Angels With Dirty Faces
And the angels with dirty faces go it alone ~ Los Lobos
A blast of cool air had arrived from the north and the crispness it added made the emerging sun a blessing. They were up before dawn, as was the custom, but the coming morning was a welcome one. Horses stamped in their traces and the jingle of bits and creaking of saddle leather sounded clear and precise. Scott inhaled deeply and then slowly exhaled, watching his breath’s smoky tendrils mingle with the breeze. The sight gave him a brief pang of homesickness for Boston, but that sharp pain quickly subsided when off to his left he spied his exuberant brother leading his saddled horse from the barn. Johnny’s laughter added a certain joy to the awakening dawn and Scott couldn’t help but smile. The cause of the laughter trailed behind his little brother and as quickly as the smile appeared Scott felt himself become somber. Sol. The man had shown up at the hacienda one day, asking to see Johnny. Not Johnny Lancer or Johnny Madrid, just Johnny.
Sol could be the blond counterpart to Johnny Madrid. His eyes were a piercing pale blue and his skin was suntanned to a bronze. His wavy blond hair was very light, much lighter than Scott’s, and was long as an Apache brave’s. Sol didn’t have the disarming boyish charm of his brother, but a more removed or stand-offish appearance that apparently came from a self-confidence rarely shaken. He moved with catlike grace, loose limbed and deceptively casual. His attire was flashy, a curious combination of Spanish and Indian. While Johnny was wearing his usual attire of black leather pants accented by silver and a bright red shirt with decorative stitching, Sol was dressed in buckskin pants, soft and without adornment. His loose fitting bright blue shirt was similar to something Johnny might wear, but without the accompanying stitching. In its stead were beautiful pearl buttons. All of Sol’s shirts sported pearl buttons.
To add to his rather skeptical fascination, Scott never saw Sol without a braid running down the side of his long hair, and woven in the braid was always a small white feather. The hair that was pulled into the braid parted just enough to give a viewer a glimpse of a silver Hopi earring that adorned his ear. Finally, and attracting most of Scott’s attention from the start, were the doubled gun belts that hung low on Sol’s hips. Inside each holster, right and left, was an ivory-handled modified Colt. Scott found himself shaking his head, and realized that every day for a month, as it had been that long since Sol had appeared at the door, he had shaken his head in quizzical wonderment at the sight of this singular personality.
Jelly said, “Ain’t he somethin’.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement that reminded Scott just how long he had been staring at the man.
“I guess that is as good as a description as any, Jelly,” he admitted.
“And I’m guessin’ you might just be feelin’ a bit edgy about the new man,” Jelly observed in the blunt way the trusted employee and family friend often spoke.
Scott snorted. “I have no idea what you are talking about … edgy? About what?”
Jelly rolled his eyes at Scott’s question. “Well, fer starters, the way your brother has cottoned up to him, all friendly like and trustin’. Ya gotta admit, Scott, that ain’t normally his way. And, he’s up in Johnny’s league with the horses. Funny how any misgivins’ your daddy might have had disappeared all sudden-like when he saw that fancy-ass cowboy on that red appaloosa stallion. I figgered Johnny to want to keep that loco stud for hisself.”
“What do you mean, Jelly? I thought Johnny was going to break that horse and use it to begin a breeding program. There aren’t too many spotted horses around these parts, after all.”
Jelly shrugged as he watched the two men talking shop over the back of Johnny’s palomino. “Didn’t he tell ya … Johnny, I mean? Nope, said he wanted to concentrate on them gold quarterhorses and Sol there spouted some kind of hankering for spotted ponies. I guess that’s all it took.” Jelly turned to Scott with a serious expression and a secretive manner and whispered, “Don’t ya think that Sol’s a gunslinger like Johnny used to be, Scott?”
“I don’t know, Jelly. I’m thinkin’ no or at least not presently, because horse sense or not, I don’t think Murdoch would’ve hired him on if he thought that was the case.” Scott then couldn’t help but add, “However, I do believe your observations are never to be overlooked and your instincts are generally sound.”
Jelly squinted up at Scott and nodded. Sol did bear watching, gunfighter or no.
“I have to admit I miss some of the companionship I had with my little brother. Maybe I’ll get a chance to get to know Sol a bit more while we try to finish clearing that creek. Perhaps Johnny will open up a little, as well.” He then added, in a conspiratorial whisper, accompanied by a wink, “And if I find out anything worthwhile, you’ll be the first, wait … the second, to know.”
Scott rode several yards behind the two friends on the long and boring trip to the creek. He watched as the two exchanged comments and Johnny laughed frequently and loudly. Scott spent his time concentrating on the plans he was developing for a new series of line shacks he felt were needed on the ranch. He had in his mind that some of the hands’ time would be better spent at these outposts rather than long rides in various directions. Lancer was growing, in acreage and size of herd, so adjustments would need to be made. He was so lost in thought that he was startled when he suddenly realized that Sol had pulled up beside him. Sol smiled in that slow casual way that made his eyes soften and his face seem years younger. Scott suddenly realized that Sol was probably not much older than he was, if not the same age.
“So, Johnny told me to tell you that I’d be ridin’ on up to the fence line yonder.” Sol gave a sweeping gesture as he spoke. “I’ll head back over to the creek as soon as I’m finished up there.”
“Johnny tell you to go over there?”
Sol laughed. “Hell, no. What the fuck would Juanito be doing telling me anythin’? If I get ridin’ orders it’s from Murdoch, or you, bein’ you’re the next in line.” Glancing up and over at Johnny, he said even louder, “Yeah, you heard me, Juanito, boy. You know how it goes!” He turned back to Scott and gave him an exaggerated wink. “Before we left, a couple of the boys told us about a stretch of fence over this way they’ll be working on that some stupid vacas leaned against. They’re a bit light-handed, so I thought I might throw in with them. Don’t want your daddy losing any of his cows. See you in a little while, Scott.” Then Sol wheeled his horse and took off at a gallop, the horse’s white and red spotted rump flashing in the sunlight.
Scott chuckled and gazed ahead to see his brother’s reaction. Johnny pulled up the palomino and glanced back at Scott. His intense blue eyes were dancing with mirth. Scott was surprised at the reaction.
“So, I guess Sol plays his own tune, does he?”
Johnny laughed again, “Well I s’pose you could call it that. I’m not sure what tunes he hears in his head, to tell you the truth.”
Scott blinked. “You known him long, Juan-ito?”
Johnny’s chin dropped to his chest and he pulled the brim of his hat low as he drawled, “Fuck off, Scott. Mind yore manners, and I’ll do likewise. And as far as knowin’ him, yeah, I’ve known ol’ Sol for a number of years now. Why?”
Scott ignored his brother’s feigned annoyance. “He and you just seem like old friends is all. You tell stories, he laughs. He rambles on with his stories, you giggle. Usually that indicates a friendship in good standing.”
Johnny’s soft blue gaze moved over to Scott and he tapped his hat away from his eyes, batted his dark eyelashes and said in a singsong voice, “Now Scott, ya know I sure as hell don’t giggle, and if you say so again, I might just have ta show ya that Johnny Madrid laughs a good hearty laugh … especially when he whips his big brother’s ass.”
Scott grinned. “Oh, is that so, little brother? Well, you just wait ‘til we get to that creek and we’ll see whose ass ends up wet and whose doesn’t. How about that?” It felt good to be bantering again with his closest friend and brother. He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed it since Sol’s arrival. Sol. Scott sighed and guessed now was as good a time as any to ask a question or two, while Johnny was yukking it up over whose butt would end up in the drink.
Johnny’s eyes sparkled mischievously as he offered, “As a matter of fact, Boston, I think we should bet a couple of shots of tequila at the saloon to reward the winner.”
“That doesn’t sound like any bet to me, little brother. Now, if you offered to buy some of that smooth drinkin’ whiskey like Murdoch hides in the back of the liquor cabinet, now that … that might be a bet. Don’t wrinkle up your nose at me. That is some damn smooth drinking, right there.” Then he added as if it was an afterthought, “Johnny,” drawling out the name nice and long, “is your friend Sol a gunslinger?”
Johnny laughed as he turned Barranca in a tight circle, making the horse do a little dance. “You think? Dios, your observation skills are gettin’ better and better, Scott, old boy. What was your first clue?”
There was a time when Scott would’ve been offended, but that was a hell of a lot of experiences ago, both bad and good. Now Scott played the part, enjoying the familiar game. He suddenly lost his erect riding posture, slouched easily in the saddle, and took on a devil may care attitude with a voice that dripped syrup. “Well, brother of mine, I’m working on that ya know. I’m thinking of maybe takin’ up the profession myself, since I’m gettin’ purty good at stakin’ out the habits of the players. I’m thinkin’ I can work on my drawl, my deadly fast draw, and my sneakin’ up real quiet on people, and then I can decide if I want to wear one gun or two and whether I like conchos and jingly spurs or pearls and feathers. I just got to get my own …”
Johnny grinned widely at first, but as Scott talked his brother’s mood changed and he became somber and quiet.
“Don’t Scott. Okay? Just don’t. I’m not meanin’ nothin’ argumentative about it, but …”
Scott interrupted, “I know, I know. I’m sorry, boy. I forgot myself. Some things just aren’t supposed to be funny, I guess.” He couldn’t explain how ashamed he was for getting carried away and how much it hurt him to see the pain in his brother’s face.
Johnny gazed off in the opposite direction, unable to look Scott in the eyes. “No, there ain’t nothin’ funny about you bein’ anythin’ but you, Scott. You as a gunfighter, livin’ that life? There was a time, when we were dos idiotas and laughed … but, I can’t see a fuckin’ thing funny about that any more.”
Damn it. He should’ve known it was the Madrid protective streak that would get to Johnny and make everything wrong. How could he have been so stupid? “I’m sorry, Johnny. I truly am.”
“Yeah, I know it. Perdonado, hermano mayor. True enough, Sol is a gunslinger and yeah, he’s a deadly one. Real fast. I don’t think he likes the game much more than I did before I got out though. I wouldn’t be surprised if given half a chance he’d get out for good. He might already have. We don’t talk about shit such as that.”
“Does he have a pseudonym, a name he goes by, Johnny? I mean, is he known professionally by something other than Sol?”
Johnny finally turned and looked at him, straight at him, and the piercing blue stare of the gunfighter was in his eyes. That look never ceased to give Scott a quick feeling of fear and a heart stopping momentary thrill. Even after months of hanging around, working and swapping stories, hell, loving his brother, he never lost sight of the fact that there was much he didn’t know, and most of it centered upon the look in the gunfighter’s eyes.
“Do you mean a name like Black Bart or Cactus Jack or some such … does he have a name like Johnny Madrid? Is that what you’re asking? Is he somebody here, and then somebody else during his off time?” Johnny gave a derisive laugh that Scott would remember later, and would think about often. “He’s El Solista. Sol for short. I can’t even recall his given name. Do you know what a solista is, Scott?” Scott merely shook his head and Johnny continued. “It means soloist. He goes it alone, so if you take it in your mind that he and I plan on joinin’ up or even if we did the plannin’ on him goin’ out to the fence, well, you’d be thinkin’ wrong. You can put your mind at ease about that.”
Scott shrugged. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what to think about the situation.” He glanced back over at Johnny, and was struck how quickly the mood had changed. Johnny was once more smiling and his laugh was lighthearted. The sound made Barranca prance and Scott’s own horse side-stepped and shook his head.
“Ain’t ya never seen them pants he wears, Scott?” Johnny was again exaggerating his drawl. “Now, can you really see him clearing a bogged up creek in those pur-ty pants? Not on your life. He likes bein’ purty almost as much as you do.”
Scott snorted and shook his head. “I don’t really call working on a fence light work, Johnny.”
“Naw, but it ain’t muddy. Sol don’t care much for mud, that’s a fact. One day I’ll tell you about the time … well, it’s a story for later. We’re almost to the creek and there’s work to be done. Mas viril work, not the kind you wear your purty pants to do.”
Sensing that Johnny was about to take off toward the creek, Scott asked the one question that had been preying on his mind for some time. “How come Murdoch decided to hire your friend, Johnny? I know he was impressed with the horse skills and all, but unless he’s changed a lot more than I’ve been seeing lately, Sol would have been about the exact opposite of a man he’d normally hire.”
“Until he met me, you mean.” Startled, Scott looked up, but Johnny was still grinning and his face remained calm. “I s’pose it had somethin’ to do with what I told him, Scott.”
“What in heaven’s name did you say that would make him hire someone that he must’ve known was a gunfighter, Johnny? If I could tell what Sol was, I know Murdoch had to know.”
Johnny smiled at Scott in a patient way, as if he were a child. Scott chose to ignore the condescending smile and waited. With Johnny, you had to wait for your answers. If he cared about you and what you thought, he’d eventually reply, but it sure could take a while.
As Scott was watching, Johnny gave him a quick wink and pulled his hat back down so that it shaded his eyes. His voice was soft and low, and broached no argument. “Sol will be here when you learn the particulars, I reckon I prefer it that way. But to get down to the nutcuttin’, let’s just say Murdoch hired him when he found out how my boy, Sol, saved my life.” With a touch of spurs to Barranca’s sides, Johnny loped off. Scott straightened in his saddle and, with a big sigh, urged his own mount on.
Clearing the creek was slow and dirty work. Both Lancers had to use their horses to haul branches and logs, so after six hours with very little progress, both man and beast were out of sorts. The sun was beginning its descent in the west when Scott stood in the shallows of the murky creek, looked at Johnny and threw his hands in the air. “I’m tired, muddy, my ass is wet so I’ve given up on winning any bets, and I’m ready to call it a day, what do you think?”
Johnny shrugged, wiped his forehead with a dirty glove that left another streak of mud across his sweaty face and replied softly, “Hell, I don’t even think I can drink any tequila I’m so worn out, even if I did win that bet. Let’s call it a draw and start for home.”
Scott reached across and slapped his brother on the stomach, “That’s the spirit. Haven’t seen Sol make an appearance yet.” He tried to keep the statement light and devoid of judgment. Johnny just gave him that maddening little half smile as he nonchalantly picked up a small stone from the creek bed and lightly tossed it from hand to hand.
The soft drawling voice floated to them across the waters of the shallow creek from a thick grove of concealing bushes. “Well, old son, that’s because you must not have been paying proper attention to your surroundings.”
Johnny snorted, caught the stone in midair and launched a lightning throw across the creek into the bushes where the voice had originated. As usual, his aim was deadly and the response was instant.
“Damn it, Juanito! That hurt like a son of a bitch! How long have you known where I was?”
“Hell, I heard your horse come up the rise over there and the noise you was making in them bushes was enough to scare a deaf man. I figured it either was you or the bears have learned how to ride horses.”
Greatly amused, Scott couldn’t stop himself and laughed outright. The antics of the two were enough to brighten even the worst day.
Sol, still rubbing his arm, scrambled down the slight embankment to the creek and gave it the once over. “You boys have done a real nice job here. Your padre should be proud.” He seemed surprised when both sons made a disgusted noise. “What? You saying he isn’t going to appreciate all this?”
“Not until it is totally clear and running free, Sol. Our father doesn’t believe in any half-assed jobs.” Johnny’s head was down and he truly did seem disappointed in himself. Scott shrugged and could only nod his agreement.
“Well, the boys and I found several areas of the fence that needed tightening and got that done. What you say we real quick finish up this little job and head home?”
Johnny looked up and smirked. “Sol, shut up. You know you have no intention of getting down here in this muck and working on this creek. Don’t even try giving me that load of crap.”
