The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

Last Man Standing
A Johnny Madrid, pre-Lancer story. Thanks to Cat for the beta.

There was a range war brewing south, down by Madera Canyon, and he thought he’d better make tracks if he wanted in on it. Val Crawford would already be there and hoped they’d be on the same side. Crawford was savvy, weighing the odds and facts regarding which side to take, and Johnny could depend on his sense of right and wrong. He and Val had been through a lot together, had saved each other’s lives more than they cared to remember, and knew each other’s thoughts before they themselves knew what they were thinking as if an extension, as if of the same mind. They fought well together and would probably die together. Val Crawford and Johnny Madrid were as close as brothers. They had no one else.

Johnny Madrid, gunfighter, the best at his trade, saddled Valiente and headed south to Madera Canyon. He would ride in tomorrow night; the darkness would serve him well, and he would assess the situation before he made it known to anyone that Madrid was in town. He had friends there who would keep his arrival secret, and if it didn’t look prosperous, he would leave without any trouble. Not every range war was worth getting involved in. In Johnny’s line of work, one had to pick one’s battles and chose wisely. Or die.

He was good at what he did, and so far he’d been lucky, but Johnny knew that his luck would one day run out. Nothing lasts forever. And every time a war broke out, there was the next generation of men, no, they weren’t men, but boys, youngsters wanting to prove to the world they were indestructible. Indestructible and smart and competent with a gun. But they weren’t, and they died. The surprise always evident on their faces as they fell dead, their life’s blood pouring from their bodies and staining the ground. When would Johnny get tired of this life? Would he get out before it was too late?

Valiente made good time, and Johnny got to the outskirts of Madera Canyon after dark. The house of Miguel and Trini Sanchez was lit, dimmed lanterns barely showing through the covered windows, but the doors were locked. Johnny knocked three times in rapid succession then two slow knocks. The door quietly opened, and he slipped inside where, standing in the near dark, he felt small arms flung around his neck and a soft squeal in his ear.

Juanito! I knew you were going to come here!” And suddenly, the light brightened a bit, and Johnny was looking into the broadly smiling face of Trini Sanchez. She was as cute as he remembered, but there was something very different about her. Her tiny frame was greatly expanded with the child she carried, looking as if she could deliver at any second. Johnny returned her smile and leveled a wicked grin on Miguel.

“You’ve been busy, amigo!” He stepped around Trini and wrapped his arms around his old friend, patting him on the back in good-natured humor. “Are you well, Miguel? Any trouble?” Johnny asked as he pulled away, anxious to hear about these dear friends.

“Sí, Juanito! We are well! And happy! We are waiting for the niño, hoping it arrives before the war breaks out with the two gringo ranchers! One isn’t  bad, but the other, Dios, he will get everyone killed before he is done!”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed a bit as he listened.“Yeah, that’s why

I‘m here. Ya seen Val around?” Johnny asked with raised brows.

“Sí, Juanito,Val is in town. He arrived yesterday and has been here, he asked for me to send for him when you came in. I will get him now.” Miguel dimmed the lights before opening the door and slipped out into the dark.

Juanito,come sit, and I will get you food,” Trini commanded, taking Johnny’s arm and waddling along beside him, she ushered him to the small table in the kitchen. There she began to set out food and a bottle of tequila.

Gracias, chica!”Johnny poured the drink into a glass and listened to Trini’s nonstop chatter as he waited for Val.

“Everyone is scared, this gringo rancher has caused so much fear, and many have died. There have been many killings, and now they are asking for us to join sides. Either you fight for one or the other…” Her soft voice trailing away.

“What’re they fightin’ about?” Johnny asked while Trini turned to the stove.

“Water. Señor Wiley dammed the river, and Señor Kelly has no water now. His stock is dying from thirst.”

“Who was here first?” Johnny asked. He began wondering about water rights and who was entitled to them.

“Señor Kelly’s family has been here for two generations. Wiley had only been here about four years now, but he acts like it is he that has the rights, and he is a very wealthy man. He has brought in many guns to support him in this fight.” Trini set the warmed meal on the table and filled Johnny’s plate.

Gracias,Trini!” He fixed her with his dazzling smile, and he began to eat. It had been early in the day when he had his last meal, and he was hungry. As he devoured the food, he digested what Trini had told him. After he talked to Val, he would make up his mind if it was a fight he wanted to join. Val would have the answer.

The food tasted heavenly. Johnny remembered that Trini had always been an excellent cook, and he’d eaten many meals with these friends, both he and Val, and in turn, either discreetly left money behind or brought game they  hunted or supplies they’d bought. Friends helping friends, that was the way they’d done things for years and would continue until they ceased to draw breath.

Johnny scraped the plate clean as Trini looked on, delighted to see him eat with a good appetite. She knew he was well; she also knew if she asked him, he would tell her he was fine, even if he wasn’t. “¿Más comida, Johnny?” (More food?) she asked with wide, smiling eyes.

“No, gracias, I‘m full, but thanks, it was muy bueno, querida,” he answered, taking another drink of tequila, and diligently minding his manners as he suppressed a belch.

A knock at the back door signaled the arrival of Miguel and, hopefully, Val. Trini let them in and secured the bolt in place as Johnny and Val greeted each other like brothers, then the three men sat around the table discussing the events and filling Johnny in with all the pertinent details.

“This thing’s been brewin’ for months. Joe Kelly’s family settled this part a the country an’ Josh Wiley bought up all the land north an’ wants ta control the water, so he built a dam ‘cross the river an’ only lets water out when it benefits him. Crops ain’t growin’ an’ cattle an’ horses are dyin’. Wiley’s brought in guns an’ plenty of ‘em. ‘M goin’ ta see Kelly tomorrow, just ta make sure ‘m gettin’ on the right side. Sometimes it ain’t always like it seems.” Val let his words sink in. Johnny had fought enough of these wars to know that was true, and he nodded in agreement.

“Think I’ll go along with ya, try an’ get the layout before we sign on with either of ‘em.”

Miguel sighed in relief. Knowing that both Johnny and Val were here made him feel much better about this whole mess. Tensions were running high, and many more people would be hurt or killed. For everyone’s sake, he wanted this settled but especially for the sake of his unborn child.

The rest of the evening was spent in warm conversation. Good friends recalling good times, happier times. Trini laughed until she cried, tears streaming down her face listening to the tales of Val and Johnny and sometimes Miguel. And secretly relieved that Miguel had not participated in all the tomfoolery and shenanigans the other two had been mixed up in. But she was tickled at the nonsense just the same.

The clock chimed twelve, and Trini left the men alone, announcing she was tired and was going to bed.

“Yeah, reckon I’ll be headin’ out,” Johnny said as he got up from the chair.

“Do you have a place to sleep tonight, Johnny?” Miguel asked.

And before Johnny could speak, Val broke in the conversation.

“Yeah, he does. I got a room with two beds amigo, so ya can bunk with me.” Val winked at Trini as he passed by her to leave. She reached out to kiss him goodnight and did the same with Johnny before he left. She leveled a gaze at both men as they stopped at the door, and her smile reached her sparkling eyes.

“I am glad you both are here. I feel in here,” she placed a hand over her heart, “that it will be fine.” With that, she turned and walked into the small bedroom and closed the door.

“I hope that woman is right,” Val breathed as he turned and unlatched the outside door.

<><><><> 

The light filtered around the shades and brightened the room. It was later than what Johnny would have liked, but they could still get out of town before most of the other gunhawks were awake. He and Val quickly dressed and exited through the back, unnoticed. They saddled their horses and rode southwest toward the Kelly ranch. From everything that Johnny and Val had heard about the man, he was a straight shooter and respected by the people in the valley. Well, they would see for themselves, maybe they could avert trouble before it had a chance to boil over.

Innocent people were victims and always hurt by these wars; they’d seen it many times before. Now, when they scouted out the situations, deciding which side to fight on, they would try to talk things out between the two first before any innocent people got hurt and families were torn apart.

“Trini said there’s been people killed in this already. What'd ya hear?”

Johnny asked as they rode.

Val snorted and shook his head in disgust. “What I heard’s ‘nough ta make ya sick. Wiley wanted ta make a stand, so he moved hard an’ fast. He dammed the river an’ flooded low lands, drowned a whole family when he did it. Water started comin’ in so fast they didn’t have time ta pack anything, just get in the wagon an’ get out; they got stuck, water was getting’ deep an’ the wheel got caught up in some rocks they couldn’t see. Wagon, an’ everyone in it, got washed away. They had three little kids in that wagon, amigo, one of ‘em was a baby. Ta hear Wiley talk it was nuthin’ ta concern himself about. He got his dam built an’ now wants everyone ta pay for ‘his’ water.”

Johnny had heard stories like this before. He’d seen many men like Wiley in his profession, but it was still hard to believe, it never ceased to sicken his gut. And it all boiled down to greed.

About six miles out of town, the road split, and they took the left fork. There was a definite look to the terrain. The further out they rode, the less grass they saw, and leaves on the trees were stunted and withered. It was a land that was dying.

Soon they approached a gate, complete with armed guards. Johnny and Val reined their horses to a stop and tipped their hats.

“Mornin’, boys,” Val spoke, cheerful and friendly and offered a big smile. “Name’s Crawford. Here ta see Mr. Kelly. He’s expectin’ me.”

The guards scrutinized the two men, they looked dangerous, and their jobs were to not let anyone in that could be a threat to Joe Kelly. Wiley was playing dirty. How were they to know this wasn’t some ploy to get to their boss?

With their rifles still pointed at the hearts of the men in front of them, one of them asked: “You got any proof of who you say you are?”

Slowly Val reached into his jacket pocket, took out a folded paper, then handed it to the man nearest him. The man cautiously unfolded it, trying to keep an eye on these two gunmen and read the note, but as soon as he saw the signature on the bottom of the paper, he relaxed.

“Let ‘em through, Hank, this note’s got Mr. Kelly’s writin’ on it. He’s expectin’ ‘em.” The gate was opened and closed after Johnny and Val passed through. The guards directed them to the main house, still a bit apprehensive.

Joe Kelly’s house was a modest two-story structure. Stone chimneys rose from the roof in several places. A wide covered porch wrapped around the front of the house, providing shade and shielded the sun. A swing suspended from the roof at the far end gently swayed, and behind it, a withered rose bush that had at one time climbed the trellis up and over the roof was now dead; its withered leaves and stems rattled in the morning breeze in beat with the porch swing.

Johnny and Val tied their horses to the hitch rail and went to the door. They knocked a few times, then waited. Presently, a small plump Mexican woman opened the door, her eyes immediately wary as she looked the two men over.

“Ma’am, we’re here ta see Mr. Kelly. My name’s Val Crawford, an’ this here is Johnny Madrid.” Val made the introductions, and when the woman heard the name Madrid, a smile split her face, and she relaxed.

“Sí, por favor, this way, Señores.”  She led them into a parlor and told them Mr. Kelly would be there shortly. They settled in comfortable chairs and looked around them, taking note of the portrait over the mantle. The beautiful woman in the picture looked as if she could see into their souls, so lifelike was she, especially the eyes. They were crystal blue and sparkling.

Footsteps on the stairs signaled the arrival of a man, presumably Joe Kelly and Johnny and Val tore their eyes from the painting as a large man made his way into the room.

Joe Kelly was not a man to easily dismiss. He was well over six feet tall and large-boned with not an ounce of fat on his massive frame. The well-toned muscles bespoke of a man used to a lifetime of hard work and weathered skin supported the fact. His salt and pepper hair was thick and hung down to his shirt collar. Gray-blue eyes shaded by large bushy brows lent an air of intelligence and dignity. Extending a huge, paw-like hand, he greeted them.

“Mr. Crawford, Mr. Madrid, it is good to make your acquaintance! I’m Joe Kelly,” he said in an amazingly quiet voice. He sounded tired.

“Excuse me, Mr. Kelly, but how do you know we’re who we say we are?” Val asked, making sure the man knew exactly who he was talking with.

“If you will forgive me for saying so but Consuelo, my housekeeper, recognized you, Mr. Madrid. I certainly hope we can come to terms and maybe get this whole mess settled with no more bloodshed. The people in this valley are trapped in the middle, and you’ve probably already heard that one whole family has been lost. This can’t continue.” Mr. Kelly stopped talking as he suddenly seemed to remember his manners.

“Forgive me, please; have you gentlemen had breakfast yet?”

Val shrugged with a silly grin. “Ah, no, sir, we ain’t…” he said with a shy but hopeful smile.

Kelly beamed and disappeared into a hallway that led to the kitchen. He returned straight away with a large silver tray loaded with three cups, coffee pot, sugar, and cream.

Johnny took his cup with a quiet “Thank you,” and as he sat savoring the aroma and the hot, bitter brew as it flowed down his throat, he listened as Kelly told of horrific incidents of the last year, but within minutes Consuelo called that breakfast was ready.

Mr. Kelly stopped talking and rose from his chair. “Thank you, Consuelo. Business after breakfast, gentlemen. This way, please,” and he took them into a comfortable dining room, seating them at the table that held an amazing and delicious meal.

Val’s mouth began to water, and his eyes bulged out from their sockets.

Johnny snorted and shook his head, Val ain’t never gonna change! he thought as he took his seat.

Kelly encouraged them to fill their plates and eat. The huevos rancheros were superb, and the cactus was cooked the way Johnny remembered his mother had made it. The first bite took him back many years. He had to look down at his plate to get control of his emotions, and it hit him unexpectedly hard. The prickly pear fruit was sweet, served in a sauce that complemented the eggs, and the ham was tender and a bit spicy. Freshly baked bread with a crock of butter and a jar of honey rounded out the meal.

Val ate until he was stuffed; the other two men had finished long before. Consuelo kept bringing the food, and Val kept eating, causing Johnny to wonder if Val’s horse was going to be able to cart his ass around after all that he’d consumed. Finally pushing his plate aside and looking as if he would explode, Val slurped his coffee. “Thank you, Mr. Kelly, that was mighty good!”

Consuelo entered the room, and Johnny couldn’t help the grin that broke out on his face, making her blush.

“Alright, Mr. Crawford, Mr. Madrid, why don’t we go into the parlor and talk.”

As the men left the dining room, Johnny hung back and caught Consuelo’s attention.

“Gracias, Señora, that was very good! It reminded me of how my Mama used to cook.” Gently taking her hand, he placed a kiss on the work-roughened fingers and breathed another “Gracias” into her palm.

She had heard stories of Madrid’s gallantry and charm… But now she knew, and she wasn’t disappointed.

He grabbed his hat, and with another dazzling smile, he left her alone.

<><><><> 

Settled in the modest but comfortable parlor, each with another cup of coffee, Kelly continued the detailed account of events leading up to this meeting and probable war. Leaving nothing out, no matter how heartbreaking or stomach-turning the fact was, Kelly related the facts; these men needed to know everything if they were going to work for him.

The murdered family was just the beginning, and murder it was. Wiley had given no warning; he was going to dam the river, and once it ceased to flow, it quickly filled into a lake. And Wiley had gone way beyond that. As people left the valley, he bought the land for pennies on the dollar and acted as if he were doing people a favor by buying their property. Intimidation and fear governed by Wiley brought about panic, paranoia, and sheer terror. Women had been assaulted, and men had disappeared if they couldn’t be persuaded to his way of thinking. Once friendly occupants of the valley turned distrustful and fearful, not knowing if the person that they used to have as a friend and neighbor would now turn against them. 

Johnny and Val listened until Kelly stopped talking. They’d heard things like this before, but it never ceased to sicken their guts at the extent a man would go to add to his properties, no matter what means it took to get what he was after.

“How many guns has Wiley brought in, do ya know?” Johnny quietly asked.

“I don’t know a specific number, but there have been many strangers in town lately, one in particular. A thin, tall, younger man of Mexican descent with a large scar down his face, the left side, I believe…”

“Navarro. If he’s here, that’ll mean that Mendez ain’t far behind,” Johnny said as he met Val’s eyes.

Kelly was clearly impressed with these two as they seemed to quickly assess the situation, understanding a potential enemy. Wait a minute, Kelly, they haven’t committed to you yet… he chided himself.

Both Val and Johnny were quiet for a minute, then Johnny spoke.

“Mr. Kelly, in our line a work we hafta get both sides, I‘m sure ya understand, but from what we heard so far, an’ not only from you, our minds are pretty much made up right now. But we’ll be in touch soon. Thanks for your time… An’ breakfast.” Johnny and Val stood, shook hands with Joe Kelly, and left.

<><><><> 

“Well, he ain’t lyin’ ta us. We gotta go in an’ see what the opposition is though. An’ Wiley can’t know that we already talked with Kelly,” Johnny voiced what he knew was going through Val’s head.

“Yeah, we need ta find out if Mendez is comin’ or not. Navarro’s gonna be tough enough by himself, but havin’ the two of ‘em tagether is, well… we got our work cut out for us,” Val groused.

Johnny snorted a laugh and looked over at Val as they rode. “Anybody ever tell ya that ya worry like an ol’ grouchy woman? C’mon, Val, what happens when ya cut the head offa snake, huh? We just hafta get ta them before they get ta us, is all!” Johnny shook his head again at his amigo. Probably all that food he ate plugged up his brain!

<><><><> 

“Tell Mr. Wiley Val Crawford, an’ Johnny Madrid are here ‘bout a job. We heard he was hirin’,” Val said with a cocky attitude. The attitude that set most self-serving men on edge, and made others want to take him down a peg or two.

Johnny smirked at the look on the man's face. The guard looked at Val, not believing what he’s just heard. This saddle tramp ain’t givin’ me no orders!

“Alright, ya jackass. I wouldn’t wanna be you when Wiley finds out ya wouldn’t let us in…” and they started to rein their horses away from the gate. They’d only made it a few feet when they were called back, and the gate was opened. The guard stepped aside to let them pass. Val delivered a smile that went ear to ear. Dios! This idiota is somethin’ else!

“Thank ya, son. I’ll be sure ta tell Wiley what a good boy ya are.” Laughing as they passed the guard, they could feel his eyes boring into their backs.

Wiley’s house was massive, garish in design, and just knowing what had happened to innocent people to get it, it felt obscene. The grounds were immaculate, trimmed bushes and gardens graced the yard, and as far as they could see were green pastures filled with cattle and horses that grazed on dense, thick grass. It was lush and alive, unlike Joe Kelly’s place.

They tied up at the hitch rail and mounted the huge porch decorated with potted plants and furniture. They knocked on the door, and it was immediately opened as if that was a person’s job to just stand there and open the door. And it was.

Dios, what the hell is this place? Johnny thought to himself. They stood in a vast foyer, rooms to the right and left, and a magnificent curved staircase that went to the second and third floors. The opulence of the place was overwhelming, and it was quite possibly the gaudiest house Johnny had ever seen.

Val asked the doorman to speak to Mr. Wiley, and they were shown to a huge room decorated with large, ornate furnishings. Heavy, deep crimson curtains adorned the windows, with a matching red carpet and upholstered furniture trimmed with gold tassels and fringe adorned the study. Johnny almost laughed, thinking he’d never seen even a whorehouse decorated so loud and brassy.

A man of average height with a slight paunch came into the room. This person hadn’t done a day's work in his life. His hands were too clean, there was no tan to his skin, and he looked as though he was doing them a favor to see them.

“I am Joshua Wiley,” he said as if Johnny and Val should be impressed and thankful to see him. Both had to fight the grins that threatened to split their faces until they remembered how ugly this man could be.

“We heard you were hirin’, come ta check things out,” Johnny said, wanting more than anything to see this murderer burn in Hell.

“Yes, and just who might you be?” Wiley spoke, his bored and condescending tone grated on the nerves of the two that stood before him.

“We’re Val Crawford an’ Johnny Madrid. Ask Navarro, he knows us…” Val joined in. At the mention of Navarro’s name so casually used, Wiley’s demeanor changed. Clearly, these two men were not to be dismissed so easily. He desperately needed to win this war. Maybe they could add more protection to his growing army.

“And just how do you know Navarro, may I ask?”

“Oh, we fought against him before,” Johnny stated simply and calmly with a small grin forming on his face.

“Against?” was all Wiley said, brows raised and surprised. “I would think you would want to be on the winning side…”

“We were,” Johnny said with an insolent grin. “Just checkin’ all the options. Seein’ who’s payin’ the most. But if ya ain’t interested, we’ll be goin’.” Johnny and Val made to walk out the door.

Suddenly Wiley had a change of heart. “Gentlemen, wait just a minute. I think maybe we can come to an understanding! Besides, I am sure you want to be on the winning side here.”  Wiley then smirked. “After all, I will be the last man standing!” he gloated arrogantly. Then he began to speak.

Wiley talked and prattled. And the more he boasted, the more apparent it became to Johnny and Val that the man was a self-serving, egotistical maniac. He cared for no one but himself and regarded every one beneath him, even making light of the family that had perished in the flooding.

Both Johnny and Val sat not saying a word. Suddenly Johnny stood up in mid-sentence and interrupted Wiley’s boasting of his wealth, land, and money. It was unexpected, and Wiley’s jaw dropped, astonished that these men were brushing off what he had to say. The move momentarily shattered his confidence.

“We’ll be in touch, see ya, Mr. Wiley.” And the two men moved to the door.

Wiley was shocked. Never had anyone ever dared to cut him off before.

“Wait just a minute…” was all the further he got when Johnny turned and calmly repeated his words.

“We’ll be in touch, Mr. Wiley.” Letting themselves out the front door, they mounted their horses and rode out the way they came.

Inside the house, Wiley, still in a state of shock at the sudden and rude departure, summoned for help. A man entered, and Wiley, without giving the man the courtesy of an acknowledgment, issued an order.

“Have those two followed and get me, Navarro! NOW!” Wiley began to pace.

<><><><> 

Without saying a word, Johnny and Val passed through the armed and guarded gate, again, smiling and tipping their hats at the defender, still obviously put out by their presence. Once out of earshot, they traded their feelings and opinions, agreeing that this was ‘one sick son-of-a-bitch’ and neither of them had any reservation of stopping the bastard; stoppin’ him the sooner, the better.

Johnny saw the tail up on the ridge and, while not surprised, thought that it wouldn’t happen until they got back to town.

“Well, the bastard’s not wastin’ any time,” he told Val.

Val snorted. “A tail?”

“Yup,” Johnny replied. “Wonder if he thinks we’re that stupid ta be runnin’ right back ta Kelly? Hope that’s what’s goin’ through his head. I like it when we’re underestimated. Makes our job easier.”

“When do ya think he’ll send Navarro after us?” Val asked with a sigh.

“Soon. If we take our time, bet he’ll be waitin’ for us when we get back ta town.”

And he was.

<><><><> 

Johnny and Val tied up in front of Winnie’s Saloon. As customary, Johnny stopped and glanced around the interior before entering. Noting where everyone was standing, he made his way to a table in the corner and slumped in a chair. He pushed his hat back on his head and signaled the bartender for two beers. Val went to the bar and brought the beers to the table. Looking around the saloon, making eye contact with acquaintances, and acknowledging their presence, they mentally made a note of who was in town.

Johnny had to admit he only knew about half of them and was surprised that Day Pardee was not present. He’d seen Navarro when he scanned the room before entering, the man seemed to slink away from them, not wanting to be noticed yet, so now when Navarro sauntered up to their table, Johnny didn’t look up. This was a tactic Johnny used, known to get under the skin of an adversary. It worked every time and tonight was no exception.

Johnny and Val continued their small talk leaving Javier standing, waiting on them and looking like a fool. Finally breaking into the conversation, Navarro butted in. “What’d ya doin’ here, Madrid?”

Johnny sighed deeply, looking into Javier’s devilish black eyes. Taking his time to answer, Johnny scanned the room again. “Same as you an’ all these boys, here. Mendez with ya?” he leveled a piercing blue glare at his adversary.

“Not yet, but he’s comin’. Well, you come talk ta me an’ I’ll set ya straight on what’s goin’ on here.”

Johnny grinned at Navarro’s cocky viewpoint. “Oh, I think I can make up my own mind. Don’t need you ta tell me.”

Javier visibly stiffened with this disrespectful attitude, and Val’s smirking didn’t help. This was not going the way he wanted it to go. He had to save face. “You just come talk ta me,” Navarro said, loud enough to be heard around the room.

Johnny simply laughed in his face sending bolts of rage through Javier’s body. The two men at the table resumed their discussion, completely dismissing him as an unwanted and unimportant element.

Javier Navarro was not one to forget.

<><><><> 

Johnny had been watching not only who came into the saloon, but more importantly, who left. By the time they’d had a few beers and dinner, it was dark. Stopping by the door and checking the street, they retrieved their horses and led them over to the livery and into the barn. They paid the smithy and headed to their hotel room.

“How many nights have ya paid for this room, Val?”

“Only through tanight. Figured we’d decide what side we’re fightin’ on after taday. Won’t be needin’ it no more.”

Johnny nodded then looked at Val. “I figure Mr. Kelly’ll have guards posted at night an’ they don’t know us yet so we can head out there early tomorrow morning. Let’s get some sleep while we can.”

