Beginnings are easy. It’s endings that are hard.
The sweat was trickling down Johnny’s back and chest, soaking his shirt and making it stick to his skin. He peered into the distance, narrowing his eyes against the glare. Heat shimmered on the air, making it hard to see clearly. The sun-baked ground was hard and colorless, with only the occasional low scrubby bush to break the monotony of the landscape. If he hadn’t known better he would have said there was no life within miles.
He swayed gently in harmony with his horse’s easy gait. He had been very careful not to push the animal too hard in the harsh desert conditions but, despite the heat, he was in no hurry to reach his destination. He wanted time to savour his feeling of anticipation. He smiled to himself, the fingers of his right hand twitching on the reins as if eager to draw his gun and send a bullet flying toward its target.
A sip of tepid water from his canteen did little to clear the dust coating the inside of his mouth. “Soon, mi amigo, you’ll have a comfortable stable and I’ll be drinking a cold glass of beer.”
He was exaggerating, of course. The stable was a lean-to structure at the back of the cantina and the beer was always warm and sour. Still, the growing town had other compensations for a hot-blooded young man. He stretched, biting back a curse at the sudden stab of pain in his back. His anger quickly boiled up, until it felt almost as hot as the sun at this reminder of the betrayal that had almost cost his life.
His anger had to be harnessed like a wild horse. If he allowed it to consume him he wouldn’t be capable of cold clear-headed action. It would get him killed and he had no intention of dying yet. For four years he had been learning his trade and building up his reputation. The name of Johnny Madrid meant something now. Men no longer mocked him for his mixed blood and blue eyes. The half-breed puppy had grown into a deadly wolf; a predator well suited to survive in a brutal world.
The sun was still high when Johnny saw the town on the horizon. Excitement seized him, only to be quickly suppressed. He spurred his horse into a canter. Santa Clara had grown from a small village to a thriving community, close to the border and benefiting from being on one of the easier routes from California to Mexico. Johnny had watched it grow during his frequent visits over the past couple of years.
He had always thought the name was a good joke since most of the trade that passed through the town was downright illegal. Not that it bothered him. The rich gringos in California could afford to lose some of their cattle and horses. It was just a pity that his father’s lands lay so far north. Johnny would have been happy to relieve Murdoch Lancer of the burden of so much wealth.
The more prosperous side of town no longer welcomed pistoleros. Those who had made the most money from illegal activities now carried an air of pious respectability. It amused Johnny to watch their eyes slide away from the sight of his knowing smile.
When he reached the town, he rode slowly down the main street, weaving in and out between the wagons and people. He gave everyone who looked at him a slight smile – the one that had always angered his step-father. Some of the younger women smiled back before they were hustled away by their families. He knew that women from decent homes weren’t for him. Look, but don’t touch. Just another thing to blame on his parents.
The buildings became shabbier when he reached the older part of town. Now people greeted him with a genuine smile and a wave. The cantina was on the edge of the community, looking just as rundown as he remembered. But, the smell of baking and spices made his mouth water.
He tethered his horse in the shade by the water trough, taking a minute to steady himself. It still took a real effort to hide his slight limp and he’d learned at a very young age to conceal any sign of weakness. A group of children ran past, laughing and shouting. Their bare feet kicked up the dust from the roadway, bringing back memories to Johnny of his own childhood. Everything was familiar and surprisingly comforting for a young man who had sworn to leave his old life behind.
The cantina had been one of the original buildings and, unlike the newer side of town, was built in the traditional style from adobe bricks. The whitewash coating the outer walls was showing signs of neglect and the door frame had buckled. There was little incentive to spend time repairing the damage. Johnny took a careful step away from his horse. The aching in his lower back was tolerable, although he knew he would pay for today’s exertions when he eventually went to bed.
He had to duck slightly to enter the building. He stood just inside the doorway, allowing his eyesight to adjust to the dimmer light. His right hand rested on his gun, taking nothing for granted. The room contained a number of mismatched tables and chairs. The bar was a simply a long piece of wood resting on half a dozen barrels. Unlike the gringo saloons, there were no rows of bottles on shelves, no fancy brass rails surrounding the bar and no working girls trying to part the customers from their money.
Johnny looked carefully at the faces of the handful of men sitting at the tables. He recognized all of them and none was the man he had come here to see. He strolled as casually as he could over to the bar, reaching it just as the owner walked through the doorway from the kitchen.
“Hola, Diego,” Johnny said. “How’s business?”
Diego shook his head. “Times are hard, Johnny. Most of the trade has moved to the new saloons and stores. It is no longer easy to make an honest living. The town is changing. No one remembers the traditions anymore. The young men want to live like the gringos from across the border.”
“Then they’re fools,” Johnny replied. “California might look like the promised land the priests talk about, but Mexicans are only welcome as cheap labor for the rich ranchers and their families, or as hired guns to protect their property.”
The venom dripping from his own words shocked him. He had been raised with tales of hatred and prejudice, but even as a child he had never quite believed the stories his mother told him. Perhaps that was because he didn’t want to picture his father as a completely unfeeling bastard who would disown his wife and baby son. With a sick feeling in his gut he realized that he had finally changed, becoming hard and cynical, and all because a man he had thought of as a friend had betrayed him.
Johnny met Diego’s wide-eyed stare and forced a smile onto his face. “Lo siento, amigo. I’ve had a long, hot ride today.”
“Sit,” Diego said. “Let me fetch you a beer.”
Johnny nodded wearily, choosing a seat that would allow him to see the whole room and the door leading to the street. He pulled his hat off and tossed it onto the scarred wooden table. He watched Diego dipping a glass into the open barrel of beer. Liquid dripped down the wooden sides and onto the hard-packed dirt of the floor.
After setting the glass on the table Diego sat down opposite Johnny. “We were worried when you did not return with Victor.”
