A Certain Kind of Fool
by  Nancy

  Rating: R
Warning: This story contains graphic violence, including torture and death, along with mild profanity. It is sad—the end of innocence—with lots of emotional angst and not much comfort. If you need a happy ending, don’t read this one.
Disclaimer: The character of Johnny Madrid is not mine and is borrowed without permission. The real credit for Johnny Madrid goes to the Lancer creators, writers, and especially the actor, James Stacy, who brought him to life, creating a character that is still compelling 30 years later. The story is mine (with a tip of the hat to Matt Braun, Larry McMurtry, Louis L’Amour, Stephen Hunter, and Robert Crais) and written for fun and not profit.

Special thanks to my great betas, Annie, Linda, and Mac. They are the best.

“What makes a kid into a Johnny Madrid?” “What made him strap on that damned six-shooter and become a legend?” Many fanfic stories ask that question in one way or another and it is certainly an intriguing topic. Those questions, combined with a discussion of how the song “Desperado” fits Johnny sparked my attempt at an answer.
The Eagles’ Desperado, my favorite album of all time, includes several songs that just shout “Johnny Madrid.” The song I think fits Johnny best is “A Certain Kind of Fool.” To me, it describes why and how Johnny might have turned to a life of the gun. In the episode “The Kid,” Johnny tells Andy’s sister about growing up with hate and killin’ on his mind, spending all his time learning to use his gun. He also tells her, “It’s the boy that makes the man.” In “Experiment,” Johnny tells one of the convicts that he was on most of the roads that led (to prison), “All I had was a gun, and I tell you, I was hell bent for nowhere.” What filled him with hate, drove him to kill, to seek respect with his gun? What allowed that hate filled boy to grow into the compassionate man whom became Johnny Lancer? What made Johnny that certain kind of fool that likes to hear the sound of his own name? Maybe it happened like this…

A Certain Kind of Fool

He saw it in a window,
the mark of a new kind of man.
He kind of liked the feelin’,
so shiny and smooth in his hand.
He took it to the country
and practiced for days without rest.
And then one day he felt it,
he knew he could stand with the best.
They got respect, oh yeah.
He wants the same, oh yeah.
And it’s a certain kind of fool that likes to hear the sound of his own name.

~ R. Meisner, D. Henley, G. Frey, “A Certain Kind of Fool”
 The Eagles’ Desperado album

The Mustañero

The magnificent buckskin stallion thundered along the fence at a full gallop. The old man’s bright eyes never left the powerful horse and his small rider as he held his breath, waiting…waiting.

It came. Slightly lifting his rein hand, the rider deepened his seat, asking the horse to give to the bit while moving forward off his hindquarters. The buckskin responded instantly, sitting back on his hocks and executing a breathtaking sliding stop, rolling back over his haunches to finish the maneuver halted in the opposite direction.

The old man clapped, “Excelente, chico. Muy bueno.”

The rider’s smile of delight lit his entire face. Slipping gracefully to the ground, he patted the buckskin’s lathered neck. The boy fairly danced with excitement as he led the horse back to the old man.

“Did you see, Pablo? He listens to the bit now, I don’t need the bosal!” The boy’s startling blue eyes sparkled with elation and his grin threatened to burn off the remaining morning mist. 

“I saw, little one. You have taught him well and Don Esteban will be pleased.” The man was filled with pride for what the boy had accomplished. It was not an easy task to teach a horse to respond to a heavy spade bit in his mouth instead of pressure on his sensitive nose from the thick rawhide noseband, or bosal. When a rider possessed the finesse to educate the horse and use the bit properly, the horse’s performance became a thing of beauty, a dance between horse and rider as the two waltzed as one—such as the performance he had just witnessed. 

The boy basked in the praise, one hand idly scratching the buckskin’s withers. “It was different this time, Pablo. I thought about what you said and just let it happen. I didn’t try to think of each move, and it worked.”

The old man smiled, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Sí. That is why we train so hard, doing the same thing over and over. Your body knows what to do now. We have practiced each movement and your muscles remember. You need only picture what you want to happen in your mind and your body will respond to make it so. This lesson is muy importante, chico, and you have learned it well.”

“Gracias, Pablo,” the boy gazed up at him with worshipful eyes.

The old man draped his arm across the boy’s thin shoulders as the two led the buckskin toward the barn. “You can be proud, Johnny. Today you proved you are a true mustañero.” He stopped and faced the boy, a hand on each small shoulder. “Many men can capture and break a wild horse, but few can train them to become a finished cowhorse.”

The boy laughed, “Sí. Left. Right. Go. Whoa.”

Pablo tightened his grip on the boy’s shoulders. “Ah, but it is so much more than that, little one. You have ‘the Gift.’”

The boy gazed up at him wide-eyed, then blushed and dropped his head.

Pablo felt a flash of anger.

Always you hang your head! You need to hear the praise so badly, but then cannot accept that you have truly earned it. Who in your life, little one, has made you feel so unworthy, as though all of the wrong and sadness in the world is your fault?

Pablo’s finger tipped the boy’s head up to look him in the face. “Sí, Juanito. You have the kind hands and the warm heart of a horse talker. You speak to a horse with your hands, your eyes, your voice—your very soul. They listen to you and understand. And when they speak to you, you listen to them. Many men can talk to horses, but few can listen to horses and understand them. That is ‘the Gift,’ the talking and the listening.”

The boy was very still, the brilliant eyes standing huge in his face. He tried to hang his head again, but Pablo kept his finger firmly beneath the boy’s chin, tightening his grip on the tense shoulder. Pablo waited until he saw acknowledgment in the blue eyes.

Then Pablo smiled. “Come, Johnny. Let us show Don Esteban his fine new cowhorse.”

The boy’s smile was radiant.


The setting sun bathed the land in red-hued shadows, bringing a special serenity to the big barn. The only sounds in the cool interior were the contented munching from muzzles buried in feed tubs and the symphony provided courtesy of the crickets. In this one brief moment, the entire world seemed at peace.

Johnny paused to savor the early evening tranquility, drinking in the well-loved scents of hay, leather, and horse. His mouth kept stretching into a broad grin and he was much too excited to be still. He had the fidgets, and was making the handsome bay tobiano gelding nervous. He stroked the broad forehead, tracing the white blaze down to the wide nostrils. The flashy pinto was a beauty, with large blocks of well-defined color and a long silver mane and tail threaded with black. “Whoa, mi caballo.”

His horse. The words stretched the grin even further. A horse of his very own, given to him this afternoon by Don Esteban because, “A mustañero needs his own horse, Johnny.” The man had been so pleased with how well Johnny had trained the buckskin.

His horse. It was a strange feeling because he had owned so little in his life, certainly nothing as wonderful as this fine animal. He had only the silver ring of his mother and the rifle Don Esteban’s segundo, Sam, had given him. But a rifle and a ring were just things and this horse would be his amigo, his friend. He stroked the sleek neck, relishing the feel of his very own horse beneath his hand.

He swallowed past the sudden lump in his throat and the hot prickling behind his eyelids. He knew he belonged here at the rancho. Don Esteban and his men had been kind and Pablo was the closest thing to a father he’d ever known. Yes, these men were like a family to him.

Johnny felt a sudden chill, the hair on the back of his neck rising. Was he tempting fate by admitting he was happy here? He had known so little happiness. It seemed that everything he had ever loved had been taken from him and he wondered why that was so. Try as he might, he could not remember doing anything particularly bad or evil, but he must have done something to cause this heartache. Padre Miguel had told him he was a child of the devil who brought darkness with him.

Padre Miguel. He hated the priest from the mission school who had dogged him constantly, looking for any excuse to use the heavy razor strop. Johnny’s refusal to cry out during a strapping always goaded the man to even greater heights of fury and he locked the boy in a small, dark closet.  “You stay here in the dark without any supper, you little devil. Spend this time in the darkness thinking about the blackness of your soul.”

Johnny didn’t know what he had done to blacken his soul, but perhaps it was this darkness that drove all of the light from his life. He didn’t want a black soul. All he really wanted was someone to hold him. Johnny longed to be held, enfolded in protective arms and kept safe and warm. He yearned to rest his head on a loving shoulder, and feel a kind hand caressing his hair.

The boy could remember little of his father, but the brief snippets he did recall were of a giant of a man with strong arms and broad shoulders. His father had held him safe, before Johnny had done whatever it was that angered the man so much that he sent Johnny and his mother away. His mother had held him and petted him, too, but not often enough. As he grew older, she wanted him to hold her, crying on his small shoulder. Since he lost her, Johnny had no one to hold him. He felt absolutely alone, at times his very bones ached with the loneliness.

I wish I had a brother. If I had a brother, I’d never be alone. I’d have a special friend to talk to, fight with, play with, and protect. My brother would watch my back, too. Together, nobody could beat us. My brother would know my secrets and my darkest sins, and love me in spite of them. He would hold me and I would hold him. My brother might even be able to erase the blackness in my soul.

Ah, well. He didn’t have a brother so there was no point in thinking about it. He did have his friend, Pablo, who would be expecting him inside. He wanted to do some work on the horsehair rein, the mecate, Pablo was braiding for Don Esteban’s daughter. He had just enough time to braid a foot or so of rein, grab a quick supper, and then sack in. In the morning he and Pablo were riding to Rio Rojo to deliver some horses to a friend of Don Esteban and sunrise came early.

He took one last look at his very own, beautiful horse. “Buenas noches, mi caballo.”


Pablo sat cross-legged beside the dying fire, completing the braiding of the new mecate for Señorita Angelina’s bosal. He paused to examine the line where his work blended into the portion braided by the boy earlier. Such clever fingers the boy had! Already he could braid rawhide and horse hair more beautifully than his mentor. And his skill with the horses….

Pablo was not a vain man, but he knew he had “the Gift.” He was known far and wide, not only as a rare horse talker, but also as a trainer of fine working horses. Over the years he had taught many men who sought to learn these skills from him. A number of them had gone on to become renowned horsemen in their own right, yet not one possessed the raw talent of this boy.

A sharp cry interrupted his musing, Johnny was dreaming again. Pablo glanced at the sleeping form, watching the boy toss and fight the blankets, the tears on his young face reflecting the firelight. The cries were tormented; sometimes angry, other times pleading. Waking the boy simply meant he would not go back to sleep, would not get the rest a young one needs to work hard all day. Pablo steeled himself to ignore the heart-rending sounds.

It is always thus. Every evening the nightmares come and there are so many dreams that haunt you. You relive your mother’s murder and how you shot the man that beat her to death and would have killed you as well. Other times you recall the beatings and hunger you have known, the shame of watching your mother sell herself to a man, believing that it was your fault she had to do so. I think your mother wanted to be the child while she made you the adult, responsible for taking care of her.

Then there is your longing, your need, to belong somewhere and be wanted—especially by your gringo father. Yes, that is the hardest dream for me to hear. I cannot bear the anguish in your voice when you ask him what you did that caused him to throw you and your mother out, when you tell him you’re sorry, although you don’t know what you’re apologizing for. I often wonder, chico, if your mother told you the truth about your father.

Madre de Dios! I did not know your mother, little one, but if she were here now, I would put her in the ground myself. She was unfit to be a mother, la mujer loca. She made you responsible for her actions, her happiness, and blamed you for anything that went wrong. She placed you in dangerous situations, where her survival and yours, depended on your wits. Her death was not your fault, yet in your heart you believe there is something you could have done to prevent it. Oh, chico, would that I could gentle you like a young colt and take away your fear and pain.

He could no longer ignore the boy’s distress. Silently, Pablo knelt beside his young friend, whispering soothing sounds and stroking the raven hair. The old man took great care not to wake the sleeper, using the same soft hands and voice he would use to reassure a frightened horse.

Pablo’s gentle solace calmed Johnny and he ceased his restless tossing and murmuring.  

The old man settled back against the wall, continuing to caress the dark head. What was it about this boy—so young, so proud, so hurt? This child so quick to laughter with his ready smile, yet so defeated and feeling unworthy?

You are special, little one, and not just for your abilities with the horses.

He let his mind roam back to the first time Padre Ricardo brought the boy to the rancho. It was more than a year ago, the boy not yet twelve. He had been at the mission school as an orphan for more than six months, but the padres had begun to despair of ever being able to reach him. The boy was defiant and no amount of discipline could control him.

Trouble had a way of finding Juanito. And although he was small for his age, the other children were afraid of the fiery-tempered, black haired, blue-eyed hellion who was rumored to have shot dead the man who beat the life from his mother. He had survived for months on his own after his mother’s death and wanted no part of the mission school. The sullen, unresponsive boy had no friends at the school, running away at every opportunity. His presence at the mission was becoming disruptive.

Old Padre Ricardo recognized the feelings of unworthiness beneath the boy’s anger and resentment. He knew the mission school could not give the boy the kind of attention needed to help him deal with the trauma of the events surrounding his mother’s death.

He also worried about the effect of Padre Miguel’s savage punishments. Miguel claimed he must make an example of the “trouble maker,” yet Ricardo believed the man used far too much force. The constant discipline only made the boy angrier and Ricardo was horrified at the welts and bruises Miguel felt the boy deserved. He suspected, but could not prove, that Miguel tormented Johnny verbally as well.  The man was cruel, but unfortunately, Ricardo had no way to remove Miguel from the mission.

The kindly old priest believed he could best assist the troubled boy by taking him from the mission and placing him in a work situation. Johnny needed a position where he could be successful while remaining far away from Miguel’s vicious persecution. Because of Johnny’s skill with the horses at the mission, Padre Ricardo asked his old friend, Don Esteban, to give the boy an opportunity to work with the rancho’s horses.

Pablo was preparing to school a young cutting horse the first time he saw the boy. His first glimpse of the child reminded him of an angry, bristling porcupine, furiously rattling its sharp quills to warn all to stay away. Padre Ricardo placed his hand on Johnny’s shoulder, pointing out Pablo and the horse, and Johnny jerked away from him. Pablo hadn’t heard exactly what the boy said, but the phrases, ‘let me go,’ and ‘yeah, you’re throwin’ me out, too,’ were clear, as were several words he surely hadn’t learned at the mission.

Pablo decided to ignore these visitors, focusing his entire attention on the training session with the young horse. It was a talented animal, and performed some rather spectacular movements during its work. Thirty minutes later Pablo remembered the boy and the priest.

The boy sat spellbound, his bright blue eyes focused so intently on horse and rider that Pablo had the sensation of being scorched. As he reined the colt to a halt, Johnny rose cat-like to his feet and fairly flew to Pablo’s side, his eyes shining with excitement, “Señor, will you teach me to do that with a horse?” Just as suddenly, color tinged his checks and the boy dropped his eyes and hung his head.

Something about the gesture tugged at Pablo’s heart. He dismounted fluidly and handed the reins to the boy. The dark head came up and the blue eyes searched the lined face. Then the boy was at the horse’s head, crooning to him in a soft, melodious voice, making friends. Though small, he mounted gracefully without assistance and sat totally still, eyes closed. When he opened them again, Pablo received his first experience with Johnny’s uncanny powers of observation.

“Señor, this is how I hold the reins. But you did something with your left hand, here. And at the same time you used your spur like this. It seemed to make the horse be very round along his back, like a ball. Why did you want that?”

Pablo was astounded. This child had detected the subtle and complex set of signals required to work as one with a talented cutting horse, and was asking questions to understand the reasoning behind them!  It was Pablo’s introduction to a long string of surprises about the boy and he soon learned that Johnny’s ability to penetrate directly to the heart of the matter was only one of his talents.

Johnny often appeared as though he was not listening or paying attention, yet those blue eyes missed nothing. The boy absorbed information like a sponge and Pablo quickly realized that he never had to repeat a lesson or instruction as Johnny understood it the first time. He drank in every word Pablo spoke, observing the old man’s actions with raptor-like acuity, and practicing tirelessly to replicate the results.

The boy was as smart as a whip, passionate, imaginative, and creative with an untamed, feral quality about him. And his skill with the horses… Dios mio! The boy worked a horse with the deft mastery that came along only once every 3rd or 4th generation. Sí, that Johnny boy was full of surprises.

Pablo’s eyes sought out the rifle leaning against the wall, yet another surprise. How well he remembered the day Sam had given it to Johnny. The boy had worked with Sam’s big bay cutting horse, improving its spins and stops, and the segundo had paid him with the rifle—an unnecessary gesture as it was Johnny’s job to work with the rancho’s horses. Sam had told Johnny that it was a fine rifle, worthy of his innate skill with the gun and natural marksmanship. The boy had hung his head and dropped his eyes, blushing and shyly mumbling an embarrassed “Gracias.”

Pablo smiled; recalling his conversation with Sam after the segundo gave Johnny his first shooting lesson. “I’m telling you Pablo, it’s like that kid was born with a rifle in his hand. He didn’t let off one wild shot. Not one! You know I seen some fine shootin’ when I rode with Captain Call, Gus, and the other Rangers. Hell, I did some fine shootin’. But I never seen anybody pick it up so easy. He don’t even have to think about windage and elevation, or how to lead a moving target. It jest comes to him natural like. Kid’ll make a sharpshooter.”

And Sam continued to work with Johnny, teaching him hunting and tracking skills while honing his marksmanship. Under the patient segundo’s expert tutelage, the boy had become proficient at hitting targets from 500 yards, and even further when using Sam’s .50 caliber Sharps buffalo rifle. He brought the same dedication to practicing with the rifle as he did to working with the horses. So Sam was delighted to find the right excuse for giving the boy a well-crafted rifle like the handsome Winchester.

A log falling in the hearth roused Pablo from his reminiscences. The boy was sleeping quietly now and Pablo pulled the torn blanket up higher, tucking it around Johnny’s shoulders.  Such a complex, tragic boy, and yet there was greatness in him, Pablo was certain.

Ah well, I must get these old bones to bed if Johnny and I are to deliver those three fine horses to Don Enrico in Rio Rojo tomorrow. Morning comes early, and if I know Johnny, he’ll be awake and moving well before sunrise. My little mustañero is nothing if not eager….

The Trunk

Pack law—the big dog gets the meat—reigned in the border towns of the southwest. The somnolent village of Rio Rojo was similar to a hundred others along the border, a hard town that hosted its share of wolf packs of the two-legged variety. The people of Rio Rojo asked little of life, expected less, and struggled against the lean times that were part and parcel of border living. The pack wolves and the lone wolves moved freely within Rio Rojo. The strong ruled the weak, there was no lawman to keep the peace, and God, if he’d ever been there in the first place, hadn’t paid a visit in quite a spell.

Little Bill’s pack drifted into Rio Rojo in mid-afternoon, a group of five evil men, common thieves and killers, cutthroats of the first order. The pack lived hand to mouth, taking what they wanted, and finding pleasure in brutality. They were shiftless, slovenly men without roots; warped in mind and filthy by choice; each willing to cut his own mother’s throat to get what he wanted.

Little Bill despised his nickname, urging everyone to call him Billy; secretly hoping to be confused with Billy the Kid. A short, physically repulsive man with a pockmarked face, he craved respect and relied on meanness and bravado to achieve it. Billy hated the world; sometimes he hated men so badly that he took violent notions about them, acting out his rage in something like a fever. A man of choleric malice, he took pleasure in killing and thought himself a hot gun. Loudmouthed and surly, with a thinly disguised streak of cruelty, he had all the warm qualities of a wolverine. Billy fancied himself the pack leader, but was fully aware that his cousin, Tully, could challenge him at any time.

Tully was every bit the malicious killer Billy was, but he was far more controlled. Billy usually started the trouble while Tully finished it. Whereas Billy operated on raw instinct, Tully was coldly calculating. A swaggering bully and a coward at heart, Tully possessed the physical stature and strength Billy coveted. Tully thought of himself as the fastest gun along the Nueces River. He was a brutal, often murderously savage man who derived perverse satisfaction in watching both man and beast suffer at his hand.

The two men called themselves friends; yet they resembled nothing so much as two lobos tussling for dominance, all bared teeth and raised hackles, feinting this way and that in search of an advantage over the other one. The remaining three, Charlie, Dobbs, and Dan, were merely members of the pack, small-minded, sullen men content to play the back-up role for Billy and Tully. All five men were bitter, feeling that life had cheated them in some way, and finding a measure of relief in hurting something smaller and weaker than themselves. 

