Five or six times a day he goes out onto the boardwalk outside the cantina door and stands there, taking the air and looking the place over.

He leans up against a post, cool and calm and acting like he owns the town. Hell, he does own the town and everyone knows it: every man, woman and child in it. Even the dogs cross the street to keep out of his reach. They all know.

Big dog gets the meat; that's the way it goes. That's the way it always goes.

A man walking past does it real small, pretending to be interested in something across the street, maybe, and giving only sidelong glances to where he leans against the post; and if his eye's caught, the man will flush and look away, real awkward and scared. Respect, that's what it is, the way they kowtow to him. It's how they show they know he's in charge. None of them like looking him in the eye, but hell, they know he's there. He usually just grins at them, doesn't bother with them unless he has a point to make or a lesson to give, content that they're walking small in front of him.

It's different with the ladies. He likes the ladies. He likes admiring them and he likes them to admire him right back. He's real polite, always, so he smiles and tips his hat, says a quiet Nice day, Ma'am. Usually they flutter and gasp, and their menfolk get red-faced and scared, and tow them to the opposite side of the street while he laughs. Some of the younger ones, though, they drop their gaze and look at him through their eyelashes and lift their skirts an inch or two, pretending it's to get out of the dust but really so he can see their pretty ankles in their tight little boots. He wonders how they'll take to it, if he ever gets the chance at them. Real well, he reckons. They'll learn fast, the ones who are begging for it with their downcast eyes and blushes.

Every single one of 'em knows he's there. He likes that. They all know the big dog who's keeping the townsfolk pretty well ground down. He's had a lot of practice at it; he knows how to buffalo a man or a town, how to bully until they sneak away, crawling like the lily-livered worms they are. But even worms will turn if they're stamped underfoot beyond what they can bear. Trying to close a town like this off to the man you're gunning for… well, that's a two edged knife, that's for sure. Going out to sniff the air and watch the folks edge past on the boardwalk, is his way of being ready, of knowing what the worms are thinking of doing before the worms themselves do.

So yeah, he goes out to remind them and keep 'em cowed, but mostly it's just to take a sniff at the air, to try and sense what the townsfolk are thinking and doing, watching the people go past. He's got to know the town well. It's a pretty old place. A man would almost think he's in Mexico, what with all the white adobe buildings and there being more greasers around than real Americans. There's even a real fancy church in the main square, so big its shadow stretches all the way to the bone orchard right on the edge of town, just like those big missions in Cuidad Juarez or Sonoyta.

He doesn't often work this far north or this far west. This isn't his country. The border is the place he knows best. Hell, he'd bet that in his time, he's ridden at least once into every dusty town and village twenty miles either side of the Rio Grande. Some of them are so small, a man can spit over them and not even have to hawk it up. If he can find enough spit, that is. It's a dry and dusty country down there. California, now, is greener. It's real pretty country around here, north of the border. A man might get to feel right at home, 'specially when he finds a bright-eyed girl willing to give him the time of day and show him her pretty ankles.

Not that it's his first time in California; just his first time taking a job here. He came to California in… when was it now? '66, that was it. Late '66, that time he chased Clara from Abilene clear to San Diego. Reckon she thought he wouldn't look for her this far west, and some of the men he was working with just laughed and said he should leave it. It's not his style to leave it, though. Just not his style.

She was quite a piece, was Clara. Not now, though. She isn't quite a piece now. Not that he killed her for running out on him, mind, not even though she'd shamed him deep by doing it. Hell a woman doesn't have a right to go unless a man gives her leave or throws her out, and even when he's finished with her, she should walk small around him. It's more… more womanly. Clara hadn't acted womanly like that, but still he hadn't killed her. He hadn't even cut her real bad. He'd just cut her a little bit, to remember him by. Lord, she was everything a man could want, once. These days, she'll have to do all her best work in the dark, that's all, or find a man who ain't too picky about what he gets for a dime a time.

He doesn't like being laughed at. Nobody does it twice.

.

.

He leans up against the cantina door frame and tilts his hat down over his eyes, shading them against the sun. It's only spring, but already the sun is high and hot. The brightness makes his eyes ache. McHugh and Williams are on the other side of the street, sitting in the shade of the biggest store in this one-horse burg, playin' cards and using a barrel for a table. McHugh raises a hand to show he's seen him. He nods back.

Everything in this town happens in little pieces, little things that he sees and hears when he comes out onto the boardwalk to take the air and watch the folks show their respect. It reminds him of the time he went to the theatre in Santa Fe, the one where he met Clara, and saw what she called a 'revue with interludes'.

