The Ghost of Johnny Madrid
Episode 2: The Game and the Players
The rest of that day and throughout the evening, Johnny slept soundly. Grace, Jamie and Matthew quietly went about their chores, mindful of their sleeping guest. Jamie tried at one point to sneak over and wake him up to play cards, but Matthew quickly intervened, offering to play cards with Jamie himself.
Early the following morning after Matthew and Jamie had left to do their morning chores in the barn, Grace warmed up a pot of tea and began to gather the supplies needed to change Johnny’s bandages. Concluding that sleep was the most important thing for their guest, they had opted to leave him undisturbed the day before. But she knew she’d have to change his bandage now, even at the risk of waking him up.
Grace carried the new bandages and ointment to the cot and knelt down. In cautious silence she watched him for a moment, disconcerted at how peaceful and calm he now appeared, such a sharp contrast to the deadly killer he showed himself capable of being just the day before. Reluctantly she reached out to pull the thin blanket away from his chest, exposing his bandaged side.
Immediately his eyes flicked open, coming to rest on her in a slightly confused expression that gradually cleared. He blinked and self-consciously pulled the blanket back in place. “How long—” His voice cracked, and he swallowed, clearing his throat. “How long I been out?”
“You slept all day yesterday and all night. It’s early morning, now. Matthew and Jamie just went to start chores,” Grace explained.
Johnny licked his lips as he brought a shaky hand up to his face to rub his eyes. “Damn, I feel like I’ve been run over by an ornery bull.”
Grace raised her eyebrows at his language, but chose to ignore it. “It was probably a combination of the tea and the exertion of the last couple days.”
Johnny nodded, then started to push himself up.
“No, you’re supposed to stay down,” Grace instructed, her hand going to his shoulder in an attempt to stop him.
“I feel fine,” Johnny asserted, though the arrested moan belied his words.
“You feel fine, because you’ve been asleep for the last eighteen hours. DarkCloud’s instructions were explicit,” Grace countered firmly. “No unnecessary moving around.”
Johnny regarded her with amusement. “I’m sure DarkCloud would let me get out of bed long enough to make the short trip to the outhouse.”
As Grace attempted to recover her composure at the blatant pronouncement, Johnny gingerly sat up and swung his legs around to the floor. Though he attempted to cover the discomfort caused by pulling on the wound, Grace still noticed the slight wince.
“I think maybe you ought to wait for Matthew to help you. I’ll go get him.”
Johnny shook his head. “I feel much better. Really. I just want to get up for a few minutes. I’m tired of lying down.”
“But I need to change your bandages,” Grace argued.
Johnny looked at her sidewise. “I really rather you didn’t.”
“But DarkCloud said—”
“I can take care of it,” Johnny interrupted, “or I’ll get Matthew or Jamie to help. Really. I’ll be fine. You’ve done enough. I don’t wanna be anymore of a burden than I’ve been.”
Grace quickly stood up as Johnny shakily rose to his feet. Though she put a hand out for support, he ignored her offer. “I…I made some of the…the elixir DarkCloud wants you to drink.”
A shadow of a smile crinkled the corners of Johnny’s eyes. “Tea,” he corrected. “A spade’s a spade, and tea is tea.”
“But, well, DarkCloud thought maybe you’d be more liable to drink it if I didn’t refer to it as tea.”
“I’d be more liable to drink it if it didn’t taste so damned awful!” Johnny retorted, then grinned sheepishly as he caught himself swearing. “Sorry.”
“How about if I bring you a cup of the tea while you sit out on the porch for awhile this morning? That should satisfy both you and DarkCloud.”
Johnny regarded her a second before nodding. “I guess I can follow those orders.”
Grace stood to the side as Johnny slowly made his way to the door, waiting until he was outside and the door had closed before she crossed to the stove and went to pour a cup of the tea.
Outside, Johnny paused on the porch to look around and catch his breath. At first he was dismayed at how stiff he felt, but then had to admit that after yesterday’s demonstration, he probably should have been feeling worse.
As he was slowly making his way back from his visit to the outhouse, he heard the voices of Matthew and Jamie. Taking a detour, he followed the sound of their conversation to the barn.
“He’s been sleeping forever!”
Johnny stopped in the doorway of the barn and watched as Jamie scooped out feed into a bucket.
“I hardly call half a day and a night forever,” Matthew replied as he picked up the bucket.
Johnny grinned. “It feels like a lot longer, though.”
“Johnny!” Jamie’s smile greeted Johnny enthusiastically. “You’re awake! You’ve been asleep forever!”
“So, I’ve heard.” Johnny stepped into the barn, nodded a greeting to Matthew then tousled Jamie’s hair.
“Did you get any breakfast, yet?” Matthew asked as he took note of the shirt hanging open and Johnny’s arm pressed up tightly against his side, the bandage DarkCloud had put on still visible.
Johnny shook his head. “Just made a visit out back.” He winked at Jamie.
“Need that bandage changed,” Matthew observed.
With a side-wise grin at Jamie, Johnny wrinkled his nose exaggeratedly, “Ah, do I have to?”
Jamie giggled, then put on a serious expression. “It’s okay, Johnny. I’ll be with you the whole time, and you can even hold my hand.”
“Well, in that case,” Johnny kept a straight face as he nodded at Matthew, “I guess I can handle it.”
Matthew’s smile showed his amusement at the pair’s antics. “I’ll meet you back at the house when we’re done here. You’re supposed to be taking it easy anyhow for the next few days.”
Johnny nodded. “So I’ve already been reminded.” He gave Jamie a wink, then turned and made his way back to the house where he found Grace waiting for him on the porch, a cup of tea in her hands.
“I wondered where you’d gone off to.”
Johnny stepped up on the porch and accepted the tea with a nod. “I heard Matthew and Jamie out in the barn.”
“Why don’t you have a seat, and I’ll bring you out some breakfast.”
Johnny smiled hesitantly. “Thanks.”
After Grace went back into the house, he made his way to the chair and slowly sat down. Though the wound was bothering him, he was reluctant to show any sign of weakness in front of Grace. She made him uncomfortable—just as he knew he made her uncomfortable. And he could tell by the look in her eyes that she had already judged him by every scar she had seen on his body. Scars that branded him for what he was, a killer with the mark of death.
With a soft sigh, he closed his eyes, took a sip of the bitter tea and tried to clear his mind of the leaden thoughts.
Moments later Grace appeared with a light breakfast. “If you need anything else…”
“No, this is fine,” Johnny assured.
Grace lingered, seemed to want to add something. But whatever it was appeared to elude her and she eventually turned and walked back into the house leaving Johnny to eat in silence.
Johnny was just finishing up, sipping the last of his tea, when Matthew and Jamie appeared from the barn. Jamie waved, then followed Matthew to the pump where they both quickly washed up before coming to join Johnny on the porch.
“Jamie, go get the supplies,” Matthew instructed.
As Jamie disappeared into the house, Matthew grabbed the other chair from the far side of the porch and dragged it over beside Johnny. “So, how are you feeling?”
Johnny glanced at the cup he held in his hands. “Well, if I have to drink much more of this, I think I’d rather be put out of my misery.”
Matthew laughed. “I doubt it’s really that bad.”
Johnny looked at him with raised eyebrows. “Have you tried it?”
“No, and I think I’ll let you have all the honors.”
Both Johnny and Matthew turned as Jamie appeared with his arms loaded with supplies. Grace followed behind, a basin filled with water in her hands.
“I thought you might need this. It’s pretty hot, so I didn’t want Jamie carrying it,” she explained with a cautious glance toward Johnny.
“Thanks.” Matthew accepted the basin and placed it on the porch near his feet.
Grace paused. “If you need me, I’m going to be out in the garden.”
Matthew nodded. “We’ll be fine.”
“Thanks for the breakfast,” Johnny added.
Grace glanced in his direction, once again a hesitancy in her look that made him think she wanted to say something. However, after the moment passed, she dropped her gaze and picked up the empty dishes, murmuring, “I hope you’re feeling better.” Then she turned and walked back into the cabin.
As soon as possible, he thought, I need to get a room in town.
Wincing as he unconsciously pulled at his side muscles, he turned his attention to Matthew, who was busy laying out the bandages and ointments. Jamie stood close behind, watching.
“Okay, let’s get this old bandage off.” Matthew reached out and began to unwrap the strips of cloth. As the last of the bandage came off, Johnny held his breath while the dried blood pulled against the wound. “Still appears mighty swollen and sore, but I’d say it’s improving,” Matthew remarked with an satisfied nod. “We’ll get it cleaned off and some new ointment on, and you’ll be in fine shape.”
“Need me to hold your hand?” Jamie asked.
“Probably,” Johnny replied, then winked at Matthew as Jamie, his face serious, came around to place his small hand in Johnny’s palm.
Matthew quickly finished the job, Johnny flinching only when Grace suddenly appeared on her way out to the garden. He was relieved when she chose to ignore them and continued on her way.
Once he was finished, Matthew stood up and wiped his hands off on a towel. Glad to have the uncomfortable ordeal over, Johnny leaned back in his chair, while Jamie regarded him with interest. “That’s no fun, huh?” Jamie asked.
Johnny shook his head. “Nope, it sure isn’t.”
Jamie studied him thoughtfully a few moments while Matthew began to gather up the supplies. “Then why’d you do it?”
“Hmmm?” Johnny asked.
“Well,” Jamie paused, then cocked his head, “I mean, when you came out to the barn and you shot the crow’s nest and the rat, you made your wound open up and bleed again, but you didn’t know it was gonna happen.”
Johnny looked at Jamie with interest. “No, I didn’t. But I knew it might happen.”
Jamie paused again, biting his bottom lip a second before continuing. “But… well, yesterday, when you shot at Digger’s old ball…you knew it was going to start bleedin’ again, didn’t you?”
Jamie’s eyes searched Johnny’s face, causing him to hesitate before answering. “Yes, Jamie, you’re right. I was pretty sure it was gonna start bleedin’ again.”
“So, then, why’d you do it. It musta hurt somethin’ awful.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny noticed Matthew listening. “Well, Jamie, it’s not that I really wanted to, but that I sort of needed to. The men from town…well, I suspected they’d need a show.”
Jamie expression remained unsatisfied. “Couldn’t you have told them that you were hurt and you’d show them later?”
With a smile, Johnny shook his head. “’Fraid it doesn’t work that way, Jamie. I couldn’t let them know I’m hurt as bad as I am.”
“Well, they need to know that I can control the situation…this problem you’re havin’ with Wakeman and his men. If they weren’t sure of my health, then I wouldn’t be in charge of how this job is run. I needed to make sure they’d put me in charge.”
Jamie sighed, obviously trying to understand. “And…this being put in charge is important?”
Johnny nodded solemnly. “Very,” he replied, then he suddenly grinned in an attempt to lighten the mood. “’Cause I don’t take orders too well.”
Jamie laughed. “Neither do I!” Then, just as quickly, he changed the subject. “So, you wanna play cards?”
“Only if you promise I get to win at least one game.”
Jamie laughed again. “I’ll try!” Then he turned and ran into the house to get his cards.
Matthew stood up, his arms loaded with supplies. “Well, I know you got the control you wanted, Johnny.”
Johnny smiled crookedly up at Matthew. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I did, too.”
Matthew paused, then continued, “But are you really sure you’re up to it? DarkCloud may be right.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “About what?”
Matthew looked down at the spare bandages and jars of ointments he held in his hands. “You’ve been shot and fell off a cliff, and you haven’t had the time you need to properly heal. And here we are—”
“He said that?” Johnny interrupted.
Matthew looked back up, his face showing his reluctance to continue. “Well, not in so many words…but I could tell he’s worried. I think he feels we’re expectin’ too much. That we’ve put you in an unfair position.”
Johnny looked down at his hands. Part of him wanted to argue that he felt fine and could take care of himself, that they needn’t be concerned. But the other part of him was surprised to find that the people who had hired him were actually worried about him…and it felt good. But that’s only because they worry about you getting the job done, Johnny. He slowly looked up, his face expressionless. “I promise you, Matthew, one way or another, I’ll get the job done.”
Scott reined up at the crest of the hill that sloped gently in toward Green River. The last couple of days had been difficult, waiting until he felt he could take off to search for Johnny. But at least he and Murdoch could manage to be in the same room now without sparks flying. They seemed to have reached a general, yet fragile understanding, realizing that their arguments were accomplishing little. Scott found that time had helped dampen most of his initial disgust with their father for his decision in not contacting Johnny immediately upon learning where he was. It took a couple long evenings of soul searching, the entire contents of a bottle of Lambrusco, and two sleepless nights, but he’d finally acknowledged that Murdoch’s behavior couldn’t be condemned, and certainly wasn’t out of character for the man. He hadn’t, after all, had any hand in Johnny’s upbringing for twenty years. They had all been, as Murdoch put it that first day they met, strangers. The only connection they really held, had been an accident of birth. For Murdoch to discover, after all those years of searching, that his son had grown up to be a gunfighter. Well, that would have been difficult for any man to accept, especially one of Murdoch’s lofty ideals and rigid expectations.
Scott pushed back tiredly in the saddle, then pulled one leather glove off his hand before he unhooked his canteen and took a long drink. After putting the canteen back, he stretched out his back and replaced his glove. Then he gave a long sigh, clicked Charlemagne forward, and headed down the rutted dirt road toward town.
The closer Scott got to town, the more hesitant and apprehensive he found himself. His initial impatience to get to Green River and talk to Sheriff Crawford had now been replaced with a reluctance born of the sinking feeling that Val was going to confirm his worst fear. The feeling had been magnified early that morning when, before he’d left, Scott had decided to go into Johnny’s room and look around to hunt for any clue to where his brother might have gone. Teresa had accompanied him, and the two of them had searched the room in the hopes of finding Madrid’s gun hidden somewhere else, but they had failed to turn it up. The gun Johnny always kept behind his pillow, the one that Scott had learned about when Drago had locked him in Johnny’s room (though Teresa had said she’d discovered it even earlier when she’d dusted), was still in its hiding place. But though they looked, they had uncovered no clue to where Johnny might have gone. Lastly they emptied the contents of the wooden chest. Teresa pointed out the photograph of Johnny’s mother, a woman that Scott still heard talk about in town for her stunning beauty—and fiery temper. From all accounts, Murdoch and Maria’s match may have originally been made in heaven, but had quickly relocated to hell.
Teresa and Scott had tried to discover if anything else was missing from the chest, but other than the saint medallion Scott suddenly remembered, and some of the Indian bead jewelry Johnny often wore, they couldn’t tell if there was anything else missing. The mantilla that Teresa originally gave Johnny with the chest was still there, a photograph of all of them that Murdoch had had taken a year earlier, and a few other momentos from the last couple of years were all that it held.
Teresa had put her hands on her hips, surveyed the room with dismay, and declared, “Over two years, and a person would be hard pressed to know he had even been here!”
Scott had uncomfortably agreed. It was almost like Johnny had evaporated, leaving behind a few mere items that perhaps he’d never really thought belonged to him to begin with.
That was a term Johnny used a lot.
Can I borrow a shirt? I’ll give it right back when I’m done.
And he would. Though Scott would tell him to go ahead and keep it, Johnny would always return it.
Ah, nah. I don’t need it. I prefer to travel light. But thanks anyway, Brother.
Travel light. That’s what he’d always say. Scott used to kid him, ask him where he was planning on traveling to. But Johnny would just shrug and vaguely reply, C’mon, Scott. You know what I mean.
But Scott didn’t.
It was early afternoon when Scott rode up to the sheriff’s office. He quickly dismounted, slapped Charlemagne’s reins around the hitching post, and strode through the door.
The office was empty.
Scott groaned. He walked toward the back of the office and opened the door leading to the cells in back. Only one held an occupant, stretched out on one of the small cots. The man glanced up at the intrusion. Scott immediately decided he looked like a young fella in dire need of a bath and a shave.
“You lookin’ fer the sheriff?”
“He just went over to Maggie’s to pick up some lunch. Oughta be back in a minute,” the young man said then stretched back out on his cot and closed his eyes.
Scott was just turning around when he heard the sound of steps outside on the boardwalk.
“Scott!” Val greeted warmly as he entered the office, a tray covered with a napkin in his hands. He kicked the door closed and crossed quickly to his desk where he deposited the tray without ceremony. “News?” he asked.
Scott shook his head. “If you mean, has Johnny returned? The answer is no.”
Val grimly pulled the napkin off the tray of food. “I ain’t heard a thing either, and I’ve been listenin’.”
“I do have something I’d like to talk to you about, however,” Scott added.
Nodding toward the back room, Val picked up the tray of food. “Let me take care of Jo-Jo, here, and I’ll be right with you.”
Scott waited as Val went to the back room to deliver the prisoner’s meal, returning a minute later with a smirk on his face.
“Who is that?” Scott asked with a nod, his curiosity about Val’s expression getting the best of him.
“Oh, that.” Val replied with a smug glance toward the back room. “Says his name’s Jo-Jo. He seems to like it here. Gets himself arrested for some silly offense, which gets him a bed to sleep on and two meals. He’s been in here five times in the last two weeks. Last time I took him way out of town and told him not to come back; that he oughta go find himself another town to leach off of for a change. But damn! If he didn’t come back here three days later!” At this Val’s grin widened. “But I think I got it covered now.”
Scott raised an eyebrow. “How do you mean?”
Val leaned forward conspiratorially. “The meal weren’t from Maggie’s.”
“Oh?” Scott asked.
“Nope. That there beef ‘n’ burrito meal is from Lolita’s.”
Scott’s eyes widened in surprise. “Not the Beef ‘n’ Bean Bolt?”
“The very one.” Val nodded smugly. “Known throughout the area to send grown men bolting out the door for the water trough.”
Scott shook his head. “Val, that’s inhumane. I didn’t speak to Johnny for a whole week after he tricked me into taking a bite of one of them.”
Val nodded. “Yup. That’s the idea. And I figure—”
A scream of the utmost agony echoed repeatedly from the back room.
“He oughta be bitin’ into it right about now,” Val finished. “So, could I get you a cup of coffee or somethin’?”
Scott nodded then watched as Val went to the stove in the corner of the office and began to pour a couple of cups of coffee. In the meantime, the screams continued to escalate. As Val handed him his cup, he raised his eyebrows expectantly. “So…?”
Val took a sip from his cup, then turned a disgruntled eye toward the back room. “You think I oughta go back there?”
“I think he sounds like he’s in pain,” Scott replied.
Val sighed. “Let’s hope so.” He turned and walked back to the door, yanking it open, his manner clearly indicating his annoyance. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” he barked as he strode through.
Scott grinned, quite certain that Sheriff Crawford had just managed to put an end to Jo-Jo’s free ride at the town’s expense.
It wasn’t long before Val returned, his look one of triumph.
“I take it your plan worked,” Scott remarked.
Val nodded and indicated for Scott to sit down. “He already drank up his daily quota of water. So I made him promise if I gave him more that he’d never return. I also told him from now on the jail here in Green River serves only Lolita’s Beef ‘n’ Burrito Bolt. He won’t be returning.”
Scott laughed. “Do remind me never to get thrown in jail in this town.”
Val chortled. “Yeah. I may have discovered a way to deter the most hardened criminal.”
Scott laughed again, then took a sip of his coffee before setting it down on the corner of Val’s desk. When he looked up, he noticed that Val was watching him expectantly.
“So what’d you want to see me about?”
Scott dropped his eyes in what he knew was a futile attempt to hide his apprehension. “It’s about something Teresa and I discovered missing of Johnny’s.”
Scott took a deep breath. “It’s a gun. A modified revolver,” he hurriedly added, noting Val’s immediate amusement at Scott’s seeming concern that Johnny would have a gun with him.
Scott nodded. “Yes. It’s a gun from…from before.”
“Before? You mean from when he was hirin’ out?”
Scott nodded once more. “Yes. I thought maybe you knew about it, or could give me any information that might help.” He shrugged vaguely. “I guess I’m not really sure why I came.”
Val sat back in his chair and thoughtfully rubbed his face. “Sorry, Scott. I didn’t know Johnny had one of them modified pieces. But I guess I’m not really surprised.”
Val shook his head. “Nope.” At Scott’s puzzled look, Val explained, “Johnny had a reputation. And among certain pistoleros down around the border, especially the really good ones, the professional ones, it’s a fairly common practice.” He cocked his head. “Different modifications can be made. Most commonly is to have the grip made special and to remove the sight. Sometimes the trigger mechanism has been adjusted.”
Scott nodded. “I also noticed it was shortened.”
Val drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. “Some just file off the sight, if they’re afraid to lose any accuracy. But if the gun’s a fine piece of workmanship and the man’s an expert, then he’ll shorten the barrel. Seen one once shortened a good two, maybe three inches.”
Scott sighed, shook his head. “Val, I’m worried what this could mean, why Johnny would take that gun with him.”
“It may not mean a thing,” Val countered.
Scott rubbed his face tiredly. “Come on, Val. You just said it yourself. It was his working gun. He wouldn’t have taken it for no reason.”
“Heck, Scott, maybe he just put it somewheres else.”
Scott shook his head. “I don’t think so. Both Teresa and I knew where he kept it, but we searched his room, just in case. It was nowhere. Teresa said he’s never moved it before, and she keeps a close watch on everything in the house with her thorough dusting.”
Val raised an eyebrow. “Come again?”
Scott shook his head dismissively. “I’ll fill you in another day.”
Val chuckled. “I’ll be sure to remind you.”
Sighing deeply, Scott suddenly stood up. “Well, thanks for your information, Val.”
Val pushed to his feet and followed Scott to the door. “I’m sorry, Scott. ‘Fraid I wasn’t much help.”
Scott smiled wryly. “Actually, you were a lot of help. I guess I already…” he paused, wearily dragging his fingers through his hair. “I already suspected if it was missing, if Johnny took that revolver with him, then he did leave.”
“You don’t know that for sure, Scott,” Val argued.
Scott snorted slightly. “Val, why else would he take it with him?”
“Well, maybe he always takes it with him when he travels.”
Scott shook his head sadly. “I’ve never seen him with it.”
“What’s Murdoch say about it?” Val asked, the hesitancy in his voice hinting at his opinion of what the Lancer patriarch probably thought.
Scott opened the door and glanced out to the street. “He doesn’t know it exists, and it’s probably best that way.” Scott gave the sheriff a reluctant nod and headed out the door.
Val stood in the doorway as Scott walked out to Charlemagne. “Hey, Scott! What’re you gonna do now?”
Scott flipped the reins around Charlemagne’s neck before he turned back. “I’m going to head toward Morro Coyo. Hope to get there late this evening, if I push it. Give me a chance to ask around again. Johnny had a number of friends around there.” Scott mounted and gave Val a hopeful smile. “I’ll let you know if anything turns up. I should be back at Lancer tomorrow afternoon or the next day at the latest. I told Murdoch I wouldn’t be gone too long.”
Val nodded and watched as Scott reined his mount around and headed out of town. The mother bear still searching for her cub, he reflected.
Reveles stood in the middle of a deserted road, his expression one of mocking, his stance tightly engaged.
Johnny stood, heart pounding, as he stared down the road at his mentor, a man who had been both a father and demon to him. The realization of what was about to happen, and that there was no way to escape it, crushed him with its enormity.
He felt himself hesitate…
There was someone else… Someone watching…witnessing…
A feeling of…shame…came over him.
Then suddenly, Reveles was making his move, and Johnny knew he was too late, knew he’d been distracted by having a witness to his shame…to the truth.
Searing heat to his arm.
Then the realization that while Reveles’ move had been first, his had been fatal.
Knew it even as he watched the other man fall backward to the ground.
He sunk to the ground, distressed at what he’d just done…
…And by what had been witnessed…
The other man came to stand by him.
“Johnny, you won.”
With a gasp, Johnny woke up, his body drenched in sweat, his arm aching where he’d felt the bullet graze him in his dream. Unconsciously he rubbed the spot with his hand, remembering a scar he had seen at that spot.
One question answered.
Johnny stared into the darkness, the sound of Jamie’s soft snoring warming the room. Johnny put his hand to his forehead, wishing to block out the scene he had just watched. So he had killed his old mentor. Why? And who had that other man been?
Johnny rubbed his face tiredly. Why couldn’t he remember? He needed to remember….
Or did he?
Early the next morning, Johnny gingerly sat up when he heard Matthew rise. Sleep had failed to come to him after the unsettling dream, thought it had left him drained and exhausted. He’d also been left with an uncomfortable tightness across his chest, one that seemed to settle in the pit of his stomach, heavy and relentless, filling him with a sense of urgent dread.
“Johnny?” Matthew nodded a greeting as he quietly pulled on his pants and adjusted his suspenders. “Bit early for you.”
“Couldn’t sleep,” Johnny replied vaguely as he pushed himself to a standing position.
“Thought I heard you during the night.” Matthew came to stand near Johnny, concern on his face. “Your side bothering you?”
Johnny shook his head. “No. It’s getting better,” he replied, almost relieved to be able to change the subject so that he needn’t discuss the dream of the night before. “Few more days of just sitting around, letting Jamie take me for everything I got, and I’ll be fit as a fiddle.”
Matthew chuckled softly. “Want me to get your bandages changed before I go out and start chores?”
Johnny shook his head again. “No, you go finish up what you need to get done. It’ll wait. I’ll just start fixin’ a bit of breakfast. Try to help Grace out a bit.” He smiled hesitantly. “I know I’ve been quite a burden to her.”
Matthew looked uncomfortable. “Johnny, I’m sorry about Grace. This has all been a bit much for her. She’s always been…well, pretty adamant about any violence. Part of the reason is that our father had a twin brother.”
