A Match Unsurpassed
Part Two - Connect
by Kathy P.
“So what’s the job again?” Johnny asked as they neared the village of Dona Ana.
“A gringo, as you’d say, laid claim to the salinas and wants to charge the locals for gathering salt,” Jesse responded.
“Whose side we on?”
“The right one.”
Johnny smirked and looked at her out of the corner of his eye and asked which side that was.
“This is our ninth job together in as many months. You honestly don’t know which side is the right one?” she huffed at him.
He ducked his head and chuckled. “The locals.”
“Damn straight, the locals. Those folks have been gettin’ salt for free since the area was first settled and now some fool thinks he can make money off those poor people.” She got louder and spoke faster. “Just another situation where some man’s greed is creatin’ a problem.”
“Settle down. Wasn’t arguing the point. Just askin’ a question.”
Jesse raised her hands in surrender. “Sorry, you know how I get.” After a few moments of silence, she squinted and bit her lip. “Hope you don’t mind working for next to nothing.”
He reined his horse to a stop and looked at her asking what next to nothing meant and she mumbled something about the locals feeding them and how they couldn’t afford to pay anything.
“How are we supposed to fight without supplies? Like bullets?” he inquired.
“I have money for supplies,” she said in an unusually high-pitched voice. “And whatever else we need too.”
“You get this is how we make a living, right? We get paid, not bankroll the fight.”
“Sometimes you fight for the principle of a thing,” she said looking at him sideways.
“Where you comin’ up with all this extra money anyway?”
She shrugged. “Been saving up.”
Johnny’s brows knitted together. “You have enough money to pay all our expenses and buy supplies?”
Bobbing her head from left to right, she said, “More or less.” She urged her horse on, hoping he’d drop the conversation and follow.
Johnny kicked his horse to catch up. When he pulled alongside her, he said, “I, uh, don’t like the idea of you paying my way.”
“Well, consider it a loan you can pay back out of our next job. Or, better yet, think of it as payment for saving my life in Rimfire. Stone had me cold that night and I surely wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”
“Guess you do owe me for that.” Then he wagged a finger at her. “But don’t you go thinking payin’ entitles you to takin’ liberties with me.”
She snorted at that. “Well, I’ll do my best to control those urges, but that may be hard to do. I mean, like you been sayin’, what’s not to love?”
They rode into the small village of Dona Ana at dusk, but there was enough light left to make out the hardships faced by the town’s residents. Jesse looked from run-down buildings to work-worn faces and reflected on what she knew about Johnny’s childhood living in such towns. She watched him take it all in and noted the sadness that had come over him as they rode toward the cantina which also served as the hotel. Her own childhood was no picnic, but she’d at least always had the basic necessities, something she knew he’d rarely had growing up.
“Why don’t we get rooms and food before heading over to the church?” Jesse suggested.
Johnny looked down the street to the small building with the cross on top and replied, “You planning on praying for a win in addition to paying for it?”
She shook her head and explained that the man doing the hiring was a priest, a shepherd guarding his flock so to speak. They dismounted at the cantina, grabbed gear and headed inside, taking in their surroundings as they sidled up to the bar. Johnny ordered tequila and two rooms.
The bartender kept his eyes downcast and said quietly, as he placed the glasses and bottle in front of them, “We only have one room, but you may share it.”
Johnny looked to Jesse who shrugged while pouring their drinks and asking about a livery. At that question, a young boy with a grin the size of the whole territory came up to announce his name was Pedro and he’d be honored to take care of their horses.
“Well, Pedro, here’s five dollars. Make sure they each get a good rub down and then extra oats. If there’s any money left after paying the livery, you just feel free to keep it,“ Jesse said as she handed the wide-eyed boy the money.
“And take that money home to your mama. Don’t go spending it on your own wants, you hear?” Johnny ordered.
The young boy gulped and nodded, then ran to the door like the devil was on his tail.
“Woo-hee, guess you put the fear of God into him,” Jesse joked as she punched Johnny on his upper arm. Turning to the bartender, she asked about getting them some food.
“I’ll have food waiting once you settle into your room,” the bartender replied handing the key to Johnny.
“Could you put two chairs together in that back corner for us?” Johnny asked pointing to a table.
That particular placement of chairs had become a standard since their first meeting in Rimfire. Jesse always smiled when Johnny remembered to do it. She moved toward the stairs and felt his hand on the small of her back as he walked next to her.
The room was small, but clean, with a bed on each side of the room, a dresser on the back wall and small rocker by the lone window.
“Ain’t too bad,” he noted.
“And two beds. That’s good,” she responded.
He grinned at her. “I think that depends on your definition of good.”
Making a frame with her hands, Jesse predicted, “They’re gonna put ‘hope sprung eternal’ on your tombstone.”
He put his things down on the bed closest to the window. “I told you I was interested in the verdict.”
“You also said you were biding your time.”
He pulled the curtains back and surveyed the street. “I have.”
Jesse moved to sit in the rocker next to him and peered out the window too. “One week after Rimfire and every few days since isn’t exactly biding time, you know.”
He dropped the curtains back in place and lowered himself to her eye level placing his hands on the rocker arms. “Seeing as how you’ve turned me down each time and I haven’t taken advantage of you, I’d say it is.” Johnny pushed off hard making the chair rock, moved to the dresser and peered into the pitcher setting there. “Water looks fairly new. You want to clean up before heading back down?”
“Did you just say I stink?” she asked, smelling her shirt. “No, wait, don’t answer that.”
Johnny laughed. “I know better than to tell a lady she smells bad.”
“That’ll come in handy if you’re ever around one,” she said with a wink as she got up and walked toward the door. “Stink or not, I’m hungry and we still need to see the Padre so cleaning up will have to wait. Let’s go.”
He moved to the door and held it open for her. “You think you’ll ever get to the point where you don’t run the show?”
Jesse thought about that for a minute, bouncing the idea around in her head which tilted from left to right, then raised the one eyebrow at him.
“Well, at least you’re honest about it,” he countered shaking his head.
She backhanded him lightly in the stomach. “I’m nothin’ if not honest.”
The bartender had set them up nicely with food and they dove into the chili and tamales with gusto. The conversation between them was light-hearted, each eliciting laughs out of the other on several occasions. Jesse heard the batwings swing many times and watched Johnny look up from under his lashes and follow each new patron until they had taken a seat. By the time their hunger was sated, the place had filled up.
“You ever feel like an animal in a cage at one of them sideshows?” Jesse asked.
“I was thinking the same thing.”
She looked at the clear liquid in her glass. “They don’t seem like they wanna kill us.”
Before Johnny could answer, Jesse heard the batwings open once again. She looked up that time and saw a tall, thin, balding man in a long brown robe enter the cantina and approach their table.
Jesse made eye contact with the man. “Father Borrajo?”
When he nodded and extended his hand in greeting, she stood and shook it telling him, “I’m Jesse Wilder.” She pointed toward Johnny. “This is my associate, Johnny Madrid.”
She noted that Johnny was still seated and looking closely at his empty plate so she kicked his chair to get his attention.
He looked up, but remained seated. “Padre.”
Jesse raised one eyebrow at his curt greeting and turned to the priest, pointing to an empty chair at their table. “Please sit down. Would you like a drink? No, I, mean….”
“Actually, I wouldn’t turn down a drink, Senorita Wilder,” he said with particular emphasis on the ‘Senorita’ as he seated himself across the table from Johnny.
“It’s Jesse and let me get you a glass,” she volunteered and nudged the back of Johnny’s head as she headed toward the bar.
“Unusual for a priest to be hiring guns,” Johnny remarked.
“A shepherd must tend his flock and sometimes fend off the wolves.”
Johnny smiled and nodded at that.
“Here you go, Father. Help yourself.” Jesse put the glass down in front of him, sat down and looked at Johnny trying to ascertain his mood which seemed to have improved some. “We were planning to come see you as soon as we grabbed this bite to eat.”
“How’d you know we were here?” Johnny probed.
“My son, I knew when you were within a mile of Dona Ana. Of course, I expected both of you to be men.”
“I think that’s to you,” Johnny told her as he sat back in his chair draping one arm over the back.
“Yes, thank you,” she deadpanned to Johnny. Then turning to their employer, she posed, “I, uh, assume you don’t have a problem hiring a woman as long as she can get the job done?”
Father Borrajo’s eyes focused on Jesse’s gun and then slowly rose to meet her eyes. “No. Help comes in many forms and God must have his reasons for sending a woman to us.”
Johnny studied the priest’s hands holding the unfilled glass. He reached for the bottle and poured the drink the priest wouldn’t turn down. “If you knew we were here, why didn’t you come right over?”
“My son, we have waited patiently for a week. Another few minutes to allow you time to eat and drink before...”
Jesse’s eyes narrowed as she looked at the priest. “Before what?”
“Our salt stores are running very low and we must make a trip to the salinas in the next several days. We have heard that Senor Magoffin has hired help to collect his unjust fees.”
“Senor Magoffin?” Johnny asked.
Borrajo explained that Magoffin moved there four years ago and made an ownership claim to the salt flats at Lake Lucero expecting locals to pay him for gathering salt there.
“Why not just pay him?” Johnny proposed.
An older man, with a weathered face and boney hands, who was sitting at the next table piped up, “Pagar por lo que es nuestro por derecho? Nunca. Si usted no puede entender esto, entonces usted es de ninguna utilidad para nosotros.” (“Pay for what is rightfully ours? Never. If you cannot understand this, then you are of no use to us.”)
“Ramon, calm yourself. Senor Madrid was merely asking a question. Please excuse him, Senor, but we all stand to lose much if we are forced to pay a fee for what we have been gathering freely for decades.”
“Tell me about Magoffin,” Jesse said.
“There is not much to tell other than he seeks to make a profit off the salt that, for generations, we have harvested for free under the grants of Spanish law. In doing so, he will cripple or kill this village.”
“Yes, but what do you know about him personally?” Jesse questioned.
“Not every situation lends itself to what you’re thinking,” Johnny whispered.
“This place is crawling with women and children, Johnny, so we have to try. You know what will happen if we don’t.”
Borrajo looked at each of them in turn. “I’m not sure what you’re asking.”
Jesse plowed ahead feeling Johnny’s eyes boring into her. “We try to solve disputes like this without fighting when we can, but we need to know more about the people involved to do that.”
