It would help if you’ve read Dominos before this.
Thanks to Maddie for her help.
Only Toni is mine, but ‘tis the season for wishing!
Toni and Johnny looked the town over. The sleepy little village looked like most on the Mexican border. There was a saloon, a cantina, store, livery and of course, a church…not much else. It was dusty, colorless, quiet, and boring. Toni thought it looked like heaven.
As they sat on their horses at the end of town, Johnny noticed the placements of the buildings, the open areas surrounding the small village, the townspeople slowly going about their daily business. Before riding in, he wanted to make sure the place would be a safe place to stop. Well, as safe a place as Johnny Madrid could hope.
“Look okay?” asked Toni. Viaje, her dun mare, shifted her weight and stomped, tired of standing still. Toni patted her neck, trying to soothe her. She was ready to move on also, but knew they wouldn’t be going anywhere until Johnny felt good about the town.
Besides, she was holding Johnny to a promise he’d made so she didn’t want to crowd him too much.
“Yeah, I guess,” replied Johnny as his eyes scanned the town one last time. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked, knowing full well that Toni would make him stick to the agreement.
Not waiting on Johnny, Toni clicked to her horse and started to move forward. “What do you think? I’ve been dreaming about this for three weeks now.”
Johnny kicked Apoyo, his pinto horse and glanced over to Toni. He smiled as he watched her. She sure seemed happy and he guessed when it was all said and done, it was a small enough promise to make. The past six weeks had been hard on both of them.
They rode up to the livery and dismounted. A small, older man appeared, his face and hands gnarled with age and the sun.
“Can I help you folks?”
“Hope so. We’d like to board our horses for a few days if ya got room,” drawled Johnny.
“A week! You promised a week and you know it,” Toni interjected in a hurry.
Johnny shrugged his shoulders and gave Toni a pointed look.
“Tonight for sure,” he returned. “Possibly the whole week.”
“Sure, I got room. Good thing you rode in today, I’ll be closed tomorrow seeing it’s Christmas, but I’ll be in ta take of the stock so don’t you worry. I live above the livery so if you need to leave tomorrow, just holler.”
Johnny and Toni looked at each other with startled glances then each gave a little shrug. Neither had realized it was Christmas, being on the trail or on a job didn’t really require a calendar. It was hard to keep up with where they were, much less the days. One day pretty much flowed into another.
Leading their horses to the stalls the old man indicated, they pulled off the saddle bags and threw them across their shoulders.
Johnny grabbed his rifle and they headed out with a promise from the livery owner to settle the horses in.
They began walking to the saloon.
“So what’s the plan?” asked Toni.
“This is all your shindig miel, you tell me.”
Toni stopped and put her hand out to grab Johnny’s arm. She looked up at him with her deep blue eyes and a worried smile.
“You ain’t sorry are you? I mean, this is going to cost a lot of money.” Her teeth caught her bottom lip as she waited nervously for his answer. This wouldn’t be fun if he was going to be a grouch.
Johnny’s eyes sparkled as he decided he’d teased her enough.
“No, quierda. I promised and you deserve this. I told you when our last job was over, we’d find a quiet town and stay a whole week in one place just for you.”
Toni’s face lit up. “And since it’s Christmas, you’ll go with me to midnight Mass?”
Johnny gave her his best icy glare. “You’re pushing it, Toni.”
Toni burst out laughing. His icy stare never seemed to work with her. He shook his head in disgust and kept walking toward the saloon. Toni followed, a snicker bursting out now and then.
She hung back as he approached the batwing doors of the saloon. She waited as he quickly surveyed the immediate area before cautiously pushing his way through the doors. Taking a few steps inside, his eyes quickly took note of everyone and their placement.
Not feeling any danger, he gave a quick jerk of his head to let Toni know that it was okay for her to follow him. It was a ritual they’d practiced for some time now.
Walking over to the bar, Johnny ordered and paid for two beers.
“Got a room for a few days?” he asked the barkeep.
Toni looked at Johnny over her glass, her eyes narrowed to slits.
