To ...illustrate this power and effect of love
is to set a candle in the sun.

Robert Burton



First in the Feathers Series



The leather is smooth and supple, taking on some of the warmth of his hands as he shifts it in his grip.

A man gets up in the morning and he has his way of getting himself ready to face the day. Probably does the same thing every damn day. He stretches and yawns and does other stuff that can't be mentioned in decent company. Leastways, maybe the scratching can be mentioned, long as he don't say where the itch is. Anyhow, that done, he washes and shaves, if he's a clean sort of hombre, then pulls on a shirt and buttons up his pants before getting his morning cup of coffee and looking out to see what the weather's doing.

Johnny does all of that, most days. Some days he skimps on the shaving a mite, but everything else he does. And then he has his own little... what is it Scott called it? Ritual, that's it. Ritual. He's always thought that's a church thing. The priests' rituals have them bowing and chanting and swinging the incense, using their wine and bread and saying their prayers. But his is checking the buckles, and the holster frog and the cartridges in their little leather loops, making sure they're all secure, and cleaning and oiling the gun before sliding it back home into the holster.

He doesn't say any prayers.

Once all that's done, well then he's ready to meet the day. It's more likely he'd forget his pants than forget his ritual.

He smoothes a finger over the tooling on the belt. Manuel Echevarría is the best leather worker in Sonora and does beautiful work, but kept the belt mostly plain, just some tooling around the edges and on the holster. The belt's for work, not show; the plainest thing about Johnny Madrid, Scott said once. Scott's right.

He swings the belt around his hips. "Tell Murdoch I'll be along in a few days, okay?"

"A few days."

"I've got something to take care of, first." Johnny shifts the gun belt until it's snug and takes a deep breath, sucking in the muscles of his gut to get the buckle at its tightest. It settles into place, comfortable after all the years he's worn it. The holster is heavy against his upper leg. Dios, but it feels odd when that weight isn't there.

"Something to take care of."

Johnny gives Scott a hard look. "Why in hell are you repeating everything I say, like one of them birds?"

"A parrot, you mean?"

"Yeah, a parrot, I mean." Johnny looks him up and down and taps a finger against Scott's beige check shirt. "Mind you, the ones I've seen had a bit more colour and snap about them. You ain't the flashy dresser you used to be, brother. So, you'll tell Murdoch?"

Scott nods. "I'll tell Murdoch."

"I warn you, I've shot men for less. Stop it. Why are you parotting away at me?"

Scott purses his lips. "I don't know, Johnny. Maybe it'll help me get the story straight so that when Murdoch throws his temper tantrum about you not coming home, I'll be able to look him right in the eye and lie like a trooper."

"I ain't asking you to lie. I'm telling you I'll be home in a few days. A week. I've got something to do first."

"Which you are going to tell me about. Of course."

Johnny huffs out a laugh. "Not this time, Boston." He takes a deep breath. It steadies him, makes him feel less like his head's swimming. "Not this time."

Scott throws up his hands. "But what are you going to do on your own in San Francisco for the next few days? You keep telling me that you don't like big towns."

"Who said I was stayin' here in San Francisco?" Johnny takes his watch from his pants pocket and checks it. The stage won't get to Stockton for 'least three or four hours. It will have left the Lockforde way station at sun-up, he reckons, where the passengers spent the night. Providin' the stage isn't running more than ordinarily late, she'll be in plenty of time for the afternoon train to San Francisco.

He rubs a hand over a suddenly dry mouth. Shit, but it's a big thing to do, this. Maybe San Francisco isn't the best place he could have come up with for doing it.

Scott's taking another turn at the washbasin. He's already scrubbed his face with the fancy hotel soap and dunked his head in the water to wash the brandy right out of it—the day before, they'd clinched the business deal Murdoch had wanted and celebrated a mite hard—but now his hair is getting more work.

Johnny grins. Old Boston is still a bit of a dandy. That hair of his gets more groomin' and currying than Barranca's mane. It takes a man's mind off his own worries, grinning at the fool things others do. When he looks up, Scott's watching him in the mirror above the basin, eyes grave and questioning.

"Is it trouble, Johnny?"

Trouble? Is it trouble? Hell, yes, it's trouble.

