“So, what do you think, Johnny?” Wade asked, watching the boss’s younger son eye the new bunch of horses in the corral. They were edgy – high strung and fresh from the open range.
“Some pretty good horse flesh in there,” Johnny answered. He lifted one spurred boot onto the lower rail and leaned on the upper, his forearms folded one on top of the other and his chin resting on them. To the casual onlooker, he would have looked perfectly at ease, but Wade knew better. Johnny was assessing them carefully, judging their value and looking for the one that would give him trouble. It would be his job to break them over the next few days.
“Yeah, I reckon so.” Wade turned his attention back to the horses. “When do you plan to start on ‘em?” he asked.
Johnny studied them a moment longer before answering. “Give ‘em a few days to settle down,” he said at last. “Friday, I guess.”
Wade nodded his agreement. One thing Johnny knew about was horses and everyone on the ranch knew it. “Reckon that roan’s gonna be trouble,” he said quietly.
“Hmmm,” Johnny mumbled thoughtfully. He was watching her. He seemed more than a little bit interested.
“Don’t know why you’re botherin’ with her, Johnny,” Wade said, pushing his hat back off his forehead. The day had been searingly hot, too hot for chasing wild horses. He pulled off his bandana and wiped the sweat from his brow.
Johnny still hadn’t answered. He seemed to be still contemplating that roan.
“I don’t hold much with mares in a remuda,” Wade continued. “You can get a lotta trouble having a female in the bunch.”
“Yeah, you’re right about that,” Johnny agreed with a mischievous grin. “Females… pure distraction, that’s what they are.”
“Then why bother? Why not just turn her loose? She’s gonna be more trouble than she’s worth.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that, Wade,” Johnny argued. He lifted his head off his arms and pointed to the horse. “Look at her. She got real fine lines; better than most mustangs. I was thinking of maybe turning her out as a brood mare.”
Wade gaped at him as though he had run mad. “Johnny, that mare’s pure mean. She’d rip your heart out if you got near any foal she dropped,” he told his friend. “You’d be breeding bad blood there.”
“That’s why I’m botherin’ with her,” Johnny explained. “If I can gentle her a little, she’ll make a fine brood mare.”
As if she knew she was the focus of their attention, the roan mare lifted her head and shook out her mane, neighed loudly and shouldered through the small herd till she reached the far corner of the corral. She turned and pawed the ground, eyeing Johnny defiantly. But he only smiled.
“I’d better go get some feed for ‘em,” Wade told him and headed for the barn. “See ya later, Johnny.”
“Yeah,” Johnny answered distractedly, but he looked up at the rumbling sound of wagon wheels approaching.
Johnny pulled away from the corral fence and watched as Scott drew the buckboard to a halt, pulled on the brake and tied off the reins.
“’Bout time you got back,” Johnny called to them with a grin and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “How’s Lucy?”
“I didn’t get to see Lucy,” Scott grumbled. “Murdoch wanted these supplies right away, remember? We didn’t even have time for a beer, did we, Jelly?”
Jelly looked over at Scott and agreed. “Yep. Purely a shame ta go all the way ta town an’ not even get a chance to wash the dust from yur throat.”
“Well, neither of you look like you’re parched.” Johnny laughed. “Now me an’ Wade, we’ve been working, earning our keep.”
“Yes, you’ve got the horses in, I see,” Scott remarked, glancing towards the corral. “Any good ones amongst them?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Johnny told him cheerfully. “Should be fun breaking ‘em.”
Scott shook his head. “Your idea of fun mystifies me at times, Johnny.”
“Say, Johnny,” Jelly called out as he jumped down from the wagon. “I got a note for ya.”
“For me? Who from?” Johnny ambled over to the wagon.
Scott looked up at Jelly’s call with considerable interest. It was the first he’d heard of any note and it wasn’t like Jelly to be able to keep anything to himself. He climbed down and took his hat off to swipe away the dust from his clothes. No rain in two months had left the land dry and the roads like a dustbowl.
“Can’t say as I know her, Johnny,” Jelly told him. “New ta town, I reckon. Handsome woman, though.” He emphasized it with a wink at Scott.
“You move fast, Brother,” Scott told him, grinning.
Johnny smiled wickedly and snapped the note out of Jelly’s proffered fingers. He only glanced at it before tucking it under his belt and strolling towards the house.
“Ain’t ya gonna read it?” Jelly called to him.
“Later,” Johnny answered without turning.
“Aren’t you going to help unload all this?” Scott shouted after him.
“Nope.” Johnny turned around to face them both, walking backwards while he grinned wryly and added, “I’ve got me a note to read.” With a laugh, he turned back and continued on his way to disappear through the doorway.
Jelly scowled his dissatisfaction.
“You didn’t read it, huh?” Scott asked him with a mischievous smile.
“Weren’t none o’ my business,” Jelly growled as he unlatched the tail gate of the wagon to lower it. He pulled out a coil of new store-bought rope and tossed it to one side so that he could reach in for the heavier supplies. “She said ta give it to him privately. If he wants ta read it in private, well, that’s his say so.”
“Privately, hey?” Scott asked. “And I suppose you call that ‘private’, yelling it out in the middle of the yard?”
Jelly scowled at him again. “There was just us an’ him. You gonna tell anyone are ya?”
“Well, I sure ain’t. An’ I don’t reckon he is, so that’s private, ain’t it?”
Scott could only shake his head at Jelly’s reasoning. He walked to the back of the wagon and pulled out a sack of oats, then threw it over his shoulder and walked towards the barn with it.
Jelly followed with another sack and threw it down on top of the one Scott had dropped. “It ain’t none o’ my never mind, o’ course, but she didn’t seem like Johnny’s usual style,” he commented.
“Well, she was kinda more mature’n the gals he usually sparks.”
“Mature, hey?” Scott remarked, smiling. “Just how ‘mature’?”
“Oh, maybe in her thirties, but still a fine lookin’ gal mind ya.”
“Not exactly over the hill, Jelly,” Scott laughed.
Jelly stopped and scowled at him. He stuck his thumbs under his supenders and pulled on them aggressively. “Well, I know that!” he told him gruffly. “’Sides, there’s the boy.”
Scott was half way to the barn door and stopped, turning around to stare at Jelly. “What boy?”
“Well, I didn’t see him mind, but Clive, at the store, he says she’s got a boy ‘bout twelve.”
Scott found himself curious about this mystery woman. He hadn’t heard in town about any newcomers and news traveled fast in a place like Green River. Besides, a newcomer who happened to be an eligible young woman usually came to his attention pretty fast.
Like Jelly, he told himself that it was none of his business, but he was beginning to get a niggling sensation at the nape of his neck. It never did augur well, particularly when Johnny was involved.
“What else did Clive say?”
Jelly walked past him to the wagon and pulled out another sack. “It weren’t none o’ my business, but you know how that man just lets his mouth run on.”
“Seems she only turned up day ‘fore yesterday. Been holed up in a hotel room with the boy most ever since,” Jelly told him, then he chuckled. “That brother o’ yours sure moved quick.”
Scott frowned. “Jelly, Johnny hasn’t been to town since last Saturday. He couldn’t have met her already.”
Jelly pulled on his whiskers and considered it. “Maybe she knows him from somewheres else.”
“Maybe,” Scott answered, distracted.
Jelly turned back to the sacks and hauled out another one. Throwing it over his shoulder, he walked past Scott. “Well, it ain’t none o’ my business anyhow,” he repeated, and disappeared into the barn.
Half an hour later, with the wagon unloaded and the supplies stacked away, Scott made his way into the house. While he might have exaggerated a little in telling Johnny that he hadn’t had time for a drink in town, it had been a hot dusty trip back home. Another drink would go down well.
Besides, he was determined to seek out his brother and find out who the woman was. It might not be something Johnny wanted to talk about, but that niggling feeling at the back of his neck had become an itch that needed to be scratched. Scott had an uncomfortable feeling that that note meant trouble.
He’d figured that he would find Johnny in his room, probably with the door closed, wanting his privacy. But he was wrong. Johnny stood at the vast French doors behind Murdoch’s desk. He was leaning one shoulder against the wall, his arms folded across his chest, staring out at the driveway and the arch and obviously lost in thought.
“Hi,” Scott said amiably as he walked into the room.
Johnny looked over at him, then turned back to the window. “Hi.”
The greeting sounded less than enthusiastic. A creased and slightly battered piece of paper was lying open on Murdoch’s desk. “Something you want to talk about?” Scott asked him.
Johnny shifted his feet and glanced down at them for an instant before turning his face back to the window. “Why, you curious?”
“A little,” Scott admitted. He watched Johnny and waited for an answer, expecting some sort of smart reply. But none was forthcoming. Johnny just stood quietly looking out at the landscape.
Scott sighed, “And maybe just a little uneasy, Johnny. Who is she? What was in that note?”
“Sorry,” Johnny said quietly, still without turning around. “This isn’t something for you to worry about. It’s kinda personal.”
“Well, as long as it’s not trouble…”
Johnny turned his head towards his brother then straightened up.
“Scott, you’re turning into one hell of a pessimist,” he replied with an innocuous smile.
“Then I’ve been around you for too long, Brother.” Scott took a place on the sofa and dumped his hat onto the seat beside him. “Pardon me if most of the time I’m right.”
“Well, this time you’re not,” Johnny assured him. With his back still against the wall and his arms still crossed, he added, “The note’s from a lady in town who wants to meet me. Nothin’ unusual about that. Nothin’ to worry yourself over neither.”
“Jelly says she’s only been in town a day or so,” Scott persisted. “I know you can’t have met her in that time. You haven’t even been in Green River.”
Johnny’s eyes gleamed. “Then maybe word’s got out an’ she just had to meet me.”
Scott couldn’t help but chuckle. “That’s a somewhat debatable theory, Little Brother.”
Johnny smiled, then dropped his chin to his chest for a moment of thought and sighed. “Actually, there’s nothing for you to worry about. She’s the widow of a man I used to know is all. I’ll go into town tomorrow and catch up with her. That’ll be the end of it.”
“Oh,” Scott answered, relieved. “A close friend?”
“Nope, just someone I used to know.”
Suddenly, Scott wasn’t so relieved. There was something about Johnny’s demeanor that didn’t sit right with him. “So, she’s just passing through and looked you up.”
“Guess so,” he answered with a shrug of his shoulders.
“And she knew that you’re Johnny Lancer?” he asked but got no reply. “And that you’re living here at the ranch now?”
Apparently, Johnny had had enough. He pushed off the wall, snatched up the note and headed across the room. As he passed Scott, he answered. “Like you said, she’s just passin’ through an’ wants to see me.”
As he walked by, Scott added, “She and the boy.”
Johnny came to an abrupt halt, but didn’t turn around. Scott couldn’t see the expression on his face, but he figured that it was one of surprise… at the very least.
“She has a twelve year old boy with her. Her son apparently,” Scott told him, watching for some reaction. But there was none. That in itself told Scott something. “Didn’t you know about him?”
“I see.” Actually, he didn’t see at all and he was worried. “I think I should go into town with you,” Scott suggested suddenly.
“No need,” Johnny replied. He still hadn’t turned around and that gave Scott reason to be further concerned.
“I know, but…”
Johnny’s shoulders slumped. He still didn’t turn around but answered with a weary tone, “Just leave it, Scott. I wanta do this on my own. I’m not walkin’ into an ambush and I don’t need someone to watch my back this time. Okay?”
Scott knew when to cut his losses. He picked up the hat from beside him and stood up, then walked over to Johnny’s side. “Okay. If you’re sure...”
“I’m sure,” Johnny assured him as he walked to the staircase.
He put one hand on the railing and seemed to trudge up the stairs towards his room. Scott watched him go with a feeling of unease mixed with a twinge of irritation. Sometimes Johnny’s way of handling things was downright infuriating. He was obviously upset by the prospect of meeting the woman, but his determination to do it alone seemed pretty final.
Scott sighed heavily. Sometimes, it just had to be enough to be there to pick up the pieces.
“I took a look at those horses, Johnny,” Murdoch told his son, pouring himself a cup of coffee and then strolling over to the small kitchen table. “You did well. There’s some good horseflesh among them.”
Johnny was sitting, holding his own coffee with both hands, thinking. “Yeah, they’ll do,” he answered, somewhat absently.
“When are you going to start working them?”
“Friday,” Johnny replied, still paying very little attention.
Scott watched him with interest. A discussion about horses was usually enough to put a gleam in his brother’s eyes, and a compliment from Murdoch was a rare enough thing to brighten him. It deserved more reaction than Johnny had given it.
He suspected that Johnny’s mind was on the woman in town instead.
“Friday, hey?” Murdoch asked, apparently unaware that Johnny’s mind was elsewhere. “That sounds fine. It leaves you free to check the water levels of the creek up in the north pasture. That creek’s bound to be getting low by now.”
Johnny finally seemed to take notice. He took a sip of the coffee and put the cup down on the table. “Sorry, Murdoch,” he said. “I’ve got to go to town.”
It was only then that Scott realized that the subject had not come up at dinner. Johnny seemed to have avoided the subject and Scott knew that he had not wanted to press it with his brother.
“I’ve got to meet someone,” Johnny answered evasively.
“And it can’t wait ‘til Saturday?” Murdoch asked gruffly.
“Nope,” Johnny replied. He reached forward and took a biscuit from the batch in the middle of the table. “It’s important.”
“So, just who is this ‘someone’?” Murdoch persisted.
“’Someone’ who wants to see me,” Johnny answered edgily. “It’s personal.”
“Then it can wait,” Murdoch told him firmly. “There’s work to be done, Johnny. You can take care of your personal matters on Saturday.”
“Murdoch, I can check the north pasture,” Scott suggested, uneasily aware of the look in his brother’s eyes.
But Murdoch just wasn’t in the frame of mind to take the hint. He shook his head with finality. “No, Johnny…”
“Johnny,” Johnny said icily. “Has business in town.” He pushed back his chair and stood up.
Scott held his breath, waiting for the explosion that was threatening but, with incredible timing, Teresa bounced into the room.
“Good morning, everyone,” she said cheerfully, oblivious to the tension in the air. “Johnny, did you say you’re going to town? Would you mind picking something up for me?”
“Scott and Jelly brought home the supplies yesterday,” Murdoch pointed out.
“Yes, and I left something off the list,” Teresa blithely answered. “It could wait, but if Johnny’s going to town today, he can pick it up for me.”
“Glad to Teresa,” Johnny told her. He gave his father one final glare, then turned and left the room.
“What was that about?” Murdoch asked Scott.
Scott shook his head in disbelief. “Well, let me see. He said it was important. He told you it was personal. Yet you still couldn’t see that he’s serious about it?”
“Who is he meeting?”
“I don’t know,” Scott said stubbornly. “Some woman in town gave Jelly a note for him yesterday.”
“A woman?” Murdoch growled. “Is that what this is about?”
“No, that’s not what this is about,” Scott told him impatiently. “Whoever she is, she isn’t someone he’s excited about meeting. I could see that, even if you couldn’t. He told me she’s the widow of someone he used to know.”
“Well, he should have arranged to meet her on his own time,” Murdoch persisted.
Scott merely glared at him. “He didn’t arrange anything. And, if it means anything to you, the whole thing worries me. But he’s determined to go and see her. Surely there’s room for personal issues in our lives.”
“We have a ranch to run, Scott.”
“And it won’t fall down around our ears because Johnny has something to take care of in town.” Scott pushed his chair back noisily and got to his feet, then strode out of the room.
Johnny rode into Green River slow and easy. He had taken his time in getting to town, not really wanting to face this meeting. He’d tried not to think too hard about why Carl Freeman’s widow would ask to see him. It made no sense and, despite his assurances to Scott, he was pretty sure that nothing good was likely to come from it.
But he wasn’t one to walk away from trouble, so that was that. He considered stopping at the saloon first to fortify himself with a little false courage, but that idea was quickly cast aside. Instead, he stopped at the general store to get the all important item that Teresa had left off her shopping list for Scott the day before. Apparently, she couldn’t get by for another week without a reel of pink thread.
He dismounted and lazily tied the reins to the hitching post outside the store, then wandered in. As he passed them, he glanced at the pair of boys loitering outside the door and then noticed the noisy group of children playing across the street.
Taking his hat off and letting his eyes adjust to the dimmer light inside, he dusted the hat against his jeans and grinned at the shopkeeper. “Mornin’ Clive,” he said cheerfully.
“Well, Johnny Lancer, what are you doing here? Scott forget something yesterday?” the man answered agreeably.
“Nah, Teresa left somethin’ off the list. You…er…” Johnny hesitated and looked around to make sure there was no one behind him. “You got pink thread?”
Clive smiled. “Sure thing, Johnny,” he told him.
The man turned away to get it and Johnny looked around the store and then out the window, bored. The two boys he’d passed coming in were still hanging around the front door - twelve year olds he figured, looking for mischief. He watched them more closely for a moment, certain that he knew what they were up to.
“Here you are, Johnny,” Clive said behind him.
Johnny turned back and walked to the counter to pay the man. “School out?” he asked conversationally.
Clive scowled and then sighed. “Yeah, out for summer. Kids running riot all over town and just looking for trouble,” he said dismally. “The worst two are that pair outside.” He looked past Johnny and shook his head angrily. “Damn, there they go again!”
Johnny looked back over his shoulder, just in time to see the two culprits scamper away.
“There goes another two apples,” Clive growled.
Johnny turned his attention back to the storekeeper. “Happenin’ a lot?”
“That pair are out there every day. I can’t keep my eye on them all the time so, the minute my back is turned, off they run off with my apples.”
Johnny grinned. “Least it’s only apples, Clive. Worse they could be up to.”
“Maybe so, but they’re costing me money. And stealing is stealing. No two ways about it.”
Johnny nodded and took the tiny package. “Well, thanks for the thread, Clive. I’ll see you next time.”
He ambled out onto the sidewalk and stopped. He looked both ways without seeing either of them, then a suspicion occurred to him. He walked to the corner of the building and stuck his head around the corner.
“Hey there, boys,” he said with a smile.
Both jumped in fright and each quickly ducked one hand behind their backs. Ludicrously, both were still chewing. “Hi Johnny!” they said in unison.
Johnny turned the corner to join them. “Those apples good?”
For a moment, he thought they would try to deny it, but they swallowed quickly and hung their heads a little. “We just got hungry, Johnny. We didn’t mean no harm.”
“That right, Tommy?” Johnny asked the second boy. He nodded.
“You get hungry yesterday too?” Johnny asked. ‘An’ the day before?”
The boys looked at each other in surprise and neither answered.
Johnny sighed. “Listen, you two think you can stay outa trouble till Friday?”
“Why?” Tommy asked him.
“Well, we’ve got some horses need breakin’ out at Lancer. Seein’ as you don’t have school, I thought you might wanta come watch the fun,” Johnny suggested, then added mischievously. “’Course, there’s two conditions.”
They looked at him expectantly. “What are they?” Tommy demanded eagerly.
“First, your parents have to say you can come,” Johnny explained. “And second, you have to stay outa trouble till then.”
‘Sure, Johnny!” Tommy assured him.
He almost laughed at the cherubic expressions on their faces. He knew better. “If I hear of either of you gettin’ into mischief, the deal’s off. No more apple filching.”
“We can do it, Johnny,” Tommy insisted. “Right, Matt?”
“Sure, we won’t get into no trouble. Promise,” Matt agreed.
“Okay, I’ll check on that,” he assured them. He pulled a penny from his back pocket and flipped it to Tommy. “Take that to Mr. Richards for the apples.”
“Ah, Johnny, he don’t even know ‘bout ‘em,” Matt complained.
“He knows,” Johnny assured him with a scowl. “An’ that ain’t the point. It’s wrong to steal. You both apologize an’ quit swipin’ his apples. You’re lucky he hasn’t told your folks what you’ve been up to. Got it?”
“Yes, Johnny,” they replied, in unison once again.
“Good. I’ll see you both at the ranch on Friday… if you can do like I said. Stay outa trouble.”
He left them then and walked across the street to the hotel.
Johnny stood at the door to her room, his hand up and poised to knock on it. But he stopped. A strong urge to cut and run surged through him. Uncertainty, unease… feelings not exactly alien to him but which he was used to fending off with confidence, all crowded in on him.
Once again, he wondered what she could possibly want with him. He didn’t know her. He had never met her. He’d heard rumors back when he was in the game that Carl was married, but Johnny had never known for sure and he hadn’t known the man well enough to ask him.
He knew there was only one way to find out what the woman wanted and that was to see her and ask, but his nerves twitched just thinking about it.
He straightened his shoulders and swallowed hard, then garnered his courage and knocked, the hollow sound breaking the silence of the hall.
“Come in, Mr. Lancer,” a voice said from the other side of the door.
How had she known it would be him? Had she watched him from the window and waited? And ‘Lancer’ she’d said. Well, at least that seemed like a good start. But why hadn’t she said ‘Madrid’? How had she tracked him here, under his real name? It was common knowledge in this area, but Johnny was pretty sure that word hadn’t spread much further yet. If it had, he’d probably have had more young guns and old foes looking him up by now.
He forced all of those thoughts out of his mind as he opened the door and looked into the room. He needed to keep his head clear for this meeting.
The hotel in Green River wasn’t exactly up to the same standards as those fancy San Francisco places he’s seen, but he’d seen a lot worse. It was tidy, clean and comfortable. The furniture in the rooms was always polished and the linen was always clean. There were shaded lamps that never showed any dust and kept the gloom from the room.
But there was no need for a lamp at this hour of the day. He could see Alice Freeman clearly. She stood by an armchair and a small table, placed opposite the doorway. She was taller than most of the women he knew, with fair hair pulled back into a stylish chignon and a light complexion, a handsome face and neat, if slightly unfashionable, clothes.
She had one hand resting on the back of the armchair, her fingers gripping it hard. But that was the only hint that she was feeling awkward. Her back was straight and her head held high. She looked him straight in the eye.
“Good morning, Mr. Lancer. Thank you for coming,” she said quietly. “I’m Alice Freeman. Won’t you come in?”
As an afterthought, she added, “Oh, and please, would you close the door? I know it’s a little unconventional, being alone in my room with me, but I don’t think that either of us wants everyone to hear what we have to say to each other.”
She had that right. Whatever was going to be said here, Johnny did not want it gossiped about. He did as she asked, taking a step inside the room and gently pulling the door closed behind him. There he stood, looking at her and unsure of himself for once.
“I take it that you prefer the name ‘Lancer’ to ‘Madrid’ these days?” she asked, her fingers still clenched on the back of the chair.
“Yes, thanks,” he answered uneasily. “I don’t use ‘Madrid’ no more.”
“Yes, so I hear. Please, come in. I won’t bite,” she said with a smile. “Would you like a cup of coffee? It’s freshly made.”
She indicated the cups and a pot on the little lace-covered table behind her.
“No, thanks,” he replied awkwardly, even more confused. She was being awfully polite and he didn’t know what to think.
She sat down in the armchair next to the table. She brushed her skirt into place, easing out the creases and keeping her eyes away from him while she did. It suddenly occurred to Johnny that she might well be just as uncomfortable as he was. This couldn’t be easy for her either.
“Won’t you sit down?” she suggested politely.