“Sure mister.” He reached under the counter and grabbed a key.
“Up the stairs and last room on the left.”
Johnny took the key and paid for one night. Grabbing his beer, he followed Toni to the usual back corner table.
“Look, you can quit giving me the evil looks. We’ll stay the whole week if possible. But I don’t want to pay ahead of time and then have to lose our money if we have to leave sooner. We got enough to get trail supplies, a week here, and a few dollars extra to hold us until the next job. We can’t afford to lose any money if we’ve paid ahead and have to leave in a hurry.”
Toni sighed. “You’re right. I’m sorry to be such a pain in the ass, but you know how much I’ve been looking forward to this. A whole week off the trail, in a bed, in one place! “
Johnny nodded, “I’m sorry it can’t be like that all the time.”
“Oh don’t be sorry, Johnny. If we did this all the time then it wouldn’t mean so much. It wouldn’t be anything special. That’s what makes it so fun!”
They both finished their drinks and went up to their room. Emptying their saddlebags on the bed, they both took stock of what supplies they had and what they would need later.
“Look, I’m more presentable than you, Johnny. You go get your bath first while I do the shopping. Might better do that now since the store will probably close for Christmas. Take our clean clothes with you and get them to go ahead and start washing the ones you’re wearing. By the time I get our stuff, you should be finished and then I can get my bath.”
Johnny gave her a salute. “Okay General, sounds like a plan to me.”
Toni gathered their one spare set of clothes and handed them off to Johnny. He followed her out of the room, locking the door.
“Here,” he said as he handed the room key to her. “You’ll need to bring the stuff back here before taking your bath.”
Toni took the key and put it in her pocket, patting it to double check that it was there. They both walked down the stairs and out of the saloon. After saying their ‘see ya laters’, they parted ways, each wanting to get their chores done.
Johnny leaned back in the tub with a sigh. The hot water sure felt good. He hurried and washed, wanting time to relax with the tequila he’d brought into the bath house with him while the water was still hot.
He’d hadn’t liked the placement of the tub when he’d first walked in. He almost said something to the man while handing him his dirty clothes and boots through the door. But, he’d decided it would be pointless, the full tub would be impossible to move. So he’d kept his gun with him, leaving only his and Toni’s clean clothes on the bench by the door, a door that was to his back.
Still, the town seemed safe enough. Johnny smiled to himself as he thought of how excited Toni was about this coming week. She deserved a vacation. Hell, after their last job, they both did.
He was getting a pretty good reputation, not quite there to be in charge, but definitely good enough to get hired. This last job was so big, they’d even hired on Toni as healer and laundress.
Johnny took a drink and frowned as he thought about those he’d worked with. He hadn’t been as careful about checking things out as he should have been before signing on. He didn’t mind hiring out his gun, but there was a line he was discovering that other gunhawks crossed and he wouldn’t. That Day Pardee, now that was one man who didn’t seem to know a line was even there.
Good thing I’ve gotten pretty good or Pardee wouldn’t have put up with me saying no to some things. Still, it was a hard job.
The warm water and the not-half-bad tequila was doing a good job of relaxing Johnny. So much so that he didn’t even notice the door quietly opening. A small arm reached out and fumbled blindly for the bench beside the door. Making contact with the clean clothes Johnny had left there, the arm snatched the clothes in one quick swoop and allowed the door to slam shut.
Startled, Johnny sat up and turned his head back toward the door. At first, he didn’t notice anything wrong.
Guess the old man needed something but changed his mind.
Then he realized that it was what he wasn’t seeing that was the problem.
“Hey!” he shouted to the empty room. Getting out of the tub and grabbing his gun, he walked over to the bench. “Now who in the hell would steal a man’s clothes?” He cautiously opened the door and looked out. Seeing nothing, he started to walk out until he stepped on a pebble. That reminded him of his state of undress.
He didn’t even have his boots! He’d given them along with the rest of his clothes for cleaning.