Sol laughed. “Fuck no, I’m not getting’ down in that mess. You know me better than that Juanito! I’m gonna get on my pony and use my renowned roping skills to get rid of the rest of the big timber. Granted, some of your boys at the ranch might have to come and get out the rest of the small stuff, but with all of us working, I’m guessing we can get this baby clear and still make it home before dark.”
Scott looked at Johnny, allowing him to make the call. He could see why his brother liked this man so much. He had a relaxed and honest way with people and wasn’t afraid of work, as long as he could do it on his own terms. He pushed away the little voice reminding him that this man was a killer. His mind just couldn’t grasp that concept, no more than he could think about Madrid with nothing other than love mixed with a thrill of fear. It seemed, Scott thought, his life had become way too complicated when he had moved west.
Johnny met Scott’s eyes and cocked an eyebrow at him and drawled, “Sol, I’m thinkin’ me and Scott here will take you up on that offer, and if we don’t get this cleared out like you say, then I’m gonna pull your neat and tidy ass off that pony and muddy ya up real good.”
Scott let out another burst of laughter and said, “Now that, I’d like to see.”
Sol turned to fetch his mount and yelled over his shoulder, “You and what army, Juanito? I see the likelihood of that happening about as much as Murdoch Lancer giving me a big ol’ raise for helping your sorry asses out of this predicament.”
Johnny’s answering laugh was pure melody as he shouted after his friend, “Stranger things have happened, Sol. And I ain’t talkin’ about no raise from Murdoch, either, because you’re damn right about that one.” He reached around and grabbed Scott in a loose headlock that quickly turned into a one-armed hug. “We’ve just got us a clear creek, big brother. Sol’s a hard worker and now that he’s here, all we have to do is quit this yammerin’, get busy, and it’s a done deal.” Scott caught an infectious enthusiasm that he figured he’d long outgrown or had become too cynical to enjoy and as he waded back to the bank he thought for the first time in a long, long while that he was with a couple of men that could make the impossible happen.
True to his word, Sol and the Lancer boys had the creek running cleanly before the sun had completely set. There was still a small amount of water logged brush and broken limbs littering the shallows, but for the most part, the creek was flowing well. All three men were exhausted and two of them were beyond dirty, but spirits ran high on the trek home and there was an air of camaraderie Scott hadn’t truly known since the war.
As they pulled up to the barn and began brushing down their exhausted mounts a companionable silence prevailed, but that was again something they all seemed to enjoy and as Sol gathered his gear he motioned to Johnny and told him his intent to go to his bunk and sleep for a week.
“Like hell, amigo. Scott and I have got to get some men on putting the final touches to that creek and then you and me have some horses to tend first thing tomorrow.”
Sol nodded and smiled over at Scott. “After today, working with some good horseflesh sounds almost relaxing. What’s your old man got lined up for you, jefe?”
Johnny huffed a quiet chuckle and told Scott, “Sol just promoted you to boss, big brother.”
Scott slapped Sol on the shoulder and laughed at the puff of dust that erupted. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll be delegated some boss man duties, like working on the ledgers or going over the new surveys. I have to say I envy you the horses.”
“Well, don’t let us stop you. Come on down, right John? We can always have some kind of fun playing with those jughead mustangs. The more the merrier!”
Johnny echoed the sentiment in his soft drawl, “That’s right, Scott. Come help us set some of these broncs straight. We three make a hell of a good team, now, don’t you think? Sure you do.”
Undeniably flattered, Scott considered it and nodded in agreement. “You know what? I might just take you boys up on that offer. I’ll see you down at the corral when I can get away. It’s been too long since I’ve had a good argument with a green-broke pony.”
Scott found himself actually looking forward to working with his brother and Sol again and made a mental note to get to work on the books early so that he could join them without disappointing his father. He waited a beat for Johnny to say his goodnights to Sol and a couple of other hands that were standing around shooting the bull, then reined him in with a long arm hooked around his neck. As they walked to the house, Scott let his arm fall loosely around his young brother’s shoulders and they shoved their way into the bright lights of Murdoch Lancer’s domain.
Both sons pulled up abruptly as they stepped inside the doorway only to encounter the large and intimidating presence of their father. “Hey Murdoch,” Johnny said quietly in greeting.
Scott let his arm fall from his brother’s shoulders and immediately realized that he missed the reassuring contact. He nodded his own acknowledgment and simply said, “Murdoch.” Their father’s piercing gaze swept each of them as he took a step backward to fully observe the dirt and filth that seemed to fall from them where they stood.
“So, I’m assuming the creek is now clear, since between the two of you half of Lancer is on your clothes?”
Johnny looked quickly at Scott who had a flashing thought about being promoted to jefe. There was nothing satisfying about it at all, he quickly concluded, and he began talking like a nervous schoolboy reciting a report for the schoolmarm. “Everything looks good and the creek is flowing nicely. We need to get a couple of boys, Curtis and Will would be my choice, to go up there and finish getting some small limbs and such, but all the lumber and heavy loads have been taken away.”
Murdoch’s response was immediate and maddeningly direct as he replied, “Curtis and Will. I thought you boys were going to have that creek completely finished and be back here by supper. That’s why I agreed to the three of you committing yourselves to that particular job for an entire workday. I can’t fathom why three able-bodied young men couldn’t have that job completed unless a couple of them, or more, weren’t doing what I expected. Now you have plans for one man that is stove up from being thrown from a horse that was labeled ‘gentle as a kitten’ by you, young man.” Murdoch sent a look of daggers to Johnny as he continued his lecture. “And the other one is needed in town tomorrow to bring in some supplies that I had originally planned to send Sol in for today.” Scott shifted uneasily as Murdoch turned his steely gaze upon him. As Murdoch spoke, his voice began to rise in volume and by the end of this diatribe he was fairly on his way to yelling. That was all the encouragement the fiery youngest son needed to launch a defensive maneuver.
“Now hold on one minute, Murdoch,” Johnny interrupted. “You know that creek was blocked up like a son of a bitch and there was no way we were going to get it clear as fast as you wanted. Sol went over to the fence after we were told some of your precious cows were going to get out if we didn’t help those two boys on it and we all know how you feel about them fuckin’ cows getting through the fence, don’t we? Damn it to hell, Murdoch, ain’t nothin’ we can do to please you, least ways so anyone could tell it!” Johnny slapped his thigh in anger with the last statement and looked up at Murdoch with an almost pleading expression. Knowing that his weary brother really didn’t want to spar with their father, Scott was drawn closer to his side, feeling an intensely protective wave of emotion. Detecting the movement, Murdoch’s voice rose even more, as he appeared to get the distinct impression that his sons had formed an alliance and were questioning his decisions and motives.
“First of all, you better watch your language around me, boy. I can always tell when you’ve been around Sol. I hope that’s the only thing you’ve been back sliding on. Secondly, those cows you so cavalierly refer to as MINE, are OURS and as much a responsibility to you as they are to me. If you think for one minute that you can redirect a cohesive plan of action on all the work on this ranch in a split second decision then you are sadly …”
It happened about the time the word “boy” left Murdoch’s lips with the accompanying derisive tone. Scott watched in silent fascination as his counterpart in the unintentional crime became deadly calm. There would be no more yelling from this one tonight. Scott shot a quick look of concern to their father, but he belligerently plowed on, totally unaware of the effect his words were having on the man between them. Scott swallowed and risked another glance at his brother and in the split second his attention had been diverted, the transformation was complete. Johnny’s face had taken on a mocking air and his stance was loose and confident. A drowsy smile began to take over the handsome features and his eyes, those deeply blue expressive eyes of the most sensitive and caring man he’d ever known, had become hard and flashed with well-controlled fury. Instinct made Scott give this man his space and the only word he could bring himself to utter was in a voice quiet and sad, “Johnny.”
With that simple name, Murdoch finally got it. He stopped the lecture abruptly and involuntarily backed up another step. This merely served to give Johnny more confidence and for a moment Scott actually worried he would have to step between the two. But the control of Johnny Madrid was a formidable thing. He simply looked at Murdoch sideways through those half-closed glittering eyes, shook his head, and walked away. Strangely, the ringing sound of his spurs reverberated throughout the house as he stalked loose-limbed through the still open door, yet Scott had barely noticed them before. Murdoch blinked slowly and looked at him, but as Scott saw the pain-filled expression of his father, the lasting image was the ice cold stare of a gunfighter’s bright blue eyes.
Murdoch brought Scott out of his reverie. “I’ve done it again, damn it. Why do I let him get to me like that? You both know it is imperative for you to follow … hell, what am I doing, going down this path, trying to make a point? It’s not like you don’t know what I mean.” Murdoch’s voice was soft and low and a hint of indecision could be detected in his tone.
Scott said, “You realize he won’t be staying here tonight, I assume.” Murdoch abruptly nodded and went over to his leather chair. He didn’t sit, however, but stood shaking his head, his hands loose and helpless at his sides. When he looked up at him, Scott thought he had never seen his father so dejected.
“Go ahead and go to him, Scott. I know you plan on it anyway, and I also know you don’t need my approval, but I just want you to be aware that I understand. Stop by the kitchen first, though, will you, son? He’ll be riding out, probably with Sol … and you, of course. You’ll want a few things to take along. When the campfire is burning, and you both have calmed down, tell him … well, tell him …”
Scott peered up at Murdoch expectantly, wondering what he would say. Would he tell him to tell Johnny he was sorry, that he was wrong? Would he tell his son he loved him? The pause went on too long and Scott dropped his gaze, hoping to buy Murdoch the grace of time.
Instead, his father shook his head and simply said, “I need him to finish those horses. He and Sol both have to finish that job or I’ll lose the contract. Tell him I need him, Scott.”
At first Scott felt his ire rise once again, but as Murdoch turned and left for his room, he really heard what was said in that last sentence and replied gently, “I will, sir, I’ll tell him what you said.”
True to Murdoch’s prediction, Scott found Johnny readying a horse for travel. It was a long enough ride that saddlebags and bedroll were apparently needed, so Scott was grateful he had taken Murdoch’s advice and stopped to get some food on the way out of the hacienda. As he set his own saddlebags down and gathered up his saddle, Johnny cut his eyes over his horse to glare at Scott.
“Just what do you think you’re doin’, Scott?”
“I’m going with you, little brother. I thought that was obvious.”
Johnny shook his head. “Nope, don’t need you taggin’ along.”
“I know that. I’m going because I’d rather be with you than the old man. He isn’t much company right now, if you catch my drift.” Scott reached into his saddlebags and brought out a full bottle of tequila. “I figured I might have to bring something along to pay my way, is this good enough?”
“Looks good enough to me!” It was Sol. He was coming up from the bunkhouse with gear in tow. “Juanito, por favor, coopere mi amigo, let your big brother come along. It wouldn’t be right making him stay here and worry, now would it?”
Scott figured the look he gave Sol was incredulous because Sol looked back at him with an exaggeratedly confused expression and said, “What?”
The run in with Murdoch had apparently emboldened him because before he had time to weigh his words Scott found himself saying, “Sol, one thing I’ve learned about you is that you are as full of bullshit as any man I’ve known.”
Johnny had been watching the byplay while continuing to saddle his horse and now let out a snort of laughter. Both Scott and Sol immediately looked up at him in surprise. Johnny quietly drawled, “Mierda, you’re both full of shit … and pathetic. You know that? If y’all are comin’ with me then you best get a move on, ‘cause I sure as hell ain’t in no mood to sit around and wait for your sorry asses.” He grabbed the reins of his horse and began moving him out of the stall, so Scott quickly began saddling a horse and chuckled as Sol moved to do the same.
“I guess we should be glad he’s talking and not tearing something up or trying to break his fool neck galloping out of here in the dark,” Scott commented over his shoulder. Sol moved up to look at him directly in the eyes and as he stared into the crystal-blue gaze, Scott felt that familiar chill descend.
Sol spoke in quietly measured tones. “It’s a good thing he loves his daddy, Scott, or you’d be seeing a side of that boy you’ve never wanted to see. And I’m figuring you care for him as much as he cares for you, so let’s just say we have a lot to be glad about tonight. We’ll go up to the creek with him, drink some tequila, swap some stories, and get his head back on straight. Then we’ll get him back to the hacienda after we have that damned creek finished in the morning. I’m not one to interfere in other folks’ business and I sure as hell don’t want to boss you, not at all, but that boy means something to me. So I’m asking you if you’ll come and help me with him, but don’t go second guessing my methods, okay? I think everyone benefits, most of all his padre, comprende?”
Annoyed, Scott turned away from Sol and tightened the cinch on his saddle. As he finished he put his hands on the rails of the stall and waited until Sol completed readying his mount. “Sol, I realize you think you know Johnny as well or better than anyone around here, but I think you only know a different side of him than either I or Murdoch. I respect you, but I am fully aware of what you are, and if something goes on that could hurt anyone in my family, I’ll put a stop to it, somehow, some way. You know that, right?”
Sol pushed his long blonde hair out of his eyes and prepared to lead the horse out to join Johnny. He stopped as he drew even to Scott and gave a brief nod. “I wouldn’t respect you half as much if you said anything less. If you can find it in you to trust me, you don’t have to worry about me trusting you. I know you only want the best for John and Lancer. All I’m asking is for you to realize I might know just a little bit more about this side of that hombre than you, so let me take the lead on this for a while. Only for a while, no mas.”
Scott thought a moment before meeting Sol’s eyes. He gave him a look he hoped conveyed everything he couldn’t put into words. Sol nodded again and walked out of the barn.
As Scott led his horse to where Johnny was waiting, he quickly realized his brother was not alone. Jelly had apparently been alerted to the activity and ventured out to check up on the livestock and barn when he had encountered Johnny. The conversation was animated albeit pretty much one-sided. Jelly looked up and saw a chance for reinforcement. “Scott, tell yore mangy little brother that ridin out of here in the middle of the dadblamed night is a fool’s errand. I wouldn’t care if there were two of them full moons shinin’!”
At this point, it apparently occurred to the older man that Scott also had a horse in tow and the situation made itself crystal clear. His mouth snapped shut and he gave both of them an accusatory glare, before launching in again. “Scott, I expected more from you than follerin’ that jugheaded brother out on some lamebrained scheme. These two cayoots have gone and become a bad influence, ain’t they? Well, don’t none of ya come whinin’ to me when one of ya is layin’ out there busted up and the other ‘n is expectin’ him,” and he nailed Sol with an irritated glance, “to come to yore rescue. You two boys get in a snit about Murdoch all the time, ‘specially you, Johnny. You know that it tain’t nothin’ and nothin’ comes of it ever ‘t all.”
Scott decided it was Johnny’s place to answer, and waited to see what he’d say to the man who considered himself a second father to the former gunslinger. With no response forthcoming, Jelly’s expression became hurt and he moved off, head down and shoulders slumped. It was obviously more than Johnny could stand.
“Aw, Jelly. Don’t go off mad. I gotta get outta here for a bit and these two are just comin’ ‘cause they don’t have nothin’ better to do than bitch at me all night. I’ve got to go, Jelly, or I’m not gonna be able to stay here no more. Comprende?’
Jelly stopped but refused to look up. “I s’pose I ain’t got no say in the matter, so just go … and watch yourselves. Ain’t no ‘splainin’ it, but I got me a bad feeling about this.” He turned and looked at Sol. “I’m expectin’ you to do right by these boys, Sol, or I might have to come hunt ya down myself.”
Sol rested his hands on his holstered revolvers, became very serious and nodded. “I understand Jelly and I’ll do my very best, but you’ve given me a formidable task by expecting me to keep both the Lancer boys out of trouble, even just for one night.”
Jelly snorted. “I might jest decide I like ya, Sol, if’n you kin get ‘em both back in one piece.”
