Disclaimer: these characters do not belong to me; I’ve just borrowed them to play for a while. No copyright infringement is intended, and any similarity to anyone else’s work is unintentional. And they are so fun to play with!
This has not been proof-read apart from spellchecker and all errors are mine.
Thanks to Mary Jane and Mel for their encouragement and interest. OH! And of course to all those out there willing to share JML for a short time, THANK YOU!
Many thanks to Karen for her skill in beta and encouragement.
We all live with the scars we choose,
They might hurt like hell but they all make us stronger,
If you want it you come and get it
but understand You take me as I am.....lyrics by Sugarland form: Take Me As I Am
Just entering his seventeenth year, Madrid’s mixed heritage had done a fine job with his looks. Dark hair, blue eyes, and a smile that could melt the walls of ice any lady wanted to defend herself with. Madrid had already earned a reputation or two that preceded him. While very few would quake in fear, opponents knew that their chances against him were far less than fifty-fifty. His draw was fast and the aim was true. Hushed whispers among the ladies, well maybe not ladies but the gals that knew him, vouched of other talents as well.
A hard life had forced the boy into manhood early. To be sure no one in the group he rode with was more than twenty, but fate had done its job on the others. The idealism of youth lingered not yet stamped completely out by the facts of the life Johnny lived. He was the youngest of the group, still showing the promise of things to come. But if those things didn’t come soon he too would fall to the harsh bite reality had offered to his companions.
They rode into town after weeks on the trail from their last job. Dusty, tired, sweaty, but thirst was the priority on their minds. They headed to the more seedy part of town. The five men swaggered into the cantina alert to everything around them. Caution was a necessity in their line of work. After all with the range dispute brewing many gun hawks had flocked to the area in search of another payday and perhaps a better reputation or two. The small cantina was filled with friend and foe they recognized many faces and there were of course just as many they didn't. They noticed the men coming down the stairs and there were just as many hurrying up them as the others left...it could be a wait........
After a few drinks it would be time for food, baths, and female attention the kind they would gladly pay for to avoid certain ties.....and this was the place to suit all their needs.
Madrid sat back listening to Isham and his plan while observing the goings on around him.
Johnny noticed the blue dress in the corner of his vision as it stopped at their table, depositing the usual tortillas and salsa on the table and awaited their order. Each ordered without really even looking up, continuing to discuss how the new job might play out.
The blue dress walked by to a neighboring table delivering her burden. "You know missy I could always take you up fer your first lesson here," stated the man at the table accepting his order of tamales and beans.
Madrid looked up at the child like giggle but her back was to him. "No thank you sir, I am just the kitchen help here. There are some really pretty gals for you up stairs though," she replied politely. The man smiled kindly at her and watched as she skirted away to get about the serving of other tables.
“Interesting,” Johnny thought, no argument, why the guy hadn’t even grabbed at her.
This sparked a bit of interest and as he observed there were many making the attempts to draw her into conversation as she went about her work. She seemed to talk to them for a minute then would be off to the next chore. It appeared always the same. Kindness mixed with some disappointment on their faces as they watched her leave. Still others seemed to watch her in what Johnny could only describe as a protective sort of way.
Ridiculous, they were treating this girl like the prize virgin at a church social, not that he had ever been to one. In time she would be just new talent for the bordello above. He stopped watching and reentered the conversation with Isham.
“Frank, I am telling you this is what we are doing…” Isham was interrupted as the food arrived. Being of better manners than most in his profession, Johnny looked up to thank the server.....suddenly realizing how unobservant his assessment had been.
Ok, he thought, I understand, as he looked into twinkling dark eyes that bespoke of an interest and kindness to all around her. Long dark hair framed a face as smooth and beautiful as he would expect an angel to have, and that smile...he couldn't tear his gaze away. Who meets angels in a place like this, he thought, but he was sure he was looking at one. He was fearful too that if he blinked she might just disappear. He couldn’t even say thank you, for that he would have had to breathe. That blue dress told a tale too, curves far too developed for the loose cloth to hide.....
"I think he’s looking for the words 'thank you', right Johnny boy?" Isham said with a boisterous laugh. He couldn’t help but admire the gal in the blue dress either.
Johnny nodded in silence. She giggled, smiled, and floated away.
"Now that one is gonna be a real looker," Charlie said.
All Johnny could muster was, "GONNA BE?" as he drew a deep breath. He was embarrassed at his actions. After all he was Johnny Madrid; no lil’ gal should have that effect on him.
The woman in charge came to the table then to let them know there were some vacancies upstairs. "Any preferences for you cowboys this evening?"
"Just as long as they are female and purty is all m'am," was the unanimous answer from the others, but Johnny was still in his daze watching the blue dress. The madam followed his gaze and laughed.
"Son, that one is not on the menu. The cook took a special interest in her. Treats her kinda like …well treats her like family. ’sides if she was to get turned out the price on something like her would definitely be high."
Isham and the rest filed upstairs but Johnny didn't move. How could he? Not with her watching him. He realized the madam was still standing waiting, and he answered, "You know ma'am, I think I may just be too tired from the trail. Maybe tomorrow."
Johnny left and mounted his horse and rode out of town to find a place to camp. And a nice icy cold stream to cool off in........
He awakened with a jerk at Isham’s greeting. “Johnny boy, what the hell you doing out here?”
“I guess I … Well I decided that I was tired and figured to rest up a bit. Didn‘t mean to doze off.” How did I sleep through his approach, Johnny thought. As quick as the thought occurred he knew it was the dream, if only he could remember it. He rose to his feet and stretched. “I’m hungry. Guess I will ride back and get some food. You comin’ or you ate already?”
“No I went looking for ya, rest are back in town looking for a place to eat. I reckon that cantina don‘t open for a bit yet.” Isham continued to stare at Johnny with an amused look on his face. “You sure you’re O.K.? I mean you started acting a bit…off last night…“ He took a deep breath and continued, “Madrid that lil’ gal ain’t worth losin’ your edge over.”
“What are you talkin’ ‘bout?” Johnny lied, angered at the accusation. “The day I lose my edge as you call it ain’t seen the sunrise!” He saddled his horse and left Isham to stare after him.