<><><><> 

At four in the morning, Johnny came awake and dressed. He nudged Val, who grumbled like an angry bull.

“Shut up, Val, ya wanna wake up the whole place? We gotta get goin’ before Navarro catches on,” Johnny whispered. They quickly gathered their belongings and quietly exited the hotel by way of the back stairs. The darkness covered their walk to the stable, and after saddling the horses, they silently left Madera Canyon.

<><><><> 

By the time the Kelly Ranch came into view, the sun was coming up, staining the sky with brilliant pinks and oranges. A Harris Hawk screamed shrilly in the hushed morning air, circling on the thermals as it silently glided across the crystal clear sky. The night sounds faded away, and a different chorus greeted them as they rode, each taking comfort in the peace of the day as they knew that very soon, the quiet would be replaced with violence.

After having talked with Wiley yesterday, they knew their hopes of averting any trouble wasn’t going to happen. This had the potential to be very, very bloody, and they knew it would all depend on the way they handled it and how fast they could get it done. But it would get ugly; they had no doubt. The same two guards were at their post, Hank and, as they found out later, the other man was Brink. Both Johnny and Val touched the brim of their hats with a friendly smile.

“Mornin’, boys. Guess we’ll be seein’ a lot of ya. We’re signin’ on with Mr. Kelly.” Johnny spoke in his soft, calming voice, and both guards visibly sighed with relief. Returning the greetings, the men opened the gate, and the two gunfighters rode through.

“Y'all go on up ta the house. I know Mr. Kelly’s anxious ta hear what you boys have decided,” Brink called after them.

As Johnny and Val approached the modest house, they both immediately recalled the visit to the Wiley Ranch. Val broke out in a laugh.

”Hell, I half expected ta see girls waitin’ around for customers! That was the gaudiest place I ever been in!” he said with a slap to his leg. “We’ll hafta keep that in mind if we decide we need ta get laid!” Then turning to Johnny, he added, “Bet the beds are big an’ comfy!” The two men continued their banter all the way to the house.

Joe Kelly was on the porch leaning with a shoulder on the roof support post,  watching as his new employees rode in, a hopeful smile on his face and mug of hot coffee in his hand.

“Good morning, Gentlemen! I hope you have good news for me!” He greeted them with a friendly smile.

“Well, Mr. Kelly, I gotta tell ya, we’re in for a helluva fight. Talked with Wiley yesterday an’ he ain’t leavin’ us much choice,” Johnny began.

Joe Kelly shrugged, obviously disappointed, but in his heart, he knew it wasn’t going to be easy. “Let’s go inside. You boys have breakfast yet?”

After a repeat of yesterday morning’s breakfast Consuelo beamed, happy seeing the boys again.

Coffee was served in the study, and the discussions and plans began in earnest. A map was laid out on the desk with the dam marked boldly with a black pencil. The dried river bed also visible as were the places Wiley had diverted the water to irrigate his fields. Both Johnny and Val studied the map, memorizing every detail. The river was not large, but it was deep, and Wiley had it well under control.

“There men guardin’ the dam around the clock?” Johnny asked, not looking up and gathering all the information he could.

“Yes, well guarded. I don’t know how many there are, but there’s at least four at all times. There are security patrols, too. Of course, it’s not on any schedule, so it will be risky.”

“Mr. Kelly, how many men do you have on the ranch now? Men that will fight?” Johnny asked.

“There’s eighteen hands, and I believe they would all fight,” Kelly responded.

“So ya haven’t hired any guns, besides us?” Johnny asked, looking straight into Kelly’s eyes.

“No.”

<><><><> 

“Well, we knew it was gonna be a fight, but I ain’t up for no suicide mission.” Val groused.

“You heard where any of the others are? Wade, Kendall, Talbot? Anyone?” Johnny asked, hoping they could contact some of the old reliables.

Val shook his head. “Hell, Johnny, haven’t heard ‘bout any of ‘em in a while. All we can do is send the word out an’ it better be quick. Navarro ain’t gonna be waitin’ around for us ta get our shit tagether. I’ll slip out an’ see if I can’t get in touch with some of ‘em. Leave tonight an’ head south for a while b’fore I send out any wires.”

Johnny nodded. They sat together on the porch of the bunkhouse after refusing to stay in the main house. Hired guns with special privileges were not accepted by the ranch hands, so Johnny and Val made it a point to join the ranks of the wranglers. They were willing to work with the hands, and the hands were ready to help them… with most anything.

Early the next morning, Val departed on his task of ferreting out more help, while Johnny headed out to the Kelly property closest to the dam site.

Under the pretense of riding the fence line, he and wrangler, Jake Cutter, would not be questioned, unless they got too close. Just don’t get close enough ta be seen, he thought.

From his saddlebag, Johnny retrieved a spyglass he’d gotten from Joe Kelly. After finding the perfect spot to watch the dam, he settled in to gather information. Hopefully, it would give him an idea of the number of guards and how they worked their shifts.

It also gave him the opportunity to study the dam, its construction, and where the charges should be set for the most effective outcome. Through the glass, Johnny could see what looked to be a ten-foot-wide trough filled with stones, rocks, and earth. On closer inspection, he detected a line of railroad ties centered in that trough, standing on end resembling the walls of a fort, fitted snugly, and were buried in the debris, pilings sunk deep into the ground and held fast. That dam wasn’t moving… unless it had a little help. Johnny and his men would do their damnedest to see that help was given. The dam completely cut off the water supply to the south. The dry riverbed lay baking in the sun.

Looking past the dam to the west was a gate of sorts, made of railroad ties that fit into a framework built into the banks. This gate would be pulled from above secured with heavy cables, no doubt by a team of draft horses. When the barrier was lifted, water would rush through and flow into an intricate network of ditches, effectively delivering the water where it was needed.

He watched as the guards went through the motions, periodically glancing at the surrounding countryside, then returned to gather in a group and resume their conversations. Johnny watched for the rest of the day and into dusk.

A rough plan began to take shape as he studied the dam and its location between the hills and property lines. The success of it coming together depended on Val finding reinforcements. If he couldn’t, Johnny doubted the plan would work.

The next watch was taken more seriously as darkness promoted more of a risk. Guards went about their patrols acting like professionals, watching, waiting and ready. Johnny had seen enough for the day and headed back to the Circle K Ranch, hoping that Val made it back with some good news.

After bedding down Valiente, he looked around for Val’s horse, Smudge. Not seeing the animal, Johnny turned and made his way to the main house. He knocked on the door and was greeted by Consuelo. A pleasant smile blossomed on her face as she welcomed Johnny into the home.

“Buenos noches, Señora,” Johnny returned the smile.

She put a hand to her mouth and pursed her lips, shaking her head. “Por favor, Juanito!I am Consuelo! You do not need to be so formal,” and with a laugh, she took him into the study where he and Joe Kelly conducted their business.

Joseph Oliver Kelly sat at his desk and looked up as Johnny came in. “Evening, Johnny! Have you had supper yet?” Ever the gracious host, he was about to call for Consuelo, but Johnny cut him off.

“Yeah, I grabbed something ta eat in the bunkhouse. Val not back yet?” he asked.

“No, I haven’t seen him. How did it go today, Johnny?” Kelly asked, anxious to hear if Johnny found anything significant.

“Dunno, yet. I’d like ta watch that dam for another coupla days. See if there ain’t a schedule they follow. The night guards are doin’ their job, but the day shift is pretty lax. Everything’s gonna depend on if we can get any help. The people around here, other than those devoted to Wiley, would they help? I know they’re riskin’ an awful lot, but do ya think if it came down to it, anyone would help?”

Kelly watched Johnny’s eyes, then looked down at his desk before he spoke.

“Johnny, I’ll be honest with you. I can’t in good conscience ask the farmers and small ranchers to fight this war. They’ll get killed. I don’t want that on my shoulders.” He met Johnny’s eyes again, and Madrid saw the turbulence in the man’s heart.

“With all due respect, Mr. Kelly, they got somethin’ at stake here, too. They need water just like you do. Lettin’ them help will go a long way in givin’ them back the dignity that’s been taken away.”

Kelly put down the pencil he’d been toying with before he said anything. “Yes, I know that, but this is more of a personal war, now. Wiley was to be married a year ago, and his bride to be left him when things started to get… violent. He blames me for that.”

“Seems like he’s the one gettin’ violent,” Johnny stated softly.

Kelly got up from his chair to pace. “Yes, he is, and we were informed from a reliable source that Wiley was rough with his intended bride, too. But, as a convenient excuse, he told everyone it was the impending trouble that ran her off. After so long telling people something, I honestly think he believes his own lies. The man is obviously unbalanced.”

The hoofbeats coming to the house halted their conversation. Johnny’s hand was at the Colt on his hip as the knock sounded on the door. Consuelo brought Val into the study, and he met Johnny’s eyes.

“Well, it ain’t all the help we need, but I got Sam Wade an’ Luke Kendall. Talbot got hisself killed over in New Mexico. But Wade an’ Kendall’ll be here in a day or two. That’s what took so long, waited around all afternoon for an answer.”

Johnny blew out a sigh of relief. He knew these two men well; they were lucky to get them.

“Truth be told, ‘m wondrin’ now if some a Wiley’s hired guns’ll come over ta our side, long shot but possible. I didn’t see many that I knew in the saloon the other night, so maybe there ain’t the loyalties there,” Val said.

Johnny grinned. “Yeah? An’ maybe they’re all waitin’ ta take out you an’ me, make a name for themselves. You’ve seen it before.”

“Maybe. What’d you find out taday, amigo?” Val asked with a smile.

Johnny looked at Val with raised brows. “Oh, a few interestin’ things, but I wanna keep watchin’ for a coupla days, make sure things are what they seem ta be. I’m thinkin’ Apache Creek?” Johnny gave a bit of a smile, and Val’s eyes shot open as a huge grin split his face.

“No kiddin’? Damn! This could get interestin’!” Val’s smile hadn’t left, and Kelly was looking from one to the other, not following what his two hired guns were talking about.

“Do I need to know something?” he asked, wondering if he should be worried.

“Well, it’s somethin’ we used on another job. Worked real well there, but that’s why I wanna watch the dam for another few days.”

<><><><> 

“Navarro! Get in here!” Wiley called from his porch as the young Mexican came across the yard and into the house. Wiley was pacing over the crimson carpeting with quick, heavy steps.

Javier stopped just inside the room and waited for the man to begin. He didn’t like this boss, but the man was paying very well. Navarro could take the pontifical, arrogant bastard as long as necessary. The job wouldn’t last long, he was sure. Wiley was reckless and getting more so. Kelly had hired Madrid and Crawford; things would start to happen, and soon. He would see to it.

“Just how are you going to handle this situation, Navarro? I want to know what you are planning!” roared Wiley as he went to the sideboard and poured himself a large drink. Not giving the Mexican a chance to make his report, Wiley exploded with his demands.

“I don’t care what you have to do!  As long as it can’t be traced back here! Just do it!”

<><><><> 

The next few days were quiet as they watched the guards at the dam. The day time patrols on either side of the banks were not as competent or dependable. Johnny and Val sat for hours, taking in every detail, every move.  

 

Johnny, with hands lying on top of each other, rested his chin on them as he observed the comings and goings below and took another look at the surroundings.

“Look at that hillside, Val. It ain’t too stable. Two big charges planted, one on either side, will have that whole thing come down. That’ll take care a the runoff inta Wiley’s irrigation. The problem is gonna be ta get all the charges set ta blow at the same time. We’re gonna hafta have a diversion ta get them guards busy, so they don’t see us unless we get the drop on ‘em. We gotta find out how many men Wiley’s got workin’ for him.” Visualizing where the charges should be set was clear in his mind. The biggest issue would be taking care of the guards

“If we get that hillside ta come down and set more charges on either end of that dam, that oughta do it. Whatdya think, Val?”

“Apache Creek all over again, amigo! Wonder if Mr. Kelly has any dynamite?” Val looked at Johnny and winked.

Satisfied with the information they had on the dam, Johnny and Val returned to the Circle K Ranch. There at the hitch rail were three horses and not any that they recognized. Mounting the steps and crossing the porch, they knocked on the door. As usual, a smiling Consuelo answered and let them in.

Voices were heard coming from the study. Johnny and Val looked at each other on hearing a familiar laugh, and they grinned. Knocking lightly on the door, Johnny was answered with a “Come in,” from Joe Kelly. There, in the study with Joe, were Sam Wade, Luke Kendall, and a youngster that neither Johnny nor Val knew. Wade and Kendall got to their feet and greeted them warmly.

