Dedicated to Jack Schaefer. Like Johnny, he was the very best at his profession…
The two dead men rode in from opposite ends of town. The journey down that deserted main street must’ve stretched into eternity, but on they came; riding slowly, resigned to their fate. I’d waited for this moment for what seemed like half my life and I watched them with eager anticipation, reveling in the way their eyes darted from each other to him. The killer.
He sat alone in a rocking chair on the front porch of the hotel. He wasn’t a big man, but at that moment his presence filled the entire street. My sister said later that it was as if he’d donned a cloak of killing frost. The danger rolled off of him in waves and I could feel the chill that seeped from his deadly persona like icy particles suspended in the air.
He was utterly still except for the rhythmic movement of that rocker and his eyes. Those eyes. You never saw eyes like his. They could change in a blinking instant from the laughing clear blue of a glorious spring day to the flat frozen slate of the polar ice cap. One minute you could read an entire Dickens novel in his eyes. The next, the only recognizable word was ‘death’.
They were restless eyes that endlessly searched his surroundings and missed nothing. If a horsefly flapped its wings, he knew it. But when he gave you his attention, that restlessness disappeared. Then, they were still and intense and the tiny lines around them crinkled. He had the trick of making a casual glance seem to focus every fiber of his being on you.
My sister said he had the most eloquent – and saddest – eyes she’d ever seen. She said his eyes caused her heart to skip a beat. Now, they made mine skip a beat, too – but for entirely different reasons, as I came to understand when I grew a bit older and discovered the fairer sex.
That morning he watched the two men with the predatory gaze of a raptor. I can’t describe the look in his eyes. I’d never seen anything like it before. Just imagine how a hungry hawk would regard a nest of plump ground squirrels. Remembering it still raises the hair on the back of my neck.
The silence of the grave hung over the street, a silence so heavy I could feel it pressing on the little hairs on my arms. It was broken only by the measured creak of the rocking chair and soft plop of the horses’ hooves. The smell of eggs and bacon drifted from the hotel kitchen. But I sensed a stronger, more pungent odor and fancied it must be the reek of fear from the men trudging toward their doom.
I swear I could hear their hearts thundering in time with my own, galloping like a runaway horse. They halted facing each other, directly in front of the hotel. I could see the sweat beading on their foreheads. Marvin rested his hand on his saddle horn, but that movement couldn’t hide the tremor in his fingers. Jencks chewed the inside of his cheek and swallowed over and over.
They exchanged accusing, forlorn comments and turned toward the killer. There was a reluctant acceptance in their faces. They’d ridden into town fully aware that they might be gunned down. But each had secretly hoped to discover a way to cheat death.
Now, as they turned to face the frightening specter on the porch, I could see their last shreds of hope wither. Marvin and Jencks knew his gun carried bullets engraved with their names. They stared at him with a kind of horrified fascination.
He stood then, a deft, fluid movement of indescribable grace and deadliness. He took a measured step to stand at the porch railing. I heard the chime of his spurs when he moved, but not his footsteps. You could listen as hard as you knew how, but you couldn’t hear him move. The ring of his spurs was the only sound at that moment. It was as though the entire world held its breath, hanging on what his next words would be. His voice came out as a soft drawl, pitched low, and fraught with menace.
Remembering it still sends shivers up my spine. But at the time, I ate up the wide eyes and sharp inhalations from Marvin and Jencks, ravenous to taste their terror. They stared at him, scared spitless at the very softness of that voice. I know my mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton balls - and he was working for me!
He stood at the porch railing, straight and splendid and deadly. He was the most magnificent thing I’d ever seen. He seemed totally relaxed. But relaxed isn’t exactly correct. You see, despite his easy stance, there was an air of tension about him. It reminded me of that coiled spring inside the jack-in-the-box Pa bought me for my fifth birthday. One second everything was still and the music played merrily. The next, the spring unwound in a movement too swift for your eye to follow. And I stood there in the dim lobby of that hotel and hoped until I ached that I’d see his spring unwind.
