(A sequel to The Ghost of Johnny Madrid)
Mysteries and Assumptions
Scott rapped softly on the door before opening it. Inside, the room was dark, drawn curtains blocking out the afternoon sun. As Scott stepped inside, DarkCloud straightened up from the bedside, turned and acknowledged his entrance with a nod.
“How’s he doing?” Scott whispered.
“Sleeping. Which is what he needs. Wouldn’t do you any harm, either, I might add.”
Scott gave a deprecating shrug. “Later.” He paused, studied the still form whose face was finally relaxed and pain-free.
DarkCloud motioned toward the door. With a single backward glance, Scott followed him out to the hallway.
After closing the door quietly, DarkCloud faced Scott with crossed arms. “Is Murdoch downstairs?”
Scott shook his head. “He’s at the telegraph office,” he said then pointed to the next door and the one across the hall. “We rented two rooms. That’s all that were available for the night. But Murdoch managed to get the proprietor to group them close together.”
“It’s not really a problem. I was planning on spending the night with Johnny anyway.”
Scott grinned. “So was I.”
DarkCloud returned the grin with a chuckle then shook his head seriously. “You know, Scott, you’d do him more good if you got some sleep. He’s not the only one looking a little worse for wear.”
Scott arched an eyebrow, then with pursed lips the grin evaporated as he glanced toward the closed door. “Yeah, well,” he replied, his voice lowering, “it got a bit rough.”
DarkCloud paused a moment, his expression becoming even more serious. “Scott, what happened? The way Johnny’s been bruised up, I’m—well, I’m surprised he’s only added another cracked rib to the inventory.”
Scott shrugged heavily and crossed his arms, his attention remaining fixed on the door. “The Judge was trying to use him to get his son free, trying to bargain Johnny’s life against his son’s. It was all a trap—all a game—just as we feared.”
DarkCloud was quiet a moment. “Scott?”
“Hmmm?” Scott turned.
“When we entered…” DarkCloud took a breath before continuing, “things looked pretty intense. You looked about…” He hesitated, opted for another avenue. “What was going on?”
Scott was quiet a moment, dropped his gaze. “Nothing very noble, I’m afraid.” He lowered his hands to his hips and glanced up. “By the way, how come you’re up here? Not that I’m disappointed, but you’re probably the last person I expected to see.”
DarkCloud took note of the change of subject, decided to let his earlier question drop. “Just thought I ought to tag along. Tucson decided to take off after you in case you ended up needing help. Matthew was in town, heard us talking, thought he ought to go along, and I just didn’t want to miss out on all the fun. We had to have been only a couple hours behind you. We reached Salinas late last night and stayed in a hotel, figuring that’s what you’d do, too. In the morning we went to see if Harley knew anything more. Seems he had just arrived home a short time before we showed up. While we were there, discussing a course of action, his father-in-law showed up with the news that Sheriff Hawkins was dead.”
“He is?” Scott asked, startled. “When did this happen?”
“Just recently. He was returning from Monterey. Appears he was thrown from his horse.”
“Appearances have a way of being deceiving,” Scott replied tersely.
“Why? What do you mean?”
“You think the Judge had something to do with it?”
Scott shifted uncomfortably. “I wouldn’t doubt it. Though I suppose we could never prove it.”
DarkCloud shook his head. “It never occurred to me that the Judge might be involved.”
“Yeah, well.” Scott sighed, “I’m afraid I’ve gotten to know the Judge more than I’d like to over the past twenty-four hours.” He turned and gestured. “Why don’t you go on down and have something to eat? Murdoch ordered some food to be ready before he went out to the telegraph office. I’ll sit with Johnny for a few minutes.”
DarkCloud smiled and nodded. “Sure. I’ll be up when I’m finished.”
“Oh,” Scott put out a hand. “A question.”
DarkCloud paused, eyebrow arched.
“You didn’t give him any more morphine, did you?”
With a shake of his head, DarkCloud smiled. “No, Scott. He might wish he’d had some, but I didn’t. I did make him take a bit of laudanum. Just enough to take some of the pain away and give him a chance to get some rest.”
In an effort to hide his relief, Scott dropped his gaze and nodded. When he looked back up he smiled. “Thanks.”
DarkCloud gave Scott’s shoulder a pat before he turned and headed down the hall.
Quietly Scott re-entered the room and lowered himself into the small wooden chair. With a slow, deep breath, he stretched out his back muscles before settling into the chair, wincing as the movement pulled on his own bruises. As he stretched out his legs, his boot struck one of the legs of the bed. Johnny’s eyes slowly opened and he stared at the ceiling a second before blinking.
“Sorry,” Scott slid his chair closer. “It’s just me.”
Johnny lowered his eyes. “Hey, Boston,” he murmured with a weak smile, “I heard we won.”
Scott grinned. “That is the rumor.”
Johnny’s grin almost reached his eyes before disappearing behind clenched teeth, a swallowed moan accompanying the reaction. Scott reached out to put a hand on his leg, watched silently as his brother lay motionless, eyes closed, breathing tight but regular. Then after a moment, the eyes opened again and he started to roll to his side, pushing up from the bed.
“Hey!” Scott moved to sit on the edge of the bed and placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “You’re going to be taking it easy for the next couple of days.”
Johnny frowned as he felt Scott pushing him back onto the bed. “But…we’re still in Salinas.”
Scott nodded. “And that’s where we’re going to stay until DarkCloud says you can travel.”
Johnny looked up at the ceiling, then closed his eyes. “We’d be safer in Soledad.”
“Don’t worry. We have everything under control. Harley and Matthew—and Murdoch and I—we’re all watching out for you. All you need to concentrate on is getting well.”
Johnny smiled tiredly. “I’d get better faster in Soledad.”
“Accept the inevitable, Brother. You’re gonna be in bed awhile.”
Johnny tried to prolong the smile, but Scott could tell his brother was having a hard time keeping his eyes open.
“Just get some sleep. Then we’ll talk.”
Eyes already closed, Johnny gave a vague nod.
Scott waited a moment to make sure Johnny was indeed asleep before he moved back to the chair. He, too, was feeling the effects of the last few days. The thought of a full night’s sleep sounded so tempting. But he also understood Johnny’s concern. It was hard to relax knowing they were in the Judge’s town, even if they were staying in one of the largest and most respectable hotels. That had been Murdoch’s idea. He reasoned that if the Judge had second thoughts about their agreement, it would be even more difficult for him to pull something if they were staying in the better side of town. Also the odds that Johnny might go unrecognized seemed greater in the part of town where local talk and stories didn’t center around gunfights and the legends they produced. Murdoch and Scott were aware that they couldn’t keep his identity hidden indefinitely—word would eventually get out—but the reprieve of a few hours was appealing. They all desperately needed a break.
Scott shifted, leaned his head back against the chair and closed his eyes.
What seemed like only seconds later, he heard a soft knock and the door opened. Scott quickly straightened up, blinking a couple times as he drew his hand across his face. He’d obviously dozed off.
DarkCloud shut the door and smiled. “Seems as if I needn’t have hurried.”
Scott grinned sheepishly. “I think it’s caught up with me, too.”
“Go get yourself something to eat. Then I wish you’d take one of those other rooms and get some sleep.”
Scott stood up. “We’ll fight about it later.”
“Fight?” DarkCloud looked surprised. “Scott, I don’t think you look like you have much fight left in you.” He put a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Think of it this way, I need you back in peak form in case your brother gets feisty again, and you’ll be useless to me if you don’t get some sleep.”
Scott smiled. “We’ll discuss this after I get something to eat.” He paused. “Is Murdoch back?”
DarkCloud shook his head. “No, I didn’t see him. Harley and Matthew are downstairs. I think Harley’s taken on the job of watchdog. No one’s been able to enter the hotel without him giving them an intense glare and a menacing snarl.”
“Harley’s growl would intimidate even the most intrepid of the Judge’s men.”
“Johnny seems to inspire a rather fierce loyalty, doesn’t he?”
Scott glanced over at the sleeping figure. “That says a lot, doesn’t it?”
DarkCloud was silent a moment, then nodded. “Yes, I guess it does.”
A few minutes later, Scott glanced up from his plate as the door to the hotel opened, releasing a quick flash of sunlight across the dining room, which winked out as the door closed. Another patron had entered the establishment—and it wasn’t Murdoch. Covering his growing anxiety, he looked back across the table at his dining companion.
“It sure was timely havin’ Tucson and DarkCloud and Matthew arrive when they did,” Harley said. The full, dark beard could not hide the blacksmith’s consternation. “I tell you, after I found out that whole thing with Paul was a ruse, then comin’ back here to find that you and Johnny had been by—” He shook his head, picked up the mug in front of him and downed the last of its contents. “I didn’t know what to make of it, but I knew damned well it spelled trouble.”
Scott nodded his head. “And now hearing about Sheriff Hawkins,” he added.
Harley rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth in a manner more edgy than casual. “That judge…I don’t know…the more I learn about him the less I wish I knew. It’s a bit unsettlin’.”
Scott tipped his beer apologetically toward Harley. “At least once Johnny’s well, we get to leave.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve been wondering if it might be time to change my address,” Harley replied with forced levity.
Scott remained serious. “Harley, you know, if you need someplace, we could use a blacksmith of your caliber at Lancer. The amount of work we hire out—”
Harley held up a hand, shook his head sadly. “Scott, thanks. Really, that’s a kind offer. But, I couldn’t do that to you—or to Johnny. With me there, he’d…” Harley shook his head again. “There’s too much past between us that needs to be laid to rest and with me there, that would never happen. Johnny’d never be able to put Madrid behind him; he’d be confronting him every time he’d look at me—and so would you and your father.”
Scott remained silent, studied the burley blacksmith somberly. “Harley.” Scott paused, met the larger man’s eyes and held them. “Thanks for keeping him alive long enough so he got the chance to be my brother.”
The bearded face cracked a grin, the corners of Harley’s eyes crinkling in an expression Scott found strangely familiar. “You’re not too bad yourself, Boston.”
After finishing his meal, Scott walked out the front door of the hotel in search of his father; he didn’t have far to look. Murdoch was standing rigidly at the end of the boardwalk, arms crossed, his back turned.
Scott approached, smiled as Murdoch turned to face him. He sensed by the look on the older man’s face that their father was dealing with some of the same thoughts that had been running through his own head. “I was worried when you didn’t return right away.”
Murdoch smiled, let his arms drop to his side. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to worry you.”
“Johnny’s doing better,” Scott said. “He’s pretty tired, though.”
Scott took a deep breath, let it out as a slow sigh. “We still have our work cut out for us, don’t we?”
Murdoch’s expression quickly changed to remote detachment as he glanced back down the street. “Yes, the Judge could still make things uncomfortable, but I don’t think he’ll dare make much of a public display.”
“He’d do better politically to let the whole thing run its course, play the aggrieved and disappointed father who hopes the justice system will give his son a chance to reform.”
“Murdoch,” Scott cut in again, exasperated. “I’m referring to Johnny.”
Murdoch rested his hands on his hips, shrugged and started for the hotel door. “Yes, I suppose something will have to be done about that Kansas bounty now.”
“Murdoch,” Scott put a hand on his father’s arm.
Murdoch stopped, but didn’t turn around. “I’m worried, too, Scott—how we’ll all come to terms with what’s happened. What Johnny’s thinking, planning…”
“We need to talk to him about what’s happened.”
Murdoch sighed and slowly turned. “He might still choose to leave.”
“I don’t think he will.”
“He knows now my reluctance to acknowledge a son who was a gunfighter. And we still don’t know why he left in the first place.”
Scott gave his father’s arm a reassuring squeeze. “Let’s get him back to Soledad, get him well, before we start asking him questions.”
Murdoch nodded. “I just hope we can handle the answers.”
As night drew near, Scott conceded to wisdom and accepted DarkCloud’s prescription of sleep. For the next day, DarkCloud kept Johnny confined to bed with small doses of laudanum to take the edge off the pain, but it was obvious that remaining in Salinas had Johnny on edge, unable to fully relax.
At the end of the day, Johnny announced that he was well enough to get back down to Soledad and threatened to walk if necessary. DarkCloud pointed out the ridiculousness of this statement, as at the time, Johnny was making it while he was holding on to the back of a chair, hunched over and as white as a sheet. DarkCloud finally conceded, if not in the face of wisdom then in the face of stubbornness. Although Johnny was far from well, it was apparent to DarkCloud that his patient was not going to feel comfortable in Salinas and therefore was not going to relax. Despite his misgivings, DarkCloud agreed that Johnny could return, as long as he rode in a buggy.
Murdoch promptly went out and purchased a comfortable buggy and the next morning DarkCloud, Matthew, Tucson, Scott, Murdoch and Johnny were on their way back south. Murdoch left his horse with Harley to be returned to the livery where they’d rented him from when they’d first arrived in Salinas, but Scott decided to keep his mount, thereby giving Johnny more space in the buggy to either sit up or stretch out.
At first, everyone had been uneasy about leaving Harley behind. But as Harley had been quick to point out, they all knew too much for the Judge to try anything, especially if he had any hope of keeping control in Salinas. And everyone was quite sure that James was expendable when compared to the Judge’s concern for his own reputation.
By late morning, they were ready for a break from the rising heat and dust. And though Johnny wouldn’t have admitted it, he was relieved when Murdoch announced his intention of stopping to water the animals. Within moments, Johnny was dozing in the shade of a tree while Tucson and Matthew saw to the animals and Scott took the job of refilling canteens. Scott was climbing the bank of the river with the last batch of canteens when he paused to glance over to where Johnny was lying. He noticed that DarkCloud was sitting vigilantly nearby. Scott smiled at the thought that the doctor was going to be greatly relieved when his most troublesome patient was safely installed in a hotel room and under strict medical regimen and supervision. The man was determined to see that this time Johnny was fully healed before being allowed out of sight again.
Scott took a deep breath as he stretched out the tension in his back muscles, then turned as he heard the unmistakable pattern of Murdoch’s footsteps.
“Looks like Johnny’s getting some rest,” Murdoch observed.
Scott nodded. “I’m sure he could use it. It looked like he was fighting to keep his eyes open the last half hour.” He smiled as he adjusted his grip on the canteen straps. “Did you get another telegram sent yesterday?”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes. Johnny also asked me to make sure Val heard about Sheriff Hawkins. I also sent one to Teresa and Jelly. They should be relieved to get two recent telegrams.”
“Yeah,” Scott sighed, “but there’ll still be hell to pay when they find out what’s really been going on, and we didn’t tell them.”
“Can’t be helped,” Murdoch replied. “This isn’t the sort of thing I want discussed over the wire. And having so much of Salinas being under the Judge’s control, I thought it was prudent to also send a letter by post. They’ll get more information in that.”
Scott regarded his father. “That idea had occurred to me, too.”
“It’ll take longer to get there, but at least I know pertinent information has been disclosed.”
Scott tilted his head to survey his father with a half-grin. “Regarding a certain Judge?”
Murdoch smiled but didn’t reply. Instead he turned and studied DarkCloud and Johnny. “I’m concerned about Harley.”
“I talked to him about maybe coming to Lancer to work.”
Murdoch looked at Scott. “So did I.”
Scott chuckled. “He seems to think he’s one of those ghosts of Johnny’s who needs to stay buried.”
Murdoch sighed as he glanced back toward Johnny. “Sometimes burying something isn’t quite as wise as simply confronting it to begin with.”
Scott regarded Murdoch’s profile thoughtfully. “You are referring to our facing Johnny’s past.”
Murdoch continued to stare ahead. “I have a feeling over the next few weeks and months, we’re in for a lot of changes. I’m afraid we all know too much and have been through too much, for it to ever go back like it was.”
Scott closed his eyes and for a moment his shoulders sank, then he straightened back up. “Maybe that’s not all bad. There were a lot of times we all side-stepped issues or problems, afraid to bring up something that would make Johnny clam up…afraid we’d drive him away.”
“And avoidance obviously wasn’t the way to handle it.” Murdoch sighed, shook his head as if to clear his thoughts. “I’d still like something done with Harley. It’ll bother me if anything were to happen to him or his family.”
Scott nodded. “Before we leave, we’ll talk to him again.”
“Good idea.” Murdoch put a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Let’s go see if everyone’s ready to get moving.”
Scott lowered himself with a sigh. “I actually missed this chair,” he said as he rested the warm mug of coffee on his lap, glanced with satisfaction across the street to Calientes’ store, then tilted his head to fix Murdoch with a smile. His father was sitting in a chair next to him, enjoying his own cup of morning coffee.
Murdoch nodded as he took a sip. “DarkCloud said Johnny had a good night’s sleep.”
“He’ll be a lot more relaxed now that he’s down here than he was up in Salinas.”
“Can’t blame him,” Murdoch sighed and shook his head.
“No,” Scott shook his own head, his eyes trailing northward, a frown on his face. “The Judge put him through a lot…maybe too much.”
Murdoch turned to Scott, disturbed by the haunted look on his son’s face. Softly he ventured, “The Judge put you both through a lot.”
Scott shrugged off his dark expression and forced a smile. “Don’t worry about me, Murdoch. I’ll be fine.”
“But the things the Judge said…” Murdoch hesitated as Scott turned his face away. Cautiously he continued, “His insinuations, the suspicions he casts, are all calculated to provoke. He pushed you pretty hard.”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes, but I think you understood better what shape Johnny was in and what taking on the Judge was really costing him.” He paused and added, “The Judge has a way of twisting a person’s words, clouding his thoughts.”
Scott dropped his gaze to the mug in his hands, raised it to his lips and took a slow sip before he met Murdoch’s eyes. “Murdoch,” his voice became soft, strained, “I would have killed him.”
“I wanted to kill him.”
Murdoch nodded, reaching out to put a tentative hand on his son’s knee. “So did I.”
Scott and Murdoch studied each other a moment, then a hint of a smile touched Scott’s lips. He glanced down, seemed at first to want to swallow it, then with a shake of his head, he looked back up and held out his mug. “To the little bit of Madrid in both of us?”
Murdoch slowly allowed a chuckle to escape and raised his own mug. “Confronting our own ghosts?”
Scott let a laugh escape, then took a deep breath and sipped at his coffee. With a chagrined smile, he settled the mug on his lap and relaxed into his chair, his long legs stretched out in front of him.
Both men were quiet a moment, lost in their own thoughts. Eventually Murdoch raised his head.
“Scott, why’d you allow Johnny to stop the morphine? DarkCloud thought it unwise to quit like he did.”
Scott sighed and rubbed a thumb along the lip of his mug. “It was important to Johnny. He asked me to help; I couldn’t refuse.” He looked up, adding softly but firmly, “I needed to be the one to help him.”
Murdoch nodded slowly, turned back to his own mug. “I understand.”
“And I’m glad I did. It was…it was hard, but a lot of good came out of it, too.” Scott continued, “Remember DarkCloud’s suggestion to talk to Johnny? Well, I did.”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow.
“I learned so much I never knew. He told me things…well, maybe you are aware of most of it. I’m sure much of it is in that Pinkerton report you have…” Scott paused as he realized his voice had taken on a sarcastic lean. He offered his father an apologetic smile. “Sorry, I didn’t—”
Murdoch waved the apology away.
Scott pushed himself up in his chair and drew in his legs. “What I mean is, you maybe know about a lot of it, but he—he told me himself. I learned about how he took the name Madrid, how he and Harley, Wes and Cisco met up. I learned about his troubles with Forbes down in Texas, about protecting Padre Simon and a church’s relic across the desert…and I even…” He dropped his eyes uncomfortably, inhaled, looked back up. “I even learned about what had happened when he’d been shot up badly before.”
Murdoch listened, nodded.
“I found a lot to admire.”
“And a lot to fear.”
Scott nodded uneasily. “Yes, that too. But,”
he met his father’s eyes evenly, “he’s aware of that, and that’s exactly
what makes it so hard for him now. I
learned—I learned that those letters he wrote…that wasn’t just laudanum
talking, or his injuries, or even his loss of memory.
That was where Madrid was heading—that’s where Johnny was heading.
“Murdoch—” Scott leaned closer, tense “—if you hadn’t sent for Johnny, regardless of the firing squad, he wouldn’t have survived much longer. His life had gotten too dark. The tension, the isolation, the remorse…it was eating him up. I’m willing to bet that before your Pinkerton agent showed up, he really couldn’t have cared less that he was going to be killed. He’d lost the desire to live. But your offer, your contacting him, gave him something to live for, a reason to go on awhile longer, if only out of curiosity.”
“Or revenge.” Murdoch sighed deeply, glanced away. Then he shook his head and looked back. “But I should have offered it to him sooner.”
“That’s not at issue here,” Scott stated firmly. “What is at issue is that I learned Johnny can never truly go back to being Madrid. He may put on his mask, assume the part when needed, fall back on his…talents, but he can never really be Madrid, because he’d already slowly been letting him die. The hatred, the vengeance, the cold nerve, those components that made Johnny such a formidable gunfighter—they’d become too heavy to carry. He couldn’t continue like that any longer. He knew, in his heart, that he was playing a part that wasn’t for him and he could no longer live that way. The problem was, he felt he had no other choices, no other paths to follow, no future…no way to escape except…except to end it by death.”
Murdoch was silent a moment, eventually closed his eyes and sighed. “Is that feeling gone, do you think?”
“He has other choices now; he knows that. I think that’s why we had a few bad days after he’d regained his memory. There were a lot of conflicting emotions. He was trying to deal with the strong desire to just end it, yet at the same time trying to absorb this whole reality of a family, a home—a life with a future! I think—I think that’s also why he knew it was important to stop taking the morphine. He knew the medicine was making it harder for him to get through that cloud, that it was exacerbating those earlier feelings, giving the ghost of Madrid substance once more.”
Murdoch sighed, smiled sadly then shook his head. “I still need to face Johnny about some of the things the Judge brought up.”
“I know.” Scott nodded. “The Judge unveiled a number of uncomfortable topics.”
“I’d like you to be there when I speak to him.”
Scott looked surprised. “Don’t you think it would be better if the two of you talked in private?”
Murdoch shook his head. “My first reaction was that I would have preferred it that way, if only from my own embarrassment.” He looked down a moment. “But being realistic, I realize it would be better if you were there.” He glanced back up and self-consciously smiled. “It’s no secret you have the knack to defuse our sometimes volatile discussions.”
Scott returned the smile. “I’ll help in anyway I can.”
The rest of the day passed quietly. Returning to Soledad had eased Johnny’s nerves and allowed him to relax. Rosti saw to it that there was a hearty meal for lunch, and to further increase his patient’s desire to eat, DarkCloud allowed Rosti to spice it more to Johnny’s taste. Though Johnny ate fairly well, his need for rest proved greater, and he soon succumbed once again to the comfort of a relaxing sleep.
After Johnny had settled in for a nap, Scott and Murdoch decided to take advantage of the opportunity for a bath. Scott let Murdoch go first, knowing his father was one of those men who looked at a bath as another chore to be crossed off the list, preferring to get in and out so that he could go on to other more important business. Scott, however, desired nothing more than to soak in solitude, where he could enjoy the ablutions and the calming catharsis the warm bath afforded not only the body but the soul as well. He welcomed the first opportunity in weeks to indulge and to ease the tensions that had been building since Johnny had first left Lancer, and he planned to take every advantage of a good long, warm soak.
The bath ended up being everything Scott had hoped for, and after it became impossible to ignore the fact that the water was getting cold and his toes had begun to resemble large prunes, he reluctantly got out of the tub and dried off. He then exchanged his dusty, travel-stained clothes for new ones he’d purchased earlier in the day from Calientes.
