The Ghost of Johnny Madrid
Episode 3: Doubts
Johnny, forehead leaning against the windowpane in his room, looked out at the awakening town, all but the base of the Santa Lucias obscured by the heavy morning fog. The gray of predawn was slowly yielding, taking on the pale colors of daybreak as the rays from the sun fought for a hold over the Diablo Mountains. With a grunt, he pushed himself back and turned slowly to glare with a dejected look at the bed against the wall. After he’d returned to town around one o’clock in the morning, he hadn’t been able to go to sleep.
Johnny snorted quietly to himself. Hell, you were afraid to go to sleep. Admit it, Madrid. The dreams scare you. They eat you up inside with shadows of a pathetic existence you wish you’d never been a part of. Shadows of death—of friends lying dead in the dust, of strangers, eyes bright with pain then dark gray with the shock of death. Death. Death. Always so much death. You may be a fast sonuvabitch, but you’re a damned sonuvabitch, too.
He walked across the room and picked up the empty bottle of laudanum. He noticed his hands were shaking. In a sudden rage at life, at death, at hopelessness and despair, he dashed the empty bottle against the wall. The abrupt and impulsive movement tore at the stitches and wound sending him to his knees in a muffled cry of anguish. Pressing his left hand tightly into his side, he leaned forward, supporting his weight with his palm on the floor. His gasps became shallow and tightly methodical as he fought to control the pain brought on by his rash action.
It seemed an eternity before he could open his eyes again. Painstakingly, he leaned back on his heels and gingerly wiped the sweat from his eyes with the back of his hand. Broken pieces of the bottle lay on the floor around him. Bitterly, he carefully picked up the pieces of dark colored glass, then using the bed for support, he pushed himself shakily to his feet.
He crossed once more to the window, the broken pieces in his hands, and watched as DarkCloud walked out of the apothecary shop.
Wakeman strode through the living room in pre-occupied agitation. He had a full day in front of him and no time to concentrate his energy on taking care of his major problem—Madrid.
But today he was going to take care of one of the minor problems which had recently complicated his life. And the first step was to explain to Jenny how come he wouldn’t be able to see her, at least for a little while. He smiled to himself. He was quite confident that carefully modulated sincerity conveyed with the right amount of confessed misery would get him what he wanted—Jenny as a convenient bed companion. He smiled again, amused at her naïve and simple trust. Yes, she would be shocked and hurt at first, but he was secure that his performance would bring her to an unhesitating acceptance of the position she would hold in his life. At least until he grew tired of her.
“Buggy’s ready,” Swain announced as Wakeman stepped out of the front door into the early morning sunshine.
“Good,” Wakeman barely acknowledged as he continued toward the fancy Sunday carriage. He was actually looking forward to the coming afternoon. At least he would have accomplished something that he could tell the Judge about when his father returned the next day. One problem the Judge would be relieved to see he had handled competently.
“Anything you want I should get taken care of while you’re gone?” Swain asked.
“Get Wesley to gather up the men for a meeting here this evening. I’ve decided it’s time for a course of action,” Wakeman replied as he jumped up into the carriage seat. He gathered up the reins to the matching team of horses. “And I expect everyone to be prepared to put a quick end to this Madrid problem.”
After a quick nod of agreement, Swain stood to the side as Wakeman slapped the reins. As the horses jumped forward, Wakeman settled back in his seat, already rehearsing the lines he planned to use with Jenny.
He’d just left the yard and turned onto the dirt road that ran in front of his place, when he was startled out of his thoughts by the sound of a loud crack. Immediately he was pitched forward, then tossed to the side, as the underbracing of the carriage broke below him. Swain, who had just turned to go back to his own work, heard the noise of the wood snapping and his boss’s cry of surprise. Quickly he looked back, startled to see Wakeman tossed into the air before landing in an undignified heap beside the broken carriage.
“Mr. Wakeman!” Swain exclaimed and dashed down the short lane to his boss’s aid.
James Wakeman, cursing under his breath, gingerly hauled himself to his feet and began a quick check over his person. Upon noticing his torn pants and dirt-stained, white shirt, he let lose another healthy dose of expletives toward all wagonwrights and the Salinas one in particular.
Swain quickly bent down to pick up his boss’s new hat, but on observing its entirely crushed side, he looked up apologetically. Wakeman immediately noticed Swain’s chagrined expression and looked at the hat. With a growl of anger, he grabbed it away. “What the hell happened?” he cursed. “I’d like to know who last checked this carriage over and when!”
Swain, wanting to remove himself from Wakeman’s wrath, hurriedly went to the carriage and peered underneath. What he saw brought a twitch of a smile to his lips, which he hurriedly swallowed before he turned around to face his boss. “Uh, Mr. Wakeman,” he began. “I think maybe you oughta look at this yourself.”
His eyes narrowing in disapproval, Wakeman stepped up to the broken carriage and bent down to look underneath. “I’m not fond of playing ga—” he stopped in mid-sentence. “Swain! I want my men here now!”
Tied underneath the carriage was a bright red, silk bandana.
Wakeman quickly re-read the note he had penned to be taken to Jenny. Once again Madrid had fouled up his plans. There was no way he was going to make it to church in time, but he’d arranged to meet her later in the evening. He’d still get that little problem taken care of, just not as soon as he’d planned. It didn’t matter, really. She wasn’t important, just a small difficulty. Besides, this was probably even better. A nice, quiet dinner here, just the two of them, without that no-account brother of hers around.
No, the real problem was with Madrid. That was a difficulty that couldn’t be allowed to continue any longer.
He sealed the letter and called to Swain. “Have someone run this over to Jenny O’Connor’s place.”
Swain accepted the note and immediately left.
Sighing, Wakeman folded his hands and rested them on his desk. Now to take care of the Madrid problem.
Grace carefully held her skirt as she stepped down from the wagon. “Jamie, you stay right by me, now.”
Thrusting his hands in his pockets, Jamie pivoted on his heel, a tormented look on his face. “Grace! I was just gonna look for Johnny!”
“Jamie, listen to your sister.” Matthew walked around the side of the wagon. “We’ll look for him together.”
“Oh, all right,” Jamie replied unenthusiastically. “Are we gonna go do that now?”
“No, first I need to pick up those items from Mr. Calientes,” Matthew replied.
Jamie rolled his eyes upward and sighed dramatically, thoroughly expressing his dismay at having to wait to look for his friend.
“Come along. I’ll need you to help me get everything back to the wagon.”
Reluctantly, and under obvious emotional distress, Jamie trudged behind his brother, while Grace quietly followed them both, a small smile on her face.
A half an hour later, Jamie had helped his brother and sister carry the needed supplies to the wagon. The entire experience had proved not to be a total waste of time as far as Jamie was concerned, for not only did he have the pleasure of listening to the second-hand accounts of Johnny’s recent exploits, but he’d received a piece of rock candy as a personal ‘thank you’ from Mr. Calientes for being so instrumental in bringing Madrid to their town.
“Okay, then,” Matthew smiled at Jamie’s expectant look. “How ‘bout we see if Johnny’s over at Rosti’s and I treat you to a sarsaparilla to go with that there candy piece? Grace says she’ll catch up with us as soon as she’s done talking to Mrs. Ramirez.”
Jamie’s grin spread from ear to ear as he followed Matthew across the street to Rosti’s.
Inside the saloon, the darker atmosphere took a moment to get used to. Jamie’s eyes slowly scanned the room, coming to rest on his friend, sitting in a far corner talking to two other men.
“Johnny!” Jamie exclaimed, running across the room to throw himself against the dark-haired man.
Johnny returned a quick hug, his eyes questioning Matthew over the top of Jamie’s head.
“He really wanted to see you,” Matthew answered Johnny’s unasked question.
Johnny hesitated fractionally before he looked down at Jamie and smiled. “My, looks like you already grew a foot.”
Jamie grinned. “I’ve been eating a lot.”
“I’ll say he has,” Matthew laughed. “He’s always saying he has to eat a lot so he grows up big and strong like you.”
Johnny glanced at Matthew a second, his smile becoming strained. Then he turned back to Jamie. “Jamie, this here’s Tucson and the Kid.”
Jamie nodded politely. “Pleased to meet you.” Then he paused, a dubious expression on his face. “The Kid? What sorta name’s that?”
Tucson laughed. “Told ya! Think you oughta be able to come up with something better.”
The Kid smiled at Jamie. “So, your name’s Jamie?”
Jamie nodded. “Actually, it’s James, but everyone calls me Jamie.”
“Suits you,” the Kid replied with a wink. “So, you known Johnny long?”
“Oh, no, not really. I’m the one who found him—”
“Jamie,” Matthew cut in when he received a sharp look from Johnny. “Do you want to go order that sarsaparilla?”
“Oh, sure,” Jamie replied as he started for the bar area. Then he slid to a halt and turned around. “What do you want?”
“Sarsaparillas for all three of us,” Grace remarked firmly as she walked through the saloon doors. “It might be good for some of us to remember it’s Sunday.”
The men quickly stood up, but Grace politely waved her hand for them to sit down as she took a seat at another table nearby.
“Johnny?” Jamie asked.
“I’m taken care of.” Johnny held up his glass.
Jamie nodded and turned back to the bar.
“So, what’s your plan for today?” Matthew asked.
“We’re waiting on DarkCloud. Yesterday he went up to the hills to see if Red Deer knew anything about where Wakeman might be hiding the stolen cattle, but the men had left the camp to go hunting. He’s trying again this morning. I expect him back any time.”
Jamie brought the sarsaparillas over, setting one on the table near Grace and handing one to Matthew, then he ran back for his own. Pretending to have no interest in the conversation, Grace picked hers up and sipped it slowly, though her eyes carefully watched Johnny from under her long lashes. It only took a few moments for her to notice more than just a dramatic physical change in his appearance since she’d last seen him. His eyes appeared more sunken, his face gaunt. There was a tiredness and lack of color that even immediately after receiving his gunshot wound, he hadn’t shown before.
And then there was the slight trembling. From where she sat, off to his side at the next table, Grace noticed his right hand clenching and unclenching, shaking ever so slightly, hidden under the table. Then, seemingly random, he would lower his left hand under the table and use his right to drink. It was as if he was working hard to keep one hand under control at a time.
Grace was not happy with what she was seeing.
The sound of the door swinging open brought everyone’s attention around as DarkCloud walked in. His face registered surprise at seeing Grace and Jamie, but he quickly took it in stride, giving them a nod of welcome, before continuing on across the room.
“So,” Johnny remarked as he signaled Rosti for an extra glass. “I’m hoping you have some news.”
DarkCloud drew up another chair. “Yes and no. Red Deer knows where they used to keep some cattle, but they haven’t used it for a couple months. One of his braves happened to come across the holding pen up along the foothills of the Santa Lucia Coastals about ten miles north of Red Deer’s main camp. They seemed to have moved it soon after. Red Deer thinks his brave may have been spotted and they thought it best to move their operation. I explained to him what was going on and what it was being used for. He said he’d pass the word to his braves to keep a lookout for where they might have moved the location.”
Johnny nodded thoughtfully. “Well, even if being seen by the Indians scared him from that region, we know he has to keep the pen in the general area of where he’s taking his cattle from. And as he needs both easy access to grazing land and water, I say we find a place along the Diablo Range that fits the same bill.”
Tucson raised his glass. “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Johnny, here, is in charge.” He clinked his glass with the Kid while Johnny shook his head.
“Before you go drinking too much, I’d better warn you that it looks like we’ll be heading out to the foothills late this afternoon.”
“Ah, Johnny. You’re a slave driver, you are!” Tucson protested. “You want us out all night, and then expect us to head to Salinas early in the morning?”
Johnny was turning, ready with a retort, when DarkCloud interrupted. “Why don’t you see if I can get in touch with the Pinnacle Tribe. I’m sure that’d be better than stumbling around out in that country in the dark just hoping to come upon Wakeman’s hideout.”
Johnny turned away from Tucson to look at DarkCloud, unconcealed amusement on his face. “Don’t tell me. More relatives.”
DarkCloud chuckled. “Might say.” He leaned forward and poured himself a drink from the bottle on the table. “It’ll probably take me a couple days to connect with them. They stay hidden up around the caves there. Not quite as sociable as Red Deer’s tribe. I know how to get in contact with them, though.”
Johnny leaned back in his chair and raised his own glass nonchalantly to his lips. “Are there any other relatives you’d like to tell me about?”
DarkCloud seemed to consider the question, then smiled roguishly. “Not at this time.”
DarkCloud turned to Matthew. “So, what brings you into town?”
“We were just passing back through from Mass this morning.” Matthew nodded toward his brother. “Jamie wanted to stop and see Johnny.”
Jamie nodded as he licked sarsaparilla from his lips. “You wanna play some cards, Johnny?”
“Jamie, it’s Sunday, remember?” Grace admonished gently.
At Jamie’s pout, Johnny smiled. “Can’t afford to play you any more ‘till I improve my game. I’m liable to end up owing you my horse, too.”
Jamie grinned, then suddenly asked, “How come you weren’t at church this morning?”
Johnny blinked, the question catching him unprepared. He heard Tucson sputter into his drink. “How come Madrid ain’t in church?” Tucson guffawed loudly. “That’ll be the day, eh, Johnny?”
Johnny smiled quietly at Jamie, trying to ignore the leaden feeling the simple question left in his chest, and the snickering from Tucson and the Kid. “I wish I could, Jamie, but I don’t think it’d be a good idea,” he replied carefully.
“Why not?” Jamie persisted.
“Jamie,” Matthew quickly reproached his brother.
“No,” Johnny waved off Matthew’s interruption. “It’s okay.” He motioned Jamie forward, who was glancing quizzically at the snorting Tucson. “I don’t think people would feel comfortable if we were to go to church with them.”
“Father Alvarez says all are welcome. That we all are God’s children.”
Tucson snorted even louder and the Kid joined him, slapping Tucson on the back.
“Hear that, Kid?” Tucson laughed. “Guess I now know who done left me at that orphanage.”
Johnny ignored the interruption, his eyes remaining on Jamie. “I don’t think Father Alvarez had us in mind when he says all are welcome. It’d be best for everyone if we stayed away from the mission church.”
Irritated and emboldened by the laughter from the two other men at the table, Jamie grew determined. “Father Alvarez says we’re all sinners, that we’re equal in God’s eyes.”
“Some more’n others, right, Kid?” Tucson wiped the tears from his eyes as the Kid howled with laughter.
Johnny shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry, Jamie. I wish I could. Really. But thanks for the offer.”
Jamie shot a disgusted look at the two men laughing at the table, then nodded unhappily at Johnny.
Grace quickly stood up and put a hand out for Jamie. Self-consciously, Johnny pulled his away. “Jamie, I promised Mrs. Ramirez that we’d stop by. She said Zito would be able to play this afternoon.”
“Okay,” Jamie agreed reluctantly, his eyes still on Johnny.
“Matthew, you coming?” Grace asked as she herded Jamie toward the door.
“I’ll follow along momentarily.”
Grace nodded and continued out the door, one hand propelling Jamie along from behind.
Sighing deeply, Matthew turned back to the table. Tucson and the Kid both seemed to have gotten over their amusement, but he could still sense a sadness emanating from Johnny in the way his eyes lingered on the saloon door. Matthew’s first thought was to dispel his friend’s unhappiness which Jamie’s innocent questions had produced, but then he realized anything he was apt to say would only bring more attention to a subject better left forgotten. He kept his mouth shut and watched instead as Johnny bit the corner of his lip before forcing his gaze back toward the table.
As Johnny blocked out the sight of Jamie’s final wave to him from the saloon door, he noticed the glass trembling in his hand. Quickly he set it on the table and dropped his hand to his lap, then closed his eyes for a moment as he mentally pulled himself together. “Can I still count on your help, Matthew?” he asked, returning the room immediately to its original atmosphere.
“Sure,” Matthew nodded. “What do you need?”
“Another person to come along to Salinas.”
DarkCloud looked surprised. “You want Matthew?”
“Hey!” Matthew countered with a look of hurt. “Why not me?”
“Well, for one thing,” DarkCloud shot him an amused look, “everyone knows you can’t hit the side of a barn.”
“Actually,” Johnny smirked, “he hits a barn pretty good. But that isn’t why I want him along. I want someone from town, who’s known for not making trouble and not packing any weapon.” He then looked hard at Matthew. “In fact, I don’t want you to bring any weapon along at all. Is that understood?”
“You’re just coming along as a representative of the good citizens of Soledad, a concerned witness making sure your goods are delivered as expected. Nothing more.”
DarkCloud shook his head, signaling his disapproval of Johnny’s plan. “Why don’t you let me go along instead?”
Johnny’s eyes sparkled with amusement. “I gotta feeling you’re known to be trouble.”
DarkCloud feigned hurt. “Johnny, really. You must be thinking of someone else. I’m well-known as a peace-loving, gentle man.”
As Johnny rolled his eyes in silent laughter, Matthew quickly interrupted, fearing DarkCloud would spoil his chance to play an active part for once. “I’ll be here first thing in the morning. I’ll even check back with you this afternoon before I head out to the ranch, in case there’s anything else you need.”
“Sounds fine,” Johnny replied.
Matthew gave a faint smile to the rest of the men, waved quickly at Rosti, and left the saloon, glad to be part of the action for once. Within steps from the door, he was also trying to figure out how he was going to explain his coming involvement to Grace.
“So, Madrid, you want to come on over to the shop a few minutes before I take off for the Pinnacles?” DarkCloud asked as he stood up.
Johnny picked up his glass and slowly finished the last swallow. Then he set it down carefully, his eyes remaining on the table. “Maybe you’d better get started now. I’ve got a few things to get settled before tomorrow.”
DarkCloud didn’t move. “I think it’d be better if I could talk to you—now.”
Raising his eyes, Johnny kept his voice calm and expressionless, yet he conveyed to DarkCloud that he understood what he was saying. “I’ll meet with you when you get back. I’ll have some things to cover with you regarding your luck in finding the Pinnacles Tribe.”
DarkCloud locked his eyes with Johnny’s, but could see the gunfighter’s mind was made up. With a slight clenching of his jaw, he let Johnny know that he expected to see him the second he rode back into town. “I’d suggest getting some rest before tomorrow.” He paused, careful to include Tucson and the Kid in his recommendation. “It’d do you all some good.”
He turned and left the saloon, Johnny watching him.
“Naps and church!” Tucson laughed and gave Johnny a playful jab to the shoulder. “Trying to turn us respectable or something, huh, Madrid?”
Ignoring Tucson’s attempt at humor, Johnny made an excuse to return to his room. Jamie and Grace’s appearance had surprised him, and it bothered him that he had seen Grace watching him so closely.
Once in his room, Johnny walked to the window and pulled the thin curtain to the side, affording him an unobstructed view of the small town. Being Sunday, there was very little activity. After a minute, he saw DarkCloud leave his shop, lock it up, and start down the street to the livery.
Sighing, Johnny turned away and leaned his head back against the pane, his eyes resting on the reminder of the demon that eluded him—sleep.
He knew he shouldn’t have been so stubborn in refusing to have DarkCloud tend to his wound right away. He wasn’t even sure what he’d hoped to gain by waiting until later in the afternoon. Except, perhaps, a few more hours of not being reprimanded and hounded about his decisions.
He closed his eyes, exhaustion seeping into every corner of his body.
He knew he needed to see DarkCloud; he needed to ask him for something else for the pain. There was a lot more to do, and he was beginning to doubt that he could see it through to the end.
He sighed quietly. DarkCloud would probably just want to give him some more tea. He didn’t like tea. He didn’t want tea. He needed something more.
Hell, he just didn’t care. All he really wanted was—he opened his eyes, the bed still beckoning him from the other side of the room—to sleep. To sleep forever with no dreams, no faces of death, no cries of pain, no exhaustion and anguish sucking every ounce of strength he had. He felt like he had nothing left to give. He let his head roll forward, chin to chest. If only Madrid had died up there in the mountains, where he should have. Where he was meant to. But he hadn’t. And now he’d made a promise. A promise he had to keep.
Opening his eyes, he pushed himself away from the window, grunting from the unwelcome exertion. So, now he just had to find a way to keep going long enough…
As he turned toward the chair, the sparkle of the dark colored glass pieces caught his eye. He stepped over to the table, his hand reaching out to pick one up.
A sharp prick of pain caused him to pull his shaking hand up to his mouth. Cursing at his lack of control, he sucked on the small cut to his finger.
Damned. He needed some laudanum, and he needed it badly. He pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead, trying desperately to clear his thoughts. But all he could think about was the need for sleep, the constant flaming in his side, and the intense desire to drown it all in the oblivion of death.
Dropping his hand, he unsteadily sank into the chair and closed his eyes. His mind, clouding under the pain and exhaustion, managed to only pull one coherent thought together before it sank into an uneasy rest. If I was gonna lose my memory, why couldn’t I have forgotten it all?
Wakeman leaned back against his desk, arms crossed, surveying the dozen assorted men grouped in front of him. Men he had hired to take care of problems like Madrid.
Swain stood in the middle looking expectantly at his boss. “So, how do you want us to handle him, Boss?”
In undisguised scorn, Wakeman snorted sarcastically. “Let’s give this some thought,” he paused. “As I see it, we have only two choices. We either ride into that damn town and take him, or we catch him during one of these night raids he seems so fond of.”
Wakeman glanced expectantly around the group who all, except for Swain, were suddenly fixated on the condition of their boots. “Well?!” he demanded.
Wesley uncomfortably cleared his throat. “But, Madrid…he’s—”
“A man!” Wakeman spat out. “A man, nothing more! What the hell am I paying you for if you can’t take care of one man? You’re hired to look after my interests, my property! That’s what you’re hired for, or have you forgotten?”
A number of the men uncomfortably shook their heads.
“I’m glad that’s clear,” Wakeman continued. “In the meantime, my suggestion is that we prepare for his next midnight run. I’d rather not have to ride into the town if we can avoid it—could get messy and the Judge wouldn’t like that. I want all the men split up into groups of three or four and scattered out among the areas most likely to draw one of his attacks. We need to get ourselves prepared. He’s been throwing us off, confusing us and making us look like fools. We need to regroup and be prepared. We know he’s going to attack again. We just need to catch him at it.”
