The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link
subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link
subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link
subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link
subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link
subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link
subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link
subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link

M.E.

 

 

The Falcon
First in the Delgardo Legacy series. Follow the link to see the stories listed in sequence.

The sound of shouting in the street did not interrupt Juanito Morales as he swept the cantina floor. Rio Seco’s streets and alleys often rang with the sounds of arguments, making it no different—except perhaps a bit poorer—than a hundred other border towns between Mexico and America. Juanito could make that generalization from experience, having lived in more than his share during his fourteen long years in the world.

He recognized the loudest voice as that of Diego Varga, a bully and a boaster, one of several who claimed to be the most important man in town. In his year in the dusty village, Juanito had learned the names of all the “most important men” and which ones actually made efforts to stand behind their proud words. Varga often acted without the benefit of thinking and was best avoided. Juanito concentrated on his broom and the crumbs.

What made him stop and listen, along with the cantina owner, Mr. González, was the voice that replied to Varga. Father Mateo demanded that Varga and García, the bully on the other end of the argument, put away their guns when there were women and children on the street. Everyone knew the priest had courage, but to confront both men at the same time could only be described as foolhardy.

Juanito and Mr. González looked at each other with concern as the men shouted back. The sound of the pistol shot and terrified shrieks launched the two out the door into the glare of the breathless Sonoran afternoon.

The two combatants had whipped their horses in opposite directions and reached the far ends of the street as Juanito and González joined the frantic group around the fallen priest. Even as he winced with pain and blood seeped through the hole in his cassock over his stomach, Father Mateo tried to calm the weeping women and assure everyone of what they knew could not be true—that he would be all right.

 

Juanito leaned against the adobe wall of the humble church and looked up at the twinkling stars, failing in his heroic struggle not to cry. With Father Mateo’s wounds beyond the power of the curandera’s herbs, the doctor from San Antonio del Monte had been summoned. A crowd had gathered outside the tiny living quarters of the respected priest. Juanito had separated himself from the others, but he overheard parts of many conversations, from favorite recollections of the priest’s twenty years in the town to lamentations about the perpetual fate of the meek in the world to eyewitnesses sharing their accounts of Varga’s angry gesture at the priest, but disagreeing about whether he intended to shoot or if the gun had fired by accident. But accident or deliberate act, the result would be the same—no justice would be visited upon the perpetrator in a tiny enclave forgotten by the authorities during this time of strife with the French invaders. Diego Varga would face no consequences for his crime.

Juanito’s soul burned at their words. If it was the last thing he did, he would repay Varga for what he had done to the only true friend Juanito had in the world.

When the doctor emerged, tired and sighing, the conversations stopped and all turned towards the man with hopeful, and yet helpless, eyes. He glanced around the crowd. “Which of you is Juanito Morales?”

The surprised crowd turned to look at the equally surprised boy. The doctor nodded to him. “He has asked to see you.”

Amidst stares and more than a few frowns, Juanito moved with a lowered head through the gathering, looking at no one. When he reached the doctor, he asked barely above a whisper, “How is he?”

The doctor glanced at the others, then pulled the boy a few steps away from the group. He said, “He’s comfortable. But he will not survive the week.” Juanito’s heart sank. “He accepts this, but still, for his sake, try to be brave.” The boy nodded. He reached for the door, surprised to see his hand shaking. He had entered this building a hundred times, but always with joy at the prospect of talking with the smiling priest who listened to him and managed to cheer him even on his worst days. How could he face this?

Propped up in his bed, his bloodied cassock replaced by a nightshirt almost as white as his face, Father Mateo smiled at his approaching guest. “Juanito, I want to thank you for helping to carry me back here. I know I’m not the lightest of burdens.”

At his friend’s courage, Juanito’s strength failed and he rushed with gushing tears to the priest’s side. The father gave a gentle laugh and comforted the weeping boy. “Juanito, your affection is just what I needed. They say in life the oldest friendships are the best, but sometimes the newest are the most pleasant, are they not?” He laid a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. “The doctor told you, didn’t he?”

Unable to speak, Juanito nodded.

The priest sighed. “This will be the first Sunday mass I’ll miss since I came here.” He rethought. “Although, if I last until Saturday, I’ll be there. The mass will simply be said for me, not by me.”

“How can you talk like that?” the youngster wailed.

With absolute faith, the priest said, “Courage is easy, my friend, when you know the outcome. Besides, I’m old. Nearly sixty. My time would be coming soon enough.”

Lulled by his friend’s calm, Juanito regarded him with dread and awe. He winced when he saw the priest flinch with pain. His rage erupted. “I’m going to kill him,” the boy muttered with quiet fire. “I’m going to kill him.”

Father Mateo frowned. “No, Juan. You must not.”

He shook his head. “The man deserves to die. A mad dog is killed before it can hurt anyone. I will kill him before he kills another.”

With all his diminished strength, the priest took Juanito by the shoulders. “Do not say that. Do not even think it. God alone is allowed vengeance. Promise me you will not kill him.”

The love in the boy’s eyes had been replaced by steely hatred. “I cannot do that.”

“Promise me!”

He shook his head.

Father Mateo thought for a long moment, a faraway sadness in his eyes that almost buckled Juanito’s resolve. But the boy found the fire to stay strong.

The priest emitted a small, pain-laced sigh. “We shall discuss this later. For now, I have a favor to ask of you. A very important one.”

On his guard for a trick, the boy regarded him with a tired gaze beyond his years.

Father Mateo said, “I believe a friend of mine will arrive here in a day or two. When he does, I want you to tell him something, because I may not be able to by then. I want you to tell him not to repay the debt.”

Juanito’s face clouded. “What debt? And how will I know him?”

His tiredness growing, the priest nodded with a light smile. “He’ll know. And you will know.”

 

Fighting his urge to break down, Juanito watched from in front of the cantina as the steady stream of villagers and country péons passed by to pay a last visit to the priest who had watched over them for two decades. The people could talk of nothing else, sharing stories of the father and lamenting the triumph of the wicked in this world. During his two years of drifting westward until he reached Rio Seco, Juanito had become disillusioned with the Church until he encountered this priest who embodied everything religious men and women should be. Now, with the loss of Father Mateo, he knew he would be “lost forever.” He wanted to stop up his ears as hypocrites voiced their worries that they would not receive a new village priest, even though they had not contributed a centavo to the church’s coffers to support the man who had been their priest, school teacher, and moral anchor. Like most border towns, Rio Seco had good people, but they drifted in a sea of too many easy choices. The moment his friend died, this town would become as bad as any other, and he would leave.