Afterwards, he stopped in the saloon for a drink. Rosti and Tucson were leaning in conversation against the bar, a half dozen or so other patrons enjoying a drink or a meal at a few of the tables scattered about the room. Neither Murdoch nor DarkCloud was present.
“What can I get for you?” Rosti straightened up and smiled.
“Rosti, after that bath, I don’t think there’s a thing more I need,” Scott replied with an accompanying sigh that left no doubt of the truth of his statement.
Rosti chuckled. “Have a beer anyway,” he said as he grabbed a mug from under the counter.
Tucson took a sip of his own drink then waited while Rosti finished pouring Scott’s beer. “Madrid’s doing better, I hear,” he said after Scott accepted the mug.
Scott glanced at Tucson, tried to cover the slight sigh that escaped from the consistent use of the appellation before nodding his head and settling a half-smile on the town’s new sheriff. “Yes, Madrid’s doing better.”
“I’m really relieved. We were all pretty troubled by how the two of you left that mornin’.”
“Yes,” Scott nodded, his smile widening to become more genuine, “it’s a good thing you decided to trail us after all.”
Tucson gave a noncommittal shrug. “It were all DarkCloud’s doin’. Shoot, weren’t but a half hour after you left when I ran into him comin’ out of his store with a saddlebag, gun and supplies. Knew immediately he was plannin’ on headin’ after you.”
Tucson gave Scott a puzzled look. “Of course, DarkCloud. Darn fool was gonna go after you by himself. ‘Course Matthew and I would have none of it.”
An amused smile crossed Scott’s face. “So, it wasn’t your idea?”
Tucson looked confused. “Well, not really. I mean, you told me to stay here and take care of things. I figured you meant it.”
“And I did.” Scott smiled, gave the other man a pat. “Just glad that I didn’t give DarkCloud those orders.”
“Don’t think he woulda listened to you anyway.”
“Probably not,” Scott agreed. “He’s more like my brother than he knows.”
“Hey!” Rosti suddenly waved a hand. “Mr. Lancer, can I set you up with a drink?”
Scott glanced over to the door. Murdoch had entered, a book tucked under his arm. He smiled as he crossed toward the bar. “Maybe just one. It was getting too dark to read outside,” he explained as he set his book on the counter.
“Nice night,” Rosti observed.
Murdoch paused then suddenly smiled. “Yes, yes it is, Mr. Rosti.”
Tucson laughed, took a quick sip of his drink. “Shoot! The two of you get yourselves all washed up, and suddenly all the world smells like a rose!”
With a quick glance at his father, Scott smirked. “Well, don’t know about the whole world, but my little corner smells a lot nicer. Now, if we could just get you to pay the tub a little visit.”
“Hey!” Tucson protested.
“Might not be a bad idea,” Rosti observed. “I mean, you being sheriff and all, now. Tell you what, I’ll cut you a deal. Five cents.”
“I’ll even pay it,” Murdoch offered as he slid a coin on the counter.
Tucson backed up, drawing his mug up against his chest protectively. “Have a feelin’ I’m being ambushed.”
“Nonsense,” Rosti shook his head as he suppressed a laugh. “I’m just thinking of your future position. I mean, if you gotta go out tracking bandits or something, it might be nice if they can’t smell you before they see you.”
“That’s it!” Tucson grumbled as he reached out and finished sliding the coin toward Rosti. “Get that bath water going. I ain’t gonna be listening to no more of this.” He downed his mug, set it on the counter then turned away.
“Hey, where are you going?” Rosti asked.
“I’m gonna go get Calientes to open up so I can get myself some new duds to wear.” He paused dramatically with a wave toward Scott. “I aim to be looking as fine as Mr. Scott here before the night is over.”
Tucson stomped out of the saloon, Rosti chuckling at his retreating figure. “Oh, my. We’re slowly creating a monster.”
“No,” Murdoch smiled. “You’re just helping Tucson make the change from gunfighter to sheriff. And it’s a good change.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” Rosti remarked, his eyes still on the saloon door. He gave a slight sigh as he shook his head. “Sure am glad Madrid thought to make him sheriff. Don’t know as it woulda occurred to us. But it was a fine idea. Tucson’s really a good man, you know. Normally wouldn’t expect that from a gunfighter…” Rosti’s expression changed to chagrin and he dropped his gaze. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. Madrid’s—”
“Rosti,” Scott waved a hand, “don’t worry about it. Really.”
“No,” Rosti shook his head. “I should apologize. I mean, my idea…everyone’s idea here…” he gestured widely to include the town, “…about gunfighters… was not very, well, favorable. Even someone like Madrid…” He shrugged uncomfortably. “You’d hear stories that he was different, not like most of them, but I guess, in the long run, that really didn’t make a difference. They were still basically the same. They were…well, they killed, you know...to make a living…”
“I know,” Murdoch interrupted softly.
Rosti closed his eyes, shook his head. “I’m making this worse.” When he opened his eyes, his expression was heavy. “I guess I’m trying to say, that me…and the rest of the town…see things differently now. We got a chance to find out who Madrid was. And he was more than just stories and tales that one would assume were mostly made up. He became a real person. It became…it became impossible to think of him as just a killer that we had hired to take on our problem for us. It became…difficult for us all to see what was happening to him—to see him hurt. And not just because we worried he wouldn’t be able to finish the job he was hired to do, but…but because we all started caring.”
Scott nodded, could see his father grimly studying the mug between his hands. “I’m glad you told me this, Rosti.” He smiled. “It means a lot to us to know Johnny found friends in this town.”
Rosti nodded. “Madrid—Johnny—will always be welcome in this town.”
He stood in the middle of the saloon…
saloon he was familiar with…
saloon filled with the ghosts of the men he had killed…
he glanced toward the large mirror, closed his eyes and sighed as he was forced
to admit that the mirror was still void of his reflection.
did you expect, Juanito?”
turned around. “Padre Simon!”
the doorway of the saloon, Padre Simon smiled benevolently as he inclined his
tonsured head in greeting. After
scanning the occupants of the room with an understanding eye, the unpretentious
priest made his way across the room, navigating his way among the tables.
With unhurried steps, stooped shoulders, his slender frame girded by a
rough cord over the homespun beige cloth, he smiled and extended his arms in
“Padre Simon, what are you doing here?”
Johnny asked, his eyes darting uncomfortably among the blank faces now watching
came to help you, seein’ as you can’t seem to figure it out for yourself.”
glanced at a nearby table. Reveles,
Isham and Wes were seated; Reveles was dealing a hand of cards.
join us?” Wes asked with a gesture to a vacant chair.
looked at the chair, frowned, took a step forward.
felt a hand on his arm. Turned.
Padre Simon had taken him by the elbow.
they need another player.”
Simon shook his head firmly. “While
that may be true, my son, that is the wrong game for you.”
Hell, Johnny!” Wes banged the table. “Quit
thinking so much and just join the game, would you?”
glanced at Padre Simon. The priest
looked at him, the older man’s hand tightening on his arm.
“No, Juanito. There’s no more time.
You must face your ghosts.”
know about them?”
Simon nodded in quiet understanding. “Juanito,
I watched you for almost three months…they walked with you wherever you went.
I could not miss them. It is
now time to put them to rest.”
want to. I do.
But I can’t.”
answer was cut off by the sound of the door opening. He glanced up. Scott
and Murdoch entered, Murdoch stepping to the side to hold the door open for four
other men, men he recognized as having been killed in the Soledad shoot-out.
he whispered. “Murdoch and Scott,
they can’t be here. They
mustn’t see this.”
must let them,” Padre Simon said.
watched as his brother and father walked along the perimeter of the room,
eventually settling into two chairs against a wall.
are they doing that?”
told you, Juanito,” Padre Simon murmured.
“It’s time to face your ghosts.”
to be judged, Madrid.”
pivoted. The Judge stood behind the
bar, a gavel in hand and a venomous grin on his face.
He panicked, glanced quickly to Padre Simon then across the sea of blank faces
to the corner of the saloon where Murdoch and Scott sat.
I think I’d like to start with the difficulty having you around has caused
your family,” the Judge said. “The
facts as they are: the inability of your father to run for public office because
of the obvious problem an investigation into your past would cause, the real
worry of who might show up from that past with a score to settle, your flagrant
disregard for authority and convention, your propensity for attracting trouble,
your inability to truly settle down and let Madrid die… Then there’s simply
the matter of all these dead men.” The Judge gestured about the room.
he glanced around the room, the men looking up from their drinks and cards, the
mirror uncomfortably vacant of his reflection, though Padre Simon’s figure and
the Judge’s appeared clear. “I
don’t know what to do about it,” he whispered.
He turned, raised his hands in supplication to Padre Simon.
“What can I do about it now? It’s
too late. The dead are my condemnation.”
Simon shook his head. “I think
that you are condemning yourself.”
can I not?”
Padre Simon shook his head, “your burden is too heavy.
It’s time to let others help with the load.”
too late.” He shook his head. “At
one time, you tried to help me, give me a choice, but I didn’t take it.”
your father, he’s given you a choice…and you did take it.”
but there are too many ghosts now. Too
much death. I’ve tried to turn
away, to go the other path, but the way is overgrown, the grip of the dead is
are strong because you make them strong.”
do you mean?”
let them haunt you. You let your
past haunt you.” Padre Simon turned away, faced the saloon full of men.
“Listen to me. It is time to atone for your own actions, to confront your
is the meaning of this?” the Judge interrupted sharply.
Simon slowly pivoted, regarded the Judge with compassion.
“Now, now. Your turn to
stand trail will come.” He turned
back to the assembly and gestured. “We all acknowledge the fact that you fell to Madrid’s
gun. However, there are
circumstances that should be examined. Any
man here who was killed because he called Madrid out in a gunfight and lost,
watched as a large body of men rose, Kincaid and the Kid among the crowd, along
Simon nodded. “It’s unfortunate, but you lost a fight you started.
You forfeited your life in the hope that you would win glory if you
defeated Madrid. This is not
Madrid’s fault. It is your own.
You may leave.”
men turned, filed out of the room.
anyone here who was killed because he worked for a man who took advantage of
other men, who put money above people, and were thus killed in confrontations
with Madrid, you may stand.”
again, a large body of men stood up, including Isham.
worked for evil, you sold your soul to the devil for monetary gain.
It is not Madrid’s fault that you were killed while he was protecting
innocent people from your guns. You
men turned, filed out of the room.
then, anyone who was killed when Madrid came upon you dominating and oppressing
those weaker than yourselves, forcing others to submit to your demands and
lusts… You stand.”
large group of men stood. Among
them he recognized the men he’d killed when he’d come upon Violet and her
grandfather. And in the center,
glaring in hatred that still haunted his dreams, was the man he’d killed when
he was twelve, the man responsible for his mother’s death.
are not only wicked and evil, but also cowards. You are the back shooters and thugs. Death was your due. Hell
is your reward. You may leave.”
glanced about the room. Now only a
handful of men were left seated. He
glanced quickly toward Murdoch and Scott, tried to read their expressions.
are your only true ghosts, Juanito,” Padre Simon acknowledged softly.
“These are really the only ones you need to make peace with.”
I said, it’s time to let someone help.”
Simon shook his head. “No, my
son. I’m only a ghost myself.
But you have one close to you who can help, who wants to help.”
Simon nodded. “Let him help.”
but it’ll be worth it.”
wants to, he’s trying to, in his way. But
he has his own ghosts to deal with.”
there no way you can help?” he asked.
Simon smiled, reached out and grasped Johnny’s hand in his own.
looked down, felt something drop into his palm as the priest pulled his hand
away. In his palm was a medallion
on a gold chain. “What’s
it. Wear it. And remember.”
When Johnny awoke, it was with the uncomfortable feeling that he had forgotten something. He put a hand to his chest, felt the bandage that encircled his ribs, remembered suddenly the long sequence of days that had run together since he’d suffered the injury. Confusing scenes swirled in random order, from flashes of Scott seated beside him on the floor to the overbearing countenance of the Judge, each wavering in dizzying intensity as pain slowly awoke in his body. The devastating reality of the accusations directed at him, the tragic expressions of hurt and sadness on his brother’s and father’s faces, all slowly added themselves to his existence, and he sighed heavily, wincing at the tight jab in his chest and side
Not as bad as it was… Must be getting better…
With deliberate care, he shifted his position and glanced toward the window. The bright light that filtered through the curtains attested to the fact that it was mid-morning. He was back in his room over Rosti’s with no one watching over him. That in itself was a solid indication that he was getting better.
Still keeping his movements deliberate, he slowly rolled to his side and shifted his legs, lowering them to the floor. He winced slightly as he drew in a deep breath, then straightening up he rubbed his fingers over the fair beginnings of a beard. As he glanced about the room, he noticed a plate sitting on the table. Raising his chin to get a better look, he saw that someone had left fruit, cheese and bread.
With a nod of acknowledgement to his own hunger, he carefully stood up, testing his strength and mobility. Johnny smiled; he was feeling pretty good.
He stepped to the table, picked up a piece of bread and bit into it. As he chewed, he filled a glass from the water pitcher.
He had made a nice dent in the assortment of food when he heard footsteps halt outside his door. He turned expectantly as a soft knock sounded, and was rewarded with a hesitant smile on his brother’s face as Scott stuck in his head.
“Ah, I see you’re up.” Scott stepped into the room and nodded toward the table. “And I see your appetite has improved.”
“I was hungry.”
“Which is probably the best thing I’ve heard in a long time.”
Johnny settled a half-grin on his brother before popping a strawberry in his mouth. “I have a feeling I’m gonna be wearing suspenders with my trousers for quite a few weeks.”
Scott walked to the table, picked up a carrot, crunched it loudly as he leaned leisurely against the table. “I’m sure Jelly’s got one you could borrow until Teresa gets you fattened up again.”
Though Johnny smiled, Scott was disturbed when his brother glanced quickly away.
“Did we get here yesterday?”
Scott shook his head. “No, day before. You spent most of yesterday sleeping. You woke up just a few times, enough to take some food. We talked a bit about the new rail-line coming in—”
“I remember that,” Johnny interrupted.
Scott smiled. “See, it just takes a bit of time. You were pretty exhausted…” He paused, hesitating. “You had quite a rough time up there.”
Johnny kept his gaze averted, shrugged vaguely. “You too.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t the one the Judge was putting the screws to.”
Murdoch?” Johnny asked in a blunt diversion.
Deciding to let the matter drop for the moment, Scott idly picked up a piece of the bread. “He’s doing fine. We just got back from Mass.”
Johnny looked up, eyebrow raised. “Mass?”
Scott nodded, finished chewing the bread before responding. “Yes, we were at Mass this morning. Why do you think no one was here?”
Johnny shook his head. “I didn’t know it was Sunday. And I guess I’m surprised to hear Murdoch was at Mass.”
Scott smiled. “Well, to tell the truth, Father Alvarez didn’t exactly give us much choice. We promised last Sunday we’d be at services.” He shrugged as he picked up another strawberry and bit into it. “DarkCloud was actually here, so you weren’t really alone. He must have brought up the food.” Scott leaned over and studied the plate a moment before choosing a piece of sliced cucumber. “Must get Rosti to make me up one of these for lunch. This is really good.” He held the cucumber up to Johnny. “Whatever else you may say, they sure do grow some nice vegetables around here.”
Johnny looked at Scott askance. “If you say so.”
“I do,” Scott remarked, then began crunching on the cucumber slice.
At the sound of another knock on the door, Scott straightened up. “Hmmm,” he murmured as he finished chewing. “That’s right. I almost forgot. I have a surprise for you.”
“Surprise?” Johnny frowned.
Scott nodded as he walked to the door. “Ran into them at church,” he said as he opened it and stepped back.
Matthew and Grace stood in the hall.
“You’re looking much better,” Matthew announced as he entered.
“Johnny,” Grace greeted, her smile turning shy as she followed her brother into the room.
run on downstairs,” Scott said as he gave a quick wave. “ I’m sure Jamie
has that game all dealt and waiting for me.”
“Jamie?” Johnny asked in leery surprise.
At the doorway, Scott turned and nodded. “Yes, he was at church too.”
“You’re not letting him up here, are you?”
Scott shrugged. “Why not?”
“I don’t think I’m ready to see him yet.”
Scott shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Come on, now, Johnny. You’re up, you’re eating, you’re breathing without groaning, therefore I’d say you’re up to seeing Jamie.” He paused, fixing Johnny with a nod of encouragement. “Hey, he’s been waiting a long time to see you. You need to talk to him.”
“But,” Johnny gestured, “looking like this?”
Scott nodded. “Yes, looking like that. Granted, I’ve seen you better, but at this point, he’s been so worried about you that I think you couldn’t look any better to him if you tried.”
His expression doubtful, Johnny watched Scott leave. Then he sighed as he turned his attention to his unexpected visitors.
“Scott’s right,” Matthew said. “Jamie really needs to see you. His concern about your health has got him pretty upset. And you know Jamie. Not much gets him upset. We caught him trying to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night.”
“Twice,” Grace added.
Johnny smiled. “Then I guess I’d better see him.”
Crossing his arms, Matthew studied Johnny with a grin. “DarkCloud said he’s hoping in just a few more days he’ll be able to get rid of you as a patient.”
Johnny chuckled. “Yeah, I s’pose he’s looking forward to some time off.”
Matthew grew serious. “It’s good to see you looking better. We’re both relieved,” he added as he reached out and put his hand on Grace’s shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “I think I’ll go down stairs and make sure Jamie isn’t taking your brother for all he’s worth.”
“Matthew?” Johnny took a step forward, but Matthew continued for the door, indicating Grace with a nod of his head. With furrowed brows, Johnny watched the door close before turning to Grace. “I take it you wanted to see me, Miss Viera?”
“Grace,” Grace responded. “Please.” She bit her lip, nodded uncomfortably as she nervously smoothed her skirt. “Yes, Johnny, I wanted to see you. There’s been… It’s been quite a while since I last had a chance to talk to you. And I felt I needed a chance to clear up some things since… Well, so much has changed.”
Dipping his head, Johnny crossed his arms, a half-grin on his face. “Yeah, I guess that’s probably an understatement.”
Grace didn’t return the smile, but remained serious. “When I left the last time, I thought…” she paused as she sought out Johnny’s eyes, “we both thought you were going to be killed.”
Johnny’s eyes crinkled in amusement as he leaned back against the table. “Well, I guess we were wrong, weren’t we?”
Grace nodded, smiling hesitantly. “I’m glad.”
“Well, that makes two of us,” Johnny stated, the grin widening.
Grace raised an eyebrow. “Are you really?”
Though the grin disappeared, Johnny nodded, his gaze firm. “Yes.”
Grace sighed, seemed to need a moment to continue. “What I said…you know…about dying alone.”
Johnny nodded again, this time swallowing before responding. “You were right.”
Grace worried her bottom lip a moment before continuing. “I…probably shouldn’t have said that to you, though. It wasn’t…it wasn’t my place to—”
“As I said, you were right.” Johnny shook his head, then managed a smile. “It’s just that no one, except for…for a priest knew what that medallion was for.”
“Not even your father or brother?”
Johnny shook his head. “I—well, I quit wearing it a few months after coming to the ranch. I guess I figured I didn’t need it anymore.”
“But you had it on when we found you.”
Johnny shrugged. “I know. Every once and awhile I’d wear it. I think more to remember Padre Simon, the priest who gave it to me, than anything else.”
“He meant a lot to you?”
Johnny pursed his lips, then slowly nodded. “Yes, he did. He tried to show me a different path. I—I regret that he died before he had the chance to know that I was listening.”
Grace sighed and bowed her head. “I’m sure he knows, Johnny. Perhaps…perhaps he aided in the miracle.”
Johnny glanced up sharply, brows furrowing. “I really don’t think so.”
Her face suddenly flushing, Grace took a step forward as she sought out Johnny’s gaze. “It truly is amazing what happened, don’t you think? Father Alvarez—”
Johnny raised a hand. “Don’t tell me he’s still talking miracles.”
Grace tilted her head to the side. “Don’t you believe in them?”
“Miracles?” Johnny scoffed, shook his head with a slight chuckle. “I’m afraid not.”
“But the way the medallion saved your—”
“Please, Grace,” Johnny interrupted, turned and picked up a slice of bread off the plate. “I really don’t think that God—or any of His saints—are gonna care one way or another what happens to me.”
Grace thrust her chin out as she crossed her arms. “Then why did you wear the medallion?”
Johnny shrugged, took a bite of the bread, but Grace noticed he kept his gaze on the table.
“You must have worn it for some reason.”
“Like I said, I promised Padre Simon I would.”
“Then the medallion stopping that bullet?”
“Was pure luck,” Johnny straightened up, turned and walked toward the window.
“So you have no faith?”
“My faith is in luck,” Johnny responded over his shoulder.
Grace raised an eyebrow and thoughtfully nodded. “Then if you have no faith of your own, how about my faith, how about Father Alvarez’ faith, and Matthew’s and Jamie’s and a dozen other people who were praying for your recovery after you were injured, and just recently for you and your family’s safe return? Hmmm? What about our faith? Or even this Padre Simon’s whose medallion you wore?”
“Grace.” Johnny turned and put up both hands. “I don’t mean to discount your belief, but…” He paused and shook his head. “Don’t you see where talk like this leads to?”
“No, Grace. Not faith. Tales like this turn gunfighters into heroes and legends.” He stepped forward, putting a finger under her chin, his voice dropping low. “And gunfighters have no business being heroes.”
Grace’s chin wavered, yet she kept her gaze steady. “I think there’s at least one who does.”
Johnny shook his head. “No, Grace. There isn’t one damn gunfighter in the world who deserves that.”
As he removed his finger from her chin, Grace bowed her head and softly replied, “I guess I’ll have to disagree with you again.”
Johnny chuckled wryly, then turned toward the door at the sound of feet running down the hall. “Jamie,” he whispered.
“Jamie,” Grace echoed, looking up. “I’m actually surprised Matthew kept him waiting as long as he did.”
“Johnny!” The words flew out of Jamie’s mouth as fast as he flew through the door. Johnny barely had the time to notice Matthew and Scott standing in the doorway as Jamie propelled himself toward his goal.
“Whoa!” Johnny grunted, wincing as Jamie threw his arms around his waist. He swallowed back a groan, managed to wave off Scott and Matthew’s help as he put his other arm around Jamie’s back. “Hey, Jamie,” he greeted.
“Oh, Johnny!” Jamie tilted his head back. “It is sooooo good to see you! I’ve missed you something awful! I thought you were dead!”
“Why?” Johnny questioned with a chuckle. “Has someone been tryin’ to spread a nasty rumor about me?”
Jamie laughed as he stepped back. “Oh, Johnny.” He paused, his eyes narrowing as he studied Johnny a moment. “You know, Johnny,” he said, lowering his voice, “you need to get rid of the beard. And well…”
“Well,” Jamie grimaced, “your hair’s gotten long enough to be a girl.” He shrugged apologetically. “Thought maybe someone ought to tell you.”
Johnny managed to keep his face straight as he glanced over Jamie’s head to Scott who had stepped into the room. “Yeah, it’s a good thing someone told me that.”
Jamie smiled. “You know what?”
“I brought my cards.”
“I woulda never expected.”
“Well, I did.” Jamie held up a small leather bag. “They’re in here. You wanna play?”
Johnny nodded, grinned as he gestured toward the table. “I’d love to. But I haven’t got any money. Just a plate of strawberries and cucumbers.”
Jamie eyed the plate. “We’ll play for strawberries.” He lowered his voice. “I don’t much care for cucumbers.”
