that Isham had been too sick to do anything except lay around, but Isham told him not to worry about it.
“Besides,” Isham rocked a little faster, his leg jiggling up and down. “I had the time to do some thinkin’, layin’ there, and…” his voice trailed off. He stared down at the wooden planks of the porch.
“And what?” Johnny leaned against the railing and pushed his hat up.
“I gotta thank you, Johnny. Not many would have done what you did for me.” Isham didn’t look Johnny in the eye but he got the words out.
Johnny said “Phhtt,” and tried to brush Isham’s gratitude away with a wave of his hand, but Isham persisted. “No, really. Thanks. I owe you.”
Isham rubbed his hands together and leaned forward; he looked happy to change the subject. “While you were across the street,” Isham gave Johnny a sly wink. “I heard some cowboys talking about a range war in Nogales. I expect they’ll be hiring guns there.”
“Nogales? That’s gotta be three hundred miles from here.”
“So? You got somewhere to be?”
Well, now, that was the question, wasn’t it? Johnny thought of the Pinkerton letter in his pocket.
Nogales was west of Mesilla, and west lay California. Three hundred miles west was three hundred miles closer to Murdoch Lancer; three hundred miles to decide what to do with his old man.
“Okay. Nogales it is.”
Maybe he’d touch a match to the Pinkerton letter along the way.
“You boys are too late. That little fracas was over before it even started.” Mort rubbed at the bar with a towel that probably used to be white. Probably used to be clean, too. “Good thing. Town was full of hotshots wantin’ to sign up. Brawls and bullets all the time.” Mort flipped the rag over his shoulder to pile sandwiches on a tray. “Nogales is nice and quiet again, or as quiet as it ever gets, which come to think on it, ain’t all that quiet.”
Well, he got that right. The Rialto was doing a booming business, like every other place Johnny had ever been to in Nogales. The town attracted all kinds: cowboys and settlers, honest men and grifters, Anglos and Mexicans...of course, Anglos and Mexicans didn’t mix much. The Rialto was on the gringo side. With a white friend like Isham, Johnny was enough of a gringo to get by.
Mort poured a couple of beers and slid them towards Johnny and Isham before lugging his tray over to the lunch table. “Well, come on, fellas, eat up. It’s free with your beer.”
Isham rubbed his hands together. “Boy, look at that! I reckon I don’t mind if I do.” He headed right over to load up a plate with pickled eggs and smoked herring.
Johnny leaned back against the bar and checked around the room, sipping his beer while Isham found a table close by and dug in.
When Mort was back behind the bar, Johnny turned around. “Anything else goin’ on?”
Mort was busy with his rag again, this time wiping down the lunch tray. “There’s a guy trying to run a rancher off. I heard the rancher was lookin’ to find a gun or two. You fellas interested in something like that?”
Johnny gulped the last of his beer and motioned for refills where Isham was sitting. He grabbed some roast pork and a couple slices of bread from the lunch table. A girl fixin’ to bust right out of her dress brought the beers as he pulled up a chair with the toe of his boot.
“So, Isham, what’ll it be? You want to keep lookin’ a while, or should we take up ranching?”
Isham tore his eyes away from the saloon girl. “Anything but ranching, that’s for sure. Did you ever work on a ranch? I did once. Back-breaking, Johnny, that’s what it is. Back-breaking, ball-busting, and dirty. And dangerous.”
Johnny toyed with a hunk of bread. “Dangerous, huh? Well, I sure don’t want to get involved in nothin’ dangerous.”
Isham laughed. Johnny didn’t.
“C’mon, Johnny, that was funny.” Isham looked closer at him. “You okay?”
No, he wasn’t. He just realized he should have been a rancher. Johnny Madrid…no, Johnny Lancer would be a rancher right now if his father hadn’t thrown him and his mama to the curb. Maybe the old man did him a favor. Who wanted to bust their ass all day on some two bit ranch?
Johnny forced himself to smile back at Isham and say, “Yeah, I’m okay.”
Isham leaned back in his chair. “Hey, Mort. This rancher looking for guns—where can we find him?”
“That’d be Dab Runkle from the Lazy J, and it’s your lucky day. I jes’ saw him at the barbershop. Down this street here ‘bout three blocks and one block south. You’ll know him when you see him. He ain’t real tall. ”
It turned out Dab Runkle was just about the shortest grown man either of them had ever come across. The stovepipe hat sticking up a good ten inches from his head did nothing to hide his lack of height. Heck, it made him look shorter. When he stepped out of the barbershop twirling the ends of his handlebar mustache, Isham elbowed Johnny in the ribs and snickered.
