The Old Maid's Tale, Part Two

Andy was almost beside himself.

"Johnny Madrid!" he repeated, over and over, dancing around the little room in his delight.  "He's Johnny Madrid!"

Dorrie sat down, before her knees gave way.  They were shaking again, the way they had been when she'd sent Johnny Lancer… Johnny Madrid away earlier.  This time, for a different reason, maybe.

"Now we’ll set things right about Pa.  Marvin and Jencks will really get it now.  Right between the eyes!  Dorrie, you must have heard of Johnny Madrid."

"Yes," said Dorrie.  "I've heard of Johnny Madrid."

Her head was thumping.  She rested her elbow on the tabletop, propping her chin on her hand.

"He's one of the best gunfighters ever," crowed Andy, still dancing.  "Johnny Madrid!"

She'd just agreed to let Johnny Madrid take on Marvin and Jencks.  She'd just agreed to let Johnny Madrid help her get Andy settled.  Johnny Madrid.  She had to shut her teeth against the fear that surged up and tightened her throat until it hurt.

"And I talked to him about hiring Jack Slade and Wes Hardin," said Andy.  "He's faster than Jack Slade.  He's faster than Wes Hard…  leastwise, I'll bet he's faster than both of 'em.  Johnny Madrid, Dorrie!"  He stopped his capering about, grinning at her.  She hadn't seen him so happy for weeks, like the kid he was and should be.  "Don’t you know about him?"

"I've heard of him," said Dorrie, again.

"I've got something—"  Andy shilly-shallied, dancing from one foot to the other, then said, "Out in the barn.  Can I go get it?" 

"In the barn?" Dorrie looked up and stared.

Andy squirmed.  "I got five or six dime novels out there," he said, like he was shamed.  "I know you and Pa don't like them."

She gave him a long look until he squirmed some more, then nodded.  He darted into his room to pull on his boots and ran out to the barn with the lamp from the table, leaving her in the darkness.  Dorrie almost laughed, he looked so comical in his short nightshirt, thin white legs and heavy boots, but she was still all awhirl with the thought that Johnny Madrid—Johnny Madrid, for landsakes—wanted to help her and Andy.  She pressed the heel of her palms against her eyes to stop the stinging.  What was she doing?

She thought she must be a little bit crazy.

Andy came back a few moment later, waving a couple of thin soft-covered books at her.  "This here's Johnny Madrid, the Border Hawk: Showdown at Judson's Landing, Dorrie, and this one's Johnny Madrid, the Border Hawk: Vengeance at Bitter Creek."

"The Border Hawk," said Dorrie, feeling like all the world was tilting on her.  She raised her head and took the book that Andy shoved at her.  The cover showed a drawing of a big man, big as Bill Wilson maybe, pointing his gun at three smaller fellers.  The man had a big moustache and wore a sombrero.  "That doesn't look like Johnny," she said.

"It's about Johnny going to Bitter Creek to looking for some outlaws who killed his girl.  It's a real good'n.  He kills them all in a gunfight in the Silver Lady Saloon."  Andy pointed his forefinger at her as if it were a gun.  "Bam!  Bam!  You're dead!"

"Andy Cutler," said Dorrie.

His ears went pink.  He dropped his hand, looking shamed again.  "They're real bad men, Dorrie.  They get what's coming to 'em.  Promise."

She opened the book.  For a moment or two she was silent as she read about Johnny Madrid riding into a town to find the local bully and his gang of toughs abusing Ella, a working girl from the Lucky Break Dance Hall.  Johnny Madrid in the dime novel was soft-spoken and dangerous.  He outdrew the bully in the first few pages and rescued Ella like a real gentleman, before going to have a knock-down fight with the villain in The Buffalo Wallow Saloon.

Dorrie sighed, and flipped over a few more pages.  When she read the part where Ella thanked Johnny Madrid for his help—and how—she closed the book with a snap and glared at Andy.

"Andy Cutler, what are you doing reading this trash?"  She dropped the book onto the table and wiped her hands on her apron.  "You should be ashamed.  No wonder the Reverend preaches against these dime novels.  No wonder you hid them in the barn.  Give me the other one.  Give it to me right now."

Andy, red faced, handed it over.  "They ain't mine, Dorrie.  They're Billy Moomey's."

"Then when you get to school tomorrow, you'll give these right back to Billy Moomey, do you hear me?  And if you ever borrow one again, I will speak to Billy Moomey's Ma about it.  I won't have such things in the house."  Dorrie turned Showdown at Judson's Landing face down on the table, so she didn't have to look at the cover drawing of a man ((was it meant to be Johnny?) and two ladies of the kind that Dorrie could never speak about and could never speak to.  Andy should not be looking at such pictures.

"They weren't in the house.  They were in the barn," said Andy, and it was all Dorrie could do to hustle him off back to bed before coming back to her chair and laughing quietly; because if she didn't laugh, she was pretty sure she would cry.