“Know what you mean. DarkCloud says I gotta eat them.”
Jamie shook his head sympathetically as he walked to the table and pulled out a chair. “Yeah, DarkCloud’s always trying to get me to eat green things, too. He says they’re good for you, or something.”
“That’s the same line he’s been using on me,” Johnny replied as he sat down in the opposite chair.
“Well,” Scott interjected with a grin, “since it seems you two have some serious business to attend to, I’ll just go back on downstairs. Rosti made me up a nice fruit and vegetable plate—and I do happen to like cucumbers.”
“Bring me up some more strawberries,” Johnny directed with a wink. “Enough for a couple of rounds, okay?”
Chuckling, Scott nodded. “This gambling habit of yours is getting serious.”
“I know. I s’pose something will have to be done about it eventually.” Johnny added with a sly grin, “After I beat the pants off Jamie, here.”
“Yeah, right,” Jamie scoffed as he began to shuffle the cards. “I’ve been practicing on Scott while you’ve been lyin’ around sick.”
“Oh,” Johnny feigned surprise with a sharp look at Scott. “Practicing on Scott, huh? Well, I know how he plays, and he has the worst poker face I’ve ever seen.”
“You, Brother, are being rude. I’m leaving.” Scott pivoted and left while Jamie laughed loudly.
“I guess we’ll follow Scott,” Matthew added as he signaled Grace with a nod then turned to Jamie, “Now if Johnny says he’s getting tired, you come right on down, okay? Otherwise, we’ll be up to get you in half an hour.”
“Okay,” Jamie replied without bothering to turn.
As the door closed, Johnny picked up his cards and began to organize them by suit. “So, you taught Scott this game, hmmm?"
“Yeah,” Jamie answered vaguely, bit his tongue as he looked over his cards. “I hadta do something, as upset as he was.”
Jamie looked over his cards and nodded. “You musta not been doin’ so well. I saw him out in front here of Rosti’s lookin’ pretty sad.” Jamie laid down a card. “I think he was really, really afraid you might die and that scared him.”
Johnny attempted to hide his discomfort at Jamie’s revelation by laying down a card.
“Lots of people were pretty upset,” Jamie continued as he put down another card and drew. “But I got to hear a great story from Mr. Harley about you and Wes that day. Had to do with some baby rattlers.”
Johnny grinned. “I’m sure old Harley elaborated on that story so much it barely held any resemblance to what really happened.”
Jamie grinned and attempted a passable wink. “Even my sister thought it was a great story.”
Johnny grimaced. “Just what I need. More stories.”
“You mean like the saint who saved your life?”
Johnny sighed. “Now, Jamie, I don’t want you getting any idea in your head about saints saving me. No saints were involved. It was pure luck.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Johnny. I saw it all happen, remember? Though Father Alvarez has one thing wrong.”
“He does? What?”
“It can’t have just been one saint. I figure it musta been two. Or at least one saint and an angel. Though I s’pose it coulda been two ang—”
“Where’d you ever get that idea?” Johnny asked in surprise.
“Why, it’s simple, Johnny.”
Johnny chuckled. “Well, I guess you’ll have to explain it to me.”
Jamie sighed dramatically. “See, there had to be two saints, ‘cuz one had to make sure the medallion was in the right place and one had to make sure the gun was aimed right at it. You know, move the guy’s hand just so.”
Johnny frowned, shook his head. “Jamie, God’s not gonna send down two saints or two angels—or whatever—to save me. It was luck. You need to understand that.”
“No, it weren’t,” Jamie replied firmly as he sat down his cards. “You see, it’s like this. God can’t do big miracles nowadays, like parting seas and making it rain for forty days and nights so He can go and flood things—though He can’t go and do that one ‘cuz he promised He wouldn’t,” Jamie added, his lips pursed thoughtfully, head cocked to the side. Then he grinned and continued, “But those other big miracles, you know. Father Alvarez says He can’t do things like that now ‘cuz it’ll send people panicking and get them all confused and such, people being kinda like sheep and all. So He looks for little miracles.”
“Yeah, something small, but that people will realize is one of His miracles.”
Johnny grimaced. “And you think this medallion thing is one of those?”
“Of course, only, as I said, it was obvious He couldn’t send just one ‘cuz He had to make sure everything worked out just perfect. He couldn’t just have the guy miss you, you know, ‘cuz no one would know it was one of His miracles then; they’d just think the guy was a bad shot.”
After swallowing a smile, Johnny grew serious. “Jamie,” he leaned across the table and put his cards down. “I really don’t think gunfighters are who God’s got in mind for miracles, and that’s what I am—was—at the time.”
Jamie regarded Johnny seriously. “Well, if gunfighters don’t deserve miracles, how ‘bout Scott’s brother and my friend? Does he deserve one?”
as he slowly sat back in his seat.
An hour later, Scott was waving to Jamie, who was seated in the box of the buckboard as it rolled down the main street of Soledad and out of town. As they turned the corner, Scott gave a final wave, then dropped his hand to his side and sighed.
“So how did it go?”
Scott turned to find DarkCloud walking up the boardwalk toward him.
“Fine. Though Jamie thinks Johnny needs to lose the beard and get a haircut.”
“Are you heading up to see him?”
DarkCloud nodded. “He’s had very little laudanum today. He’s probably going to protest, but I’d like to see that he takes a bit along with some tea for lunch.”
Scott placed his hands on his hips as he turned and faced the saloon. “You know, this is difficult business, getting my brother well.”
DarkCloud raised an eyebrow in amusement. “No kidding,” DarkCloud replied dryly. “And that’s precisely why I’d like to see you keep him that way once I’m finished with him.”
Chuckling, Scott headed back into the saloon.
With a raised eyebrow, DarkCloud followed. “You want to tell me what’s so funny?”
Johnny stood at the window of his room. DarkCloud and Scott had just been there and left, after their obvious attempt to get him to eat and drink lunch. The minute amount of laudanum DarkCloud insisted on using in the tea was really of little consequence. It only dulled some of the sharper edges; the pain was still there. In a strange way, this brought him a sense of relief…and accomplishment. He was winning the battle again.
He turned away from the window, rubbed his face, scratched his chin.
There was, however, another battle to take care of.
He crossed to where his boots lay at the foot of his bed and picked them up. With a bit of difficulty and a couple of rather loud grunts, he managed to get them on. Next he took his holster off the bedpost, began to buckle it on, then hesitated. He considered leaving it then shook his head and tightened the buckle. Once done, he went to the door, opened it carefully and checked the hallway.
No one was around, which was
exactly what Johnny had expected and hoped for.
For earlier, when DarkCloud and Scott had been leaving, Johnny had heard
the doctor ask Scott for help in moving a cabinet in his shop, and Scott had
mentioned that Murdoch was visiting one of the nearby ranchers for the
afternoon. Providence, Johnny
smiled to himself, was sending him a bit of luck.
Down in the saloon he had to contend with Rosti’s rather amazed reaction at seeing him up and moving about, but as it was a Sunday, no one else was around. After telling Rosti that he planned to use the outhouse like a civilized person for once and that afterwards he was going to sit on the porch for some fresh air, he made his way outside without really any more difficulties.
The next obstacle would probably be Solero.
When he reached the livery, he found the owner standing in the shade of the doorway, discussing the addition of a couple of rental buggies for his business with another local man. Though both men’s greetings were friendly, Johnny couldn’t help but notice the wide-eyed, nervous expression with which the second man regarded him. Johnny attempted to give the man a cordial smile, but the man shifted uncomfortably, his gaze dropping, unable to meet Johnny’s eyes.
Inwardly Johnny sighed. It was a reaction he was painfully familiar with. The reaction people had on unexpectedly meeting Madrid.
“I’m going to take Barranca out for a short ride.”
“Do you think that’s wise?” Solero asked.
“He hasn’t been ridden in a long time. It’d be good to get him out.”
Solero smiled uncomfortably. “I wasn’t meanin’ Barranca, Mr. Madrid.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow as he fixed the man with a stern look. “I’m fine, Solero.”
“But,” Solero swallowed, “I mean…your brother and father—”
“I said, I’m fine,” Johnny replied firmly as he brushed past Solero.
Johnny saddled up Barranca on his own, aware that the proprietor was watching him carefully, fully doubting the veracity of his claim. Careful not to show any discomfort, and silently grateful that he had not fought DarkCloud about taking the small amount of laudanum with his lunch, he finished the task as quickly as he could. By the time he’d finished, though, the aching throb from his wounds was threatening to send him to his knees. Only the knowledge that Solero was watching him kept him from seeking a few moments of rest before mounting.
Once in the saddle, he adopted a leisurely pace—just as much to allay Solero’s concerns as from actual physical need—and headed south for a few minutes before eventually turning toward the river. He took his time, anxious not to appear as if he had a destination in mind.
The road was worn and pitted. Clumps of dead grasses stuck out randomly, their efforts to survive thwarted not so much by actual traffic as by the dry California summer. The air was calm, the afternoon winds hadn’t started yet, so the dust kicked up by Barranca’s hooves quickly settled.
Johnny breathed deeply, felt the tightness of the bandages, a sharp, yet manageable pinch in his side and chest. For a few minutes he closed his eyes, merely let Barranca follow the trail, as he enjoyed the sensation of total quiet and isolation. There was something calming about it. No one looking, studying him with concern…or questions. He opened his eyes, saw his destination rising in the distance, the Santa Lucia Coastals in the background.
how are you going to answer those questions?
He shook his head, threw off the thoughts, let his eyes trail slowly from side to side. He reached out, patted Barranca’s neck then watched as a small bird, startled by their appearance, flew out of a scrubby bush along the road and circled overhead, waiting for them to pass.
The road ended, became merely a trail off toward the mountains, where Johnny turned to enter the gate of the Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad. His goal.
The yard was a small, barren clearing, large enough to accommodate the few horses and buggies of the locals who ventured to the small mission for services.
He let Barranca continue on across the yard, where he reined up at one of a half dozen hitching posts near the entrance to the small adobe church. As he approached, he noted that the mission was in need of repair. The harsh weather was slowly eating away at the walls; however, the roof looked recently replaced with new tile. Lined along the portico were a few rose bushes of a deep scarlet red whose vigor attested to the care and management of Father Alvarez.
Mindful of his injuries, Johnny dismounted and drew Barranca’s reins through the hitching ring. He paused, looked around, debated whether he should head into the chapel or go around the side to the rectory entrance. He stepped up onto the walkway, went to the chapel door and opened it. Other than the votive candles and the couple of small windows, the chapel was dark and empty. He closed the door, turned and followed the portico along the front of the building.
As he neared the corner, he caught faint pieces of a canticle. He turned and paused, gazing out across a small garden. A half-dozen or so fruit trees bordered the small garden, the center of which was a well. It was from behind this that drifted the strains of the song, now recognizable.
“…Benedicite, Rores et Pruina, Domino, Benedicite, Gelu et Frigus, Domino.”
Johnny stepped off the boardwalk and took a few steps, then halted again as the back of a graying tonsured head bobbed into view, then disappeared again.
“…Benedicite, Glacies et Nives, Domino, Benedicite, Noctes and Dies, Domino.”
A grin came to Johnny’s face and he joined in, “Benedicite, Lux et Tenebrae, Domino, Benedicite, Fulgura et Nubes, Domino.”
This time the head fully appeared, brown eyes wide, then crinkling as a smile came to the lips.
“Juanito!” Father Alvarez pushed himself to his feet. “Must you always do that to me?”
Johnny shrugged and chuckled. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist.”
Father Alvarez laughed then rubbed his gloved hands to remove as much soil as possible before he slipped them off. He walked forward, his dark eyes making a thorough examination of the young man in front of him. He subdued his urge to reach out for an embrace of welcome, and instead inclined his head. “I am surprised, but pleased, to see you here. Your father and brother both appeared for Mass this morning.”
“I know,” Johnny replied. “Scott told me.”
“You could have come, too.”
Johnny shook his head. “Oh, I don’t think so.”
The padre smiled. “You’d rather sing the Benedicite Dominum with me? I believe you left off at ‘light and darkness.’”
Expressionless, Johnny regarded Padre Alvarez in silence a moment before shaking his head. “I’m afraid that’s all I remember.”
Father Alvarez raised an eyebrow, but didn’t respond, letting the subject lie. “Your father is a very generous man. Or at least, I am assuming it was he who placed a rather substantial offering in the collection plate.” Father Alvarez grinned wryly. “Either that, or I have a soul in my flock who has turned to bank robbery.”
Johnny smiled. “I wouldn’t worry none. It sounds like Murdoch.”
“I would like to thank him for his generosity.”
Johnny shook his head. “Knowing Murdoch, he would prefer to remain anonymous. That’s the way he does things.”
Father Alvarez nodded and cocked his head to the side. “Then I shall honor his wishes.” He paused. “Now how about you? Does your family know you’ve come out here?”
Johnny frowned. “No.”
“I thought not.” His eyes scanned Johnny’s face again. “And if I’m not mistaken, you could use a bit of lemon water and some cool shade.”
“I’m fine,” Johnny responded.
Father Alvarez raised an eyebrow. “Well then, I’m thirsty and would like to get out from this sun. You may accompany me or stand out here.” He turned and walked toward a side door, bending first to pick up a worn, leather-bound Bible that was laid on a bench nearby.
With an amused shake of his head, Johnny followed the priest to the side entrance.
Father Alvarez opened the door and led the way, waiting until Johnny had entered before closing the door behind them, shutting out the bright early afternoon sun. As he did so, he saw the young man react instantaneously by taking a step backward, his eyes narrowing as he sought to make out the room. Sadly he also noted that Johnny’s hand had dropped to the weapon on his hip.
Johnny had been surprised by the sudden darkness of the room. His reaction had been habitual and immediate, though in the space of a second he had recovered his composure. The room was simply a storage room, the two, small, highly placed windows not affording much light. He glanced quickly at the priest, but Father Alvarez had already turned and was placing his gloves on a shelf.
“I would rather feel the soil in my hand, the dirt between my fingers,” he was saying. “However, I find that during Mass, the people become more interested in the scratches on my hands and the dirt under my nails than in the sacrament they are participating in.” Father Alvarez continued to the opposite side of the small room and opened another door.
Johnny followed and soon found himself in a small kitchen, an adobe fireplace taking up most of one wall, a square table and two armless chairs in the middle of the room.
Father Alvarez motioned for his guest to sit in one of the chairs as he went to a long, rough, wood table along the far wall where he picked up a pitcher. He then went to a cupboard and opened it, and after hooking his finger through the handle of two earthenware mugs, he brought them to the table. Next he went back to grab a lemon and a small knife. As he approached, he smiled as he held the lemon out. “A wonderful creation, don’t you agree?”
Johnny nodded as he sat down.
“I love a little lemon in my water,” Father Alvarez said.
“Goes with tequila, too,” Johnny replied with a hint of a smile.
Father Alvarez chuckled. “Well, you’ll have to content yourself with water.” He poured the water, then cut two slices of lemon and dropped them in. “This will refresh you,” he said as he held out the mug.
Johnny nodded his gratitude as he accepted. “Gracias.”
“Now, then,” Father Alvarez said as he sat down. “I’m afraid you know my secret.”
Father Alvarez smiled as he gestured toward the door they had come in. “No matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to devote my Sunday afternoons to quiet study and reflection of our Lord’s teachings. I try.” He shook his head ruefully. “My intentions were good. I took my Bible and planned to sit out in the midst of God’s creation where I could read and contemplate.” He sighed. “But those weeds.” He shook his head again then leaned slightly forward, a contrite expression on his face. “They don’t rest on the Sabbath.”
“I’ve noticed,” Johnny agreed with a smile then took a sip from his mug.
“So, I appeased my conscience by singing while I weeded. I hope the Lord won’t mind.”
Johnny shrugged. “Well, He performed miracles on the Sabbath.”
For a quiet moment, Father Alvarez’ dark eyes searched Johnny’s face before acceding with a nod. “So He did.” He then smiled and took a long sip of water, his eyes remaining on Johnny’s face, watching as Johnny took a leisurely sip of his own drink. “So, my son. Did you come to have questions answered or are you seeking absolution?”
“I generally find that when people come all the way out here, they are looking for either answers or absolution.”
“Well, I came for neither, Padre.”
“Really? Then to what do I owe the honor of this visit?”
Johnny placed his mug on the table. “I came about the Saint Francis nonsense.”
“I take it you don’t believe Saint Francis saved you?”
“Of course not,” Johnny replied sharply. “When you mentioned it before, I thought you were joking.”
“Oh, I’d never joke about something so important.”
“Well, I want you to stop spreading those rumors. People are starting to believe it. Do you know Jamie is now convinced that it had to have been more than one saint…or angels…or whatever? One in charge of the bullet and one in charge of the medallion just so there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was a miracle and not just an accident.”
Father Alvarez nodded thoughtfully. “I see where his idea does have some merit.”
“On, come on, Padre!” Johnny protested, waving a hand. “You can’t let people go around claiming that I was saved by some saint when we both know that isn’t so!”
“I don’t know that,” Father Alvarez demurred.
“It was a gunfight. A gunfight! There was nothing holy or righteous about it!”
“You were helping the town—”
“I was Johnny Madrid, a
gunfighter, doing the job I was hired to do!” Johnny declared hotly.
“You were risking your life to protect others.”
“There was nothing noble about my actions, Padre. I went into that gunfight expecting to kill—planning to kill! I took the town’s job because I had no other choice and I needed the money!”
“You took the job to seek redemption,” Father Alvarez replied softly.
Johnny glared, smacked his hand on the table. “I was seeking nothing! I wanted to get paid!”
The priest was quiet a moment. “The idea of being saved by a saint bothers you. Why?”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed.
Father Alvarez cocked his head to the side and leaned forward. “Most people would feel blessed, yet you don’t. Why is that?”
Johnny clenched his jaw in irritation, his eyes growing dark.
“Juanito, why is it so difficult for you to accept the idea that you were saved?”
For a second, Johnny’s eyes flashed in anger. Then his expression grew cold and hard as he hissed, “Because I’m not worth it.” He pushed angrily away from the table and bolted upright, the quick movement ending in a swallowed groan as he hunched to his side, his arm pressed up against his ribs, hand to chest. Within seconds he had forced himself erect, his back to the priest, who had quietly observed his actions without moving.
“When our Lord came among us, whom did he spend his time with?” Father Alvarez asked softly, waiting as Johnny crossed his arms. “Juanito, who did Jesus come to help?”
“Padre, you don’t—”
“The dregs of society, los hez, the prostitutes, the lepers and untouchables…the unworthy.”
Johnny’s back stiffened as he turned to throw a sharp look over his shoulder. “You don’t understand what you’re doing. Soon you’ll have people believing in—”
“What, Juanito? Hope? Faith?”
Johnny shook his head. “No, Padre.”
Johnny turned his face away, his shoulders slumping, but he didn’t answer.
Father Alvarez breathed deeply, suddenly understanding. Slowly he stood up. “It’s that people will believe in you, isn’t it?”
When Johnny didn’t answer, Father Alvarez walked around the table. “What’s so wrong about people having faith in you?”
Johnny shook his head, slowly turned to meet the padre’s eyes. “Faith can be shattered.”
Father Alvarez met the statement with a sympathetic nod, then reached out tentatively to place his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “That may be. But what is life without faith?”
Turning away, Johnny replied softly, “Hell.”
Father Alvarez gave Johnny’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze, noticing that the younger man had grown pale, perspiration glistening along his forehead and neck. “Juanito, come sit back down. Have some more water.”
“I should head back to town.”
“I’ll accompany you.”
“No,” Johnny shook his head, turned to face Father Alvarez. “I can make it alone.”
“But you needn’t go alone. I am supposed to have supper with the Hartnell family who lives just this side of town. You would do me the favor of accompanying me that far.”
Johnny sighed, regarded the padre tiredly. “Fine.”
Father Alvarez put a hand on Johnny’s elbow and discretely guided him back to the table. “I won’t be but a minute.” He refilled the cup and added another slice of lemon. “Enjoy your water as you wait. I’ll have my mule saddled before you finish.”
Johnny began to rise. “I should help you.”
“No,” Father Alvarez put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “You remain here. Polvo gets skittish among strangers.”
Johnny lowered himself back in his seat and watched the padre open a door, which led to a dim hallway.
“Just wait here. I’ll only be a minute,” Father Alvarez instructed.
Johnny sighed and turned his attention back to his mug. Dismally he picked it up, noted with a sour expression that his hands were shaking again and the familiar swirling heat was building in his belly. He took a sip of the water, forced it down in a hope that it would quench the growing fire. Then elbows on the table, he rested his forehead in his palms.
The entire meeting had been a waste. Father Alvarez was convinced divine intervention had saved him in that gunfight. He reached out with one hand, brought the mug to his lips for another small sip, placed it back on the table, then let his head lower tiredly to the table.
And now he felt sick again. He should have gone with the padre, helped him…or at least seen to Barranca. He rolled his head so he could see the door. He ought to get up, go give Barranca some water before they started back. He just wished he didn’t feel so awful. He hated to admit it, but the symptoms from the morphine still had a hold. DarkCloud was right. His expression souring, he rolled his head until his forehead was pressed against the cool wood once more.
He’d get up in just a minute. He was sure if he lay really still for just a little longer, he’d feel better.
Father Alvarez paused in the doorway of the kitchen and regarded Johnny with tender concern. The young man had fallen asleep, head on the table, left arm curled up over his head, his right hanging limply along his side.
Father Alvarez walked quietly to the table, silently musing about what saint might be responsible for keeping his young visitor from falling out of his chair, as he was seated precariously on the edge. Cautiously he put a hand out to touch the young man on the back.
The reaction was immediate and fierce. Johnny bolted upright, his hand locating the revolver at his side, bringing it up in a blur of movement. However, the table did not appear to exist in whatever reverie he had recently belonged, and his hand found its way obstructed on its journey with a resounding and bruising blow against its underside.
“Damn! What the hell?”
“Wha—?” Johnny glanced around, clearly confused, his eyes blinking as he rubbed the back of his right hand with his left, the gun still clenched in his grip.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” Father Alvarez said.
Johnny blinked again, then shook his head as his gaze dropped to the gun in his hand. “No, I ought to apologize.” He looked up. “I’m afraid it is a very bad habit I can’t seem to break.”
Father Alvarez put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Habits born of survival are some of the strongest.”
Johnny re-holstered his weapon with unconcealed embarrassment. “Still, I apologize, Padre.”
Father Alvarez shook his head, dismissing the incident with a wave. “Juanito, how are you feeling? Can you make the trip back into town?”
Johnny nodded and got to his feet. “I’d just like to get Barranca some water before we leave.”
“Already taken care of,” Father Alvarez said. “He and Polvo are ready to go.”
Johnny sighed, glanced around the room as he pushed the hair off his forehead. “Are you sure I can’t get you to change your mind about divine intervention?”
Father Alvarez shook his head with a smile. “Can I get you to accept the fact that a miracle did take place?”
Johnny shook his head, returned the smile ruefully. “It never happened, Padre.”
With a solicitous smile, Father Alvarez raised an eyebrow and reached out to place his fingers softly on Johnny’s chest. “Oh, no? Where’s your evidence?”
Johnny gave a soft, derisive snort as he turned away and headed out to the hall. “I gotta get back before Scott turns cavalry on me.”
Father Alvarez followed, smiling as Johnny suddenly pivoted and gestured widely. “Okay, how do I get outta here?”
“The door on your right.”
“Thanks,” Johnny grumbled as
he opened it and stepped into the bright afternoon sunshine.