He wore a black kidskin glove on his left hand. On his hand, that piece of leather was the most sinister thing I’d ever seen. He stood there; left arm bent at the elbow and gloved hand at his waist. His fingers flexed – slowly, purposefully, opening slightly, then closing back to a loose fist. My knees threatened to buckle at every suggestive flick of those long fingers. I wondered just how many men had died with the vision of those black-gloved supple fingers forever burned into their brains. And I desperately wished to witness his latest two victims fall to the gunfire triggered by that lethal glove.
His rig surprised me. You always hear about gunslicks wearing fancy tooled cartridge belts with silver buckles and ivory or pearl-handled revolvers. And notches for every man they’ve killed carved into those handles. He was partial to flash, too. You could see it in his stunning concho belt, silver studded leather vaquero pants, carved band ring, and cunningly crafted spurs. But none of his flashy embellishments touched his rig.
His gunbelt had no tooling. It was smooth and supple, cut by a master craftsman out of rich, deep brown leather and it hugged his slim hips, riding just below his hip bone on the left and sweeping down to a hand-crafted holster on his right leg. That holster nestled snugly against his thigh and he tied it down with a rawhide thong. It had been worked and hardened to smooth slickness on the inside to release the Colt without the slightest resistance. It hung low, so when he relaxed his gun arm with his elbow slightly bent, his fingers brushed the polished wood grip.
Not the tiniest scratch, and certainly no notches, marred the silky finish on that gun butt. But despite their lack of ostentation, there wasn’t any doubt about what he was, what he could do with that gun. The very sight of him commanded respect. Every confident line of him spoke of the kind of pride a man has when he knows he’s good at his trade. And seeing him with that gun left no doubt that he was the very best at his profession. You couldn’t imagine him without that gun because it was part of him – a man and a weapon joined forever into an inseparable deadliness.
I crouched in that dim lobby, eyes glued on the tableau in front of me, afraid to breathe. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. I drank in the catlike menace of his every fluid move, lost in the quiet, inevitable lethality of the consummate gunman. He was the kind of man I yearned to be.
How I wanted to be just like him someday, but I knew I never could be. Oh, I had the quick wit and ready laughter, even the easy, sure way with my fellows that could make most anybody a friend. But I didn’t have his dashing good looks, the elusive spark of vitality that somehow radiated from within, that underlying reckless courage, or the preternatural reflexes, that marvelous coordination of hand and eye. I just didn’t have a dangerous bone in my body and every single inch of him was chock full of danger.
I held my breath and watched him, waiting for him to right my great wrong. I laugh now, wondering how I could have been so naïve. But I was young, just a kid, and life was simple because black was black and white was white. I truly believed he could make all right with my world with two simple pulls of the trigger of his legendary gun. Marvin and Jencks had killed my Pa. So my killer would kill them and Dorrie and I would get our place back and… and… See, I hadn’t thought beyond that. I just knew with the simple certainty of childhood that vengeance was the answer.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You must be wondering what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a story I’ve never told anyone before. Despite my fame, these facts aren’t known beyond a handful of people.
I’ve kept silent all these years, partly because this was a precious and oh, so fleeting time in my life and I selfishly had no wish to share it. Mostly, I didn’t talk about it out of consideration for him – an intensely private and humble man singled out by a perverse whim of fate to become one of the most storied, celebrated, and colorful legends in the history of our great country’s frontier days. That his name is forever associated with his unmatched prowess with a gun – and not the inner spiritual qualities that made him the greatest man I’ve ever known is a wrenching, unjust tragedy. But, as he would say, “Life goes on.”
If I do as you ask me to, this story will come to light. So I share it with you now to ensure the whole story is truly told. Perhaps these facts will help you add another chapter to his thrilling saga, one that exalts the virtues that made him a good man instead of a great gunman. For he exhibited an important attribute of the fine men we label as “salt of the earth” types – he made a difference in the lives he touched. Any man who hired his gun affected lives, but that isn’t what I mean. I’m talking about a positive, affirming influence – the kind of life-changing impact he had on me.
I’m not ashamed of anything that happened. Indeed, it’s important for you to realize that the qualities and beliefs that make me the beloved “man of the people” can be traced directly to the time when I tried to make my own law and sought justice by hiring a killer.
