The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buttercup

 

 

FWord From A Ghost

Sequel to The Ghost of Johnny Madrid and Confronting the Ghost of Madrid

        Just outside the entrance gate, which welcomed travelers and visitors to the largest estancia in the western hills of the San Joaquin, a young man drew his rented buggy to a stop.  He had a handsome, angular face, paired with dark hair and eyes.  His skin was darkened more by sun than by birth, attesting to his Spanish ancestry.  He was taller than average and slight of build, giving him the appearance of even greater height. While this tall, aristocratic bearing was desirable for a son of a don of large holdings in Mexico, it made him appear less approachable.  So to counteract this, he had consciously taken to walking with short steps, head down.  In his chosen profession, accessibility was essential.

But all these things were not what one would first notice about the young man.  Instead, the simple black clerical garb of a Jesuit priest was what initially stood out.

The young man took his time scanning the surrounding countryside, appraising the livestock in the distance, the number of visible cowboys, the imposing size of the house—a testament to either the owner’s egotism or expectations for a large family—and the heavy gray clouds which huddled up next to the hills surrounding the open valley, now green from the winter rains.

For a moment more he let his gaze travel from side to side, lingering just a second on each visible rider, as if checking for someone.  But none seemed to hold his interest. With a shake of his head and a murmured “Nos veremos dentro de poco, We’ll see each other in a little while,” he urged the horse on, the buggy swaying along at a leisurely pace.

As he approached, he received the expected deferential nods of respect, all of which he returned in kind.  Then as he rounded the corrals, he was greeted with the sight of a rather short, thin older gentleman holding a goose, whose boyish smile was at odds with his scraggly gray beard and weather-worn face.

While the priest pulled up his buggy, the older man leaned down and released the goose with an admonishment of, “Now mind you, stay out of Teresa’s garden,” in a tone that reminded the priest more of a father talking to a child than a man to a goose.

“Why, hello there!” the older man greeted, his thumbs finding their way up to his suspenders where they anchored like comfortable old friends.  “Can I help ya?”

“Yes,” the priest answered, climbing out of his buggy.  “If I’ve followed directions correctly, this is the Lancer Estancia.”

The older man nodded.  “Yup.  Yer at the right place.  Are you needing to see Murdoch—Mr. Lancer, I mean?”

The priest nodded.  “Yes.  Is he available?”

“Yup.  Saw him come in ‘bout an hour ago.  I’ll take you on in.”  The older man rocked back on his heels once before letting his hands drop to his side.  Then with a sudden flash of embarrassment, he realized he was still wearing his hat.  Grabbing it, he crumpled it to his chest.  “Name’s Jelly,” he said, clearing his throat awkwardly as he gestured toward the door.  “Is uh—is Mr. Lancer expecting you?”

The priest shook his head.  “No.  No, he’s not.”

“Hmmm,” Jelly murmured to himself, opened his mouth to ask another question, seemed to think better of it, and continued through the gate to the front door.

Once inside, the priest followed Jelly through a small entry that opened into a large, impressive room where a strikingly handsome oak desk sat strategically in front of a set of extravagant lead glass windows.

Seated at the desk, his back to the panoramic view behind him, a large-boned, muscular gentleman looked up.  His eyes did a quick jump from Jelly to the priest and back again as he rose and came forward, his hand extended in greeting.  Any surprise at being the recipient of an unexpectant visit by an unfamiliar priest was carefully masked, and Murdoch’s expression showed nothing but welcome.

“Hello, Father,” Murdoch greeted.  “Is there something I can help you with?”

The young priest smiled, clasped his hands.  “Actually, you can. I’ve come for two reasons.”

Murdoch raised an eyebrow.  “Really?”  He then gestured toward a set of chairs near the fireplace.  “Perhaps you’d care to have a seat?”  He then nodded to Jelly.  “Would you go see if Teresa could bring us something warm?”  He turned to the priest.  “Would you prefer coffee or tea?” 

“Either would be most welcome,” the priest replied as he settled into the chair.  “It was a chilly ride out here.”

“Take care of it, would you, Jelly?” Murdoch said.

“Sure, boss,” Jelly replied, then he cast a last curious look at the priest before leaving.

Murdoch walked to the other chair and sat down.  “Now, what do I owe this visit?  You said there were two things you wanted to see me about.”

The priest nodded, folded his hands in his lap.  “Yes.  The first is related to church business,” he said somberly.

“Church business?” Murdoch raised an eyebrow.  “Padre Bellico in Morro Coyo would probably be of more help to you along those lines.”

The priest shook his head.  “I’ve met Padre Bellico, even spent the night with him after I came in on the stage late yesterday.  And while I did speak to him, I’m afraid this situation is outside his scope.”

“Oh, really?” Murdoch asked as he leaned one elbow on the arm of his chair.  “I’m afraid you have raised my curiosity.  So, just what is this church business you need my help with?”

The priest glanced down at his folded hands for a moment.  “Actually, the church is rather interested in the information it received regarding your son and a purported miracle performed by Saint Francis.”

Murdoch straightened up in his chair, his expression now guarded. “You’re referring to Johnny.”

“Yes.  Johnny.”  The priest nodded.  “Padre Alvarez, who has taken up residence in the old Nuestra Senora Mission, wrote a rather lengthy and detailed description about how your son was saved from a bullet to the heart by a Saint Francis medallion.”

For the first time Murdoch hesitated.  Then he folded his own hands in his lap and reluctantly stated, “While it’s true the medallion stopped the bullet, I don’t believe this warrants a church investigation.  Johnny, himself, would quite adamantly refute the notion of any saintly intervention.”

“No doubt.”  There was a fleeting smile before the priest added, “However, I’m to interview you and your other son, Scott, who I believe also witnessed the event.  I’ve already been to Soledad and spoken to Father Alvarez and some of the other witnesses.” 

“You’ve been to Soledad?”

The priest nodded, gave an apologetic smile.  “I’m afraid the church takes these things rather seriously.”

Murdoch sighed heavily, his face grimly set.

“Perhaps,” the priest continued, “I should explain my second reason for being here.”

Murdoch gave a nod of his head, his expression dubious.

“My second task is to deliver a letter.”

“A letter?” Murdoch asked.  “To me?”

“No,” the priest shook his head.  “It is for your son, Johnny.”

Murdoch sat back in his chair, both eyebrows raised.  “For Johnny?  From whom?”

The priest looked down, reached into the folds of his dark woolen robe and produced a sealed letter which he regarded silently a moment.  Then without looking up, he murmured, “It’s from a priest by the name of Father Simon.”

“Padre Simon?” Murdoch repeated.

At Murdoch’s words, the priest looked up.  “Yes.  Padre Simon.”

“But—but isn’t he dead?” Murdoch asked.

The priest seemed momentarily surprised at Murdoch’s question, but quickly recovered and nodded.  “Yes.  Padre Simon’s been dead a number of years.”

“Yet, you have a letter from him to my son?” Murdoch pressed.

The priest nodded, glanced back down at the letter.  “It was left in my care in the eventuality that Juanito—” the priest stopped, looked back up.  “It was left to me to give to your son under certain circumstances.”

Murdoch’s gaze narrowed and he learned slightly forward.  For a moment he regarded the priest intently.  “Father, may I ask you name?”

The priest met Murdoch’s look without faltering, though there was a drawn-out moment of silence as the two men studied each other.

“My name is Father Francisco.”

“Cisco,” Murdoch murmured, though he managed to keep the shock from showing in his face.

