The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

Redemption

This is a Madrid story before Johnny went to Lancer
Thanks to Cat, Sandy, and Barbara for the beta

What happened to make everything go so wrong? he wondered for the hundredth time. Their timing was off; men weren’t in the right spot, so they had no cover. Consequently, his men perished. Needlessly. And he didn’t have a clue as to what had gone so terribly wrong.

Johnny Madrid made it out alive but just barely. He’d been pinned down and had it not been for the valiant effort on the part of the last of his men he, too, would have met the same fate as all the rest. But Frisco, after having taken a fatal bullet to his chest, had stood to draw the opposing side’s fire to give Johnny a chance to escape. Frisco knew Madrid was trapped and knew his own life had only minutes before he bled out, so what did he have to lose now? His last good deed had saved Madrid’s life.

As Frisco stood, Carter’s last two men broke cover, leveled their aim at the mountain of a man shooting at them, firing over and over giving Johnny the chance that he needed to escape. But not before he took out the two opposing guns. They fell bonelessly into the dirt, their bodies lifeless the same time as Frisco’s legs buckled and the three toppled simultaneously and lay still as their blood soaked into the ground. As the smoke had cleared, Madrid stood alone in the sudden quiet and took in the carnage around him. What the fuck had gone wrong?

After Johnny checked his men for survivors, only one had lived long enough to tell Johnny he was sorry things didn’t work in their favor, and he asked Johnny why he’d changed their plans at the last minute. Johnny held Billy Joe close as he convulsed and died in his arms. He sat there on the cold ground and looked at the lifeless face of the young man. Billy Joe wasn't but a year older than Johnny, himself. And now he was dead. Why had Billy Joe said what he did? Johnny hadn’t changed the plans… Why had anyone thought the plans changed? Who had told the men that plans changed?

Johnny mounted his horse, numb with guilt, and rode back to Tom Russell’s ranch, Sonny Hill, he’d named after his wife, Sonja. The ranch had, indeed, reflected the implications of its name, a pleasant, and sunny place, until the recent events smeared a pall of violence and death upon the once serene land.

His entire holdings of ranch and cattle now hung at risk, unprotected, and dangled within reach of a disreputable and dishonest Carter Mining Company, which was determined to rape the land of the ore from the bowels of the beautiful hills and turn it into a desolate wasteland. Russell had hired Madrid to protect his ranch and Johnny failed in his attempts. Now he had to face Russell and tell him all the men were dead, except himself. And then Madrid had to face the ghosts of his men that were sure to haunt him for the rest of his life.

Russell stood on the porch as he watched Johnny ride away, on a new mission, now that Johnny put the pieces together. Lester Heller had abandoned his post, he’d been successful in dividing the men, had told them Madrid had changed their plans at the last minute, and with this done they had been outflanked and annihilated. Heller then took off for the ranch to alert Russell of the outcome and had ridden off as the lone survivor; he assumed that Johnny had been killed and he, himself, claimed to have made it out by the skin of his teeth.

Heller was a runt of a man with a weasel face and a missing front tooth, freckles and a thatch of thick red hair complete with a cowlick that refused to lay flat. And he smelled. Johnny had avoided the man. He was not very confident in Lester’s abilities, but he had already been hired when Madrid got there, and now found out the man had betrayed them all. That had been a mistake and one that Heller wouldn’t make again. And this same mistake had cost the men their lives. Johnny didn’t find Lester’s body among the dead but didn’t know what had happened until he came to Sunny Hill to report to Russell.

Though relieved to see Johnny still vertical and breathing, Russell was ready to cash in, give up. Too many had died trying to preserve this land. He’d lost, and very soon would be overpowered by a company that ran on greed with no regard to anyone or anything.

But Johnny wasn’t that quick to lose; he wouldn't fold, not yet. If he could find Lester, he would bring him back and turn him over to Russell, that is if Johnny could keep himself from killing the man with his bare hands first. Johnny wondered how much Heller had been paid and when Johnny found the pendejo, he would ask if it had been worth it right before he watched the life flicker out in the coward’s eyes. No, hafta bring him back ta Russell…

Before Johnny left Sonny Hill, he had asked Russell to hang on for a while, to not sell out too quickly. It would take a week or so to track Heller down and bring him back. Hopefully, the man would carry some proof they would be able to use against the mining company.

There had been some unusual and suspicious incidents around the ranch just prior to the offer made to Russell by Carter Mining Company, but they had no proof of who had been behind the incidents and when Johnny caught Heller, he would make the weasel talk. Leaving Los Alamos behind, Johnny Madrid tracked north and followed the man that had sold out to the other side, the man that had the blood of twenty-three men on his hands.

<><><><> 

Johnny knew Heller would go north. He had folks in Colorado but wasn’t exactly sure where. Colorado was a big state, and he hoped it wouldn’t take too long to locate Weasel-Face; time was of the essence, and Russell ran the risk of losing the ranch, stolen right out from under him. Over the years, Johnny had seen too many folks lose in no time what took them a lifetime to build... All because of greed. Not this time, Russell, not this time.

Johnny found himself wrestling with demons; his men were dead, every one of his men was dead! And all because of one man who was to have been working on their side, and for money sold them out… Gonna fuckin’ wrap my hands ‘round his neck an’ choke the bastard! Johnny thought. But thought again that he would leave that honor to Russell. His internal battle raged, the men he had been in charge of were gone, led into a trap and betrayed, but they gave better than they got.

The trap they’d walked into had been sprung, but they fought bravely, fiercely, and took out those who waited under cover to literally murder them. With his emotions warring within him, Johnny thought with pride about his men. They fought to the death, but why hadn’t he died along with them? Guilt welled up within him, and he had to quickly dismount as the contents of his stomach exploded out of him, and he turned his belly inside out on the side of the trail. That FUCKIN’ Heller! 

<><><><> 

It was rough traveling through the mountains. In three days Johnny had only made it just past El Vado, sixty miles as the crow flies, but treacherous mountain trails had been plagued with violent storms. It forced Madrid to take cover, not only wasting precious time, but the torrential rains caused Heller’s tracks to wash away.

The cold, damp caves he slept in did nothing to ease his torment and despair, in fact, seemed to escalate the thundering fury that filled him. The white-hot pain consumed him taking over his every thought in consciousness or nightmare, and went far beyond normal control. He had to rein it in, stay in command, and remain unreadable to any that would be around him. So, he waited for the storm to blow over, both outside and in, then Johnny turned his black stallion, Valiente, north toward the Colorado state line in hopes to pick up the trail before Weasel-Face Heller slipped away.

<><><><> 

 

At that moment, Weasel-Face had stopped for the night in Tierra Amarilla, going first to the livery to board his horse and fix the broken shoe before the animal went lame, then a drink and a hot meal was in order. After the cold rain and brutal storms of the mountains, he'd welcome any warmth he could get. Maybe he’d spend a few days and relax; he had enough money from the cash that Carter had paid him. Five hundred dollars would last him a long time if he didn’t get into too many poker games, that is.

He left his horse in front of the livery, then went down to Shelby’s Saloon and pushed through the bat-wing doors into a smoky, and noisy room. He bellied up to the bar, and after catching a whiff of his rank and foul, unwashed body, the patrons scooted away, finding interest elsewhere. They abruptly left vacant areas on either side of him.

The bartender came to take his order and stopped before he got too close, catching the odious vapors that drifted over the worn and bullet-scarred bar. He slid the mug of beer down the rough wooden surface to the offending customer and walked away as quickly as he could, wiping his eyes and nostrils as they burned with the noxious stench.

Heller drank his beer, taking his time as he leisurely took in the scene around the room. Several poker games were in progress, but none invited him to sit in, and the working girls suddenly focused their attention on other patrons, hoping to appear busy with another customer, especially after catching a gagging whiff. Heller took his drink to a vacant table and called out to the barkeep for a bottle. He then settled in for a night of serious drinking, feeling very pleased with himself. He had been crafty, stealing that proof off of Carter’s desk, and now he had a bit of security, for this proof would protect against any retaliation.

<><><><> 

Just before noon, Johnny picked up tracks, finding now a crack in the shoe of the animal and hoping it belonged to Heller; that would ensure a layover, and Tierra Amarilla was only five miles ahead according to the broken sign with faded painted letters. Madrid reined Valiente along the trail and followed what eventually turned into a full broken shoe. Whoever this was would hafta hole up ta take care a his horse an’ ‘m gonna be there…  

An hour later found Madrid on the outskirts of town. The livery tucked just off the main street, was open, wide doors flung against the front of the faded wooden stable and tied securely. Johnny stepped from the saddle and stretched. He seemed casual, but alert eyes took in the streets and all around him from under the brim of his hat. A large, balding man, probably only in his late thirties, but looked much older due to a lifetime of hard and heavy labor, came to stand in the sun from the dark bowels of the building and greeted Johnny with a kind and jovial salutation.
 
“Afternoon, Mister! Ya need your horse taken care of? Sure is a fine lookin’ animal!” the burly man said as he eyed Valiente.

Johnny turned his attention back to the man and smiled. “Yeah, please. Need ta give ‘im a rest. Give ‘im a good rub down.” The blacksmith led Johnny into the barn and once inside Madrid took the opportunity to look for Heller’s sorrel. He soon found the mount in the last stall on the end. Johnny smiled a bit knowing the bastard would be brought to justice, whether it was legal justice or Madrid’s justice. The pendejo was going to pay for what he did. Johnny paid in advance for Valiente’s care along with an extra helping of oats and left for the saloon.

As was his way, Madrid stopped at the batwing doors before he entered the saloon and took a quick but thorough look at the patrons that lined the bar and occupied the tables. He found the face he was looking for, but casually walked into the cool interior with an ease that belied his inner turmoil. Johnny took a spot at the end of the bar where he could watch the whole room from under the low brim of his hat.

“What can I get for ya, mister?” the barkeeper asked.

“Beer,” Madrid answered, and soon a mug was placed before him. Johnny threw the coins on the worn surface as he nodded his thanks. With Heller in view, Johnny picked up the beer as it left a spot of foam that overflowed the glass mug. It puddled on the bar top amid the scratches and scuffs on the scarred surface. He took the first long swallow and felt the beer slide pleasingly down his dry throat into his belly, and sighed, then spoke to the barkeeper.

“Servin’ any food?” Johnny asked, and the man nodded.

“Yup, roast beef an’ potatoes. Ya interested?”

Johnny threw more coins on the bar and took his beer to a table where he could watch Heller without being conspicuous.

An hour later, Heller staggered to his feet and out the bat wings doors. Madrid followed. Johnny watched the man lurch and sway, grabbed at the hitch rails to steady himself and turn down an alley toward the outhouse. He almost made it before he stopped and unbuttoned his dirty britches to relieve himself on the ground beside the facility. Finally done he struggled with the buttons, and once secured, his thoughts returned to the bottle that was calling his name inside the saloon when the cold barrel of a Colt pressed into his neck.

“Don’t even think about turnin’ around, asshole,” Johnny ground out softly, and Heller’s belly turned into a block of ice.

“Wh… what'd ya want?” he stammered. What was hap’nin’? he thought, his liquor-soaked brain not picking up on the trouble that now billowed around him like a suffocating, thick cloud.

“Well,” the soft voice continued. “First I wanna get upwind a you! Dead skunks smell better’n you do! Start walkin’ ta the livery.” Johnny reached around and took Weasel's pistol out of the holster and the knife Johnny knew he kept in his boot, then nudged him harder toward the stable with the cold barrel of the revolver.

Heller hesitated. “Wait, I got me a b-bottle left sittin’ on my t-t-table…” he complained as he tried to turn around, but the jab from the Colt in his back persuaded him to keep going.

“It’s a shame,” was all Johnny muttered as he followed the weaving figure ahead of him, thankful that the wind was at his back.

The walk to the livery, although uneventful, couldn’t come soon enough. Johnny took them around the back way, the fewer the folks that saw them, the better, and now at the rear door of the livery, blacksmith Sammy watched them with a raised brow. He gave Johnny a re-appraising look when he saw the Colt he held at the back of the man’s neck.

“You a bounty hunter?” he asked of Madrid.

Johnny’s glacial glare still fixed on the man ahead of him. “Nope. Can ya saddle both our horses?” he asked quietly not taking his eyes from his prisoner. Then nudged Heller with the barrel of the Colt. “Pay the man what cha owe him.” Heller dug into his pocket and put a crumpled bill on a hay bale, Johnny laid an extra dollar next to Weasel's money, as Valiente had been well cared for. Sammy finished with the horses and stepped aside, and allowed Johnny to nudge Heller none too gently toward his horse.

“That should cover what we owe ya,” Johnny nodded to the small pile of bills. Sammy nodded, happy with the money, but anxious for these two men to leave. He didn’t want any trouble.

“More’n enough,” he said, and he took the bills in calloused, work-roughened hands.

Johnny tied Weasel’s hands together, then shoved him in the direction of his horse. “Mount up,” Madrid commanded, his voice soft, but deadly.

The haze was beginning to fade in Weasel’s brain as he turned to look at the man who held the gun on him. Not being the brightest candle in the window, Heller finally recognized the face and audibly gasped when Madrid's face registered in his whiskey-soaked state, sobriety coming quickly now to flood through his veins.

“What?… Yer… dead!” Not only was he not the brightest candle, his flame just flickered out completely.
 
“No, I ain’t, but you’re gonna be if ya don’t get on that horse!” Madrid’s icy stare cast a shadow of fear as terror began to wrap its cold, damp tendrils around Heller’s black heart and he knew he could be dead very soon.

Madrid’s a killer! Heller’s brain, just now beginning to work, was realizing that things were not looking very good for him any longer. An hour ago he was a happy, happy drunk, now all the rotgut he’d consumed today was ready to come back up his throat and decorate the front of his shirt... and boots… and floor. He had this all figured out! How did Madrid get away? Damn, I‘m in trouble now!

“Mistake, it was a mistake!” he mumbled as he was shoved from behind to step into the stirrup. He grunted in pain as the pistol barrel dug into his back.

“Shut up an’ get on your horse!” came Madrid’s icy reply. Heller swallowed down the gag reflex as he reached for the saddle horn and stepped up into the stirrup. His hands were then tied tightly to the horn as Madrid swung onto his horse, a horse that looked to belong to the Devil himself, then, they headed out of town going south.

<><><><> 

It was five miles later when Heller decided to talk. Hopefully, he could convince Madrid that this all was a misunderstanding and that he was innocent.

“Uh, Johnny?” Weasel-Face waited for a response but got none. “Johnny, can we talk?” Still no answer. This ain’t workin’ too well… Heller thought as he tried to turn and look Madrid in the eye. He knew Johnny would be more likely to talk if he made direct eye contact, so he put on his most innocent mask, and opened his mouth to speak.

“Shut up, Heller. One more word outta you an’ I’m gonna fuckin’ gag ya. Jus’ count yourself lucky I ain’t shot ya… yet," was all Johnny said, but the tone he used spoke volumes, and it scared Heller quiet. Inwardly Johnny smiled but wouldn’t show Weasel-Face. Madrid wanted to keep the man off balance and guessing. And it worked. Johnny wanted for Weasel-Face to be thinking about the men that he’d sentenced to die when he sent them into the trap. But that would only happen if Weasel-Face had a conscience. Well, maybe Johnny would get through to him some other way.

Under any other circumstances the serenity of the water bubbling over rocks and sluicing down the creek bed would have offered solace for Madrid, but not this day. His mind was filled with the violence and death that befell his men. It was a risk, of course, fighting range wars, but this was slaughter. There had been no warning and no chance of escape. They were literally butchered, and he, Johnny, was to have died with them.

Inside, he wanted to kill Heller himself; he wanted to watch as the life flickered out of the man’s eyes but knew that Tom Russell would want the law to handle it. Russell’s a better man than I am…  But he would get some answers from Weasel-Face before he turned the pendejo over to Mr. Russell.

Johnny stopped long enough to water the horses and let them rest for an hour; then they mounted up. He wanted to get through as much of the mountains as they could before stopping for the night.

Heller’s mind was running crazy. The silence from Madrid served only to heighten the fact that he was in very big trouble. His imagination ran rampant; he knew what Madrid was capable of. He had heard the stories, and if only half of them were true, he would be lucky to come out of this alive much less intact. He watched Madrid’s every move and could only hope for the best; he was no match for the gunfighter whether prowess with a gun or fists or any sort of mental battle. His best shot would be to get back to town where the law could handle this. That was funny. Heller was relying on the law to save him.

The day dragged with no conversation. However, they were making decent time. There was no more rain to hamper their travel, and stops were only for the horses. Johnny kept a cautious eye to the heavens; mountain storms could be on top of you in minutes with not much warning. But the mountain storms had nothing on the intensity of the storm in Madrid’s heart. Heller had basically signed the death warrants of twenty-three men; there wasn’t enough time or punishment severe enough to make the asshole pay for what he’d done. Johnny wondered how much Heller had been paid for twenty-three lives, twenty-four counting Madrid.

Madrid suddenly stopped and dismounted without a word. He cut the ropes that tied Heller to the saddle horn and motioned for the traitor to get down. Apparently, Lester Heller finally got the message that Madrid was not talking after several failed attempts throughout the day and he did what Johnny ordered without a word as the glacial eyes pierced through into his black and rotting heart. Johnny motioned to a tree, and Heller sat at the base of it while his hands were tied securely behind him.

It had occurred to Heller there was a good chance he would not make it back alive, and no matter what happened, the trip he was on was not going to be easy on mind or body.

Johnny bedded down the horses for the night and started a fire to settle in. Hopefully, he would be able to get some sleep. It was getting cold, and strong hot coffee would sure taste good. Johnny ate a meager meal of beans and jerky; he took his time with his dinner and ignored Heller completely until he finished. He then took a plate to the weasel and untied his hands from the tree. Lester cleaned his plate with a ravenous appetite and much noisy smacking and slobbering to the point where Johnny finally had to look away but never for very long. Then Madrid took him into the rocks outside of camp to take care of his needs, and without a word, gun pointed at his head, he was again settled at the base of the tree and tied tightly for the remainder of the night. The silence was interrupted by an explosive belch that rent the air.

Lester tried unsuccessfully during the night to loosen the ropes that bound him, but Madrid had seen to it that it wouldn’t happen. And as time went by, the circulation was cut off just enough to make any movement difficult, especially as  his fingers became numb. Before Madrid turned in for the night, he draped Lester’s bedroll over him, why, he couldn’t say why other than he didn’t want Heller to die from exposure and escape the hangman’s noose. Johnny pulled his blanket over him and eased his hat low on his head to appear as if he were sleeping. The Colt in his hand, rock steady, was primed for action in a split second notice.

Heller sat for a long while and watched Madrid, not sure if he was asleep or not. There was no sign of anything, no snores, no movement. He couldn’t read anything in the man, but one thing was sure: Heller had certainly underestimated Madrid and chances were he wouldn’t be walking away from this.

Five hundred dollars sounded like a lot of money when Silas Carter approached him with this offer, but what he wouldn’t give now to have turned it down. But then, if he had turned it down, Carter would have killed him then and there. So, what had been his choice? And as he thought about it, he should have deceived Carter, said yes to the deal then come back to tell Madrid. Now, five hundred dollars didn’t look like such a good idea. He was going to hang. The night was long, and he was plagued with thoughts of his upcoming date with a noose. Could he make a deal with the law? Cooperate and tell them what they wanted to know? He would try. That was his only option left.