Dorrie didn't go to bed.  She was tired, tired right down to her bones, but she sat in her rocker beside the stove and waited for the dawn, rocking back and forth with her hands idle and folded in her lap, or walked about the room until she was tired enough to fall into the rocker again. 

She didn't spend a lot of time thinking about Pa.  She didn't think he'd be too mad with her for doing anything she could to keep Andy safe.  So, no, she didn’t think too long about him except to tell him she was sorry for what she'd said.  Instead, she thought mostly about Andy, who might be going wrong, and about Johnny Madrid, who'd gone wrong years before.

She'd always thought that gunfighters were dangerous, wicked men.  Pure evil, the sort of men no decent person—and certain-sure, no decent woman—could bear to have near them.  Johnny Madrid was one of the most famous guns in the whole of the west, the kind that no lady should meet.  By rights, she should have closed the doors against him.  Yes, and locked up Andy before she'd let him even see, much less speak to, a man who killed for money.

But she was sure she hadn't dreamed how sorry Johnny Madrid had looked, or how kind his voice and eyes were.  And there was no mistaking how much he'd meant it when he'd said that he didn't want Andy walking the road he'd travelled.  Now that she knew who he was and where his road had led, she prayed.  It frightened her that he saw something in Andy that reminded him of himself.  She didn't want Andy to turn to the gun for vengeance.  She wanted her boy back.

Trouble was, there wasn't anyone else she could turn to.  Except Reverend Williams, of course, but somehow she couldn't see Andy dancing a jig because the Reverend was going to help them. 

As the night dragged on, she often glanced at the dime novels on the table.  She wasn't so dumb as to think they were real and true, but there was something… the Johnny in the novel hadn't seemed to be a heartless killer.  He was kind hearted and gentle, like the man she'd met.  On one of her wanderings around the room she picked up the book and read the pages again.  How much had the writer made up?  How much was Johnny Madrid in the book like the real one?  In the book, Johnny was helping the weak and fallen.  Well she wasn't weak and she sure wasn't fallen, but still she knew she needed a man's help to get Andy straightened out.  Maybe only someone who'd walked the road, who knew exactly how the boy would make the man, could give her that help.  He sure knew enough about it on his own account.

She tightened the grip her hands had on each other, and rocked.

Johnny arrived, as promised, while it was still dark.  Dorrie watched from the window as he rode up, a bowl held in the crook of her left arm as she mixed dough for the breakfast biscuits. 

She stuck the spoon into the biscuit mix and opened the door as he swung down from the saddle.  He had the bay horse with him, as he'd promised.  She watched him tether them to the hitching rail.  She didn't speak.

He paused in the doorway and took off his hat.  "Mornin',"

She nodded.  "Come along in."

"I wasn't so sure you'd let me in again," he said.

"You know I'd do it for Andy.  You know I'd do anything for Andy.

He nodded, grinning.  Then more serious, he asked, "All right?"

"I thought about nothin' else all night," she said, and stood aside to let him in.  She held his gaze with her own.  "Did you mean it?  That you'd try to stop Andy following the road you took?  Because right this moment I'm real scared that you're right, and he'll do something, get himself all twisted up until he can't get free.  He thinks you hang the moon and if anyone can help him, maybe you can."  She shook her head, putting down the bowl.  "He's a good boy, Mister Madri… Lancer—"

"Just Johnny," he said.

"Johnny," she said, and nodded.  "He is a good boy and Pa brought him up right, but he's getting to thinking he's a man and that he doesn’t need to mind me the way he used to.  He won't listen to me about Jencks and Marvin, because he thinks that's man's work and I'm only a female."  She managed a smile.  "He'll listen to you."

"Maybe.  I hope so.  Listen, Dorrie, I'll have to find out what happened, see if we can set his mind at rest and get some of that hate and anger out.  That means I'm gonna shake things up a bit and see what falls out.  I'll keep you and Andy out of it as much as I can, but—" 

"But Andy will want to help or he'll know you ain't serious?  I thought about that last night, too.  Will it be dangerous?"

"Not if I can help it.  I'll keep Andy right on the edges of it, I promise."

She sniffed and pointed him towards Pa's chair.  "I know you'll try," she said.  "But that boy…"

Johnny laughed.  He sat down and watched her for a few moments as she worked the dough with her hands, floured the board and rolled out the biscuits.  He reached for the dime novels on the table, turning them over.  He had long fingers, she noticed; real nice hands. 

"You been reading this shi— trash?  I don’t know who pays those writers for this stuff.  It's all lies, you know."

"Andy had them."  She cut the biscuits, put them onto the baking sheet and into the oven.   "He hid 'em out in the barn where I wouldn't find them.  He showed me last night, when he was talking about who you are."

"The barn's not the best place for them.  Me, I'd put 'em in the outhouse.  My brother Scott, he's always teasin' me over these darn books.  He says because he's my big brother, he's duty bound to set me right about them."

Dorrie put the coffee pot onto the stove.  "Seems to me," she said, "that if you set out to hear the sound of your own name, you gotta expect folks to make somethin' of it."

