Boots and Bandits by Margaret P.

With thanks to my beta, Terri Derr.                                 Wordcount: 21,244

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Chapter One

“What the hell is that?” Johnny clamped his hands over his ears as the cart came up over the rise and began trundling downhill towards Austin, Nevada.

The coal merchant laughed and spat tobacco juice onto frosted dirt at the side of the road.  “The stamper machines. Them that pound the quartz to get the silver.”

God help him. No wonder the driver of the explosive’s wagon had been hard of hearing. Mitch had said he was born and bred in Austin. It was a miracle he wasn’t deaf as a post.

Johnny glanced over his shoulder as they passed a straggle of moulting ash trees. Strange how there’d been no more than a dull thud until they’d reached the ridge. He’d thought the thumping had come from machines deep down in the mineshafts or maybe in the outbuildings on the surface, but the noise was coming from the town in the next valley instead.

“There’s eleven in Austin now—eleven stampers, two general stores, twenty three saloons, four churches and a brand new city hall and jailhouse. Hell, Madrid, you should bust a few heads; the jailhouse might be more comfortable than the hotel.” The coal merchant nodded towards a three-storey clapboard building and cackled at his own joke.

“You could be right.” Johnny squinted up at the rusted tin roof as the cart drew up by the porch steps. The copper spouting was dented and leaking. Shards of ice glinted in the late afternoon sun. Paint peeled from the walls and the words ‘Grand Hotel’ written above the porch looked anything but grand.  “Is this it?”

“Yep. No call for more than one hotel. Folks don’t come here for the salubrious weather.”

“What about the saloons?” Johnny blew into his hands. Shit, it was cold. Not a cloud in the sky either; the water troughs would be frozen by morning.

“Most of the entertainment houses around here need their rooms for other activities.” The coal merchant adjusted the empty coal sack over his shoulders and grinned. “Besides, they charge by the hour, and they ain’t much better.”

Johnny jumped down. Shoot, the stampers even made the ground shake. “Thanks for the ride.”

The coal merchant raised an arm in farewell and drove on towards his yard, past a saloon, an assayer’s office, the bank, a half-painted church, one of the two general stores, and another saloon before disappearing around the bend in the road. The town spread out along the valley and up a gentle slope, a scattered mix of new and old, well-kept and sadly neglected; weather-worn timber and rusted iron oddly pretty against a pale blue sky and barren snow-dusted hills.

Taking a deep breath, Johnny turned back towards the hotel. He’d been sleeping rough for nearly a week and his limbs were crying out for a hot bath and a soft bed. It sure didn’t look like he was going to get either here.

His low expectations sank lower when he went inside. He had to jiggle the knob to make the door stay shut. Nope, the best that could be said for this place was that its scrim walls and faded curtains deadened the sound of the stampers.

A balding clerk looked up and folded away his newspaper as Johnny approached the reception desk.

“How long does that hullabaloo go on for?” Johnny asked, dropping his bag on the floor and resting his rifle up against the desk.

“Six til six.” Stifling a yawn, the clerk twisted around and grabbed a key from a board on the wall. “You hardly notice it once you’ve been here awhile.” He tossed the key down on the hotel register. “Fifty cents a night, son. If you’re lucky you’ll only have to share with three others.”

Johnny bristled. “I’m not your son, and I don’t share.”

The clerk raised an eyebrow. “Singles are a dollar a night up front. You got that?”

Johnny reached under his slicker and took out the money he’d earned riding shotgun on the dynamite wagon. Mighty good pay for five days work—a man’s wage, not a boy’s—and it was about time folks recognized him as a man. Hell, he’d scared off two sets of robbers without losing any cargo or blowing anything up. He knew for a fact not many guards had done that, because Mitch had told him so when they arrived at the mine.

They had made good time too. The mine manager had been so pleased he’d offered Johnny another run in the spring. Johnny had turned him down though. Sitting on a wagonload of dynamite was high risk, and there wasn’t a lot he could do to reduce the danger—except pray. Mama hadn’t given him much practise at praying.

Peeling ten dollars from the wad, he dropped the crisp new banknote down on the grubby oak desk. “You got change?”

Picking it up, the clerk checked both sides and pushed the hotel register forward. “Sign in.”

Johnny scratched his name with a dip pen and stood back, hand resting on his Colt.

The clerk was staring, but he blinked and swung the heavy book around. Glancing down at the page, he looked up again sharply. “Madrid?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you the young fella from Santa Fe? The one that outdrew a cardsharp a year or two back?”

“What if I am?” Johnny straightened.

“Now, don’t go getting the wrong idea. I just heard you were hiring out down south.”

 “Who told you that?”

The clerk fumbled as he got a cash box out from under the counter. “A guy called Smith. Stayed here a few months ago. He said he shared a tent with you in a shooting match near Tucson.”

Johnny relaxed some. “Yeah, that sounds about right. But the fracas fizzled out early summer.”

“So he said, but he thought you’d gone into Mexico.”

Johnny rubbed at the stubble on his chin. It was beginning to itch. He had ridden into Mexico or Nogales to be exact—more of a no-man’s land—but then he’d gone east, north, west, south and east again. Hell, he done seven different jobs and almost come full circle since working with Bushrod Smith. “How come you were talking about me?”

“We were just passing the time. I’d been reading a dime novel about the day Sam Stringer gunned down Gentleman Joe Jessop, and I asked Smith if he’d ever met them.”

“And had he?”

“Jessop, he had, but he reckoned you were faster. He reckoned when it came to real gunfighters it would be you or a cold-hearted killer named Pardee that Mr Beadle wrote about next.”

Johnny smiled. If their paths crossed again, he’d have to thank Bushrod for boosting his reputation. Pardee—Day Pardee—now that was a name he’d heard a few times lately. Never met him, but odds were being in the same line they would meet one day. Only question was would they be on the same side? It was worth knowing what Bushrod thought of him either way. Bushrod wasn’t no more than a ten dollar a day man himself, but he was a real good judge of skill and character. It was probably what kept him alive.

 The clerk opened the cashbox. “How many nights you aiming to stay?”

“When is the next stage to Virginia City?”

“Leaves at seven in the morning if it don’t snow.”

The clerk could have stopped there. With those stampers going all day, Johnny wasn’t planning on sticking around any longer than necessary, but he listened as the man gave a second option.

“Or there’s the Salt Lake to Carson City mail coach. It goes through Austin every three days. Due about noon the day after tomorrow. Overnights at Desert Well. You’d have to go to Carson and catch the afternoon stage to Virginia City. The direct stage only goes once a week.”

“I’ll take a single room for tonight.”

The clerk nodded, counted out Johnny’s change, and handed him a different key. “Top floor.”

“Thanks.” Johnny picked up his gear and headed for the stairs.

Bang!

He spun around fast, wasting a bullet before a gust of wind and the boom of the stampers smacked him in the face.

“You need to get that door fixed,” he growled, holstering his gun.

“Yes, sir.” Pale-faced, the clerk passed Johnny with his back pressed to the edge of the hotel desk and hurried over to close the flapping door.

He wedged the door shut with a wooden doorstop and the noise from the stampers dropped to a muffled thumping again.

“Well, thank the Lord for that.” A handsome straight-backed woman dressed in a dark blue woollen cape and fashionable bonnet descended the stairs as Johnny turned.

“Ma’am.” He touched his hat and followed her with his eyes to the desk. She’d barely looked at him, but there was something about her that made the hairs on the back on his neck stand to attention. Maybe it was the neatness of her appearance in a town where nothing was neat, or her air of self-confidence; he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

The hotel clerk righted the brass spittoon, hit by the door and sent rolling towards the hat stand by Johnny’s bullet. Then he returned to the desk to serve the lady. She smiled. Congratulating him for acting so quickly, she let her hand linger in his for a second longer than necessary as she handed back her room key for safe keeping. The man tugged at his starched collar and simpered like he thought he was in with a chance.

Amused, Johnny climbed the first flight of stairs, and the clerk escorted the woman to the door.

“Hey, Madrid.”

“Yeah?” Johnny looked back down into the foyer from the landing.

The clerk stood at the bottom of the stairs. “If you want tomorrow’s stage you’ll have to buy your ticket today.”

“Why’s that?”

The clerk chuckled. “On account George Foster at the depot is fond of his liquor and the coach driver is doggone ornery. One won’t open the depot much before nine, and the other won’t take passengers without a ticket.”

Shoot, this town got better by the minute.

Johnny waved his thanks and found his room on the third floor. Propping his rifle against the wall, he dumped the burlap bag with the rest of his gear on a wooden chair next to the bed and pushed down a window sash that had been left open. Within seconds a faint whiff of puke and soap tickled his nose, and he almost laughed. What the hell next?

Tossing his money down on the quilt, he rummaged in his bag for a needle and thread. Then he took off his slicker and jacket. Wrapping the spare blanket from the end of the bed around his shoulders, he slit a seam along the bottom edge of the jacket with his knife. Then he slipped a ten dollar bill into the lining and pushed it well down under the hem so the bulge couldn’t be seen after the seam was re-sown. He stitched a second banknote under the inside band of his hat, and returned a third to his pocket with his room change. The remaining sixty dollars he stashed in his left boot. If there was one thing he’d learned from his stepfather, it was to keep his valuables close and spread around. A man could never be too careful.

The bed he was sitting on didn’t seem too bad, all things considered—a slat base and a horse hair mattress. Could be worse. He lifted the quilt: three woollen blankets. A stoneware hot water bottle sat on the washstand. Likely there was a kettle for boiling water somewhere—probably downstairs.  Johnny rotated cramp out of his arm and weighed the possibilities. He was tempted to fill the bottle and spend an hour under the blankets, but if the hotel clerk was right, he needed to buy his ticket for the morning stage before the office shut today.

Ignoring the aches, he got to his feet. Maybe he could find a bathhouse and soak the kinks out after he bought his ticket.

The sun had almost set when he got outside, but a kerosene lamp hung above the hotel steps and candle lamps flickered along the street to prevent him tripping over potholes. He found the stagecoach depot about two hundred yards down. It was just beyond the bend and about five hundred yards from where workmen went in and out of steam in lantern light.

A bell and a woman’s laughter tinkled as he entered the depot.  The lady in the dark blue cape was up at the counter. Johnny shut the pounding stampers out as quickly as he could and stayed a few feet back so she could complete her business in private.

“Well, I declare, Mr Foster, if you ain’t the most charming man.” The woman batted a gloved hand at the ticket clerk, and he responded with a silly smirk and a few words Johnny couldn’t hear.

Johnny began to daydream: a barrel full of hot soapy water followed by a large juicy steak. Yes, sir, that would be mighty fine. He flexed his fingers, tingling from the warmth of the pot belly stove. It could take an hour soaking in a tub to loosen up his muscles, but with a shave and a clean shirt he might feel like a little socializing after supper.

The thought made him impatient, and he coughed to remind the middle-aged lovebirds he was still waiting.

“Oh my, I’m holding up the line. What to do? The noise—I really don’t think I can bear it any longer. I know you say there is a risk, but I will take a ticket for the morning stage if you please, Mr Foster.” The lady extracted notes from an embroidered purse and Foster issued her with a ticket in the same manner as the hotel clerk had accepted her key.

“I’m sure it will be fine and dandy, ma’am. Tom Beaufort rides shot gun and he knows his business. The bank will supply a guard and the assistant bank manager always goes along too.”

“So I understand. Such a kind man: Mr Vincent. He has been very helpful to me during my short stay in Austin. And I really don’t mind spending a night or two in Desert Well. At least it will be quiet, and the accommodations can’t be any worse than the home stations between here and Topeka.” She accepted her change with a slight bow and patted Johnny’s arm as she passed. “All yours, young man.”

Johnny stepped back to get the door for her. Talk about the cat that got the cream. Why was she so pleased with herself?

“Well, don’t just stand there.” The clerk glared at Johnny from behind the counter as soon as the door was shut. “Where do you want to go? It’s closing time.”

Was it?

At that moment the air and the floor stopped vibrating. The clock on the wall ticked three times and then chimed as it struck the hour.

Thank the Lord; it was six o’clock.

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Chapter Two

Johnny woke the next morning with the first thuds of the stampers. After a cold wash, he shared breakfast at the Rusty Spur with Hattie, his companion from the night before, and then made his way to the stagecoach depot. He was just in time to see two large iron boxes being strapped to the roof rack.

The guy riding shotgun, Tom Beaufort, who’d Johnny played cards with the night before, was packing baggage into the rear boot. Johnny tossed him his bag and watched a burly man on the roof of the stagecoach pull the last buckle tight. The man threw canvas over the strongboxes and picked up a rifle. “What you looking at?”

Johnny turned away. He knew the difficulties of guarding cargo, and he wasn’t aiming to upset anyone. It was over a hundred and fifty miles to Virginia City, and he wanted a peaceful trip.

The guard finished what he was doing and climbed down, waving thanks to the two men who’d been helping him. He mounted the boardwalk carrying a shotgun as well as the rifle, and headed around the side of the deserted depot. As expected, it was locked up and the blinds were down.

