Hauled up from where he slept on a cot by the fire, the boy was evicted from the cabaña like some stray dog.
Johnny was used to this kind of treatment. When he was real small they had done their ‘socialising’ with him still in the room. When he was about five though, his stepfather had surfaced from his mother’s breasts to find blue eyes staring at them. The gambler found that unsettling. He did not like to be watched while taking his pleasure so thereafter, if they were not in two-room accommodation, he threw the boy out. Johnny’s mama protested at first, but she knew not to rile her man; after a few tequilas she soon forgot about her son.
Dusting himself off and rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Johnny stumbled towards the water trough, sluiced his face and drank deep of the cool murky water. Music echoed from the cantina so recently vacated by his mother and the gambler. He could go there to get out of the cold desert air; sneak in through the shanty kitchen at the back to the storage area below the stairs and listen to the men tell tall tales of gunfights, bandidos and great adventures. Alternatively, he could huddle with his blanket against the adobe wall still warm from the daytime sun and try to get some more sleep.
His stomach growled. The cantina then, a chance to scrounge some tamales and beans from the cook or scraps left by a cowboy too drunk to finish his meal.
“Ah, Juanito! Welcome. Your papa has cleaned those hombres out of their hard earned wages so now he and they have retired for the evening to the arms of a woman. Such a large group of vaqueros, amigo—no señoritas left to help clear the tables. I will be here until daybreak without a little help. You help and I feed you, si?”
So Johnny carried plates and glasses out to the scullery, wiped down tables and swept the floor while the old cook washed up and straightened the shack he called a kitchen for the next day.
A few tables were still occupied. Some men too drunk to move lay face down at a debris-littered table in the corner. One lone man leant back in his chair against the wall facing the door, seemingly asleep with legs crossed and his hat over his eyes. Lean, tall and better dressed than most of the cantina’s patrons he somehow stood out.
Johnny withdrew his hand from the near empty glass and turned to the next table. The man moved his position in the chair and rested his hand on the rifle across his lap. A Colt sat low on his hip. This man was no cow puncher. This man made his living with a gun, and unless Johnny was mistaken, he was expecting someone.
The barkeeper motioned Johnny away, watching the gunman warily. When their work was done, he drew Johnny behind the bar for his plate of cold beans and tamales. The boy had just about finished eating when a shadow crossed the doorway.
The gunfighter rose slowly to his feet, set the rifle down and stepped clear, his hands hovering at his side in anticipation. Not one word was spoken as the two men stared each other down with menace and the knowledge of the business that brought them together.
It was all over in a heartbeat. Johnny was unsure who drew first, but two shots rang out and the man in the doorway lay dead on the floor.
Silence. Johnny didn’t dare breathe. The barkeeper, eyes closed, grasped at a rosary around his neck and mouthed soundless words to God.
At last, the first gunman moved. Turning towards the bar he slapped money on the counter.
“Si, Señor.” The barkeeper poured generously and backed away.
Taking up the glass, the gunfighter splashed a little onto his shoulder and downed the rest in one gulp. Blood seeped through his shirt. It had been close. Only a graze but all the same—a split second or a fraction to the left and this man could have been dead too.
Pausing with eyes closed once more, the gunman breathed deep, then opened his eyes, and smiled at the gaping boy and trembling bartender. Adjusting his hat he shouldered his rifle and strode out of the cantina.
Closed doors swung open, spilling half-dressed vaqueros and señoritas onto the balcony. The customers from the other table, no longer in a drunken stupor, jumped to their feet to inspect the body. Awestruck, fearful or relieved, they proclaimed excitedly to each other what they had seen and what they knew about the two men. Some recognised the gunman. Others knew the victim. All would relive the tale of this night for many nights to come. Johnny would remember it forever.
With the events of that night fresh on his mind it was a wonder the boy slept at all, but he did. The barkeep chivvied him from his resting place beneath the bar as the mission bells sounded, calling the children to school.
“Best be going on, Juanito. Your pa will whomp you good if Father Marcos reports you missed your lessons.”
“He ain’t my pa.” Johnny scowled, but sloped off in the direction of the school.
He found the lessons hard. He had come to them late. The gambler and Johnny’s mama had not laid much stress on schooling initially, but then some priest had pointed out that the boy would be more use to the gambler if he could read and write. Since then, whenever they were in a town with a school, be it in English or Spanish, the gambler always insisted he attend.
