Hot. Hell, it was as hot as anything he could remember in Mexico. And it had been like this for days now. Surely it had to break soon. A storm would be welcome. Anything would be welcome instead of this choking heat and air thick enough to stop a man breathing.
The ground had baked hard and the dust had settled on everything, so thick he could write his name in it and it would stay there, not a breath of wind to disturb it.
And the damn flies. Dios. They were making the cattle almost as bad tempered as he was. Shit, if they had as many cattle as they had flies, he could pay someone else to check the fucking water holes.
But no, here he was moving cattle out of dried up water holes. Well, most of them were dried up. One of them had been muddy. Wouldn't you know it? And that was the one that the damn cow had gotten stuck in. Bogged right down, she'd been… Which was why he was now caked in drying mud. He was dirty, dusty and pissed. And sweating like a pig on a spit.
He swatted a fly away from his neck and swore the next one that buzzed him was gonna get its head blown off.
Shit. Even Barranca was in a foul mood. Last time he'd gotten off, the damn horse had tried to take a chunk out of his butt.
Swiping the sweat off his brow, he stared across the plain to the mountains. Their sharp outlines were lost in the shimmering air.
Now he knew why Scott had been so quick to volunteer to do the books. Made out like he was doing Madrid a favour. There were no flies on Scott… Hell, they were all on Madrid, just like the joke was on him. Yeah, Scott was having the last laugh today.
He pushed his shirt aside, scratching at his belly, but it kind of made things worse. Dios, but he itched and scratching one place made everywhere else seem to itch even more. The caked mud had dried fast, and it felt like it was sucking every last bit of moisture out of him. Drying him up so he'd look like one of those wrinkled old prunes that Teresa insisted on putting in those God-awful pies she made.
The heat haze touched the land silver in places, like there were cool pools of water just waiting for him. God, how he'd like to strip right off and dive into a pool of icy water. Wash the baked mud away and cool right off.
"You'd like that too, amigo." He patted Barranca's neck. But the horse whipped around and tried to bite his leg.
"Okay! You've had enough, too, I know."
Hell, but life was a bitch and he was the dumb son of one… But if he owned a third of this spread surely he could do what he damn well wanted? And if he wanted a swim then that was his affair and he'd damn well have one. Murdoch could go hang. He was sick of taking orders and he was sick of getting the bum jobs. Yeah. Johnny Madrid could do as he pleased and right now he was gonna ride to Paradise Pool.
He didn't know what its real name was, or even if it had a name. But that was what he called it. He'd come across it one day when he was hot and dusty and he'd ridden down a worn out old track chasing after some dumb cows. Hadn't looked like anyone had been down there in years. And then he'd come to a break in the trees and he'd found Paradise.
The name had amused him. Coming across the shady little creek where sunlight dappled the water through a cracked ceiling of cottonwood trees, he'd figured then it was the closest thing to Paradise that he'd ever see.
Right now he wanted a bit of Paradise. Murdoch and Scott would be sitting in the cool of the hacienda, drinking Teresa's lemonade, while he was sweating his guts out.
Fuck this. He turned Barranca east, toward Paradise, pulling his hat down for what protection he could get. The sun burned down from the copper sky. Anything with any sense was seeking refuge in the shade and the only movement was from the dust cloud kicked up by Barranca's hooves.
It was a tidy way to Paradise but it would be worth it just to soak in those emerald waters sheltered by the spreading canopy of leaves.
Barranca snorted, tossing his head. He was kicking out at flies and snapping his head around to try and bite at them. His ears were almost flat and he was throwing in a few bucks. Dios, first dumb cattle and now a dumb horse.
Barranca skittered sideways, kicking out again. Johnny shifted in the saddle, the caked mud on his pants making him slide a little.
Barranca twisted again, kicking out and then threw in another, much bigger buck. They went up together but Barranca came down alone, dumping Johnny in a clump of woody sagebrush that cushioned his fall but scratched his back and arms.
Barranca set off at a lope, covering Johnny in a cloud of dust. Struggling to his feet, he gave a piercing whistle, but the damn horse ignored him, just speeded up before disappearing into a stand of blue oak.
"Barranca!" His voice echoed across the plain. Fuck. Wasn't this just fine and dandy? His day was going from bad to worse. And Scott was drinking lemonade and eating home baked cookies. Cool, refreshing lemonade.
With a grunt, he set off following the tracks of his horse, which he figured right now, deserved a bullet between the eyes. Damn horse.