You’ve heard about my roots, how we homesteaded some prime bottomland with good water holes near a little town called McCall’s Crossing. How my Ma died and left Pa to take care of my sister, Dorrie, and me. Pa and I made a good living on our place. Our success brought others looking for land. Trouble was, the land they wanted to claim cut up the grazing for the two big cattle ranchers in the area, Dan Marvin and Toby Jencks.
When the homesteaders started fencing off their waterholes, Marvin and Jencks started to play rough. They increased their number of cowhands and plenty of those men didn’t know beans about cows, but they sure could shoot. Windows were shot out, some homes were even shot up, cattle trampled over crops, livestock ended up scattered or dead, a few barns burned, and fences were cut. Oh, nobody got hurt. But folks were restless and scared and the sheriff pretended there wasn’t anything he could do.
So my Pa organized things. He set up schedules for watches, wrote petitions for folks to sign, and figured out how to legally keep those ranchers off the land they didn’t own, but wanted to use for nothing. Then one day Marvin and Jencks rode into our yard leading Pa’s horse with Pa face down across his saddle. His neck was broken. They claimed he’d been dragged by his horse.
My sister accepted their story. She took their money and agreed to move to the smaller place they offered. But I didn’t agree. I knew they’d surprised and murdered Pa to halt the resistance. In time, I came to understand that Dorrie was in a difficult position with few choices and made the one she thought best for me. But when Pa was killed I rankled at what I perceived as “knuckling under” to Marvin and Jencks. Sure enough, without Pa’s leadership the other homesteaders backed down. The ranchers got what they wanted. Life went on.
Except I felt as though I’d swallowed some kind of bitterness pill. A black rage festered inside me, gnawing at my bowels. Thoughts of vengeance consumed me. Yet my sister took her hairbrush to my bottom when I tried to talk to her about it. And that old fool of a sheriff just patted me on the head and wouldn’t even listen.
So I decided to take care of things myself. At first, I thought I’d gun them down. The problem was that the only gun I had was Pa’s old shotgun. And the firing pin on it was broken. So I went to Plan B. I borrowed Dorrie’s housekeeping money and caught the stage to Sacramento.
I talked to the sheriff in Stockton and the marshal in Sacramento and they both laughed at me. To tell the truth, they each tried to bundle me onto a stage for home, threatening to dust my britches. But I’ve always been a persistent little cuss and I was able to squidge out of there. I’d spent nearly all of my money, though, and couldn’t afford a stage ticket anywhere. I was finally able to hitch a ride as far as Green River on a freight wagon driven by a crusty old man.
I did quite a bit of thinking on that wagon. The driver did quite a bit of drinking. He was a jovial sort and I told him my side of the story. Complained about how the law was for big men, men with money and power. Whined about how life just wasn’t fair.
That old driver laughed until he cried. Then he laughed some more. I wanted to knock him off of the seat, but he just kept snickering. He was a regular laughing hyena.
“What’s fair got to do with anything? Hell boy, it’s just the way things are. Don’t you know life ain’t fair?”
We talked some more and I asked him what he’d do if he were me. He thought about that for awhile, spit out a huge wad of tobacco juice, looked me square in the eye, and gave me the answer. I listened to him talk about how we still lived in a time when a gun could buy justice. Right then and there, I knew what I had to do. I had to find a killer who would make those murdering devils pay.
Yes sir, I’d find a real hot gun that’d come back to McCall’s Crossing and stand up to Marvin and Jencks and their gunhawks. Only problem was that hired guns cost money and I had the grand total of $1.37 in my pocket. But like I said before, I was just a kid so I didn’t worry too much. I just started walking out of Green River, knowing I’d figure out a plan.
Well, I tramped across country for three days without seeing a blessed soul, just lots and lots of cattle. I was dirty, hot, exhausted, and starving. If my gun worked, I could’ve had beefsteak. Well, I should say I could’ve shot a beeve, but the blade on my pocket knife was broken, too, so I wouldn’t have been able to cut a steak, even if I’d shot a cow.