Little pieces happen all day long if a man watches for 'em, just like those interludes.

Like the squeal, real loud, that makes him drop his hand to his gun. It's coming from an alley to one side of the cantina but McHugh and Williams don't even look up, too busy squabbling over the cards. The squeal comes again, followed by a grunt. A hog after a rat, maybe, or a snake.

Or like the girl who's walking on the boardwalk across the street. She stops short before she reaches McHugh and Williams, when she sees them sitting there. She ducks her head and comes catty-corner across the street to keep out of their way, her face hidden by the side slats on her bonnet, her shoulders hunched up against McHugh's whistle and calls. He doesn't think she's seen him, where he stands in the shade of the cantina's overhanging roof. He lets her go past, grinning at McHugh across the way.

Or like the little breeze kicking up dust along the street. He watches it blow, the dust devils skittering around like live things, dodging under the hooves of a tethered horse, blowing around the girl's feet and making her skirts billow, gusting around the wheels of a buggy. It makes him smile. It's like they're playing with the place, the way he does.

The devils drop back into dust when the wind fails.

His employer speaks from behind him. "Do you check the weather every hour, or something?"

"Or somethin'." He turns his head to speak over his shoulder. The cantina's only dimly lit, the shutters closed across the windows so no one can see inside, and the man's eyes glint in the shadows.

He and his employer are the only people in the cantina. The owner vamooses when he's told to vamoose and the girl who works here—a pretty, pretty girl with hips that sway and hair that hangs down her back like silk—well, she won't come near when he or the boys are in the cantina. She doesn't look at him from under her lashes, or blush, or show her pretty ankles. She curls her lip and turns her back on him. That riles him, some days. McHugh says just to take her and be damned to it, but he thinks that might be something that would make these worms turn. He needs them too cowed to act up. He doesn't want to prod them into finding their damned backbones and there are plenty of willing girls an hour's ride north. When this is over though… well then, before he rides out of town, he'll teach that little greaser gal how to be real womanly around a man. He'll likely let the boys have her after, if he doesn't decide to take her with him.

He comes in, closes the door behind him. "It gets hot by the middle of the day now."

"That's California for you. Summer will be here and then over before we know it. I want this settled soon. We're losing prime building time and we haven't advanced more than a few miles. We're losing money by the hour here."

He's never met this man before. His employer has worked through a land agent until now, a greasy little lawyer called Dief Kushner. Money sticks to Dief like flies to a grease pot. But seems that while Kushner's a good hand at a shady land deal, he's a poor hand at driving a pair of horses on steep roads in the rain. Dief and his horses and the neat little buggy he likes driving are at the bottom of a canyon somewhere right now. Dief, said his employer when he arrived at the cantina, is unavailable. His employer hasn't introduced himself and seems put out at having to deal with him direct.

It doesn't matter. What his employer doesn't know is that Dief can't … Dief couldn't keep his mouth shut when he'd had a shot or two of red eye. Dief liked to boast about his big business partners. Dief let the names slip, more'n once.

He knows who his employer is.

For now, though, he'll play the game. "You shoulda let me finish up here last year."

"If the decision had been solely up to me, I'd have let you finish." His employer's a fancy-dressed man with fancy manners, in a town suit with an embroidered brocade vest and a big gold watch chain across his chest. The man looks like a gambler who's short a Mississippi river boat. A man of real fine tastes, too; picking up the bottle of tequila and staring at it like he hopes it'll change into fancy French champagne right in front of his eyes.

He had champagne once. Sour stuff. He doesn't see what all the fuss is about. Tequila tastes better and has more of a kick. This cantina keeps a good one; better than he expected.

It surprises him when his employer pours two glasses and offers him one as he takes a seat. Dief wasn't ever that polite.

His employer takes a sip of the tequila and pulls a face. "Dealing with the difficulty that the company was having in the north was, at the time, more pressing than our business here. Some of those Modesto people were just too obstinate in refusing to see where their best interests lay. Kushner kept me up to date with everything you did there to help them see the light. You did well, by the way."

He nods. He knows that. He got the company everything it needed, every last acre and every last deed and title, at a bedrock price and no one to trace it back to his employer. All done through honest, upright land agents like Dief Kushner.

