Many thanks to Suzanne, my hard working beta on this story.
Part One: Jackson
Johnny Madrid watched a skinny white man hesitate just inside the bar’s swinging doors. The gringo peered through the smoky haze; his eyes glanced at Johnny, looked away, then darted back for a longer look.
Johnny sipped his beer.
The man took a deep breath and headed toward him, weaving through the close-set tables and chairs. The gringo must be either crazy or desperate to walk through a room of drunken Mexicans. Johnny smiled to himself; his money was on desperate.
"Johnny Madrid?" The man wet his lips with a darting tongue.
Anglo, Johnny reminded himself. "Yeah."
The gringo looked down his nose. "I wasn’t sure. You’re more of a kid than I expected.”
Johnny lifted his glass in a mock salute; he said nothing.
“I’m Wendell Jackson. I own the mercantile on the other side of town."
That figured-the white side. Well, that’s where the money was...
“Do you mind if I sit down?” Jackson’s voice was pitched just high enough for Johnny to hear over the noisy crowd. “I’ve got a...business...proposition for you.”
Johnny eyed him for a second or two, then nodded at the opposite seat.
Jackson sank into the chair. "My mercantile has recently been threatened by another store opening up not two blocks away." His fingernails pecked on the table. "I thought I might hire you to remove that threat."
Johnny cleared his throat before speaking. His voice rarely broke anymore, but he still took precautions. "You want me to kill the new guy?"
Jackson recoiled. "Oh, no, not at all. I just want you to run him off. You know, do whatever it is you do. But I don't need him killed. I just want him out of town so my shop can continue to be...profitable."
Johnny chewed the inside of his cheek. In the few months he’d been a gunfighter he'd mostly worked for cowards with grudges; they paid him to call out losers. This job might be a nice change. Maybe he could make a splash and get his name out there, start growing his reputation.
"What's it worth to you?" Johnny was nearly broke right now, but Jackson didn't need to know that. One thing Johnny Madrid knew about his trade - let the man hiring your gun name the first price.
"Twelve dollars? Paid when my... competition leaves town?" Jackson’s tongue darted between his lips again.
Johnny shook his head. "Five now. Ten more when the job's done."
Jackson hesitated only a moment. "We have a deal." He extended his right hand across the table; Johnny just looked at it. Jackson dropped his hand, wiping it on his trouser leg.
"I can trust your discretion, can't I, Madrid? I mean, no one can know I'm behind this."
"Sure." A gringo hiring a pistolero on the Mexican side of town? No other white man would know anything about it, and to gringos, Mexicans didn’t count. "I'll need some information, along with the money."
"What kind of information?" Jackson’s eyes narrowed. He made no move for his wallet.
Johnny took a sip of his beer, then stared at the foam dripping slowly down the inside of the glass. "If I were to run you out of town, how would I go about doin' that?"
The shopkeeper shifted in his chair. "Me?"
"You. Or someone like you. Maybe like that other shopkeeper-what’s his name?" Johnny enjoyed this part of his trade. He liked making men like Wendell Jackson squirm.
“Clinton. Lane Clinton.” Jackson’s voice was starting to squeak.
Johnny leaned across the table. “See, I gotta know enough about your business to know how to make Lane Clinton turn tail.” He stared hard at the man sitting opposite him. “What would make you run, Jackson?"
Jackson blanched. "Lack of customers," he finally admitted. "Lack of cash flow. Not being able to pay my suppliers. "
A plan began to form in Johnny’s mind. "How would I interfere with that paying of suppliers?"
Jackson rubbed his chin. "Unless you can intercept bank drafts and wires, I don't see how you could."
Well, Johnny liked a challenge. "What about other folks working for Clinton?"
"He hasn't been open long enough to have anybody working for him."
Johnny frowned; he needed more. "Is there anything he can't do business without? Anything that he couldn't replace?"
Jackson brightened. "His store has a big plate glass window. He must have spent a pretty penny on it. Those things aren't cheap."
“That’s good.” Johnny pushed back from the table. "Sounds like Clinton might go out with a bang." He got to his feet. "Give me three weeks."
Jackson stood, too, turning so that only Johnny could see him pull some bills from his vest pocket. "No one can know," he said again.
Johnny tucked the money inside his jacket. "It's our little secret, Jackson."
Johnny started with pig manure under the front boardwalk of Clinton’s Emporium, then moved on to dead skunk and capped it all with rotting eggs. Not a day went by without an unpleasant odor permeating the store.
