The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

The Long Road Home

Thanks to Cat for the beta

“Here you are, Mr. Lancer, a bank draft for eight thousand dollars,” the sergeant said as he handed Johnny the paperwork.

Johnny pocketed the profits and said his goodbyes with a, “Thanks, Serge. Nice doin’ business with ya. See ya next spring!” Johnny offered the man a wide grin and was out the door on his way to the bank in Apache Springs. Doing business with the Army at Fort Sheldon had made Lancer a great deal of money and now selling them horses, as well as beef, had more than doubled the earnings. And that made Johnny Lancer a very happy man.

Trying to convince the old man to let him raise horses hadn’t been easy, but with backing from his brother, Scott, they persuaded their father over to their way of thinking. And, the profits were rolling in. Johnny doubted Murdoch would have consented if Scott hadn’t joined in the persuasion efforts and that had been a source of irritation for Johnny.  Murdoch still had trouble trusting his younger son, had always suspected the wild and undisciplined Johnny was still very much a part of him. When would the old man realize that Johnny had a good head on his shoulders and have faith in him? In truth, Johnny was still a bit wild, but things had always worked out; the same ending, just a different trail to get there. What was the difference?

Done at the bank after wiring the bulk of the money to the bank in Green River, Johnny met up with the hands to ‘cut the wolf loose’. Thirsty, rowdy, love-starved and hungry drovers, now with money in their pockets were left to their own devices as Johnny paid them their wages.

“Hey, Johnny, wanna join us for a drink?” asked Sonny Jennings, youngest of the men and the most anxious to start celebrating.

“No, thanks. Goin’ ta see some friends I got here. Haven’t seen them in a coupla years an’ I’m leavin’ Walt in charge so don’t piss him off too much, alright? See ya back at Lancer in a few days.” With that, Johnny found Walt, filled him in and left Fort Sheldon.

<><><><> 

Johnny hadn’t had any time for himself for months, and it felt strange not having Scott with him. But in a way, it also was good to be alone. There had been many major adjustments he’d had to make since becoming part of a family and not being alone was one of them. Family definitely had its advantages, but there was something to be said about being by yourself.

The fire started to put out heat. It chased away the damp chill that was seeping into his bones but the coffee was almost ready, and that would help warm Johnny from the inside. Staring into the flames that licked up the side of the battered coffee pot, Johnny’s thoughts turned to the horses that he and Scott raised and he smiled at the thought of all the hard work, not to mention bruises, near broken bones and concussions during the breaking and training process. Broken and trained horses sold for a higher price. It had been a long hard battle, but finally, Murdoch agreed, and soon the profits started to pour in, and Lancer horses were now in demand.

Refilling his cup his thoughts turned to the friends he would see in the morning. Luis and Rosa Zapata had been more than friends; they had been Johnny’s life-line at a time when there seemed as if all hope was lost and after they met it seemed suddenly there was a chance. That chance had been Luis and Rosa, the fine people they were and the example they set for one so young and undisciplined helped to make Johnny the man he was. They were there for him during an incredibly rough time in his life.

They found Johnny just before he would have been captured by the Rurales, and hid him in the root cellar until it was safe for Johnny to escape. He’d never forgotten what they had done for him, the chances they had taken for him. Over the years Johnny would stop to visit and bring them supplies or discretely leave them money. They would never accept a handout, and Johnny found if he tucked the money away in a cabinet or under a flower pot, he would be gone before they would find it.

Time had not been kind to either of them They looked twice their age and both with various health issues, Johnny wondered if they would still be alive when he got to the small farm where they eked out a living after leaving Mexico.
Johnny couldn’t remember the times he’d wandered onto the tiny farm in need of help of one kind or another. His horse had thrown a shoe once, and Luis had been able to get Johnny on his way again. There had been numerous times that he’d been in need of medical help. How many bullets had they taken out of his hide? Johnny couldn’t remember, too many. And they had fed him with every visit, offering what Johnny knew had to be near the last of their stores but share they did and was happy to do it.

Johnny had been a critical part of the revolution that the peasants desperately needed to win. And with men like Johnny Madrid, they’d almost done it. Almost overthrown the tyrannical government and their brutal and ruthless iron-fisted ways. Had there not been a traitor in their midst and betrayed them all, they just may have succeeded. There was much history between the Zapata’s and Johnny, and for all of it Johnny had been eternally grateful, without it, he probably wouldn’t have lived.

Throwing out the last of the coffee, Johnny rolled into his blankets and fell asleep to the crackle and hiss of the fire and the lonely song of a coyote. Above him the stars blazed in a glorious display of light as they glittered like diamonds, only to give way to the master of the sky when the sun rose in the morning.

The sky above the mountains was just tinged with pink when Johnny opened his eyes. He never tired of this magical time of day, watching the rapid change in color and light and how quickly the clouds either moved in or cleared out with an announcement of what the day would hold. As it lightened, the sun peeked over the tips of the magnificent mountain peaks and the morning light flowed down the face of the cliffs like thick cream covering anything in its path. The earth came alive again, the skies filled with calls of birds and bugles of elk could be heard from the higher elevations. This was the beginning of a brand new day.

<><><><> 

This day would see Johnny reunited with old and dear friends and he was anxious to be up and about, anxious to see Luis and Rosa. It was always good to see them again, but with each passing year, haunting thoughts kept returning in his brain, would they still be there?
After a quick, light breakfast Johnny was in the saddle. He was only twenty some odd miles away from the small farm that held so many memories, so much love and the two people most responsible for the man that Johnny turned out to be. Luis had been there when Johnny needed guidance, guidance that only a man could give to a young boy and Rosa had instilled decency and benevolence, although Johnny had been gifted that way naturally, but Rosa encouraged it and brought out Johnny’s best. Both Luis and Rosa had been very proud of this young man, proud as if he had been their own blood.

After several hours of easy traveling, Johnny topped a rise and below lay the little farm, much as he remembered, yet there was something different. There were weeds in the garden, and a shutter was hanging from a window. The barn door looked in need of repair as did the fences. Something was wrong, and Johnny’s heart skipped a beat.

He quickly rode down the hill and into the tiny yard, scattering the scrawny chickens as they ran out from under Barranca’s deadly hooves. Throwing himself from the saddle, he called their names, his heart beating wildly in his chest. He had just reached the porch when the door opened, and a tiny, weathered old woman stepped out holding a shotgun that was near as big as she was. The leathery-skinned face, more wrinkled than he remembered, stared at him, the black eyes piercing then brightening with recognition.

“Juanito?... Juanito, it is you!” she gasped, and Rosa Zapata began to cry. Johnny stepped to her quickly and wrapped his arms around her frail body, almost afraid to hug her too hard thinking she would break. He took the gun from her hands and leaned it against the door jam. Johnny held her at arm's length and peered into her face, but he already knew what he would find there. Her grief wrapped around her like a tight fitting shawl, threatening to strangle the life out of her delicate frame.

“When?” was all he asked.

She took a deep breath and gathered her composure, and summoning all her dignity, she explained to Johnny the events of the last year. “Luis took sick with a fever, too stubborn to rest and take care of himself, he finally just stopped. He stopped working, stopped taking care of the farm and then his body… just stopped. I buried him out back. Come, Juanito. Pay your respects. He would like to know that you came back.” And taking Johnny‘s arm, Rosa led him around the house to the tiny grave of the man they both loved, admired and held in the highest regard.

Johnny pulled his hat from his head and stood beside the mounded grave. The crude wooden cross was all that marked the final resting place for this special man. Johnny vowed that there would be something better to mark his presence and passing in this life, something befitting a man such as he was, to celebrate his time on this earth. Johnny would see to it himself.

Standing beside this grave, Johnny wanted to weep. He felt the sorrow and heartbreak fill his body, and he felt a loss so deep that cut him to the core. He knew that one day it would happen, had to happen, but when that day comes, one is never prepared for the debilitating grief.

He circled his arm around Rosa’s shoulders and pulled her close. He held tight to the slight woman, a woman so small and frail he was afraid a gust of wind would blow her away. But a woman with great courage and heart. He felt her lean into him as if her body was gathering his strength, pulling it out of him to fortify and reinforce her own.

“Come, querida, let’s talk.” Taking her with him, he led her into the house.

<><><><> 

Johnny listened as Rosa related the sad events of the last two years. Through her misery and pain, Johnny’s resolution to stay strong for her came close to breaking. Several times he caught her work-worn hands in his and simply held them as if willing her his resilience and spirit. Johnny remembered she had always been full of spunk and grit, but now she seemed broken.

And then a thought occurred to Johnny. “Rosa, how would you like to go with me back to Lancer? You can stay permanently, or I will bring you back in a few weeks. Just come with me, at least for a little while. We can talk and remember the old times… an' Luis. I’ll bet there are a few stories you never told me yet about him,” Johnny said with a smile, the very smile that had won her heart time and time again.

“But what about the farm? Who will watch over it and see to it that it is still mine when I return?” she asked, worrying about her home but mostly Luis’ final resting place.

“You leave that to me, alright? Will you do it, at least for a little while?” he asked, he lowered his head and peeked up into her uncertain face. “Porfavor?” he asked gently, again with his smile, his deep blue eyes danced, and he knew that she was beginning to lighten. Finally, with eyes ready to spill over she nodded her head slightly. Johnny leaned over and held her tight.

After talking late into the night, they retired. Rosa felt better than she had in a long time. This young man had brought them so much joy! He had a heart that was bigger and so full of goodness and every time she saw him he amazed her even more.

Before retiring for the night, she struggled to her old, aching knees and folded her leathery hands in prayer, silently thanking God for her blessings. The many years with her beloved Luis, their health, up until recently, that is, and finally this last blessing that had come into their lives by way of an almost tragic means. The young man so willing to give his life for a cause that wasn’t entirely his. This young man so full of life, so full of benevolence, and honor and now he was looking after her. Even with the grief so raw from her loss of Luis, she felt near to bursting with love for this wayward ‘son’. And she had thought of him as a son, they both had.