Johnny looked around quickly, but the only other chair was right beside her and he didn’t feel comfortable sitting there. He chose to stand.
“No, I’m fine right here.”
She looked at him and bowed her head slightly, apparently gathering her thoughts. She stayed silent for a minute or two so that, when she did speak, it unnerved him. “I understand you’re a rancher now,” she said.
Small talk – it was definitely not Johnny’s strong point. “That’s right.”
A silence fell between them again before she looked up at him and seemed to have put her feelings aside. “I’m sure you’re curious as to why I asked you here,” she said calmly.
‘Understatement’, Johnny thought quickly, but what he answered was simply, “Yes, Ma’am, I have to admit I am.”
“I would prefer Mrs. Freeman to Ma’am,” she told him, then she threw her hands up a little in frustration. “Oh, do sit down somewhere! I don’t want to have to look up at you.”
Without a word, Johnny walked slowly over to the bed and sat down on the extreme edge of it. The springs protested his weight noisily. None of this felt right.
“Thank you,” she said with relief in her voice then took a steadying breath. When she spoke again, she seemed to have gotten herself back into that strangely calm mood. “I’m sure you realize this is rather difficult for me.”
He nodded, clasped his hands lightly on his lap and glanced down at them.
She sighed heavily. “I don’t suppose it’s easy for you either.”
“Then let me get straight to the point. I have come here to beg a favor of you,” she explained and he looked up in surprise and frowned. She ignored it and continued. “I have a son. His name is Tyler. I don’t imagine you knew about him… or even about me…”
“No.. Well, there were a few rumors but none of us knew for sure he was married.”
“No, Carl was very careful about that.” She stopped for a moment, then went on. “He didn’t think it wise to let people find out about us.”
“Yeah, I can understand that. Might’ve put you both in danger. There’s those who might have used you to get to him.”
“Yes, that’s what Carl thought.” She sighed heavily. “Well, like all little boys, Tyler adored his father. He was young when Carl died, just seven years old, but he was old enough to remember him and to know what he has lost. He’s heard all the stories about how Carl died. They’re hard to keep from him what with the circumstances. I talked to him about it myself and explained the facts very carefully, but he’s come to believe his own version of events.”
Johnny said nothing, preferring to let her keep talking. It was obviously hard for her to talk to him about this and he couldn’t find any words to add anyway. He pulled his eyes away from his hands and looked towards her.
“I’m worried about him. The older he gets, the more fixated he is becoming with revenge. He wants to kill the man who gunned down his father.” She stopped and stared right into Johnny’s eyes before she finished. “He wants to kill Johnny Madrid.”
And there it was. He’d known that, sooner or later, something like that was going to be said, but not in that context. Yet, he told himself he shouldn’t be surprised. In fact, the boy probably wasn’t the only son wanting to avenge his father’s death at Johnny’s hands.
“Guess I can’t blame him for that.”
“Maybe not, but I don’t want him to grow up thinking only of hating and killing. I’m afraid what that would do to him.”
“Then why bring him here?” he asked, coolly putting aside the surprise. “If you’re so afraid of what he might do, why bring him here?”
She sighed again, shaking her head. “I can’t talk to him about it any more. I know he’s only a boy, but he’s on the verge of manhood now and…” She stopped and looked away for a moment, to collect herself. “I might not always be here for him. I dread what he might do once he’s alone in the world.”
Johnny frowned. “Kind of a pessimistic way o’ lookin’ at things, Mrs. Freeman.”
She glared at him. “Perhaps.” Then she pulled back on her tightly controlled emotions again. “But it’s something I have to consider. I had to do something to help him come to terms with Carl’s death.”
“I don’t understand what you think I can do,” Johnny told her.
“I want you to talk to him.”
“Me?” This time he was shocked. “What do you want me to say to him? Apologize for killing his father?”
“No,” she answered flatly. “It wouldn’t work and I wouldn’t ask that of you. I certainly don’t expect it. Unlike my son, I’m actually very well aware of the circumstances surrounding my husband’s death. I made sure of them when it happened.”
‘The circumstances…’ Johnny thought. An image came to him of a dusty San Diego street and a man facing him twenty yards away… both of them ready to risk losing their lives for the sake of a reputation.
It had been one of those coldly professional face-offs that came along now and then in their game. No insults had been flung at one another, no dancing around the subject. Just two men coming face to face in a small town saloon, looking for the reputation they could get from out-drawing the other.
Johnny hadn’t tried to get out of it either. At that time in his life, he’d seen it as a real opportunity. Carl Freeman had a big reputation and Johnny knew that beating him to the draw would raise his own.
He saw again the man’s hand reaching down - going for his gun. And Carl Freeman had been good – fast. It had been the first real competition of Johnny’s career. It had been a truly lethal test for both of them… and Johnny had won that one.
Carl Freeman had lost.
“If I had ever thought that it was anything other than a fair fight, I would have killed you myself.” Her words brought him back to the present. They seemed out of place coming from the elegant lady before him and yet the tone of her voice made the statement wholly believable.
“Carl was a gunfighter,” she continued bluntly. “I knew it when I married him and I knew it when I bore him a son. Oh, I had my hopes that he’d change, maybe give it up and settle down once Ty was born, but that wasn’t Carl.”
The man had been a fool then, Johnny thought. This woman should have been worth trying to settle down with.
“I also knew that he was going to call you out.”
Another shock. Johnny stared at her.
She saw the shock on his face. He could tell by the smile that crept over her lips. But she only shrugged it away. “He had a family to provide for and he wanted better pay. The only way he knew that he could demand that was to build on his reputation. He told me about an up and coming young gunfighter named Madrid. You’d built quite a name for yourself by then. Carl thought that he could take you and improve his own status.”
Then she shook her head. “No, that wasn’t all of it. I’d be lying to myself it I didn’t face the fact that Carl really hungered to be the fastest.”
It sounded strange coming from this woman. She was elegant and obviously educated and yet she talked about gunhawks and gunfighting as though it were second nature to her. There was a cold professionalism about her.
Silence fell on the room as Johnny digested her words and realized that she had no more to add for now.
He fidgeted, first with his hands and then with one of the silver conchos on his pants, thinking. Finally, he glanced back at her. “I’m not sure what you think I can do,” he said quietly. “He’s not going to listen to me. Even if I wasn’t the man who killed his father, I’m still a complete stranger to him.”
“I want my son to meet you. I want him to see that you’re not the cold-blooded murderer that he’s imagined you to be.”
“How do you know I’m not?” he asked coolly.
She smiled. “Oh, I’ve checked up on you, Johnny Lancer. I heard rumors about you – mostly that you were dead. I have to admit that that was a relief. Ty couldn’t take revenge on a dead man. But then I started hearing whispers that Johnny Madrid was alive and retired, that he had hung up his gun.”
He listened to her cautiously. He knew about the first rumor she’d mentioned. That one had started in Mexico with his close call with a firing squad. It had come in real handy and had given him some time to settle down at Lancer. The second worried him a little. It meant that the truth of his story was being told now.
“I found out that you’ve given up gunfighting. I know that you’re a rancher now and that you’re trying to live down your past. There are people in this town who seem to think highly of you.”
Johnny snorted. “Not many.”
“Enough of them to confirm what I believe – that you are a better man than most of the men in Carl’s line of work,” she pointed out. “It was what I always hoped Carl might do some day. I rather admire you for trying.”
“If your boy is as angry as you say, then nothing I say will change his mind.” Johnny knew all about that kind of anger. That gunfight had been five years ago, so the boy had to be around twelve now.
He remembered himself at that age – motherless and angry at the world. He had been full of hate, particularly for the father who had ‘thrown them out’ and left him and his mother to the life they’d been forced to live. “The minute he finds out who I am…”
“I don’t want him to know who you are – not yet,” she told him and he looked at her in astonishment. “I want him to see you for what you are now, without knowing what you were, at least for now,” she explained. “Let him get to know you first.”
“Ma’am… Mrs. Freeman, everyone in this town knows who I used to be. It’s not like you’re going to be able to keep him from hearing, sooner or later.”
“I know, eventually we will have to tell him. But he spends most of his time here with me. He doesn’t know yet and I want him to have a chance to know you before then.”
“I don’t know,” he answered warily. “It don’t seem like a good idea to me. An’ I’m not used to bein’ ‘round kids a lot.”
She smiled at last. “I watched you across the road, with those children.”
“You knew who I was?”
“Mr. Lancer, I was married to a gunfighter for eight years. I can recognize one from a mile away. The way you tie down your gun so low on your leg is a dead give-away. I saw you ride into town and guessed who you were immediately.”
“But I saw the boys take those apples, and then what you did. I don’t know what you said to them, but I did see them go back to the store after you left.”
Johnny went from pleased that Tommy and Matt had done the right thing to angry that she wanted this of him in the turn of one moment’s thought. And, more than that, how could he face a boy he was meeting only because he had killed his father?
“There’s a big difference between getting two kids to pay for the apples they swiped and convincing an angry boy not to kill me.”
“Yes, I understand that.”
“No, I don’t think this is such a good idea,” he told her and got to his feet. “I’m sorry but I don’t think he’s gonna listen to me.”
“You won’t even try?” she asked, pleading now. “Mr… Johnny, please. I don’t want my son coming after you in a couple of years. I can’t stand the idea that he might also die at your hand. Do you want that?”
“Of course not.”
“And I don’t want him living with that terrible anger he carries without anyone to…”
She stopped and blushed hotly.
“Without anyone?” Johnny asked, catching her words and apprehensive of their meaning.
She looked down into her neatly folded hands and twisted the gold ring on her finger. It was a moment before she finally answered. “I’m dying, Johnny. I had Rheumatic fever a couple of years ago and it left me with a bad heart.”
He stared at her. Shock number three!
“When?” He regretted the question before he’d even finished asking it. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have…”
“No, it’s only fair to tell you since I’m laying all this on you. They can’t tell me. It could be a year or a month… it could be tomorrow. I’m not afraid for myself…” She looked up now. She looked straight into his eyes and added, “But I am desperately afraid for Ty. Desperate enough to try anything. You’re about my last hope.”
Johnny turned away and walked over to the window. He looked out into the street but didn’t really see the children playing around the big oak near the livery stable. He didn’t take any notice of the people, the horses or the wagons rattling through the street.
“I’m sorry,” she said behind him. “I know I’m forcing this on you, but I’m not ashamed of it. I’ll do whatever I have to. I will not leave Ty without doing everything in my power to make sure he’s safe.”
“What you’re suggesting won’t work, Ma’am,” he told her, still staring out of the window. “My past is no secret in this town. He’d soon find out I’m Madrid.”
A knock on the door startled both of them. “Ma!” a young voice called through the closed door.
She stood up quickly. Johnny had looked back at her and then turned around.
“Please, will you talk to him?” she asked quietly and urgently. When he didn’t answer right away, she begged him again. “Please?”
Johnny only nodded. He knew already that he’d regret it, but she played rough.
She opened the door and Johnny caught sight of the boy. He tried to remember what Carl Freeman had looked like – tall, dark-haired and tanned. This boy was fair, with wide hazel eyes. He was tall, maybe he had that from his father. Maybe he had Freeman’s way of walking or perhaps his hands. Johnny didn’t know. He couldn’t remember enough of Carl Freeman to be sure.
Was there a resemblance in the boy’s face to the man he’d last seen lying in that San Diego street five years ago? If there was, Johnny didn’t recognize it. He seemed to look more like Alice Freeman.
“Tyler,” she said brightly, changing mercurially as the boy came into the room. “You’re back just in time to meet Mr. Lancer.”
He was giving Johnny a wary once over, but there was no hostility there that Johnny noticed.
“Howdy,” Tyler said cautiously.
“Hello, Tyler,” Johnny answered, just as uncertainly. He fought back the desire to just walk away… no, run away.
“Johnny knew your father,” she explained and, suddenly, there was a light in the boy’s eyes.
It wasn’t a lie; or not really. Johnny had known Carl. They’d worked together on the same side in a range war a couple of months before that fateful day when they met for the last time. He’d never counted the man as a friend though. Carl Freeman had been little more than a casual acquaintance until San Diego.
“Really, Mister?” the boy asked eagerly and Johnny felt a sudden urge to hide somewhere.
But his eyes caught Mrs. Freeman’s, caught the unspoken plea in them, and he found himself nodding instead He added, “Yeah, I knew him.”
It felt wrong, but the relief in her eyes was enough to make him falter. He ducked his head to think, running his fingers around the brim of his hat while he did. When he looked up again, the boy’s eyes were still on him, waiting expectantly.
“You like sarsaparilla, kid?” Johnny asked him suddenly. “There’s a new parlor down the street that I hear sells a real good one.”
“Yes, Sir. I sure do.” The excitement in the words threw another panic into Johnny, but he held tight to the hat in his hands and looked over at Alice Freeman. “Could I go, Ma?” the boy asked eagerly.
She smiled complacently at the boy and said, “Of course you can, Ty.”
“Thanks, Ma!” he answered and then beamed at Johnny. “Will you tell me about my Pa?”
Johnny cringed and lingered for another instant before he walked towards the door. The boy walked out in front of him and waited in the hall for him.
“Best behavior, Ty,” she warned the boy and then glanced at Johnny as he passed. “Thank you,” she whispered to him, too quietly for Tyler to hear.
Tyler Freeman sat on a stool with a glass of sarsaparilla in front of him that looked big enough to quench the thirst of a man just in off the badlands. A similar glass sat in front of Johnny.
They had attracted some interested looks when they’d come into the parlor and sat down. The storekeeper certainly wasn’t used to Johnny Lancer’s patronage and the only other customers, a woman with her youngsters – a boy and a girl – had appeared stunned to see him there.
Johnny looked around uncomfortably. “So, how did you know Pa?” the boy asked, forcing Johnny’s attention back to him.
It was the natural question to ask, but also the one that Johnny had dreaded. “I worked with him once,” Johnny told him, truthfully, but still avoiding the real issue. He eyes the glass in front of him with distaste. Right now, he wished it was filled with something a whole lot stronger.
“Yeah? Then are you a gunfighter, too?” Tyler asked. In his excitement, the words came out too loudly for Johnny’s composure.
He glanced around and found that the woman had looked over at them.
“Hush!” Johnny said quietly, looking away from the woman’s disapproving expression. “No, I’m not a gunfighter… not any more anyway.”
The boy did lower his voice. “But you were, right? I figured you must be. You wear your gun tied down low just like one and you look around you a lot… real edgy.”
Johnny suspected that he looked edgy for an entirely different reason on this occasion. The boy sounded excited, but Johnny only felt uneasy. Resigned to his fate, he picked up the glass and took a sip. In a better frame of mind, he might have enjoyed it but, at the moment, it was barely tolerable.
Without glancing at the boy, he asked, “You know about gunfighters, do you?”
“Oh sure! Read lots o’ books about ‘em.”
“Read about ‘em, hey? In dime novels?”
“Yeah. An’ then there’s Pa. I remember what he was like a little. He wore his gun just like you do. Tell me ‘bout him,” the boy persisted. “He was fast, wasn’t he? I used to watch him practice when he was home.”
“Yeah, he was fast,” Johnny agreed.
“Were you friends long?”
“I’m not sure you could say we were ‘friends’ exactly, kid,” Johnny told him. “We worked together, on the same side an’ all, but mostly… well, none of us got to be real close back then.”
“’Cause the next time we met, we might not be on the same side.”
“Oh,” Tyler said quietly, thinking. “You mean you might end up having to shoot at one another? I guess that makes sense.”
They fell silent and each took a swallow of the sarsaparilla in front of them. Johnny tried hard to recall even one story to tell the boy about his father, but nothing came to him. He just hadn’t known Freeman well enough, or cared enough, to remember any.
Actually, if he really faced the truth, Johnny had spent a long time trying not to remember too much about Carl Freeman. The little he’d had to do with him had left him with an image of a decent enough man, but a man who had been prepared to kill him if the time ever came.
It had come and Johnny had never really had any regrets about that day. It had been business, just business.
So, he considered making up something to tell the boy. But he cast that idea aside as well. It was bad enough that he had already evaded the whole truth. Lying wasn’t going to make his chances of talking this boy’s anger away any better than they already were.
“Where did you meet him?” Tyler asked, breaking their strained silence. “Did you know him long?”
Johnny sighed heavily. He didn’t much like talking about those days. “There was a bit of a fracas down near SanYsidro. There’s not much water down that way an’ there were these two ranchers who both claimed the rights to what little there was.”
“Wow! A range war?”
This time, Johnny could feel eyes boring into him. A quick glance around proved him right. The woman was openly staring at him and the children were looking at him as well. She quickly turned away and gestured to her son and daughter to do the same. He sighed.
“No,” Johnny told him, keeping his voice low. “It didn’t get that far.”
“What happened?” the boy asked quietly, apparently taking his cue from Johnny.
“A man got hurt – a vaquero who worked for one of the ranchers, not one of us gunhawks. The ranchers didn’t like it. They hadn’t thought much about it coming to bloodshed, and sure not one of their own. So they came to their senses. They finally realized what they were doing and just how far it could go an’ came to a compromise. It was all over in a couple o’ days.”
“Bet that musta been disappointing,” the boy said, shaking his head.
“Nope,” he answered easily. “We just went our own ways.”
He stopped and sighed, took another swallow of the drink and silently wished that it were tequila, then he spoke again. “Ty, no matter what you’ve heard or read, most gunfighters don’t enjoy killing for its own sake. There’s no fun or excitement in taking a man’s life. Sure, there are some who do, but they’re outa the ordinary. Taking another man’s life is the last resort, not the first.”
“Oh,” the boy answered and looked down. “Sorry.”
“That’s okay. A lot of people make that mistake, but I never did enjoy having to kill a man. I don’t think your father did either.”
“But you said you hardly knew him.”
“I didn’t need to. There are men who do like killing. They’re cold and mean, but they’re the exception – not the rule. I didn’t know your pa well, but it didn’t take long to figure out that much about him. I don’t recall ever seeing any meanness in him.”
“No, he wasn’t mean,” the boy whispered and the unnerving silence fell over them again.
Suddenly, like an unexpected gift, a memory came to Johnny. “He was good with cards,” Johnny said abruptly and took the boy by surprise as well.
“Your pa, he was good with cards,” Johnny repeated, pleased to finally be able to actually tell him something about his father other than how good he’d been with a gun.
“You mean poker?”
“No, I mean WITH cards – fancy card tricks. He was real good at that, and he could shuffle cards like I’d never seen anyone do before,” Johnny explained. Once started, the memory proved to be a good one and came back to him clearly. He realized now that he had been little more than a boy in Carl Freeman’s eyes at that time.
“I watched him do it once. He was playin’ card tricks on some of the boys in the bunkhouse at that ranch near San Ysidro. I tried to do it myself when I thought no one was looking. Just couldn’t get it right. He found me tryin’ and offered to show me how to do it.”
Johnny chuckled lightly. “I didn’t much like accepting favors from anyone back then, so I was gonna say no, but he sat on down beside me an’ showed me before I got the chance to. I got the idea pretty quick, so he showed me a few more.”
“Can you still do them?” the boy asked, his eyes gleaming with renewed interest.
Johnny laughed. He hadn’t tried his hand with cards in more than a poker game in years. And he made a point of never showing them any of those fancy ways of shuffling cards. If they saw him doing those, he’d never bluff them again. “Well, I haven’t tried any of ‘em in a long time, Kid, but yeah, I think so.”
“Could you show me, one day?”
“Sure,” he answered without thinking. He stopped and picked up the glass to finish the drink. When he swallowed the last of it, he put the glass back on the counter. “Finish up, kid. We’ll go walk a ways.”
“Did you tell your ma?” Johnny asked, leaning against the hitching post outside the hotel with his arms crossed over his chest. Barranca was behind him and nudged his shoulder.
“Yeah, she don’t mind how long I’m gone. She’s lyin’ down for a while,” Tyler told him. He stopped in front of Johnny and looked past him to the horse. “Is he yours?”
“Yep,” Johnny answered while the palomino lifted his head and shook it, then nudged Johnny’s shoulder again. “He just wants attention,” Johnny said with a laugh. He stood up and turned back to Barranca and laughed. Then he ran his hand through the horse’s mane and patted his neck.
“He’s a beauty,” the boy said wonderingly.
“Yeah, and he knows it.” He rubbed the horse’s neck once more and then turned back to Tyler. “You like horses?”
“Sure do.” A sad look passed over his face. “But I don’t have one. We got nowhere to keep a horse.”
“That’s a shame.”
“But I can ride!” the boy told him, almost defiantly. “My Pa taught me right from when I was just a little kid. He could really handle a horse, Johnny.”
It had become clear that Carl Freeman was a paragon of all things manly to this boy. Johnny thought that was just as it should be. A boy should admire his father, alive or dead. Yet, at Ty’s age, Johnny had hated his own father passionately. While Ty planned on killing the man who had killed his father, Johnny had planned on being the man who killed his father. He had learned how to use a gun with putting a bullet through Murdoch Lancer’s heart as his goal.
“Where’d you get him?” Tyler asked and Johnny shook away the cobwebs of long ago discarded feelings.
“My father gave him to me,” Johnny told him, rubbing Barranca’s nose fondly. “I broke him and I’m training him. He’s one smart horse too.”
“That must be great,” Tyler said, awed.
“You said you can you ride?”
Tyler’s eyes lit up. “I ain’t forgotten.”
Johnny nodded and beckoned the boy. “Come on. Get on up.”
He had to give the boy a leg up and he waited until he had settled himself in the saddle and had a good grip of the pommel. Barranca looked back to see what was going on and Johnny grinned and rubbed his shoulder, just where he liked. Then he untied the reins and led the horse down the street, slow and watching the boy to make sure he really was safe up there.
They walked together to the far end of town where a scattering of oaks lined the banks of what was enigmatically called Green River. It was little more than a small stream, and even less in a dry season – like now. But it had given the town its name so it was referred to as a river.
There were fewer people around at this end of town. It was popular on weekends when courting couples spread their picnics under the oaks but, on weekdays like today, no one was likely to be there. It would offer some measure of privacy for the discussion that Johnny still didn’t want to have with the boy.
He found a shady spot and helped Tyler down from the saddle. The boy was beaming with pleasure. “That was great! He sure is a good horse.”
“Yeah, he is. But don’t ever go trying to ride him if I’m not around. He doesn’t take kindly to strangers on his back ‘less I give him the okay.”
“You any good at skippin’ stones?” Johnny asked as he tied Barranca to a low branch and loosened the girth a little. There was plenty of grass here to keep him occupied for a while.
“Oh yeah,” the boy answered excitedly and ran to the water’s edge.
The two of them tossed stones for ten minutes or so, vying against each other for the most perfectly flat stone and the most hops across the river. Johnny watched the boy enjoying himself and found himself relaxing and having a good time himself.
Finally, Tyler tired of it and found a log to sit on while Johnny leaned lazily against a tree, idly tossing a small stone in the air and catching it.
“Ma asked you to talk to me, didn’t she?” the boy asked suddenly.
It took Johnny by surprise. He caught the stone and stared at it before throwing it away, then he tapped his hand nervously against his pants. “Yeah, Tyler, she did.”