Lane Clinton worked hard to overcome the obstacles Johnny created, throwing soapy water under the boardwalk first thing every morning. Even so, the pungent smells saturated his merchandise. The shopkeeper had to throw away clothing and bolts of material that couldn't be cleaned. Crates of oranges and lemons rotted, passed over by shoppers disgusted by the noxious smells. As he discarded ruined items and spoiled food Clinton was forced to rearrange his shelves to hide his lack of inventory.
When Clinton hired a night watchman Johnny let the man collect wages for nearly a week before chasing him away with a few well-aimed gunshots and a noose left hanging on the store's front door.
When not committing olfactory vandalism, Johnny haunted the gringo side of town. He listened to plenty of speculation about who had it in for Lane Clinton, but no one mentioned Wendell Jackson.
Amidst the gossip Johnny heard a stage driver brag that he now carried bank drafts to the Wells Fargo office in San Francisco. When Johnny confirmed that Lane Clinton sent wires to suppliers there, he knew he had a way to get his hands on those drafts. By the time the next stage left town he had a plan.
A masked highwayman stopped the stage to San Francisco a few miles outside of town. Showing no interest in the passengers or their bags, the outlaw shot open the strongbox. He carefully sorted through all the papers, pocketed three or four, then returned everything-including all the cash-to the box. He slipped away with a softly spoken "Gracias”, and the stage wasn’t even late to its next stop.
No trace of the robber was ever found. And Lane Clinton’s payments to his suppliers were never received in San Francisco.
Two weeks after their first meeting Jackson found Johnny once again at the saloon on the Mexican side of town. This time he didn’t hesitate; he strode directly over to Johnny’s table and sat down without offering a handshake.
"So, Madrid, I hear that our friend is having a difficult time of it.” Jackson’s voice was strident, his chest puffed out like a bantam rooster. Damn he grated on Johnny’s nerves, and he wondered if having a lot of money made men pinche cabróns, or did only pinche cabróns have a lot of money? “Rumor has it that several of his biggest suppliers are refusing to fill his orders until he pays them what he owes them."
"Is that so?" Johnny smiled down at the table.
“I don’t know how you managed that, Madrid. Maybe I don’t want to know. But I feel the end is near.”
"Maybe.” Johnny tilted his head to look at Jackson. “I'm still thinking that taking out that fancy window is the way to go."
Jackson licked his lips and rubbed his hands together. “Will you do it tonight?"
"Oh, I think it's better done in the daylight. I kinda want everybody to see it." Johnny grinned at the thought.
Wendell Jackson gaped at him. "Daylight? That's crazy. What if they see you?"
"Well, you see, that's the point. Might be good advertising for my services. I can wave at the good folks admirin’ my work as I leave town." Johnny waved his hand.
Jackson's mouth open and closed a couple of times before he found his voice. "You're a fool, boy. If you get caught… Remember our agreement. No one can know I had anything to do with it."
"It's our secret, ain't it, Jackson? Don't worry." Johnny leaned closer. "And when he's gone, you'll owe me ten dollars. I'll keep my word, and you'll keep yours."
Jackson cleared his throat as he nodded. "Tomorrow, then?"
Lane Clinton leaned out his front door every few minutes, looking up and down the street. No one entered his emporium. Potential customers walked past without acknowledging the storekeeper. A few even crossed the street to avoid him.
Johnny watched Clinton’s Emporium through a knothole in an unfinished slat fence across the street, waiting for the right moment. He wanted a few witnesses but not a big crowd. When he saw a handful of people on either side of the emporium, and no one between him and the fancy window, he fired a shot in the air.
Clinton ran out of his shop. Johnny stepped quickly around the end of the fence and levelled his pistol. He fired three shots and when the window shattered Johnny whooped with satisfaction. He couldn’t wait for the cloud of gun smoke to clear so he could enjoy the confusion.
Then he heard children screaming. As the pallid haze from his pistol dispersed he watched Lane Clinton crawl halfway out the door before collapsing in a pool of blood. Two crying kids tugged at him, knelt beside him, begged him to get up.
Johnny's Colt was still smoking in his hand.
His heart fell; he couldn’t breathe. He stumbled into the street toward the fragments of Clinton’s emporium and was nearly knocked off his feet by a galloping horse. The horse pulled a buggy and the driver screeched at Johnny as he yanked the animal to a halt. Numb, Johnny looked up to see Wendell Jackson motioning him into the buggy. He climbed in and Jackson whipped the horse back into a run, leaving behind the pandemonium Johnny had made.
