The Ghost of Johnny Madrid
Episode 6: Junctures
Murdoch put his hands on his hips and surveyed the busy street in front of him as assorted wagons, men on horseback, women and children strolling along the boardwalk, passed by. “Salinas,” he stated. “Sure has grown since I was here last. It’s changed quite a bit.”
Scott followed his father’s appraising eye, noticing immediately the fresh cut wood of which many of the buildings were built. Another rapidly growing city rising out of the dry, barren California valley.
There were many such new towns springing up with the influx of new settlers to the state, yet it would remain up to time and providence to see which ones survived into the next century. In another time he might have enjoyed theorizing and contemplating the future of California and its recent growth, but not now. Scott had other things on his mind.
“Where to first?” he asked urgently, his desire not to dally any longer than absolutely necessary quite evident in his distracted manner. “Livery?”
Murdoch turned to glance down the street. “I think we should try to get a little more information first, before we go dashing down to Soledad. For all we know, it still may not be Johnny—or he could even be here in town. Be a hell of a waste of time to ride all that way to Soledad and find out he was right here.”
Chagrined, Scott nodded, admitting to himself that he hadn’t thought of that possibility. He’d been all for grabbing the first available horse and heading south. Heck, it was the only plan that had consumed him since he’d gotten on the stage.
Murdoch pointed across the street from the stage depot to a saloon. “Always a good place to start. Besides, after two days of dust and bouncing, I could use a beer.”
Scott took a deep breath, determined to calm his nerves, and managed a smile. “Isn’t nine-thirty a bit early for you?”
Murdoch kept his eyes on the saloon across the street as Scott noticed a tight grimace form in the corners of his father’s mouth. “I have a feeling I might need it before the day has ended,” he heard his father mutter.
Finding no answer to Murdoch’s revelation, Scott followed him across the dusty street to the saloon.
The saloon had few patrons so early in the day. Regardless, the four men who sat at table playing cards and the two men at the bar barely acknowledged their entrance. The bartender, though, smiled a greeting as he finished wiping off a table.
“What can I get you?” he asked as he walked up, picking up an empty mug from the counter as he approached.
“We just came in on the stage and could use a couple of beers,” Murdoch replied as he leaned against the bar.
The bartender nodded, returned behind the counter and deftly filled two mugs.
Murdoch slid a coin on the counter, which the bartender exchanged for the beers. “I wonder if you could also help us with something else,” Murdoch said before taking a sip.
The bartender raised an eyebrow. “How’s that?”
“We’re looking for someone,” Scott replied.
“Oh? Who are you looking for?”
“Johnny Lancer,” Murdoch answered.
The bartender looked at him blankly and shook his head. “Lancer? Don’t know any Lancer,” he answered as he picked up one of the other patron’s mugs and refilled it. “Is he new ‘bout here? We’ve been gettin’ a lot of newcomers recently. Railroad tying into here and all,” he added as a vague explanation.
“How about the name Madrid?” Scott quickly added, careful to avoid his father’s eyes.
To the surprise of both Scott and Murdoch, at the sound of the gunfighter’s name, the bartender narrowed his eyes and took a step back from the bar. “Madrid, you say?”
“Yes.” Murdoch straightened up, his lips compressing tightly. “Yes. Madrid.”
All activity in the bar abruptly ceased as all eyes turn toward them.
“What’dya want Madrid for?” a man from the end of the bar tersely demanded.
“As I said,” Murdoch replied carefully, “we just got in on the stage and were—”
“Wakeman hire you?” the man’s friend, whose mug the bartender had just filled, took a step toward Murdoch, his manner suspicious and hostile.
“No, no, not at all, friend,” Scott stepped next to his father. “We were just hoping to find out where Johnny—where Madrid could be found.”
“I think maybe you’d better go find yourself another saloon to drink in,” the bartender stated firmly as he grabbed their mugs off the counter.
“Wakeman must really be gettin’ desperate if he’s hirin’ the likes of you,” one of the men from the table retorted, his eyes coldly appraising Murdoch. “Gettin’ a bit old for that line a work, ain’t ya, Pops?”
“If you’re smart, you’ll go back where you came from before Madrid puts you six feet under, too,” the man from the bar added darkly.
“I’d advise you to leave now,” the bartender jerked his head toward the door.
Murdoch and Scott glanced quickly at each other before looking around the room once more. Each face that watched them was filled with such intense maliciousness and mistrust that Scott could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Definitely a feeling of being behind enemy lines.
“Scott,” Murdoch’s voice dropped as he flicked his eyes toward the door. “I think it’d be best.”
Scott nodded in understanding and slowly the two headed toward the door, an uncomfortable sensation of having exposed backs following them as they crossed the saloon.
Once outside, they continued down the block until they were well away from the front of the building.
“Well, that didn’t go well,” Scott stated sourly after they’d stopped. He glanced back down the street and rubbed the back of his neck as if to dispel the earlier feeling. “Those men were convinced we were working for Wakeman.”
Murdoch nodded absently, his hands on his hips, his expression dark and unreadable as he glared back the way they had come.
“I’m, uh, sorry about the Madrid thing,” Scott apologized. “But I thought—”
“No.” Murdoch slowly turned back. “No, you were right. I forgot…or I had hoped,” he paused to glance up at the sky. “I don’t know which.”
Sighing, Scott glanced toward the next block. “So, do we try again or go for the livery?”
“I think we should try to get a little more information about what’s going on here before we act. Though we have ascertained that Sheriff Crawford’s information was correct in that someone is around here going under the name of Johnny Madrid, it still remains to be seen if it’s our Johnny.”
Scott dropped his gaze, biting back the urge to report that he knew very well it was their Johnny who was in the area, as Sheriff Crawford had confided in him another piece of information just before he’d left. Val hadn’t said anything when he’d first arrived, aware that Murdoch was listening, but had sought Scott out privately before they’d boarded the stage, informing Scott that Bridger had mentioned that Madrid had used a modified gun with a shortened barrel.
“There’s a saloon here on the next block,” Murdoch said as he stepped off the boardwalk and started across the street.
“I’d like to suggest a different tactic this time,” Scott advised.
“I tend to agree with you,” Murdoch replied with a slight snort.
Once more the two men walked into the saloon, this one similar to the first, though two sets of card games were being played and a heavily painted saloon girl was sipping a drink and listening to a young man at the far end of the bar.
The bartender was busy sweeping the floor and looked up as they entered. “What’ll you have?” he asked genially.
“Two beers,” Murdoch answered.
The man nodded, walked toward the back of the bar where he rested his broom against the wall, then poured out the two mugs of beer.
Scott took a firm grip of his immediately, determined to enjoy it before this one had a chance to disappear.
“That’ll be two-bits,” the bartender said.
Murdoch slid a coin out on the counter then picked up his own mug. “That hits the spot,” he remarked after taking a long, satisfying drink.
“Ain’t seen you before,” the bartender remarked. “New to the area?”
“No, we’re just passing through,” Scott answered casually as he took a sip from his own mug. “Just came in on the stage.”
“Passin’ through, huh? Where ‘bouts you headin’?”
“South to Paso Robles. Name’s Lancer. Murdoch Lancer. And this here’s my son, Scott,” Murdoch answered amiably.
Scott smiled and nodded.
“Lancer, eh? There’s a Lancer spread over near the San Joaquin, I hear.”
Murdoch nodded. “The same.”
“Well, Mr. Lancer. You might wanna be careful goin’ down south right now. We’ve got trouble brewing here ‘bouts.”
“Trouble?” Scott asked, careful to keep his voice indifferently interested.
“I’d say,” they heard another voice join in.
Scott turned to look at who had spoken. It was the young man, about his own age, at the end of the bar.
“Well, we’d just as soon avoid trouble,” Murdoch replied, calmly sipping his beer.
“Then you’ll wanna avoid passing through Soledad,” the bartender continued. “Too bad the train line’s not finished, yet.”
“They say by next year it will be,” one of the men from the table nearest the bar muttered without even bothering to look up from his cards.
Scott closed his eyes in an attempt to hide his frustration at the turn the conversation was taking. He didn’t care a damn about the train. Determined to get the discussion back on track, he prompted, “This trouble. Will it be over soon?”
The bartender’s mouth pursed disagreeably. “Soon? Don’t know ‘bout that. Could be.”
