#1 in The Gunman’s Woman Universe
He was just a hired hand
Workin’ on the dreams he planned to try
The days go by
She wasn’t just another woman
And I couldn’t keep from comin’ on
It’s been so long*
Word count: 14,500
Johnny turned Barranca off the road and let the horse lope through the grass that was more yellow than green. It was too dry and needed a nice rain. He stopped under the shade provided by the gnarled branches of the live oak tree and pulled his hat off. It was sweltering. Rain would cool things off, but there didn’t seem much change in that. Johnny took his canteen, wet his bandana, and wiped the sweat from his face. He smiled at the sign tacked to the tree: “KEEP OUT LANCER PROP”.
His trip for the ranch had been successful. One new breeding bull and two of the prettiest Morgan mares he had ever seen were purchased and would be arriving at the ranch in a week. All three animals were going to make beautiful babies that would increase the value of Lancer beef and the new Lancer horse business Murdoch had finally sanctioned. Only took about three years of talking about it for Johnny to get the go ahead from his no-nonsense father.
That this no-nonsense father of his had conceded to his request for some time off at the end of the trip had shown how far their relationship had developed since Johnny’s return home. That thought made him smile. Life was good for Ol’ Johnny Lancer lately.
Nudging Barranca into a canter, they headed for the small house behind the gate and Johnny smiled. It had only been three months since he had ridden away from here. When he left, he never thought he would be returning. It was a surprise to him how his mind had continued to drift back here over those three months. When Murdoch wanted him to go on this buying trip, he knew he was going to be close. Too close not to stop by and check on them. The truth of the matter was he missed them … Grady and Jessamie. He didn’t know why, he just … did.
Johnny saw them in the yard as he approached. Jessamie had the little white and black calf by a rope lead. The calf had gotten bigger and did not seem to be in the mood to be led wherever it was she was trying to make him go. Grady was walking behind and trying to nudge the stubborn animal onward. A grin blossomed on Johnny’s face as he tried to stifle a laugh as Jessamie’s feet went out from under her and she plopped unceremoniously onto the ground. He remembered doing something similar the first time they met.
“Why you stubborn, mule headed …”
Johnny laughed and she turned toward the sound. He leaned over on the pommel of his saddle and flashed her a smile. “Mrs. Lancer, could you use a hand?”
“Johnny!” Grady squealed as he left his mother and the cow and ran straight for the gate opening it.
Shaking his head, Johnny handed Barranca’s reins to Grady and took three strides into the yard, bent down, and picked Jessamie up. “Ma’am.”
Jessamie smiled at him and laughed a little at herself. What a sight she must have made. She ran her hand through her long red hair, sticking a piece behind her ear. “Mr. … Madrid, what are you doing here?”
“Call me Johnny.”
“If you’ll call me Jessamie.”
He smiled again and winked at her. “It might be easier. I was just passing through; thought you might have some jobs for a hired hand again.”
“I might … for a dollar or so.”
“And some biscuits. I do like your biscuits.”
Grady had talked a pure blue streak catching Johnny up on the happenings around the farm and asking every question under the sun about what Johnny had been doing. “You came up at the right time to help Ma and me. Ol’ Chester won’t helping.”
“Chester?” Johnny asked, a laugh in his throat. “You named the calf?”
“Well, sure I did. He had to have a name. Everybody’s gotta have a name, don’t you think?”
Johnny caught Jessamie’s smile before she turned her back to them. “Sure Grady, at least one name, sometimes more. What are you gonna do with Chester?”
“Start me a herd. I read a book about it.”
Jessamie sat a plate of biscuits on the table and turned back to get the stew. “We’ll have to keep him, named like he is.”
Johnny grinned. “Grady, I reckon you and me can ride your range tomorrow and see what jobs need doin’.”
The boy beamed. “Ma! I’m gonna be working with Johnny! We’re gonna be doing men’s workings.”
She sat the stew pot on the table and ruffled her hand through his thick brown hair. “Fine, as long as you mind.” Jessamie sat and passed a plate to Johnny. “If we need supplies, we might have to go into town.”
“Cavitt Springs?” Johnny asked as he passed a filled plate to Grady and took the next plate Jessamie offered. He had passed through it on his way to her place. It was a small little nothing of a town, it didn’t even have a sheriff’s office or jail. Yet the town did not seem to have the lawless element that Spanish Wells had before Charlie Wingate built the jail and the Lieutenant Governor sent Gabe Stillman in to be its first sheriff. No, Cavitt Springs just seemed a bit sleepy and slow. Not a bad place to be for now, but with growth, Johnny knew that could change and change fast.
“Depends what we need. Cavitt Springs is growing, but Mr. Palmer’s store there has a limited amount of building supplies. He’s just getting started. Usually I have to ride into Lockeford for those. That’s a whole day … going, coming and shopping.”
Johnny nodded. “Well, Grady and I can ride the range, see what’s needed tomorrow, and the day after we can get the supplies we need.”
“How long are you staying?” Jessamie asked as she fixed her own plate and joined them. “Grady don’t eat so fast,” she corrected the boy, who looked up with chipmunk cheeks and gave her a smile.
Grinning, Johnny answered, “I was thinking about a week if you’ll have me. Then I’ll have to get back … to work.”
Jessamie smiled back at him. “We’re proud to have you.”
He woke to the smell of bacon frying. Sitting up on the sofa, Johnny stretched his arms over his head, heard a pop in his shoulder as he rolled it, and sighed. “Smells good.”
Jessamie turned from the stove. “Good morning. How’d you sleep?”
“I always sleep well, but this was better than the hard ground on the other side of the fence.”
“Johnny, I really do feel bad about that. I – ”
“You shouldn’t let strange men stay in the house.”
Jessamie flashed him a smile before she turned back to the stove. “Too late.” Johnny laughed loudly. She found it contagious and joined in. Jessamie loved the sound, she loved how his nose winkled up and his blue eyes closed when he laughed like this. “I’m so glad you came back.”
“Me too,” he sighed contentedly as he helped himself to the coffee. He watched the tendrils of smoke float into the fresh morning air. He sipped the brew, careful not to scald his mouth, and walked around the house’s large main room.
It was a fine little house. Sturdy. A house he and his mama would have been proud to live in. It was bigger than most places they lived during his tumultuous childhood. Still, he loved his mama despite the flighty way that they seemed to live once his stepfather died. Johnny would never tell Murdoch – unless the man asked him directly – but his stepfather had been good to him and his mama. Johnny always knew that Ol’ Pete … that is Pierre DuBois … wasn’t his real father, but he acted the part. He may have whomped Johnny when he needed it, to teach him some manners, but it was the same that Murdoch would’ve done.
It was never the beatings that came to Johnny once Mama and Pete had died. Pete tried to make their lives comfortable. Johnny knew that Pete had loved both he and Mama. He also knew now, as a grown man, that his mama running off with Pete was wrong, just like Lucy running off with Gabe, the sheepman, was wrong. Worse the way he looked at it because Mama was Murdoch’s wife, not just his girl. But, still and all, his mama loved Pete and grieved herself to death after he was killed.
It still made his heart ache to think of his mama. He loved her more than words; like Grady loves Jessamie; but his mama had lied to him about his father. He stopped and watched Jessamie cracking eggs in her mixing bowl. Jessamie had lied to Grady about his father too. Johnny sighed again and took another swig of his coffee. Jessie – when had she become Jessie to him – had lied to protect Grady from the awful truth. Mama had lied to protect herself from her sins. The way he figured it, Jessie had the better part of that. Sitting his cup on the table, Johnny ran his hand over his face, softly said “I’ll be back,” and walked out the door to tend to his and Barranca’s morning needs.
Grady met him at the door on his way back in, the smile on the boy’s face a mile wide. “Johnny, did’ja sleep well? Are we gonna take Barranca and ride the range today? I got a book about cowboys ridin’ the range and herdin’ cattle all the way from Texas to Baxter Springs. That’s in Kansas. They wuz on the Shawnee trail? You ever been on the Shawnee trail, Johnny? You ever been on a cattle drive before?”
Johnny laughed again and ruffled Grady’s hair, turned the boy toward the table and pushed him in front of him into the house. “Yeah Grady, I been on one or two cattle drives before in my time. Working on a ranch is what I do most of the time.”
“When you’re not running away from the law?” Grady asked as he slid into his chair.
“Grady Lancer!” Jessamie chastised as Johnny laughed again. She stood with her hands on her hips staring at the child.
“Grady, what makes you think that I am always running away from the law?”
“I told you about that book I got about outlaws. How they ride the back trails real sneaky like and they wear their guns real low, like you do. Ain’t never seen nobody wear a gun low like you.”
