A/N: A big thank you to the usual suspects—AJ and Moe, for the wonderful beta work, for answering dopey questions, and, of course, for the encouragement and pebble throwing. Also thanks to Karen, for uttering those fateful words many months ago (“I’d really love to see you tackle a longer x-over . . .”)!!
This is a stand-alone prequel to my other story, “Showdown in Four Corners.” It started off as a brief flashback scene in a longer x-over story I’m working on, but it sort of took on a life of its own. (You try telling Chris Larabee to shut up.) Hope y’all enjoy!
“Gunfight in Nogales”
The echo of the last shot died away into silence. Gun smoke drifted lazily through the still air. After raking a swift glance over the four gunmen who lay unmoving in the dust, Chris Larabee’s gaze scanned the buildings, both sides of the street, every doorway and window. The other four men had very wisely disappeared. The law, such as it was in most border towns, was also rather conspicuous by its absence. Now for the kid . . .
Chris tried to ignore the feeling of dread in his gut as he holstered his gun and dropped to one knee beside the boy. Crumpled facedown and utterly motionless, the kid had all too quickly become just another body left lying in the heat as grim evidence of a gunfight’s aftermath. Blood pooled beneath the dark head, quickly soaking into the dirt, and Chris swore softly and viciously to himself. Shit, shit, shit. What were you thinking, kid? Trying to play hero, huh? Shit.
He put a hand on the kid’s back. Still breathing. And the gun was still in his hand. Chris had to smile a bit at that even as he removed the weapon from the boy’s lax fingers and tucked it into his own belt. He carefully rolled the boy over, winced at the blood covering the entire left side of his face, and said, “Shit,” one more time. Boy, indeed. Fourteen, maybe fifteen? Chris removed his black bandanna and pressed it against the wound for a long moment, trying to stem the flow of blood. At least it was just a graze—fool kid could’ve gotten killed. The cloth quickly became soaked and Chris tossed it uselessly aside. “C’mon, kid,” he said quietly, scooping the slight body up in his arms, “let’s find you a doctor.”
Chris got easily to his feet; the kid was nothing but dangling limbs and lolling head. Ignoring the gawking townspeople who had slowly emerged from the protection of various market stalls, storefronts, and cantinas now that the shooting was over, Chris picked a direction and started walking. He wondered where the kid’s father was, family, anybody. Plenty of stares and pointing fingers, but no one was rushing forward in wailing hysterics, ready to rescue their wounded son from the hands of a strange gunslinger. He looked down at the boy in his arms.
“Guess it’s you and me, niño.”
The head rolled against his shoulder. “Ain’t no niño,” a weak voice said—in English. “Put me down. I can walk.”
Chris nearly dropped him out of sheer surprise, but kept on walking. Where, he wasn’t quite certain, but he sure as hell wasn’t gonna just stand in the middle of the street with a bleeding kid in his arms.
“Put me down,” the voice said again, this time with a grumble. He tried, without success, to squirm his way out of Chris’ grasp.
“You sure about that?” He studied the face that glared back up at him from the awkward angle against his shoulder. Only one eye was open— blue? —because the other one appeared to be glued shut with blood and matted hair. When he got a nod, Chris stopped walking and swung the kid’s legs down to the ground but maintained a firm grip on his arm—which turned out to be a very good idea.
“Uh, maybe not so sure,” the kid said, breathing hard, swaying, and trying not to show it.
Chris gave him a moment, but when the kid’s knees started to buckle, he just said, “Okay, come on, I got ya.” Chris picked him up again with only a token protest, and the kid’s hand fisted tight in Chris’ black shirt, and the dark head fell back against the gunslinger’s shoulder.
“This is ruinin’ my reputation, ya know,” the kid moaned, whether in disgust or pain, Chris couldn’t quite tell. “Carried like a baby.”
“I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about,” Chris said dryly, thinking on the four dead men they had just left behind them.
With another soft moan—of pain, this time, of that he was certain—the kid burrowed his head further into Chris’ shoulder. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
“I’m bleedin’ all over your shirt.”
Chris snorted. “Blood washes out. Just don’t puke on me. Wouldn’t care much for that.”
“Ain’t makin’ any promises,” came the faint reply. “Where we goin’, anyway?”
“Got a doc in this town?”
“Don’t need no doc. How ‘bout you buy me a drink instead? Seein’ as how I saved your gringo ass.”
“Yeah, and a fine job you made of it. Look who got shot.”
“If you weren’t so damn old an’ slow, I wouldn’t be shot. I got my two guys. You missed one a yours, an’ he hit me.”
“Are you always this mouthy when you get shot in the head?” Chris felt his own mouth twitch. Who the hell was this kid? What was he doing with a Colt, and where had he learned to use it like that? He looked down again. What he could see of the kid’s face, where it wasn’t covered in blood, was pale and sweating. “Doctor. Now. Maybe I’ll buy you a drink later. Of milk.”
“Tequila. Don’t need no doc,” he insisted, the blue eye opening again. “I’m all right.”
“Uh huh. That’s why you almost fell over just now. C’mon, kid. Where’s the doctor in this town?”
“Johnny,” he repeated. “Not ‘kid.’ Quit callin’ me ‘kid.’”
“Okay, Johnny it is. I’m Chris. Where’s the doc?”
The blue eye gave an expressive roll. “Keep goin’ the way you’re goin’, then turn right at the next corner.” The voice started to fade a bit. “Behind the dry goods store.” He reached up with the hand that wasn’t wrapped in Chris’ shirt to wipe some of the blood away from his face, but only succeeded in smearing it further. At least it had slowed to a trickle, Chris noticed. And he’d stopped squirming. Too bad he wouldn’t shut up.
But then the tight grip on Chris’ shirt relaxed, and the fist fell away to swing limply at the kid’s side— no, it’s Johnny, Chris reminded himself, not kid—and the gunslinger felt a surprising twinge of fear for the first time since getting called out into the street that day. He hadn’t really felt much of anything at the thought of facing those eight men alone—mild regret, possibly, or relief that the ever-present pain would soon be gone. Maybe he could simply blame it all on the slight hangover . . .
“Stay with me, Johnny,” he said in a low voice. “You’re not dyin’ on my account, you hear me, kid? I ain’t worth it.”
His stride lengthened and he shifted the kid—Johnny—a little higher in his arms. He quickly found the doctor’s office, and the doctor, and despite his own limited Spanish he managed to make himself understood well enough. Not that there could be much doubt about what’s wrong, he thought. Shots fired, and here comes the gringo gunfighter with a kid covered in blood. The doc had probably just been waiting to see who would show up needing his services.
The doctor, somewhere between fifty and sixty, Chris guessed, clucked over the unconscious boy as Chris put him down on a table, but wasted no time in washing up and taking charge. At the doctor’s call, an elderly woman, small and plump, bustled into the room from beyond an inner door, and started in on her own share of clucking.
Chris found and straddled a chair in the modest but scrupulously clean office, made sure he kept out of the way, and watched. He soon figured out that the señora was the doc’s wife as well as his nurse. She fussed around the kid, gently yet efficiently wiping the blood from his face and hair so the doctor, Señor Montoya (as he had introduced himself), could get a better look at the wound.
Since the kid’s Colt was digging its painful way into Chris’ ribcage, he pulled it out of his belt and studied it with a professional eye. Damn, this was a serious piece of hardware. The kid—Johnny—had obviously customized the weapon to fit his hand. The weight and balance was precise, the grip was comfortably worn; it was a well cared for piece in perfect condition. His studied glance went to the boy lying on the table, flashing back to the skill and speed he had glimpsed out of the corner of his eye when the kid had drawn. Had he ever seen anybody that fast before?
Just who are you, kid? And why did you risk your neck for a complete stranger?
It would make for some interesting conversation when he woke up.
But for now, with the threat of violence over, the survivors left standing—mostly—Chris wanted nothing more but to get a bottle of something and start drinking. But if he indulged in an afternoon of knocking back whiskies, where would that leave the kid? Johnny. So far, nobody seemed to take an interest in him. He couldn’t just dump him here unconscious and walk away. Chris sighed. Gonna have to stay sober this once, Larabee. He owed the kid his life, but he didn’t think he was cut out to look after a fifteen-year-old, if that, who carried a Colt. He quickly shied away from the memory of his own son, of how he had failed to protect Adam . . .
A groan from the table distracted him from further dark thoughts, and he got to his feet to stand next to the doctor. The kid looked a little less of a mess, with most of the blood off his face, but his white shirt was liberally splashed with it.
“Hey, kid,” Chris greeted him. This time both blue eyes, if a bit dazed, slowly blinked up at him, and then cleared to narrow in a glare. “Yeah, I know, it’s Johnny, not ‘kid.’ Sorry. How ya feelin’?”
Johnny reached up to lightly finger the neat bandage that was now wrapped around his head, most of it hidden under his long hair. “I’m all right,” he replied, not very convincingly. He looked at the doctor and said something in Spanish far too rapid for Chris to follow, then frowned at the reply he got.
“What?” Chris questioned. “Something wrong?”
Doctor Montoya continued to shake his head, the señora added a few words, and Johnny just kept scowling.
“They want me to stay here overnight. Think I need lookin’ after.” He pushed himself up on shaky arms and swung his legs over the edge of the table to sit up. Chris steadied him with a strong grip, and the kid turned his scowl in Chris’ direction.
