Cleansing the Soul
Bet's A Bet
In the middle of this year’s NFL Superbowl, Linda B. asked if I wanted to bet on the game – the loser would have to write a “Johnny takes a bath” story. Well, that certainly sounded intriguing, so I said “why not.” Having no specific affinity for either team playing this year, I “allowed” Linda her choice of the New England Patriots . . . who of course, won. Technically, I think I was the loser, but I’m not quite sure. Follow me, if you please, into the bathhouse . . . with Johnny. MP – February 2005
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Johnny smiled at the woman kneeling beside the tub. She smiled back . . . but then, what woman wouldn’t when those deep blue eyes gazed into yours and those beguiling lips curled themselves into that endlessly charming grin. ‘Dios, but he is irresistible,’ she thought adoringly.
The woman leaned forward and touched her forehead to Johnny’s. Her intimacy was promptly rewarded with a playful kiss to her nose. She giggled as she sat back on her haunches, then dipped a slender finger into the water and ran the moisture over his nose. Now it was Johnny who laughed, thoroughly delighted with this moment of frivolous fun.
The beauty ran her fingers through his long, thick mane of wet, untamed hair, then stood and turned to fetch a towel. Johnny watched her move away, then laid his palm on top of the finally still water, taking joy in the soothing sensation of the moist warmth . . . a simple pleasure.
He patted at the surface, and took an indulgent moment to watch, mesmerized, as droplets splashed up, only to fall back and rejoin the deep pool surrounding him. He hit the water harder, and gazed with silly glee as the drops shot higher, some leaping up and over the side of the tub. He impetuously leaned over the edge to follow their path, only to cause a flood of water to spill out onto the tiled floor.
Towel in hand, the woman turned back in time to see the cascade brimming the tub edge. “Juanito, watch what you are doing, por favor,” she pleaded.
Johnny straightened and considered her admonishment seriously. But she couldn’t stay mad at this one . . . this young man who brought her so much pleasure. Her frown broke into a comfortable smile, and he smiled back – then deliberately splashed more water out of the tub in her direction.
“Juanito . . .” she drew his name out as a warning, her head tilting as she placed hands on hips. “You are being naughty,” she added in a singsong.
‘And just what’s so wrong with being naughty?’ Johnny reasoned. But his devilish thoughts betrayed him, a roguish grin breaking across his lips as he judged the distance.
“Don’t you dare,” she warned again, anticipating his misbehavior. But her smile grew even as she backed away a step.
The splash of water hit her square in the face, Johnny’s aim ever true. He watched her sputter for a moment, then threw his head back in raucous laughter.
“Juani . . .” she couldn’t finish, as a quick succession of two more streams of water hit her dead on.
Her sputtering grew exponentially louder, mixing giddily with Johnny’s laughter. He was testing his limits but, despite her melodramatics, figured he knew better than she did herself how much she was actually enjoying this bit of immature merriment tagged on to her hard day.
He was readying another volley when he heard the roar.
“What the hell is going on in there?” an older man bellowed as he threw open the door and barged into the room. The intruder quickly took in the now soaked woman, following the trail of water until he spied the tub’s occupant.
Johnny’s features grew grim as he considered the other man, reading him easily, seeing past the stern visage to the indecision beneath. Despite sitting stark naked in a tub, Johnny sensed his advantage – and smiled.
The older man witnessed the hardness turn, the younger man’s grin, so full of wicked intent, more frightening to behold. He planted his feet firmly and tried to remain brave in the face of a challenge from such a foe, growling out a low, “I’m unarmed, Johnny. Wouldn’t be a fair fight if . . .”
The water hit its mark, and Murdoch Lancer now stood beside his wife Maria . . . not nearly as wet, but just as in love with their delightfully precocious and mischievous little son.
Murdoch ran a hand slowly over his dripping face, then scrunched up his eyes and put on his best outlaw glare. “Tough hombre, huhn?” he snarled.
Johnny dipped his head and peered up at his father through a shank of unruly hair, then gritted his teeth menacingly . . . and giggled.
“Well, let’s see just how tough you really are, boy.”
Murdoch took a measured step . . . and Johnny leaned forward.
