A Match Unsurpassed
Part One - Compromise
by Kathy P
Johnny Madrid understood the need for continuous improvement. It’s what kept men like him alive and why his clients hired him. Quinn Marshall was no exception. This job, like each one before it, offered a chance to apply lessons learned and the first step was always making sure he was on the right side, or at least his opinion of the right side.
He knew the best place to start was a local watering hole, usually one on the wrong side of town. The Silver Dollar was that place in Rimfire, Arizona and he headed for the solitude of the seedy cantina where it was likely that both the bar and bartender were dusty and stained.
He took a steadying breath to prepare for the unknown behind the batwings and entered with the confident stride reserved for the best in his profession. It was a small place, with only seven or eight tables, but he’d heard the patrons were talkative and the tequila drinkable. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and he confirmed the quiet he expected to find at midday. He was about to order a bottle when he came up short, seeing a woman at his favored table in the back corner nursing a drink with a bottle and extra glass beside hers.
He couldn’t take his eyes off her long, dark brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, the fringe of bangs shading her eyes from his view or the long, buckskin duster that did nothing to conceal how she was filled out in all the right places.
He approached the table and presented her with his most intimidating Madrid face and stance. Nothing. No look or acknowledgement whatsoever. He took in the worn leather gun belt holding a well-used and cared for Smith & Wesson #3 and struggled to decide whether he was now more curious than angry, but opted for the latter, declaring, “You're in my chair.”
When she looked up and smiled sweetly like he’d just asked to sit beside her in some fancy parlor, Johnny was thunderstruck by her small heart-shaped face, the perfectly molded cheekbones, cute, upturned nose and eyes the color of deep amethysts. A man could get lost in eyes like that and it surely wasn’t everyday he faced such a delightful prospect in a place like this.
“Don't think so.”
He got his first glance at her height and strong, feminine physique as she half stood to look at the chair back and seat. Johnny judged her height almost equal to his and, as to the rest of her, concluded she’d fit nicely curved up against him.
She finished her examination of the chair, sat back down and turned those eyes upward to meet his. “No, you must be mistaken. There’s no name on this one.”
It took him a moment to recover from the contrasts she exhibited, from her clothes and gun to the soft voice and those eyes. Still troubled by his wandering thoughts, he bestowed upon her his best Madrid stare.
“Ah, the famous stare,” she whispered as she leaned in across the table. “Is that supposed to make me a puddle?” When he made no move to do anything but stare, she sat back in the chair and blandly coached, “Needs work, I don't seem to be melting.”
Being challenged by other guns was part of a day’s work, but this was a new experience and one he wasn’t handling well. “Lady, what do you want?”
“I see the rumors of your short fuse aren’t exaggerated. Okay, I like a bottom line kind of guy. So, here, I'll move my chair over this way,” she said as she scooted hers to her right. “And we can move that one right here,” she continued while taking the other chair and moving it in her direction. “There you go, we both have the back corner.”
Johnny looked from the chair to her and back to the chair, not saying a word or making a move to sit.
“C'mon, sit.” She gently patted the chair next to her. “I don’t bite. Well, maybe once in awhile,” she said with a wink. “But I don’t leave marks.” She filled the extra glass and presented it to him. “You like tequila. Am I right?”
He blinked hard, sat and gulped the drink. The fire down his throat reacquainted him with the seriousness of the situation. “Now what?”
“Well, I was hoping we’d toast before downing that, but here let me pour you another,” she said as she filled his glass again.
“What are we toasting?”
“The beauty of compromise,” she answered raising her glass.
He rolled his eyes, but raised his glass. For that small nod to her invitation, Johnny earned a dazzling smile that, God help him, made her eyes light up even in the shadowy hole that was the Silver Dollar.
“Here's to compromise, where reasonable people put aside their differences to settle conflicts in civilized ways.”
The glasses clinking reminded him he was supposed to drink, which he did while watching her lips on the glass. With a quick shake of his head, he asked, “Now what do you want?”
She laughed, not one of those fussy woman giggles, but a deep, throaty, yet feminine sound, and looked him directly in the eye. “You mean besides your chair?”
His slammed the glass on the table and his eyes narrowed as he stared at her.
She sighed and made a tsk sound. “God, no sense of humor either. How have you survived this long? I mean, in our line of work, don't you think patience and a good sense of humor are important?”
He moved forward and rested his forearms on the table and wrapped his hands around his glass. He smiled, but it didn’t go all the way to his eyes. “Our line of work? You must not know me.”
She moved forward on her chair putting one arm on the edge of the table across her body and leaned in very close to him. Her eyes darkened and narrowed and in a voice about a half an octave lower than she’d previously used told him, “Oh, I know you. Madrid, Johnny Madrid.” Then, just as quickly, she sat back in her chair, her eyes danced and she girl punched him in his upper arm. “That's cute, by the way, how you say Madrid twice to give it the full effect. See, I generally avoid giving my name, but I may try it your way and see how it goes.”
He set his gaze on the remaining drops of tequila at the bottom of his glass and his knuckles around his glass turned white as he asked what name she gave when pushed for one.
“Jesse Wilder.” With that she touched his forearm and stamped her feet in excitement. “Oh, wait, wait, let me try this out.” She cocked her head at a casual angle toward him with one brow raised and cleared her throat. “Wilder, Jesse Wilder.” She slapped the table and laughed with a snort.
“Never heard of you.”
“That's because I don't give my name.”
Johnny shook his head, inhaled deeply and glared at her.
She looked at him, shook her head and touched his shoulder lightly. “No, really, how do you make it without at least some sense of humor?”
He lowered his shoulder to remove it from her touch and stood to leave.
At that, she blurted out, “I came to talk about a compromise we could make.”
He stopped dead in his tracks and slowly turned to look into her eyes. Her request signaled one of two things to him: she wasn’t a gun after all or she wasn’t a good one. He paused another split second then slowly sank back into his chair and draped his arm over the back of it. “A compromise we could make?”
“You’re kind of like an echo, aren’t you?”
He stared at her hard trying to intimidate her and using that to hide his confusion over how his reputation didn’t seem to impress her.
She motioned to the corner they shared. “We just compromised on the back wall, right?” After he nodded, she continued, “I find most conflicts can be settled that way -- folks just meet in the middle. Say, for example, with this current unpleasant disagreement - you and I are on different sides, but that’s no reason we can’t work together to bring about a reasonable compromise.”
Johnny smirked. “Except we’re on different sides.”
She waved his statement away. “You know how this will work. You’ll cut fences. I’ll stampede cattle. You’ll take potshots at our hands and I’ll burn your barns, until someone’s dead. That’s wasted time and bullets. Now, I say, why not earn our money in less time, keeping our bullets, and maybe leave this town without adding to the graveyard population?”
Johnny mulled over the possibility of leaving Rimfire without the wake of dying faces crashing into his mind because God knew, even if his rivals didn’t, that he hated the killing. “How would we do all that?”
“Haven’t you been listening? Compromise.”
“Seems to me if they could compromise, they wouldn’t have hired us. And what exactly were you hired to do?”
“Same as you for the other side,” she said in her deeper gunfighter voice.
“It is and I’m every bit as good as you. Maybe better.”
Studying his tequila, he tried to reconcile how such a beauty could move so easily between two personalities, blind to the fact he did the very same thing every day of his life. “Say I believe that, which I don’t, how do we bring about this great compromise?”
She shrugged. “Leverage.”
“What kind of leverage?”
Interesting images popped into his head at that, and while he thought he understood what she was suggesting, he couldn’t really believe it. “Meaning?”
Now it was his turn to clear his throat because those images she’d placed with her first statement about female leverage now had a face with amethyst eyes. “See when you said you were as good as me, I thought you were talking about with a gun. How’d you know I was good at sex too?”
She leaned closer to him, a bit seductively and said in a hushed tone, “Tell me…”
Leaning toward her and just as flirtatiously he countered, “Yeah?”
“If you had to do it all over again, would you still fall in love with yourself?”
He laughed out loud at the bucket of cold water she’d just verbally poured on him, but read on her face a level of discomfort on which he intended to capitalize. “Nothing wrong with knowing you’re good.”
She smiled and shook her head. “Knowing it? No. Needing to prove it? Yes. That’s how we bring about compromise. See, when women go bad, men go right after them.”
“Don’t see a plan.”
“Are you in?”
He had to admit he was contemplating working with her, but his inner voice urged him to take things slowly, like seducing a woman. After a minute of quiet while he replaced the pleasurable thoughts in his head with some pretty distasteful ones involving the effects of eating spoiled meat, then offered that he was listening.
She peered to the bottom of her glass, shook her head and pointed out that she hadn’t gotten good at her trade by laying out her strategy to the other side and asked if he wanted to work together or not.
“I work alone.”
He confronted it completely then as she stood up. The steeled glare, casually dangerous posture and hand on the butt of her gun. “Clearly I misjudged you, but I won’t make that mistake again.” Jesse showed her own soulless gunfighter smile. “Keep the tequila. I always buy my opponent his last drink.” With that last, she presented him with her back and walked out of the cantina.
Once outside the Silver Dollar, Jesse found herself facing the three men her boss had hired to help with the job. She ambled to the edge of the walkway, leaned up against the roof post with crossed legs and folded arms, then looked down at them.
The first to speak was Harry Tucker, a tallish, bulky man with several scars on his face from previous bullet grazes. Looking at him, she remembered explaining to her boss, Jeb Harrison, that if he wanted to hire help he should have gotten the person who gave Tucker the scars.
Tucker confronted her. “Keeping company with the enemy?”
“Don’t crowd me, Tucker. Did you get the supplies I sent you for?”
Tucker exchanged glances with his two cronies: Davis Long, a sniveling coward who Jesse knew instinctively would cut and run at the first sign of trouble, and Jake Roberts, an unknown quantity who she’d have to watch carefully.