“Good ta see ya, again, Johnny, Val! Thought for sure them Rurales had caught up ta ya, glad ta see otherwise, though!”

“Wade, Kendall, good ta see ya!”

Once the preliminary greetings were over, Wade spoke. “Johnny, Val, I want ya ta meet Billy Black Wing. Billy, this here’s Johnny Madrid an’ Val Crawford.”

The young man stood and offered his hand, shaking theirs with a firm grip. “Mr. Madrid, Mr. Crawford, it’s good to finally meet ya. These two have been jawin’ my ear off ‘bout ya!”

Johnny had taken notice of the kid when he walked into the room. He had all the classic signs of a gunhawk, gun tied low on his hip, and detected a few calluses on his fingers, confirmed when they shook hands. He also recognized the stance, the way Billy held his body, but more importantly, the kid had ‘the look’ in his eyes. He didn’t come off as a smart mouth and invincible like some of the young whippersnappers out there these days. But remaining calm and relaxed, and where he didn’t command attention from others, they were undoubtedly aware of his presence. Johnny hoped the young man kept a level head when the bullets started flying.

“Name’s Johnny, you can drop the Mr.,” Johnny smiled warmly.

“Me, too, Kid!” Val chimed in. The pleasantries over, they got down to business. Johnny began with a few facts that the three newcomers needed to know.

“Ya gotta know, first off, we’re outnumbered an’ Wiley has Javier Navarro runnin’ his outfit,” Johnny volunteered, looking each man in the eye, making sure they knew and understood the facts.

“Smart mouth little bastard, hope he’s still as stupid as he was last time we went up against ‘im! Cocky, too. We can use that, get under his skin, he never could resist bein’ baited!” Wade laughed, remembering the saloon brawl when he’d teased Navarro about getting the scar on his face, if he’d have been doing the job he was sent to do, he wouldn’t have gotten whipped. He’d almost lost the sight in that eye, all because he didn’t keep his mind on the job… And Navarro exploded, starting a fight that Wade finished.

“Well, he’s gotta have learned somethin’ along the way. But we can’t underestimate ‘em, let them underestimate us. Works every time. They won’t be expectin’ much from us an’ if we can keep lettin’ ‘em think we don’t have the men they do, that’ll help. An’ we need ta stay quiet.”

Johnny turned to Billy and studied his face. The kid, although young, had an ‘age’ about him. A look that Johnny suspected came from experience, and Johnny had a strong suspicion that this kid was going to be an asset.

“Billy, you ever seen Navarro or Cisco Mendez? Know what they look like?” Johnny asked. Including the kid could be detrimental, but if he was reading the kid right, it would tip the scales in their favor, out-numbered or not. Letting him know that he would be a valued and welcomed member of the team would produce a better outcome. He also wanted to know how much the kid knew.

“Seen Navarro once, he murdered a man in the street. But he didn’t see me,” Billy let the statement hang, and it was not lost on Johnny.

“Good. We just might hafta use that.” Johnny stopped talking and looked at the men around him. Taking a deep breath, he blew it out and suggested they get something to eat and a good night’s sleep.

“Tamorrow’s gonna come soon enough. ‘Night, Mr. Kelly.”

“Goodnight, boys!” Kelly called after them. The five men left the room and sauntered across the yard to the bunkhouse.

<><><><> 

Johnny lay on his bunk, running diversion plans through his head. Some he discarded as no good for whatever reason, some he stored away. One thing he’d learned very early always had an alternative plan and be flexible. A thousand things could go wrong at every turn, and you had to be able to think fast with another option.

He thought about Billy Black Wing. The kid could pass for full-blooded Indian, but Wade told him the kid’s father had been white. A mean white man, so the kid’s mother took him away at a young age, and he never saw his father again. We got a lot in common, Johnny thought. Billy’s mother had been from the Pima Nation in Arizona; however, Billy, dressed in white man’s clothing, had a white man’s hair cut and followed the white man’s occupation of a gunfighter. A man of two worlds. Hopefully, he would live through this war. Hopefully, they’d all live through this war.

Johnny listened to Val snore in the bunk under him. Val Crawford could sleep any time, any place, and the fact that they were about to go to war didn’t interrupt that sleep in the least.

<><><><> 

Madrid was up before any of the others, he hadn’t slept much as he thought about what was to happen. The more he thought, the more ideas he came up with, which was a good thing, as there were a lot of variables, and they all needed to be addressed.

Quietly he rolled out of the top bunk and slipped to the floor. He picked up his boots and went out to the front porch to pull them on. It was barely dawn, but he saw a light on in the kitchen and hoped Consuelo was up with a pot of coffee.

The chickens scattered as he crossed the yard, and he stopped to scratch the neck of a huge orange cat sitting on the railing outside the back door. The cat purred and stared at Johnny through large green eyes and rubbed the side of his face against Johnny’s extended hand. Stepping up to the door, he softly knocked. The curtain was pulled aside, and Consuelo’s face peered through the glass, changing from question to relief, then gladness. She yanked the door open and took Johnny’s arm, pulling him into the kitchen filled with heavenly aromas.

“Come, Juanito! Have some coffee while I get breakfast ready.” Seating him at the table, she got a large mug of coffee and sat it in front of him, smiling at his expression.

“Juanito, did you not sleep? You look tired,” she stated, frowning at the lines around his eyes. The coffee was hot and strong, and thankfully it would help to wake him up. He shrugged a bit as he looked into her face and smiled.

“Slept a little. Just thinkin’ about how ta handle things. You been here long, Consuelo?”

“Sí, mi esposo, Mateo,” Consuelo stopped and crossed her self, “we were with Señor Kelly for many years. Mateo was killed soon after Señor Wiley came to this land.” She looked down at the biscuit dough she was preparing, and Johnny saw her struggle to control her tears. She valiantly gathered herself and went about the food preparation, kneading the dough aggressively as if imagining it was Señor Wiley she pummeled in her hands.

“So, you know the people around here? Know them well?” Johnny asked.

“Sí,I know everyone. They are good people, but they are poor and feel helpless.” Her quiet tone lent a feeling of desperation to her words.

Johnny had heard it many times before. “Does anyone around have any loyalties to Wiley?” Johnny watched her eyes as she answered, and knew what she would say before the words tumbled out of her mouth.

“No, the people here hate him, most fear him. But they do not know how to get rid of the fear and violence. Most are farmers, not fighters.”

“Consuelo,” Johnny began in a near whisper. “Can you give me a name, someone who could be trusted, someone who has the power to convince these people to help? I don’t mean with the actual fighting, but things like getting messages to each other, say if Val and I are not together an’ we need ta communicate? That kind of thing.” Johnny’s direct, deep blue stare bored into her black eyes. And she grinned from ear to ear.

<><><><> 

Johnny left the kitchen with much more insight than he had when he entered. Not only a full belly, but the information the devoted cook supplied him with filled him with even more evidence that Wiley was willing to do anything to get what he wanted. How did this man expect the people here to accept his ways without eventually wanting to kill him? In fact, Johnny would be willing to bet copious amounts of money that most of the folks here did want him dead. The crimes this man committed in the few years he’d been here were astounding. And Johnny promised Consuelo that there would be justice.

Madrid, Crawford, and the three newcomers sat under a tree behind Kelly’s house. They were a considerable distance away discussing their plans, and keeping everything between them, at this point, was paramount. Any slip and the wrong ears hearing something could spell disaster. Until strategies were decided, the scheming would be kept between themselves.

“Consuelo gave me some names this mornin’, an’ she’s sure some of these folks will help in some way. They probably won’t be much good fightin’, but they could help with other stuff. What I was figurin’ on was causin’ trouble on the north end of Wiley’s property, fires, stampede, cuttin’ fences, ya know, the usual crap, then while his crew is tied up on the north end, we can blow the dam. Any a you got more ideas?” Johnny waited while the others thought, and surprisingly enough, the first one to speak was Billy.

“Once things start happenin’ north of Wiley, the first thing he’s gonna do is send extra guards to the dam, so that’s gonna mean we hafta keep things happenin’ an’ fast. Hit northwest then when he’s sent men there, hit the northeast, keep dividin’ ‘em up an’ callin’ ‘em out, maybe even close… Like at his ranch. Maybe he’ll call some of ‘em away from the dam.”

Johnny was impressed. The kid was showing an understanding of what would be needed to fight this kind of war. These were mirroring the thoughts that Johnny himself was thinking.

Billy continued. “Enough things start happenin’ at that house a his, he’s gonna need all the help there that he can get, leavin’ the dam with only a few men there ta guard it.”

Val started to grin. “Yeah, even the toughest bastard knows he’s got trouble after he finds a bag a horse shit dumped down his well!”

Johnny locked Billy with his blue stare and nodded. “Billy, since you’re the only one that Navarro ain’t seen an’ ya can fit in better’n any of us, how about ya take a little scoutin’ trip ta the north side of Wiley’s ranch, just ta see what all he’s got up there. Come back in a coupla days an’ let us know what ya find. Then we can decide what’s gonna be best for us.”

Looking at Val, Wade, and Kendall, Johnny continued. “We’re gonna see how much trouble we can cause on this end.” Turning his attention to Billy again, Johnny said, “Come an’ see me before ya ride out, kid.”

Billy nodded and went into the bunkhouse to gather his things.

“Any more ideas?” Johnny asked. Have a backup plan just in case this one don’t work out.

The men were silent for a few minutes before Kendall spoke up. “Ya know, the kid’s on ta somethin’. We keep ‘nough pressure on Wiley an’ this thing might be over sooner’n we think. If the man ain’t all there,” and he tapped his finger to his head, “he’s not gonna be thinkin’ right either, an’ a man not thinkin’ right’s gonna make mistakes.”

“Could be,” Johnny said in his soft tone, “But let’s not have one a them mistakes be one of us. Once we start hittin’ closer ta the house, Wiley’s gonna panic. He ain’t used ta things spinnin’ outta his control, then we hit ‘im again, fast.” Johnny looked at Wade. “Billy know what he’s doin’?”

Wade grinned. “Yup, an’ better’n that, he’s good. Worked with ‘im a coupla times now an’ I’ll tell ya, Johnny, he’s smart an’ don’t take stupid chances like some a them young’uns.”

Johnny nodded. He had a good feeling about the kid, and now it was confirmed. Wade knew what he was talking about; if Wade trusted Billy, Johnny did, too.

<><><><> 

Billy rode over, ready to leave, took one last survey of the map, and swung into his saddle. Johnny went to stand by his side. Looking up into the black eyes, Johnny noticed they were calm, not the frenzied, crazy glaze that most of the younger gunhawks wore.

“Remember, Billy, stay quiet, outta sight. Right now, all you’re doin’ is getting’ us information. This all hasta be pulled tagether accordin’ ta plan. Just see what Wiley’s got up north an’ when ya get back, we’ll decide how this is gonna play out.” Johnny extended his hand, and Billy took it with his firm grip. Dark blue crystal eyes met black, and an understanding passed between them. The two men said goodbye, and Billy rode away. Johnny watched as the lone figure retreated into the horizon before he turned back to his men.

“Sure do hope that kid gets back here b’fore things start ta happen. Without knowin’ what we can use for a diversion, short of attacks on the house we ain’t got much,” Val voiced his mind.

But Wade knew better. What he said put all of them at ease. “The kid’s pretty smart. I know ya don’t know ‘im like we do, but trust ‘im. He won’t let ya down. Johnny, Val, neither of you was at Socorro last year, but Billy was with me an’ I was mighty proud ta have ‘im on my side. Kendall can vouch for ‘im, too.”

Luke met Johnny’s eyes, then Val’s, and nodded his head. “He’s a good man. Ya won’t be sorry,” was all Kendall said.

<><><><> 

Billy skirted east then north, around the Wiley ranch. Keeping mental notes  where the cattle were pastured and if any innocent folks lived nearby. Stopping a few times to ask farmers for water, he picked up on bits and pieces of information, mostly of how hated Wiley was.

If they used a stampede, which was likely, these people would have to be moved. The only folks he came in contact with were small farmers and peons, and all their opinions were the same. These were the people that Wiley looked down on and trampled over when he thought he would benefit, and there was no love for the man from these folks.

Making mental notes as he went along, he was getting the feeling that, if asked, these poor folks just might provide some sort of backup. His second day out brought him to the northern end of the Wiley property, and soon his head was filled with possible diversionary tactics they could use against him. The man was wealthy beyond anything Billy had ever seen, and all this wealth, as far as Billy was concerned, could be used to Kelly’s advantage.