Johnny waited for Matthew to continue.
“He was gunned down over some petty disagreement about a card game up in Sacramento. Our father took it pretty hard. Seems the other man was a gambler—gunfighter type. And our uncle, well, he just didn’t have any understandin’ of what he’d got himself into, ‘til it was too late. He was young. Just twenty-eight years old when it happened. Grandfather never did get over it. He’d recently lost Grandma, and after that…” Matthew shrugged, “he lived another few months, but he never seemed to recover from the shock.”
“I didn’t know,” Johnny responded softly. “All the more reason, when we go into town, I plan to get a room at Rosti’s. You’ve all been more than accommodating. Time to let you people have your life back.”
“We’ll get our life back when this whole business is over,” Matthew replied dryly.
After Matthew left, Johnny began to put together a simple breakfast. He stoked the dying embers in the small, wood stove, then poked around in the cupboards until he’d found the ingredients he needed to make dough, which he formed into biscuits. After putting them in the oven to bake, he got out some bacon and was arranging the pieces in a pan when he heard the door to Grace’s room open. He turned slightly and nodded a quiet greeting.
After a quick glance at Jamie’s still sleeping form, Grace crossed to the stove. “I can get this.”
“Just thought I’d help out this morning,” Johnny replied, backing up to let Grace take over.
She smiled awkwardly. “Thanks—”
Johnny turned and saw Jamie yawning at him from his bed on the floor. “Well, hello, sleepy head. We’ve all been up for hours.”
Jamie laughed as he stood up, dragging blankets behind him. “Ah, Johnny. You’re joshin’ me again!”
Johnny shook his head in mock disappointment. “I keep trying, but you’re just too smart for me.”
Jamie nodded seriously.
“You’d better go out and help Matthew,” Grace interrupted.
“Okay,” Jamie replied, then turned to Johnny. “Take you on another game later? I let you win one yesterday, remember?”
“One,” Johnny replied, then turned to Grace and held up a finger. “One,” he reiterated in mock indignation. “Out of how many games? Fifteen? I think you’ve got the house cards marked! I’m gonna have to get me a new deck.”
Jamie laughed loudly. “I’ll still beat you, Johnny!”
“Go on now, Jamie. I’m sure Matthew’s waiting,” Grace said.
Jamie gave a small wave and went out the door.
“I’ll have that tea of yours in a minute, too.” Grace said as she turned the bacon.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Johnny asked.
Grace paused before giving a tentative smile. “Well, you could fill the pitcher with water for me.”
Johnny nodded and picked up the pitcher, then headed out the door. Outside he could hear Matthew and Jamie in the barn. He crossed to the old pump, grabbed the handle, and pushed down. Immediately pain from his wound flared, causing him to bend over and hiss in disgust. With a curse, he switched to his left arm and continued to fill the pitcher.
Once the pitcher was filled and returned to Grace in the kitchen, Johnny went back out to the porch. The early morning sunshine and Jamie’s light-hearted chatter coming from the barn almost succeeded in dispelling his dark mood that had been brought on by the dream of Reveles dying at his hands and his inability to even draw water from the pump.
That damned accident. It’d been a week now, and though his head wound was pretty well healed, the bullet wound was still very sore, swollen and bleeding easily, making it almost impossible to use his right side muscles. He was impatient and disgusted with himself for taking so long to heal. He sat down on the chair and leaned forward. As he took deep cleansing sigh that he knew was damned well gonna hurt, but damned well didn’t care, Johnny pushed the heels of his hands against his temples.
What had he seen last night? Had it been true? Was that really how it had happened, or had his mind simply taken what he’d heard and formed that scenario? But it had all seemed so real…and the scar…
And who was that other man there? Nobody ever mentioned another man…. Johnny groaned and rubbed his eyes again. Why couldn’t he remember?
But did he really want to remember? Mexico had been bad enough. He’d been prepared to die there… liked the people—no money, no possessions, but big hearts. Of course the leaders had been fools and greedy, willing to sell out for their own profit like most men of power and position. Had they all been wiped out by the Rurales? If so, how then had he managed to escape? It was all so confusing. And since he didn’t believe in angels…
Later that morning after breakfast, Matthew gathered up the bandaging supplies and brought them out to the porch. Grace was busy cleaning up, so it gave Matthew the perfect opportunity to change Johnny’s bandages. While Jamie, serious about his duty as Johnny’s support, took up his post at Johnny’s side.
Johnny tried to keep still as Matthew unwrapped the bandages, but still winced as the square of cloth was pulled from the wound.
“Still lookin’ very swollen,” Matthew observed then added with a shake of his head, “Angry lookin’ wound.”
“Bullet wounds aren’t generally pretty,” Johnny stated dryly.
“No, I s’pose not,” Matthew remarked grimly as he began to wash the old dressing off.
Johnny hissed a reaction then pursed his lips.
“Won’t hurt so much if you don’t watch,” Jamie advised.
Johnny glanced up and grimaced an appreciative smile. “Good idea.”
“Yeah, and it helps if you don’t move around so much,” Matthew added as he applied the first ointment.
“Hey, there’s someone comin’!” Jamie exclaimed.
Both Matthew and Johnny looked up. A rider, trailing an extra mount, could be seen on the dirt path that led to the small farm.
“Damn! It’s Angelou!” Matthew cursed.
Johnny repeated Matthew’s expletive. “Just leave it,” he added as he quickly began buttoning his shirt.
“We’ll get it later,” Johnny hissed.
“Jamie, get the stuff into the house!” Matthew commanded.
Jamie jumped to do as told, while Matthew dumped the water and Johnny nonchalantly tucked his shirt in. Finished, he went to stand beside Matthew as they waited for Angelou to enter the yard.
“You shoulda let me wrap it,” Matthew warned in a low voice.
“There wasn’t time,” Johnny replied curtly. “It’ll be fine. I’ll just have to be careful.”
“What ho!” Angelou greeted them with a wave, reining in his horse in front of the porch. “Got your animal, Mr. Madrid. Think you’ll find him to be just what you wanted.”
Matthew couldn’t help but watch in fascination as he noted Johnny’s demeanor immediately shift from the young man he was familiar with, to the gunfighter, Johnny Madrid.
Johnny’s eyes appraised the coal black mount that trailed behind Angelou’s horse.
“We didn’t expect you ‘til tomorrow,” Matthew remarked.
“Yeah, well,” Angelou dismounted and walked forward, “there’s been a change. Tucson showed up yesterday. He’s ready to go to work.” Angelou’s eyes settled on Johnny. “He’s anxious to meet you, Mr. Madrid. Wants to know if we could get together tomorrow in town instead.”
Matthew suppressed a groan. This couldn’t be happening. Johnny needed those extra few days. Even with them, he was sure to have a hard time. Matthew hazard a glance at Johnny, but Johnny’s face was impassive.
“In a hurry to get started, aren’t we, Mr. Angelou?” Johnny asked with casual unconcern.
“Well, I guess we are, Mr. Madrid. And with Tucson here, seems no reason to wait.”
“None at all,” Johnny replied unemotionally, then stepped off the porch to get a look at his horse.
Matthew closely watched Johnny, surprised at how easy he appeared to move—how well he managed to hide his injury.
“Yes, he’ll do just fine,” Johnny remarked indifferently as he ran his hand over the animal’s withers.
“He’s the best I got, Mr. Madrid,” Angelou assured.
Johnny raised a doubtful eyebrow, but didn’t reply. He merely nodded impassively.
“Already stopped by Solero’s for your saddle.”
“Obliged,” Johnny replied simply.
“What time are we supposed to meet?” Matthew asked.
“Same time. Around two o’clock,” Angelou answered, then turned to Johnny. “You can take him out if you want to check his paces.”
Johnny gave Angelou an amused look. “Paces? The only pace I’m interested in is fast.”
Angelou smiled. “Well, he’ll give you that.”
“We’ll see.” Johnny took the reins.
“Johnny.” Matthew tried to convey an undertone of warning, but Johnny nodded abruptly and mounted. Reining the horse around and giving him a slight kick, he gave the horse his head.
Matthew and Angelou watched as horse and rider took off down the dirt road. A short distance away, Johnny reined the horse tightly and took off between two fields. At the end of the field, he reined the horse in abruptly, causing him to rear slightly, wheeled him around and retraced his steps at full gallop. In a cloud of dust, he pulled him up tightly in front of the porch.
Matthew watched Johnny closely as he dismounted, the gunfighter’s face showing displeasure.
“Something wrong?” Angelou asked, while Matthew held his breath.
“Bit sluggish on the turns,” Johnny replied, “but I s’pose that’ll improve as we get to know each other.”
Angelou nodded hastily. “I’m sure he’ll work out fine for you, Mr. Madrid. If not, you just let me know.” He gave the horse a pat on its neck. “Tomorrow then?”
Johnny nodded. “I’ll be there.”
Angelou nodded, satisfied, then turned and remounted. “I’ll have Rosti open a bottle of tequila to celebrate.”
Johnny nodded indifferently and Matthew gave a short wave as Angelou rode off.
Matthew’s eyes were still on Angelou when he heard a hissed moan from Johnny. Quickly he turned to Johnny, who was still standing on the other side of his horse. However the gunfighter’s eyes were now closed, his face pale and shimmering with sweat.
“Johnny!” Matthew exclaimed as he hurried around to his side.
“I think he’d better save that bottle,” Johnny mumbled, his hand reaching out to grab onto the saddle for support. Immediately Matthew registered the growing stain of blood along Johnny’s side. “Damn,” Johnny moaned then leaned his head against the saddle.
Matthew grabbed Johnny’s arm. “I knew that was a stupid idea.”
“Oh, really,” Johnny retorted as he let himself be led back to the porch.
Jamie appeared, his eyes growing wide at the sight of Johnny’s bloodstained shirt.
“Jamie, go fill the basin with water and bring it in.” At Jamie’s hesitation, Matthew snapped, “Now, Jamie! And be quick about it!”
As Jamie grabbed up the basin and ran to the pump, Matthew helped Johnny into the cabin. “Grace!” he called as they entered.
“What?” Grace turned then froze as she took in the scene in front of her. “What happened?”
“He just had to try out the horse,” Matthew remarked dryly as he propelled Johnny to a chair.
“That wasn’t too smart,” Grace admonished.
“Don’t you start, too,” Johnny muttered.
Jamie appeared with the basin of water and set it on the table, while Matthew helped Johnny shrug out of the blood stained shirt. “DarkCloud ain’t gonna be happy,” Matthew observed with a tisk.
“Nothing could be done about it,” Johnny said as he leaned his left arm onto the arm of the chair so that Matthew could more easily tend the now bleeding wound. “Didn’t know if Angelou had seen anything, and now with Tucson here and ready to go…”
“You can’t do this,” Grace suddenly blurted, then covered her mouth in embarrassment. “I mean, you’ve got to tell them, Johnny, that you need more time.”
Johnny froze at hearing Grace use his name. He looked about the room, the three pair of eyes regarding him intently. He swallowed self-consciously, and in an attempt to hide the effort it took to control the pain, he dropped his gaze momentarily to the floor. “I really don’t have a choice. I’m indebted to you all. If not for my life, then for a horse, saddle, clothes, medicine…” He looked up uncomfortably. “I—I have nothing. And I can’t remember anything that’s happened to me. To put it simply, I’ve been hired to do a job, and I need that job. I don’t have a choice,” he reiterated.
“There’s always a
choice, Johnny,” Jamie spoke up. “Father Alvarez says we are always free to
chose our own path.”
Johnny looked at Jamie firmly. “But that’s just it, Jamie. My path has already been chosen, so there are no more options for me.” He quickly turned away from Jamie and focused on Matthew. “I need to ask a favor of you.”
Matthew nodded. “Whatever you need.”
“When I go into town tomorrow, I can’t go looking like this. They expect a gunfighter, not a rail rat. I would like you to go to town and get me some new clothes. New pants, shirt, hat, a glove, --”
“A glove?” Matthew interrupted. “One?”
Johnny smiled slightly. “Yes, just one. For the left hand.”
“Won’t your right hand get cold, too?” Jamie asked.
Johnny shook his head, his eyes crinkling in amusement. “I need it for fanning the hammer.”
Matthew stopped Jamie with a wave then turned back to Johnny. “Understood. Anything else?”
Johnny nodded. “And find out what type of bandanas Mr. Calientes has the most of and bring me all of ‘em.”
Johnny nodded. “One last thing. I could really use a bath and a shave.” He rubbed his hand meaningfully across his chin.
Matthew grinned. “We’ll get it done. Let’s get you bandaged back up and I’ll head into town.”
Scott paused at the entrance gate to the Lancer Ranch. Once again he was returning none the wiser regarding Johnny’s disappearance. Morro Coyo had offered no new leads. In frustration he had toyed with the idea of heading south again to Spanish Wells, but knew it would only give Teresa and Murdoch a new worry if he didn’t show up as he’d promised.
“Damn it! Where is he!” Scott cursed, swiped his hat from his head and slapped it against his leg, causing Charlemagne to skitter to the side. “Sorry, Boy. Not yelling at you.” Scott rubbed his hand down the side of his horse’s neck. “Just wishing that high-strung, little brother of mine would suddenly show up with that shit-eatin’ grin of his and a really lame excuse so I could kick his ass from here to next Tuesday.” Scott continued to pat Charlemagne’s neck thoughtfully. “Yup, that’d be about perfect.”
Charlemagne gave a whinny and tossed his head.
“Sure, I’d be more than happy to let you kick his ass, too.”
Scott replaced his hat, gave Charlemagne one last pat, and clicked him forward. Nothing left to do but come up with a different game plan.
It was late in the afternoon when Matthew returned. Johnny had spent the rest of the day resting, after having reluctantly agreed to drink an extra large mug-full of DarkCloud’s special concoction which Grace had prepared for him.
Matthew quickly set the articles out for Johnny’s appraisal, explaining that Calientes had lived up to the bargain and there had been no charge. After checking over all the items, Johnny assured Matthew that he had gotten everything requested.
Early the next morning, Johnny made use of his host’s simple ‘washin’ up place’, as Jamie called it, further confiding to him that Grace made him succumb to it every Saturday. This last piece of information was shared in a tone of utter mortification and dread.
After his wash and shave, Johnny dressed in his new clothes. He settled on a pair of black pants and a dark blue shirt. The more than a dozen bandanas Matthew had found at Calientes’ store were of a deep red, silk fabric, a bit too fancy for most of the cowboys in town, which explained why he had so many of them left.
Johnny had smiled when Matthew related this piece of information. “Perfect,” was his only reply as he tied one around his neck.
Johnny refilled his gunbelt, checked his modified revolver as well as the new six-shooter Matthew had acquired for him, while Matthew went out and saddled up the horses.
Grace hovered nearby, seemingly anxious to be of some help, but unsure what to do. Jamie sat at the table, watching every small action, absorbed in Johnny’s preparations.
“I wanna go in town with you,” Jamie finally muttered, his arms crossed and a sullen look on his face.
Johnny paused, his eyes shifting from the new glove on his left hand to Jamie’s upturned face. “You know you can’t, Jamie. But I want to thank you for teaching me how to play cards. I’ve had more fun this past week with you than I can ever remember.”
“You’re really not coming back here?” Jamie asked.
Johnny shook his head. “It wouldn’t be a good idea.”
“But I want you to come back,” Jamie replied stubbornly and began to kick the chair leg with his toe.
Johnny pulled the glove off his hand, slipped it into his belt, then sat down next to Jamie. “I know this is all hard for you to understand, but I have to go to work now. I need to help you save your town, remember?” Jamie watched him silently as Johnny carefully leaned forward. “Once I go to work, I won’t be around much anyway. And if I was staying with you, I would be putting you in danger from Wakeman and his men.”
Jamie looked down at the table, a heavy frown still on his face. “I could come and stay in town with you.”
“Jamie,” Johnny reached out and patted his hand, “I’m gonna be so busy making Wakeman’s life a livin’ hell that I ain’t gonna be able to play any cards or do anything that you would find fun.” He paused when he heard Grace tisk under her breath. “Sorry, Miss Grace, just trying to tell him the truth.” He turned back. “But I promise you, I’ll be back to play cards with you again…when I’m done.”
Jamie smiled slightly. “Okay, Johnny.”
“And I want you to help out your sister and brother. They count on your help, you know.”
The door opened and Matthew walked in. “Ready?”
Johnny stood up, giving Jamie’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze. Then picking up the stack of bandanas from the table, he turned and nodded to Matthew.
“Johnny! Just a minute!” Grace suddenly bolted into the back storage room and returned with the golden medallion that she had taken off him when he’d first arrived. “Here. This is yours. I almost forgot. I took it off when you first…it was in my way when I…” she lowered her eyes a second before continuing, “You might need it,” she finished weakly.
Johnny looked at the medallion dangling between her fingers, the medallion of protection from an old priest. He carefully took it from her outstretched hand, put it over his head, then dropped the medallion down under his shirt. “I thought perhaps I’d lost it. Thanks.”
Grace wiped her hands nervously on her apron skirt. “I just want you to know—I—I don’t approve of what you do, but I—I’ll be praying for you.”
Johnny’s penetrating gaze regarding her cautiously before he replied with a hesitant smile, “Thank you.” Then turning, he followed Matthew outside to the horses, Jamie trailing close behind.
As they both mounted their horses, Matthew said, “We’ve got plenty of time, Johnny. We’re in no hurry.”
Johnny settled into the saddle, careful of his heavily bandaged side. “You think you need to remind me of that?”
Matthew looked at him, his eyebrows raised in amusement. “Yup.”
Turning back to Jamie, Johnny tipped his hat. “Hold the fort.”
“Bye, Johnny.” Jamie waved as Matthew and Johnny headed toward town.
Soledad was not far from the small farm, but to keep from injuring Johnny’s side any further, they let the horses walk along at a leisurely pace.
Johnny let his eyes take in the surroundings, asked the position of the different ranches and farms around the area and various landmarks. Matthew pointed to the faint tinge of green winding down through the valley. “The Salinas River,” Matthew informed him. “Pretty well dried up this time of year. Some years, though, you should see it during the rainy season. Just floods the valley.” He swept his hand along the horizon. “That’s why we’ve got such a small place even though we’ve been here so long. It flooded us out a few years back. Pa rebuilt and planned to add on, but he died the next year.”
“Town’s on this side and mission’s on the other side of the river. There’s a bridge for crossing. The train’s gonna be on this side…comin’ right into town.”
“Are there many ranches on this side?”
“Five on this side and seven on the other. We have an Indian settlement, too. They’re in the coastal mountains, the Santa Lucias.” Matthew nodded to the west.
Johnny couldn’t help but grin. “DarkCloud’s relatives?”
Matthew smiled back. “Actually, yes. DarkCloud’s great-grandfather was one of the early mission Indians from the area, as was our great-grandmother.”
“No kidding,” Johnny grinned. “You’re probably related.”
Matthew shrugged and grinned back. “Could be. DarkCloud’s father left the mission area for awhile, married elsewhere, then came back here a number of years later to settle down.”
“Ah, the Apache,” Johnny joked.
Matthew shook his head. “Sure’s obvious you’re lookin’ forward to sparring with the good doctor!”
An hour later, Matthew was following Johnny into town. Johnny rode slowly, his eyes critically appraising every corner, yet his face void of expression. Matthew watched from a few lengths behind, amazed at the immediate command the man in front of him seemed able to exact from the few inhabitants that were walking about the dusty street. Though the town only numbered a few businesses and houses, the men and women who were out all paused to take a closer look at the dark haired rider.
At Rosti’s saloon, Johnny reined up and dismounted with a deliberateness that Matthew knew disguised his injury, but to anyone else would have seemed simply controlled.
Matthew dismounted and followed Johnny, but the Johnny he knew had disappeared. It was the gunfighter, Madrid, who now made his way into the saloon, brushing unconcernedly past an older gentleman, whom Matthew acknowledged with a nod.
Once inside, Johnny paused until all eyes were on him, then walked slowly toward a corner table where Mr. Angelou, Mr. Solero, DarkCloud and another man were seated. Mr. Rosti was behind the bar pouring drinks. Matthew watched Angelou, Solero and DarkCloud stand immediately, but the fourth man, a stranger to Matthew, remained seated.
“Mr. Madrid.” Angelou waved him forward. “Please, take a seat.”
As Johnny walked the few steps to the table, his eyes fastened coldly on the man who had remained seated and was now slowly swirling a glass of tequila. “I never sit with my back to the door,” he stated evenly.
Mr. Angelou quickly looked from Johnny to the man and back again. “Here, Johnny. You can have mine.” He stepped back.
“No.” Johnny shook his head, though his eyes never left the seated man, who Matthew now surmised to be Tucson. “I want that chair.” The words spoken were heavy with an undercurrent of challenge.
DarkCloud glanced at Matthew, but Matthew avoided eye contact.
Tucson didn’t move, but smiled icily, his left hand still absently twirling his glass. “Long time, Johnny.”
“Don’t you remember? Warburton, ‘bout two years back?”
Matthew watched Johnny closely, but never saw any hesitation on his friend’s part. “Been a long time, then,” Johnny replied simply. “But that don’t change the fact that you’re in my chair. And,” he paused, his eyes narrowing slightly, “I prefer you keep both hands where I can see them.”
Matthew felt, more than heard, a collective inhale from all watching. Suddenly the realization that he was standing behind Johnny, a place that was probably not the safest at the moment, occurred to him. And it didn’t help when he noted that Angelou and Solero both looked ready to dive for cover while Rosti was standing, frozen in his spot, drinks in hand, halfway to the table. He shot a quick look at DarkCloud, but amazingly the Indian appeared slightly amused by the exchange, the vaguest hint of a smile flickering across his face.
Then, just as suddenly, Tucson laughed loudly and stood up. “Damned me, Madrid, but you still ain’t lost it! Just like hiring to ol’ Warburton, that crazy ol’ coot! Thought he’d put you in your place with that silly ol’ pennant of his.” He glanced around the table at the astonished faces. “Told Johnny, here, he wouldn’t hire him unless he could shoot a pennant off the top o’ one of his tents, some distance away. Johnny here, just looks at him, casually turns, and snip—” Tucson gestured, “just like cuttin’ butter, the pennant falls down. Hired on the spot, he was.”
Though Tucson turned back to Johnny, a smile on his face, Matthew noted Johnny didn’t return it. Instead, Johnny strode purposefully around the table to lay claim to the chair recently vacated by Tucson while Tucson shifted down to Angelou’s seat.
Despite Johnny’s impassive expression, Tucson continued, though Matthew thought he seemed filled with a little less bravado than earlier. “I weren’t there long. Got hired with another friend just a couple days before Johnny showed up. That Sexton Joe,” Tucson shook his head with a glance at Johnny meant to convey they shared some common knowledge. “Craziest damned hawk I ever did have the displeasure to meet. After those ornery ranchers plugged ol’ Warburton, me ‘n my friend lit out. Didn’t fancy Sexton Joe bein’ in charge. Figured it was a lost cause and we weren’t gonna get the rest of our fee anyhow.” He paused and looked at Johnny. “That Sexton Joe sure had it in for you, though. Sure was trying to prove you had something goin’ with ol’ Warburton’s daughter.”
“I never mess with the boss’s daughter,” Johnny interrupted evenly.
“She was sure taken with you, though.” Tucson winked, but once again his attempt at humor fell flat in the face of Johnny’s unwavering stare. Tucson glanced evenly around the table, then turned once more to Johnny. “So, what did happen? Soon after I left, I heard you brought down both Sexton and Isham?”
Johnny felt Matthew and DarkCloud studying him closely, obviously wondering if he remembered what Tucson was talking about. But he didn’t. He didn’t.
Isham? Isham? I killed Isham, too? That can’t be!
In an even, calculated tone that hid the turmoil his emotions were under, Johnny narrowed his gaze on Tucson. “Is it really any interest of yours?”
Tucson shifted back in his seat. “No, not really. Just seemed that Isham was a friend of yours. Wondered what happened.”
Johnny leaned forward slightly, his fingers spread deliberately on the tabletop, no hint on his face to show the private anguish he was dealing with, just the cold, intense stare of a gunfighter. “Could be he talked too much.” Johnny’s voice, though barely a whisper, put the entire room on alert.
Tucson tried to hold Johnny’s dark, penetrating gaze, but ultimately dropped it. Johnny, however, maintained his position an extra moment before calmly leaning back, his hands trailing to rest on the edge of the table.
Matthew slowly released his breath along with the rest of the men seated at the table. Though Johnny didn’t even spare him a glance, Matthew found himself unable to tear his gaze from the gunfighter. Despite the fact that he’d seen the transformation a number of times now, he still had a hard time accepting Johnny, who he saw as a friend, as Johnny Madrid, the gunfighter.
Johnny turned and gave a curt nod to Rosti. Abruptly the bartender remembered what he’d been doing and came quickly forward with the rest of the drinks.
“I have been studying on your problem and have come up with a plan that should rid you of Wakeman,” Johnny stated.
“I would think the plan would be easy,” Tucson spoke up. “We’ve been hired to kill Wakeman.”
Johnny turned slowly. “We’ve been hired to save the town and I’d like to do so with as little bloodshed as possible.”
“And how do you propose to do that? I’ve heard Wakeman never goes anywhere without his own army,” Tucson countered.
“We’re going to make taking over Soledad more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Which brings us back to my original question. How?”
“I would like to enlist the aid of the hill Indians.” Johnny turned to DarkCloud. “Matthew told me there’s no love lost between them and Wakeman and his men.”
DarkCloud shook his head. “That’s an understatement.” He paused. “But I don’t know as they’d be that willing to help. It’s just a small tribe, and Wakeman has caused them quite a bit of trouble.”