Mr. González joined Juanito as he finished sweeping the same spot for five minutes. He shook his head at the parade. “Half of them don’t know what the inside of the church looks like. Even at mass, they see nothing beyond their own noses.”

A minor commotion started at the far end of the street where the small town began. A ripple of attention and whispers passed as people turned to look and wonder. At first Juanito thought Diego Varga had returned, but instead he saw a stranger approaching on horseback. The man rode slowly, with great dignity, as he sat straight as a ramrod atop a magnificent golden sorrel horse on a splendid saddle burnished with silver trim. His well-tailored clothing looked like it cost more than all of Rio Seco. Everyone in the street stared at the handsome, hard-edged man, many with awe and wonder, some with terror. A few fled. Whispers and quiet exclamations preceded the man, who seemed unmoved by the uproar he triggered.

Mr. González stared, then crossed himself. “Father in Heaven, what is he doing here?”

Juanito asked his pale employer, “Who is he?”

“El Halcón,” he said with a tremble in his voice. “Where he arrives, death follows.”

As the horseman continued at his deliberate pace, his eyes straight before him, Juanito marveled. He’d heard of The Falcon, a pistolero of great renown. Why would a legend come to little Rio Seco?

As the stranger reached the point even with the cantina’s door, with the courage of youthful ignorance Juanito called out to him, “Sir, are you here to see Father Mateo?”

The rider stopped, then looked down at the boy.

Mr. González blanched, glanced around at his dumbfounded neighbors, and slipped back into the cantina’s doorway.

In an elegant accent, and with a hint of a smile, the man replied, “Are you one of the town fathers, protecting the populace from a stranger?”

“Father Mateo asked me to watch for you.”

The man gave him a thoughtful nod. “What is your name, trusted friend of a great man?”

“Juanito.” In the presence of so much dignity, he blinked his light blue eyes and quickly corrected himself. “Juan.”

The man held out his hand in a gesture for the boy to walk beside him. “Juanito Juan, I ask you to do me the honor of showing the way.”

As a wide-eyed Mr. González disappeared completely into the cantina’s shadows, Juanito glanced around, then leaned his broom against the doorframe and stepped out into the street. The man gave his horse the slightest of commands, and the two proceeded down the street in silence. Juanito saw a hundred questions and twice as many judgments in the faces of the townspeople as he walked alongside the famous man on his magnificent horse, but he had no thought of pride, or fear, or resentment. He was on a mission for Father Mateo.

With the church in sight, El Halcón asked his guide, “Why did Father Mateo ask you to be his lookout?”

Juanito had never thought to ask himself why he had been chosen. He said simply, “He asked me to relay a message to you in case he could not.”

“What is this message?”

“That you should not repay the debt.”

The pistolero rode in steely silence, then asked, “Is he still able to speak?”

“I believe so.”

“Then he and I shall discuss this matter.”

 

After they arrived at the priest’s small house next to the church, El Halcón left Juanito outside to watch his horse as the two wary parish women escorted the important visitor through the parted gathering of amazed visitors at the priest’s door. The mixture of adults and children regarded Juanito with curiosity, a few with disdain. Even in a town with many transient residents, he had always been the most outside of outsiders. He blamed his gringo eyes, but he knew some of these people required no excuse to choose someone to look down upon.

In contrast to the adults, the younger boys smiled at him with admiration. Pablito, a scrawny altar boy undersized for eight years of age, beamed with pride, then glanced up with hesitation at his glowering father. Despite being a child, Pablito was the closest Juanito had to a friend among the boys in town; his father was Juanito’s most implacable enemy. To avoid repercussions for the boy, Juanito did not acknowledge his greeting.

With nothing else to do, people gathered around the horse to admire the astounding saddle, which surely cost more than the construction of the humble church. Juanito needed no effort to keep the curious at a distance; to show a lack of respect for the possessions of El Halcón would surely invite terrible retribution. Instead, people put their energy into trying to determine why their saintly priest had been sought out by the most terrible pistolero in Sonora—or all of Mexico, for that matter. Despite many theories, no one had an answer.

After perhaps ten minutes, María Guadalupe, the larger and angrier of the parish women, came out of the small house and scowled at Juanito. She announced, “The father wishes to see you.”

No longer capable of feeling astonishment in this matter, Juanito looked at the frowning faces around him and chose Pablito to take the reins of the well-behaved horse. The boy’s face lit up like a hundred candles as he thanked his friend and, drawing himself up with great dignity, assumed the position of responsibility in the presence of his townsmen. Juanito did not look at Pablito’s father as he followed the woman inside.

In the short hallway to the bedroom, he heard Father Mateo’s tired voice. “You know a boy who would put himself between such a father and his son knows he is inviting a beating, too, but he did not flinch. He has a good heart, Rafael. Do not turn him away from that.”

When Juanito and the woman appeared in the bedroom doorway, the priest’s worried demeanor vanished. He offered a weak smile to his young visitor. “Juanito, my confidence in you is complete. Did I not say you would know him?”

The boy nodded, feeling sick at how much Father Mateo’s energy had ebbed from even the night before. It would be a miracle if he survived two more days. He took a moment to notice something odd about the stranger. No longer the proud pistolero with his head held high, he sat next to the priest’s bed in the comfortable attitude of an old friend.

Father Mateo winced, and the pistolero was quick to reach for his pillow to adjust it for the dying man. The priest gave him a tired smile of thanks, then regarded the boy. “Juanito, I would like you to stay with my friend while he is in Rio Seco. I will send a message to Raul González, asking him to relieve you of your duties for a day or two, as a favor to me.”

A day or two, Juanito thought. The rest of this man’s life.

“Obey my friend as you would obey me.” He gave the boy a discerning gaze. “Or, even more so. Are you willing to give me the promise I asked for?”

“No.”

The priest nodded. “Yes, obey him more.”

María Guadalupe drew his attention with an annoyed clearing of her throat. He nodded. “I, too, must obey. Come back to me this evening.” He looked to the parish woman. “If that is all right.”

She glowered. “I don’t care what the doctor says. You must try to eat.”

He gave her a shrug. “If I had enough stomach left to digest it, María, you know I would feast on your delicious food.”

The woman shook her head, frustration welling in her eyes. “Broth, then. You need something!”

He accepted her offer, and she left on her errand. He asked the others to depart and return that evening. He closed his eyes, and Juanito shuddered, seeing the hand of death waiting to pass over the man’s face.

El Halcón gestured for Juanito to precede him, and they left the priest to his rest.