Chris took a good close look at that young face, stubborn and unwilling to show any sign of weakness or pain, and he found himself saying, “Hell, you’re just fine. You don’t need to stay here. What do you say to headin’ back to the cantina and gettin’ something to eat? I don’t know about you, but those hombres interrupted my lunch.” He knew he’d come up with exactly the right words when the kid suddenly grinned and slid off the table. Chris kept a hand hovering near, just in case.
Johnny turned and spoke to the doctor, firm but polite, and gestured at Chris. More conversation in Spanish followed, with Chris picking up maybe one word in ten, then the doctor simply tossed his hands in the air. But if he was angry with his patient, he didn’t show it. Instead he put together a packet of medicines, pressed it into the kid’s hand, and reluctantly accepted the coins Johnny gave him.
“Gracias,” said Johnny. “Sí, sí. Mañana.” After several more minutes of reassurances (from Johnny), instructions (from the doctor), and worried clucking (from Señora Montoya), they said their goodbyes and stepped outside. Under a blazing midday sun they headed down the street. Chris wiped away the beads of sweat already forming on his face and shot a look at the kid. Johnny was sweating, too, but probably not just because of the heat.
“So what did the doc say?” Chris asked. “How’d you talk him into letting you out of there?”
“Oh,” and Chris saw a sudden wicked glint in the blue eyes, “I told him you were my tio, that you’d look after me, an’ that he shouldn’t worry ‘cause you’re a famous gringo gunfighter.”
Chris had to laugh. “Your uncle, huh? And a famous gringo gunfighter. Must run in the family.”
“Yeah, but I don’t think he believed me,” Johnny admitted with a straight face.
“What? That I’m not your uncle, or that I’m not a famous gunfighter?”
Chris laughed again, but kept a close eye on his newly acquired “nephew” as they walked. Or ambled, rather. The kid wasn’t moving too fast. He was still upright, amazingly, but Chris had a feeling that if he told Johnny how truly awful he looked, the kid would probably draw on him. Oh, and by the way . . .
“I think this belongs to you,” Chris said, offering the Colt.
Johnny took the weapon with a smile. “Thanks,” he said, inspecting it. “I’d hate to lose this one.” He handled it surely, easily, and with smooth economy of motion, slid it back into the holster at his right hip.
“Uh, kid—Johnny,” Chris started, and then put a quick hand under Johnny’s elbow as he faltered for a moment. He made no comment as the kid steadied himself, only took his hand away, and went on as though nothing had happened, “You might want to think about puttin’ on a clean shirt. Wouldn’t want to frighten those cantina girls.”
Johnny plucked glumly at the bloodied shirt. “Yeah, all right. I got some stuff over at the place I’m stayin’.”
“Guess I could use a clean shirt myself,” Chris said, looking down.
Johnny grimaced. “Sorry,” he said again.
Chris just waved a hand, dismissing the matter.
They turned the corner and stepped up onto the boardwalk of the main street, and Chris was not surprised to see that the dead men were still lying right where they had fallen. He could smell blood and heat and dust. The flies had begun to swarm, and the town’s dogs were nosing at the bodies. He found it difficult to dredge up a whole lot of sympathy for his would-be killers. From the look on Johnny’s face, a face suddenly harder and older, he felt about the same.
“Guess their friends done left for good,” Johnny observed flatly. “Smart move.”
“Yeah, a little late, though.”
“Especially for the dead guys.”
Chris shrugged. “Their mistake.”
They walked on, both of them ignoring the stares and the wide berth given them by the townspeople, and Chris found himself replaying those few, tense moments that had led up to the gunfight. He should be dead. But for some reason, a cocky kid had stepped up beside him and stood with him and saved his life. And what had that kid said to convince four hardened border bandits to back off in the first place?
And then nearly get killed doing it. Who the hell are you, Johnny?
Well, the kid was awake. Time for that conversation.
Well, maybe not quite yet.
At least the boy waited until they got to his room to pass out again. He was a tough kid, no doubt about it. Chris had watched him grow paler with practically every step, but he kept on moving. By the time they reached the livery stable, where Johnny said he had a room up above, Chris had gotten a surreptitious grasp on Johnny’s arm to help keep him on his feet. Once upstairs and inside, the kid gave a sigh and sort of folded up. Chris caught him before he could hit the floor and eased him onto the bed.
Hell. Now what? He wasn’t a nursemaid.
Or even a father. Not anymore.
Shoving away another painful memory, Chris set about unbuttoning and peeling off the kid’s shirt. He paused in momentary shock as he saw the scars on the young body. Far too many—there were old scars, obviously from early childhood, and some that were much more recent. Jesus, kid, what kind of life are you leading? You’re not gonna make it to twenty at this rate. Feeling slightly sick, Chris shook his head and got back to work. He was relieved to see that the wound itself had bled only a little since leaving the doc’s. Pouring water from the bedside pitcher into the basin, he washed away the drying blood that had trailed down the boy’s neck and chest. He didn’t even twitch during Chris’ ministrations, and Chris was able to quickly finish up. He sat back and surveyed his handiwork. Well, the kid looked a little better. Still pale, but his breathing was even, there was no sign of fever, and without the blood he didn’t appear nearly as ferocious. After pulling off the kid’s boots and hanging the young gunslinger’s holster on the bedpost, Chris shook out the one blanket that lay folded on the bed, draping it over Johnny and pulling it up to his shoulders.
Should he go back and get the doc? No, he decided after a moment’s consideration, what the kid really needed was sleep. As for Chris himself, he still needed that drink, some food, and a clean shirt. He thought he could leave Johnny alone long enough to return to his own room at the cantina, grab his gear, and pick up something to eat. The kid was bound to be hungry when he woke up. Fifteen-year-old boys ate all the time, as he recalled. And Johnny was too damn skinny. Better get lots of tamales . . . And a bottle, definitely a bottle.
Less than an hour later, Chris was back in Johnny’s room. He dropped his gear and the supplies, relieved to see the kid still there and still asleep. He’d rolled over, though, and was lying curled on his side, cheek pillowed on one hand. That, together with the long black hair hanging over his closed eyes, took about five years off his age. Whatever that really was.
Chris pulled up the room’s only chair, briefly concerned it wouldn’t hold his weight, and then sat back and pondered. Granted, his Spanish was far from fluent, but he’d caught some of the words the kid had cheerfully tossed out to their erstwhile opponents. A hefty dose of insults, mocking their masculinity, their mothers, and their courage, had made up the majority of it. But instead of getting mad, laughing, or even simply ignoring the kid, the murderous pack of cutthroats had traded uneasy glances among themselves; and as Chris watched in silent amazement, the odds were suddenly halved when four of the thugs backed off without a word.
Madrid. He’d heard the kid say “Madrid,” very clearly.
Since crossing the border and meandering his aimless way south and west, he’d heard the name Madrid more than once. A young pistolero, it was said, faster with a gun than the devil himself.
Madrid. Johnny Madrid.
Hell. His boy here was the one and only Johnny Madrid. From the snatches of conversation, rumor, and gossip that he’d heard about Madrid, he’d have been expecting a young man, say eighteen or twenty, not a damn kid.
Chris rubbed a weary hand over his face and helped himself to a healthy swallow from the bottle of whiskey he’d finally managed to get his hands on. No wonder those sorry bastards had backed down. They’d heard all the stories too. Chris had another swig, a trifle embarrassed he hadn’t figured it out until now. His gaze went back to Johnny, sleeping on, oblivious, and he wondered what had happened in the boy’s short life to make him turn to gunfighting as a means of survival. But then Chris thought about Johnny’s bright blue eyes. Blue-eyed children of mixed parentage did not fare well in border towns. The blanket had fallen slightly away from Johnny’s shoulder as he lay on his side, revealing the scars again, and Chris thought sadly that maybe he didn’t need to look much further.
Johnny woke slowly, with the uneasy feeling that someone else was in the room with him. His head hurt, and he tried to remember why. Oh, yeah. Mierda. He’d been shot. Sort of. Just a graze, right? His eyes flickered open, carefully, and he remained still, checking out his surroundings. He’d gone to the doc’s, and now he was back in his room, all tucked up in bed . . . How had that happened? Who was here with him? His hand slipped under the pillow and found nothing. Where the hell was his gun?
“Hey, kid,” a quiet voice greeted him. “Good to see you awake.”
He rolled over quickly, only to feel his head explode, and bit back a moan.
“Take it easy. It’s just me, remember? Chris.”
Chris. The blond gringo gunslinger. What was he doing here? Johnny swallowed against the rising nausea brought on by the splintering pain in his head and the sudden spinning of the room, and attempted to open his eyes again.
“If you’re wondering, your gun is hanging on the right-hand bedpost.”
The room settled down, mercifully, as well as his stomach, and Johnny finally succeeded in getting both eyes open. He turned his head with care. What he could see of the other man was a shadowed silhouette against the open window. He flicked his gaze over to the bedpost. Sure enough, there was his gun. Ashamed of his initial panicked reaction, he nodded as though he’d known that all along.
“Thanks,” he said, the word emerging as a dry croak. He reached up with tentative fingers to feel the bandage covering the wound.