Pausing to adjust his eyes to the sudden brightness, he saw that both Barranca and the padre’s mule were tied side by side.
Johnny turned around. “Si, Padre?”
“Before we head to town, I have something I’d like you to accept.”
Johnny cocked his head to the side, his eyes crinkling. “As long as it’s not a blessing. I think I’ve had enough divine sanctions for awhile.”
Father Alvarez smiled good-naturedly. “Juanito, you are an interesting man. But no, it is not a blessing, though technically, it has been blessed.” Father Alvarez took Johnny’s hand in one of his own so that it lay palm up, then placed the fist of his other hand over it.
As the padre’s hand opened, Johnny heard the familiar jingle of chain, felt small links slide between his fingers. Then Father Alvarez’s hand was drawn away, and he found himself looking at a medallion similar to the one he had worn before, the one now obliterated by a bullet, the one carried by his brother, the one said to have been used as a shield by Saint Francis to save the life of a gunfighter.
He glanced up with surprise at Father Alvarez.
“Since your old one was destroyed when it saved your life, I wanted to replace it. I made it this week and had planned to come into town this evening to bring it to you.”
“But—” Johnny cast a quick look at it again before focusing on the elderly padre. “But, Padre Alvarez, when Padre Simon gave the other one to me, he said it was to protect me from dying alone. That…that isn’t something I fear anymore.”
Father Alvarez smiled, his eyes glistening with affection. “Juanito, I know that. But Saint Francis is not only the patron saint against a solitary death, he is also the patron saint of families. And I believe that is something you need. Something you all are going to need.”
Johnny sighed and bowed his head.
“Will you wear it, Juanito? For me and Padre Simon?”
Johnny nodded, raised his eyes. “I’ll wear it.”
“Where the hell is Johnny?”
Scott had passed irritation, sailed through exasperation and now found himself solidly entrenched in infuriation. He was, mildly put, not amused.
“I don’t know.” Solero repeated his earlier assertion as he gestured toward the livery’s entrance. “He came over saying he just wanted to take Barranca out for a bit, stretch his legs, you know, from not being ridden for so long. When I tried to ask him if he really should be out, he ‘bout bit my head off.”
Scott looked at Murdoch.
“What’s that boy up to now?” The elder Lancer shook his head.
“I don’t know, but I damn well plan to find out,” Scott grumbled as he turned toward the livery.
“Now just hold it,” Murdoch made a grab for Scott’s arm. “Let’s just wait a moment here.” He turned back to Solero. “Did you see which way he went?”
“He first headed south, but once he was out of town—I was out in the back, you see—I saw him head toward the river.”
“The river,” Scott murmured then looked to Murdoch. “You don’t think he’d do something so fool-headed as to head back up to Salinas, do you?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I really don’t think that’s what he had in mind.”
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t bet the ranch that Johnny’s willing to let bygones be bygones,” Scott said. “And just because Johnny first headed south doesn’t mean he didn’t turn north the first chance he got.”
“He didn’t appear in any great hurry,” Solero cut in. “I really think he just went for a ride.”
“Then why isn’t he back by now?” Scott snapped. “He’s been gone over an hour.”
“Come on,” Murdoch forcibly guided Scott out of the livery. “Let’s check with Rosti again and see if anyone else was about who might know something more before we go creating a stir. He may just be needing a bit of time by himself, like DarkCloud’s been saying.”
“Yeah, but it sure wouldn’t kill him to let us know where he’s going now
and then,” Scott retorted as he came to a stop in the doorway and turned back
to Solero. “Thanks, Señor Solero.
I’m not upset with you. Just
irritated with my brother.”
“I know,” the livery owner nodded. “Señor Madrid forgets others worry about him.”
Scott nodded and smiled, then turned and headed toward Rosti’s, Murdoch at his side. “More likely Señor Madrid knows very well others worry about him,” Scott muttered.
“But knew if he told us, we’d never let him go—alone, in any case,” Murdoch added.
As they stepped up on the boardwalk, Scott glanced at his father. “He has to quit trying to do everything on his own. It’s what got him into this trouble in the first place. It’s what’s always getting him into trouble.”
“Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt just a bit longer,” Murdoch cautioned as he pushed open the door to the saloon. “If nobody knows anything else and he hasn’t returned in another half hour, we’ll go out looking for him.”
“I just wish—” Scott let the phrase drop with a sigh and a shake of his head before nodding his agreement. He then turned his attention on Rosti and strode across the saloon. “Hey, Rosti. Can you remember anyone else being around when Johnny left?”
Rosti shrugged as he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Let’s see. Well, I think it was after Chester stopped by…yeah, it was…” He shook his head. “Don’t think anyone else was around, Scott. Sundays I’m s’posed to be closed, you know.”
Scott sighed, shook his head as he ran his hand through his hair, pivoting to glare around the room as if his brother were hiding in one of the corners.
“And there wasn’t anything else he said?” Murdoch asked.
Rosti slowly shook his head. “No. No, it was just like I told you. He came down, said he was going to go visit the facilities then go sit out on the porch for a bit.”
“He must have changed his mind once he got outside,” Murdoch said to Scott. “Perhaps he decided it was too nice of an afternoon to just sit around.”
Scott nodded. “I’d still feel better if I knew where he was.”
A voice from behind them interrupted, “Let me go out on a limb here and guess you’re talking about Johnny.”
Scott and Murdoch both turned around. DarkCloud stood in the doorway, smiling. “He seems to be the only one I know who manages to send everyone into a minor state of panic.”
“That’s putting it mildly, DarkCloud,” Scott replied as he crossed his arms and watched the doctor enter. “He’s taken off without telling anyone where he went.”
“I know where he is,” the doctor replied.
“You saw him?” Murdoch asked.
DarkCloud stopped and shook his head. “No. But I saw Barranca.”
“Where?” Scott demanded.
“Out at the mission,” DarkCloud replied. “I was visiting Mrs. Wilkinson, checking on her and the baby. They live out that way. As I was returning, I saw Barranca tied out front.”
“The mission?” Perplexed, Scott turned to Murdoch. “Why would he go out there?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t know, but I don’t think we want to interfere. There must be a reason. A good one. I think, at this point, it’d be wise to let him be.”
DarkCloud nodded. “I have to agree. He’s had a lot weighing on him, circumstances and situations, which would sorely test most men. I know you’ve been talking to him, spending a lot of time with him,” DarkCloud acknowledged with a nod toward Scott, “but maybe he needs to sort a few things out with a less involved party.”
Scott sighed dramatically, scanned the three other men with a crooked smile. “Well, then, this might take awhile. Rosti, fix us all up with a round of drinks. I’m buying.” He turned to Murdoch and DarkCloud and gestured toward an empty table, adding, “So, Murdoch, you think you ought to add to that donation you made this morning?”
Rosti chortled as he turned toward the bar.
Father Alvarez reined in his mule. “This is where I turn off,” he said with a gesture toward a path that ran to an extremely modest house on the far edge of the town. “I enjoyed your company, Juanito.”
Johnny smiled, dipped his head. “And yours, Padre.” He waited for the priest to turn away as he held Barranca’s reins with one hand while the other idly rubbed the animal’s neck.
But Father Alvarez seemed in no hurry, his eyes intent on Johnny’s face. Finally the priest gave a soft sigh, reached out to touch Johnny’s elbow. “Juanito, whether you want to admit it or not, you are seeking absolution. I would like to help you, I would, my son. But until you forgive yourself, you’ll never find the peace you seek for your soul.”
Johnny lowered his eyes uncomfortably, tried to find a response that would hide his uneasiness from the dark, penetrating eyes of the priest. But before he could, he felt Father Alvarez’s grip tighten, demanding his attention.
“Juanito, don’t let the dead destroy you.” He released his hand, pointed toward Johnny’s chest. “Remember the miracle Saint Francis performed for you once before. It can happen again. But you must give it a chance.”
Before Johnny could reply, Father Alvarez nudged Polvo forward, turning him onto the worn path that ran toward the small adobe house.
Johnny closed his eyes. Though the small medallion was undetectable through the bandages that bound his chest, he was acutely aware that it was there.
Following the same road into town that he had taken on his way out, Johnny headed straight to the livery. He was tired, hungry and aching. It had proved to be a longer afternoon than he had planned. He reined up and dismounted with a grunt, steadying himself for a second against Barranca.
“Come on, Barranca,” he murmured as he led the horse into the stable. He stopped near the tack room, not wanting to have to carry the equipment far—doubted he would have managed to anyway—then began to uncinch the saddle. Getting it off Barranca’s back proved more difficult than he had planned. The afternoon’s excursion had taken its toll, leaving him exhausted and shaky. Closing his eyes, he leaned his forehead on the saddle for a moment while he searched for the strength to continue. After a moment, he straightened up, clenched his teeth and grabbed the saddle with resolved determination, sliding it off Barranca’s back. Jaw still firmly set, he carried it into the storage room.
When he returned, Barranca shook his head and gave him a drawn out snort.
“Just ‘cuz you’re not covered in a lather and I am,” Johnny said as he looped his fingers under the bridle and began to undo the straps, “doesn’t give you the right to go laughin’ at me.”
Barranca nuzzled his head against Johnny.
After putting the last of the tack in the room, Johnny returned to find Solero standing beside Barranca, rubbing him down.
“Thought I’d help,” the proprietor smiled.
Johnny nodded with relief. “Thanks. I am tired…and hungry.”
“Go on over to Rosti’s. Mr. Lancer and Scott are waiting for you.”
“I bet they are,” Johnny mumbled under his breath.
Solero hid a smile by averting his face and continuing with his chore.
“Don’t give him any trouble,” Johnny admonished as he rubbed Barranca’s muzzle before heading out the door.
In front of the saloon Johnny stopped to put a steadying hand out on one of the wooden porch posts. Taking a breath, he used his other hand to wipe away the sweat that covered his face and neck. He doubted, however, that it made much of a difference to his appearance. He had a feeling he looked as ill as he felt, and wondered how much of a scolding he was going to get.
Resolved to face the music—or at least the tongue-lashing—he pushed off from the post and pulled open the door. The saloon was quiet except for four people at a table: Murdoch, Scott, DarkCloud and Rosti, all engaged in a game of cards.
The men looked up at his entrance, Murdoch with a raised eyebrow, Scott with a questioning look, Rosti with a half wave and DarkCloud with what Johnny had come to recognize as feigned innocence.
“Come have a seat,” Murdoch said. “You’ve been gone quite awhile.”
Johnny walked over to the table but didn’t take the offered seat. “I know. Sorry. Hadn’t meant to go that far.”
“Nice ride?” Scott asked.
Johnny nodded vaguely.
“Can I get you something to eat?” Rosti asked.
Johnny shook his head. “No, I think I’ll just go up to bed. I’m tired.”
“You could use something to eat,” DarkCloud advised. “Unless you took along some food when you went out.”
Johnny shook his head. “No, I didn’t have anything.”
Murdoch signaled Rosti to head for the kitchen. “Then you’re going to have something to eat. Sit down.”
“Really, Murdoch,” Johnny sighed, “I’d rather just go upstairs.” He watched Rosti retreat into the back before adding, “I’m not feeling so well.”
“And this is a surprise?” Scott asked pointedly.
“Scott.” Johnny grimaced tiredly.
“Go on up, then,” Murdoch nodded. “I’ll bring you some food when it’s ready.”
DarkCloud stood up. “I’ll go up with you. I have a feeling you could use a bit of medicine and perhaps a change of bandage.”
Johnny visibly slumped, shook his head, but didn’t argue. In tired resignation he headed toward the stairs. DarkCloud gave the two men a reassuring nod before following Johnny up to his room.
Once in the room, DarkCloud took fresh bandages out of the medical bag while Johnny unbuttoned his shirt.
“I hope we can dispense with these soon,” DarkCloud said as he turned around. He paused as he noticed a gold medallion hanging in front of the sweat-streaked bandaging, a rather shocking visual reminder of what lay beneath. He cast a quick glance at his friend to see if Johnny had noticed his momentary pause, but Johnny appeared too tired and otherwise preoccupied with his own task of removing his shirt with some rather sore and underused muscles. Deciding to keep his curiosity to himself, DarkCloud walked forward with the new bandages. “Yup. Looks like changing these is a good idea,” he remarked casually.
“I—I rode awhile. It was pretty hot,” Johnny replied as he let the shirt drop to the floor, then leaned forward with his weight supported by his palms on the table.
Concerned, DarkCloud put a hand on his shoulder. “Johnny?”
“Hmmm?” Johnny looked up, forced a tired smile before pushing himself upright. “I’m beat, I guess. The ride took more out of me than I thought it would.”
“You could have told someone you wanted to go out.”
Johnny shook his head, looked back down at the table. “No.”
“So you want me to get you some medicine first? You haven’t had any since lunch.”
Johnny shook his head. “I don’t need it anymore.”
DarkCloud raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
For a few moments, all was quiet as DarkCloud began unwrapping the bandages. Then Johnny gave a sigh. “How long’ll those symptoms last?”
“The shaking and sweats, you mean?”
“How long did they last the other time?”
Johnny tilted his head, looked at DarkCloud with annoyance. “Too long.”
“Then that’s how long it’ll last.”
Johnny snorted. “Thanks.”
DarkCloud smiled, then continued, “It’s really very little of the medicine anymore, Johnny. Think about it. Those symptoms are just as much caused by the fact that you’ve been one sick man for a month now, haven’t been eating like normal and have pushed your body beyond its endurance. It’s going to take a while before you’re really feeling healthy again. You just need to learn to listen to the signals when your body’s trying to tell you it’s time to take it easy.” He paused, added in a low voice, “I know it might come as a bit of a shock, Johnny, but you are only human.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow, feigned surprise. “You’re kidding.”
DarkCloud nodded his head seriously. “Nope.” He winked. “After all, I’m a doctor, I know these things.”
Johnny shook his head, his expression deadpan. “Whoa. Not sure I was prepared for that one.”
DarkCloud chuckled. “So, you see, it’s time to take it easy.”
Johnny nodded, his expression more serious. “I s’pose you’re right.”
“Aren’t I always?”
DarkCloud dropped the old bandage to the floor and picked the new one up from where he’d placed it on the table. “You know, this is all healing up nicely.”
Johnny turned his head in order to get a look at his side. “Feelin’ a heck of a lot better, too. Aches some, but I don’t generally get that stabbing pain anymore. Not unless I move or twist too fast.”
“Something you’re trying to avoid doing, right?”
Johnny nodded and grinned wryly. “Yeah.”
DarkCloud examined the side wounds with his fingers, probed gently. “You’ve still got quite a bit of bruising, some large masses of swelling below the surface, but they’ll shrink given a little more time. It shouldn’t cause you any more problems.” He placed the tail of the bandage against Johnny’s side and carefully began wrapping it around his middle section. Finished, he tore the end and tucked it among the bandaging. “Let’s take a look at that chest now.”
As Johnny turned to face DarkCloud, he looked down and suddenly realized that the medallion Father Alvarez had given him was conspicuously exposed. He quickly glanced up to find DarkCloud studying him cautiously.
“It’s a medallion,” he explained weakly.
“Father Alvarez gave it to me.”
“I see,” DarkCloud replied casually.
“I—I went to see him.”
“I—he’s spreading that nonsense about Saint Francis.”
DarkCloud nodded thoughtfully. “Can’t say that I’d like to have a saint get all the credit for saving me, either.”
Johnny looked agitated. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Oh.” DarkCloud shrugged. “You mean you did have some help after all?”
“Of course I did. Yours. Scott’s. Harley’s. Come on, DarkCloud. You can’t tell me you go for that bull.”
“Certainly not. I wholeheartedly agree with you. I mean, after all, think about it. A saint’s just gonna show up and save you? No, I think I prefer to acknowledge the amazing luck that your brother and father showed up just as they did, that the sheriff from Paso arrived just in time, that the medicine was able to get you on your feet so that you could do what you needed to do, that Murdoch and Scott just happened to run into Harley up in Salinas, that not one of those three hostages was injured…and that you aren’t dead.”
Johnny pursed his lips. “Enough. You’ve made your point. Just like you always do.”
DarkCloud allowed a small smile to escape as he nodded toward the medallion. “So, is there anything else you’d like to tell me?”
Johnny met DarkCloud’s guileless innocence with feigned deliberation before slowly shaking his head. “Can’t think of a damn thing.”
DarkCloud chortled before returning to the task of applying a thin wrap around Johnny’s chest. “Thought not.”
DarkCloud was putting away the supplies when the door opened and Murdoch appeared with a tray. “Rosti made a beef sandwich for you, and I brought up a mug of the tea,” he announced.
Johnny groaned as he sat down on the edge of the bed. “Can we forget the tea?”
DarkCloud took the mug off the tray and brought it to Johnny. “How about no more added medicine, but keep me happy by drinking the tea for another day or two? It’s very healthy for you.”
“How can something that tastes so bad be that good?”
DarkCloud leaned over with a grin. “I’ll let you in on a secret. It doesn’t have to. We doctors know perfectly well how to make it good tasting, but that would take all the fun out of watching our patients’ faces when they have to drink something so noxious. Of course,” he said as he stood up, “we never drink it ourselves.”
Johnny chuckled as he accepted the mug. “At least you’re honest.”
“Would you like some company?” Murdoch asked as he put the tray on the table.
Johnny shook his head. “If you don’t mind, I’m just tired. The ride ended up being longer than I planned.” He smiled wanly. “According to my doc here, I’m not ready to put a full day in the saddle, yet.” His grin widened slightly. “Guess that gets me out of herding for a little while longer.”
Murdoch returned the smile. “A little while.” He paused awkwardly in the doorway, then added, “Well, I guess I’ll see you in the morning.”
“I’m coming along,” DarkCloud added as he picked up the old bandage and followed Murdoch out the door, turning when he reached the threshold. “Now eat and get to bed.”
“Only ‘cuz you asked so nicely,” Johnny replied.
Down in the saloon, Scott looked up expectantly as Murdoch and DarkCloud descended the steps.
“Can I go see him?” he asked, standing up.
Murdoch shook his head. “No, he’s tired, and he looks it. I left him the food, but I’ll be surprised if he actually eats.”
“Did he say anything?” Scott asked. “Anything at all about why he took off?”
DarkCloud shook his head. “Not really. Until it became obvious he’d been to see Father Alvarez—”
“Obvious?” Scott interrupted.
Murdoch turned to DarkCloud. “The medallion, right?”
“What medallion?” Scott persisted.
“It appears Father Alvarez gave him a new one,” DarkCloud explained. “He was wearing it when I changed his bandaging. That’s when he told me that he’d gone out to ask the padre not to say any more about his being saved by Saint Francis.”
Scott suddenly chuckled. “Oh, so that’s what he was doing.”
DarkCloud nodded. “That’s what the big secret was.”
“I believe Johnny is really uncomfortable with that story,” Murdoch stated as he placed his hands on his hips. “Perhaps I should go out and speak to Father Alvarez myself.”
DarkCloud shook his head. “Oh, I wouldn’t bother. Father Alvarez is not easily swayed, especially where his faith is involved. Besides, it’s just a little local story. And who knows, the good padre may be right.”
“It doesn’t take any more to convince me,” Scott murmured as he turned to glance out the window toward the street. “I know what I saw, and a miracle is the only way I can explain it.”
Johnny awoke the next morning to the sound of the door creaking open. When he opened his eyes he found Scott grinning at him.
“Hope I didn’t startle you.”
Shaking his head, Johnny pushed himself up onto an elbow. “Actually, no. I think I was already waking up.”
Scott smiled as he finished closing the door with one hand. In the other, Johnny noticed his brother was carrying a towel and shaving supplies.
“Thought you might be interested in a shave this morning.”
“The Boston Barber returns?”
Scott grinned. “Well, I figure I can do something about that growth on your face, but you’ll have to ask Rosti to get you someone who cuts hair.”
“Ah, so you have your limitations?”
Scott sat the items on the table. “A few,” he agreed as he turned. He then crossed his arms and began studying his brother with interest. “Though you know, Johnny. I was thinking about it earlier, and with just a little trimming there in the front, we could have you go for that George Custer look.” He nodded his head as if giving the idea serious consideration. “Might look good on you. And since you’re not blond, you might not even look like such a sissy.”
Johnny blinked, stared at Scott’s deadpan expression for a moment before suddenly reaching behind to grab a pillow. It was soon sailing through the air to smack Scott in the chest.
Scott laughed as he reached down to pick up the pillow. “Okay, not such a good idea.” He turned back and pulled out a chair. “You want your shave now, or should I go get you some breakfast?”
“Breakfast sounds good. I didn’t really eat any supper last night.” Johnny glanced at the table as he stood up, saw that his half-eaten sandwich had already been cleared away. “I was pretty exhausted. What time is it?”
“Seven—eight o’clock. Rosti has some flapjacks made up and was keeping them warm for you. I’ll go down and get you a plate. Then we’ll attack the beard. And while you’re getting rid of that mane, I’ll get a bath ready.”
“A bath would be nice. Seems like ages since the last one.” He cocked his head with a grin. “Perhaps I could even have enough water to drown a good-sized tomcat this time.”
Scott shook a finger at Johnny. “I am not letting you near any cats.”
Johnny chuckled. “Okay. Then how about a medium-sized puppy?”
“That’s it,” Scott threw up his hands as he walked to the door and opened it. “If you’re well enough to talk of drowning defenseless puppies, you’re well enough to go down for your own breakfast.”
Johnny put his hands on his hips, regarded Scott with amusement for a second, then held his hands out to his sides. “Uh, Scott. Could I get dressed first?”
Scott crossed his arms and harrumphed loudly. “I suppose.”
Expressionless, Scott raised an eyebrow. “So what?”
“Are you going to close the door?”
“No,” Scott replied. “I figure you’ll move faster this way.”
Johnny rolled his eyes as he picked his shirt up off the back of a chair. “I thought you were going to be nice to me…my convalescing and all.”
“That was before you starting talking about drowning kittens and puppies. Now get your clothes on.”
With a properly contrite expression, Johnny worked his arms into his sleeves.
watched, a feeling of welcome contentment at Johnny’s exaggeratedly remorseful
Almost like being at home again…fooling around, joking…no ghosts in
As Johnny buttoned up his shirt, Scott noticed the medallion DarkCloud had mentioned was nowhere to be seen. He wanted to ask about it, but feared to cool the old camaraderie that had rekindled.
Though it took a few awkward minutes, Johnny eventually got his pants and boots on, and followed Scott downstairs. There was no one else in the saloon, and Scott explained to Johnny that Murdoch had left already to go out with Mr. Angelou, and DarkCloud was over at his shop treating a child for a rash.
Now that he’d had a good night’s sleep, Johnny was famished and was pleased to see that Rosti had been diligent in keeping the flapjacks warm. More out of courtesy than actual hunger, as he’d already eaten, Scott joined Johnny for breakfast. He took his time with two flapjacks while Johnny dived into a plate of six, finishing them in what proved to be an amazingly short amount of time. Scott couldn’t help but enjoy watching his brother finish his breakfast, wiping up every last morsel of buttery syrup with his last piece.
Finished, Johnny pushed back from the table and groaned. “I feel sick.”
Scott laughed. “Oh, I’ve heard that before. However, this time, I think it’s a good sick.”
Johnny smiled, nodded, sighed as he patted his stomach. “I sorta asked for this one, though.” He wrinkled his nose. “I shoulda known better than to eat that much.”
Scott lowered his eyes then hazarded a look up. “It was good to see you eating like your regular self, Johnny.”
Johnny laughed. “Glad to have entertained you, Brother.”
“Hey!” Rosti exclaimed as he walked up. “Could I get either one of you some more?”
