He only half heard it, coming from the ravine below him. It was the first human voice, besides his own, that he had heard in more than 26 hours and many more hard miles of hot, rocky riding across this desolate stretch of cactus and canyons. Since that army sergeant at Fort Wells had sent him off with a warning to "Watch out for the rattlers." But that voice was worn rough by whisky and desert air. This was something altogether different. A lilting, musical sound with a woman's lightness. A young woman. Johnny Madrid Lancer urged his palomino closer.
There was a steep embankment to the trickle of river down below and he reined his horse at the edge, staring down into the boulders and shrubbery that randomly lined the stream. The voice came from somewhere to his right and his eyes searched there, finally spotting a pair of bare legs hanging from a flat rock at the edge of the water, feet making ripples in the flow. As he watched, one foot lifted and slapped the water twice, creating a spray of droplets which splashed back on a body mostly hidden by a clump of small cottonwoods growing from the riverbed.
She was singing and Johnny had to smile at her choice of tunes in that god-forsaken wilderness. It was something he remembered from years before. A children's hymn about brothers and sisters and heaven's eyes. He lifted in his stirrups, leaned over Barranca's neck and called down into the ravine, "Practicing for the choir?"
With a quick, graceful movement, the woman pulled her legs onto the rock and slid a dark skirt down to her ankles. She stood, but remained only glimpses of motion behind the leafy screen. "Praise God," she shouted. "Can you help me?"
"I'm coming down, Ma'am" Johnny swung from his horse and concentrated on leading it down the steep incline to the water, vaguely aware of the figure moving from behind the bushes and walking toward him. At the bottom of the embankment, he let the reins loose and allowed the palomino to walk forward and sink its muzzle into the stream. Then he turned to the woman and took in her appearance. She was smallish, with wide, green eyes set over lightly freckled cheeks and an easy, dimpled smile curved under an uptilted nose. A pretty girl, no older than nineteen, maybe twenty years old. But that's not what Johnny noticed first. Not what made him pull back the words forming in his throat or stopped the smile, meant to charm, from spreading across his face. What held him where he stood was her attire, all in black, head to foot. Long black dress, tied at the waist with a simple cord. Black headdress rimmed at the forehead with a white band. And a simple wood cross hung around her neck. The woman was a nun, the only nun the ex-gunfighter had ever seen walking barefoot across a sun-baked desert ravine.
He grinned anyway. "Sister, are you out here blessing the jackrabbits?"
She came forward with her hand extended and he took it in a firm shake. "I'm Sister Anne," she said lightly, "and I'm quite certain you are an angel from God."
At that he laughed out loud. "No, ma'am... sister. I promise you I'm no angel. The name's Johnny. Johnny Lancer." He tipped his hat and looked over her shoulder at the sad-looking chestnut horse which was climbing out of the river bank and limping closer to them. "Your horse come up lame?"
Sister Anne turned to gesture toward the animal and let loose a rapid tumble of words, "I bought him in Red Rock after Father Patrick died and I've had to walk him for miles and miles, but the children have to have the medicine and the priests at San Pedro Mission need the money to pay for food and I have to get to the mission as quickly as I can because they're depending on me, all those children so sick with the fever and depending on me, all of them, and I've lost so much time already. You will help me, won't you Mr. Lancer?"
He grinned again. "Are you all alone out here?"
"No, Mr. Lancer. God is with me."
"Unless God's carrying a gun, I'm calling that alone." He watched for a reaction, but was satisfied to see only the warm smile that lit her face. "Let's take a look at that horse." Johnny moved past the woman to the chestnut, grabbing its reins and soothing it with a pat on the neck and a few quiet Spanish words whispered to it. His hands glided down the horse's legs, around its hooves and across its back. Then he parted the horse's lips and gave its mouth a quick examination. Finally, he sighed softly and rubbed the chestnut's ear.
"Sister, you say you bought this horse in Red Rock?
"I'm afraid I couldn't afford much, but the nice gentleman at the stables found this horse for me and gave me the saddle and bridle."
"Did he know where you were heading?" Johnny's eyes had narrowed and he looked away from the woman as he asked.
"I told him about the mission and he knew how desperately they needed me there." Sister Anne sounded puzzled by his question.
"How much did you pay?"
Johnny nodded his head. "Well, Sister, I'm guessing that man wasn't no Catholic."
"No," she said, shaking her head slowly, "I don't believe he was. But why..?"
Johnny patted the chestnut's neck and began walking toward Barranca.
"Why, Mr. Lancer? What's the matter with the horse?" Sister Anne asked, following just behind him.
He tossed his answer over his shoulder as he pulled his rifle from the scabbard on Barranca's saddle. "Cause he took your twenty five dollars and sent you out here to die. That horse wouldn't get you half way to that mission. He's old and broken down and the only thing to do now is put him out of his misery."
Once again, he was quietly pleased by her lack of reaction. He had expected an argument. A few defensive words, maybe some tears. But they didn't come. She only set her hands on her hips and considered the horse for a few seconds, then started in stripping her personal items from where they were tied behind the chestnut's saddle. She made a pile on the river bank, her bedroll, saddle bags, a small cedar box and three canteens.
"Those full?" Johnny asked, eyeing the canteens.
"Two are." The woman bent to pick up the third one and headed with it toward the river.
As she walked away, Johnny lifted the rifle to his shoulder and put the barrel inches from the horse's head, held low and ears folded back. The white of its eye showed as the chestnut looked back at the man. Johnny pulled the trigger and stepped back as the horse fell heavily to the ground.
Sister Anne didn't flinch. From the edge of his vision, Johnny saw that she never turned at the sound of the shot, but only knelt at the river's edge and dipped the canteen into its flow. He tossed the saddlebags over his shoulder, wedged the bedroll and the box under his arm and grabbed the rest in his hands, leaving the carcass behind and carrying his burden back to the palomino. He dropped it all next to Barranca.
"Any of this we can leave behind?" Johnny called to the woman. She turned to look at the pile and he thought he saw her first fleeting look of disappointment.
"It's mostly clothes in the saddlebags. A little bit of candy for the orphans. . . and some jerky. Is there room for the food in your bags?" She was standing now and walking toward him. "Oh, and my shoes and stockings!"
He might have imagined the slight blush that came to her cheeks as Sister Anne looked down at her bare toes and wiggled them in the dirt, but Johnny had the momentary good grace to hand her the saddlebags rather than retrieve the stockings himself.
"Thank you, Mr. Lancer. Would you mind turning your back?" He did as he was asked, focusing on repacking his saddlebags with her provisions. When he turned back she looked the proper picture of a proper nun, complete with stockings and shoes.
"What's in the box?" he asked, rattling it in his hands and listening for the soft thud as the items shifted.
"Quinine. There was an outbreak of fever at the orphanage," she answered, taking the box from his hands and pulling the latch open. "And money."
Johnny whistled at the wad of bills stuffed into the box. "It was two thousand dollars. Now it's nineteen hundred and seventy-five," Sister Anne continued, with a glance back at the dead horse. "We had a wealthy benefactor who wanted to help the children and they desperately need the money. How long will it take us to get to San Pedro Mission?"
There wasn't any plea in the eyes that turned to Johnny, just patient expectation, and he bristled at the sense of being given orders. "We ain't goin'," he snapped. "I'm taking you back to Red Rock and putting you on a stage to Sacramento. I guess there's a priest there who can figure out what to do with you."
"I'm not going back," she quietly insisted. "I'm going to the orphanage."
"No, you're not. I've got places to be and I'm not totin' you all that way." Johnny took the money and the quinine and stuffed them both into his already full saddlebags, tossing the box into the weeds beside them.
"Then give me back my things. I'm walking." She reached for the saddlebags and Johnny pushed her hands away.
"You're not walking to that mission."
"Yes, I am, Mr. Lancer. Give me my things." She reached again and he grabbed her wrist, pulling her toward him and staring down into her firmly set face.
"Listen, lady. On foot that's at least four days' travel. It's hot, there's rattlers, can't tell if you'd find any water and if the sun don't get you, once you hit the mountains, the pumas will. You're comin' back to Red Rock with me."
"Are you finished?" Sister Anne asked, looking at his hand around her arm.
He held on. "Are you coming with me?"
"I go with God. His work is at the mission."
He looked into her eyes and saw it. The same immovable obstinacy that had sent him into exile in this desolate place. A week ago back at Lancer. Right after the disaster with the bull in Morro Coyo and right after Murdoch had received the bill for the damages. This woman wasn't listening to reason any better than his old man.
"I don't have the time, Sister. You gotta go back." He said the words, but his determination was losing ground. She heard it and took the advantage.
First she smiled, a delightful, bright smile that beamed up at him. Then she clasped her free hand around the fingers he still held wrapped around her wrist. "You'll take me, Mr. Lancer."
"No, ma'am. I won't."
Her smile didn't fade. "I'll fill your canteens," she offered, jiggling the two containers hanging from Johnny's saddle. One was already full and the other she took from the saddle horn, carrying it to the river and sinking it into the stream. Johnny grabbed her things, then scrambled with them up the embankment, leading an awkwardly lunging Barranca behind him. At the top, he paused to hook her canteens to the saddle horn, then folded her bedroll into a cushion and laid it across the horse's flanks. It was less than a minute before Sister Anne crawled up the steep bank, slipping on the loose soil and using both arms and legs to make it to the top.
"Are we ready to start for San Pedro?" she asked. Johnny answered with an exasperated sigh as he added her newly fillled canteen to the others on the pommel. He pulled himself into the saddle, then reached down to take the woman's forearm and lift her as she swung behind him onto the horse. Barranca stood patiently for just a moment as Sister Anne tugged her skirt into a more modest arrangement.
Johnny cupped his hand over his eyes to watch the sun move overhead. It was late morning and the sun hadn't quite reached its high point. It was heading toward those rises in the distance, to the west. Red Rock was that way and so was Lancer. The town was a ten hour ride at best, but reachable before night fell hard. The San Pedro mission was more than a day's, most likely two days' ride east All told, it would put him four days off schedule and Murdoch was waiting for the contract he was carrying in his bags. Four days with this saddle under him, broiling in that sun, when he could be sitting in a cool saloon, killing a bottle of tequila, and still make it back in time to keep the old man happy. Four days out of his way.
He felt Sister Anne's arms slip around his waist and hold loosely to him and he looked again toward the west, toward Red Rock and its cool saloon. Four days. That and Murdoch to face when he got home late. Four days. "Aw, hell," he told himself silently. "Murdoch's been mad before." And he turned his horse east, into the sage and rocks and dust of the trail to San Pedro.
She was silent for hours, so silent that at times Johnny almost forgot he had a nun riding behind him on Barranca's haunches. The sun had passed overhead and was sending their shadows to lead them and still he hadn't heard her voice. Johnny finally broke the silence.
"What kind of fool are you, anyway?"
"I assume you'll tell me, Mr. Lancer."
He heard the amusement in her answer and it rankled him. "You couldn't have no sense, starting out for that mission on your own."
"I wasn't alone."
"I know," he said, looking back over his shoulder at her. "God was with you."
"Yes.... and Father Patrick. We left San Diego together last week and made it as far as Red Rock. Father died in his sleep. It was very peaceful. I saw to his burial, and there didn't seem to be any other way, so I bought that unfortunate horse and prayed for an angel. And God sent you."
Johnny raised an eyebrow. "I already told you I ain't no angel."
"Yes," Sister Anne agreed. "You did tell me that."
"Meanin' you don't believe me?"
"No, I don't, Mr. Lancer."
"You know, I could be planning to kill you for that two thousand dollars," he drawled. "You know that don't you?"
She laughed, a light, happy sound. "It's nineteen hundred and seventy five dollars. And if you're trying to scare me, it's not going to work."
"Why not? I've had plenty scared in my day, you know. Tough men, too."
"I don't doubt it," she teased. "I can see you're quite the ruthless killer. There, does that make you happy, Mr. Lancer?"
It might have been the rocky incline that delayed his response for those few seconds. Barranca had to carefully pick his way down the steep slope and Johnny guided him with a sure hand on the rein. Maybe it was that distraction that held the words that finally came. "No, it doesn't," Johnny softly answered.
"Then you'll have to be my angel," Sister Anne insisted. "And God bless you for it."
He barely noticed her words as a black dot came into view, moving against the horizon. It was too far away for his eyes to make out much more than a number. One lone rider. But instinct told him the rest and he scanned the terrain for shelter. Nothing but sage, shallow washes and rocks. Not much that would stop a bullet or hide the woman holding on around his gun belt.
As the minutes passed, the dark form began taking shape. He was moving slowly on a black horse, hat pulled low against the sun. He wore a cowhand's clothes, dark jeans, dusty blue cotton shirt and red bandana at his neck. Something wasn't right, though, and Johnny could feel it prickling at the hairs on his neck. Maybe it was the way he rode his horse. Just a bit at odds with its gait. Maybe it was the sun glinting off the metal at the man's side. Not a cowhand, Johnny told himself.
"Sister, can you move your right arm?"
She pulled both hands back. "Is something wrong?" she asked quietly.
"We got a visitor comin'. I want you to keep quiet," he ordered. "I'll do the talkin'. Just keep your hands away from my gun and if anything happens, hang on tight."
She stretched to look over his shoulder at the rider. "Do you think there'll be trouble?"
"Maybe," Johnny mumbled, as he moved his hand to rest just beside his holster. "Hush."
Sister Anne sank back onto Barranca's flanks and began a whispered monologue of words that were vaguely familar, but whose Latin meanings he couldn't say. He found the rhythm oddly settling, but whispered another "hush" as the rider grew close enough to tip his hat in greeting.
"Nice day, ain't it?" the man called out in a gravely voice.
"Bit cool for my taste," Johnny drawled.
The stranger reined his horse just before reaching the couple and pulled his hat from his head, wiping his sleeve across his brow and then fanning himself with the well-worn Stetson. "Been trying to stay warm all day," he answered with a lop-sided smile.
He had a gold tooth. The sun behind them made it glow under his roughly clipped mustache and Johnny felt that warning again. The fleeting shiver at the base of his neck. That tooth, the crooked scar just below his right eye, the squatty forehead--where had he seen this stranger before?
"Mite surprised to run across anyone way out here," the stranger said, cordially enough. "Where you folks headin'?"
"That away." Johnny pointed past the man with the vaguely familiar face and to the mountains far off in the east.
"Well, looks like you got a ride ahead of you."
Johnny nodded. "A few miles," he said. This was a dance he knew well, the nonchalant give and take that masked the deadly serious scrutiny. In the time it took to take one breath in and exhale again, Johnny had registered all he really needed to know to move his hand closer to his colt. The man's cheeks were newly reddened and just beginning to fade into tanned, making a timeline for his ride across this desert. Maybe a day, maybe a bit more under this sun. Head east for those hours and that got you to the mission. The hands were smooth, giving him away as a man who didn't work for a living, least not the kind of work that meant good and honest sweat. And the gun. Worn at the handle, low on the hip. A professional's tool. Johnny tried hard to remember. Modesto? Brownsville? He couldn't catch hold of that memory and he wondered if the stranger already had.
"Ma'am?" The man was tilting in his saddle, looking to the right and past Johnny to Sister Anne perched behind him. "You needin' any help?"
She spoke before Johnny could stop her. "I'm perfectly all right. Thank you, mister....?"
"Evans, Ma'am. Cody Evans." He still held his Stetson in his hand and he lifted it at the introduction, tipping it in mid-air.
The memory caught. El Paso. A poker game gone bad. One man dead and Evans walking away, a five hundred dollar pot in his pocket and his palmed ace part of the hand that lay scattered across the floor.
"We best be moving on, Mr. Evans. Still got those miles to cover." Johnny spurred his horse lightly and reined Barranca to move around the gun man and his standing horse. His parting words were delivered with a carefully casual smile. "Be careful of those jackrabbits."
Cody Evans didn't move, not at first. He just turned in his saddle and watched them ride away, a sardonic grin spreading slowly across his face. Johnny kept that face and the view of the man's gun hand just inside his field of vision, his head turned to the side and his eyes aimed back. He was watching him still when Evans shouted out his own warning across the growing distance, "You be careful too, Johnny Madrid."
Then Evans laughed and spurred his horse into a trot, heading west into the lowering sun. Johnny watched him go, continuing to look back over his shoulder long after the man had disappeared on the other side of the horizon. Sister Anne's hands found their way back to his middle and he didn't object, but he did move his reins to his left hand. And when the murmuring began again, the Latin phrases whispered once and twice and so many times he had forgotten to count, Johnny didn't object then, either. Couldn't hurt, he figured. By this journey's end, they might be needing all the prayers Sister Anne could say.
They made good time, even riding double. Sister Anne didn't complain and the only minutes they lost were to rest Barranca, pausing when they found some shade in the shadows of a ravine. The breaks weren't long. Just time enough for a few swigs of water, some stretching, and one awkward attempt at privacy for the sister. She was always more than willing when Johnny would whistle for his horse and the journey would start back up again. Their conversations were brief and few and Johnny was glad for that. She asked several times about the trail to the mission and he described the mountain pass that lay between them and the orphanage. And she talked about the children, imagining their fevers and wondering if her medicine would be in time to help. Mostly, though, they rode in silence, moving across the desert mile by mile as it lifted into higher ground and the canyon walls rose up around them. They were in the mountains by the time the sun to their backs had turned an orange blush across the sky.
"Are we going to ride through the night?" Sister Anne asked then, not a hint of regret in her voice.
Johnny pointed to a clutter of boulders ahead. "We'll camp there. You about ready for some jerky and some shut eye?"
The yawn betrayed her. He felt her hand leave his waist and go to her mouth to stifle it, but it lasted long enough to convince him that the sister had reached the end of her endurance. Probably hadn't slept much the night before, alone on the trail, and riding with just a blanket between her and the horse couldn't have been easy. He was tired, too, he had to admit, if only to himself. Not much chance of sleeping tonight, though. Evans was still a worry and Johnny didn't like the idea of sharing guard duties with a nun.