“Leave that alone,” Chris said, moving toward the bed. “You don’t want to be undoin’ all the doc’s work.” He sat down in the chair next to the bed.
“Yeah, all right,” he sighed, dropping his hand. “Itches, though.” Then Johnny squinted, looking out the window. The light was wrong. “What time is it? How long was I asleep?”
“It’s about seven o’clock. You slept through a couple of meals. How are you feelin’ now?”
He pushed himself up until his back was resting against the wall and felt a trickle of sweat slide down his cheek with the effort. The splintering pain had subsided to a dull throbbing ache over his left eye, and that he could handle. “Fine.” He swallowed again. “But kinda thirsty,” he admitted.
“Think I can fix that.” Chris poured water into a cup and handed it to him, and he drank gratefully, glad to feel it going down and not wanting to come back up. He held out the cup for more, and Chris filled it again. “Think you want to try eating something? I’ve got some rice and beans and tortillas, if you don’t mind ‘em cold.”
“Nope. Sounds good,” he said, feeling a rumble in his stomach. The gunslinger had obviously not been idle while Johnny slept. He was wearing a different shirt, there was another set of saddlebags lying on the floor, and he had brought in provisions and cantina food. “Chris?” He hesitated over the name. Had he called the man that yet?
“Yeah?” He raised his eyebrows in question at Johnny as he gave him a battered tin plate filled with food.
Johnny took the plate, looking down at it, and then cocked his head up at the other man. “Why are ya doin’ all this?”
Chris just stared at him for a moment, hands on hips. “You gotta ask me that?” he said at last. “You saved my life, kid. What did ya think I was gonna do? Leave you to lie in a bloody heap in the street?”
The sudden flare of anger in the man, quickly hidden, surprised Johnny into honesty. “You got me to the doc, an’ ya coulda just left me there. That woulda been enough. More than most folks woulda done. I ain’t ungrateful . . . I guess I just don’t . . . understand . . . about everythin’ else.” He shrugged and gave a vague wave at his room, at himself in the bed. “Nobody else woulda bothered.”
Chris sighed and sat down in the chair again. “Eat your supper. Look, kid, like I said, you saved my life. You stepped up there beside me in a fight that wasn’t yours, and you wound up catching a bullet. I figure I owe ya.”
“But you don’t even know me!” Johnny protested, bewildered.
“It’s the right thing to do. You didn’t know me, either, Johnny, when you came out onto that street this afternoon. Why did you do that?” Chris pinned him with a glare, as if daring him to deny his actions.
Johnny slowly rolled up beans and rice in a tortilla as an excuse to think about that one. Not that he really needed to. He shrugged again and met Chris’ gaze. “It was the right thing to do,” he drawled. “Couldn’t leave some poor gringo cowboy to face those ugly sons a bitches all by himself.”
Chris snorted. “You coulda,” he said, dryly, “nobody else woulda bothered. Hell, nobody else did.”
Johnny rolled his eyes. “Madre de Dios, I guess we’re even then.” He bit off a good-sized chunk of tortilla and decided beans and rice had never tasted quite so fine. Quickly polishing off that one, he reached for more, and saw Chris giving him a milder version of that earlier glare. “What?” he asked around a mouthful.
“Maybe you should slow down.”
“I’m starvin’ here,” he said, swallowing.
“Well, if all of that comes back up in twenty minutes, you’re on your own. I already cleaned you up once today.”
Johnny looked down at his bare chest. “Yeah, I noticed. Thanks for leavin’ me my pants. I woulda had ta shoot ya otherwise.”
“Yeah, you did see that I was careful to leave your gun just out of reach.”
Johnny grinned. “What with you bein’ old an’ slow, ya mean.”
With a sorrowful shake of his head, Chris spoke to the ceiling. “Kids these days,” he said sadly. “No respect for their elders. Always mouthin’ off . . .”
Still grinning, Johnny did not know how to account for the sudden warmth stealing through his heart. He had trusted this man the moment he had walked up to stand beside him. They had had time for one shared look before the shooting started, and Johnny just knew the gringo was worth whatever trouble Johnny managed to get into over this.
“Sorry, Pa,” Johnny said, and then his grin faltered at the abrupt lack of expression on the man’s face. “Chris? I . . . sorry,” he said, ducking his head. “Didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
“No, no, Johnny, it’s all right . . .” He stood again and swung away to walk over to the window. Leaning one shoulder into the wall he stared out, his back to Johnny. “No,” he repeated. “Don’t be sorry. It’s not you.” He continued to stare out the window, and Johnny slowly ate another tortilla. The silence grew almost deafening, and Johnny’s misery grew along with it.
He put the now empty plate to one side and decided it was past time he got up. Maybe if he left Chris alone for a while . . . Hanging onto one of the bedposts, he stood and only swayed for a moment. So far, so good; now to get across the small room to his bag and find a clean shirt . . . Then the room tilted alarmingly, he was blinking away black spots in his vision, but a strong arm wrapped around his waist before he could fall.
“Jesus, kid, ya got shot in the head a few hours ago,” the voice muttered near his ear. “Will ya take it easy for a while?”
Back on the bed with Chris’ hands steadying his shoulders, Johnny took a couple of deep breaths and succeeded in keeping his dinner down. When his vision cleared he looked up to see Chris, no longer expressionless, but downright worried.
“You all right? Want me to go get the doc?”
“No, no doc,” Johnny breathed, “I’m all right.” Taking another deep breath or two, he added, “Just wanted to get a clean shirt on.” He scowled then, annoyed at his own weakness. “It’s just a damn scratch! Didn’t really get shot. Didn’t have to dig a bullet out, did he?”
“No, he didn’t, but that bullet made a nice gouge all the same. You’re one lucky young pup. Now, I saw the doc give you some medicine before we left. You want anything for the pain?”
“Nah, don’t like medicine. Makes me all . . . fuzzy.”
The grip on Johnny’s shoulders tightened. “Okay,” Chris acceded, reluctantly. “But you stay put. I’ll get you your damn shirt.”
A few minutes later, finishing up the last button of his favorite shirt of washed-out, faded pink, he grinned up at Chris’ raised eyebrow, caused, no doubt, by Johnny’s choice of attire. “Thanks. Now, I really gotta get up, Chris.”
That earned him a frown. “Thought I told you to stay put.”
“Outhouse, Chris. If ya don’t mind.”
“Oh, well. In that case . . .”
He woke up the next day to discover that it was nearly noon and Chris was sitting beside his bed reading a book. When Chris noticed he was awake, the gunslinger took one look at him and was ready to head out the door for the doc. He protested at that notion, of course. So Chris just stared at him a long moment, eyes narrowed in what was an already familiar glare, and calmly pointed out that Johnny had promised the day before to return to see Doctor Montoya after the man had kindly agreed to let him go. Thus Johnny found himself neatly trapped by his own words. He had a sneaking suspicion that Chris had managed to out-maneuver him, but he put it down to the fact that his head still hurt.
Doctor Montoya looked relieved to see him, and set about carefully removing the bandage and peering at the wound as Johnny sat on the table, trying not to fidget. Nodding to himself and making reassuring noises, he cleaned the area again, smeared something over it with gentle fingers, and left the bandage off. He asked Johnny how he felt, worried about Johnny’s refusal to take anything for the pain, shook his head over how warm Johnny’s skin was, and told him to let his uncle take good care of him. Johnny smothered a grin at that, and decided not to translate if Chris asked. And Señora Montoya was there as well, anxious and fussing, and Johnny glared at Chris when the man wouldn’t stop grinning over it. But he could hardly be impolite to the elderly couple, so he endured the woman’s motherly clucking. A far cry from any tender care he had ever gotten from his own mother . . .
Despite how awful he felt, he was also too restless to go back to his room over the livery stable. He managed to persuade a hesitant Chris to stop in the cantina for a while and get something to eat. They pushed their way through the doors and claimed a battered table in the back, and Johnny soon found himself glaring at Chris again. The rising warmth of the day eased somewhat inside the dim interior of the near empty room, but Johnny could feel the heat from Chris’ gaze almost burning a hole in him. The man wouldn’t let him have a drop of tequila, beer, anything.
“You’re too young to be drinkin’,” Chris said, firmly. He wouldn’t buy Johnny a drink, he wouldn’t let Johnny buy his own drink, he threatened the poor man behind the bar with that mean green-eyed stare if he so much as came near Johnny with a bottle, and never mind the cantina girls, Johnny was obviously too young for them as well . . .
“Ain’t no kid,” Johnny said darkly, tilting back in his chair and trying not to sulk.
“Look, ki—Johnny, you keep refusing to take anything for the pain, but that’s your choice, and I respect that.” Chris leaned forward and lowered his voice. “But I can tell you’re hurting. You’re not hiding it as well as you think you are. And since you got shot in the head—yeah, okay, grazed—I don’t think a shot of tequila is a very good idea right now.”
Johnny slowly let the front two legs of the chair settle on the floor and moved the plate of tamales to one side so he could rest his elbows on the table. He had to fight the urge to lean his aching head into one hand. The area around the wound had turned several amazing shades of black and purple overnight, leaving the entire left side of his face feeling raw and tender. “Yeah, ‘kay, I get ya,” he agreed wearily. “Don’t mean I have ta like it, though.”
