The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

Howling At The Moon

Thanks to Cat for the beta
Note: Liberties taken with timelines
Any and all mistakes are mine

The announcement had gone more smoothly than Johnny anticipated. Murdoch had taken the news with exceptional understanding, and his dignity had not slipped an inch. The plain truth of it was Val Crawford, sheriff of Green River, needed help with a prisoner, a favor for Marshal Emmett Boseman of Tucson, to extradite a man back to Arizona. With Val’s extensive knowledge of the area, Boseman asked for his help. Val suggested having Johnny Lancer go with him, knowing he would most likely need help. They were a formidable team with a reputation for completing the impossible.

With no other full-time deputies, Val had often taken on Johnny and Scott to help with issues such as this. So, who was Murdoch Lancer to defy the marshsal?

The differences between Murdoch and his impetuous younger son had not been wholly resolved, but things were getting better. They had both begun to navigate the familial traps and pitfalls and were learning to get along. Murdoch battled the unchartered territory regarding issues with adult sons, leaving Johnny to learn the dynamics of living with a family. And when needed, Scott acted as a mediator between the two but was genuinely relieved that the conflicts were dissipating.

It had crossed Scott’s mind on more than one occasion, to let them resolve their issues on their own, let them come to terms without him having to run interference. He was the one caught in the middle of the two stubborn, obstinate men. Murdoch had, from the beginning, reserved the right to ‘call the tune’. But he had always been harder on Johnny, resulting in many heated rows that left Johnny within split seconds of packing up and leaving the ranch. Scott had eased the situation, talking Johnny out of going back to his old way of life and to stay at Lancer where he belonged, to claim his rightful place along with Scott as Lancer heir and inherit his legal birthright.

Murdoch accepted the news with only a raised brow and a stare as if to say ‘you do know that it takes all of us to run this ranch’ look but after Val revealed it as a favor for the Marshsal did Murdoch relent and not another word was said except wanting to know when they would return. Lancer would have to make do without Johnny for a week or two.

Who’s he gonna yell at while ‘m gone? Johnny thought to himself and chuckled.

<><><><> 

They boarded the train out of Green River bound for Phoenix with their prisoner, a young man of only twenty-one. From there, they would ride to Tucson on horseback. With Barranca, Milagro, and the prisoner’s horse in the stock car, Johnny, Val, and young Will Tyler, sat in the back of the last passenger car and settled in for the long, boring ride to Phoenix.

But boring it wasn’t as young Will had decided if he was going to Tucson and from there sent to Yuma for God knew how many years behind bars, he was going to raise all the hell he could on the way to his cell. After his first attempt to escape when Val took him to answer a call of nature, he was tied to the seat and soon gagged as his incessant complaining caused a headache of major proportions for each of the intrepid lawmen. Their warnings gone unheeded, they had no choice but to stuff his mouth and, with the aid of a second bandana, secure it tightly. Even the Madrid glare had not curbed the chatter, although the shiver that ran down young Will’s spine had not gone unnoticed but didn’t shut him up.

The last straw had been when he announced his hurt feelings with the shabby treatment he was receiving; that he would be sure to report them and have their badges taken away so they would never again be able to unduly harass some poor, down on his luck, misunderstood cowboy so cruelly that it would make his grandmother flop over in her grave, God rest her soul!

Yup, that was it! Johnny ripped the deputy’s badge from his shirt under the bolero jacket as he stood only to have Val grab him and pull him off the wide-eyed, terrified, and not overly bright youngster. So the bandana was put to good use and served its purpose well.

The second attempt to escape was at dinner as they made arrangements to have their meal brought to them so as not to cause any undue commotion in the dining car with the other passengers. Even with his hands tied, Will tried again. He faked choking on his meal, and as Val ran for more water, the persistent hooligan made a double fist and swung at Johnny’s head just as the conductor passed by. Johnny fell into the man, and they went down in a heap. He then broke the glass that contained his milk and, in a desperate move, had his ropes around his wrists partially severed by the time Johnny and the conductor had untangled themselves out of the aisle, as Val came back with water. Val stared at the young felon and shook his head as he watched Johnny pounce on him and retie his bonds using much more force than was necessary and ‘accidentally’ punching his jaw.

Will then proceeded to rant that they could be assured that the Marshall in Tucson was going to hear about the awful, violent tactics used by these men who were assigned to bring him in, and if he had anything to do about it, they would be joining him in the next cell.

That was the line in the sand. Val could see it coming as Johnny sat in his seat, refusing to acknowledge the bruise forming on his jaw. The hooded eyes stared out the window for a moment as he struggled to not beat the young rowdy to a pulp.

“Go ahead, Amigo, I know ya wanna do it…” Val said.

A wicked grin began to crawl across Johnny’s cold face as young Will looked from one to the other of his escorts, wondering what was going to happen now. The Sheriff had been in control of himself, but this deputy was a whole nother matter. He looks crazy!Will thought, and he watched Johnny’s eyes as a feral gleam flashed in their depths.

“Ya ain’t gonna report me?” Johnny asked Val with an expression of shock across his features and tones of amazement in his voice.

The young Will suddenly wondered if he would arrive in Tucson alive, that he’d pushed them too far, for it was indeed a maniacal glazed look in the deputy’s eyes.

“Naw, go ahead; he deserves it… I’ll jus’ look away while ya do it,” Val said calmly. Johnny made to turn to the prisoner, his hands reaching out trembling in rage as Will shrank into his seat and begged for mercy and promised to behave for the remainder of the trip. He promised to not utter a word from here on out, he promised!

“Sheriff!” Will whispered as panic settled in his face as he quickly glanced at Val. “Sheriff, please! Don’t let him hurt me!” Will begged, his eyes searching from one to the other. Johnny sat back in his seat, the maniacal glazed look now suddenly gone. He pulled his hat down over his face and stretched out his legs, crossing them at the ankles.

“Now eat an’ shut up. One more word outta you an’ you’ll be tied ta the seat an’ ya won’t be in any condition ta do much of anything! You’ll be lucky ta be able ta walk off this train,” Johnny said softly.

With the threat duly noted, Will sat in shock. He had just watched a man transform from a normal human to a demon and back into the man.  But the scare only lasted an hour.

Shoulda stayed at Lancer with Murdoch… At least after he yells at me, he settles down…

The gag was put back into use to ensure a bit of peace and quiet. The lawmen needed time without nagging and whiny references to the way the prisoner was treated. Both Johnny and Val tried to rest, and Will was tied to the seat with hands behind his back and feet to the leg of the hard wooden bench he sat on. And all of this before they hit Fresno.

The stop in Fresno took an interesting turn when an elderly preacher and his wife came to the car to take a seat. The woman told her husband where she thought they should sit, instructing him to stow the valise under the seat, as if the man didn’t have a brain in his head. Before sitting, she perused the train car and noticed the three men in the back.