Scott and Johnny both shook their heads. “No, thank you, Rosti,” Scott said.
“But you could tell me who might be available to cut my hair,” Johnny said. “Scott’s starting to make fun of me.”
Rosti chuckled. “That’s something I can easily take care of. My wife does a great job.”
Johnny nodded. “Sounds like what I need.”
“And I’ve been heating the water for the tub,” Rosti said with a glance at Scott. “You’re still gonna want it, right?”
Scott nodded. “After a shave and the haircut.”
“Great,” Rosti said as he turned toward the kitchen, still talking over his shoulder. “I’ll start filling it, and I’ll have my wife come up in a half hour or so.”
“Thanks,” Scott said.
Scott and Johnny returned to Johnny’s room upstairs, where Scott proceeded to give Johnny his shave. Scott was silent during his preparations, intent on the project at hand. This time, however, the task didn’t appear to cause Johnny the strain and anxiety it had been previously, and other than a few mumbled words about Scott’s proficiency as a barber, the undertaking was completed without incident.
As Scott was finishing up, Johnny turned his head slightly, his eyes searching out his brother’s before dropping uncomfortably to gaze into a corner of the room. “Scott?”
“Do you… You know, that story goin’ round. Do you believe it?”
Scott hesitated, looked down at the top of Johnny’s dark head. “You mean that you were saved by Saint Francis?”
Scott pursed his lips, tilted his head back to look at the ceiling as his mind raced through his possible responses.
“Do you?” Johnny asked again.
Scott carefully concealed his hesitation, stepped around the chair so that he could look Johnny in the eye. “I do believe in miracles,” he stated.
“But do you believe I was saved by a saint?”
Scott leaned back against the table and clasped his hands. “I don’t think you’re going to like my answer. But yes, Johnny, I think it was a miracle that you were saved.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow, regarding Scott with bewilderment. “So you think Padre Alvarez is right?”
Scott nodded. “Whether it was Saint Francis or not, that I can’t say. But Johnny, think about it. Somewhere along the line, some sort of divine intervention was called upon. And I’m not just talking about that last gunfight. I’m referring to the fact that I ever even got a chance to know you. Let’s face it, you should have been dead long before I even knew you existed. I don’t know your whole history, I may never know it, but I do know you lived through a rough childhood and managed to survive when the odds were not in your favor. I think what I witnessed a couple of weeks ago was nothing new. The only explanation, as far as I can see, is that you have a guardian angel.” He paused and smiled. “Probably an over-worked one, but there must be someone looking out for you.”
“Scott, you are so wrong.” He snorted and shook his head. “Don’t you see, spreading this type of story just adds to the legend? And kids, kids like Jamie and…and others…will try to copy me…my life… And Scott,” he paused, closed his eyes a moment, “Scott, I don’t want anyone to live the life I led.”
Scott reached out to grasp Johnny’s shoulder. “Don’t look at it like that. Look at it instead as a determination of your worth, a validation that there’s potential for the rest of your life, that there was good in what you accomplished, and more yet for you to do.”
Johnny looked down at his lap. “Scott?”
Johnny gave a heavy sigh as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a golden object. “I went to see Padre Alvarez yesterday. He gave me this.” Johnny held out the medallion, the chain swinging freely.
Scott reached out and accepted it, brought it up close. “It’s another Saint Francis medallion.”
Johnny nodded. “When I wore the other one, it was because Padre Simon asked me to. He feared I would die alone. It was his hope that I find a place to belong, a family.”
Cautiously, surprised by his brother’s sudden candor, Scott stated, “And you did.”
“Yes. I just regret that he…he didn’t live to see his prayers answered.” He looked down. “I wish you could have known him.” There was a sigh, then Johnny continued, “I didn’t wear the medallion much after I came to the ranch.”
“Padre Alvarez said that Saint Francis is also the patron saint of families. He says I should give him a chance to work a miracle like he did at the gunfight.”
Scott was silent for a moment, regarded his brother’s bowed head, the small golden disc and chain cradled in the open palm. “I’d say the padre’s idea has merit,” he said softly.
Johnny didn’t reply, merely stared at the medallion in his palm.
A knock at the door broke the awkward silence. Dismayed at the timing, Scott went to the door as Johnny shoved the St. Francis medallion back in his pocket. Mrs. Rosti stood in the doorway, her plump figure and wide smile bringing a grin to Scott’s face despite the earlier conversation.
“I hear there’s a young man who needs a bit of a trimmin’,” she announced as she bustled into the room.
“More than a trimming,” Scott acknowledged as he gestured toward Johnny. “We’ve got to do something before someone mistakes him for one of those wild mountain men.”
“Scott,” Johnny warned as he turned in his chair, fixing his brother with an insulted look. “You better be careful, or I’m going to shave you bald one of these nights and then we’ll see who’s laughing.”
Mrs. Rosti chuckled heartily as she laid out her supplies. “It’s easy to see you two are brothers.”
Scott gave Johnny a quick look over Mrs. Rosti’s head and grinned, then he hooked his thumb in the direction of the door. “While Mrs. Rosti’s working diligently to make you presentable, I’m going to go help Mr. Rosti with the water for your tub.” He paused before closing the door, “I think I’ll make sure there’s no cats or dogs in the vicinity, either.”
“Ha-ha,” Johnny retorted then added to Mrs. Rosti. “My brother seems to think he has a sense of humor.”
Mrs. Rosti, scissors in one hand, comb in the other, smiled. “I’ve never seen Mr. Scott laugh before. It makes him look younger—like a different man.” She cocked her head as she began running the comb through Johnny’s hair. “I think you bring his lighter side out.”
Johnny turned his head. “Me?”
“Hold still,” Mrs. Rosti turned Johnny’s head forward. “If you wiggle, it won’t be my fault if you have to wear a hat from morning to night,” she admonished.
Johnny sat as still as he could, allowing Mrs. Rosti to cut his hair without incident. Mrs. Rosti, in her turn, afforded Johnny with a rather colorful rendition of the goings-on in the small town. More than once, reference was made to the new rail line and the part Johnny had played in aiding the town in getting rid of James Wakeman. Johnny accepted the compliments politely, with a quiet nod of simple acknowledgement of a job satisfactorily completed. But then, as Mrs. Rosti finished putting away her supplies, Johnny noticed the lady grew strangely quiet. Chalking it up to her having finally run out of things to say, Johnny stood up and busied himself with brushing the loose hairs off his shirt.
Johnny looked up, one hand poised to swipe at his shoulder. Noting her discomfort, he grimaced wryly, his eyes crinkling as he glanced with embarrassment toward the door. “Oh, I’m sorry. You need to be paid, don’t you? I really haven’t a cent, but Scott—”
“Oh, goodness, no, Mr. Madrid!” Mrs. Rosti’s eyes grew wide with alarm as she stepped forward. “I couldn’t take your money!”
Confused, Johnny lowered his hand, the stray hairs forgotten. “Then—”
“Mr. Madrid, Sir,” Mrs. Rosti took a deep breath, squared her already short and stocky frame. “I just wanted to say that it was an honor having you stay here with us. My husband and I—well, we owe you so much. The way things were going before…well, we were ready to pack it in. You saved this town and our lives. You truly were the answer to our prayers. And I—I thank the Lord every day for sending St. Francis to protect you. What you did was courageous, taking on that James Wakeman, under such odds and being injured like you were. I’m glad your life was spared, as I don’t think a victory would have been worth your life.”
For a second Johnny could only stand, numbed by the sudden outpouring of feelings from the older lady. Then he shook himself and raised a hand. “Please, Mrs. Rosti. Really. I’m glad everything turned out well. But I was just doing the job your husband and the other men hired me to do.”
“Oh, I know that,” Mrs. Rosti smiled. “And I know that you are no longer a gunfighter, that you gave up that life. I find it truly remarkable how the Lord arranged to bring you to us in our hour of need, as I can see now that only someone like you could have handled the situation.”
Johnny shook his head, managed a weak smile as he sighed. “The Lord works in mysterious ways, right?”
Mrs. Rosti nodded, seemingly satisfied with her performance. She turned, picked the rest of her supplies up off the table, then nodded toward the floor. “I’ll be back in a minute to sweep this up.”
“I can do it.”
“Nonsense. You have a bath awaiting you.” She bustled toward the door, then stopped. “Mr. Madrid, if you ever find your travels bring you to this area again, please know that there’ll always be a room for you with us.”
The door opened and Scott stepped in, a smile on his face.
“And for Madrid’s brother, of course,” Mrs. Rosti added. Then with a warm smile to both men, she hurried out the door.
Scott watched Mrs. Rosti leave, then slowly shut the door. “What was she talking about?”
Johnny sighed heavily and walked to the window. “Nothing really. Just if we ever find ourselves in Soledad again, we have a place to stay.”
“Oh,” Scott replied, pursed his lips as he studied Johnny’s back. He knew there had been more to the conversation than what his brother was admitting. But he could tell by his brother’s manner and tone, that Johnny was not about to elaborate further.
“Okay, then. Are you ready for that bath? You should be pleased. I’d say we have at least eighteen inches of water in there. Deep enough to drown a kitty and a puppy.”
Johnny chuckled as he turned around. “Scott, really. What an awful thing to say.”
This time, Scott was more prepared for the difficulty of helping his brother with a bath. Whether it was because of this preparation, or because Johnny’s condition had greatly improved, he found the entire operation to be much easier the second time around.
Johnny, for his part, reveled in the chance to soak his sore muscles. Even Scott’s hovering, which Johnny reluctantly acknowledged his brother was trying to do as discretely as possible, didn’t dampen his pleasure. And while he was aware that Scott was still under orders to see that he not soak too long, Johnny was determined to enjoy every minute he had.
Scott busied himself with laying out new clothes for Johnny. This time, after their return, Calientes had sent over three entirely new sets of clothing, one for each of them. And when Murdoch had attempted to pay the shopkeeper, Calientes had refused payment by saying, “Madrid has already paid me in full.” Knowing that Calientes could use the money, Murdoch had given DarkCloud an appropriate amount to be given to Calientes after they left.
Murdoch and Scott had both enjoyed having a new set of clothes to change into, as the two they had brought with them were showing the rough wear of the last few weeks.
So, while Johnny enjoyed his soak, which he seemed to be doing to its fullest extent, Scott laid out new underwear, a light gray cotton shirt and dark gray pants.
Scott had to smile to himself as he did so. The shirt had minor touches of decorative stitching in black, and the pants were so dark that they bordered on black. Calientes’ idea of compromise, he was sure. What he found even more humorous was the fact that Calientes had also sent over a hat for Johnny. The shopkeeper obviously felt the dark brown one didn’t go with Johnny’s new ensemble, though Scott noted with amusement that neither he nor Murdoch had rated a new hat.
Scott touched the rim with a finger, glanced back at Johnny as he heard a soft grunt—Johnny was reaching for the soap—then looked back at the hat. It was black with a light gray band, which had some of the same stitching as the shirt. Someone had recently added the detailed touches. Scott wondered who had done the embroidery. Calientes’ wife? Calientes himself?
shook his head. In some ways the clothes were symbolic. No
matter how hard Scott might try, the ghost of Madrid seemed to always be
present. They might want to forget
him, bury him in the past, but too many others would always remember.
That’s the way it was always going to be.
For them all, making peace with Johnny’s past was just part of the
process. They had to make peace
with the fact that for years to come, others were still going to see Madrid when
they looked at Johnny.
“That’s a nice-looking hat,” Johnny suddenly remarked.
Scott turned around and nodded. “Yes, it is.”
“Those black pants, though. They’re gonna show dust real bad.”
Scott grinned and walked over. “They’re dark gray. Don’t go rolling around on the ground, then.” He stopped and put his hands on his hips. “So, are you ready to get out?”
“I just got in.”
“You know DarkCloud’s orders.”
“Yeah, well, I also happen to know that yesterday you set the record for the longest bath in Soledad history.”
Scott reached for one of the two buckets of water sitting beside the tub. “Once all those wounds of yours are healed up, then you can soak as long as you want.”
“Yeah, but then I won’t want to.”
Scott grinned. “Close your eyes.” He dumped the contents of the bucket on Johnny’s head, sat it on the floor and reached for the soap.
“I can wash myself,” Johnny grumbled as he wiped the water away from his eyes with one hand and grabbed the soap with the other.
“Fine.” Scott stood up. “Just let me know when you want me to dump the other bucket. That’s the only real fun part, anyway.”
Johnny shot Scott a sour look out of the corner of his eyes and set to working up a lather.
“I expect the addition of the rail line to increase our profit margin considerably.”
Murdoch nodded across the table to Angelou, the other man’s plump face ruddy with the exertion of the recent morning ride. “I find that having a rail line nearby helps tremendously,” Murdoch agreed. “Whenever possible, I try to use it to get our cattle shipped. However, keep in mind it’s not always suited for where you want your cattle to go or necessarily cost effective. I have run into situations where—” Murdoch paused as he saw Angelou glance toward the steps, a pleased expression on his face. Murdoch turned around. “Johnny.”
“Mr. Madrid,” Angelou greeted with a wave of his hand, then turned to Murdoch and lowered his voice. “He’s looking better than I expected.”
“It’s the haircut,” Johnny deadpanned as he walked up to the table.
“And I cleaned out his ears when he had a bath,” Scott added in total solemnity.
Angelou blushed an even deeper red. “Excuse me, Mr. Madrid. I meant no disrespect. It’s just that I’ve heard how sick you’ve been—and—what with all that happened recently with the Judge…”
Johnny shrugged indifferently as he lowered himself into an empty chair.
Murdoch noticed that Scott hovered nearby until Johnny was settled before taking his own seat. And though Murdoch had to acknowledge that Angelou was correct in his assessment of Johnny’s appearance, he was also painfully aware that his son still didn’t look like himself.
“Your father and I just rode along a section of the new rail line,” Angelou said. “We sure are in your debt.”
Johnny received Angelou’s thanks with a hooded nod then dropped his eyes to the table where his hands lay clasped together. He could feel the three men watching him, each looking for and counting on him to be the Johnny they expected. He looked at Angelou, and found himself wanting to adopt the gunfighter air, the expressionless face, the even stare, return the man’s compliments with a smooth remark about getting what you paid for, and a reminder that he was the best.
Then there was Scott, who looked at him more with guilt and optimism. Guilt because he was acutely aware of the difference in their upbringing at times like these, and optimism as he faithfully believed that Johnny could overcome the difficulties shrouded in his past.
And then there was Murdoch. A mixture of anger, remorse and suspicion. There was still a little bit of the lawman in his father, a side that expected the law-abiding citizen to prevail and the lawless to get their due. And that part of him flared with anger whenever he caught a glimpse of the Johnny who hadn’t always followed the rules. Johnny wondered if his father’s morally righteous outlook had changed at all after their meeting with the Judge.
Following closely behind their father’s anger was remorse, the disquieting confession of Murdoch’s own part in the way Johnny’s life had turned out. An emotion Johnny realized he was seeing more often. Or perhaps it had always been there, from the first day he’d shown up at Lancer, but he’d been too involved in his own attitudes and mistrust.
Lastly would follow suspicion; the silent waiting for Johnny to choose his part. And if the choice was not the one that Murdoch approved, then Johnny would be the recipient of a look that indicated quite perfectly his father’s disappointment. This was accompanied by a visual sigh—not a sigh one could actually hear—but one that Johnny could feel in his gut. Johnny hated that. Whenever the look and sigh were directed his way, he had the horrible sensation of seeing his life, his failures, his ghosts, reflected in his father’s eyes. And the worth of the gunfighter he had worked so hard to achieve would falter under the critical eye and he would be left feeling inadequate and contemptible.
With an imperceptible clenching of the jaw, Johnny raised his head and met Angelou’s smile. Purposely he let his expression remain impassive—professional. “I’m glad things worked out for the best.”
Scott glanced across the table at his father; however, Murdoch’s attention remained fixed on Johnny. Though the face was more Madrid than Lancer, Scott felt that his brother was trying to use a tone and phrasing more attuned to the Johnny they knew, rather than Madrid.
“That’s an understatement!” Angelou chuckled. “I’ll have you know, we’re planning on throwing the largest fiesta this town has ever seen, and all in your honor, Mr. Madrid.”
At this pronouncement, Scott saw a flicker of discomfort behind the composed mask.
“That’s really not necessary,” Johnny assured. “I was just doing my job.” As the last line was uttered, Johnny glanced apologetically at Murdoch.
“Nonsense!” Angelou waved off the argument. “It’s the least we could do. Knowing what I do, the sort of fee you could have demanded, well…” Angelou shrugged expansively. “I have to admit my ignorance, Mr. Madrid. But when Tucson told me what you could have expected to get for other jobs—”
“A fiesta sounds wonderful,” Scott cut in, in an effort to change the subject.
“We will all look forward to it,” Murdoch added, but there was a tightness in his positive response.
Angelou beamed around the table and nodded. “Everyone’s quite excited. In fact,” he continued to Johnny, “we’re just waiting for DarkCloud to tell us you’re well enough for a celebration.”
Before anyone could formulate a response, Rosti appeared from the kitchen. “So, are you all staying for lunch?”
“Oh, goodness, no,” Angelou said, standing up. “I must be getting back. I’m sure the missus has something prepared and I hadn’t meant to be away this long.” He glanced about the table, smiled and nodded formally to Johnny. “Pleased to see you’re feeling much better, Mr. Madrid.” He then gave a deferential nod to Scott. “Mr. Lancer.”
Scott returned the nod.
Angelou held his hand out to Murdoch. “Thank you for sharing your insight on the coming rail line. I’m sure we’ll have a chance to talk again soon.”
Murdoch stood up, reached out and accepted the man’s handshake. “I expect I’ll see you in a few days, at least for a game of poker.”
Angelou laughed, then lowered his voice. “No more Sunday games, however.”
Murdoch smiled. “Nope. No more Sunday games.”
Murdoch waited until Angelou had left the saloon, then sat back down. Johnny was slumped forward in his chair, his elbows on the table, his face behind his hands.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch.” Johnny lowered his hands. “I wish he hadn’t said those things.”
Rosti walked up. “Is it just you three?”
“I’m not hungry,” Johnny said. “I think I’ll just go on upstairs.”
“Johnny.” Murdoch put a hand out, then turned to Rosti. “Yes, we’re all eating.”
Rosti nodded, then his attention shifted to the entrance. “Hey! DarkCloud! You stoppin’ in for lunch?”
DarkCloud walked up, his eyes quickly assessing Johnny’s shaved face and bathed appearance. “Only if this handsome young stranger is planning on eating with me.” He bowed formally. “And who might you be, sir?”
Johnny rolled his eyes in annoyance. “I am not amused, DarkCloud.”
“You aren’t?” DarkCloud sat down. “Darn. I thought I was being rather witty. Well, maybe the bath washed away your sense of humor along with all that dirt.”
“DarkCloud.” Johnny lowered his voice in feigned intimidation. “Keep in mind, I got a lot of people in my debt around here. I can get my hands on lots and lots of manure. Just think on that.”
“Okay, what is it with this manure business?” Scott queried.
“Oh, it’s just your brother’s way of telling me he appreciates me,” DarkCloud murmured with a grin at Johnny.
“Hate to change such an interesting topic,” Rosti interrupted, “but what is it you gentlemen want for lunch? We have a stew going, beef steaks and beef enchiladas.”
“I’ll have a beef steak,” Murdoch answered.
“Stew here, Rosti. And thank you,” Scott added.
“Beef enchiladas for me and Johnny,” DarkCloud put in.
“And another beer to go around for everyone,” Murdoch added.
Rosti nodded, then headed to another table where three men, new workers with the rail line, sat.
“I really wasn’t hungry,” Johnny said. “I’d just as soon go up to my room.”
“Still wearing out easily?” DarkCloud asked, then ignoring Johnny’s annoyed grimace, he turned to Scott. “How’d it go this time?”
“Much easier,” Scott replied.
“I want to get these bandages off,” Johnny interrupted.
DarkCloud nodded. “Perhaps.” He turned back to Scott. “How was his breathing when he had them off?”
Scott shrugged, aware that Johnny was watching him through narrowed lids. “Better than before.”
“Well,” he glanced apologetically at Johnny. “I think it’s still causing him some trouble.”
“Thanks,” Johnny snorted derisively.
“Well, it is,” Scott argued.
Anxious to divert an argument, Murdoch leaned in. “How long until you think he can get them off? And should we wait until they’re off before traveling?”
At the word travel, Johnny lowered his gaze to the table for a moment. When he glanced back up, he saw Scott watching him. He attempted a reassuring smile.
“No, I don’t think you’ll have to wait, but that’s going to be more up to Johnny than me. Without his taking anything for the pain, it’s going to have to be his call on when he thinks he can handle it. You’re looking at a long trip back. Coming down from Salinas a couple days ago was short in comparison.”
Murdoch nodded. “I understand that. Too bad that rail didn’t go right to Green River.”
“I’d rather ride back,” Johnny suddenly interrupted.
“Well, if you’re planning on riding, then you’re not leaving for quite awhile,” DarkCloud stated firmly. “When I’m giving my sanction for your traveling, it’s under the condition that you go by stage.”
“Oh, that’s right. A stage is so much more comfortable,” Johnny retorted sarcastically.
Murdoch held his tongue, waited a second before replying evenly, “DarkCloud’s right, and you know it. At least in a coach you can relax and sleep.”
Johnny sighed, began to push back from the table. “I’d really rather just go up to my room.”
“Hey,” DarkCloud put a hand out. “I’d like to see you eat something, then we’ll go on up and take a look at how things are progressing. Who knows? Maybe you’re about ready to get those bandages off.”
Johnny frowned. “You’re tryin’ to use the bandages to get me to eat.”
“I’m trying to get you to eat so you’ll get well faster and get off those bandages, and—dare I mention it—finally leave me to my quiet existence.”
Johnny shook a finger. “Manure, DarkCloud. Just remember.”
An hour later, DarkCloud was checking over Johnny’s progress. “Well, it appears that the bath did you no harm. And the best news is that I see no signs of infection,” the doctor said as he probed around the side wound. “In fact, the entrance wound is looking fine,” he said as he straightened to face his patient, who was sitting on the edge of the bed. “It’s just that back area there that I’d like to keep an eye on for a few more days, but actually it’s looking much better than it did just a week ago.”
“So, can I get rid of the bandages?”
DarkCloud crossed his arms as he considered the question. “How about this? If you really want to get rid of that bandage, I’ll let you, if you promise that you’ll put it back on while you sleep at night. I notice you prefer to sleep on your back, and it would just give it a little bit more protection that way.”
Johnny nodded. “I’m just tired of being trussed up like some old woman.”
“Well, that’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”
Johnny sighed. “I’ll take it.”
DarkCloud grinned. “Now, let’s get a good look at that chest.”
Johnny shook his head. “I’ve seen it. I wasn’t that impressed.”
“Must have been your angle,” DarkCloud chuckled under his breath as he removed the strips of cloth. After dropping the bandages off to the side, DarkCloud knelt down for a closer look. “It’s still looking quite bruised.”
“It’s not that bad,” Johnny argued.
“Okay,” DarkCloud straightened up again and stepped back. “Stand up.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow, sighed and stood up.
“How’s your breathing?”
“Fine,” Johnny replied.
DarkCloud reached out with both hands, carefully used his fingers to examine around the wound. “Does this cause you any extra discomfort?”
“I said, it’s— Ouch! Damn! Watch it!” Johnny exclaimed with a glare as he stepped away and bent over, one hand held out to keep DarkCloud at bay while the other pressed against his chest.
