I’ll never forget the profound sorrow. My son sat on his haunches by Isham, his head down in anguish, unable to meet my eyes. He told me there was a time when all he’d wanted was the same thing as the man lying dead beside him. He’d wanted to be a gunfighter whose pride was in being good at his trade. I said I figured he’d always be Johnny Madrid, at least in part. I’m usually not wrong, and I wasn’t then.
He killed Isham to protect me. He said he knew without hesitation that he was more Lancer than Madrid, and if I wanted a prodigal son, I had one. That statement had sent my hopes soaring. But now, alone in an older man’s thoughts, I remember a man’s nature is fickle, likely to change at any moment with the circumstances surrounding him. At times, Johnny Lancer is my son. At times, he is no one’s son; he is a child of the wind, and I must let him live this reality as surely as he lives the other for me.
At first, the events that took place after Warburton’s death unfolded in a deceptive calm. The ranch has a way of taking up time and everyone became busy with trying to get normal operations going again. However, after only a day or two, there was a tension in the air around my younger son. Rather than settling into his routine, he’d become anxious and distant. Perhaps most disturbing, he had taken to leaving Lancer in the evenings and not returning until early the following morning.
Scott had ridden out that fateful night to turn in the man who ultimately killed Warburton, and did not return until he reported to the other ranchers in the Association. The morning after his arrival home, he found me sitting on the porch and immediately came over.
“Murdoch, what really happened after I left? Johnny won’t say much. Jelly hasn’t finished patching bullet holes even now.”
“I figured you’d spoken to your brother. He hasn’t told you anything?”
“Well, what he has said hasn’t been very enlightening, sir. Mostly his explanation left me with more questions than it answered. He just said two of Warburton’s hired gunfighters came here with the intention of killing you. Instead, they met the business end of Johnny Madrid’s Colt and he had to ‘blow out their lamps’ as he put it.”
I found it hard to meet my elder son’s gaze. This man knew Johnny better than anyone, certainly better than I. I knew how incongruous the description of that night’s events sounded to Scott.
“I take it you think there was more to it than that?”
“He was ready to fight alongside them, sir. That’s why I indicated I was more confused after speaking with my brother. It is also why I’m talking to you rather than him.”
“I can only tell you what I know, Scott. That night there was quite a fire fight out along the front of the hacienda. Johnny outdrew and killed two gunfighters Warburton had hired. He didn’t seem to waste much energy over the death of Sexton Joe. Isham, well, he had been a friend; they apparently rode together at one time. I only know that much.”
“He feels guilty for shooting him and saving you?”
“Scott … no, that isn’t it, son. He couldn’t understand Isham pushing it so far. Warburton was gone. Nothing could be done to help him. Johnny wanted Isham to back off and the fool wouldn’t. I don’t think guilt is what he’s feeling, but if you really want to know, you’ll have to confront him.”
Scott looked at me with that piercing gaze he has. I knew he was aware I was hedging my bets, but after that night, when Johnny’s reassurances had been so welcome and sincere, my youngest had changed. I was no longer sure myself about what was going on with him. Once Tallie left and the ranch was settling down again, my son had ridden into Morro Coyo and come back a different man.
Scott dropped his eyes, took off his work gloves, and stared at them for a time. When he raised his head, there was a determined look on his face.
“You’re okay with what he did? You’ve had all your questions about Warburton and Johnny’s loyalties answered?”
I sighed. I knew I had to let him in. Scott was too perceptive to be put off for long and he deserved to know all that I could tell him.
“After Johnny killed Isham, we talked. He said he told the Warburton girl that he was more Lancer than Madrid, but I could see he was in a lot of pain about Isham and the choices the man made that eventually killed him. As for Johnny, he put his life on the line again to save me.” I paused for a moment, reflecting on that fact. No father really wants to acknowledge his son has had to save his ass. “I know where his loyalties are, Scott. What I don’t know is what is happening now. He isn’t himself. He seemed to be handling it at first, but now …”
“So you’re saying that what is going on now is separate from the events of that night. Perhaps they led up to this, but Warburton isn’t the cause now.”
“Scott, that’s how I see it. He and I are fine, as far as I know. I haven’t any reason to think differently. Johnny isn’t around much and when he is, he isn’t talking.”
“You want me to try again, Murdoch? Maybe I can get him to open up.”