The driver dropped a stogie and stomped it into the ground. “All aboard!”

The woman from the day before came forward and presented her ticket. She held her woollen cape tight around her to keep out the cold, but seemed in no hurry to get into the stagecoach. An office type climbed in first.

Johnny dug out his ticket. He’d swear those damn stampers were even louder than they had been the day before; he sure wasn’t sorry to leave.

The guard seemed to be in a hurry to get away from them too. He shouldered his way past Johnny muttering something about ‘getting this show on the road’ and boarded without handing over a ticket.

As he disappeared inside the stagecoach, something hard pressed into the small of Johnny’s back. “We’ll take your guns, Madrid.”

Johnny turned slowly, keeping his hands high.

“Nice and easy.” Beaufort smiled under his handle-bar moustache, the muzzle of a coach gun pointed at Johnny’s belly.

“Thanks.” The stagecoach driver plucked the ticket out of Johnny’s fingers as Beaufort relieved him of his rifle, Colt, and the Deringer in his pocket.

“Want me to check for a knife, Tom?”

Beaufort nodded, and the driver bent down to slide the knife from Johnny’s boot. “You can have them back when we get to Gin City.”

“What about those two?” Johnny thumbed towards the stagecoach.

“What about them?” Beaufort lifted the lid of the box behind the driver’s seat and dropped Johnny’s weapons inside.

“I don’t know what you’re carrying, Beaufort, but maybe I could help.”

“We don’t need your help.”

Johnny shrugged. He couldn’t say he was surprised. Ten to one there was silver in those strongboxes, lots and lots of silver.

The woman stood quietly watching what was going on, but as soon as Johnny’s eyes rested on her she moved towards the stagecoach. He helped her climb in before boarding himself.

The two men already seated didn’t act friendly. Neither of them offered the woman a forward facing seat, and the guard kept his legs stretched out like he owned the place. His rifle and shotgun were propped up beside him by the far door, and he met Johnny’s gaze with professional indifference.

Johnny manoeuvred past the knees of the woman and the suited gentleman facing her, stepped over the guard’s legs and plumped down on the leather seat opposite. “Howdy.”

The guard’s eyes flashed ‘cocky bastard’ and Johnny grinned.

“Don’t press your luck, kid.” The guard unbuttoned his coat to show off his hardware. He was packing two Smith and Wesson revolvers and a knife big enough to gut a bear.

Maybe Johnny would let the ‘kid’ comment pass. He pulled his hat down and closed his eyes. He didn’t like being without his Colt, but it was kind of nice to let someone else worry about keeping the cargo safe for a change. Maybe he could get another hour of shut eye.

The driver cracked his whip, and the coach lurched forward, moving slowly at first and then gaining speed.

About a mile out the pounding of the stampers gave way to the crunch of the wheels on the stony road, and Johnny started to doze.  

“Oh, Mr Vincent, what a relief it is to leave that terrible noise behind.” The cheery voice of the woman in the blue cape brought him back to consciousness. “I really don’t know how you bear it.”

“You get used to it, Mrs Cook.”

“I don’t think I could ever get used to it. Leastwise, all that thumping gave me quite a headache.”

“I’m sorry to hear it, ma’am.”

“Well, Mr Vincent, I feel a lot better now, and I do believe a few days rest was all I needed to get over my little dizzy spell.”

“You should have broken the journey in Denver, ma’am. Topeka to Carson City is too far for a genteel lady to travel without a rest stop along the way.”

Mrs Cook didn’t reply. Johnny opened one eye, but she just seemed to have run out of things to say. She was rooting in her carpet bag, and eventually pulled out a leather-bound pocket bible. Vincent checked his fob watch, and the guard lifted the canvas curtain to see what was going on outside. The curtains were almost fully down to keep out the cold, but there was enough light for Mrs Cook to read by if she had good eyesight.

Johnny twisted around a little to get comfortable. The seats in these crates were padded, but as soon as he started to nod off his head had a tendency to slip sideways onto hard wood. If it were warmer he’d use his jacket or slicker as a pillow, but he needed to wear both at the moment to keep from freezing to death.

“I really must thank you again for storing my few valuables while I recuperated, Mr Vincent. It was a worry off my mind.”

“Not at all, ma’am. The Great Western Bank is always ready to be of service.”

“Well, I’m grateful. You can’t know what it is to be a woman unprotected. I’m sure I never realized how much I relied on my dear Alfred. But he’s gone now and I’m alone in this world—except for my daughter in Carson City of course.”

“If you don’t mind me saying so, ma’am, you hardly look old enough to have a grown daughter.”

“Why, Mr Vincent, are you trying to flatter me?”

“Not at all, Mrs Cook. I’m simply making an honest observation. Your husband was a lucky man.”

“I was the lucky one. Alfred was a tower of strength, my knight in shining armour, as you and that dear gentleman are on this journey.”

Vincent cleared his throat. “Well, Forbes here is guarding what we’re carrying above, ma’am, but I’m sure we would both defend you from harm if necessary. Eh, Forbes?”

Johnny felt rather than saw Vincent kick the guard’s boot.

Forbes grunted.  “Ma’am.”

“Are you also carrying a weapon, Mr Vincent? I’m sure I would be too scared even to hold a gun.”

“Well, I’m not scared of handling one, ma’am, but the bank employs professionals, and I prefer to leave these things to them.”

“Oh, very wise. My Alfred was of the same mind. Why keep a dog and bark yourself, he always used to say.”

Johnny blinked. Forbes didn’t look any more impressed with Mrs Cook’s comment than he was. Vincent on the other hand puffed up like a rooster, straightening his tie with a superior smirk.

Opening his eyes fully, Johnny yawned.

“You do well to sleep while you can, young man. Such a boring journey with the curtains down.” Mrs Cook sighed.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And what takes you to Virginia City, Mr…I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name.” She leaned slightly in his direction.

“Madrid, ma’am.”

“Madrid, Madrid—isn’t that the name of a city?”

“Yes, ma’am. In Spain.”

“How interesting.” She put a hand to her chest and looked towards the ceiling of the coach as if trying to imagine what it would be like to visit such a place. “I’ve not met ‘Madrid’ as a surname before. Do you have family in Virginia City, Mr Madrid?”

“No, ma’am.”

Mrs Cook looked at him. “Then why are you visiting that fine town?”

“I’m going to collect my horse.”

“Indeed.” She gave a small jerk of surprise. “Why did you leave your horse in Virginia City?”

Johnny moistened his lips and sat up straighter. Mrs Cook seemed mighty curious about things that were none of her business. Something didn’t sit right about her, but then again, being nosey and friendly wasn’t no crime. He just wasn’t used to folks being both. “I got a job guarding a shipment of dynamite. It was better to leave Picaro behind.”

“Picaro? Another name I haven’t met before.”

“Sounds Spanish,” Vincent growled under his breath.

Johnny looked over at the banker. Like that, was it? “Yes, ma’am, it is. It means ‘rascal’. He’s a bit of a character.”

“Like his owner, I suspect,” Mrs Cook laughed her tinkling laugh.

“I thought you looked part Mex,” Vincent sneered, sitting up and adjusting his cufflinks. “Ma’am, I could change places with you if you’d be more comfortable?”

“Why, Mr Vincent, I do declare.” Mrs Cook flapped her hand. “Mr Madrid, will you be going home for Christmas?”

“I don’t have no home to speak of, ma’am, but I’ll head south and spend Christmas somewhere warmer.”

“Drinking cactus juice with your countrymen, no doubt.” Vincent scowled. The widow’s response hadn’t been what he’d expected.

In truth, it hadn’t been what Johnny had expected either, but that was all to the good. “I’m as American as you are, Vincent.”

“Now, now, gentlemen, there’s no call to get tetchy with each other.” Mrs Cook scolded like a teacher breaking up a schoolyard tussle and then beamed broadly. “I’m going to Carson City, Mr Madrid, to live with my daughter and her husband. I’m looking forward to sharing Christmas with them. It will be a new start for me.”

She drew back the curtain and looked outside. Cold air whooshed into the coach.

“Oh dear, I am sorry.” She let the canvas flap against the opening again, but not before Johnny got a glimpse of snowflakes dancing in the air and a flash of winter sun gleaming over the desert.

By the time they reached the first way station the ground was dusted with snow.

“Not to worry, I’ve driven this route for six years, ma’am. I know them skies and we’ll make it to Desert Well just fine.” The driver handed Mrs Cook back into the stagecoach after barely ten minutes.

Sure enough by the time they reached the second way station the snow had stopped falling, and the sun had come out.

It was nearly two o’clock before they reached Desert Well. This was the first home station since leaving Austin and the only one before the turn off to Virginia City. The other places had been swing stations where the stage had changed horses and gone on its way again with barely enough time in between to take a piss. Here they’d have a bit longer to rest up.

“One hour, folks. There’s beds and a meal inside the depot for those that want them.” The driver thumbed towards what looked like a bunkhouse about ten yards from where the stagecoach had stopped, and then without another word he headed in that direction.

Vincent was already halfway there.

Forbes was climbing atop the stagecoach. He wrapped himself in blankets and sat down on the strongboxes, resting his shotgun gun across his knees. Then he glowered down at Johnny and the other men in the yard.

After padlocking the box with Johnny’s weapons inside it, Beaufort jumped down and headed towards the rear of the stage coach.

“Is this where I take my leave of you and wait for the Carson City stage, Mr Beaufort?” Mrs Cook asked him as he passed.

“Yes, ma’am.” He unstrapped the canvas on the boot and began unloading her luggage.

It was too bad. Johnny wasn’t looking forward to being stuck on his own in the stagecoach with Vincent and Forbes. Vincent clearly didn’t like him, and Forbes would do whatever the assistant bank manager ordered him to do. Without his guns, Johnny felt in danger of an unfortunate accident.

He wandered over to where a ranch hand was unhitching the horses. “Anyone waiting to join the stage?”

“Not that I know of.” The ranch hand slapped the rump of the horse nearest to him. “Take them away.”

Another hand at the head of the string led the four tired horses towards the barn, and the first man followed.

Johnny gazed around. On closer inspection Desert Well was a working ranch, and the way station depot that looked like a bunkhouse probably doubled as one. There were cattle grazing in the distance, and about ten head, mooing and bellowing like there was no tomorrow,  were being herded past a large well in the centre of the yard into a corral thirty yards away. A whitewashed house stood in a grove of trees on the far side of it, and a good size barn sat between the corral and the depot.

“Outhouse is behind the barn,” Beaufort said as he prepared to take Mrs Cook’s trunk inside. “Halfway to the ranch house.”

“After you, ma’am.” Johnny tipped his hat.

Mrs Cook smiled her thanks, and clutching her cape tight around her, she hurried towards the barn.

Johnny wandered over to shelter in front of it. Despite the chill he figured he was better to stay outside. Once he warmed up he wouldn’t want to come out again until the stage was ready to move on.

Sleet began spitting from the clouds above, and an icy breeze snaked around his ankles. If he’d been wearing his old boots, his toes would have been frozen to the leather by now.

Stamping his feet, he held his hands under his armpits to keep them warm. He needed gloves; good tough ones like the pair the driver was wearing, only softer leather so he could still handle a gun. They would probably cost him a few dollars, but they’d be worth it. After all, his boots had proved to be good value. They’d taken a big chunk out of his wages, but they were made from the best cowhide with fine stitching and hard-wearing soles. They moulded to his feet better than any boots he’d ever owned.

Riding shotgun for a wagon train of sodbusters from Omaha had turned out to be a half decent job. The money was okay, there was nowhere to spend it on the trail, and Boise, Idaho at the end of the journey had had a bootmaker good at his trade. Johnny had planned to go all the way to Oregon, but two broken axles and trouble with Indians had put pay to that idea. By the time the wagons rolled into Boise the day before Thanksgiving the man in charge reckoned it was too late to risk crossing the mountains.

No way was Johnny going to hang around all winter though. He collected his wages, ordered his new boots, and partook of a little rest and recreation while he waited—well, maybe a little longer than he waited. Those music halls and brothels sure were fun. By the time he rode south, he’d lost track of time and money.

Good thing the mine manager in Virginia City didn’t know that.

Johnny chuckled to himself. Less than five bucks to his name and he’d managed to talk Butson up to one hundred dollars for under a week’s work. He was getting better at negotiating if he did say so himself. Although to be fair he did make one mistake. Odds were he’d have taken the job anyway, but next time he’d ask what they were hauling first.

Poking his head around the edge of the barn, he checked to see if Mrs Cook was on her way back. She was taking an awful long time even for a woman.

Instead of Mrs Cook, he saw a guy in a buffalo skin coat untying a big roan from an old cottonwood tree. The guy mounted and looked in the direction of the yard, but he didn’t seem to notice Johnny waiting at the front corner of the barn. Then for some strange reason, instead of riding out past the stagecoach, he circled wide across country before heading west, spurring his horse to a canter when he reached the government road.

Johnny ambled over to the cottonwood. Why risk the horse spraining an ankle on a rabbit hole when there was a well-made track linking the ranch compound with the road?