“If knowing this will help, you should speak with Francisco Guerrero who used to work for the man.”
Jesse started to ask where they could find Guerrero when a short, stocky man in a white linen shirt and pants, holding a very worn straw hat in his hands, approached the table and introduced himself as the man in question. Beside him stood a teenage boy and there was no mistaking the family resemblance.
“Whole damn town in here tonight, Padre?” Johnny tossed out.
“Senor, please do not speak to Padre Borrajo that way. His prayers have brought you to us and, for that, we are most grateful,” said Francisco Guerrero.
“Please sit down,” Jesse said pointing to the remaining chair. “Don’t mind him,” she explained using her thumb to point at Johnny. “He gets cranky when he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep. Now, what can you tell me? Is Magoffin married? Does he have children?”
Francisco looked at Borrajo who nodded. “He has one daughter, but his wife passed away four years ago after he arrived here.”
“How old is the daughter?”
“She is sixteen. Like me,” the boy declared standing up a bit straighter.
Pointing over his shoulder at the boy, Francisco informed the group, “This is my son, Miguel. We worked for Magoffin until he began holding the salinas for ransom. Then we could not continue.” Francisco looked down at his hands holding his hat. “My family has suffered, but it did not seem right to me.”
The young man placed his hand on the older man’s shoulder and they exchanged looks as the older man patted the boy’s hand.
“I’m sorry about your family’s trouble. Do you have other children?” Johnny asked quietly.
Jesse smiled at how Johnny had softened talking to this man.
The man’s face brightened when he said, “My wife and I have three girls too. They all work hard, but times are difficult.”
Jesse noted how proudly the young man stood next to his seated father. Seeing them together, she couldn’t help but think about the terrible choice the man had to make - feed and clothe his family or live with integrity.
She heard Johnny ask Miguel how old his sisters were and heard the young man reply they were fifteen, thirteen and three.
“The last, Gabriella, was a surprise blessing,” noted Francisco. Looking up at his son, he continued, “Miguel has suffered the most since we quit working for Senor Magoffin. Losing his friend, Senorita Magoffin, has been difficult.”
Jesse’s head snapped up at that bit of information.
“Don’t go there, Jess,” Johnny advised.
She waved him off and asked, “Miguel, what can you tell me about your friend and her father?”
The young man looked down and quietly said, “Sarah is very kind to everyone. Her father treats her badly though and she is lonely and afraid most of the time.”
“Treats her badly?” Johnny asked.
“Si, Senor. He says terrible things to her and hits her,” Miguel confided.
“Did you leave Magoffin’s on good terms? Could you go back?” Jesse asked the boy.
Francisco sat straighter with his head high. “Si, he could, but I will not allow it. What Senor Magoffin is doing is too hurtful to our friends.”
Father Borrajo placed a comforting hand on the man’s shoulder. “Francisco, I’m sure Jesse would not ask if it weren’t important. Miguel may be able to help.” Turning to Jesse, he asked “Do you have a plan in mind?”
Smiling she told the group, “I do indeed. Miguel, you need to go back and ask for your job. Tell Magoffin that your father was wrong to quit….”
At that Francisco stood up and all but shouted, “I was not wrong, Senorita.”
Holding her hands up in front of her, “I know you weren’t, but Miguel will need to say it anyway to get his job back.”
Johnny motioned to the chair indicating the man should sit down and then leaned closer to him, “Senor, por favor, telling that white lie may help the family and friends you care about.”
“Francisco, providence has brought these two angels to help us. We should listen and heed what they say, no?” Borrajo preached.
Johnny choked on his tequila and Jesse kicked him under the table even as she looked down and rubbed the end of her nose to hide her smile.
The old, grizzled man at the next table chimed in, “Es mejor tener dos demonios que dos ángeles de nuestro lado.” (“It is better to have two demons not two angels on our side.”)
Johnny looked over at him and announced, “Eso es lo que tienes, Viejo.” (“That you have, old man.”)
“I will not let Miguel do this alone. If there is a lie to be told, I will do it. We will go tomorrow morning and ask for our jobs, but what are we to do then?”
Jesse smiled. “Just get your jobs back. One of us will hire on with Magoffin and let you know what else you can do from there.”
Francisco nodded and started to get up and Miguel quickly took his father’s arm to help him. Once the older man was standing, both men nodded to Jesse and smiled at Johnny before heading for the door.
“I will ask God’s blessing on you both and the plan you have devised to help us.” With that, Father Borrajo stood and helped the spunky older man from the neighboring table out the door. Jesse and Johnny both sat back in their chairs and watched the cantina empty.
“Whole damn town was here,” Jesse joked.
Johnny studied his hands and said quietly, “I know what you’re thinking of doing.”
She took a deep breath and studied her glass. “It may be the only way.”
“Those kids are tinder and a match and you heard what the boy said about Magoffin being abusive.”
She looked at him with a hard glint in her amethyst eyes. “Then we’ll have to make sure we protect them.”
“No. I won’t be a part of this if that’s your plan.”
“You have a better one?”
“Yeah, I do. Sometimes a straight up fight is the way to go.”
“Even if innocent people get hurt?”
Johnny looked at her with narrowed eyes. “I’ll hire on with Magoffin in the morning so I’m there when the Guerreros get there. Between us, we should get a pretty good lay of the land fast and can plan our next move from there. We should turn in since I’ll have to get an early start to get there before they do.”
“Why are you the one hiring on?”
“Because if you get within ten feet of Miguel and the daughter, you’ll put something in motion you won’t be able to stop.”
“Haven’t I proved to you that every situation can be solved without a full on war?”
He downed the shot of tequila he’d been studying. “Not this one. You’ll have to trust me this time.” He stood and headed for the stairs and their shared room.
Jesse watched him climb the stairs and enter the room. She studied the closed door while drumming her fingers on the table for several minutes. With a deep sigh, she pushed herself up out of the chair, downed one last gulp of tequila and headed out of the cantina.
Johnny sat in the rocker, gazing out over the tiny town, so like the ones he’d grown up in, waiting for Jesse to come to bed. He watched as she headed to the livery and knew the second she rode out that she was headed to Magoffin’s to beat him to hiring on.
A weight pressed his chest to the back of the rocker as conflicting thoughts about his next move sparred with each other in his mind. He wanted more than anything for Jesse to be right about settling things her way, but his experience prevented any real hope from establishing a foothold on his mind or heart. It seemed the only thing gaining traction in both places was a sadness that, despite asking for her trust in him this time, she was following her own course.
Blackness gave way to faint shadows when Johnny left the room to seek out Father Borrajo and the Guerreros. Standing on the boardwalk at the entrance of the cantina, he turned to face the church at the end of the street, instinctively knowing that the three of them would be there asking for God’s help and protection as the plan began.
Johnny stepped through the church doors and adjusted to the faint light coming from the candles on the altar. Father Borrajo moved a gold chalice to the center of the altar as he placed the bible down, opened it and scanned and marked the page.
With a deep breath, Johnny headed up the side aisle toward the altar, but paused at the statue of the Virgin Mary. He bowed his head and touched the feet of the statue then continued toward the front of the church. When he reached the first pew, he genuflected and crossed himself.
Father Borrajo’s eyes widened. “Senor Madrid, you are here early.”
“It’s Johnny, Padre.” Johnny moved to the steps leading to the altar. “I wanted to speak with the Guerreros before they left. Figured they’d be here.”
Borrajo came down the steps and sat in the front pew. “Please,” he invited holding out his hand over the place next to him. “I expect them any minute. Isabelle and their daughters attend Mass each morning and Francisco and Miguel come with them for a short prayer before they leave for work.”
Johnny looked from the seat to the back of the church then folded his arms around himself and focused on the stone tile floor. “I, uh, think I should wait outside for ‘em.”
“My son, there is no need to run from me or the Church. Your prayer at the Virgin’s feet and signs of respect as you approached the altar demonstrate your understanding of our religion. Were you raised Catholic?”
Johnny met the priest’s eyes and nodded. “Been awhile since I’ve been in church though. Folks don’t think I should be in here.”
Borrajo waved his hand. “Well, neither I nor anyone else in Dona Ana feel that way about you or Senorita Wilder. You’re helping us and that shows us the goodness of your souls.”
“Nothin’ I learned growin’ up leads me to believe my soul is good,” Johnny declared with a smirk.
“Then the lessons taught were wrong.”
Johnny smiled and sat down next to the man.
“Will Senorita Wilder be here soon?”
Johnny looked to the crucifix over the altar. “She headed out last night to hire on with Magoffin.”
The priest’s brows furrowed as he followed Johnny’s gaze and took in his curt answer. “So you decided she would hire on while you stay here and prepare us?”
“Didn’t exactly decide, but that’s the way of it.”
Both men turned as the church doors opened and they watched the Guerrero family make their way up the main aisle. Senora Guerrero directed the girls to a pew midway then walked with her husband and son to the front.
“Buenos dias, Padre, Senor Madrid,” Francisco said. “Senor, I’d like you to meet my wife, Isabelle.”
A small woman with black hair, slightly graying at the temples, and warm brown eyes approached Johnny and extended her hand.
Johnny stood, bowed his head in her direction and shook her hand. “Senora.”
She smiled warmly at him. “Please call me Isabelle. And thank you for helping us.”
Johnny looked down at his boots. “Well, we haven’t done anything yet.”
“Miguel and I will leave for Senor Magoffin’s as soon as we say morning prayers.”
“No hurry. I just want to talk with you before you go.”
Father Borrajo rose and placed his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Perhaps, you’d like to join us for prayers this morning?”
Johnny cleared his throat and started to shake his head.
Isabelle’s eyes lit up. “We would be honored if you prayed with us.” Turning toward her daughters, she called, “Girls, come meet the man who is helping us. He would like to ask for God’s blessing on Papa and Miguel before they leave.”
Borrajo smiled at the woman and shrugged when Johnny looked at him.
“This is Maria, Inez and Gabriella. Girls, say hello to Senor Madrid,” the kindly woman prompted.
The girls giggled and bobbed in a small curtsies. He smiled and asked them to call him Johnny.
The family moved to kneel at the Communion rail as Borrajo made his way to the altar, but Johnny hung back. Gabriella ran back to him and pulled him by the hand to kneel next to her.