The gambler was an intelligent man, who knew the importance of knowing what was going on in his world, but asking questions in the border towns was a subtle art and one to be done sparingly. As he could not read well himself, and then only English, he would make Johnny read aloud any poster or broadsheet he came across.
“Read it.” The gambler had shoved a month-old newspaper in front of Johnny only the day before, prodding at a story half way down the first page.
“Improvements at the Fort—Under super… superin…” Johnny had stumbled over the fancy words of The Weekly Arizonian.
“You’re not trying, boy. Sound it out,” the gambler had growled, clouting the boy round the ear. Eventually, after several more swipes, they had managed to read five articles and Johnny had been allowed to escape.
Ironically, reading was one of the few activities Johnny and his stepfather ever did together. Ill-treatment while doing so was an effective incentive for Johnny to try hard at his lessons.
“School keeps him out our way so we can get some sleep in the mornings too,” the gambler explained to a bartender over a beer one evening before it got busy.
As there was no real interest in helping Johnny learn at home and the threesome shifted around a lot, Johnny struggled to keep up with others his own age. He was teased because of it. Johnny was teased for a lot of things: mostly because he was a mestizo, a second class citizen on whichever side of the border they happened to be at the time.
The gambler was an Englishman but not Johnny’s father. He had come to this land from a big city called London.
“Where the rich get richer but the ordinary man gets held down by centuries of tradition—and younger sons get nothing,” lectured the gambler. “My weasel brother got everything when my old man died. Damned if I was going to work under him in that dreary little shop, bowing and scraping to them so called gentlemen. Helped myself to the takings one day and headed for America and adventure.”
The gambler learnt his trade in the bars of Brooklyn and moved west to the saloons and cantinas where he now hoped to make his fortune.
“All we need is to win the stake for a real high roller game in Frisco or Monterey, and our fortunes will be made,” he promised Maria after she had a run in with some local matriarchs. “You’ll dress like a queen—those stuck up bitches will curtsey to you.”
Sober, the gambler was a hard man, but cunning, smooth talking and sophisticated. He genuinely had feelings for Johnny’s mother, and on a good day he was generous to her, wooing her with clothes, perfume and jewellery. Drunk, he was different. Drunk, he was just plain mean.
According to his stepfather, Johnny’s father was a man called Lancer, who had married Maria in a fit of honour when he had found out the pretty Mexican girl he had been bedding for several weeks had fallen pregnant—even took her to his ranch in California to live.
“But that didn’t work out,” the gambler jeered, removing an erotically-engraved silver vesta case from his pocket. Trimming and lighting his cigar, he savoured the image before returning the case to his pocket. “You were just over a year old when I met your mama. By then Lancer had realised a Mex wife and a half-breed brat didn’t fit in with his big-shot-rancher status.”
The gambler laughed, eyes glinting maliciously as he relished the boy’s misery. Maria dressed herself silently in the background.
“Your mama wouldn’t leave you,” he spat, nursing a tumbler of whiskey. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be lumbered with your worthless hide. Mind me and do as you’re told or I’ll rethink the situation.”
Typically after one of these speeches, the gambler would backhand Johnny or evict him from wherever they were staying or both. Johnny would wander the streets, scavenging for food or looking for a place to lie down, until it was safe to return. It had been that way for as long as he could remember.
Johnny hated Lancer almost as much as he hated the gambler, though he didn’t remember him and Maria never spoke of him. Well, that was not quite true, she did once.
“You have your father’s laughing blue eyes, Juanito,” she recalled as her eyes filled with tears. Johnny didn’t feel much like laughing, but he cuddled into the warmth of her body, taking advantage of a comfort so rarely given to her son.
Johnny loved his mama and hated her but not in equal measure. He would sneak into the saloons and watch her sing and dance and sparkle, and long for her to show him as much attention as she showed these strangers and especially the gambler.
On a good day–usually if the gambler was away for a day or so–she would fuss over him as if he were her cherished child, beg his forgiveness and understanding for past neglect and give him whatever he asked for within her power. Occasionally she would stand up for him against the gambler, although Johnny always felt guilty when she did this. Inevitably it would end with the gambler lashing out at her and Johnny both.