Jackson shouted something at him but all Johnny could hear was the children’s screams cutting through the smoke from his gun. He gripped the side of the rig as they tore out of town. He thought of letting go, pictured himself bouncing lifelessly out of the buggy...
Jackson drove them off the main road, pulling the lathered horse up behind an outcropping of rocks. Jackson’s mouth finally quit moving; he stopped and stared at Johnny as if waiting for an answer, but Johnny hadn’t heard a word. He didn’t know what the question was.
Johnny drew in a breath to explain what had happened, then stopped before
he said a word. This was not the time or place to admit he’d screwed up;
Jackson sure wasn’t the man to hear it.
Johnny took several deep breaths to stop his trembling. He stuffed his panic and revulsion deep inside. It took longer than he would have liked, but once he was in control he turned to Jackson . "Thanks. Now if you'll pay me I'll be moving on."
Jackson stared at him. "Pay you?" he shrieked. "Pay you? I hired you to run him out of town, not to kill him. Jesus Christ, you shot the man. I ought to turn you in myself!"
Johnny met Jackson's eyes with all the coldness he could muster. "You wanted him run out of town so his store would close. A dead man can't run no store. I'd say you got what you wanted."
Jackson’s face was ashen. "No, no, I never wanted him dead."
"Then you shouldn't have hired Johnny Madrid." Johnny worked to keep his voice emotionless. "Ten bucks and I leave now. Stiff me and I go back and tell them what you hired me to do."
"You wouldn't." Jackson had a little color back in his face. "We had an agreement. Besides, you'll hang if you go back."
"Don't think so," Johnny drawled with a slight shake of his head and more confidence than he felt. "I was workin’ for you, and this wasn’t intentional. Might go to prison for a coupla years,” Johnny looked directly at Jackson, “but I'll be sure to take you with me."
Jackson paled again. His eyes narrowed for an instant before he reached into his vest. At the same time Johnny drew his Colt and pointed it at Jackson’s heart. The man gulped as he found his wallet and removed it slowly from his pocket. Johnny holstered his gun, then watched Jackson count out ten dollars.
He took the money with a curt nod, jumped down from the buggy, then took a step back. "Jackson," was all he said before turning his back and walking away.
Jackson turned the buggy around and high-tailed it back towards town. Johnny paced toward the opposite horizon until the rig was out of earshot; only then did he allow himself to collapse with a groan. Thank God Jackson hadn't called his bluff, because there was no way in hell that Johnny was ever going back to that town.
Dizziness overtook him. He crawled into the shade of the large rocks that hid him from the road. He curled up on his side, trembling, and let his misery wash over him. When had Clinton gone back inside? Why did the man’s kids have to be there?
The next day Johnny was in another dusty town, this one smaller and meaner than the last. He had the clothes on his back, eleven dollars, and his Colt. He'd spent a long night walking through the desert, analyzing every moment of the fiasco. He’d made a mistake, and he’d crossed a line. He’d killed an innocent man.
His reputation had just gotten bigger.
Part Two: Slade
As dusk deepened into night, the air of the Bocoy’s card room clouded with cigarillo smoke; the serious conquian players were getting down to business. Johnny Madrid’s customary seat at the table of six remained unoccupied though all the other places were filled. It was a singular sign of respect-or fear-at Nogales’s premier cantina.
When the pistolero finally made his entrance, boots clicking a cadence across the tiled floor, the Bocoy’s latest bartender took a deep breath. He had a message to deliver, and he dreaded his first encounter with the notorious Johnny Madrid.
Emilio waited until the gunman was settled with tequila and cards before he approached. "¡Perdon! Señor Madrid."
Madrid looked up at the interruption, lips pursed. He was not a large man, but he radiated casual danger. It raised the hairs on the back of Emilio’s neck.
The bartender bowed a little from his waist and tried to keep his voice steady. "A man called Curtis Slade is asking for you. He is staying at the Crown Hotel."
Madrid looked down at his cards, then back at Emilio. "Did ‘a man called Curtis Slade’ say what he wanted?"
Emilio was unprepared for the softness of the pistolero’s voice; it didn’t fit Madrid’s reputation. That glare did, though-light eyes that brooked no nonsense.