He looked back towards the yard and saw Forbes perched on top of the stagecoach with the corral beyond. Maybe—Johnny scanned his surroundings slowly, but decided he had more pressing matters to think about. Mrs Cook had just reappeared from behind the barn. Without seeing him beneath the cottonwood, she hurried towards the depot, and he did the same towards the outhouse.

He didn’t take anything like as long as she did; in fact she was still chatting and taking off her cape and gloves when he entered the depot.

Johnny pulled off his slicker and hung it on a peg on the back of the door so he’d feel the benefit of wearing it when he went back outside. The depot was stuffy and warm, scented with the smell of wood smoke and good cooking.

“Hey, hold the door for me, will you?” The ranch hand Johnny had talked to earlier picked up a plate of stew and a steaming mug of coffee from the stove and carried them over. “Your friend out there will be ready for this.”

Friend wasn’t quite the word Johnny would use for Forbes, but he held the door anyway. He knew from experience guard duty out in the cold was no picnic. Even Forbes deserved something hot to keep him going.

“Howdy. I’m Ma Jackson.” An old bird with salt and pepper hair wiped her hands on her apron. “It’s ten cents for coffee, a serving of stew, and as many fresh baked biscuits as you need to soak up the gravy.” She held out her hand and Johnny fished out a coin from his pocket.

He sat down at the well-scrubbed table with the others, opposite the driver and as far away from Vincent talking to Mrs Cook as he could get.

Ma placed a clean enamel mug and a plate of stew down in front of him.

“Much obliged.” Johnny reached for the coffee pot on the table and then dug in like he hadn’t eaten for a week. Whooee, it tasted good.

Unfortunately he didn’t get time for a second helping. He was wiping his plate clean with his third biscuit when the driver shunted off the end of the bench and began buttoning up the sheepskin vest he wore under his great coat.

“Finish up, folks. The stage leaves in ten minutes.”

The others started to get up from their seats.  Beaufort and the driver disappeared out the door while Mrs Cook and Vincent put on their coats and gloves again.

“Well, it’s time for us to say goodbye, Mr Vincent.” Mrs Cook pecked the banker on the cheek, and not for the first time Johnny wondered what game she was playing. She ran her hands down the front of Vincent’s frock coat and straightened his tie like an affectionate wife sending her husband out into the world.

It was sickening to watch; Johnny had thought better of the woman. Vincent went pink at the ears. After putting on his great coat, he offered her his arm and threw a smug look in Johnny’s direction as he escorted her out to the stagecoach.

Ma Jackson was taking her to the big house to wait for the Carson City stage. The bunks in the way station were okay for cowhands and salesmen, but Ma didn’t consider them suitable for a fine, respectable lady like Mrs Cook. Clearly, it wasn’t just men Mrs Cook could wrap around her little finger.

The good lady waved everyone goodbye from the yard as the stagecoach moved off, and then headed for the comforts of the homestead.

As feared, no one else joined the stage. Vincent and Forbes got on first and grabbed the forward facing seat again. Forbes propped his legs up on the seat opposite and yawned, tilting his head sideways with a gleam in his eyes.

Johnny ignored him and sat down across from Vincent without saying a word. The hothead kid of a couple of years ago might have taken up the challenge, but Johnny had learned a few lessons since he’d been hiring out. One of them was don’t rile easy, especially when you’re unarmed and the fella doing the riling is like a walking armoury.

Sitting as close to the door as possible, Johnny took care not to knock Vincent’s knees. It was pretty obvious the banker was just itching for an excuse. Not that he would lower himself to do the deed. After all, as the lady said, why keep a dog and bark yourself? Choose your battles, Madrid. You can do without a beating.

The best way of avoiding trouble seemed to be pretending to sleep again. It was easier said than done, but except for the occasional sneak peek when he felt a cold breeze from a curtain being lifted, Johnny kept his eyes firmly shut.

The strategy worked well too, at least until the stagecoach changed horses at the next way station.

.

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Chapter Three

About a mile after leaving the swing station, the stagecoach turned off towards Virginia City and entered Six Mile Canyon. The road narrowed, the hillside fell away to the river, and Vincent started holding forth about civilization coming west.

“It’ll be a long time before the West is truly civilized, Forbes. Too many pioneers used squaws and señoritas as bed warmers. Didn’t they, Madrid?”

Johnny kept his mouth shut and adjusted his hat so he didn’t have to look at Vincent’s sneering face.

“Madrid’s not saying much, Forbes, because he’s a half breed.”

“Vincent, you talk too much.” Johnny tried to sound bored rather than angry. He lifted the curtain, but all he could see was steep hillside as the road veered left and downward.

“Do you know who your daddy is, Madrid?” Vincent tugged at his sleeve and fiddled with his cufflinks.

Again Johnny didn’t answer.

“I bet you’re just some drunken cowboy’s flyblow.” Vincent checked his pocket watch, and chuckled. “The careless mistake of a dollar a day man and a Saturday night whore.”

That’s it. Johnny’s mama was no whore. Johnny’s parents were married when he was born—he had the baptism certificate to prove it.

Pushing off the seat, he half stood to throw a punch.

Forbes lunged to block it.

“Whoa there!” 

Johnny was flung backwards and Forbes forwards as the stagecoach came to a sudden halt.

Scrambling, Forbes grabbed his rifle from where it had fallen on the floor and tore back the curtain.

“I’ll have that, mister.”  A hand clamped over the rifle barrel and the working end of a Remington pointed through the window straight at Forbes’s head.

A bandit wearing a buffalo skin coat yanked the rifle out of Forbes’s hands, and unlatched the stagecoach door. He let it swing wide. “And the rest.”

Without taking his eyes, or his gun, off Forbes, the bandit reached in for the shotgun now lying under the guard’s feet before relieving him of his handguns and knife. He passed the weapons back one by one to a second masked man standing in the background.

Johnny sat very still. He wasn’t being paid to be a hero, and the other bandit had a rifle aimed at his chest.

Vincent tried the door next to them, but it wouldn’t open more than a couple of inches. The stagecoach was too close to the wall of a cutting. 

The second bandit laughed at the panic on Vincent’s face. “Wrong way, señor.”

“Out!” The guy in the buffalo skin coat gestured with his gun.

Johnny disembarked last, taking a good look at the two masked men as he climbed out. The first was heavy set, dark and unshaven. He smelled like he’d been sleeping rough for some time. Was he the same guy he’d spotted at Desert Well? Johnny had only seen that guy at distance and lots of fellas wore buffalo skins.

The second bandit was definitely Mexican, smaller but solid muscle. Neither would be easy to overpower.

Johnny lined up beside Vincent and Forbes, hands behind their heads.

The Mexican patted Forbes down and checked his boots to make sure he wasn’t carrying anymore weapons.

Johnny waited for his turn, but strangely no one bothered checking him or Vincent. They must have known Johnny’s weapons were stashed under the driver’s seat. The guy at Desert Well couldn’t have known; he didn’t go anywhere near the stagecoach. Maybe he or one of the others staked out the last way station. How could they have known Vincent wasn’t carrying though? Men like him often packed a peashooter in their pockets. Plum crazy not to search him to be sure.

“Move.” The Mexican herded them towards the rear of the stagecoach into the sights of a gunman on top of the cutting. “Kneel.”

The driver and Beaufort joined the line-up under the gun of a fourth bandit. This one was older, big and lumbering, probably slow on his feet, but you wouldn’t want to connect with those fists.

Once all the men from the stagecoach were kneeling, the bandit in the buffalo skin coat kept a gun on them while the Mexican and big fella searched the luggage for anything of value. Johnny’s guns and a few other firearms in the front boot were emptied and thrown down the hillside into the scrub along with knives and the driver’s horse whip. Then Johnny, Beaufort, Forbes, and the driver were put to work unstrapping the strongboxes and tying them onto a mule. Vincent got to stay on his knees with Buffalo skin’s revolver aimed at his head. It was supposed to be a deterrent to stop the others trying anything smart.

When they were finished they were made to kneel down beside Vincent again.

The gunman on top of the cutting clambered down to the road. Up close he didn’t look more than a kid, but with a heavy coat on, hat pulled down and a bandana over his face it was hard to be sure until he sealed the deal.  “Hey, Clayt, want me to cut the horses loose?”

“Shut up.” Buffalo skin whacked the kid with his hat. “Yeah, do it now.”

Johnny smiled to himself. It was hard to get good help. ‘Clayt’, did he know anyone called ‘Clayt’. The guy did look kind of familiar.

The kid went to the front of the string first, and dragged a branch clear of the road. Then he started unhitching the horses. He scared them off, one by one.

“Right, gents, empty your pockets.”

Johnny’s attention switched back to Clayt. Shoot, they’d got enough silver to keep them in steak and women for a year. Now they wanted his wages too.

The Mexican and the older bandit pick up the billfolds, notes and coins as they were thrown down. Johnny did what he was told and emptied his pockets. With luck they’d think that was all he had.

They did a double check though, patting everyone down this time. Vincent lost his fob watch and cufflinks.

Johnny smiled. It served the bastard right.

“Now get them boots off.” Clayt kicked the sole of Beaufort’s boot.

Damn it. Why had Johnny left so much in one place?

Forbes tried to get up, but the Mexican put a gun to his head. “Señor, you can do it sitting down.”

The kid joined in the fun and started trying on hats.

“You’ve got a big head,” he said when Johnny’s hat covered his eyes. Then he laughed. “Hey, look what I’ve found?” He ripped the ten dollar note free from the inside lining and stuffed it into his pocket.

 “Shoot, there’s more in here.” The big fella pulled out the wad Johnny had stashed in his boot.

Damn it to hell. Johnny breathed in and tried to tamp down his anger.

Clayt took the money and the boot, and held one of the notes up to the sun. “This’ll pay for a few rounds, boys. Thank you kindly, Madrid.”

“Do I know you?” Johnny squinted up at the silhouette standing over him.

“Nope.” Clayt spat tobacco juice on the ground. “I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced.”

Johnny gritted his teeth. He wanted to smash Clayt’s face in, but if he had any chance at all he needed to keep it friendly. “Hey, fellas, be fair. I sat a week on a wagonload of dynamite for that money.”

“More fool you.” Clayt adjusted his bandana, and Johnny’s flexed his right hand.

“I have to pay livery for my horse. Leave me a couple of dollars. You got what you came for in those boxes.”

“Nice try, but a guy like you will work something out. Here, amigo, catch.” He tossed Johnny’s boot to the Mexican. “I reckon these might fit you.”

Cabrón. Johnny made a grab for the other boot.

“Stay on your knees.” Clayt gave him a shove and Johnny stumbled forward.

Getting back on his knees, he sucked a graze on the heel of his hand and cocked his head sideways. Whether Clayt was the guy from Desert Well or not, he aimed to remember him.

“Hey, these are good boots. Gracias.” The Mexican stomped about a bit. Then picking up his old pair, he tossed them down in front of Johnny. “You can have these, amigo.”

“All right, boys, let’s ride.” Clayt gave the kid a push. “Get the horses.”

The kid ran back past the front of the coach and around the next bend, and returned with four horses, one of them a big roan. Clayt put his foot in its stirrup and pulled up into the saddle. He rode the animal around the kneeling men until the other bandits got going. They cantered south east back the way the stagecoach had come, the man at the rear leading the mule.

“See you, fellas.” With a whoop and a holler, Clayt followed. Johnny and the others were left in their stocking feet and as mad as hell.

No one was hurt, but it took half an hour to catch the horses and hitch them up again—even longer to find all the weapons. Unfortunately Forbes found his shot gun almost immediately and the first thing he did was train it on Johnny. “You can fix up the horses while the others hunt for the guns.”

Johnny shrugged. He wasn’t in a position to argue.

He wasn’t completely out of luck though; they found his firearms and knife early on, and put them back in the boot. Chances were they’d have abandoned them if they weren’t still looking for their own.

“Why can’t I have them now? There isn’t any silver left to steal.”

“Because the men in charge say so. Stop your bellyaching. You’ll get them back in Gin City, I expect.” Beaufort hauled himself up onto his seat next to the driver. “Get on board, Madrid, or walk.”

With the Mexican’s boots crowding his feet, that wasn’t an option. Johnny climbed into the stagecoach, silently cursing Forbes, Vincent and the bandits. Money was one thing, but stealing a man’s boots was downright low. He had a pretty good idea what Clayt looked like, and a Mexican with three white guys, one of them a kid, ought to be easy enough to spot. He was damned if he would let them get away with it.

.

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Chapter Four

With a new idea bouncing into his head with every pothole, Johnny brooded about what had happened, and how he could get his boots and his money back, until the stagecoach escaped the canyon and came to another sudden halt.

Forbes had a revolver cocked and ready to fire out the window in seconds.

“Sheriff Chapman.” He fell back against the seat and holstered his weapon. “And a posse.”

“Get out of my way.” Vincent barged past Johnny and Forbes and got out. “Where in hell have you been?”