The priest gave a wry nod of acknowledgement.  “I’d prefer it if you referred to me as Father Francisco.  Cisco, I fear, is not comfortable in the vestments of a priest.”

“You came all this way—” Murdoch stopped, his attention diverted by the appearance of Teresa bearing a tray with a coffeepot and cups.

“Jelly told me we have company,” she announced as she approached.

The priest rose to his feet, Murdoch following.

“You must be heaven sent,” Francisco greeted warmly.  “A warm cup of coffee is just what this poor, chilled priest could use.”

Teresa smiled as she sat the tray on the table and began to pour.  “I apologize for not having any fresh-baked desserts,” she said, “but I did make up some sandwiches.  You’ll be staying for supper, I hope.  By then I’ll have a couple of fresh pies ready.”

“Oh, no, no.”  Francisco shook his head.  “I won’t be staying long.”

“You don’t mean you’re going to go all the way back into town yet this afternoon,” Teresa protested with a pointed look of reproach aimed at Murdoch.  “Besides which, it looks like there’ll be more rain moving in, in a few hours.”

“Of course, Father, you’re more than welcome to spend the night here,” Murdoch quickly offered.

Francisco raised an eyebrow with barely concealed amusement.  “Well, thank you for the offer, Mr. Lancer.  But I have a feeling, once my business is completed, it’d be best if I head back.”

“Nonsense!” Teresa chided as she handed Murdoch his cup.  “There’s plenty of room here.”  She suddenly paused, cocked her head thoughtfully.  “I’m actually surprised to see you, Father, so close to Christmas.  Are you not attached to a parish?”

Francisco bowed his head in a gesture of acknowledgement.  “I am currently attached to a parish, yes.  However, the diocese has given me a deferment to attend to some of its business.”

“Oh?” Teresa glanced at Murdoch with interest.  But when no information seemed forthcoming, she smiled, “Well, I guess I’ll leave you to your conversation, as I have some pies to finish.”  She turned and headed toward the kitchen.

“Teresa?” Murdoch called.

“Hmmm?”

“Have you seen either Scott or Johnny?”

Teresa shook her head.  “No. But if either comes in through the kitchen, I’ll be sure to tell them you’re looking for them.”

“Thanks, Teresa.”

Teresa nodded and left.

Murdoch sat down, gesturing for Francisco to do the same.  “So, what do you plan to do?”

“What the church and Padre Simon have entrusted me to accomplish,” Francisco answered simply.

“Is Johnny expecting you?”

Francisco shook his head.  “No.  And I’m afraid it may be a bit of a surprise.  The last time we parted there were—we left some issues unresolved.”

“And this Saint Francis business?”

“I will do my duty as prescribed by my superiors.  I will transcribe what is related to me and deliver the information as requested.”

“And what do you make of it?”

Francisco looked down, was quiet a moment.  “If you’re asking me if I believe in miracles, the answer is yes.  If you’re asking me if I believe what happened to Johnny is a miracle, I don’t know.  It is not for me to decide.”  There was a pause, then Francisco looked up.  “Do I think the story of a miracle is beneficial to what Johnny needs right now, the answer is no.  Juanito—Johnny has always managed to bring enough attention to himself without adding something like this.  If he—” Francisco paused, gestured.  “If he’s trying to change his life, take a different road, a story like this could doom his attempt.”

Murdoch glanced down, studied his folded hands.  “It hasn’t—well, it hasn’t been easy.”  Looking back up, Murdoch added meaningfully, “For any of us.”

Francisco grimly nodded.  “No, I don’t suppose it has.”  He took a deep breath, reached out for his cup and took a slip.  For a moment there was silence as he studied it, cradled it in his hands.  “Harley filled me in on as much as he could, though I could tell he was leaving a lot out.”

Murdoch looked away for a second, decided to change the subject.  “I’m still surprised you came all this way.”

Francisco looked up.  “How could I not?”

Murdoch was kept from answering by the sound of the front door opening.  Straightening up, he glanced over Francisco’s shoulder toward the door to see Scott approaching in long purposeful strides, a genuine smile on his face.

“Hey, Murdoch.  I noticed the buggy outside.  I thought I’d stop in to meet our company,” Scott said, his smile remaining as he slipped his gloves off and tucked them into his belt.

Murdoch shot Francisco a quick look then stood up, one hand stretching out in preparation for an introduction.

“I’m Scott Lancer,” Scott said as he came to a halt a few paces behind the visitor’s chair.

Francisco stood up and slowly turned, his expression comfortable on his face, serene and composed, an expression he’d gotten used to wearing.  As his eyes trailed to Scott’s face, he met the open, welcoming expression with the polite, deferential nod common to any priest.

Scott opened his mouth to speak, but found himself caught under the study gaze of the dark eyes.  There was no intimidation or duplicity in them, but as their eyes met, he knew he was being scrutinized and measured.

Murdoch cleared his throat.  “This is—”

“Cisco,” Scott murmured warily.

There was a momentary hesitation, then the priest nodded.  “You’ve heard of me, too?”

“Not in so many words,” Scott replied.  “What are you doing here?”

“The church has sent Padre Francisco to check into the Saint Francis rumor,” Murdoch explained.

Scott raised one eyebrow, his arms slowly crossing against his chest.  “Johnny doesn’t know you’re here, does he?”

Francisco shook his head. “No, he doesn’t.  But I’d prefer to hear what you have to say before I talk to him anyway.”

 

Later in the afternoon, Johnny reined up near the corral and dismounted.  He’d already noticed no one was nearby, so he allowed himself an extra few seconds to prepare himself before taking Barranca into the barn.  As he did so, he took a deep breath and pressed his knuckles into his side, wincing slightly at the pain, which bit back at the pressure.

He’d pushed it again, overdoing it just as he’d promised not to do.  He and Scott had parted before noon, Scott to bring some men back out to help dig out a small landslide which had damned up a stream from the recent rains, and Johnny to finish checking to make sure no trees had fallen across any fences.  It was supposed to be a rather safe job, as he was simply supposed to take note of any problems and report back to the ranch and get a crew sent out.  However, he had just been finishing up, had been keeping one eye on the low-hanging, thick clouds, when he’d come across a downed tree.  He would have been willing to stick to his word, however he discovered to his dismay half a dozen cows on the other side of the downed fence.  Aware that the impending storm was just going to scatter them further, and also aware that he couldn’t just chase them back to their home range without risking entangling them in the fallen branches and wire, he cut away another section of fencing and herded them back through.  He then patched up the section he’d cut away. 

Then, knowing the stupidity of cows, and fully aware that they’d probably work their way right back over the tangle of tree and wire in obedience to the old adage, the grass is always greener on the other side, Johnny knew he’d have to take care of the downed tree.

Thankfully it wasn’t large, and between Barranca’s aide and his own sweat, they worked the large limb off to the other side.  That accomplished, Johnny had to reset the post and string a new section of wire.

When he’d finished, sore and aching, with sweat running down his face despite the cool December temperature, he acknowledged with no small amount of satisfaction that he’d managed rather well.

However, that had been over an hour ago, and the ensuing ride back, half of which had been done in a soaking downpour, had left him cold and wet—and not in the best of moods.

 Though the rain had abated for the time being, Johnny could hear the wind increasing as he finished storing Barranca’s tack.  And by the time he had started to rub him down, he could hear the rain once again beating a droning rhythm against the side of the barn.

Before he was finished, he heard Jelly’s unmistakable grumblings as the elder man loped quickly through the barn door.  “Blasted weather.  Not fit for man nor beast. Don’t know why it’s gotta save up a whole year of moisture, just to go dumping on us all at once.”

