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

Word Count 12,920

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.

The “fast talker/slow brain” line is paraphrased from the Night Gallery episode “The Waiting Room” written by Rod Serling. As I always says, if you’re gonna steal—er, borrow—do it from the best.

#3 in The Delgado Legacy

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The rifle report echoed through the rocky valley, sending the lounging men on guard duty ducking behind cover. The irony of the timing amused the bored Johnny Madrid, as he had just lamented to his new pal Isham the “statistic” that their work as gun hawks was ninety percent tedium and ten percent excitement.

His humor vanished with the cries of alarm among their Mexican cohorts and shouts of “The chief’s hit!” and “Get him to safety!” On this remote pass through the dry scrubland that led to their employer’s hacienda, there was only one chief.

As wild ricochets bounced centimeters from his head and his compatriots opened up with a barrage of return fire against their unseen enemy, Johnny slid down the sharp rocks. In his haste, he tore a wide gash in his dungaree trousers over his shin and scraped his leg. He ignored the sting as he joined the agitated collection of campaneros when they lifted their chief, the formidable pistolero El Halcón, to safety behind a boulder. Blood poured from the side of the man’s right knee, flowing down the back of his calf and soaking the leg of his tailored dark leather calzoneras and elegant boot before dripping off the smooth rowel of his spur.

Ignoring the man’s grimaces—how Rafael Gutiérrez hated to betray discomfort!—Johnny whipped his bandana from his cloth jacket pocket and twirled it, wrapping it around his friend’s leg above his knee. By some miracle he found a stout stick—it must have fallen from one of the bent, dry pines up on the edge of the ridge—and twisted it into the bandana, making a tourniquet. Johnny had seen Rafael nicked a couple times by bullets, but the man always managed to dismiss the wounds as if they were insect bites. No one could shrug off this disaster. As Johnny watched the bleeding slow, he shook his head with anger. The knee joint had taken the hit. He glanced at his mentor as the dignified gunman tried to suppress the pain, but Johnny knew the truth. He was in agony, and his leg was ruined. His career was over.

Swallowing the pain as best he could, Rafael eyed Miguel and Gordito, his two lieutenants on this watch. “Go back to the line and make sure no one’s coming up the slope while you linger here.”

Miguel wiped his eyes as Gordito nodded and pulled his companion away. Rafael dismissed his other would-be nursemaids, leaving only Johnny, who held the tourniquet tight. The young gunman glared at the wound, then, as only a seventeen-year-old could, lined up every curse word he knew in Spanish and English into a thorough denouncing of the situation.

Even as he winced from his pain, Rafael gave his apprentice a wistful shake of his head. “It’s not as bad as all that.”

“Tell me how you’re ever going to ride again.”

“There are doctors.”

“Don’t start lying to me now. We’ve known each other too long. You’re never gonna be able to use it again.”

The older man regarded the bloody mess for a long moment, then gave a small shrug. “You’re right. But it could be worse.”

More rifle fire erupted along the narrow path below them. The two pistoleros listened, and neither liked what he heard. The intensity increased, and shouts from their compatriots indicated they were not holding their own.

Rafael tried to get up, but Johnny had no trouble pushing him back down. “Do you want to bleed to death? That isn’t going to help anyone!”

Rafael eyed his apprentice with more than a little annoyance. “I see I have not wasted the last three years. Now you are so much your own man that you give the orders.”

A frantic Miguel returned. “They have four men for each of ours. We have to leave or die.”

The three shared a troubled glance. Between them and their horses up at the pass lay half a kilometer of rocky terrain, and even if he somehow made it that far, Rafael would never be able to ride fast enough to escape. For all they knew, some of Mendoza’s gunmen had already found the horses and were waiting to finish the battle.

“Leave me here,” Rafael commanded.

Miguel exclaimed with dismay as Johnny gave him a stout “Like hell!” He wrapped Rafael’s hand around the tourniquet’s stick to hold it in place, then pulled the man’s arm over his shoulder and lifted him to his feet. Johnny ignored Rafael’s grunt of pain as he said to Miguel, “You and everyone else get to the horses and take off. They won’t look for anyone staying behind.”

“But—”

“Get out of here!”

Miguel hesitated, then surrendered. Seeing the man’s roughly-woven neckerchief gave Johnny an idea, and before the lieutenant scrambled away he persuaded Miguel to hand it over.

As Miguel’s whistle pierced the valley’s raucous air with the signal to fall back, Johnny turned with his burden towards the sharp upslope. He scanned the high valley walls for a large rock that might be dislodged with a bullet to start an avalanche. Nothing suitable waited to serve his plan. He half-carried his wounded friend up the steep wall of the narrow valley away from the escape route, one arm supporting Rafael and the other reaching out to pull them up the dry terrain. Rafael tried to help, but hopping on one leg across the loose rocks did little to make Johnny’s task easier. They made slow progress as the echoes of their companions’ retreat traveled behind them towards the pass. One or two of their men fired an occasional shot to cover the escape, and the echoing barrage of the pursuers grew louder.

The day before when he was bored—what he’d give to be bored again!—Johnny had spotted the narrow ravine behind the low, squat boulder above them. Now the lucky find offered the only hope of saving Rafael. Johnny managed to pull him up into the hiding place of the natural trench and set him down gently in the dust and sand. He ignored his friend’s chiding about risking his own life to save him as he took Miguel’s neckerchief and pressed it against the dark blood pooled on the man’s soaked pants leg.

“What are you doing?”

“Making a lie look good.” When the glistening ooze saturated the rough cloth, Johnny clutched the kerchief in his left hand so it wouldn’t drip and slid back down the slope to the pool of blood that marked where Rafael had fallen. He could hear the retreating gunfire of the others ahead, but more ominous were the shouts and gunfire of the approaching gunmen coming up the valley. They would reach this spot in no more than a minute.

Keeping low to the ground, Johnny scrambled along the way the others had fled, constricting the kerchief to make sure it dribbled blood along his path. He scouted the slope above him as he ran and left the gory trail, looking for a boulder large enough to provide cover. He’d begun to regret his half-baked plan when he saw what he needed twenty meters ahead and ten meters up an almost sheer slope.

The shouts and footfalls of the pursuers carried up the narrowing path as he squeezed out the last drops from the kerchief and then dropped it in a crevice between two rocks.  He took three more steps along the escape route, then planted his blood-smeared left hand on a flat rock. He held his breath as the pursuing voices exclaimed when they reached the pool of blood. He dashed as best he could up the rock-strewn incline, making sure not to reach out and pull himself up with his bloody hand. He made it to the tall boulder as a loud, clear voice called out, “They took him this way!”

Crouching behind the tall rock, Johnny took out his pistol and cocked the hammer, waiting. Every muscle still, he heard the men follow the trail he’d left for them. The gunfire had stopped, and the close sounds of their boots on the rocks sent a chill down his spine. One man called out when he found the cloth, and another spotted the hand print several meters away. The second scout reported no blood beyond the hand print. Johnny listened in forced stillness to the terse discussion as they tried to make sense of the evidence. A bellowing voice—Johnny recognized him as John Beazley, who served as a lieutenant of Mendoza’s hired guns—announced that the retreating men must have switched the wounded man’s dressing and were now carrying him. A few others weren’t convinced, but when Beazley proclaimed that the retreating gunmen would be slower now and they could wipe them out and collect their bonus if they hurried, many footfalls headed up to the pass.

