(With thanks to my betas Terri Derr and Suzanne Lyte)
(2016 – Words: 13,184)
Johnny bit the cotton and admired his handiwork. His hiding gun fit snugly into its new home.
“You playin’, kid, or you still mendin’ your drawers?”
Johnny glanced over his shoulder. Moses Lloyd was undoing his rig at the living end of the bunkhouse while Bronco and Stevens, two of the cowboys they’d escorted back from the line shack, were pouring coffee.
“No money ‘til pay day. I’m flat broke.”
“You want to pace yourself, boyo. Too many wag-tails in one night will ruin you for when you find a real woman.” Taking his seat, Lloyd tapped ash from his stogie into an old tin can and checked what he had in his pockets. “I owe you something for hoodwinking Old Lucifer’s men last week. I’ll stand you a couple of dollars. You can pay me back on Saturday.”
“Yeah? Thanks.” Sticking the needle back into the leather, Johnny rolled up his sewing kit and stashed it at the bottom of his saddlebag. He shimmied into his trousers, making sure his long johns didn’t bunch. There wasn’t much room to spare in calzoneras for underwear, but it sure beat chafing. He could feel the solid weight of the Philadelphia Deringer against his back as he tightened his belt. This would be a good test; see if anyone noticed. He sauntered over and grabbed a stool to sit on. “What we playing?”
“Poker. These two play like shit. Hope you know an ace from a jack.”
“You wait, old man. I’m going to clean you out.” Bronco picked up his cards and cupped them away from prying eyes.
Johnny checked his hand. He could already tell what Bronco’s was like. Watching hundreds of games of poker and faro as a youngster had some advantages. Reading people and memorizing cards had become second nature. With luck, by the end of the evening, he’d be able to pay Lloyd back and win enough money to wet his whistle until the end of the week. Then when the boss coughed up another week’s pay, he might really enjoy a sporting girl or two. In the meantime, he was happy. The gun he’d bought last pay day was stashed neatly in its pocket and no one at the table had caught on it was there.
An hour or so later he was on a winning streak. He’d given Lloyd his stake money back and was building a respectable stack of copper and silver on the table next to him.
“Make some room, gents.” Caleb Poole hitched his rig to the hook next to his bunk and carried a chair over to the table. He placed it down backwards, then swung a leg over and planted himself on top, a huge grin on his face.
“What you so goddamned happy about?” Lloyd shuffled the pack and began to deal. “You and Kearney should’ve been back hours ago.”
“There’s a gambling man in town.” The wrangler, Kearney, spat his tobacco on the floor and sat down too. “Right friendly.”
“More important, I reckon he’s over the hill.” Poole sorted his cards and frowned. “Let me in the game with only two dollars, and I won two more right off. I would’ve cleaned him out if I could’ve stayed.”
Leaning on one elbow, Johnny tossed a quarter into the pot. He smirked behind his hand. Yeah, right, a cardsharp who ain’t no good at cards.
“He was a real gent about losing. Offered us both cigars. Said we could join his table anytime.” Poole scratched his ribs as Bronco and then Kearney folded. “See you.”
Stevens called too, and Lloyd did the same. “Holy shit, boyo. Leave some for the rest of us.”
Johnny grinned. He picked up the coins from the middle of the table and started a new stack. “Beginner’s luck.” He’d have to slow down. Didn’t want to get on the bad side of the man who decided if he rode in a dust bath kicked up by beeves or had a little fun outsmarting the other cattle baron’s hired guns. This was the biggest range war Johnny had ever been part of. He’d kept his head down the first few weeks, but now he was getting into the swing of things. He learned one thing early: the owner of Oakridge ordered the regular hands around plenty, even though he had a foreman, but he didn’t divvy up the chores to the gunhawks. That was Holy Moses’s job.
Poole picked up his new cards. “We’ve a mind to go back to the Silver Dollar Saturday after we get our wages. You coming, kid?”
They were only playing for nickels and dimes. There’d be dollars on Saturday. Now he’d let the cat out of the bag that he could play, it couldn’t do no harm. It could be a chance to win some real dinero. “Maybe.”
“He’ll come. They all will.” Kearney waggled his eyebrows and showed off tobacco-stained teeth. “They’ll want a look-see at that fancy doodad.”
“I reckon.” Poole snickered and began to scratch his whiskers. Something moved in the stubble. “The old speeler gave us a light see, and let me tell you that match safe of his weren’t no ordinary box.”
“Whooee, the picture on it would make a preacher horny. This fella and jezebel: butt naked and belly-bumping.” Kearney grabbed his crotch and heehawed like a jackass. “Dang, if Saturday ain’t a long way off.”
Most of the men at the table laughed up a storm with Kearney, demanding more details and making crude comments. Johnny just stared at his cards. A banked-up fire flared deep down in his gut. Only one cardsharp owned a trinket like that.
Johnny folded with a queen high straight. “I need to take a piss.”
He got up from the table and went out back. The outhouse was clear across the yard. Too far for the way he was feeling so he watered the tree behind the barn instead.
“Damn!” Johnny smashed his hand against the rough bark of the tree and then sucked the heel of it. He’d been doing okay. He didn’t need this now. But was it him?
When he came back in, he went over to the stove in the corner and poured a mug of coffee. Poole and Kearney were still yammering.
“Mighty big fella for a cardsharp.” Kearney was dealing. He was making a real chore of it. Hell, the pack was near new when they started; the way he was handling them cards Johnny would soon be able to tell what was what from the creases on the back. “Don’t talk American. Probably got that doodad from wherever he comes from. I ain’t seen nothin’ like it in these parts afore.”
“Dresses like a Mississippi gambler. He’s like Lloyd, I reckon; been here awhile.”
“Did you see the iron on his hip?”
“Yep, but I betcha he don’t know how to use it. Fellas like him are all show.”
Johnny sipped his coffee. Poole was a fool. How he ever stayed alive as a gunhawk was a mystery.
The more Johnny heard though, the more certain he became. It had to be his man. It had to be.
He returned to the table, but a strange thrumming filled his head, making it difficult for him to follow play. When he tossed out the wrong card, he decided to call it quits.
Lying on his bed, staring up at the bunk above, he tried to slow down his thoughts. He breathed in and out and in again. Was it him? Was he ready? Would there be another chance?
The others were snoring well before he fell asleep. He didn’t need a blanket. The fire inside him was roaring.
He was still warm with it when the first rays of sunlight filtered through the grime and cobwebs on the bunkhouse windows. In his dreams he’d made up his mind; he needed to know for sure if the cardsharp in Santa Fe was his gambler. Creeping outside with boots, rig and saddlebags in hand, he helped himself to food and ammunition from the ranch stores and was long gone by the time the sun topped the hills.
Santa Fe was dead when he rode in. The town didn’t start hustling until after ten, but that was all right. It gave him time for some breakfast and more thinking. He changed some of his small coins for dollars at the eating house and scavenged a few empty tin cans from the barrel out back. Then he asked around a little. He was ready and in position by noon. If the gambler was true to form he’d put in an appearance at the saloon for a late breakfast and an afternoon’s sport.
Sure enough as Johnny watched from the stagecoach office opposite, a tall man in a black suit, string tie and satin waistcoat crossed the street from the hotel to the Silver Dollar saloon. His silver cufflinks glinted in the sunlight against a starched white shirt as he tipped his hat to a couple of ladies of the line jawing by the hitching rail outside. One of them followed him in.
The son-of-a-bitch hadn’t changed much. Not as mountainous as Johnny remembered him, but heck, Johnny had grown some. The gambler was greyer, maybe. He still dressed all high-falutin’—those boots must have set him back a fortune. And what was with that pearl handled piece on his hip? Shit, that dunderhead Poole needed to open his eyes. No cardsharp past his prime could afford a rig like that, and he wouldn’t wear it that low slung if he didn’t know how to use it. He’d have a Deringer in his pocket and a knife in his boot, and that particular cardsharp sure as hell didn’t just use the knife for scraping dirt out from under his nails. Johnny had seen the bastard stab a man’s hand clean through just because the loud-mouth cowboy had tried to take back his money.
