Nothing But Trouble
For as long as Kevin Kerney had known him, Johnny Jordan had been nothing but trouble. But it had taken a long time for Kerney to realize the downside of being Johnny’s friend.
Memories of Johnny flooded through Kerney’s mind on a snowy April afternoon after he returned to police headquarters to find a telephone message on his desk from his old boyhood chum. Johnny was in Santa Fe, staying at a deluxe downtown hotel, and wanted to get together for drinks and dinner that evening.
Kerney stared out his office window at the fluffy wind-driven snow that melted as soon as it hit the glass. He’d last seen Johnny well over thirty years ago at the memorial services for his parents, who’d been killed in a traffic accident the day Kerney had returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam. Johnny had shown up at the church late, accompanied by a good-looking woman twice his age, with his left arm in a cast-broken in a fall he’d taken at a recent pro rodeo event.
He remembered Johnny waiting for him outside the church, standing next to a new truck with the initials JJ painted on the doors above a rider on a bucking bronc. Dressed in alligator cowboy boots, black pressed jeans, a starched long-sleeve white Western-cut shirt, and a gold-and-silver championship rodeo buckle, he’d flashed Kerney a smile, led him away from the truck where his lady friend waited, and offered his condolences.
“It’s a damn shame,” Johnny said with a shake of his head. “Are you going to be okay?”
“Eventually, I suppose,” Kerney replied.
“But not yet,” Johnny said.
They caught up with each other. Johnny had been rodeoing since graduating from high school and had become a top-ten saddle bronc rider, while Kerney had finished his college degree and gone off to Vietnam as an infantry second lieutenant. Johnny’s parents, Joe and Bessie, who owned a big spread on the Jornada, a high desert valley straddled by mountains in south-central New Mexico where Kerney had been raised, had sold out and bought another ranch in the Bootheel of southwestern New Mexico. Joe had left his job as the president of a local bank in Truth or Consequences to take over a savings and loan in Deming.
Still in shock over the loss of his parents, Kerney didn’t have much to say, but he promised to stay in touch with Johnny once things settled down. Johnny gave him a phone number where he could be reached and left with the nameless woman.
It had been typical of Johnny not to introduce his lady friend. He had a catch-and-release attitude toward woman.
Kerney never followed up. His friendship with Johnny had ended years before. At the age of sixteen Kerney had hired out as a summer hand on the Jordan ranch. On his first day at work he’d been sent with Johnny to repair a cattle trap in preparation for the fall roundup. The job consisted of replacing broken fence posts and stringing new wire.
By noon they’d almost finished the chore, when they ran out of steel replacement posts. Johnny took the truck to get more from a ranch supply store in Truth or Consequences, while Kerney stayed behind to string and splice wire. Four hours later Kerney was still waiting for Johnny’s return when the ranch manager, Shorty Powell, had showed up.
“Is this as far as you’ve got?” Shorty asked, surveying the unfinished trap.
“We ran out of posts,” Kerney replied. “Johnny went to get more.” He didn’t say anything about Johnny leaving him stranded in the hot desert sun for four hours with no water, no shade, on foot, and ten miles from the ranch headquarters. He didn’t tell Shorty that while he’d waited for Johnny he’d rebuilt and rehung the gate to the trap by himself, using the old wooden fence posts.
“This job should have been finished today,” Shorty said as he grabbed the mike to the CB radio in his truck and called for Johnny. “Where are you?” he asked when Johnny replied.
“Just leaving the store with the posts.”
“I want you and Kevin out at the trap first thing in the morning to finish up. I’ll bring Kevin back to the ranch.”
At the ranch Johnny had not yet arrived. Shorty killed the engine and gave Kerney a long, appraising look. “That wasn’t a full day’s job I sent you boys out to do. What took so long?”
“We had a lot of wire to splice and the ground was pretty hard,” Kerney replied, so parched he could barely speak. “Pounding those posts in took a while.”
Shorty grunted. “It’s your first day on the job, so I’ll give you some slack. But if you’re going to work for me this summer, I expect you to put your back into it.”
“Yes, sir,” Kerney said.
The next morning, as they finished up at the trap, Johnny told Kerney how he’d stopped by his girlfriend’s house in town on the way to the store and had gotten “distracted.” He never once apologized for leaving Kerney in the lurch, nor did he thank him for covering up his absence with Shorty.
“Don’t worry about Shorty,” Johnny said as he pounded in the last post. “I’ll make sure he keeps you on through the summer.”
Kerney spliced a top wire with fencing pliers, clipped it to the post, and stretched it tight. “Don’t do me any favors, Johnny.”
“What’s bugging you?”
“Nothing,” Kerney replied, staring at Johnny, who stood grinning at him, showing his perfect white teeth. Unlike Johnny, who lacked for nothing, Kerney needed the job and the money it would bring. “Just don’t expect me to lie for you again.”
“You’re taking this way too seriously.”
Kerney wrapped the remaining wire around the post, took off his gloves, and handed Johnny the pliers. “You can finish up.”
Johnny laughed. “When did the hired hand start giving orders?”
“When I found out my partner is a slacker.”
Over the course of the summer Kerney distanced himself from Johnny and won Shorty’s respect as a hand, which meant more to him than Johnny’s friendship.
That year Johnny’s wild streak took over. In his free time he organized beer busts on his father’s boat at Elephant Butte Lake, made trips to sleazy Juarez nightclubs in Mexico, and got in fistfights over girls. When he wasn’t working or partying, he was glued to the back of a horse, practicing his calf-roping and rodeoing skills.