"Not gun trouble," says Johnny, running a finger along the top edge of his gun belt and letting his palm close around the butt of his gun. The walnut grips are smooth, slipping into his hand like they were made for it. Sighing, he unbuckles the belt again and coils it around the holster, slipping it back into his holdall. One reason he doesn't like big cities so much is that the law tends to look sideways at a man wearing his rig in the street. He doesn't like to rely only on his hideaway gun and the Deringer and the knife in his boot. It doesn't make a man feel safe.

Still, this isn't gun trouble. It's a whole different kind of trouble. Maybe worse.

He wonders if he's going to throw up. Feels like it, like he'll heave up his boots. He makes himself smile, right into Scott's worried face.

"Not trouble, Boston. No trouble at all."
It takes some doing, but he gets Scott onto the eastbound morning train to pick up his horse in Stockton and head south for home, just like he planned.

Scott doesn't want to go. He dawdles over prettifying himself and he lollygags over his breakfast, and he only shifts himself when Johnny looks blue at him and moves his jacket aside, showing the other gun in the holster sewn into the inside of the left side. Johnny remarks that Cain wasn't such a bad fella after all and that Abel had probably asked for it by drinkin' his coffee so slow that he missed his train.

Johnny goes with him to the station, just in case. Scott can be tricksy, and knows a wrinkle or two. He wouldn't put it past big brother to sneak back into town and try and keep an eye on him, ready to jump in and help.

Thing is, this isn't the kind of situation where a man wants his brother's help. Another man around will cramp his style considerably. Still, it's a good feeling, that he knows he can rely on Scott to watch his back when he does need it. A real good feeling.

"It ain't bad, Boston," he says, pushing Scott up the steps into the carriage. "It's just somethin' I've got to do. If it all works out the way I want... well, you'll like it, I promise."

"If anything happens to you, Murdoch will kill me." Scott sticks his head back out the open window, leaning down. "You'd better come home and in one piece, brother, or I'll come back and kill you myself. Got it?"

"Got it."

"Why won't you tell me what you're up to? I won't tell Murdoch. At least put me out of my misery and stop me worrying myself into a decline."

"Fact is, I don't know how this is goin' to play out, myself. If I knew, I'd put us both out of our misery." Johnny reaches up to grip the hand Scott's holding out. "It'll be a good thing, brother, if it works. It ain't worked in the past, but this time... this time I'm real hopeful. But I don't want to say too much."

He drops his hand and steps back. The train is about ready to go, steaming and puffing and whistling.

Scott gives him a long look, pursing up his mouth again. He looks as prissy as a schoolmarm finding a dead frog in her lunch bucket. Then he relaxes and grins. "Oh, that sort of trouble."

He uses both hands to make a shape in the air, like he's smoothing them down the sides of a real womanly woman.

Johnny grins back. He can't keep much from Boston. Has to be that Harvard education, making him so smart. But Johnny doesn't answer, just takes another step back as the train whistle shrieks and the express judders its way outa the station, heading east.

Scott leans so far out of the window he looks like he'll tumble out, head first. "All I can say is that you're our father's son all right! Good luck! Don't do anything—" And the rest is lost as he's jerked out of sight and the window snaps back up. Probably the conductor pulling his fool head in before he gets it knocked off.

Johnny waves at the train and turns away. What did he mean, their father's son? Scott's one to talk. After all, there'd been Polly Foley (and Dios, but she's a filly worth the fees a man has to pay to take a ride), that McGloin girl, and Glory, and Zee, and...

He grins. Yeah. Scott's one to talk. Looks like they both come by it honest.
The first thing he does is move hotels. Murdoch always uses the Occidental, and the Lancers are known there. Johnny figures that Murdoch probably won't mind for himself, but the Lancer name is a respectable one. Johnny still feels, some days, that he's wearin' another man's boots and hell, do they pinch his toes, but he's getting used to being respectable Johnny Lancer and he reckons that Murdoch won't like the Lancer name muddied and gossiped about.

He moves a few blocks down Montgomery Street to the Lick House. It's just as fine as the Occidental, just as hard on a man's wallet, but this isn't the time to be close-fisted. She'll like the Lick more'n some dog-cheap boarding house down by the harbour and she deserves the best.

