The dark haired peasant remained kneeling, head bowed, defiant even though his hands were tethered. His large brimmed sombrero sheltered his face from the ravages of a southern sun.
Slowly he raised his head to gaze at the leader of the Rurales, the jefe, the head man who had barked the order, pistol raised. The sombrero tumbled softly to the dusty ground and rolled out of reach. The peasant gave it no notice, just fixed his blue eyes on the weathered face of the man before him and betrayed no fear whatsoever.
The rurale repeated his order with gruff impatience, taking in as he did so the youthful features of this half-breed who would die so well today for no reason. He did not look like the normal member of the Sociedad de Resistencia. He was impressed with this ones fortitude. He shook his head at the senselessness of it all. He had gone through this ritual countless times, seen far too many peasants die and he would never get used to it. But in these lawless days, it was a necessity. The Land had to be protected; forces outside and within her borders constantly threatened the sovereignty of Mexico. Anarchist influence had to be obliterated and this was the best way -executing anyone who disagreed with the government, any supporter of Juarez. The peons had to be shown who was in charge; they had to be taught a lesson.
As he locked eyes with this particular revolutionary, he perceived a greater intelligence than was normal for one of his kind. Furthermore, the blueness of his eyes, a rarity among border dwellers was unsettling. No ordinary campesino then, a bandido, or possibly a pistolero. His job was not to speculate on the life of these revolutionaries, though it did help break the monotony of so many executions, this indulgence helped pass the time more favourably. Could it be possible he was getting too accustomed to death? He made a silent promise to himself to visit the padre later and maybe light a candle also.
The prisoner struggled to his feet muttering in English too softly to be heard clearly.
Ah, the Jefe remarked to himself,
American that explained the eyes. Definitely a half-breed; the worst
of both worlds.
Luis smiled and spat in the dust. He was going to enjoy this execution more than most.
The prisoner stood firm, feet apart planted solidly into the dust, a relaxed stance as if he were merely waiting in line for the day’s pay. He did not move his eyes from looking into those of the man barking the orders. He would die an honorable if senseless death today, for a revolution he did not fully understand and which in truth meant very little to him. He was a gunfighter and so borders, rulers and laws meant nothing to him. He considered himself a drifter, a rootless kind of person, orphaned at an early age he called nowhere home. He sold his only skill, his fast gun, to whoever would pay. It was a strange way to exist but having killed his first man before he was fifteen, it was the only way to survive in a society that had abandoned him. That first killing had set him on the path that inevitably led to this moment.
He acknowledged that he had been lucky to survive this long. Many gunhawks were dead or maimed before they left their teens. Each day had been a bonus.
Johnny Madrid considered his life in these final moments and concluded he had only one regret. That he had never had time to track down his father.
Johnny Madrid continued to stare without emotion past the Jefe now and towards the three rurales whose rifles were raised and pointing at his heart. He regretted now having declined the blindfold.
He noted idly that they were possibly American made single shot breach loaders-Winchester or Sharp. He had been on the receiving end of similar weapons many times but never like this. He smiles wryly at the irony. He had always expected a bullet would end his life but it never occurred to him it might be several bullets and from a Mexican firing squad and for a cause that was never his own. He had hoped for a quick easy death caused by his inability to outdraw an opponent, not something as organised as this and certainly not when, weaponless, he had no means to defend himself, and was feeling utterly naked.
Now it looked like not one but four bullets would kill him. He’d seen victims of rifle wounds; some took a long while to die as the metal destroyed their insides slowly and painfully. He hoped the Rurale who was giving the orders would have the decency to aim his pistol straight at his heart and that his aim would be true.
In an effort to ease the agonising wait, Johnny conjured a picture of his dead mother in his mind’s eye and superimposed it over the reality of the rurales. He saw her as she had been in full health, sparkling, alive and full of energy, shining hazel eyes, a full smile, wavy black hair that curled down her back and over her shoulders as far as her waist and which tickled him whenever she bent over to hold him, or to tuck him in bed. As he recalled rare moments of tenderness, his eyes watered. He took in a deep breath, filling his lungs to their limit aware now that his whole body was trembling faintly.
