Word count: 10,110
Murdoch closed the ledger, content that the figures had balanced, at last. He chuckled as he remembered the look on Scott’s face as Johnny leaned over his shoulder and quickly scanned the row of invoices meticulously entered in the ledger, nonchalantly pointing to the middle of the column of numbers and tapping his finger on the two offending numbers.
“Here ya go, Boston, this twenty three should be thirty two…”
Scott had hurriedly pushed Johnny aside and refigured the column. “How…?” he asked. “Murdoch and I have been working on this all morning.”
Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know much about numbers…but I know when something doesn’t look right.”
“Well, little brother,” Scott grinned as he stood up and tried to force Johnny into the chair, “maybe we should put you in charge of the books from now on.”
Johnny raised his arms in protest, backing up toward the French door leading out of the great room. “I promise, I’ll never fix a mistake of yours again.”
Murdoch basked in the easy banter between his two sons, so different yet so much a part of each other. “That’s alright, Johnny, you point out our mistakes anytime.” He quickly raised a precautionary hand. “Within limits,” he clarified.
Johnny settled his hat atop his unruly black hair, his eyes twinkling. “Anytime you need my help, just holler,” he drawled as he sauntered out the door.
The sound of his spurs faded away, leaving Murdoch and Scott to stare at each other in bewilderment.
“I don’t think,” Scott said softly, “that boy will ever stop surprising us.”
“I have a feeling you’re right.”
The memory receded as the sound of a horse and buggy caught Murdoch’s attention and he swiveled his chair around to look out the great window, recognizing Padre Emiliano pulling to a stop in the courtyard.
Curious by the unexpected visit, Murdoch hurried out to greet the priest.
“Father Emiliano, welcome to Lancer.”
“Gracias, my son.” Father Emiliano smiled as he struggled to get down from the buggy with his long robe. No one knew exactly how old the priest was, but he had been presiding over the church when Murdoch first arrived in Moro Coyo more than thirty years ago. “It is always a pleasure to visit your estancia. It is a tribute to both the will of man and the beauty of nature.”
“And a lot of gray hair.” Murdoch chuckled. “Come inside, Father, I’m sure Maria has some cool lemonade and her famous cookies.”
“Ah, it is not easy to be a man of the cloth with such temptations.” Father Emiliano crossed himself and said a silent prayer to the heavens. “But I find that I cannot resist.”
Murdoch nodded. “I don’t think there is a man alive who could resist Maria’s butter cookies. Come, it’s almost time for lunch. You’ll join us, of course.”
Father Emiliano shook his head. “I did not come at this time to intrude. Truthfully, I thought I would make it here much faster. But my old mare is getting on in years and it takes her a little longer than it used to.”
“Then it is set, you will have lunch with us. The boys should be in any minute now. I know Scott keeps an eye on that pocket watch of his, and Johnny…well, Johnny can smell food a hundred miles away.”
Father Emiliano laughed and allowed Murdoch to shepherd him into the house.
Johnny spotted Scott heading toward the house and slowed Barranca to a gentle trot until his brother caught up to him.
“Get that stream cleared out?” Johnny grinned, noticing the mud that caked his brother’s pants up to his waist.
Scott snorted. “No thanks to you, brother. I thought you were going to stop by and give us a hand.”
“Couldn’t. Found a dozen cows stuck in a gulley beneath Cutter’s Bridge. Ah…I think we better take a crew out tomorrow and check that bridge, ‘specially after them cows crossed it.”
“You herded a dozen cows across a bridge?” Scott asked unbelievingly.
Johnny nodded. “Was that or drive them clear around, that would of taken more than a day.”
“Well, I don’t envy you telling Murdoch. Good thing you’re on his good side after this morning.”
“Yeah.” Johnny grinned. “Amazing how happy the old man is when them figures come together.”
“Yes.” Scott agreed, setting Charley into an easy trot next to Barranca, as the brothers rode side by side. He would be sure to be there when Johnny told Murdoch about that bridge.
Johnny was the first to notice the buggy sitting in the courtyard. “I wonder why Father Emiliano is here.”
Scott shrugged. “That’s his buggy all right. Guess the best way to find out is to go inside.”
“That Harvard education sure does come in handy at times, Boston.” Johnny grinned.
Scott raised an eyebrow. “One of the courses I took taught older brothers how to handle younger, smart-mouthed siblings.”
“That a fact?”
“Yep,” Scott drawled in his best imitation of Johnny. “That’s a fact.”
Joe took their horses, leaving Johnny and Scott to look over the buggy, old as the priest who drove it. Johnny had an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Father Emiliano didn’t pay social calls, just to be social. As they stepped into the house and the heavy door closed behind them they felt relief from the heat outside. Scott still found it hard to get used to the weather here in the San Joaquin Valley. As hot as the days got, the nights still cooled down enough to require a jacket. Thankful for the thick adobe walls, the Spanish style house kept the heat out in the summer and the warmth of the fire burning in the hearth during the winter.
“Boys,” Murdoch called as they entered the great room, “you’re right on time. Lunch will be ready in ten minutes, just enough time to get cleaned up.”
Father Emiliano sat in the high-backed leather chair looking out over the huge window behind Murdoch’s desk. A living, breathing picture of a land nurtured by one man’s dream and now cultivated by his two sons.
As he looked toward Johnny and Scott, Johnny saw a reflective sadness in his eyes…a heaviness to his shoulders.
“We’ll be right down,” Scott said, pulling Johnny back out the door to take the outside stairs to their rooms.
“You were staring, Brother,” he chided.
Johnny nodded. “Father Emiliano has something on his mind. I’m just not sure I want to know what it is.”
Lunch was an amicable affair with Murdoch and Father Emiliano carrying most of the conversation. Scott jumped in when the discussion turned to politics. When the plates were cleared from the table and the coffee was served, Murdoch sat back and looked at Father Emiliano. “So, Father, what brings you all the way out here?”
“I have to admit I don’t visit my parishioners as often as I should, but there never seems to be enough time in the day to do all that has to be done.”
“But you made time to see us today,” Johnny said softly. “Which means it has to be something important.”
“Sí, it is. I have a very big favor to ask of you, John.”
Johnny imperceptibly stiffened. Only Scott noticed. “What kind of favor?”