On a bad day she would be drunk. She would fly into a rage over the slightest thing or slump over the table morose and unresponsive to Johnny’s attempts to cheer her or care for her. Those days were usually when the gambler was away too, sometimes with another woman or after they had had some kind of argument. When his stepfather returned, it was always Maria who apologised and grovelled for forgiveness. It made Johnny feel dirty and ashamed for her but not of her, never of her—he was a child and whatever her faults, he loved his mama.
Mostly though, his mama was the dark-haired beauty who sashayed around town in colourful dresses drawing the lustful admiration of men and the scorn of women. Seldom seen before noon, Maria thrived on attention. Her laughter floated on the evening breeze as she encouraged men to buy her drinks and sit down to a friendly game of poker with her gambling man. There was little time left to be a mother to her son. Johnny was free as an alley cat to do as he pleased.
Apart from obeying his stepfather without question whenever he was unlucky enough to draw his notice, the only rules Johnny had to abide by were those imposed on him by his ever-changing teachers and indirectly by the parents of his friends. Despite the teasing Johnny was popular. He had a natural charm and impish grin accentuated by blue eyes against olive skin. He was bright, lively and thoughtful. Considering his poor diet, he was also remarkably healthy. Inadvertently, the gambler had taught him the value of not allowing himself to be riled by name calling and such like. He went into a fight clear headed and learnt by standing his ground, he gained respect.
“Vete al diablo!”
Three to one or against older, bigger boys he often came off worst in schoolyard scraps, but after the initial testing out he usually made friends with his tormentors—at least on a superficial level. They moved about too much for any lasting friendship.
Not infrequently he was invited home for a meal, and at those times learnt what was expected in a more normal household—wash up before supper, be on time, no cussing at the table and say grace before you eat. He would revel in the playful chidings mothers gave their children and yearn for the discipline derived from affection he witnessed when his friends broke the rules. He could not have put it into words, but he hungered for the love of a father.
Although it gave him as much pain as pleasure, Johnny seemed drawn to good people. He learned from them what family life should be. He was drawn to their warmth like a moth to a flame, and like a moth was frequently burnt. In his young mind he reasoned it was somehow his fault that his mother did not show him more affection, that he was spurned by his real father and abused by his stepfather. He was always surprised and suspicious of kindness shown to him, but once accepted, generally returned that kindness tenfold as if a kindness to someone as worthless as him should be rewarded in some way. It was a matter of honour to return a favour however freely given. On one level he believed the gambler and the priests when they told him he was undeserving, a sinner, unlovable by any decent person, and yet he still retained an inner confidence, an innate sense of right and wrong, and a fierce determination for justice for others if not himself.
Johnny emerged from his lessons hungry and as no offer of a meal presented itself from elsewhere he headed back to the one-room adobe cottage he shared with his parents, gathering sticks for the fire along the way. The gambler was out but his mother was prettifying herself in front of the mirror. Something smelling unusually good wafted from the cooking fire and the table was set for two.
Maria stopped preening long enough to kiss and hug her son in greeting.
“Fetch water from the well while I get you something to eat.”
She ladled stew from the pot hung over the fireplace onto a tin plate, added a thick slice of bread and handed it to him with a large glass of milk.
“Take your food outside Johnny and eat quickly, mi hijo. I need to speak with your stepfather privately, so take yourself off somewhere and don’t come back until we have left for the cantina.”
Sitting on the ground out back Johnny savoured this treatment and this extraordinary meal. Once finished he cleaned the plate by licking it, left it by the door and headed off to his secret place enjoying the feeling of a full stomach.
It was quite a distance out of town but that was an advantage for his purposes. He had hidden something there when they had first arrived, something he smuggled from town to town amongst his mother’s trunks, wrapped in sacking so no casual inspection would detect it. He intended to practise undisturbed.
The events of the night before were still fresh in his mind. Falling to his knees before a small cairn of rocks, he moved one aside and retrieved a gun belt. The Colt was far from new but Johnny kept it polished and well-oiled. He had come by it two years earlier after a saloon brawl had turned nasty. Its previous owner was not going to miss it, and for some time the boy had wanted to learn how to shoot properly. He could protect his mother and himself from the gambler on a bad day if he was skilled with a gun. People, even the gambler, respected men who could draw fast and aim true.