Johnny slipped out of the doorway as the batwings of the saloon swung shut. He’d seen enough. Poole and Kearney reckoned the gambler would be here until Saturday at least. It seemed likely. Throw out bait to the cowpunchers, pen-pushers and ten-dollar-a-day men during the week, and then relieve them of their wages on Saturday. Move on quick if there was any trouble or do it all again the following pay day if things stayed quiet. Johnny knew how the rattlesnake worked.
He also knew that one ruckus and the gambler could up-root and leave town without notice. Johnny might not get another chance.
He made camp by a creek a mile east of town and wasted no time getting down to business. His pinto gazed at him with steady brown eyes as he walked back from setting up targets: tin cans, rocks and pieces of broken branch.
Johnny rubbed the horse’s ears and offered him a handful of oats from his saddle bag. “It’s all right, Pícaro. Might get a little noisy, but I’m just practising.”
He practised hard for three days, straight shooting and on the move, every which way. He even practised shooting with the Deringer—not that he expected to need it for this, but you never knew. The fire in his belly burned hot. At night he dreamed, and in the morning the embers burst back into flame as soon as he awoke. The devil’s face looked back at him from every target. He thought of nothing else.
Was he good enough? Only a fool or a pistolero at the top of his game did what Johnny was aiming to do. But he’d made a promise and he figured to keep it.
Do or die, he’d only get one chance.
Johnny rode into Santa Fe from the south late-Saturday afternoon. He’d ride out the same way, and he’d been checking his route. He waited patiently to let the stagecoach pass. The street narrowed on the outskirts of town between the smithy and the wainwright’s yard. Wagons and carts spread out into the road from Grover Pendleton’s shed. It was a wonder the townsfolk didn’t complain. But then again maybe they had.
In his first week in the area Johnny had found out he and the wainwright had something in common; neither one of them was much good at following orders they didn’t agree with. Holy Moses had taught Johnny a lesson in trusting experience, but Pendleton…heck, maybe that was the point, the old codger was so ancient he had more experience than anyone.
Poole and the other men from the ranch wouldn’t get into town for an hour or two, but it was well before the gambler stopped for his supper. The bastard would be skimming the cream from the respectable businessmen at the moment, the men with little women and children at home. They’d be expected through the door by six thirty, but who was to know if they’d snuck off work early to chance their luck? Witnesses were good, and there’d be enough of them without fellas he knew getting in the way.
As he got nearer to the centre of town, Johnny slowed Pícaro to a walk. The pinto seemed to sense his mood and fell into a steady pace. Johnny sat upright, holding the reins high, focusing on the road ahead as he tried to ignore the churning inside. He felt eyes follow him. He heard a low whistle as he passed the livery. Doors shut quickly on either side of the street, and a fancy Dan grabbed his missus and pulled her into the General store. “Don’t argue with me, Maud.”
The Silver Dollar was in sight when he saw the barber next door scurrying away toward the sheriff’s office.
Damn, he’d forgotten the town had hired a new sheriff. Billings or Bilson—something like that. With luck, he’d stay out of it.
The street was clear by the time Johnny reached the hitching post, and there was no sign of the sheriff. Johnny tied Pícaro to the rail in a way that made for an easy escape. Dang it if it wasn’t that bastard who’d taught him how to do it.
A piano was playing when he entered the saloon. He paused and looked around as the bat wings swung closed behind him. The barkeeper was washing glasses in an enamel basin on planks stretched between two barrels at the end of the bar. Three bored-looking saloon girls gossiped on the balcony above, leaning against the balustrade. The saddle tramps chowing down at a barrel in the centre of the room must be broke.
And what do you know—there were two gambling men in town.
One was in a back corner reading the Santa Fe Gazette. Not dressed as fancy as the other but still recognisably a cardsharp or trickster of some kind: smooth hands, tailored suit and waistcoat, a gun strapped to his hip, and a little eccentricity with a purpose. A cane with a handle perfectly shaped for bashing a man’s skull in leant up against the pillar beside him. Interesting: he was watching the other cardsharp over the top of his newspaper—a latecomer, sizing up the opposition, wondering if he could share in the bounty.
Not with that son-of-a-bitch. Not normally. But today could be the newcomer’s lucky day.
The opposition was dealing five-card stud to the grain merchant and a couple of men in suits. The cards slid with ease and speed off the top of the deck.
“Pajero.” Johnny clamped his mouth shut. No one seemed to have heard. He hadn’t meant to speak, but he hated the slickness of the man.
When everyone had their hand, the gambler took a corona from a silver case. He ran the tightly rolled bundle of tobacco under his nose and then trimmed the ends of it while the others examined and sorted their cards. As he put the case back in his pocket, he palmed coins from the stacks beside him. Greenhorns got ornery if they thought a man was winning too much; cardsharps always siphoned some away when they could.
The gambler never took his eyes off the other players. After he lit the cigar, he placed his etched vesta case down beside him on the table where it could be appreciated. The grain merchant looked over and grinned. When he opened the betting, his mind was clearly not fully on the game. The gambler leaned back and blew a smoke ring into the air.
Damn, he was good at his trade. Johnny had forgotten.
The gambler looked at his cards and tossed three dollars into the middle, raising the stakes. Then he glanced up.
But the gambler looked down at his cards again and continued to play.
Johnny breathed—in and out and in.
Hell, why was he surprised? His hat shaded his face, and he’d been a scrawny kid when they’d last met, not a working man wearing a shooting iron. There was no reason for the gambler to put the two together—yet.
Inhaling deeply, he flexed his hands and strode forward, stopping about four yards from the table and tipping his hat back a ways. The fancy Colt sat on the gambler’s hip, half hidden by his jacket. Johnny gritted his teeth and swallowed. The bastard could handle a revolver all right, but guns were only his security. They were Johnny’s trade, and he didn’t get paid more than the going rate for nothing. He was fast. He was accurate. He could do this. Dios, he prayed he could do this.
Legs slightly apart, he shook his arms loose, hands open and out from his hips.
The piano stopped playing. The ferrety piano player closed the lid. He glanced nervously at Johnny and sidled off the stool, taking refuge behind his Steinway.
“Hey, sweetheart, you…” A saloon girl bent over the rail above, but her friend tugged her away.
The barkeeper gazed after them, and then stared over at Johnny. Clearing a bottle out of sight, he melted into the shadows.
He stood his ground and fixed his eyes on the devil. Look up you bastard.
Soon nothing could be heard except the fall of cards and the clink of coins; the men at the poker table began to look around. First one and then the other abandoned their hands. They stared at Johnny and the doorway behind him, and then sought cover in the rear of the saloon behind curtains, pillars and pieces of furniture. As they did so, Johnny heard more chairs push back as others did the same. No one was daring enough to go past him.
The gambler didn’t look up.
Gathering the cards together, he shuffled and began to lay them out on the table in three rows of three. Then he covered two cards at a time with new cards, deliberate and unhurried. When he could no longer make a pair equal eleven, he stopped.
“Do you have a name?”
“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!”
Yes—the gasp and the spark of unease in the gambler’s eyes sent blood surging through Johnny’s veins. He could do this.
“I made you a promise. I’ve come to keep it.”
The gambler stared at Johnny. Then shaking his head, he chuckled and started collecting up the cards in front of him. The large gold ring on his right hand reflected light as he picked up the silver vesta case and slipped it into his breast pocket. Then he took a puff of his cigar and rested it back down on the rim of the ash tray. “You can try.”
“Any time you’re ready.”
A sneer curled the gambler’s lip, but his eyes narrowed.
Johnny stared back, willing his emotions to stay hidden. He could do this. The gambler was rattled. He’d make his move soon. Keep breathing. You will do this.
