The Mask of Johnny Madrid by Mary M

Word count: 70,255

A hazy, sweltering afternoon bore down on them, waves of heat rising from the dusty street. Johnny Madrid rode into town, a small sump hole of tumbleweeds, whores, gamblers, warm beer, thieves, and scum Johnny would shoot just for the hell of it, but didn’t want to waste the time, or a good bullet. He preferred to stay in El Paso, but decided to stop over for the night, rather than sleep on the trail.

Pushed to the brink of exhaustion, Johnny forced himself to sit tall in the saddle. To stay alert, but it had been a long trip and he was ready to cave. Only after he stabled Spitfire and had something to eat, would he allow sleep. He had ridden four days straight, crossing the Rio Grande and putting as much distance as he could, between himself and Mexico.

Johnny didn’t care if he never went back, he liked the border towns of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona better anyway, as did his mother. She always found work in the states, and was able to live in reasonable comfort. In Mexico, they went hungry more than he liked to remember. This time he almost lost his life, barely escaping a revolution that had gone bad. They fought bravely, the small band of farmers who rallied against the rurales, but they lost.

Johnny had enough of Mexico and the damned rurales and rode north, deep into the border towns of Texas. He had no agenda in mind, maybe he would look for work, but with enough money squirreled away in one of his hiding spots should a quick escape be needed, he would get by for at least two months, if he didn’t blow it all on booze, cards, and whores. That in itself, would prove a challenge, for he possessed a wild streak that sometimes refused to be tamed, much to his mother’s chagrin.

Must have learned it from his stepfather. Old Jake loved the turn of a card and the clink of a shotglass against a bottle. But Jake’s number ran out, and Johnny and his mother were once again left to fend for themselves. Thinking of his mother, he thought to visit her soon. If he stayed away for more than three months at a time, she boxed his ears but good when he showed up.

Johnny rode straight to the livery. “Stable my horse?”

The older, grizzled man nodded. “Pick a stall. Want me to tend him fer ya?”

“I’ll do it.” Johnny’s tone was curt and clipped. Madrid took care of himself, his horse, his first priority. “Come on Spitfire.” He led the tired horse to a stall.

Spitfire was the best horse Johnny ever had. When the owner of the ranch he and his mother lived on acquired a string of horses, Johnny helped break and train the herd. The owner was so impressed, he gave Johnny his pick of any horse he desired. Kindred spirits, he and Spitfire were drawn to one another. But to his mother’s dismay, Johnny was unable to settle down and remain on the ranch.

“Miel, please stay,” Maria often pleaded.

Johnny took her hand, “You know I can’t, Mama.”

She boxed his ears and walked away. If anything, his mother was a force to be reckoned with, even if he did go his own way, but he always answered to her and took a cuff to the ear as consequence. Maria Lancer, and Johnny still cringed at the name, worked hard, harder than she had to, and any money he could bring home went right into her hands. At first, Maria called it blood money, but she loved her son and knew his choices in life were slim, and was not about to shame him by refusing. Johnny was a proud man, and it ate at his soul that his mother should be in California, wife of a rich rancher, matriarch of their domain. Instead, she worked for a rancher, eking out a living and residing in a small, but comfortable cabin on the southern slope of the property.

Sam Vickers was a good man, and he respected his mother. Whether it was because he was Johnny Madrid and Sam knew he would get his head blown off his shoulders should any advances be made, or he was merely a good man at heart, it didn’t matter. Johnny thought it was a combination of both. Sam paid his mother well for cooking, sewing, and cleaning, and always sent dinner home with her every night. Maria was safe, cared for, and respected. That was all Johnny asked. Maybe if circumstances were different, if his life turned out differently, if he could just walk away, he would stay on the ranch and work the horses, but Johnny’s choices were made and life was etched in stone. He was a pistolero and a pistolero did not wrangle horses.

Johnny brushed Spitfire down, thoughts of his mother clear in his mind. Restlessness, his one downfall. Ever since he was a young boy, he couldn’t sit still. He hated leaving his mother, but needed to get back on the trail. The woman might not like his chosen profession, but she understood her son’s ways. Johnny never set out to be a pistolero, at first it was a matter of survival, but once he picked up a gun and realized the power held within his hands, there was no stopping him. One way or the other, he would earn people’s respect. No one would ever push him around again, beat him because of the color of his eyes, a curse from a gringo father that threw his mother to the streets before he reached the age of three. No, Johnny took care of his mother, and answered to no man.

Johnny thirsted for a drink. Removing his hat, he wiped the sweat from his eyes and licked his lips. Placing the hat back on his head, he stared straight ahead and strode down the wooden walkway. A hush fell over the town. Eyes stared and women whispered. Men stopped what they were doing and watched, wary eyes following the gunslinger in their midst.

To the unassuming eye, Johnny would appear unaware of his surroundings, but hidden under the brim of his hat, those eyes took in everything. Always on the prowl. To be caught by surprise, could cost him his life. Johnny Madrid had his friends, and knew his enemies. Those who sought his name, and those who gave him wide berth.

It was his eyes. Deep, soulful, and darker than the sapphire in his mother’s ring, the one she sold one hot summer so that they might eat. They ate well for three months, and had a few dollars tucked away to get by until the end of the year.

Those blue eyes were warm and compassionate, mirroring a caring soul hidden deep within, flashing like steely edged ice when crossed, angered, or facing a man in the middle of the street. Those eyes could send a man running for his horse, or pissing his pants with just one look. Unmoving, not a flicker as they stared a man down. They never wavered. They couldn’t. Johnny’s life depended on it. They cut through a man quicker than a steel edged blade slicing through butter.

He grew up hard, and he grew up fast. He had to; it was that, or die. And if he died, his mother would be left alone. The border towns were Johnny’s stomping ground. He saw the worst life had to offer, bit, kicked, scratched, and fought to survive. Johnny never ran away from a fight, and it wasn’t long before people realized he was a man best left alone. Most people, that is. Those who befriended him, showed their respect. Those who were ignorant, in a hurry to make a name for themselves, called him out. Those were the ones who never made it home.

Johnny crossed the narrow, dusty street and headed for the saloon. He paused at the batwing doors and scanned the room before walking to the corner of the bar, standing with a clear view of the door, the patrons seated at tables, and his back to the wall. Loud, raucous piano music filled the air, rich with the stench of stale smoke, booze, and sweaty bodies.

Johnny hated the smell of body odor, and even though he spent most of his life on the road, still managed to bathe on a regular basis. Even animals washed themselves, kept themselves cleaner than some of the pigs he met on the trail.

When passing through a town, Johnny always managed to squirrel away fifty cents for a bath, shave, and a hot meal. If he was lucky enough to have another quarter, he bought a place to sleep, hopefully a soft bed with a warm, willing female body, or if that wasn’t in the cards, a corner in some peasant’s hut. Anywhere he could lay his bedroll and have a wall to his back and roof over his head. Other nights, he would just toss a nickel to the livery owner and sleep in a stall, the smell of hay and horseflesh assailing his nostrils. He relished those aromas, and didn’t know how to live any other way.

Johnny usually minded his own business, hired his gun out when the opportunity arose, and didn’t go around picking battles. He was a fast hand with a gun, and his reputation had grown and spread throughout the land, with most of the fierce battles he was embroiled in, done in self defense. Johnny never ran from a fight, and even when he was the instigator, there was usually a good reason. Like the man that beat his mother half to death. Johnny spent three months nursing her until she was strong enough to get around on her own. That man went on to rape and kill a young girl of sixteen. Johnny hunted him down and ended the horror then and there. No one else would ever suffer at the hand of Juan Ramirez.

The bartender sauntered over, wiping a glass. Recognition flared, and his eyes grew wide. Johnny glared. “Tequila.”

The man nodded and slapped a glass on the bar.

Johnny’s hand snaked out, grabbing the man’s wrist. “Leave the bottle.”

The bartender nodded again and stepped back before he lost control of his bodily functions. He never saw the hand move. He didn’t want to know how it felt to face such a predatory adversary.

“What ya got to eat?” Johnny asked.

“Stew ain’t bad. Cornbread is fresh.”

“I’ll take a bowl. Extra cornbread, too.” Johnny grabbed glass and bottle and headed for a table.

The flustered man scurried away and Johnny would have laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation, if it wouldn’t have drawn unwanted attention. He was a pistolero, good at his trade. He worked long and hard until his fingers blistered and his hand felt like it would fall off, to hone his skill with a gun. Greased lightning, his old pal Clint joked the first time he saw Johnny draw and shoot. Standing in the middle of a corral chewing on a stalk of hay, his jaw dropped and he almost messed himself when Johnny spun around, drew, and shot the stalk out of his mouth.

“Damn hell, Johnny. What’d ya do that fer?” Clint cried out, falling onto his backside.

Laughing, Johnny jogged over and hauled Clint to his feet. “Just saying hello.”

Clint rubbed the back of his head and bent to pick up his hat. He kicked Johnny square in the tail end.

“Damn near crapped myself. You done got good with that piece. Been practicing?”

Johnny rubbed his backside and laughed, shoving Clint forward. “Something like that.”

“Man, you’re slicker than greased lightning.”

Johnny blushed and hung his head.

Clint knew his friend never could accept a compliment, but he couldn’t help but brag. “Whoowee, I ain’t never seen anything of the like,” he whistled.

“Don’t go making a big stink about it,” Johnny said softly.

Clint stopped dead in his tracks and spun Johnny around. “It was you!”

“Go on, what are you talking about. You been gone too long. Sam gotta stop sending you on those horse buying trips.”

They started walking to their horses. “Might be, but I was down around Galveston when I heard about this dark haired, blue-eyed gunhawk that drew down on two men. Didn’t even blink. Shot ’em dead and put the gun back in his holster almost as if he never drew it at all. Was so damned fast, folks are saying he willed them dead. Said it was almost too fast to see.”

“Don’t go listening to everything you hear.”

Clint followed Johnny into the barn. “Might so, but I know it was you. Didn’t then, but after this, know it now. What’d you take them fellas down fer? Know you had your reasons for doing so, ain’t like you to just gun someone. Hell, didn’t know you were gunning. But now that I do, know you gunned ’em square.”

Johnny hung his head and with arms wrapped around his torso, leaned against the wall of the barn while Clint led his mount to the trough. He usually wouldn’t say a word to anyone about what went down. Unlike others, he didn’t want this for the fame and glory. There was nothing glorious about what he did, and he wondered how his mother could look him in the eye, let alone still love him, but Clint had been a good friend for a few years, and Johnny not only trusted him with his life, he knew Clint would keep his mouth shut.

“Know that Cummings ranch down around Brownsville?”

Clint’s eyes grew round. “The rancher whose wife and daughters were done in? Those dirty bastards did things to them gals that shouldn’t even be thought about.”

“Won’t be doing them anymore.” Johnny pushed off of the wall.

Clint reached out and grasped his arm, the only person other than Johnny’s old friend, Val Crawford, that was able to do so without getting their head ripped off. “You should be a sheriff or something.”

Johnny snorted, took a playful swipe at Clint’s head, and walked away.

He poured another shot just as the bartender shuffled over with a generous bowl of stew and thick slabs of fresh baked cornbread. “Gracias.”

The man nodded and walked off as quick as his feet would carry him.

Thinking of Clint, Johnny felt the need to reconnect with those that mattered most to him. With nowhere to go and no deadlines to meet, he decided to bypass El Paso, and head home. Johnny chuckled silently. It had been seven months. His mother was sure to box his ears good, this time.  

*****

Johnny rode into Los Alamos and turned down the dusty lane leading to the ranch. He rode in before dusk and stabled Spitfire in the small barn behind his mother’s cottage. After brushing his mount down, he gave Spitfire a hearty helping of oats and a bucket of fresh water, before heading to the house. Remembering his manners, he scraped his boots clean on a straw mat outside the door and slapped the dust from his pants.

Walking inside the dim interior, he lit a lamp. His mother would be coming back any time now, and he gathered wood for a fire. Kneeling in front of a stone fireplace, he placed another log on the glowing embers of an earlier fire and smiled, feeling his mother coming behind him.

Maria stood in the shadows, a soft smile caressing her face. Untouched by age, she had grown more beautiful as the years advanced. Raven soft hair, the same as her son, hung in a long, thick braid past her waist, and laugh lines crinkling the corners of her mouth were the only sign of wrinkles. Maria was as slim and petite as she had been when a teenager, and possessed a flamboyant flair for color, as the vibrant red skirt and white blouse with colorful flowers embroidered around the neckline, stood testament to. She placed the plate containing her dinner on the table and watched her son. Johnny readied himself. One quick swat, and his ear stung.

“Juanito, I should blister your backside,” Maria said, sitting in a chair to his right.

Johnny smiled and leaned back, her hand resting upon his head. “Sorry, Mama. Time just slipped away.”

Maria swatted his ear again, albeit lighter this time. “Time always slips away. Too much so to visit your mother? To let me know you’re all right? I worry, miel.”

Contrite, Johnny hung his head. “Sorry, Mama.”

Maria wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “Ti amo, mi hijo.”

Johnny patted her hand and let his head rest against her legs. “Ti amo, Mama. Lo sciento.”

Maria ruffled his hair. “You’re in need of a bath. And a good dinner. Come, get washed.”

Johnny followed her to the kitchen and pumped fresh water into the basin. Soaping to the elbows he rinsed, and splashed cold water over his face. “Forget the bath, I need a good, cool swim in the creek.”

Maria crinkled her nose and pinched his cheek. “Then take some soap.”

“I will, Mama,” Johnny laughed. Rubbing his hand across his face, he reached for a towel hanging to the right of the sink. His mother was as fiery as they came, and he learned long ago to listen, although he still drove the women to the brink with his restless escapades.

“Come, sit.”

“Don’t wanna eat your dinner,” Johnny said softly, his eyes dropping to the table.

Maria grasped his hand. “This was left over. I was going to store it in the larder. I ate with Lana tonight.”

Johnny chuckled. Whenever Sam was out on a buying trip, his mother often ate with Lana Vickers, the man’s wife of twenty seven years. The two had grown to be close friends, and the older woman was more a grandmother figure to Johnny, the closest he had ever come to enjoying such a relationship. She took a liking to him from the start, in spite of his dark demeanor and reputation, and spoiled him with food and drink whenever he came by. He would have to visit her come morning.

Too hungry to argue further, a long day on the trail with nothing to eat since breakfast, Johnny’s mouth salivated and he tucked into a meal of spicy fajitas, with roasted chicken and rice on the side. For dessert, he enjoyed an apple dumpling drizzled with Mrs. Vicker’s special recipe, a golden sauce blended with the finest, smoothest whiskey Johnny ever tasted. The woman’s one vice, or indulgence, as he often teased.

“You women eat a lot of this sauce?” Johnny teased, a joking spirit getting the better of him. “No wonder you’re so happy.”

Maria sat back, arms folded across her bosom. “If I’m happy, it’s because my son has finally decided to grace my doorstep.”

“Must be the sauce,” Johnny chuckled.

Maria’s eyes narrowed, and she fought the smile threatening to break out. “The sauce helped, si.” She leaned her arms on the table and winked. “And we did put extra on the dumpling.”

Johnny tossed his head back, laughing.

“You will be staying for a while?” Maria asked, holding his hand.

Johnny squeezed her fingers. “For a while, Mama.”

“Good, it’s been too long, I was becoming worried.”

Johnny pushed the empty plate aside. “Didn’t mean to stay away so long.”

Maria whisked the dishes from the table and placed them in the sink to soak. “Don’t try to protect me, Johnny. I hear things. I know of the rebellion in Mexico, and how you barely escaped with your life.” She jammed a fist in her mouth, stifling a sob.

Johnny was on his feet in seconds, wrapping his arms around his mother’s shoulders. Her head came to a rest against his chest. “I’m sorry, Mama. I didn’t mean to make you worry.”

Maria pulled away and turned around. She looked deeply into her son’s eyes. “Forgive me, miel. You should not feel guilty. You do not deserve that, forgive a mother’s worry.” She led him to the table and poured a fresh cup of coffee for each. “You’re a proud man, a brave man, and you did what was right. What you believed was right, and I cannot fault you for that. Our people are suffering, and have been for years. But is it for you to sacrifice your life to the rurales? You think in doing so, it will all end?”

Johnny took a sip of coffee and sat back. “I won’t be going back, Mama.”

Maria sat straighter and squared her shoulders. “I heard about the firing squad,” she said, barely able to choke the words out. She found her strength; if her son could fight so bravely, she could talk to him about it. “I heard how you almost lost your life. You went bravely, like a man should.”

Johnny lifted his head, a ghost of a smile gracing his lips. “I wasn’t going to let them win.”

“They will never destroy who you are deep inside. As much as a mother fears for her child, cries for his well-being and prays day and night for him to be safe, I will never think less of you for what you do.”

“I’m a gunslinger, Mama,” Johnny said softly and hung his head.

Maria grasped his chin and lifted his head. “You’re my son, a good, strong, brave man. You are not like the others, your eyes have a spark of life they have lost, or maybe never had. Yes, you’re deadly with a gun, but I also know that you have your reasons, and possess principles those others don’t. I know you, miel. I know who and what you are. You are Johnny Madrid, the son of my heart. My light, my child.”

“Child, huh? Pretty soon, you’ll have me dressed in those fancy dan knickers the rich gringo kids wear, parading down main street sucking on boiled sweets on a stick,” Johnny laughed, a teasing gleam dancing in his eyes.

“Knickers? Would I do that to a child of mine? Why Johnny, they’d shoot you in the culo.”

One look at the faux innocence dancing in his mother’s eyes, and Johnny threw his head back, laughing until his ribs ached. His mother’s wit never ceased to amaze him, and she often used humor to mask the worry hidden in the deep corners of her heart.

They finished their coffee and Johnny grabbed a bar of soap from a shelf above the sink, and snagged the damp towel. His mother offered a clean one, but he shook his head in refusal. The damp towel suited him fine; the last thing he wanted was to add more laundry to his mother’s already busy day. He washed his own clothes.

Johnny walked to the creek, towel slung over his shoulder, and gun hanging low on his hip. He knew his mother worried, but she was never ashamed of him. Johnny could stand up to plenty in his life, face any adversary, live with the truth of an uncaring, gringo father kicking him out, and deal with the prejudices of life, but the one thing he could never stand, was to have his mother feel shame for him. To have her turn her back on him, would be the dance that would destroy Johnny Madrid. The only thing he could always count on in his short life, was his mother’s love.

He wished his life was different, sometimes wished with everything he possessed that he never picked up that damned gun. Fingering the butt of the colt, he felt the old familiar feeling wash over him, like he was embracing a close friend. One that was there for him no matter what, accepted him, made him the man he was, brought comfort in a strange way, and protected him. Especially when younger and had no one else but his mother to look up to. Johnny had no choice. He never set out to be a gunslinger, certainly never sought a reputation when he first picked up a gun at the young age of twelve.

He was merely looking for a way to survive. To put a stop to the beatings, the attacks on a scrawny, dark skinned, blue-eyed boy who scrapped and fought almost every day of his life. Some accepted him, others despised him. The doughy faced shopkeeper in town that refused to serve him, threw him out of his store when he dared walk through the door, backed down real quick the day Johnny walked in to buy a bag of beans, sack of cornmeal, flour, and lard.

“Been a while since you showed your face. Was hoping you went off and got yourself killed.

Memory hasn’t improved none. If I told you once, I told you a thousand times. Get the hell out of my store. Don’t need no damned half-breed skulking around. I knocked you silly before, and will do it again. The man lifted his beefy hand to strike, and paled when a gun appeared in Johnny’s hand, quicker than he could blink. He stepped back, mouth gaping like a fish.

“Name’s Madrid. Johnny Madrid.”

The fat man nodded and took a step back, hands held high.

“Thought you’d see things different,” Johnny said. Twirling the gun, he slapped it back into the holster and advanced, spurs jingling in rhythm. Sixteen-year-old Johnny was damned tired of people taking a swing at him, clubbing him senseless because they felt like it. Those days were long gone. “Here’s my list.”

“I don’t give credit.”

Johnny snickered, knowing those words to be true. Harve Miller never gave credit to anyone, and cheated who he could. Johnny Madrid wasn’t about to be cheated. “I got cash. And I know how much should be paid.” His eyes narrowed, and fingers tapped the butt of his gun.

Johnny walked out of the store that afternoon, with his supplies and a new understanding. From then on, every time he walked in, Harve Miller filled his every request, and took the allotted amount of money. And the man never uttered another cross word to Maria, again. She was respected as any other patron who walked through those doors, that harrowing encounter with Madrid, never forgotten. Harve died two years later, Johnny figured his frigid heart was too small to support his hefty bulk, and the store was sold. The new owner treated him well from the beginning. By then, Johnny’s reputation was forged in fire and there was no turning back.

Maria sat on the front porch, rocking quietly as she watched a half moon rising overhead. She crossed herself and gave thanks for the safe return of her son. She feared to have lost him in the rebellion, and thanked God that Johnny had survived. He was tired, she saw it in his eyes and the slow gait when walking down the path to the creek. She didn’t know how long he would stay, but knew he wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon. Johnny needed time to relax, to let himself heal body and soul. He was unharmed, but sometimes the wounds suffered, could not be seen.

She was still sitting on the porch when Johnny returned an hour later. A bashful smile breaking out, he sat on the top step in front of her chair. Maria plucked the towel from his hands, and rubbed his damp hair.

“You will catch yourself a death,” she fussed.

“It’s too hot,” Johnny chuckled.

“Humor me, miel,” Maria chided. “A mother needs to do this.”

Johnny leaned back, resting against her legs. Maria brushed the hair back from his forehead and held him close. Johnny closed his eyes and sought comfort in his mother’s touch.

“See the stars?” he asked softly.

“I do, but you look like the only stars you’re seeing, are in your mind.”

“Don’t have to look at the sky to see them,” Johnny said softly, his head lolling to the side.

Maria caressed his face. “You need sleep.”

Johnny yawned. “Si.”

“Your bed is ready.”

“Always is,” Johnny said.

“Then make good use of it.” Maria gave him a slight nudge.

Johnny stood and helped his mother from her chair. Slinging an arm around her shoulders, they walked into the house side by side. Johnny closed and latched the door, and sat with a shot of tequila while Maria blew out all the lanterns but one.

“Get some sleep, miel,” Maria said.

“I will, Mama,” Johnny answered, giving her a kiss on the cheek.

Maria held him close, drinking in the scent and feel of her son. She walked to her room, a candle in her hand. Johnny poured another shot, went to his room and kicked off his boots. Hanging his rig on the bedpost, he lay propped against the headboard and nursed his drink. He heard his mother moving about. The boy in him felt safe, knowing she was so near. The man he had become, found comfort in her presence. Johnny never did finish his drink, and fell asleep before his head settled into the pillow.

***

“Well, lookee here. See what the cat dragged in. You got one hell of a nerve showing up here,” a familiar voice drawled.

Johnny stood in the doorway, leaning against the jamb. “Your ugly ass still hanging around? I gotta have a talk with old man Vickers, help him see the error of his ways.”

Clint jumped from the saddle and vaulted onto the porch. Grabbing Johnny in a back thumping embrace, he stood back, a stalk of hay clenched between his teeth. “Damn hell, Johnny. It’s good to see you. Real good.”

“Yeah, Mama had the same reaction,” Johnny laughed, rubbing his ears.

Clint’s eyes narrowed and a grin quirked the corners of his mouth. “She done boxed your ears a good un, didn’t she?”

“Yeah, she got me a couple a’times,” Johnny chuckled. “What’s been kicking?”

“Sinking fence posts and wrangling stinking, stupid beeves. They are the dumbest animals on the face of this earth. A jackass got more brains than a beeve.”

Clint followed Johnny inside and slung a leg over the back of a chair. Tall and lanky, standing two inches over Johnny, with sparking blue eyes and an unruly head of blond hair, he had a quirky sense of humor and deep, abiding loyalty to his friend. Ever since Johnny introduced him to Sam during one of his visits three years back, Clint hired on and has been working on the ranch since. It was working out well, and seemed that Clint’s wandering days were over.

Clint toyed with the mug, a solemn, somber look on his face.

“You okay?” Johnny asked softly.

“Heard you were gunned.”

“Almost.” Johnny nudged Clint with his hand. “Hey, I’m here. They didn’t get me.”

“Damn Johnny, they almost did. It damn near killed us,” Clint stammered.

“Were you with Mama when she heard?”

“Yeah, old Sam and the misses came over with the news, and I was with them. Misses Vickers, she stayed with your mama. But your mama, she refused to believe you were gone. She’s a strong one.” Clint placed a hand over his heart. “Said she would’a felt it right in there. Would’a knowed you were gone, that her heart never lied. Said it would’a knowed a piece of it had been ripped away, but it still beat strong and hard. She was right, weren’t but a week later, we got word you were okay.”

“Rhonda,” Johnny said.

“Yep, she got word to us the minute you showed up.”

“Wanted to come home, but needed to heal up first.”

“Were ya shot?” Clint asked, his mouth dropping.

“No, was just done in.”

Clint nodded. “Yeah, know the feeling. Rhonda is a good one to get ya back. She done it for you times before, stands to reason she’d do it again. Yep, you needed her. Say, how the hell did you break loose from that firing squad, anyway?”

A bright gleam came to Johnny’s eyes. “Now that’s the damnedest thing. I put together a rag tag team of farmers, but they scattered after the first skirmish. Can’t blame ’em, they’re farmers, not gunhawks. Or soldiers. Anyway, they heard me and some of the other guys were captured . . .” He grew silent, and hung his head.

“Hard one to swallow,” Clint said.

Their eyes locked. Clint always knew how he felt almost before Johnny did, and needed little explanation. “We lost three before they hit, but the rest of us got away. Just as I was standing to take my turn.”

Clint’s jaw dropped and he whistled between his teeth. “Damn hell, but that was a close one. Damn. You have more lives than a feral feline.”

Johnny rose and walked from the table. Standing on the front porch, he leaned against a wooden pillar holding up a small roof providing shade and a restful place to sit and watch a summer storm. He fell quiet, and Clint approached.

“Ain’t yer fault, you know.”

Johnny toyed with the stampede string. “I didn’t mean to get caught up in things.”

“She knows that.”

“Just went down to get a handle on what was happening, heard they were in trouble.”

“You never did leave your friends behind, never will.”

“Damned rurales almost got Pablo, Juarez, and Rico. Twice.”

“But all three of you got away.”

Johnny turned slowly, and sank to his haunches, leaning back against the railing. “I wanted to help, nothing would have kept me away. Once I got the message they were in trouble, I had to go.”

“Your mama knows that. She understands.”

“Once I got there, things got out of hand. They were a sorrowful bunch, and needed someone to get them together. They were fighting for their lives, Clint. Everything they had, and believe me, it wasn’t much, was being stolen from them. They asked for my help, and I couldn’t leave them. Knew we didn’t have a chance in hell to win, but didn’t want to carry their deaths on my shoulders.”

“What’s gonna happen now?”

Johnny shrugged. “Don’t know. Pablo and Rico took their families north. We parted ways once we crossed the Rio. Juarez went deeper into Mexico, said he was headed to Argentina for a long, long vacation,” he chuckled.

“Doubt if he keeps out of trouble.”

“Once he’s had his fill of women and booze, he’ll find it again.”

“You gonna go back?”

Johnny shook his head. “No. There’s nothing for me, there. It’s over. I won’t put Mama through that again.” He grew somber.

Clint nudged Johnny with the toe of his boot.

“I should do better by her,” Johnny said, an old sorrow resurfacing. Other than Val, Clint was the only person he’d admit this to.

Clint shook his head and sprawled on the top stoop, one leg on the step, the other slung to the side. “She feels the same way.”

Johnny sighed. “Yeah, always did blame herself for the way I turned out, but the choice was mine. Everything I’ve said and done, was because of me, not Mama.”

“She feels she failed you, failed to protect you.”

“She didn’t make me pick up this gun.”

“Life made you pick up that gun. Johnny, it’s a small, ugly world out there. People are shit. The way they think and feel, is shit. There’s some good ones, like old Sam and his folk, but they’re few. No matter where you and your mother went, you’d probably get hit with the same thing. Maybe if you went east . . .”

Johnny whirled about, fingers tapping on the butt of his gun. “You wanna dance? That was a low blow.”

Clint chuckled, oblivious to the Madrid glare and threat of his gun. “Nice try.”

Johnny laughed lightly and sat down. Clint was right, but guilt consumed both he and his mother. Maria always felt she let he son down, and Johnny felt she deserved a better son, one what stuck around and helped her out. Try as he might, he just couldn’t stay in one place. Johnny wasn’t afraid of hard work, he was afraid of being stuck in a life of dull routine from which there was no escape. Maybe he felt that way because his father never wanted him, or maybe it was those years spent living in Mexico and moving around. No matter how hard they worked, they never had enough. It was a vicious cycle they could have easily become trapped in, but Maria found the strength to leave. She wanted better for her son, but sadly, his sapphire blue eyes were a source of hatred for many.

Clint kicked at Johnny’s foot. “Come on, you get like this every time you’re away too long.”

Johnny’s grin broke out. “Yeah, yeah. You’re right.”

“Not like it was your choice this time. You came when you could.”

“Was a bit under the weather.”

Clint’s eyes narrowed. “Sounds about right, considering they had you stashed in that Mexican prison.”

Johnny’s eyes flew up to meet his. “Mama knows that too, huh?”

Clint nodded. “Yep. She knows it all. Damned near broke her heart.”

Johnny tossed a pebble he had been toying with. “Wish I could have spared her all that. When I first went down, didn’t think it would come to that. Then again, that was stupid of me. What the hell did I expect? I went down with the full intention of helping with that revolution.”

“You’re lucky to come back at all,” Clint said, tossing the hay stalk aside. “Hey, how’s Rhonda, anyway?”

Johnny’s face lit up. “Still hot and packing.”

“Packing, huh?” Clint snickered.

Johnny flushed a bright crimson. “You know Rhonda.”

“Not as well as you, I’m afraid.”

“She’s one hell of a woman.”

“Still running that bar?”

“With a knife tied to her calf and a piece tucked between her tits,” Johnny laughed. Remembering where he was, he looked around quickly, glad his mother was nowhere close by.

Clint swatted him on the side of the leg with his hat. “Boy howdy, you’re lucky she’s not around. Your mama would box your ears but good.”

Shaking his head, Johnny laughed. “Don’t you got work to do? Go on, get outta here.”

“Town, tonight?” Clint asked, eyes shining with hope.

“Sounds good. Could use a bit of company and a good card game after.”

Clint groaned as he rose, stretching the kinks from his back. “Gotta hit it. Old Sam is expecting those strays rounded up by noon.”

Johnny vaulted to his feet. “Could ya use another drover?”

“Whoo boy, could we. Come on. Just like old times.” Clint whooped and ran down the steps.

Johnny mounted Spitfire and followed, a cloud of dust in their wake. They raced along the road toward the main house. Maria stopped sweeping the stoop and stood, a hand shading her eyes. Lana Vickers came from inside, wiping her hands on an apron, a dusting of flour on her cheeks. Running across the porch, she leaned on the railing and waved.

Spitfire came to a skidding stop and Johnny slid from the saddle and ran up the steps, two at a time. He twirled his mother in his arms, and planted a kiss on her cheek. A moment later, he was enveloped in Lana’s plump arms, buried in her ample bosom.

“Land sake, if you’re not a sight for sore eyes,” Lana said, ruffling Johnny’s hair. “My word, but you get more handsome as the days slip by.”

“Morning, Mrs. Vickers,” Johnny said, a crimson flush on his cheeks. Clint snickered and Johnny shot a murderous look that went ignored.

Lana pinched his ribs. “And you’re as scrawny as ever. Now I know your mother fed you a good and proper breakfast, but I’m making my famous chicken and dumplings, and jalapeno cornbread for lunch. You be sure to stop by, you hear?”

“Yes ma’am,” Johnny said softly.

Lana cuffed him lightly on the side of the face. “Still a man of few words,” she chided. “Now mind me, you best not be late. Once Sam gets to the table, it’s each man for himself and I can’t guarantee anything will be left.”

“We won’t be,” Johnny said, then turned to his mother. “I’m gonna go along and help Clint out.”

“As thought,” Maria nodded.

Lana grasped Johnny’s arms. “If you get a mind, Sam has a few new horses he rounded up just last week. He’s down at the corral now looking them over. Probably wishing you were there to take them in hand. Give him a yell.”

“New ones huh? He ain’t gonna try to wrangle them rascals himself, is he?” Johnny snickered.

Lana planted her hands on her hips. “He better not. He’ll be seeing the business end of my wooden spoon if he does. Foolish, just plain foolish.” Mumbling under her breath, cursing her husband for his stubborn, foolish ways, Lana turned and walked back inside the house.

Johnny came to his mother’s side. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“No honey, you run along,” Maria said, a nudge with the broom shooing Johnny along. “Now mind you, don’t be late.”

“We won’t be,” Johnny shouted over his shoulders. In one graceful swoop, he mounted Spitfire and alongside Clint, thundered down the lane.

Maria stood on the porch, shaded from the hot Texas sun as she watched them disappear in the distance. How she wished things could be different for her son. Freeze their lives as they were at that moment, and never change. Her keeping house and company with Lana during the day, and Johnny riding the range with Clint, or breaking those horses Sam always seemed to be dragging home. But deep in her heart, she knew their lives were set in stone, had been from the moment she took Johnny and left California.

Left the only life she knew, the one she felt trapped in. There was a time she loved Murdoch Lancer, but the great age difference and lonely gaps in their marriage, times when she felt the ranch a mistress she couldn’t fight, drove a wedge between them she could not dislodge. The marriage grew cold, and her love for another grew deep. Maria did the only thing she could do, especially given the circumstances no one but her beloved knew about, and Johnny would never know, that drove her to make the hardest decision of her life.

And in her mind, Johnny had been the one to pay for that decision. She swept, plumes of dust floating through the air only to resettle back on the steps. Sweeping a porch in Texas proved a futile, endless task, but she was not about to give up the battle. In her heart, she would never forgive herself for leaving her son very few choices in life.

Then thinking of the man he became, the guilt waned and shame vanished. She was not wrong to leave Murdoch Lancer, and she was not sorry for taking Johnny along. Maria could never live without him, they might as well tear her heart out. Stowing the broom in a corner, she walked inside the house to help with lunch. In a few hours, a horde of hungry mouths would descend. 

*** 

Johnny heard the shouts and jeers from the ranch hands as they neared the corral. A mischievous, cocky grin spread across his face, he lit from his horse and strode over to the fence. “You’re gonna get hurt doing that. Why don’t you let a real cowboy show you how?”

Sam spit the dirt from his mouth and stood, hands on hips as he caught his breath. “When I see a real one, I’ll be glad to turn over the reins.” Smoky brown eyes danced with glee.

Johnny looped Spitfire’s reins over the far end of the corral and hopped the fence. “Still can’t keep your ass in the saddle. Man, you need a keeper.” He approached, his right hand tapping involuntarily against his leg, a trait so ingrained, Johnny never realized he was doing so.

The two stood almost nose to nose, until Sam’s smile finally broke out and he grabbed Johnny in a bone crushing embrace. “Damn boy, ’bout time you got your sorry ass home.” He pulled back and swiped at his eyes. “Damn.”

“Been a while,” Johnny said softly.

Sam placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Our prayers were answered. We thought we lost you, boy.”

“Nah, just got set back along the way.” Johnny hung his head, unable to meet Sam’s imploring gaze.

“Your Mama must’a been beside herself.”

“Yeah, she sure boxed me a good one, then hugged the stuffing out of me,” Johnny snickered.

“Now that sounds like your Mama,” Sam bellowed, his laughter rolling across the corral. He sobered and they locked eyes. “You sure gave us a turn.”

Johnny’s eyes darted around. “Tell you the truth, I gave myself a turn.”

Sam glanced over at Clint. “See you two hooked up.” He leaned closer. “He was a mite bit worried, himself. Was gonna clear out and head down to Mexico.”

“He didn’t say nuthin, why the hell would he do something like that?” Johnny asked, his eyes darting to the right. Clint stood, scuffing the ground with his toe.

“Like your Mama, he don’t say much to ya, and probably won’t, but didn’t believe you were dead like they said. Said he was gonna turn over every rock and tumbleweed until he found ya.” Embarrassed, and wanting nothing more than to forget what happened, Johnny looked away. Sam grasped his arm. “But you’re back, boy. You’re back. And you can get your ass in that there saddle and work your magic on that ornery varmint.”

Johnny laughed, and clapped Sam on the back. “You still trying to wrangle me?”

“Will take what I can get,” Sam chuckled

Johnny shrugged, knowing when he’d been beat. And knowing Sam, Clint, and the hands had his back, turned over his hat and rig to Sam, and walked to the center of the corral. He lifted his hand, three fingers splayed out.

“No frigging way, I say at least five,” Clint shouted back.

Johnny flashed three fingers in the air.

“Cocky son of a bitch,” Clint shouted. “Five.”

“I say four,” Sam said.

The hands were already making the rounds, taking bets. All the while, Johnny began in a sing-song voice, calming the nervous stallion. The sixteen hand chestnut would make good breeding stock. Sam sure knew what he was doing when he caught that one. After twenty minutes, Johnny mounted the horse and the dance began. Shouts filled the air, bets were placed and Johnny flew through the air, doing a tuck and roll when he hit the ground, coming to rest on his haunches.

“One!” Clint shouted, holding up one finger.

Johnny spit dirt from his mouth, shook the dust from his hair, and remounted. A few minutes later, having managed to sit the saddle longer this time, he flew through the air, landing flat on his stomach.

“Two!” Clint held up two fingers.

Johnny glared. The wind driven from his lungs, he stood gasping for breath, shaking his head as Sam attempted to run to his aid. Before the older man could even clear the railing, Johnny was on the back of the chestnut, doing a clumsy crow hop across the corral. He slid and almost came out of the saddle, but righted himself and held on. He was not about to let Clint get the better of him. Imagine, his own friend doubting his ability.

The horse bucked, and the horse spun. Johnny went with it. It danced to the right, and Johnny held on, his arm in the air balancing his body. The horse hopped to the left, and Johnny held tight. Lowering its head, the horse came to an abrupt halt, attempting to throw Johnny over its head, but anticipating the move, Johnny grunted and fell on the horse’s neck, grabbing a handful of mane before righting himself. Snorting dust and snot, the horse growled and set off in a spin, unable to rid itself of the unwelcome burden. A minute later, the dance slowed and the horse stood still. Johnny nudged its ribs and it broke into a slow canter.

He trotted overt to Clint and slapped him across the head with his hat. “Three. And next time you bet against me, I’ll shoot you in the ass.”

By the time lunch rolled around, hot, tired and sweaty, Johnny turned four green broke horses into the corral. “Whew, that was something.”

Sam came to his side, handing over a canteen. “I sure thank ya. My old bones were not looking forward to this.”

“Should leave it to the younger crew. Tanner there can turn out a good herd for ya,” Johnny said, taking note of the young wrangler.

At twenty three, Tanner James hailed from Dallas, and showed promising signs of being a first class wrangler. Johnny came to know him over the past two years, and was impressed by the gentle manner exhibited when dealing with the horses, and the prowess when working them.

“He’s good,” Sam said, breaking Johnny from his thoughts. “But with him and you joining forces, I’d have one hell of a team.”

Johnny pushed away from the fence. The older man meant well, and maybe if things were different, Johnny would take him up on his offer. But the feeling that there was something else out there, and the reputation that dogged him day and night, hiring on was not a possibility. Johnny wasn’t ready to settle down in any one place, yet. He loved his mother, but couldn’t stay. Why, was something he had yet to figure out, even before he picked up the gun and became Madrid. Maybe one day, his life would make sense. In the meantime, he would follow what came along. That’s all his mother said a body could do, set out to follow the road set before them. Sometimes that road grew weary, other times, it beckoned.

“Come on boys, let’s eat,” Sam said. Looping one arm around Johnny’s shoulders, the other around Clint’s, they walked to their horses.

Sated from a lunch of chicken and dumplings, Lana’s specialty, his mother’s fluffy biscuits and jalepeno cornbread that snapped with flavor, Johnny pushed away from the table, rubbing his stomach.

Clint groaned and staggered to his feet. “Gonna run into town for supplies. You coming?”

“Why not,” Johnny snickered, turning to his mother. “I’ll be back later, we’re gonna stop for a drink after.”

“What about dinner, Miel?” Maria asked.

“Dinner? Are you kidding? I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat again after this. Man, that was enough to last a man a lifetime. A long, lifetime.”

Maria laughed and linked arms as they walked toward the door. “I’ll have something light waiting for when you return.”

Johnny grinned and kissed her on the side of the cheek. Maria took a swat at his backside as he jogged out the door. Standing with Lana by her side, they watched the two men ride away.

Clint drove the buckboard into town, and Johnny followed at his side. People stopped mid-sentence, their mouths dropping. No matter how hard he tried not to draw attention to himself, Madrid was a commanding figure that never faded into the shadows. Johnny rode tall in the saddle, seeming to stare straight ahead, but his eyes never quit moving. He drank in every sight, studied every person, stole glances into alleys and peered on rooftops, all without moving a muscle. Madrid took everything in. He had to.

The first stop was at the general store, where Clint handed over a long, two page list. “Come on, let’s get a drink while this is being loaded. Maybe find a good card game.”

“Sounds good to me,” Johnny said, leading the way.

He stopped at the batwing doors and studied the room. Entering cautiously, his eyes scanned the room. Clint hung back, well aware of Johnny’s habits. Madrid never entered a room blind. They nodded toward the bartender and took a table in the far right corner, Johnny’s back to the wall. A bottle of tequila and two glasses were delivered. Clint poured, and Johnny sat back with a sigh. A low stakes card game was underway, and Johnny considered getting in on the action.

Johnny tensed and Clint slowly placed his glass on the table. The quiet swoosh of the batwing doors opening caught Johnny’s attention, and his eyes rose to stare at the bulk striding in. Dressed in black, his clothing dusty, sweat stains under his armpits and hat slung low, the dark haired stranger stood stock still.

“Madrid.”