Early the next morning Johnny quickly ate a traditional Mexican breakfast with gusto. Maria, the cook at Lancer, was excellent in the kitchen, but the true Mexican food was few and far between as Johnny’s family held on to the more traditional Anglo fare.

He pecked Rosa on the cheek, then Johnny gracefully vaulted onto Barranca’s back and rode into the small town of McFarland only five miles away. The morning was bright, and the warm sun filled Johnny with hope that Rosa would find the peace and comfort needed to get her through her grief.  
He tied up in front of the sheriff’s office.  Pushing open the door, Johnny spied Sheriff Steve Morgan sitting behind his desk with a stack of papers  and writing furiously. Looking up as the door opened, he smiled and stood as Johnny walked to the desk and held out his hand. The sheriff grasped it and pumped it heartily.

“Sheriff, my name’s Johnny Lancer an’ I’m here about Rosa Zapata. Mind if we talk for a while? That is if you’re not too busy?”

The sheriff studied the deep blue eyes, curious as to why this young man suddenly showed up with interest in Señora Zapata, but sensing no threat, he motioned to a chair.

“Care for a cup of coffee, Mr. Lancer?”

“Sure, thanks, an’ the name’s Johnny,” he said as he settled into a chair in front of the desk. Taking the cup that was in much better condition than one he would get from Val at the Green River jail, and clean to boot! Johnny began to explain the reason for his visit.

“Luis an’ Rosa an’ me go back a long time. Helped each other out a time or two an’ when I got there yesterday I found out Luis had died. Asked Rosa if she’d wanna go home with me, up by Green River, either permanently or just for a few weeks. She finally agreed but was worried about the farm an’ mostly Luis’ grave. Is there anyone in town that could be trusted ta take care of the farm? I’ll pay them ta watch over everything while she’s gone an’ if she decides not ta come back I’ll handle the sale of her place for her.”

“This is awfully sudden, Mr… ah, Johnny. With all due respect, how do I know that you’re telling the truth?”

“C'mon out an talk with her. She’s packin’ up now.”

“Maybe I’ll do just that,” the sheriff said and grabbed his hat from the peg behind his desk. Morgan followed Johnny out the door, talking as they walked to the livery to pick up Morgan’s horse.

The ride back to the tiny farm proved interesting for both men. Johnny learned that Luis and Rosa had been respected and loved by the community, which baffled Johnny when he thought of the disrepair of the farm. And he broached the subject with the sheriff.

“They wouldn’t take any help, too proud. Luis said that when the day came that he couldn’t keep the farm up himself would be the day he’d die. And he did. Rosa refused the help falling back on the fact she couldn’t afford to pay anything. People would tell her they didn’t want money, but she’d start to cry and make a fuss, so folks around here stopped offering. Sad, if you ask me.”

Yeah, very sad. But that’s gonna change from here on out. Johnny made this vow and looked skyward as if to make a promise to Luis, then he winked and smiled.

They rode the rest of the way in silence.

<><><><> 

Rosa had packed her meager personal belongings in just a few boxes as she knew in her heart that she would return. Her place was beside Luis, and that is where she would spend eternity, next to the man that was her life for so many sweet and sacred years. Looking back, she began to think of all the special times they’d shared, all the triumphs and tragedies, too.

The three infants had been lost at birth, leaving them childless, but then her thoughts turned to loved ones, family member’s babies and how she and Luis had doted on them, taking them into their hearts as if the children had been their own. And Johnny, becoming their surrogate son, the boy had grown out of wildness and violence, and she remembered how he had responded to their quiet, kind ways. And now he was back, caring for her, looking out for her and she loved him for the man he was.

Finished packing she waited for Johnny’s return, sitting on the porch out of the hot sun. She watched the chickens scratch in the dirt, and her mind wandered to long ago years, thinking about the happiness she and Luis had shared. There had been heartbreaks, but she found more comfort in thinking about the happy times. Her marriage to Luis had been the best decision of her life. He was an honorable, good man. She was sad he was gone, of course, but so very happy that she had him as long as she did. How could she be sad?

Looking down the dry and dusty road she spotted movement, two riders on horseback and she retrieved her shotgun, pulling it close to her. Recognizing Johnny along with Estaban, and she relaxed as watched them ride into the small yard.

“Señora Zapata, it’s good to see you again!” Sheriff Morgan said stepping up onto the porch and took her hand with obvious affection for this old woman.

Johnny watched quietly at the interaction between the two. Rosa smiled as she greeted Morgan, asking if she could get him something to drink after the long, hot ride.

“No, ma’am, but I wanted to come out and check things out. Johnny here tells me that you will be gone for a while. Is that so?”

“Sí, Esteban, I am going to visit Juanito for a while, but I will be back.” She spoke with no apprehension, no reservations and seemed to be happy about the trip. Morgan began to believe this was legitimate; Rosa was not coerced or pressured into something she didn’t want to do, so he offered to help.

“In that case, I will see to it that your farm will be well cared for and will be here waiting for you when you return. Does that sound alright to you, Señora?” Morgan said with a grin splitting his face.

“Oh, sí! Gracias, Esteban! Gracias!” And she held Morgan’s hands in a tight grip, much tighter than Morgan thought her capable of.

“My pleasure, Señora, my pleasure! You an’ Luis have done a lot for the people of this town; this is the least that I can do for you!”

Sheriff Morgan, now reassured that Rosa would be alright and there was nothing suspicious regarding this young stranger, left the small yard as the chickens scattered, then turned in his saddle in time to catch Johnny wrap his arms around the old woman and she returned the gesture with casual and natural actions of deep feelings and respect. After witnessing this, any questionable thoughts on Morgan’s part were laid to rest.

<><><><> 

Packing up the next morning did not take very long with the few possessions that Rosa would bring with her. There were boxes of food and a barrel of water tucked in the tiny cart that was hitched to an old bay horse. Johnny thought they should take the train, but Rosa would not have him spending his money on her and would have no part in that.

She stood and looked around the farm as if to say goodbye. She thought she was silly as she would return, but it had been their home for many, many years now and it was still an emotional goodbye. She looked at Johnny with a quick: ”Una momento!” then walked behind the house.

Johnny followed to find her kneeling in the dirt beside Luis’ grave. He stayed a respectful distance back and let her have several minutes with her beloved husband.

She kissed her fingers then touched the rugged old cross marking Luis’ resting place. As she struggled to rise, Johnny quickly stepped forward to assist her. Then she walked to the front of the house with all the dignity she could muster and climbed into the cart.

Johnny stood for a long moment, looking at the grave and murmured his own adiós and a promise to watch over the woman they both loved.

<><><><> 

With Barranca tied behind the cart and his saddle stowed with the other belongings, they were finally on their way, taking their time in the rickety and wobbly tiny wagon, but enjoying each other’s company. Johnny had plans of stopping in the nearest town to send a telegram to Murdoch notifying him of the slight delay in Johnny’s return to Lancer.

As the day wore on, Johnny kept a cautious eye on Rosa, making sure the traveling was not too much, the sun was not too hot and assuring himself that she was drinking enough water. Rosa was a tough woman, full of grit and very proud. It would take a lot to break her and Johnny thought she would be fine on this venture.

The second day out, the old horse, Jorge, seemed to warm to his task and they began to make good time. With his step sprier than the day before he seemed to work out all his kinks and old Jorge trotted with a regal air about him.

Happy with the time they were making, Johnny began to whistle softly, making Rosa, as she sat next to him, content and smile. She had watched him grow into a fine and good person. He always seemed to show up when he was needed the most, except for one time and that was when Luis had died. She’d seen the grief in his eyes when he stood beside the grave and knew that he blamed himself for not being there. But that’s what he did, blame himself, always. Rosa wondered why it was that he always thought he was the cause of anything that went wrong. How could he think that everything was his fault?

Johnny, giving his backside a rest, mounted Barranca and led old Jorge. He had made a tiny bed in the cart, and Rosa rested, closing her eyes and napped in the late afternoon sun. He could never understand how people could ride in these rickety carts for hours on end.

<><><><> 

Coming over the rise, Johnny pulled Barranca to a stop. Below on the road stood a stagecoach but there was no sign of the horses. Several people sat in the shade of the hulking coach. Johnny couldn’t be sure, but they looked as if they had no hats or jackets, all the protection had been taken probably with whoever took the horses. He woke Rosa and told her to stay with the cart as he rode down to see if he could help.

As he approached the stage, several men stood as if protecting a middle-aged woman. She looked exhausted, and she’d been crying.

“See ya got some trouble here. What happened?” Johnny asked as he dismounted from his saddle and took his canteen to the woman. She grabbed desperately at it and took a long drink. Although warm from being in the sun all day it was wet and quenched her dry throat. She sighed deeply as she raised her eyes to meet his. Johnny thought she looked defeated.

“Got robbed early this morning. Four armed men took the horses and anything of value. They also took a young girl, about sixteen or so,” spoke a man that Johnny assumed was the driver.

“She’s seventeen, and you need to find her! They took her and said terrible things they would do to her; please, find her!” And the woman burst into tears again, the men standing around completely at a loss of how to comfort this woman.

Johnny whistled shrilly, looking up the hill at Rosa and waved her down. He watched as Rosa took the reins to slap Jorge into a trot and soon she was standing next to Johnny in the dusty road. He explained to Rosa what had happened and in no time Rosa had food and water out for the passengers and drivers. Johnny waited for them to get settled with their food before he spoke.

“They’ll be sendin’ someone ta look for ya once they realize the stage is late, probably tonight, tomorrow at the latest. Señora Zapata can help ya with whatever ya need ‘specially if ya gotta stay here overnight. She knows how ta stay alive in the desert. Listen ta her. I’m goin’ after the girl. What can ya tell me about the four men that took her? What’d they look like? What’d their horses look like?” And after getting the information he needed, Johnny went to Rosa’s side and talked quietly.