He set it up a couple of days before during a break in the Cattle Growers' Association meeting when he slipped away, leaving Scott to explain that Murdoch threw out his back. He'll be fine in a week or two. And in the meantime, sir, I understand you have a bull that you're thinking about selling... Sure, Scott noticed he was gone, but just rolled his eyes at him when he got back and got himself so interested in the dickering over the bull that he forgot to ask Johnny where he'd been.

The desk clerk at the Lick House has his name right enough, and slides the key across, making no fuss at all. The clerk is real polite and friendly. Seems that Johnny Lancer with no gun on his hip is a whole heap more respectable than Johnny Madrid goin' heeled. The clerk good-mornings him and sirs him and hopes he'll enjoy his stay—Johnny sure as hell hopes so too, but it won't be because of anything the clerk does—before banging his hand on the desk bell and ordering the bell-hop to carry Johnny's bag and show the gentleman to his room. Johnny follows the man, grinning. Isn't often he's called a gentleman. Usually the one doing the calling is sneering and tryin' to push him into a dance.

The room is fine. Very fine. Fine furnishings and fine drapes, with green figured paper on the walls and a big candelabro colgante hanging from the ceiling, all glass and sparkles. The sparkles are little rainbows, dancin' over the walls. There's one wide bed under the window and another in an alcove. A thick, heavy green curtain pulls across the alcove to shut it off from the main room; almost like having two rooms, that. Gives them some privacy.

Johnny sighs. 'Course, he doesn't know where he'll be sleeping, yet. He won't know that until she gets there and tells him what she wants. And he doesn't know if this is the kind of room she'll like. He thinks it might be, but he can't be sure. He doesn't want to get started all wrong.

"All okay, sir?"

Johnny turns to the bell hop. "Fine. Maybe..." he pauses, frowning.

The room is very fine, but it isn't what he'd call welcoming, not homey and comforting. Not like the great room back at the hacienda, with all the bright cushions that Teresa had quilted, and the big fire and jugs of flowers everywhere... Yeah. That might help. She'll like that.

"It needs somethin' else. Flowers."

"Of course, sir." The bell hop glances around. "I can arrange that. For a lady, sir?" And at Johnny's nod, he goes on, "Ladies like roses."

"No. Not roses. She always puts me in mind of them tall June lilies. You know the ones? Can you get me some? And them... er... what does Teresa call them? Oh yeah. Peonies. The deep red ones."

"I'm sure that won't be a problem, sir. It'll be around six dollars, I'd say, for a couple of good displays."

Six bucks for a few flowers? Hell, he doesn't want to buy the whole damn garden! Johnny blows out a soft breath. The real reason he doesn't like cities, apart from not being able to wear his rig, is the way a man gets gouged every time he turns around. If this wasn't a special thing, he'd just find his way to the nearest park and pick some... He pulls out a ten and hands it over. "Keep a couple of dollars for yourself and I'd better get a hell of lot of flowers for what's left over. Comprende?"

He gets a huge smile in return. The bell hop touches his hat. "It'll be done within the hour, sir. My name's William, sir, and anything you want—theatre tickets, recommendations for the best dining places, anything at all like that—you just ask."

"Yeah, yeah." Johnny watches the man go. Made a friend for life, there. Seems you can buy anything in the city for a couple of bucks.

He punches a few of the sofa cushions just to take the stiffness out of them, locks his holdall into the big wardrobe, tucking the key into his pants pocket, and goes out to try and work out how the hell he'll spend the time between now and her train getting in that evening, and not go loco.
It isn't his first time in San Francisco, and every time he comes, he remembers why he doesn't like to come back. A man can't walk down the street without he's dodging what has to be every citizen in town all crowding into the same bit of the city he's in. He can't get into his stride and ends up taking a few little steps here and longer ones there, dodging left and right to get around folks. It's like they don't see him, and he's the one who has to get outa the way.

Johnny Madrid isn't used to not bein' seen like that. It's enough to get a man all wrathy. Sure as hell makes him tired not bein' able to walk straight; makes his legs ache.

And that's another thing. There's a reason he rides the range for a living, and it's all to do with cowboy boots not being made for walkin' in. Folks keep looking around, surprised when they hear his spurs, but he's damned if he'll take them off. He might be in the city but he's still a cowhand on the spree.
He buys her a present before midday. He saw it on the walk between hotels earlier, but he looks around first, to make sure there isn't anything better. There are other merchants' em-por-i-ums, most of them a helluva lot bigger and better than Baldomero's over in Morro Coyo, and some sell very similar little brooches. He likes the first one best. He goes back to buy it before finding somewhere to eat.