The night was filled with dreams of men, twenty-three of them, and all were dead; they followed him into the range war that had been designed to fail from its conception. Madrid thought about those he commanded and were slaughtered, how had he made it out alive and all the others died? Their faces haunted Johnny in waking hours, and in sleep, accusing and condemning Madrid, their bloodied bodies lying on the ground, still and silent, suddenly rising up to swirl in front of him over and over again until the sun turned the sky a brilliant red-orange and the spirits faded away… For now.

Johnny opened his eyes slowly. He listened for signs and sounds of things that should and should not be there. The steady munch of the horses as they grazed was a good indication that things were as they should be and Heller’s loud snores confirmed that he was asleep. Johnny risked a look around the camp and found nothing to be alarmed about. He rolled out of his blanket to stir the fire to life and added more wood as the flame grew. He quickly saw to his needs before he made any noise that would wake his prisoner.

As Johnny made the coffee and heated beans, he ran options through his head to get Heller to talk. Knowing the man was spineless gave Madrid the notion that it wouldn’t be too difficult to get him to spill his guts, but it would have to be convincing on Heller’s part.

Heller was known to be a liar, not to be trusted, so Madrid had to be sure; he had to be convinced that Weasel was telling the truth. Johnny stood and went to the saddlebags the traitor carried with him, but going through one side, he found nothing. Then he went through the other. A folded paper caught Johnny’s eye, and he pulled it from its secured place from an inside pocket. As he rummaged through the items, he found nothing else of interest, one dirty sock complete with a hole in the toe and shaving gear with a dull blade.

Johnny tossed the worn and scuffed bags on the ground, poured a cup of coffee, then returned to sit on his blanket and leaned on his upturned saddle to read the paper.

The steam from the coffee spiraled up into his face, the aroma always a welcome companion. He glanced over at Heller still sound asleep, his mouth agape as his saliva dribbled out of the corner to create a wet spot on his shirt. Johnny unfolded the paper and began to read.

Johnny contemplated what he’d read and was sickened inside as he thought about the lengths that Carter was willing to go to get what he wanted. As he struggled with the rage still so close to boiling over, he scrubbed a hand over his face and stood up. He kicked at Heller’s boots to rouse him out of sleep.

Lester Heller finished his meal ending with a huge, wet belch. He sniffed loudly then cleared his throat, and spit up a large glob of phlegm. He wiped his face on his sleeve. Madrid said nothing, letting his questions go unasked. For the moment. He could tell Heller was off center, the silence was eating away at him, and now that Johnny knew it bothered Weasel-Face he used it to his advantage.

Madrid untied his rope from his saddle and looped it around Weasel’s body, Lester’s eyes going wide at this new sign of trouble. Johnny then snugged it under the tied arms and tossed out about fifteen feet of slack. He selected the appropriate tree and wrapped the rope twice around the sturdy trunk to finally tie the end of the rope around his saddle horn. Valiente sensed his part would soon come, and he stood still and ready for Johnny’s command. All the while, Johnny Madrid stayed quiet and ignored the panicked questions that continued to flow out of Heller’s mouth. Lester was growing more frantic with each passing second and the blood drained from his face as nasty images ran uncontrolled through his head.

“Madrid… what’d ya… what’d ya doin’? What’d ya gonna do?” Heller was panicked, and with good cause.

The questions were ignored again. Once Johnny was certain things were as he wanted them, he walked up to Heller and met the terror-filled eyes. Heller backed up under Johnny’s intense stare; he found he could not look into those glacial orbs. It was as if he could see his own death, and, in truth, Madrid had no apprehensions about shooting the vermin where he stood, but he promised that the honor would belong to Tom Russell.
Johnny wanted answers right now, and he knew how he would get them. Lester Weasel-Face Heller backed up, and the more he did, the more Madrid advanced. Heller’s pea-sized brain was spinning out of control; there wasn’t much more behind him before the edge plunged downward, spelling a certain death. He risked another look at the shortened space, the height dizzying, the rock face dropped for one hundred and fifty feet. His mind was panicked, and he chanced a look at Madrid but saw only cold and calculated aggression. Slowly, a chilled smile grew that turned up the corners of Madrid’s mouth slightly as he drew his Colt. Heller’s heart pounded against his ribs and the blood raced through his body as Madrid advanced.
 
“Johnny, wait… ya can’t…” Heller sputtered.

Then Johnny's smile grew and became feral. “Yeah… I can…” And as Johnny pulled the hammer back to snick into place, Lester’s eyes bulged in their sockets.

“How much did ya get paid, Heller?” Johnny asked, his voice deceptively soft.

Play dumb. “Paid? I ain’t got paid yet, Johnny! None of us got paid yet! Mr. Russell…”

“Ain’t Russell that paid ya, pendejo! Who paid ya ta set us up?” Johnny asked, his voice now chilling and deadly.

Heller knew that the ‘play dumb’ angle wasn’t going to work, but he couldn’t tell Johnny what he had done. Madrid would kill him, he was sure! He stood frozen to the spot with no words to answer Madrid’s question. Before Weasel-Face could take another breath, Johnny had the barrel pressed into his forehead, and Weasel squeezed his eyes shut. When the next words came, they were cold as ice, making Weasel's blood drain to his feet.

“I asked ya, who paid ya… I ain’t askin’ again.” The words couldn’t have affected him any worse, his insides went icy and cold, and Heller knew he was going to die.

“Wait… Madrid, wait…,” he stammered.

“I ain’t got time,” Johnny whispered as he began to exert more pressure with the pistol still at Weasel’s forehead.

Heller felt his body lose footing on the rock beneath his feet. Weasel’s eyes shot open and reminded Johnny of large, bulging frog eyes as gravity sucked at his body and pulled him down. The scream that escaped his throat pierced through the cold, thin mountain air and echoed off granite walls, but ended abruptly as the slack ran out and the rope snapped around Heller’s chest, bruising flesh and cutting off the air. His bladder released wetting his britches to run down his leg and into his boot. The tree jerked with the weight coming to the abrupt halt, pulling on the saddle horn but Valiente, strong and faithful, stood up under the strain.

Heller looked below him and shuddered, his belly rebelled and came close to emptying as dizziness overwhelmed him; he thought he was going to die, knew he would die if he plummeted to the valley floor, and knew too that Madrid held all the cards.

“Don’t… don’t let me die! I’ll tell… whatever ya wanna know! Madrid! Don’t let me fall! Johnny, don’t let me die!”

Johnny stepped to the edge and peered down into Heller’s face, the lethal grin still in place as he watched the pitiful excuse for a man dangle literally at the end of his rope.

“Guess ya better hold on then. Didn’t hafta be this hard, Heller,” Johnny said calmly. Madrid’s quiet tone more unnerving than if he had been screaming the words.

“Johnny, pull… pull me up! I swear, I’ll tell ya what ya wanna know!” Weasel screamed, looking much like a man who thought he was going to die.

Johnny appeared to be thinking over Heller’s request. He reached for the rope as it stretched over the cliff, then he braced his feet and pulled up on it for a moment. He stopped to watch Weasel’s face. The dangling man began to have hope, but it vanished as Johnny suddenly let the rope go, and Heller once again felt it snap, viciously tighten around his body, savagely and effectively very close to cutting off the man’s air, and he thought for sure this would be the end. Tears began to run down his face leaving twin glazed paths on the dirty cheeks as the small tree waved crazily with the force of Heller’s body swaying at the end of the rope.

“Johnny! Please! Pull me up!” the man begged as Johnny stepped back out of sight. Heller screamed, and Johnny watched as the tree bobbed into the air, branches trembled with the struggles on the other end. Johnny waited, he listened to the whimpers turn into wails.

Madrid! Don’t leave me!... PLEASE!”

Johnny walked to the edge and looked down. “Who paid ya ta set us up?” Johnny asked quietly, calmly.

“Carter! Said he’d pay me five hundred dollars! I got the money here, in my pocket! Pull me up!”

Johnny started to pace along the edge, then walked away from the tree.

“Wait! Madrid, I told ya! Pull me up! Please…” And Heller started to cry like a baby, the rope squeezed his chest mercilessly between sobs.

Johnny stopped walking but did not turn around. “What’s Carter got planned?” he asked as if they were having a casual conversation over coffee.

Heller hadn’t been privy to all the details but did overhear a few things. “I… I don’t know much, but one thing I heard is that Carter’s gonna run Russell off ‘is land. Don’t know when or how, but that’s what I heard ‘im tell his foreman. Pull me up! I told ya all I know!”

Johnny stood with his back still turned to the cobarde on the end of the rope, just like a worm on a hook. He knew he would haul the miserable excuse for a man back up onto solid ground, but could not resist letting him wonder for a bit longer. The faces of twenty-three men swirled around him again, and Johnny fought with himself over whether or not he should say ‘to hell with it’ and cut the rope or pull him up to solid ground, but his conscience ended up being his voice of reason. He took his time as he saddled Heller’s horse, all the while he listened to sobs and soon more panicked calls for Madrid.

Johnny led Valiente away and pulled the rope until the top of Heller’s head could be seen up over the edge. Johnny slipped on his gloves, not really wanting to touch the man, but hauled him over the top of the drop off to lay on the rocky ground as he gasped for breath. Just before they were ready to leave, Johnny looked at the trembling pile of flesh on the ground before him.

“Ya got any other clothes?” he asked and nodded to the man’s urine soaked pants but knew the answer; Johnny had gone through Weasel’s saddlebags.

“Ah… Nope…” Heller answered and reddened over the fact that he’d soiled himself.

Johnny huffed. “Mierda!” he swore. “Next stream we come to you’re washin’ up. I ain’t ridin’ with ya smellin’ like an outhouse all the way back!”

<><><><> 

It was later in the day when they came upon the stream; Johnny was extremely grateful for the opportunity it provided to get Weasel cleaned up. He tried to stay upwind from Heller, and as the cold water came into view, Johnny pulled up on Valiente, obliged for the chance to have Weasel-Face clean himself. He softly ordered Heller to stop and dismount. Johnny pulled a bar of soap out of his saddlebags, only too glad to sacrifice it to the cause, and threw it at Heller. He drew his Colt and motioned to the stream. Heller looked as if Johnny was crazy.

“That’s… that’s snow melt, Johnny! Ya can’t expect…” and he suddenly stopped talking at the snick of the hammer as it was pulled back, the deadly blue steel looked hungry. Heller said nothing more and began to strip.

When he was done scrubbing his body and clothes, he was blue from cold. He pulled the blanket of his bedroll around him as the dirty clothes were washed, then pulled on wet long johns, pants, socks, shirt and his coat. Not able to talk for the chattering of teeth, for which Johnny was eternally grateful, they got on their way, picking up the trail where they’d left off. Johnny figured they were only a day and a half out of Los Alamos… And justice.

The silence continued toward Heller, and he recognized the fact that Madrid was still not going to talk, so he gave up the effort to engage Madrid in any conversation.

Johnny wondered about Russell. How long would the man hold out before he would submit to the demands of the greedy Carter?

Johnny thought about the paper that he found in Weasel’s saddlebags. How had Heller come by that letter from the railroad to Silas Carter? From what Johnny could piece together, Silas Carter was going to sell Sonny Hill to the railroad after he’d mined the precious ore out of the hills. That’d be a hell of a business, first steal the ranch from Russell, mine out the ore then sell the land to the railroad. Wonder if Carter's goin' on gut or if he's sure there's any ore on Sunny Hill land?

Johnny wondered how much Russell knew or suspected, and more than anything, he wondered if Russell was still at his ranch. Johnny had only been gone five days now, but a lot could happen in five days, so he made up his mind. He would push through, only stopping to camp late and start early until they were out of the mountains then head straight for Sunny Hill. And if Heller opened his yap, Johnny would be there to shut it for him. They should make it back to the ranch by tomorrow night.

With clothes only slightly damp now, Heller sat by the fire still chilled, but nothing like he had been during the day. The ride had been miserable; it was a constant struggle to sit in the saddle. The britches he wore while wet chaffed his buttocks and upper thighs as the saddle moved under him, and though he knew Madrid was not talking, would not listen to him if he did talk, Heller heaped vile mental threats upon the gunfighter. If even a quarter of those thoughts came to pass Madrid would be dying a very slow and painful death with Heller standing close to watch the proceedings, and enjoy every second.

Madrid, for his part, remained stoic, as if he traveled alone and appeared to give Weasel-Face no consideration at all. But appearances were not as they seemed. Just beneath the surface, Madrid’s blood boiled, and he thought about how he was going to handle the situation. He watched Heller every second.

There was the possibility that once Carter found out that Heller had stolen the letter the railroad sent him, Carter would take care of him. One less loose end for Madrid to deal with. He knew what little law there was in Los Alamos was controlled by the man with the money, and that would be Carter. ‘Bout time they have a little ‘Madrid Law’, Johnny thought to himself with a smile.

The fire put out enough heat to make him comfortable, and although they were getting close, he opted to risk a fire but kept watch for Carter’s men. Johnny took the chance to camp this last night in a remote part of Carter’s land, right under his nose. In the morning Johnny would pack up Heller and haul the weasel over to Russell and let him decide what was to be done with the traitor.

Johnny settled into his blanket hoping the dreams would leave him to sleep in peace, just this once. But it wasn’t meant to be. The ghostly faces swirled over him, pointed their fingers at him, accused him of their deaths as if it were he that had pulled the trigger that sent them off to Hell. The vision of Billy Joe staring up into his eyes asking him why he changed their plan at the last minute, and the violent shudder and convulsions in his arms that ended the beating of the youngster’s heart, eyes open and staring, but not seeing, brought Johnny to full awareness with an uncontrolled gasp. He woke up panting; sweat ran into his eyes, burning them only to make them water.

He threw the blanket aside and got to his feet. Heart pounding against ribs, he went to where Heller lay snoring and in a last second of control, restrained himself from pulling the trigger of the Colt ready in his hand. The memory of Billy Joe’s eyes questioning him, then going dull and vacant would haunt Johnny for the rest of his life. With more force than what was necessary, Johnny kicked Heller awake, and they were on the trail cutting across the northwest corner of Carter’s property and onto Russell’s Sunny Hill ranch.


<><><><> 

Just before noon, Johnny Madrid, with Lester Weasel-Face Heller, crested the hill to look down on Sunny Hill’s ranch house. Madrid’s heart felt as if it were squeezed by a giant hand. There was no one around. No sign of life… Nothing at all. There was no livestock in the corrals, and no chickens scratched in the yard. No smoke from the chimney, either. Going back the way they came, Johnny circled the hill and came in behind the barn. He pulled his Colt and nodded at Heller to dismount. Silently. Then they snuck into the rear entrance barn of the barn and stopped dead in their tracks.

Never before in Johnny’s life had he ever wanted to kill someone as bad as he did at that moment. There, in the middle of the barn, swung Tom Russell’s body, the noose around his broken neck tied on the rafter that stretched across the width of the barn. Johnny turned to Heller and shoved him into an empty stall.

“You fuckin’ move from there an’ I’ll blow your head off!” Johnny went into the hayloft and lowered the body to the ground. Within seconds Johnny was down from the loft and next to the body. He took the noose off the cold neck and closed the bulging eyes. Johnny scrubbed his face with his hands as if he could wash away the sight of the dead man. He then straightened and turned to level a chilling glare on Heller.

“Johnny, I didn’t know…” Lester was frantic.

“SHUT UP!” He turned back to Russell’s body and noticed the man’s wrists; they had been tied when he died then cut loose to make it look like a suicide. Johnny secured Heller to a stall in the barn while he loaded Tom Russell on the back of Heller’s horse, retrieved Weasel and headed into town.  When Lester complained, Johnny put the gag back into place, he tugged the knot tight and made it impossible for Heller to utter a word. He could barely breathe.

Just outside of town in the cover of rocks and brush Johnny tied Lester to a tree. They were far enough off the road that he would not be heard, without a word to Heller, Johnny took Tom Russell’s body into town.

<><><><> 

The sight stopped everyone in their tracks. Tom Russell had been very well liked in the community, they had all benefited from his generosity and compassion, and now they would be attending his funeral. Madrid stopped in front of the sheriff’s office just as the lawman stepped out onto the boardwalk, curious to the commotion in the street. Johnny stepped to the ground and met the sheriff with tired stance and a heavy heart. Sheriff Jim Calhoun walked to the body and lifted the head to verify identification for himself and told a few of the men congregated around to get Russell over to the undertaker. He turned to Johnny and motioned him into the jail.

“Tell me about it, Madrid,” Calhoun said when he was seated behind his desk. He’d come to know Johnny Madrid over the last few weeks, and where they were often at odds with the other, Calhoun didn’t have any reason to suspect that Madrid had anything to do with Russell’s death.

“Just came back from Tierra Amarilla an’ stopped ta talk ta Russell, found him in the barn. Been there a coupla days I figured. His hands weren’t tied ta make it look like a suicide but if ya look there’s rope burns around his wrists. Sure didn’t take Carter long. He already take the land?” Johnny asked as sarcasm dripped from the statement.

The sheriff frowned. “Johnny, can you prove Carter had anything to do this?” Calhoun didn’t want trouble, but one look at Madrid he knew it was already present. Carter financed his pay, Carter owned him, but Calhoun also knew what Madrid was capable of.

“Don’t hafta prove it. Carter’s gonna tell me himself,” Johnny said quietly and turned with a hand on the doorknob, but before he could pull it open, Calhoun’s voice stopped him.

“Johnny! Don’t go startin’ no trouble. I know how ya feel about Russell, but ya can’t prove anything! Ya can’t prove anything!”

Yeah, I can. Johnny met the sheriff’s stare with hooded eyes that pierced through to his soul. “Not gonna start anything, Sheriff, but I sure as hell am gonna finish it. An’, no, ya don’t know how I feel,” he said with his stare locked on Calhoun, Johnny then left the office.

Calhoun stood chilled by the tone of the soft voice and the glacial aura in Madrid’s demeanor. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. There was going to be trouble.

<><><><> 

Madrid left town quickly; he needed to get out of there before the sheriff grew a spine and some balls and decided to follow him. They all knew there would be another chapter to this story; the chapter where Madrid would avenge Mr. Russell’s death at the hands of Silas Carter. There had been many witnesses to the hanging, but they all worked for Carter, and no one had the cajones to cross the bastard.

Madrid smiled to himself. He wouldn’t need anyone else’s word to admit the horrific crime Carter had committed. Carter himself was going to tell Johnny what he wanted to know. Madrid took the horse from in front of the undertakers and left town taking off over the hills and not down the road.

<><><><> 

Johnny stood quietly on the ridge above and watched as Weasel-Face sat, still tied to the tree. He was in the shade and would be for the rest of the day, so Madrid let him sit a bit longer as he went on down the hill and across open grazing land until he found the road.

The ride lasted about two hours; he would do what he needed to do and head back. Johnny figured that was about all the time that Weasel could wait before he would have to launder his britches in the stream again.

Not intending on announcing his presence, he kept out of sight and watched the comings and goings until he thought it was time to leave. Usually, a recon job such as this would take several days to complete, but Johnny didn’t have that kind of time. From here on out he would have to make sure things were as they needed to be for his plan to work, and if his plan worked, Carter wouldn’t know what hit him... until it was too late.
<><><><> 

Johnny tossed ideas around in his head on the ride back to Weasel-Face Heller. Ol’ Lester didn’t know it yet but he was going to be a distraction, and one that Carter was neither going to be ready for nor would he appreciate.