Johnny shook his head. “Grady, I promise, I’m no outlaw. I’m just a cowboy. Now eat your breakfast, we got a day’s work to do.”
They’d ridden half the day, Johnny picking out places in the fence that needed fixing. He’d stop where he could and fix sections that were a quick repair, but otherwise, he noted the sections that needed more repair, new supplies, more supplies than he had with him on Barranca. Yes, there were going to need a good bit more wire, new fence posts and a wagon to carry it all on. Johnny chuckled at the thought that he was an expert post setter and fence fixer by now. Murdoch had certainly had him fix plenty when he first came home to Lancer.
“What’s so funny, Johnny?” Grady asked as he held on to Johnny’s waist.
“Life Grady, just life,” he answered, and they loped on across what Johnny mentally dubbed Lancer II. “Thinking about how my Pa made me such a good post hole digger.” As they rode, he noticed the dry grass. It concerned him. It was drier than he thought it should be, but still and all, they did need a good rain. “Let’s stop by the stream for lunch Grady. Your Ma packed us some food.”
“Sure Johnny. That’ll be good. The stream’s dried-up but it’s still good to stop at. I can go in and pick up some good rocks.”
Dried up? “What?” He asked as he pulled Barranca to a stop. It wasn’t that dry.
“Stream’s dried up. Just as dry as a mule in the middle of a desert.”
Johnny could not help but smile at Grady’s way of describing things. The boy might just end up writing them books he’s always reading. “Well, let’s get going. I wanna take a look at this dry stream. Hold on!” he said with a wicked grin and pushed Barranca into a run, Grady whooping with pleasure behind him.
The steed ran through knee high grass, yellow and brittle. Dried up and worthless was how he had described the land to Murdoch when he told him of the sale. It wasn’t then, but now it was fast becoming that. It just didn’t make sense. He stopped and looked down where the stream should be. They needed rain, but the stream shouldn’t be that dried up.
He let Barranca pick his way down the draw to the bed and he slipped from the saddle. He reached up and picked Grady off the saddle and sat the boy down while he pulled his saddle bags off. “Let’s eat,” he said. He handed the saddle bags to the boy who was happy to help. While Grady was making a place for the two of them to have lunch, he unsaddled Barranca so the horse could rest as well. He took his hat and filled it with water from his canteen so Barranca could have something to drink. “How long has the stream been like this Grady?”
The boy shrugged as he dug through the saddle bag bringing out blue checkered cloths containing the food his mother had fixed them. “I dunno exactly. A while, I reckon.”
Johnny sat on the ground beside the boy and took his cloth sack, pulling out a sandwich thick with cold roast beef and cheese. “If you want to be a rancher, Grady, you’ve got to pay attention to the water. If you don’t have water, the cattle will die, along with everything else. Water is key to life.”
“Maybe that’s why that mean man was yelling at Ma.”
Johnny looked down at the child. “What mean man?”
Jessamie cocked her rifle and aimed it at the men on the outside of her gate. “Step through that gate and you’ll be trespassing, Mr. Lewis. I’ve told you before.”
Gregory Lewis puffed up indignantly. “Mrs. Lancer, it’s time we came to an agreement. You and a boy alone out here makes no sense. I want your property and I aim to have it.”
“It’s not for sale.” Jessamie studied the older man. He wore a dark jacket over a crisp white shirt and a black string tie. It was evident he was not one to engage in hard work. His brown eyes glowered at her. He never tipped his hat or took it off around her, but she could still see the salt and pepper hair creeping beneath its brim. His nose was slightly too large for his face and his thin mouth seemed pursed in a perpetual grimace. He made her skin crawl, not that she would let him know that.
Lewis turned to his two men. “Harris, open the gate.”
She waited until the first man, the one called Harris, swung down from his horse, and put his hand on the wooden gate before she made her first shot. Wood splintered and the man jumped backwards and grabbed the reins of his skittering horse. “That’s the only warning you’re going to get. You’re not welcome here, and you need to leave.”
“You can’t shoot at me, girl!” Lewis growled as his hand got his skittish horse under control.
“I can and I will. You and your men can’t trespass on my property, Mr. Lewis. I’ve told you it’s not for sale. Now you need to go and leave me be.”
“This property was bought and paid for. Lived on, worked on, for longer than you’ve been at your ranch. The taxes are paid, and the deed is clear. So, you just better go on and get. Right now!”
His eyes narrowed as he glared at her. This slip of a girl who couldn’t be a day over twenty-five if she was that wasn’t the one in authority around here. “Do you think a woman is going to tell me what to do?”
“I think this woman will shoot you if you so much as lean your shadow across my gate. This property ain’t for sale!”
“We’ll see about that!” Lewis said as he turned his bay and rode off, his two men trailing behind him.
Jessamie waited until they were out of sight before she let the rifle fall to her side. Now that they were gone, she felt the tremors shaking throughout her body. Should she tell Johnny? There seemed to be trouble at her door every time he came. It wasn’t right for her to want him to be her savior again. But she wanted it just the same.
Johnny blew into the house like a windstorm, Grady on his heels. “Jessamie!”
She looked up from where she was rolling out dough. “Johnny, what…”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were having some kind of trouble with a rancher?” He held his hat in his hand, and that same hat holding hand propped on his hip as he stared at her. “Well?”
Her mouth dropped open as she stared at him. How did he … Grady. She took a deep breath and tried to calm her already jarred nerves. “It’s nothing I can’t handle. It’s just …”
“Did you know this man has broken through your fence and diverted your stream?” His voice raised in ire.
“He did what? No! He didn’t say anything about that when he was here.”
“When was he here? Today? Was he here today? Stop messing with that dough and tell me what is going on around here!” Frustrated, he tossed his hat on the sofa.
Her eyes flashed. “It’s my problem! I can handle it!” She started pounding the dough harder than before.
“You didn’t even know that he had diverted your stream and I ain’t having some man come here and yell at you!”
She looked up and glared at him, her own temper flaring. “So, it’s alright for you to come in here and yell at me, but not him!”
Johnny blew out a big breath and turned toward the door and then turned back to face her. She was pretending to ignore him and grabbed her rolling pin and slammed it down on the dough and started rolling the pin back and forth. Irritated, he ran his hand through his thick black hair pushing the hair out of his face. He took a moment to calm down. “Jessie honey, look, I don’t mean to yell at you. I’m not yelling … at you! I’m just … concerned.” He walked over to her, put his hands on her shoulders and sighed. “I’m sorry I yelled. I just … I worry. I want to help.”
Honey? No man had ever called her honey before. It felt good. It felt right. It would be the easiest and hardest thing she had ever done to allow herself to fold right into his arms. She shook her head from the things that could never be. He didn’t mean it in any way other than friendship and she knew that was the only way she could take it. “I told him that the land’s not for sale. He only wants to give me pennies on the dollar for what it’s worth. I know the tax value.”
“It’s worth more than that if he needs it for water.”
“And it’s my home. Mine and Grady’s. All legal now. I don’t want to leave it. Not now. Not until I have a place to go to, a reason to leave that is our own, not because someone forced me. I won’t be forced to run again, Johnny, I won’t!”
He looked into her face, at her strength and determination. She had fled Laramie eight years ago after a violent rape and an unplanned pregnancy, but she had not let either defeat her. Jessamie was one of the strongest women he knew. She’d taken this farm and forged a life for herself and her baby. She gave Grady love and care and a name. She felt shame she shouldn’t but held it tight in her heart so Grady was never aware of it. Johnny felt a swell of respect and more … something he wasn’t quite sure he could name … for this lady. Friendship … and more. “Ain’t no one gonna force you out, not while I’m around. Now tell me what all’s been going on.”
Gregory Lewis paced back and forth on his front porch working himself into an angry fret. That woman! She was impudent, ornery, and completely unreasonable. Her nothing little existence on that dried up farm was not going to stop him from getting what he needed. He needed that land for the cattle he was bringing in. The cattle he already had Needed that stream. Damn her. She was always around with that rifle. He stopped pacing and yelled for his foreman. “Rand! Rand, come here!”
The tall man looked up toward the house. He sighed as he pushed off the corral fence and walked over to his boss. Lewis was new to the ranch, having bought it about six months ago. He was from back East and he was all about yelling orders and demanding action. But he paid well, so Rand tolerated him. “Yeah Mr. Lewis.”
“I think we need to up our game with that Lancer woman. Every time we ride out there, she’s waiting with that rifle in hand. I think she needs to be scared a bit.”
“I dunno Mr. Lewis, the men here ain’t going to be too disposed to hurting a woman.”
Lewis’s face turned redder. “I didn’t say hurt her! I want to scare her. She’ll start to feel vulnerable. There’s only so much a woman and boy alone can take. Take some of the men tonight and pay her a loud little visit and see if we can instill some proper fear and respect in her.”
