The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link
subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link
subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link
subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link
subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link
subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link
subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link
subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link

Buckskin

 

 

Honor Bound
Thanks to Cat for the beta

Without their knowledge, Murdoch watched from the safety of the ridge as his sons worked stringing fence down below in the ravine. He’d been observing them for a few minutes as they toiled in the hot sun. They worked well together and accomplished much despite their penchant for tomfoolery and shenanigans, and that made Murdoch smile. They stopped for a break, dousing themselves with water from their canteens; then, after a brief conversation, they headed in the direction of the small lake.

Once on the rocky shore, they each kicked off their boots, shirts were pulled off, and pants discarded. The long johns were last on the pile, and with a flash of bare backsides, they were both in the water splashing and trying to dunk the other, playing like the child that hides in most hearts. The innocence of the sight brought tears to Murdoch’s eyes. The sons who were strangers as of two years ago were now as close as if they’d known each other all their lives.  Murdoch would never forget this moment. Ever. He would hold this precious memory in his heart for as long as he drew breath. He turned his horse away to ride home, not wanting to break up what had been so long in coming.

Since his sons had returned, there had been no shortage of hijinks, practical joking, and silliness. There was rarely silence in the house when they were there, and Murdoch had to admit that it was a welcome alternative. The estancia had been too quiet, too still to be the home of a man with two sons. But now it was a home. And he wouldn’t change a minute of it.

Once they’d gotten to know each other, they’d become friends. It didn’t happen overnight, and there were tense moments, but as those moments began to fade, the closeness, the bonds of brotherhood took root and grew solid and unbreakable. To look at them, one would never have guessed they shared the same blood. One was light, and the other dark and they both favored their mothers.

Murdoch had suffered the loss of two wives, and both sons had been torn out of his life not to return until they were grown, men. They all had missed out on what should have been a normal family life. Missed out on birthdays together and holidays together and any other family tradition that families share. But Murdoch and his sons couldn’t afford the time or energy to think of this disadvantage in those terms; they had to make the most of their life together now.

Murdoch couldn’t have been more proud of his sons had he raised them himself. They had grown into honest and trustworthy men, and this was something that so puzzled Murdoch, as the chance for them to have gone in a horribly different direction with devastating consequences, had been entirely possible.

The potential for disaster had been so overwhelming in each of their lives, that Murdoch considered it to be of miracle status they were here now, in one piece and of a sound mind.

Scott, the older of the two, had survived, not only his mother’s passing within minutes of his birth, he’d endured an overbearing grandfather who whisked him away from Murdoch and hadn’t allowed Murdoch contact with Scott until he had grown and made the decision for himself to see his father. Scott had also come out of the war relatively unscathed, and that in itself was remarkable as he had been interned at Libby Prison for a year before the war ended. He suffered from the nightmares brought on from his incarceration at Libby, and the horrific fighting during that ugly war ensured Scott would continue to battle those demons.

Johnny, on the other hand, had been born at Lancer and lived there for two years as a toddler until his mother, a fiery Mexican wench, left in the middle of the night with her lover, taking Johnny with her. She moved from one town to the next, living with her many men, none of whom wanted a small boy interrupting their hedonistic life. She dragged Johnny with her through the border towns, and he'd witnessed things no child should ever have been exposed to.

In Mexico, she was killed, murdered by one of her lovers, and Johnny was, for all practical purposes, orphaned at the tender age of ten, surviving the only way he knew how... stealing. And it was at the age of twelve he killed his first man. The man that murdered his mother and from that pivotal moment, he learned the way of the gun and mastered it so well, so young. He gained the reputation and very soon, in his early teens, had made a name for himself as Johnny Madrid, gunhawk. He’d been paid much money and had been in charge of men at seventeen strategizing in the range wars; he became an expert in the art of reading men, knowing when they were going to draw their gun and beating them to it.

So different were these brothers yet very much alike in principals, ethics, and compassion, and both so clearly enjoying their new life at Lancer and part of the family they should have been all along. Yes, Murdoch was a proud man!

<><><><> 

Val Crawford stood on the boardwalk and surveyed the hot, dusty street. The afternoon sun blazed in the blue sky and promised no respite for the rest of the day, only dry air to sear the lungs and leave one longing for the dark, cool saloon and several beers to cut the dirt that coated the throat. He stepped down into the street and headed in the direction of The Angels Nest, for, indeed, there were angels there, waiting for men and waiting for their money.

Val took a seat in the back and ordered his beer. Although it wasn’t that cold, it did cut the dust, so he was content. Being sheriff of Green River wasn’t such a lousy job. The town was relatively quiet, only the occasional rowdy to lock up. Not too much crime to worry about, and it provided a steady income. The coffee was terrible because Val simply made awful coffee. Everyone knew his coffee could tar a roof and cauterize a bullet wound, doing both jobs out of the same pot, but that was Val.

Finishing his beer, he left the saloon’s cool interior and smiled at his dream girl in the nude picture hanging behind the bar, and he could have sworn she smiled back. Crossing the street, he intended to go down to the livery, get Milagro, and ride out to Lancer to see Johnny but was called into the general store to the post office in the back of the building.

“Sheriff! Come on over here!” Old Pete Mitchell called from the doorway.

Val ambled his way into the store and headed for the back where Pete held a small package in his hands.

“This came for you today, Val. Thought it might be something you were waitin' for.” The postmaster handed Val the parcel and went back to sorting the mail.

“Thanks, Pete," Val said as he took the small box, checked the address. Yup, that's my name.

Not recognizing the writing, Val took the package over to his office and sat down behind the cluttered, grubby desk, again scrutinizing the writing. It looked as if it were written by a feminine hand, with its neat and uniform letters. Curiosity got the better of him, and he ripped it open. He lifted the lid from the box to find a religious medallion and a message inside. Val opened the missive and began to read; the more he read, the more enraged he became. With shaking hands, he picked up the medallion to scrutinize the fine workmanship. Val grabbed his hat and with a careless shove to his chair, pushed it back to slam into the wall, then hurried from his office to the livery. Now he was definitely going to see Johnny.

<><><><> 

Johnny Lancer lifted the saddle from Barranca’s back and settled it on the rack next to Scott’s. He took the bridle and saddle blanket from the golden horse and stowed them away to their proper place and began the ritual of wiping the stallion down and grooming the horse until he glowed. Had Barranca been in the sun, he probably would have blinded the eyes if one looked too long at the bright yellow coat. Satisfied with his job, Johnny pulled a carrot from his pocket and held it out to the horse. With a delicate mouth, the palomino took the treat, crunched on it, and tossed his head as if asking for more. The head-butt to Johnny’s chest told of his disappointment, as the tuckered man back-stepped and Barranca snorted.

“Hey, there, boy! You’re gettin’ a little bossy, ain'tcha?” Johnny laughed as he scratched the golden ears and was answered with another head toss, now saying Yeah, so what! I want more carrots! Johnny, still with his smile on his face, left the barn and entered the house.

Up in his room, he pulled clean clothes from the wardrobe and continued directly out to the bathhouse. Dios! But a bath is gonna feel so good after a day like this one! Feel like goin’ straight ta bed. But soaking in the tub helped ease the stress of the day from his mind and body. After drying himself on the towel, he began to feel almost human again. Maybe he wouldn’t go straight to bed after all. Guess the day wasn’t so bad, an’ puttin’ up with stupid cows is rough, but nothin’ that I can’t handle. Hope T’resa’s got supper on. I could eat a side a beef right about now...

Entering the house from the back kitchen door, he could hear voices coming from the great room and wondered who was visiting until he made out Val’s raucous laughter. Hurrying through the kitchen, he snagged a piece of meat from the platter that Maria had just prepared and was about to take to the dining area. She swatted at Johnny’s hand with a wooden spoon, and he danced out of her way before she could make contact. He was laughing as he rounded the corner in time to see everyone taking their seats at the table.

“Hey, Val! What bring’s ya out here? Ah, lemme guess... Ya heard we were havin’ T’resa’s chocolate cake, right?” His eyes sparkled with mirth as he knew how Val felt about Teresa’s cake.

“Not exactly. Let’s eat first, then we’ll talk,” answered Val, not meeting Johnny’s eyes.

Johnny’s smile disappeared, but he said nothing. They passed the bowls of deliciously prepared food and enjoyed the meal and the company. Once the cake had been served and promptly consumed, Johnny excused himself and Val out to the patio.

They sat on the benches and leaned against the wall, relaxing as the warmth of the adobe now helped repel the cool of the evening. The air sweet with the scents of the flowers in Teresa’s garden and the call of the poor-wills singing in the night eased the tension. Johnny took a deep breath as apprehension loomed, and a feeling of dread began to grow.

“What’s goin’ on, Val?” Johnny asked quietly. He knew Val would level with him. They pulled no punches with each other, never had, and never would.

“This come in the mail for ya taday,” Val handed Johnny the small box and a paper which he took and held for a minute as if already knowing what it contained. Leaning forward with elbows on his thighs, he picked up the paper and read the neatly written letter.

Dear Juanito,

 

I have asked Val to help me get this to you, knowing he had settled in Green River, and he would know where you were. Diego and I found out you weren’t executed, as most people seem to think, and escaped the bullets meant for you at the last minute. I thank God that your life was spared. I know that you meant everything to Diego. When the Rurales caught you, Diego almost went crazy with grief as he knew you would be shot, but the news of your escape brought a brief time of joy. You were like his brother in so many ways. He loved you like a brother. That is why I am sending you this medallion. He asked that if anything ever happened to him, I would make sure you got it. He was taken almost two months ago, and I have not seen or heard from him since. Our son and I saw him ride away with many men, and he has not returned.

I am not asking you to come and find him. I think he is already dead, but I had to make sure that you received this gift. He told me that you would understand. Again, I am not asking you to come. I am only honoring his wishes.

I hope this letter finds its way into your hands, and I pray you have found a way to tame the recklessness and wildness that’s always been so much a part of you. You deserve much more out of life, and I hope you are well and happy.