The gambler was good with a handgun, and it had been he who first taught Johnny how to use a revolver. Johnny had been only seven years old, barely big enough to hold the gun straight with two hands. From then on, he had regularly stood guard while the gambler cleared his winnings from the table. Backing out of the cantina together to where Maria waited with the horses, the gambler would grab the boy up behind him and gallop away with Johnny’s back shielding his own from any gunfire.
Although sure that his stepfather did not know about the Colt, Johnny noted that the gambler did not enlist his services for this purpose any more. Instinct must have told him that the boy now felt more hate than fear towards him. While Johnny was not naive enough to think himself yet a real threat to his stepfather, the gambler was wise not to trust him. If the circumstances were right, Johnny would certainly disobey his orders.
Johnny had been a realist even at ten when he had acquired the gun. He could not immediately hope to be fast at the draw when he was too small even to wear the gun belt, but he had reasoned that he could learn to shoot at speed holding the gun in one hand, perfect his aim and he would eventually grow into the belt. He had been practising regularly ever since with pleasing results.
Emptying his left pocket he began to load bullets stolen from the dead man’s belt into his own gun and belt, keeping what he had taken from the two drunks in his right pocket. He left the belt on the ground, but stuck the revolver through his trouser belt. He placed random objects along the back of a log and stepped back to shooting position. Next he tied a rag around his left hand giving it some protection from the hammer. One day he would get himself a soft leather glove like a real pistolero.
Six shots rang out in quick succession and the objects on the log danced into the air one by one. Not bad. He thought he had hit the can a little off centre, but he had managed to shoot the bottle through its neck and he was pleased about that. He set up new targets, reloaded and tried again.
After his third attempt he walked back over to the gun belt and picked it up. He held it against his hips and pondered a moment. He hadn’t tried it on for several months; just maybe he had grown some.
First returning the Colt to its holster, he undid the buckle and wrapped the belt round his lean frame. Still loose enough to slip off with encouragement but better than before and there was surplus strap without holes—just maybe. Undoing the buckle again he laid the belt out on a flat rock and rummaged in his pockets until he found what he needed. Picking up a hard stone he rammed the nail through the leather at the farthest point possible for it to buckle.
This time when he put the belt on, it held firm, and with a smile he bent to tie the leather lace low on his leg like the gunfighter’s had been. Sure, it all felt overly large, but it was a start. He could now practise his draw, and he did so methodically without shooting until the shadows lengthened and he knew it was time to head back to town.
Johnny sang to himself as he walked home. Dusk was fast melting into night and he felt certain his mother and stepfather would have left for the cantina before he reached the cabaña. Maybe there would be some of that stew left in the pot and still a little milk. He would help himself to more if it was there and snuggle down on the straw tick near the fire for an early night. If he was really lucky, the matter Maria had wanted to talk about in private would have been good news and the couple would celebrate by staying the night in one of the better rooms above the cantina.
Such happy imaginings were dashed as he neared the house. He could hear raised voices and the gambler was angry.
“I won’t keep saying it, Maria. Get rid of it!”
“It will be all right, mi amor. It’s all arranged. Johnny and I can go to my cousin, Luisa. We will soon be back.”
“You will be away months. You can’t sweet-talk customers in that state, and one brat to feed is enough. Get rid of it!”
“Please … you know I cannot. It is a … a sin.”
“Sin! What are you talking about woman? We live ‘in sin’. Catholic bullshit, Maria—it’s never worried you before.”
“But this is different … I can’t do such a thing … I won’t ....”
“You stupid bitch! If you won’t get rid of it, I’ll do it for you.”
Maria screamed as she collapsed to the floor.
Johnny ran through the rear door in time to see the gambler aim a vicious kick to his mother’s belly. He hurled himself at her attacker, but the big man shook him off, threw the boy hard against the far wall and turned back to his business. Before he could make sure of the job, however, Johnny was up and had crashed a chair across his stepfather’s back.
Knocked forward, the gambler regained his footing quickly and took a last pained look at Maria before turning the full force of his anger on her son. Grabbing the boy, he lifted him high and smashed him against the wall. Johnny crumpled to the floor and lay temporarily stunned as the gambler stood over him unbuckling his belt.
“Time you learned your place, boy.”
He got stuck in with sadistic fervour, buckle end. Johnny cowered against the adobe, arms over his head for protection.