Sol touched his hat and drawled, “Consider it done, my man.”
Jelly gave a brief nod and then walked away, head higher and the spring back in his step. Scott, who had kept his silence throughout the ordeal, said, “You know, boys, I think Jelly means it. We best get a move on or we’ll be getting to that creek so late we’ll not even have a chance to make camp before sun up.”
They made surprisingly good time, considering the hour, and benefited greatly from the full moon and cloudless night. The ride was spent in relative silence, each lost in his thoughts. Johnny rode up to a stand of trees just a ways before the creek and dismounted. Scott recognized it as a place that had been a camp before, and knew that was why his brother had chosen the particular location to stop. There would be wood enough for a campfire and enough of a cleared area to build one safely. The creek was only a short ride away, so Sol pulled up and gathered the canteens to fill. There would be no real need for more water, considering what the boys would be drinking that evening didn’t call for it, so there would be plenty left over for morning rituals.
Scott covertly watched Johnny begin setting up camp and continued his monitoring as his brother went to work on bedding down his horse. Johnny's movements were purposeful and direct, leaving little space for conversation. Remembering Sol’s advice, Scott determined it would be better to wait until his return for anything more than small talk anyway. Johnny could be a man of few words even in the best of times, so Scott had learned to abide the silences and relish the times of a truly sharing conversation. He had to admit, however, that he was watching his younger brother rather warily. The aloof and confident manner first apparent in the hacienda as Murdoch was raving, had remained, except for the brief time when he was addressing Jelly.
Scott knew that he was potentially on thin ice right now, and understood more than ever why Sol had warned him off. Scott took some time with his own mount, a horse he wasn’t accustomed to riding, hoping to acquaint himself with the pony before the work he would demand from him tomorrow. He worked with the curry comb from his pack by the light from the fire Johnny had blazing and contented himself with the mundane chore. He started a bit when suddenly Johnny was at his shoulder, and his brother smirked at his movement.
“I promise I’m not gonna shoot ya Scott, but you really need to be a little more cautious while you’re movin’ around here in the dark, doncha think? That horse don’t need a hundred percent of your attention and some gnarly headed pistolero could sneak up on you if I can, that’s for damned sure.”
About that time Sol stepped from the shadows directly in front of him, grabbed the horse’s halter and laughed at Scott’s shocked expression. The annoyed tension was in Scott’s voice, in spite of his wish for control, as he responded, “Yeah, I guess you both caught me fair enough, but being out here with two dangerous gunfighter types probably had me a little spoiled.”
Sol barked a laugh and turned to deliver a typically sarcastic remark to Johnny. “Yep, this is one of those fancy cavalry soldiers, all right. He dresses real fine and looks right smart on a horse, but …” Sol’s voice came to an abrupt halt which caused Johnny’s head to snap over to look at Scott. His brother gave a hoot of laughter as he saw the glittering barrel of Scott’s rifle pointed straight at Sol’s head when it had been nowhere in sight just a moment ago.
Although his quick movement had indicated some surprise, Johnny’s voice remained as smooth as silk. “Oh hell, Sol, I forgot to tell ya, Scott’s as close to his rifle as you are to those Colts. You might not see it sitting around like you can our pistols, but Dios, it is sure to be right where he can reach it. Tread lightly around the Lieutenant, compadre. He’s not a gunslinger, so a body might get a drop on him once, but it isn’t gonna happen twice.” He dropped his head and snickered and then went over to sit on his bedroll, suddenly lost in his thoughts.
“Where was that damnable thing, anyway?” Sol demanded, obviously ignoring Johnny.
“I keep my rifle in a strategic place while my attention is diverted. It’s always only an arm’s distance away when I’m out at night, that’s a fact. That’s also why Johnny came at me from this direction,” he indicated the campfire with his chin, “instead of the one you came at me from. He knows my habits.”
“So, you’re saying Johnny had the drop on both of us that time.” It was a statement and the observation seemed to irritate Sol somewhat.
Purposely attempting to appear uninterested, Scott said, “Well, if you’re counting, I guess that would be right.” Sol merely made a humphing noise in reply.
Scott finished up with his horse and gave him a pat, before sauntering over to his own bedroll and easing himself down. He’d forgotten how tired he was from the day’s activities. He pulled the tequila from his saddlebags, unstopped the bottle and took a swig. He shuddered at the bitter first taste, but then enjoyed the feeling as his swallow sent it to his stomach. The air had grown chilly and the alcohol offered some inner warmth that was welcome. He nudged Johnny with the bottle as he reached over to pass it on. Sol spread out his own bedroll on the other side of his brother, and once more content, happily took the tequila after Johnny had taken a drink.
It wouldn’t take long until all three of them would be roaring drunk, Scott knew. The escapade back at the ranch had cost them supper and tequila on an empty stomach could be lethal, or the drinkers would swear it was. Scott searched again in his saddle bags and brought out biscuits, tortillas, and jerky he’d taken from the kitchen. To top it off, he’d procured several of Maria’s empanadas that he and Johnny loved. The quiet atmosphere soon became more festive as the men enjoyed a simple but delicious meal courtesy of the Lancer cook. Even Johnny was forced into a huge grin when he bit into a large empanada dripping with fruit. Scott chuckled and passed the tequila again before risking a question that had been on his mind since morning.
“So, Sol, I hear you have a problem helping us down in the creek because you have some kind of aversion to mud and muck. Now, I’ve seen you dripping wet with sweat and of course you can’t break a horse without having somewhat of a fascination with dust and dirt, but I’m sensing a story here.”
Sol speared Johnny with an evil glare before he finally answered, “Yep, I have to own up that I try to dodge sloppy conditions at pretty much all costs. You would too if you wore buckskin, Scott. You won’t see me down in the water with you, either. Don’t you notice that Johnny tends to avoid wearing his leather pants if he’s going to be doing work in the rain or water?”
Johnny chuckled a bit and added a quiet, “Hell, yeah” to the conversation.
Sol continued, “Buckskin sure isn’t very comfortable after it’s been soaked and it’s worse if it’s caked in mud.”
“Uh huh,” Scott knew he sounded unconvinced. There was bound to be more to the story than that.
“You act like I’m not being straight with you, Scott.” Sol feigned a hurt expression.
“That’s ‘cause you ain’t.” murmured Johnny. The tequila had slowly erased the hardness from his eyes and the arrogant tone to his voice had all but disappeared. He was still unnaturally quiet, and Scott wondered when all this miracle work was going to happen that Sol had made such a show over.
“I tell you what, Johnny mi amigo, if you tell ol’ big brother Scott here how you and I came to be compadres, then I might, I repeat might, offer up the story of El Solista and his clean and wholesome tendencies.”
Johnny had been semi-reclined on his bedroll, enjoying his meal and tequila, but with the thought of sharing the story of something that was obviously a big event in both gunslingers’ lives, he sat up. At first, his younger brother’s expression was aloof as he gazed at him with hooded eyes and Scott thought Sol’s invitation would be declined, but then Johnny suddenly slapped his leg and gave Scott one of those radiant smiles that brightened his face and made him appear his true age.
Scott was a little taken aback by the huge mood swing, but blamed it on the tequila. “I’d love to hear it if you’ll tell, Johnny.”
“Well, brother, I did say that Sol would have to be here before you’d find out, so I s’pose now is as good a time as any. We met down in Texas, me and Sol did, in a little piss ant town just across the border. I’d gotten involved in some discussions over land rights and such and had met me a man by the name of King Fisher. Well, King is a gunslinger, but his given name is actually King, he ain’t got himself one of the pseudo whatevers you talk about. He’s a rich son of a bitch, and his life was about as different from mine as mine was to yours at that time. No insult intended.”
Scott quickly added, “None taken.” to keep things going.
Sol took the opportunity to butt in. “You do realize that Juanito was just a baby. I mean he was mean, cantankerous, and full of himself, all dressed up in black and silver. He’d pretty much become Johnny Madrid by that time, but still, he was a youngster, through and through.”
“I was that, I’ll admit it. Stuck up and full of bullshit. Wasn’t nobody could tell me much. King realized that about me and took advantage, ‘course I didn’t know that then, but that’s about the size of it. Anyway, I was all hired on to help protect King’s interests and he was plyin’ me full of nonsense, how I was goin’ to be famous if I kept my head on straight and he had the power to make sure I would be not only good at my trade, but considered one of the best in all of Texas.” Johnny stopped and took a big swig from the bottle and commented to Sol, “Texas sure does have itself a shitload of gunfighters too, don’t it Sol?”
Sol, who’d loosened up considerably himself, snorted and agreed. “Hell, yeah! I’m from there, and I’m here to tell you Texas ain’t nothin’ but gunhawks, outlaws, and thieves, by my way of seein’ it. Or at least that’s how it is in those shit holes close to the border.”
Scott could feel the tequila taking effect and found it a lot easier to laugh at descriptive words like shit holes than he ever would normally.
“So,” Johnny continued in an ever softening drawl, “Fisher had come up with a plan that included hiring a small posse of gunslingers to help grab some land that he’d been admirin’ near Rio Bravo. Of course, none of the gunhawks was much good, most of ‘em bein’ has-beens and the like, ‘cause King was pretty much sure any gunslinger worth his salt might be gunnin’ for him on the sly. I was in cahoots with him since I was young and he figured he could use me and get rid of me, before my ambition was a worry. ‘Course I was estupido and didn’t know that then. He’d send me out on runs to the border to check out the situation and I would report back to him. I could get in with the other ranchers’ hands if I toned down ol’ Madrid and acted like the wet behind the ears teenager I really was. On one of those trips I happened on a down on his luck pistolero who was in a bad way. He’d been bushwacked by some men and left to die out in that west Texas sun. I helped him, got him a horse, and we started ridin’ together some.”
“That would be Sol, I’d assume,” Scott observed.
Sol looked up from where he’d been drawing with a stick in the dirt at the end of his bedroll. “You’d be right.” The accompanying look he shot over to Johnny was almost brotherly, and for the first time Scott was able to see the true depth of affection the two gunfighters had for one another.
“Yep, Boston, that was him. He wouldn’t hire on with Fisher, havin’ more sense than me and a hell of a lot more experience at that point. I was gettin’ in over my head about that time, but nobody could tell me nuthin’ due to me bein’ such a sabelotodo.”
Sol seemed to take the last statement as a cue to take up the tale. “He got himself involved with a woman. She was beautiful, I’ll admit that, but bad news.”
Scott rolled his eyes and caught Johnny pretending to glare at him.
Sol said, “I knew that King Fisher had a vested interest in her, so I was trying to keep an eye out for my boy here. As he says, there was no telling him, and he’d gone and gotten himself involved with the sancha of one of the meanest bastards in Texas.”
Johnny shifted on his bedroll and blindly searched for the tequila. He downed a long swig before he became overly interested in watching the remaining liquor swirl as he rolled the bottle in his hands.
Scott was having trouble biting back his smile, so he kept his head down and hopefully out of Johnny’s vision. Apparently, this part of the story was going to cause his little brother some discomfort.
“Well, it happened that I’d struck up an abiding friendship with one of the old has-beens Johnny here was telling you about. He told me that King had sent Johnny to Penelope’s place, that was her name, you see, and it was a set up. He had it figured that mi amigo would be literally caught with his pants down and he could send out a small army of pistoleros and have him gunned down. Well, only problem was nobody really cottoned to offing our boy. Seems he had endeared himself to most of the locals.” Sol raised his eyes to look directly at Scott before he resumed, “Of course, there’s always a pendejo or five who are willing to take up the task for the right amount, but least wise I did hear about it and had time to go in before the shooting started. They were sneakin’ up on her house when I rode up, pistols blazing. Johnny had just gotten there and was barely inside the door when he came running out and we had ourselves a nice little gun fight over on her north forty. I think Johnny had nailed down some of those hombres who were on foot over in the trees by the stock pond and I was going to ride over and help when I looked up and there she was. Penelope had the drop on me and was loaded for bear.”
Scott raised his head and asked, “You mean she was going to gun you down?”
Johnny was amused. “Hell, yeah, Boston. Lots of women in Texas can ride and shoot as well as men. Matter of survival. Not many have faintin’ spells and such in those parts. But you’re right, Pretty Penny was an ornery one and she could shoot a rifle ‘bout as good as you.”
Yep, that’s a fact,” added Sol. “And she had been in on it all along. Seems old Johnny Boy had gotten too big for his britches, so to speak.”
Both of the gunslingers laughed at this and Scott rolled his eyes again.
Sol continued, “King wanted him gone. He got Penelope to set him up, we found out later, much later. Anyway, Penny had me backed up in the pond when my horse, who wasn’t nothing like the app back at the ranch … this horse was a dumbass jughead, well, he decided to take me down right then and there. That threw off the old girl’s aim and Johnny, who had dispensed with his challengers, was able to get off a couple of clean shots. One of ‘em took that rifle out of that puta’s hands. She cursed like a demon and high tailed it back to the house.”
Scott wasn’t sure if he was up to hearing the rest of the adventure as its violence was becoming a bit stark. He asked, “Did you go after her? Did you end up having to hurt her?”
Johnny studied him and shook his head before laughing. “Hell no, Boston. Is that what you think of us? I was trying to make it to my horse as fast as I could, so we could hit the breeze a runnin’.”
Sol became more animated as he clapped Johnny on the shoulder and added, “I was just thankful you didn’t leave me in the soup. I was dripping wet, mud covering me from my boots to my hat and that loco bronc was trying to get away, pulling on its reins and baring its teeth. Everything was like it was moving real slow. I thought for sure I was a goner, but then Johnny rode up on his pinto, helped me get that horse under control enough for me to jump on and we were gone.”
Johnny and Sol began laughing uncontrollably at the memory and the sound was contagious to the point that soon Scott was joining in. It was funny to see these two who normally kept such tight rein on their actions and emotions totally let go. It was some time before they were able to talk again without chuckling.
“So did you stay together for a while after that?” Scott questioned.
Johnny grew introspective. “Nope. I’m pretty much a loner when I’m in the game, Scott, and Sol here makes me look like a damned social butterfly.”
Sol added, “We split up and I found me a real nice little Indian girl. She’s the one who first got me wearing these pantalones. My ass was good and chapped after riding in wet pants on a wet saddle and those buckskins felt as nice as silk.”
“Aw, shit.” Scott started laughing so hard he thought he’d burst. “Now I know why Johnny wouldn’t tell this story. That’s about the funniest thing I’ve heard in a long time.”
Sol smiled at him and replied, “Yeah, those were some crazy times. That Indian girl I met was special and I changed a bit after her.”
Johnny’s grin faded and he gave Sol a somber nod as his friend continued, “I took on a lot of her tribe's ways, sobered up, began to take life more seriously. I owe that girl, you know?”
Sol’s expression became closed and Scott knew that story time was now over. He figured he’d lie down and try to sleep, so he lay on his side and pulled the blanket up to ward off the chilly air. Just as he got comfortable, he heard Sol begin talking quietly to Johnny. After a few minutes, the voices became more distinct.
“You know what, compadre, sometimes you’ve got to let those changes happen. Murdoch really doesn’t mean to piss you off like he does. I’m a relative stranger to your family and even I can see that.”
“You know what, compadre? You need to mind your own fuckin’ business.”
Scott decided to play possum and lay as still as possible. This was something new, and he realized it was a side of the relationship he hadn’t known about. He felt like an intruder just listening.