"Yeah, well, there's a few padres around who'll agree with you, if you're meaning that my sins will find me out."  He tossed the books to one side, just as Andy bounded out of his bedroom, more lively than Dorrie had ever seen him that early in the morning.

"Johnny!  You came!" 

"I said I would."

"I know, but—" Andy gave Dorrie a sidelong glance, and rubbed his hands together.  "When do we start?"

Johnny tugged him into a chair and tousled his hair for him in a way that not even Pa would have done.  "Right after breakfast—" he said.

Andy beamed.

"—and right after you've done your morning chores."

Andy sagged.  "Awwww, shucks," he said.

Dorrie caught the grinning look that Johnny gave her, and the little curling thing that had ached in her chest all night, unfurled and faded.  Maybe it would be all right, after all.  Maybe Johnny Madrid would find a way.

"He got to school all right.  I saw him into town and to the school door."  Johnny smiled.  "I stayed well back.  I don’t like school rooms, 'specially since I taught school once.  Those kids scared me."

Dorrie had been startled from a doze when Johnny had reappeared at her door.  She looked at him, confused.  She'd just sat down for a minute, she was sure.  She glanced at the window trying to see where the sun was.  It was mid-morning, she thought.

"Andy," he repeated, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.  "Gone to school.  He whined about it some, but he went.  He promised he won’t say anything about me."

"Oh," said Dorrie.  She pushed her hair back out of her eyes.  One of her pigtails had come loose and she scrabbled for the tape to retie it.  "Yes."  There was a knot in the tape she had to loosen with her teeth. "Andy knows not to say anything."

He nodded.  "Good.  I don't want anyone to know I'm here yet."

Quick as she could, Dorrie smoothed her hair with her hands to make herself look respectable.  What must he think of her, sleeping in her chair like that?  It wasn't decent.  "I wasn't looking to see you back so soon."

"No sense in rushing these things."  Johnny took Pa's chair.  "You start them slow and easy.  I just cut fences and haze a few cattle over boundary lines on the first day.  Takes me nigh on a week to work up to stampedes and shoot-outs."

She looked at him, uncertain, but the smile tugging at his mouth widened until she smiled back at him.  She wasn't sure that he was joking.

"I've done enough for today, chasing some of Toby Jencks's cows onto the Marvin spread to eat some of Mister Marvin's fine grass.  So, Miz Cutler, what do you need doing around the place today?  Point me at it."

"You didn’t come here to work as a hand," she said, getting the tape back around her hair, all fingers and thumbs.  She wished she could have got to the mirror and her hairbrush first.  She must look a dowdy fright.

"Dorrie, I've been working a ranch for more'n a year now.  I can handle horses, move cattle, and string fences as well as I cut 'em.  Fact is, for a while there I figured Murdoch thought all I was good for was stringing fences, but these days I get to do the whole she-bang."  The smile grew even warmer, and mercy, she hadn't thought that was possible.  His voice was gentle.  "I don’t reckon that you've been sleeping much these last few days, worryin' about Andy, and you've had this whole place to look after while he was gone.  You go rest, and I'll do the chores."


"But what?"

"But you're Johnny Madrid."

"Just Johnny.  Lancer or Madrid… well, they’re just names, Dorrie."  He stood up.  "Go and sleep and I'll do the work."  He paused at the door and turned back, grinning.  "Mind you, I draw the line at those chickens of yours.  Chickens are meaner with their beaks than a rattler with its sting.  You want eggs, Dorrie Cutler, and you'll just have to get 'em for yourself."

For the first four days, Johnny stayed well away from town.  He wouldn’t sleep in the house—wouldn't be right, he said, when there was only Andy there.  But he slept in the barn each night, in as comfortable a bed as Dorrie could contrive for him short of taking Pa's old bedstead out there.  She did take Pa's quilts out for him, making up a bed in the hayloft where it was warm and the hay pile was soft and fresh.  Johnny said it was as fine a place to sleep as he'd ever had, but Dorrie suspected he was just being polite.  Andy had told her how grand and big the Lancer house was.  The Lancers lived rich, Andy said.

Every morning Johnny had breakfast with them.  Dorrie smiled behind her hand most days to listen to him talk to Andy about what they'd both be doing for the day.  He sounded like Pa, never making what he was sayin' sounding like preaching.  He tried his best to get Andy to see reason, and if he hadn’t managed it yet, still she thought that Andy was softening.  After breakfast, Andy went complaining to school and Johnny went off to do whatever it was top gunhawks did to stir up trouble between two ranches. 

Every day he came back to help with the work around the farm.  He wasn't afraid to get dirty doing hard work, she saw, and he was handy with stock or tools.  He was a good worker and didn’t complain if the chore was to muck out the pig's sty or milk the cow.  He was cheerful about either.  And despite what he'd said about her prized chickens, he presented her every day with a basket of eggs for her to wash clean, ready to be taken into town to be sold to Mr Tracy for selling on to the townsfolk in his Mercantile.