Swain glanced around at the men on either side of him. They nodded to each other, but a number of the men still seemed more interested in their boots.
“Perhaps I know something that will take away any last doubts you have. The man who gets Madrid, gets an extra thousand dollar bonus.”
Wakeman was rewarded with a murmur of responsive appreciation.
“Good.” Wakeman stood up straight and put his hands to his hips. “Swain, I’m putting you in charge. Now clear out, all of you. I have a meeting with Miss O’Connor this evening that I need to get ready for.”
As Swain and Wesley left the living room, Wesley mumbled. “If we’d had any brains, we woulda lit out with Bridger, thousand dollars or not.”
“Laura! Laura! No!” he screamed in anguish as Laura’s green eyes tried to keep focus on him, but the rest of her body was limp against his. Her arms hung unmoving at her side and he had to support her back and head in his hands as he sank her slowly to the barn floor.
“Johnny,” she whispered, her eyes growing gray. “I—love—” a small sigh escaped her mouth and she was gone
“No…” Johnny sobbed. He put his hand to her face, then stopped, shocked to see that his hand was covered with blood—Laura’s blood.
“Damn it, Madrid! Now look what you’ve done!” the young man with the gun yelled, panic etched clearly on his face.
Johnny gazed numbly from the young man to Riley, the man Johnny had thought was a friend.
“You killed her!” The young man pointed his gun at Johnny. “He killed my sister,” he repeated, his voice rising, echoing eerily in the barn.
Johnny, thoughts incoherent, eyes wide in disbelief, looked back down at the woman he loved; the woman he’d hoped to marry. Her eyes stared vacantly toward the rafters.
In a scream of anguish, he drew out his gun….
Two men glaring at each other in a clearing, one holding a gun to a tall, blond man’s temple.
The blond…? Who….?
“You killed my father and now you’ll die for it!” Johnny feels himself scream, his anguish penetrating his being... his hatred consuming….
“No, Johnny!” the man near him yells, the voice having a control over him Johnny finds unsettling, abnormal….
Then a blur of people moving, gunshots fired. The man in the clearing, gun drawn, falling dead to the forest floor. Then a force of searing pain which sends Johnny flying backwards.
A sense of failure, of disappointing someone important, engulfed him.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry….”
The words continued to echo in his thoughts.
“Sorry.” The word caught in Johnny’s throat as he jerked himself awake, his chest heaving as he gasped for air, his body covered in a cold sweat. The visions of Laura’s death and the death of a man he’d shot but couldn’t name flashed back and forth dizzyingly. With pounding heart, he sought to escape the visions, the dreams. In a panic, he pushed himself out of the chair, but immediately collapsed to the floor, his body trembling beyond his control. With a groan, Johnny closed his eyes and laid his forehead on the cool, wood floor, as he fought to curb his painful convulsing.
He concentrated first on relaxing his breathing, which brought immediate relief to his injured side. Then he worked on controlling his shaking. The visions he could do nothing about, but try to push them back into a far corner of his mind. But they’d always be there, mocking his feeble attempts to bury them.
Crawling forward, each agonizing few inches punctuated by a pause to take in a slow, steady breath, Johnny reached the side of the bed. With eyes still closed, he carefully drew himself upward until he could rest his head and chest on the bed. There he half-lay, unmoving, as he tried to focus his mind.
Laudanum. He needed some badly. He had DarkCloud to keep at bay, the trip to Salinas to face tomorrow, Wakeman soon after and probably some of Wakeman’s army within the next few days. If he didn’t get some real rest, if he didn’t gain some control over the pain, Johnny Madrid wasn’t going to be able to finish out this last scene. He didn’t really care how he finished it, just as long as he was there at the end.
Johnny’s eyes flashed open at the thought. Of course. Rosti was known to help out if someone was sick in the absence of DarkCloud. Nothing too important, but he had the whiskey, rooms to put someone, and had his share of experience with barroom brawls. Rosti probably had a bottle around.
The thought gave Johnny the needed energy to force himself to his feet, though he had to grip the bedpost as he regained his balance. Focusing all his attention on the doorknob, Johnny made a curt swipe at the sweat on his face and walked to the door. He opened it and paused. All was quiet.
As he slowly walked down the steps, his hands gripping the railing for support, he carefully rehearsed a plausible reason to give Rosti for needing a shot of the laudanum. But, when he reached the bottom of the stairs, he was surprised and relieved to find the proprietor gone, and only one older gentleman sitting at a corner table by himself playing solitaire.
“Rosti around?” Johnny asked, his voice trembling slightly from the exertion of negotiating the steps.
The man looked up and shook his head. “Nah. He went out a few minutes ago. ‘S’posed to be closed on Sundays, ya know. Least-wise ‘til evening.” The man grinned, showing a toothless smile. “But with you fellers here, it’s hard to really be closed. He asked me to just keep an eye on things ‘case ya needs something.”
“Hmmm,” Johnny mumbled. “I’ll—I’m just gonna help myself to a drink.”
The old man nodded and went back to playing his solitaire.
Johnny crossed behind the bar and knelt down, his eyes searching among the bottles under the counter. After a minute of hunting, his patience was rewarded. With a sigh of relief, Johnny clasped the bottle in his hands. Then he paused. He couldn’t just take the whole bottle to his room. Looking up, he noticed the glasses for drinks. He opened the bottle, took a long swing, then grabbed one and poured until the glass was over half full. Then, carefully putting the bottle back where it had been, he stood up, the glass clutched tightly in his hands.
“Tell Rosti I got myself a drink. I’ll just take it up to my room.”
The old man nodded without looking up. “I’ll tell him.”
Johnny, eyes trained on the glass he held in his hands, turned and started for the steps.
At the top of the stairs, unknown to Johnny, a figure stepped back into the shadows, intrigued yet not surprised by what he had witnessed.
A half-hour later, Johnny had just fallen asleep. A quiet sleep uninterrupted by scenes of death and spasms of pain. But a scant thirty minutes later, a banging at the door sent him bolting upright.
With pounding heart, he rolled himself to his elbow and groped wildly for his gun.
“Hey, Madrid! You in there? Wanna catch somethin’ to eat?”
Johnny groaned. Tucson. As he rolled out of bed, he momentarily considered whether he was perhaps carrying a curse against uninterrupted sleep.
Before opening the door, Johnny slid his gun back into the holster hanging around the bedpost.
“Hey, Johnny.” Tucson smiled, then paused as he noticed Johnny’s bloodshot eyes. “Oh, uh, the Kid and I were wonderin’ if you were plannin’ on some supper?”
Johnny shook his head. “Nah.” He rubbed his face tiredly. “DarkCloud back yet?”
Tucson nodded. “Just saw him ride into town as we were entering the saloon.”
Johnny sighed and glanced toward the window as if he could sense DarkCloud waiting for him. “You two go along and eat. I’ll grab something later,” he said as he went back to the bedpost and grabbed his holster.
“Sure you don’t want us to order you somethin’?” Tucson asked.
“No,” Johnny answered with a shake of his head.
Tucson drummed his fingers on the doorframe, an unsatisfied look on his face, then sighed. “Okay, I’ll tell the Kid. Later, Johnny.”
“Yeah, later,” Johnny replied.
He then waited until Tucson had left before glancing at the glass on the table. The effects from the earlier dose were still working, the trembling was mostly gone and he could move a little easier, the pain more manageable. It wouldn’t do to go see his resident conscience with laudanum on his breath. Besides, he needed to conserve what he had. He needed a good night’s sleep, and he had a couple of hard days ahead of him.
Determined to get his meeting with DarkCloud over with as soon as possible, Johnny left the room and followed the steps down to the bar.
Tucson and the Kid were seated at a table talking to Rosti, the Kid in the process of ordering a beefsteak-rare. He gave a quick wave and nod as Johnny entered.
Johnny nodded back and continued on outside without stopping to talk.
The Kid noticed Tucson’s eyes following Johnny. After Rosti left with his order, the Kid leaned over and whispered, “Whatd’ya think’s wrong with Madrid?”
Tucson shrugged vaguely.
“I think he looks like hell,” the Kid continued. “Something’s wrong with him, if you ask me. I hope he knows what he’s doin’ goin’ up to Salinas tomorrow. I’m thinkin’ maybe he’s sick or somethin’.”
Tucson shook his head. “Whatever’s wrong with Madrid ain’t any of your concern. I expect he’ll be able to handle whatever comes his way. He’s runnin’ the show, don’t forget.”
The Kid nodded slowly and picked up his drink, his eyes drawn toward the saloon door Johnny had just walked out. “Yeah, well, what if somethin’ happens he didn’t plan for?”
Tucson didn’t answer.
DarkCloud halted in surprise, his hand frozen in the act of reaching out for the door handle, as Johnny stepped into the shop. “Well, well! I guess you aren’t gonna force me to make a house call,” he remarked dryly.
“And miss a chance to once again visit these warm surroundings?” Johnny answered, a vague grin on his face.
“Ah,” DarkCloud enjoined. “Let’s go into the back where the real fun takes place.”
“And here I thought you’d never ask,” Johnny quipped.
DarkCloud noted that while Johnny’s eyes were crinkling in amusement, his expression was still heavy with exhaustion. Still, DarkCloud couldn’t help but grin at his friend’s reply, and turning, he led the way to the back. “Feeling any better?” he asked cautiously as he motioned for Johnny to get up on the table.
“Pretty near the same,” Johnny replied, his eyes taking in the bandages and ointment that were already laid out, a sure sign that the doctor had obviously been planning on searching him out. “How’d it go with the Pinnacle Tribe?”
“Much as expected.” DarkCloud picked up a scissors and motioned for Johnny to take off his shirt “I didn’t find anyone, but I left a sign to let them know I wanted to talk. I’ll go up again tomorrow and hopefully I’ll have the information you need when you get back from Salinas.”
DarkCloud carefully bent over and began to cut away the old bandaging. When he got to the last squares of cloth, he noticed a stain of blood. “And what,” he asked, his eyebrows raised in disapproval, “have you been doing?”
Closing his eyes, Johnny sighed tiredly. “Nothing. It just happened, okay?”
“I know. I know!” Johnny snapped. “I’m being as careful as I can.”
Biting back a retort, DarkCloud pulled off the last of the bandage. “Damn,” he hissed and stood up, crossing his arms in front of him. “Okay, Madrid. You gonna tell me what’s goin’ on?”
Johnny’s gaze settled on DarkCloud, his eyes tightening. “That’s enough. I came here as we agreed. Now you do your job so I can do mine.”
“That’s just it!” DarkCloud retorted angrily. “You won’t let me do my job! That wound of yours is now infected, Johnny, and I swear you’re doing everything in your power to ruin any attempt I make in stopping it or healing you! Why?”
Shaking his head tiredly, Johnny cast his eyes downward, surprised at the vehemence behind DarkCloud’s words.
“I talked to Rosti,” DarkCloud continued, surprised at the sharp look he received at the pronouncement. “He says you haven’t had any of that last batch of tea I had him make up.”
“I don’t need it,” Johnny replied quickly, looking away to hide the relief that flooded over him after the initial panic of hearing that DarkCloud may have discovered he’d taken the laudanum from behind Rosti’s bar.
“Yes, you do,” DarkCloud shot back. “Not only is it to help with the pain, but it is supposed to help with the infection, remember?”
“I’ll be fine,” Johnny said, his voice low.
DarkCloud regarded Johnny silently a second. “Are you just saying that for my benefit?”
Johnny raised his eyes slightly. “If you’ve got something to say, say it.”
DarkCloud took a deep breath and narrowed his eyes. “Yes, I’ve got something to say. You don’t care if you get any better, do you?”
Johnny registered no surprise at the question, he just returned DarkCloud’s look for a silent moment before replying quietly, “Of course I care.”
DarkCloud paused, the heat in his chest slowly replaced by an uncomfortable tightness. The absence of a fierce tirade from his friend, the quiet reply that lacked conviction, told him all he needed to know. He put a hand on Johnny’s arm, only to have Johnny flinch away, his eyes now suddenly flashing.
“Don’t go gettin’ yourself frettin’ over nothing! I’ll get the job done!”
“And then what?”
Clenching his teeth, Johnny pushed off from the table. As his feet hit the floor, his knees buckled, forcing him to grab onto the table. DarkCloud put out a steadying hand, but drew it away when Johnny cursed and glared at the proffered help.
“Damn it, DarkCloud! Leave me alone! I’ll be just fine.”
“Johnny, have you looked at yourself recently? You look worse than when I saw you a week ago. When is the last time you ate properly?”
“Dunno,” Johnny replied as he forced himself to stand straight, but the pain was still deep in his eyes. “I eat when I’m hungry.”
“When’s the last time you got some sleep then?”
“This afternoon,” Johnny replied quickly, “and I’d gotten a helluva lot more if I hadn’t had to come down here and see you.”
DarkCloud continued, unwilling to stop now. “You’re pale. Your breathing’s shallow. You’re sweatin’ and shaking uncontrollably at times and you’re running a fever from that infection.” He paused for breath, yet plunged ahead despite the disgusted look he was receiving. “The lack of food, sleep and now this infection is pulling you down, Johnny. Don’t you see that? Don’t you care? I’m trying to help! Why won’t you let me? Why do you continue to fight me every step of the way?”
Johnny turned away, one hand still gripping the side of the table for the support it gave. He replied, his head bent wearily, “Can we just get this taken care of? I still have some things to go over this evening before I do get some sleep.”
DarkCloud closed his eyes against the sight of the scars on Johnny’s back; old wounds each with their own history of pain….and death. Opening his eyes, DarkCloud started to reach out again, but let his hand drop. Johnny wasn’t about to welcome his concern, but he had to connect somehow.
“Johnny. Johnny,” he repeated, forcing his friend to turn around, the blue eyes suddenly steely behind the mask of the gunfighter. DarkCloud chose to ignore the challenge and plunged on, “You never really answered me. The one thing I need to know.” He paused, unflinching under Johnny’s hard glare.
“Say it, Chief!”
DarkCloud blinked at Johnny’s attempt to goad him, but he didn’t rise to the bait. “There is no—and then what—is there?”
Johnny’s jaw tightened, but his eyes remained hard. “I think you’ve answered that yourself.”
DarkCloud took in a deep breath, suddenly at a loss for words as Johnny, watching the frantic attempt on DarkCloud’s face to formulate a response, snorted slightly, his eyes suddenly exchanging their iciness for amused bitterness.
“And then what?” Johnny echoed the question quietly. “There is nothing.” He closed his eyes for a second before opening them again. This time, DarkCloud saw once again only sadness and exhaustion. The gunfighter had left. “I’m tired.”
“I’m tired,” Johnny repeated again. “I’m tired of my life—I’m tired of death.” He closed his eyes again and continued. “I can’t sleep, DarkCloud. The visions of so many people dying come back to haunt me in my dreams.” He opened his eyes again, raw with pain that startled his friend. “I see it over and over. Friends dying. People I don’t even know dying. All at my hand.” He held his hands out weakly before him, then dropped them to his side. “It’s no good what you’ll say, ‘cuz it’s not true. Getting my memory back isn’t going to help. I don’t want it back. I’ve seen enough to know that in the last few years I have no friends left.” He added with a feeble snort of disdain, “Thanks mostly to myself. And I don’t know all I’ve been up to, but it’s obviously not something I think I want to remember. I just want peace, and I’m not going to get that as long as I live.”
DarkCloud looked at his friend, his dark hair hanging shaggily about his face, his blue eyes heavy with pain, his face gaunt and pale, hands trembling slightly at his side. But what struck DarkCloud most was the palpable sadness emanating from Johnny. He was suddenly struck with the realization that in front of him stood what had to be one of the most unhappy of creatures—a gunfighter with a conscience. “Johnny, there’ll be other—”
“What?” Johnny cut him off before he could continue. “Other jobs? Other men to kill for a few dollars. How about a gold shipment to protect? Or if I’m really in luck,” he made a sweeping gesture with one hand, “a town to save?”
“No, Johnny,” DarkCloud shook his head. “You’ve meant a lot to many people. My relatives in Mexico, for instance. You’re a—”
“A legend?” Johnny finished quietly, his eyes suddenly crinkling with bitter amusement. “Didn’t you know the best legends are dead? That way they can’t disappoint anyone.” He smiled vaguely. “I think it’s past the time for Johnny Madrid to exit.”
Johnny gave a small wink. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure the town gets a proper show and Wakeman’ll get what’s coming.” He paused as the tired grin once more spread over his face. “You can’t tell me it ain’t been good so far.”
“I’m not gonna stand by and let you kill yourself.”
Johnny’s face suddenly became serious again. “I never asked you to. I just want you to help me make it another week.”
Sighing, DarkCloud bowed his head and pressed a hand to his eyes. When he looked up, his face matched Johnny’s haggard expression. “Isn’t there anybody or anything to live for?”
Johnny shook his head. “Everyone who has ever meant anything to me is dead.”
“How about Jamie?” DarkCloud groped for an argument.
Johnny closed his eyes and slowly opened them. “I like Jamie a lot. He’s a wonderful kid, with a chance for a future. Which do you think is better for him? That he continues to idolize a gunfighter, or he sees, firsthand, how my life’s gonna end anyway. If not here, then the next town, or the one after that. Nobody who becomes a gunfighter actually expects to retire.”
Johnny put up a hand, halting DarkCloud’s argument. “Please, no more. It’s all been said. Let’s do what you need to here so that I can meet with the others and try to get some sleep before leaving tomorrow.”
DarkCloud nodded, the sinking feeling he always got when he lost a patient, already settling on him. He turned abruptly and picked up the ointments. Carrying them to the table, he set them down and proceeded to apply a thin layer to each wound, Johnny still remaining standing, one hand on the table for support.
Finished, he began to rewrap the wounds, Johnny barely moving except for an imperceptible flinch as DarkCloud tightened the bandage. Then, the job done, he stepped back and regarded the gunfighter.
Johnny nodded a thank you, picked up his shirt, and pulled it on.
As he did so, DarkCloud grimly noted how he still leaned against the table for the added support. He was also acutely aware of the drained look on Johnny’s face, all earlier belligerence now replaced by overwhelming exhaustion.
“I do have something that might help you get some sleep,” DarkCloud suddenly stated, hoping to offer some form of help.
Johnny watched as his friend went back out to the shop and returned momentarily with a small flask of powder.
“Put this in your drink tonight. You should be able to sleep a little better.”
Johnny nodded and accepted the container without question.
“I—I could make you up something stronger for the pain.”
Johnny raised one eyebrow slightly. “Will it knock me out?”
DarkCloud nodded slowly. “Anything stronger than what I had in that tea is gonna slow you down.”
“That’s the last thing I need.” Johnny shook his head.
“But, how’ll you handle—”
“I’ll drink your damn tea,” Johnny replied with a slight smile. “If it’ll make you happy.”
DarkCloud managed a weak smile. “It’d make me feel like I was helping in some way.” Then he watched somberly as Johnny turned and left, leaving DarkCloud wondering if he should have offered Johnny a bottle of laudanum.
Johnny stepped out into the fading afternoon sun and leaned against the porch post tiredly. His conversation with DarkCloud had drained him, and the simple walk across the street loomed before him. He glanced down at the small flask of powder in his hands.
“I sure hope you do the trick,” he mumbled. “Or it’s gonna be a helluva long day tomorrow.” He shoved the flask into his pocket, pushed off from the post, and headed across the street to the saloon.
DarkCloud was right about one thing. He needed a good meal if he was going to have the energy needed in order to finish this job. So, despite the fact that he really didn’t feel like eating anything, he was going to order up a hearty meal for once…and force himself to eat it.
He was just stepping up onto the boardwalk on the other side of the street when he heard his name called. He turned to see Grace, skirts pulled up slightly, walking quickly along the store fronts in an attempt to catch up with him. He waited, one eyebrow raised in amusement, as she arrived, slightly breathless.
“I’d hoped I’d catch you yet this evening before we left to go home.”
Johnny smiled politely, yet his physical exhaustion kept any warmth from really reaching his eyes. “What can I do for you, Miss Grace?”
Grace hesitated in an obvious attempt to gather her thoughts before speaking what was on her mind. “Matthew and I, we talked it over, and we’d be a lot happier if you’d come back out and stay with us at the farm.”
Johnny’s face broke into a tired grin. “Happier?” He managed a weak chuckle. “Jamie must be startin’ to take you for all you own, too, now.”
Grace shook her head, her expression still somber despite Johnny’s levity. “No, no, that’s not it, Johnny. We’d really like your company.”
Johnny laughed lightly. “You keep calling me Johnny, like you’re doin’, and I’m gonna know someone’s paying you dearly to steal this poor gunfighter’s heart.”
Grace stomped her foot, irritated at Johnny’s continued teasing. “You’re not taking me seriously, Mr. Madrid.”
“Oh, I’m taking you very seriously, Miss Grace.”
Though his eyes crinkled showing his amusement, Grace noticed the smile from his lips never truly reached them. Instead, she found despair in the blue eyes that filled her heart with such heaviness that made it difficult to breathe. “Jamie really misses you. And Matthew enjoys your company,” she faltered and bit her lip before continuing, her eyes suddenly filling with tears. “And—and we’re worried about you—I’m worried about you, Johnny.”
Without forethought, Johnny reached out and wiped away a tear, a feeling of having done so in another time suddenly taking over his actions. “What, tears for me, Teresa?” The wetness surprised him and he blinked himself back to the present. Instead of hazel eyes, he saw brown ones, studying him with intense sadness. He drew his hand back quickly and dropped it to his side. “Don’t waste your tears on a desert,” he murmured quietly.
Grace turned to see Matthew striding across the street, Jamie asleep in his arms.
“We seem to have lost one,” Matthew remarked as he smiled at Johnny, then turned to Grace. “Ready to head back?”
Grace nodded silently then looked back at Johnny, her eyes searching the gunfighter’s face.