Johnny waited, his gun at the ready. As the last sounds of the gunmen disappeared up in the direction of the pass, he continued in his silent vigil. This rocky terrain folded sounds down upon themselves, with the echoes telling lies about where they originated. He heard a pebble clink against a rock. It could have been a lizard, or a puff of wind…or a man. He waited. He watched Rafael’s blood dry and cake on his hand. He hoped Rafael had kept an eye on the tourniquet. But if he’d lost enough blood and got lightheaded, he might loosen his grip, and…. He corralled that thought. He’d done his best for his friend. If it hadn’t been enough, well, he’d deal with that later.

Rifle fire echoed down from the pass. Either the pursuers had spotted their quarry, or they wanted the fleeing men to think they had. More rifle shots replied. Johnny heard soft footfalls head up in the direction of the battle. Johnny looked at his pistol as the footfalls faded away. He’d heard Mendoza’s men included a Chiricahua tracker. The tracker hadn’t been fooled as easily as the rest. If the shooting hadn’t pulled him away, who knows how long he would have waited? Johnny didn’t mind being lucky…although another man might have stayed behind. He listened for two more minutes, then, after a slow, deep breath, and keeping his eyes trained on the ground by his feet to avoid a misstep that would send something tumbling down the slope, he took a small step to the edge of the boulder. Another step, and he could see down to the path where the bloody kerchief lay on the ground. No one remained. He glanced up the way to the pass. No one. He let out a deep sigh, then headed back down to where he’d left Rafael.

Instead of finding an unconscious man on the brink of death, Johnny came upon Rafael lounging comfortably in the small ravine, looking as if he were trying to decide between having a bacanora or a tequila. The tourniquet had done its job and rested on the ground beside him. “I’m pleased to see your plan succeeded. Someday you must tell me what you did.”

“I’d ask you if you can walk, but I know better.” He pulled Rafael to his feet, wincing in sympathy as the wounded man gritted his teeth. He put his shoulder under his mentor’s right arm and led the way down the steep hillside to the narrow trail.

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Having no horses in this open, dry landscape, the men were doomed without help. To their surprise, they found it from campesinos who worked land owned by Mendoza. The husband and wife tenant farmers were driving their cart home from a nervous market day in the middle of a range war when they came upon the pair trying to make their way down the open road on foot. Johnny recognized them from the weekly market as the couple who sold cabrito pastries. A few weeks earlier, in his dignified and gentlemanly way, Rafael had been especially complimentary to the wife, who blushed and giggled like a girl. Even though his courtesy earned them the largest of the pastries, Johnny had shaken his head at his mentor, annoyed that Rafael could never resist the urge to charm women whenever possible. But he’d never criticize the man again when the wife eyed the injured gunman’s wound and convinced her husband to load him into their cart despite all the sensible reasons to flee. Helping the pair who worked for their patrón’s enemy could only bring them danger, and yet they were willing to risk their lives by offering the desperate men a humble sanctuary at their remote homestead.

As the local curandero, the husband tended to Rafael’s ruined knee. He could do nothing about the bullet, but his healing herbs could draw out any poison that might lead to an infection. The couple’s oldest daughter even offered to sew up the gash in Johnny’s trousers, but her cool-eyed mother decided to keep the flirtatious girl away from the dangerous young man and performed the task herself, to the disappointment of both young people.

Rafael and Johnny spoke little about what to do next. They knew his life as a pistolero had ended. His only hope now lay in his careful plans to create a refuge in the unlikely event that he outlived his career. In order for Rafael to succeed, however, Johnny would need to leave his friend in the hands of these strangers to perform a perilous errand.

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Psst. Isham.

At the whispered words emerging from the moonless night, the young Anglo gunman molded by the Kansas Troubles froze as he poured himself a cup of coffee at his lookout post campfire. He set down the coffee pot with infinite slowness as his eyes searched the darkness.

Isham. It’s me.

Isham looked just beyond the reach of his campfire’s light with a marveling smile. “Madrid? Is that you?” He loosed a reckless laugh as Johnny shushed him and emerged from the shadows. “What are you doing, skulking around like a stray dog? Sit down and have some coffee!”

Johnny gave him a stern gesture to keep his voice down.

He shrugged, then handed his coffee to his visitor. He fished a second mug out of the cooking kit and poured another cup. “I thought you were dead, amigo. We all made it back except Gordito. Well, and you and the Old Hombre.”

Johnny bristled at Isham’s nickname for Rafael, which sometimes he said without much respect. But he reminded himself Isham didn’t mean much by it; that was just his way of talking. “That’s why I’m back. I’m here to get our horses.”

Isham frowned as he took a sip of his coffee. “You know what de Soto’s honcho said. If any of us run off, he gets to keep anything we leave behind. Just tell him you’re back, and he’ll give you your horse.”

Johnny gulped down the contents of his cup. “I need Rafael’s, too.”

“Why?” A sly grin crossed his face. “You saying he isn’t dead?”

Johnny poured himself a second cup of coffee and drained it. “He’s as good as. He’s a cripple. He’ll never work again.”

“So? What’s that got to do with you?”

His mischievous tone grated, but Johnny let it go. He needed Isham’s help. “I just wanna get his stuff, okay?”

“What do you want from me?”

“I need to get to Castro.”

“Why him?”

“He’ll sell me back our horses and gear. He’s square and won’t charge me and arm and…,” he fought a shudder, “a leg.”

Isham shook his head. “He’s up on the north perimeter. You won’t be able to get to him. Everybody’s out there, waiting for the next move. I’m kinda surprised you got through.”

Johnny cursed. His whole plan hinged on playing to Castro’s soft heart.

“Why do you need to buy ‘em? Aren’t you coming back?”

Johnny didn’t want to tell Isham Rafael’s plans, just in case he said something without thinking and people came after them. “The way things are going, this’ll all be over by the time I get back.”

“How much money you got on you?”

“Twenty-eight dollars and thirty-seven pesos.”

Isham shook his head. “You know how de Soto coveted the Old Hombre’s tack. He’ll demand at least eighty bucks just for that fancy saddle. You’re never gonna get both horses and your gear for that.”

Johnny cursed again. How was he supposed to get Rafael to Monterrey? He thought about the American Double Eagle that hung as a medallion around his neck. He didn’t want to surrender that token of his friendship with Rafael. Besides, even if he did, he still wouldn’t have enough money.

Isham studied him for a long moment, then said, “Give me twenty bucks.”

“What’re you gonna do?”

“I’m going shopping.” Johnny scowled, but Isham was unperturbed. He held out is hand. “Come on.”

Johnny still didn’t understand, but he pulled two gold coins from his jacket pocket and flipped them to his friend.

Isham grinned and stood. “Johnny Boy, you sit tight and help yourself to some grub.” With a wink, he disappeared into the darkness.

Fifteen minutes and a meal of dried beef later, Johnny froze at the sound of approaching horses. He rolled out of the campfire’s light and drew his gun, but his alarm faded as he watched Isham ride in on a red overo and leading Rafael’s golden sorrel, complete with the silver-trimmed saddle and bridle. As he returned to the circle of firelight and holstered his gun, Johnny marveled at the spirited, beautiful paint. That animal was too fine to have been in the remuda. Where had Isham found him?

Isham laughed. He flung his leg over the overo’s neck and slid to the ground. “There you go, Johnny Boy. I figured you deserved a nicer horse while I was at it. He’s a little green, but you’ll settle him down in no time.”

Johnny marveled. He was about to ask how he managed this with only twenty dollars, but then the truth sank in. De Soto probably claimed Raphael’s magnificent golden sorrel as soon as he heard he’d been shot and put him in his private herd. “Isham, you son of a bitch, you stole them!”