Pastor and Mrs. Magilicuddy sat in the third row and offered the few folks in the car a caring and friendly smile extending the kind Christian greeting that only could be given by God-fearing folks that wanted to spread the Word of the Lord. As she gazed around at her fellow passengers, her shocked wide eyes fell upon the three men in the back seat of the train. ‘And one of them is tied and gagged! Surely this was not necessary!” What on Earth could that poor boy do to deserve that kind of uncivilized treatment? And she made it her mission to find out.

Leaving her seat next to her small, meek husband, Mrs. Magilicuddy waddled her ample-bodied way to the back of the car. Johnny saw the woman and inwardly groaned as he watched her from under the brim of his hat but made no move to acknowledge her presence nor to join in any conversation. As she approached the back of the car, Johnny gave Val a kick to wake him and prepare for their ‘company’ and the chastising that would inevitably escort her greeting.

“A blessed day to you, Gentlemen! I, ah, I am Mrs. Magilicuddy, and that kindly man up there is the Pastor Magilicuddy…”

Val tipped his hat with a forced smile. “Ma’am.”  

Young Will seized the moment and started to whimper.

He’s actually cryin’! Val thought as he sat stunned, watching the show.

Mrs. Magilicuddy was horrified at the sight of this young, young man who was obviously notmuch more than a baby! How could he be in this situation? It was her Christian duty to investigate. She saw Val’s badge and looked him square on with a stern glare and huffed.

“Surely, Sheriff, there is no need for this kind of treatment…”

That was all that young Will needed. His wailing became exaggerated as he begged for help, sensing a chance at an alliance with a strong-willed person, not the type of person he would have preferred but, hey, beggars can’t be choosey, so he jumped at it.

“Uh, bweth yoo Ma’am,” he tried to mumble around the gag, and her eyes softened as she gazed on the poor misunderstood boy and made as if to reach for that pitiful, sad face. Val intercepted the gesture as her angry glare flashed back to slice him to shreds.

“Is there any reason that requires you have this poor lad tied and gagged? It is simply not a Christian thing to do! Why look at that face…” she cooed. “Certainly, he couldn’t have done anything to warrant this kind of treatment! Now I insist that you untie him this instant!”

Will sat and grinned behind the gag but somehow was able to keep the tears flowing. It was a stellar performance, one that he would have to file away for future use if need be.

Val pulled himself to his feet to confront the woman as he corraled what little patience he had left. Damn! Hafta make nice with the ol’ biddy!

“Well, Ma’am, we gotta take this poor boy ta Tucson to stand trial for murder an’ robbery…”

“An’ rape…” Johnny murmured as he tipped his head back to peer at the woman with cold eyes. Her sharp intake of breath could be heard to the front of the car as she gasped and covered her mouth, hearing of the atrocity. Her eyes widened and threatened to pop out of her head. Dabbing at her face with a lace handkerchief, she gathered her wits and hurried back to the seat next to the good Pastor.

At the same time, Will had been shocked hearing the damning words. Rape? And where the crime was not a charge he was facing, it served the purpose as the busybody left them alone.

Val looked at Johnny, who was grinning coldly and turned to Will, pinning him with a glacial stare. Funny how them tears just shut off an’ dried right up…

“Nice try, pendejo…”  Johnny muttered, then sat back in the seat with the cold smile still on his face.

At the next stop, the good Pastor and Mrs. Magilicuddy hurried down the steps, anxious to be off the train and away from those men. How much farther is it ta Tucson? Johnny wondered. The remainder of the evening past uneventfully.

Their dinner was brought to them, and they ate in silence. Will, hands now bound in front of him, ate while offering up comments and criticisms until finally, Johnny took the plate away, telling Will he was done eating. Val wasted no time securing the gag in place before the boy had swallowed his last bite.

“Well, Amigo,” Val breathed out heavily when Johnny returned, “Tamorrow afternoon, we should be in Phoenix an’ then a day or two after, we’ll hit Tucson. Can’t come soon enough.”

Both Johnny and Val turned as if their heads were working off the same neck to look at Will, which made the young Tyler suspicious. He looked from one to the other, wondering what had them eyeing him as if he was a painful wart and one they were anxious to be rid of. It made him nervous, but what else could they do to him? He was already secured with hands in back and both his legs tied to the bench he was sitting on. The gag was tight to prevent any complaining… However, he could hum. What was that song? Maybe if the Pastor and Mrs. Magilicuddy hadn’t moved, she would have sung hymns with him… That woulda drove these two insane… Will thought with a smile. Well, he still had a while to think up shit to make these guys miserable.

Will began to fidget. The restraints were too tight, and sitting on the hard wooden seat was a strain on his back, not to mention his butt. He tried to shift his weight from one side to the other when Johnny casually unfolded his arms and let his right hand hover over his Colt. Tyler glared at Johnny only to have him smirk.

“Shoulda thought about it before ya started ta act up. Ya wouldn’t be tied if you behaved.”

“Yeah, ya best mind yer manners, Tyler. Ol’ Johnny, here, well, he ain’t got the best temperament. The last fella we transported was misbehavin’ an’ … well, ya really don’t wanna know what Johnny done ta him, but let’s jus’ say he wasn’t givin’ us no trouble when ol’ Johnny finished with ‘im.” Val grinned ear to ear at the thoughts that he could see flash across the shocked young face.

The night was a long one for all three. Will knew his time was running out. Their destination was rapidly nearing; however, if Johnny and Val had been asked, the destination was still too far away. Tyler had fallen asleep, finally, and Johnny and Val took turns on watch.

This slippery little weasel ain’t gonna get away… thought Val as he listened to the soft snores emitted around the gagged mouth but gotta watch ‘im all the time. Sure is a sly little devil!

Val glanced at Johnny, who appeared to be in slumber, but he knew that the slightest disturbance would have him awake in a heartbeat and ready for whatever circumstances required. Val had known Johnny for years mostly as Madrid, but since discovering his family, Johnny had settled down from his nomadic lifestyle but could easily slip back into the Madrid persona when needed.

Madrid had pulled Johnny Lancer’s butt outta the fire on many occasions, and the two would forever be joined together, a fact that Val took to heart and was relieved at its presence. Although fierce and at times wild, Madrid was a critical facet to the man Johnny was. The only person that objected to Madrid was Johnny’s father. Val had surmised the reason for the Lancer patriarch’s feelings stemmed from the reminder of Murdoch’s failure to find and rescue Johnny as a small boy after his mother left with two-year-old Johnny in tow. That had resulted in many years of violence and hardships, forcing the young Johnny to learn to live on his own after his mother’s brutal death… and by way of the gun. Johnny had killed the man that beat his mother to death with the man’s own pistol. Johnny was only ten at the time, and he learned very young what it took to survive, and he excelled. Was it fate… Or a miracle?

“What’s got you lookin’ so sad?” Johnny whispered as he cracked his eyes open, focusing on Val, looking as if he’d lost a close friend.

Val smiled a bit. “Oh, jus’ thinkin’ what makes a young fella like this one here go bad…” Val lied.