After he secured nods from Long and Roberts, Tucker announced, “Yeah, but we also came up with a different plan seeing as how the gun for the other side walked right into our path.”
She looked hard at each one in turn. “All of you in on this new and improved plan?”
The slippery one who needed watching nodded.
With eyes darting between Jesse and Tucker, Long tried to hold a sneer. “Boss’ll send you packing when he hears we took out Madrid.”
The ring-leader explained, “We don’t cotton to working with a girl.”
“Let alone taking orders from her?”
Roberts backed Tucker’s play with another nod.
“Good luck with your plan then, boys.” She sat in a rickety chair and rocked it back on two legs. “No point in getting dirty when I’ll be leaving so soon without getting paid.”
Long taunted, “Don’t get in our way -- we don’t have an issue with killing you too.”
Jesse’s eyes narrowed and bore into Long’s marrow. “Didn’t think you did.”
Johnny heard the exchange from his spot right inside the cantina doorway where he’d been standing watching her walk away. He smiled a little hearing he was their target since he wasn’t sure she’d find his saving her life as charming as he’d intend it and sauntered out of the cantina.
Seeing him, the shiftless trio backed up farther into the street, shoulder to shoulder, hands on guns.
Johnny looked Tucker in the eye, but said to Jesse softly, “Friends of yours?”
“Not really,” she said as the chair thunked back to full contact with the boardwalk.
Wanting a read on the odds, Johnny asked if it was going to be four against one and was told by Roberts they didn’t need Jesse to take him down.
Jesse sighed. “See? They don’t like me. Not sure why. I’m very likeable.”
Long prompted, “Quit talking Madrid and let’s get on with this.”
Johnny pulled on his black leather glove and walked down the stairs and into the street with a strong step, but casual attitude. He hoped he wouldn’t regret leaving his back open to Jesse.
It wasn’t the first time he was outnumbered by men looking to make a name for themselves at the expense of his blood, but part of him sure wished it wasn’t going to be in front of a woman who made that same blood boil for entirely different reasons. He saw they were waiting for him to start things, which was not his style, so he invited the fight instead with his calm, “Your dance.”
After a few seconds of nothing happening, Johnny saw fear in Long’s eyes and nervousness in his partners. He thought he may have ended things with a look until he heard Jesse’s boots clomping down the steps. He fought the urge to turn around and then she was standing beside him pulling on her own leather glove. “I don’t need your help.”
“I know, but, hell, I’m here and I don’t like these guys,” Jesse quipped as she moved the duster behind her gun and relaxed into an almost slouched stance, left foot out in front and leg barely bent at the knee.
Long squeaked out, between nervous licks of his lips, “We don’t have a fight with you, Jesse.”
“You staying or going, Long, because I don’t have an issue with killing you either.”
Long told Tucker and Roberts the fight was a bad idea, but was met with a jeer from Roberts about being afraid of a girl. He swallowed hard, fingered his belt buckle and told his friends he was out since Jesse was a known gut-shooter. He raised his hands in the air and backed away toward his horse.
Johnny pointed out that the odds were now even and suggested the remaining two call it a day too. The mouthy one declared that they weren’t afraid of him or Jesse and Johnny heard Jesse let out an exasperated sigh and tell the man that there was no accounting for stupid.
Tucker turned red and the veins in his forehead showed clearly. “You bitch!” he screamed while drawing his gun.
“We’ll see who's stupid,” Roberts bellowed as his own gun cleared leather.
Johnny knew long before either man’s outburst what was coming. The unknown factor was Jesse, not the men in front of them. He only fired once, but both men dropped where they stood. When the dust settled and smoke cleared, Johnny tossed out, “Mine hit the ground first.”
“Mine was taller.”
There was no doubt that her gunfighting skills matched his own and, as unsettling as it was, he liked the way she didn’t give him an inch. Johnny knew he had to spend more time with her and invited her to share a drink with him.
Jesse looked him straight in the eye with that one brow raised and asked, “You buying?” At his nod, she took the opening to pose, “Ready to listen to my plan now?”
“That why you went against your own men?”
She shrugged, left him hanging, and headed for the saloon. He hurried to beat her to the batwings where he held one open for her, not entirely sure that doing so wouldn’t get him shot, walked in behind her and pointed to where they’d been sitting suggesting they compromise on the back table. Her smile at that was radiant and all but took his breath away.
He let her to take the lead to the table while thinking how interesting their conversation could be. As he walked past the bartender, he ordered tequila for them. Hearing that, she called for food, the spicier the better. His gut was in knots and he let her know that he wasn’t hungry as he sat down in the chair he had left only a few minutes before.
“I’m starved after a dust up like that.”
He watched her remove her duster and hat and place them on the extra chair before sitting down and tried to figure out if she really meant that. Seeing that she did, he moved between respect and disgust as he tried to make sense of how that worked with the playful side he saw earlier. “You think killing two men is a dust up?”
“I don’t always take it so lightly, but some men deserve killing, don’t you think?”
“I suppose. Never sits well with me though.”
She pulled the holder from her hair, finger-combed her bangs and the length, then put it back into a ponytail. “Everybody deals with things differently I guess.”
“So why’d you come out there?”
Jesse played with her earlobe and answered, “Oh, call it thinning the herd.”
That struck Johnny as a risky strategy since, if he didn’t work with her, she had helped his odds and told her that.
“No, that would’ve meant leaving ‘em alive. Big hats, no cattle.”
He smiled at the expression which summed up the dead men pretty well. The bartender showed up with a bottle and two dirty glasses, likely the ones he just picked up from the table when they left, and Johnny poured them drinks and asked what her boss would do when he found out she’d just killed the men he hired.
“Harrison can be handled,” she suggested sipping her tequila.
Johnny looked up. “Handled?”
“Yeah, well, he’s a man which means he can be manipulated pretty successfully by the right woman.”
“You don’t have a very high opinion of some men.”
“Present company excluded,” she said as she elbowed him and winked.
“What about yours?”
“My what?” she countered taking another drink.
“Don’t you think women can be manipulated by men?”
The change he witnessed was abrupt. He noted how she sat up straighter and gripped the glass tighter and felt her leg jittering under the table.
With downcast eyes and voice tinged with menace she said, “Men don’t manipulate. They control.”
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye and said quietly, “Isn’t that just the other side of the coin?”
“Manipulation isn’t born of fear. Control depends on it.”
Johnny had definitely hit a raw nerve. He wanted to get to know her, but his protective side urged him to do no harm. “You don’t strike me as a woman who’s afraid of much.”
“I’m not. Anymore. My gun gives me the edge over most men.”
She commented how there was a faster gun waiting for them both someday, but she’d rather not find out on this job if one of them was faster than the other then asked how old he was. When he said he was nineteen, she smiled and told him she was the same age and again suggested they work together.
While Johnny still wasn’t sold on working together, he wasn’t comfortable depending on another person like that, he had a hunch he could count on her. “You mentioned a plan.”
She squinted at him. “May I take your sharing a table as your agreement to work together?”
“Not yet, but I’m more interested than I was before.”
She looked up, scratched her neck under her chin then turned to him. “I just proved you can trust me out in that street.”
“Then you told me you manipulate men. Not sure whether that’s what that was all about or if you really can be trusted.”
“What does your gut tell you about me?”
“Tells me you’re very good at what you do. I just haven’t figured out what that is yet.”
“Well, I try to settle disputes without unnecessary bloodshed. See, I don’t think innocent folks, especially women and children, should have to pay the price of a man’s drive for money or thirst for power and every dispute like this comes down to one of those things.”
His thoughts flashed back to his days spent on the streets of tiny border towns, being kicked around for his blue eyes, all because Murdoch Lancer had that kind of thirst and drive, one that was hindered by his mama and him and told her to go on.
“A man’s ego and pride are weaknesses that can be used against him in these situations. Ego makes him believe he deserves more than he has and pride tells him he can’t lose.”
“How does that save bloodshed?”
“Any man that thinks that highly of himself can’t resist proving or controlling things.”
Everyone he’d ever hired out to fit that description, but he still didn’t see the connection to keeping folks safe and asked her about that.
“We pull the strings while they think they are and keep the mess confined to the two that started it.”
That made sense if they could do it. Then he recalled her comments from earlier in the day and asked how women fit in. She explained that men don’t understand the concept of a woman scorned and that she hadn’t met a man yet who wouldn’t accept a woman offering favors.
He shrugged. “Some won’t.”
Up went that one brow. “Turn it down, do ya’?”
He played with the back of his shirt collar, not meeting her eyes. “Maybe.”
“So being good at sex was just a guess then?”
“No,” he denied and took a drink.
“Then you do enjoy a woman acting like the sun rises and sets in your pants?”
He coughed up the tequila he’d just drank. “Damn, lady, you are direct.”
A scratch of his head turned into brushing his hair back and he admitted he didn’t mind it, but asked how that figured into her plan.
“My boss’ wife owns the ranch. It belonged to her and her first husband who was killed a couple years ago in a card game gone wrong. She married Harrison, but I’m not sure she thinks she got a bargain. There are rumors he had a hand in the first husband’s death.”
“How do we leverage that?”
Jesse smiled. “She’s heard those rumors and we can use that with the help of your boss’ wife. They were friends once and one thing women can bond over is a dog of a husband.”
Caught by surprise at the panic her remark caused him, he asked, without making eye contact and very softly, “You married?”
Her brows knitted together and her body recoiled. “Hell, no, just an observer of human nature.”
The force of the “hell, no” made him wonder if she was against marriage, but decided that was a discussion for another day. “You think the women will go against their husbands?”
“I think they’d rather take down a husband than not live through a range war.”
“Rumors help?” Johnny posed.
“Rumors are seeds of doubt and from them we can grow a garden of trouble.”