Rocio Ramirez

Johnny reread the letter, then picked the medallion out of the box and held it in his hand, curling his fingers around it as if to keep it from flying away. The beautiful gold chain swinging from his fist and sparkled in the light of the lantern. Johnny closed his eyes and hung his head. Val said nothing and waited for him to find his words.

Johnny sat once again with his shoulders to the wall and tipped his head back against it. With eyes still closed, he was back in time, recounting the last day they’d spent together in each other’s company. So full of energy and ideas, things they were going to do regarding the revolution, what they would do for the people, and ultimately, the promise to each other that they would honor till their dying day— to bring justice to the man responsible for the betrayal of their people. And now Diego was taken, and that left Johnny and Val, to set things right.

Johnny opened his eyes and stared briefly into the night. It was beautiful, peaceful, and the stars were vivid and bright. The soft breeze fluttered the hair that had fallen onto his forehead. He took a deep breath and blew it out. Wild and unexplained thoughts tumbled through his mind. Something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t put a finger on it. Diego wouldn’t leave Rocio and the boy... not ever. Nothing on this earth could tear them apart unless they had held a gun to his head. And who would do that now? The revolution was over almost before it got started, and the man responsible for the betrayal was dead. Manolo Morales had died in the fire, Johnny and Diego saw it happen. Then who had taken Diego?

“Val, I gotta talk to Rocio. I can’t leave it like this,” Johnny whispered.

Val looked into Johnny’s face and saw the determination in the troubled stormy eyes. “I knew that from the minute I saw you readin’ that letter. I’ll be ready ta go when you are.”

Johnny turned and watched Val’s face. “What'd ya mean you’ll be ready when I am? You got a town ta take care of; ya just can’t up an’ leave...”

“Yeah, I can an’ I will. I can have Tom Matthews from Merced come over for a while. He owes me big an’ I get time off an’ ya ain’t goin’ down there alone, not without me, ya ain’t!” Val committed adamantly, shaking his head to emphasize the statement.

In shock, Johnny turned to Val. “What’d ya think? I’m gonna get myself in trouble?” turning innocent wide eyes on his amigo.

Val would have laughed if this wasn’t so serious. Johnny could certainly pull off the ‘little boy’ look when he wanted to. “Hell yeah, I think you’re gonna get yourself in trouble. You forget who you’re talkin’ ta here? I’ve known ya too long ta try that one on me. I’m goin’.” And that was it.

Johnny gave Val a sad smile. “Thanks, amigo,” he said, the words barely above a whisper. “Guess I better try an’ explain it ta Murdoch.” And Johnny slowly walked into the house, leaving Val sitting at the patio wall.

<><><><> 

Murdoch sat behind his large desk, going over the books that demanded so much of their time. The meticulous columns of figures attesting to the diligence of the task and covered page after page in the ledgers, as Murdoch smiled at the bottom line. They had made a large profit due to hard work and a tenacious spirit. Hopefully, it would continue as he was on the verge of consenting to Johnny’s horse breeding idea as the army would be in the market for good sound stock, and Lancer was the closest source for miles.

He looked up to see Johnny slowly walk into the room and take a seat opposite the desk. Johnny sat looking at his hands, holding something that Murdoch couldn’t see.

“Val left already?” Murdoch asked.

“No, no, he’s still here. Out on the patio...” came the soft reply.

“Johnny, is something wrong?” Murdoch asked, now alarmed at the sadness that rolled from his son, misery, and despair wrapped around him, threatening to squeeze the life out of his body. Sorrow and anguish constricted Johnny in a suffocating shroud. His eyes held grief of a most personal kind, trapping him in a web of fear. Fear of the unknown.

Murdoch started to rise from the desk but stopped as Johnny finally looked up, and he saw the turbulence linger in Johnny’s eyes. They conveyed incredible emotion, more emotion than Murdoch ever thought possible one person should have to bear; his son’s eyes were tortured. And it broke Murdoch’s heart.

“Johnny, please tell me! Can I help, son?” he pleaded.

“Dunno, Murdoch...” Johnny said softly, adding to the growing fear in  Murdoch’s heart . He suddenly wanted to go to Johnny and hold him, give his son support that he looked so desperately in need of.

“I ah... I have somethin’ I need ta take care of, Murdoch. Might be gone a couple weeks. Val’s goin’ with me so I can’t get in too much trouble, he says. Don’t want ta put ya out any, but this is important an’ I, ah...” Johnny stopped to take a breath.

“Johnny, of course, but can I help? At all?” Worry continued to flood through Murdoch, but he also realized that Johnny was a grown man. Strange, he’d missed all the growing up years, and now that his sons were home, he still had this overwhelming need to try and protect them.

“Thanks, no. I gotta do this.” Johnny stood, and once again, Murdoch felt the need to try and take away some of the pain.

“Can you tell me what this is about, Johnny?”

Johnny met his eyes. “All I know is that a friend a mine is missin', his wife thinks he’s dead an’ I need ta keep my promise.”

Johnny was talked out, Murdoch could tell, but he was desperate for more. He wanted to get Johnny to open up and let him help but didn’t know how without pushing too hard. He would have to wait until Johnny was ready to say more. Murdoch reached out to his son and put a large hand on each of Johnny’s shoulders.

“I’m here if you need help. Please don’t hesitate to ask Johnny. Please...”

“Thanks, Murdoch.” Johnny turned and quietly walked out of the house back to Val.

Val had left, and Johnny went directly to his room. Murdoch wanted to charge up the stairs and ask for more answers, but he didn’t. He was learning patience with this son as much as this son was learning discipline. When Murdoch decided to retire for the night, he noticed a dim light from under Johnny’s door. Could he still be awake? It’s getting very late... Murdoch wondered and decided to take what might be his last chance with this situation.

He stepped to the door and knocked lightly. Then was rewarded with a soft “It’s open,” and Murdoch entered to see Johnny standing in front of the open window, sock-footed, shirt on but untucked and unbuttoned, looking out at the night. He did not turn around as Murdoch came in and closed the door.

“Johnny, are you alright?” asked Murdoch as Johnny turned his head slightly

but did not meet his father’s eyes.

“No,” came Johnny’s whispered reply.

“I wish there was something I could do for you, son. Why do you have to

go?”

“Ever make anyone a promise, Murdoch? I mean, a really important promise?

Real important?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Did’ya keep it?”

“Yes.”

“Then, I don’t need ta explain.” Johnny turned to face his father.

Murdoch noticed that while the pain and grief were still there, there was something else, too. Determination.

“Johnny, can you tell me anything about this? I won’t press for details, but you’ve got me quite worried.”

Johnny smiled a bit at this as he looked down at his hand. His eyes downcast, dark lashes, long and feather-like against his skin.

So much like his Mother, Murdoch thought.

“Sorry, Murdoch, I’m still kinda used ta takin’ care a things on my own, not havin' ta worry about explainin' things ta anyone.” Johnny let out a long sigh. “Might wanna siddown. This’ll take a while.”

In as much as this was a serious situation, Murdoch almost rejoiced as Johnny, his wayward and independent son, was starting to open up. They sat on Johnny's bed, and as he talked, he was taken back in time. Murdoch didn’t interrupt but let Johnny say what needed to be said.

Johnny told him about Diego and Val, the three of them fighting against the Rurales in the Revolution and the bitter betrayal by Manolo Morales to the renegade Rurales. Johnny had always suspected Morales of being the one person that had told the renegades where Johnny Madrid had been, and it resulted in Johnny’s capture and led to the firing squad. But at the very last moment, Johnny was able to escape with the aid of Murdoch’s Pinkerton agent, so the rumor was Madrid had been executed when, in truth, he’d been able to get to Lancer.

They had suspected Morales all along of supplying information to the Mexican soldiers but couldn’t prove it enough to bring him to their justice. Until that night when Diego and Johnny had witnessed Morales selling this information and then took cover in a barn when he thought he’d been seen. Shortly afterward, the barn had burned to the ground, and they hadn’t seen Morales leave. Now Diego was missing, taken from his house by unknown men, and not returned. Something wasn’t right.

“I need ta talk to Rocio, Diego’s wife, and find out what happened. See if she can give a description of the men that came to the house that day. It just ain’t addin’ up...” Johnny said as he shook his head in frustration.

Murdoch noticed the chain in Johnny’s hand. “What’s that, John?” Murdoch asked, indicating the chain. Johnny opened his fist, revealing the medallion in his palm. “That’s like the one you wear, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is. We made a promise that if we got inta trouble an' needed help, we'd see to it that our medallion got sent to the other if we could. It means that something was wrong. Don't think that Rocio knew about that.” Johnny closed his fingers around the medallion in a tight fist. “Been runnin’ it through my mind over an’ over an’ can’t come up with a reason why anyone would wanna take him. There’s no fightin’; everything’s settled down...” The more Johnny thought about it, the more confused he became.

Murdoch sat back, trying to digest everything Johnny had told him. “Are you sure Morales is dead? Did he know that you and Diego were on to him?  It could be revenge. He thought you were dead, killed by the firing squad...”

“Murdoch, right now, I ain’t sure of anything, except Diego’s gone.” Johnny leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and hung his head.

“Well, Johnny, I won’t lie about it, I don’t want you to go, but I do understand.”

“Thanks, Murdoch. Guess I better turn in. We’ll be leavin’ late tomorrow, gotta wait for Tom Matthews ta get here an’ take over for Val. Wanna get as much ground covered as we can, so we'll travel at night until we get further south.”

Murdoch stood quietly for a moment, knowing that nothing he could say would change Johnny's mind. “Come back safely, Johnny.” A small grin flitted across Johnny’s face as he met Murdoch’s gaze. “Goodnight, son.”

“’Night, Murdoch.” After Murdoch shut the door, Johnny went to the table and took paper and ink out of the drawer. He picked up a pen and started to write.

<><><><> 

Scott entered the barn and found Johnny packing a few supplies into his saddlebags. He seemed at a loss for words.

Funny, Boston’s not able ta say nothin’, Johnny noted as Scott stood quietly, watching him and waiting for his words to come.

