The Boy

Part Three

by  Karen and Nancy



“So the good news is that Pete has turned himself around, pulled himself together, and truly wants Tommy to come home.” Murdoch leaned his shoulders against the mantle as he concluded the narrative of his time with Pete Adams.


Proud of the results of his intervention, he anticipated the look of pleasure he would see on Johnny’s face and Scott’s silent approval. He fully expected his sons to be relieved and was somewhat surprised and disappointed at their reactions to his account.


Scott seemed skeptical at first as he listened critically to Murdoch’s description of how Pete had learned to cope with the loss of his wife, stop drowning his sorrows in a bottle, and begin addressing the results of the neglect to his property. When he heard about Pete’s remorse at the way he had treated Tommy, Scott nodded approvingly.


Unfortunately, Johnny’s reaction was a different story entirely. Sitting stiffly in the leather armchair, listening grudgingly, tension was obvious in every line of the boy’s rigid body. The muscles in his jaws rippled as he clenched his teeth even as his hands clenched in his lap, knuckles white. Instead of relief or happiness at the way things were working out with Tommy’s father, his son had a strange mixture of anger, sorrow, and perhaps even fear on his face. He looked up only when Murdoch fell silent.


“So you’re just gonna let that…that…darn fool see that kid? What about Tommy? Hasn’t he been hurt enough?” Johnny’s anger boiled over into a passionate outburst. He gripped the arms of the chair tightly, as though to hold himself in his seat.


Murdoch fought to keep his tone neutral although he was annoyed at Johnny’s totally unexpected reaction. He had no idea what Johnny was driving at.


That boy is as prickly as a porcupine and there’s just no telling what will set him off!


“Yes, son, I am. Pete is no fool and he has no intention of hurting Tommy. And when I asked Tommy if he wanted to see his father…well, he was one excited little boy.”


He looked closely at his son. “I don’t understand why you are so angry, Johnny. Isn’t this exactly the outcome you wanted?”


Johnny couldn’t remain seated, leaping to his feet and pacing back and forth in front of the fire. He spoke vehemently and with obvious agitation. “Because I don’t trust him. He told me he don’t want Tommy, but now he tells you he does. And he’s a drunk. You say he was sober when you left, but who’s to say he still is or even how long he’ll stay that way. I just think Tommy should stay here for a while, that’s all.”


“Oh, Johnny,” Murdoch drew the name out, using his ‘voice of experience’ tone. “I’ve known Pete for some time. He’s a good man and I do trust him. He knows he made a mistake when he said he didn’t want Tommy. He didn’t really mean that and he is anxious to have his boy at home. Pete just needed a helping hand to learn how to live without Miriam, accept her loss, and he’s doing that. Now, I’m riding back there tomorrow morning to check on things and if I find what I expect, Pete will be returning with me to see his son.”


Johnny faced his father, struggling to formulate a reply. His frustration got the better of him. “You’d better be right about this, Old Man,” he spat out and stormed through the French doors.


The sound of Barranca’s galloping hooves reached Scott and Murdoch a moment later.


Murdoch stared at the door until the sound of hoof beats faded and slowly turned to face Scott. He threw up his hands, letting his exasperation show. “Do you know what that was about?”


Scott shrugged. “Johnny’s not ready to let Tommy go, Murdoch. You suggested giving Pete a week alone to make sure he’s truly prepared for Tommy to return. Well, that week might be enough for Pete, but it’s going to take a lot longer for Johnny. He and Tommy have grown quite close. It’s not going to be easy for him to say goodbye.”


“I see.” Murdoch sighed.


He’d been so relieved by Pete’s transformation, believing that there could be a happy ending for Tommy and his father. But he hadn’t thought about what that happy ending might cost his younger son. Johnny was as protective of Tommy as a mother grizzly and the child idolized him. He thought he could understand why it would be hard for Johnny to relinquish Tommy back into Pete’s hands.


The time for Tommy to return to his place at his father’s side was fast approaching. It might be difficult, but Johnny was just going to have to accept that Tommy belonged with his father. Murdoch had a sinking feeling that gaining Johnny’s acceptance would prove difficult.


I’m as bad as Johnny and Tommy…pacing back and forth… Jelly would say I’m as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs!


Scott chided himself ruefully. He was nervous. Nervous and a bit afraid, but determined to confront his brother. No, confront was absolutely the wrong word. He wanted, needed, to discuss the subject of Pablo with Johnny. And for the first time, he was going to press his brother, insist that they communicate about Johnny’s mysterious past. The longer Scott pondered the information Tommy had imparted, the more it intrigued him.


Johnny’s ‘other Pa.’ Who was this Pablo? Exactly what was he to Johnny? WHY has Johnny never once mentioned him?


Scott hadn’t intended to tell Johnny what Tommy said, but he couldn’t hold back his deep need to know any longer. He was consumed with curiosity and firmly believed that the story of Pablo held numerous keys to the puzzle that was Johnny. He simply couldn’t remain ignorant of such critical information and so decided his strategy would be a direct frontal assault. He would take the bull by the horns and ask Johnny straight out. Well, that approach worked for Tommy.


This was the first real opportunity he’d had to execute his plan since Murdoch set out for the Adams homestead earlier in the day. Scott was apprehensive, acknowledging that the discussion would probably prove uncomfortable or even distressing at times. And part of him was afraid that he might severely damage the lines of communication he’d so painstakingly established with his brother. But if his plan were successful, it would strengthen his relationship with Johnny and fortify those lines of communication.


Scott thought he might explode with nerves if Johnny didn’t finish settling Tommy down for the night and come back downstairs soon. He listened restlessly to the ticking of the big clock, growing more nervous with each passing second, wishing he could perform like the magician in Johnny’s stories and conjure some magic to calm himself. The thighs of his trousers were damp due to the number of times he’d wiped his palms. At long last, his younger brother sauntered into the great room with a big grin fixed firmly in place.


Johnny didn’t immediately notice the serious look on Scott’s face. “Boy, that kid loves stories. I didn’t think I’d ever get him to…” He broke off as Scott’s solemn expression registered. “What’s wrong, Scott?”


“Johnny, we need to talk.”


The blue eyes became hooded and wary. “About what?”


“A man named Pablo.” The smile vanished from Johnny’s eyes and Scott felt the wave of sorrow that washed over his brother. He took a step toward him, but Johnny backed away.


“I don’t want to talk about this, Scott.” His voice was soft and unsteady.


“No, not to me! But you did want to talk to Tommy about…about your 'other Pa'!” Scott prodded harder than he had ever done before and saw indecision and fear on Johnny’s face.


“You don’t really want to hear this and I don’t want to talk about it.” Johnny’s voice trembled with emotion and Scott threw caution to the winds, deciding to push further still.


“Don’t tell me what I do and don’t want to hear. You may not want to talk about it, but I do. And I want to talk right now.” The commanding officer’s voice left no doubt as to its owner’s seriousness.


Johnny turned away. Scott thought his brother might head for the door at any moment so he placed a restraining hand on a tense shoulder and swung Johnny around to face him.


“Don’t you walk away from me, Johnny. I’m asking you to talk to me, share it with me. I want to know why this man meant so much to my little brother. If you’ll tell me what Pablo did to earn your trust, maybe I can do the same thing and convince you to trust me.”


Johnny swallowed hard. “I do trust you, Scott.” The blue eyes begged Scott to understand.


Scott refused to succumb to that look. “Do you? Really trust me, I mean. Because it seems as though you don’t trust me enough to tell me about Pablo. And that hurts, Johnny. After everything we’ve been through, you still don’t want to talk to me about your past. Have I ever let you down? Have I?” Scott demanded.


“No…” Johnny’s eyes still pleaded with his brother.


“Then tell me about Pablo. Please?” Scott wondered briefly if his approach was too demanding. Johnny detested being ordered around or feeling cornered and an explanation of why he wanted to know might be prudent. “From what Tommy told me, Pablo was an important influence in your life. That makes him important to me, too. I’d like to hear about him. Will you tell me?”


Johnny closed his eyes. His body was taut with tension and he shivered, gripping the edge of Murdoch’s desk with one hand. “You really wanna know, huh?”


“I want to understand, Johnny.”


“It’s a…a long story.”


“I’ve got time, brother.”


“All right. I…I’ll tell you. But it ain’t a pretty story, Scott.” Johnny’s eyes opened again.


“So, I gotta ask you for somethin’, too. I…I… Scott, I can’t stand it when you get all sad ‘cause of what I tell you. I know you wish you’d been with me. I wish the same thing. But you weren’t and it ain’t your fault. I don’t want to hurt you by makin’ you listen to this.”


“You’re not forcing me to do anything, Johnny. I’m asking you to talk to me. I can’t promise you that I won’t be sad—thinking about you in danger or hurting bothers me. I can’t help that.” He took the two steps that brought him face to face with his brother.


“You’re not alone anymore, Johnny. You don’t have to carry the load by yourself—I want to help. That’s part of what being a brother is all about. I thought I’d proven to you that I’m not some eastern hot house flower. I can stand some sadness, some pain. I don’t need your protection, but I do want your trust.”


The dark head bowed. “I do trust you, Scott. I trust you with my life. I just don’t trust myself with yours.”


Scott laughed bitterly, “Well, brother, I am confused. I don’t understand how my life has anything to do with Pablo.”


Johnny’s eyes closed again. “Scott, what happened with Pablo…well…that’s the reason there’s a Johnny Madrid. And you bein’ close to Johnny Madrid, that ain’t healthy.”


Scott’s arm went around his brother’s shoulders and he shepherded the smaller man to the couch. “All right. Whether it’s healthy or not is irrelevant. Johnny Madrid is my brother and I’m standing by him. Right now, I’d like to hear Pablo’s story.”


Scott sank down onto the soft cushions, pulling Johnny down with him and keeping a supportive arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Talk to me, Johnny. Please?”


Johnny leaned against Scott for a moment and shivered, searching desperately for a way to begin. How could he possibly make Scott understand about Pablo? He didn’t have the words to explain the love he felt for him, the reasons he loved that old man so much. He didn’t know how to express that, even after all these years; he still could not understand why Pablo had loved him or the depth of that love.


But most of all, he was afraid to let Scott see his bitter hatred for the men who murdered Pablo. Once he told that story, Scott would finally realize what it meant to be a killer. And he might not be able to accept it, might not want a brother capable of such ruthlessness. Johnny didn’t know if he could bear to see shame or rejection in Scott’s eyes.


Scott watched the play of emotion on Johnny’s face and realized it was going to be a long night.


Looks like a whole pack of rats. Get out the magic flute, Pied Piper.


“It’s all right, Johnny. Take your time. If it helps, pretend I’m Tommy and you’re telling me a story.”


Johnny’s expression reminded Scott that his brother was a complex mixture of contradictions, childlike in some ways, but wise beyond his years in others. He took a chance and guided the dark head onto his shoulder. Sometimes his brother found it easier to talk when he was able to hide his face. Johnny stiffened, but didn’t pull away, although he shivered harder. Scott felt him take a deep breath.


“There was…this boy. A scared and lonely little boy. He didn’t trust nobody, he hated the world and the world hated him. People treated him like… dirt. They called him names, beat him, told him he was a child of the devil. No one wanted him. He believed he was worthless and for a long time, he hated himself.


“Then one day he met Pablo, the most famous mustañero in the West. Everybody that knew horses could tell you who Pablo was, they respected him, honored him. And that famous man, that idol, he trusted the boy, loved him and taught him how to love. He showed the boy that he had a gift with horses and how to use that gift, taught him how to make friends, how to appreciate the little things in life, how to be happy.


“The boy loved him like he wished he could love his own father. Pablo was the only warmth he knew in a cold world, the only light. But one day evil walked into their lives and snuffed out that light.” Johnny shuddered and suddenly, like an opened floodgate, anguished sobs racked his body.


Scott held him tightly, aching for his brother’s heartache. This atypical reaction proved his theories concerning the significance of Pablo in Johnny’s life. Judging from Johnny’s profound grief, the man was even more important than he’d supposed. Scott fervently hoped that his brother might find some measure of comfort in talking about his mentor, the famous horse talker who took a child under his wing and nurtured him. A deep sense of gratitude to this man almost overwhelmed him and Scott sent up a silent prayer.