He was very careful of his hands, though, she saw, whatever it was he was doing.

Every evening over supper he'd tell them what he'd done to stir things up: hazed a few cattle across a boundary, cut more fences, scattered a remuda, or taken out a line shack.  He was making it all look to Dan Marvin that what was happening was to Ol Toby Jencks's gain, setting them at each other.  Dorrie's heart felt like it jumped into her throat when he told them about shooting at Dan Marvin's round-up camp, and she stared at him, frightened, until he smiled and said that he'd made darn sure that all he'd hit was a pitcher or two.

"Milk, mostly," he said.  "Mind, I'm pretty sure Dan Marvin got some syrup as well.  You should have seen him scramble to get under that table."

"I wish I'd seen it," said Andy, giving Dorrie a little glower.  She made him go to school each day and he resented it, and her.

"I usually hit what I'm aimin' at, Dorrie," said Johnny, and the smile deepened.  "Don't worry."

He had a nice smile.  Not what she'd have expected from a deadly gunfighter.  He was said to be one of the fastest guns in the business and whenever she thought about what that meant, that he'd killed men—a lot of men—she shied away from it.  Johnny didn’t seem like a killer.  He was gentle and kind, and his smile wasn't cold and twisted into a sneer, like the smiles of killers in those dime novels.  It was open and sweet, and not at all dangerous. 

She smiled back.

Years ago, Pa had found a spare piece of board lumber, and made a triangular shelf to fit across one corner of her bedroom.  An old curtain hung from the shelf to keep away the dust made a neat dress closet.  Her one and only hat, four years old now, sat on the shelf in its smooth round box.  She was proud of that hat box.  The cardboard was still bright with colour and it made that corner of her little room gay.  When Dan Marvin's men rebuilt the house for them, they fitted the shelf in its old place. 

Her four dresses hung behind the curtain on a couple of hooks, her best dress swathed in another old curtain to keep it clean.  She sat on the edge of her bed in her stays and petticoat, and stared at the rest.

Pink.  They were all pink, except for her pretty dress.  Plain pink, pink sprigged with white and the pink check calico that was the best of all her work dresses, only two years old.  It was the proper colour for a girl, Ma had said when Dorrie was small, and she'd always stuck with it. 

Dorrie was tired of pink.  Maybe that's why she loved the greeny-yallery dress so much.

She kept the pink check for when she was going into town to work at the Williams' house.  But today, she decided to wear the check at home and instead of just doing her hair any old how, she pulled it back into a single pony tail and added the wide pink ribbon that Andy had given her at Christmas. 

It was a shame to smother up the dress with her big apron while she got breakfast, but when Johnny had mentioned Dan Marvin getting syruped, he'd shook his head and said he'd shared Dan Marvin's pain: he surely liked pancakes and syrup himself.  She didn't want any of the pancake batter to splash on her dress.

Andy stared for a second or two when he saw her, but he was too taken up with Johnny to care what she was wearing.  Johnny smiled at her, but didn't say nothing neither.  Dorrie sniffed.  She thought that both of them were too used to her looking like a farm girl in coarse calico dresses and with her hair in pigtails tied with old tape. 

Andy mentioned some of the town gossip.  "I heard Mister Tracy say that Dan Marvin is badmouthin' Toby Jencks over town.  No-one knows how it got to this."  His eyes sparkled with mischief.

"I don't know how you did it, Johnny," said Dorrie.  "You've caused more ruckus around here in a few days than we've seen in five years."  She forked an extra pancake onto his plate and he smiled at her in thanks.

"I never thought anyone could get a real range war going inside of a week."  Andy shoved almost an entire pancake into his mouth.  "But you done it, Johnny."

All Johnny said was "Pass the butter."  It was a minute or two before he said, "You don't want a thing like that to happen."

Andy frowned.  He turned his head to look at Dorrie, puzzled, before turning back to Johnny.  Johnny just poured syrup over his pancakes and ate his breakfast, not looking at either of them.

"Ain't that the general idea?" asked Andy.

"A man could get killed in that sort of fracas."

Andy snorted.  "Well?"

"Andy, don't you ever get to the point where you take killin' lightly.  It's not a good thing to do to kill a man or cause a man to be killed."  Johnny's already soft voice dropped even further.  "Makes you sick inside."

That little, curling, aching something inside Dorrie's chest was back; hurting and tightening so hard that she let her mouth open and gulped in air to try and cool it.  She turned her back to them quickly, so Johnny wouldn't see her face.  Her fingers shook as she put the plate down beside the stove.

"Well, gawsh," said Andy.  "Wha—?"

Dorrie turned on her heel, wanting to get that sound out of Johnny's quiet voice.  "That's enough, Andy.  Finish your breakfast."  She got to her chair somehow.  How she didn't stumble, she couldn't guess.  "And listen to Johnny."

Johnny gave her a strange little smile, the corner of his mouth lifting.  Andy, frowning and puzzled looking, stared down at his plate.

