The first warning that something was amiss was the sudden laying back of Barranca’s ears; Johnny tensed, well aware animals sensed danger before humans and then the first scream pierced the quiet of the valley he was traveling through. He turned his head as he tried to track the noise, hoping another scream would give him a clue as to which direction he would need to head. Once again a hysterical scream rent the air and as if the horse knew exactly what his rider wanted the palomino turned and headed in the direction the sounds of distress issued from.
Johnny pulled up just as he got to a small hill that over looked the road below. There he saw two grubby saddle tramps struggling with a woman. The look on her face was one of sheer disgust and terror. He pulled his gun as he quietly made his way closer to the men and the besieged lady.
The woman screamed again as a dirty hand reached for the bonnet strings tied securely under her chin. “Please, leave me alone,” she pleaded desperately while struggling against the two men who were accosting her.
“Come on, Honey; you can be a little more friendlier than that. We just wanta’ see whatcha got under that purty little hat of yours.” The man smiled; his teeth yellow with tobacco, his breath reeking of alcohol.
Suddenly the air was shattered by single shot, the struggling ceased as the startled men and woman turned to face Johnny.
“Why don’t you come up here and take off my hat?” The young cowboy leaned forward in his saddle with his right hand filled with a colt resting lazily over the pommel.
“This ain’t’ none of your affair boy. Now why don’t you just get on home to your mama and leave us men to our own business.” Blaire, the larger of the two dirty cowboys, grabbed at the woman’s breast to emphasize he wasn’t about to take orders from some wet behind the ears kid.
A loud bang issued from the colt along with a bluish wisp of smoke, Blaire nearly wet his pants when his hat went flying into the air. The shot came so close to his scalp he felt the heat and involuntarily let his hand go to his head in order to see if he had a permanent part. The lady took the opportunity to wrench herself free from the disgusting man who had pinned her next to his foul smelling body. She scrambled to her buggy and quickly climbed in.
Lonnie watched in fascinated horror as his partner’s hat floated to the ground. Licking his lips he looked back at the young stranger, wondering who he was. The boy didn’t look to be all that old but his skill with the gun proved he was someone who had experience handling the colt and his aim was dead on accurate. One thing he was sure of, he didn’t wanta’ tangle with the boy no matter how old he was.
Blaire recovered quickly and as the woman scrambled away from him he clumsily tried for his gun. Calm as lake water on a windless day, Johnny let loose with another shot so close that the big man once again checked for blood this time his grubby hand grappling frantically at his ear.
“The next one goes right between your eyes,” Johnny promised.
Johnny’s soft drawl made the hairs on the back of Lonnie’s neck stand on end and the lanky coward held up both hands while backing up. “Don’t shoot mister. I don’t want no trouble.”
Neither of the dirty cowboys had ever seen anyone so fast in all their years of wandering around. Lonnie didn’t want to further anger the kid and took a couple more steps back trying to put some distance between him and the obvious pistolero.
Blaire watched the kid closely his eyes narrowing as he tried to get a better view of the kid beneath the low brimmed hat. He doubted the young stranger could be much more than a teenager. As he continued to watch the intruder his hand once again began to slowly crawl towards the butt of his gun hoping to have better luck than his first aborted attempt to draw on the kid. “Who are you Boy?”
Johnny didn’t answer right away. He left the silence hanging in the air, like a noose, knowing that it would unnerve both men. When he did answer the words came whisper soft. “I’m the boy that’s gonna’ kill you if one finger touches that gun. Now back away from the buggy.” Johnny aimed his pistol right at Blaire’s head and thumbed the hammer back. The metallic click emphasized the fact he meant business.
Lonnie retreated a few more steps trying to cooperate with the dangerous young man. The unnerved cowboy was certain the intruder that sat so confident on his horse was a gunfighter. The boy’s attitude and the ease in which he held and handled his gun was all the proof he needed.
Blaire took his time but eventually moved far enough away from the buggy that the woman felt safe enough to move forward a bit and put a little distance between her and the filthy men who had stopped her.
Once Johnny saw that she had regained some control over her emotions he asked her. “Ma’am, are you alright”?
The woman’s voice shook as she responded; giving her young rescuer an equally shaky smile. “Yes, I think so, thanks to you, young man.”
Satisfied that she was no longer in danger, Johnny asked her, “Think maybe you can manage that buggy and start on up that road?”
“Yes, but are you going to come too?” Her eyes shifted nervously towards her former tormentors.
Johnny could hear the uncertainty in her voice and wondered if her concern wasn’t for him, as well as for herself. The thought caused him to smile again; the warmth reaching his eyes. “Oh yes ma’am,” he answered politely. “I’ll be right behind you after I give these two a lesson in manners.” He tipped his hat at the woman.
Johnny waited until the lady was well on her way down the road before he addressed the scum that stood before him. “Unbuckle those gun belts and use your left hand.” Not one mote of leniency or humor colored his voice.
Both men struggled until they had their hardware dangling awkwardly in their left hands.
“Toss em’ over here real nice like. I wouldn’t want my horse to spook… might cause my gun to go off accidental like.” The smirk on Johnny’s face quelled any desire either man might have entertained about trying something stupid.