DarkCloud raised an eyebrow and lowered his hands. “You were saying?”
“Well, you didn’t have to go and push on it,” Johnny muttered with a wince, the out-raised hand dropping to brace against his knee.
DarkCloud crossed his arms and regarded Johnny seriously. “I know you want to get rid of the bandages, but you need something around those ribs for support yet. While the damage there appears secondary to your side wound, looks are deceiving in this case. You have rib and chest muscle damage. Now if you hadn’t gone and put yourself through the symptoms associated with dropping the morphine regime and then had that meeting with some of the more solid parts of the Judge’s men, you might very well have been ready to do without the bandages. But that’s not how things are. Now instead of complaining about wearing the bandages for a few extra days, why don’t you count yourself lucky that the last week didn’t cause a punctured lung, which I wouldn’t have been able to fix.” He paused then stepped forward to rest one hand on Johnny’s hunched shoulder. “I know it’s not what you want to hear, but I am going to insist that you keep some extra support around those ribs for awhile yet.”
DarkCloud shook his head. “All you need is a few more quiet days.”
Johnny shot DarkCloud a disgruntled look as he slowly straightened up. “Yeah, well, that’s all I’ve had for the past few days.”
“Which is precisely why you’re acting so difficult,” DarkCloud said as he picked up the bandage he had just removed. “Now let’s get this back on.”
Johnny shot DarkCloud a grimace as he sighed with weary defeat.
“Come now, Johnny,” DarkCloud said as he started wrapping. “Don’t get so discouraged. You’ve put yourself through a rough time. It’s going to take a little while. But look how far you’ve come already. The fever’s gone, and other than an occasional wince and groan when you bend or breathe deeply, you’re doing quite well.” He frowned. “You know, I can still give you just a small amount of laudanum if things get—”
“I don’t need it,” Johnny interrupted. “I prefer to just wince and occasionally swear.”
“Okay,” DarkCloud conceded with a swallowed smile. “But if it does get too much, you tell me.” He suddenly shook his head as he met Johnny’s raised eyebrow. “Never mind. You’ll not tell me a thing.” He buried the end of the bandage, gave a sigh and straightened up. “So, what’s your plan for the afternoon?”
Johnny shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m getting bored just sitting.”
“Bored is good.” At Johnny’s irritated glance, DarkCloud added, “It just means you’re getting better.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
DarkCloud chuckled as he leaned back against the edge of the table. “Oh, you are persistent.”
“What, DarkCloud, no mule references?”
“I told you. It irritates my mule.”
“Ha-ha,” Johnny muttered as he picked up his shirt and began to work an arm into a sleeve.
“Are you up to coming and sitting on the porch?”
“Porches and trusses,” he grumbled as he navigated the other arm in. “Perhaps I’ll just take a walk, locate a couple of large piles of manure.”
DarkCloud grinned. “Oh, it’s good to have you back, Johnny.” He stepped away from the table. “How about if I bring you over a book to read?”
“Read? Like what?”
DarkCloud shrugged. “What do you like?”
Johnny shook his head. “Nothing with those long fancy words that Murdoch likes to read. I’m afraid I get lost in them. And some of that poetry Scott likes, well,” he shook his head again, “it’s just way, way too full of itself. If I’m gonna read something, I want to enjoy it. If I have to work too hard to make it make sense, then I’d rather be doing something useful with my time, like fixing a fence or checking lines...”
DarkCloud nodded. “I think I can find something for you. I have to stop by the shop for a few minutes, but then I’ll head over to the house and see if I can’t find a book you might enjoy. In the meantime, you want me to see if Scott’s around? I’m sure he wouldn’t mind taking you on in a game or two.”
“Sure. I’m not exactly occupied with anything else,” Johnny sighed, walked to the window and idly drew the curtain back.
“I disagree,” DarkCloud said. When Johnny turned to look at him, he smiled slightly. “You’re occupied with healing.”
DarkCloud went downstairs, but found neither Murdoch nor Scott about. Rosti informed him that they had both just stepped out.
DarkCloud continued on outside where he found both Tucson and Scott standing in front of Calientes’ store, discussing the plans for the new jail with the storeowner and another man.
“Two cells should be enough, don’t you think?” Calientes was asking Scott.
Scott shrugged. “You’re really looking at the wrong man to ask. I think the thing to take into account is the size of the jail cell.”
“Well, it’s the iron bars that’ll get expensive,” the other man said.
“Well, without iron bars, there ain’t much of a call for a jail,” Tucson argued.
“Then when you design your jail, only put bars on one end and plan it so that end is the narrow end,” Scott offered.
“Sounds like you could do the designing for us,” Calientes said.
Scott shook his head. “I don’t plan to be around that long.”
Tucson put a hand on Scott’s arm. “Hey, actually that’s a rather good idea, Scott. You’re not doing anything right now. Why don’t you design the jail?”
“Yeah,” Calientes joined in. “We’ll show you the spot the town picked out, let you know what we’re planning on spending—”
“Gentlemen, I really think you’d do better by getting someone more familiar with their construction.”
“You’ve seen a jail, right?” the other man asked.
Scott nodded. “Of course.”
“You ever seen one built?” he asked.
Scott nodded again. “Well, yes. Johnny and I helped build the one in Spanish Wells.”
“Well, there you go,” the man spread his hands out. “I’d say we have a professional.”
DarkCloud started laughing. “Sounds like you’ve been hired, Scott.”
As the men turned to look, Scott chuckled and ran his hand back through his hair. “I guess I can give it a try.”
“Well, before you go and get started, I told Johnny you’d come up and play some cards with him. He’s bored.”
Scott grinned. “Glad to hear it.”
DarkCloud matched the grin. “Unfortunately, your brother doesn’t agree.”
“No, he wouldn’t.” Scott turned to the men and gave a nod. “I need to go. I’ll talk to you later,” he said, then followed DarkCloud down the boardwalk.
“I told Johnny he could take the bandage off from around his waist,” DarkCloud said. “That first wound is looking pretty good. I asked him to still keep a bandage around it at night, however.”
“I bet he was glad to get that off. Though to be honest, I think he looks better with it on. Fills him out some, since he’s lost so much weight.”
“There’s still the chest wrap. I won’t let him go without that yet.”
“That’s going to be a few more days, isn’t it?”
“I thought so,” Scott sighed. “He doesn’t want to admit it, but he’s still having a hard time taking a deep breath. You can tell it hurts, though he tries not to show it.”
DarkCloud stopped. “That’s why I’m insisting he keep the support on. I know he won’t tell me if he does go and re-injure something.”
Scott put his hands on his hips. “I’ll back you up on the decision.”
“Thanks.” DarkCloud gestured down the block. “I have to make a quick stop at the shop, then I told Johnny I’d run by the house and see if I couldn’t find something he might enjoy reading.”
“Reading? That’s a good idea. Something to occupy his time over the next few days.”
DarkCloud agreed. “I wondered if you had any ideas for me.”
Scott cocked his head to the side, smiled. “You wouldn’t happen to have The Three Musketeers?”
DarkCloud chuckled. “You do know how long that is, don’t you?”
Scott nodded. “Yeah. But I think he needs to read it.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I don’t have a copy, though perhaps Angelou does. I was thinking about something historical.”
“How about some early American history?”
“I do have a small book about early American heroes.”
“That should do.”
DarkCloud nodded. “I’ll stop and get it.” He pointed toward the hotel. “Go on up and keep your little brother occupied. I should be by in an hour or so.”
“An hour should be about right. Just enough time to make Johnny eat his words about my card playing.”
DarkCloud shook his head and laughed. “Oh, you two boys. It’s probably a good thing your father didn’t have to put up with the two of you while you were small. You’re bad enough now.”
“No,” Scott replied, paused a moment as he glanced toward the hotel. “We’re just making up for lost time.”
“So, DarkCloud says you have a deep desire to get beat at cards,” Scott said as he pushed open the door to his brother’s room.
Johnny glanced up from where he was seated at the table playing solitaire. “That’s what I like about you, Scott. Always the optimist.”
“And I thought it was because I’m the brother who brings you gifts,” he said as he produced from behind his back two mugs of beer.
“You are my only brother,” Johnny replied dryly. “However, since you come bearing gifts, I promise to be gentle with you as I reduce you to ruins.”
“How wonderfully cavalier of you,” Scott continued with a sly grin as he placed Johnny’s mug in front of him with a dramatic flourish. “However, I not only come bearing gifts, but I’ve come to tell you that DarkCloud has also announced that after today, you don’t have to take any more of his medicinal tea.”
“Now there’s some news I could drink to,” Johnny smiled as he held up his mug.
Scott responded in kind, took a sip, then smiled. “You’ll never guess what your brother’s going to be up to now.”
“Scott,” Johnny picked up the cards from the table, “your remarkable qualities defy my ability to predict.”
Scott raised his eyebrows as he placed his mug on the table. “Where’d you come up with that one? That was pretty darn good.”
“Yeah, well,” Johnny grumbled as he shuffled the cards, “just sitting around all day, I have nothing better to do but try to come up with awe-inspiring lines.”
Scott laughed and sat down. “Hey, DarkCloud said he’s allowing you take some of those bandages off now.”
Johnny nodded and placed the cards on the table for Scott to cut. “Yeah. He won’t let me take off the one around the ribs, though.”
“Give it some time.”
“I know. I know. That’s what DarkCloud says.” He drew his hand across his face, then rubbed his temples. “It’s just…well, it seems like this has been goin’ on forever.”
Scott quietly regarded Johnny a moment before reaching over and cutting the deck. “I’m sure it does seem like it’s been a long time…since you left.” He paused, rested the palm of his hand on the table. “You managed to pack a lot in, in these past six weeks. You get injured, lose your memory, save a town, get saved by a saint,” Johnny’s derisive snort brought a grin to Scott’s face and he continued, “regain two and a half years, get injured again, battle demons,” Johnny raised both eyebrows, but said nothing, “impetuously think you’re well enough to take on a Judge—”
“We won,” Johnny countered.
“That wasn’t what I said. I said you were impetuous. Delusional, I believe, would be an even better description.”
“I was not.”
“You hadn’t a clue what you were doing or any plan once you got up there,” Scott stated, then allowed a slight grin to escape. “I’m thinking it must have been another episode of saintly intervention.”
Johnny’s expression soured. “It was Harley.”
Scott shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. Add some wings, a halo…betcha he’d make a cute angel.”
Johnny grimaced then sat back in his chair and regarded Scott seriously. “Well, if you were so gosh-darned convinced I was chasing steers without a rope—” He broke off, his gaze narrowing as his brows furrowed in concentration. “Scott, back at the Judge’s, you said something about telling me why you came along. You were convinced I shouldn’t have gone up to Salinas.”
“And you shouldn’t have,” Scott insisted with a firm nod.
Johnny cocked his head. “So?”
Scott shook his head sadly, leaned back in his own chair and sighed. “You still don’t get it, do you, Johnny?”
Johnny shook his head. “Get what?”
Scott met Johnny’s confusion solemnly. “I’m your brother,” he said softly. “And that means I’ll always support you, even if I don’t agree with you.”
Johnny’s confusion deepened. “Why?”
“Because I need to.”
Johnny looked down. For a moment all was quiet, then slowly he looked back up, the confusion gone, a hesitant smile on his face. “I think I understand.”
Scott smiled back. “It’s what brothers do,” he added.
“You’re sure about that?”
Scott nodded, a smile appearing in the corners of his mouth. “I read it in a book.”
“A book, huh?” Johnny nodded. “Guess I need to read this book.” He paused, picked up the cards, continued to nod to himself. “But I guess you’re right. I mean, if you were doing something stupid, I’d support you.”
Scott suddenly laughed. “Since when do I do stupid things?”
Johnny raised an eyebrow in mock seriousness. “Hey, while I may not have been thinking too clearly, I was merely leading. Who willingly followed, hmmm?”
Scott chuckled. “I’ll come up with an answer for that one later. For now, just deal and prepare for the slaughter.”
Johnny grinned, slowly dealt out the cards. “So, what is it you’re getting into now?”
“Hmmm?” Scott said, his attention on the cards he was picking up.
“What you mentioned when you came in.”
“Oh, that,” Scott chuckled. “You’re never going to believe it.”
“You’re looking at the architect for the new Soledad jail.”
Johnny halted in the act of picking up his cards, his expression incredulous. “You’re kidding.”
“I told you, you wouldn’t believe me,” Scott said as he arranged his cards.
“How’d this happen?”
“Well, I mentioned we helped build Spanish Wells’ jail, and I just sort of fell into the job, I guess.”
Johnny laughed. “You better make it good, Brother. Don’t want to find out in a couple years, your shoddy planning let out a very dangerous criminal.”
Scott laughed. “Two-foot thick walls, huh?”
DarkCloud walked along the boardwalk, book in hand, toward Rosti’s saloon.
Though his eyes seemed to trail along the worn slats of wood, his
thoughts were elsewhere. It was
hard to believe that just over a month ago he’d first made the acquaintance of
Johnny Madrid. He’d heard vague
references to him, mostly from when he visited family down south.
But now he had not only met him, he had helped heal him, befriended him,
gotten to know the man behind the legend, and even more astounding, gotten to
understand a little of why the legend of Johnny Madrid had ever begun in the
first place. And though he would
never refer to himself as one of Father Alvarez’ Christians, he had to admit
to his own sense of awe when he first realized Johnny had not been killed by a
bullet to his chest, but instead had been saved by the improbable placement of
the small medallion. And soon
it would be time to send Johnny and his family on their way.
DarkCloud shook his head. He doubted Soledad would ever be quite the same. The presence of Madrid in the small town had had an impact on too many people, been the catalyst for too many events.
“How’s he doing?”
Startled, DarkCloud looked up and smiled as the elder Lancer approached, his long legs shortening their stride to fall in beside the doctor.
“Murdoch, sorry, I didn’t see you.” DarkCloud paused as they reached Rosti’s. “Assuming you’re referring to Johnny, the answer is, much better.”
Murdoch nodded with satisfaction and held open the door. “That’s good to hear. Can I get you something to drink?”
DarkCloud shook his head. “No, I was just on my way back upstairs with a book for Johnny to read. He’s starting to go stir crazy.”
“Good idea,” Murdoch chuckled lightly. “Letting Johnny get stir crazy is just asking for trouble.”
“I have a feeling you speak from experience.”
Murdoch nodded. “I do.” He stopped in the middle of the saloon. “Any change on when you think we can take Johnny home?”
DarkCloud gave a slight shrug. “Not long. I’d give him a few more days. I just told him he could go without the bandage around his side wound. It’s really looking pretty good. The real difficulty is since he doesn’t want to take anything in the way of pain medication, the trip will be uncomfortable for him.”
“The symptoms he was having earlier from his quitting the medication, that’s pretty well over with now, right?”
“Pretty much,” DarkCloud nodded. “I’d say over the next week or two, he may have short periods of reoccurrence, but it won’t be anything like what he was going through a few days ago.”
Murdoch nodded. “I’m relieved.” He sighed, glanced thoughtfully toward the steps. “I think I understand now that it was something Johnny felt he really needed to do without me being around as a witness.” Murdoch closed his eyes a moment and shook his head. Then he brought his arms up to cross his chest and regarded DarkCloud again. “I’m glad Scott was the one to help him get through it. Up in Salinas I have a feeling I saw just a glimpse of what they went through together.”
DarkCloud nodded. “Harley was wise.”
For a moment Murdoch didn’t react, then slowly the idea settled on him and he sighed. “Wiser than any of us gave him credit for.”
DarkCloud nodded, then gestured toward the stairs. “I’d better go get this up to him.”
“What is it?”
DarkCloud held out the book. “Stories about early American heroes.”
Murdoch nodded, watched DarkCloud head up the stairs. A slow smile crossed his face. “Appropriate,” he murmured.
Later in the afternoon, Scott walked into the saloon, his attention drawn to Murdoch’s stiff form sitting quietly in a corner. As he walked up, Scott heard Murdoch take in a deep breath. He paused, waiting as his father finished off his beer. “Murdoch?”
Murdoch glanced up in surprise. “Scott.”
“You seem to be deep in thought,” Scott said as he pulled out a chair and sat down.
“I guess I am.”
Murdoch sighed again, gestured toward the stairs. “I was thinking maybe it’s time to talk to Johnny.”
Scott shifted uncomfortably. “No need to do it now. We’ve just been back a few days, he’s just gotten his strength—”
“Scott,” Murdoch interrupted firmly, “it needs to be done now. Otherwise…otherwise it gets easier and easier to put off. I think we both know that.”
Scott nodded. He’d seen the apprehension in his father’s eyes, and his own eyes trailed toward the steps. “Do you want me to give you some time alone?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I have a feeling it would go better if you were there.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Murdoch. With us both there, maybe it’ll put him more on guard.”
Murdoch sighed, studied the empty mug in his hand. “Maybe….” He looked up. “Why don’t you just let me have a few minutes alone with him? I—I won’t bring up anything important until you’re there. But—but I guess I would appreciate a few minutes.”
Murdoch paused at the doorway and knocked. When he heard no acknowledgement, he quietly opened the door. Johnny lay asleep, the book DarkCloud had shown him earlier spread open on his chest. Murdoch’s first reaction was to retreat back out to the hallway. But instead he found himself unwilling to leave. He stepped quietly into the room and pushed the door almost closed. For a moment he stood and just studied his son. It had been quite awhile since he had sat beside Johnny’s bed, since his thoughts had been consumed with worry about Johnny’s unstable physical condition. Those had been real moments when Murdoch privately wondered if his son would even have the chance to make any decision regarding his future. But now, as Johnny’s health was steadily improving, Murdoch found himself not so much concerned with the uncertainty of Johnny’s recovery, as disturbed with the truths they were now going to have to face and the possibility that Johnny might yet decide to go his own way.
Murdoch took a deep calming breath, was suddenly struck with the thought that the young man in front of him was simply his sleeping son. There was no Johnny Madrid present. Instead, the scene in front of him reminded Murdoch of the fleeting visions he’d had for years while he searched for Johnny. Visions of what could have been…what should have been...what he now knew, no matter how hard he tried or how successful he became, he could never make a reality.
The vision danced mockingly in front of him, a dream revisited over and over through the years. A sixteen-year-old boy, asleep on his bed, a book lying open on his chest, one arm trailing leisurely over his head, the other limp by his side.
Murdoch closed his eyes. In his mind, he played out the scene he used to dream about with haunting repetition. He walks into the room, catching his son asleep when he should have been out doing chores. He opens his mouth to admonish him, but then hesitates. He knows Johnny is tired, had heard him down in the library until the early hours of the morning, studying for his college entrance exam. Johnny, though young, is bright, exceptionally so. Murdoch always knew he would be, ever since he was a young boy. Johnny did everything early, walked at nine months, could count the silverware as he helped put it on the table when he was barely two. There was no doubt he would someday be scholarly. He had always loved to be read to.
Reality suddenly thrust its way back into his thoughts, and the fleeting escape that he sporadically enjoyed, one he tried in vain not to allow himself but which still wormed its way into his dreams, vanished into a heavy haze of guilt at his own private fantasy. For in that second of illusion, he would suddenly feel like a contented man, a man released from the guilt and pressure of being the father of Johnny Madrid, the father of a gunfighter.
He opened his eyes, disconcerted to find Johnny regarding him with some confusion.
“Uh, Murdoch.” Johnny winced slightly as he pushed himself upright, grabbing awkwardly at the book as it began to slide off his chest.
“Johnny.” Murdoch pushed the door the rest of the way closed and entered.
“I must have fallen asleep. I was reading,” Johnny finished vaguely as he closed the book and sat it on the bedside table.
“Are you enjoying it?”
Johnny shrugged. “I guess so. I just finished the first chapter. It was on George Washington. Interesting enough man, but I have serious doubts about that cherry tree story.”
Murdoch mentally shook away the last vestiges of the comforting dream and smiled. “I always found that a bit unlikely myself.”
Johnny swung his legs around and pushed to the edge of the bed. There he took a moment to stretch out carefully, wincing once again, though only slightly.
DarkCloud’s getting some of those bandages off.”
I don’t want to be talking about
bandages, Pinkertons and gunfights. I
want to be talking about law school, books, studies…
The future you should have had…
“Good news travels fast,” Johnny remarked with a half-grin.
it won’t be long and you’ll be all healed up.
You’re looking a lot better already.” But
you’re still unnaturally thin and pale, there are lines of pain still etched
on your face. This shouldn’t have
Johnny’s smile faded, his brows knitting as he dropped his own gaze uncomfortably to his lap. It felt disquieting to have Murdoch look at him like that. He forced his gaze back up and managed a wry grin. “I’m sure it’s the bath.”
Murdoch took a
step forward. “It’s more than
that, Son. You’re finally getting
the chance to heal. This past month
dealt you a few difficult blows.” We’ve all had our guts ripped out.
I should never have shown you that report. I should have never let you leave…
“I was managing,” Johnny replied, his smile evaporating as he stood up.
an eyebrow. “I wasn’t implying
that you weren’t.” This
is the first time we’ve been alone since… since I last stood in this
spot…since I told you I was glad you weren’t killed. But I need to tell you
more. I need to try to release us
from our ghosts. I need to
find a way to show you just how important you are to us…to me.
Johnny cocked his head. “Yeah, well, I’ll be fine.
Don’t worry. DarkCloud’s
not gonna let me leave ‘til he’s satisfied.”
“And at the
rate you’re going, that shouldn’t be much longer, I hear.”
But that’s just it, Johnny.
Where will you decide to go?
“I sure as heck hope not. Sitting around all day, reading books…” Johnny left the
sentence unfinished, gave a shake of his head.
“So, what’s up?”
Murdoch swallowed, forced his breathing to remain calm. He could sense a wariness in his son beneath the calm exterior. “I was hoping we could talk, Johnny.” The issues brought into the open by the Judge…they’re floating between us now, uncomfortable subjects exposed. We need to discuss them. But I don’t want tempers to flare. I don’t want to lose you over this. Perhaps I should wait for Scott…
clear his throat, Murdoch forced an amicable expression on his face and smiled.
calm and nontheatening…
Johnny regarded Murdoch, his unease now showing openly in his eyes. He could feel himself wanting to adopt his Madrid stance and mannerisms, but he was acutely aware of the effect it had on Murdoch. If he had any hope of speaking to his father civilly, it would have to be as Johnny Lancer. We’re gonna have to do this. It’s something that’s long overdue. Maybe I should have talked to Scott about it first. He should be here, too. There’re things I need to explain, difficult things, and I’d rather only have to say them once. I wish it could be avoided, but the Judge left us no option. We’ve ignored it too long.
Johnny raised an eyebrow while Murdoch put out a hand, smiling apologetically as he walked toward the table. “Sorry, son. I just had something I wanted to talk to you about.”
Johnny put up his own hand. “No, Murdoch. There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
Murdoch hesitated. “John—”
“Murdoch, please,” Johnny cut him off then turned toward the small bedside table. “I need you to listen. I need to explain something to you.” He laid a hand on the top of the small table and paused. He could feel Murdoch’s eyes on his back, knew he didn’t dare falter or he’d never get up the nerve to go through with it again. I’d rather be facing Wakeman and his men again…
Firmly, Johnny took hold of the one drawer and slid it open to reveal his modified revolver. He’d been surprised to find it in the drawer after returning from Soledad, had assumed Scott had thought to pick it up before they had left the Judge’s place.
He turned around, the weapon held in his open palm, his eyes fixed on it. “I need to tell you about this.”
“No, you don’t,” Murdoch replied, determined to remain calm and reassuring.