At the rocks, Johnny slipped from Barranca's saddle and reached back to lower Sister Anne to the ground. She wavered for a moment before finding her legs again and thanking him for his help. He smiled as she walked unsteadily to a flat boulder and sprawled across it.
"Save yourself, Mr. Lancer," she laughed lightly. "I'm afraid I'll never walk again."
"You might try massagin' your legs a little. Get some blood back in 'em." He was already unsaddling his horse and rubbing him down with a rough rag. "Don't sit still too long or you'll stiffen."
"Do you think the next week will be too long?"
"Will be if you want to get to that mission." He was quiet until he had finished with Barranca and tied him to a small, gnarled bush. "Sister? You said the priests at that mission know you're coming, right?"
"Yes, Mr. Lancer." She sat up, seeming to notice the edge in his voice.
"They know about the two thousand dollars?"
"Yes, they do."
"You think they'd keep that a secret? I mean, they wouldn't go around talkin' about it front of strangers, would they?"
Sister Anne considered his question carefully. "Do you think Mr. Evans knows about the money?" she finally asked.
"That's what I'm asking you, Sister." Johnny tried to keep his voice casual, but he saw the way her eyes followed him as he carried a canteen, the saddle bags and the bedrolls to a spot near her rock.
"I don't know, Mr. Lancer," she answered quietly. "I hope not."
He nodded. "Be back in a minute. Gotta get some firewood." And he was off to the surrounding rocks, gathering the few branches and twigs he could find. It was more than a minute before he made it back to their camp. He had been worried about scaring her, but he smiled at himself when he saw her. Already wrapped in her blanket, stretched out on the ground, back against a boulder and snoring sweetly. Couldn't be too worried.
Johnny built his small fire and chewed his jerky as the stars spread out across the sky. He couldn't see much farther than the reflections of the flames dancing on the rocks, so he relied on his ears to follow the movements of the night and kept his eyes on the glittering heavens. A thousand stars and more, but even that not enough to light the enormity of the canvas above him. It was an old game, picking out a black spot in the sky and watching it until the light came. And it always did-- a glow that was hidden there all along, waiting for him to find it. Waiting to be coaxed from the emptiness and coming to him in its own time, on its own terms. But still it came, making him feel both small against the wonder of those thousand stars and powerful because the least of them, the lights that existed on the farthest edges of the heavens and the darkest parts of night, showed their face to him, only to him. There was a sliver of a moon this night and the skies were alive with the stars.
He heard her voice, soft against the darkness. "Why did Evans call you Madrid?"
Johnny turned his eyes from the skies and toward Sister Anne, still stretched out in her blanket, but now lying on her side, one arm angled up and her head balanced on her palm. Her headdress was gone and her short, blonde hair fell in her eyes.
"Thought you were asleep," he half whispered across the fire to her.
"Was. Wish these rocks would soften up a little." She gave him a small smile and asked again. "Why Madrid?"
"Cause I used to be Madrid." He poked at the fire, breaking a branch in half and adding both pieces to the flames. They caught quickly, giving the fire new life. "Seems like a long time ago."
"Was it so long ago?"
He shook his head. "No ... about a year."
"Everything." His eyes crinkled and the tilt of his head set his smile at an angle. "Used to be I didn't have much of anything. A pistol and a saddle, that was pretty much it. Madrid was a hired gun and he was good. Damned good."
Sister Anne didn't seem to notice the curse and Johnny didn't think to be embarrassed by it. He was somewhere else for the moment, not sitting by a meager fire in a lonely mountain pass, but far away.
"Now you have more?" She yawned and rolled over, crossing her arms under her head and closing her eyes again.
"I got a ranch couple of days west of here. A sister, brother and my old man."
"Yeah. So now I'm Lancer." He pulled a twig from the small pile in front of him and started in stripping the leaves from it. "Most days, anyway."
"Changing our lives. Following His commands."
The snort interrupted Sister Anne and she turned her head to find Johnny's wry smile. "Did I say something funny?" she asked.
"His commands...you've never met Murdoch. My father. He's got more orders than that bible of yours has pages."
She laughed gently. "That was the best part of being an orphan. One less commandment to worry about. I didn't have to honor my mother or my father."
"How old were you?" he asked, looking at her with sympathy.
"Four. My parents died from the fever and my brothers found new homes. I went to the orphanage."
"Where are your brothers now?"
"I don't know. There were three of them and they went to three different homes. I don't know where they are now."
Johnny looked at her face, as much as he could see in the flickering light of the flames. He didn't find any sadness there. "So you went from living with the nuns to being one?"
"Yes," she answered quietly. "How long were you at the orphanage, Mr. Lancer?"
The twig he was holding snapped and his eyes shifted down, then back to the woman lying against the boulder. "What makes you think I've been there?"
"You seemed to know, earlier, while we were riding." She didn't look at him as she spoke. Her eyes had closed again and her voice was low, a soothing music in the night. "I was talking about the children and you knew about the little things. The way they depend on each other, the sense of having so many mothers and really having none. Being alone. Sometimes they cry in the middle of the night. I can hear them from my room, but I don't know which child it is, there's just so many of them. I should know which one is hurting. They deserve that. If a child is sick or lonely, he should have someone who knows. One person who matters...who finds the hurt and makes it better." She was silent for a just a moment and then she asked again, "How long were you there?"
"Not long," he mumbled. "A few months. The padre and I didn't see eye-to-eye."
She smiled under her closed eyes. "Just like you and your father."
"And how did you become a gunfighter?"
He bit his lip for a second before drawling his response. "Boy, you got a lot of questions in you."
Sister Anne turned to him then, opening her eyes and offering him an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, Mr. Lancer. I didn't mean to offend you, really I didn't."
"Johnny," he reminded her gently. "The name's Johnny."
"All right .... Johnny. Would you like me to leave you alone?"
"No." He shook his head and picked out another twig from the pile, stripping the leaves and bark from it as he found his next words. "Don't matter. Guess I turned into Madrid for the same reason I couldn't get along with that padre. Just plain mad at the world and I wasn't going to let anybody get the better of me. Not again."
"So you chose the gun?"
"Reckon that's about the size of it."
"And now you've chosen your family."
He shifted against the rock, bringing his knees up and stretching a stiff shoulder. "Yeah," he slowly agreed, "I guess that's mostly right."
At first it was a yawn that answered him. "You might wanta get some sleep," he told her. "We still got a long ways to go in the mornin'."
"What's it like, Johnny? Having a family?" She turned on her side, bending an arm and settling her head into the crook of her elbow. Again her eyes closed.
He heard the wistfulness in her voice. It was the first time she had shown that weakness, any weakness, and he tried to find an answer for her. His family. A word he couldn't have used only a year ago. Family. How could he tell it so that she could understand? The sameness of it. Same voices, same faces, same laughter there for him every morning, every night. The ease of it, knowing just how hard to push Scott, just how far to tease Teresa and just when a smile makes it all easy again. And the struggle of it, every day, giving in...taking orders...fighting the cattle, fighting Murdoch and fighting himself, that damn stubborn voice inside him that just wouldn't quit being mad.
"I guess you said it," he finally answered. "Like knowin' you're not alone. If you're hurtin'... and even if you ain't....you're not alone."
"Sounds nice, Johnny," she murmured drowsily.
"Go to sleep."
"Umm?" was the quiet response. Her breathing was already settling into the rhythm of sleep.
Johnny whispered his reply. "Goodnight, Sister." And he laid his head back against the rock, looking upward once again. Skyward, into the thousand lights. The sounds of the night came to him--the far off call of a coyote, the slight rustle of the sage in the dry breeze, but nothing to move the colt from his holster. No sign of Cody Evans. Only the stars above and a nun snoring softly on the other side of the fire. Johnny let the flames fade into embers and watched the stars fill the sky.
He wasn't watching when the night sky turned to day. He hadn't meant to close his eyes.
It was the muffled clicks that brought his eyes open again, the colt in his hand, the hammer cocked, all before the few minutes sleep had truly left him. His finger held against the trigger as he blinked away the haze.
"Did I wake you?" Sister Anne was looking at him from the other end of his barrel, her rosary beads twisting through her hands and the dangling loop of them clicking softly as they moved. If she had flinched when the pistol swung toward her, he hadn't seen it. The face looking toward him now, once again framed by her nun's headdress, held only a quiet composure.
Johnny holstered his gun and stood, looking down at the kneeling woman. "Sister, next time a man points a gun at you, you might want to duck."
"I'll remember that," she said with a warm smile. "But I know you couldn't shoot me."
"Wouldn't be so sure about that." He was scratching his head as he spoke and indulging in the stretch that should have been his first move of the day, rather than drawing down on a nun. "How long was I asleep?"
"Not long, Mr. Lancer."
"Johnny. I told you my name is Johnny." His eyes moved to the rocks, scanning the boulders and the cliffs, watching for a glint of sun against metal or a shifting movement. There was nothing.
"Do you think he'll come after us... Johnny?"
He stopped to consider his answer. Truth was that he just didn't know. Two thousand dollars was a lot of money if the odds were short and Cody Evans was a betting man. He'd be weighing the money against the gun Johnny had strapped on his hip. Throw in a nun as a wild card and Evans may be thinking the pot was his for the taking. Maybe he was right, the way Johnny was slipping. Should have never fallen asleep. That careless mistake wouldn't have happened a year ago, not before Johnny Madrid started getting soft. Another dumb move like that could get them both killed.
"Can't tell. Maybe he's comin'."
"Shouldn't we get started then? I didn't care for the looks of that man."
A wry smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "You trying to make me jealous, Sister? You afraid of that man and not me?"
"No, Johnny, you don't scare me. Not you."
He was tempted to tell her she was wrong, that she should be afraid. That he was dangerous. Time was when he might have weighed a man's life against the take, just like Evans. Staying just this side of the law. Just. It was still there, pieces of it. He still found comfort in the familiar colt waiting in its holster. Still chased a hollow feeling that wouldn't quite stay put. But there was more now and he couldn't say it. Couldn't tell her she was wrong. He bent to pick up his bedroll, quickly folding it into a tight bundle. "Well, ma'am, like I said . . . can't see that you have much sense."
Sister Anne stood too, with her blanket hanging over one arm and the saddlebags in her other hand. She shook her head as she passed him on the way to Barranca. "Maybe, Johnny ... but I know you and you're my angel from God."
"Now, see," he scolded, wagging his finger at her as he followed her to the horse, "that's just what I'm saying. There you go making up your mind about a man before you know anything about him. You wouldn't last ten minutes down in those border towns."
"Is that where you were from?" She dropped her burdens and walked back for the canteen. Johnny set in to saddling his palomino.
"Yeah," he answered, eyes looking over the horse's withers, back the way they had come through the mountain pass. Dawn was still new and the sun was just sending long shadows across the craggy trail. "The border towns. Mexico. Not much of anywhere for too long, though." She was at his side again by the time he drew his eyes back from the path. He pulled the cinch strap tight and stroked Barranca's neck.
"And I suppose you were never wrong about a man, down there in those border towns?" She was teasing, glancing slyly toward him as she hung the canteen over the horn and slung the saddlebags across the haunches. Johnny moved next to her and shifted the bags, adjusting the weight to lie easy on the horse.
"Guess I was wrong about one man," he mumbled. "Had your breakfast, yet?"
"I'm not hungry."
"You slept through supper."
"I don't think you want to take the time for breakfast, Johnny."
He shook his head and pulled some jerky from the bags. Lifting himself and then her onto Barranca, he handed a piece back to the woman. "Eat," he ordered.
It didn't take much to urge the horse down the trail. Just the slight pressure of the knees and a single click of the tongue and they were heading up again, higher into the mountain. Behind him Johnny heard the sounds begin, the soothing chant of her Latin prayers, and when they ceased he felt the motion, a fluid curve of her arm moving from head to heart and shoulder to shoulder. And then she ate. They didn't speak again until her right hand slipped to his side, a gentle weight to match the other, lightly holding to either side of him just above the gun belt.
"There's more in the bags," he reminded her. "If you're still hungry."
"No, I"m fine. Will we be at the mission in time for supper?"
"Don't like my jerky, huh?"
"Just eager to get to the children. And to get the money safely there. I'm sorry if I've put you in any danger, Johnny."
"No need to be. I expect Evans is eating tamales in Red Rock by now."
They both fell quiet as the trail turned downward, the horse slipping on the scree and Johnny shifting his weight and tightening the reins to ease the horse past the dangerous stretch. Sister Anne held on as the horse jerked beneath her and she swayed on its flanks. The trail lifted again quickly, climbing to a narrow ledge with a sweeping view of the scrubby valley below. They were past that, too, and back in the narrow walls of the mountain pass when she spoke again.
"Who were you wrong about?"
"What?" Johnny half-turned, wondering at her question, but also searching quickly down the trail behind them.
"You said you were wrong about a man. Who was he?"
"You do have to know everything, don't you?"
The smile lit her voice. "I already know you won't shoot me, so I guess it's safe to ask."
"Told you not to be so sure." He would've smiled too, if he hadn't been thinking so hard about him. About the man he'd misjudged so badly.
"I'll take my chances," she laughed. "Who was he?"
Johnny resettled in the saddle and stared down at the rocks moving under the palomino's even gait. It was a long moment before he gave her the answer. "It was Murdoch," he finally said. "My old man."
"He's not what you thought he was?"
"Nope. Not what my mama said."
"What did she tell you?"
"That he didn't want us. Kicked us out.... both of us." He tried to keep it down, the jagged ache that came anyway and scraped his voice raw. He knew she heard it and he tensed, waiting for the awkward pity that would follow. Only it didn't come.
"But that wasn't true. That wasn't your father." It was a simple statement, given to him with a quiet certainty.
"No, but I didn't know that." Johnny forced back the memories. Of his mother, drunk on some stranger's tequila and crying in the blackness of a broken-down shack. Cursing his father and pouring the hate into the night, into him. Cursing him with those ugly visions. Violent rage, bitter accusations relived in her loathing. Leaving him with memories that should never have been his, but had taken hold inside him still. Of that moment, that singular moment when they were set adrift. The fragile mother and the half-breed child. He forced the thoughts back, knowing they were lies, knowing the truth of it now, but feeling the hate anyway.
"Sometimes I think God asks too much of us," Sister Anne murmured. "He wants us to forgive, but he leaves it to us to find the way."
"Can't say that I know what He wants from me," Johnny answered. "We're not on too close of speaking terms."
"When you're ready, Johnny. He'll be there."
It was small and sad, the smile that drove the harshest of the memories from his face. "Is that the way it was, Sister? Was God there when your mama and daddy died? When they sent you to that orphanage? And was He with you when that dried-up old horse left you on foot in the desert?"
She took in a breath and Johnny braced for the fight, wanting it even. It was safer ground, the anger he thought would come.
But instead she laughed. Not a sarcastic, edgy sound, but a gentle, warm laughter. "Oh, my friend.... yes, He was there. Every moment, every day. Even when He seemed so far away, His love was there. And when I felt so all alone, He sent His angels." Her hand left his side for a few seconds, not longer, and he wondered what she had needed it for. Maybe to smooth her skirt or to brush away a gnat. It didn't matter, it was only idle curiosity, but he was glad when he felt it at his side again.
"Did you know them when they came, Johnny? His angels. I know he sent them."
"Ain't no angels in the border towns, Sister."
"Yes, there are. Don't you remember?"
This time the smile wasn't quite so small or sad. He almost laughed at himself, feeling like a crazy man for even having the thought. Of that memory. Of him kneeling with the condemned, hearing the others thud like so many sacks of feed, worth just about as much to that firing squad. Living men turned to inconvenient bodies to be hauled off to a common grave. His turn next. His bullet next. And then a wagon, careening wildly toward them, driven by that man. The portly man in the well-tailored suit. The man who paid for his salvation with Murdoch's bribe.
"Do you remember the angel?" she asked again.
"Yeah, I do," Johnny chuckled softly. "He was a Pinkerton man."
She was satisfied, then, and finally quiet. Johnny left her alone to her silence and worried at the puzzle. His old man. The skinflint who'd wasted his precious dollars time and time again on an empty search, looking for one lost boy. The abandoned father finally found, but still hiding. He didn't really know him. The impatience, yes, he knew that well enough. And the disappointment, that showed, too. He knew his old man expected more from him and he tried, he really tried. Pushing himself harder, swallowing his pride, reining in his anger. He really tried. But it was never good enough and then everything would fall apart, ending just as it did a week ago. Murdoch red-faced and him gone, this time to exile in the barren desert. Putting time and distance between the father and the son, both adrift again. Her words came back to him now and deep inside he knew. He asks too much.
They had reached the peak of the mountain
pass and were heading downward now, the sister sliding forward on the horse,
nearer the saddle, and Barranca's wind easing just a bit. The sheer
walls lowered as the trail widened into an open path and Johnny turned
more often, watching up the slope, anxious of the threat that might not
come. Might not be following just behind those boulders, gold tooth
glinting in the sun. He should have rested the palomino, but he didn't.
He kept pushing, knowing the horse would forgive him and feeling it again.
That prickling at his neck. The nagging sense that he never should
have been on that trail, not with a nun behind him and nineteen hundred
and seventy-five dollars in his bags. But the choice was made and
he kept Barranca moving downward, away from Cody Evans and toward the mission,
as she held lightly to his side.
Finally, they had to rest. Johnny read it in the horse's step, in the wetness seeping from his withers. He couldn't push him any harder and he started searching for some shelter. He found it under an overhanging ledge. Johnny guided Barranca under the cool shade and slipped from the horse, letting the reins fall to the rocky ground. Then he turned to Sister Anne, who looked down at him with a grimace.
"Are my legs supposed to be able to move? I don't remember." She kept her place on the horse's flanks and looked longingly at the ground.
"Come on," Johnny encouraged her with a chuckle. "I'll catch you."
"You wouldn't drop a nun, would you?"
He cocked his head and lifted an eyebrow. "Trust me," he said.
Leaning sideways, toward his outstretched arms, Sister Anne slid clumsily from the horse. Her legs buckled when she landed and she tilted forward, into Johnny's chest. His hands held her from falling and she managed to straighten, pushing herself from him and hiding a shy smile beneath her lowered face.