“Johnny, you don’t have any call to say that. You’re drunk or you’d watch your tongue. Murdoch cares a lot about you or he would’ve never taken me on with only a bit of history as explanation. I’m not saying he’s right in the way he handles …”
Johnny was up on his feet in a flash and was quickly tying down the holster to his Colt. His voice had gone back to the low, threatening drawl. “I told you to shut the fuck up, Sol. Friend or no, you’re over-steppin’ your boundaries. Murdoch and me has problems, and I’m not sure I can even live with ‘em, but it is no business of yours.”
It took everything in him for Scott to lay there and silently watch his brother through hooded eyes. All his protective instincts were warring with the apprehension he had toward Johnny Madrid and everything that person represented.
“As I recollect, I don’t recall taking orders from you, Juanito. Not then, not now. If there’s something that needs saying, you need to start talking and quit the showboating.” Sol now was standing as well, and his hands were loose at his sides. The ivory handles of his Colts gleamed in the light of the full moon.
Scott finally realized what was going on. Sol was purposely goading his brother. Was this the method he was supposed to trust? The only thing he felt like trusting was the feeling that Sol was crazy and not very interested in self-preservation. It was hard to believe that just moments ago all three of them had been doubled up in laughter.
In a flurry of movement, Johnny pivoted on his heel and headed toward the trees. Sol moved to follow him, but shot a quick look at Scott and hissed, “As much as you want to, don’t come after us ‘til I tell you. It’ll be okay, I promise. Just stay there.”
Sol stalked off to the trees in pursuit of Madrid . Scott could feel his heart pounding in a way he hadn’t experienced since the war and his head was spinning with confusion. Every fiber of his being was screaming for him to follow, but something about Sol and his self-assured manner demanded his compliance. Scott quietly stood and grabbed his rifle. If there were shots and his brother was hit, Sol would feel the burn of his rifle as well.
He heard raised voices and could only make out a smattering of words. He could distinguish the word Lancer several times and heard his own name and Murdoch’s. At one point he thought he could hear the sounds of a scuffle, and then silence. By the time he heard footsteps coming back to the camp, Sol was almost upon him. Scott raised his rifle in defiance, daring Sol to cross him as he demanded, “Where’s my brother, you son of a bitch.”
Sol pushed his disheveled hair away from his sweaty face with his arm and nodded. “I know, I’m lucky you didn’t knock my fuckin’ head off just now, but your brother is okay. I care about that boy, and I’d never harm him, Scott, and believe it or not, he wouldn’t hurt me either, not much anyway. Thanks for trusting me, even if everything in you told you to come crashing in there and take matters in your own hands. Why don’t you go over to him? He’s not feeling too well right about now, and to be honest, neither am I. Damned tequila.”
Scott watched Sol slowly stumble over to his bedroll and he repeated, “Please go get your brother, Scott. It’ll be time to work on that creek before we know it, and he needs to get over here and sleep off that rot gut.”
Scott finally lowered his rifle and made his way over to where he could hear Johnny throwing up his insides. He politely waited until it sounded like the younger man was through before making his presence known. He made a distinct noise and rustled some leaves to let his brother know he was there, not wanting to get his own head blown off in the process, and then moved to Johnny’s side.
Johnny was stooped over with his arms on his thighs, swaying back and forth. “Damn it, Scott, I’m drunk as hell and when I get mad when I’m drunk, I end up heavin’ my guts. Sol is a son of a bitch.”
Scott made a sympathetic noise and reached over and rubbed his brother’s back. He was shocked to find the younger man trembling and couldn’t tell if it was from his emotions or exhaustion or both. “Take it easy, Johnny. Let’s get you over to the bedroll, boy. You need to sit down for a spell.”
“Wait a second, Scott. I got to tell ya somethin’ and I don’t want to say it in front of Sol. I guess I’m too embarrassed. But anyway, I’m sorry. I was out of line with the old man, and I was out of line over there. I get that way sometimes, my past and my temper collide and … ah, hell.”
Scott moved in to help his brother straighten and then moved in front of him. He handed him his handkerchief to wipe his face and then ducked his head to peer around the long dark bangs and into those blue eyes. “Sol did that on purpose, didn’t he?”
“Shit, yeah. He knows we’re amigos and if he makes me mad enough, I’ll blow off steam. It keeps me from holdin’ a grudge or doin’ something I’ll regret later. He also knows I’m never going to be just good ol’ Johnny Lancer, Scott. There’s that other side of me and it has a name. You don’t ever try that with me, though, okay? Please, promise you won’t. I don’t want to feel guilty for the rest of my fuckin’ life for something I might do or say.” Johnny tried to turn away, but Scott easily held him in place. The light of the moon illuminated his brother’s features, and Scott’s heart broke. Tears were streaming down the handsome face of Johnny Madrid. A lot of it was the tequila, but Scott knew his brother well enough to know that wasn’t all.
“You should know something, John. Before I left the hacienda, Murdoch and I talked. He was just about as torn up as you are now. He wasn’t drunk, but he was as depressed as I’ve ever seen him. He wanted you to know he still expects you and Sol to break those horses and he wanted you to know …” Scott moved so he could look his brother in the eyes, “he said he needed you. Brother, that’s going to be as good as it gets from our father, him telling me how much he needs Johnny Madrid Lancer.”
Johnny stared deep into Scott’s eyes, and for a moment Scott felt as if his younger brother was looking into his soul.
Johnny asked quietly, “He really said that?”
Scott gently smiled and nodded. The answering smile that slowly lit up those beautiful blue eyes seemed as radiant as the full moon and Scott found himself briefly spell-bound. They stood there for a moment, the bond of brotherhood as strong as it had ever been between them until Scott broke away, saying, “Let’s get some sleep, my brother. Dawn will be here before either one of us is ready.”
The first thing that blasted into Scott’s awareness was the bright sunlight piercing his eyes. His pounding head and rocky stomach made themselves known shortly thereafter, making him feel miserable. It took him several minutes to remember all of the events of the night before, but as he did he immediately turned his head to search for his brother. Neither Johnny nor Sol was in their bedrolls, so Scott followed the sounds of movement to the dying embers of the campfire. One of the two of them had the foresight to pack a small pot for coffee and some battered old tin cups, probably knowing full well how much they would be needed. The pot was resting on a smooth rock just inside the fire ring, and Scott began to smell the aroma of the brew as it drifted across the campsite.
Sol and Johnny were sitting off to the side, Johnny flat on his butt and Sol on his haunches beside him. His brother was bent over with his head in his hands, apparently suffering the after effects of the tequila as much as Scott. He could hear the low tones of Sol’s voice and then he saw Sol reach up and gently squeeze Johnny’s neck while continuing to softly speak. It appeared the misunderstandings of the night before were being purged. Eventually, Johnny looked up and gave Sol a small grin, but as he lowered his gaze his ever alert brother spied Scott watching. In a voice barely above a whisper, Johnny commented, “Hey, he’s still livin’ after all.”
Sol looked over and chuckled, “So he is. We were beginning to worry about you. Come over and join the rest of us walking wounded, Scott.”
“I was beginning to worry about myself.” Scott winced as he rose to a sitting position. “Is that really coffee over there?”
Johnny started to nod and then obviously thought better of it and merely said, “Yup.”
After gaining his feet, Scott blearily made his way to the campfire. “Whoever had the presence of mind to think to bring coffee, I am forever in your debt,” Scott announced as he poured a cup and brought it to his mouth. He took a careful sip of the steaming brew.
Sol lightly slapped Johnny on the back, drawing a yelp from the younger man, and made his way over to Scott. “That’s all it takes? I didn’t know you were so easy.”
“After last night’s cheap tequila, a hot cup of black coffee is all that’s keeping me from death’s door, so I’d say it was a lifesaving endeavor.”
Sol laughed and admitted, “Yeah, I was fairly desperate for it myself.”
After studying the blonde gunslinger for a moment, Scott observed, “You don’t look too bad off, Sol. You know, you two,” and he shot a look at his brother, “are capable of putting a person through the wringer with your antics. I hope this isn’t a habit for the both of you.”
“Habit?” Sol smirked. “Hell no, I value my skin more than that. Johnny here isn’t one I like to mess with too often, Scott. The odds of coming out okay go down quite a bit the more frequently you piss him off, you know.”
“Fuck off, Sol. It ain’t like I never done it for you, and you know it.” Johnny sounded amused rather than angry, but Scott’s curiosity was piqued.
“So you’re saying that, in turn, you’ve purposely baited Sol to keep him out of trouble.” Scott was starting to feel annoyed. He couldn’t help thinking that he’d become involved with two of the most moody and irresponsible perpetual teenagers a person could ever know. Deadly and arrogant as they were, it seemed that at times the two gunfighters literally kept each other from trouble by sacrificing themselves. Scott could only shake his head and was unable to keep the judgment out of his voice as he commented, “You do know innocent people who care about you could be hurt if they are around when you are pulling those kinds of stunts.”
Johnny quickly stood and walked over to him, his hands out in a placating gesture. “Come on, Scott. Do you really think we have people around us most times? Do you think Sol has a sister traveling with him or we ever knew I had a brother who would be jeopardized by our actions? Mierda. Just when I think you have an idea …”
Sol immediately came to Scott’s defense. “Wait a minute, mi amigo. How in the hell would somebody from Boston, or anywhere most would consider civilized, have any comprehension what the life of a gunhawk is like? You know, Juanito, he can’t have a clue and you should be glad he doesn’t.”
Johnny had the good grace to look chastised and made an effort to meet Scott’s eyes. “Sol’s right. Lo siento, I’m sorry. And I shoulda been more aware of what I was puttin’ everybody through. It’s just Murdoch gets me so pissed off, well, I don’t really think right and the Madrid in me, that way of life and dealin’ with shit, it takes over. Sol knows how to diffuse it, and yeah, Scott, if you was to see Sol angry, you’d know to back off, but I wouldn’t. I’d work on him just like he did me. Better some scufflin’ or blown up bottles than beatin’ the hell out of a stranger, or worse.”
Still unconvinced, Scott questioned, “Most of the time, one of you isn’t around for the other. I’ve heard more than once how Sol travels alone and Johnny, you aren’t significantly better. How do you handle it then? Doesn’t seem to be a very effective plan to me.”
“Dios. You have to ask, Scott? If I remember right, I think I’m known for disappearin’ and gettin’ my ass reamed for it by everyone from Teresa to Jelly.” Johnny grabbed his hat off his head and slapped it on his leg. “We’re wastin’ time sittin’ around jawin’ about nothin’. We need to get to that creek and finish it. Sol, I know you ain’t gettin’ off your horse, so’s you best be mounted up and gettin’ ready to do some haulin’ once we get there.” Johnny’s back was turned before he finished speaking as he immediately began breaking camp.
Sol gave Scott a quick nod and a half-smile before turning to finish gathering his things. Scott solemnly watched his brother for a moment before throwing the cooled coffee to the ground and kicking dirt into the dying fire.
Finishing the job of clearing the creek was not much of a stretch for three individuals determined to prove it could be done quickly and efficiently. Even with a relatively late start, the Lancers and Sol were saddling up for the ride home not long after noon. A quick snack of cold biscuits was enough to stave off hunger while in the saddle, especially with the promise of a proper lunch that would be waiting for them at the hacienda. Johnny and Sol were discussing working with a few horses before it got late, and this made Scott proud of his brother. He’d apparently taken the message from Murdoch to heart. Sol didn’t bat an eye at the resumption of the previous day’s plans, and for this Scott was also grateful. Scott had quickly learned Sol could be quite an influence on his brother, so it was not to be taken lightly that he seemed to be in favor of Johnny re-establishing a manageable relationship with his father. To be honest, Scott doubted the youngest Lancer would do well bucking Murdoch for long, as it seemed disagreements weighed heavily on the surprisingly tender soul of the ex-gunfighter. It was good to be going home with the hopes of a pleasant reunion, of this Scott was sure.
Johnny was the first to sense something was wrong. He had an uncanny ability to pick up on the smallest of out of place details, mostly because it had always been a matter of survival. As an alert ex-cavalry officer, Scott was prone to picking up on anomalies in his surroundings himself and couldn’t help agree with Johnny’s observations that “somethin’ just doesn’t seem right” as they neared the white arch of the ranch. Their worst suspicions were confirmed when they spied a rider coming down the dirt road toward them at a breakneck gallop. As he drew nearer, the Lancers realized it was Cipriano, and knew in an instant their fears were to be realized. Cipriano pulled his horse to a sliding stop before he reached them and then waved for the threesome to follow him back to the hacienda. Once there, all three of the young men quickly dismounted.
Cipriano waited impatiently at the hacienda door. Scott frantically looked around for his father, expecting him to be in front of the house as well. He gave a quick glance to Johnny, who had run before him to the porch, spurs ringing, his hat flying behind him on its leather strap, obviously worried about Murdoch as well. Cipriano went to Johnny and pulled the youngest Lancer to his side and motioned to Scott to come closer. As he drew near, Scott realized that the trusted segundo had been injured. Blood was slowly winding its way down his left arm and dripping from his hand.
“You both must listen carefully before acting.” Cipirano shot an intense glance at Johnny. “Your father has been taken. Banditos came late this morning while everyone was working. They entered the house through the side and captured your father before the hands were alerted. Jelly and I were in the barn and heard a noise. When we went out to check, Jelly was hit from behind. The men who had Senor Lancer went to the back of the hacienda where another pistolero was waiting with horses. They forced your padre to mount and when I tried to stop them, they began shooting, mostly I think, for an advirtiendo, a warning. One got off a lucky shot.” Cipriano indicated his arm. “I found this on the big table inside the house.” He held out a folded paper which Scott grabbed and began to read.
As he was reading it became clear that this was not a robbery; in some ways it was much more sinister. Johnny moved to take the paper from his hand, but Scott quickly pulled it away and motioned for Sol to come over. “First, brother, you need to stay calm. Okay?”
“Give me the fuckin’ paper, Scott. Don’t be telling me what I need to do before I know what’s wrong.”
Sol put himself between the brothers and looked quickly to Scott before turning to Johnny. “All right, Juanito, hold on there, boy. Just take it easy. Let Scott do it his way, he calls the shots right now. Take it easy.” Sol’s voice had become soft as he tried desperately to get his friend to listen to his brother.
Johnny took a deep shuddering breath and narrowed his eyes. “Please tell me what the damned paper says, Scott.”
“It’s from someone who says he knows you, a man goes by Ben. He doesn’t give his last name, only Ben. He wants you for Murdoch, Johnny, not money. You’re to meet him alone in some place called Amador. You know where that is?”
“Lemme see that, Scott. I’m not going anywhere without tellin’ you, just give me that and let me read it. Please.” Johnny’s eyes were pleading and his hands were shaking.
Scott silently handed over the note and watched as his brother read, hoping to stall any impulsive action that might override logic, but true to his word, there was no immediate move on Johnny’s part other than a closing of his eyes and his chin dropping to his chest.
“Who is this bastard and where the hell is Amador, Johnny?”
“He’s somebody that wants to avenge a death, Scott. You left out the part where he says he had a brother once, and that man’s dead ‘cause of me. I reckon that dead man’s brother wants an eye for an eye. As for Amador, it’s what some people call a dead town. It’s a few days ride up north a ways, but not much is left but a few abandoned buildings and an old church. Outlaws and gunfighters hang out there some. It’s not a good place for law fearin’ people.”
Sol was nodding in agreement, apparently having some knowledge of the town.
“Sol, do you know this Ben character?” Scott asked.
“Can’t say I do, but don’t know for sure. I’m thinkin’ Johnny here has a reason to recollect him, but as for myself, I can’t place any pistolero from my past named Ben.”
Scott turned his attention back to his brother and was struck by the sadness and anger that seemed to be pouring from him in waves. It was most likely taking everything the ex-gunfighter had to stay there in one place and talk. Scott reached out and squeezed his shoulder in support.
