The Falcon’s Apprentice—The First Lesson by M.E.

Word Count 6,771

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#2 in The Delgado Legacy

I do not own the rights to the characters and scenarios from the Lancer television series. I do own the rights to my original characters, plot elements, and settings. No financial benefit has been derived from the creation of this fan fiction, not even a free drink at a con. I am immensely grateful to Mr. Samuel A. Peeples, the creator of Lancer, along with all the other the owners, developers, and creative partners of the Lancer universe for their artistry and vision.

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          The newly-christened Johnny Madrid and his mentor Rafael Gutiérrez—known to the honest people of Mexico as the gentleman pistolero El Halcón—discovered they were close to their quarry when their inn for the night burned to the ground.

          The gunman and his new apprentice had been hired to find Carlos Merlo, who clerked for seven years at a private money lending establishment in Matamoros. One day the humble clerk left without giving notice—but with every available peso, escudo, dollar, and pound sterling. His red-faced employer, worrying about the better parts of his motley reputation, wanted the matter settled quietly. The hired gun and his youthful assistant were to find and return the money and the man with all discretion. If the clerk came back in a box, so be it; the money, however, had to be in good condition.

          The usurer had assured the pair that the slender and meek little fellow was no man of action and would be easy to subdue. However, Rafael knew that the employer, having already underestimated the unprepossessing man’s cleverness, most likely continued to misjudge the bespectacled wolf in sheep’s clothing. Carlos Merlo might not be a man of action, but he was now a man of means, and those means, if deployed wisely, could hire a very fine man of action.

          The down-to-earth inn, which sat not far from the center of the grubby little town of Saint Florian by The Swamp in the neighboring state of San Luis Potosí, went up in flames in the middle of the sweltering morning. The fire started next to the guest rooms and not in the kitchen, so the inferno could not be explained as a cooking accident. Fires were common enough in this hard-working village of metal works and smithies which served the nearby mines, but the hostelry’s blaze presented a mystery, except to the two who had rented the room adjacent to the conflagration’s starting point.

          Fortunately, the owner’s family and handful of guests escaped, and the only losses were the modest business’s equally modest furnishings. The bounty hunters, who were returning from the livery and had not yet moved into their room, lost nothing to the blaze.

          The pair did not linger with the spectators gathered before the smoldering ruins to ponder the random cruelty of life. They retreated to a quiet cantina across the little town’s dirt road and sat at a table in the back of the establishment, which was busier than usual with all the gawkers who wished to examine the disaster without being seen doing so. Under the buzzing cover of the agitated conversations filling the room, Johnny started a discussion for the tenth time.

          “I need to wear a gun.”

          The pistolero concentrated on rolling his tortilla as he shook his head.

          “Rafael!” Johnny grunted with exasperation, then lowered his voice as he glanced around the crowded cantina. “You know I can take care of myself. And I know a gun isn’t a toy. I’ll treat it with respect.”

          “That’s true. But the answer is still no.”

          The boy glowered, his aquamarine eyes filled with an abundance of youthful drama. “If I’m old enough to be killed like any other pistolero, I have the right to defend myself.”

          Rafael paused with preparing his meal and glanced at his gloomy apprentice, who did not see the man’s small smile of appreciation. “Your logic is flawed, my young friend. The privilege to carry a weapon is not measured by the danger you face, but by your ability to face the danger. You have the courage and the drive to use a pistol, but you have not yet developed the patience to know when not to use it. That is the deciding factor.”

          Johnny groaned with frustration.

          “Besides,” said the man made wise by a dangerous life, “they do not make holsters small enough to fit you. Which is just as well, as a boy of fourteen bearing a gun would be so remarkable that the sight would draw unwanted attention. Do not invite trouble. It will find you soon enough.”

          Johnny let forth another heavy and dramatic groan. He picked up a tortilla and tore off a chunk.

          Rafael gave his tidy moustache a thoughtful brush. “What have you learned from today so far?”

          Johnny chewed on the tortilla with a sullen frown. “Merlo knows we’re following him.”