This bright afternoon, the pack rode into Rio Rojo, passing around their last bottle of Rye whiskey. If the world were a fair place, some unforeseen obstacle would have delayed their arrival—as little as five minutes would have been enough. But life is not fair, and the capricious finger of fate moved to add another piece to the intricate jigsaw puzzle that is destiny. How often has an insignificant gesture by fate changed the entire path of a man’s—or boy’s—life?

The men’s plans went no further than more alcohol, women, and having fun at the expense of some unfortunate, but these were thwarted by the crowd gathered outside of the town gunsmith’s shop. Large enough to block the street, the throng of men was listening to the gunsmith who stood atop a shipping crate, clearly relishing the attention. The pack dismounted, their curiosity aroused by the strange looking pistol the man was demonstrating to the interested onlookers.

“Yes, my friends, I am the first gunsmith in these parts to carry this new pistol. It’s a Colt Peacemaker, just the kind of gun a man needs to make his mark. It’s lighter than your Colt SSA and the barrel is shorter.” He presented the gun to the crowd as if it were a piece of fine sculpture. “Just think what this shorter barrel means to your fast draw. Why, you shooters will be just as dangerous with this gun on your hip as you are with it in your hand.” He paused for effect, allowing the crowd to study the gleaming pistol. “Now this little beauty is chambered for .45 caliber cartridges. Like I said before, the only place to get a Peacemaker in these parts is from me. You fellas know you want one. Just remember that God made men, but Samuel Colt made men equal. And this little beauty is Mr. Colt’s best equalizer yet.” He brandished the pistol with a flourish.

The crowd reacted appreciatively to the gunsmith’s speech, several of the younger men saluting Samuel Colt’s views on equality by drawing their own pistols and firing several rounds into the air. One of the bullets ricocheted into a window, sending a shower of glass into the street and spooking Billy’s horse. The frightened animal jerked its head up and leaped backwards, yanking the reins from Billy’s hand and causing him to land ignominiously on his backside.

Molten rage consumed Billy as the crowd roared with laughter. Lumbering to his feet, he turned his fury on the unfortunate horse, grasping its trailing reins and yanking cruelly. He hefted the braided rawhide quirt hanging from his wrist and began lashing the animal that had made him the object of ridicule, each stroke leaving a line of blood on the horse’s hide. The gelding screamed in fear and pain, backing rapidly, and finally rearing as the brutal lashes continued to fall.

Raw terror doused Billy’s rage as the slashing hooves of the panicked horse flailed near his face. He heard the crowd’s collective gasp, and for one sickening moment, knew he would be trampled. Then abruptly the hooves disappeared and his knees threatened to buckle with relief. Billy blinked tears of fright from his eyes to find a boy in control of the trembling horse, soothing it with gentle hands and voice. The kid had undoubtedly saved his life, but Billy was anything but grateful.

Forcing himself to walk calmly toward his now quiet mount, Billy noticed that the boy quickly moved to stand between the horse and Billy. The man struggled vainly to halt the trembling in his hands, failure rekindling the flame of his anger and focusing it on his benefactor. The crowd had laughed at him, he had been disgraced, and in his wrath, Billy blamed the boy. He halted in front of the kid.

“Please, Señor, he is calm now. You no longer need the quirt.” The soft words were respectful, but the eyes, a piercing blue, held utter contempt. The boy did not offer him the reins.

The crowd watched the scene intently, sounds of amusement and outright snickering obvious. Billy felt the rage flare in him again. Just who did this kid think he was talking to? Men were laughing at him again because of the little peckerwood. He started to raise the quirt to the boy and felt Tully grasp his arm, squeezing painfully.

“Not now. Not here. Too many people.” Tully whispered.

Billy shook off Tully’s hand angrily, but couldn’t deny the simple truth of the words. He forced himself to let the quirt fall, then stepped forward and snatched the reins from the boy’s hands. He couldn’t help but compare his own pudgy hands to the long lean fingers reluctantly relinquishing the reins. His hate threatened to boil over then, but Tully moved in quickly, placing himself between Billy and the boy, urging Billy along the street toward the livery stable.

“Thanks for your help, son.” Tully said pleasantly, tipping his hat to the boy.

Billy stalked toward the livery, covertly watching as an old vaquero detached himself from the crowd to join the kid. The boy made several angry gestures, obviously targeted at Billy, and the old man placed his hands on the youngster’s shoulders to calm him. The urge to inflict pain and do violence to this disrespectful boy who had humiliated him consumed Billy like a raging fever.

It ain’t over, kid. You made them laugh at me and I won’t never fergit it. You’re gonna pay for that. Just as soon as I can git you away from this crowd.


The late afternoon shadows were lengthening into twilight when Johnny walked through the livery barn, whistling softly and anticipating the beefsteak dinner Pablo should be ordering about now. He was looking forward to spending the night in a hotel, a new experience, and now that he was sure the horses were comfortable, he could let himself think about what it would be like. Pablo had laughed indulgently at his questions and his eagerness, hoping Johnny wouldn’t be disappointed. Johnny didn’t think he would be, he enjoyed the undercurrent of energy and tension that murmured just below the surface of the town.

He paused briefly at the stall where the distinctive black and white pinto was tied. The handsome animal’s mostly white coat was marred by a series of thin red stripes, the marks from Billy’s quirt. Johnny wondered where Billy had stolen the gelding—it was strong and well fed with distinctive lacy patches of black, and not the kind of horse a man like Billy could afford to buy. The horses of the other men he rode with were not of the same quality. It was a shame, really. The fool would ruin the horse inside of two months, and probably end up eating it out on the desert. He studied the unhappy gelding.

Pablo said you’re not my concern. He says I’ve done everything I can for you. Sure hate to leave you with that…

The attack came without warning. A shadowy blur sprang on him from the hayloft, driving him to the ground. When his vision cleared, Johnny found himself on his feet and held securely by the neck in the crook of a tall man’s arm, surrounded by four familiar men. He recognized the man standing in front of him as the bastard who had whipped the pinto, which meant the man holding him was the same man who had spoken to him this afternoon. Johnny realized that they must have been waiting for him. He felt like a stray dog that wanders into strange territory, not hunting trouble, but pretty damn certain the neighborhood pack is going to give him a good chewing just on general principle.

Trouble. Nothin’ but Trouble. Well, Trouble and I are old friends.

“Well, well. Whacha got there, Tully?”

“Don’t rightly know, Billy. Looks like a little half-breed pup that needs some trainin’.” Tully tightened his grip, making it hard for Johnny to breathe.
Billy swaggered close, face inches from Johnny, his fetid breath heavy in the air. “You gonna show me some respect, boy. You plumb insulted me this afternoon and I want an apology.”

Johnny remained silent, face expressionless, eyes focused on a point past Billy’s shoulder, a tactic he had perfected early in life to deal with those stronger than himself. Billy and his henchmen might be stronger, but Johnny felt nothing but contempt for a man who would mistreat an animal. He had the feeling that the man had actually enjoyed hurting the horse and vowed to show no pain or reaction to anything the men might do to him. Unfortunately, his disgust showed in his eyes.

Those insolent eyes goaded Billy into a frenzy, he actually thought his wrath might physically explode through the top of his skull. He felt the overpowering urge to replace the contempt with fear, and reacted savagely, laying the side of his pistol upside Johnny’s left cheekbone with a resounding, satisfying smack.

Johnny saw stars as fiery sparks erupted in his brain. Eyes watering, he sagged in Tully’s iron grip, fighting the bolts of agony racing back and forth across his cheek. It was a strange sensation, his cheekbone on fire and the rest of that side of his head going numb.

Billy enjoyed Johnny’s struggle with the pain for a moment, then grabbed him by the hair, yanking his head back so the boy’s face turned upwards. “You made a mistake this afternoon, kid. I wasn’t finished teachin’ that horse a lesson. So now I’ll just hafta finish the lesson on you.” He lifted the rawhide quirt, waving it suggestively in Johnny’s face.

Johnny could barely focus on the words, much less the quirt, as he fought the dizziness from the blow. He forced himself to concentrate, instinctively realizing the danger of being at the mercy of men like these. He’d faced bullies before, and knew that the first rule is show no fear.
Billy was disappointed at the boy’s lack of reaction; maybe the kid was just stupid, although he’d handled a clout in the face that would have had many grown men in tears. It didn’t matter, all men had a breaking point and his evening’s entertainment would be finding this boy’s. He would start with a little payback humiliation—the kid wanted to act like a man, therefore; they’d treat him like a child.

“Tully, get him over here, bend him over these bales of straw. Dobbs, you and Charlie come hold him down.”

Johnny put up a half-hearted show of resistance as Tully marched him towards Billy. The man still held him around the neck and Johnny was waiting for just the right moment to escape. He wanted the other men to be closer and out of position to stop him before he made his move. When Tully halted in front of the pile of bales, Johnny took advantage of the slight relaxation in the arm holding him, twisting violently to his right and stomping his booted heel onto Tully’s instep while sinking his teeth into the man’s upper arm.

Tully howled in painful surprise, loosening his grip enough for Johnny to break free. When Dobbs jumped in front of him, Johnny kneed him in the groin with all his strength, hurdling the man who dropped like a stone. Ducking beneath Charlie’s arms, he took to his heels, heading for the door with all the speed he could muster.

For one exhilarating moment, Johnny thought he was home free. Then he heard the ominous ripping hiss of a twirling lasso loop and felt the rope settle around his shoulders. The next second, the rope upended him and he crashed to the dusty floor, unable to do more than watch the world revolve at a crazy angle and try to catch his breath.  

“You are a wildcat, boy,” Tully kept the rope taunt, coiling it as he came toward Johnny. “But you won’t be so wild when I’m through with ya.”
Tully yanked the boy to his feet, throwing a couple of turns with the rope to bind Johnny’s arms to his sides. A vicious shove propelled him back to the stacked bales of straw where Charlie and Dan forced him face down over one of the bales. Dobbs still lay on the floor, retching and writhing from the shot to the balls Johnny had managed on his way to the door.

“Give me that quirt, Billy. This brat like to broke my foot and I gotta learn him not to bite. I want the first crack at him.” Tully’s voice was flat and menacing.

Unable to break free from the men holding him, Johnny tensed and mentally prepared himself for the ordeal to come. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but he’d been in this position before, most recently with Padre Miguel. He was angry and embarrassed, but he could handle this.  He closed his eyes, set his jaw, and concentrated on the exact steps he needed to take in the training of his new horse. Pablo, a great believer in the power of the mind, claimed that it was possible to disconnect the feeling part of the body from the registering part of the brain, and although Johnny hadn’t yet mastered that mental technique, he was determined to use it now.

By focusing his entire attention on the training regimen for his horse, Johnny was able to distract himself enough to refrain from reacting to the vindictive thrashing. But he felt it, having to force himself to continue with his thoughts as each whistling lash of the heavy quirt laid a new line of fire across his backside.

First thing is to teach him to respond … to my whistle. Want him to … come to me when … I whistle, don’t … want to have to … chase him. Jesucristo … that burns. Gonna work … him in a bosal … for a while … Lucky for leather pants … Wish I’d let that … caballo stomp your … head in … Don’t need the thickest … bosal, start with … something thinner…

Billy watched with a mixture of frustration and amazement. He wanted the boy in tears, begging them to stop. He could see the anger on the kid’s face, noting the clenched teeth and tightened jaw muscles in response to each stroke of the rawhide. But the boy’s eyes remained closed and dry and he didn’t make a sound, not so much as a whimper.

Damn. When my old man whaled me like that, I hollered myself hoarse.

Determined to elicit a reaction, Billy decided to try his hand. “All right, Tully. My turn now.”

Billy walked around to Tully and reached for the quirt. As his hand grasped the braided rawhide, he heard a whistling crack and watched in disbelief as the quirt fell to the floor between them. He realized why a second later—his suddenly burning wrist was wrapped in the thong of one of the wicked hand braided whips used by vaqueros for herding cattle in the brush. He whirled to find an old vaquero holding the whip in his left hand, a pistol in his right. Billy stared at the old man in disbelief; suddenly recognizing him as the man whom had been with the boy earlier.

“Por favor, Señor. You have had your fun with the boy. We will leave now.” The pistol was trained on Billy.

Tully snarled, “Like hell you will. This dance is over when I say. Comprende?”

The pistol shifted to Tully. “Let the boy go.” Pablo glanced at Johnny, who had managed to struggle to his feet in spite of Charlie’s tight hold on his collar and the reata binding his arms to his sides. The boy’s face was swollen, an angry bruise already visible around the bloody gash along his left cheekbone, but he was mobile and thinking. Pablo nodded encouragement, silently urging Johnny to hurry; filled with dread at what these piojos might do to the boy if he couldn’t get him away.

Johnny jerked away from Charlie, frantically searching for a way to escape from the rope binding his arms and get to Pablo’s side. His initial elation at his friend’s arrival had turned to dismay when he realized what these buitres might do to the old man. He felt a sickening premonition of disaster, prickles of foreboding racing up and down his spine. They needed to get out of here now!

I have a bad feeling about this.

He was moving toward Pablo, rope still tight, when he saw they weren’t going to make it. Dobbs, hidden from Pablo’s view behind the straw, had recovered enough to draw his own gun. The man cocked it now, an ominous sound in the sudden silence.

“Drop it, old man, or I drop the kid. Muy damn pronto.” Dobbs rose to his feet, pistol aimed at Johnny’s head.

Instinctively recognizing that the old mustañero’s life depended on his ability to convince Pablo to leave the barn immediately, Johnny flashed his most persuasive grin. “I’m okay, Pablo. Thanks for coming to check on me. Why don’t I meet you at the hotel a little later.”

Unable to explain his intuition, Johnny simply knew that Pablo was dead if the old man remained here with these men. With hopeless certainty, he understood there was no power on earth that could force Pablo to leave him behind, but he had to try. “Please, Pablo. Just go. I … I’ll catch up with you later.” He was dismayed at the shakiness in his voice.

Kind brown eyes met pleading blue ones. “Andale, Johnny. We will leave now.” Pablo dropped the whip, focusing his entire attention on covering the men while Johnny escaped. He and the boy had little chance against five men. Their only hope of beating the odds was the men’s fear of being the first to move against him, knowing that at least the first, and possibly the second man to crowd him would go down. That fear was the only thing keeping Dobbs from firing.

Billy watched and listened with dawning understanding, heart quickening at the kid’s use of “please,” the catch in his voice. The boy wasn’t worried about himself, but he was sure afraid for the old man. And the old man was risking his life for the kid. A frustrating afternoon was shaping into a hell of an entertaining evening. The pockmarked face twisted into an evil leer.

Yep, every man has a weakness and I just found yours, kid. Betcha I get a reaction outta ya now.


What started as a ruthless performance meant to force a repentant attitude and proper respect from the boy had rapidly escalated into unadulterated evil. Billy waited until Johnny passed him, then struck with the speed of a striking rattler. Pablo had no choice but to surrender his pistol when Billy held a knife to Johnny’s throat, and Billy lost no time in testing his theory about Johnny’s feeling for the old man.

Tully and Charlie quickly stripped the vaquero to the waist, immobilizing him with arms fully extended overhead, hanging by his bound wrists, able to touch the floor only with his toes. Pablo offered no resistance; eyes glued to the knife Billy still pressed to the boy’s throat. With his arms bound to his side by the reata, Johnny had little chance of fighting back and Pablo hoped he wouldn’t try, wouldn’t goad their captors to further anger. Suddenly, the first lash of the whip landed across his shoulders, and for the next few minutes, he could think of nothing but the searing agony.

As Billy forced Johnny to watch, Tully flayed the old man with the cattle whip. He started with measured strokes, pausing for a brief interval between each. Yet it seemed this sport was too tame, and Tully quickly picked up the force and pace of the lashes. It is often a short step from the unfriendly to the fatal and Charlie, Dobbs, and Dan easily recognized the signs of crazed bloodlust that had seized Tully as he seemed bent on removing every inch of skin from the old man’s back. His ungovernable ferocity raged to the surface, and in his explosive anger, he seemed a wild animal run amuck in savagery.

The old man bore the whipping stoically, only groaning when the smooth skin of his back was but a bloody memory. The boy’s reaction was far more satisfying. He fought to free himself so frantically that Billy thought he might turn inside out. But Johnny’s was the futile struggle of an animal held tightly in the jaws of a trap; he was a small boy pitted against four men and his efforts were in vain. He battled with every ounce of effort he had, finally collapsing to his knees, spent and trembling, head hanging to his chest, on the bare edge of consciousness.

Johnny felt as though he was trying to swim upward through quicksand. Every muscle and joint in his body ached and even with his eyes closed he could hear the evil hiss of the whip’s passage through the air followed by the wet, meaty thwack as it contacted Pablo’s lacerated back. His mouth felt as though it was filled with cotton, his throat and lungs burning with each heaving breath. His eyes filled when he heard Pablo’s faint moan and he silently screamed in frustration at his helplessness. They were going to kill Pablo and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it.
Tully sensed that Johnny was no longer struggling, so he tossed the whip aside. The old man hung limply from the ropes, eyes glazed, moaning faintly, his mutilated back criss-crossed with great bloody furrows. Tully had to admit the old man had guts. “Hombre muy valiente,” he whispered to the vaquero as he walked toward Billy and the boy.

Billy’s laughter was sinister. “You ready to apologize now, kid?”

His streak of stubbornness and defiance surfaced then and Johnny lifted his head proudly, meeting Billy’s gaze with one of fury. He earned a swift, savage boot to the stomach for his effort, a blow that doubled him over in agony and left him fighting to catch his breath.

“You’re a hard one, kid. I’ll sure give you that.” He grasped Johnny by the hair, forcing the boy’s face upwards. “Here’s the deal, boy. I give you a chance to apologize. You don’t take it; I take it out on your amigo there. Comprende?” He shook Johnny’s head savagely.

“Don’t hurt him anymore.” The voice was so soft; Billy had to strain to hear it.

“Don’t hurt him anymore,” he repeated sarcastically. “You givin’ me orders?”

“Please. … Please don’t hurt him anymore.” The defiance disappeared as quickly as it had come as Johnny realized his rebellion only meant more trouble for Pablo. The boy was utterly defeated now, head on his chest, eyes closed tightly, the tracks of tears visible on the dusty, bruised face.

“Hmm. That’s better. Problem is, the man’s still gotta pay for your little tantrum earlier.” He laughed as the blue eyes flew open in disbelief and dismay. “Go on, Tully. Let’s see just how much guts that old man has.”

Johnny watched in horror as Tully stood face-to-face with Pablo and pulled a razor-thin stiletto from his boot. The man hefted the blade like a surgical instrument, tattooing a bloody line of cuts down the breastbone and then tracing a pattern of precise slits across Pablo’s taunt belly. Again the old man endured the torture in silence.

“Noooo. Please. … Please. … I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Please don’t hurt him anymore.” The boy struggled again, weaker than before, desperate to halt Pablo’s ordeal, and totally helpless to do so. On his knees with head hung low, Johnny was the picture of despair.

Billy cackled fiendishly, enjoying the spectacle and the feeling of power it awakened in him. The anguish in the boy’s eyes, the defeat in the slumped shoulders filled Billy with satisfaction. Tully noted Billy’s pleasure and was eager to draw a reaction of his own. Determined to hear the vaquero scream, he suddenly whipped the blade sideways, neatly severing Pablo’s right nipple, relishing the exquisite torment on the weathered face as the blade sliced through tender flesh. The old man didn’t make a sound, but his eyes rolled back in his head and he fainted.

“Nooooo…” the boy’s scream was cut short as he vomited onto the straw, retching in distress for several minutes, unable to breathe normally. The entire incident seemed surreal with an almost dreamlike quality, as if it were happening to someone else removed in time and distance. Johnny was sickened by his inability to stop Pablo’s torment, despising himself for being on his knees, begging for Pablo’s life, all the while knowing the futility of the request. And he was desperate to help his friend, the sense of hopelessness and impotence a physical throbbing. He managed to find enough breath to choke out another plea. “Please let him go. It’s me you’re mad at.”