“Stop … Leave him!” Maria gasped. Blood trickled from beneath her skirts. Using the table to pull herself upright, she staggered and lunged for the gambler’s arm. He shoved her roughly away and she stumbled back, tripping on the rag rug.
There was an audible crack as her head hit the hearth.
When Father Marcos and the three townsmen entered the cabaña an hour later they found the woman and Johnny lying side by side, the boy’s head resting on his mother’s breast, his arm across her body. Strong arms lifted them up: one cold to the touch; the other tear stained, bruised and bloody but still breathing.
It was an accident. There was no one to say otherwise. No one with any power cared enough or was brave enough.
Two days later the gambler and Johnny stood either side of the grave, heads bowed, as Maria’s body was lowered into the ground and the padre prayed for her eternal soul. After the short service the gambler drew Father Marcos aside.
“I don’t want the boy. He’s Maria’s brat not mine. He’s big enough now to work. You find him a job with one of the rancheros or in the town. I’ll leave him the mule. There is enough in here to buy him some decent boots and a hat. The rest is yours for your trouble.”
Father Marcos accepted the small purse from the gambler with a nod, and the gambler mounted his horse. He turned the mare back to where Johnny stood silently watching dirt being shovelled over the canvas shroud below.
“Well boy, this is where we part company. The padre will find you work.”
He paused as the blue eyes met his own. No tears, no fear, no child—just hate.
“One day I will kill you. I will kill you for what you did to Mama.”
The gambler studied Johnny thoughtfully, touched his hand to his hat in acknowledgement and rode away.
Johnny did not stay long in the town. A gang of drovers heading north to a new job passed through only a day later. The trail boss owed Father Marcos a favour and agreed to take Johnny with them.
“What do I call you?”
“Johnny … Johnny Madrid.”
A man needed a last name but not Lancer, not the name of a man who didn’t want him, and definitely not the name of the man who had caused his mother’s death. Madrid was a name he had heard in school, a proud name of Spanish origin and he thought it sounded well. With second-hand boots on his feet, a cheap but new hat on his head and his few clothes bound around the sack-encased gun belt, Johnny abandoned his old life, mounted the aged mule and followed the trail boss across the border.
On the trail Johnny cared for the men’s horses, collected wood for the fire, made coffee and mended tack. Upon their arrival at their destination he was set to sweeping and fetching and carrying duties by the ranch owner, but was eventually provided with a horse and saddle and allowed to work with the cattle and horses. He had learned to ride very young and had a gift with horses, but this was a cattle ranch. It was not long before he became a competent wrangler and despite his age was soon accepted by the other men.
He was a hard worker, but he was not used to routine and ran afoul of his bosses on more than one occasion for disappearing.
“Where ya bin?”
“Don’t give me lip, boy. Ya ain’t paid to be ‘around’; ya paid to be wherever I say ya to be,” barked the segundo. “I want ya up the valley clearin’ the stream of debris. And, ya best be there workin’ when I ride up later. Now git.”
Regular food and strenuous work added to the physical changes nature brought to the youth. He began to wear the gun belt. It still looked clumsy and large on him but no longer did it buckle on its last make-shift hole. The other men were mildly amused to see him wear it not realising there was more to the gun belt than just show or scaring cattle. For some reason Johnny continued to practise in private and was shy of demonstrating just how good he had become.
“Careful ya don’t trip over that gun, Johnny boy,” chafed one of the cowboys, cuffing him playfully over the head. “Looks mighty heavy for a string-bean like you.”
“Leave him alone, Clay,” laughed another. “If he can lift it without shootin’ himself, it sure does help move those dogies along.”
Indians and rustlers were a constant problem for the border ranches, and this ranch was no exception. In addition to the general ranch hands the rancher employed men who were skilled with a revolver and rifle to protect his stock and drovers. Johnny was naturally drawn to these men, and although he was wary of giving too much about himself away, his obvious interest in weaponry lead to some of the gunhawks teaching him how to use a rifle. They were impressed at how quickly he picked it up. His speed and accuracy after only a few months equalled their own. The headman was already thinking he might ask the boss for a change of duties for the lad when events overtook the request.