Tyler looked down sadly at the ground between his knees. “She worries about me.”
“I figured that,” Johnny admitted. “But worryin’ about you is a good thing. That’s what mothers are supposed to do.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
The boy went silent for a few minutes and Johnny decided to let him lead the conversation for the time being.
“She’s real sick,” he said at length.
“Yeah, I know,” Johnny answered quietly. “She told me.”
“Did you even really know my pa? Or did you make it up?”
“No, I knew him. It was just like I said.”
“She wants you to talk me out of killing Madrid, doesn’t she?” the boy said with a bitter note in his voice that startled Johnny. Then he looked up at Johnny defiantly. “You won’t.”
“That’s what I told her,” Johnny answered truthfully.
Johnny nodded coolly. “Yeah, but I’d like to know why you want him dead. I mean, I know he killed your pa in a gunfight an’ that might be enough for some men, but I can’t figure you’re that kind.”
“He didn’t just kill my pa. He murdered him,” the boy said bluntly, glowering at Johnny. “He drew first. Pa didn’t stand a chance.”
“That what the witnesses said?” Johnny asked calmly. He hadn’t had any trouble with the law after that shootout. There had been more than enough witnesses to say the fight had been a fair one. Most of the town had watched through their windows, including the sheriff. It had been quite a show for most of them. Johnny had heard later that they were still talking about it months after it had happened – the day Johnny Madrid had out-gunned Carl Freeman in the street.
“No,” Tyler answered. “He had them all so scared they backed his story.”
“That right? All of ‘em?” Johnny asked.
“You know who Johnny Madrid is, don’t ya?”
“Yes, I know who he is, Ty.”
“Then you know that he would’ve only had to look at ‘em for them to know he’d kill ‘em if they said anything?”
Johnny leaned his head back against the bark of the tree and looked up into the branches. There was barely a breath of air to stir the leaves and they hung, still and eerily silent. Rays of sunlight filtered through them and he screwed his eyes against the brightness of them.
Then he shifted his feet a little and folded his arms around him, unaware of the defensive stance he had taken up. “So, who told you all this?” he asked and looked back towards the boy.
Tyler shrugged his shoulders. “No one had to. I know he had to have drawn first. Pa was just too fast for him so he had to cheat.”
“I see. Have you ever seen how fast Madrid is?” Johnny asked, still managing to maintain his calm exterior.
“I don’t need to. I know how fast Pa was,” the boy said sulkily.
“How many men have you seen draw, Tyler?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders again. “Not many,” he answered.
Tyler pouted disagreeably. “None I guess. None besides Pa. Ma don’t let me see that sorta thing. Like I said, she worries a lot.” He seemed to realize what Johnny was hinting at and added defiantly, “But I don’t need to see Madrid draw. Or anyone else either. No one was as fast as Pa!”
“One thing I learned early, Ty, there’s always someone faster waiting around the corner,” Johnny told him firmly.
Tyler shook his head. “No, not faster than Pa. You shoulda seen him. He was fast as lightning.”
“I did see him, Tyler. Remember?” Johnny reminded him. “And you’re right, he was fast. But I’ve seen a lot of other men who were fast over the years. Some of those men didn’t make it either.”
“Pa was faster than anyone, Johnny,” Tyler asserted determinedly. “I know. I watched him practice all the time. He’d practice for hours and I’d sit right there watchin’ him.”
Johnny sighed heavily. He looked around him till he found a small branch and picked it up. He checked it over, assessed it and then tossed it to Tyler.
Tyler was taken by surprise, but he caught the piece of wood. It was about a foot in length and an inch thick, dried out and aged. “What…?”
“You say you remember how fast your pa was?”
“Then toss that stick in the air, over the river… high as you can,” Johnny instructed.
Tyler got to his feet and made ready to throw it, looking questioningly at Johnny once more before going ahead. Johnny nodded casually, so the boy hurled it as high as he could.
It was still on the rise when the first bullet snapped it in half. The two pieces split apart and took different directions, but a second bullet broke one of the halves into two pieces while a third bullet did the same to the other. He splintered two of those pieces before he ran out of bullets and watched the remainder fall.
Tyler watched the pieces fall and splash lightly into the water, then glanced towards Johnny in time to see him still holding the colt in his hand, his left hand still poised over the hammer and smoke curling around the end of the barrel.
Johnny took a breath and casually reloaded before sliding the gun back into the holster. He turned his attention back to the boy and found him staring, his eyes as big as saucers and his mouth hanging open.
“Sit down,” Johnny told him coolly and waited for the boy to obey him. He stood up straight and walked over to the log, then sat down beside the boy.
“You see, I practiced a lot too. Every gunfighter does and keeps right on practicing to keep up his skill.” He hung his head, hating to talk about it. But he knew he had to make the boy understand. “I didn’t do that just to show off, Kid. You have to understand that your pa was good, but there’s always someone faster, kid,” Johnny explained to him again. “No matter how fast your pa was, isn’t it possible that...?”
“No! I reckon you must be nearly as fast as my pa was, but not quite.”
The words amused Johnny, but saddened and frustrated him at the same time. His uncharacteristic display had served no real purpose.
“Will you teach me to shoot like that, Johnny?”
“Tyler, I’ll teach you those card tricks an’ maybe even a little poker if your ma ain’t lookin’, but I’m not going to teach you to kill. ‘Specially if it’s only so you can kill Madrid.”
“Why not? He’s a killer?” the boy protested angrily.
“Yeah, he’s a killer. No one is arguing with that,” Johnny conceded dejectedly. “But you’ve got no evidence that he’s a murderer.”
“No, what you’ve got is hate, Ty, and that’s somethin’ I know a little bit about.”
“I do hate him,” Tyler said with an intensity that reminded Johnny of the hatred he himself had carried for years. “And I’m going to kill him one day. I’m going to learn how to draw and fire even faster than Pa did and I’m going to call him out and kill him – fair an’ square.” He glared straight ahead of him. “And that’s more than he did for my pa.”
“Listen to me, Tyler,” Johnny said patiently. “You’ve got every reason to hate Madrid. No one’s denying that. Whether it was murder or not, he killed your father and that’s enough to hate him for. But hate can eat at you if you carry it too close or too long, kid. Believe me; I know what that’s like.”
“How do you know?”
The question was expected, but Johnny had no desire to discuss it. There were wounds from his past that had never healed. But he’d opened the door to it himself, so he knew he couldn’t stop now.
He put his hands together in front of him and rubbed them slowly against each other. “I grew up hating a man too,” he finally said. He didn’t look away from his hands and stopped for a moment before he continued. “I hated him all my life. When I picked up a gun for the first time, all I could think of was using it to kill him. I worked an’ practiced for years with nothing much else in mind than killing him.”
“Did you ever find him?”
“It wasn’t a matter of finding him, Ty. I always knew where he was. I just wanted to be so good that he’d be afraid of me when I went for him… real afraid. I wanted to look into his eyes and see that he knew he was going to die.”
“Did you kill him?”
“No, he’s still alive an’ well, Ty.”
“How come?” Tyler asked. “You’re real fast with that gun. Didn’t you go after him?”
“Things happened,” Johnny said cryptically. He sometimes wondered why he hadn’t gone looking for Murdoch long before Murdoch sent for him. The hate had certainly been there. “Bein’ good with that gun ended up leading me down a whole other path. I got caught up in gunfighting.” He stopped and took a deep breath, held it and then exhaled loudly. “No that’s not true. Once I got started, I wanted to be a gunfighter. I wanted to be the best and I worked at it and it got to be real important to me.”
“But, if you hated him that much, how come you didn’t track him down an’ shoot him?”
Johnny looked down at his hands and rubbed the palms together, uncomfortably aware that they were sweating. “Because when I finally met him, I learned some things about him… got to know him… got to know the truth about some things. He wasn’t what I’d expected.”
“So you let him get away?”
“Well, after all those years of hatin’ him, I found out that I had been wrong. Things I thought were true weren’t… He an’ I wound up comin’ to an understanding, I guess. I don’t hate him any more.”
Strange that he had never actually let himself think that until now, but it was true. No matter how many times he and Murdoch butted heads or argued with each other, there was no hate. It was as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
“Well, I’m not wrong,” Tyler said venomously. “I know what Madrid did.”
“Maybe. Or maybe you believe just what you want to believe. Is it so impossible that someone actually beat your father to the draw?”
For a flicker of a moment, Johnny thought he saw something other than obstinacy pass over the boy's face. But then it was gone and that stubbornly intense hatred was back.
“No! Pa was the best there was.”
“So, how did it go?” Scott asked Johnny as he dismounted.
Johnny dusted himself off quickly. “Fine,” was all he answered, but in a tone that set off alarm bells in Scott’s head. “I’m going to brush down Barranca. I’ll be in before supper’s ready.”
With that, Johnny took hold of the reins and led his horse away to the barn. Scott watched him go and considered what his next move should be. As Johnny disappeared through the barn door, Scott made up his mind and walked across the yard in his wake.
But any chance he thought he might have of a quiet talk with his brother dissolved when he heard Jelly’s voice.
“How was your meetin’ with that pretty lady in town, Johnny?” Jelly asked mischievously.
“Just fine, Jelly,” Johnny answered in that same weary tone he’d used outside with Scott. It spoke volumes about his mood.
Jelly didn’t take the hint though. “Yep, mighty fine lookin’ woman,” he said hopefully, but got no response.
Johnny blatantly ignored him and continued unsaddling Barranca.
“Funny thing that,” Jelly continued unabashed. “Strange woman sendin’ ya a note like that. Reckon she knows ya.”
“Reckon she does, Jelly,” Johnny answered tonelessly. He lifted the saddle clear of the horse’s back and put it on the side of the stall so that he could take it to the tack room later. Then he took a brush and began brushing the animal down.
Scott’s uneasy feeling deepened into concern. It wasn’t like Johnny to cut Jelly like that. Scott walked towards them. “Jelly, those horses out in the corral need watering. Can you take care of it?”
Jelly looked slightly aggrieved but agreed. “Sure, Scott,” he said gruffly. “Talk to ya later, Johnny.”
Scott waited until he’d gone before turning his attention back to Johnny. He found his brother still engrossed in brushing down Barranca. “He’s not the only one who’s curious, Johnny,” he said quietly.
“She’s a real nice lady with a nice kid,” Johnny told him with that same weary tone.
“No trouble then?”
“Then what’s the problem?” Scott asked. “Why the mood?”
“What mood? Just want a little privacy is all.”
“Privacy? Or secrecy?”
Finally, Johnny stopped brushing and looked at him. “I’m not being secretive. I just figured it was my business an’ no one else’s.”
“You’re right. Of course, it is your business and none of mine. But, Johnny, I can see something about this is bothering you,” Scott told him.
“Then it’s for me to work out, Brother.”
“Just who is she? What did she want?”
“She’s exactly what I told you yesterday,” Johnny answered. “She’s the widow of…”
Scott sighed heavily. “The widow of someone you used to know,” he finished impatiently and turned to leave. “Alright, talk about it when you’re ready.”
He stopped and turned back.
Johnny looked uncomfortable suddenly. The cool attitude had disintegrated. “They’re only here for a few days,” he finally remarked. “I was thinking…”
Johnny put the brush down and walked to the end of the stall. He stopped there, affectionately rubbing his hand along the horse’s nose. Barranca nickered and nudged Johnny gently.
“You think you could cover for me for a couple hours tomorrow morning?” he asked at length.
“Sure,” Scott told him without reservation. “It’s fine by me, but Murdoch…”
“Yeah,” Johnny said with a knowing sigh. “I know. I’ll talk to him.”
For the second day in a row, Johnny rode slowly into Green River. This time, he’d stopped at the livery on his way in and was now leading a second, smaller horse, saddled and ready to ride. He was headed for the hotel with less reservation than yesterday but a whole lot more on his mind.
He’d been surprised that Murdoch hadn’t put up much of an argument to his request for the morning off. He wondered whether he owed that to Scott, but he hoped not. While Johnny appreciated his brother’s occasional intervention in his arguments with Murdoch, he knew that he and his father had to work their way through their own battles.
The call came from the sidewalk and Johnny turned his head towards the sheriff’s office. Val Crawford was leaning lazily against a post, his arms folded across his chest and his battered hat tilted towards the back of his head. His shirt was coffee-stained and his pants hung on him as if his belt being pulled in another notch might hold them up better.
“Howdy, Val,” Johnny called back cheerfully. He turned Barranca towards Val and walked the horses over.
“What brings you into town?” Val asked, casting a curious look at the riderless horse behind Johnny. “Who’s that for?”
Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt and dropped to the ground. He tipped his hat back and greeted the sheriff with a grin. “Gettin’ kinda nosy, aren’t you?”
“That’s what they pay me for,” Val answered, nodding idly. “Gotta keep an eye on you hardcases.”
“You think I’m up to no good?”
“Just never can tell with you, John. ‘Sides, ain’t like you have to be lookin’ for trouble for it to up an’ bite you.”
Johnny laughed. “Nope, not this time. Just taking a friend for a ride. Doin’ a little visiting, Val.”
“Visitin’, huh?” Val asked dubiously. “Heard you was in town yesterday, too.”
“Yep.” Johnny answered. He tied Barranca’s reins and the second horse’s lead rope to the hitching rail and stepped up onto the sidewalk to stand next to Val. “You got time for a drink?”
Sheriff Crawford shook his head. “Nope, I’m on duty,” Val said. “I got coffee hot though, if ya want some.”
Johnny gave the invitation serious consideration for a moment. He turned back towards the street, standing side by side with the sheriff, and finally ducked his head and laughed.
“Sure, why not?” he asked and walked into the office with Val trailing behind him.
Johnny stopped at the desk while Val walked past him to the stove and began pouring coffee into a tin mug for each of them. Johnny idly riffled the wanted posters piled on the desk and then pushed them aside so he could sit on the corner, one leg swinging lazily.
He accepted the coffee from Val and sniffed it warily, then took a small taste. Satisfied that it wasn’t as bad as Val’s usual strong coffee, he took another sip.
“So, how’d ya get Murdoch to let ya loose ta go visitin’ on a workday?” Val asked, then took a swallow of his coffee. Then a twinkle of mischief glittered in his eyes. “Or don’t he know?”
Johnny grinned. “Yeah, he knows. I even got his okay.”
Val’s eyes widened. “You’re kiddin’!”
“Nope, it’s all above board,” Johnny assured him lightly. “Long as I don’t come back liquored up.”
“You goin’ to visit with that Miz Freeman again?” Val asked nonchalantly.
Johnny looked up sharply. “How’d you know about her?”
“This is my town, John,” Val told him with a shrug of his shoulders. He took another swallow of his coffee and then added, “Pays ta know what’s goin’ on.”
Putting the cup down on the desk, Johnny lifted himself from the desk and thoughtfully strolled over to the doorway to stare out into the street. “You know who she is, don’t ya?” he asked without turning back.
“Yeah, I know. Figured it out. She’s Carl Freeman’s widow, right?”
Johnny only nodded, so Val added, “Heard there’s a kid too.”
“There is. Carl Freeman’s boy, Tyler.”
“Seems kinda strange that you’re visitin’ her.”
“She sent for me.”
Val frowned at that. “So, what does she want from the man who killed her husband?”
“That’s between her an’ me, Val.”
Val walked over to stand beside Johnny and joined him in staring out into the street. He finished the coffee in one swig and wiped his sleeve across his mouth before he spoke again. “Anythin’ I should know ‘bout, John?” he asked cautiously.
“Nope,” Johnny told him quietly. “No trouble.”
“Scott an’ Murdoch know ‘bout it?”
“Nope, and you’re not telling them either,” Johnny said coldly. “This is between her an’ me… and the kid.”
“What’s the kid got to do with it?”
“Oh, she thinks he needs some straightening out. Nothing for you or Scott or Murdoch to worry about.”
Val looked disbelievingly at him and suddenly Johnny straightened and grinned. He clapped his arm around the sheriff’s shoulders and added, “Boy, you an’ Scott are really somethin’. You’d think I went lookin’ for trouble every time I leave Lancer.”
Val only laughed. “You never did need to. Trouble jest nat’rally finds you, Johnny.”
“Well, not this time. She’s a real fine lady, Val. An’ the boy is a good kid. Takin’ him riding this morning, in fact.”
The sudden clatter of small running boots on the boards of the sidewalk caught the attention of both of them. Johnny dropped his arm and turned to see two young boys pushing and shoving each other as they raced in his direction. They narrowly missed bumping into a shocked woman carrying a basket full of groceries, dodging her at the last minute.
“Hey! Hold up you two!” Johnny called out sternly. The two boys pulled up short and the laughter died on their faces as they saw Johnny glaring at them.
“Hey, Johnny!” Tommy called back and the two of them walked, more sedately, over to where Johnny and the sheriff stood. “Didn’t know you was in town.”
“Hi, Johnny,” Matt added quietly.
“Thought you two were going to stay outa trouble?” Johnny demanded. “That sure didn’t look like it. You nearly run that poor woman down.”
“We didn’t mean to, Johnny,” Tommy assured him eagerly. “We’ve been real good, just like we said.”
Johnny worked hard at keeping the smile off his face and turned to Val. “That right, Sheriff? These two desperadoes been behaving themselves?”
Val caught Johnny’s tone and scratched his chin while he considered the pair in front of him. “Well, yeah. Ain’t had no trouble with ‘em lately.”
“Told ya, Johnny!” Tommy said, smiling. “An’ Ma says I can come out to Lancer on Friday. Matt’s pa says he can too. Ain’t that right, Matt?”
Matt nodded enthusiastically. “Yessir!”
“Alright, but I reckon sidewalks are for walkin’ on,” Johnny told them firmly.
“Okay, Johnny.” Both heads hung guiltily.
“Stay clear of trouble and the deal’s still on,” Johnny continued, frowning. “Sheriff Crawford here’ll soon tell me if you don’t.”
The boys looked at Val and smiled. “We’ll be real good, Sheriff. You just watch an’ see!” Tommy told him.
“Get outa here, then,” Val growled, leaving Johnny fighting to maintain his composure as the two boys scurried away.
Johnny ducked inside and let the grin break loose. Val was right behind him.
“What was all that about?” Val asked.
“They’ve been raiding Clive’s apples,” Johnny explained. “Sendin’ him broke, according to him. Told ‘em they can come watch me break some horses if they stopped it an’ behave themselves for a couple days.”
Val grinned. “Yeah, seen ‘em swipe an apple or two.”
“Ain’t blind, John!” Val snapped at him. “Clive ain’t said nothin’, so I just been keepin’ an eye on ‘em.” He grinned and eyed Johnny mischievously. “Ain’t like I never swiped an apple myself when I was their age. You too, I reckon.”
Johnny chuckled. “More than an apple here an’ there,” he admitted. “But Clive was about ready to do somethin’ about the pair of ‘em.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Figured they’d stay outa trouble if they had somethin’ to look forward to. They ain’t hungry – just bored.”
Val nodded. “Yeah, they ain’t bad kids.” He put the empty coffee cup down on the stove beside the pot. “You gonna be seein’ Miz Freeman a lot?”
Johnny grinned and figured he knew what Val was thinking. “Nope, and it ain’t like that, Val. She’s not gonna be in town long. Just a few days.” He headed for the door and walked to the hitching rail. “Guess I’d better go find Tyler an’ get this ride over with. Got work waiting for me back at Lancer and Scott is not going to keep covering for me.”
Val had followed him and stopped at the doorway. He leaned against the door jamb and nodded. “I reckon you ain’t tellin’ the whole of it, Johnny, but I ain’t gonna pry. Jest hope ya know what you’re doin’.”
Johnny untied both horses and decided to walk them up the street to the hotel. He looked over his shoulder at Val and grinned. “Yeah, so do I,” he answered. “See ya, Val.”
“How’s your butt holdin’ up?” Johnny asked with a mischievous grin.
“I’m okay,” Tyler Freeman assured him, shifting a little in the saddle and wincing. “But I ain’t been on horseback much lately.”
“Well, you’re doin’ fine,” Johnny told him, smiling. “We’ll take a break when we get up that rise over there.”
They rode up a twisting trail with scattered oaks on one side for cover, heading to the top of a mesa. Johnny let Tyler ride ahead of him so he could watch him to make sure the boy was keeping up and not having any trouble. The horse the boy was riding was sure-footed enough to trust to find his own way on the path.
“What is this place?” Tyler asked as they topped a rise that looked down on a small, deep valley.
“Black Mesa,” Johnny told him, pulling Barranca to a stop and dismounting. “This is Lancer land.”
He stood beside the palomino, close to the edge of a steep drop, and looked out into the valley. They were only about a hundred feet up, but it was the highest point on the mesa. The other side of the valley was little more than a row of rolling hills. The valley itself was small and surprisingly green for this time of year. Then he turned around and grinned. “You gonna stay up there or get down an’ take a look?”
Tyler dismounted a little awkwardly and tied the bay’s reins to a branch. “Sure is pretty down there,” he said as he walked over to stand beside Johnny.
“Just don’t get too close to the edge,” Johnny warned him. “It’s a long way down and I don’t want to have to take you home to your ma in bits and pieces.” He grinned and ruffled the boy’s hair, then continued. “And yes, it is a pretty place. My ol’ man showed it to me one day. I come up here sometimes, just to take a look at it. But, if we’re lucky, you’ll see what it really has going for it.”
Johnny dropped Barranca’s reins and left him to graze while he walked further along the mesa. He knew the place he was looking for – knew it well. There, he could look out over the hidden part of the valley, where the water flowed from an underground spring into a deep pool. Johnny had been to the mesa often enough to know that, even in the hottest and driest days of summer, there was always a supply of water down there.
He stopped and smiled in satisfaction. They were there alright. He turned back to the boy and beckoned him over. “Come over here and take a look.”
Johnny squatted down and clasped his hands together. This was one of his favorite places. When he had some time to spare, he came here in the hope of seeing just what he was seeing now. Sometimes he was in luck, like today, though more often he was not.
The spot was all the more special because it had been Murdoch who had first brought him here. He remembered his surprise at his father’s suggestion that they leave behind an unfinished row of fence posts and come here to look for wild horses. They’d found them that day too. It had been one of those rare times in his life when he had found sheer enjoyment in a shared moment.
Funny, they’d ended up sitting right here that day and watching the horses, rather than chasing them down and rounding them up. It was a memory that Johnny treasured, like the battered old watch that he carried – also a gift from Murdoch. Both represented the beginning of a relationship with his father that, while still rocky and often volatile at times, Johnny and Murdoch had become comfortable with.
Tyler was suddenly beside him. “Watch your step,” Johnny reminded him and the boy squatted beside him. “Take a look down there.”
“Horses!” Tyler exclaimed.
“Wild horses,” Johnny confirmed for him. “You’re lucky. They’re not always here. But it’s one place where you have a better than normal chance of finding a herd. There’s good water down there in that pool most of the year and about three herds run in that little valley.”
“Do you round ‘em up and break them?”
“Now an’ then,” Johnny told him. “We’ve got a bunch at home ready for breaking at the moment.”
“Are you going to break them yourself?” the boy asked eagerly.
“Not all of ‘em,” Johnny answered with a laugh. “It’s hard work, you know.”