He would channel that involuntary movement into anger. It was an anger he would die with: anger over the fact that he had never made his father pay for driving his mother away.
He finally closed his eyes.
Johnny shivered at the sound of the voice that heralded his impending death.
Travelling at 900 feet per second the first bullet penetrated the tanned epidermis and skidded along the deeper melanin containing strata forming a small entry hole. When it cut through the dermis, it severed blood vessels and red blood began to leak out on to white cotton. It carried on through lymph channels, severed nerve endings and fat cells, flattening hair follicles and light and dark muscle.
It’s next action was to penetrate the many layers of the membrane lining the abdominal cavity before exiting through a hole it created three times its size splintering rib bone as it passed.
Johnny barely registered the pain before the second bullet hit.
Inside the great room of an imposing ranch house many miles away, Day Pardee looked down at the man sprawled across the fine oak desk and smiled.
He adjusted his rifle so it lay over his shoulder, the barrel still warm against his muscles. “So long Murdoch,” he whispered watching the eyes slide shut. “Nice knowin’ ya.”
Perching on the edge of the desk, he pulled a piece of paper out of the older man’s fist. He glanced over it, amused. It was a Pinkerton report on Johnny Madrid. “You won’t need no gunfighter where you’re going, Lancer.”
A scuffling sound by the doorway alerted him to the danger of more inhabitants. He jumped to his feet rifle at the ready.
“’s’only me boss,” one of his hired men called. “And lookee what I found hiding under one of them big fancy beds.” Roughly he thrust forward a struggling girl of no more than 20, her brown hair in disarray half covered her tear stained face.
“Well what have we here? Who are you my little filly? Not Murdoch’s that’s for sure.”
Pardee looked the girl over lasciviously,
“We’re gonna have us some fun with you, girly.”
The second bullet, slightly smaller than
the first at less than a half inch diameter, hit the outer skin layer at
one thousand feet per second to travel through tissue and muscle and on
through a gap in the rib cage. Still travelling in a straight line it sliced
the pleura membrane of the lungs front and back then collapsed upon itself
shattering the bone and tissue of the ribs.
Johnny cried out in agony.
In a dilapidated mission at the edge of a bustling town, Laura, a missionary’s daughter, gathered together the makings for breakfast for the old men, the drunks and homeless strays who made their temporary home with her. Carefully, she set plate and cup on a tray, and filled them with eggs, bread and coffee. It was important to her to treat her “men” with dignity and so she strove to always look presentable yet as unattractive as possible. She did not want to attract any attention or untoward behavior from them. Her blonde hair was scraped back from her pretty oval face and secured into a tight bun such as a maiden aunt might wear. Any stray strand was quickly dealt with before she faced her public. She wore no make up and her plain homemade skirts and blouses served to make her appear much older than her twenty-two years.
Satisfied with the arrangement, she passed through the large hall, which was dominated by a huge worn rough-hewn table and carried on up the staircase to the dormitories where the men slept. The man whose breakfast she carried was of great concern to her. He had recently lost his legs in an unfortunate accident, and it appeared to her that he was losing hope no matter which apposite Biblical passage she quoted to him. He seemed, unusually, to gain no solace from the Good Book.
Laura was considering ways in which to get him more involved in the running of the mission in the hope that it would reawaken his enthusiasm for life for it seemed a shame that a man in his prime should go to waste no matter what his disability. Maybe she could team him up with one of the Indians and set them a little task to do together. She smiled to herself as she pushed the door open with a thrust of her hip, maintaining a firm grip on the tray. As she turned round to step into the room, she noticed that Santee was not in his usual place on the bed. He had been very occupied of late with weaving large pieces of rope, which one of the Indians brought to him and had not moved from the bed at all as far as she could recall. A shadowy movement caught the corner of her eye. What she saw when she glanced up caused her to drop the tray. It fell with a clatter to the floorboards, the coffee splattering the hem of her skirt as the cup rolled away coming to a rest beneath the window.
She turned her head away from the gruesome
image of his contorted face, bulging eyes and the rope from which he swung
tight around his neck and focussed instead on a pair of fine black boots
that stood proud and tall by the shabby night stand.