“Get out, boy. Come back when you’re older. I’m in no mood to teach you a lesson today.” The gambler pushed back his chair. He adjusted his hat, and with eyes down, he turned slightly. He reached out to pick up the eagles on the table with his left hand.
He went for his gun with his right.
As the gun smoke cleared, the patrons of the Silver Dollar peered at Johnny from behind tables, tasselled velvet and half-closed doors. No one moved, but the hairs on the back of his neck told him they were watching.
At first it seemed like only he was breathing—twice, before he heard voices from the bedrooms above.
“Let me see.”
“Shit, he was fast.”
Johnny glanced up and the whispers stopped.
A clunk and his eyes shot down again, gun ready.
But it was only the silver vesta case dropping from the gambler’s breast pocket.
The fancy pearl-handled pistol was lying on the floor a few inches from his right hand. That poor-excuse-for-a-stepfather would never use his hands again—or his fists. Johnny felt a surge of satisfaction.
Then his stomach lurched.
Damn. Clamping his mouth shut, he swallowed hard. Breathe: in and out and in.
Gracias a Dios—it was working. “Tequila.”
The barkeeper edged forward and unstopped a bottle, fumbling with the top. He poured two fingers quickly and retreated back to the scant cover of the shelves behind.
Johnny holstered his gun. For a second he closed his eyes. Don’t hurry. You’re a shootist in a dime novel. Don’t let them see.
He sauntered to the bar and picked up his drink, massaging the glass with his thumb, making sure his stomach had settled enough before downing the tequila in one gulp. The liquor hit home with a jolt, but its warmth spread slowly.
Nodding at the barkeep, Johnny flicked a coin across the polished wood. The silver dollar rolled on its rim, teetered and toppled to rest near the opposite edge.
Adjusting his hat, Johnny turned.
He rested his hand on his gun and took four steps towards the door. Then he stopped and stared down. So that’s where the bullet went. He’d felt it pass.
Looking back, he scanned the room. Nothing moved. The second cardsharp was half-hidden by a pillar, but he held his hands where Johnny could see them. Others crouched low or cowered upstairs behind barely open doors. This was not their fight. No one else wanted to die today.
Johnny’s stepfather lay wide-eyed but unseeing in the sawdust. He was propped awkwardly on one side against the overturned table, surrounded by playing cards and cash, blood still draining from the single hole in his satin waistcoat.
Tomorrow, or the next day, the other cardsharp would take his place.
No one would mourn Thurstan Cole.
Johnny rammed his way through the batwings, out onto the boardwalk. “Rot in hell!”
No one answered—with luck no one heard—but the pressure in his chest eased with the curse. He paused and breathed again.
New eyes were watching. Two cowboys dodged behind a wagon outside the hardware store, and the shopkeeper backed into his doorway. The lace curtains above the hotel entrance twitched, shadows too small to worry about jostled at the corner of the saloon, and horses straining at a hitching post halfway down the street knocked rumps and snorted.
The batwings squeaked to a standstill behind him, but the street remained quiet. He stepped sideways to put clapboard between his back and the firearms inside. The good citizens of Santa Fe knew the meaning of two gun shots and silence. They were only watching; even the new sheriff. Johnny stared at the jailhouse door, but it stayed firmly shut, the outline of a man shading the far window. It seemed even the law didn’t want to risk dying today.
Johnny kept his hand hovering over his Colt as he stepped toward Pícaro.
One-handed, he pulled the quick release knot free from the rail and heaved himself up into the saddle.
The batwings creaked.
He went for his gun.
Whoever it was fell back against the wall, and a woman hissed, “Is he gone?”
Nearly—Johnny turned the pinto’s head southward, smiling as voices rose up in the saloon behind him. Whooee, there’d be customers and saloon girls scrambling for money on the floor, and men fighting over the gambler’s boots and fancy doodads. They were welcome to them. Johnny wanted nothing from Thurstan Cole, not a red cent. Let the vultures pick the bastard clean.
Spitting into the dirt, Johnny spurred his horse to a canter. He had one more thing left to do. Then both parts of his promise would be kept; he could find work again and be free.
He slowed to a walk as he approached the bottleneck at the edge of town. Now there was a covered wagon blocking half the road; much as he liked the old wainwright, Pendleton sure did need a talking to.
“That’s far enough, Madrid.”
Johnny reined Pícaro to a standstill as the sheriff and then a deputy rode out in front of him. A rifle slipped its bolt only a few feet from his head. Silas Marks, a gunhawk from the other side of the range war, rested his boot on the tailgate of the covered wagon. He smirked like a tomcat eyeballing a cornered mouse. Another man, looking vaguely familiar, aimed a rifle from behind the sign on the roof of the blacksmith’s shop, and twisting around, Johnny saw a third gunman blocking his retreat. Damn.
“Keep those hands where I can see them.” With greatcoat hitched back behind his holster, the sheriff rested a hand on a well-oiled Colt and rode forward. Whoever Johnny had seen by the jailhouse window, it sure as hell weren’t the man in charge.
The deputy stayed put, a shotgun pointed at Johnny’s middle.
“I don’t want no trouble, sheriff.”
The lawman chuckled, but his eyes never left Johnny’s. “You got a funny way of showing it, Madrid.”
“He drew first.”
“Yep, I’m guessing he did.” The sheriff reined his mare to a standstill and shifted his weight in the saddle. “I saw you ride in—followed you in fact.”
Shit. What did that mean?
The sheriff looked over toward the smithy and then back down the street towards the centre of town. “That gambler sure as hell didn’t deserve no help from me. But just because I ain’t one for getting between a man and his business, Madrid, don’t mean you can murder a man in my town. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t make sure everything played out fair and square, now would I?”
“Well shoot, sheriff, I’m flattered you thought I’d be riding out.”
“It was a fifty-fifty call.” The sheriff scratched his chin and smiled. “I had the other possibility covered.”
Johnny laughed. “I bet you did, sheriff. I bet you did.”
“I’ll tell you what we’re going to do now.” The sheriff moved his horse so close to Johnny that their legs touched. “You wait right here with Deputy Larsen and these fine volunteers while I do a little investigating. If you’re telling the truth, you can go on your way.”
“Yeah?” Johnny eyed the sheriff and then the other men. Larsen was a kid not a hell of a lot older than him. Looked like he could handle a gun though. The two further away he couldn’t recognise, but Marks was a piece of shit. He’d been part of the run in Johnny had had the week before. “Are you sure they know that?”
“It’s a chance we’ll have to take.” The sheriff rode back to Deputy Larsen and had a few words; then he raised his voice to the others. “Listen up. As long as he stays where he is, I want no shooting. Hear me, Marks? Harris?”
Shit and double shit, that was Lucifer Harris up there.
“Whatever you say, Sheriff Bilson.” Marks tipped his hat, but the gleam in his eye when he looked at Johnny said something different. He hawked a spit wad into the dirt in front of Pícaro’s left hoof, making the gelding shake his head. The horse tried to step back, and Johnny tightened the reins to hold him steady.
Bilson glared at Marks. He walked his horse over to the gunhawk and had a private word. Johnny couldn’t hear what was said, but Marks sure didn’t like it. Throwing his rifle down on top of a pile of rope, he bashed canvas and went to the other end of the wagon.
Sheriff Bilson nodded at Larsen and cantered off towards the saloon.
For a whole five minutes maybe, Johnny and the rest of them waited, only the blowing of horses breaking the silence.
Then Lucifer Harris slipped out from behind the sign above the blacksmith’s shop. He stood on the roof black against the sky: legs spread, rifle resting across his arms.
The springs of the covered wagon creaked, and Silas Marks came back to the tailgate.
Unhurried, he picked up his rifle and aimed it at Johnny’s chest.
“Put it down, Mr Marks. You heard what Sheriff Bilson said.”
“Well, deputy, I guess I did, but what you have to understand is me and Madrid here have a score to settle.”
“Put it down.” Larsen still had a shotgun pointed at Johnny, but now he also had a revolver pointed straight at Marks’s head.