“Well, Rosa, looks like you’re gonna hafta take that train anyway,” pulling a wad of money from his pocket, he pressed much of it into her hand along with a note he’d written for Murdoch explaining what had happened and Rosa’s presence at the ranch.

Johnny approached the stage driver and asked for help to get Rosa on a train bound for Green River and to send a telegram to Lancer to watch for her arrival. Once Teresa learned what had happened she would make sure that Rosa was well cared for and make her feel at home and welcome. Teresa had a heart of gold and Johnny knew they would be great friends once she and Rosa had a chance to talk and get to know one another.

“Go ta Lancer an’ I’ll meet ya there. Tell Murdoch what happened an’ that I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Rosa looked up into Johnny’s eyes and took his hands in hers.

“Por favor, Juanito, be careful. Vaya con Dios, hijo,” and she hugged him fiercely. He returned her hug and planted a quick kiss on her forehead.

“I’ll see you at Lancer!”

Gracefully swinging into the saddle, he pulled Barranca to a halt by the woman from the stage.

“Ma’am, what’s your daughter’s name?” Johnny asked softly.

“Rachel….. please bring her back, Mr….?”

“Lancer, Johnny Lancer, an’ I’ll do my best.” With a nudge to Barranca’s side, they were gone.

<><><><> 

The trail left by the outlaws was not difficult to follow. They did not hide it, didn’t seem to care about leaving other signs. It was blatantly ignored. A discarded empty whiskey bottle here and soon a cigar butt there. One set of tracks were deeper than the rest; probably the girl was riding double with one of them.

Johnny followed late into the night. The moon was full, but finally, he had to stop. Setting up a small camp he ate food that Rosa insisted he take, then crawled into his bedroll. He was asleep in minutes.

It was going to be a hot day, and he was glad he’d gotten an early start. Johnny was getting a picture of the type of men he was following. They were lazy and not terribly bright. He’d come upon their camp, and the ashes were still warm. They’d slept late and would not make good time traveling. Johnny had an excellent chance to catch up with them tonight. From the descriptions the stage driver had given Johnny, it sounded an awful lot like Matt Travis, and a lawless, more useless person Johnny had never known. Now he was riding with three others. It was a bad sign. Though the trail meandered,  they were headed in a southerly direction. He wondered briefly if their intentions were to sell the girl in Mexico. If Rachel looked like her mother, the blonde would bring a good price.

Johnny began to summon Madrid. He would be needed for Johnny to pull off this rescue and make it look real. The brand on Barranca’s flank and the matching ‘L’ on Johnny’s saddlebags would be questioned. The most reasonable answer would be that Johnny had either won the horse and saddle in a poker game or he had killed the owner, and now the horse and gear were his. But as these fellas weren’t that smart, maybe it wouldn’t be an issue. The day wore on, and the sun was beginning the trek across the western sky. Johnny started to make preparations for the first encounter. He figured he’d only have one shot at this. It had to be believable.

Late afternoon was wearing down, the worst of the heat was over, but now it would get cold. Roast or freeze, one or the other and when it happened, it happened fast. Johnny needed to catch up to them tonight, because he feared for the girl. They had not stopped this day, and there hadn’t been any signs of a struggle in last night’s camp so the girl might still be safe, but that wouldn’t last long, not with men like Travis. He had to find them soon.

Johnny pulled Barranca to a stop and took the spyglass that Scott had given to him from his saddlebags. The few times he’d used it sure came in handy. He scanned the desert following the tracks. Yup, there they are, just up ahead. He would wait until they were making camp before he wandered in; he had to be there to protect the girl and didn’t think she would be as lucky tonight as she’d been the night before.

The sun was setting behind the horizon as Johnny started for the outlaw’s camp. He was only about a mile out, and it wouldn’t take much time to cover that distance. He approached downwind as not to give his position away- a nickering horse had spoiled more than one surprise appearance, and he wanted to catch them off guard. He needed the advantage. He could hear them now, hell, he could smell them. How the devil they’d made it this far without getting themselves killed was beyond any odds that Johnny would have given. He could only shake his head in wonder. Hesitating for a few minutes before he announced his presence, Johnny stopped to carefully take note where each outlaw was, where the girl was and where he wanted to be. Then he made his move.

“Hello, the camp!” With his gun already out but between his body and Barranca’s, he walked boldly into the sparse camp and stared down the barrels of four pistols. Johnny walked with Barranca close at his side to cover his drawn gun, and a big silly grin grew across his face as if he were seeing old friends.

“Well, well, if it ain’t Matt Travis. Not seen your ugly face in a few years. Ain’t gotten any prettier, neither. Surprised ta see you’re still alive ta be honest.” Johnny boldly walked into the camp

“Madrid? I thought you got yourself shot by that firin’ squad down in Mexico?” Matt said as he drank from the whiskey bottle.

Johnny watched as several drops of rotgut trickled from thick lips and down the flabby face and neck. “It look like I‘m dead? Ya never were too bright…” Johnny let the statement hang.

Matt’s face started to color, the deep red blossomed from under his collar and crawled up his neck to give away the irritation and Johnny was pleased.

Rachel was staring wide-eyed, watching back and forth as the exchanges were thrown out, all meant as insults to the two opponents vied for control over the camp.

“Where ya been, Madrid?” Matt was curious now, how could someone with a reputation like Madrid had just drop outta sight?

“Oh, here an’ there, layin’ low. Still wanted posters out on me,” Johnny said, speaking softly as he helped himself to coffee sitting by the fire.

Matt’s huge grin covered his ugly, wide face. “Yeah, I know, just maybe I’ll collect on ‘em…” he said, thinking to put a scare into Madrid but failing miserably, Matt took another drink from the bottle he held and released a loud, gravely belch. He then wiped his mouth on the back of his hand.

Johnny laughed harshly in his face. “Only chance you got of collectin’ on ‘em is shootin’ me in the back, Travis!” A cold smile crawled its way across Johnny’s mouth.The smile suddenly vanished, challenging Matt.

The others, including Rachel, were closely watching the exchanges. It was as if observing to see which bull elk was going take over the harem. One trying to out-do the other, take the advantage, attack and disable his opponent.
 
“I ain’t no back shooter, Madrid!” Travis was livid, and his temper was running away which is what Johnny was aiming for. The alcohol consumption did not help his reasoning as he blundered on.

“Oh,” Johnny said very quietly. “Musta been someone else I seen shoot ol’ Charlie Walker in the back. Sure did look a lot like you, though. No, it was you.”

Matt’s patience exploded, and his hand dipped to his gun then realized that the ground in front of him had just been chewed to bits from Johnny’s bullets. It had happened so quickly no one had seen it. Rachel jumped and started to cry.

Matt’s voice shook with rage and his eyes wild. “Ya think you’re that tough, Madrid? You gonna take on all four of us?” and he watched Madrid as he quickly reloaded his Colt.

Johnny smiled then quietly stated: “If I have to… but you’re gonna be the first one dead. Besides, there’s only one here stupid enough ta draw on me,” he looked Matt straight in the eyes. Johnny laughed in his face again. “Ya still think you’re gonna collect that reward, Matt?”

Matt felt a chill crawl down his spine. Jesus, Jessie, and Davey, along with Rachel were stunned at the audacity of Madrid. Jesus, though, was beginning to remember. Johnny hadn’t changed much, he thought. And now the others were having second thoughts as to who should be running this gang.

Johnny looked around at the gang and recognized Jesus Hernandez, a man he’d fought alongside during the revolution. “Jesus, good ta see ya. How’s the wife an’ kids?” Johnny asked with an honest smile.

Hernandez’ face fell, and Johnny knew what was coming. “They didn’t make it, Juanito.”

Johnny’s thoughts turned back to those awful days, and he hung his head a bit and sighed deeply. “Sorry ta hear that, amigo.” He remembered Marta. She was a good woman.

Jesus sat with thoughts of his beloved wife and two small children he’d found dead, lying in the dirt. The revolution had claimed many innocent lives during those awful times.

Wanting to change the subject Johnny looked at Rachel. “What’d ya doin’ with her?”

“What’d ya think, Madrid? You’re smart. Figure it out!” Matt fired back, still burning about the other remarks and embarrassment suffered at Madrid’s hands.

“Get more for her untouched, if that’s what ya got in mind.”

Matt puffed up, “Yeah, an’ maybe I’ll keep her for myself!” he bellowed as Rachel’s eyes widened, and a look of terror froze on her pale face . Matt laughed at her distress.

“What about it, boys? All of you robbed that stage. Ya gonna let this culo take more’n his share?” Johnny said wanting to cause a little dissension in the ranks.

The three outlaws looked at each other realizing what Madrid had just said.
“He’s right, Matt,” Jessie said. “Either we all get her, or we sell her in Mexico.” Both Jesus and Davey agreed. With Madrid to back them up, it should be alright.

“You’re savages! All of you!’” Rachel screamed, shocked at the open callousness and crudely spoken implications.

“Yeah, a girl with that yellow hair is rare in Mexico, oughtta bring a good price,” Johnny said, stalling for time. And he needed her to hate him, hate him like he was one of them.

Mexico! You’re not taking me to Mexico! I demand you take me back to my mother, right now!” They all laughed at her, her bluff called and she was coming to realize the ugliness of her fate. Could she bribe them?

“My mother will pay to get me back! She has money!” Rachel cried, on the verge of hysteria.

“Shut up!” Matt screamed at her. “We ain’t goin’ back, too easy ta get caught. Now you just do what you’re told to an’ ever’thing’s gonna be just fine… For us!” Again he laughed at his vulgar intentions.

Johnny knew he was going to have his hands full. The odds were against him, so he would have to act fast, and he also knew that this young woman, no, she was still a child, this girl would soon have to grow up, or she would die out here. He hated deceiving her, but he couldn’t let her know that he was there to rescue her, not yet anyway. He kept up the charade, hoping to get them both out of this unscathed. Johnny had to take control of this situation and fast if either of them were to make it out of this alive. It was time to stir the pot.