“Why not?” Johnny looked up.
“Why not?” Johnny demanded, his eyes narrowing slightly.
“Johnny, you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”
“Why?” Johnny asked again, his voice growing cool. “Because you don’t need to know? Or because you don’t want to know?”
hesitated, knew already the conversation had turned tense. And
I haven’t even said anything yet. This wasn’t the conversation I planned.
Johnny’s so …nervous… The
apprehension on his face is so clear… I
wonder…I wonder if that’s how I look…
The door suddenly opened, bringing both men’s attention about.
“Hey, guess who’s bearing gifts again?” Scott paused in the doorway, took immediate stock of Johnny’s tight expression, the gun in his palm, their father’s imploring look. “I have some pie,” he said as he pushed the door closed. “I swiped it from Mrs. Rosti.” He walked to the table and set the tray down, neither Murdoch nor Johnny moving. Then with a sigh, Scott turned around, leaned his hip against the table and drew a hand back through his blond hair. “Okay,” he said, directing his next question to his brother. “What’s up? I, at the very least, expected some applause for my efforts.”
Johnny took in a deep breath, dropped his gaze back down to the weapon. “I wanted to explain about this…what happened after…” he raised his eyes again and looked at Murdoch, “…after you showed me… that report you have.”
Scott struggled to keep his breathing calm, unconsciously crossed his arms—a futile gesture to still his wildly beating heart. At Johnny’s disclosure, he had felt the tension rise on either side of him and knew it had been unrealistic of him to hope that he wouldn’t be called on to act as a buffer.
Murdoch heard the bitterness in Johnny’s voice, noted the expression in his son’s eyes was one of anticipated aggression. He knew then that Johnny expected him to bring up something in the report, most probably Kansas. Murdoch pursed his lips for a second, thought carefully, then gestured toward the revolver. “Isn’t that the gun you showed up with when you first arrived? You had two if I remember correctly.”
Johnny blinked, slowly nodded. “Yes. I…I had a regular one and this modified one.”
Murdoch nodded. “An interesting piece. Did you modify it yourself?”
Johnny regarded Murdoch warily, glanced for a split second at Scott. The weapon suddenly felt awkward in his hand. “Reveles taught me how to modify it.”
Murdoch nodded again, studied it a moment, then reached out. “May I?”
Johnny’s eyes widened in surprise.
As Johnny turned the gun over to Murdoch, Scott straightened up, stepping out of the way.
“Definitely well designed,” Murdoch observed as he turned the revolver over in his hand, estimating its weight and balance. “Knowing your accuracy, the shortened barrel wouldn’t have diminished your precision, but added nicely to your holster clearance. And, if I’m not mistaken, you’ve modified the firing mechanism.”
Johnny nodded, glanced again at Scott.
Scott gave a small shrug, indicating that Murdoch’s knowledge was news to him.
“You know what it was used for, then,” Johnny stated evenly and without emotion.
Despite his son’s orchestrated indifference, Murdoch had heard a note of challenge in the statement and knew that Johnny was awaiting his reply. Murdoch raised an eyebrow and smiled openly. “Johnny, you forget. I was a deputy down around the border for a while. I know a gunfighter’s weapon when I see one.”
There was the barest hint of hesitation. “Then you’re not riled?”
“That I have it.”
Murdoch shrugged. “I’d be surprised if you didn’t.”
“Yes, but you’re not bothered that I still have mine? That I never got rid of it?”
Though outwardly Murdoch purported composure, inwardly he understood there was a lot riding on his reply. Fighting the desire to glance at Scott, he kept his gaze steady, yet objective. “I would like to say that I wasn’t, but you would know it was a lie. And I don’t want to lie, Johnny. Yes, I’m bothered that you have it, but at the same time, I’m not surprised that you do. And that’s not to imply some fault of yours. No. At one point in your life, this gun was all that stood between you and death. It kept you alive, protected you, afforded you some measure of security and power. That would be a hard thing to just let go.” He took a calming breath, kept his gaze fixed on his son’s face and continued, “And I don’t expect you to. In truth, I am bothered more because you still seem to need the security it provides.” Security I should be providing. “But this uneasiness I feel about you keeping a weapon like this, Son, is tempered by what I see in your eyes.”
Murdoch paused, seemed to need a second before he could continue. “You’re haunted more by this gun, by the part it played in your past and by its ghosts, than I am. That is really what bothers me. Because I don’t have the power to exorcise them. I’ve tried ignoring them, discounting them, bringing them out in the open, but nothing works. It hurts to know there’s nothing I can really do to help you, other than to offer my support.”
Murdoch glanced down at the gun—death encased in metal waiting to be released—forced his expression to remain neutral as he offered it back to Johnny. “It’s a tangible link to your past—a tribute to your survival. If you need to keep it, I understand.”
Johnny accepted the weapon, the smooth metal warmed by his father’s hand. He took a deep breath, felt Murdoch’s and Scott’s eyes on him. “For awhile…quite awhile…” he hazarded a quick glance up before retreating to the familiar sight of the weapon, “…I’d need to check it at night…make sure I still had it.” He hesitated, forced himself to meet Murdoch’s then Scott’s eyes. “Sometimes I’d wake up…anxious…not sure where I was at first. I’d need to feel it, know it was there…until I remembered that…that…” he faltered, glanced back down, his voice suddenly low, “…that everything was going to be okay.”
Murdoch swallowed heavily before replying, “Then there’s nothing to explain to me, Johnny.”
Johnny looked up quickly. “Yes, there still is, Murdoch. You see, back…back when I left…I hadn’t taken off for good. But you had asked me… You said I needed to decide who I was—if I was Johnny Madrid or Johnny Lancer. And I’ve tried very hard to be Johnny Lancer. I’ve tried to put my old life behind me. But when I went back to my room—thought over what you said—I realized as long as I hold on to things like this,” he held up the gun, “I’m always going to have connections to Johnny Madrid.” He took a deep breath. “So, I decided to get rid of the gun. That’s why I left, Murdoch. I wanted to go away for a few days, take the gun and throw it into a lake, where I’d never see it again.”
Scott looked at Murdoch in surprise then turned back to Johnny. “That’s what was eating at you that morning?”
Johnny nodded, lowered the weapon. “I’m sorry, Scott. But I didn’t want anyone else around when I did it. It was something I needed to do by myself.” He turned back to Murdoch. “But along the trail, I was ambushed by two bounty hunters.” He paused, then added with a wry smile, “They were good. Very good.” He shook his head at the memory, then continued, “I tried to escape, could have if I’d been willing to shoot one of them.” He shrugged, rubbed his hand across his eyes tiredly. “We were cutting through the Diablos, heading for San Francisco, when two other men joined our party. I didn’t like the looks of them from the first. Tried to tell Pete and Cage to watch them, but they wouldn’t listen.” He paused again, shook his head bitterly. “Eventually the two made their move, jus’ like I knew they would. I managed to take ‘em down, but not before they took out Pete and Cage.”
“Then you weren’t responsible for all four men’s deaths,” Murdoch stated evenly, careful to keep the relief out of his voice.
Johnny shook his head. “Though I hear that’s the story.”
“Then the two men that jumped your party, the two men you did kill…that was self-defense, Johnny. Any court would see that.”
“Maybe, unless it was Madrid being put on trial.” He shook his head. “And I could have saved Cage, if that damn rifle hadn’t jammed. But they took out Pete while I still had my hands tied behind my back.”
“There’s nothing that can be done about it now. The town’s taken care of the bodies, no one knows where the men came from—”
“Pete and Cage were sent by Stanton.”
“Who?” Scott asked.
“Kansas,” Johnny answered tersely.
Murdoch nodded at Scott, while Scott mouthed a silent, ‘Oh.’
“I wanted you to know how it was. What really happened and why I’d left,” Johnny said.
“I’m glad you told me,” Murdoch replied.
Johnny glanced once more at the gun in his hand, turned and placed it on the table. “There’s something else, Murdoch. Something else the Judge mentioned.”
Scott shot a quick look at Murdoch, but his father’s attention was fixed solely on Johnny’s back, the look of a general preparing to meet the onslaught of a much larger army.
Murdoch took a quick breath and plunged ahead, “Let me explain something, Johnny.”
“No,” Johnny turned and shook his head. “Murdoch, the Judge said—”
“I know, Johnny,” Murdoch interrupted. “And before you say anything, please listen to me, let me explain.”
“Please, Johnny,” Scott raised a hand as he stepped beside their father. “Let Murdoch have a chance.”
Johnny looked from Murdoch to Scott and back again, his expression doubtful. “Okay,” he agreed, leaned against the table and crossed his arms. “Go ahead.”
Scott heard Murdoch inhale, preparing himself. “Johnny, when the Judge said that I had known where you were, but didn’t send for you, he was telling the truth.”
“Murdoch.” Johnny started to straighten up, but was waved back into place.
“Would you listen, Johnny?”
Johnny sighed, nodded his head.
“I did know where you were,” Murdoch continued, crossed his arms and paced toward the window. “For the longest time, the trail ran cold at Jose Madrid’s. I learned he’d been murdered, but no one could find out what had happened to you or Maria. You seem to have vanished that night.” Back turned, he paused for a moment, took a deep breath. “After numerous attempts, I decided to hire the best…the Pinkertons. They were eventually able to pick up the trail…piece together what had happened to the two of you for a few more years, then lost it again when you were around twelve.” He turned, looked at Johnny, his expression grim. “But by that time, you were actually sixteen, maybe even seventeen. I didn’t really think there was much hope anymore, but I just couldn’t let it go. It was…” he shrugged apologetically, “…unfinished business, I guess.”
Murdoch sighed, glanced up at the ceiling. “For a while the trail ran cold again. The Pinkertons couldn’t seem to find any word of you. Then, a new man was assigned to the case. I guess he was looking through all the old notes or something, and came across Jose Madrid’s name. Though he felt it was a longshot, didn’t even want to tell his superiors, he decided to check into the possibility that Johnny Madrid just might be the same boy he was looking for. So he decided to work backwards instead…and he was able to make a connection…found someone who was able to confirm that Johnny Lancer and Johnny Madrid were indeed the same person.” Murdoch took a deep breath before meeting his son’s eyes. “When I received word…” Murdoch shook his head, glanced away for a second, forced his gaze back. “I didn’t know what to think, Johnny. I…I had been prepared to hear you’d died. It’d been so long since I’d heard any news from the Pinkertons. So it hit me hard when I heard what…” he paused, nodded sadly as if confirming his own failing, “what you’d become. I’m sorry, Johnny, but I was unable to reconcile my son with the gunfighter Madrid. I chose not to contact you.”
“Until you needed me?”
“Until I realized I might die without ever having the chance to see you again.”
Johnny pursed his lips together and glanced down at the floor, then shook his head with a soft chuckle. “Murdoch,” he said, glancing back up, a half-smile on his lips, “while you might have been a deputy for a few months, what was I for a number of years?”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow, surprised at the question. “I don’t follow.”
“What was I?” Johnny repeated.
“A gunfighter,” Murdoch responded carefully.
“And was I good?”
Murdoch hesitated for a moment before nodding. “Yes.”
“Murdoch,” Johnny’s half-smile reached his eyes, “I wasn’t just good, I was very good.”
Murdoch nodded without emotion. “I’m aware of that.”
Johnny paused, ostensibly waiting for some reaction, but when none was forthcoming, he chuckled again. He then glanced at Scott, but saw that his brother was also oblivious to the significance of his announcement.
“Murdoch,” the grin had now spread across his face, “your Pinkertons might have been good, but I was better.”
“What?” Murdoch asked, his brows knit in confusion.
“I knew they were on my trail. Any gunhawk who’s lived long enough to gain any sorta reputation, knows how to elude the most enthusiastic adversary, or he woulda had a bullet with his breakfast some morning.”
“You knew they were tracking you?”
“Of course I knew,” Johnny snorted, amused. “I wasn’t sure who had sent them at first. But I eventually found out.”
“Then you knew it was me?” Murdoch asked, his surprise at the revelation apparent.
Johnny nodded again. “While there are a few towns where it’s best I don’t show my face, there are also quite a few where the inhabitants are in my debt. It was nothing to ask them to put your Pinks on a false trail, send them on down the road while I was hiding out right under their noses. At first I thought it might be Preston who had sent them, trying to track Maria down. She had often talked about him…worried that he was never going to leave her alone.” Johnny became subdued for a second, glancing down at the floor. “He was apparently obsessed with her,” he murmured softly then with a quick breath he shook off the feeling with a wry smile. “Though, to be honest, at first I thought it was either Forbes or Stanton, since they’d both put sizable bounties on my head. Forbes I couldn’t really see hiring the Pinks, not his style. But then,” he shrugged.
Scott stared at the floor. He suddenly had a hard time listening to his brother talk so nonchalantly about having hired guns tracking him. It was one of those moments when Scott was faced with the indisputable fact that there was a vast difference in their lives; that while Scott may have lived rather carefree and careless at times, he did expect to live. Johnny hadn’t.
“Then I decided to find out for sure,” Johnny continued. “So one night, I got some of the men in the town I was in to engage your Pink in a game of poker, along with introducing him to a liberal supply of tequila.”
Despite himself, Scott glanced back up. At seeing Murdoch’s astonishment, Scott couldn’t help but grin, though he was forced to hide it behind his hand when Murdoch glanced at him sharply.
“They got the agent drunk?” Murdoch demanded.
Johnny allowed a self-satisfied smirk as he swallowed back a grin. “Well, yeah…quite drunk. Though I guess I’d better put blame where blame’s due. They only got him started—I put him under the table.”
“After they’d had a couple rounds, I joined the game. The agent had already been told that I’d left town that afternoon, so he never suspected the man he’d been trying so hard to track was sitting across the table from him.” Johnny smiled. “He weren’t even that good a player. Actually, I cleaned him out, poor man. Cleaned him out of money and information.”
Stunned, Murdoch stared at Johnny. “You knew all along that I was trying to track you down, that I knew who you were?”
Johnny nodded, then his expression became somber. “So you see, it’s as much my fault as it is yours that you didn’t contact me sooner. In fact, if it hadn’t been for that firing squad, your Pink would never have caught up to me. They really weren’t all that great at being inconspicuous, leastwise not the ones sent out after me. I mean, that one that finally caught up with me there in Mexico,” Johnny shook his head, “the way he was flapping that money around, I knew in a second the Rurales weren’t gonna let him go. Not with that much cash.”
“I was told you shot the place up,” Murdoch said.
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “Well, yeah. I had to. That damn Pink of yours comes sauntering in, flashing money like he owned a bank, claimin’ that someone’s willin’ to pay a lot of money to keep me alive. And you don’t think the Rurales are gonna be interested in that? He was a damn fool. Within seconds, the Rurales started shooting and if I hadn’t managed to get my hands on a gun, he woulda been dead and I woulda been held while they tried to figure out who it was who was willing to pay so much money to catch me alive. The other bounties…” Johnny shrugged. “Well, alive ain’t one of the conditions.”
Murdoch shook his head, seemed to need a minute to digest all the new information. Slowly a smile appeared on his face and he glanced with amusement at Scott before reaching out and patting Johnny’s arm. “I have to tell you, Johnny. This isn’t how I expected this conversation to go.”
Scott laughed and shook his head in agreement. “Not hardly.”
Johnny glanced at Scott questioningly.
“Hey, I’m just here to keep the two of you from killing each other.”
Abashed, Johnny dropped his gaze for a second before glancing up at Murdoch, his gaze growing more uncomfortable. “Murdoch?”
Johnny glanced quickly at Scott, then back at the older man. “There’s…Murdoch, there’s something else.”
Murdoch took in a full breath. “Johnny, if you’re referring to the Judge’s allusion to the possibility of your not being my son, I want you to know, I harbor no such notion. You are my son.”
Without expression, Johnny quietly regarded Murdoch for a moment. Scott, who had been watching carefully, almost expected the mask of Madrid to slide into place. Then unexpectedly he saw a smile break across his brother’s face, creating the familiar, shy, humor-induced lines in the corners of Johnny’s eyes—the look that, at first, had seemed to Scott such a paradox. Wrinkles of age, weather and a hard life in a face he knew for a fact belonged to someone younger than himself; it seemed to make no sense. Yet, the moments when those unexpected lines appeared, they seemed to actually soften his brother’s face, give it an almost child-like quality. It was an incongruity Scott had, in the past couple of years, found to be a perfect partner to the anomaly that was his brother.
“That’s…” Johnny dipped his head and shook it, “that’s not it. I mean,” he straightened up, “Ma never gave me the impression there was any doubt. She…spoke often of Preston, but it was never implied that he could have been my father.”
Murdoch opened his mouth, was surprised at Johnny’s sudden candor, knew a subject he had long wanted to discuss had been opened. Not wanting to lose the opportunity, Murdoch stepped forward and put a hand on Johnny’s forearm. “Son—”
“Murdoch,” Johnny looked up, his face serious, “would you have run for office if I hadn’t been around?”
“What?” Murdoch shook his head as he attempted to catch up to the quick change in topic. “Johnny, that’s not important—”
“Yes, it is.” Johnny insisted, slowly stepped back, sliding his arm out of Murdoch’s grip, reinstating the distance between the two, his eyes never leaving his father’s face. “Would you have run for office?”
“I really have no interest in it. I have you, and Scott and Teresa to take care of, along with the ranch. And before you boys came, I couldn’t very well have left the ranch to go off to Sacramento, now could I?”
Johnny continued to regard Murdoch quietly a moment, his expression remaining unsatisfied. “But if I hadn’t been here, and you’d had Scott to watch over things, would you?”
Scott watched Murdoch closely, was surprised at the composure on his father’s face, though he was sure Murdoch’s heart had to be beating as wildly as his own. He’s asked the question. Is it better if I’m not here?
“Johnny.” Murdoch shook his head. “I’d rather have you. That whole idea of running for office was mostly a plan put forward by a few local ranchers and businessmen. It wasn’t my idea and I really had no interest.”
“And why aren’t you president of the Cattleman’s Association anymore?” Johnny continued.
Murdoch shrugged. “It was time to do other things.”
“Come on, Murdoch. You’d been the president for the past six years.” Johnny gestured.
“As I said, it was time to do other things.”
Johnny crossed his arms and shook his head. “I don’t believe you, Murdoch. The truth is, some of the other ranchers were giving you a hard time about having an ex-gunfighter as a son. Isn’t that right?”
“No, Murdoch. I saw you at those meetings, I know how much that organization meant to you. I saw the hours of work you put into it, I heard you talk about what your future plans were. A person doesn’t just change their feelings about something like that over night. It has to be changed for them. And I did it, didn’t I? I’m the reason you didn’t run for another term last spring.”
“Johnny.” Murdoch hesitated, then slowly nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry.”
Johnny shook his head sadly and sighed. “No, Murdoch. I’m the one who should apologize.” He looked down. “What happened with Warburton… That didn’t help at all, did it?”
Murdoch shook his head. “No. I’m afraid not.”
Johnny turned around and saw Scott watching him out of the corner of his eyes. He sighed and rubbed his hand tiredly across his face. “I hope they give you another chance.”
“They will. It’ll just take some time. Some of the ranchers just need the opportunity to get to know you better.”
Johnny turned around. “Get to know Johnny Lancer, you mean.”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes.”
“Is that why you’re always pushing me to attend those socials?”
“I’m trying to give the local people the opportunity to know you as something more than the stories they’ve heard.”
“I s’pose robbing trains doesn’t help much, either.”
Murdoch smiled. “Well, to be honest, I think you did more good than harm with that one. While it was clearly against the law, the motivation was from good intentions.”
Johnny managed a half-grin and glanced furtively at Scott before replying, “Just don’t do it again, right?”
“Not unless you want me to embarrass us both by putting you over my knee.”
After the discussion with Johnny and then an early supper, Murdoch had excused himself for bed. Scott noticed that while their father appeared exhausted from the intensity of the emotions in the confrontation with Johnny over the questions raised by the Judge, he also seemed more relaxed than he had since Johnny’s first disappearance.
Johnny, however, while more sociable than he’d been, still seemed preoccupied. He’d stayed around to play a couple hands of cards with Scott, Rosti and DarkCloud, then he too had eventually excused himself for bed. Scott had remained downstairs awhile longer, content to nurse a beer and ponder the outcome of the discussion and the interesting revelations. While he had the feeling that Murdoch seemed to think all was now well, Scott wasn’t so sure. Perhaps it was cynicism born of war experience, but he had come to realize that if you were expecting a mountain and you got a molehill, that usually meant you’d taken a wrong turn, and inevitably you’d still come upon that mountain. He hoped that wasn’t the case this time.
Scott took his empty beer mug up to the counter, gave a goodnight wave to Rosti who was in conversation with a couple of the men from town, and then headed upstairs. There, he paused outside Johnny’s door. He was tempted to peak in. With a resolute sigh, he turned, prepared to head for his own room, when he heard a slight movement, the sound of a chair leg scraping across the floor. Johnny was still awake. Before he could change his mind, Scott quickly knocked.
“Come on in.”
Scott opened the door in time to see Johnny stand up and turn around, a grin on his face as he crossed his arms. “I thought it might be you.”
“And I thought you’d be asleep by now.”
Johnny shrugged. “I guess I wasn’t as tired as I thought.”
“Something on your mind?” Scott asked as he closed the door.
Johnny shrugged again. “That, I guess.” He gestured toward the table. The modified revolver was lying out.
“Are you still planning on getting rid of it?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m still surprised at Murdoch’s reaction. I really thought he’d be upset.”
Scott smiled, walked to the table. “Like he thought you were going to be upset.”
Johnny chuckled. “I guess the Judge was right about one thing. We do tend to have a lot of secrets, don’t we?”
“Yeah, they are some doozies, aren’t they?”
Johnny laughed, picked the gun up. “I should thank you for getting this back from the Judge, though.”
“It wasn’t me,” Scott put up a hand. “I was too busy helping you stay on your feet to worry about your gun, remember?”
“It was Murdoch.”
Scott nodded. “He was the one who thought of getting your gun and those letters, even the medallion.”
At Scott’s pronouncement, Johnny opened his mouth, blinked, then shook his head. “I forgot about the letters.”
“Well, the Judge doesn’t have them, so you needn’t worry about that. They’re in a drawer in our room. I can go get them for you if you’d like.”
Johnny shook his head, turned away and walked to the bedside table, where he opened the drawer and placed the revolver in it. “Just destroy them,” he murmured.
Scott pursed his lips as he studied Johnny’s back. “I’m glad Harley gave me his letter,” he said carefully, then waited for some reaction from Johnny. When none was forthcoming, he continued cautiously, “It helped me to know what you were feeling; gave me a window into Madrid when I needed it.” He added softly, “They weren’t easy to read.”
“They weren’t easy to write,” Johnny interrupted without turning around.
Scott shook his head. “I don’t suppose so, but those letters showed me something important.”
Johnny turned around, his expression tight and dark. “Like what?”
“Like the fact that that Johnny Madrid never existed.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t you see? When you wrote those, you were under the impression you’d done a lot of things you really hadn’t, that your life had turned out completely different.”
“I had killed Isham and Reveles, I had hired out again over in McCall’s Crossing, I did kill that Stryker kid—”
“Yes, but the way things happened and the reasons, they weren’t like you thought, were they?”
Johnny shook his head. “No. But Scott, sometimes I feel more like the gunfighter you first met a few years ago than Johnny Lancer.”
nothing wrong with that.”
there is. I tried to kill him.”