The gunhawk pushed the tobacco he was chewing to one side with his tongue and studied the deputy for a second or two. Then he lowered his weapon. Raising his left hand, he propped the rifle up against the sideboard with his right and leaned back into the wire frame of the bonnet opposite, arms folded. “My mistake.”
Another minute passed with eyes locked and no one speaking.
But when Larsen went to holster his Colt, Marks glanced across at the smithy and nodded at Harris.
“Watch out!” Johnny spurred Pícaro forward as Old Lucifer fired and Marks went for his Colt.
Winged in the shoulder, Larsen tried to shoot back at Harris and block Johnny’s escape at the same time. The horses collided, neighing and biting. Marks fired. Larsen’s horse reared, and Johnny jerked in the saddle as he rammed his way through.
Lead flew through the air and Pícaro bolted for open ground.
Lying flat, Johnny clung to Pícaro’s neck as the horse galloped hell-for-leather, shoulder muscles straining and glistening with sweat, hooves hammering stony ground. A bullet thudded into the back of the saddle, but he didn’t break stride. They galloped on until they were half a mile past the first crossroads. Only then did Johnny rein the pinto to a halt and sit upright.
“You’re a good fella.” He patted the blowing horse and breathed in sweet, sweet air.
Standing up in the stirrups, he checked the road behind and sighed with relief. No one yet. Thank God.
Dropping back on the saddle, he examined his arm. Blood seeped through the sleeve where Marks’s bullet had ripped cotton and flesh. Tearing the hole in his shirt wider, he sloshed water on the gash and used his bandana to bind it, wincing as he pulled the cloth tight with his teeth. The graze stung like crazy, but he couldn’t spare the time to wash and dress it properly.
Overriding his tracks back to the crossroads, he took another route. Still no sign of horses. How long? Damn it, he wished he knew more about the sheriff.
Criss-crossing rough ground and wading through a river, he urged Pícaro up a steep bank, hooves slipping on the shingle. He reined him to a stop at the top. Santa Fe lay like a shadow in the distance. Should he wait awhile and make sure a posse wasn’t following?
As if to answer his question, a flock of birds rose up into the air near the outskirts of town.
Johnny gritted his teeth and spurred Pícaro on.
Half an hour later, he’d found the back trail he’d planned to take all along. It dropped down into a shallow valley so he couldn’t be seen by riders approaching from the north. If Holy Moses was right, the trail led to a narrow pass that would take him through the hills in only a few hours.
“No good for a wagon, boyo, but chops half a day off the journey for a horse and rider.” Lloyd had been working near Los Lunas before Santa Fe. He’d used the pass when he came to take up the job at Oakridge.
Johnny spat the dust from his mouth. With luck the head gunman hadn’t been too mad at him for taking off without warning. He liked Lloyd—even when the older man called him ‘boyo’. At least it was meant friendly. Soon all the gunhawks at the ranch would know why he’d left. He didn’t give two hoots what the likes of Poole thought, but he’d be sorry to lose Lloyd’s good opinion.
Shaking the thought from his head, Johnny started the climb through the hills. At the point where the trail began to snake inwards, he reined Pícaro to a halt and checked over his shoulder. No dust from horses riding at speed. No reflections off polished metal. If they were following they were a fair way behind. “We’ll go easy for a bit.”
The pinto picked its way over the uneven ground. The path rose steadily, bordered by rocky slopes dotted with trees. To the left, a creek splashed over schist twenty feet below.
The air was beginning to cool. Johnny had intended to make camp at the northern end of the pass and tackle the climb in the morning, but the ruckus with Harris and Marks had put paid to that idea.
Hot damn. That was a get-away even his stepfather would’ve been proud of. Johnny grinned. He’d got the better of those mongrels for the second time in two weeks. They’d be mad as hornets.
Sheriff Bilson was no fool. If he was as smart as Johnny thought, he’d finish investigating before raising a posse. Why waste energy chasing for no good reason? Cole had drawn first; there were witnesses. Shoot, those birds probably meant nothing at all. Bilson had likely forgotten all about Johnny by now.
After all there was Deputy Larsen to think about. Bilson would be in a real pucker with Harris for taking a shot at his deputy. When Larsen spilled the beans about what happened, he’d—
Shit! What if the deputy was dead?
Johnny had been too busy getting away to look back, but Marks and Old Lucifer could get off scot free if they put a bullet in Larsen. If the third volunteer was one of their men they could blame Johnny, and there’d be no one to say different. And if they managed to fool Bilson about that they could even end up as part of the posse. Mierda!
Johnny shaded his eyes and gazed down the trail. Between the foothills he could still see the plain below. Was that a flash by the river?
The sun was low in the sky; it was hard to see. He ground tied Pícaro and scrambled up the bank, hoping a Pinyon pine would screen him from view. He scanned the land behind him. There were dips and rises; plenty of places where horsemen could travel awhile without being seen. He watched and waited—and then he saw them.
They were a long way back, heading in his direction. How many? He couldn’t tell, but he guessed from the way Bilson handled things earlier he hadn’t rushed. He’d have taken time to get a proper posse together, maybe even spare horses, supplies and a decent tracker.
Although the ground was still rising and the path narrow, he urged Pícaro to a canter where he could. He had to put distance between him and the posse. Tomorrow when he was through the pass he’d lay more false trails, and hope like hell they didn’t take a good guess at where he was headed.
When he reached the high point he stretched in the saddle and looked back down the trail again. No sign. His muscles ached, and his injured arm throbbed like the devil. It was nearly dark. He’d have to make camp soon, but he’d make the descent first if he could. He needed to be far enough ahead of the posse in the morning that they couldn’t see him from the top of the pass.
He was pretty sure they wouldn’t risk the trail into the hills tonight. It was narrow near the beginning and only widened about halfway up. One wrong step in the dark, and a horse and rider could break their necks. No, Sheriff Bilson was a cautious man. He’d wait. He’d set out at first light.
Johnny felt like he’d been rising with the sparrows forever, but it had only been five days, ever since he left the ranch.
The bunkhouse at Oakridge seemed a lifetime ago; back when he’d been an ordinary gunhawk, not much better than a ten-dollar-a-day man. Now…well, now he was something different. He’d killed Cole. He’d done it.
The look of surprise on the gambler’s face when he realised he was shot. Whooee, Johnny would remember that forever.
His stepfather had sort of lurched when the bullet hit. He’d stood there, frowning like he had indigestion or something. Then his left hand clutched his waistcoat, his finger nails getting all bloody from the hole. He must have known he was killed, because he opened his eyes wide, as though he couldn’t believe he’d been beaten to the draw by Maria’s brat.
Up yours, old man! Johnny grinned.
Cole had staggered—just a few steps—and then he’d dropped the pearl-handled Colt. He’d collapsed to the floor like a pack of cards, knees first and then arms reaching out, turning the table over as he went.
Johnny replayed the scene over and over again. Despite his troubles, he felt like he’d won a huge victory. He’d kept his promise. The bastard was dead!
But as shadows lengthened, other thoughts wormed their way into his brain. He’d shot men before but never like this. He’d never deliberately provoked a man into firing at him. Hate had made him cross a line, and others had seen him do it. He knew there was no turning back, but suddenly he felt trapped in a way that had nothing to do with the sheriff or the shootists.
The sun shone like snow on dark hills in the distance. Soon it would be gone. He would lose the light like he’d lost something else today. He wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but he knew he’d lost it. He felt hollow, and worse, he felt the emptiness inside spreading outwards.
Darkness crept up and surrounded him as he tried to work out why he was feeling so strange. By the time the moon came out, his nerves twanged like overtight bowstrings. As he heaved himself stiffly off Pícaro’s back, he ducked a firefly like a bullet, and when a screech-owl hooted his heart jumped in his chest.
It was too dark to hunt, and he couldn’t risk a fire.