The bartender resisted the urge to back away. “No, señor, no, he did not.”
Madrid stared a moment longer before turning back to his cards with a nod. Emilio had been dismissed, and he heaved a huge sigh as he hurried back behind the polished oak bar. Whatever came next, he had done his part, and he’d done it without annoying the gunfighter.
Everybody knew you didn't want to make Johnny Madrid mad.
Johnny had a good night at the card table; he went to bed inclined to skip out on meeting Curtis Slade. But after sleeping til noon and indulging in a bath and a shave, he changed his mind. He saw no harm in finding out what the man wanted.
The fixtures of the Crown Hotel were made of marble and brass, and the carpet was so thick Johnny’s spurs didn’t jingle. The clerk at the front desk knew him, and told him Señor Slade was waiting for him in Room 14.
Johnny shook his head; he didn’t work like that. “Tell Slade I’ll be at the café next door.” Then he smiled. “Tell him he’s buyin’.”
Johnny had just dug into his eggs when a tall man approached him. The fellow sported a pressed town suit without a speck of dirt, a thin moustache, and a sour expression,.
Johnny looked up, chewing, and gave an amiable nod.
“It took you long enough to find me.” Slade’s words were clipped as he glanced around the half empty café. He frowned as he sat down. “I’ve been waiting for you for two days.”
Johnny swallowed the eggs, then took a sip of his coffee. "I’m a busy man." He narrowed his eyes and exaggerated his drawl. He didn’t feel quite so amiable now.
The waitress brought another cup of coffee. Johnny spooned more salsa on his eggs, waiting for Slade to get to it. A gambler, he speculated from Slade’s fancy clothes and soft hands. Johnny had been working range wars for cattlemen lately, and he was tired of it. It paid well, but cattle ranchers were generally bossy. And loud. Gamblers were quieter, and he could use some quiet.
After blowing on his coffee, Slade spoke. “Mr. Madrid, I’ve been cheated out of a great deal of money. I want it back.” He leaned closer. If it was an attempt to intimidate Johnny, it fell flat.
“Failing that, I want you to kill the man who cheated me. I’d like the whole thing fairly...noticeable. I’m just building my reputation in this town, and I want it well known that nobody messes with me.” Slade jabbed a finger at Johnny’s chest.
Johnny snatched Slade’s finger so quickly the gambler never saw his hand move. “Hiring my gun doesn’t give you the right to touch me.” Johnny’s voice was cold as he released Slade’s hand. “Best remember that.”
Slade’s eyes widened; he quickly nodded agreement. Johnny relaxed a little and took up his fork to stab at his eggs. “Who cheated you, and what’s the job worth?”
Slade reached for his handkerchief and dabbed at the sweat on his forehead. “The man’s name is Michel Alaniz, and he’s right here in Nogales. I guarantee you he’ll be easy to find.”
The gambler reached inside his brocaded vest and pulled out a thick wallet. He counted out one hundred dollars and laid it conspicuously on the table between them. “This now. The other half once you get my eight hundred dollars back—or kill Alaniz.”
It should be an easy job, and quick. Johnny nodded to seal the deal and pocketed the first hundred.
Nogales’s main street was teeming with people, horses, and wagons; the town was a becoming a hub of commerce, not all of it criminal. It took only a few minutes for Slade to spot the man who cheated him. Alaniz was a chubby man of middling height; his plaid trousers and his leather jacket hugged his belly tightly, and a too-small bowler hat perched on top of his head. After sending Slade on his way with a promise to meet later at the Bocoy, Johnny watched Alaniz enter a dry goods shop. Whistling softly to himself, Johnny leaned back against a handy adobe wall and waited.
Alaniz reappeared sucking on a stick of candy. Johnny walked up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. Alaniz jumped and his bowler hat fell off; Johnny caught it as he leaned over to speak in the man’s ear. His tone was deliberately nonchalant.
"I'm told you owe Curtis Slade some money. He's hired me to make sure you pay him. If you don't I'm gonna kill you. “ Johnny handed Alaniz his bowler hat and stepped back with a wink. “You have one hour. I'll be watching."
Alaniz gaped at him.“What? Who? Slade? You got your story wrong, Señor. I don’t owe him anything!”
Johnny shook his head. “Why don’t you save us both some trouble and just give me the money?” His hand drifted down to touch the Colt holstered on his right hip.