Not that he's real hungry. His gut twists a bit too much every time he thinks of eatin' and not even the thought of tamales or mole gets rid of the tight feeling just underneath his ribs. This is such a big thing he's doin'. Too big.

The brooch isn't fussy. It's a gold bar engraved with a bird and the curving branches of a tree, sitting in a little green velvet case. The bird's eye glitters. It isn't much of a diamond, maybe; just a small one, but it sparkles where the light catches it and it makes him think of her. She isn't a one for a lot of show and she's had it hard, damned hard, so that she comes at life plain and unfussy, and sometimes she's stiff with hurt and watchful for all folks can throw at her. But when it comes to it she can glitter finer than any diamond.
He finds the church in mid-afternoon, only a few streets west of the hotel. It's Mexican and reminds him of bein' a kid again, before he took up the gun. The church is set in a patch of greeny-yallery grass, the bell tower white against the sky. It's real pretty.

He's tired of looking at stores and this is a good place to sit in the sun and wait out the day until she gets there. He sits on a gravestone and watches a parcel of priests walk down the path, robes flutterin' like black wings. The bell tolls for Mass. He doesn't go in. He isn't much for churches and is damned sure that churches aren't much for him. Priests don't care much for sinners.

A broken-down pistolero is pretty much the blackest kind of sinner, too. Seems like the church looks down on any kind of whore; the girls who sell their bodies and the men who sell their guns. Padre Pietro at Morro Coyo looks pained every time he sees Johnny, and often draws a sketchy cross in the air that's more to ward Johnny off than offer blessing and forgiveness for sin. Gunfighters don't mix with priests any better than they do with pretty girls.

He smiles. One pretty girl at least doesn't think that way. It's a miracle that she's giving him a chance.

It's more than the church would do for her, he reckons. She isn't the kind they want through their doors any more than they want a pistolero. There'll be no mass for them. No priest will risk his bishop's wrath to do it.

The bell's peal stops. A lone priest, robes flapping in the wind, runs for the sanctuary door, holding his flat hat on his head with one hand and holding up his robes with the other. Johnny catches a glimpse of thin-shanked legs and the priest is gone, the bells are silent and the only thing moving in the square now are little brown birds fluttering in the trees.

He leans back against the stone and watches the birds until the sun is westering and the edges of the graveyard are shadowed with a dusk as purple as the bloom on a grape. It's time to go back to the hotel to get ready to meet her. He's thought about it all afternoon, watching the coming and going of the priests and in the end he figures it didn't matter. It doesn't matter if the church thinks that both of them are beyond redemption.

He doesn't mind being a sinner, if she's sinning right there along with him.
William's done himself proud with the flowers. They're everywhere; tall June lilies in slim glass vases and banks of peonies in beds of fern. They look fine, softening down the harder edges of the room and making it smell like Teresa's garden after a shower of rain.

Johnny changes into one of the new shirts he'd had Señora Isabella, Cipriano's wife, embroider for him and pulls his new bolero jacket from his valise, shaking the creases out. He slides the hideaway gun into its place in the new jacket and slips the little green velvet case into his pocket.

William had suggested half a dozen places to eat in but on his way out Johnny orders dinner to be brought up to them when they get back. She'll be tired after two days journeying and they'll have all week for fancy dinners in fancy hotels. They'll be quiet this first night, and try and get accustomed to looking up over the rim of a wine glass and seeing each other, where there hadn't ever been anyone before.

They'll have time to get used to being there, together.
The railway station lamps are lit when he reaches it, the dusk deepening across the city. He's early, and it feels like years before he sees the single big light at the front of the train come slowly towards him out of the gloom. It stops a few yards away in a cloud of steam and smoke that makes him blink and cough.

He doesn't move.

He swallows, more afraid right then than he's ever been facing down some gunhawk who's braced him. What if she hasn't come? What if she's decided Madrid is too much of a sinner for her? What if she's decided she doesn't want to take the risk, that he isn't worth it? Maybe what he can offer isn't enough to make up for how hard she's had it up until then; how hard it could be as Johnny Madrid's woman.

Dozens of people are getting off the train, collecting their belongings, laughing, calling goodbyes and greetings. They push past him, break around him like water around a rock. He hasn't seen her yet. Maybe...