“Ya gonna let him do all the talkin’ for ya?” Johnny looked from one to the other making eye contact as if they were loco. “How’d ya get that desperate ta let him lead ya?” He laughed loudly as he finished his statement and Matt went rigid. He wanted to push Matt, push him so he’d do something stupid, like try and draw his gun again or maybe fight him. Johnny knew he could take him either way. The problem was, so did Matt. But mad enough, he’d do something stupid, just keep at him in front of the men and the girl and Johnny knew he’d trigger some kind of reaction. Johnny sent up a prayer of thanks for the rotgut Travis was rapidly consuming.

“Hey, Matt, what happened ta your last gang? Heard ya got ‘em all killed then hightailed it outta there, saved your own hide, that right?” And again Johnny laughed in Travis’ face.

Matt shot to his feet and stomped across the camp to stand in front of Johnny.

Without looking up from the fire, Johnny spoke very softly. “Go siddown, Matt, an’ stop makin’ a fool outta yourself. You’re givin’ outlaws a bad name.” Chuckling on the last few words, he held up the gun no one had seen him draw.

Rachel, Jesus, Jessie, and Davey all watched this battle for control and all of them betting on the same man to win.

Matt was livid. “You filthy half-breed Mex, get the hell outta here! We don’t need ya!” Matt sneered, his rotgut responsible for his stupid decisions.

“Oh, I think ya do…” Johnny fired back with a smile. “You don’t seem ta be able ta lead this gang without fuckin’ up… so I’m gonna. If ya don’t like it, ya can always leave but either way, I’m takin’ over.”

That was it. Matt went over the edge, and with face beet red he made a lunge for Johnny. With hands outstretched, he grabbed where Johnny had been just a split second ago and swiped a handful of air. The alcohol he’d consumed gave him false bravado, stumbling feet, and a scrambled brain.

Setting him up had been too easy. Johnny thought that would have taken more time but Matt’s ego was surpassed by one thing, stupidity, and that would prove deadly. Johnny stood out of reach with his arms folded across his chest as casually as if he’d been watching the grass grow.

Matt floundered again, spinning around and locating Johnny behind him now. Embarrassment erased any logic he had left, and that was his undoing as he grabbed for his gun not yet clearing his holster as he felt his chest blowing apart and the light faded out. He slumped to the ground in a crumpled, bloody heap.
Rachel screamed and was sick, on all fours heaving until there wasn’t anything left. Weak and shaking she fell senselessly into the sand and wept.

Johnny looked around at the three men staring at him, hoping none of them held any loyalty to the dead man in the camp. Jesus stood and looked Johnny in the eyes.

“Gracias, amigo, for helping me to make up my mind,” Jesus mumbled as he eyed Travis' bloody corpse.

Johnny watched him with questions on his face.

“I had no desire to end up an outlaw. Marta would have been broken hearted over that. You just changed things for me, amigo. I need to go back to Mexico and help my people instead of just myself. Jessie and Davey, you are on your own now, and if I were you, I’d change the way I lived, or you will end up like him,” gesturing the dead man. “Adiós, amigos,”  and with that Jesus was gone, leading his horse and hopefully, Johnny thought, on his way back to Mexico.

Johnny went to Rachel’s side and was about to help her up.

“Uh uh, she’s ours. You leave her be!” he said, and Davey Andrews was on his feet. “We can still get money for her an’ you ain’t gonna take her anywhere!” fearful that their hard work would disappear.

“It worth doin’ time, Davey. Ya wanna spend the next twenty years in prison for robbery and kidnappin’? Ya can’t be that stupid…” Johnny touched the girl’s shoulder to get her to her feet.

She flinched and batted his hand away. “Don’t you touch me!” she sobbed out.

“Yeah, don’t touch her!” Again Davey was fighting for his share.

Johnny turned to see young Davey’s hand reach down to the butt of his gun.
“Davey, ya just watched me kill Travis, don’t make me shoot you, too,” Johnny said trying to reason with this fool, but the hand kept moving. “Davey, stop…” And pulling his Colt faster than Davey could see, Johnny shot the kid’s hand before he’d been able to grab his gun, stunning his fingers as the kid watched his pistol fall into the dirt.

Again Rachel screamed, trembling with fear as she watched Johnny holster his Colt. She tried to get away from him and put as much distance as she could between her and this monster that killed.
 
“Now, I’m gonna take this girl and go. Either of ya got any objections ta that?” Johnny faced them down and grabbed Rachel as she still struggled to get away.

“Stop fightin’ me!” Johnny held Rachel close, their bodies touching and it shocked her. Thinking he had the same intentions as Matt had, her heart pounded in her chest, and she feared for her safety, eyes wide and scared.

“I’m tryin’ ta get ya back ta your mother, now go along with me on this, would ya?” he whispered to her. He then turned to the two men left. “ I’m takin’ Travis’ horse for the girl. He won’t be needin’ it.” As calmly as he could with the girl who clearly wanted no part of him, he backed away from Jessie and Davey going toward the horses. Quickly he saddled Matt’s horse and catching Barranca’s reins he literally threw Rachel into the saddle, then vaulted onto his, and they were riding away from the little camp.

<><><><> 

They’d ridden several hours; Johnny watched from the corner of his eyes as Rachel’s head bobbed and knew she needed to sleep. He would have liked to put more miles between them and the two outlaws that they left behind, but the girl was more important. He could handle Jessie and Davey if they were stupid enough to follow.

Pulling Barranca to a stop, he dismounted and went to Rachel’s side. She’d been dozing but jolted awake when the horse stopped and tried to kick the man that was reaching out for her. Johnny easily sidestepped the strike and grabbed her arm, roughly pulling her down to the ground. Her legs failed her, and she started to fall, but Johnny caught her and eased her the rest of the way to sit in a heap as he went about making camp. No words were spoken.

The fire was putting out heat as Johnny spread the two bedrolls on the ground and turned the saddles upright to lean against. The meager meal that he’d prepared went untouched, Rachel turned up her nose as Johnny handed her a plate. Without a word, he set it on the ground next to her, and she kicked it away spilling it across the camp.

He smirked. “Shouldn’ta done that. Won’t be eatin’ again for a long while.” He went to his bedroll with his plate and sat eating the hot beans and coffee as he stared into the fire.

Rachel sat as near as she could get to the flames, her arms wrapped around her shoulders to warm herself from the cold night. She watched him eat, clearly enjoying his meal and now she realized what she had none. But, she refused to admit it and turned away in contempt.

“Ya could get under that blanket.” Johnny pointed to the empty bedroll.

Rachel looked shocked as she turned her sight to the dead outlaw’s bedroll and visibly shuddered. She turned her head away with a huff.

Johnny chuckled at her stubbornness and wondered how long it would last. “Suit yourself,” and he settled down, pulling his warm blanket up around his shoulders and his hat down over his eyes.

Rachel watched, appalled at the thought of using the loathsome bedroll, as Johnny relaxed, unfazed, and went to sleep. She loudly exhaled hoping to get some kind of reaction. She got one but not the one she expected.

Johnny rolled over and presented his back to her, then settled down again, this time falling asleep quickly. It had been a very tiring night, and he needed to stay on top of things and alert. He’d learned over the years to grab sleep and food when you could, where you could because you never knew when you would get more.
<><><><> 

The train made its way into Green River as the day started to heat up. Murdoch and Teresa waited for it to roll to a stop and for the passengers to climb out onto the platform. After watching six people come out of the car, a small Mexican woman disembarked a stood looking around.

Murdoch walked to meet her. “Señora Zapata?” he asked, she looked up at this giant of a man with kind eyes and a wide and genuine smile.

Rosa smiled in return. “Señor Lancer?” She knew this had to be the Murdoch Lancer that Johnny had described as she took in all the details and knew the young woman to be Teresa.

“Welcome! I am sure you are very tired. Let’s get out of the sun and on our way. You will want to rest when we get to the ranch.” Taking her bag, they walked a short distance to a covered carriage and Murdoch assisted her into the back seat.

Teresa climbed in the back with her, and they chatted all the way to the ranch. By the time the Lancer arch came into view, the two women were already friends, and Rosa felt joy that Johnny had finally found a family that he so deserved, and she knew in her heart they were good people, Rosa could tell.

Rosa, at first, felt uncomfortable in the huge hacienda, but watching how Teresa went about her chores, Rosa knew she could help and insisted that she do her part. She was not going to be a nuisance. If she was going to be here, she would pitch in and help. And help she did. She helped with the house, she helped in the kitchen where she and Maria bonded with the first mention of Johnny’s name, and she helped in the garden. She even helped with other families on the ranch, becoming close with many of them. Rosa especially enjoyed the small children, and when it became known that Rosa was a good friend of Señor Juanito, Rosa was accepted immediately, and she settled into a routine within a few short days. And they all waited for word from Johnny, anxious for him to be home with them again.

<><><><> 

The blanket hadn’t smelled, much, and eventually, Rachel had pulled it around her trying hard not to think about who it had belonged to, the dirty, vulgar man that had used it last and she shuddered. The man that she shared camp with now didn’t look too bad, but he seemed to fit the same cut of cloth as the other outlaws. They even talked about him being on a wanted poster! How crude these men were, thinking that they could take her and sell her! ME! They couldn’t do that! They wouldn’t do that! She wouldn’t let them. She would make them listen to her…

Johnny rolled out of his blankets and wandered off into the bushes.

Rachel watched him go and was about to follow when nature’s urge hit her, too. Embarrassed that she almost followed, her cheeks flamed red, and she turned just in time for him not to see the flush as he came back into camp.
“Roll out; we need ta go…"

Rachel didn't move.

"NOW!” She jumped at the tone of his voice, and she stomped off to perform her own morning ablutions, such as they were.

Johnny smiled to himself thinking she’s gonna be a handful… Knowing what was needed to travel in the desert, he wondered if she would settle down and make an effort, she’d have to because he sure wasn’t gonna carry her out.