And if he'd thought it was hot riding, it was a hell of a lot worse walking. And his left boot was rubbing a hole in his sock. Felt like it was rubbing a hole in his heel too.
Judging by the tracks, it looked like Barranca had the same idea as his owner, because his trail was heading toward Paradise Pool. Damn horse. They could have gone together… And then he wouldn't have sore feet and the start of a blister.
The sweat trickled down his face, coursing a path past his brow, into his eyes and down into his mouth and collar. How could any man produce this much sweat? He swatted another fly away. Damn horse. His shirt was sticking to his back and his pants felt like they were melting onto him.
And Scott would be pouring another glass of lemonade… Doing the books and laughing about how he was nice and cool and Johnny… Yeah, that Boston schooling had sure taught him how to get one over on his dumb gun-hawk brother. Because right now, he figured he was as dumb as those damn cows.
The old trail lay ahead, winding steeply down through a mixed stand of blue oak and digger pine. Leastways he'd be in the shade soon and then it would be easier. And as soon as he reached that water, he was going to strip right down, every last stitch, and throw himself into those emerald waters. Hell, right now he could even smell himself and he stunk real bad. Sour and sickly sweet, the stench sort of hanging in the air. Shit.
He trudged on, sighing with relief once he got in under the trees. Leastways it made things a little cooler. But it was still damn hot. A breath of wind would be as welcome as a cool drink.
He was almost there now. He caught a glimpse of the water sparkling through a gap in the brushwood. He cussed as his boots slipped on the steep shale path leading down to the pool, sending the loose grit in a cascade down the hillside. He slid the last bit, his arms spread out to balance himself. Barranca was in the water, right up to his middle, and ducking his head repeatedly under and tossing it up again, sending the water droplets flying in a whole rainbow of colours.
He walked to the muddy edge of the pool, his boots slipping. The soles were getting way too thin to offer any grip, getting so he could tell which side a coin was lying if he walked on it. "Damn you, Barranca, I should put a bullet between your eyes for what you just did…"
"Why, Mr. Madrid, I wondered when you'd be showing up…"
He whirled around, the gun already clear of the holster and he brought it up ready to shoot, but his boots let him down. His legs went from under him and he landed with a squelch in the mud. He heard a muffled laugh.
"How nice of you to drop in. You've certainly taken your time getting here. Your horse arrived some time ago."
Damn it but he knew that voice only too well. He glared across at where she sat on a large flat rock, shaded by an overhang of oak. Her dress was hitched up and she was dangling her feet in the pool. A book lay open by her side and a bottle, on the end of a long string, was keeping cool in the water.
"Damn it all, Delice, you could have gotten yourself shot, surprising a man like that." He slid his gun back into the holster and looked up puzzled by her presence. "And what the hell are you doing way out here?"
She shrugged. "In case you hadn't noticed, it's a hot day and I thought I could use a little solitude. Somewhere cool, where I could read without being disturbed." She paused. "I should have guessed somebody would show up to spoil my plan." She wrinkled her nose, like she'd caught a whiff of something unpleasant. "Would you mind standing down-wind of me?"
He scowled, but moved a little further away. Damn woman. And of all the people to see him in this state, it just had to be her. "I was planning on taking a dip."
She nodded. Looked real serious, except her lips were twitching, like she was trying to stop herself from laughing. "That is one of your better ideas. Did you know that you're covered in mud?"
He tilted his head to one side and glared again. "Yeah, I had kind of noticed that." He shook his head. "How the hell did you ever find this place? I figured nobody knew about it. And how did you get here? It's a pretty long ways from town."
"I left my buggy up in the shade on the far side. I found the path years ago when I was out exploring. I don't think anyone ever comes here so it's my own private hideaway." She paused. "Or maybe I should say it was my private hideaway."
She swung her legs gently, causing ripples to arc out. She'd sure got shapely ankles. And long legs. There was a hell of a lot of leg showing even though her dress covered her knees. He tried not to stare, dragging his gaze away and looking once more at Barranca lying down in the shallows and showing no inclination to come out. And his saddle and bridle were soaked, damn it.
"Like I said, I was planning on taking a dip…"
"Don't let me stop you. Be my guest." Those emerald eyes held his gaze, almost like they were challenging him.
He bit his lip. "Well, I was thinking of kind of stripping off, so maybe you'd like to go someplace else?"
Her lips twitched. "No thank you. I'm more than comfortable right where I am. Please, don't be shy on my account, oddly enough I've seen men without their shirts and pants before."
"I was planning on stripping right down."