          The older man shook his head. “He knows he’s being followed. Unless he or whoever set that fire saw both of us together, he may believe that only I am searching for him.”

          Johnny chewed, then the spark of recognition lifted his gaze. “That means I can find them without being noticed.”

          Rafael gave him a noncommittal glance before sending a gaze around the room for the twentieth time. “It’s possible. You’ll need to be very cautious. This is a small town, and you’re a stranger.” He regretted that his young friend had given away his péon clothes when they first joined forces weeks ago. He respected the boy’s decision to let go the last trace of his old life, but those ubiquitous clothes could have helped him disappear in plain sight in towns such as this. Then again, perhaps it was just as well that the would-be pistolerito faced a more daunting challenge on this first task. If he failed, it might prove to him that he was not suited to this life, and that might encourage him to return to a safer path through the world.

          The man continued, “Let’s review what we have learned before we consider how to proceed. Is Merlo from Saint Florian?”

          “No. Mr. Gomez said he’s from Matamoros.”

          “What about his family?”

          “Mr. Gomez said he didn’t know of anyone.”

          Rafael nodded. “So, we may consider several possibilities here. Mr. Merlo has only been gone from Matamoros for two weeks, so he’s a stranger in San Luis Potosí. This village is not along a major travel route, except for the tradesmen who go to and from the mines, there are no attractions for visitors, and it’s a home of workers. Plus, most of the village’s trades require a long time to perfect, so the residents don’t come and go casually. From all of this, we may be wise to believe that strangers are uncommon in Saint Florian. Even if he has a compatriot here, say, someone who has agreed to melt down his stolen coins, as a clerk, Mr. Merlo will be unlike nearly everyone in this humble place. I imagine he is not known to many people. We should be alert to any discussions about newcomers…in addition to us.”

          Johnny nodded, absorbing every detail.

          The gunman asked, “Do you think Mr. Merlo set that fire?”

           “Why not? It’s what a coward would do.”

          “Why do you assume he’s a coward?”

          Johnny thought, then shrugged. “Because he’s a sneak thief.”

          Rafael nodded in thought, if not agreement. “Be careful how you close your mind before you think things through. A sneak thief steals an apple when the shopkeeper isn’t looking. Mr. Merlo, on the other hand, planned for months to have as much cash as possible available before he stole it. That meant he had to be able to look Mr. Gomez in the eye and smile and nod and follow his instructions, all the while knowing he intended to rob the man of every centavo he could. That’s not the action of a coward.”

          The apprentice pondered that.

          The veteran scanned the room again as he continued, “What would be the purpose of setting the building to the torch?”

          Johnny pondered the question, his confidence in his opinions apparently no longer so strong. He finally replied, “To scare us?”

          Rafael nodded. “A fire would be a good warning. But I believe there could be more to it than that.” He fixed his pale, smoky brown eyes on his protégé. “If you knew someone was following you, but you didn’t know who it was, and then you learned a stranger had arrived in town, how would you try to draw out your adversary who most certainly would not want to be found?”

          The student thought, then smiled with understanding. “Force him to come out of hiding.”

          The teacher nodded. “And in a situation where your enemy would be distracted and not necessarily looking for you, and in a group where he would look very different from everyone else.”

          Johnny regarded his friend with boundless admiration. “You know everything, don’t you?”

          Rafael shook his head. “Only enough to stay alive. Which, until now, has been what we needed. But the time has come, my young friend, for us to be the hunters instead of the hunted.”

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          Johnny spent the next few hours in a too-familiar task from the previous three years—he went from workshop to store, foundry to cantina, asking if anyone needed an unskilled but eager laborer. In this small community, the answer was always no. Each shop owner or tradesman had a son or nephew already working in the family business. No one needed a stranger.

          Johnny didn’t need these strangers, either. His mission was to chat, investigate, and ask questions in the guise of a wandering orphan. Unlike the self-important and mildly suspicious citizens of the Sonoran border town of Rio Seco where he had spent the previous year, most of the people of Saint Florian were friendly enough to chat with him after delivering their sad employment news. Amid all the usual small-town gossip and questions about his Western accent were interesting details about two strangers who had come to the area a few weeks ago. One was a recluse who lived somewhere out in the countryside, while the other wore a gun at all times and scared the village’s women and children with his dangerous demeanor. Most people decided that their almost simultaneous arrivals could not be a coincidence, although no one had proof that the two knew each other. Now, with the mysterious fire at the lowly inn, everyone in town suspected that some form of big city trouble had arrived in little Saint Florian.

          On his way back to the cantina, Johnny walked past the nicer—now only—inn in town and regretted that Rafael had made arrangements for the two of them to bunk down in the stables for the night. This hotel looked nice. What was wrong with it? He was tired of sleeping on the ground. Having a good night’s sleep in his own comfortable bed would be a treat beyond anything else he could imagine.

          He stopped at the stables and saw their bedrolls in the back hay bin by the tack and gave the sight a grumpy sigh. He checked on Rafael’s magnificent sorrel, Rosario, who napped lightly in the early afternoon heat, and his stubborn little unnamed roan gelding, who was helping himself to all the hay he could reach. The stable master gave Johnny a friendly salute, and the boy returned the greeting with a nod. The stables’ cats—was there ever a livery that didn’t have cats?—had gathered in the shade by the back door, so Johnny went out to greet them.

          As he knelt to pet the friendly animals, he froze at the sound of something familiar…but out-of-place. The jingle of spurs. There could only be one horseman in this town besides himself and Rafael. Without moving, he glanced around but saw nothing out of place. He focused his hearing to catch any sound. There—again—the slightest clink of a turning rowel. He turned his head, following the sound to the right. He stood and approached the edge of the building with silent steps. At the end of the alley, looking across the dirt road at the cantina, stood a man who did not belong in the small village of workers and shopkeepers. With a holstered gun riding low on his leg, leather boots reaching up to his knees, and a faded sarape draped over his left shoulder to keep his gun arm uncovered, he looked like dozens of men Johnny had seen in western border towns, killing each other for reasons known only to themselves. He knew this man lay in wait for Rafael, lurking in the dusty shadows to spring his ambush and then disappear until someone else wanted another man killed, each victim forgotten before he was buried.

          Johnny’s stomach knotted. He had to do something. But what? He thought hard, looking down at his own leg where a gun should have rested in its holster. No, even if he had a gun, it wouldn’t solve this. If he shot the ambusher, he and Rafael would have to flee any authorities; even if they could stay, Merlo would escape and they would never find him. Rafael would be angry about spoiling their job, and he might drop him off at some monastery and tell the brothers to lock him up for the rest of his life.

          Johnny looked at the man again. He still had his attention on the cantina. The apprentice frowned. The gunman wasn’t even looking around for any potential threats. He was arrogant, or stupid, or inexperienced. It didn’t matter. Johnny fought a smile as he went back to the stables door and took off his jacket.

          A few moments later, in shirtsleeves and bare feet and doing his best to look like any other boy in the town, and making sure to drag his feet so he would be heard, he came around the alley corner again and walked towards the gunman. The alerted man turned abruptly, his hand reaching for his pistol. Johnny fought a shudder as he continued walking, imitating the innocence of a village boy. The man relaxed a little but kept his hand on his holstered gun as he scowled at the approaching youngster. “Boy, you should be more careful.”

          Johnny stopped a meter or so from him, hoping he looked awestruck. “My uncle said he’d seen a man with a pistol, but I didn’t believe him.” He looked at the gun—it appeared clean and freshly polished. “Two days ago, I’d never seen a pistolero in my entire life. And now we have two in Saint Florian!”

          The gunman studied him for a moment, then a small lopsided smile spread across his tanned face. “Boy, do you know anything about the other man who carries a gun?”

          Johnny feigned mild interest. “I saw him after the fire. He went into the cantina. I didn’t see his gun. He never took it out of his belt.”

          “But what do you know about him?”

          Johnny locked his gaze on the man’s pistol, then said with what he hoped sounded like convincing eagerness, “I’ll tell you what I know if you let me see your gun.” He held out his hand towards the weapon.

          The gunman scowled. “You can see it fine from where you are.”

          Johnny gave him a disappointed frown. “Come on, show me what your gun looks like. I don’t know how they work. They must be terrible and dangerous.” He regarded the fellow with what he hoped looked like undiluted youthful admiration.

          The man’s smirk returned. “It is. If I shot you, you’d be dead before your body hit the ground.”

          Johnny shuddered, knowing it was true.

          His fear was more persuasive than anything he could have said, and the man’s lips parted in a sharp smile. “All right, boy. But you better tell me everything you know. Or else.”

          Even before Johnny could stammer out “Yes, sir,” the man unholstered his pistol. He held it out and explained how the hammer hit the gunpowder in the chamber and sent the lead shot on its way. Johnny ignored his simplistic explanation and noticed that the man handled the weapon with ease and confidence. He might not be very good at watching his surroundings, but he knew how to use a gun.

          Johnny observed him as he talked. During their short time together, he and Rafael had encountered a handful of pistoleros, all in conversation and none in confrontation. Even though the professionals treated each other with respect and even a few showed something resembling camaraderie, they never let down their guard. They were hard men on a dark path. Each knew that at the next meeting they might be on opposite sides. Mutual respect would assist them; true friendship was a liability.

          This man had little in common with the other gunmen. He was maybe thirty, old enough to have been in the business for a long time, but his hard exterior did not extend down to his core. He actually enjoyed talking about his pistol and explaining how its parts came together to make it a formidable weapon. He should have been cautious around a stranger, even a young one, but he seemed to have forgotten in the simplicity of the moment. Johnny wondered how long he had been in the business. Along with his sarape and boots, his tanned skin and easiness made him look more like a charro than a pistolero. Despite his ease with the gun, perhaps he wasn’t even a professional.

          As the gunman finished his introduction to his weapon, Johnny nodded, still admiring the pistol. “Is it heavy? It looks heavier than a hammer. I don’t know how you can hold it steady.”

          The man smiled lightly. “You get used to it.”

          Johnny held out his hand palm up. “May I hold it? I promise to be careful.”

          The man’s smile vanished. He glared at his visitor, then at the awkward angle at which Johnny held his hand. He looked back at the cantina.

          “I promise,” Johnny said. “I just want to know what it’s like.”

          The man studied him again, then relented and took the gun by the barrel in his left hand and extended it to him.

          As the gunman held out the pistol, Johnny caught a glimpse under the sarape of a second pistol tucked into his belt. He held in his sigh. So much for his plan to disarm the man. But at least now Johnny knew this fellow was no professional. A real pistolero would never hand over a gun, even to a wide-eyed boy.

          Johnny accepted the pistol, making sure to wrap all of his fingers around the handle and not touch the trigger guard so he would look inexperienced with a gun. He dipped his hand as if surprised by the weapon’s weight. Maybe this man bought the Colt Army pistol from a trader. Perhaps it was scavenged from a battlefield, but more likely it came from a deserting American soldier. It didn’t matter. The six-cylinder weapon was well kept, and the model had a good reputation. Any pistolero would be pleased to own it.

          Johnny tilted it up towards him—making sure to keep it aimed above his head—as if testing its balance. He could see four loaded chambers and at least one empty. This man most definitely wasn’t a professional. One empty chamber under the gun’s hammer provided protection from an accidental misfire. A second empty meant he might be one shot short in a crisis, and considering how long it took to load the paper cartridge of ball and gunpowder, the time required to reload that one empty chamber could be measured in the last moments of a man’s life.

          His fingers still wrapped around the handle, he reached for the cylinder with his other hand and opened the gun with deliberate awkwardness. A glance confirmed the second empty chamber as he gave the cylinder a quick full turn minus two clicks before closing the weapon. “And this goes around like this, yes? My grandfather had a musket from the army. This is six times more dangerous.”

          The man gave him another small, lopsided smile as he took the gun back. “That’s right.” He holstered the gun with a fluid gesture. “All right, tell me everything you know about the other man.”

          Johnny recalled some of the intimidation techniques Rafael had used. “I didn’t hear his name. But I heard two men talking about him outside. Does ‘El Halcón’ mean anything to you?”

          The man blanched slightly but otherwise kept his reaction hidden. “What else?”

          “I heard him apologize about the fire. I don’t know why. He didn’t start it. But maybe he knows something about who did.”

          The man cursed, then glanced back at the cantina. Johnny smiled. Yes, your opponent is very good at his trade, and he knows you’re waiting for him. Every advantage you thought you had has vanished.

          Johnny’s smile fled as the cantina’s swinging doors opened and Rafael appeared, glancing around the street, probably looking for him.

          With breathless speed, the gunman unholstered his pistol and aimed at Rafael, pulling the trigger.

          Click.

          The surprised gunman hesitated only a moment, then pulled the trigger again.

          Click.

          Before he could pull the trigger a third time, Rafael’s gun roared, and a spray of blood launched from the man to the stables wall. The ambusher yelped as his hand fell slack and his gun tumbled from his grip. He collapsed in pain and coddled his limp arm.

          The handful of people on the quiet street fled as an on-guard Rafael glanced around, then approached his would-be killer with his pistol at the ready. The helpless attacker sat slumped on the ground, his right sleeve soaked with blood. Rafael acknowledged Johnny, then stepped up to the fallen attacker, easing the exposed other pistol out of his belt and looking over the damage his bullet had done. It looked like the lead ball had traversed the man’s forearm, entering below the wrist and exiting above the elbow. At least one bone was broken, and the man had already turned pale from the loss of blood.

          “Get me a stick.”

          Johnny continued to stare at the ambusher. Rafael’s command made no sense in the blur after the brief and terrible eruption of violence. Everything had happened in little more than a blink of an eye.

          “Johnny, if you please. Go get me a stick.”

          The boy watched Rafael remove his neckerchief and tie it around the man’s upper arm. Johnny shook his head to clear his befuddlement and glanced back at the door to the stables. Only then did he realize that he had been almost exactly in a line from behind this gunman to Rafael. He thanked whatever saints might still be taking pity on him that Rafael was such an expert with a gun, or else he too could be watching his blood flowing away across the dirt.

          Johnny found a stout stick under a dry oak tree. Rafael pulled the ashen man over to lean against the stables wall. He took the stick from his apprentice and slid it under the kerchief around the gunman’s arm and twisted it several times. As Rafael watched the tourniquet do its job, Johnny became aware of a small, anxious gathering in the street watching the scene. Among the onlookers stood the stables owner, who regarded the three of them with a mix of horror and fascination. Many times Johnny had been part of such a crowd; now he was part of the show.

          Rafael nodded at the tourniquet. He turned his head in the direction of the observers. Johnny noticed he didn’t actually look at them; he simply knew they were there. He supposed they were always there after every shooting. Rafael said to no one in particular, “Does this village have a doctor of some sort?”

          After a bit of muttering back and forth, one man in the crowd said they did.

          “May I ask you to fetch him, please? This fellow will live, but he needs a doctor’s care to heal properly.”

          After another bit of uncertainty amid the spectators, someone instructed a boy to go, and he took off at a run.

          His eyes closed, the pale gunman muttered his thanks.

          Rafael said, “You may repay me by telling me how to find Mr. Merlo.”

          The gunman opened an eye and gave Rafael a severe gaze.

          The seasoned pistolero said, “I will find him either way. You can merely save me some time.”

          The man closed his eyes.

          Rafael ignored his silence. “How much are you being paid to protect him?”

          After a long moment of thought, and with his eyes still closed, he replied, “Fifty pesos.”

          Rafael asked, “Has he paid you anything yet?”

          After another moment, the man shook his head.

          “I do not have fifty pesos at the moment, but I’ll pay you thirty-five if you tell me where Merlo is.”

          The gunman gave Rafael a fierce glare.

          “As I said, I’ll find him eventually, so you might has well get some money for your troubles. Let us admit the truth—a man who would not even give you a centavo beforehand certainly won’t pay you now.”

          The gunman thought, then in a hoarse whisper asked, “Would you really give me that much money?”