Ten minutes later he dismounted on a low rise in the landscape. Seeing it offered him a decent vantage point, he dropped the reins so that the horse could graze on what little vegetation was available. Isham was right. Losing his edge now would lead to mistakes, the kind he couldn’t afford. Still he could feel foreign emotions stirring inside him. All he needed to do was figure out why he couldn’t stop thinking about HER. He didn’t know her, hadn’t even talked to her…she just didn’t seem to fit in there at the cantina though. He had not quite put it together but he was sure she was as out of place as she seemed there. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of hoof beats. He strained to see the source, a white horse racing the wind along the flats by the stream below. The rider apparently noticed him as they drew their horse up. He mounted and approached the rider.
Her face was still reddened from the exhilaration of the strenuous pace she had set. The mare’s sides heaved from the exertion as well as the added weight from being so heavy with foal. She looked about nervously at his approach as if she longed for the safety of the cantina and its patrons. Why had she stopped? At any other time she would have slapped herself for being so foolhardy, but it was him, she knew it even before he was close enough to identify…
As he drew near he realized his mistake: HER. Both rider and horse reminded him of a coiled spring, ready to bolt at a moment's notice. He stopped about ten feet away and touched the brim of his hat in greeting. Before she could respond she heard others approaching. They both turned at the sound, she gazed through narrowed eyes at him. Without so much as a word, she whirled the horse around and continued on her way.
“Hey Madrid! Was that who I think it was?” Charlie laughed. “My compliments on getting her to meet ya out here.”
“Wasn’t like that. I was just out here with the horse to graze a bit, she just appeared outa nowhere.”
“Well then we apologize for interrupting before it was something,” Isham stated teasingly. “Thought you was hungry Johnny boy?”
“I am! I am! Let’s head into town.” Had she followed him? I’m sorry you interrupted too; maybe I would have a few answers. Inwardly he laughed at himself, answers…what exactly are the questions Madrid? Hopefully it won't take long to find out he thought.
Several days later he was still dumbfounded as to what his problem was. All Johnny knew was the situation was getting worse not better. Every time he ran into her it seemed the more complicated his ‘situation’ became.
How he wished Santiago had not left her in his care. The boy had said it wouldn’t be more than a month or so, just till something at home had been settled, it was going on three now. It had been a profitable arrangement but the money was gone. His luck at poker had been quite poor of late. The boy would certainly pay him more money for his trouble but it needed to be soon. He sighed deeply remembering how much he was in debt, how had he lost so much so fast. If Santiago did not show soon he wasn’t going to be able to hold up to his end of the bargain. Cookie did not want to find out what would happen if he didn’t. The Santiagos were a wealthy and powerful family. If he still had an interest in the girl he wouldn’t be happy at all in the situation Cookie had gotten himself into not to mention her ever increasing curiosity about that young gunman.
He hadn’t been worried at first. She was always curious about the outlaws and gunfighters when they came, loved to listen to their stories and they liked telling them. She seemed to bring out the better in most of them as well. The more the men talked to her the more they seemed to like her. Partly he suspected was how she treated them, showing them the same respect she would show anyone else on the better side of town. Most would become protective of her and were quick to speak up if anyone seemed to be crossing some invisible line. That was as far as it went till now. This new man, well…boy actually, had reacted completely different. He avoided talking to her, stayed to himself, and did not make use of the gals upstairs. That was what had made him stand out and piqued her interest.
Cookie knew why the boy behaved this way, even if he didn’t. The way he had looked at her from the first night had told the tale. Now she had seen him several mornings while out riding. She had told him about the encounters, but that she still had not talked to him, yet, he thought. He believed her, after all she had no reason to lie. However the coincidences were a little too frequent for Cookie's likes.
Tatum, or Cookie as most called him, was getting nervous. She had been gone when he got up that morning, but that wasn’t unusual. He however had awakened quite early and she knew she was not to be about so early. She tended to be gone only an hour at a time when she went riding but he had been up for almost two hours. She was always here to assist in preparing for opening before customers arrived, but there was no word. He asked some of the gals upstairs, no one had seen her. As willful and headstrong as the girl was, it was just not like her to be late. She was more apt to be early.
“What was she thinking?” he thought. She knows going out so early is dangerous. I told her it was, maybe not why, but I told her. What if something has happened? What am I thinking, lord forgive me, but something will happen if Santiago doesn’t come get her soon.
The back door flew open.
Cookie will be mad, she thought, as she dashed in the back door of the kitchen. After telling him about seeing Madrid while riding the first time he had been suspicious, but the second time he had been adamant. “Hold off on riding for a bit till all is settled and them gunhawks have left. Now I’m serious. It could be dangerous fer ya.”
“Dangerous, HA!” she had told him. ”Why Cookie that boy won’t even talk to me!” She had dismissed every warning he made since then.
Out of breath, she ran head on into the old cook. “Where have you been?” Cookie asked hastily.
“Ridin’, mi caballo lanzó un zapato.” Damn, she thought, English! “Horse threw a shoe and had to get the smith to fix it up,” she replied. “Sorry didn’t mean to be late.” Cookie didn’t seem to notice the slip up into her native language, she thought with relief. In truth it never occurred to her that he might be too relieved at her safe arrival to notice.
“Well don’t jes stand thar, get out and see to them customers.” No use warning her off again he thought angrily.
She obediently left the kitchen to see to the business at hand. She had served the fourth table when Johnny and his group entered the establishment. They took their seats and waited. She looked up and saw them. She approached the table smoothing her dress as she went. Unsure as to why she was so uncomfortable around him, she wasn’t about to let anyone see it and that included him. She left with their order and went into the kitchen.
Losing herself in thought she waited for Cookie to prepare the food. She was going to need to change her habits. She had run in to him three days now while out riding, she was starting to think he was following her. For what reason she had no idea, after all someone like him could have their pick of the gals around. She was no prize in her mind. On the run, hiding, why she didn’t even have a new dress. She could see the effects of the hard work she had been doing on her appearance, even if the others couldn’t. If her father could see her now, she laughed, working here in a cantina with a bordello upstairs? Nope no prize at all, not like before. It was certainly a different world compared to where she grew up. Always surrounded by her father’s men wherever she went, for protection, as if she needed any, she thought. After all her father had owned everything in sight back home. She had wanted for nothing except freedom as a child. But now in her opinion she was grown up and had succeeded at earning that freedom. It wasn’t that she was naïve; just that she was sure she could handle anything that came her way. Hadn’t she been able to accomplish the impossible, elude and escape her gilded cage? After all her safety had been secured with a high price and no one here ever seemed to want her to come to harm……
“I said get out thar with the food!”