Thank you, Pablo, for loving my brother when he needed it so, when no one else loved him. And for being there for him when he needed someone so badly. I always wondered how it was possible for Johnny to grow into the compassionate, loving man he is in the midst of so much pain and bitterness. Now I know it’s because of you. ‘Thank you’ seems so inadequate…


Johnny’s body shuddered as he fought for control, face still hidden in Scott’s shoulder.


“I’m here, Johnny, I’m here.” Scott didn’t know what else to say, powerless in the face of such desolation. He simply held his brother, succoring him until Johnny’s tears subsided and he rested against Scott’s damp shoulder, breathing raggedly.


“What happened, Johnny?” Scott knew he must keep Johnny talking even though he had an uneasy feeling that his brother wasn’t sharing the whole story, protecting Scott by what he didn’t say.


Johnny inhaled deeply and continued in a voice barely above a whisper. “Those men butchered him, Scott. And he never made a sound. They hurt him so bad, but he just looked at me with so much love in his eyes…love for me…He was tryin’ to protect me from them… They killed him because of me…” Johnny drew a deep, unsteady breath.


“His last thoughts were of me…to help me. He was my friend, my teacher…he taught me so much. Pablo was a father to me…he believed in me, trusted me and he wanted me… Scott, he wanted me when I believed no one else did…” Johnny pulled himself away from Scott and stood up swiftly, leaning his forehead against the mantle. He didn’t deserve his brother’s comforting touch while he said what still needed telling.


“They tortured him and then they cut him open like some piece of meat. They made me watch… I had to watch him die and there wasn’t nuthin’ I could do to stop it. Nuthin’!”


The raw voice rose sharply as Johnny’s hands gripped the mantle, knuckles so white Scott thought they might split open. The anguish of the memory radiated from him in waves. He slowly pounded his head against the stone as though to beat out the unwelcome thoughts.


Scott heard the agony, the impotent fury in Johnny’s voice, and bit back his own wrath and dismay. Once again his brother had been forced to observe the violent, senseless murder of someone he loved. Once again, he believed it was his fault. How much pain could one boy take?


“It killed somethin’ inside me and I vowed that I would never be that helpless again, that I would never be hurt again… I swore an oath to make them pay for what they did.” He whirled suddenly to face his brother and the expression on his face was haunted, terrible in its savagery.


“Johnny Madrid was born that day. And I hunted those men down, Scott. I hunted them down and I killed them. I hated them and I took them down.” The dark head bowed, at least now Scott would understand what he’d tried to tell him for so long, would finally realize he had a killer for a brother.


Scott watched his brother closely, recognizing the signs. Johnny expected rejection. Well, he was going to receive acceptance instead. He walked slowly to the mantle and stood next to Johnny, letting their shoulders touch as he tried one of Tommy’s tactics—just keep on asking. And he had plenty of questions! “How old were you, Johnny?”


Johnny laughed bitterly. “I killed them the day of my fourteenth birthday. Some birthday present, huh?”


That wasn’t exactly the question he’d meant for Johnny to answer, but it was a good starting place. “How did you do it? I mean, in a gunfight, one at a time?”


“You think I ambushed them or somethin’?” Johnny snapped angrily, then paused, recognizing immediately that Scott meant nothing of the sort.


He continued softly, “Yeah, it was a gunfight, Scott. I found them in a cantina and called them out. They were a pack; they all went for their guns at the same time. But I knew they would.”


Scott stared at him incredulously. “Wait a minute! At fourteen, you challenged four men at the same time and killed all four of them?”


“That’s right, Scott.”


“But Johnny, how… who taught you how to handle a gun like that?” Scott knew his brother’s reputation with a gun, what he’d seen him do. But he’d acquired enough experience with gunplay to understand the implications of one man facing off against four others. Few men would voluntarily place themselves in that position, even fewer of those would live through it, and he couldn’t reconcile that image with a fourteen-year old boy—even his brother.


“A man named Diego. He was a gunman, but not a gun-for-hire or a bandido. And he was good, real good. Around the border we called him El Matador. He kept that scum from killin’ me after they murdered Pablo, ran ‘em out of town. He was ridin’ a vengeance trail himself, huntin’ down the men who murdered his brother, and he figured out real quick that I was goin’ after Pablo’s killers. So he showed me what I needed to know to stay alive.” Johnny smiled wryly. “I was a quick learner.”


“You certainly must have been—a prodigy, in fact.” Scott stared at his brother. He had a feeling that he was missing something.


“If prodigy means you catch on quick, well, then I was.” He laughed at a sudden memory. “But that first time… the first time Diego let me draw and fire, well, I just hit one can. There was six of ‘em up there, all with big round red tomatoes on ‘em, and I missed all but one. I didn’t feel like no prodigy then, I can tell ya.”


Scott grinned at him. He could all too easily imagine a thirteen-year-old Johnny’s frustration because he’d missed his target. “You actually missed a shot? You must have been pretty angry.”


“Naw, not angry. I just didn’t believe it. I’d been hittin’ those cans,” He used his finger as a gun, raising and sighting along it as though he were shooting at a row of targets, “bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang…six for six and there weren’t no way I missed ‘em. But there they sat, them big red tomatoes, just laughin’ at me.”


He looked at Scott from under his lashes, and laughed. “Even today when I walk by a tomato, I just wanna shoot the dern thing, blow it to pieces!” He and Scott chuckled together for a moment before Johnny continued. “And Diego, he was laughin’ too! He did real good not showin’ it so much, but what he musta thought…”


Johnny paused, remembering again. “He used that to prove to me how important it is to hit with your first shot. He called it the difference between fast and sudden and it’s a lesson I ain’t never forgot. Learnin’ that lesson was the difference in a lotta fights, kept me alive.”


“Well, I’m grateful to Diego for teaching you that lesson. And knowing you, Johnny, I’ll bet you were much more successful on your second try.”


“Better. I hit five of six. Then the next time, I finally got it right.” The voice was matter-of-fact.


Scott stared sideways at his brother, but there was no hint of teasing on the tan face. Johnny was serious about drawing, firing, and hitting six of six targets the third time he tried. He thought about his own experience, the hours spent with Johnny to improve his accuracy and speed with a pistol. When he didn’t strive for speed, he could draw and fire with acceptable precision, but when pushing his limits, going for a fast draw, he was still unable to consistently maintain accuracy. The third try!


He shook his head in grudging admiration and began to better understand Johnny. His brother wasn’t just a talented gunman; he was a born shooter. His abilities with a pistol were as awesome, as unbelievable as his wizardry with a horse. Diego must have been amazed. Scott could picture the scene, Johnny all wide-eyed, earnest and determined, the gun huge in his small hand, drawing and firing with the fluid precision and grace of a master, cans flying as his would-be teacher gawked in open-mouthed disbelief. His brother, the Mozart of gunmen.


“Well, I’ve always known you were exceptional with a gun. It sounds as though you were ‘greased lightning’ from the very beginning. I can understand why you were drawn to a trade that took advantage of your talents.”


“I’m good, Scott. I don’t understand why, but it has somethin’ to do with the way my brain and eyes work together. I see and hear better’n most folks. And the way I see…” He struggled to find the words. “Well, I see back here.” He touched the back of his head.


“And what I see is lines of fire, the path the bullet will take to a target. I see that and my body just makes it happen all on its own. I don’t have to think about it. ‘Stead of thinkin’ ‘bout hittin’ the target, the plannin’ part of my brain can go ahead and figure my next move. Diego says I got quick reflexes, but my real edge is that I can think pretty far ahead of most folks while the shootin’ is goin’ on—and while I’m thinkin,’ I’m hittin’ what I aim at.”


Scott smiled at this description of Johnny’s ability. The simple truth was that Johnny was able to draw and fire faster than most men could see. And he rarely missed. “Yes, I can see where that might provide quite an edge. So how long did you stay with Diego?”


“Oh, he hung around town for a little more’n a week, just ‘til he felt I knew enough to start practicin’ the right way. He bought me the ammunition I needed for practice, had a gunbelt special made to fit me, and give me one of the guns he took off the men who killed Pablo. He was real good to me.” Johnny smiled at the memory. “That gun was a spankin’ new Peacemaker, a real beauty. I still use it.”


A week? Scott wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly and his voice reflected his struggle to understand. “So he just gave you a few tips and rode off into the sunset?”


“Somethin’ like that. He had places to go, people to kill.” Johnny stared hard at his brother. “Now, see, you’re thinkin’ badly of him, but he was a good friend to me. Diego saved my life and he treated me like a man instead of a kid.”


Scott shook his head in bewilderment. He couldn’t believe the strange codes of behavior and honor here in California. What kind of man taught a thirteen-year old boy how to draw and fire a pistol and then just left him on his own, knowing full well he was determined to hunt trouble? Especially when it was obvious that Johnny had an exceptional ability with the gun and the will and determination to find trouble.


Was that what Johnny meant when he said Diego treated him like a man? Scott’s mouth hardened into a thin line of anger. The man should have treated Johnny like the child he was… Well, this called for more questions!


“So he rode out and you started looking for the men who killed Pablo?”


“No, Scott. I holed up in the mountains for several months, practiced until I was good enough. Then I went huntin’ ‘em.”




“Yeah. That’s how you get real good at somethin,’ ain’t it? Me and that gun, we got real close, Scott. I had it in my hand every day, all day. You told me before that you can’t believe I can be so fast and so accurate. Well, the reason is ‘cause there ain’t many shots I ain’t already took thousands a times in practice. I wanted to be the best, Scott, and I worked hard at it.”


Scott was silent, grappling with the image of a thirteen-year old boy alone with a gun, long empty days filled with gunfire and bitterness and the dream of becoming an infamous shooter… A boy once again alone and unwanted. It was a miracle that Johnny had survived with his humanity intact.


And it was no wonder his brother seemed to feel that he must do everything for himself, alone. He’d rarely had anyone he could count on and so taught himself not to trust others. Johnny had lost all of the adults he depended on for security, for love—and weathered the heartbreak of their deaths alone.


He saw himself as different, not good enough, unworthy of love, unwanted by anyone. Letting himself become close to someone was the same as passing a death sentence on that person in Johnny’s eyes. The only thing he could depend on was his skill with a gun. Scott wanted to rage at the unfairness, the injustice of it all.


Johnny watched his brother’s face knowingly, easily imagining Scott’s thoughts. His hand touched Scott’s arm. “It’s okay, Scott. It’s over, just let it lie.”


“I don’t want to ‘let it lie,’ Johnny. I want to know what you’re so afraid of telling me. I haven’t heard anything yet that makes me ashamed to have you for a brother. On the contrary, I admire your resourcefulness and determination. Now, I want you to trust me enough to share whatever it is that you’re hiding from me.” He steered Johnny back to the couch, some instinct warning him that he might need to sit down.


Johnny nodded slowly as he sank into the cushions of the big sofa. “I… I closed a door the day I killed those men, burned my bridges. I cut myself off from feelin,’ from carin’ about anybody else. It didn’t just happen—it was my choice. I made my own choices, my own decisions and even though you and Murdoch don’t always think so, I do understand about responsibilities and consequences. I take responsibility for what I did and how I did it and I’m willin’ to live with the consequences.


“I can’t complain about it, cause it’s the life I chose. Sometimes it’s like the whole thing just snuck up while I was sleepin’ and stuck itself onto me without even askin’. One day I woke up and I was walkin’ a knife’s edge between life and a trigger finger. My life kinda tumbled along in front of the wind, just the dust of the trail and gunsmoke. I left nuthin’ behind me but grievin’, cold graves, and fadin’ tracks. And I was cold inside, cold clear down deep in my bones. Even the desert couldn’t warm me. I didn’t like that man very much.”




“Let me finish, okay, Scott? … Coming here… coming home to you, Murdoch, Teresa, and Jelly… well, you opened the door that I closed that day. I didn’t want to love you, any of you, but I do. I tried so hard not to and now I’m so scared I’m gonna lose you like I lost everythin’ and everbody else I ever cared about.” Johnny met Scott’s eyes.


“It ain’t that I don’t trust you, Scott. Please don’t ever think that. I do trust you, it’s just… well, some things are painful to remember and I’m ashamed of so much…But I do want to remember Pablo. He was a good man and there ain’t many truly good men in this world. He taught me about compassion and love, he gave so much to me, I owe him so much. It hurts to remember the way he died; no one should suffer like that…


“I made them pay and that’s what I want to forget. I regret some things Scott, but I would do them over. I didn’t wanna talk about it ‘cause I don’t like the man who done those things. That man ain’t the boy Pablo knew, he ain’t the man you call brother, but he is part of me.” Johnny stood slowly and walked over to the French doors, staring out onto the empty veranda.


