Special thanks to Liette and Jennifer for their help and advice.
Johnny leaned one elbow on the top rail of the paddock fence, a steaming cup of coffee cradled in both hands.
It would soon be dusk. The sun, earlier a burning ball of dazzling light, was now a mellow golden globe hanging low in the sky and already the stable walls were casting long shadows across the yard.
Johnny sipped his coffee and watched as the shadows lengthened, steadily claiming more and more ground. Jelly's goose still wandered around the yard, pecking forlornly at the dirt. She honked at him hopefully. Amused, he shook his head. “Sorry, Dewdrop, I’m all outa treats.” He chuckled, sure he could detect a tone of indignation in her answering honk as she stalked through the open barn door.
It was good to be home. He was looking forward to his own comfortable bed after two nights sleeping out under the stars. He shook his head ruefully. He was definitely getting soft. In the old days, he’d have thought nothing of camping out for nights, even weeks on end.
The old days.
When he’d taken off after Andy, he'd thought only of giving the boy a good tanning and getting Barranca back. Instead, Andy’s story had plunged him squarely back into his old way of life and all the memories that came with it.
Coming out here after dinner instead of joining his family in the great room was a ploy to gain a little space for himself before the inevitable interrogation. He knew they would be itching to hear every detail and had expected the questioning to start over dinner. But surprisingly, when Scott raised the subject, Murdoch held up a hand and said, “Let your brother eat his dinner in peace, Scott. There’ll be time later to hear his story.”
The truth was he'd rather avoid telling the story at all. He wasn’t ashamed of what he’d done, far from it. But he also knew that while his family accepted his past as a gunfighter, they also preferred to keep it right there - in the past. He wasn’t looking forward to explaining why he’d become ”Madrid” again for two weeks. He could already picture the disappointment on his father’s face and the frown on Scott’s when they heard what had taken place.
Besides, he was tired of thinking about it himself. He’d spent most of the ride home second-guessing his actions, wondering if he should have handled things differently. No matter that everything had worked out in the end; his game plan had come so close to failing.
He shifted position, resting both elbows on the top rail so he could look out over the paddock. It wasn’t long before he heard the sound of footsteps approaching. He didn’t bother to look up as a figure joined him at the fence; he knew who it was. His brother was the one person who would not let the matter rest.
“It's a nice evening,” Scott said after a moment of silence.
Johnny took a mouthful of coffee and looked up at the sky. He nodded. “Clear; stars should be real pretty later.”
He returned to sipping his coffee. He could feel Scott's eyes boring into his back and sensed his brother's intense scrutiny; Scott’s curiosity was almost tangible.
He didn't have to wait long.
“You realize you’ve been gone two whole weeks?”
“Yeah, Scott, I noticed that.”
“That’s a long time for someone who just went to get his horse back from a runaway boy.”
Reluctantly, Johnny shifted until he could see his brother’s face, leaning his hip against a post. “I told you I took Andy home to McCall's Crossing.”
Scott raised an eyebrow. “That’s a two day ride at most. Four days in the saddle, a day or so with Andy's folks to be polite – that leaves eight days unaccounted for.”
Johnny laughed. “See, Brother, with that smart brain of yours, that's why Murdoch prefers you to do the books.”
Ignoring the comment, Scott continued, “In two weeks, you must have been doing more than just ‘rocking.’”
So, Murdoch and Scott had been talking about him. Johnny smiled. “Yep. Guess I must’ve.”
Scott shot him an exasperated look which Johnny returned with an innocent expression. “What else did Murdoch say?” he asked, curious to hear what his father really thought.
Scott looked even more exasperated. “Very little, actually. Our father seems uncharacteristically reluctant to question you on your whereabouts.”
That was uncharacteristic. “He is?”
“In fact, he told me to go easy on you, that you must have had a good reason for being away so long and that you’d tell us when you were ready.”
Johnny choked on his coffee. “He said that?”
Scott's lips quirked. “He did. Believe me, I was shocked too.”