She grabbed the plates and rushed out to serve them.
As she put his plate on the table Johnny looked up and greeted her with a smile and, “G’ morning.”
She grinned and went about her work. She watched as they left after their meal. Smiling she thought, well now, I guess he can talk. She had heard others talk of him, knew his name. But he just didn’t fit the rumors she had heard. The interest in him puzzled her a bit, yes it was time to find out about him and what better place to start than the source? Next time the opportunity presented itself…yes next time.
Johnny hitched the reins to the rail, it was still early. The others had been sound asleep, still recovering from their late night. He had awakened early since arriving here and knew sleep would not come again. He went for a ride but he had not run into her that morning. Disappointing, he thought. Well one good thing he thought as he entered, whatever kept her from her ride would probably keep her from here as well.
Madrid stopped dead in his tracks. He moved to the closest table and took a seat, fearing a hasty retreat might give the wrong impression.
WELL HELL! She’s here. Doesn’t that lil gal take a day off? They had been here a week and he didn't feel any stronger about going up those stairs with her watching than he had the first night. What was his problem? He had barely managed a hello and a smile. Fractured, confused thoughts assaulted his mind...Besides he didn't even know her. And he certainly wasn't interested in....but those eyes and...... Well she wasn't the type to tend to his needs. STOP STARING AT HER! DAMN, what is my problem. And foremost on his mind was that he was getting awfully tired of that cold stream....not to mention the dreams of that pretty angel in blue....AND THEN THERE WAS THOSE EYES!
Dios, she caught me...
There were only three people in the cantina but it was still early. She glanced at the door as he entered. That young gun is here again, she thought.
She poured him some coffee, took his order and left for the kitchen and returned to the dining room. Strange how he never went upstairs. That was one of the reasons the men came in here. She might be young but that didn’t mean she was dumb. She was well aware of what took place up there. He did seem quite different from all the others though; they always talked to her but not him. She had been extremely shocked when he said hello. She had thought till then she just wasn't up to his standards. He was very handsome after all. And my how that tanned skin and dark hair set off those blue eyes. He couldn't be much older than she yet, she could sense an underlying danger about him. Well she had felt that from all the men that frequented here. No, it wasn’t the same, the threat she felt around him was different. Threat, was that the right word, whatever it was it certainly set off alarms. She looked about her, everything was done for now at least till his order was ready…maybe it would be ok if she sat down for a minute or two. She looked up and saw him watching her. Well she did like to hear about the adventures and exploits of the many patrons and this was that opportunity she had been waiting for. So what would be the harm, she smiled and took a deep breath and moved toward him.
No not this way! There is no food in your hands girl, he thought. It occurred to him that there was no one else around him either. Yup she was definitely headed toward him.
She giggled as she stepped up to his table not sure what she should do next, suddenly, she plunged head on "You sure are a strange one,” she said, barely above a whisper, not wanting to intrude not even sure if it would be welcomed. She pressed on. "You come in every day here but you never.... go upstairs... do you not like…girls?"
Madrid choked on the coffee she had given him. "UM, no I like girls just fine! Thank you. What business is it of yours anyway? Do you ask such questions of all your customers?" Was that what she thought?
"Oh no...., no I don’t ask it in rudeness ....I guess well .....I guess just not the girls we have here?" she asked sadly and turned to walk away with her head hung knowing she had offended him, however unintentional it had been.
Hell, now I've gone and done it hurt her feelings. Please don't cry, he thought. Dios now what?
The words slipped out of his mouth before he could stop them. "I’m sorry, I didn't mean to be so short with ya, querida." Oh, had he just called her that? "My mind has just been on other things."
"I understand." She smiled, catching that term he used. Wanted...if only he knew, she thought fearfully. "I wouldn't want to intrude...I just …I am done for a short time and had well I thought… I could talk with you. I mean… I noticed you never talk so I thought maybe something was bothering you.” She stumbled over the words in an attempt to keep the conversation going. “Well when things bother people sometimes it helps.”
"Is that what you do here? Help people?" he asked.
"Um, no you've seen what I do. I serve the food and help cook it." She smiled again with far more ease and maybe a bit of pride.
Madrid chuckled softly. "Yeah so I've seen. Um, my name is Madrid, Johnny Madrid."
That's that, he thought with a tinge of sadness. It was time for her to head for the hills, like any other decent gal ought. Fine with him, he had no use of those high strung, better than everyone else types, though he had had a feeling she might be different, yes, different from anyone else he had ever met.
She laughed. "I know who you are. You may not have talked much till now but others have."
There was a call from the kitchen as she swept away only to return with his order and extra tortillas. She placed them in front of him and hovered for but a moment as if waiting for something. When he faltered she pulled out the chair by him and sat down. A mistake she thought, when she heard his sharp intake of breath, she almost bolted but his smile stopped her.
Well what is this, he thought... she really should be halfway over that hill by now.
"Ever get a night off here?"
"Nope, I am pretty much here every night." She sighed.
Well now that wasn't what I wanted to hear, he thought to himself. Then, "So you don't really seem to fit in here, where are you from?" A sudden realization had hit him; she really did not fit here, her speech and mannerisms bespoke of education and high breeding, upper crust. What he would expect from some rich, aristocratic estancia owner's daughter. He had seen them before in Mexico. But there was something missing. That attitude of being better than everyone else was lacking. No, she gave no impression of expecting others to do her bidding without so much as a thank you.
Suddenly he noticed a worried look cross her face at his query. "That would be a secret that I can't tell,” she whispered quietly.
Before Johnny could respond, Isham walked in and sat down at the table. "Well Johnny boy! What have we here?"
She smiled politely and left the table and returned with more salsa and asked Isham what he would like. And off to the kitchen she ran.
SHIT! I didn’t get her name.........Who was she really?
"Isham, any one ever tell you that you got bad timin!”
"Johnny, that one isn't for use and you know it. Nope when she gets turned out there will be a biddin' war for her first…and well I doubt we would have enough between us for the startin bid, so stop yer dreamin’ and see to your needs."
“You mean if.”
“No Johnny boy, I meant what I said. WHEN,” stated Isham flatly. “This ain't no Sunday school, it’s a whorehouse, and in the end that gal will just be talent.”
He was right. Madrid knew it but, since seeing her, he just wasn't at all sure what those needs were. Most importantly, he didn’t want see her as just talent.