“Mr Vincent.” The sheriff lifted his hat, and listened grim-faced as Vincent ranted about road agents and useless lawmen—“Never there when you need them”—for the next ten minutes.

When he could get a word in, the sheriff sent the posse with his deputy to see if they could track the bandits. “Ain’t much light left, but you might be lucky.”

“We’ll bed down in the shack near the river crossing and make an early start in the morning if we don’t catch up with them tonight.” The deputy gave the signal and the posse galloped away in the direction the stage had just come. 

Johnny didn’t rate their chances. The hold-up had been too well planned. Stagecoaches often ran late, and despite what Vincent said, most lawmen wouldn’t have come looking for them before sundown. It made no difference though; the bandits had too much of a head start. They could be out of the canyon and half way to anywhere by now.

Vincent and Forbes went into an angry huddle while the sheriff instructed his men, but by the time they re-boarded the stage they seemed to have resolved their differences.

They travelled in silence.

Forbes avoided eye contact the entire journey. He’d made mistakes, and, if Johnny was any judge, he knew it.

Vincent, on the other hand, kept glancing at Johnny, his nose wrinkled as though there was a bad smell under it.

The two men joined together as soon as the stage arrived in Virginia City. They pulled the sheriff aside and had a nasty habit of looking over at Johnny. Forbes only said a few words, then he headed for a nearby saloon, but the banker stayed on, bending the sheriff’s ear in the lantern light for the whole time Johnny waited for his gear.

Not wanting to tempt fate, Johnny swung his bag over his shoulder the second he got his guns back and made for the livery. It was dusk, but he might just be in time to catch the liveryman before he closed up for the night. Maybe if Johnny paid what was owed the man would let him bed down in one of the stalls.

“Hold up, Madrid, I want to talk to you.”

Johnny bit his tongue and turned around. “Anything to oblige, sheriff, but I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know.”

“The guard reckons you started a diversion just before the stagecoach was stopped.”

“He would say that. It’s not my fault he had his coat buttoned up and couldn’t get to his handguns in a hurry.”

“Mr Vincent here says you tried to punch him.” Sheriff Chapman kept his eyes on Johnny, but Johnny’s went to Vincent, hovering in the background with a self-satisfied smirk plastered on his face.

Johnny bowed his head and moistened his lips to buy himself breathing time. Then he looked Chapman straight in the eye. “That’s right, sheriff. Did he tell you why?”

“I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true, Madrid.”

Chapman turned to Vincent. “But you said something to provoke the attack? You didn’t tell me that.”

“Well, I mean…that’s not the point. You heard Forbes. It was a deliberate distraction so he wouldn’t be prepared for the robbery.” Vincent went red in the face. “Besides, Madrid knew the bandits.”

“How do you figure that?” Johnny couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of his voice. Vincent was snivelling snake in the grass.

Chapman cleared his throat. “Forbes said one of the road agents was a Mex.”

“So?”

“So you greasers all know each other,” Vincent sneered. “You’re probably related.”

Cabrón! Johnny gritted his teeth and with difficulty swallowed his anger. “We ain’t.”

“Then how come the main man knew your name.” Vincent stepped forward, jabbing a finger in Johnny’s direction. “He knew you.”

“Maybe he did, but I didn’t recognise any of them.”

“That’s what he wants us to believe, Chapman. He’s lying through his teeth.”

Johnny would have punched Vincent’s lights out if the sheriff wasn’t standing there. “Maybe the guy had seen me about. Maybe he’d heard of me, but I had nothing to do with the hold-up.”

Sheriff Chapman looked between Johnny and Vincent, and scratched his chin. “What were you doing on the stage, Madrid?”

“Coming back to get my horse.”

“Why did you go to Austin without your horse?”

“I rode shotgun for a shipment of dynamite.” Johnny shifted his weighted onto one leg and changed his grip on his rifle. “It was safer to leave him here.”

“Can anyone vouch for that?”

Johnny wasn’t sure if the sheriff shared Vincent’s suspicions or if he just knew which side his bread was buttered on. Likely the bank and the mine covered the cost of the sheriff’s salary. Either way, it spelled trouble for Johnny. “Butson at the Comstock set me on. Hell, sheriff, I was robbed of a week’s pay and my boots. How can you think I had anything to do with it?”

“Vincent says you’re planning to go south.”

“And that’s a crime now, is it?”

“Depends why you‘re going.”

Johnny studied the blackening sky. It was starting to snow again. He took a deep breath and forced a smile. “If you ask me, sheriff, you should talk to the folks who knew what was in those strongboxes and which stage they were going to be transported on. That ain’t me.”

“What are you suggesting?” Vincent grabbed Johnny’s arm. “You dirty…”

Johnny’s eyes flashed and Vincent let go fast.

Johnny had been lumbered with his old man’s blue eyes, but they darkened and fired like his mother’s. Control was something he was working on, and with a lawman standing at his elbow he couldn’t afford to be careless. Glancing down at the Mexican’s old boots, he took another deep breath before looking up at the sheriff. “Is this interview over? I’m hungry.”

Chapman studied him for several seconds, and then cleared his throat. “What did you mean about the strongboxes?”

Johnny shrugged, and chose his words and his look carefully.  “Those road agents knew what we were carrying. They knew when we’d be traveling through, how many guns they had to deal with, and who was carrying them.”

“We never had any trouble before you showed up.” Vincent stayed a step behind the sheriff.

Johnny spat onto the snow-sprinkled ground. “Lucky you. Maybe on those other trips the guard checked ahead before letting the stage drive through that cutting. Maybe you didn’t run off at the mouth so much.”

“I don’t know what he’s talking about.” Vincent reddened as Chapman raised an eyebrow.

“I’m talking about that fine Mrs Cook. You two were mighty chatty.” Now Johnny came to think of it, Mrs Cook was chatty with a lot of folks who had something to do with the shipment of silver.

“Who’s Mrs Cook?”

“She was a passenger. She got off at Desert Well—a charming woman, very respectable. I assure you, sheriff, I did not divulge anything of importance to her or anyone else.”

“Pfft.” Johnny dropped his bag on the ground. The conversation was taking too long, his arm was getting tired, and it was damned cold.

Vincent glared at him. “Mrs Albert Cook was a respectable widow from Topeka, Kansas on her way to Carson City. She took ill on her journey two weeks ago and spent some time in Austin.  The bank assisted her by storing some valuable items so of course I was civil to her. She has nothing to do with any of this. Madrid is just trying to slither his way out of trouble.”

Sheriff Chapman rubbed the side of his nose. “Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I’ll make more inquiries in the morning. Who knows, the posse might catch up with them bandits.” He chuckled. They all knew there wasn’t much chance of that. “In the meantime, Madrid, you can rest up courtesy of the town.”

“But sheriff…”

Chapman pulled his Colt.

“Okay, have it your own way.” Johnny picked up his bag again and trudged towards the jailhouse. At least he would get supper out of it.

Chapman locked him in a cell six foot square with a hard bunk bed, a single woollen blanket and a pot to piss in. A potbelly stove between the cell and the sheriff’s desk kept the place warm, but supper was a mug of coffee and a plate of beans. Johnny could have eaten twice as much, and he said so, but the sheriff just laughed. “You young fellas have got hollow legs.”

He went home for the night soon after making that unhelpful comment, and Johnny was left in darkness with only a mouse for company—at least he hoped it was a mouse. All he could see was a pair of bright eyes reflecting in the glow of the pot belly’s grille. They were very small eyes so it was probably a mouse. He sure hoped it was a mouse. He hated rats.

He kept his boots on and held the blanket close around him just in case, but when he awoke the next morning to the sound of cats fighting in the alley mouse droppings told him he’d been right. Whether he’d see the little fella again was uncertain though. There was a good chance last night’s roommate was now the winning cat’s breakfast.

Sheriff Chapman arrived soon after daybreak.

The mine foreman, Butson, strolled into the jailhouse an hour later, all spic and span and ready for a new day.

Johnny stopped eating his breakfast and came up to the bars. “Hey.”

“Hello.” Butson looked between Johnny and the sheriff. “What’s going on? The Davis boy said you wanted to see me, sheriff.”

“Yup.” Sheriff Chapman refilled his mug from the coffee pot on the stove. “Madrid here says you hired him to ride shotgun on a firecracker to Austin. Is that right?”

“Yeah. What of it?”

“Nothing. Just confirming his story. Do you know where he came from before Virginia City?”

“He said he’d been riding wagon train on the Oregon Trail.”

“You believed him?”

“No reason not to. He rode in from the north.”

“Give you any references?”

“Nope, but he looked like he could handle a gun, and that’s what I was looking for.” Butson moved away from the cell and lowered his voice so Johnny had to strain to hear him. “To be honest, sheriff, I couldn’t afford to be picky at the time—my regular guy busted his head open in a brawl the night before—but I asked around before I offered Madrid the job. His story stacked up. One of my new miners remembered seeing him with a wagon train in Fort Laramie about two months ago.”

“And you’re sure he delivered the cargo?”

“In record time. I got a telegraph yesterday.”

Sheriff Chapman checked over his shoulder. Johnny, still standing up by the bars, felt a spark of hope.

“Thanks for your time, Mr Butson. I won’t hold you up any longer.”

“What’s he doing in there?”

“Waiting.” Sheriff Chapman sat down at his desk and started to write.

“Hey, Chapman, that isn’t fair. You heard him.”

“Shut up, Madrid. I’ll let you out when I’m good and ready.”

Butson’s head swivelled between Johnny and the sheriff.

“Right then. I’ll be going.” Giving Johnny an ain’t-none-of-my-business kind of shrug, Butson touched his hat to Chapman and left.

Damn it. Johnny banged the bars of the cell with the flat of his hand. How long was Chapman planning to keep him in there?  

Over the next few hours the sheriff sent for each of the men riding on the stagecoach and asked questions—lots of questions—and Johnny didn’t always hear them or all the answers. It was damn frustrating. He would guarantee every one of those fellas skewed the truth to save his own neck.

Chapman went for his lunch at one o’clock. It was either a long lunch or he was making inquiries someplace else, because he didn’t come back again until the posse turned up.

“Well, how did you get on?” he asked leading the way into the jailhouse.

“Lost them.” The deputy warmed his hands over the stove as the sheriff poured coffee for both of them. “Reckon they kept to the road through the canyon and got out before nightfall. Could have gone any which way.”

“There were four of them and a mule. They must have left tracks.”

“We searched, but it snowed overnight. By the time we got out of the canyon any tracks were well covered.”

Chapman asked a few more questions, but the deputy didn’t have any useful information. Once he finished his coffee, he went for supper like the rest of the posse.

The sheriff hung around a while longer, considering. Then he went home too. Johnny was left locked up and alone in the jailhouse for another long night.

The next day the routine was much the same, except Sheriff Chapman was out of the jailhouse more than he was in, and while he was gone the deputy made it known he didn’t like Mexicans, half-breeds, or shootists. Supper was cold beans and water.

When Chapman came in the following morning, Johnny looked up, but the deputy had already told him he wasn’t going anywhere.

 “What’s this food doing here?” Chapman nodded at a bowl of oatmeal, honey and milk congealing on the corner of the desk.

“Only delivered a minute ago,” the deputy lied. “I was just putting these posters away.”   He stuffed the wanted posters he’d been browsing into the filing cabinet, and picked up the tray with Johnny’s breakfast.

“Don’t worry about it now. Get his things.”

“What?” The deputy gaped as though he didn’t understand the order.

“You heard me.” Chapman grabbed the keys from the hook and unlocked the cell door. “You’re free to go, Madrid. Get your horse and leave town.”

Johnny didn’t need telling twice. Nipping past the sheriff, he collected his gear from the deputy—“Thanks for the hospitality”—touched his hat and skedaddled.

As soon as he was out of sight of the jailhouse, he ducked down a side alley. Man, oh man, that was unexpected, but it was good to be out. Lifting up his slicker, he felt along the hem of his jacket to find where he’d sewn his last ten dollars into the lining. At least he hadn’t needed to use it on bed and breakfast. Cutting the cotton with his knife, he pulled the folded note free. All was not lost.

“Hey, what are you doing?” A kitchen hand dumping scraps on a pile of rotting garbage headed towards him swinging the emptied bucket.

“None of your business.” Johnny pulled his Colt and the kitchen hand backed off.

Holstering his gun, Johnny headed for the livery. He’d paid up front for a week and the livery owner had agreed to keep Picaro for up to a week longer, but what if he’d got wind of Johnny being in jail? There was no telling what the man could have done.

The knot in Johnny’s chest only disappeared when he spied the pinto munching hay in a rear stall.

Picaro turned his head from the feeder, swished his tail and blew softly as Johnny came up beside him.

“Good to see you too, boy.” Johnny patted the horse’s neck and rubbed noses.  

“Mighty touching reunion.” Parking a barrow full of dung and straw, the owner wiped his hands on his dungarees and strolled over. “You owe me three dollars.”

Johnny rested his head against Picaro’s neck. Three dollars? It was only fifty cents by his reckoning, a dollar at most, but it wasn’t worth the argument. He needed to get out of there. Paying the three dollars, he saddled up and rode at a fast walk to the outskirts of town.