Johnny took a large swallow of the beer, concentrating on the welcome feeling of liquid sliding down his dry throat. “Is he still in town?” he asked once the glass was empty.
“No. He only stayed for a few days. Just long enough to visit his hermano.”
Johnny hadn’t expected it to be that easy, so he wasn’t surprised to hear that Victor had moved on. He was, however, relieved that Victor had ridden this way to check on Frank. “Does Frank still drink here?” he asked.
Diego narrowed his eyes. “What is wrong, Johnny? Why are you not with Victor?”
Sweat beaded on Diego’s forehead. “I cannot afford trouble.”
Johnny fixed a cold stare on the older man. “You cannot afford to upset me, amigo.” Although he kept his voice soft and level he saw Diego shudder. “Tend to your customers and stay out of the way. You have my word that there will be no trouble here.”
He leaned back in his chair and only wondered fleetingly why he felt no regret about frightening a man who had always been a good friend to him.
The time passed slowly. Diego’s wife had brought him supper and her silence told him that she knew what had been said to her husband. He shrugged away her disapproval and continued to wait. An untouched bottle of tequila and two glasses sat in front of him. Customers drifted in and out while day turned to night. Finally, Johnny’s patience was rewarded. Frank Porter was only in his mid-twenties, but he looked almost twice that age. He had lost weight since Johnny had last seen him and his face in the candlelight looked grey and tired. Frank was half-way to the bar before he looked toward the corner where Johnny was sitting.
“Hello, Frank.” Johnny’s smile was not intended to be pleasant.
Johnny pushed a chair away from the table with his foot. “Sit down.” He opened the tequila, pouring the liquid carelessly into the glasses. “This’ll help with the pain.”
Frank looked nervously around him. When everyone looked away, he drew a shuddering breath and sat down. His hand was shaking when he picked up the glass. After gulping the tequila down he began to cough, a harsh uncontrolled sound.
Johnny waited, sipping his own drink. Finally, the noise stopped and Frank spat to clear his throat.
“You should see a doctor,” Johnny said.
There were unhealthy spots of color in Frank’s cheeks. “There ain’t nothing a doctor can do for me. I’m dying, so if you’ve come here to threaten me you’re wasting your time.”
“Why d’you think I’m going to threaten you? I thought we were friends.” Johnny slopped more tequila into Frank’s glass. “I hear Victor came to see you.”
“What do you want?”
“Victor said you were dead.”
“Well, almost. I was bushwhacked and shot in the back. Now, what kind of man shoots another man in the back?”
“Why are you asking me?” Frank’s voice was shaking. “I wasn’t there.”
“No, but your brother was. Him and me were riding together when it happened. I didn’t even hear the shot. I remember lying on the ground, bleeding to death, and your brother just rode off and left me for the buzzards.”
“He didn’t know...”
“See, the thing is,” Johnny interrupted, “he didn’t even bother getting off his horse to check on me. That got me to thinking once the doc had dug the bullet out. So, I thought I’d come and see my good friend, Frank, and ask him some questions.”
Frank staggered unsteadily to his feet. “I don’t know anything, Johnny. I swear I was told you were dead. Victor was real upset. I didn’t see him sober the whole time he was here and he hardly said two words to anyone.”
Johnny leaned back in his chair. “I ain’t in any hurry. I think I’ll stay around for a few days. You can take the time to think things through. You know where to find me if you remember anything else.” He watched thoughtfully until Frank left and then settled down to numb his pain in the only way available to him.
Johnny walked through the streets feeling like a stranger. Until a few weeks ago this had been the closest he’d found to a home. Victor and Frank had been almost like brothers to him – family. He shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Victor had turned on him seein’ as he’d spent his life being screwed over by his family.
No one came near him and that suited him just fine. He’d caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror hanging in the hallway of the small boarding house where he was staying. Cold blue eyes had stared out of a face carved from stone. There had been no life, no laughter, just the look of a man who was dead inside. He welcomed the numbness. It was safer than the anger that had been eating away at him. Giving in to anger was a mistake. Victor had taught him that.
He wandered aimlessly, his thoughts turned inward, still seeking answers to questions that didn’t matter anymore. There was nothing that could excuse leaving him to die. It was time to stop thinking of the past and concentrate on settling the score. He didn’t have the time to waste. He had to find Victor before news of his survival spread too far. Frank would know where his brother had gone, but there was no threat Johnny could use to pry that information loose. Besides, he had his own kind of honor and it didn’t include torturing a dying man. There were other people in town that he could ask. Victor would’ve had no reason to keep his destination secret.
Johnny turned into an alleyway that would lead him back to the main street. In the shadows between the buildings it was cooler, with a faint breeze stirring the dust on the ground. He stopped walking and leaned against a wall, closing his eyes wearily for a few seconds. He kept telling himself that he couldn’t afford to show any weakness. He was Johnny Madrid, good at his trade, and he’d be damned before he let any man get away with shooting him in the back. He waited until he was sure that he was ready to face the stares of the townsfolk before straightening up and walking back into the bright sunshine.
He decided to return to the boarding house to rest his aching muscles and tired mind. It would be several hours before the sun went down and the saloons began to fill up with the nightly trade. Liquor loosened men’s tongues and money could buy more than a whore’s body. Information was always for sale if you knew where to look.
There was an old rocking chair on the porch of the boarding house. Johnny heard the creak of the wood and stopped when he recognised the man rocking gently back and forth. In daylight, Frank looked worse than he had the previous evening. For as long as Johnny had known him, Frank hadn’t been well. It had always been one minor ailment after another. Chills, fever, coughs, pains in the chest, Frank had suffered from them all. It had driven Victor crazy, worrying about his little brother.
Johnny rested his hand on his gun. He didn’t think Frank would try and take a shot at him. Hell, he’d never even seen the man carrying a gun. But, he wasn’t in the mood to take chances.
The chair stopped moving. “Can we talk?” Frank asked.