“Jelly,” Johnny grinned as he leaned one arm across Barranca’s back.  “This is what it does every year.  It shouldn’t be any surprise.”

“I ain’t surprised,” Jelly argued.  “I’m merely stating my preference for a bit more dry weather.”  He paused to rub a shoulder.  “Sets my rheumatism off, this dampness does.”  He then stepped closer and narrowed his eyes, the hand that had been previously rubbing his shoulder now dropping to waggle a finger in Johnny’s direction.  “And if I ain’t mistaken, you’re under strict orders not to go getting chilled or wet.  You were s’posed to be back a couple hours ago.”

“Yeah, well it couldn’t be helped,” Johnny replied as he went back to currying Barranca.

“Can’t be helped, my foot,” Jelly muttered as he pushed in next to Johnny and took the brush out of his hands.  “Now you get into that house and dried off.  You stink of wet leather.”

“I’m wearing wet leather,” Johnny stated archly as he grabbed his hat off a hook on the stall post.

“Now mind you, Murdoch’s got company.  So don’t you go shleppin’ through lookin’ like a drowned rat.  Teresa’s put a towel by the front door.”

“Company?” Johnny groaned.  “Who?”

“Don’t know,” Jelly answered with a vague shrug as he continued to rub down Barranca.  “Some priest.  Looks as if he’s stayin’ for the night.”

“I think I’ll come join you for supper.” Johnny grimaced.  “I’m sure the company would be better.”

“Now, Johnny.”  Jelly turned to shoot the younger man a reproachful look.  “You oughtn’t talk like that.”

Johnny shook his head wryly and held up a hand.  “Sorry, Jelly.  Just cold, wet and hungry.”

“Then get on in there.”

Johnny nodded and went to the door.  He glanced out into the driving rain.  Realizing dismally that he really couldn’t get any wetter than he was, he loped across the open yard to the front porch.  There, under cover of the porch, he found a couple of towels left near the door.

As he dried off first his face and hair, then slid off his oil cloth poncho, he worked through a couple possible scenarios to get him out of having to put up with a stiff, formal dinner with some itinerant priest.  In none of his scenarios, however, did he admit to Murdoch that he felt like he had a cold coming on.  He could feel, even now, the beginnings of a sore throat and an aching lethargy spreading through his muscles.  If he came down with a bad cold now, he knew it’d be at least a week before he was let outside again.  He hadn’t been home but a week from Soledad when they’d received a letter from DarkCloud stipulating a list of do’s and don’t’s regarding Johnny’s care.  It didn’t matter that the doctor had already lectured Johnny on them before allowing him to leave Salinas, and had given Murdoch and Scott the same speech, the two prime topics being infection and pneumonia.  DarkCloud had explained in agonizing detail how Johnny’s close call with pneumonia had given him a predisposition for it that would continue for some time.  This now amounted to both Murdoch and Scott scrutinizing his every sneeze.

The dark cloud reached far.

After taking off his wet jacket and cleaning off his boots as well as possible, Johnny stepped into the entry and hung both slicker and coat from separate hooks.

His entrance brought an immediate cessation of conversation from the Great Room.  Not looking forward to making his appearance, but aware that the sooner he got it over, the sooner he could make his way into the kitchen for a cup of whatever was warm, Johnny set an amiable expression on his face and entered.

The first thing he noticed was Scott, standing near the fireplace, a composed look on his face, which while valiant, was unsuccessful.

Murdoch, on the other hand, made no attempt to hide his discomfort.  Johnny automatically assumed it had to do with his rather wet, bedraggled appearance in front of company and was opening his mouth to apologize when the guest, who had been seated in before the fire, stood up.

In a sudden flash of familiarity in form and movement, Johnny knew who it was before the priest had the time to turn around.

“Cisco,” he breathed.

Francisco turned, his hands clasped in front of him, and nodded in greeting.  “Juanito.  Es bueno verlo.”  It’s good to see you.

Sin duda.¿Qué hace usted aquí?”  No doubt. What are you doing here?

“Vine verle.”  I came to see you.

“¿Por qué?”  Why?

“Necesitamos hablar.”  We need to talk.

“No tengo nada decir a usted.”  I have nothing to say to you.

“Juanito—”

“¡Vaya al infierno!” Go to hell!

“Johnny!” Murdoch interrupted sharply, stepped forward.  “Father Francisco is here on church business.”

“Church business, huh?” Johnny stated as he crossed his arms, aware that his wet, bedraggled appearance detracted from the mocking attitude he was attempting to display.

“Yes,” Francisco nodded.  “I’ve been sent by the church to check on the validity of the Saint Francis claim.”

“What?” Johnny exclaimed, stunned.  “You can’t be serious.”

Francisco met the outburst calmly.  “I’m here to check on the merit of the allegations and report on the findings so that the church can decide if the claim bears further investigation.”

Johnny glanced quickly from Scott to Murdoch, then back to Francisco, one eyebrow raised sarcastically.  “And they picked you?”

Francisco allowed a hint of a smile to cross his face.  “I offered.”

“I bet you did,” Johnny snapped.

Francisco sighed, shook his head then took a step forward.  “Juanito, I didn’t come here to argue with you.”

“No,” Johnny cut in.  “You came to lend credence to a ridiculous story.”

“¿Es?” Francisco asked softly. Is it?

Johnny’s jaw tightened.  “¡Maldígalo, Cisco!  ¡Usted sabe es!” You know it is!

“No, Juanito.  That’s what I’m here to find out.”

“It’s Johnny!” Johnny snapped.

“I’m sorry,” Francisco bowed his head slightly.  “Johnny.”  He paused for a moment then added, “I also hear it is Lancer and no longer Madrid.”

Aware that he was being watched, Johnny forced his expression to remain neutral.  “That’s right.”

Francisco smiled slightly.  “That’s good to know, since that’s the other reason I’m here.”

Johnny shifted his hands to his hips.  “What other reason?”

“I’ve brought something for you.”

“There’s nothing you have that I would want, Cisco.”

Francisco’s smile widened slightly.  “It’s Father Francisco.”

Johnny chuckled sarcastically.  “I kept your little secret, but don’t expect me to play that game here.”  He gestured.  “Did you tell Murdoch and Scott who you really are?”

“They know,” Francisco replied, then added, “Just like Padre Simon knew.”

Johnny shook his head.  “He didn’t learn it from me.”

“No.  I didn’t think he did.  But you, yourself, are aware that he rarely missed anything.  He figured it out, somehow.”

“That’s your problem, not mine, padre.  And as much as I enjoy drudging up the past,” Johnny spread his hands out expansively and gave a slight bow, “there are more pressing matters that require my attention.  Namely, some dry clothes.”  He turned curtly on his heel.

“I have a letter from Padre Simon,” Francisco stated softly.

Johnny froze, slowly turned.  “How’d you get it?”

“He gave it to me to give to you.”

Johnny raised one eyebrow.  “He gave—” He stopped, shook his head, assumed an amused expression.  “Must be losing your touch, Francisco, if it took you that long to track me down.”

Francisco gave a benevolent shake of his head.  “No, Johnny.  I didn’t give it to you before, because you weren’t ready for it.”

Johnny scowled.  “What do you mean?”

“Padre Simon left it in my care, to be delivered to you when you decided to turn from the shadows in your path.”

“Is that your sermonizing or his?”

Francisco smiled.  “They are his words.”

“And how about yours?” Johnny asked with a snort.

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t believe the righteous Francisco is just going to let an opportunity slide by to add his own lecture.”