They caught up with Runkle before he disappeared into the crowd, although with the hat he wasn’t all that hard to keep track of.
“Mr. Runkle. I’m Johnny Madrid, and this is Isham. We heard you might be looking for some protection.”
Runkle took a look at their gun belts and herded them into the nearest café. Leading them to a shadowy alcove in the back, he waved a hand in the general direction of a table, then pulled out two chairs opposite them. He settled into one and plopped his hat on the other. The top of it peeked over the table.
“I need more than just protection. I need real gun fighters, men with sand. I’ve heard of you, Madrid.” Runkle pointed a thick finger at Isham. “Never heard of you.”
Isham flashed a cool smile. “Well, that don’t mean nothin’. I get the job done.”
Runkle looked them up and down. He was bald on top, with a thick fringe of hair around his skull. His head was shiny even in the gloom of the café. Johnny kind of missed the hat. “I’ve had other fellows bail out when they find out who they’ll be facing. You know Zeke Tippett and Abe Ricks?”
“Yeah. I know’em.” Johnny toyed with the storm strings of his hat. He had worked with the cousins once; that had been enough. “They’re guns to be respected.”
“Do they know you, Madrid?”
Johnny cocked his head. “They know me.”
“Do they respect you?”
“Well, now, you’d have to ask them that.”
Runkle looked satisfied. “So you’ll take them on?”
Isham jumped in. “If that’s what you want us to do, Mr. Runkle.”
“I don’t believe in unnecessary bloodshed, but no one is going to take what’s mine, not without a fight.” Runkle slammed the table flat-handed.
Typical rancher talk. Murdoch Lancer would sound like that if he had trouble. He’d have to be taller, though…
Isham was asking, “Who hired Tippet and Ricks, and why?”
“Elmer Aiken is the ‘who’. As for the ‘why’...” Runkle took a deep breath, then blew it all out. “He’s trying to drive me off my ranch. First Tippett and Ricks scared off most of my hands. Now Aiken keeps them around to destroy my property. They dammed up my main water source last week and set some fields afire. It took me two days to blast that dam away. There’s no help for the fields.”
He drummed his fingers on the table. “They’re out there right now running what’s left of my stock around, burning the weight off them, knowing I don’t have enough men left to stop them.”
So why was Runkle in Nogales getting a haircut? Johnny wouldn’t have been if it was his property going up in flames.
His property? Never had a thought like that before. Damn.
“How many men do you have, Mr. Runkle?” Isham sure could be professional when he wanted to.
“I’ve got five cowhands left and a few Mexicans who farm for me. Another one works in the house.”
Now they were getting down to brass tacks. Johnny leaned forward. “What about Aiken?”
“He has Tippett and Ricks and their men, maybe three or four more.”
“Is that all?”
Runkle nodded. “Aiken’s not a rancher. He’s got a place on the outskirts of town.”
“So this Aiken has seven men, counting him?”
“Yes, that’s about right. Seven.”
“And you’ve got eleven counting your men and us, is that right?”
Johnny didn’t like the odds. They might have the advantage in numbers, but Tippett and Ricks’s men would be gunfighters, not cowboys. “What else can you tell us about Aiken?”
“We were friends. Elmer helped me get started out here seven, eight years ago. Set me up to talk to the land agents and bankers.” Runkle worried at his mustache with his teeth. “He made his living as a printer at the time, and he knew everybody. Oh, he was crusty all right, but he was…he seemed to be okay.”
A man with a dish towel tied around his waist approached the table. Runkle glared at him and the waiter turned back to the kitchen without a word. Too bad; Johnny wouldn’t have said no to a beer. The free lunch at the Rialto made a man thirsty.
“Then we both started sparking the same gal, only when she chose me, Elmer, well, he took it bad. I don’t think he ever forgave me.” Runkle blinked a few times, swiped a hand across his face. “When she died having our baby, he blamed me for that. The child died, too.”
After a moment Runkle squared his shoulders. “That was a year ago. Aiken went a tetch crazy, if you ask me. He disappeared for a long time – just walked away without a word to anybody. His print shop sat there, empty. When he came back he talked about meeting God. Told me God wanted me to give him my ranch as penance, or some such nonsense. I said no, of course, and since then he’s done nothing but make my life miserable. Now it’s come to this.” He pointed at them.