Murdoch set his napkin on the table and made to stand up. “Perhaps you two would like some privacy…”
“No.” Father Emiliano motioned for Murdoch to stay as he was. “If John agrees to help, then it will affect all of you.” He turned to Johnny, folding his arms against his chest, his hands disappearing into the large sleeves of his vestments. “I need your help, John. I need Johnny Madrid’s help.”
A palpable silence hung over the table. Murdoch looked at the padre in stunned disbelief. Scott looked from Father Emiliano to Johnny. His brother’s face had paled.
“I don’t do that kind of work anymore,” Johnny said tersely.
Father Emiliano stared at Johnny for a long moment until realization dawned on his face. “No, no my son, I did not mean that. Forgive me, I have not made myself clear.”
“Why don’t you start from the beginning,” Murdoch suggested.
Johnny’s vivid blue eyes bore into the priest. He had tried so hard to put the past behind him, to take the title of rancher, not gunslinger. But there was always someone…something…and even a priest was drawing Johnny Madrid out again.
Father Emiliano leaned back in his chair, looking very tired and very old. “I’m afraid I am at a crossroads, gentlemen. Six weeks ago a thirteen-year-old boy was brought to the orphanage…Thomas is his name,” Father Emiliano used the Spanish pronunciation. “Thomas Gregory. His parents were killed by robbers. They lived on an isolated farm. Two drifters found him sitting in the kitchen, his mother and father lying dead on the floor for several days. He has no other family. At first he was quiet, but of late he has been acting out. Yesterday he took a knife to another boy. Thank God it was only a minor wound. But I am afraid of what Thomas may do. He is an angry young man. Now he only speaks of revenge, of killing the men who killed his parents. I don’t want to send him away, I feel there is still hope for him…but I can not keep him there with the other children. I was hoping…”
“You were hoping Johnny Madrid could set him straight,” Johnny said softly, his head lowered, his fingers worrying a lose thread on the tablecloth.
Father Emiliano leaned forward, laying his hand, gnarled by age and arthritis, atop Johnny’s fidgeting fingers. “I know it is a lot to ask of you, John, but I know of no one who knows better what this boy is going through. Perhaps if you spoke to him.”
“And told him what?” Johnny snapped. “How I handled the murder of my own mother…by picking up a gun and turning killer?!”
“Johnny…” Murdoch tried to keep his voice calm. “You did what you had to do to survive.”
“If that makes you feel better, old man, then go on thinking it. But it ain’t the truth. I could have done something, anything but what I did.”
“Maybe,” Scott said, “and maybe you would have chosen another path if someone had been there at the time to offer you one.”
“John,” Father Emiliano spoke softly. “I believe there is a reason for everything that happens to us under God’s watchful eye. We do not always understand why, and sometimes we never know the reasons God sends us down a certain path, but I truly believe you and Thomas were destined to meet. I believe he needs you as much as you need him. If you have the power to stop one boy from following in Johnny Madrid’s footsteps then you will have atoned for a host of sins.”
“I’m not seeking absolution, Father. I know what I did, and I live with it everyday. Helping this boy won’t bring back those dead men.”
“No, but it might help ease the pain here.” Father Emiliano placed his hand against Johnny’s heart. “All I ask is that you talk with the boy, tell him you know exactly how he feels because you were in his shoes at one time. Help him to understand that revenge is not the answer. That the price is too high.”
A palpable silence fell over the table. Long moments passed until Johnny looked up. “If it’s all right with Murdoch and Scott, you can bring the boy out to Cutter’s Bridge in the morning. It needs repairing. He’ll get paid for his work…and we’ll talk.”
“Thank you, John.”
“I won’t promise you anything. But he’ll know what a hard days work is.”
“Do you want company?” Scott asked.
“Maybe, later in the day. I might need rescuing. I remember what I was like at thirteen.”
Murdoch smiled sadly. No one knew what his son’s life was like at thirteen.
Thomas Gregory sat next to Raul, the handyman for the orphanage, on the old buckboard, wondering if the wagon would make it all the way to Lancer.
It was just past dawn, the sun had barely risen over the Sierras to the east. Father Emiliano had ordered him to be ready before first light to spend the day working at the Lancer ranch. He would be paid a day’s wages for a days work. He smiled inwardly. They couldn’t know that they were forwarding his plans much quicker than he ever thought possible.
Thomas had only one thing on his mind – revenge. The men who killed his parents would pay. They would know what it felt like to feel a bullet slice through their bodies and lay in their own blood as they bled to death. And they would know it was the son of Mason and Anna Gregory who ended their miserable lives.
But first he needed money to buy a gun and a horse and supplies. He wouldn’t steal what he wanted, he didn’t want the law on him until he had finished his task, then they could send him to hell right along with his parent’s killers.
So he would work for the Lancers, make as much money as he could. It was only a matter of time, and patience.
“Where we going?” Thomas asked as Raul pulled off the main road and started heading south across the open grasslands.
“Father Emiliano said you would be working at Cutter’s Bridge with Johnny Lancer today.”
“You just gonna drop me off and leave me there without a horse?”
“Sí. I’m sure Señor Johnny will have a way for you to get back.”
They rode in silence for another hour. Just when Thomas thought that Raul had gotten them hopelessly lost, they came over a gentle rise to see a dried river bed below with a wooden bridge spanning the wide gulley.
A man sat on the edge of the bridge, his legs dangling over the side, idly waiting. Thomas wasn’t sure what Johnny Lancer would look like, but he wasn’t expecting to see the darkly tanned man not more than ten years older than himself. And he sure wasn’t expecting to see him wearing a faded pink shirt or the studded leather pants that picked up the rays of the sun as it continued to rise behind Thomas. Johnny pushed his hat off his head to dangle against his back on stampede ties, and slowly climbed to his feet.
Thomas couldn’t help but notice the gun belt buckled low around his hips, the holster slung low. The boys at the orphanage had told stories about Johnny Lancer; conjured up tales about him being a famous gunfighter. But now that he looked at him he wasn’t so sure they were just stories. There was something about the man that felt…dangerous.
“Morning,” Johnny called. Thomas noticed that Johnny was squinting against the sun’s rays shining behind his back and moved until his view was clear. It had been such a small correction, but it spoke volumes to Thomas. Pa had talked about seeing a gunfight once. Never gave the gory details, just remembered the gunfighter, how he moved to make sure the sun was not in his eyes, his stance relaxed, his arms hanging loosely at his sides. Pa said it was like watching a big cat move…all power and grace. Johnny Lancer moved with that same grace.
“Thanks for bringing him, Raul.” Johnny slowly walked over to the wagon. “Tell Father Emiliano that I will have him back day after tomorrow.”
“Sí, Señor Johnny. I will tell him. “Mire Debes tu mirar tu espalda. Está muy enfadado… (You should watch your back – He is very angry.
Johnny smiled. “Si, un pequeño lobo con dientes grandes. Yo me miraré.” (A little wolf with big teeth. I’ll watch myself.)
“Sí, un pequeño lobo.” Raul grinned.
Johnny turned to Thomas. “Well, get on down. Ain’t gonna get any work done sitting up there.”
Thomas didn’t even have his second leg clear when Raul slapped the horses with the reins and pulled away. He watched the wagon disappear over the rise and found himself alone with only Johnny Lancer, a golden palomino ground tied beneath an oak tree, and miles and miles of open prairie. He felt scared and yet somehow safe at the same time.
“Father Emiliano said your name’s Thomas.” Johnny used the Spanish variation like the padre.
“I ain’t Mexican.” Thomas snapped. “It’s Thomas.”
“You got something against Mexicans?” Johnny asked.
“No. Just ain’t one.”
Johnny nodded. “Fair enough. Anybody ever call ya Tom or Tommy?”
“Only my friends and family. I ain’t got neither any more so it’s Thomas.”
Johnny studied the boy for a long moment. Saw the mistrust in his dark brown eyes. Life had been tough for the kid, he could see the pain setting in already. He would have to go slow with him, not spook him. Damn, if Thomas Gregory was two years younger he could be looking at himself.
“All right, Thomas, we’ve got two days to fix this bridge here. A hand will be by later this mornin’ with food and supplies. Until then we can start tearing away some of these loose boards.”
Thomas walked over to stand at the foot of the bridge, whistling at the cracked and splintered boards. “What happened to it?”
“A dozen or so cows.”
Thomas shook his head. “Cows wouldn’t cross that on their own. Who was the blame fool who herded them across?”
“Wellll…” Johnny grinned and lowered his head. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. Saved me two days pushing them ornery cows back the long way.”
Thomas couldn’t keep the smile from spreading across his face.
“Let’s get started. It’s gonna be hotter than blazes today.”
For three hours they worked at tearing away the loose boards with the tools Johnny had packed in his saddlebags. Thomas worked hard, answered only when he was spoken to, and then only in monosyllable words.
It was nearly eleven before they heard the jingle of harnesses and the creak of a wagon before it crested the rise.
“Hola, Jelly,” Johnny called, dropping his hammer and sauntering over to meet the wagon. “I thought you’d never get here. I’m starving.”
Thomas followed behind cautiously. He wasn’t sure of the old whiskered man who drove the wagon.
“Well if ya had used the good sense God gave ya, you wouldn’t be mending this bridge in the first place. But noooo…Mr. Leaps Before He Thinks Lancer has ta push a bunch a cows ‘cross a bridge that won’t rightly hold a man up anymore.”
“I know, Jelly, I know. And I’m paying for it, all right?”
“You and the poor boy here…you got him all tuckered out all ready. You all right boy?” Jelly jumped down from the wagon.
“Good. But I know what’ll make ya feel even better. Some of Teresa’s famous fried chicken. You ain’t never tasted better chicken in your life boy, ain’t that right, Johnny?”
Johnny watched Thomas’ fade back toward the bridge. All the life seemed to have poured out of him. Johnny knew what it was, remembered when the simplest word, the most innocent remark could reawaken hurts so deep that they felt like they would crush a man–or boy -to death.
“Jelly, help me unload this lumber and then head back to the ranch. Thomas and I can handle things all right.”
“But…” Jelly began to protest when he saw the look on Johnny’s face. Memories were flooding back on his boy as well as the Gregory kid. He just hoped the memories didn’t drown both of them.
“Ok, Johnny. You two sure you’ll be all right out here by yourselves?”
“We’ll be fine. We’re gonna sack out at the old line shack for the night and get an early start in the morning. Should be home by late evening tomorrow.”
“All right if ya say so. But ya best watch this heat, it’s gonna be a scorcher today.”
Johnny grinned. “We’ll be fine, Jelly. Especially with that barrel of sweet water ya got there.”
“Your Pa thought you’d appreciate that. Now, lets get this wagon unloaded so you two can get to eatin’, then back ta work. That bridge ain’t gonna fix itself.”
It only took Johnny and Jelly half an hour to off-load the wood and supplies for the bridge and Jelly was slowly on his way back to Lancer.
Johnny grabbed the picnic basket Teresa had prepared and carefully slid his way down the bank of the dried creek bed and sat in the shade beneath the bridge.
“Come on, Thomas,” he called. “Get out of the sun for awhile before it bakes your brains.”
Ten minutes later Thomas made his way down the steep bank. Bone dry in summer, come winter and spring, this dried canal would be filled with rushing water making its way to the ocean.
Johnny opened the picnic basket and whistled. “Leave it to Teresa to prepare enough food to feed an army.” He looked up at Thomas. “Seems a shame to let all this good food go to waste.”
Thomas sat down across from Johnny, pulling his knees up to his chin and laying his head on his arms.
“Teresa worries about me and my brother all the time. She’s kinda like a sister to us…only not by blood.”
Johnny began pulling out plates covered with gingham napkins. “Let’s see, she’s got fried chicken, roast beef with bread and fixings to make a sandwich. Biscuits and strawberry jam and apple pie. You gonna help me eat any of this?”
Thomas shook his head. “Not hungry.”
“That don’t seem likely. After all the work we did this morning, you should be starving. You don’t have to eat the chicken, there’s plenty of other things.”
Thomas shook his head again.
“Ya know, Thomas, my mama died when I was just a couple years younger than you are now. Till this day I ain’t never tasted any Biscochitos better than hers. Probably never will.”
Thomas looked up slowly. “You lost your ma?”
Johnny nodded and began to put together a roast beef sandwich. “Here, eat this. I don’t want you passing out on me.”