Johnny nodded understandingly. “I know. But see if you can fix up a meeting for the two of us.”
“Why just you two?” Tucson asked.
“’Cause I’m trying to improve our chances of co-operation. I have no desire to appear as another contingent of ‘pale-face’ bullies.” He turned back to DarkCloud. “And assure them that I will ask nothing of them that would further endanger their tribe. But it would help if we had some backup in certain situations, or a diversion.”
DarkCloud nodded. “I’ll ride out there when we’re through and see what I can do.”
Johnny nodded. “Good.” The first hint of a smile crossed the gunfighter’s face as he surveyed the assembled group. “The idea here is to make Wakeman’s life such hell that he curses the day he ever decided to move in on your town. And the first step is to show him that we can get supplies.”
“How?” Angelou asked.
“I’m going to take a small group up to Salinas where we’ll purchase a wagon and supplies and return the next day.”
“Who are you planning on taking?” Tucson asked.
“Well, I figure that’s what you’re hired for,” Johnny replied with a hint of sarcasm.
“I’ll go, too,” Matthew added.
Johnny gave Matthew a warning look. “I’d rather you didn’t.”
Suddenly there was the sound of the doors swinging open. The men at the table followed Johnny’s narrowed gaze to the entrance as a young man in his late teens strolled in. He smiled hesitantly at the group as he slapped the dust from his clothes, his eyes immediately coming to rest on Tucson. “Well, I guess I did find the right place after all,” he said as he straightened up and self-consciously adjusted his gunbelt.
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “And what are you lookin’ for, Kid?”
“Why, him.” The young man pointed to Tucson, who shrugged his ignorance. The newcomer walked a couple of steps closer to the table. “Or not, exactly. I was in the saloon when that fella there,” he pointed at Angelou, “came in lookin’ for a gun to hire.”
“I remember you,” Angelou stated suddenly. “You’re the kid who wanted to hire on.”
A crooked half-smile crossed the newcomer’s face and he straightened up a little taller. “That’s me.”
Angelou shook his head. “I’m not looking to get no kid killed. We got our guns.”
The kid nodded his head. “I know. I heard you hiring Tucson. Got to thinking, though, even if you didn’t hire me right out, perhaps I’d come along and offer my services anyway.” He paused. “I’m good. Very good.”
“I’m sure you are, Kid, but we’ve got all the men we need,” Solero added with a touch of sarcasm.
Rosti cleared his throat. “And quite honestly, we don’t have the money to hire you.”
“Well, I done thought of that. But it’s damned hard to get a reputation started, so perhaps we could do each other a favor. I help you out with your situation, and you help me by spreading my name when it’s all over.” He turned his attention to Tucson and regarded him evenly. “I’ve heard of you and it wouldn’t hurt me none to be workin’ with you.”
Angelou pursed his lips thoughtfully, let his gaze sweep the table, then nodded. “Then I guess we’d better introduce you to the man in charge of this operation.” He paused and indicated Johnny. “Kid, meet Johnny Madrid.”
“Madrid? You got Madrid?!” The young man’s face registered immediate surprise as he stared at Johnny, who shot Angelou a clearly displeased look.
“I really don’t think it’s necessary to bring on anyone else,” Johnny replied grimly.
“Why not? I think we could use all the help we could get and if he wants to offer his services for free, who are we to turn him down?” Angelou replied.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t plan on babysittin’.”
“Hey!” The kid stepped up close to the table. “I said I’m good and I meant it.”
Johnny turned a cold eye on the young man’s hopeful expression. “While I’m sure you are, you’re not ready for the sorta dance we got planned.”
The kid returned Johnny’s dark look, his earlier eager expression fading. “Let’s put it blunt, Mr. Madrid. I need a name for myself, and if I could work with you, I’d have it made.”
“Ah, let the kid in,” Tucson spoke up. “Can’t hurt none.”
Fleetingly, Johnny closed his eyes and sighed. “Okay,” he stated flatly, his tone indicating his displeasure. “But make no mistake, Kid. You do anything to jeopardize my plans, and you’re out.”
The kid nodded solemnly. “Understood.” Then he held out a hand. “Pleasure to work with you, Mr. Madrid.”
Reluctantly, Johnny held out his hand, and at the kid’s sudden smile, Johnny returned a half grin of his own. “Now, sit down, be quiet, and listen.”
“Sure thing, boss,” the kid chuckled and grabbed an extra chair from a nearby table.
Quickly Johnny reiterated his desire to acquire the local Indian tribe’s help and the immediate plan to get supplies from Salinas. It was agreed that Tucson and the new kid would accompany Johnny first thing in the morning. When asked about further plans, Johnny refused to answer, saying it was better if he kept all plans to himself and explained them as needed. Tucson didn’t seem to like the idea, but went along when no one else objected.
“One last thing, though,” Tucson spoke up as the meeting was drawing to a close. “You know Wakeman’ll try to stop us from getting back with the supplies.”
Johnny turned on him with unconcealed amusement. “I’m counting on it.” At Tucson’s raised eyebrow, Johnny added, “I’m hoping he’ll come to refer to it as his first step to perdition.”
After letting his words sink in, Johnny turned slowly to DarkCloud. “I think you’ve got another meeting to get to.” The finality of his tone conveyed that the meeting had come to an end.
DarkCloud glanced quickly at Matthew, then back at Johnny. “I’d hoped to have a few words with you first—privately…”
“I’d rather you take care of your job. There aren’t many hours of daylight left. We can discuss anything you think necessary when you return with their answer.”
DarkCloud nodded, his eyes regarding Johnny steadily. “I’ll be seeing you this evening, then, Madrid.”
“I assumed so,” Johnny replied vaguely then watched as DarkCloud turned and left, followed closely by Angelou and Solero.
“How about all these bandanas?” Matthew set the saddlebag on the table.
“Thanks for reminding me.” Johnny pulled the saddlebag across the table.
“Bandanas?” Tucson asked. “Whatever do we need bandanas for?”
Johnny patted the bulging bag. “Just call it our calling card.”
“Our what?” The kid asked.
Ignoring the question, Johnny turned to Rosti, who was gathering up the empty glasses and bottle. “I’ll be needin’ that room now.”
“It’s yours.” Rosti nodded toward the stairs. “I saved the last room at the end for you.”
“Facing the front or back?”
Rosti paused. “Well, facing the back.”
“I’d rather have the front.”
“The other room’s a little nicer.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’d rather have the front room,” Johnny repeated.
Rosti shrugged. “I’ll have it ready in a few minutes.” He turned to leave.
“One more thing,” Johnny called out.
“I plan to take my supper in my room tonight.”
Rosti nodded again. “I’ll see to it, Mr. Madrid.”
Matthew watched Rosti return the glasses and empty bottle to the bar then head up the stairs. He turned back to study the three gunfighters left sitting at the table.
“Probably should head back, too, Matthew,” Johnny prompted.
Matthew hesitated, biting his lip. He suddenly empathized with Jamie’s reluctance to leave when the grown-ups talked over ‘important matters’. Yet he rather doubted pouting and kicking the table legs were going to get him an invitation to stay.
Finally, after being unable to come up with a plausible reason for staying, Matthew nodded. “Suppose you’re right. Shouldn’t leave Jamie with all the chores.” He still lingered a moment. “I’ll—I’ll be back in town in a couple days. Find out how Salinas went,” he finished weakly.
Johnny nodded, his face still a mask. “Look forward to seeing you again. Give Jamie and Grace my thanks.”
Nodding awkwardly to the other men, Matthew stood. But before he could turn away, he looked one last time into the dark blue eyes of the gunfighter, to try and find the friend he knew was in there. But the eyes were veiled.
Inwardly sighing, Matthew turned to go.
Matthew froze, then slowly turned.
“I’ll let you know as soon as I need your help.”
Matthew nodded, then headed out the door. Once outside, he smiled. The veil had been lifted for a few seconds, just enough to get a glimpse of his friend behind the mask once more.
After Matthew had left, Johnny leaned back, steepling his fingers on his lap. The other two gunfighters turned their attention from the door back to him. He surveyed them slowly, the veil once more over his eyes. “You got a room yet, Kid?”
The young man shook his head.
“How ‘bout a name?”
A smile broke across the young gunfighter’s face. “Nothin’ as good as Madrid.” He paused and cocked his head. “That your real name?”
Johnny raised one eyebrow. “Close to a real name as I’m likely to get. What’s yours? Can’t just call you ‘kid’.”
The young man smiled sheepishly. “Fred.”
Tucson snorted. “I don’t think that’s gonna strike terror into anyone’s heart.”
Johnny ignored the interruption. “Got a last name?”
The young man’s voice lowered. “Peterson.”
Tucson snorted again even more loudly, then immediately quieted when Johnny shot him a withering look. “You got a sinus problem, Tucson?”
Tucson swallowed visibly and shook his head.
Johnny turned back to the kid. “Where you from?”
Smiling slowly, Johnny nodded faintly. “I think that’ll do it.” He suddenly leaned forward and called out to Rosti who was just descending the stairs. “Mr. Rosti. Pour us a round of drinks. We need to drink a toast to the Atascadero Kid.”
Rosti paused at the bottom of the steps as he took a moment to deduce Johnny’s intent, then with a smile he nodded and walked behind the bar.
After Rosti had placed three shot glasses of whiskey on the table, Johnny picked one up and motioned a toast. “To the Atascadero Kid. May your aim be true and may you always know when there’s an enemy at your back.”
The Atascadero Kid and Tucson raised their glasses to their lips.
Sinking wearily into the lone chair, Johnny sighed as he tiredly surveyed the small room Rosti had just shown him into. A bed stood up against the wall opposite of the window with a small nightstand table near it. There was a round table and the lone chair, which Johnny now occupied, situated in the middle of the room, and another short, small table near the window. He’d had Tucson installed in the room opposite and the kid put next door, which made it easier for him to keep an eye on both of them.
Resting his elbows on the arms of the chair, he closed his eyes, grateful for the quiet and solitude. After a few moments of silence, he opened his eyes to gaze at the bed along the wall. With chagrin, he wondered why he hadn’t taken off his belt and boots in the first place and lain down instead of sitting in the hard chair. His side was burning with each breath he took, a constant piercing ache that grated on his nerves.
And it didn’t help that the haunting revelation that he had killed Isham kept playing over in his thoughts, too. The announcement had come as quite a shock, an idea difficult to accept. Isham? They’d worked together a number of times. A nervous man with a hard-edged sense of humor, but they’d always managed to get along…never had a quarrel with each other. Why would he shoot Isham? Especially if they were working for the same man? It made no sense. Nothing seemed to be making sense.
He rubbed one hand wearily across his face. He couldn’t even think straight anymore; he was so damned tired….so God-damned tired. It felt near impossible to make his exhausted body move once more. Preparing first for the discomfort, he closed his eyes then took a slow, deep breath and held it, willing his body to relax, his muscles to ease their tension.
A knocking at the door startled Johnny, causing him to jerk his head back, banging it against the backrest of the chair. His hand had already found and drawn his revolver, while his eyes darted with momentary confusion before the knocking was repeated and he heard DarkCloud’s voice call out, “Madrid. It’s me.”
With a mumbled expletive, Johnny quieted his thumping heart, reholstered his gun, and forced himself to his feet. Opening the door, he found DarkCloud standing on the other side, two steaming mugs in his hands and a rakish grin on his face. “I thought you might enjoy a drink while we discuss my meeting.”
Johnny stood aside as DarkCloud entered, then closed the door. “So, I see you’re joining me this time,” he remarked as he accepted one of the mugs, his nose wrinkling at the pungently sweet odor.
“Are you kidding?” DarkCloud laughed and set the other mug on the small table. “The other one’s for you later. Shouldn’t taste any worse when it’s cold.” He reached into his coat pocket and took out a flask. “I prefer this.” With a smirk, he uncapped the flask and took a swig before replacing it back into his pocket.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “That’s downright low and underhanded.”
“Don’t forget unfair and deceitful.”
With a small hiss of disgust, Johnny took a sip of his drink. “How’d it go with the hill tribe?”
DarkCloud smiled slyly, then reaching into his interior pockets, withdrew new bandaging and two small jars of ointment which he placed on the table. “While I take a look at my favorite patient, I’ll tell you how it went.”
Johnny sighed. “I suppose there’s no other way?”
DarkCloud seemed to consider the question thoughtfully before he shook his head. “None that I can think of.” He gestured toward the bed. “Now lie down.”
Johnny shook his head uncomfortably. “I’d rather sit.”
DarkCloud crossed his arms, a slightly annoyed look on his face. “Fine, you can continue to be a stubborn mule, but you’re hiding nothing. Your little show downstairs might have impressed everyone else, but let them take one good look at you now, and your whole game would be exposed.”
Johnny shot DarkCloud a sour look. “You wouldn’t.”
DarkCloud met the look unflinchingly. “You want to try me? Now, let’s get that belt off and get you on the bed.” He reached for the belt.
“Hey!” Johnny backed up. “I can do it myself.”
“Then you’d better get movin’, Madrid, or I will help you.” DarkCloud turned away to open the jars of ointment, though he kept Johnny in the corner of his vision. Unobtrusively he watched as Johnny unbuckled his gunbelt, then his shirt. Grimly he noted that the gunfighter barely moved his right side, his left hand doing all the work. And once he had finished, Johnny wearily and without protest sat down on the edge of the bed.
DarkCloud then turned and looked at him. “You want help with your boots?”
Without lifting his head, Johnny shot a dark look from under hooded lashes. “You’re enjoying this way too much.”
DarkCloud didn’t smile. Instead he walked forward, bent down, and began pulling off Johnny’s boots. “Actually, Johnny, my only desire is to get you healthy again.”
“Not to torment me?”
DarkCloud put the second boot to the side and leaned back, a sudden smile on his face. “Oh, that’s just a bonus.”
Johnny couldn’t help but chuckle as he lay back onto the bed. “I thought so.”
“Matthew told me you pulled open the wound again,” DarkCloud said with a shake of his head as he cut away the old bandages.
“Figured he would,” Johnny replied, his eyes closed.
DarkCloud carefully peeled off the last of the bandage, exposing the swollen, raw wound. “If you insist on overdoing it and reopen it again, I’m going to be forced to take drastic measures.”
Johnny opened his eyes halfway. “Is that a threat?”
“No,” DarkCloud replied as he washed the area. “It’s just the truth. You’re making it rather difficult for me to do my job.”
In silence, DarkCloud applied the ointment and rewrapped the wound. Once finished, he put the supplies back on the small table and brought the spare chair up to the bed. “Here.” He held out the mug of tea. “Been a long day, hasn’t it?”
Nodding, Johnny pushed himself up, leaned back against the headboard, then with a sigh of defeat, accepted the mug.
“So, do you know Tucson?”
Johnny regarded DarkCloud over the steaming mug. “If you mean, do I remember him? No. I don’t remember him or anything he was talking about.” He then looked down into his mug and stated quietly. “However, Isham had been a friend.”
“We don’t really know what happened, Johnny,” DarkCloud cautioned. “It might not be anything like what Tucson said. He does seem to like to talk a lot.”
Johnny looked up slowly, his eyes dark with sadness. “Maybe. But I had a dream a couple nights ago.” Pausing, he dropped his gaze momentarily before continuing. “I dreamed I killed Reveles. I dreamed the whole shoot-out. I saw him fall. And,” he raised his left arm, “and he winged me, here. Where I do have a scar.” He dropped his arm to his side. “So it appears I did kill one old friend already.”
DarkCloud sat back in his seat. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I don’t know what to say. I just want to caution you to not jump to any conclusions until you know the whole story. There may be more to it than you remember right now.”
Johnny nodded vaguely and took another sip from the mug. Then, wanting to change the subject, he asked, “So what happened with your meeting?”
DarkCloud quickly adapted to the change of topic. “Well, I met with Chief Red Deer and explained that you’d like to meet with him to see about having him and his braves help us. I explained that you were trying to drive Wakeman from this part of the valley. Red Deer seemed interested, especially since Wakeman and his men have had a habit of using any Indian they come across as target practice.”
Johnny nodded grimly. “So I heard from Matthew. That’s why I hoped we might be able to secure their help.”
“Well, they’re certainly willing to meet and discuss the possibility.”
Johnny nodded again and took another sip. “Good.”
“Now, then.” DarkCloud paused. “How are you feeling?”
Johnny’s eyes crinkled in amusement. “Like there’s a hole in my side.”
DarkCloud raised an eyebrow, but didn’t laugh. “That’s a long trip up to Salinas.”
After taking another sip from his mug, Johnny rested it in his lap. “I’m well aware of that.”
“I think you should put the whole thing off for a week.”
Johnny shook his head. “I can’t do that.”
“Why not? Change your plans. You’re in charge.”
Johnny fixed his eyes on DarkCloud’s. “I wouldn’t be for long. And then who would you have runnin’ this fracas? The Kid? He’s more liable to wet himself the first time he’s shot at. Tucson? He’s more talk than action. No.” He shook his head emphatically. “You have no choice and neither do I.” He nodded vaguely toward the table. “I’m counting on you and your magic potions to keep me going.” Then raising his mug in a mock toast, he took the last sip of the tea.
It was around noon the next day when Johnny called for a halt along the trail that followed the Salinas River. Both Tucson and the Kid had shown irritation at having to make such a slow go of it, but Johnny convinced them that the smart thing for them to do was to not show any hurry in getting to Salinas in case they were being watched by Wakeman’s men. Instead, they were just simple travelers, on their way up the Salinas Valley. Johnny was relieved when they decided his plan had merit and followed his example of not rushing it. Unfortunately, he discovered it gave both the Kid and Tucson ample opportunity to talk. And talk, they did.
They chose a spot under a small grove of trees near the riverbank, though the river itself was barely more than a trickle this time of year. Johnny had a hard time hiding his discomfort when dismounting, but luckily the Kid was so engrossed in listening to a story that Tucson was relating, that neither noticed his gasp of breath, or his stiffness in settling in against a tree. The cool shade revived him immediately, and he found himself cursing his preoccupation with his wound, which had caused him to leave both his canteen and food on his horse. Leaning his head back against the tree, he decided it was about time he made use of his position.
“Hey, Kid!” he called. “Bring me my canteen and the food I got in my saddlebag. I’ve decided not to move out from under this shade for the entire next hour.”
The Kid turned and grinned, eager to be of service as Johnny had virtually ignored both him and Tucson the entire morning.
“So, what’s the plan for the rest of the day?” The Kid asked as he handed Johnny his canteen and set the wrapped food on the ground nearby.
Johnny uncorked the canteen and took a long drink. After replacing the cork, he looked up at the Kid. “Grab your own stuff, sit down, and I’ll tell you.”
The Kid quickly went back to his own horse, while Tucson walked up and sat down beside Johnny. “Nice ‘nuff kid,” Tucson said as he began unwrapping his own food.
Johnny nodded, one eye watching the Kid gather his own supplies. “That’s the problem.”
Tucson raised an eyebrow, but said nothing as he tore off a chunk of his bread and began chewing.
Once everyone had settled down and was eating, Johnny began to explain his plan. “In a couple hours, a few miles out of Salinas, I want the Kid to ride on ahead.” He paused, giving the Kid the full weight of his attention. “I don’t want you to be seen with us in Salinas at all. I want you to go to the livery stable on the south end of town. Matthew said the man who owns it is called Jacobs. Leave your horse there, then find yourself a nice, quiet saloon, and hang out.”
Johnny paused to nod at the other gunfighter. “Tucson and I’ll take care of getting the wagon and supplies. We’ll be loading the wagon when it’s gettin’ dark, and we’ll be leaving before the first light. On the way out of town, we’re going to take the South Branch road, not the main one that we come in on. It’s narrower, and they’ll be expecting us to take the other. Just before leaving town, the South Branch forks. Be hiding along the right fork. When we come past, we’ll slow down just enough for you to jump in the end. There’ll be a tarp covering everything and we’ll have a spot for you along the right side of the wagon box. I’m sure it won’t take long before word gets out that we’re taking the supplies to Soledad. Wakeman won’t try anything in town, but I know he won’t let us get far. Matthew says there’s a place about four miles out of town where the trail comes close to some of the foothills. That’s where I suspect he’ll try to make his move.”
Johnny gave each of the men in turn a flicker of a smile, one that alluded to shared knowledge in a planned surprise. “They will think they only have the two of us to handle. They won’t be expecting you.” He gave the Kid a long, meaningful look. “You’re our ace, so don’t mess up the hand, or I’ll see to it you never get hired by nobody. You make sure you’ve got your scrawny hide along that right fork before first light, or you get left with no horse. Do I make myself clear?”
The Kid nodded solemnly. “I won’t let you down, Madrid.”
“You’d better not.” Johnny reached for a hunk of bread and tore off a corner. “Now eat.”
After the hour’s rest, Johnny had stiffened up, but he felt better. He gave the Kid orders to pack both their food away at the same time that Tucson went off to the side to visit the bushes. This allowed Johnny the opportunity to have both men busy while he gingerly hauled himself to his feet. He was determined not to re-open his wound again as it was slowing him down enough already.
A few miles from town the Kid went on ahead as Johnny and Tucson stopped for a short rest. Tucson, once he’d lost the Kid as an audience, seemed determined to engage Johnny in conversation. Though he seemed likable enough, Johnny couldn’t help the uncomfortable feeling he got about the man. He was sure it came from the fact that Tucson knew him from a time he couldn’t remember, and he couldn’t confess the missing gaps in his memory without bringing doubt on his ability to handle the problem with Wakeman.
“Ain’t heard much about you the last few years, Madrid,” Tucson said as he dismounted his horse.
While Tucson’s back was turned to lead his horse to some green grass growing along the dirt road, Johnny also dismounted. “Been busy elsewhere,” he replied vaguely.
Tucson turned to look at him. “Thought maybe you’d retired after the business with Ol’ Warburton.”
Johnny walked to the opposite edge of the road to let his horse graze.
“Then I heard you took care of Reveles recently.”
Johnny’s heart stopped momentarily, though he outwardly made no appearance that he’d even heard.
“Isham and Reveles,” Tucson continued. “Seems it can pretty dangerous to be an acquaintance of yours.” Tucson paused for a minute. “Heard Reveles got you before he went down, though.” There was another pause. “Woulda thought you’d been able to take him clean, his gettin’ old an’ all.”
Johnny quietly stroked his horse a moment before slowly turning on Tucson, a hardness in his eyes that made the other man wonder if he’d pushed too far. “Are you lookin’ to try it for yourself?”
Tucson suddenly laughed, his voice echoing hollowly among the dry weeds and dust. “You sure are a touchy one!” He stopped then, his eyes watching Johnny with interest. “Just wonderin’ why you suddenly butted heads with ol’ friends.” He paused. “Heard you mighta been workin’ for them ranchers who were tryin’ to keep Warburton from gettin’ his beef to market. Might explain why you took out Isham and Sexton.”
“You got somethin’ you drivin’ at, or do you just like hearin’ yourself talk?” Johnny asked curtly.
“No, no,” Tucson replied hastily, but with a trace of doubt that didn’t escape Johnny’s notice. “Now’s I’m workin’ with you, I like to know a bit about who I’m hooked up with…find out just how far I can trust you. Don’t wanna suddenly wake up dead.” He chuckled to himself.
“You know all you need to know about me in order to get this job done,” Johnny replied flatly. “And that’s all. You do your job, you get paid.” He turned slightly to lead his horse back to the road. “Mount up. Time we got on to Salinas.”
With a shrug, Tucson turned around and quickly swung into the saddle, but he kept Johnny in the corner of his vision.
Late that afternoon, Tucson and Johnny rode into the town of Salinas. The first stop was the livery, the same livery that the Kid had been sent to, to drop off his horse. Angelou had sent Johnny with a promissory note, and had instructed Johnny to go to Jacobs, as he was an old friend, and the least likely to cause them any trouble, or spread an early word to Wakeman that they were in town. Trouble was bound to come early enough at their next stop, Hanson’s Warehouse.
Mr. Calientes and the few other Soledad businessmen purchased most of their supplies from Hanson. They had a long-standing contract, and a lot of money had been paid upfront for goods. With the clamp down from Wakeman, it soon became obvious that Hanson was in Wakeman’s pocket, as he had made no attempts to help get supplies to the small town. He was also most probably the one who spread the word to Wakeman’s men that someone had come to get supplies the few times it had been attempted, since Wakeman seemed to find out so quickly.
Johnny and Tucson rode over to the warehouse immediately after securing the wagon. As the two men dismounted in front of the large building they noted that it appeared that the warehouse was getting ready to close for the night as men were beginning to straggle out in small groups.
Johnny, noticing a large, burly man coming out of the warehouse, stepped up onto the porch. “I need to see Mr. Hanson.”
The man looked Johnny over with a certain amount of amusement then glanced at Tucson, who came up to stand beside Johnny. The warehouse worker folded his arms across his large chest before spitting off to the side. “Hanson, huh? Well, he’s in there.” He cocked his head back through the doorway he’d just come through, spit again, just narrowly missing Johnny’s boot, and then with a chuckle, stepped down off the porch.
Johnny had to take a deep calming breath in order to keep from immediately jumping on the man. The desire to prove himself a worthy opponent was a strong one, but his survival instinct won over, helped by the realization that in his condition, the only thing he’d probably really accomplish was getting himself beaten to a pulp.
Without a glance at Tucson, he headed into the warehouse. A few men were still milling about, pushing a couple of crates or talking. He headed for the first group and asked where Hanson could be found. The men all looked at him with some interest before one of them pointed in the direction of the back of the warehouse.
“Has an office back there,” added one of the other men.