On the northeast side of Wiley’s vast empire were his grain stores, which could be a critical point for an ‘incident.’ Late in the afternoon, Billy literally stumbled onto a railroad spur that Wiley had built for more accessible shipping purposes. The man has his own spur! Here was a huge opportunity and one that definitely would be ‘visited.’ And still, the people Billy encountered had no loyalties to the man, only fear and disrespect and mistrust.

The number of people that Wiley had hurt in one way or another was staggering. Men had disappeared or been murdered if they opposed him, women were defiled, and children scared to leave their homes, fearing they would not return. And orphaned. The more Billy saw of the situation, the more he was convinced that he was on the right side and, hopefully, would be on the winning side, because if they failed, these people would die, Wiley would see to it.

<><><><> 

Johnny heard the horse gallop into Kelly’s yard. Stepping out of the barn, he saw Joe Kelly fall from the mount into the dirt. Running to his side, Johnny gently turned Kelly face up. The man was unconscious from a bullet that ripped a hole through his body, shot from behind, and left him bleeding out. Joe Kelly desperately clung to life.

“Val! Jake!” he yelled across the yard, and the other two men joined him. They carefully picked Kelly out of the dust and carried him into the house. Consuelo jumped into action and escorted them into Kelly’s room, where they deposited him on the large bed.

Johnny turned to Cutter. “Go ta town for the doctor. Don’t take no chances; just get there and back here quick as ya can.” Jake left, running through the house, out to the barn and retrieved his horse, then galloped toward town. Johnny and Val helped Consuelo, doing what she told them to keep Kelly alive. Why had he gone out alone?  Johnny thought to himself as he watched Joe Kelly fighting for his life.

<><><><> 

On the third day out, Billy continued west on the northwestern edge of the vast Wiley range. The mountainsides were heavily forested with many acres bare of trees. Thinking about what he’d seen so far, there were ample opportunities if they could coordinate the attacks. But nothing prepared him for what he saw when he crested the rise and below him sat a sawmill. The man had his fingers in every possible money-making enterprise he could think of. He made money for himself and left desperation, and fear from the people and desolation and wreckage of the land in his wake. Taking note of the surroundings, as he did with the other sites, Billy turned and headed back the way he came.

<><><><> 

“Wiley has a lot of land. It’s gonna take Billy some time ta get around an’ get back. This is only the third day, so let’s give ‘im a chance. How’s Mr. Kelly doin’?”  Kendall asked as he and Johnny walked to the barn.

Johnny sighed as he blew out a deep breath. “Well, considerin’ that Wiley had the doctor out at his ranch and Joe didn’t get any help ‘cept from Consuelo, he’s holdin’ his own. Keepin’ ‘im down is gonna be the hard part, but I think he’s gonna be alright. We need Billy back here, now. Need ta know what Wiley has up north. After this attack on Kelly, he’ll be watchin’ the dam an’ he’ll be wonderin’ why it’s takin’ so long for us ta fight back. If he still thinks that it’s just me an’ Val, well, I guess that’s a good thing, though, keep him guessin’.”

“Cutter an’ Riley put out the word for all the hands ta keep watch. If there’s any strangers around, they’re ta come an’ tell us. Wade an’ Val are out with some a the wranglers, maybe they can see somethin’.” Johnny tried to calm the anxiousness that was threatening to take over. An’ so it begins. Gotta wait, though. As hard as it is, gotta wait. And Johnny couldn’t help but wonder if Cisco Mendez had arrived.

The afternoon stretched into early evening when Val and Wade trotted into the yard with another rider. This one Johnny didn’t recognize. And he had his hands tied behind him. Val pulled the man off his horse and shoved him over to the porch where Johnny was standing.

“Looky what we caught, Johnny! We caught us a shooter! Yup, this here ol’ boy hunkered down b’hind some rocks drawin’ down on some a the boys, but he didn’t get too far. Gave ‘imself away sendin’ a message with a little bitty mirror!”

Johnny slowly looked the young man up and down. He sauntered off the porch and walked a full circle around him before stopping in front of the kid. Madrid stared him in the eye and did not say a word. The icy glare from Johnny did not waver but cut right through the quivering body. And he couldn’t help the feral smile when the young man shuddered, trying to shake off the jitters that crawled down his spine.

Johnny grinned, but his eyes remained cold and piercing. “You the back shootin’ low life that shot Mr. Kelly?” Madrid asked so softly it was almost a whisper. The young man could not meet the eyes that seemed to suck the life out of his body.

Johnny sighed. “Look at me, boy, an’ answer my question,” he said, again with his softly spoken words. The young man raised dark brown eyes to Johnny’s and nodded yes.

Val smirked and asked: “What'd ya gonna do with this one, amigo? Stake ‘im out on a anthill or scalp ‘im?”

“Ain’t made up my mind yet. For now, lock ‘im up ‘til we decide how he’s gonna die,” Johnny said as if pondering whether to drink whiskey or tequila instead of what method of revenge they would exact.

The young man's knees started to buckle, and Val had to grab him before he landed in the dirt.

“Come on, asshole, maybe we’ll be kind an’ put a bullet between your eyes, get it over fast. Last man ol’ Madrid staked out on a anthill, why the bastard took a whole week ta die, all the while, them ants kept eatin’ away at him, started on his eyes then they crawled up his nose an inta his mouth an’ ears an’ any other place they could crawl inta… just chewin’ away on ‘im.” Val’s voice soon faded away as he got to a small building with a lock on the outside door. The young man fell to the ground before Crawford shoved him inside, then clicked the lock shut with a loud snap.

Johnny shrugged and smiled in Val’s direction. Crawford never could keep  from telling stories. And, Johnny thought, let the enemy wonder about his fate while he’s locked up. He’ll break easier; maybe even tell us what all we want to know.

<><><><> 

“Ya want us ta talk ta the prisoner, Johnny? I promise  nuthin’ bad’s gonna happen ta him, well, unless he should fall down an’ maybe land on my fist…” Wade inquired. Val, with a spreading smile, volunteered to go with and ‘watch out’ for the boy.

Johnny couldn’t suppress a laugh at the two. “Yeah, sure, see what ya can find out. He’s been sittin’ in that shack for the better part of the day now. Must have some thoughts bouncin’ around in that head.”

Val and Wade scrambled to the shack, acting as if neither could wait to get their hands on the prisoner again. Johnny shook his head and walked to the main house where Consuelo let him in.

“How’s he doin’, Consuelo?” Johnny asked quietly.

The cook smiled brightly. “The Patrón, he is much better today. He lost much blood, but he will be alright. Come and see him, he is awake and has been asking for you, Juanito.”

Following Consuelo, Johnny removed his hat and entered Joe Kelly’s room.

A pretty young woman, who Johnny found out later, was Consuelo’s niece, slipped from the room and with a shy smile, left the two men alone.

The large man was propped up on pillows, looking positively miserable as Consuelo hovered over him.

“Consuelo, please, I’d like to talk to Johnny, if you don’t mind,” Kelly said, desperate for a word of what was happening.

At her dismissal, she looked to Johnny as he offered her his dazzling smile, and she returned it, murmuring for him to come into the kitchen before he left the house. Then she turned and muttered a string of Spanish too fast for Kelly to follow, but Johnny had all he could do to not laugh out loud.

He pulled himself together, then turned to face his boss. “Val and Wade picked up the shooter. He’s locked in the guardhouse an’ they’re ‘persuadin’ ‘im ta talk. Maybe we can find out a few things an’ when Billy gets back, we’ll be able ta put things in motion.” Johnny filled Kelly in on the happenings.

Joe repositioned himself on the bed as he groaned but held up a hand to signify he was alright. “Please don’t call her back in here, she means well, but she’s making me crazy!”

Johnny laughed softly.

“I don’t know all that Wiley’s got up north; I know there are a lot of things there. I have to tell you, Johnny, I’m still uncomfortable with the possibility of innocent people getting involved here. I don’t want anyone else put in danger or killed.”

Johnny looked down at the hat in his hands and blew out a breath. “I know how you feel, Mr. Kelly, but I have ta tell ya that it will happen regardless if ya fight Wiley or not. Judgin’ from what I’ve heard from these people an’ from what others have told me, they’re ready ta fight. They’ve had enough of Wiley an’ if we can pull this off a lot fewer folks’ll be at risk doin’ things our way. I can guarantee that. When we hit Wiley, it’s gonna be hard an’ fast; he ain’t gonna have time ta think about much other than makin’ sure he’s safe.

“But there’s somethin’ else, Mr. Kelly, these people around here, there ain’t much they can do on their own, but if they know they’re helpin’ us, they’ll be helpin’ themselves, too. They want ta help us an’ they can get word ta each other quick an’ that’ll be an advantage ta us. They won’t be in on any physical fightin’ unless they want, but just them doin’ some signaling. Helpin’ us ta time things out will be invaluable.”

Kelly said nothing but digested everything Johnny told him. Finally, looking up at the clear, deep blue eyes, he nodded. “All right, Johnny, I know that you are an honest man and moral, and I appreciate everything you’re doing. And I know you’re right. Thank you for wanting to help these people, not only me.”

“Mr. Kelly, I grew up like these folks. I know what it’s like to live under someone else’s rule, ta have nothin’ an’ know it ain’t gonna change. But givin’ ‘em a chance ta help will give ‘em back some dignity an’ pride an’ that’ll go a long way knowin’ that you have faith in ‘em. Believe me, when I tell you, we’ll have backup. They may not look like they’ll put up much of a fight, but they will. One more question…” Johnny said with a sparkle in his eyes.

“Yes, Johnny, what is it?” Kelly asked, now curious.

“Do you have any dynamite or gunpowder here on the ranch?”

<><><><> 

It was after midnight, when Johnny felt a hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake. Pulling his gun out from under the pillow, he recognized Billy Black Wing. Throwing the blanket aside, he silently slid off the bunk, landing lightly on his socked feet. Picking up his boots and jacket, he followed Billy out onto the porch and into the yard.

“What'd ya find out, Billy?” Johnny asked quietly, hoping for a miracle but not really believing in them.

In the moonlight, Billy grinned ear to ear as he told Johnny all that he’d seen and noticed.

“If we could see a map right now, I could tell you where the guards are posted, the surrounding cover, advantage points, and best of all, I didn’t meet any of the locals that were loyal ta Wiley. They all hate the man, an’ it wasn’t just talk. I could see it on their faces, in their eyes.”

“Things are gonna start ta happen soon. Wiley made the first move. He had Mr. Kelly shot… in the back. He’s gonna be alright. Bullet went straight through. Nuthin’ hurt too bad, just blood loss, so everything ya found out is critical an’ just in time. Tomorrow mornin’ we’ll talk with the others an’ get plans firmed up. Ya did good, Billy, real good! I want ya ta get some sleep now.” And with a gentle pat to the kid’s back, the two men returned to the bunkhouse, and as Johnny lay back on his blanket, he began to have second thoughts about miracles.

Sleep was elusive as Johnny’s brain tried to absorb all the things Billy had reported. His mind swirling, ideas tripping over themselves in his head, chased away any thoughts of rest. About the time he was ready to drop off, it was time to start the day.

Val rose from his bunk, grumbling at the early hour but stopped his complaining when he took one look at Johnny’s face. “Amigo, ya get any sleep last night? Ya look like shit…”  Val asked as he scratched his backside and yawned.

Johnny shrugged. “Not much. Soon as you got food in your belly, get Wade an’ Kendall. We got plans ta make. Billy got in last night with some interestin’ news.”

<><><><> 

The map was spread out on the large dining room table as Johnny, Val, Wade, Kendall, and Billy studied the terrain and marked out Wiley’s assets. Billy, it seemed, had a good memory and was able to recall even the slightest of facts regarding the areas surrounding the grain stores, railroad spur, and lumber mill. With each question asked, Billy responded with an accurate account of what he saw, where he saw it, and even remembered the people who lived on the land, the people who would be at risk. But he also recalled the people he thought would be willing to help.

“Whhoooeeee! That man’s got his fingers in everything, don’t he?” Val whistled as he looked the map over. “How’re we gonna know when ta blow what?”

Johnny studied the map as he thought. “Probably hafta set a time for each one an’ light a fuse. How long do ya figure it’ll take for someone from one a these sites ta get from there back ta the house an’ let Wiley know what’s goin’ on?” he asked as he met Billy’s eyes.

Looking carefully and thinking about what he’d seen, Billy took his time answering. “Someone on a fast horse… Prob’bly take most of a day. What’d ya got in mind?” Billy looked up, eyes bright and focused.