He unsaddled the pinto and made cold camp by a stream, rinsing his shirt, and then using his bandana to wash the graze on his arm. He plastered the wound with a salve he’d ‘borrowed’ from the ranch and bandaged it with a strip of clean cotton. When he eased his spare shirt over his injured arm, it felt like heaven compared to the one he’d peeled off. Tucking in the tail, he settled down to sleep next to a large boulder still warm from the sun.
Johnny closed his eyes and tried to focus on the smell of cottonwoods and the small sounds of night. Water trickled over rocks, and something very small—a mouse maybe—scurried through the grass. Leaves rustled in the tree above. A gentle breeze kissed his skin, and against all odds, his mind began to float. His limbs relaxed. He felt safe and warm, and…
His mother screamed.
Snatched from giant arms, Johnny landed on a straw pallet next to a stone fireplace. Mama moaned from a bed a few feet away, and a monster loomed above. Johnny beat the dark shape with small fists. But he couldn’t make it stop. Mama laughed—and cried. “Leave him.” And then everything went black. And it was cold—so very cold—but his stepfather snarled like a wolf, and heat rose up inside Johnny like a sandstorm.
The smell of rye whiskey, tequila and stale beer filled his nostrils. Strangers cussed and leered, and Mama laughed and swayed behind beaded curtains. Strong hands with clean nails shuffled cards, scooped up money and balled into fists. Saloon girls turned into galloping horses and guns, and Johnny’s stomach cramped with emptiness—until he saw the gambler’s hands running over Mama’s body, and his hunger was no longer for food.
Then an unseen force began dragging him downwards, sucking him into a world without light.
Scared shitless, he knew something bad was about to happen. He had to stop it. He kicked out and grabbed at the darkness, but there was nothing and no one to hold onto.
“Time you learned your place, boy.”
A buckle flashed before it hit, and a polished boot brought Johnny’s knees to his chest. Mama shouted, “Stop!” Then he heard a crack. It echoed in his head as he swam in blood, clinging desperately to Mama to stop her sinking. The gambler reached out to caress her throat, and Johnny went for his gun—
He jerked awake, gasping, his heart bruising the inside of his ribs and a smoking Colt in his hand. A scar in the bark of a tree gleamed white in the moonlight.
Rolling to his feet, he mopped sweat from his brow with his bandana and staggered towards the stream. He puked in the bushes before he got there.
Using his knees for support, he doubled over, gagging and spitting. Then when he could, he knelt down by the water’s edge. “Dios.” He felt like he’d taken a real licking.
He stayed by the stream for a long time, rinsing his mouth and cooling the back of his neck. At last, when he could stand without swaying, he straightened out his tangled bedroll and huddled down with his back to his saddle as near to Pícaro as he could get.
The pinto nuzzled his hair.
“I’m okay.” Johnny pushed the horse’s head away and wrapped the blanket tightly around his shoulders. He shut his eyes. Breathe—in and out and in again. The taste of bile was gone, but the images weren’t as easy to get rid of. He didn’t sleep again.
At sunrise he rode on. Once he reached the lowlands he doubled back a few times just to be safe. Shortly before noon he saw dust on the horizon. Damn it, they were through the pass already.
He veered off the main trail and rode some distance the wrong way before back tracking through a creek bed. On foot he led Pícaro up and over a rocky ridge into the neighbouring valley. As long as he could see the sun and the stars he could keep going in the right direction. He’d avoid the main trails and towns and hope the posse gave up.
The dream with his mother and Cole didn’t come back, but the nights following were filled with other faces, taunts and feelings from another time. For three nights he wandered in badlands, unable to find a way out until panic forced him awake.
He knew the nightmares had nothing to do with his pursuers. The posse was a threat, but the dreams were linked to something else. It shouldn’t be like this. He should feel on top of the world, like he’d won a whole damned range war single-handed. He’d killed the gambler, for God’s sake. He’d kept his promise. The bastard was dead.
Maybe when he kept the last part of his promise…maybe then…only a few more days and everything would be all right.
But in the meantime he was being hunted, and the dogs seemed to know what they were doing. On the third day after leaving Santa Fe he saw the men chasing him clearly for the first time. They were walking their horses along the banks of a river trying to work out where he’d crossed. He could see four of them, but there could be more hidden from view by the willows. Sheriff Bilson was one and an Indian tracker was crouched down by the water’s edge. Johnny had entered nearby but not crossed. No Marks or Harris, thank God, but no Larsen either. What did that mean?
Johnny watched from bushes at the top of a bluff on the other side of the river. He wasn’t in danger unless they spotted him and took a pot shot. They couldn’t cross at that point, and they couldn’t pick up his tracks on the other side until they got another mile or so downstream.
With luck, if he kept saying these things to himself, his innards would stop dancing a fandango.
On the fifth day, he wriggled on his belly across bare rock and spied the men again. This time he was even more worried, because he could see two groups about a mile apart. Two riders were closest, riding at speed along a dried up creek bed he’d used himself a few hours before, then further back four riders moving at a slower pace. Why had they split up? Had they guessed where he was going? Had the sheriff decided to send two riders ahead while the others tracked him? If they guessed right, they might get in front of him. Should he continue southwest laying false trails or just race them to the Mexican border?
Wiping the sweat from his forehead and shaking some of the dust out of his hair, Johnny swung up into his saddle. His eyes felt gritty and heavy in their sockets. He couldn’t think straight anymore. He needed to stay alert and on his guard, but with so little sleep his mind was wandering.
If the posse and the nightmares weren’t bad enough, now he had another problem. He needed supplies. His saddle bags were empty and pickings were slim. Sheriff Bilson wouldn’t cross into Mexico proper, but the only town up ahead for miles in any direction was no man’s land. Should he risk it? He was desperate for a decent meal. Maybe a full stomach would make him feel more like himself again and then he would sleep better.
He set another false trail and took the chance, slipping into the town on the border between Arizona and Mexico early the next afternoon. He was lucky: it was market day.
Even so, most of the locals had gone for a siesta. The stallholders dozed under sombreros and canvas, waiting for the town to come back to life.
Johnny approached the square from a side alley. He scanned the roof tops, but there was no sign of guns. Carts and wagons waited patiently for their owners along the main street straggling north and around the edges of the square, but there were only a handful of saddle horses. From their blankets he guessed they belonged to vaqueros.
“Are you sure no Americanos have ridden in?” He unbuckled his saddle and slung it up onto the side of the livery stall.
“Si, señor.” The stable boy bit the coin Johnny paid him to curry and feed Pícaro. “Only an old prospector and his mule in the last two days—and the stagecoach.”
“Anyone get off?”
“Just Señora Garcia and her chickens, señor.” The boy grinned as he poured water from a bucket into a trough for Pícaro. “My mamà says it’s hard to tell them apart.”
Johnny forced a smile. So his pursuers hadn’t got ahead of him. Well, that was something. Maybe knowing they were so close to the Mexican border they’d turn back. It was a hopeful thought, but they were definitely still following him the day before.
He was worried about the extra two men. He only saw them at a distance, but they could have been Harris and Marks. If the shootists were part of the posse he was in real trouble. It likely meant Deputy Larsen was dead and Johnny was being blamed for his killing. That would explain why Bilson was still hunting him so far from Santa Fe.
Lucifer Harris was top gun for the Circle T. He gave Holy Moses a run for his money, and that’s a fact. Rumour had it, he was mighty angry with Johnny for tricking his men.
Even Lloyd had thought so. “You did well, Madrid, but holy shit, you’ve made a bad enemy. Old Lucifer will send your soul to hell in a hand basket if he gets half a chance.”
“Don’t put a damper on a good day.” Johnny had laughed and waved Lloyd away, but the head gunman had collared him later.
“I ain’t joshing you, Madrid. That evil bastard holds men by the balls and squeezes until their eyes pop. He doesn’t need to do his own dirty work. You watch your back.”
Johnny swallowed. It didn’t seem likely Harris would leave a good job to hunt him down, but if he wanted revenge for that little embarrassment at Falcon Creek, he might put Marks and one of his other demons on Johnny’s tail. They damn sure wouldn’t stop for no line on a map.
