Word Count 4,110
WARNING – Not a happy story. I wrote it several months ago as a one-off exercise to try and get back inside Johnny’s mindset. It worked, I think . . . <g> . . . Have been writing Lancer stories once again.
Category – Adult fiction which involves major character death and some mild profanity.
Johnny . . .
The hours pass quickly when you are brooding. Time becomes almost an enemy as the crafty minutes steal your life away. Even something as familiar and banal as the stroke of the clock becomes a sullen, reminding beat.
I look towards the window and the light’s already changing. That milky, in-between period, when it’s neither night nor day. There’s a breeze rustling through the leaves of the lemon tree, and normally the sound is a comfort to me. Today it just makes me feel chilled.
Oh Dios, I never wanted this. Never wanted to be in this position again. It’s a part of my life I’d hoped was over, a part of my life I thought was done. But I guess the devil didn’t forget me, and in the end, the devil always demands his dues.
I flex my hand for the hundredth time. Crooking and un-crooking my index finger, rotating the wrist both forwards and backwards. These exercises are second nature to me even now, as involuntary as breathing. An intrinsic part of who I once was, perhaps of who I still am. I shake my head in despair.
There’s no escape to be had from this. I was a tonto, a fool to believe there ever could be. This path was not the one I chose to travel, but it has owned me since the day I first set foot upon it. I should have known there was no stepping off . . . that the choice had been stripped away from me and the path was mine until the bitter end.
The gun lies on the window ledge, both sentient and sinister. It reproaches me. The only constant in my entire adult life, its metal gleams dully in the pale-pink dawn, and I can’t help but admire its sleek elegance. I both need it and hate it. We work together so well, with a beautiful, cold efficiency which can strike like the head of a snake. I used to think it was the only thing in the world which didn’t judge me . . .
How wrong I was.
The gun is my worst accuser. The very way it slides so knowingly into my palm is almost a citation of guilt. It becomes animate, warm as flesh, assuming its own, deadly life-form. For a moment, I know real fear as I consider it, a vampire in need of a quotient of blood in order to prolong its wretched life a little longer. And I am its victim too, as much as the men I’ve killed with it, as much as any of the souls I sacrificed upon its bloody altar.
I smile grimly at my own imagination. This is the way men like me end up dead. The man I was, would never think like this. Madrid would never entertain the thought of losing or worry about taking a life. He was a victor – a man who had lost all feelings for others as he played the game to win. Only to win. As sleek and cold as the gun he carried, as honed and hair-quick as its trigger.
The hacienda is quiet as I leave my room. The day still too far in its infancy to begin the flurry of activity the light must surely bring. The dark wood and cool white walls comfort me with the scent of beeswax and old stone, the thick-patterned rugs and Spanish furniture, so well-known and familiar to my eye.
Part of me is grateful there’s no one to see me go. It aches badly enough to leave, without the inevitable barrage of questions, the realisation of worry once my family see the gun at my thigh. Inevitable, that they’d understand its significance. I pause outside my brother’s door, knowing he rarely stirs until six o’clock, pressing my ear to the wood, and listening in vain for the measured serenity of his breathing. Strange we should become so close, that two men from such different backgrounds, should meet and find the other half of their soul.
The light is clearer now, the shadows paling in among the trees as the sky is washed in sheer, translucent blue. The new day sparkles with promise, the birds taking-up the chorus as their throats begin to swell. My horse greets me like an old friend, and for a moment, my eyes are sharp and blurred. There is so much here, so much beauty. A pledge which I’m a part of, something I have a share in. I realise with a deep and bitter certainty, there is a chance I might lose it. That my past will steal my future once again. I hardly know the man I was anymore. He has no stake in who I am now, or in whom I aim to be as I grow older. But here, on this bright morning, the only choice left open to me, is to breath him back to life and let him fight again.
There’s somebody I once ran with, waiting for me in Morro Coyo. I realise he would never risk coming here unless he thought he could win. There was always something about him. Even in the days when I was sure I could beat him, a part of me was wary of him. I kept my eye on him as he practised for hour after hour, and flattered as I was at being his role model, my soul had always known this day would eventually arrive.
I turn the palomino towards the big, stone archway, calmer now as all my old instincts start to re-surface. I try and wipe my mind free of sentiment. The stillness begins to settle through me, senses almost painfully acute, as colours become brighter, edges seem sharper, and the world leaps vividly to life all around me.
I know these feelings, this preternatural awareness, and it’s part of what disturbs me most of all. There’s a seductiveness about it, the kind of charge I’ve never had before or since, not even with a woman. What kind of distorted man does it make me? That the physically closer I am to death, the
more I feel alive?