Billy chortled his sinister laugh again. “Oh, don’t worry kid. We’ll get around to you. We surely will.”


A bucket of water thrown in his face brought Pablo back to painful consciousness. For a moment, the agony was almost too much to bear; then he sneaked a breath past the pain and was able to think coherently. He wondered how it was possible for a body to be on fire and icy cold at the same time.

So this is how it feels to die. The Apache say, “It is a good day to die.” and so it will be for me. I have lived a long life and a good one.

Pablo’s only regret was the knowledge of how the manner of his death would affect Johnny. The boy would be devastated, and he would blame himself. It might even be the final straw that tore him apart, his little one, so hurt and punished by life. Would Johnny be able to stand the guilt? Perhaps it did not matter, for surely these cabróns schemed to kill the boy, too. Yet Pablo believed that Johnny would somehow escape the death these evil men planned.

Why? Why must the boy suffer so? My little one is marked for greatness. Surely he is not meant to die here at the hands of such animals as these men.

The old man drew himself up proudly. He had few lessons left to teach this boy who had been like a son to him, but he would show him how a brave man faces death. And perhaps one final lesson, the one that might be the boy’s salvation. A gentle reminder of the mental technique he had taught Johnny to help him deal with the demons of the past, the shadows that caused the nightmares.

His eyes met the boy’s and the distress on the tear stained face was more painful to him than his wounds. Pablo poured every ounce of acceptance and love into his eyes and smile, using them to convey what he would not put into words in front of these puercos. He read the answering devotion in Johnny’s face and was thankful that at least he’d had the chance to let the boy feel love one more time. He hoped it would last forever. “Vaya con Dios, little one. Remember the box.”

“Oh Pablo…I’m so sorry…”

Tully raised his blade again. “Gut check time.” With one swift, vicious thrust, he eviscerated Pablo, ripping him open from sternum to crotch, leaping aside as the old man’s steaming intestines spilled from the gory wound like snakes and the bright crimson fountain of his life spurted into the straw. He actually missed the dying of the light in the old vaquero’s eyes, distracted by the boy’s scream of pure anguish.


Johnny lay on his side, curled tightly into a ball, body shaking uncontrollably, wracked with sobs. His mind kept replaying the horrifying, grisly moment when the wicked blade ripped Pablo from him forever. His stomach cramped suddenly and he spent the next few minutes with dry heaves, retching painfully. He had long since emptied the contents of his stomach, still aching from Billy’s ruthless kick.

He forced himself to sit up, to assess his situation. It was the middle of the night and the barn was silent and pitch black. Although he vividly recalled every detail of Pablo’s death, what happened afterwards was a hazy blur. He knew he had cried for his friend, his mentor, and the men had found that amusing, their laughter even now echoed in his mind. He remembered the disgusting feel of Billy’s hateful fingers on his swollen cheeks, fingers coated with Pablo’s blood, painting designs on his face, the sweet, coppery scent of blood overpowering. Flinching, he relived the awful sound of the lifeless body striking the ground when the men finally cut Pablo down and dragged him away.

He wished for death, wanting to join Pablo somewhere beyond this life that brought nothing but misery. He was still alive only because Tully had discovered several empty cages built to hold fighting dogs, and the men thought to torment him further by putting him in one of the cages for the night, like an animal waiting to be slaughtered.

They’d be back in the morning, Johnny knew. Billy had hung two coiled ropes on the cage, taking pleasure in describing how he planned to use them.

“Nothin’ like startin’ the mornin’ with a good hangin’. For you, kid, we’ll make it a Mexican hanging. You know what that is? That’s where we tie one rope around your neck, one around your feet and stretch you between two horses until you strangle, your neck breaks, or your head just plain pops off.”

His stomach cramped again, but Johnny reached out and grasped the bars of the cage tightly, resting his aching head against them and concentrating on controlling his breathing. He was flooded with emotions; body shaking in response as sorrow, guilt, self-hate and rage all swirled within him. He loathed himself for being unable to help Pablo, the helplessness echoing in his head like a drum.

I will never be helpless again. Never powerless. Not ever again.

Grief for his friend swept over him in waves and he realized that he had not yet come to grips with the essential truth, Pablo was dead. To him, there had always been a saintly quality about Pablo. Aristocratic in manner, a white-haired monolith, a kind and gifted teacher, a gentle and compassionate soul, the mustañero had seemed indestructible. Other men lived and died, but Pablo went on forever, ageless and somehow immutable.

In an animal cage, alone in the dark, Johnny quietly mourned the passing of the man who had befriended him and taught him the meaning of family. He let the bittersweet memories come flooding back: the acceptance and kindness Pablo had always shown him; that first day when Pablo calmly trusted him with the reins of the young horse; so many happy hours of Pablo’s coaching and encouragement; the old man’s fervent belief in the power of the mind, teaching Johnny to analyze any situation from multiple points of view; the magic in Pablo’s hands when he touched a horse; hours of quiet companionship; the wise, bright eyes; all the times he had awakened from some nightmare, disoriented and afraid only to be soothed by the calm voice; galloping side-by-side. Pablo, the friend. Pablo, the teacher. Pablo, the father. Pablo, who believed in him, trusted him, loved him, wanted him. Pablo, who was dead.

Johnny understood that his time with Pablo had been precious. He’d had so little love in his life, and he would treasure the gift of Pablo’s love forever. First, though, he had to live through the next day, survive whatever gruesome game Billy and Tully wanted to play, and then he could think about forever. He would have to become a man before he was done being a boy. He realized Pablo had tried to help him prepare for that ordeal; remembering that last look in the kind old eyes as the man stood straight and tall, awaiting death with a gallant smile, and, teacher to the end, taking the time for one last lesson.

Sitting up straight, Johnny wiped his eyes and scrubbed Pablo’s blood from his face. Wrapping his arms tightly around himself to keep out the cruel world, he recalled Pablo’s soft voice reminding him about the box. The box, a mental technique Pablo had taught him to help him cope with his nightmares. Even at the end, his friend was trying to help. Johnny closed his eyes and concentrated, deliberately slowing his breathing and heart rate, hearing the beloved voice once more in his mind. He let it guide him.

Breathe slowly. Slowly. Slowly. Eyes closed. Relax. Slow the breathing. Slow the heart rate. Calm. Quiet. Safe. No fear. Safe. Calm. Now take out the box. Good. Open it. That’s right. Fold the memory into pieces. Yes. Put it in the box. It will fit. Trust me. Close the box. Good. Now put it away. The memory will stay there in the box until you take it out again.

Johnny resolved to use this gift, the last Pablo would ever give him. He concentrated fiercely, shutting out all thoughts except for the images he created in his mind. He took the hurt and the fear and the shame and imagined himself folding them into tiny pieces, laying the tightly folded scraps in small locked strong boxes, finally packing those boxes away in the old tack trunk. He locked the trunk. He threw away the key. He made four promises:

I will never be defenseless again. I will make myself strong. I will make myself fast. I will not let myself be hurt.

He sat motionless; eyes closed throughout the remaining hours of the harrowing night, his promises to himself repeating endlessly in his mind like a mantra. His face was ashen, features carved from granite, as though he had just cut cards with death itself. Slowly, the sense of helplessness and shame drained from him, carrying childhood with them. He was a man now, and inside him a black rage swelled and grew, a choking fury rising to fill him with a roaring anger, gnawing at his bowels like a nest of rats. Johnny’s grief was a white-hot coal that burned to the very core of his vitals. His thoughts were no longer of remorse, but of revenge. Never again would he suffer the slings and arrows of fortune in silence. Pablo’s slaying had triggered passionate anger and a quiet, aching rage to kill.

He opened his eyes when the rooster crowed. He still hugged himself tightly, but the devastated boy was gone, locked forever away in the trunk in his mind. The eyes that once sparkled with a boy’s joy at working with a fine horse were now cold and hard, chips of glacial ice. They held the steely glare of a man bent on inflicting destruction, challenging and angry. Those men might kill him, but they would see no more fear, hear no more pleading. Last night they’d left a beaten boy alone with his shame in the dark. They would return to find a controlled young man with hate in his heart and killing on his mind.

El Matador

The legend rode into town sitting tall in the saddle. Lean and hipless, the handsome caballero seemed to be a part of the majestic dapple gray Andalusian stallion prancing beneath him. He was an impressive figure, this consummate horseman, dressed in black leather vaquero pants, calzoneras, trimmed in Spanish silver and a matching charro jacket with a shirt of finest white linen embroidered with silver threads. A silver-conchoed hatband matched the fancy conchos on his belt. The black, hand-tooled leather holster held a pearl handled pistol buckled low on his hip. The young man was fully aware of his dashing appearance, raven hair shining in the sun, blue eyes twinkling, and even white teeth flashing as he laughed for the sheer joy of living.

The rider’s charisma drew the attention of everyone along the main street and they recognized him instantly. The word that El Matador had ridden into town spread quickly and Rio Rojo was seized with an intense excitement—this was one of the most celebrated folk heroes of the border, a romantic cavalier whose story was known to one and all from San Diego to El Paso.

Diego de la Moncada y Requeña was the second son of a Spanish nobleman. The Moncada name was old and honorable, famous for breeding the greatest fighting bulls in España. With four strong sons, Don Alejandro wished for additional lands that he could pass on to the three younger boys, as his eldest son would inherit the family holdings in Spain. After much consideration, he sent Diego and his two younger brothers across the ocean to Mexico to develop the lands granted the Moncada family by the King of Spain decades earlier. The young men were wildly successful; their purebred cattle and Andalusian horses soon became famous throughout Mexico while their charm and cultured manners endeared them to Mexico’s high society.

Unfortunately, their success and youthfulness attracted an unwanted type of attention—the scrutiny of the many bands of bandidos that were a scourge to all of the ranchers located within a day’s ride of either side of the border. The Moncadas represented a prime target for such outlaws and were repeatedly forced to defend their land and possessions. The brothers and their men protected their rancho and herds vigorously and their skill at repelling attacks goaded more than one bandido jefe to swear a vendetta against the Moncadas.

During one particularly vicious raid, the youngest Moncada brother, Antonio, was taken hostage and brutally executed by a band of comancheros. Diego swore to avenge Antonio and the story of his blood oath and the details of his quest for vengeance captured imaginations up and down the border.  A renowned bullfighter in both Spain and Mexico, Diego was as skilled with a pistol as he was in the bullring. As he set out to kill every bandit who had participated in his brother’s murder, he quickly became known as El Matador. The tombstones of sixteen men attested to his prowess with a gun and only four men remained of the twenty who had killed Antonio.

The border folk, bored for most of their hard lives, were enchanted with the bandits and pistoleros who walked among them. These characters brought color to the drab landscape of border existence and the people responded by romanticizing their exploits. Successful bandits and gunmen found their reputations inflated by rumor and gossip, the stories and songs celebrating their actions spreading like wildfire all along the border. A charming, handsome caballero with a blood oath of vengeance for his brother and a rapid hand with a gun represented the perfect folk hero, and El Matador was the subject of many a border ballad and folktale.

Diego’s ride down main street was almost a procession as he bowed and tipped his hat to admiring ladies, nodded to respectful men, and tossed silver coins to the idolizing children who came forward to see him. It was impossible to tell from his aristocratic appearance that he had been riding hard for the past three days, hot on the trail of two of his quarry. Yet despite his immaculate and carefree demeanor, he was exhausted and looking forward to a bath, a hot meal, and a soft bed.

Diego recognized an older boy waving to him from the door of the mercantile. “Hola, José. Go and tell that fat old crook, Felipe, that I want a room, a hot bath, and his best attempt at a meal, por favor.” Diego’s white teeth flashed as he grinned at the young man.

“Sí, Don Diego. I go at once.” José ran toward the hotel, thrilled to be of service to his hero and enjoying the envious looks of his friends.

Diego rode on to the livery, dismounting easily and patting the crested neck of the big gray. “Ah, Cielo, time to rest. There will be a rubdown and good oats, mi amigo.” He scratched the stallion behind the ears and the horse rubbed its sweaty head against him.

Diego pushed the big head away, laughing, and then glanced around in puzzlement. He was surprised that no one had come from the barn to take his horse. Leading Cielo into the dim interior, he noted the unusual stillness.

It’s a bit early to be hitting the tequila, even for Pépé. Something is wrong.

The stallion suddenly pricked his ears and Diego heard the sounds of a scuffle from behind the barn. He released the thong that secured his pistol in the holster, pulled a second pistol from his saddlebag, and silently hurried to the rear door, moving with cat-like grace. In the darkened interior, intent on reaching the door unseen, he nearly tripped over an animal cage. Pausing a moment to examine the empty cage, Diego wondered fleetingly why it lay in the barn aisle.

The sounds from outside grew louder—men laughing and taunting someone or something—and Diego stiffened. He recognized one of the laughs, an unforgettable cross between a rutting boar and a jackass with colic.

Little Bill and his pack of coyotes. And they’ve found another victim. When I caught those cabróns torturing that dog in El Paso, I warned them of what would happen if I ever saw them bullying a man or animal again. Pendejos!

Cocking his pistol, Diego stepped through the door, but was unprepared for the scene outside. The pack was struggling with a boy, attempting to loop a lasso over his ankles. Tully held a rope that ended in a noose around the kid’s neck, yanking it brutally in an effort to subdue his intended victim. Billy and Dobbs sat on their horses, shouting encouragement and insults to Charlie and Dan who were trying in vain to tie the kicking feet.
“C’mon, Charlie. Git ahold of him. This kid’s caused me a lot of trouble an just killin’ him ain’t enough. I wanna see the little breed git the cold sweats when we git him stretched ‘tween these horses and that rope starts to tighten ‘round his neck. Git a move on, Dan.” Billy was enjoying the spectacle, laughing at the inability of Charlie, Dan, and Tully to wrangle the kid.

Diego understood the situation immediately. The Texas Rangers used the Mexican hanging as their method of execution when no trees were available. Hanging was a grim way to die, but this manner of killing was even more gruesome.

From the first time they’d crossed his path, Diego had known these men were sadistic killers. But now, listening to them gloat over the spectacle of such a brutal hanging, he recognized he was in the presence of evil men, sinister and vengeful. They were of the same ilk as the scum who had murdered Antonio. Five men against one boy!

He was over matched, out numbered, and out weighed, but the kid was putting up one hell of a fight! Diego grinned in spite of the grim circumstances. The men surely hadn’t expected this fierce level of resistance from such a small target. The boy was a real scrapper. He just didn’t quit, wouldn’t back off. He was the kind of boy to make a man proud—much like Antonio. Diego could not stand idly by and permit such a slaughter. It was time to deal himself a hand in this rigged game. Drawing and cocking his other pistol, he moved forward purposefully, eyes glowing with the anticipation of battle.


Johnny was locked in a desperate struggle for survival, determined not to become another of these men’s victims. He’d fought them furiously from the moment they dragged him out of the cage, gaining some measure of satisfaction in their astonishment at his strenuous resistance. They’d expected him to be totally cowed after his night in the cage and were shocked at his defiance and aggressiveness.

He’d landed his share of kicks and punches, but Johnny had absorbed more punishment than he’d been able to dish out. Exhaustion settled over him now, almost as if a dark angel was spreading her wings across him. Johnny’s vision grayed around the edges as Tully methodically tightened the rope around his neck, shutting off his air. If he gave in now, it meant the end. He’d be dead and no one would pay the price for Pablo’s murder. Johnny fed on the hate that flooded through him at the memory, landing a solid kick to Charlie’s face.

Bastards! I’ll kill you all. Or you’ll kill me. But it won’t be with that rope. You’ll never get it on my feet. Better shoot me while you have the chance. I won’t quit… won’t quit… won’t quit…

Somewhere in his mind, Johnny’s whirling senses recorded the gunshot, but failed to associate it with the suddenly slack rope around his neck. He hit the ground hard on his back, dimly aware that the men trying to tie his feet had also let go. He was free!

Johnny forced air into his screaming lungs, using the rush of adrenaline surging through his body to scramble to his feet. He paused dazedly, gasping for breath and shaking his head to clear his vision, fighting to make sense of what was happening and plan an escape. He quickly realized he was no longer the center of his captors’ attention.

His five tormentors were absolutely still; frustration, anger, and—yes, fear— on their faces. Johnny followed the direction of their stares to the lone gunman who was in total command of the scene, eyes widening in disbelief as he recognized his rescuer. El Matador was one of his heroes and like any other boy growing up along the border, Johnny could unerringly recite every one of Diego Moncada’s exploits. He yanked the noose from his neck, noting with amazement where a bullet had cleanly severed the rope, and moved quickly out of danger, leaving his idol a clear field of fire to all five men.

“Gracias, Señor Matador.”

“De nada, chico.” Diego nodded approval at the boy’s quick thinking in hustling himself out of harm’s way, relieved that he didn’t appear to be badly injured. This one was a fighter; he had been standing at the head of the line when they passed out the spunk.

Diego turned to Billy. “So, we meet again, Little Bill.”

“Now lookee Moncada. This ain’t none of your concern.” Billy ground his teeth at the man’s sarcastic tone, his use of the despised nickname.

“Ah, but you are wrong, Little Bill. You have forgotten the promise I made to you in El Paso. You and Dobbs get down off those horses. Ahora!” Diego made sure Tully realized he had two guns covering the men, gesturing for Dobbs and Billy to join the other three. “Bueno. Now, right hands on your heads. Excellent… Now, left hand, two fingers, real easy. Throw your guns over here. … Ah, ah. Careful, Tully.”

Five pistols thudded into the dirt near his feet. “Get the guns, por favor, chico.”

“Sí.” Johnny darted in, collected the guns, and retreated to a safe spot, hefting one of the pistols and helping El Matador cover the group. He watched his hero’s performance in rapt admiration, noting how all the men dropped their heads, unable to meet El Matador’s eyes. There was no laughter now. All of the humor had disappeared and they were treating the gunman with utter, if grudging, respect. Yet watching Billy closely, Johnny recognized the signs of uncontrollable rage building in the man.

Diego shook his head at the group of men. “Ai yi yi. What a sorry sight. If I were to stuff all of your brains in a jaybird, the poor thing would fly backwards!” He cocked his head and considered them a moment, trying to decide how best to impress on these scum that he wouldn’t tolerate this behavior. He didn’t really want to kill the whole lot of them. Suddenly, Diego smiled wolfishly. Men like these would rather die than suffer a blow to the image of their manhood. He could work with that. “Strip off your clothes. Go on. Do it now.”

Diego kept his guns aimed unwaveringly, forcing the men to obey him. They followed his instructions angrily, whining and complaining, but always with one eye on the guns held by Diego and the boy. “That’s it. Shuck right down to your drawers. Boots, too.”

“Damn you, Moncada. You better decide what you want on your tombstone, ‘cuz I’m gonna kill ya for stickin’ yer nose in where it don’t belong.” Billy’s rage was quickly burning out of control. He ached to do violence to the arrogant greaser and absolutely refused to do as the man ordered.

“Little Bill, if I take the trouble to kick all the cow dung out of you, they could bury you in a matchbox. If you draw on me, you’re a dead man.” He was just plain tired of this boor’s attitude and killing Billy would send a clear message to the others. Suddenly Diego’s grin flashed. “But I did promise you that chance in El Paso, didn’t I?”

“You willin’ to bet yer life on that, Moncada?” Reason had deserted Billy now and he was reacting totally out of anger.

“A sucker bet, Little Bill. But, at least you’ll die with your pants and boots on.” Diego glanced at Johnny, “Toss him his gun, chico, then keep the others covered.”

Johnny obeyed instantly, totally enthralled by the confidence and command of El Matador. He watched keenly, absorbing every detail of the action, committing each nuance of the gunman’s behavior to memory. He noted the way the man wore his hat low over his eyes, the arrogant walk, as if he had just foreclosed on the sidewalk, the easy, loose stance as he faced Billy with complete coolness.  There was a moment of absolute stillness; then sudden, blurring action as Billy went for his gun. El Matador drew and fired his .45 so swiftly and cleanly that it was almost too fast for the eye to follow. Billy’s Colt hadn’t even cleared its holster when Diego’s bullet struck him squarely in the belly, a brilliant crimson flower rapidly blossoming to stain his shirt and pants.