"Think you can make it?" he asked, dropping his eyes from that smile.
She laughed then, glancing up and taking her first slow steps deeper into the shade. "I'll have to. I remember what you did to that horse when he came up lame."
He followed her into the shelter of the
overhang and sank down against a boulder. "Thought you weren't afraid of
me," he said.
"Well, maybe a little," she answered softly, searching for a flat rock and finally giving up. She dropped to the hard ground and stretched her legs straight out, the air leaving her in an exasperated sigh. "Is he coming?"
Johnny's eyes had been on the path they just covered, the upward winding view of rocks, cliffs and shadows. The air shimmered with the heat rising from the stone, but that was the only motion. No breeze to stir the sage brush, no birds riding the currents from the ravines, nothing at all moving in his sight.
"Don't think so," he answered. "I bet 'ya Evans doesn't even know about that money." His eyes finally moved back to the sister, her legs splayed as a rag doll's and her face scrunched up. "Where do you hurt?"
"Everywhere," she muttered.
He grinned. "Where do you hurt the most?"
Sister Anne's lips tightened as she tried to keep a smile from spreading. "Decency doesn't allow me to say." And then she blushed and let loose her own grin.
Johnny couldn't help it. His laughter bounced off the rocks, the worries leaving him in waves of cheerful echoes. Evans wasn't coming. There would have been a sign by now, but there wasn't a damn thing behind them except lizards and heat. And his only problem now was this nun with hurts in places nuns aren't supposed to have places. Johnny let his shoulders slump and leaned his head back against the rock, closing his eyes and leaving a peaceful smile on his face. "Guess nuns don't do much ridin'," he said.
"No, not in St. Louis."
The lids stayed closed. "Is that home?"
"It was." Sister Anne leaned forward and half-crawled the few steps to where Johnny had laid a canteen next to him. She uncorked it and took a long drink before adding, "I only came to California three months ago."
"Why? Don't they have enough orphans to keep you busy back there in St. Louis?" Johnny opened one eye to see her expression, then shut it again when he found her looking back at him with amusement.
"Yes, but there aren't near enough smart-mouthed cowboys there. Here, catch..." She recorked the canteen and tossed it into his lap, bringing Johnny's head up and a new laugh to echo from the overhang.
"Just how many do you need?" He took a couple of swigs, glancing sideways over the canteen at her.
"One is about all I can handle."
Johnny lowered the canteen, recapped it and looked at her steadily. He could see she was waiting for him to speak and finally he did, waving a pointed finger at her habit and drawling, "How did you ever get stuck in that outfit, anyway?"
She looked down at her clothes and back up at him. "The church doesn't give us much choice in what we wear."
"You know what I mean," he interrupted, shaking his head. "How'd you end up being a nun? You don't act much like the nuns I remember."
"And what were they like?" Sister Anne settled cross-legged on the hard rock, pulling her shirt down over her legs, crooking an elbow onto each knee and laying her chin in her hands.
"Big." Johnny spread his hands wide apart. "I remember them being really big. And old and mean. Can't remember any of those nuns ever laughing." He paused just a heartbeat before adding, "You laugh."
Sister Anne simply smiled.
"I fell in love."
"There was a boy.... he was only five," she explained, looking down now, at the cracks in the stone slab. "He had the sweetest smile and such little hands. He'd put his hand in mine and I felt like a giant, as if I had all the power in the world. He called me Sissy. Mother Superior told me I shouldn't let him call me that, but I liked it. Sissy."
"How old were you then?" Johnny leaned his head against the rock again, watching the sister under drooping lids.
"Fifteen. I hadn't taken my vows yet and I was helping at the orphanage. This boy had lived there since he was six months old and it was all he knew. We were his whole world."
"He died. It was a cold winter and most of the children had the flu. He got sick and one morning I tried to wake him, but he wouldn't open his eyes. I held his hand for hours and finally he was gone."
"So that was it? A boy dies and now you're a nun?"
"No," she argued, frowning at the ground. "I'm not saying it right. What I mean is... I fell in love with God that day. With the power of his love, the way it changes things. Johnny, that little boy thought I could do anything and in the end, all I could do is give him love. It doesn't take away the hurt, but it's real. And it makes a difference."
"The boy's still dead."
"So what difference did you make?"
"He wasn't alone." She smiled then and rose to her feet. "Speaking of alone....I think I need some privacy."
Johnny jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "The powder room's over there." His line of sight found the trail again as she passed. He was searching for him, for Evans. There was nothing, though, and he gave it up, letting his eyes shut again and drifting into a hazy sleep.
Only a few minutes had passed. He knew it wasn't right, even as he felt it. Knew he was floating in his dreams and it wasn't him....wasn't Murdoch poking at his shoulder, pushing him to wake up. But he couldn't struggle free. He'd overslept, his slumber told him....missed his chores and Murdoch was mad as hell. Gotta wake up. Gotta get the old man off his back.... gotta....and then the world turned bright again. His open eyes turned to find her face above him... her light touch on his shoulder.
"Um?....yeah..." He rubbed his eyes and blinked several times, still trying to find his focus. "Sorry. I keep falling asleep."
"Just thank you," Sister Anne murmured. "Are you ready to go?"
"Sure." He pushed off from the rock, rising to his feet and leaning over again to grab the canteen from the rocks. "We still have a lot of miles to cover. Think you can make it back on my horse?"
"With a little help -- yes. I can make it."
Johnny nodded approvingly and left Sister Anne to wait in the shadows of the overhang as he sauntered to Barranca and took the hanging reins. He stroked the horses's neck and took one last look up the trail. A lonely buzzard rode the air current rising from the ravine, moving only a feather to bank into a sweeping, graceful circle. He watched it as it dipped into the ravine, disappeared, and came up again, stroking its wide wings in a heavy effort to escape a downward gust of air, then gliding again as it caught another rising flow. The buzzard was the only motion against the perfect stillness of rock and sky.
He checked the cinch strap and set his foot in the stirrup, lifting up as the horse stepped forward. He wasn't quite in the saddle when all hell erupted. The crack of a gunshot slammed off the stone walls, sending the horse into a wild spin. Barranca's hooves slipped on the smooth rock and the horse panicked, snorting and pawing, scrambling for his footing and losing it, his legs tilting beneath him. The horse hit the ground hard. Johnny kicked away, throwing his body as far as he could from the rolling bulk and twisting into the shards of rock exploding from the bullets, their sharp pings echoing from the rock walls, punctuating the deafening chaos of the rifle's report and the horse's shrill whinnies. His Colt had cleared his holster and he was firing into the cliffs before his mind had even locked onto the thought. Evans. Somewhere behind those rocks.
A bullet screamed past his ear and Johnny returned two, then lurched toward a boulder, pitching shoulder first into its safety and landing with a harsh thud on the rocks. He coiled into the shadows, jerking back when he felt it. Something soft and moving. His eyes ricocheted from the cliffs to the woman beside him.
"You all right?" he grunted.
"Yes." Her voice was steady enough.
"Can you see where he is?" He flattened himself against the boulder, holding his fire but keeping the Colt at ready, pointing upward toward those rocks. The ones just to the right of the trail, a good sixty feet away. "I thought I saw him there.....did you see anything?"
"No..... I was watching you." He heard the quiver then, but he didn't turn. He was searching now, his eyes skimming the area. His hat lay upright on the rocks where he had fallen. Barranca was gone, the saddlebags, water and rifle along with him. Johnny reloaded his pistol quickly, then counted the bullets left in his belt. There were only three.
"I gotta get higher than Evans." Johnny twisted against the rock, keeping his back against it and looking up now. The ledge above his head was both savior and devil, breaking Evan's line of fire, but also trapping them under its protection. "Those rocks.... if I can get past them maybe I can get up this mountain."
Johnny pointed to a tumble of stones and scree aiming downward from the cliff and Sister Anne reached for his arm, holding it a second. "No," she whispered. "You can't go."
"You'll be fine... just stay put."
She shook her head and whispered again, "No..," but he was flat against the boulder again, head high toward those far-off cliffs as the voice boomed across the trail.
"Throw out your gun, Madrid."
Johnny eyes swept the cliffs, seeing nothing, and he bellowed, "Throw down yours, Evans."
A disembodied laugh echoed through their dusty recess and Johnny struggled to find its direction. "Not today, Madrid," Evans called out. "Don't want to see that pretty little nun hurt....all I want is the money."
"What money?" Johnny pushed up against the rock, sliding higher until his line of sight cleared the boulder. At first there were only rocks, then.... there...the outcropping, just above that hollow spot. Something moved.
"I'll take any money ya' got, Johnny Madrid, but I'm counting on the sister's two thousand dollars."
"Don't have it." Johnny sighted on that spot, his colt resting against the boulder, ready for the man to show.
"I know you're carrying that money."
"No, Evans," Johnny shouted. "My horse has it .... and he's most likely half way to Nevada by now."
A slight flash of blue and Johnny fired. Sister Anne jerked at his shoulder, then the blue vanished, maybe falling, maybe gone, leaving only rock again. Johnny waited, barely breathing. Listening and hearing only the sound of his own heart, beating fast and hard. He felt her hand again, gently pressing at his back.
"Is he dead?"
Johnny shook his head. "Sshh," he hushed her, and listened again. Could have been a rock sliding, just then. Wasn't sure, but could be. Then silence. Long minutes of only silence, so still the sound of her exhalations came to him and he counted them, marking time by them and becoming lost in their steady beat.
"Johnny?" She sounded scared.
He sank back behind the rock and slid a new bullet into the empty chamber in his Colt. Now there were two bullets in his belt. "He's still there," he mumbled.
"How do you know?"
"I know." And he was back against the rock, pistol aimed again at those cliffs, waiting.
It was an insistent whisper, close beside him. "Let him pass, Johnny. Let him go after your horse and take the money."
"No. It won't work." He wiped a sleeve across his forehead, rubbing the sweat from it, and watching again. "He'll kill us anyway."
"So you're going to kill him?" She was calmer now, settling deeper behind their rock.
"I'm sure going to try."
He felt the motion more than saw it, Sister Anne kneeling just beside him, her shirt folding over the toe of his boot, head bending toward his knee and arm brushing his leg as she signed the cross. It wasn't Latin this time. She prayed in English now, murmuring to the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. Johnny heard the words and tensed, not knowing why. They didn't last long. It was just a plea for his protection, her strength, but it rankled. He shouldn't be here, Johnny told himself. Shouldn't be out in this desert, shouldn't be toting a nun to that mission. None of it his doing. It was Murdoch... he sent him here, away from Lancer and out of the old man's sight. And she brought him to this boulder, her money drawing Evan's fire. He didn't want her prayers and never asked for God's defense. All the protection he trusted was right there in his hand, a bullet in its chamber.
"Evans," he shouted, breaking into her reverie. "Let's talk."
The buzzard soared above the cliff now, hovering at the outcropping where Evans had been and floating to an easy landing on the rock. It moved a few steps and stood still, as perfectly rigid as the stone around it. Evans didn't answer.
"Where is he?" Johnny muttered, searching again, following the ragged lines of the cliff, the edges of the rocks. Nothing. "Evans...." he yelled again.
"Why won't he answer?" Sister Anne asked, still kneeling at his feet.
"He's going for a new position. We can't stay here." Johnny grabbed her hand and yanked her to her feet, running now and dragging the nun behind him, moving toward the deepest hollow at the far end of their rocky recess. He threw his body against the hard wall and pushed her forward, down into the narrow gap between the stone and a craggy boulder. She wedged herself into the tight space, looking small and newly fragile. Johnny didn't know why he did it, but he reached out then, brushing a stray tuft of blonde hair back into her headdress. She barely seemed to notice.
"Are you scared, Johnny?" Her eyes were straight up, staring steadily into his own.
"Yeah," he mumbled. "You?"
"Yes." But she didn't look it, not to the man standing over her, his colt aimed toward a killer he couldn't find. Her mouth was set in a tight line and there was a strain around her eyes, but that's not what touched him now. It was the stillness that stirred him. The calmness of her hands, folded on her lap. The serenity of her face, open and trusting. Trusting God, trusting him.
Johnny tried a slight smile. "Well, don't forget you're with Johnny Madrid. And Johnny Madrid is damned good."
She reached for him, gently slipping a steady hand into his and holding to it for one brief moment. "It wasn't just your father," she whispered. "You were wrong about another man, too, Johnny.... back there in those border towns. He's better than you know." And then she moved away, pulling her hand and her eyes back to her lap, close and protected.
His mouth opened to say the words that nearly came, but he held them. No time, no need. She was wrong, that's all there was to it. He could see it, even if she couldn't, but he hadn't been able to tell this nun much of anything. Leaving her to her illusions wouldn't hurt now .
"Stay here," he ordered. "We're sitting ducks and I gotta go up, but I'll be back. Just don't move, no matter what."
She nodded and he was gone, crouching and running toward that wash of rocks that pointed up the mountain. He knew her prayers had already begun, but he wasn't counting on them. His colt was ready in his hand and his eyes were up the cliff, watching for the blue of Evans' shirt, the red of his bandana. The fire of his rifle.
The gravel slipped under him and he fell, making a bloody scrape across his left palm and clanking his pistol noisily on a rock. He scrambled up again, moving upward, higher on the cliff and toward the safety of those big slabs, the heavy bulks just above him. His eyes swept the points where azure sky met grey stone, searched the shadows, worked the craggy points. The ground was firmer and he was almost there, almost at those rocks, when the rifle report echoed across the mountain.
The bullet hit, knocking him backward and
floating for the briefest of seconds, arms outstretched, air rushing past
him. Then the stone slammed into him and he was tumbling, rolling
down the scree, sliding and twisting, trying to catch and losing the fight.
Everything spun into a muddle of blue and grey as sky and rock swirled
around him and sight and sound lost its boundaries, merging into one focus.
One thought. The steel in his hands. Don't drop the steel in
his hands. And then even that thought was gone as the sky went black,
the world sank away, and Johnny lay, loose limbed and bleeding, on the
flat stone ground.
He couldn't put it together at first. His head hurt like hell, he knew that for a fact. And he was lying on a woman's lap, soft feminine hands stroking his hair and a sweet voice whispering above him. He tried to make out the words, but as soon as he grabbed one another floated by and he couldn't hold on, couldn't keep them all at once, so he let them go. It was easy just lying there. Letting the music of her voice soothe him, getting lost in her touch. Easy to just sink into that soft comfort. But the worry wouldn't let him. Something was tugging at him, wanting him, and he fought to put it together.
He knew that voice....her voice, lightly pleading. He tried to reach for her hand, but couldn't make his body do what he said.
"Wake up, Johnny..."
She was crying. He didn't want her to cry, not her. Not his Anne with the laughing eyes. If only he could wake up he could make it better and he tried again, tried to answer, but he couldn't.
"He's coming.....you have to wake up....he's coming, Johnny..."
And there was the worry again, dragging him out of the darkness, pushing through the white pain in his head. Bringing him back to her, to her sweetness. Only that wasn't right either and Johnny couldn't quite make the pieces fit together.
He groaned and she laid a damp palm on his cheek. "Johnny...please get up.....please." Her face flickered at first, as his lids tried to open, failed, then tried again. And finally he was awake, looking up into the glistening green of her eyes. He felt her cross, dangling from her neck and laying against his head, and it came back to him then, why it wasn't right. Not her sweetness. Not the coming back to her. And the pain suddenly worsened, an intense sensation that drove all thought from him for that moment, just a moment, and made him gasp. Johnny raised a hand to his head and felt the wetness there, seeping from a ragged place. The bullet must have grazed his forehead and he could feel the furrow it left behind, a curious hollow where there should be skin and flesh.
"Get up, Johnny..." she demanded. Then her lap was gone and before his head could hit the stone her arms were surrounding him, wrapped beneath his arms and around his chest, and he was being dragged. He helped as he could, convincing his legs to do a small part and reaching with his arm to take her shoulder and half crawl, half fall the direction she pulled. They ended at the far wall of the rocky recess, a spot sheltered only slightly by a low boulder. She dropped him there, escaping easily from his grasping hands. And she was gone.
"Anne?" Johnny whispered, feeling the sound of his voice pound in his head. "Where...." But she didn't answer and he waited, listening for the soft, rapid thumps of her steps on the rock growing fainter and then closer again. And she was back, his abandonment ended, and the cool, smooth steel was pressed into his hand.
"You dropped your gun," Sister Anne explained.
"Where's Evans?" Johnny rasped.
"I don't know...I heard him, there were rocks falling down the mountain side. He's up there." She was at his head again, pulling him into her lap. She took the hem of her own skirt and wiped the blood from his eyes, then pressed the hem against his brow.
"How does it look?"
"Like you forgot to duck," she said. "You told me to duck when someone aims a gun at you."
It hurt to laugh, so he didn't, not after that first strangled attempt. But his face softened into a slight smile. "Guess we're back where we started."
She turned her face to the overhanging ledge above them and seemed to look right through it to the armed man somewhere on the other side. "Maybe he'll go away."
"But you don't think so."
He didn't answer. Instead, Johnny pushed her hand away and tried to sit up. He almost made it, before the sky and the rocks swapped places and he fell back again, into her arms. "Just lie still," she ordered, but Johnny wouldn't. He tried again, edging up more slowly this time and sliding back against the rock wall. He braced his foot against the boulder to push himself more erect, eyes closed to quiet the dizziness and breath coming fast against the pain.
He heard a rip and looked to find her tearing a piece of cloth from her skirt and folding it into a pad. She slid closer to him and pressed it against the torn flesh on his head. "I'm sorry I got you into this, Johnny. I had no right..."
"Stop," he interrrupted, holding his palm up toward her. "Just stop. This isn't your doing. I know Evans. I should've been ready for him and I let him get the drop on me. It was just a fool thing for me to do."
"Your hand . . .it's bleeding..." Sister Anne reached out to touch his palm, but she was too late. Johnny had closed it into a fist and pulled it back to his side before her fingers could reach him. Her hand lingered for a moment in the air, then went back to her lap.