Tucson and Johnny continued their way to the back of the building. There they found a small corner office. Johnny gave a short, cursory knock before entering the room. Inside, a short, stocky, thick-faced man with thinning blond hair looked up in annoyance as Johnny and Tucson entered.
“What’s this about?” he demanded.
Johnny raised a calm eyebrow and hooked his thumbs under his belt. “Name’s Johnny, this here’s Tucson,” he replied with a smile. “Came for some supplies from your warehouse that were ordered.”
“Oh,” Hanson frowned with irritation. “We’re getting ready to close, but give the list to one of the men outside, and they’ll see to it. Don’t bother me.”
“Okay,” Johnny nodded. “Sorry to be of trouble.”
With a nod at Tucson, he left the office, found the first man walking by, and gave him the list of supplies he was sent to get. The man quickly went down the list.
“You got a wagon to get these loaded onto?” the man asked.
Johnny nodded. “We can have it here in about a half hour.”
The man rubbed his chin. “Okay. Go get it and have it out in front, and I’ll get the stuff ready. It’ll take us ‘bout thirty minutes to get it all out to the dock.”
Johnny smiled. “We’ll be right back.”
Johnny and Tucson left the warehouse and walked out to the darkening street.
“Well, this sure is going to be easier than I thought,” Tucson remarked as they got back on their horses.
“That’s ‘cuz they haven’t asked for payment yet,” Johnny replied with a grin.
A half an hour later, Johnny and Tucson drove the wagon up to the front of the warehouse. The Kid’s horse and Tucson’s were hitched to the wagon, with Johnny riding along side. At the warehouse, both Tucson and Johnny stepped up to the porch. As they entered the warehouse, they immediately noticed a number of crates piled near the door. Presumably the supplies they had come to collect. The same man they had talked to earlier was supervising, the list Johnny had given him in his hands.
“Pretty well set here,” he remarked as Johnny and Tucson walked up.
Johnny nodded. “Good. We’re ready to get it loaded.”
“Have you a receipt of payment?” the man asked.
“Well, the receipt was taken off the last man who came for supplies, though I do have the contract.”
The man paused, his brows furrowing. “The receipt was stolen?”
Johnny sighed. “Yup. Seems the last fella who tried to get the supplies was jumped by bandits.”
The man paused once more, his expression becoming suspicious. “Who are you again?”
“Name’s Johnny,” Johnny replied. “Already been back there to see Hanson. He said not to bother him, but to just get this taken care of.”
The man chewed his lip thoughtfully. “He said that?”
“Yup. Go ask him,” Johnny replied.
The man looked from Johnny to Tucson, then back again. Then he turned to one of the men who had just brought up a crate. “Here, take this list. I think we got most of it. Get a couple men to start loading the wagon.”
“Okay,” the other man nodded.
“Just want to check on this,” the first man explained to Johnny, who shrugged with apparent indifference.
After he’d left, Tucson leaned over and whispered. “Now what? I didn’t plan on no gunfight in an old warehouse for a load of junk.”
“There ain’t gonna be no gunfight. We got a contract. And money’s already been paid.”
“Then how about when Hanson finds out?” Tucson insisted.
Johnny sighed. “I figured on Hanson finding out. He really can’t do much, but give us what we came for. It’s what happens after we leave.”
Tucson scowled, then glanced up as the man who had just left came hurrying back toward them.
“Uh, Hanson asked me to find out where it is exactly you’re takin’ these supplies.”
Johnny cocked his head with amusement. “Does it matter?”
The man shuffled nervously. His eyes suddenly taking in the demeanor of the two men in front of him, the ease with which they wore their guns, their cat-like stances, and the obvious amusement with which they regarded him. “Um, he’d like to know, sir…” he ended weakly.
“Yes, I would,” a voice from the back of the warehouse announced, and Hanson walked up, his eyes narrowing on the two men.
“Why, sure, Mr. Hanson,” Johnny replied lazily. “We were sent up here by Misters Angelou, Calientes, Rosti, Solero, and a couple others I got written down in my pocket here.”
Hanson studied the two men in front of him for a moment. “And you got a receipt?”
Johnny eyes crinkled with amusement. “Seems the last guy up here for supplies was attacked by a fierce band of desperados.” He leaned forward, his voice lowering. “Seems there’s a lot of nasty characters hanging around this here town of yours. Terrible shame.” He shook his head in disapproval. “Man can’t be safe anywhere, nowadays, even in his own business, ain’t that so, Tucson?”
Tucson raised an eyebrow, then nodded emphatically. “Shame, real shame,” he added.
Hanson bit his lower lip nervously, then straightened his shoulders. “You got a contract, though, I hear. I’m sure you appreciate the fact that I need to see it, and I need to see some sort of identification before I release these items.”
Johnny nodded agreeably. “Of course, Mr. Hanson. Wouldn’t expect nothin’ less from a thorough and law-abidin’ business man.” He reached into his pocket and produced two papers. “This here’s the contract, and this here’s the note from the men who’ve hired us to get their supplies for them.”
After carefully looking over the documents, Hanson handed them back to Johnny. “Looks like everything’s in order.” He turned to the man who had originally been helping with organizing the supplies. “Fowler, see that their items get loaded immediately.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Hanson,” Fowler replied then turned and called for extra help.
Hanson attempted a friendly smile, but the effect proved to be anything but. “So, you’re taking these supplies back to Soledad, huh? Hope you’re not trying to start out in the dark.”
Johnny shook his head. “That’d be foolish.” He paused a beat. “Naw, we’ll start out tomorrow.”
Hanson nodded. “Much wiser. It can get kinda dangerous out there in the dark.”
“So we’ve been told,” Tucson added.
“Well, I got some other business to attend to.” Smiling again, Hanson tried holding out his hand, but withdrew it when Johnny made no move to accept. “Uh, the boys here’ll see to you. Have a safe journey.”
Johnny gave a half-smile. “Plan to.”
It took the men about a half an hour to get the supplies loaded. Once they were finished, Johnny quickly tied his horse behind, jumped onto the wagon seat and nodded for Tucson to join him.
“Where to now?” Tucson asked.
Johnny slapped the reins. “Find a nice little spot near a nice little cantina where we can take turns gettin’ a bite to eat.”
“Umph,” Tucson snorted. “Sounds like a pretty boring night.”
“Only if we’re lucky,” Johnny replied.
Johnny and Tucson soon found a fairly busy cantina doing a pretty good business. Johnny felt the traffic would keep them safer for the time being, so he went in first to get his meal. He ate quickly, anxious to be back outside where he could keep a sharp watch on their supplies. As soon as he had finished, he went out and relieved Tucson, who complained that he had been getting so hungry from the smell that he’d been in danger of starting to gnaw on the reins.
After Tucson had left, Johnny slowly climbed onto the wagon seat. The day was starting to wear on him, and the need for some rest was starting to tell. Though he’d been extremely careful of his side throughout the day, the ache was building to a constant throb making every breath torturous. He tried to settle himself as comfortably as he could, and waited for Tucson’s return.
After about an hour, Tucson came back, bringing a bottle of tequila back with him.
“Something to warm the innards,” he explained as Johnny looked at him with disapproval.
“You’d better find a safe place for that in the back, ‘cuz there’s no way I’m lettin’ you drink any of that tonight. We got a job to do, and I don’t plan to have to do it myself.”
Tucson looked at the bottle sadly, then sighed. “I thought you said you didn’t think there’d be any trouble ‘til tomorrow.”
“That’s true,” Johnny reached down quickly for the bottle and took it out of Tucson’s hands. “And I don’t plan to have to be hauling a drunk back down to Soledad, either. Now, you can either find a place to store this, or I can break it right now.”
“Okay, okay,” Tucson grumbled. “No need to get your feathers up.” He took the bottle back and climbed into the wagon box to find a place to put it. “There,” he announced as he jumped down. “Happy?”
“Immensely,” Johnny retorted. “Now, do you want the first watch, or should I?”
Tucson stretched. “Aw, I’d rather go last if you don’t mind. What do you want me to do?”
“It’s about midnight. Let me sleep until about two, and then wake me. I’ll let you sleep a couple hours, then we’ll start out by four. Sun’ll be comin’ up soon after that.”
Tucson nodded. “Two o’clock. Gotcha. I’ll probably walk around here a bit, keep myself awake.”
Johnny nodded, then waited until Tucson had turned his back before he allowed himself the luxury of lying down along the wagon seat. It was hard and cramped, but felt wonderful to be able to relax his side. He managed to bite back a hiss of pain as he settled in, then closed his eyes. He knew actual sleep was a luxury he probably wouldn’t attain. But he dearly needed to rest before he faced the next day. Slowly, he calmed his breathing and let his ears concentrate on the footsteps of Tucson pacing rhythmically along the boardwalk.
Scott wandered out to the porch of the Lancer hacienda. Though Murdoch and Scott had reached an understanding not to argue about Johnny’s reasons for his departure, conversations were still strained and dinner had been held in awkward silence, which was now the norm. Teresa had given up trying to lighten the conversation, and instead had taken to regarding each of the Lancer men with a mixture of peeved dismay and irritation. Thus is was that Scott had taken to excusing himself as soon as dinner was over to help Teresa with the clean up before escaping outside until he felt ready to turn in. The old habit of joining Murdoch in the Great Room held no appeal.
Scott was leaning against a column when he observed Jelly walking across the yard, lantern in hand, toward the stables. He grinned. Jelly was now the proud father of one little filly and hovered around the little lady as if she were truly his own child.
Scott stepped down off the porch and crossed the yard. He hadn’t had much of a chance to talk to Jelly since his return from Morro Coyo and Green River. He’d kept himself busy during the last couple days; kept his mind off certain details.
Scott found Jelly gazing rapturously over the stable railing at the young filly whose mother stood in the corner of the stall patiently ignoring him, obviously used to his constant presence.
Jelly looked up at the sound of Scott approaching. “Ain’t she purty?” he asked. “Named her Mabel.”
“Mabel?” Scott asked and leaned one arm against the railing.
“Oh, yes, a purty name for a purty girl. Mabel,” he repeated then looked at Scott with a blissful grin. “Ain’t it just grand the way it rolls off the tongue? Mabel,” he drew the word out.
Scott nodded his head seriously, though his eyes twinkled. “Mabel. Sounds like you picked a wonderful name, there, Jelly.”
Jelly nodded emphatically and turned back to mother and baby. “Yup. She’ll be quite the saddle horse. Such nice long legs, and such intelligent eyes, don’t you think?” He glanced once more to Scott for affirmation.
Scott obediently nodded. “Of course, I noticed it right away.” Shifting his position slightly, he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Yup, I said to myself when I walked in, that there little filly has Jelly’s eyes.”
“Scott,” Jelly huffed indignantly.
Smiling, Scott patted Jelly affectionately on the back. “She’s a fine lookin’ animal, Jelly. You have every reason to be proud.”
Jelly lay his arms along the railing, then leaned forward to rest his chin on his hands. Scott moved in to stand closer to him, enjoying Jelly’s simple joy in the quiet stables; a far cry from the tense atmosphere brought on by an uneasy truce back at the house.
“It’s been two weeks now,” Jelly suddenly murmured. Though his gaze remained fixed on the filly, he felt Scott stiffen at his words.
“I know,” Scott replied so quietly that Jelly had to strain to hear.
The older man continued to concentrate on the scene in front of him, weighing his words carefully. “Good you stayed ‘til Murdoch gathered his suspenders.” He paused a moment before adding, “But now it’s time to find Johnny.”
Sighing, Scott put a hand on the top railing and glanced up at the rafters. “Tell me where to look, Jelly. Just tell me where to look and I’ll go find him and bring him home.”
Jelly rubbed his chin against his folded hands. “I don’t know where to look,” he replied, then turned his troubled gaze on Scott. “But I’m sure he wants to be found.”
Scott closed his eyes. “Then why is he making it so hard?”
Jelly turned to study the new foal once more. “Since when has Johnny ever made anything easy?”
Running! Running! The sound of a bullet. Footsteps. A man---grabs him. Why? Who? He yells. “Isham! Isham!”
A shadow. A bullet. He fires….and watches as Isham suddenly drops to the ground. “No! No!”
“Johnny, Johnny, wake up!”
Gasping painfully for air, Johnny put a hand out, his eyes darting blearily until they came to rest on Tucson’s startled face.
“Johnny, you okay?”
Johnny blinked in confusion, the nightmare slow to release its hold. “Yes, uh, yes…” he weakly pushed himself up to a sitting position, a grimace of pain apparent on his face.
Tucson raised an eyebrow. “I heard you call out. Thought maybe someone had jumped you.”
Johnny shook his head. “Sorry, no.” He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “I—I didn’t mean to startle you. What time is it?”
“Almost two. You up to taking over?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I’m ready.” He forced himself to take a calm breath, then carefully slid off the seat to the ground, his hands tightly gripping the side of the wagon for support when his knees threatened to buckle under him. He clenched his teeth to stifle a moan as Tucson, thankfully unaware of Johnny’s discomfort, jumped into the wagon.
“Gonna be a short night, ain’t it?” Tucson asked as he settled back onto the seat and laid his hat on his chest.
Johnny mumbled something that he hoped sounded like an agreement. Then he waited until Tucson had closed his eyes before he forced himself to let go of the wagon and begin his own pacing.
It was indeed a short night, but the two hours of quiet pacing kept Johnny’s mind reliving the nightmare of shooting his friend. Over and over he questioned himself, Is that what really happened? And if so, why? Had he really been working both sides? Is that why he killed a friend?
And why would he have shot Reveles? What had he been doing the past couple of years? What sort of a man had he become? What sort of a life had he been living? Yes, he’d always been a gunfighter, and a good one, and proud of it. But he’d tried to control the situations he chose to accept, to use his talent with a gun for protection for people who couldn’t protect themselves. But, nevertheless, in the life he led, there were plenty of opportunities to make the fast money, to take the extra step of cold-blooded murderer. A step he had to admit he hadn’t always been able to avoid.
He paused in his pacing and closed his eyes for a few seconds. The faint sounds of a saloon, still open at this late hour, could be heard a few blocks away. A door closed up the street, followed by the sound of a baby crying for its mother.
Johnny opened his eyes again. This was no life, no real life. Death came too often. And he was so damned tired of death.
Around 4 o’clock in the morning, a lone wagon pulled by two horses and followed by one man on horseback wound along the side streets of Salinas on its way out of town. A couple of blocks from the edge of the town, the wagon turned down a narrow alley and a figure jumped into its back and was quickly covered from view.
The first faint rays of morning light found the inauspicious wagon heading down the long, dusty trail through the Salinas Valley.
The morning was still new, the sun yet hidden behind the Diablo Range, the shadows long, when the wagon and the man on horseback reached the place where a grove of scraggy trees surrounded a lone, rugged hillock. Tucson had already set his revolver on his lap, covered with his jacket. Johnny had warned him to remain calm and wait until given the word before opening fire. The same instructions had been given to the Kid, who lay hidden in the wagon box.
They didn’t have long to wait. Just as the wagon drew to its closest point to the foothills, two men dashed out from under cover, rifles aimed, bandanas pulled up over their noses. This action was immediately followed by the telltale sound of two more rifles hidden among the trees snapping their cartridges into place.
As Johnny drew his horse up in mock surprise, he couldn’t help thinking that, if nothing else, Wakeman’s men were certainly predictable.
“Hands up!” one of the men yelled, brandishing his rifle with a cockiness Johnny found amusing. If this man was the leader of the welcoming party, then Johnny felt his group hadn’t a thing to worry about.
“Sure thing, mister,” Johnny immediately raised his hands in surrender, then gave a quick nod to Tucson. “Better do as he says, Tucson.”
Nodding, Tucson obediently raised his hands.
“And you,” the second man pointed his rifle threateningly at Johnny. “Lose the belt.” Then he turned to Tucson. “And that rifle on the seat there beside you. I wanna see it on the ground. Now!”
As Tucson threw the rifle into the dust, Johnny slowly undid his belt and let it drop to the ground, the comforting feeling of his smaller, modified revolver pressing against his back.
“Now, off that wagon,” the first man ordered.
“These here goods is bound for Soledad,” Tucson argued.
“Not any more. We done commandeered it. Ain’t that right, boys?” The man laughed while Johnny and Tucson watched three more men appear from the trees to stand behind the wagon. “Now you’d better get off before I’m forced to remove you, permanent like.” Then the man jerked the rifle in Johnny’s direction. “And you! Off your horse…slow like,” he added.
Johnny slowly began to dismount while Tucson grabbed his jacket off his lap and jumped down from the wagon. Then, as Johnny swung his leg over his mount, effectively hiding his back from the view of Wakeman’s men, he kept his left hand on the pummel and dropped his right to grab his gun from its hiding place.
“Now!” he yelled as he jumped back from his horse, immediately firing off a couple shots at the two men who were positioned near the wagon’s front. At the same time, the Kid threw back the tarp and opened fire on one of the three men standing near him while Tucson took out another.
The last man threw his gun down without even firing off a shot, his hands in the air, his eyes wide in panic. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” he screamed.
Johnny painfully raised himself from a half-crouch as he forced his breathing to slow, the rush of adrenaline and the quick movement causing his side to spasm in time to the thumping of his heart. He desperately needed a couple of minutes to recover, but circumstances weren’t going to allow it.
“Damn! I got one! I got one!” The Kid leapt from the wagon. “D’ja see that?”
Johnny sighed and walked forward to the man left standing.
“D’ja see that, Johnny?” The Kid persisted.
“Sure, Kid,” Johnny replied in a voice that he had to work at to keep even.
The Kid sauntered up to the man lying face up in the dirt and prodded him with the toe of his boot. “I took him right down. He didn’t even know what hit him.” He paused a second. “Yeah, he didn’t even know what hit him, I was so fast.” Slowly he looked at Johnny. “I think he’s dead.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow while Tucson came up to stand beside the Kid.
“Probably,” Tucson remarked, “as it looks like you put a bullet in his brain.”
Johnny shook his head and turned back to their terrified prisoner, just as the groans from two of the men lying in the dirt became audible. Johnny, whose gun was still in his hand, nodded to the one who managed to sit up, clutching his hand to his right shoulder, the blood leaking between his fingers. “Get up and stand beside your partner here,” he ordered.
As the man staggered to his feet, Johnny called over to Tucson, “check the other two.”
Tucson turned to do as told. “This one’s dead, but this one’s got a leg wound,” he answered.
“Kid, go find their horses and turn ‘em loose, but one.”
When the Kid failed to respond, Johnny shot an irritated glance in his direction. The Kid was just standing, starring at the fallen man’s body. “Kid,” Johnny commanded, his voice dropping. “The horses. I need you to turn the horses loose.”
The Kid shook himself as if coming out of a dream, then gazed at Johnny, his eyes bright, but confused. “Huh?”
“Horses,” Johnny repeated again.
“I’ll do it,” Tucson spoke up. “Kid, keep an eye on this guy.”
As Tucson walked into the trees, the Kid slowly came to stand in front of the wounded man.
“That other one’s dead, too,” he observed.
“I know,” Johnny replied softly. His conscience was bothering him; his aim had been off with his second shot. His intent had been to wound the other man in his shoulder, like he had the man standing in front of him, but the man had been left-handed, and Johnny’s aim had been off enough to send the bullet to the heart.
Johnny stepped closer to the bandit with the raised hands, and gave the bandana a tug, exposing the man’s face. “So, you thought you’d just help yourself to our supplies?”
The man swallowed nervously. “Uh, we weren’t gonna hurt you. We were just s’pose—”
“Bridger,” the man with the wounded shoulder hissed a warning.
Johnny raised an eyebrow in amusement. “Don’t get your britches in a knot. You’re not tellin’ me nothing I don’t know already. Wakeman hired you to stop us.” He paused and took a breath, another sudden spasm in his side reminding him of his injury. He had to finish this show and fast. The rush was wearing off. “Now, I want to make sure you tell Mr. Wakeman that Johnny Madrid is on to his game.” He paused again as the two men glanced furtively at each other.
“Madrid?” Bridger asked cautiously.
Johnny nodded, then gave the bandana around his neck a tug. “And you be sure to give him this.”
“A bandana?” the man asked, confused, as he tentatively accepted the bright red piece of cloth.
Johnny grinned, his eyes crinkling in obvious amusement as he leaned forward and whispered secretively, “Tell him to start a collection.”
Bridger, though clearly puzzled, nodded gravely.
“Johnny,” Tucson called as he walked up leading one horse, “I set the others free.”
“Good.” Johnny nodded to Bridger. “Help get your wounded partner up on the horse.” He indicated the man on the ground clutching his leg. “Tucson, give him a hand.”
Amid anguished cries of pain, Tucson and Bridger helped the wounded man on the horse while Johnny turned to the Kid. He could feel himself breaking out in a cold sweat and knew it wouldn’t be long before he was forced to sit down…or fall down.
“Kid,” he paused as he waited for the young man to focus on him. “Go get in the wagon. Tucson’ll be with you in a minute.”
The Kid nodded, then his eyes dropped suddenly to Johnny’s side. “They got you.”
Johnny glanced down at his side to see a small stain of red under his jacket. Even with the heavy bandaging, it had started to bleed through.
Johnny looked back up at the Kid. “I’m fine. It’s nothing.”
The Kid’s face registered disbelief, but he nodded anyway.
“We gotta get movin’,” Johnny continued with a nod toward the wagon.
The Kid holstered the gun that he still held in his hands, and silently went to the wagon.
Johnny turned back to the three men who had tried to hold them up. He noted that Tucson still had his gun trained on them though it appeared that none were about to cause any trouble. He walked up to the horse and put his hand on its bridle. “I suggest you get started back to Salinas. At the rate it looks like you’ll be movin’, it’s gonna take you some while.”
“Wakeman’s gonna come after you, Madrid,” the man with the shoulder wound hissed between clenched teeth.
A slow smile spread across Johnny’s face. “I’m countin’ on it,” he replied.
As the trio started its slow way back to Salinas, Johnny turned to Tucson. “Grab up the guns and let’s get movin’.”
Tucson holstered his gun and quickly went to do as Johnny commanded while Johnny walked back to his mount and painfully bent down to pick up his own holster and gun. As he stood up, he found himself struggling to stay on his feet, as everything momentarily blacked out. He quickly dropped his eyes to the ground and put his left hand on his saddle until the roaring in his ears stopped. As the feeling passed, he found Tucson standing near the wagon, looking at him with some concern.
“You okay, Johnny?”
Johnny nodded, keeping his right arm up close to his side in order to hide the bloodstain from view. “Fine,” he called back as he walked around his horse. There, partially hidden from Tucson’s sight, he slid his modified revolver into his saddlebag, then carefully buckled his holster. Taking a slow, tentative breath, he hauled himself up into his saddle, the pain almost causing him to pass out.
It’s gonna be one helluva long ride back to Soledad.
As the wagonload of supplies appeared in Soledad later that afternoon, the three men were surprised at how much commotion they caused. Everyone spilled out into the streets, cheering and eager to hear the story of how their hired men had managed to outsmart Wakeman.
Johnny witnessed the celebration with dismay. He was exhausted and desperately needed to get to his room and collapse away from preying eyes. The jubilant crowd looked anything but willing to let their sudden heroes walk away quietly without repeating their tale a dozen times, at least.
“Tell us how you did it, Madrid!”
“Did’ja see Wakeman?”
“Did he try jumping the wagon?”
Johnny’s ears rang with the noise of about twenty people talking at once, crowding around his horse and the wagon.
“You did it!” Angelou pushed his way through the crowd, clapping his hands together in delight.
“Sure did!” Tucson answered, jumping off the wagon. “Shoulda been there, right, Johnny?”
Johnny nodded numbly and managed to swing down out of his saddle, though he kept one hand gripping the pummel, his fear of someone in the crowd pushing him over a valid one.
“It came off just like Johnny said it would,” Tucson said as he came to stand next to Johnny, a pleased expression on his face.
Rosti pushed his way up next to Angelou. “Let’s go hear the story! Drinks on the house!”
“Now that’s one deal I ain’t never turned down!” Tucson exclaimed. “Come on, Kid!” he called to the young man who had just jumped off the wagon. “You’ve got a whole town waitin’ for your story!” Then he turned to Johnny who still had one hand on his saddle. “Time to have that drink now!”
Johnny shook his head, desperate for the crowd to disperse. The pain in his side had long since stopped being localized and had spread to take over his whole body. Every breath was now a chore. His vision was blurry and he knew his hands were shaking. He tried to mumble something about taking care of his horse, but the charade of pretending to be fine had taken its final toll on him, and he found himself wondering what the hell it would matter if he instead just collapsed at everyone’s feet.
And if you’re really lucky, perhaps you’ll never have to wake up….
“Don’t worry about your horse, Johnny. I’ll get him.” Johnny heard Solero’s voice, but found he couldn’t find the man’s face to focus on.
Suddenly he felt a hand grip his elbow while the other hand forced his fingers to release their grip on the saddle to join in a firm handshake. “Congratulations, Madrid.”
Through a disjointed, spinning haze, Johnny slowly turned his head to see DarkCloud. Though the Indian was smiling, his eyes were dark with concern.
“I knew you could do it,” DarkCloud continued, all the while his hand remaining firmly fixed around Johnny’s upper arm, providing him with much needed support. “Hope you don’t mind, though, if I steal you away from your celebration. I really need to talk to you for a few minutes. Would that be okay?”
Johnny managed to find the strength to nod.
“Go on with your celebrating,” DarkCloud instructed the crowd. “I’m sure Tucson and the Kid will be glad to tell the story.”
Tucson laughed and clasped the Kid around the shoulder. “We’ll try not to embellish too much, eh, Kid?”