Johnny strolled over to the porch. He thought he saw a brief flash of fear on Frank’s face. “My room’s at the top of the stairs.” He stayed where he was until Frank stood up and walked into the building. He forced his hand away from his gun, flexed his fingers and followed.
Frank was waiting for him in the upstairs hallway. Johnny opened the bedroom door and the sour smell of sweat hit him. He’d tossed and turned for most of the night in the grip of dreams that had slipped away the minute he opened his eyes. He crossed to the window, shoving aside the faded blue drapes so that he could push up the frame. It made little difference to the heat. He was too tense to sit still and listen to what Frank had to say, so he rested one shoulder against the wall and folded his arms.
Frank, deathly pale and sweating, collapsed into a sagging armchair. His rasping breaths were the only sound in the room. Johnny waited, his attention fixed on his unexpected visitor. The past few weeks when he’d been forced to stay in bed had taught him patience. Frank hunched forward, trying to get his breath back.
Eventually Frank sat up and met Johnny’s gaze. “You were only a kid when Victor took you in. When he brought you here that first time you were just a half-starved little runt.”
The muscles in Johnny’s face tightened, but he kept quiet.
“He told me that you’d latched onto him in some back-water village and that he’d only let you tag along because he felt sorry for you.”
“Is there a point to this?”
Frank’s skin now bore an unhealthy flush. “You said you wanted to be a gunfighter. Victor gave you our father’s gun. It was older than you and hadn’t been fired in years. I can still remember the look on your face when you held it. It made my skin crawl even then. You and Victor would go off and practice for hours until your arm was so sore from holding the weight of the gun that you could hardly move it. I never once heard you complain.”
Johnny shifted his weight, embarrassed now by his childish devotion to the man who’d rescued him from the harsh life of a penniless peon. “That was a long time ago.”
“He taught you everything. I think he always knew that one day you’d be better than him.”
“You saying he was scared of me?” Johnny asked.
“No, I’m saying you owe him.”
“I stopped owing him the minute he rode away and left me for the buzzards.”
“Are you sure that’s what happened, Johnny? You’d been shot and badly hurt. Maybe it wasn’t the way you remember.”
Johnny’s hands dropped to his sides, fingers clenched into fists. He could hear a pounding in his ears while he groped for control. “D’you know what it’s like to be shot?” he asked. “At first you don’t feel much. The doc told me that’s how the body deals with the shock.
“I remember bein’ surprised to find that I was lying on the ground. I kept expecting Victor to help me ‘cause I couldn’t get my legs to work. Then, the pain started. It was like someone had set fire to my back and it didn’t matter how much I squirmed, I couldn’t put the fire out.
“I called out to Victor, asking him to help me.” Johnny’s voice caught. “He didn’t say a word. He just sat on his horse and watched while the pain made me puke my guts up. I begged...” He heard his voice rising and drew in a shuddering breath. “He rode off and left me.”
“Maybe he went to find help.”
“That’s what I tried to tell myself. Thing is, he’d left me lying in the sun with no water and no way to protect myself. I could see some shade by the side of the trail. It wasn’t much but it was better than where I was. I tried to crawl toward it, only it hurt too damn much to move. I lay in my own blood waitin’ for the shooter to come along and finish me off, or for the blood loss to kill me.”
Frank looked as shaken as Johnny felt. “I don’t... Victor wouldn’t do that. Hell, Johnny, you were more of a brother to him than I ever was.”
Johnny heard the note of old jealousy and ignored it. “Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Seems we were both wrong. If you’ve come here to ask me not to kill him, you’ve wasted your time.”
“You’re not a murderer.”
“Didn’t used to be.” His words didn’t sit well with the twisting feeling in his gut.
“Victor wasn’t the one who shot you,” Frank said quietly.
“He sure as hell wasn’t surprised by it, though.”
Frank stood up, using the chair for leverage. “Maybe you’re right, but I saw him when he came back here after. He was grieving for you, Johnny.”
The knot in Johnny’s stomach tightened. “Get out,” he snarled. “I’ve heard enough.”
Frank looked like he was going to argue, then shook his head and walked unsteadily over to the door. Without another word he opened the door and closed it quietly behind him.
The best saloon in Santa Clara was owned by Henry Elkins, a gringo who was stubbornly close-mouthed about his past. He’d seen the town’s potential long before the money had started flowing in and had set himself up in grand style. Although the man dressed like the gamblers Johnny had heard about who rode the Mississippi paddle boats, there was more to him than that.
Johnny stood on the boardwalk, thinking about the first time he’d walked into the fancy saloon. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen when Victor and Frank had led him through the doors and into a new and dazzling world. The huge room had been filled with light from the large window. The brass fittings shone and there were more bottles of liquor sitting on shelves behind the bar than Johnny had seen in his life.
He had been so caught up in staring around him that he hadn’t noticed immediately that the customers had fallen silent. It had been a shock to find that everyone was looking at him. One man had called out to Victor, asking who the ‘pup’ was. Johnny could still remember the heat from the flush that had risen in his cheeks.
Elkins hadn’t waited for Victor to respond. He’d walked right up and offered Johnny his hand in welcome. That had squashed any further comments and, within a few months, Johnny had earned respect by his skill with a gun.
This time he was ready for the stares when he walked through the door. He made a point of stopping just inside and looking around. Men turned away from his gaze, clearly unwilling to provoke a confrontation. Johnny felt nothing but contempt for them.
Elkins was sitting alone at his usual table where he could watch everything that was happening in the saloon. He was holding a pack of cards in one hand and pouring whiskey into a glass with the other. “Johnny,” he called, his deep voice carrying without difficulty through the unnatural silence. “Join me.”
Johnny weaved his way between the tables, conscious of the interrupted conversations picking up again as he passed. He moved a chair so that he could sit facing the room and nodded to the bar tender who had hurried over with another glass.