Finally, he broke the silence. “Johnny... be careful and come home safe... please.”

“I intend to, Boston. Be home before ya know I’m gone!” Johnny tried to joke, but Scott put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and turned him to look into his eyes.

“Johnny, I’m serious...”

Johnny Lancer smiled and quietly said, “Yeah, I know, Scott. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome and just remember... it’s my responsibility to kick your ass back here if you don’t!” Scott smiled.

With that, Johnny did laugh. “Stand in line, Boston! Stand in line!” They heard the hoofbeats and turned as Val came thundering into the yard.

“Ya ready, amigo?” asked Val. Johnny Madrid swung up into the saddle, and with a parting look into his brother’s eyes, he said goodbye. They kicked their horses into a gallop, and they were under the Lancer arch in a heartbeat.

Scott watched his brother ride away with an emotion he hadn’t felt for over twenty years... he wanted to cry.

<><><><> 

Johnny and Val made camp ten hours later in a grove of Ponderosa pines beside a small stream. They'd made it past Fresno and satisfied with their progress, they stopped to rest. The burble of the water helped to soothe their nerves and sang them to sleep. They woke reasonably refreshed and started again on their journey to find their friend and maybe to find the one who betrayed them three years ago.

They rode in silence for over an hour. Having slept in the hottest part of the day and traveled at night, they made better time. Now, as Johnny lay on his bedroll, not able to sleep, he thought about Diego. Where was he? What had happened and... why now?  Already at sunrise, it was hot, and the sweat trickled down their faces creating muddy, itchy trails that continued down their necks and onto their clothes. Each had a wet patch between their shoulder blades that extended down the back. The next waterhole would be a very welcoming spot.

“Got any plans yet, amigo?” Val asked curiously, crabby that Johnny had woken him so early. Hell! They'd just fallen asleep!

“Not till we talk with Rocio. Sure hope she got a look at those guys that Diego left with. If she didn’t, it’s gonna be almost impossible to find out what’s goin’ on,” Johnny answered.

Val suddenly pierced Johnny with a worried stare. "Johnny?" he began as he caught his amigo's attention.

"Yeah?"

"Stop shavin'... You're still wanted in Mexico, and we gotta make sure no one recognizes Madrid. The fact that we might be dealin' with the Rurales... well, 'm just a mite nervous 'bout that," Val admitted.

"Maybe there ain't many around that knew Madrid, but I know we can't count on that. Hey, I shoulda borrowed some a Scott's ruffled shirts an' fancy jackets, they'd never recognize me then!" Johnny quipped.

Val snorted. "Might not recognize Madrid, but you'd end up in jail anyway, just for lookin' stupid!" The two men laughed as they pictured Johnny behind bars wearing a fancy eastern shirt complete with ruffles.

“Hey, Johnny, when we go back, what’d ya say we stop off at Rosalie's?”  Val asked with a sparkle in his eyes. Best whorehouse along the border!

“Ya mean if we make it out alive...?” then Johnny smiled.

“Amigo, it’s been three nights on the ground. How ‘bout we sleep in a bed tanight? My backsides gittin’ pretty sore from all these cold nights stretched out on rocks!” Val groused.

“Damn, I shoulda brought Jelly! He don’t complain near as much as you do...” Johnny shot Val a withering look then broke out in a wide grin.

<><><><> 

The town of Santee was small but quiet, and the cantina had good food and drink. The spicy aromas of tamales made Johnny’s mouth water. They ordered food from a flirty and sassy waitress and drank beer and tequila while waiting for their meals.

Consuelo pranced back and forth in front of them with swaying hips and skirt that danced around her bare ankles. Her peasant blouse boasted of nothing worn underneath it and barely covered what needed to be covered. Val and Johnny drank, ate, and paid their bill to be on their way before Consuelo got any further ideas. She pouted when they left out the brightly painted door. With bellies full, they got a room and settled down to sleep in a real bed with real blankets and dreamed real bad dreams.

The house was burning. Diego, Rocio, and Mateo were in the house! Get out! Johnny wanted to yell as loud as he could! The smoke was thick in the air, choking off the flow of oxygen into the lungs and burning eyes as a constant stream of tears tried to wash it away. He heard Rocio scream, then nothing...

Johnny woke with a start. He was covered in sweat. Dios! He wished the dreams would stop. He looked over at Val, who was tossing and turning on the bed. So much for a good night’s rest. Shoulda slept outside... Johnny thought.

Breakfast was eaten quietly, each man lost in his own thoughts.

“We’ll be there tomorrow. Got any ideas yet?” asked Val around a mouthful of huevos rancheros.

“Told ya, it depends on what Rocio can tell us. If she can give us description a what these guys look like, we can go after ‘em,” Johnny answered.

“Johnny, Diego’s been gone for ‘bout two months. What makes you think there’s gonna be a trail ta follow?” Val was skeptical.

“Nothin’… 'cept somethin’ Murdoch said,” Johnny countered softly.

“Yeah, an’ what’s that?” Val asked, intrigued now.

“He asked if we were sure Morales is dead...”

Val was shocked to the bone. The thought never occurred to him that maybe, just maybe, Morales had lived. That meant that Diego was a dead man, and that would have sealed his fate. Thinking he’d already had gotten Madrid out of the picture with giving him up to the firing squad, Morales would have gone after Diego and tied up the last loose end. Had the fire been a cover-up so Diego would think he didn't need to worry any longer?

“Yeah, but seein’ the way that barn went up in flames an’ then caved in, I can’t see how he got out a there...” Val couldn’t grasp that Morales could be alive.

Johnny turned to look at his amigo. “Unless there was a tunnel or a cellar- somethin’ like that... But we have ta talk with Rocio before anything,” explained Johnny, still trying to reason it out in his head.

“What’d ya tell Murdoch?” Val asked

“Everything. Was expectin’ a big blow-up, but there wasn’t. Scott’s the one that worries me, though,” Johnny confessed.

“How so?” Val was surprised by this revelation.

“He gets himself all worked up about things, shocked about all this. He found out that I come close ta being hung once, and he yelled at me because I was kinda laughin’ about it. Hell, it happened, ya can’t change that. If it’s my time ta go, I’ll go. Ain’t gonna worry about it none. I ‘preciate that he cares, but ya can’t change things. He wasn’t there ta see the look on the sheriff’s face when I got away. I thought it was real funny! But, I guess it comes from the different way we grew up.” Johnny thought about how opposite Scott was when it came to hearing about the dangers he’d been through in his young life. The close calls and near misses Johnny endured seemed to send Scott right to the edge.

“Yeah, me an’ him had this little talk ‘bout all a that a couple a months back,” Val divulged.

Johnny’s eyebrows went up at this. “Talkin’ about me behind my back, were ya?” as his smile crept across his face.

“Not ‘xactly. We were havin’ a drink an’ you couldn’t keep your pants on— went upstairs with Cindy. So while we were waitin’ for ya, we just started talkin’, I think it was right after we got back from bringin’ the Gannon brothers in and you an’ Vince went off the side a the train.”

Johnny winced at that reminder. Scott had been livid with him, and Johnny couldn’t understand what had Scott so upset.

“Yeah, he did get pissed over that, but, like I said, it happened an’ nothin’ is gonna change that now an’ worryin’ ain’t gonna stop somethin’ else from happenin’ again.”

“No, but what I think bothers him more‘n anythin’ is the way you handle it. Like it was nothin’, just a little incident an’ ya forget ‘bout it, act like it’s no big deal,” Val volunteered.

“I’ll hafta ask him what good it’d do ta make a fuss over it...” Johnny still couldn’t figure his brother out.

“Aw, he’s raised different, guess these things scare him some an’ you can forget it when it’s over.”

Johnny worked his jaw muscles as he thought. “Gotta let it go. It’ll kill ya if ya don’t.”

“Could be, Johnny, it’s easier for ya ta let it go, it’s how ya grew up, all ya knew, your way a life. Ol’ Scott, though, bein’ brought up in his big fancy house with all them servants an’ all, he got his first taste of dyin’ an’ violence in the war. He was a grown man already. That’s a big difference.”

“Yeah, guess so. Still can’t change it. Gotta get past it or you ain’t gonna be gettin’ past nothin’,” Johnny said, speaking from experience.

They finished their meal, threw a few coins on the table, and after hesitating at the door to check the street, they went outside to get on their horses. They took the road south out of town, hoping to make up some time.

<><><><> 

The country hadn’t changed much. Still desolate, still poverty-stricken. And still held all the old memories, tragedies, and horrors they’d felt, seen, and witnessed several years earlier. Johnny felt the old feelings rise up and boiling over in him as if he’d never been away. Any moment he expected the renegade Rurales to come riding over the hill, guns pointed at his heart, wanting to take him away again. Madrid’s back in Mexico, boys. Ya better be ready cuz this time it ain’t gonna be the same rules that it was.

They would be in Tecate by late afternoon, coming in a back way as to not raise any suspicions. The fewer people that knew Johnny and Val were around, the better it would be.

<><><><> 

The Ramirez farm sat much as it did the last time Johnny was there. Except that the garden was larger and there were a few more horses in the corral. Diego must have been doing well until two months ago, that is. A small boy played with a dog in the yard. Johnny could hear the little boy laugh as the dog ran after the stick he’d thrown.

Staying in the cover of the trees on the hill, Johnny and Val waited till dark. They didn’t know if the house was being watched and didn’t want to push their luck.

When darkness fell, they headed to the house, to the little house that had been a safe place as of three years ago or so. A house that was full of love and friendship, with good people and better friends. Friends with deep bonds... and promises.

Johnny peeked in a window and watched as Rocio put dinner on the table. Little Mateo sat on the floor in front of the fire with the dog playing with a toy. The dog pulled, and Mateo fell over laughing as the mutt tried to drag him. The doors to the other rooms were open, and Johnny couldn’t see anyone other than Diego’s family in the tiny house.

He stepped to the door and knocked three times, then once more after a few seconds of hesitation.