Toni had finished getting their supplies long ago and had taken them back to their room. She didn’t have a watch, but felt sure that enough time had passed for Johnny to have finished his bath and returned. Assuming he had probably fallen asleep, she decided to go ahead and place everything in their saddlebags. They’d learned the hard way to always be ready to leave in a hurry.
Finally, Toni decided to go and see what was keeping him. Being careful to lock their door, she made her way downstairs and out the back way to the bath house.
She slowed her steps and she looked around for any signs of Johnny.
Surely he can’t still be taking a bath!
Going to the door, she knocked and called out, “Johnny?”
She was relieved to her him call to her to come on in and walked into the room. Her eyes automatically first went to the tub and seeing it was empty, she turned her head to find Johnny sitting on the bench. That wasn’t as much surprising as was the fact that he was just sitting there naked as the day he was born.
“Johnny!” she exclaimed in a shocked voice. “What in the world?”
Johnny stood up. His face was a mixture of anger, frustration, and embarrassment.
“I’ll tell you what is going on.” He pointed toward the tub. “There I was, all relaxed and enjoying my bath, when SOMEONE stole our clothes! Everything! They didn’t even leave me a towel!”
Now that he had an audience, Johnny started to get more worked up, pacing up and down and wildly gesturing with his arms.
“Can you believe it? Someone sneaked in here and stole my clothes.” He suddenly whirled around to face her.
“And where in the hell have you’ve been? I’ve been waiting here forever on you to get here. I kept hollering, but I don’t know where that old man is. I stayed in the tub until I was all shriveled up!”
Toni stood there and listened to him rant. At first she could feel sorry for him, but when he started trying to lay the blame on her, she began to lose her patience. Crossing her arms across her chest, she tilted her head and tapped her foot.
“What was that you said?” she asked him quietly.
“I saaaid,” answered an exasperated Johnny. “I said that I wanted to know what took you so long to get here. I first waited in the tub, but got all shriveled up. Then the water got cold so I got out and waited here on the bench.”
Toni gave Johnny a long stare, then casually lowered her eyes.
Looking back up at Johnny, she said quietly, “Well, it don’t look to me like anything shriveled up.”
“My fingers and toes!” Johnny said hurriedly, a blush staining his face. “It was my fingers and toes that was shriveling and you need to get your mind out of the gutter.” Turning around, he sat back down on the bench.
Toni bit the inside of her cheeks, trying hard not to laugh at Johnny’s predicament.
“So why didn’t you just walk out of here and find the man or even chase who took our clothes? You ain’t got no modesty no how. Why act like an old maid now?”
“Because I’m not letting the whole world know that someone got the jump on Johnny Madrid in the bathtub and stole my clothes,” Johnny hissed. “I’d be the laughingstock of the whole border! Now, if you’re through asking questions, would you please go get me some clothes?”
Toni bit her cheek harder and just shook her head yes. She left and returned in a few minutes with Johnny’s pants and boots.
“Here,” she said as she handed the items over to Johnny. “Good thing it weren’t your calzoneras they stole, the man just brushed them off and oiled your boots for you. Your socks and shirt ain’t dry yet.”
“Look, hurry over to the store and see what you can get. You’ll need a spare set of clothes, too. I’ll help him empty out this tub and he can get started on warming up your water. It should be ready by the time you get back. I’m ready to get out of here.” Johnny replied as he slipped on his pants.
“Okay, I’ll be back in a minute.” Toni answered and refusing to look at Johnny, slipped out the door. As the door closed behind her, Johnny could hear her howls of laughter finally released.
Johnny sat back from the table and patted his stomach. “Boy, that was some good cooking,” he said. He looked up as the owner of the cantina came by to take up his plate. “Senora, that was the best tamales I’ve eaten in a long time. You are a master at cooking.” Johnny gave the woman his best “lost boy smile”.
The older woman blushed like a young chica. “Oh you,” she simpered,” I’m sure this young lady here cooks you many fine meals. You’re just joshing an old lady.”
Both Johnny and Toni burst into laughter. “Oh, Senora,” laughed Johnny. “You wouldn’t say that if you’d ever tasted her cooking,” he replied, nodding toward Toni. “If I’m lucky, she cooks a meal that isn’t great, but at least doesn’t make me sick.”