“Have a drink,” Elkins said. He began to lay out the cards in a game of solitaire.
“Thanks.” Johnny picked up the bottle and looked at the label. It was a hell of a lot better quality than he was used to.
“I heard a rumour that you were in town.” Elkins spoke without looking up. He placed a black seven over a red eight and turned over the next card.
“Just passing through.” A sip of whiskey slipped smoothly down Johnny’s throat.
“Also heard a rumour that you were dead.” Elkins gathered up the cards. “Damn me, but these cards aren’t falling right tonight.” He dealt again.
“Yeah. I’ve got some business to attend to because of that.”
“Figured you might.” Elkins separated the king and jack of clubs from the pack, looked at them thoughtfully and then turned them face down. For the first time he raised his head and looked Johnny in the eye. “Gunfighting’s a young man’s game.”
Johnny sat in silence, trying to puzzle out the meaning of Elkin’s words. “What’ve you heard?”
Elkin’s smile exposed yellow stained teeth. “Gossip, truth, lies and most everything in between. That’s the advantage of owning a saloon, Boy. I recommend it if you live long enough.”
Johnny began to fiddle with the beads around his wrist while his frustration grew. “You of a mind to share some of that information?” he asked.
“I might be. I need a straight answer from you first. Did Victor set you up to be shot in the back?”
The first impulse was to say ‘yes,’ but Johnny hesitated. “News travels fast.”
“Frank was here this afternoon. His mouth runs away with him when he’s had too much to drink. You know he’s likely to have sent someone to find his brother and warn him.”
Johnny shrugged. “I’d be surprised if he didn’t try to get word to Victor.”
“You want to answer the question now?” Elkins pressed.
“I ain’t got any proof except for the fact that he left me to die. And, I reckon that’s all the proof I need.”
Elkins nodded. “I never could understand a man who’d leave a friend behind.” He sat back in his chair. “I hear that there’s a range war brewing up in California near a town called San Jacinto.”
Johnny’s heart began to pound. “You think that’s where Victor went?”
“Seems likely. From what I hear there’s good money to be made.”
“California, huh?” Johnny only had a vague idea of what lay more than a day’s right north of the border. He knew the names of the main towns like San Francisco, Merced and Sacramento and had heard that the Lancer ranch lay within the San Joaquin Valley.
“I’ve done some traveling in my day,” Elkins said. “If you had a hankering to ride north I think I could point you in the direction of the easiest route.”
“Why’re you helping me?” Johnny asked.
“That place you are right now – where you’re so angry you feel like you’re gonna bust out of your skin – I’ve been there more than once. Seems like you could use some friendly advice. Come and see me early tomorrow and we can talk while things are quieter. You can be on your way by noon.”
Johnny lifted his glass in a salute. “Gracias.” He drained the whiskey in one swallow and stood up, feeling that he was carrying a lighter burden than he had in the weeks since the shooting.
The challenging tone was unwelcome. Johnny’s gaze swept over the man, noting the low slung gun belt and air of almost nervous anticipation that marked him as a newcomer to the game. “Not interested,” he replied.
“Lost your nerve?” the man taunted.
Johnny couldn’t let that pass. “Let’s find out,” he said. He wouldn’t allow himself to dwell on the ache in his back, or the fact that he hadn’t been able to practice since before he was shot. Instead, he relaxed his body and concentrated on finding the rhythm within himself that would allow him to draw and fire without thought or hesitation.
He was vaguely aware that men were crowding out of the saloon behind him. His challenger had already taken up his position in the street. The sun had gone down, leaving a grey twilight behind it. It seemed to Johnny that everything stopped around him. The man facing him looked to be about his own age and, now that the moment had come, appeared even more nervous than he had in the saloon.
“You want to back out, or d’you want to dance?” Johnny asked. Because he was watching the man’s eyes, he knew when the fateful decision was made. In one smooth movement he drew his gun out of the holster, raised it and fired. It was intended to be a killing shot, but his aim wasn’t as sure as it should have been.
The bullet hit high in the man’s chest. It was enough to stop him. Just not enough for a quick death. Johnny cursed under his breath while he watched his opponent sway and then fall to his knees. His view became obscured when a couple of men rushed forward to help the injured man.
With a heavy sigh, Johnny holstered his gun. He didn’t need to look at the crowd to know what he would see – fear, reluctant admiration, disgust. His attention was drawn toward a figure huddled next to the front window of the saloon. He walked closer and the man flinched further back into the growing shadows. A few more steps and he could see the man clearly.
Frank was deathly white and was staring at the group of people who now surrounded the fallen gunfighter. His mouth was moving, but the only sounds were pathetic whimpers.
“You son of a bitch,” Johnny snarled. “You and Victor are two of a kind. How much did you pay that poor bastard to call me out?”
“He said he was good enough to take you down,” Frank whispered. “You were meant to be dead.”
“Yeah, that’s what Victor thought too. Guess you were both wrong.” Johnny drew his gun again. “Looks like you’re gonna get to hell ahead of time.”
San Jacinto was nothing more than half a dozen houses, one larger building that looked to be a general store, and a rough track that cut through the center of the small settlement. The valley floor was covered with a lush green blanket of grass, softer than many beds Johnny had slept in. Mountains rose in the distance. Tall pines huddled together on the lower slopes, gradually giving way to bare rock which reached up to touch the deep blue of the sky.
A river separated his camp from the village. The sight of clear water flowing peacefully on its course, sparkling in the sunlight, was fascinating and surprisingly soothing. A wood of black oaks with enormous spreading branches and rustling leaves was his shelter and refuge from a life filled with violence and pain.
He’d been watching, hidden from view, for two days, and there was no sign of a range war. Children played, women gossiped and laundry blew lazily in the warm breeze. There had been few visitors; a couple with a baby in a farm wagon and, toward dusk on the first day, three grubby cowboys. He was starting to wonder if Elkins had steered him in the wrong direction, although the man seemed honest enough.