Isham caught Johnny’s eye and craned his neck a little toward Runkle. Johnny gave a slow nod.
Isham sat up straighter in his chair, his hands splayed on the table. “Mr. Runkle, do you know for a fact Aiken will back off if we take out his guns?”
Runkle’s bushy eyebrows knitted closer together. “Why wouldn’t…? Oh. I don’t know. Who knows if he’ll back off? But it’ll get rid of the two of them, at least.”
“It’ll sure do that, Mr. Runkle.” Johnny pursed his lips, nodding. “But what’ll keep Aiken from hiring new ones?”
“Well…nothing, I suppose. What’s your point? Are you suggesting….do you think you need to kill Elmer?” Runkle’s gaze darted around the restaurant.
Johnny waited until the rancher looked him at him straight on. “It might be the only way.”
“And you’d do it? Just like that?”
Johnny hated this moment—the moment a good man realized just what he was buying when he hired guns. He was glad Isham answered.
“Yes sir, Mr. Runkle, just like that. If that’s what you hire us to do.”
Runkle’s shoulders sagged. “No. I just want him to back off. I want him to leave me alone.”
Isham nodded. “We can ask him. If he backs off, well, okay. If not…”
“You’ll shoot him.” Runkle’s tone was flat.
Johnny took his turn. “Yeah. We’ll shoot him. If that’s what you hire us to do. We’ll give him a choice first.”
Runkle sat back. He stared at them, shaking his head. “I’m going to have to think about this.”
“Sure, Mr. Runkle. You do that. We’ll be around.” Isham’s chair scraped across the floor as he stood, but Runkle was studying the table and he didn’t look up.
Johnny pushed the door so hard the hinges complained. He and Isham stepped from the café into the sunshine and blinked in the bright light.
“You know what, Isham? This is a hell of a way to make a living.”
Two days passed before Johnny got the message: Dab Runkle wanted to try one last time to talk peace with Elmer Aiken, and he would pay Johnny and Isham up front for protection.
It was an hour’s ride to the small holding north of town; Johnny covered Runkle’s right side and Isham his left. The empty rails of a rusty hay rake blocked the lane to Aiken’s place but the horses stepped over them without balking. Johnny signaled a stop next to a battered watering trough between the house and barn.
A man sat on the sagging porch, whittling. He looked up as the riders stopped, then pulled his feet off the railing and stood up. Johnny recognized Abe Ricks by the jagged scar across his cheek—Johnny had seen Tippett put it there.
Johnny rested a forearm on his saddle horn and smiled his working smile. “Abe. Mr. Runkle here wants to talk to your boss.”
Ricks shifted his knife from hand to hand as he stared hard at Johnny, then Isham. With barely a glance at Dab Runkle, he turned and stepped into the house. The horses flinched when he slammed the screen door behind him.
Leather creaked as Runkle straightened his saddle. His horse stamped a rear foot at the shift in weight, but snorted and calmed down when Runkle stroked its neck. Johnny glanced at Isham; his eyes were glued to the front door.
Johnny squinted across the patches of mesquite scrub in the dusty yard. The barn door was falling from its hinges; he tried to see through the gap. Did something move inside? Before Johnny was sure, Aiken stormed out of the house flanked by his gunfighters. Johnny nodded at Tippett, but if the man recognized him he didn’t let on.
Aiken looked a lot older than Runkle. He’d probably been tall once; now he was bent at the shoulders like a button hook. His long hair was mostly gray, his unshaved cheeks sunken. Tippett and Ricks stayed on the porch while Aiken stumped down the step.
“Well?” Aiken’s head wobbled. His hands shook, and a six shooter stuck out from his waistband.
Runkle’s voice was firm. “Elmer, I came to ask you one last time to stop this lunacy. I don’t want to see anyone get hurt.”
“I don’t think so. You need to pay for what you took.” Aiken’s voice was shrill, but it was his eyes that struck Johnny. He’d seen that look before— in a rabid dog attacking a little girl. Shit. Aiken was loco. Loco, or on peyote or something. Isham squirmed a little. Did he see it too? Tippett and Ricks weren’t giving anything away; they stood unmoving behind their boss.
When Runkle spoke again he sounded gentler. “I’m sorry, Elmer, but Jennie’s gone. None of this will bring her back. You know that.”