“Oh my! Oh my!” she whispered her hand lifting to cover her mouth. “Oh Santee.”
The third bullet grazed past his hip tearing a long rent in his white pants spinning him to the ground. As he fell, Johnny saw the world blur around him as darkness closed in on his senses rendering him deaf, blind, and unable to utter a sound. All his energy, all his senses concentrated on conquering the agonizing pain that wracked his whole body.
A cool wind drifted soundlessly along the valley. It hardly caused the water in the lake and river to ripple, the leaves on trees to flutter. It caressed cattle feeding on grass, caused riderless horses to prick up their ears, and continued through miles of fences and shrubs. Careless, it passed over still bodies laid out on the earth like macabre sculptures and stirred up leaves in the deserted courtyard. One greying leaf came to rest on the leg of a blond haired youth who seemed to lean, sleeping, against a tree trunk. By his side a hat in east coast styling, a gun belt slung high around his hips, his jacket opened slightly in the breeze to reveal a finely embroidered shirt of highest quality. He had a pleasing, fine-boned face marred now by the lines and furrows of pain and a bloodless pallor. The almost translucent eyelids of this youth flickered as he moaned feebly and lifted one hand slowly off the ground to bring it over the lower portion of his bent right leg in an attempt to stem the blood flow. There was not enough strength left in his body to achieve anything useful and so the blood continued to run to the earth and pool black and glistening in the sunlight. The motion forced a cry of agony from parched white lips and his eyelids closed again as his elegant long fingered hand drifted back to his side. He had no idea how long he had lain here: some time as the air was cooling and the shadow of the tree had lengthened.
Where were the men? Where was Murdoch? Couldn’t his father see he needed him? Couldn’t he tell that he hadn’t the strength to lever himself up and walk over to the Ranch house, someone must come carry him there soon. And where was that no good gunfighter of a half brother? Hadn’t he been Murdoch’s hope? The hope of them all? Madrid: not even going by his family name. It was only to be expected, he mused. Maybe the money Murdoch had offered and the lure of a share in the ranch just hadn’t been temptation enough.
A brother. Scott felt he would
have liked to have met his brother, just once, before he died, before he
bled to death. And yes, he was coming to realise now that no help
would come, for there were no human sounds in the air and the iron scent
of blood was all around him. It reminded him all too much of a battlefield
when the slaughter was over. He wouldn’t think of the past-no, far
better to contemplate a future with a brother, a brother whose description
he had read on a document his father had shown him only yesterday.
He’d gone into town to see if he could spot him anywhere, for Murdoch was
convinced the Pinkertons would find him and send him to save them all.
Unlike Scott, this brother had black hair and blue eyes and was shorter.
Would they have got on with each other? Scott would never know now.
Probably not. The imaginary brother Scott had created for himself
as a child had been an east coast, blond haired, soft-spoken boy like himself.
He’d been a wonderful swimmer and boxer and fencer and had great courage.
More courage than Scott himself had had. More courageous than Scott
was at this moment. If his brother were here, he would tell him something.
He would tell him that he had been missing him all his life and it didn’t
matter that he had killed lots of men for money, that he hadn’t had the
guts to fight in the war, that he had not been there for Scott in his hour
of need. He would tell him…tell him that even though they had never
met…that he loved him and forgave him. Scott smiled at a last thought-
maybe Johnny had not made it because he too was dying somewhere.
Alone, like him.
It was the final bullet that hit his heart, poisoning the large bulbous muscle as it collapsed in upon itself.
The heart of a man who had been a passionate lover to women all along the border who would mourn him and weave fantastic tales of him and reinvent him as a hero, an angel, a ghost, to their grandchildren.
The heart of a young man whose tale would be set to music and played and sung to guitars in cantinas all over Mexico and California. And as the years pass the tales would grow more elaborate, more mystical, and more incredible.
The heart of a man who would one day be recorded as martyr, gunfighter, champion of the needy, revolutionary.
A heart that had raced with passion, with energy and a love of life.
A heart that had barely been given a chance to love before its beating was stopped.