Then I saw him – the most beautiful golden palomino horse you ever did see. He was glorious, pretty as a painting with a flowing white mane and tail. He stood patiently; ground tied at the top of one of the shallow barrancas that criss-crossed the area. I thought about how it would feel to ride a magnificent animal like that, what I wouldn’t give to own him… That’s when I got the idea.
I’d ride away on that beautiful horse and I’d sell him. What man wouldn’t want to own a horse like that? Why I could probably get hundreds of dollars for that horse. I’d take the money, hire a killer, and when Dorrie and I got our place back, I’d pay the horse’s owner. That way it wouldn’t be stealing. After all, I wasn’t a horse thief.
So I snuck up to the rim of that barranca, determined to get the drop on the cowboy lucky enough to own that palomino. He was at the bottom of the gully, working like a dog to clear the stream. A lowly ranch hand riding a fine horse like that! Then I looked closer and saw his gun and the way he wore it. Low, like he meant business with it. I knew then that he wasn’t a simple cowhand, but darned if I could understand why he was doing manual labor.
I covered him with my shotgun and warned him not to get sudden. Now you can always tell a man who knows what guns can do. He’s the man that has enough respect to listen when a gun is pointed at him because he knows all too well the power of the gun. This one knew better than to trifle with the two barrels pointed at him. Instead of trying to be a hero, he gave that scattergun the respect it would have deserved if it worked. Of course, he didn’t know it was broken.
Anyway, I got his gunbelt. I was feeling pretty proud of myself, thinking how well my plan was working. I felt kind of sorry for him, losing his horse and all. Heck, he wasn’t very much older than me, less than ten years difference. But back then, I thought there were only 4 kinds of fellows: kids, guys my age, older guys, and old men. He was an older guy. I soon discovered that he’d lived hard and in terms of experience, he was really an old man.
I was thinking pretty highly of him until I discovered that he didn’t even have a moldy piece of jerky in his saddlebag. What kind of fool rode the range without any grub? I mean, anybody stupid enough to ride around with nothing to eat deserved to lose his horse. So I mounted that palomino and galloped off.
Whooie. I was on the top of the world. I had the finest piece of horseflesh in five counties underneath me and I was loving the feel of those long strides and the wind in my face. Then I heard a shout and a short, sharp whistle, and all of a sudden that horse wasn’t beneath me anymore.
I went flying through the air and bounced on my butt. The palomino pranced around shaking his head and snorting and that cowboy boiled up out of the barranca like the wrath of God. I’d dropped the shotgun so there wasn’t anything to do but back off.
He made sure I was okay, threw the shotgun shells in opposite directions, and tossed the empty shotgun back to me like a man who’d handled his share of firearms. Then he walked to the horse and crooned to it.
That palomino acted real happy to see him and when he swung up on its back, I could tell the two of them had something special. He’d taught it to come when he whistled. So when I rode off, he just whistled and then stood back and laughed while that big horse bucked me right over its head.
He loped over to retrieve his gunbelt from the ground where I’d thrown it. That horse never shortened stride and he casually bent down around the animal’s side and grabbed that belt right up off the ground. That palomino was no pony, either, he was plenty tall. I’d fall on my head if I tried that trick, but he made it look easy.
When he reined in, the horse arched its neck and pranced, but he just sat there unconcerned, like he was a part of the animal beneath him. He gave me this huge grin, bursting with self-confidence and deviltry and humor and I couldn’t help but like him, even if he had made me look like a fool.
That cowboy turned out to be Johnny Lancer, the younger son of one of the biggest ranchers in the state. He brought me home with him to the Lancer ranch. Now I agreed to go along – not that I really had a choice – because I was so hungry my stomach thought my throat had been cut. I wanted a hot meal. I figured I’d eat and take off again. But before I could say “hired gun,” those Lancers had me bathed and dressed in new clothes. I sure didn’t want them to know who I was. Why, they’d send me home just like the law had tried to do.
Johnny’s older brother, Scott, tried to trick me into revealing my name. I didn’t fall for it though and I threw him a load of sass just to show I could. When I did that, Johnny said, “Hey.” Just like that. One soft word, brimming with warning. Unfortunately, I chose to ignore that warning - to my cost. I kept right on giving Scott attitude.
