The Test by Mary M

AR/AU story
Standard disclaimer applies
Warning:  Some rough language 

Word count: 80,470

“Viva la . . .”

“Revolucion,” Johnny muttered. The sound of gunfire stilled the barren landscape. Luis’ body dropped to the ground and Johnny winced. “Chalk another up for El Capitan.”

His head lowered, face hidden under a wide sombrero, Johnny grit his teeth and swore to kill the man that took so many innocent lives. Poked in the back by a gun barrel, he stumbled to his feet. With his hands tied behind his back, it was almost an impossible feat, but Johnny would die before he fell on his face before the rurales. He took a step forward, a cold, deadly glare freezing El Capitan in place. Johnny Madrid had the uncanny knack of instilling a fear that would drop a man to his knees, no matter how dire his own circumstances. And at the moment, they were at the bleakest.

Johnny sneered. “I don’t get you in this life, you know I’ll be waiting in hell. There won’t be anywhere you can hide.”

The son of a bitch smiled, rotten teeth turning Johnny’s stomach. He cringed at the sight, crinkling his nose at the stench of human waste and urine from fallen friends, and the foul body odor of the rurales. As long as he lived, he could never get used to the smell. Poor did not mean you had to be foul. Johnny realized that he was in no better shape himself. A month in the dank, sweltering hole of a Mexican prison with barely enough water to drink, let alone bathe, had him almost relishing the thought of death.

At least then he would be free of the filth coating his skin, the grease plastering his hair to his head. Damn, how he hated the feel of greasy, stringy hair. Not that he was a dandy, far from it. Nobody dared to call Johnny Madrid a dandy and hope to get away with it, but he did take a certain pride and enjoyment from being clean.

Used to taking care of himself, Johnny made sure to have clean clothes whenever possible, although never having more than two sets to his name at one time, made the task daunting, but he tried. Whenever he had the chance, and even if he did not have the time, Johnny made it a point to dunk himself, fully clothed, in the nearest river, soaping body and clothing. They both needed washing and dried easily in the hot desert sun.

“Well, I sure picked a good day to die.” Johnny flashed a cocky grin and took a step forward.

Pablo knelt beside him, hands bound behind his back and a look of remorse and fear plastered across his face. The poor man had been holding onto the last sliver of hope that Madrid would somehow conquer the rurales and get them out of this latest predicament, but it looked like the last card had been played. Taking a cue from Johnny, Pablo stiffened his back and stared at the rurales. He would not go down a coward. He would make Madrid proud.

The revolution might be lost, but they would go out proud and strong. Their names talked about for years to come. Perhaps carried down to the next century. Pablo knew his two boys would not let him be forgotten. And they had a raging case of hero worship where Johnny was concerned.

Closing his eyes, Pablo sent up a prayer of thanks that his family was safely hidden from the rurales, and he would be leaving this world alongside Johnny Madrid. With Johnny by his side, nothing could go wrong. Muttering a prayer, he closed his eyes when Johnny took a step forward.

The sound of a wagon tearing across the barren desert, a red-faced, pudgy man in a suit better fitting an eastern city than the slums of Sonora, crying out. The frantic tone of his voice startled El Capitan and Johnny kept a close eye on the guards. All he needed was one moment. A single diversion. He had been working the ropes around his wrists loose and it would not take but more than a second to pull free. Their attention averted, Johnny stepped out of their line of sight and tugged, feeling his right wrist let loose. Keeping his hands hidden, he sidled closer. Just one more second, and he could jump the guard and pull his gun before the stupid man knew what hit him.

“I’m looking for Johnny Madrid. I was told you have Johnny Madrid here,” the sweaty man said, pulling out a bulging billfold.

Johnny couldn’t believe his eyes. The man was buying his life. Flashing enough money around to start a third world country, and was using it to buy his life. It was ‘muy importante’, the man said. Johnny had never been muy importante to anyone. Who the hell would come throwing around a veritable fortune, for his sorry hide?

But the strange man sure caught the rurales’ attention. Johnny was wary. Money. The only language the dumb, heartless bastards understood. And it was soon to break wide open. There was no way El Capitan would let this stupid assed stranger leave with that much cash on him. The pickings were just too easy.

Money was the very reason for the revolution in the first place. Johnny was tired of needless suffering because of the greed of another. He would stop it, or die trying. As it stood, he was closer to death than victory, yet refused to give up. Johnny Madrid was not a quitter. He got his ass in a sling more times than he cared to remember, but he never quit. No matter how bad the odds. His mother said he was a scrapper. And being a scrapper kept him alive all these years, so he must be doing something right. Johnny was on his own. He needed no one, but sometimes the aid of another, whether they were aware of it or not, could be used to his advantage and was most welcome.

“I’m Madrid.”

Hearing his name was startling, to say the least. The sum of money handed over to buy his life, almost left Madrid standing in stunned shock, but he quickly gathered his wits. The man should know better than to flash so much money around. As he approached, Johnny kept his eyes trained on the rurales.

“I finally found you,” the man wheezed. Grabbing Johnny’s wrists, the ropes fell free and his mouth curled up in a smile. Their eyes locked, a moment of silent mirth shared. The gunslinger amazed him. A few seconds later, he might have witnessed a showdown that would have been talked about for years. His eyes never left Johnny’s. “I’m a Pinkerton agent, and I have a job for you.”

“A job?” Johnny asked, eyes glued to the guards and his interest piqued. There was nothing better than being pulled from a firing squad, and walking away with a job.

“Yes, one thousand dollars for an hour of your time.”

“Whew, someone must want me bad to send a Pink. Who is it?”

“I’m not at liberty to say. All I can tell you is to be in California within the month. A small town called Morro Coyo. The bartender will be your contact.”

Before Johnny could reply, all hell broke loose. He drew the detective’s gun and shoved the man toward the wagon. Three guards fell. Bullets sprayed the area. Johnny pulled Pablo to his feet and shoved him into the back of the wagon. A bullet whizzed past his head. He turned and fired at a guard hidden behind a tree. The man fell with a scream, blood spurting from his chest.

A sneer on his face, Johnny turned to El Capitan. “Looks like you’re going to hell before me.” He pulled the trigger and the putrid man fell the ground, Johnny Madrid’s bullet drilling into his brain.

“What do I tell my employer?” the Pink cried out over the volley of gunfire.

“Tell him for $1,000 I’d even go to hell.”

The wagon rambled off, Pablo tucked safely in the back. Johnny vaulted onto a horse, the detested peasant pants sliding over his backside. Wind blowing across his bare cheeks, Johnny Madrid let out a whoop of joy and spurned the horse forward. He had never felt so free in his life.

*****

Johnny headed north, wanting to be shod of Mexico as soon as he could. Not until he crossed into the border towns of southern Texas, would he rest. The Pink followed. Johnny never did get his name. Pablo was sitting on the seat, a gun at the ready, eyes scanning the landscape. Johnny was forever grateful the man would escape. With a little luck, things would calm down and Pablo would be free to unite with his family. But the man was alive. That was all Johnny needed for now. Pablo fought a good fight for a farmer. He was brave, and stood up for what he believed in, what was right. Johnny was proud to fight by his side. And forever grateful that the clumsy Pink had such impeccable timing.

They rode until dusk, stopping on the banks of the Rio Grande. The sun hung low in the sky, hues of orange and pink bathing the scrubby, sage dotted desert. Sunlight glinted off the slow moving current, and Johnny slid from the horse. A cocky grin plastered across his face, he hitched up the threadbare pants and led the horses to drink.

“Never did thank you,” he said, turning toward the Pink.

“Glad to see the job done. You are a slippery bastard.” The man swiped an arm across his forehead and tossed a canteen over. “Could use a little.”

“Thanks.” Johnny caught the canteen effortlessly, lightning quick reflexes further stunning the man. Johnny’s eyes never stopped scanning the landscape, and his instincts were raging. There was no immediate sign of danger, but he was not about to let his guard down. Filling the vessel, he handed it over, not willing to be the first to drink. A man did not run by greed, he looked toward the needs of others, before himself. Especially one that just saved his hide.

The Pink drank and then handed the canteen to Pablo. Draining a quarter of the container, Pablo replaced the cap and tossed the canteen to Johnny. All the while, he wished for Johnny to drink first. If he could have gotten away with it, he would have bowed at Johnny’s feet, but both would just get him a bullet in the ass. Johnny was a proud man, and did not take to doting. He was nobody’s hero. He was just a man fighting for what he believed in, scratching to survive the only way he knew how.

From the first moment he strapped a gun on his hips at the tender age of fourteen, Johnny discovered the one true way to survival and respect. No one dared cross him. No one had yet to beat him. And it felt damned good. He was Johnny Madrid. Not some snot nosed mestizo to be kicked around. And he was the last to drink.

“Didn’t catch your name,” Johnny said, handing the canteen back to the Pink.

“Douglas Slade, Pinkerton agent.”

“Yeah, gathered that,” Johnny snickered. “But am wondering just what the hell you’re doing here.”

“My job.” Their eyes locked, and Johnny understood. A proud man saw a job to the end.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Oh man, the things I get myself into,” Johnny whistled, kicking at the ground. “Bare feet, clothes so threadbare I can’t hold ‘em up when I ride. Came all this way with my ass cheeks hanging out.”

“Yes, I recall,” Slade said dryly. Shaking his head, he had to chuckle.

“Yeah, not one of my better moments. Felt pure naked without my gun.” Johnny laughed, then turned to the water.

Never one to be modest, he pulled the shirt over his head, dropped his drawers and dove into the cool depths. Scrambling from the buggy, Pablo followed. They whooped for the sheer, unbridled joy of water touching their skin. Parched and filth laden, they had been denied this simple luxury, this dire need, for weeks now, and were not about to let modesty stand in their way.

Slade pulled a bottle from his bag and tossed it over. Pure joy riddled Johnny’s face and he stood, victoriously snagging the treasure. The man was good at his job. Johnny held the golden liquid up to the fading sunlight, marveling at the sight of the worm on the bottom.

“Mr. Slade, I hope they pay you well.”

“I get by,” Slade snickered. “Thought you could use a belt. Always pays to be prepared.” He then tossed over a bar of soap.

“Boy howdy, that does it,” Johnny shouted with glee. “Now, if you only had clothes and a gunbelt. . .”

A devious smirk on his face, Slade retrieved a cloth sack and tossed it over. A worn gunbelt and familiar colt followed. His naked body glistening in the waning rays of the sun, Johnny walked from the water, fighting the urge to cry when holding the colt.

“How in the hell?”

“When I buy a man’s freedom, I buy everything that makes him,” Slade replied. “It’s amazing what money can do. Oh, what the hell are those things up the side of your pant legs?”

“Conchos,” Johnny answered, a wide smile splitting his face. “Come in handy when nature catches you short, you catch a bullet, or a willing female has a mind to play.”

“Then you chose well,” Slade laughed. Taking another drink from the canteen, he settled back against the buggy wheel.

Johnny soaped his body and hair three times before satisfied that he was reasonably clean, and climbed out. As good as it felt, they had to get moving.  They had a jump on the rurales, but they would be coming. Freedom was too close to trip up now. Once he reached El Paso, he would indulge in a hot bath, a thick steak and hole up in a whorehouse for a week.

Slade handed Pablo a set of his own clothes, laughing at the look of distaste on the man’s face. “I know they’re not what you’re used to, but they cover your ass and are less conspicuous than that prison garb.”

Pablo accepted the offering with gratitude, and shook Slade’s hand. “You have saved my life. I will not look down on something as simple as a pair of pants and shirt, no matter how strange.”

“I wish I had more,” Slade shrugged. “But this will help.” He reached into the billfold and threw a roll of bills on the ground by Johnny’s feet.

Johnny pulled on his boot and stared. “What’s that?”

“Now before you refuse, that is rightfully yours. From your client. Call it an advance. He felt you might need it to get started.”

Johnny hesitated, but took the money. A job was a job, and he needed clothes, a good horse, and supplies for the trail. California was a fair piece to travel. “Thanks.” Peeling off a few bills, he held them out to Pablo.

“No, Senor Johnny, I cannot.” Pablo argued, handing the money back.

“You insult me?” Johnny asked softly.

Pablo hung his head, and put the money in his pocket. “Forgive me, that was not what I wished to do. But you have already done so much,” he said, lifting his head.

“And you have lost everything fighting for the same cause. I have what I need. I’ve made do with less before. Now take it and get back to your family. Get a new start.”

“I will, and thank you. I will never forget you, Johnny Madrid.”

“No one forgets me,” Johnny said, a cocky wit emerging. Tucking his shirt into his pants, he snagged the reins of his horse. “Better get a move on.”

No further words were exchanged. Pablo ferried the wagon across the great body of water. Slade held his breath the entire time, hoping he did not end up swimming to the other side. Darkness was setting in by the time they reached the far bank. Diamond studded stars filled a sky of velvety black, and a light breeze kicked up, fluffing Johnny’s hair. He ran his fingers through the soft, raven locks, marveling at the feel.

He was alive. And he had a job to do. Whatever that may be. Turning toward the west, he lifted a hand in farewell and rode off.

*****

“He’s safe. They found him in the nick of time.”

“Thank God. What happened?”

“Slade literally pulled his ass from the fire. He was about to be executed.”

“Executed?” His skin crawled, and his stomach heaved.

“Firing squad.”

He squeezed his eyes shut, battling emotions that had no place at the moment. When he was alone, would he address his feelings. Not in front of anyone. Never in front of anyone.

“Do you want further contact?”

“No, let him come to me.”

“Yes sir. I’ll leave now.”

“Keep me appraised of his arrival. Should he arrive. He didn’t give a definite answer, I take it?”

“Only that for $1,000, he’d go straight to hell. From the looks of him, he sure could use the money. Didn’t have much.”

“Someone who spends a month in a Mexican prison, doesn’t. But he’s a man of his word. He will come. Remember, my name is not to be mentioned.”

“It won’t be.”

The door shut and he was alone. Hands clasped behind his back he stood at the great window, staring at the mountains beyond.

*****

Johnny rode through the dark, stopping periodically to let the horse rest and drink. They went at an easy pace. The horse was not the best he had ever ridden, but the roan was strong and would do until he could obtain better. The money from Slade would serve that purpose well. There was no way the gray would make the long trek to California.

Morro Coyo. Johnny hated the damned town. Well, he sure fooled Slade. Not only did Johnny hide his reaction well, all hell broke loose and he barely had time to let the thought register, let alone react. Later when they talked, Johnny pulled the mask over his face, kept his emotions buried, and never revealed the fact that he had been to Moro Coyo twice before. Johnny thought he played his part to the hilt. What showed, was what he wanted to show. Always in control. That was the Madrid way. The only way to keep people from getting too close, yet obtain what he wanted. And what he wanted was simple. Somehow, someway, he wished to find a semblance of peace in this stinking life.

Of those trips to the stifling town, only one culminated in a ride out to the ranch where he sat atop a hill looking out over the vast domain. His father’s empire. The legacy and birthright that was ripped from him. Johnny never went further, and had never seen the man he so hated. The faceless demon that taunted his dreams. Emotions better left buried were shoved aside and he had reined his horse south, back to the familiar. Back where he belonged. All the while promising that one day, he would return and claim what was his, any way he could. Perhaps that day had come. He hated Murdoch Lancer with a vengeance. It was due to the man’s selfish bigotry that he and his mother were given the keys to the road.

“Thrown to the street is more like it,” Johnny cursed, a dark mood coming on.

All his life his mother professed how Murdoch Lancer loved his ranch first and foremost. When it became apparent that a Mexican wife and half breed son defeated the purpose, threatened his success and did not help his image, he threw his small family to the wind. One day, Johnny would show the old man the keys to the road.

He knew how to read people and more importantly, how to use them to his advantage. He preyed on their weaknesses and exploited their strengths. Everyone had a price. And those that could not be bought with money, could be taken down using other means. Johnny would stop at nothing to destroy Lancer. Gunning the old man down in cold blood was too easy. Johnny wanted to make Lancer sweat. One day, he would take his birthright by whatever means presented themselves, and would do it with devious glee, reveling in the look on Lancer’s face when his empire fell and his mestizo son walked away with the prize.

Devious, deadly and good at his trade, Johnny knew how to play the game. And there was more than one way to destroy a man. A myriad of ideas ran through his mind, each more diabolical than the last. A very tempting array of torture, all too good for the man that had turned his back on him, ultimately destroying his life.

“Enough. Bad enough you’re going to California. Don’t even know who you’re going to meet and what the hell he wants. Can’t be the old bastard, son of a bitch wouldn’t throw you out one day and spend a bloody fortune on you the next. And the last thing he’d do was pull your ass out of the fire. You die, he’s well shod of ya.

“Damn, what the hell is wrong with you?” Johnny chastised himself. “This isn’t personal. A bit too close to the old man’s place, but it’s pretty unsettled out there. No telling who it is. Whoever wants to hire me, probably wants to keep it under wraps. Wonder what kind of trouble they’re in. Must be big to bail my ass out and bring me all the way to California. Still, don’t relish the thought of going there. You can spit from Morro Coyo to the old man’s stinking ranch. Could probably run into the son of a bitch and not even know him.”

There was no greater truth. The only thing Johnny knew about his father was that he owned a ranch, and possessed a cold heart. There was no memory of the man, and no fond stories from his youth. For all he knew, Slade could have been his father. Johnny’s heart caught. Slade flashed money around like it was water. Stupid thought, really, but it struck hard and deep. Anyone he met over the years could have been Murdoch Lancer. His mother never talked about him, much less described him, and Johnny wasn’t the only one going by a different name.

All that thinking was giving him a headache. Having had nothing substantial to eat, did not help.

Slade offered a simple repast of bread, cheese, and apples, and although Johnny devoured the offering in minutes, his stomach still gnawed at him. Thoughts of Murdoch Lancer only served to sicken him. The last thing Johnny wanted was to lose the little food ingested. The first real, clean food in weeks. There wasn’t even a worm in the apple. It sure beat the maggots that crawled through the gruel the rurales had thrown at them.

Johnny slipped a finger into his waistband. As thought, the pants that had once fit like a glove, accentuating his slim hips, rounded buttocks, and tapered legs, now hung on him. He had to cut a new hole in his belt so that the pants did not slide down over his hips. Although the feeling was free and almost exhilarating, Johnny had no desire to ride bare assed again any time soon.

As he rode to the nearest town, a sump hole with a name not worth remembering, Johnny pondered the identity of his mysterious employer. The man must really need his help. One thousand dollars was nothing to scoff at. He could leave and start a new life somewhere up north where no one even knew the name Johnny Madrid. Slade was right, it was amazing what money could do.

One hour with the mysterious employer, and he could walk away $1,000 richer. That’s all he had to do. Anything else would cost. Just one hour of his time was all that was required, and all the man would get. Assuming the employer was a man. Johnny’s rabid curiosity grew. He loved a puzzle, and a mystery was like a tonic to an overactive imagination. A challenge made his blood race, and power, large odds against him and facing an enemy, danger or threat, was intoxicating. Power exuded from his walk, his talk, and his glare. His eyes said it all. Those eyes have sent many a man running for the hills after one cold stare.

Johnny loved the game. He craved danger and never let anyone walk all over him. His new employer would learn that fast. He would show up. Even though he fought with everything in him to avoid California like the plague, he would show up. When Johnny Madrid gave his word, only death would break it. Whether he would take on the job or not, was a different story. The one reassuring thought was that all he had to do was show up. After that, he could go off to a new life.

It was nearly midnight before he reached the small, desolate town. The only building with a light on was the local saloon and Johnny hoped to find something to eat. Anything. He was not picky. Too many nights of going hungry gave him a deep respect for food. Johnny hated seeing it go to waste and was deeply appreciative for all he had. Another piece of bread and slab of cheese would be as good as any feast.

He rode to the livery and stabled the horse, tossing two bits at the owner. Laying in a pile of hay, a whiskey bottle by his side and eyes too tired and bleary to focus, the gruff old man snorted, pocketed the money and pointed to a stall. Johnny found a curry comb tossed into a bucket and brushed the sorrel down, talking gently all the while. Soothing the weary animal. The horse had served him well, and deserved a long rest. Finding a grain bin in the far corner of the barn, Johnny filled a sack and hung it on the wall. Snagging a bucket of water, he filled the trough and left, satisfied the horse was tended for the night.

If there was one thing Johnny would not abide, it was cruelty or neglect of animals. There were a lot of people he had no use for, would probably not lift a finger to help, but he would never turn his back on an animal. Closing the stall, he stalked past the drunken owner and headed for the saloon.

He stood at the batwing doors, staring at the patrons. About a dozen in all. Tired, but seemingly harmless. Still, it would not do to let his guard down. A meek, mustached man banged away at a piano, tinny sounding and out of tune, and a disinterested saloon girl milled about serving drinks. Johnny would have loved to take a poke at her, but she appeared too used for the night to be of any appeal.

Besides, first things first. He needed a long, hot bath, shave, haircut, new clothes, and some good food sticking to his ribs. He was tired. Physically drained and emotionally depleted but for the hate that drove him daily, Johnny wondered how he managed to stay his feet. Sidling up to the bar, he walked to the end, turning sideways, his back to the wall.

“What’ll it be?” the bartender asked, slapping a shotglass down in front of him.

“Tequila. And something to eat if you got it.”

Recognition set in and the bartender took a step back. Johnny’s eyes bore through him and he swallowed past the rising lump in his throat. “Don’t have anything in the kitchen but some bread and leftover steak from earlier. Reckon I can make a sandwich, if that’s all right.”

Johnny’s mouth watered and his gaze lightened, setting the man at ease. “That’s fine.”

What Johnny refused to say, was that was more than fine, and he fought with everything in him not to run into the kitchen and wolf the food down. A sandwich was the finest fare he had in weeks. Hell, after all the times he went hungry when younger, a sandwich was a meal fit for royalty.

Johnny picked up the glass and tucked the bottle under his arm. “I’ll be over there. Oh, and if you have some coffee, it will be appreciated.” Another thought that made his mouth water. He could not remember the last time he had coffee. He craved coffee. Could not start his day without it, yet circumstances often forced him to do so, and it never made him happy.

“Will bring some right out, then will get your sandwich Mr. . .”

“Thanks. Johnny cut the man off.

The bartender nodded his understanding and shuffled off. Johnny kicked a chair back and sat at a corner table, his back to the wall. What patrons were left, paid him no mind, either too immersed in poker, or too drunk to care. Just as well. Johnny would rather be left alone. Any attention drawn to Madrid, usually did not bode well for the other.

The coffee appeared and Johnny almost cried out with sheer relief after taking the first sip. A minute later two thick steak sandwiches with wedges of onion and cheese, were served. Nothing ever tasted as good. Johnny ate with abandon, not worrying about the food coming back up after being deprived for so long. His mother always said he had a cast iron stomach and could handle anything at any time. She was almost right. The only times Johnny could remember food making a return appearance was when sick or injured, and then it was usually a thin broth or merely water.

Just that morning, Johnny thought he woke to his last sunrise. Tonight, he sat eating a steak sandwich on thick slices of day old bread, washed down with bitter coffee and half a bottle of tequila. Sated, he asked for a room and climbed the stairs, saddlebags slung over his shoulders. He fell asleep the minute his head hit the pillow and did not wake until well after noon the following day.

*****

By the time Johnny rose, the sun had reached its zenith and was sliding down toward the western horizon. A shaft of sunlight gleamed through the grimy window, dust particles dancing on a bright beam. The room was sparse, but served its purpose. At least he slept on a clean bed with sheets and a blanket, in lieu of a filthy prison floor. A pitcher of water sat on a stand under the window, a chamber pot under the bed. Johnny made good use of the facilities and stretching, walked over to stare out the window. Leaning sideways against the wall, he pulled the curtain apart slightly and looked down on the street below.

Hot, dusty, and dry described the forgotten desert town. Forgotten. It fit him well. Johnny had been forgotten for years, an empty void he fought valiantly to get past. Anger filled the need perfectly. He would rather deal with anger, than fall prey to need. Never let them see how you feel. Hide your emotions and go on with your business. Johnny was a lone wolf, and preferred it that way.

His stomach rumbled and mouth watered. Looking further down the street, he was ecstatic to spot a cantina. Pulling on his clothes, he holstered the gunbelt on hips that had grown too slim and went down to the bar.

“Keep the room for a night?” Johnny asked of the bartender.

“Got no one else interested. You got the money, you got the room.”

“Got the money.” Johnny handed over a dollar, both for the room and the bottle of tequila tucked under his arm. A nod of thanks and he was out the door.

Eyes scanning the rooftops, alleys and street, he sauntered over to the barbershop. He would be clean when he went to dinner. He would not sit at a table laden with good food, looking and smelling like a pig in wallow.

“The works,” he greeted the barber.

“Back room is free.” Like Johnny, he was a man of few words and nodded toward the door. “Shuck them there clothes and I’ll have the tub ready. Need a glass for that?” he asked, pointing toward the bottle.

“Nope.”

“Go on then, get yourself ready.”

Five minutes later Johnny lounged neck deep in soapy water. Having washed and dunked his head twice, he scrubbed the rough shadow of beard covering his face. The knife used while bathing in the river did a fair job, but left a thick layer of stubble.

“Heads up young fella.” The barber bustled into the room, grunting under the weight of a pot of hot water. “Gonna heat this up for you, then give you the best shave you ever had.”

“Yeah. Thanks,” Johnny muttered. Snagging the bottle, he turned delicate body parts away from the stream of boiling water. He hissed with pleasure, his body enfolded in welcoming warmth. “Oh man, that’s the trick.”

An hour later, shaved, trimmed, and finally, truly clean, Johnny strode from the barbershop, after handing the stunned man a generous tip. A short jaunt to the general store, and he walked out with an ample supply of ammunition and spare set of clothing, including two pairs of long-john bottoms that would be cut off. He did not relish the thought of chafing on the long ride to California.

He placed an order for coffee and the staples needed, paid for the supplies stating that he would pick them up in the morning before cutting out. A quick trip to the livery, and the sorrel plus $10 bought a sturdy bay standing at 16 hands. He should have no problems on the long journey.

Now that business was taken care of, Johnny was ready to fill his belly. As if on cue, his stomach rumbled and smiling, he turned toward the cantina. Entering the quaint establishment, fond memories of his youth rushed forth.

He took a table at the far end. Along the way he flirted with the plump senora serving fresh tortillas, and skirted past the saucy senorita waiting tables. Johnny sat down and a plate of fresh tortillas and bowl of salsa magically appeared, along with a fresh bottle of tequila. He had to bite his tongue to keep from crying out with sheer joy when familiar tastes and smells that had been so long denied, exploded on his senses. Tastes from his youth. The smell of chiles, fresh tortillas dipped in tangy salsa, tamales, enchiladas, and rice and beans. Cinnamon dusted churros for dessert. All brought back the short, joyful time of his youth when his mother stood in the kitchen, cooking as she welcomed him home.

His mother. How he missed the woman. Tears stung his eyes and Johnny dropped his head, pulling the hat down lower. To the everyday passerby, it would seem as if the deadly gunhawk was striking an intimidating pose, flaunting his deadly prowess. Ready to pounce. When in reality, he was victim to emotions he fought to get past.

‘Never let them see you weak,’ Johnny chided himself.

Yet he was lost in memory. His mother’s smiling face. Her warm arms wrapping around him as they sat in front of a fire at night telling him a story. Life had been good for a while. His stepfather, Manuel Rodriguez, was a decent man. A gambler by trade, he kept a roof over their heads, food on the table and filled the home with laughter. He never lifted a hand to Johnny, rode him around on his shoulders when younger, and taught him how to fight when he grew older and fell victim to bullying. They soon learned to stay out of Johnny’s way.

They moved more often than he liked, and making friends was hard. Johnny soon gave up trying, for every time he got close to someone, they left. Manny knew Johnny was lonely, and filled his head with stories of Madrid. One day, he promised, they would sail across the ocean and visit the great city. Johnny was enthralled, and would listen for hours, lost in wonder of many adventures. When Johnny was nine, Manny was killed late one night over a card game gone bad. Maria packed Johnny up and they fled the small town.

They settled in a remote village just south of Sonora. Maria always managed to find work somehow, cleaning for the larger ranchers in the area, taking in laundry and sewing. Sitting by the fire at night, Johnny listened to stories of his mother’s youth while watching her fingers nimbly sewing stitches so tiny and straight, it seemed impossible to his young mind. He could never get enough. Johnny loved the warm, loving sound of his mother’s voice, the tinkling laughter. The sparkle in her eyes.

Eyes so unlike his own. Johnny downed another shot of tequila and dipped a tortilla in spicy salsa. It was best not to think of his mother’s eyes. The one regret he carried in life, was not having his mother’s eyes.

He had her soft, raven hair, nose, mouth and long, tapered fingers. He had her snapping temper, famous as her son’s, for no one dared cross her. His mother was savvy, quick witted, fair, and loyal. And she loved her son with every fiber of her being. Johnny was taught to respect his elders, speak his mind when right, and pick his battles when wrong. He went to church on Sunday morning and attended school whenever possible, during the week. Johnny learned his sums and could read in both English and Spanish.  Maria Lancer’s son was not going to be an uneducated lout.

And if he failed to do his studies, Johnny felt the business end of a wooden spoon. He had everything a young boy needed, but he did not have her eyes. If he had, when she died, life would have been so different. But he ran. He couldn’t stay. Reminders of his mother were everywhere, and Johnny refused to stay at the dilapidated orphanage at the end of town.

He ran before they could place him. Only twelve, he slipped in and out of one border town after the other, struggling to survive. Cursing Murdoch Lancer every stinking, blessed second. And crying for his mother at night. Praying that she was not ashamed of him, in spite of the choices he made.

Well, the time for crying was over and Johnny drew from deep inside himself, stiffened his spine, and hardened his heart. Lifting his head, he pushed his hat back and stared around the room. A couple with three children ate at an adjacent table. Drifters came and went, appetites sated. The pretty senorita served the tables, her plump mother scowling at her flirtatious ways. Johnny snickered. The problems the woman would have with that one, especially when she sashayed close enough to brush her breast against the back of his head.

His stomach clenched and his groin grew tight. Johnny stifled a groan, lowered his head and downed another tortilla, all the while watching the flustered senora whisk her daughter from the room, a hand gripping the young woman’s elbow tightly. Chattering in loud Spanish all the while. Nope, he was better leaving that one alone. Unless he wanted to be filleted by an enraged mother. It was safer to stick to saloon girls and whorehouses.

Having banished the young woman to wash dishes, the senora returned alone, muttering to herself. Johnny motioned for the older woman to come over. “Lo siento, Senora, I did not mean any insult.”

Johnny was sincere, and as he learned through life, sincerity was often rewarded. He was not disappointed. The woman clucked him under the chin with her finger. “De nada. My daughter, she is restless. Perhaps reading a passage from the good book will serve as a reminder.” The woman leaned closer, whispering in Johnny’s ear. “If not, there is always the convent.”

“Yeah, that’ll do the trick,” Johnny laughed. If his life had turned out different, he might have pursued the younger woman. If only to have such an endearing mother-in-law. Johnny schmoozed her instantly. And missed his mother all the more. Without knowing, he drank up all the attention.

The woman pinched him in the ribs. Johnny yelped, unprepared for such a move, but he should have expected as such. Older woman loved to poke at him, stating that he was too thin, needed fattening up. Only in this case, the senora was right.

“Ayyy, you are all bone. You need some meat, si? And not only on your plate.”

Johnny blushed. “Si.”

“I will feed you. Si?”

“Si. Gracias mamacita,” Johnny said, further pleasing the woman.

She bustled from the room. Johnny saw her stop to speak with whom he surmised was her husband, as she went off to the kitchen. She stopped and turned to stare, and Johnny’s stomach dropped. It was always like this. Well, was best to eat and run, anyway. No matter what, he was having a meal. Minutes later, Johnny was stunned by the plate set before him, double what he had seen other patrons served. The woman stood wringing her hands, tears sliding down her face.

Her husband came to his side. His head lowered, he grasped Johnny’s hand. “Gracias, Johnny Madrid. For all you have done for our people. That one battle might be lost, but we are not destroyed.”

“How did you know?” Johnny asked, embarrassed by the attention, but heartfelt that what they had fought for, was not forgotten.

The older man stood straighter. “I am Frederico Hernandez.”

“Guess you know who I am,” Johnny flashed a shy smile.

“And I will never forget, Mr. Madrid.”

“Please, it’s Johnny.”

“Ahh, but that would mean disrespect on my part,” the older man lamented. “You do not know me, but you know my nephew.”

“Nephew?” Johnny asked, curiosity rising.

“Yes, and I just received word earlier today that he is safe. Plucked from the hands of certain death by the rurales.”

Johnny’s throat constricted, a lump forming. His head drooped and he could barely speak. “Pablo.”

“Si, my sister’s only boy. We feared him gone, his family was in deep grief, but tonight, we rejoice. May God be with you, Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny could only nod and Frederico reached out and pat his hand. “You eat now. My wife is right, you are too thin. I leave you with my thanks and prayers. Gracias, Johnny Madrid.”

Before Johnny could respond, the older man shuffled back into the kitchen, his wife following, sniffling the entire time. She stopped for a brief moment and looked over, a fresh bevy of tears falling. Johnny stared at the plate of tamales, enchiladas, and rice and beans. It was a bounty of food the likes not known in a long time, and he was ready to do the meal justice.

Much to the older woman’s pleasure and his astonishment, Johnny polished off every bite. His mother was right, he did have a cast iron stomach. Trouble was, he was too full to enjoy the pleasure of the saloon girl’s company that night. All he wanted to do was sleep. Perhaps it was for the best. He had a long ride in the morning, and the promise of more chances along the way.

Knowing that it would be an insult of gross proportions, Johnny did not leave any money for the bill, but he did stop at the entrance of the kitchen. “I must go now. Tell Pablo Johnny said hi, and to keep his . . . well, to stay out of trouble.”

The woman tossed her head back, hearty laughter booming throughout the room. “I will tell him, Mr. Madrid. And I will also make sure my daughter behaves. Si?”

“Si,” Johnny laughed with her. “And that was the best meal I have eaten in a long time.”

A new bout of tears sprung forth and Johnny bid the woman goodbye. It was interesting the people he met along the way.

*****

Scott Garrett Lancer leaned on the bar in a dingy, smoke filled room. His grandfather would never think of looking for him here. The man would be appalled to see his grandson, heir to the great Garrett legacy, sitting in a dank, rancid bar down on the docks. He was safe for the time being. His grandfather was probably gunning for him, ready to take him to task for doing the unthinkable.

Etiquette, social standing, and proper decorum meant the world to the older man. Harlan Garrett would rather die, than lose face. Scott cringed at the thought, for he had shamed the Garrett name that very afternoon. Not only was his grandfather pulling out all stops to find him, half of Boston society was probably after him.

He had never been so ashamed. He had never felt so free. For months now, Scott felt the upcoming marriage to Barbara was wrong. He felt smothered, as if he was losing a piece of himself. They fought continuously. Scott wanted a quaint house on the far side of town, closer to the water, but Barbara swooned at the thought. She insisted on a mansion that rivaled the Garrett mansion on Beacon Hill.

Barbara wanted him to work for her father. The thought of spending all day in a stuffy bank held as much appeal as working as an accountant for Garrett Enterprises. Scott shuddered at the thought. He didn’t really know what he wanted to do, other than the desire to work with his hands. Scott had an abundant amount of restless energy that demanded release. He could not sit sequestered within four walls all day long. That was a good one; his grandfather had almost burst a blood vessel over that announcement.

“A common laborer? Scotty, I did not spend the last 24 years of my life grooming you to carry on the Garrett name, just to have you become a common laborer. Why, will I find you unloading ships down on the pier one day?”

Scott could not contain a smile and his grandfather turned an interesting shade of purple, the slamming of his office door vibrating the walls. Working the docks sounded very intriguing. The wind in his hair, briny taste of salt on his tongue, the roiling of the sea. Freedom. That was what Scott craved most of all. To use his muscles, challenge himself daily, and work. Not prance around like some mindless drone groomed to spit and polish on command.

His grandfather blamed it on the war. What he was feeling was merely a phase. One they could work past if Scotty would only cooperate. But three failed appearances at meetings set up by Barbara’s father and a verbal row with his grandfather the previous week, built up until they exploded, leaving Barbara standing at the alter alone and Scott heading to the dark side of the docks.

He never meant to hurt Barbara in such a manner, and hated himself for not being man enough to call the wedding quits before they got this far. Scott deluded himself into thinking he loved Barbara enough to make the marriage work, woke that morning with every intention of going through with the ceremony, but the closer he got to the church, the more his stomach lurched. In a last minute, desperate attempt, Scott ran to the water closet and lost his breakfast, then fled out the back door. Hailing a cab, he disappeared down the cobblestone streets, taking the coward’s way out.

Barbara was shattered, her reputation tarnished. Her father was probably out for blood, and his grandfather would be beyond words. Scott snickered, he was probably disinherited, but that did not matter. He had money from the trust his grandmother set aside, and would use that to start a new life. The problem was, he did not know where. For the past few months, he fought the urge to travel to California and seek out his father, but the idea was scrapped every time. If Murdoch Lancer wanted to see him, he could have made the trip anytime during the past 24 year span.

“Want another?”

“What?” Scott answered, bleary, red rimmed eyes staring at the bartender.

“I asked, do you want another?”

“Yeah.”

The door crashed open, and four men stormed into the room. Scott dropped the drink and vaulted from his chair.

“There he is! Get him.”

Scott shoved a patron out of the way and swung a chair at the first to approach, felling him with a blow to the ribs. Randall Preston. Scott should have known. They had never been friends, and Scott enjoyed taking the pompous imbecile down. Boston society, they fell like a ton of bricks. Scott almost wished for a worthy opponent to fight. Champion middle weight boxer at Harvard and serving in the army, had honed his skills. Scott more than held his own in a fight. He stood his ground and fought to the finish. Another trait his grandfather found disgusting, after Scott returned home drunk from a night on the docks, sporting another black eye or swollen jaw. The old man just didn’t know what he was missing.

His mouth curled in a smile, eyes bright with challenge, Scott turned and faced the three men closing in. Markus Pierce was the next to come at him. A roundhouse punch to the jaw felled the pasty faced man, and Scott was almost disappointed. This was much too easy. Markus had been a pain in the ass all through school, always whining to the teacher. His father came to the mansion more than once when Scott scrapped with Markus. Little shit couldn’t stand up for himself then, and had not changed over the years.

Before Scott could react, a blow to the jaw from Lance Sterling sent him crashing against the bar. They had never been friends, although they did pal around together now and then over the years. Scott found his peers too boring and slipped down to the docks at every opportunity. Only by the sea, did he feel alive and free. Rubbing his jaw, Scott grinned. That was more like it. This was getting too easy. He kicked out, catching Lance in the knee and taking him out with a blow to the side of the head as he fell.

Damn, only one left. And he was just getting warmed up. The wild streak he could never control, ran rampant. Scott had always been a good student, did not set out to cause trouble, but usually found it anyway, was hardworking, loyal, extremely intelligent, and thoroughly bored with the cream of Boston society. His grandfather had never truly understood him. Yet the old man loved him. Scott hated letting him down, but could not help how he felt. He wanted more.

“Hey Scott, come on now. Let’s talk about this like civilized men,” Andrew Wade pleaded.

“Oh come on now, Andrew. Where is the challenge in that? Isn’t this what you came here for?”

Andrew swallowed against the bile rising. He had been primed to take Scott to task for humiliating Barbara, but had sorely underestimated him. With Randall, Markus and Lance rolling on the floor groaning, Andrew began to rethink their decision.

“I don’t understand why you are so upset. You’ve been sweet on Barbara for years,” Scott taunted.

Andrew stammered. “Do you know what you did? Leaving her like that was a breach of etiquette of the worst kind. Why, she’s ruined.”

The grin slid off Scott’s face, the fight draining. “No, she’s not ruined. She’s hurt, and it will take a long time for her to get over this, but I never meant for any of this to happen, Andrew. Come on.” Scott reached behind the bar and pulled out a bottle of bourbon. “Here, this is on me.” He tossed some bills onto the bar and snagged his jacket.

“Where you going?” Andrew asked.

Scott hung his head, studying the three men now leaning against the bar. Sadness weighed heavily, and he never felt so alone before. “I really don’t know. But when you see Barbara, tell her I never meant to hurt her. I tried to tell her. I tried to tell everyone, but they wouldn’t listen. Never try to live your life for someone else. I did that, and look where it got me.”

Scott turned and left the bar. Pulling his collar up against the chill wind, he turned toward home. A man stepping from the shadows was brought up short with an arm across his throat. Wheezing, he could barely talk.

“You Scott Lancer?”

“Depends on who’s asking.”

“I’m a Pinkerton Agent.”

Scott released the chokehold. “They send you after me?” Scott snorted in laughter.

The detective handed over an envelope. “I have a request. Can we go somewhere and talk?”

“Right here is fine.”

“All right. In that envelope is a request and instructions.”

“Instructions?”

“My client, who shall remain nameless . . .”

“Of course,” Scott snorted. Intrigued, he crossed his arms over his chest. “Go on.”

“You are requested to come to California. A small town named Morro Coyo. The instructions are in the envelope, as I said. You will be given $1,000 for an hour of your time.”

“By whom? Oh wait, you can’t say,” Scott replied, clapping the man on the shoulder. “Why the hell would I go to California, with no other information than to show up in some forsaken town, for someone whose identity remains a mystery, and $1,000? I surely don’t need the money.”

“The choice is yours. I have delivered the message. Good day, sir.”

“Yes, it was one hell of a day.” Scott smirked, pocketed the envelope and walked toward home. He would face his grandfather like a man. If anything, Scott always faced up to his deeds, no matter how misguided they might be.

A heavy fog rolled in off the ocean, blanketing the area. A beam from the lighthouse cut through the din, warning sailors of impending danger. Crashing waves broke over the jetty and battered the coastline, the low, mournful wail of a foghorn echoing across the seascape. Scott walked on, fingering the envelope tucked in his pocket. It made no sense. He didn’t know anyone in California except for his father, and the last thing the man would do was hand over $1,000 for a one hour visit.

It was ludicrous. Insane, yet tempting. The very next morning, Scott threw caution to the wind. Against his grandfather’s wishes, he packed his bags and headed to California. If the older man was mortified the previous day, he was downright livid that morning. But Scott could not help himself. He needed to do this, otherwise he would spend the rest of his life wondering. And he hated to wonder. He needed to know. He needed to leave. He needed to be free to be himself and was ready to cut loose.

Scott always felt that something was missing from his life. Maybe this was the answer. He would go to California and meet with this mysterious caller, whomever he may be. Scott could use a little excitement in his life just about now. Hopefully, his grandfather would calm down in time and should Scott decide, would be able to return to Boston.

Funny, without realizing it, he no longer referred to the city in which he had been raised, as home. No matter, for he would soon be on his way. There were no time constraints in the letter, and Scott thought to have a leisurely journey. He always wanted to see the west.

He had to admit, the town of Morro Coyo fascinated him, almost as much as the puzzling directive. He almost dared anyone to call him a dandy, even though that was how he would be perceived, after being born and raised in proper Boston society.

Scott scoffed. He had impeccable manners, was refined, enjoyed dressing up for a night at the theater, and was an avid reader. But there was another side of life. One that held a certain excitement lost on Boston proper. He could hardly wait.

*****

“Well?”

“I can’t say. He would not give an answer.”

“I always thought he would be the hardest to convince.”

“Why’s that? I would think Johnny would be the tough one. He’s been on his own for a long time now.”

“Too long,” he replied sadly. “Too damned long. But Scott has been under Harlan Garrett’s thumb for years. Where Johnny is looking at this as a job, Scott is left wondering why the hell he should leave his life in Boston and travel across the country for some stranger.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s fitting. But he didn’t say no. That’s one thing we have in our favor.”

“Don’t go tipping our hand.”

“Don’t worry. Look, we can’t do anything now. All we can do is wait and see.”

“I suppose you’re right. But we need him here. We need them both.”

“Time will tell. Can I get you anything else?” he turned, picking up a tray from the table.

“Yes, more coffee, if you will. I think it’s going to be a long night.”

“Sure thing. Back in a few minutes..

The door closed and he leaned on the desk and sighed. This had to work. They could not fail now.

*****

After three days of steady travel, Johnny finally reached El. Paso. Physically exhausted, he was in no particular hurry to travel on. The tentative job would have to wait. He did not bow down to any man, especially one that provided no more information than was given. If the man wanted Madrid bad enough, then he would wait on Madrid’s time. Johnny was too drained to care.

A month of living under deplorable conditions with very little food, had taken more of a toll than first thought. Once the original rush of exhilaration and adrenaline wore off, Johnny crashed. Sequestered in the upper room of a saloon owned by old friend and lover, Rhonda Walters, he finally allowed himself to rest, getting the first, undisturbed sleep in weeks. Rhonda provided comfort, plenty of good food, and security. She hovered and fussed, and would fight to the death for him. And she was exactly what he needed.

Rhonda ran a tight ship. She kept the bar running and her girls in line. She carried a knife strapped to her left leg, a colt strapped to her right and a derringer nestled between her buxom, heavy bosom. She was Johnny’s kind of girl. The woman knew how important anonymity was to Johnny. He drew enough attention on a regular basis; anytime he could lay low and regroup, was cherished. Rhonda provided that refuge. She kept a low profile and was one of the few people Johnny trusted.

He met her three years prior, on a trip up north. Needing to lay low and recover from a shoulder wound, he spent a month in her bed. Needing her again, Johnny arrived late at night, stabled his horse and took the back steps up to her private suite. He was immediately dragged inside, the door shut and locked. Johnny practically collapsed into Rhonda’s arms and passed out from sheer exhaustion, sleeping through the next two days.

Waking slowly, Rhonda stretched like a cat. Rolling over, she felt intense eyes on her. She let the covers slide off the edge of the bed, her nude body in full view of the sapphire orbs staring down. A shaft of sunlight filtered through the curtains, bathing her soft, sultry body in warmth. Johnny’s gaze never wavered.

“Good morning,” Rhonda purred.

“Don’t move.”

Rhonda rolled onto her side.

“I just want to watch you.”

“I bet you do.”

Johnny rose from the chair, the sheet wrapped around his waist falling to the floor. He had lost weight, but was looking better. Rhonda’s sharp intake of breath sent a surge of desire shooting through his body. He sat on the edge of the bed, tracing her breasts with his fingers. “Beautiful.”

“So you said last night.

Pulling the derringer from under the pillow, he laughed. “And deadly. Between the two of us, we might roll over the wrong way one night and blow our brains out.”

“Stranger things have been known to happen. Now sweet pea, as much as I desire you, I must make a trip down the hall.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

Rhonda ran her hand up and over his leg. “Honey, you are the most delicious man I have ever met.”

Johnny stood and grabbed her arm, pulling her body roughly against his. “Don’t ever forget that.” Tangling his fingers in her hair, he snapped her head back and greedily sucked on the nape of her neck. Ever so slowly, he drew her head back up, his tongue blazing a trail across her shoulders. “Breakfast.”

Rhonda slapped Johnny across the bare ass. “Don’t worry, sweetie. I know how to take care of my man.”

“Very few do.”

“Their loss. Guess I’m one of the lucky ones.” Nipping at his tongue, Rhonda pulled away and sashayed down the hall, waist length red hair shrouding her body.

*****

Washed and dressed, Johnny sat sideways on the wide window ledge, elbow propped on knee. He stared down at the daily bustle churning through town. Only midday, the saloon was in full swing and Rhonda was behind the bar. Johnny had yet to make an appearance, but now that he was fully rested, was ready to saunter downstairs and take a seat at his usual corner table. He was beginning to feel better, and after only a week of good food, even managed to put on a few pounds. His pants no longer slid down over his hips and his energy returned. Strapping on his gun, Johnny walked down the hall. Standing at the top of the stairs, he surveyed the room.

The hair on the back of his neck prickled. Rhonda was waiting on a drover and as she turned, his hand snaked out, grasping her wrist. Johnny’s gun was out in a flash and before the man knew what happened, he was staring down the business end of a derringer pressed against his nose.

“Back the fuck off,” Johnny sneered.

He walked down the staircase and recognition set in. The stranger stepped away, hands held up in surrender. “Misunderstanding, Madrid. Meant no offense.”

“You’re damned right you didn’t, ‘cause if I felt you did, you’d be dead.”

Chairs scraped back and the familiar rush of power Johnny craved, roared through his body. “Go on, sit down,” he said, waving his gun harmlessly. He never took his eyes off the man or his friends. “You had your drink. Ride out.”

The batwing doors swung shut and Rhonda came to the table. Slapping down a bottle of tequila and two glasses, she sat opposite Johnny. “Not good for business if you keep chasing customers away.”

“I have a hands off policy.” Johnny’s tone was light, but the deadly glare in his eyes never waned. “Here’s to you, red.”

Two shots were poured and two were downed. Rhonda matched Johnny drink for drink. She studied him intently. Licking her lips, she set the glass down and stared.

“You’re moving on.”

“In the morning.”

“Was good while it lasted.”

“Just keep it warm.”

“Where you headed? That’s if you know and are at liberty or willing to say.” Rhonda poured each another drink and sat back.

Johnny downed the shot and snagged the bottle. “California.”

Rhonda slowly lowered the glass to the table. “Your old man?”

“Doubt it.”

“Job?”

“Don’t rightly know.”

Rhonda had never known a more honest man, but had never dealt with anyone as mysterious, elusive or closed up as Johnny. He had a way of wearing a person’s patience thin. “Now that tells me a lot. You go after your old man, that’s akin to jumping ass first into the fire.”

“Been singed before.”

“Oh, but honey, it’s too cute an ass to burn.” Rhonda reached over, stroking his hand.

Johnny’s fingers wrapped lightly around hers. “I don’t really know what it’s about. The Pink that pulled me from the rurales didn’t really say anymore than I was to meet someone in California. Morro Coyo.”

“Oh honey, that’s smack dab in the middle of the inferno. Haven’t you had enough? I still get chills thinking of you in front of that firing squad. Now you’re ready to jump straight into trouble again?”

“You gonna shed a tear over me?”

“You gonna give me a reason?” Johnny grinned and Rhonda sat back, exasperated. She was used to him leaving, but did not have a good feeling about California. “Sweetie, I’m the last person to give anyone advice and believe me, I’d never tell you what to do, but I will tell you how I feel.”

“You shoot straight.”

“Damned right. And I don’t like you going off. What good will it do? That man has done nothing but cause you heartache. Do you really want to stir all that up again?”

“Who said this has anything to do with my old man?”

“You telling me there’s another reason?”

Johnny shrugged. “A lot of space out there. Could be trouble brewing. Besides, would my old man pay me $1,000 for just one hour of my time?”

Setting down the drink, Rhonda whistled softly. “Now that’s one hell of a take. Just one hour of your time? Doing what?”

“Dunno.”

“Hell, and I thought I came high priced.”

“Honey, you’re priceless.”

Rhonda’s throaty laughter echoed throughout the noisy room. “Sweetie, you have the gift.”

“Don’t you forget it.”

*****

Scott had been traveling steadily by train for over a week, and was just crossing over southern Texas. He could have gone by ship, but had sailed the ocean before and was looking forward to exploring the rough, untamed west. The thrill of the unknown, raw savagery he heard about, was like a tonic. His grandfather was home having fits, and he was staring out the window as they stopped just outside of El Paso.

On the way he had a lot of thinking to occupy his mind. He considered writing Barbara a letter, since stopping by and talking to her before he left was not feasible. The idea was scrapped, there was simply no good way to approach the situation. What could he say that had not already been addressed?

Barbara knew how he felt, but was unwilling to meet him on certain issues. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that the entire relationship was either her way, or no way. He didn’t even have a say in regards to his own life, from where they lived, what career path to choose, right down to their social calender. Barbara had their entire lives planned to her expectations, and he was just supposed to bend to her will and follow along.

Let her find another milk sop to do her bidding. Scott took back charge of his life, and was free. A one-sided relationship that did not brook compromise, was not a relationship. Barbara reminded him of those dictators he read about through history. All control, and no say on his part. He shuddered; he barely escaped intact.

His grandfather might have come around to his way of thinking if he had done things differently instead of ducking out at the last minute, but once the tide began rolling, there was no stopping the wedding that was heading straight for him. His grandfather wanted him to settle into a respectable career, but Scott did not know what he wanted to do. The one thing he did know, was that he was not about to spend his life slowly dying in a stifling office, only viewing sunlight through a window.

Now he sat on a train headed west, staring out at the rough, barren wilderness of the Texas border towns. He could have chosen a more sedate route, but why bother. He wanted to see the rough and tumble west, and this was as good as it got.

Still, he was a greenhorn, and stuck out like a cabbage in a strawberry patch. The train rolled to a stop at the station and Scott stood, smoothing down his suit. He was thirsty, and the coffee served earlier did not cut it. He needed something stronger. With an hour to spare, he headed for the saloon.

Scott walked through the batwing doors and strode to the bar. He smiled at the working girls milling about, and greeted a group of cowboys standing alongside him. They stared and turned away snickering. Scott frowned and turned to Rhonda.

“What’ll it be, stranger?”

“Yes, I am at that,” Scott said, flicking a piece of lint from his suit. “I’ll have a beer, please.”

Rhonda served him and turned to the drover on Scott’s right. Scott turned his back to the bar and scanned the room as he drank. A ominous dark haired figure with a gun slung low on his hips standing in the shadows at the top of the stairs, drew his attention. Scott froze, the beer halfway to his mouth. Rhonda yelped and quicker than he could blink, the stranger drew his gun.

Scott had read about gunfighters on the trip, it was not only a good way to kill time, but he wanted to know all he could about the west so as not to be caught by surprise. He had always believed in being prepared, but this was totally unexpected. The stranger was quicker than greased lightning, and the blinding, hardened glare in those impossibly blue eyes, could drill a hole through a man.

Scott set the beer down and stood back. The female bartender was another piece of work. A derringer appeared and she stood, pressing it against the drover’s nose. The gunslinger descended the stairs.

“Back the fuck off.”

Scott swallowed against the lump in his throat, set down his beer and slid to the side, as far from the drover as he could get. It was one thing to become embroiled in a brawl, he did not want to get in the middle of gun play. Not wearing a gun in the first place, it just seemed like a good idea to stand aside.

The drover stepped away, hands held up in surrender. “Misunderstanding, Madrid. Meant no offense.”

Scott almost spit his drink out. Madrid. Johnny Madrid? Hell, he had read books about Madrid on the train. Johnny Madrid, famed, deadly gunslinger. Was reported to have killed more men than any gunslinger alive. From the reaction of the drover and other patrons, it was clear to see that the reputation was well-deserved. Still, these were dime store novels, and Scott doubted if they depicted the man favorably. He was not about to interfere and find out.

“You’re damned right you didn’t, ‘cause if I felt you did, you’d be dead.”

Scott’s eyes flew from Madrid to the drover.

The gunslinger addressed the other patrons, waving his gun harmlessly. “Go on, sit down.” He then turned to the drover. “You had your drink. Ride out.”

The man left through the swinging doors and Madrid re-holstered his gun and sat at a table with the red-headed woman. They appeared to be very cozy. Scott realized then he was still gawking and quickly turned away. He felt as if he had been holding his breath the entire time, and tried not to stare, but damn, Madrid intrigued him. The man was dangerous, one Scott definitely did not want to tangle with, but one he would love to sit and share a drink with. Only the gunslinger did not appear to be approachable, so Scott nursed his beer and stole a glance at the table every now and then.

“Do you know that man?” Rhonda asked, nodding toward Scott.

Johnny snickered. “What, the dandy? He sure dresses funny.”

“From back east,” Rhonda replied.

“Oh, you know that, Miss Nosybody?” Johnny teased, tweaking Rhonda’s nose.

“No, I served him and heard his accent,” Rhonda retorted, batting his hand aside. “Besides, do you know anyone else who dresses like that?”

“Now that you mention it, I’ve seen lots of successful rich folk in my time, but none as fancy as those frills. Never saw a man in lace and frills. You’re right, that can only happen back east.”

“Now that’s biased, coming from you.” Rhonda’s low throaty laughter rang out.

“I call it as I see it.”

“He’s staring.”

Johnny’s lips curled in a smile. “He’s probably never seen a famous gunslinger before.”

“Oh, stop puffing out your chest, you galoot,” Rhonda slapped at his arm.

“Ahh, he’s harmless. Not even wearing a gun. Probably read some of them there dime novels where I’m bigger than a giant and eat little children for breakfast,” Johnny laughed.

Scott finished his drink, left a bill on the bar and after a final, cursory glance in Johnny’s direction, left through the swinging doors.

*****

“You are not going to believe this,” he said, almost flying into the room.

Startled, a mug of coffee almost slipped from his fingers. “You trying to give me a heart attack?”

“Never mind that. I got news. Scott and Johnny were spotted at a saloon in El Paso.”

His eyes grew wide and the mug slipped from his fingers. He caught it at the last minute, but coffee still slopped over the rim, splashing onto the desk. “You’ve got to be kidding me? Are you sure?”

“Our man identified both. He’s certain. Seems Scott is traveling by train, and they stopped for water in El Paso. Johnny has been there for well over a week. Seems he’s pretty chummy with the owner. From what I hear, she’s one hell of a woman. Red hair and . . .”

“Yes, I get the picture,” he said, clearing his throat.

“Sorry, forgot myself. Guess I just got caught in the moment,” he chuckled.

“So I see.”

“Well, Scott boarded the train, and Johnny is still there. From what our man says, he’s been laying low for a while.”

“Who can blame him? He’s been in a Mexican prison, that is sure to take one hell of a toll. It’s wonder he’s still alive. If they don’t beat you or starve you to death, they shoot you. And believe me, he came damned close.”

“Our man said he’s looking better, though.”

He closed his eyes in relief. “That’s good. I was worried.”

“He did lose a bit of weight, but has been taking it easy. Seems to be in no hurry.”

“We take things as they come.” He rose, shoving the chair back. “You can go now. I’ll talk to you soon.”

Knowing he had been dismissed, he turned and left the room. Everything was working according to plan.

*****

Scott boarded the train, still in awe of the scene witnessed in the saloon. Johnny Madrid. The famed, dreaded gunslinger he read about earlier. At first, Scott wondered if Madrid existed at all. The stories were fabricated, that was easy to see. No one could kill as many men as Johnny was reported to take down, and all at once. Every book had him in different places at virtually the same time. Madrid had to be a magician, or some sort of time traveler to pull off all those escapades.

Scott’s imagination raced. The further west he came, bits and pieces of rumors floated about, giving credence to the name. Madrid apparently did exist after all, and the reactions were varied. Some respected him, some cursed him. Others openly declared his prowess with a gun, and others crowed with conceit, claiming they could take Madrid down in a heartbeat.

After the encounter in the saloon, Scott knew them to be brainless fools. As deadly as he knew Madrid to be, was as intrigued Scott was. How did someone end up that way? What drove a man to become a gunslinger?  Scott heard that Madrid was of mixed heritage. If prejudice ran as rampant out here as it did in Boston, that had to cut deep.

Those intense blue eyes gave Johnny away, but he had apparently learned to hold his own. Yet, what had driven him to that point? The man was so damned fast, Scott wondered if he had drawn the gun at all, or if it was merely an extension of his hand.

“One hell of a slight of hand,” he snickered.

It was rumored that Madrid was involved in some sort of civil strife in Mexico. Knowing little of Mexican history, Scott made it a point to search out books on the subject the first chance he had. There was so much to learn about the west, his mind spun with anxious anticipation. How to survive in such a lawless land, where a man was obviously on his own, relied on his own strength, intellect and instincts for survival, was overwhelming. Who did you trust? Who could you rely on, and who did you avoid?

Men like Madrid seemed unapproachable. Yet, would any kind of overture be welcome, should the chance arise? Scott wanted to know more, much to his own puzzlement. In understanding the west, he felt it necessary to understand the men that shaped this strange, violent, yet enthralling territory. Having never carried a gun other than his service during the war, Scott was sorely out of his element. He had never considered making a living with a gun other than the military or law enforcement. Anything else was foreign. Yet, this was a foreign land, as he was beginning to see.

The rampant poverty was heart wrenching. So were the desperate cries of the children, the hunger on their faces when they ran over, hands held out, scrounging for money. Offering to shine your shoes, carry your luggage or fetch a cool drink of water. Scott made the mistake of tossing a young boy a nickel for giving him directions to a local store. Bombarded by a horde of hungry, wide-eyed children, he had no choice but to fight past grabbing hands and reboard the train.

The conductor ambled over. “Not a good idea to go throwing money around. Although they know you got it. Still, you don’t offer anything, they just hang back and leave you alone.” The man leaned closer. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t watch your back. The older ones will roll you and pick you clean. Men will come along and shoot you for your boots or leave you laying in a ditch after relieving you of your belongings. Best not to let anyone get close, out here.”

“Thanks,” Scott muttered.

He sat catching his breath, his heart racing from the wrenching encounter. He hated the desperate, hungry cries. The sheer want and ravenous need. Having been raised with an abundance of luxury and comfort, never going hungry but for those years in the war, Scott could not get past the needy children. There were so many. Some lived on the streets, others under conditions so poor, he could not fathom such an existence. His upbringing suddenly seemed garish.

He loved his grandfather, the man had given him everything, but did not extend himself to others. Harlan Garrett detested charity. He believed in a man working for what he had, scheming for what he wanted and squashing others to gain control of it all. Power, money and greed had no rules. Now, for the first time, Scott looked back upon his life with distaste. Too much for one, and not enough for others, did not bode well with him. Children should not suffer, yet they did. Scott saw it everywhere he turned. This was one side of the west he would never get used to.

The next stop was Silver Springs, New Mexico, and Scott decided to have an early dinner and retire. Boston was never this interesting. Or confusing.

*****

Johnny was ready to leave before dawn broke over the horizon. His horse was already saddled and hitched to the post behind the saloon. Rhonda was used to him leaving in such a manner. Johnny tried not to draw attention to himself, but every time he took a breath, he did that very thing. He liked leaving under the cover of dark, with no witnesses to the direction he was taking. That did not always work out as planned, many was the time he had to leave town in a hurry, barely escaping with his ass intact.

Rhonda drew her robe tighter, basking in the glow of their early morning lovemaking. Johnny was sensuous and gentle, then could turn and be aggressive and demanding, and she craved every aspect of his persona. The man did not know the meaning of the word boring. He entered the room quietly, the jingle of spurs heralding his arrival.

Approaching, he wrapped his arms around Rhonda. “Hey red, am gonna miss you.”

“Then don’t go.”

“Maybe I won’t one day. Maybe I’ll take you with me.”

“What, and leave all this?” Rhonda chuckled, sweeping her arm around the room. “Honey, neither of us are the marrying kind. Can you say you want to be jailed by white picket fences and a passel of kids running underfoot?”

Neither could meet the other’s eyes. A need buried deep, too fearful to admit to, lay dormant, yet peeked through every once in a while. Lifting his head, Johnny caught her mouth with his. Rhonda reached down, grabbing him by the groin.

“How the hell am I going to leave like this? Oh, you make it hard.”

Rhonda nibbled at his hear. “That’s what I aim to do.”

“That’s not what I meant. Keep it up, I won’t be leaving. Won’t be able to walk, let alone mount my horse.

“Never knew you to have any trouble mounting.”

“Never heard you complaining.”

“And you never will. Keep it cocked and loaded, cowboy,” Rhonda said, giving him one final, delectable squeeze.

Johnny groaned, yet pulled away. They were explosive, their coupling sometimes volatile, leaving both paralyzed with sheer bliss. They could not get enough of one another, yet neither could give more. Johnny stood at the door and pulling his hat down low, stared back over his shoulders. Rhonda stood straight and tall, clutching her chest as he turned and walked out, the door closing softly behind him. As always, she wondered if she would ever see him again.

Without another backward glance, Johnny reined his horse to the west and set out. It was going to be a long ride, but he was in no particular hurry. He should reach Silver Springs in two days, if he was lucky and managed to steer clear of trouble.

*****

Scott woke with a zeal long forgotten in Boston. Every day out west brought new adventure, and he relished the feeling of raw excitement. After a breakfast of bacon, eggs and pan fried potatoes, fare that would have Harlan Garrett running from the room in hysteria, Scott sat back, patting his stomach. Hearty, rib sticking food was another sweet discovery.

Back in Boston, breakfast was oatmeal, followed by poached eggs and toast. A meal his grandfather felt was fitting for gentlemen of breeding. Scott was never satisfied and usually hit the kitchen once his grandfather left for the office, making a sandwich stuffed with hearty slices of meat and cheese. Even a man of breeding needed good, filling food to start the day. Especially when he planned on heading down to the docks, which was usually more often than not.

When home from school, Scott donned older clothes, pulled a hat down low and took the back route down to the docks. It would not do to be discovered. When he returned at night, he would ultimately answer for his seemingly unproductive day, but it was worth the lecture. The sea breeze in his hair, and muscles rising to the challenge as heavy boxes were hoisted aboard ship, Scott never felt more alive. Still, something was missing.

He was only beginning to discover the challenge he had been craving all his life. There was something about the west that got in a man’s blood, even a tenderfoot, naive greenhorn such as himself. Unhappy with his present life, and not knowing what to do with the rest, was a burden weighing heavily on the older Lancer son. Scott even kicked around the idea of seeking his father on occasion, but always nixed the idea, all along wondering if that was where his restless nature stemmed from.

From what Scott learned, Murdoch Lancer had carved out a cattle empire in the middle of the wilderness, a thought not only tantalizing, but admirable. The man worked with his hands and had the strength and fortitude to build a successful enterprise. Scott stared out the window, watching the scenery rolling by. He now looked forward to each day, the boredom vanishing.

The train screeched to a stop shortly before noon. Stiff and looking forward to a cold beer before boarding again, Scott stood and stretched. Standing on the platform, he surveyed the booming town. Silver Springs was larger than expected. Further north of the border than El Paso, the bustling cattle town seemed a bit more refined. A white church that doubled as a schoolhouse during the week was located at the far end of the street. The schoolmarm stood on the top step, ringing the bell. Scott laughed as a gaggle of happy, laughing children swarmed outside, lunch pails in hand.

The tinkling laughter brought a sense of peace. The town was not rich by any stretch of the mind, certainly not to the extent of what he was used to in Boston, but the element of sheer poverty was absent. Women walked the sidewalks, a steady stream of traffic heading in and out of the general store. A telegraph office was located next to a two story house, a sign stating ‘Doctor is in. Please ring bell’, hanging out front. Adjacent the doctor’s office, was the gunsmith, post office, and a hotel. Further down the street was the livery, feed n‘grain, and a saloon.

With an hour to spare, Scott thought to visit the saloon. A quick beer before boarding the train, was just what he needed. The saloon was packed, the aroma of stale whiskey and tobacco heavy in the air. Scott jostled his way to the bar and ordered a drink. Working girls milled around the smoke filled room, high stakes poker games were underway, and talk was loud and raucous.

Glancing at his watch, he barely had enough time to catch the train. Downing his drink, Scott left quickly, wishing he had more time to stay. Weaving between bodies on the packed sidewalk, he managed to reach the station and his heart dropped. A crowd gathered, arguing and fussing. The train emptied and discontented passengers walked toward town.

Scott sought the conductor. “What’s going on?”

“Looks like we’ll be stuck here for a piece. Bridge over Creed’s Canyon washed out. Will take the better part of a week to fix.”

“Is there another route?” Scott asked, dodging an irate woman and sniveling husband darting past.

“Not unless you can build another railroad in less time. Stage will be coming through day after tomorrow, but you don’t stand a chance of getting a ticket. Only one stage is due, and too many bodies are going to be clamoring to leave.”

Scott’s heart dropped, then thought to make the best of the situation. He wanted adventure, and decided to roll with whatever came along. With no time constraints, he would take a much needed break from travel. He might even rent a horse from the livery and explore the surrounding landscape. Anything was better than sitting idle.

“Well, looks like I better get a room.”

“Better hurry, hotel is gonna be filling up.”

A final nod of thanks, Scott grabbed his overnight valise and headed back down the crowded sidewalk. Ten minutes later, he booked the last available room and went to the dining hall for a hot meal. Afterward, he would go over to the saloon and see about getting in a high stake game, and find some female companionship later in the evening. With a few days to kill, he could become more involved, instead of settling for being an outside observer.

*****

Two days of roaming town and frequenting the saloon, Scott was bored. After breakfast, he rented a horse from the livery and dressed in riding pants, pressed shirt and jacket, rode out to the desert. The surroundings were unfamiliar, but Scott not only had a good sense of direction, survival skills had been honed during his stint in the army. He was no stranger to hunting for food, cooking over a campfire and sleeping on the ground.

He had also been warned about rattlesnakes and scorpions. This strange land was exquisite, but as Scott was beginning to learn, danger lurked in the most unlikely places. Warnings not to put his boots on until he shook them out good, and if sleeping outdoors, make sure to check your bedroll for any unwelcome visitors, were heeded. Scott took the advice to heart. Never leave anything to chance.

Riding through the desert, he was amazed. Hot, dry and arid, the climate was strange to the easterner used to cool, damp, and humid. Lizards skittered across the hot sand, taking refuge in the shade of tall cacti or under rocks. A jackrabbit darted past, its immense size, stunning. Tumbleweeds lay dormant under the blazing sun and the land was dotted with cacti, rock formations, and scrubby sage, a wave of heat rising from the desert floor.

Scott swiped the sweat from his brow, unwilling to go further. He would get used to this intimidating land a little at a time. The sun began to sink toward the western horizon and he turned, heading back to town. Gazing at the compass, he was pleased to be riding in the right direction. A bath, hot dinner, and night of poker, loomed.

*****

Scott walked through the batwing doors, ducking when a bottle flew across the room, splintering against the wall behind his head. A stocky, dark haired body followed. Slamming against Scott, they flew backward out the door and landed in the dust. Grunting, Johnny rolled over and stretched out a hand.

“Hey, you’re that dandy,” he said, a bright smile crossing his face. He flicked at the frilly collar. “Didn’t mean to mess up your outfit.”

“Can’t be helped.” A smile broke out and Scott followed Johnny back into the saloon.

Was one hell of a way to make Madrid’s acquaintance, and Scott jumped right in. Johnny caught the gleam in his eyes. Not bad for a dandy. Johnny was impressed, especially when a chair broke over Scott’s back and he turned, a punch that expelled the air from the fat man’s stomach and blow to the jaw, finishing the bearded attacker off. If Johnny didn’t now better, Scott was having the time of his life. They stood side by side, fists poised, shoulders touching.

“Thanks.” Johnny grunted and slammed against the bar, rubbing his jaw.

“Scott pulled him upright. “Never take your eyes off your opponent.” His attention averted, a blow to the ribs sent him crashing into Johnny, both falling to the floor.

They rolled, arms flailing as they struggled to stand. “Off me.”

“I’m trying,” Scott wheezed. He rolled free, grabbed the booted foot kicked at his jaw and sent the man spiraling through the window.

A smirk crossed Johnny’s lips. He bent over, hands resting on his knees. “Good shot.”

“I thought so.” Scott’s smile grew wider and his eye swelled. “Drink?”

“You buying?”

“Looks that way.” Scott reached into his pocket and tossed a few bills onto the counter. “For the damages.”

“Thanks,” Johnny grinned.

“Don’t mention it.” Laughing, Scott led Johnny to a table.

A long arm reached out, snagging Johnny by the collar. Scott froze. Johnny turned and in blinding movement, pulled his gun. A smile of recognition crossed his face. “I’ll be dipped in shit. Val, what the hell you doing here?”

“Never could keep yer ass out of trouble, could ya?” Val groused, a ratty mustache hiding the smile threatening to break out.

Johnny fingered the badge pinned to his chest. “Well, lookee here. Val Crawford, Sheriff. You done crossed over to the other side?”

“Nope, pinned this on so’s I’d have the pleasure of hauling yer ass in one of these days,” Val snickered.

“Ahh, come on now, Val. We was just funning.”

“Well, yer funning just landed ya a night in jail.”

Scott expected a fight and was stunned when Johnny went willingly, chattering all the while. “Hey, how’s Lone Crow’s widow? She still keeping you in blankets? Or under the blankets?” Johnny asked, earning a cuff to the side of the head.

“Never ya mind, smart ass.”

“Hey, I could use one of them blankets. It gets mighty cold out on the trail. Hey, maybe you can sell one to this dandy. I tell ya, Val, in spite of those fancy duds, he sure jumped right in there.”

Val turned, glaring at the tall, blond man following. “He some stray pup ya picked up along the way?”

“You know me, Val. Always picking up strays,” Johnny chuckled. “Besides, I’m headed for California.”

Scott’s head snapped up, but the two men were so involved in conversation, neither noticed.

Val shook his head. “California, huh? If that don’t beat all. Ain’t ya had enough trouble?” he asked, unlocking the heavy, iron door.

Johnny went into the cell willingly, and Scott was further astounded when Val left the door ajar. Perched on the side of the bed, Johnny leaned on his elbows. “Hell, I’m not in trouble. Just following a job.”

“Oh yeah, what kind of job?”

“Dunno.”

Val glared. “Who for?”

“Don’t know that, either.”

Val was quickly reaching the end of his rope. “Now, ya mean to tell me you’re going to California to take on a job for a fella ya don’t know?”

“Ahh, yep.”

“Madrid, you’re a dumb ass.”

The entire exchange had Scott’s head spinning. He expected Johnny to pull his gun, which Val conveniently neglected to take away. It was all very strange, but obvious that the two knew one another quite well. Scott did not know what to think. Suddenly, everything seemed similar. Both he and Johnny were going to California, and neither knew why. Then again, Johnny was a famed gunfighter. How could they be connected? It did not make sense. Besides, what were the odds that Johnny had received a mysterious message and offer of $1,000. His mind ran with thoughts. He walked into the cell. Damn, Boston had never been this much fun.

*****

He came into the room, shaking his head. “Just received an urgent message. It looks like they got themselves in a scrape.”

He sat upright, a frown on his face. “Thought you went home for the night.”

“I did, but our man came over with a message. Thought you’d like to hear.”

“What is it?”

“Seems they got into a saloon brawl.”

His eyes grew wide, and he could not believing what he was hearing. “Together? They’re together?”

“Stranger things have been known to happen.

“Never expected this.”

“Don’t think they did either. Johnny got himself in a spot, but he’s one hell of a scrapper.”

“Gun play?”

“Nope, just a good old fisticuff.”

He closed his eyes in relief.

“Scott jumped right in and those two went to town. Cleaned up the riff raff. Anyway, they’re cooling their tail ends in jail. They seem quite rambunctious.”

“They’re young. I know how that feels. Got into a few scrapes myself when younger. Gets the juices flowing.”

“What do you want me to do? Have our man intervene?”

He laughed lightly. “Nope, it’s not a hanging offense and they’re not looking at hard time. Let them stew a bit. See how ingenious they are. What they’re really made of.”

“You got it. I tell you, they seem to be having one hell of a trip.”

“Sure seem to be, and as I’m learning, there’s more than one way to measure a man.”

“Need anything?”

“Not at the moment. I’m just going to sit here and enjoy this drink,” he said, swirling the golden liquid in his glass.

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yes.” He swiveled around in his chair, staring into the fire. Things were playing out just fine. A bit unexpected, but they were coming along. That was all he needed for now.

                              *****

The sun barely broke over the eastern mountains and Johnny frowned, rolling over on the narrow, lumpy cot. A familiar aroma assailed his senses. Stretching like a very contented cat, he sat up, slinging his legs over the side.

“Good morning sunshine,” Val smirked.

“Oh man, what the hell you doing up so early? You just want to torture me?” Johnny groaned, rubbing his eyes.

“I got a town to run. Not like you slackers that can sleep all day.”

“I don’t sleep all day.”

“Here, have some coffee.”

Johnny’s eyes lit up. “Pan fried coffee?” Sauntering from the cell, stretching his arms over his head, Johnny worked the kinks from his back and accepted a cup. “Val, no one can turn out pan fried coffee like you.”

Glaring, Val’s eyes narrowed. “I aim to please. Now sit down and tell me what the hell you’re up to.”

“Not up to anything,” Johnny shrugged.

Val removed his hat and swatted Johnny across the head. “Don’t ya go trying to pull one over on me. I weren’t born yesterday. And I been thinking about this California shit. Still don’t think it’s the smart thing to do.”

Hearing voices, Scott woke slowly, but feigned sleep. A reflex action from the army, he lay on his stomach, head turned toward the wall, taking stock of his surroundings. He did not mean to eavesdrop, but asking questions would only serve to get his ass knocked into next week, at the very least, so opted to remain quiet.

For some odd reason, he was drawn to this strange, volatile gunfighter, and wanted to know more about the man. The fact that they were both heading to California with no clear reason in mind, was astounding. Then again, Johnny was probably in the habit of drifting from town to town, so what difference did it make. It was Val’s reaction to the news that had Scott stymied.

“Damn, Val. No need to be getting physical. And I ain’t had nothing to eat yet. Don’t have the energy to fight ya off.”

“Then find it, ‘cause I tell ya, going to California is just plumb stupid. Downright stupid. Nothing but trouble awaits ya there.”

Johnny hung his head. “This got nothing to do with my old man.”

“Maybe, maybe not. And what about that dandy there? What ya gonna do with him?”

“Who said I’m gonna do anything with him? Hell, don’t even know his name. Just bumped into him and he helped me out of a fix. That’s all it is. Damn, Val, he don’t even wear a gun. How lame is that? Don’t even wear a gun.”

Val frowned. “Yeah, I noticed that, but don’t go changing the subject. I still don’t like the idea of ya running off to California. And where the hell ya been the last few months? Heard tell ya got yer ass mixed up in some sort of revolution down Mexico way.”

Scott’s ears perked up.

Johnny glanced at the cell. The dandy still had not moved. Voice lowered, he spoke softly. “Yeah.”

“No money?”

“Nah. That was the reason for the revolution in the first place.”

“Damned rurales.”

Johnny hunched over and sipped at the steaming, bitter brew. “Val, we got caught. Bastards caught us. Executed everyone but me and one other guy.”

Val rode with Johnny long enough to know this cut deep. “What happened?”

“Almost bought it, Val. Damn near cashed it in. Still can’t figure out how or why I got outta that one, but I did. Was facing the firing squad.”

Val’s heart clenched and Scott’s stomach roiled.

Johnny’s eyes glazed over in shocked remembrance. “Was next. Bastards poked me in the back with a gun and was just getting to my feet when the damnedest thing happened.”

Val’s curiosity grew. He loved a good tale, and Madrid always had something brewing. Leave it to him to get his ass hauled from the fire at the last minute, and Val wanted to know every detail. “Well, spill it.” He poured both another cup of coffee.

Johnny was not one to share his feelings and kept his life pretty much to himself, but Val was about the only other person he opened up to, besides Rhonda. “Like I said, was just getting to my feet, ready to meet my maker, make my trip down below, when this wagon comes flying over the hill.”

“Wagon?” Val took another swallow, and set the mug down.

“Yeah, this guy comes tearing ass outta hell, screaming for them to stop. Then climbs out, flashing a fistful of money. Was looking for Madrid. Said it was ‘muy importante’ that they don’t kill Senor Madrid. Imagine that, Senor Madrid,” Johnny scoffed. “Anyway, he hands over a fistful of bills and next thing I know, I’m set free, and given a job.”

“Wait, my head’s spinning. What did the rurales do?”

Johnny’s eyes darkened. “They’re dead.”

“Damn.”

“Turns out the guy was a Pink.”

“A Pinkerton?”

A jolt surged through Scott’s body, yet gritting his teeth, he never flinched. Val and Johnny sat head to head, speaking almost too softly to hear, but every once in a while, a thought filtered through. This struck like a lightning bolt.

“Yeah, stupid jackass. Didn’t have the brains not to go flashing all that money in front of the rurales. They went for it, but I took ‘em down. Got the Pink’s gun and blew ’em to hell. Threw Pablo in the back of the wagon . . .”

“The other guy?”

“Yeah. Anyway, threw him in with the Pink, grabbed a horse and hightailed our asses outta there.”

Val stood and walked over to the window. “Damn hell, ya got more lives than a feral cat. Came close, Johnny. You came damned close.”

“Don’t I know it.” Johnny hung his head and Val walked back over.

“How about keeping your ass out of Mexico for a while? A damned long while. Say, about fifty years or more?”

A slight grin broke out. “Yeah, sounds about right,” Johnny smirked.

“And what about this job? And ya going off to California?”

Johnny glanced over at the cell one more time, satisfied that Scott had not budged. Still, his voice lowered, unaware that Scott listened to every word. “Don’t rightly know, Val. All I can tell ya is what the Pink told me. Gave me some travel money and said I was to go to Morro Coyo.”

Val vaulted from his chair. “Morro Coyo? Damn, Johnny, why don’t ya just stick yer head on the chopping block for yer old man?”

“Like I said, who said this has anything to do with my old man?”

“His ranch is just around the corner.”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t asked to come to his ranch. I was asked to come to Morro Coyo.”

“Same damned thing. Madrid, use yer damn brain.”

“Val, would you pass up the offer of $1,000 for an hour of your time?”

Scott fought with every ounce of resolve not to scream outright.

Val’s jaw dropped and the mug almost slid from his fingers. “What the hell do ya have to do fer it?”

“Nothing. Just show up. One hour of my time.”

Val glanced toward the cell. “Best watch what you say.”

“Ahh, he’s all right.”

“How do you know? Don’t even know his name.”

“Val, he’s just some dandy passing through. So he hears. Don’t know anyone, just here ‘cause the train broke down or something.”

“Bridge is washed out.”

“What the hell,” Johnny shrugged. “Damn, he don’t even have a hiding gun. What the hell is he gonna do?”

“Nuthin, I suppose. All right, forget about the dandy. But Johnny, this don’t set right.”

“Val, something is cooking in Morro Coyo. High riders are all over California. Might be they hit there. Someone obviously needs my help big time, and has the bucks to back it up. Must want my gun mighty bad. They flash around some money to get me there, and pitch the job in the time allowed. Hook me and reel me in.”

“Ya better not bite hard. Something gets reeled in, it dies.”

“Val, you worry too much. Getting yourself all in a pucker. All I want is the money.” Johnny stood and paced slowly around the desk. He stopped, leaning on the paper strewn surface. “I’m tired, Val. Too damned young to be this tired. You know I’ve been wanting out of the game for a while now.”

Val rubbed at his eyes. “Yeah, I know. A thousand dollars would do the trick. Buy ya a new life.”

“That’s what I intend to do. Gonna head north. Far enough no one ever heard of Madrid. There’s a lot of country out there. Don’t have to spend the rest of my life stomping around these mudholes.” Johnny snagged another mug of coffee and chuckling, sat back down. “Might even grab Rhonda on my way out. Bring her along.”

“Always said ya two deserved each other,” Val snorted.

“Yeah, she’s one of a kind. And she deserves better.”

“Ya both deserve better.”

“That’s what I want to do, Val. Live. For once in my life. For the first time since my mother died. This gun helped me to survive, but I’m ready to cash it in.”

“Yep, can see that.” The entire conversation was growing too intense. Val rose and slapped Johnny on the back. “Say, why don’t we get breakfast.”

“You buying?” Johnny immediately brightened.

“Don’t I always?”

Val groused and led the way. Hearing the door close, Scott rolled over onto his back. He stared upward, unseeing. Morro Coyo. The offer of $1,000. The same as him. The delivery was different, but the message was the same. What the hell was going on there? Who was playing with them? It seemed like a sick game, a macabre coincidence. One that drew him in with a deadly gunfighter he never heard of until a few days ago. Now they were on the same quest. From what Val said, Johnny was estranged from his father. That did not surprise him. Judging from the life Johnny led, it was obvious he did not have a stable home as a foundation.

They might want Johnny’s gun, but what did that have to do with him? He didn’t have a gun to sell. As far as Scott knew, he didn’t have anything to offer anyone in California. He bolted upright, bile rising and nausea sending him stumbling from the room. Bursting through the back door, he ran to the bushes and promptly lost what little contents were left in his stomach.

The one common thread was Morro Coyo. Then when Val made a comment about Johnny’s father and a ranch, Scott almost crawled out of his skin. Murdoch Lancer was the only man Scott knew to have a ranch within close proximity of town. The thought was ludicrous. Lancer might be large, but Scott doubted it was the only ranch in the area. And one of them was owned by Johnny’s father.

Maybe Johnny was right. Maybe there was some sort of trouble brewing and the mysterious person they were dealing with needed his gun. Scott wasn’t familiar with the way range wars operated, but had read enough in those dime novels to latch onto the basic concept.

Figuring their short incarceration was over, considering the cell was unlocked and Johnny had accompanied the sheriff to breakfast, Scott stumbled over to the hotel. He had to pull himself together. What were the odds that he was somehow involved with a famed, deadly gunslinger?

Reaching deep inside, Scott turned to the devious aspect of his persona, and drew on that special, inner strength. He was good at playing the game. He loved puzzles and was a whiz at solving mysteries. Now he was plunged into a real life drama where nothing made sense.

The message received was mysterious. There was no signature. No name given. For a man not to give his name, he was either a coward, or had something to hide. Scott did not know much about his father, other than he was a cold-hearted coward that turned his back on his son, letting someone else raise him. He could not see the man summoning him to California for any reason.

And to go to such mysterious lengths, when all he had to do was ask. But he never did, and Scott was in a quandary wondering just what would come of this mysterious meeting. He also wondered about his sanity for accepting such an offer. Not one to turn his back on a challenge, and always looking to push the limits when seeking adventure, the offer was too enticing to pass up. The only way to solve a mystery was to face it head on.

Scott could not put the pieces together. Whoever wanted Johnny, probably needed his gun. But what did that have to do with him? He had no such services to offer. Yet he and Johnny were both offered the same deal. One thousand dollars for one hour of their time. Who needed them bad enough to pluck Johnny from the verge of death and haul his own sorry carcass clear across the country from Boston? What was the common thread, other than Morro Coyo? Scott was determined to puzzle things through.

And, crazy as the idea sounded, he was not about to sit waiting for some damned train while Johnny rode on without him. He would make arrangements to have his trunks sent ahead and pack only what was needed on the trail. In retrospect, he thought it best to go to the general store and purchase suitable clothing. Proper riding clothes and frilly suits were acceptable attire for back east, but as Scott was learning, if he wanted to truly be a part of the west, he better learn how to blend in.

Glancing down at his clothes with distaste, he should have done so sooner. Everything about him screamed greenhorn. He was an open target and only his cool resolve and penchant for never backing down from a fight, saved him. It was time to look the part. After suitable clothing and supplies were purchased, Scott would buy a horse and head west.

Somehow, he would find a way to accompany Johnny. The trouble was, could he approach Madrid and ask to tag along? They were virtual strangers, how in the world did he reveal that they were heading in the same direction, after the same, strange offer.

Pulling on a clean shirt, Scott decided to let things play out, hope for the best and deal with whatever came along. His mind racing, Scott ran a comb through his hair. As much as he wished to wash and dress for the day, finding Johnny before he rode off, was more important. He could always clean up later.

The only eatery other than the saloon was a quaint café in the center of town. Scott walked through the doors, flooded with relief. Johnny and Val sat at a corner table, backs to the wall, enjoying a hearty meal. Famished, he walked over and joined them.

*****

Elbowing Val, Johnny grinned. “Sheriff, you got a jailbreak.”

“Then I’ll be hauling yer ass back, too. After that fiasco last night, I outta haul both yer asses back to jail,” Val mumbled around a mouthful of eggs.”

Scott placed his order and sat sipping coffee while waiting for his food to appear.

Johnny was just winding up. “Hey, what’s a dandy like you doing so far from home?”

“Home got boring,” Scott replied, playing it cool.

“Man, you sure can fight. They teach you that back where you came from?” Johnny asked.

“Boston. And yes, I learned to fight in school. I was the middleweight boxing champion of my class.”

“Boxing, huh? I seen one of them fights before,” Johnny said, turning to Val. “They put these fellas in a ring surrounded by ropes, that’s what the guy said it was, and let them slug the hell out of each other.”

Val grimaced. “Sounds as bad as them fighting cocks.”

“It’s a bit more civilized than that,” Scott replied. He tucked into a meal of ham, eggs, flapjacks and fried potatoes. A forkful of eggs was shoveled into his mouth, followed by a bite of flapjack dripping with syrup. He washed the food down with half a mug of coffee.

“I agree, Val. I mean, I don’t mind seeing men stuck in some ring knocking the shit out of one another, but can’t stand them taking two roosters and letting them peck each other to death, tied to a damn string. Came across that once, and cut the roosters loose. Then I gunned down the two bastards that started the damned thing.”

Val’s glare narrowed. “I take it ya took the legal route.”

Johnny puffed his chest out. “Yep, got them fellas so pissed at me, they just called me out. Right here on the spot.”

Scott sputtered his coffee.

Groaning, Val rubbed his eyes. “You’re damned resourceful. But I would have done the same thing myself. Can’t stand seeing animals suffer so some stupid ass can lay wagers. Don’t find any enjoyment in such suffering.”

“I find it quite cruel, myself,” Scott agreed.

“Boy, he sure talks purty,” Johnny chuckled.

Scott glared. “I try.”

“Hey, where are you going anyway?” Johnny asked.

“That’s what I’d like to talk to you about.” Scott ate, all the while watching Johnny intently.

Val sat back, eyes locked on Scott and Johnny froze, his gaze intensifying. A mask fell over his face and the smile faded. “You need something, Boston?”

Scott fought not to let his unease show, again wondering why in the world a man would want to take on Madrid. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.” He pushed the empty plate aside and sat back.

“You been looking for me?” Johnny’s voice took on a hard, steely edge.

Scott sipped at his coffee, all the while struggling to remain strong. “Actually, I never heard of you until I saw you in El Paso. Another passenger on the train told me who you were.”

“Ain’t no secret.”

“No, but I was still unaware. Our meeting last night was purely coincidental.”

“Speak English. Don’t need that high faluting Boston shit,” Johnny snapped.

The atmosphere in the room grew decidedly chilly. Scott pushed his mug aside. “It means our meeting was unplanned. I was just heading into the saloon for a drink, then sort of got caught up in things.”

Johnny relaxed slightly. “Yeah, guess you did. Boy, did you jump in. Saved my ass, so I guess I owe ya. What do you need?”

“I’m heading to California,” Scott said, gauging Johnny’s reaction. No chink in the armor, so he continued. “I’m growing tired of traveling by train. Left the east for adventure, and so far, all I’ve done is sit and stare out the window. Now that the train is delayed, I’m growing bored and came to a decision.”

Johnny sat back, arms crossed and head bowed. “What’s that?”

“I want to hire you.”

“Hire me? You mean you need my gun?”

“No, I need an escort.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“Let me rephrase that. I plan on buying a horse and heading out. Problem is, I’m a stranger to this territory and don’t know my way around.”

“Sort of stumbling over yourself, huh?” Johnny laughed with Val.

“Something of the sort. The thing is, I need someone I can count on to guide me.”

“Ain’t no guide.”

“No, I didn’t think you were, but you do know the area. And it’s obvious you can more than take care of yourself. I don’t even carry a gun.”

“You better think twice about that one,” Johnny replied. “ Can get a man killed.”

“I’ll take that under consideration,” Scott replied. “In the meantime, I’ll pay handsomely.”

Val elbowed Johnny. “Might not be such a bad idea.”

Johnny frowned. “Val, you kidding?”

“Not like ya ain’t heading that way, yerself,” Val said under his breath.

Scott pretended not to hear, and picked up his half empty mug.

“I ain’t no guide,” Johnny argued, not caring who heard.

Val poured another cup of coffee. “Johnny, look at him. Talk about being a fish flopping on the bank. He just don’t fit in here. First chance someone gets, they’ll take a whack at him.”

“So you need my protection,” Johnny said, reconsidering his options. “I don’t come cheap.”

“I’ll pay,” Scott stated. “So how about it, you game?”

Johnny sat back, his stare stark and deadly. “If I accept, don’t you think I outta know your name?”

A smile breaking out, Scott offered his hand. “It’s Lancer. Scott Lancer.”

A sliver of a second later, Scott was staring down the business end of Johnny’s gun.

*****

A hush fell over the room. Scott froze, his gaze unwavering. A woman shrieked and bolted out the door, forks clattered to the floor, chairs scraped back as people ran for cover, and others sat paralyzed with fear.

Val rose, desperate to diffuse the situation. He reached out, slowly lowering Johnny’s hand, the only person in existence able to do so. “Calm down, Johnny. Hear him out.”

“Nothing to hear,” Johnny snapped. Vivid blue eyes flashed with blazing anger. “You heard him. I had the feeling I was being followed. Been fighting it ever since I left El Paso. And he just happens to show up.”

“Johnny, I . . .” Scott stammered, struggling to rise. Johnny’s reaction left him in a state of shock, wondering why the mere mention of his name caused such a deadly reaction.

“Shut up and sit down. We got nuthin more to say to one another.” Johnny holstered his gun, shoved Val aside and strode from the room.

Scott sat staring at his disappearing back. “What just happened?”

Val rubbed at his eyes. “I think ya better come back to the office with me. Seems we got a bit of talking to do.” He rose and tossing a bill onto the table, motioned for Scott to follow.

They walked down the dusty street. Scott never heard the school bell ring, or saw the children clamoring down the wooden walkway. Tourists strolling about, shopkeepers sweeping stoops and wagons rolling down the street, went unnoticed. The noise dimmed and his head ached, yet he followed Val back to the jail. Johnny was nowhere in sight.

Val led Scott inside and closed the door. “All right, it’s just the two of us now. First thing I’m gonna tell ya is Johnny is about the only friend I got. I’d do anything for him, and that includes locking ya up if I think you’re to cause him any trouble. What’s your game?”

Confused, Scott shook his head. “I’m sorry, Sheriff Crawford, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Val exploded. “Lancer, ya dumb ass. Ya come in here throwing that name around, and act like it’s nothing. Well let me tell ya, that will get your damned fool head blown off.”

“Now wait a minute, I have no idea what you’re talking about. And as for throwing my name around, I was merely introducing myself. I thought that was the custom. Must be different out west,” Scott shouted, his own anger rising.

“Don’t know about customs, but it’s the name I don’t like.”

Scott turned away, too stunned to speak. Whipping back around, he ran a hand through his hair. “I think we better start from the beginning. What the hell is going on here? And what does my name have to do with it?” he asked, his blood running cold.

Val reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a bottle. “Ya really don’t know, do ya?”

“Know what?”

“Here, sit down. Gonna be a long story.” Pouring two shots, he handed one over. “Tell me what you know about Johnny.”

Deflated, Scott took the drink, downing it in one swallow. “Sheriff, I don’t know anything about Johnny. Honest. But this whole damned thing has me confused, to say the least. I only learned about Johnny Madrid on the train. Read about him in those ludicrous dime novels, and wondered if he really existed.”

“Oh, he exists. But won’t put much stock in them books, if I were you.”

“No, I found that out soon enough. Like I said, I didn’t see Johnny until El Paso. Didn’t even know he was coming west. I left shortly after seeing him at some saloon . . .”

“Yeah, know the place, “ Val replied. “Go on.”

“That’s it. Didn’t see him again until last night. I was going into the saloon and next thing I know, Johnny comes sailing into me and we go crashing into the street.”

“So, ya just jumped right in, huh?” Val asked, downing another shot.

“Didn’t think twice. Let’s just say I was caught up in the legend.”

“Happens to a lot of folks. So, tell me about your name.”

“Lancer?” Scott asked, more perplexed than ever.

“Ya any kin to Murdoch Lancer?”

Scott froze. Burning whiskey ran up his nose and his eyes watered. His hand trembled and the glass slid from his fingers. Val snagged it before hitting the ground, and sat back, studying Scott’s reaction. He tried to speak, but choked on the words. Scott swallowed, then tried again.

“He’s my father.”

“Yer father?” Val froze, his own dread rising.

“Although I never met him.”

“Never met him, huh?”

“No. My mother died in childbirth and my grandfather brought me back east to raise me. My esteemed father never bothered. Never spoke to him once, never got a letter, don’t even know what he looks like.”

“Sounds true to course.” Val’s eyes flit to the door and back again.

Scott leaned forward. “Sheriff, what is this about?”

“How old are you?” Val asked.

“Twenty four. Why?”

“Johnny is twenty.”

“What does that have to do with things?”

“Johnny never knew his father. The man married Johnny’s mother, and from what I heard, threw both her and Johnny out when Johnny was barely two. Johnny’s mother died when he was twelve, and he’s been on his own since.”

“On his own? What the hell do you mean?” Scott’s stomach lurched, and he feared losing the meal recently ingested.

“What I mean is Johnny grew up hard, and he grew up fast. He also never went back home. Was alone with his mother when she died, and was alone afterward. Couldn’t turn to the old man for help. When someone kicks you out, the last thing they want to do is help.”

“I’m sorry. I really am. No child should grow up like that,” Scott said softly.

Val could hear the sincerity in Scott’s voice. “Wasn’t easy.”

“No, but I still don’t understand what this has to do with me or my father. What set Johnny off? Sheriff, what is going on here?”

“Well, it seems Johnny’s daddy was married to someone else, first.”

Scott was growing impatient. “Again, what does this have to do with me?”

Val poured another shot. “Do you think Johnny always went by the name Madrid?”

It was Scott’s turn to pour a shot, a trembling hand barely able to grip the bottle. “Never considered it.”

“Well you should,” Val snapped. “Cause he’s got the same last name as you.”

The shotglass crashed to the floor, golden liquid pooling around shards of glass. Scott rose slowly, backing up to the wall. Hearing a jingle of spurs, he looked to the door.

“That’s right,” Johnny’s soft voice replied. “I took the name Madrid ‘cause I wasn’t about to go through life carrying the name of the bastard that kicked me out. And it seems he didn’t want you too much either, brother.”

“Brother?” Scott muttered. His heart pounded painfully against his ribs, his skin grew cold and clammy.

“Yep. I was born a Lancer. Johnny Lancer. Murdoch Lancer is the bastard that threw me out.”

Scott paled and sat down, his entire body quaking. A big piece of the puzzle was staring him in the face, yet he could not comprehend what he had just learned. Johnny walked across the room, spurs jingling with every rhythmic step.

“Hell of a shock, huh?” Johnny asked, toying with a shotglass. Holding it up to the sun, he admired the sparkling hues. “Yep, one hell of a shock. You’re lucky. Came damned close to eating a bullet. The name didn’t do you any favors, but I didn’t want to dirty up Val’s town with a murder.”

Johnny grabbed a chair and spinning it around, sat backwards, arms folded across the top. “Yep, could’a blown ya clean way.” He cocked his fingers in Scott’s direction. To his credit, the easterner never flinched, and Johnny was impressed. “Then I got to thinking. Thought I’d give you the benefit of the doubt. Was gonna ride on, but decided to hear you out. Get your take on things. Find out what the hell you want.”

Scott met his brother’s steely gaze. “I don’t want anything.”

“Everybody wants something, Scott.” Johnny’s voice was deadpan, carrying a hard edge. “Thought I’d see what your story was.” He stood, beginning a frenetic pacing Val had grown accustomed to. He stopped on a dime and turned, all the while tossing the shotglass from hand to hand. “I always wondered if the old man ever remarried after he kicked my mother and me out. Figured he would. You know, a nice, upstanding citizen.

“They never divorced, but he probably thought what the hell. No one would care if he looked past his marriage to a Mex and got hitched right and proper. Always figured there was a passel of blue-blooded kids running around Lancer. They wouldn’t be kicked out. They’re good for his image.

“But it seems I was wrong in that regard,” Johnny said, placing the glass back down. “Seems the old man had no use for you, either. That I can’t figure out. Can see why someone would throw a breed like me to the curb . . .”

Scott vaulted to his feet, a strange, protective instinct rushing forth. “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that. I don’t care if we’re related by blood or not. I hate prejudice of any kind. I’ve seen enough of it back east growing up, and don’t want to hear it coming from my own brother.”

Johnny chuckled, but there was no mirth in his laugh. “That was real good, Boston. Yep, real good. Thing is, we got the old man’s blood, but we don’t mean anything to the other.”

“No, not yet, anyway,” Scott replied. “We just don’t know one another.”

“Yeah, who would have thought. The breed gunslinger, and the fine, eastern dandy, having the same daddy. And the son of a bitch didn’t want either one of us,” Johnny sneered.

“Looks that way,” Scott agreed.

“And you’re going to California,” Johnny replied. Tell me, why California? Why now?”

Scott stood straight, a glare that would make Madrid proud, fixed upon his brother. “That’s easy. One thousand dollars, for one hour of my time.”

“Oh hell.” Val whistled through his teeth. Turning toward the wall, a nervous hand ran through his hair.

On the outside, Johnny appeared unfazed. But Val saw the signs and knew he was falling apart slowly. The dark, steely glint in his eyes, the square set of his jaw. The stare that never wavered and fingers that remained tense and unmoving on the butt of his gun.

“One thousand dollars. How interesting.” Johnny turned to Val. “Well, we can rule out a range war.”

“Looks that way,” Val replied.

“Don’t seem to want my gun, either.”

“Nope, don’t appear that way.”

“Well, that might be one mystery cleared up,” Scott replied. “That only leaves one thing.”

“Our old man. Who the hell would have thought. Never wanted me, never claimed you. Wonder what the hell he wants now. For some old codger that didn’t want his kids, he sure as hell is paying enough to get our asses there.” Johnny said, the anger rising.

“If it is him,” Val pointed out.

Johnny lifted his head slowly. “Val, what other reason is there? I can see if it was just me, but what does he have to do with it?” He crooked a finger toward Scott, who stood, chin jutted out and arms crossed over his chest.

“I beg your pardon. I do have some sort of worth.”

“Yeah, but you got no gun. Got no gun, there’s no gun money involved.” Johnny then turned to Val. “No gun money involved, what else is there? Only one thing I can think of. And the question is, why? Why now? Old bastard must need something bad.”

“Only one way to find out,” Scott replied.

Johnny ignored him and turned away. Picking up the saddlebags deposited at the door, he placed them on the desk and pulled two bottles of tequila out.

Frowning, Val glared. “What the hell is that?”

“I thought I’d share a drink with my brother,” Johnny said with flourish. Popping the cork, he handed over a shotglass. “Thought we’d toast the old man.”

“Toast the old man, huh? How about over a spit,” Val grumbled. “Don’t you mean get drunk on your asses in my office?”

“Whatever it takes, Val. Whatever it takes. You see, Scott and I have something in common.” Johnny wrapped his arm around Scott’s shoulder. “Yep, have the same old man. And were thrown away by the same old man. Only Scott landed better.”

Uncomfortable with Johnny’s reaction, Scott pulled away, undeserved guilt eating at him. “Johnny, I didn’t . . .”

“You didn’t know. Of course you didn’t know. And hey, it’s not your fault you had it better.”

“Now that’s enough,” Val barked, pulling Johnny aside. “You got a bee up your ass, best deal with it. Scott here ain’t the one that’s stinging ya.”

Johnny quieted, his head drooping with remorse. “You’re right, Val. Hey, I’m sorry,” he said, turning to Scott. “None of this is your fault. We both got a shitty deal, and when I think on it, I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. My Mama was good to me. We had a good life until she died.”

“If I had known, if I had the power to make things different, I would have,” Scott replied. “And you think I had it easy? My grandfather gave me everything I ever needed, but in a way, it wasn’t enough. He didn’t give of himself. And it was smothering. All the protocol . . .”

“Protocol?” Johnny asked, pouring three shots.

“Yeah, social obligations. Social standing meant the world to my grandfather. He was a gentleman, and expected me to be the same. And as I grew to learn, being a gentleman is one thing. Being dominated, is another. I hated all those rules. Always telling me how to dress, what to do, act in a socially acceptable way. He ran my life to his liking when I was little, and tried to run it when I grew up. Do this, don’t do that. Watch what you say, always do the right and proper thing.

“I believe in that, but the thing is, it wasn’t my way of being right and proper. It was his. Do what he wanted, say what he wanted, and act the way he wanted me to act. Follow along in his footsteps regarding every aspect of my life right down to who I marry and entering the family business. I felt like a puppet.  I couldn’t do it anymore. I needed to break free. Couldn’t stand the thought of being stuffed behind four walls the rest of my life.”

“Yeah, that don’t set well,” Johnny replied.

“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I wanted more. I need to work with my hands, do something with my life other than push a pencil. I was sick of other people running my life. I wanted to be in charge of myself, make my own decisions, do what I wanted, for a change.”

“So you left?”

“Let’s say I was nudged,” Scott chuckled. “ But I would have left anyway. When I got the offer . . .”

“Yeah, the mysterious offer,” Johnny scoffed.

“Let’s just say that it helped with the decision to leave.”

“Yeah, but to what?”

“Guess we’ll find that out, brother.”

By this time, the first bottle was empty and three quarters of the second had disappeared. Scott was seeing double and Johnny swayed where he sat. Val remained stone cold sober, figuring someone should at least have their wits about them. Besides, he was on duty and sat sipping a fresh batch of pan fried coffee while glowering at the drunken pair.

The day slipped away, and in spite of the influx of stranded train passengers, the town was quiet. He slipped out for a moment to make rounds and give instructions to his deputy. The town was in the man’s capable hands. Val had other important matters to tend to, and unless the town was falling down around their ears, left instructions not to be disturbed. Johnny was on a bender, and Scott was close behind. The last thing Val ever thought to do, was babysit two Lancer brothers who were drunk on their asses.

“Old man didn’t want me,” Scott said, his speech slurred. He fell against Johnny, who pushed him back.

“Threw me out.” Johnny belched and pounded his chest. “Ahhh, better.”

“Ain’t ya two pathetic,” Val grumbled, kicking Johnny’s legs off the edge of his desk.

“Whoa!” Johnny floundered, then gave up the battle and slid to his knees. Grappling for the edge of the desk, he somehow managed to stand.

Scott burst out laughing. Tilting sideways, he grabbed for Johnny’s shoulder. Overcome with laughter, they fell to the floor. Johnny leaned against the desk and Scott fell against him.

“Scott wheezed, trying to catch his breath. “Who’d a . . .”

“Who’d a, what?” Johnny snickered, clutching at Scott’s arm.

“Who’d a thought that me, Scott Garrett Lancer . . .”

“Garrett?” Johnny taunted.

“Yes, Garrett,” Scott replied with flourish, waving the bottle around. “From the pillars of Boston society, would have . . .”

“Have what?” Johnny laughed, gasping for breath.”

“A . . .”

“A . . . what?”

“A dreaded gunfighter for a brother.” Scott’s ribs ached and tears rolled down his face. “And a famous one at that.”

Johnny snatched the bottle from Scott’s fingers. “Hey, I’ll do you one better. Johnny Madrid has a fancy assed dandy for a brother. But he sure as hell can fight.”

Scott threw his glass aside and grabbed the bottle. “Hey, something is floating in here,” he said, sending Johnny off in fresh peals of laughter.

Sobering, he grabbed the bottle and held it up to the light, pointing with his finger. “It’s a worm.”

Squinting, Scott’s mouth fell open. “You’re right. It is a worm. But . . .”

Johnny took a deep pull, hugged the bottle and hiccuped. “But, what?”

“What’s it doing in the bottle?”

“Swimming.”

“I see. Well, in that case . . .” Scott tipped the bottle, drained the golden liquid and swallowed the worm in one breath.

Johnny stared in awe. Scott rose. Holding his stomach, he bolted out the back door.

 *****

Val sat rubbing his eyes. Staring first at Johnny, prone across the desk, one arm serving as a pillow, the other hanging over the side, he grunted and turned to the right. Scott lay comatose across the cot used the previous night, snoring slightly. It was a wonder either of them were breathing after downing two bottles of tequila in record time.

Johnny was used to such rotgut, and could put away copious amounts, but Val doubted Scott was accustomed to such drink. The dandy may be Johnny Madrid’s brother and sure as hell didn’t back down from a fight, but he figured the strange easterner leaned more on the side of fine, malt whiskey and brandy.

Johnny’s brother. Val cursed under his breath and walked over to stare out the window. The sun was just beginning to sink lower in the sky and Johnny groaned. Val doubted the full impact of the news had yet to strike and once Johnny was cognizant enough to let a sober thought flow, the dam was sure to break free.

Johnny spent too many years alone. Finding out he had a brother, had to be devastating. Things could have been so different. Johnny never asked anything from anyone. He either survived by his own wit, or died trying. The last thing he ever wanted to do was return to Lancer. He refused to give the old man the satisfaction of throwing him out a second time.

Gritting his teeth, Val cursed under his breath. If he ever had the distinct displeasure of running into Murdoch Lancer, he would be hard pressed not to put a bullet between his eyes. While his son was scrounging to survive, learning to live by the gun so that he might see another day, struggling for every morsel put in his mouth and hopefully find a warm bed and roof over his head by night, the old bastard was living a life of sheer luxury. A prestigious, rich, powerful cattleman, who lived and breathed every comfort that came with the title.

The thought made Val wretch. He wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Johnny. Without even asking, a young boy of fifteen risked his own life, without hesitation, without question, to save Val from certain death. Val spent the next month nursing him back to health. He would lay down his life for Johnny in a heartbeat, if only because Johnny asked him to. He sat at the desk, thinking back to how they met. They clicked from the beginning and a small smile crinkled the corner of his mouth as an age old memory resurfaced.

*****

The skinny kid appeared out of nowhere, riding in on a tired looking gelding. Seeming to materialize out of the treeline, he nudged the sorry looking beast forward and dismounted. Val froze, a noose looped around his neck. He could barely swallow, was looking at the six men ready to send him to his maker, when the kid walked toward them.

Val couldn’t believe his eyes, a low slung rig looking to drag the kid down, was strapped to his hips. He wondered how in the hell the kid managed to stand, let alone tote such a rig. One strong blast of wind would serve to knock him off his feet, but the cold, deadly glint in his eyes said it all. This was not a kid you wanted to mess with.

“Don’t cotton to no lynching.” Flicking the safety from his gun, Johnny turned and faced the nervous crowd. “Cut him down.”

“You got no right messing around here boy.” Of average height, a man Val never got the name of, spat a long, putrid stream of tobacco juice and chewed on the plug stuffed between his cheek.

Johnny never wavered. “Not gonna say it twice. He done wrong, let the law handle it.”

Val couldn’t help but gawk. What the hell did some wanna-be gunhawk care about the damned law, let alone him? Still, there was something about the kid that had Val shrinking in his presence. If the others didn’t see it, then they deserved to go straight to hell. In that instant, Val knew that Johnny was in control, and they didn’t stand a chance. The kid not only had guts, he stood up for what he believed in and wasn’t afraid to let that be known.

The rope had yet to be fastened to the tree, and loosened when the man with rotted teeth and greasy hair dropped the end he was holding, spit a plug of snuff from his mouth and stepped aside. “I said you got no right here. Get lost, breed.”

“That, was your second mistake.”

Johnny saw the movement before Val could even comprehend what was happening. Greasy hair reached for his gun and Johnny promptly sent him straight to hell. Diving to the right, he shoved Val from the horse a split second before it bolted. Val fell to the ground, hitting with a back crushing thud. He rolled, kicking the feet out from under the man closest to him and grabbed for his gun.

Johnny scrambled aside, felling a second man with a bullet to the chest. A volley of bullets rained down around them. Val felt a slug dig a groove across his side, another taking him in the left arm. Head lowered, he charged the man standing in front of him, a bone shattering blow to the ribs driving him into a tree. The man cried out, grabbed his side and fell to the ground, writhing in pain. Val put him out of his misery. Turning, he saw one more man fall and another taking aim at Johnny’s head. Johnny cried out and clutched his forehead, blood streaming between his fingers.

The kid went to his knees and rolled, barely dodging another bullet with his name on it. In a breathtaking movement, he took the fat man out, but was flung backward by a bullet slamming into his side. Blood pouring down his head, he tried to turn back and fire, but the gun slid from his fingers. Johnny fell to the ground and Val took aim. The fat man swallowed and took a step back.

Val advanced. “You shouldn’t ‘a done that.” Then blew the bastard’s head off.

Val made sure all six were dead before kneeling over Johnny. Blood poured from a wound that thankfully only grazed the left side of his head, another bullet taking him in the lower right side. Val put pressure on the wound and looked for an exit hole, his heart sinking.

“A’mighty. What the hell am I gonna do now?” he asked, wary eyes darting about. “Well, best get to it.”

Val managed to snag two of the dead men’s horses, and removing saddles and tack, set the others free. At the very least, he figured the kid deserved a better mount, and chose a buckskin standing at 16 hands. Val removed Johnny’s saddlebags, tack, and meager supplies, and placed them on the sturdy mount. Set free, the weary gelding lumbered down to a meadow near the creek.

“Small payment,” he muttered. Returning to Johnny’s side, he brushed the hair back from his face. “Damn fool kid. What the hell ya go and do that fer?”

He grumbled, but gently reached out and pulled Johnny into his arms. Grunting, he staggered to his feet, ignoring the searing pain in his own arm. This was not some wanna-be gunhawk. This was the real deal. And Val prayed that he would never see the wrong end of this strange kid’s gun. The one thing he did know was that they had to get out of there, and fast. Once they reached safety, he would do what was needed. Val’s stomach turned. There wasn’t a doctor within a hundred miles.

“Kid, yer wearing me thin,” Val grumbled. “A’mighty.”

Lifting Johnny onto the buckskin effortlessly, he held the reins and mounted a chestnut steed snagged for himself. Nudging the mounts forward, he rode away, thinking of what lay ahead. If this strange kid stood a chance in hell, it would have to come from him. He would have to dig the bullet out, all the while praying he didn’t kill the kid.

*****

Val rode north of Tucson, skirting past the border town. His late uncle, Eb Crawford1, had an old shack in the hills he used to lay low every once in a while. The old desert rat caught the gold fever and disappeared when Val was in his teens. Val came across him quite by accident while on a jaunt through Tucson and spotted the grizzled old man laying in a load of supplies at the general store. Food specks caught in his face hair and hitch to his step, Eb had not changed a bit, and he remembered his nephew. Val spent the next eight months with the old man, listening to tales of the old days and catching him up on news from home.

News. That was a hoot. Val had not been home in eight years. His mother passed and to Eb’s sorrow, so had his older brother, Val’s father, Jacob. Val’s sister married and moved to the coast of Oregon. Val had not seen her since. And roaming the border towns as he did, selling his gun to the highest bidder, was not conducive with keeping in touch. Val doubted he would ever see Katie again, especially that morning when he sat atop a horse with a noose looped around his neck.

He glanced over at Johnny and pulled the horse closer. Hunched over the neck of his mount, Johnny held on instinctively, although Val had no idea, how. The sun was just beginning to set by the time they reached the shack. Val turned the horses loose in the corral and carried Johnny inside.

Depositing him on the bed, Val scrounged for a bucket and after knocking the sand out, rinsed it repeatedly with creek water. He hated leaving the kid, but had no choice. If he were to remove the bullet, he needed plenty of water. His canteen was refilled and finding the one Johnny carried, brought that down to the creek.

Johnny stirred but once. Val pulled out two old shirts belonging to Eb from a trunk at the foot of the creaky, rope bed and tore them into strips. Soaking them in hot water, he was ready. He cleaned the dried blood from Johnny’s head and wrapped the wound. The bleeding had stopped, one less thing to worry about. His own wounds would have to wait. The bullet went clean through his arm and his side was merely grazed. The bleeding had stopped and even if it had not, the kid came first. Val would die trying to save him, if need be.

Bile crept up his throat and his hands trembled. Val removed the knife from boiling water and swallowed deeply. “Kid, I purely hate ta do this, but got no choice. Damn, hell.” Val cursed, and washed the area around the wound clean. He wished to have laudanum to ease the pain, but the only thing he carried was a bottle of rotgut tequila and half a bottle of whiskey. They would have to do. Hopefully, the kid wouldn’t wake during the makeshift operation.

Knife poised over the wound, Val faltered and almost dropped the sharp instrument. Swiping the sweat from his eyes, he took a deep breath and made the incision. Johnny cried out, his body flailing slightly before falling still. Val pressed his hand against the boy’s chest, only letting out a breath of relief when he felt a flicker of life.

“A’mighty.”

Val made the incision and peeled the skin back. Gore rose from his stomach and he almost lost its meager contents. The bullet didn’t appear to be too deep, for which he was grateful. Poking around inside the kid’s chest would surely kill him. Still, Val had to force himself to continue. The bullet didn’t come out, the kid didn’t live. That simple. And he never asked for any of it. Didn’t have to get involved, yet stepped right up as if it was his fight.

“Damn hell, kid. What’d ya go and do that fer. Now look at the mess yer in.”

Sweat dripped into his eyes and Val shook his head. Taking a deep breath, he plunged two fingers inside the wound, probing deeper still for the bullet. His finger nicked a rib and he almost lost control of his bodily functions. Forcing himself to probe deeper, his fingers following the path he prayed the bullet took, he finally felt the misshapen wad of lead.

A deep breath expelled, he removed his fingers and threw the bullet across the room. “There, that outta do it.” Val finally began to breathe. And the strange kid held his own. “A’mighty.”

Other than the soft rise and fall of his chest, Johnny never stirred. Val pulled black thread from his saddlebag and after disinfecting the wound with whiskey, a hearty swallow taken for good measure, stitched the hole shut. He would have dearly loved to down the remainder of the bottle, but thought to keep the whiskey for the kid. He would need it to take the edge off the pain if he ever woke.

“When he wakes,” Val corrected himself. He was not about to give up on the scrawny kid just yet.

Why someone like the strange, dark-haired kid would stand for him, a total stranger, made no sense, yet it was done. And Val never gave up on a body that had done right by him. The kid didn’t ask for trouble, he was merely righting what he felt was a wrong. And Val would never forget it.

With a basin of fresh water and clean rag, Val washed the dried blood from the boy’s face and removed his clothing down to a pair of tattered, cut-off longjohns. “See ya got my fashion sense,” Val snickered.

Johnny slept through the ministrations. Val sat by his side throughout that long night. Johnny stirred but once, downed a mouthful of water and shot of whiskey, then fell into a deep, undisturbed sleep. Val was grateful. Out cold meant no pain, and the kid would be hurting.

A fever set in by morning, and Val spent the day wiping Johnny’s body down with cool water, fighting the ravages of pain and fever. He mumbled every once in a while, the thoughts incoherent as he cried out for his mother and cursed his father. Val learned more in those fevered moments, than needed to spell out the kind of life the kid led.

Val felt a fatherly, protective instinct for the strange boy, wondering all the while how his old man could turn his back on him. Didn’t the man see what he had? Grown men would have turned their backs on Val’s sort of trouble, yet this kid rode straight into the middle of it. And almost took all of them down, never giving the odds a thought. No, the kid’s old man was a damned fool, one that deserved to be flayed and stretched out in the hot sun to broil.

Val tended Johnny throughout the next four days, some of the longest in his life. He ate watching Johnny, grabbed snatches of sleep when Johnny slept, tended the horses when he could steal a few minutes, all the while hurrying as fast as he could, so as not to leave Johnny alone for too long. The fever broke, but the kid had yet to fully waken.

The afternoon of the fourth day, Johnny stirred. He woke slowly, a grizzled, bewhiskered face beaming down. He blinked, uncomprehending of his surroundings, or the stranger hovering over him, but knew instinctively there was nothing to fear.

“Welcome back.”

Startling, vivid eyes of sapphire blue gazed upward, wary until recognition set in. “Hey, you’re that fella with that noose around his neck.”

Val chuckled. “One in the same.”

“Thanks,” Johnny grinned, wincing in pain.

“Fer what? Seems to me ya got it backwards,” Val groused.

“Surly bastard, ain’t ya?” Johnny snickered.

“I aim to please.”

“Well, you saved my ass.”

“Got that backwards, too. I was the one about to get his neck stretched, remember?”

“Oh yeah, I do seem to recall that,” Johnny replied. He reached up and poked at Val’s throat, only to have his hand swatted aside.

“Quit that.”

“Touchy, too,” Johnny chuckled.

“Smart ass.” Val reached for a tin of water, and helped Johnny sit up. “Careful now. Had ta dig a bullet out of yer side.”

“Hope the knife was clean,” Johnny frowned.

“Clean as I felt,” Val grumbled. “Appreciative sort, ain’t ya?’

“I aim to please.”

“Smart ass.”

“Who are you? And where are we?” Johnny asked.

“Name’s Crawford. Val Crawford. And this here shack belonged to my late Uncle Eb. Was a dessert rat. Spent his entire life panning for gold. And if he found it, ya couldn’t tell by this. Rich or not, this was the way he lived. Then if ya look at it, he was rich. Lived peacefully. No one bothered him, had all he needed to get by, and was happy. Not many can say that.”

“No, not many can,” Johnny said, looking and sounding older than his years.

“That was one hell of a dumb stunt ya pulled back there,” Val admonished.

“Saved your ass.”

“So ya said,” Val frowned. “So, what do they call ya?”

Johnny met Val’s eyes square on. “Madrid. Johnny Madrid.”

The tin slipped from Val’s fingers and he rose, whistling between his teeth. He turned away, running a trembling hand through his hair, before turning back to gawk. “A’mighty. Johnny Madrid. What the hell. Can’t be more than sixteen.”

“Fifteen,’ Johnny corrected.

“A’mighty. Fifteen. And a skinny runt, to boot.”

“It gives me my edge,” Johnny glared.

“Damn, hell. Johnny Madrid. Who’d ‘a thought. Well, ya don’t look old enough or sturdy enough to carry yer own gun, but I ain’t never met a man who packed as much heat. And I thank ya. Saved my life.” Val sat back down and leaning forward, extended his hand.

“Welcome.” Johnny winced, but grasped hold anyway. They clasped hands, one strong and sturdy, the other weak and failing as fatigue struck.

Val gently lowered Johnny’s arm. Fluffing the pillow, he checked the wound, satisfied there was no sign of infection. A small miracle, considering he was the one to do the doctoring. “Yer lucky. Just a bit of fever the past few days, but will heal. Just gonna take a bit. Hope ya got no objection to holing up here for a while.”

“Sounds good. Been needing a rest,” Johnny yawned, eyelids fluttering with exhaustion.

Val lay a hand gently on Johnny’s shoulder. “Kid, I won’t ever ferget what ya done. Never.”

Their eyes locked, a strange friendship sealed. Johnny nodded, then drifted off to sleep.

Val never did forget. Johnny snorted and stirred. Scott never budged. After losing the contents of his stomach in the bushes behind the jail, Val carried him back inside and deposited him on the cot. He passed out cold and had not moved since. Val stood and reaching down, grabbed Johnny under the arms and pulled him from the chair, careful not to drop him. He had no doubt Johnny would shoot him in the ass.

Pulling a blanket up over Johnny’s shoulders, Val stood back and scrubbed at his eyes. “Well amigo, seems like I’m always carrying yer ass somewhere. Shot or drunk, don’t matter. I’m here fer ya, Johnny. Always am, always will be. But I gotta tell ya, I don’t feel right about this, and can’t help but worry what will come of this mess. But a man’s gotta do what’s set before him, and I don’t expect any less from ya.

“Who would’a thought.” Shaking his head, Val left the cell door open and went back to his desk. There would be no sleep for him this night. Only drunken bliss sent Johnny into slumber, otherwise his friend would be sitting alongside him now. Val sat down, staring into the dark, all the while wishing he had gotten blinding, stinking drunk alongside him. He sure could use it.

Johnny staggered across the room a little before noon, rubbing a hand through his hair. His eyes were bleary and his tongue felt swollen twice its size. All in all, he felt fine. Nothing like a good old bender to put things in perspective. Others might pay the price in the morning, and Johnny had no doubt Scott was in for a time, but once Johnny slept the effects off, a few cups of Val’s pan-fried coffee would serve to set him straight. As thought, Val was ready. A fresh batch of coffee simmered on the cookstove.

Giving a half-hearted wave, Johnny stumbled past and made a trip outside. Returning a few minutes later, he sat at the desk. Pouring a cup of coffee, Val carried it over. They sat in silence for a few minutes while Johnny drank, getting his head together. The fog lifted and he scrubbed a hand across his eyes.

“Scott still out?”

Val nodded toward the cell. “Well, if yer talking about the same dandy that drank more than he should have, swallered that there worm and puked his guts out, yeah, that’s him.” Val narrowed his eyes and glared. “And I got half a mind to dunk yer asses in the horse trough. Clear out some of the stench. Smells like you both done been pickled.”

Johnny was taken aback, the chair he was leaning against the wall, crashing down on all four legs. “Pickled? Look who’s talking! I bet that dandy takes those sweet perfumed baths all the time. And just try to dunk me. Your scruffy ass will be the one going in. Would do you good.”

“Reckon I can stand ya for a piece,” Val grumbled, returning the glare.

Johnny leaned forward, forearms resting on his knees. “Hell of a thing.”

Val took a sip of coffee and leaned forward. “Yep. Was quite a kick.”

“Square in the ass.” Johnny sat staring at the floor before speaking. Lifting his head, red rimmed eyes met Val’s. “What the hell am I gonna do? And what about him?”

“Talk about being bushwhacked.”

“Val, that dandy is my brother.”

“Don’t seem like a bad sort,” Val replied, stealing a peek at the cell.

“Didn’t say he was, but I didn’t ask for this.”

“Johnny, we rarely ask for anything that comes our way. And this is one of them times.”

“I don’t need this, Val,” Johnny spoke softly. “Don’t need anyone. Haven’t since my mother died. I’m used to things the way they are. Folks ask too much of you. Then they let you down. It’s a given. Now he comes along, spouting how he’s my brother.”

“Whoa there, amigo. He didn’t come along spouting nuthin,” Val reminded Johnny. “Was hit just as hard as you.”

Johnny sighed heavily. “Yeah, you’re right. He’s been through it, too. But the fact still remains. What am I gonna do?”

“What do you want to do?”

“Dunno,” Johnny shrugged.

“If it is your old man?”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Johnny replied. “But I can’t figure it out. The old bastard didn’t want either of us. Can see why . . .”

Val swung his hat at Johnny’s head, purposely missing, but making his point, nevertheless. “If’n yer gonna say how it makes sense ya being a breed and all, I’m gonna knock yer lame fool head off. Don’t like that kind’a talk from ya.”

Johnny was duly chastised and flashed a sheepish grin. “Sorry, forgot how touchy you were.”

“Where yer concerned, damned right,” Val grumbled. Replacing his hat, he affixed a stern glare, the only man that could make Johnny squirm. “And don’t ya go fergetting it.”

“Yeah, yeah. Thing is, I still don’t know what to do. Have half a mind to ride off. My life was going just fine.”

“Ya call facing a firing squad, fine?”

“All right,” Johnny snapped. “Man, you’re right. Haven’t done so well lately. But if you were there, would you have stayed out of it?”

“No, can’t rightly say. Id’a been right there alongside ya.”

“Okay, then. Other than that, I was doing pretty good. Took on jobs when needed and they came up, and didn’t answer to anyone but myself. Don’t rightly cotton to answering to anyone now.” Johnny sat back with a frown. “Been on my own too long to change. And don’t go spouting that family shit. I had a family once. It was good while it lasted, but proved one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Nuthin lasts.”

Val was speechless. He had never seen anyone as closed up before. Having lost his mother at a young age, and with no one to turn to, Johnny shut the world out and relied on no one but himself. His formative years were spent learning to use the gun, rather than swimming, running and playing with friends.

Johnny never set out to make a reputation for himself, but once the power and fury was unleashed, there was no stopping him. He was damned good, and that was hard to hide. He survived the only way he knew how, the only way he could, and was both feared and respected. Val knew there was a side to Johnny he let very few see, and at one time considered asking him to be his deputy, but knew his friend would not stay in one place for long.

Like Johnny often touted, he was a lone wolf and wolves roamed their territory. The border towns where Johnny Madrid’s domain and he ruled with a steely resolve. Johnny was now facing a crossroad in his life, and did not know where to turn. Trust was a commodity he was not willing to give freely. Val knew he was about the only person besides Rhonda, that Johnny truly trusted. And it was a damned lonely way to live. Especially for someone so young, and with so much to give.

“Yer, right, never can tell with life, but that don’t mean ya turn yer back on everyone. Some folk just belong, ya know?” Val asked, nudging Johnny with his elbow.

Johnny got up and went over to lean on the wide, stucco windowsill. “And some things belong staying the way they are.”

“Like you? Don’t let anyone in? Yer a hard case,” Val said, shaking his head.

“What if I am?” Johnny whirled about, fire shooting from his eyes.

Used to his tirades, Val remained undaunted. “Comes a time when ya gotta give folks a chance. Don’t mean to tell ya how to be, but maybe ya should think on this.”

“Think on it, huh?” Johnny smirked. Walking from the window, he kicked the chair out and sat back down. “Don’t think I have any choice.”

Val tilted his chair against the wall. “Johnny, you have a choice. You have nuthin to lose, and at least $1,000 to buy a new life, to gain. Remember I once told ya that we don’t have a choice but to live by the gun?”

“Yeah, what of it?” Johnny asked.

Val hedged. “Well, maybe I was wrong.”

“Nope.”

“Maybe it was right at the time, but things change. Life changes,” Val replied.

What are you getting at?”

“Johnny, listen to me. You got a raw deal. No one knows that better than me. Yer old man is a shit and that’s putting it mildly. Son of a bitch never did right by ya, but like I said, things change. All I’m saying is to leave things open. See how they play out before making any decisions.”

“Like give the old man a chance?” Johnny asked, startling blue eyes gazing intently.

“Will that be so bad?”

“Like he gave me?”

Val leaned closer, wrapping a hand around the back of Johnny’s head. “Yer just about the only friend I got. Sometimes I feel like some sort of father.”

“Yeah, you are getting up there,” Johnny chuckled, struggling to hide the emotion beckoning.

Val lowered his arm and sat back. “That’s why I’m telling ya to keep things open. Go in there with an open mind. See what this is all about before going off. Especially if this is something ta do with yer old man, which seems pretty straight forward.”

“Yeah, I know what you’re saying. Don’t worry, Val, I won’t blow his brains out till I hear what he wants. Then I’ll think about it.”

Val nodded. “That’s all I’m asking of ya.”

Johnny lowered his eyes, wrapping his arms around his torso. “That’s about all I can give, mi amigo.”

With everything settled for the moment, Val addressed a nagging worry. “Back there at the café, before all hell broke loose, ya mentioned the feeling of being followed. Care to explain?”

Johnny shrugged. “Just been dogging me. Probably reading into nuthin.”

Val’s eyes narrowed. “Never known ya to read into anything, ‘nless it was there.”

“Could be all this shit with Scott. And don’t forget, that Pink found me down in Mexico.”

“Good thing he did,” Val groused.

“Yeah, good thing.” Johnny tried in vain to joke, but failed and fell somber. “Who knows, maybe the old man, or whoever it is, has someone following us.”

“What the hell for?”

“Guess I’ll find out.”

“I don’t like this. Nope, not one bit,” Val grumbled, then poured another cup of coffee. “Just watch yer back.”

“Don’t I always?” Johnny replied, this time a grin breaking out.

Val knew the advice, as well as the warning, was unwarranted when considering who he was dealing with, but had to speak his mind. Perhaps he should find whomever was making Johnny feel uncomfortable and warn him off. The entire mess was getting on his nerves, making his head ache. Val didn’t like being toyed with, and he purely detested anyone messing with Johnny.

“Look, I’m the last person you gotta worry about,” Johnny said, trying to reassure his friend. “Got enough on my mind right now.”

“What are ya gonna do?”

“Don’t rightly know yet.”

“California?”

“Won’t pass up the money.”

“Gonna bring company?”

Johnny glanced over at Scott’s slumbering form. “Don’t rightly know yet. Got a bit of thinking to do. Last thing I expected was some brother dumped in my lap. Don’t need a ready made family. Never asked for it.”

“That make it a bad thing?”

Val knew it would be a battle. Trust did not come easy, if it at all. With Val, that trust was there from the get go. Anyone else had to prove themselves, if Johnny let them. Val hoped he would give Scott a chance. Johnny was too young to be so alone. And the longer it went, the more Val gave up any hope of him ever settling down.

“Like I said, I never asked for it.” Johnny rose, kicked the chair back and strapped on his rig.

“Where ya going?”

“Out.”

“A’mighty.” Val sighed and sat back down, a tin of lukewarm coffee clutched in hand.

He was at a loss on how to reach Johnny, but if there was one thing he knew, it was not to push. Johnny eventually came around, but it was done on his time. Once emotions were dealt with, and intruding feelings shoved aside or forgotten, Johnny forged ahead. The question being, would he forge ahead alone, or would he give his newly found brother, a chance.

A groan caught Val’s attention. Scott rolled over and swung his feet off the side of the cot. His stomach heaving, he grasped his head between his hands and sat with elbows resting on his knees. Val dumped a clean chamberpot in front of him. At least Scott hoped it was clean.

“No thank you,” he said, eyes redder than Val had ever witnessed, staring up.

“Damn hell, boy. You look as if you’d been dragged and stomped.”

“I was stomped.”

“Must’a been that damned worm,” Val chuckled. “Gets ya every time.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Scott moaned. Doubled over, he heaved twice, only to bring up nothing. Groaning, he fell back against the wall. “Shoot me now. Where’s Johnny when I need him? He’ll make it fast.”

“And clean,” Val added. “Won’t know what hit ya.”

Scott struggled to stand, and fell back against the cot. His head ached, his mouth was almost too dry to swallow and he accepted the tin of water with gratitude. “Thanks,” he croaked, after taking three long swallows.

“Don’t mention it.” Val sat back down. Arms crossed, he stared. “Ya look like shit.”

“Don’t feel much better.” Scott managed to pry his eyes open and glanced around. “Where’s Johnny?”

“Out.”

“You don’t talk much, do you?”

“Only when I have something to say.”

Scott rose, this time he made it, after stumbling against the wall a few times. “Out where?”

Val guided him over to the desk and placed a tin of steaming coffee in his hands. “Thinking.”

“Does he always go off alone to think?” Scott asked.

Val’s eyes narrowed. “Look, I know ya got blindsided the same as Johnny, but ya have ta understand something. Johnny grew up hard and he grew up fast. He’s been alone too many years ta wanna think about, and learned early on not ta rely on anyone.”

“Especially our father, I presume,” Scott replied.

“Yep. That’s about it. Thing is, Johnny ain’t one ta be put on the line. Ya either take him as he is, or leave him be. Don’t try and press him into anything. Won’t do ya no good.”

“You mean like traveling to California with me, right?” Scott asked, the coffee burning a hole in his stomach. Having had enough, he pushed the tin away.

“Won’t tear up my train ticket yet,” Val advised. “Look ya seem poorly.”

“Been better.”

“Give Johnny time. Best to leave him be, let him sort things out on his own. Don’t have any choice, he won’t allow it any other way.”

“Even if he goes off by himself?”

“Then that’s the way of things.”

“I see. Well, can you at least do me one more favor?” Scott asked as he tried to rise.

“What’s that?” Val stood and grabbing hold of Scott’s arm, kept him on his feet.

“Just get me over to the hotel. Let me die in peace.”

“Can do that. Seems I’m always hauling one of you boys, or the other.” Val grunted, bearing the brunt of Scott’s weight.

“How’s that?”

“Long story.”

“Oh. Later, then.”

Val managed to deliver Scott in one piece, and did not see hide nor hair of him for the rest of the day or night. And Johnny was nowhere to be found.

“A’mighty,” Val groaned, as he set out on his nightly rounds.

*****

He stood in the shadows watching Johnny leave town. Pulling his sombrero down low, he wished to return to his native land of Mexico, but had made a promise to his brother. He just wished it had not taken so long to fulfill. Johnny reached the edge of town and a slight shudder ran through his body. Turning, he glanced back over his shoulder.

His senses were on alert, he was being watched and did not like it one bit. But if there was anything Madrid knew, it was to never let his guard down. Let them watch. When he was ready, he would make his move. The watcher would be sorry. Till then, Johnny would play the game.

Fearing he had been discovered, the man slipped back inside the general store. He needed to get word to California. Events had taken an unexpected, surprising turn, making this very interesting, indeed. He would have to be more careful from now on. Johnny was wary, and he could easily be discovered. That could not happen until the time was right.

*****

Johnny loved the desert. Sometimes he felt as if he belonged there more than anywhere else in the world. Val joked that he was as prickly as a cactus and deadly as a scorpion, so it made sense that he felt right at home in that stifling, harsh terrain. Johnny argued that the desert was just in his blood. It didn’t hurt that he had been raised there most of his life. Scratching an existence in the hot, dusty border towns. Hiding out in the cavernous rock formations of the badlands when he needed to lie low and heal, or sort out his mind.

There was no better place to think. There were times his mind refused to quit, good battling bad, almost as if another person hidden inside was fighting to get out. Johnny didn’t understand himself, feeling as if a piece was missing, a hole that could not be filled, plaguing his very existence.

Thinking of Scott, Johnny now wondered if those feelings had something to do with the strange easterner. A brother he never knew to have. Someone that shared their father’s blood. Their father. That was a hoot. The old man certainly was not the missing piece of his life. Johnny could do without that unwelcome interference. His life was going exactly as he wanted. No obligations except to himself, no one making demands, no one making judgments. And no one getting upset when he let them down, for he would let them down.

That was a given. Madrid was not good at relationships, Val and Rhonda being the only people he let close. The only ones who truly accepted him as he was, without question, without demands and without judgment. They never asked for something he could not give, did not look down on him for choices made, and did not expect him to change. Johnny refused to change. This was as good as it got. People could either accept that, or not. And that included Scott. Johnny wondered why that would even be a consideration.

Here he had only known the strange dandy for a few short days, and already Scott was making an impact. A welcome one, remained to be seen. Now he had something else to consider. With the discovery of an unknown brother, Johnny was faced with a major life decision. Did he travel to California with Scott, or did he go it alone? And what the hell would he do when he got there?

Johnny thought it best to play the hand out. Take what came, grab the money and run. The thought of a new life free of the stigma of Madrid, was the tantalizing tidbit that drove him forth. During his sojourn into the desert, another disturbing thought struck. Had his mother known of Scott? If so, why didn’t she ever mention he had a brother?

The very thought was unnerving, to say the least. The more he thought, the more Johnny was driven to believe that she had to have known. Having another wife and child, was a tough fact to hide. If the old man didn’t come clean with his mother, she had to have heard talk. Gossip ran rampant among the household staff and hired hands. Someone was bound to say something along the way, such secrets were impossible to hide. And she had lived with the old buzzard for a few years before being tossed out, it only made sense that she knew. But why didn’t she ever mention anything?

“A perfect, gringo son,” Johnny muttered.

Instantly remorseful, he buried the hurt deep within the confines of a hardened heart. You let nothing in, you did not get hurt. You keep people out, you did not have to live up to their expectations, and Johnny knew he would fall short. Scott was an innocent in all this. The old man didn’t seem to want him, perfect or not, anymore than he wanted Johnny. Face it, Murdoch Lancer was a selfish man who lived for himself, and the hell with the sons he sired. One tossed to the wind, the other dumped in Boston.

Johnny had to wonder if there were any more unwanted children wandering around. For all he knew, the old man could still have a passel of them running around the ranch. Maybe he finally had a family that fit his obviously high standards, and was allowed to remain. Then he didn’t care. Johnny knew as much about his father as he wanted to. Two sons tossed aside, was enough. He didn’t want to know more.

Dawn was breaking over the horizon as he sat enjoying a breakfast of bacon and biscuits. Johnny was a whiz at putting together a meal on the trail. Left to his own devices, he never went hungry. And if he had any choice, he would never be hungry again. Having suffered such at the hands of the rurales, Johnny vowed that would be the last time.

He leaned back against the saddle, watching hues of orange and pink bathe the desert landscape, a bright gleam of sunlight breaking through the early morning dim. A jackrabbit darted across the desert floor, taking refuge in the shade of a large, flowery cactus. Lizards skittered out from beneath rocks, sunning themselves in the warmth of the rising sun, and a rattler slithered across the sand, disappearing into the craggy crevices of a small rock formation. Johnny never batted an eye. As long as the snake kept its distance, all was fine.

The temperature was still comfortable, but before he finished his first cup of coffee, the sweltering heat of early summer would hit with a vengeance. Johnny wondered how his dandy, eastern bred brother was faring under such foreign conditions. Probably as well as he would do back east, a disturbing thought, at best.

Draining the last dregs of coffee and swiping the plate clean with a biscuit, Johnny was ready to break camp and return. Four days on the trail had served to clear his head. The time for pondering and indecision was over. He was ready to toss all doubt aside and forge ahead with his decision, ill-fated or not.

Right or wrong, this was what he decided to do. Now he only had to speak with Scott and Val. Hopefully, Val would go along with plans. If not, then so be it. Johnny learned long ago to roll with what came along. Sometimes, it took a bit more prodding to move him in the right direction, but he eventually came around.

News of a brother he never knew to have, did not go down easy. Johnny reeled from the shock. Not used to sharing his feelings, especially ones that sent Madrid spiraling out of control, Johnny did the only the he knew. He took off on his own to think. The only way to clear his head and hopefully put things into perspective. The one question that remained unanswered, however, was what the hell was wrong with his old man.

Scott had spent his entire life in Boston. Their father had never claimed him. Never bothered to claim one son, and kicked the other out. Was anyone good enough for the old man? Maybe he simply didn’t want to be bothered. Anyone could father a child. It took a real man to be a father. Johnny found that in Manny. For that, he would never be sorry. If it took the old man kicking him out in order to find love and acceptance from Manny, then Johnny was glad his father threw him to the wind. His mother had been happy. Manny was good to them. Everything was good until death robbed them of a future. Now it was up to Johnny to create his own future. Hence, the decision.

First things first. Johnny stabled his horse, fed it a generous portion of oats and brushed it down. Once the animal was tended, he walked over to the barbershop. The owner was just opening, and Johnny was the first customer of the day. A long, hot soak and shave beat washing in the creek. He was far from being a dandy, and drew the line at the perfumed soaks he heard the rich luxuriated in, but give him good soap and water any day, and Johnny was happy.

Maybe that would rub off on Val one day, a thought quickly discarded. Val was Val. Scruffy, gruff, and snarly, the man had a heart of gold he kept hidden from the world, a trait Johnny recognized immediately. If there was one person Johnny could rely on, it was Val. Now he only hoped his friend would back his decision.

*****

Scott sat nursing a mug of pan fried coffee. His feet kicked up on the edge of the desk, he grimaced with each bitter sip. Val scowled at his outstretched legs, but like his brother, Scott ignored the grumbling of the disgruntled sheriff. Scott still wore a pair of dress pants and shirt, but had foregone the tie, top hat, and suit jacket. Two days of nursing a hangover he thought would be his demise, and two spent worrying about his brother, left no time or desire to shop for a more fitting wardrobe.

“Have you known Johnny a long time?” Scott asked, sipping at the witches brew.

“Round about five years.”

Scott stared, hoping to get more information. This was going to be like pulling teeth. “How did you two meet?”

Val set his cup down. “Look, I don’t mean ta be rude or nuthin, but I think ya should be asking Johnny.”

“Why? It concerns you, too,” Scott fired back.

“Well, you’re right there, so I’ll tell ya this. Johnny saved my ass. Wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t fer that. Got myself in a bit of a ruckus down Arizona way, and he bailed me out. Thought ta be making a trip to my maker, but he had other things in mind.”

“I see.”

Val rose and walked over to the woodstove. “Look, I know you want to know about your brother, but it ain’t for me ta tell. And getting ta know a body takes more than sitting here swilling this shit.” Pouring another cup of coffee, he ambled back to the desk.

“I don’t mean to pry, but you have to admit, this was unexpected. First I hear of this famous gunslinger, and then I see him in Silver City. Next thing I know, I find out he’s my brother. My brother, Sheriff. That means something to me. I just hope it means something to him, too,” Scott replied.

Shoving the cup back, Val scrubbed at his face hair. He was in need of a shave, but at the moment, didn’t give a hoot. “Ahh, look, I know ya mean well. This isn’t easy on any of us, but it’s harder for Johnny.”

“How so?” Scott slid his legs off the desk and sat forward.

“This isn’t going down easy for him. Johnny has been on his own for far too long now, and he suddenly finds out he’s got a brother. Folks lied ta him. Maybe his mama, lied. The woman had ta have known. Johnny’s probably asking that very question.”

“Then we’re in the same boat,” Scott muttered.

“How so?”

“My grandfather had to have known about Johnny. Why didn’t he ever say anything to me?”

“Looks like the two of ya have a lot of questions that need answering,” Val replied.

The door kicked open and Val vaulted from his chair, fumbling for his gun. Coffee spilled on his leg and he cursed, kicking at the desk. A split second later, he was staring down the barrel of Johnny’s colt.

“Had you beat the minute I came through the door.” Johnny laughed, twirled the gun and popped it back into the holster, all before Scott could blink.

Val threw his cup across the room. “Damn hell, Madrid. Ya gone loco?”

“Just seeing if you’re on your game,” Johnny chuckled. “Hey there, Boston. See you’re still kicking.”

“No thanks to you,” Scott grumbled. Like Val, he grimaced at Johnny’s rambunctious intrusion, but secretly embraced the arrival of his brother.

“Must’a been that damned worm. Gets ya every the time.” Johnny grinned and pouring a cup of coffee, pulled a chair closer to the desk.

“Where the hell ya been?” Val groused.

“Out.”

“Out.”

“Yeah, had some thinking to do.”

“Couldn’t think here?”

“Nope.”

Scott shook is head. Listening to the one sided banter, his head was spinning. “Would you care to reiterate?”

“Would you care to speak English?” Johnny taunted, flicking at Scott’s collar. “Still wearing them fancied up duds, too.”

“What’s wrong with my clothes?” Scott cried out. His face set in a frown and arms crossed over his chest, he faced his brother down.

“Well, If you’re planning on staying around here, they’re just not the style.”

“And those studded pants, are?”

“Never got any complaints,” Johnny replied.

They fell silent. Johnny set his cup down and toyed with the stampede string of his hat. Scott shoved his cup aside and learned forward. “Hell of a way for the truth to come out, huh?”

“Yep. Sometimes it slides out nice and easy, other times it’s a kick in the ass.”

A slow smile came to Scott’s face. “What do we do now?”

Johnny’s grin grew wide, a hint of devious nature, emerging. “I say we go west. Thing is, we gotta get you out of those damned frills. Not good for my reputation.”

“I was thinking that very thing, myself. Only I have my own image to consider,” Scott smirked.

“Your image, huh?” Johnny chuckled.

“Yes, indeed, little brother. Can’t have anyone going around thinking I’m some sort of greenhorn.”

Johnny fell silent, the sudden realization that he was being teased by his older brother, stealing the breath from his body. His head drooped and he fought the urge to run. Scott slapped Johnny on the back. Val’s mouth gaped and he stared in disbelief. Usually anyone who slapped Johnny anywhere, ended up regretting it later. The brotherly bond, just newly discovered, seemed to be falling into place nicely when Johnny’s fist snaked out, softly embedding in Scott’s stomach.

“Buy me breakfast.” In spite of an earlier meal, Johnny was suddenly ravenous. He stood and walked toward the door. A grin on his face, he waited for his brother to follow.

Scott rose with a sigh and turned to Val. “Looks like I’m buying breakfast. Care to join us?”

“Ain’t got nuthin better to do.” Val pushed past Scott and glared at Johnny. Sometimes he just did not understand that boy. But a decision had been made, and he was not about to sit this one out. Madrid obviously had something up his sleeve.

They walked over to the café. The hairs on Johnny’s back stood up and he scanned the rooftops and alleyway. Feeling his friend’s unease, Val kept his eyes trained for trouble, and fingers lightly grasping the butt of his gun. Someone was watching, and he didn’t like the feeling one bit.

*****

“Well, got word that he’s back.”

“Johnny?”

“The one and only,” he chuckled.

“Good.” He sat back, rubbing at his face. Stress over the last few days was taking a toll, and he was exhausted. Yet he refused to retire until word was received. “I was afraid he had just ridden off. I know the news was hard to take, and didn’t plan on either of them finding out this way, but with life, there are no guarantees. Just have to take things as they come.”

“About all we can do. Need anything before I leave?”

“No, I’m fine.” He stood and stretched. “I think I’ll head on up to bed. Oh, and keep me appraised of any news.”

“Don’t I always?” A shake of the head, he pulled the door closed and left.

*****

Val sat at the table dumbfounded, but not surprised. Johnny wasn’t the only person with a lot of thinking to do. The offer made his head spin, and he didn’t have an answer for his friend. Most would be slighted, but Johnny knew how hard this was, and understood.

“This is all I know. Hung my gun up long ago, Johnny,” Val argued.

“Yeah, you did to a degree. And I’m not asking you to pick up your gun, again. But you’re still living by the gun. One way or the other, sheriff or gunslinger, we live by the gun. Dead is dead, no matter which side you’re on. A bullet has your name on it, it’s all written in the wind.”

“Maybe. Just finding this a might surprising.” Val pushed the empty plate back and sat with his arms folded.

“Come on, Val. Ain’t you always telling me to go after something better?”

“Can’t rightly recall.”

Johnny frowned. When Val got his back up, the man was as exasperating as they came. And Val had the nerve to call him prickly? Sometimes, they were too much alike. Perhaps that was why they got on so well. “I asked you a question.”

“I’m pondering.”

“He’s pondering,” Johnny muttered. “All right, ponder. In the meantime, mind telling me what’s up your craw?”

“Ya mean besides ya taking off without letting a fella know? Johnny, you’re a big boy now. . .”

Scott snorted in laughter and quickly hid his face behind a cup of coffee. The thought of the dreaded gunslinger being touted as a big boy struck him as funny, and as Johnny was beginning to learn, his hard glare had little effect on the older brother.

“You think that’s funny, huh?” Johnny jostled Scott’s arm. Coffee sloshed over the rim and ran down his chin.

Scott dabbed at the mess with a napkin. “Far be it for me to intrude. But please, do continue.”

“I’m done.” Johnny sat back with a mug of steaming coffee.

“Like I was saying, I just wished ya let a body know what ya were thinking of before going off like that. News like that is hard to get, didn’t know how ya took it.”

“Ahh, you were worried about me.”

“Weren’t worried. Just been on my mind.”

“But that’s not all, is it?” Johnny asked, growing serious.

“Someone’s following ya.”

Scott’s ears perked up, worry grew but Johnny only grinned. “Won’t be the first time. Someone’s always dogging me. From some asshole wanting my name, to some Pink hunting me down.”

“Good thing he did, too,” Val reminded him.

“Don’t need to tell me twice.”

Worried, Scott set his cup down. “Johnny, maybe we better check this out.”

“You mean call on the sheriff? Hey, sheriff, I’m being followed,” Johnny said, smirking at Val.

“Will ya get serious,” Val grumbled.

“I am serious.”

“Then what the hell is it?”

“Something that will play out on its own. If it is our old man wanting me to come to California, might be he has someone watching. What for, I don’t know. If it is him, he obviously sent that Pink. Maybe he wants to keep tabs on me. Ready the old homestead for my grand return. Roll out the royal red carpet for the returning heir. Oh, you can come, too.” Johnny nodded toward Scott, who grinned and raised his cup in mock toast. “Only he don’t have no way of knowing Scott and I are together, much less know about one another.”

“If whoever is following ya sends word back, then he’ll know,” Val replied.

“Don’t give a damn.”

“I don’t care either,” Scott replied. “I just don’t like the idea of you being followed.

Johnny rose, shoved the chair back, took a final sip of coffee and turned to leave. “Keeps things interesting. Thing is, someone following me, usually ends up wishing they didn’t.”

“He always this agreeable?” Scott asked, turning toward Val.

“It’s one of his better days.” Jamming the hat on his head, Val followed Johnny out the door.

Pausing to toss a few bills on the table, Scott went after them. Johnny stood on the walkway, scanning the surrounding area. Val stood, hands on hips, looking over his town. Wagons rolled by, children skipped off to school and shops were busy. Johnny clapped Scott on the shoulder and pointed toward the general store.

“Now or never.”

“Looks like I’m buying new clothes,” Scott grumbled, failing to hide the smile emerging.

“That’s my cue to skedaddle.” Val quickly departed, leaving Johnny and Scott to their own devices. The last thing he needed was to change his image. He liked being scruffy, and no one was about to dress him like a Thanksgiving turkey.

Scott looked for a haberdashery, but doubted he would find such an establishment, let alone explain it to his brother, and settled for following Johnny to the mercantile. Opening the door, he executed a slight bow. “Ladies.”

“Why, what a gentleman,” the plumper of two elderly women, replied.

Scott gave a curt nod and Johnny slapped him on the back. If Scott had been wearing a hat and tipped it, Johnny would have booted him square in the ass.

A large man with graying hair and mustache tickling his lips, greeted them with a smile. “What can I do for you boys?”

“As you can see, I am sorely out of place. Perhaps you can help me find proper attire?” Scott asked.

Johnny snickered and shook his head. “Hell, Boston, you need a head to toe.”

“You’re right, brother,” Scott chuckled. “From a hat, down to the boots. These shoes don’t seem fitting out here.”

The older man leaned forward, dollar signs dancing in his eyes. “Son, that entire outfit isn’t fitting for out here.”

Johnny slapped Scott across the ribs. “What’d I tell ya?”

“Seems you were right.” Scott grimaced, rubbed his side and followed the storekeeper toward the back.

“We’ll be hitting the trail, so he’ll need everything. Coat, gloves, slicker, the works,” Johnny jabbered, following along. “Oh, and trail supplies. We need lots of trail supplies. Flour, sugar, lots of coffee. Need my coffee.”

The shopkeeper’s head was spinning, but a good sale was underway and he took it all in stride. “Young man, I have everything at your disposal. Just get a list together while I help the gentleman here, and I will assist you.”

“Oh, and you’ll need a bedroll, Boston. Saddlebags, tack, saddle. The list goes on and on. Didn’t you plan when you came out here?”

“I was traveling by train.” Scott shook his head, trying not to laugh at the excitement of a yammering younger brother. He saw an unexpected side to Johnny, one very few were witness to. But they were alone, the storekeeper too busy to take notice, and Johnny’s teasing wit emerged.

“Damn, you probably have a trunk full of them fancy duds.” Johnny again flicked at Scott’s collar.

“I’ll make arrangements to have them sent by rail.”

“Good. Won’t do to be hauling a trunk ‘cross country. Not getting any packhorse, either. We’re gonna be traveling light.” Johnny turned, an upsetting thought emerging.

“What’s wrong?” Scott asked, worried at the pale tinge to Johnny’s face.

“Damn, Boston. I hope I don’t have to teach you to ride. We ain’t going by fancy buggy. And I already told you I won’t go by train. Not in that much of a hurry.”

“Don’t worry, brother, I’m sure I can manage to keep up.”

“You fall on your ass, you’re on your own.”

“So you said.”

Another worry struck. Johnny sighed and hung his head. What the hell he was getting into, was only beginning to hit him.

“What’s wrong now?” Scott asked, growing impatient.

“Your gun.”

“I don’t have a gun.”

“That’s just it,” Johnny said, jabbing Scott in the shoulder with every word. “You don’t have a gun. You don’t wear a gun, Scott. How the hell can you go and not wear a gun?”

“We don’t carry guns in Boston,” Scott shrugged.

Johnny shook his head in disbelief. “You’re not in Boston anymore.”

“So it seems.”

“What the hell,” Johnny muttered, scrubbing at his eyes. “Scott, can you shoot a gun?”

“Nope.”

Johnny thought he would vomit his breakfast. “You can’t shoot a gun?”

“Nope.”

How his brother could be so nonchalant, was beyond Johnny and he again wondered if he had made the right decision. “Can’t shoot a gun.”

“We’ve established that.”

“What am I, your keeper?” Johnny exclaimed, his eyes darting about due to his outburst. Reining his emotions, he turned to his brother. “No gun?”

Scott placed his hands on Johnny’s shoulders. “Johnny, I don’t carry a gun. Never did, except for the army. But didn’t use it much. Couldn’t get a feel for it.”

Johnny almost jumped out of his skin. “How the hell can you be in the army and hardly shoot a gun? Scott, who took care of you all these years? I don’t know how you survived to make it as far as you did. Good thing you happened onto me, otherwise what else would you do?”

Scott barely contained the urge to laugh. Catching how serious Johnny was, the thought was quickly quelled. “I’m a hell of a shot with a rifle.”

Johnny’s face brightened. “Rifle?”

“As good as you are with that six shooter,” Scott nodded toward Johnny’s holster.

“That damned good?” Johnny’s grin grew wider.

“That damned good. Was the best in the regimen. I’m one hell of a sharpshooter, Johnny. Never lost a shooting match, either.”

“Well hot damn, Boston. Let’s get you a rifle then.”

The shopkeeper was just as befuddled, but quickly jumped to their aid. “Gentlemen, I have just what you need.

Johnny flashed a quirky grin and set about gathering supplies and ammunition. Scott reappeared an hour later, dressed in a pair of brown pants, beige shirt and matching jacket. Johnny nodded in approval, although he felt his brother could add a little color to his wardrobe, judging by the drab assortment of pants and shirts chosen. Scott paid for his purchases, but any offer to pay for the supplies was refused.

“I pay my own way, Boston,” Johnny replied, leaving no room for argument.

Only he wasn’t counting on the stubborn, Lancer streak. “Be that as it my, brother, but since I’ll be eating half this food, I, too, pay my own way.”

Giving a curt nod, Johnny accepted the bills and handed them over. “We’ll pick it up in the morning.”

“Thank you,” Scott replied, tipping his new, western hat.

“My pleasure, gentlemen. My pleasure.”

They walked out into the bright daylight, and the nerves on the back of Johnny’s neck again screamed. He turned, scanning the street, just missing the slight, older man duck back inside the cantina. Frowning, he walked out into the street.

“Scott, I’m gonna say this the once, and that’s it.”

“What’s wrong?” Scott asked, worried eyes darting about. He picked up on Johnny’s unease immediately, and didn’t like it one bit. A protective side he never knew to possess, emerged.

“Don’t get in the way.”

“Pardon?”

Johnny pulled Scott into the alley. “I mean stay the hell out of my way. When I’m called out, and I will be, you need to shut up and step aside.”

“But . . .”

Johnny’s eyes turned icy, and anger raged. Scott was stunned at the ferocity of his emotions, how quickly his feelings changed, and knew his brother meant business.

“I go it alone. Never needed anyone before, and don’t need it now. Don’t get in the way, Scott. Just don’t do it. You can’t stop what’s gonna happen, and you can’t help me. Don’t need your help anyway. Even if it’s more than one. All you’ll do is get me killed. I’ve faced more than one down at a time, and survived only because I didn’t have to consider anyone else.

“Don’t want to consider anyone now. Never needed that. And when the time comes, I don’t have time to argue. Just shut up, stand back and keep to yourself. Not even a whimper. Nothing. Not one word. Not one, got it?”

“All right. You have my word.”

Johnny tugged at his arm. “I mean it, Scott. You may think you know, but you don’t know shit about being out here. Don’t think you can change their mind, help me, or stop it. ‘Cause you can’t. So don’t try. Got it?”

“Got it.”

“Good. Buy me a beer.”

Scott stood dumbfounded. Johnny clapped him on the shoulder and just as quickly, walked away as if he didn’t have a care in the world. His little brother was not only tumultuous, his emotions ran from supercharged to downright predatory, and Scott had never seen anyone switch gears so quickly. Then realized that was how Johnny survived. While he was going to the best schools, playing with his friends and had all his needs tended by his grandfather, Johnny had no one but himself, to depend on.

Guilt struck on all levels. Not only was Scott still reeling from the sudden discovery of an unexpected brother, he was left dealing with the fact that he, too, had lived a lie. Yet he loved his grandfather. As much as he fought to break free from the stifling constraints of Boston society, he loved the old man. Harlan Garrett had seen that he had the best of everything, from clothes, education, food, lavish vacations, and medical attention.

Boston had grown boring and restrictive, and Scott needed something else in his life. He craved an excitement he couldn’t find back in the city, yet loved the old man. That would never change. He would send a quick telegram to his grandfather, let the older man know he was all right, but thought it best not to mention his brother. For some reason, it did not feel right. Shaking his head, he followed after Johnny, wondering if he would ever figure out the mystery of this man that called him brother.

“Looks like I’m buying a beer.”

*****

Johnny still had not received an answer from Val and was growing antsy. After sharing a beer, both brothers rose and left the saloon. Standing on the walkway, Johnny slapped Scott in the stomach. “Got one more thing to do.”

Scott caught Johnny by the arm. “By the way, it was a cavalry unit I served in.”

Johnny’s smile grew even wider. “Hot damn. That makes what I had in mind, all the easier. All we gotta do now is get you a horse.”

They walked to the livery side by side and after a short deliberation, Scott was pleased with the sixteen hand bay chosen for the journey. He bonded instantly with the animal he dubbed Whiskey, and was pleased. It looked like everything was in hand.

Needing time to think, both brothers went their separate ways. Scott retired to his hotel room and Johnny slipped back into the saloon. He missed Rhonda. Whenever he needed to sort things out, he could count on her. What lie ahead, was a worry and a mystery. The only driving force was the money promised upon arrival. At the very least, he could use the funds to begin a new life. What Scott planned to do, remained to be seen.

Johnny hoped that they could remain in touch in some way, but not knowing the purpose of their journey, the future remained bleak, at best. Johnny never had much to look forward to anyway, and this was no different. Every night he lay his head down to sleep, he sent up a silent prayer of thanks that he had survived another day. And every morning he woke, he prayed for the strength to make it through. His mother once said that each new day brought hope and promise for the future, only Johnny had very little of that over the years.

Scott, too, was in turmoil. As much as he loved his grandfather, he was still tormented by the fact that he had a brother the older man never told him about. His grandfather had to have known of Johnny. Harlan Garrett knew everything about everyone, and Scott would not be surprised to learn that he had kept tabs on Murdoch Lancer. They might not have had contact, but his grandfather never left anything to chance, and never acted on assumption or surprise. Always in control. That was how Garrett operated.

That is, until the fateful morning Scott skipped out on his wedding. He was still remorseful, and wished he had done things differently, but it was time to look ahead, not back. Scott could only wonder what the future held, but hoped his brother would be a part of that future in some way. Perhaps they could go somewhere and start a business. He had the money, backing and education needed. Maybe Johnny could be persuaded and they would go somewhere safe and begin a new life. What that life entailed, remained to be seen. Right now, both were still reeling from the sudden discovery of an unknown brother.

There was so much Scott wanted to know. He had always wanted a brother. There were times he pretended to have a younger brother to protect, play with, and blame his shenanigans on. He spent immeasurable time with his friends and their brothers. Life at the mansion was lonely. His grandfather put in long hours at the office, then when home, was always in one meeting or the other.

Now Scott had that brother, and felt a protective love never before experienced. Strange, considering that he had only known Johnny for a few short days, and had yet to really talk with the man. But the feeling was there, emerging a bit more with every passing day, and Scott felt complete. Johnny was dark, mysterious, and exciting. Scott doubted there would ever be a dull moment with the high strung, complex, emotional gunslinger, and he wanted to know more. They had a long ride ahead, and Scott would use the time getting to know his brother, and hopefully forge a lifelong relationship.

They met at the café for dinner, and sensing Johnny needed time alone to speak with Val, Scott threw a couple of bills on the table and pulled Johnny aside. “I’m gonna sack in. Meet you in the morning?”

“If you’re coming along, then that’s a good idea. Usually how its done,” Johnny smirked.

“Smart ass,” Scott snickered, shoving Johnny lightly. “Morning it is, then. Good night, Val.”

“Night there, Scott,” Val grumbled, rubbing at his eyes.

Johnny and Scott were not the only ones left reeling the past few days. Val was blindsided by the news, his worry further compounded when Johnny rode off. He was used to Johnny leaving, and sometimes months went by without word, but riding off like he had the other day, had been upsetting. Val had no idea how the news of Scott was received, or if Johnny would be returning anytime soon. So he did what he did best. He waited. And if Johnny showed up, he would be there for him. Now they needed this time to talk. Val, too, had a decision to make.

Sitting at Val’s desk, a bottle of tequila between them, Johnny poured two shots. “You know, this is really kind of overwhelming.”

“I can imagine it is,” Val replied.

Leaning forward, hunched over shots of tequila, the two friends talked quietly, not knowing when they would get the chance to do so again. If ever. In Johnny’s line of work, the future was precarious, at best. And being sheriff, Val’s future was also unknown. Both men lived by the gun. And both could die that way, and have learned to grab what time they could.

Johnny kicked his feet up on the desk and crooked his arm across the back of the chair. “Always wanted a brother.”

“I know you did.”

“Now I got one.”

“A dandy one at that,” Val chuckled.

“Yeah, but he’s not soft.”

“Don’t figure he is. Sure proved that. He sure don’t back down from ya.”

“And he’s one hell of a fighter.”

“Takes after his brother,” Val replied, a sly grin hidden behind the mustache.

Johnny’s feet slid to the floor and he leaned forward, clutching the shotglass between his hands. “After my mother died, I thought I was alone. Not one living, blood relative left that cared. The old man don’t count. May carry his blood, but he was never a father to me. Not like Manny was.”

“Manny was a good man.”

“Yeah, he was at that. Was good to me and Mama. And after he died, I still had her. She worked hard for me, Val. Weren’t rich, but weren’t wanting for nothing, either. I had her. She loved me.”

“Never knew her, but I know she did,” Val agreed.

“And after she died, there wasn’t anyone left to love me. That cut deep. Figured I’d be alone the rest of my life. Learned to live by this gun, had myself convinced it was all I needed. Now I know different.” Johnny rubbed at his eyes and Val looked away. “I got somebody who cares now, Val. Don’t know me for long, but can tell that he does. Didn’t have to prove myself, and he don’t judge. Just takes me for what I am. Even before he knew me.”

“That’s what true brothers do.”

Johnny sat up, his face bright with the promise of a hopeful future. “Maybe things are turning around for me. Maybe Scott and I can get something going somewhere. Got my thousand dollars coming, maybe we can head way up north and start a ranch. Breed horses. Build something for the future. Never thought I had that before. Now I got a chance.”

This time it was Val who scrubbed at his eyes. “Sounds like a plan to me. You two will do good together. Will probably build one hell of a ranch.”

“Yep, best around,” Johnny replied. “And you can be a part of it too.”

Their eyes met, the stare unwavering. Val studied his friend. “You know, I just might do that. Will have to give me a holler, let me know where you settle. Maybe they could use a good sheriff.”

“I might even offer you a job,” Johnny crowed, chest puffed out.

“Listen to you. Already, the mighty land baron.”

“Best horse breeder in the world.” Johnny laughed, then fell silent. Again, their eyes met, true friendship shining through. “Don’t know where this will take me, Val. But I asked you a question earlier.”

“Know ya did.” Val downed a shot and stared at his hands.

“Offer stands. I don’t want to just stay in touch. You’re one hell of a friend and have been more of a father to me than my old man ever was, and I don’t forget that. I want you to come along. Don’t know where I’ll end up, or what I wind up doing, but am asking you to join me. Come on, Val. What the hell do you have here?”

“My job,” Val replied, feeling as if he was quickly losing control.

“Your job. Sheriff of a hot, dusty, two bit town.”

“It’s more than what ya got,” Val snapped, immediately regretting his words.

Johnny chuckled. “You’re right, Val. You’re right. It is more than I got, but thing is, we both have a chance for more.”

“Didn’t mean ta say that. Ya know I’d never be ashamed of ya.”

“I know, Val. ‘Cause if you meant different, I’d shoot you in the ass.”

“I might better come along. You’re liable to get yer ass in a sling out there. If this is yer old man, I’m hankering to take my boot to his ass. Kick it clean across these here United States.”

A grin split across Johnny’s face. “I know how you are when riled. The old man better hope it’s not him.”

“Got That right.”

“Won’t take me long to get myself together. My gear is always ready to go, just need ta throw my clothes in a sack.”

Johnny chuckled. Val lived out of a burlap sack. Most people kept their clothes in a chest of drawers, but Val lived out of a burlap sack hung next to his cot in the back room of the jail, and Johnny lived out of a saddlebag. Neither man owned much, but had all they needed. Maybe one day, both would have more. The future remained to be seen. Somehow, Johnny felt as if he might have a chance, after all.

They toasted the future, shared another drink, and blew out the lantern. Johnny stretched out on his cot in the cell, and Val stumbled to the back room where he hung his gun. Within minutes, both men were asleep. In the morning, they would be heading out early. Together. Johnny never felt more complete.

*****

They met at the livery bright and early. Johnny jabbed Val in the ribs when spotting Scott, dressed in his western garb. “Well lookee there, the dandy done got all duded up.”

“Yeah, he does seem to fit in a might better,” Val scoffed. “Where’s his gun?” he asked, leaning sideways.

“Funny you should ask. Buy me breakfast, and I’ll tell ya.” Johnny clapped Val on the back and strode from the livery. “Morning, Boston.”

“Guess we’re having breakfast,” Scott replied, turning to follow.

“Most important meal of the day, my sainted mother always said,” Val grumbled. “And it looks like I’m buying.”

Scott chuckled at the sheer audacity of his younger brother. If he didn’t know better, he would say Johnny was a freeloader, but had the feeling that the ties with he and Val went deeper than anyone realized, and Johnny was one to give back tenfold. He would not grumble about a few beers and a good meal. Truth be told, he was thrilled to have a younger brother to treat, and would not change a thing.  Too Scott’s dismay, Johnny was quiet throughout the meal. They paid, and Johnny left before either Scott or Val could put their hats on.

“Don’t take it personally,” Val said, turning to follow. “This isn’t easy on him.”

“No, I didn’t think it was. But he seems so angry.”

“Nah, he ain’t angry. Just got a lot on his mind. Johnny don’t take to change well. He eventually comes around, but needs time ta sort things out in his mind.”

“But he was fine earlier at the livery.”

“Yep, he was, but that’s the way of things. The closer we come to leaving, the more shut down he gets. But it won’t last long. Believe me. Johnny gets all in a knot, but does what needs doing. He’ll be fine. Like you, he don’t know what ta expect, and he’s thrown for a loop. Don’t ferget, he ain’t had no one ta think of for a long time. Ever since he lost his mama, he’s been alone. It ain’t easy.”

“On either of us,” Scott replied softly. “But I can see where you’re coming from. Don’t worry, I’ll give him the time he needs.”

“Won’t take long. Let’s just get set up and ride on outta here.”

Hats pulled down low, they rode out of town. Scott sat tall in the saddle, studying his brother and drinking in the desert landscape. A vast mountain range was to the north, and nothing but flat, open terrain lie ahead. There was an outcropping of rocks to the west, an oasis Johnny knew well and planned on making camp later that night. There would be game, and enough scrub grass for the horses to graze. Still, each man carried a measure of oats in a sack, along with extra canteens and canvas bags filled with fresh, spring water.

In two days they would reach the town of Carver Falls, the first stop on the journey west. Johnny still had not spoken, and tumultuous thoughts tumbled through his mind. A few days ago, his life was his own. Now, he was thrust into a ready made family consisting of an unknown brother, and possibly a father somewhere along the way. He wondered if he wanted either.

Could he do this? And if it turned out to be someone other than their old man, he still had Scott to consider. Old Boston was a part of his life, like it or not, and right now, Johnny was too confused to sort out his feelings. Change never came easy, especially something on such a grand scale. His life had been forever altered; for the first time since his mother’s death, he had someone other than himself to consider. A huge responsibility, indeed.

Johnny doubted Scott would go away easily, and wondered if he wanted him to. He also considered scrapping the idea of the $1,000. Life had become amazingly complicated after accepting the offer. Looking at Scott, guilt and an unknown feeling he tried shoving aside, but was unable to ignore, crept over him. Scott flashed a small grin and nodded, following Johnny without question.

Such trust was both comforting, and upsetting. Scott knew nothing of the area they were riding through, and followed without question, trusting his brother enough to bring him through. It was at that moment Johnny’s heart lifted and a smile came to his face. No force on earth would stop him from seeing his brother to California safely. After all, even though Scott claimed to be a crack shot with a rifle, the man did not wear a gun. He needed someone to take care of him.

Johnny’s laughter rang out and he pointed. A strange looking bird standing about 20 inches tall with a long beak and tail, and tuft of hair sprouting from its head darted across their path.  “Hey Boston, look! A correcaminos.”

“A what?” Scott laughed, spotting what Johnny was pointing at. “What the hell was that?”

“A correcaminos. A road runner. They’re all over the place here. He’s probably running from El Coyote.” Johnny’s raucous laughter rang out, and he slapped Scott on the side of the head with his hat. “Hey correcaminos, you better run. Old El Coyote is after you.”

“I take it El Coyote is a coyote. Don’t need any translation there,” Scott scoffed. Johnny’s mood had obviously lifted, as Val predicted, and all three caved to the side of laughter.

“That’s right,” Johnny replied. “The correcaminos is El Coyote’s favorite dinner. If he can catch him.”

“Best to wait till the dang bird tuckers out,” Val snickered. “That’s probably why the dang coyote is so skinny. Can’t catch up with the sucker.”

“You gotta watch out for all kinds of things, here, Boston. Don’t let the beauty fool ya. Like a woman, the dessert can turn and snag ya when you least expect it.”

“I’ll remember that,” Scott snickered.

“Gotta watch out for snakes and scorpions. Don’t pull your boots on without shaking them out, and check your bedroll before climbing in. And don’t sit on a rock without looking. You either get bit in the ass, or something slithers out from underneath or behind, and gets ya,” Johnny chuckled.

Scott had heard the same warnings from the livery owner the morning of his trek into the desert, but was not about to dash his brother’s advice. Johnny was serious, imparting his knowledge of this strange world, to his brother. Scott would never laugh at that.

“And ration your water. Only drink a bit at a time, when you can’t stand it anymore. See those rocks in the distance?” Johnny pointed westward.

“Yeah.”

“We should reach them by nightfall.”

“Will there be water?”

“Was the last time I was there,” Johnny replied. “Was also enough scrub graze for the horses. Won’t need to use much oats. That way, we’ll have enough for them tomorrow, and should reach Carver Falls by the next day. Will spend the night, let the horses rest and restock.”

“Sounds good,” Scott replied, ready and willing to follow his brother’s lead. “How well do you know the area we’ll be camping in?”

“Pretty well. Spent some time there myself. Is a good place to lay low. Took a bullet in the leg last year, and hid out there.”

“Alone?” Scott gasped, dread running through his blood. Would he ever get used to this strange land, and independent, younger brother?

“Yeah, no docs out here, Boston. This isn’t Boston.” Johnny laughed and smacked him across the stomach, a trait quickly becoming a habit. “Got into a bit of a spot and needed to hide out for a while.”

“But what about the bullet? You obviously needed help,” Scott replied, almost dreading the answer. His brother had, indeed, lived a hard life, and guilt crept in.

“Don’t feel sorry for me, Boston,” Johnny said. He had picked up on Scott’s feelings, but was not angered. “I learned to take care of myself long ago. Can take out a bullet, although it’s a bit easier if it’s not in me, stitch up a cut, and nurse just about any ill a body gets. You learn that quick out here. And I’m not the only one. We don’t have a doc most of the time. People learn how to care for their own. Val here makes a good nursemaid.”

Val snorted and Scott stared in wonder.

“Long story for another time,” Johnny replied, leaving no room for argument.

“Ain’t nuthin,” Val grumbled.

They rode further on, stopping in the shade of a tall stand of cacti. “We’ll stay here for a bit, let the horses rest. Heat of the day will be at its worst the next couple’a hours. Best we don’t push it. We can make up time later this afternoon when the sun lets up a bit and begins sliding down. Gets a lot cooler once night comes on ya. Done a lot of my traveling at night, and hide out during the heat of the day,” Johnny explained.

“Sounds good, don’t want to push the horses,” Scott agreed.

“I’ll tend ‘em,” Val said, taking the reins. Grabbing a small tin pot, he poured an ample amount of water from the canteen.

“We try and save the water for the horses. Especially during the day. Remember, they always come first out here,” Johnny said.

Pulling on a pair of gloves, he took out a knife and carefully cut a large chunk of cactus off, before turning back to Scott. “These are what we call the barrel cactus. They’re the largest around, and boy, watch out for these spines. They pick you in the ass, you won’t be sitting for a week. But it’s a very useful plant. As barren as it seems, you don’t have to look hard to find food out here.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Scott asked, eyes scanning the seemingly desolate terrain.

“Place is teeming with food, Scott. From small game, to these here cacti.”

“You eat cactus?”

Johnny smacked Scott in the stomach. “It isn’t Boston, Boston. This here cactus is very handy. Indians have been known to boil the pulp for food, and it can be a lifesaver. Did that once or twice myself. You can get water from chewing on the pulp, and make needles and fish hooks from these long spines. If they don’t get stuck in your ass, first.”

“Yes,” Scott said. Glaring, his voice was deadpan, but he could not hide the humor in his eyes.

Johnny pulled a suede pouch from his pocket. “Lookee here,” he said, retrieving a long, sharp object from inside. “Got me one of them needles. Use it for stitching.”

Scott was amazed at the resourcefulness of his brother, unable to hide the pride shining in his eyes. “That’s amazing.”

“Works good, too,” Johnny grinned.

“Yeah, just too bad ya gotta use it so much,” Val shouted over his shoulder.

Johnny flashed a quirky grin at the scruffy man, and turned his attention back to Scott. He handed over a piece of pulp. “Here, it’s okay now. Got all the spikes out. Just chew on it. Will help save on water.”

Scott had to admit, he did get an ample amount of water from the plant. His thirst was not quenched as well as it would have been if they had been able to enjoy an ice cold beer, but it was passable. At least he could swallow without his mouth feeling like cotton. Val returned after settling the horses in the shade of a tall barrel cactus, and cut a chunk from the oversized plant.

Sitting against his saddle, he carefully peeled the spines away. “In the mood for a bit of a siesta.”

“A siesta?” Scott asked.

“A nap, Boston,” Johnny smiled. Settling against his own saddle, his thirst sated, he pulled his hat down low. “Best way to beat the heat of the day.”

Scott followed suit and soon, all three were napping. They had a long ride ahead, one that would continue until well after nightfall when they would make camp. As the sun began sinking toward the west, Johnny pulled his hat up and squinted. Nudging Val, he rose, pointing at Scott.

“He sure can sleep,” Johnny snickered.

Chuckling, Val nudged Scott lightly with his boot, but the easterner failed to stir. “Out like a light.”

“You know, Val, this reminds me of a bull I saw down in Texas once. Funny damned thing, had this hump on its back.”

“Hump?”

“Yeah, was some kind’a freak.”

“Sounds like it. Must’a been a sight,” Val chuckled.

“Didn’t act like no bull, neither.”

“What’cha mean?”

“Well, was kind’a tame like. Didn’t charge or nuthin. Damned thing just stood chomping on a carrot while I clapped my hands in front of its face. Freakish beast never moved. Didn’t budge an inch. Couldn’t excite him with a cannon,” Johnny shared a laugh with Val.

“Seems the way with this one here. He ain’t used to this heat, got him plain tuckered out. Have ta be careful.”

“Yeah, I’ll watch out for him,” Johnny said.

“Knew ya would.”

Johnny pulled a string from his shirt and ran it under Scott’s nose. “Come on Boston, time to wake. Day’s a’burning.”

Scott snorted, batted at the annoyance and snored.

Johnny tickled him again.

This time Scott smacked his hand and his eyes fluttered open. “What . . . oh man, was I sleeping.”

“No shit,” Johnny snickered.

“What time is it?”

“Time to water ourselves and the horses, and head on out. See? Sun’s sinking low. Gonna be a bit easier, not having it burning down on top our heads. Here.” Johnny handed over a large chunk of pulp, which Scott gratefully accepted.

After taking care of personal needs and saddling the horses, all three were ready to ride out. Johnny was right, the journey was much easier with the sun at their side, rather than beaming down on their heads. Scott felt a bit of relief, even though the temperature was still stifling. But as Johnny had warned, once night fell, he would feel the chill.

They rode for an hour past nightfall, before reaching the desert oasis. As Johnny hoped, there was a plentiful supply of water and graze. This time Scott tended the horses and Val gathered the firewood. Johnny secured the camp, making sure there were no unwelcome visitors. Once a crackling fire was going, Johnny cooked up a pan of bacon, biscuits, and beans. Scott was astounded; Johnny knew his way around a campfire, better than his grandfather’s cook, Maybelle, knew her kitchen. And he turned out a simple meal that would rival one of Maybelle’s succulent feasts. While Val and Scott settled against their saddles, Johnny puttered around the flickering flames, shooting a sly grin over his shoulder every once in a while.

“What’cha up to?” Val asked, too tired to get up.

“Nuthin.”

“Nuthin. He’s rattling around that fire making more noise than on Cinco de Mayo, and he says nuthin.”

Johnny finally turned from the fire, a plate in hand. “Quit your yapping and wrap your jaw around this.”

Scott’s eyes grew large and his mouth watered at the sweet odor emanating from the treat. “What is this?”

Val pushed him aside. “Just about one of my favorite foods.” Grabbing for a large piece, he popped it in his mouth and closed his eyes. “Don’t get any better than this.”

“Go on Boston, give it a try. Don’t have any candy stores out here, so we make our own.”

Scott took a fleshy piece of pulp, dripping with a sweetened, sticky syrup. Popping it in his mouth, he had to agree. New sensations assaulted his tongue, and he grabbed for another. “What is this? Johnny, this is amazing.”

“It’s cactus candy.” Johnny’s grin grew wider. He sat down, placing the plate on a rock for all to enjoy.

“From the cactus you were telling me about?”

“Yep.”

“How did you make it?”

“Well, you see, you take the pulp from either the prickly pear cactus I showed ya, or the barrel cactus. Those are the most around and best to use. Gotta be careful, though, those spikes will . . .”

“Get you every time,” Scott snickered, finishing Johnny’s sentence.

Johnny smacked him in the stomach. “Now ya got it, Boston. Anyway, you take the fruit from them and boil it down. Get’s all sweet and sticky like. Then you put the pulp in and let it cook. Cactus candy.”

“Amazing,” Scott replied, grabbing for another piece.

“He is pretty useful at times,” Val snickered. “Makes a good pet.”

Johnny glared and Scott chuckled. “I have to admit, this is just about as good as . . . no, it is better than any candy I can buy in Boston.”

“Except for chocolate,” Johnny said, licking his fingers. “I love chocolate.”

“I’ll remember that,” Scott grinned.

Since Johnny did all the cooking, Scott was more than happy to do the dishes. His grandfather would have a full blown fit to see him eating outdoors and washing tin dishes in a pool of water. Scott was simply amazed. What was nothing more than a desolate wasteland to him, was a bounty for his brother. At that moment, Scott was very glad to be in Johnny’s company, and not only because of the joy his brother brought into his life, but for the sheer fact that he would be lost if left to his own devices. Scott doubted he would survive the journey on his own. But Johnny had turned the barren terrain into a home. He was adept and skilled, his survival instincts, remarkable. Scott had a lot to learn, and was ever the attentive student.

They retired shortly after Scott finished, leaving the dishes stacked for use the following morning. He wished to talk with his brother, learn more about the strange, yet likeable man sitting opposite him across the fire, but they were too exhausted to think straight, let alone fall into easy conversation. With a long trip still ahead, Scott hoped for the chance. The howl of a coyote in the distance and hoot of a desert night owl lulled Scott into a deep, restful slumber.

*****

It had been a long day and the older man was tired. Mexico was a long way off and he wondered if he would ever make it back. To his relief, the repairs on the track were ahead of schedule and the train was due to leave in the morning. He sent a message ahead, thankful that his contact was already in Carver Falls.

Having spent tireless hours mapping out the most obvious route Johnny would be taking to California, he had men stationed in towns all along the border, just in case the young gunslinger rode through. Hopefully, they would be able to keep a close watch along the line. He doubted he would arrive in Carver Falls before Johnny, but hoped his contact would be able to keep a close watch. Everything was falling into place nicely. They still had a long way to go.

*****

Johnny rode through the desert flanked on either side by Scott and Val. He remained alert, Madrid never let his guard down, but felt a strange inkling of peace knowing that someone else was watching his back. Val’s loyalty went without question, he and Johnny shared a bond that transcended the simple limitations of friendship. Johnny not only found someone to rely on, Val was a mentor that had turned father figure somewhere along the way.

He knew Johnny’s moods, almost better than the young man knew himself, and was there, no matter what. He kept Johnny grounded, pulled him back when spinning out of control, and provided invaluable support. Now Johnny had Scott. He chanced a glance at his brother, a small smile and nod of the head given. Was this what it was like to have a brother?

Someone older to look after you, without asking, knowing that no matter what, or how much of a jerk you were, still cared? Johnny needed that more than he could express, and his loyalty exploded. He had never felt such a way. Other than Val, he had never been accepted unconditionally. And he never felt more complete.

There was still so much to say, so much to talk about, Johnny’s head spun. Yet, he could not bring one cognizant thought to mind. All his life he wandered through every day. Lived by his own rules, governed by physical needs and carnal urges. Went where he wanted, when he wanted. Those days might be over, and if they were, what kind of person would he be then? Where was he heading?

Scott, for that matter, was probably fighting the same feelings. Johnny did not like mystery, but Scott craved the unknown adventure. Madrid was one to be in control, figure the odds, calculate the situation, and take matters in hand. While Scott was smart, loyal, and just as capable, even though he didn’t wear a gun, he looked at this journey in a different light. Johnny was wary and Scott was having the time of his life.

Johnny was also learning that having a brother could be fun, and wanted to know more about this strange easterner. “Hey Boston, what’s Boston like?”

Scott chuckled. “Well, it is certainly different than this. And we don’t have any of those corra . . . what was that bird again?”

“A correcaminos.”

“Ahhh yes. The road runner. But we have an overabundance of seagulls.”

“That’s those scavenger birds, right?”

Scott was impressed. “Yes, that’s right. They’ll pick you clean. Have you seen them before?”

“Yeah, down by the Gulf of Mexico, and then the western ocean. Hundreds of them,” Johnny laughed.

“They are all over the place,” Scott chuckled.

“But what was Boston like? How different is it?”

“Well, for starters, there is no desert to speak of. I lived on the coast, a few minutes from the ocean and let me tell you the weather can be downright frigid in the winter, and brutal in the summer. But it’s not a dry heat, as out here. It’s a humid heat, making the air so heavy, damp and sticky, it feels hard to breathe.”

“Nah, think I’ll keep this here heat,” Johnny replied with a grin. “You get lots of snow? I never seen snow before, well, never seen it falling and never been in it. But seen it on tops of mountains.”

Scott couldn’t imagine a world without snow. “We got buried, every winter. Would get storms that would dump up to three, four feet of snow at a time. When a nor’easter blew in . . .”

“What’s a nor’easter?”

“A storm that blows up the coast. Most of our storms came from the west.”

“Yeah, that seems to be where they start,” Johnny replied.

“But every once in a while, one starts down south and churns right up the coastline. Then slams into us, heavy rain and winds in the spring and fall, and tons of snow in the winter. Winds so hard, whether it’s rain or snow, you can’t see two feet in front of your face.”

“Man can get lost on the way to the privy,” Johnny joked with Val.

“Hell of a way to go, just needing ta do yer business,” Val laughed.

“Well, we had indoor plumbing. A water closet,” Scott replied.

Johnny’s jaw dropped. “Damn, hell, you say? Inside, other than a chamberpot?”

“Yes, grandfather had indoor plumbing installed.”

“Seen one of them fancy fangled sit downs before,” Val replied. “Was damned scared ta use it. Pulled the chain and the water rushed in, thought it’d sweep me away.”

“Where the hell did you use sumthin so fancy?” Johnny glared.

“Last year when I had ta go to this fancy assed convention for lawmen. Was down in a place called Culver City. Right nice place.”

“I bet you just fit right in, too,” Johnny teased. “Did you dress purty?”

Val scowled. “I dressed the part.”

“You take a bath inside, too?” Johnny’s teasing persisted.

“I done took a bath or two.”

“Hope we find one of them fancy baths soon, you need another.” Johnny leaned over and made a big production of sniffing deeply. Crinkling his nose he smiled and leaned out of arm’s reach.

“Ya don’t exactly smell like a bunch of roses,” Val snorted.

“Gentlemen, may I add that the three of us just plain stink?” Scott’s remark stunned both Johnny and Val for a moment, before all three caved to laughter.

“Well, then we’re in good company,” Val replied. “Can’t offend one another.”

“Speak for yourself,” Johnny grumbled, a teasing gleam in his eyes as he inched his horse a few feet away from Val’s side.

“Smart ass.”

Changing the subject, Johnny turned his attention back to Scott. “Tell me about the ocean.”

A smile came unbidden, as did the twinkle in Scott’s eyes. “The ocean is magnificent. I would go out on it every chance I had. I love sailing.”

“I don’t. Make’s me sick,” Johnny frowned. “All that rolling on waves, makes me toss my biscuits.”

“Have you sailed much?” Scott asked.

“Been on a boat twice. Thought the first time I might have picked up an ailment, but after it happened again, vowed to stay on dry land. Give me a good horse, any day.”

Scott tossed his head back in laughter. “Well, it isn’t for everyone.”

“You ever been on them big boats?”

“A ship? Sure, I have. Grandfather and I have gone to Europe numerous times. Plus, I’ve taken trips up and down the east coast.”

“And you don’t get sick?” Johnny asked.

“Not one bit.”

Johnny looked over, a bright smile on his face and wonder lighting his eyes. “Hey, you ever seen a whale?”

Caught up in his brother’s excitement, Scott’s smile grew even wider. I’ve seen whales of all kinds, from the humpback to the killer whale.”

Scott then spent the next hour telling Johnny about the wonders of the ocean. Val had never seen Johnny so caught up in something, that he barely said a word. The bonds of brotherhood were weaving. Johnny was latching onto something sorely needed, and Val couldn’t be happier. Plus, Scott knew how to spin a good yarn.

Johnny hung onto every word. What a different world Scott had grown up in, and Johnny wanted to learn all he could. They were so different from one another, each with their own strengths and experiences, and both willing to share that with the other. The ocean was just as fickle as the desert, shrouded in beauty, with a deadly fury hidden underneath. Before Johnny knew it, the day had slipped away and night was upon them.

Johnny put together a dinner of roasted rabbit dusted with salt and sage, served with beans and tortillas. Scott ate like there was no tomorrow, his appetite raging. Once the dishes were cleaned and stacked, all three sat by the fire, enjoying a cup of coffee. Johnny was not one to pry into a man’s business, but he had enjoyed listening to his brother and wanted to know more. Val hid the grin spreading across his face, pulled his hat down low and slid inside his bedroll. He could use a good story right about now.

Johnny poured two cups of coffee, handed one over to Scott and stirred the fire with a stick. “So, Boston, what’s your story?”

“Excuse me?”

“I mean, tell me something about yourself. You told me all about the ocean and all, but what did you do in Boston?”

“Boy, is that a mouthful. I don’t really know where to start.”

“Guess it’s a long story, huh?” Johnny snickered.

Scott laughed along with his brother. “And not pretty at times.”

“Yeah, life has a way of biting all of us.”

Scott yearned to ask Johnny something of himself, but his brother was slowly opening up, and this was not the time. Maybe if he told Johnny a bit more of his life, his brother would return the favor in kind. They had their entire lives to build a relationship of trust and respect, and were already off to a good start. Scott was not offended; after all, to know a person, you had to know about their lives, so he began regaling Johnny with tales of his youth and years spent at Harvard.”

“You didn’t want to go into business with your grandfather?”

“No, it never appealed to me.”

“Yeah, I’d rather work those docks too. But what I don’t understand, is why were you so quick to leave?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I know the reason why, the offer and all, but you don’t need the money. Plus, you were rooted.”

“Rooted?”

“It means ya had a place ta call yer own,” Val grumbled from beneath his hat.

“Thought he was asleep,” Scott grinned, crooking a thumb in Val’s direction.

“Nah, too damned nosy to sleep,” Johnny replied, kicking at Val’s prone form. “He likes a good night story. Want us to tuck you in?”

“Smart ass.” Val grumbled, pulled the blanket up over his shoulders and rolled onto his side.

“So, since you were so rooted, didn’t want to go into business with your father and don’t need the money, why were you so quick to leave home?” Johnny desperately needed to understand how could someone who had so much, luxuries he could not even think of, be so quick to leave it all behind.

“Well, I’m not running from the law,” Scott chuckled.

“Yeah, that’s not a good thing. Especially since we got a sheriff along,” Johnny laughed, again kicking at Val’s rump.

“Ex-sheriff, smart ass,” Val grumbled, rubbing his backside. “And if ya shut yer yap, he might be able ta answer ya.”

“Don’t blame you, though. Hell, if I had to wear frills and not carry a gun, I’d go nuts. So, getting back to the reasons, the only thing I can think of is a girl.”

A wry grin broke out. Scott dipped his head and sipped at the coffee. Johnny’s face lit up and he scooted to his brother’s side. “Ahhhh! That’s it. You got burned.”

“More like I did the burning.” Scott lifted his head, their eyes locking.

“Marriage, huh? Arranged?”

“Only by everyone but me,” Scott replied. “But the way I did it was wrong.”

“What, you leave her at the alter?” The minute the words were out, Johnny was sorry. Scott’s smile faded and his shoulders drooped. “Hey, I’m sorry. Sometimes this damned mouth of mine slips words before I even bother to think.”

“No, you’re right. I did leave her at the alter, and I’m not proud of that. Johnny, it’s a long story, but suffice it to say . . .”

“Suffice? What’s suffice?”

“It means let’s just say . . .”

“Then just say,” Johnny shrugged.

Scott rolled his eyes. “All right, let’s just say that I made a poor choice. I fell into a place where I thought I was doing the right thing, but it didn’t feel right to me. At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do. Had myself convinced that I loved Barbara.”

“That her name?” Johnny asked.

“That’s what he said, ain’t it?” Val groused.

“Yes, that’s her name,” Scott replied. “Anyway, I did love her in a way, but things soon got out of hand. I don’t regret ending the relationship, we wouldn’t have been happy in the long run, but I do regret hurting Barbara and my grandfather, that way.”

“Yeah, can see that,” Johnny replied. “You talked to your grandfather since?”

“Not as much as I would have liked,” Scott replied. “You see, we really had a falling out after I ran out of the wedding, and before I could straighten things out, I was approached by the Pinkerton, and you know the rest.”

“So you left to come out here.”

“Yes.”

“And your grandfather was mad?”

“He was. He didn’t understand, and I know he was hurt.”

“So, make it right,” Johnny shrugged. “Write him a letter. You can send it from the next town. Don’t always have to do everything in person. This way, he won’t feel forgotten. He’ll understand, and know that you’re all right.”

Scott wondered where someone who has been on his own for so long, gained such wisdom. He had been debating the same thing, only had not taken the time to put pen to paper. The answer was so simple, and his brother had shown him the way. “I’ll do just that.”

“So you run off from a marriage. Her father gunning for you?” Johnny asked, a teasing lilt to his mouth.

“I sure hope not, but doubt it,” Scott chuckled. He then grew quiet. “Barbara didn’t deserve the way I handled matters.”

“Sometimes we can’t help ourselves.”

“I did think I loved her.”

“You said that already.”

“Yeah, guess I did,” Scott shrugged. “Her father is a high powered banker, and is just as powerful as my grandfather. Marrying Barbara seemed the right thing to do. I guess everyone thought we’d make a good match, and I just followed along. Thing is, if she just met me halfway, things might have turned out different.”

“People have to consider one another,” Johnny reasoned. “Not right for one person to try and mold someone into what they want.”

Scott had never known more profound words. “That was the problem all along.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah, precisely. Barbara had to have everything her way. What I said and wanted didn’t matter. She wanted an extravagant mansion, I wanted a simple house near the ocean. I love the water.”

“Then you should have gone out to sea. Been one of them pirates,” Johnny teased, jabbing him with a fake sword. “You’re one hell of a scrapper. Dress funny, but you fight like hell.”

Scott’s eyes narrowed and he struggled to keep a straight face. Having never been teased by a younger brother before, he relished the banter. “You want me to finish?”

“Yeah, go ahead,” Johnny nodded.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, other than some sort of work where I could use my hands, challenge myself, build something I can be proud of. I didn’t want to spend my life behind a brick wall, stuffed in some damned office staring out a window all day.”

Johnny visibly cringed. “Hell, would rather be dead.”

“I feel the same way. But Barbara kept on pushing. She wouldn’t listen. No one would listen. I tried telling her it wouldn’t work, but she kept on saying how everything would be all right once we married and I settled down. I was just experiencing cold feet.”

“Get socks.”

Scott laughed and shoved Johnny sideways. “I have socks. What I didn’t have, was my freedom. I felt like I was choking. Every time I thought of the wedding and what my life would be afterward, I got physically sick. But I convinced myself that I loved her, was doing the right thing, and part of me didn’t want to let my grandfather down.”

“What about you? Letting yourself down was okay?”

“No, and I realized that. A bit too late, but I finally did see the error of my ways. I even had myself convinced that somehow, things would work out and woke that morning determined to go through with the wedding, that everything would settle down once we married.”

“What happened?”

“I took a carriage to the church . . .”

“Probably all decked out in those fancy ruffles,” Johnny snickered.

“Don’t forget the top hat.”

“Damn, glad you left that one behind.”

“Like I was saying, I went to the church, but once I saw the open door, I felt sick. Ran to the water closet and threw up. Then escaped out the back door and hailed a cab. I couldn’t do it, Johnny. I just couldn’t do it.”

“No one should give up a piece of themselves, Scott. No one, and it’s not fair for a person to make you. That’s not real love.”

“No, it isn’t, and you’re right. My actions may have been out of taste and the timing was all wrong, but the end result was right. Barbara deserves to be happy, and as time went on, she wouldn’t have been with me. We both would have been miserable.”

“She’ll get on with her life. Women like that always do.”

Scott thought to be slighted, but Johnny meant no offense. “Yes, they do, and she will be.”

“Now you’re here,” Johnny said quietly. “Wonder what’s gonna happen.”

Scott scooted closer to his brother. “I don’t know, Johnny. But whatever it is, we’ll face this together.”

Johnny turned to meet his brother’s gaze. “Only way to do it.” Scott nodded and Johnny drained the remainder of his coffee. “Time to sack out, Boston. Been jawing the night away.”

“And we have an early morning,” Scott yawned, settling into his bedroll. “Night, Johnny.”

“Night, Boston. Night Val,” Johnny crooned, poking at the prone form.

“Smart ass,” the older man grunted, pulling the blanket up around his ears.

They lay quietly for a moment, Johnny staring up at the stars and Scott staring into the flickering flames. “Hey Boston.”

“Yeah.”

“Can I ask you something else?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“Are you sorry you came along?

“Why would I be?”

“I mean, I know why you’re going to California and all, but are you sorry you’re not going by train?”

Scott grew quiet and Johnny feared he would not answer. Then he spoke in soft voice. “What, and miss getting to know my brother?”

Johnny squeezed his eyes shut and gave a brief nod. Sometimes, there just were no words.

*****

He peered into the room, then opened the door wide and entered. “Got another wire today. Our man says they’re now traveling together.”

“Well, that’s a turn. Never expected them to find out about one another, let alone meet and end up traveling together. But it shows us one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Scott has moxy. He might have grown up in Boston, but he does seem to have an underlying strength and is able to take care of himself. And don’t forget, he was in the war.”

“That alone will serve to change a man.”

“Anyway, they seem to be taking the route expected. Our man heading west?”

“Was a bit delayed by the train, but he has it covered.”

“Good. Just as long as he keeps in contact.”

“Even not, we at least know Scott and Johnny are heading this way.”

“Yes, and it has the makings of a very interesting journey.”

“One of a kind. Need anything before I head out?”

“Nope, just going to sit here and enjoy this drink,” he said, swirling the golden liquid in his glass.”

“Then I’ll see you later.”

“Yes.” He swiveled around in his chair and stared into the fire. Things were playing out just fine. A bit unexpected, but they were coming along. That was all he needed for now.

*****

They rode into Carver Falls by mid-afternoon. Hot, tired, and dusty, not much was moving. A worn out bluetick hound lounged on the top step of the feed store, the only movement an eyelid creaking open to see who was foolhardy enough to ride by. An elderly shopkeeper swept the splintered walkway in front of his store, an endless task. The silt stirred up, simply resettled. The bartender stepped from the saloon and dumped a spittoon in the alley, and the blacksmith lay napping in a pile of hay just inside the entrance of the livery. The afternoon sun beat a searing heat down upon them. Plumes of dust kicked up by the horses settled on their pants, and a film of grit was present in their mouths. Scott yearned for a cool ocean breeze, and Johnny felt right at home.

Women were garbed in simple peasant skirts and cotton blouses, foregoing the constraints of corsets and layers of petticoats. Their legs were bare, and they wore sandals, in lieu of heavy stockings and fancy button down shoes. Scott figured that even if they had the money, they would not bother with such frivolities, in light of sweltering temperatures that zapped the energy from a person. This laid back approach to feminine attire, allowing themselves freedom from society’s restrictions, was very appealing.

Scott’s eyes followed a young woman with waist length raven hair twirled seductively around her fingers. Johnny caught the interaction, the want in his brother’s eyes and saucy smile flashed his way, and swatted Scott in the stomach. Blushing, Scott offered a wan smile and shrug of the shoulders. One last lustful look, and he gave in and followed his brother and Val.

“Best be leaving that one alone, Boston,” Johnny said, a devious grin crossing his face. “You’ll find yourself on the wrong end of some daddy’s pitchfork.”

“Pitchfork?” Scott asked, puzzled.

“Yeah, they’re probably too poor to own a shotgun, but are hell at wielding a pitchfork,” Johnny smirked. “And there ain’t no back doors to escape from and no fancy dan carriage to carry you away.”

Val laughed, scrubbing at his mustache. “Nope, those daddy’s are out for one thing. And you reek of it.”

Scott frowned, but remained tight-lipped.

“And he don’t mean how you smell, Boston. You reek of money. They get wind of that, you’re a goner. Whether you touched that sweet little thing or not, they say you did, you did. Next thing you know, she’s landed herself a man of means.”

“He’s right,” Val replied. “You’d best stick to the plan. A hot bath, hotter dinner, and if you really need to find some company, there are some very willing working girls at the saloon that will tickle your fancy.”

“And anything else,” Johnny snickered, elbowing Val. “And they don’t come with strings attached.”

“I’ll take that under advisement,” Scott replied, eyes narrowed and a faux frown upon his face.

“As long as you don’t take it under the sheets,” Johnny chuckled. “Come on, let’s get a room.”

Scott nudged his mount forward, catching the pouting expression of the woman as he rode past. Johnny took the lead, hat pulled down low, but Scott had the feeling his brother was aware of every single thing around him. A nod from Val, confirmed that fact.

A crowd gathered on the sidewalk. If anything, Carver Falls was even poorer than other border towns Scott passed through, and he could not get used to the pinched hunger on the faces of the children, and the weary, haggard faces of the adults. Only this time, the sea of faces fell silent and they parted, granting room to pass.

Children’s eyes grew wide, a few men bowed slightly and offered a wave in greeting, and women crossed themselves, holding a rosary to their lips. Others gawked, mouths open in stunned disbelief. One older woman came to Johnny’s side, placing her hand on his leg.

“Our people thank you, Senor Madrid. May you be blessed.”

Scott realized he was in the full blown presence of Madrid, and was astounded by the outright show of deep respect. The legendary, feared gunslinger seemed to be some sort of folk hero, and Scott’s curiosity increased. He had always wanted to know more about his brother, and hoped that Johnny would open up one day soon, but this reaction from the townspeople, was totally unexpected.

“What’s going on?” Scott whispered to Val.

“Same as goes on in some of these here towns. But that’s fer Johnny to tell ya.”

Val nudged his mount forward. Johnny hated such attention, and wished to be left alone. The last thing he wanted was to be put on a pedestal. He had a good heart, something Val had seen early on, and hated seeing anyone suffer. That was why he took on the rurales, and almost died doing it. Shaking off such thoughts, Val nudged his horse forward. They reached the livery and dismounted. Johnny set about tending his horse.

“Is he all right?” Scott asked for only Val to hear.

“Ahh, he’ll be all right. This just all gets to him. Come on, let’s get these fellas bedded down. I could use a drink right about now.”

An hour later, tired, hungry, and smelling worse than any of them thought possible, the weary trio trudged over to the dilapidated barbershop, which was merely an addition to the back of the livery.

“Don’t care, long as it has a trough filled with nice, cool water,” Johnny said, shaking the dust from his hair. “This shit coats everything. Will be eating dust till we reach California. Arizona is no better.”

Scott followed Johnny and Val into the back room of the shop, finding four tubs with a small table set alongside each. Two chairs were against the wall, and Johnny snickered how it didn’t make sense, four tubs and only two chairs. Val snorted in agreement, and proceeded to strip down. Scott watched while Johnny placed his gunbelt on the table, within easy reach. His brother then shucked his clothes and climbed into the water, all sense of modesty banished. Val proceeded in the same manner, neither man giving it a thought. Only Scott hesitated, glancing around for a dressing screen.

“You got something we don’t got?” Johnny chuckled.

“Yeah, manners,” Val hiccuped, pounding his chest. “Here, good for what ails ya.”

Johnny accepted the bottle of tequila with gratitude. “Thanks, amigo. Ahh, this goes down good. Come on Boston, shuck them there clothes before they crawl off’n you. You need us to turn away? Hide our eyes?”

Avoiding his brother’s taunting glare, Scott grit his teeth and kicked off his boots. Turning his back, red to the tips of his ears, he quickly shrugged out of his clothes and slipped into the tub.

“Whooee, will you look at that lily white ass,” Johnny whooped.

“Shut up, Johnny,” Scott grumbled.

Johnny nudged Val with his elbow, a taunting smirk etched across his face. “That’s the way they grow ’em back east. All lily white.”

Scott picked up the washcloth and flung it at Johnny, the sodden cloth wrapping around his face. Doubling over in laughter, Johnny pitched forward, snorting a good measure of water up his nose. Sputtering, he flung himself back, coughing.

“That’ll teach ya, smart ass,” Val grumbled, trying in vain to stifle his laughter.

Johnny frowned, then took a deep pull on the bottle before offering it to his brother. “Boston?”

Scott eyed the evil drink and shook his head. “No, I think I’ll save it for a cold beer, later.”

“Well, there’ll be a beer, but I can guarantee ya, it won’t be cold,” Val laughed with Johnny.

Scott grimaced. “If it has a worm, I shall pass.”

Johnny leaned over the edge of the tub and handed the bottle to Val. “I think he said no.”

“Appears that way.”

Scott could not remain angry, feeling the full brunt of his brother’s teasing reminded him of some of the torment his friend, Drew, went through with his younger brother. If Malcolm was not playing practical jokes, he tagged after them, relentlessly. Scott would never forget the summer he and Drew went skinny dipping. He chuckled, catching Johnny’s interest.

“What’s so funny there, Boston?”

“Was just thinking about little brothers and their teasing,” Scott chuckled, his eyes burning through Johnny.

Johnny withered and slid lower in the tub, keeping his ears just above the waterline.

“As I was saying,” Scott replied, throwing a quick glance at his brother. “I had this friend, Drew.”

“He in Boston?” Johnny asked.

“That’s where he lived, ain’t it, jackass?” Val grumbled, shoving Johnny’s head under.

Johnny came up sputtering, and snagged the bottle. “Give me that.”

“Like I was saying,” Scott continued. “One summer Drew and I went skinny dipping.”

“Skinny dipping!” Johnny hooted.

“Will ya shut yer yap,” Val groused.

“I’m just funning.”

“Then fun quiet like, ’cause I wanna hear this.”

Johnny fell silent and Scott continued. “Anyway, I was vacationing with Drew’s family. We went inland, and were staying at a resort. It was summer, and late one night, Drew and I decided to sneak to a swimming hole we discovered and go for a swim. So we snuck out of our rooms and followed the footpath. What we didn’t know, was that Drew’s younger brother, Malcolm had followed.”

“And as everyone knows, where there’s a younger brother, there’s trouble,” Val snorted. A wide grin crept across Johnny’s face and Val grumbled. “Yep, like I said.”

Scott laughed, dunked his head in the tantalizing coolness and emerged with a smile. “Oh, it was sweet, and I swear, we could have killed Malcolm.”

“What’d he do, hide your clothes?” Johnny snickered.

Scott’s face brightened as a fond memory set in. “Yes, that’s exactly what he did. Drew and I were fifteen at the time, and Malcolm was all of ten.”

“Bout the same difference as ya and Johnny,” Val said, crooking his finger.

Scott’s smile grew wider. “You’re right, it is just about the same. Anyway, he hid in the underbrush and when we were swimming, took our clothes. Didn’t even leave a towel. Drew and I thought that since it was dark, we could get back to the resort without being seen.”

“But it didn’t work out that way, huh?” Val asked.

“Never does,” Johnny laughed, taking another tug from the bottle.

“No, it sure didn’t,” Scott replied with a shake of the head. “Anyway, so we’d have a bit of camouflage . . .”

“Camo . . . what?” Johnny asked.

“Cover,” Val quipped.

“Oh. What’d you use?”

Scott groaned, and felt like sinking back under the water. “We couldn’t see very well, and didn’t see the shiny leaves.”

“Hot damn, you got poison leaves,” Johnny cried out, laughing hysterically. “You get it all over?”

“All over.”

“There, too?”

“Ya want him ta draw ya a picture?” Val grumped.

“There to.” Scott remained stoic for a moment, then caved to the side of laughter. “Man, we couldn’t wait to get our hands on Malcolm. What was worse, was telling Grandfather what happened, and having him call for the doctor.”

“Man, he must have been fit to be tied,” Johnny laughed.

“Wasn’t one of my better moments,” Scott replied. “Suffice it to say, Grandfather said that the best punishment was the humiliation suffered and having to spend the rest of my vacation inside.”

“Yep, that must have sucked.”

“At the time, I was too miserable to care,” Scott chuckled. “But now, I can look back and laugh.”

“You two get even with Malcolm?”

Scott grew quiet, an old sadness returning. “We wanted to, Johnny, but Malcolm got sick a few months later.”

“Oh shit.”

“Drew never got over it.” Scott fell silent, then slowly turned his head. He didn’t have to say a word, the feeling was there. At that moment, he knew exactly how Drew felt.

*****

After washing and soaking until hunger drove them to dress, Scott stuffed his soiled clothes into a burlap bag handed over from Val, and followed he and Johnny out into the street. He grew quiet, memories of a sad time in his past, emerging. Scott was devastated when Malcolm died from a bout of influenza that turned into pneumonia. There was nothing anyone could do, and to this day, Drew could not talk about his younger brother without having to leave the room. Scott now knew how Drew had felt. He, himself, barely got over Malcolm’s death, the first real tragedy he ever experienced. Without even realizing it, Scott saw that he had followed Johnny and Val into the cantina.

“Hey, you okay, Boston?” Johnny asked, worry plain in his eyes.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Scott mumbled.

Remorse filled Johnny’s eyes. “Hey, I didn’t mean anything back there.”

Scott blinked. “Back where?”

“Back at the bathhouse. Like I told you before, I get stupid with my mouth.”

Realizing that he had caused his brother undue worry, a smile came to Scott’s face. “Johnny, you didn’t say anything. Guess talking about Drew brought back some sad memories.”

Johnny sat back, relief tinged with understanding spreading across his face. “I’m sorry. It hurts when you lose someone you’re close to.”

Scott stared into his brother’s eyes, seeing nothing but true compassion. There was nothing false about Johnny. “Thank you, brother. But let’s put that behind us, and get on with dinner. I’m starved.”

“You’re on,” Johnny grinned. “I was getting tired of doing all the cooking.”

Val’s head snapped up. “But don’t go getting so tired ya don’t make that there candy, no more. Don’t wanna go the whole trip without it.”

Johnny’s smile grew wider. “You got it.”

Val grinned and elbowed Scott.

Scott was introduced to chile, tamales, and tortillas served with a salsa that set his throat on fire and had him breaking out in a cold sweat. Johnny laughed, ordered a glass of milk on the sly and handed it over.

“Here, water only fuels the flame. Milk cuts the bite. So does eating the tortilla plain. Bread and milk is the trick.”

Scott nodded in gratitude, the red sheen fading when he ate a tortilla, washed down with half a glass of milk. Glaring at Val, he said, “Man, you weren’t kidding when you said a hotter dinner. I tell you what, after being set on fire like this, I don’t have any desire for romantic notions. That pretty little senorita best set her sights on another man of means.”

Johnny nudged Scott with his elbow. “It’s supposed to make things hotter for you, later,” he laughed. “Put you in the mood.”

Scott gulped down the rest of the milk and signaled the waitress for more. “Only if you’re used to this fire brew. One thing at a time, okay?”

“You got it. We got a long trip ahead yet, and once we reach Tucson, I know this right nice place where we can get all the loving we want,” Johnny said with a wink. “And I’ll even treat ya.”

“Him? What about me?” Val piped up.

“Don’t I always take care of ya?”

Johnny teased, but the look in his eyes spoke of a double meaning. Scott felt there was a story there, and hoped to pry it out of his brother one night. It was his turn for a good story on the trail. Maybe another bottle of tequila would serve to do the trick. Scott planned on making a few purchases in the morning, before pulling out.

Scott managed to make it through the rest of the meal. Once the initial shock wore off, he found he actually enjoyed the fare, although he preferred turning it down a notch or two. But it was food, and it filled a gnawing emptiness, along with being introduced to something new. After all, he wanted to experience all the west had to offer, and food was part of the package. His grandfather would call it swill, but Scott was pleasantly sated.

“Let’s get a beer and hit the sack,” Johnny suggested.

As they neared the saloon, the hair on Johnny’s neck bristled. He tilted his head slightly toward Val.

Most would have missed the slight nod, but not Val. He knew Johnny’s ways, and followed without question.

Not understanding, Scott held back. “What’s wrong?” he whispered for only Val to hear.

“Just follow his lead.”

No further urging was needed. Johnny opened the batwing doors and surveyed the room before stepping inside. A shroud of silence descended. Chairs scraped back as patrons left to sit against the far wall, near an escape route should the occasion arise. Johnny ignored them, his gaze fixed upon a middle-aged man sitting alone at the back table.

Without acknowledging the slight, pasty faced man with dusty black pants and white shirt, Johnny took the table next to the mysterious stranger. In a tone meant for the man to hear, but acting completely oblivious that anyone might listen, Johnny spoke. Scott was puzzled, but sat without a word.

“Whew, what a trip. I tell you, I didn’t know getting to California would be so hard. Was considering heading back down to Mexico, but think I’ll give it a whirl.”

“Yeah, sounds like a plan. So does a beer,” Val said, snapping his fingers for the bartender. “Three here. And if it can’t be cold, them there glasses better be clean.”

The nervous man scurried over with a pitcher and three glasses. Val poured and Johnny took a deep swallow. “Yessiree, think we’ll sack out here tonight, and head on into Spring Creek. Should get there in three, four days at the most. Better lay in a few more supplies. Maybe some dried beef. Would make a right good stew. Yep, Spring Creek.”

Trying to act unobtrusive, the man pulled out his wallet, left a bill on the table and rose, slipping the faded billfold back into his jacket pocket. Smoothing out the material, he gave the pretext of a nod, and left.

Val visibly relaxed, letting out a pent up breath he did not realize he was holding. Johnny grinned and drained half the glass, a wicked grin crinkling the corners of his mouth. Scott was worried, and hoped he would not lose his dinner.

“Would someone mind telling me what the hell just happened?” he insisted.

Johnny’s grin grew wider, and Val shook his head. “Just yer brother playing the game.”

“What game?”

Johnny found his voice. “Scott, that man has been following us.”

“How the hell do you know that?” Scott asked, his mouth agape.

“Experience, Scott. Experience. Plus, I never ignore my instincts. Knew someone was waiting on me since I walked in, and a quick glance at everyone in here, it stood to reason, as out of place as he looked, that he wanted something. I was right. Man had Pink written all over him.”

“A Pinkerton? How the hell do you know?”

“I know because I’ve been avoiding them all my life. Every time my mama and me looked around, we were being followed. It’s why we moved so much. It got to the point where I can see and smell a Pink a mile away. They can’t hide. Plus, I just know when a man wants something from me. And that man wants something.”

“But he left, didn’t say a word.”

“No, but he heard plenty.”

“You mean you talked loud like that on purpose?”

“Yep. Gonna be right interesting to see if he’s waiting for us in Spring Creek. And if he’s not, I guarantee there’ll be another Pink sitting there. Don’t think they want to show their hand by revealing themselves. No, mark my word, Scott. When we get to Spring Creek, there’ll be someone waiting to welcome us.

*****

Scott enjoyed a satisfying breakfast of bacon, eggs, flapjacks and buttermilk biscuits, knowing this would be the last such meal for a few days. Johnny was a whiz at campfire cooking but breakfast was usually jerky and leftover biscuits from the night before, and when not in a hurry, he threw some bacon into the skillet.

Scott had always possessed a ravenous appetite, and the rib sticking fare enjoyed since coming west was embraced with relish. Long gone were the unsatisfying breakfasts of oatmeal, poached eggs and bland wheat toast. Scott no longer had to sneak into the kitchen and forage for something to fill the hole in his stomach.

After a restful night sleep, Johnny was in good spirit. Walking to the livery, he chuckled lightly, catching Scott’s attention. “Hey, hey, don’t turn your head, but look who’s coming out of the telegraph office.”

Scott kept his head straight and eyes trained to the right. Sure enough, the suspicious man that sent Johnny’s instincts screaming the previous night, scurried from the building. Seeing the trio walking toward the livery, he stopped short, averted his eyes and darted in the opposite direction.

Scott’s jaw dropped. “You’re right. He is up to something.”

“Now you’re getting it,” Johnny replied. “Stick with me, and you’ll do all right.”

Val grumped and Scott swatted Johnny in the stomach, turning the tables on his brother. “I’m a quick learner, but you were right. I never would have known if you didn’t bring my attention to him last night.”

“Body language says it all. From the slightest cough, running a hand through their hair, eyes that slip away, and even the slight bouncing of someone’s leg when sitting down, shows they’re up to something. Something got their hackles up. They’re strung tighter than an old man’s fiddle, and when that string is plucked, bing, they’re off.”

“That’s exactly how he acted last night,” Scott replied. “He sat hunched forward . . .”

“Yep, there’s that, too. Notice how he couldn’t meet our eyes, yet his kept on sneaking over? I mean, when we sat down, I nodded slightly and he looked away. Didn’t want to be caught looking,” Johnny replied.

“You nodded?” Scott asked, his mouth agape.

“Didn’t catch that, did ya?” Johnny snickered. “Out here, it pays to never be caught unaware. Learn to study everyone around you, and know your surroundings. People lurk. Expect them to be there. Never pass an alley without glancing out the corner of your eye. Never turn your head, don’t make it obvious, but know what’s there. It might keep you alive one day.”

Johnny’s insights were uncanny and chilling, filling Scott with a dread that his brother, at such a young age, would be so schooled. Johnny had lived a hard, sad life, but the last thing he wanted was pity. The differences in their upbringing were stark, as well as upsetting. How Scott wished that Johnny had been a part of his childhood, the younger brother that tagged along and played jokes.

From what teasing wit Johnny allowed to peek through, Scott felt his brother would have been insatiable, even more so than Malcolm. And together, the two would have been diabolical. Scott could just imagine the trouble the devious duo would have created, wishing all along that their father and his grandfather, would have put their own pride, prejudices and anger aside, and considered what two small boys needed. How different both their lives would be.

Sometimes, adults should not be allowed to make the decisions. Contrary to what the adults in this matter believed, they did not know squat. Could not see past themselves, and he and Johnny were the ones to pay the price. The entire situation was undeserved, and uncalled for. Scott wished to sit his father and grandfather down, and let them know exactly how he felt. One day, he just might do that. The thought brought a chuckle, imagining his faceless father, pitted against his staunch grandfather.

“What’s got you so tickled, Boston?” Johnny asked with a grin.

They reached the livery and squinted inside the darkened interior. A sly grin crinkled the corners of Scott’s mouth. “Not to bring up any upsetting subjects, but just thought of how much alike you and Malcolm would have been.”

“Ahh, the younger brother,” Val snorted.

“Precisely,” Scott chuckled. In spite of his resolve, he stopped, a flicker of sadness in his eyes. “I couldn’t help but wish that you had been there with Malcolm, that you not only had the chance to know him and be friends, but was thinking of the four of us together.”

Johnny hid the sadness within, a smile coming, nevertheless. “Yeah, that would’ve been something. And don’t you mean tag alongs?”

“That I do,” Scott snickered. He stopped, their eyes locking. “I just wish we had the chance.”

Johnny met his gaze, gave a curt nod and walked off.

Scott hung his head and his stomach dropped.

Val tapped him on the arm. “Don’t fret it. He’s okay. Just sometimes it’s hard ta show his feelings.”

They saddled their horses and made a cursory check of supplies. As they readied to leave, Johnny mounted and took lead. Once they reached the outskirts of town, he pulled up short and turned to face Scott.

“What you said.”

“About us growing up together?” Scott asked, unable to meet his brother’s gaze.

“Yeah. I just, well, me too,” Johnny stammered. He nudged his mount forward and headed west.

*****

They rode through the morning, crossing the desert until the sweltering afternoon heat forced them to stop near an outcropping of craggy rocks. Sheltering the horses in the shade, Val removed the tack, watered the thirsty animals and brushed them down. Johnny stretched out under a cactus, peeling the spines from a large chunk of pulp. Scott yipped, a spine sticking his finger.

“Ha, told you they’d get ya,” Johnny burst out laughing.

“Not funny,” Scott grumbled, sucking on the sore digit.

Val grumped and shook his head at the squabbling brothers. Johnny had met his match, the famous Madrid glare, returned by his older, stubborn, eastern bred brother. Johnny flung a piece of skinned pulp at Scott, who caught it deftly and popped it in his mouth.

“Thank you.”

“De nada.”

All three napped on and off in the shade of a large stand of cacti. Johnny woke shortly before three and leaned against the saddle, hat pulled down low. Sucking on another piece of pulp, he drew the water out and tossed it aside. Standing, he nudged Scott with his boot.

“Day’s a’burning.”

“So am I,” Val grumbled. “Sometimes there just ain’t no getting used to this danged heat.”

The afternoon wore on and Johnny rode in the middle again, his eyes scanning the surrounding area for small game. Spotting a jackrabbit in the distance, he pulled his horse to a stop and pointed. Scott could barely make out the long ears of a rabbit, and his stomach rumbled.

“He’s out of range,” Johnny muttered.

A smirk came to Scott’s face and he pulled his rifle from the scabbard. Snapping a bullet into the chamber he wielded the rifle with one hand and squeezed off a shot. The rabbit went down and Johnny’s mouth dropped. Scott barely took time to aim, yet the shot was true.

“Oh shit, would ya look at that,” Val whistled between his teeth.

“Hot dam Boston,” Johnny said in a voice soft and low.

“Took him in the head,” Scott boasted. “Won’t be any buckshot in the body. Pure hell to break a tooth on a piece of buckshot.”

Nudging his mount forward, Scott rode ahead to retrieve his prize. Johnny followed and Val sat in stunned disbelief, shaking his head before his brain cleared enough to spurn him on. “Just like his brother, don’t know what yer gonna get. Them boys is sumthin.”

Val pulled up next to Johnny and while the boys were busy with the rabbit, he took the chance to water the horses. Johnny pulled out his knife and in one skilled movement, slit the rabbit open and removed the innards.

“You ever do this before?” Johnny asked, eyes raised to meet Scott.

“Yeah, a time or two during the war, but I’ll leave this particular honor to you,” Scott replied with a grin.

“Well, since you did bag him, it’s the least I can do.” Johnny smiled and set about the grisly task. “Gonna let him bleed out, keep the poison from running through. We’ll make camp just beyond those rocks. Might find a bit of water there, but doubt it. Might have to use the water from those canvas bags for the horses.”

“We’ll make do,” Scott replied.

“There’s a watering hole about half a day’s ride from where we’re gonna camp. We’ll get there around noon tomorrow, and can rest,” Johnny replied.

“I know the place, right nice piece of shade and water,” Val replied. Removing his hat, he swiped the sweat from his brow, only to have it reappear in seconds. “Fella can downright fry an egg on his head.”

They made camp once they reached the rocks, sheltering the horses in the shade of large boulders. As thought, there was no water and Val made do with water from the canvas bags, making sure to reserve enough for the following morning. The sun was getting ready to set and Johnny went about gathering wood for the fire. Val gave each horse a measure of grain and Scott skinned the rabbit, spearing it on a stick for roasting. Johnny handed over a suede pouch of herbs, which Scott used to generously dust the meat.

Johnny soon had a pan of beans and pot of coffee simmering, and using the flour and lard, made a batch of tortillas. Scott’s mouth fairly watered and Johnny’s stomach rumbled. Val sat back with a bottle of tequila, eying the roasting meat. All three were starved and could not wait. Once the beans were finished, Johnny took their plates and handed over beans rolled in the soft, warm tortillas to hold them over until the meat was ready.

Roasted to perfection, the rabbit rounded out their meal. Pleasantly sated, each poured a cup of coffee and relaxed. Johnny packed the remainder of beans and tortillas for breakfast, and left the rabbit on the spit to smoke.

“Can have it tomorrow night, will stay good this way.”

Scott nodded in agreement and rose to stretch. Gathering the dishes, he wiped and stacked them for the following morning. No precious water was wasted for washing, that would be done once they reached the watering hole. They were falling into a comfortable routine. Val tended the horses and stoked the fire before settling against the saddle. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a crinkled paper bag.

Johnny scooted closer and craned his neck. “Whatch’a got there, Val?”

“Have a hankering,” Val replied, handing both Johnny and Scott a chunk of rock candy.

Johnny’s eyes grew large and he popped the candy in his mouth, a smile coming unbidden. Scott had a bit more decorum, but snagged the treat and stuck it into his mouth with vigor.

“Is good,” Johnny mumbled around a mouthful of sweet.

Scott leaned back against his saddle, staring up at the stars. “Hey Johnny, how did you and Val meet?”

He feared Johnny closing down, but a slow, wan smile crossed his brother’s face. “Well, he was sort’a hanging around.”

“Smart ass,” Val grumbled from beneath lowered hat.

“Johnny sat up straighter, his smile full blown. “Wanna pick it up?” he asked, turning toward Val.

Val grumbled, leaned on his side and pushed himself upward with his hands. “Might as well, if’n ya want the story right.”

Looking more like a kid settling on his father’s knee to hear a Christmas story, Scott sat up straighter, brushing the sweet, stickiness from his hands. Johnny listened, hat pulled down low and a smile peeking out.

“Well, ya see, I got myself into a bit of trouble back down Tucson way, say about what, five, six years ago?” he asked, turning toward Johnny.

“Sounds about right,” Johnny nodded. “A job gone bad.”

“Job gone bad?” Scott asked.

Val took a swig of coffee before continuing. “Seems this fella had a gripe with his neighbor, and hired me to handle matters. Was lied ta, and ain’t proud of that. Sometimes, no matter how careful a body tries ta be, someone slips a lie past. Anyways, this fella says how his neighbor was squatting on his land. Turned out, I find the one that hired me on, was holding a grudge against his neighbor that had nothing to do with things.

“Truth was, if he drove his neighbor off, he could take over the land. I find out what’s going on and tell the neighbor, but it was too late. Fella that hired me attacked the ranch and was killed. Those riding with him blamed me, and tried ta string me up for murder.”

“You mean a judge found you guilty?” Scott said, aghast at what he was hearing.

“Weren’t no judge and jury,” Val said. His voice grew softer, and his hands trembled. “Fellas . . . fellas jumped me later that night and took me outta town. There were, what, six of them?” he asked, eyes locking with Johnny’s.

“Sounds right,” Johnny said with a nod.

“Anyways, they take me outta town and proceed ta string me up.”

Scott almost jumped out of his skin. “Just like that?”

“This ain’t Boston, Boston,” Johnny said softly.

“Out here, most people make their own law,” Val replied gruffly. “And that’s what these fellas did. Took me out and strung a rope around my neck. Was ready ta let me fly, when all of a sudden, the skinniest danged kid I’d ever seen, comes riding outta the woods.”

Scott turned his head, eyes wide with disbelief. “You?”

“Ahh, yep.”

Val sat up straighter. “Sure enough. Came riding right up to the fella with the rope, and let me tell ya, he was a greasy assed, smelly bastard. Johnny rides right up ta ‘im and says ta cut me down. He don’t cotton ta no lynching. Now mind ya, this kid is so danged skinny, and he’s wearing this big gun that looks ta drag him down. One good breeze come along, he’d be blowing across the prairie like a danged old tumbleweed.

“But that didn’t stop ‘im. At first, I thought he was a danged fool. Then one look in his eyes, I knew he wasn’t playing. Nah, he was the real thing. Old greasy hair reached for his gun and before he had a chance, Johnny took ‘im out.”

Scott’s eyes grew wide and he turned to stare at his brother, before turning his attention back to Val. “But you said there were six.”

“Not when Johnny was done with ‘em,” Val replied. “He threw me off the horse and went at it. Took two more down, and I got one of my own. Johnny plugged another. Bullets were flying all around us. Then . . .” Val’s voice broke, and he needed a moment to compose himself.

Overcome with emotion, Johnny hung his head.

“Then?” Scott asked.

“I took a bullet,” Johnny said softly.

Scott’s blood turned to ice.

“Grazed my head, then before I could do anything, he got off another shot. Took one in the side and thought it was all over.”

“I took the bastard out,” Val replied.

“What happened then?” Scott asked.

“Well, I took this scrawny ass back ta my late uncle’s cabin. Old Eb left home when I was just a kid . . .”

“You were a kid once?” Johnny squawked.

“Wasn’t born this scraggly,” Val huffed, swatting at Johnny with his hat. “Like I said, I took this here scrawny ass back ta the cabin and got ‘im back on his feet.”

“And you’ve been friends ever since.”

“Only the best,” Val mumbled. Swiping a hand across his eyes, he stared at the ground. “Someone has ta keep an eye on this mutt.”

Johnny flashed a cocky grin, then dipped his head. Thinking back to that day was overwhelming, as always. Val had come close to losing his life.

Johnny had been heading north. He was at loose ends, with no prospects, no plans and seemingly no future other than a life by the gun. He was tired, heart and soul. Ever since his mother died, he had been wandering. Free as an alley cat, with no one to answer to, no ties or obligations, and no one to care about, or care about him. At the age of fifteen, Johnny was alone.

He thought of seeking his father out, but remembered his mother’s words. How could he show up on the man’s doorstep, when he had already been kicked out once? And what had he done to be kicked out in the first place? Did he cry too much? Have too many tantrums? He was only two at the time. Too young to remember and too young to understand. But he must have done something to make his father hate him. He was eight when he looked into the mirror one day, realizing the blue eyes that stared back, were the root of his problem.

Caught between two races, not accepted by either, the young boy finally understood. He was not good enough for his old man. And when he needed his father the most, Johnny was alone in the world. So he woke one morning, deciding to head north. Tired of Mexico and needing a change, Johnny was searching for something his heart was leading him to, but had no idea of what that something was until he woke and began to heal from that bullet wound.

Had he not made that journey, had he ignored the want in his heart and the instincts that guided him, Val would not be here today. And Johnny did not know where he, himself, would be. Val had been such a guiding influence, even if they did regularly part ways. Something always drew them back together. Val was the father of his heart.

*****

Hot, tired, and feeling like something dragged across the desert floor, the weary trio rode into Spring Creek. The sun was just beginning to set and all they wanted was a drink, a bath, another drink, and a good, hot dinner. Johnny wanted to crawl into bed and never get up. He needed some time to himself. Ever since they set out on this journey, it has been one emotional roller coaster after the other.

For someone who only had himself to consider all these years, the feeling was quite foreign, and a bit overwhelming. Johnny was used to traveling with Val, but Val never asked anything of him. Scott, on the other hand, seemed to want to know everything he could, and although Johnny couldn’t blame him, he was a private person and not used to sharing his feelings.

And the last thing he wanted to talk about was his past. There was nothing to say. He was a gunhawk. Plain and simple. His father kicked him out, his mother did the best she could and then she died. Johnny picked up a gun in order to survive. It was all he knew. Next to his Boston bred, highly educated brother, Johnny felt severely inadequate.

If it was their old man doing the beckoning, what the hell would he think of the difference between his two sons? Johnny suddenly felt inferior, and extremely foolish. Why did he care what the old man thought? His life wasn’t anyone’s business, especially that of his father.

He should be jealous of Scott, but that was not the case. Johnny admired his brother, Scott had fortitude and certainly didn’t back down from a fight. He might not be schooled in the ways of the west, but he was not adverse to trying new things, and was definitely ready for an adventure. After being in Boston all those years, Johnny couldn’t blame him. He’d be looking too.

They led the horses into the livery and only after making sure the animals were watered, fed, and brushed down, went their separate ways. Val understood Johnny’s need for solitude and led Scott to the bathhouse, all the while claiming that Johnny would follow along in his own time. Scott relented. The last thing he wanted to do was crowd his brother. This entire family scenario had to be a bit much for someone who had been on his own from such a young age, and he did not want Johnny to feel smothered.

Johnny watched them walk off and headed toward the saloon. He stopped at the batwing doors, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling. Stepping inside, he scanned the room. Nothing was out of the ordinary, but he was being watched. He could feel it. Johnny kept to the open, hiding in plain sight. Giving the appearance he was completely ignorant of anything out of the ordinary, yet his skin crawled.

“Tequila.” Johnny walked past the bar and took a table against the back wall

The bartender followed quickly on his heels, bottle and glass in hand. Johnny sat back and the drink was poured. Leaving the bottle on the table, the nervous man retreated, wringing his hands. A wry grin came to Johnny’s face. He couldn’t frighten the man more if he had snuck up on him in the dark and yelled boo. The man would literally wet himself. Johnny chuckled and spotting a stranger in a black, three piece suit sitting across the room, raised his glass in toast. Hunched over a shot of whiskey, the man lifted a trembling hand and returned the salute.

Johnny made his mark. The man had Pink written all over him. They really had to learn to stop dressing in those danged suits that gave them away in an instant. Slade was dressed as such and sweating his ass off when he made the daring rescue attempt in Mexico. The man would have been better off in a simple pair of pants and shirt. Even if they did not dress so distinctive, Johnny would have them pegged. Their entire demeanor smelled of Pink.

Johnny was adept at reading people. His life depended on it. Every glint in their eyes, slight tremor in their hand, catch in their voice, gave them away. Nothing got past him, especially the shifty ways of a Pink on the watch. Plus, Johnny was just sick to death of being followed.

The annoying detectives have been dogging him his entire life, but Johnny had never been able to learn why. He wasn’t wanted by the law, so no worries there, but what they wanted was always beyond him. His temper always got the better of him, and if he didn’t beat the crap out of a Pink and ride on, he eluded them.

The only one who ever managed to get close was Slade, but Johnny had been at a distinct disadvantage. If the situation had been different, who knows what he would have done to the man that came barreling after him, hell bent for leather, on the back of a rickety wagon. Looking at the Pink across the saloon now, a sly smile came unbidden.

Johnny would have a bit of fun with this one. Tossing back a drink, he rose. A quick glare shot at the Pink, and he was out the door. “Hey, there you guys are. Oh man, you two smell as good as a flower,” he teased, flicking at Scott’s collar.

Scott smirked and smacked Johnny on the back of the head. “Don’t touch. You’re a mess, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“Yeah, and ya surely don’t smell like no flower,” Val grumped. “Iff’n ya wanna eat with us, ya better get cleaned up. I’d ruther slop with the hogs than sit with ya now.”

The look on Johnny’s face was incredulous. “Well lookee who’s putting on airs.” Stepping back, he bowed in Val’s presence. “Forgive me, your royal hiney. I’ll get my offensive ass on outta here.”

“See that ya do,” Val shouted over his shoulder. An afterthought, he booted Johnny’s backside, missing when Johnny dodged to the left and ran off in the direction of the bathhouse.

“He seems to be in better spirits,” Scott replied.

“Or he’s got sumthin up his sleeve,” Val grumped.

“Something up his sleeve? Why would you say that?”

“Because I know the varmint. When he’s this happy, he’s concocting sumthin. And it usually ain’t good.”

“Trouble?”

“Yeah, the Johnny kind.”

A beer in hand, they took a table facing the batwing doors. “What do you mean the Johnny kind?” Scott asked after downing a third of the mug in one long breath.

Val set his glass down and wiped the suds from his mouth. “What I mean, is that boy is up to sumthin, and I have a feeling what it is.”

“Are you going to be as mysterious as my brother, or are you going to tell me?”

Val leaned forward, nodding at the skittish man heading out the door. “See that fella in a suit?”

Scott followed Val’s gaze. “What about him?”

“Really look at him.”

“Can’t, he’s gone too fast.”

“Yep, but I got a look before he did. And I bet Johnny got a good look, too. Ya gotta learn to catch ‘em.”

“Catch them?”

“Pinks. That fella had Pink all over him.”

Scott’s eyes widened as understanding set in. “Ohhh, I see what you mean. Johnny has been telling me to be aware, and I didn’t pay attention.”

“You never had ta before. Johnny had ta his entire life. He didn’t pay attention, he went about and acted like the normal person without the cares he carries, he’d be long dead by now.”

Val’s words chilled Scott’s blood. “Then it’s a good thing he’s so astute.”

“Don’t know about astute, but he sure as shooting knows what’s going on.”

“Like that Pink?”

“Like that Pink.”

“You mean the one that just hightailed it outta here?” Johnny swooped down upon them, snagging the beer from Scott’s hands.

“Help yourself.”

“Thank you, I think I will.”

“Bartender, another round,” Scott said, motioning to Val and Johnny.

“Thanks brother,” Johnny grinned.

“Don’t mention it,” Scott scowled.

The bartender arrived with three more beers. Johnny downed the remainder of Scott’s drink and snagged a fresh mug. “Now, about that Pink.”

Val glared. “Yer up to sumthin.”

“Not yet, but I will be,” Johnny grinned.

“Oh, I don’t like that look. It means trouble,” Val grumped.

“Trouble? Me? Val, would I give you any trouble?” Johnny asked, feigned innocence failing.

“Every minute yer a’breathing,” Val replied.

Johnny slapped Val on the back. “Stick with me.”

“A’mighty. That only mean’s trouble.” Val scrubbed at his eyes, downed a beer and flagged the bartender for another round.

Johnny disappeared for a short while, and as much as he wanted to follow, Scott took Val’s advice and stayed put. Upon his return, they ordered a dinner of steak, potatoes, and biscuits. Sated, they spent the remainder of the evening in the saloon, nursing pitchers of beer. Johnny was not about to retire, the man had something on his mind. Patrons filtered out slowly, and the bartender finally issued the last call.

“Well, looks like we better get at it,” Johnny said.

Rising, Val could not help but notice the deviant gleam in his friend’s eyes. “A’mighty, it all comes down to this.”

“To what?” Scott asked.

“Nuthin good. Come on, let’s follow yer brother. Keep his ass from getting caught at whatever he’s about to do.”

“You know him so well,” Scott snickered.

“Lucky me,” Val grumped.

The streets were dark. Stores and homes were shuttered and locked, and the saloon closed down. There wasn’t a soul in sight. Johnny led Val and Scott to the livery, wondering why he wasn’t retiring to his room.

“Thought ya got us rooms?” Val asked.

“I did. Here.” Johnny pointed to the stall, his grin wide as he led Val and Scott inside. They walked past the owner, passed out and snoring in a pile of hay, an empty bottle of whiskey by his side. “He’s a right friendly fella. Said we could stay the night, beings we didn’t have no money or nuthin.”

“And beings he’s too pickled ta care,” Val replied, booted toe poking at the prone figure. “I didn’t spend four stinking days in the desert to sleep with some danged horse.”

“Better than some of the places we’ve had to sleep. It’s warm and dry. Got a good roof over our head. And the hay is soft and clean. And, he could use the company.”

Scott’s eyes fell out of his head and he sputtered, unable to put two words together. Val threw his hands in the air and turned away, wondering just how he got himself into such a fix. He should have known better than to follow Johnny. His life had been quiet. It was set. He knew what he was in for, and what he was getting. Nothing much ever happened in his town, and he was happy. Now, he never knew what in the world Johnny would pull next, and looking at the Pinkerton agent trussed and gagged, hair askew and wild eyes darting about, he wondered just why the hell he didn’t get on his horse and hightail it out of there. He could be back in Silver Springs in a week’s time. Traveling alone, he’d make better time.

A frown on his face and arms crossed over his chest, Val advanced. “Just what the hell ya think yer doing?”

“Just funning,” Johnny shrugged.

“Funning. With this here Pink,” Val snapped. “Just what the hell ya gonna do?”

“Teach him it’s not nice to follow Madrid,” Johnny replied.

“A’mighty.”

“Oh shit.”

Val and Scott stood gawking, but they didn’t have many options. They could either ride off on their own, or follow along. Neither choice was appealing, but sticking with Johnny proved to be the lesser of two evils. Or so they thought.

“Don’t know why the hell I let myself get caught up in things,” Val muttered under his breath. Scowling, almost daring Johnny to mouth off, he shoved past and grabbed a blanket. “Gonna get some shut eye.”

“Good idea. I’ll take watch.”

“When will you sleep?” Scott asked. “You have to be exhausted.”

“Scott, I never did need much sleep. Too much time looking over my shoulder, and too much time on the loose. Don’t worry about me. I got business to tend to.”

“Business? What business?” Val growled.

“You’ll see.”

Scott couldn’t help himself. Caught up in his brother’s scheme, a strange sense of deviant exhilaration raced through him. He scooted closer to Johnny, nudging him with his elbow. “So, what are we gonna do with him?”

“You game?”

“Got nothing better to do,” Scott shrugged.

“You’ll see soon. Get some sleep, I’ll wake you when I’m ready.”

Scott never thought he would sleep, but before he know it, Johnny was nudging him awake. He was amazed his brother was still on his feet, but as he was learning, never underestimate Madrid. Val was up and about. Grumbling, he stumbled out back, returning a few minutes later.

“That was one hell of a load of beer,” he said, yawning widely. “Now what?”

A wide grin, Johnny reached down, pulling the agent up. “Now, you gotta make a trip out back, Val here will take ya.”

“Me? Why is it always me?” Val cried out. “Well, come on then. Let’s get ta it.” He left, glaring at Johnny the entire time.

They both returned a few minutes later and Johnny removed the gag, let the man have a drink of water and readjusted the bandana around his mouth. “There, can’t go telling anyone I’m heartless,” he snickered. “Ready?”

Johnny turned to Val and Scott, who had no other choice than to follow. Leading the trembling man over to the general store, Johnny spun him around and untied his hands. “Now strip.”

“Strip?” Val shouted. “What the hell!”

“Down to your shorts.” Johnny ignored his friend and stood firm. “Now, you either strip down to them there shorts, or I’ll take ‘em off for ya.”

Scott stood back, a wide smirk plastered across his face. Val took one look and knew he was outnumbered. This one was just as jaded as his troublesome brother. It was a good thing he no longer wore a badge.

His fingers barely able to remove the buttons, the agent mumbled under the gag.

“What did you say?” Johnny lowered the bandana.

“I said, you’ll never get away with this.”

“I already did.” Johnny’s gaze hardened and he reached out, pulling the bandana back over the man’s mouth. Trussing his hands once again, he kicked the Pink’s clothes and boots aside. The man stood in his shorts, shivering against the night air.

“Gonna be light soon, ya won’t freeze. Sun will warm ya up real good,” Johnny chuckled. Taking the detective, Johnny kicked the man’s feet out from underneath, catching him before he hit the ground. Wrapping another rope around his wrists, he bound the man’s hands and feet to the hitching post.

“There, don’t he look like a pig on the spit?” Johnny laughed, elbowing Scott in the ribs.

Scott stood, chin resting in hand. “If we had an apple, we could stick it in his mouth.”

Val threw his hands up and turned away.

Johnny tugged at the ropes. “There, nice and sound. You’re lucky, the only reason I don’t leave you trussed up here all neked, is that I don’t wanna see your ugly ass.”

Scott pulled the rope tight. “What my brother means, is that we don’t wish to be subjected to viewing your shortcomings.”

“Good one, brother,” Johnny snickered, slapping Scott across the stomach.

“Thank you, I thought so.”

“A’mighty,” Val muttered, shaking his head.

A boot to the Pink’s exposed rear, and Johnny steered Scott and Val to the horses. “I thought we did well, brother.”

“We do make one hell of a team, brother.” Scott never felt better in his life.

“So since the saloon is closed, next town we hit, buy me a beer,” Johnny replied.

“You’re on.” Scott swatted Johnny across the stomach.

Val followed, grumbling all the while. It was going to be a long day.

*****

He had just settled after a leisurely dinner, enjoying a snifter of brandy.  The door opened and he jumped. “What is it?”

“Got a very detailed message from our man, and boy he’s madder than a wet hen dipped in ink.”

“What the hell happened?”

“He’s been made.”

Rubbing his eyes, he sat the drink down. “What do you mean, he’s been made?”

“Well, Johnny sure is good. He knew he was being followed.”

“Was wondering when he would catch on.”

“Think he caught on sooner than we know. He just decided to act.”

A smile curled the corners of his mouth. “What did he do?”

“Seems he caught up with our man last night. Or, I should say early this morning. Gave him what for. Didn’t get physical or anything, but had him trussed up in the livery all night. Then . . .” He sat wheezing, laughter overtaking him.

“Then, what?”

“Oh, he only hurt the man’s pride. Made him strip down to his shorts shortly before dawn and trussed him up like a turkey. Left him tied to a hitching post in front of the general store, gagged and splayed like a pig on a spit, I was told, and madder than hell. Johnny said that the only reason he didn’t leave him trussed and naked, was that he didn’t want to see his ugly ass.”

“Hah! Good one.”

“Scott said they just didn’t want to be subjected to viewing his shortcomings.”

He laughed until his ribs ached. “That’s a nice way of putting it. Damn, wish I could have seen that. Reminds me of my own youth. They sure have moxy.”

“They’re quite imaginative. What now?”

“Nothing we can do. They’re at least making their way west. A bit sidetracked along the way, but they seem to be coming, nevertheless. Let’s just sit back and enjoy the show. I believe it’s far from over.”

*****

“You still not talking to me?” Johnny whined.

They sat under a tall stand of cacti, seeking refuge from the blistering heat. Looking at Johnny, the longing and hurt etched on his face, Val relented. He suddenly felt lower than dirt, and kicked at the scorching sand.

“Ahh, ya know me. I can be a shit at times, and this is one a them times.

It didn’t take much to bring a smile to Johnny’s face.

“Johnny, did ya ever just try asking ’em what they wanted?” Val asked.

Johnny hung his head. “Was too busy beating the crap outta them. But I did ask that guy, and he pissed me off good. Wouldn’t say what the hell he wanted, or who sent him. Just that it was part of the job. I figured I’m that job. Whoever wants me . . . us . . .” he said, looking at Scott. “Wants to keep tabs on us. It’s probably the old man. But it don’t make sense, and I have the feeling it’s something else.”

Val scooted closer and handed over the canteen. “Why do ya say that?”

“Cause the old man never cared before. Hell, he kicked me out. Never claimed Scott. Why would he want to give each of us a wad of money and then hire some Pinks to make sure we came? Don’t make sense.”

“No, it surely don’t,” Val said, scratching at his chin. Looking at Johnny, another thought ran through his mind. “But there’s more, isn’t there? I mean, other than the Pinks.”

“Just a feeling,” Johnny said softly. Scott sat beside him, and he hated to worry his brother, but there was no use in keeping this to himself. “Remember I told ya I was being followed?”

“Yeah, a time or two,” Val replied, capping the canteen.

“Well, it wasn’t the Pink. Caught only the shadow, but it wasn’t a Pink. Don’t know who or why, maybe someone wants my name. Maybe the guy that wants to hire me is having trouble and that is the trouble. Then that don’t make sense, ’cause what the hell would they want with Scott? So I doubt it’s the guy who is paying me. I mean, us. Oh shit, I don’t know what I mean.

“All I know is that I follow my feelings. The Pinks are watching, that I do know. And once we get to the next town, I know they’ll be watching there, too. Gonna weed them out and take care of them in high fashion.”

Val rubbed his temple. “A’mighty. I was afraid of that.”

Johnny leaned closer. “I could just shoot ’em.”

“Now don’t go a’talking like that,” Val groused.

“Then let me handle things,” Johnny replied. “I’m the one they’re watching, maybe Scott, too, but I know the way of things here. I’m the one that’s gonna set them straight. One way or the other, they’re gonna light out. I sure as hell ain’t gonna spend the rest of my life being followed. Should I decide not to follow this through, I wanna be left alone, not dogged.”

Scott’s skin prickled. “You’re not thinking of backing out, are you?”

Johnny stood, wiping his hands on his pants. After a short nap, the sun was sinking lower and he was ready to head out. “Don’t know what I want now, Scott. This put a whole new spin on things. Muddies it all up. Don’t like when things get muddied up. Like ’em clear cut and simple.

“All I know is that I need some time to lay low. Been in this desert too damned long. We’ll hit the next town later tonight, it’s just a small desert rat town, but it has a good cantina and saloon. Just wanna get a room and lay back for a night or two.”

Val knew not to argue, and Scott never considered it. One way or the other, he didn’t care if they made good on the money or not. All he cared about was getting to know his brother and maybe starting life anew somewhere. For now, he would follow along and see how things played out.

They arrived in Dry Gulch shortly after eight, as Johnny had predicted. After a dinner of tamales, rice and beans, Scott downed what seemed a bucket of milk to put the fire out and retired to the saloon with a pitcher of beer. Too tired to drink, Val went up to his room, and with willing female company, Scott and Johnny each went to their respective rooms. Val didn’t see either until the following afternoon.

After a late lunch, Johnny begged off and went for a walk. Striding through the dusty streets, a scream made his stomach lurch. Hand on his gun, he spun around. Lightning quick, he drew and fired. A small child fell to the ground and scrambled out of the way. A taller, stringy haired man stood, glowering with rage, the crop held in his hand sliced in two. Val ran from the cantina and Scott stood, gawking in disbelief.

“You best drop that, mister.” Johnny’s voice was cold and deadly. His eyes pinpricks of gleaming rage.

“And you’re gonna make me? Gonna shoot me, next?” the man sneered. “Big man with a gun, ain’t ya.”

“When I have to be. Can take the likes of you without one, if need be.” Johnny reholstered the colt and advanced. “Come on, if you think you’re man enough. Wanna hit someone, hit me. Wanna beat on someone, come on. Give it your best shot. Doesn’t take a big man to beat on a kid.”

“Ain’t none of your business.”

“He your kid?”

“Just some whelp on the street. He stole from me.”

Johnny walked over to the child who handed over an apple clutched tightly. The starved look in his eyes tore Johnny’s heart out. He had gone hungry plenty of times and the one thing he could not stand, was the suffering of a child. Placing a hand on top of the boy’s head, he nodded toward Val.

“See that scruffy looking man over there? Well, why don’t you run on over.”

With trust in his eyes, the boy did not hesitate for a second. He darted across the dusty street, taking refuge behind Val. Scott took a step closer, a protective hand wrapping around the back of the frightened child’s head.

Johnny advanced, flexing his fingers. The older man lunged forward, plowing into him. They rolled in the street, fists pounding, kicking legs stirring up a choking dust that bit into their eyes and stole their breath. Spitting the offending mess from his mouth, Johnny landed a punch to the side of the man’s jaw. He fell and Johnny grabbed him by the shirt collar, punching the man repeatedly. Seconds later, Val pulled him off.

“It’s finished, Johnny. Let it go.”

“Not gonna let him go. Was just a kid. A hungry kid, and he whips him.”

Val saw the dazed look in Johnny’s eyes, and knew his friend’s pain. The young boy stirred up memories best left forgotten, but rose at the most inopportune times to torture relentlessly. Johnny would never forget the hunger, the times he stole to make it through another day. The nights his stomach was so empty, it ceased to ache. It was no wonder he was so skinny when Val met him. When Johnny began to recover from the bullet wound, Val never saw anyone put away the amount of food he was capable of. Trying to make up for lost time and missed meals, sometimes it seemed that Johnny would never get full, and that tore at Val’s heart.

Kicking the fallen man aside, Val took Johnny by the elbow. “Ferget ‘im. We got a hungry little one over there.”

Johnny looked over, seeing the young boy standing by Scott, the gaunt look in his eyes mirroring that of his past. With a resigned sigh and hanging his head, Johnny followed. Not a word was said as he placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and led him into the cantina. The longing want disappeared, replaced by a sense of relief and anticipation when the boy followed Scott to a table and scrambled onto a chair. Giving him a lift, Scott settled the dark haired, lighter skinned boy.

Startled eyes met Val’s. The boy had blue eyes. Not as deep as Johnny, but speaking of mixed heritage, all the same. Val was at a loss for words, choking on his emotions. This could have been Johnny all those years ago.

“Come on, let’s get ya fed,” Val said, his voice stinted and clipped. “Ya like tamales and beans?”

The small boy nodded, unable to hide the smile spreading across his face.

“Val, you’re going to burn a hole in the kid’s stomach.”

“We’ll make it mild, but I bet he was weaned on jalapenos, am I right?”

“Si,” the boy replied, the grin growing wider.

A tall glass of milk was brought over, and downed in seconds, a white mustache rimming his mouth. Scott was deeply affected. Raised in the lap of luxury, he could not imagine such deprivation. It never did set well with him when one had so much he never wanted for a thing, and another had so little, yet held onto life with vigor and determination. Thinking of Johnny, he knew those feelings to be correct.

Minutes later, Johnny came into the small room, having cleaned up before sitting at the table. A plump woman came from the kitchen carrying a tray loaded down with tamales, rice and beans, and pitcher of milk. She placed the tray down, pinched Johnny’s cheek and winked. Johnny blushed and Scott gawked.

“She likes me,” Johnny shrugged as the woman bustled from the room.

“So I see,” Scott smirked.

Val kept busy helping the boy get settled with his meal. “Ya got a name?”

“Si,” the boy nodded, a mouthful of rice and beans swallowed.

“Ya gonna tell us, or is it some big secret?” Val groused.

Undaunted by the gruff remark, the boy answered. “Juan.”

Val sat back, deflated. The boy reminded him too much of Johnny. “That figgers.”

Johnny chuckled and Scott threw his head back in laughter. “Well brother, I think you met your match.”

“He sure eats like ya,” Val grumped. They sat quietly for twenty minutes, letting Juan eat. Curiosity getting the better of him, Val asked, “Kid, ya got family round abouts?”

“Si.”

“Si. Care to tell more?”

Swallowing, the boy downed another hearty helping of milk and wiped his mouth. “My mama and me live down by the creek.”

Johnny’s heart lurched. “And your father?”

Juan hung his head. “I do not know my father.”

Johnny’s anger raged. “Your mother, she born and raised here?”

“Si, she is Mexican,” Juan answered.

Johnny’s anger rose and he vaulted from the chair. Even Val’s settling touch on his shoulder failed to soothe him. “What is it about fucking gringo men that like to bed Mexican women and throw ’em to the dust when a kid comes along?”

Pulling from Val, he marched out the door. A shot rang out, blinding pain seared across his forehead and Johnny fell to the ground. Surrounded by darkness, he slipped away.

*****

The old man was angered. Rage burned through his very soul. He saw Madrid gunned down like a dog. Ambushed by a coward skulking in a back alley. Knife in hand, he skirted around the back of the building, seeking his prey.

“It will not end like this,” he muttered.

He detested cowards, and would deal with this one directly. Coming up from behind, he saw the man peering around the corner, gun dangling loosely from his fingers.

“Senor.”

The man turned.

Before he could even think of lifting the gun, the man lunged forward, a quick move his age and girth should not have allowed. Grabbing the foul man around the neck, he spun him around and sliced the knife across his throat.

Clutching at the gaping wound, the man Johnny fought in the street fell to the ground and died, gagging in the dust beneath the older man’s feet.

*****

Johnny blinked, the blinding sun sending shards of pain slicing through his head. Garbled voices invaded the silence and he groaned. A wet cloth slid across his face and water dripped down the side of his neck. Forcing one eye open, he gazed up into Val’s worried eyes. He should have known. Val never could remember to wring the excess water from the cloth. No matter, for it felt good against the stifling heat. It was then he realized that the heat came from his own body.

“Easy there, don’t go a’moving, ya hear?” Val said, his voice low and stinted with worry.

The mother hen. Johnny snickered, remembering the times Val hovered. Sadly, there were too many to count.

“They go and scramble yer brains? Don’t see nuthin funny ’bout this,” Val grumbled.

Now that was the Val he was used to.

“Ya took a good one. Bastard gunned ya when ya walked from the eating place.”

Johnny tried to sit up, but another hand held him down. “Don’t go moving, little brother,” Scott said, a hitch to his voice.

He should have known. Now he had two mother hens to contend with. Johnny relented and lay back. He felt like crap and didn’t know why he even considered moving in the first place.

“What happened?” he managed to stammer.

Scott leaned in closer, handing a wrung out cloth to Val. This time, no excess water dripped down his neck. He expected such from his orderly brother. And boy, was he hot. His head hurt and he just plain felt like shit. Scott reacted quickly. Johnny rolled onto his side and heaved into the bucket held under his mouth. Just as he tried to force a pitiful grin and thank his brother, he heaved again. This time the mess splattered on Val’s boots. There it was. The tirade he knew would follow.

“Dang, Johnny. Ya done gone and messed up my boots. And look at ya grinning like a jackass.”

Johnny lay back with a smile. Good one. “Feel like shit.”

“Well, ya don’t look none too good, either,” Val replied, his voice cracking. “A’mighty.”

Johnny smiled and slid off to sleep. Val nudged Scott and led him outside. Taking a rag, he wiped the mess from his boots. “Don’t wanna waste the water,” he mumbled.

Scott looked around the small house. “Don’t look like they have much of anything to waste.”

“Nope, can’t say that they do.”

Running a trembling hand through his hair, Scott took the first good, deep breath since he saw Johnny fall. His worst nightmare come to life. Johnny was talking one minute, gunned down the next. It was not even a fair fight. Scott had been worried about Johnny being called out. Not once did he consider the notion that some coward would shoot his brother down in cold blood.

When the shot rang out, Scott’s heart stopped. Johnny fell to the ground, blood streaming down his face. Val lunged for the door, and Scott didn’t think his feet hit the ground once. Val’s face was deathly pale, and his hands trembled, fearing what they would find. In seconds, Val was outside with his gun drawn, scouring the streets. All was quiet. The shot apparently came from the alley across the way, but Val was too worried about Johnny to go chasing the bastard down. There would be time enough for that later.

Those on the run, rarely got away from Val. He could follow the trail of a bird in flight. He would be damned if Johnny’s shooter walked free. And if there was no law in this dried up hole of a town, he would make his own. Visions of his near lynching ran through his mind.

A skinny kid on a horse flashed before his eyes. Johnny fell, blood spurting from his side. Val vaulted over, carrying the scrawny kid to his uncle’s cabin. It was all too much. And it wasn’t the first time Val pulled Johnny back from the edge. The boy picked up a fever at the slightest hint of a sniffle, or scratch. Twice, Val coaxed him through bouts of pneumonia when they were riding together.

Val shoved those memories aside and focused on Johnny, kneeling over his prone body. A crowd gathered on the street, craning their necks to see. Val and Scott kept Johnny shielded, but it did no good. News that Madrid had been gunned down spread like wildfire. An angry mob formed, damned and determined to bring justice to their fallen compadre. News of Johnny’s exploits in Mexico ran far and wide, he was well known and respected throughout the community.

Startled cries came from the alley, along with the news that the shooter now lay dead, his throat slit from ear to ear. Val turned to stare at Scott. “What the hell is going on here?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t like it one bit,” Scott replied.

Juan stood watching it all, his face awash with tears. He knew of Johnny, had heard of Madrid and when his hero saved him, the boy’s worship grew. Now Johnny lay injured, maybe dead, and he had witnessed the entire thing. Giant orbs of tears streamed down Juan’s face. His mother ran screaming across the road. Taking one look at Johnny, she ushered the trio to her small house.

“Por favor, I heard what he did for my son. We have no doctor, and you don’t want to take him to the filthy saloon. My home is not far, just over that hill. Please, come. It is small, but the sheets are clean. My home is clean, and I wish to help.”

Without further argument, Val scooped Johnny up into his arms, all the while thinking how he would get his ass kicked from one end of town to the other if Johnny had anything to say about it, but fear and worry drove him forth. Johnny was heavier than Val remembered, and Scott grasped him by the legs. Together, they carried Johnny from town.

Glancing at the saloon and spotting the small, gray adobe home just a short distance away, there was no further argument. The woman was right. The place was clean. Two chickens scratched in the yard, kept from straying by a small, rickety fence. Juan’s mother even managed to grow a few scraggly flowers in a pot placed on a wide window ledge.

There was but one room, a curtain separating the woman’s sleeping quarters from those of her son, and she beckoned for Val to deposit Johnny on the larger bed. She took command and the men jumped to do her bidding. Scott stoked the fire and put a pot of water on to boil. Juan’s mother pointed to a shelf above the sink, and Val retrieved a box of bandages and medical supplies. There was not much, but it was enough.

“My name is Rosa Ramirez, and I thank you for what you did for my son.”

“I’m Johnny’s brother, Scott Lancer, and this is our friend, Val Crawford.” Scott pointed toward Val. The startled expression on Rosa’s face was fleeting, and Scott couldn’t help but smile. “But Johnny is the one that helped your son,” he said, his voice catching.

“Ahh, it was all of you. Por favor, hand me that cloth.”

Scott dipped the rag into the basin and handed it over. Rosa gently cleaned the blood from Johnny’s face, a smile emerging. “Thank the good Lord. The bullet only grazed past. It did not go in.”

Scott squeezed his eyes shut in relief. “Is he going to be all right?”

“He will have a bad head for a few days, and he should not get up and move around for at least four days, but he should be fine. I will keep the wound clean, si? This way, he will not become infected.”

Rosa’s words apparently did not reach Johnny, for that night he began running a fever. Val hovered and Scott worried. Both men took turns bathing his fever parched body, to no avail.

“Come on, Johnny. Ya can beat this thing,” Val muttered.

“The fever came on fast,” Scott replied.

“Always does with him.”

“I’ll get some fresh water.” Scott picked up the basin and went to the pump outside the door.

Seconds later, Val joined him. “I got chased out. Was told to get a breath of fresh air. But there is no fresh air in this stinking place.”

“It cooled down some,” Scott replied absently.

“Yeah, don’t listen ta me. Got a bur under me. Never will get used ta this.”

“He didn’t even have a chance.”

“Nope, and we came close. Too danged close. Damn it, I hate this. All that boy has ever wanted was to find a way to live quietly He almost gets there, is looking fer something different, maybe has a chance, and he walks from an eating place and catches a bullet.”

Not a man to lay his emotions bare, Val clapped Scott on the back and went back into the house. Scott stared up at the sky, swallowing against the lump rising in his throat. Val was right. They had come too damned close. He barely knew his brother, and almost lost the chance. Before further upsetting emotions set in, Scott picked up the basin and carried it back inside.

There was no sleep for anyone. Even young Juan lay on his bed, listening, worrying, and praying as his mother taught him. Scott and Val took turns bathing Johnny’s fever parched body. Johnny thrashed in fevered delirium that first night, and slept through the second. Late afternoon of the third day, he woke, sassed mouth, puked on Val’s boots, and fell back asleep, very pleased with himself. He was still caught in the fever’s grip and Val had the feeling they would be at the small house for more than a few days. No matter, he was in no hurry and if he had his way, they would return to Silver Springs. Val now wondered about the wisdom in continuing the journey.

Clutching a mug of coffee between his hands, he finally let himself relax for a few minutes. He managed to snag a few hours of restless sleep, reminiscent of the time in Arizona. Val was too afraid to truly relax. They had let their guard down back at the cantina, and look what happened.

“Val, I have to tell you, I was scared to death,” Scott admitted as he came to the man’s side.

“Yep, sounds about right.”

“They say it was the guy Johnny fought with.”

“Yep.”

“Mr. Montague,” Rosa spat with venom. “He was an evil man. Never did good for anyone. He hated my son, most of all.” She walked to the edge of the porch, emptying the basin into a small garden. “There is little enough rain, si? So we place all our used water here. Maybe I can, how do you say, talk the plants into growing?”

“Si,” Val nodded. “Did this Montague go after your son much?”

“Si, he did not like my Juan.”

“Figgers,” Val muttered.

Before anyone could say more, Rosa handed the empty basin to Scott. “Would you be kind enough to bring more water into the room? The fever, it is less, but it will not leave.”

“I’ll be glad to.” Scott took the basin from her hands and offering a slight smile, walked to the pump.

The small home was nothing but a one room clay structure with a thatched roof over a small porch, providing shade from the relentless sun. Rosa had a rocking chair in the corner, and a small bench for Juan to sit upon. They lived on nothing more than a scrap of land, yet the woman seemed content. Scott couldn’t believe it. The women he knew back in Boston would not only turn their noses up at such a way of living, they would never express such selfless kindness. Rosa had little to give, yet she opened her home to them. Scott handed the basin over and stood outside with Val for a moment.

Shortly after arriving, both men took stock of Rosa’s meager supplies. They were loath to take food from the woman, but to refuse, would be a grave insult. Still, Scott retrieved some of their supplies from the livery to add to the larder. It would not do to have the woman keep feeding them, especially since she barely had enough food for her own child. Without a word, Scott handed Val a few bills.

“Thanks, but not necessary.”

“Like I told Johnny before we left, I’ll be eating half the food, so I’ll pay half. Besides, she barely has enough as it is. And we saw how that kid can eat,” Scott chuckled, before falling silent.

“Yer as stubborn as yer brother. Different shade, but cut from the same cloth,” Val scoffed. “And yer right. That boy sure can pack it away. That’s why I already decided to head into town tomorrow and lay in some supplies.”

Scott placed his hand on Val’s shoulder. “I thought as much. Look, why don’t you get some sleep while I go sit with Johnny?”

“Don’t think sleep will be coming. Why don’t we both go inside?” Val asked as he turned to lead the way.

Rosa sat in the soft glow of a lantern, gently bathing Johnny’s face. Scott came to her side and sat down. “How is he?”

“He is still with fever. But it is not as bad.”

“That’s a relief.” Scott sat back, rubbing his eyes.

“Your brother, he is a brave man.”

“That he is.”

“And he has such blue eyes. I heard that Madrid was like my Juan.”

“You mean of mixed race,” Scott replied.

“Please forgive me. I speak when I should not.”

Scott gently clasped her hand. “There is nothing to forgive. You’re only speaking the truth. Yes, Johnny is of mixed heritage. We share the same father, but different mothers.”

“But brothers, both by blood, and by heart.”

A fleeting smile crossed Scott’s face. “Yes.”

“Mr. Montague did not like my son.”

“His eyes,” Scott said softly. Taking the cloth from Rosa’s hand, he wrung it out in cool water before handing it back.

“Si, his eyes.”

“Well, he won’t be bothered by them no more,” Val replied.

“No, someone made him answer to his ill deeds. Johnny did that earlier. It did not come as a surprise that Montague carried out his vengeance in hiding. The man was a coward. He beats a young boy in sight of everyone, but when faced by a man, he hides and strikes. Like a snake, you do not see him. The man was rubbish.”

“Well, someone done took out the garbage,” Val said.

“So, how come no one else helped you?” Scott asked.

Johnny moaned, and Rosa gently brushed the hair back from his head. “Hush, it will be all right.” Her soft voice had a calming effect and Johnny quieted. Rosa then turned to answer Scott. “They were afraid. Johnny was the first to ever stand up to him. My Juan, he run when he sees Montague. But he got into a little trouble the other day. I am ashamed of his actions.”

“He’s just a boy,” Scott replied.

“A hungry boy. Work has been little of late. Not enough to fill his belly like a young boy should.” Rosa hung her head in shame.

Scott reached out, gently lifting her chin. “But a boy, nevertheless. You know, I got into my share of trouble when I was young. Hungry or not, a boy sometimes gets a bit mischievous.”

“Mis . . . what is that you say?”

Scott chuckled. “A bit troublesome. Good, but sometimes gets into a little trouble. It just happens.”

“Si, this is my Juan. He tries to be a good boy, but was too tempted by the sweet apple, si?”

Scott tossed his head back in light laughter. “It’s sometimes hard to pass up. But it certainly did not deserve a beating.” He sat straight, the laughter fading. “I would say that the course of action is to have the boy apologize and do a bit of work as payback for the wrongdoing. But in this case, that is not warranted, even if Montague was still alive. I guess you can say that the punishment did not fit the crime.”

“But I will still have a talk with my boy. Maybe the next time he wants a sweet, he will sweep or do a light chore.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Scott chuckled. “But I doubt Montague would have given him that chance,” he said, in full agreement with Rosa.

He was amazed at how easy it was to talk with the woman. Rosa possessed a quiet strength, a strong sense of pride lost on the women he knew back in Boston.

Johnny muttered, his voice too low and jumbled to understand. Rosa ran the cloth over his lips. “He has fevered dreams. Perhaps tonight, the fever will break.”

“Perhaps,” Val said, his worry plain.

Scott stood and nudged Val, leading him from the room. They stood outside the house, leaning against the hard adobe. “I’m not surprised to learn that it was Montague, but have been thinking. What worries me, is who slit his throat?”

“Take yer pick,” Val shrugged. “A lot of folk in this town care about Johnny.”

Mexico, right?”

“Mexico.”

“Maybe one day he’ll tell me what happened there.”

“He ain’t one fer talking.”

“Val, what worries me is Johnny saying he was being followed.”

“Ya think the fella that slit Montague’s throat has been following Johnny?”

Scott leaned against the side of the house. “I don’t know what to think anymore. I’m beginning to wonder if we shouldn’t just turn back and forget this whole damned thing. I came too close to losing my brother the other day.”

Scott walked back inside the house, leaving Val alone with his thoughts. Head hanging low, he kicked at the dry dust. “I tend ta agree.”

*****

He came into the room, his face etched with worry. “I got a message.”

The quiet tone of the man’s voice set his nerves on edge. Placing a cup of coffee down on the table, he sat back. “What happened?”

“Well, there’s no easy way to say this, than to just come outright. Johnny has been hurt.”

He stiffened. “Is he all right?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, I should have stressed that point.”

“What happened?”

“Well, it seems Johnny got into a brawl with a fella that was beating a young boy in the street.”

“Go on.”

“Anyway, he took the boy under his wing.”

“I wouldn’t expect less of him.”

“Yes, it seems the three brought the boy into the cantina for a bite to eat. Johnny washed up and came a few minutes later. Something upset him and he ran from the establishment. But before he got out the door, he was ambushed.”

“Shot down like a damned dog?” Anger rose and he pounded the table.

“Yes.”

“How bad?”

“The bullet grazed his forehead.”

“Grazed. But it was meant to be something else. What happened to the bastard that shot him?”

“Dead.”

“Who?”

“We don’t know.”

“How?”

“Someone slit his throat.”

“Good.”

*****

Val and Scott returned from town loaded with supplies. At first, Rosa was tempted to refuse, but they were proud men, it would not do for her to provide their needs. Although any arguments they made stating that ‘we have big appetites, ma’am’, fell by the wayside, Rosa could only relent. Food was too precious to waste.

“Besides, we’re feeding Juan and Johnny. This might not be enough,” Val snickered, carrying in another armful of bounty.

Bags of flour, beans, rice, sugar, coffee, cornmeal, and a tub of lard were carried inside. And if that wasn’t enough, tears of joy sprang from Rosa’s eyes when Scott handed over a two jars of sweet preserves, side of salt pork, slab of bacon and sack of dried beef. The food was more than enough for their stay, and would keep Rosa and Juan going for at least three months.

Johnny approved the purchases. He had been worried about the small family, memories of his own childhood emerging. Rosa reminded him of his mother in so many ways, it almost hurt to watch the woman with Juan. Johnny saw himself in the small boy, and could see the love for her son, in Rosa’s dark eyes. The same love his own mother had held for him. Johnny felt as if he would choke on the memories, and fought the urge to escape.

Life had been good while Manny was alive. Even after his death, he and his mother always found a way to manage. They had one another. There were times when food was meager, but Maria always found a way to provide for her son. It was only after her death, when Johnny was alone in the world, did he suffer from true hunger. Not many people were willing to reach out to a mestizo and even though he wished to work for the food he so desperately needed, Johnny had to resort to other means, more than once.

He also went without more times than he wanted to remember. Seeing the want in Juan’s eyes, cut clear to his soul. The joy on the boy’s face now, brought new life and hope to the tired gunslinger. Especially when Val crooked a finger, beckoning Juan over.

“Never know when ya’ll get a hankering.”

Val handed over a bag of rock candy. Juan’s eyes grew wide with wonder and he popped a piece in his mouth. Mumbling a muted ‘gracias’, he scrambled over to his bed and hid the treasure under his pillow, a cherished hiding place. Val and Johnny shared a knowing look, and refused the candy offered before Juan replaced the brown sack.

Scott winked at Rosa. “That should cure any desire for a sweet.”

“Si, so he must now behave.” Rosa swatted Juan lightly on the backside and sent him out to play.

The next two days passed quietly. Johnny’s fever broke and after another day of rest, he was beginning to grow restless. Six days in bed was taking a toll on his sanity, and his muscles were screaming to get up and moving. The headache had subsided, and Johnny slung his feet over the edge of the bed. Peering carefully around the curtain, he heard the hushed voices of Rosa and Juan in the kitchen area, and the distant voices of Scott and Val outside.

He needed to get out of the stifling room. The thought of being outside in the open air was tantalizing, almost making him drool. Stubborn resolve won and he walked into the main room.  Rosa whirled about, a wooden spoon held high.

“You should be in bed.”

“I’m fine,” Johnny said. The smile slid off his face when Rosa advanced.

“Stubborn man.”

That did it. Seconds later, Scott and Val were on him. “Dang it Johnny, yer one stubborn cuss. What do ya think yer doing?” Val grumbled.

“Need some air.”

“You should be in bed,” Scott replied.

“Scott, I just spent the better part of a week in bed.” He flashed a wan smile at Rosa. “And as much as I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, I really need to get up and around.

Sensing the need for privacy, Rosa grasped Juan by the elbow. “Come, we must gather the wood for the fire. I must get dinner going.”

Johnny swayed on his feet, Scott’s quick reflexes the only thing keeping him from falling to the floor. “Thanks.”

Scott frowned. “Like I said, you should be in bed.”

“I need to be up.”

“For what, to fall flat on your face?”

“Don’t waste yer breath, he ain’t gonna listen anyway. Stubborn cuss, never did,” Val grumbled. “Come on, take a seat before ya keel over. Mind telling us what’s up yer craw?”

Johnny accepted the cup of coffee from Scott and hung his head. Was damned stupid of me. I know better than to let my guard down.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Scott argued.

Johnny’s head snapped up, blue eyes blazing with anger. “It is my damned fault. I’ve dealt with men like Montague my whole life. I know how they operate. They don’t fight you outright. I should have known the bastard would slink off and try something.

“That’s why I never let my guard down. Never let my feelings cloud my mind. Never let myself feel. I make myself aware. I shut everything else out, and feel. And here I am preaching to you about the way of things, and I run out headlong and face a dark alley without a thought.

“That gets a man killed. Almost got me killed. And there’s no reason for it. I should know to never let anger guide my actions. I ignored my instincts.” Johnny slammed the mug down. His hands trembled, and skin grew clammy. Scott reached out, but was pushed aside. “I need to be alone.”

Rising on unsteady legs, Johnny refused help and walked from the house. He stood to the side of the door, staring out into the impending dark. If he was able, he would climb on the back of his horse and ride off. Then he was ashamed of such a thought, for Rosa had taken him into her home.

Not only that, the woman gave up her bed, despite his arguments, and slept on the smaller cot used by her son. Juan slept on the floor between Scott and Val, curled up on Johnny’s bedroll. The boy was on an adventure and having the time of his life. Johnny felt as if he was suffocating.

Rosa deserved better, but Johnny found it hard to talk with the woman. She brought back memories he shoved into the darkest recesses of his mind. Every time he saw Rosa with her son, his heart caught. Watching them down by the creek, laughing as they splashed in the shallows, he swallowed against the lump in his throat.

Visions of his mother, her skirt gathered above slim ankles, a tinkling laugh that brought such joy as they ran and played in a small watering hole behind their home, came to mind. They waded and splashed. Maria would scoop him into her arms and pretend to dunk him in the cool water. Johnny cried out in glee, sometimes laughing so hard his stomach ached. His mother then held him tight, his head nestled in the crook between her neck and shoulder. She kissed him on the top of the head and walked back to the house singing softly.

Johnny’s arms wrapped even tighter, never wanting to let go. Never wanting her to leave. But she did leave. The laughter stopped and his mother went away. Johnny was cold and alone, with no one to watch out for him. No one to offer comfort. No one to care. He wished he had died with his mother, but kept on breathing.

Light laughter echoed across the vast expanse of desert as Rosa raced Juan up from the creek bed. Stopping by Johnny, the smile slid off her face. He tried to recover, but it was hard to hide the pain in his eyes. The reason went without question, yet Rosa felt the need to talk.

“Juan, please carry the wood inside. I will be in to start dinner soon.”

“Si, Mama.” Juan smiled, grabbed the small bundle of kindling, and scurried up to the house.

“Good kid,” Johnny said softly.

“Si, but this is not easy for you. Am I right?” Just like his mother, Rosa spoke her mind.

“I’m all right,” Johnny mumbled.

“So is my son, but his eyes sometimes bring him trouble.”

“Other than Montague, does anyone else treat him with such hatred?” Johnny asked, a familiar ache rising.

“No, this is a good town. People are good to Juan, but it is a poor town. There is not much work to be found. Still, Juan and I manage. I sometimes find work at some of the larger haciendas. I do laundry and sometimes clean. Only there are a lot of people looking to do the same, so some days I do not go. I let others have the chance. We all have families, and there is not enough work for everyone.”

“I know what that’s like,” Johnny said, all he was willing to reveal.

“Si, I know. I do not mean to be rude, but I hear stories. I know about you, Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny chuckled. “Yeah, guess a lot of folk do.”

They fell silent. Each knew the other’s pain, but did not speak of it. Both were proud, and it would not do to question. Johnny ached to ask Rosa about Juan’s father, but that would not be proper. It would be the same as her asking him about his father, a topic he chose to ignore. Some things were better left unspoken. They understood one another, that was all that mattered.

“You come up to the house, si?”

“Si.”

“You must rest. I will make a dinner of cornbread with rice and beans.”

A small smile flit across Johnny’s face. “One of my favorites.”

Rosa laid a hand gently on his shoulder and stood to walk back up to the house. “Come.”

Johnny knew not to argue. As if called, Val appeared. “Ya okay?”

“Am fine.”

“Course ya are.” Val squeezed his shoulder, but was not fooled. He and Johnny had spoken at length, Val being the only person Johnny truly opened up to. He told Val thoughts and events he never even revealed to Rhonda. Val knew the nitty gritty of his life, and still stuck around. “Come on then, let’s get ya fed.”

After two more days of arguments and rest, the trio finally left. They hated leaving Rosa and Juan behind, but there was nothing else they could do. This was her home. Rosa would never consider leaving the only life she knew, behind. Yet Johnny could not help but worry, praying Juan would never know the kind of life he had been forced to live.

Before leaving, Johnny snuck into the kitchen area, all the while watching over his shoulder. Rosa and Juan were outside helping Val and Scott load the last of the supplies. Taking down the tin Rosa kept money in, Johnny slipped a roll of bills inside. The offer would be refused if given outright, but once they were gone, Rosa would have no other choice but to accept.

The money would be put to good use, that he knew. Johnny wished to do more, but at this time and point in his life, that was not possible. His own life was a jumbled mess, how could he think of someone else? Taking one last look around, he would never forget the kindness shown while he recovered. Perhaps one day they would meet again. One never could tell what life would bring.

“Vaya con dios, Rosa. Gracias,” Johnny muttered as he replaced the tin and walked from the small home.

They rode for four days straight. In his own stubborn, sometimes misguided nature, Johnny forged ahead, refusing to stop. He was damned and determined to reach California and put an end to the entire puzzling mess that had invaded his life. With luck, they would be in Morro Corro within two days’ time.

By the time they reached Westfield, Arizona, Johnny was about done in. His head ached and he was dragging. Val stabled the horses at the livery and Scott procured three rooms. Johnny fell straight off to sleep, too drained to even enjoy a steak dinner and share a pitcher of beer at the saloon.

He slept through the night, not waking until late the following afternoon. Upon rising, he made a trip outside and came back in to wash and dress. Walking down the staircase, he stopped near the top and surveyed the room. A slow grin spread across his face when a fracas broke out. A tall, slender man flew across the room and slammed against the staircase.

“All right, Boston,” Johnny muttered. He leaned on the bannister to watch the melee.

Scott recovered quickly and barreled into the stout, bearded man standing with fists poised. They grappled and fell onto a table, the legs shattering beneath them. Scott took a shot to the ribs and felled the bearded attacker with a blow to the jaw. They rolled past Val. The gruff man stood, rescued his beer and spotting Johnny, jogged over to the staircase.

“Can see Boston found a bit of excitement.”

“Yeah, old grizzly there took offense ta being watched,” Val chuckled.

“Watched?”

“Come on, let’s get a table in the back, out of harm’s way and watch that dandy in action.”

Johnny followed Val as he wove his way through the tangle of tables. Scott landed three quick punches to the older man’s jaw, took a shot to the side of the head, staggered, then felled the man with a solid punch to the eye. Panting, Scott rested his hands on his knees. Swiping an arm across his brow, he stepped over his opponent and joined Johnny and Val at the table.

“What got up your craw, brother?” Johnny asked.

Scott frowned and swiped Johnny’s beer.

“Hey!”

“It was your fault.”

“What do you mean my fault? I wasn’t even here. Was upstairs sleeping, minding my own business. How can it be my fault?”

Scott drained half the mug, leaned on the table and locked eyes with his brother. “Remember how you said to always be aware?”

“Yeah.”

“To always study those around you?”

Johnny was growing nervous. “Yeah.”

“Well I did.”

“I take it he didn’t like being watched,” Johnny chuckled.

“I don’t see this as funny.”

“Ah hell, Boston. You’re always up for a good fight. Don’t get yourself in a pucker.”

Scott brightened. “You’re right. This was a good one. But it’s still your fault.”

Val chose this moment to step in. “What Scott is trying to say, is we were sitting here scoping out the place. He was looking for the Pink.”

“Like you’re always talking about,” Scott replied, lifting the half empty mug in a mock toast.

“So?” Johnny shrugged.

Val laughed lightly. “Well, ya see, he was watching everyone about, trying to figger which one was the Pink.”

Realization set in. “Oh, I see. And I take it this fella didn’t like it?”

“No, he didn’t,” Scott snapped. “And next time, you can look for the Pink yourself.”

Johnny leaned forward. “Boston, the trick about watching, is not to get caught at it.”

“You think your so damned smart?” Scott countered.

“Well, you see, it’s like this. While you were busy sticking your neck out and getting snagged, I put the finger on our Pink.”

Scott’s eyes almost fell out of his head. “What the hell do you mean?”

Johnny nodded toward a corner table to the left. “See that quiet, unassuming man with glasses and vest?”

“He looks like a railroad agent or a businessman. Not someone who has the fortitude to be a detective,” Scott argued. “Man looks afraid of his own shadow.”

“Ah ha, but it’s the nervous way he’s acting and his eyes darting around that give him away. I bet you, he’s our Pink.”

“What do you wanna bet?”

“Dinner in the next town.”

Scott stuck his hand out. “You’re on. Now how are we going to approach this?”

Johnny sat back with his beer. “Later. First, I’m gonna get something to eat and another pitcher of beer. Gonna get in a poker game.”

“Card game? How the hell can you think of cards at a time like this?” Scott exclaimed.

“Time like what? So the man’s a Pink. Don’t mean nothing to me. Can’t do anything to me. Seems to me, I’m due some relax time, and that means getting into a good game.”

Scott sat back appalled. He could not believe his brother. Still, he knew Johnny to be right. The night passed quickly, in spite of his nervous anticipation. He followed Johnny’s lead, ready for whatever came along. The saloon closed down and Johnny pleaded a trip out back, returning a short time later. Scott had the feeling he had just been bamboozled and his brother was up to something.

They retired to their rooms and Johnny knocked on their doors shortly before dawn. “Come on.”

“Doesn’t he ever sleep?” Scott grumbled, but readied himself, nevertheless.

Val never bothered to get undressed, and was ready in a minute’s time. They followed Johnny across the street, to the general store. Val’s shoulders drooped and he hung his head. Scott stood staring in disbelief. A wide grin plastered across his face, Johnny approached the meek, mild mannered man he had detained, and pulled him to his feet.

“Johnny, what the hell ya gonna do now?” Val groaned.

“Nothing, just introducing you to Miles Jordan, Pinkerton Detective. Oh, and I took your advice and tried talking to him, but he got nuthin to say.”

“What are ya planning on doing with him?” Val asked.

“I thought we could truss him up, but we already done that,” Johnny replied, turning to face Jordan. “We sort of had fun with one of your other boys.”

“I heard.”

“He heard,” Johnny turned to Scott.

“Yes, so he says,” Scott replied, deep in thought. “Say Johnny?”

“Yeah?”

Val did not have a good feeling and hung back upon seeing the mischievous glint in Scott’s eyes.

“I think I know how to handle this one,” he said, chin resting in hand. “Yes, it would do quite well.”

“Pray tell, brother.”

“What do you call those cardboard toys they hang, the ones with all the frills and filled with candy?”

“A pinata.” Understanding set in and Johnny’s eyes grew wide with admiration. “Boston, you’re one devious son of a bitch. Come on.”

“You get the rope, I have something else to take care of.”

Scott rummaged in the waste barrel behind the store. Victorious, he emerged, waving a square piece of cardboard torn from a box, and length of twine. Johnny retrieved a rope and fashioning a harness, proceeded to truss Jordan. The man fought, but Johnny gagged him.

“Gotta hurry, it’s gonna be light in a few minutes and there’ll be people about. Too bad we can’t hang around and see the outcome, but I bet it won’t be pretty. Kids go to school pretty early around here.”

Johnny snickered and the agent’s face reddened with rage. Scott affixed the sign and Johnny hoisted the pasty faced man. Hanging over the front stoop, his feet inches off the ground, Jordan swung helplessly, a sign stating ‘Free candy, whack me’, pinned to his back. Laughing, the trio rode off into the darkness.

“You owe me a dinner Boston, and the next stop is California.”

“You’re on, brother.”

*****

“You’re not going to believe this, he said, bursting into the room.

“What now?” He set to worry, but seeing the laughter bubbling just under the surface, settled immediately.

“First of all, Johnny is fine. They’ve been traveling for a bit and showed up in Westfield.”

“Good, but I have the feeling there’s something else.”

“Well, it seems our man was found out.”

“Aren’t they always?” he snorted.

“They sure aren’t as astute as we thought. Or careful. Oh, and he’s charging double.”

“What the hell for?” he exploded. “He gets caught and wants double?”

He lost all control and collapsed onto a chair. “Oh, you’re not gonna believe this one. It seems that Scott and Johnny had a bit of fun last night.”

He rubbed at his eyes, fighting all the while not to cave to the side of laughter. “What did they do?”

“It seems they fashioned a harness around Mr. Jordan, gagged him, and hung him a few feet of the ground with a sign, ‘Free candy. Whack me’, on his back.”

“Oh shit,” he burst out, almost falling from the chair. He wheezed, tried to talk, but failed. “What . . . what the hell happened to the poor, unfortunate soul?

“Well, when the owner of the general store came downstairs to open the doors, he heard a bunch of school children laughing and running about. He looked outside and couldn’t believe his eyes. There was this man hanging, and the kids were all whacking him across the ass with sticks, screaming for candy.”

“A damned pinata!” Laughter so deep rumbled from his chest, and all sense of control was lost. “Was there any lasting damage?”

“Other than to his ego, no. But he will be sporting a few bruises and find it hard to sit down for a while.

“I can just imagine whose handiwork this one was.”

“Well, it was Scott’s idea. Johnny did the hoisting and Scott hung the sign.”

“Those devious little . . .”

“Yes.”

*****

The closer they got to California, the more Johnny closed up. After three long days in the saddle, Val gave up and hung back, giving him space. Scott glanced over, but Val shrugged. Their feelings went without saying. Scott’s own stomach was tied up in knots. He could not imagine how his brother felt. Whether they were about to come face to face with their past, remained to be seen.

Being in close proximity to their father’s ranch was enough to drive both Johnny and Scott to their knees. Thinking of Lancer, Scott’s anger raged, yet his curiosity grew. Once he found out what this was all about, he might pay his father a visit. Take a gander at a man who cast his own sons aside. He wondered what a heartless soul looked like, then shoved the thought aside.

After all, there were two sides to every story, something Scott learned in debate class. Never make a conclusion by drawing facts from only one side. Give the other side equal opportunity to air their views, speak their mind, state their case. Then weigh the facts and make your decision. His grandfather spent a lifetime lying to him. Did the man also lie about his father? His grandfather was very good at getting his own way. There had to be more to the story, and Scott was determined to get to the truth.

He could not help but wonder if Johnny had been told the entire truth in regard to his own situation. But his brother refused to speak of the past, and the subject of his mother was taboo. Maybe when things settled and they got to know one another better, Johnny would open up. Like his situation, there were two sides to every story. Was Murdoch Lancer really cruel enough to throw his wife and infant son to the streets?

Men have been known to commit such an atrocity, and worse. Is that what happened to Johnny? If so, then what were they doing riding on the outskirts of Morro Coyo? Both Johnny and Scott had the sinking feeling that this had more to do with their father, than anything else. What the old man wanted, was puzzling.

Maybe he was ready to set the past straight. Right his wrongs. Reunite with long lost, cast away sons. Maybe he was growing nostalgic in his old age, or maybe he just wanted his family back. Plain and simple. But why the money? Scott had been kicking that around also, and came to one conclusion. It had to be a bribe. What better way to get what you wanted? Scott’s blood ran cold. Just what the hell did this mysterious benefactor want?

Then Scott worried about the impact the outcome of this journey would have on his brother. Val rode close, never said a word, but the worry on his face was plain. Scott was close to a home he never knew. Johnny was close to the first real home he ever had. That could not be easy.

His brother was consumed with hatred, raised to believe that their father threw him out. Scott had no idea how that felt. How Johnny would react. And he feared his brother saying the hell with everything and riding away. Then wondered why he didn’t.

Johnny reined in next to a sign. “Almost there, fellas. Time to dance.”

Scott stared. ‘Morro Coyo. Ten miles.’ “To infamy,” he muttered. “Or destruction.”

Val shuddered, rode past, and continued on. Johnny pulled his hat down low, kept his head straight and stare intent. All the while, fighting the urge to spur his animal north and ride hell bent for freedom. His stomach heaved and Johnny again reined his horse in. Val halted his mount and Scott sat quietly beside him. Head hung low, Johnny trembled, swallowing the rising bile. He was losing control. He hated this. He hated his father and everything Lancer stood for. And he felt like he was being drawn back against his will.

He had been watched for weeks. First it was the Pinks, and then the mysterious presence he caught fleeting shadows of, but never caught sight of, that had been dogging him relentlessly. His life no longer felt like his own. He detested being controlled, his sense of power taken away. And all for money. Sitting on the side of the dusty road, Johnny wondered if this was worth it.

Did he really want to find out what this was all about? Did he really want to confront his father, if indeed, it was the old man calling him out? Like Scott, Johnny felt more and more that the scenario was likely, but could not fathom any other reason. There was no unrest in the area. No range wars booming or high riders invading the territory. Everything was quiet and serene. So what the hell was he doing here? Val and Scott waited patiently.

This was all becoming too much. He was too damned close to Lancer and detested the emotions that thought brought out.  “Come on, let’s get this over with.” Johnny spurred his mount on, and headed toward town.

The streets were quiet when they arrived. The general store was closing up for the night, shopkeepers carried merchandise inside and the bank president was locking the doors. The supper hour was underway and hungry families were sitting around the table. Ranch hands gathered in the chow hall, with a few stragglers heading to the saloon. Normal and quiet for the middle of the week.

Johnny sat stiff in the saddle. His jaw clenched and eyes darkened. He scoured the town, studying rooftops and gazing down alleys. All without moving his head. They were waiting. That he knew. He had no idea of whom he was thinking of, but they were there. Ready and waiting. Expecting such a moment. Johnny pulled up to a hitching post just outside the saloon and dismounted.

Spotting the gun slung low, people scrambled out of the way. Scott was in the presence of a hardened Johnny Madrid, and his stomach lurched. Again, he wondered why anyone would want to face his brother, let alone cross him. People gave Johnny wide berth when he strode down the walkway, heading toward the batwing doors.

The room fell quiet. Johnny walked toward the bar, slow, rhythmic steps, spurs jingling. The patrons at the bar scattered, scrambling to a table by the door, ready to make an escape if need be. Val tapped Scott on the shoulder and they hung back.

The bartender watched his every move. Wiping a glass dry, he nodded at Madrid. “Help you?”

“I was sent to see a man about a job.” Johnny leaned one arm on the bar and turned to the side, his back to the wall and eyes scanning the room.

Immediate recognition set in, and the bartender set the glass down. “One moment.” He stepped from behind the bar and disappeared into the back. Seconds later, he returned with an envelope. “Everything you need is inside.”

“Tequila. Three glasses and leave the bottle.”

Johnny snatched the envelope from the nervous man’s fingers, smirking at the beads of sweat sliding down the bartender’s face. He turned and walked toward a table in the back. Val kicked out a chair and he sat down. All eyes were on him and he glared at no one in particular, yet watched every move made.

Throats were cleared and drinks poured. Patrons tried their best to act normal, but talk was stinted and liquor flowed. Trembling hands lifted shotglasses to their mouths, and they found it hard to swallow. All wondered what such a hardened gunfighter like Madrid was doing in their midst. Johnny dared them to make a move. Just one move. That was all he needed. The bartender arrived with the drinks and Johnny snagged the bottle. The man took the hint and scurried off, taking refuge behind the bar. Johnny poured three shots and passed the glasses around. “To a successful job.”

“To success,” Val replied, lifting his glass in toast.

“Whatever that might be,” Scott replied. “Or whomever.”

Johnny slammed the empty glass down and picked up the envelope. Val poured another shot and Scott stared.

“Gentlemen, it all comes down to this,” Johnny said, tapping the envelope on the table. “We either open this and find out what the hell this is all about, or we ride away. Forget any of this ever happened. Money or no money, I don’t give a damn. I just want to be left alone.”

“Yer call,” Val replied.

“I might be dying of curiosity, after all, it was one hell of a trip and I’d hate to spend the rest of my life wondering, but it’s your call,” Scott said.

Johnny locked eyes with his brother. “It’s our call. You’re in this, too. And you, Val. If either of you wants to walk away, I’m with ya.”

Val nodded his approval and Scott downed another shot, grimacing as the fiery liquid burned a path down his throat. “Think I would have learned my lesson with this rotgut. But this is a special occasion, so I say what the hell. Let’s open the damned thing. We can still walk away.”

“The man’s right,” Johnny elbowed Val.

“Seems ta be.”

Johnny ran his finger along the inside of the envelope. Pulling out a sheet of paper, he stared, then passed it around. Scott read it and nodded, and Val mimicked his actions. Johnny folded the paper and returned it to the envelope, poured another round of drinks, downed his in one shot, and stood. Val and Scott followed suit.

Gentlemen?”

Johnny in the lead, they walked out the door.

*****

“If ya don’t mind, I think I’ll just stay out here and check on the horses,” Val said.

Johnny grabbed him by the arm. “Not this time, amigo. We’re in this together.”

“The note says fer ya and Scott, here.”

“You don’t go, I don’t go. The horses are fine. They’re watered and will be fine for a little while.”

“Yer a stubborn cuss.”

Johnny shoved Val forward and the three came to a stop. Scott stared up. “Randall T. Richardson, Attorney at Law. Gentlemen?” He swept his arm to the side and they stomped up the steps and through the door.

If they thought the man to be startled by their abrupt intrusion, they were sorely mistaken. The middle aged man with wire rimmed glasses and thinning gray hair sat at his desk. Shuffling papers into a tidy pile, he set them aside.

“Gentlemen, I have been expecting you.”

“So it seems,” Scott replied.

“Please be seated. I’m Randall Richardson,” he said, extending his hand.

“I can read.” Johnny kicked the chair aside and leaned against the wall.

Val stood to his right and only Scott took the proffered seat. “Mr. Richardson, I’m Scott Lancer.”

“My pleasure.”

“It’s no one’s pleasure. What the hell do you want?” Curt and to the point, Johnny shoved away from the wall.

“I presume you’re Mr. Madrid. My pleasure.”

“You might want to rethink that.” Johnny’s glare was intent and fingers drummed against his colt.

Flustered, Richardson swallowed and quickly regained his composure, turning his attention to Scott. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance. I presume it has been quite a journey.”

“You presume a lot,” Johnny said, his voice low and menacing.

“It had its moments,” Scott replied, flashing a quick look of reproach, to Johnny. He leaned forward, one arm perched on the desk. “Just what is this about, Mr. Richardson?”

“I am not at liberty to say at the moment.”

“Of course not,” Johnny sneered. “It’s all one big damned mystery. Well, I don’t have time to play games.” He pushed past Val and strode to the door, Richardson’s words stopping him short.

“Are you man enough to hold onto what is rightfully yours? To claim your birthright?”

Johnny swung around, fire blazing from his eyes. “I don’t have a birthright.”

“I beg to differ,” Richardson replied.

“Beg all you want. Don’t change things. Old bastard threw me out once, why the hell would I care now? Sure as hell ain’t giving him another chance.”

Richardson fought to control his shock. “Now where did you come up with that?”

Johnny leaned on the desk, his lips curling in a slight snarl. “Don’t go playing with me. You won’t like the end results. I came here for one reason, and one reason only.”

“The money.” Richardson sat back, hoping the trembling of his body did not show. Facing Madrid was more trying than first thought. He had underestimated the stark power of the feared gunhawk.

“Sure wasn’t for the love or loyalty to Murdoch Lancer.” Johnny shoved away from the desk and leaning against the wall, stood with his arms crossed. Hat pulled down low, his stare cut through the shaken lawyer.

Val grabbed for his arm, but Johnny pulled away. “Yer show,” Val shrugged.

“Sorry amigo,” Johnny whispered.

“No problem,” Val replied.

He faded back against the wall, arms folded across his chest. He was the only one in the room that knew how truly vulnerable Johnny was. He was barely holding on himself. If anyone was messing with his boy, if Johnny came to harm, Val would stop at nothing to wreak his vengeance.

Scott interceded. “Mr. Richardson, you can surely understand our position.”

“And that is the reason for me calling you both here. I was asked to handle your father’s affairs . . .”

“So the son of a bitch is dead.” Johnny’s voice was flat and low, any hint of sorrow, absent. “And we’re here for what, to pick his bones clean?” Walking around the side of the desk, he stood poised over Richardson. “Well tell you what, I don’t want it. Don’t want or need anything from the old man, alive or dead. Don’t matter. Lancer didn’t do me any good when he was around. Don’t need it now.”

“Gentlemen, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. You were called to my office so that I may deliver a message.”

“Yeah, one hour of our time.”

“That comes if you accept.”

“Seems to me, we already proved that,” Johnny snorted. “What the hell do you call coming all this way?”

“Well, that was the first hurdle. And to answer your earlier question about why now, that’s easy. The time is right. Too much has been wasted. If you both would bear with me one more day, you will have your answers. And your money. Meet me at Lancer tomorrow at noon. That is, if you both are man enough to face the future,” Richardson replied.

Scott stood slowly and Johnny advanced, toying with the butt of his gun, a nervous reflex Scott had grown accustomed to witnessing. He grabbed his brother by the arm and gently pulled him back. “We’ll be there, Mr. Richardson. And you better have some answers, or my brother isn’t the only one you have to worry about.”

Scott guided Johnny from the room, and Val followed. Standing outside, Johnny stretched, squinting against the bright sunlight. Val leaned against the side of the building, glaring from under his hat. He pushed off and sauntered over, unable to read Johnny’s reaction.

Usually attune to his friend’s moods, this time, Val could not place a finger on Johnny’s emotions, which seemed to be all over the place. Madrid was always in control. Johnny lowered his head, took a deep breath and slowly lifted his chin. Madrid was back and Val took an involuntary step backward. Not for the first time, he thought how he would not want to face such a deadly, venomous predator.

“Gonna get a drink.”

Johnny stalked across the street and Val groaned. “This ain’t gonna be good.”

“Scott clapped him on the back. “Come on, I’ll buy you a beer.”

*****

The door creaked open and he walked into the room. “Well, how did it go?”

Richardson sat back, rubbing his temples. His glasses lay on the desk and he took a deep breath. “Scott was a bit more receptive, although he harbors a lot of anger toward his father. He doesn’t know that Murdoch tried repeatedly over the years to contact him, and it wasn’t the time to bring that up.”

“I see. And Johnny?”

Richardson rose and walked to the sideboard. Pouring two drinks, drink, he handed one over. “Oh Sam, I just don’t know. That boy lived hard, we both know that, but he hates his father. Purely hates the man.”

Sam accepted the drink, the welcoming burn running down his throat. “Hates him? What do you mean?”

“I mean he’s under the sad delusion that Murdoch threw he and his mother out on the streets.”

“Where the hell did he get that assumption?” Sam vaulted to his feet and paced the small room.

“Apparently, for reasons I cannot fathom, Maria Lancer chose to let her son believe that Murdoch had kicked them out.”

“Oh no,” Sam groaned. “What the hell do we do now? I wasn’t counting on this. I always wondered why Johnny didn’t come home sooner, then simply thought the boy didn’t know his true name. When I heard he was going by Madrid, that assumption drove home. It was the only thing that made sense. Never in my wildest dreams did I think he believed Murdoch didn’t want him. What now? Do we cut him loose?”

“Hell no.” Richardson’s fist crashed down on the desk, a reaction totally foreign to the man.

“What’s the use?”

“The use is, Murdoch has always been a damned good friend of mine. Ever since the accident, it became clearer what needed to be done. He wants those boys home, and if this is the only way, then we will follow through. This is a test of their fortitude.”

“Don’t you mean their loyalty to Lancer?” Sam asked. “That’s what this started out as, but Johnny isn’t a man to fool with. Not only is he a well-known gunhawk, he hates his father and Lancer with a passion. I ask you, what is there to test?”

Richardson rose and walked around the desk. “Sam, I never took you as a quitter before. We’ve only just begun. Lies can be abolished. The truth can prevail. In this case, it must prove to be a daunting task, but I made Murdoch a promise and intend to keep it to the best of my ability. Should this turn out bad and Johnny leaves, we will be appeased that we have done our part. Should he stay, that remains to be seen.”

Sam shook his head and walked toward the door. Stopping, he turned to glance back over his shoulder. “Count me in. I came too far to give up now. You’re not the only one who made Murdoch a promise.”

The door closed softly behind him and Richardson finally let out the pent up breath he had been holding. Shaking from the encounter with Madrid, he poured a double.

*****

Johnny rode out well after dark, guided by the silvery light of the moon. He knew the way well. He thought to get drunk earlier, but after three shots of tequila, pushed the bottle aside and enjoyed a dinner of steak, potatoes, biscuits, and gravy. Then retired to his room, not a word said to Scott or Val. Truth was, Johnny did not know how to feel. Had no place to put years of anger, hurt, and hatred. The old man was dead. What was he going to do with all those feelings? He didn’t even have the pleasure of wishing the man farewell on his journey to hell.

Now Johnny was trapped in his own private hell. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled when he rode out of town, but he never bothered to turn back. If he was to catch another bullet, then so be it. He would slide on down into hell and confront Murdoch Lancer on his own turf. The feeling was fleeting, fading the further Johnny rode. Tomorrow he would go to Lancer, collect the money and ride out. But before he left, he would flush his stalker out and put a bullet between his eyes. Everything would be over. They would all finally leave him alone and he would ride north to a new life.

Whether he wanted Val or Scott to come along, remained to be seen. Johnny was too tired to deal with anyone right now and as much as the two meant to him, he needed to be alone. Johnny shuddered. He had been along for too long. He could not leave Scott or Val behind. Neither deserved to be treated as such. Val was his best friend in this entire world, and the closest thing to a father he ever had. And Scott was his brother. That meant something to Johnny, and all the fancy bred easterner had shown was true acceptance, respect, and loyalty. Trust did not come easy for Madrid. Plus Scott was in the same prickly situation as he. His brother was hurting, too.

Raised by another man, without any contact from his father, bit deep. Scott had been lied to by the one man he learned to trust most in his life, and let down by the one person who should have been there unconditionally, but was conspicuously absent. He carried as much anger as Johnny, but remained more level headed than his fiery tempered brother. Still, there had to be an outlet for his feelings, and Johnny wondered how well Scott would fare in the end, whatever that end might be.

Johnny rode out to Lancer. Reining his horse in, he stood at the top of the hill, looking over the lush, green valley below. A light was on inside the estancia, but Johnny did not find that strange. The old man might be gone, but there was still a ranch to run. Hired hands and families that depended on Lancer for their livelihood. With the old man gone, that responsibility would fall into the hands of the foreman, or Segundo, as Johnny thought, until such a time when any heirs could be contacted.

Chills ran down Johnny’s spine. He was no one’s heir. He was Johnny Madrid, and wanted nothing from anyone. Especially his father. Was this what the old man wanted? He and Scott to pick up the reins? Carry on with the ranch and take care of those workers whose futures were at risk? The thought made Johnny sick. He only had himself to take care of. There was no way he was ready, willing, or able to take on such a monumental responsibility. Even with Scott by his side. And he didn’t want the ranch. Didn’t want to stick around and sell, split the money with Scott, and take off. All he wanted was the money promised for his arrival, and to be left alone. He didn’t care what happened to the rest. As far as he was concerned, the Segundo and workers could have the damned place.

Whether or not Scott would choose to take over, Johnny had no idea, but had the feeling Scott felt much the same. As far as Johnny was concerned, Lancer could fall into ruin. Let the buzzards do the picking. He just wanted this entire mess over, buy why did he suddenly feel so empty? Why did he feel a pull, as if some strange, unseen presence was calling him home? This had never been his home. He might have found shelter there for the first two years of his life, but that was quickly ripped away. He wondered what took the old man so long. And he also wondered why the hell he didn’t just up and ride away, money or no money.

A slow smile spread across his face. Johnny spun around, gun drawn. “Following me can get you killed.”

Scott swallowed his fear, Johnny’s colt pressed against his nose. “Nice to see you, brother.”

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“I can say the same to you.” Scott finally took a breath. Johnny slid the gun back in his holster and Scott’s heart stopped pounding against his ribs. “This is it, huh?”

“Yeah, as far as the eye can see. I’ve been here a few times, scoped the place out. Did some exploring, know the lay of the land. Stretches right to them mountains over there.”

“But you never approached our father?”

“Nope. Why should I? Got more of a kick skulking around. Never wanted to lay eyes on the old man. Avoided everyone and everything. Made sure no one was around, didn’t want word to get back, you know?”

“I can see that,” Scott agreed. “Subterfuge can be sweet.”

“Sub . . . what?”

“Deception.”

“Oh. Why didn’t you just say so?” Johnny asked, and Scott shrugged. “Anyway, I stayed at some of the line shacks a few times when I needed to lay low, rest, or recover. Or when I just wanted to be left alone and find some peace for a while. The northern most line shack is the best for that. Sometimes would stay there for weeks at a time, and no one even knew. Always had it well stocked. Wonder what the old man thought each time he had to restock the place?”

Scott fought hard not to laugh, then lost the battle. Clutching his stomach, he doubled over. “Brother, you do me proud. You have to be the most audacious person I ever met.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “That better be good, Boston.”

Scott grasped his shoulder. “Oh, it’s good. I just wish I could have been there with you. We could have run amok all over the place. Screw with the old man’s head.”

“And you say I’m devious?” Johnny laughed, his eyes narrowing in mischievous glee. “Figured the old man owed me. Kicks me off, and I raid his line shacks. Serves the old bastard right.”

“Well, I think I may have something to dull our pain.” Scott reached into his saddlebag and snagged a bottle of bourbon whiskey.

Johnny’s eyes grew wide and a smile came full blown. “Well, now Boston, don’t let anyone ever say you come unprepared.”

“Oh, and I have something else,” Scott grinned, again reaching into his saddlebag. This time, he retrieved a small brown sack.

Johnny’s smile grew wider when Scott tossed the bag over and he peered inside. “Chocolate?”

“Looks like it to me,” Scott scoffed. “I bribed the owner of the general store to open. Amazing what you can accomplish when you knock on a back window and wave a wad of bills. The greed of a man will always win over.”

“Our old man must know that well.”

“My grandfather, too.”

Johnny sought to change the subject. “Boston, you sure know what’s good. Whiskey and chocolate, man’s most important staples. After his gun and horse, of course.”

“Of course.”

Johnny chuckled, broke off a piece of chocolate and handed it over. Taking a piece for himself, he popped it into his mouth, savoring the velvety sweetness washed down with a belt of smooth whiskery. “Don’t get any better than that.” He belched, pounded on his chest and handed the bottle over. “That does the trick.”

“Brother, you are exceedingly refined,” Scott laughed.

“I try.” They ate in silence, passing the bottle every so often. Johnny turned to Scott. “Hey, you ever wonder what it would have been like if we grew up here? Together?”

“Have almost every minute since we met. It’s hitting me harder, now that I’ve seen a bit of the place.”

“Yeah, know what you mean.” Johnny’s head drooped.

“We should have been here. We should have had the chance to grow up together, to really know one another.” Scott’s voice broke, and he looked away. “To share all the things brothers share. I was always envious of my friends and their brothers, back in Boston. Now that I’ve met you, I’m pissed.”

“Gee, I get that reaction a lot,” Johnny chuckled.

Scott elbowed his brother. “You know what I mean. I’m pissed that we were cheated out of all this. And I don’t mean the ranch and the money. I grew up with money, and let me tell you, I’d rather not have it and know my brother, than to have what I do, now.”

Johnny became too choked up to speak. “That much, huh?” he finally managed to whisper.

Scott placed his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “That much. And that’s what angers me. None of this had to happen. I know you don’t like to talk about your life, and I don’t know what happened to drive our father to act as he did, but I do know that it shouldn’t have been. And my grandfather should not have kept me from what should have been my life.”

“We were both cheated. Now the old man’s gone, so where does that leave us? What the hell do we do?”

“What do you want to do?”

“Don’t rightly know,” Johnny shrugged. “Have the feeling something else is up. If it was as cut and simple as a will, wouldn’t that lawyer fella have come out and said? I mean, I don’t have much experience with things like that, but I heard things. Thought that was the way of it. Didn’t think it was that much of a damned secret.”

Scott took another swig and replaced the cork. “Usually isn’t. It’s supposed to be cut and dry. A man dies, if he leaves a will, they usually get right to it. You’re right, brother. Seems to me there isn’t this much secrecy. If anything, I think I’ll stick around and see what this is all about. Like you said earlier, we can always walk away.”

“I plan to.”

“So I take it,” Scott sighed. “Tell you the truth, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Johnny raised the bottle in toast. “Here’s to us, brother.”

*****

True to their word, Johnny, Scott, and Val arrived at Lancer exactly at noon. Riding up to the house, Scott was in awe, and Johnny felt like he would spew what little breakfast he managed to choke down. Even with the old man gone, the place sickened him, a reminder of the life he was forced to lead. What he was cheated of, what had been taken from him.

Johnny hung his head, took a deep breath, reached deep inside and when he lifted his chin, eyes gone dark and icy, Madrid was in full control. Scott shuddered and Val sat straighter in the saddle. This was his boy. And nobody better be messing with him. The moment of truth, whatever that may be, had arrived.  They dismounted in front of a large pair of french doors, refusing to allow a hand to take their horses. Johnny wanted to be ready to ride away the moment business was concluded, so lashed the reins loosely over a hitching post.

“Gentlemen?” Scott said, sweeping his arm out to the side.

They did not bother going to the front door, instead, opted to knock on the glass window. The doors swung open and Richardson ushered them inside. Scott took lead, followed by Val. Johnny hung back. An odd sense of familiarity struck, and he fought to gain control.  One step, and he strode over the threshold of the birthplace he had been kicked out of. They stood in the great room, Scott poised and stiff, Johnny in the relaxed posture of a gunslinger ready to strike. Val walked over to the fireplace, scoffed at the large ‘L’ hung over top, and leaned against the mantle.

Richardson produced a bottle of Taliskers. “Drink?”

“No thank you,” Scott replied.

Val shook his head.

“You drink, don’t you?” Richardson said, turning toward Johnny.

“Only when I know the man I’m drinking with.”

“Well, I want a drink.” Richardson needed a drink. This was going to be a long day, and he hoped to at least bring out the truth before either Scott or Johnny ran off. His hands trembling, he had the glass to his lips when he heard Johnny.

“You got something to say old man, say it.”

Taken aback, his own anger and frustration barely under control, Richardson strode to the desk and slapped two thick envelopes on top. “One thousand dollars. Count it.”

Johnny crossed the room in four long strides and snagged the closest envelope. “I plan to.”

Richardson then faced Scott. “Come and get your money.”

“I’d rather have that drink,” Scott replied.

“Come on Scott, take the damned money. For the first time in our lives, let’s take something from the old man and blow in on something. Anything. Hell, this kind’a money will buy a lot of whores and whiskey.

Scott frowned and Richardson slammed the drawer shut. Johnny turned, a smirk developing. He had the man right where he wanted. Unsettled and pissed. Madrid’s best. Scott studied Johnny’s reaction, hoping that either he or Val could diffuse the potentially volatile situation.

Johnny shoved the money into his pocket and glared. “Thank you very much. Now if you’ll excuse me.”

“I thought you were a man of your word,” Richardson called out.

Johnny stopped dead and turned. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means, you were asked to give an hour of your time.”

“I take it our time spent in your office yesterday can count for something,” Johnny sneered. “Val?”

“Am ready when you are, amigo.”

Johnny nodded. “Scott?”

Undecided, Scott didn’t know how to answer, when Richardson stepped in. “Gentlemen, your father would like to see you.”

Val’s mouth dropped. Scott spun around and Johnny turned slowly. Lifting his head, Madrid squared off. “What the hell did you just say?”

“I said, your father would like to see you.”

“I thought you said he was dead,” Johnny replied flatly.

“Mister, what the hell kind’a game ya playing here?” Val shouted. “Yer jerking these here boys around like they mean nuthin.”

Richardson cleared his throat. “Gentlemen, that was not my intent.”

“Just what was your intent?” Scott asked.

“First of all, I never said that he was dead. I said I had his affairs to settle. And I did.”

“And that makes this right? A play on words? You call me all the way across the country, without stating your intention and upon our first meeting, you refuse to say a word, leading me to believe our father was dead. Mr. Richardson, you had better explain, because I’m just about out of patience.” Enraged, Scott advanced.

To everyone’s surprise, Johnny reached out and pulled him back. He chuckled, his fingers sliding from his gun. He drew great delight in seeing the stark relief spread across Richardson’s face. “Oh man, you are one slick son of a bitch. And they say I’m the master of deception? You sure as hell pulled this one off.”

Val snorted, then fell silent, a flush coming to his cheeks. “Pardon me,” he snickered, elbowing Johnny.

“I did not set out to deceive you, but it was necessary to withhold certain information,” Richardson explained.

Not as forgiving as Johnny, Scott failed to see the morbid humor in the situation, and glared. “Withholding information? That’s a nice way of saying you lied. Why did you have to go to such extremes? You could have just wired me and said my father needed help.”

Richardson toyed with the answer. “Yes, I suppose I could have, but since he never had the opportunity to be a father in the hands on sense, I doubt either of you would have come.”

“Got that right,” Johnny groused. He grew defensive, his temper flaring.

Scott ducked his head. “With all due respect sir, I would have liked to have had the chance.”

“Be that as it may, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. Too much has happened.”

“Now don’t you to touting the old man as the victim here,” Johnny snarled.

Val grabbed his arm, and he calmed slightly.

Richardson regained a sense of composure. “Gentlemen, if I may?” he asked, continuing when met with stony silence. “Scott, you were taken to Boston by your grandfather. You are under the delusion that your father never cared, that he never contacted you, but the truth is, he did.

“He wrote numerous times and made more than one trip to Boston. I documented each and every letter. And on each visit, each attempt to make contact, your father was threatened with your grandfather’s team of lawyers and never stood a chance. He just didn’t have the money or power he has now. The ranch had yet to turn a profit.”

Scott took a deep breath, and hung his head. “Is what you say, true?”

“Yes, it is,” Richardson replied,. “I will not lie. I will not endanger my career like that. I have spent too many years building up the respect of the law community, and refuse to place that trust in jeopardy. Your grandfather refused any contact and stonewalled your father many times.”

“He never stood a chance.” Scott turned away and walked to the window, not knowing how to react. All these years, he was led to believe that his father never cared, that the man blamed him for the death of his mother and abandoned him to his grandfather, when in fact, it was the opposite. His grandfather was the one who blamed Murdoch Lancer for the death of his daughter, and kept Scott from him. Scott felt his stomach lurch.

“If you will excuse me, I think I need a breath of air.”

He left through the glass doors and stood outside, gulping deep breaths of cleansing air. Johnny came to his side, placing a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, brother. This has to be hard. I mean, you were lied to. That cuts deep.”

“We both were lied to,” Scott replied. “You may not have known my grandfather, but he often used putrid means to get what he wanted. I just never thought he would use them against me. I never thought . . .”

“That he would betray you like this?”

“Yes. But he did. Here I spent my life thinking my father turned his back on me, and never had the chance to know you, so you see? You were lied to, also. Not in a direct manner, but those lies did affect your life.”

“Yeah,” Johnny shrugged. “Thing is, what do we do now? At least you know where you stand with the old man. Me, well, that’s a different story. I can see him contacting you, but why the hell does he want me back? Never wanted me before.”

Scott felt a wave of pity he quickly shoved aside. If he learned one thing about his proud, strong brother, it was the man did not want pity. Still, Scott couldn’t help his feelings and the worry grew stronger. Given what Johnny knew of his life, what lie ahead?

Squaring his shoulders, Scott turned about. “I say we go inside and see what else is going on. If Murdoch isn’t dead, where is he?”

Johnny shrugged, Scott took another deep, mind clearing breath, and led his brother back inside.

*****

Johnny stood in front of Richardson, demanding answers of his own. Scott knew where he stood, and Johnny wondered why he was called back, after being thrown out all those years ago. It did not make sense. The old man seemed to have the son he wanted, the one taken from him, but was powerless to get back. He had to have really hated Johnny for that. For not being the kind of son a man needed, when the only son that mattered, was gone. He held no animosity against Scott, who was an innocent in all this, but wondered where he stood. All he wanted was to leave.

Johnny approached Val. “Come on amigo, I’ve had enough of this. Let’s skin out.”

Johnny, don’t go,” Scott pleaded.

“Scott, I have nothing against you. In fact, I’m happy for you. But it’s different, you know? The old man wanted you, but couldn’t have you. With me, well, it’s just different,” he shrugged.

“You can’t leave like this,” Scott pleaded.

“Not gonna go far, Boston. We’re brothers, remember? You need to figure where your life stands. I promise, I won’t leave without letting you know, and will find a way to keep in touch.”

Scott was desperate. To leave with Johnny and never know his father, or lose the brother he had begun to care for deeply, was a choice he did not wish to make. “Johnny, please. Give this a chance.”

“Why, Scott? You got your life to get on with.”

“So do you,” Richardson said, addressing Johnny.

“Got nothing here,” Johnny snapped. “Never did, and never will. I can see why you went through all the trouble to bring Scott here, although I think you could have approached things differently. But why the hell draw me into it?”

Richardson was not one to be put aside. “Johnny, think about it. Would you have come if asked directly? Like I asked Scott, but he was unable to answer. Would either of you have come believing what you do?”

Neither could answer.

“That was why we decided to handle matters as we did. But I have to point out, not a one of us ever expected either of you to join up as you did. We simply thought Scott would take the train and have a rather uneventful, boring journey, and you would get yourself together, get a horse and supplies, and come.” Richardson chuckled, and Johnny bristled. “I’m sorry, but it was quite a journey.”

“The damned Pinks.”

“Yes, I have to admit, they did keep us appraised of your progress. And entertained.”

“Why the hell?” Johnny burst out.

“Because we wanted to see if you were, indeed, coming. And then, well, we just wanted to keep tabs on you boys in case anything happened.”

“Don’t need anyone watching out for me. Been doing that on my own for quite a while now. You had no right,” Johnny shouted.

“Maybe not, but it was quite interesting,” Richardson replied.

Scott cleared his throat, his eyes downcast. “So, you heard?”

Richardson chuckled. “I have to admit, the pinata was a nice touch.”

“You just might find yourself in the same fix,” Johnny threatened. He poured another shot and downed it in one gulp.

“Gentlemen, can we get on with this?” Richardson asked, turning to Johnny. “Your father married your mother two years after losing Scott’s mother. His dream was to bring Scott back from Boston and raise you boys here on Lancer.”

Johnny whirled about, smashing the glass against the wall. “That’s a damned lie.”

Richardson stood his ground. “No, Johnny, it isn’t. I’d stake my career on that. Your mother left, taking you with her, and your father was devastated. He spent a year combing the border towns looking for you, to no avail.”

Johnny crossed the distance between them in two large strides and grabbed Richardson by the collar. Squeezing, he pulled the man close. Richardson gasped for breath, his face inches from Madrid. “You damned liar. I outta kill you where you stand.”

Val pounced, grabbing Johnny by the hands. “Come on, let ‘im go.”

“Let the hell go of me,” Johnny growled, shoving him off.

Both Val and Scott attacked, pulling Johnny off the lawyer. Richardson fell back against the desk, but Johnny was far from finished. “I outta kill you for talking of my mother like that.”

Richardson stood. Gasping for breath, he straightened his jacket. “Then go ahead. If I’m lying, shoot me. I won’t stop you. But if you’re man enough to face the truth, you will listen.”

“Come on Johnny, there’s always two sides,” Val replied, holding Johnny by the shoulders. “I ain’t saying nuthin agin yer mother, but everyone has their reasons. All I’m saying is ta listen.”

“All right.” Johnny pulled away. Rolling his shoulders, he smoothed his shirt and adjusted his rig. “All right. You got one minute.”

“That’s the reason Murdoch never returned to Boston. Like I said, your mother left, but we never knew why. Johnny, you were not kicked out. Murdoch would never do that. Both you boys were his life, and with Scott gone and you disappearing, the man barely held on. He turned his back on this ranch, left it in the hands of his Segundo, and combed Mexico and the border towns for over a year. If you don’t believe me, you can talk to the Segundo. His name is Cipriano, and he’s been here since before you were born.”

“He outside?”

“Yes.”

“Reckon I’ll look him up later.”

“So, that’s why my father never came to Boston again?” Scott asked softly, glancing sidelong at Johnny.

“Figures. I sure screwed that up for ya.” Johnny turned away.

Scott strode to his side, Val close behind. “No, you didn’t,” he said, taking his brother by the arm. “I would have done the same, if I had been able. I would have tried to find you. I’m glad our father didn’t come back, and looked for you instead. My only regret is that he didn’t find you.”

“Whatever.” Johnny’s chest heaved, and he feared his heart exploding from his ribs.

Val came close, taking him by the shoulder. “You okay?”

“No.” Johnny hung his head and Val nodded.

No other words were necessary. He feared this was too much on Johnny, and was ready to whisk his boy out of there. Whether or not Murdoch was at fault, didn’t matter. Val’s only concern was Johnny. “You say the word, amigo, and I’m with ya.”

“Thanks,” Johnny said softly. “Go on, Mr. Richardson. Don’t like what I’m hearing, but believe in giving a man a fair chance.”

“Thank you,” Richardson said. Returning to the desk, he poured a double. “Johnny, your father felt neither of you would come if you were contacted directly by him. You were raised to believe a falsehood.” Johnny’s face darkened and this time his fingers toyed with the butt end of his gun.

Richardson was quick to dissuade him. “Now I mean no offense to your mother, I’m sure she had her reasons, but the fact of the matter is, your father did not kick you out. He spent years looking for you. Once he learned your identity, he was shocked, but pulled out all stops to bring you home.”

“Shouldn’t have bothered,” Johnny replied. “Don’t need the old man. Never did. What, he think he was saving me? That I needed his help? Let me tell you something. I don’t need anyone’s help. Someone comes gunning for me, either face to face of behind my back, they usually come out on the shit end of the stick.”

Scott scoffed, and Val coughed in his hand.

“Let’s face it. Our so-called father was just too damned scared to ask for me outright,” Johnny said.

“You’re right. He was scared. Scared of rejection, that is. Especially before you knew the truth. Call it a test, if you will, but your father had to see if somehow, in some way, you could learn to care for this ranch, as well as for him,” Richardson replied.

“If he’s so scared, why doesn’t he tell us himself?” Scott interceded.

“I intend to do just that.” Murdoch stepped from the shadows, limping heavily on his cane.

Scott stiffened; eyes narrowing, he studied his father. A brief flash of longing shone in Johnny’s eyes before the curtain descended and the mask slipped over his face. He glared, eyes unwavering at the mountain of a man standing before him.

“Oh shit,” he muttered, his eyes traveling upward, seeming to never reach the top. Unconsciously, Johnny took a step closer to Scott, a move Val did not miss.

Murdoch took a step forward. Sam followed close behind, worried Murdoch would lose his balance. Johnny’s stare cut through both. “Who the hell are you?”

“Johnny, Scott, I’m Dr. Sam Jenkins. I’ve been a friend of your father for over 25 years now, and have been treating him.”

“So, you’re in on this too,” Johnny replied. Eyes narrowing with anger, he was disheartened when Sam did not even flinch.

“Not in the way you mean, Johnny,” Sam said softly. “I was concerned for all of you and believe it or not, looking out for your best interests. Scott, we need you here. Your father has always wanted that, and I have spent many hours trying to hold him together when things became too rough. And believe me, they did get rough over the years.”

Scott glared and Murdoch stiffened. Sam turned to Johnny. “And Johnny, it tore his heart out when your mother left. In spite of what you think. He’s always wanted you, son, and you may think you don’t need him, but you do. You need to be here, at Lancer where you have a chance for a good future.”

“Can take care of myself. Don’t know how many times I have to say that,” Johnny snapped.

“Yes, you can. But isn’t it about time you came home, son?” Murdoch asked.

“Don’t got no home. And you’re still letting other people talk for you. What’s the matter old man, can’t speak for yourself? Or don’t care enough to.”

“Johnny, you’re right. I took the coward’s way out. But it was all I could think to do. I wanted you boys here so bad, it frightened me to think of my request being refused. You always had a home here, and always will.” Murdoch limped over to the sideboard and pulled out a bottle of whiskey. “Damn leg’s gone sour. Drink?” he asked, addressing his boys.

Scott was the first to reply. “No, thank you.”

Not likely.”

“Well I need a drink. Damned leg hurts like hell. Sometimes, this is the only thing that helps.” Murdoch poured a generous shot and took a sip. His gaze fell upon his lost boy. The years slid away and his eyes burned with tears quickly blinked back. “Johnny,” he said softly.

“You got something to say old man, say it.”

Anger flashed, then was quickly quelled. Murdoch knew this wouldn’t be easy, and he was not about to chase the boy away now. Not after he just got him back. Not when he had the chance to convince him to stay, and he wanted that more than the air he breathed.

“You look like your mother. And you have her temper.”

“Care to test it, old man?”

“No, Johnny, I find it just fine.” Murdoch smiled softly, then turned to Scott. “You have your mother’s eyes.”

Scott stiffened, but never said a word.

Johnny had reached the end of his rope, years of pent up rage, exploding. He grabbed the drink from his father’s hand and smashed the glass against the wall. “What the hell is it with you, old man? Do you think I want you now? That I want any part of this damned place? You know what I want from you? Nothing. I spent my entire life hating you.”

“Johnny, you’re so wrong,” Sam stepped in.

Johnny whirled on him. “Stay out of this. This is between me and the old man. He wasn’t man enough to summon me himself, he damned well better be man enough to face me now. Right or wrong, that’s what I was led to believe. Don’t know why my mama told me that, and don’t care. To believe you, is to look down on her. I won’t do that. Now after all these years, you come along playing games? What, you’re getting addled and need some free hands to run this place?”

Murdoch’s face reddened with anger and he threw the cane aside. Sam jumped to his aid, but was held off. “I never wanted to bring you here simply to have another hired hand. I’ve always wanted you here and don’t give a damn about anything else. If I wanted a ranch hand, I could have hired someone. My accident made me realize one thing.

“I wanted my sons home. And I needed them. You’re right about that. I saw my own mortality, young man. I laid in that bed staring death in the eye. Didn’t know if I would ever walk again, and thought of the two of you, all the years we missed and how I was cheated out of my sons.

“I never felt it as clearly as I did then. At least before, I had the ability to look, to work this ranch and to hopefully bring you both home. Then it all changed. If I died, what would happen to this place?”

“Just as I thought, Johnny sneered.

“It’s not what you think,” Murdoch replied, his anger waning. “I wanted you here because I didn’t want your birthright lost to you. If I died, I wanted you boys to have the ranch. To care about it, build your lives from what I left you. To have a good life and raise your families here. Both of you. That’s what I wanted. Both of you here so you could have the life that is rightfully yours. My boys, together. The way it should have been. The way it could be. When I didn’t know if I would make it, I wanted you both here with or without me. I just wanted you here.”

“I can’t do this.” Johnny turned, unable to face his father. Unable to work past years of hatred and anger, no matter the truth hitting him in the face.

Murdoch stumbled forward. “Johnny.”

Johnny pulled form his father’s grasp. “Not now, old man. Not ever. Hear me? Never.”

He fled, the slamming of the door a prelude to the shocked silence pervading the room. Scott watched, helpless as to how to reach out. He turned to Val, his eyes pleading for help. Val nodded and pushed off from the mantle. He strode past Murdoch, the warning clear in his eyes. His own anger was barely under control, the first instinct to lash out at the man who had caused Johnny so much trouble, but at the moment, as always, Johnny was his first concern.

“You stay here, Scott. I’ll go after him.”

“We both should go,” Scott said, watching his brother from the window.

Val grasped his arm. “I know ‘im, Scott. He’s not one ta be crowded. Best if it’s just me.”

Scott nodded in agreement and Val left through the french doors. Johnny stood by his horse, leaning his head against the saddle. Battling with the demons tearing through his soul. Wondering who, or what to believe. No longer in control of his own life, Johnny wondered just who he really was. Johnny Madrid, feared gunslinger, strong, in control and holding supreme reign over his own destiny, or Johnny Lancer, son of Murdoch and Maria Lancer.

Was he a boy kicked out by his father? Or was he a boy lied to by his mother all his life? The only thing he knew was to ride away. He had the money in his pocket, and an entire life waiting. The only thing holding him back was Val and Scott. He didn’t have long to wait.

Val was by his side in seconds. “Hey amigo. Was one hell of a kick ta the teeth in there.”

Johnny couldn’t face the man. He couldn’t face anyone. “Yeah.”

“Look, I’m with ya. Didn’t expect ta see yer old man. He’s one big sucker,” Val snickered, failing to get a laugh out of Johnny. He scrubbed at his mustache. “Never thought ta see him, let alone hear what he had ta say.”

“All lies.”

Val took a deep breath. “Ya sure ’bout that?”

Johnny turned on his friend, fire blazing from his eyes. Val took a step backward, then remained rooted.

“Don’t do this, Val. Don’t talk against my mother.”

“Not doing that, amigo. Ya know me. I shoot square. And yer ’bout the only person in the world ta care ’bout me. The only one I care about. Am growing a liking ta yer brother, but yer special. Always will be. We go back a long way. And I speak the truth with ya. Always will. Am trying ta do that now. Don’t know the why or where of things, but think on this. If the old man did kick ya out, why would he go through so much trouble ta bring ya back? And ta give ya money, to boot?”

“Dunno,” Johnny shrugged.

“Johnny, I ain’t saying yer mother was bad or wrong, she must’a had her reasons. Maybe they split and she took ya and left.”

“But if she did, then she lied, Val.”

“Don’t have an answer for ya, amigo.”

“Don’t think there is one.” Johnny mounted his horse and stared down. “I won’t ride off like this, Val. Won’t leave you. Would never do that. We’ve parted ways before, but I always let you know beforehand. Never just took off, and won’t do that now. But I need to be alone. Gonna head back into town. Get a table in the back and a bottle.”

“Sure ya don’t want company?”

“Not this time, amigo.” Johnny spurred his horse on and took off toward town.

*****

Shoulders slumped, Val walked back inside. Four heads turned to stare. Murdoch held back, but Scott came to his side. “Johnny?”

“Needs time.”

Sam grasped Murdoch’s arm, helping him to settle in a chair. “Are you all right?”

“Don’t fuss, Sam.”

“I’ll fuss, you stubborn old coot. What in the world were you thinking throwing that cane aside? I told you that you were taking a chance coming out here in the first place.”

“I wasn’t going to see my boys laying flat on my back,” Murdoch snapped, pounding the desk.

“You haven’t been flat on your back in weeks. You just didn’t want them to see you weak,” Sam argued.

“Damn it, Sam.”

“Stow it, Murdoch. And listen to me for once.”

“My boy just ran out of here. The first time I’ve seen him in over eighteen years, and he runs out. How do you want me to feel?”

It took a few minutes for Scott to regain his composure. Standing at the window, watching Johnny race away from the house, he turned back to his father. “Sir, you should listen.”