“Johnny.”  Scott murmured in an attempt to diffuse the growing tension.

“Stay out of this,” Johnny snapped.

Francisco took another step forward and bowed his head.  “I’m aware, now, that there was too much past between us for you to listen to me.”

“No,” Johnny’s voice took on a sharp edge.  “There were too many lies.”

“Juan—” Francisco caught himself, put one hand out in a quiet plea while the other reached into the folds of his robe, producing an envelope.  “Take the letter.”

Johnny looked at it suspiciously.  “What’s it say?”

Francisco shook his head.  “It’s for you, not for me.”

Johnny glanced at Murdoch, then Scott, before taking a step forward and accepting it.  He looked down at it, turned it over in his hands before glancing back up.  “Then if that’s all you need me for, I’m sure you can get everything else you require from Murdoch and Scott.”  Coolly, he turned and left the room, his steps echoing on the stairs.

After Johnny’s steps could no longer be heard, Francisco murmured, “He looks better than I had expected.”  Francisco then turned, an apologetic smile on his face as he crossed his arms to slide his hands into the sleeves of his robe.  “From what I’d heard, in Soledad I mean, I feared—” He left the sentence unfinished.

“He’s put back on most of the weight he’d lost,” Murdoch agreed.

“And he healed up well,” Scott added, then stopped as he realized any further defense of Johnny’s current condition only served to accentuate how truly bad things had been for awhile.  Besides, if Francisco had talked to Harley, he would be fully aware of the injuries suffered, and would know as well as Scott did the payment extracted.

Francisco looked at Scott and the two of them studied each other silently a moment before nodding a silent affirmation of each other’s role in Johnny’s life, past and present.

“It’s been a difficult recovery,” Murdoch’s voice gruffly broke through as he paced toward the fire.

Scott turned to watch his father’s progress before glancing toward the hall.  “Do you want me to go up and talk to him?”

Murdoch shook his head.  “If he doesn’t come down for supper, one of us should go up.”

“Bearing a tray of food as a decoy, right?” Scott asked.

Murdoch smiled wryly, glanced back toward the fire, his hands settling on his hips.

His attention also fixed on the hallway, Francisco quietly stated, “It’d be best to give him some time alone with Padre Simon’s letter.”

 

 

Once in his bedroom, Johnny shut the door, then sat down in the chair and placed the letter on the small round table Teresa had, about a year earlier, decided his bedroom was lacking.  With an irritated grunt, he pulled off both boots and tossed them out of the way.  Then he abruptly stood up and began pacing.

His irritation was settled mostly on himself.  He knew there had been no valid reason for his sharp words to Cisco—Francisco he mentally corrected himself.

He stopped to study his reflection in the mirror.  Cisco—Francisco.  Madrid—Lancer.

It had been a long time ago.  And a lot had happened.  To both of them.  To all of them.

He gave a grunt and resumed his pacing as he began to unbutton his damp shirt, his thoughts drifting back to years past, years when he knew only to be Madrid, years of excitement, turmoil, revenge and death.  It didn’t help that it all still felt like only yesterday, and he could distinctly remember both Padre Simon’s and Francisco’s parting words to him.

He could still visualize Padre Simon the last time he’d seen the elder priest.  He had aged drastically in the few months since Johnny had seen him last.  And as Johnny had prepared to leave, Padre Simon had followed him outside, hoping to try one more time to get the young gunfighter to change the direction of his life.

You are right, Juanito,” he had said.  “Each man must choose his path…follow the dictates of his soul.”  Then the priest had paused, fixing Johnny with a long look before continuing.  “But beware of the devil, Juanito.  He is on your horizon.”

Johnny had responded with a soft snort.  “Oh, I’m not too worried ‘bout the devil, Padre.  I figure he’s already been following me around.”

Padre Simon’s expression had gone grave, and he had replied, “No.  Not yet, he’s not.  But he’s waiting.”

With those words haunting him, he’d mounted and ridden out to the village square, only to find Cisco waiting for him under the shade of a tree.

Johnny had been reluctant to stop, knew he’d be the recipient of another of Francisco’s sermons, something he’d received too much of already.   He hadn’t dismounted, had hoped to keep it brief, knew if he stayed long enough he’d say something he’d later regret.

And, as expected, Francisco had given it one last try, hoping to come up with a reason to get Johnny to change his path, not knowing that there was nothing he could say to give Johnny purpose.  Living and dying mattered little anymore; they’d lost their significance back in Kansas.

Darkness is overtaking you, Juanito.     But there’s still a chance.  You can still choose to have a future.”

But that was just it.  At that point, Johnny didn’t want a future. 

And now it didn’t help that just a short few months earlier, he’d been that Johnny—the gunfighter with no reason to live and no future, that he’d forgotten all that had happened to him since he’d first received the offer of a thousand dollars to meet his father.

And now Francisco was here, once more opening old wounds, bringing out feelings better left buried.

Johnny drooped his damp shirt over the back of the chair, then turned to face the mirror, one hand slowly raising to press against the reason of Cisco’s unexpected visit—the testimony of Madrid’s close encounter with death.

He moved his hand, exposing the barely healed wound where a bullet had been stopped on its course of death by a medallion, now the instigation of a new miracle being attributed to Saint Francis.  He sighed and shook his head.  His eyes then dropped to the scarring at his right side.  Three months had improved its appearance, too. 

He shook his head, stepped over to the dresser and laid his hands on the small, ornately carved chest which sat in the center, a forgotten treasure of his mother’s that Teresa had uncovered in the attic soon after he had arrived at Lancer.  He smiled remembering how she had tried so hard to make him feel welcome and wanted, a part of the family. 

He bowed his head, his thumbs idly rubbing the polished wood.

But it had been so difficult, especially at first.

He closed his eyes, saw again the shooting of the Stryker kid, the argument with Murdoch regarding an unfinished fence, all of which had precipitated his decision to leave.  At that point, he had thought he would never fit in, that his attempt to turn his life around and become Johnny Lancer was an impossible goal.

But he had returned and after two years, had come to believe that the impossible might just be possible after all, that Johnny Lancer did exist underneath the persona of Johnny Madrid.

Yet there was still the lure of Madrid and his ghosts that shadowed him.

He opened his eyes, traced the fine line between lid and base with one finger, sighed, then opened the box.  Inside, lying on top, was the medallion Father Alvarez had given him.  Another Saint Francis medal.  Though this time, not meant to protect a gunfighter from dying alone, but as a protector of families—of Johnny’s new family and his place in it.

He lifted it out, letting the chain wrap around his fingers.  He had been reluctant to wear it since returning.  It was difficult enough to look in the mirror and see the scarring over his heart without the added reminder of a medallion dangling next to it.  Moreover, he had seen the look on Scott’s face when his brother had come into his room and had found him wearing it one morning.  The expression, though quickly masked, was too close a reminder of the agony he’d seen exposed on Scott’s face when they’d both thought he was dying in the street out in Soledad.  Not something he cared to remember.

But now he grimly drew it over his head and let the cool metal settle against his skin before reaching back into the small chest and withdrawing a cloth-wrapped bundle.  He placed it on the dresser and unwrapped it, revealing the modifed revolver, the catalyst of the events which had led to his leaving Lancer, the run-in with the bounty hunters, his subsequent loss of memory, and the return of Madrid.

After returning from Soledad, he had replaced it back in the chest and had not taken it out again.  He now wondered what Cisco would say if he knew that he still had it.  Probably something to the effect that death was still his partner, or something equally profound.  Cisco was always good at that.