Aiken’s face flushed and his hand twitched. Johnny was ready to grab his Colt in a hurry. He didn’t want to be the first to shoot and cause a blood bath, but he didn’t want to die, either.
“I know it won’t bring her back, but it’ll give me some of what you took from me. God spoke to me, you know, and he told me. It’ll set things right.”
“How? How will this set anything right? Jennie’s still gone.”
“She’s gone because you killed her. Having your child killed her.” Aiken shook his finger at Runkle, harder and harder until his whole arm flailed. “God said he wanted Jennie to be with me. She was everything to me. You knew that, but you took her anyway. If it wasn’t for you she’d have been with me.”
Aiken took a step forward. “She should have had my child. You even took that from me. God help me, I’m going to take everything away from you, too!”
Aiken pulled his gun.
Johnny got him in the shoulder but not before Aiken squeezed his shot off, too, and all hell broke loose. Bullets tore the air and Johnny dove from his horse, peppering the porch with return fire. He thought he saw Runkle topple to the ground. Was Isham on top of him? Johnny couldn’t risk another look.
Damn. He scrambled through the dirt and smoke and the only cover he found was under his horse. Shit. If a bullet didn’t get him he’d get knocked silly by a steel shod hoof. He bent his arms around his head but then the son of a bitch took off and left him open again. Beside him Runkle’s horse tossed its head, legs flashing. Johnny rolled under it anyway.
The shooting turned into shouting, but he couldn’t make out the words as he crabbed backward in the dirt. Through churning horse legs he caught a glimpse of Tippett and Ricks holding Aiken up by the arms, pulling him onto the porch.
Then Johnny was behind the horse trough, and he wasn’t the only one. Isham lay on top of Runkle; neither man moved. Heart in his mouth, Johnny crouched next to them, reloading his Colt, filling every chamber.
Isham answered without moving. “Runkle’s hit but he’s okay. I’m just dandy.”
Johnny slapped the back of Isham’s leg in relief. He peeked around the end of the trough and saw something move by the barn. More men; that figured. Things weren’t looking real good just now.
“Guns in the barn, Isham. I might need cover.”
Isham rolled off Runkle. “Stay put,” he told the rancher, then crept closer to the end of the trough, gun in hand, keeping low.
Johnny took a deep breath and snaked an arm out to grab the reins of Runkle’s horse. Guns flashed again from the porch as Johnny pulled the horse’s neck around him like a shield. At least Isham’s covering fire kept the other men from leaving the barn. Johnny ducked under the horse’s neck and saw Aiken stumble clear of his gunfighters; Johnny took the shot and Aiken dropped like a rock. Johnny wrapped himself in horse again til the smoke cleared; Tippett and Ricks crouched behind overturned chairs on the porch. They ignored the crumpled body beside them.
Aiken was dead, then. Good.
Johnny raised his hands over the horse’s neck, palms out, reins gathered in his left hand, gun thumbed in his right. He yelled loud enough so the men by the barn could hear him, too. “We’re done here! It’s over. Tippett, Ricks, call off your men. Aiken’s dead. This is done.”
Tippett and Ricks stayed put. Guns glinted in their hands, but they didn’t shoot.
“Okay? Your boss is dead. We’re finished.” Johnny didn’t trust the men on the porch any further than he could throw ‘em, but he risked a half step forward, hoping there was a chance they would to listen to reason. He wouldn’t bet the ranch on it—and that didn’t mean what it used to, did it?—but it bought him a little time to come up with another plan.
Then Tippett made a move and Johnny dove left and fired. He hit Tippett dead center in the chest. The horse bolted, reins flapping. Ricks kept shooting. Johnny fanned his hammer as he fell back and Ricks went down too.
Everything got quiet.
Johnny found himself flat on his butt with his legs spread in front of him. He needed air but he couldn’t breathe in. Goddamn it. He hated having the wind knocked out of him. What set him down, anyway?
He forced a breath and lurched to his feet. A wrenching pain under his ribcage kept him bent over until he tamped it down and stood straight. Isham was helping Runkle up, looking at something over Johnny’s shoulder. Johnny turned to see two men in front of the barn, hands held high.
“Don’t shoot. We’re done. Don’t shoot!”
“Throw’em down.” Johnny’s voice was high and wispy, like an old codger with consumption. The men dropped their gun belts without argument. That was good because Johnny didn’t have the wind to say anything else.