The intent was clear. Chairs scraped back and men scurried for cover. Clint stood slowly and backed away, not wishing to distract Johnny in any way. But he knew his friend’s feelings, felt the fatigue in Johnny’s soul. Johnny was tired of the game. Had been for a long time. When all he wanted was a quiet afternoon, maybe a card game or two and a poke at one of the willing girls working the room, he was called out.

Johnny raised his head slowly. “Looks like you picked a good day to die.”

Clint shuddered in the presence of full blown Madrid, wondering where these dumb assholes got the balls to take Johnny on.

“Ain’t the one looking to die, Madrid.”

Johnny locked eyes. “Ain’t got no quarrel with you.” The timbre of his soft voice rattled the rafters, and cold, stark fear filled the room. Johnny never broke the icy stare.

The dark haired stranger backed down. “Didn’t come to jaw. You gone yellow or sumthin?”

“Nope, just wanna finish my drink.” Johnny downed a shot and stood.

The stranger walked out into the street, his hands twitching at his sides, eager to begin the dance. Johnny followed and took stance, the sun hidden by a heavy bank of clouds, giving both an advantage. The streets cleared. Laughing children took cover, hiding behind buildings and under porches from where they watched. Women scurried inside, grabbing the children that did not escape their clutches, and men made themselves scarce, hiding behind large barrels on the front stoop of the general store, peering out from behind grimy windows, and looking down from rooftops. Not a sound could be heard. A tumbleweed blew across the road between them, yet neither opponent flinched.

The stranger’s eyes flashed. Like a rattlesnake, Johnny struck. Fire blazed from his fingertips. With lethal swiftness, his gun cleared the holster. A single shot rang out and his eyes never moved when the stranger fell dead. Johnny placed the gun back in the holster, no theatrics, no twirling of the deadly fire piece to show off his expertise. Johnny Madrid did not need to show off. Others might have gloated. A grin plastered across their face, they would twirl the deadly weapon a few times, then replace it in the holster. Swaggering, they would saunter back into the saloon, boasting their victory.

Johnny did neither. His gaze broke and he walked to his horse, hat pulled down low, head hanging toward the ground. Still, he was completely aware of his surroundings, the movements of all those around him. Without a word, with catlike reflexes honed to perfection, he mounted Spitfire in one fluid, graceful motion. Not a person moved. They dared not. Clint stood in the doorway and stared. The mask settled over Johnny’s face and he rode out of town.

***

Johnny fought the urge to ride out. The whole shooting was senseless. Meaningless. But he had no choice. It was do it to them, before they do it to you, and Johnny had enough of people coming after him. After one beating when he was thirteen, in which six of the town bullies ganged up on him simply because his eyes were of a different color, Johnny vowed no one would ever get the better of him again.

Find him helpless. It was one thing to go down in a fight, a blaze of glory as he so often heard, it was another to fall when you were unable to fight back, or simply didn’t possess the ability to do so. Johnny hated being caught unaware. He detested being weak and at the mercy of the hands of others, and as he learned, there was little mercy in a world gone cold.

He strove to be the strongest. To be the best. He fought long and hard, practiced until his fingers grew numb and blisters broke, bled, and reformed into tough callouses. Learned to fight as good with a knife and his hands, as he did with a gun. And he came out on top. It didn’t take long for people to learn Johnny Madrid wasn’t someone to mess around with. No one would ever push him around again.

But everything comes with a price. When he was younger, Jake was there to pick him up and brush him off. “Johnny my boy,” the beloved man said, pressing a faded blue bandana to Johnny’s bloody nose. “You gotta learn to duck. If you don’t wanna duck, you gotta learn to fight with your hands. Protect your face and body with one hand, use the other to take ’em down. Watch their eyes. Everything shows in their eyes. A small spark tells you when your opponent is ready to make his move. Either with his fists, or with this.”

Jake produced a worn, leather rig he picked up in a card game, holstering a new colt, and handed it to Johnny. “Won that there rig, worn, but workable. Bought the gun with the rest of my winnings. Well, with what I didn’t turn over to your Mama,” he said, a laughing twinkle in his eyes.

“Yeah, Mama would want some to run the house,” Johnny chuckled.

“Only right, considering she’s taking care of us,” Jake said. He guided Johnny to the front porch, and sat by his side. “I learned to shoot when I was about your age. Never got very fast, but it isn’t always about speed. It’s about knowing what you’re doing, and hitting what you’re aiming at. Speed will come along in time.”

Little did Jake know, but when Johnny first held the gun in his hand, lightning shot from the sky and their lives changed forever. Johnny worked long and hard honing his craft. Becoming a gunfighter wasn’t first and foremost in his mind, as was being faster than someone coming after him. Johnny determined to be the one to come out alive.

But life took a track of its own, and a skill Johnny fell into quite by accident, took control and a legend was born. Johnny wasn’t about to walk away from what he had become. He didn’t set out to call men out and add another notch to his gun, but when they came, when they looked to put a bullet in him, he fought back.

“Do it to them,” Johnny muttered as he rode along.

He should be heading home. His mother would be waiting. Clint was probably there too. His friend wasn’t a snitch, inasmuch as he was there for his mother. Word would have gotten back to them by now, there were plenty of ranch hands witness to the shooting, and his mother would be worried. All Johnny wanted to do was ride off. Go somewhere deep in the mountains and live the rest of his years quietly, free of the stigma of Madrid. Never have to look over his shoulder again. Or maybe he should take his mother and head north as far as they could. Maybe Montana, or beyond if necessary, a place no one knew who he was. He would never leave his mother behind, as much as the thought of riding out, tempted.

Johnny was damned tired. If things could only be different, he would take Sam up on his offer and work the horses the rest of his life. But the first day back, the first time he went into town, he was called out. There was no way out. Try as he might, he could not escape himself.

Nudging Spitfire to the right, he rode to a plateau overlooking the ranch. The sun began to set low in the sky, sending soft rays of pale red and gold across the Badlands. A hawk circled overhead, wings spread wide as he soared across the sky. Spitfire snorted, plumes of trail dust kicked up, tickling his nose.

Johnny chuckled and patted his trusty mount on the side of the neck. “Soon, amigo. We’ll get to the plateau and you can graze there.”

The hawk screeched and plummeted to the ground. A second later, he soared to the clouds, an unfortunate, quivering field mouse dangling from mighty talons. Johnny paid homage to the mighty warrior. Cheered the hawk’s victory and mourned the mouse.

“Comes to all of us,” he said, pulling Spitfire to a stop.

While his horse drank from the cool stream running through, Johnny hopped across the narrow trickle and crossed the clearing. Stopping at the edge of the grand plateau, he stood for a moment, admiring the view. A vast expanse of dry prairie rolled along to meld with lush fields of green. Sam’s ranch wasn’t large by most Texan’s standards, but the 3,000 acres of fertile graze and river running through, made it a prime choice of land. To Johnny, it was a kingdom. He never could imagine owning something so immense, and wondered if he ever would.

The thought of Montana again came to mind, and he marveled at the possibilities. His mother would follow him anywhere if asked, and he strove to give the thought some serious consideration. With money put away over the years, and a deep desire to raise horses, the opportunities were endless. Johnny wasn’t afraid of hard work, even though he never stayed put on Sam’s ranch. Working for something of your own was an entirely different story. A surge of pride ran through him, and again, Johnny wondered if it was possible to move north and escape Madrid.

His mind turned to other matters. As always, in times of turmoil and self-loathing, he thought of his father. Johnny had been filled with anger and rage for Murdoch Lancer as long as he could remember, and wondered how different his life would be, had his father been a part of it. Had not kicked him out. He couldn’t imagine a colder act. It was one thing to want out of the marriage, the least the bastard could have done, was provide for his mother. Johnny didn’t care about himself, as much as he cared about the welfare of his mother.

His life was filled with doubts. What if his father had raised him? Would the man have been there for him when he was knocked around, give him the love and support from a father to his son, teach him to stand strong and proud in the face of adversity, and how to fight back? Johnny hung his head, for that was exactly what he had when growing up. Jake Landry had seen to that. Jake picked him up when he fell, listened when he needed to talk, and taught him how to stand up for himself when the odds were stacked against him. Jake never set out to teach him to be a gunslinger, that was the path Johnny fell into, but Jake never turned away in shame, either. When it was obvious that Johnny was building a reputation, Jake took him aside.

Hands on his shoulders, he stared into Johnny’s eyes. The two stood straight and tall, matching one another in stature and height. “Son, just remember one thing,” Jake said. “I ain’t shamed of you. Never can be. You possess something not many have. When you took that gun in hand, something happened. But remember this, don’t use it blatantly. To shoot a man down for the hell of it. Use it when you have to, when you’re called out and know there isn’t any other way to change a man’s mind, when he’s set to put a bullet in ya. Do it to him, before he does it to you.

“Don’t shoot anyone down in cold blood, but don’t let them gun you, either. And always, always, weigh your options, and stand up for what you believe. Your talent can turn two ways. Always make sure to follow the right road.”

Johnny missed old Jake. He needed that shoulder now. A warm shudder rippled through him. “I’m sorry,” Johnny said softly. “You never were shamed of me. So how can I be shamed of myself? Goes against all you taught me. Never did that before, and won’t do it now. If there’s one thing you’d cuff me for, it’d be for wallowing and feeling sorry for myself. I ain’t gonna do that anymore, just needed this time to get my head straight.”

Johnny stood and watched the last fading rays of a setting sun slip behind the Badlands. His heart soared at the beauty of nature, another joy shared with Jake. His father not only taught him how to stand up for himself, but how to live off the land. What herbs and roots to use for food, how to snare a rabbit, bag a quail and skin a deer. Where his mother was a genius in the kitchen, Jake was a master over a campfire.

Nudging Spitfire away from the stream, Johnny headed for home. A heavy blanket of clouds hung overhead as he neared the cabin, finding his mother rocking on the front porch. A basket of mending was set to the side, waiting until the following evening to finish, before the light waned, again. A lantern glowed on the table, a soft, yellowish light spilling outside, bathing his mother in a radiant glow. To Johnny, she looked like an angel.

She rose and held out her hand. “I was worried.”

“Clint come by?” Johnny said. Looping Spitfire’s reins over the porch railing, he climbed the steps and squeezed his mother’s hand.

“He came.”

Johnny stood tall. He never slouched in Jake’s presence, and his mother would only box his ears if he did in front of her. “He told you, huh?”

Maria caressed the side of his face. “Yes.”

Johnny choked back a sob, clutching her hands in his. “Will it ever stop?”

Maria pulled him into her arms. “The world can be a cruel place, miel. We do the best we can.”

Johnny pulled back, a small grin breaking out. “That what I’m doing?” he asked, his voice taking on a teasing lilt.

Maria swatted his backside. “Come, I fixed a light dinner. Tortillas and salsa.”

Johnny’s stomach rumbled. “I’m starved.”

Maria led the way into the kitchen. While Johnny ate, she busied herself at the sink, washing the remaining dishes. Johnny had no reason to feel guilty about the choices made in his life, and she was the last one to lay blame. She had her own guilty secrets to bear.

***

The old one was as aged as the mountains, as timeless as the universe. He walked stooped, leaning on a walking stick carved by a Comanche medicine man. He was blind in one eye and refused to wear a patch. This was the way the good Lord made him, and he was not about to hide behind false modesty. Plus, the damned things only made him sweaty and uncomfortable. A round, colorless orb, unmoving and dead, bulged out from beneath a shriveled eyelid. The other, dark as a pool in the eddy he took water from and bathed, held the wisdom of the years, his experiences, sorrows, joys, and tribulations, in its depth.

He limped along on a game leg, compliments of an arrow from an Apache when he was a younger man. He dressed in tattered clothing, the hem of pants cut just below the knee, his shirt, an old blanket with a hole cut in the middle and tied at the waist with a length of frayed rope. He shuffled over to the fire pit and stirred a cauldron, a thick soup of venison and wild onions, the meat given him the day before by a passing fur trader, in exchange for a healing herb for arthritis.

He lived deep in the hollow, five miles as the crow flew, from Sam’s ranch. Johnny was but twelve the first time he sought the man’s aid. Playing in an abandoned mine shaft, he fell and tore a long gash in his forearm. Holding the wound together, he stumbled into the old one’s camp, lightheaded from loss of blood, unable to make the walk home. He was wary at first, not afraid like other kids his age, but came in slowly, cautious eyes darting about. More worried about disturbing the old one, than the man coming after him.

‘You better watch out,’ kids often said. ‘Crazy old Zeke will boil your bones and spread them out to dry. Has a bone yard behind his shack.’ The morbid side Johnny possessed searched for that bone yard as he walked in, a wicked thought that maybe some of the bones, if the tales proved true, belonged to the boys that bullied him. Or maybe the old storekeeper that kicked him out and refused to sell to his mother. To his bitter disappointment, the tales proved to be just that, tales from the mouths of children, and he hung his head in disappointment. Still, his curious side won out and as he staggered in, he caught sight of the cauldron and wanted to take a peek inside.

Johnny clutched the wound with one hand, and rubbed the sweat from his eyes on the back of his arm. He stopped ten feet short of the cauldron, and stared around, always leery of his surroundings. A scuffle of feet and ungainly tap of a heavy wooden stick sounded from within the small, one room shack and a withered, bearded face peered out from within.

“Who goes there?” Zeke called out, his one good eye squinting against the bright sunlight.

Johnny stared at the blank, lifeless orb. “I mean no harm.”

The old man cackled and shuffled outside. “Might mean no harm, but you failed to answer my question.”

“Kids say you don’t need an answer. You know it all.”

“Well now, if I knew it all, then I wouldn’t need to ask. And I can see with this here eye,” he said, tapping his forehead just above his right eye. “And I don’t recall ever seeing you here.” He shuffled closer and stared. “Yep, they can be a bother.”

“What?” Johnny asked, trying to hide the tremor in his voice.

The old man poked with his stick, but Johnny never flinched. “Them blue ones. Can see where they’d land you in a bit of trouble.”

“I take care of myself.”

The old one took hold of Johnny’s arm. “Yep, you took care of yourself all right. Did a right purty job of it too,” he laughed, pulling the soiled cloth from the cut.

Johnny swooned, heat and loss of blood taking a toll, and the old one, surprisingly stronger than he looked, caught him before he hit the ground. He woke an hour later, his arm wrapped and clean, and a bowl of broth waiting by his side.

“Drink up, boy. You need to get more in ya. Replace what ya lost.”

Johnny crinkled his nose. “Mama makes me drink this stuff when I’m sick.”

“Right smart.”

“Takes like horse piss.”

The old one hooted and slapped at his knee. “Do you see a horse?”

Johnny gagged on the broth and his eyes grew wide.

“The answer is no. It’s just venison broth. Not the best tasting stuff, but will heal ya. From where do you hail?”

“I live at Mr. Sam’s ranch. My mama and papa work for him.”

“Ahh, a right fair man. Treats a body square. What you doing out here?”

Johnny sipped. “Was playing in that old abandoned mine shaft, and fell on a rock. Cut my arm on a jagged piece of wood.”

The old one’s eyes narrowed and he pointed with the stick. “Best leave them old places alone. Not fit for anyone to be in. Been played out long ago, and one wrong move, even just breathe, they’ll come a’crashing down atop ya. Bury you till the end of time. No need for fancy planting, you’ll already be tendered to the ground.”

Johnny shuddered. “Ahh, nuthin in them anyway.”

“There’s plenty in there, boy. You ever hear of the booger man?”

Johnny’s eyes grew wide and he shook his head.

The old man pointed with a gnarled, bony finger. “Well let me tell ya, he’s a right nasty rascal. Lives in them there caves, wanders kind’a ghost like through ’em. You come across him, he’ll steal your soul. You can’t see ‘im and don’t hear ‘im till it’s too late. No one will ever see you again. You’ll vanish without a trace, taken to a world of darkness.”

Johnny swallowed the last of his broth and swiped his sleeve across his mouth. “Ahh, that’s for them other kids to be scared of. I ain’t scared of no booger man.”

The old one studied him for a moment. “No, don’t reckon you’d be.”

A gleam of hope lit Johnny’s eyes. “Hey, think I can set a trap for that old booger man to feed them other kids to? They’re stupid, and will fall for it easy like.”

The old man hooted and slapped at his knee. “Why, that sounds right crafty. You get the notion, let me help. Between you, me, and that there booger man, we’ll catch them varmints.” His eyes narrowed. “Reckon the booger man will have his hands full with you. Yep, you two might make a right crafty pair.”

Johnny picked up a stick and poked at the fire. “How come you live alone?”

“I don’t like folk.”

“Oh. Guess I don’t like ’em either. Well, most of ’em anyway. Love my mama and papa, and Mr. Sam and Miss Lana. They’re good to us.”

“Then consider yourself lucky,” the old one said.

“They say you put spells on people.”

“And I eat young’uns for dinner,” the old one laughed. He could tell Johnny not only spoke straight, he was a master at avoiding topics he chose to ignore.

That trait was honed to perfection as the years past. The sun rose high in the sky as Johnny rode across the dry prairie, Spitfire skittering out of the path of a tumbleweed tangling at his feet. “Whoa there, fella,” Johnny said, soothing his horse. Spitfire didn’t startle easily, but the two things he hated, were tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes. Both gave him the shivers.

Johnny led him skillfully down the rocky path leading to old Zeke’s house. He had not been able to visit since he was captured by the rurales, and knew the old man would welcome the company. Besides, he came bearing gifts of rock candy to satisfy Zeke’s sweet tooth, a bundle of his mother’s biscuits, and cornbread from Lana. On the way out the door, Johnny snagged a jar of blackstrap molasses from the shelf, knowing the older man’s penchant for spreading the sticky, dark goo on just about anything he ate.

He and Zeke had been friends for nigh onto seven years, as far as Johnny could reckon, ever since the day he fell and cut his arm. He had no choice but to spend the night at Zeke’s place, the walk too treacherous to undertake in the dark, and his mother lit into him the next morning. She sat up all night worrying, and Jake was putting a search party together, when Johnny came running across the yard. His mother dusted his backside, cleaned the cut, and smothered him with tears and kisses. Johnny welcomed both punishment and loving. He chuckled at the memory; Johnny never knew a Mexican woman that didn’t possess a fiery temper, and a deep, compassionate, caring side.

He forded the creek and Zeke’s place came into view. “Hello to the cabin, you old coot.”

The gnarled, wobbly old man shuffled out the door, leaning more on the cane with every passing year. “I’ll give you old, you young whippersnapper,” Zeke cackled, waving his walking stick in the air.

Johnny slid to the ground and grabbed for the saddlebags. Crossing the yard, bags slung over his shoulders, he embraced the older man. “Hey old timer.”

Zeke swatted him on the backside with his walking stick. “Don’t you old timer me.” An eye slick with unshed tears twinkled in the late morning sun. “Seeing you again, does an old man good. Yes siree, does an old man good. I heard we lost ya, boy.”

Johnny hung his head. “Almost bought it.”

“You ain’t going back.”

If anyone else had issued such an ultimatum, Johnny would have bristled, argued the point and gone off and done just that. Jake always said he had a stubborn streak that made him his own worst enemy, and he was right. When he was a toddler, if Jake said don’t climb the corral fence, Johnny would be found sitting on the top rail. If he was told not to go down to the creek alone, he would sneak away and go wading.

One morning Sam told him to stay away from the horses, only to turn around and find Johnny sitting astride the largest of the herd. Johnny didn’t know whether it was stubborn resolve, or the need to prove that he could do exactly what they warned him against. He didn’t mean to be bad, he just had to know he was capable. He had his britches dusted many times, and was glad for both the lesson, and the pride in knowing he could do what he set out to do.

But the ultimatum coming from old Zeke, struck a chord. “You’re right. You’re right. I ain’t ever going back.”

Zeke laughed, patted Johnny on the back and tried to peek into the saddlebags.

“Not so fast,” Johnny snickered, swatting the old man’s hand away. “Didn’t your mama ever tell you not to peek?”

Zeke leaned closer and winked, his dead eye glaring in the bright sunlight, the lid stuck open. “Yeah, but I took a look’see anyway.”

“Now why does that sound like me?” Johnny laughed. “Come on, I need a drink.”

“Got the cure for what ails ya,” Zeke chuckled and led Johnny inside the dim cabin.

Johnny walked over to a perch in the corner. “Hey Hanna, how ya doing?” he said softly, stroking the red owl with the back of his finger. Crippled and missing an eye, Zeke and the owl were kindred spirits. “He been treating you right?” Johnny cast a teasing glare in Zeke’s direction.

“She’s ’bout the most spoiled critter in these parts. Got me catching all sorts of varmint for her pleasure. Is partial to mice and lizards. Good for keeping the mice out of my cornmeal. Come on, sit a spell. Here’s to ya.” He handed over a tin mug of white lightning.

Johnny downed a shot and slapped his leg. “Boy howdy, this will take the skin off ya. You get this shit from old Slick?”

“One and only,” Zeke cackled.

“I’d a thought this shit would’a killed him a long time ago,” Johnny said, reaching for another shot.

“He’s too old and gnarly of a cuss to let something get the better of him.”

“He keeps on brewing this shit, he won’t be for long,” Johnny said.

Slick Masters was another questionable character. The old dessert rat had been brewing shine since before Johnny was born, and had a booming business going. Men from miles around came for a jug on a Saturday night, and once a month, he paid a visit to Zeke and imparted a bottle in return for the old man’s hospitality.

Zeke smacked his lips and set the mug down. “Now, what’cha got in them there bags?”

Johnny’s grin grew even wider as he unpacked the food. Zeke wiped at his good eye and popped a piece of rock candy in his mouth. “Hadn’t had this in a long time. Don’t got many teeth left in my head, but can suck away at this all day long. Goes good with the shine,” he laughed, pouring another shot. “Come on boy, sit a spell and talk ta me. You been in a fight.”

Johnny sighed and wrapped his arms around his torso. “You heard.”

“Might not get around anymore, don’t hardly leave this place but to go down to the creek to wash and what not, but I do hear things.” He elbowed Johnny. “Especially when old Sam comes around with supplies.”

“Sounds like Sam,” Johnny laughed lightly. He fell silent for a moment. “Tried to talk him outta it, without coming off as a coward.”

“Boy, you’d never come across as a coward. It ain’t in ya.”

“Won’t go looking for a fight, but when it comes, won’t back down, either.”

“For as long as I known ya, ya never backed down. You okay?”

Johnny lifted his head, and their gaze locked. “Am now.”

“Good.” Zeke rose and puttered about the kitchen, putting the sack of candy on a shelf on the hutch in the corner, and storing the cornbread in a tin. He placed the biscuits on a plate and broke out the molasses. “Come on, eat up. And tell me all about Mexico.”

“I tell ya, I almost bought it that time,” Johnny began his tale.

“Heard ya did.” The sadness in Zeke’s one good eye, said it all. The older man was few on words, long on feelings.

“I know it caused Mama a lot of grief, and didn’t mean to. But when I heard what the rurales were doing, how they were stealing what little land those people had, something had to be done.”

“Aren’t one to run from a fight.” Zeke downed another shot, a dribble of whiskey sliding down his chin. “You’re good with that there gun,” he said, tapping Johnny’s rig with his stick. “And you use it for the right reasons. Jake taught you well. Said he didn’t mean to unleash such power, it kind’a got away from him, but when he saw you draw as slick and natural as can be, knew you had two ways to go. Knew you couldn’t deny the skill you had, but also knew you could go the wrong road with it.”

Johnny hung his head. “Sometimes wonder if I did take the wrong road.”

Zeke tapped him on top of the hat with the stick. “Raise yer head, boy. Not in front of me. Never hang yer head in front of me.”

“Lo sciento,” Johnny said softly, a smile coming unbidden.

“That’s better. Remember what your papa taught you. He weren’t never shamed, so you shouldn’t be.” Zeke’s eye narrowed in suspicion. “Unless you’re just good at playing a shy old cuss.”

Johnny’s laugh broke out. “Shy? Me? Hell Zeke, I ain’t shy.”

The older man cackled and tapped the ground with his stick. “Nope, you ain’t rightly. But like I were saying, you went the right road. You fight when you need to, when some lop-eared jackass that don’t have the brains of a goat comes a shooting for ya, and you fight for those that can’t fight for themselves.”

“The reason I went,” Johnny said.

“I thought as much.”

“Sure weren’t for the money,” Johnny chuckled. “Still ain’t got more than two plugs to rub together.”

“Ya got all ya need, boy. Just look around ya.”

Johnny’s warm smile won out. “You’re right again.” He looked up at the sky, seeing the sun sliding lower toward the west. “Well, I gotta get on back to the ranch. Mama is expecting me for dinner. Boy, she’d box me good if I didn’t come on time.”

“Or showed up liquored to the gills,” Zeke laughed.

“Hey, I’ll come back later in the week. Maybe catch some rabbits and we’ll do it up right.”

Zeke’s face lit like the prairie at sunrise. “Now that sounds purely tempting. You be sure to do that.”

“I will. See ya.” Johnny lit upon his horse and rode off, waving one final time before disappearing over the rise.

He returned to the ranch and knocked at the kitchen door. Sticking his head inside, he spotted his mother working alongside Lana, mixing batches of dough. Sniffing, a grin lit his face. Oatmeal cookies, one of his favorites. They melted like butter on his tongue, and he could never get enough.

He walked into the large, square room and tossed his hat on a worktable to the right of the door. As with every time he walked in, Johnny marveled at the sheer size of the kitchen. They could fit three of their cabins in the kitchen alone. A long worktable with an island of copper pans hanging overhead, ran the entire length of the middle of the room, with a woodstove in the far right corner, a brick oven, and a large hoosier on the back wall lined with jars of preserves, jellies, and dried herbs for cooking and medicinal purposes. There was a black cookstove to the left, and a deep porcelain sink under a window overlooking the southern pasture.

His boots echoed dully on the wide plank wood floor. Miniscule particles of dust captured by a stream of fading sunlight danced in the air, lending a sense of warmth to the room, the aroma of woodsmoke and baking ever present. Lana walked over, a smattering of flour dusting her forehead. She handed him a cookie and pinched his cheek.

“Mind you, don’t go ruining your dinner,” she chided.

“No ma’am,” Johnny said, his face flaming. He walked over to his mother and gave her a peck on the cheek.

Maria turned and lightly cuffed his ear. “You were with old Zeke again, weren’t you? Don’t go denying it, I can smell Slick’s moonshine.”

“Elixir,” Johnny teased.

Maria’s eyes narrowed, she tapped her toe and crossed her arms over her bosom, a wooden spoon clutched tightly in hand. “Elixir, huh? For what ails you?”

“Nothing ails me, mama. That’s what the elixir is for.” Johnny spun on his heels and darted from the room, before either woman could admonish him. “Sam and Clint down at the stables?”

“Where else?” Lana shouted over her shoulder as she pulled a large roast from the oven.

Johnny whistled as he walked across the yard. Lana might have been mistress of her home, had his mother to help with the cooking and cleaning, but she worked just as hard. The woman was a true pioneer, didn’t expect others to do her work for her, and was the closest thing to a sister his mother had, and a grandmother he had never known. She filled a void, and Johnny never lacked for attention.

Spotting Sam tacking the last shoe on a spry, frisky mare, Johnny walked to the man’s side. “About time you earned your keep.”

Sam glowered, yet couldn’t hide the humor in his eyes. “About time you got your ass here. Do something useful for a change. Here, take this here mare to the corral and turn her loose.”

“With the stallions?” Johnny’s eyes twinkled with mischief. “Let ’em have a party for the night.”

Sam bit back a retort and shook his head. “Scamp.”

One hundred acres of lush, green pasture was broken down into separate corrals for the horses, and cross fenced. Each section provided plenty of room to run, salt blocks, and large, stainless steel stock tanks for water. Corrals for the stallions were separated by a wide aisle, preventing the animals from fence fighting or jumping into the other’s area. Mares were subdivided according to their personality. Each horse was unique and when in great numbers, split off into herds. In this manner, each small herd had its own space to roam. Johnny led the chestnut mare to the far corral and turned her loose.

“Don’t tell anyone I gave you this, it’s our secret. Seems right after getting new shoes and all.” Johnny slipped the mare a handful of sugar cubes before slapping her on the flank. She ran off, a silky, rust colored mane streaming in the wind. “She’s gonna be a beauty to breed,” he said to Sam who came to his side.

“You gonna hang around and see?” Sam asked.

Johnny grew quiet for a moment, then lifted his head, their eyes locked. “Got nowhere else to go. Can you stand having me around?”

“Madrid is always good for keeping the riff raff away,” Sam chuckled, the only person able to tease Johnny in such a manner.

“Yeah, word gets around, they don’t dare mess with you,” Johnny laughed lightly. He scuffed the dirt with his toe. “Don’t know how long for.”

Sam turned and leaned against the fence, looping his arms over the top. “What do you rightly have to go to?”

“Nuthin, I guess.”

“Son, wanderlust is fine for some folk, but you’re happy when you’re here. And don’t go denying it, I see it in your eyes.”

Johnny shook his head. “You know the reason I leave.”

“And I know plenty of more why you should stay,” Sam countered.

Johnny chuckled lightly. “You’re right. You’re right, got no argument there. Let’s just see how things play out. Maybe they’ll let me be for a spell.”

Sam’s eyes narrowed. “They come gunning for you, take ’em down. Take ’em down, but don’t let ’em make you run. Can’t run from yourself, only hurt yourself and others, when you do. You’re Madrid, no matter where you stay or where you go. Nothing will change that, so no sense in running anymore.”

“You got horses to break?” Johnny asked, eyes narrowing in suspicion.

Sam’s face broke out in a wide-toothed grin. “Now that you mention it.”

“Yeah, thought you went up into the hills after delivering those supplies to old Zeke.”

“Can smell you paid him a visit, yourself.”

“Yeah, got me there,” Johnny laughed.

“Good, he purely likes the company.”

“Now getting back to them horses,” Johnny said.

“Got about three dozen in the east pasture, ready and waiting for you to impart your magic.”

Johnny frowned. “Knew there was a reason you sweet talked me into staying.

The two men walked to the house together, Sam’s arm slung around Johnny’s shoulder. After a satisfying dinner of roast beef, red potatoes roasted with wild onions and dripping with thick, rich gravy, cornbread, and sweet peas fresh from the garden, Johnny sat on the front porch of the cabin, nursing a shot of tequila. His mother hummed as she worked around their kitchen, setting two loaves of bread to rise for the morning, her soft voice filtering out into the night air.

The soft nicker of a horse caught his attention and set his nerves reeling. Setting the drink down, he loosened the safety on his gun and stood slowly. The horse ambled up to the porch and came to a stop. Johnny shook his head. “Quit grinning like a lop-eared jackass and come on down.”

Val Crawford groaned and slung one stiff, sore leg over the saddle. “Not sure if I’m fit company.”

“You’re a slob, but we’re used to that,” Johnny snorted.

“Don’t wanna offend your mama.”

Maria came to the door and linked arms with Val. “You’ve been on the trail too long.”

“Yes ma’am,” Val said, his tone contrite and a flush creeping over his cheeks.

“Do not listen to my son, he was taught better manners,” Maria said. Glaring at Johnny, her eyes narrowed and took on a teasing, somewhat devious tinge. “All you need is a hot meal and a bath. A long bath.”

Val frowned and Johnny hooted, slapping his hat against his leg. “Hot . . .”

“Johnathan.” Maria’s warning was clear.

“Sorry, Mama,” Johnny said, a hand brushed over his mouth. He still couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.

“You’re about as sorry as you were when you used to get your hand caught in the cookie jar. You still kept up the mischief, can’t be trusted to be in the kitchen alone to this day, and are only contrite enough to keep from getting your ears boxed.” She cuffed his ear.

Johnny winced and walked inside, rubbing his ear. 

***

Johnny came out to the porch and handed Val a glass. Groaning, he lowered himself onto the porch and sat next to his friend, a bottle between them.

“You’re too young to be a’groaning as such,” Val snickered.

“Been too old for too long,” Johnny said softly.

“Your mama asleep?” Val asked, nodding toward the house.

“We can talk.”

“How do you know we gotta talk?” Val growled.

“You sure as hell didn’t come for a social visit.”

“Maybe I was hungry.”

Johnny chuckled. “That, I would believe, given you ate three plates of Mama’s rice and beans, and half a pan of cornbread.”

“Your Mama’s a good cook.”

“Damn hell Val, you gonna come clean? I know you’re here for more than Mama’s cooking. Ya need my gun.”

Val laughed and poured another shot. “Can see you ain’t lost yer edge. You’re right, got a few reasons on my mind. First being to see ya fer myself. Heard you bought it. Didn’t believe it a lick, but was weighing heavy on my mind.”

Johnny turned from the sadness set deep in Val’s eyes. He squeezed his friend’s arm. “Was close, amigo.”

“Didn’t feel good about ya going down there to begin with, but understood. Ya never ran from a fight. Knew ya wouldn’t start then. You did right by them people.”

Johnny blushed and poured another shot. “Just did what I had to.”

Val nodded.

“Gonna tell me what else is on your mind?”

Val snagged the bottle. “Been tracking some fellas.” He downed another shot, wiping his arm on the back of a tattered sleeve.

Johnny tugged at his collar. “Don’t see no badge. Damn, had me worried there.”

Val smacked his hand away. “The day I wear a badge, is the day pigs will sprout wings and fly.”

“Damn hell, you done gone bounty hunter or something?”

“You think I gone plumb loco? I ain’t after no bounty.”

Johnny slapped back a shot and reached for the bottle. “Then you got a job.”

A wry grin spread across Val’s face. “Now yer cooking. Knew you had a brain in there somewhere.”

“And you came for my help.”

“Give the man another shot.” Val poured each another belt of tequila.

“Mama won’t want to hear that.”

Val scrubbed at his eyes. “Don’t reckon she will.” He turned to face Johnny. “But can you sit here and tell me you’d turn yer back?”

Johnny set the glass down and rested his arms on his legs. “You know I won’t.”

Val belted down another shot and slapped the glass on the porch between them. “Ahh, ferget it. I ain’t got no call riding in here asking, ‘specially after you just getting home and all. Yer settled, or should be. Got a good thing going here with Sam.”

Johnny studied his hands, his voice soft and low. “Well, you know me. As good as it sounds, being settled and all, we ain’t the type to be settled. Mama knows that. Knew it when I was a kid and went off all the time. Never could sit back, tow the line. Fit into a mold lots of folks settle in. Not the kind to settle into a mold. Nope, you and me, we ain’t the kind. We see something, we gotta go after it. Something needs doing, we do it. Something needs settling, we settle it. You got something that needs settling.”

“That be about it.”

“Then go on. Talk it out. Then we get to settling.”

“Ya might not like this.”

“Don’t like a lot of things. Never stopped you before.”

“Yer mama won’t be happy.”

Johnny shifted and leaned back against the railing, one leg stretched across the top step. “If I go off on the side of right, she’ll accept it. Old Sam’s been wrangling to get me to stay, and I’ve been helping out, but there’s something gnawing inside I can’t ignore. Can’t seem to get past. They got a drive coming up soon, asked if I’d ride along.”

“And you said?”

Johnny shrugged. “Didn’t commit one way or the other. Will help out with the branding and all, help round up them strays, but won’t be going on the drive.”

“What’d you have planned? Stay here with your mama?”

“Didn’t rightly plan anything. Don’t know. Figgered on paying Rhonda a visit.”

“Well, we can stop in and see her if ya like. She’s on the way.”

“On the way to where?”

“West. Heard they’re headed for California. Down around the San Joaquin.”

Johnny stiffened. He rose slowly and glared down at Val, fingers tapping on the butt of his colt. “You funning me? Looking to catch some lead?”

Val shook his head and rose slowly. “Nope. Ain’t funning ya. I’m heading there with our without you.”

“What for?”

“Not fer what yer thinking. Ain’t got nothing to do with yer old man.”

Johnny bristled. “Didn’t say it did. Get it said. Who you tracking?”

Val sat back down and held his face in his hands. Lowering his arms, he poured another shot for the courage to continue. “I ain’t got many friends, never had many in my life. Yer one of them. Clint is another. And yer mama is like family to me. You folks are just about all I have. ‘Specially now.”

Johnny groaned and stared at the ground, arms wrapped around his torso. “Not your uncle. Not Stonewall.”

Val’s voice caught, and he could barely get the words out. “Sorry to say, but yeah.”

“How?” Johnny asked, fighting the urge to cry.

He hadn’t cried since Jake died, and wasn’t about to start now, but the loss of the old man cut deep. Caleb ‘Stonewall’ Crawford was an old recluse that lived on the outer fringes of Los Alamos, a short jaunt from the New Mexico border. Stonewall had no use for what he called ‘the new fangled modern age’, in his day, life was simple. A man put up a house, worked the land, panned for what the ground was willing to give up, and looked out for family and close friends. Val was the only living relative the old man had left, and had grown to care deeply for Johnny over the years.

“Right on about six months, give or take. Was panning down near Muddy Creek. Rumor had it he had some gold stashed away. Was just that, a rumor, but try telling that to some folk.”

Johnny picked up a rock and flung it across the yard. “They gunned him for his gold? For gold?”

“Yep.”

“Son of a bitch. For fucking gold. Never did cotton to someone getting something they didn’t work for. Ain’t right to gun a fella for what he did for himself. Don’t like a coward. You wanna fight, fight square and head on. Don’t gun an old man down for his damned gold.”

‘Waren’t no gold,” Val stammered.

Johnny’s head whipped around. “That makes it worse.”

“What makes it worse, is what they did to him,” Val said, his voice barely a whisper.

“Tell me.” Johnny sat back down and stared into the dark. “You hold back, I’ll know.”

“Near as I can tell, three fellas rode into his place one day just before sundown. You know old Stonewall, he invited ’em in for coffee and some supper. They came into his cabin, ate his food, drank his shine and then strung him up by his hands, demanding his gold. When he told ’em he didn’t have none, but they was welcome to the little dust he had, they tore off his shirt . . .” Val squeezed his eyes shut, almost choking on the words.

“Go on,” Johnny demanded, his voice hoarse and gruff.

“They tortured him, Johnny. Skinned him alive.”

“Been tracking ’em since?”

“For about three months now, took a while to find me.”

“They got a name?”

“Two of ’em are brothers, Cole and Avery Gentry. Other rides with ’em, greasy haired fella with no teeth, calls himself Skinner.”

“Fitting.”

“Got a reputation with a knife.”

Johnny’s eyes hardened “So do I.”

***

Johnny sat with his back against the wall. Sipping a shot of tequila, he studied every face in the room. The batwing doors swung open and he relaxed. Val strutted into the room, exhibiting no more caution than someone without a care in the world, and Johnny could have throttled him. How the man could just breeze into a saloon without surveying his surroundings stumped Johnny, yet this was Val. They were total opposites. The gunslinger and the slob. Best friends, as close as brothers, each would give their life for the other. Seconds later, Clint breezed into the room, with no more caution than Val.

Johnny would just have to teach the two of them the way of things. He poured two more shots and set a glass in front of each man as they took a seat. “What’cha got?”

Val downed the shot and swiped an arm across his mouth. “Got word that three fellas matching their description were seen over in Split Creek.”

“Ain’t that in Indian country?” Clint asked, his mouth agape.

Johnny nodded. “Apache.”

“What the hell they doing there?” Clint asked.

“Cutting through,” Johnny said. Shoving his chair back, he sat, fingers laced and resting on his chest. “They’re heading west. Saves time, rather than cutting back up north and across.”

“Would rather settle for the long ride,” Clint said.

“You’d think,” Johnny said. “But they’re not able to think. Go by gut instinct, not common sense. Sometimes that gets you dead quick, other times it’s what saves your ass.”

“Will take me but a day to gear up,” Val said. Tossing a bill on the bar, he rose from the table. “Gotta give Scout a rest. Been a long, hard ride.”

“You going, Johnny?” Clint asked.

Johnny’s face remained impassive, all granite, every trace of emotion, wiped off. “In the morning.”

“Your mama isn’t gonna like this,” Clint muttered.

“Can’t be helped.” Johnny rose and followed Val to the door.

Clint approached from behind. “Will take me the afternoon to get ready.”

Johnny leaned his arms on Spitfire’s saddle, and cocked his head slightly in Clint’s direction. “Not this time, amigo.”

“Johnny . . .”

Johnny shook his head. “We’re gonna ride hard, and we’re gonna ride fast. You’re a saddle tramp, not a gun. Need you to stay here to look after my mother. She’s gonna need ya. Sam needs ya.”

“They both need you,” Clint said, knowing it was useless to argue.

Johnny slung his leg over the saddle. “Can’t be helped.”

He rode off, leaving Val and Clint behind. Not in as much a hurry, Val hung back. A part of him felt guilty for dragging Johnny into this mess, but he knew his friend. If Johnny found out, and he always found out, Val would be in deep shit for not coming to him. The last thing he wanted to do was explain to Madrid why he was cut out. Not a very settling thought. When a wrong needed to be set right, Johnny was there.

“His mama is gonna take it hard,” Clint muttered, refusing to meet Val’s gaze.

Val grasped his arm. “Go on. Get it said.”

Clint pulled away. “Just did.”

He rode off, leaving Val behind. Shaking his head, Val followed a short distance behind. Once they rode out of town, Clint pulled his mount to the side. “Look, am sorry. Know it ain’t your fault, and if something like this happened to my kin, hell to anyone I know, I’d do the same. They need to be brought down. They killed once, they’ll do it again. I don’t like it, but will leave it to you and Johnny. He’s right. I’m a saddle tramp, not a gun.”

Clint rode off, leaving Val in the dust. Where some would be offended, Clint harbored no such feeling toward Johnny. Their friendship was built on honesty, and Johnny spoke the plain truth. They met on the trail about a year after Jake died and Madrid’s reputation already spread far and wide.

Clint stumbled onto Johnny quite by accident one raw, rainy night. Soaked to the skin, he staggered into Johnny’s camp, finding himself on the business end of Madrid’s gun. Hands held high, he stopped dead. “Share your fire?” He shivered so much, his teeth clacked together. “Don’t mean no harm. Lost my horse a few miles back. Slipped in this damned mud and broke his leg.”

“Drop your rig.”

Clint complied, fingers almost numb with cold fumbling at the belt. “Can’t hardly work it loose. Ain’t gonna gun ya.”

Johnny stepped out from the shadows. “Like a man that knows his place.”

Clint’s rig fell to the ground. “Never been one to kick up a fuss.”