"We’ve started something now," said Dorrie, and to her shame she could hear how the trembling that had started in her fingers had reached her voice.  "How will it end?"

Johnny glanced at Andy.  "I don’t rightly know that yet," he said.  "But tomorrow, Johnny Madrid's goin' to ride into McCall's Crossing.  It's time to raise the stakes."

It was quite something, seeing Johnny Madrid get ready to ride to town.

Dorrie washed and ironed Johnny's pink shirt, and he cleaned his soft suede pants—calzoneras, Johnny said they were called in Spanish—even polishing the silver conchos that buttoned up the sides of each leg until they glittered.  He groomed Barranca until the palomino shone pale gold while Andy polished the saddle and tack. 

"It's all about making sure folks see me," said Johnny, when they were finished.

"They won't be able to miss you."  Dorrie was sorry straight away.  It wasn't ladylike to be so tart. 

Johnny just grinned.  "Yeah.  That's kinda the point.  See, up until now Marvin and Jencks haven't had any idea who's been causing them trouble.  Now each one of them's going to see Johnny Madrid in town and think the other one hired me.  It just adds to what my brother Scott calls a mel-ee.  They're going to be so confuzzled, they won't know themselves in a mirror."

"The whole town's likely to be confuzzled," said Dorrie.  "We don’t get many gunhawks in McCall's Crossing."

"The boys at school won't know what to do," said Andy.  "Why, I'll bet they'll play hookey to come stare at you when they know who you are."

Johnny's mouth turned down.  He shook his head and blew out a noisy sigh.  "That's the worst of it," he said, real quiet.

"I wish I could tell 'em you're working for me," said Andy.  "Oh, and Dorrie, too."

"Well you can't.  And you'd best not play hookey either," said Dorrie.  "I have to be in town today, remember," she added.  "I need to take the eggs in to Tracy's and I've got a day's work sewing.  I'll go in with Andy."

Johnny nodded.  " I won't be coming into town until maybe noon or later."  His mouth twitched, as if he were trying not to smile.  "When there'll be a lot of folks about to stare."

Dorrie was bound and determined that she wouldn't be one of them. 

"Did Andy tell you why he ran away?" asked Mrs Williams, spreading out the length of thin lawn over the table with a deft hand.  The lawn was sprigged with tiny white flowers over a pale blue ground.  It was very pretty.

Dorrie wiped her hands with the rough towel one more time, to make sure that they were dry.  Mrs Williams' store bought soap smelled of roses and lavender, and left Dorrie's hands soft enough to work with the lawn without snagging it.

"I was really very pleased when John—Reverend Williams, I mean—told me that Andy was home safe.  He said he saw Andy going into the schoolhouse last Friday.  I'd hoped that you'd be in church on Sunday." 

"Andy came home Thursday," said Dorrie.  She felt her face grow hot.  "I don’t like missing church," she added.

"I know."  Mrs Williams smoothed the pretty lawn one more time and looked up, smiling.  She didn't look mad at Dorrie's backsliding, but her face looked like she was waiting for Dorrie to explain.

Dorrie hesitated.  She could hardly say that she and Andy hadn't come to church because Johnny Madrid had said that getting the Marvin hands all riled up on their day of rest would be a good thing, and mean more than if they did it on Monday.  Johnny had asked her for the powder flask that Pa had used with his old single-shot Henry rifle and, when she took it from its hiding place, begged a square of butter muslin from her.  He'd grinned a lot when he put the gunpowder in the twist of muslin.  He wouldn't say why, and he and Andy had left while it was still dark.  By the time they got back, there'd still been time to come into town for the service, but Andy wasn't fit to be near church-going folks.  He'd come back sniggering about the outhouse on the Marvin ranch and Johnny, who was just as dirty, had still been grinning.  But all Johnny had said was that he'd never met a ranch hand yet who liked digging.  Dorrie hadn't asked what they'd been up to.  But she wouldn't let the pair of them into the house until they'd had baths.

She didn't mind Johnny Madrid keeping Andy on the edges of things, she'd said, but she did mind him bringing him home smelling like he'd rolled in a hog pen.  Johnny had just laughed and borrowed one of Pa's shirts while she scrubbed his own free of muck.  She wondered how that pretty horse could have stood to carry him home and when she wondered out loud, Johnny had let out a great crack of laughter and Andy had snickered, and Dorrie couldn't help herself.  She couldn't stop herself from laughing, the three of them sharing the joke.  She hadn't felt so young and light for a long time.

But no.  She couldn't tell any of that.

"I was awful tired," she said, and that was no lie.  The weariness had taken a long time to seep out of her.  "I couldn't seem to settle while Andy was gone and if I scrubbed everything in the house once, I did it three times."  She laughed, but it didn't come out right.  "Still I won't have to do the Fall cleaning."

Mrs Williams pressed Dorrie's hand, just a little.  "Where did he go?"

"Morro Coyo way.  It's more'n fifty miles south; nearer sixty."  Dorrie glanced out of the window onto Main Street and moved a little to the left.  She had a better view of the road out of town. 