Johnny lay on the sofa, a soft quilt pulled over him warming him along with the fire. He was on his back, one arm over his head. He sighed as he thought back to his conversation with Jessamie. He’d seen this before … ranchers fighting for water rights, and just plain taking what they wanted or needed. That’s what this Lewis thought he was going to do to Jessamie. Run roughshod over a woman and a boy.
Well, no sir! Not while Johnny Madrid was around.
He had only come by to help them out with the farm. They needed a man’s help. He considered them friends, but this overwhelming urge to protect them took him by surprise. It was a white hot rage that had started deep in his gut when he first found out about this rancher threatening Jessamie. He’d worked enough range wars in his time to see how this situation could play out; he’d protected people who needed it in the past; but this felt primal, personal. Johnny recognized that the feelings were like those he had when he found out Day Pardee was threatening his newly found family. Well, this rancher didn’t know who he was threatening, not really, but he would.
Johnny sighed. It was so easy to slip into Madrid’s world again. Hell, he reckoned he was always Madrid. Sometimes he heard Murdoch and Scott talking when they didn’t know he was around. They talked like Johnny Madrid was another person. A crooked grin played across his face. They didn’t understand, or really want to understand. They wanted him to be plain Ol’ Johnny Lancer. He was Johnny Lancer, and he was also Johnny Madrid. He was just plain Ol’ Johnny regardless of what last name he used. He was the same man, and, like all men, there were many facets of him that surfaced when needed.
This situation would get all of him and whatever attributes best solved the problem caused by this Mr. Lewis.
Sighing again, he looked around the house’s great room. The kitchen and living area were all in one space but were comfortably laid out. Johnny figured the house was here way back when Murdoch had originally purchased the property. The large stone fireplace sat center the back wall and seemed to give division to the separate sections.
Looking across from the sofa he lay on, he looked at the rocking chair that glowed in the soft light from the fireplace. He imagined Jessie sitting in that chair rocking baby Grady. Boy, he would have loved to have seen them then. She had to be so young, she didn’t seem any older than his own twenty-three years, yet he knew that age was more than just the numbers. He was far older than his stated age and had been for years. Johnny knew that Jessamie was the same. Curtis Hobart had stolen her childhood the same way that Mama and Ol’ Pete’s deaths had taken his.
Johnny knew he needed to sleep. He knew that the next few days were going to be busy … one way or another … but these feelings he was having toward Jessamie and Grady were confusing him. Or maybe they weren’t confusing at all, maybe he just wanted them to be confusing rather than face them head on. He’d had enough of what Murdoch had called “today’s fire, tomorrow’s charcoal” relationships and he didn’t want this … whatever this was … to end up like that.
He shifted on the sofa, pulling the quilt up higher and resting his head of the soft pillow Jessamie had given him and sighed. He was almost asleep when his eyes flew open. He sat up, his senses on high alert. He had heard … something. Pulling his pistol from his holster by the sofa, he turned to peer out the window. The full moon shone down brightly and the space between the house and the gate was easily visible.
Then Johnny recognized what he had heard. Horses coming in at a gallop. He stood and moved to the door, pulling back the curtain as he watched the approaching men. He counted six riders coming straight for the gate. He ran to the bedroom door, threw it open, “Riders comin’! Grady get under the bed! Jessie grab your rifle and come out here!” He ran back to his spot by the door. So, Lewis wanted a fight, he was about to get more than he bargained for.
Startled, Jessamie jumped from the bed at Johnny’s voice. Her insides were jerky as her heart hammered in her chest. “Grady!” she cried as she ran to the child. “Get under the bed like Johnny said and stay there.”
“You mind me!” she said firmly. Her hand shoved at her child forcing him under the bed and she ran into the great room and grabbed her rifle from its perch near her stove. She yelped when she heard the descending horses and the shots that they were now firing.
“Stay down,” Johnny commanded. “Can you make your way over here?”
“Yes,” she replied. “What are they doing?”
“Trying to scare you.”
“It’s working,” Jessamie said as she reached him, staying low under the windows.
Johnny smiled and squeezed her hand. “Want to scare them back?” She nodded. He had known she would. She had grit, his Jessamie. Johnny shook his head. “Good girl.” He broke out a windowpane and swiftly moved to the other window by the door. “They won’t be expecting this?”
“Two in the house shooting back.” As he said that, Johnny poked his pistol out of the now broken window and started shooting back at the night riders. Jessamie quickly followed with a rifle retort of her own.
A horse reared near the gate as a bullet hit the fence post. The rider wheeled and headed back toward the group. Another rider pushed past him and threw a rope over the gate latch and turned his horse, forcing the gate open as other riders stormed toward the house. The riders were shooting in the air, intent on making a show of force and violence sufficient to scare the lady landowner.
Johnny and Jessamie were shooting back intent on routing the raiders. Johnny watched as a rider brought his horse near the porch and brought his pistol to bear. Johnny’s aim was true, and his bullet hit the man knocking him from the saddle.
Rand froze on his horse as he watched Harris go down. The shooters, and he knew there were more than one, were not shooting just to make noise. “Fall back! Fall back!” He yelled at his men. Damn that Lewis, sending them out here to shoot up this house. They knew the woman was famous for her rifle, but someone else was in the house shooting back with her. He was sure it wasn’t the little boy. “Go! Go!” he ordered his men. His horse was skittish as the men rode past, rider and horse whirled, and he pulled the horse up looking at Harris laying on the ground. He thought to ride up and grab him if he was still alive. Then he saw the door open and a man come out of the house’s front door. The man crouched by the porch post, aimed his gun, and fired.
“Damn!” Rand said under his breath as he kicked his horse into a gallop and headed off behind his men. “She ain’t alone.”
Johnny fired again at the retreating marauders. He moved down the steps, past the prone body, and to the gate where he fired two more times. Johnny knew they were out of range of his pistol but knew that the sound carried to them and they would think twice before trying this stunt again. He grinned as he watched the retreating riders. He pulled the gate closed and turned around. Jessamie was standing at the door rifle still in hand, Grady peeping around her. Johnny walked over to the man who was lying near the water trough and bent down. Turning him over, Johnny checked for a pulse. He looked up at Jessamie. “He’s still alive.”
“Bring him inside and I’ll tend him.”
Johnny stood and looked around. The man’s horse was pacing the small yard. “Grady, see if you can get that horse into the barn. I’ll take care of his saddle in a bit. And go in the tack room … take out anything that someone might use as a weapon.”
“Yes sir!” Grady said as he bounded into the yard and ran toward the barn.
Johnny watched her throw out the dirty bowl of water as he walked back to the house. He came up the stairs and followed her back in the house shutting the door behind him. “He’ll keep in the tact room overnight.”
Jessamie nodded as she put the bowl in her sink and started pumping water into the bowl. She stopped, braced her arms on the counter, and leaned over with a sob, her shoulders shaking.
Johnny was at her in two long strides. Gently, he placed his hands on her shoulders. “It’s going to be alright.”
She turned her tear streaked face to him and threw her arms around him, burying her face in his chest. “Oh Johnny, what’re we gonna do?”
He wrapped his strong arms around her and tried to shush her fears. “Don’t worry, honey, it’s gonna be alright. I’m gonna take that ranch hand back to this Lewis in the morning and have me a little talk with that man.”
“He doesn’t take no for an answer. And to do this … sending these men after Grady and me …”
Johnny sighed as he hugged her tighter and led her over to the sofa and they sat, his arm around her shoulder keeping her safe. “I know, I know. Look I don’t want you to worry. I’ll get this Lewis all straightened out. I’m pretty persuasive.”
“He may back off now, but when you leave …”
“I’m not leaving until this is handled.” He sighed and leaned back into the sofa, the pillow resting in the small of his back, his arm still around her shoulders, he pulled her back to lean against him. Johnny felt her tense and knew where her fear came from. He leaned down and rested his head on hers. “I’m gonna keep you safe, you and Grady.”
Jessamie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Was this what it was supposed to be like … to be comfortable with a man? Could she ever be? She wanted to … and she thought that she wanted to with this man. Another trembling breath went through her body as she turned slightly to the side and let her head rest on his chest. “I don’t think I’ll get a wink of sleep.”
Absentmindedly, he rubbed her arm and held her protectively close. His voice was soft and comforting. “Tell me about Grady, was he born talking?”
She laughed as memories ran through her mind. “Almost. I guess I talked to him so much that he finally started talking back. He was about six, seven months old when he said his first word.”
“No, horse,” she laughed.
Johnny laughed with her. “I wish I’d known y’all then. Tell me more.”