The heavy heat of mid-afternoon was undisturbed except by the insects buzzing lazily among the trees. Johnny lay down in the soft grass, eyes half closed against the glare of the sunlight filtering through the leaves. Even the beauty of his surroundings couldn’t turn his mind from the memory of Frank’s death.
In his anger he had come perilously close to shooting Frank even though he knew the man never carried a gun. Watching Frank squirm and plead tearfully for his life had been a balm to Johnny’s wounded soul. No one had interfered, leaving the decision to him. Finally, he had lowered his gun, deciding that this pathetic creature didn’t deserve the mercy of a bullet. He had been turning away when he caught a hint of movement. His reaction was quicker than thought and his bullet slammed Frank back against the wall, a derringer sliding from dead fingers.
His eyes closed. Childish hopes crawled out of their hiding place, teasing him with the vision of a loving father, welcoming back his prodigal son. Then, the memory of Frank’s sightless eyes suffocated that hope which should have been abandoned long ago. After the things he’d done the only welcome he’d get from Murdoch Lancer would be from the barrel of a shotgun.
An unexpected jingling pulled him out of his thoughts and to his feet. With slow strokes he brushed the grass from his pants. Peering through the trees he saw a shiny black buggy slowing to a stop in front of the store. Light danced from discs of metal on the bridles of the matched pair of horses. That explained the sound.
He was too far away to see the faces of the buggy’s occupants, but could tell that they were young and well-dressed. Johnny hesitated, considering his choices. It didn’t look like he was going to learn anything useful skulking among the undergrowth. It was time to start asking questions. He’d checked and rechecked his revolver and rifle a dozen times during his patient vigil. That didn’t stop him going through the ritual again before saddling his horse.
It was mid-summer, the low level of the water making the river easy to cross. Johnny let his horse pick its own way through the water and up onto the bank on the far side. A few minutes ride brought him to the building he’d identified as being the center of the community. He dismounted and took his time looking around. A young woman walked out of one of the houses, swinging a bucket. Johnny watched her, admiring the sway of her hips. When she looked over her shoulder and gave him a shy smile, he knew that his interest had been noticed.
He looped the reins around the hitching rail before going to get a closer look at the buggy. The metalwork on the tack looked a lot like silver and was probably worth more money than he’d seen in his lifetime. The paint felt smooth against his hand. Whoever owned this must be wealthy and powerful. Although he might envy the wealth, he was not afraid of powerful men. In his experience they bled just like everyone else.
A large man, with a bushy beard and moustache, stood blocking the entrance to the building. “Can I help you?” he asked.
He spoke with a thick accent that Johnny did not recognise. “Yeah. I could do with a drink.”
The man didn’t move. “There is a well round the back.”
“I was kinda hoping you had something stronger inside.”
“We are not looking for any trouble.”
Johnny’s smile was icy. “Then you’d best let me in, old man. My money’s as good as anyone’s and I promise not to scare the fancy folk that belong to that buggy.”
“One beer,” the storekeeper said, “then you will be on your way.”
“That’s real hospitable of you.” Johnny sauntered over to the man, staring at him until he moved out of the way. “Gracias, amigo.” His voice reeked of sarcasm.
Even before Johnny reached the door he could hear a flood of Spanish from inside the building, none of it complimentary to his surroundings, the valley or the people who lived there. He stepped inside, finding himself in a room that was mostly a general store, but had a small bar and a couple of tables toward the back wall. The air was heavy with heat and dust and everything seemed dull and lifeless after the vivid brightness outside.
The complaints were coming from a girl who looked to be about his age. Her companion was a young man who was probably only a few years older. Johnny’s spurs rang against the wooden floor when he took a couple of steps toward them. Silence fell and both turned to look at him. Johnny stared back, an insolent smile curling his lips when the girl blushed. She’d be pretty enough if her mouth wasn’t set in a hard line. Not that she looked to have any fire in her. He took his time, looking her up and down in mock appraisal. The color in her cheeks deepened.
Her companion stood up, placing himself between Johnny and the girl. “Buenos dias, Senor.”
“Buenos dias,” Johnny replied. He was used to measuring up his opponents and his initial impressions weren’t favourable. Although the man was tall and wearing clothes that must have cost a small fortune, he looked soft and likely hadn’t done a day’s work in his life. His only use was as a possible source of information.
The storekeeper trudged over to the counter, filled a glass from a barrel and set it down. “One beer,” he repeated, scowling darkly at Johnny.
Johnny tossed a few coins down, picked up the glass and drank deeply. It was better than he’d expected, with a rich earthy taste. By the time he turned round again, the man had returned to his seat. Johnny pulled a chair away from one of the tables and straddled it.
“You folks from around here?” he asked.
“We live close by,” the man answered, meeting Johnny’s steady stare without any evidence of fear. “I am Antonio Estudillo, and this is my cousin, Reya.”
The names meant nothing to Johnny. “Johnny Madrid.”
“Why are you talking to him?” the girl hissed to her cousin. “He is only a common vaquero.”
“Be quiet, Reya. You do not insult a man like this.”
Johnny sipped his beer, unwillingly impressed by Antonio.
“Why are you here, Senor Madrid?” Antonio asked.
“I’m looking for someone. Was told he might have headed this way.”
The young Mexican looked at Johnny’s low slung gun belt. “Friend or enemy?”
“Used to be a friend.” Johnny washed away the bile in his throat with another mouthful of beer.
“What would bring such a man to our peaceful valley?”
“I was kinda hoping you might be able to answer that.”
There was a definite hesitation, leading Johnny to conclude that Antonio didn’t want to continue this discussion in front of his cousin. Reya’s expression was sulky and she was making a great effort to ignore him and the conversation. Even without words it was clear that she would rather be anywhere else but here. Antonio, however, seemed to have avoided the arrogance that his kind usually displayed.