Isham trotted past him to pick up the rigs, but he snuck a glance at Johnny as he went by. Why would he do that? Isham knew better than to take his eyes off Aiken’s flunkies.
“Where’s the rest of your men?” Good, Isham. That was more like it.
“They’re out running beeves around. They’ll be back in a couple hours.” The taller of the two men spoke. He looked past Isham to Johnny. “You’re Madrid, aren’t you?”
Johnny nodded and wished he hadn’t. Why did nodding his head make his chest hurt?
“I thought Tippett and Ricks was the best.” The tall fellow spat on the ground. “Guess not.”
“Guess not.” Johnny finally got a deep breath. He turned to look at the porch and everything spun around for a minute. He got his eyes focused, but nothing was moving there except Dab Runkle, in front of the porch step, his crushed stovepipe hat clutched in one hand. His other hand grasped his arm, right where his shirt was bloody. His eyes were cast down, and he was shaking his head.
Next thing Johnny knew his arm was slung over Isham’s shoulder and Isham’s arm was around his waist. They stumbled a step or two closer to the house. The pain below his ribs spread to his neck and his sight was getting dim. Johnny hoped Isham would find him a nice place to sit down, because being upright was starting to be more trouble than it was worth.
Isham must have been reading his mind, because he dropped Johnny into the chair Ricks had sat in, whittling. There were voices all around, but none of them made any sense. It was getting cold. Johnny didn’t feel too good. Something was dripping down the inside of his shirt and he smelled blood. Then the world spun into a black hole and he fell inside it.
Cobwebs drooped from the unpainted ceiling over his bed. Flat on his back with a bloody bandage tight under his ribcage, Johnny woke up with a hazy memory of being run through with a hot poker.
That couldn’t be right. He’d been shot. That was it; he’d been shot after he killed Aiken. He didn’t remember it being so painful last time he’d stopped a bullet. Jesus Christ it hurt.
Isham was okay, though, wasn’t he? And Runkle…Runkle had been shot but not too badly, at least that’s how it looked. He’d seen the rancher walking under his own power. Tippett and Ricks were dead. Weren’t they? Yeah, he was pretty sure he took them out.
Where the hell was he? Where was his jacket? His gun? Where was the Pinkerton letter? Oh, shit, don’t let anyone read that letter. He squinched his eyes shut and swallowed the panic. It left, but the pain stayed.
He needed to take a deep breath. He knew to do it slow, but the air caught in his throat and made him cough. The coughing hurt so bad he passed out again.
The creaking of the door to his room woke him up. A gringo in a black frock coat closed it behind him, medical bag in hand. He nodded at Johnny when their eyes met.
“Madrid.” The man unbuckled his bag and set some supplies on the tiny table beside Johnny’s bed. “I’m Doc Summers. Good to see you doing better.”
Well, damn, if this was better he must have been in some rough shape before.
“Dab Runkle told me to take good care of you.” Dr. Summers poured liquid from an amber bottle into a glass. When he slipped his arm around Johnny’s shoulders to ease him up, his coat sleeve was scratchy and cold on Johnny’s bare skin. Johnny shivered and groaned. The doctor wedged a pillow behind him and put the glass to Johnny’s lips.
“Drink this. It’ll take the edge off the pain.”
It smelled vile and tasted worse. God, it was horrible stuff, but if it helped the pain he was okay with it. The water the doctor gave him afterward helped it stay down.
Dr. Summers snipped away at the bandage around Johnny’s middle. “Moving you was too risky so we set you up here in Elmer Aiken’s house.”
That explained the cobwebs.
Pulling the covering away, the doctor picked at the large plaster underneath. “The bullet went through but the bleeding wouldn’t stop. I had to cauterize the wound.”
And that explained the poker.
Under the plaster was a scorched hole just below Johnny’s ribcage. The skin around it was angry red and it oozed the stuff he got familiar with taking care of Isham in Mesilla. The smell made the room spin around. Johnny laid back, swallowing hard.
Isham. Where was he? Johnny’s head was starting to feel all cottony; must be from that shit the doc made him swallow. He managed to get a word out. “Isham?”
The doctor snorted. “Isham sends his regards but he won’t come to see you. He said you’d understand.”
He probably would, once he’d slept for about a year. Johnny closed his eyes again.
Blood fell out of the sky.