Johnny spun away from him and stalked into the hacienda, door banging in his wake. Sol made a move to go after him, but Scott reached out a hand and grabbed his arm. “No Sol, this is the side of Johnny that I know better than you. The side that’s coming to terms with the fact that he has a father that he cares about, and that man is in danger. He’s hurting and he’s blaming himself. Let me talk to him first. I have a feeling there’ll be plenty of opportunity for you to help me control Madrid .” Sol looked as if he’d like to argue, but the authority in Scott’s voice was daunting.
Shaking his head, Sol left the porch. “Call for me if you need me. I’m going to check on Jelly. Then I’ll get these ponies looked after and I’ll saddle our regular mounts. I imagine we’ll be in for a rough ride and we’ll need some good horseflesh under us.” Scott nodded his thanks and went after his brother.
Scott approached Johnny warily. He was standing at the gigantic window overlooking Lancer and his posture warned that this was a man one wanted to take extreme caution approaching. “Johnny?” he called softly. There was no response at all, but Scott merely waited, knowing his brother well enough to realize that he needed time to deal with himself before he could deal with others.
Finally, Johnny shifted and began to speak in hushed tones tinged with sadness. “You know I’ve always worried somethin’ like this would happen, Boston . Thank God Teresa is gone visiting her relatives. Bad enough that Jelly and Cipriano were hurt.”
“Johnny, this isn’t your fault. You had no control over what this man did, and I know you’d do anything you could to keep it from happening.”
“That’s just it, Scott, don’t you see? I’ve done things in my past that cause people in my life to be hurt. And you all are people different than me and Sol. You don’t deserve this kinda hurt and there ain’t nothin’ I can do to keep it away. All I can do is try to keep any more damage from bein’ done. I couldn’t bear it if the old man was shot up or killed, Scott. Even if we can get him back in one piece, he probably hates me now for what that bastard has done.”
“No, no, no. Don’t think that way, brother. Murdoch knows what this is doing to you and the only hatred he has is for that man who is holding him. You can count on that.”
Scott moved closer to his brother’s side, anxiously wrapped his arm around those trembling shoulders, and pulled him in, surprised that Johnny allowed it. They stood for a moment. He felt Johnny’s arm hug him back, and then drop loosely back to his side.
Johnny pulled away from Scott and his posture immediately changed. The devastated young man was gone, and in his stead was the visage of Johnny Madrid.
“Maybe so. All I know for sure is I’m gonna do everything in my power to take that son of a bitch that holds our father out of the game. You gotta understand what that means, Scott. Don’t even tell me you aren’t gonna follow, ‘cause I know it’s a lie. Just be prepared. You won’t have seen nothin’ like it since you were in that war. To protect Murdoch, and, Madre de Dios , you too … well, it won’t be Johnny Lancer goin’ on this ride.” Only then did his little brother’s eyes, which had gone a glittering sapphire blue, meet his.
They met a patched up Cipriano and Jelly on the way to the barn to help Sol with the horses. Scott could tell that Cipriano saw the hard, cold look on Johnny’s face and the certain way he held his body and knew immediately what was in store. He probably hadn’t expected anything else. Scott might be the eldest and typically had the final say in ranch decisions in Murdoch’s absence, but when it came to protecting Lancer and all those that belonged there, it was often Johnny leading the way. Sol had saddled his own horse along with the others and his eyes had become guarded and distant.
Cipriano didn’t question the fact that Johnny would not be going in alone, but Jelly wasn’t as easily deterred.“Now boys, y’all do know you’re just as likely to get yourselves killed, or Murdoch, as rescuin’ him out of that hell. I’ve been havin’ a bad feelin’ fer days and y’all ain’t doin’ nothin’ to remedy it by ridin’ outta here half-cocked.” Jelly’s eyes were on Johnny, and the fear he felt for the youngest Lancer shown in his eyes. He loved the boy as his own, only acquiescing to Murdoch in his protectiveness. Scott knew that it didn’t help that he was accompanying his little brother and the only person to watch over them was Sol, a virtual stranger who had yet to gain Jelly’s trust.
Scott used his sternest tone to try to convince the older man, but he could tell it wasn’t doing much to allay his fears. “We have to go, Jelly. You know we don’t have any choice in the matter! We won’t do anything rash, I can promise you that. I’ll see that Johnny doesn’t get reckless.”
Jelly turned to him and, seeing the determination on his face, finally relented, but not without protest. “I kin see fer myself that Johnny there is back to the way I heared he was when he first came ta Lancer, or even now, when he’s real mad about somethin’. Most of the hands call him Madrid when they talk about him after they seen it. It ain’t good, Scott, but heaven help us, it’s probably who we need right now. Watch over him, son, he’s not hisself when he’s like that. And git that gol durned prissy gunslinger to watch him too. I think he’ll do right by you boys, but if he don’t, I’ll be lookin’ fer that feller. You kin tell him that.”
Sol walked up leading Scott’s sorrel and his appaloosa and stopped beside Jelly before mounting. “Be calm, old man. That young hombre right there,” his head motioned toward Johnny, “is as good as it gets when it comes to a fight. I’ve been beside him before and most likely I’ll ride at his side again when this is a done deal. Our fates throw us together at times, and I aim to do everything I can to keep him safe. We’ll get their daddy back to Lancer where he belongs.” Sol gracefully mounted the flashy appaloosa in one fluid movement and gave Jelly a confident nod before moving his horse beside Scott.
“We’ll be back soon with Murdoch, Jelly. Keep a watch out and stay alert. We’re counting on you to protect the ranch while we’re gone.” Scott could tell his words struck home and watched Jelly puff up with new found conviction. The place would be guarded well between this man and Cipriano.
Johnny was already on Barranca and heading out as Scott swung up on the saddle, wheeled his horse, and gave the hacienda a final glance before touching his spurs to the big sorrel’s sides.
They rode independently a while, Johnny leading the way, then Scott, and Sol trailing. Johnny set a grueling and mile-eating pace, never looking back to see that the others followed. With the coming evening, dense clouds appeared on the horizon and the wind began to pick up, cooling both horse and rider. Scott could tell, however, that rain was in their future, and apparently a lot of it, as the clouds were solid to the north, and gray with moisture. Sol must have been thinking the same thing, because soon he was riding at Scott’s side and he pointed up the road, where it gently curved until it disappeared into a thickly wooded area.
“Looks like we’ll make it to some cover just in time. I don’t like being stranded out in the open prairie during heavy rains and I don’t even have on buckskin pants for this trip,” Sol commented.
Scott smirked. “I didn’t know you owned any other kind ‘til now. And no, being caught out here doesn’t suit me either. At least not when it looks like that. So far I haven’t seen lightning. That’s a blessing, I guess. Do you think he’s got a place in mind for camp?” Scott asked, indicating his brother who now rode far ahead.
“Hell, your guess is as good as mine, Scott. I think there is an old shack up the way, if I can remember correctly. It’s been a while and I’m not sure he’ll even stop if it’s still there. He’s pretty much the way he gets when we’re working.” Sol sighed, settled his hat further down on his head, and continued, “And I guess that’s how he feels right now.”
“You don’t think he’s taking this more personally? I’m worried that he’ll be more impulsive, more foolhardy in his actions. He’s just now found a family, and he’s pretty protective.”
“Yeah, he is that. But you gotta understand, Scott, and I’m sure Juanito’s already warned you. This is a job to him now. While he’s ridin’ and eatin’ up miles, he’s only got one thing on his mind and that’s what he’s gonna do to that bastardo who took Murdoch when he finds him. Right now it isn’t about his daddy, or his family, it’s about territory. It’s about Lancer and those sons of bitches who trespassed and took what he considers his, the thing that he’s sworn to protect in his heart. Usually there’s money and a contract of sorts, maybe nothin’ more than a handshake, but this is Johnny Madrid carrying out a job, and there isn’t a place for feelings right now. Entiende usted, do you understand?”
Scott mulled it over a moment as he watched Johnny disappear into the trees up ahead. “I understand, Sol. But I think he’ll still be warring with his emotions, maybe when we’re in camp, maybe when we get to Amador. I think he’ll need me for more than my rifle at some point.”
Sol smiled at him, although it didn’t quite reach his eyes, before he answered somberly, “That may be true, you know that part of him much better than I. When we met, he and I were alike in that we didn’t have to worry about family ties, or any of that sort of thing. We simply worked at our trade. Just be careful about bringing these emotions out in him too much, mi amigo. His life, your pa’s, and even our own will most likely depend on him being able to do this his way, the way of Madrid .”
This revelation would be something for Scott to muse over later, but now he only could concentrate on the immediate future. “Sol, I hate to say it, but I believe you might be right, much to this Ben’s misfortune, as well as the detriment of Johnny Lancer. It’ll be the price my brother pays. Let’s catch up with him before he loses us entirely.”
Sol nodded and they both touched spurs to horse and galloped to catch up with the object of their concerns.
As Scott and Sol rounded the bend and made it into the tree line, fat drops of rain began plopping down on the dusty road. They slowed their mounts as little inverted cones of dirt appeared where the rain hit and one could easily hear the rustling of leaves as the rain began in earnest. The horses became feisty with the cooling weather and wet conditions and began pulling at their bits and tossing their heads.
It wasn’t long before Scott was having to squint moisture from his eyes and he lost sight of Johnny, who was still in the lead in spite of the other two men’s increased pace. The wind began to pick up as the rain clouds moved in, and Scott had to shout to make himself heard. “Can you see him, Sol? Where’d he go?”
Sol reined in his horse and stood in his stirrups, peering through the deluge. “Yep, there it is. Sure enough he’s headed for that shack. Good thing, too. These horses aren’t going to stand for this shit very long.” He moved off through the trees on a little wagon path almost hidden by undergrowth and Scott quickly followed.
The shack wasn’t in too bad of shape; the walls and roof still stood, although in places it was shaky at best. The dense trees would help pass as cover where the roof could not. A little pole barn was off to the side and once it was cleared of some loose branches and vines, it would make a decent shelter for the horses. Riders had obviously used this rundown remnant of a home for years, thankful to find a place for man and beast to rest or hide out from the law, or worse.
As Scott dismounted, he finally spotted his brother clearing a space for the horses. His face looked grim and his movements were done with the efficient, catlike grace that Scott was accustomed to seeing when Johnny was angry or reverting to pre-Lancer behavior.
Sol fairly leapt from his horse and handed Scott the reins. “Let me go inside and make sure we don’t have any varmints or critters homesteading in our shack. Nothing I hate worse than sharing my bedroll with a snake or skunk.” He turned and headed toward the open doorway, one of his Colts drawn in case of a surprise.
Scott walked the two horses over to the little shelter and begin pulling off first his saddle, and then Sol’s. He secretly watched Johnny through his peripheral vision as he tended the horses, but his brother remained silent. However, as usual, the simple task of working with his palomino seemed to calm Johnny somewhat, and the tense expression around his eyes began to relax. Scott knew things would soon be more cordial when he saw the younger man combing through Barranca’s mane with his fingers, murmuring words of thanks for a job well done that day.
As Scott began rubbing down his horse, Johnny moved beside him and began working on the appaloosa. He continued talking quietly to the horses, mostly in Spanish that Scott didn’t understand. Finally, his brother’s stormy blue eyes sought his, and his expression softened further as he quietly drawled, “I’m glad you’re here, Scott. Whatever happens, and however I might act later, I want you to remember that, okay?”
A slight smile suddenly graced Johnny’s features and Scott felt a burst of emotion for this man and for one unbearable second he felt as if he might lose some of his hard won control. He forced a swallow and replied in an almost whisper, hushed as to not break the moment, “I wouldn’t be anywhere else but with my brother, by his side. Whatever it takes, we’ll do this. We’ll get our father back.”
Johnny surprised him with a sharp nod and a grin as he reached around the horse to slap Scott on the stomach. “Let’s go in and see if Sol got swallered by some big ol’ bear or somethin.” Obviously, Johnny’s own emotions had gotten the best of him and he had to back away.
At least Scott could be confident about one thing, he had been right about Johnny needing him and that was enough. Seemed like he wasn’t really too different from his brother. Being needed could make all the difference in the world.
Both Lancers approached the shack with caution, Johnny whistling to Sol as they climbed up on the little porch. “Come on in, boys, other than a few leaks in the roof, it’s better than it looks on the outside. We got us an old potbelly stove, and there was some kindlin’ over in the corner, so we’ll actually get dry. I only had to scare off a possum and two mice to stake my claim.”
“Sounds good, Sol. I wouldn’t get that fire goin’ too good, though, or we’ll be havin’ us all kinds of problems if what passes as a roof catches fire.” Johnny was shoving dried leaves and dirt away with his boots, trying to clear himself some kind of place to put his bedroll and saddlebags. Scott followed suit, and soon the place had become fairly hospitable. All three settled down to another cold supper which consisted of tamales Johnny had grabbed from Lancer’s kitchen and a hunk of Maria’s cake left over from what was intended to be lunch. Scott refused to think too long on that, not allowing himself to dwell on the way things were supposed to be when they finished that damned creek and headed for home. Now those problems seemed insubstantial and far away.
Johnny grew silent again, and Sol said very little. This was probably how it was, being on the road with these two, headed for some job, some place to ply their trade. Scott shivered and felt the familiar sadness descend as he watched his brother draw further within himself. He was coming to understand more and more the sullen, obnoxious young man that was Johnny Madrid when he first arrived on that stage all those months ago. It shamed him now, that he’d been so thick, so damned unaware, and so judgmental. It had taken too many near disasters and horrible events to show him the man his brother truly was, as well as the darkness he lived with and hid from the ones he’d grown to love.
Scott glanced at Sol and suddenly realized the difference between the two gunfighters. While Johnny was largely an inadvertent victim of sad fate who had the inner strength and talent to survive, Sol was a warrior who met conflict with authority and confidence. There was a unique sense of ethics about both men, oddly enough, but Sol’s came from something apart from Scott’s knowledge of the man; his history wasn’t told in the tortuous tales of a damaged childhood, as was his brother’s. He’d gleaned that much from past conversations. The anguish, guilt, and pain that dogged Johnny didn’t prey in the same way on Sol. Sol was something else entirely, and Scott had neither the energy nor the inclination to figure it out now. He’d just bide his time and work on getting his father back, and if Sol could help, so much the better.
The evening was spent preparing for the next day’s ride, and then for what each man anticipated would be needed for the future. Scott was silent as his thoughts were on Murdoch and he felt sure that his brother’s continued detached reserve indicated he was similarly preoccupied. Sol and Johnny cleaned their pistols in the dim, flickering light of the small fire. Scott took the opportunity to regroup supplies and went out to check on the horses several times before it became too dark to see. The rain showed no sign of letting up; inevitably they would be riding in it again in the morning. Scott fell asleep listening to the mesmerizing sounds of Sol talking quietly to Johnny in calm and reassuring tones and rain falling on the shack’s decrepit roof.
Sure enough, the wet conditions prevailed as the men stumbled out of the shelter to greet the new day. The large drops of rain had given way to a misty drizzle that soaked everything and made the whole world literally awash in gray. Sol seemed in good enough spirits and actually laughed when Johnny smirked at him as he pulled out a creamy white rain slicker. Scott donned his own rain gear, in a more somber black, of course, but Johnny would ride with no such indulgences, briefly scoffing at the idea as soft and meant for men spoiled to the ways of ranch living. Scott recognized the underpinnings of that message; his brother was slipping away from him to be replaced by a gunslinger who held little regard for niceties or conveniences. Conversation with him was almost useless, questions were answered abruptly, and little emotion shown in his eyes. Sol seemed neither alarmed nor surprised at the gradual deterioration of Johnny’s social skills and certainly didn’t appear to take offense when Johnny spoke to him curtly and without his usual humor. Scott often found himself straining to hear his brother’s words when he did bother to communicate, as his voice had become extremely low and soft. It was imperative to catch the message the first time, because likely as not, if you missed the first telling, there would be little chance you’d be given a second.