“But you still had your brother and pa,” Thomas spat angrily, pushing the sandwich away.
“I didn’t grow up at Lancer. It was just me and my mama until she died. I didn’t meet my father until three years ago. Didn’t know I had a brother until then either.”
Thomas looked up intrigued. He accepted the sandwich. “Why?”
Johnny shrugged. “Does it matter?” he asked. “It’s in the past.”
Silence hovered in the hot shade beneath the bridge as they ate, Johnny devouring the fried chicken and Thomas picking at the roast beef sandwich.
“What are Biscochitos?” Thomas finally asked, breaking the silence.
Johnny smiled. “It’s a sugar cookie. My Mama would make it when we had enough money to spare for a special treat. I never forgot that taste. I’m betting that your mama’s fried chicken was just as special.”
Thomas nodded, looking over at the one piece of chicken still nestled in the gingham towel. “She made it every Thursday. Pa and me, we were never late ta dinner on Thursdays. Johnny.” Thomas looked over at Johnny, “Does it ever stop hurting?”
Johnny took a deep breath. This was what he didn’t want to happen, to have his old wounds exposed again. They had festered all these years, covered by a bandage of love and comfort from Murdoch and Scott, but they were still there, so deep that sometimes he forgot they were there. Now this boy was exposing them to the air again and he couldn’t believe how painful they were.
“The honest to God truth? The hurting never goes away, not completely. But it gets easier. You begin to remember only the good times and forget the bad. It gets so easy that one day you feel guilty that you aren’t hurting enough anymore.”
“How did she die? Your mama. How…”
Johnny quickly collected everything uneaten and repacked the picnic basket. “We better get back to work. If we don’t get this bridge fixed it will be my hide Murdoch pins to the wall.”
As the sun reached its apex and started its long hot descent toward evening, Johnny shucked his sweat heavy shirt. He saw Thomas’ startled look when he saw the scars on his torso. He knew the questions would start soon. They always did. But he didn’t always answer. Today he would. Because today he was determined to turn a boy away from the same path he took…the one that brought him all those scars, both on the outside and on the inside.
“If you didn’t grow up on Lancer, where did you grow up?” Thomas asked a few minutes later, breathing hard as he finished sawing another board for the bridge.
Johnny stopped hammering and looked back. Thomas had shucked his own shirt but his chest was starting to look decidedly pink. “You better put that shirt back on or you’re gonna burn.”
“A little sun won’t hurt me.”
“This ain’t a little sun, and I don’t want ta have to nurse you all night when your chest turns into one big blister. Now put the shirt on and bring me another board.”
Thomas did as he was told, pulling his shirt back on with an angry tug, and swung the board over to Johnny, nearly hitting him in the head.
“Careful, you kill me and you’ll be out here all alone ‘til someone comes to see what’s taking us so long. I figure that could be two, maybe three days. And…” Johnny looked up at the boy, “if ya think you can ride off on Barranca, think twice. That horse won’t let anyone but me ride him.”
The boy went to say something then thought twice about it, turning on his heels instead, and returned to sawing more boards.
It wasn’t long before Thomas broached the same question again, just worded a bit differently. “Where did you grow up, if not here?”
“Along the Mexican border.”
“How come? When you got a ranch like this.”
Johnny shrugged. “My Mamma decided to leave when I was two and she took me with her.”
“Why didn’t ya just come back here after she died?”
Johnny sat down on his haunches, squinting back up at Thomas. “You sure are full of questions, boy.”
“Ma said the more questions you ask, the more you know.”
Johnny nodded. “My mama told me my father didn’t want anything to do with me. Told me he was ashamed to have a mestizo…a half-breed for a son. I thought he hated me, and I sure as hell hated him.”
“Why would she do that?”
“Don’t know. Never will. I was too young to know it was a lie when she was alive and when I did find the truth she was already dead.”
“So you thought you were all alone after she was gone. How did she die?”
“Does it matter?”
Thomas thought about it then answered. “Yeah. It matters.”
Johnny stood up slowly, walking back to the stack of wood and the barrel of water. Dunking the ladle into the barrel, he gulped down the tepid water, then poured some over his head, relishing the feel of it cooling his hot skin. “She was killed.”
“How?” Thomas had not moved. He felt rooted to that spot, watching Johnny drink the water, seeing the emotions darken his blue eyes.
“She brought the wrong man home one night and they got into a fight. He stabbed her and then took off.” Johnny’s voice shook with the memory of that night. “There was nothing I could do. No one in town would help a woman like that, ‘specially with a mestizo for a son. She bled to death before morning.”
Silence filled the void between them until comprehension rattled Thomas to the bone. “You said you were just a couple years younger than me,” he said softly.” That made you ten…eleven years old.”
Johnny nodded. “Eleven.”
“What did you do?”
Johnny hung the ladle back on a hook on the outside of the water barrel and closed the lid. “I buried her and set out to find the man and kill him.”
“Did you? Did you find him?”
Johnny turned on the boy. “Well what? Did I kill him? Yes! I killed him. I tracked him for two years and finally found him in some two bit saloon in a town not big enough to have a name. I called him out. He was fast. I was faster. He died cursing himself for not killing me when he killed my mama.”
Stunned by the anger in Johnny’s voice, Thomas watched him walk away and soon the valley was filled with the sound of Johnny’s hammer pounding nails into the boards again.
“Johnny…?” Thomas carried an armful of planks over, still shaken by Johnny’s outburst of anger. “Johnny, sorry if I upset ya.”
Johnny laid down his hammer, looking up at the boy. “Sorry I lost my temper. Bad memories…ya know?”
“Sit down,” Johnny ordered, but his tone was gentle. “I know how much it hurts right now. I know what kind of anger you got inside.”
Thomas dropped down next to Johnny, pulling his legs under him, his posture rigid. “You said you killed the man, the man that killed your ma. How did it feel?”
Johnny pulled his hat off and wiped the inside of the brim with his fingers. Resettling it back on his head he looked at the boy, knowing what he said now could change his life forever.
“Killing a man never feels good, Thomas. I thought it would. I thought once I saw him die, the nightmares would all end. I knew I had to avenge my mama’s death. The man wasn’t fit to walk the face of the earth.