The Kid smiled and nodded.
“Catch you later, Johnny,” Tucson called back as he led the crowd to Rosti’s saloon.
After the crowd headed away and Solero took Johnny’s horse, DarkCloud guided Johnny to his small apothecary store and office.
Johnny numbly followed, all his concentration required in putting one foot in front of the other. By the time they reached the door and entered, Johnny’s entire body was shaking and covered in perspiration from the exertion, every breath a painful, labored gasp.
As DarkCloud kicked the door closed behind him, he cursed, “Damn it, Madrid! How the hell’d you manage to make it back here?”
Johnny suddenly stopped, wavered, his eyes blinking as he sought to focus. “I’ll tell you… when I remember,” he mumbled, then collapsed.
Swearing, DarkCloud grabbed Johnny before he hit the floor, and managed to half carry, half drag him into the back room that was used as his doctor’s office. There, he hauled Johnny up on a table and laid him on his back.
Quickly, DarkCloud set to work pulling Johnny’s shirt off and cutting away the old bandaging. “It’s that damned exit wound,” he muttered to himself as he began to gather supplies.
Johnny, once his body had been allowed to lie down, began to come to. Blinking slowly he found himself looking up at DarkCloud’s displeased expression as the doctor cleaned around the wound.
“Johnny, you can’t keep pulling this wound open. You’ve got a slight infection started here already. You’re not letting it heal. The entrance wound is looking better, but that exit wound…” He shook his head.
“Just sew it closed, then,” Johnny managed to hiss through the pain caused by DarkCloud’s ministrations.
“I can’t just sew this type of wound closed. Wounds like this need to heal from the inside out. In fact, a lot of good men died in the War from stupid army surgeons doing just that thing. No,” he shook his head sadly. “I hate to do this, but I’m gonna have to clean this wound out again, then I’m gonna add a few stitches along the sides to help it along in its healing. But let me warn you,” his expression grew serious, “you’d better not go ripping open these stitches, or we’ll really have a mess on our hands.”
“I s’pose it’d hurt like hell, too,” Johnny added.
DarkCloud nodded and tried to hide a smile. “Yeah, that, too.”
Sighing slowly, Johnny closed his eyes and lay still while DarkCloud cleaned and rebandaged the entrance wound.
DarkCloud was putting a square of cloth over the wound when he heard Johnny suddenly murmur, “They don’t understand.”
DarkCloud’s brows furrowed as he straightened up. “Who doesn’t? Understand what?”
“The people. They’re all cheering and celebrating.”
“Shouldn’t they be?” DarkCloud asked. “You’ve just proved that Wakeman can be beat.”
Johnny sighed. “They act like it’s all over—but it’s just begun.”
DarkCloud paused and regarded Johnny silently for a minute, the dark-haired gunfighter’s pale expression of sadness a marked contrast to the jubilance earlier expressed by both Tucson and the Kid. Turning, he went to a corner cabinet and took out two bottles of liquid. “Can you turn over?” He asked.
Johnny nodded and slowly rolled over onto his stomach.
“Sorry about this, but it ain’t gonna be no fun.”
Johnny, eyes still closed, muttered, “I figured as much.”
“It’s gonna sting a bit,” DarkCloud added.
Johnny managed a dry laugh. “I s’pose that’s supposed to make me feel better?”
With a smirk, DarkCloud poured some of the liquid onto the wound, causing Johnny to flinch, a look of surprise on his suddenly wide-open eyes. “Damn it! That hurts!” he glanced down at the offending bottle of liquid DarkCloud held in his hands. “I thought you were talking about cleaning out the wound and the stitchin’.”
“Oh, no. That’s gonna hurt like hell.” DarkCloud grinned. “This’ll merely sting.”
Johnny narrowed his eyes into a glare. “Some day, DarkCloud.”
“We’ll see,” DarkCloud replied then took the cork out of the other bottle. “Take a good drink of this. You might be glad you did.” He handed it to Johnny. “I’ve got another salve to try to deaden the skin around the area, but it’ll only work on the surface. You’re still gonna feel it.”
Johnny handed back the bottle after taking a long drink. Then with a tired moan, he lay back down. He hurt too much to care anymore. “Just get on with it.”
Though DarkCloud tried to be as gentle and as quick as possible, he was relieved when Johnny finally passed out from both exhaustion and the pain. He felt less pressure to hurry and more able to be thorough in his examination of the wound. His concern was eased somewhat when he discovered with deep probing that the wound was starting to heal, despite what he felt was Madrid’s best efforts to thwart it. The infection seemed to be more localized toward the surface, and it was the edge of the rib cage that had deflected the bullet outward that now seemed to be causing most of the trouble by pushing and rubbing on the wound whenever Johnny moved. If only he could hog-tie the gunfighter to a bed for about a month, he felt certain he’d be able to heal him fully.
Fifteen minutes later, just as DarkCloud had finished cutting off the stitching of Johnny’s wound, he heard someone enter the shop.
“Damn! Figures,” DarkCloud hissed to Johnny who was just starting to come around. “Just lay here. I’ll see what they want and I’ll be back. I don’t want you moving around for awhile yet. And I need to get you bandaged up.”
Johnny managed to nod weakly, realizing he’d passed out from the ordeal. Unfortunately he’d woken up again. He wished he hadn’t. He welcomed the dark oblivion—no pain, no regrets, no feeling….
He closed his eyes and listened to DarkCloud and another man talking out in the shop. A few moments later, DarkCloud returned.
“Seems someone already got drunk at the saloon and managed to break their leg when they fell off the bar.”
Johnny raised his head enough to give DarkCloud a quizzical look.
“I didn’t ask,” DarkCloud replied. “Just stay here and I’ll be back in a few minutes. It shouldn’t take long.”
DarkCloud turned and left, leaving Johnny alone with his thoughts and his pain.
Johnny sighed and closed his eyes. It seemed like it had been ages since that morning when they were held-up by Wakeman’s five men. A life-time since he’d killed another man. A life-time since he’d seen the shocked look on the Kid’s face. He wondered if that was the look he’d had when he’d killed his first man?
It’d been different for him. He’d been killing with hate in his heart and revenge in his mind—a desire to murder the man who’d killed his mother…and he’d only been twelve.
And then, how many years…? Three was it, before he’d killed again? Forced to shoot a man in Albuquerque. It hadn’t really been his intent to kill him, but a sense of self-preservation that had taken over and the teachings of his mentor, Reveles, which had kicked in, allowing him to survive. The fact that he’d taken on the reputation of being Reveles’ favorite, and Reveles’ own bragging about his star pupil, had brought about the gunfight.
An old nemesis of Reveles, after listening to Reveles brag on about how he’d taken a nothing half-breed and taught him to shoot as fast as himself, just had to try it out. They’d even put a bet on it. Johnny had been unaware of the entire dealings; he’d only known that Reveles had called him into the saloon, supposedly to introduce him to some of his friends. However, only moments after he’d taken his leave, he found himself called out in the street.
He’d been momentarily stunned to see Reveles standing on the porch of the saloon, calmly watching the proceedings. But then, the gravity of the situation kicked in and all the teachings Johnny had absorbed over the past eighteen months took over, and he didn’t have time to wonder at the strange behavior of his mentor. He was only aware that another man was determined to kill him.
But, after the dust settled, it was Johnny who was still standing, smoke rising out of his pistol barrel and a dead man at his feet. The other gunfighter had been too slow, and Reveles had been a very good teacher. And the legend of Johnny Madrid was born.
Later, Johnny found out about the bet. He’d been shocked to discover Reveles had set him up. But Reveles had simply informed him that he’d thought it was time to find out if all his work had paid off or not. It was the beginning of his trouble with Reveles, which ended a couple years later when Johnny finally left to go off on his own.
And now, Johnny sighed sadly, he may have started another young man down the same friendless, unnatural life he led. An empty life with empty friends and an empty future. Nothing could be worse. Not even death.
The sound of a gunshot brought Johnny to the present. As he jerked his head up off the table, his first thought was that Wakeman had already showed up to crush the town.
Weakly he pushed off from the table, then stood, wavering a few seconds before he managed to find the strength needed to walk across the floor to the drape-covered entrance which led to the apothecary shop. Once there, he pushed the drapes to the side then stopped as he realized he didn’t have his gun. The absurdity of it struck him and he gave a derisive snort at his stupidity. The action, however, caused him to gasp in pain then stumble forward to clutch at the counter for support. His knees started buckling and he had to lean forward, resting his head on the counter as nausea washed over him.
It took awhile before the heat of nausea was replaced by a cold sweat and Johnny, his chest and left cheek pressed against the cool counter, was able to open his eyes again. He blinked twice, his gaze coming to focus on a bottle on the shelf behind the counter. For a long moment, Johnny just merely starred at the bottle, the lettering mocking him with its formal correctness. His first reaction of dread was slowly replaced with the memory of deadening the pain. The power it gave him to push all the agony and discomfort to the side…and the power it had once given him to forget.
Slowly, his hand pressed in against his side, Johnny pushed himself away from the counter and straightened up, yet his eyes never left the bottle. Trance like, he walked around the counter until he stood directly in front of the dark brown vial, his free hand gripping a shelf for support. He noticed there were different sizes. Blinking, he shifted his gaze from the smallest bottle to the largest. He only needed a small one, didn’t he? He just needed enough to control the pain. Just enough to get the job done. Just enough to get through the next few weeks. After that—what did it matter?
Johnny’s hand slowly came up, hesitating a second before it pushed aside a small bottle and firmly grasped one of the larger ones.
Release from pain wouldn’t come cheap…
He’d paid the price before…he would again…if he lived that long…
Scott stood up, as was his newly acquired habit, and began to help Teresa clear away the dishes as Murdoch strode toward his desk. As they entered the kitchen and the door swung closed behind them, Teresa set her load of dishes on the counter and turned toward Scott, her brows furrowed.
“Okay, Scott Lancer. What’s up?”
Scott sat his dishes down and tilted his head with a smile. “Can’t get anything past you, can I?”
“Of course not,” Teresa replied.
Scott glanced toward the door leading back out toward the Great Room before answering. “I’ve just decided to talk to Murdoch about taking some other action in finding Johnny. We can’t just sit and wait any longer. Something needs to be done.”
“Do you have any ideas besides heading out blindly around the countryside?” Teresa asked.
“One,” Scott replied with a grimace at Teresa’s comment. “And I just hope Murdoch sees the merit in it. Besides, it worked before.”
“Worked before?” Teresa raised an eyebrow. “What worked before?”
“I’ll tell you in a few minutes,” Scott gave her chin a playful brush with his finger. Then with a wink, he turned and headed out the door, leaving Teresa, hands on hips, glaring at a counter full of dishes.
Scott took a deep breath and walked purposely across the room to where his father sat, ledger spread out on the desk in front of him.
“Murdoch, may I talk to you for a few minutes?”
Murdoch looked up, a faintly surprised look on his face. “Yes, of course,” he replied, closing the ledger and pushing it to the side. “What about?”
Scott subconsciously began to rub an old shoulder wound. “I—I’ve been thinking about how to find Johnny,” Scott began. “I think we should hire the Pinkertons again.” At his father’s raised eyebrow, Scott quickly continued. “They found him before, why shouldn’t it work again? Or,” he dropped his hand from his shoulder and took a step closer, “if you think the Pinkertons are too expensive, there ought to be other agencies we could hire. Perhaps one in San Francisco or Sacramento—”
“Scott!” Murdoch interrupted with a wave of his hand. “It’s not a matter of money. It’s whether it would do any good.” He stood up and came around the desk to stand in front of his son. “I want Johnny back, too. But not if we have to drag him back here.”
Scott crossed his arms. “I don’t care how we get him back, just as long as he’s back here where he belongs.”
“No, Murdoch. If he’s hurt or in danger, then we haven’t any more time to waste waiting around trying to second-guess his actions. If he’s just being his stubborn self, well I, for one, don’t plan to wait around until he comes to his senses. Knowing Johnny, it could take an awfully long time, and I’m a lot less patient man than you might think I am.”
sighed and leaned back against the table, his hands folded in front of him. “I
think we should wait a little longer, Scott. It’s only been two weeks.”
“Two weeks! Murdoch, a lot can happen in two weeks. Aren’t you worried? Don’t you want to know what’s going on with him?”
“Of course I do, Scott.” Murdoch looked down at his hands. “Of course I do,” he reiterated quietly. “But he knows where we are. If he needs us, he knows how to contact us. If he still needs some time, then I think we should give it to him. And,” Murdoch slowly lifted his gaze. “And if he’s decided to return to his former life, then it won’t be long before we’ll hear about it.”
“Murdoch!” Scott exclaimed. “How can you so callously talk about Johnny going back to being a gunfighter?”
Murdoch’s expression turned sad. “It hurts, doesn’t it?” he asked. Then he closed his eyes and took a long breath before opening them again, his expression suddenly becoming severe. “Well, get used to it, Scott. It’s a feeling that doesn’t go away.”
A tall, blond man stormed back and forth across the living room of a ranch house, while two men, one with a shoulder wound, watched with trepidation. “What do you mean, they got away? What the hell happened?!”
The man without the shoulder wound took a tentative step forward. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you, boss.”
“Tell me?” The man hissed as he stopped his pacing and rounded on the two men, his eyes flashing. “What you told me was your ambush failed. That stupid, insignificant town out-foxed you—with only three men! And you had, how many?” He pointed his finger in exaggerated emphasis, as his tone became heavily sarcastic. “Five, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, but…but, the kid in the wagon was hidden…”
“Kid? Kid? Did I hear correctly?” The blond man took a step forward, his eyes merely slits of disgust. “Three men, and one was actually a kid?”
The two men gulped and nodded.
“Uh, well, yes, he was about eighteen, I’d say. But…but, what I’m trying to explain, was, they got themselves a hired gun.”
The blond man leaned back slightly, absorbing the information in thoughtful silence. “A gun, huh? So, they managed to get themselves a gun.”
“Yes, sir. I think they might have all been hired, the way they handled themselves. They may have all been professionals.”
The man with the wound enjoined, “Madrid was, at any rate.”
“Madrid?” The blond man’s eyes opened wide. “Madrid?”
“Yes, sir. That’s what Bridger and me was trying to tell you. They done hired Madrid.”
The blond man, rubbing his hand thoughtfully along his chin, began pacing the floor once more. “Johnny Madrid?” he paused just long enough to ask.
The two men nodded.
“That’s what he said, and I’m inclined to believe him.”
“Fast as a rattler, deadly as a scorpion and calm as a sleeping tiger,” the wounded man added. “If I never meet him again, it’ll be too soon.”
The blond man continued his pacing. “Madrid. Interesting. I thought he’d been killed, or retired or something. Haven’t heard anything about him recently.”
“Well, obviously retirement didn’t suit him,” Bridger replied. “Oh, and he left you something.”
“He left me something?” the blond man asked, eyebrows raised.
Bridger reached into his pocket and produced a bright red, silk bandana. “He said to give you this.”
The blond man reached out and took the bandana, a look of confusion on his face. “He said to give me this?”
Bridger nodded. “Uh, yes. He also said you might want to start a collection.” He paused, watching his boss’s confused expression. “You might have yourself a peck of trouble, Mr. Wakeman.”
Mr. Wakeman rounded on the two men, a deadly grin on his face. “On the contrary. It just makes it more interesting.”
Ghost of Johnny Madrid: Dark Souls
Slouched down in the large, overstuffed chair in his room, his fingers steepled under his chin, Scott glared into the shadows cast by the small lamp on his bedside table. His mood was dour and his expression plainly showed it.
“Get used to it, Scott. It’s a feeling that doesn’t go away.”
How cruel, how heartless…how true…
Scott closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against his steepled fingers.
Is this why Murdoch was often times cold with Johnny? This horrible feeling that a person you loved had turned on you, on all you held sacred, and had gone…what?…bad? No, Scott allowed himself a barely audible chuckle. It wasn’t that Johnny was bad…he…he was just too damned good with a gun. And was it Johnny’s fault he’d never been given the opportunity to perfect a different skill? That his early years had been filled with struggle and emotional pain? It was to Johnny’s credit that he’d even managed to stay alive.
He shook his head. No, it wasn’t the same. When Murdoch found out about Johnny, Johnny hadn’t known that Murdoch was looking for him, that Murdoch wanted to offer him a different life. Johnny had yet to be given any real choice of direction for his life. Up to that point, it had all been about survival. But still, it must have been almost unbearable for Murdoch, trying to come to terms with what the son he had spent years looking for, the son he’d lost so tragically, had since become. And then reading about what he had already done, or been forced to do, in that Pinkerton report; trying vainly to reconcile the loving, playful image of a two year old boy with that of a twenty-two year old gunfighter.
Scott suddenly opened his eyes and leaned forward, grabbing the wine goblet off the small nearby table. Taking a quick swallow, he let his eyes wander around the room without interest before shaking his head.
And here he sat, unable to even reconcile Johnny Lancer, his brother, with Johnny Madrid, the gunfighter, when he’d often times seen glimpses of his brother’s dark past. Johnny asking him to escape from a jail, telling him he’d faced worse. The nonchalance with which his brother handled his gun, like an extension of his own body. Johnny’s often cryptic sentences about other people or places, along with a look in his eyes that conveyed the message that there was more to tell, but that he couldn’t quite bring himself to offer it…or afraid to, perhaps. Afraid maybe of what Scott would say, or think of him. And then, …then…the disturbingly easy way Johnny could suddenly change his persona…and become Madrid again.
Setting the goblet down, Scott heaved a loud sigh, closed his eyes and rested his forehead on his palms, his elbows perched on his knees. Suddenly he wanted to laugh; it all seemed so absurd.
Two years. For over two years you pretended it was all an act, like some made up story a couple of kids might play at. That the stories you’d heard were like tales to tell at bedtime, that they really had no connection to the Johnny you knew. That the Johnny you knew hadn’t really been a gunfighter. He just pretended to have been one. And the times when Johnny’s past forced its way to the front, you preferred to retreat from it. Hell, you were actually mad at your brother when Drago showed up thinking you were Johnny, like it was his fault. You didn’t speak to him for days, because why? Because Drago made you face too closely what sort of life your brother had actually lived—and it made you uncomfortable?
And how about Reveles? The entire episode threw your well-ordered life into upheaval. You managed to keep it together and remain calm for Johnny’s sake until you reached Lancer. But then, when you should have spent some time talking to your brother, finding out about his past, the bounty, his relationship with Reveles, you instead panicked, wondering how much Murdoch knew, what the bounty was about, how…how it was all going to eventually affect you. Johnny could have answered those questions, yet you chose to run from the opportunity to ask him.
And then there was the Pinkerton Report…that damned Pinkerton Report. You and your self-righteous attitude. ‘I’ll let Johnny show it to me.’ Was the real truth that you didn’t want to know? That it was so much safer to remain with your head in the sand? That you were afraid you might not be able to look your brother in the eye the same way again?
With a groan, Scott leaned over and grabbed the carafe of wine just as a knock sounded at his door.
“Who is it?” he slurred, pouring his fifth glass of wine and effectively emptying the carafe.
“Scott, it’s me, Teresa. Can I come in?”
“Door’s open,” he mumbled as he picked up the refilled goblet and carefully brought it to his lips.
The door opened and Teresa walked in, her eyes immediately taking in the now empty carafe of wine.
“Scott,” she began to chastise the older Lancer brother, then immediately stopped, realizing nothing she said was going to make any difference at this point. Instead she closed the door quietly behind her, then pulled the chair out from under the writing desk and sat down.
Scott indicated vaguely the direction of the carafe with his wine goblet. “I’d offer you a glass, Teresa, but I seem to be all out.”
Teresa shook her head. “I don’t want anything to drink.”
“Shame,” Scott replied morosely, his eyes fixed on the goblet. “Makes everything clearer.”
Teresa pulled her chair closer. “Scott, what happened? What did you talk to Murdoch about?”
Scott shook his head weakly. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does.”
Scott shook his head again, then cradled the goblet in his hands and looked at Teresa sadly. “I thought maybe Murdoch would hire the Pinkertons to look for Johnny again. They found him before, I thought maybe they could do it again.”
“And what’d he say?”
Scott’s look turned rueful. “Teresa, if he said yes, d’ya think I’d be sittin’ here getting drunk?”
Teresa smiled slightly. “Probably not, but then you’ve done some strange things recently.”
Scott snorted slightly, then focused once more on the glass he held in his hands. “I’ve done a lot of thinking, Teresa. I’m—I’ve been blaming Murdoch for not supporting Johnny like I thought he should, for not contacting—” Scott paused awkwardly, “for many things…when I’ve been just as guilty.” He tore his gaze away from the goblet and looked directly at Teresa. “There were many times I shoulda talked to Johnny, really talked to him, and I didn’t. When…when Johnny let something slip, when a small crack in the door to Madrid was momentarily opened and I chose to ignore it under the pretense that I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable, when in reality, I didn’t want to make me uncomfortable. When maybe, just maybe, Teresa, all he wanted was for me to give him the opportunity to talk.”
“No, Teresa, hear me out.” Scott pushed himself up in his chair and set the goblet down on the side table. “Madrid’s gun. Reveles. Preston. Absolem Weir. Drago. Isham. All those times when I should’ve talked to Johnny about what had happened, but I didn’t! I wasn’t helping the situation any! Instead I was acting like it was some forbidden topic of discussion, too offensive to talk about!”
“Scott,” Teresa interjected again, this time more forcefully. “Don’t you think you’re being too hard on yourself?”
Closing his eyes, Scott took a deep breath and leaned back tiredly in his chair. Slowly he opened his eyes again and stared fixedly at the ceiling. “No. If I had listened to Johnny then, maybe he wouldn’t have felt the need to run away now. Maybe he would’ve known then, that whatever the problem was, I wouldn’t turn away from him. That he’d never see shame in my eyes. That I would stand by him no matter what.”
“He knows that, Scott,” Teresa stated quietly.
Scott continued to stare at the ceiling silently for a few seconds.
“Murdoch thinks maybe Johnny’s returned to his former life,” he murmured softly, pausing again a couple seconds. “I don’t know why that hit me so hard. It’s exactly what we’ve been afraid of since we found out that damn gun of his was missing. But somehow,” Scott shrugged dishearteningly, “I guess hearing Murdoch voice our fears made it suddenly seem more real.”
Teresa watched unhappily as Scott continued to stare up at the ceiling, knowing that only finding Johnny would bring Scott comfort once again.
Scott slowly lowered his gaze until his red-rimmed eyes made contact with Teresa’s clear hazel ones.
“Teresa, what am I going to do if Johnny’s gone back to being Madrid?”
Pursing her lips, Teresa leaned forward and put a hand on Scott’s arm. “You’ll go find him and bring him back,” she stated firmly. “Because you’re his brother and he needs you.”
Yet, now that Murdoch had voiced all their fears, it seemed more real. It suddenly seemed like the Johnny they had come to know, had all along just been a ghost in their lives, passing the time, waiting to be reclaimed, never able to escape the constant foreshadowing of another life…the pull of Johnny Madrid…
Had Johnny Lancer just been a ghost all along…?
Teresa picked up her brush and began to pull it through her long, dark-brown hair. Though she stood in front of a mirror, she barely noticed her reflection. Instead, the expression on the young woman’s face was one of deep thought tinged with unhappiness. Sporadically she paused in her morning grooming ritual to stare unseeingly through the mirror, as if it could answer some question, reveal some secret. But no revelation seemed forthcoming, as her expression remained unchanged.
Teresa sighed and set down her brush. Then with a cock of her head, she suddenly focused on her reflection and gave herself a ghost of a wistful smile. Gathering her hair together, she held it up in a mock attempt at a bun, then released it, letting it cascade down along her back.
Her father, who had been Murdoch’s foreman up until he’d been killed three years ago, had preferred her to wear her hair long.
“It’s so beautiful when it’s down, Teresa. Don’t put it up in a bun,” she heard her father’s voice echo in her mind. So, she continued to wear her hair down in the style her father had always preferred.
Then, with another small sigh, Teresa turned away from the mirror to look around her cozy, warmly decorated room. A room that had been hers ever since she could remember.
Early morning sunshine was streaming through the French lace curtains. An indulgence Murdoch had given her as a present the first Christmas after her father’s death. She had known Murdoch felt guilty about her father being killed while helping him track down the land pirates, who had stolen a prized stallion. But even though she tried to assure him that she didn’t hold him to blame, he had tried in his way to alleviate some of her sadness in the only way he knew how…with presents. So now she was the owner of beautiful French lace curtains that always reminded her of her father’s death.
Teresa smiled sadly.
…and Murdoch’s love.
Teresa flattened her skirt, took one more backward glance in the mirror, and left the room, closing the door behind. Out in the hallway, her eyes lingered a moment on the door across the hall from hers, the door which had led to her father’s bedroom. After her mother had left them, Murdoch and her father had found that they had more than their love of the land in common, but ill-fated luck with women, too. So, the two ‘bachelors’ had decided to share the large hacienda. Murdoch seemed relieved to have someone else in the large, imposing house—a house he had built with the vanished dream of accommodating a family of his own some day.
Quietly Teresa started down the hallway. As she neared the rooms occupied by the Lancer men, a sound coming from Johnny’s room caused her to halt in mid-stride. Cautiously she stepped to the door and pushed it open enough to peer inside. She was mildly surprised to find Scott seated at the end of Johnny’s bed, the carved wood chest sitting next to him and its entire contents spread out on the bedspread. In his hands he studied some object.
Scott looked up at the sound of the door opening.
Smiling, Teresa stepped into the room. “Surprised to see you up and about so early this morning.”