Work is different, these days. Not better, just different. When he started out in this game, it was all about slipping between Mexico and the United States as need be, working first for some Texan rancher, maybe, and then for a grand haciendado, and taking pay from both. He still does that; a lot of his work is still about land and cattle, water and grazing. But in the last few years the railroads have come, spreading their tracks all over the plains and prairies, and now he isn't working for ranchers worrying about grass and water, but for fancy-dressed businessmen in towns worrying about profits.

It's still about land, though. What is it the railroad men say? Different business, same commodity.

His employer's a railroad man. His employer's one of the town-suited businessmen who've never worked the land, just cut up its face and scarred it with iron. "We have to move faster here now. The Southern Pacific has the main track to Stockton and Sacramento well under way."

He grins. "Well, they're a mite bigger outfit, right?"

His employer isn't pleased. He gets glared at and the man stiffens right up. "We have a contract with them. The penalties for failing to build the spur lines will—" the railroad man hesitates, then nods "— will be uncomfortable for more people than just me."

He decides that's a threat, but not one that he need worry about. Uncomfortable, huh? Well, hell, it won't bother him none. He has his job to do and it ain't building railroads, just clearing the way for the men who do. "It ain't going to be that easy. Pullin' me north like that… well, we've given him months to get over bein' shot."

"You were supposed to kill him."

He shrugs. "There were two men, both about the same age, both in plaid shirts. I shot 'em both, too, seein' as how I couldn't tell which was which. Can't be helped that the wrong one died."

"Don't miss, next time."

"I didn't miss last time. I just didn't hit him where I wanted to or as hard as I meant to." He grins, real slow. "How much time do we have?"

"I have to have that ranch in my hands by the end of next week." His employer sips at the tequila again, puts the glass down and pushes it to one side. "Or we all face those uncomfortable consequences. Our plans are to make Fresno the hub for several spur lines to join the main north-south route as it cuts through the valley. That land's important to those plans."

"Fresno? You might be better taking the spur through someplace east and north of here, then." He pauses, thinks about it. In his head, he's spreading a map over the tabletop, weighing the corners down with stones or tequila glasses, tracing a finger over the brown printed lines and marks. "The Hooped C, maybe?"

His employer stiffens up again. "No." He speaks slow and quiet, like he's considering his words real careful. "I have other plans for that part of the country. But here… well, I need to get my hands on the deeds to that land, and quickly. As for him, I don't just want him defeated. I want him dead."

"Yeah? What did he do to you?"

"He owns land I want. And he—" His employer stops short and takes a cigar case from an inside pocket and spends a considerable time choosing one, looking at each one real careful. "He's in my way in more ways than one, shall we say. I want him out of my way permanently."

He shrugs. "We shouldn't have given him so much time to get ready for us, then. From all I hear about him, he ain't stupid."

"You've run off a lot of his workers."

"Not all of them, though. Not by a long chalk." He sits back, watches the man across the table. He shakes his head when offered the cigar case. He doesn't like smoke. He sips on the tequila instead; it's a good reposado, as good as sipping whiskey. "Still, I said I'd kill him, and I will. Don't you worry about that."

"I'm sure you will want to, having failed once." The cigar gets tapped on the tabletop shaking the ash onto the floor. "I've often wondered why men like you take to killing for money."

"Well, it's business, ain't it? A trade, that's all, like cow punching or blacksmithing. There's nothin' personal in it, not for me. It doesn't matter what your reasons are and why he's in your way. It doesn't matter who's right and who's wrong—"

"Just who can afford your price?" His employer lights the thin black cigar. "And I'm paying you a very significant sum."

"Yeah, you are."

And it's true. He's being paid very well. He's being paid so much that he can live with being jerked up north to Modesto to get them the land they want, and then being sent back here to start this job all over again. If they weren't paying top dollar—more than top dollar, and in gold, too—he'd be fit to be tied over the whole business. The money sure sweetens it, though. Gold coins like that sweeten most anything.

The railroad man nods. "By the end of next week, mind."

"Sure."

He walks with his employer to the back door of the cantina. The owner is nowhere in sight and he hasn't seen the pretty girl since he got there this morning. He checks the back alley. No one around. The only thing to see the man leave is the hog, a piebald shoat, and it's more interested in eating the rat or whatever it was it caught, than watching a railroad dandy walking down the alley.

He smiles. "You have a good day now, Mister Addison. I'll be in touch."

The railroad man's a hard one, he'll give him that. He doesn't start or swear, or look foolish at being caught out, or even look angry at being mocked; but just glances back and shakes his head before walking away.