Scott followed him, watching as Johnny’s eyes found the North Star.


“Pablo, the things he taught me, the way he felt about me, well…he was…is…my North Star. He’s the only reason I could find my way back outta that cold, dark world of hate and vengeance. Even after all these years, I still carry his love in my heart. Pablo said there were many gifts a man could give, but only love lasts forever.


“You and Murdoch, well, you guide me, keep me from wanderin’ off the straight road and gettin’ into more trouble… Oh boy, me and Trouble keep crossin’ paths, but we don’t stop and talk like we used to!” He shared a shy smile with his brother before ducking his head again.


“I’ve had some bad times, some real bad things been done to me, but I know I been blessed, too… Pablo, Murdoch and you… I do count my blessings, Scott. There are other people I want you to know about and I will tell you about them, in my own time. I schooled myself to hide everythin’ and it ain’t easy to find all the bits and share it with anyone, even a brother I trust with my life, but I promise I will tell you if you just give me some time.


“And I wanna tell you ‘bout the good times, the happy times with Pablo. There’s lots of ‘em and that’s how I wanna remember him. I…I ain’t never had anybody I could talk to about them good times.”


“I’d like that, Johnny. I want to hear about Pablo and the other people who are important to you. And when you’re ready, I want to hear the whole story of how Pablo died.”


Johnny stared at his brother. He should have known he couldn’t fool Scott. But thankfully, Scott wasn’t pushing to know everything just now. That was a good thing, because Johnny couldn’t tell him. He was simply unable to put the horrifying experience into words. And even if he could, the gruesome reality of that hateful day would hurt Scott deeply. It wasn’t fair to put his brother through that.


Diego said he would have to talk about it one day. But how could he talk about it? Even now, seven years later, thinking about those terrifying events twisted his stomach into an agonizing knot. The blood pounded in his head, his hands trembled, and it took all he had not to be sick. Knowing you needed to talk about it and actually doing it were two different things, kind of like how telling a man to go to hell wasn’t the same as sending him there.


He acknowledged Scott’s statement with a slight smile and brief nod of his head and walked out into the cool evening. He gazed up at the night sky, relieved when Scott stood beside him.


“There’s a million stars out tonight, like diamonds in a velvet sky. They shine forever, they live on forever and that’s why…well, the Evenin’ Star and the North Star—my mother and Pablo—I didn’t wanna let ‘em go completely, I just couldn’t. Whenever I look up at the night sky, I see ’em, and for a little while I can believe I still have ‘em here with me.”


Scott’s arm encircled the tense shoulders. “I know, brother. It’s a wonderful way to remember someone you love. Thank you for sharing it with Tommy. You can’t imagine how it helped him. He was so sad, so desperate to say things to his mother, and now, thanks to you, he can. Just being able to find her up in the sky, to feel he can talk with her, has enabled him to cope with her loss.”


Johnny nodded, “Yeah, I know it helped him, just like it helped me when I lost Mama and then Pablo.” He stared at the North Star again, one hand brushing a stray tear from his cheek.


“Pablo…he loved me…loved the boy I was…but I don’t think he’d love the man I grew to be…” Johnny hung his head, filled with doubt and shame.


Scott pulled him close, desperate to convince Johnny otherwise. “Oh Johnny, Pablo loved an honest, caring little boy who wanted only to be loved. That boy grew into an honest, caring man who wants only to be loved. They’re one and the same, brother. Pablo would love the man you are, Johnny, just as I do. And he’d be proud of you, too… Pablo’s boy grew into a truly good man.”


Johnny pulled away abruptly. “No, Scott! Don’t you see? I stepped off the path Pablo steered me on. I made a choice and I killed those men. I didn’t have to, not like I had to kill Jeeter… to survive…I wanted to. I decided I wasn’t turnin’ the other cheek no more.”




“Please, Scott, just hear me out. I want you to listen and I want you to understand what I’m gonna say.”


“All right. I’m listening.”


“Scott, I made a choice to become Johnny Madrid. All my life, I was unworthy. Nuthin’ I did was good enough until I met Pablo, and when I lost him, I swore I wouldn’t take it no more. I saw how Diego got respect, and I wanted to know how it felt to be in control…feared…respected. I picked up a gun and all of a sudden, the people who called me filthy names looked at me with respect. The men who beat on me were afraid to cross me or even look me in the eye. The people I was once so afraid of moved aside for me to pass and dropped their eyes…”


Scott broke into the self-recriminating narrative “Johnny, I understand the choices you made. Who’s to say I would have done it any differently if I’d been the one forced to make them? Or Murdoch?”


“I wasn’t forced into making ‘em Scott.”


Scott shook him slightly. “YES, yes, you were, Johnny. Pablo’s death forced the issue, forced the choice.”


Johnny stared up at the stars before meeting his brother’s eyes. “Scott, you keep tryin’ to give me an out, a reason to justify what I done. I ain’t askin’ you for that. I want you to understand that nobody forced me into anythin’. I reckon the reason I’m ashamed of some of the things I done is ‘cause you think I need a justification for pickin’ up a gun and chasin’ a reputation…”


“Don’t twist my words, Johnny. That’s not what I said and it isn’t what I think. I’m not trying to justify your actions, but I am attempting to help you evaluate your choices from a different perspective. And by the way, I’m still not ashamed of any of those choices you made, little brother.” He felt Johnny’s body sag with relief, the slightest relaxation and then his brother brought himself under control again. But the eloquent thanks in the sapphire eyes made Scott want to sing!


Scott’s words brought Johnny indescribable relief. He’d been terrified that his brother would be unable to tolerate the depth of his hatred for Pablo’s killers, would reject the man who vowed a blood oath and executed the men he condemned. How could a gentle, honorable, educated man like Scott accept the need to assert control over others with a gun? But his brother did accept it, accepted him. Even knowing what he had done, Scott still loved him. Now he had to be sure that Scott understood everything.


Johnny dropped his eyes. “Pablo would still love me, but that good man would not be proud of the choices I made. You know, Scott, there was this big part of me that enjoyed the attention, the fame that came with the reputation. I liked the sense of power other people’s fear gave me. That part of me liked knowin’ that heads turned when I rode down the street, that people whispered my name in awe, called me 'Mister' Madrid. I wanted to hear the sound of my name, wanted the world to know it.


“I made my mark and I liked my image—Johnny Madrid, fast, calm, cool, confident. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind or anybody else’s—I was the fastest, deadliest gun alive.  And that’s exactly what I wanted to be. I chased that reputation…hunted it down.


“Scott, they sang songs about me, told stories. I was a hero and it was heady stuff for a half-breed kid. But I had no idea, then, what that reputation would cost me…or the people I love.”


He took a deep breath and stared meaningfully at his brother. “There’s a bullet out there with my name on it, Scott. It’ll find me one day.”


Scott’s hands gripped his shoulders painfully. “No, Johnny. You’ve rebuilt those bridges you burned, turned your back on that life. You’re Johnny Lancer now, not Johnny Madrid. That infernal bullet is looking for a man who no longer exists."


“You’re wrong, Scott. I wish you weren’t, but you are. I can’t just walk away from my reputation. Not ‘cause I don’t want to, but ‘cause it ain’t ever over.


“There’s times when I get up in the mornin’ and I hate beltin’ on my gun. Not a day goes by that I don’t look at it and wish I could be shut of the whole thing, get away from it. But if I leave that gun off, I’ll be dead inside a week. Once you got a reputation, you’re in the game ‘til the end. You can’t fold. A gun ain’t just a weapon for somebody like me; it’s a way of life. Once you got a reputation with a gun, you’re ridin’ a lonesome trail and there’s only one endin’.


“And that trail leads to a hateful, crazy world, Scott. Decent men like you don’t even realize it exists. It’s hard and dangerous and ugly, like somethin’ that might crawl out from under a rock.” Johnny’s hand found Scott’s forearm. “I don’t want you to ever see that world. I…I’m scared you won’t like the man who is so comfortable in it. But that man, he did try to have some moral fiber in his own way.”


“I hired my gun out for a lot of range wars and I wasn’t always particular about which side come out on top. And I hired out as a range and stock detective where the goal wasn’t to bring rustlers in, but to exterminate ‘em. But in my own way, I tried to follow some rules.


“I didn’t ambush nobody or shoot at unarmed men; I never shot at or hurt a woman or child. Maybe it don’t sound like much, but it was my line and I walked it. I’d draw warrior’s pay and fight for money, I may have been a killer, but I wasn’t an assassin, a murderer. I guess some folks, includin’ Murdoch, can’t see the difference, but I never let that spoil my aim.


“Johnny Madrid, he ain’t a different man from Johnny Lancer, they’re the same, and that bullet don’t rightly care what I call myself.”


“You’re a man of principle, Johnny. I do understand the difference…and Murdoch does, too, even if he won’t tell you. And I’m not ashamed of that man you used to be. I’d proudly ride into battle with him—with you. As for this damn bullet that’s got your name on it…well, you listen and you listen good, little brother, that bullet might have your name engraved on it, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let it kill you.”


Johnny clenched his fist, squeezing Scott’s arm tightly, angrily. “How, Scott? You gonna take it for me? No, no. I ain’t livin’ knowin’ you had to go down for me. Nope, it ain’t gonna happen.


“That’s why I keep thinkin’ it would be better for me just to leave. It scares the hell outta me, thinkin’ ‘bout what might happen to you—or Murdoch or Teresa or Jelly. It could happen any time. Even tomorrow. That’s how it is when your destiny is tied to a gun.”


“Little brother, there were a lot of wasted years when we didn’t even know each other existed. We’ll never recover that time, it’s past and gone. Maybe the time we have together as brothers is meant to be short, but then again, perhaps it may be forever.


“We all walk a thin line between life and death and it’s so easy to fall. You’re thinking of me, Johnny, about how it would hurt me if I lose you tomorrow. What you don’t seem to understand is what it would mean to me if you left, if I don’t have you today. We can’t live our lives obsessed with something that might happen. We have to be thankful for what we have today and trust that as a family we’ll get through whatever happens tomorrow.”


He forced Johnny to meet his eyes. “I don’t want to hear you talk about leaving again, not for me. Don’t you justify leaving by thinking you’re doing me a favor. And if you do leave, brother, you’ll have more than that bullet on your tail.”


The crooked smile reserved for his closest friends crawled up the side of Johnny’s mouth. “Yeah? Reckon I’d be more worried ‘bout you than ‘bout that ole bullet, Boston.”


“Well, that’s a laugh, Johnny Madrid afraid of a Boston dandy.” His thoughts abruptly turned serious again. “Do you think about that bullet, Johnny? Is that why you still practice with your gun every day?”


Johnny shot him a sideways glance and smiled. He knew Scott often followed him in the early morning or when he slipped away out on the range to watch his practice sessions. “You know about that, huh? Yeah, I try to practice every day. It’s a habit I got into a long time ago. I like to shoot, Scott, and like I said, I can’t just hang up my gun. If I’m gonna wear it, I might as well stay sharp. And no, I don’t think much ‘bout that bullet. I know it’s out there, but I ain’t worried ‘bout it and you can’t be, either.”


Scott broke off and looked down at the ground, suddenly very interested in the toes of his boots. He blushed before asking the question he’d been dying to ask from the moment he learned just who Johnny was. “Johnny, what’s it like when people talk about you in the same breath with John Wesley Hardin, Doc Holliday, or Billy the Kid? What’s it like to be Johnny Madrid?”


Johnny gaped at him incredulously; his Harvard educated brother sounded like some starry-eyed kid readin’ dime novels. He replied in a voice dripping with disgust. “Billy the Kid? You meanin’ to insult me, Boston? ‘Cause ya just did. Billy the Kid? Scott, Billy Bonney ain’t a real shooter, he’s just a punk killer. He’s a nice fella ‘til he gets mad, then he goes kill crazy. But he don’t give nobody an equal chance. Only ‘bout four of his kills was mano a mano in a fair fight. So don’t ya be comparin’ me to Billy the Kid!”


Johnny squared up to his brother, all threatening body posture, hand hovering near the butt of an invisible pistol, blue eyes focused in a steely glare. The twitch at the corner of his mouth gave the game away to the object of his menacing display.