The gun hawk held out his hands in an impish gesture of innocence. “Kid, relax! If they’re gonna pull every man off to the perimeter and leave the horses undefended, well, they gotta expect something to happen.”

“We’ll be riding stolen horses! You know what they’ll do to us if we get caught?”

With an easy grin, he replied, “Tell you what, I’ll say I saw two of Mendoza’s boys come through here leading ‘em like the devil was on their tail, and I heard one bragging about earning a reward for getting the Old Hombre’s horse. I think I got a bullet into one of the boys, but they got clean away.”

Johnny simmered, but he was too grateful to be as angry as he should have been. After all, he could see Isham had remembered to put his saddle and bridle on the stolen paint. And that overo was one good-looking horse. He shook his head. “Isham, you’re gonna get yourself killed doing things like that.”

Isham handed him the reins. “Shut up and thank me, and then get out of here. You need to be long gone before the sun’s up.”

“I owe you,” he said as he double checked his saddle’s cinch.

“That you do, Johnny Boy. But we’ll settle up later. When this is over, I’ll head back north. Texas. I got a girl works in a saloon in Big Creek. I’ll probably be there a while.” He punctuated his statement with an easy smile. “Maybe she’s got a friend she can introduce to you.”

Johnny nodded. “Big Creek.”

“Now get going. And tell the Old Hombre I wish him ‘vaya con Dios.’”

Johnny ignored Isham’s smirk as he stepped up into his saddle. The animal pranced, ready to run. Yeah, Isham sure knew how to pick horse flesh. He gave his friend a quick wave and headed into the night, leading Rafael’s horse.

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The trip to Monterrey was long and grueling, but neither man was eager to reach their destination.

Johnny didn’t want to say goodbye to the man who’d taught him so much about how to survive in the world. He’d learned everything he knew from Rafael, probably everything the man knew himself. After all, three years was a long time. What else could there be that he hadn’t taught him already?

Rafael, on the other hand, could only think how three years had passed in the wink of an eye. The boy had so much left to learn. How could he share all the untaught lessons during this final journey?

To coddle a knee that would never bend again, Johnny buckled Rafael’s right stirrup low so his foot would have just enough support to take some of the weight off his wounded leg. Even with that accommodation, and keeping their animals at a slow walk, the man could suffer through no more than ten kilometers a day before the pain would end their travel. Neither mentioned the grinding indignity of Johnny’s needing to help him in and out of the saddle. It was just a fact, and neither of them could do anything about it.

Rather than talk about what was to come, as Johnny set up their nightly camp and cooked dinner, he’d ask Rafael to tell him stories he hadn’t heard yet. Most of his anecdotes wandered back into advice and reminders.

“Find a style that fits like a glove. It will tell others about you and convey to them what your skills can do. Be who you are, not what others want you to be, and you will stay on your path.”

“I know you consider yourself Mexican, but when you cross the border, be an Anglo. It is your right. You may be fluent, but you need to speak English with an American accent. Things will go more easily for you, and you will earn more money.”

“Do not become predictable. Predictability is death, especially in a fight. If you always run to the left when you are attacked a certain way, the smartest and most dangerous of your enemies will have observed this and attack you in that way—and prepare to shoot to your left. Be true to yourself and constant in your life, but know when to be inconsistent.”

“Temptation is never your friend, and it comes in many forms. Money, women, even yielding to poor advice to please a friend. Be vigilant. Of all your skills, self-control is the one which requires the most attention. Practice it every day.”

No matter how diverse each anecdote might be, the underlying message remained the same: Make your decisions with care, and do whatever you can not to sink into the darkness.

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Each day that brought them closer to the end of their journey weighed more heavily on them. On their last evening, with only a few kilometers left to travel through the dry mountains before they would descend into the valley and its bright city, they hardly spoke. As they lingered over a humble dinner under the stars, Johnny didn’t want to think about what would happen in the morning. He needed a distraction to fill the silence, so he asked for the story behind how a professional gunman had found a refuge in a monastery.

Rafael smiled as he gazed up at the celestial canopy. “I had been hired to find a terrible scoundrel and bring him to the brother of an affronted woman for ‘justice.’ The man’s disrespectful remark to the proud woman seemed minor, but I could not argue with the brother’s generous fee. I spent an evening in a little tavern favored by the offender. As I waited, I heard two men whispering behind me. One had stolen treasures from a monastery that morning and wanted his friend’s help with selling the items. When the friend left, I decided the scoundrel and insulted sister could wait a day. I stood and turned to face the thief so he could see my holster very clearly, and I said, ‘When they hired me this morning to find you, I didn’t know how easy it would be. Clearly the Virgin wants her treasures back.’”

Johnny laughed.

“With no effort at all, I convinced the fellow to return the stolen items—with my assistance—to the monastery even before Vespers had concluded.”

Johnny chuckled as he broke a branch and put it on the fire.

“The brothers were grateful to the point of tears. And how the abbot laughed when he learned ‘he had hired a pistolero.’ He offered me my reward—being their guest for a dinner of vegetable stew.”

“You’ve worked for less.”

Rafael smiled. “I have.” His smile faded. “I received my true reward later that evening, when I went back to the tavern. My employer had unwisely boasted about hiring me, and word spread to the scoundrel. Even as I left for the monastery, he was arranging an ambush so he could kill me.”

Johnny sat up and regarded Raphael with concern.

“When I came back to the tavern, I could feel how the mood had changed, and after the tenth time someone glanced at me with hatred, and the fifth time someone looked at the door as if he expected someone to come through, I left. They followed me, but I eluded them. The next morning, I learned the entire story. I told the boasting brother that because of his wagging tongue I could no longer work successfully for him.” He regarded Johnny with a meaningful, if opaque, gaze. “So, it seems the Virgin arranged for a return to the Church of more than the silver candlesticks.” He absently brushed his shirt above the Virgin medallion he perpetually wore.

With no attempt at either reverence or mockery, Johnny asked, “Do you think She did that?” He indicated Rafael’s knee.

He leaned forward from where he sat on his bedroll and placed his empty plate on the ground, wincing with pain at the movement. “Who knows? But should we not take for granted that whoever fired the rifle was aiming at my head or my heart? And there was no wind or ricochet off a rock to deflect the bullet.”

Johnny knew how inaccurate some rifles could be at that distance, although any professional worth his salt would know keeping his weapons as true as possible could save his own life. Instead of arguing, he replied with a thoughtful shake of his head, giving no indication of agreement or disbelief.

“I returned to the monastery’s chapel to give my thanks.” He paused, and after a sigh admitted, “For the first time in four years, I went to confession.” He glanced at his companion. “It required a considerable amount of time.”

Johnny smirked.

“When I emerged, the abbot was waiting for me. We talked. He is one of the good churchmen like our friend Mateo. I know you’ll like him.”

Johnny gave him a faint smile that offered no promises. After a moment, he admitted, “I think about Father Mateo all the time.”

Rafael nodded with an approving smile. “I talk to him at least once a day.”

Somehow Johnny wasn’t surprised. While Johnny had known the priest at the end of his life, Rafael had been a child in the good man’s first parish. In spite of the life Rafael grew up to lead, he and Mateo stayed friends. On his deathbed, Father Mateo had all but ordered Johnny to travel with the pistolero. In many ways, their late friend was a silent third member of their partnership. “What do you talk about?”

“You, mostly.”

Johnny didn’t want to hear about that. He was having a hard enough time with trying not to think about the morning. “So, what happened when Father Luis saw you after confession?”

Raphael’s faint smile said he recognized Johnny’s diversionary maneuver but would not embarrass him by mentioning it. “Father Luis did his best to convince me to retire, but….” He gave Johnny a knowing glance. “I was not ready.”