The waiting was always the hardest part, fights brewing between the gunnies as their patience waned. Each of the gunhawks looking for some way to ease the building tension. Gunman tended to learn some patience, the good ones that is, but the wait could shorten a fuse in no time. Even the best can fall to the ragged edge of emotion as time stretches on and there is nothing to occupy the mind. The town had become a time bomb just waiting for the fuse to be lit.
Isham and his crew tried to stay unto themselves and avoid confrontation whenever possible, not out of fear, but survival. Isham knew patience, while wearing thin, was crucial. He attempted to keep the others busy and had been successful, so far they had avoided any unnecessary fighting, and he wanted it to stay that way. Johnny however was starting to look haggard and he knew why. If only he could get him to stop stressing over that damn girl. But how could he, even he had to admit, there was something different about her. She had a presence that was almost as calming as it was unsettling.
“Johnny boy, if you're so hell bent for her, then take her, but make sure you can walk away after. The way we live there just ain't no room for a woman around. They complicate things; give you a weakness opponents can use against you.”
“I know Isham but that’s just it. What if…if I can’t walk away? I mean…what if she gets under my skin and I can’t…no... I won’t take the chance. Now don’t look at me that way, all I am saying is… Oh hell I don’t know what I am sayin’. She just seems different you know?” How had she twisted him up inside so, that’s what he wanted to know. He saw the look Isham had on his face. “Don’t go getting all worried, Isham. I ain’t in love with her or nothing it’s just…”
"Just what?” She’s already there, Johnny boy, Isham thought.
“I don’t know. Like I said she is just different.”
“Well when you gets down to the nitty-gritty Johnny boy they are all the same. We need a few things from town. So I‘ll be back in a bit.”
“Nah let me go, it will give me something to do,” said Johnny as he stood up and started toward his horse.
“Fine but no detouring’ at the cantina. Just stay away from her.” Yes, maybe that would help, Isham thought. Outta sight outta mind, it was worth a try.
Madrid hit the general store to get the few supplies needed. On his way out he almost ran over her, knocking the goods she was carrying about the walkway. Madre Dios...what fate was shoving her in his path and why? "Sorry," he mumbled, as he bent to help her gather the goods he had so clumsily knocked out of her arms.
"I am so sorry. It’s my fault. I…I should’ve been more careful.” Her voice was almost pleading for forgiveness. Madrid felt a definite tug at his heart when he glanced in her eyes.
"The fault's all mine," he said stiffly. Suddenly, he reached for her pulling her from the path of children running down the walk.
One of the children stumbled over a parcel she had dropped and she immediately wriggled from his grasp and helped the child up, brushing him off, a kerchief magically appearing in her hand which she dampened in the trough, quickly applying it to the skinned knee the child was favoring.
Madrid watched quietly. He felt that damn tug again. Then that tug became an all out jerk with what he witnessed next.
The woman approached the girl and child, pure wrath on her face. "How could you touch my boy? Filth like you! You need to get back where you belong; there ain’t no place for your likes around decent folk!"
What the hell he thought? FILTH? HOW could anyone not see that here was an angel… his angel in blue? Heaven sent to...to...well who she had been sent to, he wondered. "Ma'am she was just helping the boy."
A gentle hand reached up and drew his attention. He looked down at her. Still kneeling by the child she shook her head slightly to quell him. Her eyes telling him it was nothing she had not heard before. As she stood up slowly, he noted her head was high. Shoulders squared, she turned and faced the woman with a dignity that Madrid doubted any of the town’s DECENT people could have found.
“I apologize I will be more thoughtful next time."
Now that wasn’t like her, he thought. She had always been polite, but to take the harshness of this woman, it just didn’t sit right. She stepped off the walkway grabbed the reins of the white mare and leapt to its back, reaching for the parcels Madrid held. She headed back.... to the wrong side of town. He suspected she was taking more than a small piece of his heart with her.
This can't be happening, but a voice deep down spoke up, "You are fighting a losing battle." Madrid had a sinking feeling he knew who was losing as he watched her ride off. He hesitated and braced himself as he realized all he wanted to do was follow her. It took all he had to prevent it. How had it gotten this far? The voice inside just laughed.
This was utterly and completely ..........No it wasn't happening not to Johnny Madrid...It couldn't....he was a gunfighter and he was good at it! He had searched for something he was good at and this was it. There was no place for …for...well there just was no place. Feelings were a weight, a weakness he couldn’t afford in his line of work. Nope he wasn’t falling for her. She was…Johnny quickly searched for a good reason…too young, that was it! Just too damn young, forget the fact that he was too. He went back to camp. That sinking feeling had turned into a churning whirlpool surrounding him, dragging him down further.
He awoke with a start, drenched, with the dream still in his memory. A dream that had included his angel in blue. His? He still didn't even know her name. Not one tangible thing about her. The voice deep inside spoke again haughtily, ”nothing but that she is beautiful, kind, gentle, accepting of all around her, and has an inner wisdom and strength that you can sense a mile away." He definitely needed to get his mind on something else. He rode back into town.
He stopped in for a drink with his friends but didn't stay long. Not when he overheard the conversation at the next table....
"Yeah, old Cookie may have kept her safe for months but with his gambling it was only a matter of time afore he was in so deep he would have to agree to allow Mags to turn her out.”
"I hear they plan to take bids on the first,” said another.
"They will be high on her, I bet!" slammed another.
Isham saw the look on Madrid’s face and shuddered. If anything would send Johnny over the edge he was teetering on, this was it.” I told you Johnny and it ain't worth it.”
“And I am telling you Isham it's not gonna happen. She‘s not a …well it just isn’t happening.” Madrid rose from the table and walked away.
Isham shook his head. This won’t play out well, he thought, and turned back to the table and his silent companions. Not well at all and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Madrid left through the front door and in moments he was pounding on the back door till he heard Cookie’s angry voice and the door flung open. "Listen, the kitchen is closed!"
"I know” drawled the soft voice "but I need some information."
"Well there ain’t none here at this time of night," answered Cookie gruffly as he attempted to close the door.
The soft voice became chilled. "Is it true? Do they really plan to auction her off tomorrow?"
Cookie’s face paled at the gunman’s tone.
Madrid had his answer. "Where is she? I need to talk to her." His voice was still soft but now it was tinged with icy steel.
An equally soft yet sweet voice spoke up. "What’s going on out there Cookie?" As she came into view, "Madrid what are you doing out there?"