Alaniz’s eyes followed the gesture. Rivulets of sweat ran down his neck, staining his collar.
“You can’t just...just shoot me. How will Slade get the money if I’m dead?”
“Oh, I can just shoot you, all right. Do you see anybody to stop me? And if you get dead because you won’t give a man back the money you owe him, well, Mr. Slade figures that will help the next man live up to his obligations.” Johnny draped his arm around Alaniz’s shoulders. “Now where’s the money? I know you got it close by.”
“I…I…I don’t have it. But maybe I can get it, or at least part of it, Señor.…”
“Madrid. Johnny Madrid.”
Alaniz swallowed hard.
It took more than the allotted hour, but Alaniz collected the money, protesting all the way. Johnny made sure he could see and be seen as Alaniz scurried from house to house, business to business, searching for cash to beg, borrow, or steal.
People on the street began to watch the show. Some began to cheer each time Alaniz trotted from another building with a bill or two in his hand. When Johnny responded with a thumbs up the crowd cheered more loudly.
Finally Alaniz handed Johnny a last handful of bills. He mopped the sweat from his face while Johnny counted it. When Johnny nodded, satisfied, Alaniz blew out a sigh of relief. He hesitated a moment before he reached out to shake Johnny’s hand; then he faded back into the crowd.
As Alaniz disappeared Johnny looked at the curious bystanders and waved the money in the air. “Hey—anybody got an envelope for this?” he called. Amid laughter, someone produced an empty packet that barely fit around the wad of bills. Johnny stuffed the money inside and sauntered to the cantina with a final salute to the crowd. He was satisfied with an easy job, well done. He counted the fact that he didn’t have to kill anyone as a bonus.
It was early yet, and the Bocoy was quiet. Johnny nodded at the few customers at the tables and waved to the nervous bartender from the previous night. Slade was practicing billiards in the back room, alone.
Johnny planted himself in the doorway and waited.
The gambler glanced at him and rested his cue next to a fancy silver box on the edge of the table. "Well?" he said as he opened the box and withdrew a cigar. He didn’t offer one to Johnny.
"Got it." Johnny slapped the envelope lightly against his open palm.
Slade frowned and glanced at Johnny again. "I’m surprised, Madrid. I thought you would shoot him."
Johnny relaxed into the door frame, blocking the exit. “Disappointed?”
Slade struck a match, held it to the clipped end and puffed the cigar to life. “In truth, I am, a little.”
Johnny looked unblinking at the gambler. “Well, you shouldn’t be. He paid up.” He tossed the envelope onto the billiard table.
Slade riffled through the money and crammed it in his wallet before turning back to pick up his cue.
Johnny straightened his shoulders. ”You owe me a hundred dollars.”
Slade didn’t look up. "For what?" He blew a ring of smoke across the table. “You didn’t do anything. Alaniz is still alive.”
"Don’t give me that shit, Slade. I got your money. The job's done. Pay up."
"Or what?" Slade’s voice was muffled by the cigar, now clenched between his teeth. Johnny barely moved in the door frame, but his Colt appeared in his hand, aimed steadily at Slade’s chest.
"Or I'll shoot you."
“In cold blood? I’m not armed. Besides, I thought men like you didn’t work for free.” Slade exhaled more smoke as he spoke, but it wavered in the air above him, and his hands shook a little.
"This ain’t work. It’s personal. Nobody messes with me, either," Johnny said as he squeezed the trigger.
Slade yelled as the cigar box exploded beside him. He tried to jump away but collided with the wall; dazed, he slumped to the floor.
No one came to see what the gunshot was about.
“Am I hit?” Slade knelt in a heap on the floor; he patted his chest gingerly, searching for a bullet hole.
Aiming his pistol at the gambler’s head, Johnny knocked Slade’s hand aside. “I didn’t shoot you, Slade. Consider yourself lucky.” He reached into the gambler’s vest to remove his wallet.
Johnny couldn’t help but whistle at the number of bills inside. He carefully counted one hundred dollars, then another ten. Pocketing his fee Johnny tossed the wallet to the floor. Slade, still on his knees, trembled.
Without a backward glance Johnny strolled into the cantina’s main room. He handed the extra ten dollars to the bartender.
"Mr. Slade is buying a round for all you fine gentlemen,” Johnny said, jamming his hat on his head. He jutted his chin up and pulled the brim low. No one looked at him as he walked out.
Everybody knew you didn't want to make Johnny Madrid mad.