He had learned on previous jobs that the power of suggestion was all it took for people to fill in blanks, usually with details far worse than he could dream up. He leaned in closer to her and asked how they’d go about it all.
She told him to plant the story that Harrison had a hand in killing husband number one and that she’d plant the story about Marshall being unfaithful to his wife. When he pointed out those were just stories, she told him one was the truth and the other would be believable with the help of an associate of hers if they shared a cut of their pay with her. She assured him the wives would feel wronged and run to tell each other.
He squinted at her. “Why would they do that when they’re on different sides?”
“Because women protect their friends from hurt and they don’t like to be miserable alone. Trust me, they’ll feed off each other and help set this up for us.”
He shifted some on his chair and took a drink. “Always thought husbands and wives should stand together.”
Her eyes hardened and became dark. “Betrayal is strong motivation.”
Ducking his head, remembering the betrayal of Murdoch Lancer, he said quietly, “Sounds like you’ve had some experience with that.”
Jesse looked at his gun and then into his eyes. “Anyone who’s picked up a gun has had experience with that.”
That struck close to home and he wondered if she was a mind-reader.
She turned her glass around several times and imparted that women were odd creatures who had no issue giving up control when they thought they were everything to a man, but had quite a different reaction if they felt used.
He grinned and asked about the other woman and was told it was a local who needed money to relocate. Johnny asked if the woman was in some kind of trouble and Jesse responded that everyone was in that position at the moment then leaned into him and proposed they discuss next steps.
He looked down at the table. “I still haven’t agreed to anything.”
She drummed her fingers on the table and pursed her lips. After a few seconds, she sat back, draped her arm over the back of her chair and plainly told him, “You will.”
Adopting the same casual pose, he said, “You’re pretty sure of yourself.”
“You just told me you don’t like the killing. This is a way to end things without innocent folks getting harmed.”
Johnny couldn’t help but think there were all kinds of harm and he still wasn’t feeling right about interfering with a marriage. “You’d be coming between men and their wives.”
“We’d be shifting the power balance a bit. You have an issue with an equal distribution of that between men and women?”
He couldn’t say no since he always tried to even the odds if a woman was at a disadvantage. He wondered if Jesse had ever been in that position and decided she must have been for her to feel the way she did about some men. “No, I’m all for it if the woman can handle it.”
“You met one that couldn’t?”
A picture of his mama jumped into his head and he thought about how she’d never understood the power she had and always gave it up to the worst of his gender. With that thought, he said so softly she could barely hear him, “One.”
She lightly touched his arm and told him, “I bet if you look close, you’ll find it was the man who couldn’t handle it.” Then slapping her thighs, she added, “Okay, ready to put this in motion?”
She could get back to business faster than any woman he’d ever encountered. More like a man in that respect. “What’s first?”
“Head back to your ranch and start asking questions about Harrison’s involvement in the first husband’s death. Tell folks you heard some things in town today and you think it might be useful and true.”
“I’m off to compromise your boss.”
He suddenly doubted the existence of the other woman and asked if she was real or if Jesse just conned him out of his pay.
Jesse shook her head and sighed. “I’m gonna forget you said that because you agreed to work with me, but don’t ever say something like that to me again.”
“If I do, you gonna gut-shoot me?” he teased.
Jesse looked to his lap then straight in his eyes. “Nope, be aimin’ a few inches lower.”
Johnny folded in on himself protecting the precious area from her sights. “Uh, okay. I won’t.”
“I’m sure that gust of wind was the collective sigh of relief from hundreds of women in the state,” she joked.
With a soft shove to his shoulder, she suggested they get on with their jobs. He got up, tipped his hat and left.
After a few minutes contemplating his agreement to work with her, Jesse got up and shook hands with the bartender, passing him money as she did, then left the cantina. She stood on the walkway surveying the street for a few minutes before she made her way through the town’s back streets to the local brothel where she found her friend in the front parlor.
Esperanza de la Vega was a stunning woman who looked out of place in the bordello where she lived waiting for Jesse’s plan to be complete so she had enough money to move on to a better life. “Buenos Dias, Jesse.”
“Someplace we could talk?”
“Si, follow me,” she invited, leading Jesse up the staircase to her room.
Upon entering, Jesse slowly took in every inch of the place. “I didn’t figure you for pink.”
“I prefer red, but the room was pink when I took it.”
Jesse walked to the window, pulled aside the curtains and looked up and down the street. “Well, based on his clothes, I think I just met someone who would find this much pink kinda nice.”
“So you have secured his help?”
Jesse explained she had, but had doubts about how things would all play out then asked Essie if she was ready for her part in it all.
“I am, but I feel bad since I have nothing against this man.”
“All the more reason to keep your end of the deal.” Jesse plopped down on the bed and wiggled to get comfortable. “Marshall heads into town every Friday night for a card game.”
“Si, at the Silver Dollar, but he concentrates only on winning.”
There Essie was mistaken. Jesse had been in the Silver Dollar for the previous two Fridays and could attest to the fact that Marshall didn’t care about the game itself, only how well he could cheat at it. Wondering how she could use that she had prodded the more chatty patrons for details about the man and paid them for their silence should anyone else ask questions. After hearing the background on Marshall’s card playing, she had a pretty good idea why her boss wanted him dead. “He won’t be this Friday.”
“I do not understand, but you have agreed to help me so I will trust what you say and be there.”
“Well, you’ll have to be outside Smitty’s since Marshall will be playing Harrison there and...”
Essie interrupted, “Why would he face the man who is trying to drive him out or worse?”
“All you need to know is that Marshall will lose fairly fast and be outside. That’s where you come in. Understand?” Essie nodded and Jesse continued with her instructions, “Tell him you know what kind of man Harrison is and you want to help him. Say whatever you need to to get him here, but don’t bring him up to your room. Stay downstairs in the parlor so his wife can find him there.”
“I will, but you understand the danger for everyone if this doesn’t work.”
“Yep, that’s why I’m only asking you to do this once.” With that final statement on the subject Jesse rolled off the bed and moved to the door. Before opening it, she turned around to Essie, one finger in the air and said, “Oh, one more thing. In about five minutes, maybe less, Madrid will be knocking at your door.”
“What?” she exclaimed running to the window. “How do you know that? I don’t see him out there.”
“I don’t either, but he is. And he’ll be here. It’s what I’d do if I were in his boots right now.”
Essie looked cross and put her hands on her hips. “And how am I supposed to deal with him? He’s dangerous.”
Jesse smiled. “Yeah, he’s is, but he’s not the type to go around hurting women so you’ll be fine.”
“What should I tell him?”
Jesse pursed her lips and rocked back and forth on her heels. “He needs to trust me for this to work. That means he needs information so give it to him.”
“You want me to tell him the truth?”
“Tell him your part in the plan. He’s just looking to make sure I was straight with him about you and I was. Mostly.”
Essie frowned. “You think I’ll be the only one he speaks with?”
Jesse laughed out loud. “Oh, hell, no. You’ll just be the first stop. He went to the Silver Dollar looking for information so he’ll go back there too. He won’t learn anything I don’t want him to.” With that Jesse opened the door, turned to Essie, winked and said, “Don’t worry. He’ll be distracted by all the pink.”
Johnny’s visit with Esperanza de la Vega was short, but confirmed Jesse had been straight with him. He’d spent the last two days trying to get more information, but the only things he’d learned were that both Harrison and Marshall were in the game that led to the first husband’s death and Jesse had been in town two weeks.
He was chatting with the owner of the local mercantile when Jesse came into the store. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched her walk around, picking things up and putting them down. This went on for a few minutes until, without making eye contact with him, she touched the side of her nose twice in quick succession and walked out. He finished his conversation, thanked the store owner for his time and headed for the door.
Stepping onto the boardwalk, he found her bent over the rail watching a group of kids play tag. He grabbed an apple from the display, pulled a chair up behind her and sat with outstretched legs. He looked up and down the street between bites. “You catch a cold?” he asked then took another bite.
She looked at him from under her arm with furrowed brows.
Johnny swallowed his last bite. “The nose thing?”
“You ever heard of a signal?”
“Yeah, but that’s usually some kind of bird call,” he said smiling.
That one brow raised. “You thought I’d walk into a store and make a bird call?”
He tossed the half-eaten apple to his horse. “Leave your sense of humor somewhere?”
She smiled and told him she hadn’t, but was surprised he knew what one was let alone how to make one.
He leaned back in the chair, adjusted his hat partially over his eyes and locked his thumbs in his belt. “Your rumors are spread.”
“Good. Have they made it to Marshall’s wife?”
“Yeah, I made sure the foreman heard everything and he can’t keep his mouth shut. What about your part of the plan?”
“On track. Mrs. Harrison is sure her friend is being humiliated by the Friday night trips to town.”
Johnny pushed his hat back with his thumb so he could see her better. “Those are about cards you know.”
She pulled a chair up next to him, and sat with her elbows on her knees and hands folded, still watching the kids play. “You play cards?”
“Know how to cheat?”
Johnny wasn’t sure how to answer that one. On one hand, it took skill to cheat and not get caught, but, on the other, admitting to cheating was, well, an admission. “I do alright.”
“I suggest we play a little poker Friday night.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and his eyes narrowed. “And cheat? Am I supposed to challenge you?”
Jesse pursed her lips and hunched her shoulders up near her ears. “Just do what feels right.”
Johnny got up and leaned against the railing facing her with one hand on the railing and one on his hip. “I thought we were avoiding that.”
She looked up at him, squinting with a lopsided smile and told him they would if he played his cards right.
Folding his arms across his chest again, he prodded, “What about your cards?”
“You as worried as you sound?”
Her shoulders slumped forward and she put her forehead in her hands to look down at the walkway boards. Quietly she asked, “Afraid I might be tempted to double-cross you?”
“Thought about it.”