The next thing I knew, I was bent over Murdoch Lancer’s desk and Johnny was giving me the tanning of my life. I mean he toasted my butt with his belt. Told me I needed to learn respect and manners. Told me he’d learned them just like this.
He was telling the truth, too. I could tell by the way he knew exactly where to lay the leather along that tender crease where your backside meets your thighs. He zinged me in all the right places where I’d be sure to feel it every time I tried to sit down for the next couple of days. Hoo boy, he blistered me good and proper. Later that evening, I ate my supper standing up and then I went to sleep on my belly.
Part of me was furious with Mr. Johnny Lancer. But part of me knew he was a friend. Yes, he’d paddled my backside, but I felt a different kind of warmth in the vicinity of my heart when I looked into his eyes and realized that no matter how hard his hands were, or how determined his face, his eyes were different. They were laughing and true and kind. I looked in his eyes and thought I just might be able to talk to Johnny about what had happened to Pa.
Before I got the chance to talk to him though, old whiskery Jelly dropped the fact that Johnny used to be a hired gun. Well, that really got me to thinking. I’d figured he was right sudden just by the look of him. Of course, I’d never heard of a gunhawk named Johnny Lancer. But at this point, I was desperate. Johnny knew how to use a gun and that was good enough for me. Only problem was that Jelly swore Johnny didn’t hire out anymore.
I lay in bed on my stomach with my butt smarting and I thought of a plan. I’d sneak out of the house and take off on that palomino again. Johnny would have to come after me, wouldn’t he? He wouldn’t just let me ride off on his horse. And once he came after me, I could talk him into hiring out to me. It was a great plan with one major problem. When Johnny got his hands on me sometime tomorrow evening, my bottom was going to be a lot sorer than it was now!
Sure enough, my plan worked like a charm. And just like I figured, Johnny warmed my britches good for the second time. This time it was for horse stealing and he used a stick. He made sure I knew how stupid my plan was. Told me that fine palomino was worth only $25 without a bill of sale. I’d never thought of that and so my pride stung as much as my worn out bottom!
But after handing me a good dose of hickory oil, Johnny fixed supper and listened to me talk about Pa. He believed me when I told him they snuck up behind Pa and then dragged him to death. Then he sent me to sack in.
I didn’t sleep for a long while, trying to watch what he was doing. He paced, he stirred the fire, he drank coffee, he talked to his horse, and finally, he squatted down and buried his head in his arms and just thought. He stayed that way a long time, grappling with some inner turmoil. I wish I knew what he was thinking, but I never will. Looking back, I realize he was calculating the cost of helping me, deciding if he wanted to pay the high price – and if I was worth it.
I’d give anything for even a hint of what tipped the scales in my favor. I just know that it was something about Pa and me. He stared a while at Pa’s gold watch with the picture of Pa and Ma inside the case. He glanced from me to the picture. Then something in his face changed and he agreed to hire his gun to me.
I don’t why he chose to shoulder my burdens. I discovered later that he’d hung up his guns and was working to make a new life for himself. Taking on my problems risked all that he held dear and I’m eternally grateful to him. Even then – when I didn’t know his story – I was relieved that such a strong, competent man was on my side. I was on top of the world! I might’ve been sleeping on my side with a sore behind, but I wasn’t alone. I was going home with a killer and Marvin and Jencks would pay.
To tell you the truth, I was worried about what Dorrie would have to say. I knew she’d be delighted to have me home safe and sound. But she’d be furious that I’d run off without telling her where I was going – not to mention helping myself to the money. And she didn’t agree with me about Marvin and Jencks. She told me I had “fancies” where Pa was concerned. She didn’t want any trouble. So I knew she’d reject the idea of Johnny as our hired gun.
But I had faith in Johnny. I might be a kid, but I knew he was one of the best looking fellows I’d ever seen. I’ve already told you about his eyes. Well, he had the smiles to go with his eyes – an entire repertoire of them. When he smiled at you, you just couldn’t help liking him and wanting to please him. He could be utterly charming when he was of a mind to. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that ol’ Johnny knew exactly how to combine the look in his eyes with the appropriate smile and convince a girl to do anything he wanted her to. So I figured Johnny could handle Dorrie all right.