Scott threw up both hands and backed away, his voice a whining plea. “Well, I beg your pardon, Mr. Madrid, sir. I didn’t mean it as an insult. Please don’t shoot me.”


Johnny grinned and dropped his hand. “Reckon’ I won’t waste a bullet on ya. But only ‘cause you compared me with Wes Hardin. Now that man is pure poetry with a gun.”


Scott laughed with his brother, then grabbed him in a headlock and pointed up at the North Star. “That’s a good man up there, Johnny. And the boy he left behind grew into a good man. Thank you for telling me about him. I really wanted to know and I’m glad that you feel you can trust me. I look forward to hearing more about your time with Pablo.” He tousled the dark hair.


Johnny didn’t fight Scott’s playful teasing. “I’ll tell you about him, Scott. And I’ll ask you to tell me about some of them dark times you lived through durin’ the war, them times when you said your best wasn’t good enough. You done a lot of listenin’ to me and it made me feel better. I wanna help you the same way.” Johnny cocked his head to look up at his brother, asking the question silently.


Scott nodded as he released Johnny. “That’s fair, little brother. You ask me and I’ll tell you. Fact is, I’d like to talk with you about some of those times.”


Scott stared up at the North Star, silently thanking Pablo once again. Johnny might not have shared the entire story, but at least they’d communicated and his brother had confided more than he’d ever volunteered before.


Tommy’s tactics were quite a success. Just ask. Why didn’t I think of that one?


But perhaps the best sign of all was that Johnny thought of him as someone with whom he could share his happy memories. That was important, he didn’t want Johnny to associate talking to him with only the painful times. And Johnny was ready to hear about his brother’s darker experiences, too.


We’re making progress, slowly but surely. That skittish colt is learning to stay on the trail, trying to bolt less often. The Pied Piper can relax again—until the next time.


He was jolted back to reality by the splash of water dripping down his face. A quick glance confirmed that his brother, the scamp, was the culprit. Johnny held one of the watering cans Teresa used to care for the plants on the veranda, eyes dancing with mischief as he sprinkled more water on Scott.


Scott glared at him. “Hey! What are you doing?”


“Well, I heard them eastern hot house flowers need lotsa water, so I’m just waterin’ ya.” Johnny grinned impishly.


Enough was enough! Scott sprang on his irreverent brother, tackling him as he wrested the watering can from his laughing sibling. He sat up, straddling Johnny who was laughing too hard to put up a fight.


“My brother, the comedian.” Scott upended the can over Johnny’s head, smiling in satisfaction when his brother choked and sputtered as the water ran up his nose and into his mouth. “Just wanted to be sure we saved enough water for you, my California cactus.”


“Good thing you ain’t in charge of the garden, Boston. In case nobody ever told ya, us cactus don’t need much water."


“Uh huh.” Scott stood carefully, alert for any retaliatory moves by his brother. But Johnny lay still, hair and face soaked, grinning up at him. He reached down and pulled Johnny to his feet, slapping him on the back.


“Well, little brother, why don’t we use your North Star to navigate our way up to bed? I’m sure Tommy will conjure up multiple ways to keep us busy tomorrow. He’s already mentioned that he wants to learn how to swim and try his skills at roping a live calf.”


The two brothers turned toward the house, Scott leading the way. Johnny paused before entering the great room, turning to once again gaze at the elusive North Star.


“You were a grand old man, amigo. I won’t forget you.”


He followed his brother into the hacienda and toward the stairs, feeling closer to him because he’d been willing to listen to Pablo’s story and closer to Pablo because he’d shared memories of his mentor with Scott.


And he felt as though the world had been lifted from his shoulders. Scott understood what he had done, why he had done it, and his brother wasn’t ashamed! He didn’t have to worry anymore that Scott would turn away from him after finding out he’d ridden a vengeance trail.


It really was a wonderful thing to have a brother, especially one like Scott. He smiled at the man waiting for him at the top of the stairs, knowing deep in his heart that the warm glow of Pablo’s love—and Scott’s—would last forever.





4 Days after Murdoch returned to the Adams farm…


He’s really something.


Scott perched on the top rail of the big corral watching Johnny work the grulla colt. His old joke with Teresa flashed through his head as the colt floated through perfectly round circles, transitioning from a fast gallop to a rocking-horse lope at his rider’s subtle changes in balance. The colt was truly a magnificent animal with breathtaking movement and a quick mind and would make a wonderful sire if it could pass along those traits. He felt a small hand steal into his and grip tightly.


“Gosh, Scott.” Tommy whispered. “He’s really special, ain’t he?”


Scott stifled a chuckle at Tommy’s words, so closely paralleling the direction of his previous thoughts. “Johnny or the horse?”


“Both of ‘em.” Tommy grinned up at him. “Hey, Scott, what’s Johnny doin’ now?”


Two pair of eyes watched intently as Johnny gradually decreased the size of the circles and softly reined the colt into a figure eight. Whenever the grulla reached the intersection of the figure, Johnny slowed him to a trot for a couple of strides and then asked for the lope again.


“How come he slows Smoky down like that, Scott?”


“The circles work Smoky’s muscles in a certain way, Tommy. It’s important that he works in both directions so that one side doesn’t get stronger than the other. You know how you naturally use your right hand to do most things? Well, Johnny wants Smoky to be able to work just as easily to the right as he does to the left and the circles help him do that. He slows him to a trot to make it easier to change directions. When they circle the other way, Smoky needs to change leads.”


“What’s a lead, Scott?”


“Well, it’s…it’s…at the canter or lope the inside legs move forward first. When the horse is turning to the right, his right foreleg should come forward first. See what he’s doing right now?” Scott pointed at Smoky’s right shoulder and foreleg.


“I see it, Scott! I see it.” Tommy grinned. “So when he crosses over to go the other way, his left leg needs to go first. Is that right?”


“That’s it, Tommy. When he is turning to the right we say he is on the right lead. When he changes directions he’ll be on the left lead. If he is loping in a straight line, the lead isn’t so critical, but Smoky will be off balance if he tries to turn while on the wrong lead. Johnny is making sure Smoky picks up the correct lead by asking him to drop into a trot and then lope off. Smoky isn’t used to carrying the weight of a rider so Johnny is making it as easy for him as he can.”


The two watched raptly as Johnny continued working with the colt. Scott admired the precision of the circles; the effortless way Johnny used his balance to help the colt track true with his front and rear hooves, the soft hands on the horsehair rein. His brother sat the sleek colt as though the two of them were one creature like the mythical centaurs.


“Scott, how come Johnny don’t hardly use the reins? And he don’t have a bit in Smoky’s mouth?”


“The way Johnny is training Smoky doesn’t start with a bit, Tommy. He’ll show Smoky how to respond to his weight and the reins and then add a bit. Johnny teaches Smoky to move forward and back and side to side with the reins and by shifting his weight in the saddle.


“That thick noseband is called a bosal and it presses on Smoky’s nose. His nose is tender so Johnny has lots of control, but he never hurts Smoky. The reins are horsehair so that Smoky can easily feel them when they touch his neck. He moves away from the touch and Johnny uses that to show Smoky how he wants him to react when he makes certain motions with his hands and legs.” Scott accompanied his explanation with plenty of hand motions, pointing out exactly what he meant.


“He uses the reins a little as possible because he wants to be able to steer Smoky without having hands on the reins. When you’re working cattle out on the range, you sometimes need both hands for your rope so having a horse that doesn’t need your hands on the reins is important.”


“Gosh!” Tommy could follow Scott’s explanation, especially when he pointed out examples.


“Did you see that, Tommy?” Johnny and Smoky had changed direction at the intersection of the circles without first dropping to the trot. “That’s called a flying change of lead. Smoky took that little skip in the air and changed his lead without having to slow down.”


“I saw it. That was neat. How come he didn’t do that before?”


“It isn’t easy to teach a horse to change leads like that with a rider on its back. Some horses take a long time to learn how. Smoky is such an athlete and Johnny rides him so well that he took a chance and Smoky didn’t let him down. Let’s see if he tries it again the other way.” The two leaned forward, following the horse and rider as they approached the intersection again.


Tommy held his breath as Johnny seemed to sink deeper into the saddle, lifting his hands slightly. Smoky responded by flawlessly changing leads without a break in his fluid stride and Tommy clapped excitedly. “He did it, Scott! He did it!”


“He sure did, Tommy.” Scott put his arm around Tommy’s shoulders, suddenly concerned that they boy might bounce right off of the fence.


In the corral, Johnny brought Smoky to a relaxed halt, patting the wet neck. After letting the colt stand for several moments, he walked toward his appreciative audience and dismounted at the fence.


“He looks great, Johnny. Those flying changes were stunning.”


Johnny scratched underneath the big jaws. “He’s a smart fella, Scott. He picked it right up. Hey, ya wanna ride, Boston?”


Scott didn’t need to be asked twice. He was eager to get the feel of the colt for himself and dropped to the ground inside the corral. Johnny stood at Smoky’s head while his brother mounted easily, sitting still for a moment to get the feel of the horse beneath him.


“He’s solid, isn’t he?” Scott patted the arched neck.


“Yep. Wait ‘til you feel that lope.” Johnny climbed up to the op’ra rail next to Tommy, flipping the boy’s bangs. “Got a good view, Big ‘un?”


Tommy nodded vigorously. “Smoky sure is a beauty, Johnny.”


“I think so, Tommy.”


The two watched as Scott trotted the colt around the corral, asking him to canter after a couple of circuits. Smoky skimmed over the ground with an effortless, floating grace while Scott moved with him, the colt’s smooth canter showcasing his rider’s upright carriage and splendid seat.


Johnny grinned at the sight. “Look at that, Tommy. Nobody sits a horse like my brother.”


“Golly, Johnny, he says the same thing about you,” Tommy giggled.


“He does?” Johnny stared at Tommy in astonishment.


“’Course he does. Hey, that was purty, Scott!” Tommy waved as Scott rode the sweating colt back to the fence.


“Thank you, Tommy.” He dismounted and looked at Johnny. “He really is something special, brother. I think we’ve found our stallion.”


“I thought you’d like him. He really moves, don’t he?” Johnny slipped to the ground and unsaddled the colt.


“Like a soft breeze. He’s quite an athlete.” Smoky tried to rub his sweaty head against Scott’s sleeve. “Whoa, son.”


“Think I’ll let him relax here in the corral for a while, have himself a good roll in the dirt. You wanna grab a bucket of water for him while I turn him loose?” Johnny led Smoky away from the fence and slipped the jaquíma from his head.


Smoky backed away slowly and stood still for a moment, almost as though he knew what a splendid picture he made with his damp coat glistening in the sun. Suddenly he squealed and bucked hard across the corral, skidding to a halt in far corner and pawing, sending a cloud of deep sand flying in every direction. As the three boys laughed, he folded his forelegs, thumped to the ground and rolled. The dark legs flashed in the air as Smoky rubbed his neck and back into the dirt, grunting blissfully.


His dust bath complete, Smoky trotted back across the corral to Johnny, plunging his muzzle into the bucket of water. Johnny let him have several sips and then pulled the bucket away, slipping it between the rails and sitting it down outside the corral.


“Enough for now, fella. Go on and get good and dirty.” He and Scott ducked between the rails and stood outside the corral.


Tommy jumped down beside them. “Well, what are we gonna do this afternoon?”


Scott met Johnny’s eyes. Tommy never seemed to get tired! In fact, he was easily bored and soon became restless.


“Ya said we’d go fishin’ one day. How ‘bout now? Let’s go fishin’ this afternoon. Please, Johnny? Please?” Tommy’s bright eyes shone with excitement.


“I dunno, Tommy. I got a lot of work to do today, don’t think I got any spare time to go fishin’. But you know, Scott here is the expert on catchin’ fish. Ain’t ya, brother?” Johnny shot a mischievous look at his brother.


“Really, Scott? You an expert at fishin’? How come ya never told me? Will you take me? Please?” The boy bounced up and down eagerly.


The look Scott shared with his younger brother promised retribution. “Well, Tommy, I’m no expert, I just have slightly more patience than Johnny here. His idea of fishing doesn’t include a fishing rod.” Scott grinned at Tommy’s perplexed expression. “He prefers to shoot them out of the water, don’t you, little brother!”


Johnny shrugged sheepishly, “Well, you know, it just seems like a waste of time waitin’ for some darn fish to bite. ‘Specially when it’s your supper you’re tryin’ to catch.”


