(With thanks to my betas, Terri Derr and Suzanne Lyte.)
Sucking on the remains of a Cuban, Hiram Bishop was waiting for them high on the ridge like a God-damned general surveying his troops—an asshole, but he paid well.
Day Pardee returned from the eastern valley, the new man riding along side. Their job was done.
The boss raised his eyebrows, and Day nodded.
“Good.” Bishop dropped the stub of his cigar on the ground and reined his horse around to stamp it into the dirt. The grass was like tinder. They’d been burning fields for weeks, but it was just like Bishop not to take any chances now. Day would send some men to pull down fences tomorrow; the cattle baron’s beeves would be ranging free again by supper time.
Bishop pulled his horse to a halt. “They all sign?”
“With a little persuasion.” Day twisted around and pulled a wad of papers out of his saddle bag. It didn’t look much for all the effort they’d put in. He passed them to Bishop. “I told you those sodbusters were a stubborn lot.”
“Tickled a few more before the last of them made their mark, eh?” Bishop had that glint in his eyes, the one that made Day want to spit in the bastard’s face.
Instead he spat the tobacco he was chewing onto the ground.
Most bosses gave the orders and pretended later not to know how the job got done, but Bishop liked watching and poking his nose in. He was a damned nuisance. Day didn’t mind the rough stuff—hell, he enjoyed it—but he’d learned early not to get carried away with the pleasures of the game. The cat that played with the mouse too long often lost it and the other mice to boot. Day only did what was necessary to get the job done, and timing was everything. He looked at the blood stain on his sleeve; the job had been messier than it needed to be, and if Bishop had been at the signing, he’d have made them draw it out even more. The sick son-of-a-bitch would have screwed everything up like he did the first fracas.
Light reflected off Bishop’s gold tooth. Shit. Day looked away and bit a fresh quid of tobacco from the plug he kept in his shirt pocket. When all was said and done, the boss had money, and he wasn’t shy about spending it to get what he wanted.
“Join in the fun, boys. Farmer Becker has a mighty pretty widow and grieving daughter. I’m sure the others will share.”
The new man didn’t move. Day looked past him down the hill. What was going on below at the farmhouse would have been better done earlier when they left Becker face down in the dirt. It would have sent a message to the other grangers that it wasn’t just their lives they were risking. It would have made the gunhawks’ job easier today. But Day had been overruled. He didn’t like being overruled. And he was damn sure he didn’t like being overruled when it made his job harder. He squinted up at the sky, knowing what was coming.
“Not squeamish, are you, Madrid?” Bishop was trying to stare the younger pistolero down. As if that was going to work. How Bishop got to be so rich was a mystery to Day. He was useless at reading people. Born with a silver spoon—had to be.
Day watched and listened. He glanced over at Madrid. Was he squeamish? Rape had its place in the game. Day would use it when there was something to be gained. Not that he took part. He preferred more private entertainment, but there were always plenty of dogs hot for it, and Day got a kick out of holding them back and setting them loose. Madrid was a cool hombre though.
He sat like a statue, eyes fixed on Bishop, the hint of a smile on his lips. What was he thinking?
Bishop straightened in his saddle. “I heard stories about you. They say you’re a regular Robin Hood down in Mexico.”
Madrid stared back.
Hard to tell how old he was; could be anywhere from eighteen to twenty-five. Day had a gut feeling he was younger than skill suggested, but Bishop was talking to him like he was a boy, not the rancher’s second best gun. Big mistake in Day’s opinion, though Madrid’s face gave nothing away. “I heard you shot up some Rurales one time. Word is they were giving their office a bad name.”
“How very public-spirited of you,” Bishop sneered. “A soft heart can get a man killed.”
Well, Day agreed with that statement. You wouldn’t catch him putting himself in harm’s way for the sake of a few peons, but he wouldn’t discount Madrid on that score. It could make him more deadly, less predictable, but on the other hand, it gave Day strings to pull.
Bishop took another cigar from the case in his jacket pocket. “Funny, you don’t strike me as a man with a soft heart, Madrid.”
The corner of Day’s mouth twitched. Those blue eyes the ladies of the line liked so much just kept staring back at the old man—not even a flicker.
Bishop looked away.
Round one to Madrid.