“It’s headin’ for a showdown, that’s for damn sure,” the young man assured firmly.
“Showdown?” Murdoch asked. And for the first time, Scott felt a hint that his father, too, was working hard to keep his emotions tightly focused.
“Ever hear of Judge Wakeman?” a man playing cards asked.
“Yes,” Murdoch nodded. “I believe I have.”
“Good man,” added in one of the other card players. “Damn shame about his son, though.”
“His son?” Murdoch asked.
“Must be right awful for the Judge,” the bartender agreed. “Having a son who’s such a disappointment. The Judge now, he’s a fine man…a fair man.”
There was a murmur of consensus from the people in the bar as Scott shot his father a hooded look. He wondered if Murdoch felt an echo of familiarity in the words that the man had just spoken. Probably not, Scott surmised. His father didn’t seem to see his faults reflected in those around him.
“He’s done a lot for Salinas. Helping to turn us into a real city,” the bartender continued.
“But his son,” the man from the table turned around, the card game momentarily forgotten. “He’s got a nasty temper and some bad habits.”
“Like greed,” added another man.
“He once beat up a friend of mine,” the saloon girl added vehemently. “Took her almost a month before she could work again.”
There was another general nod of agreement.
“So what does all of this have to do with our passing through Soledad?” Scott asked.
The bartender picked up Scott’s half empty glass and began to refill it. “Seems Wakeman, the son, wants to expand his land holdings to include the area around Soledad. With the new train line goin’ in, I guess he sees quite a profit from cattle raising in that area. He’s been putting the squeeze on that bit of a town for quite some time now.”
There was a chuckle from the young man at the bar. “Yeah, ‘til that little town went and got smart.”
This time, there was the sound of general laughter among the saloon patrons.
“Got smart?” Scott asked. “How?”
“They went and hired themselves a gunfighter,” the young man at the end of the bar laughed. “And not just any gunfighter, either.”
Scott and Murdoch both turned to the young man; all attempt at indifference suddenly forgotten.
“Ever hear of Johnny Madrid?” The young man was smiling, clearly enjoying the story he was telling.
Scott managed a strained nod. He had no idea what Murdoch’s reaction was. He had enough problems worrying about keeping his own expression one of mild interest.
“Well, if that town didn’t go and hire themselves a real professional—and now they’ve put the squeeze on Wakeman!” the young man finished with a chortle.
“Well, the Judge’s back from his stay in San Francisco. He’ll get things straightened out, I’m sure,” the bartender added hopefully. “Havin’ gunfights taking place in city limits isn’t good for business or the town’s reputation.”
“Gunfights?” Scott asked. “When? What happened?”
“Damnedest thing. Just a few days ago. Madrid was up here with two other gunfighters and a local farmer from Soledad to get some of their supplies,” the bartender continued.
“They’d come up about a week earlier,” interjected a man from the table.
“Yeah, but nothin’ much happened that time,” the young man emphasized.
“But this time,” the bartender continued, “one of the gunfighters Madrid came up with called him out. Ain’t that right, Peck?” the bartender called to one of the men at the table.
Peck, a hard living man whose teeth had obviously seen better days, stood up and walked to the bar, taking his rightful place as new lead storyteller. “That’s right,” he answered as he set his glass on the bar for a refill. “I was there and saw the whole thing.” He paused and waited as his glass was refilled, then took a long drink before beginning. “This young gunfighter, couldn’t have been hardly outta his teens, called on Madrid. Madrid tried to talk him outta it. But this young kid would have none of it. He seemed damned cocky sure of hisself. Madrid wouldn’t draw, however.” The man paused again to take a breath and wet his lips with his beer.
Scott’s heart began pounding. Vaguely he noticed Murdoch’s eyes were fixed on the bar, yet every muscle appeared taut—like he was forcing himself to listen to the story.
“It was the damnedest thing,” the man repeated then took another long drink from his glass, convincing Scott that he had every intention of working the story into a saga worthy of another refill. “The two gunfighters suddenly drew on each other, Madrid’s bullet sending the young kid to Plantation Paradise. At the same time, other bullets from the roof tops splattered down—”
“Ambushers,” interjected the young man from the bar.
Peck turned a sour eye on the interruption, which caused the bartender to give a stern shake of his head toward the young man.
“Ambushers,” echoed Peck. “Then these other two men, the other gunfighter and the farmer, they go dashin’ out into the middle of the fray, the gunfighter blasting away, takin’ out one of them ambushers. Madrid goes dashin’ across the street, weavin’ like a snake, and takes out another one’o them fellas. But,” here he paused to take another long drink, effectively bringing it to an early demise. The bartender hurriedly poured another. Peck nodded his thanks and continued. “But one of them stray bullets caught a terrified horse in the neck and the animal began bucking around, just crazy loco in his death throes. We all jus’ stood there, watching, unable to do a thing, while the horse caught Madrid in the back and struck him down—right there in front of us.”
“Struck him down?” Scott knew his voice betrayed any earlier pretense of impartiality.
Murdoch raised his head.
The man nodded. “Yup. It weren’t a bullet that brought Madrid down, but a horse. Most all of us watchin’ thought he was dead.”
“Dead?” Murdoch voice was barely above a whisper.
The man took another long drink before continuing. “Yeah, looked in pretty bad shape to me, but then I ain’t no doctor.” He suddenly shrugged. “Them two other guys and our blacksmith carried him into the hotel—”
“He’s here?” Murdoch cut in.
The man shook his head. “No. Damned near impossible to believe, but I heard he rode outta town ‘bout an hour later.” He sighed, downing the last of his drink. “I wouldn’t’a laid odds on him being able to walk for days, much less ride.”
Murdoch and Scott glanced at each other. “Where’s the best place to rent a couple of horses?” Scott asked.
Scott and Murdoch walked back out to the street. Scott glanced up at the sky, noting that the ocean fog was slowly rolling back, the edges outlined in a deep blue.
“That explains it,” Scott stated firmly. “Johnny’s been injured. That’s why he couldn’t contact us.”
“He’s been gone almost a month. That gunfight they were talking about was just a few days ago,” Murdoch replied. “I think it’s time we get ourselves some horses. I want to know what the hell my son’s been up to.”
Something in Murdoch’s tone made Scott grin widely. “Sounds like Johnny’s kept busy, in any case.”
“Why the hell he’s getting involved in something like this is beyond me,” Murdoch replied tiredly. “I just don’t understand that boy sometimes. What’s he doing hiring out?”
“But it sounds like it’s for a good reason,” Scott argued.
“Good reason or not, he has no business doing—” Murdoch paused, his face darkly grim. “If he’s of the opinion that I’m going to condone his hiring out to any person—or town—with a bleeding heart story to tell, well he’s going to find out differently. I thought I’d made that clear when he pulled that stunt down in McCall’s Crossing.”
“But maybe that’s why he’s using Madrid again instead of Lancer,” Scott suggested.
“He must know by now that he can’t just go back to being Johnny Madrid whenever the urge hits him.” Murdoch’s voice grew quiet. “Especially with that bounty on him.”
“He doesn’t know it’s been raised,” Scott argued. “Or he’d have been more careful.”
“Or all this speculation is worthless as he’s decided to return to being Johnny Madrid permanently.”
“Is that what you really think?” Scott demanded.
“I don’t know what the hell to think,” Murdoch snapped angrily. “But if he has, I’m going to tell him to take his sorry hide back to Mexico. I don’t need a gunfighter son of mine hanging around in the area.”
Scott looked at Murdoch, his eyes wide with shocked surprise.
Slowly, Murdoch glanced at Scott, his face suddenly losing its hard edge as he hurriedly averted his eyes. “He’d be safer in Mexico,” Murdoch quietly stated. “And maybe I’d never have to know when he finally got—” Murdoch’s voice cracked and he swallowed tightly. “Let’s find those horses and get the hell out of here,” Murdoch finished with a growl.
Scott looked up the block, glad to change the subject. “Four blocks away, the bartender directed.”
“Let’s go,” Murdoch ordered and took off, his steps long and purposeful.
Scott walked along side in silence, pondering the outcome of the eventual meeting between Johnny and their father. Once again he wondered why he had complicated things by demanding that Murdoch come along. He could only see harsh words and condemning accusations coming out of the impending meeting—none of which were going to improve the situation between father and son.