“Would you join me outside?” Antonio asked. “One of my horses is favouring his right foreleg and I would welcome your opinion. It would be a shame to ruin a good animal. Reya, you should remain in the shade. You look a little unwell.”
“It is this barbarous place,” she snapped.
“Don’t get yourself all in a lather, Senorita,” Johnny said, standing and adjusting his hat. “There’re a lot worse places than this.” His words came out hard and cold, filled with hatred. A wave of disgust swept over him when he saw her dark eyes widen in sudden fear. What the hell kind of man was he becoming? He strode outside, away from the warm, stale air and gripped the hitching rail so hard that he felt the rough wood digging into his skin.
Antonio joined him several minutes later. “Do not judge Reya too harshly,” he said. “She was raised in San Diego, indulged by her parents and older brothers. This is the first time she has ventured this far from her home.”
Johnny scowled, kicking at a loose stone. “Ain’t none of my business. Now are you gonna tell me why you really asked me to come out here?”
“Ah. I see my ruse did not fool you. I apologise, but I did not wish to frighten my cousin.” Antonio walked slowly away from the store, with Johnny falling into step beside him. “Did you know that this whole valley used to belong to my family? My father and his brothers were given the land by the Spanish government. The Rancho San Jacinto Viego,” he said proudly. “More than one hundred thousand acres of fertile ground.”
“You said your family used to own it. What happened?”
“My father died when I was seven, leaving the estancia to my mother and oldest brother, Jose. He was not interested in ranching, preferring to live in our hacienda in San Diego. A few years ago he began selling parcels of land to gringo settlers. Now, we own less than half.”
“I’m guessing that some of those settlers are trying to grab more land for themselves.”
Antonio stopped. “I love this valley, Senor Madrid. I was born and raised at our home in San Diego and did not come here until many years after my father’s death. I knew immediately that this was where I wanted to stay and raise a family.” He gazed across the river to the wood where Johnny had made his camp. “It was a happy place but, recently, the mood of some of the settlers has been changing. They want my brother to sell the rest of our land. They say that this valley belongs to America now and that we should return to Mexico.”
“But, you want to keep it.”
“Is that so hard to understand?”
Johnny didn’t reply immediately. He’d never owned more than his horse, saddle, gun and a few clothes. Any money he earned was soon spent on liquor and women. Although he could respect a man who’d fight to protect his family and hold onto his land, he couldn’t imagine ever being in that position. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I think you are a man who knows something about these range wars that I have heard about.”
“I do not want this valley to become a place of violence and death.”
“If someone wants your lands you’ve got two choices. You can give it to him, or you can fight. There ain’t much law around here that’d get in the way.”
Antonio bowed his head, staring silently at the ground. When he finally looked up, he appeared resolved. “We will not be forced into selling our land. Tell me about this man you seek. Do you believe he has come here to fight against my family?”
“Could be, and he won’t be alone. He usually rides with a half a dozen men.”
“Can you help us? Talk to him? Persuade him and his men to leave.”
Johnny shook his head. “I didn’t come here to talk. I’m here to kill him. I ain’t interested in gettin’ involved with you or your family.”
“I thought you were different. That perhaps you had a conscience,” Antonio said bitterly.
Johnny’s humorless laugh chilled the air. “You don’t know a damn thing about me, and misjudging a man that badly is gonna get you killed.”
Antonio stood his ground, although his hands were shaking. “I am sorry to have wasted your time, Senor Madrid.”
Johnny rested his hand on his gun, noting with pleasure the apprehensive look in Antonio’s eyes. “Maybe you can set things right by givin’ me some information.”
“What do you want to know?”
“I’ve seen a few range wars and there’s always one hot-head who gets all the others riled up. I want his name.”
“His name is Walter Tindell. He has a small ranch ten miles west of here.” Antonio stepped closer. “I hope you and I never have to face one another on opposite sides. But, if it comes to that, I will do everything I can to protect my family and my land.”
Johnny watched Antonio striding back toward the store. Antonio’s words meant nothing to him. He no longer cared what he did, or who he hurt to achieve his revenge. Frank had found that out and soon, if fate was kind, Victor would learn the same lesson.
The distant figure was unmistakable. Broad shoulders and a swaggering walk made up for Victor’s lack of height and marked him as a man to be approached with caution. Johnny stared at the man he had once admired, his heart beating wildly. A sudden surge of anger was strong enough to leave him shaking uncontrollably.
He pressed his back against the rough surface of the sun warmed rock and slid to the ground. His rifle lay within reach, and he groped blindly for it, letting out a small sigh when his fingers closed around the stock.
Slowly, carefully, he crept forward to peer down the slope. Victor and his men had chosen their campsite well. It was sheltered on two sides by steep, bare rock. The tree line, just behind Johnny was well out of range of even the most accurate rifle. Any attempt to get closer to the camp would be suicide. A mountain stream had worn an uneven path through the rocks and onto the pastureland below. To the west and south there was a clear view for miles. Anyone riding toward the camp would be seen long before they posed any danger.
Johnny would never have found Victor unaided. Fortunately, Walter Tindell had been only too willing to provide directions to a lone gunhawk ready to join the fight. Tindell’s greed and stupidity had earned him Johnny’s barely concealed contempt.
Victor was still pacing around the camp, stopping occasionally to talk with one or two of his men. Some were cleaning their weapons and tack. Others lay on their bedrolls, hats over their faces to block out the strong light. It brought back memories of the many times he had been a part of this group of men, waiting for orders to start their campaign of violence and destruction.
Johnny swung his rifle into position, using it to track Victor’s progress. His anger had passed leaving him aware only of the invisible line leading from the rifle barrel to Victor’s unprotected back. With his finger resting lightly against the trigger, he knew he wouldn’t have fired, even if he had been within range. He needed to look into Victor’s eyes in those final moments.