The sun has risen fully now. Back at the hacienda, my father and brother will be stirring. Old Maria will be helping Teresa with the breakfast and someone will start to wonder where I am. It’s of no avail. My rendezvous will have been honoured before they realise where I’ve gone, before they see I had no choice, in order to keep them safe. Grief strikes me like the deadliest of arrows, for once more, I have failed them. The ones I love the most in all the world.
Bracing my shoulders, I’m aware of the gun, an ever-present weight against my thigh. I fix my eyes firmly ahead, nudging the palomino forwards into a lope, as the road straightens out before me. I follow it unerringly. There is no choice other than to take it – until I reach the very, bitter end.
Scott . . .
I was surprised to love the sunrise. I unwrapped its delights with an incredulous eye, discovering them somewhat later in life – cocooned in sleep from the austere beauty of that special time, until I joined the army. My life changed beyond measure then, caught up in the maelstrom of war and thrust brutally out of the comfortable but restrictive confines of Boston high society.
The heart-breaking, fragility of the dawn was one of the compensations of that time. There were others of course, but few are accessible to me now, and time has marched inexorably onwards. I remember the pearly mornings as we bivouacked in the fields of Western Maryland. It was just before Antietam. We would watch the lines of Confederate fires twinkle along the Potomac, little knowing the carnage which lay so fatefully before us. The autumn mists swirling ghostly through the
trees . . .
It was during that time, I discovered I was no mean shot with a rifle. In fact, I was offered a commission in the Green Jackets, had I chosen to take it, but the Cavalry remained my first love.
From my position here at the top of the ridge, I can see straight down the River Road. My view is untrammelled, clear and true. I shift uncomfortably as a flint presses into my hip. The stone is as sharp as my conscience but immeasurably less of a hindrance.
Not for the first time, I wonder if I have the strength of will to execute my plan. Doubt crowds in on me and plucks at my certainty. There are a myriad of things that could go wrong. A hundred variables I cannot account for, the smallest of which could tip me over the very edge of the world.
I laugh briefly, caustically, at myself. I must be crazy to even contemplate taking this course of action, but how could I ever let things come to this? It’s still hard to resign myself to the barbarity of this land. The savagery of a place where a man’s life is considered less valuable than that of his horse’s. Where there’s no real law to fall back on, no code of honour which applies to all men, regardless of their place in the pecking order. It’s a system my brother understands – he’s fought and clawed his way through it his entire life. I will not let it kill him now.
There’s a vast sadness inside me – a deep and resigned melancholy. What ever happens as a result of my actions today, there will be one clear outcome as far as I’m concerned. Only one conclusion to my deed.
I will lose him, I will lose my brother.
The rosy-pinkness blurs across the sky, brightening, as I look down the sights of my carbine towards the road. In another few minutes the sun will be up, pale and fresh as a lemon, and tainted with bitterness too.
For a moment, I waver . . . what if I miss? But then I think of the alternative and my resolve hardens once again. I’ve seen the man who waits for him, the spectre from his past. I watched, observing in secret, as this man honed his skills on a hapless target with all the sublime indifference of a shark. The man he killed was not his victim, he was just a means to an end. It’s my brother the spectre thirsts for. My brother’s blood, his name, and his fame.
There is an aura surrounding this man, a whispering on the wind. I sensed it the minute I saw him, from the moment I knew why he’d come. Just as I know my brother will not walk away unscathed this time, the conviction like a shadow on my soul. The price will be far too high. It is not one I am
willing to pay.
I force myself to breathe slowly in and out – it steadies my resolution. I focus the sight of my rifle on a tree at the bend of the road. There’s a small branch approximately half way up, roughly in line with the point of a mans heart as he rounds the corner. I rest my cheek on the stock and pretend I’m target shooting.
I wonder briefly, if this is how my brother does it. Did he rationalise his actions by restricting his emotions? By pretending his objectives were not men?
The flame inside me flickers red with anger. It’s hard not to direct it all at him . . . until I remember he was less than fifteen years old when the whole, ghastly nightmare began. A boy, with nothing other than bravado. Bravado and a talent which was both a gift and a curse. So, who the hell am I to judge him – I only want to save him. To prevent the horrible certainty which somehow, I know to be true. If he fights this man today, he will not live to see tomorrow. I know it just as surely as I know my own name.