Johnny opened his eyes.
From a high dusty prospect of a Mesa, the shepherd leaned stiffly on his staff and surveyed the land spread out below. He tracked the winding creeks, the lakes, and the shrubs, the brown earth dotted with stick like cattle, the rocky outcroppings, and the shacks. He sighed; his voice mingling with the far off moos, whinnies, and baas. He was still aching from the beating the cattlemen’s hired men had given him in Green River and he was covered in a thick cloying dust that reinforced his hatred of this country. He was not sure how he was going to get away from this situation, nor how he was going to save the lambs and the pregnant sheep. They needed shelters; he needed to build some for them. But first, they needed a safe haven; they needed someone to fight their cause. If only he could have won over a cowboy, a ranch-hand or one of the beef herders hereabouts. In most towns he had managed to forge an alliance; this area seemed so much harder than most. Was it the dryness? Did the aridity poison the souls of the men who settled here? Was there no one with a true and peaceful heart who would help him to save the lives of his beloved sheep?
Already he had lost too many precious ewes as they attempted to deliver lambs too early, under stress and behind rocky outcroppings in harsh sunlight. He shook his head saddened that his fellow man had let him down. He was just a peaceable sheepherder who had no truck with fighting, with greed, with arguments over land. He had no property, no ties to any one place; his sole aim was to move his sheep on westward and to ensure the next generation were safely delivered. Why did these people hate him so much when he only meant to do good? Couldn’t they see there was room for all of them in this land?
The shots rang out without warning scattering the remnants of his herd in all directions, many of the sheep falling to their death down the steep side of the mesa. The shepherd was too bruised to react quickly enough to save them, to save even himself.
The Rancher walked his horse over to stand
beside the felled shepherd and hefted his rifle. Laughing he spat
in the dust near his victim’s head.
The last words Gabe heard before the bullet shattered his brain were, “I told you but you wouldn’t listen. There’s no room on this here land for sheep and beef, and there never will be.”
Reining in his borrowed horse, Jeb Smith pulled the kerchief from his pocket and tied it over his nose. The stench of blood heated by the sun was intolerable and he could not bear to look at the cloudless sky where the buzzards whirled. This was a part of his job he knew he would have to get used to. He was as yet a greenhorn detective in the prestigious Pinkerton agency and it was only by default he had been given this task. The agent who had been tracking Johnny Madrid had unfortunately succumbed to cholera just when he’d found a hot trail. And now it was too late, the path had led to this, the scene of an execution by firing squad, and a bundle of white clad corpses. He urged his mount closer wishing all the while he could just ride away and tell some fabrication to explain the absence of the gunfighter; something like he had refused the offer being too engrossed in a whore or a game of poker. In fact that was what he had been expecting, a flat refusal from a cynical lawless bandido. Would this be counted as some sort of failure? Would it be a blemish on a record that had hardly started? If only his horse had not cast a shoe, then he would not have been delayed at the blacksmith’s and would have got here before…before the man was executed.
He was going to have to search through the bodies to find Madrid in order that he could, in all conscience, tell his employers that he had found the gunfighter. The thought of that made his stomach churn. He had not seen a person killed by a gun before, and he was not sure what to expect. The smell was horrific enough; he doubted he had the guts to look closer.
Nevertheless, he steeled himself and dismounted to crouch by the nearest body that fit the description. Most the men, he now saw, were obviously Mexican except this one. Easing the body over with the toe of his boot, he confirmed the identity, black hair, paler skin than the rest and wide-open blue eyes.
He was struck by the calmness of the expression on Madrid’s face, and judged him a man to be reckoned with. He looked younger too, than he’d expected, and he was obviously very handsome. Jeb had studied the report, memorised it. Here was a man whom fate had dealt a bad hand. There had been a wonderful future waiting for this man: security, a ranch, and a brother, somewhere to belong. Miles to the north a father was waiting in the hope that his son would be returned to him. Jeb silently promised Murdoch Lancer that he would bury his son deep here in border country, where he would be safe and free.
He turned back to his horse to find something to use as a shovel. His first job: one he would never forget. And the first realisation that not all endings are happy ones.