Johnny was driving cattle to fresh water with another wrangler when his proficiency with a handgun finally became known. A rattlesnake spooked the other man’s horse and he fell only a few inches from the hissing reptile. The terrified drover thought he was a goner when three shots rang out in quick succession, propelling the snake into the air. It hit the ground in pieces. The hired gun on guard had turned when the horse reared, and witnessed the whole scene. He galloped up as Johnny returned his Colt to its holster. Climbing down from his horse and examining what remained of the snake, he looked up at the boy in amazement.
“Whooee! That was some shootin’, boy! You’re wasted on drovin’.”
The head gun took Johnny under his wing after that. On the quiet, he tested the boy’s skill with revolver and rifle, and kept him close. Johnny had exceptional talent for someone so young. Mac Dawson knew if that became generally known Johnny would face challenges from other gunfighters before his time. The lad was too young in Mac’s opinion to turn killer.
Mac himself was a gunfighter on the right side of the law. There were many who were not. Mac encouraged Johnny to get even better with a gun, but more than that he reinforced the notions of right and wrong and pride in one’s trade. He recognised the hate and the hurt that lay behind those blue eyes, and although he never attempted to discover their origin or to be anything more than a boss, he did what he could to steer Johnny in a better direction than many with his background would follow. The names of elite gunfighters were legendary, some lawmen, some outlaws and some walked the line in between, but those that lived longest were generally those who won a reputation without hitting the bottom.
“Ya don’t want to be no two-bit hustler with an itchy finger,” Mac said. “Sooner or later them sort’ll turn outlaw, sure as eggs. A man good at his trade though, now he earns respect. Skill always earns respect, Johnny.”
The boy nodded, chewing a blade of grass thoughtfully as he listened.
“There’s a difference between killin’ in self-defence because ya got a job to do and killin’ for the fun of it—animals!” growled Mac, spitting on the ground to show his disgust. “As for back-shooters— Well, they ain’t even got the right to call themselves men if ya ask me.”
Killing a man was not something to take lightly, according to Mac, and putting yourself in harm’s way was not something to be entertained unless you were well paid for doing so. With that in mind he negotiated more money for the young gunfighter, and with it Johnny was soon able to buy himself a new gun and belt, one that fit snug on his hip. He matched it with a kid leather glove and later a rifle of his own.
When it came time to drive the herd to the railhead, Johnny was among the guns that rode guard on the high ground. Shortly before they reached their destination they were attacked by bandits, who tried to cut a group of steers from the main herd. Gunshots were fired on both sides. Johnny aimed to kill as he had been taught. It was inevitable that eventually a man would die by his bullet. In the thick of the fight, he did not have time to think about it, but when it was all over he stood over the body feeling numb and slightly nauseated. It had to be done and Johnny did not regret doing it, but he got no pleasure from it either. He was still only thirteen years old.
When Mac and a few of the other men decided to move on Johnny went with them. Mac had been offered a sheriff’s job further west in California and there were several large estates in the vicinity where he felt certain his best men could find regular employment. He was tired of the dirt and dust of the cattle drives, and constant travelling, but he still felt responsible for the welfare of these men he had led for so long, especially this troubled, dangerous youth.
Johnny and the others found work easily on a wealthy estancia south of town. The segundo was initially doubtful about the boy-gunfighter, but a small demonstration of skill soon convinced him, and he was set to his duties like the rest.
This was one of the happiest times Johnny could remember. The camaraderie of men, many of them with similar backgrounds to his own, and regular meals went along way to helping him settle to his new life. In addition to gun practice and work over the next year he learnt how to drink and cuss more colourfully, break horses and play the guitar. He kissed his first girl, a blacksmith’s daughter who slapped his face for his trouble. He bought a saddle of his own and his first horse, a sturdy little pinto with a mischievous nature. On his fourteenth birthday the men ponied up and bought him a night with the prettiest little saloon girl that side of the border.
They had been in the area about eleven months when the bank was robbed. Sheriff Mac Dawson mounted a posse and Johnny joined the riders. They tracked the robbers over two counties and finally cornered them in a box canyon. The thieves climbed high up into the rocks and shot down upon the posse. Mac waved at Johnny to go wide.
“Climb up and try to get behind them.”
He tried to do the same on the other side and the others drew fire from below. A fraction before Mac could take proper aim one of the robbers turned and blasted him at close range with a rifle. Johnny was splattered with Mac’s blood as instinctively he shot the robber dead, wounding another man before the rest of the posse scrambled up to take the surrender of those remaining.