The boy looked down into the valley with an excited blush to his cheeks and a gleam in his eyes. There were probably about thirty horses in this herd and were being watched over by a chestnut stallion that Johnny had noticed before. The stallion drank his fill and then walked to the rear of the herd to take up a position from which to watch for danger.
“I wish I could see them up close,” Tyler said.
“We could always ride down there and take a look,” Johnny suggested. “We might get close enough before they spook. There’s some good horseflesh in that herd. Some are better than others. There’s one herd that’s led by a rangy old buckskin mare. That’s the best bunch of them all.”
“Sure. There’s a fine bay stallion guards ‘em, of course. He protects them, sires the foals and keeps them all together, but it’s always a mare that leads a herd of horses. She’s the one who says where and when to go.”
“I didn’t know that,” the boy admitted. “Which one leads this herd?”
“Down there, the chestnut with the bay foal beside her.”
“It must be really something to be able to ride out after wild horses whenever you want,” Tyler said excitedly.
“Well, I don’t get to do this every day,” Johnny said with a grin. “The ranch keeps me busy most of the time. But we needed some stock for the remuda, so I was out here with a couple of the men the other day rounding up a few.”
“Is this why you gave up gunfighting?”
Johnny sighed. “Yeah, part of it,” he answered. “Mostly it was because I found out I had a family and somewhere to put down roots for the first time. I’d be a fool to risk everything I’ve got now just for the sake of a reputation that could get me killed every time I have to defend it.”
“Guess so,” Tyler agreed. “I wish Pa had had a chance to give it up.”
“The chance isn’t always enough. Not everyone wants to give it up, Ty. A few years ago, I couldn’t have walked away from it either.” He lowered his head thoughtfully before continuing. “I’m not sure I would have even if I had had the chance.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“There’s a whole lot more to life than killing men to get yourself famous, Ty,” he told the boy. “Think of all the things you could do when you’re full grown. Doesn’t have to be something like this. You get yourself some book-learning and there’s no limit to what you can do.”
Tyler shook his head adamantly. “No, not ‘til I’ve finished with Madrid,” he said with determined finality.
“It’ll be too late then, Ty. Once you start down that road, there’s no turning back.”
The boy looked down at the horses. His face showed the tangle of emotions that he was facing. He hung his head for a while and then looked back up at Johnny. “If that’s what has to be, then that’s it,” he said coldly. He sounded older than his years, frighteningly so.
And Johnny thought back to a time when he’d thought and hated in just that same way. He could see cold anger in Tyler’s eyes and sighed heavily. Alice Freeman was fooling herself and so was he. He didn’t see any way of changing this boy’s mind.
He dropped his head and thought about what he was doing. He didn’t feel it was right to go on keeping his identity from Tyler, and the longer he put it off, the harder it would be to come out and tell the boy the truth when the time came.
It would be even worse if Tyler found out from someone else, and there was every chance that could happen in a small community like Green River. If there was anyone in that town, or the others that were close to Lancer, who did not know who he was, then Johnny would have been very surprised.
His mind made up, Johnny took a deep breath and spoke. “Tyler, listen to me. There’s something…”
“Johnny, look!” the boy cried out excitedly. “The stallion has spotted something.”
Sure enough, the chestnut had suddenly come to life. Something had spooked him. He threw his head up and shook it, pawed the ground and then took off towards the herd.
The mare that Johnny had pointed out lifted her head and looked around, then she too leapt into motion. With the foal at her side and the rest of the herd falling in behind her, she ran for the opening at the other end of the valley. The sound of their hoofs pounding died away and they were soon out of sight, leaving Tyler wide-eyed and glowing.
Johnny, himself lost for the moment in the sight of the herd on the run, suddenly realized that the opportunity for a quiet chance to tell Tyler had gone. The boy’s pleasure was something to behold and Johnny could not bring himself to shatter it.
Tyler was on his feet. “That was great!” he shouted. “What do you think spooked them?”
“Doesn’t take much to set off a herd like that,” Johnny answered.
“Do you think they knew we were here?”
“No, don’t think so. We’re too high up for them to have heard us.”
“Maybe there was a cougar or something?” Tyler asked eagerly, seizing on the most exciting possibility.
“Just about anything will spook a wild herd, Ty. Even a change in the wind,” Johnny explained. He stood up and looked down over the now empty valley. It was a pretty green haven after the yellowed summer landscape outside, but some of the magic had gone along with the horses. “Guess it’s time to head back to town.”
Johnny halted Barranca at the livery, the boy stopping beside him and dismounting. Tyler stretched his back and surreptitiously rubbed his butt when he thought Johnny wasn’t looking. Johnny held back on the smile that quivered on his lips and dismounted as well. Tyler stood beside his horse smiling as he stroked its neck while the aged owner of the livery strolled out to meet them.
“Howdy, Johnny. Howdy, Son,” the old man called in greeting from the barn doors. “Didya have a good ride, Young Fella?”
“Oh yes,” Tyler told him happily, still with his hand fondly resting on the horse’s neck.
The livery man turned his head towards Johnny. “No trouble with the horse?”
“No, Harry,” Johnny assured him. “You were right. He’s a fine, steady ride for the boy.”
Harry grinned a gap-toothed smile. “Yeah, Little Pete’s a reliable one, Johnny. Always recommend him for the youngsters.” He walked forward and took the reins from Tyler, then lifted his hand to rub the horse’s ears affectionately. “You want I should see to Barranca, too, Johnny?”
Johnny shook his head. “No, I’ll be headin’ home right after I take the boy back to his ma.”
A nod of his head was all the old man gave in reply. He tugged the reins and turned away to lead ‘Little Pete’ into the livery without another word.
“Come on, Ty,” Johnny said, turning back to the boy. “Let’s get you back to the hotel.”
Together, with Barranca walking sedately behind them, the two walked down the street to the hotel. Johnny lazily tied the horse to the hitching rail and stepped up onto the planked sidewalk where the boy was waiting already.
“Can’t wait to tell Ma about them horses, Johnny,” Tyler said, grinning happily. “What are you doing tomorrow? Can we go riding again?”
Johnny put his hand on Tyler’s shoulder and shook his head. “Tomorrow, I’m working,” he told him. “If I try to weasel out of it again, my ol’ man will yell so loud you’ll hear him right here in town.” He smiled. “An’ I don’t think my brother wants to keep doin’ my chores either. Not fair to ask him to either.”
“Wish I had a brother,” the boy mused, frowning.
“Yeah, I kinda like it,” Johnny told him, then leaned down to whisper conspiratorially, “but don’t let him know it. He’s got a high enough opinion of himself as it is.”
“Mr. Lancer,” the hotel clerk called from behind his desk. “A word please?”
Johnny came to a stop, curious. The man had already stepped out from behind his desk and was making his way across the lobby. Dressed in his formal suit and bow tie, wire-rimmed spectacles and the neatest trimmed moustache in Green River, Albert Runcorn played his role to perfection. He ran his small establishment as if it were the finest hotel in San Francisco with all the accompanying formality.
He approached Johnny, took a quick and somewhat nervous glance at Tyler and then stopped in front of them both.
“What is it, Mr. Runcorn?” Johnny asked him, matching his formality ironically.
The man leaned in close and whispered, “It’s the boy’s mother. She took a bad turn here in the lobby about an hour ago.”
Johnny’s heart missed a beat. He looked quickly at Tyler. He’d heard alright. His face was white and his eyes were filled with fear. “How bad?” Johnny asked the clerk quickly.
“She fainted clean away, Mr. Lancer,” the man answered dramatically. “Frightened everyone, I can tell you.”
“Is she alright? Where is she now?”
“I’m not rightly sure. She’s upstairs in her room, Mr. Lancer,” Runcorn explained. “Naturally I sent for Dr. Jenkins right away and he helped her upstairs once she came round. I believe he’s still with the lady.”
Johnny slipped one hand on the boy’s shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. “We’d best go see how she is then,” he told Runcorn.
“Of course, Sir,” the clerk replied solicitously. “I must say, it’s all been very upsetting. I realize the lady is a friend of yours, Mr. Lancer but, really, if she’s not well I hardly think this is the place for her. I’d hate for anything…”
“Runcorn!” Johnny nodded towards Tyler, scowling angrily. The man appeared to have taken the hint.
“Yes, yes, of course,” he rambled. “But if she’s got something catching, well I don’t see how I can let them stay.”
“I can guarantee she has nothing catching,” Johnny assured him in an irritated tone. “Now, it’s time I got this boy upstairs to see how his ma is feeling.”
“Yes, yes… certainly.”
With that, Johnny steered the boy towards the staircase. Johnny thought that Tyler was strangely quiet under the circumstances, but he was in no doubt about the worry on the boy’s face.
“This sorta thing happened before?” Johnny asked as they mounted the staircase.
Tyler nodded silently.
“Doc Jenkins is a real good doctor,” Johnny reassured him. “He’ll see she’s okay.”
Another nod was all the reply he got as they hurried up the stairs. They got to the door just as Sam Jenkins opened it and stepped out into the hall.
“Doc?” Johnny asked quickly, the boy frozen by his side.
“Johnny!” Sam exclaimed. “I heard you knew Mrs. Freeman but I certainly wasn’t expecting you.”
Johnny chose not to explain. “How’s she doin’?”
“Oh much better, she just fainted was all,” he said, glancing at the boy’s white face. “I’ve checked her thoroughly.”
Johnny had come to know the doctor well and something about Sam’s words, or the way he said them, did not ring true. Sam ran his hand through his thick, gray hair and his eyes held concern that through suspicion on his reassurances.
“This is Tyler, her son. She up to seeing him?”
Sam looked at Tyler and smiled, then gently laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Sure, she is. You go right in, Son, but don’t get her excited. She’s a little tired.”
“No, Sir, I won’t,” Tyler said, finally finding his voice. He pushed the door open and went in, leaving Johnny outside in the hallway with Sam Jenkins.
“How is she really?” Johnny asked nervously once the door had been closed and they were alone.
“Some rest will see her feeling much better tomorrow, Johnny.”
Johnny glanced down at his feet, his hands clasped behind his back as he gave some thought to his next question. He wasn’t sure it was even any of his business, but he needed to know.
Lifting his head, he looked straight into Sam’s eyes. “You said that she fainted,” he said quietly. “That right? Or was it her heart?”
The doctor frowned. “How much do you know about her condition?”
Johnny shrugged lightly. “Not much, I guess. Except that she told me that she’ll die from it one of these days.”
Sam nodded and sighed heavily. “Well, it won’t be today,” he said gently. “I wasn’t sure if you knew and I didn’t want to say too much in front of the boy, but it was her heart. Her blood pressure dropped dramatically and she fainted. But rest will do her the world of good. She’ll probably be much better by tomorrow if she stays in bed for the rest of the day. I’ve advised her to rest up tomorrow as well.”
“It’s true then? What she told me? She could die from it?”
“Did you have reason to doubt her?”
Johnny dropped his eyes away. “No, I don’t suppose I did. Kinda hoped she was wrong though.”
“How well do you know her, Johnny?” Sam asked, almost nervously.
A mischievous smile crossed Johnny’s lips. “I’m not courtin’ her, Sam. If that’s what you’re thinking,” he told him, then added honestly, “No, I knew her husband some years back. She asked me to come see her.”
“Knew her husband?”
“Yeah, he’s dead. Been dead five years or so.”
“That’s a shame. Do you know if she has any other relatives? Someone who can look after her?”
“Don’t know,” Johnny answered. “Don’t know her that well. You think she’s gonna need someone soon, don’t you?”
“Yes, I’d say so. Though these things are hard to predict. She might not have another episode like this for months. There’s nothing to say that she won’t live for years yet.”
“But you don’t think so, do you?”
Sam looked him in the eyes and shook his head. “I don’t know, Johnny. Well, I’ll get back to my office,” Sam said and started to turn away.
“Sam, Murdoch an’ Scott don’t know she’s sick,” Johnny blurted out unexpectedly. “Don’t see any reason why they should.”
Jenkins turned back to Johnny. “Neither do I,” he said. “It would be unethical for me to tell them. I wouldn’t have said anything to you except that you already knew.”
Johnny put his hand out and shook hands with the doctor. “I appreciate your helpin’ her, Sam. Thanks.”
Sam scowled at Johnny as he shook hands with Johnny. “Why do I have the feeling that there’s more going on here than appears?”
“Just lookin’ out for Carl’s widow an’ son, Sam.”
“Yes, on the face of it. But I suspect there’s more to it than that.” He turned away again and slipped his battered hat on his head. Then he dragged on the coat of the gray town suit he wore everywhere and straightened it carefully. With one backward glance at Johnny, he added, “Whatever is going on here, be careful. Don’t have me making any house calls at Lancer, John.”
He waited until the doctor had started down the stairs before knocking lightly on the hotel room door. The door opened, creaking, on a silent, dimly lit room. Tyler stood aside for him to enter.
The room had been darkened by the drawing of the curtains, but it was not so dark that he couldn’t see Alice Freeman in the bed immediately. She’d been pale every time he’d seen her so far but, now, her face was white and drawn. Her hair, usually pulled back neatly, was loose and hung around her shoulders. This time, she really did look sick, but still she smiled at him and her son and there was life in that smile - faded perhaps, but reassuring.
“Come on in, Johnny,” she said in her lilting voice. It was weaker than when they had last met, but still held the firm self-confidence that he had found in it. “Come close though. I don’t think I can talk clear across the room.”
“Reckon you shouldn’t be talkin’ much at all,” Johnny said gently. “You’re supposed to be resting.”
“Yes,” she said, sighing. “Your Dr. Jenkins was very firm about that. He seemed very nice.”
“He’s a good man,” Johnny assured her. “And a real good doctor. You do like he says and you’ll be fine.”
A sad smile lifted the corners of her mouth and she glanced at her son before answering. “Yes, so he said, just fine.” She watched Johnny approach while Tyler sat down on the edge of the bed beside her. She wrapped her fingers around her son’s hand squeezing them tenderly. “But let’s forget about me for a minute. Tell me, where did you go today? Did you have fun?”
Excitement lit the boy’s eyes. “You bet we did! We rode right out to this mesa and from way up on top we could see a little valley and there were wild horses, Ma. A whole herd of ‘em.”
“How wonderful,” she said, a real smile lighting her face this time.
“They stopped at a waterhole right below us! Stayed there for ages… till something spooked them and they ran off. Johnny says there are other herds that go there too.”
“And did you talk some?” Johnny could feel her eyes on him, questioning him without words. He found himself looking down at his feet, the toe of his book marking out circles in the rug on the floor.
“Sure! Johnny knows a lot about horses, Ma. He’s got a bunch of ‘em at the ranch that he’s gonna break.”
She glanced towards Johnny. “That would be something to see. Do you do that sort of thing a lot these days, Johnny?”
“It’s one of the things I do now,” he told her, shrugging his shoulders. He dragged his feet together and straightened self-consciously. “You could come watch, if you like. You’d be welcome, but it gets kinda rowdy. Just a lot o’ cowboys, dust and sweat. Not really fit entertainment for a lady.”
“I’m sure it would be very entertaining, but I’m not sure about visiting your ranch, Johnny. I hear you have family now and it might be awkward.”
“No, they’d be fine.”
“I’ve already asked far too much of you.”
Johnny suddenly came to a decision. “If you rest up like Sam said, and you’re feeling up to it by tomorrow night, I’d kinda like to have you come out to Lancer for dinner. I could check it out with Sam and see whether he thinks it might be okay.’
But she looked doubtful. “I’m not sure that would be a good idea. Your family…”
“They’ll be real pleased to meet you, both of you,” he assured her.
“Could we, Ma? I’d sure like to meet Johnny’s family.”
“We’ll see, Tyler,” she said quietly, closing her eyes wearily for a moment.
He put his hand on Tyler’s shoulder. “Why don’t you go on downstairs an’ get some cool, fresh water for your ma, Ty? I’d like to talk to her for a minute.”
“Sure, Johnny, but don’t you go tiring her out.”
Johnny smiled. “I’ll be real careful not to.”
When the boy had gone, Johnny picked up one of the chairs and put it beside the bed. He sat down and began thinking for a moment, rubbing the palms of his hands together. He was surprised to find that they were sweaty. He was well outside of his usual range of experience now. He could feel her eyes on him, but kept his own lowered while he contemplated how to handle the situation, what to say.
“You need anything, Ma’am?”
She was watching him, studying him, and his unease deepened. “No, thank you,” she said quietly.
“Well, you have to get that rest that Sam insisted on,” he said, changing the subject. “I’ll talk to the clerk downstairs an’ make sure you’re taken care of. There’s a lady I know of, friend of Teresa’s from the church, would be happy to come by.”
“There’s no need. Tyler will stay with me. He’s such a help when this sort of thing happens.”
“It’s happened before?”
“A couple of times. I’ll be back on my feet in a few hours and just take it easy. Tyler helps out. In fact, he tends to stick close to me these days.”
“Yeah, well, just the same, I’ll have Miss Sellars drop by with some supper for you and Tyler. That way you can rest up. And if you need anything, you only have to send word out to Lancer. Just let the clerk downstairs know. He knows how to get in touch with me. Most everyone around here knows Lancer.”
“Thank you, Johnny,” she said again, blushing just enough to bring a little color back into her face. “But I’m fine, really. Please, don’t be concerned. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. It’s just a little reminder to take it easy.”
“Then that’s what you should be doin’.”
“I can’t lie around in bed all day,” she told him with determination. “I have a son to raise and a life to live. I’m not going to let this make an invalid of me.”
Johnny looked back down at his hands and nodded. “Can’t blame you for that. I’d hate it myself,” he agreed. “But if you want to raise that son of yours then you have to be sensible about it.”
“Yes, I know,.” she said, sighing heavily. “And I will. But forget me for a minute and tell me, did you get a chance to talk to him? Do you think you can get him to see sense?”
“He’s got himself a real strong hate goin’, Ma’am,” he told her, looking up and frowning. “You know it was never gonna be easy. I’m not sure what I can say to make him change his mind.” He sighed heavily. “I just hope I’m not making it worse. It might be better if I tell him who I am right now.”
“Oh, Johnny,” she whispered hoarsely. “I don’t know. I do so hope you’re wrong about that. I don’t want to leave him full of hate.”
“You oughtn’t to be talkin’ like that,” Johnny said awkwardly. “About leaving him, I mean.”
“I have to be realistic,” she answered. “I know it will happen one day.”
“Whoever takes him when…” he stopped and lowered his head, rubbing his sweaty hands together again nervously. “I’m sorry but, in good hands, he’ll be fine. And, even if he were to come for me one day, you know I wouldn’t…”
“That wouldn’t make it any better, Johnny. I don’t want him coming for you at all,” she said sadly. “You’ve been so kind. I don’t want you dead… and I don’t want him hanging for murder.”
Johnny shook his head determinedly. “He won’t, Ma’am. He might hate me, but he’s not the backshootin’ kind. He wants to square off against me, not just kill me.”
She smiled wanly. “Well, that’s something, I suppose.” She lapsed into silence, and then added, unexpectedly, “There is no one to take him.”
“You don’t have anyone?” he asked in surprise.
“No, no one. I had a brother but he died years ago. Carl never did have any family that I ever knew of.”
Johnny’s eyes dropped to his hands again. He clenched them into fists for an uneasy moment, then took a deep breath. “It’s not good for a kid to be all alone, too young.”
“I know, but there’s some advantage to knowing up front, Johnny. I plan to find a decent orphanage before my time comes. A place that will take good care of him for me, teach him the same values that I’ve tried to teach him.”
An orphanage. Johnny had no fondness for them and hoped that Alice Freeman would live long enough for her son to be old enough to fend for himself rather than have to go into one of those places. Even with the best of intentions, they had little time or money to spend on individual children.
“Then I hope you find it. He’s a fine boy, Mrs. Freeman.”
“Even with all that hate in him?”
“Yes, even with all that hate in him. In time, maybe he’ll come to see that he’s got it wrong no matter what you or I do now.”
Tears filled her eyes. “It scares me more than I can tell you. I don’t want my son doing something…”
Johnny smiled ironically. “Well, I gotta admit, I don’t particularly want him doin’ it either,” he told her. “Don’t worry. One way or the other, I’ll see that won’t happen.”
She reached across and took hold of his hand. “Thank you, Johnny. I know I’ve asked more of you than I have any right to do.”
He shook his head while she kept her fingers locked around his. Her grip was surprisingly strong, almost desperate, but her fingers felt cold.
“I’m not sure that I understand why you’re doing it though, Johnny,” she continued sadly. “I know I cast a lot of guilt at you, but you really have no reason to feel guilty. Surely you know that.”
Johnny nodded and smiled at her. “Yeah, I know it. But it’s hard to look at the kid and know that I took his pa away from him.”
“Carl put himself in your way. If he’d had his way, it would have been you lying dead in that street.” She closed her eyes and looked up at the ceiling with tear filled eyes. “You see, I’m not a fool, Johnny. I loved Carl more than I can tell you, but I know what he was and how he thought. If he’d been a stronger man, maybe he could have put away that gun when Tyler was born. But he wasn’t and what happened was only what was always going to happen, whether at your hand or someone else’s.”
“Yeah, that’s so. Would’ve been the same with me,” Johnny admitted. “Still, I guess I just kinda like the kid. Don’t want to see him makin’ the same mis…” He stopped suddenly, shocked into silence. He didn’t like to talk about his own past… the years of all-consuming hate that had set his life on the path it had taken for so long… and the creation of the legend he had built for himself as Johnny Madrid.
A cursed legend that had come back to haunt him, again.
“Let me get this straight, Johnny,” Murdoch Lancer insisted loudly. Standing over his desk in the Great Room and leaning both palms on it while he glowered at his younger son, he presented a daunting image. “You’ve invited that woman and her son to dinner tomorrow night? Here?”
“’That woman’ has a name, Murdoch. Mrs. Freeman happens to be a friend of mine and, if my friends aren’t welcome…” Johnny said angrily. He was sitting on a sofa in front of the empty fireplace, looking into the cold stone grate rather than at his father. The palm of his right hand was rubbing up and down his thigh in agitation.
“It’s the ‘friends’ part that I’m having trouble with, Johnny,” Murdoch told him bluntly. “We are talking about Mrs. CARL Freeman and her son, aren’t we?”
“That’s right. How’d you find out?”
“That she’s Carl Freeman’s widow? Word gets around, Johnny.”
Johnny nodded wordlessly. There was something fatalistic in his attitude, as though Murdoch’s reaction was expected.
“And how long am I supposed to be believe that you and she have been friends?” Murdoch asked dubiously.
“Just who was this Carl Freeman?” Scott asked, intruding into the conversation for the first time. He had preferred to stand back and listen, hoping they would sort it out between themselves, but his hopes had faded just as soon as Murdoch had begun raising his voice.
Murdoch’s response to Johnny’s simple statement had taken him by surprise. Murdoch usually enjoyed having guests to dinner and there had seemed nothing unusual in Johnny’s inviting his friends over, particularly when they were a widow and her twelve year old son.
So, until now, he’d waited quietly beside the fireplace. His arms were folded across his chest as he stood there, watching and listening.
“Why don’t you tell him, Johnny?” Murdoch invited him sarcastically. “Tell him about Carl Freeman and then explain to him, and to me, why you’re suddenly friends with the man’s widow.”