After the shack was left far behind and the men were well into the second day’s ride, Sol urged his horse forward to ride beside Scott. He made small talk, steering away from the subject of their purpose. Scott found the distraction welcoming, as it helped the water soaked miles melt away, and took some of the sting from the fact that Johnny had become essentially unapproachable the farther they rode into the wilderness. They spoke of Amador and Sol told how the town had been virtually abandoned after a mishap at a failed mine. He didn’t know the exact details, but he had heard that it had become a corrupt place and local Indian tribes told tales of it being haunted. It wasn’t the kind of place one would pick for a visit or even a layover and most honest travelers avoided it like the plague.
“You think they might have Murdoch holed up in one of those old buildings there?” Scott dared to ask.
“Maybe, or if we’re lucky they’ve got him in the church. It sits a little ways up into the hills there, as I recall. It’s still sound enough, I suppose, or it seemed that way from the road. At least there he’d be out of this God-forsaken rain.”
“Wherever they have him, they better not hurt him. There’ll be hell to pay if they’ve laid a hand on him.”
Sol gazed at him somberly then turned away to look at the lone figure riding up ahead. “Oh, I think there’s going to be hell to pay, all right. No doubt of that at all.”
The second evening was spent in a wide but shallow cave they found along rocky cliffs hidden by a thick shelter of trees. Sol had stumbled upon it purely by accident as he had ridden ahead to find fresh water to refill the canteens. A quick pow wow found everyone in agreement to set up camp as night was quickly approaching and they had all grown weary of the constant drizzle. The horses were allowed to graze in the shelter of the trees and then moved under an overhang that protruded beside the cave. The mouth of the cave was wide enough that a fire could be built to one side and protected from the ever present rain. Dry wood was almost impossible to find, but Scott managed to uncover some smaller branches and leaves that would burn and at least provide some warmth and a chance to dry out. Once the fire was going fairly well, he was able to find enough suitable wood to build it up a bit and give them a little light as well as some protection from animals.
Johnny was soaked to the bone and shivering as he quickly stripped down to his long johns by the fire and wrapped up with a blanket from his bedroll. His face was impassive and his expression remote, but Scott could tell he was about as miserable as he’d ever seen him. Supper was meager, with only the remnants of previous meals to eat, but no one seemed very hungry anyway. Scott spread his bedroll out near the mouth of the cave with Sol just a small distance away. Johnny remained sitting by the fire, staring intensely into the flames, his mind seemingly on places or events far removed.
Long after he’d fallen asleep and Sol was softly snoring, Scott was startled to feel movement near his right hand. He reached for his pistol and almost yelped when someone grasped his wrist. “Hush now, brother. It’s just me. Move over a bit, I’m pretty near freezin’ here.”
Scott peered through sleepy eyes and realized Johnny had moved his bedroll close in pursuit of warmth. There was something touching about the gesture, perhaps even an element of trust could be found in the simple act of Johnny seeking his brother’s company. Scott patted the ground immediately beside him and whispered, “Hey. It’s okay. Come get some sleep.”
As he squinted upward, he could barely make out Johnny’s face as he grinned down at him and suddenly Scott was fully awake when he felt Johnny’s hand gently tousle his hair. He heard the soft drawl, “Sleep tight, Boston ,” before the young man plopped down next to him and was almost immediately sound asleep. Scott sighed and thought about the enigma that was his brother for a long time before he finally dropped off to sleep out of sheer exhaustion.
Scott awoke the next morning to the sound of Johnny stomping in and around the cave, cussing a blue streak in Spanish. Scott glanced at Sol, who shot him a discreet look while Johnny was preoccupied, and silently mouthed the words, “We overslept” as explanation.
The clouds were so low and thick it was easy to see how such a thing could happen, for the sky didn’t look any different well past dawn than it had at dusk the previous day. Nauseating feelings of guilt swept through Scott and took hold of him with a vengeance. He wondered about Murdoch and hoped he was at least warm and dry. It was difficult to think of someone as fiercely strong as his father at some stranger’s mercy, so he couldn’t dwell on it long. Consequently, Scott fully understood the temper tantrum Johnny was throwing as he readied to ride. Both he and Sol steered clear of the younger man until all their gear was packed and they were back in the saddle heading toward Amador.
The trio of men had been in the saddle for a couple of hours when the change in scenery became unmistakable. The trees were so thick they towered over the road on both sides. The rain was now little more than a mist, but it was heavy and soaking. The further they rode, the more the mist seemed to settle into a murky fog enveloping everything.
A cloying scent of rotting plant life settled around the riders, and the silence was broken only by the occasional crashing sound of some startled animal that would dart through the undergrowth as they neared, invariably causing all three men to reach for their pistols.
Scott worried for his brother, whose shirt was once again so wet it clung to him like a second skin. Barranca had become a dark imitation of his normally bright golden self and his mane and tail hung in dirty thick strands. He moved underneath Johnny in an almost plodding manner, as if the deepening gloom was stealing his spirit.
Sol gave a low whistle beside him and spoke for the first time in several miles. “I’d forgotten how truly bad this ride is. If I was a lesser man, I might even say it gives me the willies. Know what’s even worse?” Scott shook his head. “It doesn’t get any better. The woods will get so thick that even on a sunny day very little light can get through. I don’t mind telling you, Scott, this kind of thing gets to me. Too much darkness and this damned rain … Pretty soon I’ll not be much better to be around than our boy up there.”
“As long as your aim is true, Sol, that’s all that counts.”
“Don’t need to worry about that, mi amigo. No worries about that at all.”
Scott took a deep breath. “I have to ask this, Sol, and now seems as good a time as any. Why did you come to Lancer in the first place? Why were you looking for my brother?”
Sol shifted in his saddle, but continued looking straight ahead. “I’d heard about John’s father finding him and that Johnny Madrid had left the game. Word gets out, you know.” He turned to look pointedly at Scott. “I’d never heard anything good about the man, you have to understand. I had to make sure the boy was okay.”
Scott thought for a moment before he responded, “So, did Murdoch pass the test? Did we?”
Sol stared directly into Scott’s eyes with that ice-blue gaze. “I’m here aren’t I? Now I just have to be sure I pass mine.” Offering Scott a quick wink and a small smile, Sol clucked to the rain-soaked appaloosa and sped up a bit to ride alongside Johnny.
Scott moved his horse in closer behind them and realized the two gunslingers were talking in low, almost angry, tones. Apparently there was some discussion about how long they’d ride before looking for a place to bed down. Sol’s voice became suddenly louder with frustration. “Damn it, Juanito. You’re pushing us and these horses, and you’re so exhausted you look like you’re about to fall out of that saddle. Give it a break, mijo, we can be out of here before dawn and in Amador before noon tomorrow.”
“No me chingues, guey. If you and Scott want to set up camp, don’t let me stop ya. No one asked you to come along. Might be better that way, I’m best off alone now.”
Scott couldn’t stand it and interrupted. “There’s no way in hell that’s going to happen, brother. You’re not thinking right if you believe for one minute I’m going to stop here and let you go on alone. It just isn’t going to happen, got it?”
Johnny turned in his saddle and lifted his hat with a touch. As his brother glared at him though dark bangs, Scott suddenly realized it was the first time he’d seen the younger man’s eyes in hours. “Then you best be set to ride for a while, ‘cause I ain’t stoppin’ here.”
Sol angrily pushed the long blonde hair plastered against his face away from his eyes as he interjected, “So when will you stop, John, when you do fall out of that saddle? You’ve had a cough for two or three hours now, and I’d bet you’re running a fever. You let yourself get real sick and then we’re all fucked. Even Murdoch.”
Upon hearing this, Scott moved his horse up alongside the others and peered angrily into his brother’s face. “What? Damn it, Johnny! If you don’t stop and rest in the next hour, I’m going to pull you out of that saddle and make you. Between me and Sol and the fact that if you shoot us you’ll kill Murdoch too, well, I’m betting we can pull it off.”
“Mierda, get out of my face! I ain’t been coughin’ Scott. You heard me cough? Sol here’s exaggerating and tryin’ to get his way ‘cause he don’t like this place. He’s El Cobarde when the weather gets like this, right, old friend? Admit it so we can get on with things and I don’t have to hear bitchin’ from all sides.”
For the first time since he’d met him, Scott saw the blond gunfighter’s eyes flash in anger. His tone became menacing as he responded to Johnny’s taunts, “You need to go fuck yourself, John. You’re gettin’ sick and you know it and I’m bettin’ ol’ Scott here is realizing that what I say is true, the way you were all cuddled up to him last night ‘cause you had the shakes so bad you couldn’t stand it.”
Scott was prepared for the explosion, but it didn’t make it any easier to watch. Johnny was out of his saddle and on top of Sol so fast that the horses barely had a chance to react. Both men fell to the ground as their mounts shied off into the trees. All Johnny’s pent up anguish and desperation were directed at Sol and Sol seemed intent in exercising his own particular demons as well. Suddenly, Scott flashed back to the drunken events by the creek. It immediately became very clear what the two were doing and once again Scott felt slightly used and somewhat annoyed.
Rather than try to break up the fight, which had immediately degraded to little more than a frenzied wrestling match, Scott quickly looked around. Knowing Sol, he’d chosen his opportunity well and there would be a place to make camp nearby. Sure enough, all he had to do was follow the loose horses into what was once a small clearing. It was now overgrown with brambles and small trees, but the unmistakable dilapidated form of a small miner’s cabin came into view. There wasn’t much except a roof and three walls that remained, but the opening would allow for a fire if wood could be found. Off to one side of the structure it looked as if he discovered what he needed.
Scott dismounted and began clearing enough space for the three of them. The horses seemed content to graze on the small amount of grass that grew there; later he could move them under the thick shelter of trees. If the idiots he rode with would quit squabbling long enough, they might even be able to scare up a rabbit and actually have something warm to eat. About the time he’d made a passing entry way into the hovel, he heard approaching footsteps and looked up to see his disheveled brother, followed by his gunslinger friend, making their way toward him.
He called to them, “Don’t even think about coming over here. You get out there and rustle up something for us to eat. Rabbits or dove or some such should be out about now. We need to eat, especially you, Johnny, because I don’t for a minute think Sol was making up all that crap about you getting sick.”
He watched as the two men sighed, gave each other a quick glance and moved off into the woods together. It wasn’t long afterwards that Scott heard gunshots in quick succession. Scott took it as his cue to start the fire and by the time the two contrite gunfighters appeared bearing a couple of rabbits, Scott had it blazing well enough to cook a small meal. Scott had spread his and Johnny’s bedrolls by the fire and placed one of the blankets on top to get warm. When Johnny handed him the skinned rabbits, he indicated the bedding. “Go get those wet clothes off and wrap that blanket around you. If you won’t take care of yourself, I guess I’ll have to.”
Johnny quietly replied, “I’ll be ready when it’s time, Scott. No need to fret about that. We’re gettin’ close. Murdoch is waitin’ on us and I ain’t goin’ to be nothin’ but prepared. Sol and me, well, you don’t worry about that shit. It’s part of the game, workin’ off the tension. He really does hate it out here, and I’ve got to get my head together. I can’t be worrying about you or the old man tomorrow. You be sure to do as I tell you and keep your head down, you understand?”
“I do understand, Johnny. Better than you realize. But for tonight, I call the tune, okay? Just for tonight. We need to be at our strongest. Rest and food will insure it.”
Surprisingly, Johnny offered him a smile which actually reached his eyes. Scott figured it would be the last he saw of that for a while and treasured it as he would a gift. It wouldn’t be long until his brother would be calling upon that which he had named Madrid and there would be little opportunity for the brothers to relish the bond they had formed. It was what was required to save their father, and they’d willingly sacrifice their own safety for his life. When Johnny reached around and pulled him into the usual loose headlock before going to get warm and dry, Scott had to fight down the strong emotions once again. Sentimental thoughts wouldn’t save his father or keep them safe. His rifle, Madrid, and El Solista would be needed for that, and Scott gave his brother a tremulous smile as he let him go.
“Where the hell is he, Johnny? Why would he just pack up and leave without saying anything? He seemed fine enough last night. He’s supposed to be this great friend of Johnny Madrid and he takes off in the middle of the night. You might need to be more careful who you call friend, little brother.”
Scott was livid. They’d awakened before dawn and began packing their gear. At first Scott just figured that Sol had gotten a jump on them and was out with the horses, preparing for the final, most critical leg of their ride. Johnny was sullen and withdrawn, but Scott had expected this from him. As Scott went out to his horse, he quickly noticed that the big appaloosa was gone. He felt as if he’d been struck in the chest by a two by four and a red haze of anger closed in on his vision. He had stalked over to his brother and let his rage fly.
“Johnny, you wake up when a fly lands on the wall of your room. Are you saying you didn’t hear him leave? Maybe he had a reason to leave so quietly even you didn’t hear him. Or are you telling me you pissed him off again and made him go?”
“If you ain’t noticed, I hadn’t told you nothin’. Don’t know nothing,’ so there’s nothin’ to say. Leave it, Scott.”
“Leave it? That’s what you say to me … leave it? That asshole may have just signed Murdoch’s death warrant. You … we … were counting on him, Johnny, and all you can say to me is leave it?”
Scott followed on Johnny’s heels as he went to finish saddling his horse, sniping at him the whole way. Without warning, Johnny swiftly turned toward him as he reached his horse. He slapped his hat back off his head so that it hung by the leather strap and confronted Scott eye to eye. The dangerous gleam Scott saw there made him take a step backwards and that was all the opening Johnny needed to begin his advance, eyes glittering and cold, finger raised as he began poking Scott in the chest as he spoke, “Back the fuck off, Scott. Neither of you was supposed to be with me, if you recollect, and there is no way in hell that I’m going to let you become some liability.”
Johnny jabbed with his finger again and Scott had the incredible urge to knock his brother’s head off. “I’m ridin’ to go get my father, now. You can come along or you can wait here, it’s up to you. I know Sol isn’t workin’ with those bastards, but he is gone, so get over it. He most likely wouldn’t have been allowed in anyway. Now if you go with me, you have to let me take the lead on this. You’ve known that all along, so don’t challenge me on it, Scott. Don’t make me do something that’ll shame me later.”
Upon hearing those words, all the anger left him. Scott had known that Johnny would be the one ultimately responsible for recovering Murdoch. The note had been addressed to him and it had clearly stated he was to be alone. Scott and Sol had always been gambling that they could sneak in and help at some point, but that was all it was, a gamble. One of the players folded, so there was little else to do than play the cards dealt. As for Sol being in league with Murdoch’s captors, the only thing Scott could do was trust Johnny, and his brother did not seem to even consider the possibility of that particular betrayal. Scott closed his eyes and lowered his head. “Right. You’re right. I’m sorry. Let’s just get out of here and go get Murdoch.”
Johnny stood there until Scott looked up and met his gaze. Johnny’s demeanor never wavered; his face was set with a determination that held no ground for argument. A quick nod was the only acknowledgement Scott would receive as the gunfighter silently turned back to his horse.