His heart began to pound loudly and his breath caught in his chest as she stepped into view. He thought frantically about what was to happen. "I need to talk to you." He pushed Cookie aside and entered. He wasn't sure how to proceed but THIS was not going to happen. Not to his angel. That’s RIGHT, he thought..... HIS! The time had come to stop all his denial and make a claim.
"Listen I don’t even know your name, querida, but I need to get you out of here...I got nothing to offer you, but ..Well...and even if you won't have me I ...I have to get you out of town. There‘s talk about…well you just need to get away from here is all." Remembering the incident in town earlier, her reaction, a thought occurred to Madrid, had she known earlier in town what was to happen?.
“Why? Porqué usted iría a este apuro apenas para mí? And what about after we are gone? Would you just toss me to the side?” She held her breath as she awaited his reply. (why you would go to this hardship for me?)
He smiled down at her. It was the first time she had slipped with her Spanish decent. “Use you and toss you to the side? La miel I podría nunca sacudirle al lado y no podría utilizarle ciertamente. Pero podría amarle para por siempre.” (honey I could never toss you to the side and I certainly could not use you. But I could love you for forever.)
Her eyes avoided his “¿Verdad? If it is the truth, what you say…” she looked up into his eyes. “Why would you think I would not have you? Do I look as if I have so much to offer?”
“Miel, I truly believe I could love you forever and I will never leave you alone. And si, you have more to offer than you realize, mi amore.” His voice wavered. Thoughts of a dream of a young man looking for just the right …it had been her. Realization struck him, as a new path unfolded before him, he loved her and didn’t want to ever do without her. The words tumbled out before he knew what hit him but it didn’t matter any more, he knew what he wanted finally. “I can prove it to you…Ése es si usted…um…cáseme.” (If you will…um…marry me)
There it is, Cookie thought. Santiago wasn’t going to be happy, hell he would’ve been unhappy either way things played out. The boy had stayed gone too long. Listening to her something else stung him, those rumors of a missing Spaniards daughter crossed his mind. Don Miguel, God no, it had not even occurred to him till this very moment. It couldn’t be her, of course, but if it were…his position was getting more dangerous. He hoped silently that whatever interests Santiago had in her was gone, from the look in her eyes Cookie knew she was.
She smiled. “I should warn you senor, I am no-one’s fool. There are things that, well, I won't put up with.” She threw her chin up in defiance. “I have expectations, when el padre says hold only me, you better hold to it, better than mi papa. If you really do plan on this, I have feeling that well,” she blushed as she realized the discomfort she felt around him could easily be erased. “I figure…a family won’t be far off.” She had heard what the new gal upstairs had said about his exploits in private, why she had turned red at hearing it. If it was the truth she saw babies in the near future.
Hearing this, it was all he could do to keep from crushing her in the embrace he drew her into. It had been a long time since he had thought about a future other than surviving his next gunfight. And she is talking kids? What did he expect, he thought, well of course there will be children and he would take pleasure in putting them there too. No matter how little they might have he was sure it would be enough. He would find a way. And any children would know they were wanted, he knew she would see to that. It wouldn’t be like it had been for him.
Cookie looked on realizing it was the girl's only chance, fearful of what might happen if she left and his debt unpaid, but her safety was more important. He did care about her after all. Besides the gunman in front of him, he was sure, would not be willing to leave without her. Yes Santiago, you were gone far too long.
The plan was hatched. She rode each day, nothing suspicious about that, just this time she would set out a little earlier. The time was set. Madrid would meet her at the stream and they would leave from there. Leave for where? That he decided wasn't important as long as it was far from here.
Madrid left through the door quietly. She ran to the door and called him back. "Elpaso, Maria Isabel Miguel Antonia Elpaso" She smiled shyly and closed the door.
Cookie’s mouth dropped. Fact replaced suspicion. She might as well have been royalty with the power that family possessed and here she was right under Don Miguel’s nose. Her departure from here could not be fast enough in Cookie‘s mind, harm to her meant little more than death to any involved. He kept his facts to himself, no need in letting Madrid know what he was getting into, he might not take her away if he knew.
Johnny's smile broadened, now that was a mouthfull, no wonder it took so long to get her name. Elpaso, the name rang a bell, there was a wealthy family by the same surname, but she wasn’t one of them, she couldn’t be, not and be in a place like this. A weight lifted along with all the confusion he had felt since entering the cantina that first night. He had come to another of life’s crossroads and this time he was changing directions. He made his way to the front of the building, lost in thought, not seeing the man standing there by the back, someone who had heard the plan in its entirety. Someone with their own plan.
Johnny mounted his horse to leave and Isham's laugh inside reached him.
Damn. He needed to let them know he wouldn't be staying. He dismounted and walked in and joined his friends at their table.
“Isham…fellas I am gonna be heading out tomorrow.”
“What? Johnny boy you can’t leave us in a bind like this.”
“Sorry but .. Well I have to. I quit…quit lying to myself and you. I think…no I do …I love her. You said it yourself, there is no room for that in what we do. And I am gonna definitely make room in my life for her.”
“I told you too…”
“And I told you, she’s different. I am gonna to marry her,” interrupted Johnny.
“You’re gonna what? Does she really know who you are?” Isham was finding it difficult to keep his voice low. “People will come looking for you, and they will keep comin’ for some time to come.”
“Yeah I know…and so does she.”
“Well I’ll be, she is going with ya, Johnny?” gasped Charlie. ”How you gonna get her outa here without…”
“Keep it down. I got me a plan. And the less you all know the better.” Johnny looked around suspiciously, assuring that no-one had overheard them.
"Well then the least you can do is have a drink with us seeing as you can't tell us," Isham said. He could tell that his young friend had made up his mind.
“Here’s to the loss of a good man,” toasted Frank, “but what a way to go.”
That one drink led to another and another, Madrid’s night ended late. Fate it seemed was stepping in again.
She hurriedly dressed and stepped out into the morning air. She was leaving this place, her home since leaving her father's estancia. A slight feeling of dread washed through her but she shrugged it off. She had never strayed far from the cantina so early, had been told at certain times it wasn't safe. Why, she had no idea, all the cantina patrons had watched over her and stepped in if any dared to attempt anything. She was young and carefree, with youth and inexperience comes recklessness and a true lack of caution, she was about to set out on a new adventure. Liz Michael rode off to the stream where she was to meet Madrid and dismounted, tethering the horse. She was quite early but she couldn‘t sleep so she had set out on her new adventure. She walked a short way upon the bank to look about and found herself allowing her thoughts to drift.