Johnny turned to walk back into a crude lean-to built from pine boughs and covered with a tarp, large enough to keep the fire dry and shield both man and horse from the elements. “You gonna stand out in the rain all night?”

Clint shook his head and almost tripped over his feet.

“Go on. Coffee’s hot. Got some stew left in the pot. Might as well eat my breakfast.”

Clint dove for the warmth of the fire, rubbing his hands together over the flickering flames. Johnny handed over a tin mug of coffee and Clint drank half, heat flooding throughout his trembling body. A blanket fell over his shoulders and he nodded his thanks. Clint spooned the stew straight from the pot and wiped what gravy dribbled down his chin.

“If’n yer going into town, I’ll buy you the biggest, best breakfast you ever had,” Clint said between mouthfuls. “I’m purely grateful.”

“Ain’t nothing,” Johnny said softly.

Clint wiped his mouth off on the back of his sleeve. “Is to me. Had nuthin to eat since yesterday, been on foot in this rain.”

“Seems you got yourself in a spot,” Johnny snickered.

“Weren’t one of my better moments,” Clint chuckled. “Name’s Walker. Clint Walker.”

Johnny brushed his hand dry against his pants and held it out. “Madrid. Johnny Madrid.”

Clint’s jaw dropped and he could barely swallow. “Damn hell. You don’t say?”

“Don’t go making anything out of it.”

Clint grasped his hand. “Nice to meet ya, Johnny. Am obliged.”

The friendship grew from there, and as much as Clint wanted to ride with Johnny, knew his friend needed him to stick around the ranch, more. Going off was a part of Johnny that would never change. Clint had accepted that long ago, and gave the promise to always watch out for his mother. He never let Johnny down before, and wasn’t about to start now. He rode up to the big house and went inside to have a word with Sam.

***

Johnny wasn’t in any hurry to get home, knowing the talk he needed to have with his mother. He was leaving again. It seemed as if he was always leaving. He spent the afternoon down at Muddy Creek, watching the brown water swirl through the gorge. A rattlesnake slithered across a rock jutting out from the bank and stretched out to bask in the hot Texas sun. Johnny popped the cork on a bottle of tequila and took a swig. A tear slid down his cheek as he held the bottle up.

“Here’s to you, Stonewall. You sure didn’t deserve what happened to ya, and I vow to make those who did this pay.”

He missed the old man. Hadn’t seen Stonewall in over four years, but just the thought that he was alive and kicking in his hut along the muddy bend of the river, forever panning for gold, brought comfort. The man never had much, but was one of the richest people Johnny knew. Replacing the bottle in his saddlebags, he mounted Spitfire and headed in the direction of the ranch.

Sam was standing by the corral when Johnny rode in. One look at the stern set to his face and arms crossed over his chest was enough to almost make Johnny turn around and ride off. High into the hills, maybe hide out in one of the caves he used to prowl when he was a kid. Or maybe back out to Zeke’s place and get blitzed, not having a care in the world beyond the next drink. Anything than face Sam, and eventually, his mother.

Both had the power to drive Madrid to his knees. Johnny would rather have his mother box his ears, than face the discouragement, longing, or disappointment in her eyes. Sam proved no easier. Johnny had to make the man understand he needed to do this. He thought of old Stonewall like a beloved uncle, and no one messed with family. No one. And he was not about to let Val ride off alone. If anything happened to the man, Johnny would never forgive himself. As riddled with the need for revenge Johnny felt, Madrid kicked into high gear, skill, cunning, and deadly precision, guiding his decisions, controlling his actions. He was not about to go off half cocked, but be damned, he was going to bring those three to justice. If they turned to fight, Johnny’s last resort, he would react in kind, but knew Val would never forgive himself if he turned into a one man lynch mob.

The low hanging sun painted the prairie a dusty red, soft golden rays fading as dusk came upon them. An armadillo darted across Johnny’s path and Spitfire crowhopped, then stomped his foreleg, venting his frustration at the untimely intrusion.

Johnny laughed and pulled the reins gently to the right. “Whoa there, amigo, I know you don’t like them varmints, but you really gotta learn to rein it in. Stupid don’t mean no harm, and them varmints ain’t got no more brains than a piss ant.”

Spitfire snorted, shook his mane, and stomped.

“All right, all right. You made your point. How ’bout some extra oats tonight?” Spitfire tossed his head and Johnny shuddered at the look Sam shot in his direction. He patted Spitfire on the side of the neck. “Right about now, I kind’a wanna run off with that there armadillo.”

“Spitfire nickered and quickened his pace. “Traitor.” Johnny rode straight to Sam and dismounted. “I gotta do this.”

“This isn’t a revolution.” Sam stated.

“I know.”

“And I don’t need you running off gunning for someone.”

“Is that what you think of me?” Johnny asked, hurt shining in his eyes.

Sam softened and looped an arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “No son, it isn’t what I think.”

Relief evident, Johnny let out the breath he didn’t realize he was holding. “Can’t let him go off on his own.”

“I know. You’re gonna try and bring ’em in. As it should be.”

“If it works that way, that’s what I aim to do.”

“Sam nodded his approval. “All a man can do. And if things don’t turn out the way you want, do what you need to.”

Johnny sighed and leaned against the fence. “That old man didn’t deserve what they did to him. No one deserves that. They gotta be stopped. They killed once, and will kill again. Weren’t the first time. That Tobias Skinner is a real cold blooded son of a bitch. Lives up to his name. The Gentry brothers are just stupid and vicious. Not a good combination. Not a brain between the three of them.”

Sam shook his head. “Reckon you’re right.”

Johnny cocked his head to the right. “Val up to the house?”

“No,” Sam said. “Think he’s making himself scarce. He’s over in the tack room repairing his saddle. It’s mighty worn.”

Johnny chuckled. “More like he’s afraid to face Mama. Clint probably blabbed to all get out.”

“He told me. And I told Lana,” Sam laughed lightly.

“Then Mama knows.” Johnny sighed and walked Spitfire into the barn.

***

Maria stood on the front porch of the great house, watching her son ride in under the fading rays of a setting sun. Her heart caught. He would be leaving soon. As much as she hated to see him go, if he wanted to stay true to himself, she had to let him go. What bothered her, was where he was headed.

Lana came from behind and placed her hands on Maria’s shoulders. “California, huh?”

“Si,” Maria answered softly, wiping a tear from her eye.

“He might decide to pay his father a visit.”

Maria whirled around. “Don’t you think I thought of that? Not only now, but every waking minute. It haunts my dreams.

Undaunted, Lana grasped Maria’s hands. “He should hear it from you.”

Maria pulled free and walked to the corner of the porch. Leaning against a massive wooden pillar, she felt Lana’s presence, but did not turn around. “Tell him?” she asked, staring out over the range. “How can I do that? Tell him his mother was so selfish in her choices, she put her own sinful needs first? That she took him off to an unknown future. That she’s the reason his life turned out as it did?”

“Listen to me,” Lana said, shaking Maria gently. “You did nothing wrong. Everyone is entitled to follow their hearts. It happens. We all find ourselves living one life, only to realize that something else beckons. Something we can’t refuse or resist. The heart is a powerful entity.”

“Powerful enough to destroy my son.”

Lana held Maria close, running her hand over Maria’s raven soft hair. So much like her son. “Can you stand here and tell me you’re ashamed of your son? Of the man he has become?”

More tears fell and Maria hung her head. “Of course not.”

“Neither are we. Sam and I think the world of that boy. We never had children of our own, and he brings a bright spot into our lonely lives. He deserves the truth.”

So caught up in their conversation, neither woman heard Johnny approach. He climbed the stairs, the sound of his spurs against the wooden floorboards, causing them to spin around.

“Miel,” Maria gasped, clutching a hand to her throat.

Johnny moved closer. “What truth, Mama?”

“Johnny, I’m sorry,” Maria stammered.

***

Johnny approached slowly, his eyes dark, simmering pools of sapphire. Seeing the distress on his mother’s face, his heart beat harder and his mouth grew dry. For years, he felt she was hiding something, caught her in quiet moments of melancholy, eyes gone sad and dreamy. When she seemed to slip into her own world of sorrow. They were never good at lying to one another, although some truths took longer to come out.

He had secrets of his own, done things he wasn’t proud of, but harbored no shame. Things he would probably never reveal, even though he knew her love to be unconditional. Johnny’s love went just as deep. If his mother could accept Madrid without shame or remorse, he could listen. Everyone was entitled to their own private truths, secrets only for their own hearts to hold; if she chose to remain quiet, he would accept that.

“Miel, I didn’t hear you come in,” Maria said. Brushing a hand across her eyes, she stood straighter and gently pushed Lana’s hand aside.

“Just got in. Was down talking to Sam,” Johnny said.

Lana caressed his cheek as she walked past. “I’ll leave you two to talk.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he leaned against the pillar his mother stood by a few minutes before. “We got some talking to do, Mama?”

Maria squeezed his hand. “You’re leaving.”

Johnny sighed and turned to face the setting sun bathing his face in a soft, golden glow as the last vestiges of daylight faded behind the mountains. “Day after tomorrow. Val needs a day to get himself together. Been riding hard.”

“You can tell him he doesn’t have to hide out. He’s welcome to join us for dinner.”

“You won’t box his ears?” Johnny’s soft laughter failed to hide the sadness in his heart.

Maria placed a hand against his ear. “Only you, miel.”

“Lucky me,” Johnny snickered. He sobered, turned away and walked over to settle in a cane backed chair near the window. A gentle breeze blew across his face. “It’s a hard world, Mama.”

Maria settled in a rocker to his right. “I know, harsher than what we expect at times, si?”

“Si,” Johnny nodded.

An owl screeched and took flight. A heavy drone of insects filled the night air and the sound of pots and pans clanking together as Lana prepared the evening meal, drifted out the window.

“Sometimes it’s as hard as we make it.” Johnny stared into the encroaching dusk. “We do our best. He sighed. “Wasn’t that long ago we were fighting off Indians. Kids down around the river or even playing in their own yard, were stolen by comanch. The Harker boy is still missing. Will probably never be found.”

Maria crossed herself and kissed the rosary pulled from her pocket. “What are you trying to say, miel?”

“It’s a hard land, Mama. I watched Papa and Sam fight off Indians. Loaded their guns. Never did back down from a fight. Sam settled this land with blood and sweat. Fought for his very survival. We almost lost Papa when he took that arrow in the shoulder.”

“I still don’t know what you’re trying to say,” Maria exclaimed.

A soft smile broke out. “Seems I spent my life fighting. We spent our lives fighting. And we survived. Indians, drought, the flood in the south eddy that took half the pasture. The stampede when I was ten and riding with Papa. Do you know he threw me under a fallen tree trunk and shielded me with his own body when them ornery beeves ran us down?”

Maria clutched her rosary tighter. “Si, I almost lost you both that day.”

“But you didn’t. We survived, like we always survived. Like when I fell off that horse when I was nine and broke my arm. Soon as I could, I got right back on. Papa wouldn’t let me give up.”

Maria shook her head. “He taught you to be strong.”

“He cared for me when I was kicked around, and tended me when I had fever. And through it all, I survived. We survived. If through all that, all the times we were there for one another, caring for one another, fighting fate, the elements and the garbage of life so we could face another day, what can you possibly say that would drive me away?”

“If you only knew.” Maria hung her head, an act so reminiscent of her son, she hardly saw the difference between them.

“You doubt my love for you?” Johnny asked.

Maria sobbed.

Johnny took her hand. “When Papa died, the last thing he asked was for me to always take care of you, no matter what. I think he meant more, didn’t he?”

“Si,” Maria whispered.

Johnny took a deep, cleansing breath. “He didn’t even have to ask.”

Maria had her answer. “I should help Lana with dinner.”

Johnny refused to release her hand. “Sam is already eating. I saw him go through the back door with Clint and Val.”

“I never heard them.” Maria’s smile faded as she studied her son, a hand pressed against his cheek. “But you did, didn’t you? Nothing gets past you.”

“Val ain’t got no more grace than a drunken ox,” Johnny chuckled, then fell silent.

“You should eat,” Maria said.

Johnny shook his head. “No.”

The stubborn set to his jaw gave Maria little choice. “I don’t wish to do this here.” As willful as her son, she rose and walked off toward their cabin.

Johnny followed, all the while wishing he was facing something like her boxing his ears, or fighting a rattler, than the talk he knew was coming. He hated fighting with words. Was never good at it to begin with. Feelings were an enemy he could not control. Could not slay. Emotions had a mind of their own and sometimes wreaked more havoc than a bullet. He followed his mother into the kitchen and sat at the table. Maria busied herself at the counter and placed a hot mug of coffee in front of him. Johnny allowed her the time, all the while screaming for this to be over. To talk and get it out. ‘Get it said’, like Papa often said. Yet, he wished for her to clam up and not say a word.

Maria sat opposite, resting her hands on the table. “I loved your father.”

“I know.”

She shook her head. “No miel, your real father.”

Johnny stiffened and his jaw locked, the stern set to his face looking as if carved from granite. “He ain’t nothing to me.”

Maria’s eyes grew sad, and she shuddered. “That is my fault.”

Johnny’s eye twitched, and he barely moved. Barely breathed. “Can’t see how.”

Maria squeezed her eyes shut, sighed, and slowly lifted her eyelids to face her son. “I tried to be a good mother to you.”

“You . . .”

Maria held up her hand. “This must be said.”

Johnny fell silent, still as the statue he saw in front of his mother’s church.

“I was young when I married your father. You don’t remember, but he was a father to you.”

Johnny shuddered.

“He loved you, miel.”

“How could he?”

Maria nodded. “He did. He loved you.”

“He threw me out!” Maria slowly shook her head, and Johnny’s gaze intensified. “Mama? He did throw me out.”

“No, miel,” Maria said, her voice a mere whisper. “I’m the one who turned back on him.”

“Why Mama, why?” Johnny stammered, his voice breaking under the weight of emotion.

“Why did I leave?”

Johnny shook, opened his mouth, and let his head drop for a minute before lifting it to face her. “Why did you lie? Mama, you never lied to me.”

A lone tear slid down her cheek and Maria stood and walked over to the window, peeking out from behind the curtain. Talking as if she were telling a story. Her story. One she had yet to understand, and had kept silent for too long. “I never meant to lie. It started quite by accident. Maybe from fear, or to assuage my own guilt. I betrayed you, my husband, and my faith.”

Johnny attempted to rise. “Mama . . .”

“No, silence,” Maria snapped, and he slowly sat. “You were two. I was young, but that is no excuse. I loved your father once. Promised to be faithful, but was betrayed by a lonely heart. Your father gave so much of himself to the ranch, he had little left for me. I had you, and for a long time, was too tired for him. We drifted apart. I don’t remember how or when it happened, but we soon became strangers. A husband and wife leading separate lives. He had his work, and I had my loneliness.”

Johnny’s eyes teared, and ashamed, he wiped them away. “People fall out of love. It happens.”

“It happened to me,” Maria said. “I don’t know if it happened to your father, I never asked. Never gave him a chance. Maybe if I did, things would have been so different.”

“But you didn’t,” Johnny said softly.

“No, I didn’t.” Maria dropped the curtain and arms crossed over her chest, leaned against the wall. “Then I met Jake. Your father was gone.”

“Gone where?”

Maria’s heart clenched. “He had business that took him across the country.”

“What business?”

“Later, Miel.”

Johnny’s mouth snapped shut.

“He was gone for weeks and the lonely months stretched before me, without end. I thought I would lose my mind. The house was so big, yet I felt smothered. I wanted to scream. Then I met Jake.” Maria whirled around. “I never set out to hurt you, I tried to fight it. I resisted at first, but the sad truth was, Jake was there, and your father was not.”

“But you left him. Didn’t you even talk to him? Give him a chance?”

“Oh Johnny, your father was so caught up with business back east, and then a terrible storm made any travel by sea impossible for months, the fleet was all but destroyed. And with winter setting in, travel across land, could not be done. It was six months before he returned.”

“But you never talked to him? Never gave him a chance? Why, Mama?” Johnny asked, coming to her side.

“I couldn’t,” Maria said. Her entire body trembled and she tried to pull away.

Johnny held tight. “Why? That’s not like you.”

“I couldn’t,” Maria sobbed.

“Why?”

Maria lifted her face, a heavy stream of tears falling, her hands clutched over her breast. “I couldn’t. Not after what I found out.”

“What did you find out, Mama?”

Maria’s trembling stilled, and her face paled. “I learned I was pregnant. How could I face your father, when I was carrying another man’s child?”

The bottom of Johnny’s world fell out. All he believed in, held true to his heart, collapsed. For the first time in his life, he backed away, not recognizing his own mother.

***

Maria sobbed and fell to her knees. Johnny stared, unable to move. Arms wrapped around her, she rocked, heavy tears spilling onto the floor, spreading out in a soft film of dust. Some inner, innate sense broke through and he saw his mother, for perhaps the first time in his life.

He pulled Maria to her feet and led her to a chair. “A baby?”

Maria nodded.

“What happened?” Johnny asked, sitting down hard in the chair.

Maria covered her face with her hands. “My judgment. That child was never born.”

A stab of pain shot through his stomach and Johnny was glad he didn’t eat dinner. “I can’t wrap my head around this.”

“We never told you, your Papa said there was no reason. We grieved, and laid the baby to rest. You were so young. You wouldn’t have understood.”

Johnny shoved back from the table and stumbled, kicking the chair across the floor. He opened his mouth to speak. Ground his fists against his eyes, and bent over, resting his hands on his legs until he gathered the courage to speak. “Everyone is entitled to their own secrets, for their own reasons, and believe me, I got my own.” He straightened and faced his mother. “I wish I knew.”

“You were too young to understand.”

Johnny slammed his fist on the table. “Not about the baby, Mama. That I understood. That was private between you and Papa. I can forgive and even understand the loneliness, and your love for Papa. Things like that happen. Can’t be helped.”

“What can’t you understand?” Maria stammered, barely able to choke the words out.

“The lies, Mama. The lies. Why didn’t you tell me about my father before? Why did you let me spend my life believing my own father hated me? Never wanted me?”

Maria sprang to her feet and rounding the table, reached out to her son. “That’s not what I intended to do. Believe me.”

Johnny grasped her hands and tugged her arms slightly. “I want to believe you, Mama. I want to. But the only thing besides you that kept me going, made me believe I was worth something, that I deserved to be loved, was papa. I felt like dirt, wondering what was wrong with me, what I did wrong to make my own father hate me.”

“Oh miel, you are loved and always have been, “Maria cried out.

Johnny shook her by the shoulders. “But I didn’t always know that! Not where my father was concerned. I know you and Papa loved me, and that’s the only reason I held on. But I’ve faced prejudice all my life, and it was made worse believing my own father didn’t want a breed for a son.”

Maria pulled free and clapped her hands against his face. “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that.”

Johnny grabbed at her hands. “How can I not? It was what I grew up believing.”

“I know it is, and it’s because of my lies. Lies I cannot take back. Lies done for my own selfish needs, that hurt my son.” Maria pulled away. “Forgive me, miel. Forgive a foolish, selfish old woman. Who wanted nothing but her son, and the man she loved. She ran from her mistakes and feared those mistakes costing her the only child she had. I lost one child. I couldn’t lose another. Forgive me, Johnny. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Before he could say another word, light on her feet and as elusive as her wandering son, Maria darted out the door and flew across the field, her small feet carrying her faster than Johnny ever thought possible. He ran for the door, his usual grace failing when he stumbled over the chair kicked out at in anger, and saw his mother’s fleeting image as she disappeared into the treeline.

“Damn, hell.” He ran out the door, colliding with Clint. Their foreheads bounced off one another and Johnny landed on top of his friend.

“Whoa, where’s the fire, Johnny?” Clint wheezed. Rubbing his head, he rolled free.

Johnny scrambled to his feet and turned to run after his mother, when Lana clutched his arm. All sense of awareness failing, he never saw the woman. “I gotta go.”

“No, I’ll have Clint send Sam after your mother. We need to talk,” Lana said. Johnny attempted to pull free, but she dug her nails into his arm. “Johnny, please listen. I know what your mother has been carrying in her heart all these years. You don’t know how hard this has been on her.”

Johnny’s anger deflated and he sagged against the wall. “She told me.”

Blushing, Clint brushed the dust off his hat and smacked it back on his head. “I’ll go get Sam.”

“Thanks,” Johnny muttered.

His friend nodded, squeezed his shoulder, and walked off.

Lana led Johnny into the house and busied putting a kettle on the stove. “You didn’t eat dinner. And with all the upset I know you’re carrying around, you need tea to settle your stomach.”

“You and Mama, think tea heals everything,” Johnny snorted.

“That’s because it does,” Lana said. She settled Johnny in a chair. “I gather your mother told you about your father.”

“Si.”

“And I also gather you’re pretty upset about this whole thing.”

Johnny’s eyes pooled with tears. Ashamed, he turned to the side and swiped an arm across his eyes. “Don’t know why she lied.”

Lana gently urged him to turn back. “I do. A mother will do anything to keep her child.”

“Keep me?”

“She told you about the baby?”

“Yeah.”

“Then you know she already lost one child. And, she feared losing another.”

“But she wouldn’t have lost me!”

Lana poured the tea and handed it over. “Every drop, now.” Johnny gave in and she sat opposite, pouring a second cup. “When your mother came here, she and Jake were just starting out. As we grew closer, I always felt she was holding something back. One day, I heard her crying in the pantry. She thought she was alone, but I came in from the garden. It took quite a bit of coaxing, but I finally managed to get the truth out of her.”

“Why did it take her so long to tell me?”

“Fear.”

“Fear?”

“She was afraid your father would take you away from her if he ever found you and learned what she had done. She was carrying another man’s child, and she ran off with his son.” She studied Johnny’s expression, and knew in that instant, he didn’t know the whole truth.

Johnny sat quietly. His mother was a beautiful woman, perhaps one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen, and didn’t think that because she was his mother. Maria possessed a natural beauty not many had; flawed, scarred by life and its mistakes and challenges, but flourishing, nevertheless. People made mistakes. Made decisions that don’t turn out as they planned or wished. Like he said, things happened. He couldn’t fault his mother for loving papa, but wished he had the chance to know his father, even if he never saw the man again, he wished for the memory without the hate.

“Did she think that little of me? That I’d just run off when things got tough?”

“No, she thought that little of herself. She was so scared that if your father knew of her indiscretion, he would take you from her.”

Johnny sighed and hung his head. He had spent his entire life reading people, and had the feeling that Lana was hiding something deep inside. Something his mother was so afraid of divulging, she still refused to speak of it.

“I can see that, her being afraid and all. But there’s something else. Something you’re not telling me.”

Lana pushed her cup back. “This is going to be hard to hear.”

Johnny snorted and slung his arm over the back of the chair. “Like this wasn’t? How bad can it get?”

“That depends on your discretion.”

“My what?”

“On how you handle what I have to say,” Lana said.

Johnny closed his eyes. “Best to just get it said.”

Lana spoke straight, and she spoke true. “Your father traveled a lot. Ranchers do, especially when starting out. They have to go to auctions, cattle drives, and such. It’s part and parcel, like Sam says every time he has to leave.” A small smile broke out when thinking of her husband. “Your mother was lonely, and she found Jake. You know the rest. What she didn’t explain, was why your father was gone so long.”

“He went back east,” Johnny shrugged. “Where?”

Lana’s heart clenched. “Boston.”

“Boston,” Johnny muttered. “Why? He got family there?” A flicker of anger surged. “Family that didn’t accept a Mexican wife for their gringo son, and he left Mama behind because of that?”

Lana pushed her cup aside and grabbed for his hand. “It’s time to set things straight. We’re through the worst of it.”

Johnny pushed away from the table. “I gotta go after Mama.”

Lana grabbed his arm and with surprising strength, pulled him back down. “Sam will find your mother. You two need this time alone to come to terms with things.”

“She could get hurt out there,” Johnny argued, tugging his arm free.

Lana shook her head. “No, I know your mother. She always goes down to the the stone house behind the old cistern. Has ever since she’s been here and was upset. Let Sam go to her. Let him help her, like I’m helping you. Sometimes you need a neutral party, if you will, to help set things straight.”

“What else needs to be set straight? And what was so all fired important about Boston?”

“Your father was married before he met your mother,” Lana explained, gauging Johnny’s reaction. When he failed to flee, she continued. “She died two years before they met.”

Johnny visibly stiffened. “So, Mama was his second wife. Happens. What does that have to do with me?”

Lana’s eyes locked on his. She sat straighter and pushed the half empty cup back. “Her name was Catherine, and she died in childbirth.” She watched as the blood drained from Johnny’s face. “She had a son.”

“A son,” Johnny said softly. “What . . . what happened to him? He die too?”

Lana shook her head. “No, he didn’t. You have a brother. His name is Scott.”

His body trembled, but Johnny fought with all his will to contain his emotions. “Scott. Boston Scott.”

“Yes, Scott lived in Boston.”

“What, the old man didn’t want him? Not a Mex name . . .”

“Johnny, please don’t say Mex,” Lana pleaded. “And no, Scott was not Mexican. Your father met Catherine in Boston shortly after he came to this country from Scotland.”

“Across the ocean?”

“You can say that,” Lana laughed lightly. “I’ll get Sam to show you his globe one day.”

Johnny shrugged. A part of him wanted to know, but the bigger part didn’t care. “He a eastern blue blood?”

“You can say that, too. Catherine’s family was wealthy.”

“How convenient,” Johnny sneered. “But that doesn’t explain why Scott was in Boston Visiting?”

Lana shook her head. “No, he lived there. When Catherine was close to term, your father had trouble with land pirates. He sent her away for her own safety. Her father traveled out to be with her, and the baby came early. Mr. Garrett . . .”

Johnny snorted. “Blue blood name.”

Lana’s laughter broke the tension between them. “Land sake, you sure are colorful today. But suffice it to say, Mr. Garrett wasn’t a nice man. He took Scott away before your father could get to them. When you father tried to claim his son, Mr. Garrett refused.”

“He didn’t have the ba . . . guts to fight?”

“He didn’t have the means,” Lana said. “When your mother met him, the ranch was barely getting started, but he had a stand of cattle and the house was well on the way to being completed. When Catherine lived there, the house was far from finished, and they didn’t have much. You father worked day and night to put enough money together to retrieve Scott.”

Johnny’s face reddened in anger. “And that left Mama alone.”

Lana’s eyes flew open. “I . . . I never thought of it that way, but maybe, yes. He worked for all of you, Johnny. That’s what your mother wanted to believe.”

“Sounds like he cared too much about one thing, and not enough about the other,” Johnny declared.

“How do you mean?”

“That Catherine was dead. My mother wasn’t. He could have considered her more. Yeah, he wanted his kid back.”

“Your brother,” Lana corrected him.

“No, he ain’t no brother to me. Don’t even know him. Here Mama spent all this time thinking I’d be mad if you told me about this so-called brother of mine, that I’d turn my back on her. But the truth is, I don’t care. Might make me cold, but I don’t. How can I care about something I never knew? Or had? He might be a good man, I can’t say, but what I can say is we might share the old man’s blood, but he means nothing to me. Nothing.”

Lana refilled his cup. You need something hot. This has been a shock.”

“Not as bad as you think. Did Mama really think telling me about this brother of mine would make me turn on her? For being mad she didn’t tell me sooner? Tell you the truth, it wouldn’t have made a difference. I wouldn’t have gone running off for some grand old family reunion, welcome him in my life with open arms, or nothing. Would’ve stayed here living my life as I am. Me and Mama.”

“And your father?”

Johnny shrugged. “Can’t miss what you never had. Look, some might think me less than human, and I still have to come to terms with why she lied, but can see where she had her reasons. Maybe she thought the old man didn’t care. Didn’t seem like her gave her much time when she was there, so what’s the difference? We left, and this is our life.”

Lana leaned back and sipped her tea. Setting down her cup, she said, “You are a hard man, Johnny Madrid. And you’re honest. You love your mother, put her first, in spite of all her mistakes. That makes you more of a man, in my book.”

“Hell, we all make mistakes,” Johnny said. Blushing, he hung his head. “Sorry, Mama would’ve shoved that there bar of lye soap in my mouth,” he said, glancing toward the sink.”

Lana’s throaty laughter broke out and she swatted his arm. “I won’t tell.”

Johnny fell silent for a moment, gathering his thoughts. “Don’t know how I’m gonna handle any of this. Too tiring to think about, let alone set straight. Maybe things are better as they are, instead of stirring up a new batch of trouble.”

“What do you mean?” Lana asked.

Johnny shrugged. “Seems like a whole lotta nuthin going on, that all rolled together and took us down. The old man had another kid stashed somewhere and left Mama alone all the time so he could get that kid back. Can see him working day and night to build the ranch, Sam did and still does.”

Lana sighed heavily and brushed a loose tendril of hair back from her eyes. “It sometimes seems overwhelming.”

“Yeah, but you work at it together. Sam considers you. Sounds like all my old man did was go off on his own, wonder if they worked together.”

“Your mother had you. It was different. Sam and I never had any children, so I worked the ranch, more,” she said, a sad tone to her voice.

“Yeah, but you did it together. I know Sam leaves, but remember when I was a kid how he’d say he had to get back to the house for a cup of coffee with his you. Might not have had more than ten minutes to spare, but it’s not the amount of time, but how you spend it with a person that counts. He let you know you mattered. He might have been too busy to see straight, but made time for you. Did my father do that?”

“No, Miel, he didn’t,” Maria said softly. Framed in the doorway, Sam’s massive bulk behind her, she slowly entered the room.

Johnny vaulted from the chair and crossed the room in three steps, this time avoiding the chair he had yet to pick up. He enfolded his mother in his arms. “You should have told me sooner. How much did you hear?”

“Enough, miel. Enough,” Maria said, placing her hand on his face. She reached up and tugged at his ear lobe. Johnny’s soft smile broke out, and he clasped her hand. The scope of his forgiveness encompassed his mother, surprising her by the depth of his love and devotion.

Lana stood and placed their glasses in the sink. “I think it’s time for you both to talk.”

Maria grasped the woman’s hands in hers. “I’m glad you told him. Thank you.”

Lana pulled her close. “You know where I am.”

“Always,” Maria said softly. She straightened, brushed the tears from her eyes and guided her son to the table. “You didn’t eat.”

“Lana fixed tea.”

“Ahh, her cure all,” Maria said softly, nervous laughter breaking out.

“Yeah, but you do pretty good pushing the tea, too,” Johnny teased lightly. “Especially when I’m sick.”

Maria lit the fire under the skillet, sliced some bacon and broke four eggs in a bowl. Cooking for her son kept her nerves from screaming, gave her hands something to do, and filled a primordial, maternal need to feed her child. Tea and food. Heals all wounds. “Your father was a good man, but I sometimes wondered how much I meant to him. I never lacked for material things, but I hungered for a close touch. Just a hug, or talk of our day. Anything other than the silence I lived with.

“He came home some nights long after I was asleep, and went straight to bed. Other nights, he came home almost too tired to eat, and then went straight to bed. We barely talked. It seemed he had only two things on his mind.”

She stopped, and Johnny’s eyes snapped up. “Why’d you quit?”

“I don’t want you to think I’m making your father seem bad.”

“No, you’re speaking the truth. Go on.”

“You’re right, it was the truth. He loved us, I know that, but he didn’t make room in his life for us.”

“But he made room for Scott and that ranch of his.”

“At the time, that’s all it seemed to me. Maybe it’s ill of me to speak such a way, but you asked how I felt, and this is the burden I carried. I lived in that house like a ghost. No one saw me. No one talked to me. I had you, but you were so young. I’m glad I had you. I doubted my worth, miel.”

“Mama,” Johnny said, sadness pooling in his eyes.

Maria stirred the eggs and added sliced jalapenos and onions. Once the eggs set and the bacon was ready, she spread a thick layer of spicy salsa on top and rolled everything into a large tortilla. “Your father was married to a beautiful woman before me. He never tried to make me live in her shadow, but I caught him looking at her picture at times.”

“That’s understandable, you look at Papa’s.”

“Si, you are right. I do look at Papa’s. But what I feared, was your father loving your brother so much, that he no longer wanted you, especially after my mistake. Maybe I was too young when your father and I married, but I never regretted having you. But once you grew, I feared you leaving me, if you knew the truth.”

The anger waned and Johnny skirted around the table and knelt by his mother’s side. “I never would have left you, Mama. Never. Don’t care how big his ranch is, or how rich he is. Don’t care if I have a brother, or not. Can’t say I’m not mad, but I’ll get over it.”

“Then you still love me, miel?”

Johnny’s heart melted and he buried his face in his mother’s shoulder. “Always, Mama. Always. You’re my mama.” He held her tighter, feeling her tears soak the back of his shirt. “No lie is worth losing you over.”

Johnny collapsed back against the chair and forced himself to eat. His appetite waned, but he was never one to waste food and if his mother cooked it, she expected him to eat. The truth tore through his heart like a dagger. The father he had been cheated out of knowing, the brother he might never know. The baby brother or sister that was lost before it even had a chance to live. And the mother who loved him beyond belief, in spite of her flaws, the mistakes she made. The fear she harbored that she would lose him should the truth come out.

He understood it all. Didn’t like it, but understood. The anger waned and he tucked into the meal his mother set before him. The first bite went down hard, and he feared it making another appearance, but once the food hit his stomach, his appetite raged. Need won out over upset.

His mother had been afraid of being replaced, the major flaw in her marriage. No one wanted to be replaced. That thought sent a chill through him. For the first time, he felt empathy for his father, couldn’t remember past resentment and hate, and wondered how he felt being replaced by another. Johnny would never regret knowing and loving Papa, the man had given him life, but he was also instrumental in taking him from the life he should have known. Why was it that the adults in this situation acted so selfishly? And one was never given a chance, but Johnny questioned whether his father would have been just as selfish and kept him from his mother. Questions he might never know the answers to.

Johnny pushed away from the table. “Like I said, you’re my mama. Always will be, I’ll always love you. I can understand you loving Papa, but I’m having a hard time with the lies about my father and brother. I don’t know why you and Papa couldn’t let me know my father loved me, but can see where you were afraid he’d keep me from you. Guess a parent would do anything to keep their child, and maybe my father would have kept me from you. Might never know. Just wished we all had a chance. Wished I could have grown knowing all of you.”

He shoved his hat on his head and walked out the door.

***

The hour slid closer to midnight. His mother was asleep. The house was dark, the only movement a white lace curtain fluttering in the light breeze floating through the window. The horses nickered in slumber, the lonely, mournful howl of a coyote drifted down from the ridge overlooking the ranch. Johnny slipped out of his bedroom and sat on the front stoop, gathering his thoughts before leaving. The last thing he wanted was to be around anyone. Didn’t want to talk to them, see the pitying look in their eyes, or explain feelings he had no use for or understand. Master at shutting down and tucking the frayed corners of his mind deep inside, hidden from the world at large, he focused on the task at hand.

He loved his mother. Would never leave her, but at that moment, given all he learned, he could not face the woman. The first time in his life he felt as such, and the guilt cut as deep as the anger and confusion. His mother was young, insecure and struggling through a marriage that was fading a little more with every day. Johnny wished her insecurities didn’t reach so deep, that they swept him along with her.

He would have loved both his parents, remained loyal to both. He never would have left his mother, but would have relished the chance to know his father. Maybe, after he got older, he would have bounced back and forth between the two ranches. Most of his life was spent on the trail anyway, so what difference would it have made. He might not have become Madrid, but Madrid was so deeply ingrained, Johnny felt he was always there. As was the restless spirit that plagued his very soul. He and his father would have probably been at odds with one another all his life, because Johnny didn’t see himself being any different, and would have bucked at the thought of being contained. Son of the patron or not, he still had his own life to follow.

Val was asleep in the bunkhouse with Clint and the rest of the hands, only caving to rest after a brief argument. Johnny was fine. Didn’t need anyone poking at him. Things happened for a reason. That’s how life unfolded. Casualties were taken on both sides, and the lucky ones emerged unscathed. Then there were those like Johnny, who did what they had to, handled what came their way, and struck out on their own when vengeance needed to be met. Val would be livid; Johnny cringed at the thought. In one way, the man’s anger would be justified. After all, Stonewall was Val’s kin, and he should be the one to exact vengeance, but Johnny needed to travel fast, and travel hard. He also didn’t want to bring Val down with him. This was either a job for a posse, or a job for Madrid. Madrid won out. And Val would kick his ass.

Laying a hand across Spitfire’s muzzle, Johnny spoke softly as the horse’s eyes fluttered open. Well-trained, used to leaving at all times day and night, Spitfire knew the importance of being quiet, and didn’t even nicker. His hooves barely made a sound as Johnny led him from the stable and walked across the yard. Knowing Val would not leave without giving Scout a good day’s rest, Johnny slipped out, blending into the night. Nearing the road, he mounted and rode off, kicking Spitfire into a canter as they disappeared under the silvery reflection of a crescent moon.

He headed due west. Crossing the desolate stretch of desert was something he wished to avoid, but there was little choice. If he wanted to reach Split Rock, this was the quickest route. It was also the most dangerous. Johnny traveled faster on his own, and with no one else to think about, was better able to concentrate on the trail. Sometimes he was better off that way.

***

Val prowled the ranch, angry as a rattler coiled to strike. Clint gave him wide berth, yet didn’t stray far. Kicking at the ground, Val approached the corral and leaned against the fence. Scout needed the rest. As much as he wanted to ride out after Johnny, he had ridden the horse hard and was not one to push his animal beyond its limits. He should have expected as much from Johnny. Some might think that in spite of the upsetting news learned the previous night, Johnny wasn’t thinking clearly, but Val knew better. Johnny’s thoughts were all too clear. In pure Madrid mode, Johnny was riding out after Stonewall’s killers, and no one was going to stop him, or go down with him, if that be the case.

“Son of a bitch,” Val muttered, scrubbing at his eyes.

“Sure snookered us,” Clint said, finally coming to his side. “Sam is fit to be tied.”

“He ain’t the only one.”

“You going after?”

“First thing in the morning.”

“I know I ain’t no gun, but hate to leave ya going on yer own. ‘Specially through injun country.”

“Sorry amigo, I need to do this alone. I ain’t no stranger to that area. Done it plenty of time. Besides, you promised Johnny you’d look after his mama, with all that came down last night.”

“Was one hell of a kick to the teeth. So the old man wanted him after all?”

Val nodded. “Sad truth, but looks that way.”

“Johnny must be fit to be tied,” Clint said, looking around quickly to make sure he wasn’t heard.

“Wasn’t one of his better moments. Damned bonehead. Wait till I get hold of his ass.”

“Maybe he don’t want you to follow.”

“But knows I will.”

“He got a good jump on ya, but I still don’t think you should do it alone.”

Val turned and leaned back against the fence, crooking his arms over the top. “Like I said, done it plenty of times before. Only had trouble but the once, ’bout four years ago. But the army’s been in the area, it’s quieted down some.”

Clint swatted the dust from his hat. “Feel damned useless. Your uncle gets killed, and there ain’t a thing I can do. Johnny and his mama are torn apart, and I can’t even help there. Ain’t no damned good.”

Val placed a hand on his shoulder. “Yer more good than you know. Johnny knows you’re here for his ma, and she knows she has you to turn to. He wouldn’t have asked ya if it weren’t important to him. And it eases his mind. He don’t got to worry about her, then he’s thinking better out there.”

“Thinking better?” Clint asked, shaking his head. “Don’t reckon he’s thinking clear at all. Ain’t easy dealing with news like he got last night. You think he went off so damned angry and upset, he’s not thinking past that? Ain’t good, ‘specially out there.”

Val sighed. “If it were anyone else, I’d agree, but this is Johnny. Something like this only hones his senses. Puts him on alert. He totally shuts everything else out, and focuses on the task at hand. Never did see anyone able to put everything from his mind, like that boy can. Damn, he just tucks it away nice and clean, and Madrid comes out.”

“Sam once said it was a self-defense mechanism. Didn’t understand that at first, but do now. Johnny don’t let thoughts linger to muck things up. Needs to focus on the task at hand, to forget the bad. I sure wouldn’t want to be one of the Gentry brothers, or that Skinner fella.”

“I wouldn’t wanna be Johnny when I get my hands on him.” Val slapped his hat on his head, and stalked off to the barn.

***

Master at hiding his trail, Johnny reached El Paso just before midnight, the second day. Tossing two bits to the bedraggled livery owner, Johnny stabled Spitfire. Drop dead tired, the horse was his first priority. Once the animal was brushed, watered and fed, Johnny walked to the back of a familiar building, climbed the steps and rapped lightly at the door.

A red head popped out. “Hell’s bells, get your ass on in here.”

Johnny kicked the door shut and fell into Rhonda’s arms. “Hey Red.”

She greedily devoured his mouth, running her hands along the the length of his slim hips. “Don’t ‘hey Red’ me, Johnny Madrid. ‘Bout time you showed up. Heard you got yerself killed.”

Johnny ran a finger down her cheek. “You shed a tear for me?”

Rhonda’s throaty laugh stirred his blood. “Hah, think mighty highly of yourself.”

Johnny dropped his saddlebags in the corner, kicked his boots off, and left a trail of clothes across the floor as he ambled over to the bed. Picking up a pillow, he pulled out a derringer. “You and me, we’re gonna blow our brains out one night,” he laughed and replaced the gun. Tossing his colt under the pillow to the right, he growled and fell onto the bed, pulling Rhonda down on top of him. All traces of fatigue vanished.

***

Johnny woke shortly before noon. Clad in an ivory colored chemise with black garters, Rhonda sat at her vanity, brushing her long, flowing red hair. Johnny slid his legs over the side of the bed and approached from behind, one arm wrapping around her neck, the other sliding down the front of her garment, cupping her breast. He leaned close, nibbling on her earlobe.

Too much time had past, sometimes the only thing that gave him the strength to endure his imprisonment, was thoughts of Rhonda. Friend and lover, tease and confidante, the woman provided a safe sanctuary when he needed to lay low, and comfort when he desired to be in her arms.

“Thought you’d be down at the bar,” Johnny said softly.

Rhonda leaned back against him, his fingers shooting sparks through her body. “What, and miss this? The girls have everything under control. That’s the best thing about being an owner, you call the tune.” She whirled around, frowning as she got a good look at him in the light of day. “You look like hell.”

Johnny sat back down on the bed. “Yeah, been better.”