They said nothing as they exited the house. The crowd outside the small home had grown, with many curiosity seekers gathered to see the famous, mysterious visitor. Pablito still stood with great joy, holding the golden sorrel’s reins. The stranger, now once again the proud, aloof pistolero, gave the boy a small smile and a kind hand on his shoulder. As he took the reins of his horse, he slipped the child a small coin. “Thank you for your kind service, my young friend.” The amazed boy glowed with pride, looking to his father for approval. El Halcón also looked at the boy’s father, who seemed more interested in the coin than his child. The pistolero pronounced, “You have a fine son, my good fellow. I hope you treat him with respect.”

Pablito’s father, who knew nothing about respect, nodded with fear, the closest emotion he did understand.

El Halcón informed the gathering that their priest was resting and could accept no visitors for a while. He then began to walk back to the center of the small town. The people followed, at a respectful distance around him, and Juanito fell in behind the silent multitude. When the first person gathered enough courage to ask the stranger why he was in town, and he replied that he had come to visit an old and respected friend, half a dozen conversations about nothing gushed forth from the anxious, excited people.

The odd parade lasted until they reached the cantina, where Raul González stood by the door and nervously asked the man to enjoy the hospitality of his establishment. El Halcón glanced around at the other storefronts in the modest town, eyeing a restaurant across the street aimed at a more affluent clientele, then accepted the modest offer. The cantina soon filled to overflowing with as many of the crowd as the walls could contain. Juanito marveled, then jumped into action at Mr. González’s call for him to help.

 

After an exhausting two hours of bringing food and clearing away dishes, Juanito finally could accept El Halcón’s invitation to join him in his room at the hotel, which sat next to the nicer restaurant. The pistolero had escaped the cantina after an hour of gracious, yet almost silent, presiding over the best day the cantina had seen in years.

The man lounged in the rickety chair of the hotel’s finest room, such as it was, which overlooked the main street. Keeping an eye on the comings and goings outside, he seemed lost in thought as Juanito studied him. With the luxury of time and no distractions, Juanito could see now that although the man was perhaps forty years of age, he seemed much older. Away from the eager citizens of Rio Seco, he had a weariness the boy had not noticed before. His immaculate appearance remained intact, from his perfectly combed wavy hair to his thin mustache and fine clothes. No, his clothes were not as remarkable as Juanito had first thought. His soft leather jacket, white shirt with modest ruffles down the front, and tailored trousers were not so very splendid; only the lustrous conchos that traced the length of the outer seams of his calzoneras were at all noteworthy. It was he, with his careful, polished calm, that lent them an air of great sophistication.

Juanito left the man to his silent watching and glanced around the room. On the bed lay capacious leather saddlebags, still unpacked. Next to them, on the bright blanket folded neatly across the foot of the bed, lay something infinitely more fascinating—the finely tooled leather gun belt and the bright silver revolver. He wondered how many men had been sent to perdition by that shining weapon.

“It fascinates you, doesn’t it?”

Juanito started at the man’s words.

El Halcón still looked out the window. “It shouldn’t. It is a tool, like any other. It has no magic. The only special powers it possesses are the ones you give it.”

Despite the man’s words, the gun lured his attention back. When Juanito’s stepfather had been in a good mood, he would give him occasional, brief lessons with his pistol, starting when he was not much older than Pablito. Only the first kick of the weapon’s recoil startled him when he pulled the trigger, sending the bullet wild. That taste of the gun’s power taught him more than Rodrigo’s vague and useless advice about keeping his eye on the target and squeezing the trigger. You aimed the gun at the target, and you fired. What was so difficult about that? The man had praised Juanito’s good eye and natural talent. But the lessons came to an abrupt end when his stepfather promised that next time he would teach him a trick or two, then casually tossed a withered pad of a prickly pear in the air—and the ten-year-old drilled a hole through it while it still ascended in its arc. Rodrigo gaped, then glared at him and snatched the pistol away, muttering about the weapon being “too dangerous” for a child. Only later did Juanito guess he feared the next time he turned his belt on his unwanted child that the child would turn the gun on his unwanted stepfather. All he knew at the time was the man was never at peace around him after that, and a few months later he took action.

“Please, my young friend, do me a kind favor,” El Halcón said, breaking the spell of Juanito’s memories. “Place the blanket over the gun. I consider it rude to be ignored in favor of an inanimate object.”

Juanito flushed with embarrassment, even if he did not understand “inanimate.” He unfolded the blanket and flipped it over the holster. When he looked at the pistolero, the man was regarding him with a small smile. “So, tell me, Juanito Juan, why you are so transfixed by that piece of metal.”

“I want to learn how to use a pistol. Well.”

“Why is that?”

“…I intend to kill a man.”

El Halcón’s eyebrows raised slightly. “I see. Who is this man?”

“His name is Diego Varga.”

“And what has Diego Varga done to earn such a fate?”

“He shot Father Mateo.”

The man nodded in thought. “I’m sorry, my friend, but you may not kill him.”

With bitter disappointment, Juanito fired back, “So, Father Mateo made you promise to stop me.”

He shook his head. “No. I merely mean that you may not kill him, because I will.”

The boy stared at him.

The pistolero admitted, “It is likely that I will need a small amount of help. May I count on you for that?”

For as long as he had been in Rio Seco, Juanito had pushed against those who thwarted him from doing what he pleased. Now that someone was asking him to do almost exactly what he wanted, he did not know what to think. He felt lightheaded.

“Well, Juanito Juan, yes or no?”

“Yes!”

“Thank you.” He blinked, looking tired. “We can do nothing against this man until we lose our friend. But the moment he leaves this world of sinners, then we shall act.” With a small jut of his chin towards the door, he concluded, “I have had a long trip. I shall rest. You go and work, and think about how we should proceed. Come back at suppertime.”

 

Juanito’s mind continued to be a blur as he chopped extra vegetables for stew, for Mr. González anticipated an evening as profitable as the noontime. As his wife, Estela Abreu, made stacks of tortillas and he shredded a week’s worth of beef, they chatted happily about the good fortune that had smiled on them that day and their hopes that El Halcón would continue to favor their humble cantina over the bland and exorbitant concoctions at the restaurant across the street. Mr. González, in a tone more solicitous than Juanito had ever heard from him before, asked him to be sure to inform El Halcón that they would be honored to have him be their guest for every meal. Juanito was trying to plan a revenge killing and had little attention for such minor considerations, but he promised to mention the offer.

Once the evening’s menu was ready, Mr. González suggested he should leave to extend their invitation to El Halcón for the evening. Feeling awkward, he asked his boss if he had received the request from Father Mateo about his not working for the duration of the pistolero’s visit. Mr. González nodded briskly, ushering the boy to the door, saying it would only be for a day or two, then crossing himself at the meaning of the timing.

Juanito went up to El Halcón’s room. He knocked on the closed door, and a cautious voice inside asked who was there. When he identified himself, the door opened to reveal the refreshed man, who greeted him and brought him inside before closing the door again.