Johnny sighed deeply and tipped his hat back on his head with a finger.
“He had choices; we all have choices.”
Val knew that it would be a cold day in Hell before Johnny wouldmake any excuses for the way he lived; he took responsibility for his life and the way he lived it. Even the ill-chosen decisions and there had been many.

“What time ya got, Amigo?” Val asked.

Johnny pulled out the old pocket watch that Murdoch had given him shortly after his arrival at Lancer and checked the time. The old covering opened smoothly to reveal a plain but very serviceable and reliable watch face. Murdoch had it engraved with Johnny’s initials and made it a permanent possession. Johnny treasured the piece as it had belonged to his father and had been a gift, his first since returning to Lancer.

“Four-thirty. Sun’ll be up in a little while. I’m awake now, why don’t you get another hour's sleep if ya can. Got a feelin’ this idiota’s gonna give us some grief taday. We’re gettin’ close an’ he’s gettin’ scared…” Johnny whispered.

Val, grateful to get a nap, pulled his hat down over his eyes and mumbled something sounding like ‘if the kid hadn’t been so stupid he wouldn’t hafta be so scared’ and nodded off while the object of their conversation snored peacefully… for now.

Keeping alert but taking advantage of the sleeping prisoner, Johnny studied the young man slumbering beside him. That could have so easily been Johnny sitting in that position, his life had had the potential to go so very wrong, but like he’d told Val earlier, he knew there were choices, just like this whippersnapper asleep next to him. Johnny just made the right ones and took responsibility for the ones that weren’t so good. No one else’s fault, just his, and his alone.

His gaze still on young Will beside him, Johnny thought on how many times he’d come this close and if anyone like Mrs. Magilicuddy would have stepped forward to help him. He smiled almost feeling bad for what he’d said to the woman, but with as slippery as Will was turning out to be, they couldn’t risk  any unnecessary interference. It was the quickest way to get rid of the woman, well-meaning or not.

Sometime today, they would arrive in Phoenix; it would feel good to get off this train and ride. The steady clack-clack-clack of the wheels on the tracks made enough noise to keep the echo going in his head long after it had stopped, and the sway of the train cars kept in constant motion, made him feel like he was still riding in the car long after he exited, standing on solid ground. Johnny was more than ready to get off this moving train.

“Hey, ‘m hungry!  Ya gonna feed me?” Will bellyached. His whiny voice sounded much like that of a spoiled child, and both Johnny and Val were beyond tired of it. With cold, icy eyes, Johnny stared at the boy and toyed with the gag. He didn’t say a word as his other hand settled again on the butt of his Colt.

Val burst into laughter at the youngster’s expense. “Now ya done it, boy. Ya gone an’ pissed ‘im off! What’s it gonna be, Will? The gag or a bullet?”

Young Will sat in silence, eyes wide, as the chills raced down his spine. He watched his potential demise play out in Johnny’s eyes. Oh, where’s that preacher’s wife when ah need ‘er? he wondered.

The train began to slow as Phoenix came into sight. Johnny breathed a sigh of relief, although they still had a few days of travel before getting rid of their prisoner. But at least now, the end was very near. The wheels ground to a tooth-jarring stop. Untying Will from his seat, they departed the train.  Val led the boy, and with Johnny covering behind, they escorted their charge from the railroad car.

Johnny retrieved their horses, and soon the three were headed south out of the town after they purchased supplies and took a long way around so as to not raise any undue notice. The fewer folks to see, the fewer chances for trouble. They hadn’t expected any problem; however, Val and Johnny didn’t live this long without taking precautions. They didn’t know if the boy had friends or family that wouldn’t take kindly to the fact that Will was being carted off to trial. Didn’t matter that there had been an eye witness to the robbery that had positively identified him, Friends, an’ family can be kinda funny ‘bout things like that… Val thought. So, the three men left Phoenix on the last leg of their journey, destination Tucson. With several hours of daylight to go, they could get in many miles before calling it a day and stopping for the night.

Johnny noticed that young Will wasn’t as ‘vocal’ as he had been. They didn’t have to threaten him with the gag. He sat his horse with head slightly bowed; Val thought either he’s repenting or running options through his head about how he would try his next escape attempt.

They stopped for the night in the protection of a pile of large rocks; just the right place out of the wind and the location allowed the heat from the fire to reflect off the boulders keeping them warm as the chill of the desert night began to overtake the warmth of the day. The dry wood caught quickly, and soon the coffee was hot. The beans and jerky filled their plates as they sat, stretched out on their bedrolls.

“What ya thinkin’ ‘bout, boy?” Val asked as he recognized the decidedly changed countenance shrouding the young face. Gone was the bravado earlier displayed, and a pensive thoughtfulness enveloped him. He watched the steam from his coffee reach upward only to vanish, disappear as if never having been there, something akin to Will himself. His only mark on life would be noted as a criminal, a rowdy, lawless young man, here one moment and then sentenced to prison the next, with nothing to mark his passage through this life.

Will’s brown eyes raised to meet Val’s, and the lawman could see the struggle in their depths. The kid did not want to give in to admitting his wrongs, but neither did he want to go to prison.

Val sighed and looked at the stars. “It’s not a tough decision, kid, admittin’ ta yer faults. The tough part comes when ya walk through them doors an’ they slam shut behind ya. Ya keep on like ya have been an’ ya ain’t never gonna be free again.”

Johnny watched the kid’s eyes when Val spoke. The campfire reflected the confusion and turmoil. Finally, Johnny spoke. “What he’s sayin’, kid, is that it ain’t too late ta turn your life around. Ya wanna be in trouble for the rest of your days or ya wanna live a normal life? It’s up ta you an’ no one else can change that. Jus’ you. Plead guilty ta the charges against ya, an’ maybe, since this is your first offense, they might go easy on ya. But if ya get a chance ta start over, do it an’… don’t fuck it up… After a while, there ain’t no turnin’ it back around. I’m turnin’ in. Got a long day ahead of us tamorrow.” Johnny slid down into his bedroll and pulled his hat down over his eyes.

Val had first guard duty after getting Will settled for the night, and hunkered down until it was time to wake Johnny. He watched the kid for a long time and could see he lay for quite a while tossing his options around before sleep overtook him. Well, least he’s thinkin’ ‘bout it…

<><><><> 

Dawn would break soon; Johnny stirred the fire to life and set the coffee to boil. He promised himself long ago that when he would ride with Val, he would let Val sleep until the coffee was ready. It was no secret that Val’s coffee in the sheriff’s office was horrible, but his trail coffee was worse. For the life of him, Johnny couldn’t figure out what the man did to make the putrid brew. He had watched carefully as Val put the grounds in the pot and added the water, how could the man mess that up, but he did. Johnny would gladly do the chore. With that done, Johnny saw to his personal needs and wandered back into camp just as Val rolled out of his blanket.

The man looked a wreck, but that was Val. His clothes were wrinkled, he desperately needed a shave, and his hair stood on end all over his head. Johnny couldn’t help the laugh that erupted as Val sat up and made a grab for the pot and cup. Johnny even thought he heard Val growl.