“Wanna talk?”

Johnny reached for his pants. “After I take care of business. Got coffee?”

Rhonda buttoned a dressing gown and slid her feet into silk slippers. “I’ll bring a tray. When was the last time you ate?”

Johnny groaned, and stretched. “What day is it?”

Rhonda’s frown deepened. “And you profess how you take such good care of yourself.”

“Been riding hard.”

“You’re either chasing someone, or running from something.”

Johnny’s attempt at a smile, failed. “Both.”

Rhonda wrapped her arms around his head and pulled him into her bosom. “Damn.”

Most women would demand answers, poke and probe until every last vestige of privacy was shredded and souls were bared, but not Rhonda. She loved Johnny with every fiber of her being, knew how the man operated, how he felt, and how he loved. And she pushed for nothing more. If he was wounded and needed to be put back together, she was there. Without questions. If upset, she stayed quiet until he needed, or wanted, to talk. If he chose to remain quiet, she respected that need.

“You go get washed up, I’ll bring up a tray,” Rhonda said, pushing him down the hall.

Johnny nodded, slung his rig over his shoulder and walked to the water closet. Old red sure liked her amenities. By the time he returned, Rhonda waited with a tray of bacon, eggs, and fresh baked bread. He ate like food had never passed through his gums, kissed Rhonda deeply, and picked up his saddlebags.

“Door’s always open,” Rhonda said. Her heart catching, she watched him slip away.

***

Johnny rode throughout the day, stopping periodically to water Spitfire and let him rest. When the searing afternoon sun reached blistering heights, he pulled off behind an outcropping of rocks and let Spitfire lounge in the shade. He removed the saddle and leaned back, sipping slowly from the canteen.

His eyes burned with tears he swiped away with angry impatience. There was no room in his life for pity. Everything he believed in was shredded, leaving a tattered heart that shut everyone and everything out. A profound sense of guilt further compounded his feelings. Johnny had never left his mother without a word of goodbye before, but this time, he was unable to face her. He didn’t want to face anyone. Not his mother, Clint, Val, Sam, Lana, or his estranged father and mysterious brother. He wanted no part of anyone. The truth exploded in his life, taking Madrid down when everyone else failed.

Johnny fought the urge to turn north, maybe head to the Dakotas. He heard stories of massive gold strikes in the Black Hills. He could change his name, hang up his gun and buy a claim deep in the hills, live as a hermit in a one room cabin. He didn’t need anything else, or anyone. He would take care of himself, gleaning a living off the land. Grow fat on nature’s bounty. Forget everything that tore him apart. Maybe he was better off alone. No one to lie to him, no one to yank his world away, and no one to care about but himself.

He felt sorry for his father. Had spent years hating Murdoch Lancer. How in the world did he turn those emotions off and give the man a chance? He didn’t want to. And he didn’t want to know a fancy dan, blue-blood brother.

“Boston,” Johnny snorted. “Nothing good ever came from Boston. Just snobs that got no use for a breed. And I got no use for some brother.”

There was a time Johnny would have embraced a brother, yearned for one. Someone older to turn to, or younger to play tricks on and tag after him. But those days were long gone, misguided delusions of a youthful mind. Madrid came along, giving Johnny all he needed. The only constant in his life he could count on.

The sun sank lower in the west and Johnny stood, slapped the dust from his pants, and picked up his saddle. “Come on boy, day’s a’burning.”

He rode until dusk and camped at an oasis he spent plenty of time at in the past. Johnny knew the area well. Had traveled it extensively over the years. He led Spitfire to the small pool of water, removed the saddle and let him drink while he made camp.

Sleep was fleeting, fragments of nightmares ran through his mind, bearing reminders he would rather forget. Fought to forget. Drained, his stomach tied in knots, he rose before dawn, downed the coffee left over from the previous night, ate the beans from dinner wrapped in the last of the tortillas, and saddled Spitfire. A lizard darted out from under a rock, startling the mighty horse. Spitfire snorted and ground the pest under his hoof.

Johnny threw his head back in laughter. “Hah! I know how you feel, boy. Them varmints are as pesky as them armadillos.”

Spitfire whinnied and tossed his mane.

“Know what? You make a good Madrid. Yep, squash anything that pisses you off or gets in your way.” Johnny mounted in one graceful, fluid leap. “Yep. Just what I intend to do to Skinner and them Gentry brothers.”

***

Darkness washed down over the prairie and a heavy bank of clouds obliterated the sliver of moon that managed to peek out earlier. Johnny neared the far end of town and reined Spitfire in as he studied the lay of the land. The drone of a tinny piano in the saloon spilled out in the street, mingling with loud, raucous laughter, a group of unruly cowhands whooping it up with the ladies, and steady clod of horses and squeak of buggy wheels as they rode through. Even at night, Round Rock never slept. Johnny knew the feeling.

Hooded eyes trained straight ahead, hat pulled down low, he rode Spitfire down the middle of the street. Heads turned. Laughter stopped and a saloon girl with a low cut bodice and cowpoke on her tail, squealed and stood stock still, gaping. Johnny drank it all in. He studied every face, scanned every rooftop and glared down every alley, his senses on high alert. Men stepped aside as he guided Spitfire to the right, heading for the livery.

“Got room?” he asked the owner.

Tufts of gray hair sticking out at odd angles, greasy food stains on his shirt, and one suspender hanging loose, the grizzled old man scratched his ass and spat a stream of putrid tobacco juice at Johnny’s feet.

“You wanna keep what’s left of them teeth?” Fingers dancing on the butt of his colt, Johnny took a step forward.

The older man choked and moved back, eyes glistening with fear. “Yes sir. Am mighty fond of ’em. Only few I got left to tear into a steak. Eyesight’s failing.”

“Mine ain’t.”

“Sorry, won’t happen again. Name’s Joe.”

“Didn’t ask.”

Joe swallowed past the ball of fear in his throat. “Got room.” He reached up to grab the reins. Spitfire snapped, barely missing his fingers. Joe yelped and fell onto his backside.

Johnny patted Spitfire on the muzzle and glared down. “Learn to keep your damned hands to yourself.”

Joe scrambled to the hay pile in the far left corner and pulled out a bottle. Johnny glared and walked to the first empty stall. He took his time brushing Spitfire down and flung the dirty bucket found sticking out of the hay, across the room. His aim proved true. Joe cried out in pain when the bucket bounced off the wall and struck him in the head.

Johnny stalked down the hay strewn aisle and pulled the slovenly man to his feet. “You wanna wallow like a damned hog, go ahead. But don’t you ever leave horses to do the same.”

“Yes sir,” Joe stammered, a trickle of blood sliding down his face.

Johnny shoved him back. “You got a clean bucket?”

Joe pointed to the far wall. “Near the grain bin.”

Johnny stormed over and as a last thought, lifted the lid. Cobwebs ran crisscross over the top of the bin, and a large, wooly black spider skittered into the corner for safety. Johnny slammed the lid and approached the quivering man.

He knelt and grabbing the filth laden shirt, pulled Joe close. “I outta shoot you where you sit. Only thing keeping me from doing it is you ain’t worth swinging at the end of a noose for. Ain’t fitting to let horses be in such filth. Ain’t gonna abide by it.”

“Yes sir,” Joe stammered.

“You got fresh grain?”

Joe nodded to the left. “And clean hay. Right by the door. Milt brought it over just today.”

“Today, huh?” Johnny eyed the pile near the door.

“Before dinner.”

“Any of them horses get it?” Johnny asked, nodding toward the sorrel mare, bay gelding and two chestnut mares.

Joe shrank back.

Johnny’s anger flared. He stood, bringing Joe up with him. “You and me, we’re gonna tend them horses.”

“Yes sir.”

“And you’re gonna get clean buckets for them and you’re gonna muck out them stalls.

Not needing to be told twice, Joe exploded into action. Johnny smashed the whiskey bottle against the wall and grabbed a clean bucket. Once Spitfire was settled with fresh water and grain, Johnny worked his way down the row of stalls, mucking each one clean and refilling grain and water buckets. Horses were brushed down. They might have belonged to someone else, but Johnny didn’t care. The one thing he would never accept, was the sheer abuse and neglect of such regal animals.

He walked back over to Joe, who cowered on a bench in the corner. “Look at me.”

Joe hung his head.

Johnny’s voice turned to ice. “I said look at me.”

Joe lifted his head and his heart almost stopped. He swore it skipped a beat or two when he stared into the steely eyes of the gunfighter.

“You know who I am?” Johnny demanded.

Joe nodded. “Yes sir, Mr. Madrid.”

“You own this place long? Last time I was here, old Jacob Mills ran the place.”

“He got the consumption and sold out.”

“He’d never let the place get like this.

Joe shuddered and pressed his back closer against the wall.

“I pass by every now and then. No telling when I’ll ride through, but know I will. And when I do, I’ll be stopping by.” Johnny glanced at the stream of urine running down Joe’s leg. “And when I do, you better have the place set to right. It ain’t, you’ll answer to me.”

He spun around and stalked from the livery, spurs jingling in time with his steps. He headed toward the saloon and stood at the batwing doors, surveying the smoke filled room. He stepped through. The door shut with a thump. A gambler dropped his chips. The piano player stopped and froze with his fingers in mid-air. Shot glasses clanged together and dropped onto tables. A low murmur of muted whispering broke out, then stilled. The bartender cleared his throat and replaced the glass he wiped clean.

Johnny strode to the bar and took position at the end, his back to the wall. “Go on,” he said, waving his hand to the stunned patrons.

The piano broke out in song, voices raised in excited talk, and the gambler shuffled a deck of cards.

The bartender approached. “Help you?”

Johnny leaned on the bar. “Tequila.” The bartender nodded and poured a shot. Johnny grabbed his wrist. “Leave the bottle.”

“You got it.” Shrugging his shoulders, the bartender turned away.

“Got anything to eat in this joint?” Johnny eyed the buxom redhead, not natural like Rhonda, but brassy enough to his liking, as she wound her way across the room.

A soft fluttering of breath kissed his skin and soft hands kneaded his shoulders. “What ya want, sweetie?”

Johnny downed a shot. “What ya got?”

“Saul, drop a steak. Medium?” she asked, turning back to Johnny.

“Well done.”

“You hard him, Saul. The works.”

She nibbled at Johnny’s ear and his legs all but melted. His groin tightened, but he pushed her back. “All in good time.” He picked up the bottle and sauntered over to the table.

The smell of sauteing onions wafted out and his mouth watered. Much to his delight, the redhead returned with a bowl of spicy salsa and plate of warm tortillas. After three days of trail dust, he almost drooled.

“Name’s Della,” she purred, setting the small feast before him. “You like things hot, Mr. Madrid?”

Johnny swallowed a spicy mouthful and crunched a jalapeno between his teeth. “Hot as it can get.” He poured another shot and watched as she disappeared into the kitchen.

By the time he finished the last tortilla, Saul carried over a heaping plate of steak smothered in onions, potatoes dripping with rich gravy, and biscuits. Johnny tucked into the meal. Halfway through, Della returned.

“You give this kind of attention to all your customers?” Johnny sopped up a river of gravy with half a biscuit and downed a shot.

Della leaned close. “Only those with big guns.”

“Deadly game.” Johnny’s eyes turned dark and he set his fork down.

“I can take care of myself.” Della sat straighter and squared her shoulders.

Johnny slipped a dollar between her breasts. “Course ya can.” He pushed his empty plate aside and settled back. “You know a man named Tucker?” he asked, nursing a shot.

Della laughed and snapped her fingers for a second glass. “Bottle is on me.”

Johnny smiled and lifted his glass in silent toast.

Della poured a shot. “Sure, sweet thing. Everyone knows Trader Pete.”

“Been around lately?”

“Not so I can say,” Della answered. “Comes by but once every few months. When he has a fill of pelts.”

Johnny nodded. “Still go that shack in the hills?”

“Near as I can tell. Might just find him there. Time to be curing them hides.”

Johnny downed another shot and stood, kicking the chair back.

Della stood beside him. “Company, honey?”

Johnny entangled his fingers in a thick knot of hair on the back of her neck and gave a firm, yet gentle tug. “Can use a good warm bed.”

“Among other things,” Della said, running her hand along the taught line of his thigh.

Grabbing the bottle, Johnny followed her up the stairs.

***

Val carefully set the tin mug of coffee down on a rock and drew his gun. Cocking back the hammer, he stared into the dark. A snap of twig and rustle of brush, he squinted and took aim. Clint tripped and crashed through the brush.

“Damn hell, ya lop-eared jackass. Think you’d been Johnny’s friend long enough to know not to go crashing in on a fella. Wonder you haven’t had your balls blown off before now.” Val swore and lowered the gun.

A cocky grin split across Clint’s face. “Like you said, I’m a cowpoke, not a gun.”

“Then what the hell ya doing out here? Stumbling around in the dark. Wonder you didn’t fall over a cliff.”

“Damn near did,” Clint said, leading his horse into camp. He licked his lips. “Coffee?”

“And they say cowpokes are dumb,” Val snarled.

“Got any beans left?” Clint asked, staring into the near empty pot.

“Ya see any in the bottom?”

“Just a few. But that’ll do.” Clint swiped the pot and grabbed a spoon.

“Here, might as well slop it up with this.” Val tossed over a biscuit.

“Thanks.” Clint scraped the pot clean and downed the biscuit in three gulps. “Pick up his trail yet?”

“Ain’t looking fer it,” Val said, draining the last of his coffee.

Clint’s jaw dropped. “Ain’t looking for it? What we doing out here then?”

“I’m after those killers.”

“And what about Johnny?”

Val shrugged. “Reckon he’s after them too.”

“Then you’re after him.”

“Nope.”

“Damn, you’re a contrary fella.”

“Not contrary. Sensible. No one trails Madrid. Ain’t possible. He’d have ya running in circles chasing yer tail for years, and ya won’t come close. Nope, ain’t no way to trail Madrid. But, if you think like him, or been around him long enough to know how he figgers things to go, then you head off in the same way.”

“So where are you heading?”

Val tossed the empty tin aside and leaned back against his saddle, wiggling his toes in front of the fire. “Now, that there’s an interest. You see, Johnny aims to head into injun country. Only he’s gonna get a lay of the land first. Always does that. So he probably hit old El Paso first, took a night or two to gather himself and have a poke at Rhonda, and then headed due west. Rough towns between here and there.”

“Been there a time or two,” Clint said, slurping the last of the coffee.

Val pulled his hat down low. “But instead of heading to those towns, I’m gonna head straight to the source.”

“The source?”

“Yep. Old fella up in them hills. Called Trader Pete.”

“Never heard of him,” Clint shrugged.

“He’s some old geezer who spends his life trapping. Tans those hides and when he has enough, makes the rounds to towns and trading posts, hawking the damned things. Does right well for himself. Then goes back in the hills and sets some traps for a new batch.”

“Why would Johnny go to him?”

“Cause old Trader Pete is a breed. Like us. Johnny and me. He’s part comanch and who the hell knows what else. Injuns leave him alone. He shows up right before winter, trading furs for trinkets and bits of smoked buffalo to sweeten his pot. Then goes back to the hills. Durned if he don’t know what’s going on around them there parts. Knows the way of things. Whether there’s trouble brewing, or not. So if Johnny is gonna head on out after them bastards that killed Stonewall, he’ll pay a visit to old Pete.”

“And you think if we head straight there, we’ll meet up with him?”

Val groaned and stretched, settling deeper under the blanket. “Nope. But will find out if he was there and what the hell he’s up to. If there’s trouble brewing, likely he’ll just keep on heading west. Might just do that to begin with. Them there Gentry brothers are heading for California. Won’t be around injun country for long. Might not pay to go there. But Pete will know.”

Clint scooted under his blanket. “Sounds like a plan.”

“Say, ain’t you supposed to stay by and watch out for Johnny’s mama?”

“Was going to, but talked to old Sam. He and Miss Lana got things under control. She’s mighty upset, but she accepted this. Knew Johnny wouldn’t take the news easy.”

“Damn,” Val swore, and drifted off. Minutes later, a rumble of snoring filtered out from beneath his hat.

***

The trail was long and arduous. Nearing the summit, Johnny guided Spitfire to the right and followed a narrow path cut between two large rocks. At one point, he had no choice but to dismount and lead Spitfire, careful not to lose his footing or bring a volley of loose stones down on top of them. Old Pete knew what he was doing when he settled in the valley beyond the mountains. Sheltered from the brutal winter winds and far enough from civilization for anyone to bother with the grueling trail, he lived in a one room shack at the river’s edge.

Johnny broke through the trail and walked into the clearing, lush green grass underfoot, cool, refreshing water to quench his thirst, and a bright, azure blue sky overhead. The air seemed fresher, scrubbed clean by tall stands of mesquite trees and towering pines. Johnny took a deep, cleansing breath and knelt at the water’s edge. Scooping handfuls over his face and head, he drank deep, his body shuddering at the sheer goodness of crisp, mountain kissed water.

After Spitfire had his fill, Johnny mounted the mighty horse and forded the shallow riverbed. Turning to the north, he rode around the bend and came to a stop. “Hello to the shack,” he called out through cupped hands.

An ax whizzed past his head and embedded in a tree. Johnny threw his head back in laughter. “Yer getting old, old man. Missed me again.”

“Damn young whippersnapper. One a’these days, I aim to split that part in yer scalp,” Pete cackled, and lumbered out into clear view. “Came closer this time.”

Johnny lit off Spitfire and landed on his feet, graceful as a panther on the prowl. He approached and clapped Pete soundly on the back. “Good to see you old timer.”

Pete’s toothless grin broke out. “Been a long time. Yes siree, a real long time.” He swiped at his eyes. “Might dusty today. Need rain.”

“Yep, sure could use some.”

“Have a bit of water?” Pete asked, handing Johnny a ladle from a bucket.

Johnny drank and smacked his lips. “Ahh, goes down smooth.”

“Got some fire in the shack, goes down even smoother,” Pete cackled. “Care to sit for a spell?”

“A spell.” Johnny followed the man into the cabin.

Pete pulled a jug from the mantle and popped the cork. He shuffled over to the table and retrieved two tin mugs. Johnny settled, one leg stretched out in front and an arm slung across the back of the chair, his hat tipped back. He took a swig, savored the burn sliding down his throat, and slapped his leg.

“Whoowee, you sure brewed a batch this time.”

“Good for what ails ya.” Pete brushed back long, greasy strands of gray hair and studied Johnny. “From the looks of things, you got some ailing going on.”

“Been better,” Johnny admitted.

“Care to talk?”

“Some day.”

Pete settled back with the jug. “Got more than one thing on yer mind. But you know where to find me when yer ready. If not, then you know where to find me for a belt.”

Johnny chuckled, grateful the man didn’t pry. But that was Pete. He never pried. The man was a wealth of information, could talk a blue streak when he had an audience, was an ever better listener when a body needed to cleanse his soul and free his mind, but never pushed when a body needed to be private.

“After some men,” Johnny said. “Heard tell they’re heading for California. Cutting south.”

Pete frowned. “Ain’t a good place to cut through now.”

“Goings on?” Johnny asked, reaching for the jug.

Pete relinquished hold. “Army is after the tribes. Apache and comanch. Tribes have been leading raids, stealing horses, killing settlers down around the Llano River and westward. Been swiping youngsters from the bosom of their homes. Folks are downright scared to set foot outside, and even scarder to sit in their homes. Nope, ain’t a place to be right now. Got things stirred up pretty good.”

Johnny sighed. “Yeah, figured that was the way of it.”

“Them fellas yer after, what’d they do?” Pete asked. Reaching inside the cabinet, he pulled out a loaf of bread and hunk of cheese wrapped in a faded, cotton towel. He sliced a piece of each and handed them over.

Johnny chewed, gathering his thoughts. “Remember Val’s uncle, old Stonewall?”

Pete’s face fell and his eyes glistened with tears. “They get him?”

“Yeah.”

“Not . . .”

“Fraid so,” Johnny said.

No further words were needed. Pete knew the brothers and Skinner, as well as Johnny and Val. What puzzled him, was why Johnny was riding alone. “They get Val, too?”

“Val?”

“Figgered he’d be riding with ya. It being his uncle and all.”

“Decided to go this one on my own,” Johnny said.

A wry grin broke out. “Ahhh, you slickered old Val, didn’t ya?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Johnny laughed lightly.

“Boy, he’s gonna kick yer ass square on top of yer head. Ain’t ever gonna see straight again.” Pete cackled and slapped his knee. Then passed the jug.

They ate a dinner of bear stew and Johnny settled Spitfire in a shed out back with Pete’s two horses. Once satisfied all three animals were fed, watered and secured for the night, safe from predators, Johnny pulled the door shut behind him and walked back inside. It was time for a talk. Sitting in the shadows of flickering flames, he lay back against his saddle and shared the jug.

“Don’t rightly know what to do,” Johnny said softly, having related the entire, sordid story to his old friend.

“Nope, no tell but to live it out,” Pete reasoned.

Johnny chuckled, and nodded. “You always have a way to see right into the heart of things. What seems impossible, has no answer, you see to the true.”

Pete nudged Johnny with his elbow. “You young uns, ya think too much. Think too much and try to reason out, what is waiting to reason out in its own time and way. Gonna come at ya, so let it come. Don’t try ta make it come, and don’t try ta figger it out.”

“Take it as it comes,” Johnny said. “Always did try to live that way. Guess I forgot.” He stared around the cabin. “I can’t change, Pete. And I don’t just mean Madrid. Can’t seem to sit still. Don’t want to sit still. There’s so much to see, so much to do. That’s why I haven’t been able to settle in with Sam and work the ranch all these years.”

“Ain’t for everyone. You’re a wandering kind. Yep, a real, round-about restless spirit. Ain’t meant to be penned in.”

Johnny leaned his head back, a dreamy look shimmering in his eyes. “Like the feel of my horse under me, the breeze in my hair, the sound of his hooves on the trail. The smell of the ocean, the dank, murky waters of the lake. Know a lot of folk, like to come by and see ’em every now and then. Don’t want anyone penning me in, telling me when to spit and when to polish. Ain’t good at taking orders. Some might call me shiftless.”

Pete shook his head, a snap of anger flaring in his eyes. “Boy, you ain’t shiftless. Far from it. Ya just do things yer own way. Right now, yer setting out to right a wrong. Poor old Stonewall.” He sniffled and ran his arm under his nose. “Ain’t never done a body wrong. And they stripped him of himself.” He took a deep breath and passed the jug. “If’n ya was sworn, you’d be called a lawman and doing a job. Yer doing the same thing, only not sworn. Might be better in cases like this. Ya get justice the only way it can be done. And don’t have ta answer to no one.”

“That’s just it. Here I lived my whole life hating Lancer for what he done. Only to find out he never done it.”

“How’s that make you feel?”

Johnny shrugged. “Dunno. Kind’a a relief in some way, knowing that he didn’t hate me all along. Makes me feel worthy, you know?”

“You always were worthy, boy. Don’t ya forget it. Makes ya feel good, don’t it? Knowing yer old man cared and probably still does.”

Johnny sighed, a small grin toying at his mouth. “Guess. Only then I get riled at everyone. My mama for not telling me the truth. Papa for hiding her secret, and even Sam and Lana for not telling me, even if it wasn’t their place. Seems all the folks but the one that needed it the most, knew. Feel kind’a betrayed. Know my mama had her reasons, and I understand them. Just don’t know if I can live with the lie.”

“And your father and brother?”

Johnny handed the jug over. “Don’t rightly know. Don’t really care, or want to know them. It’s like I ain’t got no use for them. Or maybe they don’t know about Madrid, and that’ll be a real kick in the ass. Like I said, I ain’t gonna change for anyone.”

“Then yer afraid,” Pete pointed out.

“Afraid?”

“Of being penned in. Let’s face it boy, yer the son of a rich rancher. Son of the patron. There’s things that come along with that.”

Johnny shrank back against his saddle. “Like settling in and working the ranch. Living up to all that comes with the title.”

“Someone to answer to.”

Johnny frowned.

“That ain’t rightly a bad thing, but it don’t have to be the way of things either. Ya can get to know your father, at least meet him. That don’t mean ya have to stay.”

Johnny fell silent and stared into the fire.

***

Johnny rose with the sun, not surprised to see Pete up and about, repairing and putting his traps in order. Trusty pack horses, Ebenezer and Opelio, were ground tied in front of the cabin, ready for the familiar burden.

Johnny chuckled and stepped out into the light. “Seems I should be offended. Here I come for a visit, and you’re lighting out.”

“Gotta get to trapping when the trapping’s good,” Pete chuckled. He stood, staring at the blazing hues of the rising sun. “Good day for travel. Something we both got in mind. Now, if’n I knew you were of a mind to sit a spell, why I’d put this off till the morrow.” He slapped Johnny on the side of the arm. “But I know ya, boy. Yer in a mind to ride out.”

Johnny hung his head to hide the shy smile breaking out. Other than Val and sometimes Clint, no one saw through him like Pete. Zeke came close a time or two, and like Pete, had a way of setting his head straight and cutting straight to the heart of the matter.

“Gotta get going,” Johnny said softly.

Pete guided him back to the cabin. “Got some grits and salt pork. Can’t light out on an empty stomach. Why the rumbling alone will scare those varmints yer chasing, away.” He stopped short and tugged on Johnny’s arm. Brown eyes blazing fire locked onto those of dazzling sapphire blue. “Mind you boy, gun ’em. Show no mercy. Gun ’em slow and make it hurt. Gut shot is too good for them. Not after what they did to poor Stonewall.

A tear slid down Pete’s face, but in Johnny’s presence, the man showed no shame. “Stonewall and me, we’re the last of a proud, old breed. Live off the land, don’t need nuthin more than that. Don’t need no fancy town, but for a bottle or two in Round Rock when I have a mind, or ta pick up some news. Think we were a bunch of cackling old hens, the way we like ta pick up a bit or two here and there. But that’s the way of it. Good ta know what folks got a mind of doing, or had done ta them.”

Johnny nodded.

Pete’s hand tightened around his arm. “What they did to that poor man, not only tears at my heart and had me up most the night thinking on him, it makes me plumb scared.”

Johnny stopped short of the doorway, and gazed down, his mouth agape. “You? Scared? Never known you to be scared before.”

“Mind you boy, you been scared a time or two. Don’t mean we’re cowardly or nuthin, means we know it’s a bad situation and got our hackles up. We don’t run, we face things head on and if lucky, we come out on top. Being scared means ya find a way to get control of the situation. Means yer smart enough not ta get too cocky assed and get yerself blown away. No, it’s a wary kind of feeling, this scared. I’m here all alone. Them fellas know I sit on a goldmine of furs.”

Johnny shuddered, at a loss for words.

“They could’a come after me just as easy. Just a turn to the north, and they’d a been in my lap. Mind you, I’m good with that there ax, but only get one throw. And there were three of them. I’d have ended up like poor old Stonewall, may that man rest in peace.”

Johnny followed Pete into the cabin and sat at the table while the old man carried over a bowl filled with grits and chunks of meat. “Thanks,” he said softly. Picking up a wooden spoon, he tucked into the meal.

Pete came to the table with his own plate. “I ain’t a man ta bring harm down on a fella, or even wish it. But I do this time. And yer right in going this alone. Ya got an edge even Val ain’t got, and don’t need anyone mucking your mind. Like ya said last night, this is either a job for a law posse, or one man. And yer more powerful than any damned posse.”

Johnny blushed. “Just doing what needs.”

Pete pointed with his spoon. “And ya know how ta get it done. You head out north of here, cut through Miller’s pass. River’s running low this time a year, so no need to cut around the ridge. Go straight through the valley and you’ll have no trouble. Been a dry spell, was there but last week. Is good travel. Will save you a day or two and bring you to Split Creek in no time. Know ya said those fellas were heading there.”

“If they made it through injun country,” Johnny said softly. “Hope they did. That kind’a killing is too good for them. Knowing them, they’ll probably whoop it up a few days, tear the town apart before riding off. But have the feeling I’ll just miss them.”

Pete’s eyes narrowed. “That’s what ya want, ain’t it? Get ’em on the trail.”

A slow smile broke out. “You know how I work.”

“Yep, in matters like this, it’s the only way. Lots of places ta hide bones out there.”

Johnny’s eyes grew dark with rage. “Who said I want to hide their bones? Gonna leave ’em twisting in the wind. Let the vultures feast on their carcasses. Let the world know not to fuck with Madrid or what’s his. Or anyone, for that matter. No one deserves to suffer like Stonewall did, and we both know he’s not the first.”

“Nope, been lots of grisly happenings around here the past few years. Law can’t seem to touch them boys.”

Johnny shook his head and pushed his plate back. “Law won’t. Don’t have the means needed. Their hands are tied. Can’t do what I can.” He picked up his hat and followed Pete to the door. Mounting Spitfire, he reached down and grasped the old man’s hand. “You mind them traps old timer. Don’t go getting yerself caught in them iron jaws. Don’t wanna ride in here next time and see ya had to chew off your own foot.”

“Now mind yerself,” Pete said. Shaking Johnny’s hand, he slapped him soundly on the side of the leg. “You just keep yer ass out of trouble and mind what I said. Cut north and wind through that there valley. And you bring ’em down, Johnny boy. Bring ’em down hard and nasty.”

Johnny glanced to the east. “Val will probably be riding in soon enough.”

“And he’ll find an empty cabin and a side of salt pork on the table,” Pete laughed. He smacked Spitfire soundly on the flank. “Get going boy, ya got a lot of ground ta cover.” He shook his head. “Boy, I wouldn’t want ta be you when old Val gets a’hold of ya.”

“He’ll be after. Never doubted it for a minute. But plan on having the job done first.” Johnny waved, spurred Spitfire on and turned to the north, taking Pete’s advice to heart.

***

“Damn ornery, stinking, sidewinder,” Val cursed, flinging the canteen aside. He approached the empty cabin, fists clenched and temple throbbing. “Empty. Both Madrid and Pete.”

“How do you know Johnny was here?” Clint asked.

“Cause I know the slippery varmint. He was here all right. Can smell him,” Val groused.

“Better not let him hear that,” Clint chuckled. “He’s liable to shoot ya in the ass.”

“I’m gonna shoot him in the ass when I catch up with him.” Val walked around the yard and turned to the north. “There.” He pointed to the dusty ground. “Heading north.”

Clint’s face lit up. “Hey, just like you said.”

Val slapped him on the back, sending Clint stumbling forward a step or two. “Now yer learning. Heard tell there was trouble in them hills. Old Johnny knew, too. That’s why he headed here. Gonna take a bit longer, but is the only way.”

“But they might get away.”

Val jammed the hat square on his head. “Not from Madrid.”

“Yeah.”

“Besides, is a might quicker to take the longer route, than to wind up dead with an arrow through yer heart and yer scalp hanging from some brave’s belt.”

Clint nodded. “You got a point. So now what?”

Val filled the canteen and mounted Scout. “Better fill up. Gonna be a day’s ride before we make camp.” He turned north. “Gonna cut through a place called Miller’s Pass. Will bring us due north, cut out any danger of traveling through bad country, and will bring us to the south end of Split Creek.”

“Maybe catch up with Johnny,” Clint said, filling his canteen.

“Not likely. Ain’t planning on it. Knowing him, he’s planning on having the job done by the time I catch up.

“He knows we’re coming, huh?” Clint asked, wary eyes darting about.

“He knows I’m coming. He’s gonna beat yer ass,” Val snickered.

***

By late afternoon, Johnny knew his earlier suspicions were correct. The Gentry brothers and Skinner were heading toward Split Creek, as thought all along, but like him, they opted to take the longer route. Coming upon a cold camp, his heart caught. Spitfire snorted and sidestepped. Fighting the rein, he tossed his head. Johnny reached a hand down to soothe the skittish animal, yet his own hackles raised. The bitter, metallic stench of blood filled the air. A lone horse milled in a fertile field just beyond the site, the makings of a campfire and food caked cookware, scattered about. Johnny’s nerves screamed. This was too close to Pete’s place for comfort. He fought the urge to vomit at the thought of how close his friend had come.

Johnny drew his gun and wary eyes darting about, placed a gentling hand on Spitfire’s muzzle and walked slowly to the blanket clad bundle by a bank of cold ashes. Pulling a corner of the blanket back, a nauseating stench filled Johnny’s nose and his head snapped back. Flies crawled out of a gaping wound in the old man’s neck, his throat slit from ear to hear. Skinner’s handiwork. The saddle lay untouched, but the saddlebags were missing. No telling what the old man had been carrying. Whatever he had, it was now in the hands of the Gentrys.

Johnny ground his teeth together and holstered his gun. Wrapping the blanket around the man’s head, he knelt next to the body. “I’ll do right by ya. Then I’ll make ’em pay.” A hawk screeched overhead. Johnny lifted his head and stared up at the majestic bird soaring in a slow, lazy circle. Gaining height with every turn until it darted to the right and vanished over the mountains.

This could have been Pete. If the Gentrys had taken a different path, had they the fortitude and foresight to cut through the treacherous mountain pass, Johnny’s old friend would be the one he was burying. A lone tear trickled down his face. Glancing around, he found himself alone.

“What the hell did you think, jackass? Course yer alone. Wanted it that way.” He sat against the tree, rough bark picking at his neck, and allowed himself a moment to weep. A steady stream of tears slid down his face, washing away a sorrow for old Stonewall, the lies that had compounded his life, the betrayal by those closest to him, and now this strange old man, whose life had ended in a horrible fashion.

Johnny wept, then a gentle breeze stirred up and he rose, letting the wind dry his face as he retrieved a shovel and began to dig. He wrapped a bandana around his nose and mouth and dragged the body over to its final resting place in the shade of a tall stand of mesquite. “Don’t know any fancy words, but I wish you peace. Your suffering’s over. Shouldn’t have happened and I promise ya, I’ll stop ’em before they can do it again. Or I’ll die trying. Won’t stop till one or the other happens.”

Before riding off, he calmed the older horse, its age the only reason it was left behind, and relived the animal of its halter. Slapping it lightly on the flank, he turned it loose. “Go on boy, ya got your freedom.”

Johnny’s mind snapped shut like one of Pete’s traps. Nudging Spitfire gently, he once again headed north.

***

Johnny couldn’t leave the sorrowful camp fast enough. As soon as Spitfire was watered, he turned back to the trail and continued on. Thoughts of Pete, old Zeke, his friends and his mother ran through his mind. He needed to pull himself together, get in the right frame of mind, put tumultuous emotions aside before he continued on. In his present state, he was no good to anyone.

As he rode the trail leading to Split Creek, wary eyes darted about the landscape, searching for any sign of the Gentry gang. Picking up their trail proved easier than Johnny expected. As thought, the trio was vicious, but stupid. All the more fun to toy with. Johnny spent the previous evening sitting in front of the campfire, putting his priorities in perspective and clearing his mind. The event was cleansing, even though he wept as a child. His mother said tears were a way of cleansing what poisoned the soul, washing the confusion, fear, and heartache away. Paving the road for more precise actions. Johnny was ready to be precise. And that meant no longer carrying on as a lone wolf. This was Val’s dance. His friend would never purge the anger, the grief, if he was cut out. But first, Johnny was going to have a little fun. His mind salivated at the thought.

He woke before the sun, famished and thirsting for coffee. Once his personal needs were met and he enjoyed a long soak in the crisp, clear water of the river, Johnny dressed, stirred the embers and set a pot of beans on to warm, while he drank his coffee.

“Ahh, nuthin better,” he mouthed, smacking his lips.

The sun peeked over the horizon and he stirred the beans. Along with some dried beef and hardtack, he was pleasantly sated and ready to ride out. He snagged Spitfire where the loyal mount was ground tied near the river’s edge, basking in the warmth of the rising sun while he grazed in the green grass.

“You sure are spoiled,” Johnny said softly, running his hand along Spitfire’s neck. The horse nickered and nibbled at his hair. “As it should be.” He chuckled and nuzzled close. “Sorry amigo, I got lost there for a while. But I’m back now and everything will be all right.”

Johnny was no longer angry with his mother, life always had a way of taking over, and people muddled along, doing the best they could, grasping happiness when given the chance and sometimes, making decisions based on fear. In his case, the fear of losing a child. He could never hate his mother, although he would have liked the chance to know his father. But it was all said and done. Not worth losing his mother over. His life was set on a path, and he was not about to change now.

He didn’t know how he felt about his father and had no idea of what to think of this strange, Boston bred brother. Maybe he would look them up one day. If he was received well, he might stick around long enough to get to know then. As long as he was able to stay in one set place, that is. And he also had the worry of wondering if his father knew about Madrid. And if he knew, did he approve. The thought was doubtful. What respectful man in his own right, would want to lay claim to a dreaded, deadly gunfighter as his son? Johnny shook the thought off. Best to say the hell with them and ride away. He wasn’t about to change for anyone. And it was time to push his thoughts aside and get his mind on maters at hand.

Mounting Spitfire, he forded the shallow fork of the river and followed the rocky path south. Even so, it was easy to follow their trail. A broken twig here, hoof print there where the gravel slid aside. A grassy area trampled down where they stopped to rest and water their horses.

Johnny’s senses reeled and Spitfire’s hackles raised. The horse nickered softly and stepped to the side, until Johnny’s calming hand brought him under control. “There, amigo. You’re with me. Ever know anyone to get the better of me?” He laughed, his eyes scanning the mountainside.

Spitfire tossed his head to the side and walked on.

“I ain’t gonna let anything happen to ya.”

Spitfire tossed his mane.

“Or me either,” Johnny chuckled. “We’re just gonna h ave us some fun.

Spitfire snorted and bobbed his head.

“Ever see a cat worry a mouse?” Johnny asked. “He gets the little sucker in its claws. Bats it back and forth, then goes in for the kill. Don’t want it over too quick, ya know?”

Spitfire bobbed his head in time with his gait.

Johnny chuckled. “Then he goes in for the kill. That’s what I aim to do. Mess with them, get them in my claws and worry them till they’re so damned scared, they shit themselves. Then I’ll go in for the kill. Skinner is mine. Val is good, but I’m better. Ain’t gonna let that bastard take another friend from me.”

Spitfire tossed his mane.

“Then I’ll give Val the chance to hook up, and together, we’ll take them Gentrys down. Ain’t gonna be pretty amigo, but will be deserved.”

Spitfire stepped a little more lively, bearing Johnny closer to their prey. Three miles further down the trail, Johnny’s skin crawled and he dismounted, leading Spitfire to cover behind a dense growth of brush. “Hang tight, amigo.”

Spitfire blended into the landscape and froze. Johnny skirted the boundary, gun in hand and wary eyes dancing about. Stirred up, a clutch of quail burst from the treeline. Johnny tensed, a trickle of sweat running down the side of his face. Birds fell silent, even the ever present drone of insects in the air, silenced. He broke through the forest and into a clearing. Walking to the abandoned campfire, he felt the ashes. Still warm. Only a few hours ahead. They had been here. He could smell them. Their stench stained the land. Brushing his hands on the back of his pants, he went back to Spitfire and headed down the trail.

“I need to be on the move, amigo. Need to feel the gun in my hand and wind at my back. Wonder how the old man, or should I say my father, would feel about that,” Johnny said with a slight sneer to his voice. “Not a good way for the son of the patron, to be. No sir, the son of a patron is supposed to toe the line. Spit and polish, jump at the old man’s tune. Wonder what tune he would have sung. Might never know. It’s too late for us, you know? He might still want the little boy he lost all those years ago, but he might not want Madrid in his place. And I won’t change. Won’t ever stop being Madrid. Kept me alive, and is helping me set a wrong to right, now. Maybe I should pin a star to my chest.”

Johnny laughed, then fell silent. More than once, Sam stated that he would make a fine lawman. Johnny always brushed the remark aside, but in retrospect, he was carrying out the lawman’s duties in very much the same fashion. Only this time, he would have hung up his badge. He never brought anyone to formal justice before, but had tried. They’re the ones who called the dance. Gave him no other choice but to comply. This time, the dance belonged to him. He would start it, and he would finish it. No one else. His resolve strengthened, Johnny rode for another hour, pulling up to a small hamlet hidden beyond the valley. He made camp nestled in a large outcropping of rocks, hidden from plain sight, with a skinned rabbit roasting over the spit and a clear flowing creek by his side.

***

Leaning against his saddle, flickering shadows dancing across his face, Clint tossed a stick into the fire. “Hey Val.”

“Hmmm.” Hat pulled down low, eyes heavy with sleep, Val was too tired to make his mouth move.

“You think he’ll come back?”

“Wha?” he groaned.

“Johnny. Think he’ll ever come back?” Val groaned, but Clint kicked at his foot. “I’m serious. Never been more worried about him. He’s gone off before, but this is different. This time, I wonder if he’ll come back.”

Val stirred and attempted to roll over, but his body refused to budge. “Dunno.”

“Come on, Val. You’ve ridden with him longer than me. Never seen him like this.”

“You wanna go to sleep?”

“Can’t. Been thinking.”

“Turn the thinker off and get some sleep. What am I, your mamby pamby nursemaid? Gonna have to rock ya and tell ya a story?”

Clint frowned and laid back, arms crossed over his chest. “Didn’t ask for that. No need to be getting all huffy.”

“Ain’t huffy. Am tired.”

“I am too, but worry hit.”

Val moaned and with one finger, tipped his hat up from his eyes. He peered sideways. “Don’t rightly know what ta say. Sure I knowed him longer, but never seen him like this. Should have expected him ta go riding off alone after them Gentrys, that’s the way Johnny works sometimes. Probably figgers it’s a one man job. Or one for an army. And he don’t put much stock in armies. But never knowed him to ride off without saying a word to his mama. Would slip away from me, not wanting to get me in on things, but wouldn’t leave without saying anything to her.”

“That’s what has me scared.”

Val pushed the hat lower, covering his eyes once again. “Wish I knew how to answer ya, but don’t. Guess this is one of them times we gotta let things play out.”

“Think he’ll go to his father?”

“Wouldn’t have in the past. Had his chances before, been in California lots a times, but never looked the old man up. Was too pissed. Always said he’d put a bullet in the old buzzard for throwing them out.”

“But he didn’t throw them out,” Clint said softly.

“Well tell me sumthin I don’t know,” Val groused, fatigue giving his voice a whiny tone best fitting a toddler. “Now will ya go to sleep?”