Johnny pulled Barranca up on the rise overlooking the Lewis ranch. It was a neat looking place. A two-story wood frame house with a wide L-shaped porch seemed to sit center of the buildings. A barn and corral sat to the back and right of the house while what seemed to be a bunkhouse sat off to the left. He watched the ranch hands milling about, unaware of his presence.
He turned to face the man on the horse beside him, the reins to the man’s horse tight in Johnny’s hands. “You ready to go home, Harris?”
Harris’ good hand held onto the pommel of his saddle, his left hand in a sling, his shoulder throbbing. “I want’cha to know, again, I’m sorry. I …”
“Yeah, I know, I heard ya.” Johnny didn’t think much of the man’s apologies. Maybe he meant it, maybe he didn’t. Didn’t change the fact the man had ridden along and participated in what he thought was an assault on a woman and boy. Johnny just didn’t have time for the man’s apologies. He nudged Barranca into a lope, tugging Harris’s horse behind him.
The hands stopped their work as the two horses made their way into the yard. One of the cowboys called out to Rand who stepped out of the bunkhouse. He crossed the yard in several quick strides, almost walking sideways as he watched the horses riding in closer. He took the porch steps two at a time and quickly rapt his knuckles on the door. “Mr. Lewis, I think you better get out here.”
Lewis swung the door open, his eyes glaring at his foreman. “What’s going –“ He stopped as he saw the horses that had slowed to a walk coming through the ranch compound. His eyes were drawn to the stranger riding a showy Palomino leading an obviously wounded but still alive Harris back to the ranch.
Rand stood behind Lewis as he watched the riders approaching. There was something about the man riding the Palomino, something familiar. Something that told Jake Rand that this was a dangerous man. He was almost positive he had seen this man somewhere before.
Johnny seemed, to the casual observer, completely oblivious to the men mulling around the yard as he rode up and stopped in front of the house. He made sure to stop Barranca right in front of the rancher where he was eye level with the two men on the porch. “Good morning.”
A slow smile crept across Johnny’s face as the two men on the porch stood silent. He could feel Harris shifting uncomfortably beside him. “Would you be Mr. Lewis?”
The rancher puffed up, took a step forward and replied, “Yes.”
Johnny dropped the reins to Harris’ horse and thumbed toward the wounded man. “I think this belongs to you. Seems some of your men paid Mrs. Lancer an unfriendly visit last night.”
“Who the hell are you?” Lewis barked.
A knowing grin crossed Johnny’s face as he answered. “Ohhhhh, you can just consider me Mrs. Lancer’s … hired hand.”
“What do you want?”
Johnny tilted his hat back, looked up at the sky, then back at the man. He’d already gotten the measure of him, and Lewis came up wanting. “Well, when I was out working, I found out that our … that is Mrs. Lancer’s fence was cut and there was this dam and flume misdirecting her stream. I plan on tearing that down later today and I think it would be a mite neighborly, if you donated new fencing materials and had your hands here repair that fence.”
“You can think what you like and go to hell!”
Johnny leaned over his pommel and grinned. “Now Mr. Lewis, that ain’t too neighborly.”
“I’m not about to be neighborly to the likes of you! You mess with my dam and there’ll be shooting boy! Do you see all my men?”
Johnny continued to grin at the man. He looked at Rand standing slightly behind Lewis and nodded. “Yeah, I see ‘em. Nice bunch. I’d hate to have to put any more holes in them. Guess that’s up to you … and them.” Johnny pulled his hat back down to shade his eyes and touched two fingers to the brim. He looked to Harris, “I hope ya don’t see me again. Understand?”
“Yes sir!” Harris replied as he sat in his saddle. Now just might be the time to pick up his pay.
“Ma, it’s a good thing Johnny’s come a visiting, ain’t it?”
She looked up at her boy and smiled. “It is. Grady, you really like Johnny, don’t you?”
“Yeah! He’s my friend.” The boy turned back toward the broken window he’d been staring out the last half hour. He’d been counting the points of the shards of glass left in the broken panes as he waited for Johnny’s return. “We’re gonna have to fix the windows again. Johnny sure is hard on windows.
Jessamie laughed at her child. “He certainly is that” she agreed. She smiled at Grady as her heart was still worrying. She had been worried about Johnny since he left that morning with a wounded Mr. Harris in tow.
“I wish I could’ve gone with Johnny this morning.”
She took the broom and started sweeping her floor again, wanting to make sure all the glass was cleaned up. “You couldn’t Grady, this is business for a grown man.”
“There’s probably gonna be shooting. Seems like shooting business. You think there’s gonna be more shooting, Ma?”
“Grady, hush! I don’t want you to talk like that.” I don’t want to think like that she silently continued. Jessamie knew that Johnny had, once upon a time, been a gun for hire. They’d talked about his past; about range wars he’d fought in and Lord almighty knew she did not want this to turn into a range war. Johnny Madrid or not, he was only one man. The one man in the world that she did not want to lose.
She stopped sweeping as she got by the counter, grabbed up the milk pail and walked over to her son handing the pail to the boy. “Go be useful, Grady.”
“Yes, Ma,” he smiled as he took the proffered pail and ran out the door toward the barn.
She shook her head at her boy and smiled. He’d been the only spot of happy in her life for so long. It was Grady who had let Johnny into her life, their lives. Now she felt she had a chance for another type of happiness. One she hadn’t dared to dream before. If she could only let herself.
Rand paced around the bunkhouse, circling around the long table, and watched as their cook who doubled as their bunkhouse medic checked over Harris’ wound. “Who was that man? Did you get a name? I swear I have seen him before, but I just can’t place him.”
Harris shook his head as he tried to ignore the cook’s jabbing ministrations on his sore shoulder. “Naw, alls I know is she called him Johnny. Seemed real familiar.”
“You don’t think he’s just her hired hand?” Rand asked. He stopped his pacing and twisted a chair around and sat on it backwards, leaning his arms over the back.
“Naw, he’s more’n a hired hand. I’d say that. They wuz both real familiar him and her, the boy too. Seemed like he was the man of the house, they both seemed to do what he said. He was staying in the house too. Don’t know many hired hands that stay in the house with the owners, do you Jake? Especially a woman alone, it just ain’t right ya know. Yep, that Johnny sure seemed right at home.”
Rand thought on the words and on the man who rode the golden horse. He knew he had seen him somewhere before. “Johnny, you say. Did you get a last name?”
“Nope, none. Just Johnny.”
Just Johnny. Rand closed his eyes as a memory flew to the forefront of his thoughts. About five years ago. A young man, not much more than a boy, swaggering into a Tucson street, facing four of the toughest guns on either side of the border. His gun had been a blur as he took down first one, then another and another. He dropped, rolled, and fired before all the men facing him had their guns out of the holsters. What was his name … wasn’t it …? Madrid. Johnny Madrid. “Holy hell!”
Johnny walked around the back of the house. He’d left Grady in the barn with Barranca. He stopped when he saw her and leaned his shoulder against the house. Jessamie, dressed in a simple gingham top of creams and grass greens and a cream-colored skirt, was picking blueberries and dropping the round, sweet fruit into the basket she held in the crook of her left arm. She looked idyllic … and beautiful. With a crooked grin, Johnny sauntered over. “What’cha doin’?”
She turned with a start and almost dropped her basket. She’d never known anyone who could walk as quiet as Johnny Madrid when he wanted to. “Thought I’d make a pie.”
“I love pie,” he replied with a mischievous grin.
Jessamie smiled back at him before turning back to the bush and resuming her picking.
He was back. He was safe. She sighed in contentment and relief. Jessamie wanted to ask him what had happened with Mr. Lewis, but she did not want to break the mood. She felt him as Johnny moved closer, leaned over her, plucked a ripe blueberry from the bush and popped it into his mouth.
“They’ll make a good pie. Where’s Grady?”
“Curry combing Barranca,” Johnny answered. He started picking more berries, watched as they easily fell into his palm when he barely rolled them on the stem. He dropped his crop into her basket, already looking forward to the yield. Johnny knew her pie would be delicious. His Jessamie was a baker.
He noticed too that she had not asked him about his morning travels. He didn’t offer. There would be time enough to talk about Mr. Lewis. This was what he had come here to do before he found out about the arrogant rancher’s attacks. He had come to do chores, fix windmills not tilt at them. Pick berries, eat pies, and get to know this complicated woman better.
“I think we’ve got enough for a couple of pies,” she smiled up at him.
He watched her, backlit with the sun, her fiery hair crowned her face like new copper. Johnny smiled back with that grin that lit up his whole face and made the little lines around his eyes crinkle. “Sunrise.”
“What?” Jessamie laughed. “It’s more than noon.”
“Not the time, you,” he replied. “You remind me of a sunrise. All fiery reds and oranges and soft yellows with a few pale pinks thrown in. You’re like the promise of a bright new day, the reward for the hard fought yesterday, the chance of a future all new and fresh to be whatever we make of it.”