Billy sat down hard on his rump in the dirt, an expression of disbelief on his face. “Well, I’ll be damned.” He managed to lift his gun and cock it, but was unable to raise it enough to point it at Diego. “You’ve killed me, you son of a bitch.” The pistol fell from his fingers.

“Yes, it certainly looks that way. I’m happy to see that I haven’t lost my touch.” Diego walked towards the mortally wounded killer.

“It ain’t s’posed to end like this.” Billy’s hands desperately sought to stem the blood welling between his tightly laced fingers. His face was ashen.

“It never is.” Diego kicked the pistol out of Billy’s reach and glared at the remaining pack members, cowering in their long johns. The men were totally subdued; awed by the grace and speed that had felled their leader. “The rest of you, mount up, ride out, and hope I never see you again.  Oh, and toss your rifles, bedrolls and saddlebags before you leave.”

The men slunk to their horses, moving quickly to discard saddlebags and bedrolls, reluctantly dropping their rifles, all the while darting furtive glances at Billy. “C’mon, Moncada. You ain’t really gonna make us ride outa here in our drawers with no guns are ya? The next town’s close on to twenty miles,” Tully whined. He stared at Billy a moment, then walked to the black and white pinto.
“Be thankful I don’t make you strip naked, tie you on backwards, and beat your horses’ tails out of here, boys. You still have your modesty, your canteens, and your horses. That’s a hell of a lot more advantages than you ever give to your victims. Now, vamanos! And remember, the next time you cross my path will be the last.”

Billy watched his “friends” in disbelief as they mounted and prepared to follow El Matador’s orders. Tully was even taking his horse! He called plaintively, “Hey, you cain’t just leave me here. I’m hurt bad, I gotta have a doctor. Help me. … Please.”

Tully reined in Billy’s pinto. “Ain’t you gonna get him a doctor, mister?”

“No. There is no doctor in Rio Rojo. Besides, he’s gut shot. A doctor can not help him. You’ll ride out of here, pronto, if you don’t want to join him.”
Tully hesitated only a moment, then kicked the black and white pinto into a gallop, leading the other three men away. None of them looked back.
Billy cried out as the pack left its fallen leader behind to die, writhing on the ground in agony. “Ah, Gawd, my guts is on fire. It hurts so bad. You gotta help me. Please.”

Johnny came forward to stand beside El Matador, staring down at the sobbing bully. Intense satisfaction at Billy’s suffering and fear of death engulfed him as he remembered this man’s cruelty and glee at Pablo’s torture and death. “It’s gut check time, Billy. Why don’t you just shut up and die like a man?”

“I cain’t stand it, please gimme somethin’ for the pain. Gawd, I’m hurt bad, ain’t I? I’m dyin’, aint’ I?” Billy was beyond caring about the boy’s disrespect. He clasped his stomach in agony as hard waves of pain washed over him, recalling the many times he had gloated while watching someone die gut shot from his bullets. He had heard it was a horrible way to die, one of the most painful ways to go, and had enjoyed inflicting it on others. His victims usually ended up begging for another bullet to put them out of their misery. Now he understood why.

Moncada’s voice, full of satisfaction, seemed to come from a long distance away, as though echoing down a deep well. “You bet your life, Little Bill. You lost. You’re not long for this world.” Diego stared at the man coldly, no sympathy at all for the evil bully.

Some men just need killing and you certainly qualify. Go ahead and suffer a little, you mangy coyote. If your journey to Hell is a painful one, well, perhaps there is some justice in this world.

“Please help me. I gotta have somethin’ for the pain. Oh, Gawd.” Billy continued to cry and moan, begging for assistance that would not come. He dimly realized that Moncada had purposefully shot him in the belly, had meant for him to suffer before he died. He cursed again the unfairness of life, furious that he could do nothing to prevent the Spaniard’s hand from playing out as planned.

It was all that half-breed kid’s fault. The boy had shamed him in front of the entire town, and he should be the one dying now, his neck stretched between two horses. But instead he was watching Billy die. The injustice of it gave Billy the strength to find the last word. “That old man gave his life for you, boy. Ya coulda stopped it and ya didn’t. You killed him and you’ll take that to yer grave.” Billy had the satisfaction of seeing the boy flinch as the words struck him.

Diego put his arm around the boy’s shoulders, offering support. He could feel the emotion and exhaustion threatening to overwhelm the kid and wondered what had really happened here. He suspected the boy had endured severe emotional, as well as physical trauma, at the hands of Billy’s men and he admired the spirit, the bravery, that kept the youngster on his feet, calmly confronting the man who had tormented him, enduring the man’s taunting and watching him die a grisly death. How like Antonio this boy was.

Billy shrieked, stiffening as he vomited a river of blood. “I cain’t see. It’s dark. Help me. Gawd, it hurts. Please help me, I don’t wanna die…” He clawed at his belly, convulsing in agony, wailing and gasping for breath. Then he was suddenly still, the light fading from his eyes, leaving them blank and lifeless.

The boy unconsciously turned his face away, burying it Diego’s chest. Diego stood quietly, waiting patiently until the kid straightened beside him. “What do I call you, chico?”

Blue eyes met blue eyes. “I am Johnny, Señor.”

“Did they hurt you, Johnny?”

“I’m alright.” The boy hung his head.

Diego smiled, it was exactly what Antonio would have said. He touched a finger to the oozing cut on the bruised cheek and nodded knowingly as the boy flinched. “Come, Johnny. I think you can use a bath and a meal.”

The boy looked up at him again and squared his shoulders. “I can make it.”

Diego nodded gravely. “Yes, I’m sure you can.” He kept his arm around the thin shoulders all the way to the hotel.


Diego lounged in the big armchair, one leg thrown negligently over the arm as he sipped a glass of brandy and watched the boy sleep. The soft lamplight cast undulating shadows on the young face, accentuating the high cheekbones, the long eyelashes, and delicately chiseled mouth as Johnny slept the deep sleep of total exhaustion. Diego knew the feeling well. After the rush of excitement associated with a life or death situation passed, an overwhelming weariness descended, leaving you bone-tired and wrung-out, feeling as though you had been run through an ore crusher. The body simply had to rest and sleep was the only remedy. The kid had fought the fatigue as doggedly as he had resisted Little Bill’s men, finally dropping off to sleep still sitting in the bathtub.

Smiling, Diego remembered how the boy had waged a losing battle with his steadily heavier eyelids, trying to carry on a conversation and inevitably succumbing to the rest his body craved. He chuckled softly, remembering that discussion of Johnny’s blue eyes. The boy was shamefaced when he confessed that his blue eyes came from his gringo father, the hurt, shame and anger easily recognizable in his voice. How excited Johnny had been when Diego explained that those blue eyes meant the boy had the blood of Spanish nobility, the Conquistadors, in his veins. Johnny brightened at once, listening intently, talking enthusiastically, and then amusing Diego by falling asleep in the middle of a sentence.
Diego had lifted Johnny from the tub, dried him, put one of his own shirts on the boy and tucked him into bed. Johnny hadn’t stirred during or since. That was good, he needed sleep more than anything now, although Diego wished he could have gotten some food into him. The kid didn’t weigh much more than a bag of wet feathers, he hardly made a dent in the mattress. Well, he’d feed him when the boy woke up.

Watching Johnny’s face relaxed in sleep, Diego was struck by how young he really was. The boy had acted so much older, shown so much poise that Diego figured he was close to fifteen, albeit on the small side. Looking at him sleeping now, he realized Johnny was probably closer to thirteen. The difference between thirteen and fifteen didn’t sound like much, but in teenage boy years, it was a large gap—not so much physically as mentally. It was the outlook on life, the maturity and experience that a boy gained over those two years, that caused such a noticeable change. But some boys grew up quicker than others.

Antonio had been thirteen when they left Spain. Diego recalled the fierce and voluble arguments between his youngest brother and their father, ‘Tonio declaring that he was old enough to act like a man, that he would go to Mexico with Diego and Tomás and pull his own weight. He had convinced his father, too, as Don Alejandro was no more successful than any other member of the Moncada family in saying no to Antonio. And he had pulled his own weight—until they lost him at sixteen, a foolishly brave young man full of life, pride and gallantry. Yes, Johnny reminded him very much of Antonio.

Diego frowned, reviewing the story he had finally pried out of the boy. It was like pulling teeth to encourage him to talk about what had happened, but Diego persisted and eventually dragged it out of him. He was appalled at the senseless, callous murder of Pablo. Johnny was damned lucky to be alive and Diego shuddered to think what would have happened to the kid if he hadn’t arrived when he did. He shook his head as he recalled Johnny’s attempts to make light of what the men had done to him. The boy simply said, “Yeah, they cold cocked me with a pistol, dusted my britches, and roughed me up a little. I’m all right.”

Sí, you’re a proud one, just like Antonio. You would deny that you were injured, even if you were bleeding all over my boots.

Ideally, he would have a doctor examine the boy, but the nearest doctor was fifty miles away. Diego had checked Johnny closely and found him severely bruised from the pummeling he’d received, but he didn’t believe any lasting damage had been done, nor were any bones cracked or broken. The most visible injury was on Johnny’s cheek where the skin had split under the force of the blow from the pistol. There would be no real scar, but Diego believed the boy would always carry a slight mark there. He was also going to be a bit tender whenever he sat down for the next day or so, but as Johnny had said, “I can deal with it.”

Yes, chico, you will deal with it, I know. Physically you are all right. But how will you deal with what you saw, with the murder of your friend? I see the rage, the bitterness. You must work them out, amigo. And you plan to do so by killing Tully and the others. I should have killed them instead of letting them go. If I’d known what they did to Pablo, and to you, I would have taken them down.

Diego recognized the boy’s thirst for vengeance. After all, he had only to look into a mirror to see the same signs in his own face. He remembered all too well the cold, numbing sensation that clutched at your heart with the death of someone close, the rocks in his stomach he had felt when he lost Antonio. Remorse and grief arrived quickly, but relinquished their tight hold grudgingly, fading with infinite slowness. Only time could heal the feelings of rage and loss that gripped Johnny now. Someday, when he was ready, and in his own fashion, the boy would have to find some way to talk about it. Diego hoped there would be someone to listen when that time came. Until then, the hate and bitterness, the drive for revenge would consume him.

Diego was at a loss as to what to do next. What was the best way to help the boy? Johnny was bound and determined to take on Tully and the other men, yet he was just a kid, a kid with no family to try and talk some sense into him. And how could he tell Johnny not to do something he himself was famous for? He recalled the words he’d spoken to Johnny that very afternoon when the boy asked him why he had decided to hunt down all of the men who killed his brother.
“There are some things upon which no price can be set, except blood. Sometimes a man has to fight just because he couldn’t live with himself if he walked away. Justice and the law isn’t always the same thing, Johnny. There are times when a man has to choose between them in order to get the job done. Antonio’s murder was one of those times.” He’d drawn his pistol, spinning the cylinder and laying the gun on the table. “For justice in this matter, I rely on Judge Colt and the jury of six. Verdict guaranteed.”

Diego remembered how impressionable Antonio had been at Johnny’s age with his childlike curiosity and eagerness; and how hard ‘Tonio worked to think and act like a man. He knew what choice his hotheaded brother would have made if he had been in Johnny’s situation. And Diego would have been proud of his brother for making that decision, supporting him in any way he could. Could he offer Johnny any less?
No, he couldn’t tell Johnny that it was wrong or dangerous to seek vengeance. The boy had made his choice and it was in him to try for Tully and the others. Somehow he’d find a way to make the attempt. Diego knew that if he brought the boy back to Don Esteban, Johnny would simply run away to search for Tully, he just wasn’t the kind of young man to let it go. A thing like that had a life all its own. The barn door had been opened and the horses would run until they were done running. There were two choices: sit and wait for it to happen or be ready for it. Perhaps he could best help by making sure Johnny was prepared for the inevitable confrontation.

Was Johnny capable of gunning down Tully and the others? He’d certainly seemed comfortable with a pistol that morning, but could he hit anything with the weapon? Yes, the first step was to evaluate the kid’s abilities. Maybe Diego could offer some pointers, show the boy how to practice with the gun, how to get Judge Colt on his side, so that one day the kid could carry out his plans for revenge without getting himself killed. If Johnny wasn’t skilled enough to take care of himself, to have a chance at taking down his targets, well, then Diego would just have to come up with another plan. He had a feeling that wouldn’t be necessary. The boy had a stubbornness, a determination about him like he would succeed at anything he put his mind to. And right now he had killing on his mind.


The brassy sun bathed the stony floor of the arroyo with bright light, dappled with the shadows cast by the sparse trees. Nearly a mile outside Rio Rojo, Diego knew this secluded spot would keep any onlookers away. He didn’t want an audience for what he was about to do and convincing his throng of admirers hadn’t been easy. He tested the stability of the plank he had wedged between two trees, watching as Johnny arranged twelve tin cans in a row along its surface. Diego was anxious to gauge Johnny’s skill at firing the pistol and Johnny was eager to learn all that his hero was willing to teach him. Diego had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at the boy’s excited antics. He simply could not hold still, skipping beside Diego as they stepped off a distance of ten paces from the row of cans.

“Pay attention, Johnny. In order to fire a pistol accurately, you must have concentration, balance, rhythm, and deliberation. You must block every distraction from your mind—movement, sound, gunfire, the weather, inner misgivings, emotions. Forget them all and focus every nerve in your body on your target. You must be blind to everything except the precise spot you want to hit.” Diego proceeded to demonstrate, extending his arm and firing at a measured pace, smoothly sending all six cans bounding down the hard floor of the arroyo. He holstered his weapon and turned to Johnny. “Now, you try it.”

The boy was using Billy’s pistol, a brand new Colt Peacemaker—a honey of a gun, all blued steel with walnut grips. Johnny had repeated the gunsmith’s spiel to Diego and they decided that Billy had either purchased or stolen the gun in Rio Rojo, since it had never been fired. But that would change, it belonged to Johnny now and the boy was determined to use it.

Diego observed intently as Johnny was able to hit four of the remaining six cans on his first attempt. The boy had obviously been taught the basics of pistol shooting by someone who knew his business. With some slight adjustments and practice, he was sure Johnny would be capable of consistently hitting all six cans.

They worked throughout the morning as Diego demonstrated how moving the body forward and backward affected the bullet’s trajectory downwards or upwards. He showed the boy how to move his body without moving his hand, wrist, or arm and spoiling the shot. He wanted Johnny to acquire the “feel” of aiming, of leveling the gun slightly below the target and raising the pistol up to the correct elevation while maintaining the proper sight alignment. Just as important, Diego showed the kid how to minimize the effect of recoil on the aim by pushing the gun slightly forward toward the point of aim, positioning it relative to the next target.

The boy’s intensity was amazing. He watched Diego like a hawk and was soon able to replicate his actions and results. Diego was astounded. This was more than raw talent; the boy was a truly gifted marksman, a natural at finding the sight picture and adjusting his body to deliver the bullet on target. He had the ability to become more than a merely competent or even accomplished shootist—Johnny had the makings of a master. By the time Diego called a break for lunch, Johnny was consistently scoring five out of six cans and hitting all six nearly half the time. Diego smiled ruefully when he remembered how long it had taken him to achieve that level of consistent accuracy.

Damn, this kid is good.


Johnny and Diego sat cross-legged in the sparse shade of a cedar tree. Crows and jays jabbered noisily at the sight of the sandwiches in their hands, hoping for a handout. The midday heat was stifling, but in the shade of the cedar, it was bearable. Diego noted with satisfaction that no one had followed them from town.

He passed his canteen to Johnny. “Who taught you to shoot, Johnny?”

Johnny poured some of the water from the canteen over his hair. “Sam Starbuck, Don Esteban’s segundo.”

Diego sat up straight. “Sam Starbuck! The Sam Starbuck? Used to be a Texas Ranger?”

“Uh, yeah.” Johnny splashed another stream of water over his hair, shaking his head like a dog.

“Hey!” Diego brushed water droplets from Johnny’s impromptu bath off of his shirt and face.

Johnny grinned at him. “Sorry.”

That grin was infectious and Diego grinned back. “No wonder you know how to handle a gun. Sam Starbuck was one hell of a Ranger and quite a marksman. What else did he show you?”

“Oh, we worked mostly with a rifle. Sam says I’m good with a rifle. He showed me how to shoot a pistol and we plinked some cans and bottles, but mostly we shot the rifle. He gave me that nice Winchester I showed you for trainin’ his horse. He took me huntin’ a lot and showed me how to track. Sam can track anything.” The Peacemaker lay on Johnny’s lap and the boy absently spun the empty cylinder.

“I’ll bet he can. He was known as the best tracker in the Rangers, studied with an Indian named Famous Shoes who was known all over the southwest as one of the greatest trackers alive. Sam taught you a lot, huh?”

“Yeah, I figure Sam could track a snake upstream in a muddy river. But I ain’t that good.” Johnny spun the cylinder again, listening to the sharp, clear clicks it made.

“Hmm. I’ll bet you could follow that snake if the river was clear, though.” Diego laughed.

“Maybe.” Johnny’s attention was obviously on the gun in his lap. “Diego, can I ask you somethin’?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

Johnny hung his head. “Well, what I’m wonderin’ about is, well, I know you’re a great bullfighter. And I know a bullfighter is called a matador. But matador means ‘killer’. So how come you wanna be called ‘the killer’?” He gazed up earnestly at Diego.

The boy’s blue eyes were inquisitive, searching and Diego met the questioning gaze. “Johnny, what do you know about the ritual of the bullfight?”
“Well, the matador fights the bull. He gets the bull to attack him and then kills it.”

“No, that is not true. The bullfight is a ritual of death. If the matador fights the bull, then they are adversaries, equals. No, the matador must dominate the bull. The bull’s death is preordained and the role of the matador is to bring him to it honorably. The true meaning of matador is ‘bringer of death’.” He paused and the laughing eyes and handsome face vanished. A steely mask covered his fine features, hooded his eyes, changing them to a wintry slate gray, and it seemed to Johnny that another man had suddenly appeared where Diego had been sitting a moment ago—a cold-eyed, lethal stranger with a hard, dry voice. “The death of those who killed my brother is also preordained. And I bring them to it.” And just as quickly, Diego reappeared, smiling and carefree.

Johnny was mesmerized by Diego’s explanation and by the way he had changed so completely in the blink of an eye. He could still feel the goosebumps that had risen on his arms in response to the danger radiating from the stranger who had been beside him only a second ago. Something about the words struck a chord in his brain. They repeated endlessly through his mind, their death is preordained, bringer of death, bringer of death, bringer of death. 

Boy, Tully, that’s what you’re gonna think about me, a bringer of death. Your death is preordained and I’m gonna bring you to it. Guess its fittin’ for a man with a black soul to be a bringer of death.

A sobering idea broke through his bloodthirsty musing. “Diego, does the killin’ bother you? Do you think about it afterwards? Maybe wish you hadn’t done it? I mean when you kill a man.”

Diego put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and met his gaze full on. “Johnny, I figure that if you have a talent for shooting, you ought to polish it up and use it. Sometimes that means killing a man. Killing is the only language some men understand, men like the buitres who killed ‘Tonio, or like Tully and his friends. Now, I don’t take any pleasure in killing, I avoid it whenever I can. But if it needs to be done, I’ll do it. And when it’s over, I don’t waste any worry on it. It doesn’t bother me afterwards. Johnny, it’s not the ghosts of the dead that haunt your life, it’s the live ones who you have to worry about. Dead is dead, end of story, so it’s a waste of time worrying about them. I’m a manhunter, a killer, but I’m not a murderer. Do you understand the difference?”

“I guess so.” Johnny hung his head. “A murderer don’t give the other fella a chance.” He pondered this for a moment, spinning the revolver’s cylinder absently, then looked up again. “Diego, I heard that all of the great matadors in Mexico came here from Spain. Is that true?” 