Clint lay back with a huff, his arms crossed over his head, and stared up at the night sky. He wondered how Val could sleep. And worried for his friend.

***

Johnny rode further into the dense forest, senses on high alert, the hair prickling on the back of his neck. Moss grew thick at the base of the trees, what little sunlight filtered through the dense web of leaves, failed to dry the moist, damp ground. The dank smell of earth and rotted foliage filled the air. A hawk screeched overhead and a titmouse scurried into its den. Still, something wasn’t right.

Johnny reined Spitfire to the side, laying a gentle, calming hand on his muzzle. “Whoa boy, you know something is up. I feel it too. Something’s here.” He slid his Winchester from its sheath and pumped a round into the chamber. “Locked and loaded.”

Johnny slung the rifle over his shoulder and walked toward a pine tree, its massive branches seeming to touch the sky. So did the claw marks that tore up the side. A chill ran down his spine. Black bear territory. And one was close. Very close. He scanned the forest floor, his eyes finally coming to rest on a thick growth of brush.

“Bear wallow,” he said, studying the trampled ground. “Black bear. Deadly as a grizzly. Bigger, even. We’re in his home, boy. Come on, best to stay alert and get on out of here. Not gonna be quiet, either. This time, quiet could get you killed. Don’t want to come on them and spook them. Especially a mama and her cubs. They hear you, they usually scatter. Don’t go hunting man for sport. Mostly get us when we sneak up on ’em. Like me, them bears don’t like to be startled. Or surprised. Nope, we don’t like our territory invaded.

“Got a ten dollar horse and a forty dollar saddle,” Johnny sang as he nudged Spitfire back down the trail.

The forest grew still. Birds fell silent and a trickle of sweat ran down the side of Johnny’s face. He had ridden half the day without incident. Bears ran rampant, but if left alone, they left you alone. Only stupid people got themselves killed, Johnny thought. Respect the woods, they respect you.

Spitfire sidestepped and gave a nervous nicker. Johnny leaned over, calming his mount. “I feel it to. You and me, we make a good pair. Over that ridge.”

Johnny spurned Spitfire on and topped the ridge. Hearing a moan, he looked to the ground below. Nudging Spitfire forward, he rode into the hollow. The moan grew louder, the acrid scent of blood in the air causing Spitfire to spook.

“Whoa fella, don’t blame ya. Makes me skittish, to. Let’s go see.”

Rifle slung over his shoulder, Johnny approached. Reaching the base of the hill, he rounded a dense thicket of evergreen pine trees and froze. Laying before him, was a massive, heavy man shrouded in a buffalo coat, and covered in blood. Recognition set in and Johnny slid off Spitfire. The man’s eyes grew large. Johnny placed the muzzle of his rifle in the crook of his neck.

“Go ‘head, please,” the man pleaded.

“Done got yerself skinned, didn’t ya?” Johnny sneered, pulling the rifle away. “Can’t say I’m not disappointed. I wanted to be the one to do the job.”

Skinner’s eyes grew dull as pain wracked through his body. “Ya never been one to stand up to me, Madrid,” he stammered, his voice failing.

Johnny knelt next alongside. Skinner deserved the worst death possible. At the very least, Johnny wanted to see him swing at the end of a rope. But he had been ready for another dance, if Skinner chose. Johnny was sorry they wouldn’t get the chance, for if the man had been in his right state, a fight to the death would have been inevitable. Instead, the putrid sack of torn flesh and bone lay on the ground, pleading for Johnny to put an end to his misery.

“Where your friends?” Johnny snapped. Skinner groaned. Johnny stood and pressed the heel of his boot against the bone protruding from the man’s shoulder. Johnny ignored his screams. “You think that bear was bad? Where your friends?”

“Done gone,” Skinner fought to choke out. “Took it all. Didn’t even leave my gun so’s I could end it all.”

“No worry, they won’t get far. Not from me.” Johnny laughed and removed his foot.

Skinner fell back against the damp ground, his entire body shuddering with deep shock and unthinkable agony. Johnny poked the corner of his robe back with his rifle. He was covered with dirt and debris, buried in a shallow grave. The man was torn from the shoulder down to his abdomen. Claw marks left skin hanging in tattered shreds. His left ear was missing and scalp hung crookedly over the side of his head. His shoulder was shattered and his left arm was all but chewed off. The wounds were fresh. The bear was near. Johnny could feel its eyes on the back of his neck. Mouse and cat. Hunter and prey. And Johnny was the intruder.

He turned to leave. Skinner’s agonized cry rendered through the air. “Don’t leave me! It’ll come back. Done left me here, covered me so’s I’d keep.”

“You’re his dinner,” Johnny smirked. “Bears bury their hunt.”

“I ain’t no hunt,” Skinner screamed, his voice shrill and thready.

Johnny stared down. “You ain’t human, either. Guess you know what it feels like to be skinned. Fitting. Just sorry I wasn’t the one to do it.”

Again Johnny turned to leave. Skinner’s cries drew him back. The life was ebbing from the man, but the bear was close. A shred of humanity struck and Johnny lifted the rifle. Skinner deserved the worst he could get, but Johnny figured the man had already gotten that. Fodder for the bear. He couldn’t think of anything worse than being mauled and buried, half alive, waiting for the bear to return and finish the job.

“Ain’t nuthin I can do for ya,” Johnny said, staring down. He took aim and Skinner nodded. The shot reverberated through the air, stilling Skinner’s screams. Rendering the forest silent. “Ain’t gonna bury you, either.”

Johnny mounted Spitfire and rode in the direction of Split Creek. One more night on the trail, and he would reach his destination. And as he thought all along, Val wouldn’t be far behind.

***

Val’s gut clenched. He bent over and poked at the remains hidden in a shallow grave. Pulling the buffalo robe back, bile rose. “Skinner.”

“What the hell happened to him?” Clint whistled through his teeth. Kneeling next to Val, he pushed his hat back and stared.

“Bear.”

Clint’s eyes flashed with fear. “Knew there was one about, don’t like them creatures. Not one bit. Let’s get outta here, place got me spooked. Don’t have a hankering to tangle with one.”

“Don’t think he did, either,” Val said. “Lookee here.” He pointed to what was left of Skinner’s head.

Clint craned his neck. “Ain’t much to see.”

“To most folk, yeah. But to me and Johnny, it’s plain. Bullet. Johnny done put the sorry son of a bitch out of his misery.”

Clint’s eyes widened with surprise. “You mean? Could have been the Gentrys.”

Val shook his head. “Not likely. Putting this sorry son bastard down would have been humane. Gentrys ain’t humane.” He stood and stretched. “And I ain’t gonna bury him either.”

Clint tried not to smile, but failed and kicked at the booted foot. “Looks like the bear’s been gnawing at him.”

“Good.” Val smashed the hat on his head and strode for his horse.

***

Johnny sat nursing a bottle of tequila. Split Creek wasn’t much to look at, but it had all the amenities he needed. A drink, hot meal, warm female body in his bed if he was in the mood, and shelter for Spitfire. The bartender delivered a plate of tamales, a surprise for such a small, rundown town. Until he saw the cook. The robust, Mexican woman stuck her head out the door and gave him a wink, wanting to see who ordered their dinner extra spicy. Johnny tipped his hat and winked back. She blushed and fled into the kitchen. A minute later, a bowl of rice and beans was delivered. On the house.

Johnny chuckled and shook his head. Even when he didn’t try, women flocked his way. He ate with abandon, long days on the trail leaving him famished. Johnny was able to live off the land, find food and shelter in the wild, with nothing more than a knife and piece of flint tucked in his pocket, but he did like the comforts of home. No matter where that home led. From his mother’s cabin, the back of a seedy saloon, bed in a rundown hotel, or a pile of hay in a livery, wherever he laid his head, was home.

He spotted the Gentry brothers that morning, but made no attempt to approach them. Blend into your surroundings, appear to care about nobody’s business but your own, you learned a lot. Johnny had seen the Gentrys around before. They never had a problem, never bothered one another, so his presence drew no undue attention.

He finished his meal and sat back with a shot of tequila in his coffee, as soon as the plates were cleared. Colt and Avery Gentry sauntered over, a bottle of whiskey tucked under their arms, and sat at the table opposite.

“Madrid.” Cole Gentry, the older of the two, kicked back a chair and sat down.

His face impassive and eyes appearing dull and bored, Johnny raised his glass. “Gentry.”

Avery downed a shot. “Heard ya got yerself killed down Mexico way.”

A sly smile stretched across Johnny’s face. “Don’t believe everything you hear.”

“Got that right,” Cole snickered. “Hey Madrid, you looking for some action?”

“Could be,” Johnny said with a drawl. “What ya got in mind?”

“Hear tell of some big doings in California,” Cole answered.

Johnny scoffed. “Always something cooking there.”

“Place called Morro Coyo,” Avery said.

It took every ounce of his self control not to jump out of the chair. Cool and in control. The only thing Madrid would allow. He downed a shot. “Morro Coyo, huh?”

“Been there before?” Avery asked.

“Once or twice,” Johnny answered.

“Could cut you in,” Cole said.

“Could use some cash,” Johnny said, swirling the drink in his glass.

“We all can,” Avery shouted, his raucous laughter echoing throughout the room.

“So, you gonna tell me what has you in a pucker?” Johnny asked.

Cole glanced around the room and dragged his chair over to Johnny’s table. Johnny sat back, elbows resting on the arms of his chair, fingers entwined.

“We’re hooking up with Emmett Slade and his gang,” Cole said.

“Slade, huh?”

“Yeah, he’s down from Montana,” Cole said.

“Didn’t know he went that far north,” Johnny said.

“Does when things get too hot around here,” Avery laughed. “Hides out in them Badlands.”

“Badlands,” Johnny said softly. “Yeah, a man could get lost there, all right.”

“You outta come up with us one day,” Cole said. “Know you’re not one for going too far north, but what the hell. Never know until you try. Lots of ways to make a buck, you know what I mean?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Johnny snickered. “Might just do that one of these days. But my horse, he’s mighty tired. Been on the trail for a while now. Think I’ll stick around these parts.”

Cole made a motion to nudge Johnny with his elbow, only to stare down the gleaming end of Johnny’s colt. Chairs scraped across the floor, some falling as everyone took cover. Cole swallowed the bile rising in his throat and held his hands up. “Damn hell, Madrid. Forgot just how fast you were. I ain’t no gunhawk. Yer a might touchy.”

As fast as he drew, Johnny replaced the gun in his holster. Avery snapped his mouth shut. Madrid was definitely someone neither wanted to piss off.

Johnny downed another shot. “Just keep your hands to yourself and there won’t be any problems.”

“Sure, Madrid. No problem,” Cole said, making an unconscious motion to move back. “So, you gonna hook up with Emmett, or what?”

Johnny rose and tossed a bill on the table. One steely edged look, and both brothers knew not to pilfer the money. “I’ll think about it.”

“We’re leaving in the morning. How will we know?”

Johnny slapped his hat on his head and adjusted his rig. “When I get there.”

***

If Johnny had half a brain left in his addled head, he would turn tail and run back to Texas. No one would think any less of him, but Madrid did not run. Brainless jackass that he was, he saw things through to the end. And this end was leading him straight to Morro Coyo. Right into his father’s hands. Johnny shuddered. He still had not reached the point in his mind where he thought of his father as welcoming. The man might not have kicked him out, but too many years have passed. Too much time between what could have been a father/son relationship. He wondered if it was even possible.

Murdoch Lancer had obviously moved on with his life. Johnny had seen that the few times he journeyed to Morro Coyo. He even saw the great man himself. Hung around the shadows watching the mighty giant picking up supplies. Johnny’s eyes almost bugged out of his head at the sight. The man was massive. For the first time, he wondered if his strange brother took after the old man. Johnny was glad he didn’t; his arms would be too long and gangly to draw his gun. Nope, Johnny was happy with things the way they were.

He sat in the cantina, sated from a large breakfast of huevos rancheros, soft, warm tortillas and spicy sausages. Nursing a cup of coffee, he kicked back and watched the Gentrys ride off. Catching the deadly calm in his eyes, the waiter dropped the tray he was carrying, tripped when he bent to retrieve it, then settled for kicking it under a table and fleeing to the kitchen. Johnny didn’t know whether to laugh or feel saddened. But the tall, scruffy figure walking through the door, brought on a chuckle.

Val strode across the room and slapped Johnny on the side of the head with his hat. The waiter swallowed a plug of tobacco and ran out the back, retching. “Ya sure got a way with folk,” Val groused.

“Took you long enough,” Johnny laughed lightly. “Losing your touch?”

“Ain’t losing nuthin.” Val slung a leg over the back of a chair and swiped Johnny’s coffee.

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “You are if you let him tag alone,” he said, crooking a finger toward Clint.

Val shrugged. “Had no choice. He stumbled into my camp.”

Johnny shook his head. “You seem to have a habit of stumbling into folks’ camps.”

“What can I say, it’s what I do best.” Clint flashed a cocky grin and snagged a chair from a nearby table.

“Make yourself at home,” Johnny grumbled.

Clint’s grin grew wider. “Why, thank you.”

Johnny’s glare had no effect on his friend. He tried guilt. “Thought I left you behind to take care of things.”

“If you mean to watch out for your mother, she’s fine. Is with Sam and Lana,” Clint answered.

Johnny was the one stricken with guilt. “Didn’t mean to ride off without a word.”

“She knows that,” Clint said softly. “Knows you’re hurting and said all she wants is for you to find your way.”

A soft smile broke out. “She always was too concerned with me.”

“Always will be,” Clint said. “But are you all right? Really?”

Johnny grew quiet. “Yeah, I am.”

“Good. ‘Nuf said.” Clint nodded and poured a steaming mug of coffee from the pot carried over by a waitress. The waiter, still indisposed.

“You might be all right and fine with this sidewinder, but I gotta have my say,” Val interrupted in his usual gruff manner. Staring, his mustache twitched.

“Now Val, I wasn’t leaving you out of the loop. Just had my own agenda,” Johnny said, his smile falling flat.

“Yer own agenda, huh,” Val grumbled.

“Wasn’t going to take you down when I went after Skinner.”

“Was my uncle.”

“I’m here, ain’t I?” Johnny’s eyes never wavered.

“Ahh hell, I’m hungry,” Val said, snapping for the waitress.

“While you’re stuffing your gullet, want to hear of my talk with the Gentrys?”

Val snorted coffee up his nose.

Johnny grinned. “Thought that’d get your attention. How do you feel about going to Morro Coyo?”

Val set the coffee down, his stare just as intense. “Talk.”

Clint sat back. “Shit.”

Johnny glanced between his friends. “Look, this is turning out to be more than I thought when I first set out.” He faced Val. “First of all, like I said, I never meant to leave you out. I know Skinner. Would have been close, the winner would have come out hurting, but I felt I had a better chance.”

Val sighed and scrubbed at his face. “Yer better with a knife than I am. I’m a good scrapper, but yer right.”

“Only reason I struck out on my own. Can’t blame you both if you think I ran off not thinking straight, timing seemed to make it look that way, but I was set to go off before I talked with Mama.” Johnny shuddered and a slight, pale tinge set in. He took a deep breath. “I’m all right now. Did a lot of thinking, cleared my head, and talked some with Pete.”

“Thought so. Sorry we missed the old codger,” Val snickered.

“He would have liked to see you, but set out to lay his traps,” Johnny said.

“Figgered he did.”

“Was close, Val,” Johnny said, his tone softening.

Clint shuddered and looked away. “What happened, Johnny?”

“Came across the camp of an old fella just a few miles from Pete’s place.”

This time, Val’s face turned pale and Clint almost gagged on his coffee.

“Gentrys and Skinner got him,” Johnny said, his tone so low, both barely heard him. “But I did right by the old man. Then set out after ’em. Seems Skinner let his guard down, forgot the rules of the wilds. Got what he deserved.”

“Saw the bear snacked on him,” Clint said, a small smile toying at the corners of his mouth.

“Fitting,” Johnny said. “Had to put him out of his misery. Didn’t deserve it, but couldn’t leave any man like that. Never did, and never would.”

“Glad that old bear got him, saved us all a lot of trouble,” Val said, eyes locking with Johnny. “So, what about them Gentrys?”

“Well, we could go after them, or fry some bigger fish. They’re but half a day ahead of us, won’t be hard, but something’s cooking.”

“Talk,” Val said, shoveling a forkful of eggs in his mouth.

“Seems there’s this gold shipment going through Morro Coyo next month. Emmett Slade is planning on hitting it. Gentrys are throwing in,” Johnny explained.

Clint’s eyes darted from Val to Johnny as he ate.

Johnny faced his friend. “Look, I don’t want to drag you into this. Val and I, we’re used to this sort of thing.”

Clint swallowed and swiped his arm across his mouth. “Ain’t no gunslinger, but am one hell of a fighter.”

“Yeah, you can hold your own when you have to,” Johnny said. “You sure?”

Clint nodded. “Sure as I’ll ever be. Won’t leave you two to your own.”

“Well then, what do you say we give our horses a day to rest, supply up, and head out the day after tomorrow?” Johnny asked.

Val scraped his plate clean. “Sounds like a plan. Gentrys expecting you?”

“Told them they’ll know my decision when I show up.”

“I take it we’ll show up, and they won’t like the answer,” Val said, draining the remainder of his coffee.

“Gonna be the surprise of their life. Emmett too. Law hasn’t been able to touch him. He’s been tearing up the southwest, heard tell around town he’s wanted for killing a lawman in Abilene and hid out in Montana for a while.”

“Sounds like it’s time to take the son of a bitch down.” Val rose from the table and slapped the hat on his head. “Don’t know about you, but I need a bath.”

“’Bout time you realized that, thought it was the spicy salsa making my eyes water,” Johnny laughed.

Glowering at his friend, Val stalked from the room, Clint dogging his heels.

***

Saddle weary and exhausted, the trio rode into Morro Coyo. Hat shielding his eyes, Johnny rode down the center of the street, flanked by Val and Clint. The blacksmith stopped mid-swing, his mouth dropping as he gawked. The livery owner slipped back inside, all the while hoping Madrid would pass by.

Johnny reined Spitfire to the right and rode into the building. “Got room?’

“Yes sir,” The bewhiskered man stammered. “Got three down back to the right.”

The accommodations were clean, fresh hay and water in the stalls. Well cared for, horses milled about the corral, basking in the heat of the afternoon sun.

Johnny nodded and flipped over a coin. “We’ll tend our own mounts.”

The owner snagged the money and bid a hasty retreat.

“Like I said, ya sure got a way with folk,” Val snickered.

Johnny glared and Clint chuckled. He cleared his throat and changed his tune. “Man, I”m starved. Stomach done gnawed away half my back bone.”

“Can use a steak myself,” Johnny said, slapping Clint across the stomach. “But this is where we part ways.”

Clint’s face fell and he spun around. “What do you mean this is where we part ways? I didn’t come all this way to be left outta things.”

“That’s the way it is,” Johnny shrugged. Softening, he turned to his friend. “Look, I’m not gonna leave you out of things. Stick close, but pretend you don’t know me. For now.”

“What fer?” Clint whined.

Johnny sighed and hung his head. “What am I getting into, here?” He raised his head and turned to his friend. “I don’t want the Gentrys to see us together. Not yet, anyway. I’m gonna approach them in my own time, don’t want to scare them off, thinking I’m ganging up on them.”

“But we are,” Clint sputtered.

Johnny shook his head. “I know we are, but they don’t know that, now do they?” he asked, slapping Clint on the back.

Understanding dawned and Clint’s face brightened. “Oh, now I see it. You want to catch them by surprise. Ambush them.”

“Not in that sense, but yeah. When the time comes, I’ll be needing ya. But for now, want them to think I’m alone.”

“So I can’t talk to ya?”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed and took on a teasing glint. “You can always call me out.”

Clint paled and backed away. “No way, no how. Uh uh, good thing I know we’re friends and you don’t mean it. But it still scares the jeepers outta me. Don’t know why them lame brained jackasses even think they can take you on.”

Johnny laughed and clapped Clint across the back. “That’s because they’re lame brained jackasses. Don’t got the brains given a piss ant. Now, we on?”

“I stick with Val?” Clint asked.

Johnny pulled out a wad of bills. “Yeah, if’n he’ll have ya.” Val glared and Johnny ignored his friend. “Here, get yourselves some dinner, and maybe a card game or two. A bath wouldn’t hurt, either.”

Clint snagged the money. “You don’t smell none too good, yerself.” He shoved the bills inside his pocket.

Johnny slung his saddlebags over his shoulder. “Gonna go get cleaned up. Why don’t you two get a drink, and go to the bathhouse later?”

“Why, ya shy?” Clint teased, laughing at his own sordid joke, even though Johnny glared and Val slapped his forehead in frustration.

“No, I don’t want to be caught jawing with you two. You can’t keep yer yap shut to begin with. Don’t need anyone hearing us talking. Just do what I say,” he said, about ready to drop kick his friend across the dusty street. “And if you see the Gentrys . . .”

“I know, I know,” Clint grumbled. “Keep my yap shut. Pretend I don’t know nuthin.”

“Not a far stretch,” Johnny chuckled. “But you get the jist of it. Oh, and by the way, you get a notion to part ways, you can always snag a job at old man Lancer’s ranch. Just head due south ’bout ten miles, you can’t miss it.”

Clint puffed his chest out. “I just might.”

“Lop eared jackass,” Val grumbled, and shoved Clint out the door.

Johnny stood just inside the entrance, studying the lay of the town. Heavy wagons loaded with bales of barbed wire, lumbered by. Johnny shuddered, he hated the stuff. Sam refused to use the deadly wire, preferring instead to use his own sweat and muscle to lay miles of split rail fencing. Gave man and beast a chance, something to see. Not an almost invisible trap to get snared in, torn to shreds and unable to get free. Already, he saw the difference between the two places, and preferred Texas. He had no use for a place that fenced in the land with sharp, barbed wire. A lazy way out, in his opinion.

“Figures the old man would use that,” Johnny muttered, having spotted long fence lines of wire on one of his many trips up north.

A wagon pulled in front of the feed ‘n grain, and stopped. A tall, slim blond climbed down, brushing the dust from his pants. The owner came out, and Johnny’s heart almost stopped.

“I was expecting your father, Mr. Lancer,” a middle aged man said, extending his hand.

“Morning Mr. Henderson.”

“Scott, how many times do I have to tell you to call me Gabe?” the friendly faced man asked, guiding Scott to the door. “We’re not used to such fine bred manners out here.”

“Well then, I’ll leave my manners at the door, Gabe. Murdoch would have come himself, but got tied up at the ranch.”

“Yep, old Murdoch always seems to get lost in the thick of things. Come on in, I have your order ready. All I need for you to do is sign, and I’ll have your receipt. Know how your father loves his receipts.”

“He’d send me back into town if I forgot,” Scott chuckled.

Scott disappeared inside the building and Johnny walked from the livery. Leaning against a post at the end of the block, he watched as Scott carried out sack after heavy sack of grain. For an eastern bred dandy, he sure knew how to use his muscles. Didn’t seem to be afraid of hard work, either.

Gabe met Scott at the wagon, and handed over a sheet of paper. “Here you go, and give your father my regards.”

“Will do,” Scott said, tucking the receipt in his pocket. “Just let me snag that last sack, and I’ll get out of your way.”

Gabe nodded and disappeared inside, with Scott close behind. Johnny walked over to the door, waiting for Scott to come back out. Lumbering under the strain of a heavy sack, Scott appeared and Johnny took a step forward, intentionally bumping his brother with his shoulder. Scott grunted and staggered to the side, dropping the heavy bundle.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t see you. Please excuse me,” Scott said as he struggled to his feet.

Johnny glared, turning a pair of ice cold, deadly blue eyes on his brother. “You always in the habit of shoving men around?”

“I said I was sorry,” Scott said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

He turned to leave and Johnny grabbed his arm in a vice grip. “I asked you a question.”

Activities ground to a halt. Scott’s eyes fell to the low slung gun on Johnny’s hip. “I said I was sorry. And in answer to your question, no, I’m not in the habit of running people down. It was a simple mistake. I didn’t see you and again apologize. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”

Johnny planted himself in front of Scott. “You’ll leave when I say you can.”

Scott’s back stiffened and he inhaled deeply, his military bearing strong and unwavering. He faced his enemy, and although he didn’t wear a gun, refused to back down. Scott never backed down from a fight, and this strange land he had lived in the past six months, was fraught with challenges. Very different from the boring, stodgy life he led back in Boston. His grandfather said it was a mistake to come west, that his father never wanted him, blamed him for his mother’s death, but as time unraveled, so did the older man’s lies.

Scott found a new home, and hope for a fulfilling future. One free of the constraints and frills of a stuffy society that dragged him down with boredom. Scott needed more; he was more like his father than his grandfather was willing to admit, and ready to tackle life headlong. He stood, staring into the icy, hard eyes of the gunfighter.

“I’ll leave when I want. No one says any different.”

Johnny’s lips curled in a slight smile, part smirk, part menacing. “Seems we’re at some sort of crossroad here. You ain’t been here long, have ya. Don’t even wear a gun.”

People stopped and stared, the attention spurning Johnny on. From the corner of his eyes, he caught sight of the Gentrys standing outside the saloon. Val and Clint sauntered up the sidewalk and stopped dead. Johnny’s heart skipped a beat when Val caught sight of him, but to the man’s credit, he hid his emotions as well as Johnny, himself.

“Do I need one?” Scott asked, his voice low and firm.

Johnny took a step forward. Scott’s fists clenched. “Tell you what, why don’t we call it square for now,” Johnny said, swearing he heard an audible sigh of relief rumble through the town. “But remember, I’m not always this forgiving. Should it happen again, we dance.”

He patted the butt of his colt and sauntered across the street. Tipping his hat at the ladies, reveling in their unabashed smiles and the ire of their husbands pulling them along.

***

Murdoch slammed his fist on the desk and stared at his son, his anger barely under control. “Johnny Madrid?”

Scott swallowed convulsively. “Yes, sir.”

“And I hope you had the brains to walk away?”

Scott squared his shoulders. “I never walked away from a fight before and don’t intend to start now.”

Murdoch sat down, his voice and anger softening. “Scott, you’re new to the west and don’t know our ways.”

“And who’s fault is that?” Scott snapped. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any disrespect.”

“That’s behind us. Or I thought it was,” Murdoch said.

Scott sat in a chair placed in front of his father’s massive, oak desk. “We’ve discussed this. The past is in the past.” Damn, if the old man wasn’t as abrasive as his grandfather. Stubborn, determined, and driven. No wonder they fought so vehemently over him. Neither had an inch of give.

“Look Scott, I’m sorry I came down on you so hard. Things are different out here. Wild and untamed. We make our own law, and unless you know how things work, you’ll never survive. This is a far cry from Boston.”

“I realize that, sir.”

Murdoch rose and rounded the desk. “Do you? Do you really? Because if you don’t . . .”

“I do.”

Murdoch poured another drink and sat back down. I don’t like this, Scott.”

“Madrid?”

“Among other things,” Murdoch sighed. “I don’t like gunslingers. They bring an undesirable element to a town.”

Scott bristled. “I wasn’t too impressed, either. He was rather arrogant and rude.”

Murdoch snorted and downed another shot. “That’s an understatement. He’s a gunslinger, Scott. They’re rude because they like to goad people into fights.”

“You’re kidding?”

“That’s how they work. And Madrid is a top gun. One of the fastest I’ve ever seen,” Murdoch said.”

“Oh?” Scott asked, cocking his eyebrow.

Murdoch leaned back and sipped his drink. “It was about a year ago. I was in Texas for a convention with the Cattleman’s Association. Henry Peters and I made a side trip to El Paso to check out some breeding stock.

“There was a gunfight in the street. Madrid stood facing two men. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I felt him. He was deadly. Don’t know why those men ever thought they could face him, but they were dead before they could blink.”

Scott’s face turned pale. “In cold blood?”

“To you and me, yes. But these men live by a different code.”

Scott downed his drink and slammed the glass down on the desk. “Well, it’s a good thing I walked away, then.”

Murdoch heaved a sigh of relief. “Stay clear of Madrid, son. He’s not a man to play around with.”

“Why do you think he’s here? I haven’t been here long, but never heard of him coming around.”

“It’s not his usual stomping grounds,” Murdoch answered. “He mostly roams the border towns down around Texas. Heard he got in trouble with the rurales in Mexico. Rumor had it, he was killed.”

“Obviously not,” Scott sneered.

“So it seems.”

“Are you worried about the gold shipment?”

Murdoch took a deep breath and scrubbed at his eyes. “I hope not. If there’s one thing I’m certain of, Madrid isn’t a thief. At least from what I’ve heard. He has a fearsome reputation, but I’ve never heard of him walking on the wrong side of the law.”

Scott snickered. “Bully for him.”

Murdoch frowned. “He’s still a man to be feared.”

Scott stared. “Point taken.”

***

Johnny groomed Spitfire and filled the bin with grain. Rinsing out a wooden bucket, he carried fresh water into the stall. “Here you go, amigo.”

Spitfire nickered and nibbled at his hair. Johnny chuckled and laid his face against the horse’s soft mane. Sometimes he drew more comfort from his horse, than he did from people. “Will you get a load of me, amigo? I meet my brother for the first time, and goad him into a fight. Thought he’d back right down, but he sure surprised me. Dandy sure has guts.”

Spitfire snorted and swatted Johnny with his tail.

Johnny laughed and swatted the horse lightly on the flank. “You’re an opinionated fella.”

Spitfire turned and nipped the hat from Johnny’s head.

Johnny glared, picked his hat off the ground and took a stance. “Them’s fighting words. Seems you started this dance.”

Spitfire whinnied, lifted his tail, and dumped a fresh load of apples.

Johnny groaned and rubbed at his eyes. “And ended it.” He grabbed a pitchfork and mucked the stall. He returned a few minutes later. “Now that we’ve got that settled, I’m gonna get a lay of the land.”

Johnny adjusted his rig, pulled his hat down low and walked out into the street. The familiar clang of iron against steel from the blacksmith’s shop, filled the air. Children ran laughing, tussling over a can kicked down the street. Women gathered in front of the dress shop, and a steady stream of men frequented the feed store and saloon. Shots rang out and Johnny’s hand immediately went to his gun. He stared down the street, drawn to the cries of an elderly Mexican gentleman.

“Let’s see how light you are on your feet,” a yellow toothed, greasy-haired man cried out.

Two of his companions, a tall, skinny fellow dressed in stained buckskin, a feather stuck in the back of his hat, and a shorter, obese man, buttons straining to hold his shirt together, egged greasy hair on. The older man trembled, a stream of sweat running down the side of his face. Eyes filled with fear darted around, seeking escape.

Buckskin smacked greasy hair in the side. “Go on, Lampy. Shoot his toes off.”

“Yeah, like that fella you done in New Mexico,” fat man laughed, shooting a putrid stream of tobacco juice on the ground.

The older man paled and Lampy lowered his gun. “Your dancing days are over, old man.”

“And yours just started.” Before Lampy could pull the trigger, Johnny stepped before the older gentleman and drew.

Lampy’s jaw dropped, and the gun lowered. Fat man’s hand twitched, and Johnny turned the gun on him. “You boys got bad manners.”

“You gonna teach us some new ones?” Lampy asked.

Johnny smirked. “Why don’t you fellas put your guns away.”

“You gonna make us?” fat man sneered.

The grin slid off Johnny’s face and his eyes turned dark and deadly. The mask firmly in place. “Your dance.”

A hush fell over the town. Women and children disappeared. Men ducked into storefronts for cover, while Val and Clint took a stance to the right of Johnny. Far enough not to draw suspicion, but close enough to intervene, if need be.

Murdoch rode in from the far end of town and froze. He witnessed the unprovoked attack on the elderly man, but was too far off to help. Before he could act, Madrid stepped in front of the trembling, older man and blocked him with his body. Why Madrid would even bother, stunned Murdoch. The last thing he expected was for the gunslinger to act on behalf of the older man. Why did he even care?

Murdoch dismounted and watched. Johnny replaced his gun and stood stock still. Waiting for a sign. One nervous twitch that they were stupid enough to take him on. He had already given them a chance. Now it was time for them to back down, or dance.

“We’re gonna take you down, boy,” Lampy hissed through rotted, clenched teeth.

“Not likely.” Johnny’s tone was flat and menacing, those two words sending a chill down Murdoch’s spine.

Lampy made a move. Johnny drew and dropped him before his fingers curled round the butt of his gun. Johnny rolled to the left, fanning the hammer. Fat man fell with a grunt, the gun half out of his holster, and a bullet drilled between his eyes. Buckskin’s shot went wild when a third bullet slammed into his chest.

The smoke cleared. Three men lay dead and Johnny Madrid walked away. Murdoch realized he had been holding his breath the entire time. He walked over and stared at the bodies, then studied Madrid. The gunslinger had just taken three men down. In defense of an elderly man that never stood a chance. The entire exchange was confusing to Murdoch, who still couldn’t comprehend why someone like Madrid, would even bother. He looked further down the street. The old man limped his way home, unhurt, and singing Johnny Madrid’s praises. Murdoch frowned, watching Madrid stalk into the saloon.

***

Johnny sat at the table and downed the first shot. Val and Clint settled back at a table situated in the far end of the room, studying their friend.

“He don’t look too good,” Clint scowled.

“Not so’s anyone would notice,” Val answered.

“He looks all closed up. Like in town that time.”

“Always is. Killing never did set well with him.”

“Folks won’t believe that,” Clint said.

“Folks are jackasses.”

“You hear the talk. He’s ten feet tall and bites the heads off’n little kids,” Clint smirked.

“He don’t like the taste.” Val frowned, freezing when a tall figure walked through the door.

“What’s wrong?” Clint hissed.

“Don’t go acting stupid or nuthin, but that there is Johnny’s papa.”

“Mur . . .” Clint cried out.

Val clamped down on his wrist. “Told ya not to go acting stupid, and what do ya do? Act stupid. Why don’t ya climb on the damned roof and shout it for every lop-eared jackass to hear?”

“Sorry, just took me by surprise,” Clint said, getting himself under control. “Weren’t expecting it.”

“Why do ya think I told ya not to act stupid? Don’t know why Johnny puts up with ya.”

“Hey, we’re friends,” Clint whined.

“That’s why yer here, ain’t it?”

“What do we do now?” Clint asked.

“We watch.”

“He shouldn’t be alone.”

Val sat back and shot a glance toward the back of the room. “He ain’t. He knows it.”

***

Murdoch shouldered his way through the crowd gathered around the bar. It wasn’t every day a famous gunhawk had a showdown in the street, especially one of Johnny’s caliber, where he took down three men. Murdoch was also disturbed that no one else in town even attempted to come to the older man’s aid. He had no doubt the demented trio would have shot the poor man’s feet off.

If he wasn’t so far away, he would have intervened, but by the time he drew close enough, Madrid stepped in and took the three down. To Murdoch’s surprise, it appeared Madrid even gave the men a chance. Too bad for them they were too stupid to take him up on the offer.

“Probably didn’t know who they were dealing with, “Murdoch muttered to himself.

“Madrid sure took them down,” Sam said, slapping a clean glass on the bar. Pouring Murdoch a shot, he stepped back. “I say good riddance.”

“What?” Murdoch asked, jarred from his thoughts.

Sam nodded to the far end of the room. “Madrid. Strange, ya know?”

“You mean him stepping in like that?” Murdoch asked. He downed a shot and slid the glass across the bar for a refill.

“Yeah, who would’a thought?”

“You never know what drives a man,” Murdoch said.

“Maybe he was hankering for a fight,” Sam said.

“Or feeling the need for a kill,” a drifter pitched in.

“Yeah, a taste for blood,” another shouted.

“Or maybe he went and done what all of you lily livered jackasses were too yella to do,” Val growled. Jumping from his chair, he strode to the bar, Clint dogging his heels.

“Hey, who the hell are you to talk?” the drifter shouted. “I didn’t see you do anything.”

Val’s eyes narrowed. “Yer right there, but only ’cause Madrid is a hell of a lot faster than me. Got there quicker. Didn’t see none of you assholes do a damned thing to help.”

Johnny watched the exchange, a cocky smirk on his face. He sipped at his tequila, a spark of expectant glee in his eyes. Val never could keep his big mouth shut, always providing the release needed. Fingers interlaced, Johnny rocked back and watched the show. “

“Mister, you got a big mouth,” the drifter sneered.

“Ya gonna shut it for me?” Val challenged.

Johnny wasn’t disappointed. The drifter’s fist snaked out, Val ducked, and Clint caught a solid right hook on the chin. Arms wheeling over his head, he crashed backwards onto a table. Rolling from the splintered debris, Clint rose. Chest heaving, head lowered, he charged like a bull, plowing into the drifter’s midsection. Johnny almost expected to see smoke spewing from his nostrils. Clint might not be fast with a gun, but he was one hell of a fighter. One Johnny wouldn’t want to go up against.

A cry of pure rage, Clint drove the drifter halfway across the room and into the wall. Eyes rolling back in his head, the man slid to the floor. Breath coming in short gasps, Clint turned and let loose with a roundhouse punch, taking the drifter’s friend down. He ducked a chair that splintered against the wall and barreled into a third wrangler stepping into the mix.

When enraged, Clint fell back on brute strength, pile driving into his nemesis. The wrangler slid to the floor with a grunt, arms and legs splayed out. Val ducked under a bottle whizzing by. Clint took the man out with a kick to the jaw.

“Thank ya,” Val grinned.

“Don’t mention it,” Clint panted, a wide smile breaking out. He took a blow to the jaw and retaliated with a fist to the stomach. Val dodged a punch to the chin and Clint grabbed the man by the back of the shirt and sent him head first into the bar.

“Yer mighty handy to have around,” Val cried out.

Clint stood, fists clenched and fire in his eyes. He grabbed hold of a fist aimed for Val, flipped the man over and stomped his ribs. “I try.”

“You finished yet?” Val asked, eyes darting about.

“Dunno,” Clint gasped.

Spying the sheriff barreling down the walkway, Val propelled Clint out the back. “You are now.”

Murdoch stepped out from behind the bar. He was getting too old for such nonsense. Johnny stood, pulled his hat down low and shot a glare in Murdoch’s direction. Murdoch froze and his mouth went dry. Johnny sauntered across the room, adjusting his hat. He stalked past Murdoch, a glancing blow with his shoulder, shoving Murdoch aside. Murdoch glared. Silence fell over the room like an icy shroud. Sam dropped a glass and Johnny stared back over his shoulder, flashed an arrogant, cocky grin, and disappeared through the doors.

Sam whistled through clenched teeth. “What do ya make of that?”

“I’m going home,” Murdoch said.

“You do something to piss Madrid off?”

Murdoch glared and stormed out the door. As he rounded the corner, he jumped back. Madrid shot out from the livery and galloped out of town. Mouth set in a firm, irritated line, Murdoch turned his horse toward the road leading out to the ranch.

***

A fire crackled in the hearth. Murdoch sat in a plush, leather chair, his feet propped on an ottoman and quilt draped across his legs. Drink in hand, he stared at the flickering flames. A chill set in and for the life of him, Murdoch couldn’t shake it off.

“You were quiet through dinner,” Scott said, settling down with a snifter of brandy.

“Was a tiring day,” Murdoch sighed.

“Could it have something to do with the shootout in town? Or the brawl?” Scott asked.

“Both,” Murdoch muttered. “I’ll never figure it out.”

“What’s that?” Scott asked, sipping his drink.

“Why someone like Madrid would even bother,” Murdoch said softly.

“You mean why would he step in and save an old man from being shot when no one else would? If you ask me, it’s lucky for us, he did,” Scott stated.

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe he isn’t the monster people make him out to be.”

“He’s a gunslinger, Scott. A man to be avoided at all costs.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Scott said, studying the reflections of the fire in the amber liquid. “Seems to me, the stories might be somewhat overinflated. People like to spin yarns, and you know how stories grow. People tend to lean toward the dramatic side.”

“Don’t forget our talk earlier,” Murdoch snapped, setting his drink down.

“I’m not,” Scott said calmly. “I’m also not going to embrace every myth I hear, and I tend to give anyone who steps in to help someone the way Madrid helped that man, the benefit of the doubt. Just what is it about the man, other than the obvious, that has you in such an uproar?”

Murdoch listed his head to the side. “Seeing three men shot down in the street always leaves me unsettled.”

“Obviously,” Scott said, setting the empty snifter on the sideboard. “I’d venture to say you’d be more upset if that old man had been shot down like a dog. And no one in town seemed to give a damn. They all hid behind closed doors, peering out windows, not making any effort to help, while an old man was gunned down. That, would upset me. And on that note, I’m turning in.”

Scott turned from his father and headed for the stairs, leaving Murdoch behind to stew. It might do the old man good.

***

Sticking to the shadows cast across the rocky trail from the silvery gleam of a half moon, Johnny rode out of town and headed to the northern most line shack. His father sure did it up right. Food, shelter, and the perfect cover to lay low and not risk detection. Far enough from work crews, the main house, and town, to hide out.

A low whistle signaled his approach. Val whistled back. The coast was clear. No one had followed him. Johnny covered his tracks well. He stabled Spitfire and went inside.

“Whooee, what a day.” Johnny flung his hat on the table, took a seat, and poked at the bruise covering the lower half of Clint’s face. “Now that’s a right purty color.”

Clint smacked Johnny’s hand aside and pulled his face away. “Don’t go a’poking at me.”

“He’s kind’a cute when he’s riled,” Johnny laughed with Val.

“A real peach.” Val glowered and slapped a cool, wet rag over Clint’s face.

Clint sputtered and flung the cloth across the room. “Will ya quit fussing like an old hen.”

“I’m just trying ta make ya feel better,” Val whined, lips twitching behind his mustache.

“Well, ya ain’t doing too good,” Clint shouted.

“Excuse me for being a touch concerned,” Val groused.

Johnny laughed softly. “You two sound like an old married couple. Bitching and sparring.”

“Shows what you know,” Clint grumbled.

Val shoved Clint’s feet off the table and plunked a tin of pan fried coffee and plate of beans and tortillas in front of Johnny.

“You’ll make someone a good wife one day,” Johnny snickered and dug into his meal.

“Kind of ya to notice,” Val grumped. He poured a cup of coffee and sat opposite Johnny. “You okay?”