Jesse paused for a second, sat back up and looked past him to the street. “I avoid temptation.”
The gunfighter in him breathed a sigh of relief while the man smiled broadly.
The she looked right at him, winked, and said “Unless, of course, I can’t resist it.”
“See, now that’s what I mean,” he said uncrossing his arms and moving his hands to his hips. “Hard to work with someone who says things like that.”
She nodded and raised her hands in front of her. “You’re right. I shouldn’t joke about trust.”
He folded his arms around himself and looked down at the tips of his boots.
“Look, I know trusting people isn’t our strong suit. Those walls keep us alive,” she told him. “But they also get other folks killed, innocent people who didn’t ask us to come here and turn their lives upside-down.”
He looked her straight in the eye and said, “You’re here though, aren’t you? And working for a man like Harrison.”
It was her turn to look down at her boots. “Yeah, guess I am, but you’re here working for someone who doesn’t exactly have clean hands either.” After he nodded at that, she said, “Johnny, we can change the outcome here, but you have to let the power shift happen.”
“The one between our clients and their wives?”
Her eyes pierced him. “Them too.”
He turned his back to her to watch the kids play their game which had changed from tag to hide and seek. After a few minutes of quiet, he heard her head down the steps and watched her feed an apple to her own horse. “Don’t make me kill you,” he warned.
She turned to look up at him. “I’ll do my best,” she said with a chuckle. “You need to let Mrs. Marshall know you’re worried about her husband’s time in town and how the other side could use it. Say something about the girl talking and it being all over town. Be a nice touch for you to tell her you think what he’s doing to her is wrong.”
“Why would I do that?”
She opened her arms wide and smiled broadly. “You’re God’s gift to women, figure it out.”
Johnny smiled and shook his head. “Anything else?”
“Yeah, when she asks you to bring her to the Harrison place, do it.”
“What about the card game?”
“Don’t forget your lucky deck.” With that, she mounted up, touched the brim of her hat and rode out.
When Jesse arrived back at the ranch, she found Mrs. Harrison on the front porch by herself. She dismounted and walked to the porch steps, leaving one foot on the walk and placing one on the middle step then resting her hand on her knee. “Afternoon, Mrs. Harrison. Nice day, isn’t it?”
Mrs. Harrison mumbled something about how she was sure it was nice for someone, but not her. Jesse commented that she was sorry to hear that and asked the woman if she could help.
“Have you met Quinn Marshall?” she asked.
“No, Ma’am, just seen him in town with his wife. I wouldn’t have thought him the type to marry a Mex, but nice to see he’s such a tolerant person.”
The woman’s neck veins popped and she turned a dark shade of red. “Good person, my foot. And that woman is not his wife. I can assure you Lily Marshall is not Mexican. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you.”
“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Harrison, I didn’t mean to upset you like that. It just seems he’s always with her so I assumed…”
Mrs. Harrison clenched her teeth. “You assumed wrong, Miss Wilder.”
Jesse saw the wheels turning in Beth Harrison’s head and hoped they were driving her to see her former friend. After a few minutes of pacing the length of the porch, Mrs. Harrison turned to Jesse and asked if she could get her onto the Marshall ranch without being noticed.
“Well, Ma’am, I’m not sure your husband would approve of me taking you over there.”
“I don’t care much what he does or does not approve of, young lady. This is my ranch, Mrs. Marshall is my friend and you will do what I ask since it’s my money paying you.”
Jesse smiled at the grit to woman displayed and asked when she wanted to leave.
On his way back to the Marshall spread, Johnny wondered at his taking orders from a woman, but convinced himself Jesse made sense and he didn’t have a solid reason not to trust her. He also recalled she had eyes that could turn a man’s bones to jam so, by the time he arrived, he’d decided to break his rule about getting close to a woman because of his line of work.
As he rode in, he saw Mrs. Marshall arguing with one of the hands. He heard the hand say something was dangerous, but arrived too late to hear what the something was. Their argument stopped as he approached so he touched the brim of his hat and greeted her.
She brushed a spot of dust from her sleeve. “Mr. Madrid.”
He was unsure about the situation, but sensed it could be used to Jesse’s and his advantage. He removed his hat, held it in front of him and asked if there was something he could do to help. Johnny had the impression Lily Marshall was going to brush him off like the dust, but then she looked at him like he was the most important person on the ranch and told him she wanted to see Mrs. Harrison.
He pictured Jesse’s smile and heard the ‘I told you so’ he’d get when he informed her of the development. He scratched the side of his jaw with his fingertips and said, “ Not sure that’s smart, Ma’am.”
“I didn’t ask for your opinion, Mr. Madrid. You were hired to protect this ranch and taking me to see Beth Harrison will do exactly that.”
Not one to knowingly step on a rattlesnake, he hesitated a moment before hearing Jesse’s voice prod him to the plan. “This about that woman in town?”
Mrs. Marshall’s eyes narrowed to slits. “What woman?”
“I don’t mean to be talking out of school, but how can Mrs. Harrison help you with your husband’s lady friend?”
“Can you get me on to their ranch safely or not?”
“I can, but I don’t see why you wouldn’t just confront Mr. Marshall directly. Isn’t right what he’s doing to a beautiful woman like you.”
“I’ll see you here in fifteen minutes,” she said and then marched back to the house.
Grateful he didn’t have fang marks, he walked to the barn to get her horse ready for the trip to the Harrison ranch.
The wives, escorted by their respective guns, met up at the shared border of their ranches along the banks of a small watering hole. When the women saw each other, they jumped down and wrapped their arms around each other’s waists, touched heads and looked out over the vastness of their bordering ranches. After a few minutes of silence, Beth Harrison asked her friend, “How did it ever get to this point?”
“I don’t know,” Lily Marshall replied, “but it can’t go on.”
Johnny shifted from foot to foot as he watched the women and Jesse in turn. “You sure about this?” Johnny asked.
“Yep,” Jesse assured him. “Just give it some time. Might want to let me do the talking, woman to woman, though.”
Looking at his boot drawing lines in the dirt, Johnny said, “Seeing as how I still don’t know the whole plan, I’ll have to, won’t I?”
Jesse nodded and put her finger to her lips.
Mrs. Harrison sighed deeply. “Things are so different from when we first settled here. I suppose I should have seen this coming.”
Mrs. Marshall squeezed her friend’s waist a bit. “You couldn’t have seen this coming anymore than I could have predicted Quinn being unfaithful to me.”
“Are you sure he has been?”
Tears appeared in Mrs. Marshall’s eyes as she told her friend of her husband’s Friday nights and the rumors that he wasn’t really playing cards. She explained it had been going on for about five months. “He’s been so upset since...after Will, um,...”
Her friend finished, “Was murdered. It’s okay, you can say it.”
“I’m sorry, Beth.”
She looked her friend in the eye. “For what? Will put himself in that position.”
“No, Will went to town that night to keep Quinn from getting into trouble.”
“More rumors,” Mrs. Harrison said. “You can’t put much stock in them.”
At that Jesse stepped forward and said, “Actually you can.”
Mrs. Harrison whirled on Jesse and seethed out, “How dare you say that?”
Johnny moved between the woman and Jesse. “I think Mrs. Marshall should hear what Jesse has to say and then there are some things you should hear as well.”
Jesse emerged from Johnny’s shadow to look at each woman in turn. “I’m sorry you’re both suffering, but you have yourselves to blame.”
Mrs. Harrison stepped back. “Who are you to speak to us like that?”
“The person who might save you both from the beds you made by playing second fiddle to your husbands.”
Johnny touched Jesse’s shoulder. “You’re bein’ a little rough, don’t you think?”
She bristled and said under her breath to him, “Why don’t you take the horses for a drink and let us womenfolk talk?”
He met her eyes and saw how they had darkened, then turned to the women and told them, “She may be pushing some, but she has a plan to end all this without innocent folks getting hurt. I think you both want that.” His eyes narrowed at Jesse then he turned away from the group and led the horses to water.
Mrs. Harrison and Mrs. Marshall watched him walk away, looked at each other and then, in tandem, faced Jesse.
Jesse stepped toward them and put her hand on Mrs. Marshall’s shoulder. “You’re right about your husband getting Mr. Ashton in that card game, but it wasn’t his idea.” At that she looked into her boss’ wife’s eyes. “Your husband, that is, your second husband, Mr. Harrison, instigated it all.”
Shaking, Mrs. Harrison asked, “So the rumors are true? Jeb killed Will?”
Jesse shook her head. “He didn’t pull the trigger, but I believe he paid the man who did.”
Mrs. Marshall closed her eyes. “And Quinn? Was he in on that?”
“Ma’am, I don’t think he knew what Harrison had planned and wasn’t even sure, until about five months ago, that he was involved in Mr. Ashton’s death. And he does play cards on Friday night. I’ve seen him. He feels guilty over what he did, but he can get over it with one more game.”
Mrs. Harrison shook her head. “You make no sense. How could a card game cure what ails him?”
“Because this one will be against your husband, Mrs. Harrison.”
With a sharp intake of breath, Lily Marshall fumed, “You want my husband killed the way that man killed Will?”
Mrs. Harrison took a step toward Jesse. “Jeb’s a dangerous man. I suppose I’ve known it for some time now.” Then she looked her friend in the eyes. “I was alone with a ranch to run and no idea how to go about it. Jeb offered a solution so I ignored what I’d been hearing.” Turning back to Jesse she warned, “If Jeb suspects Quinn knows what he did…”
“He’d hire a gun?” Jesse interrupted. Then prodding Beth Harrison to finish, “What had you been hearing, Mrs. Harrison?”
“Only that, at some point, a stranger in the game accused Will of cheating and called him out. In the chaos afterward, Jeb ordered people around in all different directions and then helped the stranger, a killer, walk out.”