He stopped at the fork. Right led south west to Carson City. Left would take him south east back through the canyon. Was there any point going over the same ground as the posse? What with all the horses that had trampled the trail and the snow, he didn’t think so. His gut said Carson City. If he didn’t find any sign of the bandits there, he could keep going south until he found work some place warmer.

Sunshine with a bit of heat in it sounded mighty good to him, but he was determined to catch up with Clayt and his gang first if he could. He would eat his hat if Clayt wasn’t the same guy he’d seen in Desert Well. That big roan made it almost certain. Clayt must have been checking things out before the hold-up. He’d likely avoided the yard so Forbes wouldn’t see him. The depot blocked the guard’s view. All he’d have seen would have been a rider on the road, so far off that it could have been the President for all he knew.

What’s more Clayt had approached the cottonwood from the direction of the outhouse only minutes before Mrs Cook had put in an appearance.

Johnny had had a lot of time to think in jail, and the more he’d mulled things over, the more he didn’t think it was a coincidence. Vincent was wrong about Mrs Cook. She was just too la-di-da and butter wouldn’t melt, and she’d spoken to most everyone—or everyone that mattered. The hotel keeper, the ticket clerk, Vincent and the other men on the stage: they had all known something about the silver transport. Johnny might not have overheard all the conversations, but he seen enough to know they’d taken place.

With hindsight, the puzzle pieces fit. Mrs Cook and Clayt could have arranged to meet at the home station. She knew Johnny and Vincent weren’t carrying guns, and where Forbes chose to sit. Shoot, she knew all their names and the fact that Johnny had just been paid for a dangerous job. It didn’t take much working out to know he’d have decent money on him. So much for the poor widow taken ill on a long journey; she’d stopped in that mining town to find out about the silver shipment. Even patting Vincent down like a loving wife at Desert Well made more sense now. Johnny would eat his hat if she wasn’t frisking Vincent for a weapon. Odds were if he’d been lying, she’d have swooned and picked his pocket, or done something to dispose of it.

Mrs Albert Cook had worked the men from Austin like Mama used to work the saps around the card table. Well, the lady and her gang went too far when they robbed Johnny. If they were anywhere near Carson City, he’d hunt them down and take back what was his. He’d get his new boots back and rub that smart mouth Clayt’s face in the dirt into the bargain. No damn road agent or female trickster was going to make a fool out of Johnny Madrid.

.

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Chapter Five

The hands on the wall clock were pointing straight up when Johnny entered the Wells Fargo depot in Carson City. He’d made good time from Virginia City, and he was going to make the most of the afternoon.

He sauntered up to the desk. “Hey, I’ve got a message for a Mrs Cook. She was on the last stage from Austin. Do you know where I can find her?”

“Four stagecoaches a day go through this town. I’ve got enough trouble dealing with folks getting on them without bothering with the ones getting off. Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got customers.” The grey-haired ticket clerk nodded towards a miner who’d come up behind Johnny. “Where to, mister?”

“Mound House.” The miner came forward, shouldering his pickaxe, and Johnny moved to one side.

“That’ll be two fifty. One o’clock stage to Virginia City and mind your language; there’ll be ladies on board.” The clerk pushed a ticket through the window.

Johnny let the miner pay for his ticket, and then he tried again. “She said she was coming to stay with her married daughter. Maybe you know her.”

“What’s the daughter’s name?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then I can’t help you.”

It had been worth a try. Johnny strolled back outside and looked up and down the street. His stomach felt mighty empty with having no breakfast. Maybe he could kill three birds with one stone. Mounting up, he rode on until he spotted a sandwich board advertising free lunch. With luck a fifteen cent beer at the Sierra Arcade could get him something to eat and word of work or Mrs Cook and the four bandits.

The saloon was full when he went in through the half-glazed door. Meaty mouth-watering smells mingled with sweat, beer and sawdust, and men talked, laughed and argued in a haze of cigarette smoke. Elbowing his way up to the bar, he ordered a glass of whatever was in the keg. Then he helped himself to stewed mutton, bread, boiled potatoes and beans, and found standing room by a barrel close enough to the fireplace to feel the benefit.

“Hey there.” He grinned at a saloon girl giving him the eye as she collected glasses. She wore fingerless mittens on her hands, but her shoulders and cleavage reminded him there were other ways to stay warm. “Do you know if anyone is hiring guns around here?”

“Not that I’ve heard of, handsome.” The girl curled a lock of golden hair around her finger and looked up at him through long lashes. She was mighty fine and she knew it; not too much older than he was, with everything still smooth, supple, and in the right place. “This close to Christmas folks hereabouts are more for cosying up inside than fighting. Can I get you another drink?”

“Yeah, thanks.” Johnny smiled encouragement, even though he couldn’t afford what she was offering. Fact was he’d get more out of her if she thought he could. “Get yourself one too.” He flicked fifty cents high and she caught it with a practised hand.

She winked and sashayed to the bar, returning with two beers. Johnny didn’t ask her for the change and she didn’t offer.

“What’s your name?”

“Cherry. What’s yours?”

“Johnny.”

“Well, howdy, Johnny. I’m pleased to meet you.” She eyed his rig. “You any good?”

“I am. Johnny Madrid is the name.” He held up a dollar note between two fingers. “Now this here you can have if you ask around for me. Let me know if you hear of any work.”

She tugged the banknote free and tucked it into her bodice. “You staying awhile?”

“A day or so. Maybe longer. Depends if I find who I’m looking for. I’ve got a message to deliver to a Mrs Cook. She arrived yesterday on the stage from Austin. Came here to live with her married daughter. Ring any bells?”

“No, but that don’t mean much. Unless her son-in-law comes in here I ain’t likely to know them.”

Johnny slipped an arm around the saloon girl’s waist. She smelled pretty. If he really had cash to spare he would happily waste a little on Cherry with the pink and white neck and cherry candy lips. “I heard a friend of mine is in the neighbourhood too. Name of Clayt.”

“What’s he look like?”

“Biggish fella. Dark hair. Wears a buffalo skin coat.”

“Hmm, I might have seen him, but I can’t be sure.” She sipped her beer, locking eyes with him as she ran her tongue over her lips and teased his hair with her fingers.

“He could have been traveling with three other men: a Mexican, a young fella, and an older guy.”

“Sorry, hun, I can’t help you.” She giggled as he nibbled her ear. “There are a few Mexicans around, but they usually keep to their own kind. I haven’t noticed any in here.”

“Girl.” The barkeeper pointed at drinks he’d just poured and nodded in the direction of four new arrivals; regulars with money in their pockets by the looks of them.

“Oh, poo.” Cherry untangled herself from Johnny’s arms. “Come in tomorrow. I’ll see what I can find out for you.”

Cocking his head to one side, Johnny watched her hips as Cherry swayed her way to the bar. Hot damn.

“Exceptionally pretty girls in this saloon, don’t you think?” A fella in a bowler hat, slicked back hair, and a well-oiled moustache curled up at the ends raised his glass to Johnny. “Allow me to introduce myself: Josiah P. Matheson of Demus Barnes and Company, New York.”

“Howdy.” Johnny glanced at the salesman and went back to eating his lunch.

“Now, friend, if you want to keep the young lady’s attentions, you should consider buying her a gift. Or maybe as we’re nearing Christmas you’d prefer a present for your dear sweet mamma.”

Johnny grinned as he chewed. “What did you have in mind? For the girl.”

“Well, sir, I’m glad you asked.” Matheson swung a wooden suitcase up onto the barrel next to Johnny’s lunch and opened the lid to reveal velvet-covered trays that hinged back on themselves. 

“Now this here is Magnolia Water.” Matheson selected one of several tiny bottles from the top tray. “It is a toilet delight, superior to any Cologne, used to bathe the face and person, to render the skin soft and fresh, to allay inflammation, to perfume clothing and drive away the worst of headaches. It is manufactured from the rich Southern Magnolia, and I must say it is obtaining a patronage quite unprecedented. It is a favourite with actresses and opera singers, and I could let you have a large bottle for as little as one silver dollar.”

“A dollar, huh?”

“Yes, but for only a dollar more you could have it in this stylish atomizer all the way from Paris, France.” Matheson took a strange-looking bottle out of the lower compartment, poured water into it that he just happened to have handy, and demonstrated how it worked on himself.

“That’s mighty clever.” Johnny took the atomizer and squeezed the puffer thing, spraying the front of Matheson’s suit. “Paris, France, huh?”

“Yes, sir,” Matheson said wiping his lapel and neck dry with a red striped handkerchief. “We at Demus Barnes and Company only stock the very finest glassware.”

“And you think Cherry over there would like this perfume in that fancy bottle?” Johnny opened the perfume and sniffed. It sure did smell flowery.

“Young man, only yesterday I sold the very same fragrance in one of these atomizers to a very respectable and discerning lady travelling on the same coach as me. Ladies, young and old, rich and poor, love Magnolia Water, and they absolutely adore anything from Paris.”

Well, shoot, that was out of the blue. Johnny had only been playing with Matheson while he finished his lunch. He couldn’t actually afford to buy anything, and he hadn’t thought for one minute the Easterner could help him. “Were you on the Salt Lake to Carson City?”

“Ah, yes, I was.” Matheson looked confused.

“Was the lady a Mrs Cook?”

“Well, I can’t rightly say. I only joined the stage at Dayton.” Matheson frowned. This line of questioning clearly wasn’t the normal response to his sales pitch. “She was a fine looking woman. Quite taken with my range of fragrances. The best this side of the Mississippi, you know.”

“Was she wearing a dark blue cape and hat?”

“Indeed, I believe she was. Do you know her?”

Johnny swallowed a mouthful of potato. “I have a message for her. Do you know where she went when she got off the stage?”

“Her son met her at the depot and took her back to their ranch.”

“Her son? You mean her son-in-law?”

“No, no, the lad wasn’t old enough. I’m sure he must have been her son.”

Jackpot. Johnny smiled. “Which direction did they go?”

“South. Leastways I saw them heading that way after they bought supplies from the general store two blocks up the street.”

Johnny downed his beer and wrapped the last of his mutton in a slice of bread to take with him. “Much obliged.”

“Hey, aren’t you going to buy some perfume?”

“Are you staying at the hotel across the road? I’ll look you up tomorrow.” Johnny touched his hat and made a quick exit.

The general store wasn’t hard to find. It was exactly where Matheson had said it was, two blocks up, on a corner and next to a milliner’s shop.

Johnny grabbed an apple from the basket by the door and went up to the counter. “Hey, I want rice, beans and coffee.”

The shopkeeper set aside the tags he’d been writing on. “Pound of each?”

Johnny nodded, and the shopkeeper scooped what was needed from a line-up of open sacks behind him into three brown paper bags. “That’ll be one dollar and forty two cents.”

 “Thanks. Do you happen to know a Mrs Cook?”

“I don’t recall the name.” The shopkeeper gave Johnny his change and went back to writing prices on labels.

“A fella in the saloon said she was in here buying supplies yesterday afternoon. There was a boy with her. Could have been her son. She was wearing a dark blue cape.”

“He must mean that nice Mrs Cooper, Pa.” A girl of thirteen or fourteen came from the back room with arms full of work shirts.

“Hold your tongue, girl.” The shopkeeper narrowed his eyes at Johnny. “What’s your business?”

“Nothing bad. I was just asked to deliver a message.”

“Who by?”

“A banker in Austin. I must have misheard the name, but if Mrs Cooper got off the stagecoach from Desert Well yesterday, she’ll be the lady I’m looking for.”

“What’s the message?”

Johnny adjusted his hat. “Now, mister, don’t take this wrong, but that’s private. Mr Vincent was quite particular about that.”

“Vincent, you say?” The shopkeeper wiped his hands on his apron, and began to take the shirts from his daughter. “I reckon there is a banker in Austin called Vincent. Okay, I’ll believe you. Her menfolk can take care of it if you aren’t what you say.”

“Mr Vincent said she had kin. Where do they live?”

“Her brother and his boy took over an abandoned spread south of here. Not sure exactly where, but she said she’d come to keep house.”

“It can’t be far, Pa. Mossy said he’d be coming into town regular.” The girl blushed under her father’s gaze.

“Did he now? Well, you keep away from that boy until we know for sure what kind of folks they are.”

“Aw, Pa, you said Mrs Cooper was real respectable,” the daughter protested.  “You let her set up an account.”

Johnny smiled. That woman certainly had a knack with men. He leaned casually on the counter and bit into his apple. “Can’t be too many places like that close by.”

“No, I figure it’s probably the old Muller ranch. It’s this side of the river, half a mile west of the ford. The old man up and died about a year ago, and the bank foreclosed when no kin turned up to claim it.” The storekeeper scratched the back of his neck. “That boy was driving a buckboard so it has to be someplace with a road leading to it. The Muller place seems most likely.”

The bell over the door jingled, and a woman with two small children entered the shop. Johnny picked up his purchases and touched his hat in thanks. It was time to take a little ride.