Johnny washed a mouthful of food down with a swig of coffee. “I must’a made one hell of an impression on the old man.”

“Yep, sure looks that way,” Val said.

“Say Johnny, I almost fell off my chair when I saw him. Man, he’s as big as a mountain,” Clint said.

“Yep, felt the same way the first time I laid eyes on him. Mama never told me how big he was,” Johnny snickered.

“You . . . you gonna go to him? I mean, I know why ya didn’t before, but now that ya know different, you gonna go?” Clint asked.

Johnny shook his head. “Things are better left as they are.”

“But ya know he didn’t kick you out,” Clint whined.

Val slapped him topside the head. “You ever learn ta shut yer mouth?”

“Just asking,” Clint said, rubbing his head. He turned to Johnny. “Well, are ya?”

“I wasn’t Madrid before,” Johnny said softly and hung his head.

Val sighed and scrubbed at his eyes. He knew Johnny was having a hard time living down the lies he had been led to believe. A part of him believed Johnny felt disloyal to his mother and Jake, should he seek out his father. Loyalty meant everything to Johnny. When betrayed, the pain cut deep. How could he accept his father and still love his mother? And what fallout would come from Lancer’s end when the old man learned the sordid truth? Val had no answers, and doubted Johnny did.

And then there was Madrid. Val’s best friend. Close as brothers, had been for years, Val never met a better man. Madrid had a fearsome reputation. Only a handful of people knew the true man behind the legend. Val was one of the privileged few. Murdoch Lancer would be torn apart when he learned the truth of his wife’s leaving. And probably devastated when he learned his beloved, long lost son was Johnny Madrid. Val wondered if the man could put the two together, and welcome Johnny back into his life.

It was obvious the older man didn’t know his son’s true identity. If he did and chose to look past that and walk away, then the bastard didn’t deserve to know Johnny. Didn’t deserve to have him in his life. Val would rather see Johnny walk away, than face the disappointment and heartbreak of rejection by a father that didn’t want him. Only then, would Maria’s lies come true.

Val wished he knew the man better. He sat toying with his mustache, deep in thought while Johnny ate. The scraping of Johnny’s plate pushed aside, jarred him back. Val snickered, and set his mug of cold coffee down.

Johnny glared. “What are you cackling about?”

“If you don’t stop being so damned grumpy, I just might tell ya,” Val said.

Johnny sighed and sat back. “Get to telling.”

Val snickered. “You got your plan, I got mine.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed, reminding Val of a hawk on the prowl. “You got a plan? Since when?”

“Since I saw your daddy in the saloon,” Val said.

Johnny flinched, and he looked away. “What’s the old man got to do with it?”

Val spoke straight, knowing he was risking a fist to the jaw, but that never stopped him before, and sure as hell wasn’t going to stop him now. “Yer a gnarly varmint, ain’t ya?”

“I try,” Johnny sneered.

Clint sat, watching the exchange, confusion written all over his face. “What you got in mind, Val?”

“The voice of reason,” Val said. “Look, what I got in mind is this. I know ya want to see yer old man.”

Johnny slammed his fist down on the table and vaulted from his chair. “Don’t want a damned thing. What the hell do you know?”

“I know you a lot better than you know yerself,” Val said, keeping a tight rein on his emotions. When dealing with Johnny, that proved the only way. Although the times Val wanted to kick his ass clear across the state, outweighed his patience.

“You know nuthin,” Johnny muttered. But he sat back down to listen.

“I know yer hurting. Are trying to hide it. No one else sees, but I do.”

“And me,” Clint chimed in.

“Yer purely astute,” Val grumbled.

“Where’d ya learn a word like that?” Clint asked, his mouth agape.

“I’m a learned fella,” Val snapped. “Now if ya’d leave me alone, I can get this out.” He turned back to Johnny. “Only gonna say this once. Listen if ya want, but it’s gotta be said. You want to see yer daddy, but yer scared. No sense hiding that, I know what yer bothered about. Yer afraid he can’t or won’t accept Madrid.”

“He don’t that’s his loss,” Johnny said.

“Just might be both yer losses.” Val ignored the frown and carried on. “Anyways, I was a’thinking. Instead of you just riding on in there and announcing yerself, I’d feel the man out.”

Clint squirmed in his chair, his face lighting with excitement. “Hey, you mean like be his friend and all?”

“Sumthin like that,” Val said. “We ain’t a’gonna sit over tea and cookies.”

“Crumpets,” Clint said.

“What the hell ya jawing about?”

“Crumpets. Miss Lana said that’s the thing with tea. She loves the damned things. To me, they’re all fluff and no taste.”

Val swatted him on the side of the head with his hat. “I’m serious here, and yer talking some damned old cookie? And don’t say it,” he warned. “What I mean, is I get on the inside with Lancer. Maybe offer my services.”

Johnny snapped his head around. Clint sat, bruised face puckered in confusion. “What do ya mean, services? You gonna hire on at Lancer?”

Val sighed and counted to ten before he shot the man in the ass. “What I mean is, I’m gonna feel Lancer out out. They’ve got a gold shipment going out day after tomorrow. Gonna need guards. I’m gonna talk to the sheriff tomorrow morning, introduce myself real nice like, and see about hiring on.”

“Now how ya gonna do that?” Clint asked. “You’re not exactly known around these parts.”

“No, but there’s talk of gold all over the place. That fat assed galoot that calls his self the mayor was gloating about that over beer.”

Clint’s face lit with remembrance. “Oh yeah, he was all kind’a puffed out.”

“When was this?” Johnny asked.

“Yesterday, when we was a’waiting on you,” Val asked. “Man’s a jackass. Town took a jackass and made him king of the jungle. But he’s still a jackass.”

“But what does that have to do with Johnny’s daddy?” Clint asked.

“Heard tell he’s got a sizable investment in that there gold. Lots of the cattlemen, do, and he’s the biggest. I’ll talk to the sheriff, make myself known. They’re gonna be needing help guarding the shipment when it goes out. An extra gun won’t hurt.”

“But they don’t know you,” Clint said.

“Good point, but got it covered,” Val snickered. “All they have to do is send a wire to the Wells Fargo in Texas . . .”

“Oh yeah, you did do a few jobs for them,” Clint said, snapping his fingers.

“Right, and that’s my in. They wire down and learn about me, see what a trusting fella I am, and I got it made. Will be in. I get in, I’ll size old man Lancer up.”

“Better you than me,” Johnny said. Stretching, he grabbed for his bedroll. “You two wanna jaw all night, go ahead. I’m gonna turn in. You go your way come morning. Me, I’m gonna meet up with Slade and the Gentrys.”

Val’s jaw clenched and he bit back the surge of anger. “Better you than me. I’d skin those varmints alive and blow the whole thing.”

A crooked grin breaking out, Johnny turned to his friend. “Oh, I don’t know. You’ve been handling yourself pretty good so far.”

“Just remember, when the time comes, I’m gonna be there taking them down with ya.” Val kicked the chair back under the table and grabbed his bedroll.

Clint scrambled after, spreading his bedroll in front of the fire. Minutes later, all three were asleep, Johnny’s hand on the colt tucked under his pillow.

***

They were up with the sun. Clint made himself useful, whistling as he put together a hearty breakfast of bacon, beans, and biscuits. A cocky grin on his face, he greeted Johnny as he walked into the room. “Yer daddy sure does keep this place stocked. I seen lineshacks before, and the only ones that compare are Sam’s.”

Johnny nodded. “Can’t argue with you there,” he said softly. “Most ranchers don’t care.” He slung a leg over a chair and sat with a tin mug of coffee. Soft sunlight filtered in through the window, casting a warm glow over the table. Johnny basked in the golden rays like a cat stretched out in front of a hearth. “When I came around, before I knew the old man didn’t kick me out, was all I could do to keep from hunting him down.”

“Killing like that ain’t in ya,” Clint said, their eyes locking.

“No, you’re right. I’d say it was one of the reasons I didn’t ride on in there and take him down. Was pissed, he cared about his hands, more than his own son. But, I didn’t want to hang, and never had the chance to call him out. Had no reason, really. Not one I could justify.”

“There was something else keeping you from doing that,” Clint pointed out. “Something that never let you cross that line.”

“You’re right,” Johnny said. “Anyway, now that I know the truth, I don’t know what to do with it.”

“You can love them both,” Clint said.

Johnny slowly lifted his head. “You make it sound so simple.”

Clint plated the bacon and beans, and pulled a pan of biscuits from the cookstove. Burning his finger, he yelped and tossed the pan on the wooden counter. “Damn hell, always do that.”

Johnny snickered, and reached for a biscuit. Taking a bite, a smile broke out. “Was worth the pain.”

“Says you,” Clint whined, sucking the tip of his finger. “Damn. Anyway, I was a’saying, you can love both. Just ’cause you’re mad and hurt at your ma, don’t mean you have to stop loving her. And just cause you found out yer pa didn’t toss you out, makes it easier to love him.”

Val burst through the door, coming face to face with Johnny’s colt. “Damn it, Johnny.”

Johnny set the gun down on the table. “What the hell you trying to do, Val. You know better than that. One of these days, I’m gonna blow your dang fool head off.”

“Just who the hell did you think was gonna come through this door?”

“Now you sound like a stinking greenhorn. Like you never rode with me before. Got your head up your ass or something? You never know.”

Val snickered and slung his leg over the back of a chair. “Just seeing if you was on your game.”

“You walk around headless, you’ll know I’m on my game,” Johnny said, forking another helping of beans and bacon in his mouth.

“Yer gonna make someone a good wife one day,” Val teased, glancing over at Clint as he dove into his meal.

“Ahh, shut up and eat,” Clint said. “Johnny and I were just a’talking.”

“Yeah? ‘Bout what?”

“Just that he can still love both his folks. People screw up, his ma made a mistake, but she’s still his ma. His pa, is still his pa. Simple as that. Can love ’em both.”

“But what happens if one can’t accept Madrid?” Johnny asked. Rising, he tossed his empty plate into the sink, down the rest of his coffee and holstered his gun. “Gonna head on out. Meet with Slade.”

***

A tempting thought nagging at his mind, in spite of Val’s plans to draw his father out, Johnny turned Spitfire south and headed toward the main road leading to the hacienda. Face the old man or not, he would make no set plans. Sometimes, set plans had no place in life. And sometimes, Johnny’s impulsive nature outweighed his common sense. How he should approach matters. Either dive in and let the chips fall where they may, revel in the glory or wipe up the aftermath. Sit back and reason things out. Both could get you killed.

Act too quick, you’re done for. Stall, hold back and muddle things through your mind, pondering your actions, could prove to be too slow for any worthwhile results, or kept you grounded and caught. Johnny never believed in taking the middle road, and everything be damned, dove right in. Best way to handle certain matters. He swam, or he drowned. Luck or ‘oh shit, I’m done for’, the way he drew the straw. And he was never one to sit back and wait for someone else to take the rein.

Johnny marveled at the scenery; as far as the eye could see, lush, rolling green fields melded with the mountains in the distance. A stream ran through, leading to the east range. Johnny reined Spitfire and sat watching a large herd of cattle grazing in the valley, vaqueros whistling as they kept the herd in check. Every once in a while a frisky calf broke loose, and a rider took off, driving it back to the herd. Ranch dogs yipped, nipping at the calf’s hooves, dodging and weaving throughout the herd. Masters of their trade.

He could be part of all this. Johnny hung his head. He could have been part of all this, had his mother not lied. If she had just believed in his love enough to realize that no matter how much his father offered, he never would have turned his back on her. Nothing in the world would have made Johnny turn from her love. He didn’t care about material possessions. He just wished to belong, even if it meant belonging to two worlds. It was better than trying to fit into one, and believing he had been rejected by another. Johnny might not have been able to ignore the restless spirit that plagued him, to stay put and work the ranch in the way a respected patron’s son should, but he would never know the answer to that.

Johnny reached the main road leading to the ranch, a bright smile breaking across his face. Time to have a little fun. He nudged Spitfire forward, cut across a hill at the bend of the road and pulled up short in front of the rider spotted.

Murdoch Lancer pulled on the reins, his horse fighting at the bit. “Whoa there, settle down.” Surprise faded to a frown that darkened his face. As well as his outlook. “What are you doing here?”

Johnny leaned forward, resting his arms on the pommel, hat pulled down low. “Well, you never know who’ll you’ll run into, do ya old man,” he asked in a soft drawl.

Murdoch bit back a retort and his eyes widened in stunned shock when Madrid sat straight, pulled his hat back, and stared him dead in the eyes. Murdoch froze, and a cold sweat broke out over his brow. “No,” he muttered.

Johnny’s eyes turned a dark, icy glare. “What I thought you’d say.” He spurned Spitfire to the right, and tore off across the open range.

***

Murdoch Lancer felt as if he had seen a ghost. Those eyes. Those insanely, intense, sapphire eyes. The only other time he had seen eyes of such color, belonged to his cherished grandmother, Katie Margaret Lancer. Matriarch of their small clan. Grandma Kate ruled with a compassionate heart and an iron fist. Even his father bent to her will. She served as a peacemaker between Murdoch and his Da when Murdoch professed the desire to set sail for America.

“Angus Lancer, you mind me,” Grandma Kate had declared. “You have six strapping sons. Four of them choose to remain on the farm. One went off to college. Teaching is his calling. Your youngest is heeding a call from far off. One that will not let him rest until obeyed. And you will not stand in his way.”

Her sapphire blue eyes shot daggers . . . dark, vibrant and icy. Leaving a man quaking in his boots. Strong, proud, and determined, Grandma Kate was not one to be ignored. Or back down. And Murdoch moved to America.

“It can’t be,” Murdoch mumbled, rubbing a work calloused hand over his eyes. How many people in his life, had eyes like Grandma Kate? Only one, that he could recall. Not even his father or brothers possessed the trait. Grandma Kate said the eyes came around but once every third generation. And Scott’s eyes were more like his. A pale shade of grayish blue.

Murdoch’s heart caught and he slid from the saddle. Leaning against his mount, a regal, chestnut gelding standing at 18 hands to carry his massive bulk, he gasped for breath. “Madrid. Those eyes. Those damn eyes.”

His young son had such eyes. Grandma Kate’s eyes. Skipped from Scott, to Johnny. Murdoch never saw Scott as an infant. It wasn’t until one short year ago, after the death of his grandfather, did Scott grace his doorstep. Harlan Garret had raised Scott. Stolen him away when an infant, upon the death of his darling daughter Catherine, Scott’s mother. Murdoch tried, but the three trips he made east to collect Scott, proved futile. Garrett somehow learned of each attempt, and sent Scott off to Europe every time.

Then Murdoch married Maria, and Johnny was born shortly after. He had only two brief years with his beloved son, before he was ripped away. Murdoch felt as if his entire life was over. He looked for years, but every attempt to find his boy, failed. Johnny was gone. Scott was unreachable. At the lowest point of his life, when he lived for his ranch alone, amassing a herd of 20,000 strong, an empire of 100,000 acres, and untold wealth, Scott came into his life. Murdoch began to live again. It took a long time, many talks throughout the night, but father and son reached a mutual understanding, put the past behind them, and bonded.

Murdoch’s world came to a grinding halt. How could it be? Madrid had a fearsome reputation. One Murdoch had warned Scott against. And now Grandma Kate’s eyes stared back at him from the face of a killer. The thought sickened Murdoch. He didn’t have to see Madrid again to know. He would recognize those eyes anywhere. The question being, could he reconcile those cold blooded eyes, to his young son?

Murdoch had no idea what had become of Johnny. It was as if Maria disappeared without a trace. No clues, leads, or reason. She simply vanished. Until now, he did not even know if she and Johnny were dead or alive. Now Murdoch wished to have never seen the boy.

He couldn’t endanger Scott, no matter how much his oldest proclaimed he could take care of himself. Murdoch just found the boy. And had accepted the fact that Johnny was lost to him forever. Best to not muddy the waters and leave things as they were. No matter how much his heart hurt.

Murdoch mounted Arrow and completed his journey into town, heeding a message from the honorable Mayor Higgs. “Honorable,” he snorted. “Maybe to himself. Only reason he’s interested, is he’s got the most to lose.”

Most everyone’s life savings were tied up in the gold shipment. Murdoch, himself, had invested one third of his profits from the last five years. They couldn’t afford to take any chances. Too much stood to be lost. And too many unsavory influences were milling around. He dropped Arrow off at the livery and strode over to the saloon. All the time, his mind raced and he felt as if he would jump out of his skin, quelling the urge to tear at his hair and scream until his heart burst.

On the outside, he looked cool, calm, and collected. Inside, he was ready to collapse. Always in control, master of masking his feelings, shielding his heart, his mouth set in a firm, taut line, Murdoch tipped his hat to Widow Larkin and strode into the saloon.

“Murdoch, over here,” Higgs called out, waving him over.

Murdoch cringed. The man was a pompous ass. Would never rise above that, but where the town was concerned, except for the duty of naming a sheriff, which fell square on the shoulders of the Cattleman’s Association, Higgs called the tune.

Murdoch stormed over, barely acknowledging Higgs and glaring at a tall, scruffy stranger sitting at the table. “I have little time. What’s so important that you had me ride all the way out here?”

Higgs pushed out a chair. “Sit down. Have a drink.”

Murdoch downed the whiskey and poured another.

“This is Val Crawford,” Higgs said. “Crawford, Murdoch Lancer.”

Like Johnny, Val kept his emotions under control, but read Murdoch perfectly. The man was a mess. Barely holding on, and Val groaned inwardly wondering what Johnny had done now. Val extended his hand. “Mr. Lancer.”

“What’s this about?” Murdoch repeated, accepting the scruffy man’s hand.

“Why, protection,” Higgs crowed. His face red and chubby chest puffed out, he sat guzzling a beer. “We need all the help we can get.”

“I thought that was under control. That’s why we have a Federal Marshall overseeing the operation.”

Higgs opened his mouth to speak, when Val cut in. “Excuse me, Mr. Lancer, but where that there Marshall works on the inside, I work on the outside. Don’t make myself visible. Watch, but keep my presence unknown.”

Murdoch’s eyes narrowed and he itched to punch someone, most notably Higgs, since the scruffy stranger looked like a person he didn’t wish to mess with. “Excuse me, Mr. Crawford, but I have no idea who you are, how you operate, or if you can be trusted.”

Val studied the man closer. Murdoch looked as if he would explode. “Fair enough. I’m no stranger to this kind of work. Just ask the mayor here.” Val crooked a thumb in Higgs’ direction.

“I’d rather not,” Murdoch glowered.

Higgs frowned, and handed over a missive. “Got it right here. Straight from the Wells Fargo office in San Antonio. Mr. Crawford has done this type of work before, and comes highly recommended.”

Murdoch flung the telegram on the table, shoved his chair back, and stood. “Right now, I don’t give a damn.”

“Now see here,” Higgs sputtered.

Murdoch leaned on the table and towered over Higgs. “No, you see here. This is all on your head, and I’ll make sure everyone knows that. Anything happens, I’ll hold you personally responsible.”

Before Higgs could respond, Murdoch strode toward the door. Johnny stood at the batwings and surveyed the room before stepping through. Murdoch froze. Val glowered and shot a scathing look in Johnny’s direction. It became apparent something went down earlier, and the end results were not good. Studying Murdoch, Val’s anger toward Johnny waned, and turned back to the rancher. The blame lay squarely on the older man’s shoulders.

Eyes locked. Father and son glared. Tension snapped like a lightning bolt. Murdoch took a deep breath and turned away. Johnny pulled his hat down low and stalked past the man, taking a seat at the table with the Gentry brothers and Emmett Slade.

Murdoch punched through the doors and stalked off.

***

They met in the dark at a lake near the northern line shack. Val handed Johnny a tortilla filled with beans and cheese, compliments of Clint. The man proved useful in front of a stove, and Val was getting downright spoiled.

“Thanks,” Johnny said, taking a huge bite.

“Old Clint figured you hadn’t eaten all day,” Val said.

“He’s right.”

Val frowned. “Care to tell me what went down between you and your old man?”

“Just what I thought,” Johnny shrugged. “Met on the road leading to Lancer.”

“Which you just happened to be on.” Val rubbed his eyes and adjusted his hat. “But can’t blame ya none.”

Johnny shook his head. “Can’t blame the old man, either. Not every man wants Madrid for a son. The one that did, is dead.”

Val sighed. “Not like you gave him a chance.

“He knew who I was,” Johnny snapped. “And he knows what I am. I not only read him clearly, he made it plain.”

“What did he say?” Val asked.

“Just one word. No. That’s all. Took a look and said no.”

“Well hell, that can mean anything,” Val cried out. “Don’t mean he recognized ya. Probably knew Madrid and it scared the hell outta him, happening on ya like that.”

“Oh, I scared the hell outta him, all right,” Johnny said, wiping his hands on the seat of his pants. “He knew who I was, and it was more than Madrid.”

Val groaned, and kicked at the dirt. “Didn’t I tell ya to stay put?”

“Wouldn’t have made a difference. Old man might not have kicked me out back then, but sure as hell don’t want me now. Can’t blame him. Ain’t easy learning your kid is a gunslinger. Better I just walk away. We finish this job, I’m heading back to Texas. Gonna make things right with my mother.”

Val sighed and flung a rock in the lake. “Can’t blame ya there, but I still think you and yer old man should talk.”

Johnny slung a leg over Spitfire. “Nuthin to talk about.” Spitfire turned and nipped him on the leg. “That’s enough out of you,” Johnny grumbled. He stared down at Val. “Gonna meet up with Slade. Finalize things. Looks like they’re gonna hit the shipment tomorrow night. Place called Bend of the Road. About five miles out of town, heading north. Road curves at the meadow, brings you around Green River and to the back road to Stockton. Assholes think it’s safer to stay off the main road. Damn asshole mayor talks too much. Thinks he’s all protected. Might as well shout it from the rooftops. Meet me here tomorrow. Sun up. They’re all celebrating tonight, getting stinking drunk. No one will even miss me, will be too busy sleeping it off.”

***

Scott sat in his chair in total shock. During one of their many talks, Murdoch mentioned that he had a brother, but Johnny was taken away when he was two, and his father had no idea what ever became of the boy. Scott knew that had torn the man apart, and neither talked much about the subject. Scott never felt comfortable broaching such sensitive subjects, and thought it best to leave things as they were.

Although, deep in his heart, he wished he knew what happened to his brother. Or where to start looking. Murdoch felt it a lost cause; the man had looked for years, to no avail. Even the Pinkerton detectives failed. No one could come across anything regarding Johnny or Maria Lancer. A good five years had passed since Murdoch made any contact with the Pinkertons, not wishing to bring further grief into his life. All that changed the minute Murdoch stormed through the french doors.

“Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure?” Scott asked, tossing down another shot of Taliskers.

Murdoch sighed and slammed his empty glass down on the desk. “As sure as I know my own self.”

“But you didn’t talk with him. Didn’t make contact. Nothing. How can you know?”

Murdoch sat back in his chair, staring out the window as he talked. “It was his eyes, Scott. You have my eyes. They’re shaped like your mother’s, but have my coloring. I’ve only seen eyes Johnny’s shade, once before. My Grandma Kate, back in Scotland. She had his eyes. No one else in the family, at least in my recent memory, had them. She once told me that those eyes skipped to every third generation, one or two were born with them. The trait skipped you, and went straight to Johnny. None of my brother’s children were born with those eyes.”

“It had to have been more than that,” Scott said.

Murdoch leaned forward and rested his arms on the desk. “Our encounter was brief, but other than the eyes, I saw his mother. Johnny is the spitting image of Maria.”

Scott rubbed at his eyes and leaned his head back against the couch, letting the shock wear off and knowledge of his brother, sink in. “My brother,” he muttered.

Murdoch shook his head. “We can’t.”

Scott’s head snapped up. “What the hell do you mean, we can’t? We can’t what? Can’t contact my brother? Get to know my brother? Maybe bring him home where he belongs?”

Murdoch’s mighty fist crashed down on the desk. “I won’t hear of it.”

Scott vaulted to his feet. “How the hell can you be so damned heartless?”

Murdoch sprang out of his chair. “Don’t talk to me in that tone, young man. Is it heartless, or sensible? How can I bring someone like Johnny Madrid into this house? To this ranch? You know what he is. I’m responsible for the safety and well being of everyone on this ranch, how can I justify endangering them?”

“How can you justify denying your own son?”

“My son died twenty years ago!”

“Your son is alive and well . . .”

“And doesn’t give a damn,” a soft voice came from the doorway.

Murdoch spun around, coming face to face with his youngest. The blood drained from his face, and Scott froze, eyes widening as he stared. Johnny pushed his hat back, slapped his hand rhythmically against the butt of his colt, and strode into the room.

“How dare you walk in here like this,” Murdoch seethed.

“Oh, I feel I have the right,” Johnny said in a soft drawl.

“You don’t have any rights here now,” Murdoch said.

Johnny’s stare hardened and he took a deep breath. “Did I ever?”

Murdoch softened for a sliver of a moment, almost caved, but hardened upon glancing at the low slung gun hanging on Johnny’s hip. “You did. Once.”

Johnny pushed past Scott and strode to the sidebar. “Talisker’s, huh? Figured you for a scotch drinker. Me, I like tequila, but this will do.” He took a deep pull, and kept the bottle. “Good stuff. Goes down smooth.” Johnny strode to the desk, his fingers drumming across the highly polished surface. “Wasn’t gonna come here. Fought myself about it, but decided what the hell.”

“Why are you here now?” Murdoch asked.

“Gee, how are you, son. It’s been a long time, son. Where the fuck have you been?” Johnny spat.

Murdoch’s eyes flashed at the foul language, but Johnny didn’t care. “Funny, that’s what I’d ask, if my kid had been gone for twenty or so, years. Makes me wonder if Mama finally told me the truth.”

Murdoch found his voice at the mention of his wife’s name. “Your mother? What . . .”

“What ever happened to her? Where is she? Where has she been all these years?” Johnny asked. Sitting in the chair, he kicked his feet up on the desk and took another deep pull of the bottle. “Well, let me tell ya. She’s been living pretty good. Got a nice place down Texas way. Near the border. That’s where I’ve been all these years. My stepdad, only I called him Papa, died a while back, but she’s been doing okay.”

Murdoch blanched at the mention of the man that had raised his son.

Johnny slammed the bottle on the desk and jumped to his feet. “Now that’s the first sign of emotion other than anger or disgust, you’ve shown me yet.” He strode around the corner of the desk. “But I don’t give a damn.”

“Why? Just tell me, why?” Murdoch asked, his voice barely audible.

Scott hedged closer to his father, curiosity shining in his eyes. “Johnny?”

“That’s my name. You’re very smart, brother,” Johnny snipped. “But getting back to the old man here, I’ll say this. If you want to know why I never came around before this, all I’ll say is I’m not the one to ask. I was led to believe something that wasn’t true. Only now, I find the lie is living up to the reality.”

“You’re talking in riddle,” Murdoch said. His heart felt as if it would explode. All he wanted was to grab his youngest and never let go, but the harsh reality of the boy’s life, kept him from doing so.

“Am I?” Johnny asked, setting the bottle down. “Anyway, that’s not why I came. Just wanted to give you a warning.”

“Warning? About what?” Murdoch asked.

“The shipment.”

“Just what do you have to do with that shipment?” Murdoch exploded. He rounded the desk, his arm reaching out to grab Johnny, when the muzzle of a colt stared him in the face. Murdoch froze, and Scott took a step back.

Johnny hedged closer to the door. He reholstered his gun and faced his father. “Don’t know why the hell I should care. Should just pack up and ride off. Don’t give a damn about your gold. Don’t need it, don’t want it. Don’t need you, or anything you have. You know nothing about my life, but if you did, you’d know I speak true. Never was one for material things. Give me a good horse, my gun, and a bedroll, I’m happy. Never been in want, and never cared about the stuff most folk think is so damned important. Just telling you this. Stay off the main road tonight. It ain’t safe. There’s those that think different than me, about your damned gold.”

“And why should I believe you?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny adjusted his rig, pulled his hat down low, and strode to the door. “Don’t care one way or the other. I said my piece. What you do is up to you. Listen, or not. Your call.”

Johnny’s spurs jingled as he walked off. Scott ran to the door, but Murdoch grabbed hold of his arm on the way out. “No, Scott.”

Scott whirled around, fire shooting from his eyes. “How could you let him get away?”

“You heard him. Do I need to spell it out for you?”

“I think you better, sir.” Scott stiffened, his military bearing coming to light.

“He only came for one thing. The gold. That’s all he wants.”

“Seems to me, he came for a different reason. Maybe we should heed him.”

“Scott, he said stay off the main road. That can only mean one thing.”

“And that’s?”

“A trap,” Murdoch said. Striding to his front door, he reached for his gunbelt and pulled on his jacket. Jamming the hat on his head, he walked out. “He has no idea of our plans. He specifically told us to stay off the main road. That means there’s a trap. He gets us to take the back road, then we come under attack.”

“I think you’re wrong, sir.”

“Based on what?”

“My feelings. They’ve never let me down before. I pride myself on being a pretty good judge of character. And the fact that he saved that older man in town. Seems to me, he didn’t look for a fight. And he didn’t have to step in. What did that man mean to him?”

Unable to answer, Murdoch mounted his horse and jerked its head to the right. “I’m going into town. We have to change our route. If Madrid wants us to stay off the main road, he’s got another thing coming. I refuse to walk into a trap.”

Murdoch rode off and Scott stormed into the house, the slamming of the door, rattling the windows.

Johnny met Val on the road leading to town. “Gonna get back now, they’ll be waking in a few hours and rearing to go. You ready?”

“Yeah, all under control. Looks like yer old man fell for it.”

“Like a sinking rock,” Johnny said.

“You okay? I take it things didn’t go so well,” Val said softly.

“They went as well as expected,” Johnny said. “Did what I set out to do. Warned them off the back road. Knew once I told him to stay off the main road, they’d do the opposite.” He fell silent, then locked eyes with Val. “We should just take the Gentrys out, and the hell with them.”

Val placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Can you do that to Scott? You know he’ll be riding along with them till they get out of town.”

“He’s about the only reason I care,” Johnny said. “Remember, I’ll take care of the lookouts. There’ll be two. Once I do that, I’ll signal ya.”

“How, Johnny?” Clint asked.

“Ever hear of an old hootie owl?” Val snickered.

Clint’s grin became full blown. “Good one.”

Johnny glowered and shook his head. “I wish you’d sit this one out, amigo.”

The grin slid off Clint’s face. “No way, Johnny. I’m riding. I got yer back.”

Johnny took a deep breath and grasped Clint’s arm. “Just watch yourself, ‘kay?”

“Yeah Johnny, I’ll be all right.”

Johnny nodded, squeezed his arm, and rode off.

“Remember, you leave them Gentrys to me,” Val called out to his retreating back.

Johnny waved his arm over his head, in answer.

***

Sam climbed from the stage and held a hand out for his wife. Maria followed, swallowing a ball of fear that rose from the pit of her stomach. Lana had professed the desire to go to Moro Coyo, but the quaint town of Cedar Crossing, twenty miles to the north, was as far as Maria possessed the courage to venture. She didn’t want to make the trip in the first place, but at Lana’s insistence, Maria packed her bags two days after Johnny rode off, and climbed aboard a stage.

“Let’s get settled in a room, then we’ll have a bit to eat,” Sam said, escorting the ladies across the road to the hotel.

Maria wanted to turn and run, but concern for her son, and a daunting feeling of foreboding, kept her grounded.

***

“Johnny, you made up your mind yet? We can really use you.” Emmett Slade sat back, fingers interlaced across his chest.

Johnny glared at the putrid man, the food stains on his shirt, greasy, unkempt hair. The rotted teeth and smell of body odor emanating from the man sickened him, yet Johnny remained in cool, calm control. He lifted his glass. “I’m in.”

“Oh yeah, with Madrid with us, we’ve got it made,” Avery Gentry crowed. Johnny had no use for the imbecile.

Colt slapped him across the side of the face with his hat, knocking his brother from the chair. “You damned fool. Keep yer trap shut.”

Arms and legs a tangle, Avery stumbled to his feet, rubbing the side of his head. “Damn Colt, one a’these days, I’m gonna lay you out.”

“Better make it for good, ’cause if’n you don’t, you’ll be the one planted six feet under.”

Colt downed his drink and Avery righted his chair. Johnny stared between the two. There was no love lost between the brothers. They ran in a pack like dogs, and one would take the other out to insure his survival. Johnny thought to let the two have a go at each other, the idea to watch which would come out the winner, almost too tempting to pass up. But Val deserved his just desserts, and was hankering to put the two down.

“We need them?” Johnny asked Slade, crooking a thumb toward the brothers.

Emmett studied the duo. “Got half a mind to plant ’em both here and now. But too many witnesses. ‘Sides, they know too much.”

Johnny stared and the brothers looked away, hanging their heads. He got his point across. They discussed their plans, Johnny would take first lookout, then circle around behind the wagon as it drew close to the bend, where Moon Dog Miller would be stationed as a second lookout. Johnny had little use for the man. The pompous, round-faced braggart thought himself fast with a gun and was itching to take Johnny on. Before the afternoon ended, Johnny just might grant him his desire. Once the wagon reached that point, Johnny and Moon Dog would meet and come up from behind while the rest of the gang ambushed the driver and guards, and Emmett rode in to take the wagon.

Shoving away from the table, Johnny stood. “Gonna be a long night. Gonna catch some sleep.”

Emmett snorted. “I’m gonna have a few more drinks. “Got it down, Madrid?”

Johnny froze, an icy stare causing Emmett to set his drink down slowly. “I’m not the one you should be asking.”

Emmett scowled, but was unable to meet Johnny’s eyes. “Get some sleep.”

Johnny pushed his hat down low. “I intend to.”

An hour later, Johnny slipped out the rear entrance of the hotel and took the back road out of town. Meeting with Clint and Val, he informed his friends of their plans. “Jackasses got me as first guard,” he snickered. “I’ll be watching, all right.”

“You gonna take that old Moon Dog down, Johnny?” Clint asked.

Johnny clapped him on the shoulder. “Now you’re learning. He’ll never know what hit him. I’ll come up from behind, as they thought, only there won’t be a wagon to follow. By the time the jackasses figure it out, they’ll be spitting dirt.”

“Gentrys won’t have time to know what hit ’em,” Val said, salivating at the thought. “Only problem is, figuring out which way to take them out. Too many tempting options to consider. Would love to skin ’em alive, but don’t got the time.”

To their surprise, Clint pulled a hunting knife from his boot. “Been sharpening this all morning.

Would slit a throat clean as can be.” He handed the knife over.

Val wrapped his fingers around the hilt. “Thanks.”

Clint nodded and turned to Johnny. “Ain’t never done anything like this before, but I ain’t one to let my friends to their own, either. No matter how good they are. And you two are good. Wouldn’t want to be them Gentrys. I’ll be there for ya, watch yer back.”

Johnny swallowed past the lump forming, and pulled Clint into a back thumping embrace. “Watch your own back, amigo. You too, Val,” he said, pulling away.

“Now go on, get outta here,” Val said, his voice hoarse and gruff with emotion.

Johnny nodded and rode off toward the hacienda.

***

Slapping his hat against his leg, Scott strode into the barn. The cumbersome firearm worn on his hip hindered his progress, and he fought the urge to throw the firearm aside. He preferred rifles, not the useless, heavy iron his father insisted he wear. And right now, it was all he could do to keep from throwing the entire rig in his father’s face. Scott had never been angrier in his life. How his father could deny his own son, had him fuming. Then it should have come as no surprise, because the stubborn, unfeeling Scot had denied him all those years. It felt as if all their talks, faded into nothing in light of a stark truth. Murdoch may not have had a chance in claiming him from his grandfather, Scott now realized all those trips to Europe and the private school had been choice weapons to keep him from his father, but Johnny was a different story.

Murdoch had mourned the loss of his son for years, not knowing whether Johnny was dead or alive. Scott would think that the man would embrace his son, in spite of the fact of him being a famous gunslinger. Johnny was Murdoch’s son. That was all his father should be thinking of. To Scott, a father’s love shouldn’t be conditional. It should transcend all earthly bonds, circumstances, and labels.

Johnny was a gunslinger. But he was so much more. Scott considered himself a good judge of character, and from what little he saw of his brother, he liked the man Johnny became, and yearned to know him more. He walked through the door and was yanked to the side by a strong hand clamping down on his arm.

“What the . . .”

Johnny slapped his hand over Scott’s mouth. “It’s me. Didn’t mean to scare ya, but didn’t want anyone to know I was around.”

Scott doubled over, taking deep gulps of air while he fought to slow his heart rate down before his chest exploded. “You sure know how to make an entrance,” he huffed.

Johnny chuckled lightly and leaned against the wall behind the door, hidden in the shadows. “I try.”

Scott straightened, and closed the doors. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Johnny said, a smile coming unbidden. “You?”

“Aside from being mad enough to spit nails, I’m fine.”

“Don’t worry none about me, Scott.”

“I will worry, and it’s not fair. He’s being a . . .”

“Jackass? Don’t blame him none,” Johnny said, shaking his head. “Ain’t easy accepting Madrid as your kid.”

“But you’re his son, nothing else should matter. He’s not even giving you a chance.”

Johnny’s face softened as he studied his brother. “You are, though.”

A wide grin broke out, and Scott laughed. “Yeah, guess I am.”

“Why, Scott?”

Scott shrugged. “Why not? You’re my brother. True, we don’t know much about one another.”

Johnny snorted a short burst of laughter. “Don’t know nuthin about each other, Scott.”

“You’re right, but I know one important truth. You’re my brother. That’s all that matters. It means the world to me. Nothing will change that. Everything else will come in time.”

“Will it?” Johnny asked.

Scott nodded. “With or without the old man. My grandfather dictated my life every waking minute. I won’t let anyone do that, again.”

“Why didn’t the old man ever claim you?” Johnny asked, afraid Scott wouldn’t answer.

“Because my grandfather was a controlling old bastard. I loved the man, but he was heartless in all matters, business and personal. He went after everything he wanted with a vengeance, leaving casualties on all sides. Our father tried to get me numerous times, but at the time, didn’t have the money to fight my grandfather.”

“Rich, huh?”

“Beyond all means,” Scott said. “And he used his money and power to get whatever he wanted. Every time he learned Murdoch was coming east, he sent me to Europe.”

“Had spies, huh?” Johnny snickered.

“I’m only learning that. Nothing got past the man. Then he sent me to a private school. Murdoch . . .”

“See you can’t call him anything else, either,” Johnny said.

Scott shook his head. “Sorry to say, I can’t.”

“So he didn’t want to deny you your education,” Johnny said, pushing off the wall. Heading over to the stall, he pulled a curry comb from his saddlebag and began grooming Spitfire. “Nice set up the old man has here. Spitfire is real cozy.”

“He deserves it. You do, too,” Scott said.

Johnny quieted and leaned against his horse. “Don’t go thinking I had it bad, Scott, ’cause I didn’t. Mama was real good to me. When my stepfather was alive, we had it pretty good. Hell, we still have it good. Old Jake got a job on a ranch in Texas, had us a small cabin. Mama is still there.”

“What happened to Jake?”

“He died a while ago,” Johnny answered, refusing to discuss the matter further.

It was easy to see how hard this was on his brother. “I’m sorry,” Scott said.

Johnny began brushing Spitfire again, the movement soothing to both man and animal. “The owner of the ranch we live on, Sam Vickers, is a good man. He and Pa . . .” Johnny froze.

“It’s all right, Johnny. I don’t blame you,” Scott said, placing a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.

“Weren’t his fault I turned into Madrid. I just did. Tried working the ranch, but something always pulled me away. Can’t ever seem to sit still for long. Wasn’t easy growing in those border towns. Learned to live by the gun as a way to survive, and it all grew from there. But I ain’t a killer, Scott.”

“I know you aren’t, Johnny.”

“Don’t go gunning men for a name or for the hell of it.”

“No, you don’t. They deserve it. Like those men in town.”

Johnny’s head snapped up. “You saw that?”

“No, but Murdoch did.”

“I know. Saw him there in the saloon. But as far as he’s concerned, that’s only three more kills for me to carve on my gun. I ain’t ever gonna be anything else to him, but that. A killer he has no use for.”

Scott grabbed Johnny’s arm as his brother placed the saddle on Spitfire’s back and proceeded to leave the barn. “Don’t go, Johnny.”

“I have to.”

“Where? Where can you possibly have to go? Stay here and fight for what’s yours. Your rightful place in the family. I want to get to know my brother.”

“You will. Only not here,” Johnny said, slinging his leg over the saddle. “You’re my brother, Scott. Like you, that means the world to me. Don’t rightly give a damn what the old man thinks. Got no use for him. Was led to believe he kicked me and my mother out, and only recently learned he didn’t. Only reason I can’t come home is hanging on my hip.”

Scott glared at the colt. “Not a good enough, reason, brother.”

“Is to the old man, Boston.”

“Boston? Where’d that come from?” Scott laughed.

“Fitting,” Johnny snickered. “Look, I didn’t come here to cause any trouble, or to see the old man. Just wanted you to know that we won’t let this robbery happen.”

“We?”

“I got my friends,” Johnny said. “Just wanna make sure you do take the main road. If I told the old man, he would have scoffed and taken the back road as planned. They’re gonna be waiting there. Planning to ambush the wagon. It’s important for you to make sure you take the main road and watch your back.”

Scott grabbed for Spitfire’s reins. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure. What about you, Johnny? Who’s going to watch your back?”

A wide grin split across Johnny’s face. “Same one as always, Scott.” He nudged Spitfire into a canter and rode out the back, away from his father, the hacienda, and the brother he would do anything for. Even sacrifice his own life, if necessary.

***

Maria paced the floor. Unable to eat dinner, she felt she would crawl out of her skin if anyone so much as touched her. Lana watched helplessly, recognizing her friend’s mood. Something in Maria’s world was out of kilter. Breakfast and lunch went untouched, and when dinner rolled around, Maria had all she could do not to throw the plate against the wall.

Dabbing his mouth with a napkin, his own nerves raging, Sam pushed his empty plate aside and shoved back from the table. “I think it’s time to go to our rooms,” he said softly.

Maria accepted his help in rising, but pulled her arm away once she was stable on her feet. Her gaze intense, mouth set in a firm line and shoulders squared, she said, “I think it’s time to go to Lancer.”