Diego laughed at the boy’s ability to jump so quickly from topic to topic, so like Antonio. “Sí. Like my family, the great matadors are madrileño—from the town of Madrid. Madrid is the source of the finest matadors in the world.”

“Madrid.” Johnny liked the sound of that name. “Madrid.” He repeated it, savoring the way it flowed off his tongue. He remembered suddenly that Madrid was the name of his mother’s grandmother, a name his mother had once used, a name he could legitimately use. For some reason he couldn’t hope to explain, that was important. Johnny leaped cat-like to his feet. “C’mon Diego, lets go shoot some more.”

Madrid, the source of the greatest bringers of death… Madrid. I’ll be Johnny Madrid. Johnny Madrid, bringer of death.


Johnny fairly danced with excitement as he hurried to arrange twelve cans on the plank at spaced intervals. Today was the day! After two days of shooting at targets and practicing drawing the unloaded gun, Diego was finally going to let him try his hand at drawing and shooting. Sam had taught him to shoot a pistol, but absolutely refused to teach him anything about a speed draw, saying there would be time enough for that when Johnny was older. Well, after the events of the past four days, he felt a whole lot older, surely old enough to be initiated into the man’s game of gunplay. Johnny quickly finished setting up the cans and raced back to Diego’s side.

“We’ve practiced the draw without bullets and we know you can hit what you aim at. Now we’ll load the gun and go for the targets from the draw.” Diego ruffled the boy’s dark hair, fully aware of just how anxious Johnny was to test his speed at the draw. No doubt about it, the kid had lightning reflexes and could pull the pistol with blinding speed. Now he needed to combine that speed with the accuracy he’d demonstrated when target shooting.  “This is the part you’ve been waiting for.”

Johnny nodded, grinning, and watched closely as Diego stood loose and easy, arms hanging naturally at his sides, ten paces from the targets. It seemed to Johnny that every fiber of Diego’s being was concentrated on those tin cans.

Diego pulled a coin from his pocket and held it in his left hand. Taking a deep breath, he opened his hand, letting the coin fall. The faintly metallic ping as it bounced off of the stony floor of the wash, was the signal for Diego to move. And move he did! In the blink of an eye his movement blurred and the Colt appeared in his fist, spouting flame.

The center can leaped off the plank and spun away. Diego alternated his shots; left to right; sending the remaining cans bouncing down the arroyo. From first shot to last, the whole thing consumed less than a dozen heartbeats.

Johnny stared in rapt admiration. Diego was quick and smooth, every action easy and graceful. “That’s good shootin’.”

“Just remember, there’s a big difference between a man and a tin can. Now come over here.” Diego knelt beside Johnny to check the adjustment of the gunbelt around his slim hips. He’d had the saddler in Rio Rojo make it especially to fit the boy, knowing that a standard size gunbelt would still be too large when cut down. Together, he and Johnny had soaked the holster, allowing it to shrink to the contours of the Colt.

Johnny squirmed as Diego pulled the gunbelt even tighter. When he had it adjusted to his satisfaction; Diego stood and faced the boy. “Feels tight, huh? Well, it has to be. You don’t want that belt to move so much as a whisker when you’re drawing down on a man, so the tighter the better. You remember that, Johnny. Whenever you think you have it buckled tight enough, cinch it in another notch. I know it feels funny now, but you’ll soon get used to it.”

Johnny licked his lips and nodded, eyes wide, totally captivated by this new ritual and the lesson to come. His entire body quivered in excitement, he simply ached to try his hand at this man’s game. He wished Diego would shut up and move out of the way, but forced himself to pay attention to the gunman’s words, distracted by the solid weight of the gun resting against his hip.

Diego pretended not to notice the boy’s impatience. “Before you draw, you must force your eyes to focus broadly—on both the spot you plan to hit as well as your opponent’s eyes. Never watch his hands for it is the eyes that telegraph the intent to move. The hands may lie, but not the eyes. When he moves, narrow your focus to the spot you want the bullet to hit.

“As your hand goes for your gun, move your body, crouching to make yourself a smaller target and to center the gun on the other man’s chest and belly. Let yourself aim on instinct, just like pointing your finger. Practice will teach you to do this. You must continue to practice so that when you square your body directly into the target, and handle the gun as an extension of your finger, you have only to raise your arm level and the bullet will strike dead center where your eyes are focused almost every time. Are you ready to try it?”

Johnny nodded eagerly, his mouth so dry he couldn’t speak. Ready? He couldn’t wait! As soon as Diego moved aside, Johnny jerked the gun from the holster, clearing the leather with breathtaking speed and firing as quickly as he could fan the hammer. To his acute dismay, only the last of the six cans fell from the plank. Johnny gawked in disbelief at the row of five cans that mocked him, each flaunting a large picture of a tomato on the label. A big, fat, red target! How could he have missed them? He hung his head, cheeks flaming with embarrassment and frustration.

Diego shook his head sternly, biting his lip to keep from laughing aloud at the boy’s hangdog expression. “You want to tell me what was wrong with that?”

“I didn’t hit nuthin’.” The voice was very soft; his head still hung low.

“That’s right. If those cans were men, you’d be dead. You’ve been hitting six for six the past two days. Why do you think you missed your first five shots just now?”

“Guess I hurried so much I didn’t aim too good.” Johnny lifted his head a bit defiantly.  “But I was fast, wasn’t I, Diego? I got that old Colt out and shootin’ real quick.”

Diego grasped the boy by both shoulders and shook him hard. “Fast? Johnny, don’t you ever confuse fast with sudden. There’s a big difference and not understanding it is what gets you a one way ticket punched to the hereafter.”  He released Johnny’s shoulders and held his own pistol out at arm’s length, sighting along the barrel. “The difference is right here, a fraction of a second, a moment’s hesitation so brief you can’t even count it while you’re doing it. No one will ever see it, it is merely a fleeting moment’s thought, just that slight delay it takes to find the muzzle out of the corner of your eye and make certain it’s lined up on your target. Only then do you feather the trigger.” He lowered the pistol and looked Johnny full in the eyes. “Forget about speed and learn that you’ve got to hit what you’re shooting at with the first shot. You can be the fastest thing this side of the Mississippi, but if you miss with your first shot, you might not get a second. Boot Hill is full of fast gunhawks who couldn’t shoot straight. That tiny hesitation to be sure your first shot counts—that’s the difference between fast and sudden, between the quick and the dead.” He stared hard at Johnny, making certain the boy understood what he was trying to say. When he was satisfied, he nodded. “Now, you think about what you need to do differently while I set up some more cans. Then you can try it again.”

Johnny nodded and closed his eyes, concentrating fiercely on creating images in his mind as Pablo had taught him to do. He pictured himself, loose and easy, smooth and graceful, pulling the big Colt out and calmly blasting all six cans. He replayed the scene in his mind, burning every nuance of the necessary actions into his brain, forcing himself to see just what Diego had explained. His mind repeated the images of himself drawing and shooting the cans perfectly until Diego came back to his side.

“Ready to try it again, Johnny?” He watched as the boy opened his eyes and began to reload his pistol.

“Yep.” Johnny pushed the last cartridge into its chamber and holstered the gun.

“Well then, let her buck, kid.”

Johnny took his time, making sure he was balanced and loose, totally focused on his targets. Understanding suddenly flooded through him, right down to his quivering fingertips, like a sliver of quicksilver. The Colt seemed to leap into his waiting hand and he pulled it on up towards the target, feeling the correct point, sensing it waiting on him. Just as Diego said, the tiniest hesitation and he knew, even before he feathered the trigger, that the first can was going down, hit squarely in the center of the big red tomato. The gun coughed flame and began to buck in his hand as he spaced the shots precisely and quickly, a mere heartbeat between each report; and five of the six cans spun off the plank and rolled down the arroyo.

Diego knew his jaw had dropped, but he didn’t care. He stared at the boy incredulously; awed at the performance he’d just witnessed. He’d practiced daily for weeks before slapping leather like Johnny had just done. It dawned on him that he was totally unprepared for the kid’s potential, his innate talent. Diego had the uneasy feeling that he was going to get more than he’d bargained for, that he had inadvertently released lightning from a bottle. He watched bemused, as Johnny calmly reloaded and once again squared up to the targets. The boy’s hand flashed for the gun and Diego continued to stare as the sound of six cans tumbling down the floor of the arroyo slowly died away.

Damn, this kid is good.


“Easy, Cielo.” Diego flicked a soft brush over his stallion’s shining dappled hide, the big horse leaning into him and enjoying the attention. He continued grooming the animal rather absently, his thoughts on Johnny and the extraordinary transformation he had been privileged to witness this past week. In what amounted to little more than a heartbeat, the boy had gone from a kid who could shoot at targets to a poised and lethal young gunman. If Diego hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, he wouldn’t have believed it.

The swiftness with which the kid learned was staggering. In five days he had absorbed what some men never master in a lifetime. It was the boy’s hands, those lean, long-fingered, supple hands that held a strength, a quickness and dexterity that was incredible. What those hands knew couldn’t be taught. It was just there, waiting to be shown the way. That kind of reaction and speed was a gift—either a man had it or he didn’t. A lot of men could practice enough to make themselves fine shots, but Johnny had a special feeling for the gun, it became a part of him, his hand and eye connecting in a rare and unique way.

But it was far more than just clever hands and hand-eye coordination. Johnny had all of the ingredients necessary to become one of that small cadre of elite gunmen, men like Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holliday, Paladin, Jess Harper, Joe Reveles, Ben Thompson, and John Wesley Hardin. That tiny handful of manhunters graced with the speed, accuracy, nerves, and the will to use their talents—the most dangerous men alive. And Diego knew that this young man had it within him to be the best, the most dangerous, of them all. He might be just a kid, but he was a kid who had himself a gun and Diego had shown him how to use it, had accidentally unleashed a frightening, powerful force. Now Johnny was like a young fighting wolf who had been fed raw meat and gunpowder until he just couldn’t wait to kill the first thing that moved. He was a young predator poised for his first hunt, eager to fight his way to dominance and become the alpha wolf.

Gifted with almost freakish visual acuity and hearing plus an uncanny sense of spatial awareness—thinking, acting, and reacting in three dimensional space more accurately and quickly than ordinary men—Johnny simply possessed an internal genius that endowed him with exceptional control over his body and mind, an adroitness of hand and eye, extraordinary reflexes, and a shrewd gift for the tactical. He was ominously special, singled out by genetics to perform feats others couldn’t hope to, the consummate warrior. And in this blue-eyed boy there ran a streak of stubborn dare-deviltry that could not be tamed and an absolute disdain for his own mortality. He was not afraid of dying and that indifference made him all the more dangerous.

What have I done? So young and so damned deadly with a gun. Where will it lead you, this gift both blessed and cursed? If you continue to practice, you will soon be the best. And what will that mean? Is it your destiny to win fame with that cold, hungry gun? Will it consume you as it has so many others? Must you play the game no man ever won? Oh, Johnny, I never dreamed this would happen. I only meant to be sure you could kill Tully and the others without getting yourself killed. I did not mean to create a killing machine. I only hope that someday you can forgive me. I hope that someday I can forgive myself.


Johnny held the reins of Diego’s big gray stallion, fingers idly combing the horse’s long, heavy forelock as Diego tied his saddlebags to the back of the saddle. He didn’t want to say goodbye to this man who had been a hero and was now a friend. He took a deep breath, afraid to ask, fearing the rejection he had felt so often in his life. “I sure would like to go with you, Diego.”

“And I would be proud to ride with you, Johnny, but a blood oath is a deeply personal thing. It must be accomplished alone.” Diego walked to Cielo’s head and took the reins. He saw the sadness in the boy’s face and tried to reassure him. “Amigo, I started this quest alone and that is how I must finish it. I will miss you, Johnny.”

“I understand.” Johnny smiled; relieved that his idol hadn’t rejected him, then hung his head. “I don’t know how I can ever repay you, Diego.”
Diego’s hand gripped Johnny’s shoulder. “One day you will be in a position to help someone smaller and weaker than you. On that day, when you help that person, I will be repaid, Johnny.”

The boy spoke so softly that Diego had to strain to hear him. “I hope I see you again sometime.”

Diego held out his hand. “Count on it. I will say hasta luego instead of goodbye. We will meet again. You take care of yourself, chico. Practice hard and remember that I will always have a place for a mustañero on my rancho.”

Johnny clasped the sturdy hand of the legend who had befriended him. “Gracias, Diego. I will practice and I will remember. Hasta luego, mi amigo.”

Diego swung up onto Cielo’s broad back. He sat still for a moment, smiling down at Johnny. The boy had the bearing of a young hawk, soaring effortlessly on a warm, soft thermal, a wild free spirit capable of a swift and deadly strike at any moment. No, not a boy—a young man with a quiet, steely resolve and the Devil’s hand. A young man poised to become a legend in his own right.

Diego raised his hand in a gesture of farewell, gazing at the boy almost sorrowfully.  “Buena fortuna, Johnny.” He touched the big gray with his spur and loped away.

Vaya con Dios, my little brother of the heart. I wish you good fortune on your hunt. And I hope you will lay down that gun after your quest is complete. I know you must work out your hate and bitterness, but buried beneath that rage is a heart of gold, the heart of a compassionate man. It is not the heart of a gunman for hire, a killer. It never will be. I’ve loosed the lightning from the bottle and I pray you will find the wisdom to contain it again when justice has been done. Please do not let it destroy you, Johnny.

Johnny stood watching Diego ride into the rising sun, eyes gazing into the distance long after horse and rider had disappeared. He could hear the townspeople whispering El Matador’s name, repeating pieces of the man’s legend with respect and reverence in their voices. His hand dropped to the pistol worn low on his hip and he silently thanked Diego for showing him the way to avenge Pablo, for treating him like a man instead of a boy, for being a friend when he’d desperately needed one, for saving his life. “Buena suerte, Diego,” he whispered to the wind.

I’m going to be like you, Diego. I will have respect. I will be known. I’m going to be the most dangerous man alive. Johnny Madrid, bringer of death.

I will never be defenseless again. I will make myself strong. I will make myself fast. I will not hurt. The world will know my name. They will pay.

The Gun

Twilight crept slowly across the rocky hills, the bright orange ball of the sun dipping behind the towering mountain peaks. It was that peaceful time of day, still and somehow hushed, when the earth paused to rest and all its creatures awaited the coming of darkness. Soon the crickets would begin their evening serenade and the sounds of the animals of the night would drift across the land. But in this brief moment between day and night was a mellow serenity, a stillness, with the only movement a soft breeze caressing the trees.

Johnny lay on his back, hands behind his head, gazing up at the evening sky already spangled with stars, the intense colors painted by the sunset fading rapidly to the deep indigo of moonrise. He loved this time of day, especially here in the mountains. There was a special quality to the crisp mountain air and he breathed deeply, inhaling the woodsy scents of the high country, letting his mind wander back over the recent events that had changed his life.

That first week after Pablo’s death had seemed unreal. Things had happened so fast that a body hardly had time to draw a decent breath. Legends rode into border towns all the time. After all, like ordinary men, legends needed to pick up supplies, wanted to pass some time in the saloon having a few drinks and maybe a woman, sleep in a real bed at a hotel. He had seen many men whose deeds were celebrated along the border ride into a town. But when your hero turns up AND saves your life, well that was an event to savor, something to remember and never, ever forget. It was like a miracle when he first saw El Matador standing there, helping him. And the miracle hadn’t stopped there as Diego had gone on to teach Johnny the skills he needed to avenge Pablo’s death.

It was humbling, really, that a man like Diego would spend any time with someone like him. He was just a nothing, a half-breed kid, but Diego had treated him like an equal, like a man. It was like a wonderful dream, a dream from which he never wanted to awaken. It seemed to the boy that his feet had hardly touched the ground the entire time he spent with his hero. Diego had initiated him into the brotherhood of the gun, and he would be eternally grateful. But more importantly, Diego Moncada had ridden into town as a legend, a hero, and loped out as a friend. His friend.
He called me amigo.

Yes, a man needed friends, and at this moment, Johnny felt that Diego and Sam were his only friends in the world. Unfortunately, neither of them was here with him. And the one friend he wanted to be with so badly would never be with him again in this world. Pablo. He felt the old man’s absence physically, as though there was a hollow place inside him, a part of him torn away and cast aside, that could never be filled. Pablo had been the pillar on which he had begun building his life and now the entire foundation of his being was shifting. It was a terrifying sensation and Johnny wished he could talk about it with his wise friend, the man who knew how to ask questions that made you look deep inside yourself and find your own answers.

Johnny realized he had been so wound up in his plans for avenging Pablo’s death that he had spent little time thinking of Pablo, the person and friend. He had been so full of awe and admiration for Diego, so busy trying to learn all El Matador could teach him, and so full of hate for that pack of human wolves that had murdered his friend, that there had been no time to grieve the loss of Pablo, the man. But now Diego had moved on, and Johnny was alone with the crushing sorrow of Pablo’s loss and his hate for the men who had caused it.

He stared up at the vastness of the sky, wondering if Pablo was now one of those twinkling points of light. The enormity of the heavens made him feel insignificant and so forlorn, the last living person in the world. He felt a rush of fear, as though he had been abandoned in a strange place, not wanting to be by himself in the darkness. Then he heard the snort and suddenly the desolation eased. No, not totally alone. Johnny turned his head, looking across the lush meadow to where his pinto grazed contentedly, white patches standing out sharply in the dusky twilight. He whistled softly, smiling as the horse lifted its head, fat little fox ears swiveling toward him.

“Well, c’mere,” he crooned, laughing as the gelding trotted over and nuzzled him, blowing gently through its wide nostrils. Johnny tickled the pink and gray chin, then stood up and grasped a handful of mane. “Let’s get you inside for the night, fella.” Together he and the horse walked the short distance to the small, but sturdy stable and corral next to the rustic cabin. He led the gelding into one of the stalls, picking up a soft brush and flicking the dust from the shiny coat.

“It’s nice here, huh fella? Seems like only yesterday that Pablo and I used this line camp to catch and break-in that herd of wild horses. Oh boy, you shoulda seen that old stallion. He was a real fox, old and scarred and mean as the devil, with grand shoulders and hindquarters. He led us quite a chase, but he couldn’t outsmart Pablo. I broke my back roundin’ ‘em up and we took some nice fillies and colts from that herd. Then we let the rest go, includin’ that tough old stud. Pablo said we’d come back next year for a new crop of that old man’s babies. Pablo said…”

Johnny stopped abruptly as his knees went weak and he had to lean against the wall. He stared at his shaking hands in astonishment, fighting the tears that threatened to fall. Fiercely swallowing the lump in his throat, he wondered if he would ever be able to think about or speak Pablo’s name without that stabbing pain in his heart and stomach, or the hot prickling behind his eyelids. He took a deep, shaky breath and continued talking to his pinto.

“Ya see, fella, a spread as big as Don Esteban’s gotta have line camps. I mean, its just too much land to run everything from the main hacienda. This place is nearly twenty miles from the estancia. ‘Course there ain’t no other camps this far out. Sam only uses this place during the spring roundup. Only other time it gets used is when Pablo and I come after wild horses.” He halted, struck by an unwelcome thought. “But that ain’t gonna happen no more.”

Johnny swallowed hard, suddenly unable to contain his seething emotions, crumpling against the gelding and burying his face in the silvery mane as scalding tears coursed down his cheeks. He hadn't realized a person could have so many tears.

Oh, Pablo… Pablo… Pablo… Why?… Why?… I’m so sorry… so sorry…

Johnny sobbed against the pinto’s warm, satiny neck as raw, throbbing waves of grief swept over him. His entire body shook with the intensity of his sorrow and it was several minutes before he regained control. Throat and body aching, he leaned back against the wall, sliding down to sit in the straw bedding, bending forward to rest his head on his knees. He forced himself to breathe slowly, the tremors gradually fading.
Don’t see how I can have any tears left. I got to stop this. Men don’t cry and I’m a man now. Oh, Pablo…

He wiped his eyes and nose on his sleeve, rising shakily to his feet. Picking up the brush, he continued grooming his patient horse, speaking to him softly in a voice that was not quite steady.