“So why don’t you go have some fun?” Bishop nodded down the western slope to the farmhouse. Some other gunhawks were already capping off the morning’s work with a little playtime; no doubt let off the leash and egged on by Bishop as soon as he saw Day and Madrid coming up from the other side of the hill.
Madrid’s eyes trailed over Bishop from his calf-leather boots to the top of his ten-gallon hat, and back down again to lock stares. “I’ll pass.”
Bishop tugged at his collar and looked away. Day was enjoying this.
The yahoos and screams they’d heard when they first rode up had all but stopped now. The hunters and their prey had gone inside. Day hadn’t seen Madrid look in the direction of the farmhouse once. Turning a blind eye didn’t mean the bad things didn’t happen, but it was how to stay alive. Whatever else, Madrid knew the game.
Damned shame the boss wasn’t so smart. Bishop was trimming the end of his Cuban with a silver cigar cutter, the baubles on his shirt cuffs glistening in the sunlight. The man had fancy nick knacks everywhere. He took a silver vesta case from his pocket and struck a match. “I don’t want you to pass, Madrid. I like to see my men enjoy themselves.”
The leather creaked as Madrid leaned back in his saddle. He nodded towards Day. “Why don’t you tell him to go down?”
Day chuckled and tongued the tobacco to the corner of his mouth. “Mr Bishop here set me to oversee this shindig. It don’t do for the wolf in charge to leave his back open to the pack. But don’t you worry none; I’ll watch your back.”
Resting his hands on the saddle horn, Madrid looked down and smiled. But he stayed put.
Bishop’s eyes narrowed. His hands teased the reins, and his horse moved forward. “I’ve got plans for you and that gun, Madrid. For a start, there are a dozen more sodbusters north of here to nudge into knowing what’s good for them. Pardee will tell you, I’m mighty generous to those I can trust. Call this a test to see if you can follow orders. Go have some fun.” He blew a smoke ring into the air. “Bring me the red ribbon from Miss Becker’s pretty blond hair to prove you’ve done as you were told.”
Madrid raised his head. His face wasn’t unreadable all the time then. Day sat up straight and waited; it wouldn’t be long now. Madrid’s eyes were aimed at the rancher. “Pardee can go, if he wants. I’ve got other plans.”
Day smirked. He’d gone along with the boss’s game—he liked to know the kind of man he was dealing with too—but he wasn’t surprised by Madrid’s answer. After more than two weeks working with him, he’d an idea he was a wolf not a hound. Not born ruthless like Day and a mite unpredictable for being some way off bottom, but Johnny Madrid was a gunfighter Day could respect. Bishop was out of his depth. Day could keep the edge though, and if handled right, Madrid would be an asset.
In the end, it was no skin off Day’s nose if Madrid rode out or stayed, but their paths might cross again. Best Day made his position clear. “Not my thing, Johnny boy—sharing. I ain’t one of the dogs.”
Day glanced at his boss. Bishop was a fool, and now he was an angry fool. He’d bet Day a twenty dollar gold piece on the outcome of this little tug of war. If Bishop couldn’t stand to lose, he shouldn’t make such hare-brained wagers.
Day had warned Bishop. “He ain’t that kind. He’ll call your bluff if you push too hard. Be a pity to lose a good gun. From what I’ve seen, his reputation ain’t no fairy tale. We can use him.” It wasn’t Day’s fault if the rancher was too stupid to take his advice.
“It’s a good test whether the mestizo can follow orders.”
“He’ll follow orders. You just got to know which ones not to give.”
God damn it, Bishop didn’t listen to Day then, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to now. Day could see it in his eyes. The fathead was in a pucker and about to blow his last chance of backing away from this mess.
“I’ll see you back at camp in an hour, Pardee. You too Madrid—if you follow orders. Otherwise, don’t bother.”
“Suits me—I’ll take my wages now.”
“You’ll get paid when you’ve followed my orders. Not before.”
“I was hired for my gun.”
“That always comes with other duties.”
Madrid’s glare was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.
Bishop was a jackass. He didn’t respect a man good at his trade. He was asking for trouble challenging Madrid like this, and Day wasn’t sure he wanted to be part of it any more.
Delaying the ruckus at the farmhouse just so he could test Madrid out wasn’t Bishop’s first bad call. Cruel men were part of the job, but when they went loco, they were dangerous. Bishop kept harping on about loyalty and obedience. He was making Day’s job damn hard. Day heard tell there was a range war brewing in Arizona. Maybe it was time to move on. Maximum power for minimum effort—that had always been Day’s motto; Bishop was getting to be too much effort.