Many were probably paying a price for the freedom she had now and that saddened her. El patron Elpaso was a fair man, but hard. He ruled with an iron fist. But her father had refused to even see things from her perspective, she saw no reason on earth how her marrying a man she felt only friendship for would be a requirement for peace between the two feuding families. Besides had it not been her betrothed that helped her escape? It had been so easy convincing him to help after she caught him with her older sister. Yesenia was a sly one, plying him with drink and arranging for her to walk in at just the right moment. Liz Michael knew she probably shouldn’t have used Santiago’s guilt to get him to do her bidding, they had been friends throughout her childhood. He had been her brother Miguel’s best friend and hers after her brother’s untimely death. Knowing Yesenia, he probably had not known what was going on. Actions in the past can’t be changed, she thought. Still the families needed to settle their differences on their own, and then they could live peacefully. And she would stay away till they had. In her mind who she married was her concern and hers alone. She laughed again as she remembered Madrid’s statement last night. He had nothing to offer her? Had he actually believed that? Why the way he looked at her and that smile was more than she could ask for and in the end when they could return to her home, why Madrid would have more than his fair share of wealth and power. Elpaso Roma was one of the most powerful estancias in all of Mexico. Madrid, she was sure had the strength to wield that power wisely, her father would see.
He was late....what if he had a change of heart? Where was he? A twig snapped. Finally she thought and she turned around. .....It was not Madrid she saw, instead it was a man she had seen in town many times, always staring at her. The first blow knocked her off her feet and she couldn't catch her breath. She fought but try as she might her strength was not equal. She cried out but no-one heard..........It was all such a blur, all but the pain..........
Far away Don Miguel stepped out into the darkness of early morning. Patron of all he saw. The grand hacienda, Elpaso de Roma was quiet. He wasn’t quite sure what had awoken him from his deep slumber. He sighed heavily. Sadness , it had been so overwhelming when he woke. Where is she? His wife had hated the child from the moment he brought his offspring from another to their home. But when he saw the tiny baby, well…she was his and he couldn’t leave her. He had truly loved Whispering Wind and Isabel reminded him so much of her. The same innate love and understanding of the land and creatures that roamed it, maybe it was the Indian blood in her, he thought.
As fate would have it she was also his only child he felt had the strength and intelligence to run the estancia when he passed. Both his sons had died. Isabel and Yesenia were all that was left. Even with eight years between them Isabel had shown far more wisdom and responsibility than her older sister. He suspected that Yesenia and his wife knew something about her leaving that he did not. He had always marveled at how Isabel seemed to always maneuver herself into the winning position against the two older women. Even when his sons where still alive they always saw reason to side with the younger sibling.
Don Miguel sighed deeply. Somewhere out there his youngest daughter was alone, he knew it. They had searched for months to no avail. All his money and power, yet nothing, not a trace had turned up. He took full responsibility for Isabel’s leaving, he had even dared her to try it. Why had she questioned his decision so vehemently? Could she not understand it was best for all concerned?
Deep down he knew all that schooling had only developed that fearless pride and independence she had inherited from him. He shook his head sadly, that combined with her mother's beauty and passion for life…Don Miguel truly hoped she was strong enough to survive such a combination.
Johnny awoke, taking in his surroundings. He was late. Dios, his head was pounding. He couldn't remember getting back to camp. He stood up stretching. An uneasy feeling hung in the air. He quickly gathered his gear and left. He had picked a location just on the outskirts of town so she wouldn't have too far to go, yet secluded so no-one would see them leave. She wasn't there. That feeling of uneasiness was getting stronger. The day had grown cloudy and a strong breeze had picked up. As he rode on up the bank toward town he noted signs of struggle, Madrid's uneasiness turned to fear as he urged the horse on. A group of townspeople came into view. They were surrounding something, he looked down and saw blood on the ground, he looked back at the group and realized that the something was someone, and off to the side he saw an old white mare. Panic began to set in.
As he drew near he saw her standing there, the ground littered with what was left of her blue dress. Her body was covered in mud and...blood. Her hair looked as if it had a life of its own, blowing in the strong breeze, head still high, shoulders squared, but her eyes...they sparked with a fire the heavens alone could produce. She reminded him of a wild stallion, unyielding and refusing to surrender to anyone. He dismounted and rushed to her, removing his jacket as he forced his way through the crowd. He laid it gently on her shoulders, noting the bruises and cuts and abrasions on her body. She was trembling like a leaf in the wind with the sheer effort she used to remain standing. But what amazed him most was the strength and virtue that emanated from her. He felt the last and gentlest tug and knew his heart was gone, truly belonging to another. Dazed, he looked about at the nightmare unfolding before him. Not far from her feet lay a dead man. He hesitated when he saw the man by the mare draw his colt, heard her begging for someone to stop him. "The horse had simply stopped him from doing it again," she pleaded. The man by the horse turned as if to face the newcomer. Madrid moved for his gun but even with his speed he was too late, his gun wasn't there. A deafening explosion and he saw the blood trickling down the forehead of.....the man with the colt. He glanced around trying to clear his head, what had happened. Who had shot him and where was his gun? The only gun smoking was his, he observed, held in a graceful, delicate hand. Her aim had been as deadly as her speed. She tossed the gun to the ground and escaping Madrid's grasp, with what strength she had left, she ran at the mare chasing her away and collapsed mere feet away in a heap of broken bleeding flesh.
The gunshot had drawn the attention of many. Isham and his group rode in to see what was up. Isham turned away, even he couldn’t hold to what had obviously happened. He had warned Johnny, told him nothing good could happen with this. Being right didn‘t make him feel any better about it. The four men watched as the scenario drew to completion in silence. They all knew there was nothing they could do or say that would help anyway. It really didn’t look as if anyone could.
Johnny Madrid bent down and took her in his arms, carrying her through the crowd. He paused a moment, his eyes cold as he looked at those about him in the crowd, there was no one who could help him here. He hurried to the doctor's home with his precious cargo, full of dread. The weight on his shoulders was back and far heavier than before.
Dr. Adam Pyre had just finished his breakfast when the door opened abruptly. A young man entered through the door of his home, which served as an office as well. Adam turned to reprimand the intruder for not knocking, instead he stared in horror at the burden he carried so tenderly.