An hour of sunlight still remained in the day, and yet El Halcón had drawn the room’s flimsy curtains. Juanito noticed another odd detail. The saddlebags still lay on the bed. Had the man put them back in the exact same place, or had he inexplicably slept on the floor? One thing had changed—the gun and its holster were off the bed and on the hip of the pistolero.

Juanito extended Mr. González’s offer, but the man said he would dine at the priest’s house later. In the meantime, he resumed his place in the chair and invited his guest to sit on the bed next to the saddlebags. The boy accepted. “So, my young friend, what end have you devised for our enemy?”

Embarrassed and feeling he had let the man down, Juanito admitted he had thought of nothing. El Halcón nodded, expressing no disappointment. “That’s all right. Sometimes plans take longer. Until then, let us talk about your future. What do you intend to do when the father has died?”

Juanito had been thinking about everything except that. “I’ll leave.”

“Where will you go? Do you have family?”

He did not know how to answer, which, oddly, seemed to answer the man’s question.

“So,” he asked, “what will you do? Once you murder a man, many job opportunities will close for you.”

Juanito had not thought of the situation in such practical terms. He considered killing Varga an act of noble vengeance, not murder. “…But if you do the actual killing…?”

The pistolero shook his head. “It makes no difference if you are the assistant or the person who pulls the trigger. You are forever branded a killer. No storekeeper will be eager to hire you, or ranchero, or any other business owner. You will not be good for much.”

Juanito had begun to suspect this man was trying to scare him into giving up his vow. He would not be tricked so easily. “Then I suppose I will have to become a pistolero.”

He frowned slightly. “It is not a profession I recommend. Ten percent of the time is terrifying, and ninety percent is terribly dull. From the outside, it may seem glamorous. But I assure you, it is not.”

“I’ll wager a month’s wages that it’s more glamorous than sweeping the floor of a cantina.”

El Halcón thought for a moment, then chuckled. “I would argue the food that accompanies your job is better, but I have eaten at the cantina.”

A surprised laugh escaped the boy.

The man smiled, seemingly pleased at making him laugh. He nodded to the saddlebags next to him. “Will you do me a favor, my friend? Will you please unpack my bags for me? Just remove the items. I shall put them away later.”

The boy nodded and twisted on the bed, opening the flap of the first bag.

El Halcón asked, “How well do you speak English?”

“Fluently,” he replied in English, pulling a neatly folded shirt out of the bag and placing it on the blanket.

“Excellent,” the man said, switching to English. “You’ll be able to find work on both sides of the border.” He added with a small, knowing smile, “And also to disappear across the border either way when it becomes necessary. And it will.”

The boy set down a second white shirt and frowned at him with disappointment. “You run away?”

The man gestured for him to return to his task, which he did. “If I am outnumbered or my employer has lost, what would you have me do? Stay, and fight until everyone is dead, or more likely I am dead? No. A good pistolero is not at war with the world. He only fights those whom the man paying him tells him to fight. When the battle is over—one way or the other—he is done. He leaves.”

As Juanito reached further into the deep bag, he asked, “But what about—”

Before he could say “honor,” without warning, something flew at his face. He snatched the small wadded dark glove with his free hand before it hit him. He clutched it and glared at the pistolero, then lost his annoyance at the prank when he saw the man smiling at him.

“You have excellent reflexes,” he observed, returning to Spanish. “Very quick, and sure. And with two distractions. Good. That may save your life. Or the life of a friend.”

Juanito’s stomach fluttered. This had not been a prank, or a game. It had been a test, as well as a sample of a dangerous way of life. Could death find him so abruptly?

The man continued, “There is a great deal you must do if you become a man of the gun. First, we must find you a new name. It is now Morales, yes?”

Juanito nodded. He felt a pang at the man’s suggestion.

El Halcón continued, “Juanito Morales is not the name of a pistolero. It’s the name of a poor farmer, or a poor shopkeeper. You need something more suited to your new life, something that will work for you as much as your gun and your quick reflexes. You need a name that people will remember. A name of power, of elegance. One that will make women sigh and men salute with fear and respect.” He offered a playful smile and an apologetic wave of his hand. “Alas, ‘El Halcón’ is already spoken for, so you must choose another.”

Juanito ruminated in silence, nothing coming to mind.

El Halcón observed, “So, this will take some thought. What is your real name? You were not born Juanito Morales. That name does not rest comfortably on you. What was the name given to you at your birth?”

The boy wrapped himself in stolid silence.

“What was your father’s name?”

Juanito glared. He refused to soil his lips.

El Halcón watched the wall of stubbornness surround his young protégé. “Your anger tells me a great many things, not the least of which is the identity of your father is not a mystery to you. Again, I ask you, what was the name given to you at birth?”

The boy simmered, then surrendered. “John Lancer,” he said with distaste.

“Why, this is splendid!” the pistolero exclaimed. “A name that is a weapon? This is God’s gift to you!”

“No!” Juanito barked. “I want nothing to do with him. I won’t use his name.”

“But—”

“—No!”

El Halcón watched the boy fume, then shrugged. “If you insist. But I think you are throwing away a wonderful opportunity. Where did ‘Morales’ come from?”

He had no intention of explaining. His stepfather’s act of dumping him three years ago provided no guarantee that the man would not come looking for him later to settle some imaginary threat. A name that meant nothing to anyone who had ever known of him provided extra safety.

El Halcón scrutinized him. “For someone so young, you have a great many secrets.”

Juanito agreed but remained silent.

He asked, “Why do you not use your mother’s family name?”

Johnny shook his head. “They’re an honorable family. My mother would never forgive me for bringing shame on them by doing what I have promised to do.”

The man studied him, perhaps seeing him with a bit more respect. He shrugged. “That is a noble sentiment. So, you are familiar with changing your name to suit your needs. I recommend John. No, Johnny. Here there are ten thousand Juanitos. But Johnny speaks of youth, and vigor, and, on this side of the border, mystery. As mysterious as those eyes the color of the ocean.”

Juanito glanced away.

El Halcón did not acknowledge his discomfort. “For now, Johnny Morales.” He sampled the name as if tasting a new bottle of wine. “No, Morales is not right. But what is right will come to you.” He glanced out the window. “We must go to Father Mateo. His time is precious. We must not waste a minute of it.” He stood, taking on his regal air, then noticed the boy’s crestfallen face. He put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “This is a terrible time for all of us. For you, most of all. Saying goodbye to someone you love is the hardest challenge on this earth. You have said goodbye too many times, I think. And pistoleros say goodbye more than anyone else. You must steel yourself to that if you wish this life.”