With tears in her eyes, Mrs. Marshall put her arm around Mrs. Harrison’s shoulder. “Quinn said he held Will in his arms, trying to help him, until he was gone. He feels responsible.”
“Still that’s no reason to put him in harm’s way,” Mrs. Harrison said to Jesse.
“He won’t be in any danger, I promise you. Madrid and I will both be at that table with him.”
Lily Marshall sighed. “I’m not sure what you’re saying.”
“Mrs. Marshall, I need your husband to challenge Harrison to a card game. You can make that happen if you confront your husband about the rumors you’ve been hearing. Tell him he has one last Friday night, this one, to end things or you’ll leave him.”
“You want her to send him into the arms of some other woman? Then risk getting killed in a card game? That’s ridiculous,” spouted Beth Harrison.
“I don’t think he’s seeing another woman, because I’ve seen him practicing for a game with your husband. And even if he is seeing someone, better to get it out in the open than live like this,” explained Jesse.
Squinting her eyes and shaking her head, Lily Marshall asked, “But why another card game?”
Jesse looked down and kicked at a rock. “He has his reasons. You should talk to him about those.” Then she looked up at Mrs. Marshall and said, “After the game Friday night.”
“And if you’re wrong?” Mrs. Harrison said angrily.
“I’m not. He’ll be safe and your friends will be able to work things out from there.”
“What about Jeb?” asked Mrs. Marshall holding onto her friend.
“I can’t say what will happen there. That’s up to him really.”
Drawing herself up to full height and squaring her shoulders, Beth Harrison stated calmly, “Meaning he could be dead.”
Jesse nodded. “Or on his way to jail.”
“Can I do anything?” Beth Harrison asked.
“You can stake me in the game. Mrs. Marshall, you’ll need to do the same for Madrid. I promise you both we won’t lose any of it.”
The ladies nodded their agreement to the plan. Beth turned to Lily and suggested her friends might find happiness again and how her husband needed to pay for what he did then the pair hugged one last time as Jesse squeezed their shoulders and assured them everything would turn out as she’d planned.
Jeb Harrison checked his pistol, looked at Jesse and said, “There may be trouble in town tonight. I need you there to keep a lid on things.”
Sitting on the edge of Harrison’s prized billiard table, she rolled the black eight ball into the far corner pocket. “I thought the point was to let the pot boil over?”
“Not tonight.” He put on his coat and hat and headed for the front door.
Jesse strolled after him. “Never met someone who put so much store in a card game. Why’s this so important?”
He turned on her and smiled. “I don’t pay you to question me. Besides, my reasons are exactly that, mine.”
She tilted her head to the side. “Your wife know you’re throwing her money around?”
He got very close to her face and curled one side of his mouth stating it was his money, then turned on his heel and reached for the doorknob.
Seeing Mrs. Harrison at the top of the staircase listening, Jesse called after him, “Whatever you say, but the law frowns upon benefitting from forced inheritances.”
His hand turned white from gripping the doorknob while his face turned an ugly shade of red. Jesse shouldered him aside, threw the door open and walked out telling him that everyone knew how he’d come into the spread and everything on it.
Grabbing her arm, he spun her partly around. “You’d best be careful with your accusations.”
She gave him a feral smile, looked down at his hand on her arm and then into his eyes. “And you’d best be careful you don’t lose that hand.” When he removed it, she continued, “Remember, not everyone’s as easy to kill as the first husband.”
Quinn Marshall came into the barn and told Johnny to get their horses saddled since they were headed to town. Johnny asked why and Marshall told him about the card game and that his gun may prove useful.
Johnny moved to begin saddling his horse. “How’s my gun gonna help in a card game?”
“I’ll be playing Harrison.”
Johnny ducked behind his horse smiling that Jesse had been right again. He checked his saddlebag to ensure the money Mrs. Marshall had given him and his lucky deck of cards were safe. “Why would you do that?”
“To right a mistake I made almost two years ago.”
Johnny nodded. “Will Ashton?”
Catching his breath, Marshall asked, “How did you know?”
“Oh, two and two is four.”
Quinn added, “And if you’re Jeb Harrison, five’ll get you ten.”
“What makes you say that?”
They each mounted up and started an uneasy ride to Rimfire.
“Will and I had been friends since coming to this territory. Our families helped each other through everything in those early years, but Will was a better businessman and had more success.”
“That bother you?”
Marshall looked over at Johnny and confessed, “I’m ashamed to say it did. I found myself in need of funds and nowhere to turn.”
“Except your friend,” Johnny surmised.
He nodded and focused on his saddlehorn. “Pride is a terrible sin,” he explained then paused a moment to reflect on that. “Jeb Harrison offered a way out. A poker game where he and I would set Will up. Jeb would cheat him out of enough money for my problem and to help Jeb move on. He said Will would never know and that it would look like he was just unlucky at cards.”
“So you got him there that night?”
Marshall adjusted himself in his saddle and loosened up on the reins which he’d been holding too tightly. “He knew what Jeb was and wanted me to see it. He had no idea I was just like him. I got my dearest friend killed because I couldn’t ask for his help. I sat there while Jeb stole his money and let a drifter kill him.”
Johnny turned quickly to look at him. “A drifter?”
“That’s how Jeb walked from a murder charge. He brought another player to the table that night. He looked like any other saddle tramp who was lucky at cards, but he was a hired gun.”
The hair on the back of Johnny’s neck stood up. “So Harrison didn’t kill Ashton himself?”
“No,” Marshall said. “He’s too careful to get caught up like that.”
“Was Ashton the only one losing then?”
“At first, yes, but after I’d won what I needed and quit the game, Will kept playing and started raking in pot after pot. He was so convinced Jeb was using me, even with me winning that night, that he couldn’t walk away.”
Johnny pulled his horse up and reached for Marshall’s reins to stop him as well. “Who accused Will of cheating?”
“The drifter. Will suggested Jeb was behind it all, but the drifter called him out and Will was no gun.”
“And the drifter walked away in the confusion of it all?”
Looking down, Marshall said quietly, “I stayed with Will until it was over. Jeb was ordering folks around telling them to get the sheriff and doctor.” Marshall looked up to the sky as if in silent prayer. “Drifter was gone when I finally...after Will had died. Took me eighteen months to find out where he went.”
“And where was that?”
Gritting his teeth, Marshall told Johnny it was two towns over in Camden and how the drifter had been found with his throat slit. “Sheriff said Harrison did it, but the only witness disappeared.”
Johnny released Marshall’s reins and urged his horse forward with Marshall following. “Did you confront Harrison with what you suspect?”
“No, but he knows I found out. That’s when I had to hire you. I’m his next target.”
“Then why the game tonight?”
Marshall sat up straighter in his saddle. “He’s not the only one who can cheat and get away with it.”
“You plan to cheat him?” Johnny asked. At Marshall’s nod, he probed, “And when he calls you out?”
Marshall smiled a little. “He won’t challenge me with you there. That gets him killed for sure and it could expose his secret. But I want him to know he’s been beaten at his own game.”
His gut clenched as he told Marshall he didn’t see an end play to which Marshall replied that Harrison’s gun would try for them at some point and it was Johnny’s job to kill her so Harrison could be confronted with the truth then shot like his conniving gunhawk. A chill went up Johnny’s back and he shivered.
As Harrison, Marshall and an unknown man settled in at the card table, Jesse approached the group. “Any objection to me sitting in?”
Harrison eyed her and asked, “Now why would you want to do that?”
Johnny, who had been standing off to the side, walked up and locked eyes with Jesse. “Maybe because I intend to play.”
Marshall smiled broadly at Johnny and assured Harrison he had no objection.
Harrison glared at Marshall. “None from me either, but I don’t want to speak for this gentleman. Mr.?”
The third man, dirty and wearing work pants and shirt like any other drover, introduced himself, “Stone. Name’s Stone.”
Quinn Marshall extended his hand across the table. “How do you do, Mr. Stone. I’m Quinn Marshall,” then pointed to Harrison and continued, “and this is Jeb Harrison.” With a flourish of his hand, he said, “I’ll let these two introduce themselves.”
“Oh, no need for names, Mr. Marshall.” With that Jesse plopped down in a chair and cracked her knuckles. “I expect we know each other.”
Johnny eased into the chair directly across from her. “Or of each other.” He relaxed back into the seat, grabbed a glass and poured himself a whiskey. When he looked up, Jesse was sitting forward with an elbow on the table, chin in hand, staring at him with a mischievous glint in the amethysts.
Harrison opened a new deck of cards and offered them to Marshall to shuffle and deal. After only five hands, Marshall had lost badly and Johnny hadn’t fared much better. Marshall’s index finger and thumb repeatedly smoothed out his mustache while he looked from player to player.
“Deal’s to you, Mr. Marshall,” Jesse said as she laid her hand over the deck sitting in front of him.
“Thank you,” he said coldly as he picked up the cards and dealt.
Johnny watched Jesse closely as she picked up her cards one by one. He didn’t miss her adjusting her sleeve or dropping one hand to her lap afterwards either. Stone and Harrison folded almost immediately. Marshall relaxed back in his chair until Johnny folded then he sat up and drew his brows together. Every time Marshall bet, Jesse raised.
Johnny wondered if Marshall would go all in and got his answer in the next exchange between the two when the man pushed his money to the center of the table. He locked eyes with Jesse as she called and the pair revealed their hands. No surprise to Johnny, Jesse had won. Marshall ran his hand through his hair and watched his money change ownership.
Jesse looked at Marshall and suggested, “I think a walk might do you some good, Mr. Marshall. You seem to be getting yourself in quite a pucker.”
Johnny sat back with his hand by his gun. Jesse looked across at him and touched her nose.
He chewed the inside of his cheek, stilled his thoughts and waited for his usual signs of trouble: stomach clenching, neck hair standing up, blood rushing. They never came. He locked eyes with her and read nothing dangerous there. He downed his drink and looked at her saying, “Might be good at that, Mr. Marshall. I think we can all afford to take a little break.”