Johnny shifted his gaze to the gentle campfire. This conversation was going from bad to worse.

Allowing that subject to drop as well, Rafael said, “However, I offered to donate a portion of my earnings to the monastery if they would pray for my reformation and give me a home if their prayers were successful. The abbot insisted the money have no blood on it.” With a wistful sigh, he concluded, “I’m afraid that made my donations rather sporadic.”

Johnny smirked again, even as he kept his gaze on the fire.

With fondness, Rafael admired his golden sorrel, who nibbled on some sparse grass. “They have even offered to find a home for my beloved Rosario. If he were younger, I would give him to you. You could have no better companion on your travels. But he’s ready to enjoy a quiet retirement as well.”

Johnny felt a surprising flush of emotions at so generous an offer.

“Regarding this, I have one request. You, I am certain, consider my saddle and bridle old-fashioned and impractical.” Johnny couldn’t hide his smile of agreement. “So, I ask that you sell them for a good price. Keep some of the money to buy yourself some new clothes.” They both looked at the stitched-up tear in his trousers. “But I want you to give the rest to the family that shielded us. Their great courage in saving me should be rewarded. It will be a long trip for you, but with your fine new horse,” he said with a sardonic glint in his eyes, “you should be able to make the journey with ease.”

“I promise. It’s not far out of my way. I’m going to meet up with Isham in Texas.”

Rafael responded with a thoughtful silence. Johnny waited for the rebuke.

“You know your friend Isham is not the best of companions.”

“He’s not that bad.”

“He is very young, and he takes a great many chances.”

“He’s twenty already. He knows what he’s doing.” Most of the time, Johnny thought but didn’t say.

“There’s a great difference between age and wisdom. He’s older than you, but you are much wiser than he is. I’ve seen him tempting you to do foolish things. So far, you’ve resisted.” He regarded their horses. “As much as I love Rosario, I know he would have been treated well by de Soto. Stealing horses is a very bad business.”

“I gave him an earful about that.”

“And yet you kept the horses.”

Johnny replied with an awkward haste, “We needed them, and I’d already given him money.”

“To pay for stolen animals—”

“I know, I know,” Johnny offered in a futile attempt to appease his friend.

Rafael regarded his destroyed knee. “I curse my bad luck that we have had so little time together.”

“Three years is a long time.”

With a faint smile, Rafael replied, “But you have not listened to me for the last year.”

Johnny chuckled lightly.

“I did such a fine job of helping you become your own man that I made myself…unnecessary.”

Johnny scoffed. “Come on, Rafael. I can take care of myself now. I’m almost eighteen.”

The older man’s frown was tinged with impatience. “When you are looking forward to eighteen, that seems the age of maturity. But when you look back at it from forty-five, it’s barely the beginning of life. When you reach my age, remember this moment and see if you don’t agree with me.”

The young man fought a smile. “All right. I’m just a kid. What else do you need to tell me?”

Rafael regarded his protégé with a knowing smile. “What do you wish to be told? Because I most certainly will talk about something else.”

Johnny regretted letting Rafael turn the tables on him. He’d just left himself open for a speech about walking away from his career. He didn’t want to. He was good at this. He was coming into his own. People were beginning to know him. He had the skills and instincts to succeed, and Rafael had taught him how to maintain his honor and only kill when necessary. Why should he quit? He’d sure never make nearly as much money doing anything else.

Instead, Rafael surprised him. With a slow intensity, he said, “Avoid the men whose influence can only do you harm.”

Johnny unkinked a notch from his defensive posture. “Who?”

“Armando Ruíz Calderón. You know him.”

Johnny nodded. That man was half-crazy.

“Bill Curry.”

Johnny had heard stories about Curry. One said he’d killed a stranger just because he had a mustache like his old man.

“Also, Joe Hughes. He calls himself ‘Sexton’ as if he were a man of God. Killing is his first choice, and he does it without remorse.”

Johnny had never heard of him, but he tucked the name away just in case.

Rafael said with a clear emphasis, “The worst one, however, is Lucien de Villier.”

The young man scoffed. “Luke? What are you talking about? He’s one of the smartest gun hawks I know.”

“Luke,” he muttered in a dismissive tone. “Lucifer would be more appropriate. The man is a demon. He has no soul. He is capable of anything, and without qualms. He could justify violating a nun.”

“Come on, Rafael, everyone can’t be as perfect as you.”

Rafael gave forth a great and dramatic sigh. “You ask for my advice, but then you don’t listen to it.” With a wistful smile, he stretched out on his bedroll and lowered his hat over his pale brown eyes. “We end our last year as we began it, with you knowing more than I do.”

Johnny watched his companion settle in to sleep. How could he be so fixed against Luke? He agreed about Ruíz Calderón and Curry, but Rafael didn’t know Luke the way he did. Of course, Luke was an American. Maybe Rafael just didn’t like his Louisiana accent, or his fancy vests and silk ties. Maybe it was his custom-made, pearl-handled pistols. They were showy, but he sure knew how to use them. Luke was the only one Johnny knew with two guns and a double holster. They were really something. Maybe someday, if he got better with his left hand, he’d get a double holster, too.

As he watched Rafael, it hit him hard again that tomorrow everything would change. Rafael would be gone, hidden away inside a monastery. More like a prison! Rafael would never leave it, and despite his assurances that he’d be welcome to visit anytime, Johnny knew he wouldn’t be allowed inside. How could this man who was so strong, so good in a crisis, so clever, who knew how to dress, and never missed a chance for dignified flirting with just about every woman he ever met—how could he give up his entire life to put on the scratchy robe and sandals of a monk? Would they make him shave off his mustache and shave his head with that funny bald spot? He sure hoped he’d never see the man looking like that. It was easier to think of Rafael as dead rather than shorn like a sheep.

And what would happen to him? He’d be on his own. For the last three years, Rafael had been his teacher, his friend, his constant companion. For Chrissakes, this man was the only real father he’d known. How could he simply ride away and never see him again?

But he couldn’t stay. There was no way he was going to become a monk, or even stay in Monterrey. Rafael talked about it like it was a heaven on earth, but to him staying anywhere would be hell. Rafael used to tease him about having “the traveling spirit,” for always wanting to know what was around the next bend in the road or over the next hill. For him, staying in one place was the same as dying.

He looked at the torn and blood-stained section of Rafael’s calzoneras over his ruined knee. One of the silver conchos that lined the legging’s outer seam hung mangled and half-missing. It had caught and deflected the bullet that ended everything. Why did that have to happen? Why couldn’t they have just kept going on the way they had been? He hated this. The only thing he hated more was the man who’d done this. On Rafael’s wound, he swore he’d find out who fired that rifle, and he’d make him pay.

.

Monterrey had grown since the last time Rafael had visited, but seeing the town again felt like being greeted by an old friend after a long absence. The surrounding mountains, the cathedral, the bishop’s palace up on the hill, the gracious streets, the genteel stone and plaster buildings from another era—all seemed to welcome him to his new home.

When the pair arrived at the monastery not long after the Midday Prayer, everything here remained pleasant and familiar. The cream-colored structures, which rested in a lush copse of cottonwood trees away from the bustling heart of the city, looked as if their plaster facades had been painted recently. Boys from the school ran and played in the yard under the watchful eyes of their teachers, and a few of the ambulatory patients from the small hospital sat on the veranda, enjoying the sun. Even as the town grew and threatened to surround the compound, this refuge was a gentle community unto itself.