Juanito didn’t want to visit the priest. He didn’t want to see him suffering, and he dreaded crying.

The older man seemed to understand. He offered Juanito a small, encouraging smile. “For now, think only of Mateo. He is the bravest man I have ever known. Perhaps he will share some of that with you.” He gave him another pat on the shoulder. “Let us go cheer him.”

Juanito nodded and allowed himself to be guided out of the room.

 

Juanito—no, Johnny now—sighed as he stared out into the darkness from his makeshift bed under the cantina’s bar. The snores of both Mr. González and Mrs. Abreu drifted through the still air from their living quarters. How could anyone sleep on such a night? The town priest lay dying, shot down while trying to protect the peace of his villagers, and yet these people lost no sleep over his sacrifice.

Father Mateo, his life slipping away, had been a kind host to his visitors. El Halcón had spoken of having supper at the priest’s house, but he and Johnny ate only a quick bowl of thin soup on their own before seeing the resting man. His stomach destroyed by Varga’s bullet and not even able to drink water without terrible pain, the priest had listened to his friends and offered a comment or two. Johnny had wanted to scream or cry or go out in search of the dog who had killed this man who had done only good in his life. He felt like a traitor to all the good things in the world by wanting to escape the room of death as quickly as he could.

As he lay on his blanket, too many thoughts crowded through his head to let him find rest. How did Father Mateo and El Halcón, two such opposite men, become friends? It must have been before the father came to Rio Seco, otherwise people would have treated El Halcón with more familiarity. Why had El Halcón taken such an interest in an unimportant boy? Why did he praise him in one breath and then discourage him in the next? What would happen after Father Mateo died? How would El Halcón find and kill Diego Varga? If the man let him help, what form would that take? How would his life change after he helped kill a man? Even if in this unsettled time he and El Halcón would face no punishment for killing Varga, El Halcón was correct that this would change his life forever. He would never be just a simple, anonymous boy again. Even if no one in the next town would know, he would know. He stared at the underside of the bar above him. Not that he would miss living like a rat, tucked away in the corner of someone else’s hovel, working only for leftover food, the péon rags on his back, and this thin blanket that passed for a bed. Participating in the intentional death of a man would send him out into a world he had seen from the fringes but had never entered. He would change, his life would change. Nothing would be the same.

He still felt oddly frightened at the idea of yet another new name. When his stepfather had taken him in the middle of the night, without explanation, to the little village miles from their home, he had shoved a few pesos in Juanito’s hand and made it clear that he was no longer a member of the “family.”

“I will tell her you ran away,” he stated. “You threatened so many times, she’ll believe me if she knows what’s best for all involved.” He knew too well the man’s reliance on violence and how it had turned his mother against him. He doubted not for a moment that if he returned and disputed his stepfather’s story, his honesty would earn only trouble and pain. Even if his mother finally saw through her husband’s lies and believed her son, Johnny knew he lacked the strength and expertise to defend both himself and his mother from his stepfather’s wrath. Whether he stayed away or returned, he trusted in the man’s fear of being found out. He suspected his stepfather rethought his plan to dispose of him later and returned to that village to kill him. To make himself disappear, and make a final effort to protect his mother, who surely would love him again if she could get away from her husband, Juanito fled the village where he had been dumped, taking the name of Morales and turning his back on what little was left of his childhood. He vowed that someday, when he too was a man, he would return and rescue his mother and destroy his stepfather. Until then, he could only wait, and grow stronger and smarter.

But changing his name one more time, and moving himself yet another step away from who he had been…this raised an odd dread. What if his mother finally got free of that man—how would she find him?  He couldn’t use his mother’s name; his stepfather could easily track him down.

Father Mateo once talked with him about names—never admitting that he had figured out Morales was a fabrication—and how they fit a person, or they did not, and how they lent something of themselves to the person who carried them. How odd, he thought, that El Halcón had said something so similar yesterday. What name would he use? Johnny Ramirez, Johnny Sanchez, Johnny García….

He rolled over on his rumpled bedding. He needed a name that would allow him a miracle—to enter the world of the pistoleros to do what he needed, and then leave. Or, perhaps, once he had accomplished his goal, he could find yet another name that would allow him to escape the fate he saw claim so many young men who challenged one another on the streets because they thought themselves invincible. He knew too well how vulnerable he was, how fragile all people were, and how someone bigger, and stronger, and angrier would always come along and destroy you. He sighed. He needed Father Mateo and his wisdom more than ever, now that he was losing him.

But it was too late. He would have to find his own way.

 

El Halcón arrived at the priest’s small home before the morning sun reached the crest of the dry mountains. Constantia, the kinder of the two parish women, greeted him with red eyes and a nod before leading the way to the small bedroom. Accustomed as he was to death, the pistolero still found himself moved by the sight of his old teacher shrinking before his eyes, as if the straw mattress intended to swallow him before the earth had its chance.

Father Mateo opened his eyes and offered a small smile. “Thank you for coming, my son,” he rasped through dry lips.

“Father,” he said, sitting on the stool next to the bed, “you know it is almost impossible for me to say no to you.”

“Almost,” the priest replied, a glint in his fading eyes.

“Even as I walked away,” the pistolero said, “I always looked back over my shoulder to you.”

“You could have stopped and returned.”

“Perhaps someday I will.”

The priest reached out a wobbly hand, and the professional killer took it in his firm grasp and held on. “Tell me about Juanito.”

“You know his story. You have seen it before.”

“I have,” said the dying man.

“He is not as far gone as I was when you came to Monte Blanco.”

“Can you spare him from following you?”

El Halcón paused. “We talked for many hours last night after we left you. He told me things I think he has told no one else, perhaps even you. Did he tell you why he stopped Pablito’s father from beating him?”

The priest nodded but did not look at his friend.

“And then did he tell you about his real father, the man who made him an outsider wherever he goes?”

The priest sighed.

“I am reluctant to speak ill of a woman I have never met, but we both know he has a very mistaken impression of his mother. His words paint a vivid portrait that he cannot yet understand. He dreams of returning to a happy home with her—a home that existed only in his dreams.”

The priest closed his eyes with sadness, and his friend relented.

“Mateo, you asked me to be his shepherd. I tell you now that I will, but I also tell you that you will not approve.”

The priest’s face clouded. “I could not save you, Rafael. Please…do not let me fail again with him.”

El Halcón squeezed his friend’s hand. “Only God can turn him away from where he’s going. And the boy is not listening to God now. But he is listening to me.”

The dying man blinked to hold back tears.