.

.

Chapter Six

Johnny reached the river about forty minutes out of town. Riding back on himself he spotted a rough dirt track. Bushes had blocked his view of it coming from the other direction and it didn’t look like it had seen a lot of use recently, so there was a good chance it was the one he was after. It ran off towards the hills, disappearing into a row of trees.  He couldn’t see a ranch house, but a wagon wheel had gouged a patch of soft ground where the track joined the road.

It was mid-afternoon. If the lady or one of the men were out in the yard they’d see him coming. He took Picaro down to the ford and considered his options while the horse drank.

Returning to where the track joined the road, he backtracked even further towards Carson City and then rode wide over scrub land and a creek until he could see what was behind the trees. A rough sawn timber cabin and a lean-to shed nestled among low growing bushes. There wasn’t much sign of farming or ranching going on in the small corral or yard out front, but thin white smoke curled out of the stone chimney.

Johnny rode a little closer and tied Picaro to a large creosote bush in a hollow where the pinto could graze and not be seen from the house. “Don’t get into any trouble while I’m gone.” He spread his blanket over the horse’s back and gave Picaro the apple core he’d saved.

Then he scooted from one bush to another until he was up close to the cabin. There were three horses in the lean-to, but no sign of a mule, the big roan, or a buckboard. If the folks inside were who he was looking for, it meant Clayt and one other were somewhere else. Johnny looked around. No sign of anyone now, but he couldn’t be sure how much he could see past the stand of leafless trees. He hadn’t been able to see the house from the road, so it made sense he couldn’t see all the way to the road from here. It was a risk, but if he got away with it he could take two men and a woman, or even three men. Not one of the bandits struck him as much of a gunman; ten dollar a day men at best.

The cabin had two windows and a door, but one of the windows had its shutters closed. He couldn’t see a shadow of anyone looking through the glass of the other one, but that was no guarantee. Someone could still be there.

Heart thumping in his chest, he made a dash to the corral and skirted behind a rusted plough to approach the lean-to, covering the last yard fast when the cabin door opened.

“Don’t look at my cards, amigo.”

Johnny peered around the corner of the lean-to. Snowflakes caught on his lashes as he watched his new boots heading towards an outhouse about fifty yards away.

Keeping his eyes on the Mexican’s back, he snuck up onto the porch to peek through the grimy glass of the un-shuttered window. The big fella and the boy, Mossy, were drinking coffee. Playing cards and coins were strewn over the table in front of them, and a large cooking pot hung on a chain over a fire, burning brightly in the fireplace. A door on the far wall suggested a second room.

Johnny scanned the barren yard. The track leading to the road disappeared into the trees, but from this angle he could see some of it winding across flat ground on the other side.

Ducking under the window, he edged further around the house. Sure enough, setback a little, another room jutted out from the end of the main cabin. Keeping his back to the walls, Johnny moved his way around until he was sure there was little chance of being surprised and only one shuttered window at the very end of the building.

He slid his knife out of his boot and forced the blade into the crack between the two shutters. He was in luck; there was no glass. Rocking the knife up and down, he located the latch on the inside and worked it free.

Then floor boards creaked, and he froze. The Mexican must be back from the outhouse.

Johnny held his breath. Another creak, the squeak of hinges, and the door banged shut.

Exhaling, he stood to one side of the window and gave the shutter nearest to him a push. It swung inwards and stopped half open. Nothing stirred.

Feeling more confident, he stuck his head through the window to make absolutely sure. A carpet bag he recognized sat open on an iron-framed single bed, but there was no sign of life. He climbed in and looked around him. There were no drawers or a wardrobe, no pictures or mirrors, just a trunk on the floor, and a creamware wash basin on a stool. The jug and chamber pot were sitting on the floor beside it. The room had been set up in a hurry and the occupant wasn’t intending to stay long.

Leaving the shutter open enough to give him light, he crossed the room softly and put his ear to the door.

“Any sign of them, Julio?” The voice was deep—it had to be the big fella, not the kid.

“Not yet. It’s snowing again. Maybe they won’t get back. ”

“Ain’t likely unless it’s falling hard. We best feed the horses.” There was a scraping of chairs and the sound of the door opening again. “Not you, Mossy. You see to the stew.”

“Okay, Pete.”

Under cover of the closing cabin door Johnny drew up the latch on the bedroom door and opened it an inch. The room was lit by oil lamps and the fire. Mossy was already up by the hearth stirring the hanging pot. He turned in Johnny’s direction to check a Dutch oven sitting in embers below it, and Johnny fell back against the bedroom wall, Colt in hand.

One thousand, one thousand and one, one thousand and two—the smell of beef, vegetables and bread floated through the crack followed by the sound of metal against metal—Johnny risked another look.

Mossy hadn’t noticed the door. He was scooping ladles of water from a bucket on the floor into the pot.

He took a wooden spoon from where he’d left it on a box on the hearth and stirred the water into the stew. Then he tasted it and licked his lips. Without thinking, Johnny did the same.

Replacing the lid on the pot, the kid took a dime novel out of his pocket and sat down at the table, his back to the bedroom door.

Should Johnny take him now? He could hold him hostage to get his boots back off the Mexican, but would these guys have his money?

Before he could decide the door banged open, and Clayt and Mrs Cook or Cooper—whatever her name was—came in with Pete and Julio close behind.

“Good story?” The woman ruffled Mossy’s hair. She was wearing trousers, a great coat, and an old felt hat hanging by its string down her back.

“Yeah, it’s about the Reno brothers. They held up a moving train.”

“Well, ain’t that the devil? I believe I read about them in the newspaper.” The woman took off her coat and hung it and the hat on a hook by the door.

“They got away with thirteen thousand dollars. Will we ever rob a train, Lizzie?”

“It’s worth thinking about.”

Julio sat down next to Mossy, his back to the fire. “Robbing a train sounds like fun.”

“And profitable.” Clayt took off his buffalo skin coat. “But we’re doing pretty good. Ain’t we, Lizzie?”

“You better believe it.” She extracted a wad of notes from the pocket in her jacket.

“That banker fella paid up then.” Pete grinned.

“With a bit of persuasion.” Clayt sat down and started shuffling cards. “Lizzie had to show her hand.”

“Sadly, Mr Vincent wanted to change the agreement, but he reconsidered and kept to the deal once he fully understood his situation.” She winked at Clayt.

“His face when he saw you.”

“I think he was a little put out.” Lizzie smiled “But not to worry, everything worked out in the end, apart from Madrid getting locked up.”

“I don’t see why Madrid matters.” Clayt took a plug of chewing tobacco out of his pocket and bit a piece off.

“Because you boys had already riled him. Johnny Madrid didn’t strike me as the kind just to walk away.”

Well, shoot, she got that right, but more importantly what was this about Vincent being in on the hold up? Johnny hadn’t seen that one coming.

Lizzie looked around the men in the room. “Well, don’t just sit there. Clear the table for supper while I get washed up. We’ll share out the money after we’ve eaten.” She picked up one of the oil lamps and headed toward the bedroom.

Johnny flattened against the wall behind the door.

The door opened. Lizzie walked in and pushed it shut behind her without seeing him. She dropped the banknotes on the bed, and put the lamp on top of her trunk, tutting when she realised the shutter was open. “Fool men.” She went to the window to latch it shut.

Johnny came up behind her real quiet. He put his left hand over her mouth and pressed the muzzle of his gun against her waist. “Hey there.”

Lizzie went very still.

Johnny forced her round so she was facing the door, and his back was to the shuttered window. “Now I’ll tell you what we’re going to do.” He spoke softly so he couldn’t be heard in the next room. “I’m going to take my hand away and we’re going to talk, nice and quiet like. Cry out or try anything stupid and I’ll shoot you and anyone coming through that door. Agreed?”

Lizzie nodded.

Johnny let go, but kept his gun aimed.

Lizzie turned around. “Johnny Madrid. When I heard about what happened on the road, I just knew we’d be seeing you again. I’m sorry.”

“Well now, that’s easy to say when a gun is pointing at you.”

Lizzie smiled. “I mean it. I told Clayt to leave you alone.”

“Well, he didn’t.” Johnny glowered. Don’t you smile at me like we’re friends—Damn woman.

“No, but he had a point. They couldn’t rob the others and not you, not without making you look part of it.”

“Pfft, there was no need to take my boots, and Clayt calling me by name made me look part of it. I’ve just spent three nights in jail.”

“Yes, so I heard. I’m sorry. Clayt didn’t mean to cause you any trouble, and…” She smiled apologetically again. “Julio needed new boots.”

“Well, I’m guessing he can afford to buy his own now. I want mine back.”

“And you’ll get them—and your money.”

“No kidding.” Johnny stared at Lizzie. He was holding a gun on her and here she was saying he could have his belongings back as though she had a choice.

“For what it’s worth I gave them the sharp end of my tongue about the boots.”

Was she telling the truth? For some strange reason he believed her—and liked her—even after everything that had happened. He must be crazy.

“I suppose you want a cut of the profits from the silver too?”

“No, ma’am, I’m no thief.”

“Well now, I don’t know whether to be relieved or insulted by that statement.” Lizzie laughed and moved over to the bed. She sat down on the patchwork quilt and started unbuckling the belt on her trousers. “A gentleman would turn around while a lady got changed.”

“What makes you think I’m a gentleman?” Johnny pulled the bag away to the very end of the bed so there was nothing near her but her skirt. “You have until I count to ten.”

He went over to the door, standing side on, so he could keep an ear out for any worrying sounds in the main room, and see the bag but not the woman as he counted under his breath. “One, two…”

“We had nothing to do with the trouble you had in Virginia City, you know. That was all Vincent.”

“But you and Vincent planned this robbery together?” Johnny turned back around. Lizzie was fastening the button on her skirt.

“In a manner of speaking. Clayt made the deal with Vincent.”

“What kind of deal?”

“My boys would steal the silver and then sell it back to Vincent for an agreed price. He would dispose of it through normal channels and no one would be the wiser. Everyone makes a profit—except the bank of course.”

“Was anyone else in on it?”

“No. I always think the fewer people who know what’s really going on the better. Don’t you?”

“And you were just along for the ride.”

“Not exactly.”

“But Vincent didn’t know Mrs Cook was in on the game?”  Johnny was curious and more than a little worried that he’d missed the signs.

“Not until about two hours ago when he tried to wriggle out of our agreement.” She extracted a hand mirror from her carpet bag and began tidying her hair.

“Clayt and Vincent ain’t that smart. You planned it all.”

Lizzie beamed. “Thank you, Johnny. Most men underestimate women, but I had a feeling you were different. I think Mr Vincent was quite shocked.”

Shoot, Johnny had to hand it to her. “What’s your real name?”

“You can call me Lizzie.”

“Lizzie what?”

“Well, that depends. Cook or Cooper most often. I like to keep things simple.” She replaced the mirror and brushed down her skirt with her hands. “How about we go out there? Get your boots and have some supper. I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry.”

Johnny was always ready to eat, but first things first. “Pay me what’s mine and I’ll think about it.”

Lizzie peeled notes from the wad on the bed and offered them to him. “Does this cover it?”

Johnny took the cash and counted it. “Close enough.”

Stuffing the money in his pocket, he stepped aside.

“Okay, let’s get the introductions over with. After you.” He opened the door, and she strolled into the main room with him following close behind, Colt drawn.

The four men around the table jumped up and went for their guns.

But Lizzie held her hands up before they touched them. “Now boys, settle down. I hear tell Johnny Madrid could shoot the spots off a ladybug before you four cleared leather.” She glanced over her shoulder. “But you ain’t going to hurt no one if no one does anything stupid. Isn’t that right, Johnny?”

Johnny touched his hat.

“He’s come for what’s his and a bite to eat.”

Clayt frowned. “You just going to let him come in here and take everything back, Lizzie?”

“Why not? I said leave him be, but you robbed him to make things look right. Isn’t that what you told me?” Hands on hips, she cocked her head to one side. “Well, Clayt, isn’t it?”

Clayt scowled. Holstering his gun, he left the table and retreated to a cot at the other end of the cabin.

Lizzie marched over to check on the stew without waiting to see if her other ‘boys’ did as they were told, but interestingly, they did.

“Julio, give him his boots.”

Julio winked at Johnny and passed them over. “No hard feelings, amigo.”

“Thanks.” Johnny holstered his Colt and sat down on a bench resting against the bedroom wall. Blood rushed to his toes as he took off Julio’s boots. He threw them back to him and pulled on his own. Dios, they felt good. “I need to get my horse in from the snow. I’ll be back.”

Lighting a lantern by the door, he took it with him.

Picaro was waiting patiently in the fading light, but it was starting to freeze. He needed to be undercover.

Johnny brought him into the lean-to. It was a tight squeeze now with four other horses and the mule, but at least body heat would keep them all warm. He gave Picaro water, poured some grain into the shared feeder, and returned to the cabin.

Standing to one side of the doorway with his gun in hand, he listened before pushing the door open. All four men were sitting around the table. None of them reached for a weapon. Mossy was pouring beer into mugs and Pete was slicing bread.