Lana dropped her fork. She rose slowly, eyes wide with disbelief, but she should not have been surprised. When it came to Johnny, Maria would walk through hellfire. Which she might very well be doing. “Are you sure?”

“Si. Johnny needs me.”

“What makes you think he’s there?”

“I know my boy. He might have made contact with his father, but that’s not why I need to go. Murdoch might not be so accepting. He was a good man, but a hard, firm man. There was no gray area where he was concerned. Only right or wrong. Good or bad. He would never accept a gunslinger with a heart. I’ve heard him talk many times. In his mind, no one who lives by a gun has a heart.”

“You think he rejected Johnny?”

“Si,” Maria nodded. “But that is not why I must go now. I have to atone for my sins, but if he has rejected his son, he has his own sins to atone for. I must go now, because I feel something else is not right.”

Sam tossed a bill on the table and guided the woman toward the door. “Then I say let’s go.”

***

Johnny sat on the hillside watching the wagon pull out of town, Scott leading the way, Murdoch beside him. They had words for a moment, and Johnny let loose a pent up sigh of relief when he saw the wagon turn north on the main road, well away from Slade and his gang, who were hiding in place on the back road out of town. Johnny wondered if Murdoch had a change of mind and decided to take the original route, and was grateful Scott had managed to persuade their stubborn father, should that have been the case. The wagon disappeared into the impending darkness, and Johnny turned to the right and headed into the hills.

It did not take long to find the first sentry. Tying Spitfire off at the bottom of the hill, light on his feet and deadly as a panther on the prowl, Johnny blended into the brush and came up behind Luis Ramos. Greasy haired whoremonger. The man stank and Johnny had all he could to not to gag. Figured he’d be a sentry. Ramos would slit his mother’s throat if it meant him getting a piece of the pie. Johnny came from behind, knife in hand.

Sensing a dark presence, Ramos’ breath caught and he turned his head. Johnny grabbed the startled man by the hair and ran the knife along the length of his throat, ear to ear. “Surprise,” he whispered, setting the twitching man down. The life blood drained from a severed artery and Ramos’ dead eyes stared up at the darkened sky.

“One down,” Johnny said. He never felt good about killing. He hated it. Hated himself for doing so and being so proficient at it, and hated life’s circumstances for putting him in a place that offered no other choice. “Do it to them before they do it to you,” Johnny said. Shutting down his emotions, he reined Spitfire toward the trail.

One mile further down the road, he once again tied Spitfire off and scrambled up the trail where Moon Dog was hiding. He came up behind the man and stood, leg’s splayed and knife in hand. “Moon Dog.”

The grisly man turned. Eyes grew wide and his mouth opened to shout, but his words were cut short. He lay back against the ground, a slight gurgle of blood rumbling from his throat, knife plunged deep in his chest. Johnny pulled his knife out, wiped the blood clean on a pile of dirt and leaves, and headed back down to Spitfire. He reached the rendezvous point. Val was hiding behind an outcropping of rocks, just behind the Gentry brothers. Clint was behind a stand of brush on a hillside to Johnny’s right, close enough for Johnny to watch his back, and Slade was at Johnny’s fingertips.

Johnny stared at Slade’s back, watching the man begin to pace. Fighting the urge to take him then and there. Three more men were stationed close. Johnny planned on taking Slade out first, hoping to draw fire, and leave the Gentrys in Val’s capable hands. Against all odds, he wished to keep Clint out of the fight. Johnny let go with the best hootie owl imitation he could manage. Val answered in kind. Slade jumped, looked around, and settled, not seeing anyone. Johnny advanced.

“Slade,” he said quietly.

Slade turned, his face darkening in rage. “What the hell you doing here? You’re supposed to be first watch. Where the fuck is that wagon? They should be here by now.”

“There ain’t no wagon.”

“What the hell you mean there ain’t no wagon? You double cross me? Take the gold for yourself? Son of a bitch.”

There was no other choice. Slade went for his gun and Johnny was quicker, taking the man down with a bullet between the eyes. Orange fire shot from the bushes straight across the road, and Johnny ducked the bullet whizzing by his head. He shot into the brush, a scream of pain bringing immense satisfaction. He caught sight of another man cutting through the treeline, vying for position. Johnny shot and caught the man in the leg, and he turned and fired back.

Johnny scrambled down the hillside. Val darted out from behind the rocks and caught Avery Gentry around the throat. Knife in hand, hot breath trickling down Gentry’s neck, he hissed, “Remember old Stonewall?”

“That old fuck?” Avery stammered, the arm tightening around his throat. Crushing his windpipe, making it harder to breathe. The world darkened, and the arm released, Val not willing to let Gentry go so quickly, and easily.

“That old fuck was my uncle, you bastard.” Val plunged the knife in Avery’s stomach, and drew the blade up, gutting him like a fish.

Blood spurt in all directions. Avery gagged, his eyes rolled back until only the whites showed, and arms flailed. Dead before he hit the ground, muscles twitching in shock, not realizing there was no life left, Avery Gentry bled out into the dusty ground.

Like Johnny, Val never felt good about killing, and despised himself even more for the method used. He should have made it quick and clean, but wanted the man to suffer a little of what his uncle did. Val spat the bile from his mouth and continued down the hillside, where Colt Avery stood watch. Obviously not watching his brother’s back, but that came as no surprise. They were a pack of mangy dogs, out for their own survival and the hell with the other.

Val cleared his throat. Colt turned, face registering shock. He swung his gun around, but Val knocked it from his hand. One quick swoop of the knife, he slit the man’s arm from elbow to shoulder. Colt screamed. Gunshots reverberated around them. Fire shot through the dead of night. Horses thundered down the road, but Val didn’t have time to register what was happening, or where Johnny and Clint were. He brought the knife down, plunging it deep in Gentry’s chest.

“This is for old Stonewall,” Val hissed as the man fell to the ground. Wiping his knife clean, he shoved it in a sheath tied around his waist and brandished his gun. Running down the hill, he was too late. He let his friends down, cursing his own jaded need for revenge.

Johnny returned fire, taking the second man down. The last and final man darted from cover and stumbled into the road, gun raised. Johnny turned. A bullet grazed his ribcage and searing pain tore across his chest. The gun slipped from his fingers and he staggered to his feet. Before he could recover and return fire, Clint threw himself in front of him. The second bullet drove home. Clint fell against Johnny, and they both slid to the ground.

The last surviving outlaw raised his gun, training it at Johnny’s head, and a final shot rang out.

Val stepped from the brush, holstering his gun. He took the man out with a bullet to the back of the head. Vaulting over to Johnny, he knelt alongside his friend and pulled his hand away from Clint’s shoulder. “How bad?”

Trembling too much to talk, let alone be of any help, Johnny cupped his arm around Clint’s head. “Damn it! What the hell’d you do that for? What the hell!” His voice was soft and shaken, his heart forever broken.

This was the first time Val could recall, that Johnny had lost control, and it unnerved him. Val reached down and gently pulled Johnny’s arm away. “He’s a’breathing.” He slapped Johnny across the face and gently shook his shoulder. He was close to losing his mind, but had let his friends down once, and wasn’t about to do it again. “Snap out of it. He’s a’breathing. We gotta get help.” Val tore his shirt off and pressed it against Clint’s wound.

“He ain’t a gunman. You damned fool, you ain’t no gun,” Johnny crooned, cradling Clint’s head against his chest.

Blue eyes fluttered open. “Hey, we get ’em?” Clint slurred.

Johnny laughed lightly and clutched his friend tight. “Yeah, we got ’em.”

“Guess I forgot to duck.” Clint faded, and his eyes closed.

“We gotta get him to help,” Val said.

Hoof beats grew close and both men drew their weapons. Scott jumped from his mount and ran to Johnny’s side. Relief spread over his brother’s face. “You okay?” Scott asked.

Johnny nodded, not bothering to reveal his wound to either his brother, or friend. “Clint caught one. We gotta get him help.”

“It’s closer to town,” Scott said, helping Val bring Johnny and Clint to their feet. The wounded man sagged against him. “Bad?” Scott asked.

“Shoulder,” Johnny said, his tone tense and curt.

Scott felt his brother’s pain keenly, and nodded. “Come on, get him on my horse.”

Another hand reached out and grasped Johnny’s shoulder. Johnny whirled about, gun in hand. “What the hell do you want?”

“Why didn’t you tell me what was going on?” Murdoch growled.

Johnny pulled away, all the while itching to take his father down. Fists clenched, he held the reins of Scott’s horse, while Val handed Clint over. “It ain’t about you, old man. Never was. Get the hell away from me. Your damned gold is safe. That’s all that matters to you. Don’t matter to me. Never did. Nothing you ever did or had, mattered. Might have been a time when it did, but that didn’t last too long.”

“Now wait a minute,” Murdoch shouted.

Johnny shoved his father back, fists itching to connect with his jaw. “No, you wait a minute. I don’t owe you any explanations, I got more important things to take care of. Like getting my friend to help. He ain’t a gun like me, just a good friend that works a ranch in Texas, who saw more in me than you ever will. Came along to help me out of a rough time, but even that isn’t important anymore.”

“Look,” Murdoch stammered.

“No, you look, old man,” Johnny shouted. Turning, he winced, hiding his reaction from everyone as he lit onto Spitfire’s back. Looking down, he reined his horse to the right. “I don’t want anything from you. Nothing. That’s not the reason I came. And now, the reasons don’t matter. All I care about now is my friend. All that matters.”

They rode off into the night, following Scott into town. Johnny never looked back. He didn’t care. Nothing else mattered, but getting Clint to help. The wound was severe, but not life threatening. When he felt Clint slamming against his body, he thought his friend gone. One of the few true friends he had. Clint accepted Johnny for himself, not for who he was, or what he did. He accepted, without judgment, and without disdain. Johnny never had to prove himself to Clint. Never had to explain himself, or make sorry excuses. His friend just liked him. Plain and simple. And as Johnny felt all along, would give his life for him, should the need arise. And tonight, that need slapped them right between the eyes.

They rode up to Dr. Sam Jenkins office, a quaint, white, two story farmhouse on the southern end of town, with a small fenced yard, a rocking chair and swing on the front porch, and garden outside the kitchen window. A lantern glowed in the back room, and Johnny let out a sigh of relief. The doctor was in. Johnny kicked the door open and Scott and Val staggered in, Clint held firm between them. Sam jumped, and dropped the shotglass held to his lips. Quickly assessing the situation, the man won Johnny’s respect. Other than a split second of shock at the untimely intrusion, the doctor took their heated entrance in stride and jumped into action.

“Over here,” he commanded tersely, guiding Val and Scott to a table in the back room. He took one look at Johnny, and his eyes grew large.

“Doc,” Johnny said softly, tipping his hat.

“My . . .” Sam stammered, then regained his composure. He had work to do. He turned, one brief moment before entering the room. “You stay put.”

Johnny would have usually taken offense at the command, but the look of astonishment twinkling in the kindly doctor’s eyes, he knew the man was itching to grill him. And even seemed genuinely happy to see him. Why, he had no idea, but if Jenkins had been living in the area long, he obviously knew his father, and maybe had known him. The thought shook Johnny to the core. Before he could give the notion further consideration, Scott and Val came from the room.

Val took a seat, and Scott poured three shots of whiskey from a bottle on the table. “Think we all need this.”

“Thanks,” Johnny said. Guarding his left side, he took the drink in hand.

Val frowned. “You okay?” he asked, not trusting his friend one bit.

Johnny shrugged. “Other than needing a drink, I’m fine. Shook up, that’s all. Never wanted him involved in this. Not why we came.”

Scott downed his drink and turned to his brother. “Just why did you come? I don’t mean to sound harsh or anything Johnny, but I find this whole thing quite mysterious. I never could figure out why you cared about that shipment in the first place.”

“I didn’t,” Johnny said. “I mean, we didn’t. Guess you can say it was a means to an end.”

“What end?” Scott asked, pouring each another shot.

“Long story, Scott,” Johnny said softly, nursing the second drink.

Scott sat and folded his arms across his chest. “We got time.”

Johnny stared at Val and took a deep breath. “It began a long time ago,” he said, relaying the story from learning the truth from his mother, to why he came.

Scott’s mouth dropped and the glass almost slipped from his fingers. Gathering his composure, he grabbed the bottle and took a deep swig. He needed that drink. And he wanted to throttle his father. Their father. Scott never doubted Johnny was his brother, but couldn’t figure out why he cared about the shipment.

“So you see, once we learned the Gentrys were hooking up with Slade, we knew nothing good would come of it,” Johnny explained. “I’ve been around Slade long enough to know how he operates. The trail of blood he leaves behind. And the Gentrys slaughtered Val’s uncle.” He shuddered and Scott turned pale.

“So you say,” the easterner muttered. This time he set his glass down. “And that Skinner fella?”

“Eaten by a bear,” Johnny snickered, then turned sober. “Guess I owe one to that bear. Lost enough of my soul along the way, and a little more tonight.” He sighed and rose to stand by the window, his left arm clutched to his side. Pulling the curtain apart, he leaned his forehead against the glass and stared out. “Sometimes I wonder if it will ever stop.”

Scott shook his head, running a hand over blood red, sleep deprived eyes. “What I don’t understand is why didn’t you tell Murdoch? Or me?”

Johnny sighed and sagged against the wall.“You, it’s easy. Didn’t want you involved. Wasn’t gonna put you in danger. As for the old man, do you really think he would’a believed me to begin with?”

Scott’s eyes grew even sadder as realization and memory of his recent talk with his father, surfaced. “You’re right. He wouldn’t have believed you.”

“Got no reason to. We’re strangers to one another. That’s not about to change anytime soon,” Johnny said. His eyes blurred and left arm twitched slightly.

Val’s eyes narrowed as he scrutinized his friend. He didn’t trust Johnny one bit, and the way he kept his left arm clamped to his side, holding his jacket tight, warning bells rang in his mind. He sprang to his feet and pulled Johnny’s jacket aside. “Ah ha! Damned fool. Ornery varmint. Why the hell didn’t ya say something?”

Scott was on his feet in seconds and at his brother’s side. “You’re hurt. Why didn’t you tell me? Damn it, Johnny.”

“Not important,” Johnny said, trying in vain to fight both off. Glaring at Scott, another mother hen stared back. The jig was up. The fight over. He was outgunned and didn’t stand a chance. The last ounce of strength slid through his veins and Johnny sagged against his brother.

Scott bent double and scooped Johnny over his shoulder. Nodding to a second door to the right, he followed Val through and deposited Johnny on a bed.

***

“I just don’t understand that boy,” Scott said softly. Turning to glance over at his brother sleeping quietly after a dressing down from Sam, as well as thirteen stitches, he focused his attention on the good doctor.

“I still can’t believe it,” Sam said, adjusting the covers around Johnny’s shoulders. A hand rested lightly on his arm. “Your brother.”

“You knew him, didn’t you?” Scott asked.

Sam nodded. “I delivered him. And this wasn’t the first time I stitched him up. This scamp had a penchant for finding trouble.” He sat at the chair and leaned his head back against the wall. “That boy loved to climb. He’d scamper over everything he could grab a’hold of. When he was two, he climbed over a gate Murdoch had put up to enclose the porch.”

“I take it that gate didn’t last long,” Scott laughed.

Sam chuckled and shook his head. “Not in the least. Murdoch thought he could corral that boy, with the adobe wall and gate enclosing the front of the house, he wouldn’t have to worry. But Johnny scrambled over that gate and proceeded to climb the corral fence. He would have made it, too, but his shirt caught on a snag and pulled him off balance.”

“Stitches?”

“Stitches.”

A deep, baritone voice filled the room. “Sam, turn his head slightly.”

Scott squared his shoulders, ready to take his father down, if need be. “Sir, what right do you have coming in here?”

“I might have every right in the world,” Murdoch said, pushing by Scott.

Sam nodded and did as he told. “Too bad you didn’t go by your heart, Murdoch. Or maybe you did.”

Murdoch ignored the scowl and scathing comment thrown his way, and reached his hand down. He gently turned Johnny’s head to the right. Spotting a faded, thin scar cutting across his temple just below the hair line, his heart caught and he felt as if he couldn’t breathe.

“Are you satisfied now?” Scott asked. “I won’t ask if you’re happy, because I know different. You rejected Johnny when the truth smacked you right between the eyes. Are you going to reject him now?”

“It can’t be,” Murdoch muttered. Tracing the scar with his finger, his greatest joy erupted, and worst fear had been realized. His son was a killer. A gun for hire. The smiling, carefree toddler he knew, had returned. A deadly predator. One of the best.

“Well?” Sam demanded.

A frown fell over Murdoch’s face. “Well, nothing. It’s over.”

“You’re a hard man, Murdoch. A damned hard man. I’ve known you to be stubborn over the years, but to deny your own son.”

Murdoch whirled about, fire blazing from his eyes. “I can’t have the likes of him at the ranch. He may be my son by blood, but he’s a man of his own making. He chose to live by the gun, now he has to live with that decision.”

“Damn it, Murdoch,” Sam hissed, dragging the man from the room.

Scott shot a glance at Val, and followed. Val’s face set in a frown, his fists clenched at his side. Sitting on a chair between Clint and Johnny, he was torn, fighting the urge to throw Murdoch through the wall. He exhaled deeply, getting his anger and emotions under control, and remained with his friends. He had always promised to watch Johnny’s back, and nothing would change that now. And he wanted to be there should either wake up.

The door slammed against the wall and Scott disappeared into the outer room. Reaching back, he pulled the door closed and faced his father. “You are one unforgiving son of a . . .”

“Watch your tone, young man,” Murdoch warned.

Scott pulled away from the hand on his arm. He glanced down, and on second thought, swung back and delivered a roundhouse blow that sent Murdoch crashing against the wall. “Been wanting to do that ever since we found out Johnny was my brother. That’s right, my brother,” he seethed.

Murdoch grabbed his jaw and staggered to his feet. “Your brother? Do you know what your brother is?”

Scott took another step forward, but Sam got between them. “Listen, both of you,” Sam said, pulling Scott back, and fending Murdoch off with the other hand. “Not here, and not now.”

Scott quieted, but the look in his eyes remained cold and unforgiving. “I know what my brother is,” he said, facing his father. “And I know who he is. It’s that reason I’m proud to claim him as my brother. You’re forgetting what he did for that older man in town. And what he did to save your precious shipment. Where you were so quick to think the worst of him, I was ready to help.”

Confused, Murdoch ran a hand through his hair. He had never been so helpless in figuring out a situation before. Fear overruled common sense. “He should have told us the truth.”

“Would you have believed him?” Scott snapped. “You already rejected him, let him know that in no uncertain terms, he wasn’t welcome. Johnny knew that. And he also knew you’d do the opposite of what he told you.”

Murdoch’s head snapped up.

“That’s right,” Scott continued. “He knew those men were waiting.”

“Are you telling me he came here just to protect that shipment? If so, where is his badge and why didn’t he come clean?” Murdoch countered.

“He don’t need no badge,” Val said. Unable to sit still any longer, he stood at the open doorway. “Our reasons for coming here had nothing to do with that damned gold. Johnny came for one reason, and I came for another. Came to tend to some business of my own, and be there for a friend should he need.”

“You’re talking in riddles,” Murdoch growled, anger flashing in his eyes.

“Nope, just don’t see the need in telling ya more. Ya don’t deserve to know more, and ya don’t deserve that boy in there. He knows it. Knows the truth and how ya feel, and that’s all I’m gonna say. Ya don’t deserve to know more. Don’t see how a body can judge a person only by what they heard, instead of what he really is. You’re a stupid man, Lancer.”

“Now you wait a minute,” Murdoch sputtered. Taking a step forward, he stopped short when a hand gripped his arm.

“Murdoch, I swear, I’ll throw you out of here,” Sam said, stepping in front of the giant of a man. He almost dwarfed in size, Murdoch standing heads over him, but sheer will and stubborn determination to protect his patients, won out. “If you can’t keep a civil tongue and yourself under control, I’ll throw you out of here myself.

“Damn it, Sam,” Murdoch cursed.

“Don’t get uppity with me.”

“I have every right to be here.”

“No, Mr. Lancer, you don’t have any rights. Not anymore,” Val said. Things didn’t have to be this way, here I thought the truth would win out. They say it sets a body free, but sometimes, the truth is tainted with prejudice. Or stupidity. Either way, you lose.” He opened the door, and glanced back over his shoulder. “Believe me, Johnny didn’t want it this way. Didn’t plan things this way, but inside, I think he felt this was how things would turn out.”

Murdoch opened his mouth to reply, but words failed. His emotions raged and he did not trust himself at the moment. He hated losing control, hated showing any sign of weakness or vulnerability, but having seen the scar cutting across Johnny’s temple, his son’s entire life flashed before him. The two short years he had with his boy. All the memories he had. The strength draining from his limbs, he retired to a corner of the room and collapsed into a chair.

Sam sighed and grasped Scott by the arm. “I need to go over to the store and pick up a few things. I also want to check in at the post and see of I have any mail. In short, I need a breath of air, and to put those lame excuses aside.”

“I understand,” Scott said.

“Don’t be too hard on him. I’ve known your father for years, he’s a hard man, but he built this wall around himself years ago, and is afraid to let a piece of that wall crumble. Hurt and loss can jade a man, and if he lets go of that, he has nothing to hold on to, and opens himself up for further hurt.”

“You make it sound so simple,” Scott said.

Sam shook his head. “Son, nothing about this is simple. But your father has been a lonely man for many years. He’s just trying to find his way. I’ll be back soon.”

“I’ll be here,” Scott said, watching as Sam left.

Hearing a thunder of hooves, Sam stood on the sidewalk and watched the stage’s approach. Wiping the dust from his eyes, he replaced his handkerchief and his eyes grew large with disbelief. As if the day couldn’t get any worse. Or interesting. He sure as hell never expected this. Maria Lancer stepped off the stage, and Sam rubbed his eyes. He was getting old. Senile. He was beginning to see things. That explained it. He was seeing things. He blinked, but she remained.

Taking a deep breath, Sam approached, his heart skipping a beat, and mouth suddenly dry. A man his age stepped aside, when Sam gently placed his hand on Maria’s arm. “As I live and breathe, is it really you?”

A sad smile broke out. “Sam, after all these years.”

Sam grasped her trembling hands in hers. “I . . .” he blinked back tears, surprised at the range of emotion welling up. “First Johnny, now you. I thought this day would never come.”

Hearing her son’s name, Maria’s heart swelled and worry rose. “You’ve seen Johnny? Where is he? How is he?”

Sam grasped Maria by the arm and steered her toward the hotel. “Come my dear, we need to talk.”

Eyes filled with fear, Maria turned pale and pulled free from his grasp. “Sam, has something happened to Johnny? Has something happened to my boy?” Maria swooned and Sam held her tight.

“Doctor, my name is Sam Vickers, and I’m a close friend of both Maria and Johnny,” Sam said, extending his hand.

Quick to set them at ease, Sam grasped the preferred hand. “Please to meet you. Johnny is fine, a bit battered and bruised, but fine. As is Clint Walker.”

“Clint? What happened?” Lana asked.

“Seems they thwarted a robbery,” Sam said. “A gold shipment that went out yesterday . . .”

Before he could finish, Sam cut in. “That sounds like our boys. Doesn’t surprise me. Please, take us to your office.”

Sam shook his head. “Best not to go there right now.”

“And why not?” Maria said, strength and determination rallying. “That’s my son in there, and another boy I care deeply about.”

Sam wasn’t about to relent and steered them toward the hotel. “Because, my dear, you’ll be walking into the proverbial lion’s den.”

“Murdoch?” Maria gasped. “He’s with our boy?”

“I hope so,” Sam muttered.

“He rejected our son, didn’t he?” Maria demanded to know, fire shooting from her eyes.

Sam nodded. “I’m afraid so. It isn’t easy claiming a famed gunslinger for your son.”

Maria stood proud and tall. “I know of two men that did. Without question, without judgment. One of them is gone, and the other one is standing in front of you. And nothing will stop me from seeing my boy. Not even the great and mighty Murdoch Lancer.”

A flurry of skirts, Maria flounced across the street, headed for the doctors office. She wore her sins on her sleeve, her heart exposed in light of a stark truth she had to face one more time. Shame aside, she was ready to face the man she had betrayed, and be there for her son. The sins were hers alone, not her son’s.

She burst through the door and Scott jumped. Murdoch turned and the blood drained from his face. A roaring sensation filled his ears and the room spun. He gasped, and the mighty mountain came tumbling down. Windows rattled and the walls shook when Murdoch crashed to the floor.

***

Johnny sprang up in bed, the gun appearing as if it were attached to his hand. Val sometimes wondered, if it was. Wincing, he staggered to his feet and slapped Val’s hand aside. Val knew not to argue, besides, judging from the commotion on the other side of the door, there was no way humanly possible to keep Johnny from investigating. Or mixing in.

Thankfully, Clint still slept peacefully. The last thing Val needed was another stubborn varmint to argue with. Thank goodness for the sleeping effect of laudanum. It was too bad Johnny refused the drug. Val almost thought the old doc would pinch Johnny’s stubborn nose shut and jam a spoonful of the noxious brew down his throat, and almost wished the old man had. It would have been a sight. Madrid meets his match in an ornery, opinionated, compassionate country doctor.

“Damn hell, Val, what the hell was that? Sounded like an earthquake.”

“Dunno, but we better get on out there.”

He opened the door and Johnny stepped through. His mouth dropped and he saw Murdoch laying on the floor. He poked his father with his toe. “He dead?”

Val leaned over Murdoch’s prone body. “Whooee, someone done him in.”

Maria stepped from the shadows and flicked lightly at Johnny’s ear. “Do not poke your father, mi hijo.”

Johnny jumped, clutched at his side and fell into his mother’s arms. “Lo sciento, Mama,” he muttered, winding his arms around her. “Lo sciento.”

Maria rubbed giant circles across his back. “I’m the one who should be apologizing, Johnny.”

Forgetting Murdoch for a moment, Johnny held his mother at arm’s length. “I shouldn’t have run off like that. I should have stayed until morning.”

“Ah, but you were going anyway. You and Val had business, si?”

Johnny blushed and hung his head. “Si.”

“And I trust you set things to right?” Maria asked.

“Yeah,” Johnny answered softly.

“And more from what we hear,” Sam said, coming to Johnny’s side.

Usually more aware of his surroundings and the people gathered in the room, Johnny was taken by surprise, a rare occurrence, in Val’s opinion. But his mother, Sam, and Lana were so trusted, such a huge, loving part of his young life, Johnny felt no fear, no danger, and only in the company of those cherished few, did he let his guard down.

“Sam, what in the world?” Johnny asked, his mouth agape.

“Son, we heard you were stirring things up around here, and thought to mix in,” Sam chuckled.

Johnny reached out and grasped Lana by the hand. “You too?”

“Me too,” Lana laughed lightly.

“Come, hijo, you must lay down,” Maria said, leading Johnny toward the door. As thought, he pulled free. “Then at least sit in this chair. I must tend to your father.”

Johnny sank in a chair against the wall, and stared between his parents, the first time in conscious memory, he saw the two of them in the same room together. His mother’s presence explained his father out cold on the floor. The old man must have thought he saw a ghost. Johnny wished he could have seen Murdoch’s reaction.

Val retreated to the sick room to sit with Clint. The last thing he needed was for the man to come to, and stumble out of bed. He had enough trying to keep Johnny from tearing his stitches open, and was secretly glad to see Maria; if anyone was able to keep Johnny down, even a little, it was his mother.

Sam squeezed his wife’s hand and approached Scott. “In all the commotion, I didn’t get the chance to introduce myself. Sam Vickers. I’m a dear friend of Johnny and Maria.”

Scott stood straight, his Boston breeding and military manner, present in his demeanor. “Scott Lancer.”

Sam was impressed, and grabbed Scott’s hand in a firm grip. There was nothing soft about this boy. “Nice to meet you. This is my wife Lana, and as you gather, Johnny’s mother, Maria Lancer.”

Scott nodded. “So I see.”

Sam stood over Murdoch with a bottle of smelling salts. Lana linked arms with her husband and steered he and Scott from the room. “I think we should leave them alone.”

Scott held back, reluctant to leave. “I don’t think I should. I mean . . .”

Lana’s laughter was light and airy. “Now I’ve known your bother since he was a little tyke, and believe me, he was and still is a handful, as you can see. But this is something those three need to handle alone. Let’s give them some time. Besides, with all this commotion and the long stage ride to get here, I’m parched and could use a cool drink.”

“Of course, I’m sorry, I’m sure it was a taxing trip. You’ll have to excuse my momentary lack of manners. Why don’t we retire to the hotel dining room and have something to eat? I could use something myself. Something strong,” Scott said, glaring at his brother.

Johnny flashed an impetuous smile. Scott frowned and led Sam and Lana from the room. Scott doubted he’d ever know another boring minute.

Maria took the bottle from Sam’s hand. “If you’d excuse us, please.”

Sam nodded. “Of course. I’ll be in my office, should you need me. I could use a drink,” he muttered, running a hand through his hair as he shuffled out of the room. Retirement was looking better and better.

Maria knelt alongside her husband and held the bottle under Murdoch’s nose. The giant of a man groaned, tossed his head, and batted the cloying smell aside. Gasping, he sat up, shaking to clear his head. His eyes grew wide, and everything came rushing back. Johnny slowly rose from the chair and stood at his mother’s side.

Murdoch reached out a hand. “Maria.”

A thundercloud passed over Murdoch’s face as true recognition and realization set in. He snapped his hand back and struggled to stand, long legs seeming to stretch forever before he reached his full height, Johnny’s eyes following every unfolding movement. He towered over wife and son, eyes shooting fire and mouth set in a firm line.

Tapping her toe, Maria’s cloudy face showed little patience for her husband. She deserved every bit of his anger, but their son, the innocent in all this, deserved better treatment. Her husband’s seemingly rejection of Johnny, the trigger to fuel her anger. The only thing Murdoch had to answer for. “I have taught our son better manners. He would usually help you to your feet, but I held him back fearing for his injury. You, on the other hand do not seem to care. But your precious gold is safe.”

Murdoch took a step forward. “Now look here woman, you have a lot to answer for.”

Maria folded her arms and stood her ground. “Yes, I do. But our son, doesn’t.”

“Is that what you think? He doesn’t have to answer for any of his choices?” Murdoch growled.

Johnny feared the roof caving in and cast a wary glance upward. Then studied his parents. His mother, the spitfire with a fiery temper that snapped like a sparking log, and his father, a mountain of a man, probably used to having his own way and calling the tune. Everywhere except where his mother was concerned, that is. He wondered who would come out the victor. Then sadness struck, for they all had lost. And he doubted anything could be repaired.

Maria took a step forward and began jabbing Murdoch in the chest. “It’s too bad your love is conditional. If I had known that, I would have been spared the guilt I felt all these years for the decisions I made, and keeping our son from you. We’ll get into that later. Right now, though, you have to answer for your uncaring attitude. You may be the high and mighty patron of your ranch, but here, you and me, your power fades and you are merely a man standing before me. Our son is a good man. A better man than you can ever imagine, and are too blind to see. Maybe you don’t deserve that truth.”

“Now you wait a minute here.” Murdoch took a step forward and reached out his hand.

Johnny’s hand clamped down over his wrist and wrenched his father’s arm back. “No, you wait a minute. If you think I’m going to stand here and let you manhandle my mother, you got another thing coming.” Eyes glazed with fury stared upward.

Murdoch slowly pulled away and stepped back. “Is that what you think of me?”

“Don’t think nothing of you,” Johnny snapped. “But I ain’t gonna let you hit her.”

“Now you wait a minute,” Murdoch sputtered.

“No, you both wait a minute,” Maria interrupted, stepping between father and son. She turned to Johnny and placed a hand upon his cheek, noticing the pale tinge that set in. “Miel, this has been enough for you. Please, go lay down.”

Johnny shook his head. “Uh uh. No. I’m not leaving you here with him.”

Murdoch looked between mother and son, the first time the two had been in his presence in too many years to count. His heart lurched and mouth ran dry. The cry of a dark haired, newborn baby with snapping blue eyes flashed through his mind, bearing two years of images, memories playing out in a split second, almost as happens when a person faces the moment of his death. Pivotal points of their life together, struck.

He narrowed his eyes and stared closer at Johnny. Those amazing blue eyes flashed back. Eyes of a dreaded gunhawk. But different. They contained a soul Murdoch had been impervious to earlier. They were not the lifeless, colorless eyes of a cold-blooded killer.

“How could I have missed that?” he muttered to himself.

“Talking to yourself, old man?” Johnny sneered.

Murdoch’s head spun around and Maria flicked Johnny’s ear. “Miel, I taught you better.”

Chastised, Johnny sighed and rubbed at his eyes. “Lo sciento, Mama.”

“I’m not the one you should be apologizing to,” Maria said. She might have wanted to throttle Murdoch for his earlier treatment of their son, but that was no excuse for Johnny’s lack of manners.

Johnny squared his shoulders and locked eyes with Murdoch. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any disrespect.”

If anything, Murdoch saw the man Maria had raised, the manners she had obviously taught their son, and the pride in which Johnny carried himself. “Apology accepted, son.”

Johnny’s fury raged, in spite of his mother’s teachings. “I ain’t your son! You made that plain days ago. Wouldn’t even talk to me, let alone let me in your house. Or on your precious ranch! You want to know why I came?”

“Miel,” Maria said, trying in vain to hold Johnny back. Knowing her son’s anger, she pulled back and let him rage. The boy deserved that, and more. Feelings needed to be purged, and if this was the way, so be it. She would pick up the pieces and own up to her mistakes when the final ax fell.

“After all these years?” Murdoch asked. “Yes, I would like to know, young man. Why did you choose now to come? Where have you been all along? I’ve been looking for both of you for years, to no avail.”

Seeing the stark anger, hopelessness, regret, and loss pooling together in his father’s eyes, Johnny’s anger waned. “I came for reasons I’m not able to speak about now. That’s my mother’s place to do so, I won’t disrespect her by revealing what she has to say, in anger. She wants to talk to you. I already tried, and now it doesn’t matter.

“But know I’m not mad. I understand. I’m Madrid. Ain’t easy owning up to the fact that your son is a gunslinger.” Maria’s hand tightened on Johnny’s arm. “Don’t blame you none there. It brings a lot of garbage along. You have a reputation and responsibility to the community and those who work your ranch. You deserve the respect of the patron, and Madrid will only mar that respect. I wasn’t mad at you, I was mad at myself. For what I’ve become.”

For a brief moment, a look of longing Murdoch thought to have missed, flashed in Johnny’s eyes before he shut down and those sapphire jewels hardened. “I’m sorry. Sorry for all that’s happened. But I’m not sorry for my mother. Maybe after talking to her, you’ll understand what I’m really sorry for.”

Murdoch stared closer at his son. Johnny might have possessed a fearsome reputation, but he had a sense of pride, a deep seated honor that was absent in the eyes and mannerisms of other gunslingers he had come across in the past. They boy cared deeply about his mother, that was easy to see. Most gunslingers he had the displeasure of encountering, did not care past themselves. Their savage lust to bully, torment, and kill. The drive to fill their own animalistic urges, carnal needs. The cold, lifeless eyes that stared out from a face void of emotion.

While Murdoch had seen that look in Johnny’s eyes, most especially the day Johnny stepped in and saved the old man in the street, Murdoch now realized the look was sheer determination. A cutting, calculating look that spoke business. Madrid knew what he was doing. Madrid got the job done. And Madrid brooked no nonsense. If you were smart, if you respected that and walked away, Madrid did not set out to kill for the sheer sport of it. But if something needed to be set to right, such as the older man who would have undoubtedly been shot to pieces, Madrid got the job done.

A gunslinger did not care about old men. A gunslinger did not care about his mother. Did not hold a fallen friend in his arms, such as Murdoch had seen with Clint. And a gunslinger did not respect his mother enough to apologize for what the woman deemed ill manners. Suddenly, Murdoch wanted to know more about his son. From his son. Not from what he had seen, or what others were saying.

There was still much to address where Maria was concerned. Murdoch spent years wondering what had happened to their marriage. Why she left so suddenly, without warning, without a word, and kept their son from him. Not even one note over the years to let him know if his boy was dead or alive. Maria left no trace. Not even the Pinkerton detectives hired, could find anything about the elusive woman. What had happened? What drove his wife away, and why didn’t his son seek him out sooner?

Murdoch could understand when Johnny was little, but he was a grown man. He might have made choices Murdoch didn’t understand, but again, now was not the time to hash out those reasons. Right now, all he wanted to know was why Johnny had not come to him sooner. Maybe the boy was ashamed of facing him. Murdoch would never know unless he addressed the topic with Johnny.

But now was not the time. Johnny was obviously wounded, and again, the mystery of his son deepened. Why in the world would Johnny come to Lancer now, after all these years. And why would he even care about the gold shipment, to begin with?

Murdoch’s face softened, and he placed gentle hands on Maria’s shoulders. She flinched, but he squeezed gently, setting her at ease. “We’re far from finished,” he said, looking down at the woman who barely reached his chest. He shuddered, her touch still set his skin on fire. He could still reach down and wrap his hands around her tiny waist. The years had been kind, honing a fiery beauty into a serene work of art, classic, beautiful to the sight and soft to the touch. “We’ll talk later, back at Lancer. I don’t want to do this here.”

“Murdoch,” Maria stammered.

Murdoch shook his head and pushed Maria aside. He faced Johnny. Towered over the injured boy, who did not flinch, and appeared ready to fight or talk, whichever presented itself. No, his son was not one to run. However, he was ready to fall where he stood.

Murdoch chuckled. One Lancer swooning in a dead faint, was enough. “Your mother and I aren’t the only ones needing to talk. However, I would like the chance to speak with her alone.”

“Don’t think so,” Johnny said, his protective side again rising.

“I won’t hurt her. I’ve never hurt her, and don’t intend to now. But I do deserve some answers. From both of you. And you deserve my apologies, for whatever happened between your mother and me took a sad toll on you. You were caught in the middle. That isn’t easy for a child.”

“I ain’t a kid.”

Murdoch chuckled, an inkling of a petulant youth springing to mind. “No, you’re a man in your own right, but you didn’t deserve the way I treated you. We both need to talk, but right now you need to get off your feet.”

Johnny’s eyes flashed to his mother. “I ain’t leaving you.”

Maria crossed the floor and slid past her husband. “Miel, your father is right. Too much has happened today. You must rest. We can talk more about all this when you’ve had some sleep.” She placed a hand on his cheek. “I’m not going anywhere. I promise.”

Johnny noticed the strain on her face, her voice broaching fatigue from the trip, and stress from their encounter. “All right, I’ll go lay down. But only if you promise to go over to the hotel with Sam and Lana and have something to eat. I’m not the only one who needs rest.”

“That’s my good boy,” Maria said, laughing at the flush that came to Johnny’s cheeks. She turned to Murdoch. “Please remember, what I have done, is unforgivable. But I am the one to answer for my choices. Not our son. It is time for me to atone for what I have done to both of you, and only ask that you hold an open mind and heart where Johnny is concerned. Now, I will go to the hotel as promised. Will you please escort me?”

***

Clint groaned and rolled over, pressed back into the bed by Val’s strong, yet gentle hand. “Whoa there, amigo. Don’t go flopping around like a lop-eared galoot.”

Clint blinked, squinted against the intrusion of light, then shook his head slightly as the room came into focus. “Wha . . .”

Val snorted. “If’n yer asking if I’m some kinda’ angel, I’ll have the old doc examine yer scrambled brain.”

Clint snickered and took a hitching breath against the pain. “Where am I?”

“Since yer ass is stuck in this here bed, I’d venture to say yer at the doc’s place.”

“Oh.”

“Oh nuthin, let’s get ya sitting up a bit. Doc says ya gotta drink.” Val hoisted Clint gently, and reached for a glass of cool water. “Got better things ta do than be playing nursemaid.”

Clint gulped the refreshing liquid, and sagged back down into the pillow. “You’re the ugliest nurse I ever seen.”

Val glared. “Ya want more water, ya better change yer tune.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll be good,” Clint chuckled.

“I doubt it,” Val glowered.

Clint’s mind came into better focus and he stared around the room. Ignoring the pain, he vaulted upright but succumbed to Val’s strong hand again pressing him down. “Now don’t ya set to worry. He’s fine.”

“You sure?”

Water spilled over the rim of the glass when Val set the water down with a bit more force than intended. “Think I know what the varmint looks like by now. ‘Sides, he’s driving me plumb loco.”

“He ain’t hurt?”

“Not as bad as you.”

Worry tinged with relief spread over Clint’s face. “When I saw him take that bullet, I thought it was all over.”

“It’ll be all over for you when he gets his hands on ya. Got no business setting yerself up like that, and Johnny’d be the first to kick yer sorry ass.”

“But . . .”

“But nothing,” Val spat. He softened, and squeezed Clint’s arm. “But I”m glad things turned out Ike they did. Yer both fine. I still say it’s a damn blame fool thing ya done, but I’d a’done it myself.”

Clint nodded. “I’d do it again.”

“Don’t doubt it.”

“Where is he?”

The door slid open and Johnny stepped inside. “Right here, amigo,” he said softly. Johnny walked over to the side of the bed and pulled a chair close. “Bout time you woke up.”

“You okay?” Clint asked.

“Better than you,” Johnny answered. “You better hurry up and mend, so I can kick your ass clear back down to Texas.”

Val slapped his leg. “Told ya. Damn fool. But does anyone listen to me? I tell ya, not a one.”

“I thought you bought it, Johnny,” Clint said, ignoring Val.

Johnny sobered and wrapped his arms around his torso. “I almost did.” His eyes locked with Clint’s. “Would have, if it wasn’t for you.”

“Ahh, it’ll take more than some yellow-belly with a peashooter to get me down,” Clint chuckled softly.

“Was more than a peashooter, amigo,” Johnny laughed. “Hey, you ready for some company?”

Sounding more like a young boy on Christmas morning, Clint’s blue eyes lit with delight, in spite of the throbbing pain in his shoulder. “Company? Who?”

The door whisked open and Sam and Lana entered the room. Lana bustled over to the bed and began fluffing Clint’s pillows and tucking the blanket snug. She poured another glass of water and helped him to drink. “There now honey, you just take it easy.”