Rocio stopped in mid-stride to listen. The dog barked twice but was silenced by her as she set the plates on the table and went to the window beside the door. Pulling the curtain aside, she gasped as she saw the two men she loved as brothers and flung the door open to welcome them. Johnny and Val entered the small house, then quickly shut the door behind them and pulled the curtains closed. Rocio jumped into Johnny’s arms and hugged him fiercely.

“Juanito mio! I didn’t mean for you to come here! Why are you here?” she exclaimed and turned her attention on Val. She greeted Val as she did Johnny and wiped the tears from her eyes. Little Mateo looked on in suspicion, and the dog growled again.

“Chile! These are friends! Do not growl at them! Mateo, come here.” The little boy got up off the floor and went to his mother. She picked him up and held him to see the strangers. He was shy and leaned close into his mother’s embrace.

“Mateo, these are dear friends of your papa’s. This is Johnny, and this is Val,” she pointed out the two, and still, Mateo was apprehensive. But the warm smiles from the two men intrigued him, and he found himself wanting to know them more. At the tender age of four, he had learned the difference between good and evil. These were good men, and the ones that took his papa were bad. If his mother liked these men, he would also.

Rocio set him on the floor and turned to Johnny once more with tears in her eyes. "Juanito, I don’t want you to be here! I don’t want to give them any excuse to take you again! You need to go now!” she begged.

“Wait a minute, Rocio; I hafta know what happened. Who took Diego? Did you get a good look at any of them?” Johnny began to fire questions at her.

“There were seven of them. They looked much like all the other Rurales; they all looked like they needed a bath and a good scrubbing.” Rocio closed her eyes, trying to come up with any other details that Johnny would be interested in, but nothing was standing out; she would have to think a while on this.

“Rocio, did any of those men have an unusual horse or distinguishable marks, like scars or missing fingers?... Anything?” Johnny pushed harder.

“Not that I can think... wait, one had scars on his face. He tried to cover his face with a beard. But he looked like he could have been badly burned. It all happened so fast that I can’t be sure. They took Diego, he hugged me the last time, and he whispered in my ear to not forget the medallion and be sure to send it to you. None of them heard that, and I am glad. They believe that you are dead and wouldn’t be looking for you,” she said softly.

Johnny met Val’s eyes in a look of disbelief. Morales was alive! He had survived the fire and was now bent on revenge. And he’d come for Diego. It didn’t matter that the revolution was over, that innocent people were struggling just to get on with their lives. Manolo Morales was covering his ass and took a man from his beautiful family and probably murdered him.

Johnny was seething inside, but he knew he had to get a hold of himself if he wanted to fix this and get out of this alive. Diego had sent for him. Needed his help, and Johnny would gladly give it just as if Scott had needed his help.

He laid a log on the fire and settled himself on the floor with the dog. Chile had begun to warm up, and Johnny had always found comfort in four-legged friends. More often than not, better than the two-legged variety. The pup snuggled in for some serious belly scratching, and his little eyes soon drifted shut.

Johnny’s thoughts were stumbling around in his head, over and over he chased them, and the more answers he came upon, the more questions were raised. Why would Morales even care anything about Diego now? It made no sense. Even if Diego were to expose him, what difference would it make? The peasants had been defeated; there was no possibility of another revolution... It made NO sense! Johnny was ready to punch something or someone.

There was a small sound, and Rocio stepped from her room and quietly closed the door. She and Mateo were in her room, leaving Johnny and Val to sleep in Mateo’s. After an argument with her insisting they not spend the night in the barn, they settled in the tiny room. With a shawl around her shoulders, she sat in the rocking chair next to Johnny. She smiled at Chile, still drowsing at Johnny’s side.

“You always could tame the wild ones, Juanito,” Rosio murmured as she put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and gave a quick squeeze. He looked up and smiled at her. The smile that had broken many hearts, she thought.

“Tell me about it, Rocio. I need to know everything, even things you don’t think matter,” Johnny asked her in that soft whisper voice he used.

“Why, Juanito? Why, when it could get you killed? You came so close to death, why take the chance of letting them know you’re still alive?” Rocio asked with tears again filling her eyes. She used the back of her hand to wipe them away. She’d done so much crying lately, she thought she would dry up and wither away.

“Because I made a promise. The same promise that Diego made ta me, an’ I know if the situation was reversed, he’d a been right there for me.” Johnny turned to look into her eyes, and she understood. Honor was important to these men, and she did understand.

“Alright, I’ll tell you all I know, which isn’t much. After you were taken and almost shot, Diego came home, and we started raising horses. It was a slow start with the little money we had. Diego had a hard time getting back into the ranch work, he thought you were dead, and that took a lot out of him, but he finally seemed to work through those demons, and we began to live again. Then, soon after, things started to change, and whenever he went to town, he thought he was being followed and watched.”

“When did that start? I mean, how soon after Diego got home?” Johnny asked, staring at the flames as they danced over the wood.

“About three months before they came to take him away. We started to see men watching the house. They would be up on the hill behind the trees.”

Probably the same spot Val and I were today, Johnny thought.

“They would just watch, no one ever came to the yard or when Diego was out in the fields, until the day they took him away.” There was a hitch in her breath as she ended the statement.

“Can you think of anything else?”

“Not right now. Maybe if I think about it more but right now you know as much as I do. Probably more... Why did they take him, Juanito?” and she started to cry again. He reached up and pulled her down beside him, then wrapped his arms around her until the crying stopped. He leaned down to place a kiss on top of her head.

Rocio had always meant so much to him, and his heart was breaking for her, for her and Mateo. What would she do if Diego was dead? I will help her one way or another, he promised himself. He would ask her if she wanted to move to Lancer, where he could help her find work, and if she didn’t want that, he could always send her money. That would hardly make up for her loss, but at least she’d know she wasn’t alone.

There was a tiny whimper from her room. “I have to go to Mateo. Thank you, Juanito. Thank you for your help and for being the man you are. Diego was right to think of you as his brother.” She kissed his cheek and went to her son.

Johnny sat there for a long while, how was he going to handle this? And how long could he stay out of sight without Morales finding out that he hadn’t been executed? Any traveling he and Val did would have to be after sundown, and he would need another horse. Barranca was the best horse he’d ever owned, but he was a head-turner, he would be noticed. Johnny would have to find a place to keep him and find another horse to ride that wasn’t so noticeable.

Guess that’s where we start.

Johnny looked around the room. Where it was comfortable enough, it was plainly furnished, just the necessities, but Rocio had made it a home. And Diego should be here. Johnny took a deep but shaky breath and blew it out. He heaved himself off the floor and went into the room he shared with Val.

<><><><> 

Disguised in the traditional white clothing of a Mexican farmer and with a large sombrero on his head, Val led the donkey down the road in the direction that Diego had gone with the seven men. He’d kept his eyes open but saw nothing and no one. Val wasn’t sure where exactly he was going, but his eyes were moving from side to side, watching for tracks and looking at the hills around him on the right and left. And he watched his back. He had gone about five miles when he decided to turn around. Any farther on foot would be useless.

When he arrived back to the small farm, he went into the cave in the rocks behind Rocio’s house, where Mateo would play, changed his clothes, and waited for dark before he would enter the tiny dwelling. Johnny was waiting for his report.

“Nuthin’ that I could see. No tracks an’ no sign of anyone.”

“Rocio, what’s the nearest town in that direction?” Johnny asked

“A small village, Red Creek. After that, nothing for miles in any direction.”

Johnny thought a while, mulling over possibilities. “Is there any law in that village?” he asked, knowing the answer before she confirmed what he thought, but he had to ask to verify.

“No, only the toughest person who happens to be there at the moment.”

“How about you an’ me go for a ride tamorrow, Val?” He winked at Val then went to find something less noticeable to change into.

Johnny and Val rode into Red Creek, looking much like the average every day Mexican drifters. Both had swapped their hats for the larger sombrero type and wore the short bolero jackets. Johnny kept his hat pulled low to hide as much of his face as possible. It wouldn’t do for people to know Johnny Madrid was very much alive and very well.

They rode to the cantina and sat in the back, sipping their tequilas, watching for… anything and just hoping that something would give them a clue. But nothing did. It was a sleepy little town, and as Rocio said, the only town for miles. It was getting to be late afternoon and thought they’d eat before they went back to the little ranch. They ordered tamales and washed them down with warm Mexican beer.

There weren’t many in the cantina as they got up to leave, but as they reached the door, with his usual perusal of the street before stepping out, Johnny spotted what might be their first clue. A group of three men on horseback had just ridden by, and all it took was one brief look, and Johnny identified them as Mexican Rurales, just like the renegade Rurales he’d dealt with over two years ago.

Again, he pulled his hat down to cover his eyes. A blue-eyed Mexican wasn’t typical and especially the blue of Johnny’s eyes. They would give him away, and the Madrid secret would be out. The growing beard helped to hide his face, but Johnny would consider it to be of miracle status if he didn't get caught. They went to their horses and took a roundabout way out of town to watch from a hilltop as the three soldiers went in a southwesterly direction.

They followed the soldiers for over an hour. As they glanced off to the right, there was darkening over the top of the mountains.

“Looks like we’re in for some wind, Val. We need ta take cover or start back,” Johnny said as he tried to decipher the storm that was on the ridge.

“Well, whatever we do, we’re gonna lose the trail. That sand’s gonna fill in all them tracks. What say we turn around here an’ try ta make it back to Rocio’s b’fore it gets so bad that we’re stuck out here,” Val answered.

They reined their horses around and headed back to the little ranch. They got halfway when the winds picked up and kicked the sand in their faces and down their backs coming near to scrubbing the hide off their bones. They made it back to Rocio’s before the worst of it hit.

For six hours, the wind tore at the little house, battering and scrubbing everything in its path. When it stopped, the quiet was deafening. Not even the night birds sang. Johnny and Val stepped out onto the porch and looked up at the midnight blue sky dotted with stars. Had they not known there had been a dust storm, they wouldn’t have believed it; there wasn’t a hint of it now. The sky was like crystal, and a cool breeze touched their skin.