Ignoring Grace’s attempt to connect, Johnny took a step toward Matthew to stroke Jamie’s hair, the sad smile once again on his face. “Take good care of him. He’s a great kid.”
Matthew grinned at Grace. “Yeah, we know.”
“It’d probably be wise not to bring him to town for awhile. Things could get ugly here, depending how it goes with Wakeman in Salinas.” He looked directly at Matthew. “I’d rather Wakeman not know that I stayed with you, or that Jamie and I got to be friends.”
Matthew absently rubbed Jamie’s back. “You’re expecting some trouble soon, aren’t you?”
Johnny smiled roguishly. “If Wakeman doesn’t make a direct move soon, I’ve been hired to take on a saint.”
Matthew nodded wryly. “I’d better get Jamie to the wagon. He’s way too heavy for me to be luggin’ around. I’ll see you at first sun-up tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow, then,” Johnny replied. Turning to Grace, he said, “Tell Jamie I said goodbye.”
Grace nodded quietly, then watched as Johnny turned and walked into the saloon before she followed Matthew to the wagon.
“Matthew,” she asked as she climbed up beside him. “Did Johnny’s ‘goodbye’ seem rather final to you?”
Matthew clicked the horses forward. “Not so’s I could tell.”
“And he called me Teresa.”
Matthew turned a quizzical expression to his sister. “Teresa? Who’s that?”
Grace shook her head and looked out toward the darkening valley floor. “I don’t know.”
At the sound of the approaching buggy, Wakeman smoothed his moustache and took a last look at his reflection in the mirror hanging in the entryway. He had sent one of his men over to Jenny’s house to collect her—a seemingly gallant gesture, but one that also left him in charge of her departure. Confident that he looked every bit the impeccable gentleman, he put on his most sincere face and opened the door.
Jenny, clad in a beautiful dress he knew he’d never seen before, was just stepping up on to the porch. At the sight of Wakeman, she paused and her face flushed, a wide, even smile lighting up her face.
“James!” she squealed. “James! Of course the answer’s ‘yes’!” She dashed forward, throwing herself against Wakeman, who merely stood, mouth open and gaping—totally confused—until his eyes caught sight of the flash of red silk tied around Jenny’s bun.
“What—?” The words caught in his throat.
Jenny pulled away, confused. “What’s wrong, honey? You don’t look well?”
“The—your—hair.” Wakeman gripped Jenny’s upper arms and turned her so that he could get a better look at the offensive object tied around Jenny’s hair.
“Oh, do you like it?” Jenny asked in open, wide-eyed innocence. “I wasn’t sure what I could do with it, it being a ‘kerchief…but it was so pretty!” As she tilted her head to the side to afford Wakeman an even better view, she brought her left hand up to touch the red, silk bow. “Don’t you think it was a good idea?” She patted her hair, a sparkle shining from her finger.
A gurgling noise erupted out of Wakeman’s throat causing Jenny to look at him again in concern.
“The—the—ring! You’re wearing the ring!” He grabbed her hand.
“Of course, silly. Did you think I wouldn’t?” She held her hand out approvingly. “It’s beautiful, James. So… So…us. And the inscription…” She smiled. “I love it, just love it. And the man you sent over with it,” she continued. “He was so nice. I never saw him around here before. It was just like a king sending a knight with a message to his lady.” She clasped her hands together dreamily.
Wakeman, face flushed red with barely controlled anger, tersely demanded, “This man? What did he look like?”
Jenny raised an eyebrow quizzically. “Well, he works for you, Honey. You should know.”
“Tell me,” Wakeman commanded, fighting back the urge to scream.
Jenny stepped back, confused. “Well, he had dark, thick hair, beautiful blue eyes and a wonderful smile. And he was so gallant. He even kissed my hand.”
The wistful smile that appeared on Jenny’s face as she described the encounter did not go unnoticed by Wakeman.
“Madrid…” Wakeman hissed vehemently.
All was quiet in the ranch house of James Wakeman. All light except for one single candle had long been extinguished. But James Wakeman was awake. This night he had found it impossible to sleep. For five hours he had been sitting in front of his desk imagining every form of death possible, from lingering and painful, to quick and unforeseen, and had decided, when it came down to it, he didn’t really care how it was accomplished, just as long as when it was done, Madrid was dead.
He also decided that most of the men he had working for him, men he’d been paying a lot of money to for protection and their supposed skill with a gun, were definitely below the caliber that he’d assumed he’d purchased. What he really needed was another Madrid.
Wakeman dropped his hands onto the desktop from where they had been supporting his chin. A glimmer of an idea, which contained the possibility of hope out of the situation he’d found himself in, spread across his face, giving his expression one of thoughtful consideration.
At this point, he had nothing left to lose. And everything to gain.
This time the group started off even earlier than before with Matthew in charge of the wagon and the three gunfighters on horseback, one on each side and one riding up front. There was no need to pretend to be anything than what they were this time, as Wakeman’s men now knew what to look for.
After a good night’s sleep and a full meal the evening before, Johnny found himself with energy he’d forgotten he’d had. He also did as promised and had Rosti make up a batch of DarkCloud’s tea, forcing himself to drink an entire dose before bed and again in the morning. But it was the dose of laudanum he allowed himself that helped the most. And he had put half of what was left in his flask and left the rest in his room for his return. He harbored no illusions; he knew he’d be needing it when he returned.
Feeling more his old self, he became determined to keep the pace brisk as he didn’t want to reach Salinas in the dark. All the riders kept their eyes on the Coastal Santa Lucias, looking for any sign of a smoke signal from Red Deer’s lookouts that would warn them about Wakeman’s men being spotted. But no sign was given. Johnny hoped to avoid any trouble until they reached Salinas. He hoped Wakeman had found his last few days so unbearable and unpredictable that the thought of another Salinas trip wouldn’t even occur to him until they’d already reached their goal.
The Kid, as talkative as usual, entertained Tucson and Matthew with stories of his ten siblings, while Tucson began retelling some of the same stories he’d told on their first trip up, this time for Matthew’s benefit. Johnny was amused to hear they’d grown even more improbable and flamboyant with this latest retelling.
Johnny, for his part, remained quiet, only interrupting once when Matthew, who felt obligated to add to the general enjoyment, began telling stories about Jamie, which led to his mentioning Jamie’s card playing with Johnny.
“Oh, ho! So Johnny was losing big time to a nine-year-old, eh?” Tucson laughed heartily.
“Guess that don’t say much for us!” the Kid joined in. “Johnny’s beat us both just a couple days ago!”
“They played constantly,” Matthew continued. “The first few days it was the only thing John—”
“Let’s give the horses a breather here,” Johnny interrupted as he jerked his horse around, a spark of annoyance aimed at Matthew. “There’s a good place here to get some water. Don’t get comfortable; we’re not stayin’ long.”
Matthew cringed under Johnny’s glare, the uncomfortable feeling of having just spilled a family secret crept up his spine. He quietly got out of the wagon and led the team to the flat, shallow streambed.
Johnny chose not to dismount, but rode his horse into the water where he took a long drink from his own canteen. Finished, he replaced it on the saddle horn, then took off his hat. He was wiping the sweat from his forehead when he noticed Matthew, standing silently beside the horses in the water, regarding him cautiously.
Johnny looked away and pushed the hat back on his head. “Let’s go!” he announced loudly as he reined his horse back up to the trail.
Matthew remained fairly quiet the rest of the trip. And except for allowing himself two sips from the flask he carried in his jacket pocket, Johnny managed to fight off the fatigue and pain, though the last hour, with Salinas rising on the horizon, seemed the longest hour of the day.
“And there’s a couple additional items that Jelly just reminded me about that I’ve added since we discussed this last night,” Murdoch said as he handed a neatly organized list to Scott. “If you think of anything else I might have missed, don’t hesitate to add it on.” He paused next to the wagon as Scott climbed aboard beside Teresa, then shifted his attention to his ward. “And Teresa, you might want to pick up a couple more work shirts for us, and maybe one more dress shirt each. See what Mr. Paulsen has in stock. I’ll leave it to your judgement.”
Teresa smiled. “I’ll take care of it, Murdoch. Do you need anything else?”
Murdoch looked down. “Well, I do need a new belt, but I think I’ll wait and take care of that myself.” With a smile, he glanced back up at his ward. “No, that should do it.”
“We’d better get a move on if we’re planning to be back this evening,” Scott said as he picked up the reins.
Murdoch nodded and stepped off to the side as the wagon started forward. “Teresa, keep Scott out of trouble!” Murdoch called at the last minute.
Teresa glanced back and waved. “Don’t I always?” she replied as they pulled away.
As the wagon rounded past the corrals, Scott mumbled under his breath, “Do you think he suspects something?”
Teresa gave Scott a sidewise look. “Of course.”
Murdoch watched the wagon disappear behind an outbuilding. He knew Teresa’s sudden need for supplies was really Scott’s doing. Scott’s eyes always gave him away, apologizing for the deception even before the words had left his mouth. Not at all like Johnny’s eyes. Johnny’s could be so open and relaxed, and then, in a heartbeat, replaced by the unreadable eyes of Madrid. Whenever Murdoch saw Johnny put on his mask, he always felt the breath go out of him, like he’d been hit in the gut.
So to avoid, yet again, another disagreement between him and his oldest, he wisely decided to say nothing. He just hoped Scott wasn’t planning to do anything foolish, like hire men…
“Took off already, huh?”
Murdoch turned to see Jelly, fingers threaded under his suspenders, strolling casually toward him.
Murdoch nodded. “Scott was anxious to get under way.”
“Yeah, I bet,” Jelly replied, turning to gaze out across the corrals to where the wagon was just visible in the distance.
Shaking his head, Murdoch followed Jelly’s gaze. “I hope he doesn’t go and try to hire someone to look for Johnny.”
Jelly kept his gaze fixed on the retreating wagon. “Why not?”
Murdoch looked down at his companion. “Don’t you start, too.”
Jelly cast a surprised look at his boss. “Start? Start what? Jus’ seems like a good idea t’me.”
“It’s the same as I told Scott,” Murdoch replied, turning away from the disappearing wagon and crossing his arms. “Johnny was here over two years. It’s not like when he left a couple months after getting here, when everything was new and confusing to him. He’s been here long enough to know if this is the type of life he wants to lead or not. Dragging him back isn’t going to do any good. He’s plenty self-sufficient; he can take care of himself and decide for himself the sort of life he wants to lead.”
“All the more reason to keep trying.”
Murdoch gave Jelly a sour look.
“I sorta see it like this,” Jelly continued. “When you’re tryin’ to tame a wild animal, they have strong instincts for survivin’, but sometimes they haven’t got the sense to know what’s good fer them. They don’t understand that you’re tryin’ to give them a warm home in the winter and plenty of food and water during the summer. They get scared and temperamental. So you gotta keep tryin’ and be patient. When they bolt, you go after them and try again.”
Murdoch’s sour look remained. “Jelly, Johnny’s not a wild animal.”
Jelly raised an eyebrow. “Well, maybe not. But his young years were pretty wild, kinda dog eat dog. Very diff’rent than what a normal boy might ‘sperience.”
“Don’t you think I know that?”
“Yes,” Jelly replied slowly. “I’m sure you do. Jes’ think sometimes you ferget.”
Murdoch shook his head, then tiredly rubbed his face. “The day’s young yet, Jelly. I’d rather not start it with an argument.”
“I’m not arguin’,” Jelly replied honestly.
“Could’ve fooled me,” Murdoch retorted, slightly irritated.
“So, you prefer to jus’ wait,” Jelly stated quietly, his eyes averted once more toward where the wagon had gone, now vanished from sight.
“I think that’s best, unless—” Murdoch cast an unhappy look over his shoulder toward the distance, too. “Scott goes and starts something foolish like hiring men on his own.” He paused and shook his head. “He’s gotten as stubborn as that brother of his.”
“Or his father,” Jelly’s face remained expressionless.
Murdoch gave Jelly a sharp look and grunted his disapproval. “I’m going in,” he retort and started for the house.
“Murdoch.” Jelly turned, but didn’t follow. “What would be worse? That Scott disobeys you and finds out Johnny does need your help, or he obeys you only to find out later that Johnny did need help, but it’s too late?”
Murdoch stopped in his tracks. For a few seconds he was silent, then without turning he replied softly, “Neither. It’d be worse if he finds him and brings him back, only to have Johnny run out on us again.” There was another slight pause. “I can’t continue to deal with his running off.”
Jelly watched his boss continue into the house, sadly realizing that Murdoch was more affected by Johnny’s leaving than any of them had known.
The streets were fairly busy for a late Monday morning as Scott and Teresa pulled into Green River. Many of the hitching posts were in use, and Scott found it necessary to stop a block past Paulsen’s General Story. After setting the brake, he quickly jumped out, tied the horses and went around to help Teresa out of the wagon.
“Looks like Mr. Paulsen’s doing quite a business today,” Teresa noted as she accepted Scott’s help and lightly jumped to the ground.
“Well, it’s getting into autumn, people are stocking up and bringing in their trade goods,” Scott remarked as he looked down the street at all the horses and wagons tied up.
Teresa nodded with a sigh as she glanced down the street. “My, I guess you’re right. It just doesn’t seem like it could already be September.”
Both Scott and Teresa turned to see Sheriff Crawford loping across the street from his office. “I thought that was you I saw passin’ by the window.”
Scott nodded as Teresa stepped back unobtrusively to give the men more room to talk. “Came into town for a few supplies,” Scott began with a vague gesture toward the wagon. “And I thought it’d give me a chance to talk to you about something I have in mind.”
Val ran a hand absently along the neck of one of the horses as he hazarded a quick glance at Teresa. “I could use a few words with you myself,” he said to Scott, though the unspoken words of ‘in private’ didn’t escape Teresa’s notice.
“Well then,” Teresa smiled and gave Scott’s back a quick pat. “How about if you come to the store when you’re done talking with Sheriff Crawford and help me get the supplies loaded, okay?”
Scott nodded. “Sure, Teresa. Thanks.”
Teresa gave Scott a reassuring nod then turned to Val. “Sheriff,” she smiled warmly.
Val awkwardly straightened up from his slouched position against the horse and quickly tipped his hat. “Miss Teresa.”
The two men watched Teresa step up onto the boardwalk and start down the block to Paulsen’s General Store.
Val shoved his hat back on his head and turned to Scott. “I was just gonna get me some lunch. That okay with you?”
Scott grinned. “As long as it’s not at Rositas!”
Val snorted. “No Beaf ‘n Bean Burrito Bolt for you today?”
“No, I think I’ll pass.”
“Shame,” Val laughed, then hooked his thumb down the street. “Actually, I’d planned to just grab somethin’ quick at the saloon. Somethin’ to stick to the ribs ‘til supper.”
“Lead the way.” Scott nodded with a flourish.
Val and Scott walked down to the opposite block from where Teresa had gone and entered the largest of the Green River saloons. It was locally known for its pan-fried potatoes covered in a hot sauce, a specialty Johnny had immediately discovered and hooked Scott on. There was a bit of a disagreement over how ‘hot’ the ‘hot sauce’ was supposed to be, however, as Johnny’s definition of hot seemed to differ from Scott’s by a wide margin.
On entering the saloon, Val immediately walked up to the barkeep. “Phil, I need me a steak sandwich and some of them smashed potatoes.” He glanced at Scott. “You want them fried potatoes and sauce?”
Scott nodded. “Not too hot.” Then he added, “But you’d better add a large glass of water to that, just in case.”
Val rolled his eyes, then turned back to the barkeep. “Add two beers to that.” He shook his head and mumbled under his breath, “Water.”
Once the beers were poured, Scott followed Val to a less occupied corner of the saloon where they found a table and sat down. Val gave a grunt of approval as he settled tiredly into his seat.
“Long day already?” Scott observed.
Val slouched down further into the chair. “Long night, actually. Mrs. Jaxon showed up wantin’ me to arrest Mr. Jaxon.” He took a long drink from his beer and continued, “Seems she was a mite upset with him for not comin’ home to supper as he was suppos’d to. Got side-tracked at Lolita’s,” he added with a smirk.
“How side-tracked?” Scott asked with a smile.
Val suppressed a grin. “Very side-tracked.”
Scott chuckled appreciatively. “So, how’d it end?”
“Well,” Val rubbed a hand along the stubble on his chin. “I had a difficult time explainin’ to the Missus that not comin’ home for supper wasn’t an arrestin’ type of offense. But you know Mrs. Jaxon,” he rolled his eyes.
“Oh, yeah.” Scott nodded as he held his beer to his own lips. “All two hundred pounds of her.”
Val shook his head. “Well, she didn’t like my answer, so she took matters into her own hands.”
“Oh?” Scott raised an amused eyebrow.
Val nodded, a dismayed look on his face. “Got herself a shot-gun and started shootin’ up the place. Wounded her own husband up above in one of them ‘girlie rooms’.”
“You’re kidding!” Scott exclaimed with a repressed chuckle. “Was it serious?”
“Nah, not really,” Val covered his face with his hand to hide his amusement. “But he won’t be sittin’ down any time soon.”
“I guess you did have a long night, Val,” Scott laughed, then drew his arms from the table as the bartender brought over their food.
“Hmmmm,” Val sniffed appreciatively. “Why don’t you tell me what you wanted to talk to me about while I enjoy my meal here.”
The relaxed look on Scott’s face immediately disappeared. “You said you had something you wanted to talk to me about, too.”
“Mine’ll wait,” Val replied as he deftly placed his hands around the large sandwich and proceeded to smash it down so that he could manipulate his mouth around it.
Scott watched the oral gyrations with a hint of amusement then helped himself to a mouthful of the fried potatoes. He chewed in silence a moment, collecting his thoughts. After a few quiet seconds, he announced evenly, “I approached Murdoch about hiring the Pinkertons to look for Johnny again.”
Val raised an eyebrow and stopped chewing. “He said ‘no’, didn’t he?” he managed to mumble around his food.
Scott frowned. “Yes, he did.”
Val nodded, his expression one of obvious relief. “Good.”
“Good?” Displeasure hardened Scott’s eyes. “I had hoped you’d help me put out some sort of notice on Johnny. I can put up money of my own for information leading to his whereabouts. Murdoch’s reluctance to take action won’t deter me.”
Shaking his head, Val put up his hand to stop Scott from continuing, then swallowed. “Not a good idea.”
“Why not?” Scott demanded slightly louder than he’d meant to. He glanced around the saloon, but was relieved to see that nobody seemed interested in the seemingly mundane conversation between sheriff and local citizen.
“Don’t you think puttin’ out a reward fer information on Johnny could put him in danger?”
“Not as Johnny Lancer,” Scott argued. “I don’t plan to mention the connection to Johnny Madrid.”
Val raised his eyebrow again. “I think that’d be a mite hard to get away with. ‘Specially if that’s the name he’s assumed again.”
Scott manner remained resolute. “Then hook me up with a detective that I can hire on my own.”
Val dropped his eyes from Scott’s intense glare as he tiredly worked his fingers through his hair. With a deep sigh he dropped his hands to his lap where he seemed to study them for a few seconds before finally looking up at the determined young man before him. He took a deep breath. “Scott, before you go any further, I guess I’d better tell you the information I’ve recently come by. Then you’ll understand why it’s probably not a good idea to…to follow that path….” His voice trailed off weakly, then he suddenly straightened under Scott’s dark glare. “I, too, have been tryin’ to find Johnny. He may be your brother, but he’s also my friend.”
Though Scott’s expression remained guardedly suspicious, he nodded imperceptibly.
“I—I have an old friend who’s a sheriff in Kansas. I contacted him about that bounty you mentioned Johnny had on him.” Val paused as Scott’s look darkened immediately. “Scott, it’s a fact we gotta deal with.”
“I know,” Scott replied curtly as he folded his arms tightly against his chest. “What’s that got to do with finding Johnny?”
Val took a breath and shook his head slightly as his eyes made a quick survey of the room. He leaned forwards, lowering his voice, the act sending a slight shiver of apprehension down Scott’s back. “That bounty was recently raised, Scott. It’s no longer two thousand. It’s now four thousand.”
Scott’s eyes grew wide in shock. “Four thousand?” he barely managed to gasp. “What? How do…?”
“Scott,” Val interrupted. “Do you know anything about the bounty?”
Scott dropped his eyes and hesitantly shook his head. “No.”
“He is accused of having killed a young girl by the name of Laura Stanton and—”
“Johnny wouldn’t kill a girl,” Scott retorted vehemently, his eyes flashing with irritation as his hands dropped to the arms of his chair.
“I know that,” Val replied quietly. “And you know that. But that’s what the bounty’s about. And you need to be aware of that, Scott.”
Scott blinked and bit his lower lip. Unable to reply, he dropped his eyes and nodded.
“Okay, then,” Val continued. “Whether he did it or not, is not the problem we gotta deal with right now. The fact that the bounty has been issued is. And the fact that it’s now been doubled. Think about that, Scott. Four thousand dollars. That’s a helluva lot of money.”
Scott nodded weakly and swallowed. “You’re telling me that bounty hunters might be looking for him?”
Val nodded quietly. “Lookin’…or already found him.”
Scott sucked in his breath, a cold shock forked through his chest making it suddenly difficult to breathe. Keeping his gaze as calm as he could, he steadily faced Val. “Found him?”
“I don’t know,” Val replied slowly. “But you certainly don’t want to go puttin’ out posters, asking for information on Johnny, calling any more attention to him. If there ain’t any bounty hunters here in California lookin’ for him, then I’d count ourselves mighty lucky. But I ‘spect there are, and let’s not make their job any easier.”
Val studied Scott as he leaned slowly back in his chair, his haggard appearance making him look less like the Scott Val had come to know and more like a hard-edged, saddle tramp. Val had been startled at Scott’s rough appearance when he’d seen him standing beside Teresa. He looked tired and unwell, and there was a desperation and urgency in his manner that hadn’t been evident when he’d been in town just a week earlier. Val momentarily wondered whether Johnny had any idea just how much he had come to mean to his brother. Probably not. Sheriff Crawford had been friends with the two brothers long enough to realize that Johnny still felt like he was dragging Madrid around with him, and that some way this made him less desirable, less trustworthy, as a companion…or a brother. And even Scott’s unconditional acceptance hadn’t been enough to dispel it.