She re-checked Mrs Williams' dressmaker chart and the set of measurements they had for Jenny.  She'd used them to do the figuring and make the paper pattern for Jenny's dress but she always liked to check again before she pinned the pattern to the lawn and took the dress shears to it.  Not that it mattered too much for a little girl like Jenny.  But when she'd been six, Dorrie had liked her dresses to fit and not just be the loose shifts-and-aprons some of the other nester children wore.  She didn’t think that Jenny was any different. 

Her attention wandered back to the view beyond the window and she put down the chart again.  "It was to do with Pa." she said.  "He had some fool idea that he could get help, seein' as how Sheriff Kinsey says it was an accident and Andy not ready to believe that yet.  He thought that the Sheriff wouldn't listen."

"He was looking for another lawman?  For help, you mean?  But surely, he'd find one much closer if he'd gone to Merced, or Modesto."

"I don't think he was thinking too well," said Dorrie.  She felt bad about deceiving Mrs Williams.  The Reverend and his wife had been kind friends in all her trouble.  "He… he was lucky.  A rancher near Morro Coyo came upon him and brought him home."

"That was kind."

"Yes it was.  Real kind.  I was grateful."  Dorrie gave herself a little shake.  Little Jenny's new Sunday dress would never be made if she didn't stir herself.  It was still hours till noon.  She picked up the dressmaking chart again. 

"Would you like Reverend Williams to speak to him?"

Dorrie blinked, surprised.  She shouldn't be surprised, not really.  Mr Williams was a preacher, and preachers always thought they could cure everything with words.  "Andy's still real twisted up about Pa," she said, doubtful.

"Perhaps Mister Williams can help," said Mrs Williams, her voice very gentle, as if she were frightened of spooking Dorrie.  "A word in the right season can do a lot to soothe a troubled mind, and remind Andy of his duties here, too."

Dorrie didn't think Johnny would try reminding Andy of his duties.  She didn't think Andy would like it, if he did.  Just seeing Johnny at work about the farm had Andy scrambling to do his part and no words were said or needed.  She didn't think the Reverend would understand that, but she couldn't see how she could get out of Andy having a talk with him.  "We'll be at church on Sunday," she said.  "Maybe after service?"

She picked up the paper of pins and put the first pattern piece onto the lawn, smoothing it down.  "I've been figuring," she said, slipping the first pin in to hold the paper in place.  "I think we can put in three or four rows of tucks to let down as Jenny grows, and there'll still be enough lawn left over to make a sun bonnet for the baby.  If you still have some of that pretty lace, I could trim the bonnet with it."

She put in the second pin, and the third.  She looked up and stared down the road out of town. 

It was empty.

Andy arrived home, disappointed.

"He's there," he said.  "I saw him sitting on the hotel porch in a rocking chair, but I didn't see him ride in."

"I didn't either," said Dorrie.  She'd been so busy that she hadn't been able to look for minutes at a time, and she'd missed seeing Johnny pass by the Reverend's house.  She cut Andy an extra slice of fresh bread and set it beside his plate of stew.

"I was hopin' I'd see him.  I wanted to see what a town looks like when Johnny Madrid rides into it.  But I didn't play hookey to go look for him."

Dorrie wasn't surprised.  Mr Ford, the schoolmaster, hadn't listened to Andy's excuses for his absence, and Andy had come home that first day rubbing at his backside and whining about it.  Andy knew better than to miss school again without leave from Dorrie or the schoolmaster.  She should thank Mr Ford, next time she saw him.  She would thank him.

"Widow Tracy saw him," said Dorrie.  "She didn't know who he is, but she stopped me in the street to gossip and she said that a stranger was in town.  She thinks he means trouble."  She met Andy's grin with one of her own.  "She said he came riding into town like he owned it.  She said everyone was staring but—"  and Dorrie let her smile widen to share the joke, "—she said that she was a good Christian woman and she went about her business and wouldn't give a man the satisfaction of thinkin' she was looking at him.  She was so busy not lookin', she could tell me about every stitch Johnny was wearing and how he looked like he was real dangerous."

Andy laughed, and Dorrie couldn't help but laugh with him. 

"She said Lucky Morgan was loading supplies out of Mister Tracy's Mercantile, and he saw Johnny ride up to the hotel.  She said Lucky didn't look too pleased."  Dorrie stopped laughing.  "Andy, I've just thought.  We never warned Johnny about Lucky Morgan."

Andy snorted.  "Johnny Madrid doesn't need to bother about the likes of Lucky Morgan."

"Still," said Dorrie.  "I don't know why—"  She let it drop.  She pushed stew around her plate.  If it came to shooting, if Johnny couldn't get Andy to see sense before then… Dorrie sighed and stuck her fork into a lump of potato, twisting the tines around and around.  She didn't want anyone to be shot.

Not even Lucky Morgan.

"Sure is quiet without Johnny," said Andy.  "I kinda got used to him being here."

Dorrie pushed her plate away.  She wasn't hungry.