After prayers and being blessed by Father Borrajo, the girls asked to walk their Papa and Miguel out before Mass. Isabelle shooed them down the aisle with their big brother. The parents hugged each other tightly and Francisco kissed his wife on the cheek before taking her hand and walking outside with her.
Johnny stood still watching the couple leave together.
Borrajo came to stand next to him. “Did you want to speak with the men before they left?”
They traced the family’s path outside where Johnny leaned against the stucco wall watching Miguel swing his youngest sister around in his arms then hug and kiss her until she squealed.
“Miguel, we should be going. And we should not keep Johnny waiting to speak with us.”
The boy handed Gabriella to Maria and the girls ran to their mother who motioned them back into church with her.
“Be safe, my friends,” Father Borrajo warned the Guerreros. Then, winking at Johnny, he continued, “I would not want poor Johnny to have to deal with Isabelle if something happened to either of you.”
“Not much chance of that with Jesse there.” Johnny turned to the Guerreros. “Remember, all you have to do is hire back on and keep your eyes and ears open. If there’s anything I need to know, we can talk about it at the end of the day when you come home.”
“Jesse said something about a plan,” Francisco reminded Johnny.
He sighed and looked in the direction of the cantina. “She thinks fights like this can be avoided if there’s help from the inside and wanted to use Miguel’s friendship with Magoffin’s daughter for that.”
Miguel shook his head. “I don’t understand, Johnny.”
Johnny put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You don’t need to. With what you told me about the man, it’d be dangerous for the girl to get involved at all. Understand?”
The young man nodded, then hung his head. “Should I not speak to her?”
“You can speak to her, but be careful. People will be watchin’ you because you quit and came back. Jesse may talk to you too and that will seem even odder to folks lookin’ for something. You don’t want your friend hurt, do you?
Miguel locked eyes with Johnny and shook his head rapidly. “I don’t know what I would do if anything happened to her.”
Johnny smiled. “Then keep your distance. Even if Jesse asks you to do otherwise, okay?”
Once again, the boy nodded.
“Now you two best be off. I’ll be in the cantina when you get back and we can talk more.”
Francisco grinned. “Isabelle will not let you stay in the cantina all day. If I know my wife, she’ll find you right after Mass to take you home and fatten you up.”
“I’ll explain that could be dangerous for your family. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
“And I am sure she will not,” Francisco countered as he mounted the donkey his son held for him and the pair left for Magoffin’s.
“I hear you’re hiring,” Jesse drawled at the burly man standing in front of her.
The man grunted and spit tobacco at her feet then displayed a blackened tooth smirk. “Why? You got a brother?”
The four men standing within earshot chuckled as they eyed her from boot tip to hat brim.
“That’s funny! Got yourself one fine sense of humor. Shame you got no brains to go with it,” Jesse countered.
“You’d best shut your mouth, little girl,” the jokester menaced as he approached her.
Jesse moved her hand to her gun and took a few steps toward him. “Or what? You gonna shut it for me?”
The pair locked eyes, neither of them backing down. Jesse heard boots clomping on the wooden porch of the house and sensed the other men distancing themselves from the oaf standing before her.
“Enough, Baxter. Is there something you want, Miss?”
Jesse sidestepped the man blocking her path to see who held his tether, knowing from the way the others responded that this was the boss.
“Heard you’re hiring guns.”
Jesse shrugged. “Look, you either want the best or you don’t. Always another side.”
Magoffin smiled. “I believe I have the best now.”
“‘Fraid not. See, I’m the best, followed by Madrid and you ain’t got either one of us,” Jesse said returning the smile.
Baxter moved to put himself between Jesse and his boss. He spit another black wad at her feet and wiped the spittle from his chin with his sleeve. “You don’t know Madrid.”
“Oh, I know him. Took him on about nine months ago and we both lived to tell the tale. I’m bettin’ none of you could do that.”
Magoffin sauntered down the porch steps, brushed Baxter aside and faced Jesse directly. “And what does that have to do with me hiring you?”
“He’s hired on to protect the villagers. Won’t take long for him to start killing your makeshift posse unless you hire me to take care of him.”
Magoffin crossed his arms over his well-dressed chest. “How do you know Madrid’s working for them?”
Jesse relaxed into a slouch with her weight on her right foot, left foot slightly out in front of her. “Make it my business to know where he is. Can’t kill a man unless you know where to find him.”
Magoffin chuckled. “Seems you had that chance and failed. Nine months ago, correct?”
She bit the inside of her mouth. “Well, neither of us came out on top that time. But eventually one of us is gonna win and it’ll be me. Now, whether that’s helping you or someone else...like I said, don’t matter much to me.”
Magoffin smiled and rubbed his chin for a moment.
Baxter’s face scrunched up and his eyes narrowed as he took in his boss’ expression. “Boss, you ain’t thinking of taking her on?”
“I won’t warn you again, Baxter,” Magoffin snarled. Turning to Jesse he asked, “I don’t suppose you’d object to a little test?”
“You want me to kill ol’ Baxter here for bein’ such a pain in the ass?”
“Let’s start with this coin.” Magoffin held up a $5 gold piece and tossed it out into the dirt. “Hit it six times.”
Jesse took a deep breath, moved her shoulders around a bit then relaxed with her hand near her gun. The gold coin jumped six times. She walked casually to retrieve it and, on her way to give the money to Magoffin, held it up for Baxter so he could see the hole in the middle.
She handed the useless piece to her soon-to-be boss. “Damn near make a ring out of it now.”
Magoffin examined the coin and whistled. “That’s impressive.” Then he raised the coin so all the men could see the perfect hole in the center. “But hitting targets is one thing. Shooting a man, or woman, is another.”
“Then send Baxter out here so I can show you what I can do.”
Magoffin’s upper lip curled and his men, except Baxter, were suddenly fascinated by their boots.
“Baxter,” Magoffin called.
“Boss?” Baxter answered while licking his lips repeatedly.
“Get out there.”
He backed farther away from Jesse. “But Boss…”
“You wanted to shut her mouth when she got here. Now’s your chance.”
Jesse stared at Baxter, but asked Magoffin, “You want him dead or clipped?”
Magoffin pursed his lips and rocked back and forth, boot tip to boot heel, as his eyes wandered up and down Baxter. “Left upper arm so he learns respect, but can still shoot.”
She moved to the center of the yard and relaxed into her usual stance. “C’mon, Baxter, we’re burnin’ daylight.”
Baxter swallowed hard and slowly moved to face her. A large bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face and his body went rigid. He blinked rapidly and inhaled deeply. His hand grazed his gun handle.
With Baxter’s howl of pain, blood dripped from the outer edge of his upper left arm while Jesse holstered her smoking gun and walked past the wide-eyed man. “Spit at me again and I won’t just hit your arm no matter what Magoffin says.”
“You’re hired, Miss?”
Jesse tipped her hat to him. “Wilder. Much obliged.”
Two men helped Baxter into the barn while a third secured bandages from a nearby saddlebag. From the sounds, the man thought he was dying and Jesse wished he would so it would leave only four men and Magoffin to handle. Her thoughts were broken by the remaining man, much younger than the others, coming to stand next to her.
“You made an enemy today,” he warned.
Jesse turned to look at him. “I make enemies every day. He doesn’t scare me.”
“I’m not talking about him. See, he and I are friends.”
She smiled that one-sided smile and raised the lone eyebrow. “That supposed to concern me?”
“My older brother is tied up on another job and sent Baxter and I to see to everything here. I don’t intend to let a woman muck that up. I’ll be watching you.”
“And you are?”
“Ben Taylor. Best you remember my name.”
Jesse locked eyes with him. “Oh, I will. Probably the only thing I do from now on is remember your name.”
His mouth twitched on one side then he walked away.
Sarah eyes lit up when she saw Miguel working in the garden and she ran to greet him. “Miguel, I’m so happy to see you again. I’ve missed you.”
Miguel looked down at his shoes. “How have you been, Senorita Magoffin?”
The young girl bent low to capture the boy’s eyes and giggled. “I’m fine, but why are you acting so funny. It’s just me.”
He smiled and looked at her as she stood up straight. “I’m sorry. It’s just that things are different now and we shouldn’t be talking.”
“Why not? Nothing’s changed.”
“Your father has changed things by hurting my village.”
Sarah’s nose wrinkled up. “I don’t know anything about that. All I know is you’re back and I’m glad.”
“Papa and I need the work, Sarah, but we can no longer be friends.”
Tears welled up in her eyes and she reached for his hand. “Please don’t say that. I’m sure whatever is happening can be fixed.”
Miguel withdrew from her and his eyes became hard. “Do you know what he is doing?”
“You know he doesn’t talk to me about such things. Says I’m not smart enough to understand.”
“You should go.”
“Tell me what’s happened. Don’t treat me like Papa does.”
The young boy sighed and his shoulders dropped a bit as he leaned his chin on the tip of the rake he was holding. “Your Papa is keeping us from the salt we need.”
Miguel chewed on his lower lip. “He’s charging us and we have no money to pay.”
Sarah laughed a little. “Miguel, everything costs money. How does you not being able to afford it mean Papa is keeping you from it?”
He put the rake down and moved closer to her. “The salt has always been free. Until your Papa came here.”
She looked up into his eyes and shook her head. “Someone must have charged you.”
“No, the law said salt was for everyone and no one could own it. Now your Papa says he does and won’t let us have it without paying.”
Sarah’s face scrunched. “So the law changed?”
“No, it didn’t,” Miguel stated flatly.
Her small face brightened. “I’m sure Papa just doesn’t know about the law or he wouldn’t be charging you. I’ll tell him for you.”
Miguel put his hands on her shoulders. “No, you must stay out of this. It could be dangerous for you. I have to go. Please forget I said anything.”
He turned to walk away from her, but she grabbed his arm. “I know he can be hard, but he wouldn’t do this to you and your families if he knew. It will all work out.”
He nodded at her. “You’re right. It will.”
Miguel walked away from his friend and noticed the one called Baxter watching him.
Johnny sat on the settee drinking coffee with Francisco watching the children help Isabelle cook the evening meal and set the table. He smiled as he recalled that, as Francisco predicted, Isabelle found him in the cantina and demanded he go home with her for a hearty breakfast. She had only agreed to let him leave when he gave his word he’d be back for dinner.