Too soon, reality replaced the fond memories. When a monk came to greet the visitors, Rafael asked if he could speak with the abbot. As he told his uncomfortable young companion that Father Luis would welcome him as if he were a long-missing friend, the monk grew somber. With compassion, he shared the news that the father abbot had died two months ago. Shocked and dismayed, Rafael expressed his sincere condolences. With simple innocence, the brother then drove a stake into the ex-pistolero’s wounded heart with the news that Brother Ignacio had been elected abbot. Rafael reeled. Brother Ignacio had been the sternest critic of Luis’s promise of a refuge. Seeing the visitor’s distress, the monk asked Rafael his name. His surprised recoil at the answer told him everything he feared about the monastery’s current order.

Rafael gazed around the large courtyard between the church, the school, and the hospital. How many nights had he fallen asleep thinking of this place, hoping he would live long enough to call this humble sanctuary home? His future happiness vanished in the new coldness of the monastery that mocked the warmth of the afternoon sunlight. A glance at Johnny revealed his young friend had surmised the situation, and Rafael could see his companion’s politeness disappearing. It would only be a matter of time before the boy challenged the monk and gave him a lecture about how men of God were supposed to act. He would be right, but it would help no one.

Blessed Mateo, my friend, how arrogant I was to take for granted this small part of my grandiose plan. You could never enjoy the grief of others, but I forgive you if you see humor in this. He touched the ruffles of his shirt over the medallion of the Virgin, then glanced at Johnny, whose irritation was growing by the minute. Mateo, would you consider interceding, if only for the boy’s sake? Without your help, there’s nothing more I can do for him. You’re his last hope.

As Rafael debated whether to ask to see the new abbot or simply leave with his dignity intact, a voice called his name from across the schoolyard. Brother Victorino, the plump, kindhearted teacher, rushed over to greet him and shake his hand. The brother exclaimed to the surprised first monk that it was Rafael’s most recent donation that helped replace the schoolbooks destroyed when the summer storms collapsed the roof. Victorino began a recitation of all the hospital materials Rafael had funded when the other monk excused himself and scurried away.

As Johnny smirked at the man’s ignominious retreat, Rafael smiled and brushed some unexpected moisture from his eyes. Mateo, you kindly scoundrel. I know you’re laughing at my endless capacity for doubt.

Only then did Brother Victorino notice Rafael’s injured leg. He invited the visitor to rest on a shady bench, then quizzed him about what had happened. The gunman shrugged off the damage, but the brother knew what it meant. In a quiet voice, he said, “You have come to join us.”

“If I am still welcome.”

A determined glint lit the monk’s eyes. “As Luis lay dying, he made all of us agree to what he had written in his final instructions. When Ignacio read the section about you, I imagine he regretted his promise. But I vowed to remind him if the time came.” He gave Rafael a smile. “When the time came. I knew you would come.” His smile broadened. “And here you are.”

“I don’t wish to cause a rift.”

Brother Victorino’s gaze intensified. “If the Son of God could break bread with sinners, Ignacio can sit down with the man who has done so much for this house and those who rely on us.”

Rafael foresaw the likelihood of disaster coming from this, but Victorino’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “Fear not, my friend. Our new abbot is no mightier than a fiddle to those who know how to play him. One mention of the Pharisees, and he will crumble.”

.

As Rafael’s wound was examined by the young doctor who attended the patients at the monastery’s hospital, the abbot was indeed brought to reason by the Pharisees comparison, and he even deigned to visit the now ex-pistolero in the ward. Under the watchful eyes of Brother Victorino and Brother Augustin, the modest hospital’s administrator, he made a brief speech about honoring his noble predecessor’s request to “give the Falcon a nest”—and then left.

With regret, the earnest young doctor informed Rafael that while the wound might be uninfected, he had no idea how it could be treated. He knew of no one in the entire country who had the skill to remove the bullet still lodged in his knee without inflicting terrible damage. Johnny became restive at the bleak news, so Rafael asked him to complete his assignment of selling the saddle and bridle while he rested. The doctor said he knew of someone who might be interested, so he accompanied Johnny on his mission.

Rafael said nothing to the cheerful Brother Victorino, whose bright chatter about the prospect of having him join their community as a lay brother could not prevent him from sliding into a shadowy sadness. He had longed for this for so many years, and yet the reality of this moment left him leaden. He hadn’t realized until now just how much he had looked forward to Luis’s witty companionship. Without his friend, he saw a forlorn future. He would have to accept this as part of his penance. After all, as he had deprived so many families and friends of their loved ones, it now seemed only fitting that he would dwell in loneliness.

Perhaps he would have felt better if Johnny’s future had been clearer. Rafael dreaded their parting. All he could see was how he had failed. Johnny had no reason to turn away from this life. He had begun to savor the power the gun and his skills gave him. The young man had such a good heart, and on many occasions he had demonstrated great compassion. But Rafael knew Johnny was no more immune to the lure of the darkness than he himself had been at that age. The training that had protected his young friend’s soul would fade as he learned dark and dangerous lessons from men who had long since forgotten their own humanity.

He thought about the gift of the American Double Eagle medallion he had given Johnny after their first mission. He had intended it to be a token to show the boy his own worth. His joke had been that with the necklace he would never be poor. Now he could see he had done him a terrible disservice. He should have embarrassed him and purchased a Virgin medallion so the Holy Mother could watch over him. Instead, what Johnny had kept closest to his heart was money. He had not yet learned that wealth was a tool to help him live, not the purpose of his life. As it was, the generous boy parted with money as easily as he earned it, with no thought of tomorrow. Rafael knew he had failed him twice over. Johnny would be a pauper in this world and the next.

.

Rafael had left the hospital and resumed his watchful perch on the shady bench when Johnny returned from his assignment. As he joined his friend, the young man proudly showed the astonishing sum the silver-trimmed saddle and bridle had fetched from a local magnate. “He was impressed, but when I told him they were the prized property of El Halcón, he doubled his offer!” Johnny admitted he had heard from the doctor of the man’s intense but friendly rivalry with a neighbor, so to pump up the price he mentioned his intention to visit the other man next. Rafael shook his head with a laugh; the boy was as much a rascal as ever.

Their shared joke faded, and with a sudden ferocity their long-dreaded final moment arrived. Rafael’s rushed words broke the awkward silence: “I hope you will stay the night. The meal will be modest, but you can bathe and have a good night’s sleep before you start back.”

Johnny shifted with a restless discomfort. “No, a monastery’s just not the right place for me. It might give me bad dreams, or something.”

Rafael nodded. He had begun to wonder the same for himself.

Johnny glanced at his waiting horse.

Rafael said, “I hope you will remain in town long enough to buy new clothes.” He gestured to the threadbare dungaree jacket and trousers. “The prices will be higher here, but you’ll have many more choices. Find what suits you.”

Johnny nodded. Silence lingered between them. Apparently, his young friend didn’t wish to say goodbye any more than he did.

One last bit of advice remained. Rafael had wrestled for years with when to say it. He no longer had a choice. “I ask you to consider something.”

He saw Johnny tense. He knew the boy feared a lecture about giving up his gun. No, this he would not foresee.

“Search for your father.”

Johnny shuddered with surprise and stared at him.

“I only ask that you learn about him. If he is dead, visit his grave and see how he was treated by those he left behind. If he’s alive, decide if he’s worthy of you.” Johnny shifted with uneasiness. “If you find that he is, I hope you will greet him. Whatever he has done wrong in the past, there is always hope that he has learned from his errors.”

Rafael recognized the glint in Johnny’s cool eyes. The boy was not listening to him. But he would continue to speak. “You may be surprised by what you discover. You may surprise him as well. You recall the story of the prodigal son, who made every mistake, and sank to the bottom. And yet he was welcomed back. Sometimes there are prodigal fathers as well.”