“Johnny,” she whispered his name. She felt breathless. She felt dizzy.
He took the basket of blueberries from her and sat it down. He took her hand in his and looked her in the eye. He couldn’t quite decide what color her eyes were. Mostly brown, but with flecks of gold and green that seemed to swirl with her moods. Right now, the brown seemed to flare giving her face soft, sultry features. “May I kiss you, Mrs. Lancer?”
She smiled and felt it deep in her soul. He didn’t take. He had asked. That meant so much to her. They wanted the same thing, but he asked her to give it to him, willingly, and she did. “Why yes, Mr. Lancer, you may.”
Johnny was gentle as he wrapped her in his arms and pulled her close. He brought his mouth down on hers, his tongue softly sliding into her mouth and taking in the sweet taste of her. No blueberry could ever compete.
Her arms encircled his neck as she arched upward, her heels coming off the ground as she allowed herself to wander into this uncharted territory with him. Jessamie closed her eyes and allowed herself to enjoy his soft caress.
“Ma! Johnny! What’cha doing?”
They pulled apart and turned to see Grady coming around the side of the house. It was obvious that he hadn’t seen them embracing. Johnny and Jessamie looked at each other and started giggling like a couple of children caught with the cookie jar.
Johnny reached down and plucked the blueberry filled basket off the ground. “Nothing Grady. Just picking blueberries.” He gave her a wink, took her hand, and walked toward the boy. “Your Ma’s gonna make us some pies.”
Gregory Lewis sat at his desk looking over the maps of his ranch and the area. He wanted to bring in more cattle despite the drought. That’s why he wanted the Lancer woman’s property. She had the stream, but more importantly, she had the headwater for the Middle Fork that eventually fed into the American River. If he had that, he could control more than cattle prices. He would be able to dam up the water supply and force ranchers downstream to pay for the privilege of using his water.
The Lancer farm was smack dab in the way. There was no other way to get to the headwater than that woman’s property. And she had been right, she had a clear deed. It wasn’t a homesteading case where a couple of well-made bribes could muddy the title and let him slip in. The land had been purchased by a Murdoch Lancer many years ago and transferred into Jessamie Lancer’s name a few months ago. Obviously, a family situation. Add to that, the woman was pure mule stubborn.
He stood, agitated, and rounded his desk heading for his liquor tray. He needed a stiff drink. “Damn that woman! Damn it all!” He poured the bourbon. It was special. He had it shipped in all the way from Burks Grist Mill and Distillery in Kentucky. The amber liquid pooled in the glass and he swished it around before taking a drink. He swallowed it whole. It was smooth and warm as it slid off his tongue and down his throat. He quickly poured a second shot that he intended to savor. He was starting back to his desk when there was a knock on his study door. He barked “Come in.”
Jake Rand entered. His eyes taking in his boss between the desk and the decanter, glass in hand. He cleared his throat. “Boss, I think we have more trouble that we may have reckoned on. I think I know who that man is.”
“Man? The Lancer woman’s hired hand?”
“He ain’t no hired hand … he’s a gun hand, Mr. Lewis. I’d stake my life that he’s Johnny Madrid.”
“Who the hell is Johnny Madrid?”
Rand knew his boss was from the East, but to not know a renowned gunman like Madrid. He shook his head. He pointed at the decanter, “May I?”
“Certainly. Now tell me who this Madrid is and why you think he’s trouble.”
Rand poured himself a double shot of the whiskey and took a gulp before turning back to his boss. He crossed and sat on the sofa across from the green covered wingback chair Gregory Lewis occupied. “Madrid’s a gunman. A damn good one. He’s paid a lot of money to kill people’s problems.”
Gregory Lewis’s eyes narrowed. It made his cheeks puff out giving his face the look of a chipmunk. “Are you saying that woman has hired a gunfighter? It’s preposterous! She can’t afford an expensive killer.”
“If she’s paying him, I’d say you’d be right but … Harris didn’t get the impression he was exactly working for her.”
“What the hell impression did Harris make?”
“He thinks … well … that Madrid is her man.”
“Her man! … She’s a widow, isn’t she?”
Rand shrugged. “Might not be. Might just be what they want people to think.”
Lewis thought about this information. If Madrid was working for the woman, he could offer him more money to switch sides. But if he was involved with the woman … that was another wrinkle altogether. Still. “He’s only one man. We have a full company.”
“We have drovers who maybe fire their pistols at snakes and rabbits. That’s not the type of men to take on a killer like Madrid. Hell, I saw him take out four good guns in Tucson without working up a sweat. If we push him … it ain’t gonna end well.”
Lewis stood and walked around the chair. He sighed heavily. This would not do; it would not do at all. “I suppose I’ll just have to hire my own gun to get rid of Madrid and that Lancer woman.”
The morning sun was sitting over the eastern peaks of the nearby mountains. Spiky rays of light stretched in all directions. It gave Johnny a good view of the wagon road while blinding those looking in his direction. He had been watching the Lewis ranch since before dawn and had watched the wagon being loaded with fencing supplies when the idea had come to him. It had been easy to watch them start out and to ride ahead and find the perfect place to waylay the men. Two on horseback and another two in the wagon. He grinned when he saw one of the men in the wagon wearing a sling.
Johnny pulled his rifle from the scabbard, aimed, and fired. Dust kicked up to the right of the wagon’s front wheel. He rode down onto the road and stopped in front of the wagon as the driver was pulling back on the reins. “Good morning.”
Harris glared at the gunman while his one good hand held onto the wagon seat. “What the hell are you doing?”
Johnny held his rifle steady. “Thought I saw a sage hen. Must’ve missed.”
Harris glared. “Don’t reckon you miss much, Madrid.”
Johnny laughed. “Who said I was Madrid?”
“Our foreman. He saw you before. In Nogales.”
Johnny nodded. “I’ve been in Nogales a time or two in my life. So, where ya’ going?” He swung his rifle toward one of the two men riding the horses. “I’d move that hand away from that holster if I were you. Don’t want this friendly conversation to get unfriendly.”
The man raised his hands and looked around. His fellow crew member did the same.
Johnny smiled. “Why don’t you … all of you … use your left hands and drop your guns in the back of the wagon. Save you from being tempted to do something stupid.”
“Look, we got fences to repair,” Harris interjected, hoping they could move on with their business.
Johnny’s smile grew. “I know just the place. Reckon’ you do too. I figure you helped tear down Mrs. Lancer’s fence, you can help repair it. Y’all head on that way,” he stated as he pointed his rifle in the directions of Jessie’s now mangled fence line.
“Madrid, Mr. Lewis ain’t gonna like this,” Harris groused as he and his fellow hands stared at the lone gunman.
Johnny laughed again. “Reckon you’re right. I’ll tell ya though, you just be sure to thank Mr. Lewis for me. Him being so neighborly and all.”
Harris and the other three men on his crew glared at Madrid. The wagon driver clicked his tongue and called the team to get to moving. Harris just shook his head. He knew he should have picked up his pay.
Benjamin Mayfield had twice been sentenced to hang, but the state of California never could quite figure out how to get it done. Some say it left Mayfield embittered, others said ornery, and Ben himself said it just made him mad as hell and he just stayed that way. Jake Rand had met up with the man in the saloon in Lockeford on Lewis’s orders. He didn’t like the idea of bringing in a gunman, and especially not this one. “You know it’s Madrid you’ll be facing.”
Mayfield pulled his dun to a stop and scratched his shaggy bearded face. “Won’t be facing anybody. Easier that way.”
“That how you killed John Mason? Shoot him in the back?” Rand asked.
Mayfield shook his head, spit over the side of his horse, and laughed. “Naw. In his sleep. Yer boss is hiring me for a job. It’s the result that counts, not the how of it.”
Rand inwardly shuddered. Mayfield was a rattlesnake coiled to strike and Rand didn’t think it mattered much to the man which way he struck. He noticed a lot of the hands milling about when they rode under the gate into the ranch yard. Gregory Lewis was pacing on the porch. Pacing and yelling. Rand sighed and rode up, Mayfield at his side.
“There you are!” Lewis yelled. “It’s about time! That damn Madrid!”
Rand sighed again. He took his hat off and wiped the sweat from his brow. “What’d he do, Boss?”
“He ambushed the fencing crew. He made my fencing crew repair that woman’s fence.”
Rand bit his bottom lip to keep from laughing. Lewis looked like a bullfrog hopping around on the porch. Mayfield did laugh. Rand coughed. “Mr. Lewis, this here’s Ben Mayfield. He’s the man you wanted to hire about … that job.”
Lewis spun, glaring at Mayfield, then turning to Rand. “That job. Madrid’s the job. I want him gone and the woman! I want that water source! Mayfield, can you make that happen?”