“You have a nice family,” Johnny complimented.
The older man looked around at his family’s faces and smiled. “I agree. It is a blessing to have such beauty to come home to.”
Johnny moved his cup to swirl the hot liquid around. “How long you been married?”
“Isabelle and I have been friends since we were children, but married for twenty years this year. She is the love of my life and heart and soul of our family.”
Johnny nodded and looked to where the older woman was standing at the stove, stirring a large pot of stew, while quizzing her oldest daughter with spelling words.
Francisco followed Johnny’s gaze. “And how long have you and Jesse been married?”
“Oh, we’re not, um, we just work together. I mean, we’re friends. Well, partners.”
“Sounds like there is some confusion on your part what you are to each other.”
Before Johnny could respond, Isabelle called for dinner and chairs scraped and bumped the table as everyone gathered. They bowed their heads and folded their hands, including Johnny.
Francisco offered, “Lord, thank you for this bounty we are about to receive and all your blessings on this family, for your guidance and protection in the coming days and for our new friends, or partners, whichever they may be, Johnny and Jesse.”
Isabelle raised her eyes at that last, but answered “Amen” as did everyone else.
Bowls heaped full of stew and plates of warm bread passed around the table. Inez helped Gabriella with her plate as the little girl chattered away about a butterfly that landed next to her at school that day. Miguel teased that it was a moth instead and earned a flick of the corner of a napkin on his ear from Maria.
“Ow,” he shouted as he cupped his hand over the abused body part. He put a potato on his spoon and threatened to fling it at her.
“Don’t you dare, Miguel,” Maria warned laughing. “You deserved that for making fun of Gabby’s butterfly.”
A wooden spoon banged and all eyes turned to Isabelle. “We have a guest. I expect better behavior from you.”
Johnny chuckled, then caught Gabby’s eye and winked. She turned beet red and found the peas on her plate very interesting.
Dinner continued with a more respectful, but still fun, tone. After two plates of stew and at least three slices of bread, Johnny wondered if his gunbelt would still fit. He patted his stomach and complimented Isabelle on a fine meal.
She pointed her finger at him. “I will see you for breakfast after Mass, no?”
Francisco rubbed his mouth with his hand and shrugged at Johnny.
Johnny looked at the woman from under his lashes. “Well, I have some things to do tomorrow, Ma’am.”
“And you will do them after you’ve eaten,” she informed him waving the spoon his direction.
Gabby leaned across the table at him. “Better not argue or she’ll take the spoon to your bottom.”
Isabelle gasped as everyone else stifled laughter.
“I think we should head over to the cantina to meet Father Borrajo now.” Francisco got up from the table.
Johnny headed for the door and his gun. “Thank you, Isabelle. I’ll see you after church.”
She smiled and wished him a good night.
“May I come with you, Papa?” Miguel asked.
The parents exchanged looks and, at Isabelle’s slight nod, Francisco agreed. The young boy said goodnight to his sisters as Franciso kissed Isabelle, who blushed at some words her husband whispered in her ear. Then the men exchanged places with Francisco bidding his girls sweet dreams and Miguel hugging his Mama.
Johnny felt his chest tighten watching the family.
It was a short walk to the cantina where they found Father Borrajo finishing his dinner. He waved at them to join him, then asked the cantina owner, Alvarez, to bring coffee for everyone.
“You spend a lot of time here, Padre,” Johnny joked.
“Best food in town. Other than Isabelle’s, of course. To which I’m sure you can now attest,”
The cups and coffee arrived and Alvarez took his time pouring.
Johnny addressed Francisco, “So how many men are there?”
“I counted five plus Magoffin. Did you see others, Miguel?”
The boy shook his head. “Only Senorita Wilder.”
“Only five? That doesn’t seem like very many to go up against an entire village.”
Borrajo put his coffee down. “Johnny, we are a farming community. I’m sure they do not see us a much of a threat.”
“They will. You said you needed to make a trip to the salinas. Can you be ready to do that by Friday?”
Francisco rubbed his hand across his mouth. “It is not the trip we must prepare for, but the fight. Can you get us ready in that time?”
“As long as you all have guns and know how to use them.”
The two older men looked into their coffee.
“What’s the issue? No guns or not knowing how to use them?”
Francisco met Johnny’s stare. “Guns we have. But only for hunting to feed our families. We are not soldiers.”
Johnny exhaled loudly. “Then tomorrow I need everyone who has a gun to meet me out there in that square for practice. We only have two days before we need to do more than hunt.”
Father Borrajo agreed to let the town know the following morning at Mass or right after.
Alvarez brought another pot of coffee to the table. “Did I hear you say you think you can have everyone ready to go to the flats on Friday?”
The three local men nodded.
Johnny watched the man with narrowed eyes. “You be out there practicing with us?”
The man shook his head and lowered his eyes. “I cannot, Senor. My eyesight is very poor. I’d be afraid of hitting one of you.”
Francisco touched Alvarez’ arm. “We understand. You will be here for us when we get back with hot food and cold drinks.”
The cantina owner signaled his thanks with a dip of his head then moved behind the bar to clean glasses.
Johnny watched the man then turned to the elder Guerrero. “Pay attention to see if any other men show up and how well-armed they are. If your friends here aren’t experienced, that information will be important. You should also listen for any plans they have. Be nice if we knew what their next move will be before they make it.”
“We will, Johnny. Good luck with target practice.”
Johnny looked to Borrajo with a grin. “Maybe a prayer on that front would be good, Padre.”
The priest smiled. “You are most welcome in church again in the morning. It will save Isabelle a trip here to get you for breakfast.”
Francisco and Miguel belly-laughed and Johnny grimaced.
Magoffin strode into the barn with Baxter and Taylor on his heels. He waved a small piece of paper and one side of the man’s mouth curled up as he ordered them to gather ‘round. “I’ve gotten word the villagers plan to get salt this Friday. I intend to meet them there with all the force we have.”
Taylor and Baxter grinned at each other.
Jesse stepped forward. “Other than force, do you have a plan?”
“We don’t need a plan with enough guns,” Baxter spit out.
She shook her head and made a tsk sound. “You’ve never actually faced someone like Madrid, have you?”
“He’s one man, little girl. We can handle him, with or without you, if yer too scared to be out there with us.”
Jesse heard a snicker or two behind her, but focused on Baxter. “Madrid doesn’t scare me. It’s dimwits like you who get folks killed.”
Taylor’s arm shot out in front of a forward-moving Baxter. “Your point?”
“He’s not just gonna march in and let you take ‘em out one at a time. He’ll have a plan and you won’t know what hit you.”
Magoffin approached her. “He’s lost the element of surprise and, as we now have it, we’ll end this once and for all.”
“And how can you be so sure your information is correct? Maybe it’s part of Madrid’s plan to throw you off.”
“Rest assured, this information is completely reliable, Miss Wilder,” Magoffin sneered as he patted the pocket with the note and headed for the barn door. “I expect everyone to get some target practice in today then rest. I have additional munitions arriving late tomorrow then we head to the flats to prepare.”
Other than Taylor and Jesse, the guns followed Magoffin out of the barn checking their sidearms.
Jesse folded her arms across her chest and locked eyes with Taylor who was blocking the doorway. “Got something on your mind?”
“I don’t trust you.”
“I don’t care.”
Taylor drew himself to his full height and rested his hand on his gun. “My brother says guns who ask too many questions are dangerous. I been watching you and you ask a lot of ‘em.”
She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “You wanna live to enjoy your first poke someday, you’d best learn not to issue a challenge your hardware can’t back up.” She jabbed him in the chest as she walked past him to saddle her horse.
He followed and leaned his folded arms on the top stall rail. “You goin’ somewhere?”
“Yeah, to the flats. I need to see the lay of the land to figure out how Madrid will hit us. You wanna come and learn something?”
Taylor pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes. He shifted his weight from side to side. “No real need for that, but, sure, I’ll go.”
Jesse walked toward the door with horse in tow and called over her shoulder, “Get your horse and canteen and meet me by the backdoor. I’m gonna rustle up some food for us to take.”
As she came around the back of the house, she caught Francisco’s eye. She tied her horse and headed up the steps to the back door and knocked loudly. A small, older woman with graying hair tied back in a bun opened it.
“Perdone , Señora, pero tengo que ir a las salinas y necesitaría llevarme unos bocadillos.” (“Excuse me, ma'am, but I have to go to the salt flats and was hoping to get a couple of sandwiches to take with me.”)
The woman nodded and headed back into the kitchen.
While Jesse waited for the food, she sat on the steps of the back porch where Francisco had moved to prune a bush. She leaned back on her elbows and pulled her hat down over her eyes. “Magoffin’s crazy. Had me use one of his own men for target practice yesterday. You and Miguel need to be very careful.”
Francisco nodded as he continued to cut branches and toss them in the yard. “Johnny warned us as well.”
“Make sure Miguel stays away from the daughter. Man like that...well, just keep them kids apart, okay?”
“They spoke yesterday for a few minutes, but I will tell Miguel he must not do so again.”
Jesse moved her hat back and leaned forward to brush dust off her boot. “Magoffin knows the plan for Friday. We’re headed out there tomorrow to be waiting for you.”
Francisco stopped to wipe the sweat from his brow. “How would he know our plans?”
Jesse placed her elbows on her knees and dropped her head into her hands. “Got a note. Tells me there’s someone in Dona Ana working for him. I need you to tell Johnny. He’ll know what to do.”
“If they know this, does that not mean they also know you and Johnny are working together?”
Before she could express her concern on that front, the door hinge squeaked and Jesse looked over her shoulder to see the cook standing there holding a red and white napkin tied to hold food and she jumped up to get it. “Gracias, Señora. Estoy seguro que estos estarán muy bien.” (“Thank you, Ma'am. I'm sure these will be real good.”)
“De nada, Señorita. Lo siento, pero no tengo nada de tequila del Señor Alvarez para darle.” (“You're welcome, Miss. Sorry, I don't have any of Senor Alvarez' tequila to give you.”)
Jesse noticed that, while the woman had addressed her with the remark about the cantina owner’s tequila, she made eye contact with Francisco.
“Ready?” Taylor said as he came around the corner.