It seemed like I’d miscalculated when they first met. Dorrie ruffled her feathers and acted like she didn’t like Johnny at all. She was downright rude to him, even convinced him to leave by lying to him. Of course it didn’t take Johnny long to figure out she’d lied and then he came back.
Dorrie never would tell me what he said – just that Johnny had a way of convincing you to see things his way. She was right, too. Johnny was a master at combining the ingredients of charm, logic, passion, and intimidation in just the right proportions for any occasion. I like to flatter myself by claiming I learned at least a watered down version of that trick from him. I see a few heads nodding, so some of you must think I was successful!
Anyway, Dorrie said she finally decided to accept Johnny’s help on account of me. Looking back, my sister made so many sacrifices for me – and I didn’t appreciate a single one of them at the time. Before he left, Johnny talked to me about that. His way of “talking” wasn’t to preach or lecture. He had the knack of asking difficult questions that made you think and arrive at your own answers. With his coaching, I figured out that I needed to appreciate my sister instead of resent her.
From that moment on, I tried to make things easier on Dorrie. But I still wish I knew what passed between her and Johnny that day she agreed to let him help us. It must’ve been some conversation and I’d give my right arm to have been a fly on the wall.
Oh, and it was after that when Dorrie became so intensely interested in my schooling. She referred to it all the time, using the word “education” until I was sick of it. When I wanted to quit school and go to work for Toby Jencks full time, my sister put her foot down. She told me that I wasn’t going to spend all my time learning to be a ranch hand. Toby asked her what was wrong with a boy doing an honest day’s work as a cowboy. Dorrie gave him a look I’ve never figured out and said, “It’s the boy that makes the man.” Toby backed right off and let me work part-time instead.
Yes, my sister was bound and determined that I finish school. She always told me that I could accomplish great things if I put my mind to it. Heck, she was more excited than I was when Scott and Murdoch Lancer helped me get into law school and paid for that portion of my education.
Anyway, in my honest opinion, my sister fell head over heels in love with Johnny. Fell for him so hard she just never got over him. Dorrie never did marry. Not that she didn’t have any respectable offers – she did. In fact, it was while Johnny was with us that she took to wearing her hair down loose over her shoulders with the sides pulled back and tied behind with a fetching ribbon instead of in those two dowdy pigtails she’d worn as long as I could remember. And she sewed herself some new dresses that showed she wasn’t a little girl anymore.
I tell you, I’d never realized that my sister was pretty. But she was a real looker and lots of fellows over the years tried to win her hand. Dorrie just wasn’t interested, though. She’d press a handkerchief to her eyes and mutter about men who were “star-crossed.” I think she just never met anyone who made her blood race like it did when Johnny flashed her that glinting smile of his.
But enough about Dorrie. She lied and sent Johnny away, but he figured it out and came back and persuaded her into accepting his help. At the time, I just assumed he was going to kill Marvin and Jencks, but he made it clear that we would find out what really happened before we decided how to handle it.
The next morning, I rode with Johnny when he cut the fence separating the Marvin spread from the Jencks outfit and drove the Marvin steers onto Jencks’ land. Then we sat down at the breakfast table to decide what to do next. Johnny sure hated to miss breakfast and he could pack the chow away, too.
He finished up my sister’s pancakes and mounted that palomino to ride into town and put his plans into motion. Dorrie and I stood outside to see him off and that’s when he told us. I tell you, I nearly fell over. Here I’d been going on and on to Johnny about wanting to hire a really hot gun like Jack Slade or Wes Hardin and all the while I was talking to the hottest gun of them all.
He reined that horse in and looked down at me. A crooked little smile ran up the side of his mouth and he said, “By the way, kid, I go by Madrid when I’m workin’. Johnny Madrid.” And he loped off leaving Dorrie and me standing there with our jaws on the ground.