The belts landed just a few inches from Barranca’s feet causing him to sidestep slightly. Blaire thought it was his chance but the bullet that kicked dirt up and stung his legs pulled him up short.
“Told ya’ ta be careful,” Johnny scolded. “See what you almost made me do?” He motioned with his gun for both men to back up a step and then proceeded to issue more orders. “Take your boots off and toss em’ over here with the guns. Careful; cause we don’t want nothing bad to happen to you. Especially since you’re gonna’ need two good legs to get out of this mess.”
“You can’t take our boots, Boy!” Blaire bellowed forgetting himself and he moved forward only to have another bullet spray his legs with dirt and gravel again.
“I’m not tellin’ you again. Shuck them boots.” There was no grin this time and no humor in the boy’s voice; just cold eyes boring into the foul smelling man who was itching to do something stupid.
Lonnie plopped down immediately and began pulling at his boots. Carefully, he tossed them next to the gun belts. Blaire stared at Johnny for a few seconds longer and then slowly sank to the ground and yanked his boots off. He flicked them one at a time towards the mounted youth; more carefully than he had tossed his rig.
“Now, you boys lay face down with your arms above your heads.” Johnny instructed.
Reluctantly, both men belly-flopped into the dirt; with their arms spread above their heads. Once Johnny was certain they were settled, he dismounted and gathered the boots and the guns up. He found some pieces of red material that he kept in his saddle bags for marking fences when repairs were needed. Keeping his eyes on both men, he tied their boots and guns to their saddles. Once he was satisfied that the gear wouldn’t come loose, he slapped the horses’ rumps and chased them off in the direction from which they had originally come.
Blaire was incensed at not only losing his boots and gun but now his horse was disappearing off into the horizon. “You sorry, damn little piss ant!!! How in the hell do you expect us to get outta’ here without our horses?”
Johnny didn’t bother to answer as he mounted his own horse and settled into the saddle. He turned slightly and looked at the two men he was about to leave afoot. “I figure it should take you about a day to find your horses; if they stop for water. And if you’re real lucky, they’re most likely headed for the last place you bedded ‘em down. Now you can stand there and bitch about it; or you can start hikin’.” He grinned. “Your choice. Ain’t like I’m exactly orderin’ you what to do; me bein’ a boy and all.” This time he laughed, full out.
Lonnie slowly got to his knees; cleaning the palms of his sweaty hands on his pants leg. Licking his lips, he turned towards the distant hills. The horses had already disappeared; nothing but a lingering cloud of dust remaining on the horizon. He looked back at Johnny and studied the boy for a bit. Something about the kid seemed familiar to him. He was sure he had come across the kid before but there was just something that he couldn’t shake. Finally, his curiosity got the better of him and he had to ask. “Hey, kid. Just who the hell are you anyway?”
Johnny tipped his hat back and let a cold grin contort his mouth. “Madrid, Johnny Madrid.” With that he turned and rode off heading in the direction the lady had taken.
Lonnie swallowed hard as he watched Johnny’s dust. He looked over at Blaire swallowing convulsively before replying. “I thought he was dead.”
Blaire didn’t move for a long time as he watched Johnny riding away. He was visibly shaken by their encounter with the infamous kid gunfighter.
Lonnie could tell by the look on his partner’s face that Blaire was thinking in the wrong direction. “Come on, Blaire. We gotta’ get them horses. Let it go.”
The bigger man didn’t move but continued to stare in the direction he had last seen Johnny. Lonnie once again tried to shake his partner into action. “Let’s go Blaire. We got a long ways to go before we find them horses. We got lucky today and you know it. Let it go.”
When Blaire didn’t move he gave up and picked his hat off the ground. Without looking or speaking to his partner again Lonnie walked off towards the direction he had last seen the horses. He knew Blaire well enough to know that someday there would be a showdown. He figured it would be the end of Blaire one way or the other.
Johnny Madrid would either kill the man or Blaire would hang for shooting the kid in the back. Either way, it was the beginning of the end, for his partner and Lonnie wasn’t about to go with the man. He knew he had been lucky today and luck was something the saddle tramp didn’t take for granted.
Johnny rode along at a trot, determined to catch up to the woman he had just rescued from the two losers that couldn’t even brag of being men. He smiled to himself as he thought about the looks on their faces when he had told them who he was.
He was Johnny Lancer now, and he thanked God every day that his father had found him and brought him home. The hours were long and the work was hard; but the feeling from a good day’s work was satisfying, and having a place to belong and people to care about you was worth all the gold in California.
But, still, sometimes it was fun to be Johnny Madrid again. Not the Johnny Madrid of the dark and mostly untrue reputation as an unfeeling killer. No. The real Johnny Madrid. The one who still enjoyed playing with a man’s mind; toying with an adversary like a cat amusing itself with a mouse.
It had certainly felt good today, he grinned.
Maybe it was a good thing if the gunfighter still showed up once in a while. After all, if not for Madrid, Johnny Lancer wouldn’t have a place of his own.
Smiling, the young man tucked Madrid back into the shadows, and brought Johnny Lancer back into the sunlight. Spurring Barranca into a gallop, he caught up with the woman in the buggy, exchanging a pleasant and long conversation with Mrs. Emma Taylor as he escorted her safely home.