"Scraped it on the rocks." It was nothing, really. Didn't even hurt. Just one more reminder of his useless charge up that cliff. The loose shale, a missed step and then the fall. Nothing compared to the ragged crease across his forehead. That was a worry and Johnny cussed himself for giving Evans the shot. But Sister Anne still stared at the hand he held curled at his side, her eyes rounded with her sadness.
"No, Johnny. I'm the fool," she said. "You saved my life, finding me in that desert. But I should have let you take me back to Red Rock. I wouldn't listen ... I never listen. It's my fault you're hurt."
"No." Johnny shook his head and regretted it as soon as the awakened pain moved through his skull. He inhaled and started over. "No. It was my horse. He goes where I tell him to."
She sighed and finally her eyes left his hand and went back to his head. She pulled the cloth away and checked the wound, pressing again at the oozing wetness. "You're bleeding pretty good. Head wounds always do. Does it hurt bad?"
"Not so bad," he lied.
"Can you see all right? The blood is dripping in your eyes."
The truth was that everything was shifting on him just a little, the world seeming to move half a beat slower than it should. He tried to see beyond their boulder, watching for Cody Evans. He was coming. Most likely there, right there at those rocks. Just at the bottom of the wash. Johnny's hand held tightly to his pistol and he watched those rocks, but they wouldn't stay put, not exactly. Might not matter, he told himself. Madrid was good enough for most men, even if they wouldn't stay just exactly where his eyes said they were. Aim for the middle and cut your losses. But he had seen Evans in El Paso. Evans wasn't most men and that hole he left in the dead man's head wasn't just a gambler's luck. It was dead-on center. Johnny rubbed his eyes and tried to make the rocks stand still.
"Johnny, are you all right?"
He didn't have to answer, Evans did it for him. The shout echoed off the rocks, but came from somewhere close. Too close.
"You're dead, Madrid." There was a cheerful tone to Evans' voice and it rankled Johnny. Damn it, he told himself, the man didn't have to be so sure of himself. "Might as well save that pretty little gal and throw down your gun."
Johnny pulled Sister Anne's head down and pushed her forward, flat against the shelter of the boulder. "Stay down," he hissed. Then louder, up into the cliff, he shouted, "If you want my gun Evans, you can come and get it."
Evans laughed. "Just may do that, Johnny boy." And then there was silence, not even the sound of tumbling rocks or clinking spurs to give away the man's movement. Johnny moved closer to the boulder, laying his gun across its uneven top and pointing it toward those rocks, the ones at the edge of their shadowed recess.
"Do you see him?" Sister Anne asked.
"No." He rubbed a thumb across his eyes, working to wipe the fog from his eyes. He was losing it. The rocks were moving on him now, floating in and out of focus. He took a deep breath and tried again, tried to concentrate on that spot, but he couldn't. Not with the blood dripping down his brow and the pain pounding in his head.
"Can I help?"
"You might try saying one of your prayers. Maybe God will show up and smite Evans."
"He is here, Johnny. God is always here."
"Yeah?" Johnny whispered. "Well, I wish he'd brought a pistol."
And something flashed at the rocks. A swirl of blue and red, a flash of fire and Johnny squeezed his trigger. His shot went wild and the swirl was moving, twisting across the rocks and sending new explosions into the stone wall behind them. Johnny aimed and returned the fire, but he couldn't focus. He couldn't make the motion form a target, couldn't make his eyes find the man.
"Damn," Johnny mumbled, just before the burning slammed through his shoulder. He was thrown back, his pistol falling from his hands and tumbling off the side of the boulder, and he heard his name, whispered urgently by the woman who held him again. Then he was in her lap, surrounded by her arms, and she was pulling at his shirt, finding the new hole, pressing at the new blood.
"Evans...." Johnny tried to get up, but his head wouldn't let him. "My gun.... where's my...."
"Hush, Johnny." Her voice was steady, but Johnny heard the steps and knew it was too late. And then he was there.
"Well, if this isn't just a pretty picture."
Johnny opened his eyes and struggled to focus through the haze. It was Evans, standing just above them by the low boulder, his rifle balanced casually in the crook of his arm and an irritating grin smeared across his face.
"Wait till I tell this story..." Evans' rumbling laugh echoed painfully in Johnny's head. "Johnny Madrid in the arms of a nun. The boys down in Sonora will be buying my drinks for weeks just to hear that one. Reckon I can afford to buy a few rounds, too. Awfully nice of you, ma'am....giving me your two thousand dollars, I mean."
"Just leave us alone, Mr. Evans. We don't have the money." Johnny could feel the anger trembling in her chest as Sister Anne tried to plead with the man. "He's hurt, our horse is gone and we can't do anything to you. Just go. You're welcome to the money. Just go away."
Evans squatted on the smooth ground, leaning his rifle between his knees and pushing his hat back on his head. A wad of tobacco must have been hidden in his cheek before, because the man started chewing on it now, rolling his jaw and twisting his face with the effort.
"There's no reason to hurt him anymore." Sister Anne wasn't giving up. "Just leave us a canteen, please. The horse couldn't have gone far. He was only frightened and he's probably just down the trail. The money is in the saddlebags. Please, just take the money. Please. Go away."
Evans spat. The dark brown stream landed on a nearby rock and he gave a satisfied nod. "Thank you, Ma'am. I'll be takin' your money, don't you worry your pretty little head over that. But I'm going to have to think on whether I should be leavin' you and your boyfriend here. Not sure that would be such a brainy idea. What do you think, Madrid?" And he stretched his mouth again, the gold tooth gleaming in the middle of the crooked, tobacco-stained grin.
"Just don't hurt her," Johnny mumbled, wishing he could make his voice stronger. "My horse won't come to you . . .leave her here . . . I'll get the horse for you."
"Is that your idea? I just leave this pretty little gal behind?"
"Leave her, Evans....I'll get your money."
The man's sudden snort made the sister jerk. "How you goin' to get that horse? Betcha can't even get your head outta that girl's lap. Not that I can blame ya' much for leavin' it there."
Evans eyed her now and Johnny felt the hairs raise on his neck. He ached for his gun and wondered where it had landed. Evans didn't have it. There was just the man's own pistol in his holster and that carbine between his knees. Johnny wanted to move his eyes, to search for the missing colt, but he didn't. Instead he stared steadily at Evans, watching as the man's gaze went past him to Sister Anne. It wasn't the look any decent man gave a nun and Johnny felt a panic rise inside him.
"I'll get the horse. You'll never get that two thousand dollars without me. He's a one-man horse. I'll get him." And then he tried to push up, off that hard ground and out of her lap. He managed to get his good arm under him and lifted his head, tilting his view of Evans and sending a knife-edged pain through his skull. His vision blurred and his stomach lurched dangerously, but he held on, fighting the dizziness. Struggling and hearing it, the rush of the blood in his ears. And he saw Evans sneer, just before the world left him.
She was looking down at him when his eyes opened again. It couldn't have been more than a few seconds. Evans hadn't moved, although he had set the rifle beside him on the stones. Another stream of tobacco hit the ground. "Feelin' just a bit poorly, are you, Madrid? Guess I'll have to take my chances with that horse. Now ma'am, if you'll just move away from your boyfriend, he and I have a little business."
Sister Anne didn't budge.
"Maybe you didn't hear me, miss. Set him down and get back over there." Evans pointed to the side and scowled. Again she didn't move and he lifted the rifle, pointing it at the two of them on the ground. "Saves me a bullet if'n you don't move, missy. Cause you're going to get what passes through him."
"I'm not leaving him," Sister Anne insisted. "You'll have to kill us both."
"Well, ma'am..." Evans laughed and held the rifle to his shoulder. "That idea ain't exactly new."
Johnny reached for Sister Anne's hand, grabbing and holding tightly to it. "Help me up," he whispered harshly.
"Do it." And he raised himself, dropping her hand and feeling it push at his back, lifting him and holding on when the world tilted again. This time he fought all the way through it, keeping his senses and feeling the small victory. He was sitting finally, and she had moved closer, keeping her hands around him. His shoulder was throbbing now, but it was still his head that worried him. That was the pain that threatened to yank the world away again, leaving her alone with him. With Evans.
"Well, guess you're feeling better, aren't ya'? Might want to do something about that bleedin', though." Evans waved a finger toward Johnny's shoulder. "Keep losin' blood like that and you ain't gonna be breathin' much longer."
"You worried about my health, Evans?"
"Why should I, when you got that nursemaid hanging onto you? Don't she remind you some of that little filly back in El Paso? The red-headed gal. She had green eyes and freckles, just like this one. Remember Sally?"
"Susie. You mean Susie."
"Yeah." He chuckled. "Never could keep a woman's name straight. Kinda makes 'em mean when you call them by another gal's name. Only Susie never was mean. That little gal and me had us a real good time." Evans grinned at the memory and wiped a hand across the sweat on his brow. "Susie... hadn't given her a thought in a month of Sundays. That little girl sure did know how to take a man's money and make him right proud to spend it. Don't this one remind you of her?" And he pointed again, wagging his finger toward Sister Anne.
"She's a nun, Evans." Johnny was searching the rocks, watching for the glint of his lost pistol and finding only dry dust.
Evans spat again, leaving a long brown trail across the grey stone. "Damn," he said. "I was aiming for that rock." Then he shrugged and eyed Sister Anne again. "Madrid, you telling me you ain't noticed how pretty this little gal is?"
He knew it was a pitiful response, even as he said it. Even as he sat there, barely staying upright, blood still oozing from his head and a fresh stain spreading from the new hole in his shoulder. His voice shook, but he had to say it. "You touch her and I'll kill you."
This time when he spat, the thick brown stain splatted against the targeted rock. "Got it," Evans said, then he stood. "Don't worry, ma'am. I'm just havin' a little fun with ole Johnny here. Now I got a job for you. If Madrid and me are gonna go after that money, I'm gonna need my horse. So you just walk a bit up that trail and you'll find him. Then you bring'em right back here and I'll be on my way."
Sister Anne looked up at the man and tightened her grip on Johnny. "I'm not leaving him."
"Go," Johnny said, twisting away from her, then crawling to the boulder and leaning back against it. The motion sent a stabbing pain across his shoulder, but he breathed a sigh of relief. The world stayed on an even keel. No dizzy tilting, no fading. Maybe he could hold it together. Maybe Evans really was a dead man.
She sat apart now, not moving. Her black dress was splotched with a crimson stain and a pink blush spread across the freckles of one cheek, his blood mingled with her tears. She looked at him, an unspoken question in her eyes. And he answered, despite Evans' nearness.
"Go," he said again. "Keep going. Take the horse and keep riding."
"No." She didn't move.
"Go." And Johnny nodded his head toward the trail.
Evans settled it for her, nudging her with the rifle's barrel, then grabbing her arm and pulling her to her feet. He was tall, standing a foot above her. Sister Anne seemed to dangle from his hand and Johnny fought the urge to tackle the man, knowing he had to wait. The time would come. Not yet. Hold on, Johnny told himself.
"You come on back here, little gal, or Madrid won't be seeing another sunset." Evans made his demand and dropped her arm. His hand went instead to his gunbelt and came up with his pistol, aimed at Johnny. "And you hurry on back, you hear?"
Sister Anne hesitated only a moment. Then she leaned toward Johnny and handed him a wet cloth. "Your shoulder," she said. "It's bleeding." And she turned, heading across the stone floor of their shady recess and into the sunlight. Johnny watched her as she walked up the trail, noticing now the torn hem of her dress and remembering how she had sacrificed it for him, for the wet pad he was sliding under his shirt, pressing against the wound. He closed his eyes and prayed that slight figure... that ragged skirt... would be his last image of Sister Anne.
"You think she'll leave you to die?" Evans was squatting again, pistol still pointed at him.
"No. But I wish she would." Johnny looked at him now, seeing the scar, a dark outline on his tanned face, and watching for the gold tooth. He found it when the sneer lifted the edges of Evans' mouth.
"How'd you end up totin' a nun?"
"It's the bull's fault," Johnny mumbled. "That damn bull and my old man."
Johnny stared at him for minute, then ignored the question. "Is two thousand dollars worth that much to you? You'd kill her, steal from all those orphans.... just for two thousand dollars?"
"How much money you got now-a-days, Madrid? So much two thousand dollars ain't temptin'?"
Johnny shook his head. "I never was like you, Evans. She's a nun.... they're orphans. Leave her be."
Evans slapped his hat at the ground and Johnny saw a lizard skitter away. "You think I oughta feel sorry for those orphans?" Evans said. "Just cause they ain't got no daddy? You know what my daddy was like, Madrid? Drunk. Nothing but drunk. He used to whup me good, when he wasn't passed out with the whiskey. Whupped my mama, too. I took off as soon as I was able. I figure those orphans are luckier than me, but I'm sure willing to get me some of their good fortune and I figure that two thousand dollars is my fair share."
"You're going to hell."
He laughed at that, a rough, growling laugh that echoed from the stones. "That sure ain't no surprise. I've been stayin' one step ahead of the devil for more than twenty years. Since I killed my first man down in Brownsville. How about you, Johnny boy? How old were you when you staked your claim to hell? Or is that why you're totin' that nun..... you thinkin' that she's your way into heaven?"
He didn't answer and Evans didn't wait for a response.
"It ain't gonna work." Evans looked up the pass now, waiting for Sister Anne. "There ain't no changin'. You're the same man you always was. You know it and He knows it, too." Evans pointed toward the sky and smirked. "Guess you'll find out soon enough what He really thinks of you."
It was useless now. The rag pressed against the hole in his shoulder was soaked through, but Johnny twisted it in his good hand, wringing the blood from it, and held it again to the wound. It hurt. Almost as much as his head hurt and the pain was edging Evans from his mind. He couldn't forget her, though, or that bull. It was only a fool stunt. Too much beer, too long since he'd seen those old friends. And then one stupid dare. Only Murdoch wouldn't understand. He'd tried to tell him, tried to make him see the way it was, but there was no changing the old man's mind. And so Johnny was here now, trying to hold back the pain and watching the trail for a nun. And Evans' horse. And hoping neither one would show.
They did, though, Sister Anne leading the big black horse behind her. Evans stood again as she brought the animal closer and he took several steps forward to grab the reins. "Good boy," he mumbled, patting the horse's neck. Then he pushed his rifle into its scabbard and wrapped his hand tighter around his gun.
He moved to Sister Anne's side and grabbed her arm, pulling her closer to him and yanking her headdress from her hair. "Let's take a look at you," he said. She was wide-eyed as she pushed her palm against his chest, twisting to wrench her arm from his hand and failing. "Whoa, girl. I ain't gonna hurt you, just have a little fun. Ain't nothing wrong with a little fun." His face lowered toward hers and she ducked away, turning toward the ground and struggling to pull out of his grasp, fighting to lose the arm Evans was wrapping around her waist. She squirmed in his hold and he laughed, a harsh, wild sound. Then small and hidden, enveloped in Evans' echoing roar, Johnny thought he heard her whimper.
He was on his feet, moving too fast for the dizziness to stop him. He stumbled forward and Evans looked up, holding to her still, but swinging the pistol toward Johnny, cocking the hammer and growling a warning. "Not another step, Madrid."
And Johnny stopped, one arm curved to his wounded shoulder, lungs gasping desperately for air and body weaving slowly side to side. "Let her be, Evans," he demanded.
"Don't think, so," Evans answered. "Think I'll send you to hell, instead."
And he fired. Johnny heard the gunshot and felt himself fall. Evans went sideways, too, knocked into the black horse by Sister Anne's shoulder and sprawling awkwardly on the ground. And she was there, by his side again, hands reaching for his head, voice soft against the pain. Holding him and whispering through the haze. Then a sound that didn't fit. Hooves against the stone. Coming closer. That was all, and silence found him and the darkness slipped across his eyes. And she was gone.
Johnny shifted slightly on the hard slab, away from the sharp rock pressing into his back, and blinked his eyes open. He was alone. There was no nun at his side, no Cody Evans, nothing at all except stone. Shadowed stone ledge above him, dry stone walls to one side and grey stone boulder to the other. His head hurt and his shoulder throbbed, but that's not really what made his heart beat faster. It was the stillness that worried him. The hot, dusty, solitary stillness.
He lifted his head slightly, squinting his eyes against the sharp pain, and caught the motion first. One black ear flicking forward. And then a soft snort. Evans' horse eyed him warily and Johnny felt oddly comforted. It was relief for her, he tried to tell himself. That horse meant Sister Anne was still somewhere around and Johnny was overwhelmingly glad for that. But that wasn't it, not all of it, and he wondered just how bad off he was. Must be pretty far gone to have those crazy fears. Afraid of the silence, afraid of being alone....so afraid he'd be unaccountably happy to see any living creature, even this foul-smelling, dumb old horse.
He heard the clinking then and he struggled to focus on that sound. Metal against metal, somewhere on the other side of his boulder. Johnny waited and the voices came next.
"Leave us a canteen." It was Sister Anne. She was pleading again and Johnny knew it was useless. More than likely she knew it too, but that wouldn't stop her from trying.
"I might be needin' all this water," Evans answered.
"He'll die without water."
"Now, that won't be my doing, will it, ma'am."
Johnny pushed to his elbow and edged closer to the boulder. He pulled himself up, leaning onto its firm support, and managed to get his head high enough to see across the rock and down onto the trail. He took in a breath at the sight. Barranca. His own horse back and looking a bit lathered, but unhurt. Sister Anne and Cody Evans were standing behind the horse. He could see Evans' face clearly across the top of Barranca's withers, but the sister was nearly hidden. The only proof of her presence was the glimpses of her yellow hair showing above the saddle and her voice, steady and subdued.
"You can't just let him die."
"Seems to me that's up to your God, missy. If He wants to let him die, guess I can't stop Him."
Evans tilted a canteen to his mouth and took a long drink. Johnny's mouth felt as dusty as the rocks, but he couldn't think of that now. Water wasn't going to save them, but his Colt could. The gun had fallen from his hands somewhere there, just next to the boulder, and he stretched across the rock, craning his neck over its edge and searching in the narrow crevasses lining the smooth slab. Only a few were wide enough to hide the gun and he couldn't find the pistol in those, so he slid to his left, moving to the lower edge of the boulder and looking just below it. A few large rocks were scattered at this end, but nothing big enough to hide the Colt. It wasn't by the big boulder, not anywhere Johnny could find, and he felt suddenly weaker.