“What’d ya wanna do tamorrow, Johnny? There ain’t gonna be nuthin’ left a that trail after six hours a blowin’ sand ‘round,” Val asked as he watched Johnny looking out at the ridge above the house.

Madrid took a deep breath and blew it out, not quite sure what the next move would be. But after a minute he answered the question. “Let’s take a ride back ta town. I think we need ta ask a few questions, and Rocio might need somethin, too.  Maybe if we’re at the right place at the right time, somethin’ll happen.” They turned in early for the night and were up before dawn. They wanted to be in town when it woke to greet a new day.

<><><><> 

They entered the small store, and Johnny, still with his hat pulled low over his face, handed the clerk his list, telling him they would return in a few hours for their order. The thin, wiry clerk with an equally thin mustache took the paper without a word, and without looking up, he began to put the order together, his brain quickly adding up the pesos as he worked.

Johnny and Val eased out of the store and wandered to the cantina in hopes of getting breakfast. They sat on the opposite side of the dark and dingy room where they had been yesterday, again, backs to the wall to watch the door. The fat bartender with a red sash tied around his wide girth brought out two plates heaping with huevos rancheros, setting one in front of each of them. A stone pot of coffee was refilled, and they ate a leisurely meal, acting as though they hadn’t a care in the world. Conversing quietly to themselves, one would have thought they did this every day. They blended in well and caused no undue attention to their presence.

The town became more active, its citizens setting up to sell their wares before the heat of the day would chase them all inside for their siestas. Johnny and Val kept an eye on the streets as they wandered, still looking to the world that they were who they appeared to be; the typical Mexican drifter was an everyday occurrence in this little town.

Still, with no clues, they headed back to the cantina for a drink. Entering the run-down building, but this time standing at the end of the bar, they ordered tequila and waited. Soon after the noon hour, two men pushed their way through the doors and sat at a table bellowing loudly for the barkeep to bring them drinks and food and to be quick about it. Johnny and Val watched as the two soldiers bullied and intimidated any and all that got in their way. An old man, with weathered skin and scraggly beard, wandered in, and soon the two soldiers, with their intimidating ways, found a new target. They pushed the man, antagonizing him for their perverse pleasure and perhaps to get him to start a fight as they badgered and poked fun at the defenseless old man.

“Johnny, keep a lid on it,” Val said quietly as he watched Johnny's eyes turn cold as the blue ice flashed their warnings. Johnny had to clench his teeth to not say anything, but he was close to exploding out of control. Nothing set him on fire more than big, ugly people pushing their way around, not caring who they trampled over. But soon, it was over, and the two soldiers exited without paying for their meals and left the old man grumbling. After a drink, the old man stumbled out of the rickety swinging door. Johnny quickly purchased a bottle of tequila, and he and Val followed the old man out of the cantina and down the dusty street.

They kept a distance behind, disguising the obviously tailing of the man but followed him to the little blacksmith shop. Once inside, the old man started hammering viciously on iron that he’d hauled out of the fire. He was still muttering when Johnny and Val entered the tiny establishment.

“Señor, por favor, I’d like to buy you a drink.” Johnny’s remark came softly, calmly, and sincerely. He looked squarely at the old man. The man’s eyes went wide at Johnny’s words and broader at the dark stormy blue of the younger man’s stare.

“Qué?” The old man didn’t know him, and his apprehension was evident.

“Because I don’t like to see those Rurales pushin’ other people around. They had no call to talk to you like they did, and we want to buy you a drink.” Johnny pulled the cork from the bottle and offered it to the man. He reached out with a shaking hand and took the bottle.

“I do not want people of today to be reflected by the likes of those men, Señor, an’ if I could apologize for their rudeness, I would, but instead, I offer this bottle.” Johnny gave his dazzling smile, and the old man smiled back.

“They acted as if they knew you. Is that possible with the way they spoke to you? I wouldn’t think that after knowing you, they would disrespect you as they did. Would you like for me to speak with them and have them tell you they’re sorry?” Johnny asked

“Sí, I know them. No good, any of them,” the old man said, taking the third swallow from the bottle. “They want me to work for them always and never pay me. They threaten me and my family if I refuse.” Johnny and Val stiffened. Were they getting closer?

“How long has this been going on, Señor?” Johnny motioned for the old man to keep the bottle. He put it to his mouth and took another drink.

“Almost a year,” the old man slurred.

‘What do you do for them? I assume it’s blacksmithing?” As long as the old man would talk, Johnny would ask questions.

“They want leg irons, wrist irons and... cells. Orders from a man named Morales, in his canyon hidden away.” The old man’s tongue was becoming loose with the tequila.

Johnny’s heart beat faster, feeling like cannon fire in his chest.

“Sounds like Morales is startin’ things up again. Ya don’t think he’ll try an’ get the Rurales to start with the illegal shenanigans like last time? Get more renegades tagether? They just got that all straightened out!” Val shot one question after another. Johnny continued to piece together what they had just been told.

After they left the blacksmith, they went to the general store, if you could call it that, and picked up their order. Before they walked to the horses, Johnny had the shopkeeper put a few pieces of candy in the bundle, made two more purchases, and they started back to Rocio’s.

“I think we need ta find out what’s goin’ on. We need ta get in there an’ see, maybe that’s where they got Diego held.”

“Johnny, there’s gotta be no less than twenty soldiers there, we’re two guns! How’re we gonna do that?!” Val was about to go out of his mind.

“We surround ‘em...” Johnny said and smiled.

The old man had told them much, and most of it was not good. The renegade Rurales had taken many people other than Diego. It seemed as if anyone who amounted to any kind of threat was taken, and none had been returned.

Johnny's gut began to feel as if it were filled with ice. They had gotten on the right side of the blacksmith, Señor Hector Zapata, and ol’ Hector had turned out to be a hell of an asset, Johnny thought as they were riding back to Rocio’s house. But this situation had been going on for too long. How many other innocent people have they taken into that canyon? he wondered.

It was a good thing that ol’ Hector had resources. Yup, dynamite was one hell of a resource. Early in the morning, they would scout around the canyon. It had been a perfect set up. A box canyon, high walls, and only one way in. It was small but sufficient for Morales’ needs. All he needed was a headquarters. As soon as they stole something, they could sell it quickly, and with their location, they were close enough to the border and the coast to ship stolen goods. It was a perfect opportunity if one was so inclined. And Morales was inclined, and he wanted revenge.

<><><><> 

The little house came into view, and both Johnny and Val had to smile as Mateo ran in the yard with Chile. The little dog tugged at Mateo’s pant leg and pulled his feet right out from under him. They sat on the hill and watched, chuckling at the scene below them. They started down the hill and tied their horses in front of the house, unloading the supplies they picked up in town.

Rocio stepped out on the porch, and her pretty eyes widened at the packages they wrestled into the house. There was food, plenty of food, and other necessities, but also Johnny had purchased a beautiful mirror for Rocio and a new dress in a midnight blue color. He hoped it would fit her. He had an excellent eye for this and had a lot of practice at it. For Mateo, they picked up a few new clothes and a slingshot. Val would show him how to shoot it. Johnny had teased Val to not put his own eye out when showing Mateo. And, of course, Val groused about it, making Johnny laugh at him.

They had a delicious dinner together and sat around the table discussing the plans that they made for the morning. Johnny didn’t mention about the other people that had disappeared over the last year and a half, but Rocio did. She had heard rumors but hoped in her heart they weren’t true, but every day that Diego was gone seemed to verify that fact. Verify that she would never again be held in the arms of the man she loved.

“It looks like Morales is tryin’ ta start up where he left off with the renegade Rurales. Wouldn’t take much ta get more an’ more a them stirred up. Where is the nearest Rurales headquarters, Rocio?” Val asked, setting down his coffee cup.

“You were very close to it when you crossed into Mexico. In Tecate,” she answered. She had changed into her new dress, and it was truly stunning for  simple clothing. Yup, ol’ Johnny Boy has a good eye! Val thought as he admired the view.

“Just in case you suspect any trouble, I want you to take Mateo and go there. No questions, alright, Rocio? If you suspect anything. It ain’t worth you gettin’ yourself killed over.” Johnny tried to get it through her head, maybe hint a little that things may start to move now that he and Val were there. He thought that the proverbial hornet's nest was about to be poked with a stick. And that stick was held by Johnny and Val.

After they had helped Rocio clean up dinner, Johnny gave Mateo the package of peppermint sticks.

His little eyes widened in surprise, and he licked his lips as he peeked into the bag to see what treasures were hidden there. Val teased he was going to take one, but little Mateo offered one to him, so the joke was lost. The two of them sat in front of the fire as Val tried to show Mateo the finer points of using a slingshot while Rocio and Johnny sat back at the table. She poured him another cup of coffee, and they murmured so the little boy wouldn’t hear.

“Juanito, whatever it is that you and Val are planning, I want you to be careful,” she begged, her eyes started to well up. She reached over and put her hand on top of Johnny’s. He wrapped his fingers around hers and squeezed a bit. She smiled a beautiful smile, and her face lit up.

“Well, until we take a look around, we ain’t gonna be doin’ anything. Can’t just walk in there without knowin’ what we’re up against, so it’ll probably be a day or two of just tryin’ ta see what’s what,” he smiled at her.

“Thank you, again, Juanito, for the beautiful dress! I don’t know what to say... thank you is not enough!”

“Don’t need ta thank me. Seein’ you with that smile is enough.” He leaned over and kissed her forehead. “Ya know, Diego was the first real friend I ever had. It didn’t matter ta him that I was a mestizo. He liked me for who I was, and that’s the first time that ever happened. I learned a lot from that, that one simple act of kindness. I owe him a lot, Rocio.” 

She suddenly looked sad, and Johnny was sorry he’d brought up Diego’s name.

“Lo siento, Rocio,” and patted her hand still entwined in his.

“No, it is alright, Juanito, I am coming to terms with the idea that he will never return to me, to us. This is a hard life, and you learn to accept things as they happen.” But her resolve was crumbling, and Johnny thought she would burst into tears.