No matter how hard Johnny tried to clear them away, the faces of his men hung over his shoulders like a huge weight. And now Tom Russell was there, too.

Johnny wondered if he would ever be rid of the guilt that blanketed around him, suffocated him. It seemed to squeeze the air out of his lungs during his conscious hours and haunted him in his sleep. Would he ever be free of the torment or would he forever be plagued by the ghostly apparitions that swirled about him in his nightmares? They pointed their fingers in blame and cursed his heart into the netherworld surrounded in fire and brimstone. Would he ever be absolved for living? Or would he seek vindication for all eternity only to find any and all liberation slip through his fingers and condemn him to his own personal Hell?

It should never have happened the way that it did. Counting Tom Russell, twenty-four good men died. Only Johnny and Heller lived through that day, lived out of the ashes of devastation, and where Heller seemed to have no regrets of his part in the deaths of so many, Johnny, on the other hand, took them all personally. Hadn’t the priests at the orphanage told him when he was small that he was bound for Hell? If only he had believed them then, a lifetime ago, maybe he would have tried harder to make things different for himself…

Heller slept like a baby. Johnny could hear the snores fifty feet away. It was a good thing Johnny had taken him this far off the road where no one would be alerted by the racket. Lester’s mouth, slack and gaping open, the empty spot where a front tooth had been made Johnny think of a pumpkin that he’d seen somewhere. It had had a carved face, and Heller’s shock of bright red hair seemed to complete the picture.

Johnny walked behind his prisoner and cut the ropes free as Heller yelped in surprise. Johnny held his Colt lose in his hand and motioned Heller to the bushes.

“Thought you’d never get back!” Weasel vented as he created a large puddle behind a rock. He hitched up his britches, and he turned around to face Johnny.

“So, uh, Johnny… what’d ya gonna do with me?” Weasel asked, hoping to get an answer. He was truly tired of the silence that Madrid forced on him.

Johnny motioned for Heller to hold out his arms to be, once again, tied. With that done he told Heller to mount up and they left going east, the same way Johnny went earlier.

<><><><> 

The dark of night hid the movement. It was smothered in shadows and blackness and could not be detected by watchful eyes. It was dangerous enough to be out in enemy territory during the day, but at night was plain insanity. One wrong move and you would be very dead, very quickly. But what did it matter now? Maybe the torment in his heart would die if his body did. Or would his demons follow him to Hell and haunt him for all eternity? And if Johnny Madrid were to die this night, well, that would be fine, but before he left this world, he would certainly raise some hell on his way out.

Johnny had kept out of sight and watched for two days and into the nights; he knew the patrols, what time they switched their guard and where they patrolled. This should be easy, he thought. Carter ain’t too smart…

Johnny waited for the shift to change. The night guards tended not to take their job as seriously as the others. After all, who in their right mind would try and enter onto Carter Mining property at this hour? He was ready to set his plan in motion. After he confirmed the guards were in place, Johnny went back to the shelter where he had stuffed Heller — but getting Weasel-Face to where he needed to be proved a challenge.

The first issue was having been tied for so long Heller had difficulty walking, and now on his feet, he had to be gagged as his incessant questioning could very possibly jeopardize their safety. Johnny snuck them as far as he dared and stopped, Heller’s eyes wide and Johnny could just about see the panic start to swirl as Weasel guessed where they were bound.

Guess it’s time… Johnny thought, and he reached for his Colt, taking it by the barrel, he cracked it down on Weasel’s head with enough force to knock him out. Now was the hard part, not to mention smelly… Madrid hefted the unconscious man over his shoulder and made his way closer to Carter’s office. The guards continued the lively bull session by a small shed where they’d started a fire; they passed their bottle between them and laughed while the animated conversation would linger into the late night hours.

Satisfied he’d not been seen, Madrid stepped quietly onto the porch of the building that housed the office of the Carter Mining Company; he carefully dumped Lester Heller on the dusty boards while he picked the lock meant to stop intruders. Johnny had to smile as he gained access with no trouble at all. Easy to get in and guards more interested in the telling of outrageous tales than doing their jobs, what kind of outfit was the man running? Carter was an overconfident and egotistical idiot. The lock on the door wouldn’t have kept out a good sneeze. As the portal swung, open Johnny grabbed Heller and dragged him into the office and closed the door.

Once inside, Johnny took the chair from behind the desk and pushed it into the middle of the room then dumped Heller’s limp form into the chair and tied him securely. Tucked inside his jacket, Johnny pulled out a black hood, slid it down over Heller’s head and tied the strings around Weasel’s neck just enough to keep it from falling off. Johnny reached inside his pocket to retrieve a note and tied it to the strings of the bag. He silently left the building, leaving Heller to wake and face the devil himself while Johnny went back to his shelter in the rocks to wait for the party to begin.

<><><><> 

The dawn began to creep up over the mountains and flood the valley with a creamy yellow glow. From his cover in the rocks, Johnny used a small spyglass to watch the gradual activity below. Slowly men arrived at their hot and sweaty job at Carter Mining, and within an hour, Johnny watched as Carter himself rode up to his office in a carriage. Johnny smirked as he observed Carter walk onto the porch to produce a key to unlock the door. From where Johnny lay tucked in the rocks, he could hear Carter bellow out in rage.

Silas Carter was a man who was used to getting his way; he was ruthless and appeared to be heartless. His way was tough, cold, and whoever didn’t like it had better get out of his way because he would bury them, sometimes literally. He could not abide, would not abide weakness in anyone. He pulled the key from his pocket, inserted it into the keyhole, and pushed the door open. Just inside he skidded to a halt and eyes went wide.

“What the hell?”  He walked to the middle of the room and stood before the person sitting in his desk chair. He grabbed the sack around the head and pulled it off only to find the red-haired man that he had paid five hundred dollars to betray his own side in the battle, and he was tied and gagged. How did he get here? Didn’t his guards see anything last night? He went livid, his adrenaline coursed through his veins and he went to the door to call Hank Lansing, his foreman.

“HANK! Get in here NOW!” Carter’s deep voice rang through the air, and everyone stopped what they were doing knowing the Boss was not happy and that something was drasticallywrong. They had often felt sorry for Lansing, having to deal with Carter was not an easy task. Lansing bounded up the stairs and into the porch and into Carter’s office.

“Lansing! I want to know who was on guard duty last night!” He stepped to the side to let Hank see the imbecile tied in the chair. It was plain to see that Heller had been knocked out and was just now coming around mostly due to Carter’s loud ranting and raging, but it was only then that Carter saw the note attached to the hood that he had yanked off of the man’s head. He quickly unfolded it, and as he read a deep coloring started under his collar working upwards until Hank was afraid Carter’s head would blow off his shoulders.

Carter looked at Hank and screamed. “This son-of-a-bitch has ruined everything! Lansing, take care of him!” Lansing started toward Heller, the idiot in the chair couldn’t make out what was going on. He stared through blurry eyes but then realized that Lansing was advancing on him.

“What is it, Mr. Carter?” Hank questioned, and Carter scowled darkly as he talked.

“It seems that Mr. Heller, here, has talked. This letter is from Johnny Madrid… apparently, Madrid made it out alive from the ambush Lester helped to set up and he also told Madrid that Carter Mining was going to run Russell off his land, mine the ore then sell out to the railroad!” With each word spoken Carter continued to get louder, rage flowed from the man; his crazed ravings had escalating until spittle flew from his mouth as he stood over Heller glaring at the man with wild eyes.

“Madrid also said that Heller stole a paper off my desk that had my plans written out on it and that paper is now in the hands of the territorial marshal! I knew it was a mistake to trust this asshole!” The red color continued to darken his face as Carter screamed out his frustration and blinding fury. All his hard work and plans were now jeopardized because of some ignorant idiot that couldn’t distinguish his ass from a hole in the ground! Carter shot a glare at Hank. “Get him out of here!”

Hank Lansing had his doubts, and he looked at Carter. “What should I do with him, Boss?”

Carter was turning a pretty shade of purple and screamed: “GET RID OF HIM!” The outrage and wrath in the tortured voice and bulged eyes set Heller to tremble, and he frantically mumbled around the gag in his mouth,  begging and pleading as Hank wrestled him out of the chair and out of the office.

Carter read again the note left by Madrid. He couldn’t figure what Madrid intended to do, but Carter knew he had to be ready for anything. However, the words on the paper seemed to chill him to the bone. And he read them over a third time.

Nice profitable set up you have going, Carter. Hope it all works out. But I got a feeling that things aren’t going to be exactly how you planned. Your plans for getting rich off Sunny Hill then selling out to the railroad has a problem. Something you ain't thought of yet but guess you'll find out sooner or later. The territorial marshal has the letter from the railroad. You’ll be hearing from me.
Madrid

Yes, Carter needed to be ready for anything. The first thing he would do is post ‘private property, no trespassing’ signs around Russell’s spread and he would lay low for a while before they began the mining. But he would also post extra guards around this property. Madrid couldn’t be breaking onto these premises again! There was a certain amount of construction that needed to be done first before any mining started, and he had to wait for the representative from the U.S. Mining Association to sign registration papers. But after that was done, mining would begin, and nothing and no one was going to stop him, Madrid be damned!

Johnny watched as Carter’s lackey pulled Heller along, and Heller resisted for all he was worth. Taken to an outbuilding and shoved inside, Weasel-Face was left as Carter's foreman locked the door and returned to the office. Johnny thought about his next step. His experience with the range wars was going to come in very useful. Too bad there wasn’t a herd of cattle that he could stampede over Carter’s property, but since that was too big of an undertaking for one man to handle, there were other things that Johnny Madrid thought would serve the purpose quite nicely. After all, Johnny had to let Carter know that he was still around and he knew just how to accomplish that.

<><><><> 

The saloon was quiet for this time of day however that suited Madrid just fine. He sat in the back, thinking there should be more of Carter’s men in here by now, but he guessed they were all working around the clock. Huh, they must have some problems out there… Johnny thought with a laugh as he poured another drink from the bottle. The tequila was excellent and seemed to smooth out the stress of the day.

“Hey, there, Handsome! Haven’t seen you for a while. I thought you’d left without sayin’ goodbye!” Jessie, all five feet two inches of her, sauntered to the table and looped a silky arm around his neck.

Johnny smiled into her warm green eyes and knew he would be spending the night in her room. He scooted out his chair, and she plopped her trim behind into his lap, nuzzled his neck and hugged him tightly.

“Not a chance, Jess!  I’d never skip outta town without comin’ ta see ya first!” Johnny said as he inhaled her sweet scent. Her dark hair fell across his chest, and Johnny could almost feel the exquisite softness drag across his bare skin. He wished they were upstairs in her bed right now. Jessie pulled back to look into those incredible blue eyes.

“What are ya gonna do now, Johnny, now that Mr. Russell is gone? I know that you liked the man and wanted to help him…” Jessie laid her head on his shoulder as he wrapped her in his arms. Not speaking for a time, he took another drink from his glass then breathed out a deep sigh.

“Not sure what I'm gonna do, but,” he looked into her gaze when he replied, "I’ll be around a while yet, I guess.” Jessie laughed in relief. “’Sides, there’s still folks here that I like!” and he pulled her close and kissed her deeply.

Johnny left the saloon with a promise to Jessie that he’d be back and rode out of town. The saloon began to fill with thirsty cowboys ready to spend their hard earned money, and now that they were celebrating their free time, it was time for Johnny to go to work. He rode out of town unnoticed and turned south. He had an idea where the house was, but he had to make sure and get the layout down in his mind. Then he could decide the best way to go about his mission. This was the very least he could do for Mr. Russell and those twenty-three dead men that haunted him every hour of every day. He took his time and waited for the darkness to cover him, then he hunkered down to wait and watch. Doing this type of work, one could never have too much information.

Once again, Johnny thought Silas Carter was a pompous, egotistical bastard. For over two hours, Johnny sat and watched the house where Carter lived. Johnny had seen the man arrive home for the evening and even watched as the lights in the main house were extinguished for the night. He watched the guards that patrolled the house and had to hold back a laugh as, once again, to reinforce Madrid’s opinion of the man, he was drastically understaffed.

But even with the guards Johnny saw, things were not as they should be and he would take nothing for granted. Every step of Johnny’s plan would be carried out with the utmost of care, and Carter would know that Johnny Madrid had beaten him, beaten him for the lives of twenty-four men.

It was time to get back to town. Hopefully, Jessie would be ‘free’ tonight, and Johnny could relax in her bed. The stress of the guilt weighed heavy on him, but he knew that plans like these took time, not to mention concentration, especially if you wanted to antagonize your ‘prey’. And, boy, oh boy, did he ever want to antagonize Carter, so Johnny put his experience to good use. When he left town, Johnny stuffed a large burlap bag into his saddlebags. It was going to come in handy, maybe tonight.

Johnny decided on a bit of a detour before returning to the saloon. He very carefully captured two large Diamondback rattlers; they were angry, bad-tempered and Johnny was pleased he got them into the sack with no problem. He then turned west to ride over to Carter’s office. Stopping on the hill where he’d watched earlier, he ground tied his horse then went in on foot.

Madrid knew the guards were more vigilant this night as it was only this morning that Carter found Heller tied and gagged in his office, so Johnny would have to find another way into the building. He walked to the window on the back side and raised the glass. It went up easy, did not stick or make any noise at all. Oh, this is crazy! Johnny thought. This pendejo can’t even see to it the place is locked! It was embarrassing to realize how much Carter wasn’t thinking! He didn't need for the window to be raised very far and reached inside to let the snakes drop out of the bag onto the floor. He pulled his arm out with the empty bag and closed the window.

Staying in the shadows, he rounded the corral, and within just a few minutes had the sack half filled with fresh manure. Luckily, none of the horses whinnied to let the guards know all was not right. Johnny took the bag and carried it to his next destination. Apparently, Carter saw no reason to dig a well. He had water hauled in by wagons, and the water that Carter would drink was from a barrel on the side of the building by his office.

With guards still unaware of Madrid’s presence, Johnny quietly removed the lid and saw it was fresh, and new, and full. He then shook the contents of the bag into the water. Just where did Carter get these guards from? Johnny couldn’t help but wonder, and he stifled the laugh that threatened to explode out of him. Then he was on his way back to town and hopefully into Jessie’s bed.
<><><><> 

It was only ten thirty when he arrived in town. He took Valiente to the livery to bed him down, then came in the back door of the saloon. His usual table was empty, so he reclaimed his place and waited for Jessie to notice him. Within a few minutes, she was once again with him at the table against the back wall. And she looked oh, so welcoming! After a few drinks, she whispered in her soft voice as if purring in his ear.

“How ‘bout we go upstairs, Johnny? You look like you’re gonna fall asleep sitting here in this noisy ol’ saloon!” She got up and took his hand and led him through the crowd of rowdy cowboys spending their hard earned money, and up the stairs they went amid the wolf whistles and cheers. Johnny smiled down on them with a leering grin of his own letting them know that he was the one to be with her tonight

Jessie closed the door and locked it behind her as she watched Johnny walk to the bed to sit. She knew he was tired, he looked drained, and she knew he blamed himself for what had happened, but she also knew that this was all that she could do for him. Coming to his side, Jessie climbed on the bed behind him; she massaged his shoulders and back for a while.  Then she reached around and began to unbutton his shirt while she leaned down to kiss his neck. He leaned into her nuzzles and let nature take its course.

Why did you do that ta us, Madrid? YOU got us all killed! We’re dead an’ we’re gonna haunt you every night for the rest of your life! The eyes held disbelief and hate as if Johnny had intentionally led them to their demise, and then the disbelief was replaced by rage. They wanted his blood, his life. They wanted him dead, too, and they wanted him in Hell to pay for what he’d done, and the worst of it was he saw Tom Russell standing in the middle of the twenty-three men staring, just staring at him then, without a word, Tom Russell turned his back and walked away.

<><><><> 

Johnny came awake with a jerk, his body tense and shaking. He looked around the room, wide eyes expecting to see the corpses of his men, but there was nothing there, only Jessie beside him still asleep.

Johnny closed his eyes, caught his breath, and ran a trembling hand through his hair then lay down again. Was he ever going to be able to rid himself of the demons that ran roughshod through his dreams? He thought about what happened and would give anything if he could tell his men that they had been betrayed by one of their own, but Johnny felt he should have known what was going on. He was the leader and should have seen to it that his men were as safe as they could be. He was the one responsible, and as he lay in the warm, comfortable bed, he wished he had died with them.

<><><><> 

“LANSING! GET IN HERE! NOW!” Carter bellowed from his perch atop the desk. Hank Lansing threw open the door seconds later and skidded to a halt as the Diamondbacks shifted around and raised their bodies in a striking pose, tails rattled in an irritated warning.

“Son-of-a-bitch there’s two of those damn snakes in here! How’d they get in … Madrid! Damn him to Hell! I want to know who was on guard duty last night, and I want them FIRED!” Carter screamed as Hank was doing all he could to distract the snakes from Carter without the chance of getting himself bit. Hank drew his gun and fired, missing the snake, which slithered out of sight behind a stack of boxes and out through a hole made by gnawing jaws of a resident rat.

“Get me some water!” Carter screamed as some of the men gathered outside the door drawn by the loud disturbance. One broke away from the group and went to the water barrel outside the office. Soon the man was back empty-handed.

“Ah, Boss… There’s manure in the water barrel…”

“I WANT MADRID’S HIDE NAILED TO THE WALL!” Carter screamed.

<><><><> 

“Hey, Sleepyhead! Ya gonna lay there all day, or ya want to have some breakfast with me?” The whisper was sweet as it penetrated the fog in his brain. He smelled coffee, and he cracked his eyes open to slits. The bright morning sun flooded the room as he pulled himself up to lean against the headboard as Jessie set a tray of food across his lap. He reached for the large mug of coffee, knowing the strong brew would clear away the annoying haze.

“Careful, Johnny, it’s awfully hot,” Jessie warned.

Good, hope it’ll chase the dreams away… he thought as he swallowed and felt the burn down into his belly. “Thanks, querida,” Johnny nodded his appreciation and awarded her his irresistible smile.

Jessie scrambled back into bed with him and nibbled a piece of bacon from the plate. “You get enough sleep, Sugar? Ya still look a little tired,” Jessie asked as she noticed the fatigue that hung around him. “You were restless last night, tossed an’ turned a bit.”

Johnny looked into her eyes and hoped that he hadn’t talked in his sleep. “Did I keep ya awake?” he asked quietly, searching her eyes. She sighed deeply then reached under the covers, small silky hands stroking and exploring.

“No, not like I wanted you to,” she answered seductively. She set the tray on the floor, leaned over him, and kissed him intensely, and suddenly Johnny wasn’t tired any more…

<><><><> 
Johnny quietly approached the horse; his voice was soft and low, soothing as he muttered in Spanish with his smooth, velvet tones and soon he was close enough to loop the rope over the sleek neck. Even as dark as it was Johnny could tell that Carter had some fine horseflesh and wondered if it was Carter himself or someone else he employed that was responsible for the stock. Must be someone else, don’t think Carter’s that smart…

“Good boy, that’s right, you an’ me’ are gonna take a little ride tanight, ain’t that right?” He kept up the talk, and the horse nudged him having gotten a whiff from his pocket where he generally kept sugar for Valiente. Johnny checked the horse over and was impressed with Carter’s stock. He walked to the cut wire of the fence and led the horse through the gap as the wire coiled loosely on the ground.