“Iffin’ ya pay me enough, I’ll make it happen,” Mayfield replied. He dropped down from his dun and swatted the dust from his clothes with his hat. “You gonna pay me enough?”
“Come in the house,” Lewis answered. He spun on his heels and rapidly entered the house followed by a laughing Mayfield.
Johnny walked over to the sink and stood behind Jessamie. “You sure you’re going to be okay while Grady and I are gone?”
“Of course, I will be,” Jessamie answered as she finished putting the breakfast dishes in the sink and started pumping water. “I’m used to being alone, Johnny.”
“Yeah, well, I worry.”
She smiled and leaned back slightly resting her back against his chest as his arm draped around her. “It’s nice.”
“Having someone to worry about me and someone to worry about. I think I like it.”
“Well, get used to it.” He leaned over and gave her quick kiss on the cheek, and he looked toward the door. “I guess I better get going. Grady’s waiting.”
“He loves to work with you. It’s good for him, having a man around.”
Johnny moved to the chair and took his gun belt, wrapping it around his hips. He pulled the belt cinch tight and then tighter as he situated it just so. “It’s good for me too, having him around. Being around you both.”
Brown eyes met blue. “Where are we going, Johnny? You and me?”
He reached out and cupped her cheek before taking a stray lock of red hair in his hand. He smiled at her as he placed that stray lock behind her ear. “I don’t know … but I want to find out. I better go before Grady comes looking me. We’ll be back in a couple of hours. Keep your rifle near.”
“I always keep my rifle near,” she said with a smile. He tapped the end of her nose with his finger and went out the door, his spurs singing as he went. She moved to the window and watched him mount Barranca, swing a laughing Grady onto the saddle behind him, and rode away at a canter.
Where were they going? Were they beginning a relationship? It seemed so. What kind of a relationship were they building? When the three of them were together, Jessamie could forget the rest of the world. She felt complete. Was this what it was to have a family of her own. She and Grady had always been a family, but since Johnny’s visit this time, she was so very aware of what was missing in their lives.
Jessamie busied herself with housework. It never seemed to end. There was always so much to do. Even with Johnny helping them out, there were things that were hers alone to do. Mending, baking, cleaning, washing. Despite the amount of work, Jessamie was happy. She knew keeping busy made the time go quickly and soon they would be back home.
She picked up the blankets on the sofa and started folding them, placing them on one end with his pillow. She picked it up and held it close and closed her eyes. Johnny! She could smell him. The heady, earthy scent of him. And for one moment, the ever practical, ever steady Jessamie Kellehan allowed herself to dream. To dream that Lancer was really her name, to dream the ring she bought herself in a general store in a forgettable Nevada town was really her wedding ring, to dream that Johnny Lancer was really hers.
Jessamie sighed. She plumped the pillow and placed it atop the folded blankets, turned to head back to her table to start the night’s stew, and screamed!
Benjamin Mayfield stood in her door leering at her. He wore a dirty leather tan coat that was partially covered in an animal pelt. His mirthless smile revealed several missing teeth. “Lewis didn’t tell me you wuz pretty.”
Her eyes darted from him to the rifle by the table and back again. So close and yet so far. She let her temper fly. “Lewis? Gregory Lewis? He sent you? I told him I was not selling! So, you can just get!”
Mayfield laughed. “He don’t want to buy it no more. He’ll just take it when you’re gone.”
“Gone? We ain’t moving!” She was slowly shuffling sideways toward the table.
With a menacing grin, Mayfield continued. “Yeah, Lewis didn’t say how pretty you wuz. Guess I’ll have me some fun ‘fore I kill ya!”
Jessamie’s heart was hammering in her chest. She made a lunge toward the rifle. Mayfield charged her like a bull. He grabbed her arm and lifted her up. Jessamie was fighting like a wildcat. Not again! Never again! She would die before a man raped her again! She kicked him, her foot crashing into his knee. He dropped her and she crawled. He grabbed for her again, grabbing her arm. She pulled away, the sleeve of her orange top ripping off in his hand. He roared like an enraged bull. Her rifle fell to the floor. Jessamie crawled toward it and felt Mayfield grab her ankles. He was pulling her, and her hand wrapped around her rolling pin. She spun on her side, hitting him in the face with the heavy wooden object. She watched blood spurt from his nose.
“Bitch!” he yelled. He released his hold on her as his hands flew to his bleeding nose.
Jessamie continued to crawl and finally reached her rifle. She turned, her back against the counter, and cocked the long gun pointing it at Mayfield’s chest. “Get out! Get out or I will kill you!”
Benjamin Mayfield glared at her. “Takes more than just a gun in your hand to kill a man. You gotta be willing to kill. You couldn’t do it!”
“You wouldn’t be my first kill!”
He stared at her, their eyes connecting. He believed her. He snorted. “Another time.”
She clutched the gun. She wanted him to take a step toward her so she could justify shooting him. But he turned and, as much as she wanted him dead, she could not shoot him in the back. She just could not do that. She continued to sit there, breathing heavy, pointing her gun at the door.
Jessamie wasn’t sure how long she sat there. Her body was stunned. Her heart was still hammering in her chest, she was dizzy, she was nauseous, and she was dazed.
Finally, she heard the sound that she had waited for. A horse. She prayed it was Johnny and not that awful man again. She stood on wobbly legs, rifle clutched in her white knuckled grip, and she staggered toward the window and her heart leapt.
Johnny and Grady riding into the yard. They were laughing. They were happy. They were home.
She stumbled toward the open door and onto the porch. “Johnny!”
Johnny had dismounted and watched as Grady jumped down. He turned to her, his smile slipping when he saw her disheveled appearance. Her hair went in all directions, her torn sleeve, red marks on her face. “Jessie?”
She dropped the rifle. “Johnny!” She started for him, but he reached her in a few quick strides and gathered her in his strong arms. “Oh Johnny,” she cried. Her hands clutched him as she let her fear fall with her tears.
Grady stood watching; he had never seen his mother in such a state. It scared him. “Ma! What happened, Ma?”
She lifted her head from Johnny’s chest and held one hand out to Grady. “Grady.” It only took the one word and the boy melted into his mother’s side as she looked up at Johnny. “A man. Lewis sent a man … here … to …”
“Did he,” Johnny wanted to know but he could not say the words.
“No! He was going to though, but I got my rifle.”
Johnny pulled her closer and rested his chin on the top of her head. “Good girl. You and your rifle.” He closed his eyes to rein in his temper. It burned white hot in his chest, but he could not act on it. Not now. Jessie needed him. Later, though, they would pay the price for opening the gates of hell.
Gregory Lewis sat in his brown leather chair to the side of the fireplace. He was staring into the flames, watching the dance as the orange pushed the red up and out and back again. He took a sip of rye and sighed. He didn’t like this business, hiring a man to kill the Lancers, but … well, he didn’t have any other choice. That woman was too damn stubborn and adding in a gunslinger like Madrid. Well, it just couldn’t be helped. At least he kept his hands clean this way. Mayfield was a disgusting man, but Madrid had to be the same. Both hired killers.
If the law were to get involved, he was sure they would assume Madrid had enemies. He was sure he did. Might even be a wanted man. Probably was with a dead or alive dodger on him. That’s why Madrid hid the woman and boy here in the middle of nowhere Lewis assumed. Well, it served them right.
Besides he could pick up the land for pennies on the dollar when the state auctioned it off. Lewis smiled. Yes indeed, it was going to be profitable, and that along with the rye eased his conscience. He took another sip and leaned back in his chair.
Gregory Lewis looked up when his study door slammed open. Benjamin Mayfield stalked across the room, picked up the crystal decanter, pulled out the stopper and took a drink. “What the hell do you think you are doing?” Lewis bellowed and jumped from his chair.
“Drinking,” Mayfield snarled.
Lewis’ eyes narrowed as he took in the man’s disheveled appearance. Something was worse than normal, and normal for this man was already disgusting. Blood, that was the added factor. “What the hell happened to you?”
“That woman! Bitch broke my nose I think!”
Lewis snorted. “Is she dead?”
“Naw, not yet!”
“No!” Lewis shouted. “No! You couldn’t manage to kill the woman. Did you at least take out Madrid?”
Mayfield took another plug from the crystal bottle. “Naw. He won’t there. It wuz just her.”
Lewis started pacing. “Just her! Just a slip of a girl! And you couldn’t even manage to kill her. You’re useless. Fired! Get the hell out!”
Mayfield’s eyes narrowed. He finished off the contents of the bottle and dropped it on the floor. The crystal crashing and shattering obscured the background noises of the ranch. He watched as Lewis turned toward him, his face indignant purple. “Well, pay me then.”