Barranca took a step backward. The motion brought Johnny's eyes back to the scene on the trail and he watched as Evans moved to the horse's head and took the bridle in his hand. Evans' own pistol was in his gunbelt, but there was something shiny sticking out from his belt. Johnny squinted to bring the object into focus. His Colt, stuffed into Evans' waistband. Johnny sank back behind the boulder and fought desperately to get his mind to clear. Just a few minutes deliverance from this pain, that's all he needed. Then he'd be able to think again. Gotta think, Johnny told himself. There's a way out of this ....but how?
"Maybe you don't care about Mr. Lancer and me, but what about the children? They need that medicine and that money, Mr. Evans." Sister Anne's voice was small against Evans', but she wasn't giving up.
"Those brats aren't my problem."
"But they have the fever and they need this quinine. Surely you won't let the children die?"
"Anyone ever tell you you're downright pretty when you're mad?"
"Let me go."
"You afraid of me, missy?"
From where he was, crouched down behind the boulder, Johnny couldn't see Evans or the nun. He heard her, though, her sudden gasp and the quick, "You're hurting me." In the brief moment of silence that followed, Johnny was on his feet and stumbling to the horse. The rifle... he remembered the rifle that Evans had slid into the scabbard. His feet shuffled against the stone and his breath came hard, even for that short distance, but he kept moving forward. He was almost there, almost within reach of the rifle, and just stretching his arm out to take it when the horse shied at the motion. It jerked its head, snorting loudly and prancing sideways, moving away and out of reach, leaving Johnny grasping for nothing but empty air. He forced his legs to move again and took two steps to follow the horse before the shout stopped him.
It was Evans. His "stop" reverberated off the stone walls and Johnny did, slumping where he stood and grabbing his bad arm. He turned his head to watch Evans walk closer. The man's right hand aimed a pistol directly at Johnny's head and his left held to Sister Anne's arm. He dragged her clumsily behind him as he left Barranca and stalked up the slight incline to where Johnny stood.
"Madrid, you're giving me way more trouble than you're worth. Shoulda killed you already."
"Feels like you tried."
"Not nearly hard enough."
Sister Anne stumbled and fell. Her legs sprawled across the stone, but she still dangled by one arm from Evans' hand. He stopped to jerk her up, yanking her to her feet and making her yelp in pain. Her eyes found Johnny's for only a second before Evans pulled her closer to him.
"Don't..." Johnny growled. "You don't need to hurt her."
Evans lifted his mouth in a twisted smile. "What are you gonna do about it, Madrid? You think you got anything to say about this? Cause you ain't. I've got the gun...I say what happens."
Johnny felt himself sway and he knew Evans saw it, too. He was losing it again and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. The sweat and blood was seeping into his eyes, turning Evans and the sister into an ugly blur. He wiped a sleeve across his brow, but there was no helping the shaking in his legs or the lightness settling into his head. He couldn't have more than a minute, maybe two, before he would pass out again and Johnny knew he had to do something fast.
Sister Anne moved first. Her shoulder jammed into Evans' ribs and he grunted and cursed, losing her arm and reaching wildly to find it again. She attacked with a desperate speed, her hand flying to his face and her fingernails raking across his eye, trailing red, bloody lines across his cheek. Johnny willed his feet forward and they went, slowly, but it was over in only a second. Evans' gun hand made a wide swing and met Sister Anne's face fast and hard, slapping her down onto the stone. She hit with a thud.
Evans came after Johnny then, bowling into him and knocking him back onto the ground. Johnny grunted and sucked in his breath when his shoulder hit and a fresh wave of pain shot across it, but he held to one thought. The gun in Evans' hand. Evans grabbed his throat with one strong hand and wrapped his fingers around it, squeezing and tilting Johnny's head upward, and Johnny clawed at the hand. Evans didn't let go and Johnny felt himself sinking, the world turning dim at the edges and the sound of Evans' ragged panting floating somewhere far away. He grappled for the gun, one last chance against the strangling hold, and grabbed a fist full of sleeve.
"It's over, Madrid," Evans rasped.
Johnny flailed against the man, searching for the hand, reaching for the Colt.
"It's mine... the money... I win.." Evans' face was just above his and Johnny was fascinated by the wildness in his eyes. Dark and bulging and enflamed with hate. He couldn't find the hand, the man was too close to him, his bulk straddling Johnny's chest and pressing on his lungs. Trapping him against the stone and clenching at his throat, stealing the air from him and breathing his own breath onto Johnny's face. Only inches away.
"How does it feel to lose, Madrid?" The stench of tobacco. Johnny took it in and wondered if that would be his last thought. He slid his hand lower on Evans' arm, reaching again. Something hard against his hand. Fingers wrapping around it. The pistol. And just above him, Evans grinned.
A thud and Evans collapsed. His limp body buried Johnny, compressing his lungs and trapping him under his girth. Johnny got an arm under the unconscious man's shoulder and pushed hard, tilting him up barely and then faster, as gravity lent a hand and Evans rolled next to him on the ground.
He looked up to see her then, Sister Anne, standing just above them and holding a large, blood-tinged rock still clenched between her hands. She stared down at Evans for a moment, stepped to him and prodded him gently with her foot. He didn't move and she dropped the rock to her side.
She knelt and took the Colt from Evans' belt, pressing it again into Johnny's hand. The second pistol still lay where Evans had dropped it and she took that one for herself, sliding it into her pocket. "How bad are you, Johnny?"
"I'll live," he whispered, throat raw from Evans' hold.
"I'm going to hold you to that."
Johnny gave her a tired smile and glanced at Evans. "Think you could shoot him if you need to?"
"I hope I don't need to. What do I do with him now?"
Evans was stretched out on his back, one arm slung across his chest and the other lying loosely at his side. His eyes were closed and his face was slack. He seemed oblivous to the world, but Johnny checked the cylinder of his gun, counting bullets and finding two. He pulled the last two bullets from his gun belt and slid them into the pistol. Then he laid his gun hand across his chest and pointed the barrel of the Colt at Evans.
"Check his saddle horn for some rope," Johnny ordered and waited as Sister Anne went to the black horse, soothing it with a few whispered words and running her hand across its neck. She was gone a minute or so and Johnny could see her rummaging through Evans' saddlebags. When she came back she was carrying a shirt, a canteen and a bedroll.
"No rope?" Johnny asked.
"No. Raise your head." She slipped a hand under his head, lifting him up and sliding the bedroll under him. Then she uncorked the canteen and held it to his lips, tilting it for him as he took several long, gurgling drinks. "Not too much," she said, and she gave him just a bit more, watching carefully that she didn't spill it over him.
"Thanks." Johnny wanted to close his eyes. Just shut them tight and sleep for hours. But he knew he couldn't and he watched Evans instead, waiting for a sign of life from the still man. Sister Anne pulled a knife out of her pocket and started slicing at the shirt she had found in Evans' bags. She cut several large swatches of fabric from the tail and left the length of it from sleeve tip to sleeve tip. "What's that for?" Johnny asked.
"Rope," the sister answered, and she stepped over Johnny to the prone Evans, grunting with the effort as she rolled him onto his stomach and pulled his arms behind him. She wrapped the remnants of the shirt around his wrists and clinched it tightly into an efficient knot. Her dress was tied at the waist by a thick, dark twine and she removed that now, letting her clothes hang loosely and tying the twine around Evans' ankles. With the man properly trussed, she rolled him back onto his side and took a quick look at his oozing head wound.
"Maybe I shouldn't have hit him so hard."
"Sister, I'm awfully glad you did hit him," Johnny told her. "Should've used a bigger rock, though. We'd be a whole lot better off with that man dead."
"No." She shook her head. "I didn't want to kill him. I didn't want to hurt him or you..." She brushed her hand against Johnny's forehead, sweeping his hair back from the furrow still wet with blood. "How's your head?"
"And the shoulder?" She unbuttoned his shirt, pulling the fabric back and examining the dark, ragged hole left by Evans' bullet.
"How's it look?" Johnny flinched as she touched her fingers to the tender wound.
"The bullet has to come out."
"Think you can do it?"
"I've never tended to a bullet wound. There weren't many gunfights at the orphanage." She smiled vaguely at him. "What do I do?"
Johnny looked back at the black horse. "Did you see any whisky in those saddlebags?"
"I think so. There was a flask....." And the sister was standing again and stepping over him to go to the horse. When she came back she settled at his side and leaned over him to check the wound again. She opened a flask and held it to him. "Take some."
"No....that's to clean..." he mumbled.
"Drink," she insisted, and she shoved the whisky toward him, holding it to his lips and letting the amber liquid trickle into his mouth. Johnny swallowed and coughed, turning his face away from the flask. A sharp pain shot through his head and he closed his eyes again, willing it to pass.
Sister Anne wet one of her rags with the whisky and blotted it at the wound on Johnny's forehead. "Father Thomas carried a bit of scotch with him every day. Said it was good for the heart." The shoulder was next and he felt a cold wash against the pain there, then a second rag wiping away the blood. "Mother Superior always told the children that it was Father's special tea. He let me taste it one time. I hated the stuff, but it did seem to warm me all the way down to my stomach. I liked that feeling, sort of like I was floating. I had the fever once, and that was the same kind of floating, only the whisky was nice. It didn't last long, though, and Father never offered again. How's it doing for you, Johnny? Feeling any better?"
And he was. Maybe it was the whisky, already dulling the pain. Maybe it was knowing Evans was tied up and stone cold unconscious. Johnny looked up at the sister's face, noticing now the short, blonde tufts of hair that should have been covered by her headdress. Evans, he remembered. Just before the gunshot. "Yeah, I'm better," he said. "How about you?"
"I'm not the one shot and bleeding." She folded a cloth into a pad and held it gently against his shoulder.
"That thing you wear on your head.... it's not there. Where...?"
She ran her fingers through her hair and seemed surprised. "I don't know...oh, it's there." And she pointed up the incline, toward the black dot lying next to Evans' horse. She stared at it for a long moment and Johnny wondered if she'd leave him to get it. Finally, she didn't. Instead she looked again at his shoulder.
"He hit you." Johnny reached up and touched the red splotch Evans' fist had left on her cheek. Sister Anne turned her face slightly, away from his hand. "And he hurt you, didn't he? After I passed out."
"No." She shook her head, but she kept her eyes away from his. "I thought he'd killed you."
"He would've, if you hadn't knocked his shot wild."
"But you fell ...and I thought you were dead." She paused for a moment and Johnny watched her face, seeing her mouth tense and the lines deepen around her eyes. He thought at first that she was going to cry and he didn't want her to. There wasn't any sense in it, not for him. He was still here, thanks to her. Damaged, but here. And she didn't cry, but she did sigh deeply and then she smiled. "He didn't hurt me, Johnny. But if I don't get that bullet out of you, you're never going to get me to the mission."
"Not here," Johnny said, glancing at Evans lying only an arm's length from him. "Can you help me make it back up there, by that boulder?"
"Can you stand?"
"Don't know..." He struggled to his side, pushing against the stone and feeling her arms wrap around him and lift. They managed, with her stepping slowly forward and him leaning heavily against her thin shoulders. Johnny wished for just a heartbeat that she was one of those nuns. The ones he remembered as a kid--big and mean. Maybe Evans would be dead now. Maybe he wouldn't even be here in this desert, not with nineteen hundred and seventy five dollars and not with this nun feeling too much like a woman, soft and sweet and holding him so close.
He dropped at the side of the big rock. Sister Anne did her best to help him, but he felt his shoulder hit and groaned anyway. He took a couple of deep breaths and his eyes cleared slightly, but her voice seemed far away again. It wasn't just the crease across his brow, not this time. Can't hold your liquor, he told himself. One little swig and already tipsy. But it was a good tipsy, taking the edge off the pain and making his eyelids heavy. Just a little sleep, that's all he needed. A few minutes shut eye and he'd be ready for that bullet. Just a few minutes.
Her voice again. Small and distant.
"Johnny...you have to help with the bullet..."
But this time, he didn't even try. He let her go, her voice slipping away into the silence and the world sinking into a peaceful calm. And he dreamed, hazy dreams afloat with rotund women in long, ebony gowns and whisky flowing from their hands. She was there, hiding somewhere on the other side of the darkness, a music in her eyes and laughter dancing on her lips. And then he fell away, hard and far, deep into the solitary, black escape.
It might have been minutes or it might have been hours, Johnny didn't know how long he'd slept. It was the fire that woke him, suddenly and totally. A hot, narrow pain slicing into his flesh and moving in and out. The entire world spiraled into that one intense sensation. The stab of that blade. The heat it was sending through his shoulder.
"Be still," she warned him and he thought he was, but she asked it again, "Hold still, Johnny. You have to be still." It didn't last more than a few seconds. He heard her mumble a few words to God and he felt the pain retreat. And then he could breathe again, taking in deep, gasping gulps of air. She poured more of the whisky over the freely bleeding hole and covered it again with the pad, pushing straight-armed with her weight against the wound.
"Thanks," Johnny murmured.
"For what?" She was looking down at him and he felt something small and wet splash against his chest.
"Gettin' that bullet...knockin' him with that rock..." Johnny reached up to brush a second tear from her eye and suddenly noticed his empty hand. "Where's my gun?" He looked around, searching the stone around him for the Colt.
"It's here." She reached behind her and picked up the pistol. Johnny took it and pushed it into his waistband, taking some comfort from the hard edge pressing into his stomach. "It's all right," she said. "I'll watch Evans."
Johnny tapped against the heavy lumps in her pocket. "They gettin' along in there?"
"What do you mean?"
"Your bible. It's setting in there with Evans' gun. Ain't that sacrilegious or something?
Sister Anne smiled, not a wan imitation, but a real and honest smile. "Should be a sword, I guess. All the warriors in the Old Testament had swords."
"To smite the devil."
"Maybe." She looked back at Evans, still unmoving. "Or just save them from plain mean men."
"You didn't answer me before."
"I asked if you could shoot Evans. You didn't answer."
The smile faded. Her eyes lowered as she considered the question, and when she spoke her voice was halting. "God gives us choices, Johnny. I don't want to kill that man ... I pray that I won't have to. All he has to do is stay down... stay tied. But I can't let him hurt you again... I just can't."
"Let me check the gun."
Her eyes lifted again and she looked at him dully. "Evans' gun. Let me check it." And she pulled the pistol from her pocket. Johnny opened the cylinder and found only one bullet. "Might be some more bullets in his saddlebag. Can you look?"
She left his side then, crossing to the pile of saddles, blankets and bags stacked in the recess of the overhanging ledge. He hadn't noticed before, but now Johnny saw Barranca and Evans' horse standing together bareback in the shade. A dying fire smoldered several yards away. It was the beginnings of a camp and that worried him. They couldn't afford to waste time staying here, not with Evans waking up any minute. Even tied, the man was dangerous. Johnny wasn't convinced the sister could pull that trigger and he knew he couldn't stay awake to do it. But he couldn't ride, either. Not yet. Maybe in a couple of hours....just a short rest, a little sleep, a chance to clear his head and then they'd go. He'd just have to trust the nun, but only for a few hours.
She came back with a box of bullets and Johnny reloaded the gun, then forced it into her hand and wrapped her fingers around it. "If you have to, use it." She nodded and slid it back beside the bible in her pocket.
He didn't go back to his dreams. Not just then. Sister Anne had cut a pile of bandages from a bedroll and he was awake as she wrapped those around his chest. He helped a little, lifting a bit to let her arms pass the strips under him. And he was grateful as she poured more water into him and washed his face with a cool, moistened cloth. He watched Evans, but the man still hadn't moved and Johnny started thinking he never would. Maybe that rock had hit him hard enough. Maybe Evans was dying, the tobacco-stained, gold-tooth grin dying right along with him. That was the image that followed Johnny into his dreams ... the red-faced Evans only inches from him, breathing his stench into his face and flashing hate from his eyes. Johnny felt it again, the fingers clamped around his neck, taking the air from him, stealing the light from him. And then her hand drove the sensation away...her hand brushing so softly against him, washing away the blood and soothing the pain. And he let go and the darkness surrounded him like a blanket and he slept, deeply and peacefully. He slept.
It was the throbbing in his shoulder that woke him. Johnny opened his eyes and found the stars were already scattered across the sky. Thousands of them, glittering just beyond the ledge and casting a subtle light across the stone. He had slept too long and he fought back the rising sense of dread. Evans.... where's Evans? Johnny's eyes searched the spot where he had been and saw his form, more upright now, but there. He was propped against something bulky and Johnny thought he made it out ... a saddle, maybe two. Her work. The good sister, doing what she could to make Evans comfortable. Simple charity for a stone cold killer. Johnny held his breath and listened, finally hearing the raspy snore from the sleeping man. And he felt for his Colt anyway, gliding his hand across its reassuring presence.
Sister Anne was beside him, so close that he felt her knee pressing against his leg. She was kneeling and he heard her prayers, whispers in the dark. He knew that prayer, pieces of it anyway. The nuns at the orphanage had taught him, watching above him as he had repeated it over and over and stopping him when he had it wrong ... he always had it wrong. "Soul of Christ, sanctify me..." and he wondered as he had as a child, how that statue stretched upon the cross could do anything to make him clean. "Blood of Christ, inebriate me..." and again he had questioned the words, remembering his mother's tequila and her drunken tears, not finding the good in that and knowing the nuns were mistaken. "Within your wounds hide me..." and there was the crux of it, the weakness that convinced him it couldn't be. Not the man up there on that cross. Pierced and bleeding, hanging lifeless from the wood. Helpless. Human. Not Him, He couldn't protect him, not when he was a child and not here and now. The gun was firm and cool to his touch and Johnny wrapped his fingers around it, holding it for a moment and feeling the sense of dread ebb away.
"Johnny...?" Her hand lay across his, her palm warm on his skin.