The red rain ran down the gutters, filling the horse troughs. Johnny dodged the drops; if any of it got on him he would be damned to hell forever. He needed to get out of this town and make it to the Lazy J, away from the blood and the threat of perdition.
The sky stopped bleeding at the edge of town. Johnny walked alone through a gray, dusty desert. The trail ended at a ranch house. Isham sat on the sagging porch, whittling and smiling.
Dab Runkle came out the door shaking his finger at Johnny. “Johnny Madrid. It’s about time you showed up. I’ve been looking for you for a long time.” Runkle tossed his stovepipe hat aside. Isham picked it up and put it on.
“Now get over here and bring your gun. No son of mine is going to ride in covered in blood and pretending to be innocent.” Runkle changed. He was faceless and what he said didn’t make any sense—Johnny wasn’t his son, and he wasn’t riding, and he sure wasn’t covered in blood.
But then Johnny looked down and he was on a horse, and there was dark red blood all the way to his boots. It ran down his fingers and dripped off the gun in his hand. Johnny shuddered and threw the gun away, but it was too late.
The little rancher was now tall and broad shouldered. He reached out his long arms and pulled Johnny off the horse into a bear hug. Blood from Johnny’s hands colored Runkle’s shirt but Runkle didn’t notice. Johnny was trapped in the man’s arms, unable to get away.
Johnny forced himself awake. The nightmare melted away. He looked at his right hand, surprised it didn’t have blood on it. Then he wondered why he thought it would. By the time he managed to catch his breath and calm his heart the dream was gone, except for a sense of being trapped by the rancher’s long arms.
God, he felt awful. Getting shot up was bad enough, but being cauterized took the pain to a whole other place. He turned a little, this way and that, but nothing helped. If it hurt this bad just lying there, maybe he should get up. He could look inside that wardrobe opposite his bed; maybe he’d find his clothes and the Pinkerton letter.
Bad idea. Damn, that hurt. Johnny slumped back on the pillow and concentrated on not puking.
The doctor came back at that moment, took one look at Johnny, and poured more medicine into him. In the time it took for Johnny’s head to feel fuzzy and the pain to recede a bit, the doctor changed the bandage.
“You’re a lucky man. It’s healing well and there’s no sign of infection. You’ll be up and around in a few days.”
The doctor peered at Johnny’s face. “Do you understand what I am telling you?”
Johnny nodded. His head was stuffed with cotton and the pain was tolerable now, but he couldn’t imagine ever getting out of bed again.
Dr. Summers wiped Johnny’s face with a damp towel. “I think you should sleep. Later we’ll see about getting some food into you. Once you eat you’ll feel much better.”
Johnny was going to tell the doctor he hoped so, but he decided to take the man’s advice and go to sleep.
A couple days of rest and good food made a world of difference. Dr. Summers had just changed his bandage and Johnny was going to ask him when he could get out of bed when somebody pushed the door open.
Isham leaned into the frame with a grin. “Hey, Johnny, good to see you, amigo.”
It was about time Isham showed up. “You, too, Isham, you old devil. Where you been?”
“Here and there. Hey, I got your clothes took care of.” Isham held out a package wrapped in brown paper. Dr. Summers took it and passed it to Johnny.
“Your treatment is finished, Mr. Madrid. I suggest a gradual return to your normal activities. Come by my office every day or so and I’ll change that bandage for you.” He began packing up his supplies, leaving the amber bottle on Johnny’s table. “Take as much laudanum as you need. And stay out of the way of bullets. Doctor’s orders.” He chuckled as Johnny reached out to shake his hand.
“Thanks for everything, Doc. What do I owe you?”
“Mr. Runkle has taken care of everything.”
“Well, I appreciate it. And I’ll tell him when I see him.” Johnny picked at the edge of the package. As soon as he was alone he could open it. If the Pinkerton letter wasn’t there, he didn’t know what he’d do. Damn Murdoch Lancer.
Isham hung around after the doctor left. Johnny would have been glad for the company, except for wanting to see if the letter was still in his jacket pocket.
“Shoe’s on the other foot, ain’t it, Johnny?” Isham looked a little green around the gills just being in the same room as Johnny’s wound.
“Yeah, I guess so. You been waiting for me?”
Isham perched on the end of the bed, careful not to look at anything except Johnny’s face. “Kind of. No real reason to leave Nogales yet. It’s a fun town, Johnny.” Isham rubbed imaginary coins together. “I had some luck at Faro last night.”