Murdoch took another step . . . and Johnny rose up onto his knees.
Murdoch’s long stride allowed him only a half step more . . . and Johnny cupped his hands over the water.
Maria would have been hard pressed to say who “drew” first, but the flurry of splashing that followed was more than enough silliness for her. She turned to leave the room and fetch more towels, the one in her hand dabbing at her own hair as she shook her head in feminine bemusement. “Nińos . . . dos nińos . . .”
L L L L L L L L L L
Johnny smiled at the woman kneeling beside the tub, then lay back and closed his eyes. She ran her fingers through his long, thick mane of wet, untamed hair, then sat back on her haunches and leaned her other arm across the tub’s edge.
She let the hand caressing his head slowly drift down onto his shoulder, where a fresh scar still glowed red and remained slightly swollen. She touched the wound gently, but still he flinched.
“Don’t,” he requested softly.
“It hurts you?” she asked, moving her hand to rest lower on his arm.
“No. Well . . . not much. Just . . . leave it be.” His eyes had remained closed and now he sighed, sinking lower into the warmth, taking joy in the soothing sensation of the moist heat . . . a rare pleasure.
It was always such . . . Johnny Madrid would come in the night, have a few drinks in the saloon below, and watch her for hours as she . . . worked. She would eventually make her way up the stairs to prepare for their evening, and then he would come to her, most often appearing in the room like a ghost before she could sense he had even arrived.
Making use of the bedroom that held the big claw foot tub was originally her idea, but the bath had since become ritual and, it was always such . . . the door would be locked, then barred, and only then would he undress to take small comfort in the rejuvenating waters – and from her.
But where she had at first looked forward with much anticipation to their occasional dalliances, she now dreaded his coming. For she knew what he was, and though she never thought passing time with a gunfighter would bother her, the damning testaments to his profession that he brought with him each time they met, did – a bullet hole . . . a knife cut . . . a broken bone . . . another bullet wound . . .
“. . . You can’t come here no more, Johnny.” The words left her mouth before she could stop them. She bowed her head to lean it on the edge of the tub, unable to face his reaction.
His eyes opened slowly, and he took an indulgent moment to watch, mesmerized, as the steam rose from the still water, only to disappear magically into the air. “I’ll go,” he finally offered quietly, without anger, pulling his hands from the water as he prepared to rise.
“No!” she exclaimed, her head springing up as she grabbed for his hand.
Johnny laid his arms along the edges of the tub, and waited patiently as she gathered her thoughts. He hated her struggle . . . knew why she didn’t want to see him again – most likely understood better than she did herself. ‘I’d run from me too . . . if I had that chance.’
She looked anguished as she tried to explain. “Johnny, it hurts so bad to see your scars . . . but it hurts worse when you’re away. I can’t keep guessin’ if you’re gonna stay alive long enough to come back. Can’t you stop, Johnny? Can’t you?” She was begging now.
He pulled his hand gently from her grasp, and sat up, letting his arms droop over his now bent knees, as the unsettled water swirled around him. “No.” It was the honest answer.
The word hovered between them for a moment, until it dissipated into the air like mist off the heated water. Neither could take it back.
A heavy silence lingered between them as she reached for a washcloth and the soap. She sponged a cleansing lather caringly over his exposed back and shoulders . . . passing gently over the older scars while pointedly avoiding the newest.
“I worry about you, Johnny,” she offered sadly, hoping her words would . . . what, she didn’t exactly know.
“Never asked you to,” he answered back instantly, bluntly, truthfully – dashing all hope for pretty much anything at all. Letting anyone get close to Johnny Madrid was not something he was willing to allow.
Johnny was just beginning to wonder if she really did still want him to stay, when she set the damp cloth on the edge of the tub, and stood. He watched silently as she loosened the sash of her robe, and let the garment fall free. It was always such. He sat himself back and spread his knees, making room for her as she stepped gracefully into the deep tub to lie down and cradle herself in the tender embrace of his arms and legs.
He laid a comforting arm across her bare breasts and placed a soft kiss on top of her head. They cuddled languidly in quiet company, as the warm bath offered a transitory refuge from their inevitable parting. As she pulled lazily at the hair on his forearm, Johnny had a fleeting moment of self-pity and cursed his way of life, as he measured how much it cost him to remain true to a path that was leading him to God only knew where.