“Can we go right now? Please, Scott? Please?” Tommy tugged on Scott’s arm.


Scott knew when to bow to the inevitable. He removed his arm from Tommy’s grasp and patted his shoulder. “Yes, I will take you, Tommy. We can go later this afternoon. Right now, Johnny and I have work to do. Why don’t you practice your roping skills until I’m ready to leave? You’re getting better and better. Soon you’ll be ready to try and rope something besides a bucket or fence post.”


“That rope might come in right handy later…if them fish don’t bite!” Johnny laughed and winked at Tommy. “Oh yeah, I made a new honda for your rope, Big ‘un. Oughta make it easier for you to build and swing a loop.”


“Thanks, Johnny! I’m gonna go practice right now!” The boy ran toward the back of the barn where Scott and Johnny had arranged an area for roping practice, complete with a tall, sand-filled bucket for a target.


He was eager to try his rope with the new honda, the spliced eyelet that the end of the rope threaded through to make a loop. The metal piece that came on the rope Scott bought for him was heavy and awkward in Tommy’s small hands and the boy struggled to swing his loop smoothly. Johnny had promised to replace it with a hand-made leather-lined honda that would be lighter and easier for Tommy to handle. Tommy couldn’t wait to see how well it worked.


As Tommy disappeared behind the barn, Scott turned to face Johnny, intending to question his brother about the sudden rash of excuses he was making in order to avoid spending time alone with Tommy. The look on Johnny’s face told him that this was not the appropriate moment. The sapphire eyes were intently focused on something in the distance, something Scott couldn’t yet see.


“It’s Jelly, Scott! Oh boy, am I glad to see him. Things just ain’t the same without him around. Whooie!” Johnny grinned and slapped his hat against his leg.


Scott shook his head in amazement, staring in the direction Johnny pointed until he could make out the dark speck that was the approaching figure. He’d earned a reputation for a keen eye during his years in the cavalry, often seeing far away riders several seconds before anyone else. But Johnny’s eyesight was simply on a different level than that of normal men. His brother possessed the visual acuity of a hawk.


Scott could discern the dot on the horizon and perceive that it was a horse and rider. But Johnny had observed and recognized the rider at least ten seconds before Scott was able to even see him. Well, an “eagle-eye” was certainly a source of advantage for a gunfighter. A quick tug on his sleeve recaptured his attention and he looked around for Tommy, but the boy was nowhere in sight. The sleeve tugging culprit was his brother, blue eyes alight with mischief.


“Quick, Scott! Let’s git in the barn ‘fore he sees us! Remember what we said we’d do?” Johnny dragged Scott into the barn, tugging his sleeve the whole way.


Scott laughed at his brother’s enthusiasm for having some fun at Jelly’s expense as well as at his childish gesture.


“Okay, okay! There’s no big rush, brother. I’m sure Jelly can’t even see us yet.” Scott rescued his shirt from Johnny’s grasp.


Johnny paid no attention to Scott’s grumbling, peeking around the door to check on Jelly’s progress. “I didn’t expect him for another couple of days, but it’ll sure be good to see him.”


“Maybe he missed us.” Scott grinned. “By the way, when I explained who Jelly is to Tommy, I informed him that Jelly just loved being asked questions.”


Johnny whirled to face him at that, convulsing in laughter. “Oh c’mon, you didn’t really tell him that?”


“Oh, yes I did!” Scott chuckled. “We’ve answered our share of questions. Now it’s Jelly’s turn.”


Johnny wiped his streaming eyes. “Sometimes, brother, you make me so proud.”


“Sometimes, brother, I’m proud of myself.” Scott was eager to see just how Jelly would respond to one of Tommy’s inquisitions.



Jelly reined his horse to a halt at the hitch rail in the big courtyard. He slumped in the saddle for a moment, letting his eyes drink in the sight of the beautiful hacienda. He’d enjoyed visiting with his sister, hadn’t seen her in a coon’s age, after all, but Lancer sure got under a man’s skin. He thought of the big ranch as home and missed it daily while away, but most of all he pined for the men and girl who were now his family.


He glanced around the empty courtyard. Sure seemed like everyone was off somewheres. Well, that’s what happened when you came home early and didn’t send word ahead. No one came out to greet him so he dismounted, feeling the soreness in his joints from the long journey. An urgent honking dispelled his disappointment at finding no one to meet him and he hurried forward.


“Dewdrop! How you doin’ ya overgrowed duck?” He bent down and lifted the large goose into his arms, smoothing the snowy white feathers while the wide orange bill clacked near his ear contentedly.


He spent several minutes talking to the big gander until he noticed Scott and Johnny walking nonchalantly toward the hacienda from the barn.


“Hey, Johnny… Scott…” His face broke into a broad grin.


“Howdy, Jelly.” “Hello, Jelly.” The brothers called casually as they walked right by him on their way the hacienda, sauntering along for all the world like it hadn’t been a month of Sundays since they’d last seen him.


The grin faded as Jelly stared after them in disbelief. Those two rascals had barely even noticed he was there! “Oh, that’s right. Just walk right on by and don’t say nuthin’. Guess ya ain’t missed me none.”


Johnny and Scott halted immediately, swinging around to face him.


“Miss ya? Why? You been away somewhere, Jelly?” Johnny’s eyes sparkled with mischief.


Jelly knew that look, but rose to the bait anyway. “Well…I… Awww, ya know where I been! I been in Arizona visitin’ my sister. Reckon I shoulda stayed there.” He gave the boys a withering glare. “That ol’ tomcat of hers was more pleased to see me than you two smart alecks. Yer makin’ me feel ‘bout as welcome as a polecat at a picnic.” Jelly stomped off towards his room, grousing under his breath.


“Hey, Jelly!” Scott’s call stopped the older man in his tracks.


“What?” Jelly snapped.


Both brothers hurried over and stood on either side of him. Jelly took a step back, he knew they were planning something and didn’t want to be hemmed in. But in spite of his efforts, the boys were able to lean in close and both planted a loud wet kiss on his whiskered cheeks. They dissolved into laughter as Jelly became flustered.


“Awwww. Cut it out. Whadda ya think yer doin’… ya pair of…” Jelly spluttered.


“Course we missed you, ya old goat.” Johnny laughed as he slapped Jelly on the back hard enough to stagger the older man.


“Oh you, I oughta…” He stopped short at the sight of the blond haired boy who ran toward them.


Tommy looked Jelly up and down critically, elbowing Johnny in the ribs. “Hey, Johnny, who’s the old timer?”


Jelly’s spluttering increased. “Old timer?! Now see here…”


Scott hurried to smooth over this unfortunate observation. “Tommy, this is Jelly, the man I told you about. He’s a member of the family and a good friend, so you mind your manners and show him some respect. Jelly, this is Tommy, our little brother. He’s staying with us for a while.”


Little brother? Jelly stared from Scott to Johnny before holding out his hand, “Well, howdy there, Tommy. I’m pleased ta meet ya, boy.”


Tommy took his hand solemnly, “Howdy, Mr. Jelly.”


“That’s right, Tommy. Remember we talked about how you gotta show respect to the elders.” Johnny ruffled Tommy’s hair.


Jelly’s cheeks puffed in disgust. “Respect? Why a feller might as well look fer hair on a frog as to think he’ll see any respect outta you… Here, whatcha think yer lookin’ at ya worthless varmit?”


Johnny circled Jelly theatrically, examining him as critically as he would evaluate a bull at an auction. After a couple of circuits, he let out a long, low whistle. “Boy, Jelly, you sure put on some weight since ya been gone, huh?”


Jelly drew himself up to his full height. “I ain’t neither…button yer lip, boy!”


“Aww, Jelly, just means there’s more of you to love. Look at that big belly, huh, Scott?  Reckon it’s ‘cause he ain’t been doin’ any work?”


“Jelly, I have to agree with Johnny. You’ve grown soft.” Scott laughed as he poked a finger into Jelly’s stomach.


“And round! You’re gettin’ fat, old timer!” Johnny’s devilish grin flashed as he poked his own finger into Jelly’s stomach.


Jelly slapped their hands away, “I’ve heard enough of yer sass. Yer still a pair of no ‘count floppy eared dogies. Smart alecks, the both of ya! I ain’t put on a ounce, not one ounce, and I done more work there than the two of ya done here.”


“Yep. You been workin’ real hard on your needlework, ain’t ya. Your sister, she likes that sewin’, don’t she, Jelly? C’mon, show us what you made us.” Johnny held an imaginary needle and stitched the air exaggeratedly, laughing gleefully as he pranced around Jelly, stitching away.


Scott doubled over at his brother’s antics, thinking what a success Johnny could be on the stage. Jelly, too, for that matter. The older man feigned disgust, but Scott knew he secretly relished the attention.


Glancing back and forth between the three men, Tommy was unable to make sense of their conversation. Scott and Johnny seemed happy to see the old timer, and he looked like he was happy to see them, but he sure talked mean.


Jelly rounded on Johnny. “Oh, you… ya mangy coyote! Ya just think yer funny, doncha? Well let me tell ya, you ain’t too big for a whuppin’, boy. I hear any more cracks like that and I’ll cut me a switch and give you a reason to go prancin’ ‘round!”


Johnny was laughing to hard to reply, but he squeezed Jelly’s arm affectionately and the older man smiled fondly at him. Jelly enjoyed Johnny’s teasing and had missed it, not that he’d ever admit it to anyone. It was a game they played, Johnny tossing out more and more outrageous gambits while he responded with ever more ferocious threats. 


But for all his love of a tease, Johnny rarely carried it too far or chose the wrong subject. The boy had a real gift for reading folks and the compassion to use it wisely. Jelly found it difficult not to think of Johnny as another one of ‘his’ boys—the ragamuffins he’d found abandoned or orphaned and tried to help. He just wished he could have been around to help Johnny when the kid was struggling on his own.


But his feelings for Johnny ran much deeper and he thought of the young man as the son he’d never had. Johnny had a way of getting under your hide, of making you care about him. He was a boy any man would be proud to call son—with the notable exception of his own father!


The Boss was a fine man, but he sure had a burr under his saddle and wore a blindfold where his younger son was concerned. Murdoch cared about Johnny, Jelly was sure of it. But dern if the Boss didn’t act like he wished he didn’t.


Jelly’s eyes narrowed as he noticed the thin, pale face, the dark circles under the blue eyes. He made a mental note to ask Scott about it first chance he got. Johnny was off his feed and it was as plain as the ears on a mule that something was wrong. A high-pitched voice broke into his musings.


“Mr. Jelly. Mr. Jelly, come see… uh… come see the tricks I taught Lady to do!” Tommy grasped Jelly’s hand firmly and pulled him toward the barn.


Jelly looked back over his shoulder and waved at the laughing brothers. He had the peculiar sensation that Tommy was marching him to the barn like a father leading his son to the woodshed by the ear.


Johnny watched curiously as the two disappeared inside. “Wonder why Tommy was so all fired eager to get Jelly into the barn?”


“Maybe he wants to ask him questions!”


“Oh boy, Jelly ain’t got a chance.” Johnny enjoyed the joke for several more moments, and then straightened. “Reckon we got work to do before supper time, brother.”


“Oh, I figure you can be catching up with all of that work—while Tommy and I are catching supper!” Scott slapped Johnny on the back and headed into the hacienda, leaving his brother speechless.



Tommy herded Jelly into the big barn and turned to face him, gazing sternly up at the older man, small hands on his hips. “We gotta have us a talk, Mr. Jelly.”


“Well, boy, you got the floor.” Jelly couldn’t begin to guess what the boy was driving at.


Tommy tapped his foot impatiently and shook his finger in Jelly’s face. “I don’t know what ya got against Johnny, but it don’t matter. Nobody talks to my brother like that! Ya ain’t got no call to be mean to him or call him names like worthless varmit and mangy coyote. And don’t ya even think of givin’ him a lickin’! Ya ain’t got no right to hurt him, neither. Ain’t nobody ever learned ya no manners?”


Jelly stared down at Tommy in astonishment. Whoever this kid was, he had spirit and he was protecting Johnny something fierce. He decided he liked this boy.


“Well, young feller, seems to me that yer the one what needs to learn some manners. Reckon there’s two of ya with more sass than what’s good fer ya. Maybe I need to cut me two switches!”