"You should've woke me." The words scratched against his throat. She must have heard the dryness, because her hand disappeared and he felt the canteen lean against his chin and then the cool, welcome liquid trickled across his lips. He gulped the water, and took his hand from his pistol to hold the canteen and lift it higher, taking the water in and feeling it wash away fragments of the pain and worry.
"Better?" she asked, after he had drunk his fill.
"Yeah. How's our water holding out?" He wiped his hand across his mouth and turned his eyes toward her. The headdress was covering her hair again, he could see that, even in the dimness of the night.
"Two full canteens. And this one about half empty." She recorked the canteen and laid it on the ground. "Will you be able to ride in the morning?"
"I'll be ready," he said. "We should have left before. Why didn't you wake me?"
"I tried, Johnny, but I couldn't. You just wouldn't wake up."
He was cold. The stone slab under him had lost the heat of the day and now it was robbing him of his warmth. Johnny realized he was shivering, but there was a blanket, crumpled somewhere near his waist, and he yanked at it, trying to lift it higher. Sister Anne did it for him, pulling the bedroll up and across his shoulders, then tucking it under and leaving him cocooned in its warmth.
"You wouldn't keep it on you," she whispered. "You kept having those nightmares." She leaned over him and brushed his hair back, away from his forehead. He felt her fingers glide across the furrow there, following the line of the raw, swollen wound. Then he saw her face, just barely above his own, and his jaw clenched at the ugly, dark bruise that shadowed her cheek. Evans' fist, he remembered. Her struggle with the man and then that fist, coming hard against her face. She was asking him something and he had to push aside those thoughts to listen.
"What were you dreaming about, Johnny?"
"Don't remember ... how's your cheek?"
There was no mistaking that smile, even in this dark night. Sister Anne's voice was filled with its lightness. "Do I look bad?" she said.
"You look like an angel." He regretted them as soon as the words were out, but she only laughed.
"Not me, Johnny. You're my angel." She settled back then and leaned against the boulder, wrapping her arms tightly around her.
"You're cold." And he looked around, trying to find a second blanket.
"Just a little chilly. I'm all right."
"Where's the bedroll....?" And it came to him then, why she was shivering. Three people, three bedrolls. One on him, one under his head and one shredded into bandages for his shoulder, leaving Sister Anne in the cold. "I don't need this pillow...or maybe one of the saddlebags... take the bedroll, you'll be warmer."
"I told you I'm all right," she insisted, her voice still gentled by her smile. "You worry too much."
He lifted an eyebrow and shrugged deeper into the blanket. "Me?...you're the one that was all hellbent on getting to that mission. Couldn't stop worrying about those sick orphans long enough to think for just a minute. You just had to get there."
"Mother Superior always said I was a handful," she admitted. "Somehow, I used to think that was a compliment."
Johnny laughed then, softly and with a certain amount of difficulty. The motion hurt both his head and his shoulder, but somehow it still felt right. "Sister, I'm starting to feel real sorry for that Mother Superior. I figure you were just a whole lot of trouble."
"I didn't mean to be." She sounded almost sorry. "Seems like I was always doing penance for something, though. I think I said more Our Fathers than any other two novices combined."
"Couldn't take orders?"
"Guess not. Just like you at the orphanage, huh, Johnny?" She tapped her foot against his leg as she reminded him of that place and the gesture helped him hold his smile. That place. The orphanage, full of nuns and rules and schedules and one short, fat padre. He'd seemed tall to him, though. All powerful and unforgiving, towering over the small, thin boy that Johnny had been. Reigning over his well-defined world, the padre's kingdom extending across every inch of that mission. And dispensing his retribution to those who did not obey, saying with the rod what the word couldn't tell. "Were they all fat and mean?" Sister Anne asked. "Those nuns you remember?"
"Yeah..." Johnny's voice slowed to a drawl and he was quieter now, his voice barely reaching through the night air. "Least I thought they were."
"I wonder if that's what the children think of me?" she said and he smiled, just a little one, and left his thoughts unspoken. She didn't seem to notice the silence and after a moment she added, "It wasn't all bad at the orphanage, was it Johnny?"
"No, I guess some of the nuns weren't so bad."
"It's always hardest in the beginning. Some of the children won't let us go, not at first. They want to pretend we're their mother. They're so sweet...they follow us everywhere we go. But there's others, usually the older children... they hate us because we're not their parents. It takes a long time. They weren't her, were they, Johnny? Those nuns.... they weren't her."
He blinked at the stars, silent again. Wanting to give her an answer and not finding a way. No, they weren't her. Not his mother. Not her graceful face, not her silky hair. They didn't have her voice, as gentle as the summer rain. Her arms that swept him to her and, when they did, held him safe against the world. And finally he answered. "They weren't my mama."
"I'm sure your mother was beautiful."
Johnny wondered how she knew, but he didn't ask. He was remembering now, watching the stars and finding the light from his mother's eyes. The brilliant shine against the deepest dark. "She was beautiful."
"Did you ever find an answer, Johnny?"
She didn't make any sense and he didn't answer, not at first, and when he didn't, Sister Anne asked again. "What happened Johnny? Between your mother and your father?"
"Wish I knew." He sighed. "My mama wasn't an easy woman to live with. Sometimes she drank ... and there were men...." Sister Anne was quiet for that moment and Johnny worried that he'd said too much. That he'd somehow been unfaithful to his mother and let her secret slip, and now the sister wouldn't understand.
"But you loved her." It wasn't what he'd expected Sister Anne to say and Johnny was grateful for the second chance. He wasn't sure why it mattered; the past was gone. She was gone. But now, lying here in the dark, it didn't seem so long ago and he felt small again, small against those stars and small against the bullet hole in his shoulder.
"She had a laugh..." he quietly said. "You wanted to make her happy, just to hear that laugh. I found a frog once, musta been six or seven years old, got all muddy gettin' to that frog. Took it home and hid it in the coffee pot. She mostly slept late and the first thing she'd do is head for that pot. Thought she'd laugh when she found it...tanned my hide instead."
"Did she laugh much?" Sister Anne shifted on the stone and pulled her skirt tighter around her.
"No...she didn'." Johnny's words were measured now, slow and soft. "There were times when she wouldn't even smile ... not for a long time. It's like she was sick, only she wasn't ... not exactly. Maybe we'd move on then ... a new town. They were all pretty much the same, but she always thought the next one would be better ...kept promisin' we'd have a little house and I'd go to school ...even said we'd go to mass, regular every Sunday."
Johnny looked at Sister Anne and shook his head gently. "No...but I miss her."
"She loved you. You know that don't you, Johnny? The way you're telling it, you know she loved you."
Johnny closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "Then why did she lie to me?"
"About your father?"
"Yeah, Murdoch. He's no monster, not like she said."
"What is he, Johnny? What kind of man is your father?"
"Stubborn. Pig headed." After a few seconds he added, "Decent."
"He sounds like you." Her smile was back, he could hear it in her voice, and Johnny opened his eyes again, turning to her and hiding his own smile in the dark.
"I'm pig-headed, huh? Is that what you're saying?"
"Two bullets and you wouldn't stay down." Sister Anne tapped her foot against his leg again. "I'd say that's pretty pig-headed."
"Maybe. But that don't mean I'm like Murdoch. He built that ranch with his blood and sweat, every blade of grass on it. Made something good and honest. All I ever did was pick up a gun."
"Why did you, Johnny?"
"Told ya' ...I was mad."
"Are you mad now?"
"Yeah...sometimes." He stared up at the stars again but he didn't really see them. It was Murdoch's face he was seeing now, dark and angry, and his voice he heard shouting at him, sending him away, into this desert.
"Why?" she asked, and Johnny heard her sorrow and wished it wasn't there. He didn't want her sympathy, didn't know how to handle it. But it was there and she asked again. "What are you mad at?"
And he couldn't tell her, just couldn't. Not all of it. Not the days his belly had been so empty he'd stolen scraps of tortilla from the hog slop at the back of the saloon. Not the nights he'd lain bruised and hurting, hungry to kill the man who'd done it and trying not to listen, trying not to hear the sounds of her with that man. And not the twenty years lost for them, him and Murdoch both. Years of knowing gone, and now the anger hanging on. Still just plain mad. Mad that his father never came. Mad that he kept his distance now. Asking too much. Forgiving so little. His father a stranger, still. He couldn't tell her that, couldn't talk about that hurt. And so he didn't.
"Still got your gun?" he asked.
"Is he awake?" she asked, twisting her head and seaching through the dark toward Evans. She sounded scared and Johnny wondered again what had happened, earlier in the day, when he was lying senseless on the ground and she was alone with Evans.
"No," Johnny answered quietly. "It's all right. He's still snoring. Do you have the gun?"
"Yes. It's right here."
She pulled the pistol from her pocket and laid it on her lap, cradling it in the folds of her skirt. Again she wrapped her arms around her body, holding them close against the chill. Johnny pulled the bedroll from behind his head. "Here," he said, tossing it to her. "And don't tell me you're not cold."
"Johnny...no. I don't want the blanket."
He could see her shaking her head and he raised a hand to wave off her denial. She ignored him, though, and leaned forward, trying to force the bedroll back under him.
"Stop it...that hurts," he complained, pushing her away, and he curled up, lifting his shoulders from the stone and sidling backwards toward the boulder. He settled against it, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then she was there again, kneeling just to his side and taking the corners of his blanket, pulling it up and over him and keeping him safe against the cold.
"Cry baby," she muttered.
"Pig-headed nun." He opened one eye at her. She was smiling again and he heard her laugh. Then she settled back too, wrapping her own blanket around her and pulling it tight against her chest. "Warmer?" he asked.
"Maybe I was just a little cold."
Evans stirred then, rolling to his side and grunting. Sister Anne sat a bit more upright and her head turned to watch the man. She moved her hand to the gun, which had been lying next to her on the stone slab, and she grasped it tightly in her fingers. And she was perfectly still, listening ...watching ... until his snoring started up again. Then she slumped against their rock and Johnny heard her breath escape into the cool night air.
"He's got you scared," Johnny said. "What happened? If he hurt you..."
"No..." she whispered, still watching the sleeping man.
"He shot you." And her eyes shifted to him then and she reached for him, touching his shoulder lightly and leaving her hand against the wound. "That's all. He shot you."
"He tried to kiss you...by the horse, when you lost that veil..." Johnny lowered his voice, afraid almost of the words themselves, as if saying them aloud could harm her again and wanting to keep her separate from that, protected from that memory.
"I'm a grown woman, Johnny. It's not the first time a man has tried to kiss a woman."
"You're not just any woman."
"Yes, I am. To him, I am. And if he puts his hands on me .... or his mouth ..." She hesitated and he waited, feeling her touch leave his shoulder and straining to watch her through the dark. She pulled her knees back, tighter against her chest, and wrapped her arms around them. Then her face sank to the blanket stretched across her legs and she was lost just for that moment. Finally she spoke. "It doesn't matter. He's not going to do it again."
"We're going to leave him here." Johnny shifted on the rock and slid the pistol from his waistband, balancing it in his hand, feeling its weight and then slipping it into the holster at his hip. "Come morning ...we'll take the horses and get to the mission, then send somebody back for him."
"No, he won't. Just be a little hard up, is all. Man can live out here tied up for a day or so without dying."
She raised her face toward Johnny. "I can't leave him here."
"We're not taking him with us." He heard his words coming faster, nearly spitting them out as he watched Evans. His snores were louder now and they came in erratic, hoarse snorts. Johnny hated the sound and felt an overwhelming, disconcerting urge to silence the man, just stuff a rag into his mouth or maybe a piece of the saddle cloth, something filthy and uncomfortable. He knew he couldn't, Sister Anne would never allow it. But right now, more than anything, he wanted to silence the man.
"We have to take him," Sister Anne insisted. "You don't know that help would make it back in time. He could die."
"Then let him. I won't take a chance on him hurting you again. He's not worth it, Sister."
"How can you say that?" She was angry now, he could hear it in the little tremble in her voice. Only her anger was all wrong and it wasn't aimed at Evans. She was mad at him and Johnny shifted again, pulling the bedroll up around his shoulder and feeling it scratch against his neck. "He's a child of God," she said, "and God loves him."
"How?" Johnny asked, slowing his words, controlling them so that she could understand. He needed her to understand. "How can God give a damn about the likes of him? All he knows is hate and all he's ever done is kill. Ask those dead men if they think he's worth saving. Ask him ... he knows what he is."
"You think God doesn't love him, just because those men are dead?"
"No...not Evans. There's too many good and decent people in this world for God to worry about a man like Evans. Him and God parted ways a long time ago and there ain't nothing going to bring them back together now."
"You can't believe that. God is always ready to forgive."
Her voice was flat now, cool and distant, just like those nuns. The ones who were always watching, waiting for him to get things wrong and leaving him to the padre's rod. His shoulder throbbed. "No, Sister. Not when you've lived by the gun like Evans has. Not with all those years gone. He ain't going."
She didn't argue anymore. Johnny stared up at the stars for the longest time and when he looked at her again, she was turned away, her face toward Evans, guarding him or guarding against him, Johnny wasn't sure which now. He felt tired again and his head was hurting. He wanted to ask for the water and didn't. Should sleep, he told himself. But he didn't do that either and as he leaned his head against the boulder and gazed up at the stars, he listened for her breathing. And it came, soft against Evans' snores. Soft and steady as she slept and he stood watch, alone and vigilant in the night.
"You don't look so good, Madrid."
Evans was grinning at him. He was only a few yards away, still trussed and sitting upright on his little piece of stone slab. His legs were tethered together and stretched out directly in front of him, the boots lined up side-by-side and toes pointed upward. And he was grinning. Johnny took in the look of him and wondered if he seemed as wild himself. Hair all in random clumps, a couple of days' stubble on his chin and shirt darkened with sweat and dirt. Most likely two of a kind, he decided. All except for that grin.
"That lump on your head seems to have improved your disposition, Evans."
"Lump? What lump? Can't hardly feel a thing," Evans chuckled. "Not with all this beautiful morning God's pouring out for us. Pure golden sunshine coming down straight from heaven." And he lifted his head, letting the sun light his face. "Can't you feel it, Madrid? Don't that warm just get in your bones and make you feel like a new man?"
Johnny's eyes moved to the soles of the man's boots. Rough worn and one little hole starting to poke through. He could see the gray of Evans’s sock showing. "Was it just the money?" he asked.
Evans cocked his head to the side. "What's
that? You're gonna have to speak a mite clearer,
Johnny boy. Can't make out what you're talkin' about."
"You wanted me dead yesterday. You could've taken the money and been gone...but you wanted me dead."
"Nah...you're dreaming, boy." He shook his head and furrowed his brow. "I ain't got nothing against you. We're old friends...don't you remember El Paso? Had us some laughs, didn't we? Leastways until that young fella got himself shot."
"You shot him, Evans. He caught you cheating and you shot him."
"That what you think? You figure I was cheatin' at that poker hand?" Evans seemed to be considering the theory, then he grinned again, sheepishly this time. "Hell," he said. "I probably was. But I needed that stake real bad, Madrid."
"You needin' a stake bad now?"
"Nah, been doing right well lately."
Johnny wagged a finger at the man's feet. "Is that why you're walking around with a hole in your boot?"
Evans held his smile, but his eyes narrowed. He glanced over his shoulder toward Barranca and then looked steadily at Johnny. "Don't notice nothing wrong with your riggings, Madrid. Fine horse, nice saddle...even got yourself a new name. That's Lancer, ain't it?"
Evans waited for an answer, but Johnny didn't give him one. He only watched him with a cool detachment, waiting for the man to make his next move. Evans played his hand deliberately. He tilted his head toward the palomino, then smiled smugly. "Seen the brand on your horse. And that little lady, she seemed real worried about me hurtin' 'Mister Lancer'. Seems to me I've heard of the Lancer spread. What'd you fall into, Johnny boy?"
"How's that your business, Evans?"
"It ain't, Madrid. Ain't none of my business at all. Just makes me feel real warm inside, that's all. Just knowing that one of my buddies made good. Real warm."
The gold tooth was gleaming again, exposed in the sneer on Evans' face. Johnny knew the man was working him, trying to get a rise and hoping that he would get careless. Maybe with enough distraction he could wriggle out of those bindings or maybe ... heck, Evans didn't have many options. And if reminding him of his rebirth as Johnny Lancer was the only card he had to play, Evans was about to lose.
Johnny leaned against the boulder and pushed to his feet. He swayed slightly and saw the ground shift, but he knew that would pass. And it did, far more quickly this time than it had the day before. He took a deep breath, straightened, and then his hand went to his holster and he slid the pistol from it, swinging it up to point at Evans.
"Give me a reason, Evans." Johnny's left arm was hanging uselessly at his side, pulling at the hole in his shoulder, and he squinted against that pain. "I may not be Madrid anymore, but I still remember how to use this thing. And if you even look cross ways, I'll put a bullet right through you."
"I'm just sittin', Madrid. Just sittin' here and soakin' up this sun."
Johnny took the few steps to the man and knelt down. He tugged at the cord around Evans' feet and checked the ties at his hands. The knots were firm and tight and he couldn't find any play in the bindings. He was satisfied for the moment, but his nerves were still on edge and as he walked away he felt the eyes on his back. Evans' eyes, watching his moves and waiting. And the hairs on his neck prickled again. Tied or not, the man was dangerous.
He managed the short distance to the horses and leaned against Barranca. The sister was nearly hidden behind the animals, his palomino and the big black horse. She already had Evans' mount saddled and now Barranca stood patiently for her as she heaved the saddle over his back and reached under for the cinch strap. Johnny took the horse's bridle and stroked the golden muzzle, watching as the sister struggled to tighten the strap.
"Here...pull it like this." He moved beside her and yanked at the cinch strap, waited for the horse to exhale and then tightened it again. "He was tryin' to fool you. Too smart for his own good."
Sister Anne wouldn't look at him. She pretended to be concerned with the canteens she was hanging on the saddle horn, adjusting them and tugging at the straps, organizing them beyond any need. And she looked down and away as she reached for the saddlebag on the ground and tossed it across the horse's haunches.