“When I saw him laying there in the dirt, when I saw the blood spilling out of his chest, and I knew it was my bullet that had done it to him, I felt sick. The thing about killing, Thomas, is that ya can’t ever take it back.”
“But he deserved it. Just like the men who killed my ma and pa deserve it.”
“They deserve to be punished. They deserve to hang by the neck…but you can’t be the hangman…it will burn at your soul for the rest of your life.”
“I made them a promise,” Thomas said softly. “A promise I got to keep.”
Johnny stood up slowly. His emotions were too close to the edge to continue. Later, maybe, when all the feelings were not swirling around in his head, when he couldn’t smell the blood of his mama and the blood of her killer suffocating him. When the feelings of a boy’s helpless outrage hadn’t nearly brought him to tears. Somehow he had to stop Thomas from carrying out his plan for revenge. Father Emiliano was right, this was his to do. Perhaps stopping this boy would assuage the guilt that still ate at his insides. Perhaps Thomas was his salvation.
Johnny grabbed the hammer and nodded toward the stack of wood waiting to be cut. “That saw ain’t gonna work by itself,” he said brusquely.
The hurt he saw in Thomas’ eyes pained him, but he could not go on now. Not without revealing more to this boy than he ever had to another living person, even Scott.
Thomas returned to his job and the sound of his saw joined Johnny’s hammer and the sounds spoke of wounded hearts and simmering anger toward the men who had changed the destinies of two young men.
Johnny heard Scott’s approach before he saw him appear over the rise. “Right on time,” he thought.
He sauntered over to Thomas and tapped him on the shoulder. “Take a break, kid,” he said. “My big brother is here to check up on us.”
Thomas watched Scott, the mounted man’s tan dark, but still shades lighter than Johnny’s, and his blond hair sticking out from beneath his hat, then Thomas glanced over at Johnny. “Your brother? You two don’t look nothing alike.”
Johnny nodded. “Scott’s ma was from Boston.”
“Two wives at the same time? Ain’t that illegal?”
“Guess it would be if Scott’s ma hadn’t died when he was born.”
Thomas dropped his head. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
“Don’t worry about it. What was it your ma said, the more questions you ask the more you know? ‘Sides, the question’s been asked in a lot harder ways. Come on, I’ll introduce you.”
Scott swung down off the saddle, pushing his hat back. “One of these day, Brother,” he grinned, “you’re going to roast that hide of yours tougher than leather. Ever hear of wearing a shirt?”
“You’re just jealous.” Johnny grinned back. “That snow-white chest of yours could burn in a rainstorm.”
“Long hours in the hot sun is known to addle the brain too,” Scott shot back, noticing the smile twitching at Thomas Gregory’s mouth. The boy had his own shirt open, but still on. Scott could just imagine the boy’s desire to emulate Johnny, and his brother’s stern warning about too much sun.
“You two look like you’ve made a little progress here,” he said, untying a knapsack from Charley’s saddle.
Johnny looked back at the half finished bridge. They had gotten more than he expected done. Thomas was a hard worker. “More’n a little,” Johnny groused. “Maybe you’d like to lend us a hand.”
“I would,” Scott said as he walked past them with the knapsack flung over his shoulder, carefully making his way down the riverbank to the small camp Johnny and Thomas had set up for break times. “But I promised Teresa I’d help her get those chickens transferred over to their new coop. She wants them nice and calm by morning or there’ll be no eggs. But if you two don’t think you can handle the job, I can come by tomorrow.”
“No need, Boston, we got this under control. Only wish you’d wait ‘til we got there. I’d love to see ya chasing down them chickens.” Johnny broke out in a contagious fit of laughter that had them all sucking for air.
The brothers spent half an hour swapping stories, and Thomas found that the heavy heart he had carried with him for so long easing up. He felt a camaraderie between these two men he had never experienced before, and wondered if he would ever have a friend as close as they were. Then the thought of his parents pulled him back. He had a mission, a promise he had to keep. After that, he didn’t care what happened to him. Thomas Gregory was not destined to have a life like this. He was charted on a course of revenge…and nothing would deter him.
“You sure you’ll be all right tonight?” Scott looked over Johnny’s shoulder at Thomas sitting beneath the bridge. All the frivolity was gone. Once again he was quiet and sullen. “I could stay.”
Johnny shook his head. “I think I got through to him a little this morning. He’s got so much hate and he doesn’t know what to do with it. I think just him and me together, he might open up.”
“Well, little brother.” Scott clamped a strong hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “If anyone can get through to him, it’s you. Just remember, if after this is all over you need to talk, I’m here.”
“I know,” Johnny said honestly. “I know.”
Scott nodded and mounted Charley. “Then I’ll see you two tomorrow afternoon. And Thomas,” Scott called, “if Johnny offers you coffee, politely say no and dump the pot.”
Johnny waved Scott away and turned back to Thomas, looking up at him from beneath the bridge. “We can still get in another couple hours work before we head for the line shack,” he said. “You get the rest of that lumber cut and I’ll…”
“No!” Thomas rushed up the bank, standing in front of Johnny, his chest heaving. “You’re just trying to make me change my mind about what I know I got to do.”
“What you think you got to do. If you take the law into your own hands you’ll regret it the rest of your life,” Johnny shouted back. “I know. You have to let go of the hate.”
“I can’t!” Thomas picked up the saw and flung it toward the bridge, bringing his fists up, ready to fight Johnny. “I know it ain’t right by the law, but its right by me. I made a promise.”
“So did I. A promise that nearly sent me to hell.”
“Well, hell is where those two men who killed my ma and pa are going. And if I end up there too, then I don’t care. Least ways they’ll be paying for what they did.”
Johnny reached out and grabbed Thomas by the shirt, dragging him up so close that Johnny could smell the sudden fear on the boy’s breath.
“You think you know what hell is, boy? You think you know what waits for you out there if you do this?”
“A man’s not a man if he don’t keep his promise,” Thomas said defiantly.
“A man’s a fool if he keeps a promise he knows is wrong. And who made you promise? Your ma? Your pa?”
Thomas tore himself free of Johnny’s grip. “They couldn’t. They were already dead. I made the promise to myself.”