The deputy and other men amongst the posse rounded up the outlaws and bound them to their saddles for the return journey. With care they carried Mac’s body down the hill and tied it to his horse so they could take it back to town for burial.
“You comin’, Johnny?” the deputy called up to the outcrop where the youth still stood.
“Suit y’self.” With a shrug, he mounted up and turned for home.
Johnny did not follow. He backed against a rock hugging himself in an attempt to stop shaking as he stared at where the two men had lain dead, one at close quarters by his hand and one his only real friend. Long after the others had ridden off he finally relaxed his embrace, climbed back down to his horse and rode away in the opposite direction.
For several months Johnny drifted from town to town, crisscrossing the border, picking up work where he could find it; a week here, a month there, never staying too long. He guarded cattle drovers and wagon trains, and defended or made mayhem for men with money but not necessarily ethics.
Eventually he was taken on by a powerful cattle baron involved in a range war outside of Santa Fe, and settled in for a longer stint. He was just one of many young men handy with a gun employed to wreak havoc on the farmers and smaller landowners, who threatened this man’s empire with their fences and irrigation dams and general disregard for his word of law.
“I built this land, broke it and built it. No sodbuster, sheepherder or know-nothing city-slicker has a right to threaten my livelihood.”
The rancher was determined to drive the new settlers out, and they in turn were determined to stay with the help of some of their larger, more established neighbours. The medium-size landowners saw an alliance with their weaker counterparts as a means of breaking the cattle baron’s iron grip on the area. They were willing to compromise a little if it helped achieve that goal.
The tactics of range war fascinated Johnny. It wasn’t just shooting at the enemy or playing the thug, although there was more than an element of that; it was also playing with their minds by disrupting daily life and setting friend against friend through clever manipulation of events and perception.
“Cut that fence right there, boy, and we’ll go up on the hill and watch the fun," one of the more experienced gunhawks instructed. By mid-afternoon half the herd was visiting the neighbour’s property, and the two ranchers were cussing at each other, one accusing the other of stealing his stock and damaging his property, and the other complaining of losing his grazing and precious water.
Damming a stream could destroy a crop in days. Burn a barn, foul wells, take pot shots at cattle, ‘accidentally’ shoot someone or simply put on a show of strength and the hired guns could cause fear and disharmony out of all proportion to their number with minimal risk of being put in danger themselves. Of course Johnny was the novice at all this, but he closely observed the main players and the strategies they employed, and assessed the results. Patience and planning were, it seemed, often far more effective weapons than a full on attack, though that too had its place. Essentially it was pack law with interesting twists—only the most powerful, clever and quick-witted would survive. What was required did not always sit well with Johnny’s conscience, but it was what he signed up for. No better life presented itself, so he ran with the pack.
That was until the day he heard the news that a gambling man had arrived in Santa Fe.
“Big man, a bit fancy like—fold—Speaks with an accent, but I ain’t gonna hold that against him,” said a young gunhawk, scratching his whiskers. “Real friendly like—gave me one of his cigars. He has this real interestin’ match safe with a naked lady and a man on it.”
“Yeah, that was special that was,” grinned a wrangler lewdly. “They weren’t just holdin’ hands all virtuous—doing stuff if you know what I mean?”
“Rather not think ‘bout it this far off Saturday night,” smirked his friend. “But I’m up for another game. Let me in with only two dollars last time. Won two more right off. I’ll have a larger stake next time—Check.”
“Raise a quarter. He bought us boys a few drinks to start off the evenin’—real gent.”
Johnny called and laid his hand face down. Getting up to refill his mug with coffee, he listened intently to everything being said behind him over the bunkhouse table. Images from his past flickered through his mind.
“What’s up with you, kid? Gone quiet on us all of a sudden. Thought you’d be interested in a chance to win a few dollars.”
“I am. Will he still be in town next Saturday?”
“Says he likes Santa Fe,” replied the gunhawk. “Plans to stick around.”
Johnny rode into town the next day. Positioning himself where he could see the saloon entrance but not be seen, he waited and he watched. Eventually just before six o’clock the gambler appeared. He was a little greyer than when Johnny had last seen him but still every inch the man he once knew.