Tommy glared up at him. “You’ll be sorry if ya try it! I mean it, Mr. Jelly. Ya best be leavin’ my brother alone.” Tommy’s belligerent tone carried a firm threat and he turned on his heel and stomped quickly out of the barn, leaving behind a stunned, but amused Jellifer Hoskins.


Jelly didn’t think he’d been away all that long, but apparently he’d been gone long enough for the head of the Lancer clan to somehow acquire another son—a feisty little hellion whose sassy high spirits and desire to protect the underdog resembled a certain Johnny Lancer. As if one weren’t enough trouble to have around the place! Jelly grinned broadly as he followed Tommy out of the barn. There was a story behind this kid and he couldn’t wait to hear it.



Later that evening after supper…


“Told me I’d be sorry. Looked like he meant it, too!” Jelly and Scott howled with laughter as Jelly described Tommy’s lecture on the proper way to speak to Johnny.


Jelly had wasted no time, demanding that Scott spill the whole story of Tommy as soon as Johnny piggy-backed the boy up to bed. It was every bit the tale he’d anticipated and he lost no time in letting Scott in on the rich joke of Tommy’s stern warning.


“He really is a great kid, Jelly.” Scott wiped his streaming eyes.


“Well, I could tell that. Lookin’ out fer Johnny like a momma bear with two cubs and a sore tail!” He leaned back in his chair, chortling at the image of an indignant Tommy, hands on hips and stern look on his face.


“What’s so funny?” Johnny walked into the room, grinning at Scott and Jelly. “Boy, I could hear the laughin’ all the way upstairs.” He settled himself on the big sofa next to the two men and waited expectantly to hear the joke.


“Never thought I’d see the day when Johnny Madrid needed a kid to protect him.” Jelly winked at Scott.


“Come again?” Johnny was bemused by the remark.


“That little Tommy warnin’ me off.” Jelly stood, mimicking the boy with hands on hips, lifting one hand to shake his finger under Johnny’s nose. “You’d best be leavin’ my brother alone, Mr. Jelly!” Jelly imitated Tommy’s voice.


“Is that what he said to you when he dragged you into the barn?” Johnny grinned from ear to ear.


“Sure did…had a real mean look in his eye, too. Told me I’d be mighty sorry if’n I was mean to you. I wouldn’t wanna go upsettin’ that little porcupine, I can tell ya!”


“No, you sure don’t. Scott paid a material price for doing just that. Didn’t ya brother?” Johnny shot a wicked glance at his brother.


“Now just whadda ya mean by that?” Jelly huffed.


“Go on, Scott. Tell Jelly about them plaid pants.”


“Ya mean them ridin’ pants? Them tenderfoot pants? What happened to ‘em? I thought we was gonna burn ‘em, Johnny.”


Johnny ignored Scott’s icy stare. “Tommy beat us to it, Jelly. Scott threatened to warm his pants and the kid wanted him to see what warm pants is like. So he held them fancy pants over the fire. Burned ‘em up real good.” He collapsed onto his side with laughter, joined by whoops of mirth from Jelly.


Scott gave the pair of them a dirty look. “It seems to me that the intrepid hero of our story is losing his position to a younger and tougher champion. Imagine that—the brave Prince needing to be rescued from the clutches of the…uh…the Evil Lord Grump! Valiantly saved by The Hope of the World.” Scott fixed his brother with a sly, triumphant grin.


Johnny blushed and smiled back shyly. “Maybe the Prince’s Magician needs to work up some stronger magic.”


“What the blazes is the pair of ya babblin’ on about?” Jelly was totally lost at this turn in the conversation as he reseated himself on the sofa.


Scott immediately laid his arm across Jelly’s shoulders. “Jelly, you wouldn’t know it to look at him, but it seems our Johnny boy is quite the story teller. He’s been telling Tommy some bedtime stories—tales of a mysterious dark haired Prince who rides a flying golden horse and owns a magic dragon. This trio spends their time saving The Hope of the World who resembles our fearless Tommy. Of course, they rely on magic from the handsome Magician…”


“Handsome?” Johnny interrupted.


“Yes, brother, very handsome. Tall and blond and he weaves his magic with a gallant charm and elegant flair that leaves the fair maidens swooning at his feet…”


“Oh, please…” groaned Johnny.


Scott laughed, placing his other arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Just say the word, brother and I’ll whip up a spell strong enough to keep that old timer at bay!”


Jelly stiffened as his part in the story suddenly dawned. “Old timer…Evil Lord Grump…well of all the darned blasted cheek…”


“Now, Jelly, you can’t blame me for that. Scott thought that one up all by himself!” Johnny flashed Scott a wicked smile.


“Much as I’d like to take the credit, brother, this is your story. The Hope of the World is simply defending his fallen hero against the latest threat to the Realm of the Bold!”


“Maybe I shoulda called it Camelot like that story you told me. The one ‘bout that King with the round table who wanted to use might for right. Then I could be like the knight in that story. What was his name? Oh, yeah! Sir Lancerlot.”


All three men laughed appreciatively and Johnny’s laugh turned into a broad yawn. “Tommy’s worn me out. I heard the story of every fish he caught today. Way he tells it, we must not have any fish left in the lake. Well, except for that one that got away. Think I’ll turn in. See you both bright and early.”


Jelly watched Johnny leave the room and turned to Scott. “Johnny’s off his feed, Scott. What’s goin’ on?”


Scott could see the concern on the older man’s face. “He’s worried about Tommy going home with his father. Johnny’s not as sure of Pete as Murdoch is. But more importantly, he just isn’t ready to let Tommy go. It’s really bothering him, Jelly.”


“He sure has let that kid get to him. I ain’t never seen Johnny so wound up. Even that little Alice didn’t have him wrapped ‘round her finger like Tommy does. But there’s more to it than that, Scott. I ain’t blind.”


Scott sighed; there was no hiding anything from Jelly where Johnny was concerned. Jelly dearly loved Johnny and wouldn’t stand to see him in trouble of any kind.


“His nightmares are back. It happens almost every night now, and worse, they’re making him physically sick. He’s miserable, not sleeping or eating properly. I’m worried, Jelly. You know what he’s like, refuses to acknowledge that he needs help.”


“Yeah, he’s as long-headed as a mule. What’s the Boss say?”


Scott shook his head. “He doesn’t know. Johnny won’t tell him and he won’t let me tell him, either.”


“And your Pa ain’t noticed. Dang that man! Where Johnny’s concerned he’s about as slow actin’ as wet gunpowder. But he oughta be told, Scott.”


“I hear you, Jelly. But Johnny is hiding it from Murdoch. He’s got his reasons for not wanting him to know. I don’t necessarily agree with them, but I gave him my word that I wouldn’t tell Murdoch. I’m hoping he’ll tell him himself and I’ve tried to encourage him to do just that.


“And to be fair to Murdoch, Jelly, he’s been staying with Tommy’s father. He hasn’t been here since the nightmares grew so serious so he hasn’t seen Johnny enough to notice.” Scott’s voice sounded more confident than he felt.


“I noticed it right off and you’da seen it, too. When it comes to Johnny, the Boss is so blind he couldn’t see through a barbwire fence. But he needs to know, Scott.” Jelly spoke firmly and locked eyes with the younger man for several long seconds.


"Well, reckon I’ll turn in, too. That stage ride to Morro Coyo loosened all of my hinges and bolts. See ya in the mornin’.” He walked away, leaving Scott to stare after him in frustration.


Scott knew Jelly was right, but Jelly wasn’t the one who would have to persuade Johnny to talk to Murdoch. And he wasn’t the one who had promised Johnny not to ‘spill the beans’ to his father. He couldn’t betray Johnny’s confidence, not even for this.  His brother’s trust meant too much to him.




The next afternoon…


“All right, old gal, won’t be too much longer now.” Jelly walked around the placid cow, rubbing his hand down the curly hair of her neck, slowly moving it lower.


He murmured reassuringly all the time, voice low and soothing until his hand finally felt the swollen belly. The sudden movement of a new life stirring beneath his fingers caused him to smile with satisfaction. The Boss would be pleased to know that these cows, bred especially in order to grade up the herd, were healthy, their unborn calves almost ready to enter the world.


A soft rustling noise drew his attention and he turned around to find Tommy standing by the barn door. The boy’s eyes were locked on the floor and he dragged his feet as though he was walking through molasses.


“Somebody swipe the cream offa yer milk, boy?”


Tommy glanced up at Jelly and quickly dropped his eyes before replying quietly, “No, sir.”


“Well, if yer face was any longer it’d be touchin’ the floor. What in tarnation’s got ya so sour?”


“Johnny… Johnny says I owe ya an ap…apa… I gotta say I’m sorry.”


“Oh, he did, did he?” Jelly grinned, unable to keep a straight face as the boy looked like a lamb being led to slaughter.


Tommy grinned back shyly. “Yeah. Johnny says you wuz only teasin’ ‘bout whuppin’ him an all. He says I gotta say I’m sorry for tellin’ you off and showin’ ya no respect. Johnny says we gotta respect our elders. So I’m sorry I called ya an old timer.”


“Well, boy, I may be gittin’ long in years, but my horns ain’t been sawed off yet. And doncha fergit it!”


“No, sir. Ain’t likely to.” Tommy took in a deep breath and continued. “Johnny says yer his friend and you’ll be my friend, too. So I’m sorry for dressin’ ya down, Mr. Jelly. I thought ya wuz bein’ mean to Johnny.”


“Well, I accept yer apology, Tommy. ’Pears to me like ya was just lookin’ out for Johnny.”


“Yes, sir. I wuz tryin’ too.”


“Well, if’n ya take care of all yer friends thataway, I’d be right proud to be one.”


“You’ll be my friend, Mr. Jelly?”


“You betcha, boy. And to show there ain’t no hard feelings, I’ll have a surprise for ya tomorrow.”


Tommy’s face lit up. “A surprise for me? Golly, thanks, Mr. Jelly.”


“Well, what ya waitin’ for? How ‘bout helpin’ this old timer do some young man’s work. I want them bales moved over here.” Jelly pointed at a stack of baled hay and walked towards them, Tommy at his heels.


“Sure, I’ll help, Mr. Jelly. Jelly, that’s a funny name! Where’d ya get it?” Tommy helped Jelly wrestle the first bale over to the cows. He never noticed that Jelly carried most of the weight.


“Ain’t nuthin’ funny about it. It’s short for Jellifer. Named after my Pa, I was and if it was good enough for him, I reckon it’s good enough for you.”


“Are ya really old, Mr. Jelly? You know, older than Uncle M?”


Jelly stopped in his tracks and turned an exasperated eye on Tommy. “I’m older than my teeth and younger than my soul. Does that answer yer question?”


Tommy had to think about that for a minute. He wasn’t sure what Jelly meant and still didn’t quite trust the older man’s gruff manner. It would be safer to ask Scott about it later. Yeah, that’s what he’d do. Scott knew everything and he’d know what Jelly meant. He grinned at Jelly as he thought of more questions. Scott said Jelly liked to answer questions and the old timer sure came up with some funny answers.


The relentless questions grew more troublesome to Jelly as time went on. The boy just never ran out of things to ask! He’d never seen such a curious kid.


“How come ya got a beard? Why does medicine taste so awful? Why do women insist on us men havin’ a bath? Why do dogs pant? Why does the cat make that funny purrin’ noise? Why won’t women let us taste the cookin’ ‘fore it’s done? Why did Johnny name his horse Barranca? Why does Scott use such big words? Why is Uncle M so tall? Why is Johnny so sad sometimes?”


The last question especially troubled Jelly. Johnny certainly was quiet at the moment. He seemed to have lost that spark of vitality that always left the rest of the world gasping for breath. Jelly was worried about his friend and wanted to help him, but the boy kept denying anything was wrong.


It’s that blasted legacy of years of self sufficiency. Johnny played a lone hand for most of his life and he don’t know how to accept help from anybody now. Tryin’ to talk to him about it won’t have no more effect than pourin’ water on a drowned rat.


But that boy is headin’ for trouble; plain as the nose on your face. I’ll tackle the Boss first chance I get. Johnny’ll listen to Murdoch.


The gentle tug on his sleeve jerked him back to Tommy’s festival of questions. “Huh?”


“Well, Mr. Jelly? Why don’t Scott and Johnny call Uncle M Pa?”


Tommy gazed at him earnestly and Jelly struggled to find an answer. Boy, this kid was hard work! His brain ached from the non-stop interrogation.