"Well don't," she said.  "Johnny's just come here to help us out.  He won't be staying when it's over."

Dorrie went to town again the next day. 

She sent Andy in for school, but didn't leave the farm herself until after she'd done the morning chores.  It took longer, with no-one there to help her, and it was mid-morning before she set out.  It was such a fine day for walking, she didn't hitch up the wagon, cutting cross country and only joining the road a half-a-mile out of town.  That was probably how Johnny had done it, too, to stay out of sight until the last minute.

She had just reached the lumber yard, almost in town, when Dan Marvin and two or three of his hands rode into town.  Dan Marvin did no more than glance at her as he passed.  They rode right on up to the hotel. 

Dorrie stood in the shade of the lumber yard's office and storefront, where no-one would notice her.  She watched as Dan Marvin stepped up onto the hotel porch and stayed there, talking to someone.  Johnny, of course.  They didn't talk for long.  A few minutes later Johnny stood up and she could see the brightness of his pink shirt, standing out against the browns and tans Marvin and his men wore.  Johnny left Marvin standing on the porch. 

Dorrie walked on up the street and passed the hotel.  Dan Marvin was still standing on the porch with his men, staring after Johnny.  She glanced sideways at him.  He looked real angry.  No.  That wasn't right.  He did look angry, but he looked scared, too.  Whatever Johnny had said, scared him.  Johnny had scared him without even drawing his gun.

What was it like, having a name that folks were scared of?  Did Johnny like having that sort of sway over folks?  Did he like it when big shot ranchers like Dan Marvin were mad and scared?

Dorrie turned her head away.  She looked down as she walked the last few yards to Tracy's Mercantile, watching the little dust clouds that her feet kicked up.  The dust settled on her skirt hems, and she gave them a quick shake when she stepped up onto the sidewalk.  She didn't want to track dirt into the Widow Tracy's room.

The Widow met her with a little cry of delight and a kiss, pulling her into the quiet room at the back of the store where the Widow did all her sewing.  Young Mr Tracy, the Widow's son, just grunted something at her as she passed him, that might have been a greeting.  Dorrie couldn't tell.  The Widow's tongue almost tripped over itself to tell her about the dreadful heathen who had ridden into McCall's Crossing to do the Lord alone knew what wickedness, and Dorrie couldn't hear much above the flood of words.

"And bless me but what are we coming to?  And bless that soft old fool of a Sheriff for not chasing a clear-cold killer like Johnny Madrid out of our town.  Are we or are we not God-fearin' folks, Dorrie?  May the Good Lord protect us from the evil that's walking in our midst.  And mind you, I'm not saying that he ain't a well-favoured man, because he is, but a black-hearted villain can have a fair face, the Good Book says so.  And… "

Dorrie nodded and murmured and shook her head at all the right times.  She didn’t laugh.  The Widow said all the things Dorrie had thought about gunfighters.  She just didn't think them about Johnny.  It was hard to remember he was a gunfighter, sometimes, until she thought about the look on Dan Marvin's face. 

It was more than an hour before the Widow remembered to bring out the lengths of plain white cotton and Dorrie was able to cut out the Widow's new nightgowns, made high at the neck and with long sleeves.  

When the shooting started, the Widow jumped, so that her hands jerked up and the little box of pins she was holding jerked with them.  Dorrie's heart thumped so much it felt like it was coming up through her throat.  She stood very still while little silver pins, their heads catching and winking in the light, showered all around her.

"Practising," said Dorrie.  She shook her head.  "Good Lord.  He scared half the town into fits."  She frowned at Andy.  "How do you know he was practising?"

"It’s all over town that he's Johnny Madrid," said Andy.  "We all went over at noon recess.  Billy Moomey says Johnny's the fastest gun there is and all the boys from school just wanted to see him.  Just standing in the street looking at him, you know."  He sighed.  "I had to pretend I didn't know him."

"And keep pretending," warned Dorrie.  "Johnny's setting Marvin and Jencks against one other, and we have to stay out of it.  It's important, Andy."

"I know."  Andy scowled at her.  "I'm not a kid, Dorrie."

She let that slide.  She'd hurt his pride enough, she reckoned.  "How did you know he was practising?" she repeated.

"Because he came over and asked us where he could get hold of some bottles and cans.  And I was the first one to jump up and say I'd get some for him.  So he told me to go get them and I could set them up for him in the empty corral round the back of the livery."  Andy sniggered.  "Billy Moomey was so mad with me for getting' in first, that he tried to fight me when we got back to school and Mister Ford whopped him one and made him stand in the dunce's corner until afternoon recess.  All the boys were green, Dorrie, and wishin' they'd had the sense to jump up first."

"It was very clever of you," said Dorrie.

"We planned it all out before he rode into town, you know.  He said he wanted to be able to get a message to you."

"Oh," said Dorrie, feeling a little warm.  "Did he have a message?"

"He saw you coming into town just when Dan Marvin did."

"I didn't think he'd noticed me," said Dorrie.  She loosened her collar. 