“And I got to tell you, people are talking about you.”
Shit. Did somebody read the letter? Johnny kept his voice cool. “Yeah? What’re they sayin’?”
“Only that you’re the best they’ve ever seen.”
That wasn’t what he’d expected. “Who’s seen me?”
“Dundee for one. You know, that older fella who come outta the barn at the end of our little fracas? He’s tellin’ anyone who’ll listen that he never saw anything like you, taking out both Tippett and Ricks.”
Johnny stared down at the package in his lap. He didn’t know Dundee, but he knew talk like that could go two ways. Either it grew your reputation, which meant more work and better money, or it stirred up some local yahoo to call you out.
A lot of times it did both.
“Anybody besides him?”
“Dab Runkle. He’s a good man, Johnny. He knew you did what had to be done, and he’s grateful to us.”
Johnny nodded. Maybe it would be a good idea to stay in town for a while, see what came of it. “Tell you what. You clear out while I get dressed, and I’ll catch up with you later. We still at the boarding house?”
Isham nodded. “You need any help?”
“From you?” Johnny laughed, and it only hurt a little.
Isham laughed, too. “Well, I could go get somebody.”
Johnny waved him away. Once he was sure Isham was gone he ripped the paper off the bundle. His jacket was on top. The bullet hole had been patched but his blood had stained the leather a darker shade of brown. Johnny fingered the inside jacket pocket and felt a piece of paper.
The Pinkerton letter was still there.
The top of the envelope was crisp with dried blood. When he tugged at it the whole thing fell apart. He rimmed the pocket with his finger to dig the soggy clump of paper out of the bottom; the globs stuck to his fingers until he wiped them on his sheets.
No one had read it. No one could have read it. Hell, even he couldn’t read it.
He ignored a twinge of disappointment and pawed through the bundle for a shirt. The letter was gone and it was time to forget about Murdoch Lancer. Time to get on with his life. He didn’t need Murdoch Lancer. Let the man keep looking, if he needed a gun that bad.
Isham had been right, on the trail: Johnny was making a name for himself, and that name sure wasn’t Lancer. What just happened here in Nogales proved it, didn’t it? People were talking about Johnny Madrid.
That was all he ever wanted, really: to be good at his trade.
The next night Dab Runkle bought drinks for Johnny and Isham at the Rialto. He waved off Johnny’s thanks for paying the doc and offered his good word if he heard anybody looking to hire guns. When he stood up to leave he plunked a new hat on his bald head, and Johnny laughed; it was even taller than the last one.
Isham was trying to make time with the busty saloon girl again. She winked at him but kept going; Isham turned his grin on Johnny. “So, Johnny Madrid, you got any plans?”
Johnny looked down at his beer. “Nah. I think I’ll stay here a while, see what develops, you know?”
“Good idea. You’re hot right now. Best ride that reputation as far as you can.”
“Yep. Make hay while the sun shines.”
Isham hefted his glass in a toast. “Strike while the iron is hot.”
They each took a swallow.
Johnny toasted Isham back. “No time like the present.”
“The early bird catches the worm.” Isham sounded a little thick.
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” It was a pissing contest, is what it was. Johnny kept hiking his glass but he only took a sip after each proverb. Isham guzzled his beer pretty quick.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
Johnny shifted in his chair. He was having fun, but he did hurt some. Better drink deeper. “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.”
“Marry in haste, repent in leisure.”
“Isham! You planning on getting married?” Johnny was a little bit buzzed. He felt a grin plastered on his face.
“Woo-hoo, not a chance, amigo. Just a figure of speech.” Isham finished his beer and motioned for more. “Your turn.”
“Blood is thicker than…” A picture flashed in Johnny’s head—blood dripping off his hand while the rancher who pulled him off his horse hugged him.
What did that even mean, that blood is thicker than water? Something to do with loyalty, right? Should Johnny have more loyalty to a father who kicked him out than to a friend like Isham, who stood by him? With a shake of his head Johnny drove the dream from his mind. He didn’t usually have bad dreams. Must have been that laudanum.
Learning about Murdoch Lancer confuzzled him for a while. But Lancer meant nothing to him, and California was a long way away. Nogales was a hustling town—lots of gringos here who might want to hire guns.
Maybe there was a nice bordello. There had to be, in a town this size. Some female company would help clear his head…
And make it easier to ignore the little niggle that something had been lost.