“Mateo, when you and I look at him, we see the halves that show us ourselves. You see the angels watching over him. I see the devils riding him. As long as he is filled with anger, he will have no peace. Even if you locked him in a monastery, he would find his way to the wrong path. You cannot change that. I cannot change that. What I can do is give him the skills he will need to survive the dark road until he is old enough to see the wisdom of what you have taught him. If he begins the journey prepared, he has a chance. If he goes armed only with hatred, he will not see eighteen.”

In a soft voice, the priest said, “The Devil gives you great persuasive powers, Rafael.”

The pistolero could not suppress all of a melancholy smile. “The Devil knows his business, Mateo.”

With a surprising strength, the priest squeezed the gunman’s hand. “Make certain that when he reaches eighteen, he still has a soul.”

He clasped his friend’s hand in both of his. “That is between him and God. But I shall do my best. Watch over us, my friend, that he may have a long life, and that I live long enough to guide him to a good one.”

His energy fading, the priest said, “I will pray for him, and I will pray for you as well.”

El Halcón blinked a few times. “Because you pray for both of us, I know God will listen to you. There is hope, then.”

 

Still getting used to being called Johnny, the rapt boy listened as the master shared his wisdom in his hotel room above the main street in the late morning. “You fight only when it is necessary. Fighting creates enemies, and the moment you put on a gun, you will already have too many enemies.”

He continued, “The other side of that is kindness. It is one of your tools, as much as your knowledge and your gun. Kindness creates friends, and in your new life, you will never have enough friends.”

Johnny remembered when El Halcón gave Pablito a coin for watching his horse. To the child, the honor of the task had been enough, but the small token had increased his admiration tenfold. During his own short life, he had seen dozens of gunmen passing through the border towns he had called home, but he thought of them only as killers who played out their lives in someone else’s streets. None had spoken to him, or even looked at him. Perhaps that is why he knew none of their names and recalled few of their faces.

The sound of a horse walking down the street came through the window, and El Halcón pulled aside the drawn curtain to look outside. He watched the rider for a moment, then returned to his recitation.

“However, never mistake a friend for an ally. When trouble comes, friends disappear. Only allies will stand with you against your enemies.”

Men’s voices carried up from the street, and Johnny shivered. A hush had settled over Rio Seco ever since Father Mateo had been shot, and the last time anyone had spoken that loudly in public was…he didn’t want to remember that moment.

El Halcón looked out the window again and studied the scene below. From the direction of the voices, Johnny guessed they were gathered at the bar across the way, two doors down from the cantina. The voices were boisterous, as if welcoming someone. Then he heard a voice above the others that made his blood run cold.

The pistolero regarded his young friend, and all emotion left his face. “It is time.”

 

Johnny tried not to shake as he approached the bar, walking at the side of the professional killer. The affable teacher of practical wisdom had disappeared. In his place strode a calm, precise, walking weapon. They crossed the dusty street as he heard Diego Varga inside the bar, noisily buying another round of drinks for everyone present. The party had overflowed into the street. Some of the men were eager to see him, many were reticent, several left in disgust, but all who remained were willing to drink with him.

Varga’s voice carried out from the shadowy interior into the street as he greeted his friends and neighbors, loudly proclaiming his joy in seeing them for the first time since “the unfortunate accident.” He made several statements about “the will of God” and “we must accept God’s decisions” as he tried to cheer the reluctant drinkers into thinking they were having a good time.

El Halcón stopped in the middle of the street after surveilling the surroundings, both at ground level and the upper floors of the handful of two-story buildings. Johnny watched as his companion reached for his leather gloves with all the dignity due a religious ceremony. Without looking up from his gloves, he said to Johnny in a quiet voice, “Let me know which one is Varga when he appears.”

At last the large bully made his way through the swinging doors, followed by companions and acknowledging familiar faces. Johnny raised his hand to indicate the man, but in a smooth gesture El Halcón caught his arm before he could point. “Always keep your hands low,” he said, barely above a whisper, “by your gun, especially in the presence of your adversaries. If you wish to indicate someone, use your chin, your eyes, or your words.”

Johnny nodded, too fascinated to think about how nervous he felt. He gave a small gesture with his chin. “The big man, in the green shirt and torn jacket.”

El Halcón’s gaze never left the man as he returned the slightest of nods.

Varga stepped into the street to greet the stranger and invite him inside for a drink, but his rough smile faded as he saw the impassive figure. The others, who knew the gunman’s identity, recognized the meaning of his cool stance and began to shrink away from the forced ebullience of their host.

Varga glanced around at the vanishing crowd and then scowled at the stranger. The camaraderie in his tone a moment earlier turned into a challenge. “What do you want?”

Still putting on the second of his gloves in apparent violation of the rule he had just shared, the pistolero said with quiet steadiness, “Diego Varga, I wish to inform you that when Father Mateo takes his last breath in this world, I will find you and kill you.”

The air crackled with the energy of an electrical storm as Varga’s drinking companions disappeared in all directions. Suddenly alone against the stranger, Varga straightened and puffed out his chest. “Why? Everyone knows it was an accident.”

“As will be my killing of you, I’m certain,” he said, still adjusting his fine glove.

Varga glared at him, then at Johnny at the gunman’s side. “What lies have you told him, little Juanito? I’ve always known you were no good!” He erupted with a string of curses. “All of you people shall pay for lying about me! Every one of you!” He took a step towards Johnny, who shuddered but did not take a step back.

Varga stopped dead at the sight of El Halcón’s shining silver revolver aimed at him. The professional killer said in a mild tone, “Please, let us wait until after the father is in heaven. However, if you insist on beginning now, I will injure you, and then after the priest’s passing give to my young friend the honor of killing you.”

Varga’s eyes flashed back and forth between the pair, alternating fear and rage. “Morales, you dirty little half-breed pig, I swear I’ll kill you.”

With a calmness that came from an unknown depth, the boy replied, “I doubt it.”

Johnny could hear the pride in El Halcón’s voice as he said, “You see? You cannot even frighten children. We shall meet again when the church bell tolls the sad news.” He took the gun’s aim away from his future victim, but he did not return the pistol to its holster. “Before then, I suggest you make your arrangements.”

The bully glanced around. Two dozen pairs of eyes watched from windows and shadowy doorways, but no one came to his aid. Varga glared at the pistolero, then spat out, “You will regret this.” He turned and went to his horse with an awkward swagger, climbed into the saddle, and kicked his horse to a quick trot down the street.

Johnny breathed again. His energy and amazement wanted to burst out, but he didn’t move as he saw El Halcón taking all the time in the world to reholster his gun and remove his gloves. Barely above a whisper, he said, “Say nothing. Be as calm as the sky.” He looked towards the edge of town. “Is there somewhere in that direction where we can sight my gun?”

Johnny told him about a corral behind an abandoned stable where the town began. The man nodded.