          Rafael instructed him to take hold of the tourniquet stick, and then he pulled his wallet from his jacket and emptied it, counting out the thirty-five pesos before he tucked the money into the man’s jacket breast pocket. “I have no animosity toward you, my friend. We are mere instruments that do the bidding of others. The disagreement is between my employer and yours. Although I confess I’ve developed a dislike of your fellow.”

          The village doctor approached them with caution, and Rafael nodded for him to attend to the patient. As the medical man inspected the bullet’s ravaging path, the gunman gave Rafael the smallest of smiles. “I dislike him as well, my friend.”

          “Mr. Merlo, I regret I must inform you that the man you hired will no longer be of use to you. I will add that if you had paid him up front, we would not be standing before you now.”

          In the comfortable parlor of his nice country house several kilometers from Saint Florian, the slight, bookish man blanched. He stood, frozen in place, his gaze passing back and forth between Johnny and Rafael. Johnny didn’t know if he was trying to determine the depths of the danger before him, or if he was deciding which one of them might be bribed to turn on the other.

          During their discussion on their ride to the man’s hiding place, Rafael had given his pupil a brief reminder of what they had learned about their quarry, emphasizing that the clerk would not be as harmless as he appeared. Merlo might try anything, and now that he was cornered, they should be prepared for any form of trouble.

          A stillness settled around their future prisoner. “How much is Mr. Gomez paying you? I’ll double it.”

          “I’m afraid you cannot buy the promise I gave him to retrieve you and the money.”

          “Triple.”

          “You must reconcile yourself. We will all be leaving for Matamoros within the hour.” Rafael did not have his gun drawn, but his hands rested comfortably on his gun belt, his right hand mere centimeters from his holster. Everything about him indicated his resolve.

          Johnny stood next to a small desk, studying the confrontation and absorbing everything he could of what Rafael said and did. If he could imitate the man’s techniques, perhaps he would have a similarly successful career.

          Merlo’s eyes moved in jagged circles as he thought. “It will take me longer than that to collect the money. I don’t have it here.”

          On their ride to the house, Rafael told Johnny that Merlo would probably say that, hoping to buy time. He also said the likelihood of that being true was non-existent.

          “If that is the case,” Rafael said in lamenting tones, “I’m afraid then I must deliver you to Mr. Gomez without the money. I can imagine he will be most disappointed.”

          The flicker of terror on Merlo’s face proved he understood Mr. Gomez’s disappointment would be personal and painful. He lowered his head in thought, then seemed to surrender. In a quiet voice, he said, “I have a token amount here. Perhaps that will appease him until I can arrange for the rest.”

          In trudging steps, Merlo approached the small desk. Johnny smiled as he watched the man, already wondering how he would spend his share of the reward for such an easy capture.

          With a sigh, their prisoner opened a shallow desk drawer.

          Before Johnny could look down at the drawer to see how much money might be inside, a steely hand clamped down on his shoulder and spun him around to face Rafael. As he stumbled with the pull of Merlo’s grasping hand, he caught a glimpse of a pistol two centimeters from his right ear as Merlo roared with rage and hid behind his hostage.

          Rafael’s gun spat out smoke and flame over Johnny’s left shoulder. Merlo’s pistol fired uselessly towards the ceiling as Merlo tumbled backwards. Johnny dropped to his haunches, his hands over his stinging ears. As Rafael passed by him, his gun still in his hand, Johnny stared down by his feet at the small pistol that the man had pulled out of the desk drawer. He looked over his shoulder and saw Rafael examining the body, which was now missing part of its forehead. He saw Rafael’s lips moving, but all he could hear were the aching, thunderous echoes in his ears. He stared at Merlo and his nightmarish grimace at the ceiling.

          Rafael appeared and knelt before him. He said something, but only muffled whispers came out. Rafael frowned, then spoke again.

          “I can’t hear you!” Johnny wailed. Dear God—would he ever hear again?

          Rafael nodded and, after giving him a placating gesture, helped him to stand and led him outside into the afternoon sunlight.

 .