“Johnny?” Scott asked.
“Carl was a gunhawk, like me,” Johnny explained briefly, not even looking up. His eyes were focused on the fireplace, but Scott wasn’t sure where his thoughts were.
Scott looked towards his father. “Alright, so her husband was a gunfighter. You might not like it, Murdoch, but I don’t see why that should prohibit his widow and son maintaining a friendship with Johnny. I hardly think…”
“Tell him the rest, Johnny,” Murdoch persisted, anger flaring in his voice as he glared at his younger son.
Johnny sighed. He still wasn’t looking up to face them. Instead, he rubbed his forehead with annoyance. “Carl wasn’t exactly a friend, Scott,” Johnny said quietly. “He was a man I killed in a gunfight in San Diego five years ago.”
“You killed him?”
“Yeah. He called me out. He was fast, but I was faster on the day. He died.” The words sounded as though they had come from some emotionless void, but Scott knew better. And if he was feeling guilty about that killing, then his supposed friendship with Freeman’s widow took on a whole new light. She could be using that guilt to hold something over him.
Scott frowned. “And his widow? The woman in town? How long have you known her?”
“Never met her till yesterday. I’d heard he might have a wife stashed away somewhere, but I didn’t know about the kid.”
“It was that note wasn’t it?” Scott stated heatedly. “She wants something from you. What is it?”
Apparently tired of the grilling, Johnny jolted to his feet. “I figure that’s my business, alright?” he growled at Scott.
“Not if you want to bring her into this house,” Murdoch snapped back. “Are we supposed to sit down to dinner with this woman knowing she’s holding something over you?”
“It’s not like that!” He rounded on his father. “She’s a fine woman and Tyler is a good kid. Now, like I said, if my friends are not welcome here, I’ll take ‘em to dinner in town. But I won’t like it.”
“I didn’t say they’re not welcome, Johnny. Not if they really are friends of yours.” Murdoch straightened and glared at him, reigning in his temper. “But we’d like to know what’s going on. If you’re in some sort of trouble, maybe we can help.”
“I’m not in any trouble,” he told them coldly. “I keep telling you that.”
Scott looked towards Murdoch and caught the expression of doubt on his face.
“They’re nice people,” Johnny told them. “And I thought they’d be welcome at my… home.”
Scott dropped his head sadly at Johnny’s hesitation over the word. He glanced towards Murdoch again and saw the same thing in his face.
“Alright, tomorrow night. Bring them both for dinner,” Murdoch said, quieting now. “But I wish you’d tell us more about this.”
“Nothing to tell, Murdoch,” Johnny answered and turned to leave the room. He stopped at the doorway and stood indecisively for a moment. He tapped his hand against his thigh again and then turned back to his father and brother. “There’s one thing,” he said, hesitating. “The kid doesn’t know that I’m Madrid. I’d like it to stay that way, for now anyway.”
“Then he doesn’t know that you killed his father?” Murdoch asked.
“Oh God, Johnny, what are you doing?” Scott asked him, dropping his hands to his sides and clenching his hands in frustration.
“Just leave it, Scott. I’m not gettin’ into that again, but I’d appreciate you mentioning that point to Teresa and Jelly as well. I don’t want anyone else telling him. That’s for me to do.”
With that he left the room, leaving his father and brother wondering.
“What was that about a note, Scott?”
“Jelly brought one back for him from town the day before yesterday. A woman had asked him to give it to Johnny privately.”
“Do you know what was in it?”
“No and neither does Jelly. For once, he didn’t read it.”
“Why wasn’t I told about it?” Murdoch asked angrily. “Why the secrecy?”
Scott walked over to the sideboard and poured himself a scotch, then another for his father. He turned around and handed Murdoch’s glass to him. “There wasn’t any secrecy, Murdoch – at least, not intentionally. Johnny just wanted to handle it himself and he assured me that there wasn’t any trouble.”
“Did he tell you who it was from?”
“No, just told me that it wasn’t a problem.”
Murdoch dropped into his chair and took a swallow of the scotch. “I don’t like it. Why would this woman be looking for the man who killed her husband? It can’t be good.”
“If it means anything, the note was addressed to Johnny Lancer, not Madrid,” Scott told him, not sure whether it meant did or not.
“That only means that she knows who he really is.” He turned the chair away to the side to look out of the French doors at the sun setting over his land. “What was that about a boy?”
“She has a son with her, presumably Carl Freeman’s son.”
“Do you know anything about him?”
“Only that Jelly said he’s about twelve years old. I haven’t seen the woman or the boy.”
Murdoch leaned back in the chair, strangely comforted by the familiar creak of the leather under his weight. The sun had gone below the horizon now, but its glow still cast a golden gleam over the landscape. “I don’t like it, Scott, but I don’t see what we can do about it.”
“Maybe I should go into town and see what I can find out about them.”
“No, Johnny would think you were interfering.” Murdoch swung the chair back to face him and leaned his arms on the desk. “And he’d be right. It would only make matters worse with him.”
“Well, in that case,” Scott said with a sigh. “I suppose we’ll just have to hope that Johnny knows what he’s doing.”
Johnny hadn’t stayed after dinner for the long-running chess game that he and Scott had been playing for the last three nights. Instead, he’d been quiet through the meal and had pleaded tiredness and headed to his room early.
It bothered both Scott and Murdoch. Apparently, Johnny was still angry that his invitation to the Freemans had caused such a scene. Scott wasn’t sure that he blamed him either. On the face of it, it had looked like his friends weren’t welcome, but Scott knew that that hadn’t been Murdoch’s intention. Murdoch was worried about the strange alliance that Johnny had formed with the widow, and Scott was just as concerned.
But they had let Johnny go his own way quietly to bed and stayed to talk the evening away, carefully avoiding the subject of Alice Freeman and her son.
“Well, I have work to do tomorrow, Murdoch,” Scott said, swallowing the last of his brandy and placing the empty glass determinedly on the coffee table in front of him. “Even if you don’t,” he finished, grinning.
“You’d better turn in then,” Murdoch suggested, smiling back. “I won’t be far behind you. Even if I don’t have to work like you do, I need more sleep these days… just to keep these old bones moving.”
Scott laughed and stood up. “Good night, Sir.”
“Good night, Son.”
With that, Scott walked to the staircase and put his hand on the carefully polished rail. He stopped for just a moment, relishing the cold smooth feel of the wood beneath his palm and he smiled. Lancer might not be as elegant as his grandfather’s mansion in Boston, but the care taken of it was just as scrupulous. Teresa and Maria were meticulous in their upkeep of the house.
He kept his hand on the railing as he walked up the stairs - the grandfather clock ticking away the last minutes of the day. The flickering glow of the dimmed lamps in the sconces lit the hall as he reached the top and started for his room. The sights and sounds of home. It felt good.
Then another sound intruded into his feeling of contentment – a sound that didn’t fit in with the atmosphere he’d been enjoying. It was coming from his brother’s room.
Scott stopped at the door and listened shamelessly. There was the sound of tossing and turning, garbled words and a low moan. He put his hand on the doorknob and opened the door.
He stepped off the planked sidewalk and into the street, the metallic jingle of his spurs fusing with the crunch of the dirt beneath his boot. He stopped and looked around him at the attention he was drawing. Men took hold of their women’s arms and led them hurriedly indoors and out of harm’s way. A mother took her son’s hand and dragged him, crying out in protest, off the street, nervously looking over her shoulder at Johnny.
He saw the fear in her eyes before she disappeared, with her protesting boy, into the building – and he didn’t care.
Johnny walked with a slow confident stride, bordering on a swagger. But his confidence was borne of more than just youth. He was good and he knew it. He’d seen his opponent draw and knew he was faster.
There was no ill-feeling between the two of them. This was business – pure and simple. When this was over one would have a bigger, stronger reputation while the other would probably be dead and not care about it anyway.
Still in his teens and years younger than his opponent, Johnny already had more experience in gunfights than men twice his age. And he had a serious advantage over most of the men he’d faced – he knew he wasn’t leaving anyone behind to grieve over him. He wasn’t suicidal. No, he enjoyed life and lived it to the full. He wanted to live to a ripe old age just like most men, though he didn’t expect to. There was a certain sense of freedom in knowing there was no one to care whether he lived or died. He could take chances that other men would think twice about taking.
He became aware of the heat – bright, burning sunlight poured over him. He squinted and pulled his hat a little lower over his eyes then turned to look down the street at the other man, but the man appeared only cool and confident. His opponent was just as experienced as Johnny was; maybe more.
Johnny looked harder. The man had his hat pulled low over his face, casting himself in shadow. A shiver ran through Johnny’s body, rippling all the way down his spine.
He couldn’t see the man’s eyes! His edge… that was his edge. Johnny had trained himself to watch the eyes for that flicker that would warn him that his opponent was about to make his move. It was the warning that he had learned to rely on to give him that instant’s advantage .
He knew he was fast but, even at his young age, he knew that being the fastest wasn’t always the telling factor. The game was about bluff and double-bluff, reading your opponent and being ready for the unexpected.
Sweat – a droplet of sweat rolled down from his forehead and trickled down his cheek. He stopped and squinted his eyes harder, desperately trying to find his edge – the eyes. But it was useless.
It left him with only one alternative. He had to watch his opponent’s hands and wait for him to make the move. It put him at a disadvantage, and he knew it. It could make the difference between two gunfighters as good as they were. This man was just too good to give that chance to.
¡Dios! ¡Dios! ¡Dios! Another droplet of sweat trickled down his face, following the path of its predecessor, feeding the rising feeling of panic within him.
No! No panic! That wasn’t his way. Johnny took a breath and firmly tugged on the leather glove on his left hand, then he lowered the hand to his side, just far enough away from his gun to tell the man that he was ready.
This was no different from any other gunfight… no different…
And what did it matter anyway? Who would care?
The eyes…he couldn’t see the eyes…
No, watch the hand. Watch the hand hovering beside the gun that was tied low on the thigh.
It happened in a flash of action, quicker than the eye and over in a heartbeat. The man made his move and Johnny followed with his. It sounded like one shot, yet Johnny felt the air stir beside his cheek as a bullet whizzed past and watched the man drawing against him drop like a stone.
There was a moment when Johnny stood in a void of still and silence. Gunsmoke, acrid and yet so familiar, curled from the barrel of the gun still in his hand. The townspeople stayed behind their doors and windows, but he could feel their eyes on him.
Then the first of them ventured to the doorways and the moment passed. He drew a deep breath and slid the still smoking gun into his holster, then walked up the street to where his opponent laid and stopped to look down at him.
The eyes… he could see them now. Flat on his back, the man’s eyes stared up at Johnny; vacant and empty in the sunlight; brown, dead eyes with a hole in his head right between between them. A thin trickle of blood ran from the neat round hole and was pooling sickeningly in the socket of his right eye.
“Murderer! You killed him!”
The boy’s voice rang out in the street. Johnny spun around to face his accuser and came face to face with Carl Freeman’s eyes, staring back at him from Tyler’s face.
Cold, hate-filled eyes… eyes that seemed to bore into Johnny’s very soul…
“You murdered my father! I’m going to kill you.” And then there was a gun in the boy’s hand. Where it had come from, Johnny had no idea. But it was there and it was aimed at his gut.
“Johnny?” Scott said quietly, resting one hand on his brother’s shoulder, only to be met with a damp, sweat-laden sleeve and Johnny trying to pull away from him.
“No…” Johnny called out, throwing off Scott’s light grip and rolling away from him.
“Johnny!” Scott called back, reaching for him again, gripping him tighter this time as he caught hold of Johnny’s arm. “Johnny, wake up!”
Johnny flinched and his hand swept towards his pillow, but Scott had seen that move before and grabbed his forearm. “Oh no you don’t, Brother,” he said aloud.
At that point, Johnny’s eyes finally flashed open. His gazed flicked around him in confusion before falling on Scott. He let out a long slow breath. “Sorry, Scott.”
“I thought I’d stop you reaching for that gun before you did something I hope you would regret,” Scott told him, smiling and releasing his hold.
Johnny’s hand moved to his forehead and he frowned sleepily, aware now of the sweat covering his face and body. He wiped his sleeve across his brow and left it there, sighing again.
“A nightmare, I gather,” Scott said quietly.
“Yeah. Sorry I woke you.”
“You didn’t. I was on my way to bed. It’s not that late yet.” He watched his brother close his eyes in resignation. “Something in particular on your mind, Johnny?”
“Some things just never go away, Scott,” he answered forlornly.
Scott sat down on the edge of the bed. “Like Carl Freeman?”
This time, Johnny’s eyes opened and turned on him with cold suspicion.
“Come on, Johnny. What do you expect? You’re spending all this time with the widow of a man you killed. Of course it’s playing on your mind.”
“Shouldn’t be. It was a fair fight and he lost. That’s all there is to it.”
“Except that now you know he had a wife and son,” Scott pointed out. “Maybe it’s making you feel guilty whether you believe it or not.”
“Yeah, I didn’t know about them back then,” Johnny said. “I didn’t know a lot of things back then. But mostly, I just can’t figure why he didn’t just give it all up for his wife and kid. He must have known that he’d end up dead sooner or later.”
“Not everyone has the same ambitions in life.”
‘Now ain’t that the truth.” Johnny moved his arm away from his face and eased himself up to a sitting position. “Yeah, Carl was ambitious I guess.”
“How did it happen?”
“He called me out, like I said. No bad blood between us or anything. I guess we both wanted to get a bigger reputation and taking the other out was going to get it for us.”
“Oh yes, the all-important reputation.”
“Well, it sure seemed important back then,” Johnny said, smirking.
“Why, Johnny? I’ve always wondered why it was so important to you.”
Johnny pulled the covers up closer to his waist, then he smoothed them over, keeping his eyes anywhere but on Scott. Scott recognized the actions for what they were – thinking time. Johnny was carefully considering his answer, perhaps even whether or not he was going to answer the question at all.
But, at last, Johnny put both hands palms down on the covers in front of him. It was a definitive stop and Scott knew that he had come to his decision.
He didn’t look up and, when he spoke, it was almost as though he was talking to himself. “Back then, I thought a reputation with a gun would get me some respect. Maybe Freeman thought the same, I don’t know. As my reputation got bigger, people started to stand aside when I walked into a room. You’ve got no idea, Scott, but for a poor Mexican kid with blue eyes and a chip on his shoulder, that felt real good.” He twitched the edge of the sheet idly between his fingers. “I knew they were afraid of me, but I figured that was the same thing as respect.”
Scott chose to say nothing. It was so rare to have Johnny talking like this that he let him have his head.
“Took me a long time to figure out that respect had nothing to do with fear,” Johnny said.
“You know different now?” Scott asked.
Johnny smiled and looked at Scott. “Yeah, I think so. Now, I figure that respect is havin’ the men you work with treat you like one of them. Havin’ folks accept you even when they know what you were… what you did.”
Scott sat back and smiled broadly. “Sounds like you’ve been doing some growing up while we weren’t noticing, Little Brother.”
“That right, Boston?” He laughed. “Still, I have to tell ya, Scott, he probably got closer to taking me than anyone else. He was damned fast and he was clever. I learned a lot from him.”
“Really? Like what?”
“Position for one. He walked out first an’ got me standin’ with the sun in my eyes. Then he let me wait, think about it, about dying.” Johnny looked back down and sighed. “Yeah, I learned a lot that day. Tyler’s right about one thing. His pa was one hell of a gunfighter.”
Scott was agreeably surprised by Alice Freeman. He wasn’t sure just what he had expected of her since the sum total of what he knew about her was that she had been married to a gunfighter. It was hardly enough to form an opinion on, but he was still suspicious of her reasons for sending for Johnny in the first place.
She was indeed a handsome woman, probably in her mid-thirties, fair and pleasantly dressed. Though she was a little paler than he liked to see a woman.
Johnny had driven the buggy into town to collect them and bring them out to Lancer. He’d watched Murdoch’s and Scott’s faces while he introduced them to his family, but there was no sign of the argument in the Great Room by then.
The boy was ebullient and excited. He stayed quietly by his mother’s side through the introductions, but Scott could see his wide-eyed wonder as he looked around him. His mother stayed close to Johnny, polite but obviously ill at ease.
But she gained confidence as the evening moved on. She kept up her end of the conversation at the dinner table - asking and answering their questions, complimenting both Maria and Teresa on the meal. But Scott soon realized that she was actually telling them virtually nothing about herself or why she was in Green River.
Johnny seemed determined that the woman and her son be comfortable at Lancer. He talked more than Scott could remember him doing with dinner guests ever before, making sure that the boy wasn’t left out either.
When dinner was over, they retired to the Great Room where Murdoch poured drinks for everyone, brandy for himself and his sons and sherry for Teresa and Mrs. Freeman. Teresa brightened the boy’s evening with a glass of lemonade.
“Will you show me those card tricks now, Johnny?” the boy asked with more than a trace of expectation in his voice.
“Card tricks?” Scott asked, surprised.
“Tyler,” his mother chastised her son. “Where are your manners?”
But Johnny was apparently ready for him. “It’s okay. I promised him.” He produced a pack of cards and set about shuffling them. Scott thought nothing of it at first. He had played poker with his brother often enough to know that he could handle a deck of cards. But when Johnny began to get fancier with that deck, Scott became intrigued. He fanned them, riffled them shuffled and weaved them until Scott frowned suspiciously at him.
“I didn’t know you could do that, Johnny,” Teresa said, impressed.
“No, neither did I,” Scott agreed. “You handle that deck like a card sharp, Brother.”
Johnny laughed. “Which is why I’ve never let you see me do it. I figured you might think that.”
Shuffling idly as he spoke, Johnny stopped and squared up the deck. He held the pack of cards out, face down, towards Tyler. “Take a card from somewhere in the deck, Ty. Look at it and remember it, but don’t show it to me.”
The boy chose a card, even showing it to Scott who was standing behind him.
“Now slide it back into the deck.” Johnny squared it up with the rest of the deck. “You remember what card it was?” he asked, rubbing the deck lazily against his leg.
The boy nodded eagerly.
Scott grinned. “Yes.”
Johnny fanned the deck open, face down, on the table. One card was face up and Johnny lifted it out. “Guess it must have been the eight of diamonds then. Thought I told you to put it back in the deck face down.”
“I did! You saw me!”
Johnny smiled. “Then I guess it must be magic, Ty.”
“Oh, I haven’t seen them done for years,” Alice Freeman said, laughing, and Johnny looked up at her. They exchanged what seemed to be a look of clear understanding.
“Will you teach me, Johnny?” Tyler begged him.
“Sure, come on outside for a minute and I’ll show you. We don’t want Scott to see, do we?”
While the two of them, complete with deck of cards and quietly discussing the subject, headed for the door, Scott and Murdoch burst out laughing.
“I do hope both of you know what a special young man Johnny is,” Mrs. Freeman told them.
“Well, yes, of course,” Scott said awkwardly. “I’m glad you see him that way.”
“Just what brings you to Green River, Mrs. Freeman?” Murdoch asked quietly, keeping an eye on the door in case Johnny returned.
“He hasn’t told you?”
“No,” Murdoch replied.
“Then I think I should leave it up to him to tell you what he wants you to know.” Then she continued, unexpectedly, “But you do know who I am, don’t you?”
Murdoch shifted uneasily and glanced at Scott. “If you mean do we know you’re Carl Freeman’s widow, then yes, we do.”
“Then you know about Johnny and my husband?”
“Yes, we do,” Murdoch admitted. “I have to admit that I’m surprised that you looked my son up while you were here.”
She turned her away and took a seat in one of the armchairs. “I suppose you would be,” she answered evasively. “But I’m glad I did. I’d heard he had walked away from gunfighting. It can’t have been an easy thing to do.”
“No, it hasn’t been,” Scott agreed.
“He’s doing what Carl never could, or would, do,” she explained. “Not even for me or for Ty. Carl loved us, but he couldn’t bring himself to try to give it up. Johnny’s so determined to break away from his past. I hope the past let’s loose her hold of him.”
“He’ll have us to back him if it doesn’t,” Scott told her firmly.
She stopped there and looked at her son as Johnny led him back into the room.
Mischief glowed in Johnny’s eyes and the boy was excited. They stopped in the center of the room and Johnny hung back to let Tyler have the floor. He walked straight over to Scott and held out the deck of cards.
“Take the top card, Scott,” he instructed him, cutting the deck.
With one eye on his brother’s smirk, Scott took the card from the halved pack of cards.
“Remember the card, and then put it back,” the boy continued.
Once done, Tyler put the deck back together and then fanned them across the table. He picked up the two of clubs and grinned. “It was this one, right?”
“It sure was!” Scott laughed. “How did you know?”
Tyler laughed, and straightened his shoulders proudly. He turned his head to Johnny and winked. “Magic, I guess.”
Johnny’s face glowed with sheer delight and Scott caught his breath. That image was so rare.
“Interesting, Brother,” Scott said whimsically. “I had no idea you had such talent.”
“My pa taught him,” Tyler announced with pride. “Didn’t he, Johnny?”
“Yeah, he did.”
Scott wondered when or why Carl Freeman had taught those tricks to Johnny but, in the back of his mind, he remembered that he had taught Johnny other things – things that had kept him alive. He’d taught him those lessons unintentionally, and he had died doing it.
Then Johnny looked up and caught his brother’s eyes. He grinned and then walked over to join them. “Mrs. Freeman, I’ll escort you an’ Tyler home if you’re ready to go.”
“We are ready, Johnny,” she replied. Scott was sure that she really was ready. She looked tired, even though it was still early in the evening. “And I’m sure you have to be up early if you’re to break all those horses tomorrow morning, so there’s no need for you to escort us. I know the way.”
“I won’t be breaking ‘em all on my own, Ma’am,” he assured her with a mischievous grin. “And it don’t matter if you know the way home or not. That’s rough country between here an’ Green River at night. Not the place for a woman an’ boy alone. I’ll see you home.”
She smiled wanly at him. “Then thank you, Johnny. We would appreciate it.”
“Say, why don’t you let Tyler come out an’ watch a while in the mornin’?”
“Oh, no, Johnny, we’ve imposed enough on your family,” she insisted.
“It wouldn’t be an imposition,” Murdoch told her.
“’Sides, there’s a couple of other boys comin’ out to watch,” Johnny added.
“Are there?” Scott asked, his curiosity piqued. “You didn’t say anything about that. Who are they?”
“Tommy Watts and his friend, Matt,” Johnny replied. “Provided they’ve lived up to their end of the bargain.”
“If, by that, you mean have they stayed away from the storekeeper’s apples,” Alice Freeman suggested merrily, “then I believe they have. I haven’t seen them loitering outside the store for the last couple of days.”
“That was part of it,” he admitted.
“Johnny?” Murdoch asked, with an edge to his voice that was more like amusement than annoyance.
Johnny shrugged his shoulders negligently. “Just a couple o’ kids with too much time on their hands. They’re good boys.”
Murdoch laughed and put his arm around his younger son’s shoulders. “Take the lady home, Son,” he said, grinning. “And then get home to bed. It appears you’re going to have to put on quite a show tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Johnny,” Alice said, gently putting her hand on his arm as he flicked the reins and started them back towards town.