“We should ask how long it takes to get to Soledad,” Murdoch’s voice cut through Scott’s thoughts. “It must be getting close to ten or ten-thirty. Hate to start if we can’t get there before dark, especially given the circumstances with Wakeman.”
“It also stands to reason,” Scott commented, “given a town this size, that if there’s a group of people against Wakeman, there’s probably another group of Wakeman supporters. People it’d probably be best for us to avoid.”
Murdoch glanced discretely at his son out of the corner of his eye, his expression one of approval. He enjoyed Scott’s logical thinking, his way of breaking a situation down to its different components in order to disseminate more fully the pertinent information. An ability, Murdoch was aware, that had made his son a well-respected officer during the war.
Scott and Murdoch walked along the dirt-packed street away from the center of town. A few businesses and small homes were spread along each side.
“You say you’ve heard of this Judge Wakeman,” Scott continued, thinking aloud. “What type of man did you find him to be? He’s considered quite respectable here. Would it be advisable to look him up? Perhaps enlist his help in stopping this situation from escalating any further.”
Murdoch continued to walk silently a few seconds before answering. “I don’t know him well, but I’ve heard he’s a shrewd businessman, has his eyes on possibly a congressional seat, hasn’t been in any scandal that I know—”
“Murdoch!” Scott put a hand on his father’s arm.
Murdoch stopped and looked at his son with surprise. “What?”
“It’s Barranca!” Scott breathed. “Look! I’m sure of it!”
Murdoch turned and followed where his son was pointing. In the back of the blacksmith shop they were just approaching, a golden palomino stood near a fence watching them, its ears perched forward quizzically.
When it gave a gentle whicker of greeting, Scott’s smile widened. “See?” he said with a nod to his father. “I knew it!”
Scott loped toward the golden horse, his father following. At the fence, he put a hand out and rubbed the animal’s muzzle before crouching to step between the railings.
“Scott,” Murdoch warned.
Scott shook his head and walked along the horse’s side until he reached the flank. There he ran his fingers along the ‘L’ brand.
“It’s Barranca, alright,” Scott remarked, stepping to the side so that Murdoch could see the mark of the brand.
“Why would Barranca be here if Johnny’s down in Soledad?” Murdoch asked, his brows knitting in confusion.
“Looks like he may have had shoe problems, or something. Looks like some swelling around the back fetlock.”
Murdoch glanced down and nodded before turning toward the closed doors that led to the back of the blacksmith shop. “Doesn’t look like he’s open today.”
Scott looked across the corral to the small house situated nearby. “Maybe he’s at home.”
“I’ll check,” Murdoch said. He walked around the corral, past the adjoining paddock and through the small yard to the house. Though he knocked and called out a greeting, he received no answer and returned to Scott, who was still stroking and murmuring softly to Barranca.
“Nothing, huh?” Scott asked.
Shaking his head, Murdoch leaned against the railing and reached out to pat Barranca’s neck thoughtfully.
“Still strange Johnny leaving Barranca up here,” Scott continued as he worried his bottom lip thoughtfully.
“I would have liked to have had a chance to talk to this blacksmith and find out what he knows, too,” Murdoch remarked. “Maybe we can stop by after we rent some horses. Should just be down another block.”
Barranca’s head suddenly jerked up and a second later the sound of a rifle being engaged sent the hairs on the back of Scott’s neck to attention.
“Who the hell are you, and what the hell are you doing with my horse?” a voice demanded.
Murdoch and Scott looked at each other uneasily before they slowly raised their hands and turned around.
“We were looking for Johnny,” Scott answered slowly as his eyes appraised the rough looking man in front of them who seemed good friends with the scattergun he cradled in his massive palms.
The man, large and burly with a thick, dark beard and narrowed eyes growled as he pointed the gun at Scott’s chest. “That was the wrong answer.”
“Now wait a darn minute!” Murdoch retorted, stepping forward protectively. Mentally he cursed the fence that separated him from Scott. “We could ask you why you have Johnny’s horse.”
The man’s position never wavered, but his eyes betrayed his confusion. “What the devil are you talkin’ about?”
“This horse.” Scott stepped back, yet kept his hands raised and nodded toward Barranca. “This is Johnny’s horse.”
Scott saw the man hesitate, then start to lower his rifle, though his eyes still held a note of caution in them. “Oh, a Johnny. The horse. You recognize the horse. You know who it belonged to, then?”
“Why yes, it belongs to my son, Johnny,” Murdoch slowly lowered his hands. “It’s got our brand on it. ‘L’ for Lancer. I’m Murdoch Lancer.”
“Lancer, huh?” The man smiled and stepped forward. As he got closer, Scott noticed he had a bruise spreading along his left cheek and a matte of dried blood near the back of his head.
“Harley. Isaac Harley,” the man introduced himself, though still with caution. “I just came to, was jumped in my shop. Thought maybe you had somethin’ to do with that.”
Murdoch shook his head. “No. No,” he assured. “We were just passing by when we noticed Barranca.”
“Barranca?” Harley asked.
Barranca whinnied, as if in answer.
“See.” Scott pointed, a smug look on his face. “Johnny’s horse.”
Harley scowled. “That’s his name, huh?”
“Johnny didn’t tell you?” Scott asked.
“Oh, I didn’t get him from your son. A trader found him runnin’ wild and injured down south near the Diablos. The man didn’t recognize the brand. He traded with me for some work he needed done.”
“So, Johnny doesn’t even know you’ve got his horse,” Scott remarked.
“Nope.” The man shook his head.
“Wait ‘til we find Johnny and tell him that we’ve got Barranca,” Scott grinned at Murdoch.
“You lookin’ for your son then?” Harley questioned.
“Ain’t heard of any Johnny Lancer around town,” the blacksmith replied.
Scott glanced at Murdoch before asking cautiously, “How about Johnny Madrid?”
The man’s reaction was immediate. Taking a step back, he quickly raised the rifle. “Why do you ask?” he demanded.
“Something told me that might be the reaction I’d get,” Scott muttered.
“I think you’d better explain what you’re really doin’ here,” Harley growled threateningly.
“I told you,” Murdoch sighed. “We’re looking for my son.”
“That’s what you said earlier. Yet now you’re asking ‘bout Madrid. And I want to know why.”
Scott noticed the blacksmith’s eyes were narrowed dangerously and his finger rested tightly on the trigger of the rifle.
Irritated, Scott snapped back, “Because we’re looking for him.”
“I thought you were lookin’ for Johnny Lancer.”
“We are,” Murdoch replied.
“But now you said you’re lookin’ for Madrid,” Harley argued, his voice rising in anger.
Murdoch gave a small sigh, “That’s true—”
“Dammit! Which one’re you lookin’ for?” Harley demanded, cutting Murdoch off with a curt wave of the rifle.
“Either would do at this point,” Scott snapped tiredly.
“Scott,” Murdoch warned.
Scott rolled his eyes in disgust.
“Johnny Lancer is my son,” Murdoch continued.
“That part I get,” the blacksmith retorted sarcastically.
“Johnny Lancer is also Johnny Madrid”.
“What do you mean?” Harley demanded curtly.
“They’re one and the same,” Scott replied, trying to keep his voice under control. “He’s my brother.”
“Now that’s a part I’m gonna have a problem swallowin’.” The blacksmith looked skeptical. “’Sides, he don’t look like you at all.”
“Why? Do you know him?” Murdoch demanded.
“Maybe,” Harley replied vaguely.
“Johnny’s been missing about a month now, and we heard he was around here,” Murdoch continued.
“You expect me to believe that?”
“Maybe,” Scott retorted, his own frustration getting the best of his temper.
“So, Johnny Madrid is your son?” Harley asked Murdoch, his suspicion clearly evident.
Scott noticed Murdoch had difficulty holding his gaze steady, a response he rarely ever saw in his father.
“Yes, he is,” Murdoch answered stiffly.
Harley’s gaze seemed to linger longer than necessary on Murdoch before he retorted, “How come I get the feeling you have a hard time admittin’ that?”
Murdoch didn’t answer.
Harley slowly lowered the rifle once more as he thoughtfully worried the corner of his lip. “How long he been your son?”
Murdoch’s eyes opened in surprise. “My—?”
“I mean, I assume he’s been with you for a bit now, huh? How long?”
“He’s been at Lancer about two and a half years now,” Murdoch answered evenly.
Harley’s expression fell as he put a hand to his forehead and sighed. “Damn,” he cursed. “There’s a helluva lot been goin’ on you don’t know ‘bout, but I think—” he suddenly stopped as his hand came to rest on his swollen cheek. His eyes flashed in alarm as he glanced back at the blacksmith shop then across the corrals toward the house. Without explanation, he took off running, yelling, “Mary! Mary!”
Murdoch and Scott, sensing the panic and urgency in the blacksmith’s voice, took off following him as he sprinted toward the house.
Harley burst in through the front door, immediately sensing that he’d not find his wife or child. His eyes fell on a note left on the table. He was picking it up as he heard Scott and Murdoch entering behind him. Without looking up, he quickly scanned the contents, but it was for formality’s sake only. He knew what it was going to say. “Oh, Mary,” he choked. He looked up at the two concerned faces, surprised at how controlled he felt in the disaster. “How fast can you be ready to ride?”
“As soon as we get horses,” Scott replied.
“The fella who owns the livery down the street is a friend of mine. Tell him I sent you and that you’re needin’ two of his fastest horses. I’ll get my own horse saddled and meet you in a few minutes.”
“What’s going on?” Murdoch demanded.
Harley shook his head curtly. “Your son’s in a heap ’o trouble. Haven’t the time to explain right now. Just do as I say.”
Murdoch glanced at Scott, his displeasure at being ordered about evident in his gritted teeth, but he held his tongue and went out the door.
Scott looked at Harley. “Johnny…?”
Harley’s expression remained resolute. “Later.”
Thirty minutes later, Murdoch, Scott and Harley were riding south out of Salinas. Harley had imparted no other information other than their need to keep up a fairly steady pace as they had a long ride ahead. They alternated between a fast walk and a controlled gallop for an hour before Harley signaled for them to stop and let the horses rest for awhile.
Harley, deliberative silence still ruling his disposition, lead his own horse to the river where he let him have a short drink. Then once back on the bank, Harley unhooked his own canteen and took a long drink. Noticing that neither Murdoch nor Scott was joining him, he gave a curt nod toward the south. “We’ve got a long way to go, and we’re gonna be walkin’ the horses for the next mile to give them a breather. You might wanna take a drink ‘for we get started.”
“You said you’d tell us what’s going on,” Murdoch ignored the suggestion and planted his hands on his hips, his naturally combative temperament no longer held in check.
“Get yourself a drink and come along,” Harley ordered. “I’ll try to explain what I know as we walk.”
Scott watched Murdoch’s eyes narrow and his jaw compress tightly as if fighting an urge to strangle the blacksmith. Scott briefly wondered if Harley should be warned of his father’s rather explosive temper. But in an act that surprised Scott, Murdoch roughly grabbed his canteen and took a short, cursory drink, his manner clearly denoting his anger at being kept waiting for an explanation.
Scott quickly took a drink from his own canteen and the three men started walking along the dusty, rutted trail toward Soledad.
“Okay, Mr. Harley, what’s going on here? What’s my son got himself into?”
“Harl,” the large man replied as he continued walking, his pace quick and steady.
“What?” Murdoch demanded.
“You can call me Harl. Johnny does.”
“Since when?” Murdoch’s tone was laced with irritation.
Harley, his pace unchanging, barely turned his head. “I gotta feelin’ a helluva lot longer than he’s called you dad.”
Scott watched Murdoch’s mouth open in indignant surprise…then sadness.
Harley abruptly turned to face the path once more.
Scott cleared his throat. “I think you do owe us some explanation.”
The blacksmith sighed audibly. “Yeah, I know. I’m just tryin’ to figure out where to start—and there’s a helluva I don’t understand myself.” Harley paused before asking, “You said Johnny’s been missing?”
“Almost a month,” Scott replied quickly.
“And you had no idea where he was…or where he’d gone?”
Uncomfortably Scott looked at Murdoch, whose eyes were fixed solidly in front of him.
“He—he sometimes will just take off,” Scott answered vaguely, looking away hastily from the sight of his father’s stiff figure walking in grim determination on the other side of the blacksmith.
Harley made a low noise of understanding and nodded his head. “Yeah, Johnny never could stay in one place very long.” There was another pause. “How’d you hear he was here, then?”
“I thought you were going to answer some of our questions,” Murdoch cut in tersely.
Scott watched closely as Harley adjusted the hat on his head, then rubbed his fingers across his bearded chin. It was obvious to Scott that Harley was trying to postpone telling them what he knew.
“Harl,” Scott prompted.
Harley suddenly stopped and turned, his eyes searching Scott’s deeply. “What I have to tell isn’t good.” He paused again then looked at Murdoch. “From what I heard, Johnny and some bounty hunters had a run-in up in the Diablos. When it was over, four men were dead and Johnny had been pretty badly wounded.”
“Wounded?” Scott asked, his gaze flicking to Murdoch.
“When was this?” Murdoch demanded.
“From what I know—oh, ‘bout three weeks ago. Musta been soon after he left you.”
“But then….” Scott shook his head. “We were told he was just in Salinas,” Scott paused, noticed Murdoch’s expression tightening in anticipation of what Scott would next say, “…in a gunfight.”
“That’s true, too,” Harley nodded.
“So then, he must not have been too badly injured,” Scott continued.
Harley gave a disgusted snort. “That’s what you’d think, ain’t it?”
Scott and Murdoch studied Harley, waiting for an explanation.
The blacksmith sighed. “Seems like Matthew was the only one who knew he’d been wounded earlier. Not even Tucson knew.”
“Wait!” Murdoch put his hand up. “Matthew? Tucson?”
“Matthew’s the local from Soledad. Tucson’s the other gunfighter the town hired—except for that damn kid who tried to outgun him.”
Murdoch took a deep breath as he tried to sort through the information. “So, Johnny killed four bounty hunters?”
Harley shrugged. “I guess so, but—”
“But nothing! What’d Johnny have to say about it?” Murdoch demanded harshly.
Harley made a noise of displeasure and shook his head, his lips tightly pursed. “That’s what I’m trying to get to. Johnny doesn’t know.”
Scott saw the muscles of Murdoch’s face tense and quickly interrupted. “Wait. Doesn’t know? Doesn’t know what?”
“Doesn’t know what happened,” Harley replied shortly.
“I’m not following. Are you saying he wouldn’t tell you what happened?”
“No,” Harley shook his head. “He’d tell me. We’ve never had secrets,” he paused then raised an eyebrow. “’Cept maybe you two.” His gaze lingered a little longer than necessary on Murdoch before turning back to Scott.
“Then—” Scott began, but was quickly cut off by his father.
“You’d better explain. Now.”
Harley raised an eyebrow to level Murdoch with a sharply caustic look before continuing, “When Johnny was shot, he got knocked off a cliff, so Matthew told me. He took a nasty blow to his head, causing him to lose his memory.”
“His memory?” Murdoch asked. “What do you mean? He remembers nothing?”
Harley shook his head. “He just doesn’t seem to remember the last coupla years.” He paused and looked pointedly at Scott and Murdoch. “And I got a feelin’ that includes you two.”
Scott felt suddenly cold, despite the heat of the noon sun. His gaze captured by Harley’s, he uttered, “Johnny is Madrid again, isn’t he?”
Johnny sat in the chair, head in hands, elbows on the small table, the laudanum bottle open in front of him. He figured it’d been close to an hour since Grace had looked straight through his eyes and into his soul to find the true Madrid, not the friend DarkCloud wanted him to be, the savior Matthew wanted him to be, the hero Jamie wanted him to be, or even the legend and mentor the Kid and Tucson wanted him to be. Instead she saw him for what he was, a predatory animal, but one grasping desperately for something with which to redeem himself. And she had provided it. With no pretenses as others were wont to do, she had validated what he knew needed to be done.
At Grace’s cold and clear revelation, Matthew had immediately grabbed a hold of her and ushered her out of the room, though she made sure she had first thrust the bottle into Johnny’s hands.
DarkCloud, on the other hand, had merely stared at Johnny in stunned disbelief and sorrow. Then as Johnny had leaned painfully back on his heels to open the bottle, DarkCloud’s hurt disbelief had changed to a slow burning fury.
“Johnny,” he warned, a hint of panic and belligerence present in his tone. “Don’t.”
Johnny had raised his eyes to look wearily at DarkCloud. “I have… no choice,” he had answered thinly as he pressed his hand tighter into his side, the pain having made it difficult to find the breath to reply.
“There’s always a choice,” DarkCloud had said as he took a step closer, his hand outstretched in a plea of understanding and hope.
It had taken almost every ounce of energy Johnny had to shake his head. “No, there’s not,” he replied darkly. Then keeping his eyes fixed on DarkCloud, he took a long drink from the bottle.
“Damn you, Madrid!” DarkCloud had bellowed, his disappointment echoing in the small room.
Johnny had slowly pulled the bottle from his lips, his eyes still fixed obstinately on DarkCloud. “I was damned long ago,” he replied callously.
Clenching his fists to his side, DarkCloud had turned and stormed out of the room, leaving Johnny kneeling on the floor, the laudanum bottle grasped in his hand.
And that was an hour ago.
It had taken some time and effort, but Johnny had pulled himself into the chair, taken another long drink of the laudanum, and had quietly waited for the effects of the medicine to take hold.
Johnny sighed deeply, pushing tentatively against the wall of pain, and was relieved to find he could take a deeper breath before the flaming grew too unbearable. He’d been getting worried, as he’d hoped he’d have been feeling a lot better by now.
He sighed again, less deeply this time, and raised his head to look about the room. Perhaps he was expecting too much too soon. He’d been laid up for a number of days, according to DarkCloud, and knew he needed to eat something to get his strength back. Fortunately, as the shaking began to subside, he found that the idea of eating something actually appealed to him.
He slowly pushed himself to his feet and was pleased to see that he was holding his balance better than he had earlier. However, he still couldn’t quite manage to stand up straight; the pull to his side and back muscles, along with the torn flesh, was just too much to bear.
He glanced at the cold soup sitting unappetizingly on the table. He needed to get something to eat.
He also needed to know the time.
However, the first step toward facing Wakeman and rescuing Jamie was to make it out of the room and down the stairs where he could get something decent to eat.
Cautiously he pulled on his shirt, a single hissed moan the only sound that managed to escape. Then taking deliberately slow steps, he headed toward the door.
“So what you’re saying is, Madrid thinks he can take on Wakeman after all?” Angelou asked as he studied Matthew from across the table, his fingers drumming thoughtfully.
“Yes, but you’re not listening to everything I told you,” Matthew replied with a quick glance at the other men seated at the table. “He may think he is, but he’s really in no shape to even try.”
Angelou turned and looked at Tucson. “And what do you say?”
Tucson glanced at Matthew before taking a deep breath. “Well, I’d like to be able to say that he can handle it. I don’t much really look forward to meetin’ Wakeman this afternoon, but I saw what happened up in Salinas, and I’ve seen what shape he’s in now, and Matthew’s right—he ain’t got no business tryin’ to—”
“Movin’ in on my job, Tucson?” Madrid’s voice coldly echoed across the room.
Everyone at the table turned around, astonishment displayed at seeing the subject of their discussion standing, one hand resting on the banister, face void of emotion though the eyes held a hard glint of challenge that settled fixedly on Tucson.
“Johnny,” Tucson uttered tightly. “You’re up.”
“No,” Johnny remarked sarcastically. “I came down. And a good thing too, I see.” He slowly studied each person in turn, then settled his gaze on Rosti. “And I’m hungry.”
Rosti stood up quickly. “What can I get you?”
“Anything as long as it’s warm,” Johnny replied stonily.
Clearing his throat, Matthew also stood up and backed away from his chair in a covert attempt to make it available to Johnny. “How’re you feeling, Johnny?”
Johnny settled the same expressionless look on Matthew. “I’ll be doin’ a hell of a lot better after I get something to eat.”
Taking that as a pointed cue, Rosti quickly backed away and headed toward the kitchen.
“Would you like a seat, Mr. Madrid?” Angelou asked.
Johnny once again regarded each person, betraying no other feeling than a haughty disdain. He noticed that Angelou, Rosti, Solero, Matthew and Tucson were all there. Everyone but DarkCloud. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed.
He let his gaze travel across the men seated at the table, their watchfulness and expectant pause clearly indicating that he was once more being put to the test; just as he had been tested when he’d first put on the show with Digger’s ball. Only this time, it wasn’t simply ‘Can the gunfighter really handle the job?’ but also ‘Can he make it across the room without falling on his face?’
Fifteen feet. But fifteen feet under the scrutiny of everyone in the room. Fifteen feet that he knew he’d never have been able to make without the help of the laudanum.
Slowly, Johnny released his grip on the banister and with all eyes staring, he cautiously and evenly paced himself toward the table. He knew he was moving slower than usual and that they would obviously notice, but he’d early on made the decision to forego speed in order to salvage co-ordination and attain his goal.
Matthew backed another step away from the chair, his eyes searching Johnny’s face in an attempt to find some hidden communication, but the eyes were cold—the mask of the gunfighter was in place.
Johnny reached the table and put a hand on the back of the chair. He was inwardly amused by the silence of the room. It occurred to him he had a quieter and more cooperative crowd for this test than he’d had for Digger’s ball.
He could sense each man holding his breath, waiting for him to sit. He put his left hand on the table, and as he slowly lowered himself into the chair, he let his right arm pull in from the back of the chair to add a few seconds of additional support. A small, collective sigh escaped from the men’s throats as Johnny reached his goal.
Determined to keep the upper hand, Johnny looked hard at Tucson. “So, you think you can handle Wakeman?”
“That’s not what I said, Johnny,” Tucson replied quickly. “I said that—”
“You didn’t think I could,” Johnny cut in frostily.
Tucson swallowed and set his jaw. He suddenly knew how Wakeman had felt in the restaurant. “I’m simply saying that you’ve done an awful lot already. You’ve earned your fee. Maybe you should try to let me handle this instead.”
“And is that what you all think?” Johnny asked with ill-concealed amusement, his eyes raking slowly across each face. He stopped at Matthew. “How ‘bout you? It’s Jamie that Wakeman’s got. You want Tucson handling it?”
Matthew blinked as he forced himself to meet the cold eyes of the gunfighter. “I hoped if Tucson met him with the paper Wakeman wants—”
“What paper?” Johnny demanded.
“The one of the brands…that one you took from Wakeman’s ranch.” Matthew suddenly reached into his pocket and produced the note that he’d taken from Digger’s body.
Johnny took the note, opened it and scanned it quickly.
Once finished, Johnny folded the note and handed it back to Matthew. “Well, gentlemen, it appears there’s no sense in arguing about who’s going and who’s not. Wakeman’s message clearly invites me to his party, and no one else. And since I have never yet missed an invitation, I’m not going to start now. I’m sure you understand how important these things are for one’s social reputation.”
Tucson averted his face to study the floor, a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth. He loved watching Madrid in action, as long as he wasn’t the one on the receiving end of his verbal attacks.
Rosti suddenly appeared with a plate of potatoes and a slice of beef. He set it down in front of Madrid. “What would you like to drink?” he asked.
“Coffee,” Johnny replied.
Rosti nodded and disappeared.
Still under scrutiny, Johnny began to eat his meal. After a couple of bites, he looked up. “If any one else is hungry, Rosti’s got the kitchen open.”
The men all looked at each other.
“It is about noon,” Angelou stated. “He turned to Rosti as the saloon owner set Johnny’s coffee in front of him. “I’ll have what Madrid’s having.”
Rosti nodded. “Anyone else?”
Solero shook his head. “I ate before I came over.”
“Matthew?” Rosti asked.
“No,” he replied. “I’m not hungry.”
Rosti nodded and left.
Johnny concentrated on his plate, relieved to have a short momentary respite as the men turned their focus to Rosti. He could feel the effects of the laudanum already wearing off and knew he would rapidly lose control. His breathing was becoming more difficult, the pain seeping back and he could feel flashes of heat radiating through his body. He had also lost any desire he’d had to eat; the rest of his meal sat mocking him—there was no way he was going to be able to finish it. He needed to get back upstairs.
He took a sip of the coffee, but it seemed to settle like thick mud to the bottom of his stomach. He forced another piece of meat between his teeth and wished he’d asked Rosti to bring plain water instead.
While Angelou asked Matthew more specific questions regarding Jamie’s kidnapping, Johnny used the opportunity to bring his arm up against his side and with the help of his left hand on the table, pushed himself to a standing position. He knew Tucson had been watching, but he also knew Tucson would keep his mouth shut.
“Aren’t you going to finish?” Angelou asked.
“DarkCloud said it’d take a few days before my appetite’s all back,” Johnny replied.
He saw Matthew start to open his mouth to add something, but at Johnny’s leveled look, he kept it to himself.
“Gentlemen,” Johnny nodded and slowly headed for the steps.
Johnny stopped and closed his eyes. A great leaden weight fell straight through his chest as he realized he was going to have to turn around. Not now, damn it, Angelou!
He pivoted…slowly…a look of mocking disdain on his face. “Yes, Angelou?”
Angelou swallowed under the contemptuous air Johnny settled on him. “Are you really sure you can take on Wakeman?”
Johnny let one corner of his lip turn up. “Why, I don’t know, Angelou. Shall we step outside and have another demonstration to find out?”
Johnny waited expectantly. For a few seconds Angelou managed to hold Johnny’s eyes, then he dropped his gaze and shook his head.
“No? Then I guess I’ll be going upstairs. I have some plannin’ to do.” He turned and made his way up to his room.
DarkCloud stalked around his small back office, tersely tossing objects into their semi-appropriate spot, all the while slamming cupboard doors and drawers in a self-righteous display of anger. He didn’t know who he was more disgusted with, himself, Madrid or Grace. But filled with disgust he was.
DarkCloud abruptly stopped and without turning around, he loudly groaned, “What are you doing here, Grace?”
“I need to talk to you.”
DarkCloud spun around to glare tiredly at Matthew’s sister, her face pale, her hands tightly clasped against her skirt. “Why couldn’t you have done that before you went and gave Johnny the laudanum?”
“Why wouldn’t you give it to him in the first place?” she replied quietly.
“Because I’m trying to save his life!”
“And I’m trying to help him save Jamie’s life,” Grace answered with a hint of defiance.
“Oh, please,” DarkCloud responded scornfully. “You saw him lying on the floor there. Do you really think he has a chance against Wakeman?”
“Yes, if you’d help him.”
“I refuse to be a part of this anymore,” DarkCloud hissed.
“Then you’re the one who’s condemning Johnny and Jamie. Not me.”
“Oh, don’t give me that! You just gave Johnny the means to kill himself when you handed him that bottle.”
“Whether he had the laudanum or not, he still would have tried to face Wakeman,” Grace replied, taking a step forward. “And you know that! I only gave him the resources he needs in order to finish what he’d started…to do what he knows must be done.”
“Then you’re deluding yourself!” DarkCloud snapped as he slapped his hand on the counter. “We might have had a chance to handle it differently. If we’d gotten Johnny to give Tucson that paper and allowed him to go out and talk to Wakeman, this all might have blown over.”
It was Grace’s turn to look at DarkCloud with scorn. “And you really think Wakeman would have settled for that? After the things I heard Johnny pulled on him? Wakeman didn’t kidnap a child just to let him go because Tucson asks him nicely. Johnny knows that and so do you. He knows that if he doesn’t meet Wakeman, Wakeman’ll come right into town for him, and then we’ll all be in danger.” Grace paused, her voice dropping meaningfully. “But you know how to help him. You know what he needs to be able to face Wakeman. Why don’t you swallow your wounded pride and help him? He needs you now more than ever.”
“You’re asking me to help him kill himself.”
“No, I’m begging you to give him and Jamie a chance.”
Into the room…into the room…a little further…see the door…breathe slow…into the room…turn the handle…slow…breathe…
After pushing the door open with his shoulder, Johnny took a weak step into the room and leaned back heavily against the door, closing it.
I’m gonna be sick…shit, it hurts…I’m gonna be sick…how did I ever get myself into this mess?…
He staggered wearily and unsteadily across the room toward the bed, but before he’d reached his goal his legs gave way and he sank weakly to his knees. With a groan he crawled the last two feet to the bed and rested his forehead on the sheets, the coolness a marked contrast to his hot and feverish skin. His entire body seemed to be on fire as he fought the urge to vomit. He swore to himself, his eyes and jaw clenched tightly as waves of nausea and heat-filled tremors pressed down on him.
And then, just as suddenly, he began shaking as a cold chill ran up his legs and back, causing his teeth to chatter. He moaned again, more softly this time. Though the nausea was subsiding, the shaking was causing his muscles to tense, pulling at his bruises and wounds.
“So, was your little scene worth it?”
Johnny stiffened at the sound of DarkCloud’s voice. In his fog of nausea and pain, he had forgotten to lock the door.
“Get the hell out,” Johnny gasped without bothering to raise his head or even open his eyes.
“Grace said I should come and see you.”
“Grace should mind her own business.”
“You didn’t say that when she handed you the laudanum,” DarkCloud replied acidly.
“I will, after I’ve seen to your wounds and given you some stronger medicine.”
Johnny raised his head slightly off the bed and looked at DarkCloud with distrust. “You’re gonna knock me out.”
“No,” DarkCloud shook his head. “That’s not to say that isn’t what I’d like to do. But I won’t.”
“How long you been taking the laudanum?”
“I don’t know,” Johnny replied weakly.
“How long?” DarkCloud demanded as he pushed the door closed.
“Shit!” Johnny swore, swallowed heavily and turned his head away. “Since I came back from Salinas the first time, okay?”
“That other time—before—when you got shot up. How long were you taking it?” DarkCloud continued.
Johnny gave a defeated sigh and closed his eyes. “I don’t know. Awhile. A few months.”
“How much of it were you using then compared to now?” DarkCloud pressed.
“Oh, hell!” Johnny groaned, then clenched his teeth tightly as he tried to stay ahead of the pain rushing at him. “Would you just leave me alone?”
DarkCloud sighed dismally before shaking his head. “I have some stronger laudanum. I think you need it.” He held up his hand and for the first time Johnny noticed he carried another bottle. “This one’s a little less alcohol.” DarkCloud walked across the room to stand next to Johnny. “I can also put some more of that numbing salve on your wounds. It’ll help some.”
“I… Damned if I know why,” DarkCloud replied heavily as he knelt beside the hunched figure. “I still think you’re a fool and hope you’ll change your mind before it’s too late.”
Closing his eyes, Johnny shook his head before resting it back on the bed. “It was too late a long time ago.”
Johnny faltered, caught by the simple question. “Not now, DarkCloud. I’m havin’— enough problems breathing—I can’t argue, too.”
“Yet you can face Wakeman off. Why?”
Johnny sighed and turned to glare tiredly at DarkCloud. “You don’t know when to give up.”
“And it looks to me like Madrid, the famous gunfighter, is giving in too easy.”
Johnny looked away. “I ain’t giving in too easy. Believe me, you have no idea what you’re talkin’ about.”
“Then tell me.”
Johnny tilted his head again, but this time his glare held an edge to it. “Self-preservation can get damned old after awhile.” Looking away, he gave a hesitant moan as he gathered his muscles and slowly pushed himself to his feet, his left hand remaining on the bed as he continued to hunch over.
“Here, Johnny. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll help you get your shirt off.” DarkCloud said as he quickly stood up, setting the bottle on the table. Putting his hands on Johnny’s upper back and elbow, he guided him onto the edge of the bed. Then without waiting for confirmation, DarkCloud began unbuttoning his shirt. “You sure do like to make a scene, Madrid,” he tisked.
His face haggard and lined with the pain that he was fighting to control, Johnny opened one eye in annoyance.
“I walked over here because Grace tells me I just have to help the famous gunfighter take on the big, nasty, rich landgrabber from the north…only to find he’s up and around and enjoying some lunch and conversation with the townies.”
Johnny shook his head tiredly. “I needed to do it.”
“So they’d see you and believe that you could handle Wakeman.”
Johnny closed his eyes again without answering.
“Why?” DarkCloud persisted as he slowly navigated the shirt off, mindful of moving the gunfighter’s right arm more than necessary. “I want you to tell me why you think you have to do this. Why we can’t let Tucson try?”
“Wakeman wants me.”
“And you’re just going to give him what he wants?”
“I’ll get Jamie back.”
“And what about you?”
Johnny opened his eyes again. “Are you gonna do what you came to do, or are you gonna talk all afternoon?”
With a sigh DarkCloud shook his head and slowly began to unwrap the bandages. Once he’d finished he went to the window table and gathered up the ointments.
As he carefully applied the salves, his eyes made a thorough appraisal of the wounds. The swelling and bruising from the horse’s blows had turned Johnny’s right side and back into a puffy mass of purple and yellow flesh. The earlier gunshot wound still continued to ooze red-tinged pus, and looked no better than it had the day before. DarkCloud was amazed that Johnny could stand to let him touch it without flinching, though he noticed Johnny’s eyes were once more closed and his jaw was clenched. The muscles…the ribs…DarkCloud shook his head to himself. There was no way, even with laudanum, that Johnny was going to be able to stand up to Wakeman, much less draw on him.
Finished, DarkCloud put the containers down and picked up the fresh bandages.
“Make it tighter this time,” Johnny instructed. “I’m havin’ a hard time breathing.”
With a quiet snort at the blatant understatement, DarkCloud began to wrap the bandages, careful to add as much support as he could to Johnny’s side and rib cage. “You know you don’t have to do this. Not with these injuries. No one expects you to.”
“Grace expects me to. Jamie expects me to…I expect me to,” Johnny replied as he glanced down to watch DarkCloud tie off the bandages.
“No one blames you for what happened to Jamie.”
“I do.” Johnny sighed softly and tilted his head to glare up at the ceiling. “I should have foreseen what the Kid was going to pull. I knew he was desperate to make a name, and I knew the sort of man Wakeman was—how he thinks—and because I failed to put them together, I had to kill the Kid. And I also knew Wakeman would take advantage of my relationship with Jamie if he knew about it. I should have had him and Grace stay in town where they’d have been more protected.”
“And don’t forget that you should’ve known that the horse would have been shot and go wild in the streets and kick you.”
Johnny turned to DarkCloud, his eyebrows raised.
“God, you are an egotistical mule,” DarkCloud stated sarcastically. “When you learn to predict the weather, will you let me know?”
“DarkCloud,” Johnny replied tiredly.
DarkCloud stood up and put his hands on his hips. “Grace thinks you can take Wakeman on, but I don’t. In fact, with your little scene down in the bar just earlier, you’ve probably fooled the whole town. But I know the truth. You’ve pushed Wakeman and played this so far to the edge, only your death will make Wakeman happy now.”
“You’re wrong,” Johnny stated as he slowly pushed himself to a standing position. “I’ve played this like I always do.”
“Then there must be a hell of a lot of men who want to see you dead.”
“More than I probably remember,” Johnny replied bitterly as he took a step toward the table where the laudanum bottle sat.
“Johnny,” DarkCloud quickly positioned himself next to the table, his eyes looking to hold Johnny’s gaze. “There’s nothing wrong with admitting you bit off more than you can chew.”
Johnny gave a tired snort and shook his head. “Lord, DarkCloud, you never give up, do you? Why can’t you just let it go?”
“Because I feel there’s more to this than we understand yet. That everything isn’t as dark as it looks to you. That you aren’t as worthless as you think you are—or you claim to be. I’ve seen your compassion and concern for people you barely know…your self-sacrifice…the stories of your helping out those who are oppressed…”
“Would you quit makin’ me out to be somethin’ I’m not,” Johnny groaned.
DarkCloud paused. “I know what you’re really trying to do.”
Johnny looked at DarkCloud, his eyebrow raised in tired amusement. “Enlighten me.”
“You think you’ll find some sort of redemption…be absolved if you atone for your sins. But you’re taking responsibility for things you don’t even remember.”
As Johnny reached out for the bottle, DarkCloud put his hand over his. “Please, Johnny, I’m sure there’s another way to handle this. Let me help you find it.”
A slow, sardonic smile twitched at the corner of Johnny’s mouth. “Ever think of bein’ a priest?”
“Don’t think my wife would approve,” DarkCloud replied with a smile before his expression became serious once more.
“Well, you’re working damn hard to save my soul.”
“I’m trying to save you from yourself.”
Johnny looked away as he felt DarkCloud’s stare reach into him. “You said you came to help, so help. Move your hand.”
DarkCloud dropped his hand and sighed. As Johnny picked the bottle up, DarkCloud turned away.
When he heard the bottle being set back on the table, DarkCloud turned around. Johnny stood, hand on the table for support, his head bent down and eyes closed.
“You can’t stay awake and hope to make it ‘til five o’clock,” DarkCloud stated with a disgusted shake of his head.
“I can’t afford to fall asleep.”
“No. You can’t afford to stay awake. You still have four hours to go until it’s time to meet Wakeman and whether you want to admit it or not, you’ve just skirted death. So if you think you’re going to make an effective stand, then you’d better lay down for an hour or two.”
“How can I trust you to wake me up?”
“Well, we still don’t know where that paper is Wakeman’s demanding, and without it, Tucson wouldn’t have a prayer of negotiating for us.”
With a weak grin, Johnny snorted, “Yeah, there is that.”
“There’s something else,” DarkCloud suddenly added. “I heard from the Pinnacle Tribe while you were gone and I found out where Wakeman has his new holding pen.”
Johnny nodded slowly and licked his lips, the exhaustion seeming to have taken control. “That’s information I could use.”
DarkCloud waited a moment, but Johnny remained standing. “Please lie down. I promise I’ll get you up. Just tell me what time.”
“Three o’clock,” Johnny replied. “And have Tucson here. I have orders for him, too.”
DarkCloud hesitated. “Do…do you want me to stay?”
Shaking his head, Johnny slowly turned toward the bed. “No. You make me nervous. ‘Fraid you’ll try to suffocate me with a pillow while I sleep.”
DarkCloud raised an eyebrow. “I bet you just don’t want me to hear you snore.”
“I don’t snore,” Johnny replied as he lowered himself to the side of the bed.
“That’s what you think. Don’t forget, I sat beside you day and night, for almost three days.”
“Three days, huh? Sure you’re not trying to buy yourself a bit of redemption?”
“Oh, no. It’s just another one of those rare and amazing characteristics you have yet to discover about me.”
Johnny lay tiredly back on the bed and closed his eyes. “Goodbye, DarkCloud.”
Jamie sat in front of one of his kidnappers as they rode across the valley floor. After their early and quick breakfast, the two kidnappers had hurriedly packed up and thrown Jamie up in front on one of the horses and taken off south along the western foothills of the Diablos. Even after the fog had lifted, they had continued south. After riding for an hour, they then turned west and cut across the valley floor. Now they were approaching the eastern foothills of the coastals of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range. Jamie had not spoken the entire ride. He had carefully listened to the two men, learning their names and coming to the conclusion that these two men planned to meet up with the James Wakeman that Jamie had heard so much about. The man responsible for trying to take over his home and for hurting his friend, Johnny.
Jamie decided he definitely did not like these gentlemen.
Wakeman had called a halt along a small stream that ran out of the Santa Lucia Coastals toward the Salinas River. Mary had immediately gathered up little Wes in her arms and with a look full of hatred, had taken the young boy to the shade of a tree where she held him tightly in her protective embrace. After the initial excitement of riding on the horse, he’d started crying to be with his mother, but Wakeman had forbidden it. To Mary’s great consternation, they had let the young boy sob hysterically until he was beyond tears. He now lay exhausted and asleep in his mother’s arms, while Mary listened carefully to everything that was discussed between the men.
Wakeman had told Kincaid to keep a tight guard on the blacksmith’s wife and son while he put one man in charge of watering the horses and two others in charge of refilling the canteens a short ways further up the stream. He’d sent two because of the slight possibility of running into some of the Coastal Indians, though given the tribe’s small numbers and their past experience with his men, Wakeman didn’t expect to have any trouble.
Wakeman walked up to Mary and regarded her and the small boy coldly. “You’d better find a way to keep that kid quiet the rest of the trip. I have no intention of listening to him scream for another couple of hours.”
Mary looked up, her eyes dark with hatred. “He’s just a small boy and he’s scared. If you let him ride with me, he’d be fine.”
“Well, I’m not doing that,” Wakeman replied.
“Then he’s going to cry again.”
“Well, then, he’ll find himself gagged.”
“You can’t do that!” Mary exclaimed, shocked. “That’ll just scare him more!”
“What do I care, as long as he shuts up?”
“Please, leave him with me. I give you my word I won’t try to escape. Please. I know you would come after us and I’m not about to do anything that would endanger my son,” Mary pleaded.
Wakeman crossed his arms and regarded Mary thoughtfully. “Perhaps we could work out a compromise. I let him ride with you while we continue to Soledad, under the understanding that when I say it’s time to hand him over, you give us no quarrel.”
“And what do you want of me?”
“I want you to tell me all you know about Madrid.”
her eyebrows. “I know very little about him.”
“That’s not the answer that’ll get you your son.” He paced a few steps, arms still crossed. “Now I know for a fact he and your husband rode together a few years back and that your husband came out of the crowd to carry him into the hotel. It stands to reason, then, that he would have known just how badly Madrid was hurt by that horse.”
would make you think my husband would have shared that information with me?”
“On, nothing,” Wakeman replied coldly. “But if he had, and you were in possession of such knowledge, you could use it to buy your son a less stressful ride.”
Mary regarded Wakeman thoughtfully, her arms tightly encircling her son’s small body against her.
DarkCloud paused at the foot of the stairs as Matthew looked up from the table where he and Grace were sitting. After giving him a reluctant shake of the head, DarkCloud crossed to the bar where Rosti stood with Tucson and Solero.
“How is he?” Tucson asked, moving over to make room for the town’s doctor.
DarkCloud’s expression remained dour. “He shouldn’t be doing this,” he replied as he idly fingered the mug of beer Rosti had quickly placed before him.
“Did you get the paper?” Matthew asked as he came over to stand with the small group.
DarkCloud acknowledged Matthew’s question with a pursed-lip shake of the head. “No, and I doubt whether he’s just going to hand it over.” He sighed. “At least he’s lying down now.” DarkCloud turned to Tucson. “He says he wants to talk to you at three o’clock.”
“Well, that’s good, then, ain’t it?” Rosti asked. “He’s planning some sorta backup.”
DarkCloud shrugged. “I don’t know what he’s got planned.”
“We could position some men at the windows of the livery. Even in my house if you want,” Solero suggested.
“They are the last couple buildings at the edge of town on that west side,” Rosti agreed.
“I have a feeling Wakeman’s gonna expect that,” Matthew said quietly. “He ain’t no fool.”
“Well, we’ve got a few young fellas who are pretty handy with a rifle. It couldn’t hurt, plus just the sight of a few rifle barrels at the windows oughta keep Wakeman and his men honest,” Solero countered.
Tucson nodded. “I think maybe it’s a good idea. Then we’ll see what else Madrid has planned. I’m sure he hasn’t any intention on walkin’ into this blindly.”
Matthew noticed DarkCloud didn’t reply, but continued to stare morosely at his untouched mug of beer.
“Let’s take another break!” Harley called as he held out his hand and reined up.
The horses, breathing heavily from the steady cantering, gladly slowed to a controlled walk.
Harley swung out of his saddle. “I wanna walk ‘em again for a bit, then we’ll stop for water up aways.” He drew the reins through his hands as he gazed quickly toward the sun. “We should be to Soledad in little over an hour and a half or so.”
Murdoch dismounted and pulled his pocket watch open. “Bit past two thirty,” he announced, then gave his own glance toward the sun.
“We’re making good time.” Harley nodded as he started walking.
Scott quickly grabbed up his own reins and fell in beside Harley. Murdoch flanked the blacksmith on the other side, but after Harley’s revelation that Johnny had become Madrid again, his father had been abnormally quiet.
“What exactly did the note say?” Scott asked.
Harley reached into his pocket and withdrew the folded note. Without taking his eyes off the path in front of him, he handed it over.
Scott accepted the note and as he kept up the pace Harley had set, he unfolded it and read. After scanning it twice, he looked up at the man beside him.
“This Wakeman kidnapped your wife and son?”
Though Harley nodded curtly, he continued his trek without pause.
“He—he says if you ever want to see them alive again, that you’d better not say a word to anybody and to remain in town,” Scott continued.
Once again, Harley merely nodded, though Murdoch glanced sidewise, listening to the conversation.
“Then, why did you tell us and why are you going down to Soledad?” Scott asked.
Abruptly Harley stopped and turned to Scott, his jaw rigidly set and his eyes blazing with a smoldering fury. “For many reasons and the first being Johnny is a friend who saved my life, and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have Mary or little Wes.”
“Wes?” Murdoch asked.
Harley glanced over at Murdoch and nodded before continuing, “Second, Wakeman wants Johnny dead. He tried once and failed for all of Salinas to see, and he won’t be satisfied unless Johnny is killed. Third, Johnny is in a lot worse shape than either Wakeman or you realize. He managed to hide it well for quite some time, but when he left Salinas, he was…” Harley paused and shook his head. “Things weren’t right.”
“Weren’t right?” Murdoch pulled his horse along to stand closer to Scott and Harley. “Just what exactly do you mean?”
Tilting his head back, Harley sighed and closed his eyes. Then after a moment, he opened them again and looked hard at Murdoch. “I don’t know what your history is with Johnny, but things were difficult for him growin’ up. I do know, however, the one time I heard him mention his real father, it was with contempt and pure hatred.”
Murdoch’s expression remained unreadable, yet Scott saw a flicker of hurt in his father’s eyes.
“Things happened beyond either of our control,” Murdoch replied simply.
Scott knew Harley was not going to get any more explanation out of Murdoch. Even if what had happened years ago wasn’t a sore subject with his father, Murdoch was not one to casually share personal information.
Harley seemed to consider this with some hesitation before continuing. “Well, I don’t know what you all know about what Johnny went through, but—”
“I know enough,” Murdoch replied curtly. “I know he rode with you, Wes and another man by the name of Cisco back a few years—”
Harley abruptly pulled up. For the first time, Scott noticed the blacksmith seemed at a loss for words. Scott watched Harley turn his full attention on Murdoch, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. “Johnny told you?”
“No,” Murdoch shook his head, almost sadly. “No, Johnny never shared any information about you with me.”
“I hired the Pinkertons to find my son,” Murdoch replied evenly.
The suspicious look on Harley’s face quickly turned to one of surprise. “You hired the Pinkertons to look for Johnny?”
“And the Pinkertons are very thorough,” Murdoch continued, his own words becoming hard, almost threatening.
Harley was silent a few seconds while he studied Murdoch. “But the bounty—”
“—he was out of US jurisdiction,” Murdoch supplied.
Harley paused thoughtfully again. “Yeah, but they woulda known—” Then the corner of the blacksmith’s beard twitched, indicating a suppressed smile. “You done fixed it.”
Murdoch met Harley’s look unflinchingly, but he didn’t reply.
Scott watched silently a few moments as both men assessed each other. Finally, wanting to break the stalemate, he stepped between the two.
“You say Johnny’s in worse shape than Wakeman suspects. How bad is he exactly?”
Harley reluctantly shifted his gaze away from Murdoch to Scott. “When he left Salinas, he could barely walk. I didn’t think he’d be able to stay in the saddle. He may have broken ribs, I don’t know,” Harley sighed unhappily. “He refused to let the doc take a look, afraid that then Wakeman would hear word about how bad off he really was. The horse kicked him twice, right along the side where he’d been wounded in the exchange with the bounty hunters. And when I saw it, he was showing signs of infection and he was running a fever.” For a moment Harley paused, unsure if he should tell of his impression of Johnny’s mental state…the references he’d made to dying…the sense that Johnny was looking for a fitting death scene for Madrid...and his resumption of using laudanum.
“And Wakeman’s taken your wife and child as a hostage to force him into a gunfight?” Scott asked.
“And there’s no way Johnny’s up to meeting him. Not right now. And Wakeman’s not one to play by the rules. He doesn’t like a game unless he’s sure he’s holding some aces…and my wife and child are his aces.” Harley paused, then with a flick on his horse’s reins, he once more began walking. “Johnny’s the best, as far as I’m concerned, and if he was well, he could take Wakeman on, even with hostages involved. But not the way he was looking when I last saw him a couple days ago.”
Scott and Murdoch silently walked beside the blacksmith, no one saying a word, each with their own thoughts.
“Johnny has a good friend in you,” Murdoch quietly stated.
“I owe him my life,” Harley replied simply. “I just hope we’re not gonna be too late to repay the debt.”
Go on to Part 7