“Yep. Here, you carry the food. I imagine you’ll need it more than I will anyway. Big, strapping boy and all.”
She mounted, tipped her hat to the two locals and rode off with Taylor to get her first look at the flats.
Twenty minutes later, Jesse found herself looking out over a vast white plain glistening in the sun. “Damn, they aren’t kidding when they call this place flat.”
Taylor pointed toward the low-lying bushes. “Only cover is this scrub around the edges.”
“Guess I was wrong about Madrid just marching in here.”
“Magoffin will have us ready and armed to the teeth.”
Jesse’s brows furrowed. “That’s what has me worried.”
“You ever been in a gun battle?”
He looked at his boots and shook his head. “Ain’t afraid of it though.”
“You should be. People die.”
He raised his head to meet her eyes. “My brother said these people down here don’t know how to fight and don’t have nothing to fight with anyway. ‘Cept farmin’ tools.”
She walked farther into the salt field and bent down to pick up a handful of the fine white crystals left behind by rains from Guadalupe Mountain. She felt Taylor move to stand beside her and looked up at him.
She held out her hand filled with salt. “See this? It’s like silver to these people. Don’t underestimate how powerful the need for it is or to what lengths they can and will go to to get it. Especially if someone like Madrid is at the front.”
Taylor swallowed hard. “My brother says....”
She stood up and locked eyes with him. “Damn it, Ben, your brother isn’t here and can’t see what you see right now. Think for yourself. How will this play out?”
He took a step back. “Zach says we can’t help but win. They don’t have guns like we do. And they aren’t fighters like we are.”
Jesse drew a deep breath and shook her head. “Believe that if you want, but you’re wrong and so is your brother. You really want to die here?”
Taylor drew himself to his full height. “Ain’t afraid of dying, but that won’t happen since we’re all good at what we do.”
She chuckled. “I wish it was just about being good at what we do.”
“You thinkin’ about runnin’?”
“No, I’m here for Madrid. But he’s here for the cause. So you’d best believe in Magoffin’s cause so when the bullets start flying your way, you don’t freeze up.”
As she and Taylor started the trip back, Jesse took a final look at the flat, shiny and pristine, and sighed knowing that, in two days, parts of it could be stained red.
As they rode in from the flats, she saw Miguel sweeping off the front steps. “You there, take care of my horse,” Jesse called out as she walked into the barn followed by Taylor.
“So, Ben, you wanna share with our friends what we’re up against now that we’ve been to the flats?” Jesse settled down on the ground near her horse’s stall where Miguel headed.
Baxter stared at Taylor.
“No, you can.”
Jesse pulled out her pistol to start cleaning it. “Don’t look good, boys. Flat as a flapjack, no cover and when the sun hits that salt…woo-hee…you can barely see.”
Baxter plopped down on a hay bale next to her and leaned down close to her face. “Sounds like the little girl’s afraid.”
She touched the barrel of her gun to his forehead. “Keep crowding me, Baxter. I’d love an excuse to make your head a canoe.”
The burly man backed up a little. “We know what we’re up against. Bunch of sod-breakers who’ve probably never used a gun before.”
“That might have been true before Madrid. Hell, if I was him, I’d set ‘em all up tomorrow at the base of the mountain where there’s good cover and wait for us to get there. We’d be easy pickin’s.”
“Yeah, well, don’t see how they’ll be able to do that when they’d have to go through us tomorrow to get set up. Or maybe you forgot about the note Mr. Magoffin had?” Baxter reminded her.
“Didn’t forget nothing. Just hope it was right.”
Ben moved forward and sat down close to Baxter. “No reason to think it wasn’t seeing as how we got the cantina owner’s son….”
“Shut up, Ben,” Baxter shouted.
Jesse looked from Ben to Baxter. “No need to yell. We’re on the same side. Guess poor Madrid is wrong about having another day to get the villagers in position behind the entrance to the flats.”
Miguel finished brushing down Jesse’s horse and went to get oats for him. As he passed behind the posse, he looked at Jesse who met his eyes for a brief second.
Jesse waited for the boy to finish and leave. When he was gone she stood up and adjusted her gunbelt. “Well, I think I’ll follow orders and head out for some target practice.” With that, Jesse left the barn and headed for the open field over the ridge beyond the barn.
“Papa, are you here?”
From around a hedge, Francisco’s head peaked out. “Si, I am back here.”
Miguel ran to where his father was and told him what Jesse said about Johnny getting to the flats and where to set up.
“Jesse told me earlier they knew of our plan and that Johnny would know what to do, but this new information will be helpful.”
The boy looked down at his feet. “I think Senor Alvarez may be helping them. The one called Baxter spoke of a note then Taylor said something about them having Alejandro.”
The older man stroked his chin. “Jesse said someone in the village was working for Senor Magoffin. Consuelo overheard and, when she gave Jesse food, said she was sorry she didn’t have any of Antonio’s tequila to give her. It didn’t make sense to me until now.”
“Papa, we must get word to Johnny if we are to be set up tomorrow morning. Go. I’ll stay and cover for you.”
The older man placed his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Remember what Jesse said about Sarah. Better for you to work away from the gardens while I am gone.”
Miguel swallowed and looked at his shoes.
“And if anyone asks, tell them your mama sent word that Gabriella is sick and I was needed at home.”
Miguel nodded and took the shovel from his father. “Be careful, Papa.”
With a squeeze to his son’s shoulder, he warned, “You remain here with the enemy. Be on guard every second, Miguel.”
Francisco left and Miguel stared into the hole his father was digging when he heard the gravel behind him scrunch under light footfalls. He turned to find Sarah standing there and started to leave.
“I heard you talking to your papa, Miguel. Tell me the plan.”
He swung around to face her. “I will not betray my village.”
“Is that why you think I’m asking? I want to help you and your family.”
Miguel laid the shovel at his feet and put his hands on her shoulders. “I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
She put her arms around his waist and hugged him. “Nothing will, I promise.” She continued to hold him, but looked up into his eyes. “Papa barely sees me so I hear things. Things that could help you.”
He held her tightly and rested his chin on her head. “I think we know we what need so keep yourself out of harm’s way.”
“You dirty Mex spy!” Baxter screamed as he came out from behind a tree with his gun drawn.
Sarah screamed as Baxter advanced and Miguel grabbed the shovel from the ground. As the boy lunged, Baxter fired. The shovel connected with the gunman’s arm and shoulder, knocking the gun off target and sending the beefy man to one knee.
Miguel swung again and blood poured from a gaping cut on the side of Baxter’s head as he collapsed to the pathway.
“Are you okay?” Miguel asked as he ran to Sarah.
She nodded as she checked her friend for blood. “Are you?”
“I think so.”
Sarah swallowed hard looking at Baxter’s body lying motionless. “I think you killed him.”
Shouts and footsteps were getting closer to the pair.
“You have to go before they get here.” She pushed him toward the trees.
“I won’t leave you.”
“Please, go. I’ll be fine.”
He hesitated for a split second, then kissed her forehead and ran toward home.
Sarah tore the sleeve of her blouse and rubbed the newly dug dirt on her skirt. She rumpled her hair and sat down on the ground near the body just as her father, Taylor, and the other guns came around the hedge.
“What happened here?” Magoffin held up his hand to stop the men where they were.
Ben Taylor walked around his boss’ hand to kneel by his friend and feel for a pulse. He hung his head for a moment then glared at Sarah.
“He...he tried...tried to...to attack me,” she sputtered as she got up and went to her father.
“That’s a lie! You’ve been with that Mex kid. Baxter’d never come after you knowing that,” Ben yelled.
“Mr. Taylor. I suggest you hold your tongue. I’ll handle this.”
Sarah stared at her father wide-eyed as he grabbed her by the arm and dragged her toward the house. When they reached the steps, she struggled to get away, but she was yanked off her feet and carried through the back door past the kitchen staff. Soon she was on her feet again and being shoved into the parlor.
She backed up as her father approached, but could not remove herself from his reach.
“Don’t you lie to me ever!”
The handprint of her father appeared on her cheek as tears welled in her eyes. “I didn’t Papa. I swear.”
Smack. Thud. Sarah whimpered through her broken jaw as she lay prone on the floor from the punches. His boot connected with her ribs and she heard a crack, then had trouble drawing breath. He ground his heel onto her wrist and it too gave way under the onslaught. She tried to crawl away, but he grabbed her by the hair.
“Please, Papa,” she choked out as blood poured from her mouth and she was dragged up to her knees with her arm bent behind her. Snap. Blinding pain.
His breath was hot on her cheek as he menaced her. “Shut up. You think I believe that pitiful tale you told out there? I know you and that dirty Mexican boy have been together. Helping the enemy will be the last thing you do.”
Sarah tried to shake her head, but found her neck locked in her father’s vise grip. Then the floor rose to meet her face as blackness engulfed her.
The villagers were practicing the art of quickly reloading and firing rifles under Johnny’s watchful eye when Francisco ran into the town square breathing heavily. Reaching Johnny, he bent over double, hands on knees, and gulped air. “We...must...speak.”
The hair on Johnny’s neck stood up as he noticed Alvarez watching them from the safety of the boardwalk. “Okay, let’s slowly head over to the church.” To the group, he directed, “You’re all doing fine so keep practicing and I’ll be back in a minute.”
Footfalls on the stone floor drew Borrajo out of the confessional and he hurried to meet his friends. Francisco turned his hat around in his hands as he repeated what Jesse and Miguel had told him about getting to the flats early and the potential spy in their midst.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Do they know about Jesse?”
“I don’t think so, but only Alvarez would know for sure.”
Johnny’s hand moved to his gun and he started for the door.
Borrajo touched his shoulder. “Acting in haste could put her in more danger. Better to understand the situation completely first.”
Johnny hung his head then raised his eyes to meet the priest’s. “So we’re clear, I will kill him if anything happens to her.”
Borrajo nodded and invited the men to his office behind the altar to make plans. As they approached the steps, the church doors banged open and a blood-spattered Miguel charged in. Francisco rushed to his side and helped him sit down.
The boy drew halting breaths and his body trembled. “Sarah.”
His father wrapped a protective arm over his shoulder and urged calm.
“One of the guns, a man called Baxter, found Sarah and I talking in the garden.” He looked to his father. “I think he followed me from the barn when I came to tell you what Jesse said.”