“Mateo, time for bed, little one!” she spoke, and the boy got to his feet, turned and hugged Val, then went to Johnny and wrapped his little arms around Johnny’s neck.

“’Night, Mateo! See you in the mornin’, chico!” Johnny returned the little boy’s smile. Diego and Rocio had produced a beautiful child. Diego would have been proud, Johnny thought, and at that moment, he had the gut-wrenching feeling that Diego was, indeed, dead.

Rocio came back into the kitchen-living room from getting Mateo settled in bed. She looked like she was holding back the tears again. Johnny let her putter around and gave her time to collect her thoughts before she sat down next to him.

He was again on the floor with Chile as the dog was tugging on a knotted rope. The dog’s teeth were strong, attesting to Mateo’s diligence attending and playing with him. Johnny was smiling as Chile’s soft, friendly growls occupied his mind. As Rocio sat, Johnny felt she needed to talk.

She settled next to him and smiled as she watched this man, this feared gunhawk innocently playing with a little dog. He was a man of contradictions, she thought.

Johnny put the rope aside, much to Chile’s dismay, and waited for her to begin speaking.

“Juanito, I don’t know what you and Val are thinking of doing, but I don’t want either of you getting hurt because of this. Diego would have wanted you to be safe. You were his brother. Please, there is nothing you can do. Diego is gone, we don’t know who took him, and I know in my heart he is dead. What can you do about that?” Knowing these words were useless, she had to say them, had to try to make them understand! Johnny looked at her, and his mouth twitched into that little grin he used so often.

“Ya know, when Diego told me he’d found the girl of his dreams, I told him ta be careful. An’ I believe he was. You are a good woman, Rocio, an’ I don’t think he coulda found anyone better. That’s why I’m gonna find out what happened ta him. Whatever it was, good or bad, I’m gonna find out. I owe him that. An’ I know that’s what he’d want or he wouldn’t have whispered to you ta send me that medallion when they took him away. I’ll find out, Rocio. I want you to keep this for Mateo.” Johnny reached into his shirt pocket and carefully pulled out the medallion that had belonged to Diego. “Make sure he knows what a great man his father was. Tell him his Tio Johnny thinks it’s important to remember and honor him.” His eyes were clear and bright in the firelight, sparkling with emotion, and in the deep blue depths, Rocio saw his pain, and she knew then and there that Johnny also believed Diego was gone forever.

<><><><> 

It was still dark when Johnny and Val left the house. They headed in a southwesterly direction in hopes of scouting around the canyon where Hector had said Morales and his small army of renegade Rurales were located. Then they would come up with a plan.

They kept looking for places that would offer protection if they needed to stop and make a stand, but there wasn’t much; the occasional outcropping of rocks, small hills, and arroyos but nothing that would keep them safe enough from the bullets of the renegades. Johnny thought of the Rurales back in Tecate. If necessary, they would have to be notified, probably should be notified anyway. If he could sneak into the camp somehow, find Morales, and if he confirmed that Diego was dead, he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep from gutting the bastard where he stood. And the thought of killing Morales made the risk of exposing Madrid worth it.

“Ya know we probably need ta get a holda them Rurales in Tecate, have a little backup,” Val started in, already thinking ahead and just hoping they would be able to keep Madrid a secret.

“Yup, was thinkin’ about that very thing. When we get back ta Rocio’s we’ll figure on ridin’ over there ‘cause I’m startin’ ta get a bad feelin’ over this, Val, don’t mind tellin’ ya,” Johnny confessed. Val felt it, too.

The sky was getting lighter, and the stars blinked out. There was no wind, no birds, not even a tumbleweed. There was nothing, except for Johnny and Val. For miles around nothing but sand and scrub trees and rocks.

They wandered, continuing southwest when Johnny spotted the first tracks. He looked to his left, then to his right, and he could see the tracks had a slight curve. They were in a full circle, and Johnny hoped that in the center of this circle, he would find Morales, and when he did, Morales would tell Johnny everything he wanted to know, and then Johnny would kill him.

The crimes Morales had committed against his own people were as bad as it could get. He sold out his village, his neighbors, and his family. He deserved no mercy, and he would get none from Madrid. Johnny had witnessed the atrocities when he had been captured and brought through the village to the prison where he’d been kept until it was his time to be executed.

He witnessed the starvation, beatings, murders, and rapes of innocent people. Selling slaves, both men, and women, deeper into Mexico, was quite lucrative. And there had been one person to blame. Morales. And now he would pay for his sins. Madrid would see that he did. Johnny’s eyes turned cold as ice. The deep blue held hate for Morales and the renegade Rurales and revenge for the harmless, peace-loving farmers and their families that suffered the worst of injustices. Yes, Madrid was back...

Both Johnny and Val saw them at the same time, a patrol scouting the parameters of the secret canyon. They took what cover they could find with their horses in rocks barely large enough to conceal their presence and watched as the three-man patrol continued on their rounds, none of them seemed to be paying particular attention to anything around them.

They waited until the soldiers were past and kept going toward the canyon. Johnny and Val watched long enough to note that every three hours, a patrol was sent out. They saw where the lookouts were located and even had worked their way over to the edge of the canyon enough to see the camp below.

“Bet there’s ‘bout fifty men what with the patrols an’ guards,” Val figured.

“Sounds about right. I seen enough. Let’s get back ta Rocio’s an’ see if we can get some backup. We can avoid those guards and the ones scoutin’ around if we time it right.” Johnny was sure they’d need backup now after seeing the position of the camp and the security involved. He knew that the Rurales in Tecate would have to play a part in this. And he was sure they’d want to be in on it when they heard what had been happening right under their noses. Morales would have been hunted down if they had known the extent of this filthy operation.

Johnny and Val retrieved their mounts and headed back to Rocio, stopping to wipe out any tracks that crossed those of the patrol.

“How do ya wanna do this, Johnny? We ride for Tecate now and get help? I think that’d be our best shot ta tell ya the truth,” Val suggested, but not really sure.

“Readin’ my mind, amigo. We won’t be sure ta get ourselves killed anyway.” No matter how they did it, how they went into that canyon was so incredibly dangerous, and the risk they were taking was the highest stakes there were. Johnny thought about Murdoch, Scott, and Teresa. And he wanted to see them one last time because he didn’t think he would ever again have that honor. He was glad now he’d taken the time to write a simple will, and that was a small comfort. He’d finally told them how precious they were to him. And now they would know that he loved them.

<><><><> 

Rocio’s little house sat below the hill, looking peaceful in the afternoon sun. Johnny and Val came down off the ridge to lead their horses into the barn and bed them down for the night. They rounded the corner to the front door and saw Rocio sitting on the porch with her head on her hands. Chile was sitting by her side and barked as Johnny and Val came into view. She was sobbing hysterically. Johnny ran to her and grabbed her shoulders.

“Rocio! Querida! What is wrong? What happened?” he demanded.

“They took him, Juanito, they took Mateo!” she gritted out in between sobs.

“Who took him?” Blue uncontrolled fury shot from his eyes.

“The same man with a scarred face that took Diego! He knows you’re here. Juanito! He knows you!”

“Where did they go? Did you see where they went?”

“Sí, they went there,” and she pointed to the southwest, toward the prison.

“What did they say?” Johnny asked, desperately wondering why that bastard that should be dead would want a little boy barely big enough get himself dressed in the morning.

“He said he would teach you a lesson, Juanito; he found out that you were asking questions and came here to take Mateo in exchange for you! He wants you, Juanito! Please... Mateo!” she wailed, and Johnny hugged her to his chest.

“I’ll get him back, querida, I will get him back! Did they say what they want me to do?”

“Sí, start riding that way, and they will find you...” she could tell them no more. Johnny let her go and turned to Val.

“I gotta go, Val. You ride for Tecate and get as many of the Rurales as you can. Stop in the villages along the way and get anyone there that’ll help. There’s gotta be someone that’ll want justice; they’re missin’ people from there, too.” Johnny turned to leave.

“Johnny!” came Val’s sharp cry. Johnny turned to face him, and Val stood, staring Johnny in the eyes.

“I know, Val, I know," Johnny said softly.

“Be careful, amigo!” Val finally croaked out.

“Val! Get there as fast as ya can. Don’t think I’m gonna have a whole lotta time on my hands!” and Johnny was gone.

Johnny saddled a fresh horse and spurred him to the southwest, as Rocio indicated. He’d only been riding ten minutes before he was intercepted. There were seven rifles pointed at his chest, and the eighth man pulled alongside his horse. Morales had grown even uglier than Johnny had remembered. But the burn scar was an improvement, he thought.

“Drop your gun, Madrid! NOW!” Morales spat.

Johnny did as he was told. A soldier scooped it up and backed away.

“How low you gonna sink, Morales? You wagin’ war on four-year-olds now? That the only way you can win?” Johnny laughed in Morales’ face. “Where’s the kid? Ya got me, let the kid go, now!”

“You are in no position to be making demands, Madrid! I would not be so insolent if I were you.”

“Well, ya ain’t me, so let the kid go.” Johnny stared into Morales’ face, and Morales saw his death in those dark blue eyes and couldn’t suppress the shiver that crawled down his spine. Knowing he had what he wanted, Morales gave the signal for a soldier to take Mateo back to his mother. A rider came out from behind a hill with little Mateo sitting in front of him and headed to the house.

Johnny had to ignore the desperate cries from the little boy as he struggled in the arms of the stranger that held him.

“I wanna see that the boy makes it to the house and your gutless, thievin’ murderer gets back here. The kid an’ his mother better be alright, lay one hand on either of them, and I’ll fuckin’ kill you so quick you’ll be dead before your heart stops beatin’.” Johnny spoke clearly and quietly.

Again, Morales shivered. To give the appearance that he was once again in charge, Morales gave the order to have Johnny’s hat and coat taken from him. They pulled him off the horse and pinned his arms to his sides with a rope tied tightly, making it hard for him to breathe.