"I've been thinking," she finally mumbled. "We can tie his hands to the saddle horn and make him ride ahead. I'll have my gun ready. He won't be able to do anything and we can get him back to the mission and take care of your shoulder. Nobody has to be hurt anymore." She pulled at the stirrups when she finished speaking. Her eyes were cast downward and her face was turned away. Johnny could see the purple bruise marring her cheek and he glanced back at Evans. The man was watching them and he nodded at Johnny, smiling slightly at the scrutiny.
"Could you shoot him? It's still a long ride to that mission."
Her eyes shifted upward, toward Evans. "If I have to. I don't want to...but if I have to, I will."
"Are you sure? You might only have a second...you have to be sure."
"Johnny... I can't leave him to die." Sister Anne still couldn't look at him and her veil was hanging across her face, obscuring her expression as she gazed down at the stone. "Please...I'll do what I have to do."
She nervously fingered the leather of the saddle and Johnny watched her hands move across it. They were dark with dirt and blood. He wished they had more water. Not just enough to keep them and the horses alive, but enough to wash the blood from her and leave those hands clean, the whole of her clean, as she had been that first morning, toes dangling in the river and face fresh with the desert sun. But there was no changing the way things were and he knew he had to choose. She was waiting for his answer and finally he gave it.
"Better say your prayers," Johnny told her, "because you're gonna need them."
She raised her eyes to him and barely smiled. "Does that mean Evans can go with us?"
"Yeah.” Johnny’s hat was hanging from the saddle horn where the sister had placed it. He took it then, setting it on his head and feeling it ride uncomfortably close to the bullet crease on his forehead. Pushing it back helped, and he did, just slightly, and felt a bit more like himself. "If you're so dead set on takin' him, don't see how I'm going to stop you."
"Thank you, Johnny."
He looked away from her gaze and checked the cinch strap one more time. "But don't forget those prayers."
"They've already been answered," she said.
There wasn't much more to do. The sister insisted on a sling for Johnny's arm and she fashioned one from the remnants of Evans' bedroll. Johnny stayed still while she rebandaged his shoulder and wrapped the sling around him, but he kept his eye on the rising sun and kept hurrying her, making her snap at him once and then mumble a small apology. They got Evans positioned on his horse, with Johnny holding the pistol on him and the sister doing the tying. Johnny examined her knots and again was satisfied that they should hold. Evans took the lead, with Barranca right behind, Johnny in the saddle and the sister holding on to his middle. Just like before, almost. Only now her right hand held a pistol, one that Johnny had carefully checked. Her bullet was ready. He only hoped that she was, too.
The temperature rose with the sun, the rocks soaking up the heat and radiating it back in shimmering waves. The mission was dead east and the morning sun was in their eyes. Johnny was squinting now as he followed Evans' back, trying to fight the glare and pulling his brim down lower, hurting the bullet's furrow again and fighting that, too. At times the man was a blur and Johnny would wipe the sweat from his eyes and blink back the haze and then he'd make him out, but it wouldn't last and soon he'd have to do it all over again. The sister didn't move much. He felt her shifting on the horse every now and then, when Barranca missed a step or the incline of the trail was too steep, but for the most part she was quiet and still. Johnny listened for her prayers, but even those were silent, or maybe she wasn't saying them just then, Johnny didn't know which and a couple of times he was tempted to ask. But he didn't.
Barranca's ears laid back when Evans' raspy baritone let loose. That was the first thing Johnny noticed. His eyes had dropped to the horse's head and he jerked them up when those ears folded, looking toward Evans and cussing himself for drifting off. Didn't matter, though, the man was only singing. It was off-key, but loud. Something about rye whiskey and the trail's end and sweet Jenny with her blue, blue eyes.
"Entertaining your horse?" Johnny shouted.
"He don't seem to mind it," Evans called back, a grating laughter in his voice. "Thought the little lady might like some singing. Make a joyful noise, ain't that what they say in those churches?"
Sister Anne's hands tightened around his waist and Johnny felt the butt of her pistol dig into his hip, but she didn't say anything. "I think you're stretching things a mite by calling that joyful," Johnny answered, "but noise sounds about right."
Evans blared out another stanza of his song, then coughed severely and spat something thick onto the trail beside him. He leaned down to the hands tied to his saddle horn and wiped his mouth against them. "Seem to remember you making some noise yourself, Johnny boy. Course, that was after 'bout half a bottle of tequila. Remember Sarge? How about Little Bob? Had us a time, didn't we? Near burned down that saloon."
"Long time ago, Evans."
He snorted. "Guess you ain't havin' that kinda fun no more, huh, Madrid? Ranch life got you all tied up?"
"You're the one tied up."
"Reckon that's sure true enough. 'Bout time my sins caught up to me. Don't figure I'll be hanging, though. Nobody dead, is there? Nah, I 'spect I'll be looking at two, maybe three years in that prison. Heard Sarge got sent up last year, so least I'll have a buddy to show me the ropes. Course I might not be serving any time a’ tall."
"How do you figure that?"
"Gotta get me there first, Johnny boy!" And Evans laughed, suddenly and raucously. Barranca jerked his head at the sound and Johnny tightened the reins, holding the horse steady. Then Evans was singing again, a cheerful tune about a miner and a lady and the dark of the night. Johnny didn't stop him. The flat pitch was irritating and he wished it would end, but it kept him awake and focused on the man and that was reason enough to let him wail.
By late morning the sun was high enough to cast a shadow from the brim over Johnny's eyes. He didn't have to squint as much, but his head throbbed, matching the rhythm to the pain in his shoulder. And it was hot, really hot. He had to drink from the canteen more often now, leaving the reins circled around the horn and lifting the water to pour it across his chapped lips in long, gulping swallows. Sister Anne would drink then, too, but Johnny couldn't tell that she took much more than a sip each time. And once he let Evans take some water, bringing Barranca next to the big black horse and taking its reins to hold it, then pointing the gun as Sister Anne raised the canteen for the man. Johnny had been grateful when it was over and Evans was moving again, his horse well ahead of them on the trail. He hadn't liked the way Evans had looked at the sister as he drank, not quite a leer but ugly in its own way. And he kept thinking of the thanks the man had said, not really meaning them the way he should. "Awfully nice of you, ma'am," Evans had told her and he'd smiled, one of those flat smiles that stretched his mouth, but left a man feeling like he should check his holster. Then he'd added, "Gonna have to think of some way I can thank you proper, Sister." After that, Johnny had shifted the reins to his injured arm, certain that Barranca didn't need much guidance to follow the tail of that black horse and feeling just a bit better knowing his gun hand was free.
It was nearly midday when Sister Anne nudged his side and whispered a sharp, "Johnny!" A sudden wave of panic washed across him as he tilted and jerked, catching himself and grabbing hold of the pommel. He had fallen asleep in the saddle. Johnny was vaguely aware that he had been leaning back onto the sister and she had kept him from dropping. Evans was still in front of them, slumping in his saddle and silent now. Sheer luck, he told himself. He'd given the man his chance and there was no good reason why the sister and he shouldn't both be dead. No reason but pure, undeserving luck.
"Let's stop," Sister Anne said softly.
"No." Johnny shook his head. "I'm all right. I won't lose it again."
"You need to rest."
"No. We need to keep goin'." Barranca found a loose stone and the horse slipped, twisting under them and making the sister cling tighter to his middle. Johnny felt the unexpected jerk in his shoulder and he sucked in a breath at the pain. The sister heard it. She reached around him to the reins and took them, pulling Barranca to a halt.
"Mister Evans..." she shouted. "We're stopping."
"No," Johnny complained.
Sister Anne ignored him. The black horse slowed to a stop in front of them and Johnny wondered how Evans had managed to pull the reins. The sister slid from Barranca's haunches and held a guiding hand up to Johnny as he lowered himself from the saddle. He tilted against the horse when his legs hit the trail. They wouldn't quite stay steady under him. "Damn," he muttered and she was there at his side, arm wrapped around his waist. He draped his arm around her shoulder and leaned, only slightly, but just enough.
They were in the hills now. The mountains were behind them, and there were trees again, small and sparse, but there. Sister Anne led him to one and he dropped into the scant shade.
"I've got my gun," she whispered.
Johnny stretched out across the gritty soil and looked sideways at her as she opened his shirt and checked the bandages. "Bleedin'?"
She only nodded and Johnny didn't need to ask any more. He saw the worry in her eyes and he let it lie. He drank then, not as much as he wanted, but enough. The canteen was nearly empty now.
"Ya gonna git me down off this horse?" Evans called to them.
The sister looked questioningly at him and Johnny shook his head. "No, Mister Evans," she said. "I think it's best if you just stay where you are."
Johnny watched as she crossed to Evans' big black horse, took the reins and tied them to a low tree. "You can let me down. I ain't gonna bite ya'...least not with my hands tied." The man grinned slyly, but the sister ignored him. "Come on..." he tried again, as she walked away. "Can't a man get a chance to stretch his legs just a little? My rear's gettin' sore of this saddle. I ain't gonna do nothing. Ma'am....?"
Johnny was already half asleep when he heard the muffled grunt beside him. He opened his eyes slightly and saw the sister sitting cross-legged, her pistol pointed at Evans and her mouth set into a grimace. Those pains, he reminded himself. The aches in places nuns can't mention, just like before. And he almost smiled, but couldn't quite. Evans was pleading still and his voice was grating on Johnny's hurting head. He wished the sister would just shoot him and shut him up, but of course she wouldn't. And then it didn't matter any more. His eyes closed again, the noise faded and Evans vanished from his world, whining and all.
He heard the sounds, every now and then, even as he slept. The horses moving and the empty canteens clanking together against the leather. Evans cursing. And the sister's prayers. She was murmuring them again, a soothing litany of curious Latin and familiar saints. Gentle and low, the words repeating through his sleep and her phrases sifting through his dreams. Full of grace, she said and the syllables took form in the twilight of his slumber, complete of shape, real and living. Full of grace, she whispered again, and the words chased him from his dreams--Evans, dark and threatening, gold tooth gleaming. Gone in the light, in the fullness of her words. Full of grace.
And he heard the hammer of her gun click.
"Don't..." Sister Anne's voice was shaking. Johnny struggled to open his eyes, to focus, and when he did he found Evans half off his horse, his hands still tied together, but free of the saddle horn. Sister Anne held her gun in both hands, stiff-armed and quivering. Johnny wasn't sure if her bullet would hit the man, the horse or empty air. Or if she could pull that trigger at all.
"Remember, Sister? Thou shalt not kill." Evans dropped to the ground and took one step toward them. He wavered there for just a second, watching the sister's pistol, and seeming to consider his next move. His eyebrows lowered and the corners of his mouth lifted vaguely, almost imperceptibly. But Johnny saw it and understood.
"Evans?" It was one fluid motion, hidden in the blink of Evans' narrowed eyes. Johnny's gun had left his holster and was lifted toward the man. "That next step isn't going to be very good for your health."
The man sank. At least, that's what it looked like to Johnny. His shoulders slumped and the hands, which had been held tensely before him, dropped below his waist. The mustache over his mouth fell, too, sinking in the absence of that meager smile. His expression was wiped clean, placid and marked only by the crooked scar beneath his eye. The one reminder of the danger in the man, always there and speaking of knives or fists.
"Did I wake you?" Evans drawled. "Sorry, Johnny boy. I know how badly you're needin' your beauty sleep."
"Still a long way to that mission. I reckon you'll get another chance for some shuteye, Madrid. Promise I'll be real quiet next time. You won't hear a thing."
"Get back on that horse."
"I will, I will. Sister, you don't look so steady and I'd feel just a mite better if'n you'd move that finger away from the trigger."
"The horse, Evans. Move." Johnny cocked his hammer.
And Evans did, finally, mumbling, "I'm going" back over his shoulder and grabbing the saddle horn, lifting himself awkwardly onto the horse and waiting again on top of the big black animal. Sister Anne still didn't lower her pistol and Johnny had to touch her arm, whispering her name. Then she relaxed a little. She carefully lowered the hammer again, cradled the pistol in her lap and closed her eyes. She was silent for a moment and when her lids opened again her hand moved in the sign of the cross.
"You all right?" Johnny asked her quietly.
She brushed the back of her hand against her eyes and mumbled something, but Johnny didn't catch it and then she was up, reaching a hand down to help Johnny to his feet and moving to Evans to retie his wrists. Johnny kept the Colt on the man until the knots were secure again and he tested them himself, tugging at them and noticing this time the twine was biting into the man's skin. They were too tight, but Johnny didn't care and Evans didn't bother to complain. He should have, though, and that worried Johnny. Evans should have been raising hell about those too tight bindings. But the silence was welcome and the man was helpless. Johnny and the sister remounted Barranca and they were on the trail again.
The silence didn't last.
"I remember now," Evans boomed out across the trail. The path was winding down into the valley and the trees were thicker now, real trees with leafy branches and honest shade. "Murdoch Lancer, that's the name. Big ranch. Fought off some land pirates 'bout a year ago. Pardee, wasn't it?"
"You gotta talk, Evans?" Johnny knew he sounded irritable and he hated giving the man the satisfaction, but there was no helping it.
"I'm just passing the time...don't mean nothing by it. How'd you end up being Lancer, Johnny boy?"
"Told you that ain't your business."
"Kinda prickly 'bout it, ain't you? You and Murdoch Lancer have some sort of trouble?"
Evans was looking back over his shoulder, watching for some reaction. Johnny tried to straighten in the saddle and felt an intense pang in his shoulder. He almost caught the grimace before it showed. It couldn't have lasted more than a second, but he knew Evans saw it and that annoyance sharpened the edge in his voice. "What makes you think that?"
"Well, boy, seems like you got some distance put between you. Kinda wonderin' why?"
"I had business with the army. Made a deal to sell some cattle."
"That all of it, Madrid?" Evans grinned. "Thought you said somethin' about a bull."
"You remember that, Evans?"
"Somethin' happen with that bull?"
"Yeah, something happened." Johnny resettled his hat on his head and considered his response. "And I'm starting to think Murdoch's right--my old friends ain't nothing but trouble."
"Meaning me or that bull?"
"The both of you nearly got me killed."
Evans laughed. "That's livin', Madrid! You ain't no rancher. You need excitement...danger. What you got now? Cows sunset to sundown? Where's the livin' in that?"
"So you're doin' me a favor, are you? Stickin' these bullet holes in me and lettin' me bleed half to death?" Johnny felt the sister's pistol move at his side. It was poking him again, rubbing on his hip and he shifted away from it, just a little.
"Ya ain't bored, are ya? Bet Murdoch Lancer don't know you anywhere near as good as I do. We're two of a kind, you and me. Always lookin' for trouble and mostly finding it. Ain't that right, Johnny?" Evans looked away then, watching the trail and not Johnny and the sister. Johnny watched his head bob up and down as the horse plodded forward. At least the man was getting tired.
"Save your voice, Evans. You're gonna need it for that judge."
"Reckon we all get judged someday." Evans' voice was lower now. "Can't get around that, can we now, Sister?"
Sister Anne whispered something, but Johnny couldn't quite make it out. "Shut up, Evans," he said.
Evans ignored him. "Ain't never answered me. Only difference between you and me Madrid is that gun in your hand. Ain't that right? If it weren't for that gun, could be you up here and me back there, sitting with that nun."
"Only it ain't."
"Nope," Evans said. "You got that pistol, all right. For now."
"Am I going to have to stuff a rag in your mouth?"
"Just makin' conversation. Don't feel so good, huh?"
Johnny didn't answer that time. Evans was right, he didn't feel so good. His head was hurting pretty steady now and he didn't think the wetness on his shirt was only perspiration. The shoulder was bleeding still. He needed water, but the canteens were almost empty. There'd be water soon, these trees almost guaranteed that. He was pretty certain this trail would lead them to a creek or a pond or maybe just a small spring, but there'd be water.
"You all right, Sister?" Johnny asked softly, remembering her whispers and trying to look back over his shoulder at her.
"It's not true," she murmured.
"What Evans said. You can't believe him, Johnny. You're not like him."
And he turned away, watching the back of a killer again and wondering why the sister's whispered words rankled him so. Time was when he wouldn't have cared. Good or bad, let them think what they liked. The nun, Cody Evans, his father. Didn't matter if they judged him, any of them. That Colt at his side gave him the final word. But there was one judgment he couldn't escape and he considered that one now, knowing there was only one answer. It was spoken in each lifeless face, each bullet exploding from his gun. There was no forgiving. Just like those twenty years lost, adrift on the border. No going back. Only he had gone back....back beyond those twenty years. To home. To Lancer. And there was more now--more than just that gun. More than only one answer. And that rankled him and he didn't know why.
The sun was well behind them and the trees were casting long shadows when Barranca picked up his pace. Johnny sensed it after his horse did. The gurgle of a stream, coming from the side of the trail. Evans' horse must have smelled it too, just like the palomino, because he was trotting toward the sound. Evans was cussing the horse, trying to slow him, pulling at the reins as well as his bound hands allowed, but losing the fight. Johnny let them go and saw the black horse leave the trail and pass through a strand of trees, then disappear down a steep river bank. He kneed Barranca and the horse followed eagerly. The sister had to wrap her arms around his waist as they tilted dangerously on the slippery bank. She got herself sorted out again when they reached the shallow creek and Barranca stopped to drop his nose in the flow. Evans' horse was in the stream, too, with his rider perched on top and looking longingly at the water.
"Can't a man get a drink around here?" Evans was licking his lips.
"I'll get the canteens." Sister Anne clung to Johnny as she struggled to dismount and he tried to help her with his good arm. She was hurting again, he could tell. Too stiff from riding and probably bone tired. He watched her as she took the canteens and waded up river from the horses. Her black skirt caught in the current and swirled around her, the ragged edge pressing against her legs. She was moving slowly, deliberately, but she was moving. The weight of her pocket swung with her dress as she bent to fill the canteens and Johnny remembered the odd companions filling that pocket. Her Bible and Evans' pistol. His fault, he knew. Should've taken her back to Red Rock. He had no business trying to make that mission. No business letting Evans get the drop on them. Madrid, you're getting soft, Johnny told himself. Shouldn't be here watching out for that nun and she shouldn't be carrying that gun, watching out for him.