Francisco looked at Johnny and pulled his son closer.
“He called me a spy and tried to shoot me. I had to defend us.” He raised his eyes to the crucifix above the altar. “I hit him with the shovel. Blood was everywhere. Sarah said I killed him and made me leave.” Tears formed in Miguel’s eyes. “I don’t know what her Papa will do to her. I should have listened to you and Jesse, Papa, and not talked to her at all.”
Borrajo crossed himself, Francisco rocked his son and Johnny wrapped his arms around himself and looked at the floor. The sound of the young boy crying echoed through the church.
Resting one leg on the seat of the pew in front of Miguel, Borrajo reached across the back of it to pat the boy’s leg and suggest he go home to get cleaned up. When the boy objected, his father counseled that it was best so they did not raise Alvarez’ suspicions.
The priest smiled at Francisco. “I suggest you go with him. Isabelle will be upset at this news. Johnny and I will discuss a plan and then continue with the practicing outside until you return.”
Francisco nodded, helped his son stand and then, arm in arm, they left for the comfort of home and family.
Johnny moved to the statue of the Virgin and closed his eyes.
The sky streaked purple and red over Guadalupe Mountain when Jesse holstered her gun finally satisfied that her speed and accuracy were up to par. She knew she could handle Baxter and the others, but Taylor was an unknown quantity and she didn’t like being in the dark about her opponents.
As she approached the barn, Consuela came around a corner to meet her. The cook glanced around quickly, then took Jesse’s hand in hers. “Senorita, there was trouble today. Miguel killed the man called Baxter after he tried to kill Miguel and Senorita Sarah in the garden.”
“Are they okay? Where’s Miguel?”
“Miguel is fine and back at the village by now.” Tears formed in the woman’s eyes. “It is Senorita Sarah. I fear something has happened to her.” A tear coursed down the woman’s cheek and she brushed it with the back of her hand. “Senor Magoffin was very angry with her. He carried her to the front parlor and….”
Jesse put her arm around the woman’s shoulders and squeezed slightly. “I can’t help if you don’t tell me.”
The woman nodded and patted Jesse’s hand. “We could hear him hitting her, Senorita. It is not the first time, but it was so much worse today. After it was quiet for a while, I went to see and she was not there, but there was blood on the rug.”
Jesse pushed her hat back and sighed. “Okay, I’ll see if I can find her. You’d best get back in the house before someone sees us talking.”
She waited to give the woman time to get back to the house, then strode toward the garden. As she entered the path, she saw Taylor riding in with blood all over his shirt and waved at him to stop. “Looks like you saw some action today.”
Taylor stared down at her with narrowed eyes. “Where you been all afternoon?”
She relaxed on her right leg with her left in front of her and rested her hand on her gun. “Practicing over the ridge. You?”
“Errand for Mr. Magoffin.”
“Musta been a nasty one,” she responded pointing to the blood.
He dismounted and moved closer to her. “You could say that. Baxter’s dead.”
“Shit, that’s Baxter’s blood? I thought you two were friends.”
The boy brushed at his shirt. “Ain’t Baxter’s and we were friends. You can bet I’m going to empty my gun into the son of a bitch that killed him and anyone who helped him get away.”
“I didn’t much care for Baxter, but I know you did so sorry. How’d it happen?”
Taylor looked behind Jesse to the garden. “Mex gardener killed him. Beat him in the head with a shovel with that slut daughter of Magoffin’s.” His eyes focused on the blood spot in the gravel. “Said Baxter tried to hurt her, but I know better. He wouldn’t have tried anything knowing she was laying with that Mexican.” Taylor grabbed his horse’s reins and started walking away. “You comin’? Magoffin wants to meet with all of us.”
Jesse walked with him as she made a mental note of the direction he’d come from and how hard his horse had been ridden to gauge the distance he’d travelled. When they reached the front of the house, Taylor touched the brim of his hat to Magoffin who returned the gesture with a smile. Her gut knotted and she opened and closed her hand next to her gun.
Antonio Alvarez stood behind his bar cleaning glasses and listening as Francisco explained to a packed cantina what Jesse had told them about the flats and Magoffin’s plans. He scanned the room to see his neighbor’s heads nod in agreement and noted that Madrid was not there.
Father Borrajo rose from his seat and moved to stand next to Francisco. “Friends, go to your homes now and rest for a few hours. Then, with the moon still high, gather the supplies Senor Madrid has provided and meet at the church. We’ll say a prayer to our Blessed Mother before we leave.”
The crowd muttered and, one by one, rose and headed for the door.
Alvarez saw the Guerreros and Borrajo lingering and approached their table holding up a bottle. “Are you sure this plan is wise with as many guns as you will face?”
Francisco covered his glass with his hand. “If we are to succeed, Antonio, it is the only way.”
Alvarez nodded as he calculated how he would get word of this change in plans to the village’s enemy and his son’s captor. When the three men had pushed out through the batwings, he closed and locked the doors then headed for the back exit.
“Goin’ somewhere?” Johnny drawled at the man with his gun trained on his chest.
Alvarez jumped back and stammered, “Senor Madrid, I was...was just closing up.”
Johnny inched toward the man. “And then where were you headed? Magoffin’s?”
The cantina owner shook his head and swallowed hard. “No, home. Why would I be going to Senor Magoffin’s?”
Francisco stepped from the shadows and moved to stand next to Johnny and both men glared at the cantina owner.
Alvarez hung his head. “He has my son. On his way home for my birthday, Magoffin’s men stopped him. When they found out who he was, they kept him and threatened to kill him if I did not help them.”
Johnny cocked his pistol and raised it to the man’s head. “Did you tell anyone about Jesse?”
Alvarez put his hands up in front of his chest and backed away. “No, I swear. I only told him of your plans for day after tomorrow.” The man looked from the gun to Francisco and swallowed hard. “What would you have done, Francisco, if he had Miguel?”
Francisco shook his head. “I do not know, but I am sorry you have had to make this decision.”
Johnny holstered his gun. “Take our friend to the church and tie him up. We need to make sure he doesn’t send any more messages.”
Alvarez moved forward, but kept his hands in the air. “Senor, please, they will kill my son if I don’t get word to them of your change in plans.”
Johnny pinned the advancing man to the earth with a glare. “And I’ll kill you if anything happens to Jesse.” Turning to Francisco, he asked, “Can you show me a back way to Magoffin’s?”
Francisco touched Johnny’s shoulder. “You cannot go there. It would be far too dangerous and you could put Jesse in harm’s way as well.” Turning toward Alvarez, he inquired, “How have you been getting messages to Magoffin?”
“I’ve paid the boy, Pedro, to deliver notes to Carla in the kitchen.”
The older man stroked his chin. “May I suggest we pen a note and have Pedro deliver it to Consuela instead? It was Consuela who alerted us to what Antonio had been doing and she will be able to let Jesse know what has happened. Perhaps she may be able to help Alejandro.”
Alvarez’ smile came and went as Johnny told him the note would also tell her not to risk her life to help the man’s son.
The moon faded in the night sky as a silent line of villagers made their way toward the salt flats with Franciso, Borrajo and Johnny leading the way on horseback. Johnny rested his left hand on his thigh with the reins loosely in his right and watched the two men next to him. Borrajo sat rigid in his saddle and looked to the sky every few minutes while Francisco alternated between staring straight ahead or turning around to check on Miguel.
As they got closer to their destination, Francisco broke the silence. “These are good men, Johnny, and they will fight hard for you.”
Johnny half-smiled. “Ain’t fighting for me.”
Francisco smiled. “No, but they will follow your directions because you have earned their trust.”
“Nice to know I have somebody’s.”
Borrajo turned to Johnny shaking his head. “You have a village’s trust. Is that not enough?”
“He thinks he does not have the trust of the one who matters most in his life,” Francisco suggested.
Johnny shrugged. “Trusting is hard in our line of work.”
Francisco leaned forward to see Johnny’s eyes around Borrajo. “Yet you give yours to her freely?”
“Wasn’t that simple when we met, but I trust her now. Or did. I thought we agreed I’d be the one hiring on and then she just up and did what she wanted.”
“Bah, that is the way it is with women.” Francisco pointed to his head. “In truth, they are smarter than us. They don’t actually agree to anything, but let us think they have. Then, when we complain they’ve done as they please, they remind us how nothing was settled.”
Johnny’s face scrunched up and his mouth dropped open. “That’s exactly what she does.”
“You will learn as I have with Isabelle to hear the words ‘I agree’ before ending talks important to you.”
Borrajo relaxed into his saddle. “That doesn’t mean you should not trust her. Between men and women who have feelings for each other it should be easy to turn a blind eye to such things, safe in the belief that your partner has your best interests at heart.”
Johnny’s his head snapped up to look at them. “Feelings?”
Francisco wagged a finger at Johnny. “You would do well not to lie to yourself about your love for her, my friend.”
Johnny swallowed hard and shifted in his saddle to check on the group behind him. Then he turned around and stared straight ahead. “How’d you know you loved Isabelle?”
“I realized I wanted for nothing when she was with me and that I’d rather die than live a single minute without her.”
Jesse led her horse out of its stall as the sky showed a pale pink horizon line. On the way out of the barn, she counted snoring bodies and stopped short realizing Taylor was not among them. Her eyes squinted in the dark to see his horse still in its stall. Taking a deep breath, she made her way to the door keeping her hand on her gun and paused right outside to get her bearings. Seeing and hearing nothing out of the ordinary, she made her way to where she’d met up with Taylor the afternoon before.
As she put her boot in the stirrup, two silhouetted figures moved toward the back steps of the house. Jesse could make out Taylor in the light spilling from the kitchen and she watched him head into the house with a woman carrying a tray of some sort. She rubbed her chin and looked in the direction the pair had come from then behind her to where Taylor had ridden in from the day before then back again to the house. Looking to the sky, she closed her eyes and waited for her gut to guide her.
Tracing the steps of Taylor and the woman, Jesse came to a windowless shed, not even large enough for a man to stand upright in, with an iron bar wedged in the door handle locking it from the outside. She crouched low as she got closer and looked around to ensure she was alone, then darted to the door and removed the bar. The hinge groaned as she opened the door and she quickly side-stepped in, leading with her gun. Boots scuffed at the dirt as garbled words came from a bound and gagged man on the floor.