“Boy, oh boy, I miss the ranch. I felt like I belonged there, ya know? Don Esteban and the vaqueros treated me real good. I fit in with ‘em. I keep wonderin’ if I shouldn’t go back there. Sam would help me make Tully and the others pay for Pablo. Well, he’d make them pay and maybe let me watch it happen.” Johnny paused, considering that option.

It was so tempting to just run to Sam and let him take care of things. Sam would know exactly how to get justice for Pablo. But that was the easy way out, what a boy would do, and he was a man now despite the tears of a moment ago. A door had closed in his life and he couldn’t walk back through it. That vicious bitch, fate, seemed determined that he be alone and homeless and Johnny was so damned tired of being powerless, helpless. He didn’t need anybody, didn’t need Sam’s help. He could do this on his own, he would do it alone, the way a man with a black soul must always do things.

Never again would he be powerless. And no one would ever laugh at him again, either. The men who killed Pablo were dead; they just didn’t know it yet. Matter of fact, they’d best be buying themselves an extra set of duds for the trip to Hell. Johnny planned to ventilate the clothes they were wearing with bullet holes.

The black rage swelled, gnawing inside him, and Johnny pondered how he could swing so quickly from tears to fury, wondered that these seemed to be the only emotions he was capable of. Much of the time he was numb, as if life were happening to someone else and he was merely a spectator. Then it was as though a gate opened somewhere and when he wasn’t crying his eyes out, he was in a rage, consumed with a hot red desire to exterminate Pablo’s killers. It frightened him, this savage ferocity. He had always been hotheaded, quick to anger, but he’d never thought of himself as violent. In fact, Johnny’s view of himself was one of gentleness, kindness. But perhaps he was wrong about that, too. Padre Miguel had certainly thought so.

The gelding bumped Johnny with his nose, eager for the brushing to continue. Johnny gave a start and then smiled at the horse. “You like all this attention now, don’t ya’? Yeah, I reckon’ we’re fine up here. Pablo and I stocked the place when we stayed before, so there’s plenty of food for you and me both. And I can hunt and trap, too. You got good water and graze; we even got hay and oats.

“This is a good place for me to practice. I gotta practice every day, fella, ‘cause I’m gonna stand with the best. I’m gonna be so good with this gun that folks’ll pay me good money to use it for ‘em. I’ll sure git more dinero as a hired gun than I can breakin’ broncs.” Johnny silently gave thanks for this little line camp that had become his sanctuary, or maybe hideout was a better word. Since the time of the Spaniards, these mountains had been a haven for bandidos and insurrectos alike. So long as a man minded his own business, there was no safer refuge within a thousand miles in any direction. He would not be disturbed—except by his memories of Pablo.

“Nobody will think to look for us here. If they are lookin’, I mean. Pablo and I had already delivered the horses when…” The tears threatened again, but he was able to contain them. “… well, when it happened. I sent that kid Diego knows, José, with notes to Don Esteban and Sam, ‘splainin’ how Pablo died and lettin’ ‘em know I was hittin’ the road and wouldn’t be back. Sure hope they understand why I had to go, fella. I ain’t so good with words, ‘specially when I gotta write ‘em.” He hesitated as a thought struck him. “Guess I did learn somethin’ from the mission school after all—I learned how to read and write English. Ma taught me to read and write Spanish and speak English, but I didn’t know how to read or write it before the school.”

He scratched the horse behind the ear, laughing when the gelding wrinkled his upper lip in blissful enjoyment. “Old Padre Ricardo, he spent time with me, makin’ sure I could read and write and do sums. He really wanted to help me. He tried to keep Padre Miguel off my back and he got me the job with Don Esteban. He was always lookin’ out for me. I didn’t treat him too good. I was just so mad and mixed up and he made it easy for me to be mad at him.” Johnny paused in sudden understanding. “I think he meant that to happen, like he knew I needed to be mad at somebody and he decided to be that somebody. Maybe I’ll get a chance to thank him one day.”

He laid the brush aside and checked the level of water in the horse’s bucket as he dropped an armful of hay into the manger. “Buenas noches, fella. You can go back out in the meadow tomorrow morning.” Giving the gelding a final pat, Johnny returned to the cabin.


Johnny stood at the large table that dominated the single room of the line cabin, staring down at the rows of neatly stacked boxes of .45 ammunition. Diego had purchased every box of .45 cartridges he could find in Rio Rojo, making sure Johnny would have plenty of practice rounds. Johnny had to carry three extra saddlebags just to haul all of the ammunition. Now that the boxes were stacked on the table, it looked like there was enough ordnance to supply an army. He wondered if he would ever be able to shoot all of those rounds.

His eyes were drawn to the sleek, deadly lines of the pistol as it lay on the chamois where he’d cleaned it. Diego had stressed the need to care for the gun and after each use Johnny carefully, lovingly cleaned and oiled it, lavishing an almost reverent care on it. The pistol was the killing tool of a bringer of death and he treated it with utmost respect, ensuring the action remained butter smooth.

The thought of Diego brought a smile as he recalled the exercises the man had taught him to keep his fingers supple. He picked up the pistol, checking to be sure it was unloaded, and began practicing spinning the gun on his trigger finger. Johnny went through the exercise deliberately, remembering the words Diego spoke when he first demonstrated the technique.

“Always be sure the gun is unloaded before you try this—you don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot or the rump. Lets start with the forward roll. This gives the fingers rhythm, balance, and timing. Begin by holding the gun in the firing position. Now use your hand to jerk the muzzle downward, releasing the butt. The gun’s balance spins it end-over-end on the forefinger. Yes, I know. It’s harder than it looks. If you allow your thumb to catch the hammer as the gun comes around, it will be cocked by its own weight.”

Johnny bit his lower lip, completely absorbed in keeping the gun under control. He knew he was making progress. Each time he worked on spinning the gun around his finger he could control the spin more quickly and stay in control for a longer period of time. When he was satisfied with his execution of the forward spin, he moved on to his favorite, the road agent’s spin, again replaying Diego’s instructions in his mind.

“This one is called the road agent’s spin. Now don’t ask me how it got that name, Johnny, that’s just what they call it. Wes Hardin used it to back down Wild Bill Hickok up in Abilene and Curly Bill Brocius killed Marshall Fred White in Tombstone with this move. If anyone ever gets the drop on you and asks you to turn over your pistol, you can use this trick to turn the tables—and if you ever disarm a man, be damn sure he doesn’t use it on you. Start by holding the pistol upside down, muzzle pointing towards you. You look like you’re surrendering the gun, butt pointed towards the man who has the drop on you. Ease your forefinger into the trigger guard and keep the remaining fingers of your gun hand in contact with the barrel. I know it feels awkward at first. When you’re able to do this one, you’ll know your fingers are limber! Now start the spin with a slight upward jerk of the hand, and make sure you release the barrel. Like this. See? Your forefinger acts as a pivot and the Colt’s balance brings it up, spinning the butt of the gun up and back towards your hand. The gun makes a half-circle and ends up snug against your palm and ready to fire. Now you’ve got the drop and you’d better shoot quick.”

Johnny worked intently on the road agent’s spin for another fifteen minutes, then switched to the move Diego called the border shift, tossing the pistol from his right hand to his left, then firing the empty pistol with his left hand, and fanning the hammer with his right. His objective was to be able to pitch the pistol from one hand to the other, comfortably firing it either right- or left-handed. Finally, he lay the pistol down on the chamois and flexed his aching right hand, massaging the sore spot between his thumb and trigger finger.

An intensely tactile person, he’d always had restless hands, hands that sought to touch, feel, and hold. Now that he was concerned about keeping his fingers supple, Johnny found that his hands were rarely still. His fingers, particularly those of his weaker left hand, were constantly stretching, flexing, and closing, always in motion as if seeking a long lost brother—the pistol.

The dark, cool steel beauty of the pistol drew his eye and he hefted it again, idly tracing the contours of the barrel and butt with his finger. He used the chamois to wipe the barrel and carefully loaded the weapon. As he held the loaded pistol, he was acutely aware of the overwhelming power of the gun, that special alchemy that utterly transformed it so that the revolver became an almost living presence. It was shiny and smooth and solid, holding it in his hand felt so right, as though it were a part of him. He stared at the gun in fascination, mesmerized by the smells of gun oil, new leather, and saddle soap. The pistol glistened in the lamplight, darkly dangerous, and he savored the visceral power of it in his hand. Totally enthralled, he whispered to the big Colt, “We’re going to become very close, amigo.”


Johnny shivered in the crisp pre-dawn air; leaning back against the trunk of a large pine and watching the thin scarlet line in the east as it slowly widened, bringing color to the vistas its light revealed. Dew clung to the millions of pine and juniper needles, covering the grass of the meadow, and when the golden rim of the sun peeked over the horizon it cast small rainbows through the trees, spotting the grass with diamonds. Johnny watched the sun spread its pinkish-gold light through the trees and into the meadow, enjoying the birds’ tribute to the new day.

Pablo had always told him, “Any morning when the birds sing is a good one. Give a man a few good mornings when the birds sing and he can get through anything.” Johnny’s smile was bittersweet. This place brought back such vivid memories of Pablo, yet it hurt so to think of him. And he couldn’t stop the memories. Much of what he thought and many of his daily actions, were connected with Pablo, reminding him constantly of things the old man said or did, continually ripping open the wound left by his death.

In some ways Pablo was as distant from him as the stars, yet the sights and sounds of this place brought him to life again, making it seem as though he would suddenly appear, smiling and speaking his familiar words of encouragement. Then the awful nudge would come, the terrible reminder that Pablo was gone forever and the disappointment threatened to overwhelm him. At those times, Johnny felt he would rather not have known Pablo at all, for the memories carried such misery and no peace. What was the use of caring for someone when he always lost them, when the caring brought such agony? His father, his mother, the puppy he’d had once, Pablo…

Never again. I will not be hurt.

Johnny struggled to control the emotions surfaced by these thoughts, biting his lip until he tasted blood. His body trembled, more from emotion than from the still chilly air, and slowly, so slowly; he brought himself under control.

Deal with it. Men don’t lose control. Men don’t cry.

He waged the now familiar battle with his emotions, slowly subduing them and finally relaxing. The hurt was still there, but he could handle it now, push it back into the box and put it away, and he allowed himself to continue thinking about his friend.

He’d learned about the sunrise from Pablo, learned to appreciate the dawn. While he had always been a lover of a fine sunset, Pablo had taught him to never miss the first light of day. “The dawn was made for admiring and listening to the birds sing. A man that sleeps all night wastes too much of life.” Johnny had soon discovered that he didn’t need more than five hours of sleep to feel refreshed and ready for the new day. He’d spent many an hour contentedly welcoming the dawn while leaning companionably against Pablo’s shoulder.

But now he was alone again, no shoulder to lean on. He could still appreciate the dawn and the birds, but now he had to do it by himself. Alone. The familiar aching loneliness crept over him and Johnny rose to his feet. The sun was up now, the birds had twittered their morning serenade and it was time to shoot.


Johnny’s hand caressed the butt of the pistol tied low on his hip as he walked towards his makeshift target range. There was a large pit behind the cabin where Don Esteban’s vaqueros threw their cans, bottles, and other garbage, hauling it away every couple of years when the pit was full. The garbage heap contained several whiskey barrels and numerous cans, plenty of target material for a shootist to practice on. Johnny had collected several of the whiskey and beer barrels, drawing targets on them and placing one on a large rock in an open area where the light was good.

Ever mindful of what Diego had shown him—the difference between sudden and fast—he knew that the shot that dropped an opponent was the one that counted. The first shot had to be accurate so Johnny stood and fired at the target on the barrel, aiming to place every shot dead center. He was concerned more with accuracy than speed, cocking the hammer with his thumb. He was quick, but deliberate, starting at ten paces, then moving back to twenty paces, and finally fifty, shooting twelve rounds at each distance. If he missed, he added another six rounds of practice shots at that distance. Then he repeated the sequence, firing with his left hand.

After completing his target practice warm-up with the barrel, Johnny moved on to a small grove of trees where he’d arranged planks to hold cans at a variety of heights. Now he drilled to prepare himself for what would happen if he were ever taken by surprise, practicing turning and aiming at targets to the side or behind him and firing while in motion; rolling, leaping, and running. He stood with his back to the planks, holding his arms in unusually awkward positions: overhead, out to the side, scratching his cheek, schooling himself to respond successfully from such uncomfortable positions.

Again and again he repeated these movements, spinning to the right on one exchange and the left on another, each time changing the order in which he plinked the cans. Pablo had taught him the payoff of endless repetition. He knew that his body was learning how to react, so that when he didn’t have the time to tell it what to do, it would make the correct move. He worked diligently, concentrating on hitting everything he aimed at from any position and teaching himself to do so instinctively.

Johnny followed the same pattern every morning, allotting at least three hours to honing his accuracy with the pistol. When he started the drills, he’d been a crack shot at ten paces, yet unable to hit consistently with his left hand. He could sense his improvement daily as he became deadly from twenty paces and effective at fifty, the outer limit of the pistol’s capabilities. And he was now proficient enough with his left hand to protect himself if his right arm were disabled during a fight. He maintained his accuracy as he reduced the time between shots, both cocking the gun with his thumb and when he fanned the hammer. He grew confident in his ability to react if taken by surprise, secure in the knowledge that he could still get off the first shot and that he would hit what he aimed at.

Johnny devoted the afternoons to increasing his speed at the draw. Trusting in his lessons from Pablo, he analyzed every movement required for a successful fast draw, determined to perfect each task and then combine them into a smooth, effortless whole. His goal was to be both quick and deadly accurate with the pistol and he divided the draw into five parts: the period from the first impulse to reach for the gun until the hand contacts the butt, actually gripping the gun, drawing the gun from the holster, aiming the gun, and the hand and finger movements necessary to fire the weapon.

Pablo’s soft voice echoed in his mind. “We train hard, repeating the same thing over and over so that your body knows what to do. We practice each movement and your muscles remember. You need only picture what you want to happen in your mind and your body will respond to make it so.”

Applying the lessons learned from Pablo, he practiced each step separately, teaching himself the exact movements required for utmost speed and accuracy. Over and over he repeated the actions, stopping often to make minute corrections, unwilling to accept anything but perfection.
After dedicating focused practice to each of the five steps, he finished by combining all of the steps into one coordinated action, endlessly drawing the pistol. He worked tirelessly, branding the memory of each movement into his muscles, pushing himself to be faster and faster still.
He could repeat the sequence in his sleep, and in fact, often dreamed about it. The gun hand whips to the pistol butt, catching the hammer under the thumb, forefinger sliding into the trigger-guard. Draw the gun, pulling back the hammer as it comes, using the hammer-lifting motion to assist in clearing the gun from the holster. Tighten the fingers on the butt as the gun clears the holster. Focus on the target at once and let the gun muzzle go where the eyes do. Use peripheral vision to check the muzzle’s alignment with the target. Fire away as the gun comes level and is on target. Draw and fire, draw and fire. Don’t think about dropping your hand and pulling the pistol from the holster. Will it into your hand, imagine it there, let it happen.

Diego’s deep baritone reverberated in his head. “How you get your hand closed around the butt is the key to success or failure with the shots that follow the draw. The first grasp must be smooth, sure, clean, positive. Consistent accuracy depends on the way the gun is handled in the instant before and just after it leaves the holster. Grasp the gun so that when it leaves the holster, it lays and balances in the hand in the same relative position that it assumes when you fire it normally. If you grip the gun properly before drawing it, then pointing and aiming after clearing the holster is a fairly simple matter. You can place your bullets in the desired spot by moving the left foot backward and forward a little at a time and making slight changes in body posture. Remember how leaning slightly forward or backward lowers or raises the point of impact? Bueno.”

Johnny practiced every day, all day, until his arms were almost too sore to lift, hands tired and aching. He completed his self-prescribed drills as if his very life depended on every shot, perfecting his accuracy with the pistol until he was as precise with it as he was with his rifle. And he didn’t neglect the rifle, including target shooting from sitting and standing positions as well as on horseback. He understood the difficulties of firing with any accuracy from a moving horse, so he added a practice session for this skill with both his rifle and the pistol, taking pride in his progress at increasing his effectiveness from the back of his galloping pinto. Every day he got a shade faster and at the same time, smoother.

Slowly he became satisfied with his performance of Diego’s favorite practice exercise. Standing relaxed, he rested a poker chip on the back of his gun-hand, holding his right arm out at shoulder-level, palm down. Deliberately turning his wrist, he let the poker chip drop—and went for his gun. The purpose of the drill was to see if he could get the gun drawn and a shot off before the chip hit the floor. The consistent training rewarded him with results as he gradually increased his tally to firing four shots before he heard the chip bounce.

Four shots. Enough for Tully, Dobbs, Charlie, and Dan. Enough to avenge Pablo.

Johnny discovered that he loved to shoot. He liked the control, the quick release of energy when he fired and the Colt didn’t so much buck as kiss the underside of his thumb lightly, as if the restraint of gravity were momentarily removed. When you fired a shot, you felt it there in your hand and it made you powerful, the gun seeming to pulse with power when he held it. Powerful and in control, the way a bringer of death should be. The big Colt came to his hand with smoothness now, with ease. It was a part of him, an extension of his hand, his reach, and the muzzle found its target like an attacking predator, a living thing.


Johnny knelt beside the flat scuff mark at the entrance to the mountain pass, positioning himself so that the trail he was following appeared directly between himself and the sun. From here on, the terrain would be hard ground and rock, a challenge to his tracking skills, and on hard ground the angle of the sun made the difference in seeing a track and missing it entirely. He was trailing three men who were headed toward one of the bandido mountain strongholds roughly ten miles from the line camp. This was a weekly trip for the purpose of sharpening his tracking abilities and his objective was to trail the incoming riders while remaining hidden.

Sam had told him that a man who consistently put meat on the table learned to think like his prey. But he also taught Johnny the hard-learned lessons from his days as a Texas Ranger: it isn’t enough for a manhunter to merely think like an outlaw, he must use that knowledge to cut sign and shorten the chase, ultimately bringing his quarry to bay. So Johnny made the time to practice tracking men, knowing that when he was ready to start his quest, he’d need this skill.

He remounted and headed into the pass, alert to the possibility that he might be spotted and ambushed. Johnny kept one eye on the surrounding terrain while the other scanned the hard, rocky ground for flat spots, scuff marks, and disturbed vegetation. The flat spots were the most telling because they rarely occurred in nature, only a hoofed animal or man left flat spots. He also watched for signs of dislodged pebbles and twigs that had previously been embedded in the earth.
Johnny proceeded steadily until the trail turned upwards through the rocks. He was following unshod horses so there would be no help from iron shoe marks on the stone. He resigned himself to a stretch of tedious, slow work, dismounting so as not to miss any of the subtle signs of passage he knew were there. Even unshod hooves left marks for those who knew what to look for: tiny flakes of the hoof itself, overturned stones, crushed blades of grass, a stray imprint in a patch of windblown sand.

It was slow going, but the signs were there and slowly, but surely, he followed the faint trail. There, a crushed clump of grass. Take a step, another, look for other signs. Yes, there, maybe five feet ahead, an overturned stone with sand on the bottom. Scan the area for more signs. There, a scrape mark on the rocks, the kind of mark made by the side of a horse’s hoof. For the next two hours, Johnny followed the trail tenaciously, halting only when it petered out completely as all vegetation surrendered to solid rock. He spent several minutes casting about, attempting to cut sign, but finding none.

The men had several alternatives for routes and he had no choice but to stop, leaning against the canyon wall and listening the way Sam had taught him. You trained yourself to hear what was there because there was never complete silence. Those willing to take the time to listen could learn much. Johnny relaxed, slowing his heart rate and breathing so that these sounds did not interfere with the natural sounds around him.
Johnny knew he wasn’t a patient man, far from it, but he could certainly be patient when the situation demanded that virtue. He sat motionless; eyes closed and ears open, until he was rewarded with the faint, far away clicking of a hoof on rock. The sound came from behind him and to his right. He waited until he heard a similar sound several minutes later bearing in the same direction. He knew now that the men were taking the upper route to the furthermost bandido camp.