Having made sure it was the gambler, Johnny left town again. He did not turn up for work the next day or the day after that or the day after that. When he next rode into Santa Fe, his purpose consumed his thoughts. Radiating an aura of danger, Johnny directed his horse slowly towards the saloon as townsfolk fell silent and stepped back into doorways.
Absalom Weir was a gambling man, gunman and opportunist of great skill. He had come to Santa Fe to play cards, fleece a few willing victims and then move on, but he found one of his own kind, equally skilled and equally dangerous already in situ. He was in no mood to fight over or share the takings so he decided to stay only one night and ride on to the next town. He would entertain himself for the evening being an observer of human nature. He would study the strategies of the other man from the safety of a corner table at the back of the saloon.
The gambler was good. In Absalom’s estimation very good indeed, not just at the handling of the cards but in the way he played his audience. He lacked Absalom’s own finesse, his own taste for detail, but there was no mistaking a master at work. Smooth and friendly for the most part, lulling the naive into a false sense of security, he showed he could rob a greenhorn of his winnings and his wages in only one hand. When the unfortunate sucker got angry, the gambler moved with seeming casualness to prove the firearm on his hip was there for more than just show, and the young man’s friends wisely pulled him away and out into the warm night air.
More men came and went from the table. Most left with something; less than they came with but the hope of better luck the following night. The gambler was like a fisherman playing with his quarry—he would allow the line to run out and then reel it slowly back in. Occasionally he would let one escape for appearances or because of the promise of greater profits another day. Mostly he would take his victims down bit by bit, allow them to win a hand or two and then take them for twice as much in the next hand. Once or twice he went for the jugular, quick and clean. The whole performance appealed to Absalom’s macabre sense of humour; as a professional he found it quite beautiful to watch.
The evening was drawing near its end when the youth entered the room. He could not be more than fifteen yet he carried himself like he was several years older and skilled at his trade. There was no doubt in Absalom’s mind what that trade was, nor that the young man was about to demonstrate it with the gambler as his chosen adversary. Absalom picked up his cane and shifted his chair further back into the shadows to watch. Perhaps he would be staying in Santa Fe after all.
Johnny stepped through the swing doors and stopped halfway between them and the gambling table. The gambler was seated facing the doorway his back towards the wall as usual. He glanced up briefly, but did not immediately recognise the new arrival. It had been three years since they had parted, and Johnny had changed in appearance and demeanour. The gambler continued to study his hand. Johnny waited.
Silent, still and watchful, he began to make others in the room nervous. A few made a quick exit and saloon girls disappeared with their customers behind almost-closed doors. The bartender put the whiskey under the counter and edged himself into a protective recess, and the remaining card players chose to fold and move away from the table. The gambler shuffled the cards and began to lay them out one by one. Johnny stood motionless, his gaze fixed on the man before him, but still his stepfather did not look up. As always the gambler appeared calm and in control.
“Do you have a name?”
“Madrid … Johnny Madrid.”
“And what may I do for Mr Johnny Madrid?” The gambler leaned back in his chair and for the first time took a good look at his visitor.
“You,” he gasped in surprise, and a glimmer of unease showed in his eyes.
“I made you a promise. I’ve come to fulfil it.”
“You can try.”
“Any time you’re ready.”
The gambler eyed Johnny up and down slowly, and smiled.
“Get out, boy. Come back when you older. I am in no mood to teach you a lesson tonight.”
The gambler rose from his chair, keeping his hands well clear and visible. He made to gather his winnings, but in an instant went for his gun.
Two shots rang out.
The gambler and Johnny stood facing each other, guns smoking. Slowly, slowly one began to slump to the side, one arm reaching out in vain for support, the other now hanging loosely by his side. His fingers lost grip of his firearm and with a look of astonishment on his face the gambler crumpled to the floor.
Johnny stared grimly down upon his victim, the fear that had coursed unseen through him only moments before now dissipated into numbness. Justice had been done. Holstering his Colt he turned to the bar.
A large measure was pushed respectfully across as the whispering in the background began. Johnny downed the liquid in one gulp and paused, eyes closed as if in prayer. Tossing a coin on the bar he calmly strode out of the saloon, mounted his horse and rode away.
Wranglers and saloon girls emerged from their hiding places. The barkeeper retrieved the gambler’s winnings and dragged the body away. Absalom Weir returned to his hotel to extend his stay, and the storytelling began. The legend of Johnny Madrid was born.