The sister corked the first canteen and dragged the second one into the stream, holding it under as it filled. She cupped one palm and splashed a handful of water into her face, wiping it across her cheeks and doing it again, then a third time, until her face was dripping with the water and the blood and the dirt were gone, washed away from her hands and her body, swept into the river. She looked up then and smiled. Johnny might have smiled back, he started to, but her eyes widened. Only that. Her eyes grew suddenly larger and Johnny jerked his head around.
Evans. Right there beside Barranca. His hands were free of his horse again and, worse, he was reaching for Johnny's gun. That headache, the babble of the river, or his own stupidity... it didn't matter why, Evans was there. Johnny grabbed for the gun but he met Evans' hand instead and felt the man's palm around the handle. He held on and Evans pulled the pistol from the holster, moving backwards and Johnny moving with him, falling from the horse and landing on the man's chest, sliding to his side, holding onto that pistol. Evans falling too, collapsing on top of Johnny, sending a blinding pain through his shoulder, and rolling, pulling Johnny across him and under him again, rolling through the water, both of them spitting the river from their mouths and shaking it from their eyes and holding to that pistol. And Evans wrenching it free, standing over Johnny, pointing the pistol, cocking the hammer and taking only a single breath. One breath and then that gold-toothed grin. And the explosion crackled across the stream and then a second, resounding off the banks and filling the air with the acid smell of gunpowder.
And Evans fell.
Johnny wiped a wet sleeve across his eyes and looked at the man, face down in the current. The water poured over Evans and rippled around his body, converging again downstream and carrying his blood away, a dark red stain that came from the back of his head and dissolved into the river. Sister Anne was standing in the water. The pistol was still clenched between her hands and her eyes were on Evans. She didn't move. Johnny took in two gulps of air and waited for his heart to slow, and then he spoke.
She looked at Johnny then and lowered the pistol. It slid from her hand and fell into the river, sinking down into the stones. She walked to him as quickly as she could, slipping a bit on the mossy rocks, and then she knelt into the water and brushed a hand against his bleeding shoulder.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
She only nodded. And then she shifted, moving to kneel at Evans' side and pulling her Bible from her pocket. Murmuring her prayers, signing her cross. Praying for Evans, for his immortal soul. Pleading for grace as the man's blood emptied into the water. Seeking God's mercy, even now. And Johnny listened to her prayers, beside her in the stream, the river's flow a gentle caress across his wounds and the leaves swaying dappled shadows above him. And silently, he offered a prayer of his own.
One had a mole, right in the middle of her cheek. Big and black. And the other had a mustache, or at least the shadow of one. Johnny knew he counted at least seven dark, thick hairs on her lip. He couldn't help but look, every time she bent to check his dressing or smear some ointment on his head. She was right there, the sister's fleshy face framed by her veil and the smell of onion seeping from her breath. Always onion, morning or night, just that onion.
They came and went silently the first day, one or the other of the nuns. Johnny mostly slept, unless they woke him to take some water or some broth. Then he'd lie on the soft mattress and stare up at the plaster ceiling, listening to the blue jays outside the window or the quiet chatter of the orphans. Sometimes he'd hear a child laugh too loud and a nun would hush them, telling them that a man was sick and they needed to be still. There'd be no noise at all then, only the birds, until the steps of the nun would fade and then the children would talk again and maybe they'd laugh, just a little. And Johnny would close his eyes and they'd all be gone and he'd be lost again, adrift from the light. And she'd be there, always there, an elusive shadow moving softly through his slumber. Sighs of sorrow whispered in his sleep. Sister Anne, swept into the darkness of his dreams. And the nuns would come again and wake him and he'd be glad.
By the second day he was more alert. The nuns tried to visit with him then. There was a little wooden chair. It looked as if it was sized for the children more than those nuns, but they would sit on it anyway, obscuring it with the girth of their bodies and making it hard for Johnny to concentrate on their words. He just kept waiting, knowing that chair would break into pieces and listening for the crack of it splintering. Only it never did and Johnny began to wonder if that was one of the miracles of San Pedro Mission. He was the other, he figured. They seemed to have never seen a half-gone man toting a nun and a dead gunslinger into the mission before. Not with a bag full of quinine and nineteen hundred and seventy-five dollars.
"Mr. Lancer," the mustached nun had said, "it must have been terrible for you and our Sister Anne, all alone with that horrible man. I would have been so frightened. Were you frightened? Were you? Oh my, Lord knows I would have passed clean out if that man had only looked at me. You must have been such a blessing to our Sister. I know you were. Were you frightened? Oh, do tell me all about it."
And Johnny would find a word or two for the sister, maybe a "yeah" or a "guess so" or once a "scared as hell". And the sister had frowned at that, but it hadn't stopped her from rattling off her questions.
"Did she really shoot that monster? Sister Anne, I mean. Did she really shoot him? I just can't imagine how terrified she must have been. God was with you, Mr. Lancer. Keeping you safe. I know He was. Watching over you and our Sister Anne. Oh, Mr. Lancer, I've been doing nothing but praying, thanking God for bringing you here. You have, too, haven't you, Mr. Lancer? Haven't you given your thanks to God? Oh, our poor Sister Anne! But you were such a blessing. God knows you were. Such a blessing."
Finally Johnny would shut his eyes and hope she'd leave him to his sleep. And usually she did. As soon as he heard the chair scrape against the floor and her steps move from his bed, he'd open his eyelids again and he'd be alone again in his temporary world. He noticed more that second day. His space was small, not really a room but more of a corner. The nuns had tied a rope from some hooks on the wall and hung a blanket from it, partitioning a private space for him from the end of the orphanage dorm. There was a curtainless window behind him, his bed, that chair and a large cross on the far wall. And his saddlebags, lying on the floor under the cross. Johnny had plenty of time to take in all the details of the room, waiting for the nuns to come.
Once that second day the hanging blanket swayed slightly and he looked up to see which it was this time, the mustache or the mole. And then the face appeared around that curtain and it was tanned and freckled. And there was a smile, Sister Anne's smile.
"Hey," Johnny said softly. "Been wondering where you got off to."
She took a step past the curtain and stood at the foot of his bed. She seemed tired and he tried to guess if she'd slept. Not much, he decided. At least she looked a proper nun again, with a clean new habit tied at the waist. No blood, no ragged hem. Only that bruise on her cheek and the weary look of her eyes to remind him.
"I've been with the children," she explained. "There's four of them still with the fever."
"No." She shook her head. "I don't think so...the quinine should help. How are you feeling?"
"Bored." Johnny gave her a lopsided grin. "But don't tell those nuns that. They might try to 'entertain' me."
"Sister Gertrude does like to talk some." And it was almost back, the little bit of laughter in her voice.
"That her name?"
"Yes. She says you're doing better. How's your head?"
He wondered why she hadn't moved from the foot of his bed. She stood stiffly and she wasn't really looking at him. Her eyes were restless, lighting everywhere but on him.
"I'm fine," he insisted.
"That's what you always say."
"How about you?" Johnny asked. "How are you doing?"
"Don't think I want back on a horse for at least a week or two...but I can sit now. That's something."
"That's not what I meant..."
"The children need me," she mumbled. "I'm sorry...I only had a minute." She turned toward the blanket, taking its edge and clinging to it for just a moment. "I have to go...I only wanted...I have to go."
"Sister..." By the time he could form the word, it was too late. Sister Anne was gone. Johnny sat up in the bed and started to call again, but he held that sound in his throat, drawing it back inside him with a ragged sigh.
She didn't come again. Once, a day later, he thought it was her. There was a light step coming toward his curtain and then a hand reaching to pull it back. Only the hand was far too low and tiny. A dark-haired boy, maybe five, maybe six years old, peeked around the curtain.
"Who are you?" the boy asked.
Johnny sat up, raising his knees slightly in the bed and balancing his arms across them. And he grinned. "Name's Johnny. Who are you?"
"Carlos. Carlos Leonidas Trujillo Mendez."
"All that big name yours?"
The boy ignored that question, but took a step into Johnny's space and stared curiously at him. He was a small child, thin and nearly lost in a shirt and pants at least two sizes too big for him. His sleeves hung down over his fingers. Johnny watched him tug nervously at his frayed cuffs and waited for him to speak. "Are you an orphan?" the boy finally asked.
"Used to be."
The boy's face squinted into a perplexed frown. "What are you now?"
"What's a Lancer?"
Johnny cocked his head and smiled wryly. "Not sure...what's a Mendez?"
"That's me. You got any candy?"
"Nope. How about you?"
He shook his head sadly. "I like licorice...and peppermint. The sisters make me eat oatmeal." He made a distasteful face, then looked around him, glancing at the saddlebags. And he shrugged. "Well, if you ain't got no candy..."
"Check the bags." Johnny wagged a finger toward them. "Maybe Sister Anne left some in there."
It didn't take but a second for the boy to dive into Johnny's bags, digging through the few possessions there--the Army contract, a spare shirt and then a brown-paper package. He ripped the paper back and beamed at Johnny, holding the peppermint up to show it to him.
"Can I have some?"
"Sure. Take it...now, you share with the other kids, mind you." Johnny was shouting the last words, trying to reach the boy's ears as he scrambled out of the room and back into the orphans' dorm. He looked at the shirt left half hanging out of the bag and shrugged his bandaged shoulder. Still hurt. But it wasn't bleeding, he knew that. The sisters had said so, one of them. Johnny couldn't remember which. And his head didn't leave him dizzy anymore. And Murdoch was waiting. That contract was lying on the floor, too, just underneath the shirt. The one he'd gone into the desert after. It'd taken some hard bargaining and a couple of shots of bad whisky to close the deal, but Johnny had gotten top dollar for those cattle. Thought he'd make Murdoch happy for once. Didn't look like that was going to happen, although God knows he tried. Johnny sighed and swung his feet over the edge of his bed. One more delay, he decided, before he headed home to face his old man's wrath.
He wasn't exactly afraid of them, the mustache or the mole, but Johnny was grateful they weren't around when he threw his saddlebags over his good shoulder and slipped out of the dorm. The chapel was just across a small courtyard and he crossed it slowly, feeling the sun warming his back and being glad for that, too. He didn't know if he would find her there…she could be anywhere on the mission grounds. Anywhere but his corner of that dorm. But he tried the chapel first, wanting her to be in just that place.
It was quiet in the chapel. That was the first thing he noticed as he walked past the heavy carved door and entered the sanctuary, the stillness of it. Johnny stood for just a moment, taking his hat from his head and dangling it from his fingers, giving his eyes time to adjust to the dimness and listening for a sound. Not finding one, but listening all the same.
He shifted and coughed quietly. He should go, he told himself. She wasn't there, no one was there. He’d seen other buildings…one would have those sick children and he'd find her. But he didn't leave. Instead, Johnny slipped past the pink marble basin holding the holy water and slid into a pew. He laid the saddlebags and his hat beside him, then searched the chapel, finding the statues in their alcoves and remembering their names. Saint Peter and Saint Paul, both looking down in silence, cool and aloof in the shelter of their niche. And the Holy Family, mother and Son, carved in stone and protected by his hands, Joseph's hands, father in name only. Johnny gazed at the statue, wondering at the gentle countenance of her, the quiet assurance of him. And the child, sleeping through the ages, safe in her arms.
The kneeler was there, waiting for him, and Johnny slipped forward in the pew, sinking to his knees onto the cushioned board and raising his hand to his head and down, then across, feeling awkward in the once familiar gesture. He didn't fold his hands together. He couldn't, not with that one arm in a sling, and he wasn't sure what he would have done if there’d been a choice.
He was still kneeling when the motion at the corner of the chapel caught his lowered eyes. It was the confessional booth. The door opened and Sister Anne stepped from the dark closet. Johnny watched her as she walked to the front pew, made the sign of the cross and began to pray. He was vaguely aware of the priest leaving the booth and disappearing through a door at the far corner of the sanctuary, but his eyes were on the sister. Her prayers were over quickly and she crossed herself again, stood and turned. She saw him then.
Johnny couldn't read her expression, not in this low light. He waited until she came closer, hoping to see inside her thoughts, but finding only a serenity in her face. She slid into his pew, knelt there and leaned toward him.
"Do the sisters know you're here?" she asked.
"Ssh... I escaped," he whispered conspiratorially.
"You should be in bed."
"Murdoch's waiting for that contract. I gotta get back to Lancer."
Her eyes widened slightly and she placed a hand on his arm. "No, Johnny, you're not strong enough..."
"I'll be fine."
"No, you won't." Sister Anne held tighter to his arm and shook her head. "You can't go."
"I'll be fine..." Johnny's voice was getting louder and he glanced around, wondering who he expected to disturb in these abandoned pews.
"Your shoulder...you lost so much blood..."
"I'm going." His voice was quiet now, but insistent.
"All right," she murmured.
She took her hand from his arm then and lifted from the kneeler, sliding onto the bench and sitting stiffly against its wooden back. Her hands folded together in her lap and her eyes settled on them. Johnny thought he heard a stifled sigh. He sat too and glanced sideways at the confessional booth. "I've been wanting to ask you about that...back there at the river.." His voice was almost a whisper. "You had that gun...and Evans...you shot him. I'm sorry, I should've stopped him...I should've...guess that's why I haven't seen so much of you.”
She looked at him and Johnny felt it, all the sorrow in her eyes. It seeped through him like a weariness and left his shoulder aching again. He wanted to leave then, just walk out and away from those eyes, but she was asking him something and he couldn't go, not yet. "I don't understand," she said.
"It should've been me," he mumbled. "That's what I do...the gun....that's what I am, not you. You shouldn't have had to shoot him. How many Hail Marys does that priest have you sayin' over that?"
"No, Johnny...is that what you think?" The sadness has crept into her voice. "Do you believe it was a sin to shoot Mr. Evans?" She breathed in deeply and lowered her head, her veil hanging down and hiding her face from him. "He was going to kill you. He had that gun and he was pointing it at you and I knew that in the next second you'd be dead. So I shot him. God gives us choices and I chose to save you. There's no sin in that."
"But you're a nun."
"I'm a woman, too. This habit can't protect me from that. There's a real world out there, good and evil, and I can't hide forever in this mission."
"It should've been me," Johnny insisted.
"Shooting that man?"
"What's one more dead man to Johnny Madrid?"
"Johnny, would you do it again? The gun...those men. Would you make the same choices again, knowing what you know now?"
He knew the answer. He didn't have to think about it, but he did, just to be certain. Johnny watched her hands, lying so still against her skirt, and felt her eyes as her face lifted. And finally he answered. "No. I wouldn't."
Sister Anne smiled. "God sent you to that desert, Johnny. God knows what's in your heart and He sent you there."
"I thought that was Murdoch's doing."
"You never told me."
"Told you what?"
"Why you fought with your father... you only said there was a bull."
"Yeah, well..." A sheepish grin slid across his face. "Murdoch wasn't very happy with that bull...or me"
"Some old friends were around... a couple of the boys...I did some droving down in Texas with them a while back. Had a few beers and Jake, he figured on having a little fun. There was this bull… that poor old animal was half blind and about as gentle as a hound dog. Jake got this idea that we should ride that bull though town at high noon…bet me ten dollars I wouldn’t do it.”
“Of course you did.”
Johnny snorted softly. "That old bull didn’t like it much, though. Took off buckin’ and I went right though the window of Hansen's Dry Goods, bull and all."
"Were you hurt?"
"Nah...just my pride. The boys thought it was funny as hell, but Murdoch didn't see it that way. My old man can spit fire and brimstone better'n any padre you've ever seen."
"Old friends, huh Johnny?"
He lifted an eyebrow and smiled wryly. "Nothing but trouble."
"Stay, Johnny...at least one more day. You're not ready to go."
"I'm ready." Johnny picked up the saddlebags and draped them over his shoulder. His hat stayed in his hand as he stood in the pew. Sister Anne tilted her head up and simply watched him for a moment, not moving, and then finally her eyes dropped and she stood, too, and stepped into the aisle of the chapel. Together, Johnny and the sister walked toward the door. He paused just inside the sanctuary and gazed back into the darkened, peaceful space.
"It fits you," he said quietly.
"The church?" Sister Anne looked around her too, and seemed satisfied. "It's home."
A row of candles burned next to the holy water. Sister Anne stood just beside them and their flames cast a subtle glow to her face. The bruise was there, but softened now, only a shadow in this dimness. Johnny's eyes swept across the purple mark and followed the curve of her face, so fresh again and clean and serene. He ran his fingers around the brim of his hat, shifted it in his hand and then reached with it toward her, tapping it against the hands she held clasped at her waist.
"Thought you'd come..." He hesitated, then gently added, "I was waiting and I thought you'd come."
"I did come."
"Yeah, that once...you were gone so fast...I just wondered." And he fell silent, clenching his jaw and moving his hat through his hand again. "Don't matter...the day's gettin' on. I guess I should be going."
He only looked at her. She reached out and touched the hat that dangled from his hand, skimming her fingers across the crown and lingering there for just a moment. Then she pulled away.
"I wanted to come," she murmured, "but when I saw you lying there..." She started to reach again, but paused, and in the end her hand held safely to her side. "We choose our lives, Johnny, and mine is here. I'm sorry...I couldn't come."
Johnny set his hat on his head and smiled gently at her. "Stay away from twenty-five dollar horses, Sister."
She didn't laugh and somehow he was grateful for that. Her mouth lifted in her own faint smile, though, and her voice held a tender warmth. "Go with God, my angel."
And he left her, turning away and passing
through the chapel door and into the sunlight. Barranca was waiting in
the stables and he saddled the horse and mounted, reining in the palomino's
eager prancing, feeling it in his wounds and holding the horse, gentling
him and guiding him onto the rocky trail. The desert lay before him,
that and the mountain pass. Three, maybe four days of hard, hot travel.
And then the green pastures of Lancer. Home. Johnny pulled
his hat down against the glare and headed west, into the lowering sun.