The aloof edge in Johnny’s eyes faded, but only somewhat.

“Juanito Johnny, let me leave you with this one certainty I have learned in my life: In this world, the hope for redemption is denied only to those who deny it to themselves. It is those who cannot forgive themselves who never find forgiveness.” He gestured to the sanctuary around him. “If I can find a home here, you can find peace in your own life someday.”

 The last of the hardness left the young man’s face, and he gazed at the ground in thought as Rafael had seen him do a hundred times before. There was hope.

He had one last, anxious gamble to play. “Perhaps I am becoming sentimental. If so, I will blame the suddenness of my retirement.” He hesitated. “Since our paths may never cross again, perhaps we can exchange tokens. Something to remind us of our very successful partnership.”

Johnny’s brow creased. “Like what? I don’t own anything. At least, nothing worth holding on to.”

Proceeding with caution disguised—he prayed—behind a casual air, he said, “You have one item I think you no longer need. I’m confident you’ll never be penniless again.”

Johnny thought, then smiled and looked down at where the American Double Eagle rested over his heart.

With a light gesture to the church and dormitory, Rafael continued, “Whereas I shall have no money, but I’ll have what I need.” He opened his hand to reveal his Virgin medal on its chain.

Johnny stared at the medallion as if he were watching a mountain fly through the clouds.

Even as Rafael said, “A fair trade, don’t you think?” with as light a tone as possible, he knew he had overplayed his hand. He hadn’t taken off the medal in more than twenty-five years, and Johnny knew it. If he were the young man being offered this token, he would denounce it as a desperate act of a desperate man. He would be right.

Johnny stood abruptly, muttering syllables as he searched for the right words to help them escape their predicament.

Rafael closed his hand. “Please forget my foolish thought. I blame the bullet. I have never experienced….” For the first time, his cleverness abandoned him.

“Look,” Johnny said as he studied his boots, “I have a lot of ground to cover….”

Rafael nodded. Trying not to flinch, he forced himself to his feet, grateful for Johnny’s quick reach to steady him. He put a hand on his young friend’s shoulder. Surrendering the last remnants of his impassive pistolero reserve, he said, “May God go with you always…my son.”

Seeing Johnny’s air of detachment begin to crumble almost undid his own. The boy nodded and turned away, moving with deliberate strides to his stolen horse. He climbed into the saddle and grasped the reins with more force than the willing animal needed. Johnny looked back at him, his surging emotions visible only to someone who knew him well. He wanted to speak, but no words came. He gave Rafael a stout nod, then reined the horse away and gave him a touch of his boot heel. The animal leapt at the command, and they were gone.

Rafael sank to the bench. He bowed his head with grief and opened his hand. The calm face of the Virgin shone in the sunlight filtering through the cottonwood branches. Warm tears dropped onto the medallion. Please, Most Holy Virgin, watch over him. Blessed Mateo, please protect him from every one of my failures. You know the goodness of his heart. Please help him in every way I could not.

He heard someone approach, and in haste he wiped his eyes.

“Your friend has left you so soon?”

He did not look up. The condescension in the abbot’s voice did not ruffle him. He was already becoming accustomed to it.

“Father Abbot, when a young friend has become like a son, farewells are best said quickly.”

The man did not move away, and, to Rafael’s surprise, he sat next to him on the bench. “Tears?”

He noticed the abbot studying the medal. He closed his hand. “I’m afraid for him, father.” He regarded the abbot, not ashamed of the comedy he offered this pillar of rectitude by behaving with such weakness. “He’s traveling a dangerous road. And I can no longer watch over him.” He opened his hand again, then sighed and returned the medal to its home around his neck.

“Perhaps, without your influence and protection, he will see his mistake and return to a godly life.”

He did not begrudge the abbot’s lightly-spoken cynicism. Only someone who had lived the life of a pistolero could understand the strange power of its darkness. “I wish it were that simple. Father, when you see a drunken man lying in the street, crawling to the cantina, do you ask him to stop and turn back? More likely you pray, because you know he cannot help himself.” His gaze turned to the road Johnny had taken. “So it is with men of the gun. Except instead of drink, it is the power to change things in an instant, the power to cause fear…the power to kill. For that, all you can do is remind the young ones that they and their adversaries are equally children of God.”

Rafael glanced at the abbot. The man’s face betrayed no emotion, but how he must be laughing inside at such a melodramatic speech. What a silly old man he had become, and so quickly! He studied his ruined knee. “I confess, ever since the boy was put in my care, I have had one selfish prayer, that I may live long enough to see him leave his gun behind and live in peace and contentment.” Mateo, look what your little Juanito has done to me. If only I could have had more time with him, then you could celebrate your complete success, and we could laugh together.

Ignacio studied him for several long moments, then, with only a hint of hesitation, placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Your hands may not be free of violence, ‘brother’ Rafael, but your prayer is pure. I too shall ask the Virgin that you receive what you wish.”

Mateo, you trickster. What have you done to Father Ignacio? You’ll be a saint yet! Rafael let go a deep sigh and looked up at the rich blue sky. “There is hope for him, then.” He offered the abbot a faint smile. “I think we both have surprised each other on our first day.”

Ignacio gave him a small smile, then stood and held out his hand to help Rafael stand. After he eased the man to his feet, he said, “You’re not exactly what I expected. I believe we shall have an interesting time getting to know one another.” He looped his arm around Rafael’s elbow and helped him on the way to the dormitory behind the church. “You will learn that I don’t like being wrong. However, in your case, I may make an exception.”

Rafael chuckled as they walked the path to his new life.

.

The newly-remade young man emerged from the dry goods store into the shining Monterrey afternoon and scanned the broad, winding street. He wore a dark suede jacket with leather trim cropped at the waist; close-fitting calzoneras made of fine, dark chamois, glistening silver conchos buttoned down the length of the outer seams; and good leather boots trimmed with jingling spurs, the rowels blunted to offer a suggestion rather than inflict pain. Instead of the traditional broad-brimmed sombrero favored by the locals, he sported a narrower hat in the Anglo style. In contrast to all the new gear, a broken-in gun belt with a supple holster and dark pistol displayed signs of frequent use. Every piece of his attire conveyed confidence, proficiency, the ability to take care of himself, and more than a hint of danger. The costs may have been covered by someone in a monastery, but this young stranger looked like no man of God. The good people of Monterrey who saw the outsider in their midst regarded him with an uneasy mix of curiosity and concern.

Johnny had made each choice with care, knowing the practicality of a short jacket that wouldn’t interfere with his access to his gun belt and the wise investment of good quality calzoneras that would protect him when he traveled through harsh terrain. The American style hat would help him move through the Anglo part of the world; dulled spurs were the sign of a competent and self-assured horseman. He had not wasted a centavo, but he also had not chosen economy over quality. He had exactly what he needed and what he wanted.

He approached the overo and knew on this fleet animal that he could put ten miles behind him before the sun set. He had a long way to travel to the humble home of the campesino family, and, if the range war had ended by this point, he was eager to meet up with Isham in Texas after he delivered the money that waited safely tucked away in his jacket’s inner pocket. As he untied the overo’s reins from the hitching post, he wondered if he should head out by way of the monastery. He felt bad about leaving in such a hurry and not even thanking the man who had saved his life a dozen times and taught him how to make it on his own. He didn’t want to see the elegant Rafael wearing a lumpy monk’s habit, but maybe he needed to. Besides, Rafael had probably thought of a few more things to tell him. …And he could make the man happy by trading his Double Eagle for that medal. He owed him that, and a hell of a lot more.