The horse would serve as a diversion to pull as many men away from their guard duties as possible. Knowing the horse stood a very low chance of injury helped diminish any guilt of putting the animal in any danger, so he carried out his plan and mounted Valiente as Carter’s ‘borrowed’ horse followed behind.

Soon he was where he needed to be, once again, hunkered down in the rocks; he waited for the time when he would set into motion the next ‘accident’, just to let Carter know that he wasn’t forgotten and keep the man on his toes. With only a sliver of moon, the danger was greater, but Johnny was fairly certain he could pull this off as long as the men were detained long enough, so he had the time he needed to complete this evening’s mission.

At a certain point in their duties, the men seemed to gather together for a few minutes as if socializing as long as Carter wasn’t around. Johnny had to wonder, again, where Carter was getting these men. Apparently, they weren’t grasping the serious nature the job required, and Madrid chuckled as he thought that there was going to be another bunch that would find themselves out of a job come morning when the big boss arrived.

It was time to move out. Johnny took his ‘tools’ and the horse and left his cover in the rocks.

Johnny left the bundle on the ground behind Carter’s office and took the horse quietly around the back of the tool shed where the animal would have to run past the men as they contended with the coming distraction. The horse was in place, and Johnny took a stick of dynamite from the inside of his shirt.

Standing behind the building, he lit a match and set the fuse ablaze as he tossed it in the back window of the shed. He ran to the horse, and as the explosion lit up the sky, it blew fire, smoke, and parts of the demolished building and its contents into the air. It rumbled the ground  and caused much confusion among the guards. Madrid could not have hoped for a better effect. He waited five seconds then swatted the horse on the rump sending him down the path that led back into the woods and hills beyond.

Johnny had seen chaos in his young life, but it took all his control to not just  stand there and laugh. He watched the bumbling attempts of the guards as they struggled to put out the fire that now engulfed the tool shed and threatened to spread to other buildings, but as the sound of the horse’s hooves thundered away they all tried to follow, torn between the fire and the horse getting away, supposedly carrying the culprit with him. Johnny tore his attention away from what would have normally been great entertainment and ran to the back of Carter’s office and quickly scooped up the bundle he left a bit earlier.

Taking the risk of being seen, Johnny jumped onto the hitch rail in front of the small building then pulled himself onto the roof. He crouched low and scrambled over to the backside of the structure. He stopped at the chimney pipe that protruded out of the wooden shakes and took one more stick of explosive out of his shirt. But this one was different. It had a length of baling wire tied around it about four feet long, just long enough to suspend it  halfway down the pipe. The other end was wrapped around a small iron rod that Johnny placed across the top of the chimney pipe.

With the rod in place, Johnny turned, jumped off the back of the building and was back at his hiding place in the rocks mounted on Valiente within minutes of leaving the scene. He watched a moment then turned Valiente back to town keeping to the shadows as he went. Madrid wanted to take more time to watch the men below scramble around, try to figure out if they should fight the fire or go after the horse that they heard galloping away.

Johnny laughed again thinking about the trouble Carter’s guards were going to be in when the boss found out what had gone on while he was at home relaxing, no doubt eating a sumptuous meal and retiring for the night in a large, soft and warm bed.

<><><><> 
Once more, Madrid slipped into the saloon through the back door and took his regular seat against the wall. The patrons were well on their way to oblivion and did not notice the gunfighter’s entrance.

But Jessie did. And she needed to talk with Johnny; she hoped he would again spend the night with her. Dodging the groping hands that threatened to latch onto her, Jessie made her way to Johnny’s table and plunked down onto his lap as she looped her arms around his neck. A few of the men grumbled about Madrid as all the girls loved to see him come and hoped it would be she that he would take upstairs, but he seemed partial to Jessie. And no one dared to voice their displeasure to the man himself; they wanted to live to see the sunrise and not one of them confronted Madrid about the issue.

“Hey, Sugar! I was hoping you’d be back tonight!” Jessie purred then whispered in his ear, “I heard talk tonight, I’ll tell you upstairs.” She poured a glass of tequila and held it to his lips as he sipped the fiery libation, letting it slide down his throat. Jessie sipped out of the same glass as she gazed into those incredible eyes. They were clear and bright and held the promise of another sweet night. He smiled at her, and she felt herself melt against his hard muscular chest as his arms came around her.

“Heard some talk, huh?” he asked quietly. She returned the smile, her heart beating a bit faster than normal.

“Uh huh, could be nothing, but I’ll let you make that call.” Jessie tipped Madrid’s hat off to let it hang down his back, and she combed her fingers through his soft, shaggy, dark hair. Johnny took a quick look around the room; most of the cowboys were lined up along the bar, a few with a girl in their arms.

“The men that talked still here?” he asked, returning his gaze to her pretty face.

Her smile was sweet as she answered. “Yes, at the end of the bar, the three talking and laughing that can hardly stand.”

Johnny pulled her close and kissed her neck all the while taking in the men Jessie had described. They looked like Carter’s men, and though he had seen them before in some previous confrontations, he couldn’t be sure that they were still in his employ, what with the all the men Carter had been firing who could tell? Still amused over the confusion out at Carter’s mine, it was all he could do to not burst into laughter. Yes, Carter definitely had problems.

It was several minutes later that Johnny and Jessie climbed the back stairs to her room. She was delighted that they came to her bed early, but that delight soon turned to disappointment when Johnny told her he didn’t want her to get mixed up in anything. He didn’t want Carter to know about her and trace her back to him. He really shouldn’t even be spending time with her. If any of Carter’s men told their boss that Madrid stayed most nights with her, that would put her at risk. And he knew he would not stay with her anymore especially after she told him what she overheard earlier.

“Don’t wanna give the bastard an edge. He won’t think twice about usin’ you, that’s why.” Johnny explained as Jessie sat in the middle of her bed and watched Johnny pull on his clothes. “Carter’s gonna be waitin’ for the chance ta lay his hands on me an’ I don’t wanna give him any reason ta use you as bait. Ya just told me that’s what ya heard those men talkin’ about. Well, I can’t let that happen.” Madrid had enough guilt that he carried around on his shoulders; he couldn’t bear it if something were to happen to Jessie, too.

Johnny walked through the smoky saloon and took his usual spot on the back wall, this time alone. Jessie did not come down. He sat there for over an hour nursing a beer as he pretended not to notice what went on around him. But the truth of it was, he knew who came in and more importantly, who left. No one appeared to take much notice of him, and he took the chance that they weren’t. He got out of his chair and left by the back door, stopping to check out the alley before he walked out into the dark. There seemed to be no threat, and he made it to the livery where he made his bed in the stall next to Valiente.

<><><><> 

Carter stood, his face purple with rage as he observed the damage. The tool shed smoldered in the morning light as his men stood shamefaced knowing what was awaiting them. Carter looked at his men, looked them in the eye one by one.

“I’ll get ya a cup a coffee, Mr. Carter,” old Hardy Campbell said, as he walked as fast as his limp would carry him into the office to start the brew. Carter continued to stare down his men; he worked himself into a frenzy. His blood was boiling in his veins, and his head thundered with pain, it felt as though rocks were slamming around inside his skull. He almost couldn’t talk, the fury so great the words died in his throat. What was he paying these men for? Couldn’t they do anything right? Finally, he found his voice, and the words exploded out and echoed in the still morning air… just like the roof of his office, sending the coffee pot to shoot out the ragged hole in the smoking lumber fifty feet high, then came crashing down on what was left of the roof, rolled to the edge and landed with a tinny plop on the ground.

<><><><> 

The next day found Johnny making himself fairly visible around town. He spent time grooming his magnificent black horse. He talked with Luther, the liveryman, and found the man was a wealth of information. Luther didn’t like Silas Carter or what Carter was doing to the area. It used to be a pretty nice place to live until Carter moved in that is. When Carter was done with the land, it was barren, used up, and left gaping scars on the mountains where he’d butchered the land looking for his precious metals, and then moved on. No, not many folks around liked Carter, either. But they had liked Tom Russell.

“No one ‘round here blames you for what happened, Johnny. We all know Carter was b’hind it.” Johnny listened but hung his head. “We know what happened, Johnny, an’ there’s no way ya coulda known what that jackass was gonna do. I helped take Tom over ta the undertakers, boy; I saw those rope burns on his wrists. There ain’t no one here thinks that he hung himself. Did ya ever find that fella ya was lookin’ for?” Luther asked. He watched Madrid carefully and knew where no one else in town blamed Madrid; he knew that Madrid blamed Madrid.

Johnny nodded his head. “Yeah, I found him,” but said no more.

Old Luther gave a nod and spit tobacco juice on the ground in satisfaction. “Good,” was all he said. Then the old man started off on another story of the town.

Johnny listened to him talk, and as he sat in front of the livery with the man, Johnny tipped his hat at the folks walking by, some stopped to join in the conversation, and some didn’t, but the more folks that saw Madrid, the better.

<><><><> 

“I WANT THE BASTARD! You bring him here to me! I don’t care HOW you do it! Just get me MADRID!” Carter bellowed. It seemed he’d been yelling for days now.

Lansing was seriously considering looking for other employment. Now Mr. Carter wanted him to bring in Madrid! He was not looking for a suicide mission. Putting the noose around Russell’s neck was the worst thing he’d ever done for Carter, now the boss wanted him to bring the most lethal gunfighter around to him, and Lansing wondered how much worse this could get.

Carter saw the apprehension in the foreman’s eyes. Do I have anyone in my employ that can do anything right? Carter was ready to explode… again. He could feel the blood pounding through his veins and began to get light headed, dizzy. He lunged for the chair and sat heavily as if the floor had dropped out from under him. His teeth snapped shut with the force of a bear trap as he looked up at Lansing with disgust.

“Set a trap for God’s sake! Can you handle that? Use bait if you have to! Or do I have to do this for you?” Carter shot Lansing a withering scowl before he screamed: “GET OUT!”

Hank left and quietly shut the door. Silas Carter was going crazy.

Carter sat for a minute after the door closed and tried to think about the joy it would bring him to watch Madrid’s life bleed away.

<><><><> 

Johnny ate dinner at Victoria's, the local café, under the stares of a few of society’s upper crust. He was aware of the looks, the disgust that burned on some of their faces, their eyes  blazing, looking down their noses with thoughts that would sear another man. Johnny Madrid did not care. These were the same folks that would be the first to hire him if there was a problem, hire him for protection or to try to get him to do their dirty work for them. He knew what they were, so let them stare now. Let them handle their own troubles if they had a problem with him.

But there were the others, folks that had been bullied by Carter and applauded what had been happening; had assumed Madrid was behind it and had sincerely hoped he would cause Carter more aggravation. And they were the ones that mattered to him. He ate his meal and drank the coffee at his leisure, often looking up, making eye contact, and offered a smile or nod. He would watch as some would quickly look away, embarrassed at getting caught watching him. He smirked and continued to eat, but the others gave him a warm smile, and he smiled back.

“Mr. Madrid?” Johnny looked up to find Danny, a small boy of about seven, standing by his table. Johnny offered a smile as the boy held him with large blue eyes. The freckles across his pug nose seemed to dance across his face when he smiled back.

“A lady said for me ta give this ta ya. She said you’d gimme a dime for my trouble, too!”

Johnny chuckled at the sparkle in the kid’s eyes. “She did, huh?” Johnny laughed and fished in his pocket for a coin.

“Yup!”

Johnny flipped him the dime and watched the kid run out onto the boardwalk and shook his head. Still smiling, Johnny opened the note, and very quickly, the smile disappeared. His worst fears were coming true; he had put another person in danger.

<><><><> 

“If you think he’s gonna fall for this, you’re crazy!” Jessie railed as she was thrown on a horse as one of her kidnappers stepped up behind her. She forced her fear away, wanting to appear unafraid, but her heart hammered against her ribs telling her otherwise.

“Shut up, or we’ll shut you up, Lady! Oh, I forgot… Ya ain’t no ‘lady’!” the man laughed wickedly as he kicked his horse into a run along with his three companions and they left town.

About four miles out of Los Alamos, they stopped by a small stream. One of the men spread a blanket in the grass and set a bottle of whiskey and two glasses on it. Then Lansing ordered Jessie to sit on the blanket and wait.

Jessie wouldn’t admit it, but she was scared, her heart pounding in her chest, and she hoped Johnny would see through the ruse. She hadn’t wanted to do what they told her, but a few slaps later she knew she had no choice especially after one of them wrapped a blanket around his pistol and held it to her head. But in her heart she knew that he would come, she just hoped that he would have a plan.

Madrid was furious, but he shoved the anger aside, he had to focus, Jessie’s life was no doubt at stake. It never ceased to amaze him how low some would sink to get their way. To use an innocent person, especially a woman, to help win their fight was right down there on the level with a snake’s belly.

Johnny thought about the location he was to go, and again it occurred to him how utterly ridiculous these guys were. Carter is definitely paying these guys too much! But as long as Jessie was now involved, Johnny wasn’t going to take any unnecessary chances. Until he knew for certain she was safe, he would have to be careful and not put her in any more danger than she already was.

He was almost there when he pulled Valiente off the road and onto higher ground. He had to wonder again at the men who were holding Jessie. Why would they make her write a note asking to meet her for a roll in the grass at a spot that close to the road? Besides she’s supposed ta be workin’. But then he already knew they weren’t too bright. This just assured Johnny that there would be others ready to ambush him once he got there. He decided his best option would be to get above them and see how many he could spot before he went to ‘meet Jessie’ for a romantic interlude as the note suggested. Mierda, these guys are mucho estupido! Johnny shook his head for the umpteenth time. But dealing with these men could get Jessie hurt, and Johnny wouldn’t let that happen.

Lansing stationed his men around in the trees, brush, and boulders. They would have Madrid in a crossfire and in an hour he would be captured. Hopefully, it would make Mr. Carter happy. Well, Madrid had caused a lot of damage for Carter, not to mention making his men look unbelievably pathetic. Well, we’ll get ‘im tanight… Lansing was sure. How could they not take him? There were four of them!

Johnny tied Valiente in the cover of the rocks far enough back where it would be impossible for the horse to be seen; he then stayed to the shadows and eased down the rocky slope to where he could see the road below. He could make out Jessie as she sat back close to the stream on the other side of the road and hopefully out of the line of fire. The men were waiting in ambush, and as he peered through the dimming light, he picked out two knowing there would be at least one, maybe two or more.

As he sat, a grin spread across his handsome face. Just below him and off to the right was a man waiting in the rocks watching the road. Johnny worked his way down through the rocks and wondered if the guy was deaf or just concentrating so completely on the road, watching for a rider, that no other sound would register… Who knew with these guys… Johnny thought. He grabbed his Colt from the holster and crashed the butt of the gun onto the back of the man’s head. Johnny pulled the man back into his arms and dragged him away, securely tying him.

With this new vantage point, Johnny spotted another man. He was standing the closest to Jessie, probably the leader of this ridiculously ill-prepared bunch and would be the man that Johnny would be ‘talking’ with. If Jessie hadn’t been involved it would be a very humorous situation but these idiotas just raised the stakes by dragging her into it, and now Madrid would have to show them just who was in charge.

As Johnny traversed through the rocks on the side of the slope, he stopped to watch the second man hidden, waiting in ambush, and again, concentrating on the road below. Not surprisingly, Carter had not hired professionals. Cat-walking behind the second assailant he’d almost made it when the man turned around and met with Madrid’s fist. With a grunt he fell like a log and, as with the first man, Madrid dragged him into the rocks and tied him hand to foot.

“Luke?... Hey, Luke, are ya alright?” came a soft call.

Madrid smiled, slightly amused. Johnny scooted back to where ‘Luke’ should have been sheltered in the rocks, not able to spot the man that had whispered for his companion but continued straight down toward the man closest to Jessie. Johnny was almost to the road when he spoke and smiled in satisfaction when the man jumped, totally unaware that Madrid had gotten so close without being seen.

“I really think you’re in over your head, but I’ll give ya a chance if ya call your partners down…” At a flash on his right, Johnny’s leg was knocked out from under him as a shot came from the rocks, and as he fell, he turned to see the gun smoke hang in the air like a small ghost in the darkening twilight, Madrid fired off a round and heard a satisfying cry of pain, then rolled over onto his belly as he saw the man by Jessie bring up his gun. Johnny quickly fired off another round that took the pistol out of Lansing’s hand along with a few fingers. The man doubled over, clutched his crippled hand, and dropped to his knees as he groaned in pain.

Jessie ran to Madrid as he tried to get his feet under him. His leg was numb… For now. He knew very shortly the pain would explode and he no doubt would not be walking very well. Get it done while I can still stand. He could feel the blood run down his leg to saturate his britches. Refusing to show any discomfort he channeled it, instead, to his belittling and sarcastic remarks to Lansing.

“Get up, you bastard! Boy, I guess you’re gonna be lookin’ for another job! Carter ain’t too pleased with ya so far! Ya know… I can’t say that I ever seen a foreman as stupid as you are! You ain’t done one thing right! Hell, I oughta fuckin’ put a bullet in your brain right now for ambushin’ my men like ya did.” Johnny stopped to laugh outright in Lansing’s face, and then the smile was gone as quickly as it came and icy cold tones were softy spoken.

“Next time, ya better fuckin’  be faster’n me cuz I’m gonna fuckin’ blow ya ta Hell!” Johnny limped over to the pistol lying in the dirt and picked it up only to throw it into the stream.

No way I’m getting’ my self killed for Carter! The man’s insane! Lansing thought, relieved to be alive, albeit now crippled, and sincerely believing Carter’s mental state was cracking.

Jessie climbed up into the saddle and Johnny painfully hauled himself up behind her. She could feel him start to lean against her back and knew that he wouldn’t be conscious by the time they got back to town. She wondered if he would stay balanced on the horse or if she would have to hold onto him, but to her pleasant surprise, he stayed put. The horse he rode certainly had a smooth gait; she’d ridden enough to know a good horse when she was on one. Jessie got on the road and returned to town taking care not to disturb the man who had undoubtedly saved her life.

<><><><> 

Town was fairly quiet when Jessie reined Valiente to a halt behind the doctor’s house. The lights burned brightly in the neat white clapboard structure with roses blooming around the back door. Johnny had not said a word since they had started, had not said a word when she wrapped his leg before their journey to town.
The bullet had passed through the fleshy part of his thigh above the knee. A small entry hole with a much larger exit and both bled profusely but not spurting for which she was thankful. They wasted no time, and now she lifted her right leg over the horse’s head and slid down to the ground holding onto Johnny as he slumped forward.

“Johnny, honey, wake up, darlin’, we’re at the doctor’s house, I need for ya ta wake an’ help me get ya offa this horse of yours b’fore ya bleed ta death. Johnny! Wake up!”

“Who’s out there?” The sound of double hammers clicked into place echoed in the chilly night air as Jessie struggled with her burden.

“Don’t shoot, Doc! It’s Jessie; I got someone that needs your help!” She heard the hammers click in release and from the glow of light that spilled from the windows watched as he hurried to help her.

Johnny grumbled in his half-conscious foggy state. “Don’t need no doc-doctor…,” he slurred.

“I hate to disagree with you, young man, but judging by the looks of you, you do,” said Doc Hodges as he noted the bandage around his thigh. With Jessie on one side and Doc on the other, they wrestled the unsteady man into the house.