Seeing Johnny, Lizzie lifted the pot off the chain. “Put the gun away and shut the door.” She carried the pot to the table and began ladling stew onto tin plates. “Come and sit down.”

Dropping his bedroll, slicker and other gear on the floor just inside the door, he took the spare seat at the opposite end of the table with Pete on one side of him and Julio on the other, and accepted a plate passed down the line. The aroma of fresh baked bread and beef stew made his mouth water.

“Help yourself to beer and bread.” Lizzie smiled, spreading a table napkin across her lap. She clasped her hands in prayer and her boys bowed their heads. “For what we’re about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful.”

“Amen.” They said in unison and began to eat.

“Amen,” Johnny murmured and did the same.

“Are you really a gunfighter, Johnny?” Mossy asked through a mouthful of buttered bread.

Johnny swallowed. “I hire out some.”

“I heard stories when I was in Mesilla—I’m Pete, by the way.” The big man offered his hand. Johnny shook uncertainly. One word from Lizzie and they were all accepting him like a long lost cousin. It didn’t seem natural somehow, but Pete appeared genuine. “Is it right you outgunned a cardsharp called Cole?”

“A while back in Santa Fe.”

“Serves him right. That sidewinder did me out of a month’s wages in ’61.”

“You don’t say.”

“Not all gamblers can shoot.” Clayt stabbed a lump of beef on his plate with force. He obviously didn’t like the attention Johnny was getting.

“Thurstan Cole could. Mean ba—fella.” Pete glanced apologetically at Lizzie and then topped up his mug with beer from the stoneware jug in the middle of the table. “Want some?”

Johnny and Clayt nodded, and Pete filled their mugs too.

“I seen Cole draw once. He was faster than you or me, Clayt. Besides, I heard that after Johnny here killed the gambler, he had a run in with a couple of top-notch shootists. Word has it they followed him down to the border. There was a bit of a fracas, and only Johnny Madrid walked away.”

“Wow.” Mossy stared at Johnny with eyes like saucers.

Johnny scooped stew with his bread. A few others walked away too, but why spoil a good story. “You fellas been robbing stagecoaches long?”

“We take our opportunities where they come.” Lizzie focused her knowing eyes on Johnny across the table. “A little like Johnny Madrid, but let’s not talk about work. Let’s just enjoy a nice family dinner.”

“Are you all family?”

“As good as.” Lizzie reached out and gave Mossy’s shoulder an affectionate rub.

The kid looked into his food, kind of embarrassed. “I was on the street a year ago.”

“Yeah? How come?” Johnny couldn’t help asking. He always felt a connection with kids like him who’d been dealt a poor hand. If he was honest he also felt a little proud that he’d managed to make something of his life. A lot didn’t. The last year had gone pretty well for him though. He was getting better at his trade with every job, and his reputation was growing. Not bad considering.

“Pa died in the war and last year Ma was took by pneumonia. The town put me in an orphanage, but I ran away.”

“Clayt and me found him searching trash cans for food,” Pete added, dunking bread into his stew. “Lizzie fed him and we ain’t been able to get rid of him since.” He punched Mossy on the arm in a brotherly fashion, and they all laughed.

“None of us have got any real kin, ‘cept Lizzie. She’s a widow.” Clayt started buttering another slice of bread. “Got a daughter in school back east.”

Johnny looked down the table at Lizzie, but she wouldn’t catch his eye. She caught Clayt’s instead for all the good it did her. He bit into his slice of bread with a rebellious smirk. Sharing her secret was payback for lumbering him with an unwelcome guest.

Johnny dropped his gaze to his food. He didn’t blame Lizzie for wanting to keep some things private—he felt the same way—but he wasn’t sorry to have the information. A widow woman with a daughter in school back east maybe explained why she was thieving. Robbing banks sure did pay the bills better than sewing or laundering, and it was a sight better than earning your money on your back in a brothel or a loveless marriage bed. Lizzie had a brain and she was using it to help herself and her kid out of a bad situation. Johnny kind of admired her for that.

“What about you, Madrid?” Clayt turned an unfriendly eye towards Johnny. “Have you got family?”

“My ma died a few years back.”

“What did she die of?”

“Does it matter?” Johnny met Clayt’s eyes for a long second, and Clayt fell silent.

Pete was less quick on the uptake. As he added another ladle of stew to his plate, he continued the topic. “What about your pa?”

“What about him?” Johnny didn’t mean to snap, but it had been a long day. Talk of family always reminded him of what he’d missed out on, and who was to blame.  Pete had asked the wrong question.

“Well, shoot, I didn’t mean no harm.” Pete turned back to his meal, and the others did the same. Clayt smiled as he chewed. The conversation clearly couldn’t have ended better as far as he was concerned.

After supper the cards came out again.

Johnny wasn’t in the mood. He helped dry dishes and then sat with Lizzie by the fire, talking of this and that as she knitted a scarf for Mossy. She and her boys had moved around just like Johnny, looking for chances and avoiding folks getting too familiar. They planned to stay put a few weeks and then move south east.

“You could spend Christmas with us if you want,” Lizzie said checking the number of stitches on her needle. 

“Thanks, I’ll think about it.”

It was tempting. Spending Christmas alone was something Johnny was getting used to, but that didn’t mean he liked it. “I expect I’ll ride south before then, but if I’m welcome I’ll stay a day or two and see if there’s any work in Carson City.”

“No thoughts of going home and mending bridges with your pa?”

“I have no home.” He picked up a twig from the wood pile to give his hands something to do. Why did she have to bring this subject up again?

“So you said before, but I can read between the lines. What went wrong between you and your father?”

“It’s none of your business.”

Lizzie laughed “Since when has that stopped me? Look around; I gather lost souls. I like you Johnny Madrid. Even if I can’t persuade you to stay with us, I’d like to help if I can.”

“You can’t.”

“Are you sure? Never underestimate a woman. Remember?”

“Lizzie, I know you mean well, but…”

She raised her eyebrows and smiled that irritating smile that said she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Oh to hell with it. Johnny lowered his voice so the men at the table couldn’t hear him. “My old man showed me and Mama the road. When more white folks came west, a Mexican wife and a half-breed son weren’t the style anymore.”

“Oh, I see. Well, I won’t say you’re wrong. When did you last see him?”

“I don’t remember. I don’t even know what he looks like, but one day I’ll see him again.”

“And?”

“And ten to one he’ll end up dying in a pool of blood like the bastard who took his place.” Johnny broke the twig he’d been fiddling with. Damn, now he’d cussed in front of a woman. He should apologize.

But Lizzie didn’t seem to have noticed. She looked thoughtful.

“What?”

“Nothing, it’s just that if you were too young to remember your father, you’re only going by what your mother told you.”

“So?”

“So maybe there’s another side to the coin. I knew a man once who had a Mexican wife. The marriage was years before I met him, but according to gossip she just up and left. Took their son and went. In those days I didn’t pry—shoot, I didn’t even ask my own husband what he was up to until after it was too late—but the word was that this man I’m talking about never stopped searching for his wife and boy. I can believe it. He was one of the few truly decent men I’ve ever met.”

“Nice story, but the son of a bitch who fathered me is nothing like that.” Getting up, Johnny escaped to where he’d left his gear. He grabbed his slicker off the top of the pile, and went outside to check on Picaro and the other horses. The cabin was getting stuffy. He needed fresh air, and so what if Mama didn’t always tell the truth. She had no reason to lie about this. If Johnny’s real father had been a decent man—if she’d had a choice—she would never have stayed with that bastard gambler, and she would damn sure never have made Johnny stay with him.

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Chapter Seven

The night was a long one.

When Johnny finally came back inside, Lizzie had gone to her room and the men were bedded down on cots at the other end of the cabin. They’d left a grey woollen blanket and a half-full sack of rice for him on the table. Swapping his slicker for his bedroll, he found a spot on the floor between the fireplace and Lizzie’s door. He punched the rice sack into something resembling a pillow, slipped his colt underneath it, and closed his eyes.

But his mind wouldn’t empty. Thoughts kept rolling around inside his head like thunder in a storm. Mama, why didn’t you leave the bastard? Even if you couldn’t go back to Lancer; why stay with Cole?

God damn it. He knew why. He just didn’t like admitting it.

Opening his eyes, he stared at the rough sawn timber wall. Firelight flickered against it in the darkness—lightning in the storm. He couldn’t win.

Thumping the rice sack again, he shut the lightning out. His stepfather had been a piece of shit, but Mama had loved him anyway. Had she loved the rancher too before he chucked her out? Did it make a difference?

Johnny pulled the blanket tight around his shoulders. Sometimes the idea he’d been born out of love rather than a roll in the hay made him feel better. The bastard had married Mama after all; he must have felt something for her at the time. On the other hand, perhaps love was all one-sided. Like Vincent said: lots of ranchers wedded their housekeepers to scratch an itch. Cole reckoned it was something like that. He said during the gold rush white folks flooded into California, him included. There were more white women about than ever before, and ranchers started kicking out their Mexican bed-warmers to make room for respectable wives from back east. Mama wasn’t alone.

One thing for sure, Lancer didn’t love Johnny. No man turns out his own flesh and blood at that age, not if there is an ounce of feeling. And there wasn’t a chance in hell his old man would have had a change of heart. Murdoch fucking Lancer wasn’t out searching for his son like the guy in Lizzie’s story—if he existed. He probably didn’t. She likely made him up. Shoot, she’s a woman and it’s nearly Christmas. Women get soppy at Christmas. Mama even wanted to go to mass at Christmas. 

One day maybe Johnny would find out what had happened between Mama and Lancer, but it would make no difference. He’d promised to hear the rancher out, but that would make no difference either. He’d known deep inside how Mama felt about Cole, but when he’d faced the bastard in Santa Fe it had made no difference. No difference at all.

Johnny rolled over. He couldn’t get comfortable, and someone was snoring. Shut the hell up.

He rolled back again. There was only one thing he needed to remember: Mama loved him. She’d loved him more than anyone or anything. It had been the only thing he’d been certain of growing up, and he wasn’t going to let any stupid fairy tale stir up doubts now—not again.

He’d decided two years ago after breaking ties with Luisa and Emilio it was better not to think too much about the past. Some things that happened in his childhood and in the army could drive him crazy if he let them. Mama used to say never look back and he wouldn’t. A kid didn’t always see things straight, but there are truths you know in your heart. Whatever happened, Mama had always been on his side. Except when… Nope, stop it. He wouldn’t think about that. It wasn’t her fault. None of it was her fault. It was all that cabrón in California and the son of a bitch gambler who got his filthy paws on her later. Mama didn’t have a chance. Her cousin Luisa was too God-bothering to be much help to a woman of spirit like Mama. Mama was beautiful and full of life. The kind of woman who didn’t need a runny-nosed mestizo kid clinging to her skirts, but she had loved Johnny anyway. Mama had done what she needed to do for them both to survive. Despite everything, Johnny loved her, and she loved him. He wouldn’t let the doubts in. She had no choice. She had no choice.

By daybreak he had fallen asleep.

But when he woke up with the first yawns and stretches of the men at the other end of the cabin he knew he couldn’t stay. Lizzie was the type of woman to keep pestering a man. She would bring up his father again, and they’d end up falling out. If Johnny left now, they could stay friends and maybe share a meal or two whenever their paths crossed.

Besides, he could take pride in being a gunfighter and being good at his trade. He couldn’t take pride in being a thief. He had more choice than Lizzie, and that kind of life wasn’t for him.

“I’m going into Carson City,” he said over breakfast. “Do you want anything?”

“You fixing on sticking around?” Clayt didn’t sound enthusiastic about the idea. Well, good; let him stew a while.

“Depends whether anyone is hiring guns.” Johnny got up and pulled his slicker back on before heading out the door.

He saddled Picaro and was about to untie him when Clayt appeared. “Madrid, you’re not wanted here. Move on.”

“Lizzie invited me to stay.”

“Well, I’m uninviting you.”  Clayt threw a punch, and Johnny ducked.

He threw one of his own and Clayt doubled over.

Winded but not defeated, Clayt rammed Johnny into the wall of the lean-to. Cobwebs and rusted scraps of iron rained down on them as they fell sideways between the end horse and the mule.

Between stamping hooves, they scrambled to find their feet. Clayt managed it first. Using his weight he pinned Johnny to the ground. “Now it’s my turn.”

He drew back his arm.

Still struggling Johnny shut his eyes, expecting a fist, but it never came.

Two pairs of hands hauled Clayt off, and Johnny rolled clear of the frightened horses.

“Now, you get and chop that wood, Clayt. Lizzie wouldn’t like you fighting Johnny.” Pete picked up his friend’s hat and handed it to him.

Clayt shook his arm free of Julio and smashed the hat on his head. He glared down at Johnny. “This ain’t over, Madrid. If you come back, this ain’t over.”

Clayt stomped away, and Julio offered Johnny a hand up.

“What’s his problem? He’s had it in for me right from the start.”

Julio shrugged. “I think he is jealous.”