“Oh, I’ve been up a few times,” Scott remarked ruefully.
“You’ve got to quit drinking so much,” Teresa chided gently as she made her way to the bed and sat down, carefully picking up the wood chest and cradling it in her lap.
“After I find my brother,” Scott replied grimly.
Looking down at the object he held in his hands, he sighed. “I had a dream that—that it wasn’t real. That none of this was.” He gestured vaguely around the room before looking back down and continuing. “I—I was back in Boston and Johnny—” he paused and swallowed hard. “—Johnny had been killed by a firing squad in Mexico. He never even knew I existed.” He fixed Teresa with a sidewise glance. “He’d never been given the chance…a choice for a different life.”
“Scott,” Teresa put a hand on his arm.
“But he was given a choice,” Scott continued firmly as he opened his hand to show Teresa what he’d been holding.
“Murdoch’s old time-piece,” Teresa said, recognizing immediately the object.
“Yes.” Scott nodded. “He was given a choice and he chose to return. He chose to be Johnny Lancer, not Johnny Madrid.”
Scott suddenly looked around the bed and grabbed another item. This time it was a picture. “And see, here. Remember how uncomfortable he was about getting his photograph taken? But he did. There he is, see.” Scott jabbed his finger emphatically at the picture.
Teresa took the photo and nodded. How well she did remember that day when the traveling photographer stopped at the ranch asking if anyone was interested in having their likeness taken. A few of the cowpunchers and even Jelly decided to splurge on the luxury, and then Murdoch, too, decided he wanted pictures of his new-found family. Scott and Johnny had been at the ranch only a few months and Murdoch seemed to want—and need—to have a physical reminder that his sons had come home. Teresa had been slightly amused at the usually stringent Murdoch splurging almost extravagantly on having a number of photographs taken. Teresa, too, was asked to pose with them and even had her own individual likeness taken. It had been quite a day. And the entire time, Johnny fidgeted like a young boy at church, anxious to get home and go fishing.
“It’s all fine for you, Boston. You city-breed boys are used to this sort of gussying up,” Johnny had remarked when Scott kidded him about his reluctance to pose. “Don’t seem natural at all,” he had added.
But he had sat still and let Murdoch have all the pictures taken he wanted, though Johnny had stated that no one could possibly need so many pictures.
“That was quite a day,” Teresa smiled at the memory. “Murdoch sure seemed to appreciate being able to have those pictures taken.”
Scott nodded, then suddenly smiled. “Remember what Johnny said when Murdoch asked him if he wanted a picture of his own?”
Teresa laughed gently. “Oh, I sure do! ‘Why the devil would I want a picture of myself? I’m not liable to forget what I look like, and if I do, I’ll just find me a mirror!’ ” Teresa then stopped and with a smirk added, “ ‘But old Boston, there. Now he likes to carry around fancy pictures of himself.’ ”
“Teresa,” Scott laughed good-naturedly at the jibe.
Teresa smiled, enjoying Scott’s improved humor, but it faded just as quickly.
“I need to find him, Teresa,” Scott’s smile became grim as he looked at the momentos spread around the bed. A shiny object caught his eye and he picked it up. It was a homemade, golden star that stated proudly, Outstanding Teacher—Johnny Lancer. “I remember when he came home with this. He actually showed it to me. I was surprised, thinking it was out of character for him to be so proud of something like that, until it occurred to me later that this,” he held the star out, “was one of the few times he was not wanted for his ability with a gun. He was wanted for something so very different, something positive and constructive for a change.”
“He was very proud of it,” Teresa agreed. “I remember that, too.”
“And Murdoch’s look when he told how Johnny handled all those kids,” Scott added with an amused shake of the head. “Johnny, the teacher.”
“I think you called him Teacher for a couple weeks after that,” Teresa laughed softly.
Scott looked up. “Yeah, and he never got annoyed. I actually think he liked it.”
Teresa smiled and patted Scott’s leg as he looked back down at the gold star he held in his hands.
“Johnny was here and chose to be a Lancer,” Scott said.
Teresa nodded. “We know he made the choice.”
Scott glanced back up, his voice soft. “Then why, Teresa, why do I feel like he was just a ghost passing through? I feel like I’m in a constant panic that I’ve lost something very important and I’m never going to get it back. That if someone would just tell me what I need to do, I would fix it, but I don’t know how!”
“Scott,” Teresa put an arm around Scott’s shoulders. “We’re going to think of something. If Murdoch won’t hire someone to look for him, then we’ll think of something else. Something will come to us, I’m certain of it.”
Johnny slowly opened his eyes. At first the room was a vague blur of shadows until he rubbed and blinked his eyes a couple of times. Then as the memories of the previous day slowly trickled back, Johnny tentatively pushed himself to a sitting position. As he slid his feet around to the floor, his eyes came to rest on the dark brown bottle perched on the small table in the room. Closing his eyes, Johnny lowered his head. That’s why he’d slept so well. That’s why he’d finally had a night free of the painful memories of friends dying at his hands, memories he didn’t want anymore. Memories he’d finally sought to escape last night at the hands of an old enemy.
Sighing, he shook his head and slowly opened his eyes again. No time to spend on self-recrimination. He had a job to see through to the end—a job fitting of the old Johnny Madrid. A town to save and helpless people to protect. And despite all DarkCloud was trying to do for him, the doctor couldn’t provide Johnny with the time to heal properly or a tea to mask all the pain so that he could function. But Johnny knew how to take care of it. He’d known all along.
Johnny pushed up from the bed. His legs felt weak and wobbly, the tight bandaging around his middle felt awkward, but otherwise he was surprised at how much better he felt after a good night’s sleep.
He picked up the dark brown bottle and uncorked it. He studied it a second before taking a breath and putting it to his lips.
He was just recorking the bottle when he heard a knock at the door. Quickly he shoved it into his saddlebag, which lay over the lone chair in his room, when the knock sounded a second time.
“Johnny! You up?”
Recognizing DarkCloud’s voice, Johnny walked over and opened the door.
“You are up,” DarkCloud remarked, his eyes immediately dropping to check the bandaging around his patient’s side. In his hands he balanced a tray of food.
“Just woke up,” Johnny replied. He gave an exaggerated whiff. “I think I smell some flapjacks. In any case, certainly somethin’ that smells a whole lot better than that tea you’re bent on makin’ me drink.”
Smiling, DarkCloud stepped into the small room. “Anything for my favorite patient. Besides, I’d like a chance to check that wound over and change your bandage.”
“No need,” Johnny replied quickly as he stepped to the side. “I can see to it myself.”
DarkCloud looked at Johnny with some misgivings, but decided to pursue the subject after he’d coerced some food into his patient. He set the tray down on the small table and watched as Johnny walked to the end of the bed to pick up the shirt he’d been wearing the day before. Instead of putting it on, however, Johnny grinned and held it up. It was covered in dust, sweat and had a small stain of blood where the wound had seeped through the bandaging.
“Guess I’d better change clothes today.”
DarkCloud grinned back. “Johnny, hate to be the one to tell you, but you also need a bath!”
Johnny laughed good-naturedly. “Probably.”
“Unfortunately, no bath ‘til you get that wound healed up better.”
Johnny paused a beat. “Then you mean, what? I’m gonna have to listen to you compare my smell to that of your mule now, I s’pose?”
“Johnny,” DarkCloud drew his face into a disapproving frown. “I’d never do that. At least not if I hope to stay in my mule’s good graces.”
Chuckling, Johnny tossed the shirt back on the bed and came over to the table where DarkCloud was busy taking a couple of plates and mugs off the tray. The doctor then set the tray on the floor, grabbed the chair and moved it to the table.
“Sit,” DarkCloud ordered, then perched on the edge of the bed where he could just reach the table.
Admitting to himself that the food did smell good, Johnny did as told, pleased to find that it tasted as good as it smelled.
DarkCloud smiled to himself as he noted that Johnny was finally eating something for the first time in days, at least that he’d seen.
“Don’t forget the tea, now.” DarkCloud nodded to the steaming cup as he began cutting into his own stack of flapjacks.
“I see you didn’t,” Johnny remarked sourly. “I had a strong sensation I was pickin’ up on another odor along with these flapjacks.”
“Tut, tut!” DarkCloud raised his fork. “Save that mule-look of yours for the real bad guys.”
Johnny had to grin and shake his head.
“Glad to see you’re looking better.” DarkCloud’s expression grew more serious. “I was worried about you last night.”
Johnny’s gaze settled on DarkCloud, then he crinkled his eyes slightly. “No need to worry, DarkCloud. I’ll be fine.”
DarkCloud took a sip
of the coffee he had in front of him. “Well, you’re still gonna be taking it
easy the next few days.”
Raising an eyebrow, Johnny shook his head as he proceeded to cut up another flapjack with his fork. “Can’t do that,” he said before taking a bite.
“Johnny.” DarkCloud put his mug on the table, his tone abruptly confrontational. “What do you mean? After everything that happened yesterday, after the shape you arrived back—”
“DarkCloud,” Johnny’s tersely whispered word cut his friend off more effectively than if he’d stood up and yelled. “You just said it yourself. ‘After everything that happened yesterday.’” He paused, his eyes wide and bright, though his body so seemingly relaxed he could have been asleep. “The invitations have been sent. The party is underway. There’s no turning back now. There’s no stopping or pausing or taking a break. We must keep movin’ forward. Wakeman’s heard I’m here by now. If we don’t keep takin’ the party to Wakeman, Wakeman’ll bring the party here.” Johnny slowly leaned forward, his eyes not leaving DarkCloud’s face. “And you don’t want that,” he enunciated slowly.
DarkCloud’s own look remained firm. “Johnny. You’ll do nobody no good if you’re dead.”
Johnny lowered his gaze then suddenly he picked up his mug, holding it up with a laconic smile. “You’ll keep me going.”
DarkCloud shook his head, his expression remaining unchanged. “I don’t work miracles.” He paused, waiting to get Johnny’s attention while Johnny nonchalantly took a sip of his tea and set it down before turning a cool gaze on his friend. “Nothing I do can change the fact that you need to give your body some time to heal properly.” DarkCloud’s tone took on a tinge of mockery. “Contrary to rumor, Madrid, you’re only human. And if you keep pushing things, eventually no amount of tea, poultices, or bandaging is going to work.”
Johnny lowered his gaze once more to his plate. He was afraid DarkCloud would be able to read the truth in his eyes, that he didn’t care whether DarkCloud had a miracle or not. All he wanted was time. Time to finish this job.
Thinking that Johnny’s dropped gaze meant he’d made his point, DarkCloud went back to his breakfast. After a few moments of silence, he asked, “Would you like me to talk to Chief Red Deer. I had originally set up a meeting for around noon today.”
“Where?” Johnny asked.
DarkCloud shook his head. “Sorry, Johnny. I had originally told him we’d meet at their camp. That’s a long two or three hour ride up into the coastals. Something you aren’t doing today.”
Johnny decided to try a different approach. “I was really counting on their help for the next phase.”
Johnny shrugged. “Won’t matter if I can’t meet with them to explain it.”
DarkCloud chuckled. “I see what you’re trying to do, Johnny, and it won’t work. Remember, I’m the soaring eagle—”
“And I’m the mule,” Johnny finished with a laugh. “Remind me again how you get to be an eagle, and I’m a mule.”
DarkCloud chuckled slyly, a twinkle in his eyes. He was glad to see Johnny’s mood more playful. “I’m the Indian, so I get to pick the names.”
“That hardly seems fair.”
“Oh, but it makes perfectly good sense. See, we Indians give a person a name that reflects the person’s appearance or temperament, and—”
“Oh, of course!” Johnny chuckled, an action which caused him to wince, but he shook the feeling off. “Now I know why you’re DarkCloud. And here I thought it was just me!”
DarkCloud laughed, enjoying Johnny’s good-natured ribbing much better than his darker, combative mood from just a moment before. The former was a side of Johnny which DarkCloud had found disquieting: the gunfighter whom DarkCloud sensed he had no control over.
Johnny set his fork down beside his plate. “DarkCloud, I need their help, and I need to meet with them so that they’ll trust me. You know that as well as anybody.”
DarkCloud nodded. “I know.” He paused. “Perhaps… perhaps I can come up with another plan.”
Johnny waited, curious.
“I’ll go up to the village and ask Red Deer if he’d come down to the valley to meet you. I’ll tell him…I’ll tell him what you pulled off yesterday, but that you arrived back with a minor injury and I won’t let you travel far.”
Johnny sighed wryly. “Not far from the truth.”
DarkCloud returned Johnny’s look. “If you follow the Mission Road out to the foothills at, say, around 11:00, at a leisurely pace you should reach it about noon. Hopefully, I’ll be there with Red Deer.” He paused and smiled. “I do have a certain amount of influence. My grandfather was a relative of Red Deer’s wife—plus it helps that I saved Red Deer’s youngest two years ago from a fever.”
“You do stay busy.” Johnny grinned.
“Only when I have patients like you,” DarkCloud remarked.
DarkCloud left immediately after they’d finished breakfast, under the condition that Johnny would agree to lay down for a few hours before starting out. This Johnny agreed to if DarkCloud would agree to have Rosti send up a barber to give him a shave. DarkCloud agreed to this if Johnny agreed to also lay down for a couple hours after their meeting with Red Deer. Johnny said he’d be quite willing to oblige, if DarkCloud had Rosti mix up the next batch of ‘tea’ with a shot of tequila. This, DarkCloud agreed to, if and only if, Johnny called an end to the bargaining. Johnny decided to be reasonable and accepted. After DarkCloud left, Johnny washed up, had his shave, changed clothes then went downstairs. There he found the Kid and Tucson sitting quietly at a corner table.
As Johnny walked up to them, he immediately noted that the Kid didn’t look too well, and Tucson looked little better. He wryly surmised that they both had enjoyed themselves way too much the night before and were now paying the price.
The Kid looked up with squinted, blood shot eyes while Tucson made a slow nod. “Johnny,” he greeted in a barely audible tone, wincing at the sound of his own voice.
Johnny pulled a chair out and slowly sat down, relieved that the other two men were too concerned with their own discomfort to pay much attention to his deliberately careful movements. “I need you to get the men together for a meeting around three or four o’clock. Here at Rosti’s,” Johnny further instructed. “I’m gonna be gone for a few hours, but when I get back I want to be able to talk to everyone about the next job.”
“Already?” the Kid asked, his face pale, even to his lips.
Johnny glanced at the Kid with a smirk. “Yes, tonight. So you’d better try to sleep off some of that hangover you got, Kid. You need to be able to ride tonight.”
The Kid nodded weakly.
Johnny stood back up and turned to go.
“What’ll you be doing?” Tucson asked.
“I gotta few things to do before I leave for my other meeting. I’ll be back later this afternoon.” Johnny continued on up to his room where he planned to live up to his bargain with DarkCloud.
Just before 11:00, Johnny got up, took a quick drink from the laudanum bottle, replaced it in his saddlebag which he then threw over his shoulder, and continued on down the stairs. He’d left instructions to have Solero have his mount ready. Once downstairs, he nodded quickly to Rosti and continued on across the street to the livery where his horse was saddled and waiting.
Anxious to be under way, Johnny tied the saddlebag on, quickly thanked Solero, and mounted up. Pulling his hat low on his head, Johnny headed west out of town toward the old mission.
Roughly an hour later, Johnny was following the path to the foothills. His constantly scanning eyes quickly spotted DarkCloud, flanked by two braves, standing among a small grove of trees, out from under the hot noon sun. Johnny rode up to the group, dismounted and let his reins drop to the ground.
“Johnny,” DarkCloud welcomed. “Chief Red Deer and his son, Running Fox.”
Smiling openly, Johnny walked forward and gave a bow of respect. “Chief Red Deer.”
The tall, handsome Indian regarded the young man in front of him, his piercing dark eyes studying him unabashedly for a long moment, while Johnny quietly remained unmoving, content to let Red Deer look him over. Finally, Red Deer jerked his head toward DarkCloud. “My friend, DarkCloud, says you want to speak to us about helping you get rid of the White Devil. He tells us that you know he has killed some of my braves.” Red Deer paused. “I do not want the White Devil here, either. The people in the mission town leave us alone. A few we can even call Brother. But I do not want to give the White Devil any reason to attack us.”
Johnny nodded. “I know that. And I am not asking you to do anything that will draw more attention to you than necessary. There are a few times, though, that we could use a diversion—something to draw Wakeman’s attention away from another area. And the next time we go to Salinas, I would like to be able to count on back-up from you, only if needed.”
“DarkCloud told me how you fooled the White Devil’s men.” Red Deer smiled. “That is good.” He paused a moment. “DarkCloud also says you fought against bad rulers in Mexico.”
With a quick glance at DarkCloud, Johnny nodded hesitantly. “But I wasn’t on the winning side,” he admitted.
“Sometimes the most important thing is not winning,” Red Deer responded evenly, “but fighting.”
Johnny allowed a half-smile to cross his lips. “Does that mean you’ll help?”
Red Deer nodded. “What do you need us to do first?”
“Well,” Johnny’s grin spread wider. “You wouldn’t happen to know where you could get a whole lot of manure, would you?”
Red Deer looked with amusement at DarkCloud, who gave a vague shrug.
“I’m planning on attacking Wakeman’s wells. Three of them, anyway. If you and your braves could pick one of his wells up the valley and throw manure into it, that would help us out tremendously. We’re taking care of another two of them this evening.”
Red Deer nodded. “We can do that.”
“Oh, and one other thing.” Johnny went back to his horse and took out one of the red, silk bandanas. “Leave this behind.”
Red Deer held the bright red bandana up, a look of puzzlement on his face. “It’s just like the one you are wearing.”
Johnny nodded. “That’s the idea. This way he won’t suspect you.”
Johnny noticed the corners of Red Deer’s mouth turn up slightly. “I will do it,” he said, then turned to DarkCloud. “We will see you soon, Brother.” Then he nodded at Johnny. “Perhaps this time you will fight and win.”
Johnny smiled back. “If we have your help, then we have a good chance.”
DarkCloud and Johnny watched as Red Deer and his son mounted and rode off into the thin tree line of the foothills. Once they had disappeared, DarkCloud turned to Johnny. “Well, you must have taken my advice and gotten some rest.”
Smiling, Johnny walked back to his horse. “I keep my promises.”
“That’s good,” DarkCloud said as he gathered up his reins. “I’m assuming, of course, that this raid you have planned tonight…. You just told Red Deer you were planning to go along, but you’re smart enough to know I won’t allow it.”
Johnny took a breath and held it as he cautiously pulled himself up into the saddle. “And I’m sure you’re smart enough to know you can’t stop me,” he replied after he’d settled into the saddle, discomfort evident on his face, though he tried to hide it behind an irritated look.
DarkCloud blinked, surprised at Johnny’s bluntness. “You’re going to force me to speak to Angelou.”
Shaking his head, Johnny turned to DarkCloud, his expression one of derisive amusement. “And that’s gonna do what? Make him ask me to stay behind? Come on! Tucson can lead one group, but who’s gonna lead the other? Angelou? You?” Johnny shook his head. “Let’s get back. I have a nap to take, a meeting to hold, and some manure to dump down a well. All in all, a pretty busy day yet.” He swung his horse around and started back toward town, a concerned and frustrated DarkCloud following closely behind.
Johnny did just as promised. He went back to the hotel and laid down again for a couple of hours before his meeting with Tucson, the Kid, Angelou, Rosti, Solero and another young man from town, named Ramirez, who Johnny quickly found out was Zito’s oldest brother. DarkCloud showed up, too.
Wasting no time, Johnny explained what needed to be done. Wakeman’s property, at its farthest southern point, was only about twelve miles from Soledad nearer the Diablo Range. Johnny planned to have Tucson’s group hit that one while he planned to take a group up farther another five miles to another well. That left the area closest to the coastals for Red Deer’s tribe to hit.
Tucson interrupted, though, before he could finish. “Ah, come on, Madrid. Let’s change. You take the Kid here and make for the first well. After last night, the Kid ain’t too well,” he chuckled, along with most of the other men, at the Kid’s embarrassed discomfort. “And you got all the fun yesterday. Throwin’ manure down a well ain’t exactly my idea of first rate amusement, but sneaking behind Wakeman’s lines is. I deserve to get some stories to tell, too.”
Johnny started to argue, when DarkCloud cut in. “You’re right, Tucson. It’s not fair Madrid hogging all the glory. When are you gonna get a chance to earn your pay, huh?”
Johnny turned on DarkCloud, his eyes glittering like ice.
DarkCloud smiled and mouthed ‘mule’.
Johnny bit back a retort, then looked at Tucson. “You sure you want to?”
Tucson nodded. “Ah, hell, it’s something to do. They won’t be expecting something like this so fast. It’s the perfect plan. Wakeman’ll just be figuring out what’s going on, who’s doin’ it to him, and thinking the town’s happy with gettin’ those supplies and fortifying for an expected attack.”
Johnny nodded, surprised that Tucson understood his plan so well. “That’s why we gotta keep moving. Always attacking. We can’t give him time to recover.”
“So you got something in mind for tomorrow, too?” the Kid asked from where he sat slouched in his chair, a pallid tinge to his cheeks.
“’Course he does,” Tucson cut in. “He just don’t wanna tell us right yet, is all. Ain’t that so, Johnny?”
Johnny nodded again. “Okay, Tucson, you got it. Take Solero, Ramirez and,” he paused, a wicked grin suddenly appearing on his face, “DarkCloud. In fact,” he paused and looked directly at DarkCloud’s surprised expression, “let him carry the manure bag. I hear he’s got a mule gives him lots of shit he could use.”
The two groups set off a couple of hours later, Tucson and his party taking off first. Johnny couldn’t help but feel a certain amount of satisfaction at DarkCloud’s pained expression when he tried, without success, to get out of taking part in the night raid.
The raid came off without a hitch. Under cover of darkness, Johnny’s group traveled north about four hours, located the unguarded well, and quickly tossed the manure in. Though he’d rested twice during the day, and had taken a dose of laudanum before they began, Johnny could feel the effects wearing off. The pain and exhaustion, which were always present but made more bearable by the laudanum, were settling in even heavier than before making it exceedingly difficult to stay alert and focused.
While two of the men tossed the manure down the well and the Kid kept a look-out for any movement among the shadows of the valley, Johnny went to his saddlebag to get the requisite ‘calling card’. At the same time, he allowed himself another dose of the medicine, hoping it’d kick in soon, as the four hour return trip felt like more than he could handle at the moment, and a slight feeling of shame crept in regarding his treatment of DarkCloud. He was very thankful he hadn’t needed to go the extra five miles. With a shake of his head, he pushed the feeling away. He’d had no choice but to put DarkCloud in his place, otherwise he was afraid the town’s doctor was going to become unreasonable to deal with.
The ride back was, at first, filled with a certain amount of expectation, as everyone wondered if they had truly gotten away with their plan. Then, as the hour progressed, everyone relaxed into a half-sleep. In the quiet of the ride, Johnny found himself slightly surprised when the Kid drew his horse up close.
“Sorry I overdid it last night,” the Kid murmured.
“It happens,” Johnny replied simply.
The Kid was silent a couple of seconds before continuing. “Yeah, but I need to be more careful when I got a job to do.”
Johnny nodded in the darkness. “Don’t worry ‘bout it too much, Kid. Even Tucson over celebrated a bit.”
“Yeah, but he knew when to quit,” the Kid replied, chagrined. “You never even showed up. I shoulda done like you.”
Under cover of darkness, Johnny couldn’t help smiling to himself. “I’d have been there, too, Kid, but I had some business to take care of with DarkCloud.”
There was silence again for a few minutes, then the Kid spoke up once more. “You seemed a bit upset with DarkCloud this afternoon.”
It was Johnny’s turn to pause before answering. “No, no, I wasn’t upset. We just had a minor disagreement about something. It’s over.”
“You only know’d him a little while, right?”
Johnny replied slowly, wondering where the Kid was going with his conversation. “No, not long, but he generally knows what he’s doin’ and what he’s talkin’ about.”
They rode in silence a few more minutes. Johnny felt the Kid had more to say, as he cleared his throat a couple times. It wasn’t until the third time, however, that he broached the subject that seemed to have been weighing on him.
“Why’d you become a gunfighter?”
In the darkness, Johnny attempted to ignore the question. Unfortunately, the Kid didn’t take the hint.
“I mean, how’d you learn…when’d you first start…?”
“I’m not plannin’ on going into my history, Kid.”
“I know. But I mean,” the Kid seemed to falter before he found the words he wanted. “I hear that man you kilt, over in the Valley…Reveles? That you worked with him when you was younger.”
“Maybe,” Johnny answered vaguely.
“He probably done taught you a lot,” the Kid continued with a quiet urgency. When Johnny didn’t respond, he added, “Did he teach you how to be a gunfighter?”
Johnny continued to stare out into the surrounding blackness. “He found a kid with a talent, a talent with a gun and a desire for revenge and he saw an opportunity to use that.”
The Kid was silent a second. “You sound mad at him. Is that why you kilt him?”
Johnny closed his eyes. Why did I kill him?…Because he made me who I am?…Because I was hired to?…Because of an argument?…Why?…
Suddenly Johnny jerked his horse to a stop and turned in the saddle to stare across the moonlit darkness into the Kid’s face. “I don’t know what it is you’re lookin’ for, here, Kid. What was between me and Reveles, well, that ain’t your concern.”
The Kid looked at Johnny, his head cocked slightly to the side. Johnny was relieved to see the other riders hadn’t stopped, but were leaving Johnny and the Kid alone to finish their conversation.