The man returned from delivering the boy to his mother, then they started to walk, first at a leisurely pace. Johnny kept up alright, but it was hot, and with no hat, he was soon burning with heat. But he said nothing. And he kept walking in boots not meant for traveling on foot and wading through deep sand. One foot in front of the other, over and over, the heat burning with no reprieve and no chance to drink. Fall down, get dragged then back on his feet, walking, one foot in front of the other, fall, dragged, over and over. Dull, monotonous walking, spitting sand, more walking, hot, and more heat. Sweat poured down his face and soaked his shirt clear down to his belt. His throat dry, he pulled air into his lungs only to sear his insides and increase the heat building in his body.

He was burning hot; his feet felt like they were on fire. He fell over and over, each time it was harder to get back up, but Johnny did. He was going to see to it that Morales paid for what he’d done, so he kept one foot going in front of the other.

For an hour and a half, he kept up with the horses, then the soldiers started a faster pace, and Johnny soon fell and was dragged. The man reined his horse to a stop and let Johnny struggle to his feet, the rope pulling ever tighter around his body, only to be yanked to the ground again and dragged further still.

The sun seemed to burn through to his brain; his blood felt as if it were searing his veins and boiling in his heart. The sand soaked up any moisture as he spit it out of his mouth. Johnny vowed that he would kill Morales, but he refused to let himself show any weakness. No swearing, no glares, only silence, and perseverance. The soldiers kept glancing at him, wondering when the gunhawk would break, and beg for water or his life. Try to bargain to be released. They had no doubt that he would, but when? He hadn’t uttered a word since they started walking, and that had been two hours now, maybe three. They would be at the canyon very soon, and then he would surely beg. They wanted to hear him scream in agony and pay for the intrusion, the inconvenience he had caused.

Morales ran options through his mind regarding how he would break Madrid and make him suffer. He had almost ruined everything, but now Morales had it under control. Nothing was going to get in his way now or ever. Madrid was a bonus, a trophy, and Morales envisioned hanging Madrid’s dried corpse on his wall, and he smiled. The Rurales wouldn’t get to him, and the people in the villages were too scared to think for themselves, so they posed no problem. Just get rid of this half-breed, and this part of the country would be his to do with as he pleased. Being this close to the port cities would make it so  easy for him to ship stolen contraband and slaves. It was going to be very profitable. Very profitable, indeed.

The canyon was close now, and Johnny, fatigued from walking unprotected in the broiling sun, was having great difficulties keeping his balance without the aid of his arms. Being dragged and yanked to his feet over and over had worn him out, the bruises from the rope were going to be significant, and Morales was smiling as he watched from the safety of his horse as Johnny once again struggled to regain his footing. But he was dismayed when Johnny looked up to meet his gaze, and he saw clear deep, storm blue eyes that did not waver, did not blink, only seemed to pierce his heart. Morales shivered again. What was it about this breed that scared him? Yes, he would admit it to himself. He was afraid of Madrid, but soon that would be over. He needed to put Madrid in his place, and he thought of what he had to tell him, couldn’t wait to tell him.

“There is something you might want to know, Madrid. Do you want to know what it is? Curious at all?” Morales sneered.

Johnny steeled himself, he knew what was coming, and he couldn’t give himself away. “Not interested in nothin’ you have ta say," he replied calmly.

“Oh, I think you will be. I just want you to know that soon you will be joining your friend, Diego Ramirez... in Hell because I am sending you to meet him there. He’s been saving a place for you, Madrid!” But Morales didn’t see the fear, didn’t see the grief that he hoped would be there, the grief that would smother him and reduce this enemy to a begging pile of spineless flesh. Instead, he saw that steady cold, glacial stare. And he was scared again.

<><><><> 

They entered the canyon, and Johnny tried desperately to take in as much detail as he could without causing suspicion. He had to have a clear mind when Val got here. Had to be able to fight and win against these renegades. So he kept quiet and kept watchful.

Johnny was led into a small courtyard, and they stopped. His knees almost buckled, but he forced himself to stay standing as still as he could. The rope was removed from him, and he flexed his arms but was stopped from the stretching as he was pushed from behind over to a crude wooden cross, and there, his arms were pulled across the top rail and again tied. As he was secured once more, he caught Morales staring at him from a slight distance.

“What’s the matter, Manolo? You still scared a me?” Johnny taunted with a grin that clearly spoke of his defiance.

Morales was incensed at this insinuation. How dare this prisoner talk to me this way...

“And why should I be afraid of you, Madrid? You will be dead very shortly.”

“Maybe, but not before I kill you,” came Johnny’s soft and chilling reply, eyes with that cold look of death that sent a shock wave of fear through Morales’ brain. Once again, Madrid had taken command, even exhausted as he was, and Morales struggled to regain authority.

“That is a very bold threat for someone in your present condition, don’t you think?” He strained in his effort to appear as if this attempt at intimidation didn’t affect him. He tried to let it roll off his shoulders, but he couldn’t pull it off, and Johnny saw through his cowardly charade.

“Nope, not at all. Just a matter of time before you’re dead an’ all the murderin’ and stealin’ you’re doin’ will be stopped,” Johnny replied calmly as he stated this fact.

Morales was enraged. He lost his temper and started to scream; he moved in close to Johnny with a fury that had taken control of his mind and body. “What does a half-breed gunhawk know about what it takes to rise above this poverty, this destitution?” he screamed.

But Johnny could only laugh, which enraged Morales more. Having the effect on Morales that Johnny hoped, he continued: “Oh, that what you call it? Risin’ above? You are funny, ya know?” He abruptly stopped laughing and said  softly, directly the chilling words into his adversary’s face.

“Seems ta me that shit sinks ta the bottom, not rise above.” Johnny’s eyes pierced Morales’ heart, again.

Morales shot out an arm and viciously backhanded Johnny across the mouth, splitting open his lower lip. He tasted his own blood and spit on Morales’ boots. Morales lunged for Johnny again but wasn’t quick enough before Johnny took his weight on his arms and kicked up with both feet catching Morales under the chin.

Morales fell backward onto the ground, then a guard crashed his rifle stock onto Johnny’s head above his left eye, and the white-hot explosion rendered him unconscious.

Johnny’s limp form hung on the cross, his head hanging between his shoulders. Morales got to his feet with the help from his renegade soldiers and shaking off their hands, staggered to Johnny, and took a handful of hair,  viciously, he yanked Johnny’s head back and hit him again in the face and several savage punches to the belly. Then he turned and stalked to his quarters, leaving Johnny in the fading late afternoon sun.

<><><><> 

Val made it to Tecate in just under two hours. He thought he’d have to finish the trip on foot, his horse was about done in, but the animal got him there, sides heaving and lathered. Val threw himself out of the saddle and raced into the Rurales headquarters. He identified himself to the sergeant behind the desk, asking to speak with Captain Santos about the bandito Manolo Morales and his band of renegade soldiers. The sergeant was close to throwing Val out of the office but caught the words Morales and knew the Captain needed to hear what the gringo had to say.

Val was immediately shown into the captain’s small office, and he quickly explained what had happened. The captain listened without interruption, then sat a moment, digesting what Val had told him. He studied Val’s face and saw the desperation in the worried hazel eyes staring back at him and knew this man was telling the truth. They stared at each other for a brief moment.

“Captain, we need to move fast on this. They have hostages, and one of ‘em ain’t gonna make it if we don’t get goin’,” Val pleaded.

“Sergeant! Come in here!” the Captain called out, and Sergeant Garcia entered the office. The Captain instructed the Sergeant to have the troops ready to ride in ten minutes. Sergeant Garcia left, and Val was soon riding back to where he hoped to find Johnny still alive. He had intentionally neglected to mention the name Madrid, after all, Johnny did go by Lancer now, but Val didn’t know if the regime had changed regarding their bounty on the notorious bandit.

<><><><> 

He sat in his saddle and looked out over the valley as the cattle grazed lazy and fat on the hillside. Barranca tossed his head as Johnny thought about his family, the newfound family that had surprised him. He didn’t know if he would stay here, but he did, and he was... happy. He was happy for the first time in his life. He had a father that did want him, hadn’t tossed him out as he had been told, and he had a brother that turned out to be not only a great brother but a friend, a best friend. Someone that he would miss... Miss? Wait a minute, what’d ya mean... MISS? Johnny woke with a start. He’d been dreaming about Lancer and his family. Would he ever see them again? Come on, Val, where are ya?

He opened his eyes without raising his head and tried to look around. It was dark, and no torches had been lit so he could be more thorough in observing his situation. The guards had settled in and were not paying close attention to the prisoner tied on the rack. He hadn’t moved for hours now. Johnny’s shoulders were a sea of pain, aching from the abuse, and his head throbbed as he tried to shift, knowing a moan would give himself away. Looking to the ground, Johnny could see blood, his blood, that had pooled, staining the sand as he hung unconscious on the cross. The laceration on his head still oozed, allowing his blood to run down and drip off his jaw, the split on his lip swollen and crusted over.

He dared not make any noise; they would no doubt beat him again. Johnny had lost count the number of punches he’d taken. There were three guards to his left and could see none to his right. But that was enough. Val... Where are ya… 

The night dragged on, but Johnny did not give any indication that he was conscious. What he wouldn’t give for a drink of water, but that would have to wait. He used this time to think of a way to escape. Escape? He almost laughed out loud. K, Madrid, how’re ya gonna escape? The guards were not going to care if he started to choke or go into a fit of some sort, so his best option was going to be to stay as he was until a chance would present itself and, hopefully, very soon.

The pounding in his head increased, and he knew he didn’t have much time to figure out a plan. Johnny had to accept the fact that he may not get out of this one. Well, he’d been in tight, life-threatening situations before, and he would give it his best shot, just like he’d always done. He kept going over possibilities and discarded them one by one. He must have dozed for a time and suddenly became aware of someone beside him. He tried to remain silent, but he was ready to explode inside.

“Amigo, Johnny? Can ya hear me?” Val whispered.

Dios! Val! "Bout time ya got here, how long ya been here,” Johnny slurred through a swollen mouth.