Johnny picked up the revolver, turned it over in his hands, was both bothered and comforted by its familiarity.  A piece of Madrid kept hidden away in a box.

With a bitter sigh, Johnny placed it back on the cloth, bundled it up and put it back in the chest.  Then he turned around to face the small table and the cream colored envelope awaiting him.

He was aware that he was stalling, that he was hesitant to open the letter and read the words from a now dead priest who had been not only a friend to him, but also an anchor at a time when he sorely needed one.  It had been something which had bothered him for years, that Padre Simon had died without realizing that his words had been making an impact on a drifting gunfighter, that despite outward appearances to the contrary, Johnny had been listening.

With a deep, decisive breath, Johnny stepped over to the table, picked up the envelope and sat down.

Juanito, was all that was written on the outside in Padre Simon’s simple lettering.

Johnny carefully broke the seal, unfolded the letter and read.

 

Juanito, my son,

Having you read this brings me much joy.  I know that someday you will find what you’re truly searching for and where you belong, and when that day comes, this is for you to read.

I am entrusting this letter to Brother Francisco’s care.  I know there is a history between you, though neither you nor he will tell me what it is.  I can only guess.  But I can sense there is a tension, and that while he is ill-at-ease around you, he also carries a great concern about you.  I feel it is his burden, just as I feel your burden is your ghosts.  Think on that, the next time you see him. 

I have watched you now for many months, and I felt I got to know you as well as you would let me on our journey to deliver the holy relics to Caborca.  I saw the stubborn pride with which you accomplished your goals and the emphasis you put on a job well done.  However, my heart was anguished by the torment I saw in your eyes, by the past that haunted you and the knowledge that your soul was being eaten away by what you believe is your only worth. 

But your future is not your gun, Juanito.  And you know that.  You have another future, and the key to finding it is out there.   I am truly saddened that I could not be the one to help you find it, but it was vain of me to think that I was.  Though I could see there were questions in your heart, it is for someone else to provide the answers.

I have faith that Saint Francis will protect you and give you the time to find that purpose, the reason you’re searching for, to change your future.

God continue to be with you, my son, and grant you peace as you lay your ghosts to rest and start on that new path.

Padre Simon

Juanito, sometimes helping someone else release their burdens, helps us release our own.

Johnny closed his eyes, sat quietly a moment, remembering the trip across the desert to save the relics, the dead bandits that Padre Simon insisted on burying, the priests at Caborca when they arrived.  A smile crossed his lips as he remember Father Alvarez in Soledad, and his surprise on finding out that he had been one of those priests at the monastery and that he had known Padre Simon. 

He opened his eyes and shook his head, his eyes trailing back to the letter in his hand.  After reading it a second time, he folded it carefully and put it back in its envelope.  Then he stood up and went to the dresser, where he opened the chest again, this time to place Padre Simon’s letter on top.

Then he turned to lean back against the dresser, his eyes lazily surveying the room, as he thought over the last four months and all that had happened.  He knew he needed to talk to Cisco—Francisco, Francisco!—but was unsure what to say.  The fact that the church had sent him to check into the Saint Francis miracle only made things worse.  He couldn’t believe, however, that Francisco would do that to him.  He’d have to be aware of what a thing like that would do, how it would make divesting himself of Madrid almost impossible.  It was hard enough being shadowed by Madrid without turning him into the legend who would not die.

Yeah, he gave himself three or four months before he took it in the back by some hotshot punk hoping to get a start in the business.

Damn!  And there was still Kansas to take care of!  He slammed his hand on the dresser and began pacing. 

After he’d made his decision to return to Kansas, he’d been ready to take off and get it done, right then and there.  He wasn’t one to beat around the bush once a decision had been made.  He had known what the consequences were going to be, the people it was going to affect, but once the decision was reached, he didn’t want to pussyfoot around any more.

But then he’d had that setback and found himself laid up in bed for a week again.  Then with the early snows in the Sierras, and the holidays approaching, he had reluctantly allowed Murdoch to talk him into waiting until spring.  The reasoning had been sound, he had to admit.  He just didn’t like waiting.  He knew Murdoch was right, that he really did need to take the time to be completely healed, and that it only made sense to let Val have some time to contact his sheriff friend in Kansas to see if he could uncover any other information that might be useful.  But it still amounted to waiting.

Johnny stopped in his pacing, this time to take out a clean, dry shirt.  He had just finished buttoning it, when he looked in the mirror and noticed his hair was sticking up at all angles from when he’d dried it earlier.  Irritated he grabbed a comb and worked it through.  Then turning and giving his boots a shove toward the chair with his foot, he went back and sat down.

He knew he needed to go downstairs and put in an appearance.  He just didn’t want to. But he figured it was just going to be one of those things that needed to be done.

 

When Johnny entered the dining area, he found everyone already seated and eating.  He took his place, aware that the conversation had once again stopped at his entrance.  Only now he wondered with some trepidation what the topic had been.

Teresa, however, always quick to pick up on any changes of mood, turned the conversation to safe topics: the weather, beef prices, current events, the antics of Rosa’s children.  Johnny was more than content to let her lead the discussion, even venturing to put forth a few of his own observations.  Yet all the while, he felt himself under double scrutiny, from Francisco at the end of table and from Scott seated across from him.  He knew they were all aware that the reason for Francisco’s visit still needed to be discussed, but by some unspoken consensus, it seemed that the subject had become banned from the dining table.

After being coerced into second helpings of Teresa and Maria’s wonderful pies, Francisco excused himself for bed.  Johnny, though, had seen a lingering gaze from Francisco and was all too familiar with the covert hint.  At this point, he had every intention of ignoring it.

After Francisco had paid his respects to Teresa and Maria’s cooking and made his proper valedictions, Murdoch led Francisco to his room upstairs, leaving Scott and Johnny alone while Maria and Teresa took the empty desert plates into the kitchen.

Scott turned to his brother, amused at Johnny’s sudden preoccupation with flicking crumbs about the table.

“Johnny?”

“Hmmm?”

Scott waited a moment until Johnny looked up.

“Johnny.  About Francisco—”

“Cisco?” Johnny scoffed.

Scott smiled and nodded.  “If you prefer, Cisco.”

Johnny snorted, shook his head as he looked back down at the crumbs and gave them another flick with his finger.

“I suppose that was a bit of a surprise to walk in and find him sitting here.”

Johnny looked up again.  “You could say that.” He grimaced, let the crumbs capture his attention again where he gave them a last sweeping brush with his hand before pushing back in his chair.  “Wasn’t exactly who you expected for dinner, either.”

Scott cocked his head and grinned.  “You could say that.”

Johnny returned the grin for a fleeting moment before letting it fade.  “Didn’t exactly show my best side, huh?”

Scott swallowed a smile.  “I’ve seen you use a little more restraint.”

Johnny snorted sheepishly.  “I see him, and it just sorta sets me off.  It’s like—” He let the sentence hang unfinished as he abruptly pushed himself to his feet and paced around the table.  “I can’t believe Cis—Francisco,” he emphasized harshly, “is here over this medallion business.”  He pivoted when he reached the head of the table and gestured toward the hallway.  “He knows this whole thing is foolish.  He knows the sorta ridiculous things that can happen, and did happen in our line of work—my line of work—our line—oh,” he shook his head, gesturing expansively, “you know what I mean. Hell, even Harley had two holes put through his hat once, while he was wearin’ it, and they never touched him!  And no one was runnin’ around claiming saintly intervention there!  So what in blazes he gotta go lookin’ into this Saint Francis thing?”