Val could also read in Scott’s face that he wasn’t satisfied, that he still wanted to pursue some sort of personal warrant or private investigator even without Val’s help. But Val knew that would be unwise, given the current circumstances.
“Scott, I want to ask you something important.” Val looked down at his plate and began to pick the seeds off his bread. “How did Murdoch find Johnny?”
Once more Scott’s arms folded against his chest in tight irritation, the scowl on his face darkening even his eyes. “I believe I’ve already gone over that with you.”
Val looked up from his bread, his face strangely distressed. “Yes, you have. He hired the Pinkertons,” he stated quietly.
Scott continued to glare at him. “So?”
Val breathed deeply and fixed Scott with a direct look. “The Pinkertons find people…they found their man. They found Johnny. And Johnny was—”
“—wanted,” Scott finished in a sudden wave of comprehension. “Wanted,” he breathed again. “The Pinkertons know.”
Val nodded his head. “They know.”
“Then—then,” Scott eyes grew wide in astonishment and he leaned forward, his palms pressing flat against the table, the pan-fried potatoes forgotten nearby. “Then how come he wasn’t taken in?”
Val gave a small shrug. “I can only guess at that. But perhaps because he was found in Mexico, out of U.S. borders. I assume something musta been worked out between the agency and Murdoch. And I’m sure it cost him a pretty penny,” he added pointedly.
“Murdoch paid…?” Scott’s voice trailed off in disbelief.
Val raised his hand slightly. “I don’t know, Scott. I don’t know. But it certainly is one good reason not to hire the Pinkertons to look for Johnny. Individually and at a small bounty reward, I’m sure it wasn’t out of Murdoch’s ability to get them to look the other way. They got bigger fish to fry. But at $4,000, well…it starts gettin’ mighty hard to keep it under wraps.”
Scott nodded mutely. “I—I never thought about that.”
Val leaned his elbows tiredly onto the table. “I never did either, Scott. Not until the raised bounty got me to thinkin’.”
Scott drew his arms back against his body and tilted his head up to glare at the ceiling. Though the determined set to his jaw seemed to grow more resolute, when Scott finally did look down, Val noticed a hard-edged fervor in his eyes that left him speechless.
“It seems my brother is now probably being hunted by even more men. But there’s no man out there who wants him more than me. I’m not sure how I’m going to find him, I’m not sure he wants to be found, but I’m still going to try. Until the day that he looks me in the eye and tells me he wants to be Johnny Madrid, that all we’ve had the past couple years has meant nothing, that it’s a decision he wasn’t forced into, I am going to continue to search for him. There’s nothing else I can do; he’s my brother.”
Teresa walked along the boardwalk toward the wagon, her arms loaded with packages. Her eyes trailed along the store fronts, lingering at intervals to take in any new items. As she adjusted the heavy packages in her arms, she noticed Scott leaning against the wagon box, idly slapping his gloves against his hand, deep in thought. She smiled to herself, set her chin against the top of the boxes to help steady them, and continued toward the wagon.
“Penny for your thoughts,” she greeted.
“Hmmm? Oh, Teresa.” Scott quickly grabbed for the top packages. “’Fraid I don’t have enough change to give you.”
Teresa smiled at the joke, then nodded at the supplies already loaded in the wagon box. “It looks like you finished early. Did you get something to eat?”
Scott shrugged noncommittally while he grabbed the rest of the packages out of Teresa’s hands then leaned over the side of the box to settle them among the other items. “You ready to leave?”
Teresa nodded and asked, “Did you get things taken care of with Sheriff Crawford?”
Her lighthearted disposition immediately lost its cheerfulness at the sight of the grim and strained smile that Scott gave her.
“Scott?” she hesitantly prodded.
Scott shook his head brusquely. “Let’s get out of town, then I’ll fill you in,” he replied as he put a hand out to help Teresa up to the wagon seat.
Quietly Teresa slid over and watched as Scott jumped up beside her. Without any further acknowledgement, he slapped the reins on the horses and started down the dusty street and out of town.
As the minutes passed and they left the town of Green River behind them, Teresa continued to sit quietly, wondering at what had happened to put Scott, once again, in such a preoccupied, obsessive mood. Obviously it hadn’t gone as Scott had hoped with Sheriff Crawford, but it seemed as if there was something else bothering Scott. Something he was reluctant to discuss.
Teresa suddenly paused in her thoughts. Maybe Sheriff Crawford had heard about Johnny. Maybe Johnny was… Her throat constricted at the thought that something awful might have happened to the younger Lancer. Unable to bear the thought, she gave her head a small shake, dispelling the sense of foreboding that had suddenly settled on her.
She then shot a furtive look at Scott, wishing to break the silence, yet knowing the young man beside her was dealing with something privately before he felt ready to discuss it. But damn! It was sometimes hard to wait for these men to decide they were ready to confide in her. Their persistence in seeing her as a young child to be protected was getting mighty old.
Hesitantly Teresa bit her lip and took a deep, silent breath. “With the work you’ve put into it, I’d say they ought to be worth at least a penny by now.”
Scott blinked and looked at Teresa in confusion. “Hmmm?”
“Your thoughts,” Teresa replied. “They ought to be worth a penny by now.”
Hazarding a wry grimace, Scott sighed and looked back toward the rutted, dirt road. He knew she was worried, and he knew he needed to fill her in on certain matters, but he didn’t look forward to it. It was going to be hard to explain. Even he didn’t understand it all. And then there was the problem of how much to tell her. He couldn’t tell her that Murdoch had known where Johnny had been for over a year and had made the decision not to contact him. That would be too difficult for her to understand, and unfair of him to put her in the position of trying to deal with that sort of information when Murdoch had essentially taken over the role of her father and protector. Even Scott had been unable to come to terms with that knowledge. He’d managed to make some peace with it, but he doubted he’d ever be able to totally accept Murdoch’s decision.
But it was getting so unbearably hard to keep secrets. Murdoch, Teresa and Val—they had all put him in the possession of knowledge he wished he’d never heard. Yet the biggest secret of all, the only one he really wanted to know, the knowledge of where Johnny was, continued to elude him. Scott sighed again, deeply, and closed his eyes.
Teresa heard Scott take a deep breath. Unhappily, she noted that he looked like a man preparing to get a tooth pulled.
“Teresa,” Scott finally began in a soft voice. “Val thought it best that I not hire anyone to look for Johnny, or to send out informational posters on him.” He paused, keeping his eyes trained on the horses in front of him. “There’s something about Johnny that you don’t know about, but I think it’s time I told you.” He hesitated again before continuing, his voice strangely calm. “Johnny has a bounty on him.”
“Oh,” she replied hesitantly as a list of possibilities flashed through her mind. She fought back the urge to react strongly, but instead kept her voice calm. “For what?”
“Murder,” Scott answered, his voice becoming strained. “The murder of a girl and another man.”
Solemnly Teresa turned to look at Scott, her chin quivering slightly. “There must be some mistake. Johnny wouldn’t shoot a female.”
Scott turned, Teresa’s unflinching faith causing him to smile. “We both know that,” he assured her. “The bounty was issued from Kansas, which is why it hasn’t ever come up. Quite a distance to travel. But Val found out that the bounty has recently been raised, and now with the railroad finished…” He shrugged pessimistically. “Val thinks there might be bounty hunters looking for him, and he thinks it could put Johnny in danger if we put out word we’re looking for him.”
Teresa looked down at her lap, absorbing the information. “Scott,” she glanced up. “They could have already found him.”
Scott looked away. “I’ve thought of that.”
“This just makes it even more important that we find him.” She bit her lip in thought. “Does Johnny know about it, the bounty, I mean?”
Scott nodded. “Yes.”
“How—how about Murdoch?”
Scott hesitated, unable to answer.
“He does, doesn’t he?”
“Is this part of what they fought about?”
“Yes,” Scott replied softly. “But as far as I know, Johnny’s not aware that the bounty has been raised, and neither does Murdoch.”
Teresa remained silent a few moments. “We have to find him, Scott,” she firmly announced.
“I know,” Scott’s voice took on a hard edge. “That’s why I’m telling you this. I’m going to talk to Murdoch tonight. I’ll be leaving in a couple days, and I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
“I’m not sure where to start looking, but I know I can’t just sit around waiting any longer,” Scott continued without pausing. “I’ll send you a wire at least once a week so that you’ll have an idea of where I am, and you’ll have some idea of where to get in touch with me in case you hear anything.”
“Teresa,” Scott turned, fixing her with a hard look. “Listen to me. I want you to keep an eye on things for me here. I won’t leave until I’ve finished up a couple projects for Murdoch, but then I’m counting on you to be my eyes and ears here. This could take some time. I hate to leave like this, but I think it’s my only option now.”
Teresa nodded weakly, blinking back tears. First Johnny, and now Scott.
Around four in the afternoon, Johnny’s group of men rode into the town of Salinas. The streets were fairly busy, especially by Soledad’s standards, and Johnny, who had automatically taken to scanning both sides of the streets, noticed with amusement that Matthew was taking a great interest in watching the people.
They hadn’t gone far, though, when not only Johnny, but the men with him, noticed a change in some of the expressions they were receiving. Johnny noticed it first from under the tilted hat of a man presumably reading a paper. By the time they had gone four blocks and reached the warehouse, he had counted at least four of what he was sure were Wakeman’s men watching them, not to mention a dozen or so curious looks that preceded whispered nods. The same furtive looks he had received many times as a gunfighter entering a town where his reputation had preceded him.
It was going to be an interesting trip.
Johnny reined up in front of the warehouse, not surprised to find Mr. Hanson, the owner, already standing on the dock, waiting, a nervous expression on his plump face.
Johnny crossed his hands over the pummel and leaned back slightly. “Why, Mr. Hanson. How nice of you to meet us personally. You’ve already met Tucson. Allow me to introduce the Atascadero Kid and Matthew Viera.”
The Kid and Matthew both nodded.
“I take it you’ve come for more supplies,” Mr. Hanson asked, a sheen of sweat already visible on his pale face.
“You are perceptive, Mr. Hanson,” Johnny grinned and turned to Tucson. “I told you he was perceptive.”
“Why, sure enough you did! Just the other day in fact,” Tucson agreed, clearly enjoying the exchange.
“See?” Johnny asked Mr. Hanson.
Mr. Hanson grabbed a kerchief out of his pocket and quickly wiped his face. “Your stuff’ll be out in a moment. I just don’t want no trouble.”
“Trouble?” Johnny looked surprised and turned to his three men. “Did you hear me say anything ‘bout trouble?”
“Nope,” Matthew replied quickly, determined to have a part in the conversation.
“Nope,” the Kid agreed.
“I heard what you done last week to them men after you left town,” Mr. Hanson whispered nervously.
“Ah,” Johnny pushed his hat back off his forehead with the tip of his finger. “But there was a very good reason for that.” He paused, leaned forward as if he were about to impart some deep secret and added in a low voice, “They tried to steal from us. We don’t like people who try to steal from us. That was a very bad thing they tried to do, and we had to teach them a lesson. Don’t you agree?”
Mr. Hanson nodded, his Adam’s apple bobbing. Then he gave a start as one of his warehouse workers came out carrying a shipping crate, two more men following with a larger crate between them. He gave a sigh of relief.
Johnny watched them load the wagon, surprised at how quickly it was finished this time compared to their earlier visit. Then, as the last of the goods had been secured, he leaned forward once more and crooked his finger at Mr. Hanson.
Mr. Hanson cautiously advanced, yet stopped a safe distance away.
Johnny smiled. “It’d be a very good thing if you started to make sure the regular shipments were delivered from now on to Soledad as per your contract.”
Mr. Hanson bit his lips, his eyes darting quickly to some of the men watching from a safe distance on the dock. “But, Mr. Wakeman—”
“Won’t be any trouble,” Johnny replied, the smile still on his face. “I’m sure it’s just a silly misunderstanding that once I’ve pointed it out to him, he’ll be more than happy to correct.”
Mr. Hanson nodded dumbly.
Johnny reined his horse around, signaled the others to follow, and then gave a last nod to Mr. Hanson. “Be seein’ you.”
“That was fun,” Matthew grinned as they pulled away from the warehouse.
“That was the idea,” Johnny replied, the smile in the corner of his mouth conveying his enjoyment of their recent experience.
“Now what?” the Kid asked, drawing his horse up closer to Johnny’s.
“Well,” Johnny drawled and gave Matthew a sudden wink, “If Matthew, here, enjoyed that last adventure so much, he oughta really enjoy where we’re going next.”
The Kid glanced at Matthew questioningly, who shrugged his ignorance.
“I’ll bite,” Tucson spoke up. “Where’s that?”
“To the best restaurant in town,” Johnny replied.
“Which is?” the Kid asked.
“That’s what I aim to find out.”
Johnny suddenly reined away from the small group, who immediately pulled up and watched as Johnny guided his horse to the side of the street where two men sat at a small table playing checkers. Their hardware and outward appearance had seemed out of place to Johnny for a quiet game of checkers in the part of town they were riding through.
As Johnny pulled up in front of the two men, they looked at each other in surprise, the younger of the two dropping his hand toward his gun. Amused by the obvious attempt at nonchalance in this action, Johnny smiled and concentrated his gaze fully on the young man, who visibly swallowed at the sudden notice. With a blink of submission, the younger man raised his hand to a benign position. Johnny’s smile twitched ever so slightly.
“So, what can we do for you, sir?” the other man asked in a tone of polite conversation.
Johnny drew his gaze slowly from the younger man before settling it on the one who had spoken. “We’re looking for a place to get a nice meal and would like to know where you would recommend.”
“Us?” the younger man asked, surprised.
Johnny raised one eyebrow sardonically to lazily survey the interruption. “Well, perhaps not you.” He turned back to the older man. “We’re looking for a place of class.” He paused mockingly and gave a meaningful tip of his head toward the younger man. “I want to have a meal where I can be assured of decent, respectable company.”
The older man pushed back the hat on his head. “I guess you mean Taylor’s Restaurant and Bar.”
Johnny nodded and gave the man another half-smile. “That would be it.”
“It’s three blocks north, then go west two blocks. Can’t miss it,” the man offered.
“Much obliged.” Johnny tipped his hat and rode back to his companions who all looked at him with mingled curiosity and surprise.
“Come on,” Johnny said, leading the way down the street.
Minutes later, they drew up in front of Taylor’s Restaurant and Bar, a larger saloon dressed up to give it a civilized, East-Coast air.
Johnny chortled as he reined in his horse. “My, if that place don’t look like it takes itself way too serious.”
“Yeah, like some place outta Boston, or something, huh?” the Kid remarked with a laugh.
Johnny shot the Kid a sharp look. “What’d you say?”
The Kid looked at Johnny bewildered. “I just said it looked like something you might see in Boston, you know, or New York. One of them fancy eastern places…” He glanced quickly at Tucson, then back at Johnny. “I don’t know, I mean, I never been to one…”
Tucson looked from Johnny’s deeply perplexed look to the Kid’s bewildered one, and then to Matthew’s confused expression.
Matthew shrugged, then spoke up, “I hear it’s got great food. Mr. Angelou ate here last year right after it opened.”
Johnny rubbed his forehead, then gave himself a slight shake before his expression returned to normal. “Sorry, I thought—I thought I remembered something.” He shook his head again and looked up at the restaurant. “Let’s get something to eat.”
With a nod of approval, Tucson dismounted and slapped his reins around the hitching post. Then leaning back, he stretched out his back muscles. “I’m sure ready for some good food.”
The Kid jumped off his horse, his eyes drinking in the richly painted building. A nicely dressed couple, by mere valley standards, walked out of the restaurant. They both paused at the sight of the four dusty, travel-stained men. The lady raised an eyebrow in clear disapproval while the man huffed through his moustache and guided his wife away.
“Gotta feelin’ we may have a bit too much trail stickin’ to us to fit in proper,” Tucson laughed, as he slapped clouds of dust off his pants.
“And how about the wagon, Johnny?” Matthew asked.
Turning in his saddle, Johnny nodded down the street. “There’s a livery next block down.” He turned to Tucson. “You want to take the wagon down there and get the horses taken care of? I’d just as soon keep our others here until after we’ve eaten, just in case we need them in a hurry.”
“I’ll go with him,” the Kid offered. “It’d go a lot faster.”
“This oughta take care of their board,” Johnny said, flipping Tucson a coin, which the other gunfighter caught in mid-air. “And ask the owner if he’ll have room for three more horses later this evening.”
Tucson grinned and held up the coin. “Thanks, I will.”
“Don’t thank me,” Johnny laughed. “I won it off you a few days ago.”
Tucson chuckled deeply as he jumped into the buckboard. “Thought it looked familiar.”
The Kid laughed openly at the exchange as he climbed in with Tucson.
“We’ll get the horses watered here,” Johnny called as he motioned Matthew to grab up the reins to Tucson’s and the Kid’s horses.
“We won’t be long,” Tucson replied as he slapped the reins. “That smell’s making me hungry!”
Matthew turned and grabbed up the reins to the two horses as Johnny swung his leg over to dismount. However the sound of a sharp intake of breath caught his attention, causing him to turn back toward Johnny, but the top of the gunfighter’s head, leaning against his saddle, was all that he could see.
“Johnny?” Matthew dropped the reins of the horses and ran around to the opposite side, where he stopped, concern flooding his face.
Johnny stood, unmoving, forehead resting on his saddle, left hand clutching the saddle horn.
“Johnny?” Matthew asked, even more cautiously.
Johnny groaned softly, then tilted his head to send Matthew a half-hearted smile. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.”
Matthew’s brows knit. “You okay?”
“Yes…” Johnny brought his right arm up to provide more support against the saddle then suddenly dropped it back against his side. “No…” he hissed. “Damn.”
Matthew stepped closer, a quick glance up and down the street confirming that no one was in the immediate vicinity. “What’s wrong?”
Johnny sighed audibly. “Dang-blasted bounty hunter,” he muttered, mostly to himself. He slid his left hand down along the saddle until it was near his forehead, then straightened up, though his head remained bent forward. “Sorry,” he continued to Matthew. “I’m just sore from the long ride up. I’ll be fine in a coupla minutes.”
Matthew hesitated to reply. His friend neither looked fine at the moment nor sounded fine. Concerned, he watched as Johnny slowly raised his head to glance over the saddle.
“Tucson and the Kid gone?”
Matthew nodded then cleared his throat. “Yes, they’re gone.”
“Good,” Johnny replied and leaned his head back down. “Damn, things were going so well.”
“Is there anything I could get you? Some of DarkCloud’s tea perhaps?”
Deliberately and with the utmost care, Johnny slowly tilted his head sidewise to get a good look at Matthew, his face registering complete disbelief. “And how do you propose to do that?”
Matthew shifted uncomfortable. “Ah, I’m not sure. Perhaps the restaurant?” he suggested hopefully.
Johnny blinked slowly, dismay written all over his face. “So, we’re to go into this here establishment and ask them to make me up some special ‘Indian Tea’?” Johnny asked.
“Well, we don’t have to tell them it’s an Indian concoction.” Matthew replied stubbornly.
Pushing himself up a few inches to get a better look at Matthew, Johnny waved a hand to cut his friend off. “You’re missing the point. Do I look like the sorta person who would be drinking tea?”
Matthew dropped his gaze. “Well, no.”
“Ah,” Johnny nodded. “Glad you understand. No tea on this trip.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a flask.
Matthew watched as Johnny took a swallow before replacing it in his jacket. “What’s that?”
Eyes averted, Johnny rubbed his face tiredly. “Just some other medicine I got.”
“DarkCloud gave it to you?”
Closing his eyes, Johnny rested his head tiredly once more against the saddle. “Yeah,” he replied vaguely. “Just give me a minute here. Go take care of the other horses, okay?”
Unsure how to respond to Johnny’s statement, Matthew looked around again, then shifted his stance awkwardly. “Johnny?”
“Why’d you get so upset when I told Tucson and the Kid about Jamie beatin’ you at cards?”
Johnny, head still bent, chuckled quietly. “It ain’t Jamie beatin’ me at cards.” He tilted his head again toward Matthew, his expression waxy from the pain. “It’s the part about being laid up with this wound I didn’t want you to go spill.”
Raising an eyebrow, Matthew glanced with confusion down the street. “Why not? They’re gunfighters, like you, right? Aren’t they—I dunno, sorta friends?”
Though still in pain, Johnny managed a forced laugh. “Matthew, it’s a damn good thing God made you a farmer. You’d make one lousy gunfighter.”
Matthew’s look remained perplexed, convinced he must have missed something important. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“It’s simple,” stated Johnny. “Any gunfighter plannin’ to make it to Tuesday doesn’t trust another gunfighter.”
Matthew cocked his head, a vaguely troubled expression crossing his face. “That don’t sound like no brotherhood to me.”
Pulling himself upright, Johnny leaned his elbow on the saddle and considered Matthew incredulously. “Brotherhood? Brotherhood? Where did you ever get the idea that this,” he spread his hand vaguely in the direction Tucson and the Kid had gone, “was a brotherhood?” He bent his head once more against the saddle. “I ain’t got no brothers,” he remarked quietly.
Moved by the naked honesty of Johnny’s statement, Matthew felt at a loss to answer. Instead, he turned his focus back to the horses. “I’ll get the horses watered,” he stated weakly.
With no response from Johnny and none really expected, Matthew turned and led both horses to the trough where he let them drink their fill.
Satisfied that they were taken care of for the short term, Matthew walked back to the hitching rail where Johnny still stood, leaning heavily against his own horse. “You sure you’re gonna be okay?” he asked with concern.
Johnny looked up and over the saddle, then smiled wryly. “Looks like I’d better be.” He nodded down the street.
Turning, Matthew saw Tucson and the Kid walking along the boardwalk, deep in discussion and laughing about something.