And, Victor wasn’t the only man he intended to kill. Luis Medina, scuttling along in Victor’s shadow, was his other target. They had disliked each other on sight and it had turned to outright hatred when Johnny established himself as Victor’s lieutenant. There was no doubt in Johnny’s mind that Luis had been the one who had shot him in the back. What still made no sense to him was why Victor had turned on him.
Well, he’d get his chance to ask that question. Right now it was time to stir things up. He chose his first target, a pile of small rocks sitting perilously close to the edge of the steep slope leading down to the camp. He fired two quick shots before ducking back out of sight. He couldn’t help grinning when he heard the faint sound of panicked voices followed quickly by a barrage of gunfire. Although he’d have given just about anything to see Victor’s face, he wasn’t stupid. He might be out of range of their guns, but it wouldn’t take long for them to come looking. Bending low, he crept to his right, risked one more shot, and then ran for the shelter of the trees. From there it was an easy enough climb down the far side of the ridge and back to where he had left his horse.
“That’ll give you something to think about, you hijo de puta,” he said, his voice so filled with venom that he didn’t even recognize it himself.
Johnny thought hard about his next move. Victor was too smart to send his men out chasing shadows with dusk fast approaching. They’d check the area around the camp and search the rocks to make sure no-one was lurking around, and then they’d hole up for the night. By morning Victor would be ready to unleash some pay-back, with the obvious target being the Estudillo family. But, first, Victor would have to report to his employer. With hatred in his heart, Johnny urged his horse in the direction of the Tindell homestead.
He hadn’t been impressed with the house during his first visit. Not that he’d been invited inside. It was one thing to pay men like him, but you sure didn’t let them get close to your family. The square building was made of rough-hewn planks of wood and didn’t look much different from the barn on the far side of the corral. A dozen chickens scratched around in the dirt close to a pen containing a milk cow and a couple of goats. It was a poor looking place which made Johnny wonder where Tindell had found the money to employ Victor.
Walter Tindell was waiting for him on the front porch, rifle in hand, and a less than friendly look on his face. “What are you doing back here?” he asked.
Johnny dismounted, ignoring the threat of the rifle. “Victor sent me. Seems like Estudillo heard about your plan and sent some of his men to shoot up the camp.”
“You were there?”
“Almost. I heard the shots and took cover, but I could see what was happening.” Johnny could see that Tindell was chewing his bottom lip, obviously unsure whether to believe this story. He flexed his fingers, ready to draw and fire if it looked like the rancher was getting suspicious.
“Antonio Estudillo doesn’t look like a fighting man,” Tindell said after a long silence. “Even if he’d heard rumors, his sort would rather run than strike first.”
Johnny glared at the man and had the satisfaction of seeing sweat breaking out on Tindell’s forehead. “You are one stupid bastard,” he said. “There ain’t many men in these parts who don’t have the guts it takes to hold on to their land. What did you think would happen if you brought gunmen here? A show of strength won’t scare them off. If you start a range war every acre’ll be bought with someone’s blood.”
He stalked up the steps and pulled the rifle out of Tindell’s lax grip. “Out here, if you point a gun at someone you’d damn well better be ready to pull the trigger. Now, you can believe me or not about what happened this afternoon. Victor’ll be here tomorrow and you can ask him. Just remember that if I’d been of a mind, your family would be getting ready to dig your grave.”
“Get off my property.” Tindell was pale and shaking.
“Not until you listen to a few home truths.” Johnny pushed the rancher down into a chair by the front door. “Tomorrow morning Victor’s gonna ride in here and tell you that it’s time to make the first move. He’ll suggest burning a few fields, maybe shooting some of the Estudillo cattle. And, that’s just the start. There’ll be attacks on the vaqueros and maybe their families. Have you ever seen a woman who’s been raped? Some men enjoy it, but it turns my stomach. You’ll have to look out for your wife and your children if you’ve got any, cause they’ll be easy prey.”
Tindell flushed. “Don’t you threaten my family!”
“I’m not the one who’s dragging them into the middle of a range war. Have you even bothered to think about what you’re doing? This valley has everything a man could ever need. If you start a war with your neighbors none of you will have the strength to fight off the next land pirates who decide to move in. But, it’s too late to stop it now. Victor came here to do a job, and he ain’t a man who backs down easy.”
“I don’t want to stop it. I offered a fair price for the stretch of Estudillo land that borders mine. We came out west because we were promised thousands of acres of land for the taking. Why should I be held back because they won’t sell? They only live here for a couple of months a year.”
“So that gives you the right to steal another man’s land?”
“I don’t need to be lectured by some filthy gunfighter.”
Johnny laughed at the man’s stupidity. “Oh boy, you sure have a death wish. I wouldn’t go around insulting any other gunfighters if I were you. They might not be so forgiving. Now, I think I’m gonna bunk down in your barn tonight. You and your family’d be wise to stay in the house. I’m a real light sleeper, and if anything wakes me I’m likely to shoot before asking any questions.” In one smooth movement Johnny drew and cocked his gun, resting the barrel against Tindell’s forehead. “¿Comprende?”
A brief nod was the only answer, but it was enough for Johnny. He didn’t even know why he was trying to make the man see sense. Truth was that Tindell had invited a wolf to his door when he hired Victor, and that wolf didn’t care who he had to hurt to get his money. There was a sour taste in Johnny’s mouth when he remembered how he’d followed Victor blindly; never giving a thought for the people whose lives they destroyed. He backed off the porch, gun still aimed at the subdued rancher.
“Get in the house and stay there,” Johnny ordered. He caught a brief glimpse of a woman, her face a mask of fear before the door closed behind Tindell. Damn, he could use a drink.
He led his horse into the barn, leaving it saddled in case he needed to leave in a hurry. There was a bucket of water by the door which he used to wash off some of the trail dirt. His supper was nothing more than a couple of pieces of jerky and tepid water from his canteen, but he doubted if his stomach could have coped with much more.