Johnny was pleased, if surprised, that his Old Man seemed willing to trust him and accept that he’d had a good reason to be away for so long. Not too long ago, Murdoch would have jumped down his throat the moment he showed his face back at the ranch.
So, if Murdoch was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt, why couldn't Scott? “But you don’t agree, is that it?” he asked, a little irritably.
Scott grinned then. “Oh, I agree you must have had a good reason, but I’m also confident that you have a story to tell. If I were a betting man, I'd bet you got yourself into some sort of trouble.”
Johnny sighed. "Well, brother, you're right on one of them two. Though I can't see why you're so sure I got into trouble."
Scott folded his arms and cocked an eyebrow. “Maybe because you generally do. And you do realize I’ve had to take on most of your work while you’ve been gone?”
Yes, Johnny did realize that and he felt bad about it. “I’m sorry 'bout that,” he said sincerely. “I never meant to be away so long. It just… well, it’s a long story.”
“A story I'm anxious to hear. Especially as it seems you've spent two weeks in a backwater that clearly doesn't have a telegraph office.”
“Oh, they had a telegraph office. I just couldn’t use it.”
Johnny stifled a smile because much as he really didn't want to get into this, he also couldn't resist messing with his brother. "See, you need to understand," he explained, "that it just ain’t done for gunfighters to be sending telegrams back home. Word woulda got round town ‘fore you could say, “Johnny Madrid,” and that woulda done a whole lotta hurt to my reputation.”
Scott looked puzzled. “Your reputation? What's your reputation got to do with it?”
“Well, Brother, in McCall's Crossing they knew me as Johnny Madrid.”
Scott's eyebrows shot up. “They did? Why?”
Johnny blew out a breath, resigned to telling the whole story. If he didn’t he knew Scott wouldn’t leave it alone and would chip away at him until he gave in or shot his brother. “Well, it was like this,” he began. “When I caught up with Andy, he told me that his pa had been killed by some ranchers tryin’ to run the homesteaders off of their land. Turns out he'd left home with a fool notion to hire a gun to take them out.”
“Go on,” Scott encouraged.
“Well, I kinda told him I'd hire on.”
Johnny paused again to allow Scott chance to explode. Which he did, with impressive volume.
“You did WHAT?!”
“You heard,” Johnny said mildly.
Scott shot him an incredulous look. “You hired out. To a thirteen-year-old boy. For money?”
Johnny couldn’t help smiling at the memory of his talk with Andy about the cost of hired guns. “Of course for money.”
“Twenty-six dollars and thirty-seven cents.”
Despite his obvious disapproval, Scott looked amused for a moment. Then he frowned. “I don’t understand. Why would you do that? Johnny, you didn’t… you didn’t…”
“Didn’t what, Scott? You tryin’ to ask me if I finished the job?” Johnny asked softly.
“Well, did you?” Scott demanded.
Johnny held his brother’s eyes for a long moment, idly wondering what Scott’s reaction would be if he told his brother that he’d killed those men and irrationally annoyed that he’d even ask the question.
“Yeah, I finished the job, Scott,” he said finally, “but not in the way you think.”
Scott looked relieved. “I'm glad to hear that. And I think you’d better tell me the whole story.”
So, with a large degree of reluctance, Johnny told Scott everything, even if he did gloss over some of the details. To his credit, although his expression betrayed his thoughts from time to time, Scott remained silent until it was over. “Then I came home,” Johnny finished, with a sense of relief.
He looked down and studied the now empty cup in his hands during the long silence that ensued.
Finally, Scott said, “So, what you're telling me is that you thought that the only way to get justice for Andy was to implement an elaborate plan that almost caused a range war in which men could have been killed?”
“It didn’t almost cause a range war,” Johnny snapped. “I knew what I was doing – this ain’t the first time I’ve done this kinda thing.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know, would I?” Scott snapped back. “Because you never tell me anything about your past.”
With an effort, Johnny reined in his irritation. Scott was right; he knew very little about Johnny's past life and that was the way Johnny had always wanted it. How could his brother know that the action he’d taken against Marvin and Jencks had been chicken feed compared to some of the tactical campaigns he’d orchestrated in the past?