Johnny took a deep breath and stepped back. “All right,” he said softly. “I can’t talk you out of a promise like that. Fetch that saw and finish your work. It’ll be dark soon.”
Thomas watched Johnny walk away, scooping his hammer off the ground as he crossed to the center of the bridge and started hammering nails into the planks again. He knew what Johnny was trying to do, but it wouldn’t work. He had to keep his promise.
The sun had disappeared behind the mountains as dusk spread across the land. Thomas knew in twenty minutes or less it would be too dark to see.
“Johnny, when are we stopping?” he called.
Johnny had been silent since their encounter earlier in the afternoon. “A few minutes,” he answered. “You better put that saw up, you don’t want ta fall over it in the dark.”
Thomas returned the saw to their dwindling pile of supplies, stunned to see the lid to the water barrel tied down with rope.
“How are we gonna get to the water, Johnny?”
“We’re not,” Johnny answered simply. “Better get yourself settled under the bridge, it’ll be dark soon.”
Thomas looked around at their desolate location. “Aren’t we going to that line shack?”
Johnny shook his head.
“It’s just the way it is.” Johnny threw his hammer next to Thomas’ saw and grabbed his shirt. “Now, get yourself settled.”
Thomas trudged down the embankment angrily, stunned to see nothing of what they left behind under the bridge.
“Where’s our food?” he demanded, as Johnny made his way down the steep slope behind him.
“Gone,” Johnny said.
“What ya mean, gone? It was here this afternoon. Enough to feed us ‘til tomorrow.”
Johnny shrugged, his figure just a silhouette in the deepening darkness.
“I’m hungry,” Thomas complained.
“So am I. You better get settled. It’s going to be a long night. Cold too.”
“What about a fire?”
“Not tonight,” Johnny answered emotionlessly.
Like a curtain drawn over a window, the last light of day disappeared and darkness closed in around them.
Thomas’ foot hit something hard, and in a fit of fury he leaned down, grabbed the heavy rock and threw it in the direction of Johnny’s voice. He heard the thud of it hitting something and a grunt of pain, then a second thud as it hit the ground.
“Why are you doing this?” Thomas demanded, easing himself down to the ground. He could barely see a blacker shape a few feet from him move as Johnny settled himself on the ground too.
“Get some rest, Thomas,” Johnny ordered, his voice sounding clipped. “We still have to finish the bridge in the morning.”
Stillness flooded the darkness and Thomas felt a shiver of fear crawl down his back.
There was no answer.
He strained to see in the blackness. “Johnny…you still there?”
Still no answer.
Everything that had happened since that terrible afternoon when two men barged into their house and killed his ma and pa came crashing down on Thomas. He felt like he couldn’t breathe, like the blackness of the night was suffocating him. Images, smells, tastes all bombarded him. The helplessness, the anger…they hammered in his head and he felt hot tears roll down his cheeks. He rolled onto his side and pulled his knees up close to his chin and let out all the pain…cried like he hadn’t since he was a baby. He didn’t care that Johnny could hear him. For at that moment, nothing existed except his pain.
Johnny settled down quietly. The sound of Thomas’ quiet sobs in the dark raked at his heart. He so wanted to go over and comfort him. But the boy needed time. Johnny knew all too well the demons of hate and revenge. He only hoped by the time this night was over Thomas would follow another road.
But first he had to contend with, what was most likely, a broken arm. Thomas had thrown the rock hard and it had landed dead center on Johnny’s left forearm. He moved his fingers but they were already beginning to swell. The rock had not snapped the bone in half, most likely it had splintered it, leaving him some use of his hand. But he knew it would be a painful injury until he could get home and Sam could set it. He slipped his arm inside his shirt for support and found as comfortable a position on the ground as he could – and waited. This was Thomas’ night. He didn’t need to worry about anything else but the lesson he was about to learn.
Johnny waited until he heard the sobs turn to fretful sighs, then silence.
“Why you doing this?” came the frightened question, drifting off into the blackness.
Long minutes passed before Johnny spoke, his voice cold as steel. “You see those two men who killed your ma and pa, Thomas? They’re everywhere, aren’t they? You close your eyes and they’re there. Don’t matter if you’re awake or asleep…they’re there. You can see the color of their hair, the color of their eyes. You smell the gunpowder…the blood… The stench of death that surrounds them…that surrounds you…”
“You made a promise to kill them, to avenge your ma and pa’s death. A man ain’t a man unless he keeps his promise, right, Thomas? Well, there they are… you see them? They don’t remember you…they don’t remember your ma and pa. Feel that gun in your hand? Feel it?”
Johnny heard Thomas shift, and then sit up.
“You got a promise to keep, remember?” Johnny’s voice echoed beneath the belly of the bridge, painting a vivid picture that Thomas couldn’t escape. “You just have to pull the trigger…twice…and you send them both straight to hell. What are you waiting for, Thomas? This is what you wanted, right? To kill them. To keep your promise. Just squeeze the trigger. It doesn’t take much to rid the world of scum like that. Go ahead, squeeze the trigger.”
Johnny heard a muffled sob, but he wouldn’t stop. Not if he wanted to save this boy.
“They’re dead, Thomas. You kept your promise. I bet your ma and pa are real proud of you now. I bet they’re resting in peace knowing that you killed two men in cold blood to avenge their death. How does it feel? Does it make you feel like a man? Does it make all the hurt go away?”
Johnny’s words hurt, but the silence between his words hurt even more. Thomas drew his knees up to his chin, wrapping his arms around his knees. He wanted Johnny to stop…but he didn’t.
“You took the law into your own hands, Thomas. Now the sheriff’s after you now. And a posse. They’ll make you pay for what you did. Put the rope meant for those two who killed your ma and pa around your neck.”
Silence again. Thomas wanted to run, but there was nothing but darkness around him.
“Hungry? It’s been awhile since you ate, but you can’t stop at the café or the cantina. Sheriff might find ya. And you can’t stop to buy supplies. Ya got a horse and no food and just enough water for your horse. You can’t shoot a rabbit or a squirrel. Someone might hear the shot. Can’t build a fire, someone might see it.”
“Johnny, please…why are you doing this?”
“Was it worth it, Thomas? Was the revenge so sweet it made it worth a life on the run?”
A wolf howled in the distance, answered by another one, much closer…too close.