A movement on the trail and I see him approaching, watching the sunlight glance off the palomino’s coat. I begin to track the silhouette, as familiar to me as my own. My grip on the rifle is suddenly clammy, I feel hollow and nauseous inside. I chose this spot deliberately, like the sniper I could have been. And it’s what I am now, I suppose, waiting until he’s near enough before I can spring the trap. The thought makes me feel even sicker. I watch him ride closer, still barely able to assimilate the actuality of raising a gun against my own brother.
He’s wearing his favourite pink shirt. Its very flamboyance a shout of defiance, a snap of his fingers in the leering face of fate. I know him well enough by now, to realise why he’s chosen it, to die in it, if destiny so decrees. And absurdly, I regret that I’ll be the one to sully it. To stain that brave defiance with his blood.
He is almost level with the pine tree and I’m surprised to find my hand is rock steady. The earlier shakiness gone now, as resolution calcifies inside me. I focus my eye on the branch I selected, waiting for my brother to ride into range . . .
Waiting until the bold, pink shirt obscures my vision of the tree, I shift the barrel of the carbine slightly to the right and squeeze the trigger. The shot rings out, a single, loud report. Sharp and unbearably shocking in the clear, bright air. It splits the morning in two and I watch with almost,
unreal detachment to make sure my aim was true.
Johnny . . .
I hear a noise like green wood splitting, and barely have a second to lift my head. Bitter realisation hits me at the same time as the bullet; a whistle of burning lead. The swift, violent blow sucks all the wind from my lungs.
I spin off the palomino and smack against the road, rolling sideways reflexively, to dodge the pony’s hooves. Light turns to shadow around me and my mouth fills with the acid taste of bile. I waste vital, maybe essential seconds, fighting-off the vacuum of shock which threatens to swallow me whole. My hand fumbles for the Colt, as the pain strikes. It’s relentless, sure and swift as I knew it would be, lancing mercilessly through my body. I wrestle hard against panic, my clumsy fingers closing around the comfort of satiny wood.
My shoulder’s on fire. The morning begins to dance away from me, if I let it – then I’m a dead man. Even now, my unseen assailant will be watching to see if his aim was true. He’ll be lining-up another shot or making his way out into the open, to finish me off like a dog in the dust with a single bullet
to the brain.
With a supreme effort, I roll into the shallow incline at the foot of the pine tree. The very one he must have used as a mark to take me down. The palomino trails disconsolately after me and I’m both relieved and afraid. His bulk is a reassuring obstruction between me and the man who shot me, but an unmissable target too. Stupid to worry about my horse when I’m the one bleeding in the dirt, but he’s kind of like my compadre, a symbol of the new man I’ve become.
My hand’s shaking like a leaf. I realise with a burst of terror, that the bullet has torn into the intricate web of muscle tissue and fascia which controls the use of my gun arm. Biting my lip, I bring my left hand over to steady it, ignoring the white hot, flash of pain which accompanies every movement. I’m not sure I can pull the damn trigger anymore . . . The world dips and lurches before my very eyes. My breathing slows, as I gain control of my fear. I force my mind to focus. So what, if my right hand is useless, I can still use it as a prop to balance the Colt and pull the bloody trigger with my left.
All I need, is for my enemy to show himself. For the bastard to drift across into range.
Scott . . .
I was sick the moment I saw him fall. The dispassionate cloak which had swathed my feelings, dissolved in a nightmare of horror and fear.
‘What have I done? God, what have I done?’
Through the burn in my throat and the sting in my eyes, I watch him heave himself up and roll off the edge of the trail. Even hurt and in pain, his survival instinct is as strong as ever. I know he’ll be marshalling his strength and anticipating my next move. Pity floods through me – pity and anger. That any man should have to rely on such skills just in order to stay alive. In order to outgrow his barren childhood and exist from day to day . . .
But for so many years, it was all my brother knew. That to live, was to fight – to fight was to live. And that is why I am forced to do this. To end the bloody cycle which has governed his life since childhood.
The carbine falls where I drop it, clattering accusingly to the ground. I climb unsteadily to my feet, moving out of the shade of the rocks into the morning sunshine.
I’m surprised how firm my voice is, I’ve never been so afraid in my entire life. All I can think of, is reaching him now. Dear God, let him be all right . . .
Part of me is sure my shot was on target, a good shot, or rather an accurate one. That the bullet hit where it was supposed to, and nowhere near his heart. But a nasty voice whispers inside me; ‘I could have easily gotten it wrong.’
I reach the edge of the trail, barely twenty yards away from where he’s lying. The palomino lifts his head to regard me, he snickers softly as I approach. It’s then I hear the click – the unmistakable sound of his thumb on the hammer. With a moment of blinding horror, I realise what I’m about to do to him. The calamity I’ve brought upon myself. I should have had the common-sense to understand . . . it’s not my brother lying there. The man who lies bleeding is not Johnny Lancer. He’s a stranger named Johnny Madrid.