“Boy, if the marshal could see ya now!” Johnny mused as the smile grew across his handsome face, and his eyes danced in humor. “I’m pretty sure he’d be scared a ya!” A small chuckle escaped Johnny as Val cast a wary eye on his amigo.

“Ya jus’ don’t worry none ‘bout the marshal. Seems ta me that ya got yer own hands full with your ol’ man!” Val grumped. “Wake up the kid,” Val mumbled as he went into the bushes. Johnny walked to where the boy slept and gently nudged his feet.

“Time ta get up, Will.” Johnny slowly backed away but kept a close watch, not trusting the young man one little bit.

Tyler lifted his hat from his face, squinted his eyes, and shot a cold stare in Johnny’s direction. Then a yawn echoed, sounding much like an angry bear as Will threw the blanket off and climbed to his feet. Johnny nodded his head toward the bushes as Val came back to camp in the process of buckling his belt.

“This way, Tyler,” Val croaked out, and the young prisoner followed the sheriff out of camp.

Johnny watched Will, not entirely convinced the kid wouldn’t make a break for freedom. Last night he thought there might be a slim chance Will had seen the error of his ways, but this morning, Johnny wasn’t so sure. He continued to ready the morning meal as soon as Val escorted the young man back to camp and checked the ropes around his hands. With the beans heated, jerky doled out, and a cup of hot coffee in hand, they ate their fill. Will scoffed at his bindings and garnered Val’s attention.

“Wouldn’t hafta be tied like that if ya hadn’ta been so stupid on the train. Ya think that after the shit ya pulled that ya wouldn’t be tied?” Val defended the ropes.

“Ya done nothin’ ta make us trust ya,” Johnny said in soft tones.

Will shot Johnny a withering cold stare that was ignored. “Yeah, what would you know ‘bout any a this, Lancer?” Will snapped, forgetting the icy glares from the previous three days.

Johnny leveled the boy with his ‘Madrid’ stare, once again, instilling the ‘kicked in the gut by a mule’ feeling. But Johnny said nothing, just continued with the stare and watched as Will fidgeted, then caught the shiver that ran down the boy’s body. Good ‘enough, Johnny thought.

Val saw the shiver and smiled; Johnny could sober up a drunk with that glare.

“Hurry up an’ eat, boy, we gotta get goin’,” Val said.
Withered under Johnny’s blazing scowl, the kid sat running options through his head and wasting time.

“Don’t even think about it, Tyler,” Johnny muttered as he took notice of the string line the boy studied. Tyler shrugged in defense.

“Ah didn’t try nuthin’! But ah might iffn ya don’t lay offa me!” The threat sounded empty, and he wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all, Johnny.

“Yeah? An’ I can shoot ya outta the saddle before your horse takes two steps. Guess ya forgot about our little talk last night, huh?” Johnny reminded him, saying the words as if talking with a naughty child.

“No, ah didn’t forget ‘bout our little talk last night! Ain’t you ever make a mistake?”

Meant as an attack, it rolled off Johnny, and he smiled coldly at Tyler.
“Yeah, I have, but the difference between you an’ me is that I learned something from my mistakes. You haven’t.” Johnny said no more.

<><><><> 

Val helped Tyler down from the horse. Too much coffee always delayed their travels, but they were making good time regardless.

“Jus’ who the hell does he think he is, preachin’ ta me ‘bout mistakes?” Will griped when he and Val were out of earshot.

Val had all he could do to not laugh. Apparently, this kid didn’t know Johnny Lancer and Johnny Madrid were one and the same. Val rolled his eyes before he spoke. “He’s a man that learned from his mistakes, ya idiota, so don’t piss ‘im off! We’ll be in Tucson tamorrow; ya think ya can behave till then?” Val chastised.

“Ya know, ah got a lotta money stashed away, ah jus’ might be of a mind ta share iffn ya saw fit ta look the other way an’ let me hightail it for the mountains…” Will was not giving up and dug the ‘hole’ deeper with every breath.
Coming close, Johnny couldn’t help but laugh as he reached for the bandana that they used earlier on the trip for a gag as Val snorted. Guess all our talkin’ didn’t do any good…

“Yeah, ya got some money stashed, huh?” Val chided. “Why didn’t ya get yerself a lawyer back there when ya got arrested?” Now he laughed along with Johnny. “Ya know ya jus’ committed another crime, don’t cha?” Will’s face paled. “Ya jus’ tried ta bribe an officer of the law! Boy, yer getting’ yerself in deeper all the time! Iffn I was you, I’d practice keeping my mouth shut!”

Only one more day… The thought rolled over and over in Johnny’s head. The first thing he was going to do when they got rid of their prisoner was get a drink, then a bath, and after that, he was going to get a room in the hotel and sleep in a real bed for at least a whole day!

They started at sunrise, the sun making a spectacular appearance in blazing reds, pinks, and finally, a bright orange that faded into yellow… and then it got hot. The fickle sun, beautiful in rising now, turned venomous, with lethal intentions. The last water hole had all but dried up, leaving a murky and muddy puddle. Hopefully, the next one was still large enough to water the horses, if not themselves.

Will Tyler counted off the hours until he would be, once again, locked in a cell. He knew the truth in the words these two lawmen had spoken, but his fright was now running wild with him. He could do as they had told him, own up to his mistakes, and, when released from prison, make a fresh start for himself. But how would he do that once a potential employer found out he was a convicted felon? Just who would hire him? All he had to do was make a run for freedom and lay low, stay out of sight for a few years, and soon the name of Will Tyler would be forgotten. He would change his name and travel north to where he could start over… instead of serving his prison sentence and suffering through the indignities of folks looking down their noses at him once he’d been released. Yeah, this was gonna be the best for him. So he waited and watched for an opportunity, but these two men didn’t give him many chances.

Johnny’s sixth sense started to ring in his head. He knew all their talking to this kid went in one ear and right out the other, there hadn’t been much there to stop or absorb it. He read it in the boy’s eyes; the kid’s gonna run taday…  And the only thing Johnny could do was to wait and watch.

They were breaking their noon camp when Will told them he needed to answer the call of nature. Val took him to a clump of bushes as Johnny finished with packing up their gear. Val looked around them, not wanting to witness the personal act, and upon turning to the side, the young man threw a handful of sand in Val’s eyes and kicked the gun out of his hand. He scrambled for the Colt as it lay almost at his feet and ran for the horses, taking a careless shot at Johnny in the process.

Johnny easily avoided the hasty attack and pulled his pistol, squeezing the trigger as the stupid kid made to gallop away.

The gun spun crazily out of the kid’s grasp, and his hand went numb, but he kicked the horse mercilessly, putting distance between them. Johnny swung onto Barranca’s back, and instantly the chase was on.