Marshall’s shoulders slumped, but he nodded slowly at Johnny, got up and left the saloon.
“Why, Mr. Marshall, you seem out of sorts this evening. Could I help?” Essie asked as she stepped to meet him as he came out of Smitty’s.
He turned his hat round and round in his hands. “I don’t think so, but thank you anyway.”
He moved toward the bench to sit, but Essie draped herself around him. “Come, tell me what troubles you so.” Then whispered in his ear, “Perhaps it is Mr. Harrison, no?”
Marshall jumped away from Essie and looked up and down the street then back in toward the table. “No, why would you say that?”
Essie moved toward him, leaned into his chest with her hands on his face and softly, while looking up through her lashes at him, said, “Because he is a lying, cheating murderer who has gotten away with terrible things. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to talk to me?”
Stunned by her words, Marshall nodded and said, “Yes, I think I would at that.”
Locking her arm through his, she pulled him away from Smitty’s and toward the bordello. “Let us go to my room and speak of these things away from the danger of being overheard.”
Lily Marshall stood across the street with Beth Harrison and watched the exchange between her husband and the beautiful woman. Putting a comforting arm around her friend, Beth said, “I know this looks bad, but remember what Jesse said.”
“She said she thought he was playing cards.” Lily watched her husband and the woman step off the walk and head down the street. “I have to see where they end up.”
Beth looked at the departing couple and then toward Smitty’s. She sighed and told her friend, “I have to stay here to see this through.”
Lily hugged her friend. “Be careful and please don’t confront him. Let Johnny and Jesse handle things.”
With her hands on her friend’s face, Beth cautioned, “I should say the same to you.”
With one final hug, Lily Marshall marched off to confront Quinn Marshall. Beth Harrison moved to the entrance of Smitty’s to learn Jeb Harrison’s fate.
After Marshall’s departure, Johnny eyed Stone and saw him exchange glances with Harrison, but neither man did anything else except sip whiskey and count money. His focus moved to Jesse who was playing with a deck of cards. He watched as she shuffled and cut the deck so the Queen of Spades came to the top.
“I always thought the Queen of Spades looked a little Mexican,” she said to no one in particular. Then, staring at Johnny, she cut the deck again, showed him that same card at the top and asked, “What do you think, Madrid? She look like anyone you ever met? Maybe in a bordello somewhere?” She smiled with that one brow raised.
His eyes narrowed. “Yeah, maybe. Course she wasn’t wearing black.”
“Yours probably wears pink, right?” she said with a wink laying that cards on the table. Jesse looked at each man in turn. “We playing cards, gents?”
Stone stretched his arms overhead and said, “Been sittin’ too long. Think I’ll head out for a minute and stretch my legs before the next hand.” He stood and adjusted his gunbelt.
Johnny noted how Harrison smiled watching Stone leave and noted too the man’s surprise when Stone walked back in just a few minutes later.
“Back so soon, Mr. Stone?” Harrison inquired.
“Not a soul on the street anywhere I could see, ‘cept a couple kanoodlin’ through the bordello front door and a woman sittin’ outside waitin’ on someone. Figured I’d come play a while longer and see if the town livens up later.”
Johnny looked down at the drink he was holding, smiled a little and picked up the deck Jesse had laid down. “Whose deal?”
Scratching her head, Jesse made a “humph” sound. “I’ve lost track.” Her amethyst eyes stared into Johnny’s blue ones. “But I have no objection to you taking the lead now.”
Johnny dealt the stacked hand so Jesse and he were assured of remaining in the game. He smiled when Harrison folded. “To you, Stone.”
Flashing a look between the hand he held and Johnny’s eyes, “Don’t push me, Madrid.”
“You either have the hand or you don’t,” Johnny answered calmly.
“I’m thinking you know that better than I do.”
Relaxing a bit more, holding his cards in his left hand, he drawled at Stone, “Now how would I know that?”
Jesse sighed heavily. “Gentlemen, I have a fair amount of cash on the table right now and, as much as I’m enjoying this pissing contest you have going, Mr. Stone, are you in or out?”
Johnny picked up on Harrison’s signal to Stone to stay in so he scratched his nose twice as Jesse had been doing. He kept his eyes on the hand he held, but heard her cough several times and then clear her throat.
“How much to me?” Stone asked.
“Five hundred,” Jesse said.
Looking again at his hand, Stone said, “Call.”
“I’ll call too. Madrid?”
Stone showed a hand with three nines, but Johnny had a straight and Jesse laid down a full house.
Whistling, Jesse leaned forward to examine the cards. “That is some bad luck, Stone. I mean what do you suppose the odds are on those three hands showing up like that? And isn’t that like the second or third time tonight?”
“I don’t think it’s got anything to do with odds,” Stone replied icily.
“Then what would it have to do with?” she asked feigning innocence.
His hand moved to his gun. “I think there’s a cheat at this table.”
She leaned in toward him, placed her hand on her own gun and her voice dropped lower when she said, “Seeing as how I won and wasn’t dealing, that’d be a pretty neat trick.” Then she sat back and turned to Harrison. “Don’t you think that’d be a good trick, Mr. Harrison?”
He fidgeted with his jacket lapel and beads of sweat popped out on his forehead. “Yes, that seems unlikely.”
She raked in her winnings, cocked her head, raised the one brow and said, “Sure would be a shame to have gunplay in a friendly game like this. Don’t you agree, Mr. Harrison?”
The hand holding his drink shook a bit as he raised it to his lips and took a quick drink. He licked his lips and looked at Stone. “Mr. Stone, perhaps you should leave this table. I don’t see that anyone cheated here. You’re just unlucky tonight.”
Johnny gathered the cards together and stated, “I think we should play another few hands just to show we can all be nice.”
Stone gulped and began to stand. “I think maybe Harrison is right and I should call it a night.”
With lightning speed, Johnny had his gun out. “Sit down.”
Stone sat back down slowly with his hands on the table and swallowed again. Harrison started to stand then and Jesse drew on him and asked where he was going since it was his deal. The man sat down, wiped sweat from his brow and countered that it was Stone’s deal.
Johnny holstered his gun and put the deck in front of Harrison. “Deal. Now.”
He took the cards and dealt and when the final call was made, Johnny had a pair of twos and Jesse a pair of threes. Stone and Harrison laid down a straight and full house.
“Would you look at that?” Jesse said.
“Two of the three winning hands that keep showing up,” Johnny said then looked across at Jesse and smiled.
She smiled back. “Now how do you explain that?”
Shrugging, Johnny stated, “Only one way to explain it. They’re both cheating.”
Stone jumped up, kicked Jesse’s chair hard enough to almost tip it and turned with gun in hand toward Johnny. Johnny put a bullet through Stone’s heart then watched as the man crumpled to the floor with a look of utter disbelief on his face. Seeing Stone dead on the floor, Harrison stood and raised his hands over his head. Jesse drew her gun on him anyway.
With the sound of gunfire, Beth Harrison rushed in to see her husband standing at the gunpoint of both Johnny and Jesse.
Harrison quivered and looked quickly between the two gunfighters. “It wasn’t me. I didn’t even know that man.”
“Sure you did. You brought him here to kill Marshall,” Jesse said as she put her gun away and got close to Harrison’s face.
Shaking his head vigorously from side to side, he ranted, “No, I didn’t. I never saw him. I brought you here to handle Marshall.”
“That’s what you told me and maybe that was true at first, but then Marshall suggested a poker game.”
He stumbled back a step as she inched even closer. “What difference would that make?”
“Are you gonna deny what you had planned when we have you dead to rights?” Johnny asked.
“Johnny’s right, you can’t get out of this. You can spill it all right now and go to jail or face us both in the street.”
Harrison involuntarily shuddered and stammered, “I...I won’t fight you...either of you.”
“Then all these people, including your wife, will see you for the coward you are. How much power you think you’ll have then?”
At that moment, the Marshalls and Essie entered the saloon and stood by Beth Harrison. Lily took Beth’s hand and held her husband’s in the other.
“It’s over, Jeb,” Marshall declared.
“You should be afraid right now, Marshall. You’re the one that led Ashton to the game that got him killed and you did it because you needed money. That’s why I you need driven out. Your neighbors can’t trust you.”
“Yes, I did do that and I can never take it back.” He looked across his wife to Beth and with glassy eyes said, “I’m sorry for what I did to Will, getting him in that game, but I didn’t hire the man that killed him.”
“Surely you aren’t suggesting I did? I didn’t know him either,” blustered Harrison.
Jesse stood toe to toe with the man and poked him in the chest. “Funny, because there’s a witness to you killing him. Now why would you do that if you didn’t even know him?”
Harrison paled and choked out, “A witness?”
Stepping forward, Essie proclaimed, “Si, a witness. Me. The man you killed was my husband. I watched you from the window of our rooms.” She took a breath and straightened to her full height. “You spoke angry words with him and when he turned away, you took a knife and cut his throat from behind. Then you left him there to die.” .
“Sheriff Dawson over there in Camden is looking forward to closing the books on that one. Says he’ll be more than happy to get the circuit judge for a quick trial,” Jesse informed Harrison.
“This is crazy. You think anything will happen to me over the death of a gunfighter?”
Johnny moved closer to the man with gun drawn. “I don’t know, why don’t we go out in that street and find out?”
Essie lunged forward with fists flailing at him, but Jesse raised her arm to stop her. That didn’t keep Essie from spitting his direction and shouting that her husband was unarmed when he killed him.
Beth Harrison closed her eyes, took a deep breath then nodded to her friends before walking up to her husband and slapping him hard.
He covered the hand print forming on his face and his breathing became rapid. “I’m your husband. How can you believe these people over me?” He reached for her shoulder, then suddenly grabbed her and moved her in front of him. He straightened his arm quickly and from under his jacket sleeve a small gun appeared which he held to Beth Harrison’s head. “Now, I’m leaving here and no one is going to stop me.”