Johnny damn Madrid! I mean, Madrid was a bona fide legend, supposed to be the fastest there ever was. Killed four hardcases in a gunfight on his fourteenth birthday. Johnny Lancer was actually Johnny Madrid and he was working for me – for the grand total of $26.37…
And work he did. There isn’t a chess grand master alive that’s a better strategist or tactician than Johnny. His ability to predict Marvin’s and Jencks’ responses left me believing that he was clairvoyant. He played them off against each other like an expert puppeteer. They fell for his plans hook, line, and sinker and I loved every minute of it.
I see some of you smiling. You’ve seen me successfully execute the “puppeteer” strategy many times. Yes, Johnny Madrid was an exceptional teacher and I learned those lessons in strategy well. Just watching him work was a complete education in and of itself.
You should’ve heard him dishing it out to Toby Jencks. Toby had a reputation for getting worked up easily, and Johnny played him like a drum. I hid around the corner and laughed until my belly ached when I heard Johnny twisting his tail.
“You are gettin’ yourself in a pucker. A man your age gettin’ so upset.”
And he whipped my butt raw for disrespect! That old muleskinner was right, life isn’t fair.
Johnny planned it so that Marvin thought Jencks had brought Madrid in to kill him. Meanwhile, Jencks thought Marvin had hired Johnny. Over the next week, he arranged incident after incident that left each man thinking the other was responsible. I pitched in with glee, certain that we teetered on the brink of a real range war.
Meanwhile, I was living in a fantasy world. The greatest gunfighter of them all was working for me. What kid wouldn’t die for the chance to get that close to Johnny Madrid? He must’ve thought I was like a pesky, adoring puppy, always under foot. I rode with him, watched him make plans, ate with him, and even set up bottles for him to shoot at.
He did just enough showing off with his shooting to scare his opposition blind. He didn’t try to be fast, just loose and easy. And consistent. He shot row after row of bottles and hit every one of them square in the neck. He’d stand back about ten paces and draw and fire, fanning the hammer.
Most men don’t have much of an aim when they fan, they’re just throwing lead around. Not Johnny. Whether he shot by cocking the hammer with his thumb or fanning it, his bullets went exactly where he aimed them. And while he wasn’t trying to be fast, he was still greased lightning, the fastest thing anyone in McCall’s Crossing had ever seen. The whole town was buzzing about that, let me tell you.
The more riled Marvin and Jencks got, the more bloodthirsty I became. I couldn’t wait to see Johnny gun them down. But he was in no hurry. He kept trying to show me that killing wasn’t something to be taken lightly. He warned me that killing a man or causing a man to be killed left you sick inside. Of course, I didn’t want to hear that then. I was afraid I might die of eagerness before we finally reached the show down.
And at last, there we were at the moment of reckoning. I stood in the lobby watching as Johnny Madrid prepared to avenge my Pa’s death. Finally, I would have justice. Thanks to Johnny, I’d to see those two murderers die in agony, screaming and bleeding in the dirt. My whole body trembled in anticipation.
But a funny thing happened. Instead of gunning Marvin and Jencks, Johnny asked them how my Pa died. And he listened to them describe how Pa’s death was really an accident. I didn’t want to believe them, but I could tell that Johnny thought they were telling the truth. And somewhere deep inside, I knew it, too. Then he came to the door and motioned for me to come outside and face the men I wanted dead.
That threw me, I can tell you. It’s one thing to watch from concealment while someone else does the deed, but looking the men you’ve sentenced to death in the eye, observing their execution? Now I’d had this awful frozen ball around my heart since Pa died. Funny how your heart can seem frozen with hate while your gut is on fire with anger. When Johnny made me listen to their story and called me outside, that ball of ice started to thaw a bit. But I wasn’t ready to back away. I still wanted them dead. Even if it was an accident, Pa was dead because of them.
But Johnny wouldn’t shut up and shoot. Instead he said things like,
“Well, you just take a good look at ‘em, because in a second or two, they can be dead. … You know, it’s easy to kill a man, but it’s impossible to bring him back to life again…”
I know now that he was waiting for me to call it off. He was teaching me an important lesson. At the time, I felt like each arm was lassoed and snubbed to a saddle on two cowponies running in opposite directions.