They gained on the prisoner with every stride as Barranca sensed the urgency of the matter. Johnny shook out his rope then swung it above his head, and in one swift, accurate throw, the loop settled over Wills's head and shoulders as Johnny pulled the slack tight and wrapped his end of the rope around the saddle horn. Will was viciously jerked backward, and the air squeezed brutally out of his lungs as he slammed into the ground with a sickening thud. Dust billowed around his body in a thick choking cloud. He lay gasping for breath that had been violently forced out of his body, trying to suck air into the lungs that suddenly felt collapsed. He coughed with eyes shut tight and watering against the grit.

When he came to his senses, the great Palomino stood over him and danced as hooves came dangerously close, and his rider glared down at the subdued pile of stupidity on the ground. When Johnny spoke, his quiet tones sent shards of ice clear through Will’s prone body.

“Guess ya ain’t gonna make anything of yourself, are ya?” Johnny spoke with callousness and disappointment and Will felt like he was four years old again. He felt ashamed and could not meet the glacial stare that reduced him to reliving the scoldings he’d gotten as a kid.

Val rode up as his anger exploded. He threw himself from the saddle and yanked the kid to his feet. “You stupid asshole! Ya try anything like that again an’ we’ll fuckin’ shoot ya! Now git on that horse, shut up an’ ride!” Vented now, Val turned to Johnny, eyes red and watery. “Thanks, Amigo. Guess I started ta think that maybe we got through ta him somehow…”

Johnny smiled at Val, slapped his dusty shoulder, and raised a slight cloud in the process then turned away.

Once out of Johnny’s earshot, Will looked at Val, his eyes narrow, filled with venom, and flashing in their depths. “He didn’t hafta do that! He thinks he’s so tough! I’m comin’ after ‘im when I get outta the pen! He better start watchin’ over his shoulder!”

Val let the kid bluster and bluff for a minute, then he asked: “Well b’fore ya call ‘im out, would ya let me know? I’d like ta watch.”

The kid looked puzzled. “Why? Ya wanna watch me shoot ‘im b’tween the eyes?” A wicked smile spread across Will’s mouth as the less than intelligent head began planning his next move.

Val suddenly laughed, not able to hold it back as he continued to rub his scratchy eyes. “Yeah, I wanna see ya try… Guess ya don’t know who that is, do ya?”

Will looked at Johnny’s back now a distance away. “That’s Johnny Lancer, ‘sides, don’t care who he is…” Will spat.

Val laughed harder. “Well, ya should. That’s Johnny Madrid… Still wanna call ‘im out?”

Will’s eyes widened in shock as his mouth fell open. It didn’t register when a fly buzzed in his gaping orifice and landed on his tongue.

Val laughed harder yet until tears ran down his face and washed his eyes clear of sand.

The rest of the day passed without incident. Johnny said not another word, but the lethal glare and chilling smile were there for the rest of the day much to Will’s wary dismay.

<><><><> 

Tucson had never before been such a welcome sight. They tied the horses at the hitch rail in front of the Marshall’s office and herded the stupid kid inside. Once the paperwork was completed, Johnny walked to the cell where the kid was locked and leveled him with a stare. Will wanted to curl up on the bunk and shrink into a little ball.

Johnny smiled, although not a warm gesture but not the glacial ice that he’d thrown at the kid as of late. “Do the right thing, kid. Stop being stupid cuz no one can fix this mess… except you.” With that said, Johnny turned and left the office.

Johnny and Val stood on the boardwalk and scouted out the nearest saloon. Soon, with drinks on the table, they sat enjoying their time, now rid of the bothersome kid.

“That one ain’t never gonna learn!” Val spouted with a certain amount of sadness in his eyes.

Johnny canted his head. “Can’t make ‘im learn if he don’t wanna. Did all we could.” Sighing loudly, Johnny shrugged. “Don’t know about you, but I‘m goin’ ta get a bath. Feel like I got about ten pounds a sand hangin’ on me.”

The bath did, indeed, work wonders for them both. The soak eased away the aches and tensions and relaxed the muscles, nearly inducing sleep. They emerged from the barber freshly shaved and groomed, then the two lawmen looked around for the hotel. They secured their rooms and made plans to meet in a few hours for a good steak dinner, then flopped on their beds and slept. Each exhausted, each relieved to be rid of the young man who now held his fate in his own hands. Whatever the kid decided, it was now his responsibility and his alone. Even Johnny Madrid could not help him now.

<><><><> 

Johnny knocked on Val’s door. “Hey, Val! Get your lazy ass outta that bed!” The knock became a pound as the door was suddenly opened, and a very blurry eyed Val stared back.

“Ya gonna sleep all day? Ya been out for three hours and it’s time ta eat. Hurry up! I’m starvin’!” Johnny grinned as he pushed his way into Val’s room. “Whatcha say ta gettin’ some tamales an’ beans? Looks ta be a good café down the street.”

Their meal was unbelievably good, and now they sat at their table, somewhat rested, bathed, and fed. The tequila bottle between them with glasses full, Johnny and Val relaxed but both still had Will Tyler on their minds. They knew what the kid was up against, and it was most likely he wouldn’t be able to make the required lifestyle change on his own.

“Well, there ain’t no more we kin do ‘bout it, Johnny. Not like we kin stay with ‘em an’ hold his blame hand. We told ‘im that it was his decision ta make now. Ya did all ya could, Amigo,” Val had seen the look in Johnny’s eyes, a regret that they really hadn’t gotten through to the young man.

“Look, you got turned around, ain’t like it’s an impossible move, but he hasta want it, just like you did,” Val said, then shook his head as he tried his best to figure the kid out.

Johnny looked up at Val, giving him a hint of a smile. “Yeah, he sure wasn’t listenin’ ta us much, was he?”

Johnny, of all people, knew that a man was the only one that could make his own changes and only if he was ready to accept his responsibilities. He didn’t think Will had come to realize that. Johnny had done what he could for the kid. And there was nothing they could do help him if he wasn’t open to it.

Sighing deeply, Johnny drained his glass, refilled it, then decided to get on with the evening.

They finished at the café, leaving a large tip for the senorita that served them, and disappointed her when they left. Apparently, she’d had plans for them later, but it wasn’t meant to be.

The cantina down the street was alive with music and patrons happily on their way to oblivion when Johnny stopped to scan the interior before making his entrance. Nothing caught his eye, no dangers or familiar faces, so they pushed through the batwing doors to take a table in the corner.

Before their butts were settled on the chairs, a pretty girl with clicking castanets in her small, delicate hands and a full, swirling skirt swinging about trim ankles, danced to their table.

Buenos noches, señores!”  She leaned into Johnny’s body, pressing her full-figured bosom against his chest and purred as she ran her fingers through his thick, silky hair. His hat fell down his back held by the stampede strings at his throat.

He gave her his best smile Johnny Madrid Lancer smile, and she melted into him only to be disappointed when he graciously rejected her advances. “Losiento, Chica, maybe later. I have business to discuss with my amigo before I let myself be tempted by your charms and fall victim to your beauty so soon this night!” Johnny breathed into her ear and pulled her close, not wanting to raise his voice to be heard over the commotion on the other side of the cantina.

Poncha pulled away, disappointment flitted through her eyes but quickly recovered, not quite believing that this handsome man was delaying what was here now at this moment, ready and more than willing. Then a thought hit her, and a sincere smile graced her beautiful mouth when she spoke. “I will be back.” She placed a quick kiss to his lips and twirled away, the clicking fingers already in time with the music that floated through the thick, smoky air.

The noise level had risen, and soon, Val and Johnny had to raise their voices  to be heard across the table. The ruckus had all the earmarks of trouble brewing. Drunken slurs tossed about from two men across the stuffy, crowded room had Johnny on the lookout for gunplay to erupt very shortly. He watched as a tall Mexican fellow attempted to make amends, a fierce apology issued to perhaps smooth over an indiscretion for the advances on another’s girl. Rapid-fire Spanish flowed in an elaborate, sugar-coated excuse declaring ignorance, not knowing the young lady was already taken. Suddenly a knife appeared in the adversary’s hand and instantly as if in one large body, the crowd backed away not wanting any part of the conflict, but anxious for the two to fight.

The tall Mexican talked to calm the other and possibly relieve him of the long, threatening blade in his hand. He kept the litany of ‘let us be friends, amigo’ and ‘no need for any violence on such a beautiful night as this’ as he backed up, edging closer and closer to the table that Johnny and Val occupied. Suddenly a fist lashed out and connected with the jaw of the sweet talker, and lifted him off his feet, giving Johnny just enough time to grab his glass, the bottle of tequila and scoot the chair to crash into the wall behind them before the man landed flat on his back over their table.

The rickety wooden legs splintered and broke, and the man crashed to the floor, stunned, but sensible enough to offer an apology for interrupting their drink. The man brought a hand to his jaw and winced as Johnny looked into the face of an old friend, Manolito Montoya, and burst into laughter as the man gathered his wits. “Mano! Ya never could keep yer hands off another man’s woman! How the hell are ya, amigo?”

Val stood from his chair to lend Mano a hand and laughed as Johnny had, then greeted him with a great bear hug.

Seeing there were now three men, the one with the knife backed off and muttered, “I will let you go… this time…”

Mano grinned in appreciation as the armed man backed away once he’d taken note of the Colts on the two newcomers.

“Hey, Mano, siddown an’ have a drink! What’d ya been up to, Amigo, ‘sides stealing another man’s girl?” Val asked with a raised brow having a vague idea, but waited for Mano to answer. “It’s, what, four years now since we seen ya last?”

Mano laughed, the shock stuck in place after seeing his long-time compadres after all the years.

Mis amigos! I certainly did not expect to see both of you here tonight! What a pleasure it is!” Montoya said, obviously happy to run into backup just when he needed it. “What brings you to Tucson?”

Val looked at Johnny then grinned as he pulled the vest away to reveal the sheriff’s badge pinned to his shirt.

Mano’s eyes widened, and he shook his head. “You? A sheriff?” He turned to Johnny, “And you? Johnny Madrid working for the law, too? The shock would be too much if that were true!” he exclaimed in a lowered voice.

Johnny snorted and grinned. “Just helpin’ out, an’… don’t go by Madrid no more. Name’s Lancer.”

Mano felt relief surge through him. Johnny had been a good friend and always hoped that he would see a way out of his line of business since the future was not a long one.

“I think this is a story that I would like to hear, mi amigo but un momento, por favor, I am a little busy at the moment,”Mano turned only to find his adversary, no longer in favor of the odds now that Montoya had his amigos, had suddenly backed down. Mano smiled then pulled out a chair from a table that had escaped the fight and sat down. Turning to the girl he had just come close to dying for, he motioned for a glass. Another table was pushed along the wall and soon, he was drinking with his friends, the girl quickly forgotten.

<><><><> 

“An’ I decided ta stay. The ol’ man wasn’t what I thought he was an’ now I got a brother, too.” Johnny finished the story as Mano grinned, genuinely happy for his young amigo, young in years but with life experiences to make him an old, old man.

“Yeah,” Val chimed in, “not only a family but third owner of the biggest ranch in all the San Joaquin Valley!”

Mano’s eyes went wide. “Juanito, that makes me very happy to know that you got ‘out’ while still in one piece. And to find a family… That is… I am very happy, amigo!” Mano was clearly moved, relieved as he had thought much of Johnny Madrid, now Lancer. “I think that deserves a toast, mis amigos!” Mano declared as he raised his glass, Johnny and Val followed. “To finding your way, both of you!” The three men drank and settled down to remember the old days.

The tequila was flowing smoothly; Johnny, Val and Mano sat at the table and reminisced, recalling the days of drinking till dawn and chasing women all night and then sleeping all day.

“What about you, Mano? What’d ya been doin’?” Johnny asked.

Mano laughed as he looked at his empty glass. “Oh, how things have changed, amigos; I, too, have found a family,” he began.

“No! Tell me ya ain’t settled down with a good woman, Mano!” Val gasped, not believing what he suspected.

“Well, sí, but not in the way you think. You remember my sister, Victoria?” Mano asked.

Johnny rolled his eyes as the memories came flooding back. “Yeah, I remember very well…” Johnny said as he rubbed his cheek as he thought of the stinging slap she assaulted him with.

Mano laughed, thinking back to when Johnny had tried to kiss her years ago. “Well, you do not have to worry about her any longer, Juanito, she is married to Big John Cannon, owner of the High Chaparral Rancho, here just outside of Tucson. I work for John and have been adopted, you might say, into the family. John’s brother Buck and son, Blue, all live there and share the running of the ranch, so I, too, have acquired family. I have to say it is a blessing as I would not have lasted much longer living at my father’s rancho without one of us killing the other.”

Both Johnny and Val remembered the senior Montoya vividly as a man that clashed with his son resulting in severe consequences. And as Johnny and Val were friends of his son, the senior Montoya had not been overly fond of them, either. Of course, it didn’t help matters at all regarding the man when Mano, Johnny and Val stole some of Montoya’s cattle to sell but claimed the animals had been taken by Comancheros.

“Did the ol’ man ever get over that lost cattle business, Mano?” Val asked as he laughed.

Mano sighed. “It pains me to say that he has not yet forgiven that small indiscretion even now. Ie yi yi! The man does not let anything go!” Mano laughed and took another drink.

“Yeah, guess lotsa fathers hold onta some a that stuff… ‘M learnin’ that…” Johnny huffed and shot Mano a look of disbelief.

“Well, ya can’t really blame Murdoch for that, Johnny. After all, he is president of the Cattle Growers Association, and here ya let your friend run sheep all over Murdoch’s best pasture,” Val chuckled.

Mano stopped with the glass halfway to his mouth, eyes wide. “Oh, I think there is a story that I would very much like to hear, amigo!” The chuckle shook his shoulders as he pictured a cattle rancher suddenly overrun with sheep.

“Yeah, he wasn’t real happy about that…” Johnny smiled sadly as he recalled a very distressed Murdoch Lancer who happened to be hosting the Cattlemen’s meeting when the pasture in front of the hacienda flooded with bleating sheep.

Val started to laugh, “Hey, ya two remember that time that we won that fight in Nogales? What were there, eight or nine rowdies an’ the three of us beat ‘em in that brawl? Ya ‘member that night? We kinda tore the hell outta that saloon!”

Johnny and Mano grinned, remembering clearly. The three of them heroically victorious, outnumbered three to one. Standing in a triangle, backs to each other, bloody but triumphant. That was a night that none of them would forget. But then, neither would the men they had taken down… Or the bartender… Or the other patrons. And the saloon girls were kept very busy, tending the bruises, cuts, and other maladies the three of them suffered during the fight. Johnny, Val, and Mano spent much time in the girls’ beds as they ‘recuperated’ afterward.

“Hey, ‘member ol’ Brady McLain? For him bein’ sheriff, he was pretty damn stupid!” Mano and Johnny grinned as they went back in time.

Brady McLain had been sheriff in Yuma several years back. He only lasted a few months before he stepped down, and not by choice. The truth of the matter was that he was just plain terrible at his job, but then no one else had wanted to take on the situation, so as a temporary ‘fix’, the townsfolk had offered the position to the three men. That fact alone had Johnny, Val and Mano baffled. Wasn’t that the same as trying to train a wolf to watch a flock of sheep? They had all questioned it, but as the residents had been impressed during the fight with nine known local trouble makers and ran them out of town, the job was offered. It paid reasonably well and was for only a short time, but the people were desperate.

With a parting shot from ex-Sheriff Brady threatening to alert the proper authorities, Johnny, Val, and Manolito saw to it that there was law in Yuma. And they took their job seriously. The nest of human rattlers was rooted out, and Yuma, although it had its controversial moments, was once again a law abiding town.

A wolfish grin spread across Val’s face as he directed the look to Johnny.

“What?” Johnny asked, not knowing if he really wanted to know what Val was thinking. The grin was lecherous at best. “Oh, I was jus’ thinkin’ ‘bout that eye witness ta that murder; what was her name? Madelyn Converse, I think. Ya ‘member whatcha done with her, Johnny?”

Mano burst out in belly rolls of laughter while Johnny looked down at his drink and topped it off out of a fresh bottle. “Yeah, I remember. It worked, didn’t it?” He responded as the smile crawled across his handsome face. Ahh, good times, good times…

Madelyn Converse had been a seventy-year-old woman who happened to be the only eye witness to a murder. She was a lovely woman, married three times, and had sadly buried all of her husbands. She had a wonderful way with people; everyone loved her except the land grabbing bully, one Wilson Bernard that had gotten it in his head that he would control Yuma and the whole territory.

When a leading citizen bucked Bernard’s ways, he shot him down. Had it been a fair fight, nothing could have been done about it. But as Mr. Clay McSheen had been shot in the back and had been unarmed, Bernard’s plans took a turn south, especially after it was discovered that there was an eye witness.

Bernard was overheard to say that he would get rid of the witness, and he would soon be the law in Yuma. Not being men to turn their back on a challenge, Johnny, Val, and Mano decided that Mrs. Converse needed protection. Johnny convinced her to let them put her in hiding until the trial in which she would testify, ultimately sealing the fate of Bernard.

But where to hide the woman? Bernard had ‘eyes’ everywhere. Then Johnny came up with an excellent and brilliant idea. The local bordello, Angela’s, was the perfect hiding spot. They had plenty of room, and it would not look out of place to see Johnny Val and Mano there as they regularly visited anyway.

It would be easy enough to keep her out of sight should any of Bernard’s men come in for a toss with the girls. They thought they might have a problem convincing Mrs. Converse to stay there, but when presented with the idea, Madelyn surprised them all with a bawdy sense of humor and agreed to hide in the bordello. She had often wondered what the inside of a place like that looked like! With the men taking turns staying with Mrs. Converse, she would be safe and kept right under Bernard’s greedy bulbous nose. Madelyn was never one to judge, and she had gotten along with all the girls so much so that they took to calling her Mama. Madelyn cooked for them and did mending, but more than anything, she became a good friend, often the girls confided in her, talking out their problems and issues and they developed a very close mother-daughter type relationship.

Johnny had taken his job very seriously as Val and Mano mused over the hilarity of the situation.

“Well, hell, had ta make sure all the girls was safe for Mrs. Converse ta be around. Couldn’t have any of ‘em reportin’ back ta Bernard, now could we?” Johnny defended.

Val and Mano were beyond control thinking about Johnny’s technique of checking their ‘credentials’. “Damn, Johnny, I thought I’d never getcha outta that whorehouse! Took over a week an’ a half ta drag yer sorry ass outta there! Guess your ‘interrogatin’’ methods worked out!’’ Val crowed.

“Had ta make sure everyone a them girls was alright ta be around Mrs. Converse, I mean if we were gonna hide her there we oughta make sure it was safe… Gotta admit, though, I was kinda wore out after it was all over!” Johnny confessed with a wide grin.

Mano wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand to clear away the tears from laughter. “Do you two know that Mrs. Converse stayed close with the girls there and until the day she died? They would visit her regularly, and they all were at her funeral. There was even some talk about changing the bordello’s name to ‘Madelyn’s,’ but they never did. I think that maybe Señora Converse would have understood. It meant a lot to those girls that she treated them like friends, and family and never was there a disparaging word to them or about them from Madelyn.”

Johnny felt his heart grow warm upon this revelation. Madelyn Converse was a decent human being and bridged the gap between the two different lifestyles, forging a friendship with them took a special kind of person, and that was Madelyn Converse.

“Well, Amigo, guess we should be turnin’ in so’s we can get a early start in the mornin’. I know Murdoch’ll be waitin’ for ya.” Val said as he stood. “One more drink with Mano, and then we need ta call it a night!” Val said with a wink.

Two hours later saw Johnny, Val, and Mano stagger to the hotel though who was supporting who was impossible to determine. On the boardwalk outside the building, they bid Mano goodbye and made a promise to get together as soon as they could. Mano shook hands with Val as Val drunkenly turned to Johnny and shook. Johnny quickly pulled out of Val’s grasp, thinking that the sheriff had way too much to drink.

“It was good ta see ya, amigo,” he slurred as Johnny and Mano looked at the other. Val was not aware of much, and Johnny knew it would be up to him to throw the sheriff into bed. Damn! Johnny thought I ain’t pullin’ them boots offa him! He’s got the smelliest feet outta anyone I know. Pro’bly sober me right up…

Johnny watched as Manolito Montoya crossed the street, weaving unsteadily,  staggering, going down on one knee, then hoisted himself up with what little dignity he had left and then stop… Where is my horse? He went to his right down the street, and as Johnny watched, he saw Mano turn around and go left back the way he’d come as if remembering where his horse was. Sure hope he gets home sometime tanight… Johnny thought as he turned and guided Val up the stairs to his room. And it took some doing.