The townspeople began to emerge from their hiding places and approach the pistolero with quiet deference. A man, who two minutes earlier had been drinking Varga’s tequila, expressed his appreciation of the gunman’s courage at standing up to such a bad man. A few others shared their respect and gratitude, and one even went so far as to praise Johnny’s courage. The boy responded with only a nod.

For his part, El Halcón apologized to the men for interrupting their day with such unpleasantness, and he said he hoped his business could be completed with no inconvenience to them. To a man, the group that had now swelled to a dozen assured the killer that they took no offense and offered their support, if he required it. He gave them a gracious thank you, then apologized a second time with the announcement that, sadly, he would disturb their quiet again by engaging in some shooting practice at the edge of town. Two men volunteered their properties, but their gestures told the pistolero they lived nearer the church, and El Halcón declined. Johnny concluded he didn’t want to disturb Father Mateo. He asked for any suitable target material, such as empty bottles or old cans, and several in the crowd dashed off to provide whatever the man needed.

Johnny studied the scene, fascinated by how easily he had turned Varga’s friends and neighbors away from him. Had he not just been talking about friends deserting you in the face of enemies? El Halcón had to be the wisest man he had ever met.

 

Down at the empty corral, after Johnny fed leftover scraps from the cantina to the cats who occupied the abandoned stable, El Halcón watched the boy line up the first batch of provided target materials on the fence facing away from town. The pistolero then set out a box of bullets on the edge of a dry water trough and checked the sights of his gun before an audience of thirty onlookers that grew by the minute. Eager men and boys watched him prepare with studied grace. The gunman could see Johnny growing a little impatient with the display as the grateful cats gathered around him for attention, but the boy had the good manners to keep it to himself.

With his preparations complete, El Halcón requested that the crowd move away another twenty meters, just for their own safety in case of flying glass or stray ricochets. The audience dutifully obeyed. After they relocated, he said in a confidential tone as he looked over his pistol one more time, “Now we may talk. Have you ever fired a gun before?”

Johnny beamed. “Many times. I’m an excellent shot.”

Spinning the cylinder, the pistolero said quietly, “Never brag. Even if you’re the best marksman in the world, admit only to a modest skill. When you reveal your proficiency, your enemies will worry about what other talents you’re hiding.”

Johnny frowned as the man extended his arm and aimed at one of the target bottles. “But don’t you want to intimidate them, like Varga?”

 “Bragging doesn’t intimidate. Showing your skill does.” He squeezed the trigger, and the bottle burst into a hundred pieces. The cats fled to the safety of the stable. Several people in the distant audience applauded. El Halcón turned to the watchers and, with a gracious gesture, both thanked them and indicated that applause was not necessary. With a quick turn back, he fired. A metal can spun into the air, and in rapid succession five more bullets hit the airborne can, each strike sending it higher. The crumpled wreck dropped to the ground beyond the corral. Johnny turned at the distant rumbling of a group exclamation, a deep, guttural sound of amazement and fear. The gunman did not acknowledge the familiar noise.

As he removed the spent shells and reloaded his pistol with practiced elegance, El Halcón said, “What I did to Varga was not intimidation. It was a test. I wanted to see what he was made of. He is a braggart and a coward. He threatened an unarmed boy, not a man with a gun. You saw how afraid he was when he left. He will be even more so after he receives a dozen reports of this.” He watched Johnny glance at the crowd, probably knowing which ones would rush to share the news. “However, while fear is a weapon, it’s a double-edged sword. People who are afraid make mistakes or run away, but they can also retaliate in darkness. My belief is he’ll run away. But we must remain vigilant at every moment.”

With the gun reloaded, El Halcón handed it to his assistant. As the boy admired the weapon and tested its heft in his hand, he said, “You say you’re excellent, but we’ll start at the beginning. This is not a toy. You do not show it off. You do not play with it. You do not point it at someone unless you’re willing to kill him. To hold a weapon but lack the will to use it marks you as unreliable. The men who should be your allies will not trust you, and your adversaries will target you first to get your gun away from you. To shoot a bottle or a can is one thing; to shoot a man is a very different matter. That we shall address another time. For now, show me what skill you have.” He nodded at the row of targets. “That cracked jug on the end. Fire one bullet at it.” He added in a serious tone, “This is a test of true skill, not your high opinion of yourself.”

Johnny nodded. With a calm beyond his years, he lifted the pistol in a smooth gesture, aimed, and pulled the trigger.

The jug split into shards and fell off the fence.

El Halcón watched the boy throughout the exercise, ignoring the jug. His ears would tell him the target’s fate; his interest was in the preparations and reactions of the shooter. The boy had aimed and fired with a steady hand; he regarded the destroyed target with a small smile of satisfaction, pleased with his success rather than joyful at his display of power. El Halcón approved. The boy was no strutting rooster. “How does the pistol feel in your hand?”

Johnny regarded it as he hefted the weapon again. “The handle isn’t a good fit.”

The older man nodded. “The grip is large for you.” He looked at the targets. “I want you to shoot the cracked bottle, the dark can, the can with the lid sticking up, the clear bottle, and then the can on the end.” As a concentration test, he selected items from right to left separated by one item, then two, one, three, and four.

With no fanfare or demonstration of pride, the young marksman destroyed the targets in rapid succession. He offered the gun to his master without emotion as applause and cheers rang out from the young members of the distant audience.

El Halcón accepted the pistol and began emptying the spent cartridges, trying not to reel under the watchful gaze of his student. Dear God in Heaven, this boy is magnificent.

 

Each subsequent test El Halcón gave his young protégé offered further testament to the boy’s natural gifts as a marksman. No, not natural—unnatural. Johnny spoke of only brief and occasional lessons. Had he downplayed his training? Or was he simply born to be a pistolero? Even more troubling was his demeanor. When he fired the gun, he was no adolescent on the cusp of manhood. He became old, steady, serious, and removed from any emotion. By the end of the “lesson,” which the gunman curtailed early, El Halcón felt he should be the student and not the teacher.

More than anything, he needed the advice of Father Mateo.

He concluded the session with simple praise of the boy’s skills and a brief demonstration of the way to load a gun with five bullets in everyday life instead of six to prevent accidental misfires. He then suggested they go to the church with hope for one more visit with the father. Johnny eagerly assented and offered to come back later and pick up the shell casings and target debris. El Halcón agreed, knowing instead that the boys in the gallery were merely waiting for them to leave so they could gather up all available souvenirs.

When the audience became aware that the demonstration had ended, another round of applause came from the assemblage. El Halcón did not begrudge them their display of respect. He almost wanted to applaud the boy himself.