“Well anyway,” he said finally, “I had to do something. But it wasn’t just about justice – not mostly, anyhow.”
“Then what was it about?”
“It was about Andy. Scott, the kid was full of hate an' anger; he wasn't gonna stop until those men were dead. And it weren't no matter if I killed them or if he did. Either way, it woulda destroyed him.”
“You can't know that.”
“Yeah, yeah, I can. Trust me on this. The way he talked – and I could see it in his eyes. The rage, the hunger for revenge was eating him up inside. That same kinda anger—”
He stopped abruptly and turned away as a sudden lump in his throat threatened to betray the strength of his feelings.
“You saw yourself in him,” Scott said softly.
Yes, he’d seen himself in Andy. Seen himself every time Andy talked about his pa with that feverish intensity in his eyes. It had thrown him violently back into the past and he’d relived with vivid clarity the anger and frustration that had burned in his own soul through those early years of seeking his mother’s killer. Anger that had burned bright and steady for so long that it had become the center of his existence.
From the moment he found out that Andy’s pa really had been dragged to death, he’d known that there was no choice. He couldn’t let the boy head down the same road he’d traveled himself; couldn’t let the boy fall into the jaws of hell.
“I didn’t want him following the same path as me,” he said quietly.
Behind him, he heard Scott blow out a breath. “I understand that, Johnny, I do. What I don’t understand is why you thought the way to prevent it was to let him hire your gun. There must have been other options.”
“Oh, believe me, Scott, Andy was all out of ‘options.’”
“What about the sheriff? Surely Andy could have explained—”
“Don’t you think he tried that?” Johnny pivoted back to face his brother, hands on hips. He shot Scott a hard look. “You weren’t there, Scott. I was. I hired on because I needed time. I needed to get Andy to really understand what he was asking me to do. I had to bring this thing to a head, find the truth, and finish it one way or another. I did what my gut told me and if that don’t suit your delicate Boston ‘sensibilities,’ then fine, but I don’t have no other answers for you.”
He glared defiantly at his brother, but Scott's expression was impassive. He asked levelly, “If Andy hadn’t backed down, would you have killed those men?”
Now that there, that was the question. The one Johnny had asked himself over and over on the ride back.
He’d planned for Andy to be far away when the final play went down. The kid's arrival in town minutes before the confrontation with Marvin and Jencks had left him no choice but to take a gamble. He’d been sure Andy wouldn’t have the heart to go through with it and he'd been right - thankfully, the kid had backed down. But if he’d said, “Yes,” if the anger in his heart had overruled all sense of judgment, what then? Had Johnny called them out, their deaths would have been the next best thing to cold-blooded murder. Yet, if he'd backed down, there was no knowing what Andy would have done. And Johnny was sure of one thing; he’d have done whatever it would have taken to save Andy.
He'd killed a lot of men in his time as Johnny Madrid. But when the past had reared up and met the present at McCall’s Crossing, it had left him wondering. If it had been the old days, what would he have done?
“I don’t know,” he admitted finally.
Scott looked at him for a long moment. Then he said firmly, “Well, I do. You’re not a murderer, Johnny. You’d have found another way.”
Johnny held his brother's eyes for a long moment. “Maybe.”
Scott turned, leaning his elbows on the rail, gazing out over the paddock. After a moment, Johnny joined him and they stood side by side in silence. Beyond the paddock, Lancer land stretched into the far distance and beyond that, the foothills began, shrouded now in the darkness that had fallen while they were talking.
After a long silence, Scott said, “I’m impressed by the way you set those two ranchers up against each other. You would have done well as a strategist in the army.”
Johnny snorted. “Me? In the army? I don’t think so.”
Scott smiled. “Well, maybe not.” He paused. “Did you take on that kind of job a lot – before?”
Johnny shrugged. “I did my share.” He grinned suddenly. “I was real good at it, too. There was this one time, this rancher was throwing his weight around, trying to intimidate his neighbors into selling him their land. Poor man ran into some bad luck with some real clever cows. See, every morning for about two weeks he’d find part of his herd had got through a barbed wire fence and wandered off all over the range – ran his hands ragged tryin’ to round ‘em up every day.”