The barn grew steadily darker as the light left the sky. Johnny sat with his back against a post, his rifle by his side and his gun lying on his lap. He could hear the comforting sound of his horse and the scuffling of mice in the hay bales. His eyes began to close. With a muttered curse he forced himself awake.
The night passed slowly, with Johnny alternating between full wakefulness and uneasy periods of sleep. Each time he awoke with a start, reaching automatically for his gun. It was the crow of the rooster that finally brought the night to an end. Johnny scrambled to his feet, only too aware of his stiff muscles. Upending the bucket of water over his head shocked him to full wakefulness. Not caring about the smell, he used a horse blanket to dry his hands and scrub the water out of his hair. He pushed the damp hair away from his eyes and went to check his gun. Then, he settled down to wait.
By the time he heard the beat of the horses’ hooves he felt nothing except an icy calm. He settled his hat on his head, brim pulled down to shade his eyes. His gun belt was strapped securely around his hips and one final check satisfied him that his gun would glide smoothly out of the holster.
Through the partly open doorway, he could see the group of men and horses arriving at the homestead. The dust stirred up as they passed was already settling. Johnny knew each of the men, had ridden with them, fought beside them and spent many nights getting drunk with them. But, today, he’d kill all of them without a thought if that was what it took to get to Victor.
He stepped outside, still unnoticed. “Victor,” he shouted.
The men in front of him turned sharply, reaching for their guns. Each hesitated when they saw who was facing them. Victor pushed his way through and Johnny had the satisfaction of seeing his former amigo turn pale.
“We’ve got some unfinished business,” Johnny said.
Endings are hard. At least, they should be. This one wasn’t. It was just the latest in a long line and, standing there, watching Victor’s expression change from shock to acceptance, Johnny swore that it would be the last. He had no family and could choose never to let anyone get close to him again. That was the only way to avoid the pain of betrayal. Something changed inside him. Victor has to die to show that Johnny Madrid was a man to be feared. The rest didn’t matter.
It was Luis that broke the silence, his wide fear-filled eyes fixed on Victor. “You told me he was dead!”
“Is that right?” Johnny asked Victor. “Looks like I’m not the only one you lied to.”
“What the hell’s going on?”
The question came from Chuck who’d always been the one quickest to challenge Victor’s leadership.
“Take the men back to camp,” Victor said, his voice strengthening with each word. “Johnny and me have some personal business to take care of.”
“Get out of here,” Johnny advised. “You don’t want to get in the middle of this.” He couldn’t risk taking his attention from Victor to see how Chuck was taking being ordered around. There was movement at the edge of Johnny’s vision. His skin prickled in anticipation. There was only one man desperate enough to risk trying to get behind him. “Call your dog to heel,” Johnny said. “I’ve been shot in the back once and I ain’t gonna give him the chance to shoot me again.”
“Stay still,” Victor said without taking his eyes away from Johnny.
“I think I’ll stick around and make sure there’s no more back shooting,” Chuck said.
A knot of tension in Johnny’s gut uncurled. With Chuck keeping Luis under control he could concentrate on Victor. “You want to tell me why?” he asked his former leader.
“You know why. I watched you practising, just waiting for your chance. Waiting for the day when you were faster than me.”
“I would never have challenged you.”
“Don’t treat me like a fool. I heard the rumours.”
“Rumours, huh?” Johnny said. “Don’t suppose you stopped to think where they were coming from?”
For the first time Victor looked uncertain. The quick glance he gave Luis confirmed Johnny’s suspicion.
“What did that little bastardo tell you? That I wasn’t to be trusted? I bet he even said I’d shoot you in the back given the chance. Is that what happened? Only makes sense that you would do it to me before I could take my shot. How long was he pouring poison into your ear? How long before you lost your nerve?”
“No man gets to accuse me of being a coward.” Victor flushed with anger. “I took you in and taught you everything. You wouldn’t have survived a year without my help. Now you think you’re better than me?”
“I ain’t the one who listened to a jealous little snake and stood by while his friend was shot in the back. The question now is, are you ready to dance?”
He saw the change in Victor’s eyes. Johnny’s fingers closed around the handle of his gun, lifting it smoothly from the holster. His movements flowed like water. Pull back the hammer, aim, squeeze the trigger. He’d done it hundreds of times before and it was as natural as breathing.
Confidence was replaced with shock on Victor’s face when the bullet struck him in the chest. Johnny watched, feeling nothing, while the man he’d once thought of as a brother fell to his knees. The gun slipped from Victor’s hand and he toppled sideways, landing heavily in the dirt of the yard.
There was a howl of protest from Luis. Johnny spun, gun raised and ready to fire. Luis had his hands raised, terror written across his face.
“No! Please. Don’t kill me. Please.”
Every instinct he had urged Johnny to pull the trigger. He savoured the sight of Luis shaking uncontrollably and dripping with sweat. Killing in cold blood would send him down a dark road, one that he was almost ready to embrace.
“Johnny?” Chuck said softly. “I wouldn’t blame you for shooting this piece of shit, but you ain’t a murderer.”
Johnny thought about that. “Yeah, you’re right.” He slid his gun back into its holster and stepped back. A cold smile crept across his face. “I’ll give him a fair chance.”
Luis’s brief moment of relief disappeared when he realized what Johnny was offering. “I...I can’t outdraw you.”
“No, I don’t reckon you can, but at least you get to die like a man and not a whipped dog. You are gonna die today. It’s up to you how it happens.”
Luis sobbed once before reaching clumsily for his gun. Johnny pulled the trigger while Luis was still fumbling to draw. It was a clean shot between the eyes, kinder than Luis deserved. Johnny turned away and began to walk back to the barn to fetch his horse.
“Where will you go?” Chuck called after him.
Johnny kept right on walking. “To hell,” he replied.