“Shut up an’ drink b’fore we get caught,” Val held a canteen to Johnny’s mouth. He drank, tried to take more, but Val pulled the flask away. Johnny felt the cool water course through his dry, parched body. He could feel it traveling, cooling, and reviving him.

“Not too much, amigo, you’ll be sick an’ right now ya don’t wanna do that. We gotta wait for Captain Santos ta give the signal, and then we gotta take cover, real quick-like. Ya understand what I’m sayin’, Johnny?” Val was concerned Johnny might not be able to fathom what was going on. He couldn’t see how badly Johnny had been injured in the dark but noticed the side of his face covered in blood and knew there had been a blow to the head.

“Yeah, I get it. When’s it gonna happen?” he mumbled.

Val shrugged.“Dunno, but it’s gonna be soon.”

“Morales, don’t know where he is. One of the buildings, but I couldn’t see which one.”

“We did, Johnny. We been watchin’ for a while. Got here just b’fore the sun went down, and we got this scoped out pretty good. We know where the prisoners are, too.” Val tried to inform Johnny without making too much noise. Drawing attention to themselves at this point would be a disaster.

Johnny hung his head. “Diego’s dead, Val. Morales told me...”

“Well, we figured that b’fore, didn’t we?” Val retrieved his knife to cut the ropes holding Johnny to the rack; they had to be ready to run.

“Should be any time now, Johnny. Think you can run?” Val asked, wondering how much support he’d need to offer his amigo.

“Outrun you...” Johnny deadpanned.

Suddenly there was a glare in the sky as a stick of Hector's dynamite flared and was tossed onto the roof of the guard’s barracks. The explosion rocked the ground and lit the canyon in the bright and blinding glare. Val ripped through the ropes and dragged Johnny to cover at the opening of the canyon.

Men were screaming from injuries received in the blast. Some lay lifeless, and others were panicked and tried to make an escape, but it was useless. They were surrounded, caught, and they knew then they’d lost. The guards had been disposed of by the Captain's men and Val, so the entrance was clear. The renegades that were able tried to run but were stopped by bullets raining all around them.

Captain Santos’ voice called out: “You are all under arrest in the name of the Mexican Government! Stop where you are and raise your hands, and your lives will be spared! You are outnumbered five to one!”

Johnny leaned against the wall of the canyon. All he wanted to do was sleep. He was tired, more tired than he’d been in a long, long time. Val left him there to help round up the renegades. Johnny rested his head back on the canyon wall and closed his eyes. When he opened them, it was in time to see a shadow slithering through the night. And Johnny didn’t need to see the face to know who it was. Morales was going to escape right through the front entrance.

His temper flared, he would be damned before he would let the bastardo escape! Rage coursed through him, strength and energy burst inside him as if lit by an internal source of Madrid dynamite, and it exploded. Johnny stepped out of the cover of the rocks and blocked the bastard’s route to freedom as the sudden flood of revenge cascaded through his blood.

“Not this time, pendejo! This time you’re gonna pay for what ya did!” Johnny advanced on him, and they clashed together violently and went down in a tangle, struggling to overpower the other. They rolled on the ground, exchanging blows, grappling for the advantage. Large meaty hands came around Johnny’s neck as he knocked them away and, with a rolled fist, smashed it into his opponent's jaw.

Blood spurted from Morales’ mouth, and he blocked Johnny’s next blow. He frantically grabbed at his belt and fell to the ground. Again, the two locked in a battle of life and death. Suddenly, a gun went off, jerking them both. Still pounding each other, punch for punch, both exerting strength they never thought they possessed and continued their fight to the death. Johnny gained the upper hand, and with all reason gone from his mind, he had Morales around the neck, choking the life out of him with an image of Diego burning in his brain. He couldn’t let Morales win! Diego was dead, and so would Morales be. He couldn’t have stopped himself had he wanted to, and he didn’t.

“Johnny! Stop! NOW!” Val pulled Johnny from Morales’ body as he lay choking, his hands around his bruised throat as he tried to coax air into his lungs. Val held Johnny in an iron grip as Johnny struggled to get free and finish the job he started. The fire from the exploded barracks provided more light into the canyon, and Johnny’s eyes blazed with his own fire, hatred, and disgust as he saw his enemy on the ground and still breathing.

“JOHNNY! Stop!” Val held on tight, and Johnny finally ceased his struggle. He shook his head as if to clear the cobwebs, then grabbed it before it fell from his shoulders, shaking it was a bad idea. More explosions went off, this time inside his skull. Val leaned him against the canyon wall and felt something warm and sticky on his hands.

“Amigo, think ya better siddown now, yer bleedin’.” The bullet from the gun that had gone off during their fight had traveled just under the skin on Johnny’s left side to create an ugly, bloody tunnel at entrance and exit. The blood loss was making him light-headed. He let himself slide down to the ground with a groan. Val reached inside his shirt and stuffed his bandana against Johnny’s side, which produced a ragged moan, all the while keeping an eye on Morales, still lying in the dirt and clutching at his throat.

“Hang on there, amigo,” Val said as he yanked Morales to his feet and marched him off to be put under watch by Captain Santos’ guards. Johnny allowed his eyes to close as his mind went back to the day that he and Diego made their promise to expose the betrayer of their people. This would have to be the best that Johnny could offer.

“It’s done, Diego. Over now,” Johnny whispered into the night. And with that thought, his mind went black.

<><><><> 

The remaining renegades had been rounded up and taken prisoner by the Rurales and, along with Manolo Morales, brought back to Tecate to be tried for treason against the country of Mexico. Val had thought they had gotten off easy. If convicted, a swift death by firing squad would signal their demise. It was too good for the misery and suffering they had forced on others, but it was finally over, and justice would be served, one way or another.

The many prisoners were taken to their homes and reunited with loved ones. Tears of joy flowed freely, and there were many happy celebrations in the little town of Red Creek and villages and farms all over the area. Many others had not survived at the brutal hands of Morales and his band of cutthroats. Among them was Diego Ramirez. His body could not be recovered. They didn’t know where it had been disposed of. Unmarked graves littered the ground outside of the canyon, and a priest would be brought in to bless that ground and say prayers for the dead.

<><><><> 

 

Johnny opened his eyes in the shelter of a crudely constructed lean-to. He lay on a blanket out of the blazing sun. The first thing he saw was Val sitting in the sand beside him, watching the activity around them. Val looked down at Johnny and realized the deep blue eyes were finally open and clear.

“’Bout time ya woke yer lazy ass... How’re ya doin’, amigo?”

“’M fine. Where’s Morales?” he asked bluntly.

“They took ‘em back ta Tecate ta stand trial. Left this mornin’,” Val answered.

“Too good for ‘im... Shoulda let me kill ‘im,” Johnny said and closed his eyes.

A thought struck him, and he leveled a confused look at his amigo. “Hey, where’d ya get that?” pointing to the shirt Val wore.

Val chuckled as he remembered the brief struggle with the surprised guard

at the entrance to the canyon the night before as Val jumped him and

relieved him of his uniform to gain his way into the canyon to rescue Johnny.

“Bein’ the coward that he is, it’ll be good ta let ‘im sit there for a while an’ think ‘bout what’s gonna happen ta him. He knows he’s gonna die, so let ‘im ponder on that a while.”

Still too fast, Johnny thought, but it was the way it was going to be. Let it go and get on with life.

“Hey, Val? We gotta send a wire ta Murdoch and Scott an’ let ‘em know we’ll be home in a week or so.”

“Yeah, Captain Santos can help with that. Ya get more sleep if ya can. We’ll be gettin’ outta here in a few hours, an’ ya lost a lotta blood, Johnny. So rest while ya can.”

Val watched as Johnny closed his eyes to sleep and let his mind recount his conversation with Captain Santos when the man discovered that Johnny Madrid had been involved.

“Señor Crawford, I understand your concern, and I can assure you that, in my eyes, Johnny Madrid was not the criminal to the country as my predecessors once thought. In truth, Madrid was responsible for rescuing much of my family in those turbulent years, and that is something that I will not forget. It forced me to re-examine much of what that young man did for the good of the people. I refuse to give in to blind stupidity that he was an enemy to the great country of Mexico.

“You may rest assured that you will have safe travel back across the Rio Grande. Morales and his renegades have been suspected of many crimes, most punishable by death by firing squad. And you and Mr. Madrid were largely responsible for bringing these injustices to light. I will do everything in my power to make sure Johnny Madrid will no longer be thought of as an enemy in this country.”

<><><><> 

This time he was sitting on Barranca’s back watching the cattle graze on the hillside. He reached into his pocket and withdrew the folded paper that he’d left in the box on top of the chest of drawers in his room. He looked at the words he’d written weeks before.

Murdoch and Scott

There is every possibility that I won’t make it home alive. That’s not my plan, but I honestly don’t know what’s going to come out of this trip, but if the worst does happen I will be ready for it.

I want you both to know what it’s meant for me to have a family and a home for the first time in my life. Roots are something I never had until now, and these roots have tied me to you two. Never expected to stay at Lancer, never expected to change my name, but here I am, Johnny Lancer, and have never regretted that decision.

There is so much about my past that I wish I could change, and I am sorry that it keeps coming back to haunt us all. I want to make it go away, but that’s not likely to happen, so all I can do is try and take care of things quick and quiet. Can’t let it stay around to hurt any of you. I don’t think I could live with that if something were to happen to you because of me, because of who I used to be.

If I don’t come back, I want my third of the ranch to be divided between the two of you so you’ll be equal partners, even though I know you, Murdoch, will never stop ‘calling the tune’ but Scott will have a say. Any money I have I want divided between Rocio Ramirez and her son, and Holly Vasquez in Salinas, California.

Lastly, Boston, you need to know you’ve turned into one hell of a westerner.

Take care of Murdoch for me.

I am proud and thankful to have known you both.

 

Johnny

He refolded the paper and tucked it safely into his jacket pocket, thankful it hadn’t been needed. Then he turned Barranca around and headed for home.

 

 

~ end ~

Want to comment? Email Buckskin