          Johnny’s hearing began to return as he sat on the house’s front portico, although he couldn’t catch the cooing of the doves he saw in the trees. When Rafael put his apprentice in the chair, he gestured for him to wait, and with a bit of pantomime indicated that he would search the house for the money. He went inside, then after a short time came out to check on him. Apparently satisfied that Johnny would recover, Rafael returned to the house, leaving him to dwell on his thoughts and regrets.

          Johnny was just as glad to spend the time alone. At one point his body began to shake with such force that the chair rattled. The quaking eventually subsided, tears came and went, but his dark thoughts lingered. He couldn’t believe how stupid he had been. He’d done nearly everything wrong. He’d let down his guard in front of someone he knew to be dangerous. He’d let his mind drift away from the job as he made plans for the fruits of their success before they had succeeded. He had been nothing more than a stupid child. Only Rafael’s quickness and marksmanship had saved him. How ashamed the great El Halcón must be of such a worthless assistant!

          Rafael emerged with his stuffed saddlebags over his shoulder. He sat in the chair next to Johnny and draped the heavy bags over the chair’s wooden arm with a gentle pat. “How are your ears now, my young friend?”

          His words had been muffled, but at least Johnny could understand him. “Better.”

          Rafael nodded, then looked at the saddlebags. “I found everything except about a hundred pesos.”

          Johnny nodded, figuring Merlo had spent it on provisions and renting this house. He was a little surprised that it had been so little. That did nothing to soften his fear of the scolding to come. When Rafael stayed silent and breathed in the sweet, cooling late afternoon air, the apprentice had to speak. “Thank you for saving my life.”

          Rafael regarded him for a few moments, then replied, “I was merely returning the favor.”

          It took Johnny a few moments to understand that he meant the trick he’d told him about on the ride here, how he rotated the cylinder of the ambusher’s gun so the two empty chambers were positioned to be fired next. He shrugged.

          “I shall strive never to underestimate you, my young friend.”

          Johnny stared at him.

          “What you did was not merely clever. It was…elegant.”

          Johnny knew his hearing must not be working right yet.

          “When I was your age, our friend Father Mateo said to me so many times, ‘In your life, take the path of least harm.’ I didn’t understand, of course.” He gave his apprentice a smiling glance. “When I was your age, I was much younger than you are.”

          Johnny frowned at the nonsensical statement and tapped his ears. No, they seemed to be working.

          “But you, my young friend, when you could have chosen half a dozen other ways of warning me, you selected the path of least harm. Now I know our friend is watching over you.”

          Johnny wanted to understand, and perhaps someday he would. But for now, most of all he wanted to change the topic. “I can travel now. Let’s head for Matamoros.”

          Rafael shook his head. “First we must settle our affairs in Saint Florian.”

 .

          Rafael completed his tasks in the little village with his usual charm and professional, calm efficiency. He found the constable and explained his assignment and everything that had happened. The constable, whose authority had been granted to him by the trust of his fellow villagers rather than the French interlopers or the Mexican government in exile, sent for the mayor and the priest. The leading men of Saint Florian listened in circumspect silence as the professional killer told his story with mildness and precision. Everyone present knew the villagers had no way to impose any sort of punishment on the stranger in their midst. But with suitable ceremony they acted out the pantomime of pretending to sit in judgment. From Merlo’s ill-gotten gains, the pistolero offered a generous sum to pay a fine for disturbing the peace, in addition to covering the costs of repairing the burned inn, paying the doctor for the other gunman’s medical bills, and contributing to the church to haul the dead man to town and bury him. Having no other realistic options, the village leaders accepted.

          Johnny watched the scene with silent amazement. The two of them could have left Merlo’s place for Matamoros and been long gone before anyone knew what had happened to the thief. Johnny knew Rafael had given all his money to the other gunman, so this would be paid for by their employer. Giving Mr. Gomez’s money to the people of this sleepy little town seemed ridiculous. But he knew enough to keep his mouth shut…at least until after the others left.