“De nada, Ma’am,” he answered laconically.
She glanced over her shoulder at her son. His eyes were still gleaming. “I don’t mean just for the ride home. I mean for tonight.”
“Yeah!” Tyler called from behind them. “Johnny, your house is great. And your family are really nice.”
“Glad you approve, Tyler.”
“He’s right though,” Alice pointed out. “You’re lucky to have found them.”
“Are you sure that tomorrow is alright? Tyler won’t get in the way?”
“Nope. He can meet a couple of boys his own age too. Won’t hurt him. I’ll have Jelly come pick you up tomorrow.” He chuckled. “Don’t let him talk your ear off on the way.”
She laughed. It was a pleasant sound.
“You’ll have to be up bright an’ early, Ty,” Johnny said over his shoulder. “Think you can?”
“How much longer will you be in town, Ma’am?” Johnny asked quietly.
“Oh, Johnny. I really do wish you’d call me Alice,” she said, smiling. “And only a few days. One way or another, we have to go back home. There are things… well, I have things to work out there too.”
“We could live in Green River, Ma.”
“I’m sure that would be wonderful, Ty, but things are not that simple. We have a home already.”
“Yeah, guess you’re right.”
“There’s still tomorrow, Ty,” she reassured him sleepily. Her head slipped slowly sideways to rest against the metal strut of the buggy top. Within minutes, Johnny knew she was asleep.
“She gets tired, Johnny,” Tyler explained. “But she’ll be okay once she’s had a rest.”
“You look out for her a lot?”
“Yeah, that’s my job. With no pa to take care of her, I figure it’s up to me.”
Johnny was up early next morning. There was a kick in his step. He felt good. He’d had fun last night, showing the kid those old card tricks and hearing the boy’s laughter. Knowing that he was passing on a little something of Carl Freeman to his son had made it even better.
Breakfast was already waiting on the table and the smell of strong coffee had met him before he’d even entered the room.
“Morning, Brother,” Scott said, putting down his own cup of coffee and tearing a biscuit in half. “You’re looking mighty pleased with yourself.”
Johnny shrugged. “Why not?” He looked out the window at the blue sky above. There wasn’t a sign of clouds. “Looks like a good day for a little horsebreakin’.”
Scott folded his arms across his chest and swallowed a piece of biscuit. “Yes, but all that sunshine is going to make the ground pretty hard on that tender butt of yours.”
Drawing out a chair and dropping into it, Johnny grinned. He pulled the plate closer and poured himself a coffee. “Don’t plan on stirring much dust, Scott.”
“No, I don’t suppose you are.” Scott laughed and returned to his breakfast. “But ‘the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men’, Brother of mine.”
“’Gang aft agley’,” Scott finished. “Often go askew, in English.” He chuckled. “Robert Burns wrote it in a poem about a mouse, but I sometimes think it was written with you in mind.”
“A mouse, huh?” Johnny asked, stuffing a large piece of biscuit into his mouth. “I thought poets only wrote about love and all that stuff.”
Scott laughed. “They do, but apparently Burns also wrote about mice.” He leaned back in his chair and added, “He was Scottish, like Murdoch.”
Johnny frowned. “The mouse?”
Scott shook his head and then chuckled. “No, Burns. Though I suppose the mouse was too.” He picked up his cup and finished off the last of the coffee, then explained. “In short, Johnny, you might not be planning to spend time bruising your backside, but it’s just as likely to happen.”
Chewing happily, Johnny grinned.
“I liked your Mrs. Freeman,” Scott told him, changing the subject. “She seems like a very nice lady.”
“She’s not ‘my’ Mrs. Freeman, Scott. You know it ain’t like that.”
“Do I?” Scott asked mischievously. “You seem to get along fine with the boy, too.”
Johnny reached for a helping of eggs and scooped them onto his plate. “He’s a good kid.”
“He’s certainly well mannered. And he likes you,” Scott said, then stopped as Johnny closed up on him. “Did you send Jelly for them yet?”
“Yeah, he’s picking up Matt and Tommy too.”
“Then you’ll have quite an audience. I took a look at those horses yesterday. There’s a couple there that will help you put on that show.” Johnny nodded, still eating. “Did the boy’s father really teach you those card tricks?”
“I thought you didn’t know Freeman very well?”
Another scoop of eggs landed on the plate and Johnny took up his fork. “I didn’t. Just kind of happened. We didn’t spend all our time shooting at each other.”
“’We’ being gunfighters, in general?”
His mouth full, Johnny nodded. He swallowed and then explained. “Sometimes it got pretty boring waiting for things to happen, so we had to find ways to entertain ourselves. Carl Freeman liked to fool around with cards.”
“I’m not sure I’ll ever play poker against you again, Brother.”
With a chuckle, Johnny shook his head. “I’d forgotten that I ever knew how to do ‘em. I was trying to think of something good I could tell the kid about his pa an’ it came to me.”
“You like that boy, don’t you?” Scott asked seriously.
“Yeah, he’s a good kid, like I said.”
Scott stared down at the finished plate in front of him. “Johnny, you’re letting yourself get attached to that boy. But one day soon they’ll be leaving.”
Johnny sighed. “Yeah, I know.”
“And I think you’re forgetting something.”
“No, I’m not forgetting anything, Scott.”
“And he really doesn’t know who you are, does he?”
“No,” was all the reply Johnny gave.
“He’ll find out sooner or later, Johnny. If you don’t tell him, someone in town most likely will.”
Johnny put his fork down and pushed away the half-empty plate. “You think I don’t know that?”
“I think you’re enjoying having the boy look up to you.” He held his hand up to fend off Johnny’s first reaction. “I don’t blame you for it, Johnny. I would too. It will make it hard to tell him about Madrid though.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. But I know I have to tell him… tell him soon too, I guess.”
“I’m surprised he hasn’t been told already. It’s not like it’s a secret in town.”
“He sticks pretty close to his mother,” Johnny told him. “They don’t get outa that hotel room a whole lot.”
“Then why are they here?”
“That would be her business, not ours,” Johnny said bluntly.
Scott couldn’t argue that. Still, there was more to this than Johnny had told them. The woman had appeared proper and friendly, not the sort of woman who usually aroused Scott’s suspicions. Yet, she did. He dropped his head, sighed and then looked up again. “What do you think will happen when he does find out?”
Johnny wondered the same thing. “I don’t know, Scott. And I’m not looking forward to it.”
The chair scraped across the floor as he stood up. He reached back and pulled his hat up onto his head, tightened the stampede strings and walked out into the bright sunshine. It was a fine day alright – a cloudless sky and already getting hot.
Turning towards the corral, he strolled over and leaned his arms on the top rail. He tried to keep his attention on the horses, picking out the ones that would give him trouble and the ones that would be likely to make good cowponies.
But his mind kept going back to Scott’s question. “What do you think will happen when he does find out?” He dipped his forehead down against his arms and considered the problem of Tyler Freeman. He knew that the boy liked him. Hell, Johnny had gone out of his way to make a friend of him. At first, it had been for his mother’s sake, but Johnny had found himself enjoying playing surrogate father to the kid.
So would Tyler consider himself tricked? Or betrayed? Or would he be able to see that Johnny wasn’t the kind of man to have done what he was so sure Madrid had done?
He didn’t know, and the thought of finding out grieved him. He didn’t really believe that Tyler Freeman had let go of the anger he’d lived with for years. Johnny knew all too well about the kind of hatred that ate away at your childhood. He knew that it could lure you into making bad choices. He didn’t want it for Tyler.
But Scott was right. He had to tell the boy and he had to do it soon. With a heavy sigh, he came to a decision.
As soon as he was done with these horses, he was going to sit Ty down and tell him the whole truth. He scuffed at the loose dirt with the toe of his boot and then looked up as he heard footsteps behind him. He glanced over his shoulder and found Scott approaching.
“I’ll tell him,” Johnny said. “I’ll tell him today.” Then he turned and smiled wryly at his brother. “Just be handy to pull him off me.”
Scott laughed lightly and slapped his back. “What are brothers for?” he asked and then walked away to see that everything was ready for them before things got started.
Johnny watched him go then turned back to the horses. He studied each one closely, judging its temperament and gauging its strength. That roan in the middle of the bunch had a gleam in its eye every time he looked right at it. There was something about her.
“You’ve got your eye on that roan, haven’t ya, Johnny?” Ted Harrison asked as he sauntered over to his side. Ted and his partner Ollie Haufmann were horse-breakers – professionals and good ones.
“I have, Ted. She’s a fine-looking animal.”
“With a real nasty gleam in her eye,” Ted told him, chewing idly on a chunk of tobacco. He spat, then added, “Might be we’ll draw straws for her.”
Johnny laughed. “Short straw loses and gets to try her?”
“That’d be my reckonin’.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got something else in mind for her.”
Ted squinted and frowned heavily. “That so? Well, can’t say as I’m sorry to hear it. You can have her all to yerself, I reckon.” He spat again. “Still, rest of ‘em are a nice lookin’ bunch.”
“Yeah. They are.”
“Likely take us all day an’ then some to get ‘em all broke.”
“Yeah. We’re gonna be hot an’ dirty before we’re through.” Johnny laughed. “And just maybe a little bruised as well.”
“Ride him, Johnny!” the red-headed scamp shouted as loud as he could. Sitting on the rail beside him, his friend Matt stuck his fingers in both sides of his mouth and whistled shrilly. They were noisy, excited and having the time of their lives, and no one was paying them any mind at all.
In fact, their noise blended in with the general melee around the big corral. There was little enough sporting entertainment in the lives of the vaqueros at the ranch, and around the district for that matter. Apart from the occasional Sunday Church picnic with organized footraces and the Fourth of July rodeo and horse race, there was only the occasional prize fighter in town. So virtually the whole crew had been allowed to stay and watch today, and a good number of their neighbors had arrived to see the fun as well. And they were enjoying themselves loudly.
Johnny couldn’t even hear them. He had his mind on other things – like staying in that saddle. The leaping, bucking, twisting tempest beneath the saddle was just as determined to rid himself of Johnny as Johnny was to stay on board. It had come down to a battle of wills now and it had been going on for way too long.
The muscles in Johnny’s arms ached intolerably and his thighs were faring little better. His butt had to be bruised black and blue the way it left the saddle and was slammed back into it constantly, just as Scott had predicted. He was all too aware that, if the animal didn’t surrender soon, he might end up doing it himself.
The yelling around the corral came to him as just a dull roar in his ears and he tried to ignore it. The horse swiveled again and threw its head up as it twisted in ways that it just shouldn’t have been capable of.
Then, suddenly, the horse quieted. It stopped so abruptly that Johnny was thrown forward like a rag doll, but he stayed on. They stayed there, man and beast, panting heavily and lathered in so much sweat that it was hard to tell who was the most exhausted.
“You did it, Johnny!” Tyler shouted in excited approval. Johnny heard him above the applause and cheers, but something just didn’t feel quite right about the horse. The battle had ended too unexpectedly. The horse had been fighting him for so long that Johnny had been sure it would end with more of a bang than this.
He was right. Suddenly, the animal lifted off the ground again and hit the earth with all the fury of a tornado touching down. Johnny was ready for it, or he’d thought that he was. As it turned out, he wasn’t. He held on for only one more twist and then felt himself leave the saddle and was sailing through the air and landing in an ungainly and bruising heap, surrounded by a rising cloud of dust.
He’d swallowed a good helping of that dirt as he’d gasped when he hit the ground. He levered himself up onto his elbows and watched Walt and Herb rounding up the whirlwind that had dumped him so unceremoniously. He grimaced and then spat some of the dust out of his mouth.
A shadow passed over him and he looked up. Scott stood there imposingly; his hands on his hips and his face a picture of wanton mischief.
“I knew you were going to put on a show for those boys,” he said with a wry grin and a glint in his eyes. “Didn’t know you were planning a comedy though.”
“Oh, you’re just full o’ laughs, ain’t you, Big Brother?” Johnny replied with a scowl.
Scott laughed and stretched a hand down to him. “Need a hand up?”
Johnny found himself laughing right along with him and accepted the extended hand. Getting to his feet, he looked past his brother to the pawing animal in the center of the corral. The boys were holding him steady, but the horse looked neither cowed not beaten.
“Well?” Scott asked with a grin. “What now?”
Johnny dusted off his clothes, unsuccessfully for the most part, and hitched his pants up determinedly. “Hold that miserable, spotted crowbait for me, Walt,” he called out. Then to his brother, he answered, “Not letting that animal beat me,” and started towards the pinto, trying his best not to allow anyone to suspect just how bruised he and his ego actually were.
Scott slapped him on his back as he passed and headed back to the fence to join the rest of the spectators.
“See, told ya he wouldn’t give up,” Scott heard Tommy Watts telling his friend. The two of them didn’t seem to have lost any interest at all in the two hours that they’d been watching the ‘fun’. And Tyler Freeman seemed to have fit right in with them. He sat on the fence on one side of Tommy while Matt sat at the other, all three loudly excited and beaming with pleasure.
“Course he wasn’t gonna give up on him,” Tyler agreed, apparently offended that they would even consider such an idea.
Scott joined them and climbed through the rails to stand beside Tyler.
“He isn’t even tired yet, is he, Scott?” Tyler insisted.
Scott suspected that Johnny was not only tired after breaking four of the dozen horses, but sore all over. Still, he did nothing to dispel the illusion the boys had created of him.
“No. In fact, I think he could have broken all of them on his own. He probably didn’t need Ollie and Ted at all.”
“Probably coulda,” Matt agreed, nodding sagely.
“Scott, why is that other horse corralled over there on its own?” Tyler asked, pointing to one of the horses that had been sectioned off.
“My guess is that Johnny saw something in her,” Scott explained, looking at the roan and wondering the same thing. The horse had good lines, better than most mustangs. He could imagine that Johnny had plans for her. “He probably wants to work that one his own way.”
“What way’s that?” Tyler asked, but it was Tommy who answered.
“Johnny’s really great with horses. Everyone in the valley knows that. But not just breakin’ ‘em like this. I bet he’s gonna ‘whisper’ that one.”
“Is he gonna ‘whisper’ him, Scott?” Matt asked excitedly.
“I don’t know what he has in mind,” Scott told him, then winced as they watched Johnny hit the ground hard, again.
Johnny got up scowling and rubbing his leg as he walked back towards the horse with a slight limp.
“Johnny? You okay?” they heard Murdoch call out from further down the fenceline.
Johnny turned his head towards his father and waved him off dismissively. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he growled. Scott suspected that the language that followed, muttered quietly as he limped across the corral to where Walt held the horse, was somewhat bluer and he smiled.
The boys, and Scott too for that matter, watched, enthralled, as Johnny held on this time. The animal writhed and twisted, snorted and screamed like a mad thing but, finally, it relented. Not all at once, but with fewer kicks and bucks, each with lest gusto than the last, the horse finally gave up the fight and let Johnny ride it around the corral.
As he passed them, the three boys whooped with joy and threw their hats in the air. Scott found himself laughing right along with them, enjoying the moment through their eyes.
When Johnny pulled the pinto to a halt it stood, beaten and exhausted, its head down.
He waited a full minute. Then Walt rode cautiously over to his side and took the reins from him, then Johnny slipped to the ground. He wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve and ambled over to the corral fence, still limping just a little.
“Are you okay?” Scott asked as he approached them.
Johnny nodded. “Yeah.”
“Just an extra bruise,” Johnny answered, grinning. “You were right about that.”
“I’m always right, dear Brother,” Scott told him laughing and dropping one long arm over Johnny’s shoulders. “That’s why it pays not to argue with me.” He grabbed for his hat as Johnny playfully swatted it from his head in retaliation.” But Johnny only laughed.
Tyler held out the canteen of water that had been hanging on the fencepost near him. “Here, Johnny!” he said enthusiastically.
“Thanks Ty,” Johnny said wearily. He took a long swig of the tepid water then replaced the lid. “You guys had enough yet?”
“No sir, Johnny!” Matt exclaimed. “This is great!”
Johnny grinned and looked the canteen back on the fence post. “More fun than swipin’ apples?”
Both Matt and Tommy blushed shamefacedly. “Yes Sir,” they agreed in unison.
“Good. You’ve stayed outa trouble for two days,” he said cheerfully. “You think you can keep it up?”
They both nodded.
“Okay. See that you do.” With that, he ruffled the hair on their heads and laughed, then walked over to join Scott. He leaned back against the post and sighed.
“You did a good thing, Johnny,” Scott told him, smiling. Sometimes, Johnny managed to surprise even him.
“What those crowbaits? Dios, I’ve been on worse than them?” Johnny assured him.
Scott laughed. “I wasn’t talking about the horses, Johnny,” he explained. He glanced pointedly towards the trio of excited schoolboys sitting on the fence, laughing merrily as they talked and pushed at each other.
“Ah, that’s nothin’,” Johnny said. “They’re good kids. Just needed someone to get ‘em outa some bad habits, before they went too far.”
With the matter of the boys effectively dismissed, Scott looked back to see the pinto that had put up such a fight being led from the corral. “Why don’t you let Ted handle the rest of the horses? There’s only a couple left and you’re exhausted.”
“Maybe, but I have the roan to see to first. A beauty, hey?”
“Yes,” Scott agreed. “But with a wicked look in her eyes.”
As if he had heard them, Tommy called to Johnny. “Hey, Johnny. What you got that roan over there all by himself for?”
“Because ’she’ is something special,” Johnny told him.
“What’s so special ‘bout her?” Tyler asked curiously.
Johnny looked in the direction of the fenced off section. The roan was pacing back and forth. She’d lift her head and toss it now and then, or she’d paw the ground in anticipation.
“Hard to explain it boys,” Johnny said quietly. “Just look at her. Doesn’t she just look like there something different about her? Sometimes, you can just sense it in a horse. Spirit, that’s what she’s got. She’s not the sort of animal you just ‘break’. That wouldn’t be right.”
“Didn’t that last one have spirit, Johnny?” Tommy asked with a frown. “He sure put up a fight.”
Johnny smiled and rubbed his butt without thinking. He turned back to the boys and answered. “Yeah, but that wasn’t the sort o’ spirit I’m talkin’ about. That was pure cussedness.”
“You gonna turn her loose then, Johnny?” Tyler asked again. He sounded shocked.
“Heck, no! Handled right, that could be one real fine horse,” Johnny told him and looked back to where the roan paced. “The best of this bunch, I’d say.”
Scott watched his brother’s face as he stared at the animal. There seemed to be almost a sort of rapture in his expression. His eyes hadn’t left her for a moment, but Johnny himself was almost as entrancing to watch as the horse.
“You are gonna ‘whisper’ her, ain’t you, Johnny?” Tommy sounded awed. Scott doubted that the boy had ever seen it done, but he’d obviously heard about it. The word had quickly spread around the district that Johnny had a way with horses.
Scott had seen it done. He’d watched Johnny work a horse like that roan once before and he thought that ‘awe-inspiring’ just about summed it up alright. He, too, had been around horses for most of his life and was considered quite a horseman, in Boston, in the cavalry and here, but he had never seen anyone communicate with a horse the way his brother could.
“I’m gonna give it a try, Tommy,” Johnny answered quietly, his eyes still on the horse. “Hey Herb,” he shouted across the corral. “Clear the corral and turn that roan loose in here, will ya?”
The man waved his acknowledgement of the order and the horse was turned into the big corral. She galloped in, her mane and tail flying as she circled the corral, keeping clear of the fence and snorting her displeasure. Then she slowed to a trot and tossed her head defiantly, turning to face Johnny as if she knew that he was the one to look out for.
“Scott, make sure everyone stays back at the fence. And I don’t want any noise.”
Johnny had his eyes on her. Actually, everyone was watching her. The hubbub of noise around them had died to absolute silence and, standing beside Scott, Johnny audibly took a deep breath before he took a step out into the corral.
The horse stopped and glared at him from several yards away, tossing its head and shaking it, then pawing at the ground angrily. Scott held his breath. He glanced towards Murdoch, standing with Teresa further down the fence. Their eyes were on Johnny and Scott thought that he too was holding his breath with worry.
“Just watch this Ty!” Tommy whispered.
“Shhh…” Scott warned him, just as quietly. Johnny didn’t need distractions now. Any sudden sound could set that mustang off and nothing would help Johnny then.
Johnny stopped several paces from the roan. He kept his eyes glued on her and his hands at his sides, offering no threat to the animal. She glared back, her ears were laid flat and her coat quivered as she pawed again and snorted her displeasure.
“Easy, girl,” he whispered calmly. His voice was mesmerizing as he began to speak low and softly, in an almost hypnotic mixture of Spanish and English that was designed to calm her.
As minutes passed slowly, he didn’t move at all, taking no ground from her, but yielding none either. Along with everyone else around that fence, Scott watched and wondered at the infinite patience Johnny exhibited in dealing with the roan – the kind of patience he rarely showed in other circumstances. He stayed his ground, waiting for the horse to get curious enough to approach him, speaking in that soft hushed voice and remaining perfectly still.
Her ears came forward to listen to his voice, one hoof pawing at the dirt uneasily, fretfully. When the horse eventually quieted enough to be standing ten yards away, Johnny took his first tentative step towards her. The horse reared and neighed shrilly and he stopped. When she dropped back to the ground, she pawed the ground and glared furiously at him.
But Johnny had gained some ground. She stepped back a pace, but let him stay where he was, only a couple of yards from her. With more time, more hushed words and a lot of patience, she quieted again and Johnny took another small pace forward. She started to step back, but stopped and held her ground.
With persistence and gentle calming words, spoken so quietly that Scott couldn’t hear them clearly, Johnny finally made his way to within a few feet of the horse. Everyone watching held their breath as the two slowly bridged the gap between them when, to their amazement, the horse took one nervous step towards Johnny.
It was the opening Johnny had obviously been waiting for. Even from that distance, Scott could see the smile beaming across his face.
When, some time later, Johnny stood beside the roan with his hand gently rubbing her neck, Scott thought he felt his heart start again. He knew that Johnny would leave it at that for now. He would work with the animal for days to earn her complete trust before attempting to ride her. He’d seen Johnny do this before but it still fascinated him.
Still talking to her, Johnny caught Walt’s eye and nodded. Walt opened the gate to the pen behind the corral where the roan had been held before. Johnny gently rubbed the animal’s neck, turned and walked towards the gate.
Amazingly, she followed him, hesitantly at first, through the gate. Johnny gently laid his hand on her and then backed out and closed the gate behind him.
Beside him, Scott heard the awed gasps from the three boys near him and smiled.
He walked out into the corral to join Johnny, leaving behind a group of very impressed young boys.
“I knew he could do it,” Tommy told his friend with the absolute confidence of hindsight. “Boy, I’d like to learn how to do that.”
“Me too. I reckon Johnny must be ‘bout the best horseman in the valley,” Matt agreed enthusiastically. “I don’t reckon anyone else could do that.”
“I’ve sure never seen anyone handle a horse that way,” said Tyler.
Matt laughed. “Yeah, he’s nearly as good with horses as he is with a gun.”
“He’s fast, ain’t he?” Tyler agreed. “I saw him draw the other day.”
“You saw him? Where? When?” Tommy demanded excitedly.