Day placed his hands on the horn of his saddle where Madrid could see them. The mid-afternoon sun was hot. No sign of rain coming anytime soon; there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
Madrid’s drawl was soft but clear. “You’re right, Mr Bishop, but my prick ain’t for hire, and that kind of extra don’t come on no lunch. I’ll take my money now.”
Bishop scowled. “Send him on his way, Pardee.”
“Maybe. But first I’ll have my money too.”
“What are you playing at?” Bishop swung around. His hand jerked towards his hip, but it was halted by a click; two clicks—almost as one.
Now that was interesting.
Day touched the brim of his hat. “Your gun, Mr Bishop—slowly now, we don’t want no accidents.”
Bishop’s eyes darted between the two Colts pointing at his belly. He stopped drawing on his cigar and let it hang limp from the corner of his mouth. Not such a fool after all. Raising his left hand, reins held loosely, he lifted his revolver from its holster with his right and passed the gun, two-fingered, to Day.
“Much obliged. Now pay Madrid and give me what’s left.”
“You won’t get away with this, Pardee.” Bishop removed an over-stuffed billfold from his coat pocket. “I call the tune here.”
Day steered his horse up close to Bishop and helped himself to the bag of coins in the other inside pocket. “Seems to me you’ve lost your audience, or ain’t you noticed. Your dogs are too busy having that fun you wanted Madrid to sample, and me, I’ve decided I don’t like the way you sing.” Day laughed at his own joke, and wrenched the pocketbook out of Hiram Bishop’s hands. He paid Madrid a bonus, and stuffed the rest into his saddle bag, tossing the wallet on the ground. “We’ll call this my wages, my winnings and a bonus for putting up with your crap. Now you take care, Mr Bishop, or we’ll be seeing you.” Day grabbed the reins from the rancher’s hands and wrapped them roughly around the horn. “Adios.” Whacking the horse on its rump, he sent it galloping down the slope towards the farmhouse with Bishop struggling to stay in the saddle.
Day and Madrid didn’t waste any time. They rode south a mile or two and then veered west. Day wasn’t really worried about being followed, but they doubled back a couple of times to confuse their trail just in case. From what he’d seen, Bishop wouldn’t find it easy to call off his dogs and set them on a new scent. The gunhawks he’d rustled up for his little experiment were ten-dollars-a-day men. Not one of them had the guts to face off against Day Pardee or Johnny Madrid on his own, let alone both of them together. Bishop would have to roust out all four, and quickly, before there’d be any real danger. If the Becker ladies were still fit for entertaining, Day was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen, but he hadn’t got to be the big wolf by being careless.
Day and Madrid rode hard for three hours until they reached a small creek just off the main east-west trail. There’d been no sign of the hounds, and Bishop had likely gone back to camp to lick his wounds.
Madrid stretched his legs along the banks of the creek, leading his pinto by its reins. He scooped a handful of water and sniffed, then drank and let the horse drink too. Day dismounted. While his horse drank, he exercised the cramp out of his legs, and watched Madrid refill his canteen. “Where you headed?”
“South.” Madrid tied the canteen to his saddle and remounted.
Shielding his eyes with his hand, Day squinted up at him. The sun was getting low in the sky. There was only about an hour’s good riding time left, but signs were they wouldn’t be making camp together. “Got a señorita in Mexico, eh, Madrid?”
“Nope, just business.” Madrid looked towards the Rio Grande.
“I hear there’s a feud started near Tucson. More than one rancher hiring guns. Good money.”
“I’ll think about it.” Madrid looked down at Day.
Damn, Madrid was hard to read. They stared at each other until the pinto blew and tossed its head. Then Day laughed and waved Madrid off. “Don’t take too long, John. You might miss all the fun.”
Johnny Madrid gave a crooked smile and tipped his hat. “Day.” He pulled lightly on the reins and turned the pinto south.
Day Pardee hauled himself into the saddle and rode west.
1. This tale links the pilot movie The Homecoming and The Highriders, Series 1, Episode 1. I’ve borrowed a few lines, words and phrases.
2. This tale links to a Lancer Writer’s challenge piece written in 2014 called Five Facts for Day Pardee, and to From Highlands to Homecoming, Chapter 50, 2015.