He watches the shoat for a few minutes. It's rooting about in the dust under the back steps, grunting and whuffling through that big, broad nose. Sounds like Coley McHugh rutting on a whore. Looks like McHugh, too, come to think on it.

He can see the muscles twitch beneath the skin when a fly lands on its shoulder. He levels his gun at it.

"Bang."

The shoat doesn't even look up.

He grins and holsters the gun again. A pretty thing, this gun, with ivory grips and engraving along the barrel. And that reminds him: the gunsmith over in Green River should have his new gun ready by now. He'll pick it up as soon as this is over.

He calls McHugh in. "They want Lancer by the end of next week. We have to move now."

McHugh waits to be told how. McHugh ain't completely chuckle-headed, but he's a tagger and a follower. McHugh doesn't get ideas of his own.

He keeps a map of the district rolled up in his saddlebags and sends McHugh to fetch it. It makes him grin, when he has it spread out and the corners held down; it's just like he imagined when talking about the Conway ranch. He wonders what plans the railway has for that part of the district.

McHugh hitches his chair closer. "We burned that field yesterday."

He snorts. "Yeah. That'll scare 'em white-headed."

McHugh shrugs and grins. It's about all McHugh can think up, burning a few fields. Does what he's told, though and that's worth something.

He looks at the map, and circles on bit of it with a finger. "No more two-bit stuff, Coley. I'm going to hit Lancer hard tomorrow. We need to get his men out of the way."

McHugh shrugs. "Sure. I see that. How?"

"See here?" He rests a fingertip on the map. "Lancer has a farm here, three or four miles from the hacienda. Some greaser runs it for him."

"Can't see why a rancher has a sodbuster on his land, anyway."

"I don't give a damn why. Go find Danny Edwards and tell him to take six of the boys. I don't want anything standing on that farm by dusk. Kill the sodbuster, if they find him."

"Women and kids?"

He pauses. Shrugs. It won't bother Danny Edwards. "Kill 'em all."

McHugh nods. Doesn't look like it bothers him none, either.

"Tell Danny to lay a trail right up into the San Bernitos. I want something a blind Chinee could follow in the dark. When Lancer sees what we did at the farm, he'll follow the trail and we'll hit the ranch, take it right from under him."

McHugh scratches his beard. Fleas, most likely. "I heard Lancer was still carrying your bullet from last year. He's not likely to be riding up into the mountains."

"With luck, most of his men will. Then we get Lancer at home. Go tell Danny, Coley. Tell him to leave someone to watch and come back and tell us if it works."

"Want me to go along with him?"

He shakes his head. "Just Edwards and six of the boys." He grins. "You know who'll be best."

McHugh laughs and nods, probably wishing he could go along. McHugh always did enjoy a good fandango.

.

.

After McHugh's gone to find Edwards, he rolls up the map and takes another drink. He sits quiet for a long time, letting the tequila do its work, getting mellow and thinking things through.

The railroad's ponying up real well for this job. Even after he's cut McHugh and the boys in, he still has one helluva grubstake. Maybe it's time to think about retiring; finding a nice little ranch somewhere. Raising horses, maybe. Yeah. Horses. Better than cows, any day. Or better still, finding a nice little town like this one, maybe, that needs a change of management. Run a saloon or two, or maybe a bawdy house. He grins. Maybe Clara's still working down in San Diego and would come and run it for him. It'll be a step up for her. It'll be real funny to see her face if she has to run a place where he can take the pick of the girls and never once look at her.

He reckons it'll all be over tomorrow or the day after. Lancer will be dead and the railroad will build right over the ranch that the old man's defending so hard. Tomorrow he'll have so much tin, he won't know how to spend it all.

He closes his eyes, sliding down in the chair until he's real comfortable. He pulls his hat right down over his eyes to keep the light out, and lets himself think about how he might spend all that gold. He might just ask for all the bits of Lancer the railroad doesn't want. They won't want much, really, out of a hundred thousand acres; just enough to run their track across. Wonder why his employer wants the old man dead and what the plans are for the Conway ranch. He's heard that it's owned by a right pretty widow woman.

He yawns, and stops thinking for a while. It's quiet. A fly buzzes past his ear, and even the drone is quiet. He yawns again.

There's a noise outside. McHugh and Williams and some of the other boys are settled on boardwalk outside the cantina, making sure no one bothers him. They're laughing out there, and there's a shot or two. Likely they're playing. With that shoat, maybe, or a greaser.