In his resentment, he had almost blurted out, Who do you think you are, my pa? even as he remembered the horrible strained silence from the day before when he had said the word to Chris as a joke. But he caught himself in time, kept quiet, and silently agreed that the man was probably right. No point in muddling his head any further . . .
No point in causing that kind of hurt in a man he had already come to think of as a friend, either.
He tried giving the girls in the cantina his best smile, especially the prettiest ones, but sadly acknowledged that he just wasn’t up to any serious flirting the way he felt at the moment. The girls all took turns walking past their table, dark eyes sparkling, secret smiles flitting across red lips, hips rolling, and all he could do was wink with the one eye that worked and smile back. He sighed. Maybe later, when his head didn’t feel like it was going to fall off. Dios, no tequila, no girls. He sighed again.
He looked up to see Chris giving him that raised eyebrow and a slight smirk.
“What?” he asked.
“Maybe you’re not in as much pain as I thought,” Chris said. “Of course, I’m bettin’ any one of those girls would be happy to do whatever they could to make you feel better.”
To his disgust, Johnny found himself growing even warmer as the blood rose in his cheeks. “Yeah, well, they ain’t exactly ignorin’ you, either. Can’t imagine why, an ol’ gringo cowboy like you . . .”
“Look, I’ll stop callin’ you ‘kid’ if you stop callin’ me ‘cowboy,’ all right?”
Johnny grinned, despite his aching head. “I’ll think about it.” Then he paused, considered, and added, “It’s Madrid, by the way, Johnny Madrid.”
Chris put out his hand, and Johnny gave it a firm shake. “Chris Larabee. Nice to meet ya.” He grinned back, then added, “Kid.”
“Oh, Dios, you really are a famous gringo gunfighter!” Johnny stared. Mierda! Chris Larabee. And here he’d been calling him old and slow . . .
“Well, hell, I was just a bit surprised when I figured out that the kid who saved my life is none other than the famous Mexican pistolero Johnny Madrid.”
Chris shrugged. “Not right away. Just sorta put it together. Heard your name a few times since crossin’ the border, is all.”
“Really?” Johnny felt absurdly pleased about that. Chris Larabee had heard of him.
“Uh huh,” Chris said, dryly. “Don’t let it go to your head. The more your name gets around, you’ll just have that many more fast guns out there lookin’ for ya, wantin’ to prove themselves.”
“I can handle myself,” Johnny flared. “Still alive, ain’t I? Need a name to get hired—most folks wouldn’t look twice at me, a half-Mex kid with blue eyes, just as soon spit on me, kick me like a stray dog, or worse. But when they hear ‘Madrid,’ they sure take notice.”
The older man sighed, apparently intent on making wet circles on the table with his whiskey glass. “Yeah, I saw that with my own eyes, kid. Crazy business, gunfightin’,” he added, quietly. “Gotta be good enough for the job, and better than the other fella, besides. Probably gonna die young, Johnny. Not many of us live to be too old.”
Johnny could hear the pain in his voice, but had no idea what put it there, and he sure as hell wasn’t about to ask. Dios, he really wanted a drink . . . He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and gave in for a moment, lowering his head into his hands, careful to avoid the bruises.
Gonna die young, Johnny.
He had watched as the men in the cantina had jeered at the gringo, in Spanish and crude, broken English, laughing and mocking, eager for a fight, for blood. The gringo had just stared at them, coolly sitting at the back table, smoking a cheroot with a half empty bottle of whiskey in front of him. Not a flicker of fear, of any expression at all, had crossed the man’s features. Johnny had no doubt the man was a gunfighter. How could those fools not see that he carried death with him like an old friend? Johnny would put his last peso on the gringo to easily outdraw any of the men who had begun the game of calling him out. But with a pack of wolves such as these, there could only be one outcome. It would not be a fair fight.
But the gringo had gone into the street, because the other men would have shot him in the cantina if he hadn’t. So Johnny Madrid had decided to lower the odds a bit. It was over in seconds, but the blazing pain that seared across his head had come as a surprise. He remembered falling . . .
Gonna die young, Johnny.
A cool, callused hand rested on the back of his neck, and then with surprising gentleness slid down to touch his cheek.
“Doc was right. You’re workin’ on a fever here, kid,” a voice murmured. “C’mon, drink this.”
A glass was nudged against his hand, and he cracked the one eye open just enough to see Chris bending over him with that look of worry back on his face. Johnny wondered how long he’d been standing there.
“Tequila?” he whispered.
“Not a chance. Now drink. And then you’re goin’ back to bed.”
“I’m all right,” he said, lying through his gritted teeth.
“I know. But do it anyway, okay?”
“Okay,” he found himself saying, trusting Chris without question, and drinking whatever it was in the glass. Then Chris had him on his feet, and was guiding him out the door—the back door, Johnny noted thankfully, and he slowly made the seemingly endless walk to his room with Chris’ hand there to keep him steady. The sunlight was like a knife behind his eyes, but Chris was a cool dark shadow beside him. At least he didn’t have to carry me this time, was his last thought before collapsing onto the bed.
It kept going on like that. Chris refused to leave him alone for any great length of time until, as Chris put it, “You can stand up without fallin’ over at the drop of a hat.” And, Johnny admitted, if only to himself, he was falling over. The dull ache persisted, but sometimes the pain surged to hit him with unexpected ferocity; that, combined with the slight fever, rendered him appallingly unable to do much other than sleep. A lot. And never having been one to give in easily to any kind of pain, it was galling to realize that all he could do was lie still with his head buried in a pillow until the agony abated. But over a couple of days, the severity of the pain lessened, as did the frequency with which it struck.
By the third day after getting shot, Johnny had had enough of his small room, was restless and bored, and tired of Chris keeping an eye on him. Not that the gunslinger was obvious about it, but Johnny simply wasn’t used to anyone bothering. Besides, he felt a whole lot better now, well, mostly, and was ready to be on his way again—not that he really had anywhere particular in mind, but that was hardly the point. He was ready to ride. But despite his chafing under the other man’s outwardly nonchalant care, he found, much to his surprise, that he was oddly reluctant to part company just yet.
Johnny scowled. What was wrong with him? He was Johnny Madrid. He didn’t need anybody.
Yeah, right, as if ya coulda dragged yourself in off that street after gittin’ shot in the head, that little inner voice said. Only got shot in the head ‘cause of him, he argued back. Well, that was your choice to step into a gunfight, wasn’t it?
He was talkin’ to himself way too much. Maybe that shot to the head was worse than he thought . . . I oughta just stick to talkin’ to my horse. At least the pinto never says anything back.
So this morning up in his room, he sat cross-legged on the bed—where he’d already spent way too much time in the last couple days—cleaning his gun. And thinking. He had just come off of a job before arriving in Nogales. He had money. He could take it easy for a while. But he’d heard talk of trouble brewing further south, some of the big ranches needing extra guns. Maybe he should make his way toward Hermosillo and see what turned up. On the other hand, he could head north across the border and try his luck there.
He put down the gun and carefully probed the healing wound. A look in the mirror earlier that morning had shown that the black and purple bruising had faded a bit, but now a nice touch of sickly green had joined the mix. His hair mostly hid the score left by the bullet, yet another scar to add to an already long litany of hurt in his young life.
Chris had seen his scars, he knew, but the other man hadn’t said a word or shown pity or any sign of wanting to ask how he came by them all, and for that he was grateful. The gunslinger had a few scars of his own, Johnny had no doubt about that, and he’d guess that they weren’t all on the outside, either. Johnny recognized the darkness in the other man, but a man’s past was his own, and none of Johnny’s business.
Well, no point in hangin’ around here any longer. Chris had left a little while ago, stalking out and grumbling something about going to find coffee and breakfast over at the cantina; he didn’t appear to enjoy mornings very much, at least until he’d had that first cup of coffee. In the meantime, Johnny figured he could be packed up and ready to go in no time at all, just stopping long enough to give Chris a wave on his way out of town. The gringo gunslinger had done too much for him already. It was time to go.
His meager belongings quickly packed into worn saddlebags, his gun and gunbelt comfortably back in place, he took a last look around the little room and settled his hat carefully over his dark hair. Then he was out the door and clattering down the outside stairway. He found the livery owner, settled the bill both for himself and his horse, and after saddling up he told the man he’d be back in a few minutes.
First of all, he needed some supplies. He made his way to the general store, noticing the stares and hearing his name whispered once or twice as he passed by knots of people on the street. It was all too familiar by now, and he ignored it, preferring to keep his senses alert to any signs of danger. After all, the four dead men had had four friends . . . At the mercantile he picked up the usual trail food staples, bought some treats for the pinto, and decided he deserved a new shirt. He picked out a blue one, thought it over, and bought a red one, too. Maybe he should buy Chris one, considering how he had bled all over the man . . . Black, of course. He added it to the pile and paid up. The nervous little storekeeper looked relieved to see him go. Johnny snorted to himself. Yeah, I always draw on unarmed shopkeepers, amigo. Since when should a gunfighter pay for anything, right? Or is it just blue-eyed half-breeds ya don’t like?
He tipped his hat to the man and thanked him politely, just to prove that not all half-breed gunfighters were louts and savages.