“No . . .”
I utter the word but the sound is feeble. Not nearly loud enough to stem the impending tragedy, to divert the incoming storm. I stumble forwards, mind racing desperately. The sweat breaks out on my forehead as I try calling his name.
“Johnny – don’t!” My mouth is dry as sand.
Too late. It’s too late. I know the very second the bullet leaves his gun. I can smell the cordite and hear the whine, sense its deadly trajectory and feel it before it hits me. It’s like running at full pelt into a wall, like smacking up against stone. I claw at my chest and feel my knees sagging, as I fall on my face in the dust.
Strange how odd the world looks from this angle, everything’s suddenly magnified by two. The silence rings so loudly, it hurts. I can already taste blood in my mouth and feel it flood the cavity of my shattered lung. The wound is devastatingly fatal – I have only seconds left. Of course, there’s no way my brother would have missed from this distance, not even with a bullet in his shoulder. The legendary Johnny Madrid doesn’t miss – despite the fact he’s using his left hand.
It’s a cold, ironic comfort that at least, he’s still alive.
Johnny . . .
He’s closer now, I can hear his footsteps. The sound of his soles as they slip upon stones. I’m bleeding far more than I should be, the right side of my body is drenched red. Damn – this was always my very favourite shirt, which is why I chose to wear it today. If a man has to die, he should go out looking good . . .
Almost, I can smile at the irony.
There doesn’t seem much question about that anymore, the bullet must have nicked an artery. Already, I feel dizzy and light-headed, strangely cold for such a lovely morning. I recognise the symptoms, I’m going into shock. But far more quickly than I should be for a simple flesh wound to my shoulder.
I bite my lip and concentrate, force my hand to raise the gun. I’m taking the bastard with me, if it’s the very last thing I ever do. A fleeting sensation of regret washes over me, so sharp that it flutters my belly. All my life, when I had nothing to live for, it made it so much easier to die. Now, when it’s all been handed to me on a plate – everything I ever wanted out of life, it appears fate has had the last laugh. I’m the first to admit, I deserve it. In-fact, I always wondered why the Lord had seen fit to spare me for as long as he did. Perhaps this is the ultimate revenge, the most deserving retribution; to give me a taste of true happiness and snatch it out from under my nose.
‘Mierda . . ‘ It’s so hard to stay awake.
In spite of it all, I’m smiling wryly. The wound must be bleeding harder than I thought. Even the much abused Sam Jenkins would have a problem stopping this sucker. But a doctor isn’t an option anymore. I’ve seen too many deaths, in too many places, not to realise that this is ‘the one.’ I can taste the blood in my mouth now, coppery and warm with salt; feel the torn artery pump sluggishly, from just below my collar-bone.
The palomino snickers, and I sense the man is close. It’s strange my horse should remain so calm in light of what’s just happened – the scent of my blood alone should have him high-tailing back home. It’s almost as if he’s calling out a greeting . . .
Delirious – I must be getting delirious. Talking horses and apparitions. For a moment, I thought the man was Scott. I tighten my wavering grip on the Colt and with difficulty, thumb back the hammer. It takes every ounce of strength and concentration in my soul to pull the trigger, reeling backwards from the report, and slumping on my face in the dust. Somehow, I know I didn’t miss – the last shot I’ll fire in my life. It’s a bitter thing to die as Madrid, but inevitable I guess, as the dawn. Try as hard as I might, I should have known a man never escapes from his past. He can bury it and put it to one side, but it isn’t enough to wipe the slate clean. Gunfighters’ always die young. Most don’t even survive their teens. Guess I was lucky in more ways than one . . . to make it this far and end up with folks who’ll miss me when I’m gone.
I’m too weary to even lift my head, but instinct tells me I don’t have to worry. My bushwhacker is dying, just like I am. That is, if he isn’t already dead.
I take a breath and roll painfully onto my back. Better to die looking up at the sun than lying face-down in the dirt. The sky is clear all around me – vast and achingly blue. Not a bad thing to see for the last time, if a man can’t look into a woman’s eyes. All the land for miles belongs to Lancer, does that make the sky above it ours as well?
Acres of land and acres of sky. The ridiculous thought is appealing. I feel as though I’m drowning in it. Even as I watch, a hawk begins its lazy, circling spirals through the blue. I’m drifting away with the bird now, on thermals of soft, warm air . . . my vision darkens around the edges as the pain fades for the last time . . .
Lisa Paris – 2004
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