The Senora’s jaw had dropped while listening to Johnny describe Toni’s cooking with Toni sitting right there. She turned to Toni with a worried look on her face. “And you laugh?” she asked perplexed.
Toni patted the older woman on her arm. “It is okay, Senora. He speaks the truth. Actually, he’s being pretty kind about it tonight. I can do a lot of things well, but cooking isn’t one of them.”
The Senora looked back and forth between Toni and Johnny and seemed to realize that they were just stating facts and in a good humor, too. She seemed to like the young couple and wanted to help. “Well, chica, maybe if you are going to be here awhile, perhaps I could teach you a simple stew to make? It will be my gift to you.”
Johnny jumped out of his chair and grabbed the woman in a big hug. “Oh Senora, would you? Please?”
The woman grew flustered and pushed him away. She joined Toni and Johnny in their laughter.
Toni stood up and walked over the woman and gave her a hug also. “You gonna take in a couple of strays?” she asked in a kind tone.
“Si, my daughter married and moved away. I miss her company and help.”
“Well, we won’t be here long, but I’d be proud to have ya teach me…,” Toni shot a look at Johnny, “okay, try, try to teach me how to cook something.”
“Eh, would you two like to join me for dinner tomorrow? It is Navidad and I’d like for you to come.”
Johnny and Toni both leaned over and kissed the Senora on the cheek. “We’d love to. Gracias.”
They said their goodbyes and left the cantina. There was an alley next to the cantina and Johnny’s keen hearing picked up a familiar sound. It was one he’d known well when younger, it was the sound of someone rifling through the garbage. He stopped and put out his left hand to push Toni behind him, his right hand on his gun.
Cautiously leaning around the corner, he saw a young boy going through the garage. He also noticed something else. “Hey, that’s my shirt!” he shouted. Toni leaned over Johnny’s shoulder to see what was going on and saw a small, dirty boy. For a moment, all was still as the three of them eyed each other.
Suddenly, the young boy turned and began to run, Johnny not far behind. The boy was fast, but Johnny faster. Toward the end of a small street was a shack. Johnny wanted to catch the boy before he got inside so he picked up speed and reached out to grab the boy by his shirt collar. Johnny braced his feet as he stopped suddenly and grabbed the boy by the shoulder. Immediately, Johnny had his hands full as the small boy began to squirm and kick, trying to get away.
“Hey!” Johnny hollered. “You just settle down. You ain’t going nowhere so quit ‘cha kicking.”
Johnny had the boy’s back up against him and he wrapped his arms around the boy’s middle, holding him in place.
The air turned blue with all the cuss words coming out of the kid’s mouth. Johnny gave the boy a shake. “Hey, watch yer mouth kid.”
Toni stood beside Johnny, letting him take care of the situation. Hearing his last words, she muttered to herself, “Pot calling the kettle black, ain’t ‘cha?”
Johnny glared at her. “Here, take hold of this kid while I see who is inside the house.” He thrust the boy at Toni and waited until he was sure she had a good grip on the boy. Taking his gun out, he stood against the edge of the door and reached out with his spare hand to turn the doorknob. He slowly opened the door and cautiously walked in, gun drawn. He’d learned to take no chances.
“Mister! I’m sorry I took your clothes. Don’t go in there!” the boy cried. Giving one last violent jerk, he got away from Toni and raced ahead of Johnny into the house. Johnny and Toni followed. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the dark room, dimly lit by only one candle. Sweeping his eyes across the room, Johnny saw the boy standing by the bed. The boy stood rigid with fists clinched. Moving closer, they both saw a young woman with a newborn in the bed. It was obvious that the mother was ill.
Toni rushed to the bed and bent over the woman. Feeling her forehead, Toni could tell that the boy’s mother had a fever.
“Johnny, get me some cold water and a cloth”, she said looking over her shoulder.
Johnny got the items and brought them to Toni. He put his arm around the boy and drew him to one of the two chairs in the house.