Together they wrangled his clothes from his body without too much protest. Mostly Johnny just laid quiet with eyes closed and an occasional groan… Until Doc brought out the bottle of carbolic.

“Johnny? Hold tight, son, I have to use the carbolic now, it’s going to sting some,” Doc said then waited for a response.

“Mmmmm,” was all Johnny could mutter, eyes still closed trying to relax. But the carbolic jolted him with an explosion of fire that brought him fully awake, and not only awake, but he also gasped for breath swearing with a string of Spanish that would have embarrassed a drunk.

“Son-of-a…” he panted as he tried desperately to control the pain. “Don’t wanna hafta… do that again…” he huffed as he settled back onto the pillow. It was then the doctor gave him the bad news.

“Well, now I have to get the other side, Johnny, and the exit hole is bigger. Hang on, boy…”

“You best just leave him here for the night. He’s sleeping soundly now, but he can leave tomorrow. He have a place to stay? He needs to be off that leg for a few days.” The doctor asked Jessie as she sat by Johnny’s side.

“Yes, he has a place to stay,” Jessie confirmed not divulging the fact that Johnny would be sharing her bed, but the Doctor smiled, he already knew that. Jessie bent to kiss him goodnight and ran her fingers through his soft, shaggy hair. She kissed him again, thanked the doctor, and left.

<><><><> 

The sun pierced through the curtains as the soft breeze swept in the open window and danced the tangle of hair as it scooted across his forehead. The long, thick lashes fluttered, and the dark blue eyes focused after a minute. He was in a bed, but it wasn’t Jessie’s bed. Looking around, he noticed a cabinet of medical supplies indicating he was in a doctor’s office. What happened?

“Uhhh,” he groaned as he moved his leg. “Mierda!” he grumbled as he pulled himself to sit up. The door opened as a short chubby man with wire-rimmed spectacles entered and went to the bedside to help pack pillows behind Johnny’s shoulders.

“Easy there, young fella, don’t you be tearing out those stitches. Won’t be too much fun for you if I have to replace them…” Johnny cringed at the thought. Goes along with the territory… Johnny thought. He rubbed his eyes, then looked at the doctor.

“How long have I been here?” he asked as he yawned. “Sorry, Doc,” Johnny mumbled through the yawn.

If nothing else, Madrid was polite. “Jessie brought you in late last night…”

Johnny threw the blankets off and made to lunge out of bed.

“Not so fast, there, son! Jessie’s fine! She’s fine. I imagine she’ll be here soon to take you to… your room.”

Johnny looked suddenly drained and slumped back on the pillows then sharply at the doctor, piercing him with a serious and perceptive look. “She’s really alright?” Johnny waited, hedging on worry.

Doc Hodges thought to assuage his concerns as quickly as he could. “Yes, she’s just fine. She stayed with you last night and saw to it you were going to be alright, and then I sent her home. She’s fine!” He confirmed with a genuine smile.

Johnny could read the truth in Hodges' eyes and began to relax a bit.

“I want you to stay off that leg for a few days, Johnny, give it some time to heal and regenerate the blood you lost. You just relax now, and wait for Jessie.” He settled Johnny in the bed and softly closed the door.

Johnny left money for the doctor’s efforts on the pillow and limped painfully out through the back door. Valiente had been unsaddled and was standing in the small corral behind the doctor’s house. Thinking the doctor to be busy as he hadn’t been detained yet by the chastising words he was expecting, Johnny made his way to the horse and saddled him quickly. After struggling to mount, he was on his way to the back of the saloon knowing that Jessie was there. He needed to see for himself that she was, indeed, alright.

With sweat that trickled down his face and into his eyes, Johnny slowly dismounted. He tried to keep as much of his weight off his bad leg and leaned into Valiente’s strong frame to ease the pounding in his head and the fire that had ignited in his thigh.

Getting himself together, he limped through the back entrance, braced himself against the wall and scouted the saloon. No Jessie. Damn! Still upstairs. He swayed a bit on his feet but turned to carefully make his way up to the second floor to her room. He had to stop twice as he hopped one step at a time up the steep incline. He tried to land as lightly as he could when he advanced to the next riser as the pain exploded and sweat poured from his body with his efforts. Finally, at the top, he leaned against the wall to slowly slide down the hallway to her door.

“Johnny, honey! What are you doing?” Jessie exclaimed, she caught him as he teetered dangerously and clung to the door frame then helped him across to her bed where he flopped sideways onto her pillow.

Johnny’s eyes flickered as his unfocused sight finally found her, and he smiled. “Y’alright, Jes…sie? Not hurt?” His eyes closed as she answered.

“Yes, I’m alright, thanks to you, Sugar. Ya just lay down an’ sleep some, ya hear?”

Carefully Jessie lifted his injured leg onto the bed, then his left leg and straightened them, tugged off his boots, and spread a blanket over his sleeping form. Finding a bit of fever, she wiped his face with a cool cloth and waited for him to wake.

Coffee. Sure could use some a that coffee… A soft groan escaped him as he tried to move and felt a cool gentle touch on his head. He stilled his moving and sighed.

“Feels good…,” he mumbled, and he heard a sweet giggle. With a huge effort, he opened his eyes to find Jessie perched on the bed next to him, watching him intently.

“Feelin’ better, Sugar?” she asked as she felt his head for fever and satisfied there was none she fixed him with a relieved grin.

Johnny started to sit up, and Jessie helped to steady him. “I can’t stay here, Jessie. Ya know of someplace I can lay low for a day or two?” he asked as he shook his head to clear the cobwebs. She moved to sit on the bed next to him.

“You can stay here, Johnny. Carter wouldn’t think of taking you out of here now, not after what happened.”

Johnny focused his gaze on her. Does she really know what’s goin’ on? Johnny thought to himself. “Don’t count on it. Those men that took ya last night, they say who they were?” he asked.
 
Jessie smiled as she watched him try to pull himself together. “I know who they are, Johnny, they come in here on occasion. But I don’t think that Mr. Carter would appreciate the things they were sayin’!” She laughed as she talked.

“Yeah? What’d they have ta say?” Johnny pressed for information. How much more ridiculous could this get? The men that worked for Carter were unlike anything that Johnny had ever dealt with. They were incompetence at its best, and they all worked for a crazy man. Sounded like a lethal combination to Johnny. How had they managed to pull off the ambush that took out all his men? Even with the help of Lester Weasel-Face Heller…

“Well, I got the impression that they don’t like their boss very much. Sounds ta me like they’re all thinkin’ about quittin’. And especially with what happened last night, Johnny, I’ve never seen anything like it! There were four of them! How did ya manage to take them all out?” Jessie asked wide-eyed with amazement.

Johnny smiled a bit. “Two of them are probably still tied up in the rocks… Saw the flash from the pistol of the third one an’ it was luck that I shot him cuz it was too dark ta see him. The last one, the one standin’ closest ta you, don’t think he was really sure about which end of the gun the bullet was gonna come outta. He was just slow, but I couldn’t risk you gettin’ hurt. You had nothin’ ta do with this an’ that ain’t the way ta settle things. Carter wants ta play dirty? He’s in for it now an’ I’m gonna be the one ta end it. He ain’t seen dirty yet!” Johnny spat as the faces of twenty-four dead men flashed through his mind.

Jessie coaxed Johnny to sleep a bit longer as she took on this errand. About six miles out of town on a road not used by many, Jessie stopped her horse at an old farmhouse tucked in the trees off the road. The trees surrounded the dwelling; it sat snugged up against the ridge behind and appeared to be abandoned. The old well outside sprouted out of the dirt, dilapidated and in need of repair.

Jessie slid off the sorrel and went to the porch to knock and wondered if Ma Daniels would even answer. She’d been known to pull out her shotgun and rumor had it that she knew how to use it, too. Jessie knocked, a bit afraid but she had to do this.

“What’d ya want?” The old voice from inside croaked out.

“Mrs. Daniels? I need ta talk ta ya, it’s important!”

“I got nothin’ important ta talk about! Go away!” Hester Daniels was not one to give in.

“Please, Ma’am, it’s about Silas Carter…” The door suddenly opened.

<><><><> 

“So someone's finally gonna take on Carter?” Hester’s eyes squinted in a grin.

Jessie returned the smile, knowing this was the best news that this woman heard in a long, long time. She had suffered much at the greedy hands of Silas Carter.

“But there’s something that needs ta be done first.” Jessie stopped, wanting to make sure that Ma Daniels knew exactly what they needed from her.

Hester then became leery. “And what would that be?”

<><><><> 

“Johnny? Hey, Sugar ya gotta wake up b’fore the saloon gets too busy. Johnny?” Jessie whispered in his ear, and he came awake, reaching for his Colt.

“Johnny! It’s just me! It’s alright!” Jessie said, rising in front of him so he could see her face clearly.

He opened scratchy eyes to see a sweet face above him. “Sorry, Jess,” he mumbled as he scrubbed a hand across his face.

“C’mon, Johnny, I got a place for you to stay for a few days.” And she helped him out of bed.

<><><><> 

The ride hadn’t been too bad, and he certainly had had worse. Jessie pulled up at a rundown shack, but it had water, there was smoke coming out of the chimney, and he swore he smelled food. Valiente pranced a bit but settled under Johnny’s firm hand. Coming around, Jessie got there in time to help Johnny as he stepped down from the saddle.

“Thanks, Jessie, I‘m fine.” Although he did loop an arm across her shoulders as they walked onto the porch. Jessie knocked, and soon the door opened to reveal a tiny woman holding a shotgun that was almost bigger than she.

They sat around the table and ate a hearty stew, stew as good as Johnny had ever tasted, however, not as spicy as what he was used to. Jessie finished and got up to leave. She kissed Johnny and turned to the door, but Johnny held her wrist.

“Jessie, I don’t think ya should come out here anymore. Don’t know what Carter’s gonna do. You were in enough danger the other night. Promise me ya won’t try ta come out here.” He saw her balk. “Promise me…”

Her response saddened him. “Will I see you again, Johnny?” she asked softly.

He looked down at the table. “If I can, but ya gotta know I’m leavin' after I take care of Carter.”

She stepped forward to him, and he pushed himself to his feet as she wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face against his shirt. Ma Daniels discretely left them alone.
“Thanks for what ya done for me… Jessie?”

She pulled away, averting her eyes. “Don’t, Johnny. Please don’t say any more.” She gathered herself together and walked out the front door.

Johnny listened to her ride away and lowered himself onto the chair. He knew he couldn’t stay with her and was afraid that she was getting too attached. That was a hazard in this line of work. He looked up into Ma’s face, and she put a hand on his shoulder.

“You alright, Johnny?” Hester asked.

“Yeah, I‘m fine. It’s always the hard part. I can face a man down and don’t think twice about it, but knowin’ that at the end of the job I‘m movin’ on, well, sayin’ goodbye is kinda rough.”

A gunfighter with feelings and a conscience… Ma thought she was going to like this young man. He was nothing like the things she’d heard about Johnny Madrid.

They talked into the evening with Johnny confirming what she thought. He told her about the betrayal, and what he’d done about it so far. She laughed great belly laughs when Johnny relayed the incidents regarding tying Heller in Carter’s office, the visiting rattlers, blowing up the tool shed and subsequent chase of the riderless horse but what really set her to into fits of laughter was the dynamite in the chimney pipe blowing his office to pieces.

“How long ya lived here, Mrs. Daniels?” Johnny asked.

Without skipping a beat, she answered. “Call me Ma. Ever’one does. Been here ever since Carter stole our land. My husband died here, withered away an’ died cuz of that thief.”

“C’mon, there young’un. Let’s get ya inta bed so’s ya can rest. That’s why Jessie brought ya out here.” Ma wished she’d gotten him settled for the night sooner as he looked like he would fall asleep at the table, and she had seen several grimaces during the evening. There was also a slight flush of fever.

She waved Johnny to a small room in the back of the kitchen. The bed had only a single mattress, but it looked comfortable and soft with several blankets and a heavy comforter. Yes, he would be fine. She motioned him to sit, and she gently tugged off his boots setting them neatly to the side.

“Get yerself settled an’ I’ll come an’ tend that leg. Prob’bly need the bandage changed, alright?” Ma said.

Johnny feigned a look of utter shock. “Well, I don’t know… My virtue safe around you?” he kidded.

Ma stood there a minute before she dissolved into fits of laughter, complete with red cheeks, and tears running down her face. She turned to leave him then uttered: “Prob’bly not!” Oh, she liked this young man! Madrid is nothing like I thought he’d be! she thought as she closed the door. The boy has only been here, but a few hours, I haven’t laughed this much in five years!

Hester left him sleep; he drifted off quickly after the pain of cleaning the wound and rebandaging it. She had been amazed that there were no torn stitches with all the riding he’d done. “Guess that ol’ sawbones did right by ya!” She had joked with Johnny regarding Dr. Hodges as she doctored his leg.

“Ya get some rest, son, ya look a mite peaked.” Ma smiled, blew out the lantern, and closed the door.

She sat at her table and thought about the young man lying in the back room. Was this the legendary Johnny Madrid, murderer, thief and outlaw? She wished those damned dime novels would all go away. If half of they said were true, they still wouldn’t come close to describing him, the person that he is. How awful to color the minds of folks with the lies and deceit. It had, no doubt, led to painful discrimination against him, and he hadn’t deserved any of it.

Suddenly Ma was hit with a heavy sadness, the unfairness of it all. What toll had it taken on him? Did he have any family to go home to for comfort? No, Johnny was a strong man, he wouldn’t go asking for comfort or sympathy, but she would gladly claim him as family if she could…

<><><><> 

Her knitting sat bundled in her lap; Ma Daniels worked the needles with fierce determination. The soft ‘tic tic’ of the wooden sticks hitting together was the only sound in the room other than an occasional squeak from the rocker. Sounds of home… Pleasing and reassuring. Sounds that comforted and soothed like a warm blanket and cozy fire.

Johnny had slept soundly, no nightmares last night. He wondered why, then as he opened his eyes, he knew. It was the old woman that had made the difference, like the difference she was making now, and he couldn’t help but smile when he saw her.

“Whatcha makin’?” he asked, startling her with his soft, sleepy voice.

Ma smiled widely. “Why, ‘m makin’ a scarf. Bet yer hungry, huh?” she asked as her warm gray eyes lit up like a sweet sunrise.

Johnny scooted up to sit in the bed. “Yeah, sounds good! Uhh, where’s my pants?” he asked, as she got up to get him breakfast.

“You just stay right where ya are an’ rest. Ya don’t need ta be runnin’ all over with that leg!”

“Well, that’s all well an’ good, but I gotta make a trip out back…” he said as he scouted around the room for his clothes.

Ma huffed, and reached under the bed; she dragged out a chamber pot. “No, ya don’t. Use this.” She handed him the pot and left to make his breakfast shutting the door firmly behind her, and leaving no time for him to protest.  

He’d eaten a good breakfast, one that would stay with him, and if he gave it a chance, it would help the healing process. They talked, each found in the other a companionship that was filled with comfort, and easy, good conversation. They talked of inconsequential things, had many laughs, and they talked of Carter, too.

Ma talked of Tom Russell and his wife, Sonja, having been close with Sonny, and heartbroken when the woman suddenly died. But Tom had been strong and determined to make the ranch a continued success. He had stayed, after all, Sonny had loved it so, and that made Tom love it more.

When Carter arrived, it affected everything. He bought the law and made his own. Not many bothered to stand up to the man for the ones that did suddenly found themselves with nothing, or worse. There had been several unusual and unexplained mysteries, too, all revolving around missing persons, folks that had tried to fight the man and Carter’s growing monopoly. And, strangely enough, he never lost a fight, but others suffered much loss. And the law always backed him up.

Johnny felt his belly flip. He’d come across a lot of men like Carter in his line of work and figured that what he’d already done to the man, it was about time to make his final move. From what Jessie had told him the crew he had was about fed up with him, too. Just how the hell had the man made it this far operating the way he did was beyond Johnny, but his guess was that he made his last blunder by hiring this crew. Ya can’t piss off the help an’ expect them ta be happy with their job much less ta fight for ya… But this situation would make it easier. And Johnny settled down to think about the best way to handle things.

“What cha makin’ there, Johnny?” Ma asked as they sat together, Johnny’s fingers deftly braided strips of leather that formed long and even reins. He smiled and met her pale gray eyes.

“Oh, a new set of reins, but mostly just keepin’ my fingers busy. Helps ta keep my hands in good workin’ shape,” he said as bent his head over the leatherwork.

She’d never seen braided reins before, much less how they were made. She watched Johnny as his nimble fingers worked swiftly, and it fascinated her, but she pushed the wonder of it aside, knowing that his mind was occupied with other, more serious thoughts.
 
“I can see there’s somethin’ on your mind, son,” Ma wasn’t so sure that she liked what she saw on Johnny’s face. She knew there was more trouble ahead; she could see it in his eyes.

“Oh, not much a nuthin’ right now.” He yawned, and covered his mouth then mumbled “sorry,” trying to divert the line of questioning Ma was headed toward. She sighed picking up on the fact he wasn’t going to talk about it. Knowing that his injury had probably caused severe blood loss the best thing for him now was rest and thinking that before too very long he would be taking on the next part of his plan, she let him be. She took his clothes from where they lay on a chair and headed to the door.

“Ya get some sleep, Johnny, an’ I’ll get these things washed an' mended for ya.” Avoiding eye contact, she left and quietly shut the door knowing if he had nothing to wear he would be more likely to get the rest he obviously needed. And she was right. Minutes later, she peeked in the room, and he was sleeping soundly.

It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that he woke. He looked around the room for his clothes, but they weren’t there. He tried moving his leg, and it wasn’t too bad, no stabbing pain shooting white-hot shards of jagged lightning up to his hip or down to his toes but the stitches were pulling a bit. Not terrible, though. He yawned and ran his fingers through his hair then pulled himself up to lean his back against the pillows. He reached for a glass sitting on the table next to the bed and took a long drink of water then let his head rest against the wall and closed his eyes.

He felt better than he had in days and would be better yet if he had some clothes to put on. As he waited for Ma to check on him, he thought about how he would handle Carter. He had an idea but would have to give it some more thought. His plan needed a little tweak here, and there, and he wondered if he was up to it, maybe he would have to give it another day or two. But what he really had to figure out was how Carter was operating now, what had he been up to these last few days, that would take some reconnaissance.
Hester knocked lightly on the door and was rewarded with Johnny’s soft, “Come in.” She smiled broadly as she saw him sitting up, but still resting. “Got your clothes washed an' mended,” her eyes twinkled as she added, “Let me know when ya need help puttin’ them on!” Not able to hold back a chuckle she sat on the chair and watched, taking in the fact that his color was much improved and his eyes were clear.

He returned her grin with one of his own. Johnny knew when he was being observed and despite the fact that Ma hid it well, Johnny decided now was not the time to raise her suspicions.

“Think I‘m gonna give it another day or two if ya don’t mind. Don’t think this leg’s quite ready ta be doin’ much yet,” Johnny volunteered softly as he watched her eyes and gauged what he read in them. And he was surprised.

Ma didn’t really believe that, but she couldn’t force him to stay put either. “Glad ta hear that, Johnny. No sense makin’ somthin’ worse if ya don’t have to. Are ya hungry, son? I made some chicken n’ dumplin’s. Haven’t made that in so long, it was Justin’s favorite.”

“Justin was your husband?” Johnny asked quietly, and Ma nodded as the usual spark in her eyes faded.