“Not yet, Scott. Let me see if I can get something more from him. Maybe he is just in grief over shooting his friend and Tallie leaving. I think she meant something to him.”
I could tell Scott was doubtful of this easy explanation; whatever he’d seen in his brother’s eyes or heard in his voice had set off an alarm. As we parted company, Scott gave me a nod. He expected to know more soon.
I waited. It wasn’t like I hadn’t done it before, but this time it felt like betrayal. I know I thought there would be a transition and then we would move on from the damage Warburton had caused. Now I was reduced to waiting for my son as if he wasn’t trusted. I knew he would interpret it that way, and I hated to do it to him, but I had to know.
It was well past two when I heard his spurs on the porch. Johnny entered quietly, but didn’t seem surprised when he glanced at the great room and saw me sitting there.
“You’re up kinda late, old man.”
“I couldn’t sleep, John. I thought I might try to catch you since I was going to be up anyway.”
“Well, I’m caught. You did good. Now let’s get to bed. Mornin’ comes fast.”
I know I scowled at him, but made an effort to keep my voice even. “It is morning, young man. Just as it has been every day for almost a week. Is there something you need to tell me?”
His eyes were hooded as he looked at me, and his expression was as remote as I’d seen it. “I’m not drunk. You don’t need to track my whereabouts either.”
“I never implied you were drunk, boy. I know you don’t make a habit of going into town and getting drunk by yourself. I also would be willing to bet that there isn’t a girl associated with your disappearances, being so soon after Tallie’s departure.”
He reacted to that, perhaps more than I thought he would. “How’s that any of your damned business, Murdoch? What do you care if I’m going out and getting a sympathy fuck? It wouldn’t be the first time, doubt it will be the last.” His glittering eyes showed his anger, but for the first time his scowl was gone, only to be replaced by that lazy smile that worried me a lot more than the scowl ever did.
I knew it was time to keep a rein on my temper. Problem was, I was dealing with a master manipulator. “First of all, I’d appreciate it if we could have this talk without the sarcastic sneer and coarse language. You know that kind of talk isn’t allowed in this house and I’d hope you respect me enough not to use it in my presence. What I would like to know, and surely is my business, is why the sudden change in attitude? Why are you only here as long as it takes to fulfill whatever duty you had for the day and then gone all night?”
Johnny continued to stare at me with those sparkling blue eyes and diverted my intent with the practiced ease of the professional. “You’ll hear that kind of talk when you ask me where I’ve been and I’ve been out gettin’ laid. What would you have me say? And as far as my attitude, shit, my attitude changed when you started spying on me and wanting damned explanations like I was a kid. If you don’t want to hear what I have to say, and you don’t like how I look, then stay away. We get along fine when you mind your own business and let me mind mine.” He smacked his hat back on its leather strap and made a move to go up the stairs.
In desperation, I reached out to grab his arm. I’ve known not to do that since I’d realized who he is, but the impulse overrode my better judgment. Johnny jerked away and twisted in on me with a snarl on his face like a cornered big cat as he said in his low and soft drawl, “Don’t, Murdoch. Don’t you ever do that again, old man.”
My hand clinched in a reflexive fist. “Who the hell do you think you’re talking to, boy? What kind of insolent behavior is this from someone who professes to be a Lancer and less than a week ago said the name with pride? How can a son talk to his father like that?”
I half expected him to round on me, our anger having escalated to such ridiculous proportions. Instead, the hard face of Madrid stared at me in silence. I saw his hands clinch and then loosen as his arms relaxed at his side. My gaze instinctively went to his eyes, knowing who I’d find there, waiting. My breath caught. Expecting hatred, all I saw was intense pain residing in those stormy blue depths. As soon as we made that inadvertent contact, he reached back for his hat and slammed it on his head, lowering the brim.
Upon seeing my son in such agony, my anger immediately left me. “My God, what’s happening, son?”
Johnny Madrid merely raised his head as he curled his lips in a half-smile, turned on his heel, and ascended the stairs to the sound of spurs ringing in the night air.
I stood there a moment, wondering if he would be off again. It remained quiet in the house, so assuming Johnny had actually gone to bed, I made for my own room. I was overly tired and restless and didn’t think sleep would come at all, but no sooner had my head touched the pillow, I was out.
Of course, when I finally awoke the next morning he was long gone. I looked for Scott and found him in the barn, his arms on the rails of the stall as he was watching his horse. He was quieter than usual and seemed reluctant to meet my eyes.