She gets down from the third car, careful of her dress on the steps, handed down by a man in a bad-fitting suit. He looks like he might be a whiskey drummer. She's in a town dress he's never seen before, dark green and close-fitting. Her hair is up, piled under a matching hat perched on the top of soft curls. The feather on her hat curves down to touch her cheek, just to the left of the corner of her mouth.

Maybe he's stopped breathing. He doesn't breathe when he sees her, anyway.

No wonder the whiskey drummer's scraping a bow, holding his hat and calling her Ma'am and looking at her out of the corner of his eyes. She's beautiful. So, so beautiful.

She's come. She's really come.

She sees him then. She doesn't smile, but she does lift her hand, acknowledging him, while she thanks the whiskey drummer for his kindness. Her valise is at her feet.

Johnny takes a deep breath. He swallows hard again, and takes a step forward to go get it and her, when something cannons into his legs and clutches at him. Every step he takes he has to swing his leg because of the limpet hanging onto it.

"Johnny! Johnny, you're here! I said you'd be here to meet us. I said you wouldn't forget. Johnny, we were on a stage and a train. The stage is awful slow, ain't it? We were on it for more'n a day an' I got awful tired of it. I thought it'd never get to Stockton so's we could get the train. Have you ever been on a train, Johnny? The train's just bully. It's awful fast. Faster than a horse can gallop, the conductor said. But I guess he never saw Barranca, did he? Barranca'd beat a train any day. I told him so, and he just laughed. Where is Barranca? Ain't you got him with you? Don't he miss you when you're gone? I'd think he'd miss you somethin' awful. Oh and Johnny, the seats on the train are red velvet and have high backs right up to here and the windows are this wide, and right at the back of the car is this funny little thing—the conductor said it was a force-it or somethin'—and you press it and water comes out of it into a tin cup. You don't have to pump it or anything or be near the well. It's awful neat. How does it do that, Johnny? I said you'd know, because you know stuff like that—"

She waits until Johnny's got to her, then reaches out and touches the kid on the head, to stop him babbling. She still doesn't smile, just looks real solemn, like she's in church or somethin'. The whiskey drummer puts his hat back on and slouches off, scowling.

"Hey," Johnny says. He glances down at the kid and they grin at each other. "Good journey, then?"

She nods. "It's a long way though. He's over-tired. He's been lookin' forward to this for weeks. I don't think he's slept for days. Too excited."

"I got us a room. A real nice one. There's a bed for him in an alcove. Leastways—" Johnny stops, and his mouth twists. "I shouldn't presume that one room's enough, but—"

She puts her hand on his arm. She works hard, and the hand has rough spots here and there. It's a good hand, a capable hand. "We agreed that we'd see if it would work between us. All of it." The corner of her mouth starts to curve up. "I meant it, Johnny. I meant all of it. He'll be fine in the bed in the alcove to our room."

And she smiles at last, a big smile. It lights him up until he wants to shout. The sudden burst of joy fills him as nothing else ever has, sitting in his chest, bright and warm as the sun. He has to be glowing with it.

He brings up his hands and cups her face in them. Her eyes are a mite too big, maybe, and her mouth. A man looking at her for the first time might think that she was a pretty enough girl, but there were others prettier.

But not Johnny. He thinks she's beautiful. So, so beautiful.

She's still smiling, and her eyes are bright. She opens her mouth, but he never finds out what she wants to say. He licks his way into a kiss that stops his breath instead. Her hands close over his upper arms so tightly they hurt, and the breath hitches in her throat. She's kissing him back, until the heat surges through him like lightning. He raises his hands and his fingers curl over the hard bone of her shoulders, pulling her in closer. The heat pools in his groin, his cock hardening.

"Oh yeech," says Grady. "Why are you kissing my Ma?"

Johnny pulls back, keeping his hands on her shoulders. His breath comes short. Her eyes open slowly.

"It's sort of expected of a man, Grady, when he loves a lady as beautiful as she is."

Jessamie smiles again, pleased.

"Pfft," says Grady. "Then I won't ever."

"You will. One day, you will." Johnny runs a finger down her cheek. "Welcome to San Francisco, Mrs Lancer. I'm real glad you're here."

4660 words
February 2012


To Feathers 2 :The Day's Most Quiet Need