"YOU have to help her." His voice shaky, pleading for any hope.
Adam worked over her for what seemed hours. But when he turned away Johnny saw the look of despair and sorrow written on his face.
“You can’t quit now. My chance...” he grasped at words to explain, “for a…for a life that’s different. A future…better than ….I am going to marry her.“ He had to make this man see why it was so important to not give up. Johnny had never really had anything that meant this much to him, this doctor had to understand that. “She is gonna be the mother of my children.”
Adam shook his head in sadness. How do I tell him, the doc thought. "Son, I am truly sorry but there is nothing I can do. There is just too much damage; I doubt she can make it through the night.......I can’t figure out why she is still breathing even now. Who did this too her? I‘ve seen her around and I know where she lives, but this?” Yes, he had seen her around and knew that many of the outlaws and such looked at her protectively, they genuinely liked her. He didn’t want to see what the ruffians would do to whoever was guilty, no matter how deserved it would be. “Who did this son?”
Madrid looked down at her bruised and shattered body lying so still. How could any man have done this to her? Man? Not a man, least not by his definition. This was the result of a brutal attack by an animal, he thought. He felt a deep agonizing emptiness eating away at him. Longed to hear her laugh and look into her sparkling eyes once more. Suddenly the truth dawned on him, he was to face one more loss. He belonged to her, and had from the moment he saw her. There had been no losing battle; he had been defeated before it started. He hadn't even had a chance, Fate had seen to it. Let him believe in something, hope for things to come then fate had stepped in and taken everything away again.
“Don’t matter any more they wont be doing it again,” he stated, so coldly it sent a shudder up Adam‘s spine.
Madrid swallowed trying to keep his feelings in check. As one tear escaped, trailing down his face, he took her hand and held it gently. This was his fault if only he had not been late! How could he live knowing that he was responsible? Trembling outwardly he took in a deep shaky breath and said hoarsely "I can't say goodbye.....I can't j-j-just sit a-a-and watch her slip away" his voice trailed off. Never again he thought, no never again. “Please don’t let her die alone.”
He paid the doctor and stepped out into a very cloudy and windy day. He looked up at the dark sky and let out a shaky breath. Yes, he thought, whatever gods and spirits the people here believed in were very angry. Yet once more, a gift had been wasted. His road stretched out narrowly in front of him, the turn off had disappeared.
The first shot of the range war rang out while a lone rider headed out of town with an unbearable weight on his shoulders. Loss...he had been through this lesson before... but this time it was proving to be...His hardest lesson yet.
The disagreement over land and water had ended as quickly as it began. The gunhawks all moved on.
Four days later Adam was in shock and awe as his patient awoke, weak, still not out of danger, but she wasn't giving up. He thought of the young gunslinger, wishing he knew where to find him, he had so wanted a miracle and here she was. A true fighter with more strength and will than a girl should possess. For a moment he thought it might crumble when he told her about the damage done, he had waited a few days to tell her. No children, her future would never hold the joys of motherhood. “Then I truly have nothing to offer any one.” Her voice was barely audible. The look in her eyes haunted him afterwards.
Almost a week and a half later found her limping as fast as she could, Adam chasing after her trying to hold her back. The townspeople had gathered at the livery to put down the man-killer. The girl it seemed had simply been in a fair fight when she had shot the second man but the mare had killed the reverend. He had been drunk so his actions weren’t to blame after all. She heard the shot as she reached the door; she entered brushing past them as they exited. Tears filled her eyes. She grasped a knife from the tools she saw on a work bench and cut into the mare's swollen abdomen as she gasped her last breath. Hoping she missed the thing moving inside. What could Adam do but help her remove the sac covering the newborn colt, black as the darkest night with a strikingly creamy white mane and tail.
A thought crossed the young doctor's mind, when this was over he was looking for a home elsewhere. Maybe California would be better. But first he would see her through. And he looked down at her.
She looked up and said in a whisper, "This is my first Victory." taring at the colt and then with more conviction she said, "There will be more... I will find our place in this man's world. Just wait and see." She drew in a deep breath, her voice held the sharp edge of steel and ice, chilling him to the bone as she continued, "NO ONE WILL EVER FORGET ME!"
Adam Pyre believed her. After all he knew he wouldn't.
She stayed on for some time regaining her strength, earning her keep by assisting Adam in his practice along with cooking and cleaning. She avoided town as often as possible, but on the few occasions she did go the colt followed her as if she were its doting mother. A mother to the foal she was, raising it on honey sweetened goat's milk. Most nights she even slipped out of the house to curl up with the foal in the shed out back. Two lost souls nursing each other back from the brink.
When the colt grew too big for the shed, she began splitting her time between cleaning stalls at the livery for his keep and helping Adam out. He saw less and less of her, understood why she was more comfortable with the animals there than the people he tended. It was the same reason he knew that she opted for loose fitting coveralls and shirt rather than a dress of flimsy material. Those pants and coveralls were harder to tear.
She was good with animals and knew how to tend them and many would bring their mounts in when there was a problem. Her earnings grew and she saved all she could, she needed a horse, she wanted out.
On occasion she would allow herself the diversion of watching the few gunhawks that came through town. Silently laughing at their skills, fearful that they might be looking for reputation of the man she had so efficiently dispatched that day. When, and if, one did come for it they wouldn’t find some sniveling little girl. She had learned a lot that fateful day. She had a colder more deadly place to go inside her that could allow her to kill, in time, it would make her a far more dangerous opponent.
A gambler rode into town one day, leaving his horse at the livery, he headed to the cantina. During the card game he had been allowed to enter he heard of the demise of an old acquaintance. He asked who had killed the man but all grew tight lipped about it. All except the man at the bar. Cookie told him a story of young girl whose life had been changed forever. Changed was right, the man thought, she had a reputation that others would eventually seek. And all for a horse, no, not just a horse, he corrected. Sad really, she sounded like someone he would have enjoyed meeting.
Holiday made his way back to the livery the next day, without much thought of the tale he had heard. At least not until he caught sight of her, she was in the corral working with a young horse. He hadn’t paid the stable boy any mind the day before, only now did he realize this was no boy. He watched for some time, she was good, another year and she would have a mount to be envied. She already was. This had to be the girl the old man had told him about. “I hear you can handle a gun.“ When she turned and looked at him he knew he was right. Her presence now was formidable even without a gun at her side. She was going to need one, he thought quietly. “I’ll be back shortly have my horse ready.”