“We were down near the river. He showed me.” The boy stopped and looked at them, then added, “He got me to throw a stick in the air and then he shot it to bits before it could hit the water.”
“Yeah? Wish I coulda seen. I’ve only heard how fast he is. Never seen him draw,” Tommy admitted.
“Me neither,” Matt admitted grudgingly. “Nearly did one day. He was called out by some fella in town, but Ma dragged me inside like I was some little kid so I missed it.”
“Pa says it’s purely magic what he can do with a gun,” Tommy added. “Reckon he must be, bein’ so famous an’ all.”
Tyler nodded. “Yeah, he’s real fast alright. He’d be nearly as fast as my pa, I reckon.”
“Your pa? You think your pa’s faster than Johnny?” Tommy gaped. “Couldn’t be. Ain’t no one that fast.”
“Yep, my pa was the fastest there is.”
Matt scowled. “Who’s your pa, anyway?”
“Carl Freeman,” Tyler announced proudly, then glared at them when they didn’t express sufficient awe. “My pa was the fastest man ever to draw a gun!” Tyler continued proudly.
“Was?” Matt asked.
“Yeah, was…” Tyler answered and lowered his head sadly. “He got killed in a gunfight when I was a kid.”
“Then he can’t have been the fastest, could he?” Tommy scoffed and Tyler looked up with eyes that blazed.
“He was too! Pa would’ve won if it had been a fair fight!” he insisted. “But Madrid cheated an’ drew first. Pa didn’t have a chance.”
The two other boys exchanged stunned glances.
“Johnny Madrid?” Matt asked, frowning.
“Yeah. Madrid murdered my pa, otherwise you’d know all who Carl Freeman is,” Tyler persisted doggedly.
“Johnny wouldn’t do nothin’ like that!” Tommy exclaimed and pushed Tyler so hard that he nearly fell of the fence.
“Why d’ya wanta say something like that? Thought you was his friend?” Matt added venomously. He jumped to the ground and stood there glaring at Tyler. “How can you sit on Johnny’s fence an’ pretend to be his friend and then say things like that ‘bout him?”
Tommy jumped down and stood with his friend, glaring at Tyler. “Johnny wouldn’t never draw first. He don’t need to. He’s the fastest there is.”
Tyler frowned at them, thinking. “I’m talkin’ ‘bout Johnny Madrid.”
“Johnny is Johnny Madrid, or he used to be. Everybody knows that!” Tommy stated angrily. He balled his fists and put them up threateningly. “You wanta come down here an’ say those things about him now?”
“Johnny is Johnny Madrid?” Tyler asked hesitantly, climbing down to face them.
“You sayin’ you didn’t know? But if he’s your friend, how could you not know who Johnny is?” Matt asked, looking curiously at him.
Tyler didn’t seem to hear them. He only shook his head and muttered to himself. “No, he can’t be.”
“Heck, Tyler, everyone knows it. Ain’t no secret about it,” Tommy said bluntly. “He an’ Scott come back here to help Mr. Lancer out when some real bad men were out to get the ranch.”
“An’ most of the rest of the valley,” Matt added. “When the shootin’ was over, then they stayed on. That’s why Johnny don’t hire out no more – cos he lives here.”
“But it was Johnny Madrid who killed my pa!”
“Yeah?” Tommy scowled at him sourly. “Well, if it was, then your pa must not have been so fast after all. ‘Cos Johnny don’t have to cheat.”
Tyler looked out into the corral to where Johnny and Scott stood talking together. “He killed my pa,” Tyler finally whispered to no one in particular. “He cheated an’ murdered my pa.” Then, suddenly, the words seemed to explode out of him and he cried out aloud, “He killed my pa!” and turned and ran.
“Johnny, that was great!” Tommy exclaimed at his approach.
Matt stood beside him, beaming with excitement as well. “I’ve never seen anyone do that before!”
Johnny shrugged. “Just takes a lot of patience. You can most anything if you take your time over it.”
Matt looked down and scuffed his foot in the dust. “I don’t think I could, Johnny. I think maybe I’d be scared.”
Grinning, Johnny put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He was well aware that admitting something like that must have been hard for a boy of Matt’s age. “There’s nothing wrong with being scared, Matt. Heck, I was. You just have to make sure you don’t let the horse know it.”
“Sure, bein’ scared comes natural to everyone. Didn’t you know that?”
“No,” the boy answered, shaking his head.
“Well, it takes a good man to admit he’s scared. You remember that.” Johnny smiled. “So, you enjoyed yourselves?” he asked them both cheerfully.
“Oh yeah!” Matt answered for both of them. “Today’s been really somethin’!”
“Worth stayin’ out of trouble for?” he asked and grinned as they both hung their heads instead of answering. He swatted the top of Matt’s head playfully. “Just keep right on stayin’ outa trouble.”
“You bet, Johnny. An’ maybe we could come watch you again sometime?” Tommy asked eagerly.
“I guess so, if your folks are fine with it.” He looked around. “Where’s Tyler?”
“Aw, he took off a while back,” Tommy replied. “Don’t reckon he’s any loss.”
Johnny felt a twinge of unease. “I thought you boys were gettin’ on fine with him?”
“Sure, at first. We thought he was okay.” He frowned and looked at Johnny curiously. “But later he had some real mean things to say ‘bout you, Johnny.”
“About me?” he asked anxiously, then added the question that he felt he already knew the answer to. “Or about Madrid?”
“Well, it’s the same thing, ain’t it, Johnny?”
Johnny put his hands on his hips and ducked his head. When it came down to it, for all his efforts to be something else… for all the time he had tried to put between Johnny Lancer and Johnny Madrid, the boy was right. He and Madrid would always be one and the same, at least in many people’s minds. Worst of all, they would be in Tyler’s mind.
“Yeah, it’s the same,” he conceded. “So what happened?”
“Like we said, he said some mean things about Madrid. He didn’t seem to know that you were Johnny Madrid.” Matt shook his head in disbelief.
“Then Tyler knows I’m Madrid now, does he?”
“Yeah, we told him.” Tommy said. “Seemed kinda strange that he’s your friend and he didn’t know it. Thought most everybody did.”
“How come if he’s your friend, he said mean things about you?” Matt asked. “That ain’t right. “He said you cheated in a gunfight.” His voice rang with the disgust he obviously felt. “We told him you’d never do that. He’s got it all wrong.”
“Yes, he has, but he doesn’t see it that way,” Johnny told them quietly. Then he looked down to find the boys both eyeing him studiously. He felt the faith they had in him, but regretted the hero worship they so obviously had for him. He could stand it, even perhaps enjoy it, if he thought it was for his handling of the horse, but their words suggested that Madrid was their hero and that did bother him.
“How long ago did this happen?”
Tommy shrugged his shoulders and looked at Matt before answering. “Maybe ten minutes, Johnny. Not long.”
“Did you see where he went?” Johnny asked.
“Where who went?” Johnny turned at his brother’s voice and found Scott joining him.
“Tyler,” Johnny told him quickly. “He knows that I’m Madrid. Seems he’s run off.”
“Then we’d better find him.” There was a worried tone in Scott’s voice that matched Johnny’s own. “What do you think he’ll do?”
Johnny shook his head. “I wish I knew. We’d better go look around and see if we can find him and talk to him before we tell Alice. Don’t want her gettin’ worried before she needs to.”
He had no idea where to start. He thought about what must be running through the boy’s mind – anger would be the least of it… a sense of betrayal was likely there too. In that frame of mind, a twelve year old boy might do just about anything.
“Let’s start with the barn,” Scott suggested. “He might have found himself a quiet corner to sit down and think it through.”
Johnny doubted it, but the barn was still as good a place to begin as any.
Together they hurried towards the barn. As an afterthought, Johnny turned around and yelled to the remaining two boys, “You two stay there and keep outa mischief.”
Tommy waved back. “Sure, Johnny,” and turned away with his friend and climbed back onto the fence to watch Ted with the next horse.
They looked around the barn, calling Tyler’s name loudly but they came up empty. There was no sign of the boy and they soon realized that Pete, the horse from the livery that he had used again to ride out to the ranch this morning, was also missing.
“Is it worth looking in the house?” Scott asked as they came back out into the sunlight.
“No, don’t think so. Not with his horse gone.”
“He’s taken off,” Scott said, agreeing. “Probably back to town to his mother.”
“¡Dios mio! I sure hope so,” Johnny said miserably. “I’d better go after him.”
“I’ll go with you. Jelly can let Murdoch know where we’ve gone.”
Johnny shook his head. “No, this is for me to handle, Scott. No need for you to come.”
“I don’t care, Johnny,” Scott said with an edge of anger in his voice. “I don’t know the whole of this but I have no intention of letting you go looking for that boy alone. You’re worried enough to make me think that you’ve been wrong all along. There is trouble coming.”
Johnny considered arguing. He’d gotten himself into this and he wanted to sort the boy out on his own. When he found Tyler, he’d have to sit the boy down and talk to him, and that was something he would have to do all by himself.
But he also knew that look on his brother’s face. There was stubborn in his eyes and it would only waste time and breath to try to change his mind. Johnny had seen it often enough to know he’d end up losing the argument anyway.
“Alright, Scott. But when we find him, I’m going to need some time alone with him to talk things through. You got that?”
“Sounds reasonable,” Scott said. “Now let’s get going. How long a head start do you think he has?”
Johnny did some quick figuring. They’d spent twenty minutes checking the barn and around the yard. “Half an hour by my reckoning.”
“If he’s riding hard, that’s enough time to be halfway to Green River. We’d better get going.”
Scott did join Johnny on the ride to town, but the ride was made in virtual silence. By the time they’d saddled their horses and gotten a start, they’d lost even more time in running the boy to ground. They rode at a gallop most of the way, easing up only to give the horses a breather and then gathering speed again.
When he glanced across at his brother, Scott found that Johnny’s face showed no expression. His lips were locked tightly together and his eyes were set on the road ahead the whole way. Scott knew that the boy was uppermost in his thoughts, probably regretting not having found the chance to tell Tyler who he was before now.
He wished he knew the whole story. He was convinced that there was more to Mrs. Freeman’s being in town than what Johnny had told them.
That Tyler didn’t know that he was Johnny Madrid didn’t answer all of Scott’s questions. He knew that the boy didn’t know that it had been Johnny who had killed his father, but why had Johnny gone to such lengths to make a good impression on him?
It had been obvious when Mrs. Freeman and Tyler had come to dinner that she didn’t know Johnny very well so it wasn’t friendship that had brought them together and Scott was absolutely certain that there was no romantic attraction between them. Johnny wasn’t a man to hide those feelings from the world, let alone from his brother.
Scott was still pondering it all when they reached the hotel and dismounted.
“You can wait here, Scott,” Johnny suggested as he finished tying off his reins and stepped up onto the boardwalk. “Maybe I’d better do this alone.”
“You don’t have to, Johnny.”
“Yes, I do,” he answered quietly, head bent. Then he straightened, took a deep breath and went ahead, his slow steps echoing in the boards under his feet and then engulfed by the cushion of carpet in the lobby. Only the jangle of his spurs remained constant as he made his way to the desk.
Scott took his time about tying up his horse, thought about it for only a moment and then followed Johnny anyway. He found him talking to the hotel clerk at the lobby desk.
“I’m sorry, Johnny,” the clerk was saying. “She isn’t in. She left a couple of hours ago.”
“And the boy? Has he come in?”
“Matter of fact, he did. Saw him come charging through here like the hounds of hell were on his tail. Came running out again a few minutes later and took off down the street.”
“And he hasn’t been back?”
The clerk shook his head. “No, I didn’t see him come back. Mind you, I did leave the desk for a few minutes so he might have come back without my seeing. Don’t know for sure.”
“Where did Mrs. Freeman go?” Johnny asked.
“I have no idea, Johnny,” the man answered. “I wish I could help, but my guests don’t make a habit of telling me everywhere they’re going.”
“No… no, of course not, Tobias. Thanks for your help.”
Johnny turned around and walked back to the doorway where Scott was waiting. “She’s not in,” he informed him. “Tyler came back here alright, but he’s gone again.”
“So I gathered,” Scott replied. “What now? Where would he go?”
“Maybe to look for his mother. Hope so anyway.”
“Do you have any idea where she would have gone?”
“No. Don’t think she knows anyone in town to visit. Might be shopping I guess.”
They walked out of the hotel and back onto the boardwalk. Johnny looked to his right, down the street to where the mercantile and most of Green River’s few shops were located, but there was no sign of her.
Scott tapped his arm and he looked around.
“Hello, Johnny,” she said cheerfully as she approached him. She was dressed plainly as she usually was but she looked less pale than she had the last time he’d seen her. “I didn’t think you’d be back this soon. I thought you’d be gone for most of the day so I took the opportunity to go and visit the priest at the mission.” With a glance towards Scott, she added, “I had some things to discuss with him.”
Once again, Scott felt left out of the conversation. There was something hidden in those words, something that she knew Johnny would understand but that she didn’t want Scott to know. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have bothered him, but if that secret was likely to hurt Johnny, he wanted to know about it.
“Did Tyler behave himself? He was so excited about it.” Her smile heightened the color in her cheeks and her eyes were alight. Then she looked around. The smile faded and the glimmer in her eyes disappeared. There was a hint of unease in her expression. “Where is Tyler?”
“He knows, Alice,” Johnny told her, his head bowed. Then he took off his hat and lifted his head to face her. “He knows who I am.”
“You told him? How did he take it?” She seemed to become aware of Johnny’s reticence then and her voice lowered. Fear crept over her face and resonated in her words. “No, you didn’t tell him yourself. I can see it on your face. What happened? Where is he now?”
“The other boys told him,” Johnny explained. He shook his head and slammed his hat into the side of his leg. “I shoulda known it would happen. If I’d been thinking straight, I would’ve. I’m sorry, Alice.”
Her eyes softened and she took his hand in hers. “No, I should never have asked it of you in the first place, Johnny. I see that now. But tell me where he is. Maybe I can talk to him. He knows you now… knows you’re not the man he thought you’d be.”
Johnny shook his head. “Probably thinks I’m a heel… that I betrayed him, and he’s right.”
Her fear lit her eyes now. “Where is he, Johnny? Is he upstairs?”
Then he took a deep breath. “Trouble is, Alice, we don’t know where he is. He took off when he found out and he headed back here to you, but the clerk at the desk says he’s been and gone.”
“We should check the room anyway,” Scott suggested. “It’s possible he came back in without being seen. The clerk did say he’d left his desk for awhile.”
The three of them went upstairs together. The door was locked and Johnny figured that wasn’t a good sign.
“He’s not here!” she cried as she opened the door and glanced quickly around the hotel room. Horrified, she turned back to Johnny. “Where can he have gone?”
Johnny wrapped his arms around her frail frame to comfort her. “We’ll find him,” he whispered soothingly. “You just try to calm down.”
He thought about her words when they had first met, her bad heart and ill health. This situation was the last thing she needed. They had to find that kid and make things right.
“Where would he go, Johnny?” she cried into his shoulder. “He doesn’t know anyone but you. Not enough to go to.” Then she pushed him away and covered her face. “Oh, Johnny, I wish I’d never started this.”
“He was always going to find out, whether from you or me or someone in town You knew that,” Johnny told her, but there was no recrimination in his voice, only sorrow. “I was gonna tell him this afternoon, but I shouldn’t have waited so long. I guess… I guess I kind of liked having him around.”
“You both should have thought about this sooner,” Scott told them. “The important thing is to find the boy and sort this out.”
“I’ll go check at the livery stable. See if his horse is there. If he’s in town, Little Pete will be there.”
He squeezed her arm. “We’ll find him, Alice. I’ll talk to him.” Then he turned and left the room, leaving Alice Freeman alone with Scott.
“We will find him, Mrs. Freeman,” he assured her hesitantly. He was unsure of her and the reasons for her visit to Green River, suddenly aware that he’d only met her that one time. It made no sense that she would willingly seek out the man who had killed her husband, let alone encourage the friendship between that man and her son.
“I know,” she answered him, wiping away a tear. “But I’m terrified of what Ty will do.”
“Why?” Scott asked. He made up his mind to find out just what was going on. “What are you afraid he’ll do? Why are you here in Green River?”
She turned away from him and hung her head. “I wanted Johnny’s help with Ty. I thought that if Ty got to see that Johnny Madrid isn’t the monster he thinks he is…”
“Ty is convinced that Johnny murdered his father.”
“It was a gunfight, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. It was a fair one too, but Ty used to watch Carl practise all the time. Ty was just a little boy. He saw his father as perfect and he’s so sure that no one could have outdrawn him. He’s convinced himself that Johnny Madrid must have cheated… that he didn’t give Carl a chance.”
“But that’s obviously not what you believe.”
“No, of course not. I asked when I heard. All the witnesses said that it had been Carl who had called Johnny out. They all said that it had been a fair fight, as those things go.”
“Haven’t you told this to your son?”
“Of course I have!” She swung around to face him and the color had risen in her usually pale face. “Do you think I haven’t tried? Over and over I’ve told him he’s wrong! But Ty believes what he believes and nothing I said would make his anger go away. I was so afraid for him.”
“So you brought him here? To face Johnny?” Scott demanded angrily. “Just how did you think that was going to make matters any better?”
“I’d heard what Johnny was trying to do… giving up gunfighting, I mean,” she told him with a sad shake of his head. “I wanted Ty to meet him and get to know him before he found out who he was.” She hung her head and covered her face with her hands. “I thought that if he could see that Johnny is a good man, maybe he’d realize that he was wrong. I just wanted my son to get past that terrible anger.”
Scott could see the raw emotions in her face. He could hear her anguish in her words. But he also knew what such a thing would do to Johnny. To come face to face with a boy whose father he had killed and who was convinced that he’d murdered him. To put him in the way of the hatred that boy must feel. Terrible didn’t begin to describe the feelings that it must have brought to the surface.
“I can’t believe Johnny would agree to this,” he finally said, shaking his head. “Not of his free will.”
“He agreed to it,” she told him, looking up again defiantly.
“And I’d like to know what you said to him to get him to go along with it,” Scott asked, his voice ringing with his concern for Johnny.
“I think that’s enough, Scott.” Johnny’s voice was so cool that it startled Scott. He turned around to find his brother standing in the doorway. His expression was icy. “That’s between Alice an’ me.”
“Not any more, Johnny. You’ve got trouble out of this after all, and that brings your family into it.”
But Johnny walked into the room, passed Scott and stood beside Alice Freeman. “I’m big enough to look after myself, Scott. I went along with it an’ I’ll answer for whatever happens out of it. I don’t want you botherin’ Alice. She’s got worries enough.”
“She had no right to ask that of you, Johnny,” Scott persisted unrepentantly.
“Scott,” Johnny began, bristling with irritation, but he stopped at the light touch of a hand on his arm.
“No, he’s right, Johnny,” she said sadly. “He’s right and I’ve known it all along. I knew it when I asked it. You know that. I was just so worried about Ty and I’d do anything for my son. I’m sorry, but my son is my one and only concern. He always will be.”
He put his hand over the small hand still resting on his arm and nodded at her. “No one’s gonna blame you for that.”
He led her to the armchair. “Sit down and rest, Alice. Scott’s not usually like this. He just worries a lot sometimes.” Then he turned to Scott. “Ease up on her, Brother. She’s not well.”
She nodded and locked eyes on Scott. “You want to know how I convinced him to help me? Johnny is a kind man under all that bravado.”
“I know that,” Scott said bluntly.
“I told him I’m dying. I told him that I didn’t want my son growing up to come looking for Johnny Madrid and kill him, or die trying.”
“She’s got a bad heart, Scott.”
Scott sat back onto the edge of the bed. That she was unwell had not surprised him. That she was dying… well that did. What she was saying, probably without knowing Johnny’s own story, was that she was raising a ‘Johnny Madrid’ in the making - a boy growing up on his own and nursing a terrible hatred. No wonder Johnny had been willing to try to help.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last. “I had no idea.’
“You weren’t meant to,” she replied. “When I figured out that Johnny hadn’t told you, I was grateful. I don’t want everyone knowing.”
Scott nodded and then turned back to his brother. “What did you find out at the livery, Johnny?” he asked.
“The horse is gone again.”
“So he came all the way back here and ran off again as soon as he got here? Doesn’t make much sense, Johnny,” Scott said. “If he’d come back to his mother, why didn’t he wait for her? He would have known that she hadn’t gone far.”
“You’re right. I wonder why he didn’t wait for me.” She frowned and considered the riddle for a minute, then paled to a ghastly white. “Oh my God!”
She threw herself out of the chair and raced to the chest of drawers against the wall. There she roughly pulled open the top drawer, rifled through the contents quickly before stopping and hanging her head in despair.
“Oh God, Johnny. He’s taken his father’s gun,” she told him. She burst into tears and covered her face with her hands. “Oh God, he’s got Carl’s gun.”
They rode back towards Lancer in an awkward silence that was uncommon between them. Scott understood that Johnny had a lot on his mind, but he also knew that there was more to his silence than just preoccupation. Johnny had made it clear to him that he knew he had overstepped the mark this time and was feeling the guilt.
Scott sighed. “Johnny, you got any idea where the boy will head?” he asked in an effort to snap him out of it.
“Don’t know,” Johnny replied coolly. “But I’d bet he’ll head back to Lancer to look for me.”
“With his father’s gun,” Scott added bluntly.
Johnny didn’t answer for a moment. “Yeah,” was all he finally said.
“Just how angry is this boy?” Scott asked, determined to draw his brother out. “Will he use that gun?”
“He’s killing angry,” Johnny answered sourly.
“And it’s you he wants to kill.”
“Well, that’s no different from when I started this,” Johnny told him.
Scott pulled his horse to a halt. “Are you going to keep on shutting me out?” he demanded. Johnny slowed Barranca to a halt and turned back to where Scott had stopped.
“I don’t want you second guessin’ the decisions I made, Scott,” he said. “Right or wrong, you know now that I had my reasons for helping her.”
“Of course you did and I can’t honestly say what I would have done in your position,” Scott replied, edging his horse closer to his brother. “But I also know how much you’re feeling over this. She had no right to ask it of you.”
“She had every right, Scott!” he yelled back. “The reason that kid has no father is because I killed him. The least I can do is try to help her with the boy.”
“And that’s how she got you involved in this, isn’t it? Guilt?” Scott demanded, getting angry as well. “That gunfight was a fair deal, Johnny. That’s what you told me and I believe you. You have nothing to blame for yourself for.”
“I don’t blame myself, Scott. Not for that anyway,” Johnny told him grimly. “But I know the kind of hate that boy’s carrying. I think you kinda know about it too. Growing up hating… so bad that it eats at you a little more every day. Sound familiar?”
Scott lowered his head. “Yes, it does.”
“Well, I’ve got a chance to help this one kid get over his hate… or at least to try.” He sighed heavily. “Besides, I like him. He’s a good kid an’, right now, he thinks I betrayed him. And he’s right. I should’ve told him sooner. I put it off too long.”
“Yes, you did. But I saw the look in that boy’s eyes when he looked up to you, Johnny. That kind of admiration could turn anybody’s head. Telling him who you are was always going to break his heart.”
“Yeah, I know. But I should’ve done it anyway.”