Scott calmly waiting until Johnny had finished. “Are you done?”

Johnny scowled.  “What?  You don’t agree with me?”

Scott shook his head and stood up.  “Johnny, don’t you think Francisco’s aware of all of that?”

“Then what’s he doin’ here?” Johnny’s scowl deepened as he crossed his arms.

“Think about it.  Who would you rather have checking into this proposed miracle?  Some arbitrary, perhaps overly fervent supporter of Saint Francis, or someone who’s more familiar with the consequences of such a claim?”

Johnny pursed his lips.  “You think that’s why Cisco’s really here?”

“I think Francisco knew he was the only one who could see this from all angles.”  Scott paused, watching Johnny’s dissatisfied expression.  “He’s already stopped by Soledad and talked to Father Alvarez.  I guess that’s where the petition is coming from.”

Johnny unfurled his arms and settled his hands on his hips.  “I liked Father Alvarez.  I did.  But I should have guessed he woulda started something like this, the way he was talking.”

Scott nodded his head.  “He was pretty adamant.”

“Did Cisco say if he’d talked to anyone else?”

“You mean, like Harley?”

Johnny nodded uncomfortably.

“Yes.  He said he stopped and saw him.  Talked to your buddy, DarkCloud, too.”

Johnny grimaced.  “Oh, I’m sure the good doctor had plenty to add about the whole mess.”

Scott shrugged.  “He didn’t tell us what he’d discussed.”

Johnny glanced down. “And what’d you tell him?”

“Not much.” Scott shook his head.  “I let Murdoch do the talking.  But it seemed, from Francisco’s questions, that he had a pretty accurate account of the events.  I’m afraid all we could do was to confirm what he already knew.”

Johnny looked back up, his expression pained.  “So, nobody’s discounting this story.”

“Johnny.  We just discussed this.  Francisco knows what’s at stake.  He’s not going to go out of his way to promote a miracle.”

Johnny was quiet a moment.  “And what about you?”

Though he hesitated, Scott kept his gaze steady.  “It doesn’t matter what I think.”

“It does to me,” Johnny stated softly.

Scott blinked, took a deep breath.  “I think you know the answer to that, Johnny.”

Johnny shook his head, sighed heavily as he turned away.  “Well, then don’t you go talking to Cisco, okay?”

Scott smiled wryly.  “I hadn’t planned to.”

Johnny chuckled softly, dragged his fingers back through his hair, then settled his hands on his hips as he leaned back to glare up at the ceiling.  “Sorry ‘bout this, Scott.  Know it’s gotta be uncomfortable with Cisco here.”

Scott walked up, stopping at Johnny’s side.  “He doesn’t bother me.  Not anymore, anyway.”  When Johnny cocked his head to look at him, Scott added, “I think I worked most of that out back in Soledad.”  He paused, then continued, “I was more worried about what having him around would do to you.”

“Me?”

“Well,” Scott looked at Johnny meaningfully, “I know things didn’t end well between you.  And it didn’t sound like you’d ever patched things up.”

Johnny gave a sad shake of his head and looked down.  “No.  And I guess I’m to blame as much as anything.”  He sighed, glanced up through hooded lashes.  “It was a difficult time.”

Scott gave an understanding nod.  “I know.”

Johnny nodded.

The sound of approaching footsteps halted the conversation, and Scott and Johnny turned as Murdoch entered from the hallway.

“Well, Father Francisco is comfortably situated.”  Murdoch stopped and regarded his two sons, one eyebrow raising as he realized he’d interrupted their conversation.  He cleared his throat and headed toward his desk.  “Well, I’m just going to grab some paperwork and take it on up to my room—”

“It’s okay,” Johnny waved.  “I’m heading up to bed, too.  I’ve got a slight sore throat.”

“You do?” Murdoch turned, a scowl now settled on his face.

“Don’t even start,” Johnny said, holding up one hand.  “I’m fine.  I just want to get some sleep.”  He shot Scott an appreciative nod.  “Thanks.  Talk to you in the morning.”

Scott smiled.  “Go get some sleep.”

Johnny returned the smile and headed out of the room.

After he’d left, Murdoch walked up beside Scott.  “He seemed calmer.”

“Yeah,” Scott agreed.  He then slid one hand into his pocket where it tightened around a familiar object, his attention still lingering on the hallway.  “Murdoch?”

“Hmmm?”

“It’s kind of hard saying it wasn’t a miracle.”

Murdoch didn’t answer.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Scott brought Charlemagne to a halt as the sound of gunfire echoed from a box canyon a short distance away. 

“Johnny, I take it.”

Scott swiveled in his saddle to face Francisco, the priest now astride a dark bay horse.  He gave an awkward nod of his head.  “Yeah, I had a feeling this is where he was headed when I saw him take off this morning.  When he’s tense, he—”

“I know,” Francisco interrupted with an apologetic look.

Scott nodded.

Francisco turned to face the canyon, his expression grim. “No, I’m not surprised,” he murmured.  “I rather gave him a shock yesterday.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather come back to the ranch and wait until he returns?  You know you’re more than welcome.”

Francisco shook his head, seemed to have to drag his attention away from the resounding gunfire.  “No.  No, really it would be for the best if I were to leave as soon as possible.  I need to get back to my parishioners and—” he glanced once more toward the sound of the shots, “it’d be best for Juanito if I didn’t stay any longer than necessary.”

Scott nodded, looked down at his crossed arms resting on the pummel of his saddle.  “I’ll wait here then.”

Francisco turned back.  “No need.  I can find my way back.”

Scott looked up.  “It’s no trouble.”

Francisco smiled.  “Do you want to make sure that I’m leaving Johnny in one piece, or that Johnny leaves me in one piece?”

Scott chuckled.  “I’m just trying to be a good host.”

Francisco gave a soft, though hearty laugh.  “A good answer, even if not completely honest.”

Scott smiled in turn.  “Go talk to Johnny.”

Francisco inclined his head, then turning his horse he headed toward the open mouth of the canyon.

 

His face lined in concentration, Johnny adjusted his stance, shifting so that his left side was positioned toward the target area in an effort to make the shot more difficult.  An invaluable lesson he had learned from Reveles. 

If you’re gonna take the time to practice, Juanito, don’t waste it only practicing the clean, call-out draw.  They’ll be few and far between.  You gotta know how to handle yourself in all types of situations.  And if someone’s gonna come at you, hopin’ to catch you unexpected-like, they’re gonna take advantage of every opportunity they can find.  They’ll try to take your weak side, catch you while you’re unprepared, come at you from above, behind, in numbers.  Remember this.  Nobody goes into a gunfight expectin’ to be the corpse after the smoke has cleared.

The shot went off clean, as expected, and he continued with a sharp pivot, crouching low, angling another shot upward to bury a bullet in a scrawny branch in a dead tree limb nearby. As he straightened up he glanced down at the revolver cradled in his hand.  Madrid’s revolver.  He gave a grim shake of his head, flipped open the chamber and methodically replaced the used cartridges with new ones before sliding it back into its holster.

“Juanito.”

Johnny whipped around, his surprise apparent in his stance as his right hand had already found purchase on his weapon before the turn was completed.  On seeing who his visitor was, he grimaced sourly and slid the revolver back into place.  “You oughta know better than that, Cisco.”

“Sí, I should,” Francisco agreed as he dismounted.  He then stepped forward, and after walking a couple of yards, he let the reins to his horse drop before covering the rest of the distance alone.  “I see you’re still wearing that tombstone on your hip.”

Johnny snorted and crossed his arms.  “Now that’s the Cisco I know.”