“We should build a fire,” Thomas said nervously. “That wolf’s getting…”
“Can’t,” Johnny said. “Posse might see it.”
“He’s ground tied. If he smells ‘em too close he’ll take off.”
The blackness moved in tighter around Thomas. He stared into the darkness, at the spot where Johnny’s voice came from, speaking of what was to be. A spasm of fear shook Thomas’ body.
“You just stopped in a town this afternoon…a piss poor town…all you wanted was a soft bed for one night and a bath…” Johnny’s voice turned darker. “You haven’t seen a soul for days, just you and your horse, but that’s the way it has to be. But someone spotted you. You got away, but not without picking up a bullet in your shoulder. Hurts like hell doesn’t it? Burns like a hot poker, throbs with every breath, but you got no doctor to dig it out. It’s up to you, Thomas. Dig that bullet out yourself or die. That knife your Pa gave you…he’ll be real proud that it’s being put to such good use. And after you get that bullet out and the infection sets in, and the fever starts burning your insides, you start wishing you were dead too. Now you got to ask yourself, was it worth it? But the answer doesn’t matter. You did it…you kept that promise and killed those two men…can’t take back a killing…”
Silence filled in the blackness again. Thomas listened. The wolves were calling each other. There was a new purpose to their calls. Above them he could hear Barranca nicker nervously. And to his right he could hear Johnny breathing.
“Is that the kind of life you want to lead, Thomas? Always looking over your shoulder? Always wondering if today is the day that it all ends? Wishing deep down inside that it would be, because you ain’t living, you’re just existing.”
“But they killed my ma and pa,” Thomas said, but the conviction of revenge was missing. “They have to pay.”
“And they will. Just because that sheriff of yours wasn’t worth nothing doesn’t mean that there aren’t lawmen out there who are. We’ll make them pay…the right way. You willing to give it a try?”
Thomas knew the truth of it now. He could not kill those two men in cold blood. “Will you help?”
Johnny’s voice sounded tired to Thomas’ ear, but the answer filled a hole in his heart that had been bleeding since his Ma and Pa died. “We’ll make them pay…together…the legal way.”
Thomas settled down on his side, his stomach aching from hunger. But his head was filled with thoughts and new feelings. His life had revolved around one thing only for so long now…killing those two men, but Johnny’s words echoed in his mind and he knew the truth. He would be killing his Ma and Pa all over again, killing the good they had taught him, the love they gave him everyday if he kept that promise.
“I’m still hungry,” Thomas called softly, not quite sure yet what else to say to Johnny, but needing to talk.
“Boy, you don’t know what hungry is. Not until you’ve gone a week without food. Go to sleep. In the morning you can catch a rabbit.”
Sliding closer to where he thought Johnny lay, Thomas felt his boot hit Johnny’s leg and he breathed a sigh of relief when he didn’t feel Johnny pull away. Tomorrow they would talk some more. Tomorrow he would start a new kind of revenge…the legal kind.
Johnny smiled into the darkness. He could hear the change in the boy’s voice. What would have happened if someone had stopped him before he pulled the trigger that first time? No time to wonder about that now. He had to deal with his arm. It was beginning to throb with every beat of his heart. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he could be in real trouble by morning.
Somehow he drifted off toward a light sleep, knowing that dreams of his mother and her killer would be visiting him this night. But if he had gotten through to Thomas then the nightmares would be worth it. With his hand around his pistol and his ears listening for those wolves, he gave into exhaustion, knowing Barranca would alert him if the wolves got too close.
Thomas awoke to the smell of rabbit sizzling over a campfire. Sometime during the night, Johnny had retrieved his bedroll, and now Thomas found himself huddled beneath a warm blanket.
Reluctant to move for fear of losing the feeling of security he hadn’t felt in months, Thomas kept his eyes closed and just listened.
He could barely hear Johnny moving about the camp, only an occasional scuffle of his boot on the dried riverbed gave him away.
Last night had been hard. Johnny had forced him to see what kind of life he faced if he had stayed on the road to revenge. He was still angry and wanted the men to pay with their own lives, but not by his hand. He would do it Johnny’s way.
“If you don’t get over here pretty quick, this rabbit is gonna be gone,” Johnny called, a hint of laughter in his voice.
Thomas rolled over and rubbed his eyes as he opened them. “How’d you know I was awake?”
“I could tell by your breathing. You can tell a lot about a man if you just listen.”
Thomas scooted himself over to the fire, feeling its warmth and inhaling the aroma of the rabbit. He couldn’t believe Johnny had done so much so early in the morning without waking him. Johnny had fashioned a spit over the fire and he slowly rotated the rabbit.
“Take over here,” Johnny nodded at the spit, “while I get those biscuits Teresa sent along yesterday.”
As Johnny stood up Thomas noticed he held his left arm protectively against his side. “You hurt your arm?”
Johnny held his arm up, studying his swollen fingers and bruised hand. “Funny thing,” he said, “a rock just came out of nowhere last night and got my arm, but good.”
Thomas froze, remembering the rock he had thrown in the heat of anger. Lowering his head in embarrassment and guilt he mumbled, “I’m sorry. I threw it.”
“Kind of figured that,” Johnny said. “Goes to show what can happen when a man gets so mad he can’t think straight no more. Keep that rabbit moving, you don’t want to burn it.”
“Is it bad? I mean your arm. Is it hurt bad?”
Johnny nodded. “Bad enough. Won’t be doing no bridge work today. And you can be the one to explain to Murdoch why the bridge ain’t finished. That should be punishment enough.”
Thomas couldn’t keep the smile off his face. “I guess I deserve it. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll get them biscuits, wherever you hid them.”
It was Johnny’s turn to smile and he lowered himself to the ground and pointed to an old flour sack peeking out from behind a boulder. “There’s half an apple pie left if you’re still hungry after the rabbit.”
Thomas retrieved the sack, pulling out the biscuits and pie.
“How’d you do all this with a hurt arm?” he asked, knowing that Johnny had somehow caught the rabbit, skinned and gutted it before putting it on the spit.
“Been hurt worse than this,” Johnny answered softly.
Thomas fell silent for a long time before he looked over at Johnny. “Them things you said last night, about being chased, about being cold and hungry and alone… digging that bullet out of your shoulder…that was you, wasn’t it?”