“J-Johnnnny?” Val whispered loudly as Johnny grabbed Val’s belt and arm.

“Whatsa madd-der, V-Val?” Johnny whispered back.

Val watched his feet as he tripped on the risers. “Damn stairs‘re m-m-movin’, ‘migo, ain’t stayin’ s-still…”

“Sokay, jus’ hope your b-bed’s still where it s-should be cuz, belch, oops, s-s-sorry, ya ain’t s-s-sleepin’ in m-my b-bed…”

It was a long, noisy trip up the stairs and down the hall. Fortunately, they found their rooms were where they should be, however, it had been a challenge to find the keyholes. The beds had not wandered away, but Val did not let go of Johnny and dragged his amigo down into bed with him.

Dios, Val! Leggo a me! I ain’t gonna fuckin’ sleep with ya!” Johnny nearly sobered up as he desperately pried Val’s fingers from the death grip he had on Johnny’s shirt with horrifying visions of someone seeing him sleeping in Val’s bed. Ain’t gonna say much ‘bout my image! Johnny Madrid sleepin’ with Val Crawford would ruin my reputation in a second!

The morning came much too quickly… as did the stampedes that trampled inside their heads and kicked their brains into mush. Johnny pounded his fist on the door, and he grabbed his head as if it were trying to get away. The hammer and anvil slammed between his ears in an agonizing explosion. Damn Crawford! He was supposed ta wake me up… Johnny pushed aside any courtesies and barged into the room. Val Crawford, still in bed, pulled the pillow across his face and mumbled something that sounded strangely like a curse, but Johnny wasn’t sure nor did he care. He only knew that they should have been on their way long before this.

Johnny went to the washbasin and hefted the pitcher in his hand, satisfied there was water left in it and walked to the bed where muffled snores could be heard coming from under the pillow. An arm clutched the cotton cloth stuffed with feathers as a grubby hand held on for good measure. Johnny struggled to lift the pillow but managed enough to dump water onto the sleeping face. The explosion that followed was a combination of choke-cough-scream and a healthy string of obscenities.

“Madrid, you son-of-a-bitch! FUCK YOU!”

Johnny only laughed and stepped away from the flailing hands that blindly grabbed for him. “Roll out, Val, an’ let’s get some coffee.” Johnny went to the window and looked down at the street. It had to be after nine already. Damn, wanted ta leave before this…

<><><><> 

Val was not happy. His shirt was wet, and he had a pounding in his skull that threatened to separate his head from his neck. A cup of coffee was set in front of him, and the steam of the life-saving brew wafted up into his face as he leaned into his hands with elbows on the table. Johnny watched as Val’s eyes cracked open, out of focus, but they were open, and he took a sip. It never failed to amaze Johnny to watch Val sober up. With the first swallow of coffee, it was almost an instant transformation. Soon he waved to the waitress and ordered a full breakfast of steak, eggs, potatoes, and flapjacks. Johnny stopped with steak and eggs.

“Sure was good ta see ol’ Mano last night!” Val exclaimed around a mouthful of steak. Johnny laughed as he recalled their night of reminiscing.

“Yeah, I‘ll never forget stealin’ his father’s cattle! What a night that was! I thought that ol’ man was gonna skin us alive!”

The two men laughed again at the shenanigans of years ago. There were great times, but now, when they thought about it, they both wondered how they came out of it relatively unscathed. Especially where Victoria was concerned… And Johnny again rubbed his cheek where she had slapped him.

Val watched him and knew what was running through Johnny’s mind and smirked. “Hope ol’ Mano got home alright. He sure didn’t look too good!” Val said as he vaguely remembered watching the man search for his horse. “Ya ‘bout ready, amigo? I need ta stop by the jail b’fore we leave.” Taking a last gulp of coffee and leaving a good tip for the waitress, Johnny and Val left the café and walked to the jail.

It was only a block and a half walk, but the mid-morning heat was already building to promise a miserable day ahead. Their shirts were damp with sweat as they stepped up onto the boardwalk and into the dark interior of the jail. Sheriff Emmett Boseman was seated behind the desk and rose when the two men entered his office.

“Mornin’ Val! Johnny! I wanna thank ya both again for bringin’ that prisoner down here. Saved me a lotta trouble,” Boseman grinned.

Val and Johnny nodded.

“I didn’t know if you two’d be comin’ by what with the celebratin’ ya was doin’ last night with Mano! Ya known him long?”

Both Val and Johnny laughed. “Yeah, longer’n what we care ta admit ta,” Val said. “Ya had some papers for me ta sign b’fore we left. We’re heading out in a few minutes, so’s reckon I better get it done.”

Boseman rummaged through his desk for the documents as Johnny leisurely examined the wanted posters tacked to the wall, relieved when he didn’t see any for Madrid.

“Mr. Lancer?” A quiet voice penetrated Johnny’s thoughts, and he turned to see young Will Tyler standing in the locked cell, his hands gripped the bars with white knuckles and his eyes wide with uncertainty fixed on him.

Johnny slowly walked to the bars that separated them. “Yeah?” And he met the scared, glazed look on the kid’s face, giving the kid no clue as to what was going on in his head.

“I… I, ah, just wanted ta let ya know that I been thinkin’ on what ya said ‘bout me bein’ the only one ta change things for me an’ well, ‘m gonna try an’ do whatcha told me.” The boy looked down at his worn boots and scuffed the floor before looking back to him, and a slight smile grew on Johnny’s face. “No one ever said them words ta me b’fore. I always thought it’d be alright long as I never got caught. Well, I got caught an’ now ‘m gonna hafta pay for the wrong I done. But when I get outta prison, ‘m gonna do what’s right. What I shoulda been doin’ all along.”

Johnny’s smile grew a bit more. “I’m glad ta hear that, Will.”

Will smiled before he continued. “Jus’ wanted ya ta know that ‘m gonna be makin’ some better choices with my life, just like ya said. An’ thanks.” Will then turned and sat at the edge of his cot.

“Adios,kid.” Johnny turned and walked away.

<><><><> 

“So what’d the kid have ta say?” Val asked when they had been on their way out of town.

Johnny had to smile. Whether the kid would make an honest effort at choosing which way he would go or not, at least Johnny tried to steer him in the right direction.

“Said he was gonna start makin’ better decisions when he got outta prison. Ya know, out there before he was locked up, it’s different until you’re sittin’ in a jail cell. But the second that door slams shut, it changes the way ya think. Hope he still feels that way when he gets out…” Johnny said with a sigh.

Val thought about all the young men he’d locked up and sent to prison over the years he’d been sheriff and wondered how many of them ended up back behind bars.

“Well, Amigo, ya did all that ya could for ‘im. You’re right. It’s all up ta him now.”

“C’mon, let’s go home!” And Johnny spurred Barranca into a gallop leaving Val in a cloud of dust in the road. Val suddenly reined Milagro to a skidding stop and yelled after his parting amigo, “Hey, how ‘bout we stop at Angela’s first b‘fore we leave town!”

 

 

 

~ end ~

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