With open amusement, Francisco cocked his head.  “Didn’t want to disappoint you, Juanito.”

“I’m sure,” Johnny deadpanned, then his eyes did a quick sweep of the surroundings.  “How’d you get out here?”

“Your brother,” Francisco said as he gestured toward the canyon’s mouth.  “He’s back there, waiting.   Ostensibly to show me the way back.”  He chuckled slightly.  “But I think he just wants to make sure we both come out of this intact.”

Johnny gave a snort.  “That’s Scott.”  Then after a heartbeat’s pause, he settled an annoyed look on Cisco. “So, what do you want?”

Francisco became serious.  “I came to talk to you.”

“I have nothing to say to you, Francisco.  I thought I made that clear earlier.”

Francisco took a moment to secure Johnny’s attention before asking, “Would you have something to say to Cisco?”

Johnny blinked with surprise, then snorted his amusement as he let his hands drop to his waist.  “Well, I have a hell of a lot easier time yelling at Cisco than at some priest,” he replied archly.

“Oh, I don’t know.  I thought you did a fairly good job of it,” Francisco said.  Then with an acknowledging bow and a sigh, he spread his arms out to his side.  “However, if it’ll help, for now, I’m Cisco.”  He looked up, met Johnny’s eyes once more.  “But then it’s only fair for me to know who I’m talking to.  Are you Madrid, who I just witnessed practicing his mastery over death, or Johnny Lancer, the son of a rancher?”

Johnny gave a derisive snort and shook his head.  “You been working on these lines long, Cisco?”

“A couple of years,” Francisco nodded amicably.

Johnny hissed in irritation.  “Oh, com’on, Cisco.  You, of all people, oughta know I need to—”

“To what?” Francisco interrupted.  “Perfect killing?”

 “If it weren’t for that, I’d’ve been dead back in Soledad,” Johnny snapped.

“Funny,” Francisco replied smoothly.  “I thought it was by the hand of a saint that you’re life was spared.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed, his jaw tightening.  “I can’t believe you’re gonna buy into that story.”

“I’m not buying into anything, Juanito.  But you left quite a few people in the wake of this event, who do believe.  And I’m not talking about just that priest, Father Alvarez, who wrote up the original petition.”

Johnny’s expression soured.  “And what do you want me to do about it, huh, Cisco?”

Francisco shook his head.  “I’m not sure, Juanito.  But it’s not just Father Alvarez.  Do you know you left a whole town back there believing a miracle happened right in their midst? Johnny Madrid, champion and protector of the exploited and abused. A man who put his very life on the line, who faced certain death, all in the name of justice.  Whom God, himself, saved from the certainty of death.  And the story’s spread up to Salinas, helped along by that conspicuous showdown with that young gunfighter up there.”  Francisco sighed, shook his head.  “You know, out of all the theories I heard, though, I think I prefer the one where you were saved, not by the action of one saint, but two.  I can see Padre Simon’s hand in all of this, can’t you?”

“Jamie,” Johnny put a hand to his forehead and rubbed it in disbelief.  “You talked to Jamie, too, didn’t you?”

Francisco chuckled softly.  “He sought me out, wanting to make sure I had the details down perfectly.  On a side note, I found out you’ve lost your touch in cards, too.”

“I don’t think this is very funny.”

“I never said it was,” Francisco said with a shake of his head, his expression once more somber.  “On the contrary, I take this very seriously.”

Johnny fixed Francisco with a pained expression.  “I didn’t set out to start something like this.”

“No,” Francisco shook his head.  “You were planning to get yourself killed.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed.  “DarkCloud—”

“Said nothing,” Francisco interrupted.  “I spoke to Harley.”

Johnny’s expression turned to disgust.

“Don’t be angry with him,” Francisco said.  “He wrote me about the same time we received the letter from Father Alvarez.  Otherwise I would have never found out about,” he let a hand sweep expansively, “about your finding your father, finding a new path for your life.”  Francisco took a deep breath.  “I had Padre Simon’s letter, which I had promised to deliver.  And I knew, if what Harley said was true,” he paused to shake his head, “you can’t have a story like this take off.”  He was quiet a moment before adding, “Harley told me everything.  About Wakeman, the Judge, the shooting, your loss of memory…what you were put through.”

Johnny gave a bitter sigh.  “Harley exaggerates.”

“I don’t think so,” Francisco said.  “He was pretty worried about you.”

“Well, he had no reason to be.  I’m fine.”

Francisco raised an eyebrow.  “After all that happened?  After what you had to do?”

“Cisco—”

“Juanito—” Francisco cut in.  “I know you were trying to find a way out.”

With a shake of his head, Johnny gave a grunt of dismay and turned away to glare in the distance.  “I have no intention of going through this with you.”

“But I need to,” Francisco replied softly. “I know how hard it is, to be two people, to try to change the course set by previous decisions that have been made.”

Johnny continued to glare out toward the target he’d recently been facing. 

“Juanito,” Francisco said, stepping up to his side, “I’m sorry.  It’s my fault.”  When Johnny turned to look at him, he continued, “I was tormented by my own ghosts, my own decisions.  I pushed too hard.  I wanted—I wanted to save myself by saving you.  I was blaming myself for the direction of your life.”

Johnny took a step away.  “You weren’t to blame, Cisco.  Hell, I was already on that path before I ever met you.”

Francisco shook his head.  “No, you were but a border name, the champion of a few local pueblos, the defender against the oppressors of the weak.  What you were doing maybe wasn’t always right in the eyes of the law, but it was righteous.  But after we hooked up—we—I—put extra demands on you.  And though I never planned it that way, things didn’t always go as I had hoped.  We, no, I, put you into positions where—” his voice grew quiet, “where I counted on your expertise to get us through.  Unfortunately,” he hesitated, looked down, “it wasn’t always easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys.  And I came to realize, that was something left better in God’s hands.”  He looked up.  “But yet, I traded on your talents, and—and I blame myself for where that led.”

“You’re not to blame,” Johnny said, putting a hand up.  “Were you there when Reveles taught me to shoot, taught me to modify my weapon?” he asked as he pulled the revolver out of the holster.  “Or when I shot my first man?”  In silence Johnny looked up from the gun now exposed between them.  “Were you there when my mother took me away from the life I was supposed to have?” he asked softly.

Francisco looked down, shook his head sadly.

“I don’t know who’s to blame.” Johnny continued with a soft snort, “I don’t even know if there is anyone to blame.  I do know—I do know that I wish I had been allowed to grow up here, at Lancer.  But it didn’t happen.  The Johnny Madrid you knew, the Johnny Madrid you met back in that saloon years ago, only lived for revenge.  My only desire at that time, was to make Murdoch Lancer pay for everything that had gone wrong in my life.  I hooked up with you, for the same reason you hooked up with me, because I knew you could get me what I needed.  I knew you could plan the jobs that would bring me the most notoriety, so that some day I could face my father and shove my hell in his face.”

Francisco was silent a moment then gave a small nod of his head.  “And that’s the Johnny Madrid who showed up in Soledad.”

Johnny bowed his head, his eyes closed.

Francisco stepped up closer.  “I’m sorry, Juanito.  I am.  When we split up, I didn’t really think it through.  I only knew that—that there was another calling that I had to listen to, that I had been trying to ignore.  But when it was all over, I had my faith to sustain me, Harley had Mary, Wes, well, he was happy with a few coins in his pocket and a warm embrace.  But I never stopped to think about where that left you, especially after Laura’s death.”

Johnny turned to regard Francisco bleakly, but didn’t reply.