Throughout the morning, Scott rode close to his brother, staying only a few hoof beats behind. Johnny stared straight ahead and rode erect in the saddle, wary and attentive to every sight and sound. Lost in his thoughts about his father, Sol, and his gunfighter brother, Scott was startled when Johnny suddenly pulled up and looked at him directly. “We’re close now. Stay near to me as you can, but if we do get separated, keep your head down and wait. Don’t go playin’ hero, Scott. There’s no heroes in this cut, least wise live ones. If somehow they grab you, do what they say. It’s me they want. Let me make the play on this. The only way we win is if you and Murdoch get back to Lancer in one piece, comprende?
“You’re part of the equation too, Johnny. We can’t lose you, so don’t be taking big risks that sacrifice yourself. Neither Murdoch nor I would live much of a life if you did such a thing. You know that, don’t you?”
“Boston,” Johnny paused for a long time as if unable to finish his thought, then reached to untangle a bit of Barranca’s mane. “Poor horse, you’ve been put through the mill, haven’t you, boy.” Then his attention was back on Scott. “You would do just fine, you’re made of strong stuff. Keep your head down and everythin’ will work out. It’ll all work out, you’ll see.”
Johnny nudged Barranca forward and Scott followed suit, this time riding directly at his side. As they rounded the bend, the road widened a bit and the shapes of a few battered houses became visible through the trees. As they rode further, Scott could eventually see an area off the road that looked as if the trees cleared somewhat.
“I suppose that’s Amador up ahead?”
Johnny reined Barranca to an abrupt stop, causing the horse to snort and sidestep and forcing Scott to pull up his sorrel beside him. “Yep. That’ll be it. We’re goin’ in slow and easy. Startin’ now, you need to bring all that soldier boy cavalry and war training along with you, Scott. I’m thinkin’ it might serve us both well.”
Scott sharply nodded in agreement as they began riding again. They kept to the middle of the road, hats sitting low and only their eyes slightly moving as they scanned the dismal landscape to the right and left. Up in the hills that rose to the left of the road, Scott spotted a white building, maintained better than the rest; it had to be the church. He made a noise as if to tell his brother, but then immediately knew Johnny was aware by a slight twitching of his gun hand and a subtle shift of his head.
As they entered the town, the atmosphere became so oppressive with moisture and gloom it was as if a shroud of darkness covered the entire area. One of the first things Scott noticed was that no horses or wagons lined the streets of Amador. There was life in the town, which was apparent by the ruts and hoof prints in the muddy road. Some of them seemed to be very recent. However, many of the old shops were completely run down and the livery and blacksmith looked as if it hadn’t been used in years.
Ignoring the sounds of creaking window shutters and the rusty tapping of unhinged doors, they slowly navigated their way down the dirt road. Scott felt a growing tension in the man beside him. Scott instinctively reacted by deliberately shifting his hand toward his pistol. All hell broke loose. Rifle shots reverberated off the walls of the shops. Barranca crow hopped a few steps and Scott’s big sorrel tossed his head, eyes showing their whites. They fought to gather in their horses. A disembodied voice called from above them, somewhere to their left.
“Hold on, Madrid. Just stop where you are.”
Johnny tightened Barranca’s reins and managed to get him under control while Scott’s horse pawed the ground nervously.
Johnny continued to scan their surroundings as he drawled in response, “All right. We’re stopped. Come out here so I know who I’m talkin’ to.”
“I don’t think so, Madrid. You’ve not followed my directions, which I think were pretty damned clear, don’t you?”
“Well that depends on what directions you might be talkin’ about, and seein’ as I don’t have any idea who the hell I’m talkin’ to, I’m not sure I’ll be takin’ any directions from you at all.” Scott noticed the dangerous half-smile he associated with Madrid appear on his brother’s face as he spoke.
“I’m talking about the directions that said you were s’posed to come in alone. Remember them? And to show you I mean business, it might interest you to know that the man that you brought with you is in my rifle sights.”
Johnny Madrid’s gun hand twitched in response. It was merely a tightening and loosening of his fingers, but the implications were clear. His voice, however, answered in the same soft drawl. “This here’s my brother. When you took our father you made it both of our business. Now, you need to bring Murdoch to us and stop all this before it goes way too far, pendejo.”
The voice deepened in a sinister chuckle. “I don’t think so, Senor Madrid.”
The first shot hit the dirt directly in front of Scott’s horse, which reared. The following shots flew closely over his head. His horse bolted, but Scott managed to throw his legs clear of the stirrups as he dove out of the saddle. Johnny was yelling as he hit the ground running, screaming for Scott to take cover. He did just that, ducking in the doorway of the deserted saloon. Johnny sprinted to the opposite side of the road and Scott could see him intently staring in the direction of the shots as he hid behind the watering trough in front of the stables.
The horrible thrill of emotions that greet a battle situation slammed into Scott and his mind was taken to similar scenarios he’d encountered in the war. This situation wasn’t unique in his experiences and a familiar calmness began to dominate his actions. He watched Johnny evaluate his own circumstances and begin to purposefully move about, intentionally attempting to draw fire. A burst of gunfire emanated from a two story building up ahead and to Johnny’s left. Another round of shots came from a little further away and seemed to be issued from a storefront on the right. So far, it seemed there were only two shooters, and Johnny looked over at him from his hiding place and verified the fact by holding up two fingers. Scott quickly moved to the doorway and the movement was immediately met with a rapid release of gunfire from the same two locations. Scott didn’t for a minute suspect that there were only two men, but he also became convinced by the lack of other activity that the enemy numbers were small. If this held true, he and his brother would have the ability to provide sufficient firepower for survival.
He knew Johnny was analyzing the same facts facing them from the standpoint of his own unique experiences. Scott could tell when his brother made his decision to advance by the slight flinching of his muscles as he prepared to negotiate his way to the next barrier, most likely the doorway of the decrepit general store. Johnny glanced his way and Scott gave him a brief nod.
As Scott looked away from Johnny, he detected a slight motion immediately across from the store that was to be his brother’s destination. Suddenly, his aloof surveillance gave way to fear and as his brother began his advance, he shouted, “Johnny, across the street!” Scott never knew if Johnny heard his warning because as soon as the words left his lips, his world crashed in on itself and turned first fiery red and then black.
He awoke to the concerned gaze of his father. Everything hurt, especially his head, but none of that mattered because the man before him, although bruised and battered, was alive.
“Scott, son, just lie still. It looks like you have a nasty wound to the back of your head. You need to lie quietly for a few minutes. Don’t try to get up. Our hands are tied, and they’ve bound your feet, so there isn’t anything we can do anyway.”
Scott swallowed, blinked hard to focus, and made an effort to answer, only to be surprised at how weak his voice sounded. “It’s good to see you, sir, although I’d hoped it would be under better circumstances.”
Murdoch smiled a bit, and shook his head. “No, this isn’t my idea of a good time, either.”
“Do you know where we are? Where are they holding us?” Scott was afraid to look around for himself in fear that the pounding in his head would become unbearable.
“All I know is we’re in a church. It must be in some remote location because the only men I’ve seen or heard are those that are holding us. They had my eyes covered as we rode in. Do you know what place this is?”
Scott turned his head to get somewhat of a bearing on their location. All he could see were two small dusty rows of pews and what looked like a ramshackle podium before them. He clarified for his father, “The town is a little run-down hole in the wall called Amador.”
“Ah.” Murdoch nodded and began to respond further when there was suddenly a flurry of distant gunfire. His father’s eyes closed and his chin dropped to his chest, and Scott realized for the first time since coming around that his brother was still out there, facing the enemy alone. Apparently his father knew this too, because he remained still, everything focused on hearing the progression of the fire fight on the streets immediately downhill from the church. When things remained quiet for a while, Murdoch finally looked up and met his gaze.
“He won’t be easy for them to bring down, Murdoch. You know that. He’s still there.”
“The odds aren’t good for him, son. I’m guessing it’s about four to one.”
Scott tried a small smile. “He’d tell you he’s had worse.”
A loud, gravelly voice suddenly forced its way into the conversation. “Shut the hell up in there. If you don’t get quiet, I’m gonna gag ya!”
Scott managed to move so that he could see their captor walking toward them. The grimy man was heavy set and looked as if he’d be difficult to bring down, as did the rifle he carried at his side.
Deciding he’d take a risk, Scott demanded from the approaching man, “Why are you holding us here? What is it that you want from us?”
Retribution for his petulance was swift as the back of the outlaw’s meaty hand arched through the air and came down across his face. Scott barely held onto consciousness and could hear Murdoch yelling his name. Fearing for his father’s safety, Scott managed to call out, “I’m okay. It’s okay. Don’t provoke him.”
His father made a noise that sounded somewhere between a groan and a sob, and it suddenly occurred to Scott that this torture, the helpless surrender of his sons to an unknown enemy, was preying on the man far more than his kidnapping. Scott swallowed hard, peered up at their tormentor through swelling eyes, and panted, “You win. I’ll be quiet. Just leave my father alone.”
The bark of laughter revealed the man’s yellowed teeth, and as he reached a hand to rub his filthy unshaven face he smirked, “That’s right. Things will be a lot better fer ya if ya keep yore mouth shet, sonny. If I had my way, I’d gag ya right now and shoot ya later, but Pardee says not ‘til we get rid of Madrid.”
Almost simultaneous with the heart dropping revelation, a vicious round of gunfire could be heard in the streets below. Their guard spat out an obscenity and left them to go to the front of the church and then out of sight.
Scott refused to meet his father’s eyes.
After they sat in silence for a while, listening to an occasional rifle shot followed by what was surely Johnny’s pistol, Scott felt a compulsion to ask, “So either Day Pardee is back from the dead, or this Ben Pardee is the mysterious brother Johnny was talking about. Obviously, he knew all along, but did you know who was holding you?”
“I didn’t know exactly, but I put two and two together the second day … based on some comments I overheard. I wouldn’t have told you, Scott, what good would it do? We’re in danger enough as it is, and if they figured out who fired the killing shot that day at the ranch?” Murdoch sorrowfully shook his head. “I never thought I’d have to sacrifice one son to save the other. I’d take a bullet for either of you, I hope you know that.”
Scott maintained his silence for a long time, and then suddenly looked up at his father, realizing he needed to say what he was thinking, if only to give Murdoch some measure of peace. “They’d shoot him either way, sir. You know that. I love him too, and will do whatever it takes to protect him, but we have to trust that in this case Johnny knows what he’s doing. We don’t always give him benefit of the doubt, but we have to have faith in him now. We don’t have a choice.”
As he studied his father from his position on the grimy church floor, Scott saw a single tear wind its way unchecked down his battered face. His voice was so soft that Scott almost didn’t hear as he said forlornly, “I know what you say is true, Scott. Lord knows I’ve been too rough with him, letting suspicion get in my way. I hope I have another chance. But son, you must realize saying what you have and believing it are two different things. I hope you remember your own words when this is over. There’ll be no blaming yourself, do you understand?”
He once again found himself unable to meet his father’s gaze. “I understand,” was all he could say before his voice broke.
The shadows in the already dusky building grew longer and Scott had to move, his body was hurting and his head had begun to pound again. Murdoch had shifted his position so that he now sat facing him as he leaned against the back of the last pew. Feeling his own hunger and thirst he wondered how long it had been since his father had eaten or had anything to drink. He didn’t ask. It had been a long time since the man who was guarding them had left, although he’d heard the whine of his rifle’s report more than a few times.
Apparently the battle between Johnny and Pardee and his men had moved closer to the church. At least his brother was gaining some ground. He wondered just how much ammunition his brother had left and soon was listening intently in order to discover how many of the enemy was still alive and able to fire. Knowing Johnny Madrid, at least one of the outlaws had met his demise at the business end of the deadly Colt.
Scott’s patience paid off. He could tell from the direction of the sporadic reports that at the most, only three of the kidnappers were now returning fire, possibly merely two. The rifle had a distinctive sound and because it seemed much closer, Scott could determine that it was being fired by the man who had guarded them. He believed he could hear two other weapons, but couldn’t be sure. One man could be firing both a rifle and a pistol and the sounds varied enough as the men moved about that it prevented Scott from getting an exact read.
“I think he’s gotten at least one.” Murdoch’s voice sounded stronger, in spite of his deteriorating condition. He’d gone a long time without rest, water, or food. Scott was constantly reminded of this as he pondered the situation.
“You read my mind. The gunman that was watching us is firing on him now. There has to be a reason, or he’d still be in here knocking us around.”
Murdoch nodded his agreement. “The boy’s bound to be getting tired, Scott. I’m not sure if he can hold up, and heaven knows he might have taken a hit.”
“No use buying trouble, Murdoch. He’ll do whatever it takes as long as he’s breathing. You know that about your son.”
Murdoch looked over at him and smiled a proud father’s smile. “Yes, my son, I do. I know that about both of you.”
No sooner had the words left Murdoch’s mouth than a large volley of sound reverberated near the church. The bound men heard voices yelling, and unmistakably, to the immense relief of his brother and father, one of the voices was the distinctive drawl of Johnny Madrid.
“Ben Pardee! You’re down to two. The odds are gettin’ worse and worse on you gettin’ outta here alive. I ended your brother, and I’ll end you too, but if you let ‘em go, I’ll think about facin’ you out there in the open. That’s my best offer. Take it or leave it.”
Pardee’s answering voice was uncomfortably near the church, “Go to hell, Madrid. You fucked up your chance at a shootin’ affray with me when you brought your brother in. You come on up here and get ‘em, if you think you can. I’m thinkin’ your offer now just might have something to do with the fact you should be running low on bullets. If that’s the case, you’re all dead men unless you give up.”
“I’ll see you in hell first, Pardee. If I go up there, we’re all dead men anyway.”
“You know what, Madrid? I’m gettin’ tired of putting up with your shit. I’ve lost my big brother and two good men because of you. I’m goin’ up to that church and takin’ care of your family. If I can’t have you, at least I’ll know you ain’t really livin’. What life you have left will be sheer hell, just like mine has been. I’m gonna take such pleasure in knowin’ how much you kin suffer before you’re gone too.”
The long exchange had given Scott hope and then, in turn, dashed it completely. Pardee and his partner were between Johnny and the church. Other than sacrificing himself in hopes of getting off two good shots, there was little Johnny could do. Scott’s words to his father were proving prophetic and he knew Murdoch had to be in pure agony as he could only watch the older man struggle with the ropes binding his hands.
Silence prevailed for several long minutes, and then a sudden burst of gunfire exploded right outside the church door. The double doors slammed open and Pardee and his man scrambled inside. Both men crouched inside the door, panting with exertion. Ben Pardee gave his gunman a nod indicating he should watch the door, and then wheeled on Scott and his father. “So, Madrid has gone and decided your fate. I guess that’s only right, seein’ as he’s done the favor for so many other men.”
He advanced on Murdoch first, his gray revolver deadly and stark in the growing gloom of the church. Scott brought his head off the floor as far as he could and yelled, “No! If you want somebody, kill me. I’m the one that shot your brother, Pardee. If you have to have blood, then I’m offering up mine. Let my brother and father go.”
It was a last desperate act, one taken without thought. The only thing it gained was a barking laugh from Pardee and a sneering reply. “You think I buy that, purty boy? You must think I’m the biggest dumbass in California. But for your trouble, I’ll be glad to take you out first. How about that, boy?” Ben Pardee aimed his pistol at him, but Scott met it with a look of pure hatred in his eyes. The sound of the hammer being cocked reverberated unnaturally in Scott’s ears and then there was an ear splitting blast.
As Scott spent what he knew would be his final moments in a haze of noise and glaring at Pardee, a bright red rose appeared on the outlaw’s shirt and then another shot brought a plume of red from his neck. The pistol fell to the floor uselessly and Scott turned his head as far as he could to see what had happened. A flash of blonde hair appeared from behind the old podium about the same time the sound of a Colt being fanned in rapid fire succession came from the doorway of the church. The man keeping guard fell dead before he had time to realize what hit him.