“Well, they’re both grown men. Reckon they can call him what they like!” He sank down on the last bale of hay, dragging his handkerchief over his flushed face. He had to find something else for the kid to do. The endless questions were driving him crazy. “Tommy, don’t ya ever git tired of askin’ the why and the wherefore of every little thing?”


“Gosh, no! My Pa says if ya never ask, ya won’t never find out. Don’t you like bein’ asked questions, Mr. Jelly? Scott said ya did!”


Just wait ‘til I git my hands on Mr. Scott Lancer!


“Well, I reckon yer Pa’s right about that, boy. Ya wanna know anythin’ just you ask me. And if you don’t like the answer ya get, well ya can always ask Scott. Matter of fact, seein’ how Scott knows so much, you oughta be askin’ him these same questions. Just ta be sure I give ya the right answers.” That should take care of Scott!


Tommy giggled and threw his arms around Jelly. “Ya know, Mr. Jelly, Johnny wuz right. Yer a great friend and I’m glad yer mine.”


Jelly returned the hug, fighting the sudden lump in his throat. Maybe the endless questions were a small price to pay for a special place in this child’s heart.



The next day, early evening…


Jelly turned the wooden gun over and over in his hands, admiring his handiwork. He’d carved late into the previous night to complete it and was proud of his craftsmanship.


Did a good job on this ‘un. Reminds me of the one I carved for Toogie. Oh, Toogie loved that gun. Hardly ever put it down. Tommy’ll like it. Wish he’d git on back here so’s I could give it to him!


He tucked the wooden gun deep into his pocket and paused to enjoy the sight of the brilliant array of colors branding the mountains with nature’s beauty. Sunset was his favorite time of day—the time when the earthy smells of the vegetable garden’s loam wafted across the courtyard with their promise of a hearty supper, the time when the crickets fiddled in the pasture while the fireflies flickered in the dusk. Peace descended on Lancer as the whole ranch seemed to exhale the day’s toil away. And Lordy was the view somethin’ special!


Two distant riders distracted him from the scenery and he tried to make out who they were, but his old eyes were taking longer to adjust as the sun slipped lower in the sky. As the riders drew nearer, Jelly recognized Scott and Tommy. Soon he’d be able to give Tommy the carved gun and hear all about Tommy’s attempts to rope calves. Scott and Cipriano took the boy with them that morning while Johnny headed up to South Mesa.


Jelly wished Johnny had ridden out with Scott. At least he was with some of the hands and not riding alone. The boy would be as mad as a rained on rooster if he thought anyone was trying to coddle him, but dern if he didn’t need it just now. And Scott could get away with watching him closer than anyone else.


Good ol’ Scott was always dependable. Jelly had to admit that he loved the soft-spoken Easterner, but Scott didn’t need love the way Johnny did. He was stronger emotionally than Johnny, didn’t let himself get all lathered up about things. And he didn’t believe that he was unworthy of love. At least Johnny had Scott to turn to. His father hadn’t offered him faith or trust and the kid really needed that from Murdoch.


Dern Murdoch Lancer anyhow! What was wrong with the man? He had two fine sons, one he openly trusted and respected while the younger, the one most needing his attention; he still treated like a stranger. The Boss pushed Johnny harder and harder. Seemed like every time the boy did something right, his father expected more out of him and gave nothing in return. Johnny deserved better. The problem was Murdoch’s refusal to let go of his pain. Until he did, he wouldn’t be able to do right by his son.


Jelly straightened and stretched, his back protesting the length of time he’d been bent double greasing the axles of the wagon. There was a time when stoopin’ over that way wouldn’t have bothered him a’tall, but he was starting to feel the years creeping up on him.


Course he wouldn’t admit that. Not to anyone. They’d be calling him ‘Old Timer.’ He grinned to himself, remembering Tommy’s apology.


 “Mr. Jelly! Mr. Jelly!” The excited voice floated across the corral.


“Speak of the devil,” Jelly grumbled to himself, despite the warmth he felt as the boy’s footsteps grew ever closer. Tommy skidded to a halt and Jelly looked the dust covered boy over thoughtfully. “There a posse after ya, boy?”


Tommy looked over his shoulder and then back at Jelly, grinning widely. “No, sir! I think I lost ‘em… You said to come look for ya. You promised me a surprise. You didn’t fergit did ya, Mr. Jelly?”


“Surprise? I promised you a surprise?” Jelly’s heart melted at the look of disappointment on the child’s face. “Oh, yeah. Now let me think. I had it a minute ago.” Jelly pretended to search his pockets as Tommy’s eyes followed his hands intently until they both disappeared behind his back.


Tommy looked up into Jelly’s eyes expectantly. Jelly leaned forward and whispered into Tommy’s ear. “You didn’t wash behind them ears this morning. Just look what’s hidin’ amongst all that dirt.” As if by magic, Jelly produced the carved toy from behind Tommy’s ear.


Tommy’s eyes grew wide with excitement. “Golly, Mr. Jelly! How’d ya do that? You didn’t really pull that outta my ear, did ya? Is it really for me? Oh boy, it’s a beauty! Thanks.”


Jelly flushed with pleasure at the boy’s delight, a broad smile lighting his face.


Tommy examined the gun closely, his finger tracing the lines reverently. “Gosh, it’s just like a real one.” He pushed the gun into his pants and stood face to face with Jelly.


Jelly watched in amusement as the boy transformed before his eyes, seemingly growing a few inches as he straightened his back, smoothly pulling back his shoulders and squaring his posture. His head tilted slowly upwards, eyes narrowing and boring into Jelly as his right hand hovered beside his ‘gun,’ fingers flexing menacingly. It was a picture perfect child’s reenactment of a gunfighter.


“I been lookin for ya, Mister. My name’s Madrid…Johnny Madrid.” Tommy growled each word in an evil tone and Jelly shivered as the meaning suddenly registered.


“J… Johnny Madrid?”


“That’s right, Mister. I’m the fastest there is. Now slap leather, hombre!” Tommy drawled coldly, enjoying playing this role.


Jelly knelt, hands on Tommy’s shoulders. “Why Johnny Madrid, boy?”


“Golly, Mr. Jelly. Everbody knows Johnny Madrid.” Tommy stared at him in confusion. “He’s the fastest gun there is. He’s my hero!”


Jelly’s mind raced. He couldn’t believe Johnny had told Tommy about his previous life. Johnny hated it when any of the kids tried to look up to him because of his reputation. He didn’t keep the Madrid years a secret, but he didn’t talk about them, either.


“You mean Johnny told ya about…about how he used to be Johnny Madrid?”


Tommy couldn’t believe what he’d just heard and struggled to comprehend what Jelly was saying.


Johnny is Johnny Madrid? My Johnny? That’s how come he wears his gunbelt strapped down tight and low on the leg. But Jelly looked real surprised when he thought I knew…


And I didn’t know! Johnny never said a word, nobody told me. Maybe it was supposed to be a secret… But I know now. I’m gonna spring it on Johnny when we’re alone and the time is right.


Golly… Johnny Madrid! I can’t believe it. My brother is the great gunfighter. Maybe Johnny’ll show me how to draw a gun!


He saw the uncertain look on Jelly’s face and decided to pretend he’d known all along. “Sure. I know all about it.” Tommy turned on his heels and ran towards the hacienda, calling over his shoulder. “Thanks, Mr. Jelly.”


Jelly watched Tommy disappear with a growing sense of unease. Why would Johnny tell Tommy about Johnny Madrid? Tommy looked up to Johnny Lancer, not Johnny Madrid. Johnny wouldn’t want that…




The next morning…


Barranca stamped his forefoot and snorted, but the brush continued to swipe over his shining coat where the thin skin was irritated from the vigorous currying. The golden head tossed in annoyance as the palomino sought to gain the attention of the man wielding the brush. The horse was confused; the man had never ignored him like this before. When the now-painful strokes continued, Barranca snaked his muzzle around and nipped at the hand holding the brush.


“Whoa!” Johnny jumped about a foot at the unexpected nip, startling the gelding who responded by lashing out with both hind feet.


“Easy. Easy, fella.” The gentle hand stroked the trembling neck and Barranca blew a big snort and turned his head to Johnny, long forelock giving him a deceptively innocent appearance.


“Sorry, fella. Didn’t mean to spook you.” He reached down and retrieved the fallen brush. “Too hard, huh?” Johnny ruefully kissed the reddened tooth marks on his fingers.


The velvet muzzle rubbed against his chest and Johnny patted his horse between his eyes. “No hard feelings, okay?” He gave the broad forehead a final pat and leaned against his four legged friend’s neck, trying in vain to stretch his aching muscles.


He was stiff and sore, as stove up as if he’d taken a toss off a whole string of broncs. Johnny couldn’t remember the last proper night’s sleep he’d had. The nightmare rousted him at three this morning and he wouldn’t go back to sleep, didn’t want to face the dreams again.


His body was paying the price for the lack of sleep, his head and stomach hurt and he was short tempered and touchy. Seemed like the least little thing made him jumpy and nervous. Spookin’ Barranca like he didn’t know any better! And he’d almost bitten Maria’s head off earlier when she surprised him in the kitchen and repeatedly urged him to let her fix him breakfast.


How could he tell her that his stomach revolted at the thought of food? She would have Sam Jenkins at the ranch faster than he could say Johnny Madrid. Irrationally annoyed at her concern, he managed to hold his tongue…just. He’d come within a whisker of snapping at her and Maria didn’t deserve that.


Barranca didn’t either. Damn the dreams! They were holding him hostage and the people he cared about were paying the price.


He didn’t realize that even as his nerves were on edge, his vaunted sixth sense was sluggish and weary. Johnny didn’t hear the silent feet creeping ever closer and remained oblivious to the gun pointed at his unprotected back.


“Reach, Madrid!” The voice startled him as he felt the jab of the gun in the small of his back.


The reaction was purely instinctive, born of unfailing confidence in his ability. Johnny’s hand flew to his pistol as he dove sideways, spinning to face his unknown foe, the gun appearing like magic in his hand, hammer back and ready to fire off the fatal shot. The sight that met his eyes chilled him to the marrow.


“GOLLY, Johnny! That’s the neatest thing I ever seen.” Tommy stood in wide-eyed awe, a carved wooden gun clutched tightly in his hand.


The Colt fell from nerveless fingers as Johnny sank to his knees, limp with horror. “Tommy! Tommy!” he pulled Tommy into his arms, holding the boy tightly as he cursed himself repeatedly for what he had done and what he had so nearly done.


I drew a gun on a seven-year old boy! Came a fraction of a second from pullin’ the trigger. Oh God, I nearly killed him…


Anger and shame assailed him as he berated himself. Self-loathing choked his soul and his heart quavered with the knowledge that this was another ghost to torment him, thanks to the damn gun strapped around his hips.


The image of Tommy standing there so innocently, even as his finger tightened on the trigger, would haunt him forever. A child! He’d come so close. Too close. He warred with the nausea that roiled in his gut.


Tommy returned the hug, elation surging through his veins.


I saw Johnny Madrid in action! Johnny’s even faster than I imagined! Wait ‘till I tell my friends about this. I’m Johnny Madrid’s BROTHER.


“Johnny, are ya really Johnny Madrid? Jelly says ya are. Golly, Johnny, he’s my hero. How come ya never told me?” Tommy’s voice was filled with awe and it slashed into Johnny like a knife.


Johnny eased his trembling body onto the floor and pulled Tommy close beside him, arms wrapped tightly, protectively around the boy. His heart still thudded painfully and he struggled to control his quivering voice. “I used to be Johnny Madrid, Tommy. I’m Johnny Lancer now.”


“How many men you killed, Johnny?” Tommy’s brown eyes glistened with admiration and excitement.


Johnny couldn’t meet that adoring gaze so he closed his eyes and hung his head. How could he make Tommy understand?


“My friend, Jimmy Baker, he knows a boy that’s got a book ‘bout you. That book says ya killed fifty-two men! Is that really right? Is it? Wuz they really bad men, Johnny? Wuz they fast?”


“Fif… fifty-two?” Who wrote those damn things anyway?


Tommy nodded vigorously. “That’s what the book says, Johnny. Is it right? Is it?”


Johnny swallowed hard. “Tommy, it don’t matter how many men I took down. Even one is one too many. Killin’ ain’t somethin’ to be proud of, to gloat over, to count like you’re keepin’ score in a game. Every time I had to watch the light die out of a man’s eyes, a part of me died with him.