I said, “I see Johnny and his palomino are already gone. Did you get a chance to talk with him and find out where he was going?”
Scott shrugged. “He wasn’t very talkative. He did mention he’d pissed you off pretty well.”
I barked a laugh. “He pissed me off? I think he was about as mad as I’ve seen him since that first day here, Scott. He was baiting me, and as usual I went for it. But there was something else.”
“Something else? You mean besides the cussing and posturing?”
“What you call posturing is a bit more than that, don’t you think? Maybe not for you, I suspect he cuts you some slack. No, he seemed different, Scott. He was mad all right, but he’s hiding something.” I shook my head. “I can’t get the look in his eyes out of my mind.”
For the first time that morning, Scott looked straight at me. “Yesterday when you were talking, you said the same thing. You said he isn’t himself. I’m finding the same to be true. He shuts down, even if I joke around or try to get him to tell me about things he usually likes to go on about. I feel pushed away, to be honest, like he doesn’t want me around.”
I agreed. “All I know is I can’t take having my son act like some wounded animal. He’s warning us off and it’s about time we followed him and found out why.”
Scott’s calm blue-gray eyes quickly scanned my face to see if I was serious about following Johnny. Usually, I was the first to insist on maintaining privacy and allowing each other our own lives, even if it meant making mistakes. I met his gaze, trying to convey my concern and worry. He briefly closed his eyes and nodded.
“I don’t like it, Murdoch. He’s going to be angry, but I’m at a loss. If there’s something so wrong it’s got both of us worried, then I don’t believe we really have a choice. I hope he’ll just hear us out before he turns on us.”
“I certainly hope so too, but after last night I’m not sure if things can get all that much worse.” I gave Scott what I hoped was a reassuring slap on the shoulder. “We’ll ride in after a few hours and give him a chance to get settled. I have a feeling he didn’t ride straight into town. I imagine Barranca had a chance to stretch his legs first.”
We saddled our horses early that afternoon and rode out. We didn’t talk much; I think both of our minds were on Johnny. After we rode into Morro Coyo a ways, we dismounted and proceeded on foot so our presence wasn’t quite as obvious. Scanning the street, we saw Johnny’s palomino tied at the hitching post outside the saloon. There were several other horses tied there as well, more than the usual for that time of day.
Scott motioned me over. “Maybe we should split up and take a look around and see if we can find out if something is up. I’ll check in at the livery if you’ll head over to Baldemero’s. It sure seems quiet for there to be trouble brewing, but you know our boy, if it’s here, he’s found it.”
I nodded in agreement to his plan and set out for the general store. Nothing much was happening there, so I continued down the walk, exchanging pleasantries with people I met. No one seemed nervous or worried, in fact all appeared peaceful and calm as they attended their business. I met Scott outside the livery and he reported the same results.
“Well, that leaves the inevitable,” he said with a grimace. “Are you ready to go have it out with your son? At least it’s early and there won’t be as many witnesses to the dressing down we’ll get.”
I had to smile at his reluctance to encounter the wrath of his brother. Scott could hold his own against my younger son, but his nature commonly led him away from conflict and now Scott had to be feeling as if he was heading straight into the lion’s den.
“Now is as good a time as any,” I said as we lowered our hats and squared our shoulders and made our way to the saloon.
We both peered over the batwing doors before entering, our guilt over our pursuit causing us to be hesitant. Sitting alone at the back of the saloon, he spied us immediately. A slow squinting of the eyes and a slight stiffening of his shoulders were the only movements indicating we had his attention. I’m sure we looked ridiculous, peeking over the door at him. Johnny rose from his chair, put on one of the most charmingly fake smiles I’d ever seen, and motioned for us to join him.
As we walked over to the table, I signaled the barkeeper for three beers. Johnny made a calculated turn to block the view of those at the bar as he moved in close, grabbed Scott by the arm, and backed him toward a chair. He speared me with a menacing glare as he whispered, “What are you two doing here? Madre de Dios, I shoulda known you wouldn’t leave me alone until I could set things straight.”
Scott shook his head and pulled his arm from Johnny’s grasp. “We’re worried about you, boy. We both have been thinking the same things and we figured it was time to check on you.”
Johnny practically spat out, “So big brother and daddy are going to waltz in here and make it better for Johnny-boy. Look around. Does that seem like a good idea?”
My eyes swept the saloon as we took our seats. There were the usual customers sitting about, and a group of three men standing at the bar appeared new to the town, or just passing through. Watching discreetly, I soon realized what had so agitated my son. These three strangers exuded confidence, wore their gun belts low on their hips, and constantly scanned their surroundings. They stood with an unmistakable posture, one all too familiar to the father and brother of Johnny Madrid.
Scott’s eyes were already down when I looked at him. He’d quickly sized up the situation as well. He asked, “You know those men, Johnny?”
“Yeah, I know ‘em. I’ve ridden with one, the others I know by reputation.”
As I cautiously monitored them, I could tell the gunfighters were equally aware of our presence. Their positions at the bar were slowly shifting, so Johnny remained constantly in their sights. The subtlety of movement would have been amazing, had the inherent danger not been so stark.
The barkeeper came over with our beers and I realized Johnny had relaxed back into his chair in a lazy manner. The initial annoyance I’d seen in his face had disappeared completely. Now, as he took a long pull from the beer, he looked as confident and in control as I’d ever seen him.
Scott was abrupt in his questioning. “Some of Warburton’s hired men decided to stay in town a while, I gather. You’ve been sharing trade secrets in the evenings?”
I cringed, expecting the worse, so I was more than a little surprised when Johnny huffed a small chuckle. “Shit no, Scott. Madrid don’t share no secrets with anyone, ‘cept maybe you.”
I watched Scott’s demeanor change with those words. He closed his eyes for a second and then opened them to look at his brother in apparent wonderment. “Little brother, what have you been doing here? I can’t imagine this being a particularly healthy place to spend your time right now.”
Johnny kept his eyes on the bar as he answered. “Remember you tellin’ me about that Chinese general from a long time ago? Sun something or other?”
Scott sighed, “Sun-tzu. I get it. Johnny, why couldn’t you let us in? Why handle this by yourself?”
I coughed. “I hate to interrupt, but what the hell are you two talking about?”
Scott turned to me, but I kept my eyes on Johnny. By watching him, I could tell what was happening in the bar and I was leery of dropping my guard.
Scott said, “You’ll recognize the man’s words even if you don’t recall the name, sir. He’s the military leader who said, ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.’ I think our boy’s been trying to use some strategy to keep you from harm’s way.”
“Ah.” I continued to watch my youngest. “So that’s what’s been going on here. You come to Morro Coyo to protect what’s yours and keep an eye out for trouble. I wish you’d said something instead of trying to back us off with lies and attitude.”
Johnny briefly met my eyes before he slouched down further into his chair, seemingly unconcerned about anything going on around him. “I’d hoped they’d leave soon, Murdoch. Mostly I just come in and shoot the bull. Keep my ears open. But it isn’t safe for you here. If I’d known there was a chance you’d come chargin’ in like a bull in a damned china closet, I would’ve warned you off. I miscalculated that. Madrid’s getting a little soft. Or maybe I’m just not used to worrying about people I care about gettin’ hurt.”
I flashed on the conversation we’d had the evening he’d left to go back to Warburton’s camp. I knew he was thinking about it as well, so I gave him a knowing smile. It seems neither of us is much used to all the worrying.
Scott looked at Johnny over his mug as he took a drink of his beer and then asked, “Is this all of them, brother? Or have you seen some others hanging around that haven’t made it down here yet?”
Johnny’s eyes left the group at the bar for a brief moment and he lowered his head as he spoke in his smooth, silky drawl, “Yeah, there’s some more. One of Isham’s ridin’ buddies is still here, name of Smith. He’s an older guy, probably past his prime. Any player worth his salt could take him out. Another one I’ve seen … well that would be the damned Indian Warburton kept around. He’s a mean son of a bitch, don’t say nothin’ but he’s always watchin’ everything. He’s as good with a knife as I am a pistol and I don’t mind admittin’ he spooks me a bit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen either of them in the saloon, but they’re out there.”
We made small talk for a few minutes after that. It was the first time since Warburton that Johnny had allowed either of us close. He finished up his beer and pushed his chair back. With a wink at me he asked, “Ain’t it time for you youngsters to be headin’ home? Wouldn’t want you to be late or anything.” He glanced at the gunhawks. “Might be a good opportunity to head on out the door, if you know what I mean.”
Never forgetting what had brought us out in the first place, I felt I had to pursue a topic none of us really wanted to broach. “Boy, are you coming home tonight? Can we at least talk about what’s going on in a civil manner?”
Johnny dropped his head and closed his eyes. When he finally looked up, those eyes were stormy blue and filled with sadness. He turned to me and spoke in a voice so soft I had to strain to hear it, “I’ll be home, old man. We’ll talk.”
Understanding the promise in those brief words, I merely nodded. As I met his eyes, I tried to convey all the forgiveness, affection and concern I felt, yet couldn’t voice. Johnny’s blue gaze softened and the hypnotic little smile I so often associated with my son appeared. He understood.
Scott and I stood and said our goodbyes before making our way to the door. Johnny struck up a conversation with a card player seated at the table next to ours and gave us a moment to get out and walk down the road toward the horses.
“He wasn’t as mad as I thought he’d be.” I detected some relief in Scott’s voice.
I agreed and added, “He’s got a lot going on in that mind of his. I’m hoping he’s not so preoccupied he’s his own worst enemy right now.”
Scott shot me a worried glance as we approached the horses. “You believe he’s still pretty conflicted about his place in everything, don’t you?”
“I don’t know, I think you’re usually a good judge of your brother. You have to admit it’s something he lives with, the battle of who he wants to be with who he used to be.”
Scott nodded in the direction of the saloon. “There he is. My bet is he’ll be along sooner than later. We should head on out and give him some space.”
We watched as Johnny ambled toward Barranca, never looking our direction. “You’re right, son. Let’s ride.”
We mounted and had just reached the last buildings of town when we saw several men run like hell up the street toward the saloon. Instinctively pulling up our horses, we turned in our saddles. As I moved I saw Scott’s hand was already on his pistol, and I reached for my rifle.
A young man ran beside us, startling our horses by yelling, “Gunfight!”
Scott was down from his saddle in a flash. He reached for my horse’s reins and yelled, “No Murdoch. If you ride over there, you’ll get him killed for sure.”
I dismounted and we pulled our horses to the hitching posts. An older man, lanky and bold, was moving to the center of the street several yards down from Johnny. Johnny stood loose limbed and calm. His hat was shoved back on its long leather strap and his black hair stirred slightly in the afternoon breeze.
Silence descended as the townspeople had darted inside or stood in hushed awe along the storefronts. The occupants of the saloon had come out the doors and waited patiently along the walk. I don’t think Scott or I could control the urge that drew us ever closer to the scene. We moved in near enough we could hear the voices.
“Yeah, I’m calling you out, Madrid.”
I waited for the answer, half hoping there would be a refusal, a declaration of independence from all that was Johnny Madrid.
“Smith, don’t you think if I killed Isham that I’d easily do the same for you? If you value your life at all, you need to back off and ride out. I called Isham my friend at one time, and I don’t give a fuck about you. That should tell you somethin’.”
I closed my eyes at the sound of the baiting words spoken in the familiar lilting drawl. Truthfully, I’d known this was the only way the situation could end.
Forcing my eyes open, I stole a quick glance at my oldest son. He was breathing fast, and the beaded sweat on his upper lip betrayed his extreme agitation. It was as hard on him to watch this as it was me.
“You’ve always talked a load of bullshit, Madrid. Isham was stupid enough to believe it. You and I aren’t going to draw down in the middle of the night, and I’m not afraid of you. Shut the fuck up for once, and let ‘er fly.”
The motion of the man’s hand was minute, but enough to begin the play. The older gunfighter’s pistol had barely cleared leather when there was a sharp sound and a spew of blood that erupted from his neck. Smith released a shot into the ground and then fell into a growing pool of blood. His gagging death throes could be heard from where we stood. The horror of the scene seemed to suck the air right out of the town, and then release it in a gasp. Scott stiffened beside me and whispered his brother’s name.
I think I was in shock as I watched my boy walk, spurs ringing in the lingering silence, to where Smith lay. Johnny stared at the man, briefly shook his head, and then moved back in the direction of his golden horse. The little troupe of men outside the saloon slowly filed back inside. There was a rush of movement to the dead man’s side, and the words of the small crowd of townspeople began to reach our ears.
I heard comments that still haunt me at times. “Did you see that? I’ve never seen anyone so fast.” “It was a fair fight. Madrid had no choice but kill him, right?” and the most painful of all, “Johnny Lancer will always be Madrid to me. His daddy might not like it, but that boy is walking death to anyone who crosses him.”
Scott didn’t look at me, but made straight for his horse. He was mounted and riding before I had time to unhitch mine from the post. I hurried my horse along to catch up, knowing my eldest needed me beside him. A few minutes later, Scott finally spoke, “That was one of the most horrible things I’ve ever witnessed, yet at the same time …” He shook his head. There seemed to be no words to express what he was feeling.
“I’ve known what he is for a while, son. I also know some of what he’s done to survive. To see it played out in front of us, as a result of his efforts to keep us safe … it’s a nightmare I hope to never live again, but I don’t know if ...” I too, had run out of words.
Scott suddenly turned to look directly at me. “Murdoch, I hate to think of him having to do that.” His voice broke and he had to swallow before he could continue. “You might think I’d be ashamed. I’m not. Heaven help me, I’m proud of him.”
I kept my eyes forward, afraid to let him see the intense emotions his words brought. Our mounts plodded slowly on to Lancer, I think we both were hoping to see the golden horse pull alongside us.
I imagine what happened next occurred only because we were so preoccupied. I can’t believe a person that had been in this wild country as long as I had, or a man who’d lived through the hell of war, could have been so easily surprised. We were riding in silence when a sudden burst of activity could be heard from the rocks above. Before I had time to realize what was taking place, a form dropped from the cliff straight onto Scott. His startled horse reared and deposited both Scott and his attacker onto the ground. My own horse began sidestepping and tossing his head, so between trying to get to my son and staying topside on a horse that was eager to rid of me, I didn’t see the man dressed completely in black step out of the trees until it was much too late.
My attacker grabbed the bridle of my wayward horse. “Get down off of there, Lancer, before I reach up and pull ya down.”
I managed to dismount without falling and as I turned to face my assailant I could see Scott being led over to where we stood. My heart skipped a beat when I saw his captor. The man was an Indian, dressed completely in buckskin and in his hand was a huge knife he held menacingly at Scott’s throat.
“What do you want from us?” My voice was deep with anger.
The gunfighter drawled his response, “Oh, I don’t need nothin’ much from y’all. Only thing I want is that bastard named Madrid.”
Scott tried to move away from the Indian and was shoved back for his efforts. The knife gleamed and made a slight cut in the delicate skin of my son’s throat. A thin stream of red soon appeared and dribbled down to his collar.
The cut seemed to enrage Scott even more. “He’s not here. We don’t know where he’ll go, or what he’ll do. If you knew him at all you’d understand that he’s not likely to be following us about.”
“Oh, if Madrid don’t show up soon, I think I’ll find out where he is when I ride into town and let word out that I’m seeking revenge for Sexton Joe and Isham. All I have to do is let him know I’m on my way to Lancer. I’ll just spread that notion to the reg’lars in the saloon and hightail it back to ya. Madrid is sure to come and we’ll be waitin’, then we can have ourselves a right nice little party.”
“You won’t take him,” Scott ground out the words.
“Oh, I don’t intend to take him the way you think. He’s way too fast and unpredictable for that. Me and the Indian, well, we have our ways. How come you think Warburton hired us?”
I must’ve snapped, because before I had time to think out my actions, I was cussing at them and trying to get away.
“You won’t bait my son with me, you son of a bitch! I’ll see you in hell first.” Then, everything turned from blood red to black as the back of my head was slammed with something hard.
I awoke to find myself tied up in a grove of trees. I was propped against a large stump with Scott sitting tied at my side. I made a noise to see if he was aware.
“Murdoch, are you with me?” Scott’s voice was a low whisper and when I nodded he slightly moved his head. I followed his motion and spied our captors talking quietly in the trees just beyond the road.
“They’re going to ambush him, Scott. He won’t have a chance.”
“I think that’s the plan. They’ve left off any kind of gag, but if we yell for him, all we’ll do is cause a distraction. He’ll be looking for that gunhawk and won’t realize the Indian will be off somewhere waiting. I don’t even know where that bastard will be hiding so I can warn Johnny.” Scott’s voice was tinged with panic.
My head was pounding in time with my heart. A part of me wished I’d remained unconscious so that I wouldn’t be forced to watch the unfolding events. Our assailants made their way over to the horses tied to the nearby trees. As they approached, the Indian smirked and drew his knife out of the scabbard as he taunted Scott.