Removing the gag, she asked, “Quién eres?” (“Who are you?”)
The boy moved his jaw from side to side and opened and closed his mouth. “I’m Alejandro Alvarez.”
“You related to the cantina owner?”
“He is my father. You work for Magoffin?”
She untied his hands and feet. “Not exactly. How’d you get here?”
“I was on my way back from Silverton when the men called Baxter and Taylor stopped me and brought me here. They are using me to make my Papa spy for them.”
Jesse explained she worked for Father Borrajo and the village then noticed the dried blood on his forehead and bruises on his cheek. “We have to get you out of here. Can you walk?” At his nod, she helped him up and moved him behind her. “Stay behind me and move fast.”
The pair moved through the door and Jesse closed it replacing the bar in the handle. At her signal, they raced from the building to cover and waited making certain they hadn’t been spotted. Soon they were moving through the garden to Jesse’s horse. She jumped into the saddle, helped the boy up behind her and rode out.
Halfway between the village and flats, alongside a stream, Jesse saw Pedro heading in their direction. She reined her horse to a stop and got down handing the reins to Alejandro. “Why don’t you take him over for a drink while I chat with Pedro?”
She looked around to see if Pedro was alone then walked to meet him. “Kinda early for you to be out here all alone, ain’t it?”
The boy smiled and then looked at his bare feet.
“Got another note?”
The boy’s head snapped up and he put his hand in his pocket.
She put her hand out. “Give it here, Pedro.”
He backed away slightly and shook his head.
“Look, I’m not gonna hurt you, but I’m also not gonna ask you again.”
The boy gulped and slowly pulled the crumpled paper from his pocket and handed it to her. She read it quickly, then squatted down to the boy’s eye level. “Did you read this?”
Pedro shook his head, then looked down again. She ruffled the boy’s hair and was about to tell him what it said when Alejandro burst from behind a tree and called for her to come quickly. She ordered Pedro to stay put then made her way to Alejandro’s side.
Her eyes traced the path of his pointed finger to a pile of brush to the left of her horse. Under it, Jesse could make out a small hand and dirty lace cuff of a dress. Jesse ran to the girl and moved the branches and scrub covering her. She heard Alejandro gasp and her stomach rolled as she took in Sarah’s almost unrecognizable face. She felt the girl’s neck and said a prayer of thanks at finding a faint pulse.
Jesse jumped into the saddle and Alejandro lifted Sarah up to her. As they emerged from the trees, she handed Alejandro her rifle. “Get back to the village fast and shoot anyone you don’t know who comes near along the way. Understood?”
Both boys nodded and Jesse held the girl close and kicked her horse into a gallop toward town.
The sun was high as Jesse returned to Magoffin’s after seeing to Sarah’s care with the doctor in the village. As she rode in, she saw Taylor and Magoffin on the front porch, one gun by the barn door and two more standing by a wagon at the corral. She took a deep, calming breath as she dismounted at the hitch and tied her horse next to Taylor’s.
“Gentlemen,” she said as she touched her hat. “I’m happy to report there’s been no activity at the flats.”
“So, you’ve been all the way to the flats and back this morning, have you?” Magoffin sneered as he stood up and leaned over the porch rail.
Jesse moved to the steps of the porch, leaned against the handrail and looked up at both of them smiling. “Just said that, didn’t I?”
Taylor clomped down the steps and stood close enough for her to feel his breath on her face. “I don’t think so.”
She narrowed her eyes and drew her gun sticking it in his gut. “We’re gonna go back up them steps together unless you wanna die today.”
He leaned away from the gun barrel, but didn’t move otherwise. “There are three more guns out there.”
“Yeah, but right now you’re blocking their line of sight to me.”
“And when I’m not?”
“I’ll drop you both before they clear leather.”
Magoffin moved in their direction, but stayed on the porch. “She’s bluffing.”
The left corner of Jesse’s mouth curled and she dug the barrel of her gun deep into Taylor’s stomach. She saw his jaw clench, then moved with him as he side-stepped up the steps until he was up against the house. She took his gun and held it against his chest and pointed her own at Magoffin. “Stay put, Taylor. The boss and I have business and I’ll kill you if you get in my way.”
The porch squeaked. “Magoffin, you move so much as another half a board and I won’t give you a chance at a fair fight.”
“I’m unarmed, Miss Wilder.”
She smiled. “Don’t worry. Taylor’s gonna loan you his gun. Now, tell those other three to drop theirs and stay out of this.”
Magoffin locked eyes with her and called out to the others to drop their guns and not interfere. Jesse waited until she heard three guns hit dirt then motioned him to head down the steps and into the yard with her. Boots thudded then scraped dust in near unison. Once in place, she handed him Taylor’s gun and lowered hers to her side.
“Now, back up real slow into the yard on this line with that gun at your side.” She marked each of his steps with a tap of gun on holster. “Takes a real low kind of man to try to kill his own daughter.”
The color drained from the man’s face, his eyes widened and his tongue moved across his lips.
“That’s right, she’s not dead. Oh, you did your best and had your boy there dump her by that stream to finish it.”
She saw the man glance toward Taylor.
“Look at me, not him,” she breathed. “He can’t save you from what I have planned.”
A bullet whizzed past her head and a knife stuck in her upper left arm. She stumbled as Magoffin raised his gun and her own recoiled three times in rapid succession before she dropped to her knees. She pulled the knife from her muscle as a rifle barrel emerged through the barn door and two more appeared over the wagon. Crawling between stomping hooves as dust flew inches from her face and a round creased her calf, she divided her last three bullets between the three guns pointed at her.
Shots continued to ring out and bits of barn door and wagon flew about. Jesse used the cover to clamber over the rail then scrambled from Taylor’s lifeless body to the corner of the porch nearest the barn. She looked to where the saving shots were coming from as she reloaded and saw a gun at the end of a pink sleeve peeking out from behind a tree. She fired through the railing before more shots exploded in her direction splitting slats and floor boards around her.
“Get off that porch,” Johnny yelled letting loose with a steady rhythm until a body fell forward out of the barn.
Gunfire erupted from the wagon and Jesse screamed as a shot found its target in her side. Johnny pelted the wagon and she dove headfirst over the railing, landing hard behind the water trough. Shots broke the top of the trough apart as her nose skimmed dirt and water poured over her back.
She crawled to the edge and took aim at legs under the wagon. A rifle hit the ground as one man fell on his back with hands grabbing his bleeding knee, but his pain was short-lived as her next bullet pierced his skull.
The final gunman’s rifle flew over the top of the wagon. “Don’t shoot. I’m done.”
“Then get your hands up and come on out here,” Johnny ordered.
Jesse rolled onto her back and breathed heavily. The pungent smell of mud mixing with blood made her cough. She heard Johnny tell the man to get on his horse and not look back. Hoofbeats drummed loudly then faded. When a shadow engulfed her, she looked up to see Johnny standing over her, his head lit from behind by the sun. “You have a halo.”
He knelt down beside her and helped her into a sitting position. “Hell, been telling you that for months. Here, let me see.”
Johnny raised her shirt and looked at her side then ripped her sleeve open to examine her arm. He assured her that neither was too bad before moving to her calf where the blood was already beginning to clot.
Jesse looked past Johnny as he bandaged her wounds to see that flies were already feeding on the blood oozing from Magoffin’s gut. “You savin’ my life is getting to be a habit.”
“You putting yourself in situations where I have to is gettin’ to be one too. Maybe you could work on that.”
Jesse looked down at her hand picking at her pants. “Magoffin almost beat his daughter to death.”
“I know. Alejandro came to the flats and and told me.”
“I couldn’t let him get away with it,” she murmured.
“Knew that too. Why do you think I’m here?”
Johnny paced the hallway outside their room as the doctor and Isabelle checked on Jesse. It was a ritual he’d practiced daily since bringing her back from Magoffin’s a week before. At the path’s end by the stairs, Johnny looked down at Francisco and Father Borrajo quietly drinking coffee and smiled at the welcome he’d received from them and care taken with Jesse, even in the face of her near silence, then continued his traipsing.
He stopped across from their room and leaned against the wall with his hands in the small of his back. His hair dropped forward as his chin touched his chest. In his head, he counted the words she’d said to anyone since that day. Twenty. Thirty. Most were ‘thanks’ to those who patched her up or to him when he brought her the food she barely touched. His daily updates on Sarah, who was doing well, were met with nods or declarations of exhaustion, but nothing more. His head raised and he sighed.
The door opened and Johnny met the eyes of Isabelle who shook her head and moved toward the stairs. The doctor closed the door behind him as he left their room and Johnny stood straight, wrapped his arms around himself and waited.
The doctor took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Her body is all but healed, but her spirit is still ailing I’m afraid.” The doctor touched Johnny’s arm and went down the stairs.
Johnny stared at the door handle, took a step forward and reached out his hand, then dropped it again and drummed his fingers on his thigh.
Francisco sighed as he watched Johnny. “He is in as much pain as she.”
Isabelle held her husband’s hand. “They are both too young to know that words may sting, but silence breaks the heart.”
Johnny’s shoulders slumped forward before he turned from the door, came to sit with the group and called to Antonio for tequila. Francisco scowled and warned that tequila for breakfast was not the answer. Johnny locked eyes with the older man, poured the tequila Antonio had set down in front of him and took a drink.
Borrajo leaned forward putting himself in the line of sight between the two men. “Have you shared the news that the authorities have dissolved all claims to the flats and restored free access to the salt deposits?”
“Yep and I told her about the fiesta tonight celebrating the news and how Sarah was doing well enough to be there. Don’t seem to matter much what I say.”
Isabelle put her hand on his forearm. “Her guilt over Sarah has a firm grasp, but you must keep trying. She needs you whether she knows it or not.”
Johnny took another drink. Isabelle and Francisco traded glances.
Father Borrajo rose from his seat and squeezed Johnny’s shoulder. “Her path to forgiving herself begins with you forgiving her for what is between you. And Francisco is correct that drinking will not give you the peace you seek.” He turned to the doors, but called back to the couple, “It is almost time for Mass. We should be going.”
Francisco pushed up from his chair, took his wife’s hand and followed Borrajo from the cantina. Johnny watched them leave then moved the bottle and glass to the far side of the table and asked Antonio for coffee.