He tilts his head to one side, listening. He can hear McHugh's low rumble, and Pete Martin's voice, loud and mocking. And then—

And then he sits up so fast that he almost falls off the chair. His hat tumbles to the floor.

Great day in the morning! It can't be. It can't be because the man that sounds like… well, that man's said to be dead and dead men don't laugh like that.

He jumps up, grabbing his hat and jamming it back onto his head. If that's who he thinks it is, he has to get out there before he's short a few men. He's gonna need them to hit Lancer.

He opens the door quietly. McHugh has his gun trained on the feller standing in the street.

It's him, all right. Dressed in fancy Mex style, like always, like he don't care he's half-greaser, and with that damned Army Colt in his hand, ready. He looks like he's heading out on a Sunday school picnic not facing down half-a-dozen men who'd shoot him and leave him in the dust and lose no sleep over it. He's grinning, saying he picked himself a nice day to die and who's goin' with him? Means it, too. Damn it, but he hasn't changed, not one iota. Looks right healthy for a dead man.

"Take him down, Coley!" Pete Martin is so mad he's jumping.

If McHugh tries anything, he'll be buzzard meat even if he manages to get a shot off. He glances at McHugh and shrugs. Won't matter that much, he reckons, but he's had McHugh around for a long time and he's useful.

He steps onto the boardwalk. "I wouldn't."

McHugh's raising his gun, but he stops and turns. Pete Martin just stares.

But that damned cabrón standing out there in the street? Well, he just smiles that huge, shit-eating grin of his. He's not afraid. He nods. "Day."

Hell, it is. His eyes aren't lying. He'd drunk a toast only three days ago when he'd heard that one of the best of them had been shot down in Mexico, helping some stupid peons in some stupid revolution. He doesn't know whether he's pleased or not that the drink was wasted. He's always liked him, despite him being a breed. Come to think on it, doesn't matter a damn if he likes him or not: he can always use a good gun, and guns just don't come any better than this.

And maybe with a spindigo of a revolution behind him, one of the best guns on the border will be looking for work. Hell, if this pans out, if old man Lancer finds out that this gunhawk's in town, he'll be shitting himself to hand the land over.

So he nods, answering that huge grin with one of his own. He makes his smile as welcoming as he knows how.

"Long time, Johnny Madrid."

~end~

January 2011

4,526 words

Note:

I'm being deliberately vague about the exact route and progress of the Southern Pacific's construction of what became known as the Sunset route. From a booklet called 75 Years of Progress (published December 1945): Construction on the western end of the Sunset Route was started December 31, 1869, branching from the Transcontinental line at the newly established town of Lathrop. Only the most optimistic hopes could have prompted the Big Four (Sacramento businessmen Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington) to build into the San Joaquin Valley. The great broad region now so productive and populous was then nearly unoccupied. When looking over the proposed route, Stanford and Hopkins and their engineers traveled the upper section of the valley on horseback and camped out. For miles and miles they rode without seeing any sign of habitation, except an occasional sheep border's shack. Many of the valley's large cities of today—Fresno, Merced, Modesto, Tulare and others—were just "railroad towns" in the '70s, founded by the railroad's builders. Traffic was inaugurated to Modesto on November 8,1870; to Merced, January 15,1872; to Fresno, May 28,1872; to Tulare, July 25, 1872; and to Sumner (now East Bakersfield) on November 8, 1874.

In 1870, then, construction was at an early stage and wouldn't reach Fresno for a couple of years. But it strikes me that the Big Four, whatever else you can say about them, were men of vision and determination. So I've taken some creative liberties with their business practices and made an assumption that they would contract with the smaller railroad companies to build connecting spurlines well in advance of the main line reaching the junction – Fresno, in this case – so that all the lines etc would be in place for a little joining up that would echo, in a small way, the iconic Golden Spike moment of the great Transcontinental.

To support this story and because I'm fully behind Pooh Bah in his attention to 'mere corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative', I've had a lot of fun recreating the front page of the Sacramento Daily Record-Union for April 19th, 1870. There are a couple of articles about a certain land war in the San Joaquin valley and a little item under Railway Affairs in Column 4, datelined Sacramento, April 18th, all pertinent to this story and Hackamore in general. I'll stress here that the other articles on the page are taken from a much later edition of the Record Union, so the recreated front page isn't intended to be historically accurate. If you'd like to see the recreated front page and wonder at the adverts, the snippets and articles, all of which (apart from my three snippets) are real, then go here: