“Time, time, time, see what’s become of me
While I looked around
For my possibilities
I was so hard to please
But look around, leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter”
The young horse skittered sideways, pretending to shy as a dead leaf blew across the rutted dirt road, but his rider simply moved with him, his only other response being a softly drawled word in Spanish. Johnny Lancer had volunteered to ride into town to fetch a telegram from Teresa, who would be away from the ranch this Christmas visiting friends up north. He smiled in remembrance of how initially excited she was, and then sad, realizing her trip would last through the holidays. They’d had a grand time last year, the first as a true family and she’d been reluctant to spend this one away. The Lancer men had convinced her, as a group and then individually, that this was an opportunity not to be overlooked. They’d all be waiting for her when she returned and she’d have a Christmas memory that couldn’t be duplicated. Scott had described the holiday scenery of the northern cities and the girl was convinced. Hopefully, the telegram in his coat pocket would tell of the wonderful sights to be seen and new friends she had made.
Johnny had been instructed to stop by the little homestead closely neighboring Lancer as he returned from Morro Coyo. Murdoch had been concerned, telling his sons he hadn’t seen the Rankins in some time. Johnny had looked forward to the trip, thinking it was a grand opportunity to work with the young blue roan he was riding. Blue would be a fine cowpony one day, but now he was full of himself and needed some time under the saddle. The chilly but sunny December day was invigorating, and the colt and he had both been in high spirits as they cavorted along the stretch of road between the town and the Rankin place. However, both man and horse were growing a bit tired, so a short stop to visit with the young family would be welcome.
As the Rankin’s small house came into view, Johnny dismounted. The grass underneath his feet crunched with the combination of a too dry fall and the frost that had started to gather as evening was quickly approaching. He walked with his eyes toward the little shack, searching for signs of life. He had expected some movement, even if only from smoke ascending from the small chimney to the sky, but everything was unnaturally still. As he continued to lead his horse down the rather woebegone little road leading to the place, he realized there were no sounds coming from the makeshift barn. Silence was all that was left. Shaking his head in some confusion over his observations, he walked slowly through the yard until he was directly outside the house.
“Hey! In the cabin!” He was not surprised when there was no answer. It was obvious that the house, once holding the future hopes and dreams of a small family known only to him through his father, was abandoned. After looping his horse’s reins around a post, he continued to the doorway, and was not all that surprised to find the door unlocked. He entered, brushing away gathering cobwebs and squinting through the gloom. They had left close to nothing, only a pair of sad looking beds, some broken cups and dishes which lay on a dusty wooden table, and a couple of mismatched and broken chairs. The distinctive sounds of scurrying feet on the wooden floor startled him enough to send his gunhand to the Colt, but he chuckled at himself and continued his search.
Johnny scuffed at the dust on the floor with his boot and realized the lonely little place had managed to turn his thoughts melancholy. He found himself missing the girl he’d come to value as a sister and confidant in a family that sometimes seemed more at odds with his nature than with it. Smiling at this new dependency, embracing it rather than fighting it down as he would have months ago, the young ex-gunfighter directed his attention to the outside of the cabin, suddenly interested in the story it might tell. He was familiar with the untamed nature of this land, and when something stirred his curiosity, he’d learned to go with it. It wasn’t often that his instincts were proven wrong. Even now, when he at times worried that the softer life of the ranch had slowed his reactions, he trusted those instincts with his survival.
He left the house and explored the barn. The remnants of harnesses, hay, and feed told him a story. He now knew the family had been gone only a short while, but longer than a week. He knew they’d acquired a milk cow and a team of horses. There’d been a small wagon as well as a few farm implements such as a plow. All were gone now, leaving only tell tale hooks and tracks informing him of their existence. He found a couple of bowls to the side of the barn, belonging to a dog he’d guess, and there were some signs a child had lived here. Most likely the dog had belonged to her or him. Sighing as he pushed down his own memories of too frequent moves, he walked out and around to the back of the barn. What he saw there brought him up short. A few yards away lay a fenced-in plot of land. A tree had been planted and a little wooden bench had been placed underneath it. Beside the bench were two graves, one older and one much more recent. As he approached he realized the older grave was that of a small child, a girl not much more than a baby according to the small cross. The marker above the fresh grave indicated that this was Mother. She had been gone only a matter of a month.
Johnny stood in place for a long while. There was something especially poignant about this latest revelation. He remembered Murdoch stating he hadn’t seen the family in at least six weeks, so the death of the mother had happened after that time. Johnny Madrid didn’t do so well with the thought of a mother dying young, so he took off his hat, held it briefly at the brim as he wished her peace, and then slapped it against his leg before placing it back on his head as he made ready to leave. There would be nothing good to relate to Murdoch about this particular side trip.
As Johnny walked over to his horse and gathered the reins, he noticed that the temperature had dropped enough that his breath was now visible. It would be a cold ride home and he found himself grateful for the coat that Murdoch had brought him and insisted he wore. It was times like these that he would suddenly feel a strong burst of emotion for the man. This was so foreign in his experience that he had trouble determining just what it was. He was beginning to like the feeling, but it was something that sustained and frightened him at the same time. Right now, the only thing he could really say for sure was that he longed to be home, safe inside the warmth of the house he’d come to think of as his. Standing around trying to sort out his confused feelings of family was not going to get him there any faster.
As he readied to mount the blue roan, a low plaintive howl could be heard just south of the barn. His horse tended to be on the skittish side even under the best of conditions and it now snorted abruptly and jerked his head. Johnny, distracted by the nearness of the noise, was caught off balance and futilely grabbed at the reins as they coursed through his hand. The horse, realizing his newly gained freedom, shied away from him, lowered his head, and ran off toward the wooded area just beyond the little homestead.
“Damn it! You’re losing it Madrid, sure as shootin’, you’re losin’ the edge.” He slapped his hat back on the leather stampede strap and began walking toward his loose horse. His mount would crop a bit of grass, look at him approaching, and then shy away. Johnny bit back his annoyance and began speaking to the roan in softly intoned Spanish. As he and the horse reached the edge of the clearing, the lone howl sounded again, this time even closer than before. Johnny watched in dismay as the horse once more raised its head and with nostrils flaring, bolted through the trees, running deeper into the woods.
“ Madre de Dios !” Johnny’s temper began to get the best of him. He was in a fine pickle. He could continue to pursue the horse in spite of the descending night, or go find some wood and light a fire in the little shack. He had his Colt and his wits, there was little doubt he could make a go of it. Problem was, he had inherited his father’s stubborn streak, as Scott reminded them both often enough. He stomped off after Blue, determined to sweet talk the horse and get him back in his possession. Then he could hole up in the house for a night and have an early start. If he merely let the horse go, there was no telling where it would end up. Most likely the beast would show up at Lancer a day later, scaring the stuffing out of his old man and his brother. Besides, the pull of thoughts of home and his family were strong and made more intense by the season. It was nearly Christmas, and although their observance would be small this year, he found he was really determined not to miss it.
Johnny followed the horse through the trees and then finally spotted him grazing in a small ravine. There was a tiny creek winding its way through the trees and rock and his roan horse had decided to stop for a drink after its short run. Once again, Johnny began advancing slowly, speaking softly in a mesmerizing silky drawl. The horse stayed still and Johnny began to have hope of finally securing the animal as it stood in the little stream when a loud noise and a crushing blow to his lower leg broke through the silence. Johnny tried to take a step, but found he was tethered in place. His momentum sent him forward and down, crashing to the forest floor. He heard a scream that he would later realize came from his own throat and then felt an excruciating pain shoot through his leg right above his ankle. He was lying at an awkward angle, his left arm underneath him with his weight pinning him against an outcrop of rocks.
He lay still for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. He twisted a bit to get away from the rocks and felt a dull throb in his left shoulder. “Mierda!” he yelled to no one and slammed the ground with his right hand. He’d dislocated his shoulder before, and the familiar agony infuriated him. He moved his legs to gather them beneath him for an attempt to get out of the dead leaves and was forced to sit back down hard. He’d momentarily forgotten about the leg. He moved to examine his predicament. It was a damned steel trap, probably set for a black bear or a big cat. His mind raced as realized just what kind of trouble he had found. His leg was still in shock, so the pain for the moment was not overwhelming. He knew that would change.
Sitting up as best he could, he used his right hand to brush away dead leaves and debris. His boot and leg were firmly held by the trap, and he was beginning to feel his blood slowly trickle down the inside of his boot. When he made an effort to move the trap, the trickle became more substantial. Yep, this was about as bad as it gets, he acknowledged. About that time, he heard the howl again and watched as his horse literally high-tailed it out of the creek, scrambled up the slight slope of the ravine, and galloped out of sight.
After calling the absent horse everything he could think of in two languages, he lay quietly for a while, taking inventory of his injuries. He managed to move around so that he was propped against the rocks and quickly surveyed his surroundings. If he stretched he could reach the small stream of water with his right hand, so that need was met. Food was another matter. He patted his pockets and found that the wrapped jerky he’d brought with him was still there. He at least had something to eat, but not much. His left arm was basically useless and it was difficult for him to move so that he could jam the joint back in place. The tethered trap pretty much prevented much movement at all, if he wanted to keep his foot intact anyway. He forced his breathing to remain calm and let his thoughts temporarily wander. He’d been in worse circumstances, or at least as bad, but he’d had company in the form of a valuable friend.
Johnny Madrid and El Solista were holed up in the cliffs and had been for two days. Sol was losing patience and spent a lot of the time cussing and talking to himself as he kept his eyes on the rocky plains below. With the coming darkness, the Bailey boys had built a fire and the dancing flames mocked them. Johnny knew they needed a fire as well, as it would rejuvenate them and provide needed warmth, but it would also prove deadly by giving away their position completely. However, a second night spent in the chill of a west Texas fall would take its toll. They were fortunate to have made it to the rocky crag with their rifles, bed rolls and saddlebags, but the surprise attack the night before had robbed them of their horses. From time to time, Johnny would ask Sol if he saw the pinto, but Sol was short with his answers.
“I can’t see if that damned horse is down there, boy. I’ve kinda got my attention occupied on the men, if you don’t mind. Now, you just lay there and stay quiet. Can you do that, mi amigo?”
Yeah, he could do it. He’d tried to explain to Sol that the pinto would come at a whistle. It was a chance for them at least, but Sol would motion him quiet, not even letting him finish the thought.
“Lo siento, Sol. I know this is my fault.” Johnny said it out loud, but knew there would be no answer. He’d said it before often enough. Sometimes the words would bring the gunfighter to his side and he would adjust his blanket, but that would be all.
Sol was mad. Johnny knew it and couldn’t blame him. Madrid had screwed up in those rocks, not being careful where he was putting his stupid leg, and had gone and gotten snakebit. It was hard to tell at first if the bite had taken or if it was dry, but the swelling that appeared above his boot quickly informed them of the truth. Sol had made the cuts and gotten as much of the poison as he could, but now only time would tell just how much punch that snake packed.That dead snake. Sol had made sure of that too, using a large rock to bash it to bits as it had recoiled away from Johnny’s leg. About that time, Sol had quit talking and it stood to reason that he was pissed as hell.
Johnny spent the first night in a pain-filled haze. His leg felt about three times its normal size and hurt intensely whenever he was foolish enough to move it. He knew he’d moaned in his weakened state, and that shamed him. Once he awoke to feel tears oozing from the corners of his eyes and he raised his hand to quickly swipe them away, but his hand was grasped firmly and pulled back down. He felt Sol gently move his too-long hair away from his face and then use his thumb to brush away the wetness.
“You hang on, Juanito. It’s going to work out, you’ll see. We’ll get out of this and you’ll be back on that spotted horse before you know it. Just keep fightin’ for me, mijo, okay?”
Johnny swallowed and merely nodded, embarrassed that Sol witnessed such weakness. Sol huffed a small chuckle and patted him gently on the shoulder before resuming his position looking out toward their enemy. Maybe Sol had at least forgiven him some, he thought. That sustained him a bit and he resolved to stay strong, just to prove to Sol that the gunfighter wasn’t wrong about Madrid. He would make it.
A noise along the trees of the ravine startled him and brought him back from his thoughts. He reached for his Colt, but didn’t draw it, not yet. There was no point in going trigger happy. He was fully loaded with five in the chamber and his belt contained even more ammunition. He’d need it if the noise around him was any sign. He didn’t think any large bear or cougars were moving around, this had sounded more like wolves. They were quiet now, watching. Maybe even waiting. Well, they’d have hell to pay for messin’ with Johnny Madrid. He realized suddenly that he had reverted back to that image of himself. Ol’ Johnny Lancer had made a quick retreat when danger showed its face. Madrid was there, and he’d be the side of him that pulled him through, if he made it at all.
Aware that his thoughts were turning against him, Johnny reached over and began pulling on the chain that anchored the trap. Naturally, he had to find the old trap of an experienced hunter. The trap was actually not in bad shape, surprisingly enough, showing it had been seasoned and set by a man who knew what he was doing. The fact that he couldn’t budge the chain securing it was also an indication. Of course, he was at a distinct disadvantage with one arm lying basically useless by his side. He snarled at his luck again and let loose with a string of Spanish cussing he’d refrained from using for several months. He set his mouth in a grim line and determined to make his circumstances better. For one thing, he needed to get his shoulder back in place. It would still be weak and not much help, but having his hand dangle there was annoying him like crazy. He scooted around on his butt as far as he dared without jolting the trap. He managed to get at an angle with the rocks and shoved his upper arm tightly against them. He clenched his teeth, slammed his eyes shut, and then twisted his body as hard as he could. His scream of pain and frustration echoed throughout the wilderness and then the gray of winter closed in.
It was Christmas time. He remembered that. Scott and Teresa liked Christmas. As for Johnny, well, it was a time of mixed emotions for him. Too many things had happened at that time of year, and some of those things carried memories. Not necessarily bad ones, but shadows of the past that made one feel conflicted. As far as Johnny could tell, you were supposed to feel “jubilation” and “exuberant” and some other “happy” words that Scott used, but escaped him. But, wonder of wonders, he found someone who understood his dilemma underneath the very same roof. It seemed his father, a man that he really felt little in common with even on a good day, had his own struggles with this whole Christmas thing. It had been a time of great joy, once upon a time, or so the old man told him over a bottle of very nice tequila. Those times had ended with the departure of certain people who had taken the thrill and the love with them.
“I don’t know, Johnny, it’s as if the season always has an element of sadness for me now,” Murdoch had confided in him. “I think this one will be better, only because of you and Scott, but it will take more than one so-called merry Christmas to get things back on track with me. What do you think, son?”
He’d looked up from where he’d been contemplating his glass, realizing his slowed thinking was indicative of not so slow drinking. Murdoch seemed a little bleary-eyed as well. That’s probably why Johnny had been truthful when most likely he would’ve deflected him as usual. “I think it’s the same for me. We had some tough times, and Christmas celebrations sometimes just made it seem more obvious. I mean, you’d see other people singin’ and laughin’ …” He hadn’t had to continue.
“I know, boy. I know.” And then Murdoch had done a very un-Murdochlike thing and reached over and pulled Johnny close to him, holding him there for a long moment, reaching his hand into Johnny’s hair and rubbing his head gently. They’d both grown very still with the surprise of it. When they pulled back, they switched topics and kept on talking like it never happened. But Johnny knew that for the both of them it was a golden memory, a single mark of time that would help erase some of the pain and leave a sense of comfort in its stead.
He was looking forward to Christmas with his old man again this year. He’d bought another bottle of that tequila while in town and was planning on sharing it with him as they continued what he hoped would be a tradition. Scott would be invited this time. He figured between he and Scott and Murdoch, well, there’d be enough stories and tall tales flyin’ around that they’d stay up the whole night with the fun of it. That was the thing he liked most about this family idea. There were people who were there for the sad times, and helped replace those with good ones. Other than with a select few gunhawk friends, he’d never experienced anything quite like it.
He pulled his looping thoughts back in as twilight began to descend. Thank God for a full moon. It was bad enough to be stuck out here, but if it had been a cloudy night, he knew it would have been almost unbearable with darkness so close and thick it seemed like a blanket around his senses. Johnny Madrid relied a great deal on his senses. Often the acuity of senses was what separated a good gunfighter from a dead one. There really were no bad gunfighters, not for long anyway. But gunfighters weren’t his concern tonight. Truth be told, he’d rather face the gunhawks. No, unfortunately his enemy was of the four-legged variety. He could hear them nearby, loping through the dead leaves and whining out in the trees.
Johnny checked his Colt for probably the hundredth time and then wormed his way back toward the trap. It was hard to get a grip on it, what with his injured shoulder and the crazy position he’d landed in when he hit the rocks. He managed to move up the ravine a little closer to the trap’s chain and using a bit of leverage he pulled for a while with his good arm. The thing didn’t budge. It was set up for a strong victim, maybe even stronger than a man, and one whose fur would be profitable. Not much chance that particular trapper would want his catch taking off. The night sky was deepening and presently he could hear the wooded area surrounding him come alive. Not everything was a potential enemy, but it was difficult to determine what was or what was some smaller animal foraging for food. With the moon shining so strongly, he soon was able to make out the glowing eyes of his unwanted companions. For the first time, he drew his gun. If a statement needed to be made, he was ready.
It took a while for them to make an advance. Johnny figured that was mostly due to the fact that they weren’t starving as yet. It was still early in the winter, and enough small prey was to be found to keep the wolves from being careless. They were probably more curious than anything, but that really didn’t comfort him much. He’d seen the result of wolves tearing into injured cattle and heard old men’s stories. He never was one to kill an animal for sport, so he’d never hunted or killed a wolf unless he’d been forced to save livestock or himself. He was glad of that now; such a relationship had to be a good mark in the wolf spirit world. Just as he thought they might leave him alone, the old alpha female decided to come in and check him out up close and personal. Shaking his head, he fired the Colt, not even trying to hit her. She took off with her tail low and the woods grew quiet for a long while.
He’d been a lot weaker that next day. His leg felt like it was going to split open from being so swollen. It was still red and puffy, not black, and Sol said that was a good thing. Johnny didn’t particularly feel like anything was good at the moment, except for the cool water that Sol kept offering from his canteen. There was something worrisome about drinking the water, but he never could wrap his mind around it. He worked up the energy to question Sol, but Sol shushed him and told him to drink all he wanted. It wasn’t until he finished one complete canteen and started on the other that the truth finally hit him.
“Sol, you shouldn’t keep givin’ that to me. It’s all the water we have and you’ve not been gettin’ a drink at all.”
“Juanito, how would you know what in the hell I’ve been doin’? You’ve been layin’ over here on your ass for the better part of two days. You have no way of knowing if I’ve had water or not. Now, quit worrying about everything and save your strength. There’s plenty of water so you just drink what you want.”
Johnny had simply stared at his friend, but resolved to hold off on the precious fluid as long as he could. No way the pain, suffering, or death of El Solista would be on Johnny Madrid’s head.
Forcing himself to do without water by refusing to allow Sol to help him drink caused a sudden epiphany. The Bailey boys were going to try to starve them out. The assholes could easily outwait them. As Johnny had lain there on the rocky surface his mind seemed to be clearing some and he’d been thinking. Sol was trying to protect him, his wits were finally together enough to figure that one out. But now it was time for them to help themselves. He had to let Sol know he could handle what needed to be done. He sat up and leaned on his elbow, careful not to jostle his leg.
“Hey, can you come here for a second? I’ve got to talk to you.” Johnny’s voice was little more than a whisper, but he knew Sol would hear him.
Sol’s head immediately came up from where he’d been lying prone on the rocks, watching the Baileys move about their camp. His eyes sought and found Johnny’s and for the first time Madrid realized that Sol wasn’t angry with him. The ice-blue gaze was intensely anxious, and it had quickly softened into concern at the sound of Johnny’s whisper. This new revelation made Johnny Madrid even more determined to help get them both out of this mess. He watched as Sol pushed himself away from the rocks and made his way to Johnny’s side as quietly as possible. Sol leaned over him and peered into his face, using one hand to push aside Johnny’s damp hair so he could stare into his eyes.
“What’s up, Juanito? Are you going to finally sober up and let me give you some water, or am I going to force it down you like I threatened last time I was over here?”
“This ain’t about water, Sol, and I wish you’d shut up about that. I’ll drink when you drink, so if you’re so damned determined to water-log me, then you better take a bit yourself.”
Immediately Sol grabbed up the canteen, took a small drink, and then forced the rim under Johnny’s lips. “Okay, amigo, it’s your turn.”
Johnny sighed and took a long drink. He had to admit the cool liquid felt amazingly good as it slid down his parched throat. Sol smiled at him in satisfaction and Johnny rewarded him with a weak thump on the shoulder.
“Quit gloatin’. At least you finally drank some too. You can’t sacrifice yourself to save me, Sol. You’re our ticket outta here. Don’t look at me like that, hermano mio. You know it’s true. We’ve got to get ourselves a plan or we’re gonna starve or die of thirst. I may be sick because of this fuckin’ snake bite, but I ain’t simple. I know what’s on those bastards’ minds.”
Sol looked away for a moment, and when he looked back at Johnny, his eyes held a sadness he’d never seen before in the gunfighter. Johnny shook his head. He knew he was the cause of the sad expression, but there was no way he would let the man get away with that. Johnny Madrid didn’t accept pity from no man … not even one who fought by his side. Not even from Sol.
In an irritated voice Johnny said, “Don’t bury us before we’re dead, hermano. I’ve never known you to give up without a fight. If you can’t get past worrying about me and findin’ us a way to beat those bastards, then you and I are both fucked and we didn’t even get to enjoy it.”
Johnny gave Sol a determined look and a jut of the chin and this seemed to amuse the other gunfighter, who looked away again, but this time to hide a snicker of amusement. When he turned back to meet Johnny’s eyes, he said, “Mijo, you are as stubborn as they come. I hadn’t given up on us, but I do admit to being worried about you for a while now. I can tell by your cussedness you’re beating the damned snake bite, so you’re right, we need to concentrate on those pendejos now. You don’t know how good it is to see you back, my friend.”
With that, they resolved to plot and scheme. This was against their nature, gunfighting usually entailed quick observations and even quicker reactions, but the Bailey boys were forcing their hand. Not being the usual game, a plan was needed. Sol would throw out one, and then Johnny, but neither man had a scheme that didn’t involve some kind of self-sacrifice, so it was immediately nixed by the other. Hours were spent whispering bits and pieces of proposals as they watched the brothers milling about below them. Johnny would fall back on whistling for the pinto, which Sol had finally spotted among the other horses. Eventually, Sol conceded. They’d try that, but Sol would move his position so he was closer to the camp. The pinto was a mean little cuss, and had a habit of rearing up when excited. Sol would hopefully use this as a distraction to create confusion in the camp and then could fire at will. They would wait until night to carry out the plan. A plan they both knew likely wouldn’t work, but it beat the hell out of sitting in the rocks, slowly dying of thirst.
“… Down by the riverside
It's bound to be a better ride
Than what you've got planned
Carry a gun in your hand”
Johnny jerked awake. He couldn’t believe he had actually drifted off while in his current predicament. He felt around in his pocket and found the wrapped jerky and gnawed off a bite. He wasn’t thirsty yet, so he’d hold off on trying to get water. The little creek was cold and plunging his hand in to get a drink would probably make the slight shivers he was experiencing even worse.
The wolves were still out there, and judging by the noise they were making, were becoming curious again.
“Come on over here and let’s get this party started! Never met a lobo I didn’t like!” Johnny shouted into the darkness and waited while everything around him grew silent again.
This time the wolves began pacing again rather quickly. His voice was a mild curiosity to them and wouldn’t keep them back for long. Johnny readied his pistol, but knew his aim would be compromised by both the darkness and the effect the bitter cold had on his gun hand. His shoulder was beginning to pulse with a dull throb and that wasn’t a very good sign either. Wolves were smart animals, and soon they would determine this man was in a weakened state. Once that happened, he’d call upon Madrid, but even Madrid could only accomplish so much.
It was only a few minutes later that the first scouts began moving up to check him out. He imagined the smell of his jerky was enticing them, but he was reluctant to go chucking the only food he had. If it came down to that, he’d let them have it, but then it would be only a stall so he could complete his final act. He shivered a bit harder with the thought of it, but when the time came, he would make his move without hesitation.
Finally, a young female wolf began making her advance. She moved with her head lowered and fur bristled. She stopped with her eyes locked on his as she began a low-throated snarl, baring white teeth around raised lips. He could see her pretty clearly in the bright moonlight and when she began her crouching movement forward, he slowly brought up his Colt. Her motion halted immediately and he took that fleeting opportunity to aim. The report was quick and his bullet accurate. He took her out with a shot right between the eyes.
The woods exploded with movement as the other wolves scattered. Johnny fell back into the dead leaves and took the opportunity to rest. He began to suspect he’d lost a fair amount of blood, the dull agony of his foot had become unrelenting, and the cold was beginning to seep into his bones and rob him of strength. The wolves would stay back for a while, but he knew they would return. Best gather his wits and energy while he could.
Murdoch was at the fence again, looking out across his moonlit land toward the entry to the ranch. He was experiencing a father’s intuition and that in and of itself gave him pause. He was new to these feelings, but he knew ignoring them was unwise. He often had worries about his sons. They were as new to ranching as he was to his job as father. Sure, Johnny wasn’t very green and he was quick witted, but he could find trouble faster than any man he’d ever met, other than himself. Murdoch closed his eyes briefly and chuckled a bit at this. Scott was not as adept to the western ways, but his mind was sharp. However, there were things lurking in this untamed country that could bring harm to the wisest of men.
Lost in these thoughts, he started a bit when he suddenly heard his older son at his elbow.
“You’re looking for him again, aren’t you, sir?”
Murdoch sighed. Scott always began their conversations formally. Lately, as he would continue talking, his tone and language would lose its formal air, but initially and without fail, he’d always address him as one might a stranger.
“I don’t know why, son. I’m just getting the feeling something’s wrong. The fact that he’s late isn’t helping. I know what you’re going to say, so yes, we’ll go look for him if he isn’t here by noon tomorrow. ”
“He’s not that late yet, Murdoch. You know Johnny; he might’ve stayed to eat or gotten caught up in a poker game. If you worry too much, you’ll just be angry when he does get here and you and he will start in on each other. It’s almost Christmas, so maybe it’s best to cut him some slack.”
Murdoch turned to look at Scott, amused at the protectiveness his son had toward his younger brother. It was a quality he was quickly coming to admire, even love, in both his boys. “I understand what you’re saying, Scott, and you’re right. I just can’t shake this feeling that something isn’t right. We’ll ride tomorrow if we don’t see him first thing.”
Scott met his eyes with a kind glance. “You know, he has no clue how much you worry about him, does he? How much you care.”
“I don’t think either of you do, my son. Let’s get back to the house before we freeze our butts off. Johnny’s probably warm and toasty in the saloon about now, or having a big plate of his favorite tamales.”
Scott laughed. “Sounds about right! He better bring home that letter soon, I’m anxious to find out how Teresa is doing on her visit.”
As they ambled toward the house, Murdoch draped an arm over his son’s shoulders. It was good to have his sons with him this Christmas. Now if the younger one would just hurry the hell back home.
Madre de Dios, they’d pulled it off. The fuckin’ pinto had played his part with all the heart of a professional. God, he loved this horse. If his leg wasn’t hurtin’ like a son of a bitch, he’d probably be laughin’ it up with Sol. Right now, all he could do was grin and hold on tight to the saddle as Sol propped him up from behind.
Johnny had crawled halfway down the cliffs while Sol had slowly worked his way to the lower rocks. The darkness was descending rapidly and the gathering cold was making his leg throb all the more. They had this one attempt and then it would be over. It was balls to the floor or go out in a blaze of glory … no in-betweens. He’d waited until the Baileys were eating their meal, the fire was blazing pretty good and that gave Sol a small break when he aimed. Sol was damned good with the rifle, so that was one thing in their favor. Johnny had managed to scoot on his butt to a small outcropping without causing himself too much additional pain. The worst part was hoping he wouldn’t screw up the one chance he had. The men were beginning to take the horses to the nearby watering hole as they bedded down for the night. He’d have to get his timing right and make sure the pinto heard him. He wet his lips, brought his fingers up to his mouth, and let her rip.
The pinto’s ears shot forward and he stood stock still for a moment. Then he exploded. Rearing, he threw his body sideways in an attempt to tear the reins from one of the Bailey’s hands. A chain reaction set in. All the horses began shying and attempting to bolt in response to the now bucking pinto. About that time, Sol’s rifle began to speak. First one Bailey brother was hit as he attempted to mount a horse, then another was picked off as he tried to hide behind a large boulder. A third member of the gang tried desperately to run toward the small stand of trees by the water, but Sol cut him down before he could clear the campsite. Johnny managed to whistle again, and in response, the pinto lowered his head and bucked a final time. Realizing he was free, he made straight for the cliffs. It wasn’t long before Johnny heard the sound of scrambling hooves as his horse began climbing upward toward the signal from his beloved master. The last of the Bailey boys managed to fling themselves into the saddles of the remaining horses and dashed out of sight.
Johnny heard Sol yip below him and then all his energy left him. He fell back against the outcropping and waited for the sound of footsteps to come to his side. His head was lifted, and soon cool water was passing his lips. He looked up at Sol, whose eyes were alight with worry and elation. It had worked. By God, the plan had come together and it was all because of a little horse that answered a whistle.
on to your hopes, my friend
That’s an easy thing to say, but if your hopes should pass away
That you can build them again
Look around, the grass is high
The fields are ripe, it’s the springtime of my life”
They were already back. Johnny Madrid Lancer cursed them this time and knew they were becoming braver. They were closing ranks, he could tell from their noises. He took to picking them off one by one, but he missed at times. He was starting to shake with cold and his growing weakness was becoming a problem. Their grinning mouths seemed to mock him. The night was slowly becoming dawn, but they’d not be deterred. Dawn or dusk made little difference to them.
It was getting harder to stay attentive and he found his thoughts frequently disjointed. He thought of jobs, of men he’d killed and men he’d saved, of his mother and, most of all, his new family. He remembered the little cemetery in back of the barn and wondered if he should envy the mother and child their resting place. At least their bones wouldn’t be gnawed and scattered over the dead leaves. He felt a bit of sadness that his brother and father would likely never find him, even though the stupid horse would carry a hint of his demise. The wolves would act quickly and with no mercy. That’s why that final bullet was for him.
He pushed through fear with resolve. That had been his way for over twenty years and it would be his way until he died. Madrid had been in bad situations too many times to let this one rattle him. He snarled back at wolves that moved around and gave him a quick look. His plan was a simple one, he had to outlast the sons of bitches. This thought made him chuckle to himself. These were the meanest sons of bitches he’d ever faced, probably because they truly were. He remained defiant, but his weariness and loss of blood were a concern. Once he let himself mentally wander, only to come back to awareness as a wolf was practically breathing down on him from the rocks. He took it out quick enough, but the thought that the beast had managed to sneak up on him was disconcerting.
His frustration at his situation was becoming difficult to manage. He would scream at the wolves until his throat hurt. He’d attack the trap and chain that bound him with everything he had only to fall back defeated. He cursed the cold, the night, and the fate that brought him to this point, because if he did fail, it would seem the most bitter of ironies. Johnny Madrid Lancer brought down by a stupid blue horse when he should’ve been on a golden one, a careless misstep, and a pack of perros. Oh, how the bastardos who had feared him would laugh if they knew.
It was at this juncture, this almost-loss of faith, a faith that had carried Madrid through all of life’s agonies, when he first spotted him on the other side of the shallow ravine. He almost glowed with the stark whiteness of his body. He would have appeared as a ghost, except for the steamy tendrils of breath escaping his nostrils. Johnny’s hand instinctively tightened around the Colt; he’d never seen a white wolf. It had to be some kind of sign, and if Johnny Madrid didn’t believe in anything else, he for damned sure believed in signs. Maybe this was the one, the one sent to escort him away. Too bad he would be the only one to know because there was some sort of insane honor about being sent to death feeling the hot breath of a snow white wolf. He lowered his gun with some measure of acceptance and then the wolf did something that took Madrid ’s breath away. He wagged his tail.
It was dawn. Murdoch had stopped outside of Johnny’s room and pushed open the door. Just as he suspected, the room was as his son had left it. He smiled at the haphazard way the younger boy’s room was kept. A book on the nightstand with a glass on top, a variety of spurs hanging from various hooks, a couple of pairs of boots standing at attention throughout the room, having been abandoned wherever their owner had pulled them off. Murdoch went over to the dresser and glanced at the belongings. Johnny didn’t abide much with trinkets and the dresser usually only held necessities, but lately a new addition had appeared and this never failed to make his father’s heart swell when he saw it. Beside the little silver-framed picture of his new family lay a pen. It was the pen Johnny had used to sign his name, the pen he used the first time he’d ever signed anything as Johnny Lancer.
As was his custom, Murdoch stopped by the kitchen to get his early morning cup of coffee. A used cup was already on the nearby table. Scott was up. No doubt his brother’s absence had him stirring even earlier than normal. Just as he raised his cup to his lips, he heard the distinctive shout. As he moved toward the door, Scott came pushing through, his eyes wild with anxiety.
“Murdoch, come quick! It’s Blue. He’s on his way to the barn.”
The men rushed outside in time to catch the weary roan horse as he was making his way to his familiar surroundings. Scott grabbed the reins and began murmuring in a soft voice, “Whoa, whoa, whoa boy. Take it easy, Blue. Where’s your rider, big boy? What have you gone and done with Johnny?”
Murdoch came around and inspected the saddle. Other than the cinch being somewhat loose, there really was nothing indicating a mishap. Had the young horse thrown his master? As unlikely as it sounded, it was the only thing he could imagine. The saddle bags were intact and there was no sign of blood. Jelly appeared and took the horse from Scott. His eyes were large with worry, but he said nothing, apparently realizing that the Lancer men were full of desperate questions and no answers. Murdoch nodded his appreciation to the man and turned his attention back to Scott.
“Get your horse, son. I’d normally take a wagon, but we need to make as fast of time as possible. We’ll head toward the Rankin house. Maybe that fool roan took a misstep and threw Johnny. I don’t see any sign of foul play, so that’s the only thing I can imagine.”
Scott’s eyes flashed in worry. “His saddlebags are okay? Doesn’t look like anyone’s been through them?”
Murdoch laid a comforting hand on his son’s shoulder as he moved toward the barn. “No Scott, everything looks like it should. The boy’s met some sort of misfortune with the horse, I’ll bet. It’s colder out here than a witch’s teat, so we need to find him soon. No telling how long he’s been out in this.” The rest remained unsaid.
Johnny stared and the white dog stared back. This was no wolf. Only a dog, and a tame one at that, would wag his tail at a man. The tail continued to slowly swing from side to side in friendly greeting. Suddenly, the dog jerked his head up and began to growl, his ruff bushed and his tail went low. Johnny followed the dog’s sight and saw that a couple of the bigger wolves had moved in, ready to see how close they could get to the human that smelled of blood and weakness. Johnny readied his gun, but became afraid to shoot, worried that he’d frighten the dog away. Something about the big white apparition gave him hope and he was reluctant to cause it to leave. He shouldn’t have worried. The dog began a slow but steady advance down the slope of the ravine, across the small flow of water and up near where he lay. Johnny licked his dry lips and managed to croak out, “Hey boy, I’m really glad to see you.”
The dog glanced at him for a fraction of a second, briefly gave him another tail wag, and then turned his attention back to the wolves. This dog was huge, at least as tall as the biggest of the wolves and much stockier. Apparently his presence was daunting to the pack and they retreated some, taking in the new information the dog represented. As the wolves moved back, the dog slowly advanced, ears pricked forward and eyes alert and intelligent. Johnny could only watch in amazement. He shifted his position so that he could watch the big dog better and with his movement, the wolves retreated further still. Without the drive of gnawing hunger, their interest in the wounded man was waning fast. The large threatening dog represented a challenge they’d rather not take.
As the wolves moved away, the dog relaxed somewhat. He lowered his head and offered what Johnny supposed was a dog-smile. His tail resumed its lazy wag and his tongue lolled out of his mouth in a happy greeting. Johnny held out his hand and the dog drew closer. He sniffed his hand and began wagging his tail more energetically while he fairly pranced in place. It quickly occurred to Johnny that the dog was scenting what was left of the jerky. He reached inside his pocket, unwrapped the dried meat, and tore off a bite with his teeth. He then offered it to the dog who received it delicately with his lips before gulping it down. Johnny couldn’t help but laugh and then wondered at the miracle that was happening before his eyes. He wasn’t in the clear yet, but this dog was telling him he could make it, just as surely as that friend had not so many years ago. He’d learned then not to take such messages lightly.
“Where’d you come from, boy?” Johnny suddenly remembered the little house and the bowls at the side of the barn. “You belonged to the kid that lived here, didn’t you? Of course you did.” He smiled at the wriggling motions the dog made as Johnny talked. Obviously, he was a welcome sight to the lonely pet.
The white dog moved closer and snuffled at Johnny’s coat, smelling the smoky treats inside. Johnny carefully moved his bad arm and allowed his hand to sink into the soft fur of the dog’s ruff. The dog moved his head and pushed his hand, eager for more petting. Then, to Johnny’s utter amazement, the big dog slowly sank first to his haunches and then moved to lie at his side, thus sheltering him from the creeping cold and any more attacks from unwanted guests. Johnny Madrid felt the sting of tears as his mind tried desperately to grasp the protectiveness the dog seemed to show toward a stranger.
"I wish you could tell me your name. I can’t just keep calling you boy or dog.” Johnny let his cold cheek lay against the dog’s warm side. “You know, you kinda remind me of somebody. That guy, well he has a habit of suddenly appearing out of nowhere too. I may name you after him. Sol is Solista, the soloist … by himself, like you, travelin’ alone. You’ll just be Uno, okay dog?"
Uno grinned up at him in a knowing manner, his crystal blue eyes glowing. Blue? Mierda! He hadn’t even noticed before. Johnny laughed as he hugged the big white body close. Now if Murdoch and Scott could just find the horse and make their way to the Rankin house before the wolves decided to test them again. He relaxed against Uno’s warm side and let sleep pull him away from the pain and cold.
“Ahhh, seasons change with the scenery
Weaving time in a tapestry
Won’t you stop and remember me”
Murdoch and Scott rode in silence. The further they rode the more unease Murdoch felt. He knew his older son was feeling it too. He could tell by the stiff and alert manner Scott sat his horse. It was a fairly long ride to the Rankin’s house on a good day, but even longer when the riders paused to look out over the countryside, searching for some sign that signaled the presence of a certain cherished young man.
As they drew near to the house, Scott picked up his pace and soon was loping on ahead. Murdoch continued scanning the area to the right and left of the wagon ruts that passed for a road. He’d stop from time to time, stand in his stirrups and listen intently. If his boy was out there, there was no telling the shape he was in. He glanced upward at the skies. At least there were no buzzards circling, that sight would’ve surely broken his heart. He glanced back at the road to see Scott galloping toward him, so Murdoch quickly urged his horse forward. They each reined in to a sliding stop until they were side by side, both horses tossing their heads in agitation.
“He’s not at the Rankin’s place, sir, at least not in the cabin. It’s pretty quiet. It looks like the family you spoke of isn’t there anymore.”
Murdoch sighed. He doubted that was good news, either for the family or his son. “Did you notice anything out of place, Scott?”
“Nothing, but then we’ll want to go check it out a little more thoroughly. I did see a new grave in a cemetery on the other side of the house when I rode by. Looks like they lost Mrs. Rankin a month or so ago.”
“That explains them leaving without any word. I’m sorry to hear that. They were good people and didn’t deserve so much sorrow.” Murdoch then grew silent as he thought of his own. He hoped he wouldn’t have to endure more soon.
They set off toward the house again. The sky had grown overcast and this added to Murdoch’s anxiety. Perhaps his horse was picking up on that as he began tossing his head and shying, forcing Murdoch to work at keeping him under control. As he glanced at his son, he noticed Scott having the same problem with his mount.
“Something has these horses all nervy, Murdoch. Maybe there’s something out there.”
Murdoch followed his son’s gaze as he looked out into the wooded area beyond the road. About that time there was a flash of movement, and then another. Wolves. Their unmistakable shapes were loping through the trees, on their way to the promise of better hunting, he would assume. Still, there was something about the horses and the wolves that made Murdoch suspicious. He’d never feel right if he didn’t stop and explore and would always ask himself questions that didn’t have ready answers.
They turned their reluctant horses off the road and into the trees. The skies were growing progressively grayer, and it was becoming difficult to see through the gloomy landscape. Scott spotted it first, just a shape in the distance, lying beside rocks in a shallow ravine. As they rode closer, Murdoch could determine this figure was about the size of a man, but standing over that prone form was what appeared to be a very large, and white, wolf. Beside him, Scott quickly drew his rifle from its scabbard. He drew a bead on the animal and just before his son pulled the trigger, there was a shrill whistle and then a plaintive cry from a well-known voice.
“No, no, no! Don’t shoot. Damn it, man. Don’t shoot.”
The voice was pleading and growing weaker in volume. Murdoch shot an amazed look at Scott as his son lowered the rifle. Murdoch then spurred his horse and took off full speed through the trees and down the ravine with Scott close on his heels. He only slowed as they approached what indeed was his son. The dog that stood by his boy was alert, not fully appreciative of these new strangers crashing through the woods toward his friend. Murdoch could see Johnny’s tremulous smile as he patted the dog in reassurance.
“It’s okay. This here’s Uno. He’s not going to hurt anybody, are you boy?”
The dog shifted his attention to Johnny and began wagging his tail. Realizing the new men were not to be feared, the dog greeted them with a shake of his big body and then dropped to Johnny’s side, protective, but not threatening. Scott dismounted and then approached his brother slowly. The dog thumped his tail in greeting. Scott chuckled as he spoke quietly, “What have you gone and done this time, boy? Isn’t this a kind of extreme way to get Murdoch to let you have a pet?”
Murdoch silently rejoiced as he saw the flash of his son’s brilliant smile and he quickly dismounted to go to Johnny’s side. He observed the awkward way Johnny seemed to hold his arm and then moved to his leg and saw the circumstances that could have ended this younger son’s life. Lowering himself to sit beside his boy, he gently rubbed the injured limb.
Murdoch said, “Son, how about we try to get you out of this mess. It’s liable to hurt, so you need to let your friend know we’re not doing you any harm. He seems a mite protective, I’d say.”
“He kept the wolves off me, Murdoch. I’d screwed up my shoulder, was caught up like a stupid animal, and this dog came and stayed with me. If the wolves didn’t get me, the cold was about to take me out.” He glanced at his leg. “That leg’s been bleeding some too. I think my boot is full of blood.”
“I’m not surprised. It looks like you found a pretty sturdy trap here, son. Scott, you come around and brace it and I’ll go find something strong enough to open this damned thing.”
Murdoch watched in wonderment as Johnny gathered the big white dog to his side, patting him in a reassuring manner so his father and brother could work on the trap without worry. The last thing they needed was a pissed off dog snarling and snapping at them as they worked on releasing their boy.
Johnny closed his eyes and hugged Uno close, leaving it up to his father and brother to worry about the trap. Around the time he was about to drift back to sleep, movement at his leg startled him. He felt pressure and then a quick release as Murdoch sprung those deadly teeth open. Johnny’s eyes opened in surprised agony as Scott suddenly yanked off his boot and then immediately grabbed some cloths he had prepared and put hard pressure on the wound. It took a while, but finally the bleeding stopped enough for Murdoch to examine Johnny’s leg.
Murdoch said, “It’s not as bad as you might think, John. You’ll need a bunch of stitches, sure enough, but you could’ve broken bones. It appears you were spared that fate this time.”
“Thank God.” Johnny forced a tired grin at Scott. “I thought he was fixin’ to tell me you were gonna have to amputate, Boston. The way you jerked my fuckin’ boot off, I was pretty near sure you’d already started.”
Scott grimaced in commiseration as he apologized, “I’m sorry, brother. It was imperative we stopped that bleeding as fast possible. We still need to tie this bandage on tightly, or you’ll start up again.”
“Do you think you can sit a horse for a short ride, Johnny?” Murdoch’s voice was filled with concern. “We could get you over to the Rankin’s place and Scott here can go get the doc and a buckboard.”
“Ah, Murdoch, about the Rankin’s,” Johnny suddenly felt a rush of sadness. “They’re gone. The mother died and the father left with his kid. I’m sorry.”
“I know, Johnny. Scott discovered it when he went over there looking for you. It’s a sad thing. Right now, though, we’ve got to concentrate on getting you off this cold ground and somewhere where we can get that leg and shoulder some attention. You going to be up to it?”
“After all we’ve been through, a short ride will seem like a holiday, right Uno?” Johnny weakly chuckled as the dog wagged his tail in response.
It wasn’t quite as easy as all that, but Johnny Madrid had sat a horse under much worse conditions, or so he kept telling himself. Luckily the trip was brief and Scott had climbed up behind him, riding double so to brace him and keep him from taking a tumble. Once they reached the house, Scott and Murdoch carefully helped Johnny dismount before removing Scott's blanket from his bedroll and wrapping it snugly around the youngest Lancer's shoulders. Then, Scott jumped back on his horse and without anything more than a goodbye nod, wheeled the bay and galloped back toward town in search of a wagon and the doctor.
Murdoch spread his bedroll on one of the small beds and then supported Johnny as he limped over and lay down. After finding some wood and starting a fire in the small fireplace, his father sat with him and the dog, which had followed them into the house as if it was his customary place. Johnny reached into his coat pocket, found Teresa’s letter, and quietly handed it to his father. He laid back against Murdoch’s rolled up coat and smiled as his old man read to him all the tales of the sights and sounds of the north, the descriptions of new and intriguing friends, and the longings for a family missed.
Johnny fell asleep to the sound of his father’s voice. He dreamed of days from his past, confusing his pain of the present with events from years ago. As he awoke with his father and brother staring down at him while the doctor prepared to stitch his leg, he became aware he’d called out names. He knew without doubt he’d called for Sol and felt pretty sure he’d called for his mother. The look on Murdoch’s face was too agonized for that not to be true. Scott strategically mentioned Sol, pointing out that Johnny had indeed called for him as he apologized over and over for something having to do with snakes.
Even as he squinted up his eyes against the pain from the doctor cleaning his leg, Johnny had to snicker as he spoke in a tight voice, “Well, Scott, this isn’t the first time my stupidity got me into a problem with this leg. Sol and a little pinto helped me out before and this time it was you and a dog. I’m not sure which was worse, the damned trap or the fuckin’ snake, but its nice to know I’ve got friends, family and certain animals on my side.”
Scott smiled and said, “I expect to hear this story, little brother, and no putting it off while we wait for Sol.” As the doctor began stitching, Scott reached over and grabbed Johnny’s hand and held on tight as he supported him through the pain.
Johnny attempted to return the smile through a grimace. “That damned horse ran off with the tequila, big brother, so can we get home before we start the tales?”
look around, leaves are brown now
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter
Look around, leaves are brown
There’s a patch of snow on the ground.” ~ Paul Simon
The stories were flying fast and furious and the tequila had disappeared pretty quickly too. The great room was festive, even though it was not as elaborately decorated as Teresa would’ve done. The Lancer men didn’t mind, for the warmth of the fire and the tequila combined to make a very pleasant atmosphere as they sat relaxing on the big sofa. As time passed and weariness set in, the three of them grew more contemplative. Johnny was lying with his injured foot in Murdoch’s lap and his shoulders and head propped against his older brother’s side as he sleepily observed the tequila swirling in his glass.
“I don’t think I thanked y’all,” Johnny drawled softly. “I can’t remember ever having anyone to count on in the same way.” He felt the need to explain his sentimentality and wasn’t sure if it was really all tequila induced.
Murdoch looked over at him and gently folded his hand around Johnny’s sock-covered toes. “There’s no reason to thank us, son. Nothing could have kept us from coming to get you. The only one you need to thank is that white dog out there in Barranca’s stall.”
Johnny smiled at that. It had been amazing how quickly the two animals had bonded. It was as if the gold horse knew Uno had protected his master in his absence. No other dog would ever have ventured into a stall with that particular horse. His hooves were a little too sharp and a warning snort was usually all it took to keep intruders away. It had been different with Uno. Barranca simply ignored him, only occasionally lowering his nose to snuffle at the dog’s white fur. Uno had quickly established his place in the corner of the big stall and the two became roommates as if there was no question where the dog belonged.
Scott shifted sideways a bit and peered down at his brother. “That dog is apparently like his namesake; he does seem to travel alone, just like you say about Sol. He disappears on and off, and then he’s back again, or at least so far that’s been his way. I can see how he got left behind.” Scott reached for the light blanket that haphazardly covered his brother and pulled it up around Johnny’s shoulders and took a minute to smooth it in place.
Closing his eyes as he savored the companionship and memories of this special Christmas Eve, Johnny replied, “Yeah, Scott, I think ol’ Uno and Sol have more in common than I first realized.” He opened his eyes suddenly as a thought occurred to him. “Hey, have either of you seen a dog with blue eyes before?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, little brother, I have. It was a cold winter in Boston , in fact, it was one of the coldest in the history of the place. My grandfather met a man from … “
Johnny relaxed against his brother and let the softly spoken words envelop him. Outside the rain was turning to sleet and perhaps there might even be a whisper of snow to greet them in the morning. The warmth of the blazing fire and scent of pine cones someone had brought in for decoration made the air heavy with Christmas. Johnny thought of absent friends and hoped they were as safe and secure as he was this night. Johnny closed his eyes again as he turned his head toward the sofa and brought up his hand to quickly swipe at the embarrassing wetness that had found its way to his cheeks. He wasn’t surprised when he felt Murdoch’s hand gently pat his injured leg, offering silent support as his younger son’s emotions were obviously taking control. Johnny glanced up and sent a tremulous smile to Murdoch as he playfully wiggled his toes to show he was fine. The overwhelming feeling of utter contentment and thankfulness might be new to Johnny Madrid Lancer, but he knew enough to cherish this moment as another golden memory was born.
*** Notes and acknowledgments - Research on traps came from a book entitled "Steel Traps" by Arthur Robert Harding. The words to "Hazy Shade of Winter" were written by Paul Simon.