Slinging his bags over his shoulder, he stepped outside and walked down to the cantina to find Chris. This is the best way, he told himself firmly. Shake hands, say “thanks,” give him the shirt, and ride out.
He tried to ignore the other little voice that was telling him in no uncertain terms that he was acting like a coward and since when did Johnny Madrid run from anything?
Shut up. I’m leavin’ an’ that’s that.
He peered inside the cantina, quiet and drowsy this early in the day, and saw no one but the barkeep half-heartedly wiping down tables and straightening chairs.
“¿Dónde es Señor Larabee?” Johnny asked.
The man shrugged, not quite meeting Johnny’s eyes.
Further questioning revealed that Chris had already come and gone, and Johnny had missed him. Well, back to the room above the livery, then. Johnny nodded his thanks to the barkeep and turned away.
The shock of abandonment struck him like a blow to the face. Not only was Chris’ gear gone from the room—his horse, the big black gelding, was no longer in the stable below. Anger swiftly took over, and he wondered how he could have misjudged the man. He was usually better at reading people; maybe the friendship had never been there at all, but still . . .
An’ just what was it you were plannin’, huh? Ridin’ out an’ not lookin’ back? Well, he beat ya to it, is all.
He pushed away the pain, and the little voice, and concentrated on the anger. But his hands were still gentle on his horse as he finished tying down his saddlebags and bedroll. He fed the pinto the lumps of sugar he had just bought, then patted the horse and led him from the stable. Mounting up, his head protesting only slightly at the movement, he randomly chose a direction and headed out.
South, it looked like. Well, there was nothing across the border for him, never had been, never would be.
His glance flickered over to the spot in the street where the dead men had lain for a day or so before someone finally got around to clearing away the bodies. The blood was gone, all soaked into the dust. It was as if it had never happened. That could’ve been his body lying there for two days without anyone giving a damn. Just might be, someday.
Gonna die young, Johnny.
He shivered. Maybe, but not today.
With his attention uncharacteristically diverted, he saw the horse and rider out of the corner of his eye a split second too late.
Maybe today after all, Madrid.
He shifted quickly in the saddle; the gun was already in his hand even as he knew the other man had him cold, and he stared down the barrel of his Colt into a face that had grown very familiar over the last three days.
Wrists crossed casually over the pommel, reins held lightly, Chris Larabee actually sat there on his big black horse and had the nerve to smile at him.
“Mierda, are ya tryin’ ta get yourself shot, Larabee?”
Johnny slid the Colt back into his holster with a glare that somehow turned into a grin, then shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“Had the drop on you there, kid.” Chris flicked a rein and nudged his horse into a walk. “You sure you’re ready to ride outta here on your own?”
Johnny’s pinto fell into a walk next to Chris’ black. “I’m all right,” he said.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before. How’s the head this morning? Still hurt? Need to see the doc first?”
“Nah, don’t need the doc,” he drawled. Then he admitted, because the man deserved the truth, “Hurts a little. But not like before.” He reached up to raise his hat just enough to push the hair away from his temple. “See? Even looks better.”
“Looks great,” Chris agreed dryly. “Good thing you got all that hair. Of course, if you didn’t have all that hair hangin’ over your eyes, maybe you wouldn’t have missed that guy and gotten shot.”
“Listen, I didn’t miss. That was your guy . . .”
And so, bickering with a strangely contented ease, Johnny found himself riding south out of Nogales with Chris Larabee at his side.
“So,” Chris began, not long out of sight of town, “ya think those other four fellas are just waiting for us to poke our heads out so they can take a few shots at us?”
Johnny had been scanning the surrounding countryside with sharp eyes as they rode, and had seen Chris doing the same. “I think those fellas are either in the next town over, dead drunk, or else they’re still runnin’ an’ are halfway across Sonora by now.”
“Yeah, sure doesn’t feel like there’s anybody else out here.”
Johnny nodded, knowing what the other man meant. There wasn’t that little itch at the back of his neck, the one that made him want to draw his gun and drop to the ground.
“Just you an’ me an’ the critters.”
“Fine with me,” Chris said.
They rode on, neither of them really choosing a direction, just following the lay of the land, which gradually led them further south and west. Johnny breathed deep, happy to be back on his feet—well, back on his horse, at any rate—rather than in a bed in a small, stuffy room. The sun was warm on his shoulders, and he couldn’t stop the smile that crept over his face. It was a fine day, clear and bright, despite this normally being the wettest time of year in these parts. That could probably change in a moment, and no doubt would, but for now, it was simply perfect.
“Pretty country,” Chris commented after they’d been riding in comfortable silence for a while.
Johnny could only nod in agreement. The land was rolling hills, green and pleasant in the height of summer, with scattered groves of ancient oaks rising tall into the cloudless sky. They topped a rise, and he could see a river glinting in the distance like a blue ribbon, and taking in that view, an odd kind of peace settled over him that he had known all too rarely in the years since picking up a gun.
Maybe it had something to do with the man riding beside him. Johnny couldn’t remember the last time—if ever—he had trusted anybody enough to watch his back the way Chris Larabee had these past few days.
Even as they rode on that morning, Johnny was aware of Chris keeping an eye on him, and it didn’t bother him as much as it should have.
Johnny had been on his own long enough to know how to take care of himself—hell, he’d been doing that even before his mother died—and could count on one hand the times in the last few years that he had needed, or wanted, help from anyone. This wasn’t the first time he’d been hurt, but he’d always managed, one way or another, to heal up and get back on his feet. Just lucky, maybe, and there were some good people out there who had helped him once or twice when it had been bad. But he always felt uncomfortable and vulnerable when he had to rely on someone else. It was different with Chris, somehow.
Maybe, he thought, because when Chris looked at him, he didn’t see a blue-eyed half-breed, some white man’s mistake. Johnny had not seen pity, contempt, disgust, or any of the usual expressions that crossed most men’s faces when they noticed Johnny’s mixed heritage.
Maybe Chris Larabee just saw him.
Johnny remembered waking up two or three times the second day, after they had gone back to his room from the cantina, and there was Chris every time. He was sitting in the chair, with his long legs stretched out and his feet propped on the edge of the bed, and he was reading. Another book, Johnny had noted with muzzy, feverish surprise, but there he was, just sitting and reading, next to Johnny’s bed. When he saw Johnny open his eyes, all he said was, “How ya doin’, kid?” and helped him sit up enough to drink a glass of water. Then the gunslinger went back to his book as Johnny miserably curled up under the blanket again with the pillow over his head.
An’ here I thought he’d left without me. He was probably thinkin’ the same thing about me, wonderin’ how I coulda done that.
“Hey, kid, how ya doin’ over there?”
Startled out of his reverie, Johnny looked over at Chris as the familiar words broke into his thoughts, and he had to grin.
“What?” Chris narrowed his eyes. “Too much sun, I knew it. You’re goin’ all loco on me.”
“I feel fine, but if you want to stop an’ rest them weary aged bones . . .” Not that he would admit it, but a brief rest and maybe some lunch would help to ease the ache that had recently developed behind his eye. It was not the horrible splintering pain of the previous two days, but distracting nevertheless. The slight dizziness wasn’t helping, but Chris didn’t need to know about that, either.
“You’re the one who’s been doin’ nothing but resting lately, amigo. I’d say it’s my turn.” He tipped his head, gesturing to their right. “Let’s make for the stream. Horses want to, anyway.”
It was true. Scenting the water, the animals had been shaking their heads against the reins and trying to veer from the slight path before them for the last several moments.
They reached the stream, overarched with willows along the banks, and found a shady, cool spot beneath them. Tending to the horses first, they soon settled in comfortably themselves to eat and stretch out on the grass afterwards.
The insistent throb in Johnny’s head quieted down as he lay back with his hat over his eyes. He blamed the sunshine for making him sleepy, and even though he had slept an awful lot lately, this seemed altogether different.
“Hey, Chris,” he asked drowsily, “we’re not goin’ anywhere, right? Just ridin’?”
“That sounds good to me, kid.”
“Ain’t no kid,” Johnny said, still under his hat.
“You’re what, all of fourteen?”
“What?” he squawked, suddenly alert. “Fourteen? Fourteen?” He pushed the hat off his face and turned his head to give Chris his best Madrid stare. The man was laughing at him—he could see it. Oh, he may have been just sitting there, as straight-faced and outwardly cool as Johnny, but he was laughing. “Seventeen, Larabee. Or thereabouts,” he added, grudgingly, in all honesty.
“Uh huh. ‘Thereabouts’ meaning what, sixteen?”
“Hell, I don’t know! Kinda lost track. You’re sittin’ over there, pushin’ forty, what’s it matter?”
It was Chris’ turn to squawk and sputter. “Forty? Not for a few years yet!”
“Sure, Chris, whatever you say.” Johnny turned back and dropped his hat over his face again, just in time to hide the smile. “Think I’ll take a nap, what with recoverin’ from this bullet wound. Let me know when you feel like movin’ on, okay? Old fella like you needin’ your rest an’ all . . .”
“Smart-mouthed brat,” Chris muttered, just loud enough for Johnny to hear.
Johnny thought he’d never been insulted with such affection before. He kept on smiling beneath his hat even as he fell asleep.
They more or less followed the stream, or at least keeping it in sight from the trace of the road they were on. A few small farmhouses with modest fields lay scattered across the landscape, along with the clusters of whitewashed buildings that denoted the presence of a mission.
A hard downpour caught them out in the open one day, and they holed up miserably under some trees, just about the only shelter they could find. Johnny swept rain-sodden hair out of his eyes and hunkered down to lean against a tree trunk next to a grumbling Chris.
“This is nice,” Johnny said, flicking more rain off his face.
“Yeah, if you’re a duck,” the other man said sourly. He tugged his hat lower and hunched his shoulders higher.
“Well, it is the rainy season ‘round here. We’ve been real lucky so far.”
“I sure feel lucky. Where’s a nice little farm with friendly people when you need one?”
Johnny just grinned. “This ain’t so bad. Been in worse.”
“I hate rain, and I hate mud,” Chris continued to grumble. “I hate marching in it, I hate sleeping in it, and I hate riding in it. Hate it.”
Johnny looked over at his companion in surprise. “Marchin’? You in the army?”
“I was. You hear about the War between the States much down here?”
“A little. Don’t know what it was all about, but it was nothin’ to do with me or anybody I knew.” He waved a vague hand. “Seemed real far away.”
“Yeah,” Chris sighed. “Sure does, sometimes. Other times . . . seems real close.”
They both fell silent after that, listening to the rain on the leaves, waiting for the worst of the storm to pass.
“Your Spanish could use some work,” Johnny said suddenly as he squinted up at the sullen grey sky, trying to decide if it were getting any lighter at all. He looked over at Chris, and had to laugh at the expression on the other man’s face. “Well, it could.”
“I don’t doubt that,” he said, still looking as though Johnny had hit him in the face with rotten tomato. “But why are you bringing it up now?”
Johnny shrugged. “Dunno. Not like we’re goin’ anywhere for a while, is it?” He gestured at their soggy surroundings and added, “Just thinkin’ it’d be easier for ya if I taught ya a few things. How to talk to cantina girls, for one.”
Chris let out a laugh at that. “Johnny, I hate to break it to you, what with your tender, young years, but talk is about the last thing a fella does with a cantina girl.”
He rolled his eyes. “A bit of sweet talkin’ never hurts, Larabee.”
Still laughing, Chris just said, “Well, I guess you got that right, kid. But maybe you should teach me what to say the next time eight fellas call me out in the middle of the street just for the hell of it.”
“That might come in handy, all right.” Johnny grinned. “Okay, you might try this . . .”
Two mornings later, dry at last, Johnny rolled sleepily out of his blankets to the smell of coffee and bacon. He tugged on his boots, ran a hand through his hair, and nodded blearily at Chris as he stood up to join his friend at the fire.
“Morning’,” Chris said, nodding back, and tending to breakfast.
Still yawning and rubbing his eyes, Johnny took the tin cup Chris offered him then reached for the coffee pot and quite suddenly found himself completely and painfully awake. In reaching for the handle, he realized he had missed, instead putting his hand against the side of the pot itself. He gave a loud yelp, dropped the cup as he shook out his hand, and started swearing in both Spanish and English.
“Hey, careful with that,” came Chris’ voice. The gunslinger used his bandanna and righted the pot before it could tip into the fire.
“Yeah, save the damn coffee,” Johnny muttered, sucking on his burned hand.
Chris sat back on his heels and raised his eyebrows at Johnny’s antics. “For a fella who recently survived getting shot in the head, you’re certainly raising a fuss. Do you use that kind of language in front of your mother?”
“She’s dead,” Johnny heard himself saying, unable to stop the words, or those that followed. “Since I was ten, or thereabouts.” He dropped to the ground cross-legged and leaned forward slightly, glad that his hair was long enough to cover his eyes. His hands fell loosely into his lap, pain from the burn forgotten; images he had never really been able to bury flooded his mind, and he had to bite down on his lip to keep from making a sound. It was surprisingly easy to let his guard down around this man, but he wasn’t about to start crying like a little kid in front of him.
“Ah, hell, kid,” Chris said, quietly, all trace of teasing gone. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” Johnny replied, after a moment. “Me, too, sometimes . . .”
Chris asked, still quiet, “Any other family? What about your father?”
That brought Johnny’s head up again. He met Chris’ eyes. His usual hard mask was unable to keep the old, familiar anger from slipping through his defenses. But this was Chris, and Johnny let him see the rage, if not the hurt.
“My father,” he gave the word a vicious twist, “kicked me an’ my mama out when I was two years old. He was a gringo, a rancher in California, an’ when he decided he didn’t want a Mexican wife or her half-breed brat around no more, he threw us out.”
That drew a swift, savage curse from Chris. Johnny was startled to see him lurch to his feet and turn away, head bowed.
The raw anguish that Johnny glimpsed on the man’s face before he turned his back was enough to put all thoughts of one Murdoch Lancer and his own misery out of Johnny’s mind.
“Chris?” He sounded as helpless as he felt. He tried again. “Chris . . . Are ya all right? What did I say? I’m sorry . . .”
Just as he had before, in that room in Nogales, Chris Larabee said, “No, it’s all right. It’s not your fault, Johnny, you didn’t say anything wrong.”
Johnny’s gaze fell to the ground. He didn’t move, except for curling his hand in against the pain of the burn. The only sounds breaking the silence came from the horses, shifting and snorting; the sudden, high sharp cry of a hawk made him look skyward.
And there was Chris.
“Let me see that hand, Johnny.”
Chris crouched beside him, frowning, and with more than a hint of darkness in his eyes. Little else showed on his face.
“It’s nothin’,” Johnny said, even as Chris was straightening his fingers to get a better look.
“Hell, kid, it’s your gun hand,” Chris said, almost sounding normal. “Gotta keep that in good condition.”
“Yeah, okay,” Johnny said, willing to go along with anything just to keep that expression from coming back to his friend’s face. Chris worked silently, without fuss, for which Johnny was grateful. He soaked Johnny’s hand in cold water from the stream and finished up by putting on a generous amount of salve from a tin he dug out of his saddlebag. Johnny found the pain easing, and he flexed his fingers for a moment, knowing it was a trifle of a hurt that he wouldn’t have even bothered with had he been on his own. “Thanks, doc,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” Chris said, standing up with a slight grimace. He put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder for a brief moment. “Just try to stay out of trouble for a while, okay? That’s about as far as my doctorin’ skills go.”
“Ain’t makin’ any promises,” Johnny said, risking a smile, and was relieved to get a slight one in return. “Head’s done hurtin’,” he added. “You can quit worryin’ over that.”
“I think I’ll always be worryin’ over your head, Johnny,” Chris replied, and gave Johnny a light swat on the back of it.
Johnny didn’t even try to duck; he just grinned.
They ate a quick breakfast, scattered the remains of the fire and gathered their gear with the ease and practice of men accustomed to living on the trail.
The day remained fine, clear and sunny, and it was a pleasure to ride beneath the wide sky with nothing but the rolling hills spreading in all directions. They moseyed lazily along, crossed the stream at one point and then again when it looped around, still riding south and west. Sometimes they exchanged a few words, but for the most part they just rode in easy silence. The earlier awkwardness, if not forgotten, was at least pushed aside. And if Chris appeared quieter than usual, Johnny didn’t mention it.
Silent until late in the afternoon, that is, when Johnny started talking softly to his horse—in Spanish—and Chris lifted both eyebrows at that. But the other man didn’t say anything until Johnny decided to sing. In Spanish, of course.
“You laughin’ at me?” Johnny demanded, stopping in mid-verse, and reining in his horse.
“Uh, no, kid, not at all. But . . . what are you doin’?”
“Singin’! He likes it!” Johnny protested. “An’ he only understands Spanish.”
“Are you sure he’s not just deaf?”
Johnny merely grinned, nudged the pinto into a walk, and started singing again. Louder.
“Well, if nothin’ else, I think you’ve at least scared off all the coyotes for a good ten miles around,” Chris said, raising his own voice.
The summer light was a soft gold haze when they settled on a place to stop for the night. Johnny took his rifle and went off to do a little hunting, and he managed to come back an hour later with a pair of rabbits for their dinner.
Chris already had a fire going, and as Johnny quickly skinned and gutted the rabbits, he got the ever-present pot of coffee going.
“Be careful with this one,” was all Chris said, pointing at it. “How’s the hand, by the way?”
“Fine,” said Johnny, not looking up from putting the meat over the fire to cook.
“Oh, yeah, I guess I should’ve expected that particular answer from you.”
“No, really, it’s all right. I’ve had worse. Ain’t died yet.”
“Once is all it takes, kid.”
Johnny raised his eyes at that, not sure of the expression he could barely make out on Chris’ face, half-hidden in the shadows.
The other man had been in a dark mood all day, brooding even. Granted, he didn’t know Chris all that well, but still . . . something sure was eating at him. Something about fathers had put that cold look on his face, back in Nogales; this morning, however, Johnny had seen nothing but pain when the subject of Johnny’s father came up.
Johnny pronounced the rabbits done, and supper was rounded out with beans and biscuits, only a little hard. Contentedly full, Johnny lay back against his saddle and watched the moon rise through the trees. He felt his eyelids slipping shut even as Chris’ low voice said his name.
“Johnny . . .”
Chris cradled a cup of coffee in his hands, staring at it, and appeared reluctant to speak further.
He sighed. “Sorry, Johnny, but what you said this mornin’, about your father . . . It’s been worryin’ at me all day.”
Johnny nodded slowly. “Thought it might be that. Don’t know why, though. Nothin’ to do with you, Chris. He’s my pa.”
“I know, I know . . . It’s just that . . . It’s hard to believe a man could do that to his own wife and child,” Chris murmured
“I ain’t lying, Chris.”
Chris shook his head. “No, no, that’s not what I meant at all, Johnny. I . . . I guess I just don’t understand how someone could do such a thing. To have that, to have a family, and then to . . . throw it all away . . .” His voice trailed off into that terrible silence that Johnny had come to recognize, and he sat still, hardly daring to breathe.
“I had a family once,” Chris said, so softly that Johnny had to strain to hear the words. “I had a family, and I lost them, and what wouldn’t I give to have them back . . . Everything I ever wanted, and they’re gone, and from what you’ve said, your father deliberately turned away from that, willing to lose you, and your mother . . .”
“What happened to your family?” Johnny asked, his voice as soft as his friend’s.
For a long moment, he thought Chris wouldn’t answer him, but after a slow sigh, the other man spoke again.
“A fire. I was gone . . . in Mexico, actually, with a friend. The house burned, they were inside. I came home to find them gone, everything . . . gone. Sarah, my wife, and our little boy. Adam.”
“Madre de Dios,” Johnny whispered, shock and horror widening his eyes. “I’m sorry, Chris.”
“Yeah, me too, kid,” Chris said, staring into the fire, “every single goddamn day.” He looked up at Johnny after a long moment. “Your father musta been crazy to do what he did,” he went on in a quiet voice, “but I want you to do something for me someday. I want you to go find him, if he’s still alive, and I want you to talk to him.”
Johnny made a sound of disgust at that, the anger rising again.
“No, wait, hear me out.” He leaned forward and gave Johnny a fierce-eyed stare. “A man can change, Johnny. Maybe he’s realized he was wrong, that he made a big mistake. He’ll never get your mother back, but he could have you.”
“Why would he want me?” Johnny burst out. “If he didn’t before, why would he now? A hired gun? Come on, Chris!”
“You’re his son. He should be proud of you. Any father would. You’re a good man, Johnny Madrid, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. So you think about what I said, think about finding him, all right?”
Why couldn’t you have been my pa? Or my brother. Always wanted a big brother . . . Why couldn’t Murdoch Lancer have been a man like you, Chris Larabee?
“On a cold day in hell,” Johnny muttered, not sure if he was answering Chris or that little inner voice. He glanced up at his friend. “Yeah, all right,” he said reluctantly. “I’ll . . . think about it.”
“Good,” Chris said, nodding. He stood, dumping the remains of his coffee on the fire. “I’m gonna take a walk, stretch my legs a bit. Don’t shoot me when you hear me comin’ in.”
“Give a holler.”
“Okay.” He patted Johnny on the shoulder as he passed by, moving beyond the firelight into the darkness of a summer night.
Johnny drew up his knees and wrapped his arms around them, thinking about Murdoch Lancer and that maybe he should look the old man up someday . . . and put a bullet in him. That’s probably not what Chris had in mind, he thought wryly, when he said to go talk to him . . .
Then he thought about the man out in the darkness, a man who so desperately wanted what Murdoch Lancer had so easily tossed aside, and how that man had walked out in the middle of a dusty street in Nogales, not caring if he lived or died. And he forgot his own anger as he remembered the grief in Chris’ eyes and voice, and he wondered if Murdoch Lancer had ever looked like that in the last fifteen years.
Johnny lost track of the days they spent on the trail. The weather stayed clear and warm, and each day was as perfect as the one before. But he knew that he and Chris would soon be riding their separate ways. It was only a question of who would bring it up first . . .
“You’re awful quiet over there,” Chris said late that afternoon. “Not a word to the horse, not even singing.”
Johnny dredged up a smile. “Just thinkin’ . . . it’s maybe time I moved on. Need ta find some work soon.” There. I brought it up first. Might as well get it over with—no point in lettin’ a wound fester.
Chris let out a breath and nodded slowly. “Yeah, that occurred to me, too. Tryin’ not to think about it, though.” He smiled slightly. “Been havin’ too much fun.”
“Really?” Johnny brightened.
“Yeah, really. Can’t remember the last time I did . . .” He looked away before going on again, and his voice held deep regret when he spoke. “But, like you say, need to find some work. Seein’ as how I’m a gringo gunfighter on the wrong side of the border, and my Spanish hasn’t improved much, well, I think I’m gonna start headin’ back north, Johnny, if you’re interested . . .”
Sorely tempted, Johnny wavered. Then, “Nah,” he drawled, at last, slowly, softly. He tipped his head. “I like the weather here. Don’t care much for the cold in them northern places.”
“Texas or Arizona ain’t exactly what I’d call ‘north.’”
“It’s north enough for me.”
“I see your point. So, what did ya have in mind, kid?”
Johnny gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Heard about some ranchers further south hirin’ guns on for protection. Could be a range war brewin’ up, bound ta be work.”
“Ah, hell, Johnny, don’t go getting yourself mixed up in something like that. Nobody wins, especially the hired help. You’ll get used up like cannon fodder.”
“Man’s gotta make a livin’, Chris.”
“I know, but think about something else, okay? You won’t have anybody watchin’ your back. A man needs a partner going into a game like that.”
“Okay, Pa, I hear ya.” The word just slipped out, teasingly, and Johnny could have shot himself after he heard it. He bit back a gasp, and said, “Chris—”
But instead of the quickly masked expression of loss and grief, Chris Larabee gave him a ghost of a smile and the green eyes danced. “Well, son, the only way I’m actually old enough to be your pa is if you’re fourteen.”
“Not if you’re pushin’ forty.” Johnny grinned back.
Chris shook his head. “I give up. Let’s find a good spot to camp and call it a day.”
“Fine by me.”
That last evening went by all too quickly. It felt the same, but not quite, and everything took on a bittersweet edge. There was so much that Johnny wanted to say, and yet he didn’t know how. He sort of had the feeling, though, that Chris probably knew what it was that he couldn’t put into words.
And so, slightly embarrassed, he pulled from his saddlebag the black shirt he had bought days ago at the general store in Nogales. He’d been carrying it with him all this time, not sure why he hadn’t done anything with it yet. Maybe because he had been planning on giving it to Chris and then riding off without a backwards glance. Johnny winced when he thought about that, how he could have even considered such an act, after all the man had done for him . . .
“Hey, Chris,” he said, clearing his throat awkwardly as the other man looked up from where he sat contemplating the fire.
Johnny stepped closer and held out the shirt. “I . . . I bought ya this, back in Nogales. After I bled all over your shirt. I was gonna give it to ya when . . . when I was leavin’, to say ‘thanks,’ for all ya done.” The words stumbled to a halt when Chris just stared at him.
“You bought me a shirt?”
“Yeah,” mumbled Johnny, “I figured that other one was a goner . . .”
Chris reached up and took the shirt from Johnny’s hand, shaking it out to look at it. Like Johnny’s favored style, it was covered with intricate embroidery at collar and cuffs, but in a kind of silvery thread that stood out against the black.
“Well, damn, Johnny, I’m gonna look like one dangerous pistolero in this. Might have to stay in Mexico after all.”
“Ya like it?”
“Yeah, yeah, I do, kid. Thanks. I’ll always think of you, bleedin’ all over me, every time I wear it.”
“Oh, quit laughin’ at me,” Johnny grumbled, fighting a smile, then laughing himself.
Chris grinned back and folded up Johnny’s gift.
It grew late, they said their goodnights, but sleep eluded Johnny. He lay awake far into the night, listening to crickets and owls, watching the fire burn low, and thinking on how one act could change a man’s life in the blink of an eye.
And then it was morning before he even knew he had fallen asleep. Breakfast was over and done with, the horses were saddled up, and the only difference was that he and Chris weren’t setting out side by side. This just don’t feel right at all, Johnny thought, unhappily. I know it had to come, I truly do, but that don’t mean I have to like it.
Chris finished with tying down his bedroll and mounted up. He gave Johnny a searching glance.
“Are you and that pinto of yours gonna be all right?”
Johnny slapped his hat against his leg. “Chris, I ain’t no kid,” he said, for at least the twentieth time since they’d met. “I can take care of myself. Been doin’ it for a long time now—even before you came along, believe it not. An’ I’m gonna keep on doin’ it after you ride outta here. So quit your worryin’.”
Chris shrugged, as if unconvinced, but he smiled anyway. “Well, seeing as how you’re all of fourteen years old, how can I not worry?”
Johnny rolled his eyes. “Ain’t no fourteen, Larabee. Would you get it through your thick gringo skull that I’m seventeen years old—”
“—an’ I’m damn faster with a gun than you’ll ever be, so maybe you should worry about your own skin instead.” He settled his hat firmly on his head, as though just as firmly putting an end to the conversation.
“Sorry, kid. I guess I’ll just have to keep worryin’ about you whether you want me to or not.” He fell silent, his eyes dropped to his hands on the saddlehorn, and he idly twisted the leather reins back and forth, then looked up again at Johnny as he added, “It’s something that fathers tend to do. And big brothers, too, for that matter.”