Everything seemed to be moving as if in a dream. Movement at his hands attracted Scott’s attention, and he realized Sol was leaning over him, untying first his wrists and then his feet. As Scott struggled to sit up, he watched as the gunfighter made his way to Murdoch to tend to him.
A motion to his left caused him to change his focus as Scott heard Murdoch yell Johnny’s name. His brother appeared, disheveled and bloody, but standing triumphantly over the dead man at the door. Both captives could only stare as they watched their son and brother waver there, startling blue eyes taking them in, and then he looked up and over at the blonde gunfighter. As Johnny’s legs began to fold underneath him, he flashed his most radiant smile and in a silky drawl said, “It’s about time you showed up, amigo,” before he hit the floor.
And one shoe lost
Stands a wounded man
Who just laughs it off
And the angels with dirty faces
Go it alone ~ Los Lobos
He heard a sort of moaning noise from Murdoch as the man tried desperately to gain his feet to get to his fallen son. Sol moved to help him and then spoke in his usual assertive manner, “Boss, go check our boy. Scott, could you cover the doorway there and let me go find your horses? I think I know where they are, I spotted Murdoch’s big bay in a corral over behind the old livery stables. I’m betting the others will be moping around nearby. I want to get them near us so we can get out of this place at first light, before the human buzzards have a chance to come peckin’ around.”
Sol helped Scott from the floor and then handed him the dead man’s rifle before he continued, “We’ll have to leave that door uncovered,” motioning to the area past the podium with his chin, “but I can make it back here pretty quick. How is he, Boss?”
Murdoch had moved Johnny away from the door and the older man now sat propped up against the far wall with his son’s head in his lap, tenderly stroking his hair. His reply was slow in coming and for the first time Scott began to realize his father was most likely in shock. “I can’t find much of anything other than a crease to his arm. That’s where the blood is coming from. But he’s soaking wet and he seems too warm to me. Maybe he’s passed out from exhaustion.”
The last sentence was spoken with a hint of hope in his voice. Scott nodded and tried to reinforce the idea. “If all you see is the one wound, I think you might be right. He hasn’t slept much in days, I’d wager, and he was getting sick before we even made it to Amador. Right, Sol?”
“Well, it would probably earn me a bustin’ if I said so while he was awake, but yeah, he wasn’t doing all that well before he rode in here and decided to take on these assholes. Can’t be feeling none too swift now. Being soaked to the bone for days hadn’t been good for any of us. Damned rain.”
Scott looked up to find Sol smiling at him and with a single nod of the gunfighter’s head, he was out the door. After he’d gone, Scott maneuvered himself so that he could more easily divide his time between watching for new enemies and keeping an eye on his father and little brother. As he peered out the door through the growing gloom, he heard Murdoch speak softly to Johnny. Scott gave them a quick glance and realized that Johnny was moving some, trying to come around. “Is he awake?” he questioned his father.
“I’m awake, I’m awake. Hey there, brother.” Johnny made a move to sit up, but Murdoch easily held him where he was with only the gentlest of pressure.
“Just stay where you are, young man. I think you’ve earned some down time and you’d make us all feel better if you’d just take it easy for a little while.” His hand resumed its mesmerizing strokes, and Johnny stilled, his eyes glazing over and then closing as he succumbed to needed rest. Murdoch continued talking to him quietly, probably more for his comfort than that of his son. “That’s right. Just rest easy, son. You did well, and I’m proud of you, but now you can relax. Just sleep.”
Scott took a deep breath and kept his vision fastened on the trees beyond the church. Were they really going to make it through this nightmare? The pain of the events of the last few days was just too intense and he had a hard time letting go, daring to believe it could be over. A noise at the other side of the church startled him out of his thoughts and he made a lightning fast pivot, rifle raised and ready.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! I’m sorry, old son. I should’ve warned you. One of these days I’m gonna get my head blown off by one of you trigger happy Lancer boys and I’ll have no one to blame but myself.” Sol was holding out one hand in a calming gesture.
Scott lowered the rifle with a sigh of relief. “Did you find our horses?”
“Yep, I did. And guess what else I found hidden over in the old hotel?” At Scott’s shrug, Sol continued. “Well, I found me some supplies, a couple of saddles and saddlebags that look kinda familiar, and a real purty rifle. The saddles and stuff are in the back of the church. I looked around while I was out and everything seems quiet now.”
Scott had to smile as he quickly traded weapons with the gunfighter. “I’m glad to get my rifle back, I have to admit. Holding on to that thing was giving me the creeps.”
Sol burst out in laughter, causing Johnny to jump in his sleep and eliciting a mild curse from Murdoch. “Damn it, man. We’re all jumpy as jack rabbits and you come in here raising the roof,” but a slight smile indicative of the appreciation he had toward the man took the sting from the words.
“Well, how about I use some of my energy and get rid of these hombres. I’m with Scott on that creepy feelin’ and I sure as hell don’t want to share tonight’s sleeping quarters with these particular dead men.”
Looking away from Sol as he began to tend to his revolting self-appointed task, Scott once more scanned the surroundings. Content that all remained peaceful, he looked back toward his father. “Why don’t you go lie down in one of those pews for a few minutes, Murdoch? You look like you could use the rest and Johnny there is coming around again. I need to clean up that arm a little better and put on another bandage.”
Murdoch looked as if he was about to argue, but the dogged expression on his son’s face seemed to convince him to follow along. Scott figured the prospect of a short reviving nap after being consumed with anxiety for so long was apparently too good for his exhausted father to pass up. Murdoch let Scott help him slide out from beneath his waking son, and with a last caress to his younger boy’s forehead, limped over to a pew to lie down.
With the change in position, Johnny began moving his arms and legs and Scott could see him trying to blink his eyes into focus. Scott lowered himself to his haunches and reached out a steadying hand as the young man began an earnest effort to sit. His face scrunched in pain for a moment and then smoothed before his stormy gaze settled on his big brother. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to see that purty face, Boston,” he said in a scratchy voice as he searched for and found Sol walking toward them with their canteens, “and I don’t even mind sayin’ that I’m damned happy to see your ugly one, compadre. You were beginnin’ to have me worried.”
Sol handed him one of the canteens and snorted. “Mi amigo, you don’t exactly look or smell that great either, but it’s good to see you in mostly one piece. That was some fancy shootin’ out there, Juanito.”
The mood quickly turned more somber as his brother responded hoarsely, “I just did what had to be done, Sol. We’ve been there before, too many times.”
Sol ducked his head to meet Johnny’s eyes and they shared a knowing look. Scott glanced away, somehow feeling he was intruding on a past neither man was quite ready to share. With the horrible circumstances of the day hovering so near, Scott was sure he wasn’t ready to hear it anyway. Sol reached over and clapped Johnny on one damp shoulder. “How about I go rustle us up something to eat. I saw mostly hardtack and jerky and such, but even that sounds good about now, doesn’t it, boy?”
Johnny nodded gratefully. “It sure does. I don’t think any of us has eaten in forever.”
“I’ll be back shortly. I want to check on the horses too. They need to be ready to go as soon as it gets light enough to see our way out of this hell hole.”
Johnny grinned at Sol’s retreating back and then made a tremendous attempt to gain his feet. Scott was by his brother’s side in an instant, lending an arm when he swayed before finally getting his balance.
“Let’s get you over to one of those pews, before you do a face plant again, okay little brother? I want to tend to that arm again anyway.” As he drew the younger man to a pew, Scott was slightly surprised that Johnny permitted his need to big brother him, and decided it was time to ask the question that had bothered him as soon he’d had time to review the day’s events.
“Johnny?” His brother raised his eyes from his examination of his arm and allowed Scott to move the injured limb as he gently daubed it with a moistened bandana. “Did you have any idea what Sol planned to do? Did you know where he was when he disappeared this morning?”
At first Johnny looked away, but as had become his habit, Scott gave him the little gift of time and was finally rewarded. His brother turned his head and stared into his eyes with that intensely blue gaze and held it for a pause before finally replying in his familiar silky smooth drawl, “I admit to knowin’ some of it, Scott, but for the most part, he had his plan and I had mine.”
Scott chuffed a small laugh. “Where have I heard that before?” He continued to smile as he finished cleaning and then bandaging his brother’s arm.
When Scott finally raised his head, Johnny was still quietly looking at him, face relaxed and calm, but with the determined and proud expression of a consummate survivor. How could Scott tell his brother how much he understood this part of his life now, maybe not fully, but certainly more than before coming to Amador? What words could he use to tell Johnny that he admired him, respected him, loved him and those feelings would always include the part of his brother that carried the name Madrid? Scott shook his head and then gave in to the impulse that would convey it all. He reached around Johnny’s shoulders and pulled him in, feeling the tension slowly relax as he held him there, and finally allowing a tear or two to fall as he felt Johnny’s arms tighten around him in a returned embrace.
Scott held his brother for a moment, but then broke away and gently moved his hands to Johnny’s shoulders and grasped them firmly.
“I’m thinking I normally would punch you for some of the things you did out there, Johnny, including taking credit for something you know you didn’t do. Now I can imagine that isn’t the gunfighters’ ethic, so you should have some explaining to do.”
Johnny met his gaze straight on, but winced as he moved his hands to grasp Scott’s arms. “Scott, big brother, you know I didn’t do anything you wouldn’t have done yourself. There wasn’t any way I’d have let that hijo de puta know the truth and come after you. Besides, I never realized you were into that kinda thing, taking credit and all. Lo siento, hermano mio!
Scott narrowed his eyes to give Johnny a well-deserved glare, and opened his mouth in retort when he noticed the spark of mischief dancing in those blue eyes. He was forced to turn his unspoken words into a smile as he remembered that sometimes, and in certain situations, you had to know when to fold.
Scott would have liked to remember their return to Lancer as one of celebration and glory, but as in any war, the festivities would be for the people left behind as they communicated their sense of relief. For the men involved, it would be far more complicated. When they had awakened in the little church of Amador, Scott had gone out to saddle the horses only to find the big appaloosa was already gone. Looking around, he realized all traces of Sol had vanished. At first he was angry again, but as he hesitated before going back into the church, he began to realize the sadness he felt at the gunslinger’s abrupt departure.
It was hard to tell Johnny and Murdoch that Sol had left without explanation or a parting word, and he had thought for a bit on how best to inform them. He wasn’t sure how Johnny would take it, but he shouldn’t have worried. As he told them of his discovery in somber tones, his brother had merely shaken his head and flashed his brilliant smile. “Yep, that’s ol’ Sol. What did I tell you, brother? El Solista goes it alone.” He had chuckled as he turned away, but Scott would always suspect it was partly to hide the pain he tried so hard to deny.
The men had spent the rest of the early morning in near silence, each lost in his thoughts. Murdoch surreptitiously watched his younger son, although in retrospect Scott was sure his brother was as aware as he was of the stealthy monitoring. His father’s observations were blatant with Scott, apparently thinking his attentions would be better received, so he would occasionally reach over and grab him to look in his eyes or feel the lump at the back of his head, demanding to know if he felt okay. More than once, Scott had been surprised to suddenly feel an arm around his shoulders or a hand at the back his neck, only to find his father standing beside him, relief and affection shining in his eyes. In return, neither son would allow Murdoch to assist in the preparations to ride, directing him back to sit if he even so much as looked as if he was going to help.
When he felt like everyone was ready and able, Scott had given the word to ride. As Johnny gathered his saddlebags and prepared to mount up, a small paper fell to the ground in front of them. He bent down, picked it up, and immediately began to smile.
“What’s it say, Johnny? Is it from Sol?” Murdoch had seemed truly saddened by the departure of the young man.
“Yep,” Johnny replied and gave Scott a conspiratorial wink. “It says ‘Look around, the sun is shining. It’s a good day for a ride’.” Sure enough, the heavy fog and gloom that had accompanied their every move in Amador had finally lifted. It was, in fact, a good day to leave that town and its horrors behind.
Once they returned home, Murdoch hovered over them both in an almost suffocating manner. Scott was amazed that his brother bore it better than he, but that was mostly due to the fact Johnny had truly been ill. During this time, Scott often found Murdoch at Johnny’s bedside simply watching his younger boy sleep, or as his brother’s health improved, swapping tales until late in the evening. By the second week, however, both sons were climbing the walls and insisted on returning to their customary duties and chores.
Johnny also took to disappearing for long intervals, as he had occasionally when he’d first arrived at Lancer. Feeling the need for his brother’s company, Scott rode out looking for him one afternoon. The air had that crispness to it that told him fall would soon arrive and his horse was frisky and feeling his oats. He’d allowed the sorrel to gallop a bit before Scott spied Barranca grazing on the highest knoll overlooking the hacienda. Scott found Johnny, but not as he thought he’d be, gazing out at Lancer and the land it encompassed. Rather, his focus was further away and directed toward the south; his expression was closed, seeming almost resentful of the intrusion.
“You need me for somethin’, Boston?”
“No. I just missed your sparkling personality and charming wit, my brother, and came to see if I could get you to spare me a few minutes of your company.”
Johnny looked over at him with squinted eyes, “Shut the fuck up, Scott. You don’t always have to play the smartass, you know.”
“Who’s being a smartass, boy? I meant what I was saying. It’s been kind of lonely around the hacienda of late, what with Teresa still gone and only our father there. He’s about worn my ears off talking about those new line shacks. I’m missing some good old cussing, illegal spur wearing, and general Murdoch baiting.”
At first there was a frosty silence, and then a burst of laughter as Johnny slapped his hands together in obvious amusement. “So you’re saying it’s boring, big brother? If that’s what you’re saying, well I’m relieved. I thought it was just me.”
“Hell no, Johnny. Without you around much to ruffle Murdoch’s feathers, it is actually rather peaceful in the house most days. So much so, it’s gotten hard to bear.”
Johnny shook his head and continued to chuckle a bit. “Truly Scott, I thought I was goin’ near loco. I’ve been coming out here, feelin’ the need to ride, thinkin’ about ol’ Sol. Sometimes it’s tough, you know, having roots and family and all that shit.”
Scott laughed at his brother’s irreverence. “Well it isn’t just you and I miss Sol too, if that helps you out any. I have to say he could be quite entertaining and he certainly added a unique viewpoint to the picture. You think he’ll ever return to Lancer, Johnny?
“Oh, I don’t know, Boston. I’ll hear from him again. It’s kind of a destiny thing or somethin’. Seems like ever so often, our paths just cross and we ride together a while and then he’s gone. It’s the way it’s always been.”
Scott pondered this revelation for a moment and then felt compelled to reply, “That’s sad in some ways, Johnny. But if it’s his custom, it seems to have worked out. I think there’s a lot to the story of Madrid and El Solista that I don’t know, and I probably owe him thanks for pulling my baby brother out of a few more situations than just over at Amador.”
To his happy surprise, Scott was suddenly pulled into a joyful headlock and Johnny’s melodic laughter once again echoed through the hills overlooking Lancer. “Someday you’ll know more, brother of mine. When Sol’s here for the tequila and the telling.”
Scott wouldn’t think to have it any other way.
brother last night
To the howling wind
Find an empty doorway
It'll be back again
And the angels with dirty faces
Go it alone
~ Los Lobos
*Notes: King Fisher was real (he's got a page in Wikipedia). I adjusted his already colorful personage to fit my purposes, but his story is interesting without my embellishments/changes. Amador and its church also exist, although they are presented in somewhat different form for the benefit of this story.