Scott strained against the binding ropes. “You want me, come untie me, you son of a bitch. Are you so afraid that you won’t even give me a chance?”
The gunhawk gave Scott a quick kick in the side. “Shut the fuck up, pretty boy. We’ll give you plenty of chance to holler before too long, as soon as I ride in and prime our little trap here. Johnny Madrid will regret the day he rode into Warburton’s camp and decided to take us all down like a bunch of wet behind the ears kids.”
Hearing the threat to one son and watching the other take such physical abuse became too much. I snarled at them and tried to trip the Indian with my legs. I knew there was no hope, but it was becoming apparent that the likelihood of any of us making it out alive was small. My last act would not be setting up my youngest son for certain death.
They both turned on me, the knife flashing wickedly in the sun while the gunfighter simultaneously drew his gun and aimed his boot at my face. Before he could complete the kick, I heard a shot echo through the trees. Blood immediately began pouring from the gunfighter’s hand as he screamed in pain and the gun dropped unused by my side. The man’s shooting fingers were gone, blown to pieces by a deadly Colt.
Scott yelled, “Johnny!” but was abruptly cut off by the Indian who grabbed him up by the hair and wielded the knife with deadly intent.
The Indian kept Scott’s body in front of him as he moved away and scanned the trees. His eyes glowed like dying embers and his face was emotionless as he held the knife ready to scalp my son. The constant screaming of the man beside me and the sight of the emotionless face of the Indian as he threatened Scott created a chaos of horror I could have never imagined in my worst nightmares.
He suddenly appeared out of the afternoon shadows. Moving with the grace of something wild, his unblinking eyes were intensely sapphire blue and blazing with anger. An arrogant half smile made his face look hard. For a fraction of a moment, Johnny Madrid paused. The Indian took it as hesitation and gave a small sneer as the knife met Scott’s head. The shot was so fast I barely realized it met its mark.
“Adios, pinche cabron.” The words rang through the silence, making me realize the gunhawk had finally stopped his Godforsaken screaming. Johnny quickly checked the Indian who had fallen at Scott’s feet, pausing only briefly to squeeze his brother’s arm. Blood was oozing from a neat circle in the Indian’s forehead. Johnny Madrid had taken the only shot he had and nailed him between the eyes.
After turning to quickly untie me, Johnny moved over to the remaining outlaw. He took the black bandana from the gunfighter’s neck and tied it tightly around the man’s obliterated hand.
“Are you alone, asshole?” Johnny’s eyes still glittered in anger, but his voice was its typical soft drawl. He stooped and retrieved the rope that had bound me and tied the gunfighter’s hands.
“Yeah, yeah, the rest are going off to another job in the south. They aren’t interested in anything but the next game. I swear to you, it was just me and the Indian. I told you that, so you’ll help me, right? You ain’t just going to leave me here to die are you, Madrid?”
Seeing Scott move away from the Indian and sink to the ground, I went to him and untied his hands and then held my handkerchief to his bleeding neck. As I helped my oldest son, I listened for Johnny’s response. Part of me wouldn’t have cared if he chose to let that gunfighter bleed to death right where he was.
“We’ll drop you off at the Morton place up the road a piece. He’s an old lawman and will be more than happy to take you in for us. Hell, he may even let you see a doctor before turning you over to the law. Of course, that’s assuming nobody turns vigilante on you first.” He smirked as he said this and then turned away, refusing to look at either Scott or I as he walked off. Giving the dead Indian a wide berth, Johnny disappeared into the trees.
Scott shook off my ministrations. “You’ve got to go to him, Murdoch. Find him. I’m okay, just go to my brother.”
I nodded and squeezed Scott’s shoulder before awkwardly climbing to my feet and moving off to find Johnny. He wasn’t far. He’d gone to his horse and had buried his head in the palomino’s shoulder. He knew I was there, I was sure of it, but he didn’t acknowledge me at all. His breath was harsh, and I realized he was trying desperately not to get sick.
“John.” I crossed over to him and put my hand on his shoulder. He flinched, but made no comment. I began to talk softly, encouraging him to look at me. I think mostly I told him how much I owed him, how hard it had been to be tied up, waiting, afraid the next time I saw him it would be to watch his death.