Jesse was curled up in bed when Johnny brought in the bowl of soup Antonio had made and placed it on the dresser. He moved the rocker next to her bed and brought the bowl to her encouraging her to eat. Claiming lack of hunger, she waved the food away.
Johnny sat down, placed the bowl on the floor and took a deep breath, exhaling loudly. “I thought we agreed I’d be the one to hire on with Magoffin.”
“Don’t recall agreein’ to that.”
The corners of Johnny’s mouth turned up slightly recalling his conversation with Francisco as they rode to the flats. He leaned closer to her putting his elbows on his knees and one hand on her bed. “Fair enough, but we had talked about me going so why’d you do it?”
Jesse pushed herself to a sitting position with her good arm and leaned against the pillows Isabelle had propped at the head of the bed. “I thought it was important you stay here.”
She studied his hand next to hers. “I saw how sad you were riding in here. I hoped helping these folks, being welcomed by them, would ease the pain you still feel about growing up in a place like this.”
His brows knit together. “What made you think they’d welcome me?”
She looked up, met his eyes and shrugged. “Just a feelin’. Wasn’t wrong though, was I? About that anyway.”
He confirmed she was right and explained that even Ramon had warmed up to him. That last piece of information had gotten a smile from her. He moved to look out the window and remembered what Borrajo said about partners having each other’s best interests at heart. “So you were looking out for me?” At her silence, he turned and she nodded. “And you hired on to face your past, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but my anger over what Magoffin did to Sarah got the better of me and damn near got us both killed. So you succeeded and I failed.”
He sat back down and scooted the rocker closer to the bed, but before he could speak, she sank back down in bed and rolled away from him saying she was tired and needed to sleep. Johnny rubbed her back suggesting she rest up for the party that evening.
As the sun sank behind Guadalupe Mountain in the distance, a large bonfire burned in the center of the village. Around it, young and old alike swirled in their brightly colored clothing and clapped to the beat of the music as they celebrated their good fortune. Jesse watched from a dark table on the edge of the festivities while she nursed a bottle of tequila and replayed in her head recent events and her earlier conversation with Johnny. She jumped as the bench groaned with a new weight then heard glass touch glass and liquid pour.
“You warned me,” Jesse finally stated placing both hands on the table in front of her and bracing for the conversation that was long overdue.
Johnny looked down at the drink in his hand.
“I should have listened to you. I really thought I was doing the right thing for both of us.”
Johnny placed his hand on hers. “People are messy. Can’t always get ‘em to do what you want.”
She nodded. “You’re smarter than I am.”
“No, I just don’t expect much from people in these situations, but you do and that’s good. It’s why we work well together when we talk and meet in the middle.”
Jesse looked at their hands, one on top of the other. “I hate it when you use my own words against me.”
He moved his hand under her chin and tilted her head to look at him. “They’re good words.”
Tears welled in her eyes as she leaned her elbows on the table and laced her fingers. “Not listening to you and hiring on has turned Sarah into me without a single dollar or skill to her name.”
“Jess, that’s not true. You hiring on there isn’t what caused this. Magoffin was plain evil and crazy to boot. And Sarah’s not penniless. She’ll inherit her father’s estate in two years when she’s eighteen and, in the meantime, Borrajo’s asked her to help with the school and she’ll live with the Guerreros.”
Jesse rested her chin on her intertwined fingers. “Still, if you’d been there instead of me…..”
“Same thing could have happened and you know it.”
Jesse took a drink and looked to the night sky. Johnny sipped his drink, nudged her elbow and nodded across the party. She looked to see Miguel with his arm around Sarah as they laughed with Francisco and Isabelle. Tears rolled down Jesse’s face and she hurried to wipe them away with both hands.
Johnny put his arm around her shoulders and wiped the moisture from her cheek. “I’m a big believer in everything happens for a reason. Now, sometimes the reason is because folks make bad choices, but other times…..”
“You gonna tell me this was all providence?”
He grinned at her. “Just like Borrajo said, angels delivering ‘em from evil.”
Jesse laughed for the first time in over a week and it felt good. “Thank you.”
She bit the inside of her cheek and looked him square in the eye. “Forgiving me for everything.”
He leaned in very close and whispered in her ear, “You’re welcome.”
She placed her forehead against his and they sat that way for a moment until Jesse pulled back and smiled. “You do have a way, Mr. Madrid.”
“I like it when you smile like that.”
She rolled her eyes then looked at him with her chin tilted down and that one eyebrow up.
Johnny chuckled. “What? All I said was I like your smile.”
He poured them both fresh drinks. “You’ll eventually give in, even if it’s only to see if I’m as good as I said I was.”
Before Jesse could respond, Father Borrajo sat down with them and laid a small bag on the table. “Your agreed upon fee.”
Johnny bounced the bag in his hand a few times then handed it to Jesse. She peered inside and looked from bag to Johnny. She smiled when he nodded. “Father, please give this back to the families here. We appreciate it, but taking care of me and welcoming Sarah into their community more than makes us even.”
He put the small bag in his pocket. As he stood to leave, he raised his hands over their heads and asked for God’s blessing on them. The pair bowed their heads and muttered ‘Amen’ in unison as he finished.
As they looked up, Miguel and Sarah motioned to join them by the fire. Jesse hesitated, but Johnny took her hand and led her to the waiting couple. Sarah wrapped her arms around Jesse and, at the warmth and strength of the girl’s touch, Jesse’s tears threatened to fall again.
“I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for me, Miguel and all the lovely people here,” Sarah said.
Jesse shook her head. “I’m so sorry…..”
“My papa hurt many people, including me. Thanks to you he can’t do that anymore and I feel safe for the first time since my mama died.”
Jesse held the girl tightly and smoothed the back of her hair with the palm of her hand. The pair separated and smiled at each other and Jesse knew they shared an experience that bound them together and always would no matter how far each traveled.
A loud bell clanged and the party-goers gathered to share the feast prepared by Antonio and Alejandro. As they ate, Jesse listened to all the happy conversations around her. Sarah talked about teaching the children of the village and Jesse noted the proud look on Miguel’s face as he sat by Sarah’s side. When she met Johnny’s eyes she saw a flash of that same expression directed at her and she felt her cheeks flush.
She tried to concentrate on her plate, but was distracted at every turn by Johnny’s boyish smile and quiet voice talking with Francisco and Isabelle. It struck her that her usual companions, sorrow and loneliness, had been replaced with new friends, happiness and fun since she and Johnny had been together and she smiled at the connection they’d forged.
Once the meal was over and tables cleared, the band began to play and the party once again centered on dancing. When a slow song started, Johnny cleared his throat and asked her to dance.
“Who me?” she said with one brow up.
“No, Father Borrajo. Yes, you.”
Jesse put her hands up in front of her and told him she didn’t know how to dance, but Johnny stood and held out his hand. She eased from her seat and took it, but warned him his feet were in for trouble.
After their third dance, Johnny suggested a break and brought them each a glass of wine. As they stood side by side sipping from their glasses, Jesse asked how he learned to dance so well. He shrugged, told her his mama had taught him then quickly took another drink.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to pry. That last dance was stronger, more forceful, than the others.”
“The Paso Doble. Supposed to be like a bullfight.”
She put her free hand on her hip and looked at him sideways with her eyebrow up. “Wait, does that make me a bull?”
Johnny laughed. “Not necessarily. Sometimes the woman is the matador’s cape.”
“When is she the matador?”
“Only you would ask that,” he told her shaking his head. “You’re a quick study.”
She nudged him in the ribs. “Well, it’s a dance about being in control so stands to reason I’d catch on fast.”
“Guess I should thank you for not leading.”
She laughed that deep throaty laugh. “No, I’ve learned my lesson about being a good partner to you.”
He raised his glass to her. “Here’s to compromise.”
As she raised her glass in response, Ramon approached and asked for a moment of Johnny’s time. She smiled as he excused himself and followed the old man to the door of his silversmith shop. The two exchanged words, occasionally looked toward her, then Ramon handed Johnny a medallion on a chain which he took, kissed and put around his neck. As Johnny headed back to her side, the old man shouted, “Tantos los bendiga!” (“Bless you both!”)
“What was that all about?”
He pulled out the silver medal. “He made this for me.”
Jesse examined the small circle with the face of a man on it. “Who’s that?”
“Nice of him,” she said taking a drink of wine.
“Patron saint of married couples.”
Johnny patted Jesse on the back as she coughed and gasped for breath until tears ran down her cheeks.
Jesse took a sip of the water Johnny handed her. “That was kinda mean.”
Johnny grinned. “Don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
The evening wore on and the bonfire became embers. The table where Johnny and Jesse had settled held more than a few empty bottles. With a yawn, Johnny stood and held his hand out to help her up. She rose to meet him and they walked arm in arm to their room.
Sitting on her bed, Jesse took off her boots, placing them neatly next to each other, then stood to hang her gun belt on the headboard. As she turned towards Johnny’s side of the room, she saw his gunbelt already on his bedpost and watched him pull off his boots and toss them by the rocker.
When he looked up at her, her breath caught at the blueness of his eyes under a fringe of dark bang that had fallen out of place. She padded forward until she stood in front of him and reached out her hand to brush the lock from his face.
His hand grabbed hers as he stood up. “Why don’t you get some sleep? It’s been a long few weeks.”
Her whole body ached and she was more conscious of Johnny than she had ever been. Dark amethyst eyes showed under half-closed lids as she looked up and stared into sapphire ones. She moved a step closer to him taking in the slight stubble on his strong jaw and how moist and soft his lips appeared. Her hand trembled as she placed it on Johnny’s chest feeling his heart beating fast under her fingertips. His breath was warm on her forehead as he exhaled.
When his lips brushed hers, she reached out as if she’d otherwise drown. He put his hands on the sides of her face and kissed her more deeply. Her pulse accelerated and a rush of delight rippled down her spine and pooled in her abdomen.
He wound his fingers in her long hair and held her tight. “I swore to myself I wouldn’t take advantage of you tonight.”
The sunlight on her eyelids seemed brighter than usual and Jesse stretched like a cat and sighed deeply. Content. No, complete. She opened her eyes and rolled toward Johnny to ask if he was as happy as she was.
Her answer was an empty pillow and cold sheets.
TBC in Part Three