Johnny smiled as only Madrid could do as he spoke. “We are gonna let Wiley know he ain’t worth shit. We start in three days. I want his well poisoned; I want cattle an’ horses eatin’ outta them pretty gardens around his house. A little whitewash on his house, too. Make it look real pretty. Wheels loosened on his wagon, or buggy, whatever he uses. If there ain’t many guards around the house, a little visit inside, just ta let ‘im know we can get in if we want. Burnin’ some fields, ya know, just ta remind ‘im we’re still here. Harass ‘im for a night or two. We hit him hard. First, the lumber mill, then the railroad spur an’ the grain stores. If we spread it out an hour or so between each, it should keep him busy enough an’ then we blow the dam.” Turning to Val and Wade, Johnny asked: “What’d ya find out from our ‘guest’?”

“Oh, he’s squawkin’ like a chicken! I figure he’ll be tellin’ us whatever we wanna know. Ya know, it’s funny that thinkin’ ‘bout what a buncha little ol’ ants can do ta make ya change where ya put your loyalties,” Val exclaimed with mock surprise.

Johnny laughed and could only imagine what Val and Wade told the scared prisoner about his fate. Staked naked on an anthill could be a tad uncomfortable.

“Guess we move out in three days an’ hit Wiley’s house, by then we’ll have demolished the three places north, then the dam. Billy, I‘m gonna need ya ta set explosives. Kendall? Ya wanna go with ‘im?” Johnny asked as Kendall looked on.

“You bet I do! What kind of explosives we talkin’ ‘bout, Johnny?”

“Kelly has all the black powder an’ dynamite we’ll need. If ya use both on each site, it can be set off with a bullet to the powder kegs, and the explosion will fire off the dynamite. That mill’s gonna start a fire that’ll keep Wiley’s boys busy for a while. Will that give ya enough time ta get the changes set, Billy, if ya leave taday?” Johnny asked.

“Should be alright. We’ll hafta get goin’ soon, though. It’s gonna take time ta get there with pack horses. How about I take one more man with us? That way, we work on getting charges set at the grain stores an’ leave the third man there hidin’ while me an’ Kendall get the charges set on the spur, Kendall can take cover there an’ I’ll go on alone ta the mill. We’ll set a watch that each of us’ll take an’ when it comes time, I’ll light off the mill, an’ hour or so later Kendall touches off the spur an’ the third man’ll do the grain. We’ll meet up an’ come back here. If ya don’t mind, Johnny, I’d like ta take Jake Cutter or Skip Riley, whoever’s the better shot.”

“Yeah, sure, kid, good thinkin’. Play it however ya want. We just gotta make sure that the timing is right. We need for you three ta blow up the sites in the north an’ just before the warnin’ comes ta the ranch, we’ll get to the house. Wiley’ll still be puttin’ out the fires at the ranch when he gets the word his empire is crashin’ down around his ears.” Johnny said, wanting to smile even though he knew there was the potential for much to go wrong.

“Leave it ta us, Johnny, we got it covered. Where’s the black powder an’ dynamite?” Billy asked.

Billy, Kendall, and Jake Cutter left, each with a packhorse loaded with explosives. During the trip to scout Wiley’s property, Billy memorized the trails and made it possible to lead the other two men along, staying out of sight, sticking to the hills, and didn’t draw any attention. The noose was tightening around Wiley’s neck, and he didn’t know it… yet. But he would and very soon.

<><><><> 

“Navarro! In the house, NOW!” Wiley screamed as the tall young Mexican walked across the yard. Navarro shrugged and dropped his head between his shoulders, tired of the interruptions. He stepped up onto the porch as Wiley led him into the house.

Whirling around, Wiley glared at Navarro, demanding answers.

“What is going on? I want to know, and I want to know now!”  Wiley’s face went red with rage.


”Got everything under control, Mr. Wiley. Kelly’s only got Madrid an’ Crawford workin’ for ‘im, so there ain’t no need ta panic yet,” Navarro explained, trying to keep this self-inflated egotistical bossin check. Wiley’s eyes were wild and glassy, and Navarro knew for sure at that moment that the man was loco, and there would be trouble because of it.

“Wiley, we have them outnumbered. Nothing bad is gonna happen, believe me.”

<><><><> 

At that exact moment, Billy, Kendall, and Jake Cutter had just planted the explosives at the grain stores. The security had not been too much of an issue. There was a fine line between blending in and sneaking around, a little like hiding in plain sight, and Billy was a master of it. Now all they had to do was wait for the designated time, and Jake was ready to carry out his part.

Kendall and Billy left, on their way to the railroad spur. They traveled quickly, and it seemed strange they saw no one, no one to ask them what they were doing and why they were there. Was Wiley that presumptuous to think that his properties in the north were untouchable?

The spur proved to be the easiest of the three sites as, at the moment, there were no guards posted, no one there at all; the charges were placed just past the junction to the main line into Wiley’s property. The Central Pacific Railroad would not be in any danger when Kendall fired the shot into the explosives that would demolish the tracks and ruin Wiley’s entire spur.

Billy’s job would be the toughest, as the mill had the most significant number of guards and people working there. But Billy was able to pull it off without being seen as a threat. He covered his clothes with a large-sized shirt and removed his hat, looking much like one of the workers that ran the mill. Selecting a spot in the warehouse, Billy deposited an ample supply of powder and dynamite, disguised as a box of supplies, and another in the mill where it could be ignited after the workers left their posts to fight the fire in the warehouse. Charges would be set all around the huge cutting blades causing as much damage as was possible, and the fire would spread quickly as the wood shavings on the floor and the pine tar provided an adequate accelerant.

It was late in the day, and time to move.

Billy hunkered down, studying the fuse he’d just lit and watched as it started its course, sizzling up to the back of the warehouse that housed thousands of rows of cut lumber. Then he casually walked to the mill and ducked behind a wall just as the detonation blew a huge smoke cloud that mushroomed into the air as flames shot out the top of the building and the air filled with debris.

The ground shook violently, the blast deafening as men started running from the mill with shovels and a fire hose. It was then Billy wandered into the mill and deposited the dynamite. Within five minutes, he exited the mill and scrambled up the hill behind it to take cover in the rocks where he’d stashed his rifle. Retrieving the weapon, Billy took careful aim and pulled the trigger.

<><><><> 

Slightly less than an hour later, Kendall fired at the bundle in the tracks, blowing a thirty-foot gap in the rails, as railroad ties shot into the air and plummeted to the ground. The twisted wreckage of rails looked like mangled giant spider legs bent in every conceivable direction.

Less than an hour after Kendall detonated the tracks, Jake took his rifle and delivered the shot into the explosives planted in the grain stores. A gigantic cloud of grain and dust spewed into the air staining it tan, then as flames licked the late afternoon sky, black smoke billowed up and blew off to the northwest, away from the Wiley Ranch.

It was late in the day, and Wiley would be up to his neck with the ‘crisis’ at the ranch when they woke the next morning and found that ‘the darndest thing happened during the night’. Then as daylight spread across the land, the riders would be coming in from the three sites on the northern edge of Wiley’s crumbling empire.

<><><><> 

“Well, amigo, everything’s set ta go. Just gotta wait till it gets dark. Billy’s part should be done an’ the riders on their way ta tell Wiley he got no more assets up there, they’ll hafta ride a little slower in the dark.

“The whitewash is ready. The bags a shit are ready. Got some a the boys ridin’ out with a pocket fulla matches an’ wire cutters. Even got a coupla rattlers for the outhouse. Hey! Just thoughta somethin’ else. How ‘bout if we take all the ice outta the ice house. Dang! That’ll be too bad if’n alla his supplies spoil…” Val accounted for their plans.

Johnny grinned with silent thoughts that Billy, Kendall, and Cutter were out of there and hightailing it back to the Circle K.

The name that Consuelo had given Johnny proved to be right. Johnny had ridden out to see the man the day before and confided in Jose Montero what was about to happen. Montero had been on the losing end of Wiley’s greed and had been giving thought to vigilante activity. But he was anxious to help these men and now had a chance to live if he stood his ground against Wiley.  

As Johnny spoke, Montero’s grin became larger and larger until it threatened to split the man's face in two. Assuring Johnny that he would definitely be able to get reinforcements, and, indeed, not have any trouble finding volunteers to fight Wiley, was a pleasure that Jose wanted for himself. It had been Montero’s younger brother and entire family that had been drowned when Wiley flooded the lowlands. Jose also promised Johnny that these people were ready to fight, they would be proud to lend a hand and to leave it to him; he would see there would be help, plenty of it and to stay in touch.

<><><><> 

The sun was setting, and the riders were ready. They would wait until the lights in the house went out, giving it a few hours to make sure whoever was in the house was asleep, then they would begin Wiley’s nightmare. The nightmare that would bring the man to his knees and the beginning of his troubles. As Johnny thought about the misery this one man had caused for so many, he felt as though he wanted to kill the man himself. Who knows, maybe the pendejo was so demented that he would draw on Johnny and force him to defend himself. But that would be the easy way out. Johnny wanted to make the bastard pay for what he’d done. Maybe Val could tell Wiley he’d be staked out on an anthill…

They would start around the house first. Johnny, Val, and Wade had been through this many times before; they knew what it would take to pull it off. ‘Quick and quiet’ was the mantra they practiced. They waited a distance from the enormous house, taking cover and keeping quiet.

The maid and butler had quarters on the third floor, Wiley slept on the second, and there was no one else that lived there. They knew where the guards were and where they weren’t. They watched as the lights flickered off, enveloping the interior in darkness.

Apparently, Wiley did not get up at the crack of dawn as the lights in the bunkhouse had long been extinguished. Johnny and Val decided to wait on the fires. That would alert Wiley and his crew too soon. Maybe the flames could be started when they attacked the dam.

After an hour, Val spoke. “’M goin’ down for a look-see. Make sure there ain’t any guards ‘round the house. Make sure there ain’t no dog, too. Brought some beef jerky jus’ for that!”

Johnny nodded. He would be much relieved to get some kind of word from Billy and the others, but he knew that wouldn’t come for many hours. Waiting was always the hardest part, especially when you were waiting for word about a friend. He’d known Kendall for many years now, but he just met Billy and Jake Cutter; Johnny thought much of them, and he would like to be assured of a long, long friendship with them both. They were good men, but in this line of work, chances were you wouldn’t live to be an old man.

Val had been gone a while. There had been no noise, and that was good, but Johnny was beginning to think something had gone wrong when Val came back to their hideout.

“Run inta any trouble?” Johnny asked, relieved that Val had made it without any issues.

“Not much. Had ta take out a guard. Knocked ‘im out an’ tied ‘im up outta sight. Hope no other guards stumble on ‘im. Not likely, though. I buried ‘im under a pile of hay. There ain’t hardly any guards. Wiley must think that it’s still only me an’ you that Kelly hired. He sure ain’t watchin’ his back. It’s time ta get goin’, amigo!”

They snuck into Wiley’s yard, and while Val quietly lowered the bag of horse manure down the well, Wade began wiping a broad brush of whitewash down the sides of the house. Johnny snuck in through the back kitchen door. With eyes adjusted to the dark, he began dumping flour and sugar over the kitchen and topping it with molasses and honey, dribbling it over chairs and continuing into the living quarters.  

He had brought a large container of axle grease with him, courtesy of Wiley himself, and applied generous gobs to the luxurious red velvet settee and matching chairs, spreading it over the surfaces. A generous swipe across the painting over the mantle seemed to tie everything together. Amused, Johnny thought Wiley had shit for taste regarding his decorating; this was an improvement.

He looked around and helped himself to a drink from the sideboard. The liquor was smooth and went down easy, but he would still rather have tequila.

Then he continued on to Wiley’s desk. Well, would ya look at that! Johnny thought as he picked up a set of keys and held them in his hand. Hafta put these where he can find them… maybe. And slipped them in his pocket. He pulled papers out of drawers and piled them on the desktop and headed for the kitchen for more molasses and honey. He returned to the desk and emptied the containers, covering letters, ledgers, receipts, bills, and other communications with the sticky syrup, and experienced immense satisfaction when the goo seeped into the drawers.

Returning to the kitchen, he saw Val with another large bag of manure as he emptied it around the stove and pantry, on the countertops and table, in the sink and on the floor. Val left the kitchen and shortly reappeared, this time with a different bag.

“What’d ya doin’?” Johnny questioned.

Val was shocked as if it was the most stupid thing to ask. He whispered indignantly: “What the hell does it look like ’m doin’? ‘M feedin’ his chickens!” And sure enough, the bag he held dribbled a dense trail of chicken feed that had been scattered through the yard, up the steps into the house, and all around the kitchen.

“Wade out cuttin’ fences?” Johnny asked Val.