“Are you going to run, too?” Murdoch asked. Stress was taking a toll and both hands trembled.

Scott approached the desk, more curious and concerned, than angry. “No, I didn’t come all this way to run. And neither did Johnny. He just can’t face this right now. If Val says he needs time, then give it to him. I doubt he’ll run without talking to either me, or Val. I don’t mean to hurt you, but that’s the way it stands.”

“I know, son. You’re both strangers to me,” Murdoch sighed. He glared at Val, grateful that Johnny had someone to turn to, yet resentful that he wasn’t the one.

“Sir, it’s not easy to live by one belief, then find out that everything you’ve been told, was a lie. It’s like saying Johnny’s entire life was a lie. He’s not about to believe anything bad about his mother. It’s a different story with me. Yes, I’m angry. I spent my life thinking you didn’t care.

“My grandfather took me in as a baby, and you never bothered. I’m only now beginning to see how misguided that thinking was, because I know my grandfather. He never told me about my own brother. And I can see him pulling out all stops to keep you from me. But like I said, it’s different with Johnny.”

“I tried. For both of you. I tried,” Murdoch said softly. Sam came to his side, handing over a steaming mug of coffee. “Thank you, Sam.”

“Don’t mention it, you stubborn old cuss,” Sam said fondly, patting Murdoch on the shoulder.

“I believe you did, sir. I know my grandfather. We butted heads more than once over the years,” Scott replied.

“So I gathered,” Murdoch chuckled. “You seem to take after me a bit.”

“If you mean that I see life differently than my grandfather, was bored to tears in Boston and want to find some sort of satisfying, hands on work, then yes, I do.  So you see, I believe you. I’m madder than hell, this whole situation could have been avoided if you so-called adults considered us, instead of everyone wanting to stake claim for themselves, things would have been different.”

“Scott, isn’t that a little unfair?” Sam asked.

Scott approached the desk, his arms crossed over his chest. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t know why Johnny’s mother left, but there had to have been some sort of miscommunication along the way. People get too wrapped up in their lives and drift apart. I know. It happened to me. I won’t go into the details, other than to say that if I had only communicated more, certain events in my life would not have reached such monumental proportions. People were hurt. I was hurt.”

“Son, I know,” Murdoch replied.

Scott chuckled. “Of course you do. The Pinks, right?”

Murdoch hung his head, the trait such a resemblance to Johnny, Scott’s breath caught. “Yes.”

“Then you know what I’m talking about. Another instance where communication could have avoided so much pain. I hurt Barbara, and it all could have been different. I’ll always carry that guilt. Maybe Johnny’s mother felt the same way. The reasons might have been different, but the outcome was the same. She ran, and people were hurt. Namely, Johnny.”

“Son, you’re so right,” Murdoch replied. He sat back, setting the cup gently into the saucer. “I was so damned focused on making this ranch a success for my family, to bringing you home, I lost sight of what was the driving force, to begin with. I poured all my energy into preparing for the future, devising a way to bring you out here so you boys could grow up together, I never saw the signs.”

“And Johnny’s mother never bothered to talk, either. Just like Barbara and I never talked. And just like my grandfather and I never talked. And everyone gets hurt. Now the thing is, what are we going to do about this?”

“Go after your brother.”

Val turned on Murdoch. “Not likely.”

“Look, I don’t know who you are, but don’t tell me how to handle my son,” Murdoch snapped. His anger rose and he staggered to his feet, waving Sam off in the process.

“Yer son? Ya don’t know nuthin about him.”  Murdoch’s face fell and Val felt like kicking himself. “All right, ya may not have done what ya been accused of, but that’s all Johnny believes. It’s all he knows. Ya better be on the true, Mr. Lancer, ’cause I gotta tell ya, I came here ready to kick yer ass from one side of this country ta the other.”

Sam vaulted to his feet. “Now see here.”

Murdoch held up his hand. “Please, Sam.”

“Murdoch . . .”

“Please,” Murdoch implored, then turned away.

Val squared off, almost toe to toe with the raging giant. Fire shot from their eyes, each fighting for dominance. “Look, Lancer, ya better be on the true with my boy.”

Murdoch straightened, ready to come to blows, if need be. “Your boy? You have one hell of a nerve.”

“Yeah, my boy. Been my boy for years. And my best friend.  I seen Johnny through a lot. More than anyone, did. I was there fer him when no one else was. I feel bad fer ya if yer speaking the true, ’cause there ain’t nuthin worse than losing a kid. But if’n I find yer lying and really did throw him out when he was a young un, you’ll pay. I know Johnny better than anybody, reckon I’m about the only one that does. And I know when he’s hurting. That boy has a world of hurt on him. Ya better not be adding ta it.”

Scott faced his father. “Sir, I have to agree. We can’t go after Johnny. Let him have this time to sort things out. Sometimes, the thing we’re chasing, will stay if we pull back.”

“He’ll bolt like a wild horse if ya go after him,” Val replied.

Murdoch sighed heavily. “I knew this would be hard. I never knew until last night, what Johnny grew up believing. When Sam told me, it tore my heart out. No wonder my boy never came home. He didn’t think he had one.” His voice cracked and he dropped back into his chair. Sam ran to his side, and again, Murdoch held him off. “I never knew. Of course this is hard on him. He’s a grown man. He’s also not stupid.”

“No, he’s not,” Scott agreed.

“Smarter than most,” Val quipped.

“Well, he is a little volatile, which makes me think he’s more like me in that regard,” Murdoch chuckled, then grew quiet.

“Got that right,” Sam snickered.

Murdoch glared, another trait Scott recognized. Murdoch possessed a bit of Madrid, himself. “Believe me, between his mother’s fiery temper and my stubborn resolve, Johnny got hit on both sides.” He sat back, the pain in his leg had eased and the trembling ceased. He turned to Scott. “You, on the other hand, are more like your mother.”

“I am pretty damned stubborn. Don’t underestimate me. I may not blow up like Johnny, but no one takes advantage of me, either.”

Murdoch chuckled. “No, I saw that. You have your mother’s good sense of reason, and my stubborn determination. You and your brother are both good men. I can only hope you forgive my somewhat misguided means, and stay on and give me a chance.”

“You had your reasons.”

“No, I just didn’t know what else to do, and felt my time was running out,” Murdoch admitted.

Scott shook his head at the futility of it all. What a waste, and all because the adults could not play nice. But there came a time when circumstances needed to be addressed, and anger shoved aside in the hope of a better future. He understood the reasons his father had for this escapade, and prayed that one day, he would not find himself in such a vulnerable position. Everyone grows old. Everyone faces their mortality at some point in their lives, and that is enough to scare the hell out of any man. No one likes to feel helpless.

“I think I understand. That doesn’t mean I’m ready to forgive yet, but the blame doesn’t lie solely on you. My grandfather has a lot to answer for. He may have raised me, but he had no right to keep me from you, or intercept your letters. There should have been communication all around. All our lives would have been the better for it. The thing now is, do we keep those lines open?”

The first hint of hope sprang in Murdoch’s eyes and his voice grew gruff with emotion. “I’d like that, son.”

Sam took a deep breath and placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder.

Scott chuckled, shaking his head. “My brother. Now that was one to get used to. Another thing my grandfather kept from me. He had no right. So you see, I can’t place all the blame on you. My grandfather was in it up to his ass. But the time for all that is over. If we’re to forge ahead, salvage some sort of a life, then we need to find forgiveness, work past years of hurt, and work together. I have to tell you, I am intrigued. I never knew what I wanted in Boston, and that’s what drove my grandfather crazy.

“He had fits thinking me a common laborer, but I did want to do more than spend my days in a stuffy office scratching a pencil across paper. I need more than that. I need to work with my hands, challenge myself daily, push myself to the limit to build something I can call my own. I think I can find that here. I want to try.”

Murdoch squeezed his eyes shut. His shoulders shuddered and Sam’s hand tightened its grip. “You don’t know what this means to me, son.”

Scott came forward, the first time he truly studied his father. It was obvious that the man had always cared, and his grandfather had no right interfering as he did. “Sir, I think I do.” Scott reached out and grasped his father’s hand.

Murdoch held tight and faltered, years of worry and hurt melting away. He tried to talk, only to fall speechless. He tried to rise, only to have Sam hold him down. “Sam, please, let me be.”

“To what, fall on your ass? You are a stubborn Scot.”

“And you, are a good friend,” Murdoch smiled. “ And I owe you more than I can say.”

Sam tossed his head back in laughter. “Now, do you think I would have missed this go-round? Not for the world, Murdoch Lancer. Not for the world. Now all we have to do is get your youngest, back.”

“I just hope he doesn’t shoot someone,” Scott snickered, elbowing Val.

Murdoch groaned and fell back against the chair. “Not funny.”

Scott sobered, and finally accepted the drink offered. “No sir, nothing about this is funny. Johnny has a lot to deal with. In ways, more than I do. I can understand my situation. Where I had someone to turn to, as wrong as my grandfather was, Johnny had no one once his mother died. Another instance where communication would have helped to change his life.”

“She should have told him,” Murdoch sighed. “Maybe then, he would have come home. He wouldn’t have been so alone all these years.”

“He wouldn’t have turned to his gun?” Sam asked in challenge.

“Oh Sam, how different his life would have been.  I’m not pleased with the route he took, but mainly because it scares the hell out of me. I spent too many restless nights wondering if he was laying dead somewhere and I would never know. I didn’t know for a long time.” Murdoch turned his attention to Scott. “I always knew where you were and that you were safe. But for a long time, I didn’t even know if Johnny was alive.”

“I can’t imagine how that felt,” Scott replied, his voice almost failing.

“Too many years and too much hurt. What a waste,” Murdoch replied.

“One we have the power to change,” Scott replied. “If you don’t mind, sir, I’m going to go after my brother.”

Val had taken up post at the fireplace again, choosing this time to step forward. He had watched the events unfold with interest, and renewed understanding for Murdoch Lancer. Now, he had to find a way to make Johnny understand. “If ya don’t mind, I think I’ll head on out after him, myself.”

Murdoch extended his hand. “It’s obvious you’ve known my son for quite a while. Perhaps you can tell me about it one day.”

“Seems ta me, there’s a lot of talking needing ta be done,” Val said, grasping Murdoch’s hand in a firm grip. “Now if ya’ll pardon me, I’ll take leave.”

Murdoch turned his attention back to Scott. A slow smile came across the easterner’s face and he felt lighter than he had in years. There was still a lot of hurt to work through, years of pain, neglect, miscommunication and regret, but he was there, and fully intended on focusing on the future.

“Will you be back tonight, son?”

“I don’t know, sir. Right now, I’m just worried about Johnny. But I will be back. You have my word.”

“That’s all I need. Now go after your brother,” Murdoch replied, the first trace of a smile emerging. “And if this old sawbones here would turn me loose, I’d be right beside you.”

“Don’t even think of it,” Sam warned, flashing a quick wink and a grin.

“Don’t think I’d get away with it,” Murdoch replied.

“And you’re right,” Sam said, then turned to Scott. “Now you go and get your brother.”

Murdoch and Sam sat at the desk, watching Scott and Val ride off. Richardson poured a double shot of Talisker’s for each, and passed the glasses around. “Gentlemen, this has been one hell of a journey.”

“And it’s not over yet,” Sam replied.

“I pray it’s only the beginning,” Murdoch said, raising his glass in toast. “To my sons.”

*****

Johnny sat at the back table nursing a bottle of tequila. Thinking more than he drank. He felt someone watching. On alert, nerves on the back of his neck prickled and he released the safety of his gun. A short, stocky man emerged from the shadows of the far corner and approached. Johnny stood slowly, poised to strike. If endangered, the man would be dead before he drew another breath.

“Easy, Sobrino,” the older man spoke softly. A smile creased a weather rugged face and he walked closer, his arms spread wide in greeting.

Johnny froze and his hand slid away. Tears sprang to his eyes and his throat constricted with emotion when the familiar, beloved face came into view. “Tio.”

*****

“Si, Johnny. It has been a long time.” The older man approached, and they embraced. He was a bit more stooped than Johnny remembered and his dark, raven hair had turned silver, but Johnny knew the face. Lined with age, the love shining from the old man’s eyes never changed.

“Tio, what are you doing here?” Johnny grasped the older man by the arms.

“I am pleased to see you are where you finally belong. Like your father, I have been looking for you a long time.”

“Looking for me? And what does my father have to do with this?”

“Johnny, if you please.” The old man motioned toward the tequila.

Johnny wasted no time and pulled out a chair for the older man and snapped his fingers for a glass. Pouring his uncle a drink, he sat back. “Lo sciento, Tio Santos. But please, explain.”

“I have missed you, Sobrino.”

“And I, you,” Johnny said, falling back to the old ways.

The old man poured another drink and downed it in one fluid motion. A small smile came to Johnny’s face, and the years slipped away. As did a bit of his earlier anger.

“Ahh, that is the smile I yearned to see. Even as a boy, your smile could light up a room, and lift the hearts of many.”

Johnny dipped his head to hide the embarrassed flush to his cheeks. “I am no longer that young boy.”

“Ahh, but to me, you will always be a boy.” He reached over, patting Johnny’s hand. To his delight, Johnny made no move to pull away. “I have missed you, Sobrino. My bother was a good man to you and your mother, but alas, Manny was a bit misguided. He had no desire to work the ranchero with our father.”

“I know.”

“Then the rurales took our land. We were left with nothing. Not long after, we received the news that Manny had been killed. My father was broken in heart, and six months later, he too, passed.”

“I didn’t know. I wish I did.”

“It is all right, Sobrino. I know your heart.”

“I wish I did.”

“You will,” he said, pouring another shot for each. “After the rurales raided our land, we were displaced. By the time word of Manny’ passing reached us, you and your madre were long gone. I was devastated. I know you are not my nephew by blood, but my brother loved you.”

“And I, him, but that still doesn’t explain why you’re here, and mentioned my father. Tio, what does he have to do with this?”

When in the company of the older, deeply respected man, Johnny was patient and compliant. Something, deep down, he wished to be with his own father, but had never admitted to feeling as such. Right now, his feelings were too jumbled to sort out, and the unexpected appearance of the older man, threw him for a loop.

“Why I am here is easy, Sobrino. I spent many years looking for you and your madre. When I learned of her death and your disappearance, I searched throughout Mexico. The orphanage in the small village in which you lived said you had run off. I hoped you had gone home to your father.”

“Why? After he kicked my mother out?” Johnny sneered, the anger once again rearing.

His uncle leaned forward. “Sobrino, you were told a grave lie. Your mama, she meant no harm, but she did not want to lose you. She and your father were happy for a while, but after you were born, she was alone much of the time. Your father, he was good to her, but he was busy building up his ranchero. You might think that selfish, but it was only a strong man working toward the future for his family. That was all your father was guilty of.”

Johnny meant to pull back, but an iron grip clasped his hand. His uncle was not a man to be put off, something Johnny suddenly remembered, and sat back. Seeing he had the young man’s attention, Santos continued, desperate to break through. Johnny had been alone too long, and the old man had spent years searching, hoping to bring Johnny to a safer, brighter future.

“As one learns in the cattle business, one must travel a great deal building up stock, attending meetings and auctions and ultimately, gone for months at a time on those long drives. Your mother was lonely. She was a foreigner to the women in town. Those that did not scoff her, did not know how to relate to her. They thought her full of conceit, but in truth, she was a shy woman.”

Johnny hung his head. “Yeah, she was pretty quiet. But she had a lot of friends.”

“Si, in the villages in which you lived. Back where she was familiar. That is why I think she ran off with Manny. People make mistakes, and they make choices. Your mother met my brother when he came to Morro Coyo. Your father was gone on a drive and she was lonely. She and Manny fell in love.

“She tried to tell him that it was wrong, that she was a married woman with a child and when your father returned, she sent Manny away and tried to work on her marriage, but she could not forget my brother. And my brother could not forget her. So late one night, they met and Manny took you and your mother away.”

Johnny’s anger rose and this time he stood, the chair crashing to the floor. Stunned patrons turned to stare, and Johnny fought the urge to flee. Only the look on his uncle’s face said it all.

“Sobrino, you run from me? An old man who has traveled so far?”

The anger waned and Johnny sat back down. His uncle had never lied to him before, and would not start now.

“Johnny, you know how I feel about you. I looked for years after your madre was lost to us. But I could find no sign. So I made a decision.”

“What?” Johnny asked, barely able to speak.

“I made a trip up north. To your father. I thought he would shoot me on sight, and although our initial meeting was far from pleasant, we had one common goal.”

“And that’s?”

“I think you know the answer. Johnny, your father was a broken man. He had lost two sons. One was taken off to Boston and he did not have the money and power he has today, to fight. Then you were lost to him, and he could not leave to go back east. He left his ranchero many times to look for you. He spent a year down in Mexico and those stinking border towns, but found nothing.

“So we joined forces. We both have been working for years, but to no avail. You had disappeared and we feared you dead. Your father was so grief stricken, I feared for his health, but he would not give up. He said that as long as his heart felt whole, you were alive. If you had perished, his heart would darken with grief

“He carried that belief through the years. He searched for you himself, and hired Pinkerton agents to help. Last year, we finally found you.” Santos finished and sat back, patiently waiting for the words to sink in.

“I bet that went down hard.”

“We were hurt to realize the life you were forced to live and disheartened you had turned to your gun. We had heard of Johnny Madrid for years, and when we found out that he was you, it cut deep. But the love we had for you, never stopped. Your father wanted you. He wanted to give you the chance at a better life, the one that should have been yours all along. So we again joined forces, and began our search.

“Unfortunately, your father was almost killed a few months ago in a terrible accident at the ranch. The doctor said that he would not live. Then when his stubborn nature proved him wrong, the doctor said your father would never walk again. Still, that stubborn man proved him wrong. He also realized how vulnerable he was.”

“That’s what he said,” Johnny muttered, unable to meet his uncle’s eyes.

“And he was right. He asked me to find you. To not approach you until the time was right, but to watch and see if we could bring you home. We did not want to force you, I never told your father what you were led to believe about him, that would have broken his heart. But perhaps I should have. Then the shock would not have been so devastating.”

“Not your fault. You didn’t know.”

“No, and neither did your father. When we learned that the rurales had taken you prisoner, he did all he could to bring you home. Then we realized how hard that would be, and decided to see if we could bring you here on your own will.”

“Test me?” Johnny asked, his eyes narrowing in anger.

“If you wish to see it that way, then yes. Both you and Scott. Your brother had also been raised on lies, and your father wanted to see if you both would come by your own free will.”

“And you’ve been watching?”

“Si.”

“The entire time?”

“Si. You were so full of hate, your father and I feared you would not listen, so thought it best to let you come your own way. Hoping all the while that the truth would win out.”

“What about the Pinks along the way?”

“Them, too. But after you hung the last one as a pinata, they pulled out. Your father was notified that he was on his own.”

A short burst of laughter erupted and Johnny poured another shot. “Funny, even after that, I had the unsettling feeling that I was being followed. Couldn’t quite make you. You’re good, Tio.”

The older man leaned forward, a devious grin spread across his face. “Si, I have been told that I am sneaky.”

“And you did this for me?”

“To save you, Sobrino. Johnny, your father is guilty of nothing but what happens to many marriages. And he paid for his mistakes in the most grievous way. He lost his son. He would have learned to accept the failed marriage in time, but he could not get over losing you. Please, Sobrino. Do not make him lose you again.”

*****

Scott and Val walked into the saloon, relieved to find Johnny sitting in the back. Spotting the stranger, Val’s hackles went up, but he picked up on a sense of ease within Johnny. Scott attempted to walk over, but Val blocked him with his arm.

“Something tells me that’s a private kind’a talk.”

Scott studied his brother. “He doesn’t seem to be upset.”

“No, more like he’s with an old friend.”

“I wonder . . .”

“If that’s the man who Johnny felt was following him?” Val finished Scott’s thought.

“Yes.”

“Only way ta find out is ta wait and see. If’n Johnny wants us to know, he’ll talk. If not, then we don’t press. Comprende?”

“Si,” Scott snickered. “And that’s about the extent of my Spanish, in spite of all the times he tried teaching me on the trail.”

Johnny caught their eyes and shook his head. Catching his meaning, Val acknowledged with a nod and led Scott to a corner table. They ordered a pitcher of beer, all the while eying the bottle of tequila placed in front of Johnny. And the old man was matching him drink for drink. Scott shuddered, remembering his run-in with the rotgut brew.

“He seem a bit complacent to you?” Scott asked.

“If’n you mean, did the old man find a way to tame that cub, then I have ta agree,” Val snickered. “I have the feeling that the old man is in this, too. Don’t ask me how, maybe I been hanging around yer brother fer too long. Kind’a rubbed off.”

“But it does make sense. Given all we’ve come across the past few weeks, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that this is the mysterious stranger, and he means something to Johnny. Guess we’ll just have to sit back and watch the show.”

“It’s sumthin, ya know?” Val asked.

“How’s that?” Scott took a swallow of beer and set his mug down.

“Yer old man. For years, I been wanting ta kick his ass clean off, and tonight, feel kind’a sorry fer him. But like ya been saying all along, there’s two sides ta everything. Tried telling Johnny that a time or two, but we both kind’a fell into those lies and didn’t think it right ta look the old man up. Johnny didn’t need ta be hurt again, and I didn’t want him ta be.”

“I can see that. Neither of you had anything else to go by.”

“Sure fooled me a mite,” Val replied. “Johnny, too.”

“Think he’ll be all right?” Scott asked.

“He’s got a good head on his shoulders. Loses it at times, but once left ta himself, he manages to wear it square again. He knows the truth, can read it in a man. Sometimes that truth is a might hard ta bear at first, but Johnny always comes around. Just needs ta work things through.”

“Think he’ll give our father a chance?”

“Why not,” Val shrugged. “Ain’t ya? I mean, ya were raised ta believe a lie, too. Rich or poor, don’t matter. Ya both were lied ta. Now ya come around. All we have ta do is wait for Johnny. I know that boy. He’ll do right.”

Johnny again caught their eye, and grasped his uncle’s hand. “Excuse me a minute, Tio.”

“Sure, my son.” The older man waved Johnny off, poured another shot, snapped his fingers for the bartender so that he might order their dinner, and sat back, watching.

Johnny sat next to Val, his back to the wall. “Hey.”

“Hey. That’s all he got ta say,” Val groused. “Hey. We have just ’bout the biggest showdown in the west, and he sits here and says hey.”

Johnny shrugged and Val swatted him on the side of the head.

“Are you all right?” Scott asked.

 “I will be.”

“Ya seem calm. That old man tame ya?”

A smile spread across Johnny’s face. “Val, that’s my Tio.”

“Tio? What’s that?” Scott asked.

Val turned to the man. “Tio is uncle.”

“We have an uncle?” Scott exclaimed.

Johnny chuckled. “Well, I have a tio. But since you’re my brother, he could be your tio, also. It’s a long story, and I promise we’ll sit and talk. Just saying that he helped get my head square.” Johnny grew quiet, his eyes misting with remembrance. “He’s Manny’s brother.”

“A’mighty,” Val said softly, squeezing Johnny’s arm.

Scott leaned closer. “Manny’s brother?”

“Si, I mean, yes,” Johnny grinned. “Sorry, when I’m with him, I fall back into the old ways. That’s the way it was. Tio Santos, that’s his name, lives by the old ways. Manny was more relaxed. Look, there’s a lot I want to tell you, but I really want to get back to him.”

“Of course,” Scott replied, casting a glance toward the older man. “Looks like he’s ordering.”

“Probably supper. He sure does like to eat,” Johnny chuckled. “And to clear things up, he was in this up to his . . . well, let’s just say he’s a very sneaky man.”

“In this?” Val asked.

“Yeah, he and Murdoch. See, after mama died, we lost touch. Long story, but he has spent years looking for me. Funny, all these people looking, and I’m still not found.”

Val shook his head at the futility of it all. “Well, will the surprises never stop. Look, we’ll talk later. I can see ya wanting ta get back to him.”

“Yeah,” Johnny smiled. “But Scott, I do need you to do me a favor.”

“What’s that?”

“Go back to Lancer.”

“Go back? What about you?”

“Don’t worry about me. Just go back and tell the old man, well, just tell him I’m all right. Tell him I’m with Tio. He’ll understand.”

“All right, if that’s what you want.” Scott tossed a few bills onto the table and stood. “Val, want to ride back with me?”

“Seems I spend my life in the saddle,” Val grumbled. “Why not. Maybe the old man will put me up in the bunkhouse.”

“Or the barn,” Johnny snickered. “Noticed he had a pretty good sized chicken coop.”

“Yer ass will be the one nested,” Val snapped, swatting Johnny with his hat.

All the while, the bartender watched and listened, his mouth gaping in astonishment. He stood drying the same glass for five minutes, not even realizing he was doing so. Here was this famous gunslinger standing in his saloon, getting swatted on the head by a rather scruffy looking stranger. And he didn’t shoot the man. No one would believe this. And Murdoch Lancer’s sons? The gunhawk? And a dandy? The man was about ready to piss his pants.

Scott turned back, worry again taking over. Their eyes locked. “Johnny, you won’t ride off without saying anything, will you?”

Johnny laughed lightly, clubbing his brother on the arm. “Won’t do that to you, brother. Or you, Val,” he said, turning toward his friend.

“I know, amigo.”

“I’ll be all right. Just have some things to work out. Tio asked if I would go to Lancer. Said the old man needed me.”

“He does, Johnny,” Scott replied.

Johnny saw nothing but the truth in his brother’s eyes, but that did not cut through the sadness of his mother’s lies. “I know. Tio said so, too. It’s just hard, you know?”

“You love your mother. And you won’t love her any less. I don’t believe our father wants you to, would never ask that of you.”

“You’re that certain, huh?”

“Yes, I am. Johnny, he knows how you feel, and even though I barely know the man, hell, I don’t know him at all,” Scott scoffed. “I don’t think he would ever darken your mother’s memory. They both loved you, but the marriage failed. Like I told Murdoch, we have to fight and work to keep the lines of communication open.”

“Wow, you said all that?” Johnny snickered.

“Yes, I said all that,” Scott answered his teasing brother, relieved to find that they did have something to laugh about, after all.

“It hurts, Scott,” Johnny said, his eyes downcast.

“I know it does, brother,” Scott replied in kind.

“I don’t know how to go home, but I can’t walk away.”

“Don’t let guilt keep you from going back,” Scott replied.

“Guilt?”

“Make you feel you’re loving your mother less, betraying her memory by going back to Lancer. From what I’ve learned, she loved you, Johnny. She’d want you to be happy. We might never know why she never told you the truth, but she would want you happy,” Scott replied.

“She just didn’t think she’d die, I guess,” Johnny said with a shrug.

Never before had his brother brought up the subject of his mothers’ death, but this one little bit was all he was willing to divulge. Scott wondered if Val knew the details, but upon seeing the understanding in the scruffy man’s eyes, Scott had his answer. And Val would never speak of it, it wasn’t his place.

Maybe one day, Johnny would trust him as much. Death had come unexpected and too soon, for Maria Lancer. Leaving her no time to speak with her son. Scott was saddened. And Johnny had to find a way to work past all this. Glancing at the table, a lone, older figure waiting patiently, Scott was reassured that perhaps, Johnny would find that help in his beloved uncle.

“Well, I’ll leave you to your tio,” Scott said, grabbing his hat from the table. “I’ll see you soon.”

“Don’t do nuthin I wouldn’t do,” Val replied, leaning closer. “Remember, ya owe me a night with the ladies. Never did stop along the way.”

“I promise Val,” Johnny laughed. “I ever let you down yet?”

“No, and ya better not start now.”

“Go on, get outta here.” Johnny smacked Val on the side of the head and shoved the older man toward the door. He stopped, watching Val and his brother leave, before turning to his uncle. He took a seat and their dinner was delivered. Johnny thought to have lost his appetite, but the spicy smell of tamales got his juices flowing.

“Ahh, Sobrino, you still eat well,” his uncle laughed. “Always one for the appetite.”

Johnny lifted his face in a smile. “I miss those times.”

“Aye, as do I,” the older man nodded.

They ate their meal in silence and ordered a pot of coffee. Pouring a shot of tequila in their cups, Johnny handed one to his uncle. Santos sat back, studying him closely. “Sobrino, you must remember one thing.”

“Tio, with all respect, you are asking a lot,” Johnny said softly.

The older man grasped his hand, and Johnny squeezed his eyes shut. “Your mother was a mere woman. A beautiful woman, but she, like all of us, had her flaws. And your father was a man, not a monster. And as a man, he too, had flaws and made mistakes.

“They both made mistakes, but they were not done out of malice. Life is like that. People do their best, try and live by decisions made, either with much thought or, how do you say, on the spur of the moment?”

“Yeah, something like that,” Johnny snickered slightly

“Si, decisions that sound good at the time, but turn out badly. The person thinks it is too late to make things right, or that they have erred so grievously, that it is not possible to set matters right. Your mother, after my dear brother was taken from us, thought she could not return to your father. She feared him taking you from her. With that, she could not live. And she feared telling you the truth, thinking you would be so angered, you would turn your back on her.”

Johnny trembled visibly. His mother wanted him to know the truth. Of that, he knew. His uncle’s word was never jaded. “I never would have done that, Tio.”

“Ahh, so you say now, but what if she had told you?”

“I don’t know. But I do know that I never would have turned from her in anger. Would I have been angry, yes, I would have. I would have felt cheated and betrayed . . .”

“Like your father feels.”

Johnny groaned, his hands covering his face. “I don’t know what to do, Tio. It’s so hard to turn my back on what I was taught to believe, I feel I am betraying my mother.”

“But it is the truth, Sobrino. And in being the truth, is it fair to make your father suffer more? I thought you were a fair man. An honest man. One who reads people for what they are, and acts on that.  To visibly turn away from the truth as I give it, the truth as it stands, perhaps you are not the man I know exists deep inside.”

Johnny hung his head. “Lo sciento, Tio. I do not mean to shame you. I do not mean to shame anyone, but what do I do? Tell me, how do I do this? How do I peel away years of anger and hatred, and pretend that it never happened? I don’t even know the man.”

Santos squared his shoulders. “The man, Johnny, is your father. And he loves you every bit as deeply as your mother did. No more, no less. And he hurts. He has been hurting for years. There is a time to turn your back, and there is a time to make things right. A true man, a strong, proud, brave man knows the difference. And he acts on it. Are you that man?”

Johnny sat up straighter, his uncle’s words driving straight into his heart, as they always did. The man spoke true, never held anything back, and expected him to act upon his words in the correct manner.

Johnny did not want to let the man down, more than that, he did not want to disappoint his uncle.

“Si, Tio, I hope I am that man.”

The man spread his arms wide and threw his head back in thanks. “Si, I knew you were a good man.  A fair man. A man one can be proud of. Sobrino, you do not let me down. You faced a difficult situation, si, and you came out on the side of the truth. Your father is a good man. He not only deserves your love, he deserves your respect.

“More than that, he wants your love and respect. Go to him. Go to your father. The man has been looking and waiting for years. And hopefully, the good Lord willing, you will all have many wonderful years together. Finally, my Sobrino, you have a new life waiting. The life you deserve. The life that has been waiting for you.”

The glass slid from the bartender’s fingers, and patrons stared. And for the first time, Johnny didn’t care.

“I don’t know how to do this, Tio.”

The older man leaned forward and grasped Johnny’s hand. “Sobrino, you will do this. You will find a way. Some things cannot be planned. They just need to be acted on. They need to be allowed to happen.”

“Will you come to Lancer with me, Tio?”

A smile creased the old man’s face. “Si, I will come. I will be glad to ride under that arch with you. Be by your side when you truly go home.”

The older man yearned to travel back to Mexico, but he was tired and suddenly realized that he was not in that much of a hurry. After all, the single most important thing in his life, was right in front of him. Murdoch Lancer had extended an open invitation, and Santos was ready to take the man up on his offer. They had a lot to talk about. And Murdoch kept a very fine wine cellar.

Santos had grown a liking to Taliskers, more so than tequila, but he would never tell Johnny. Besides, Johnny was taking a big step, and needed someone familiar by his side. And Santos vowed to be there as long as needed. Perhaps even longer. Johnny has had so little in life, if he wanted to spend the remainder of his years surrounded by people he knew and loved, Santos did not wish to be anywhere else.

Johnny poured another cup of coffee, but pushed the tequila aside. He needed a clear head. “But would you mind if we head out in the morning? I’m really too tired to go out there tonight.”

“Si, Sobrino, I agree. It has been a long day, and I look forward to a nice soft bed. There is time enough for the hard saddle and rather bumpy ride, in the morning,” Santos chuckled. “I already have a room at the hotel, and had the clerk put one aside for you, just in case.”

“Just in case, huh?” Johnny asked, his eyes twinkling.

They stood and Santos wrapped an arm around Johnny’s shoulder. “Let’s just say I like to be prepared.”

Johnny laughed and they walked out of the saloon together. Johnny was exhausted. As much as he wanted to sit and talk more with his uncle, he had to give in and bid the older man a good night. Lines of fatigue were etched in his uncle’s face, and although the man was still relatively young and strong, the past few weeks had taken a toll. Johnny wondered just how old his uncle was, judging him to be around the same age as his father. He would have to ask the man one day.

There would be time enough for talk later. Once they settled at Lancer, Johnny looked forward to speaking to the older man at length. They had a lot of years to catch up on. Johnny bid Santos a good night, and closed the door to his own room. Leaning against the wall, he thought the same of his father. The old man wanted him. Had never kicked him out. Just what was he going to do with that?

He had to alter his entire life. The thought was chilling, but shoved aside. One day at a time, Scott had said. Just take one moment at a time, and don’t worry about the next. Seemed Johnny and his father had a lot of catching up to do, as well. A warm feeling enveloped him, and Johnny suddenly realized he had made the right decision. His instincts never let him down before, and were guiding him along the right path, now.

Johnny Lancer was going home.

*****

It was dark by the time Scott rode under the arch, a strange sense of familiarity, belonging to something that was lost for so long, striking. He looked forward to seeing his father, another odd sensation. He worried about the man and wanted to hear about the accident that almost took Murdoch away before either he or Johnny had the chance to know him.

Murdoch was waiting. Leaning heavily on his cane, Sam cackling and fussing behind, he staggered out to the veranda. “Scott.”

“Hello, sir.”

“Hope ya don’t mind, Mr. Lancer, but Scott talked me into coming back,” Val replied, averting his eyes.

Murdoch bristled, jealousy almost overwhelming his good sense and hospitality. But Johnny would never condone him kicking the man out. Taking a deep breath, Murdoch forced himself to meet Val’s gaze. “No, Mr. Crawford. I have to admit, I resent the years you spent with my son, but neither of you knew the truth. I only wish you had. The bottom line is, you were there for my son, when I wasn’t. You’re welcome here.”

“I thank ya.”

Murdoch then turned toward Scott. “Did you find your brother?”

A slow smile came unbidden. “I did. And he sends a message.”

Murdoch’s heart swelled with hope.

“He is with his tio.”

“Santos,” Murdoch muttered, his face beaming with gratitude. “He’s been waiting. I was hoping . . .”

“That he would talk sense into my brother?” Scott asked. “Well, he did. Johnny is with him, they were eating when we left. He said to tell you he’s fine.”

Murdoch closed his eyes and sent up a prayer of thanks. “Is he coming back?”

“I think so,” Scott replied. “He didn’t really say one way or the other, but did mention that he wouldn’t ride off.”

“That’s something. Maybe Santos was able to talk to him. Reach him when I couldn’t.”

Scott took a step closer to his father. “Sometimes it’s easier coming from someone not so close to the situation.”

“But he is close, has been for years.”

“But he’s not Johnny’s father.”

Murdoch sighed and leaned his weight on the cane. “No, and he’s helped me more than you’ll ever know.”

“Now maybe things can settle down and we can get on with our lives,” Scott replied. He approached his father, taking Murdoch by the elbow. “Come on sir, let’s get you inside and off your feet.”

The widest smile possible split across Sam’s face. “It’s about time someone else got on your case, you stubborn old coot. Come on, I have a fire waiting.”

Murdoch went inside the house, his son by his side. He sat in a deep, overstuffed chair, his legs propped on an ottoman and quilt spread across his lap. Scott stirred the flames, the heat radiating throughout the room. Sam returned with a tray of coffee and sandwiches. Val turned to leave, but was called back. Murdoch’s voice was gruff and biting. Val bit back just as hard.

“You planning on sleeping outside?”

“Was hoping to find a bunk somewhere. Don’t need much.”

“I do have guest rooms.”

“Well, ain’t that mighty generous of ya.”

They glared. Common ground was found.

*****

Johnny and Santos arrived at Lancer the following evening. In spite of his earlier resolve to return home, Johnny spent the day fighting his conscience, and the biggest case of jitters ever experienced. He and Santos sat in the saloon for hours, talking. Johnny knew the man spoke true, but it was hard to let go of the past and grasp onto the prospect of a new life.

“I don’t know what he expects of me,” Johnny said.

“Sobrino, he does not expect anything other than your love. That is all. Your padre, he is a good man and he loves you. That should be all that matters.”

“But I’m Johnny Madrid.”

The older man chuckled. “As if we did not know. You forget, we are the ones that have been looking all these years.”

“But I’m so different from Scott. He’s not a gunhawk. He’s educated and has manners.”

“And I was a haciendado and Manny was a gambler. I worked the ranch and Manny worked the cards. Does that mean my padre loved him any less? That he did not cry when he heard of the death of his youngest son?”

Johnny hung his head and a sob hitched his shoulders. Lifting his chin, he again knew the argument was for naught. “You’re right, Tio.”

Santos leaned forward, clasping Johnny’s hand. “Sobrino, do not make your padre cry for you. Whether you leave, or lose your life to the gun of another.” He sat back and made the sign of the cross. “Do not make the man cry. He has already done that enough.”

Johnny’s head snapped up. “He cried over me?”

“Si. I have seen it. I, too, have cried. For Manny, my padre, your madre, and for you. All that I had loved, and lost. Now, one of those lost loved ones has returned. So please, return to your father. Remember, it is no shame for a real man to shed a tear.”

Johnny dipped his head, his own eyes welling. It might be all right for a real man to shed a tear, but not in public. Johnny had already shed enough tears in private. He was not about to do so now.

They ordered lunch and dinner passed without notice. Once the sun began to set, Santos stood from the table. “Sobrino, do we stay another night, or do we ride out to your home? It is a beautiful night for a ride.”

Johnny stood, nodded, and led his uncle from the saloon. They settled the hotel bill, made arrangements for Santos’ belongings to be delivered to Lancer come morning, and saddled their horses. A full moon rising over the horizon, the smell of fresh cut hay in the air and soft lowing of cattle drawing near, they approached the arch.

Johnny hung back before crossing under. “Never thought I’d be doing this for good.”

Santos patted him on the shoulder. “The time is right. Are you ready to come home?”

Johnny nodded and they rode through. His stomach lurched and he almost lost his lunch. He gasped for breath, controlling his raging emotions and rising nausea. The closer they got to the house, the more he trembled. Scott and Val met them on the veranda.

A smile crossed Scott’s face and Val came to his side, grabbing the reins. “Just ta make sure ya don’t bolt.”

“I ain’t gonna run, amigo.”

“His days of running are over, si?” Santos asked, again clapping Johnny on the shoulder.

“Si.” Johnny smiled, blushed, and dipped his head.

“He’s inside.” Scott answered the unspoken question. “Why don’t you go in and we’ll take care of the horses?”

Johnny turned to Santos.

“Si, Sobrino. I will go with your brother and your friend. Together, we will groom and feed the horses.”

Johnny nodded. Val clasped his shoulder for a moment, then walked off. Johnny’s hand froze on the knob, then squaring his shoulders, he walked inside. The room was warm, cloaked in the soft glow of a lantern on the mantle and crackling fire. Murdoch sat in his chair, his legs elevated and quilt pulled over his lap. He held a mug of coffee in hand while studying the flames. Hearing a soft noise at the door, he turned.

Seeing nothing but welcoming love in his father’s eyes, Johnny walked closer. He hesitated, toeing the floor with his boot. Another step closer, and he stopped again, not knowing what to say or do.

“Come on in, son,” Murdoch said, a loving smile on his face.

Johnny shuffled closer. For the first time, Madrid was at a loss of what to do.”

“Come on, son.”

Johnny approached, nervous eyes darting around the room. Hesitating one more second, he gave in and sat on the corner of the ottoman Murdoch patted.

“Your leg hurt?” Johnny asked.

Murdoch chuckled. “I’ve had better days. Some days I seem to manage a bit better, but today I could barely get around.”

“Must’a done too much yesterday. Lo sciento.” Johnny lowered his head.

“I do too much every day, son. Just ask Sam. I sometimes don’t know why he puts up with me.”

Murdoch studied the bowed, raven head. How he yearned to reach out, pull Johnny into his arms and never let go. His heart fluttered and voice caught. He blinked, not sure this was really happening. First Scott, and now Johnny.

Murdoch spent the morning talking with Scott. Val made himself scarce, finding odd jobs around the ranch, while giving Scott and Murdoch invaluable time together. Now tonight, for the first time in his life, Murdoch had both his boys under the same roof.

He held out a trembling hand. Murdoch faltered, his hand falling back to his side. Johnny’s eyes met his. It was at that moment, Murdoch realized the boy was trembling. Was just as frightened, as he. Murdoch’s protective instincts flared and he reached out, cupping a large hand behind Johnny’s head.

“It’s going to be all right, son. I promise. We can do this together.”

“Don’t know what to do. You know what you’re getting yourself into? Madrid won’t go away anytime soon.”

“I should hope not.” Murdoch snorted, a short burst of nervous laughter breaking free. “Because I hope he’s planning on staying.”

Johnny shrugged.

Murdoch’s grasp tightened and Johnny raised his head. Their eyes locked. “Johnny, it will be all right. I promise. Give us a chance. Give me a chance. Together, we can make this work. Anything that comes along, we’ll face as a family.”

“Family?”

Murdoch’s hand fell, but his gaze never wavered. “Yes, family. As it always should have been. It’s been a long time in coming and I promise, with everything I have within me, that you never have to worry again. I’m here for you. Whatever you need, I’m here. I always have been.”

“I know.” Johnny’s whisper was so soft, Murdoch almost did not hear.

“And I always will be. You’re my son, Johnny. My son.” Murdoch again wrapped his hand around the back of Johnny’s head, tugging him forward slightly.

Johnny flashed a bashful smile, and Murdoch’s hand fell to his lap. He was exhausted, but was not about to give in and retire to bed. Sam would be hovering enough in the morning. Tonight belonged to him.

“Got anymore of that coffee?” Johnny asked, nodding toward the tray.

“Yes, of course. Did you have supper? Are you hungry?” The father in Murdoch rose to the forefront.

“Yeah, I can eat. Was too nervous to eat earlier.”

“Then please, help yourself. There’s sandwiches under that napkin. Tell you the truth, I was too nervous to eat earlier, myself. Would you mind handing me one?”

Johnny shook his head and lifted the napkin, revealing thick sandwiches of roasted beef on fresh baked bread, and slices of cheddar. He handed a plate to his father, then grabbed one for himself. The meat was tender, the cheese, tangy. Nothing ever tasted as good. Johnny sat eating dinner with his father, something he never thought to do.

Pouring a mug of coffee, Johnny took three long swallows before speaking. “How did you get hurt?”

Murdoch washed his sandwich down with a swallow of coffee and wiped his mouth. “Last fall, we had just brought in a herd of wild mustangs.”

“Mustangs?”

“The finest compañero de palominos you’ve ever seen,” Murdoch said with pride.

Johnny’s eyes lit up, the flash of excitement caught by his father. Murdoch smiled. It seemed his son had a penchant for horses. He would have to see about that. It might give father and some a common goal to work toward.

“You fall breaking one?” Johnny finished his sandwich and licked his fingers.

Murdoch chuckled, amazed at how easy they were able to talk. He was right all along. There was a side to his son that was begging to come out, and Murdoch sent up a prayer of thanks that he would finally be able to do so.

“No, Johnny. My horse breaking days were over long ago.”

Johnny shrugged and reached for another sandwich. Murdoch’s joy knew no bounds. His son had a ravenous appetite. It was a good thing he was a rich man.

“What happened?” Johnny asked.

“I was shoeing horses at the smithy one afternoon. Cipriano, my Segundo, was working the horses with one of the wranglers. The children had just returned home from school and were running across the yard. I heard a scream. A stallion had broken loose and bolted through the door, heading straight at a young boy.”

Johnny’s blood turned cold and he closed his eyes for a brief moment.

Murdoch waited until he was composed. “I ran as fast as I could and managed to throw the child out of the way, but I was trampled.”

“You okay now?”

Murdoch stared down at his legs, then back up at his son. “I will be. Now that you and Scott are here.”

“Yeah.” Johnny stammered and looked away. “But your legs. They hurt?”

“When I’m on them too much, yes.”

“You did throw that cane away yesterday.”

“Yes, and believe me, Sam let he have what for.”

“You have to be more careful.”

“So everyone says.”

“They said you almost died.”

“I thought I would,” Murdoch replied. “But there was one thing that kept me going.”

“What’s that?” Johnny asked. His head dipped and hands shook as he placed the empty plate back on the tray.

Murdoch handed his plate over, their eyes locking. “The hope of seeing my boys.”

“I didn’t know.”

“I know that, son.”

“I was told . . .”

“Your mother was a good woman. Don’t ever forget that.”

A smile crept across Johnny’s face. “I loved her.”

Murdoch’s voice was a mere whisper. “I still do.”

Johnny looked up in surprise. There was no animosity, no heated anger, hurt, or disappointment in his father’s voice. There was no reproach in his demeanor. Only stark, true love, and the remnants of a once broken man. One that had suffered deeply, and was trying to pull the rest of his life together, all the while giving both he and Scott the chance for a future.

Scott found what he had been seeking all his life. A chance to work with his hands, build something for himself and his family. And Johnny found a home. After all those long, lonely years, he had a home.

Johnny poured another cup of coffee and offered his father a refill that was refused. Johnny placed Murdoch’s mug on the tray and stood. He walked over to the fireplace, running his hand over the Lancer ‘L’.

His father never took his eyes off of him. Johnny walked to the large window and stared out at the ranch. He chuckled, seeing Scott, Santos, and Val milling about on the veranda, casting nervous glances at the door every once in a while.

“Should I put them out of their misery?”

Murdoch chuckled. “In a moment, son. That man. . .”

“Val?”

“Yes. Perhaps you can tell me about him one day.”

Johnny smiled. “Yeah, we can talk.”

Murdoch’s heart soared. “Then by all means, please let them in.”

Johnny crossed the floor in three long strides. Flinging the door open, he shouted into the dark. “Well, are you guys gonna stand out there forever?”

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end ~

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***** Eb Crawford first appeared in my story, The Lone Cowboy. I thought it would be a hoot to turn the tables and use Eb again.

*****Note of interest: I did some research on different ways they could have used to carry water, other than merely canteens. As you can guess, crossing the dessert, the last thing anyone wants is to run out of water, especially for the horses. What I found was canvas water bags. Never thought canvas would hold the water, but found a site where loggers used these water bags. Through natural evaporation, the water was kept cooler and lasted for days. And they even had pictures of water canvas bags used in the late 1800’s. Mary

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5 thoughts on “The Test by Mary M

  1. I just finished this story and wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed it. It was an interesting twist to the way Scott and Johnny came back to Lancer and how they met. I enjoyed seeing their relationship develop during the trip home and for the back story of Johnny and Val’s friendship. Very well written. Looking forward to more. Thanks.

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  2. Mary, I truly enjoyed your wonderful alternate homecoming story. You were very true to the main characters and I liked that you included Val, “the father of (Johnny’s) heart” so nicely in the story. I loved how the brothers connected with each other so intensely. I was very curious about who was following Johnny, and didn’t guess right at all. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. How I thank you for sharing this great story with us. There is real tension and the plot never wavers. Oh look forward to more of your stories!

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