“Why don’t we go find somewhere quiet for a bit. Let you rest,” Matthew suggested, turning back to Johnny. “We’ll come back later and get something to eat.”
Johnny shook his head. “Won’t do. We got a schedule to stick to.”
Matthew raised an eyebrow, ready to ask what Johnny meant, when the gunfighter cut him off.
“And I don’t want you mentioning any of this to either of them, understood?”
Matthew nodded then glanced quickly back at Tucson and the Kid, who were only half a block away now. “You want me to get your horse watered—” Matthew halted in mid-question, surprised to see Johnny already gathering up his horse’s reins. He then watched as the same Johnny who had, seconds before, been leaning against his horse in exhaustion and pain, now lead his horse to the watering trough, his face impassive, eyes sharp and clear once more. The only sign of any discomfort was a slight paleness and the sheen of sweat on his face.
Matthew walked up to where Johnny stood, nonchalantly watching his horse drink. “I gotta ask.”
“Hmmm?” Johnny glanced up.
“How do you recover so fast? Just a second ago,” Matthew nodded toward where Johnny had been standing. “I was worried you just might pass out on me.”
Johnny’s eyes crinkled then he looked down as his horse drew its head up from the trough. He gave the animal’s neck a pat, then with a click, he led him back toward the hitching post, Matthew trailing along.
“Matthew,” Johnny finally replied as he wrapped the reins around the post. “I’d think you’d have figured that out by now.”
“I guess I haven’t.”
Johnny looked sidewise at Matthew, his eyes flicking temporarily toward the two returning men and back again. His voice was low as he continued, “I’ll let you in on a little secret, then. A good gunfighter’s fifty percent talent and fifty percent actor.”
Matthew’s expression remained puzzled. “I’d think it’d be most all talent.”
Johnny smiled. “Nope. Yeah, you gotta be good, you gotta have talent, but if you can’t make people believe you’re near infallible, that you practically got an extra pair of eyes behind your head, that you can hear a gun being cocked two miles away and can aim and shoot even before your gun’s outta the holster, then you’ll be dead immediately.” He paused and smiled once more as Matthew’s expression only grew more confused. “It’s like this. If I can’t make most everyone believe I’m in league with the devil, then I’m dead. ‘Cuz I can be shot in the back, in the dark, in my sleep, while eating my breakfast—by any two-bit punk with a gun. They’re the ones I gotta worry about. The few real gunfighters aren’t a threat. Oh, that don’t mean they can’t kill me, but at least I’ll know when and where, and we both get our best shot. It’s even. But it’s a real crime to go with a bullet in the back.”
Johnny drew away slightly, straightening up, his eyes focusing now on Tucson and the Kid, whom Matthew could hear coming up from behind.
His eyes still riveted on his friend’s face, Matthew asked in a low whisper, “So, it’s all an act?”
Without glancing at Matthew, Johnny nodded imperceptibly.
“So, how do you really feel?”
Johnny, a twitch of a grin appearing on his face, nonchalantly leaned over and murmured, “I feel like shit.” Then he walked past Matthew and stepped up on the boardwalk to greet Tucson and the Kid. “Well, are we ready to get ourselves something to eat?”
The interior of the restaurant was all it promised to be from its outside appearance. The front room, decorated in rich colors of burgundy and gold, was set aside as the actual restaurant. In the back was another room partially hidden from view by voluminous swag curtains; an imposing mahogany bar could be seen along its far wall. Golden cuspidors were placed strategically around the room. Only three of the tables were in use by patrons, all of whom looked up at the sound of their entrance.
A waiter in a starched white shirt and burgundy vest walked up to the men, the look he settled on them clearly letting them know he wasn’t impressed with their appearance. “The bar is in the backroom,” he nodded stiffly. “There is a side door that may be used to enter it directly,” he pointedly added.
“We’d like a table—in this room,” Johnny replied coldly, no hint of a smile on his face.
The waiter arched an eyebrow. “May I check to see if you have a reservation?”
Johnny studied the man with unconcealed amusement, his eyes twinkling at some private joke he seemed to be savoring before he imparted it. Finally, when the waiter’s patience was ready to snap, Johnny leaned slightly forward and said, “You go ahead and check your reservations. I’m sure you’ll find one for me.”
“And just what name am I checking for?” the waiter replied haughtily, unwilling to be duped by a mere saddletramp who obviously didn’t know his place and most probably couldn’t afford a glass of water anyway.
“Madrid,” Johnny enunciated with a smile that sent chills up Matthew’s spine. “Johnny Madrid.”
The waiter’s eyes narrowed as he mouthed the name ‘Madrid’ to himself. On the second repetition, his eyes suddenly opened up in shock. Quickly he glanced from Johnny to Johnny’s three companions and back again. “Madrid?”
“That’s him,” Matthew spoke up quickly with an attempt not to sound too smug.
“We’re conductin’ a bit o’ business in town,” Tucson added.
“And we’re pretty hungry after our trip up the valley,” the Kid tagged in.
“We’re lookin’ for a decent meal,” Johnny coldly drawled. “Do you think you can handle that?”
The waiter, eyes still wide in shock, swallowed with difficulty and bobbed his head, though he appeared too thunderstruck to move.
Johnny waited, one eyebrow raising slightly. “Do you think you could find us a table, something where I might have a clear shot—I mean,” Matthew saw the merest hint of a smile creep into the corner of Johnny’s mouth, “clear view of the entire room?”
The man’s Adam’s apple bobbed quickly before he nodded. Then, appearing to suddenly realize that his feet were still planted firmly to the floor, the waiter looked down. It seemed to take a sudden force of will for him to gather his senses and he hastily stepped to the side. “Of course. If—if you’ll follow me, Mr. Madrid. I’ll seat you over here.” He turned and started toward the right side of the room.
Matthew had only taken one step when he felt Johnny’s hand on his arm stopping him in his tracks.
“I’d prefer to sit over there,” Johnny announced with a nod toward the left-hand side of the room.
The waiter halted and quickly turned. He glanced from Johnny to the other side of the room and back.
“I’m right-handed,” Johnny explained evenly.
The waiter practically bowed. “Of course. Of course!” He scurried around a couple tables, then paused as he drew himself up and gestured formally. “Follow me, please.”
Johnny strode silently behind the waiter, who cast a couple of nervous glances their way. Matthew, Tucson and the Kid followed closely, silent grins passing furtively among them.
When they reached the table the waiter let Johnny choose his seat, then with an attempt at regaining his composure, he formally handed out menus to all the men. “Would you like a bottle of wine with your meal? Compliments of the house, of course.”
Johnny nodded thoughtfully. “Much appreciated.”
Bowing again, the waiter hurried off toward the kitchen.
Matthew put a hand to his mouth in an attempt to stifle his laughter. “That has got to be the funniest thing I ever did see,” he chortled, his eyes watering from the strain of keeping a straight face. “When you told him you wanted to sit over here because you were right-handed, I thought he was gonna have apoplexy.”
Though Johnny did allow himself a slight smile, he replied, “I didn’t really care where I sat.”
“No?” Matthew cocked his head, surprised.
Johnny shook his head. “Nope, but in this game, you never take the first seat offered.” Then he paused and the slight smile spread into a lopsided grin. “Besides, the other woulda been too close to the kitchen.”
A wide grin replaced Matthew’s puzzled expression.
“Damned if you ain’t good, Madrid. Pleasure to witness,” Tucson remarked.
“The show’s just beginning,” Johnny replied, his eyes flicked behind Matthew, who was sitting across from him.
Seconds later, another properly dressed waiter strode importantly up. He wore his hair neatly oiled, his moustache painstakingly trimmed. When he reached the table, he bowed slightly, a bottle of wine carefully cradled in his hands.
“Mr. Madrid, a pleasure. I am the maitre d’, Mr. Shellings. I will personally be your waiter for this evening. We want your experience to be a pleasurable one, and management has instructed me to inform you that your meal, and that of your friends,” he nodded vaguely in the direction of Johnny’s companions, “is ‘gratis’ this evening.”
Johnny gave a slight nod of his head and smiled faintly. “Very generous of you.”
The maitre d’ beamed back. “May I pour the wine for you and take your orders?”
Johnny once again nodded. Then as the maitre d’ began to pour wine into everyone’s goblets, he regarded the menu thoughtfully.
“Are you ready to order now?” the maitre d’ asked.
Johnny looked up from the menu. “What would you recommend?”
The waiter clasped his hands together. “Personally, I prefer our house specialty—tri-tips with a special mushroom and garlic sauce, accompanied by steamed artichokes with lemon, our chef’s homemade fettuccini alfredo, fresh raisin bread, and a side order of our special classic salad greens with a red wine vinaigrette ending with a fresh strawberry fruit tart for dessert.”
Johnny listened intently, nodding occasionally, his companions’ mouths slowly slaking at the mention of so much food. Once finished, the maitre d’ beamed at Johnny with intense satisfaction, his face glowing with pride.
Johnny seemed to consider the proffered suggestions, then nodded with a smile. “That does sound good, doesn’t it, boys?” Johnny asked as everyone quickly nodded in agreement. The maitre d’ grinned around the table.
“Just a couple of changes, if you don’t mind, though,” Johnny continued.
The maitre d’ nodded. “But of course, Mr. Madrid. Anything you want.”
Johnny smiled slightly. “Well, that tri-tip sounds wonderful. Make it nice and rare. But that special mushroom sauce, add some extra garlic, onions and a healthy dose of pepper, okay?”
The maitre d’s smile faded slightly. “Um, sure, I’ll tell the chef. Anything else?”
Johnny cocked his head to the side. “Well, now that you mention it. Take that artichoke out, and give me a nice big baked potato with some strong jalepeno salsa on the side.”
The maitre d’s eyes widened, but he nodded. “Anything else?”
“Yes, that fruit tart. When I eat a strawberry, I wanna know it’s a strawberry.”
“So, a plate of strawberries?” the maitre d’ asked helpfully.
Johnny nodded. “You got it. Oh, and that raisin bread. Take the raisins out. I prefer my grapes not to be dried out. Fermented’s fine, but dried out…” he shook his head.
The maitre d’ nodded mutely.
“Oh, and lastly, that rabbit food dish with the red wine? Just bring me another bottle of wine. You can keep the rabbit food. And,” he paused thoughtfully, “could you throw on an order of rice and beans?”
Crestfallen, the maitre d’ quickly backed away.
Once he’d left, the Kid looked at Johnny awestruck. “I can’t believe how that Mat R. D. guy fell over himself for you. Same as the original waiter. At the mere mention of your name!”
Johnny sighed. “Yeah, it’s been known to happen. I’ve been up this way before—Morgan Hill. Then with the business when we came up last week…” He shrugged.
“Do you do this often?” Matthew asked.
Johnny shook his head. “If you mean this fancy restaurant game? Nah. Just a couple times.” Then he grinned. “It is a bit fun, though. Haven’t done it in a long time. Gotta have the right place.”
“How so?” Matthew asked.
“Need a town ‘bout this size, thinkin’ it’s important enough to have a fancy place like this, but not too large so that it don’t mean nothin’ to them. Take San Francisco, for instance. If I tried this up there, they wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow.”
“I’d do it all the time,” the Kid said gazing around the room in satisfaction. “Just say your name and you get everything you want.”
Johnny regarded the Kid silently a second before replying. “Yeah, and maybe a bullet to the brain while you sleep.” He continued at the Kid’s confused expression. “You work to get a name for yourself, then suddenly you find yourself wanting to leave it behind. Sure, Kid, the name’ll get you a free meal or open a door for you, but sometimes that door just leads to the Undertakers.”
“Well, jus’ the same, I think I’d still enjoy it all. What a life, livin’ high like this.” The Kid leaned back and clasped his hands. “I could really get used to it.”
With a regretful sigh, Johnny shook his head to himself.
“It is a pleasure to watch you work,” Tucson interrupted. “Done a bit of this myself, but nothin’ on this scale.” He smiled. “Gets you a decent meal or a bed for the night when there’s a need.”
Tucson’s eyes wandered around the room appreciatively. “Though I have to admit to wishin’ I could try something of this caliber—just once.”
“Which brings up a question I got,” Matthew interrupted. “We ain’t got much money, so what’d we do if they hadn’t given us our meals for free?”
Johnny looked at Matthew, his eyes crinkling merrily. He picked up his wine goblet and held it up in a toast. “Thank goodness we ain’t washin’ dishes all next week.”
About twenty minutes later, the maitre d’ and their original waiter appeared carrying out their meal. Quickly and efficiently, the food was set out and the two waiters departed, after checking to see that all their needs were met.
Johnny was just cutting into his tri-tip when he noticed the door to the restaurant open, and a blond haired man of medium height and a full moustache walked in, flanked by two men. The man paused importantly just inside the door, while his two companions, both dressed in identical black pants, gray shirts and black vests, surveyed the room, their hands resting at their hips. Immediately another waiter hurried up where they talked quietly among themselves a couple of seconds before Johnny saw the waiter nod in the direction of their table.
“That didn’t take long,” he murmured. Then keeping his focus on his plate, Johnny cut a piece of steak and put it in his mouth where he chewed it with obvious relish. “Damn! This is fine steak!” he announced. “Don’t you think so, Matthew?”
Matthew nodded, unaware of the three men now advancing on their table from behind him.
“Put some salsa on top of it,” Johnny instructed, heaping another spoonful on his own meat. “Makes it nice and hot.” He glanced about the table with mild concern. “In fact, I believe we need some more water. How ‘bout you, Tucson, you needin’ some more?”
Having seen the approaching men out of the corner of his eye, Tucson hazarded a small grin before holding up his near empty glass. “Sure do, Johnny.”
Johnny looked back down at his plate and scooped the rice and beans together. “You know what else we forgot?”
The Kid shook his head, his mouth full of food. “What?”
“Tortillas. We really need some tortillas.”
The three men came and stood beside Johnny, the blond man’s eyes resting immediately on the bright red, silk bandana around Johnny’s neck.
Johnny looked up slowly, a pleased expression appearing on his face. “Would you mind refilling our glasses?”
The blond haired man’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “What?”
“And we could really use an order of tortillas, too, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“I’m—I’m…” the man stammered, looking around the table incredulously. “I’m not a waiter!”
Johnny blinked slowly and reached out to rub a piece of the man’s shirt cuff between his fingers. “Beg your pardon,” he drawled. “But your fancy white shirt got me to thinkin’ you were one of those waiters scurrying about the place.” He cocked his head to the side. “If you see one of them, please tell them we need some more water and some tortillas.” Johnny turned his attention back to his plate where he cut another piece of his meat and placed it in his mouth, his eyes partially closed in enjoyment. “I dare say, this is the best damn piece of beef I ever did have the pleasure to eat,” he murmured.
Matthew simply nodded his agreement, while the Kid looked from the blond man to Johnny and back again.
“Well, I ‘bout agree with you, Johnny,” Tucson replied, savoring his own piece. “But I done had better. Only once, though.”
“Really?” Johnny slowly leaned forward, his face showing complete interest. “When was that?”
“Last year. In Virginia City.”
“You don’t say,” Johnny replied as he helped himself to a strawberry. “They got that good of beef up there, huh?”
“Well, there’s this one restaurant, only uses beef from this here one ranch,” Tucson paused thoughtfully. “Damned! Can’t remember the name of the ranch. Some evergreen tree, or somethin’.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Anyway, that’s where I had the best piece’a beef ever. Right there in Virginia City.”
Johnny took a sip of his wine. “Really? I’ll have to try it next time I’m over that way.”
The blond man, who had been watching the exchange with growing exasperation, loudly cleared his throat.
Johnny glanced up at him with mild surprise. “Oh! Did you get the water and tortillas, then?”
Once again the man’s mouth dropped open. “No!” he fumed.
“Well, why not?” Johnny calmly asked.
“Remember, he ain’t a waiter,” Tucson interrupted.
Johnny glanced back at Tucson, a hint of annoyance on his face. “I know that. But I politely asked him to find one.”
Shrugging, Tucson cut into his baked potato.
Johnny turned back to the man standing beside him. “Do you think you could possibly find us a waiter?”
“Yes—no,” the man stopped and gritted his teeth; he then took a deep breath. “Excuse me, Mr. Madrid. But I’m James Wakeman.”
Johnny, expression unchanging, regarded Wakeman silently for a few seconds before responding. “Hmmm. I pictured you a bit taller.” He slowly looked Wakeman over again before shrugging indifferently. “Won’t make much difference, though, in the long run.” Taking another sip of his wine, Johnny turned back to his meal and set his goblet down. Then he took a bite of his tri-tip, closing his eyes again as he savored the flavor.
“Mr. Madrid,” Wakeman, his tone conveying his annoyance, motioned his men to step back out of the way so that he could position himself right next to Johnny’s chair. “I have been very interested in meeting with you. There are some things I would like to discuss.” He paused a beat, hoping to receive some reaction from Johnny, but the gunfighter merely turned back to concentrate on his meal.
Wakeman’s two bodyguards, sensing their boss’s increasing exasperation, stepped backward another couple inches as Wakeman leaned forward to rest one hand on the table. “Mr. Madrid, I would very much like to talk to you—alone. I’m sure we could come to an agreement that would be mutually beneficial.”
Unconcernedly, Johnny picked up a strawberry and placed it in his mouth, his eyes partially closed again, a serene look on his face as if he was enjoying the whole meal experience to the utmost. “Hmmmm,” Johnny murmured to himself. Then suddenly he opened his eyes, but instead of looking at Wakeman, he turned to Matthew. “Hmm! Hmm!” he repeated. “Those strawberries are amazing! So sweet. Have you tried them yet, Matthew?”
Matthew, noticing that Wakeman’s expression was quickly changing to one of explosive irritation, managed to give a timid nod before he had to force himself to concentrate fully on his own plate.
In stunned amazement, Wakeman froze, bent over the table, his mouth once again dropping open as he made strangled noises.
Slowly Johnny drew his gaze away from Matthew to glare with some disgust at Wakeman, who was now hovering just inches from his face. “Mr. Wakeman. I’m not sure how you were brought up, but where I come from, it ain’t polite to breathe all over another man’s food.”
“Now see here, Madrid!” Wakeman exploded.
“Mr. Madrid,” Johnny stated firmly yet calmly. “I see no reason why we can’t keep things civilized, Mr. Wakeman. Even if we do happen to find ourselves in disagreement over certain issues.”
“I have no quarrel with you,
Madrid—Mr. Madrid,” Wakeman quickly corrected at Johnny’s raised eyebrow.
“If that’s so,” Johnny replied thoughtfully, “Then how come you seem to be makin’ it your business to come between me and this excellent meal, here?”
Wakeman straightened up, his hands clenched at this side. “Mr. Madrid. I would like a moment of your time, if you don’t mind.”
“But I do mind,” Johnny replied as he held up his goblet. “As much as I generally enjoy combinin’ business and pleasure, I have found murder and burgundy don’t generally mix. Leaves me with a sour taste afterward.”
“I’m sure I could make it worth your while,” Wakeman’s voice purred meaningfully. “Enough to get rid of that nasty aftertaste, anyway.”
Johnny set his goblet down and leaned back in his chair, then rubbed his chin deliberately. “Well, now. Why don’t you tell your twin boys to have themselves a seat by the door.” His eyes barely acknowledged Wakeman’s bodyguards. “Their smell’s giving me indigestion.”
Wakeman gave a curt nod to his two bodyguards, who with pursed lips and narrowed eyes turned and walked to an empty table nearby.
“Now, perhaps you could return the gesture.” Wakeman glanced meaningfully at Johnny’s three companions.
“S’pose I could,” Johnny nodded slowly, then looked at the three pair of eyes watching him closely. “Two of you guys care to go keep Ol’ Brainless and Gutless company over there?”
The three men glanced at each other quickly before Tucson pushed away from the table and stood up. “Sure thing, Johnny. Long as they don’t smell too bad and I don’t gotta share. Come on, Kid.” He gathered up his plate and goblet, then walked to the table occupied by Wakeman’s bodyguards. The Kid reluctantly followed, a backward glance of disappointment aimed at Matthew.
Matthew, an uncomfortable look on his face and fork poised over his plate, watched Tucson and the Kid retreat.
“How about him?” demanded Wakeman.
Johnny rocked back in his chair, his hands folded on his lap. “His name’s Matthew.”
“I don’t care what his name is,” Wakeman sputtered. “I wanted to speak alone.”
“Well then,” Johnny smacked the front legs of his chair down and looked at Wakeman with amusement. “You shoulda brought along another friend.”
Wakeman drew in a deep breath and glared at Matthew with all the pent up anger he didn’t dare turn on Johnny. Then, closing his eyes a moment, he drew in another deep breath and opened his eyes slowly, a strained smile appearing on his face. “May I?” he asked, gesturing to a now empty chair.
Johnny nodded impassively and helped himself to another bite of potato as Wakeman took a seat, the man’s smile unchanging as if it were painted on.
“Johnny—May I call you Johnny?” he asked.
Johnny, fork in one hand, knife in the other, barely looked up. “Nope.”
Wakeman’s smile twitched and he shot another glare in Matthew’s direction as Matthew quickly dropped his gaze to his plate in order to hide a smile.
“Mr. Madrid,” Wakeman tried again. “There are certain things that have occurred recently—”
Johnny suddenly held his up knife, cutting Wakeman off in mid-sentence. “Excuse me,” he interrupted, then turned to signal the maitre d’ who had appeared at the other side of the room.
The maitre d’ hurried forward, glancing nervously at Wakeman. “Yes, Mr. Madrid?”
“We need another order of the same for Mr. Wakeman,” Johnny stated.
The maitre d’ looked uncomfortably at Wakeman before turning his attention back to the gunfighter. “Another order, sir?”
“Yes, yes. Mr. Wakeman here,” he gestured with the end of his knife, “is joining me for supper.”
“He…is?” the maitre d’ hesitated.
“You can handle that for me, can’t you?” Johnny asked pointedly.
“Yes, yes, of course. Another order. I’ll see to it personally.” The maitre d’ quickly hustled off.
Johnny shook his head, his eyes following the retreating figure of the maitre d’. “Damn good food,” he uttered with a sigh. “But I think their help’s took a few too many puffs on some loco weed.” He shook his head and turned back to his food. He deftly cut another piece of tri-tip and stuck it in his mouth. “Now, as you were saying?”
“Uh,” Wakeman blinked, gathering his thoughts.
Johnny scooped up a mouthful of potato. “Certain things,” he prompted.
“Yes, certain things have occurred recently that have made it a bit difficult for me.”
“Oh, really?” Johnny continued chewing. “Just a bit difficult?”
Wakeman’s smile tensed. “Yes, you’ve managed to put me in an awkward position, but I’m willing to work—”
“Would you say I’ve made your life hell?” Johnny interrupted smoothly.
Wakeman’s eyes opened in surprise. “What?”
“Well,” Johnny drawled, then leaned on one elbow as he finished chewing. “I like to know if all my work is having the desired effect.”
“Well, it has,” Wakeman replied, annoyance in his voice.
“That’s good to know.” Johnny took another bite and chewed thoughtfully. “I have a question for you, though.”
“Hm?” Wakeman asked warily.
“Which of these—um—situations, would you say caused you the most amount of trouble?”
“You must be joking, Madrid.”
Johnny tilted his head slightly. “I never joke, Mr. Wakeman.”
Wakeman clenched his jaw. “Mr. Madrid, I am attempting to do business with you. Whatever the town’s paying you, I can undoubtedly do better.”
Nodding, Johnny turned back to his food. “Undoubtedly.” He continued to eat a few more bites while Wakeman watched him closely. “I’m afraid, though, there is one thing the town provides me that you can’t.”
Wakeman’s brows furrowed. “What’s that?”
Johnny stopped eating and lowered his fork while he regarded the man across the table from him with some contempt. “Pride in my work.” He paused, letting his words hang between them in the silence. “By the way, how’s it going with Jane… or Jenny?”
Wakeman’s face flushed with anger. “You do have a lot of nerve breaking into my house and stealing that ring.”
“What ring?” Johnny asked innocently. “Would you like a strawberry?” He held the plate out.
“No, I don’t want a strawberry!” Wakeman’s voice rose slightly. He took a deep breath and continued in a lower tone. “You know what ring,” he hissed. “Now Jenny thinks I’m planning to marry her while Jane and my father are expecting me to ask her. You did that just to—”
“To make your life hell,” Johnny interrupted, enunciating each word with the point of his knife. “It sure is a pleasure to know it had the desired effect. These things take a lot of time, a lot of plannin’.” He lowered his voice. “Despite what you may think, I don’t just put these things together on the spur of the moment. Oh, no, no, no. I spend a lot of effort, go over every detail methodically to make sure every event is carefully orchestrated.” Setting his knife down, Johnny reached out and patted Wakeman’s hand in patronizing comfort, inwardly amused by the anger flooding Wakeman’s flushed face. “You should be pleased to know that I’ve spent even more time than usual on you. In fact, I’m sure you’ll enjoy knowing that I still have a few more surprises lined up for you.”
Wakeman’s eyes narrowed. “Like what? More bandanas, I presume?”
Smiling lazily, Johnny took the last bite of potato, then drained his wine goblet. “They were a nice touch, don’t you think?” He picked up the wine bottle and poured himself another glass, then held the bottle out to Wakeman. “Would you like a glass?”
“No,” Wakeman replied curtly. “What are you planning now, Madrid?”
Johnny sat the bottle back on the table and took a sip from his wine before holding up his finger with a smile. “Just a minute.” He began searching his pockets. “I know I have it here somewhere. Ah! There it is.” He drew out a folded piece of paper.
Johnny leaned back in his chair. “You missin’ anything else besides a ring, Mr. Wakeman?”
“No, I don’t—” He halted as Johnny raised a knowing eyebrow. In irritation, he seized the paper and quickly unfolded it. There, on the paper, were his notes on local brands and the sketches showing how to position his brand over them. “Where’d you get this?” he hissed vehemently.
Johnny continued to smile. “I’m sure we both know that, Wakeman.” Johnny watched the other man glare at the paper, a fire burning in his eyes. “It’s not the original, as you can certainly tell. The original, you’ll be happy to know, is safe. As is another certain paper showing where specific recent acquisitions to your herd have come from. I’m sure there are some local ranchers who’d be mighty interested in seeing those papers.”
Wakeman glared at Johnny, totally ignoring Matthew now. “Madrid, do you know what you’re doing? And to whom? I can pay you very well. I could use a man like you in my outfit. You could be my right-hand man, oversee certain projects I have in mind. We could accomplish a lot, build up this empire together. Power and prestige would be yours.”
Johnny listened until Wakeman had finished, then he replied in a hard-edged voice, “Seems I have a problem working for men bent on building an empire without regard of the cost to others.”
“Those others you’re so high on protecting aren’t anything but scrub, pig farmers!”
“They’re damn better people than you—or me,” Johnny countered evenly.
“You think if they didn’t need your protection, they’d even bother to give you the time of day?”
“And you would?” Johnny asked with a snort of amusement as he slowly twirled the goblet with his left hand. “No. I tried workin’ for guys like you a few times, but it made me sick inside.”
“How dare you take the high ’n’ mighty with me, Madrid! You—you’re just a hired killer, and nothing more!”
Johnny nodded. “That may be true, but I can still pick who and what I’m gonna kill for.”
Wakeman’s expression grew cold. “Then it seems you’re gonna die with nothing to your name.”
“Probably,” he smiled. “But at least I’ll still own my name, as I’m not sellin’ it to you.”
Wakeman shook his head in disbelief. “You’re turning me down, then?”
“And enjoying it,” Johnny added.
“I’m not going to give up, Madrid. I want that land.”
“That’s a shame, ‘cuz I ain’t about to let you take it.”
Wakeman leaned in, hatred smoldering in his eyes. “You’ve pushed me about as far as a man can stomach, Madrid.” He smiled coldly. “What’s to stop me from having you killed right here?”
Johnny smiled back, drained the last of the wine in his goblet, and also leaned forward. “Probably the same thing that’s stoppin’ me from shootin’ you. It’d be such a shame to make a mess in this here fancy restaurant. Bloodstains can be so hard to get out.”
Wakeman’s eyes narrowed so tightly they looked like mere slits. “One word to my men—”
“And you’d be dead.” Johnny finished. “I’m right-handed.”
“Haven’t you noticed I’ve been eating with my left.” His eyes twinkled. “Makes you kinda wonder what my right’s doing, don’t it?”
From under the table came the unmistakable click of a gun being cocked.
Wakeman’s eyes opened in surprise, then narrowed again. “You’re going to Hell, Madrid.”
Johnny smiled pleasantly. “I’ll be sure to look you up.” Then he shifted his gaze to the other side of the room. “Ah, your meal’s here,” he announced as he quietly uncocked his gun and slid it back in its holster. He nodded to Matthew and they both stood up. “Enjoy your meal, Mr. Wakeman,” he added pleasantly as he deftly untied his bandana, wiped his mouth, and nonchalantly tossed it on the table to land in front of Wakeman.
Seeing the others stand up, both Tucson and the Kid immediately rose from their places.
“Don’t work too hard,” Tucson suggested benevolently to his dinner companions. Then he nodded to the Kid. “Let’s go.”
Tucson and the Kid joined Johnny and Matthew, and they left the restaurant together, leaving Wakeman seething with unconcealed rage. He slammed his fist on the table with such force, that it brought stares from everyone in the room.
“Damn that Madrid! Damn him to Hell!”
“Well, that went as well as could be expected,” Johnny remarked with a grin as the four men stepped out into the darkening street.
“I thought he was gonna start shooting right there,” Matthew said as he glanced nervously back toward the restaurant, clearly relieved to be making his exit without having acquired any extra holes in his body.
Johnny shook his head and gazed absently down the street before walking to his horse. “Nah, Wakeman won’t try anything unless he’s sure of the odds.”
“So, now what?” Tucson asked.
“Well, we go ahead and get the horses set up for the night,” Johnny said as he gathered up his reins and started down the street. The three men followed, Tucson and the Kid each leading their horses.
Matthew jogged up beside Johnny. “What do we do after we get the horses taken care of?”
“Then we get some sleep,” Johnny replied.
Matthew looked at Johnny with surprise. “But how about Wakeman?”
“Oh, I don’t s’pose he’ll be getting much sleep tonight,” Johnny nodded.
“He didn’t look none too pleased when we left,” Tucson agreed.
“Don’t you think he’ll try something tonight?” the Kid asked.
“Probably not,” Johnny replied with a shake of his head. “But just in case, we’ll sleep in pairs. I don’t expect Wakeman to make a move until we’re out of Salinas tomorrow where he can try to take us with his small army and no witnesses, so nothing will happen for a few hours while he decides his next action. He won’t act quickly. He’ll weigh his options carefully.”
“How do you know for sure?” the Kid asked.
“I don’t,” Johnny replied without turning. “It’s always a gamble. But you learn to read a man after awhile.”
The small group was silent as they finished walking the rest of the way down the street. The faint lights from the few businesses, which were yet open at this hour, did little but create shadows, and Matthew couldn’t help the feeling that eyes were watching him from the dark recesses. Desperate for some conversation to dispel his thoughts, he asked, “You mentioned sleeping in shifts?”
“We’re gonna rent one room. You and I’ll take the room first and get some sleep until one o’clock, then it’ll be Tucson and the Kid’s turn.”
“Where you got in mind, Johnny?”
“Wanna keep near the wagon and horses. There’s a hotel across the street.” He nodded.
“Don’t you think Wakeman’ll try to take the wagon?” Matthew asked, suddenly concerned.
Johnny paused outside the livery. “No, Wakeman’s got more on his mind than these few supplies. I’ve made sure of that. No,” Johnny continued thoughtfully, “he’s got big plans in the makin’ and creating a disturbance here in town over this wagon wouldn’t be seemly for a man of his position.”
“So, we just gotta hope Red Deer’s still willing to help out tomorrow, right?”
“That’s the plan,” Johnny replied, then turned and pushed open the livery door. “Hello! Anyone around?”
After seeing to the horses, Johnny and his companions headed to the hotel where one room with two small beds was quickly rented. Johnny gave instructions for each group to stick pretty close together and to remain in the vicinity of the hotel. Along with a small bar area in their hotel, there were a couple of nearby saloons, but Johnny discouraged anyone from spending too much time drinking unless they planned to be too occupied with a hangover the next day to realize when they’d been shot in the back. His words seemed to have the desired effect, as the Kid, especially, agreed that he’d just have one, and only one, drink.
Tucson grinned at this pronouncement, but assured Johnny with a wink the he’d keep an eye on the Kid.
Instructions imparted, Johnny nodded to Matthew, picked up his saddlebag and headed for the stairs.
Matthew had been watching Johnny closely ever since entering the hotel. Once in the light of the saloon room, he noticed Johnny’s complexion had paled considerably and a thin sheen of sweat now covered the gunfighter’s face. Though there was no hint in his voice or mannerism, Matthew now knew Johnny well enough to tell by the tightness around his mouth that his friend was nearing the end of his physical endurance. Matthew wasn’t at all surprised. The verbal sparring he had witnesses at the restaurant had exhausted even him, and he’d been merely a silent spectator in the exchange.
Matthew followed Johnny up the stairs toward their room, but once out of view of the patrons on the ground floor, Johnny seemed to falter, suddenly stopping to lean his back up against the wall with a groan.
“Johnny?” Matthew asked, his voice edged with worry.
Johnny, head down and eyes closed, licked his lips before replying, “May need your help, Matthew.” He tilted his head up to rest back against the wall, his eyes opening, though they appeared to stare vaguely at the ceiling. Taking a slow, deep breath, he hissed, “Damn.” Then there was a pause as he seemed to gather some much needed strength before slowly pushing away. “Okay.”
“Give me your saddlebag,” Matthew ordered as he took the bag then led the way to the room where he quickly opened the door, ushering Johnny in first. After closing the door, he tossed the saddlebags on the floor then turned, his dismay increasing, as he noted with alarm that Johnny was leaning over a small stand by the window, hands clenching the edge, eyes closed, as he fought off what was obviously a round of pain.
“What can I do?” Matthew urged as he hurried to his friend’s side.
Instead of answering, Johnny reached into his jacket and pulled out the same flask Matthew had seen earlier. Johnny swallowed tightly, replaced it in his jacket, then closed his eyes and leaned forwards once more, silent and unmoving.
Unsure how to help, Matthew hesitantly touched Johnny on the upper arm. “Johnny, let’s get you on to the bed. You need to lie down.”
The reply was soft and barely audible. “Just give me a minute.”
“No, now,” Matthew’s touch became firmer. “I think I finally understand why I’m here. You do need my help, just not in the way I was thinking.”
Johnny slowly opened his eyes and tilted his head to look at Matthew. Though he appeared to lack the energy to respond, a wry expression crossed his flushed face.
Tightening his grip on Johnny’s arm, Matthew guided him to the bed where Johnny seemed to sink gratefully, though a heavy moan accompanied the action.
“Did you bring any bandages?”
Johnny nodded weakly toward the saddlebag. “Sorry about this,” he murmured tiredly.
Matthew shrugged off the apology. “Actually, I’m relieved. Couldn’t really figure out why I was brought along. I was beginning to worry that you might actually want me to hit somebody or something.” He reached into the saddlebag and began pulling out bandages and ointment. “This all makes sense, now. Though why you didn’t have DarkCloud come along instead—”
“What?” Johnny replied, biting back a groan as he slowly pulled off his jacket. “I’d probably have been forced to shoot him before we even got up here.”
Chuckling, Matthew stood up. “You like him and you know it.”
“Like him,” Johnny retorted as he unbuttoned his shirt with his left hand, keeping his right arm pressed up against his side protectively. “He lies awake at night coming up with more ways to torment me.”
“Well, that’s only ‘cause you’re constantly thinking up more ways to foil his attempts to help you,” Matthew chuckled with a grin as he motioned Johnny to move his arm out of the way so he could get at the old bandaging.
“Matthew,” Johnny intoned, “What I said…about DarkCloud…it goes for you, too.”
Matthew laughed as he pulled off the last strip of cloth. At the sight of the exit wound, Matthew inhaled sharply between his teeth. “Johnny, this doesn’t look any better than when I last saw it. In fact, I think it looks worse. Does DarkCloud know about this?”
Johnny glared at Matthew. “Yes, he does,” he replied between clenched teeth. “Let’s get it cleaned up and put a good layer of that painkiller salve on it.”
“Painkiller?” Matthew stood up again. “What you need is a good coating of that poultice DarkCloud gives for infection.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “I know that,” he replied evenly, keeping his voice from betraying the pain he was in. “But I also need to get through tomorrow, okay? And I need to do whatever it takes to see us through Wakeman’s attack.”
“You sure he’s gonna make a move
Johnny nodded. “Just not sure exactly where, but he will if he has any sense.”
While Johnny closed his eyes, Matthew tended to the wound, a grim expression on his face. He knew Johnny was trying to hide the extent and depth of the pain he was in, and the simple fact that he was unsuccessful told Matthew all too clearly that Johnny was at his breaking point. The trip up the valley, followed by the scene with Wakeman in the restaurant, had sapped all energy out of him leaving him drained and weak.
Once finished, Matthew stood up and began putting the supplies back in the saddlebag. “Johnny?”
“Hmmm?” Johnny mumbled tiredly as he slowly lowered himself back onto the bed and closed his eyes.
“What you said to Wakeman,” he shot a quick glance at the unmoving gunfighter, “about working for men like him.” He waited for some acknowledgement, but the figure on the bed remained motionless, eyes closed. “You sounded pretty firm against taking a job for a man like Wakeman.” He closed the saddlebag and regarded Johnny. “It doesn’t make much sense, though. You could make a lot of money working for someone like that. I’d think—” Matthew halted as Johnny opened his eyes, fixing him intently.
“Is that what you think of me?”
“Well, no,” Matthew replied haltingly. “But he’s right. You’ll never make any money working for people like us.”
Johnny’s eyes grew dark. “I can’t work for a man I don’t respect and I don’t respect men like Wakeman who put money and power before everything else.” He closed his eyes once more, leaving Matthew regarding him thoughtfully.
“You sure are a strange gunfighter, Madrid.”
“And you talk too much,” Johnny muttered without opening his eyes.
Below in the small hotel bar, Tucson and the Kid both settled down in one corner with a drink. It didn’t take long before the conversation turned to the earlier scene with Wakeman at the restaurant.
“That Johnny really is something, ain’t he?” the Kid asked.
Tucson nodded at the impressionable young man in front of him. “Yeah, he knows how to play the game like no one I ever seen before.” He took a sip before continuing. “Saw a bit of it when we were working for Warburton. You just never really know what’s behind those eyes of his.”
The Kid nodded while he took a sip of his own drink. “You ever think you gonna get a name like his someday?”
Tucson traced a droplet along the outside of his glass. “Getting a name like Madrid’s is gonna take a good stroke of luck on my part. I’m afraid I ain’t got the talent he has. Not many men do. It’s been an education just watchin’ him work, though.”
Instead of responding, the Kid took another couple of sips. Both men’s expressions became increasingly thoughtful as they each contemplated their drink in front of them.
Suddenly Tucson pushed back out of his chair. “Enough talk of Johnny. I saw me a little more lively spot just at the end of this block I wouldn’t mind paying a visit to.”
“Johnny said to stick here,” the Kid replied.
“No, Johnny said to stick close by. That saloon is close by. And I had a glimpse of some mighty fine lookin’ dancin’ girls through the window as we passed.”
The Kid grinned back. “Yeah, I kinda noticed them, too.”
“You wanna come along?”
“Nah, I think I’ll stay here,” the Kid replied. “I’m tuckered and it’s a good place to just sit.”
“Suit yourself,” Tucson slapped his hat back on his head. “I’ll be back by one.”
“Better not drink too much or Johnny’ll be all over you,” the Kid waggled a finger at Tucson and laughed.
“Not a drop,” Tucson replied in exaggerated soberness. Then with a wink he turned and left.
The Kid continued to gaze at his drink a few minutes before downing what little remained. Then, with a glance toward the steps that led upstairs, he stood up and walked over to the bartender.
Scott entered the Great Room and walked over to stand in front of Murdoch, who was seated behind his massive desk, reading through a stack of papers he had piled in front of him. Immediately Murdoch put the one he had been reading back on the pile and looked up at his son. “The trip into town didn’t accomplish all you had hoped for, did it?” he asked quietly.
Scott shook his head. “Val seemed to think it unwise to either hire detectives or to put out informational posters.”
Murdoch sighed sadly. “I’m sorry. I know you had hoped to take some action, but it’s for the best, Scott. Really it is.”
Scott clasped his hands firmly behind his back. “I’m still planning to do something to find Johnny,” he announced resolutely.
“What? There really isn’t much more you can do. As I said earlier, the best thing we can do is to wait and let Johnny contact us—”
“No, it’s up to us to find Johnny,” Scott retorted strongly. “And that’s what I’m planning to do. I just wanted to let you know that I’ll be leaving in a couple of days and I don’t know when I’ll be back. I know I need to get that eastern corral finished and I’ll stay long enough to oversee the start-up of that irrigation ditch down in the south pastures that we talked about needing, but then I’ll be leaving.”
“Murdoch, I think everything’s been said already. I have to do this. Not just for Johnny, but also for myself. I can’t continue to sit here and wait. Not when I know Johnny could be out there needing my help.”
“But that’s just it, Scott. You don’t even know where to start looking.”
“Maybe not, Murdoch,” Scott replied, fighting back the urge to raise his voice. “But I’m certainly not going to find him sitting here on my butt.”
Murdoch suddenly pushed away from his desk, stood up and walked to the fireplace, where he, too, tightly clasped his hands behind his back and glared at the fire in an obvious attempted to control his temper.
Scott shook his head sadly to himself. So, this is what we’ve been reduced to. Then unclasping his hands, Scott walked quietly around the desk to come to stand next to Murdoch. The small fire offered little heat, but the glowing embers warmed the room with their light. Scott followed Murdoch’s lead by staring into the flickering flames.
Murdoch gave a small sigh, but his manner remained uncompromising. “Scott, I don’t want you to go.”
Scott slowly closed his eyes and gave a small shake of his head. When he opened them, he turned toward Murdoch, yet Murdoch’s gaze remained fixed on the fire. “I feel there’s no other option. Johnny needs to be found, more than you probably realize.”
Murdoch’s eyes flicked momentarily toward his son. “What are you implying?”
“Val just found out that the Kansas bounty on Johnny has recently been raised another two thousand dollars.”
Murdoch’s reaction was immediate. The look of shock was quickly masked with disappointment as he turned back toward the fire and crossed his arms against his chest. “Damn it,” he hissed as he shook his head.
“Murdoch,” Scott ventured. “I have a question to ask you.”
Murdoch dropped his arms to his side and turned squarely toward his son. “What is it?”
Scott locked eyes with his father. “Did you pay off the Pinkertons?”
Scott saw Murdoch’s expression falter before he managed to recover himself. “I don’t know what you mean,” he replied shortly as he turned away from the fire and started back toward his desk.
“Yes, I think you do,” Scott followed closely behind his father.
“Of course I paid them,” Murdoch answered as he grabbed up a stack of papers and began to leaf through them absently. “They accomplished the job they were hired to—”
“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” Scott interrupted.
Murdoch dropped the papers back down on the desk and walked around to the opposite side, carefully avoiding Scott in the process. “I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Murdoch,” Scott stressed as he positioned himself once again next to his father. “The Pinkertons found Johnny, and they also found out he had a price on his head. It’s there in the report they gave you. How come he wasn’t taken in?”
Murdoch’s eyes flashed angrily at Scott, yet he turned away and walked toward the heavily draped, darkened window. “What are you trying to get me to say? That ‘yes, I paid off the Pinkertons to leave Johnny alone’? Is that what you want to hear?!”
“Yes,” Scott replied quietly. “That’s exactly what I want to hear.”
Murdoch turned with surprise toward Scott, then shook his head sadly before turning away again. “It wasn’t right to do. But…but the bounty at that time…it was relatively small. Only part of it was from the state, the rest was private, and you know how those private bounties are,” Murdoch hesitated with a weak shrug of his shoulders. “There were also discrepancies in the charges, a strong possibility that it may have been an accident… I wanted to give Johnny the benefit of the doubt.” Scott heard Murdoch sigh heavily. “I hoped that perhaps he’d discuss it with me at some point and we could get it taken care of.”
“But you believed that he was innocent and you paid to keep him safe,” Scott reiterated.
Murdoch slowly turned around. “No, I hoped that he was innocent, and I paid the Pinkertons three thousand dollars to keep it quiet for three years. His time was almost up. And they knew exactly where to find him. But if the bounty has been increased that much, then I’m sure all agreements are off. If they don’t come for him, I’m sure someone else will.”
Scott watched Murdoch turn slowly back toward the night-blackened window. “I’m going to find him, Murdoch.”
Murdoch’s shoulders seemed to slump slightly, though his voice remained even. “If you don’t, someone else will.”
Wakeman paced savagely back and forth across the small parlor room of his two-room apartment he kept in town for when he was occupied with business—or other more personal matters.
His two hired bodyguards and a third man watched him with growing trepidation. All three seemed aware that an explosion was soon to follow, and there appeared to be no way to get out of its imminent path.
“How can he turn me down? Me! For those lousy dirt farmers! And then to practically brag about those stunts he pulled! Damn!” Wakeman halted his pacing to glare blindly out the dark window, then turned and started up again. “And the Judge’ll be back in town day after tomorrow. I gotta get this settled before then. Damn it! If those idiots I sent after them the first time had gotten the job done, I wouldn’t have been left with this mess!”
“What do you want us to do, Boss?” the third man asked.
Wakeman stopped and glared with such fury that the man immediately wished he’d never spoken. “I want you to get rid of Madrid, that’s what I want you to do!” Wakeman seethed.
“How?” asked one of the bodyguards.
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out!” Wakeman hissed. “If we get rid of Madrid, Soledad’ll fall. I almost had them before he showed up. They lose him, they’ll lose all hope.”
“How ‘bout that drawing of your brand you said he had stashed?” the second bodyguard asked.
“I think if we take him out of the picture, they won’t have any fight left in them. And anyone who still tries to make trouble…” He smashed his fist into his palm in a demonstration of finality.
He began pacing once more, but stopped again before he’d gone more than a dozen paces. “We’ll hit them tomorrow, further away from Salinas this time. Go down along the foothills and charge at them when they think they’re almost home free. Our mistake was attacking too soon last time. They were fresh, ready and waiting for some action.”
“Plus having that extra man hidden didn’t help us any,” Friezen added.
“This time we know there’s four. But even so, I want everyone prepared.” Wakeman looked around the room, the three pairs of eyes nodding in agreement. “Friezen, you go out to the ranch and round up all the men you can get. I want no chance of a mess-up this—”
A knock at the door drew a startled look from everyone in the room.
Wakeman nodded to Friezen, who made his way to the door and opened it.
The figure on the other side of the door brought an immediate reaction of surprise to everyone in the room. Rapidly masking his astonishment, Wakeman signaled for his men to relax as all three had immediately drawn their guns on seeing who their unexpected visitor was.
The figure stood in the shadow of the doorway, waiting patiently.
“Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere else?” one of Wakeman’s bodyguards asked sarcastically.
“Now, now,” Wakeman interrupted with a veiled grin. “Is that any way to treat,” he paused meaningfully, “Judas, isn’t it?”
The smile that slid across the visitor’s face was anything but warm. “I believe we could come to an agreement which would be mutually beneficial,” he paused, his enjoyment of the phrase evident, “though my fee’s a bit steeper’n thirty pieces of silver.”
Smiling appreciatively, Wakeman gestured openly toward the room. “Please, please, do come in.”
The visitor nodded and stepped into the apartment, his eyes slowly surveying his surroundings as Friezen closed the door behind him.
“So, just what is it you have in mind?” Wakeman asked.
“I want the same deal you offered Madrid.”
“And what do I get in exchange?” Wakeman demanded coolly.
Though the answer was exactly what Wakeman had expected and hoped for, the nonchalance with which it was spoken still caught him off guard. “And what makes you think you’ll succeed where others have failed?” he asked after covering his surprise, his eyes not leaving the face of the man who stood in front of him.
“For a number of reasons. I can get close to him, I’m fast and,” the man paused, a smug look on his face, “I happen to know something about Madrid that’ll put the nails in his coffin.”
Wakeman shot a questioning look at his men, who seemed as confused as he was by the statement.
“Okay, what is it that you know?” Wakeman turned back to the visitor.
“Oh, no.” The eyes flicked in amusement. “Do we have a deal or not?”
“Yes, yes,” Wakeman replied, irritated. “We have a deal.”
“The same position you offered Madrid? Your right-hand man? And the power and money to go with it?”
At the flicker of hesitation on Wakeman’s face, the newcomer settled his hands on his hips and shifted his weight evenly. “Keep in mind, Wakeman. You have nothing to lose if I don’t succeed, while I stand to lose my life. But if I’m right, you have everything to gain and I also inherit Madrid’s reputation. Then with me on your payroll, ain’t nobody gonna give you no trouble. The entire Salinas Valley will be ours to do with as we want.”
Wakeman nodded shrewdly. “Alright. The same deal I offered Madrid.” He then gestured toward his men. “We were just discussing when best to attack him. We thought we’d wait until later in the day, when he’s tired and thinking he’d got away—closer to…” Wakeman stopped when he noticed the amused expression on his visitor’s face.
“Damn, Madrid is good!” the visitor chuckled as he shook his head and glanced about the room in amusement.
“What are you talking about?” Wakeman retorted angrily.
The man smiled widely, obviously enjoying a good joke at his host’s expense. “Madrid said you’d do just that. He had you pegged on the barrel head.”
Wakeman’s eyes narrowed in rage.
The visitor continued, “I don’t want it handled like that anyway. I want it to be a fair fight. Or as fair as it’s gonna appear to be,” he chuckled to himself. “If I’m stickin’ my neck out to drop Madrid, then I wanna do it with witnesses. I want everyone to know that it was me who drew him down. Or else the effect is lost, if you get my meaning.”
Wakeman considered the idea a moment before he asked, “And you’re that sure you can take him?” At the man’s self-satisfied grin, Wakeman continued, “Then Madrid’s little secret must be good.”
The visitor smiled cannily. “It took some doing, but I discovered some important information about him that no one else knows, or almost no one else.” He paused again, relishing the power he possessed in holding information that could change his entire future…and that of another man. “Madrid’s not well.”
“What do you mean, not well?” Wakeman shot back. “He looked in damn fine form this evening at the restaurant!”
“Yeah, well, he oughta be one of them actors, ‘cuz not long after his little conversation with you, he was lookin’ like hell. And it ain’t just been happening recent, it’s been goin’ on since I got to Soledad. One minute he seems fine. Then you see him an hour or two later and he looks like he couldn’t stand up to a good wind.”
“What’s wrong with him, then?” Wakeman asked, clearly not convinced.
“Not sure, exactly, but I believe he’d been shot just recent before coming to town. I saw laudanum in his saddlebag—”
“A gunfighter, on the move, carrying laudanum in his saddlebag,” Friezen sneered. “Yup, that’s a dead giveaway that he ain’t fit.”
“There’ve been other signs, too.” The visitor glared at the interruption. “DarkCloud’s always hovering about him, tellin’ him to take it easier and—”
“That’s that half-breed they call a doc in town,” Wakeman broke in.
The visitor nodded.
“Perhaps Madrid’s got a toothache or consumption. Don’t mean he can’t draw you down,” one of the bodyguards taunted.
The visitor’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t reply. Instead he turned his attention back to Wakeman. “As I said, if I’m wrong, you got nothin’ to lose.”
“True.” Wakeman rubbed his knuckles absently. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about where that original paper is Madrid made off with, do you?”
The visitor shook his head. “Came as a complete surprise to me. I didn’t know he had it. I’d say either DarkCloud or Matthew might know something about its whereabouts.”
“Matthew. That was the other man sitting with Johnny?”
“Johnny wanted him along for some reason this time. Drive the wagon, I suppose. He’s no gun. From what I heard, Johnny stayed with them—Matthew, his sister Grace, and their little brother, Jamie—when he first came to town. He and Jamie got real close—the whole family actually, so I hear.”
“And you think Madrid’s weak enough for you to take him on?” Wakeman reiterated, his expression still doubtful.
The visitor snorted callously. “I think he’s weak enough for me to win.”
Wakeman turned and walked to the window. All he could see was his own reflection, but this time it was smiling.
“Do it,” he said slowly, enjoying the moment.
The man nodded around the room, a ghost of a smile on his face, then turned and left.
After the door had closed, one of Wakeman’s bodyguards came up to stand beside his boss. “What d’ya think?”
Wakeman, studying his reflection in the window, quietly replied. “I think it would be nice if he took care of our problem for us. However, I prefer to have a contingency plan.” He turned slowly and fixed his men with a dark look. “I want you to make sure that Madrid doesn’t leave that street except in a undertaker’s box.”
“How about him?” Friezen cocked his head toward the door.
“I don’t care one way or the other. The only news I care to hear tomorrow is that Madrid has been killed in a gunfight. And,” he enunciated carefully, “I want you to make sure you’re not seen. I don’t want any link between Madrid’s death and you three. I want it to look like a fair call-out. The Judge will not be pleased if my name’s dragged into it. Do I make myself clear?”
A sly look passed between the men. “Perfectly.”
A saloon. He pauses in the doorway, scans the room and continues across the floor. Orders a drink. A glass suddenly shatters beside him. He rounds and draws—Isham!—Laughing—Hands outstretched.
At the table. Isham and another man dressed in black, the mask of the gunfighter well worn on his face.
“He wouldn’t side against his own kind,” Isham says.
“He that is not with me, is against me, the Bible says,” the man in black intones threateningly.
“Hey, he’s got an idea, Johnny Boy. Warburton’ll sign you on quicker than you can say—Johnny Madrid.”
“Are you in or out?” the man in black demands.
Standing in front of a well-dressed, older gentleman. Nearby are Isham and the gunfighter in black. He notices a girl is standing nearby, watching intently.
“How good are you?” the gentleman asks.
“Would it offend you if I ask for a demonstration? There’s a pennant, a small flag, flying on the tent behind you. Knock it down and you’re on.”
Johnny feels himself give a slight smile, slow his breathing. The next second he has turned and drawn, the flag spiraling toward the ground like a wounded bird.
The girl, looking at up at him—for a second he thinks of Laura, but he tries to quickly bury the sadness…and the memory…
“Don’t you know that pretty girls and gunfighters don’t mix?”
She looks up at him with a coy smile. “You don’t look dangerous to me.”
The words catch in his throat. He’s glad it’s dark so that she can’t see how much truth there is buried in the heavy words. “I am.”
“Laura! No! No!”
Vacant eyes, Laura’s blood.
….I am not a killer!…
…Or am I?...
Johnny’s eyes flashed open, his body paralyzed in total disorientation. In the darkness, while his eyes stared vacantly toward the ceiling in the dark room, his mind fought frantically to hold on to the pieces, the fragments of another time and place. In a sigh of defeat, he finally closed his eyes, succumbing to the futility. It had all slipped away again—like trying to capture fog in a hat. There had been men…Isham…and…and had he seen Tucson in the background? He thought so, but he couldn’t quite remember.
He clutched his hands into tight fists and fought down the desire to scream.
No more, no more! He wanted to cry out.
But soon…just a little while longer…and it would be over. Just a little while longer. Then he could finally escape.
He sat up slowly, listening to Matthew’s even breathing. He wondered what time it was. He’d had a difficult time falling asleep. He’d been uneasy, abnormally so. Everything had gone as planned with Wakeman. He had the man rattled, and he knew it. Now it was just a matter of waiting for Wakeman to make his mistake, and Johnny would be there to catch it.
But something was still wrong. And it bothered him that he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. Something had been done, said or seen—something…and Johnny knew he should have caught it. He would have caught it under normal circumstances.
But things weren’t normal anymore.
In the darkness, he dropped his head to his hands and sighed. He knew he wouldn’t get any more sleep. If he could just get to the final scene; it would be all over and he could finally rest.
Just before 12:30 Tucson stumbled unsteadily into the bar of the hotel. The Kid, a glass of clear liquor in front of him, looked up at the sound of his entrance.
The Kid grinned. “Well, looks like I won’t be in trouble for having two drinks.”
Tucson laughed loudly and held up two fingers. “I only had two…too many!!”
The Kid laughed along and gestured to the chair opposite. “Well, we’d better see if the bartender can scrounge you up a cuppa coffee before we go wake up Johnny. I don’t think he’s gonna be too pleased with you.”
“Johnny—Johnny—Johnny!” Tucson sat down heavily. “Do you always have to talk about Johnny? Hell, you’d think he was some holy prophet or something the way you go on about him.”
The Kid raised an eyebrow but didn’t reply. Instead he went to the bartender and asked if he’d bring them a cup of coffee. Then he returned to his seat and regarded Tucson thoughtfully.
“Sorry,” Tucson slumped down in his chair. “Didn’t mean t’go spoutin’ off at you like that. Damn! It’s just that it’s all anyone wants to talk about. Hell, even the girl I was with! All she asked about was Johnny!” His voice rose in mimic. “When’s he gonna come by? Is he as good lookin’ as everyone says? Did he really do what the stories say? Can he really draw so fast no human eye could see it? Was he really, single-handedly gonna swoop down on Wakeman’s ranch, in the dark of night, and bring Wakeman and all his men to justice? Can he walk on water?” He snorted loudly. “Geez! I finally just had to leave ‘cuz she wouldn’t shut up! To hear her talk, you’d think he was some sorta Avengin’ Angel or something.”
The Kid laughed as the bartender brought the coffee, set it in front of Tucson and quietly left. “You must be kidding!”
Crestfallen, Tucson looked into his coffee cup. “No, I ain’t.” He took a sip, then hissed as he burned his tongue on the hot liquid. “Anything go on here?”
The Kid shook his head. “No, it’s been really quiet. Johnny was right.”
Tucson glared into his cup and took another sip. “Yeah, he’s never wrong.”
The sound of footsteps outside the door brought Johnny slowly to his feet, gun drawn, waiting. A knock soon followed, and the Kid’s voice called out, “Johnny. Matthew. It’s me.”
Johnny breathed a sigh. “Coming.” He quickly holstered his gun, struck a match on his boot and lit the lamp in the room.
“Not already,” Matthew groaned. “I just fell asleep.”
Johnny grinned to himself. “Yup. Time to get movin’. Ain’t you had enough beauty sleep yet?”
While Matthew groaned a reply and slowly forced himself to a sitting position, Johnny reached into the pocket of his jacket lying next to him on the bed, pulled out the flask and quickly took a sip. After replacing it, he shrugged carefully into his jacket, picked up his saddlebag, and opened the door.
The Kid stood outside, patiently waiting, a wry grin on his face. “Short night, huh?”
Yawning widely, Matthew mumbled, “Very,” as he dragged up next to Johnny.
“Where’s Tucson?” Johnny asked.
“Nature called. He’ll be right up,” the Kid answered.
Johnny nodded then stepped to the side so the Kid could enter. “Don’t forget. I want to leave first thing. I want everyone up and moving at five o’clock so we can grab a quick breakfast and get out of town by seven at the very latest.”
The Kid nodded and gave a quick salute as he sat down on the bed and stretched. “Bright and early.”
“Anything of interest to report?” Johnny asked as he paused at the door.
“Nah,” the Kid laid down and folded his hands across his chest. “Pretty quiet. Few people wandered in, but nothing to speak of. Bartender was just gettin’ ready to close up when we left.”
“Okay, get some sleep,” Johnny suggested.
The Kid nodded, eyes already closing as Johnny shut the door.
Matthew followed Johnny as he headed down the stairs. “How you holding up?” he asked in a low voice.
“Better,” Johnny replied simply.
The main room was quiet except for the lone bartender who was sweeping the floor.
“Hear you’re plannin’ on sittin’ up,” he remarked as he leaned on his broom. “Really expectin’ somethin’ to happen?”
“No,” Johnny shook his head. “Just a precaution.”
“Heard about what you done last time you were up here,” the bartender continued with a toothless grin. “Word spread quickly, though Wakeman tried to stop it. He was none too pleased with ya.” The man continued to grin.
Johnny nodded. “That’s been known to happen.”
“Well, help yourself,” the bartender nodded vaguely around the room before he went back to sweeping. “My wife’ll be startin’ breakfast ‘round five o’clock or so. Our rooms are in the back if you need anything.”
“We’ll be fine,” Johnny replied as he set his saddlebag down on the table and nodded for Matthew to take a seat.
Finished, the bartender put the broom and pan back behind the counter, took off his apron and headed for the back door. “Oh, there’s a pot’a coffee made up if you’re interested. It’s sitting right here.” He pointed to the back corner of the bar, then left, closing the door behind him.
“That coffee sounds good. How ‘bout you?” Johnny asked as he headed behind the counter.
“Only if you expect me to stay awake,” Matthew replied, then suddenly laughed. “Yeah, Johnny, I guess it is a good thing I’m not a gunfighter. I thought a farmer’s hours were bad, but this is ridiculous. I’d never survive!”
Johnny raised an eyebrow mockingly, then turned to pour the coffee. “Matthew, you’d never survive ‘cuz the only thing you can hit are barns, remember?”
Matthew made a face. “Well, even if I could shoot well, the hours would still kill me.”
Johnny laughed as he set the coffeepot back down. “Sometimes I can really see where Jamie gets his personality.”
Matthew was formulating a reply just as Tucson came around the corner. He gave a short wave and headed for the steps.
“Off to bed?” Matthew asked.
“Yeah,” Tucson mumbled as he started up the steps.
“Don’t forget you’re gettin’ up early,” Johnny warned as he carried the coffee cups back to the table.
“That’s why I’m goin’ to bed,” Tucson grumbled.
“He seems a bit out of sorts,” Matthew stated as he picked up his cup.
Johnny pulled his chair out and sat down. “I think he had a couple of extra drinks tonight.”
Matthew raised an eyebrow and glanced toward the now vacant stairs. “Really? The Kid looked fine.”
Johnny raised his cup to his lips and blew across the steaming liquid. “His last lesson’s still fresh in his mind.”
“Oh,” Matthew replied.
Johnny was just setting down his cup when the front door opened abruptly. In a blur of movement that sent his chair toppling backward, Johnny yelled, “Down!” as he slid to a half-crouch behind the table, his gun drawn.
The sudden action caused Matthew to start, spilling half his coffee onto the table. With a gasp, he froze, unable to heed Johnny’s command, his cup half-way to his lip, his eyes wide in alarm.
A sudden and raucous laugh erupted from the doorway. “Thank God you’ve still got your eyesight, Madrid, or I’d be a dead man for sure!”
Matthew, still unmoving except for his eyes, watched as Johnny slowly stood up, a dubious expression on his face. “Harley? Harley! What the hell are you doing here?!”
Harley, a large, barrel-chested
man, laughed again before walking into the room. “I could ask you the same
Matthew watched as Johnny put his hand out to clasp the newcomer warmly.
“Work, as usual,” Johnny replied. “You passin’ through?”
Harley shook his head, pulled out another chair from the table and straddled it. Then with a nod at Matthew, who still had a dazed look on his face, he remarked, “Johnny, you gotta quit that stunt. You dun near scared this kid to death.”
Swallowing, Matthew tried to regain some dignity under Johnny’s and Harley’s amused expressions. “I wasn’t scared—just mildly surprised is all,” Matthew said as he stood up and went to get a rag to clean up the spilled coffee.
“See,” Johnny pointed out, “he was just surprised.” Then he returned to the earlier subject as he sat down opposite Harley. “So, what are you doing here?”
“Why, lookin’ you up!” Harley replied spiritedly. “I heard you were in town. Woulda caught you last week but I didn’t know you were around.”
“That was sorta the idea,” Johnny replied with a grin. “You been around long?”
“Sure,” Harley laughed. “I live here now.”
“No,” Johnny remarked. “Last time I saw you, you were in Fresno, workin’ with your uncle in his blacksmith shop.”
“Yeah, it’s been awhile, ain’t it?” Harley mused. “My uncle died soon after I last saw you and he left me the shop. I sold it and moved here. I prefer the climate—not so blasted hot as over in the San Joaquin. Get the ocean breezes to cool things down and Mary—,” Harley grinned sheepishly, “you remember her?”
“Oh, sure I do. That’s the girl you were sportin’.”
Harley laughed and suddenly dropped his gaze. “Well, I done got married to her.”
Johnny laughed and slapped the table. “No foolin’? I thought you two were lookin’ damn cozy when I last saw you.”
“Yeah, her parents moved over this way, too and she wanted to stay close to her family, ‘specially with the young’un on the way.”
Johnny grinned at Harley’s suddenly beaming face. “You got a little one!”
“Well, he ain’t so little anymore. He turned two last winter and Mary’s got another on the way.”
“Well, that calls for a celebration,” Johnny announced. “Matthew, get Harley here a cup of coffee! We got a toast to drink.”
Harley watched Matthew get up and walk back behind the bar. “Coffee, eh?”
Johnny grinned wryly in reply.
Harley nodded, suddenly sober. “Yeah, heard you got business with ol’ Judge Wakeman’s son.”
The corners of Johnny’s eyes crinkled as he reached for his cup of coffee and took a sip. “News sure does travels fast.”
“Yeah, well, not everyone in Salinas thinks James is as great as his ol’ man thinks he is. He’s gotten himself a bit of a reputation for having a mean temper, especially with some of our working girls and some of the older men who hang out in the saloons.”
“Yeah, I gathered as much about him.” Johnny nodded, fingering the handle on his cup. “Real tough around women, children and old men.”
