The fine hairs on the back of his neck were practically standing at attention but he repressed the instinctive urge to draw his gun. He already knew what was waiting for him beyond the circle of light cast by the small campfire.
Using the forked end of a stick, Johnny poked at the embers, turning a few smoldering bits of wood and allowing the air to tease the fire into renewed life. Though settled comfortably into the curve of the upturned saddle he was anything but relaxed; the play of shadows accentuating the hooded eyes, the clenched jaw and thinned lips.
The night had gathered close. Even the stars were absent, cloaked by the cloud bank he had glimpsed earlier through the leafy canopy overhead.
Johnny raised the stick, shaking it briskly to extinguish the flame. Wisps of smoke oozed from the charred tip.
Much as it did from the barrel of a gun.
His hand tightened around the slender bit of wood, jammed it point first into the ground. It broke with a resounding snap, the end striking his leather-clad leg after ricocheting off one of the stones in the fire ring.
He sucked in a breath, his right hand moving to cradle his injured left arm, cupping the elbow, feeling the heat of the hurriedly dressed flesh wound through the fabric of his jacket. He gritted his teeth, willing the pain to subside.
It did after a fashion. He gathered up the splinters of wood and tossed them into the ring, watched as they were slowly consumed by the ravenous fire.
A flicker of movement garnered his attention. His eyes tracked the motion, a grim smile touching his lips.
Getting impatient are we?
Johnny raised his gun hand, fanning his fingers as he turned his hand over then palm up. The glow of the fire highlighted each lean digit, the subtle play of bone and sinew as he formed a fist. Reopening his hand he canted it toward the fire studying the calluses earned from hours of practice.
He snorted. More like years; years spent honing his skill and building a reputation.
A reputation built on blood.
Unconsciously he kneaded the stiffening muscles in his left arm, hissing in annoyance when the throbbing ache took up once more. His hand fell away, began to fiddle with one of the worn conchos on his pants.
Some punk kid hell bent on taking down Johnny Madrid had instead added to the reputation he no longer wanted, putting a chink in his efforts to leave that life behind.
Had it only been this morning?
The crunch of leaves had Johnny lifting his head, turning to confront what was lurking just beyond the perimeter of his fire.
He had seen it a handful of times. Always on the fringes, part of the crowd yet separate from it, a silent witness, drawn by the violent shedding of blood.
Fitting it should make an appearance tonight, the first night of El Dia de los Muertos, when the veil between worlds was at its thinnest.
But this was no departed loved one come to pay a visit.
No figment of his imagination.
Somehow it was the essence of the men he had killed, the featureless face shadowed by the wide brimmed hat it wore a reminder of the often nameless men whose deaths had fed his reputation.
A reputation spawned from a desire for vengeance long before he had taken a gun in his hand.
Johnny averted his eyes, staring into the flames, gut twisting.
The dry leaves rustled a warning. He ignored it, tugging the collar of his jacket up to ward off the deepening chill.
Before the man who had murdered his mother, before the men who had used her there had been another, the first to earn his animosity; a childís hate grown into an obsession.
But that had been before, before he had come home, before he learned his mother had lied.
Before he had come to know what kind of man his father really was.
Johnny sighed, his long drawn-out breath frosting the air. He shifted, got to his feet. Johnny Madrid was no coward, neither was Johnny Lancer.
The apparition, seemingly taller and broader than he remembered, stepped into the light. The blank visage began to roil, images melding then dissolving only to reform anew. Some he recognized, others he did not. Anger became regret then sorrow looking back over the years, at the turn a life had taken because of a lie.
Features gradually began to emerge, coalescing into the face he had become familiar with over the past several months.
Here was the boogeyman that had haunted his childhood, faceless only because he had been too young to remember.
But if life had taught Johnny anything it was there were two sides to every story. His father was proud and stubborn but also fair and compassionate, his life governed by a set of core values from which he would not be swayed.
Johnny looked deep into his fatherís eyes. The weathered face softened, the light blue eyes meeting his gaze directly.
Not the boogeyman but a man; a man who, like him, carried scars not of his own making.
Long minutes passed. He gradually became aware the spirit was fading, becoming more and more translucent. Johnny raised a gloved hand as if to stop its departure but it was already too late. He knew he would not see it again.
Settling once more by the fire, Johnny crossed his arms over his chest hugging himself, chilled both inside and out.
Easier said than done, letting go of the past; about as easy as learning to trust.
But he was, learning to trust that is.
For the first time in a long time he was going for broke, taking that leap of faith.
Would it be worth it?
Somehow, Johnny Lancer believed it would be.
Supernatural prompt #5-Dead Manís Blood