“I don’t understand.” The Kid shook his head. “Reveles made you the best. Everyone knows your name. If you—,” he paused and Johnny sensed this was the crux of the discussion, “—if you’d let me learn from you…if I could work with you, I could be like you someday.”
“I don’t take partners, and I don’t teach what I know.” Johnny’s voice, though quiet, had a hard edge that surprised the Kid. “I damn this life, Kid, and if you had any sense, you’d turn and run back to your momma. It’s a life that’s cold and leaves you feelin’ empty at the end of the day.” The Kid watched as Johnny turned his face to stare out at the darkness before continuing. “It’s a job where, if you’re smart enough to know you got a soul, you’re cursed in watching it disappear piece by piece. Where friends are hard to come by, and enemies are thicker than a swarm of bees.” He turned back toward the Kid and fixed him with a level stare. “Be a farmer, Kid. Be a clerk or a shopkeeper. Run away and be a sailor, if you feel a need for some excitement. But don’t, don’t, be a gunfighter.” Johnny kicked his horse to a trot, leaving the Kid watching him, digesting what he’d just been told.
Galloping…riding hard…on a palomino…chasing…a train?…a train? …jumping…crawling…sneaking…leveling his gun on an engineer…ordering him to halt…a train?…fear in the engineer’s eyes…a bandana covered his face…other men wearing bandanas…a train?…a man blowing the safe open…a train?…a train?…
Johnny woke up in a sweat. When had he turned to robbing trains? What had he been up to the last two years? He’d had plenty of opportunities to join in risky endeavors before: train robbery, bank robbery, holding up mining shipments; a person with his talent was often approached about such opportunities. But he’d always opted to take the jobs of protecting property instead, as long as it truly belonged to the person trying to do the hiring. Though Reveles had been one to say, if the opportunity presented itself, best not to turn down an easy way to supplement your income. Is that what he’d done? It was obvious he carried a few more wounds than he could remember receiving. Had they slowed him down? He didn’t think so…
Maybe the jobs had started drying up already? He was…what? Twenty-five? Barring getting himself killed or taking a serious injury to his shooting arm, he ought to have had a couple more good years, but probably not many more. Maybe he finally decided to use his talent for his own gain and damn the consequences, before he’d found himself too old to continue?
Something must have happened. And it couldn’t have been good, whatever it was. Hell, he’d almost made it to twenty-five, though it had been a long, hard and violent struggle, and not something he would have wished on the twelve year old boy he had once been. But what choice had he really had? Not much, given the future he and his mother were thrust into when That Man had tossed them out into the cold to survive as best they could.
Suddenly he noted by the brightness of the room that he had slept a lot longer than he’d intended. Tiredly he rubbed his eyes and sought to blink away the dreams, though already they were getting distant and faint.
Johnny sighed. It’d been a late night and after returning the previous evening, he’d stayed up waiting for Tucson’s group. They showed up about an hour later, having made good time. And everyone involved had assured Johnny that they hadn’t been seen, but that Wakeman’s men would soon find out they had been paid a little visit.
Johnny slowly sat up and reached for the bottle of laudanum. He took a small sip, noting with dissatisfaction that it was almost a fourth gone. After his night run, he’d been in such pain that he’d taken an extra dose before going to bed. Though it’d helped with the pain, he’d still had that damned dream about the train robbery.
After dressing, he went down to the bar area and ordered up a late breakfast. The night before he’d already informed everyone involved that there was going to be another special project for the evening. But first he needed to speak to DarkCloud.
After eating, Johnny went outside and crossed the street to the apothecary shop.
DarkCloud came out of the back room just as Johnny entered. Setting a crate on the counter, he dourly studied the gunfighter. “I’m all out of manure, if you’re looking for some more.”
Johnny dropped his gaze for a second, then grinned sheepishly. “Seem to have plenty.”
“Then what do I owe the pleasure of your visit? I’m sure it’s not just for the conversation,” DarkCloud asked, a bit of sarcasm creeping into his voice, which Johnny couldn’t blame.
“Need to ask you a favor.” Johnny walked across the small room to stand beside the counter. “Wondered if I could get you to contact Red Deer. I’m working on some diversions for this evening.”
DarkCloud turned slowly and leaned against the counter. The look he gave Johnny clearly conveyed his unhappiness with his friend’s recent behavior.
“You know I need to keep things moving,” Johnny added.
DarkCloud searched Johnny’s eyes, then shook his head. “I’m starting to wonder what your real game is. Why are you pushing so hard?”
“I’m pushin’ so hard to save your town,” Johnny replied evenly.
DarkCloud’s eyes remained steady. “Is that the only reason?”
“What other reason would I have?”
DarkCloud seemed to hesitate before answering, his eyes searching Johnny’s face for some hint. “I don’t know, Johnny, but I got a feeling there’s more to this than the job you were hired to do.”
Johnny shifted his stance. “You want an apology about last night?”
DarkCloud shook his head then turned and began to open the crate. “No, Johnny. I don’t need an apology.”
Johnny’s left hand found its way to the counter top where it began tracing a line along the edge, his eyes dropping to watch the movement. “Well, I guess I owe you one, anyway,” he said as he looked up slowly, the curve of a smile on his lips. “I was actually quite relieved not to have to go that extra distance last night. If it makes you feel any better, you were right. I was exhausted and glad I didn’t hav’ta ride any more than I did.”
DarkCloud’s stern expression softened. “Well, I guess I do feel better, Mule.”
Johnny smiled back. “So, you’ll go talk to Red Deer for me?”
DarkCloud went back to unpacking the assorted bottles from the crate. “Don’t know about that,” he replied.
Johnny’s voice lowered. “I need this, DarkCloud.”
DarkCloud looked up from the bottle he held in his hand. “When did you last change your bandage?”
DarkCloud finished taking the bottles out, arranging them by size on the counter. “I specifically asked you to change it a couple of times a day and to put new medicine on it. Have you?”
“How often?” DarkCloud stopped again and looked at Johnny.
Johnny sighed. “Once.”
“Once.” DarkCloud shook his head, then began to pick the bottles up and move them to shelves behind the counter. “Okay. I’ll talk to Red Deer if you let me check over that wound of yours.” He suddenly stopped, his expression hardening again. “And don’t go thinking that means I approve of what you’re doing, which I don’t. But you made your point perfectly clear last night. You’re gonna do what you want regardless of what I say, so I might as well help where I can. But in turn,” DarkCloud paused for emphasis, “you promise to come here every day and let me check over your wound, because I know you’re not going do it yourself.”
Johnny nodded slowly. “Agreed.”
DarkCloud pointed toward the back room. “This way, Mule. And you can tell me what you want me to pass on to Red Deer.”
Dusk was falling. DarkCloud looked out the windows into the dry, dusty street. It was long past the time to light the lanterns, but this evening DarkCloud’s mood suited itself better to the encroaching darkness of night.
Johnny and his group had left a couple of hours earlier, toward the Diablo Mountain range, and then were cutting north, using the foothills to hide behind.
DarkCloud walked out the door and stopped. The town was quiet again this evening. Johnny’s plan called for most men of the town to be helping out in some way. Only a few men had been left who were specifically assigned the job of maintaining a vigil in case the closely spaced attacks didn’t do the job of keeping Wakeman so busy with immediate concerns that he actually was able to pull together the manpower needed to ride on the town.
The evening winds were blowing the dust through the streets causing a constant layer of haze to be seen in the horizon. DarkCloud squinted toward the north, then sighed. With a shake of his head, he settled down into the chair that sat outside his shop and contemplated Johnny’s plan.
If nothing else, he had to admit it was a bold one. DarkCloud had noticed Tucson seemed puffed near bursting with the sheer audacity of it. “Damn you, Madrid! You ain’t changed a lick!” he must have exclaimed half a dozen times while Johnny outlined the plan.
DarkCloud’s contribution had been to get Red Deer to have his men dam up two small feeder streams coming out of the mountains. One from the coastals and one from the Diablos, with the requisite bandana left in order to help hide the fact that it was Red Deer and his men who had been there.
Then, Johnny had sent out a group of men to pull down some fences near the Diablo range, while the last group, Johnny’s group, was planning to actually break into Wakeman’s home. Johnny hoped that all the different calamities would force Wakeman from his house.
DarkCloud had asked what he planned to do if he got in.
Johnny had simply smiled and replied, “I’ll know when I get there.”
“What?” the Kid had asked, the first time he’d spoken throughout the meeting. “I’d think we’d break open his safe at least.”
Johnny had quietly regarded the Kid for a few seconds before replying, “I ain’t planning on adding robbery to my name.”
“Then—then why are we doing this?” the Kid insisted
“To prove we can,” Johnny had replied quietly.
DarkCloud hadn’t been able to suppress a grin when he’d heard that, and neither had most of the other men. But now, DarkCloud wasn’t smiling. He was worried. Worried about Johnny. When he had checked Johnny’s wound that morning, it had looked no better, and if anything, worse. It was very red and swollen yet, and clearly showed the start of an infection. He noticed that Johnny was running a low fever, too. There’d been nothing to do, however, other than cleaning the wound well and reapplying more of the ointment. Pressing Johnny to agree to more than his earlier promise to let DarkCloud check the wound every day would have instead started another disagreement, one which DarkCloud knew would have done more harm than good at this point. So, reluctantly, DarkCloud had allowed Johnny to continue on with the reminder that he’d see him again early the next morning. Johnny had nodded his agreement, which should have made his friend feel better, but it didn’t, as DarkCloud was even more worried about something else. And this was what was really preying on DarkCloud’s mind, now.
Johnny was beginning to look exhausted most of the time. His face was drawn and he was in obvious pain. Then suddenly, at times like the meeting around noon that day, or just before they took off on their mission, he seemed better, his eyes more bright, and the pain which had lined his face earlier would be gone. DarkCloud originally had chalked it up to a combination of his tea and Johnny’s uncanny ability to switch so quickly into his gunfighter persona, something which DarkCloud had at first found unnerving. But now, DarkCloud wasn’t so sure. He was starting to wonder if he had more to worry about than Johnny re-injuring his wound or pulling open his stitches, or even an infection. Instead, DarkCloud found himself sitting quietly in the dark, worrying about something that could prove to be even worse.
“What the hell is going on here?” Wakeman cursed. “I wanna know and now!”
“It’s Madrid again,” one of the men replied nervously.
“Madrid, Madrid! It’s always Madrid!” Wakeman spat. “I’m tired of hearing that excuse! What in damnation am I paying you men for, if you can’t handle one man?”
“Well,” one of the three men who stood in front of Wakeman in his living room shuffled uncomfortably. “He does have those two other guns with him…”
“One of which is just a boy,” hissed Wakeman. “I think with all the money I’m paying that lot of you, you could handle two men and a boy!” He gestured emphatically.
“We’re trying, Mr. –”
“Trying, trying! That’s all I hear! When the hell are you actually going to do something about it? Manure down my wells! Dammed streams! Torn fences!! And everywhere these God-damn bandanas!” Picking one up, he smashed it into a crude ball and tossed it to the floor. “Well, I’ve had it! I want him and I want him now!” Mr. Wakeman glared, his eyes flashing. “Swain, go get all the men you can find. I want to track him while we have the chance. I want that Madrid, and I mean to have him!”
Johnny couldn’t believe his luck. Everything was falling into place. Just as dusk was creeping over the coastals, Johnny, Tucson, the Kid and Solero, hiding in the tree line among the foothills, watched a group of men riding out from James Wakeman’s ranch. And from the description they’d been given, the tall blond in the dark brown vest and hat was Wakeman.
They waited until the group disappeared from view, then Johnny nodded for his crew to head down toward the ranch. They found the house and yard empty. The poisoned wells, the dammed streams, the released cattle, were all taking their toll on Wakeman’s manpower.
Just as Johnny had planned.
Solero, brought along solely for the purpose of keeping a lookout, was kept outside with the horses as the other three entered.
“Okay,” Tucson said as they paused just inside the entry door. He lit the lantern he was carrying. “Where do you want me to start?”
“Upstairs,” Johnny replied. “Find his room. You have the sand with you?”
Tucson, a lopsided grin revealing his amusement, answered, “And the bandana. Sand in the bed and the bandana under the pillow.”
Johnny nodded, then turned to the Kid. “Snake?”
The Kid held up a sack and a bandana.
“Look around in the kitchen. I’m sure you’ll find something appropriate.”
The Kid grinned and headed toward the back of the house.
Johnny turned and looked around the room. His eyes settled on what was obviously Wakeman’s desk.
Johnny crossed to the desk and sat down. The perfect place to find something he could use. By the light of a lantern, Johnny quickly scanned the papers on the desk, two of which gave him pause to smile. One was a rather amorous letter from a Miss Jenny O’Connor, detailing her hopes for their future and their courtship of two years, along with a number of references to Wakeman’s own promises to her. She even mentioned that she hoped the recent trouble (Johnny snickered) he’d been having wouldn’t keep him from their Sunday afternoon buggy ride after church.
Johnny cocked his head and quickly counted the days until Sunday. He decided to make sure James Wakeman’s Sunday afternoon ride was interrupted.
The other letter was from James Wakeman’s father, Judge Wakeman. It detailed explicitly how the Judge expected James to settle down as they had previously discussed and marry Miss Jane White. The Judge also very carefully listed how advantageous it would be to all involved if this marriage were to go forward, and soon. It also went into detail about how Miss White had just returned to San Francisco from spending the last year back East and that the Judge had just had the immense pleasure of her and her father’s company while he had been in San Francisco. The Judge continued on to say that he, Miss White and her father were all to be returning to Salinas in a few days. Then (and this was the part that really caught Johnny’s eye) the Judge went on to say that he already had an engagement ring made for James to give Miss White, and said ring was to have arrived with the letter. Finally, the Judge hinted strongly that he hoped when he, Miss White and her father all arrived back in town, that James would have had the opportunity to get certain affairs taken care of and be ready to propose to Miss White.
Johnny then turned his attention to the desk drawers. The first two were merely filled with papers, which he quickly leafed through. In the third he found a small derringer and a concealed knife, but nothing else out of the ordinary. Then he came to the last drawer, which immediately piqued his interest; it was locked.
Johnny quickly felt around the corners and ledges of the desk and in the other drawers. No key. He was just leaning back in the chair, hands pressed together, his chin resting thoughtfully on his thumbs, when both Tucson and the Kid walked in.
“Done,” Tucson announced.
“Hope he don’t wait too long before he decides to make some coffee,” the Kid grinned. “Or the effect will be lost.”
“No.” Johnny dropped his hands to the arms of the chair. “The point’ll still have been made.”
“Next?” Tucson asked.
Johnny nodded to the Kid. “Grab another bandana out of my saddle bag and put it in the outhouse. Behind the door.”
The Kid snickered as he left the room. “Now there’s an effect I’d like to witness!”
Johnny turned his attention back to the desk and rested his palms on it. Tucson stepped unobtrusively to the side, watching him quietly.
Slowly Johnny leaned forward and picked up the framed daguerreotype sitting on the corner of the desk. The action brought Tucson around to peer over Johnny’s shoulder.
“Looks like such a fine, upstanding young man,” Tucson sneered. “Got a mighty high opinion of himself, looks like.”
Johnny cocked his head and looked at the young man of fair coloring and roughly Johnny’s own age starring haughtily back at him. “Fancied duds hiding a snake.”
Tucson grunted his approval of Johnny’s opinion, then watched as Johnny turned the frame over a couple of times in his hands. “Like his photograph, do you?”
Ignoring Tucson, Johnny slowly began to slide the back out of the frame.
“Lookin’ for a key,” Johnny replied, then grinned as a small silver key clinked onto the top of the desk in front of him.
“My! My!” Tucson exclaimed. “I’d’ve never thought of that!”
Johnny put the key in the lock, turned it, and smiled with satisfaction as it opened. Inside he found a pouch, a couple of letters, and a journal. He tossed the pouch to Tucson. “Open it!”
Tucson did as directed while Johnny carefully opened the letters. As a smile widened across his face, Tucson held up a ring in the palm of his hand. “Well, look what I got here.”
Johnny looked up and took the ring from Tucson. It was a large ruby surrounded by diamonds. On the side were engraved entwined letter J’s. “This is perfect,” he announced, handing the ring back to Tucson. “Put that box back in the pouch, but we’re taking the ring.”
Tucson raised an eyebrow. “Thought you said we weren’t gonna take nothing.”
A sly grin curled the corners of Johnny’s mouth as he bent back to the letters he had been reading. “Oh, we’re just borrowing it. He’ll get it back.”
Shrugging, Tucson secured the now empty box in the pouch and put the ring deep in his vest pocket. Then he patiently waited as Johnny finished reading through the letters, motioning the Kid to remain quiet when he walked in.
Suddenly Johnny looked up. “While I finish here, I want you two to go out to the barn and find Wakeman’s fancy Sunday Church buggy. I want you to cut through the wheel support rod—not quite all the way through. I don’t want it to break until he actually gets in to use it. And tie one of the bandanas underneath, so’s he won’t see it ‘til it breaks.”
Tucson nodded and motioned. “Come along, Kid.”
Johnny then opened the journal. He rapidly thumbed through it, stopping to read now and then, a wonderful plan forming in his mind as he realized James Wakeman was an even dirtier dog than any one realized. It was becoming more and more enjoyable being the instrument of Wakeman’s downfall.
Wakeman stormed into his bedroom and threw his jacket in the general vicinity of his chair, where it landed haphazardly in a heap. He then barely took the time to unbutton his shirt before he ripped it off and sent it flying in the opposite directions.
“Damn that Madrid!” he growled repeatedly as he pulled off first his boots, then his pants.
The ‘posse’ had been unsuccessful in trapping Madrid and his men, just as Bridger and the other men warned, and just as Wakeman had known deep-down would happen. But his irritation had reached what he thought was its peak with the sudden stream damming, fouled wells and run-off cattle. It had been a fool’s chase, and he knew it. There was no way to catch them in the dark.
As Wakeman slid into his bed, his eyes grew wide in confused shock. With a curse, he tossed aside the covers. Sand covered the bottom half of his bed.
“What the hell!” Wakeman cursed again as he leapt out of the bed. In frustration and anger he grabbed up the pillow, poised to slam it back on the bed, when he halted in mid-action. There, on the bed, lay another of the bright red, silk bandanas mocking him. “Damn that Madrid! Damn him to Hell!!”
Wakeman suddenly realized that he hadn’t even begun to reach his peak of irritation.
Two hours later, as the very first hint of morning sunshine was filtering into the valley, four of Wakeman’s men gathered in the living room, while their boss, his face red with a hostile rage, stalked about the room.
“Unbelievable! Unbelievable!” he seethed. “He was here! While we were out chasing shadows, he was here all the time!!”
“Wesley and I looked around outside,” Swain said, “and we couldn’t find anything amiss.”
Wakeman turned abruptly to face the man who had spoken. “You couldn’t find anything amiss,” he repeated in mocking disgust. “Oh, I’m sure Madrid came all this way just to put sand in my bed.”
“He’s obviously trying to throw you off,” Bridger attempted. “I mean, really. Sand in the bed?”
Wakeman narrowed his eyes ominously. “Right. His entire plan hinges around putting sand in my bed so that I can’t get a good night’s sleep. Very good, Bridger. I knew there was a reason I kept you around.”
“Uh, maybe Bridger’s right. Maybe he’s just trying to confuse you,” Wesley suggested quietly.
“Well, then he’s doing a damn good job of it!” Wakeman spat. “What the hell is he trying to do?”
“And you couldn’t find any other indication he’d been in here?” Swain asked
Wakeman shook his head. “I looked through all the rooms. The safe’s not been touched. Everything looks in order.” He shook his head. “Damn it! I don’t like this. The Judge’ll be back in a few days, and now this…” He rubbed his face tiredly. “I need some coffee. I got a feeling we’ve got a long day ahead of us.” He looked at Bridger pointedly and cocked his head toward the kitchen.
Bridger nodded, actually relieved to have a reason to leave the room.
After Bridger had left, Wakeman went back to his pacing. “He’s after more than just working for that two-bit town. They don’t have enough money to buy spit.”
“Yeah, he’s an expensive gun,” Swain agreed. “Haven’t heard much about him recently, but even after laying low for a couple years, he’s got quite a reputation to trade on. Don’t see how that town managed to get him—”
“That’s right!” Wakeman stopped again, thoughtfully rubbing his knuckles. “He is damn expensive. And he’s been out of the circuit awhile. Maybe he’s trying to make a big comeback. Could be he doesn’t really care one way or—”
A scream bellowed from the kitchen followed immediately by gunshots. Wakeman and the three men dashed toward the back room, guns drawn. They flew through the door, crouched and ready.
“Snake! Snake!” screamed Bridger.
“What? Where?” Wakeman yelled back, quickly panning the room with his gun, his men nervously glancing around their feet. “What’s going on here?”
Bridger backed up quickly toward his boss, his gun still pointing toward the back corner of the kitchen. “A rattler. Back in the corner.” He pointed with his gun. “It was in the coffeepot.”
“In the coffeepot?” Wakeman asked, his eyes narrowing.
Bridger nodded. “Yeah. It’s over there.” He pointed with his left hand toward the floor where the coffeepot lay among numerous other kitchen items that had been knocked to the floor in the excitement.
Wakeman cautiously walked over to the pot and stooped to pick it up. Carefully he peered inside. “Shit!” he cussed and pulled a bright red, silk bandana out from the bottom of the pot. “Get that damn snake…and then get Madrid.”
Wakeman walked around the corner of the ranch house, a slight curl to his lips as he contemplated his newest adversary. The snake had been quickly dispatched and the other rooms more thoroughly searched for hidden objects. None had been discovered. In his hands he held the latest letter from the Judge. Wakeman knew he needed to get this new problem settled before his father returned from San Francisco. The Judge would not be at all happy with the recent turn of events.
Wakeman pushed open the door to the outhouse and slammed it behind him. He had a bit of business to take care of on his own and a letter to reread, before he came up with a plan to destroy Madrid. He dropped his pants and sat down. As he pulled the letter out of the envelope, his eyes strayed upwards, drawn to a bright red object secured to the top of the outhouse door.
“God damn that Madrid!”
DarkCloud opened the ointments and readied new bandages as Johnny wearily shrugged out of his shirt. The doctor watched his friend carefully, noting especially the dark circles under Johnny’s eyes and the open discomfort he didn’t even attempt to hide now when he moved, at least while in DarkCloud’s presence. DarkCloud knew the raiders had returned toward morning and Johnny couldn’t have had much sleep, even though it was now late in the morning.
Johnny, though sitting up, had his eyes closed as DarkCloud came to stand beside him. Concerned, DarkCloud touched his friend’s arm. Johnny jerked, his eyes flashing open before he caught himself and smiled apologetically. “Sorry, Doc.”
“I hope it was all worthwhile, Johnny. You look exhausted,” DarkCloud remarked as he studied Johnny’s face.
Though his eyes lacked their sparkle, Johnny still managed to grin crookedly. “It was well worth it.”
“Well, I hope you’ll use some sense and take it easy this evening,” DarkCloud advised quietly as he began to unwrap the bandages.
Johnny shook his head slightly. “Would like to oblige you, but I got a meetin’ with a young lady I just can’t miss.”
DarkCloud paused, one eyebrow raised. “This I have to hear.”
“Oh, you’d enjoy it,” Johnny assured. “I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow. You will, however, be pleased to know it should be a quieter evening for me. It shouldn’t be as late as the last few nights have been, at any rate.”
DarkCloud nodded. He had long since realized he couldn’t argue with Johnny. All he could hope to accomplish was to try to keep Johnny on the path toward healing—a hard enough job the way Johnny was abusing his body.
DarkCloud carefully pulled away the last squares of cloth, not surprised to find that the wounds looked the same as the day before. The constant riding and pulling, the dirt and the sweat, were all hampering every effort he was making in trying to help the healing along. He decided to try once more to express his concerns.
“Johnny, I’m worried.”
The tone in DarkCloud’s voice must have given him away, as Johnny pointedly ignored him.
“Johnny, you won’t get any better this way. You’re wearing yourself down. Despite my efforts, you’re wound isn’t healing properly. I can tell you’re in pain and it’s making it more difficult for you to keep going. You need to give yourself a break.” DarkCloud continued when Johnny shook his head, “Just a couple days. Let Tucson and the Kid handle things for a little while. That’s what they’re here for.”
“No!” Johnny suddenly snapped and jumped off the table, his breath catching in a hiss of pain as he leaned heavily against the table for support. “You agreed to keep your nose outta this business if I came in here once a day. Seems you’re welshing.”
DarkCloud put a hand on Johnny’s arm. “No, I’m not,” he stated firmly. “But I am concerned about you.”
“Put your concern somewhere else,” Johnny retorted. “I’m fine. And there’s no way I’m leavin’ Tucson and the Kid in charge of this operation, even for a couple days.”
“It was quite obvious you didn’t want the Kid when he first showed up,” DarkCloud said. “Why? I’d think you’d welcome the extra help.”
Johnny turned a grim eye on his friend. “I make it a point never to trust anyone who wants to be a gunfighter.”
“You’re a gunfighter and I trust you.”
Johnny smiled wryly. “That’s your second mistake.”
DarkCloud raised an eyebrow. “And my first?”
“You called me a mule…so eventually, of course, I’ll have to shoot you.”
“Of course,” DarkCloud nodded, relieved to see Johnny’s humor had returned. “I expected as much.”
The tension suddenly dissolved, Johnny gave a weary sigh before picking up on his earlier train of thought. “I figured the Kid was either crazy or fresh.” He paused, catching his breath as DarkCloud went back to cleaning the wound. “Seems he was just fresh.”
DarkCloud picked up the salve. “How’s that?”