"Don't let me stop you, as I said, I'm very comfortable right where I am." She picked up her book and leaned back against the rocks like she'd forgotten he was there.
Damn it, but he wanted a swim. But he sure hadn't figured on an audience. Maybe if he kept his cut-off long Johns on… Yeah, that would do it.
He unbuckled his gun-belt and laid it carefully on a dry stone where it couldn't be splashed. He unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged himself out of it. He dipped it in the water and then wrung it out before laying it on a rock that caught the sun through the leafy canopy. He sank down onto a boulder and pulled his boots off before unbuttoning his calzoneros. They were sticking to his body, caked in mud and sweat. He pulled them off and tossed them on the bank. Glancing over, he saw she'd put her book down and was sitting watching him, a hint of a smile playing at her mouth. He glared again. "I thought you wanted to read your book."
"Oh honey, don't mind me, I'm enjoying the floor show." She sat back, the book lying discarded next to her.
Seemed a man couldn't even take a dip in peace. He paused, should he shuck the long Johns? Somehow, it didn't seem quite proper. Not with a lady there. Not that she was a lady, hell, she was a whore… Oddly though, she always seemed more of a lady than pretty much anyone he'd ever met. He sighed softly, keep the long Johns. He rose swiftly and sprinted across the rocks taking a running jump into the deeper waters.
He surfaced, gasping for air at the shock of the cold water on his overheated body. But boy, did it feel good. He dipped down under the water again, before coming back up shaking his head hard, like a dog after a bath. Dios, this felt good. He struck out, swimming across the pool and then ducked and dived again. He came up laughing. Scott only had lemonade… This was better than any old lemonade. He glanced across to where Delice sat, still dangling her legs in the water. He swam casually in her direction, kind of like he was just idling. Once he got closer, he pushed himself up out of the water in a big jump before falling back and causing the huge splash to go right over her, wetting her clothes and her face. He swam swiftly away, unable to hear whatever insult she called out.
Barranca had gone out of the pool, into the shade and was chomping contentedly at some low growing plants, flicking his tail at the occasional fly that settled on him. Leastways Barranca seemed in a much better mood now. Johnny grinned. They were both in much better moods now. They'd both needed a dip. And now he just wanted to stretch out on a rock and dry off in the sun. He swam back to the edge of the pool and stood to wade ashore. He made a hasty grab for his long Johns that had slipped right down over his hips, the water making them heavy and sagging. He heard another muffled snort of laughter. Glancing across at Delice he met her eyes, before she pointedly looked him up and down as he walked back toward her. He kept a tight grip on the long Johns, trying to hitch them back up to his waist.
"Are you labouring under the misapprehension that those cover your modesty?"
He furrowed his brow, puzzled by her words. Why did she always use such tricky words? She was as bad as Boston.
She raised her glass toward him, kind of like she was toasting him. "And I thought the girls were exaggerating. Apparently not. Those leave nothing to the imagination."
Puzzled, he glanced down at himself, flushing as he realized that his long Johns were clinging to every swell of his body, the water making the worn fabric all but transparent and emphasizing every bulge.
"Did you want a glass of wine?" She hauled on the string, pulling the bottle from its cool resting place.
He grinned. "I guess so, if you reckon I smell better now."
She shrugged. "Honey, trust me, anything is an improvement on how you smelled when you showed up." She poured him a drink and then glanced down at his legs as she held it out to him. "You've got a bug or something crawling up your leg."
He looked to where she pointed and flushed again. "No, that ain't a bug. It's a tattoo."
She raised an eyebrow. "A tattoo?"
He could feel the colour rushing to his face. "Yeah. Um, yeah, had it done when I was just a kid." He flashed her a smile. "Yeah, I guess I was drunk and when I sobered up I found that. I guess it's a good reminder to never get drunk."
She peered at it. "What on earth is it meant to be?"
She looked at him, like he was dumb or something. "A spider has eight legs – that black blob only has six."
Johnny grinned again. "I know. I guess the fellow who did it was drunk too." He took the glass and held it up, kind of like a toast. "Here's to six legged spiders."
She raised hers back at him. "And sobriety."
He swigged his wine back and then settled on a flat rock at her feet to dry off in the sun. The light filtered down through the leafy canopy and Delice went back to her book.
The gentle buzz of bees and snatches of birdsong were the only sounds, but for the occasional rustle as she turned a page. Drowsy from the heat of the day, his eyelids began to droop and his entire body relaxed into a strange sense of security. He slept.