“Sorry, Ma, didn’t mean ta take ya ta a place you’re tryin’ ta stay away from…” He saw the sadness creep in to wash over her, but she tried to push it away. He saw that, too.

Ma’s lips turned up slightly at the ends. She was constantly amazed at him; he was nothing like folks made him out to be. He was not cold and calculating although she knew he could be; it would be something that he would have to think about, put forth an effort to do. It did not come easy for him, but his thoughtfulness and manners were obvious. Sometimes she could almost picture him as a little boy. I bet he was a little sweetheart as a baby! Then thinking he wasn’t that much older now, but then, everyone looked like a baby to her.

“Ya just rest for a few minutes an' I’ll bring ya your dinner.” She left him alone with thoughts of how he could make Carter pay for what he’d done to her.

Similarly, in the kitchen, Hester’s thoughts ran along the same vein. She hoped that Johnny wouldn’t do anything to cause him any more harm, but wondered if there was anything she could do to help in whatever he had planned in that sneaky mind of his. She applauded his courage, strength, and cunning, but she was afraid for him, too.

They had another enjoyable meal together, eating, and talking far into the evening. Hester was delighted when Johnny had a second helping of dinner knowing that he would be testing that leg, and sneaking out in the night. She didn’t let on about it, and thoroughly enjoyed his company, but she called an early night telling him to get more rest, blew out the light, and left the room.

Hester cleaned up the dishes from their supper and got ready for bed. She lay there under her blankets for a long time and never heard the footsteps through the small house or the front door close. She knew nothing until she heard his horse gallop away.

<><><><> 

Johnny made it through the house with no noise. He pictured himself tripping over an unseen rug on the floor or knocking into a chair and pushing it to scuff across the wood planks. But none of that happened. The front door did not squeak, though he opened it slowly.

He‘d gotten Valiente saddled with no issue, and mounted the horse. Although his leg was very tender and sore, he got seated without causing any damage.

In their talks, Johnny had discreetly gotten information from Hester; what direction this house was from town, and how many miles away it was. He’d been groggy when Jessie brought him out here, and now wished he would have paid more attention during the trip, but it was done, nothing he could do about it now. But he was on his way, and hopefully, he’d be able to get a handle on what was going on in Carter’s house. Johnny was going to make sure the bastard paid for the things he’d done and night time was a great opportunity for ‘convincing’ someone to agree to your way of thinking. There was something about the dark that helped to bring 'persuasive powers' to their fullest.

Johnny found the road to Carter’s house easily enough. He stayed out of sight, and, again, reached the spot where he had watched the house before. He took the time to get himself settled comfortably and prepared to wait. Wait and watch. For anything that would indicate how the man was doing things or what things Carter was up to. And he didn’t have long to sit before a strange pattern emerged.

The house was dark, normal enough for as late as it was but suddenly a light flickered on in an upstairs room. Johnny watched as a shadow walked passed the curtained window, then came back as if the occupant were pacing. Johnny smiled. That was a sign of a troubled man. Johnny watched the pacing back and forth across the shaded room for about twenty minutes before the light was extinguished. Three hours later, still hunkered down under cover, Johnny decided to head back to Ma. He’d seen enough for tonight.

It was almost four when Johnny got back to Hester Daniel’s cabin. He stabled Valiente and limped across the yard to the porch when he heard the unmistakable sound of hammers being pulled back on a shotgun. There’s not another sound like it.

“Ma, it’s me, Johnny,” he said just loud enough for her to hear him. He opened the door at the accompanying release of those hammers, and a lamp was lit. “Sorry if I gave ya a scare, Ma, didn’t wanna make a lotta noise if you were still sleepin’,” he said, and he gave her his dazzling smile, the smile that usually melted the hearts of women, and Ma was no different.

The more comfortable he became around her, the more she could envision him as a small boy wrapping those who could see what she saw, around his little finger. “How’s that leg, Johnny?” she asked, noting the way he was limping. It had been a serious injury, and she watched him, surprised he was doing as well as he was.

He pulled out a kitchen chair, leaned his hands on the table as he slowly lowered himself to sit. He blew out a deep breath before he answered. “Oh, it’s fine. A little sore, but guess that’s ta be expected.” He hung his hat on the back of the chair as Hester made a pot of coffee.

“Ya want some breakfast, son? Ya look like ya could use it.”

Johnny looked up at her as the deep pools flickered in the lamplight, and his smile lit them brighter. “Well, I reckon I could eat something, hate ta have ya cooking this early, though.”

There it was again, the consideration, she thought. Giving a small chuckle, she set about making breakfast with a large smile. “It’s no trouble, Johnny, it brings back good memories an’ it feels good ta take care of someone again.” She turned and issued one of her own smiles that could warm a heart.

 Johnny could almost feel his throat tighten. Dios, Madrid, get a holda yerself! But for a minute, he thought of the smile his mother would give him when she wasn’t sick, and it brought back a flood of memories, and not all memories of her were bad.

Ma turned back to the stove, and soon a cup of strong, hot black coffee was placed before him. The aroma was incredible as he picked up the large mug. First, he inhaled the brew then took a tentative sip. He closed his eyes as he swallowed, it hit his belly, and he swore he could feel it travel through his veins.

Dios, Ma, ya make some good coffee!”  He sighed as he drank the dark, thick brew and watched her at the stove.

“Glad ya like it, son. Your breakfast will be ready soon as I get the biscuits made,” Ma said in a chipper tone.

Johnny realized just then that she was making him a full meal. “Don’t mean ta have ya doin’ all a that, just some eggs’ll be fine; I‘m gonna go out an’ feed the horses, then if ya don’t mind, think I‘ll try an’ catch a few hours’ sleep.”

She turned from the stove to face him and in a sweet voice gave him a reply. “I surely don’t mind, Johnny, truth is I was gonna suggest it myself. You’re still not mended, so it’s best that ya rest after being out all night. Far as the horses are concerned, I been takin’ care a them for a long time. An’ yours ain’t gonna be any problem, I can do it taday, too. You just get some rest.”

Johnny smiled, thinking he’d never been put in his place so bluntly before and liked it.

<><><><> 

Freshly baked bread. He smelled fresh bread, and it made his mouth water. Johnny rubbed his face with his hands and threw the blankets off as he pulled himself to his feet. He took a small step and found that his leg was feeling better, he was sure there would be a limp for a while, but he was pleased with the progress that had been made in such a short time.

He shook out the leather calzoneras, stepped into them and buttoned them snuggly, then tugged on his boots. Before leaving the room, he pulled the blankets up and straightened the bed, then flung his shirt around his shoulders and stepped out into the kitchen.

The aromas of home overpowered his senses. He noted a large kettle filled with stew cooking on the stove. Ma sat at the table snapping beans and gave him a sweet smile as she watched him settle into a chair opposite her at the table. His hair was a bit tousled and added to the ‘little boy’ look, making her grin as she remembered things from long ago. He looked at her mantle clock and shrugged.

“Sorry, didn’t mean ta sleep this long. I didn’t mess up any plans ya had, did I?” He was sure he had to be wearing out his welcome.

The grin only grew. “No, Johnny, I was glad ya got some rest ta be honest with ya. Are ya goin’ out again tanight?”

Johnny met her gaze and smiled but did not respond to the question. The less she knew about what he was doing, the better he felt about it. He had put her out too much as it was. If Carter found out who was helping him, there was no doubt in Johnny’s mind that he would come after her, then wondered if the man had any men left to do his dirty work for him. The thought made him smirk a bit.

“How’s that leg feel now?” she asked, knowing he wasn’t going to answer her first question, but already knowing the answer to both of them. He tested it, bending it at the knee with only a slight pull of the stitches.

“Better, must be your cookin’!” he laughed. “I ain’t ate so much in a long time!”

“Well, ya could use a little fattenin’ up! But I wanna change that bandage before ya go out tanight,” she said, letting him know that she knew he was leaving. “I’ll send along some food, so ya don’t get hungry. It might get a little chilly tanight an’ some food in your belly’ll help keep ya warm.”

<><><><> 
He left Hester Daniel’s cabin at midnight. She waited up with him to see him off, sending with him, as promised, a bag loaded with food. It was heavy and peering in, he had to smile when he found two large beef sandwiches, and he discovered a huge piece of apple pie then wondered just how long he could continue to eat like this before Valiente refused to let Johnny ride him anymore!

He was beginning to feel at home in these rocks, he’d spent so much time here now. The plan was coming together but the need to watch Carter a bit more ensured his time here would be prolonged, and he couldn’t be sure of anything until he could determine what the man was up to.

Ma had re-bandaged his leg before he left the house and had been very pleased with the progress of the wound. She applied a salve to keep the skin pliable to prevent the stitches from pulling. She had seen his grimace when, at the table, he was showing her how well he could bend it.

Johnny had settled in to watch Carter’s house and noted there were not as many guards. This could mean one of two things; either the hands had quit or they were keeping out of sight, perhaps in hopes of luring him out into the open. He shrugged at the thought. It was better to have them underestimate him and overconfident in themselves- that often happened with men like Carter. Thinking themselves as superior, more intelligent and above all others was their downfall, but it was Johnny’s plan to let him keep thinking that, although it had been very apparent that the man, indeed, was not all that bright. Well, regardless, Johnny would have to deal with the issues as they were presented and improvise as he went along.

<><><><> 

Jessie circulated around the saloon, keeping cowboys entertained talking and drinking. As she passed by a table a hand snaked out to gently take her wrist as a cowboy, well on his way to oblivion, asked her for another bottle. She smiled her sweet smile and went to get his whiskey. As she returned, she heard a slur issued from the cowboy to his partner sounding very much like ‘I got half a notion ta help out Madrid what with Carter bein’ such bastard!’ Jessie deposited the bottle and acted as if she hadn’t heard what she thought she heard.

She was determined to stay close, and maybe she could pick up a little useful information to pass along to Johnny. One man against Carter, and what men had stayed, was still against the odds. She hoped that even this bit of information might help him in this ugly mess and tip those odds in his favor. She wondered what else she could hear if she stayed near to that table and spent the rest of the night sticking close as the two men became more inebriated by the minute.

<><><><> 

The moon was only a thin crescent as it hung in the blackened sky. It provided no light. However, it did provide cover. It was time to check out the house and surrounding areas. Johnny eased his way onto the grounds around the large, ornate structure. Larger than most houses, it was elaborate in design, ostentatious, and seemed very out of place in a glaringly obscene way. Much like Carter himself, Johnny thought.

Where most of the larger homes in the area were adobe or at least stucco, Carter’s living quarters was built of white bricks with shiny black painted wrought iron railings that trimmed the massive front porch. Matching railings encased the upper-level balconies tied in with bars of the same covering the windows in the front door and first floor. The roofline hosted several dormers; one huddled above each of the balconies. Huge potted plants guarded both sides of the immense and ornate front door. Huh, looks like he was expectin’ trouble when he built the place… Johnny thought as he made his way around back and stopped to watch for guards.

The place looked like it was deserted; however, Johnny knew that wasn’t the case. He’d caught a brief glow of a cigarette in the loft opening of the barn, a good vantage point to watch from, unless that is, you need to be out of sight, and not announce that you were up there. Not to mention the fact that Johnny could smell the smoke and it wasn’t the same as the smoke from a wood stove. Once again, Johnny thought of the lax care Carter’s men gave to the security. Well, from what Jessie had overheard the other night, most of Carter’s men were less than loyal.

Johnny took his time and scouted the area. He picked out four men that stood guard duty on the property around the house and outbuildings. He was able to stay out of sight without raising any alarm, and for that, he was very relieved. Although his leg was much improved, he didn’t think he could run for cover if he needed to. So he continued to skirt the outbuildings before he headed to the main house.

Thankfully Carter had no dog that would bark at the scent of a stranger, but with all the new hired hands of the last two weeks, how would a dog know Johnny’s scent from a new hand? Regardless, no dog, no barking to alert anyone.

He took his time as he went and kept his pistol handy as well as his knife with a long and wicked blade that he always had tucked in his boot, and it was a knife that he knew how to use… very well.

He spent a bit more time around the outbuildings then headed toward the house. With no moon to cast shadows, no dog to worry about giving him away, and a sparse and careless guard crew, Johnny thought this just might not be too treacherous to carry out. Johnny had been told he possessed enough audacity for an army. Well, tonight that audacity would pay off. He’d certainly breached much more secure properties in his career. He guessed the more pompous the man, the sloppier he got, especially if no one had stood up to him before. Huh, maybe doin’ him a favor, teachin’ him a thing or two. Well, he won’t be needin’ the lessons for long, not for what I got planned for him…

He waited for the guards to pass, but they stopped and talked as if they were bored with the night. Johnny stood and listened. They were not ten feet away and oblivious to the fact that Madrid was there.

“That damned Carter’s a bastard lately! Well, more’n usual… He jumps on me one more time an’ ‘m done! He got no call ta ride roughshod over all of us like he’s been doin’!” the man spat.

“We been doin’ what he told us ta do and it still ain’t good ‘nough… Think the man’s goin’ crazy! What does he need this big of a house for, hell, there ain’t even any help living in there with ‘im!” The man growled to his partner. “He ain’t gonna be satisfied till we all quit an’ there ain’t no one else ta take his bullshit!” Although spoken in rage, it was not very loud; they were, after all, close to the house.

“Well, I ain’t gonna take it much longer! It ain’t no wonder why he’s up all hours of the night! Did I tell ya what that jackass said ta Winslow?” The other man shook his head no.

Johnny almost laughed as the two men vented. They finished their story swap and finally continued on their way along their designated route. Johnny waited for them to walk around the corner out of sight before he pulled the knife out of his boot to coax the back kitchen door open. He stopped before he slipped inside to listen for any noise. The bit of information he just learned about Carter up and awake during the course of the night would need to be dealt with, and all Johnny could do was to be ready for anything. With nothing to raise any alarms, Johnny went into the house.

The interior of the large kitchen was spotless; he saw that even in the dark. There was not a dish or pan out of place. A huge work table occupied the area in the middle of the room, and a bowl of apples sat in the center. Cupboards and countertops lined the walls. A pantry bigger than some of the rooms Johnny and his mother had lived in stood off to the left of him, and he stepped into it, noting another exit door. The shelves were stocked full with bags of flour, sugar, and coffee, and row upon row of home canned goods stuffed the racks to overflowing. The man was definitely prosperous, but not for long. Not if Johnny’s plan came to fruition.

Johnny slowly pushed the door open that took him into Carter’s living area. A long hallway with plush carpeting stretched to the front of the house passing an enormous formal dining area with the longest table that Johnny had ever seen. Just who the hell would need that big of a table ta eat at? How many folks does he feed at one time? Johnny noted the candelabras, each with a dozen candles, and wondered if the son-of-a-bitch ever started the house on fire with that much flame.

He continued on through the house with his easy, cat-like steps, and came out to a gargantuan foyer that seemed to be a gluttonous waste of space, but then again, most any room here was bigger than what he’d been used to. Johnny smiled to himself and wondered how big the man’s outhouse was. Then he re-thought the idea; Carter probably had one of those fancy-dan water closet things Johnny had heard about.

Still not hearing anything he needed to be worried over, he continued his search of the house. Every room was ornate and gaudy. All the windows were adorned with heavy burgundy velvet drapes with four-inch gold tassel trim that would keep out any light or perhaps intruding eyes.

On his right was a large formal parlor, complete with a piano the likes of which Johnny had never seen. A fireplace that fit the size of the room dominated an inside wall and plush furniture of garish colors and pattern made him smile thinking that some of this, although no doubt costly, screamed out to the whores at some of the bordellos he had visited over the years. Johnny grinned to himself as he thought about whores lying about on the furniture in Carter’s house. Sure get a lotta 'em sittin' around that dinin' room table...

On the other side of the mammoth foyer was, at long last, Carter’s study. Johnny decided not to press his luck. He couldn’t light a lamp and risk giving himself away, so he would just wait for Carter to do it for him. Johnny went to the windows but kept a few feet back so as not to show any movement inside the house and alert the guards, but he decided to look around. The guards were not aware of anything, not aware that Madrid had penetrated their perimeter, nor were they aware he was in the house.

He looked over the top of the massive desk for any papers but knew those of value would be locked away. Of course, the desk was locked, but he also searched for a safe. Sliding his hands behind pictures on the wall provided him no luck in locating one. He returned to the desk to hunt through the pigeon hole compartments and found a small derringer. He took the time to remove the bullets from the tiny gun before returning it to its spot and pocketed the ammunition.

He stood in the middle of the room and memorized where everything sat then made his way back through the kitchen and stopped at the massive table to take three apples from the bowl. He stuffed them inside his shirt, slipped out the back door, and melted into the night.

Carter don’t know it yet but he’s makin’ this awful easy for me, Johnny thought as he made his way to Valiente tied safely away in the cover of the rocks in the back of the house. Sounds like he’s pissed off as a bear with a sore paw by the way his men are talkin’. He reached the horse and paused long enough to feed the animal two apples as he bit into his. Valiente munched contentedly as he made short work of the snack, then Johnny swung into the saddle on his way to Hester Daniel’s tiny, warm house.

<><><><> 

Once again, Johnny was met with the shotgun until he identified himself. He felt great relief that Ma was wary, and the shotgun leveled the odds for her. He was growing to not only like the old woman, but his respect for her had also latched onto his heart, and that was not good. In Johnny’s line of work, it could get him and the others he cared about hurt or very dead. Men like Carter wouldn’t care if she was an old woman or not.

After Johnny announced himself, the door opened, and he went inside. As if by sleight of hand a cup of coffee was set before him and he turned to smile his thanks as she patted his shoulder and took a place at the table with him. Even in the dim light, she could see his fatigue but was thankful he had not come back injured. She had a vague idea of what he was up to, but would not ask him about it. He would not have answered her inquiries if she had.

Hester watched as Johnny gratefully accepted the coffee and held the mug in his hand. He took a sip and winced as the hot, strong brew trickled down his throat. Johnny tipped his hat off his head to let it slide down his back as the stampede strings held it from falling. His smile grew, and as he raised his eyes to catch hers in the dim glow of the lamp. She could see the sparkle of what could have been mischief under other circumstances.

Yes, she would certainly lay claim to this young man if she could. He was one to be proud of and could only hope now that her son would have been as good as this one who sat at her table. She hadn’t had her son but a few months before the baby was taken from her, the fever that ravaged the town had robbed many of family and friends, especially the very young and very old. And here, sitting before her, was a young man with no family. Rumor had it he’d been on his own for most of his life. How ironic life could be that these two people, an old woman, and a young gunfighter would meet, and become friends, enjoy comforting conversations, and have meals together, each finding something that they both had missed.

“I’ll fix ya some breakfast, Johnny,” Hester said as she pushed away from the table then went to the stove and returned with the coffee pot to refill his near empty mug. The boy sure does enjoy his coffee! she thought as she watched him drink.

He set the cup on the table, and looked over to her, touched by her kindness and concern. “Thanks, but after I finish this coffee, think I’ll get a few hours a shut eye. ‘Sides, all  that food ya sent with me before I left should keep me from being hungry for a while. ‘Preciate it, though.” He grinned at her before he finished talking. “An’ don’t be puttin’ yourself out makin’ breakfast for me an’ waitin’ for me ta wake up. Ya done so much for me as it is an’ I want ya to know that it means a lot, Ma.”

He stood as he reached out and took her by the shoulders and gently pulled her into a hug. He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight for a brief time. “Thank you, Ma,” he whispered into her soft hair of silver before backing away. “’Night,” he said as he turned and slipped soundlessly into the back room and softly closed the door. Hester stood there with tears filling her eyes, her fingers resting on her lips.

“Good night, son,” she whispered to the empty room.

Ma sat at the table peeling potatoes and put them into a pot of water. The dinner she planned for tonight would be special; a foreboding notion in her knew that Johnny would be leaving her soon. Where it came from, she couldn’t say, but it was strong. If she let herself go, she would cry, but she didn’t want him to be distracted by the thoughts of a sentimental old fool on his mind tonight. He would need all his wits about him, so she pulled herself together should he walk out of his room and catch her with tears and red, watery eyes.

The sound of hooves coming down the trail alerted her, and she grabbed the ever-present shotgun to turn a watchful eye out the window. It was Jessie. Hester looked down the road and hoped the girl had sense enough to know if she had been followed.

Ma opened the door and stepped out onto the porch then took a look down the road; Well, if anyone followed her, they’d have kept hidden in the cover in the trees she thought. Before Jessie could call out a greeting Ma put her finger to her mouth signaling to Jessie for quiet. The girl became alarmed, thinking Johnny to be still suffering from his bullet wound. Ma saw it on her face.

“He’s fine, Jessie! Why did you come out here, girl? Were ya followed?” Ma asked softly before they entered the house, then scoured the trees and ridgeline again.

“No, I was careful gettin’ here, took a trail that winds around then I doubled back just ta make sure. No one saw me leave town, either. Where’s Johnny?” she asked, still not certain all was well.

“He’s gettin’ some sleep. Been out mosta the night. He’s fine!” Hester assured the girl as she ushered Jessie into the kitchen, again with her finger to her lips and motioned her to the table.

“Coffee?” Ma asked.

Jessie smiled and shook her head no. “I need ta talk ta Johnny, heard some things last night an’ today that he might need ta know,” Jessie said with a tinge of nervousness in her voice.

“What’d ya hear, Jessie?” Both the women jumped at the soft masculine tone coming from behind them as Johnny stepped into the room.

“Johnny!” Jessie jumped from her chair and ran into his arms. “I’ve been so worried about you!” He laughed as she stepped back and looked down at his leg. “How’s your leg?”

“It’s fine, thanks. Got me a real good doctor here,” he said as he motioned to Ma. “What’d ya got ta tell me?” Johnny asked, not wanting to prolong this visit.

Jessie’s smile disappeared as she told what she heard in the saloon. Carter’s men were getting tired of their boss to the point of leaving, claiming the man to be loco, but they also talked about the fact that Carter hired more guns. None had arrived yet, but in the next few days, there would be trouble.

Having sent Jessie back to town with a warning to keep alert and watch around her, Johnny returned to the house. Ma had seen the sadness in Jessie’s eyes when she walked out to her horse, and she knew he was feeling it, too. She felt like she was intruding as she watched their goodbye, and the searing kiss they shared. Then Johnny helped her to mount her horse and watched as she rode away.

Entering the kitchen, Johnny pulled out a chair and blew out a slow, deep breath. Hester discreetly watched, and she could tell he was running scenarios through his head. She was amazed at the calm that surrounded him and certainly was baffled by it. One man up against a tyrant that doesn’t stop at killin’, dangerous and ruthless with Lord knows how many men workin’ for him; an’ Johnny is here as calm as he can be… an’ workin’ alone… Well, the tales about his courage I can believe.

“Can I help ya with anything, son?”

Johnny’s face split in a grin as he turned to her. “Ya already have, Ma, ya already have. More’n you’ll ever know.” His honey-smooth voice made her smile.

<><><><> 

Lying on the bed, Johnny put the final tweaks on his plan. It should work if he did it soon. Can’t hardly sashay inta the man’s house with a bunch a hired guns walkin’ ‘round he reasoned with a cocky grin. The plan should work but he’d learned a long time ago to be flexible because anything could happen, but one way or another, he would get Carter. Carter would finally pay for all the wrong he’d done and for the folks he’d cheated… And murdered, like Tom Russell and the twenty-three of his men that were led to their deaths. And Johnny swore to himself that Hester Daniels would come out on top having suffered at the hands of the tyrant.

“How far is Tom Russell’s place from here, Ma?” Johnny asked when he returned to the kitchen where Ma was cooking their dinner. She looked surprised at the question.

“’Bout nine miles southwest of here,” she replied as she lifted her hand and pointed the direction.

 “Why? What’s there?”

“Oh, just thought I’d go an’ see what kinda damage Carter’s done ta the place. Heard he has it all fenced off now.” Trying to keep her suspicions in check, Johnny deliberately set her mind onto a different path, he knew she was going to worry, and he wanted to do all he could to limit her distress. “Think I’ll take a little ride,” he said as he left the table. He went into the back room and came out with his jacket. “I’ll be back for dinner,” and he stopped to give her a peck of a kiss on her forehead. With a dazzling smile, he left the kitchen and shut the door quietly behind him.
<><><><> 

Tom Russell’s ranch lay stretched out before him; the rolling hills looked lonely as if pining for the love of the couple that used to reside there. The house was abandoned; there were no horses or cattle that once dotted the landscape in lazy contentment, and the grounds were empty around the house. Weeds had taken over the gardens, and the flowers that Sonja Russell once lovingly tended were choked out, long dead, like her. There was no one there.

Johnny slowly worked his way to the front gate and found it locked. Never having let a lock stop him before, Johnny tore out a fence post allowing him to enter onto the property. He saw no evidence of fresh tracks anywhere around from either horses or humans. No one had been here for a while, so, with the fence post pulled out, Johnny walked Valiente to the house and found a layer of dirt that covered the porch floor. No footprints. He went around back to check for prints. Nothing there, either.

He then went to the barn and looked inside. He dismounted his black horse and let him drink from a bucket of fresh water Johnny got from the pump. Then he went inside the barn and set about his errand. Half an hour later, he was on the back trail headed back to Ma and dinner. He was hungry now.

<><><><> 

The light from the window was a welcoming beacon, a warm glow to blanket the heart and wrap it in the love of family. Cut it out, Madrid! Johnny chided himself at the thought. It’ll never happen, not for someone like you! Johnny had time to gather his thoughts together as he pulled his saddle from Valiente’s strong back to brush him down. Only then did he find himself able to face Ma, enjoy her company and share conversations over a home-cooked meal… this one last time.

Johnny came to the front porch and knocked before he opened the door.

“Ma, it’s me,” he announced as he stepped into the warm kitchen smelling of home. Ma stood at the stove and smiled brightly as she bent and opened the oven door to remove freshly baked bread.

“Your timin’s pretty good, son! Supper’ll be ready soon’s ya wash up.”

Johnny eyed the bread, a large plate of roast beef, and bowls of mashed potatoes, gravy, and roasted vegetables.

“I made ya a chocolate cake for dessert, too.” She waved a hand at the countertop by the pump.

Johnny thought he’d died and went to Heaven! His mouth watered at the sights and aromas that swirled around the kitchen, and without another word, he went to wash up for what he knew was a very special meal to be enjoyed with a very lovely lady.

“Ya shouldn’ta went ta all that trouble! But I sure do ‘preciate it! Ya oughta open up a café an’ share this an’ get paid for it!” Johnny said enthusiastically.

For just a brief moment, she pictured in her mind what the café window would look like. It would have painted ‘Johnny’s Café’ at an angle in bright red letters, and if someone were to ask her who ‘Johnny’ was, her answer would be ‘my son’. She smiled at the thought as she watched Johnny, once again, put away a sizable plate of food.

“Leave ya a space for some cake, son,” Ma said, as she got the coffee off the stove and filled his cup.

The evening passed with easy conversation, most of it light-hearted and trivial with both, Hester and Johnny, avoiding what was on their minds. Ma knew that he was leaving, and she observed him as he talked about his horse and things that would put off the inevitable, the issue of having to say goodbye.

As for his part, Johnny was having trouble, for the first time in his young life, knowing that this was the last meal sitting in comfort and talking with a woman he was rapidly growing to love. Damn it, Madrid! Ya can’t get attached ta anyone! You of all people should know that!

Ma caught the shake of his head that he tried to cover up, but said nothing about it. Finally, she braved the subject that she wanted to ignore, but found she couldn’t any longer.

“When are you leavin’, Johnny?” She stared across the table and watched as he struggled and read the battle that played out on his handsome features.

He met her knowing gray stare after a minute of grappling for the right words. “After midnight. Need ta get where I need ta be an’ get outta there b’fore anyone can see me.” He spoke softly as they talked, having broached the subject they had both been avoiding. He sighed heavily and sat back in his chair, looking at his hands in his lap, then he met her eyes and saw they had become glassy, welling with tears.

“Please don’t do that, Ma. I ain’t worth no one’s tears…” he whispered, finding it difficult to hold himself together. Why is this so hard? He wondered before the truth slammed into his brain. Ya broke your own rule, Madrid, ya stupid son-of-a-bitch!  “But I wanna thank ya for all that ya done for me; an’ I‘m sorry for the intrusion in your life.”

Ma smiled a bit through watery eyes and leaned forward, laying her hands open on the table.

He reached over to hold the sweet, work-roughened hands, and for the first time, he noticed how beautiful her hair was as the silver color seemed to glow softly in the lamplight.

“Ya weren’t an intrusion, son. An’ ‘m glad ta have been of help ta ya. But I have ta disagree with ya on one thing, though.”

He gave her a puzzled look.

She lifted her chin and spoke. “Yes, you are worth it, Johnny! An’ I can only wish that had my own son lived past infancy, that he would have grown inta the man that you have become. You are a man that any woman would love to lay claim to, an’ don’t ya ever doubt that!”

He had faced down many gunfighters in the streets over the years, sometimes more than one at a time but never ever in his life had he had such a grueling and exhausting task as that last talk with Ma over dinner. He lay on his bed, had not bothered to shed his clothes, and thought over the words she expressed, words from her heart.
He had broken his number one rule. He’d let himself become attached, and now, in a few hours, he would have to say goodbye to the one soul that managed to breach his carefully erected wall and ride away. Hester Daniels had been the only person who had bothered to look beyond the rumors and false stories of the murderer that folks thought of when they heard the name Johnny Madrid. She had penetrated the layers of gossip, hearsay, and speculation to see what had been in plain sight for all to see, had they opened their eyes and minds to do so. And she had managed, with no problem, to see the man standing before her, and what was truly in his heart. And Johnny was stunned. No one had ever done that, ever. He wondered if he would ever be back.

Funny, he thought, how time could be so fickle. It raced and dragged all at once. He had thought out his plans as best he could, and the time seemed to slow. He wanted to be about this business of making Carter pay for the crimes he’d committed against God knew how many innocent people. But, as it slowly drew near, he realized that his time with Ma would end. And that thought seemed to make the time fly by; it was like sand running through his fingers, and so quickly gone.

He sat up and tugged off his boots, then began to pace around the bed. He stopped to look out at the dusty yard and beyond to the corral. He could barely see Valiente as he stood with his long black tail brushing from side to side in an effort to chase away the night time insects. Clouds covered the moon this night, but that would be of benefit to him for the job he needed to complete. Quietly, he opened his door and padded soundlessly into the living area of the small cabin to check the time on the old wooden clock that sat on the fireplace mantle. Twelve thirty, it was time to get ready…

Ma heard a noise knowing what it was and threw the blankets from her body. She slipped into a robe and stuffed her bare feet into slippers she kept beside her bed, then quickly went to see Johnny as he sat at the kitchen table. He had heard her moving around in her room, and had wanted to avoid this time when he would leave her; he did not want to see her gray eyes filled with the tears he’d seen earlier. Holding his in check was hard enough, and he needed to stay focused on what he was about to do. But that was not meant to be. Ma approached him, and he stood, forcing a smile that he really didn’t feel.
“I know it’s time, Johnny, I know ya have ta leave,” she hesitated, words coming hard, “but I want ta tell ya that you are welcome under my roof anytime, son, anytime!” The last words coming in a soft whisper that broke as her voice cracked with emotion.

Johnny fought to keep his smile. “Well, I‘m gonna hold ya to that, Ma,” he replied, forcing the soft velvet tones to be light. He turned, picked up his saddlebags, and headed to the door.

“Johnny? Here,” she handed him a cloth bag. “I packed some food for ya,” she cleared her throat and made a valiant effort to keep her composure in check. “You’d best come an’ visit me next time you’re in town!” The demand failed to sound with the gruff tones she’d hoped for.

Johnny took the sack from her hands. “Ya can count on it, Ma! Ya can count on it! Vaya con Dios!”  

And he got as far as the door when he stopped. He turned around to face her again, then made his way back to where the old woman stood, wrapped her in his strong arms, and hugged her tight. He could feel her tremble as her shoulders shook a bit, and she desperately tried to hold back the sob that hitched in her throat. Johnny lifted his head and brushed her cheek with a quick kiss and mumbled a soft, “Thank you for everything ya done for me, Ma…” and he was gone.

In no time she heard him gallop out of the yard, and down the road. Long minutes later found her still standing alone in the small kitchen of her small house, and still looking at the closed door.

<><><><> 

Johnny took deep breaths hoping to wash away the feelings of loss. He’d lost so much in his young life, yet, here again, was the feeling of that sharp knife as it penetrated into his heart; another loss. He gathered those thoughts and with a tremendous effort, pushed them away. That was how you got yourself killed. He had to put Ma in the back of his mind, for now, and focus on what was going to happen, making Carter pay. And that thought alone helped to spur him into the mindset of doing what Madrid did best.
Johnny Madrid rode on, now with a much clearer mind, since the plan he’d worked out so carefully was about to come to fruition. Johnny looked at the sky; it was blanketed with heavier clouds than before, and lightning began to flash in the forming thunderheads. Guess it was meant to be… Johnny thought. Never had a storm been so timely and welcome as it was this night. Johnny stopped to take care of the last part of the plan and having completed it, he left for his observation spot in the rocks behind Carter’s house.

For the third night in a row, Johnny hunkered down in the cover of the boulders in the back of Carter’s house and waited for just the right time. His thoughts, now completely on Silas Carter, business magnate, owner of Carter Mining Company and... murderer.

He carefully navigated the spaces between his hiding place and the back of the house. He skirted the smokehouse and seeing no guards, Johnny raced to the back of the residence where he, again, coaxed the lock open with his knife and slipped into the kitchen. He stopped to look out the window, and in the flash of lightning from the threatening storm, he could not pick out the guards. Had the information Jessie told him been a reality? Had the guards deserted him or were they just slacking off in the barn to stay dry? Well, if that was the case, Carter didn’t have to know.

Thunder started to roll in long, rumbling groans, sounding much like drawn out cannon fire in the distance. Johnny watched a few more minutes, then saw flickering in the barn window that indicated there were, indeed, at least a few men out there but Johnny had expected that. The storm, however, was a gift from above, or maybe Ma had something to do with it. He wouldn’t doubt that she had conjured up this storm just for him. And the thought made him smile.

On a leg that was still mending, he went quietly through to the front of the house and mounted the ornate staircase up to the second floor, but stopped and turned instead into Carter’s study. He went to the windows to look out into the yard and, again, the flicker of lightning gave him enough light to see that there still were no guards walking around. Pulling the heavy curtains to block the light that would soon be flooding the room, Johnny carried out his plan. Satisfied no one would be able to see inside, Johnny rechecked the Derringer to make sure the chambers were still empty, then continued upstairs.

As he came to a room, he would quietly open the door and check, making sure there was no one else in the house. After the fourth door, and finding the room empty he wondered what the hell did the man need with all these rooms with no one to occupy them… But that left the last door in the hallway, and Johnny knew that Carter was on the other side. He slid his knife out of his boot and shifted the bolt aside. He waited but heard nothing.

The snores that grunted from the bed were undisturbed. Maybe the bastard was up mosta the night an’ jus' finally got ta sleep. Damn, even this storm ain’t botherin’ him any. Johnny watched from the faint light cast from the glowing embers in the fireplace. He crept next to the bed, lit the lamp, and turned the wick down to where the flame barely flickered. He silently opened the drawer of the table next to the bed where he found another small gun like the one he’d found in the desk the night before. Johnny quickly removed bullets, then replaced the gun in the table drawer.

Johnny set the lamp on the corner of the table and kept it between himself and the oblivious man in the bed. Ever so slowly, he increased the flame, teased it into full light, and only then did Carter stir.

Unintelligible garble issued from the sleep dulled senses. It was soon followed by eyes cracking open in blurry question before they did, in fact, snap open in a panic to see the light that had not been there when he went to sleep.

Johnny relaxed in the chair, slouched with legs stretched out and across at the ankles appearing to play with the blade of the large knife in his hands.

“What… who…” Carter stumbled as he tried to turn to confront the stranger that had invaded his room, in the process knocking over an empty whiskey bottle along with its companion glass.

“Just relax. I ain’t gonna hurt ya, Mr. Carter,” came the low silky tones that Carter didn’t recognize. Rage set in and Carter almost exploded out of bed.

“I said I ain’t gonna hurt ya, Mr. Carter. Now just settle down and don’t turn around, Mr. Carter. Know it's gonna be hard since ya got yourself all liquored up...” The tone now a bit cooler than the one before had been. “Just calm down. Told ya b’fore that I ain’t gonna hurt ya, Mr. Carter.”

“Who are you, and what do you want?” Carter demanded, not liking this game the stranger was playing, but deep down, he knew it was no game.

“That ain’t important, Mr. Carter.” Johnny teased and raised the man’s rage another level. This was good. A man filled with rage was not thinking, could not focus on what he should be, yes, this was good.

“I’ll have my guards kill you!” Carter fumed.

Johnny could see the man’s face turning red with uncontrolled fury, and that made Johnny smile. “Don’t think so, Mr. Carter,” Johnny’s answers started the irritating, nerve-grating effect that was a well-honed tactic Johnny loved. Carter stopped suddenly, and Johnny could see the panic start before the man blinked as if trying to bluff and the horrible truth of something going drastically wrong smacked him between the eyes.

“Why do you say that? I have guards all over this place!” Carter said, trying desperately to gain the upper hand that he was used to having. But he was also desperately trying to rid his brain of the fog the alcohol had produced. He had only meant to drink enough to help him sleep...

“I say that cuz they’re gone, Mr. Carter. Ya can’t piss off the guards an’ have ‘em stay loyal. Best ya learn that, Mr. Carter.”

“Gone? What do you mean, gone?”  The panic started to take hold, yes, panic was good, too!

“Well, I just walked right in here, and there ain’t no one in the barn or bunkhouse ta save ya, Mr. Carter. Now, how ‘bout you an’ me go downstairs, Mr. Carter?”

Carter continued to sit in the bed but started to turn and face the threat in his room.
”Boy, Mr. Carter, you sure ain’t very smart! Ya turn around again an’ maybe this knife'll slip in my fingers, Mr. Carter.” Talking as if to an errant little boy, Johnny continued to taunt the man and saw his tactic work yet again.

“I said, we’re goin’ downstairs, get up an’ don’t turn around, Mr. Carter.” Carter stood, and Johnny threw Silas his robe, then he pointed to the pair of long johns at the foot of the bed where they’d been tossed.

“Maybe ya wanna put them on, too, it’s kinda cold downstairs, Mr. Carter.” With a tiny nudge from the knife that managed somehow to pierce the robe and nightshirt he wore, Carter grabbed the long johns and had to bear with the embarrassment of pulling them on in the company of a man that was a stranger, not to mention, an intruder.

“Them are awful nice long johns, maybe ya can tell me where I can get me a pair, Mr. Carter,” Johnny smiled broadly when the man flinched.

“Alright, now, we’re goin’ downstairs, an’ don’t forget, Mr. Carter, don’t be turnin’ around cuz, well, ya know, this knife just might slip, an’ ya could get hurt real bad, Mr. Carter.” Johnny started to laugh as Carter went rigid. “Get movin’, Mr. Carter.” The tones now were chilling, and Carter felt the ice build in his body. He started to walk down the hall.

Silas Carter was a persistent man. Once again, he tried to get control, but it was now time for Johnny to let the man know that the opportunity was gone and he definitely was not in control any longer. Johnny grabbed the man from behind and with speed unknown to Carter, the knife was at his throat with pressure enough to pierce the skin. He pulled back on Carter’s neck, and the same chilling tones washed over Carter encasing him in ice.

“Downstairs, Mr. Carter, an’ I ain’t tellin’ ya again cuz if ya don’t do what I tell ya ta do, I‘m gonna slit your fuckin’ throat right here an’ watch ya bleed out all over this pretty rug, now move, Mr. Carter!” Johnny felt the first tremor in Carter’s body and knew he had to keep up the intensity, but he let go of the grip on the man and held the knife point to his back not wanting him to piss all over, Johnny had his fill of that with Weasel-Face. Wonder what Carter finally did with him?

Slipping on the stairs only once Carter made it into the foyer with Johnny right behind.

“Now, Mr. Carter, I want ya ta stay away from the windows an’ go inta this fancy study ya got here. Boy, ya sure like showy stuff! Hey, ya know what, Mr. Carter? I seen the same furniture ya got here in one a them fancy whorehouses they got in San Francisco! Betcha never thought ya had the same taste as a whorehouse, did ya, Mr. Carter?”

The laughter was what made Carter react. He tried to turn in rage and confront this man that held a knife in his back, but the pressure of the blade made itself known again, and he stopped. Johnny laughed. Madrid could see the trembling become more prevalent and wondered if it was due to the rage and indignation he was putting the man through, the liquor he'd consumed or if he was just plain scared. Didn’t much matter anymore. Johnny was forcing Carter into a panic. And there was much more to come.

“Boy, Mr. Carter, I‘m wonderin’ how ya got all a this. The land, the mine, this ranch, not ta mention all a your money. But I gotta tell ya somethin’, Mr. Carter, ya really are stupid, ya know? Now, I want ya ta siddown in that pretty soft chair at your desk, alright, Mr. Carter?”

Johnny pushed the man to the desk. Carter took his chair, and as Johnny lit the lamp flooding the room in a soft golden glow, Carter’s eyes landed on the Derringer in the pigeonhole of the desk, and a flicker of hope danced as his hand reached for the gun.

Johnny was at Carter’s back and knew what was coming. He took two steps behind Carter and let the man grab the gun. Carter whirled around in his chair and pointed the small pistol at the middle of Johnny’s chest. He laughed in Carter’s face and still could not believe how ridiculously stupid the man was.

“Now you drop that knife and your gun! Right now!” Carter glared as Johnny kept up with his humor.

“Ahhh, Mr. Carter,” Johnny groaned out with a chuckle, “I just, ha! I just don’t know about ya. Don’t ya even check your weapons? I mean, I unloaded that piece last night when I was here!”

The amusement was the last straw, and Carter pulled the trigger… and listened as the hammer hit on the empty chamber. He looked at Johnny with wide eyes filled with a multitude of varied emotions, rage, and fear topped the list. The man had been here! In the house… Carter was terrified.

“Who are you? Carter whispered, finally, giving in to his fears.

“It ain’t important, Mr. Carter. But what I want ya ta do is take that piece a paper an’ write what I tell ya ta write, an’ don’t do nothin’ stupid, I know it’s hard for ya not to but, for once, don’t be a fuckin’ ignorante, Mr. Carter,” Johnny said in his quiet and condescending tone. “Now write this down, go on, now, write this down, Mr. Carter.”

Silas Carter was now worried. He had no gun, no guards, and he was sure this man was going to kill him. His hand started to shake as he dipped the pen in the inkwell

“Kay, start writin’, Mr. Carter: I, Silas Carter, well go on, Mr. Carter, write! I, Silas Carter,” and the once land/mine baron began to write. “That’s a good boy,” Johnny patronized. “Have decided to,” and Carter took down every word that Johnny spoke.

In the end, Carter was supposed to have had a sudden change of heart and was returning all the properties that he’d stolen to their rightful owners, and a substantial amount of money left to one Hester Daniels in the amount of twenty thousand dollars. The rest of his accounts would be used to build an orphanage and pay for any other crooked dealing that led to innocents having fallen prey to, or been at Carter’s mercy.

Finally, all his holdings were to be sold. Johnny had dictated that Carter acknowledged his guilt in the murder of Tom Russell, among others, and his orders to murder Russell’s men. The last thing Johnny had him put down on paper was that he was going to right his wrongs. He ended by signing his name.
“Now, Mr. Carter, I want ya ta open your safe.” When the man hesitated, Johnny stepped quickly behind him and, again, put the blade to his throat, enough to draw a bit more blood.

“You said you weren’t going to hurt me!” Carter railed, wide-eyed.

“Changed my mind, unless ya do what I tell ya. Now, Mr. Carter, I ain’t gonna be tellin’ ya again. Open. Your. Safe. NOW!” And Silas Carter took the key from the same pigeon hole where the gun had been hidden.

Johnny rolled his eyes. Estupido! Carter’s hand shook, but finally, opened the safe hidden in the side of the desk and released the door.

“Now, Mr. Carter, take out all a the deeds ta them properties that ya stole from all a them poor folks.” Carter looked up at the man with the knife. “Do it, pendejo!” And Carter finally put it together.

“Madrid!” and his guts froze in his body, and for the first time in his life, he was truly scared as his heart seemed to pound against ribs and he almost lost his breath. Dizziness nearly knocked him out of his chair. He felt the bile rise in his throat, and he fought its escape from his body. Now, he knew fear, cold, hard fear, and it was paralyzing. The thunder outside boomed making Carter jump.

“Hey, guess ya ain’t so stupid, Mr. Carter! Ahhhh, yeah, ya are!” Johnny chuckled, then with no warning, his voice turned hard and cold. “Now, get them deeds!” With shaking hands, Silas Carter brought out a stack of documents and pulled out seven deeds.

“That all of ‘em?” Carter could only shake his head. “If I find out you’re lyin’ I ain’t gonna make things easy for ya…” Johnny let the threat hang, and Carter pulled out two more deeds that he had intentionally left in the safe. Johnny smiled, his voice now soft and light.

He looked in Carter’s eyes and said as if it was nothing, “Sign ‘em.” Carter was horrified, shaking more by the minute, almost going into shock.

“Wait, give me a chance…” The rain began to pound loudly on the windows, and the thunder and lightning flashed and rolled as if trying to destroy whatever was out there.

“Shut the fuck up, ya dumb son-of-a-bitch! Sign the deeds before I slit your throat right here an’ now…” Johnny played with the knife, and Carter knew he meant everything that he said.

“Alright, Mr. Carter,” the light, carefree voice was back in place as Johnny looked over the signed documents and the note all written and signed in Carter’s hand. Satisfied, he continued. “Now, we’re goin’ for a little ride.” Carter was losing any control he may have had, and Johnny could see it fade out of the man’s pompous and arrogant face.

“Ride? Out there? Why, it’s storming out there!”

Johnny’s smile only grew bigger. Huh, maybe he ain't so dumb…He stopped Carter before they left the study. Johnny tugged the belt from the robe and had Carter hold out his hands then Johnny tied his wrists together with the soft belt. Johnny flashed the man a dazzling smile.

“Can’t have ya getting’ away on me. Nope, that don’t fit inta my plan.” Taking his bandana, he tied it around Carter’s mouth and gagged him, blew out the light and herded Carter through his house and out the back door.

<><><><> 

The wind was howling, and the rain started to fall in torrents as they climbed into the rocky terrain and up the slope. Once on the ridge, Johnny led him to the horse, Carter’s own horse that Johnny had taken the time to steal on the way over to Carter’s house. Hell, Carter’s ridin’ his own horse so it ain’t stealin’…

Johnny turned to look down over Carter’s property. Through the driving rain, he could still see the flicker of the lantern that the guards used inside the barn. They, indeed, were not watching out for Carter.

”Mount up, Mr. Carter,” Johnny said and helped the man get on his horse. Johnny then swung onto his saddle and pulled alongside him. “Just a minute, Mr. Carter, one more little thing ta take care of…” Johnny took the rope from his saddle and tossed the loop over Carter’s shoulders. Johnny made six more coils up and down the man’s shivering form, then tied him to the saddle horn. Next, he pulled a black hood from out of his jacket and pulled it over Carter’s head, just like he’d done with Weasel-Face, and pulled the small ropes into a tight knot.

“We can go now, Mr. Carter,” Johnny said lightly as if joking. Carter sat tied to the horse and at the mercy of this lunatic of a man. He felt as if he would vomit, he trembled not only with the cold and rain of the storm, but there was a rapidly growing anxiety of monstrous proportions, something he’d not ever felt before.

Carter tried to talk, but was unsuccessful and could only mumble. Johnny ignored the ramblings. Couldn’t hear much over the blowing wind and pelting rain, anyway. Johnny whistled as they went, not bothered by the elements, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the outing. Carter, on the other hand, was petrified and now frantic babbling came from under the hood. Johnny had to smile. The pendejo now knew the meaning of fear.

“Now, don’t ya worry none, Mr. Carter, we’re almost there, Mr. Carter.” The repeating of the name was designed to be irritating, sarcastic and demeaning. Johnny had found it was quite effective. Another two miles and they would be at their destination, and soon Carter would have nothing to worry about...

Thoroughly soaked to the skin and shaking uncontrollably, Carter sat as they rode through the ‘gate’ that Johnny had made the day before. This had been too easy; Johnny had never pulled off anything this effortless before, however, dangerous none the less. But he was determined to carry this through for what Carter had done to Ma and Tom Russell and the twenty-three men fighting under Johnny’s command. And for all the others that Carter had cheated, and stole from, and murdered. How many were there? But this would have to do, and after tonight Johnny just may sleep through the night without haunting dreams to plague him… Maybe.

Johnny stopped Valiente at the door of the barn and dropped the reins of Carter’s horse in the mud. Then he led Valiente into the barn and let the reins fall into the straw that covered the floor. He picked up a small rope from the straw and tied it around the saddle horn. Johnny was sure the horse would stay put, even with all the thunder and lightning. Carter felt the horse had stopped and the panicked filled rambling began again.

“Now don’t be gettin’ yourself in a pucker, Mr. Carter. We’re here. I’m gonna help ya down now.” Johnny took his rope off the man and rolled it back into a neat coil, then returned it to his saddle. He reached up to pull Carter from his horse. The man’s legs nearly buckled as he hit the ground.

“Easy there, Mr. Carter, can’t have ya fallin’ down an’ gettin’ hurt, now can we?” Johnny continued with the sing-song tones. “Alright, we’re gonna get outta the weather. It’s gettin’ plain nasty out here if ya ask me. Come on along, there, Mr. Carter, that’s right. Why you’re doin’ just fine, there, Mr. Carter.” And the man’s incessant whining slacked off.

“Ya just stand right there, Mr. Carter, while I get some light so we can see what we’re gonna be doin’,” Johnny struck a match and lit the lamp as the flame flickered and sputtered, then grew slightly larger. The light would be sufficient. Dawn was beginning to break, but the angry sky blotted out the sun. Well, they wouldn’t need much light anyway. Johnny checked over the arrangements he’d made and satisfied with them, he led Carter toward the chair.
 
“Now, Mr. Carter, ya need ta take this step right here, yeah, that’s it; just take one step.” Carter stepped onto a wooden box. His mumbling continued, but Johnny talked over him.

“Ya alright there, Mr. Carter? Not gonna fall down, now, are ya, Mr. Carter?”

Mumbles, loud now, came from under the hood. “Alright, one more step, Mr. Carter, that’s right just step up, there, good, now, ya just wait right there an’ I’ll take that hood offa ya, bet you’d like that, huh, Mr. Carter?” Johnny swung into his saddle and nudged the black stallion next to the bound tyrant standing on the chair. He then reached up and pulled the noose down over the hood and settled it around Carter’s neck.

The man froze and began to whimper; his body shook with no control. Johnny then took his knife and cut Carter’s bound hands loose and stuffed the soft belt from the robe in his pocket. He was glad to see there were no marks on the man’s wrists.

Now, standing on his own with hands untied he wobbled and begged Madrid for mercy. He was out of the rain, but he was not out of danger… Deep down, he knew he was on his way to Hell. Then he felt the tug around his neck, and Johnny quickly cut the strings that held the hood in place and pulled the gag out of the man’s mouth.

Carter’s eyes grew in raw fear as he realized what was about to happen as Johnny held a shovel and knocked out one of the legs of the chair he was standing on. The leg that he’d rigged to fail. Carter gagged, and he knew he was going to pay the highest price he could, his life.

“Wait! Madrid, stop! I can make you a rich, rich man!” as he frantically tried to loosen the noose.

But Johnny just smiled. “Well, Mr. Carter, gotta say no ta ya.” And his voice turned cold, blisteringly cold. “Ya ain’t got enough money ta make me part of the scum ya turned inta. Oh, best not wiggle around too much there, Mr. Carter. Ya might fall down, an’, well, that would be too bad, huh?” Johnny turned to the door.

“Wait, no, don’t go, don’t leave me!” Carter said as tears began to leak out of his eyes and down his cheeks, eyes wild and breathing harsh and ragged.

Johnny stopped and held up his hand. He turned to Carter with his smiling face. “Oh, yeah, almost forgot…” and Johnny released the small rope that he had tied around the saddle horn, the rope tied to a second leg of the chair. “Well, Mr. Carter, I tell ya what, if ya can get that noose off your neck an’ get down, I promise ta let ya go.”

“I hafta go now, Mr. Carter, adios, pendejo!” and Johnny pulled the rope as the second leg was yanked out from under the chair. He reined Valiente to the door and stopped, the screams echoed in the barn. He slid the bit of the wooden leg off the end of the rope and tossed the piece at the base of the teetering, two-legged chair as it wobbled wildly, desperately tipping side to side for balance under Carter’s windmilling arms. His long limbs flailed frantically, too busy seeking stability and not enough time to reach for the noose and loosen the knot. Johnny turned his back and rode away. The screams suddenly stopped, and all that could be heard was the storm.

 

Epilogue

Two years later

Two dusty and travel-worn men rode down the main street of Los Alamos and stopped to tie their weary horses at the hitch rail in front of the saloon. They stepped up to the batwing doors as the dark haired man stopped to check out the inhabitants in the room. Seeing no threat, Johnny Madrid Lancer walked into the smokey interior and took a table on the back wall while his brother, Scott, brought back two large mugs of beer. Johnny kicked out a chair with his foot. Scott settled down to sip his libation and survey the room.

“So, this is Los Alamos. It appears to be a nice town,” Scott said with raised brows and a smile.

Johnny shrugged as he watched the foam run down the outside of his glass and puddle on the scarred and stained table. “Well, it is now,” Johnny said and buried his smile in the mug.

Scott knew there was a story there. “Do I want to know?” Scott asked as he watched his brother's face.

Johnny looked up over the rim of his glass with a twinkle that sparkled in the sapphire depths but didn’t answer.

There’s so much about my brother that I don’t know! Scott thought.

A pretty saloon girl with long red hair sauntered to their table with a sassy grin that set off a twinkle in the equally sassy green eyes.

Johnny looked into her face, and with the sweet smile he used to get what he wanted, asked: “Don’t know if ya knew her but is Hester Daniels still around?” He knew he could have made this detour for nothing, but knew he had to try anyway; he had to know, one way or the other and held his breath with anticipation.

“She has the best food in town! Owns Johnny’s Café just around the corner!”

Johnny jumped out of his chair, the smile split his face as Scott eyed him suspiciously.

Johnny’s Café?” Scott asked, noting the look of sheer joy on his brother’s face.

“Hey, I didn’t name it!” Then he turned back to the pretty face. “There a girl here named Jessie? She’s a friend a mine.”

The redhead in the pretty emerald dress frowned, What’s wrong with me? she wondered. “She moved on a year ago, married a gambler and left town,” she said with a pout.

Johnny was tugging at Scott’s arm. “C’mon, Scott, we gotta go! Thanks, querida!Save us a table for later!” And Johnny kissed her solidly before turning to anxiously walk out the door, but stopped, as was his custom, to check the street. With an all clear, and Scott trailing behind him, Johnny hurried to the café around the corner and opened the door.

<><><><> 

It was neat and tidy and smelled like heaven. The homey red and white checked table clothes were clean and inviting. The floor was spotless, and the same checked pattern dressed the windows. On the wall behind the counter were shelves filled with cakes of various kinds and pies with a selection of cookies and other delights that Johnny couldn’t identify.

There were only a few tables available, attesting to the quality of the food served, and Johnny could well vouch for that. He looked around the room and was about to ask a waitress when the door to the kitchen opened, and she walked out into the dining room.

Ma looked the same to Johnny, except she looked… happy. Her sweet face filled with beauty, even with the wrinkled skin. But it was her hair that had caught his attention. The beautiful silver color set off the light gray eyes, and the air around her seemed to glow. Her dark blue dress accented her beauty. She talked with her customers, and it was obvious she was well liked.

Everyone stopped eating as she walked by, begging a word to compliment the cook and make small talk. Her smile was genuine and caring, how well Johnny knew. They watched as Hester came to a table where a young woman, large with child, sat sipping a cup of tea. Ma stopped, and with an extremely intimate gesture, she put a gentle hand on the swell of the woman’s belly as they exchanged a few words. It would take someone very special to make that familiar and personal move.

 Johnny stood, with Scott behind him, watching with curiosity. Ma turned and started toward them but looking to the side; it was then she looked up at the two young men that stood just inside the door and was about to ask them to sit when a spark went off in her brain. She stopped in her tracks and stared. Her eyes immediately filled with tears and she threw herself in Johnny’s arms as the sobs defiantly broke through, despite her efforts to stop them. He wrapped her in his arms and picked her up, hugging her close.

At first, the patrons looked on with shock, but they all knew Ma Daniels, some for most of their lives, and to see her so happy, well, this was alright by them. They all wore smiles as they observed Ma with a person that was so obviously special to her.

Johnny set her back on her feet, and the tears kept coming although she wiped them away.

“Johnny! Ya look well, son! ‘M so glad ta see ya!”

“Real good ta see you, too, Ma, real good! Hey, got someone I’d like for ya ta meet.” Johnny turned to Scott and pulled him forward. “Ma, this is Scott Lancer, my brother.”

Ma’s eyes were wide in shock. “Brother? Johnny, we need ta talk! C’mon, you, too, Scott! Any brother of Johnny’s is a son of mine!” And they walked out together, Ma in the middle with a Lancer man on each arm. They made their way to her neat, tidy, and modest home filled with the love of family that Johnny had grown up without, and Hester had lost long ago. They had each filled an emptiness in the life of the other, but it was now mended, and they were happy.

 

 

~ end ~

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