Johnny had the horses saddled and ready to go when she reappeared. She stood and looked around as if confused.

“What’s the matter, Rachel?” Johnny asked in his soft tone, not really wanting to add any more stress to her already fragile state.

“Well, aren’t we going to eat?” she asked with an arrogant tone.

Johnny smirked again. “Nope,” was all he said.

“But… I’m hungry! I haven’t eaten in a long time!” she pouted.

“Shoulda thought’a that when ya threw your food away last night,” he replied with no emotion at all. He mounted his horse and left the camp.
Rachel stood there and watched him ride away as if he were crazy. He couldn’t expect her to start the day without getting her something to eat! She’d had a very rough time of it the last couple of days! When were they going to start taking care of her like they were supposed to? She wanted to stamp her foot! But he kept riding…

She was going to be alone! “Wait! Don’t leave me! I’m thirsty!” But she’d made no effort to get on the horse.

Johnny turned in his saddle and watched her as she stood there, pathetically looking around her. Mierda! He stopped Barranca and turned him around reaching the girl as he looked down at her. “We need ta goin’. I ain’t wastin’ any more of my time rescuin’ ya if ya ain’t gonna help me do it… Get on the horse.” His tone was still soft but commanding.

Rescue me! You’re one of them! You’re not rescuing me!” She screamed as Barranca shied away from the screeching. “If you’re rescuing me, where’s my sidesaddle? I don’t ride astride, and if you were rescuing me you’d have known that!” She tried to use logic on this backward outlaw, tipping her turned up nose into the air as if to prove a point.

“Ya rode all day yesterday astride an’ lived ta tell about it.” Johnny’s eyes turned to ice and bored into her, terrifying her and chilling her to silence. “Now, I said get on the horse,” his voice low, but menacing and again he turned to ride away.

Meeting a fear she’d never known, Rachel tried to mount herself, and after several tries, she made it astride and followed.

After several hours she grew tired of the silence and tried to engage him in conversation. She thought she was being treated in a very shabby manner and she would make him pay! Rescuing her, indeed! Why was he treating her so badly?

“I’m hungry. When are you going to get us something to eat?” she demanded.

Johnny didn’t look at her when he spoke; he rode watching the horizons for any sign of danger. “Told ya. We ain’t eatin’ for a while.” He turned to look at her and winced as he caught sight of her face and halted Barranca. Pulling his bandanna from around his neck he handed it to her. “Tie this around your face, you’re gettin’ burned,” was all he said.

She took the scarf and tied it around her head. She felt ridiculous, like a bandit she’d seen on the front of a dime novel but as the material rubbed against her nose and cheeks, she felt the pain.

Johnny stopped then, as the sun was slipping down behind the mountain peaks. He stripped the gear from the horses, then rubbed them down and gave them water, the first chore now complete. Rachel sat in the sand, not offering to help, not getting firewood or asking where the food was to fix the evening meal. She waited for Johnny to do it.

This girl just ain’t learnin’ anything from this, Johnny thought as he watched her from under lowered lashes. He’d sure be glad when this was over, and he could be rid of her.

Finished with the horses, he began to start a fire and heat up beans and coffee. The only thing Rachel had done was to remove the bandanna from her face. Johnny saw what had to be a painful burn on her nose and cheeks. He wandered away from camp for a bit and returned with a large thick leaf. Taking his knife, he slit the leaf open, and a gel began to ooze from the plant. Dipping his fingers into the ooze, he reached for her, and she backed away as if she thought he would hurt her.

“Take it easy. I’m just gonna put this on your face ta ease the burn. Now sit still and shut up!”

She endured his touching her face then scrambled away from him when he was finished.

This night she ate the plate of beans Johnny handed to her. Then he laid out the bedrolls and gestured to the blankets she would use.

“Sleep here,” he commanded, and she stared at him wide-eyed with shock at the implication.

“Don’t worry, I ain’t gonna touch ya,” he said with a smirk.

“And just how do I know that?” she snapped.

“Ya don’t. Shut up an’ go ta sleep.”

“But I want your word that you won’t lay a finger on me!” she said with panic seeping into her words.

Johnny sighed as his control wanted to slip away. “I said don’t worry,” he mocked, then turned a lopsided grin to her. “Ya ain’t my type!” he added with a chuckle.

Rachel became livid. How dare he laugh at me! She huffed indignantly, clearly insulted. “And what’s wrong with me?”

“Ya talk too much.” Johnny crawled into his bedroll and, again, was asleep in minutes.

Rachel was furious at being so casually dismissed, and picking up her plate she flung it in Johnny’s direction.

The noise it created when it hit the ground inches from his head was enough for Johnny to come up out of his bedroll with gun drawn and pointed at her with deadly accuracy. A split second was all it took. Shaking himself physically he stalked to her and grabbed her by the wrist and roughly yanked her to her feet.

“Get your hands off me!” she commanded, trying to free herself from his iron grip.

“You try that again an’ you’ll spend the night tied with your hands behind ya!” His ice blue glare seared into her brain, and she was afraid, for it chilled her heart at what she saw. He pushed her back to the ground and went back to his bedroll, and settled in once again.
Pulling her blanket around her, she laid her head down and tried to slow the beating of her heart. She was afraid, she was livid, and she wanted to go home. St. Louis wasn’t like this savage land with savage people. She wanted to be in St Louis and wondered if she would ever see home again.

Johnny lay still, controlling his breathing. In truth, he was scared. He’d come so close to pulling the trigger. He’d almost shot her.

<><><><> 

He hadn’t spoken to her all morning. He takes better care of the horses than he does of me! She glared at his back as they rode and wondered at this strange man. He hadn’t touched her; he’d even gone out of his way to ignore her but gave her the aloe leaf this morning so she could apply the gel to her face again. Why? He certainly wasn’t being very friendly. He even denied her request for water! Said the horses needed it more! He was putting the horses above her! How dare he!

Johnny’s mind was in turmoil, still stunned at almost having pulled the trigger last night. It had happened so fast. Be glad ta get rid of her. Hope I don’t kill her first…

“I need a drink…” Rachel said softly. She looked pathetic, he thought. He handed over the canteen as she pulled the bandanna from her face. She uncorked the vessel and tipped it to her mouth.

“Not too much…” Johnny softly commanded. But she didn’t stop drinking. He reached out and grabbed the canteen out of her grip, and she screamed.

She’d had enough! He couldn’t deny her anymore! She didn’t deserve this, any of this!

Johnny grabbed her by the back of her neck and turned her to face him. “We got fifty or sixty miles ta go yet! We hafta make the water last an’ this is all we got, so ya better start ta act like a grown-up ‘stead of a spoiled brat!” He glared at her again; re-corked the canteen and started to ride ahead.

Spoiled? I am not… am I? She rode with her head down, relying on the horse to follow her leader.
<><><><> 

She was desperate for conversation, and couldn’t take the quiet anymore, so she tried to make small talk. “What’s your name?” she asked in a small voice.

Johnny turned to look at her trying to figure her game. Her eyes didn’t look deceiving. He took a chance. “Johnny,” he said not volunteering any more.

“Well, Johnny Madrid, what are you going to do with me?”

Direct an’ to the point. “It ain’t Madrid… Any more.”

“Then who are you?” again, softly asked, almost polite.

“Lancer.”

“You were Madrid? A wanted man?”

“Used ta be.”

“What happened? Did you murder someone?”

Johnny looked over at her. Her eyes were wide, like the look of a little girl who had just stumbled on a shocking secret. He couldn’t help but smirk.

She huffed when she realized he wasn’t going to answer. “Alright, Johnny Lancer, what are you going to do with me?”

“Take ya to your mother.”

Rachel sat up straight in the saddle. Could he be telling the truth? Or was he trying to confuse her into doing something she didn’t want to do? “Where is she? Is she far from here?” Rachel started to fire questions at him.

“Don’t know where she is…”

Then how can you take me to her? I knew you were lying!”  Rachel’s temper flared. This was it. She kicked the horse into a gallop and passed Johnny as Barranca shied, scared by the enraged girl’s outburst.

He quickly got Barranca under control but not before her horse stepped into a hole as she nudged him faster and they spilled to the ground. Rachel scrambled to her feet; the horse did not. He lay with his foreleg at an angle it was not meant to be, his breathing labored.

Johnny jumped off Barranca and went to the horse’s head. He pulled his pistol and quickly put the animal out of his misery. Rachel stood looking at the dead horse not comprehending what she had done. Johnny gave her a disgusted, withering glare. He took the bedroll from behind the saddle of the dead horse and tied it with his.

“Looks like you’re walkin’," was all he said. He mounted Barranca and started again without bothering to see if she followed.

They had gone less than a mile when he heard her call out.

“Johnny! Wait…” the weak voice strained.

Oh, he wanted to leave her, teach her a lesson and let her see how long she could survive on her own… but he couldn’t do it. He turned in his saddle and saw her sitting in the sand rubbing her foot.

“I can’t walk anymore…” she whined.

Going back to where she slumped in the sand he knelt by her side and saw her stocking with a hole in it and knew there was a blister. He let his head fall forward and closed his eyes. How much more trouble was she going to cause. With a groan he got to his feet and searched for another aloe plant, returning to her side, he smeared the gel onto her heel and bound it with his spare bandanna. He picked her up out of the sand and surprisingly she did not fight him. He tossed her onto his saddle, took the reins and started walking.

“Son-of-a-bitch…”
<><><><> 

He couldn’t really say how much ground they had covered, but as they were down to one horse, it couldn’t have been much. He hadn’t talked all afternoon. It wasn’t in his nature to be mean, but it was his nature to get angry, and Johnny Madrid Lancer was incensed… Was this girl that stupid to not know what she’d done? He didn’t trust himself to talk, couldn’t say anything without making the situation worse.

He stopped early that night to make camp, still not having said a word.