“That book makes me into some kind of a hero, but knowin’ how to use my gun don’t make me no hero. That book, Tommy…it’s just a pretend story, like them stories I tell you at night and the myths Scott told you about.”


“But you ain’t no pretend story, Johnny. Golly, you’re fast! Wait’ll I tell Jimmy Baker.” He smiled worshipfully at his idol. “I’m gonna be fast as you one day.”


Johnny shivered uncontrollably and shouted. “NO YOU AIN’T!”


He yanked Tommy closer to him and shook him, fighting for control and continuing in a softer voice. “No, you ain’t, Tommy. You’re gonna grow up with your Pa; learn to make a livin’ from the land, not by the gun. And you’re gonna get schoolin’ so you’ll know things like Scott does.” He looked into the brown eyes, huge now with fright, and pulled the boy to his chest, hugging him hard.


“Oh, Tommy, I’d give anything, anything to change what I am…what I was. Every day I wish I’d had the chance to grow up here at Lancer with Murdoch and Scott, be a rancher like I am now. That’s all I want to be. Don’t you admire me for how I use a gun, Tommy!”


He released his tight hold on the boy, sitting him back up beside him. “You liked me before you knew I was fast with a gun, ain’t that right?”


“Sure, Johnny.” Tommy sensed his friend’s emotional turmoil and wanted to chase the sadness from his face.


“Why, Tommy? Why did you like me?”


“’Cause you… ya wuz my friend when I needed ya. You’re my brother. Ya brung me here and you make me laugh and you tell me stories. And ya always give me the last piece of cake, even if it’s Scott’s.”


Johnny managed a slight smile. “Yeah? Well, that’s how I want you to think of me. And you know what? Them things got nuthin’ to do with me bein’ good with a gun.


“Havin’ a gun don’t make you a man. My Pa taught me that, Tommy. You’re gonna have a good life with your Pa. If I could, I’d trade just one day growin’ up with my Pa for all the years I was Johnny Madrid.”


Tommy thought hard about Johnny’s words, staring at the wooden gun in his hand. He wanted to know more about Johnny Madrid, but the sadness in his friend’s eyes concerned him. He didn’t like to seeing that look on Johnny’s face and knowing he was the cause. Maybe they could talk about Johnny Madrid another time. Right now, he needed to wipe away Johnny’s sorrowful expression.


Tommy slowly laid the carved gun in the hay beside the Colt and smiled into Johnny’s eyes. “Ya wanna know who my real hero is, Johnny?”


“Sure, Tommy.”


“You, Johnny! Johnny Lancer.”


Johnny smiled weakly, pulling Tommy closer.


“Who’s your hero, Johnny?”


Staring into the trusting, expectant eyes Johnny thought about the three men he looked up to, respected, and loved. They would ignore a little white lie, wouldn’t they?


“You, Tommy! Tommy Adams.”



Scott strode purposefully toward the barn, Maria’s anxious voice ringing in his ears. Her concern this morning was the same as the last several days—one Johnny Lancer. His brother refused a meal yet again and Maria gave Scott an earful as soon as he entered the kitchen. Scott struggled to reassure Maria without the benefit of his morning coffee, but nothing was going to put her mind at rest.


And to make matters worse, Tommy also failed to show up at the breakfast table. One missing brother was bad enough, but two! Scott knew if he found one he’d find the other so he headed off in search of both. He’d never get to eat his breakfast in peace until he found them.


Voices drifted from the half-open barn door and Scott quickened his pace, stopping short at the sight of Johnny on his knees hugging Tommy tightly. He couldn’t see Johnny’s face, but he knew how to read his brother’s body language and something was wrong. Tommy’s words confirmed his suspicions. How did the boy find out about Johnny Madrid? Scott carefully backed out of sight, some instinct telling him to stay close as he listened guiltily to their conversation.


He cringed at the pain in Johnny’s voice and the hero worship in Tommy’s, heart aching for Johnny. His brother didn’t need this right now. Pride surged in his breast as Johnny explained why Tommy shouldn’t seek to emulate Madrid. Tommy’s reaction was a welcome surprise and Scott breathed a sigh of relief when Johnny finally sent Tommy to the kitchen for breakfast.


As soon as Tommy walked out, Scott entered the barn in time to see Johnny slump to the floor, retching into the bedding of Barranca’s stall.


Softly closing the door, Scott hurried to his brother’s side, slipping a supporting arm around the heaving shoulders. Startled, Johnny looked up at Scott and for a brief few seconds accepted the comfort. Then he violently pulled himself away, standing and stumbling to where his gun lay. Scott watched as Johnny snatched it up and jammed it into the holster.


Scott stood slowly, eyes locked on his brother. “I heard what you said to Tommy…”


Johnny interrupted in a trembling voice. “I drew on him, Scott! He surprised me…stuck a gun in my back and I pulled my gun on him. My God, I nearly killed that kid.”


Scott battled the sudden white-hot rush of fury that swept over him then, anger at Johnny, anger at God. He couldn’t let Johnny know just how horrified he was. They had come so close to a tragedy and if he’d actually shot Tommy, Scott didn’t believe Johnny would be able to bear it.


He said a silent prayer of thanks while at the same time bitterly questioning God about how he could let such a terrible thing happen. Thank heaven Johnny hadn’t pulled the trigger. How in the world did Tommy get close enough to surprise Johnny? His brother just didn’t make mistakes like that­—a butterfly couldn’t sneak up on Johnny.


The blue eyes peered directly into his eyes now, searching for any sign of revulsion and the thing Johnny feared most, rejection. Scott forced his feet to move toward his brother, expecting him to back away. But Johnny stood still, maintaining eye contact. Scott folded him into his arms, hugging him hard and ignoring the angry words spinning through his head.


He whispered softly, “But you didn’t.”


Scott felt Johnny shudder and held him tighter. “Tommy’s fine, just fine. Now you’ve got to put this behind you, Johnny. You’d never hurt that boy. I know that. Don’t punish yourself any more. Don’t let this come between you and Tommy, he needs you.” Scott steered Johnny to a convenient hay bale and pulled him down onto it.


“Scott, I adjusted the action on that gun myself. It has a hair trigger and my finger was on it. If I had breathed wrong, Tommy would be dead. Dead!”


“But you didn’t, Johnny. You could’ve shot him, but you didn’t. Just settle down.” Scott could still hear his own heartbeat echoing in his head and his command was as much to himself as to his brother. He heard Johnny take a deep breath and sat quietly, letting Johnny bring himself under control.


The two sat in silence for several minutes until Scott felt Johnny was ready to talk about the incident. “All right, brother, how in the world did Tommy get close enough to surprise you?”


Johnny’s eyes were fixed on his boots and he shook his head. “I don’t know, Scott. I was foolin’ with Barranca and I never heard him until he stuck that toy in my back and told me to reach.”


“Uh huh. Do you think it might have anything to do with the fact that you’re so tired you’re about to fall over?”


“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.” Johnny glared at his brother.


“Sure you do. I’m talking about the nightmares, brother—the ones that keep you from sleeping. And I’m talking about you, the bottomless pit, not eating. Don’t think you’ve hidden it, because Maria and Jelly are both all over me with how worried they are about you. It’s pretty bad when it gets to the point that a seven-year-old can sneak up on you.”




“Johnny, do you have any idea of what it’s like to watch you battle those dreams night after night? It’s getting worse, not better. Jelly says you’re as jumpy as a drop of water on a hot skillet and that just about sums it up. If you were yourself, Tommy would have never gotten anywhere near you.”


“I’m sorry, Scott. I…I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t mean to keep you awake at night, too.” The dark head bowed in defeat.


Scott pulled him close. “I don’t mind staying awake with you, Johnny. You know I want to help any way I can. But talking to me isn’t helping your nightmares. I don’t know what to do about it, either, but you know what I think you need to do.”


“I can’t, Scott! Don’t you understand that I can’t? I can’t tell him. I don’t want Murdoch to know.” Johnny leaped to his feet and began pacing frantically. “You promised me that you wouldn’t tell him. You promised!”


“And I meant it. I won’t say anything to Murdoch if you don’t want me to. But I still think you need to talk to him.” He paused as Johnny shook his head vehemently. “I know you don’t want to, but what is the worst that can happen?”


Johnny turned away, hugging himself tightly, shoulders hunched and head bowed. Scott closed his eyes and took a deep breath.


“If he can’t handle it, at least you’ll know, Johnny. You won’t have to wonder anymore.” Scott walked to the forlorn figure and firmly led him back to the hay bale.


“Sooner or later you’re going to have to talk to Murdoch, little brother. This is eating you alive and either Maria or Jelly is bound to say something to him.” He patted the tense shoulder.


“And I still say Murdoch will surprise you. I know the two of you have had your differences, but I know he cares about you, Johnny. He just doesn’t know how to show it. One of you has to take the chance and talk about it.”


“I’m not ready to talk to him, Scott.” Johnny whispered.


“Okay, okay. Will you at least talk to Dr. Jenkins?”


“Are you crazy? He’ll go straight to Murdoch!”


“He won’t if you ask him not to.”


“You don’t believe that any more than I do.” Johnny nodded when Scott couldn’t meet his eyes.


“Look, Scott, I just need a little more time to work this out. I’ll figure it out if you’ll give me a chance.” He saw Scott straighten, read the resistance in the handsome face. “C’mon, Scott. Just give me a week, okay? Just a week. If it ain’t any better by then, I’ll… I’ll talk to Sam.” He focused his most persuasive expression on his brother.


Scott knew he was lost the second that pleading gaze turned on him and his deep sigh signaled resignation. “One week? You’re giving me your word you’ll talk to Sam?”




“All right. One week.” He swallowed. “But the gun comes off around Tommy.”


“What do you mean?”


“I mean that you don’t wear that gun around the house and barn. I’m not taking the chance that Tommy might surprise you again. We got lucky today. Either the gun comes off or no deal.” Scott steeled himself to hold firm and watched as Johnny battled with himself.


Finally, Johnny unbuckled his gunbelt and handed it to Scott.


Scott walked over to Barranca’s stall and hung the gunbelt over Johnny’s saddlehorn. “I don’t mean take it off entirely, brother. Just don’t wear it around here. You might need it out on the range. Guess we have a deal.”


Johnny was absorbed in making shapes in the hay on the barn floor with his toe. “Yeah.”


“Well, I’m starved. Maria sent me off to find you before I even got coffee. Join me for breakfast? You need to eat something.”


“I guess.” Johnny didn’t move, still standing with his head down.


Scott walked over and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You were great with Tommy, Johnny. You said just the right things to him about wanting to be as fast as Johnny Madrid. I’m proud of the way you handled that and I know Tommy listened to you.”


“You really think so?” Johnny’s eyes searched Scott’s face.


“Yes. I can only imagine how hard that was for you, but you rose to the challenge.”


“He really threw me goin’ on and on about wantin’ to be just like Johnny Madrid. I reckon it’s time for him to go home.”


“We won’t let him go home too soon, brother. But that time is coming and thanks to you, Tommy is going to be all right.” Scott ruffled Johnny’s hair. “Now let’s go eat.”


Johnny nodded and walked beside Scott toward the door of the barn.


Scott glanced sideways at his brother. Johnny was still subdued, eyes on the ground. “About the book Tommy’s friend has…”


Johnny stopped. “What about it?”


Scott grinned at him. “Those fifty-two men? That number seemed to bother you. What about it, brother?”


The sapphire eyes scorched him and Scott bit back a chuckle. Thank goodness he wasn’t afraid of his brother!


“Scott… I swear, one of these days…”Johnny broke off and studied Scott’s face closely. “You want to know why that number shook me?”


“Tell me!”


“Fifty-two! Once, just once I wish one of those stories would get it right. Fifty-two! They always forget about the ‘Duel in Deadwood.’ It’s fifty-six, damn it!”


It took a second for Scott to realize Johnny was kidding. Then he shook his head and laughed, relieved when Johnny joined him.


His stomach suddenly rumbled loud enough to draw a suspicious snort from Barranca. Their eyes met and Scott seized his irreverent sibling in a headlock, dragging him toward the kitchen.


“Well, while you were Dueling in Deadwood, I was Languishing at Lancer. If you don’t get some food and coffee into me soon, your total is going to be fifty-seven, Mr. Madrid, sir!”



Part One
Part Two
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
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