“Well, as I live and breathe—Johnny, you old son!”

Johnny turned to see the approaching Luke de Villier give him a broad, admiring smile. He laughed. “Luke! What are you doing in Monterrey?”

“Heading home,” he said with his languid Louisiana inflections as he approached, the afternoon sun glistening off the gold buttons on his dark red tapestry vest. A smile lit up his bland features. “You sure are a sight for sore eyes, boy. And you are lookin’ fine indeed!”

Coming from a man who always sported the finest clothes, that was a high compliment.

Luke took off his broad-brimmed hat and ran his fingers through his wavy pale brown hair. “That dust-up you signed up for ended a couple days ago.”

Johnny figured as much, but he marveled that Luke knew about it already from so far away.

“Don’t you want to know who won?” the gunman asked with a sly smile as he put on his hat again and gave it a jaunty tap.

Johnny was of Rafael’s opinion that most range wars never had a real winner, but all that mattered to him was now he could probably get in and out of the area without getting much attention. He shrugged. “It’s not like I’m going to get paid.”

Luke laughed. “Always the practical man. Eh, mon ami, where you headed next?”

Johnny explained about the money he had to deliver to the family who helped Rafael.

The plain-featured hired gun listened, a thoughtful frown growing. “I know you want to pay the old man’s debt of honor, but I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“Well, first of all, you’re going to be heading back to a place where two ornery haciendados are still licking their wounds. One’ll probably want to kill you because you ducked out on him, and the other may want the same just because you worked for his enemy.”

Johnny hoped with the battle over he could slip in and out of the wide open country without being noticed.

“Besides,” Luke added, “you know how peasant farmers are. If they suddenly come into a lot of money, the story’s bound to get out. They’ll have to answer a lot of questions, and you’ll be long gone, and you won’t be able to protect ‘em. Their patrón will more’n likely kill ‘em just to scare all the others.”

Johnny had more faith in people than Luke did, but there was always a chance that somehow Mendoza might find out what his tenants had done.

“And do you think you won’t be noticed on that horse?”

Johnny eyed the beautiful animal’s striking coat. “You got a point.”

“Someone’ll see you, you’ll get called a horse thief, and that’ll be the end of that. Fini.”

Johnny frowned. Luke must have cross paths with Isham and gotten the whole story out of him. Damn. How was he supposed to keep his promise to Rafael?

Luke put a consoling hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Why don’t you hold on to the money for a while, at least until things cool down?” His gaze grew serious. “Mon ami, I think you’ve got some unfinished business of your own to take care of first.”

“What do you mean?”

Luke’s colorless eyes glittered like glass shards, an eerie contrast to his soft, round face. In a low voice, he said, “I’ve heard tell John Beazley’s been bragging to anyone who’ll listen about how he earned a bonus for what he did to Gutiérrez.”

Despite the heat of the afternoon sun, Johnny’s body turned cold.

“He’s saying he crippled him on purpose, just so he could haul him back to Mendoza and get ‘treated with the proper respect.’ Got a bonus, but not all of it. He said he’s still looking for him. He wants the rest of the reward.”

Everything else faded into shadows. Johnny had another promise to keep.

.

In a nameless, rundown cantina south of Laredo, the lively crowd had been enjoying the generosity of the free-spending gringo for several days. The patrons and employees no longer groaned at the endless repetitions of the man’s stories regaling how he was the best gun fighter west of the Mississippi and on either side of the Rio Grande. With a sufficient amount of alcohol, any amount of braggadocio and confusing geography could be forgiven. The joviality became tired and worn after the second day, but the dedicated patrons committed themselves to toughing it out for as long as the free drinks lasted.

The strangers entered the weary cantina without being noticed. In the dregs of a multi-day celebration in a town where strangers came and went on a daily basis, what were two more?

With Luke on his left side, Johnny scanned the room from just inside the doorway. Two people caught his interest. A tall, broad-shouldered man sat at the table in the center of the room, looking bored with his companion and concentrating on his bottle of tequila with a surly scowl. Johnny didn’t know him, but he looked like someone who could give a good account of himself. He might be trouble.

The other man at the table commanded Johnny’s attention. John Beazley might have spent his earnings on new clothes, but a pig wrapped in silk was still a hog awaiting slaughter, and Johnny had not yet seen a drunk who could be made presentable by a change of clothing. Perhaps the man had been attempting to imitate Luke’s refined, professional appearance, but Beazley’s tie hung limp around his open collar, and his unbuttoned jacket revealed his wrinkled silk shirt should have been changed a day or two ago. In a loud and careless voice, he was in the process of explaining to an unimpressed barmaid on his knee what a great man he was. Beazley might put on the clothes of a gentleman, but he had no idea how to behave like one.

Recognizing no one else in the cantina, and seeing no one who posed a threat looking at Beazley with a friendly eye, Johnny approached the host of the overlong revelry. He crossed his arms in front of his chest in a gesture that said he meant business without being overtly threatening. He greeted the man with a simple nod. “Beazley.”

The pig in silk stopped his story to the barmaid and focused a soggy gaze on his visitor. “Madrid! You sonabitch. How th’ hell are you?”

“I’m good. You look like you’re doing just fine.”

Beazley scooted the barmaid off his knee and glanced at his drinking buddy. “Madrid, you know Day Pardee?”

Johnny shook his head.

“Best damned gun hawk I know. Other’n me.”

Johnny gave a slight nod to Beazley’s companion, and the man returned it, studying Johnny with cool eyes. With a thick slice of Texas in his sturdy voice, he observed, “I heard you done some mighty fine shooting.”

“I had a few lucky shots.”

“Maybe I’ll see you in action sometime.”

“Maybe.”

As the two continued to size each other up, Beazley gave Johnny a sweeping gesture. “I’m surprised to see you again, after you quit.”

With deliberate calm, Johnny replied, “I had some unfinished business.”

Beazley nodded. With the war over, apparently he thought they were all comrades again. “What did you do with that old greaser? Is he dead or alive?”

Johnny fought the urge to punch him in the mouth. Be as calm as the sky….

Beazley blinked a few times and studied his visitor’s new clothes. “Yer dressing like a Mex now. Huh.”

Johnny returned his dismissive gesture with his own onceover of the man’s rumpled getup. “At least I ain’t pretending to be something I’m not.”

The braggart glared at him, his anger trying to slice through the alcohol marinating his brain. “You bastard.” He looked down at his fine suit, then snorted a laugh. “You’re right. I need to take better care of this. What kind’f unfinished business you got? The war’s over.”

Johnny glanced at Luke, who gave him an encouraging smile. “You know, Beazley, for a fast talker, you sure got a slow brain.”

The drunken loudmouth may not have understood the depth of the insult, but his companion did. Pardee sat up a little straighter, his gaze locked on their visitor.

Johnny uncrossed his arms, letting them come to rest at his sides. “Yep, it takes a real special kind of coward to cripple a man on purpose. It’s like a fellow who enjoys wounding a mountain lion just so he can watch it die nice and slow.”

Beazley’s glare sharpened. “What the hell are you talkin’ about?”

For a moment, Johnny hesitated. If Beazley did what Luke said he had, even as drunk as he was, he should’ve been at least a little scared.

Luke’s voice whispered in Johnny’s left ear: “Just like the man to deny what he’s been bragging about when he has to answer for it.”

Johnny nodded. That sounded like Beazley. He continued with cool detachment, “I’m talkin’ about someone who doesn’t know the difference between courage and stupidity. He only knows how to be strong by making everyone else around him look weak.”