He returned to town entering the gunsmith. “A friend of mine will be in in the next day or two. She will be needing a custom fit, both gun and belt. This ought to cover it.” He handed over a tidy sum of cash. “Mind you she’s a good friend.”
Returning to the stables, he found his horse ready for departure and her wary and alert at his approach. Good start, he thought. “The gunsmith is waiting for you and if there are any problems look me up.” He smiled, he had not created what was about to be loosed on the world but he was going to see to it she was equipped. He had no idea how or why he had been drawn into this web but he was sure that eventually she would become a force many would need to contend with. He wouldn’t though, he could tell, she just wasn’t the type to forget a kindness, no matter how ill fated it might be.
“Practice!” he called over his shoulder.
Doc Holiday rode out of town. He glanced back at Liz Michael, take your chances, gentlemen, he thought. The knowledge he had perhaps unleashed one of the most deadly guns he would meet gave him no guilt whatsoever. Anyone foolish enough to try a sweet looking thing like her deserved what he got.
Practice she did. It took some time to figure out how low she wanted the holster to ensure her quickest draw, but she was patient. It wouldn’t be long before lightning struck. She took to wearing buckskin pants as she disliked the hang of the gun over her coveralls. Those who watched as the days went by noted her aim was dead on, of course this wasn’t a target that could shoot back, but others knew that this hurdle had already been breeched. She definitely could kill, she had already proven it.
She rode up to Adam’s home one day. He greeted her and welcomed her in. The haunted look was gone, he noted, replaced by the intense fire of confidence and something else. He wasn’t sure what but he knew had seen it somewhere else, but where?
“You’re leaving I take it.” It had been a statement not a question. “What will you do? Where will you go?”
“I don’t know yet, but staying here …well...” She looked off into the distance.
“They are right, eventually someone will come looking for you.” It was a sad fact but Adam knew that there would be talk of the prowess she had shown.
“Let ‘em. You and I know something they don’t…I really have nothing to lose.”
“Your life is something you know Liz Michael that could be the price you pay.”
“My life?” She laughed venomously. “Everything that made it worth living has been ripped away and you know it. Time for them to come cull the herd…if they can.”
“I am sure not all would feel that way, the man that brought you here that day…I am sure that…”
Her words lashed out. “Don’t you see? He was taken too! The mere thought of… of being touched makes my skin crawl! Oh and I am sure you’re right he might have been able to overlook some of it …but… a man of power and means needs something I can’t offer. He needs an heir!”
“Power? Means? What are you talking about?”
“Nothing! Just forget I said anything. I will try to stay in touch, if you like.”
“I would like that, but I will be leaving here soon as well. Hopefully I will be able to let you know where I end up.” Just one last try, “Maybe you should give him the choice.”
“No! There are no choices here. Your God, Their Earth Mother, whatever powers that be have seen to that.” She mounted the bay and started out, the young black horse following close on their heels.
“Don’t be so sure of that Liz Michael, a new path could be just around the bend in the road,” he called after her. She didn’t stop. He really hoped he was right and with luck that bend would turn up sooner than later.
But as luck would have it, a new legend had just begun. A tempting, dangerously beautiful, deadly legend. Another restless soul to roam the west with, in her opinion, nothing to lose.
A year or two later and many miles away, a man stepped into a saloon and ordered a drink. His manner was quiet; his movements graceful, an aura of confidence surrounded him…
Memories had weighed heavy the past few days overflowing into his dreams while he slept. Why now he thought? Alcohol and women, they never made the memory go away but they deaden it a bit he thought.
The other patrons where deep in discussion of a new…living legend.
"I am telling ya, I t'aint seen nothing like her! There isn't even a blur that colt just appears!"
"Yeah I heard tell that you can't even get a drop on her, she got a monster of a wolf and a demon horse that will actually protect her!"
"I know a guy that actually survived a shoot out with her once, stead o' killing him she shot his hand off....just shot it plumb off!…Said when he was staring her down ...well he said....you won't believe it but …he swears if you look in her eyes long enough ......said ....you see an angel staring back at you."
He listened quietly to conversations around him and laughed to himself he had heard those rumors too. But even he knew no-one was that fast, least of all a woman, and legends while living did tend to grow each time the tale was passed along.
Outside a rider dismounted a rather magnificent looking stallion. “I won’t be long Victory.” She removed the ball of fluff in the sling where it had been riding, and placed it on the ground. Then a graceful hand balanced the long gun to the left shoulder once removed from its scabbard. The stranger turned and headed to the saloon entrance.
A pretty saloon girl approached Johnny. “Well cowboy looks like you could use some company, buy me drink?”
“Sure why not,” he said. Thinking to himself, I could use a diversion. “Name's Johnny.”
“Oh I know who you are,” she spoke humorously. “You got a room or shall we go upstairs to mine?”
Before he could answer a new patron entered the saloon, a young grey wolf pup limping close at her heels. The man at the bar immediately registered the danger as the predators entered. He turned to view the new occupants. A gun hung low in its holster another protruding from the jeans that rose just above the hips, blatantly revealing an indecent amount of firm bare flesh as well. His gaze traveled up to the tight buckskin vestment hugging every curve pausing a moment on the amount of cleavage displayed. Madre Dios, he knew that face. Then their eyes met, he could feel her looking right through to his soul. The little girl was gone, here instead stood an equal. Very desirable, tempting, loaded for bear in more ways than one, but still an equal.
The pretty saloon girl was forgotten.
Her brown eyes glittered and twinkled with laughter when Liz Michael noticed him staring in disbelief. She smiled. "I reckon it just wasn't my time, Madrid." Johnny Madrid was staring in the eyes of an angel, a deadly angel, his angel. An angel he had tried to forget, but couldn’t.
She moved towards him and edged her way between Johnny and the saloon girl. “Some things never change,” she giggled. “The next one's on me.” She smiled at Madrid sweetly. For the first time since the day of the attack she felt her guard drop slightly. The feeling was so foreign it made her uncomfortable. She stiffened slightly when she brushed against him, but steadied herself quickly. Hoping desperately he hadn‘t noticed, but sure he had.
Sadly he had noticed.
He felt all his courage drain out. No he wouldn’t be going up those stairs anytime soon he thought. At least not with his angel watchin’…