“Yup, I reckon so.” Pete started filling up the feeders with a mix of barley, corn and oats straight from the sack. “Lizzie took a shine to you, right off. Clayt was in a bad mood even before we held up the stage.”

“He is afraid she will listen to you more than him if you stay, amigo, and maybe he is right.”

“Well, he doesn’t need to worry. I’m going south. Leaving tomorrow whether I hear about work or not.”

Pete shrugged. “It’s probably for the best. Not that we don’t want you around, Johnny. We think you’re okay.”

“Thanks. You’re not so bad yourselves.” Johnny grinned and mounted Picaro. “Tell Lizzie I’ll be back in time for supper.”

He cantered most of the way back into town and went straight to the Sierra Arcade to see if Cherry had heard of any jobs. He kept his visit short; barkeepers were more likely than wagtails to know of folks hiring guns, and he aimed to visit several saloons before the morning was over.

Cherry had asked around though. “A fella last night said haulage firms in Fort Yuma are always looking for guards, but don’t rush off.” She cuddled up to Johnny and put pressure on parts that didn’t need any more pressure.

“I’ll make time for a little socializing before I go.” Johnny slipped a dollar under the strap of her dress as a down payment, and she kissed him with plenty of tongue before letting him slip from her arms.

“Don’t forget, hun. I’ll be waiting.”

Oh boy. Johnny breathed deep. It was tempting to give up the search right there and then, but riding shotgun on a freight wagon again wasn’t what he had in mind. It was better than nothing, but he’d keep asking around. 

At the fourth saloon the barkeep told him something more to his liking. There was trouble brewing between ranchers and a mining company near Crystal Springs.

“Is that in Nevada?”

“Yep, best part of two days south east.” The barkeep wiped the bar top down with his tea towel before throwing it into a bucket behind him. “Stagecoach will take you.”

“I have a horse.”

“Well, up to you. You could go cross country, but I’d stick to the road and go the same route as the stage myself. Ride south from here and take the road to Warm Springs. There are markers at all the crossroads so the stagecoach drivers don’t get lost.”

“Thanks.”

It was worth considering. Something in Arizona Territory would be better. His bones were starting to hanker for warmth, but if Crystal Springs was hiring guns it could be steady wages for a month or more. Being with other gunmen would be a lot more fun than guarding freight on his own, and as long as he was among the ones who walked away at the end of it a fracas usually helped a man’s reputation.

Sipping his beer Johnny nodded towards a newspaper lying on the bar. “Is that today’s? Mind if I take a look?”

The barman slid the Carson City Daily over. Johnny searched the columns for anything interesting, taking his time to work out enough words to be sure, but there wasn’t so much as a job riding herd. Crystal Springs was looking like his best bet. If it didn’t pan out he could carry on to Tucson. There was bound to be something happening around there.

“Not a lot going on this time of year.”

“Not in these parts.” The barkeep lifted a fresh keg of beer up onto a stand on top of the bar, and poured himself a taster.

Johnny skimmed the pages of the newspaper once more to make sure he hadn’t missed anything; then he turned to the front page again to check the date.

“Sheesh.” He couldn’t believe his eyes, but it had to be true. How on earth had he lost track of so much time?

“Something wrong?”

“It’s December 23rd.”

“All day.” The barkeep laughed. “Christmas Eve tomorrow. It’ll be standing room only in here.”

“You don’t say?” Johnny downed the rest of his beer in one gulp. He couldn’t care less about Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day for that matter, but December 23rd—that was important.

For the last three years Johnny had been claiming to be eighteen, and now he finally was.

Happy birthday, Johnny boy

He ought to celebrate. After all there was no rush to get out of Carson City now; it was far too late to reach orange groves before Christmas. He had money in his pocket. Why not blow a little keeping warm between the sheets? He grinned at the thought. Cherry with the red lips and ample bosom would do just fine. Then after a night of letting off steam, he could take Lizzie up on her offer to stay at the cabin for Christmas, and ride south the day after.  Yes sir, that’s what he called a plan.

Whistling ‘Buffalo Gals’, Johnny crossed the street diagonally towards the Great Western Hotel. He was going to find Josiah P. Matheson, buy that sweet smelling Magnolia Water in the fancy French bottle, and then go a courting.

Somehow the day seemed so much brighter and full of opportunity than it had done a few hours ago. Eighteen—there’d been a time when he didn’t think he’d make eighteen, but he’d beaten the odds. Maybe now when folks ask I should claim to be twenty-one. It couldn’t hurt to try the lie out—it might get him better jobs and more money.

Mr John Rosser’s butcher’s cart, painted red with garish yellow signage, passed in front of him, and he had to wait or be run over. As soon as the way was clear he strode forward again, but before his boots touched the boardwalk he stopped in his tracks. What in hell is he doing here?

Sheriff Chapman from Virginia City was talking with the local lawman outside the jailhouse.

Johnny had noted the location of the jailhouse on his way into town the day before and had given it a wide berth, but curiosity got the better of him. He slipped down a narrow alley next to an assayer’s office, nipped around the back of a few shops and came up the slightly wider alley next to the jailhouse. When he reached the front corner of the building the lawmen were still talking and Johnny could hear every word. He leaned his back against the wall as though he was waiting for someone coming up the street, and eavesdropped on their conversation.

“Well, I take my hat off to you, Chapman. I’d never have worked that out.”

“Vincent was too eager to get Madrid locked up, and not interested enough in whether the posse caught those road agents. It started me thinking.”

“So you put a tail on the banker, and not gunfighter?”

“Yep, among other things, though I did check Madrid out, and I kept tabs on him until he left town. Don’t you worry I knew which way he went.”

“But you were more interested in Vincent.”

“I told him I’d let Madrid go so we could follow him, and just as I’d hoped the arrogant son-of-a-bitch made his next move. He led us straight to the missing silver. My man witnessed the exchange at an abandoned mine between here and Virginia City, got word back to me, and we arrested Vincent an hour later trying to hide the silver in one of the old shafts.”

“I bet you’re popular with the powers that be.”

“Let’s just say this badge is mine for as long as I want it, and I’m expecting a humdinger of a Christmas bonus.”

“Anyone else in Virginia City or Austin have a hand in the robbery?”

“Not as far as I can tell. Vincent is doing his best to wriggle out of it, but he’s spewing hogwash. According to him, the bandits threatened him the night before and demanded he pay a ransom for the bullion. He claims he was acting on behalf of the bank when he met them.”

“I suppose that could be true.”

“Well, it’s not. A telegram from the bank manager in Austin confirmed it this morning. Vincent cooked the bank’s accounts to get the money to pay them bandits off before he left Austin.”

“Do you think he’s telling the truth about the woman?”

“Oh, I reckon she was involved all right. My man was pretty sure one of the bandits at the mine was a woman in trousers. It ain’t likely she was the brains though. She’s probably just shacked up with one of the outlaws. Could even be Vincent’s Jezebel. Forbes and Madrid both said the banker and the lady were mighty friendly on the journey between Austin and Desert Well.”

“So what’s the plan now?”

“Find the bandits and arrest them. The woman changed at Desert Well for Carson City, and Madrid headed this way. I figure he could be looking for them too.”

“Could be. Is Madrid a youngish fella, dark haired and soft spoken?”

“Part Mex with blue eyes and a reputation I wouldn’t like to test out.”

“A guy like that was in Stiller’s general store yesterday asking after a woman. Reckoned she’d come in on the stage the day before.”

“It would fit. Madrid was mad enough to swallow a horn-toad backwards. The road agents stole a week’s wages from him and his new boots.”

“His boots? Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat, those fellas must have nothing under their hats but hair.”

“Yeah, it sure was stupid. I won’t be surprised if I’m handling dead meat, but one way or the other I aim to find them. Do you know where the woman is?”

“Stiller reckoned from what she said the local bank manager must have rented out the old Muller place down near the river.”

“Why don’t you round up three or four extra men, and we’ll pay Muller’s cabin a visit. We might get lucky.”

“Give me an hour.”

Johnny heard footsteps, and the door of the jailhouse open and close. Peeking around the corner, the boardwalk was empty. The Carson City sheriff must have gone into his office. Sheriff Chapman was heading towards the bank, probably to check out the shopkeeper’s theory.

Johnny was pretty sure Lizzie and her boys hadn’t bothered with anything as formal as a lease, but Chapman’s visit bought him a bit of time and a clear path down the street. He sauntered with gathering speed to where he’d left Picaro tied to a rail outside the Sierra Arcade. He rode out of town at a canter, and spurred to a gallop as soon as they reached the outskirts.

Half an hour later he jumped down from the saddle. “Hello the house.”

 Not waiting for Pete running across the yard or for a response from the cabin, Johnny barged through the door.

“That’s a good way to get yourself killed, Madrid. Don’t tempt me.”

“Put it away, Clayt.” Lizzie appeared through the open bedroom door.

Lowering his rifle, Clayt picked up a cleaning rag from the floor.

“What’s wrong, Johnny?”

“Lizzie, you got to get out of here. The sheriff from Virginia City is in town. He’s arrested Vincent and he’s coming for you. The Carson City sheriff is raising a posse now. Be quick or they’ll catch you for sure.”

He didn’t need to say it twice. Mossy hitched up the mule to the buckboard while Lizzie threw belongings into her trunk and carpet bag, and gathered up pots, plates and cutlery. Clayt and Pete dismantled her bed, and Johnny and Julio loaded the cots the men slept on. Within ten minutes everything was packed onto the buckboard, and they were on the road.

“Yah, yah.” As soon as the buckboard reached the main road Lizzie flicked the reins, and her boys rode escort.

Johnny scanned ahead for high ground where he could get a view back towards Carson City, but there wasn’t so much as a pile of waste rock anywhere near the road. The best they could hope for was to put enough distance between them and the posse that the lawmen would give up the chase.

Clayt reined hard and turn back the way they’d come.

“Where are you going?” Johnny shouted as he passed.

“Never you mind.” Clayt spurred his horse and rode hell for leather back towards Carson City.

Twenty minutes later, he caught up with them again as they neared a fork in the road. “Madrid was telling the truth. I saw riders heading for the cabin and high-tailed it out of there before they saw me. I reckon we’ve got to go west into California.”

“At this time of year? Are you crazy?” There was no way Johnny was going to cross the Sierra Nevada with snow in the air. Apart from anything else the other end of Carson Pass would put him within two days ride of where he thought his old man’s ranch was, and he wasn’t ready to face him yet. The name of Madrid needed to mean something to the bastard before he learned the hard way Johnny Madrid and Johnny Lancer were one and the same.

“We’ll have to leave the buckboard and ride cross country otherwise. They’re bound to catch up to us on this road.”

Lizzie nodded agreement. “We only have to cross the state line. If it starts to snow we’ll take shelter in Fredericksburg. We’ll be all right. Are you coming?”

Johnny hesitated. “No, I’ll keep going south. If they’re tracking us, splitting up might confuse them a little.”

“Well then, this is goodbye,” Lizzie said taking up the reins again. “It’s been nice knowing you, Johnny Madrid. I hope we meet again sometime.” With a click of her tongue and not a backward glance she steered the buckboard towards the mountains.

Raising his arm in the air, Julio followed. “Adios, amigo.”

Mossy‘s head swivelled between Johnny and the retreating buckboard, and then he made his choice too.  “Bye, Johnny.”

Pete looked grim. “Are you coming, Clayt?”

Hands folded on the horn, Clayt scratched his chin and met Johnny’s gaze. “I ain’t saying I was wrong, but thanks for your help.”

“I ain’t saying we’re all square, but good luck.” Johnny touched his hat and watched until Clayt and Pete caught up with the others.

Then Johnny rode south. Towards warmth, work, and the reputation he needed to settle the score with Murdoch Lancer.

~end~

2020

Notes

  1. Austin, Nevada is a real silver boom town. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austin,_Nevada and https://westernmininghistory.com/towns/nevada/austin/
  2. The Comstock was the big silver mine near Virginia City. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comstock_Lode
  3. The sales pitch for Magnolia Water was largely borrowed from an advertisement in the Carson City Daily, 1866. John Rosser was advertising meat for sale in the same edition. See https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84022040/1866-08-01/ed-1/seq-1/  
  4. For more about dime novels and those of Erastus Beadle in particular, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dime_novel and https://www.gutenberg.org/files/54993/54993-h/54993-h.htm
  5. On October 6th, 1866 brothers John and Simeon Reno staged the first train robbery. For more information see https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-u-s-train-robbery  
  6. Lizzie Cramer and her boys are of course canon characters from Goodbye, Lizzie, Series 2, Episode 23.

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PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment.  Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here.  You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email Margaret P. directly.

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6 thoughts on “Boots and Bandits by Margaret P.

  1. Good story, now we know the background for the episode. I didn’t suspect that it was Lizzie until Clayt was mentioned

    Like

    1. Thanks for reading and leaving feedback. I was hoping it wouldn’t click with readers too soon, but a surprising number didn’t realise until much later. I suppose it depended on how recently a reader had watched ‘Goodbye Lizzie’.

      Like

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