People at neighboring tables began to shift nervously, and some got up and drifted to the room’s corners.

Beazley squinted at Johnny. “What the hell you talking ‘bout?”

“About a man who’d cripple someone else just because he could.”

The sodden gun fighter squinted harder, then his eyes opened wide. “Are you talking about Halcón?”

Johnny’s silent glare replied.

Beazley stared at him, then his anger flared at Luke. “De Villier, you shit! You told him I did what you did?”

Johnny’s ire faltered. Luke had been working for Mendoza? He thought he knew all the professionals on both sides, and he hadn’t heard about Luke being there. But that would explain how he knew the fight was over.

Luke said to him in a low voice, “He’s lying again, Jeannot.”

Johnny cast him an uncertain side glance.

Mon ami, you know better than anyone—if I’d shot him, I wouldn’t have missed his heart and hit his leg.”

Beazley might not have heard Luke’s low voice, but he didn’t need to. “You. You’re such a God-damned liar. I know you, de Villier. You’re behind what happened to Billy.”

Before Johnny could recall how Beazley’s brother died, the drunken man’s hand made a flash for his holster. Whether he had intended to take out Luke or Johnny, no one would know. He was dead before he hit the back of his chair and his body crashed to the floor.

Cantina patrons fled in all directions. The only three living occupants of the establishment who remained immobile were Luke, Johnny, and Day Pardee. The tall Texan glared at Johnny’s smoking pistol, which he still held at the ready. The two shared a long, silent glare, each waiting for the other to make the next move. After a few seconds that stretched out into a dark void, Pardee slowly shifted back in his chair. “The least you coulda done was wait for him to pay for this round.” With the smallest of gestures, he indicated his empty bottle.

Johnny studied him for a few moments. When Pardee made no further move, Johnny reached into one of his jacket’s side pockets and fished out a coin, tossing it to him. Pardee caught it—with his gun hand—and rolled it between his fingers as he offered Johnny a nod and a curling smile.

Time had slowed down, as it always did when Johnny killed someone. His side vision blurred as he regarded the body tangled up in the broken remains of the chair. As always, a strange, sickening energy bolted through him like the flash of an electrical storm. Except this time a new, undiluted power also surged in his veins—the power of death over life. He shuddered at the sudden, toxic exhilaration.

Luke stood next to him. “You’re the fastest who’s ever lived,” he said in a hushed voice. “You’ve made a name for yourself now. You’ve become your own man, the man you were meant to be.”

The blur around Johnny faded as the electrical tides inside him ran their course. As he holstered his pistol, he stood again at the center of the cantina’s chaos.

“Mateo!”

Johnny flinched at the shout to his right. By an overturned table, he saw an injured old man on the floor, half-propped up by his companions. He must have been trampled in the crush to escape. Blood flowed from his broken nose and spilled onto his shirt. As Johnny watched the crimson stain spread across the man’s stomach, for an eerie moment he was in Rio Seco again, watching a wailing crowd gathered around their gunned-down priest….

Johnny shuddered. He stared at Beazley’s body, shrinking from the thrill he had savored moments earlier. Was this how the slide started, the slide into darkness Rafael had warned him about, that fall that allowed no man to return?

Luke chuckled. “Stick with me, my boy. With my help, you’ll be the most famous gun who ever lived.”

Johnny couldn’t look away from the body. He’d done the right thing…hadn’t he? Beazley drew on him. He had no choice. …Didn’t he?

The dark spider web around his mind dissolved as Pardee got up and headed for the bar.

He could hear the tempter’s smile in his ear as he said, “There’s trouble brewing in Sonora. You could meet up with some old friends there. You’ll earn top dollar.”

Feeling numb, Johnny watched Pardee exchange the coin he’d given him for a fresh bottle of tequila.

“What do you say, old son? How about we head west?”

Now he knew why Rafael disliked Luke so much. He clung to people like a sweat-soaked shirt. He caused trouble and lived off what he talked other people into doing. Could Beazley have told the truth…? Luke was a master shot, but, despite his boast, nobody hit his target every time.

Johnny didn’t know what to think. All he knew for certain was he needed to talk with Rafael. “No. I’m going someplace else.”

Luke frowned with concern. “You’re not going back to Monterrey, are you?”

Johnny didn’t respond. He watched Pardee stroll back from the bar. He wondered if the Texan was cold enough to sit at the same table as if nothing had happened. Instead, he sauntered past the body and sat at another table, striking up a conversation with the jittery barmaid who had been Beazley’s confidant minutes earlier.

Luke tugged on a gold button of his blood-red vest as he looked at the body with a grim gaze. “There’s no way you can explain this to your friend.”

Johnny didn’t want to think about it.

“We both know how strict he is about the ‘niceties’ around this kind of thing. Your honor is deeper than his kind of old-fashioned etiquette. He won’t understand you had to do it. And you know he’s only gonna be worse now, living in that place and all.”

Johnny watched the bartender quietly signal to two large men and indicate Beazley’s body. With wary gazes fixed on him, the men came up to the table and collected the corpse.

Johnny cursed under his breath as he watched them haul the pig in silk towards the back door. The first thing he’d done after leaving Rafael was something so wrong, so…. He didn’t even know what the word was. How had this happened? Rafael never would have done anything like this. This might have played out as self-defense, but it was plain up murder. He thought he’d learned everything. But he didn’t know a damned thing, did he?

The one thing Johnny did know was he had to have some time to sort through this. “I think I need to be alone for a while.”

“Come on. Sonora will help you forget your troubles.”

God, how he hated de Villier. The bland trickster would say anything, be anything to get what he wanted out of people.

Shame scorched him down to where his soul should’ve been. Rafael couldn’t possibly be more ashamed of him than he was of himself. Even before he could reach Monterrey, what happened here would be fresh news on every street corner. If he showed up at the monastery, he knew Rafael would forgive him. But the monks…. Especially that new head man. He’d probably jump at any excuse to get rid of him.

His mind raced through that afternoon at the monastery. Rafael had only called him by his first name. The monks would have no reason to know he’d done this…unless he went back.

They’d toss Rafael out. Everything he’d worked for for years would be gone. He’d have nothing. Even worse, anyone who considered Beazley a friend might try to get back at him by tracking down the great El Halcón. The man would be helpless.

…He could never go back. It was the only hope he had of protecting Rafael. Jesus, what had he done? How had it been so easy for him to destroy everything?

He managed to say, “No. A friend’s waiting for me in Texas.”

“Nothing’s happening in Texas.”

He couldn’t take his eyes off Beazley’s body as the two men struggled to carry it out. “That’s okay. I could use a little nothing right now.”

His hanger-on shrugged. “Fine by me. Mind if I tag along?”

When the two large men and their burden disappeared through the back doorway, the body’s hold on his attention broke. Johnny gave Luke a cold gaze. “Yeah, I do.”

Luke shrugged. “Whatever you say.” He gave him a knowing smile. “You’ll see me again. You and I travel in a very small world.” He winked and wandered away.

Johnny looked at the blood on the floor. He just needed some time to figure out what to do. The pouch of money for the campesino family weighed down his pocket like a guilty conscience. He’d figure out a way to get it to them. He’d go back when things had cooled down…someday.

He walked to the bar. He did his best to ignore the fear in the bartender’s eyes as he found a sizable coin in his pocket and gave it to the skulking man. “Sorry about the mess.” He ambled through the cantina’s front door and didn’t look back.

.

Continued in (The) Late Johnny Lancer

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3 thoughts on “The Falcon’s Apprentice—The Last Lesson by M.E.

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