“Yeah, after he got done with the whitewash, he took off for the barn. Guess he loosened the wheels on everything Wiley’s got out there, but he said he’d get the fences. He took a couple a Kelly’s boys with ‘im, too. Oh, yeah, I dumped two big ol’ rattlers inta the outhouse, opened up the icehouse an’ lead the two milk cows inta the garden. Oh, an’ looky what I found…” Val held up several sticks of dynamite. “We’ll blow the dam usin’ his own explosives! Our work here is done, amigo. Let’s get the others an’ skedaddle.”

Just as quietly as they came, all of them left without a sound. It was amazing what one could get away with if you were quiet about it.

They’d signaled for Wade and the men he’d taken with him and silently made their way back to their horses, then calmly rode to the Circle K Ranch laughing and joking like rowdy kids who had just gotten away with the prank of the century. Wade had reported that when the cattle saw the men at the fence line, they’d come close, must have thought they were being fed, and as soon as the wire was cut, they’d made themselves at home in the lush grass of Wiley’s yard and gardens.

<><><><> 

The scream from the first floor nearly jolted Wiley out of bed. He grabbed his soft burgundy robe, wrapping it around him as he exited his room and padded down the hall barefoot. My God! What’s happening? It’s not even daylight yet! He thought as he stumbled down the stairs. Something was not right! There was a stench in his house; what was going on? He could hear the housekeeper chattering in Spanish, mumbles about The Patrón could be distinguished.

What the hell is wrong with that crazy woman? Then he entered the lavishly appointed living room where he immediately stepped into something that squished up in between his toes. He lit a lamp, and stopped dead in his tracks, shocked and filled with rage at the sight before him.

The cries of disbelief and horror came from the kitchen with uncontrolled sobbing. Wiley followed the commotion leaving a greasy trail of footprints after him and stared with loathing and hatred as he took stock of the kitchen. It was inconceivable! Black rage filled him as the crashing waves of disbelief threatened to incapacitate him, reduce him to a quivering pile of skin and bones. They had been IN his house while he was home at the time! It was ice cold shock that froze him in place.

“NAVARRO!” he screamed as he made his way to the back porch, scattering chickens as they pecked at the food on the kitchen floor as the feed stuck to Wiley’s grease-covered feet. And it was then that he was met face to face with the two milk cows, calmly munching on the flowers that grew beside the steps. It seemed his whole yard was filled with cattle… He looked up as he spied a rider coming in from the north, the horse at a dead run, and the man waving frantically from the saddle. What the HELL is going on?

<><><><> 

“Montero gonna be there with back up, amigo?” Val asked as they made plans to ‘visit’ the dam.

Johnny looked up from the gun that he was meticulously cleaning and smiled slightly. “Yeah, he said they would be there. He’s got a few volunteers watchin’ the guards at the dam, too, an’ someone ta let us know if there’s been any changes, like men bein’ called away ta help with other ‘issues’…”

Val chuckled, drawing a broad smile from Johnny. “Wonder if ol’ Wiley’s worked hisself inta a tizzy yet? Bet he’s got Navarro hoppin’ through the fire ta get things under control. Well, he better work fast cuz taday that crazy bastard’s gonna be sharin’ alla that water, too!” Val’s laughter rang through the bunkhouse.

“Johnny!” Wade yelled from the yard. “Johnny!”

Johnny ran to the door to see Wade pointing to the main gate. A riderless horse ran into the yard as Johnny caught it effortlessly, calming him, talking low and smooth. He had it under control in no time, and the three men looked at one another. The horse belonged to Kendall…

Johnny, Val, and Wade had their mounts ready in minutes, and the three men were soon following the trail made by Kendall’s horse. Topping a rise, they saw on the road below Cutter trying to steady Billy Black Wing, keeping him on his horse with a hand hanging onto Billy’s collar. They raced down the hill as Cutter was getting ready to use his gun but put it away as he recognized them.

“What happened, Cutter?” Johnny asked as he dismounted, going to Billy’s side. He checked the wound on Billy’s face, not seeing much except the blood soaking through the bandages, bandages that covered half of his head and thick, black hair.

“Two a Wiley’s men came at us from ambush, one had a shotgun an’ Kendall took a shot to the chest at close range, nearly cut ‘im in half. Billy took him out after catchin’ buckshot in the face. Don’t even know if he’s alive or not. I got the other one.” Cutter was about done in. The sitting around waiting, then the sudden change with the violent shootings and the effort to get Billy back had drained the man.

“Come on, Cutter, we’ll help ya get ‘im back ta The Circle K.” Johnny rode close on the other side of Billy providing more stability to the unconscious man on the magnificent black stallion.

<><><><> 

Billy had been settled into a bed in the main house. The doctor had been summoned and had been with Billy for several hours. With Consuelo hovering over him and the doctor, there was nothing more for them to do except to get the rest of the job done. Johnny filled Joe Kelly in as to what had happened and what was to happen, reminding the man of their earlier conversation, there would be casualties, no matter how hard you tried to avoid it. Knowing they couldn’t wait any longer, Johnny, Val, Wade, Cutter, and five other men, good men, good fighters, started toward the dam.

<><><><> 

The first thing Johnny wanted to do was notify Jose Montero and let him know it was time to move. Montero immediately mounted his horse and rode out to spread the word. He had confided to Johnny that the farmers that wanted to help in this fight had already started making preparations and that he, Johnny, would be pleased with what they had done. Johnny began to wonder if they would be walking into a trap… What had these people done? If they had not been careful in whatever it was they did, this whole plan could be spoiled, and Johnny and the others could be riding to their demise.

<><><><> 

Josh Wiley was a miserable man. He was panting heavily and screaming his words, spittle flying out of his mouth as he took his temper out on everything and everyone. His eyes were glazed and unfocused;  one look at the man scared even the toughest hand on the ranch. Son-of-a-bitch!  Navarro was keeping his distance with the excuse of handling the men involved in the cleanup effort.

The news from the mill was disastrous. It had been a devastating loss as the explosions, and subsequent fires demolished more than half of the mill and most of the warehouse. Shortly after hearing the catastrophic news about the mill, Cisco Mendez and George Post left to scout the northeast area by the railroad spur and grain stores.

Upon their arrival at the grain stores, they spied three men galloping away and gave chase. They gained on the men and cut them off at a canyon junction. Cisco aimed a shotgun and pulled the trigger at close range, nearly severing one of the men with a hit to the chest, killing him instantly and wounding the man on the horse next to him. But the wounded man had pulled his pistol and with an accurate and deadly aim, and only one eye, shot Cisco out of his saddle, a bullet placed evenly in the middle of his forehead.

George Post was stunned by the flying lead. He had signed on to work as a ranchhand, not play gunslinger, and the hesitation was his downfall as a bullet tore into his belly, shot by Jake, who left him to die alone, an agonizing death in the sand.

Cutter, heart hammering in his chest, took Billy’s reins and headed as fast as he could back to the Circle K, sickened at the loss of Kendall, and worry filled his heart for Billy. Both men he’d only just met but knew each to be a good and honorable man. He hated to leave Luke, but Billy was still alive and in desperate need of medical attention. This seemed the right thing to do, and Kendall would have agreed.

<><><><> 

The nine men rode with a vengeance. Heaven help those at the dam if they got in their way. The farmers were not seen; Johnny couldn’t make up his mind if he was impressed with their resolve or displeased. He’d asked if there were any that would help to fight, but he didn’t want them off on their own, possibly creating a worse situation that could hamper the plans Johnny, Val, and the others had put together. Too late ta worry ‘bout it now, Johnny thought.

He wondered about the road from Wiley’s place to the dam. He’d heard that it was the fastest way to reach the dam, and no doubt that’s where the backup would come from. As they pulled the horses to a stop in the cover of rocks where they’d watched the activity of Wiley’s guards, Johnny started giving orders. They all gathered around, hunkered down out of sight.

“No doubt that Wiley’s men at the ranch will try ta protect the dam an’ the fastest way from there ta here is the road. We got enough dynamite ta create a little diversion?” he asked Val.

One of the other men joined in. “No need, Johnny. That’s where the Mexican farmers are. Apparently, they got somethin’ in the works ta delay any help from the ranch. They been workin’ on it for days, proud as can be that they’re helpin’ ta give Wiley exactly what he’s got comin’ ta him!” Link Jefferson couldn’t help but smile. And neither could Johnny.

A narrowing between rock walls provided the perfect spot for an ambush. The farmers stacked rocks high above so they wouldn’t be seen by the casual observer.  One critical shove from the sides would release a landslide and close up the gap forcing anyone wanting to pass through to travel a lengthy detour around the hills, adding several miles to their ride.

Johnny thought about the people, the dirt poor farmers that had endured the loathing and humiliation from Wiley, and now, they were fighting back and fighting well. He was proud of them, but what Johnny didn’t realize was that these people were grateful to Johnny and the rest for giving them the opportunity to regain their dignity and reclaim their rights. They were no match for Wiley, but they would prove their worth to themselves and their own on this day, thanks to Johnny, Val, Wade, Billy, the spirit of Luke Kendall and Joe Kelly, and his men. These normally peaceful farmers had grit, the mettle validating them as a force to be reckoned with. Today Wiley would be taken down due much to the support of the ones he’d scorned, cheated, and murdered for years.

“Val, anyone remember ta tie a horse across the river? Once that dam is blown, whoever is there ta light the fuse is gonna need a ride back.”

Val was hurt. “What’d ya think you’re dealin’ with, Madrid? Some pendejothat don’t know his ass from a hole in the ground?”

Johnny grinned from ear to ear, his deep blue eyes dancing. “Good, cuz that’s where you’re goin’,” Johnny teased.

<><><><> 

“Navarro! Take some men and get down to the dam! NOW! Make sure it’s protected!” Wiley screamed. This isn’t happening! His mind couldn’t absorb it all.

“Alright, but just so ya know, I’m gonna hafta take men from here so it’ll be cuttin’ down on the help at the house.” Navarro hoped that Wiley would understand what would happen.

“I don’t FUCKING care! GET DOWN TO THE DAM!” Wiley’s brain was churning, scrambling, and didn’t believe what his eyes were seeing.

<><><><> 

Johnny and Montero had discussed diversion plans. They wondered if someone would come to the dam to inform the guards that there had been trouble at the house, and help was needed there. Hopefully, a few of them would leave, and the interruption would allow enough time for Johnny and his men to overpower those left.

 Johnny and Val kept to the cover of the rocks. They sent Wade upstream to work his way around the guard shack, where he would set off a stick of dynamite and draw the guard's attention.

Wade struck the match into flame and lit the fuse, then with a toss from a muscular arm, sent the missile into the air to land at the river's edge just behind the shack. The guards jumped to attention as Johnny, Val and the rest of Kelly’s men stormed across the dam. 

To say the guards were surprised upon hearing the explosion was an understatement. But it was nothing in comparison to the revelation when they resumed their post on the dam and found out they had been overtaken by Kelly’s men. Their failure to protect the water would mean their jobs would be immediately terminated. And that concern was negated when they were hit with the notion they would have to deal with the reaction of their employer when he found out what had happened.

“Throw down your guns! NOW! You’re surrounded!” came a sharp, clear command as a chorus of pistols and rifles were cocked in unison. The guard's weapons clattered to the ground, and they stood as if paralyzed, dread, and fear spreading on the stricken faces. They were outnumbered and disarmed, and out of a job, but it could be worse, they could be dead.

“All your weapons on the ground? If we search ya an’ find something ya didn’t drop, you’re gonna be dead! ALL weapons on the ground!” Val gruffly ordered, and a few knives soon joined the guns that littered the sand.

“Now, back away!” And as the guards moved from the weapons, Val noticed a young man in the middle of the pack, nervous and fidgety, acting as though he wasn’t sure of himself. He was just a kid, no more than eighteen, and had trouble written all over him.

“You! Kid…” Was as far as Val got when the kid drew a pistol and pulled the trigger. The resonating thunder of the blast echoed off the canyon walls as Val fell into the dirt but not before Johnny turned and fired, killing the kid before Val had settled on the ground.

Rushing to Val’s side, Johnny checked him over, relieved to find only a graze to the left arm. Tying it tight with his bandana, Johnny helped Val to his feet. Eyes blazing fire and ice in the same searing glare, he looked over the remaining guards.

“Anyone else gonna try somethin’ stupid? Cuz if ya do, you’re gonna end up dead. That was a jackassed thing ta do! No one needs ta die here!”  he said in his soft but deadly voice. The remaining guards simply stood and allowed themselves to be tied, secured tightly, and watched. They were scared. They needed to be scared. And as Val was one of the men watching them, they needed to be afraid of him because, at this point, Val was downright pissed off and deservedly so. The prisoners were afraid he would murder them where they stood.