‘Toughen up, Johnny boy,’ he chastised himself. ‘Make the best of the night she’s given you, and let tomorrow take care of itself.’
L L L L L L L L L L
Johnny smiled as he made his way down the embankment near the big crooked oak at the edge of the small lake. He loved work that brought him overnight to this particular Lancer line shack. He wondered if any other cowboys had discovered this same diversion while working the ranch over the years.
He’d wasted earlier stays there brooding over his renewed but strained relationship with his father . . . washed away pent up frustrations by swimming back and forth across the lake until he tired near to the point of drowning. When things got real bad between the pair, Johnny had sometimes found himself hoping he would weaken mid-crossing . . . allow himself to sink into the depths and force the water to carry him away to some place where he might find peace.
But things were better now between him and his “old man,” so he didn’t much use his time out here for brooding anymore . . . more for contemplation. The “pool” was good place for that.
You couldn’t see or get to it from the land – the brush around the lake was too thick nearest the pool. Johnny had come down to the water’s edge with nothing but his pants on, carrying a towel and small bar of soap. He tossed the towel onto some bushes, then stripped off his pants and quickly waded out a few feet into the rapidly deepening lake and dove in. As remote as it was, there wasn’t much chance of getting snuck up on out there, but Johnny wasn’t interested in parading his bare backside around – just in case someone might decide to pass by.
He stroked smoothly out into the lake, then turned and tread water, looking back at the oak for the distinctive branch that unfailingly pointed the way. Once you found the right limb, it was easy to make out the break in the reeds marking the entrance to the pool.
Johnny spotted it quickly – and smiled. It was the end of a hard day, but it had been thoughts of this very moment that had kept him focused on finishing his tasks.
He swam forward, and pushed himself through the weedy entrance. Once on the other side it was like leaving the rest of the world behind. The pool was a natural depression at the edge of the lake, about six feet around and falling from a depth of five feet to a foot and a half shallow. The oak’s leafy canopy shaded the pool from the strong late afternoon summer heat, keeping the water at a perfect bath-like temperature – not too hot, not too cold. The sandy bottom was soft, forming a comfortable seat for sitting back and taking it easy for a bit.
Johnny did just that, wading his way over and tossing the now slippery soap up onto the pool’s edge as he sat himself down in the shallower end. He ran his fingers through his long, thick mane of wet, untamed hair, then leaned back against the steep side of the embankment. He adjusted his position, moving from an ill-placed tree root that had poked into his back. He sighed, then sank down lower, taking joy in the soothing sensation of the moist warmth . . . a selfish pleasure.
He took an indulgent moment and watched, mesmerized, as sunlight danced over the water within the pool, only to disappear magically as the leaves above shifted in the gentle breeze, blocking the rays.
Johnny felt a startling moment of utter contentment and marveled at his life, as he measured how much he’d paid over the years in order to remain true to a strange path that had led him to this very point. Johnny Madrid had seemingly made the largest payment when he had finally allowed someone to get close. But the act had bought Johnny Lancer a family and a home . . . a place where he’d at last found peace.
He wasn’t naďve enough to think that everything was going to be easy from now on. Johnny knew he’d never be able to completely stop being a gunfighter – the instincts were too well honed, his enemies too persistent, the challengers to his reputation too ambitious. But overall, things didn’t seem so tough anymore . . . he didn’t seem so tough anymore. But somehow that no longer mattered.
The pool was big enough for two, and Johnny’s thoughts drifted to the image of a woman, not anyone he’d already known, but an abstract notion of someone he might actually be able to call “wife.” The mere idea of settling down, and maybe even having a family of his own, saddened him for a moment – Johnny had never figured he’d live long enough to ever consider such a possibility seriously. But he had that opportunity now, a chance to hope and dream and plan for an actual future.
Johnny smiled. Whatever – or whoever – tomorrow might bring, Johnny still had no idea. But as he languidly sat there in the comfort of the mystical pool, he knew two things for sure – ‘It can’t get much better than this . . . and whoever she might be, she better know how to swim.’
For Linda . . . The End