“Here, keep an eye out.” Johnny folded the boy’s hand around another coin. “I’ll be across the road at the taberna. If you see any strangers, come and tell me quick.”
Johnny chose a table behind a turned-wood screen close to the entrance of the taberna. From there he could see everyone who came in or out and make an easy escape through the back if the need arose. The only other customers at the moment were two vaqueros played dominoes while they ate and a young woman in the corner nursing a baby.
He counted what money he had left while he waited for his food. “Idiota.”
“Cómo dice, señor?” An apron-clad woman stopped short of the table. She held a bowl of chili and a glass of milk as if she was about to throw them at him.
“No, no, señora. El idiota soy yo.” Johnny tried to look sorry, but he was too tired to muster more than a weak smile. Surely, she couldn’t think he’d be so disrespectful as to call her an idiot. She eyed him suspiciously, glancing at his gun. Then with pursed lips, she placed the food on the table and flounced back to the kitchen.
Maldito sea! But what the señora thought of him was the least of his worries; he barely had enough cash to get where he was going. He’d been in too much of a hurry to make sure the gambling man was Cole. He hadn’t even hung around the ranch long enough to collect what was owed to him—stupid.
He ate quickly. He couldn’t afford to waste much time. Picking up most of the coins, he put them into his jacket pocket, leaving two on the checkered cloth. He scraped up the last mouthful of chili with the flat of his knife and washed it down with the milk. It wasn’t the best meal he’d ever had, but he felt less hollow inside.
“Gracias, señora.” He tipped his hat as he headed for the door, but she turned her back on him and disappeared through the beaded archway into the kitchen beyond. Well, he’d tried. Pausing on the threshold, he let his eyes adjust to the harsh sunlight. Beans and hard tack first—the stalls were just ahead of him; then he’d follow the smell of arabica to the coffee vendor’s cart.
An old woman sat on a stool under sagging canvas next to the green and black cart at the west end of the square. Her wares were spread out on a serape in front of her. She grinned toothlessly at Johnny. “Ven aquí, joven.”
He ducked his head. “They’re not for the likes of me.”
“Pfft.” Spitting on the ground, she beckoned him closer. “Come.”
He hesitated; then shrugged. Why not? A few extra minutes in town couldn’t make no difference. Hunkering down for a better look, he chuckled despite himself as the abuela babbled the praises of the knickknacks between them.
There were painted wooden panels and little carvings made from bone or sandstone, religious icons for the faithful. Johnny was more a fallen angel, but a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe caught his eye. She posed calm and beautiful with hands in prayer. He wedged the two tins of beans he’d bought under his arm and picked it up.
“Se trata de una fina pintura.” The old woman leaned forward, cocking her head to one side to get a better look at his face. “Te recuerda a alguien?”
Picturing his mamá at Misa de Gallo, Johnny smiled. It was a fine painting, and it did remind him of someone. “Cuánto?”
He raised an eyebrow at the price, but he hadn’t the heart to barter. The old woman seemed to know it. She held out her hand, and he dropped a coin into the leathery palm.
Pocketing the small wooden panel, he got up and went to buy coffee. Then with only the price of a beer to his name, he headed back to the livery.
As he walked out from amid the ramshackle stalls, the stable boy came out of the taberna, looking frantically left and right, then running back towards the livery.
“Hey.” Johnny raised his hand and the boy stopped. The look of relief on his face was not a good sign.
The boy pointed north, up the main street. “Los gringos.” Then he disappeared into the stable.
Johnny looked to where the boy had pointed. Two hard-ridden horses stood outside the cantina, and four men were riding slowly down the street towards them.
Suddenly there was movement above—men on the rooves either side of the street.
Johnny made a dash for the livery. A bullet slammed into the heavy timber door as he pulled it ajar behind him.
“Get down.” Johnny waved the stable boy back and crouched behind the door, peering through the gap. What the hell was going on? After that one shot the gunmen on the roof stopped shooting at him and aimed their guns at someone else. “Damn, I can’t see.”
He could hear panicked horses and shouting.
Easing the stable door open, he edged out and ran low to a hay cart a few yards away. Now he could see. The two men on the rooves were firing at the men who had just ridden in from the north. One man was down. Undercover of the frenzied horses and his shooting companions he was dragging himself behind a trough about ten yards from where Johnny was crouched.
It was Sheriff Bilson. He twisted up and fired up to his left and then his right, giving his men time to find cover behind wagons and in doorways. Freed from their riders, the horses galloped past into the square.
“Harris, Marks, this won’t work. Give it up.” A rifle bullet thudded into the trough.
Then Johnny saw Harris descending stairs at the side of a building. He’d have a clear shot at the sheriff from the corner. Damn it, Johnny wished he understood what was happening, but if it was a choice between Bilson or Harris and Marks, he knew whose side he was on. He took aim and fired.
Old Lucifer ducked behind the rain barrel at the corner and fired back.
Sheriff Bilson looked around to see who was helping. His eyes widened when he spotted Johnny.
“Move. You’re right in his sights.” Johnny pointed towards the half open livery door and fired towards Harris again, keeping him behind the barrel. The rest of the posse were exchanging fire with Marks on the roof.
As Johnny reloaded, the sheriff hauled himself up to a crouch and fired another round at Harris. He watched for Johnny’s signal. Then with Johnny shooting a steady rhythm as he crossed open ground, the sheriff limped as fast as he could to safety. Johnny pushed him through the door as he fired his final bullet.
Panting, he collapsed against the wall. Bullets smacked into the wood beside him. “Get his gun.”
The stable boy held a pitchfork to the sheriff’s back. He bent down and relieved the lawman of his Colt, then retreated to an overturned box. With jaw set but eyes like a spooked horse, he clutched the revolver in both hands and pointed it at his prisoner.
Sheriff Bilson rolled onto one side and stared down the barrel of his own gun. Glancing at the boy, he looked around the livery stable and then back at Johnny. “I didn’t expect to find you here. Thanks.”
“You’ve been on my tail all the way from Santa Fe.” Shutting the cylinder of his Colt, Johnny leaned into the opening and fired again.
“Nope, not me. Like you said, the gambler drew first. Besides, I got bigger fish to fry.” The sheriff shuffled up to sitting and grasped his injured leg. The bullet had lodged in his thigh. “Harris and Marks killed my deputy. I ain’t going to let that pass.”
Hell, he’d been right. Well, half right; the sheriff clearly didn’t blame Johnny for it.
“The wainwright saw the whole dang fracas. Those bastards out there tried to pin the blame on you. My third volunteer reckoned he couldn’t see who shot Larsen at first, but that old codger Grover Pendleton ain’t afraid of no one. He pointed a musket at Harris’s belly and accused him to his face.”
A bullet splintered the door frame an inch from Johnny’s head and he fired again. “How come Harris got away then?”
“Marks. And the old man’s gun hadn’t been fired in a while. It jammed and them two took off.” Bilson thumbed towards the unseen men outside. “Weren’t much I could do about it at the time. I made a few arrangements and set out with a posse as soon as I could rustle up a tracker.” The sheriff eyed the water bucket. He licked his lips and raised an eyebrow.
Johnny nodded. “Give him some.”
The stable boy brought the bucket up close, and the sheriff helped himself to a ladleful of water.
If the posse was following Harris and Marks then that meant the shootists were following Johnny. They had to be. It was too much of a coincidence for them to be here otherwise.
“Lucifer Harris and Silas Marks don’t like you much.” Sheriff Bilson chuckled. “Rufus Tucker at the Circle T got himself a new top gun. Harris was sent packing, and that parasite, Marks, went with him. It was bad timing you coming into town when they’d only just got their marching orders. If I’d know’d it earlier, I wouldn’t have used...”
A volley of shots interrupted, causing Pícaro and the other horses in the stable to snort and stamp their hooves.
Then everything went quiet. Johnny and Bilson stared at each other.
After a moment, Johnny ducked past the opening to the other side of the door. “Move over. I’m going to push it wider and see what’s going on.”