As he considered Johnny’s invitation, Kerney wondered if his old boyhood pal had changed at all over the years. Did he still have the big grin, the easy laugh, his charming, cocksure ways? As a rodeo fan he’d kept up with Johnny’s career for a time. Johnny had been good enough to repeatedly reach the national finals and had won two saddle bronc championships, but never the all-around title. Then he’d faded from view.
Kerney decided it was worth his time to have dinner with Johnny, just to find out what had prompted his phone call. He dialed the hotel and asked to be put through to Johnny’s room. The operator asked for his name, and when he responded, she told him Johnny would meet him in the bar of an expensive downtown restaurant at seven o’clock.
Kerney confirmed he’d be there and disconnected, thinking maybe Johnny hadn’t changed much at all: he still expected things to go his way and for people to do his bidding. Any nostalgia he had about his past friendship was erased by a sense of wariness.
He checked the time. If he left for home now, he could change out of his uniform into civvies and get back in town to meet up with Johnny at the restaurant.
At the Santa Fe Airport, Johnny Jordan sat with the woman he’d brought with him to Santa Fe, eager to put her on a flight home and be done with her. Brenda was a petite, hard-bodied workout maven who conducted trim-and-tone exercise classes at a Denver gym and spa that catered to professional women. He’d met her at a party three weeks ago, and by the end of the night he had taken her to bed.
Over the past three weeks Johnny had found her to be the perfect combination of what he liked in a woman: haughty, hot looking, and sluttish in bed. Two days ago he’d invited Brenda to accompany him on a short business trip, thinking it would be fun to have someone to play with who liked it wet and wild and didn’t demand too much of his time. By the end of the drive down from Denver, Johnny realized he’d made a huge mistake.
From the moment she got in the car Brenda had talked endlessly, about her parents, her siblings, her job, her ex-husband, her hiking vacation to the Canadian Rockies, and anything else that just popped into her pretty head. In Santa Fe, Brenda’s prattle turned to making hints about expensive items that caught her eye in the jewelry stores and boutiques on the Plaza and complaints about how she didn’t like being left alone while Johnny took care of his business dealings.
Earlier in the day, realizing there was no way he could face driving Brenda back to Denver, Johnny had sent her off window shopping on the pretext that he had to make some confidential phone calls to clients. When she got back to the hotel room, he greeted her with a worried look and a tale that his father had just suffered a stroke at his ranch on the Bootheel. In fact, despite his eighty-three years, there was nothing wrong with his father, other than a recent hip replacement.
“I’m so sorry.” Brenda stepped close and hugged Johnny. “Will he be all right?”
Johnny shook his head gravely. “I don’t know, but I have to get down there right away.”
“Of course, family comes first.” Brenda drew her head back, looked up at Johnny, and bit her lip. “But you’re not going to leave me stranded here, are you?”
Johnny smiled. “I wouldn’t do that to you. You’re booked on a flight to Denver this afternoon. I’ll take you to the airport.”
Brenda’s expression lightened. “Thank you.”
“Sorry about the change in plans,” Johnny said.
Brenda shook her curly locks. “It’s not your fault. What is the Bootheel, anyway?”
“It’s a strip of land in the southwest corner of the state that butts into Mexico. It’s shaped like the heel of a boot.”
“And your father owns it?” Brenda asked with great interest.
Johnny laughed. “Not all of it by a long shot, but a pretty fair chunk.”
“What time is my flight?”
Brenda pressed hard against him and her hand found his crotch. “That’s hours from now. Is there anything I can do to ease your worries?”
Johnny responded by slipping his hand down the front of her blouse, and Brenda spent the next half hour consoling him with her mouth and body.
At the airport Brenda’s flight had been delayed because of the snowstorm, so Johnny forced himself to sit with her outside the boarding area, even though she protested that she would be fine on her own. He’d learned a long time ago to leave women feeling happy and cared about, especially if you had no intention of ever seeing them again. It caused much less trouble that way.
Because the Santa Fe Airport served only turboprop commercial carriers and private airplanes, the terminal was small. In the public area, a space with high-beamed ceilings, tile floors, and hand-carved Southwestern chairs, about twenty passengers, along with a few spouses and friends, waited for the last flight out to Denver.
From where Johnny sat with Brenda, he could see the tarmac. The in-bound flight from Denver had just taxied to the ramp area. Soon he’d be shed of her, and the thought made him want to smile, but he stifled the impulse. When the gate agent announced that boarding would begin in a few minutes, Johnny stood, bent over, and gave Brenda a kiss.
“Thanks for being so understanding,” he said.
“You’ve been so quiet,” Brenda said, kissing him back.
Johnny gave her a solemn look. “You know, just thinking about my father.” In truth, he’d used the fabricated family catastrophe to tune Brenda out. Actually, his only worry was whether or not over dinner he’d be able to talk Kevin Kerney into participating in a deal he’d just sewn up. Kerney had been an obstinate, straitlaced kid back in the old days on the Jornada, who’d occasionally dressed him down for his fun-loving ways. But what Johnny had in mind shouldn’t get Kerney’s ire up. It was a straight business deal with some good money built into it.
Brenda stood, kissed him again, patted his arm, and nodded understandingly.
“I’ll call when I can,” he said.
She buzzed his cheek with her lips and pranced toward the boarding area, looking pert and yummy in her tight jeans. She threw him a smile over her shoulder, and Johnny smiled back, thinking it was a real pity that she liked to talk as much as she liked to party.
Popular with the well-heeled set, the restaurant Johnny had picked wasn’t one of Kerney’s favorite places. Although the food was good, the dining rooms were small and dark, the tables crowded together, and most nights the din of nearby diners made private conversation difficult. In the summer, when customers could dine on the tree-covered patio, it was much more tolerable.