Johnny mounted and circled around to the west, his goal to get in front of the men and make sure he’d guessed correctly at their destination. The rocky terrain was tricky and unforgiving, making traveling quietly difficult, but Johnny used the tricks he had learned from Sam to successfully outflank his quarry. He was comfortably concealed when they finally rode by him, oblivious to his presence. When the three men were out of sight and out of hearing range, Johnny remounted and headed back to the line camp. He’d exercised his tracking skills and now it was time to shoot.
He followed his shooting practice schedule religiously, target shooting with both pistol and rifle in the morning to improve accuracy, spending the afternoon working on his fast draw, and performing the finger-limbering spins and other exercises in the evening. Once a week he rode out to sharpen his tracking skills, often taking the time to hunt game on his way back to the line camp.

Remembering his promise to make himself strong, he chopped wood every day, telling himself that the stack of cut firewood would pay for the time he had spent at the camp, the provisions he’d used. Nights at the camp during spring roundup often dipped below freezing and the boys would be glad of the extra supply of cut and stacked firewood. He enjoyed hiking through the woods bordering the meadow, looking for animal sign, and made a circuit of the woods around the cabin several times each day.  While he walked, he practiced moving with Diego’s arrogant stride, that jaunty step with a hint of insolence, the walk that proclaimed ownership of the sidewalk.

A naturally gifted athlete, Johnny had succeeded in developing an extraordinary control over his body and mind, hand and eye. His reflexes were honed to razor sharpness; he was breathtakingly fast and deadly accurate. He felt as though his body was an instrument of his mind. When his mind said start, his body started. When his mind said stop, his body stopped, responding to every request with grace and precision. He could control his breathing and slow his heart rate, remaining calm and in complete control.

Because his body was trained in what it needed to do, his mind was free to give Johnny an extraordinary awareness of the conditions around him. He had the situational awareness of a stalking jaguar, preternaturally aware of his surroundings, able to anticipate and react with an uncanny swiftness. And danger and tension seemed only to increase his coolness, dexterity, and control.

The days flew by and became weeks, the weeks marshaled themselves into months. And still he was drawing and shooting, drawing and shooting, honing his skills and strengthening his body. The numbness had faded, he had mourned his friend, come to grips with the awful loneliness, conquered the tears, but the anger remained, festering inside him and demanding vengeance for Pablo’s slaughter. Johnny focused every waking thought upon his performance with the gun, remembering his promises.

I will never be defenseless again. I will make myself strong. I will make myself fast. I will not be hurt.

He added more promises.

I’m going to be the best, the best that ever was. I’ll be the most dangerous man alive. They’ll talk about me clear to Boston. Hell, maybe even those matadors in Madrid will talk about me. Johnny Madrid, bringer of death.


It was a clear night, the stars high and bright in the velvety blackness, the moon rising full and yellow. On nights like this, the moon appeared so close that Johnny thought he might be able to mount his pinto, ride to the distant horizon, and standing on his saddle, jump up onto the moon’s bright white surface. He wondered what he might see from the face of the moon, wondered if the silence there was as endless as the stillness in the mountains.

Johnny thought that when most people talked about silence, they actually meant the absence of man-made noise. Most folks didn’t notice the natural sounds that were there before they came, that would be there after they had gone. Sounds of the coyotes hunting in the sage, small animals scurrying through the brush and woods, the lonesome hoot of a hunting owl, and the breeze rustling the leaves. The crackle of a fire could drown all of that out unless you listened. Nights in the mountains brought ample opportunity for listening to the silence, reveling in the quiet, satiny darkness.

Darkness. Johnny had created a place in his mind that he thought of as his zone of darkness. It was the place he entered when he was ready to fight, to kill, where his instincts took over and the gun came alive in his hand. Where sight and hearing became almost preternatural. Reaching the zone required the same sort of mask Diego had donned the day he explained the true meaning of the word matador: cold, emotionless, lethal, and Johnny spent time every evening learning to assume his own version of that mask upon demand. He applied the mental techniques learned from Pablo to this task and slowly, but surely, found himself able to enter his zone of darkness whenever he wished.

Johnny took another moment to admire the moon as it shown over the vastness of the mountains. It was the same moon he’d watched when he first came to the line camp, yet he was no longer the same person. He felt that he had left himself far away, back in the past, in the cage in Rio Rojo where he had spent that harrowing night. The men hadn’t killed his body, but in a way, they had killed him—they had changed him forever. Now there was a broad, treacherous barranca between the angry young man teaching himself the arts of the gunslinger and the carefree boy who had ridden off to Rio Rojo. The break was permanent, the barranca deep. He could find no way to cross it, to go back to the old Johnny, back to the boy locked in the trunk. That boy was back down the weeks, on the other side of the canyon of time. There was no rejoining him, and there never would be. There was nothing to be gained by living in the past. Just bitter memories and grief and a void that ached to be filled. The only choice was to go forward, to find a new beginning.

It was there, waiting for him, that new beginning. He was ready to stand against the best now, calm, confident, smooth and precise. He could immediately reach that place in his mind where he became totally animal: feral, intense, driven, and capable of drawing and shooting with magical precision. His could step into his zone of darkness at will, his special place where he was one with the gun, emotionless, in total control of heart rate and breathing, keenly aware of everything happening around him, operating at the very edge of human performance. Yes, he was finally ready. It was time to start his new life.

He whispered to the moon, “Tomorrow, Johnny Madrid rides.”

I am fast. I am strong. I will not hurt. I will never be defenseless again. The world will know my name. They will pay.

The Birth of a Legend

The legend-to-be rode into town sitting tall in the saddle. Lean and hipless, he seemed to be a part of the flashy pinto prancing beneath him. He was a handsome boy with raven hair and startling blue eyes, scarcely into his teens, yet already a magnificent horseman with a flair all his own. Dressed functionally in brown suede vaquero pants and an embroidered blue shirt, he wore his hat low over vigilant eyes that intensely raked the surrounding terrain for any possible threat. He was completely unaware of his dashing appearance; right hand hovering suggestively above the walnut handled Colt Peacemaker buckled low on his hip.

The people on the streets of Salgapuedes* turned to stare, not understanding what force of nature compelled them to gaze at this particular horseman. They only knew they were drawn to him almost hypnotically. The picture of a boy playing at a man’s game would have been comical if not for the aura of menace and danger radiating from the rider. The town folk never glimpsed the laughing mustañero, a boy gone forever. They saw only a deadly predator, a gunman—strong and confident, with killing on his mind and eyes that moved constantly, pausing briefly on the faces of men crowding the boardwalk. The cold intensity of his look had a chilling quality about it and more than one man averted his eyes from that flat, lethal stare.

The hunter smiled when he recognized the distinctive pinto, white with lacy black markings and scars from a quirt on its shoulder, tethered in front of the cantina. It was a feral, deadly smile that didn’t reach his eyes, a curl of his upper lip—almost a baring of teeth. The silent, triumphant snarl of a jaguar preparing to pounce on unsuspecting prey, knowing the end of the hunt is near.

Well, well, look what the wind blew in. Do you know me? I am Death .

“They’ll pay, Pablo. This I swear to you. Johnny Madrid will make them pay.”

He was ready. It was high time the world found out just who it had been messing with these past fourteen years. Long fingers caressed the pistol on his hip as his mantra repeated endlessly in his mind.

I am fast. I am strong. I will not hurt. I will never be defenseless again. The world will know my name. They will pay.


The four condemned men were enjoying their last meal of tamales and beefsteak, washing it down with draughts of the local cerveza. They attacked the food like starving wolves descending on a carcass, ignoring their surroundings, secure in the knowledge that they were mean enough to handle anything fate might throw their way. The abrupt silence in the usually noisy cantina alerted the pack to a possible threat.

Tully noticed it immediately. The normal babble of voices ceased abruptly as the air became charged with the unmistakable, electric tension that inevitably preceded gunplay. He searched frantically for the source of the danger, but found only one slight change in the cantina—a boy leaning nonchalantly against the doorframe, hooded eyes focused intently upon their table. Tully had the sensation of being scorched by the blazing hatred in the piercing stare.

Tully studied the boy through narrowed eyes. He couldn’t place him, but the kid looked awfully familiar. He appeared to be a miniature version of the man who had killed Billy in Rio Rojo. Although he considered himself the fastest gun along the Nueces River, Tully had been too afraid of El Matador to challenge him after watching the easy way the man cashed in Billy’s chips. But this was simply some kid dressed like his hero, trying to act tough. If he was looking for trouble, the pack would oblige.

Really, it was amusing, yet Tully was torn irrationally between laughter and dread. The boy was small, thin, and trying so desperately to be a man. The gun on his hip probably weighed about as much as he did, but Tully didn’t like the lethal air that surrounded him, the suggestion of menace in the hard eyes. 

Kid or not, the boy had dealt himself a man’s hand. It was the low slung gun and the steely look in the kid’s eyes that had made the cantina as still as a church. Tully felt a prickle of apprehension run down his spine, almost as though chilly, ghostly fingers had touched him.    
Dobbs gasped in recognition. “Tully, it’s that dern Mex kid we tried to kill over in Rio Rojo a few months back, the one that got Billy shot.”

Tully sucked air between his teeth with the realization that Dobbs was right. “Damn, it sure is.” He relaxed a bit—they had taken this kid once and could do it again, no matter that he was all duded up and wearing a gun tied low on his hip. It was time to put some fear back into him, rattle him good. After all, he’d be dead now if it weren’t for that damn Moncada. Yeah, the boy was just another young border rat with more nerve than skill. He spoke softly to Dobbs, “Let’s have a little fun and finish what we started in Rio Rojo.”

Tully pushed himself away from the table deliberately, rising slowly to face the boy. His three companions sat straighter in their chairs, body language clearly signaling their readiness to back Tully’s actions. Dobbs’ right hand slowly moved closer to the .44 Colt Navy lying on top of the table. The kid didn’t bat an eye as Tully looked him up and down contemptuously.

“You lookin’ at me, boy?” Tully sneered. The challenge in his voice, his aggressive stance, ratcheted the tension in the room tighter.

Johnny locked eyes with the swaggering man, taking a deep cleansing breath. This was it, the day he had dreamed of and worked towards for months. Payback time! In his mind, he stepped into his zone of darkness, that place where he was one with the gun, in complete control, cold and emotionless, where Death lived. How many times had he gunned down Tully in his mind?

Forget it! Focus. Focus on now. Muy gláce, icy, icy, icy. Breathe slowly. Watch his eyes. Watch the other three. They’ll have to move back from the table to get a clear shot. Get ready, Señor Pistol, I’m gonna need you quick. 

His situational awareness at full alert, Johnny was operating on reflex and pure animal instinct. The world stood out in razor sharp focus, he could see each individual hair on Tully’s thick forearms, smell the sharp tang of whiskey, the smoky scent of frying beef, hear his own blood singing through his veins. He stood loose and easy, the slightest tingle dancing across his nerve endings, alert and ready, keyed to a fever pitch. He was tightly focused on Tully, yet keenly aware of everything happening at the periphery of his vision. It was time. “Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you.” The quiet drawl dripped with insolence.

“What’s on your mind, boy?” Tully thought he might shake the kid with a little condescension, a touch of amusement as though refusing to take him seriously.

“You are, Tully,” The boy’s voice was soft, yet deadly, and the direction of his glare indicated he was fully aware that he faced a pack and not just one man. “You and your friends.” He let each man at the table feel the weight of his attention. The unspoken warning in his challenging look stilled Dobbs’ hand, still several inches short of the pistol.

“You call me Mr. Tully, boy. I like a polite kid and you need to learn some manners. I whomped your tail once and I’ll do it again.” Tully was playing to the onlookers now and they rewarded his paternal performance.

As laughter rippled through the cantina, the boy straightened leisurely, moving two measured paces toward the pack’s table. The calculated coldness in his action swiftly silenced the room.

“No Tully, I don’t think so. I got a different dance in mind this time.” The sapphire eyes flashed, alert and watchful.

“What kinda tune you thinkin’ on callin’, kid?” Tully increased the sneer in his voice, intent on shaking the boy’s confidence. He didn’t like the ring of command in the young voice, fully aware that it didn’t take a grown man to pull a trigger.

“A killin’ tune.” The anticipation in the room and Tully’s bravado only seemed to increase the boy’s coolness and control.

“One that’s been did?” Tully had seen the killing urge in men’s eyes before and he recognized it in the inhuman brilliance of the kid’s stare, bristling with a hunger that put Tully in mind of a sleek carnivore stalking its supper.

“Yep. And one that’s about to happen.” Every fiber of the boy’s body was as taut as a guitar string, all tensed eagerness like a greyhound in slips awaiting the first sight of the rabbit. Despite the coiled energy, he had an eerie quietness about him—a killing quietness.

“You better think about this real hard, son, you don’t want to make a mistake.” Tully was starting to get nervous. The boy was so calm and cool that Tully felt as though he was in the room with a hungry mountain lion. The kid wasn’t getting rattled at all, and his eyes! They were intense and angry, glowering like the orbs of destiny with a penetration that was almost uncanny. That piercing blue glare seemed to pin Tully in place like a butterfly on a board in some child’s bug collection. If there really were a God of vengeance, his eyes would look like this kid’s.

“Oh, I’ve thought about it and there’s no mistake. You made the mistake. You killed a friend of mine. He was an old man that never hurt a fly and you butchered him like some animal.” The boy’s voice rose sharply in anger and he swallowed, visibly struggling with himself before forcibly regaining his icy command of the situation. “He can’t give you what you’ve got comin’. So now, I’m gonna do it for him.”

Tully instantly noted the break in control, the first opening the boy had given him, and determined to turn it to good use,  “Well, boy, ain’t you the cool killer.” He kept his voice amused, tinged with sarcasm.

The eyes that glared back at him chilled him to his marrow. There was death in the young face. “Nope. This time of year, all the killin’ is hot. The cool killin’ don’t start ‘til December.”

Now the laughter in the cantina was at Tully’s expense and it angered the man. It was time to take care of this smart mouthed whelp once and for all. Pacing another step away from the table, he prepared to teach the insolent half-breed one final lesson. “So you think you’ll get yourself a little shootin’ practice with some livin’ targets.”

The boy was absolutely still, utterly calm. Only his lips moved, “Well you see, that’s it, once I choose you for a target, the livin’ is brief.”
Tully hesitated, recognizing that the game was getting out of hand. The other men in the crowded cantina slowly moved out of the line of fire. He could see the admiration on their faces, but it was directed at the boy. None of them wanted to swap places with the young challenger, but they all envied him a little, each man wishing he could square up to a table full of adversaries with the same nonchalant air and feel as formidable as the kid looked at this moment.

Tully felt a flash of irritation. His looks, size, and bravado usually drew the envious stares and he didn’t like playing second fiddle to some half-breed pup. He felt his face flush with anger. Let the fools gawk at the brash youngster. They could admire his grave on Boot Hill, too. He and the pack were mature, dangerous men, no strangers to trouble, and they knew just how to deal with sawed-off sprigs like this. Maybe he hadn’t been able to intimidate the boy, but the pack could still take him down.

The first step was to distract him. He kept his voice light, trying to divert the boy’s focus, “So what do we call you, kid?”

Tully didn’t wait for an answer, his hand streaking for his gun as he screamed at his friends, “Take him do….” But for some reason, he couldn’t finish the sentence. A thunderclap of pain exploded through his chest and the strength rushed from him, his hand falling away from his pistol. He vaguely noted that the pistol was not even halfway out of the holster—and that fact should have meant something, but he couldn’t think of what it was. It wasn’t important anyway. Suddenly very weak, he found himself sinking backwards, seeing the edge of the table go by and the floor rising up to meet him. He could hear Charlie, Dan, and Dobbs screaming, sharp, booming cracks of gunfire, the wet heavy sounds of bodies striking the floor, and then several moments of deafening silence.

The knowledge that he was flat on his back with the life draining from him hit Tully then, along with the realization, too late, that being the fastest man along the Nueces River did not make him the fastest man along the border. He stared at the widening puddle of his blood with astonishment.
The sonovabitch killed me. Shot dead by a snot nosed half-breed kid. I don’t even know his name.

The boy’s measured steps broke the silence, spurs chiming musically as he crossed the floor to Tully’s side. The quiet voice was as cold and hard as flint.

“The name’s Madrid. Johnny Madrid. I’ll see you in Hell, Tully, but not today.”

The spurs jingled again as Madrid turned on his heel and walked away. Tully’s last thought was that the boy was wrong. It was cold here, cold as death.

The bystanders watched the performance in awe. One minute the boy was as still as a statue, then Tully reached for his gun and the kid exploded into action—all power and motion, fluidly rolling to his right, gun magically in his hand. He moved without hesitation and with such blinding speed that none of the observers even saw him draw. But the gun was in his hand, and his hands were a blur as he took down all four men, smoothly, deliberately, and with absolute precision.

Blam, blam, blam, blam. The boy fired so fast that the four shots rang out like a sustained roll of thunder. Four bullets, less than two seconds, four dead men. It was all over that quickly. There was nothing rushed in his manner or in the soft way he feathered the trigger, yet the shots thundered out in a staccato roar as the boy coolly and evenly drilled each one exactly where he wanted it to go. Dobbs, the last to go down, actually got off a shot with the pistol from the tabletop, but the only casualty was the big mirror over the bar.

Johnny lowered his smoking pistol, as time seemed to slow from a series of split second fragments to a normal pace. He was acutely conscious of everything around him, eyes burning from the acrid gunsmoke, ears ringing, sweat trickling down his back. The pistol in his hand was burning hot to the touch and the stench of sphincters voiding in death almost overpowering. The four men sprawled like limp rag dolls, broken and lifeless. He stared at the bodies, shocked at how easy it had been to pull the trigger and kill, hardly any different than drilling lead into a tin can. Except the bullet made a different sound when it struck meat and bone, a mushy, wet splat.

He felt the elation wash over him, a primal celebration of life over death, the timeless joy of winning a fight for dominance, the warrior’s thrill on vanquishing an enemy. It was over and he had won.

I took you down, you bastards. You won’t bully any more old men or kids. I wish you’d come back to life so I could send you straight back to Hell again. Keep it hot for me, boys.

He crossed the distance between himself and Tully, the man’s last question still hanging in the air, demanding an answer. Tully was in agony and fading fast, a look of stunned disbelief on his cruel face, a thin line of blood trickling from his mouth. For a long moment Johnny stared down at the monster that had tortured and slaughtered Pablo, then spoke the words he had rehearsed for months. “The name’s Madrid. Johnny Madrid. I’ll see you in Hell, Tully, but not today.”

Tully tried to reply, but his body convulsed in a series of spasms and jerks, hands twitching spastically. He gave a final, sharp cry of pain and died, his right bootheel drumming a quick tattoo of death on the blood soaked floor, head lolling limply to the side.
Even as his face broke into a savage smile of victory, Johnny was suddenly overcome with revulsion. For one horrifying moment he thought he would disgrace himself by being sick. He closed his eyes, desperately willing his queasy stomach to settle. The finality of the grim scene, the twitching, bucking body, and the light fading from Tully’s eyes forced him to admit that he was responsible for killing four men.

This was a totally different experience than shooting the man who beat his mother to death. Then he had acted mostly from panic, his strong survival instinct warning him to pull the trigger or die. Today he had been a predator, stalking his prey with murderous intent. Now there was blood on his hands, hot blood shed with hate in his heart. Now he was a manhunter, a killer. Diego claimed he didn’t worry about killing a man after it was over with, but Johnny found that it bothered him, made him feel sick inside. Even killing Tully wasn’t as satisfying as he had thought it would be.

He thought of El Matador and his blood oath of vengeance. When Diego’s quest was complete, he would return to his home. But Johnny had no home, no place to return. He had crossed a bridge from one life to another and burned it behind him. His quest was complete, but there was no going back.

I took them down like I promised, Pablo. I hope you can rest easy now. Thought I’d feel a mite better after takin’ em, but I don’t. Some birthday present, huh? I’m fourteen today, but I sure feel a lot older. Guess it’s a good thing I don’t have a brother. He might have a hard time lovin’ a man who gunned down four other men.