Peering out, he still couldn’t see shit, but Harris’s hat wasn’t sticking up above the rainwater barrel any more.
He made a dash to the hay cart. Looking up and down the street and along the roof tops above, he could see the shootists’ horses still tied to the rail and the other members of the posse edging out from good cover. Silas Marks lay dead in the dust. Where was Harris?
“Watch out!” A second after Bilson yelled Harris’s bullet thwacked into the cart where Johnny’s head had been.
Still rolling to his right, Johnny came to his feet by a crate next to the livery wall. He fired towards Harris. Old Lucifer was hiding at the corner of an alley two buildings along from where he’d been before. He’d had a clear shot at Johnny by the cart. Bilson and Johnny were now even.
Johnny slid between the crate and the adobe, gun up and ready. “I’ve no quarrel with you, Harris. Get out of here while you still can.”
Harris replied with a bullet.
Okay, if that was the way he wanted it. Johnny glanced north. The posse had taken cover again near Marks’s body. None of them were close enough to be of any help. Scanning the street, there was no easy way across. Johnny shoved bullets into the empty chambers and ran low to a buggy resting at the south end of the livery. Another bullet missed him by inches.
As he moved around the back of the buggy, Harris crossed the boardwalk to the rear of a lumber wagon and fired again. One of the posse tried a shot at him, but the man was at the wrong angle and the bullet ricocheted off the axle.
Johnny and Harris were in range and almost opposite each other now. The bastard seemed determined to see this to the end. There was another wagon closer to the square, diagonally opposite from the buggy. Johnny could get a clear shot at Harris on the crossing if he made himself a moving target.
Taking a breath, he dived and rolled clear of his cover, coming to his feet in the middle of the street.
As he did so, Harris stood up and stepped out from the wagon to take his shot.
Johnny fired twice.
Harris just once.
A bullet lodged deep in the dirt only a foot to his right, but he’d sent Old Lucifer home. Harris doubled over grabbing his gut, landing face first in the street, his gun still in his hand.
Johnny slumped to his knees. The posse emerged from their hiding places for a second time. A guy with a rifle and a deputy’s badge on his chest ambled towards the body. Johnny holstered his gun.
The lawman rolled Harris’s carcass over with his foot and spat in his face. Then he looked over at Johnny. “Nice shooting. You got the sheriff?”
Nodding, Johnny pushed up to his feet. “Yup, he’s in the livery. He’ll live.”
Half an hour later, he helped hold Bilson down as the town blacksmith dug the bullet from the sheriff’s leg. It wasn’t broken.
“We’ll stay the night and then head back to Santa Fe.” Bilson held Pícaro’s bridle as Johnny mounted. “Harris weren’t no ten-dollar-a-day man. This little shindig will add to that reputation you’re building, no mistake. Watch out for yahoos trying to prove themselves.”
“I’ll do that.” Leaning down, Johnny shook Bilson’s hand; surprised the man really seemed to care. “I’m sorry about Deputy Larsen, sheriff. Adios.”
Spurring Pícaro to a canter, he rode southwest into Mexico.
Johnny dismounted in San Andres just before dusk as the mission bell rang for vespers. The final stage of his journey had felt strangely lonesome with no one following him, but he’d made good time.
The air no longer rippled with heat and everything was quiet; even the cicadas had ceased chirping. He tied Pícaro to a mesquite tree by the mission gate and looked around him. The olive tree he remembered still twisted its trunk up through the broken stone wall on the northern boundary, its silvery green leaves softening the dried brownness of everything around it. Crunching over stony ground between rows of sandstone and marble, he stopped just outside its shade and stared down. The soil had settled level with its surroundings, and a bare wooden cross leaned drunkenly to one side.
He wedged it upright with a rock, adding to the long shadows striping the sun-baked earth. Then he hunted around for more stones and small rocks.
He’d made a pile almost as high as the arms of the cross when his boot hit something metallic in front of a crudely-carved cherub. Bending down, he picked up a spent cartridge and pressed the sharp edge into his thumb. Some men had no decency; there were better places to settle arguments. He pressed harder until the thin white line spiked red. He had no room to talk, not after calling out Cole. If he had to...
He was a gunfighter.
A real one: not a hack who could shoot straight or a boy relying more on luck than skill. He wasn’t a kid with no idea of what it meant to kill a man—not anymore. He’d just proved that twice over, and it was kind of scary that it was getting easier. Shooting Harris would likely add most to his reputation—Old Lucifer was known to be a dangerous gun—but Johnny had barely given him a thought since. It was killing Cole that mattered.
He snorted and glanced toward the hills. The gambler had taught him to shoot. If the bastard had only known at the time…Well, Johnny had taken his revenge in Santa Fe so Cole was past knowing anything.
Turning the empty cartridge between his fingers, he looked east; then tossed it high and long into the orange grove beyond the graveyard. It flashed in the sunlight on its way down. If he’d seen a flash like that a few days ago, he’d have dived for cover with gun in hand. He’d have fired before the cartridge hit the ground.
Hell, when he was a kid his hate for Cole had made him practise his draw for hours on end. He’d dreamed of being as fast as he was now. People looked up to top gunmen—or were scared of them. Lucifer Harris was a cruel bastard like Cole. Johnny didn’t want to be like him, but in time he could be one of the gunfighters feared and admired for better reasons. Maybe one day Mr Beadle would write a dime novel about him: The Legend of Johnny Madrid. Shoot, he’d buy one—if he had any money. In the meantime, Santa Fe folks were likely whispering and spreading his name already. It didn’t take long. He’d seen it done. Soon even those he’d never met would give him respect.
It was what he’d always wanted, right?
Johnny dropped another armful of rocks by the wooden cross. He was damned if he knew what he wanted anymore.
He went back to his horse and took a swig from his water bottle, sluicing his mouth before swallowing. The water was warm and tasted leathery, but at least it was wet.
“Like some?” He poured a little into his hand for Pícaro and then went back to work.
His stepfather would have approved of Pícaro—smart and quick off the mark.
Cole had taught him to ride too. It didn’t mean nothing. Someone had to, but…Dios, why was his mind digging up dumb memories? All of a sudden he could see himself atop a big bay horse. His feet barely touched the stirrups, even though they were raised up as high as they would go. Cole was laughing—with him, not at him, for a change. They were having fun.
Johnny stooped to pick up a fist-size stone. He tossed it into the air a couple of times. It was strange to think he’d once joked with a man he hated so much; a man he’d just killed. He must have been very young when he learned how to ride, four or five maybe. It was back when Mama smelled of cinnamon and orange blossom. Back when she was happy—most of the time. There were good days and bad days even then.
He couldn’t put his finger on exactly when the balance changed, but by the time he found his first gun Mama only smelled of two things: tequila and Cole.
Bastard! Johnny spat into the dust. So what if there were a few good times. The bad times took over, and that evil bastard Thurstan Cole was to blame.
He picked up another rock. This one was flattish with ridges like a pack of cards.
Mama had been at a card table in a saloon when he’d swiped the gun belt from dead meat; she’d been too busy helping his stepfather fleece saps to notice what he was doing. There’d been a brawl and two drifters had shot at each other. Johnny had helped the barkeep clean up.
Afterwards he scavenged bullets from drunks, but that proved risky. It was safer getting ammunition from other men who learned the hard way guns offered death not protection—yammerers and fools mostly.
Maybe Johnny was a fool too. He knew now what guns could and couldn’t do, but back then knowing he owned one had made him feel bigger and stronger somehow. One day the bullies in the schoolyard and the shopkeepers who watched him like a hawk every time he entered a store would be too scared to call him mestizo or half-breed. When he could handle a gun properly, he’d show every one of them—but most of all, he’d defend Mama.
He choked back a sob. Damn it, he was fifteen, a grown man and a gun-for-hire, not a child.