Rachel was going out of her mind. She knew he was upset with her and, well, she did act childishly, but she certainly didn’t deserve this silent treatment! “Johnny, please talk to me…” she begged.

He turned to give her his glacial blue stare, and upon seeing it, she turned away, hiding her face in her hands and started to cry.

He was beginning to have second thoughts about treating her like this, but every time he started to soften, the vision of the crippled horse laying in agony in the sand flashed in his brain, and his blood boiled all over again. She just wasn’t getting it! They were stranded in the desert. One horse between them and dangerously low on water and all she could think about is that he wasn’t talking to her.

With no extra water to make coffee, all they had were beans to eat and only a couple swallows of water. Johnny was saving the rest for Barranca. He’d started to search out cactus that he could use for ‘water’. Letting the pulpy inside strain through a cloth and collecting the liquid was about the best he could do as far as replenishing their water. He could only imagine the lip he would get from Rachel about drinking ‘cactus juice’.

“Johnny?” Rachel said trying once more to converse, “do you have… a girl?”

He looked at her but didn’t say anything.

So, she tried again. “Well, do you?”

“Why do you wanna know?”

“I don’t know. I was just wondering.” Actually, she was wondering about the woman who would love this man. What kind of woman is she? What would it be like to love him?

“Yeah, I do.”

“Is she a saloon girl?” Rachel asked, meaning to belittle him. Why did she want to shame him?

Johnny looked at her sharply and raised an eyebrow. “I can’t see how that’s any of your business,” he said in his cool tones.

“She is, isn’t she?” When he didn’t answer, she continued.

“Well, I would never do that!” And sticking her little nose in the air, she tried her best to look dignified. Had she seen herself at that moment, mussed hair, burned and peeling nose and cheeks and proclaiming she’d never fall into such a sordid occupation she would have to admit that she did look rather foolish.

Johnny just smiled. “Ya would if ya got hungry enough,” he stated quietly.

No! I wouldn’t!" she insisted.

“So, you’d rather starve?” he asked of her, cutting off the reply he knew she’d make and staring at her with that blue gaze.

“No, of course not. Mother would not let that happen!” she stated looking at Johnny as if he were crazy, her eyes wide with shock.

Johnny wondered if he could ever get through to this girl. “What if your mother wasn’t around? You’re alone, no one else. No one ta take care of ya?” he said, spoken again in a calm, quiet voice.

“That’s impossible! That couldn’t happen to me!” She was refusing to believe anything would happen to her, after all, she’d made it this far unscathed.
“Yeah? What would ya do if I left ya, alone, no food or water an’ no horse?”

“You wouldn’t!” she turned wide pale gray eyes at him.

Johnny smiled wickedly. “Oh, no?” then he turned serious. “Think about it, Rachel. You’ve had everything you always wanted. What would ya do if it all went away? Think on it… Think real hard before ya answer.”
 
“You’re speaking of things that could never happen to me…” Rachel countered, not wanting to believe anything such as that would ever happen to her; could ever happen to her.

Johnny watched her face, she was very good at lying to herself, but he saw doubt growing in her eyes, and she was scared. It looked as if this was the first time she’d ever thought for herself. She thought about herself but not for herself. Johnny said no more on the subject hoping she would start to figure things out on her own.

“Rachel, get up. Time ta move out.” It was later in the morning than the usual sunrise wake up call. Rachel watched Johnny and thought he looked awfully tired.

As he stood and scanned the horizon, he saw the mountains that he knew were within riding distance of Fort Sheldon. He wanted to make it there soon. He needed to make it there soon. But he also saw the sky darkening and knew bad weather was on its way. It would be a race to see what came first… But he already knew…

It wasn’t a race at all. The sky turned hellish, and the wind picked up. Rachel rode Barranca and Johnny walked leading him. The air thick with sand and debris, vision was all but gone. She had all she could do to remain seated; her head bowed as sand blew in her face and eyes. She wondered how Johnny could see, but suddenly he stopped. He reached up and took her out of the saddle, putting his face close to her ear and yelled above the roaring wind.

“We hafta take cover over there by the rocks!”

Johnny got Rachel hunkered down in as much shelter as he could find and covered her with his bedroll. “Stay put! I hafta get Barranca tied up. I’ll be right back!” He stripped the saddle from the horse’s back and tied him securely to a scrub tree then went back to where Rachel huddled under the blanket. He lifted the corner and crawled under it with her. He expected her to kick him out, but instead, she shivered and leaned into him for warmth. They settled down to wait out the storm. Rachel wondered how soon they would be rescued and Johnny wondered if they would ever be found.

It raged for hours; it seemed, most of the afternoon. It sounded like the world was coming to an end. The winds howled, and sand scraped against everything, making skin raw and red. Sometime in the afternoon during particularly hard winds, the tree snapped that Barranca had been tied to and along with a slap from a large, airborne tumbleweed, the horse bolted, leaving them stranded.

<><><><> 

It was like it had happened in another life. The air was clean and the sky clear. The sun was bright as if yesterday had never occurred, as if the storm had never blown through this desert. The soldiers on watch duty saw the puffs of dust as the horse made its way across the sand and it stopped outside the gate. Unbolting and opening the great doors, stood a tired palomino horse, no saddle but broken reins trailed alongside. A soldier brought a bucket of water, and the horse drank, slurping his fill. When the soldier made a grab for the reins, the stallion pulled away and loudly neighed, challenging any that would try to handle him. He caused such a commotion that the soldiers gathered around cheering and betting if the horse could be controlled.

“Hey, Serge! Co’mon over! Get in on this!” called a private. Serge came through the crowd upon hearing the distressed horse and immediately recognized the stunning golden animal.
 
“Where’d he come from?” dumbfounded at the fact there was no Johnny Lancer to go with him. He knew Johnny would never let this horse go… Unless there was trouble.

“Dunno, Serge. He just wandered in here…”

“Get a detail together! There’s a man out there and probably needs help!”

<><><><> 

“What are we going to do?” Rachel all but screamed in hysteria.

“Just take it easy,” Johnny tried to calm her. He spoke softly and calmly, hoping it would have the desired effect. It didn’t.

Rachel panicked, her eyes wild and her breathing was heavy and harsh.

“Rachel! Stop rilin’ yourself up! Stop!” He yelled in her face. She shook her head as if to clear the cobwebs. “We start walkin’; just keep movin’.” So, Johnny and Rachel walked.

The sun was high overhead, glaring, blinding and very hot. Rachel staggered again, and Johnny pulled her to her feet.

“Keep goin’, Rachel, one foot in front of the other,” he coaxed, knowing that at this rate they were not going to make it.

<><><><> 

“Damn it, Murdoch! Why does he insist upon taking on every problem that comes along?” Scott was frustrated with his brother’s random and spontaneous acts of kindness and compassion, mainly because he always put himself in danger.

Murdoch smiled.

“I don’t think this is very funny Murdoch…” Scott huffed.

“No, it isn’t… but you are. Do you realize that you sound like the typical overprotective big brother? Besides, would you have done any less?” Murdoch pointed out.

Scott managed a smile at this observation and finally had to agree with his father and shrugged.

“I guess it’s that I always wanted a brother and am not ready to let it go, now that I found him… And you’re right; I would have gone after that girl, too. It’s just hard sitting here waiting.”

“He’ll be alright, Scott. He’ll be alright.” And Murdoch prayed in his heart that he’d spoken the truth.

Rosa fingered the rosary beads in her pocket, bead by bead, saying all the prayers she could think of and making some up as she went along. Juanito would be fine; he had to be. Holding the tiny baby in her arms, she watched him blow bubbles between tiny perfect lips. This young family had cemented her place here at Lancer. She only wished Juanito would be here soon.

They were all very fine people, the Lancer family had treated her with the utmost of respect, and señorita Teresa was an angel, but this little family had won her over instantly. Angel and Inez Martinez and their two children, one of which she had in her arms, had stolen her heart. Where the Lancers had welcomed her into their home with all the genuine hospitality that could be shown, being with the Martinez family felt like home. When her time came to leave here, she knew this would be very difficult to say goodbye. But she knew she could do it only if Juanito was alright.

<><><><> 

Her head fell against his shoulder as he tried once more to pull her to her feet. The pain from her blisters shot up her legs.

“I can’t, Johnny… No more walking,” she mumbled against his shirt. She sat where she’d fallen. The only thing left to do was bandage her feet with strips of her petticoat, and luckily it had multiple layers.

“Rachel? I‘m gonna bandage your feet with this,” he explained as he began to reach under her skirt. Understanding his intent, she didn’t put up a fuss. Tearing the cloth into strips, he wrapped layer after layer on the bleeding, slim limbs knowing that she was hurting terribly. He knew in his heart that he would have to carry her and he really didn’t have the strength to do it. But if he didn’t, there would be no chance at all. Rachel looked up at his face and murmured, “Johnny, I’m so sorry…”

                                                       <><><><>

Walk, keep goin’, one foot front of the other, keep goin’, walk… He kept repeating this mantra over and over, trying to focus but his brain was muddled. His vision was no longer clear, and for all he knew he was walking in circles. He felt sick to his stomach, his throat was past being parched, and his arms were dead weight and loaded with more dead weight. Rachel had either passed out or slept deeply in his grasp, but she was heavier than she looked. Johnny staggered under the physical load and the mental one.

He’d come after this girl to get her back to her mother, where she belonged, and he hadn’t done that. This was heavy on his mind, and he blamed himself. Son-of-a-bitch! Why hadn’t this worked out better? Why hadn’t he been able to get her back? He went over and over what had happened, trying to think about what he could have done differently, but deep in his heart, he knew it was the best that the circumstances allowed. Keep walkin’…

<><><><> 

The telegram from the sheriff in McFarland gave a few more details than either Murdoch or Scott knew before. The stage line had notified the authorities about the robbery, and all surrounding towns had sent out a posse looking for the outlaws. A camp had been found along with the body of the leader, one Matt Travis. From what could be determined from the tracks one person left going south to Mexico, two set off going east, and two more went southwest. But which trails went with which people were still uncertain. Both Scott and Murdoch thought the best bet on Johnny and the girl were to follow the tracks headed east. From the locations given in the telegram, Fort Sheldon would be the closest help. Scott stared at the map and wondered where his brother was.

<><><><> 

At that precise moment, Johnny had fallen to his knees. He struggled in the sand trying to get his feet under him and keep Rachel from falling. He couldn’t feel his arms anymore, Hell; he couldn’t feel much of anything anymore. He didn’t know what direction he was going in and didn’t know if it was morning or afternoon. The fuzz in his brain was thick and debilitating. He wanted to stop, just for a minute and rest. One minute was all. NO! No rest. Keep walkin’, an’ don’t stop. Struggling for control, he made it to his feet and staggered on. The buzzards circling overhead waited patiently for their meal. It would not be long now.

The ugly face of Matt Travis floated in the air before him. The cruel mouth twisted in a leer complete with spittle running out of the corners down his face to drip off his chin.

“You’re dead! Get outta here, Travis! Leave her alone! You’re dead!” Johnny tried to yell but could only manage a scratchy croak.

“So are you, Madrid! So are you!” And laughing manically, Matt Travis’ disembodied head floated away.

It seemed as if the sand was getting deeper, his feet were getting more submerged, and he couldn’t pull them free. He stumbled with every step now, growing weaker by the minute and he knew they were done. This was it, and he could do no more… But he pulled his feet under him, and he got up, with Rachel in his arms and walked as best he could.

<><><><> 

The detail topped the ridge and saw below a monumental struggle for life. The tracks in the sand were weaving, but the trail they laid out would have indicated they had been left by a person only slightly tired as if the hike was no more than a casual walk. The soldiers raced down the hill to the staggering man with the girl in his arms.

Johnny stumbled again, but this time he landed in the arms of Sergeant Johnson.

“Mr. Lancer?... Johnny? Let me take her…” and as the Serge took the girl, Johnny landed in the sand and rolled onto his back. A private was beside him with a canteen persuading him to take a drink.

“Not too much; he’ll be sick.” Serge coached the private, as he coaxed the girl to take a swallow. “Let’s get them back to the fort!”

                                                       <><><><>

Johnny cracked his eyes open and tried to blink. Yup, got sand in my eyes. No wonder, how long were we out there… Rachel! He bolted upright as someone tried to settle him back down.

“Easy, there, Johnny, just be still. You’re alright. You’re at Fort Sheldon…”

“Where’s Rac…”

“She’s alright, too. She’s here. Here, take a drink…” and putting a cup to Johnny’s lips for him to drink the doctor’s assistant got him settled again, and he closed his eyes.

We made it…

<><><><> 

Two days later, Johnny knocked on her door. The answer was a timid “Come in…”

He pushed the door open and stood looking at the bit of a girl in the bed. “Hey… how’re ya feelin’?” he asked with a slight smile.

“Much better, thank you, Johnny. And you? Are you alright?” she asked, her tone concerned and this time, not for herself.

“Yeah, yeah, I‘m fine. I just stopped ta make sure ya have everything ya need. Your mother will be here taday from what I hear, but I wanted ta say goodbye, I‘m headin’ home.”

“Oh,” Rachel said, very softly. “Are you sure you’re rested enough, Johnny? That was quite an adventure we had.”

“Yeah, I‘m fine.” He smiled and looked down at his boots, then met her eyes again.

“Johnny, I want to thank you for what you did for me…” Johnny started to respond. “No, wait, let me finish before I lose my nerve,” she said making direct eye contact and for the first time in her life taking responsibility for her actions. And it felt good.

“Johnny, I behaved very badly, and I want to apologize for what I said and for the things I did. You came to look for me of your own free will, and all I did was make everything difficult for you. I am so sorry.

“When I first came out here, all I could think of was how uncivilized it was, both the land and the people but I want to share with you what I’ve learned. Just because there are no cobbled streets with lamps on every corner doesn’t mean it’s savage or uncultured. This is a land that deserves and demands respect, just like a lot of its people and just like in the civilized world there are good and bad. And I’ve met both. You are a good and honest man, Johnny Lancer… Wanted poster or not!” she said with a smile, then, she continued. “And I cannot thank you enough,” she finished with a hitch in her voice. Her eyes welled up with tears.

Johnny stood in stunned silence. Never had he listened to anyone bear their soul as this girl had just done and he thought she had, indeed, done a lot of growing up.

“Rachel, I … don’t know what ta say ta that, only I‘m glad you’re alright. I know that you’re lookin’ forward ta seein’ your mother.”

“Yes, I hope you can stay to meet her…” she said with bright, anxious eyes.

“Ah, I don’t think so… I ah, I gotta be goin’, been away for too long now. That’s why I stopped, Rachel, ta say goodbye.” Rachel’s timid little girl smile faded but putting on her new face, her adult face, she fixed him with a radiant woman’s smile. And he thought it was a better fit.
 “I understand, Johnny, and thank you again.”

“You’re welcome, Rachel.” He reached the door to leave, and she called out to him one last time.

“Johnny…”

He stopped and turned to her. “Holly… her name’s Holly,” and flashing her his best Johnny Madrid Lancer smile he turned and was gone.

<><><><> 

“Thanks for the loan of the saddle, Captain Hastings,” Johnny said as he and the Captain were on their way to retrieve Barranca at the stable. “I’ll see that ya get it back.”

“No hurry, Johnny, but I wish you’d stay for a few days. I hear Doc is hopping mad that you’re leaving so soon.”

“Yeah, well, I can sit in the saddle an’ drink water just as easy as layin’ in a bed drinkin’ water, besides, Lancer might just fall apart if I ain’t there ta run things. Ya know how Scott an’ Murdoch are…” he said with a laugh.

“I wish you’d at least reconsider riding a different horse. That one of yours is a handful!”

“Just gotta know how ta sweet talk ‘im.” Johnny couldn’t hold back the smirk that crept across his face.

As they rounded the corner to the coral behind the stable, they heard a ruckus. There in the middle was Barranca, bucking and lunging and rearing up on back legs, pawing at what he thought was a threat. Suddenly, a piercing whistle rent the air and the horse stopped and settled with all four feet on the ground, but he charged the rail that Johnny was leaning on. The soldiers and the Captain scattered, but Johnny remained at the rail, not moving. He calmly stayed where he was while Barranca nuzzled his neck.

“I’ll be damned!” was all Captain Hastings could say.
”See, gentle as a puppy!” Johnny laughed and quickly saddled the golden stallion, secured the bedroll and two canteens then gracefully swung onto Barranca’s back. “Thanks again, Captain,” and gently touching the spurs to the big horse’s sides, Barranca trotted to the large gate as it was pulled open and sensing his freedom he broke into a gallop and raced down the road.

The captain watched as horse and rider disappeared thinking that is one Hell of a man!

<><><><> 

The trip back to Lancer was taking much too long, but Johnny had promised the Army doctor that he would take it easy. If he wouldn’t stay at the fort for a few days he needed to be careful and rest often and drink water ‘even if you’re not thirsty’, and Johnny obeyed for… about a day. Then he let Barranca set the pace. Yup, it only took half the time to see the glorious adobe arch that meant ‘home’.

<><><><> 

Barranca’s stall had been cleaned, filled with extra straw and a fresh bucket of water alongside the accompanying generous helping of oats. Having brushed the horse until he glowed in the dark barn interior, Johnny patted the large head and scratched the long silky ears and received a head butt for his efforts.

“Ya did good out there, boy. I’m proud a ya.” He left Barranca to enjoy his meal as he went in search of his own.

Quietly entering the kitchen, he cat-walked to get behind Maria, grabbed her around her large waist and planted a kiss on her neck. Startled at the ‘attack’, Maria jumped and screamed, then realizing it was Juanito, her fears turned to shrieks of joy and turning in his arms she embraced his neck with uncontrolled sobs. Hearing her scream, Murdoch, Scott, and Teresa came running only to witness and participate in the reunion. Everyone was talking at once, and finally, Johnny held up his hands for quiet.

“One at a time!” he laughed.
Murdoch started. “Johnny! Welcome back, son! We didn’t know when you’d get here. Why didn’t you let us know?"

“What? An’ miss all this? You kiddin’? Hey, where’s Rosa?” Johnny asked suddenly, eyes questioning.

“Well, Johnny, she’s not here,” Murdoch stated.

Johnny froze, his smile turned to ice. “Not here? Whatd’ya mean ‘not here’?”

“Johnny, it’s alright. She’s here at Lancer but not here in the house. She grew very fond of the Martinez family, and she’s helping them with their children.”

Johnny sighed in relief. He had been visibly shaken with the news that Rosa wasn’t there. But now knowing where she was, he relaxed.

“Johnny, we won’t be having dinner for another two hours. Why don’t you go upstairs and rest?” suggested Teresa. “Then you can tell us what happened. We haven’t heard very much at all and are anxious to find out what you have been doing and why you’ve been shirking your duties here!” They all laughed; they had a pretty good idea of what happened, thanks to Captain Hastings.

“Sounds good, think I’ll do that, but I wanna go see Rosa first.”

He stepped onto the small porch and knocked on the door. A tiny girl opened it, a large smile blossoming on the little face. “Juanito!” Her piercing giggle brought a grin to Johnny as the little girl jumped into his arms. Laughing, Johnny picked the child up and wrapped his arms around her in a huge hug, kissing her neck. She shrieked again with joy bringing her mother to investigate all the commotion.

“Juanito! You are back! We have missed you, chico!” Inez Martinez joined in the merrymaking with her young daughter, and after hugging Inez, Johnny looked up to find Rosa standing before him with a look of sheer bliss on her wrinkled face. He set Inez aside and took Rosa gently enveloping her in his arms as she cried against his chest.
“Is it like a little bit of home?” Johnny asked the old woman, winking at her as they sat together on the porch.

Rosa looked into his eyes. “More than you know, querido, more than you know!” she whispered, her eyes welling up again.

“Are you happy here, Rosa?” Johnny watched the black eyes carefully.

“Sí… But it is not my home. I am very glad that I am here, though. I have found a family with Angel and Inez, and it is because of you, Juanito. You have made this old woman’s heart happy and blessed.”

Johnny finally made it to his room and in total exhaustion, he fell across his bed, and was asleep in seconds. And it seemed seconds later that Scott was shaking him awake, something about dinner being ready but Johnny had mumbled incoherently, so Scott tugged off his boots, spread a blanket over him and left, quietly closing the door.

<><><><> 

The sun was high in the sky when Johnny opened his eyes. He had no idea how long he’d slept, couldn’t believe that the sun was at its highest point, which meant one thing, he’d been asleep for almost eighteen hours. Mierda! Murdoch’s gonna be steamed I missed dinner last night an’ work taday! Tugging on his boots and running his fingers through his thick hair, he left his room.

Whatever was cooking on the stove smelled like heaven. He stomach growled loudly as he came down the back stairs into the kitchen as four sets of eyes followed him. Murdoch, Scott, Teresa, and Maria all sat around the table watching as he made his descent.

“I’m gone a couple a days an’ no one works around here anymore?” Johnny quipped, drawing smiles from all that sat at the table. He was about to reach for a cup for coffee when Maria scolded.

“Juanito! You sit. I will get you food!” and scooting back her chair against the tile floor she set about getting her niño something nourishing, something that would put some meat on those skinny bones.

Johnny sat with his family, none of them said a word, and only watched him. It was starting to make him uneasy. He was beginning to wonder if he’d grown a third eye or something by the way they were all carefully scrutinizing him.

“What?” he said looking at each one.

“Nothing, Johnny, we are just relieved to have you home again. We’ve been in contact with Captain Hastings at Fort Sheldon, so we know some of what happened. Why don’t you tell us what happened, in your words?” Murdoch asked.

“Well, I went ta see Rosa an’ talked her inta comin’ here, for a while at least, an’ the second day out we came across this stage that got held up and the outlaws kidnapped a girl. So I went after her. Ended up back at Fort Sheldon. What else is there?” Johnny said as he looked from one to the other.

“Oh, I think you forgot a few parts, brother. Like the gunfight between you and the leader to take over the gang, surviving the sand storm and your little ‘walk’ across the desert, carrying the girl for how many miles? Just minor details,” Scott casually listed some of the events.

“Ya know what happened then; I don’t need ta tell ya anything…” Johnny modestly replied.

As one, the four others simply rolled their eyes.

<><><><> 

Two weeks later, Val Crawford, sheriff of Green River watched as the stage made its stop in front of the hotel. As the passengers stepped out and new ones lined up to board the coach, two well-dressed women who had exited made their way to the hotel. They signed the register and went to their room; their luggage brought up for them by the manager. After getting settled and freshened up, they made their way to the sheriff’s office. They entered and saw the scruffy man seated behind the desk.
“You are Sheriff Crawford, I presume?” the older woman asked.

Val stood as they came in, suddenly nervous. He rubbed his sweaty palms down his thighs. “Yes, Ma’am, I’m Crawford. What can I do for you?”

“Can you tell us where we might find Johnny Lancer?” The older woman asked.

Val’s mouth went dry. Uh oh! He thought. The woman did not appear upset or troubled, and Val was thankful. Where Johnny was concerned you never knew what was going to happen. “Yes, Ma’am, he’d be out at Lancer, the ranch, what’d that boy gone an’ done, now?” Val asked not knowing if he really wanted to know.

“Thank you, but it’s of a personal nature. Where might we find a carriage?”

“I can have one sent over for you. Would you like for me to escort you out there?”

“No, but thank you. I think we can find our way.” The two women turned and left Val’s office.

It was after dinner when the small but comfortable carriage made its way under the Lancer arch. Pulling up by the massive front entrance, the women stepped to the house and knocked.

Scott opened the door. The surprise was written on his face at the sight of the unescorted ladies. “Hello, may I help you?” he asked.

“I certainly hope you can. My name is Margaret Adams, and this is my daughter Rachel. We are looking for Johnny Lancer. Is he here, please?”

Scott opened the door further and asked them to come in and sit. They settled into the great room, and Scott asked if they would like anything to drink. Declining, they only wanted to speak with Johnny.
“He’s out back; I’ll get him for you.”

“Scott, who’s at the door?” called Murdoch as he came down the stairs and stopped at the sight of the ladies sitting in the great room.

“Good evening, I’m Murdoch Lancer,” he said graciously.

“Hello, I’m Margaret Adams, and this is my daughter Rachel.”

Upon hearing the name Rachel, Murdoch pieced it together and smiled, sitting opposite them. “Miss Adams, I am so glad to see you’ve recovered from your ordeal. May I get you ladies anything to drink? Wine, sherry?”

“No, thank you, Mr. Lancer. We have come to speak with Johnny.”

Making small talk was easy as the women were quite charming and in a short amount of time the back door slammed and Murdoch could tell Johnny had entered the house.

“Hey, Murdoch, ya want me ta get those cows…” and as Johnny came into the room, he stopped mid-sentence as he saw the two guests sitting side by side on the couch opposite Murdoch’s desk. The younger one looked vaguely familiar, and then it hit him. “Rachel?” he asked, obviously not quite trusting his eyes. This was an entirely different looking girl than he had last seen.

“Hello, Johnny. Johnny, I would like you to meet my mother, Margaret Adams. Mother, this is Johnny Lancer.”

Johnny grabbed the hat he’d tipped back on his head and yanked it off. “Ma’am, it’s nice to see you again. Quite a daughter ya have, she’s got grit.”

“Thank you… may I call you Johnny?”

“Sure, it’s my name,” he said with a grin.

“Johnny, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate what you have done for us, the chances you took and risking your life for a perfect stranger. When we first met at the stage after we were stranded, I had no idea what I’d asked you to do, and now after hearing it from my daughter’s own lips, I want you to know that I am in your debt. I want to do something for you, but I have no clue at all what it would be.”

“That ain’t necessary; I got everything I need…” Johnny countered quietly.

“Johnny, I am a very wealthy woman. I can do anything you want. Think about it for a while."

“Why don’t we have some coffee?” Murdoch announced as Maria signaled the table was ready.

Johnny stood alone out on the patio. The night had always served him well; troubles seemed to work out, the headaches were soothed away with the comfort of the caressing breezes and music of the night sounds, birds, and chirpings of crickets and frogs. The door behind him opened, the footsteps were light and dainty, and he knew who it was.

“Johnny, I am serious about this. Whatever you want you have only to ask,” Margaret Adams persisted.

Leaning against the wall surrounding the patio, Johnny stood with his head down, “Told ya before, I don’t need anything.”

“Yes, you did, but you have to understand what it is that you’ve done for us. Not only is my daughter alive because of you, but she is also a different person, because of you. She’s become a responsible young woman. You can’t know what that means to me. I had my doubts, but she came out of this ordeal a much better person than when she went in. So, you see, it is necessary for me to repay you. You made her take responsibility for herself. That was something that I couldn’t accomplish. Please, Johnny…”

Johnny stood straight before her. “Alright, how's this sound? I’m gonna leave the amount up to you. All you have ta do is go to the bank and open an account. Put in however much you want. It will get put to good use; I promise you that.”

Mrs. Adams smiled with a light of gratitude in her eyes that equaled the sun. “You are a man of honor,” Mrs. Adams said softly. “Thank you for the daughter I have now.”

<><><><> 

“You really wanna go back, Rosa?” Johnny asked as they sat in the shade of the porch, Rosa holding the baby, cuddling him as if he were her own grandson.

“Sí, Juanito, I want to go home, now, but I need to tell you something. I have asked Angel and Inez if they would like to go with me. My farm will be their home too. And they will come and live with me, be my family and raise their children there. Luis would be happy I am not alone anymore.”

<><><><> 

Johnny left the telegraph office. The message he’d sent Sheriff Steve Morgan had been sent out yesterday, and a response came today. Morgan would oversee all the renovations and handle the finances. By the time Rosa and the Martinez’s returned, Rosa's place would be perfect. Fences mended, the house enlarged, and barn fixed and painted and the adjoining hundred acres added to the farm. Angel was very handy, be it building or farming, he would manage very well and watch out for this wonderful family.

Johnny was pleased it had worked out. Rosa found a family and the Martinez' found roots. Rosa’s roots. It was meant to be, and now they belonged together. Blood or not. They fit as a family, and that was alright by Johnny. More than alright.

Rosa had no idea anything was happening, but she would find out when she arrived home. Mrs. Adams had opened an account with five thousand dollars for Johnny to use as he wished. And this was Johnny’s wish that Rosa be cared for. He couldn’t have picked a better family for her to be with. Angel was an incredibly hard worker, and Inez was as talented in the kitchen as well as gardening, sewing, and doctoring. And they both were caring, loving and filled with a warmth and tenderness that was as endearing as Rosa, herself. It was working out perfectly.
There was just one more thing for Johnny to do. In addition to supplying twenty-five head of prime beef and four horses of excellent lineage, Johnny crated up a large stone. He’d had it made special, and when he went to visit next month, Angel would help him set it at the head of the grave to replace the ragged cross that now marked the final resting place of a remarkable man. The man that helped make Johnny the person he was. And nothing could repay that. But this was a start.

The mason had done an excellent job carving the names of Luis and Rosa Zapata. Their birth dates and Luis’ death date. Rosa’s would be filled in later when the time would come for her to join her beloved husband, the man who had been so much a part of her and the man who had made her life so very happy and complete. They were people of the land and faith and each other. The carved stone reflected all of it, and it was beautiful.

Some long overdue debts finally paid, Johnny felt better than he had in a long, long time. Rosa, at long last, was happy and that was enough for Johnny. He was at peace.

 

 

~ end ~

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