“I am not paying you when you did not do the job! When you are obviously not competent to do the job. Get out of my house! Get off my land!”
Mayfield’s eyes narrowed. “Ain’t never liked a welcher.” He pulled his gun from his holster and coolly shot Gregory Lewis between the eyes. He stepped over to the body, reached his desk and rummaged through until he found a billfold of money. Taking what he found, Mayfield stepped over the dead man and headed toward the door.
“Ma! Do’ya like me and Johnny taking care of ya?”
She looked up at Grady from where she sat on her camelback couch. She smiled at her sweet child. “I do!” Looking over his head at Johnny at her sink, she added, “I really could have cooked.”
“We know it, right Grady?” Johnny said when he turned to them with a smile. “We just wanted to take care of you. You had a scare, ya know.” He had too, seeing her bruised and bloody in torn clothes. The image was seared in his mind. He rested his right hand on the butt of his gun and allowed a calmness to settle over him. Despite the fact he was trying to keep them calm, he wasn’t ready to go unarmed.
Jessamie nodded her head. She certainly had been scared. She had been terrified, but she had fought, and she survived. “You and Grady outdid yourselves.”
Johnny flashed her another smile and a wink. “Well, I can make a mean plate of bacon and eggs.”
“Yeah Ma, Johnny and me make a mean plate of bacon and eggs, we just can’t make your biscuits.”
Jessamie laughed and held her arms out and her boy folded himself into them. “Well, I’ll make you both biscuits tomorrow.”
“And pie? You’ll make us a pie won’t ya, Ma?”
Jessamie laughed and hugged her boy tighter. “I’ll make biscuits and pie.”
Johnny laughed with them. “Grady, get over here and start drying these dishes while I toss out the wash water.”
“Lemme, Johnny, lemme! Lemme take the water out. I can carry it.” Grady was practically jumping in place to do what he thought was a grown-up chore.
Johnny bit his bottom lip and pretended to give it some thought. “Alright, but don’t you spill none. And just take it to the edge of the porch and throw it out. Johnny picked up the porcelain basin and walked over handing it to Grady. He followed the boy to the door watching as his little face scrunched in concentration and water sloshed over the rim. Johnny held the door open as Grady slowly marched out. Closing the door behind the child, Johnny turned to Jessamie and laughed.
She held her hand out to him and he moved to her in two quick strides. Taking her proffered hand, he pulled her up into his arms for a quick kiss. “I could get used to this,” she whispered in his ear.
“I already have,” Johnny replied.
The front door slammed open and Benjamin Mayfield stormed into the cabin. His right hand held a .44 caliber navy colt, and his left hand held a terrified Grady.
Johnny and Jessamie whirled around toward the door and froze when they saw Grady in Mayfield’s clutches. “GRADY!” Jessamie cried. She started to move toward her child when Mayfield’s voice stopped her cold.
“Don’t come a step closer or I’ll blow his brains out!”
“Jessie! Stop!” Johnny commanded. “Him?” he asked and knew when she nodded. This was the man who tried to violate her. This was the man he was going to kill. “All right, mister, you’ve got our attention. What do you want?”
“You dead,” Mayfield replied.
Johnny locked eyes with the frightened child and then turned slightly toward Jessamie before turning his full attention toward the intruder. He licked his lips. “Okay. Just let Grady go.”
Mayfield laughed. “Gimme that gun a yours.”
Give him. Not toss it away. Johnny knew what he had to do and whispered, “One split second,” under his breath. Jessamie’s brown eyes grew wider, knowing Johnny was planning something. “Grady, do you trust me?” he asked the child.
Grady looked up at Johnny. Their blue eyes met. Grady’s eyes held unshed tears as he tried very hard to be brave. The boy nodded his head. “Yes sir.”
“Good. It’s going to be okay. Just stay low, okay.” When Grady nodded, Johnny locked eyes with Mayfield. He only saw evil in those black eyes. It seemed the darkness of the man’s soul crept through those eyes.
Mayfield cackled knowing he had won.
“Okay, just don’t hurt the boy,” Johnny said. He sounded like he was pleading. He held his left hand away from his body and slowly pulled his gun from its holster, his forefinger going surreptitiously through the trigger guard as he reversed his pistol extending it butt forward toward his opponent.
It seemed to Mayfield that Madrid had surrendered to him and he laughed again. “Damn, this was easy.” He roughly threw Grady to the floor and hell burst loose.
Jessamie screamed at Grady to stay down and dropped to the floor clutching after him and trying to shield his body with her own.
Johnny smiled in Mayfield’s face as the man reached his left hand for Johnny’s gun while his right hand still gripped his own navy colt. With two quick flicks of his wrist at a speed that could barely be seen, Madrid performed a perfect border roll with his gun and fired. His bullet hit Mayfield in the heart before the man realized what had happened.
Benjamin Mayfield was already dead when his dying mind told the rest of his body. His right hand jerked, pulling the trigger as he started falling. The shot went wide but still managed to hit Johnny. Jessamie’s scream tore through the night as both men’s bodies hit the cabin floor at roughly the same time.
The cacophony of sounds suddenly ceased, and an eerie silence descended upon the house. Jessamie and Grady looked from one prone body to the other. “JOHNNY!” she screamed as she managed to untangle herself from her child. She started crawling toward the man she had grown to love.
Johnny’s right hand went up in the air. “I’m alive.”
“I thought he hit you,” she whispered as she reached him, her hand stroking his face.
“He did. It’s just … I’m fine.”
She looked him over and saw the blood oozing from the bullet wound. “The same shoulder?”
Johnny laughed as he pushed himself up. He let her help him. “Yep. Care to fix up my arm, Mrs. Lancer?”
“I’d be proud to, Mr. Madrid.” She helped him up as Grady moved over to them.
“You alright, Grady?” Johnny asked.
Grady nodded. He looked up through tear filled eyes. Johnny held out his right arm toward the boy and Grady flung himself at Johnny. “You’re a good boy, Grady. You were very brave.”
Grady shook his head. “Nope. I wuz scared. You wuz brave.”
“Your Ma and me, we were scared. We were scared to death. You can be scared and brave at the same time.”
“Really?” Grady asked as he looked up with a tear streaked face.
“Yes, really.” Johnny walked over to Mayfield’s body and kicked the gun toward Jessamie. He knew the man was dead. Johnny wondered at the surprised look on Mayfield’s face. “Not as easy as you thought.” He looked at Jessamie. “I gotta get him outta here.”
“Let me fix your shoulder first and I … I’ll help you.”
“Jessie, I don’t want you to. I want …” he stopped at the sound of horses approaching. Johnny turned and pushed the door closed and moved to a window to watch the horsemen riding at a fast gallop toward the house. “Grady, get under the bed. Jessie, get a gun!”
“Aww Johnny, y’all are always telling me ta get under the bed!” Grady whined.
“Now son! Go!” Johnny answered and watched as Grady took off toward the bedroom.
Jessamie grabbed her rifle and Mayfield’s pistol and brought them to Johnny. His own rifle was near the door where he had put it earlier. “How much more we gotta take, Johnny?”
He put his hand on hers and gave her a gentle squeeze. “Until it’s over, one way or another.”
The sky was turning gray as the sun was setting off to the west but there was still plenty of light to see the men as they rode in. Harris, his sling making him easy to identify, jumped from his horse and swung open the gate as the rest of the men rode into the yard, Rand in the lead. They watched as Rand pointed at the windmill and a few of the men rode over, throwing a rope over a beam, a noose swinging from the other end.
Jessamie clutched Johnny’s arm. “What are they …”
“Shh,” he hushed her, trying to calm both of their nerves. “You got some paper?” She nodded and he continued. “Get it and a pencil, now.”
She looked at him confused but did as he asked and brought it to him. He bolted the door and sat on the couch hard, blood still oozing from his left shoulder. He quickly scrawled a note and handed it to her. “If … the ranch is south of Morro Coyo. Go there, give this to Murdoch and Scott. Read it and go with what it says. They’ll take care of you and Grady.”
Jessamie looked down and quickly read the note and gasped. “Johnny!”
“I mean it, Jessamie! Now, help me up!”
“Yeah! I’m listening,” Johnny called through one of the windows he had yet to repair.
“Give yourself up! We won’t hurt the woman or the boy!”
“I don’t exactly believe you! All y’all have done is try to hurt her!” He felt her near him, her hand resting on his back giving them both comfort. He wanted more time. They should have more time. They were just starting.
“That was Mr. Lewis who wanted her hurt for the land. You done killed him today, so that’s over. We’re done with that, but not with you. Your time’s up, Madrid!”
Johnny looked back at Jessamie, confusion on both of their faces. “Lewis is dead? I didn’t kill him!”
“You’re the one with a reason and the tracks led here,” Rand yelled back.