Johnny shook his head, his eyes downcast again. “When we were coming back from Salinas and he shot that one man, it was obvious he’d never killed anybody before. Doubt he’d ever seen a man die in front of him either.” He paused again, holding his breath as DarkCloud carefully put a layer of the salve on. Once DarkCloud had finished, Johnny glanced at him out of the corner of his eye before dropping his gaze and continuing. “Oh, I’m sure he practiced shooting at bottles for hours on end, pretending to be drawin’ on some big name pistolero. But it’s a little different to look a dead man in the eye—especially the first dead man you’ve ever shot and know you’re the one who took the spark out.”
DarkCloud was quiet a moment. “I hope you’re not blaming yourself for that, too.”
Johnny looked at DarkCloud. “If I’d stood my ground about the Kid, Angelou woulda backed off.”
DarkCloud laughed. “Oh, I don’t know. Angelou can be pretty tight with his money. You know how he was when he found out he could get two for the price of one. Hell, the idea of three for one would have made him pretty obstinate, I’m sure.”
Johnny’s look became serious. “I coulda made him cave in if I had really tried.”
DarkCloud shook his head and sighed. “Johnny, what the Kid decides to do with his life is not your problem.”
“Yes, it is,” Johnny retorted, his eyes suddenly fiery. “He wants to work with me. He wants me to mentor him. He wants to be another—another—” Johnny stopped.
“Johnny Madrid?” DarkCloud finished for him.
Johnny nodded grimly. “I can’t let that happen.”
“So send him away.”
Johnny shook his head. “I can’t do that either. Not now. He thinks this is what he wants. I gotta show him it’s not. I’m hoping he’ll see this isn’t quite what he expected and he’ll decide to leave on his own.” He hesitated then added quietly, “That would be best…if he finds out Johnny Madrid’s life isn’t one to be envied.”
DarkCloud paused, biting his lip, a desire to press Johnny further. Yet he could tell by the way the gunfighter had turned his face away, that the topic was now considered closed. With a sigh, he continued, “How about Tucson?”
Johnny took a slow breath before answering. “I just don’t know about Tucson yet. He bothers me some. I—I don’t know why really.”
DarkCloud pushed Johnny back onto the table. “Have you recalled him at all? Seen him in any dreams or anything of the sort?”
Johnny shook his head. “No, ‘fraid not. I—I do have dreams, but none about Tucson.”
Johnny closed his eyes, his face becoming sad and weary. “It’s always death. Isham, Reveles, Mexico—” he paused and opened his eyes.
DarkCloud sensed he was going to mention another name, but let it drop. “Is there anything new?”
“Not really,” Johnny tiredly rubbed his hands across his face. “Sometimes some flashes of faces. I do see one—one that seems important, but I don’t know why.” He rubbed the heel of his hand against his forehead and closed his eyes in thought. “A tall, blond man. He’s there when I shoot Reveles. And then I see his face at other times, but I can’t connect him.” His voice dropped to a strained hiss. “I feel I ought to know him.”
DarkCloud carefully began to rewrap the wound. “It’ll come, Johnny. Don’t push it.”
Johnny gave a sad shake of his head, his dark blue eyes almost black, heavy with more than physical pain. “I’m not so sure I want to remember. Perhaps it’s best I don’t know what I did the last couple years. Sometimes it’s bad enough living with what I do remember, without adding any more to it.”
DarkCloud was opening his mouth to reply, when he heard the door of his shop open. With a quick look at Johnny, he started for the front room as Johnny, swallowing a moan, grabbed up his shirt.
Both men let out a sigh of relief as they recognized Matthew’s voice.
“Hey, Matthew!” Johnny managed to call out as he carefully slid off the table. “’Bout time you showed up! I need your help!”
Matthew walked into the room, his face beaming. “I was hopin’ you’d say that.”
In the corner of the apothecary shop, Matthew leaned forward across the small square table. “You mean he’s rustlin’ cattle?” he asked, his eyes wide with disbelief.
“And he’s been doing it for some time?” DarkCloud questioned.
Johnny nodded. “I found notes and accounts in a hidden ledger. Appears he’s designed his brand to fit over at least five other area ranch brands, besides stealin’ unbranded calves.”
“Holy smokes!” Matthew pushed back into his chair and shook his head. “I thought he was pretty low, but that beats all.”
“Did you take the ledger?” DarkCloud asked.
Johnny shook his head.
“Well, why not?” DarkCloud asked.
“For a number of reasons. First and foremost being his father’s a judge and we were breakin’ into his place. Second, we have no real proof. Third, the accounts are vague enough to not really prove anything. You sorta have to dig down and read between the lines. No,” Johnny shook his head again, “we gotta catch him in the act. We gotta force him to make a move.” He paused then, and with a grin, reached into his pocket. “I did, however, bring this back.” He unfolded a piece of paper and laid it out on the table for the other two to look at. On the sheet were several sketches of various local brands with the ‘JW Running River’ brand sketched over them.
“Whoa!” Matthew exclaimed. “That there’s old Herve Almada’s brand.” He turned to DarkCloud. “Remember, just a few weeks before he was killed he said someone was rustlin’ his cattle. We all didn’t pay him much mind. Old Herve didn’t have that big of a herd, but he weren’t too organized. He was always losing cattle in ditches and from plain bad sense. But I wonder if he got on to Wakeman.”
DarkCloud nodded his agreement. “That’d explain why they’d kill him. Always seemed to me his place wasn’t big enough to murder for. Especially since Wakeman seemed to be enjoying just taking his time antagonizing the rest of us, wearing us down one by one.”
Matthew looked at Johnny. “So, what do we do now?”
“Well, nothing with this tonight. I’ve got other plans to make Wakeman’s life miserable. However,” Johnny turned to DarkCloud, “could you ask Red Deer if he knows anything about this—seen anything that might give us a clue where he’s holding the stolen cattle until they get a chance to brand them? And then, in a couple days, I’m planning to head back up to Salinas. Looks like you might be needin’ another supply wagon, anyway.” Johnny began to refold the papers. “Besides, after tonight, I gotta feeling James Wakeman’s gonna be mighty interested in meeting the man who’s causing him so much grief. And I’d rather it be up there.” He slid the papers back into his pocket. “More witnesses to keep him in check. We’re too small here if he decides to go on a rampage with his men.”
“Salinas?” DarkCloud’s eyes immediately conveyed his concern. “I’d like you to think that over, Johnny. You won’t be up to another trip like the last one any time soon. That last one really took its toll on you.”
Johnny’s face grew expressionless as he stood up. “I didn’t hear me ask for your opinion,” he replied curtly, then turned and walked out of the shop.
As the door banged shut, Matthew turned to DarkCloud, his eyebrows raised questioningly.
DarkCloud shook his head. “Nope. Not going well at all,” he replied with a discouraged sigh.
Scott quickly washed up at the pump, the cold water stinging as he splashed it on his face. It’d been a hot and sweaty day, but he’d accomplished all he’d set out to do, which was more than he could say about the day before. He was still a bit chagrined about the hangover he’d had. Teresa had been right in her gentle reprimand. Burying his disappointment and fears in a bottle of wine wasn’t helping him find his brother, though it did feel better for a little while. But he’d wisely avoided anything to drink last night, got to bed early, and woke up this morning to find he actually had some energy. He attacked the work that needed to be done with a vengeance, though all the while his mind was actively searching for a way to find Johnny. And, finally, his fortitude had been rewarded; he had a plan.
Scott quickly entered through the kitchen door, a habit that he’d developed over the past few weeks, and immediately called for Teresa.
“Coming!” he heard her answer from the dining room.
With a grin, he snagged a warm biscuit, then sat on the counter to wait.
“My, you look in a good mood,” Teresa greeted as she entered the kitchen, the door swinging closed behind her. “Hey! What’s that you’re eating?”
“Hmmm?” Scott innocently shoved the last bite in his mouth and quickly swallowed. “Nothing.”
“Nothing my foot, Scott Lancer!” Teresa scolded. “I saw you eating one of the biscuits that are supposed to be for supper.”
“They are?” Scott looked surprised. “Well, I’m just starting early, then.” He began to reach for another one.
“Scott,” Teresa warned. “If you plan to keep your fingers, I wouldn’t do that.”
“Oh, Teresa, I’m hungry.” Scott whined, a grin still on his face.
“Then, get your filthy self out of my way so I can finish getting the table set. You’re a mess.” Teresa went to the counter and playfully pushed him off.
“I’ll leave, but first I have to tell you something,” Scott replied.
Teresa raised an eyebrow. “You looked kinda like you swallowed a canary. What’s up?”
“You need to go into Green River for some house supplies.”
“I do?” Teresa cocked her head. “Okay, I’m game. Why?”
“Because I’ll take you and while you get your supplies, I’ll go talk to Sheriff Crawford.”
Teresa put her hands on her hips thoughtfully. “Just go in and talk to Sheriff Crawford. What do you need me for?”
“Well,” Scott hesitated. “I’d rather not make a big deal about it. Things with Murdoch are so-so, you know. I’ve been to Green River twice already talking to Val, and…well, what I’m going to suggest might not meet with Murdoch’s approval.”
At this Teresa’s thoughtful expression turned to one of trepidation. “Then maybe it’s not such a good idea, Scott.”
Scott shook his head. “It is, Teresa. Val has connections being a sheriff and all. He could send out wires and a description about Johnny. He might even know a local person I could hire to find Johnny. I have my own money. If Murdoch doesn’t want to hire someone, then I will.”
Teresa bit her lip as she seemed to deliberate over the idea. “I don’t know…”
“Oh, come on, Teresa. At least let me find out what Val has to say.” He suddenly turned and began pacing. “I’ve thought and thought and I can’t come up with anything else. And I can’t just take off randomly,” he gestured widely, “hoping to just stumble upon him. I need some idea of where to look. South? North? Maybe he’s not even in the state anymore. I need to do something, though. I need to feel I’m taking some action. I can’t keep just sitting like this, waiting.” He stopped, searching deeply into Teresa’s eyes.
Teresa sighed then gave him a slight smile. “I guess you’re right, Scott. I really could use some supplies. I’ll mention it to Murdoch this evening.”
Scott broke into a wide grin and grabbed Teresa by the shoulders. “Oh, thank you, Teresa! Thank you! You’re an angel!”
“I know,” she laughed.
He gave her a quick kiss on the forehead, then turned and started for the door. “Oh, one last thing!”
“What’s that?” Teresa asked.
With a wink, Scott snagged up another biscuit and dashed out the door.
“It’s not just me, Grace,” Matthew gazed out the window at Jamie playing tag with Digger. Boy and dog were both panting, Jamie laughing loudly, Digger barking excitedly as they chased each other around the yard.
“DarkCloud said he’s not taking care of himself. That it’s almost like—like,” Matthew turned from the window, his eyes betraying his feelings, “like he doesn’t care whether he gets well or not.”
Grace put the bowl she was drying on the table and searched her brother’s eyes. “That’s not all, is it?”
Dropping his gaze, Matthew shook his head. “He’s worried that Johnny’s using laudanum to mask the pain, so that he can keep going.”
Grace bit her lip pensively. “Is he sure?”
Matthew shook his head. “No. He thinks one of his bottles of laudanum is missing. Part of the shipment they brought down from Salinas contained supplies for the shop, some of which were bottles of laudanum. DarkCloud had Zito over the next day helping him unpack and stock the shelves. He found himself short a bottle a couple of days later, but doesn’t know if it was taken or if he’d been short a bottle in his shipment.”
“So, he isn’t sure Johnny’s using it,” Grace observed firmly.
“Yes, but, DarkCloud said his behavior is suspicious. He’ll look exhausted and in a lot of pain, practically unable to stay on his feet, and the next time he appears fine and in no pain whatsoever. Or at least in control of it.”
Grace tilted her head to the side. “Well, that sounds like the medicine’s doing its job then. Isn’t that what you’d want—Johnny to be out of pain? I guess I don’t understand the problem.”
Matthew gave another glance out the window before he walked over to the table and smiled at his sister. “Remember ‘bout six years back. Old Sam?”
Grace nodded, a slightly puzzled expression on her face. “Yeah, he’d been in the war. Missing an arm.”
Matthew nodded. “Remember how he was always shaking and stumbling around?”
Grace nodded again. “He was always drunk. Dad was constantly going out to his place trying to help him, but he kinda scared me.”
“Well, he wasn’t drunk. He was needing laudanum to keep functioning,” Matthew explained. “It happened a lot in the war. The doctors would give the wounded soldier laudanum for the pain, because it is a good painkiller. But too much for too long can be bad, can make a man sick. But sometimes a man was hurt so bad the doctors didn’t think that he’d live anyway, so they wouldn’t try to regulate how much laudanum they would give him or for how long. They were just trying to relieve the pain.”
“And that’s what happened to Johnny?”
Matthew’s lips pursed sadly. “Yes, Johnny had been pretty badly shot up at one time. The doc must not have thought he’d live, or maybe didn’t know how powerful this medicine takes over the body, but it seems Johnny started needing the stuff.”
“But he wasn’t needing the laudanum when he came here. In fact, he didn’t want it at all when I tried to give it to him,” Grace protested.
“DarkCloud said he musta gotten himself away from the stuff, which according to DarkCloud, is a very hard thing to do. In fact,” Matthew paused, “that’s what Father and DarkCloud were trying to help Old Sam do. But he didn’t want the help.” Matthew shook his head sadly. “The laudanum was too important to him, had too strong a hold on him. He also had no reason to quit…” Matthew’s voice trailed off as Grace looked at him, her eyes tearing with understanding.
“He just turned up dead one day.” Grace nodded. “I remember Father coming home. He seemed very saddened and distressed by Sam’s death.” She turned to glance out the window. “I remember he said Sam had basically just starved himself.”
“Father felt very responsible for him,” Matthew added. “He had tried so hard to help Sam, to give him a reason to live, but he hadn’t been able to.”
“You can’t give a person a reason to live,” Grace replied sadly.
“No, they have to find it themselves,” Matthew agreed.
Grace turned back toward her brother. “Do you think we could stop into town tomorrow on our way to church?”
Matthew nodded. “I’m sure we could make time.”
Later in the afternoon, Johnny rode into the small fenced yard of Gerald and Jenny O’Connor. He had checked around town to find out any information he could before he left, and what he did learn made him empathetic to the poor, misguided Miss Jenny. She lived with her brother about fifteen miles south of Salinas. The word was her brother, Gerald, liked to drink and wasn’t around much. He worked odd jobs for Wakeman and she worked as a seamstress. It sounded like she was just a nice girl in a bad situation, something Johnny was very familiar with.
Carefully, Johnny swung out of his saddle, a bouquet of red roses in his hands. He walked up to the door and knocked, the bouquet hidden behind his back. He waited but a few seconds, noting the curtains at the window moving slightly, a sure sign that someone had peered at him from inside. Then the door opened and a pair of deep green eyes peeked out at him. Johnny smiled deeply, and keeping the bouquet hidden behind his back, he took his hat off and bowed politely.
“Miss Jenny O’Connor?”
The eyes blinked back at him and a soft voice answered, “Yes?”
“Mr. Wakeman sent me,” Johnny continued.
“James?” The door opened slightly, allowing Johnny a glimpse at the small figure inside. James may be a cad, but he sure had an eye for a cute filly.
Johnny nodded politely. “Mr. Wakeman sends his deepest regrets. He had hoped to meet with you himself this evening, but he’s been having a terrible time with a band of ruffians down near Soledad-”
“Oh, I know!” Jenny interjected. “It’s just awful, isn’t it? Holding up his men, poisoning his wells, damming up his water supply…. Why, I even heard Gerald say they hired themselves a gunfighter! My! It’s just unbelievable that men could do such things!”
Johnny’s eyes crinkled in amusement and he was forced to compose himself before he could continue. “Yes, you’re sure right, Miss O’Connor. It truly is amazing what a man will stoop to.”
Jenny nodded her agreement, then cocked her head to the side and looked Johnny over. “I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”
“No, no, you sure haven’t, Miss O’Connor. I’m usually working out of town. But Mr. Wakeman was desperate to contact you. As I said earlier, he had hoped to be here himself, but it just hasn’t been possible.”
“Oh, I do hope this awful business is over soon. We didn’t even get to go for our Sunday ride last weekend.”
Johnny noted that Jenny’s face was quite cute when she pouted. Too bad she had fallen for such a skunk.
“Well, I’m sure I’ve brought something to put a smile on your pretty face,” Johnny’s blue eyes twinkled, and with another slight bow and flourish, he produced a dozen red roses, neatly tied together by a bright red bandana. “Mr. Wakeman asked me to deliver these for him.”
“Oh!” Jenny exclaimed enthusiastically as she gathered up the flowers and breathed deeply, burying her face in the petals. “They’re lovely!”
“Not nearly as lovely as you, Miss O’Connor.”
Jenny blushed happily as she took another whiff of the fragrant roses. “You may call me Jenny.”
“Jenny.” Johnny smiled. “Also, Mr. Wakeman asked me to give you something else. He entrusted it to me, asking me to guard it with my life, so I know it must be very important.” Johnny reached into the pocket of his jacket and produced another bright red bandana, this time wrapped around a small package. A note was attached, which read: To Jenny All my love, James
“Oh, my…” Jenny’s eyes were bright as she accepted the small package. “What could…” her voice trailed off.
“One last thing.” Johnny reached out and took her small hand in his. “Mr. Wakeman also sends this.” Johnny bent over her fingers and lightly touched them to his lips. As he straightened up, he released his hold slowly. Jenny’s mouth dropped open in surprise as she put the hand against her throat.
Without another word, Johnny turned and went to his horse. A moment later, he was merely a dot on the horizon to the young girl who still stood transfixed, bandana wrapped roses and box clutched in her hands.
The ride back in the dusk of evening was a quiet one for Johnny. He figured it would take at least three hours to get back, for he was in no hurry to push his horse and find himself thrown because of a gopher hole lurking in the shadows.
After about an hour, the unrelenting ache in his side was building to unbearable. The late nights, the three hour ride up, and the long ride in front of him had drained him of all available energy. He reined up, then twisted round in his saddle so that he could reach for the bottle of laudanum, the action pulling at the stitching and causing him to hiss. The pang of guilt he first felt at using the medicine had long since vanished, and his only desire now was to deaden the constant torment—both of body and mind.
He took the last swallow of the few remaining drops. Then he replaced it in his saddlebag and continued on into the night, his thoughts reflecting back on Jenny. He felt sorry for the deception he was playing on her, but reasoned that it was better she found out the sort of man James was now, before it was too late. Johnny was quite certain James had no intention of marrying her. She was clearly not what he would be looking for in a wife, or what the Judge would have in mind for a daughter-in-law. He more than likely planned to string her along with constant promises of marriage. And, eventually, when he did marry Jane, the woman the Judge clearly had in mind, he probably hoped to keep Jenny as his mistress. Johnny had seen enough of the likes of men like James Wakeman to know how they worked—to know the evilness they hid behind a false front of decency and concern.
In his mind he saw another time. A time he remembered too well. A time not clouded in the haze of the past couple years. A time that seemed like both yesterday and a lifetime ago.
A twelve year old boy, asleep on the floor of a back alley shack, awoken by the sounds of cursing and crying. It was not the first time. Most nights those sounds could be heard from this shack. This night it would prove to be different.
The boy tried at first to cover his ears so he couldn’t hear the words and the screams. His mother had told him to stay quiet and not to interfere when the man was in one of his tempers. She said it only made things worse. And she was right. When he tried to go to her aid that first time, the man had turned around and hit him so hard he’d seen stars—just like the sky at night—and awoke later to find it was morning and his mother’s face was so badly bruised that one eye was completely swollen shut and one of her teeth were missing. When she saw his concerned look, she had told him not to worry. The tooth had been infected and loose and had been bothering her a lot; she’d been planning to get it pulled anyway, she said. Then she’d told him to never, ever, interfere again. That she could handle it. That the man just yelled mostly and pushed her around a bit. He never meant any real harm. It was her fault she wasn’t working hard enough—bringing in more money. Things would get better soon. She promised.
But this time, it was different. The man’s tone was louder and more belligerent. He was obviously even more drunk than usual. And his mother suddenly sounded really scared.
The boy lifted his head tentatively to peek out from under the thin blanket in his corner of the shack. Everything was grayness and shadows in the darkness. The man was screaming now, and his mom was cowering, her back up against the table. The boy’s eyes noticed an object in the man’s hands. It looked like the poker kept for stirring the ashes. The man growled and lifted the object above his head.
“No!” The boy leapt up, his heart pounding.
“Juanito!” his mother screamed, one hand uplifted to fend off the blow, the other reaching out toward the corner where her son stood.
The man’s arm came down with a sickening crunch, while the son watched, horrified, as his mother’s body flew sideways along the table, crashed against the wall, then came to rest, contorted, her face heavenward, her eyes, illuminated by a small pool of moonlight, stared unseeingly.
“No!” the boy screamed again as he lunged forward. But the man twisted his weight around, easily throwing the boy off where he landed in a disoriented heap on the floor.
“God damn you! You and that bitch of a mother of yours!” He rounded on the boy, his eyes glaring in madness. “She coulda made me a lot of money, but she was always too worried about you! Can’t leave him by himself too long,” he mimicked, then his voice dropped ominously. “Damned bastard whelp! I shoulda drowned you when I first laid eyes on you!”
Suddenly the man stopped and looked around for the poker he’d been holding. But in his drunken stupor, it had flown out of his hands when he’d swung at the boy’s mother and now he couldn’t find it in the darkness.
The boy seized the moment to dash to the corner where his mother usually slept. There, hidden under a flat stone in the corner was the small hand derringer his mother kept for protection.
As the boy’s hand grasped it, he heard the sound of the poker being picked up as it banged against the underside of the chair where it had fallen.
The boy slowly stood up and turned around, the gun warm in his already sweaty hands, his breath coming in short, quick gasps, as he looked into the demented eyes of his mother’s killer.
He didn’t even know if the gun had bullets. He wasn’t even sure how to load it if it didn’t. His mother had never let him touch it. ‘I have dreams,’ she’d say. ‘Keep away from guns.’
Deliberately, he lifted his arm until it was pointed straight at the man. The man stopped and laughed. His eyes shined in the darkness. “It’s gonna take more than that to stop me,” he growled as he raised the poker over his head.
The boy didn’t even think. The next he knew there was the sound of a small explosion and the man suddenly stiffened straight up—a reddish black circle appearing in the center of his forehead. His eyes opened up in shock, then filmed over as the body collapsed in a heap on the floor.
The boy stood numb; the gun still gripped in his outstretched hand. Slowly, the realization that he wasn’t breathing fought for attention from his over loaded senses and he gasped.
Slowly, he lowered the gun, looking at it in an expression of vague confusion for a minute. He walked to the corner where his mother had slept and gathered up her blanket. For a second he held it to his face, breathed in the smell of her, then stoically and methodically he gathered up the couple items they had owned and placed them in it. Finished, he sat it by the door, laid the small derringer on top and went to pick up his blanket. This he carried to where his mother now lay. Silently he knelt down beside her. As he looked at her unseeing eyes, he felt he ought to cry but couldn’t. He didn’t feel anything, only a numbness that seemed to cover him like a thick, heavy wool blanket. Gently he touched her hair, curled it around one finger. With a sigh that seemed to empty him of life, he bent and gave her a soft kiss, stroked her hair a last time then carefully covered her with his blanket.
He turned his head, his eyes suddenly drawn to the cold body of his mother’s murderer. A man he’d hated…a man he’d killed. Forcing his eyes away from the body, he looked back at his mother. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I should have protected you.”
He stood up, walked over to the still body, glared down with a hatred that suddenly welled up. “And I shoulda killed you when I first laid eyes on you,” he said with a voice that seemed strangely unfamiliar.
Abruptly he stopped as the spoken words echoed in the dark room. Hesitantly he turned, glanced again at his mother.
Dreams? Was there death in those dreams, Mother?
He gave a shudder, not from cold, but from an uncomfortable feeling that somehow, the last few minutes had been beyond his control, that destiny had taken over. He walked to the small mound of belongings and knelt down. Reaching out, he grasped the gun tightly in his hands. It still felt warm.
He closed his eyes and pressed the gun against his pounding chest. I’m never going to be afraid again. Never. He stifled a sob. If only I’d killed him earlier. It’s my fault. He opened his eyes, picked up the blanket, slipped the derringer in among the few other items and quietly left the shack. Outside the door, he paused. The moon was bright and the street rang with the echoes of music, noise and drunken laughter.
The boy looked each direction. He noted the stars were brighter toward the north, so he decided to head that way—for tonight anyway. He was leaving nothing—and he was heading nowhere—so it didn’t really matter.
With a jerk, Johnny shook himself awake and gasped. Darkness had completely engulfed the valley—only the stars and moon were visible. Pulling up his mount, Johnny took a deep breath and rubbed his eyes, the vision of the dream he’d fallen into as he’d ridden clinging to his thoughts like a thick, black cloak. One action, a solitary night, and his path had been determined.
No. With the shake of his head, Johnny rubbed his eyes again and glanced up at the stars. It wasn’t just one night. There had been many actions beyond his control, all of which had delineated his path.
Johnny sighed once more and looked off to the south. Wryly, he had to agree that Angelou had indeed given him a decent mount, as the animal had quietly continued on its way toward town, now vaguely discernable in the distance, even after its rider had fallen asleep.
He shifted uncomfortably in the saddle, cursing under his breath as the pain in his side reminded him that he was out of laudanum. The prospect of acquiring some, which he knew he now needed to function, was not a pleasant one.
Nursing his side, he clicked his horse forward once more toward the dim lights of Soledad.
Go on to Part 3