Johnny watched Harrison back up toward the entrance, but couldn’t get a clear shot. He saw Jesse calculate her odds on that front as well as she took a step toward the couple.
Harrison saw the movement and swung them towards Jesse as he pressed the gun tighter into his wife’s temple. “I will kill her if you take another step.”
“Enough,” raged Quinn Marshall as he charged Harrison and knocked the man’s gun arm while pulling Beth Harrison down to the safety of the floor.
Johnny fired into the chest of Jeb Harrison, but noticed how blood oozed from his gut as well.
Lily screamed and ran to her friend. “Beth, are you okay?”
“No, but I will be thanks to you and Quinn.”
Quinn got up, helping the ladies to their feet as well, but his eyes were downcast. “Not me. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t been so stupid in the first place.”
Jesse approached Quinn and said, “Don’t be too hard on yourself. Harrison was good at what he did and anyone could have fallen for it. That said, this could have ended very badly for you.”
“You knew,” Lily breathed.
“Yeah, I watched your husband learning to cheat at cards and had a hunch what he had planned.”
“What about the rumors about, well, about Quinn and Mrs. de la Vega?”
“I think you already found out those were just that, right? I needed you mad enough to get him in the game tonight. Figured you confronting him with what you thought he was up to would push his plan forward.”
Quinn put his arm around his wife and gazed into her eyes. “It did. The thought of Lily thinking I’d been unfaithful...I knew I had to end it tonight.” He turned to Jesse with brows knit together and asked, “Then you sent Essie as well?”
“Yeah, well, Essie’s actually who I’m working for. I needed to get you off the street before Stone made his move and she wanted to help. Figured you could explain yourself when your wife caught up with you at the, uh, at Essie’s.”
Johnny stepped toward Jesse, pointed to Essie and said, “Wait, you work for her?”
“So we don’t owe her a cut of our pay?”
“I’m sure these good people would like to get home so we can talk about that tomorrow, right?” Before Johnny could respond, Jesse turned to Quinn Marshall and said, “Mr. Marshall, you lost sight of what’s most important in life, don’t do it again.”
Hugging Jesse, Lily said, “We won’t.” Turning to Johnny, she said, “Thank you for keeping my husband safe, Mr. Madrid.”
Johnny noted, “That was a group effort.” Looking at Jesse, he went on, “Bigger group than I thought too.”
Extending his hand to Johnny, Quinn Marshall promised, “Thank you. Now, I’d like to get my wife and Mrs. Harrison home. Could we settle up tomorrow morning at the ranch?”
Johnny nodded and told everyone he’d deal with the sheriff who had entered the saloon and was headed their direction.
Jesse turned to Beth. “I’ll take care of gettin’ you home since I have to get my stuff. Ready?”
“I’m ready and we can discuss what I owe you on the way.”
As Beth walked out arm and arm with Lily and Quinn, Jessie hugged Essie and said, “Head back to your place and I’ll see you tomorrow. And thanks.”
Essie thanked Jesse in return and kicked Harrison’s body on the way out.
Johnny moved to stand by Jesse and draped his arm over her shoulders. “You owe me another drink. And some answers.”
She hip-checked him. “Plenty of time for that tomorrow.”
As she walked away from him, he called after, “See you at the Silver Dollar then?”
She smiled at him over her shoulder and promised, “I’ll be there.”
After giving Essie money and wishing her good luck, Jesse headed to the Silver Dollar for the drink and answers she’d promised Johnny. On the way, she wondered why she hadn’t suggested Smitty’s since it was nicer, but realized they belonged at the Silver Dollar for this drink.
She saw Johnny smile when she walked in and beamed back noticing he was in the back corner with the chairs pulled together like on that first day. On the table was a bottle and two glasses. She watched him pour two drinks and, when she got to the table, lift his glass to toast. As he handed her the other, encouraging her to lift hers with a nod of his head, she had to ask, “What are we toasting?”
Johnny smiled slyly and said, “Me.”
Jesse bit her bottom lip for a second then rubbed it with the side of her index finger. “I’m going to hate myself for asking, but why are we drinking to you?”
His smile was big and the twinkle in his eyes wicked and she held her breath for his answer. “I’m so in love with myself I couldn’t imagine a woman double-crossing me.”
Jesse threw her head back and chortled. “Meaning you didn’t shoot me when the card-playing started?” At his nod, she said, “Well, then, I guess a little self-love is a good thing. Cheers.”
He clinked glasses with her and drank. When the glasses were empty, he held the chair out for her and, once she was seated, sat down and asked how she’d known the full story between Marshall and Harrison and what Marshall had planned.
“I like homework,” she told him. “You just had to look at Marshall to see he was bothered by more than the trouble brewing. I watched him in the Silver Dollar two Fridays in a row learning how to cheat at cards and asked myself why an upstanding citizen would need to do that. Once I heard the story about Will Ashton, it was pretty easy to put together.”
He filled their glasses. “How’d you get someone like Harrison to hire you? He doesn’t exactly strike me as a man who’d hire a woman gun.”
“Made my offer by wire,” she confessed. “By the time I got here and he saw me, well, he was desperate to put his plan in motion and he felt better once he hired the three you met in the street that day to keep an eye on me.”
He smiled at her. “You actually were thinning your own herd.” As she nodded, he asked, “So you decided to repeat that night to smoke Harrison out?”
Jesse took another drink and met his eyes looking up through her dark bangs. “Yeah. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the entire story and plan.”
“I didn’t exactly bank on your trustworthiness either. How’d you get folks to keep from talking to me though?”
Jesse covered her mouth with her hand and then slowly ran it down her chin. “Yeah, that. Well, I might have paid a few folks who told a few more folks to keep quiet. You know, just in case.”
“I met her on the way to see about the job. As soon as I said Rimfire and Harrison, she told me the story of her husband’s murder. I knew pretty quickly he wasn’t somebody I wanted to help, assuming her story checked out, which it did, so I told her I’d get him.”
“Uh-huh. And who paid who?”
She studied her drink. “She just lost her husband so I didn’t feel right taking her money.”
“But you didn’t have any trouble giving her ours?”
“If you don’t want to share your money with a poor woman who is all alone in the world and may go hungry…”
Johnny raised his hand and shook his head. “Stop. I agreed to the deal so here’s my share.” He started to hand over money, then stopped mid-air. “You did pay her, right?”
“Of course. I’m not a liar.”
He just stared at her.
“I’m not,” she wailed. “I didn’t tell you one single lie. Didn’t tell you the whole story, but that ain’t lyin’.”
With a crooked grin, he concluded, “And the compromise? That was between us, not our bosses, right?”
“Yep, but still played out like I said. Only dead guys needed to be dead.”
They enjoyed more drinks and swapped tips about their trade and stories of people they might have known in common. Their laughter came easily and they delayed their departures as long as they could. Finally, Jesse looked into her near empty glass, announced she was headed East to see about trouble brewing in Strawberry and asked about his plans.
“I was thinking about East myself. Maybe we could get a bottle and, you know, ride in the same direction. I mean, if you wanted to.”
“I’d like that,” she told him.
“Good. You buyin’?”
She looked at him rubbing her bottom lip between her index finger and thumb then slapped her hand on the table and agreed citing the fact that he’d just given her a chunk of his pay.
The ride together was easy, as if he’d known her well and for years. As the sun set, Johnny suggested they make camp. He took care of the horses and watched Jesse collect wood and get a fire going. He liked the quiet between them and felt a sense of calm each time she glanced his way and smiled.
After they’d eaten and were sharing the tequila Jesse had bought, Johnny stilled and concentrated on his hands warming by the fire. Several minutes later, he looked up at her and, in his quiet way, asked, “What if I hadn’t agreed to work with you?”
He watched as she worked out her answer by chewing on her bottom lip and kicking at a stick peeking out from the fire. Finally, she chuckled quietly then told him, “As heart-breaking as it would have been for the female population, I’d have had to kill you.”
He knew she was right and they’d both have done their jobs to the best of their abilities. He was grateful it hadn’t come to that. The professional had nothing to add, but the man beginning to care about her asked with a shy look, “Is present company excluded from the women who’d shed a tear for me?”
“No, killing you would have been very hard.” Then she rolled her eyes and said, “Even if you are full of yourself.”
“And you’re not?”
Johnny smirked a little and said, “So being good at your trade was just a guess?”
Her cheeks flushed and her hand played with her hair. “I do okay.”
“How’d you get so okay at it?”
“You mean what’s a nice girl like me doing in this line of work?”
He nodded and hoped she’d open up about her past, though at the same time hoping he wouldn’t have to tell his own story. He saw the pained look on her face and almost wished he hadn’t raised the subject at all, especially when she told him she’s lost everything in a range war four years before.
Johnny almost whispered, “I’m sorry. I know what it is to lose family and a home.”
“Hardest part was that my father was in on it.”
“Then we have more in common than you know.”
He slowly drank the tequila as she described her family’s spread in Nevada and how they’d been successful with cattle, horses and a timber mill. He asked about her family.
“Two brothers and a father. I was the youngest by way more than a few years.” She looked at him with her head cocked and the eyebrow up. “I think that’s called a surprise.” She took a drink and held the cup tightly. “Anyway, pa didn’t want another kid and certainly not a girl. That’s how I got the name Jesse. He’d be mad as hell that it helps me now.”
“Name suits you,” he remarked.
“Thanks.” Then she narrowed her eyes at him and said, “I think.”
“They all gone now?” he asked her.
“Yeah and not a day goes by that I don’t miss my brothers.”
“But not your pa?”
As she changed before his eyes, he recalled what she’d said on that first day about control and betrayal.