“Big brothers, huh?” Johnny smiled at that, a long, slow smile that grew from the inside out, and he thought his heart would surely burst. “An’ good friends?”
Chris smiled. “Yeah, them too.”
“Well then, amigo, we’ll both worry, fair enough? An’ if you ever get across the border again, you come find me.”
“I’ll be sure to do that, Johnny. You watch your back, kid, and stay away from those cantina girls until you’re a little older. No drinkin’, either.”
“Ain’t makin’ any promises,” Johnny repeated, grinning. “How ‘bout you tryin’ to stay outta fights where you’re outnumbered eight to one, all right?”
“No promises,” Chris tossed back at him with a grin of his own. Then he leaned over in the saddle, holding out his hand, and Johnny took it in a brief, fierce grip.
“Well, I might not be there the next time, so try real hard,” Johnny drawled, and added, still smiling, “Vaya con Dios, Chris Larabee.”
“Goodbye, Johnny Madrid.”
With a flick of the reins, Chris swung away, raising his hand in farewell even as Johnny did the same, heading in the opposite direction. Johnny looked back only once, and just caught the last glimpse of his friend as he disappeared over the hills, lost in the shimmering heat of a summer’s day, riding north, riding toward the border.
“Goodbye, Chris. Sure hope we meet up again someday . . .” He grinned and urged the pinto to a gallop. Maybe someday . . .
Epilogue—Some years later
Chris Larabee rode slowly into Four Corners after a long afternoon’s patrol, intent on sitting and drinking and talking (or not) with Vin. It was late spring, the days were growing longer and warmer, and he was looking forward to cutting some of the dust from his throat. The small town had, oddly enough, started to feel like home in the past few months, especially with the presence of the six other men who had stuck together to become an unlikely band of peacekeepers.
After turning his horse over to the care of the livery owner, Chris made his way down the boardwalk to the saloon. As he pushed open the doors of the Standish Tavern, Chris eyed the room and found a couple of the boys already inside. Buck sat at their usual table, long legs stretched out, half a glass of beer in front of him; Ezra, of course, was deeply involved in a poker game. He caught Inez’ attention and she met him at the table with a glass and a bottle. Chris snagged a chair with his foot and sat down to join Buck, gesturing at the tables crowded with a group of rough-looking, trail-hardened men.
“What’s up?” he asked quietly.
“Nothin’ yet,” Buck Wilmington answered. Despite his easy manner, he was keeping a sharp eye on the group of cowboys that seemed to be getting louder with every passing moment. “Vin decided to ride out to Nettie’s earlier, before these fellas showed up. JD’s at the jail, Josiah headed out on patrol a bit ago, an’ Nathan’s out at the Rodriguez place, deliverin’ a baby.”
“All right. That should do it.”
He slouched back in his chair, sipping at the whiskey, listening with half an ear to Buck flirt with the saloon girls but letting most his attention focus on the rowdy gang of cowboys. There was a lot of laughing, conversations tumbling over each other, and suddenly a name leaped out and Chris sat up, drink forgotten.
“ . . . Madrid, yeah, can you believe that?”
Chris strained to hear more. After a moment of trying to shut out the sound of Buck laughing with one of the girls, he slowly stood and eased his way casually a step or two closer as though walking to the bar.
“Never thought he’d go that way,” a big, bearded man was saying, shaking his head. “Figgered it’d be a gunfight, for sure.”
“Too damn fast to die in a gunfight,” another protested. “I seen him once. He was like lightnin’.”
“Always somebody faster, someday,” a third man chimed in knowingly. “Even faster than Johnny Madrid.”
“Well, ain’t like we’re never gonna know now, are we, Mitch? Seein’ as how Madrid got his self put up against a wall an’ shot like a dog.”
Chris was sure the shock must have shown on his face. He lowered his head, fighting against the sudden terrible grief welling up inside him. It couldn’t be true. Johnny Madrid, dead?
Jesus, kid, what the hell were you up to this time? Trying to save another outnumbered underdog?
He got his expression back under control and forced himself to listen to the rest of it.
“Yeah, shot like a dog,” the first man was saying with relish, obviously enjoying the attention of his audience. “Up against a wall, an’ bang! All those rifles firin’ at the same time musta filled that poor son of a bitch with so many holes even his own mama’d have trouble recognizin’ him.”
“If he even had one,” Mitch laughed. “Half-breed piece of shit.”
Chris had heard enough. His hands clenched into fists and all he wanted to do was knock that cowboy on his ass and beat him senseless. Hell, all of them. He took another step toward the table, his hand now on his gun, his fury growing along with his grief.
Then he stopped. He could feel eyes on his back. Buck, probably, and no doubt wondering what the hell was going on. Chris slowly backed off, still angry, still wanting to do some damage, but not willing to start a full-scale brawl in Ezra’s saloon. He had a feeling that Johnny wouldn’t want him to do something that stupid. So he turned around to rejoin Buck, but found he couldn’t sit down with his friend and pretend that nothing had happened.
“Chris?” Buck ventured after a moment. “You all right?”
Chris picked up his glass and tossed down the remaining whiskey, avoided Buck’s concerned gaze, and said, “I’m goin’ out for a bit. Can you and Ezra handle things here?”
“Sure, Chris. We got it covered.” Buck was obviously curious, but Chris was grateful that he refrained from pushing any further.
Chris just nodded, not trusting his voice to say another word. He stalked out of the saloon into the fading daylight, remembering a boy’s bright blue eyes, his quick smile, and an even quicker hand with a gun.
Damn you, Johnny. I ain’t got that many old friends that I can afford to lose any of them. Ah, hell, kid. Were you really seventeen when we met? Did you even make it to twenty?
He paced up and down the darkened streets for what felt like hours, spoiling for a fight, wanting to let loose his anger on the first hapless fool who crossed him, but luck was not with him tonight. Tired, sad, numb, he finally returned to the saloon. Ezra, at least, would still be up, even if it were after hours. Light indeed yet spilled from the doorway, and he let himself in, ready to settle down to get seriously and completely drunk. Ezra and Inez both looked up from behind the bar as he entered, and whatever they saw in his face had Inez bringing over a fresh bottle and a clean glass without a word.
“Thanks,” he said, taking his usual seat. Then he tipped a glance up at her. “A bottle of tequila and another glass, if you please,” he added, very quietly.
She just nodded, and quickly returned with what he requested.
Ezra cleared his throat. “If that is all you require, Mr. Larabee, I believe I shall finish closing up and then retire for the evening.”
“Yeah, thanks, Ezra, I’m good.”
“Hardly,” was the low-voiced aside to Inez as Ezra locked up the doors. But he left Chris alone, counting up receipts, and Inez wiped down tables and the bar before saying her own goodnights to the two men.
Chris just sat and studied the bottle of tequila sitting on the table. He never had developed a taste for the stuff. But Johnny sure seemed to like it. Not that Chris had ever let the kid drink any while Chris was around. Too damn young. Too damn young to be drinkin’, too damn young to be dyin’. He opened the bottle and poured measures into two shot glasses.
He picked up one of the glasses, his mind drifting back to a hot summer’s day in a dusty town across the border, and smiled sadly, remembering.
He remembered not drinking himself into a mindless stupor for two weeks, not falling into the deep, dark well of despair that had claimed him since the deaths of his wife and young son. He remembered the feeling of someone else needing him at a time when he hadn’t really given a damn if the next gunfight got him killed. He remembered laughing, at a time when he didn’t think he’d ever laugh again. Johnny had saved his miserable hide, in more ways than one. Maybe if they’d stuck together longer, he wouldn’t have fallen back into the recurring episodes of violence, of drunken rages and self-pity that had become his life since that horrible day . . . But after those two weeks or so, they had said their goodbyes and ridden their separate trails just because it seemed like the time had come. And for no other reason than that, Chris thought, he rode away and left Johnny on his own, just a kid, despite all his claims otherwise.
Chris hadn’t seen him since. And now that blue-eyed boy was gone . . .
A knock at the door an hour later barely intruded on his thoughts, and he was only half aware of Ezra, still fiddling with the accounts or some such, going to answer it.
“Sorry, Ezra,” came Nathan Jackson’s voice, quiet and tired, “didn’t mean ta disturb ya so late, but I saw the light still on. Sure could use a drink.”
Chris felt the healer’s quick glance touch him, knew he was taking in the odd sight of the two glasses, one in Chris’ hand, and the other sitting on the table across from him, still full.
“My pleasure, Mr. Jackson,” said Ezra. “I hope all is well with Mrs. Rodriguez.”
Chris heard Ezra get up and move to the bar and pour out a glass for the weary healer.
“Thanks.” Nathan said, sighing as he took a seat. “It was a tough one, but yep, she an’ the baby are both doin’ fine.”
Chris glanced up. Neither Ezra nor Nathan was paying him any further attention. Settling back in his chair, he raised the glass to his absent friend, and downed the contents in a swift swallow.
Looks like I’m buying you that drink after all, kid. It was a pleasure to have known you, and I thank you for saving my life. Wish I could’ve been there this time to return the favor.
Goodbye, Johnny Madrid. I’ll miss you, niño.
Chris Larabee carefully put the glass down on the table, rose to his feet, and without a single backward look walked out into the night.