The fact was Mama needed him before he was ready. She’d tried to protect him and paid the price. Now he could demand a man’s wage to protect big bugs who weren’t worth pissing on, but back then he’d failed to defend her. He knew that. But she never looked back and neither would he.
“Learn from your mistakes, mi hijo, and move forward. You must never go back.”
Kneeling down, Johnny rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand and began to stack the rocks one by one, larger ones on the bottom, making a wide base and forming a small cairn. He crafted a shelf about two thirds up. Then he reached into his pocket for Our Lady and placed the icon on the shelf, securing it around the bottom with a few pebbles. Getting to his feet, he held his hat in crossed hands and stared down at the image of Maria.
He meant to say a prayer, but the words wouldn’t come.
He could lie down right there on top of Mama’s grave and go to sleep, never needing to wake up, because the only person he loved was long dead, and he’d killed the man he hated in Santa Fe. He’d given Mama justice, and now he had no reason to keep going. He might as well let the next Lucifer Harris get a clear shot.
Johnny crimped the rim of his hat between his fingers. Nope, he couldn’t do that.
Besides, Thurstan Cole may have been the first man Johnny truly hated, but he wasn’t the first man to mistreat Mama.
The first man was Johnny’s real father.
That son-of-a-bitch might still be alive.
Mama should have told Johnny more about him.
She didn’t really tell him anything.
Cole was the one who did all the talking, and the older Johnny got the more the bastard seemed to twist the knife. “Face it, kid, your pa didn’t want a mongrel son. You were a mistake.”
Maybe, but Mama loved him. Johnny knew that. He knew it like he knew his own name. She’d shown him in all sorts of little ways, by singing to him or holding his hand and talking to him while he ate. Those were the moments he’d remember. Now he’d killed Cole, he’d blot out the other memories, the ones he preferred to forget. Like when Cole would barge in on them and start groping at her, staking his claim with Johnny powerless to stop him.
“You’re a worthless lump of shit, boy. No wonder the cattle baron kicked you out.”
Mama didn’t deny it. Usually she would turn away from him and kiss Cole full on the lips, letting her hands wander. Then she’d sashay into the bedroom like a whore, eyes inviting the randy prick to follow.
Johnny felt sick.
Why did you do that, Mama? Why didn’t you just tell him to shut up?
The painted eyes of Maria stared back at him. It was like they were speaking: isn’t it enough I stood in the way of his blows, mi hijo?
Rubbing his eyes again, Johnny bit his lip until he tasted blood. God help him, that wasn’t his fault. Once he’d thought it was, but it wasn’t.
Mama had made some mistakes.
And one of them was not telling him about his real father. She could have done it when Cole wasn’t around. Johnny still didn’t understand why she wouldn’t, but he’d learned not to ask.
“Your papá was a gringo.” That was pretty much all she said—a rancher with “laughing blue eyes”.
“Cabrón!” Johnny whipped around, surprised by the strength of his feelings. Pressing the back of his hand to his mouth, he gritted his teeth. This was not the time or place.
But his father had cursed him with those eyes, cursed him and then tossed him out to face the consequences alone. The big white rancher left his only son to be treated like shit in every border town from Texas to Sonora—until Johnny got good with a gun.
Now there was a reason to hate.
“Maldito sea!” Johnny kicked at the gravel under his boots, adding more dust and another scuff to the leather. He breathed deeply and straightened. Walking into the shade of the olive tree, he rested his back against the gnarled trunk and twisted his hat in his hands.
Lancer—Johnny didn’t even know his asshole father’s first name.
Mama refused to tell him. She said it wasn’t important. “You’re better off not knowing, Juanito.” And yet she always used ‘Lancer’ when she put him in school. “My son bears his father’s name. I was widowed and married again.”
The last part was a lie. His father was alive. Or he was at the time, if Cole was to be believed. Somewhere north, near a Misión San Benito where Mama claimed Johnny was baptised. It was in California—maybe. Least ways Mama never wanted to go there.
All she wanted from Johnny’s father was the respectability of his name, because Cole wouldn’t share his with another man’s brat.
“Gracias a Dios.”
Pushing up off the tree, Johnny went back to the foot of Mama’s grave. He stared at the cairn.
Why did she stay with Cole? He could have taken care of her. Or they could have gone to her cousin, Luisa.
When he was younger, Mama took him to El Paso del Norte whenever the gambler left them. Johnny enjoyed those visits. It was a shame Cole always came back. They could have survived without him. Anything would have been better than the life they led.
“Wouldn’t it, Mama?”
The small portrait of Maria stayed silent.
“I shot him, Mama. I killed him for you.”
A cold truth squeezed his heart as he stared at the grave. The Lady of Guadalupe looked like she was crying.
“Shit.” Johnny blinked up at the sky. Who was he trying to fool? Mama loved the bastard.
The gambler would buy her jewellery and silk dresses, and show her off to other men, and she adored him for it. He would turn her loose to flirt and lead easy marks to the card table; but he’d punish any dog that pawed her. Then after the last card had fallen, Mama would reward her champion.
Johnny ground the memories between his teeth, his eyes burning holes in the soil in front of him.
Hell, they stayed in bed until the next evening sometimes.
Was Lancer the same way? Probably—only he got tired of her early.
“Lancer gave your mamà the keys to the road when more white folks came west. A Mexican wife didn’t fit with his new hoity-toity friends. And as for you...”
Mama never disagreed.
So it must be true.
Johnny’s old man had chucked them away like a pair of old boots.
Lancer was the reason Johnny had never had a real home, the reason Mama had shacked up with the gambler in the first place. What choice did a woman on her own with a little kid have but to find another man for protection? And how many men would take in a half-breed?
Johnny’s knuckles turn white and his fingers wrung the rim of his hat. He owed Thurstan Cole nothing. Nothing.
And the other one was no better. Worse maybe, because he’d caused it all.
A familiar feeling flared in Johnny’s gut as a coyote howled in the distance. He looked up, confused for a moment; where was he? Breathe—in and out and in again. His jaw unclenched. The coyote howled a second time. It sounded lonely.
With one last look at the picture of Maria, he replaced his hat and returned to his horse. He unhitched the pinto from the mesquite tree and swung up into his saddle. Mama was the only person he’d ever loved—or who’d ever loved him as far as he knew. He missed her, but the promises he’d made by the open grave three years before had been kept. It was time to do as she taught him and move forward.
He reined Pícaro to a standstill on the ridge above the Misión San Andres, lying peaceful and permanent beyond the orange grove. As the sun sank he squinted until the olive tree marking Mama’s resting place disappeared into darkness.
He would make camp by the creek in the next valley, and then in the morning, after a good night’s sleep, he’d head east, keeping on the Mexican side of the border. He wasn’t ready to face the reputation growing on the American side just yet.
Lancer was still alive. He felt it in his blood. And one day he’d go after him. One day, he’d make his son-of-a-bitch father stand trial, and Mama would be glad. Wouldn’t she? He wished he knew for sure. He wished she’d told him more, and he wished he didn’t feel so alone, but the emptiness had been driven back.
He’d found a reason to live.
Thanks to Mama.
Johnny still had someone to hate.
1. This story links to: The Beginning, 2013; From Highlands to Homecoming, 2015; and A Good Night, 2015.
2. This story links to A Scarecrow at Hacket’s, Series 2/Episode 11, and the pilot movie, The Homecoming and The Highriders, Series 1/Episode 1. I also borrowed the occasional phrase and image from The Kid, Series 2/Episode 3.
3. 1. The Spanish in Chapters 4, 5 and 6: “Mierda!” (Shit); “Idiota.” (Idiot); “Cómo dice, señor?” (I beg your pardon, sir?); “No, no, señora. El idiota soy yo.” (No, not you, ma’am. Me.); “Maldito sea!” (Damn it); “Ven aquí, joven.”(Come here, young man.); “Se trata de una fina pintura.” (It is a fine painting.); and “Te recuerda a alguien?” (Does she remind you of someone?); Misa de Gallo (The Mass of the Rooster, which is held on Christmas Eve).