“Now, suppose you tell me what’s going on”, said Johnny to the boy. “What’s your name?”
“Miguel”, the boy answered quietly, his eyes darting toward the bed. Turning toward Johnny, the boy lifted his dark, tear-filled eyes and asked, “Is she gonna be okay?”
Johnny answered the boy as honestly as he could, “We’re going to try.”
The boy lowered his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest. “I’m sorry I stole your clothes. I thought maybe I could sell them and get some money to help Momma.”
Johnny fingered his shirt the boy was wearing. “What about this?” he asked.
The boy looked up and smiled shyly. “I liked this shirt.”
Johnny grinned and rubbed the boy’s head. “Well, Miguel,” he answered, “I gotta admit, it does look pretty good on you. Kinda big, but I guess you’ll grow into it.”
Feeling safe, the boy began to tell Johnny his troubles. “We were on our way to a job Momma thought she could get. We stopped here for Momma to rest and the baby decided to come. We don’t know nobody here and I’ve already spent all of our money. My momma said that I was the man of the house since my Papi died. I gotta take care of them and I don’t know how.”
With that the boy threw himself into Johnny’s arms and cried. Johnny hesitated just a second, then wrapped Miguel in his arms and patted his back. He closed his eyes as memories swept his mind of how he’d been the man of the house for his momma too many times. He, too, had felt overwhelmed as a small boy alone with a much too big responsibility on his shoulders.
Giving the boy’s back one last pat, he put his hands on his shoulders and drew Miguel back until he was looking at Johnny. “I promise you Miguel, we’re going to help you out.”
Johnny looked up as Toni walked over to him. She looked worried.
“I think she’s mostly tired out,” she said. “Could you go to the cantina and see if you can get some broth for the mother and maybe some food for him.” She put her hand on the boy’s head and smiled at him to reassure him. “I’ll stay here and keep trying to get her fever down.”
Johnny nodded. He knew the boy wanted to help so he asked the child to go with him. He figured it would help get the boy’s mind off things.
Together they walked back to the cantina. The senora had already closed up, but came to the door when she heard Johnny’s voice.
“What do we have here?” she asked.
Johnny explained what had happened and asked if the senora could let him have some food. Instead of going back to get some food, the Senora wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and walked out the door, locking it behind her. “Now take me to this nino’s momma,” she told Johnny.
Johnny shrugged his shoulders and led the way back to the shack. Opening the door for the Senora, he watched in awe as the woman walked in and became a whirlwind of activity. Before he knew it, she was leading a procession back to her home. She led carrying the la nina, he carried the young mother, and Toni and Miguel carried the unfortunate family’s belongings.
Kinda fitting that it’s Nochebuena. We’re having our own posadas.
After reaching the Senora’s lodgings above her cantina, the procession stopped in a spare bedroom.
“Johnny, put her on the bed. Antonia, go downstairs and by the backdoor is a basket. Bring it up here and get some towels. That will do for la nina.”
“Uh, ma’am?” Johnny began to speak. “It’s almost dark now, is there somethin’ we’ll be needing before the store closes?”
The senora stopped for just a minute and seemed to be thinking. “Yes, we will need some cloth for diapers. Senor Reyes lives behind the store. You tell him I said to open back up if he’s already closed. You got any money?”
Johnny looked across the room and met Toni’s eyes. She didn’t say anything so he answered the Senora while keeping his eyes on Toni.
“Yes ma’am. I reckon I got enough.”
He wondered if Toni would speak up, but all she did was give him a slight smile before ducking her head.
Johnny saw that the women didn’t need him or Miguel anymore so with a “Come on kid,” he led the boy back outside and toward the store.
Johnny and Miguel were playing checkers when they heard someone come downstairs. They both looked up as Toni walked toward them.
“Watch out, Miguel. He cheats,” she said, jerking her head toward Johnny.
“Is Momma okay?” the small boy asked in a trembling voice.
“She’s gonna be fine. Her fever’s broke and she’s resting now. Why don’t you go on upstairs and say goodnight to her and the Senora will show you where you’ll sleep tonight.”