Harley nodded, then thanked Matthew as he accepted the cup of coffee. “But he hires himself some mean characters and he still packs some weight, especially with the Judge being so popular around here. He may be a skunk, but his ol’ man’s done a lot for the town.”
“Probably got his eyes on some government employ, huh?”
“Senate, I think.” Harley grinned. “You still know how to read ‘em, Johnny.”
Johnny smiled slightly. “Now, let’s drink a toast to Mary with a little one on the way, and to little Harley.”
Johnny, Harley and Matthew ceremoniously held up their cups then took a sip.
“Dang! That’s bad coffee,” Harley remarked, his expression matching his pronouncement.
“True, but I figure it ought to keep me awake until next Sunday,” Johnny laughed.
Harley suddenly grew silent, then cleared his throat. “I—I named my son after Wes.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow, confused by his friend’s subdued expression and the sudden change of subject. “Wes, huh?” he asked carefully.
“Yeah,” Harley dropped his gaze to the cup in his hands and slowly began to rotate it. “He sure was a good friend. Saved my life once, remember?”
Johnny nodded. “Sure do. Quite the character, that Wes.”
“We were pretty foolhardy back then,” Harley agreed.
Johnny nodded, an uncomfortable feeling settling on him as he wondered where the conversation was heading.
“Yeah, I think about it sometimes,” Harley continued thoughtfully. “And I think, you know, that it coulda just as easy been me instead’a Wes.”
Matthew noticed the flash of hesitation on Johnny’s face, which though quickly masked, was enough for Matthew to tell that once again Johnny was floundering in the black void of his memory.
“I never heard of Wes,” Matthew hastily spoke up. “Old friend of yours?”
Harley nodded, shot a quick look at Johnny as if to confirm that he should go on.
Johnny met the look with a nod, which seemed to be all Harley needed to launch into his account.
“He sure was. There was a small group of us rode together back in our younger days. We could always count on ol’ Wes to think up something new to get the party mood going. Right, Johnny?” Harley chuckled.
Johnny nodded. “Fun was always Wes’ number one priority.”
Harley added his own nod, then the smile disappeared as he sighed. “Real sorry to hear what happened, Johnny. I know you two were real close yet. Musta been real hard for you, watching it and all.”
Matthew, noticing Johnny’s reluctance to reply, asked, “What happened?”
Both Harley and Johnny turned to Matthew, who noticed a hidden flick of gratitude in Johnny’s eyes.
“Well, I only heard it third or fourth hand,” Harley hesitated with a quick look of deference at his friend, his attitude seeming to ask if he should continue.
“When?” Johnny prompted.
“Oh, gosh, near about a year and a half ago or so. Woulda gotten in touch with you, but by that time I figured you’d be long gone, on to greener pastures,” Harley confessed apologetically. “Heck, I was surprised enough to hear you hadn’t been killed in Mexico like the word had been for the past year! Though I just knew it would take more’n an ol’ firin’ squad to take out Johnny Madrid!” Harley attempted to lighten the mood, but then sighed reluctantly. “I guess that horse just proved to be even more’n a devil than ol’ Wes thought. Damn way to go, though.”
Johnny nodded slowly, his expression tightening around the mouth. “You heard about it awhile after it happened, huh?”
Harley nodded. “Almost a year from what I could piece together. We’d just moved here. Little Wes was about six months old, I remember. Felt kinda bad at first, knowing he was dead, but then I thought, what better remembrance to give Wes than having a kid named after him. If it hadn’t been for Wes, I’d’ve been dead anyhow and little Wes wouldn’t of been born. Hell, if it weren’t for both you guys, I’d’ve been dead a long time ago.” He looked at Johnny then sighed. “I sorta like to think Wes gave me another chance at life. Instead, I settled down, got myself a gal, a family, my own shop.”
Matthew watched Johnny closely, noting his strained expression as he stared into his cup.
“He did leave a ripple, then.” Johnny’s words were quietly subdued.
“Huh?” Harley asked.
Suddenly shrugging, Johnny refocused on his friend. “Nothin’, Harl, nothin’. Jus’ kind of a thought…”
Harley cocked his head and regarded Johnny quietly a moment. “You doin’ okay, Johnny?” he asked, concern in his voice.
Nodding, Johnny rubbed his face. “Just been a short night is all.”
Harley paused, then turned to Matthew with a smile. “So, I heard you’re from Soledad. You hired yourself the best, you know.”
Matthew cast a furtive look at Johnny, but his friend didn’t seem to be paying any attention to the current conversation.
“Yeah, we think so,” he responded appropriately.
“Ain’t no man alive or dead who can take on Johnny, here. And I speak from experience.” Harley, oblivious to Johnny’s seeming disinterest, reached over and patted him on the back. “Yup. One time, I seen him draw down nine men all by himself down near the border. They all died so fast, one came back to life later in the day and said the line to Hell was so long that the devil himself had told him to return and tell Johnny not to shoot so fast. Seems the devil liked the business, but the backed-up line was making his organization look slip-shod.”
Matthew couldn’t help laughing at the absurdity of Harley’s story.
“Harley,” Johnny sighed, “it was only seven men, and I had you, Wes and Cisco backin’ me up.”
Harley rolled his eyes at Matthew. “Now, Johnny, you ain’t never gonna be a legend if you don’t learn to tell a story the right way.”
“I have no desire to be a legend,” Johnny replied dryly.
“Well, that’s gonna come as a surprise to some people.” Harley laughed good-naturedly. “Well, as much as I’d like to sit and chat, and drink this here God-awful coffee with you, I need to be gettin’ home. Mary’ll be wondering where I am. I shoulda been home a couple hours ago.”
“Yeah, that’d be a mite embarrassing if your wife has to come fetch you and haul you out by your ears,” Johnny chuckled.
Harley stood up, “Ah, Mary’s a great gal. She wouldn’t do that. Might bend my ear a bit when we got home, but there’s nothin’ like kissin’ and makin’ up.”
With a wink at Matthew, and a nod at Johnny, Harley turned and headed for the door. When he reached it, he called back, “Hey, Johnny, when business is finished, look us up. I’m over on North Street.”
Johnny nodded, but didn’t reply.
After the door closed, Johnny sighed and stood up. “You want another cup?”
Matthew handed Johnny his cup and silently watched as Johnny went to fill it. After he’d returned, Matthew remarked, “Wes was a pretty good friend, it sounds like.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, we’d known each other awhile.”
“Can you—is there anything you remember about the accident he was talking about?” Matthew asked.
“No,” Johnny looked down. “Not really. But,” he looked up at Matthew, his face drawn in intense concentration, “it’s like when he said Wes was dead, I felt I already knew it. That it wasn’t really a surprise.” He sighed and looked back down. “Wes was a good friend. He never did nobody no harm. He’d do anything for his friends.” With clenched fist, Johnny suddenly hit the table causing Matthew to splash a few drops of coffee onto his hand. “Damn it, Matthew! I don’t even know where he died, where he’s buried! And I’m supposed to have been with him!”
“It’ll come back to you, Johnny.” Matthew replied, in what he hoped was a positive tone. But Johnny just shook his head and stared morosely at the table.
For the next few minutes, Matthew sipped quietly on his coffee while furtively watching Johnny, but the gunfighter continued to stare off into the distance, deep in his own thoughts.
Finally, after Matthew had finished his second cup, and Johnny still hadn’t touched his, Johnny suddenly remarked, “Harley looked happy.”
Matthew hesitated at first, unsure if Johnny wanted a reply. “Yes, yes, he sure did,” he tentatively agreed.
“I’m glad,” Johnny continued, then fell silent for another minute. “It was nice he named his boy after Wes. Wes would’ve liked that.”
Matthew slowly nodded. “After all, Wes did save his life.”
Johnny looked up. Though he smiled, his eyes never lightened. “It’s good he left something decent behind him,” he quietly replied, then looked back down at the table.
At five o’clock, Johnny suddenly stood up, startling Matthew out of a light sleep.
“I’m gonna get Tucson and the Kid awake,” Johnny announced as he headed for the stairs. “I want to get moving as soon as possible.”
Matthew rubbed his eyes tiredly, the thought of the long ride to come filling him with dread.
Johnny, however, seemed wide awake and ready to go, though Matthew was certain he’d not even dozed off at all. Matthew, with some chagrin, admitted to himself that he’d not been much help. After Harley had left, and despite almost four cups of coffee, he’d still kept dozing off. But every time he sheepishly jerked himself awake, there sat Johnny, eyes wide open, leaning back in his chair, cup in hand, watching and listening.
A couple of minutes later, just when Matthew heard noises coming from the back rooms, Johnny came down the steps. “They should be down soon,” he remarked as he returned to the table.
“Good. I think I just heard the missus movin’ around in the back. We’ll be able to get our breakfast ordered and be on our way.”
Johnny grinned. “Yeah, it’s time to get something besides that coffee in my stomach.”
Matthew laughed and rubbed a hand through his hair. “Speaking of which,” he stood up, “I’ve got to pay a visit out back.”
“Don’t take too long!” Johnny warned good-naturedly. “I plan to head that way myself.”
Thirty minutes later, the breakfasts had been ordered and the Kid had come down, bringing apologies that Tucson was moving a little slower than usual. Though he’d tried to remain vague, Johnny finally forced the Kid to admit that Tucson had been drinking more than he should have the night before.
Johnny had cursed and said if Tucson didn’t get himself up and moving, he’d leave the drunk behind and then Tucson could deal with Wakeman on his own.
At six o’clock, the three men were done eating and Johnny’s originally annoyed look he would cast periodically toward the stairs was increasingly turning black with disgust.
“That’s it,” he announced as he laid down his fork. “I ain’t stickin’ around for him to dry out.”
“I’ll go try again,” offered Matthew as he quickly jumped up.
“You tell him he’s gonna be left,” Johnny replied hotly. “We’re leaving in ten minutes.”
“You want me to go to the livery and start to get the horses taken care of?” the Kid asked.
Johnny nodded, the disappointment he was feeling about Tucson apparent in his voice. “I’ll get our bill paid and catch up to you in a few minutes.”
The Kid nodded and left the hotel.
Johnny looked around the room and shook his head. He hadn’t planned on Tucson deciding to indulge himself so heavily. He’d expected more out of the other gunfighter.
Johnny sighed. A few people were wandering in now, ordering up some breakfast, a sure sign that the town was coming awake. And Johnny wanted to get a move on. The trip ahead of them was going to be long and despite his best appearances, he was not looking forward to it. He was aching from sitting up all night; and the added strain of abruptly drawing and moving when Harley had surprised him had only increased his discomfort, building it to a throbbing intensity that threatened to destroy his ability to concentrate. But he didn’t want to just sit any longer; he wanted to be moving. Yet, he didn’t want to be a man short, either.
With a grunt of annoyance at Tucson’s lack of professionalism, Johnny stood up and stretched gingerly. Then he put his hand in his pocket and drew out the flask. He wasn’t surprised to see there was barely enough for a good swallow. Something else to be annoyed about. Without taking a drink, he replaced it back in his pocket. He’d need it a lot more as the day wore on.
He drew the fingers of his left hand back through his hair. The vigil was over. Now was the time for some action.
He went up to the counter and quickly paid for their meal. Just as he was turning around, Matthew came down the steps, a shake of his head telling Johnny all he needed to know.
“He won’t even answer the door,” Matthew said as he came up to Johnny.
“Damn,” Johnny muttered. “He wasn’t great, but he was what I had.”
“How ‘bout the Kid?”
Johnny shook his head and glanced toward the front door before turning back to Matthew. “Give him another fifteen minutes and try again. I’m gonna go help the Kid with the horses and wagon. We’ll be back here soon to pick you up.”
Matthew nodded, then motioned toward their table. “Leave your saddlebag here. I’ll take care of it.”
Johnny gave the saddlebag a casual acknowledgement, then with one last dark glance toward the stairs, he left the hotel.
Johnny stepped out into the streets of Salinas, which were already busy in the early morning hours. Long, clear shadows stretched across the dusty streets under a haze of ocean clouds that trailed through the pass from Monterey. Johnny knew it wouldn’t be long before the clouds burned off, leaving behind a day that promised to be dry with an unrelenting heat.
He automatically scanned the few passing wagons and riders as he walked along the boardwalk, the sound of grit crunching under his boots. At the end of the block, he turned and headed across the street toward the livery stable.
Halfway there, he heard a voice call out his name. The tone didn’t surprise him; he’d heard it so often from so many different men and on so many different streets, that it had long ago ceased having the ability to startle him. But the voice—
Johnny stopped dead in his tracks, reluctant to turn around.
“Madrid! I’m talkin’ to you!”
Johnny closed his eyes for a second and breathed slowly. Then, hands spread out, he carefully turned to face the speaker.
“Kid,” Johnny breathed, his voice barely audible.
“Yeah, that’s right, Madrid. That’s what they’ll call me after I draw you down. The Kid.” The young man smiled malevolently. “It’s a bit ironic, huh? You gave me my name, you’ll give me your reputation, too.”
Johnny kept his hands steady. “I’m not givin’ you anything, Fred.”
For a split second, the kid’s smile frosted over, but it was soon replaced by coldly laconic smirk. “The way I got it planned, you will.”
“You’re making a mistake, Kid. You don’t really want to do this,” Johnny quietly intoned.
“Oh, yes I do. Gave it a lot of thought, too.” He flexed his fingers suggestively. “Been actually naggin’ around in my head for awhile now, but after I heard you and Wakeman talk last night, it all became clear. You may be too self-righteous to take him up on his offer, but I sure as hell ain’t!”
Johnny took a slow breath. And although he managed to keep a calm appearance, his mind raced with the realization that unless he could talk the Kid out of it, he was most likely going to have to kill the same young man he had hoped to save from a life like his.
“Kid, it’s not all you think, haven’t you seen that? The life you imagined, it’s not like that at all.”
“Oh please, Madrid. The problem is, you just don’t know how to take advantage of it. It is everything I’d imagined, and more!”
“No, Kid. The killing, it’ll slowly destroy you.”
“You, maybe,” the Kid laughed. “I gotta thank you for that, Madrid. You showed me how easy it could be. I was always afraid to do it, afraid when it came down to the kill, maybe I really wouldn’t be able to follow through. And if I did, that I’d feel damned.” He laughed again, eerily. “But it was easy! And I didn’t feel a thing! Nothing! It was such a shock to find out I could look a dead man in the face, a man I’d just killed, and not give a damn! I guess you taught me something you’d never managed to learn yourself. A conscience is a pretty useless quality in a gunfighter.”
A rare feeling of speechlessness enveloped Johnny. How could he have been so wrong about the Kid? So terribly wrong. The last threads of hope seemed to unravel before him, leaving him with the feeling that all paths had been predestined, leading him to this scenario of having to kill a young man he had thought he’d be able to help from making the same mistake he’d made. He could just as easily let him win, but then Wakeman would take the town. He had no choice. But of course, wasn’t that the way it always was? No choice.
“At a loss for words, Madrid? That must be a first,” the Kid sneered.
“Not at all. Just wondering if I’ll still feel any remorse about sending you to Hell where you belong,” Johnny replied icily, his decision made. His own time was coming, but it wasn’t going to be now and it wasn’t going to be with the Kid.
The Kid shook his head in obvious contempt. “Madrid, don’t play me. I know your secret.”
“My secret?” Johnny smiled slightly. “Don’t you know secrets aren’t always what you think they are?”
“You’re going down,” the Kid replied, ignoring the taunt. “Now draw!”
Johnny shook his head. “I refuse to start this dance. You’ll have to call it.”
“Gladly,” the Kid coldly drawled.
The various townspeople lining the street had slowly become a crowd of curious onlookers. The word of a showdown between Johnny Madrid and a newcomer had quickly spread. The silent throng watched the verbal exchange between the two men, not always comprehending the sometimes cryptic wordplay. But not a one misunderstood the intent.
In the hotel, Matthew sat patiently, waiting the fifteen minutes he’d been asked to give Tucson before trying his room again. Absently, he noticed a murmur of voices outside the doorway, but was more preoccupied with the thoughts of a long, hot, arduous trip back to Salinas without the benefit of having had much sleep the night before.
The door to the small hotel opened and a man stuck in his head and quickly gestured to a friend. “Come on! There’s gonna be a gunfight!”
The friend quickly bolted up and ran to the door, followed by the three other people who had been sitting enjoying their breakfast. Matthew watched them in confused but rather vague surprise. And then the word ‘gunfight’ echoed back to him and he, too, bolted for the door. But Matthew found to his great irritation that his way was blocked by the backs of the onlookers gathering outside on the boardwalk. Frantically he pushed his way through the crowd until he’d made his way to the front. What he saw sent him into stunned panic. The Kid stood practically in front of him in the middle of the street.
“You’re making a mistake, Kid. You really don’t want to do this.”
Matthew’s heart leapt at the sound of Johnny’s voice. Craning his neck, he saw his friend, stance spread, arms held out to his side.
“Oh, yes I do. Gave it a lot of thought, too.” Matthew heard the Kid reply.
Panic stricken, yet wanting to do something, Matthew stood momentarily stunned with disbelief. Then suddenly the thought—Tucson—entered his mind. Unsure really what he hoped to accomplish, but knowing something had to be done, Matthew turned and pushed his way back through the crowd and into the hotel. Heart racing, he dashed up the steps and threw himself against the door to their room at the top.
“Tucson! Tucson!” he screamed, banging on the door with his fists. “I need your help, Tucson!”
The door suddenly gave way under his unrelenting pounding and Matthew practically fell into the small room, a dazed Tucson standing over him.
“What’s goin’ on?” Tucson demanded, his palms pressing into red rimmed eyes. “And can you tell me in a lower voice?”
“No!” Matthew replied forcefully, grabbing Tucson’s arm and propelling him toward the window. “It’s Johnny and the Kid!”
“Johnny and the Kid?” Tucson repeated, his eyes searching Matthew’s face in confusion. “What are—?”
“Look!” Matthew pointed out the window.
Tucson looked through the window to the street below where the Kid and Johnny were facing each other off. “What the hell’s goin’ on?!” Tucson exclaimed.
“I think the Kid started it.”
Tucson shook his head in disbelief, and as his eyes shifted up along the face of the building across the street they suddenly narrowed. “Damn it! That ain’t all. Look!”
Matthew followed Tucson’s gaze. On the roof of the opposite building, hidden along the roof edge, was one of Wakeman’s bodyguards they had seen at the restaurant the night before.
“And I’m sure his partner’s not far off. Probably right above us.”
Matthew quickly looked out the window. He could see Johnny replying to something the Kid said, but couldn’t hear the words. “We gotta do something.”
“Come on,” Tucson gave Matthew a shove and took off running for the door. “We gotta get down there and warn Johnny.”
Matthew raced behind Tucson out to the hall and down the steps, panting to keep up with the taller man’s stride.
“What the hell’s been going on anyway?” Tucson asked as they rushed into the main hotel room.
“Nothing I know about,” Matthew replied.
Without breaking momentum, Tucson continued across the room, Matthew trying to keep up. “Just tell me one thing,” the gunfighter hissed as he flung open the door and abruptly turned on Matthew. “Just how bad of shape is Madrid in?”
Matthew hesitated, unsure how to answer.
Tucson’s expression turned darkly serious. “I guess that answers my question.” He turned back to the doorway and began yelling, “Let us through, let us through!”
As they pushed into the reluctant crowd, Matthew barely made out the Kid’s voice uttering a single word in a tone that drew Matthew’s stomach into a knot.
They burst into the front of the crowd just as the Kid drew his gun. Matthew only heard two shots, but later Tucson would tell him he distinctly heard five. Matthew, from his vantage point off to Tucson’s right, only saw the Kid draw. But just before he saw the explosion from the Kid’s gun he heard the shot from Johnny’s revolver that turned the Kid’s attempt into a mere echo, and a futile one at that.
The turn of events were happening so fast that Matthew felt numb to keep up, but as he saw the Kid’s body go rigid and heard him cry out in agony, Tucson was already moving forward, gun drawn. As Matthew turned, now able to see Johnny with Tuscon out of the way, he noticed Johnny had moved a couple of steps off to the side in a half-crouch, his gun drawn, a look of concern and alarm on his face as his eyes raked along the rooftops.
“Johnny, up there!” Tucson cried as another volley of bullets splattered in the dust.
As horses and people scattered, Johnny dashed toward the safety of the awnings, firing as he went. Tucson quickly joined in the fray, easily picking off Wakeman’s man across the street, as he knew exactly where he was hiding.
The man fell from the rooftop, his scream of agony reverberating amongst the buildings, as Johnny turned his attention to a second man. Now that he understood where the attack was coming from, the determination to take care of business was etched deeply in Johnny’s face, his manner unhesitating and alert. With Tucson covering him, he dashed back across to the other side of the street in order to get the man in his sights. Unfortunately three horses, spooked by the gunfire, were bolting and rearing, hindering Johnny and Tucson’s attempts to cross the street.
“There’s two of them and they’re getting away!” Tucson yelled, as two crouched figures suddenly turned and started making their way along the roof.
Johnny aimed, but noting that the angle was too great, ran a few more steps to where he could get a better shot.
As Tucson quickly fired, trying to block their escape, one of the men suddenly turned and fired back. At the same time Johnny got off a shot that threw the man backward out of sight.
But the man’s shot, wild as it was, still accomplished its main goal. It struck one of the terrified horses plunging erratically behind Johnny. The animal screamed in pain, rearing back in a death throw of agony, striking Johnny in the side.
Johnny had heard the shot, knew by the horse’s scream what had happened, and had tried to get out of its way, but the blow caught him before he’d been able to turn, sending him to his knees, gasping for breath.
Tucson and Matthew, both horrified witnesses to the spectacle, cried out Johnny’s name and ran toward him as the great beast, eyes wild with fright and self-preservation, struck out once more. The hooves caught Johnny a second time in his back, sending the gunfighter sprawling immediately to an unmoving fetal position in the dusty street of Salinas.
“No!!” Matthew screamed in anguish as he threw himself in the dirt beside the body of his friend.
Go on to Part 4