“Them sheriffs and their posse ever catch you?”
Johnny grinned. “A couple a times. But they couldn’t hold me for long, I never broke the law…just pissed them off a bit.”
“Why? I mean…why did you become a gunfighter?”
Johnny raised an eyebrow and Thomas quickly added, “Some of the kids at the orphanage said you used to be Johnny Madrid, a famous gunfighter. And all those scars on your back and chest…”
Grease from the rabbit dripped into the fire and a flame licked at Johnny’s hand before he could pull it back. Looking at the singed hair on the back of his hand, he dropped his hand down to his gun and caressed the smooth, well worn handle.
“I guess I didn’t see any other way of survivin’. Once I outdrew that first man, others followed, all trying to beat the kid with the fast draw. Before I knew it I was the one everyone wanted to face. Got to the point where I didn’t think much about anyone or anything…just trying to stay alive day by day.”
“You told me last night that I should let the law take care of the men who killed my Ma and Pa. Why didn’t you let the law take care of the man who killed your ma?”
“Cause there was no law along the border, still isn’t. And I had no one to talk me out of it. I was eleven years old…angry and scared. But the hate kept me going.”
“There ain’t nothing wrong with hating the men who killed your ma and pa. I’d think there was something wrong with you if you didn’t. But you can’t let it take over your life. You can’t let it ruin your life.”
“But you’re happy now. Now that you found your pa and brother, right Johnny?”
Johnny nodded. “Happy as I can be with all those ghosts walking behind me. It ain’t easy killing a man, Thomas. Even the ones you know are itching to kill you. It robs your soul a little each time.”
“That’s how you got all those scars on your chest and back.”
“Thomas, I don’t want to see them kind of scars on you. Inside or out.”
“You won’t,” Thomas vowed.
Johnny studied Thomas for a long moment before a smile spread across his face again. “I know. Now let’s eat so we can head back. If I know Murdoch, you’ll be back out here with one of the other hands to finish this job.”
Thomas grinned. “I bet your pa couldn’t hold a candle to my pa when he got mad.”
Johnny grinned back. “Boy oh boy, you sure don’t know Murdoch Lancer. I’m starting to feel right sorry for you, Thomas.”
Thomas stood up slowly and walked around the fire to stand next to Johnny. Reaching down to shake Johnny’s hand he said, “My friends call me Tom.”
Two days later Father Emiliano passed beneath the Lancer arch, Thomas driving the old buggy.
“How’s the arm?” Father Emiliano asked, nodding at Johnny’s left arm encased in a cast and cradled in a black sling.
“Fine.” Johnny grinned. “You know how Sam is, he’s an old worry wart. He’d put your whole leg in a cast for a stubbed toe.”
Murdoch harrumphed. “It’s a little more than a stubbed toe, Johnny. That bone is cracked, and you’ll be in that cast for another eight weeks.”
Thomas grabbed his jacket and jumped down from the buggy. “That’s why I’m here. Father Emiliano said I could take over your chores until you’re fit to work again. Seems only fair, since I was the one who hurt your arm in the first place.”
Johnny nodded. “Scott will appreciate the help. He’s been picking up the slack.”
The sound of horses approaching brought everyone’s attention to the two riders trotting to a stop in the courtyard.
“Look who I found.” Scott grinned at Val who was already dismounting.
“Scott was telling me about that bridge.” Val laughed, tapping Johnny’s cast. “Dern fool thing ta do. But I might a knowed it would be somethin’ you’d do.”
“Thanks, Scott.” Johnny scowled. “Now the whole state will know about it.”
Val grinned then took a deep breath, all the levity gone in the blink of an eye. “I come out here ‘cause I got some news for ya, Thomas. Sheriff from Vallejo sent a wire. He caught up with them two who killed your ma and pa. They got a dozen other charges against ‘em. Sheriff said they’re sure ta hang. Just wanted ta know if yer needing to go and watch them meet their maker.”
Thomas looked over at Johnny, then shook his head. “No need, Sheriff. Just as long as I know they’re paying for what they did to my ma and pa. That’s all I need.”
“Good to hear it. Johnny, take care of that bum wing…herding cattle over a wood bridge…You were sure sitting on your brains that day.”
“You wanna swap stories, Val?” Johnny warned.
“Ain’t got time to talk now.” Val mounted in a hurry. “See ya’ll in town some time.”
Murdoch laughed as Val disappeared in a cloud of dust. “Father.” Murdoch wrapped an arm around Father Emiliano’s shoulder. “How about a cool glass of lemonade before you head back?”
“Any chance there might be some of Maria’s cookies left?”
“I’ll see what I can do. Meanwhile, Scott, Thomas here is taking over for Johnny while he’s healing.”
“Sounds good. Maybe we’ll get some real work done now.” Scott grinned, turning to Thomas. “Tell Jelly to fix you up with a horse and gear. We’ll head out as soon as you’re ready.”
Thomas took off for the barn hollering for Jelly before he reached the doors.
Father Emiliano turned to Johnny. “Thank you, John. I know it wasn’t easy for you, but you gave that boy back his life.”
“He just needed a little push in the right direction.”
Father Emiliano smiled. “Don’t underestimate what you have done here, my son. John, you said you were not looking for absolution…I believe whether you want it or not, you have taken a large step in that direction.” Father Emiliano clasped Johnny’s hand between his. “I am proud of you, Johnny Madrid Lancer.”
Johnny looked up to see Tom heading into the corral to pick out a horse with Jelly. The nightmares that he feared would return after opening up those old wounds were blissfully absent. In fact, he slept with a peace he had not felt in years. Perhaps Father Emiliano was right…he had taken one step closer toward atonement for the sins of Johnny Madrid.
He felt Murdoch’s strong hand squeeze his right arm gently. “Come on in out of this hot sun. Sam wants you resting, remember?”
“And I would love a glass of that cool lemonade,” Father Emiliano said.
“You know what?” Johnny asked with a straight face.
“What?” Murdoch asked.
“I think Father Emiliano is right…this was God’s plan all along. That’s why he made me run those cows over that bridge.”
Murdoch looked at Johnny and his jaw dropped open. Father Emiliano simply crossed himself and looked up to the heavens and sighed, “I know, Father…one step forward and two steps back.”
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