The boy beamed when he heard that his momma was better. Saying goodnight and another thank-you to Johnny for the new boots, he quietly walked upstairs.
Toni tiredly sat down and rested her head on folded arms across the table. Johnny got up and walked behind her to the stove and poured her a cup of coffee. Standing behind her, he reached over and placed the cup beside her. He then began to rub her shoulders to ease the kinks out.
She sat up and took a drink of the hot coffee. She twisted her neck to straighten it back out and leaned back as Johnny’s hands eased the kinks out of her shoulders. Johnny smiled behind her back as he heard her give a satisfied sigh. “If she was a cat, she’d be purring right now.” He frowned to himself, Now how am I gonna tell her?
“New boots, huh?” Toni broke the quiet.
“Uh, yeah, well ya know, the kid needed more than them sandals he was wearing. Ya know, if he’s got to be the man of the house, just figured he needed the boots to go with it. Besides, ya know, boots are good too for keeping your extra money and stuff handy.”
Toni took another drink of coffee but didn’t say anything.
“Uh, Toni? You still want to go to Midnight Mass?” he asked in a hopeful tone. Maybe that will keep her from being too disappointed.
They both looked up as they heard someone coming down the stairs. Johnny moved away from Toni and got another cup of coffee. He placed it at the table just as the Senora walked into the room.
“Come over here and sit, ma’am.”
“Inez,” she answered back. “After tonight, guess we ought to be on a first name basis.”
She took a drink of coffee. “Toni, guess I won’t be able to teach you anything about cooking, chica.”
“Oh, that’s okay, Inez,” Toni answered. “It would probably have been a lost cause anyways.”
Johnny got himself a refill on that coffee and went over to sit at the table with the ladies.
“So, what’s gonna happen to that family?” he asked.
“Well, young man,” began Inez. “I intend on asking them to stay for awhile. I got plenty of room, Miguel will be a big help running errands, and his momma can help me some when she feels more up to it.”
“You got a big heart, Inez,” Johnny said with a grin.
Inez reached over and patted Johnny’s hand. “No bigger than yours,” she replied. “So are you two still gonna come for dinner?”
“Well…” drawled Johnny. He started to speak when Toni broke in.
“I don’t think so, Inez. See, there’s been a change of plans. Looks like we won’t be able to stay as long as we first thought. Our bed is paid for tonight, but we’ll have to leave tomorrow early.”
Johnny kept his eyes on Toni as she talked. He had wondered how he was gonna tell her that they were now out of money. I should have known she’d figure it out. She knows me too well.
Inez looked at the two young people. She too, had an idea where their money had all gone. “Well, come by tomorrow for breakfast before you leave. It is Christmas and we’ll want to say good-bye.”
Johnny looked at Toni and nodded. He stood up and pushed his chair back. Picking up his and Toni’s cups, he took them over to the sink. Going back to Toni’s chair, he reached out a hand and gave her his most charming smile. He looked over at Inez and spoke. “Well, guess we better go. I think we’ll go to Mass tonight and it’s almost time.”
Toni took his hand and stood up, giving Johnny her biggest smile.
“Well, in that case, nino’s, come a little later for breakfast. I’ll have it ready,” replied Inez. She stood up and followed Toni and Johnny as they walked toward the door. “Feliz Navidad,” she called to them as they walked out the door.
“Feliz Navidad,” returned both Johnny and Toni.
Johnny grabbed Toni’s hand as they walked away. She looked down surprised. Johnny didn’t usually allow public displays of affection. He couldn’t, it wouldn’t be safe.
“Lo siento, mi amor,” he said.
“No, Johnny, don’t be sorry. Inez is right, you do have a kind heart and look out for people. I wouldn’t want you any other way. I’d rather you do what you did than stay a month in a nice town. We have enough supplies until you get a new job, you aren’t hurt, we’ve found new friends, and we’re together. What more could we want?”
“Feliz Navidad, Toni,” he answered as they walked toward the town’s small church.
“Feliz Navidad, Johnny.”