The bartender came out from behind the bar shaking shards of glass from his shirt and staring at the four bodies. “Lordy, Lordy, I never saw anythin’ like that in my life. Kid drew down on four men and dropped every one of them. Only used four bullets, too. Not a scratch on him.”
The bystanders picked themselves up from the floor and Johnny found himself surrounded by admirers, all talking at once and clamoring for his attention. Hands pounded him on the back and someone shook his hand. He was the center of attention in a maelstrom of fans and for the moment, he was caught up in the heady excitement, living it to the hilt and having the time of his young life.

“Whoowee, you are sudden, boy!” A big man handed him a glass of whiskey, but before Johnny could lift it to his lips, the bartender snatched it away. He walked back to the bar and poured the young gunman a glass of milk.

Johnny stared from the milk to the bartender, uncertain as to how to respond. He actually liked milk, had rarely had enough of it while growing up, and it might just help settle his stomach. On the other hand, gunslingers didn’t drink milk. Maybe he should demand the whiskey back at gunpoint. He hesitated, but the adrenaline rush of the gunfight had left him bone dry and he didn’t see any water.

“Thanks, amigo.” Johnny accepted the glass, raised it to the crowd, and drained the milk in one long gulp. The onlookers laughed and clapped, slapping him on the back again.

“You best mosey on outside now, Mr. Madrid. You ain’t old enough to be in here.” The bartender forced the crowd to stand back, clearing a path as he ushered Johnny to the door. Fully aware of how avidly men listened to stories of famous gun battles, the man was determined that he and his cantina would be forever associated with this shootout that he was already calling the “Showdown at Salgapuedes.” He addressed the group with the air of a born storyteller, giving no thought to the simple fact that once a man had a reputation with a gun there was no rest short of the grave. “The boy ain’t even weaned off his mother’s milk and he’s drawin’ down on a pack of cutthroat hombres…”

He called me Mr. Madrid.

Johnny paused in the cantina doorway to take a last look at the carnage. Gunsmoke still hung thickly in the air and the room was heavy with the coppery sweet scent of blood. He was amazed at the amount of blood on the floor; he’d never realized how much blood was in a man. Even as he watched, someone began sprinkling sawdust over the viscous crimson puddles.

“Their horses are out front. Use them to pay for the buryin’.” Johnny was surprised at how casual his voice sounded.

“We sure ‘nuff will, Mr. Madrid. Thank you.” The bartender turned back to his captivated audience and continued his narrative, weaving the tale that was to launch the Madrid legend, a story to be told in the cow camps and bunkhouses, around chuck wagons and campfires, and in the songs and fables of the towns up and down the border. “Yessir, that Madrid kid makes greased lightnin’ look like molasses at twenty below, and it plumb buffaloes me where he got off to when the good Lord was handin’ out nerves. Cool as a blue norther and he takes no sass but sassparilla…”

 Johnny turned his back, settled his hat low on his forehead and stepped through the batwing doors into the gray afternoon. A storm was blowing in and the sky was heavy with dark, angry clouds.

Sky as black as my soul.

He was acutely aware that every pair of eyes on the main street was focused on him. His exceptional powers of observation made a mental note of the various reactions: an old woman made the sign of the cross, an older man nodded fearfully, two cowboys stepped aside respectfully, a matronly woman snatched her two children behind her, as though to protect them from him while her boys peeped around her skirts to gaze at Johnny with awe on their faces. A group of three young ladies stared at him in blatant admiration, whispering to each other and giggling. He caught a fragment of their conversation, “Prettiest thing in pants I’ve ever seen…”

Females! He blushed hotly and headed for his pinto, snatches of other conversations swirling around him. “just a boy” … “said his name was Madrid” … “damnedest thing I ever saw” … “good lookin’ little cuss” … “fast and accurate. Most gunfighters are one or the other, don’t usually see both” … “never seen anybody so fast” …

He mounted effortlessly and paused a moment to rake the crowded street with his flinty stare, biting back a bitter smile when the crowd silenced immediately. Johnny sat still for a moment, straight in the saddle, savoring his total command over the scene. The sense of power it gave him was palpable and seductive. He ruthlessly thrust aside his nagging guilt, allowing himself to fully relish the thrill of victory, the end of his blood oath, the successful start of his new life. Today he had passed the gunfighter’s acid test: shooting while being shot at and dropping a target capable of shooting back. A young gunhawk had been forged within the crucible of death and gunsmoke.

Take a good look. Do you know me? I am Death.

He tipped his hat to his audience and nudged the pinto into an easy trot. He figured he’d lope on up to Nogales—a hot gun could always find work in Nogales.

There were plenty of tombstones out there waiting for names and Johnny Madrid was happy to supply those names. Maybe he would get the chance to work with some of the best, men like Joe Reveles.

He’d proven he was fast, but Johnny knew he still had a lot to learn about gamesmanship, timing, and control. If he got the chance to watch an accomplished gunhawk like Reveles work, he could learn those things and maybe get even faster.

Padre Miguel had beaten one thing into him—if something is worth doing; it’s worth doing right. Johnny Madrid planned to be the best at his trade.

I am fast. I am strong. I will not hurt. I will never be defenseless again. The world will know my name.


The leaden sky gently weeped as a melancholy wind sobbed for the boy/man riding so desperately towards his destiny. The lonely road stretched before him, barren and bleak beneath clouds as heavy as the pistol resting coldly against his hip. Pablo’s killers were dead, but still the bitterness burned in his throat, anger churned in his gut, and wistful sorrow throbbed in his head. The hooded sapphire eyes blazed with a curious mixture of hate, pain, and longing. And the world was gray and empty like his heart.

* Salgapuedes named after an East L.A. neighborhood, loosely translated to mean “get out if you can”
nct 2002

Horses and Horse Training
The term mustañero is a slang term much like comanchero. Los Mustañeros were people from Mexico who traveled about in small groups, usually family groups, catching and breaking wild mustangs and selling them to the great ranchos of Mexico. They operated primarily in Mexico, but also along the border regions of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. They were revered for their abilities with horses and many of the early “horse talkers” (or horse whisperers as we use the word today) were mustañeros. An elite few of the mustañeros combined their abilities as horse talkers with the training skills they learned from the old vaqueros whose working stock horses were prized possessions. The word came to mean an exceptional horseman. To be called a mustañero was a badge of honor to anyone along the Mexican border who appreciated fine horses.
Johnny and Pablo are training their working horses in what is now known as the “California style.” You will sometimes hear it called the old-style California vaquero or “buckaroo” tradition of horsemanship. It comes from Spain by way of the Conquistadors through Mexico to California. The early vaqueros started their colts in a snaffle bit. The mouthpiece of the snaffle bit is jointed in the middle (think your typical “English” bit) and it has no shanks (the metal bars that drop from the mouthpiece to below the horse’s chin where the reins attach) and thus no leverage (the curb bit has shanks and adds the element of leverage). It is a gentle bit, working on the bars of the horse’s mouth (the open space between the front incisor teeth and the side molars) and is used to teach the colt to respond to the rider’s hands, legs, and shifting weight. The primary aim is to get the horse to yield or give to pressure from the direct pull of the rein and not to resist this pressure. As training progresses, more emphasis is placed on legs and weight with less on the reins.
The next step is the jaquima (hah-key-may), sometimes called a hackamore. The nosepiece of the jaquima is called the bosal, a thick piece of braided rawhide. This rawhide tube goes around the muzzle of the horse and has a large knob on the underside called the heel butt where the reins attach. It is shaped to place pressure on different parts of the horse’s nose (which is very sensitive), helping the rider teach the horse to learn and respond to the signals to move from left to right, right to left, and forward and back. Generally speaking, any movement a human asks a horse to perform is some combination of balancing between forward to back and side to side. A well-schooled or “broke” horse has a good understanding of left, right, whoa, and go. 
Over the course of his training, a horse progresses through several thicknesses of bosals, the first being very thick and wide, the last one pencil-thin (in the pilot episode, Barranca wore a thin bosal when Johnny rode him into town after breaking him). The reins tie to the heel butt of the bosal, (a bit further back than the horse’s chin) via a specialized knot called a fiador (fee-ah-dohr).  The reins are actually a rope of braided horsehair (traditionally hair from the mane, it is softer) approximately twenty-two feet long and used as a combination of rein and lead-rope. This is known as the mecate (may-kah-tay). The hair rein helps teach the horse to neck rein (move left or right in response to rein pressure on the neck). The hair makes more of an impression on the horse than rope or leather.
The final step in the horse’s training transitions him from the bosal to the bit, in this case the spade bit. The spade is probably the most misunderstood Western bit of all. Many consider it cruel, only suited for extremely hard-mouthed horses that can’t be ridden with other bits. Remember that any bit, regardless of type, is only as severe as the hands that hold the reins. A good spade bit, properly fitted and correctly handled, is the opposite of being cruel. It is built with a mouthpiece with a shank on either side and operates off a leverage-type action. When the reins are pulled, both the bars and the tongue are caught in the leverage action between the mouthpiece and the horse’s jawbone. The upside down U-shape you associate with the mouthpiece of Western bits is called a port and it operates on the tongue and the palate. The entire bit is built to keep the horse very light and soft mouthed, allowing the rider to achieve a response with the slightest movement of the reins. The high port of the spade is designed to provide the horseman with maximum contact and enables the horse to react at the very slightest movements of the hand. Used incorrectly, it is extremely cruel, but in the hands of someone like Johnny or Pablo, the slightest movement of the fingers would communicate with the horse and the rider would use less pressure than any other bitting method. In fact, in the hands of a horseman, the spade bit is easier on a horse’s mouth than a snaffle bit.
A horse ready for a spade bit has been taught to respond so well to the rider’s legs and weight that very little use of the reins is necessary. When the rider’s hands ask for a soft feel, the horse’s nose comes down so that his face is almost perpendicular to the ground, even when the reins have a great deal of slack. He carries his head in this position, instead of with his nose sticking out in front of him. (“Making the horse round,” means asking the horse to compress his body, bringing his hind legs well underneath him while keeping his face perpendicular to the ground. This prepares him for moves such as a spin or sliding stop. If you look at the horse’s spine in this position, it is rounded.) The spade bit is designed in such a way that when the horse carries his head properly, the mouthpiece hangs perfectly in his mouth. If he begins to stick his nose out, the mouthpiece applies pressure, encouraging him to drop his nose again. In this position, the spade bit acts by dispersing the pressure over a larger area of the horse’s mouth, rather than concentrating in a smaller area and in this way, what appears to be a cruel bit, is actually very comfortable for the horse.
The California style produces highly responsive and skilled working horses, able to cut, rope, and handle anything a cow can throw at horse and rider. The true stock horse or reining horse developed from this style of training. A major training goal for these working horses was to refine the horse’s response to the rider’s legs and weight, using more leg and body and less rein. The goal was to be able to guide the horse without the help of the reins, as a cowboy often needs both hands for his rope.
The spur is an important aid to the rider in this riding style. Like the spade bit, a sharply roweled (the rowel is the sharp piece of the spur, on cowboy spurs, it usually is circular and spins) spur can be vicious, but on the heels of a master horseman, it simply gives the rider better communication with his legs. The large, sharp rowels help the rider provide guidance and leg contact under hectic, harsh, and speedy working conditions. The vaqueros dangled pajados (American cowboys called them jinglebobs) from the rowel pins, claiming that the chiming sounds they made helped to keep the horse alert. It also served to help riders locate each other in the brush. Bit and spur making was considered a great art in Mexico and California. A horseman or a cowboy was often very vain about his spurs and felt the fancier, the better. Among horsemen who train(ed) in the California style, a rider is not allowed to ride with a spur until he proves he can achieve the appropriate performance without it. Only then does the spur become a sophisticated tool to elevate the horse’s performance. Only then does the rider “earn his spurs.”
[I did cheat and compress the training time because it truly takes years to finish a horse with this method – starting him as a colt at 18 months or 2 years up through about 5 years old for final transition to the spade bit. Maybe “fastest thing this side of the Mississippi and east of China” doesn’t mean just Johnny’s speed with a gun?] 
Buckskin is not a breed of horse, but a color, as Barranca is a palomino. A buckskin is a tawny golden (more tan than Barranca) with a black mane and tail. Matt Dillon and Ben Cartright rode buckskins.
A tobiano (tow be yah no) is a color pattern of pinto and refers to a pinto whose dark color usually crosses the back and covers one or both flanks (the indentation on the horse’s side where the ribcage and side meet the hindquarters). Generally, all 4 legs are white below the hocks and knees, the head is solid color (same color as the on the body patches) and may have a white blaze or other marking. The mane and tail are often two colors (usually black and white). A simplistic description of the tobiano is a solid colored horse with white legs and some white to break up the solid body and neck color into patterns. Tonto’s horse, Scout, was a bay tobiano, like Johnny’s pinto in this story.

I played God and introduced the Colt Peacemaker about 10 years early. Most of the westerns we see, including Lancer, use guns patterned after this model, regardless of their time setting. In actuality, the gunfighter’s weapon of choice up through 1873 was the Colt Army 1851, Colt 1861, or Colt Navy 1860. (Think of the longer barreled pistols you saw in the Lonesome Dove mini-series). These .44 caliber revolvers represented cap and ball percussion revolvers as well as the transition to fixed cartridge ammunition. The ammunition for a cap and ball pistol is the projectile, or ball, with powder poured separately. Reloading was not something that could be done quickly! The transition placed both powder and ball into a paper casing, offering faster reload times, but poor reliability. (The true cartridge jacketed the powder and bullet in a metal casing and the Colt SSA took full advantage of this reliable form of ammo.) The barrel of the pre-1873 revolvers was too long for a true swift draw from a hip holster—that came later, with the shorter barreled weapons. Men did wear these longer barreled pistols in hip holsters, but the fast draw of someone like Doc Holliday came with the Peacemaker. In fact, Wild Bill Hickok (1850s-1870s), considered one of the greatest gunfighters in history, did not use a holster at all. He stuck his Colts into his waistband… John Wesley Hardin, (yep, the same Wes Hardin mentioned in The Kid), with 40 notches on his gun, and considered by many to be the single greatest gunfighter of them all, relied on a specially designed vest to carry his Colts, using a cross handed draw. He carried multiple guns on his person and did not count on his draw alone to keep himself alive. In 1873, Colt introduced the cartridge revolver that was to become one of the greatest six-guns of all time. The first Colt Single Action Army (SSA) chambered in .45 caliber had a barrel length of 7 1/2 inches to duplicate the feel of the 1851, 1861, and 1860 models. But the gun that became known as “the gun that won the west,” the Peacemaker (Doc Holliday’s weapon of choice), had a shorter, 5 1/2 barrel length. The shorter length meant that for the first time, a shootist was just as dangerous with his gun in his holster as if it was in his hand. This is the gun you see in most western TV shows and movies. The 5 1/2 barrel length Colt Peacemaker is the gun Johnny used in The Kid, Chase a Wild Horse, Warburton’s Edge, Rivals, Yesterday’s Vengeance, and Measure of a Man (probably in every episode, except that in each of the shows above there was at least one scene where you could get a good look at Johnny’s pistol and it was definitely the Peacemaker. And, as Madame Buttercup so eloquently points out in The Ghost Of Johnny Madrid, the best gunfighters shortened the barrels even more, cutting the barrel length even with the ejector rods to produce a gun of rare balance, leaving the barrel at about 4 3/4 inches (Colt eventually manufactured the revolver in the 4 3/4 barrel length. Of course, those gunfighters had shortened the 7 1/2 inch barrel models, too).
I’m in good company in ignoring the proper timeline for firearms as the Lancer writers indulged in this, too. At the beginning of Blind Man’s Bluff, Johnny is sitting inside playing with a pistol. When Scott and Murdoch come in, he tells them that this “new double action” will never work because pulling the trigger hard enough to cock the hammer spoils your aim. Well, the first reliable double action revolver wasn’t introduced until 1877 (Yeah, I know there were some British companies who dabbled with double action starting in the 1850s, but the model Johnny was holding was a Colt, the first with a new, improved mechanism that increased the reliability), so I don’t mind introducing the trusty Peacemaker a tad early… Anyway, in Lancer Land we refuse to be anal about the historical accuracy of the handguns. We just know the important point—that Madrid dude is pretty damned fast with whatever the heck kind of pistol it is.
If you’re interested, action refers to the trigger. Single action means the trigger performs 1 function—it only releases the hammer when pulled. The hammer must be cocked manually before each shot (in a revolver, this rotates the cylinder, moving a new chamber that, hopefully, has a cartridge in it, into position for firing), hence gunfighters “fan” the hammer to decrease the time between shots (In a 1930s competition, Ed McGivern, a man who dedicated his life to duplicating the feats of famous gunfighters and is recognized by gun aficionados as the authority on single action fast draw and target shooting, placed five shots {the shot pattern could be covered by the width of a hand!} into a target in 2/5 of a second by fanning the hammer.) Double action means that pulling the trigger both cocks and fires the gun. A double action trigger pull is longer and much harder than that of a single action. Gun enthusiasts generally agree that a single action is faster and more accurate for the first shot while subsequent shots will be slower than a double action. 
The Sharps rifle (produced by Christian Sharps) was established as one of the premier rifles by the mid-1850s. The term “Sharpshooter,” or gifted marksman, originated from Col. Hiram Berdan’s 1st Sharpshooters Regiment (equipped with Sharps rifles) formed early in the Civil War. The exploits of the green uniformed “Berdan’s Sharpshooters” soon gained them the reputation as the most feared fighting unit in the Union Army.  In the hands of these marksmen, the “Berdan” 1859 Sharps rifle became one of the deadliest weapons of the war. Union cavalry units were equipped with Sharps rifles and carbines (a carbine is a lighter weight, shorter barreled version of the rifle that is easier to handle and reload on horseback). In all probability, Scott acquired his formidable skills with a rifle while shooting a Sharps during the War. The accuracy and stopping power of the large Sharps rifles is legendary. The American Indians called it the gun that would "shoot today and kill tomorrow." Even at ranges beyond 1000 yards (up to 1800 yards!!!) they were reckoned to be deadly. (1000 yards is an unbelievably long way to shoot—more than half a mile. Even with modern weapons and ammunition, it takes a special marksman to hit at 1000 yards with any consistency or accuracy. Most members of “the thousand yard club” are military or law enforcement snipers.) In Blind Man’s Bluff, Slate ambushes Johnny from 800 yards (and claims he has killed a man from 1000 yards).
The long gun equivalent of the Colt Peacemaker is Oliver Winchester’s redesign of the venerable Henry rifle, the Model 1866, often called the “Yellow Boy” due to its brass frame. I moved up the introduction date of this rifle (why should the pistol get all the fun?); it actually made its first appearance in, believe it or not, 1866. The Winchester accepts cartridges into a loading slot on the side (the 1866 could accept 15 cartridges) rather than pushing cartridges directly into the tubular magazine. An expert shot could empty the magazine in 15 seconds and quickly reload. It was known as a well-crafted, well-manufactured rifle able to withstand the rigors of life on the plains while rewarding the marksman with consistency. In the hands of an excellent marksman like Johnny, this Winchester is capable of accuracy at distances of over a quarter of a mile.
I played God with Billy the Kid, too (playing God is addicting!). He was actually born in 1859 and killed in 1882 (also moved Doc Holliday, Ben Thompson, and John Wesley Hardin forward in time, Doc and Ben reached their zenith of fame in the 1880s while Wes was actually a contemporary of Johnny’s.). I’ve got the Lancer writers with me in the boat again, though, because in Blue Skies for Willie Sharpe they make reference to Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson as famous marshals and town tamers. These gents didn’t become famous marshals (or tame any towns) until the 1880s (Gunfight at the OK Corral was 1881).
Firearm factoid: there really is a difference between a rifle and a gun, just as the old boot camp marching cadence says, “This is my rifle, this is my gun…” A shotgun and a pistol are guns, but a rifle is never a gun. A rifle is a rifle because the barrel of the rifle is “rifled” or scored to increase the muzzle velocity of the bullet. The pistol and shotgun both have smooth bore barrels.



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