“No, you didn’t. You tried to kill the Johnny Madrid you thought existed. The Johnny Madrid that I know, that Harley and DarkCloud and Jamie know, he’s here, standing in front of me. He’s just not the Johnny Madrid you thought you were for a short time. I’m not trying to discount those feelings you still have, but as you get the chance to absorb the reality of the situation, I think it’ll all sort out. The important thing is, the Johnny Madrid of those letters, he never did have a chance to develop. Yes, you were probably heading that way. Yes, you still have the past of the Johnny Madrid that did exist to deal with. But the Johnny Madrid that tried to find death…” Scott shook his head. “He’s the ghost.”
Johnny blinked, gave a sad shake of his head. “I wish it was that easy, Scott.”
Scott shook his head. “Easy? No, I don’t suppose it will be. But time will sort it out.”
“And time will tell whether there’s repercussions from Johnny Madrid appearing again.” He sighed. “I hate for any wind of this to get back to the valley, give the ranchers Murdoch needs to deal with any more cause for suspicion.”
“That’s really what’s bothering you here, isn’t it?”
Johnny pursed his lips, then nodded reluctantly. “I didn’t—” He shook his head, glanced away. “When this all started…”
“You didn’t know Johnny Lancer existed.”
Johnny nodded. “And knowing now what the Judge said about Murdoch, the trouble my appearance has caused him, I don’t know.” He was quiet a second, then added softly, “Then there’s that bounty now. There’s gonna be problems there, Scott. This was just the beginning.”
“Then let’s face it together. Let’s get it taken care of, contact a lawyer—”
Johnny put a hand up and shook his head. “I can’t go back there, Scott.”
“If I went back—” he stopped, shook his head again and turned away. “I just can’t, Scott.”
“Are you worried about a fair trial? A lynching?”
Johnny shook his head. “No.” He turned back, his jaw clenched tight as if to keep back some words. “No, it’s not—Scott, if I went back, it would destroy a life.”
Scott expression turned confused. Shaking his head, he stepped forward, put out a hand to grasp Johnny’s arm, but Johnny turned away and crossed his arms. “What are you talking about? Destroy a life? Whose life?”
“Scott,” Johnny turned back, his expression hard. “Just let it go. I’ll figure out what to do.”
“Scott, I said to let it go.”
Scott narrowed his eyes and hissed in irritation. “I’m not going to let it go.”
“Fine. Stand there all night if you want. I’m going to bed,” Johnny retorted as he kicked his boots off and sat down on the edge of the bed. “Just turn out the light, will you?”
Scott watched as Johnny lay back on the bed, settling one arm across his eyes. It was obvious he was going to get nothing more out of his recalcitrant brother.
Well, Scott, I think it’s on the horizon.
Turning, a calculated smile on his face. “Better left out, than in a ditch with ants crawling across your eyeballs. That don’t photograph too well.”
crossed, posture relaxed, though the smile is cool. “This is listening money.
What you’re talkin’ about is gun money.
fists clenched at his side. “Don’t
you go callin’ me brother, just ‘cuz we share that old man’s blood.
You mean nothing to me!”
in a small cabin, trying hard to make Andy’s sister understand.
“Dorrie, you’re wrong. I
know because I was a kid pretty much like Andy.
I grew up hating. And I
spent all my time learning how to use this gun.
Some education, huh? Andy’s
got killin’ on his mind. Hate and
same cabin, seated at a table. The
same feeling, but now it’s Andy he has to make understand. “…don’t you ever get to a point when you take killin’
lightly. It’s not a good thing to
kill a man or cause a man to get killed. It
makes you sick inside.”
on the porch, the two men astride their horses, their nervousness and confusion
unmistakable in the unease with which they look back and forth from him to each
other. And he can feel he’s fully
Madrid. He wears the mask with
ease…there are both comfort and shame in that knowledge.
Andy is nearby, but he still doesn’t understand.
And time is running out. “You
just take a good look at them, because in a second or two, they’ll be dead.
Oh, they’ll try me, kid, but they know their chances.
So you tell me when…. You
know, it’s easy to kill a man, but it’s impossible to bring him back to life
crossed, huddled against the shame he feels emanating from the man pacing behind
him. “What do you keep lookin’
at me for? You saw what happened
out there. He drew on me.
What did you expect me to do? What,
isn’t that good enough?”
a saloon. Scott studying him from
across the table. “You’re going
to be dead before you’re thirty… It’s the only good thing that’s ever
happened to you in your whole life. And
you’re going to get up and walk away from it.
All for nothing. But I guess
that’s all you’ve got going for you from now on.”
saloon, Guthrie and a bartender watching him as he wipes away the
all-to-familiar tang from his lips. “It’s
what a doctor gave me after I got shot up one time.
It’s laudanum. It’s for killing pain.”
another dead man to Johnny Madrid?”
the darkness, Warburton’s daughter is looking up at him.
“Don’t you know pretty girls and gunfighters don’t mix?”
a feeling of betrayal, glaring at Murdoch.
“Any cause that turns to back-shootin’s wrong, and that’s all I
friend’s lifeless body...a man he’d killed.
Murdoch behind him. “That’s
all I wanted to be at one time. Johnny
Madrid, good at my trade.”
guess you are Johnny Madrid. I
guess a part of you always will be.”
down on a young girl. Reminds
him… So familiar… “He was a gun-for-hire.
Pistolero. Down around the
border. Done a lot of bad things.
And he had a lot of bad things done to him.
But, that’s all the life he knew.
Then one day, he was lining up in front of a firing squad.
Another sixty seconds—he woulda been dead.
Something happened, and old Johnny Madrid got a second chance.”
on the other side of a jail cell. The wrong side. “Besides the sheriff and his deputy, there are two hungry
bounty hunters out there!”
I’ve had worse!”
clenched in arm wrestling. Scott
across from him…bruised, battered, but strangely intent… “I wouldn’t be that ghost, would I?”
looking at him. “The Johnny Madrid that tried to find death…he’s the
ghost. He never existed.”
can you be so sure?”
turns. Reveles is there.
“Can’t you see what even your brother sees?
How can you be so blind, Johnny?”
should have been dead, Reveles.”
tried to tell you. I tried to show
you. The Johnny Madrid that you
envisioned when you asked me to help you be a gunfighter…he never came to
Reveles shakes his head. “You
came to me, told me you could be the best gunfighter there ever was, and I asked
you how come you thought you had it in you.
Do you remember what you told me?”
said, ‘because I had nothing to lose.’”
nods. “And you did become the
best gunfighter, but not because you had nothing to lose. But because you had everything to prove.”
was never trying to prove anything!”
you were. Your own worth.”
right, Juanito.” Padre Simon appears, a smile of understanding on his face.
“He’s been trying to get you to see what I tried to tell you long
changes the fact that I was a gunfighter.”
it doesn’t.” Padre Simon nods. “But
what type of gunfighter were you? What
type of jobs did you take on?”
did we part ways?” Reveles asks.
you wanted to work for Rogers and I didn’t.”
why was that?”
can only shake his head.
it so hard to answer?” Reveles snorts. “Come
on. I wanted to work for the money;
you wanted to work for the cause, isn’t that right?
That’s why you chose to work for Fullerton instead, an old coot with a
bit of a scrub ranch.”
old coot with a valid claim to that salt mine.”
what sort of gunfighter takes on a low-paying job of protecting an old priest
and a relic across a desert?” Padre Simon adds.
was really disappointed, too. The
gunfighter you bragged to me about wanting to be, the one I worked so hard to
form, you just let him go, all because you wanted to prove your worth,”
my worth,” he snorts. “I
don’t have to prove myself to anyone.”
you do,” Padre Simon answers softly. “To
he shakes his head. “I had no
desire to prove anything to him.”
why didn’t you kill him like you always said you would?” Reveles asks.
“You were always saying how much you hated him.
Yet there were any number of times you were close enough to have taken a
little detour. Yet you didn’t.
time was not right.”
time was not right,” Padre Simon echoes.
“Because you weren’t yet a legend.”
shakes his head, takes a step back. “I
never planned to be a legend. I
didn’t want to be anybody’s hero.”
Padre Simon smiles kindly. “Only
Scott strode across the saloon and came to a halt in front of Rosti and
DarkCloud. Placing his hands on his
hips, he took a deep breath, as if forcing himself to remain calm.
“Okay,” he said in terse, clipped tones.
“I’ve been up to his room, I checked out back and on the porch, and
he’s nowhere to be found. If
he’s taken off again, I am going to personally tan his hide and lash him to
the heaviest piece of furniture I can find in this building—” He interrupted
himself with an upraised finger. “No.
No, I believe I shall lash him to the building itself.”
DarkCloud shot a look at Rosti and grinned. “Let me guess. You’re looking for Johnny?”
“The gray hair’s starting to show, isn’t it?”
“No need to set yourself to worrying, Scott,” Rosti grinned and leaned on the counter. “He was through here ten minutes or so ago.”
Scott grimaced as he rubbed his fingers against his forehead. “Rosti, since meeting my brother, I think worry has become my middle name.”
DarkCloud put a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “He said he was just going to go walk over to see Barranca.”
Scott opened his mouth in alarm.
“Don’t worry,” DarkCloud said. “I already said exactly what you’re thinking. But he immediately assured me he had no plans to do anything more than take a short walk.”
“He better not. Or he’s going to become a permanent fixture to that post out in front.” Scott muttered. “Do you think if I go out after him, it’ll be apparent I’m trying to keep an eye on him?”
DarkCloud chuckled. “Yes.”
Scott grimaced, seemed to consider his options, then rapped the bar with his knuckles and straightened up. “Too damn bad.”
Johnny stepped out of the saloon and paused on the porch steps. The morning was cool and clean, no early morning fog. And other than a few clouds clinging tenaciously to the coastals in the west, the sky was perfectly clear. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, tried to lay to rest the flashes of memories that had deluged him during the night. But they continued to cling to his thoughts, bringing heaviness to his chest, dryness to his throat, indecision to his feelings.
He opened his eyes. He knew what he had to do, what needed to be faced. He’d been avoiding it. He couldn’t understand why it had bothered him so. It was, after all, just a street. A street where he’d gone looking for an end, but found a beginning.
With a determined set to his jaw, he stepped off the porch and crossed the street to the other side, then turned and walked toward Solero’s. However, this time when he reached the corner, he didn’t go directly to the livery as he’d done before. Instead, he paused and closed his eyes, recalling the scene in his mind, feeling the hollowness in his soul, the reverberations of the time so recently when all he knew was to be Johnny Madrid. And the feeling of overwhelming emptiness and desolation found their familiar haunts, solidified in his chest, until he felt he couldn’t breathe.
With a quick shake of his head, he forced in a deep draught of air as he opened his eyes, turning to look behind him as if he expected someone there. It was then that he remembered Matthew chasing after him, how he had turned to see the agony on the young man’s face, a depiction of a futile desire to stop the inevitable. He had fought down the desire to reach out in friendship, for he knew the effort would be pointless and only serve to make it more difficult to do what had to be done.
With another shake of his head, and the echoes of the other time following him, Johnny turned the corner and stepped into the street. A dirty, dusty road where he’d faced Wakeman and his men, the stage where Madrid had come to play out his last and final scene.
There was no movement; the street was empty, seemingly unmarred by the actions, which had so recently taken place there. He hesitated, glanced across the street, and was unsettled to find that the rocking chair was still in front of Solero’s house.
In silence he walked across the road, then stepped up onto the porch, coming to
stop in front of the chair. He
reached out to run his fingers along its back, then pushed it just enough to
send it slowly rocking back and forth. Closing
his eyes, he listened to the faint scrape of wood as the chair squeaked on the
where I waited…waited to die…
He sat down, leaned his head back against the chair, and attempted to clear his thoughts.
is where everything changed. This
is who you were, where you were, just a short two and a half weeks ago.
Exhaustion, pain, disappointment, emptiness were all you had left.
But now, everything is changed, or it’s supposed to be…
he stood up, subconsciously glancing toward the west as if expecting Wakeman to
appear once more. But this time,
the horizon was clear, not even the sun in his eyes.
stepped off the porch and slowly walked toward the center of the road.
There he stopped and faced the west.
here I stood, or Johnny Madrid did anyway.
I made my decisions, I met the enemy, I prepared for what had to be
done…he shook his head …yet, I won.
But some say I had help. Did
was bitterness in his eyes as he squinted into the distance, his right hand
clenching at his side.
You wanted so damn bad to save me, why couldn’t You have done it differently?
Why make me go through all of this?
All those feelings again? Why
force me to be Madrid again…and with Murdoch and Scott watching? Why force me to take more lives, drown me in the pool of
death again? I had tried so hard to
release Madrid’s hold…tried and failed.
There was a sigh.
If You’d just let me do as I’d planned, I wouldn’t have been
left in this purgatory. I would
have finally been free.
sound of footsteps caused him to whirl around, his right hand reaching
instinctively to his hip.
halted at Johnny’s reflexive action. But
before he’d even come to a complete stop, he’d seen the recognition in his
brother’s eyes, and knew the response had been automatically halted, though
the look on his brother’s face gave him the sensation of having walked into
the middle of a private conversation. He
watched as Johnny straightened up from his instinctive movement, and though his
brother offered an inclination of acknowledgement, the mask was
impenetrable—Madrid had returned.
shook his head. “What are you
doing here, Scott?”
quickly considered his options, decided on honesty.
“I was looking for you.” He
saw Johnny clench his jaw in irritation, turn away to look back down the street.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked.
When Johnny didn’t answer, Scott walked up beside him, tried again.
“Johnny, what’s going on?”
heard Johnny sigh, saw him cross his arms tightly against his chest.
“I just need some time to think.”
what? The gunfight?” Scott
There was warning in the undertone.
Scott interrupted. “I think
we’ve both had quite enough of the ‘I can do it myself’ attitude. After all we’ve been through the past week, I think you owe
me more. Now what’s wrong?
And ‘nothing’ is not an acceptable answer.”
please. Just leave me alone.”
comes under the same category as ‘nothing.’
It’s also unacceptable.”
heard his brother sigh again, a sigh of tired defeat.
dropped his hands to his hips and turned. “Scott.
regarded Johnny closely, his eyes searching his brother’s face.
It was then he noticed a brightness to his brother’s eyes.
But this time it had nothing to do with DarkCloud’s medicine, instead
it appeared to be brought on by the glisten of unshed tears.
I’d like to help, if you just give me the chance.
If it’s about Kansas, then let’s talk to Murdoch and—”
shook his head. “It’s not
glanced out toward the mountain range that Johnny was staring at. “Then what are you out here searching for?”
heard Johnny chuckle under his breath. “Searching
for,” he murmured. “I don’t
know. Father Alvarez might say
redemption. Padre Simon, my future.
DarkCloud, my past. And
Cisco… Cisco might say the truth.”
pursed his lips, then asked, “And what would you say?”
shrugged, was silent a moment, then murmured, “Ghosts.”
was a soft chuckle. “That’s
just it. I don’t know. The ghosts of the past—the ghosts of the present.”
He shrugged, took another deep breath, then turned to look at Scott.
“You said last night that the Johnny Madrid who was here didn’t
exist. But he did, Scott. This is where it
happened,” he gestured widely. “This
is where it all came together; and where it all exploded apart.
Before this, it was all so easy. I
didn’t like it, but I knew who I was, I knew where I was going, and I knew how
to fix it. Or if not fix it, at
least how to end it,” he finished quietly.
He turned away, walked a couple steps then halted again and gestured
toward Solero’s house. “I sat
there, Scott. I sat there, letting
DarkCloud’s medicine do its magic. I—I
had written those letters. Tied up
all the loose ends. Was ready to
play my last hand.”
took a step to reach Johnny’s side, but his brother didn’t turn to look at
went into it with no fear, no hesitation. Just
a wish to get it over with.” Johnny
turned a bitter, forced smile on
Scott. “I owe a lot to DarkCloud
and his medicine. I was so relieved
to be able to breathe without the pain. It
had gotten so bad.” He shook his
head, turned away again. “Somehow
I would have managed to force myself out here; I would have found a way to face
Wakeman, because I had to, because I needed to. But I’d have been no good.
I wouldn’t have been able to take on his hired gun.
He would have cut me right down. It
wasn’t that he was that good, but that I was in that bad of shape, Scott.”
murmured, “I know.”
I won instead. I won and he’s
dead.” He took a deep breath, seemed to shiver, then sought out Scott’s
eyes. “That gun of Wakeman’s,
the one he’d hired, he was just a kid, Scott.
Couldn’t have been more than twenty.
But without a thought, I sent him down.
There was no malice, no remorse…just something that had to be done.
He was in my way.” He took in a quick breath, turned away, his voice
low. “What’s another dead man
to Johnny Madrid.”
brows furrowed at the quiet statement. There
had been no question in the voice; it was as if it were simply an echo of a
fact. “Johnny, Wakeman was
holding little Wes, and Mary and Jamie. He
left you no choice.”
always a choice.”
confusion deepened. “Fine.
But your other choice would have let Wakeman win.”
maybe I could have avoided all the bloodshed if I’d just given myself up to
him from the first.”
wouldn’t have worked, and you know that.
The killing would have continued, because that’s the sort of man
Wakeman is. He would have killed
you, then continued terrorizing this town until he’d gotten what he wanted.
Nothing would have been gained.”
nodded, his attention still fixed out on the street.
“I guess I know it, but still…” He sighed. “You know, the only thing that worried me, Scott, was not
that I’d killed that kid, not that there was more killing to be done.
Instead it was that I might not be able to get all the hostages free
before one of Wakeman’s men finally got me.
I didn’t care about dying, Scott.
I just didn’t want to die before I got the hostages free.
But dying…” He shrugged.
I remembered the paper that Wakeman wanted.
I knew it was my one chance to get little Wes free.
And once he was safe, then there was the possibility that I might be able
to still pull it off.” He took a
breath, continuing in sudden urgency. “But the effects of the morphine were
starting to run out. I—was having
a hard time concentrating, masking the pain.
And pain would’ve shown weakness, and then Wakeman would have known he
had the upper hand. So I couldn’t
afford that luxury. And I knew that
once Wakeman found out the paper wasn’t complete, there’d be no more time
turned, glanced quickly at Scott. “And
then it all happened so fast. The
decisions, the placements of men, firearms and hostages…and…and then… your
voice.” He paused, his brows
furrowing as if he were trying to call up deeply buried memories.
“For a moment, I—I thought it was another dream; that you weren’t
real. My head just seemed to open
up, but my heart—it seemed to stop. I
felt like two people—and neither one of them could move. Then…then I saw that bullet crease you, saw the blood, and
I—it’s like I exploded inside. I
knew I had to do something or you’d get killed.
And I couldn’t let that happen!”
when you made the choice,” Scott said softly.
nodded. “I knew I had the power
to save you, Scott. All I had to do
was to live just a little bit longer.” He
paced a few steps, turned back to study Scott’s face.
“The funny thing is, you know the medallion…how it was to protect me
from dying alone?” He took a quick breath and forced a wry smile.
“Earlier, when I’d put it on, I had actually thought that, in a way,
it had already done its job.
I wasn’t really alone here. Matthew,
DarkCloud, Jamie…even Grace. I
had felt that maybe Madrid had found a few friends and a place to die.
But then, suddenly seeing you, realizing who you were, who I’d been, it
all changed. I feared death.
I couldn’t let it happen until I knew you were safe.”
released the breath he had been holding, reached out a hand. “We were all so scared, Johnny.
We all thought you’d been killed.
I—” he stopped, took in a quick breath, “And I was prepared to die
blinked, seemed surprised by the admission.
“No,” he said, shaking his head, his brows furrowing in tense
concern. “I couldn’t let you
die, Scott. ‘Cuz then—then what
reason would I have for—” he gestured toward the middle of the road, “for
going through this, for trying to find some way to live with my past?”
Scott. Don’t you see? If I didn’t have you and Murdoch,” he hesitated, shook
his head, “there’d be no reason for Johnny Lancer.
There’d be no reason to go on.”
He was quiet a moment, looked down.
“I just wish…I wish you hadn’t seen me like this.
Having you here,” he glanced up, “having you and Murdoch see me as I
used to be, having you witness how I lived my life for years, how…how dark it
was—I was…” He stopped, swallowed,
looked up. “I feel like…like I’m more Madrid—more gunhawk—than Lancer.
I tried to keep that part of me hidden, was even starting to feeling
comfortable being just Johnny Lancer. But
now,” he shook his head, “now the gunfighter’s been released, Scott. And it’s gonna be hard to bury him again.”
you shouldn’t,” Scott murmured.
shook his head. “But I have to.
I have to, Scott.” He suddenly stopped, crossed his arms against his chest,
looked down. “For the longest
time, I couldn’t seem to remember what had happened at the shoot-out,” he
continued softly. “There was
nothing. I remember facing
Wakeman’s gun, getting little Wes released, and all the guns pointed in our
direction, then the next thing I’m up in the room with you and Murdoch and
DarkCloud hovering around.” He
hesitated, looked up, his expression weighted with concentration.
“I—I saw your face…the fear and shock.
And then there was Murdoch standing behind you…the grief, the
disappointment. And I remember
feeling…” He swallowed, took a breath.
“I was dying and knew it, and all I could think about was that I
didn’t want you to have seen me like that—as a gunfighter doing a job he’d
been hired to do. I wanted… I
wanted you to know that I was still your brother, but that I’d just gotten
lost for a little while.”
smiled. “I never doubted it.”
looked down, rubbed a hand across his forehead as if to banish his thoughts.
“How can you be so sure of what I have such a hard time accepting?”
I feel like I’m starting over. That
maybe the Judge was right.”
took in a deep breath, glanced away as he shook his head. “He—he said Johnny Lancer was an unattainable goal.”
he’s wrong,” Scott stated firmly. “I
think you’ve always been more Lancer than Madrid.
You’ve just been afraid,” he hesitated, “afraid to admit it.
To let Madrid finally go.”
But that day, I was ready.” Johnny
closed his eyes, lowered his head with a nod.
“So then why didn’t I die, Scott?” He looked up through lowered
lashes. “If not for the
unintentional placement of a small medallion, I should have been dead.
Because I did plan to die.”
He gestured toward the spot where he was standing.
“It would have been the perfect ending to Johnny Madrid.”
you need to consider that Father Alvarez is right?
Perhaps you were saved by a saint.”
snorted his disbelief. “But why?
Why like this? With all this killing, while…while I’m planning to… to
die so that I can finally be released from my past—and Madrid’s ghosts?”
there’s something else for you to do yet.
Maybe…maybe there is something yet that Johnny Madrid needs to do.”
backed up slightly, glancing away in reaction to his brother’s answer.
“What if I don’t want to be Johnny Madrid any more?”
thought you were the one telling me I needed to confront Madrid. Yet you appear to be the one running from him.”
don’t know what you’re talking about.”
on, Johnny! You were the one trying
to take the easy way out, choosing death as an alternative to living with who
have no idea what the last few years had been like for me, the years before I
came to Lancer. The things that had
happened, what I’d been through, how I was feeling.”
think I have some idea,” Scott replied softly.
“I read those letters.”
so much more than those letters, Scott,” Johnny said bitterly.
tell me about it.”
frowned. “I wouldn’t even know
where to start.”
start wherever you want. It’s
was a slight hesitation, then a ghost of a smile came to Johnny’s lips.
“And you’re my brother, so you’ll support my decision, right?”
closed his eyes for a moment, then slowly opened them to glare up at the sky.
After a moment he turned back. “I
want to go home.”
corner of the street, Murdoch stood in the shadows, listening to the exchange.
The decision had been made. But
who was he returning to Lancer with? Johnny
Lancer or Johnny Madrid?