          After handing to the mayor what seemed to the boy like a king’s ransom, Rafael took Johnny to the doctor’s office. There he gave the injured ambusher the remaining fifteen pesos of his unpaid fee. To Johnny’s embarrassment, the would-be pistolero cried. The doctor proclaimed that his arm would probably not need to be amputated, but his days of being adept with a pistol were done. Rafael returned the guns he had taken from the man and gave him an extra fifty pesos for his lost career, and the fellow cried again and vowed eternal friendship. After a fond farewell and wishes for a long and happy future, Rafael left, his eye-rolling apprentice following on his heels.

 .

          Johnny tended to their horses as Rafael ran a private errand, and then they left for Matamoros with only an hour of sunlight left in the day. Johnny had a dozen questions. Why had Rafael been so generous? They were to be paid a percentage of what they returned, so every gift to the villagers and their adversary was money out of their pockets. Why did he act like the others had any kind of authority over them? Why had he been so kind to the man who tried to kill him? Hadn’t he said forgiveness was a bad policy because it encouraged your enemies to try again? Why were they leaving when they could afford to stay in the nice hotel in town? Come to think of it, with a fortune recovered from the thief, why didn’t Rafael take more money for himself and tell Mr. Gomez that Merlo had spent it? Gomez might be like Merlo and not even pay them when this was done, and they deserved something for their danger. Indeed, why didn’t they take all of the fortune and escape?

          The pistolero listened with patience as his apprentice rattled off his list of questions and complaints. When the boy exhausted his grievances, Rafael replied with a question of his own. “Between money and your reputation, which is more important?”

          As they rode north, Johnny thought for nearly half a kilometer, and then he finally gave up. “I don’t know.”

          “Money can be gone in an evening, buying drinks for acquaintances or lost at the gambling table. But your reputation stays with you for the rest of your life. When people hear the name El Halcón, they know it belongs to a man who knows his business, but who is also someone who conducts himself like a gentleman. Someday, perhaps—perhaps—they will remember what I have done and think twice about turning me in to someone who wishes me harm.”

          Johnny considered his words, not sure the sacrifice of so much wealth was worth it.

          A smile touched Rafael’s lips. “However, to prevent you from fearing that I hope to become a saint someday, I did keep one item. A gift for a true friend.” Rafael’s smile grew more mischievous. “I know you admire my medal of the Virgin,” he said, tapping his shirt over the golden medallion that never left his neck. “You scoff at its meaning, even as you admire its beauty.”

          Johnny looked down at his saddle. No longer having faith was not the same as scoffing, although he knew sometimes Rafael exaggerated when he teased him.

          “And since this task led us to a town of gold and silver workers, I could not ignore so obvious a message.” From his jacket pocket he produced a large gold pendent on a gold chain. “The chain is too long, perhaps, but you shall grow into it, I’m certain.” He held out the gift to his apprentice.

          Astonished, Johnny took the necklace with reverence. Rather than being a religious icon, the glittering medallion was a large American coin. His eyes bulged. “A Double Eagle!”

          Rafael nodded. “The largest and most beautiful American coin.”

          Johnny quickly slipped the chain over his head and admired the sparkling prize. He had never seen so much money in his life, and it was his! The stout loop that linked the coin and chain had been forged into a solid ring. Removing the coin would require damaging the necklace.

          The teacher said, “Surely this will bring you good luck. Also, as long as you have it, you’ll never be a pauper.”

          “I’m a rich man!” the student exclaimed.

          Rafael replied with a hearty laugh.

          Johnny admired the necklace for a few more moments, then slipped the coin under his shirt. He regarded Rafael with shining eyes. “You said it was for a true friend.”

          Rafael nodded, his smile tightening as he blinked a few times. “If that is your good luck charm, I believe you are mine. As long as we are partners, I know we shall have great success.”

          Johnny stared. “Partners?”

          Rafael nodded. Then he added sternly, “I am the senior partner, of course. And you will do everything I say. But yes, partners.”

          With a sigh of contentment, Johnny beamed and put his hand over where the coin rested on his belly. With such a teacher, what a glorious future he would have!

.

 To  (The) Falcon’s Apprentice—The Last Lesson

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