"He said to tell you it all went fine with Marvin and he expects to see Jencks any time now.  He said he was sure missing your cooking and he'll come over to supper tomorrow night when it's dark.  He said to make sure there's apple pie."  Andy took a big bite out the fruitcake Widow Tracy had given her and said, mumbling through it, "I'm going to watch him practise again tomorrow.  Same time.  Same place.  You should come in to town again and come watch him.  He never misses.  Every bottle, Dorrie, shot straight through the neck."

"No," said Dorrie.  "I don't think I'll go back into town until it's all over."

Andy stared at her for a moment, then shrugged.

"Get your lessons done for tomorrow, Andy.  That's far more important than any practising."

"Awww, Dorrie…"

"And you be careful, Andy.  Be real careful."

Because Dan Marvin wasn't a man who'd scare easy.  And that worried Dorrie.  It worried Dorrie a lot.

As well as the dress closet that Pa had made for her, Dorrie had an old three-drawer dresser in her room with a piece of looking-glass hanging over it.  She'd hung the glass to make sure that it caught the most light, but truth to tell, she didn't get a lot of satisfaction out of it. 

She stared into the little looking glass, frowning at her reflection. 

She was a plain Jane, and there was no arguing with that.  If she had the time to do something with her hair and do more than wash her face with home-made soap, it might improve matters some.  The soap did its job of getting the grime off her face but it didn't make her pretty.  Whenever she looked in the mirror, all she could see was that her hair wasn't smooth and shiny, the round collars of her work dresses didn't do much to flatter her face and the soap left her too pink and clean-looking.  Her cheeks were red as apples some days and the pink calico of her work dresses made it worse.  Her Ma had said that she always looked clean and wholesome. 

No man would be interested in wholesome.

She wanted to look less like a worn-down farm girl, and more like… more like… well, just less like a poor farm girl.  But all of her work dresses were washed out and shrunken and even the pink check was a skimpy, dowdy thing.  She turned herself about in front of the glass.  It was too small to see her whole reflection, of course, but what she could see didn't please her.  Even pulling at the skirt and tweaking at the bodice where it met the skirt waist didn't seem to do much to make the calico lie better.

But, of course, it wasn't like she didn't have another dress.

Dorrie had only ever worn the greeny-yallery dress on Sundays, for best.  When they lived at the first farm and Pa was still there, and when he was beforehand with the farm work, Pa would hitch up their wagon and take Dorrie and Andy into town for church.  Other times he'd just shake his head and Dorrie would think about the four-mile walk in the heat and dust, and go back inside to change into one of her calico work-dresses that wouldn't spoil and rehang the pretty greeny-yallery dress on its hook in the corner of her bedroom. 

She took good care of it.  She steam-cleaned and pressed it every two or three months and even after three years, it was still almost perfect, its colours undimmed.  She'd had to refresh the matching ribbon for her hair, but that was all.

She slipped out of the pink check, and pulled on the sateen skirt.  It swirled about her ankles in a very satisfying way, the bottom flounce just touching the soft leather of her best black shoes.  The bodice still fitted like a glove, and if it annoyed her to have to reach around to fasten the little pearl buttons, it was worth it to get the smooth effect of the pretty sateen over her bosom.  It was the work of a moment to button the bodice down over the waist and cinch on the belt.  She patted the cunning little enamelled belt buckle, remembering Pa's face when he and Andy had given it to her wrapped in a twist of fancy paper.

Poor Pa.  He would have given her pearl and diamond buttons if he could.

She turned back to the looking glass and picked up her brush.  Most days she scrunched her hair into two pigtails, which kept it out of the way but wouldn't flatter a schoolgirl, much less a woman who was past her first flush of youth.  She wore her hair up and braided around her head when she went into town Sundays, for church, of course.  And even then the braid made her head ache and would work its way loose, so that little strands hung against the sides of her face and around her ears.  She was always a mite worried about putting up her hair too tightly.  A lady never shows her ears, Ma had always said.  So she let it swoop down over her ears before catching it up and braiding it.

She put up her hair, and after a moment's thought, pulled out the pins again.  Braiding up her hair on a weekday would make Andy do more than stare.  He'd say something to put her to the blush, that was for certain.  But she'd like to wear the ribbon.  In the end, she left her hair loose, gathering the top portion and the sides into a little pony tail that she could tie with the green ribbon.  Feeling daring, she let her ears show a little.

When she'd finished, she looked at herself in the glass again.  The greeny sateen toned down her high colour and it made her hair brighter.  She looked less wholesome, less like a rosy apple.  And even old Bill Wilson had once said she was pretty in this dress.  She smiled at her reflection.

She wrapped herself in the biggest apron she owned and went to make the best supper she could think of: one of her young cockerels fried, with new peas and little potatoes from her garden and apple pie to follow. 

Johnny had said he wanted apple pie.  She'd hate to disappoint him.




Next Part

Johnny Madrid, The Border Hawk: Vengeance At Bitter Creek - an extract