I wanted them dead. I did. It’s just that I wanted Johnny to do it for me. I didn’t want to be the one to tell him to shoot them. He offered me every opportunity to make a decision one way or the other and all I could do was stand there like a lump and chew my lower lip to shreds.
At last he stepped away from me and straightened. His right hand brushed his gun butt, the left, in that sinister glove, flexed menacingly at his waist.
“Maybe I’d better start this dance myself.”
He used that chilling drawl and I saw him so still, yet so alive, like something terrible and savage inside strained to escape. He was beautiful and vibrant and powerful. He was grim and terrible and utterly lethal. He was the best a man can be and he was humanity’s worst nightmare. I didn’t doubt for one minute that if I told him to pull the trigger, my killer would earn his pay.
Something inside me snapped – maybe the ball thawed or maybe the seeds Johnny had been sowing in my heart right from the beginning sprouted. I don’t know. But the next thing I knew, I was sobbing in his arms, begging him to leave them alone. I’ll never forget the brilliant, proud smile he gave me then or his strong, reassuring grasp as he held me while I cried into his shirt.
I stood there on Main Street and I bawled my eyes out in front of the whole town. The pent up hate and bitterness washed out of me with those scalding tears. Johnny didn’t laugh at me or even say anything, but he held me and his gloved hand periodically squeezed the back of my neck. And when I was cried out and spent, he took me home.
So now you know that I once tried to take the law into my own hands by hiring a killer to exact my version of justice. And I’m not sorry that I did. Not that I wish I’d been able to get Marvin and Jencks killed. Not at all. And you know I don’t believe in circumventing the law. I’m just not sorry that for a brief while, my path merged with Johnny Madrid’s.
I learned so much from him. Johnny taught me what it means to be a man. But it took me a long time to understand what my lesson cost him. I received a hint of the price he’d pay for helping me before he left town. I heard him talking with Lefty Morgan, a third rate gunhawk working for Jencks who’d known Johnny in earlier days.
“So how come you hired on with that kid, Johnny? Way I heard it, you been tryin’ to make a new life, hang up them guns. Not many know your name’s Lancer now. But they’ll all know it after this. Some will come for you. Why risk it all for Andy Cutler? You see somethin’ in that kid?”
“Somethin’ like that.”
Well, I asked Johnny about it. I wanted to know why he’d risk his new life for me. Just thinking about his response still raises goosebumps. Even young as I was, I realized that Johnny had articulated the essence of what makes a man a “good” man. That’s exactly what he was and I’ve endeavored to live up to his faith in me.
His eyes went far away, across distances I couldn’t fathom. His voice was so soft, not that deadly hush, but an achingly sad quietness, as though he’d been in my shoes once and someone had tried to teach him a lesson and failed. I wondered then just how many of the heroic yet tragic stories about Johnny Madrid’s life were true and I knew I’d never know. All I could really be sure of was the words he shared with me.
“Somebody had to help you understand that killin’ ain’t the answer, Andy. I was the only one at that time and in that place who could do what needed doin’. It wasn’t an easy decision ‘cause life has a way of nudgin’ you, pushin’ you between hard choices. Doin’ what’s right ain’t always easy, but it is always right.”
You see, when there’s a hard thing to be done and no one else to do it, a man does it, no matter the cost. Johnny helped me understand that life forces tough, bitter choices on a man. That things can be so right and so wrong all at the same time and a man still has to choose. That a man makes mistakes and when he does, he can’t wipe it out with tears or sweat or regret or even blood. No, a man just has to learn to live with it. Thanks to Johnny, I never had to learn to live with Marvin’s and Jencks’ blood on my hands.
So here I sit before you, Governor Andy Cutler. A beloved politician known as the “man of the people.” There are many among you who have asked me to run for the U.S. Senate seat Scott Lancer is resigning with eyes on an even greater prize in the future. To you, I say “Yes.” I wish to carry on the great tradition of compassion, justice, and progress associated with the Lancer name. As of this moment, I am your senatorial candidate and with your support, we will emerge triumphant from the campaign.
I’ve been the successful four term governor of California because the people love me. And they love me because I stand in word and deed for the idea that people are more important than things. I’ve lived it and I believe it. People are more important than things. Johnny Madrid taught me that.