He was slightly surprised at himself for sharing the story so willingly, but this and other memories had been on his mind a lot over the past few weeks. He could see Scott was listening eagerly, so he went on, “He never did figure out how it was happening – they never found a hole in the wire or nothing. He was madder’n a wet hen.”
“So, how did you do it?”
Johnny’s grin broadened. “Every night we’d take up a whole section of wire, different place each time, herd the cattle through, then replace the wire again, real careful, so’s you couldn’t see it had ever been moved.”
Scott laughed. “And you never got caught? Surely he placed guards?”
Johnny smiled softly. “Oh, he placed guards all right. He just didn’t know that some of them were working for me.”
Scott clapped him on the shoulder. “That’s my brother. I always said you were sneaky. And now I know why you’re so quick at laying wire fencing. So, what happened in the end?”
“Oh, in the end he got the message. Every day he’d lose a couple of them steers that wandered off and the losses were startin’ to mount up. He stopped haranguing his neighbors and the steers stopped climbing through the wire.” He paused and his tone sobered as other memories crowded in. “Didn’t always work out like that though. Sometimes you just knew it was going to end bloody, with men dead on both sides.”
Scott looked troubled at that and silence fell again. Then Scott asked quietly, “What was it like?”
“In McCall’s Crossing. Being Madrid again.”
Johnny rolled his eyes. “You always talk about Madrid like he was a different person. I was Madrid then and I’m still Madrid. I didn’t become someone else when I rode through that arch.”
Scott looked at him for a long moment. He began to say something, and then stopped. When he spoke again Johnny was sure he’d though better of his words. “I do understand that. I was just wondering how it felt to be back doing the kind of – work – you did when you were calling yourself Madrid?”
Johnny rubbed the back of his neck then looked down at his feet, avoiding Scott's eyes. The question made him uncomfortable. The truth was he'd spent a lot of time thinking about the past while he'd been rocking and waiting on that hotel porch. He had to admit, he did miss parts of that life. He’d made some good friends during those years, men like Val Crawford who he could trust to watch his back whatever the threat. He knew too that he’d thrived on the danger, the rush of dealing with a tight situation.
And his profession was about more than being a fast shot. He'd excelled at the kind of job he'd just described to Scott and he'd enjoyed it. Thinking tactically, creating an atmosphere of menace and a dangerous persona calculated through words and presence to intimidate; all these elements were needed to construct a successful campaign to undermine confidence and cause as much havoc as possible. Usually, the men he'd been pitted against had deserved everything they got. Usually. There were times… there were times he looked back on with shame and regret.
Sure, there were good memories. But the good was far outweighed by the bad. For every man he could trust there were ten who would betray him or shoot him in the back without a second thought. Most days were filled with an aching loneliness that threatened to engulf him and he was often filled with the desire for the kind of life that was hopelessly beyond his grasp.
And the men he'd killed. Some, he didn't regret. There were men who were just plain bad and didn't deserve to live. Others haunted his dreams. He couldn’t find the words to tell his brother how, while he’d been sleeping in the barn at the farm, he’d woken most nights, sweating and disoriented, his mind in turmoil, a mixture of satisfaction and regret, exhilaration and fear, his thoughts filled with blood and death.
He shrugged. “I did what I had to do, Scott. Let’s leave it at that.”
Johnny forced himself to look at his brother. His inner conflict must have shown on his face, because Scott nodded and shot him a look of understanding. “Any time you want to talk about it, you know I’m here.”
Johnny nodded, appreciating his brother's restraint in not pushing the issue.
Scott draped an arm around his shoulder. “Now, I can hear a brandy calling my name, so how about you and I go in and I'll tell you about all the jobs I've been saving up for you. There’s one very large tree stump that's blocking the stream in the north pasture..."
Johnny allowed Scott to guide him in the direction of the hacienda. He knew it would take time for the memories of both the past and of Andy and his family to fade. But he had a home and his own family around him and he knew that they would get him through.