“I should have been more understanding.”

Johnny looked back down.  “There was really little you could do, Cisco,” he said as he slid the revolver back in the holster.

“I could have tried harder to help you.  But I was too caught up in what was happening to me.  I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for, Cisco. Really.”

“Maybe.  But I feel a need to apologize anyway.”

“Padre Simon said I was your burden.”

Francisco raised an eyebrow.  “He did?”

Johnny nodded.  “I should have never put so much pressure on you.  I created your burden, by looking to you to provide the path to what I thought was the goal I wanted.  But it wasn’t the right goal, and you knew that.  But it’s all I had to cling to, so I was afraid to let go of it.  Don’t blame yourself for that.”

Francisco met Johnny’s eyes, gave a tentative smile.  “You truly don’t blame me?”

Johnny raised an eyebrow, a half-grin on his face.  “Well, there is the bit about The Three Musketeers being a Spanish story and not a French story.  Scott swears you’re wrong.”

“Los Quatro Caballeros,” Francisco chuckled softly, a grin developing on his face.  “Yeah, you’d better listen to your brother on that one.”

Johnny smiled, then his expression sobered.  “I’m still left with the mess back in Soledad.  What can I do about it?”

Francisco gave a dismal chuckle, the slow shake of his head matching his sigh.  “I don’t know, Juanito.  When you decide to get saved by a saint, you go all out, don’t you?”

“Have you ever known me to do anything half-way?” Johnny asked.

“No,” Francisco replied with a shake of his head.  There was a slight pause, then he said, “I’ll do what I can to stop it.”

“You’d do that for me?”

Francisco smiled.  “I’d do that for the friendship we used to have.”

“Thanks,” Johnny said.

Francisco started to turn, then hesitated.  “I hear you’ve decided to go back to Kansas,” he said cautiously.

“Scott tell you that?”

Francisco nodded.  “Yes.  He said the two of you are heading there in the spring.”

“I wanted to leave back in November, but Scott and Murdoch thought I should wait.”

“Given your recent injuries, I think that was wise,” Francisco agreed despite Johnny’s deprecating look.  “I got the impression they are both worried about the outcome.”

Johnny glanced away again.  “I would have preferred to leave it alone.  Going back’s gonna be difficult.  It’s going to hurt people I’d rather not hurt anymore.  But if I don’t—”

“If you don’t, you’ll have to leave Lancer,” Francisco finished for him.

Johnny looked back, nodded.  “A bounty that large…” He let the sentence go unfinished.  “These last guys, they were good, they were professionals.  But next time,” he gave a bitter shake of his head, “for four thousand dollars, most bounty hunters won’t worry about using innocent family members to trap their quarry, or about the possibility of a stray bullet hitting one of them.  I can’t have that happen.”

“Have you told them the whole story?”

Johnny shook his head.  “No.  It’s hard.  I started to tell Scott.”

“You need to that, Juanito.”

Johnny closed his eyes, nodded his head.  “I know.  I will.”

“If you can’t prove your innocence, if you can’t get Mark to confess what happened, they will hang you.”

Johnny’s expression was grim.  “I know that.  But if I don’t try to get it taken care of, I’ll end up back where I was, living like I was.  And I can’t go back to that again, Cisco.  I can’t.  Not after I know what it’s like to—to really be alive, to have a future worth living.”

Francisco put a hand out to touch Johnny’s arm.  “Then I wish you luck finding your future, Johnny Lancer.”

“And I’m glad you’ve found yours, Padre Francisco,” Johnny replied.

Francisco smiled.  “Try not to overwork those saints any more than you have to, okay?”

A smile touched Johnny’s lips.  “I’m doing my best.”

 

 

Scott held the chain in his hands, turned the misshapen disc over, his eyes appraising the concave metal, the sharp ridges, the few remaining visible etches of what had once been a Saint Francis medallion.  So intent had he been that he didn’t hear the approach of the rider until Francisco greeted him.

“It went well.”

Surprised, he glanced up to receive a smile, which seemed to Scott to be less the benevolent smile of Father Francisco, but rather a more open smile, one which perhaps fit better on Cisco, Johnny’s old friend.

“I’m glad I had a chance to talk to him,” Francisco continued as he turned his head to glance back the way he’d come.  “It’s been a long time since we talked.  I think we were both too close to our own torments, our own ghosts,” he added with a sigh as he turned to face Scott once more, “to be able to put aside our grievances.  But distance and time brought healing.  But what really helped the most,” Francisco paused, his eyes capturing Scott’s, “was that Johnny found a brother and a place to belong.”

Scott glanced quickly down at the chain he still held and awkwardly gathered it up in his fist.  “We both found our place,” he replied softly.

As he nodded, Francisco’s eyes were drawn to Scott’s fist.  Curious, he cocked his head.  “What’s that?”

Scott shook his head as he attempted to nonchalantly slide his hand into his pocket.  “It’s nothing.”

“Is that the medallion?” Francisco asked.

Scott hesitated.

“Trying to figure out if you should lie to a priest, huh?” Francisco chuckled.

Scott looked up, chagrined. 

“If you’re worried about it making any difference in my decision about what to do, it won’t,” Francisco said firmly.  “I’m going to do what I can to stop it.  The rumor will undoubtedly spread, but I can try to keep it from getting ecclesiastical sanction.”

“So, you don’t believe it?” Scott asked.

“I never said that,” Francisco replied.

Scott turned in his saddle, his expression perplexed.  “But then—?  How can you—?”

“I’m doing what needs to be done,” Francisco said.  “Johnny’s doing everything he can to change his future, to let the burden of being Johnny Madrid and the weight of all his ghosts fade away into the past.  And it won’t happen if that event in Soledad is given support.”

Scott nodded his head.  “He tried everything he could to kill the rumor.  He was really upset by it.  And I’m afraid, well,” Scott’s expression turned chagrined as he withdrew his hand, “he wasn’t exactly thrilled with me when I failed to be a dissenter.” He opened his hand to display the deformed medallion.

Francisco nodded.  “I’m sure it was difficult for you.”

“Johnny wants me to say it wasn’t a miracle.  But I can’t do it.  I was there.  I saw what happened.  I know, beyond any doubt, that he should be dead.  Wakeman and his men had him.  There should have been no possible way for him to come out of that alive.  But he did, Cisco.”

Francisco raised one eyebrow at the name, but said nothing as he studied Scott a moment, realizing the young man carried his own burden of distress from the event.  One he was fighting to keep buried.

“I realize the implications, and know that the rumor would make Johnny an even more desirable target,” Scott continued.  “But I have a hard time discounting what I know was a gift to us all, a chance to be a family, a chance for Johnny to live the life he was supposed to have, an opportunity for me to get to know my brother better.”

Francisco nodded in understanding.  “Johnny has always had a hard time accepting help.  Even from a saint,” he added with a smile.  “But from what Harley told me, he’s learned to turn to you for help.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Scott differed.

“I heard everything from Harley.  You were there when Johnny needed you the most.  Trust has always been a hard thing for Johnny.  He doesn’t give it easily, and he doesn’t accept it unless he thinks he’s earned it.  But it’s there now, between you.  I can sense it.  And that brings me peace.  Whatever else he faces from now on, whatever happens on his journey to reclaim the life that should have been his, he’ll have you beside him.”

Scott suddenly chuckled and held up the medallion, letting it swing free.  “Actually, I told him that since he has a saint watching his front, I’d watch his back.”

Francisco laughed aloud as he urged his horse to a gallop.  “Well said, Scott!”

 

~end~

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