Johnny signaled Wade, and the two men, with heads together, divided the dynamite. With Val out of action except for guard duty, Johnny summoned Skip Riley and filled him in.

“Skip, I need ya ta get across the dam and light the fuse on the far side of the hill the same time that I light the one here, then get the hell outta there and on the horse tied on the south side of the hill. Go back ta the Circle K. Get across the river bed before the water starts runnin’ or ya might not be able ta cross anytime soon.”

Skip nodded and took his bundle of six sticks of explosives, attached a fuse, and trotted with Johnny across the dam. Skip went to the west side, and Johnny on the east, they walked about a third of the way up the hill, wedged the dynamite in the dirt and rocks, and lit the fuses. Skip scooted up and over the hill as Johnny ran back across the dam. Fifteen nerve-shattering seconds later, the deafening explosion filled the air with dirt, sand, and rock. A cloud billowed two hundred feet up as a mountainside of boulders filled the branch that delivered the precious water to Wiley’s fields, water that had been denied to the people in the south. Echoes from the blast beat in tandem with the tremors underfoot but settled to an eerie stillness. Now it was time to blow the dam.

<><><><> 

Navarro and the ten men he’d pulled from the cleanup at the ranch thundered to the dam, and as they rounded a bend that funneled into the narrow trail, Montero’s men released the avalanche of rocks, effectively plugging the way. Navarro screamed at the top of his lungs and pulled his horse to a skidding halt, avoiding the bouncing missiles and fought to get his startled mount under control.

“Around! Go around!” Waving frantically to his men, they scrambled to turn and go back the way they’d come until the point was reached where they could go around the mountain. Up in the hills, the farmers cheered and  threw rocks down on the mercenaries, then quickly dodged out of sight and hurried to their mounts to beat the men to the dam.

<><><><> 

“Señor, the men, they are on their way! They are coming around the mountain. There are about ten of them! We can help fight!” Montero gasped out, as he jumped from the back of his horse, panting with the exertion.

“Gracias, Jose! Good plan, bought us a little time!” Johnny grinned as he measured out two extra feet of fuse to put into his large bundle of dynamite. A double-bundle had been used for the dam. Johnny went across to the far side as Wade took his double and planted them at the same time, however, Johnny lit his first and ran full speed across the dam, then Wade lit his.

Their timing was off by only two seconds. As Johnny and Wade dove for cover, the duet of explosions, jarred them all and felt as if the world was coming to an end. Had Johnny not known better, he would have sworn the shaking ground had ripped apart, and everyone around would be swallowed down into Hell.  The roar rang in every ear that was anywhere near when the fire of the fuse hit the substantial bundle of dynamite. Pieces of rock, tons of dirt, and massive log walls shot straight into the sky fell back to earth with jolting shocks and reverberating concussions. The air, again, filled with thick dust, enough to choke anyone that chanced a breath.

The water surged its way down the dry riverbed crashing and foaming, rushing in its hurry to be free of the lake and reclaim what had been its home for a thousand years. It charged down the dry bed like a rabid animal, overpowering everything in its path.

Johnny got to his feet, quickly organizing the men as they would be having ‘company’ very shortly. With the dam already blown, it should be about over, but he knew Wiley wanted blood and was sending his wolves to do his bidding.

<><><><> 

Navarro stared at the ugly scene in front of them. He signaled for one of his men to get back to the ranch and report to Wiley. The man left at full gallop. Then Navarro and his eight men approached the flowing river knowing there would be a fight.

“Find cover! Shoot at anything that moves… And shoot to kill! Wiley’s orders!” They left their horses in the cover of the surrounding rocks and found protection behind boulders.

“Navarro! Give it up! Nothin’ ta do here anymore! The dam’s gone! Lotta people gonna die taday over somethin’ that ain’t even there!” Johnny yelled, doing everything in his power to save a few lives.

“No chance, Madrid! I’m gonna finish you!” Navarro returned. “Come on out an’ the two of us’ll end this!”

Johnny started to get up, but Val pulled him down, slamming him into the ground. “Ya can’t trust that snake, amigo!” Val hissed.

Johnny grunted.

“Madrid? What’d ya say? Just the two of us?” Navarro persisted.

And Johnny knew Val was right. Navarro would never fight fair. It would never be between him and another man. The snake would always have a backup. He’d always have someone to ‘help’ him. Navarro was an expert at setting up an ambush.

Johnny saw a slight movement behind and above Navarro and his men. Montero and the rest of the farmers had come behind Wiley’s men and had heard Navarro’s words.

“Navarro, ya ain’t got a chance, just give it up!” Johnny tried again but was answered with a wall of bullets ricocheting around them, and they returned fire.

One of Navarro’s men was the first to fall, dropping his gun between the rocks as his body slumped over, eyes still open but unseeing. Johnny had good cover, but it didn’t provide him a clear shot at Navarro. If he could take him out, Johnny was sure the fight would end soon. Without a leader, these range wars would usually end, and Johnny was all for stopping it quickly, especially with the innocent farmers and their families involved. They’d already paid a horrific price.

Another of Navarro’s men fell, but this time he had been struck from behind; they were being attacked from the rear!

Navarro couldn’t grasp what was happening until a rock the size of a grapefruit bounced off the boulder he was hiding behind. And he turned to see another of his men fall, from bullet or rock he couldn’t tell.

“Navarro! Come on, just you an’ me! No one else hasta die taday!” Johnny yelled.

Mulling it over, Navarro looked around him. He was down to only three men, and he knew there would be no other way out for him.

<><><><> 

Wiley was insane. His assets on the north side of his ranch were gone, all blown to bits and burned, and now the dam was gone! Everything he had worked for was destroyed. His mind cracked and started to break away in splintering pieces. Sharp edges poked at the inside of his brain. How could he stop the disaster? He needed to stop… Madrid! He ordered a horse saddled, and the wrangler that brought it to him looked puzzled. Wiley never  rode a horse, but the crazed look in his eyes brooked no comment. He kicked the horse into a gallop and hung on for dear life.

<><><><> 

“Alright, Madrid, I’m comin’ out!” Before Navarro stood, he called Jim Madison next to him. “When Madrid gets out there, kill ‘im.” And Madison nodded from his cover hidden behind rocks.

The farmers above had heard Johnny and Navarro and ceased their attack but watched the heroic effort on Madrid’s part as he tried to stop any more death. Montero watched but kept a sharp eye on those below. He would cover Madrid, and his men, then saw Navarro rise from behind his boulder, hands clear and pistol holstered. The two men advanced to face each other, stopping twenty feet apart.

Montero saw Madison move and jumped down behind him with a discarded gun cocked and pressing into the base of Madison’s neck. “Drop your gun, Señor…” he said calmly.

Navarro wore a slight grin, but he wished Madison would take Madrid out. When was he going to make his move? Knowing he couldn’t stall much longer, he addressed Johnny, “Say a prayer, Madrid,” he said, then sniggered, his eyes dancing.

“Don’t need ta, Navarro. I’ll be the one walkin’ away from this. An’ ta quote your boss, ‘I’ll be the last man standing’.”

And Navarro dropped his hand to his pistol and felt the bullet tear through his heart. He was dead on his feet, then he crumpled to the ground.

Johnny holstered his gun and walked to the three remaining men. They had been disarmed and were marched out of the rocks, the farmers looking proud as they had every right to be. They had fought for their land and their dignity and recovered it all.

“It ends here! All you men that work for Wiley get your gear and get out. Ya ain’t workin’ for him anymore. He’s done, finished. If ya don’t leave, I’m comin’ after ya.”

The hoofbeats drummed the ground and drew all eyes as Wiley bounced wildly on the back of the horse. He got out of the saddle, taking stock of the scene that his mind refused to accept. Navarro lay dead, a hole through his chest! He went to the body and looked down, sneering as if it were garbage. Then he looked wildly into Johnny’s cold eyes and screamed: “I’ll kill you!”

As he reached for his gun, a shot rang out, and as Montero held the pistol, smoke streamed in a delicate wisp out of the barrel, and Wiley’s body fell in a heap.

<><><><> 

Peace was something extraordinary, and more so if it had been lost. It was something that was often taken for granted if one had always known it. But if it had been experienced, then taken away, one knew how valuable and precious it was.

Such could be said for the farmers of the area. They’d gotten back the fertile lands they’d been cheated out of and were restarting their lives. But there were a few that still mourned, and Jose Montero was one of them. He stood at the edge of what used to be the lake that formed when the water had been dammed, and there about fifty feet out, in a small gulley half-buried in mud, was the remains of a wagon. It had been turned on its side and badly damaged. A broken wheel and partially rotted wood were all that marked the spot where his brother and his family had perished. Perhaps when the mud dried, they would be able to find something to bury in the graveyard. But the broken wagon was, at the moment, all that was left of the peace-loving, delightful family, and Montero bowed his head and wept.

<><><><> 

After returning to the Circle K Ranch and reporting the events, Joe Kelly immediately went about the task to reunite the former owners with their property, offering any help that would be needed. It was a slow process, and although recovering from his injury, Kelly would take the time to see the job through.

Johnny and Val stayed on until it was known that Billy was going to be alright, albeit losing an eye when the buckshot that killed Kendall sprayed him. Kelly thought that Billy could stay on and act as a sort of unofficial peace officer if Billy would consent.

Joe stood by Johnny, Val, and Wade as they prepared to leave. There was both regret and relief in the man’s eyes. Peace had come at a high cost, but it always did. At least things would be alright from here on out, thanks to the three men standing in front of him and many others, some of whom had paid with their lives.

Kendall’s body had been recovered and given a proper and respectful burial on the Circle K. Mercifully, most of the farmers had escaped serious injury during the last several days. The unfortunate ones that had already been affected during Wiley’s reign of terror, now that it was over, would be able to pick up the pieces; life would go on.

“I had hoped this could have ended with a peaceful solution, but I guess Wiley wasn’t going to let that happen. There was enough water for everyone…” Kelly’s thoughts trailed off. But he pulled himself together, and meeting the gaze of the men around him, he shook each of their hands with a firm grasp.

“Thank you, Gentlemen. I know that you did what was necessary and spared much violence.”

“Mr. Kelly,” Johnny began, “Wiley was a sick man. We dealt with his kind before an’ when that happens there just ain’t any other way out of somethin’ like this. We knew goin’ in that there was gonna be killing. We all knew it, so did Kendall. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is. Nuthin’ is gonna change that. You’re an honorable man, Mr. Kelly. Ya have nothin’ ta regret in this an’ it was a pleasure ta have worked for a man of your integrity.”

The front door opened, and Consuelo stepped out onto the porch clutching Billy’s arm as she settled him into a chair. His face, still half bandaged, the white cloth in stark contrast with his dark skin and thatch of thick, black hair lying against it. When the bandages would come off, he would wear a patch over his left eye socket, but the rest of the damage would repair itself. His days of fighting range wars were over, but a new life would begin here with Joe Kelly, and Consuelo’s pretty niece didn’t hurt the situation, either.

Johnny stepped onto the porch and extended his hand to Billy, and with a tight grasp, they shook and sealed their friendship.

“Ya did good Billy, real good an’ it woulda been impossible ta get it done without ya,” Johnny spoke truthfully. He turned to Consuelo and hugged her with a gentle yet firm squeeze. Whispering in her ear, he said: “Ya just might find me at the door when I get hungry for some cactus like my Mama used ta make!” He pulled away, finding her large dark eyes filled with tears.

“Vaya con Dios, Juanito!”And she held her hands on his face as he bent to place a kiss on her cheek.

Stepping from the porch, he took the reins of Valiente and vaulted into the saddle. Touching his fingers to his hat at those standing before him, the three men turned their horses and rode out of the yard.

<><><><> 

The man was standing in the road, and coming closer Jose Montero became recognizable. They stopped, then Johnny dismounted and stood before him with deep respect in his dark blue eyes.

Montero met the cerulean gaze and extended his hand. “Gracias, Johnny! The ghosts of my brother and his family can sleep now, in peace.” And with that said, the humble man walked away, leaving the three brave fighters watching his receding figure disappear over the ridge.

Johnny looked down at the ground, then with a sigh, he mounted Valiente and turned to Val and Wade.

“Gotta go inta town an’ say adios ta some people.”

<><><><> 

He knocked on the flimsy wood and waited. After a minute, the door cracked a bit, then was swung open and allowed to slam against the wall as an emotional and grinning face greeted them. Miguel pulled the three tired and dusty men into his tiny house then marched them into the small living quarters. There sat Trini holding a tiny baby, eyes wide and filled with warmth and love.

“I want you to meet Juanito Valentino Sanchez….”

 

 

~ end ~

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