“So, you’re thinking that rope’s for me. Well, I’ll tell ya, today might be my day to die, but not like that. Well, you better ask yourself, how many of you are goin’ with me.”
“Johnny, you can’t,” Jessamie started, her voice barely a whisper.
He looked from the window to her and then to the body that still lay prone on the floor. “I’m not dead yet, Jessie honey.” He looked back at the men in the yard, taking places, readying for a fight. “We don’t have to do this! I didn’t kill your boss! I was planning on looking him up tomorrow, but I hadn’t got there yet. Been too busy with his hired killer.”
Rand looked at Harris and then to his other men who were busy taking what little cover they could find. “Mayfield?”
“If that’s his name. His body’s in here getting stiff,” Johnny replied.
“You killed him!”
“Damn right! He ain’t hurting nobody no more.”
Harris moved over to Rand. “You think Mayfield killed Mr. Lewis? It could’ve been his horse we trailed here.”
Rand looked from the house to the men and back to Harris. “Reckon it’s possible. Seems more like him than what I’ve heard of Madrid. Especially with the money missing. Still and all, I need some proof.” Rand dismounted and handed his reins to Harris. “Madrid!
“Gimme safe passage to come in and see if you’re telling the truth!”
“You’ve got my word!” Johnny yelled. “Jessie, unbolt the door, then take your rifle and get in the bedroom.”
She grabbed her rifle. “I’m staying in here! Don’t argue with me!”
Johnny smiled at her. “Yes ma’am, Mrs. Lancer.” He stepped back, gun drawn, and watched her unbolt and open the door.
Rand walked in and took in the scene. Johnny, gun out; Jessamie, rifle in hand; and Mayfield, dead on the floor, blood all around. He nodded his head toward Johnny. “Ma’am,” he said toward Jessamie. He knelt on the floor near the body and flapped the bloody jacket open. He rummaged in the pockets and pulled out a billfold. He slapped it in his hands and stood, opening it and nodding his head. “This was Mr. Lewis’. Got the missing money in it. Also has a hole where your bullet went right through it and into that devil’s heart. Guess we got our answer. Sorry for all the trouble, Ma’am.”
“Do us a favor,” Johnny started. “Take him with you when you go.” He pointed at Mayfield’s body.
“Reckon we can do that. Sorry for all the trouble you’ve been caused.” Rand held his hand out to Johnny. Johnny looked at it and then a grin broke out on his face. He holstered his gun and took the proffered hand. “Are you really Johnny Madrid?”
“Yeah.” Johnny leaned in closer to the man and softly said, “I’m also Johnny Lancer. It’s my real name. I’d … I’d appreciate it if you could keep us, all of us, out of this.”
Rand looked past the gunman, to the woman and the little boy who was peaking his head around the bedroom door frame. “I reckon Mayfield here killed Mr. Lewis and we kinda don’t know who shot him when our posse caught up with. He just wouldn’t give hisself up.”
Johnny nodded at him and looked at Jessamie and Grady. It looked like they were going to get that time he was wanting after all.
Jessamie was good at sewing. She had worked her needlework since she was a child. Her mother wanted her to know the womanly arts of sewing and embroidery and she had practiced night after night. She had learned her lessons well and she was quite adept at it. Her stitches were small and neat. She dropped the bloody needle into the basin and watched the red swirl through the water. She never thought she would be sewing up flesh when she learned her stitches.
“I hope that I didn’t hurt you too much,” she said. Picking up the cloth she had laid out, Jessamie started bandaging his shoulder.
“You do better doctoring on me than the doctors do,” Johnny answered.
Grady was leaning over the other side of the table watching intently. “Ma’s gotten good at tending to ya’.”
“Well, Grady, between you and me, we give her a lot of chances to tend to us.” Johnny winked at the boy.
“Well, at least I ain’t got shot yet!”
“Well, I ain’t and Johnny’s been shot lots!”
Johnny bit his lip to try and keep from laughing at the boy. Jessamie moved the water bowl from the table and wiped her hands on a towel. “Grady, make yourself useful and go spread out the blankets on the couch for Johnny.” She turned back to the table and moved over sitting for a moment. “I wish I had a bed for you. I know the couch isn’t the most comfortable, especially with your arm.”
Grady looked back toward the table. “Ma, you and Johnny could sleep in your bed, it’s big enough.”
“Grady Lancer! It’s time you went to bed!” Jessamie got up and headed toward her boy.
“Aww, Ma, I ain’t sleepy.”
Johnny laughed and then winced. His right hand going to his left shoulder. He knew that Murdoch was going to wonder why he was coming home in a sling again.
Jessamie walked back into the living area from the bedroom, closing the door quietly behind her. “He’s asleep. The day’s exhausted him.” She moved to the table where Johnny sat at and deftly started clearing it of the bandages and salve. “It seems that I am always tending to your arm.”
Johnny smiled as he watched her. “Yeah, I do get into things.”
“You do, you surely do.” She shook her head and sighed. “I’m sorry about Grady. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand what is not proper.”
Johnny stood and took her hand, turning her to him. With his free hand, he gently lifted her chin to look at him. “Oh, I don’t know Jessie. You’re Mrs. Lancer, I’m really Mr. Lancer. Maybe it wouldn’t be … improper after all.”
“Johnny!” She started to turn away, but he stopped her.
“Look, I’m sorry. It’s just … before I knew about all this mess with Lewis and Mayfield … I came back here because …”
She looked into his blue eyes and felt herself falling into the depth of sincerity she saw. “Because why? After that business with Harner, I never thought I would see you again. Why did you come back?”
His hand gently cupped her face. “Because of you.”
She smiled and looked down. “I didn’t give you much call to. I gave you call not to.”
His mouth twitched up on one corner as a grin started. “Yeah, I guess I like a challenge.”
“Johnny,” she started with a sigh. She disentangled herself from his hands and turned her back to him. “You deserve better than me.”
“Honey, I ain’t no prize.”
“You deserve someone … pure. Not tainted, not like me.”
He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her back to face him. “Tainted? Because you’re not a virgin? Being a virgin don’t make a girl pure. I learned that lesson. That’s something that’s gone in a flash, like when the river floods and steals everything with it. You’re pure Jessamie. Pure and real. Your love for Grady is pure and it’s true. And maybe … maybe you’re a little damaged, but because you’re a little damaged, you can really accept me for who I am. Accept me for who I truly am, because Mrs. Lancer, you see, I’m a little damaged too.”
“So, we don’t have to fix each other, we can just … be?”
He pulled her to him and hugged her tight. “Yep, we can just be … as long as we can be … together.”
She hugged him tighter, relishing the closeness, the acceptance. “I want that, so much, I’m just … I’m scared.”
Johnny nuzzled her, taking in the jasmine scent of her. “Jessie honey, what happened to you … that wasn’t love. That wasn’t what it is, between a man and a woman. When you’re ready for us, it won’t be anything like that, I can promise you that.”
Jessamie rested her head on his chest, felt his heart beating. “You’ll wait … wait until I’m ready.”
“I’ll wait, as long as it takes.”
“I wish we could stay just like this forever.”
He laughed. “I do too, but I am going to have to get back to Lancer soon.”
“Do you really have to leave?” She hugged him tighter, knowing he would be leaving soon and desperately wanting him to stay.
“I’ve been gone from Lancer for a long time now. You and Grady could go home with me.”
“I’m not ready for that yet either,” she sighed.
Johnny laughed and when she looked up at him, he bent his head and his mouth found hers. “Well, I can stay for a couple more days, then I have to go back home. Murdoch’s apt to have sent out the cavalry after me, his personal cavalry that is … my brother Scott. I’ll be back though. Two months.”
“Two months?” She looked up at him, confusion on her face.
“There’s a cattleman’s association meeting in Sacramento in two months. Murdoch’s been wanting me to go to those, so I think I’ll volunteer. You and Grady are goin’ with me,”
“To Sacramento! Johnny, we can’t. We …”
“You can and you are. Give us a chance to just be … together … without you having to patch up bullet wounds.”
“You’re saying you won’t get shot in Sacramento?”
“Nooooo, but they have doctors.” He tapped her on the nose and smiled.
She laughed as he pulled her back into a tight hug. “Fine. To Sacramento.”
Johnny kissed the top of her head. “To our future.”
The End … For Now
Story 1 in The Gunman’s Woman Universe
My Season 3 of Lancer
• Title and opening Lyrics from The Eagles Tequila Sunrise song which inspired this piece.
• Thank you to my wonderful betas: Patty & Beth
• Benjamin Mayfield was a real gunman of California in this time period. He died sometime in the 1870s but the exact time and place is not known. He was tried and convicted twice of the murder of outlaw John Mason and each time the case was thrown out.
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