“She fusses like a regular mother hen,” Johnny laughed.

“You best stand back when you say that,” Sam’s laughter bellowed throughout the room.

Lana stood, hands on hips, and faced Johnny down. Madrid had met his match. “Now I put you in your place last night, and will do it again. Do you want me to send you back to bed again?”

Johnny waved his hands in surrender. “I’ll be good.”

“Doubt it,” Val growled.

“I can’t believe you guys came all the way up here,” Clint said.

“Now, do you really think I’d let my boys off on their own without coming after you all?” Lana crooned, brushing a cool cloth across Clint’s forehead.

“Johnny, did your mother come?” Clint asked, almost afraid to voice the question.

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, she’s here.” A low chuckle broke out and Clint tried to rise up on his elbows, but a light swat from Lana changed his mind. “Oh man, you should’a seen it,” Johnny laughed. “Well, I wish I saw it, but boy, did he shake the walls. Thought some old earthquake took us out.”

“What do you mean, Johnny?” Clint asked.

“My old man. You see, here I was, laying in bed all comfy like, listening to Val grumble, and all of a sudden this huge crash rattled the windows and shook the walls. Thought the ceiling was coming down on us. Got out there real quick, and there was the old man, spread out cold on the floor.”

“He have his heart go sour or sumthin?” Clint asked.

“Nah, he fainted like an old lady,” Johnny snickered, then shrank back from Lana’s glare. “I mean he fell out flat in a dead swoon. Took one look at my mother, thought he saw a ghost or something.”

“Man, t hat must’a been sumthin,” Clint whistled between his teeth. “How’d your ma take it?”

“Like always. She wasn’t about to let the old man get the better of her. Took him down good for how he’s been acting. Said he had no right, this was between them,” Johnny said.

“She’s right,” Clint agreed.

“Then she flicked my ear for poking at the old man with my foot,” Johnny laughed. He cast a mischievous glance in Lana’s direction. “But I’d do it again.”

Lana sighed, shook her head, and took charge. Grabbing Johnny by the arm, she steered him to the door, then turned back to Val. “Come on now, it’s time to let Clint get some rest.” She turned her attention to Johnny. “And if I knew the battle wouldn’t be futile, I’d send you there, too.”

“Ahh, I don’t need to take to no old bed,” Johnny whined.

Lana fought the urge to flick his ear, instead, grasped his arm a little tighter. “Come on, since I can’t get you to rest, I will take you over to the hotel and get some food in you.” She pinched his ribs lightly. “Land sake, you look like a scarecrow.”

“You say that all the time,” Johnny argued as Lana pushed him out the door. “I’ll be back later, amigo,” he shouted over his shoulder.

“Yes, for a nap,” Lana snapped.

Sam laughed and grasped Johnny around the neck. “Son, if you know what’s good for you, you’d give up the fight.”

One look in her eyes, and Johnny knew the battle was lost. “Yes ma’am.”

***

Her nerves raged the closer she came to Lancer. Maria drove a rented surrey down the familiar road, one she never thought to see again, let alone possess the courage needed to purge her soul. It was time to atone for her sins, then seek forgiveness from both Murdoch, and the Lord. She was grateful to see the Spanish mission still flourishing after all these years, and made a vow to speak with the Padre. She had always attended church regularly, but felt the sin she carried in her soul kept her from truly finding the peace she yearned for. That, and the guilt carried for the burden placed on her son.

It took many years, and the help of a good friend, but Maria finally came to terms with her feelings, and knew what she had to do. She just didn’t expect it to be so soon. “Coward, you would still be hiding in Texas, holding this burden on your heart, if Johnny didn’t overhear you that night.”

Her mind drifted back to the night she stood on the front porch of Lana’s home, speaking with her friend. She never expected Johnny to overhear, and by the time she realized her son was within earshot, it was too late to turn back. The time for lies, had come to an end.

And Johnny forgave her. They still had a long way to go to mend their relationship, but her son was the most loving, forgiving person she had ever met, in spite of what his father thought. Johnny wasn’t a killer for hire. Yes, he was fast with a gun, faster than she had ever seen, and had a dreaded reputation. In Maria’s mind, he was one of the best, in many ways.

And not only because Johnny was her son. More often than not, he used his gun to set a wrong to right. His heart was too big to fall as far as the other gunmen she had encountered; and living down along the border, Maria had seen plenty. Her son’s eyes were alive. They sparkled with joy, turned steely with determination, and downright deadly, when provoked.

The miles drifted by as Maria’s mind wandered. Her hands trembled and the horses became skittish. Maria took a deep breath, forced her hands to still and gained control of the reins. Another mile and she pulled the surrey to a stop. The Lancer arch loomed. Maria swallowed her fear, crossed herself, and snapped the reins.

Johnny had wanted to accompany her. Had argued the entire morning that she should not make the journey alone, but Maria remained steadfast. She had traveled this road alone many times before, and there was no reason she couldn’t do so, now. This was her battle. Her time to confront the man she had wronged. Johnny relented, but she could see the worry in his eyes. That could not be helped. The one thing Maria did know, was that Murdoch would never hurt her.

“If he did, it would serve you right,” Maria muttered softly as she drove under the arch.

A chill surged through her veins. She shuddered, and her hands began to tremble. Murdoch stepped out from the French doors as she rolled to a stop He nodded to a vaquero who ran over to tend the horses. His large hands wrapped around her tiny waist and helped Maria to the ground. But there was no welcoming tone to his voice. Murdoch was a gentleman, would always help a lady, even if he wanted to throttle that lady for what she had done to him.

He nodded, and Maria followed Murdoch into the house.

Maria followed Murdoch into the great room. The familiar, surreal surroundings took her breath away. It was hard to believe that a lifetime had passed since she set foot in the room, but time rolled over them, and the changes hit with blunt fury. Gone were the pictures she and Murdoch displayed on the fireplace mantle. Their wedding picture. A picture of them holding Johnny; one of her and Johnny when he was but one. All gone. Maria wondered what Murdoch did with them.

She sensed him behind her. “They’re packed away,” Murdoch said, his voice gruff and clipped. He had read her mind. It wasn’t hard, considering she realized she was staring at the very spot of her thoughts. “I could never bring myself to throw them away.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to say that he had done that with their son. She nodded and ran her hand over the smooth surface of Murdoch’s desk. “This hasn’t changed. Your papers are as orderly as ever.”

“Can’t run a ranch without keeping tabs,” Murdoch snapped.

Maria flinched. She deserved that. A housekeeper came into the room and barely acknowledging her, placed a tray of coffee on the table. She was new. It made sense. Consuelo would be well into her seventies by now, too old to be waiting on anyone. Maria hoped the woman was well. Murdoch nodded his thanks. A whisk of her plain, gray skirt, the woman left the room.

Murdoch placed a cup of coffee and saucer on the table and beckoned for Maria to sit. “I had it made with cinnamon and sweet cream.”

“You didn’t forget.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t forget. But you did. You forgot to come home.”

The coffee burned her throat and Maria barely got the small sip down. “I didn’t forget.”

|Murdoch sat in the chair opposite and leaned forward. “Why, Maria? Why did you leave and take my son from me? Why would you keep him from me?”

Maria shuddered. A short while ago she was determined. Now, she was at a loss. “I didn’t set out to do that. But the answer is simple. I would never give Johnny up.”

Murdoch’s fist slammed the table and his cup teetered on the saucer. “I deserved to know my son! You had no right to keep him away. No matter how or why you left. I deserved to have that boy in my life.”

“You could have him now, but you turned him away.” Maria’s back stiffened and temper flared. “If you’ve missed him as much as you say you did, why after all these years, did you reject him the first time you laid eyes on him?”

“How the hell can you ask me that? After what he’s become?”

Maria slammed her cup down, ignoring the coffee that splashed onto the table. “He’s our son. No matter what you might think, he’s still our son. That love should be unconditional. It is with me, it was with his . . .”

Murdoch sprang to his feet. “With his what? What were you going to say, Maria? Who are you talking about? Your man? Or should I say one of your men?”

Maria stood proud and tall. Her shoulders back and chin jutted out. “Yes, with my man. The only man I was with other than you. I’m not proud of what I did, and I offer no excuses. Only the stark truth. And that truth will hurt. It has torn me apart for years, but here it is. The only way to say this. The only way to purge my guilt and shame. And hopefully give you an answer.”

Murdoch nodded, his face set in granite. “Go on.”

“I won’t ask for forgiveness. I wouldn’t even blame you if you threw me out of here, I deserve that at the very least. You’re right. I had no right to do what I did, to take Johnny from you, but my love for our son was the only reason I did that. Fear jaded my thoughts and drove my actions. The thought of losing him should you ever find out what I did to you, knowing that I had no grounds to stand on, was like driving a knife through my heart. I couldn’t lose my boy.”

“Our boy,” Murdoch said softly.

“Our boy. Murdoch, I shamed you. I can stand here and offer excuses until your cows come home, but the stark truth is, I shamed you. I was with another man. You were away so much, and I know you were working for us, but that didn’t help at the time. I was lonely. I didn’t fit in with the women in town, and everyone else, people I related to more, treated me like the patron’s wife.”

“You were the patron’s wife,” Murdoch shouted.

“I know that, but when you’re lonely and wish to consort with women you have grown up with, laugh and talk with people in your native tongue and not have them turn away, then you get lonely and reach out to someone who gives you the attention you’re starved for.”

Murdoch paced over to the fireplace. Running a hand through his hair, he leaned on the mantle before turning to Maria. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I tried. Time and time again, but you always had a trip to go on. Something to do.”

“I took you when I could. I introduced you to all my neighbors wives, my business associates and their families. I wanted you to become a part of their world.”

“Don’t you see? Their world, Murdoch. Not mine. They weren’t my kind.”

“My friends aren’t bigots,” Murdoch snapped.

Maria shook her head. “Not to your face. Never to your face, but when it was me alone, I could tell. They didn’t have to say a word, I could feel it. The Mexican woman who married a rich gringo. That’s how they looked at me. I knew I would never be anything more. I couldn’t relate to those women, and they didn’t want to relate to me. They were relieved every time we left, and were strained, at best, when I was there. When you went off with the men and left me with the women, they put on false faces, and I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Murdoch sighed and ran a trembling hand over his eyes. “That explains why you felt as you did, and I have to say, it makes sense. Not all marriages work out, and I guess we drifted apart. But did we drift so far apart that you had to take my son from me? Didn’t you once think of how that would tear me apart? Because it did tear me apart, Maria. For a long time, I couldn’t breathe without feeling as if my heart would burst from my chest. You broke me. Damn it woman! I didn’t even know if my own son was dead or alive. I deserved to know that, at least!”

“You’re right! You’re so right, and you did deserve to know that. But in my selfish need to keep my son in my life, fearing you would tear him from me, I kept that from you. I was afraid you’d come and take him away.”

“Then you should know how I feel, because that’s what you did to me!”

Maria walked over to the window and stared out over the land she never thought to see again. She took a hitching breath. “When you were on your trip, the week before I left, I found out something terrible. I knew I could never face you. Could never let you know what I had done.”

Murdoch loomed behind her. “What did you do, Maria?”

She turned and stared up into Murdoch’s eyes. “I was seeing a man. His name was Jake Landry. We fell in love.” Murdoch took a step back, but she could not let that stop her. “I didn’t mean for it to happen, but it did. Maybe I could have stayed and tried to work things out with you, but . . .” She stopped and turned away.

“But what, Maria?”

Maria took a deep breath and wiped the tear away. She would give anything to be back in Texas right now, instead of standing in front of her husband, confessing her greatest sin. “I was with child. Jake’s child. I was a married woman, and carried another man’s child.”

She heard Murdoch’s sudden, sharp intake of breath, yet could not face the man. “That’s why I left like I did. Why I had to keep Johnny from you. If you knew, if you found out, you had every right to take him from me.”

“Why didn’t he come to me when he grew old enough to understand?”

Maria turned slowly. “Because I told him that you had kicked us out.”

Murdoch’s eyes grew dark with fury. His fists clenched and with a growl, he reached for the wrought iron paperweight on the desk and hurled it against the wall. He spun around, nostrils flaring, eyes dark with rage. “You told our son that I kicked him out? That I never wanted him?” He grabbed Maria by the shoulders. “Why? How could you? How could you have done something so vile? You not only betrayed our love, our vows, you betrayed the father/son bond that was rightfully mine. Johnny was mine. My son. Not that Jake fellow. Not the man that supposedly raised my son. Is he the one who taught our boy to become a gunslinger?”

Maria broke free from Murdoch’s grasp. “Is that all you can think about? Still the only thing you can focus on? With everything I just told you, that’s the only thing that matters? All right, Jake loved Johnny like his own son. He taught him how to hunt, to track, to work the ranch, and yes, our boy works the ranch. He’s the best horse wrangler I have ever seen. He’s a mustanero, and there’s no one better at training horses.

“But I suppose you didn’t know that, did you? Maybe you would have found out if you had accepted him back into your life, instead of turning him away. Jake knew what Johnny was, but he didn’t make that choice. And he didn’t condemn our boy, because of that. He knew the man Johnny was deep inside. Knew that he wasn’t a cold blooded killer, and those he did take down, were either too stupid and drew him out, or they were vile men. Like the ones he saved your precious gold from.”

Murdoch waved his hand in the air. “Don’t you go turning this on me. You’ve just confessed to the most vile thing a woman could do to her husband, and try to turn it on me?”

“I’m not doing anything of the sort. My sins are my sins. I did wrong by you. I shamed you, and I shamed myself. But I never once, not once, tried to turn it into your fault.”

Murdoch stormed over to the sideboard and poured a shot of whiskey. He belted the fiery liquid down and turned to his wife. “What happened to the baby?”

A lone tear trickled down Maria’s cheek. “My judgment. I lost the child.”

“Are there . . .”

“No, there are no other children. Johnny is my only child.”

“What about . . .”

“Jake is dead.”

Murdoch downed two more scathing shots and set the glass down. “I don’t know what to do with this. I don’t know if I can ever accept this. I know why you left, and why you kept Johnny from me, but don’t ask me for forgiveness.”

“I never intended to.”

Murdoch’s stare was intense, reminding her so much of Johnny. “Good. Because that is one thing I can’t do. Maybe, if I had been given the chance, I might have forgiven your . . . dalliance in time. It would have torn me apart, I don’t know how I would have reacted so there’s no sense in trying to second guess that now. But I will never forgive you for taking Johnny from me. I’ll never forgive the lies you told him, the way you kept him from me. Damn it woman, I didn’t know if my son was dead or alive, and that’s not something I’ll ever forget.”

Maria reached for her wrap and walked to the door. “I know. I did what I came here for, you know the truth. What you do with that is your decision. Just know that I am so dreadfully sorry for what I have done to you.”

Murdoch crossed the floor in four great strides. “Tell me, why now? What made you come to me now? After all these years, you finally felt the desire to cleanse your soul?”

“I came here now, because our son heard me talking one night. The truth came out and he came seeking you.”

“If he had not heard, would you have told him? Would you be standing here now?”

Maria pulled her wrap tight and faced her husband one last time. “No. I would not have.”

Murdoch slowly turned away. “Then we have nothing else to discuss. You said what you came here for. Now leave.”

Maria looked back one more time before slipping out the glass door, pulling it shut with a soft click, behind her.

***

Murdoch sat behind his massive desk, eyes as blank as his heart, staring into nothing. Johnny had come looking for him. After all these years, his son came seeking the truth; perhaps seeking his father, but Murdoch would never know. Maria was right. With everything revealed, the one stark truth he could not reason with, doubted he could ever accept, was Johnny’s reputation with a gun. Never in his wildest moments of thought, with all his hopes and dreams for the dark haired boy that had burst into his life and stolen his heart the moment he drew a breath, did Murdoch ever think his boy would turn out to be a gunslinger.

Scott said there was more to Johnny. Maybe he was right; Murdoch saw how Johnny intervened on behalf of the older man that morning in town, and the boy did save their shipment, one Murdoch no longer cared about. No one was killed, that was all he was grateful for. Johnny’s friend would heal, and Johnny had escaped serious injury. And Scott was spared. Murdoch shuddered to think of what would have happened if things had turned out differently. If Johnny had not intervened. Had not steered them in a different direction. Another sad instance in his life; his son did not trust him enough to tell him the truth. And who could blame Johnny? Murdoch never gave the boy any reason to.

Scott entered the room and cleared his throat. Standing in front of the desk, he addressed his father. “So, this is how it is with you? Not one inch of give?”

Murdoch raised his eyes, yet his heart remained forever shattered. As closed up as it had been all these years. “What do you want me to do?”

Scott squared his shoulders, his jaw set in a rigid, unmovable frown. Pale blue eyes glared down. He ground his teeth. “I used to think my grandfather was a hard, unforgiving man. He had done some terrible things. He kept me from you. Now I’m beginning to wonder if he was so wrong after all.”

Anger tinged with a hint of remorse flared, before extinguished. “I had two sons stolen from me. Now you’re both grown, and strangers in my eyes. Can you imagine how that feels?”

Scott took a deep breath, squashing the anger that threatened to spiral out of control. He had seen the toll grief and loss could take on a person. Sometimes a body shut down so tight, there was no way to unlock the pain. Purge the hurt. A defense mechanism that was the only thing saving them from further despair. A hurt so crippling, one would wither away and die, otherwise.

“So, you’re going to throw your second chance away? Because I have to tell you, if you don’t let go of those feelings, if you can’t see past your own self, then you will lose Johnny forever.”

“I have lost him forever,” Murdoch said softly.

“Then fix it,” Scott demanded. “You can start by telling me what happened. Johnny is in town, worried sick. He wanted to be here, but his mother convinced him it was better this way.”

“Perhaps it was,” Murdoch muttered.

“I suppose we’ll never know,” Scott said. Seeing the pale tinge to his father’s face, his anger waned and he took a seat opposite Murdoch. “Sir, I don’t know what happened between you and Johnny’s mother, but I do know this is tearing everyone apart. I’m not placing blame here, it’s obvious you’re upset, and I think that’s putting it mildly.

“You suffered a great loss, and Johnny refuses to tell me the details. I do know you were torn apart when you lost him, and after having grandfather keep me from you, that hurt only compounded. Can you tell me what this is truly about?”

Murdoch stared at his oldest, seeing nothing but concern set deep in his eyes. “Do you really think that will help?”

Scott nodded. “I’m new at this family thing, as you seem to be, also. We’ve all been left to ourselves for too long now, and it’s not easy mending fences and getting to know one another. Especially with Johnny and me. Neither of us knew we had a brother until now, and that’s not easy to deal with. My grandfather lied to me. And you were too closed up to tell me. I think it’s time we all let everything out, for our own good and to hopefully preserve a future as a family. I, for one, don’t want to lose my brother. And I don’t think you want to lose your son again.”

Murdoch poured another cup of coffee, and refused the temptation to add a shot of scotch. His mind was muddled enough, and he needed to be clearheaded. “It’s not a pretty story, Scott, and one I’m afraid I’ll never be able to forgive. Lies destroy lives. That’s the crux of it. Getting over those lies, is something else. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t. The toll is heavy.”

“I’ll understand more when you tell me the lies leading to that toll,” Scott said. He took a sip of coffee and sat back, listening.

Murdoch stared through him as he talked, removing himself from the deep pain just enough to get the story out. Scott was right, the time for lies was over. The truth hurt, and even though it didn’t set them free, he had his answers. Sad as they were. And they cost him his son. Murdoch couldn’t get over the pain of those lies, and wondered how different Johnny’s life would have been, would be, if he had grown up on the ranch. Was it those lies that drove him to become a gunslinger, even though he wasn’t aware of the truth at the time?

Was it something bred in him, or the surroundings he grew up in? A sign of the times? Living in a lawless land, one had to be strong. Johnny was stronger than most. Still, he did not bear the traits of a coldblooded killer. Murdoch saw that. Twice. And it made him think. But the question was, could he get past it all? The shattered dreams. Broken heart. The son he had for a short time, had so much hope and inspiration for, that had grown to be something Murdoch had never considered. His worst nightmare. Murdoch doubted he would ever know those answers. Life was, as it was. And he had to deal with that now.

Scott listened, his heart breaking for the family he had been denied the pleasure of knowing.

Murdoch fell silent and hung his head. Seconds later, he felt a strong hand on his shoulder and looked up. “Have I lost you, too?”

Scott shook his head and squeezed his shoulder. “It will take more than that to drive me away. I don’t know how you’re going to be able to deal with the lies that stole your son away, and have to commend you for not strangling that woman.”

“I was once married to that woman,” Murdoch said softly, almost too quiet to hear. “I loved her, and lost sight of that. I let life come between us, and didn’t look further than my own dreams, my own wants and desires. I was trying to build a future for my family, to make us complete, and in doing so, lost everything.”

Scott shook his head. “You didn’t lose everything. And you have the chance to reclaim a part of that. The question is, do you want to?”

“The question is, can I?”

Later that evening, Scott met Johnny at the saloon. Pulling up a chair, he poured a shot of tequila and grimaced, the fiery brew he would never grow a liking to, tearing up his throat.

“Pure rotgut. How can you drink this?” Scott asked, swiping an arm across his mouth.

“I’m shocked,” Johnny chuckled lightly. “Thought you’d have better manners than that, coming from some big, fancy city back east and all.”

“All overrated,” Scott said, then ordered a beer. “Ahh, better. You all right?”

Johnny shrugged. “About as right as I can be, I guess.”

“Yeah, can see that,” Scott said, sipping at his beer. “How’s your mother?”

“She’s okay. Doing better than I thought. I think she needed this, cleanse her soul, if you will. She’s relieved it’s over.”

Scott set his mug down and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “Is it over, Johnny?”

“About as over as it can get,” Johnny said.

“Thought you’d have more to say than that.”

“You talk to the old man?”

Scott nodded. “I did.”

“Didn’t get anywhere with him, did ya?”

Scott sighed. “He’s torn apart. Has been for years. I can understand where he’s coming from, although I still can’t accept his attitude toward . . .”

“Go on, you can say it. Toward my reputation. That will always be in the way.”

“You should go out to the ranch and talk to him.”

“Maybe. Not now. I think we all need time to let this sink in. I can see where he’s coming from, too. I know it probably hasn’t been easy all these years, not knowing. Now he knows, and I doubt it’s any easier.”

“And where does that leave you?”

“Back where it always was.”

“Johnny, come out to the ranch. Give it a chance.”

Johnny shook his head. “No. It’s not what the old man wants. And I’m not ready for anything else. Maybe one day things will change, I’ll remain open to that. But for now, things are as they are.”

“You’re going back to Texas,” Scott said.

“Yeah, gonna hang around for one more week with old Clint, then will go back with my mother. Val is going to hang here with Clint, then ride on down once he heals enough.”

“Sounds good. Sam and Lana?”

“They’ll be going too. They’re gonna take the stage to Cross Creek, I’ll ride out with them. Won’t get on the stage. Don’t ride them damned things unless there’s no other choice. But I got Spitfire here, and he’s been getting fat these past few days. Trip will do him good.”

“You taking the train with them?” Scott asked, barely able to choke the words out.

“Yeah, and once we reach Texas, I’ll ride in.”

“Johnny, I hate this.”

“Don’t like it much myself.”

“There has to be a way,” Scott said. “I don’t want to see you go. I’ve always wanted a brother.”

Johnny snickered. “And look what you got.”

“Seems to me I got one hell of a deal,” Scott said. “And I’m not ready to let it end here. I want to get to know my brother.”

“You will, Scott. We’ll keep in touch. I ain’t much good at writing letters, but can learn. I mean, I can read and write and all, just not good at sitting still and getting the words out.”

“I know what you mean. But we will write.”

“And you can come down Texas way.”

“Are you going to, well . . .”

“Stay put?” Johnny asked. “Yeah, gonna stay on the ranch for a while. Help out till Clint and Val come back. I’m tired, Scott. Tired of moving around, living on the trail, not knowing what will happen one day to the next. Just want to stay rooted for a while. A long while.”

“You can do that here.”

“No, Scott. I have a home in Texas. I grew up there. It’s all I know. Maybe one day, but not now.”

Scott pushed his chair back, and stood. “Fair enough. Just know that if you ever need anything, and I mean anything at all, you know how to find me.”

Johnny stood and walked his brother to the hitching rail. “I’ll be here for a while yet, brother. You know where to find me. Maybe we can go for a ride one day and you can show me some of the place.”

Scott’s grin grew wide. “I know just the place. You said you like horses, well, we got this place up north called the Black Mesa. Place is teeming with wild horses. It’s a ride, we’ll have to camp out for the night, but you’ll love it. There’s no other place like it.”

Johnny clapped Scott on the back. “Sounds good. Give a holler. It won’t take much for me to pack my gear. Shoot, never did unpack it.”

“And the ride will do Spitfire good,” Scott teased. He reined his horse to the right. “You’re welcome at the ranch any time, brother. Don’t forget, Murdoch isn’t the only one living there.”

“I won’t forget,” Johnny said, watching as Scott rode away.

Maria came up behind her son. Johnny turned, wrapped an arm around his mother’s shoulders, and escorted her to the hotel.

“You all right, miel?”

“Yeah, Mama. I’m all right.”

***

“Hey, you cheated,” Clint whined, snagging the cards from Johnny’s hands.

Quicker than his friend, Johnny pulled his arm back. “Prove it.”

“You always seem to have that there ace. And a few other tricks. Come on, Johnny,” Clint cried out.

Feeling better in the week taken to heal, Clint grew restless, tired of card games, and was anxious to get out of bed for longer than a few minutes at a time. The doc had promised he could sit out on the back porch later that afternoon if he behaved himself, and determined to heal as quickly as he could and get back to Texas, Clint proved the model patient. And he knew Johnny’s tricks.

Johnny laughed and tossed the cards on the small table between them. He pulled another ace from his sleeve and handed over the deck. “You’re right. I got bored and dealt from the bottom.”

“And stuck this up your sleeve. I outta shoot you in the ass for that,” Clint groused.

Val came into the room with Sam. “That varmint cheating again?”

“Again? You mean yet,” Clint said.

Johnny stood and held his hands up in self-defense. “All right, I admit it.”

Val swatted him on the side of the head with his hat. “Sidewinder.”

“You’re right, Val. You’re right.”

“Down in Texas, we have ways of dealing with scoundrels like you,” Sam teased.

A teasing glint filled Johnny’s eyes and he stepped back from his friends. “Okay, come on. Take me. The one of you with the most guts, take me.”

“Johnny, I taught you better than that. And so did your Papa.” Maria blew into the room, putting an end to their shenanigans.

“Lo sciento, Mama,” Johnny snickered, not the least bit contrite.

Maria cuffed his ear. “You don’t sound sorry to me. Are you packed yet?”

A sense of sadness struck and Johnny scuffed his toe across the rug. “Yeah, didn’t have much to begin with. You?”

“All you have to do is carry my bags to the stage in the morning,” Maria said. “Did you get the chance to talk with Scott?”

“Yeah, last night at the saloon,” Johnny said.

“You’re going out to the ranch, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, I figure it’s time, “Johnny said. He adjusted his rig and strode to the door. “No cheating now,” he called out to Clint.

Johnny rode north out of town, his mind whirling. He wondered where his mother ever found the strength to ride out and confront the old man alone. All Johnny wanted to do was cut and run. He hasn’t seen the old man since his mother’s visit, and questioned his own decision to ride out. Murdoch knew where he was. He could have ridden into town and sought Johnny out, but as far as Johnny knew, didn’t even make the attempt.

Sure Murdoch was crushed; from what Scott said, the old man was having a time dealing with his feelings. With everything he was told. It made sense. Johnny had to deal with those very same lies. Had shut down. Didn’t speak to anyone, and didn’t want to. No, he couldn’t be mad at Murdoch for not seeking him out. And since he was leaving with his mother first thing in the morning, Johnny thought it best to ride out to the ranch and talk to his father. Just this once.

The closer he got to Lancer, the jumpier he became. His mouth ran dry and his heart hammered against his chest. He reached the arch and reined Spitfire in. The horse snorted, nipped at his leg and fought the bit.

“All right, amigo,” Johnny said. “I’ll do this. You’re right. And I promise, we’ll have a good long run when we leave.”

Spitfire snorted and tossed his mane.

“Thought you’d like that.”

Johnny rode up to the hitching post just outside the french doors. A vaquero came over to tend Spitfire, but Johnny shook his head. “He bites.”

Spitfire gnashed his teeth, and the vaquero gracefully bowed out.

Spurs jingling, Johnny stepped through the glass doors. He found his father sitting at his massive desk.

Murdoch lifted his head. “Johnny.”

Johnny nodded and stepped up to the desk.

Murdoch set his pen down. “How is everything? Is your friend all right?”

“He’s healing.”

“Good. And you? How are you?” It was on the tip of Murdoch’s tongue to say son, but he could not get the word out.

“I’m fine. We’re leaving in the morning.”

Murdoch sighed, hung his head for a moment, then stood slowly. “Drink?”

Johnny nodded.

Murdoch handed a shotglass over and set the bottle on his desk. “Go on, sit down.”

Johnny sat and downed the shot. Murdoch poured another. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I wanted to come out here before we left,” Johnny said.

“I’m glad you did,” Murdoch answered.

“Just wanted to speak my mind. You and me, we’re strangers to one another. Ain’t all your fault, and ain’t mine. Just the way things are.”

“I don’t know what to say, Johnny. I haven’t been able to come to terms with this.”

“I know. It hit me pretty hard, too.”

“I can imagine.”

“Johnny, are you . . .”

Johnny chuckled, but there was no mirth in his tone. “Am I going to strap on this here gun and go out, gun for hire. Hone my reputation. Is that all you’re worried about? Well, let me put your mind to rest, old man. I’m going back home. To Texas. That’s all.”

“So you came to say goodbye.”

“I came ’cause I wanted you to know something about me. Something other than this here gun,” Johnny said, whipping the colt from the holster, faster than Murdoch thought possible. “I’m more than this gun, old man. You know, everything could have been so different. For all of us.

“You and Mama, neither one of you gave the other a chance. Sure Mama was wrong in a lot of the things she did, but she wasn’t totally to blame. Seems to me, you could’a paid more attention to her. You seemed to be focused on what you wanted, although in some cases, I can’t blame you none.

“You wanted Scott, and went after him. But the thing is, you left Mama alone and wondering where she fit in your life. You had the ranch, gave it all you had, and there was little left for her. And before you go spouting how you were doing it for us, let me tell you something. Sam Vickers is a good man. He’s been fair to Mama, and I’ve known him most of my life.

“He has one hell of a spread in Texas. We live there, I work it, but don’t stay put. That ain’t Mama’s fault. Neither are my decisions. No one drove me to the gun. I wasn’t deprived, neglected, or shoved aside needing to make a name. I’m restless. Probably would have been just as restless living here, and we would’a butted heads ’cause of that. I made my choices. It happened. I’m good with a gun, found out quite accidentally and it grew from there.

“Pa . . . Jake knew,” Johnny stammered. “But he knew the real me and told me I had two ways to go with the gun. I could let myself go completely and fall so far there’d be no redemption, or I could use it the right way. I think you and I both know what that means. I chose the latter. At least, I try to. Don’t go looking for trouble, but when it comes, I don’t back down.

“Now getting back to Mama, what I’m trying to say is it don’t seem like you and her worked together at this thing. Miss Lana, she works the ranch with Sam. And he took the time for her. Even if it was only for a cup of coffee, she knew the time was for her, not just to have coffee. Mama said you didn’t give that to her.”

Sadness pooled in Murdoch’s eyes and he buried his face in his hands. Taking a deep, choking breath, he stared over at his son, studying the man for the first time. Truly studying him without labels, without the gun hanging over his head. “You’re right. I didn’t give her the time. I was selfish in that regard.”

Johnny nodded. “You didn’t deserve what she did. I’m not talking about Jake, stuff like that happens all the time. Most folks keep it behind closed doors, but you and I both know that what folks let others see, isn’t all that’s happening.”

Murdoch shook his head. “No, it isn’t.”

Johnny stood and paced slowly across the floor. “Thing is, the marriage failed and Mama left. She found someone else, someone who gave her the time and attention she needed, and she fell in love. Most would say that’s unforgivable, but I say it’s life. It happens. What’s hard to swallow, is the lies she told. But in a way, I can even understand that.”

“How can you?” Murdoch asked, his voice rough and breaking.

Johnny stopped and turned to face the stricken man. “Because in a way, it makes sense. She was afraid of losing me, and even though she hated lying, that lie was necessary in her mind at the time, because she feared you doing to her, what she did to you. That simple. She only wanted to hold on to me.”

“We could have worked it out. We could have . . .”

Johnny’s eyes flashed darker than Murdoch thought possible. “Shared me like some toy? Passed me between one another? Tell me old man, would you have played fair? ‘Cause from what I’ve seen so far, how someone who doesn’t live up to your expectations is tossed aside, I don’t think you would have considered her. I would have been a pawn. Maybe for the both of you.

“The thing is, I’m in the middle. This all comes down to me, and if the way you both are feeling right now is any example of what my life would have been if you knew where I was, then I don’t want any part of you. Neither of you would have given me up, and I think you would have torn each other apart. Would have torn me apart, and believe me, I’ve been torn up enough. Don’t want no more.”

“So where does that leave us?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m still trying to convince myself that somewhere deep inside, you want me. Maybe you’ve always wanted me, that’s not the right way to express this. Thing is, are you willing to accept me?”

Murdoch mulled Johnny’s question, but the momentary silence took a sad toll. Johnny slapped the hat on his head, adjusted his rig and spun around. “Guess I just got my answer.”

The door slammed behind him. Murdoch turned his head slightly and muttered softly. “Johnny . . .”

.

Epilogue

Johnny sat at the kitchen table, bathed in the soft glow of a lantern. He adjusted the wick and picked up a sheet of paper. His mother came from behind, wiping her hands dry on a towel. She studied her son, deep in thought as he licked the end of a pencil.

“You have decided to write him back,” she said softly.

“Si,” Johnny answered.

Maria squeezed his shoulder. “I thought you would be in town helping Val tonight.”

“Nah, he’s got everything under control,” Johnny snickered. “Who ever thought he’d be wearing a tin badge.”

Maria cuffed his ear playfully. “Whoever thought you would be his deputy.”

“Yeah, and I delegated my authority. I sent Clint in to keep an eye on Val.”

“I see, you gave yourself the night off.”

“Yeah, and boy oh boy, is Val gonna blister my ears tomorrow.”

“I bet he will.” Maria placed a cup of coffee on the table, followed by a piece of blueberry pie. “I will turn in now, and leave you to your work. Try and get some rest, miel.”

“Yeah, I will,” Johnny said absently. His mother’s door closed and he slid the letter from the envelope.

Dear John,

I hope this letter finds you well. I apologize for the length of time it has taken me to write. Listen to me, I don’t mean to come off so formal, but this is hard to get out. For a man of my position, one would think I would be comfortable and quite adept at writing letters. Sadly, I am not. The words are as closed as my heart has been all these years.

As Scott probably told you, I went off for a while after you left for Texas. I had so much to think over, so many tumultuous emotions and guilt to work through, I found it impossible to stay at the ranch and do so. I went up north, to a cabin I built at the base of the mountains. A beautiful place to think, and the quiet needed to put my mind at rest.

There is so much I want to say. So much I need to say. Let me first start by asking you to forgive a foolish old man. I pray the day comes soon when I can tell you such in person. No, let me rephrase that. I will tell you that in person one day. John, the one conclusion I reached, the only one that matters, is setting my mind straight where you are concerned.

I apologize deeply for the way I treated you. My reaction to seeing you after these many years was lacking, and that is a sad understatement. I treated you abominably, and for that, I will always carry a degree of guilt. I hurt you, and all I can say is please know how deeply sorry I am for that. You were right that morning you came to the ranch. You are the one caught in the middle and that’s not a very nice place for anyone to be, especially a child between his parents. Adults who were unable to work their relationship out, and forgot him along the way.

And I must admit, there was a degree of jealousy on my part, too. I was jealous and hurt thinking that another man had raised my son. I was robbed of years that should have been mine. The reasons no longer matter. And you are not the one to blame. At this point in my life, I no longer choose to blame anyone. Blame is such a useless act. It accomplishes nothing, and adds to strife. And strife brings hurt.

I let old prejudices cloud my mind where my own son was concerned. I saw for myself, and heard from many others, most especially your brother, the kind of man you truly are. Scott is quite the advocate where you are concerned, and he is right. You are my son. That is all that matters. I am sorry it took this long to realize. Once I burned through the pain of rejection, my own failures, and the anger that clouded my mind and marred my judgment, one thing was left standing.

You are my son. I pray one day you can forgive me. I know this letter is lacking, call it the act of a cowardly man for not telling you all this in person. I pray I get that chance. You gave me a chance once before, when you came and I turned you away. I do not deserve another, but Scott says to never give up hope. He has taught me so much, most of all to learn to give. What was it he said ‘not one inch of give’. And he was right.

So here I sit, pen in hand and the fire burning down low as the hour draws close to midnight, and I cannot get the son I betrayed off my mind. John, please forgive a foolish old man. I hope you can find it in your heart to write back. My sincerest hope is that you will come home one day. Yes, home. The words I have been yearning to say for years. I know your home is in Texas, but I do hope you can find it in your heart to come back to Lancer. Claim a piece of what is yours by birth. Your right. And my fondest wish. I will not push for you to stay permanently, for I know from your brother that you have responsibilities in Texas.

I am proud of what you have accomplished. The town could not have a better sheriff and deputy than in you and Val. There I said it. I’m proud of my boy. You are right. You chose the right path. I only wish I saw that sooner. So my son, I will close now, as I am tiring. I hope to hear from you soon. And please remember, you can come home.

Love, your father

A tear slid down Johnny’s cheek and he brushed it away. Glancing out the window, he shuddered at the thought of Val and Clint seeing him sitting there bawling like a baby. His father’s words touched his heart. Scott had said the old man was coming around, that Murdoch found it very hard the first two months after he returned to Texas. But Johnny knew that his father only needed time. The same time he, himself, had needed, after learning the truth that tore their lives apart. Now, the time for healing has arrived. Johnny wrote Scott regularly, now it was time to pen a letter to his father.

Johnny tucked the letter into his pocket and slid the sheet of paper toward him.

***

A long, hot morning of breaking horses, left Johnny wilting under a blazing sun. He turned the chestnut mare into the corral, and ducked his head under the pump. Clint rode in from the range and tied his horse off at the trough. Slapping his hat against his leg, he sauntered over.

“Boy, I tell ya, it’s hot enough to fry the tongue out of a lizard’s mouth,” he wheezed, his turn to duck his head under the pump. He cocked his head sideways and stared up at Johnny, droplets of water falling from golden, sun bleached hair. “You expecting someone?” he asked. Straightening, he cupped a hand over his eyes.

Johnny pushed off from the fence and adjusted his rig. Blinded by dazzling sunlight, he barely made out a tall figure riding in from over the horizon. A wide smile broke out and he shouted with unbridled joy, clumping Clint on the back.

“Well, will you look at that,” Clint whistled between his teeth.

Johnny ran from the corral and met the rider coming in. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Scott lit from the horse and pulled Johnny into a bone crushing bear hug. “Nice greeting, brother. Glad to see you, too.”

“Oh man, it’s good to see you. What brings you here? Is everything all right?”

Scott immediately put Johnny’s mind to rest. He reached into his pocket.

Johnny took a stance and glared, poised to draw. “You better watch it there, amigo. Pull your hand out real slow like.”

A taunting grin broke across Scott’s face as he slid a letter out slowly. “Slow enough?”

“That’ll do,” Johnny said, slapping Scott with his hat. “That for me?”

Scott nodded. “It is. Murdoch sends his greetings. Among other things,” he teased.

“What, you suddenly decided to take on job of pony express or something?”

“Something like that. I felt like taking a trip, and thought, what better place to go than Texas to see my brother.” Scott bent over, his turn to duck his head under the pump. He shook the water from his hair.

“Hey, you’re shaking like a dog,” Johnny cried out, holding the letter out to the side. “Ink will run.”

“You gripe too much. He always gripe this much?” Scott asked, turning to Clint.

“Yeah, but I keep him in line,” Clint chuckled.

“Your ass,” Johnny mumbled. “Come on, let’s go to the house. You look like a scarecrow. Wait till Mama and Miss Lana get their hands on you, brother. That trip plumb wore you to the bone.”

“Sounds good, I’m starved,” Scott said, rubbing his hands together.

“Mama will have you fixed up in no time,” Johnny said. “And Val will be over later. We’ll break open a jug.”

“Jug?”

“Yeah, got some good stuff from old Zeke. Touch a match to the shit, it’ll blow you sky high.”

Scott frowned. “Just what I need. And who’s old Zeke?”

“Stick with me brother, I’ll get you set to straight. And old Zeke is an old desert rat that lives south of here, five miles as the crow flies. I’ll take you for a visit. Lives in nothing more than a shack, but it’s great. Fits him, you know?”

Scott chuckled. “Believe me, mansions are overrated.”

“Yeah, Zeke and his place are great. I go there a lot, will tell you about it. The coot is as old as dirt, got one eye and this old owl with a crippled wing and one eye. Old Zeke, he says he and Hannah make a great pair, together they have two eyes. And since Hannah can’t hunt, Zeke snags mice and lizards, and feeds them to her.”

Scott’s head spun as Johnny carried on. His little brother sure could ramble. And Scott loved every minute.

Maria stood at the door watching the two brothers walking across the vast expanse of yard. One slender and golden haired, the other, stockier, but all muscle, and raven hair standing out in stark contrast. So different, yet so alike. Her heart caught and the years none of them knew seemed to meld into the present, bringing brothers together. Brothers kept apart by the adults in their lives. Adults that did not think past themselves, and it was the children that suffered. For the first time, Maria truly saw Scott as he was. A young boy his father yearned for, now a proud, strong, loyal man striding toward her house.

She grasped his hands. “Scott, it’s so good to see you. Come in, you must be hungry.”

Scott blushed and dipped his head, so like Johnny, her heart caught. Johnny led his brother inside, and Maria stood in the doorway, hand clasped over her mouth. Taking a deep breath, she linked arms with Clint, and followed her son into the kitchen.

A new life beckoned.

.

.

~ end ~

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3 thoughts on “The Mask of Johnny Madrid by Mary M

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