Johnny took a deep, shuddering breath and seemed to get his nerves under control, turned from his horse, and met my eyes. “I was following you and Scott all along, old man, just not as close as I shoulda been, I guess. He paused and his expression became puzzled. “Never thought you and big brother were so easy.” He smirked a little at my look and continued, “I had a feelin’ there was a reason I hadn’t been seein’ that loco Indian around lately. If Smith was gunnin’ for me, I figured that prick was too.”
“Who is that other man, son, the one over there missing his gunhand?”
Johnny dropped his head in an apparent effort to hide his lop-sided grin and paused for a beat. “Don’t even know. He’s just some stupid pistolero wanting to make a name for himself. It’s part of the game, you know. There’s always a pendejo waiting.”
“It’s not much of a life, is it? Knowing you’re in constant danger from someone wanting to become famous at your expense.”
Johnny sighed as he turned back to his horse and slowly ran his fingers through the creamy white mane. “That’s why I took off every night, Murdoch, and then came back so late. I can’t be bringin’ my troubles to Lancer. I couldn’t live with myself if somethin’ happened to you or Scott ‘cause a crazy gunfighter got an idea in his head.”
“If I recall, you didn’t exactly bring the gunfighters to Morro Coyo. In fact, you did your best to protect me. I know that, son.”
“It wasn’t Madrid that brought them this time, Murdoch, but what about the next? There’s the chance one of ‘em won’t give up, or that one will get lucky.” His eyes began to soften, allowing the torment he was experiencing to show. “I don’t know if I can ever lose this skin, I’m so used to it now. No matter how much you give me, how much you try to make it work, I don’t know if I can do it.”
My heart felt as if it would break upon hearing his words. I realized I was hearing a confession of sorts and that it most likely wasn’t the first time my son had tried to reach me this way.
He swallowed hard and continued, “It would be easier for all of us if I just turned ol’ Barranca around and took off. I’m Madrid, as surely as I’m Johnny Lancer. Nothin’ I can say or do will erase the fact. You acknowledged it that night after Isham died. You can’t say you don’t think I’m right.”
I took a risk and pulled him away from his horse, grabbing his shoulders so he was forced to look straight at me. “You want me to set you free, is that it John? You want permission to end the misery you feel when the walls come in on Madrid. Well, you know what? There was a time when I might have tried it your way, early on, before I understood. I might buy your peace of mind for a while, but what about mine, what about your brother?”
“You’d both be better off, Murdoch. You’d be safer.”
“Have I ever taken the safe road? Who do you think I am? It isn’t easier to let you go. Never has been really. I lost you once, I can’t do it again.” I slid my hands up from his shoulders to his neck, cupping his face briefly before releasing him.
“Nor can I.” Scott moved from the trees toward us, his eyes intent on his brother. “We’re in this together, boy. As much as you miss your freedom and worry about the responsibilities of being a Lancer, you know you can no more leave us behind than we can let you go. Freedom can give a man a lot of things, but it doesn’t always imply being alone.”
Johnny’s eyes briefly closed and when they opened again they held a mischievous twinkle as he gave his brother a sideways glance. “Is that the kind of logic they teach you in college, Boston? ‘Cause if it is, it could be fatal.”
“Logic isn’t always pretty, little brother. Neither is love. No one ever shared that with you before?”
“Well, the love stuff has been mentioned once or twice, but it was always by a girl or two I pissed off.” His disarming smile was back and I felt a kind of joy in my heart that I never expected to feel again.
I finally gave in to my impulse and reached over and pulled him into a hug, relishing his living and breathing presence. When his arms eventually moved to return the embrace, I had to choke back the tears. I could feel him take a deep breath as he did the same. He gently broke from me and went to his brother.
“You ready to gather up that idiot over there and hit the breeze toward home?” Johnny’s hand went up to ruffle his brother’s hair in a soothing gesture likely intended to erase the memory of the Indian’s rough handling.
“I’m ready if you are, my brother. Home never sounded so good.”
My sons moved to either side of me and slung their arms around my shoulders. Johnny reached and snagged Barranca’s rein as we walked toward the remaining horses. Suddenly, something occurred to me for the first time. The boys and I had somewhere to go before riding through that white arch of home. We’d stop and pay our respects at the gravesite of a man who, in spite of the damage he’d wrought, unintentionally helped a wayward ex-gunfighter and his father travel a little farther in their journey toward acceptance and understanding.
Notes: The title is borrowed from a song of the same name by Paul Oakenfold. Sun Tzu was a real military strategist and has a page at Wikipedia.
Trinidad de Guerreros