Scott nodded. “Alright,” he said. “We’ve established that, but you don’t have to do this alone. Let’s go find him and try to talk to him.”
“I have to face him on my own, Scott. I’m the one has to talk to him.”
“Maybe,” Scott conceded. “But he’s armed now, Johnny. He might only be a boy, but that’s a real gun he’s got with real bullets. I’m sticking to you like glue until we get it off him.”
A smile crept over Johnny’s lips. “Like glue, huh?”
“Like glue, Little Brother.”
“Just keep out of the way if he tries anything. Okay?”
“Oh, you can count on that.”
They rode on in silence again, but it wasn’t awkward any more.
Five minutes later, with the sun dipping behind the hillside beside them, Scott caught sight of a glint of light reflecting off metal high up in the rocks.
“Johnny!” he shouted and threw himself at his brother. They tumbled to the ground together in a tangled pile of arms and legs just as a shot rang out from above them and kicked up dust in the middle of the road. Mayhem surrounded them with both horses whinnying and rearing, then bolting.
A second shot pinged off a rock a few feet away and the two of them scrambled over behind some boulders and out of the line of fire.
“You alright?” Scott asked quickly, catching his breath as he took stock of the situation.
“Yeah,” Johnny answered, sliding up to lean against the rock. “Just as well he’s using a pistol. The range is too far for any real accuracy.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Scott said with a light laugh. “He seems to be doing pretty well so far. That was too damned close for my liking.”
Johnny grinned. “Yeah, not bad for a kid, is he?” He panted and poked his head out briefly to risk a quick look up the hill. He pulled back, took off his hat and angrily slammed it on the ground. “We gotta get that gun off him before he kills someone.”
Scott stared at him. “Really? Why didn’t I think of that?” he asked ironically, then he sobered. “Did you see where he is?”
“Yeah, I just spotted the sun shining off metal. He’s about half way up that hillside,” Johnny told him, pointing. “Behind that big rock that looks like it’s ready to fall away.”
Scott chanced a look and caught a glimpse of movement up there. They were on the other side of the road and with very little protection between them and the boy – just one big rock that barely hid the two of them.
“See him?” Johnny asked.
“Yes, I see can him. He’s found himself a good spot. He’ll be able to see us the minute we move,” Scott answered. “So what do we do now? Do you think he’ll listen to you?”
Johnny rested his head against the boulder that was the little cover they had. He looked at Scott, beside him, and scowled. “Nope, I don’t think he’ll listen to me… not from here. Got any other ideas?”
“No, I’m clean out. It’s your turn to think of something.”
Johnny took a deep breath. “We could wait him out. He might settle down some after he’s been up there a while, maybe when he gets hungry.”
“True,” Scott conceded reluctantly. “But how long do you figure that will take?”
Johnny considered it, then poked his head around the side of the rock. A bullet ploughed into the dirt a few feet to his left. Pulling back quickly, he answered. “When hell freezes over would be my guess.” He sighed. “At least, none too soon. Can’t say I blame him.”
Another shot rang out and pinged off the road. “We could wait until he runs out of bullets,” Scott suggested. The next bullet hit their rock and threw shards over their heads as they both ducked.
“Oh yeah, that could work,” Johnny said sarcastically, dusting pieces of rock off his shoulders. “No, Alice said that gunbelt was near full. That gives him plenty of spare ammo. Waiting him out will take too long.”
Scott could not help but agree with him. He had been surprised that a woman as obviously gentle as Alice Freeman had kept that gun and gunbelt with her, fully loaded. But she had broken down in distraught tears when she’d found them missing and told them that she had kept it with her from the day her husband had died, unable to even unload it. It was a part of him and so she had clung to it.
“Guess I’ll have to rush him,” Johnny said suddenly.
“You stay here and cover me. I’ll go up there after him.”
“Are you crazy?”
“No, Scott,” Johnny said grimly. “But I have to get up there and get that gun off him. Maybe then I can sit down and talk to him… try to make him see reason.”
“Or maybe he could blow your fool head off the minute he gets you in his sights.”
Johnny shook his head. “The sun’s just about down now. Once I get across the road, the shadows will make it harder for him to see where I am. I should be able to get up the hill and maybe even behind him. But we have to do it before that moon comes up.”
Scott did not like it but he too could see no alternative. The boy might be only twelve years old, but he was angry, hurt and armed – a lethal combination. They had to get to him before it was too late for him to turn back.
Reluctantly, Scott agreed.
“Alright, you cover me,” Johnny told him. “But do it real careful. I don’t want him hurt. He’s just a kid.”
“And just as deadly as a grown man with that gun in his hand.” Scott reminded him.
Johnny shrugged it off. “Don’t worry, Brother. It’s me he’s after.”
“Oh, and that’s supposed to make me feel better?” Scott demanded. “We can’t even shoot back.”
“No, I’d rather not,” Johnny agreed.
“I think we should both go up the hill after him, Johnny,” Scott suggested seriously. “If we split up and take the hill from two directions, it might confuse him enough to stop shooting.”
Johnny shook his head. “No, this is my problem. You stay here, outa the way. I’ll take care of it.”
“You can take care of it when we get up there,” Scott said firmly. “I’ll got left… you go right.”
He shifted into position to make a dash across the road. “Once we get over there, he’ll have trouble keeping an eye on us, specially since there’s the two of us.”
Johnny nodded reluctantly. “Alright, go on three.”
“One…” Scott began, willing himself to remain calm.
“Two…” added Johnny, crouched on the other side of the rock and ready to make a run for it.
“Three!” they called together and ran. They kept low and made it to the other side and under cover before any more shots were fired. Johnny glanced over to where Scott had stopped and nodded, then pointed what direction he would take while Scott silently did the same.
He lost sight of Scott as they separated and made their way up the hill on the other side of the road.
There wasn’t a lot of ground to cover, but it was uphill and they had to keep down. Johnny slipped on loose gravel then grabbed a rock and quickly regained his balance. He was surprised that no more shots came his way through brush and rocks that offered no cover, before he made it to the boulder that the boy was hiding behind.
He found Tyler Freeman cowering right where he thought he’d be, sitting on the ground and waiting for him. The boy had both hands wrapped around the butt of the gun and it was pointing at Johnny as he emerged from the other side of the rock.
The gun was trembling in Tyler’s hands. The boy looked pale, frightened and unsure of himself – all the more dangerous and unpredictable, but Johnny stood up straight in front of him.
All the consideration that he had given this meeting went out of his head as anger surged through his veins. “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Johnny demanded, surprising even himself.
The angry words shocked the boy. His eyes widened and his hands tightened around the gun.
It stunned Scott as well, arriving at the other side of the rock. So much for sitting down and talking to him rationally.
He had expected Johnny to sneak up on the boy and try to wrestle the gun away from him and then talk to him, but Johnny now seemed to be determined to confront him, or he was just plain angry. That, more than anything, surprised Scott. His brother was usually a careful man when it came to facing down someone with a gun.
He swore under his breath that Johnny had chosen not to get the gun away from him before losing his temper.
Scott stood on the other side of the boy, not even sure that Tyler was aware of his presence. But Johnny certainly knew he was there. His eyes were still on the boy and flashing with rage, but he’d acknowledged Scott with a quick glance.
What Scott could also see, now that he was facing his brother, was that Johnny hadn’t been exactly truthful – again – when he’d said that he was fine. His left arm hung by his side with blood streaming from a wound on his upper arm. From where Scott stood, it was hard to say just how serious the injury was, but Johnny seemed to be handling it alright, so far.
“You’re Johnny Madrid!” the boy shouted somewhat hysterically in answer to Johnny’s question.
“That’s right, I’m Madrid,” Johnny said, his voice cold now, more like Scott expected to hear when the name Madrid was brought up.
“You killed my Pa!”
“Yeah, I killed him,” Johnny conceded, but there was no hint of regret in his voice, just that toneless ice. “It was a gunfight, Tyler. If I hadn’t killed him, he’d have killed me. That’s they way it works.”
“Yes, Ty. Gunfights end in someone dying. You know that.”
“It wasn’t a fair fight! You drew first…”
“He called me out, Ty,” Johnny all but shouted at the boy. Suddenly, all of Johnny’s rage and frustration found words to express itself. He pointed his finger unwaveringly at Tyler. “I didn’t get the drop on him. I didn’t draw first, but I didn’t plan on dyin’ myself that day either. I don’t care what you think; I’ve never murdered anyone – not Carl Freeman… not anyone. You hear me?”
“Yes you did. You murdered Pa!”
“If I’d done what you think, I’d have been arrested and hung.”
“No one was going to lock up Johnny Madrid. They were too afraid of you. They lied for you.”
“All those witnesses? The whole town?”
“They were afraid of you,” the boy repeated with conviction.
“Tyler,” Johnny said, reason creeping into his voice. “I’m one man. I couldn’t have persuaded a whole town full of people to lie for me.”
There was no answer and Scott finally began to hope that the boy was thinking over Johnny’s words.
“No,” Tyler said at last. “I know what happened. I worked it all out.”
“Without any proof at all. Not a word from anyone that makes you right, is there?”
“N… no,” Tyler whispered.
“That’s because there isn’t any. It’s just what you want to believe. Now hand over that gun, Tyler,” Johnny ordered him, quietly but firmly. He thrust his palm out flat and waited, while Scott held his breath. He couldn’t see the boy’s face and he had no idea what was going through his head, but the gun trembled still.
“My pa was the fastest…” The whispered words lacked the conviction he’d had before.
“I was faster! Get that through your thick skull,” Johnny persisted furiously. “It was a gunfight and I was faster. Your mother accepted it. Do you think she’d do that if she thought for one minute that I’d murdered your pa?”
There was only silence in answer and Johnny continued. “Do you have so little faith in your ma that you think she’d forgive me for something like that? Don’t you think she loved him?”
“Yes…” the boy whispered, uncertainty ringing in his voice.
“And what happened to those high ideals of yours?” Johnny asked him. “All that big talk about facing Madrid like a man one day? And here you are, hidin’ behind a rock like some yella bushwhacker!”
The boy’s head dropped just a little.
“And what if it’d been Scott you hit? All those bullets you were firing wildly, it could’ve been him just as easy as me. You think that would have been right?”
“Well, you damned near did it. A ricochet or your bad aim could have gotten Scott killed. You think hurting my brother would’ve been justified just to get to me?”
“No, course not. I… I didn’t think of that.”
“You didn’t think alright,” Johnny said testily. “If you pick up a gun, you wanta know just what you plan to do with it.”
“If I was bigger, I’d have called you out.”
“Then you should’ve waited. But likely, I’d have just had another dead Freeman to think about anyway,” Johnny growled. “Tyler, I didn’t want your pa dead but I wasn’t going to let him kill me either. Think about it.”
The boy didn’t answer.
“Give me that gun, Tyler!” Johnny demanded coldly. “Right now!”
Slowly, Tyler Freeman got to his feet. He stood there; shakily facing Johnny for a minute, then he reached out and put the gun into Johnny’s hand. Scott started to breathe again but said nothing yet. The situation was defused now, but he figured this was the time that Johnny had talked about earlier. He had to handle this part alone.
“You’re bleeding. Did… did I do that?” the boy asked hesitantly, nodding towards Johnny’s left arm. There was a tear in the shirt where a bullet had grazed him and blood was running down his arm and dripping from his fingers.
Scott felt a strong urge to go in there and do something about that wound before Johnny lost too much blood, but he knew that his brother wouldn’t thank him for interrupting and held back, watching him closely in case he showed signs of distress.
So far, he was far from it. Johnny unloaded the remaining bullets from Carl Freeman’s gun and then looked Tyler squarely in the eye. “Of course, you did it,” he answered cuttingly and Scott felt the sting of the words as much as the boy must have. “You pick up a gun and fire it, someone is gonna get hurt.”
“Does it hurt much?”
“Yeah, it hurts!” Johnny threw back at him. “What did you expect?”
“I… I’m sorry, Johnny. I was just so mad.”
“That you wanted to kill me? That kind of ‘mad’ gets men hung for murder.” He finished with the gun and held it up. “Where’s the gunbelt?”
Tyler looked behind him. “Back here.”
“Hand it over.”
Obediently, Tyler leaned back and picked it up. He rolled the belt around the holster with reverent care before handing it over to Johnny.
Johnny unrolled the belt and painstakingly removed every bullet from it. Then he tucked them into the pocket inside his jacket. He said nothing throughout the whole of it, concentrating on what he was doing when Scott knew that he could have done it blindfolded or in his sleep. Scott figured that he was biding his time, thinking about what he needed to say to the boy.
Johnny roughly handed the empty gun and belt back to him. “It’s your pa’s so I’m givin’ it back to you. But he was a better man that this. He would never have tried to back-shoot or bushwhack a man, no matter what the reason. And I think I’d be right in thinkin’ he’d be real ashamed of you for this. You remember that.”
Tyler’s chin dropped to his chest and Johnny could see tears welling in his eyes. “You lied to me, Johnny. I thought you were my friend.”
“I didn’t lie to you, Tyler,” Johnny told him quietly. “But I admit I wasn’t truthful either. I didn’t tell you everything and I should have. I’m sorry for that.”
“You shoulda told me.”
Johnny nodded. “Yes, you’re right. I should have. I would have, Ty… was going to tell you this afternoon and talk it through with you.” He sighed out. “I guess it comes down to me being scared of what you’d think of me. I’m sorry you found out the way you did.”
Suddenly, the boy looked up and straight into Johnny’s eyes. Johnny saw defiance there, and hatred that still burned deep. “Why did you have to be Madrid? You know how much I’ve hated him… you?”
Johnny sighed heavily. “Yeah, I reckon I do, but I am who I am. I can’t do anything about it now. You’ve got every right to hate me, but hate me for killin’ him… not for murderin’ him. I didn’t do that.”
“This was all Ma’s idea wasn’t it?” Tyler demanded. “She asked you to talk me into changing my mind about Madrid.”
Johnny nodded. “Yes, but she didn’t mean for it to come to this. She was worried about you and what your hatred of me was doing to you.”
“She’s always worryin’ about me,” Tyler said quietly. “I wish she’d worry ‘bout herself.”
“And do you think doin’ this is going to make things any easier for her?” Johnny asked angrily.
“No, I… I guess I didn’t think about that,” the boy confessed. “Is she okay?”
Johnny nodded again. “Yeah, she’s okay, but she’s real scared for you.”
Tears threatened to fall from Tyler’s eyes. One escaped and he brushed it away determinedly. “If Pa was still here, it wouldn’t be so hard for her,” he whispered.
“He was a good pa, you know? He looked after us. He loved us.”
“I don’t doubt it, Ty,” Johnny said gently. “You remember him that way. You hang on to those memories, but don’t use ‘em to build up your hate. Make ‘em good memories.”
There was silence between them.
It was Tyler who eventually broke it. “She’s sick, Johnny. She’s gonna die.”
He hadn’t been sure that the boy knew until now. He let out a long slow breath. “I know. She told me. That’s why she wanted me to talk to you,” Johnny explained. “She didn’t want you carrying all that hate on your own after she’s gone.”
“I will be on my own, won’t I, Johnny?” He sounded scared and Johnny could understand why. He’d had no warning that he’d be on his own when he lost his own mother… couldn’t be sure how he would have faced the idea himself. But he did know what it was like to be on your own. He hoped that Alice Freeman could hold on long enough to raise this boy to an age when he could look out for himself. If she couldn’t…
“You don’t have to be,” Johnny answered quietly and very uncertainly. “You’ll have friends… like me, if you think you can still think of me like that.”
“I… I don’t want to hate you…”
Johnny took an uncertain step towards the boy and, abruptly, Tyler ran to him. Johnny realized that they made an incongruous pair; the gunfighter and the boy. Johnny’s blood stained sleeve was wrapped around Tyler and his head hung low over the boy’s head.
“I’d kinda like it if you didn’t hate me, too, Ty,” Johnny said with a kind smile for him. “I guess it’s up to you.”
“Did you? Let go of your hate, I mean,”Tyler asked, his words muffled. He looked up at Johnny. “That man you hated so much, the one you said you didn’t kill, did you ever stop hating him?”
Johnny smiled and lifted his head to catch Scott’s eyes. “Yeah, I stopped hating him. He’s my father.”
“I didn’t grow up at Lancer. I didn’t know my father. I was told some things about him when I was a kid,” Johnny explained slowly. “Things that weren’t true, but I didn’t find that out for a long time.” He stopped and swallowed hard. “I grew up alone - hating, just like you’ve been doing, Ty. Difference was that I didn’t have someone to worry about me like you do. Your mother loves you a whole lot.”
“Yeah, I guess I know that,” the boy answered miserably.
“I wanted to be good enough with a gun to turn up one day and tell my ol’ man what I thought of him, then kill him. Along the way, I…”
He stopped and Scott looked hard at him. Johnny didn’t look away from his brother. Instead, he locked eyes with him and Scott could feel him drawing the strength to go on.
“I used that hate to become a gunfighter, Ty… did some pretty bad things along the way. Got to be a real cold-hearted sonovabitch. You heard much about Johnny Madrid?”
Tyler nodded. “Yeah.”
“There’s plenty of stories around, I guess. Some of ‘em are true, some of ‘em aren’t.” He shrugged. “Some of ‘em a near enough to lies as makes no difference. I’m not proud of a lot of the things I did, not by a long shot,” Johnny told him. “But tell me, did you ever hear of me bein’ a backshooter? Ever hear that Madrid didn’t fight square?”
Tyler was silent for some time before reluctantly answering. “No, Sir.”
“But you were sure I was, weren’t you?”
“I know your pa meant a lot to you. That’s the way it should be. But you have to understand that he just wasn’t the fastest around. I’m not either. You can count on that. If I’d kept goin’ the way I was, my turn would’ve come too. It was a dangerous game your pa and me were playing. One that only ends one way, sooner or later.”
He closed his eyes and sighed. “Anyway, Murdoch found me, asked me to come back an’ we talked. I was wrong about him, Ty.”
“Is that why Mom came to you?”
“No, she didn’t know any of that,” Johnny told him. “She asked me to help because she thought maybe I could convince you that that gunfight didn’t happen like you thought.”
“And it really didn’t, did it?” Tyler finally asked.
“I didn’t know your pa all that well,” he said. “When he called me out, it was just business. That’s what we did, Ty. We both wanted a bigger reputation and that was how it was done. One of us was always going to die in that street and we went out there knowing it. It turned out to be your pa. If it helps any, you’re right about him being fast. He was about the fastest man I ever faced.”
Johnny pulled back from the boy and Scott saw him waver slightly on his feet.
“Might’ve been better all round if it had been me died that day.” His face had gone white.
“That’s it, Brother,” Scott said decisively, walking over to take Johnny by his uninjured arm and led him over to a log. “Sit down and let me take a look at that arm.”
Johnny went with him without protest and sat down with no argument. Scott understood that to mean that his brother was weaker than he cared to admit.
Scott tore open the sleeve of Johnny’s shirt and used the moonlight to take a look at the damage.
“It’s just a scratch, Scott. No need to fuss,” Johnny told him wearily.
“It’s deep enough to need a few stitches,” Scott corrected him. He tore off a strip of the sleeve and bound the wound roughly. “Time to get you back to Lancer.”
Tyler sidled over to Johnny’s side. “I… I’m sorry, Johnny.”
“I know, Ty.” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “If it puts things right between us, it’s worth it.” The boy nodded and Johnny sighed. “Don’t worry, you haven’t killed me this time.”
“I’m glad I didn’t kill you.” Tears finally streamed down the boy’s face. “I promise, I won’t try it again.”
Scott tied off the bandage. “Tyler, if you want to do something to help, you can go down to the road and see if you can find the horses. I’ll help Johnny down.”
Tyler wiped his sleeve across his eyes and answered quietly. “Sure Scott.” He turned then and left, leaving Johnny with Scott hovering over him, arms folded across his chest and a frown on his brow.
“You could have gotten your head shot off, walking out like that and yelling at him.”
“Yeah, well, guess I lost my temper a little bit,” Johnny admitted.
“Well, at least it seems to have worked.”
A crooked smile pulled at his lips. “Sure hope so, Brother. You remember there’s a rifle on both of our horses.”
Scott offered him a hand. “Come on. Let’s get you home and let Mrs. Freeman know that her son hasn’t killed anyone.”
Johnny heard the knock on the door and got to his feet. It was early afternoon on a Sunday, so they were all relaxing in the Great Room. Scott had a book open and was lazily reading in an armchair in front of the fireplace. Murdoch had challenged his younger son to a game of chess and was silently regretting it. Teresa was at the table putting pen to paper to write to her friend Melissa in San Francisco.
“I’ll get it,” Johnny said nonchalantly. He smiled cheekily. “It’ll give you some more time to think about that next move, Murdoch.”
Murdoch looked up and frowned in annoyance. “Thank you, John. I appreciate the thought, but don’t go getting too cocky. It’s not over yet.”
Johnny strolled out of the room to the front door and opened it. He didn’t know the man who stood there.
“Howdy,” Johnny greeted him cheerfully and the man took his hat off and held it in both hands in front of him. A tingle of dread spiraled down Johnny’s spine at the man’s obvious discomfort. “Can I help you?” Johnny asked curiously.
“This is the Lancer Ranch, isn’t it?” the man asked.
“Sure is.” Johnny looked the man over. He looked harmless enough but he was not from around here. For a start, he was wearing ‘town’ clothes. “I’m Johnny Lancer.”
“My name is Jeb Harmon,” he said politely. “Actually, it was you I was looking for, Mr. Lancer.”
Johnny eyed him suspiciously and then looked behind him and stopped short. He’d grown an inch or two in the last seven months and he was a little thinner, but the boy was substantially the same.
Tyler Freeman stood a few feet behind the man, unobtrusively holding his ground and letting Harmon do all the talking. His face was pale and his eyes were shadowed with lack of sleep. Johnny heaved a great sigh.
“When?” Johnny asked Harmon. “When did it happen?”
“Just last week,” the man answered briefly. “She went peacefully. She asked me to bring the boy to you and to give you this.”
He slipped his hand into a pocket inside his coat and pulled out an envelope. Johnny took it from him reluctantly, but didn’t open it. It would wait.
Johnny opened the door wide. “You’d better both come on in,” he said quietly and stood back to let Harmon pass. But the boy stayed put. “Ty?” Johnny prompted him.
The boy stepped forward, walking steadily towards Johnny and was about to pass him when Johnny reached out to stop him. “Tyler, I’m sorry.”
Tyler nodded, then caught his breath. “She’s gone, Johnny,” he whispered.
Johnny dropped his head sadly. “Yeah, I figured that.”
“What do I do now?” Tyler asked him, his words ringing with fear and loss.
Johnny put his arm around the boy’s shoulders. “You go on, but you’re not alone, Ty. You’ve got all of us.” He took a deep breath. “You’ve got me.”
It was all the boy needed to hear. He turned and hid his face in Johnny’s shirt. Releasing all of his pent up grief, he sobbed tumultuously. Without thinking, Johnny lifted his free arm to comfort him, but something stopped him - some ingrained need to hold back… something left over from his years alone.
But he quashed it. He let his arm encircle the boy and hold him through the shattering tears of grief, and then led him inside.