When she finally spoke, it was with that same unyielding edge. “After my mother died, he became a drunk and a mean one at that. He never lifted a finger except to put a bottle to his lips or his fist to my face. The ranch belonged to my granddad, but he had it in a trust for us kids in case he or my mother died. It survived because of my brothers and me working hard.”
“How old were you when your mama died?”
Jesse teared up and with a catch in her voice said, “Four. Don’t remember her much. I got influenza and gave it to her and granddad. Only I survived and they didn’t.”
He saw the gunfighter she was now replace the sadness of the lost child he had just witnessed.
“Pa blamed me for their deaths and his lack of standing as a property owner. He let me know he hated me every chance he got, mostly with punches. Called me a mistake so many times I figured he was right.”
“Didn’t your brothers help you?”
“They were busy running the ranch. I don’t blame them for anything. They were doin’ their best and that man was good at spinning tales.”
His heart constricted. “When did they figure it out?”
“I was almost seven. That’s when they started taking me with them. I was working by their sides full time by the time I was ten. They made sure I could handle anything they could on the ranch.”
She beamed talking about the hard work and family stories her brothers told her while doing it. Then hate radiated from her eyes and her voice dripped with bitterness as she told him how going home at night was rough because her father always made her his target after a day of drinking. “That’s why I picked up my first gun. My brothers started teaching me how to shoot and, by the time I was thirteen, they wished they hadn’t since I was out-gunning them.”
Their stories were so similar that the more she spoke, the more pain he felt about his own life. He’d never been one to dwell on the hand life had dealt him, but hearing her story and feeling so sad for her made him reflect on his own. Before he knew it, he’d confessed he spent plenty of nights staying out of the way too.
Johnny redirected the conversation from him to her and asked about the range war. The story was a familiar one. The ranch was valuable for its water and pastures and the neighbor wanted it any way he could get it and things had escalated fast.
“My brothers and I, along with the few hands we had, fought as best we could. Learned a lot by watching their tactics and using them ourselves. We came up with a plan to create enough chaos to take out hands and gunfighters as they scrambled. Hoped to end the whole thing or at least even the odds a bit.”
“Killing is hard for a kid,” he said.
She nodded and took a drink. “We didn’t like the killing, but figured it was us or them.”
“That lesson comes early.”
“And once learned, it sticks.”
“How’d your pa play into all this?” he asked her.
She looked at him and spit out that he was drunk, losing at cards and figured he could clean the slate and earn a hefty payment for warning the other side.
Johnny wondered if all fathers were ruthless enough to play Judas with their families for their own equivalent of thirty silver coins. “What happened?”
“My oldest brother, Tom, set the barn on fire, while my other brother, Chris, stampeded most of his herd toward the barn and main house. Since I was the best shot, I was supposed to pick people off. I stumbled across a lookout on the way to my position. Learned I could be equally handy with a knife with the element of surprise.”
He was impressed even as he felt concern for her well-being in a conflict that had long been over. “A woman of many talents.”
“Maybe womanly talents too.”
He winked and flirted back. “Jury’s still out on that.”
“Didn’t know a trial had started,” she said with that one brow raised.
“Biding my time on that front.”
She smiled, then sobered and recounted that, before the he died, the lookout told her what her father had done and how her brothers had ridden into an ambush. A single tear ran down her cheek as she took a drink and watched the fire. “By the time I got there, Tom was dead and Chris was pinned down in a gun battle. Before I knew it, he was gone too.”
Johnny found himself thankful she had survived. “And your pa?”
Jesse looked around their surroundings. She paid close attention to the horses nearby and the pile of wood waiting to be burned. Her leg was jittery like it had been under the table that day in Rimfire. She swallowed hard, focused on the cup in his hand rather than on his eyes. “When I went home to get money we had hidden and the few family things I could carry, I found him passed out on the floor with an empty bottle next to him. He still had the wad of blood money in his pocket.”
He could see she wasn’t just recounting the story, but reliving it, and he debated whether to withdraw the question or let her continue.
After another few seconds playing with an invisible thread on her pants, she took a deep breath. “I couldn’t let him keep that money knowing what it had cost, but when I reached for it, he came to and grabbed me. I knew in that instant I was headed to be with my mother and brothers. Then he had a bullet between his eyes and I was leaving him inside a burning house. Hell on earth.” She took another deep breath, this time with a forceful exhale and finally looked up to lock eyes with him across the fire.
Johnny looked at his own pants now as the faces of men he’d killed for less reason flooded his mind. While he couldn’t fault her for protecting herself, he also didn’t know what to say to her in that moment.
After the silence hung there a few minutes more, she pried, “Shocked?”
“A little, but he’d have killed you, so I’m glad you fought back.”
She smiled and, after taking another drink, asked if he was still interested in the verdict.
He admitted he was then winked. “But I’m not giving you any matches.”
She laughed, wiped her tears away and dragged her sleeve under her nose. She sat up a bit straighter and explained that she’d used the money for practice ammunition to get better and faster since she was headed out on her own.
He asked about becoming a gun and she explained how she’d looked for ranch work, but big ranches didn’t want a fifteen year old girl and small ranches couldn’t afford to keep her on long. She held out her cup for him to fill. “You know, there’s really only two jobs for women. Teachin’ and whorin’.”
He choked back a laugh and cleared his throat. “Let’s start with teachin’.”
She chuckled at him. “Smart enough with the right parts, but not old enough. As to other, well, I right parts and no concerns about my age, but I wasn’t that desperate for cash.”
He liked that explanation and asked again about using her gun for a living.
“Eventually I rode into the wrong town and smack dab in the middle of a party like the one I’d left. Figured I didn’t have anything to lose trying to get hired on. Wasn’t easy, but the lead gun saw something in me I guess.”
He smiled knowing how the lead gun had felt. “He teach you about compromise?”
“Yeah. He didn’t like killing either and showed me how to turn tables by using your head, not your gun.”
“Another important lesson to learn early.”
“Yeah, too many graves filled with kids who didn’t.”
Johnny laughed at her. “You’re not exactly grizzled.”
“You’re not exactly doddering.”
He got up to throw another piece of wood on the fire. “He teach you to cheat at cards too?”
“No, that was another teacher. Two, actually. Grifters who needed a third person for a con they were running. Helped I could protect them too.”
“You’ve covered a lot of ground in four years.”
She smiled and nodded. He poured more tequila for himself and held the bottle up toward her offering a refill. She wrinkled her nose and shook her head.
“You like to be in control,” he stated as he sat back down.
“Always thought so,” he admitted. “Not sure how you got around that.”
“No clue. I didn’t figure you working with me. Your reputation preceded you.”
“Then why try?”
“The situation required it and I guess I saw something in you. I may not know your story, but I know your look since I see it in every mirror.”
“What look is that?”
“The one that says you want respect, but you’ll settle for fear. And you’ll use that fear to protect folks who can’t protect themselves because you’ve been there.”
Johnny put his cup down, drew his legs up and wrapped his arms around them. “Like women and kids,” he said into his knees.
“And friends when they need it,” she pointed out.
“Don’t have many of those,” he said leaning his chin on his knees and looking at her.
She smiled at him as she stretched her legs out and leaned back on her elbows. “Me neither. Be nice to have one though, as long as he can share control with a woman.”
“How’d I do this time?”
The amethysts took on that humorous sparkle. “Pretty good for someone who’s in love with himself.”
“Well, what’s not to love?”
Jesse laughed out loud at that. “Careful or I might think that joke outside the mercantile wasn’t just a fluke.”
“It wasn’t. I can joke around when I know who it is I’m joking with.”
She laughed again and tipped an imaginary hat to him, then grew serious. “So what led you to Rimfire?”
His eyes got dark, he stilled and all humor left him as he told her the story of his gringo father throwing his mama and him out, the constant moving from border town to border town and his killing the man who’d beaten his mama to death.
“How long after that before your first job?”
He bowed his head. “Little over a year when I was almost twelve.”
She got up, sat beside him and gently laid her hand on his shoulder. “I’m not ashamed of what kept me alive and you shouldn’t be either.”
He moved his hand to lace it with hers. They sat connected like that, staring into the fire, for several minutes.
His momentary contentment was shattered when she said, “Ever wonder about your father?”
He withdrew his hand, unfolded himself and stood up to add more fuel to the fire. All the hate boiled up and he spat out, “Lancer?”
“Your father wasn’t Madrid?”
Watching the sparks and flames rise up, he told her Madrid was a step-father and his real father was a big shot rancher in California by the name of Murdoch Lancer. When she asked if he ever thought about the man, he squatted next to her and the fire and pushed ashes around with a stick. “Sure, I wonder what kind of man he is to throw his family out and how his ranch in California means more than his kid. Mostly though I wonder how he’ll look right before I kill him.”
Jesse reached for his hand to quiet it, threw the stick in the fire and held his hand in her own. “It’s not good, you know, that last look. I’m not in a position to lecture, but, despite everything my father did, killing him is my biggest regret. There’s something that eats at you knowing you killed your only living kin.”
“You did what you had to do.”
“Still, I’m sure my mother and brothers are disappointed in me. Maybe if I’d never been born, he wouldn’t have been like that and they’d all still be alive. Guess what I’m saying is there are two sides to every situation so maybe you should consider listening to his before you call him out.”
He sat down and calmly predicted, “I can’t imagine him saying anything that’d keep me from killing him.”
She put her arm around his shoulders and gave him a small hug. After another quiet moment, she used his shoulder to help herself up, leaned in quickly as she did to kiss the top of his head then moved to her bedroll on the other side of the fire. Settling in under her cover, she said, “Goodnight, Johnny. I’m sorry about your Mama. Always wished I’d had mine longer.”
He stretched out on his own blanket, looked up to the sky and softly offered, “Sleep good, Jess. I’m sorry about your brothers. Always wanted one myself.”
TBC in Part Two