When the two arrived at the priest’s small house, a mule tied to the hitching post served as their first warning that the situation had changed. When El Halcón opened the door, the two exchanged a sad glance at the sound of someone quietly reading Latin aloud in the room down the hall. The pistolero had heard the words so many times, he could perform Extreme Unction himself. A priest had come to provide the final rites for Father Mateo, and the end was near. They moved quietly down the hall to pay their respects, but María Guadalupe spotted them from the bedroom doorway and blocked their view. Needing only a few eloquent gestures, she made clear that they were not welcome. Reluctantly, they left their friend to his approved companions.

Each lost in his own thoughts, they returned to the main street. As they walked, the townsfolk noticed their downcast strides and turned their eyes to the church. Men removed their hats, and women said prayers and crossed themselves.

El Halcón turned to the left to enter the hotel, but Johnny stopped in the middle of the street and looked at the cantina. “I want to tell them I’m not coming back.”

The pistolero nodded. “A cool drink would be welcome.”

As they entered the cantina, Mr. González’s eyes sparkled at the sight of his most illustrious guest. Gushing and fawning, he showed them to the table in the coolest corner of the warm room and hurried back to their table with a glass of bacanora for the pistolero. He had nothing for Johnny. Mr. González offered a dozen thanks to the man for gracing his humble business, which had enjoyed great prosperity thanks to him, and he was ever so grateful that he had shown such kindness to his cleaning boy. His continual praise left no room for the others to speak, and when Mrs. Abreu appeared from the back with an adoring smile for their honored visitor, the gunman felt he must provide a break in the conversation for Johnny.

He held up his hand, and, as if by magic, Mr. González stopped on an in-breath, suspended in anticipation of words from the great man. El Halcón gestured to Johnny.

“Sir,” the boy said, “I want to thank you and your wife for giving me a job. But after El Halcón…and I…complete our task, I’ll be leaving.”

Mr. González deflated as he let out his held breath. He regarded his cleaning boy with an increasingly cold gaze, then said, “This is the thanks you give us for taking you in and giving you a home when you had nothing?”

El Halcón imagined the boy still had nothing, but he remained silent. This was Johnny’s fight, and he would only assist if asked.

The boy replied, “I’m grateful to you. I really am. But—”

Mr. González cut him off with a wave of accusations, cataloging his ingratitude for each noted generosity they had shown him. The exaggerations grew as the list of his offenses increased.

The pistolero regarded his young friend. He could see the boy clenching his jaw and wanting to slap the man back down to reality. But as Mrs. Abreu joined her husband’s browbeating of their boy, Johnny settled into a silent calm. He let them vent for another minute, and then he shook his head when they ran out of harsh words. He replied in a steady voice, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you felt this way. Thank you for putting up with me for as long as you did. No wonder Father Mateo has such respect for you both.”

Silenced by his unexpected acquiescence and startling compliment, the husband and wife stared at him, then at each other. They reversed course and offered strained explanations for their statements, asking him if he would reconsider, they would be honored to have him remain, et cetera. He gave a non-committal reply, and Mrs. Abreu fetched him tortillas left over from lunch and a fresh drink with fruit juice. The boy ate, sending his ally an occasional knowing glance as Mr. González praised the saintly priest.

El Halcón watched the comical scene with alarm.

 

In his hotel room, El Halcón perched in thoughtful silence in the chair that he had moved away from the window as Johnny sat cross-legged on the floor, cleaning the gun. A child once again, the boy grasped the gun awkwardly, concentrating on his assignment with earnest efforts as he rubbed the oiled cloth over the gleaming weapon that, not long ago, he had held with the confidence of a master.

The professional gunman watched the boy work, lost and defeated. He had promised his childhood mentor that he would watch over this boy, but now he doubted his success. This child had absorbed the first of his lessons with the speed of a thirsty cloth, turning around and demonstrating his comprehension with astonishing maturity. But Johnny, who two days ago had been cantina cleaning péon Juanito Morales, had no maturity. He still had the heart and mind of a child. And El Halcón knew the moment they kept their promise of justice for Diego Varga, this child would have no desire to stay with him and learn the hundred more lessons he needed to survive as a pistolero. Confident in his slender knowledge, he would go off to seek his own justice, and he would discover too late that, far from being a master, he would be a mere snack for the human coyotes that roamed this world. His mechanical prowess would not save him from the evil that men inflicted on one another. Or, perhaps worse, he would fall under the thrall of the human coyotes and become one of them, feasting on his fellow human beings until his own reckoning reunited him with every mistake he had ever made.

El Halcón had a desperate longing for one more talk with Father Mateo. The priest knew hearts, and he knew how to reach the most troubled of souls who still had a glimmer of light left. Had the young cleric met the child Rafael Gutiérrez only six months earlier, he might have been able to save even that angriest and bitterest of boys from his career of doing the Devil’s bidding.

But now this Devil’s disciple comprehended the magnitude of the mission the priest expected of him, this task that he could not do for himself—save this child from the darkness.

As he kept his ears tuned to the sounds of the street below, he closed his eyes. He lacked the affrontery to address the Source of All Goodness and Hope. He knew what his place and destiny would be without the intervention of others. His sole hope was with the last, faithful intermediary he had in this world, and he offered a makeshift prayer in his thoughts:

Mateo, dear friend, forgive me for intruding in your final hours among us. I wish to give you your last victory, or at least help you avoid the defeat you fear. Please, as you are a good man and beloved of God, please help me find a way to keep this boy from disappearing into the shadows.

He watched as Johnny finished polishing the weapon and put away the cleaning materials, repeating his melancholy request to his dying miracle worker, hoping the priest could produce one last rescue before he left the earth. Into the usual sounds of the quiet street intruded the urgent thudding of light running feet on the hard dirt road. El Halcón saw Johnny alerted to the noise as well. The running stopped outside the hotel, and some moments later a rustle came outside the room, followed by an urgent, but light, pounding on the door.

Johnny shifted his weight to get up, but El Halcón held out a cautioning hand. The boy stopped. In a quiet voice, the man asked, “Who’s there?”

“Pablito,” replied a young, panting voice.

El Halcón nodded to Johnny, who scrambled to his feet and opened the door. The little boy, with ragged breaths and a wildness in his eyes, pleaded: “Hurry! He’s going! It’s time!”

Johnny gave El Halcón a frantic look for permission, and the pistolero leapt to his feet and claimed his gun. “Let’s go.”

The two outpaced their small messenger as they hurried down the street. A mere block from the church, they knew they were too late when the bell in the modest tower began to ring its solemn message. They stopped and shared a distraught gaze.

The alarum of a galloping horse behind them made them spin around as they stood in the vulnerable middle of the open street, and El Halcón cursed his haste in not reloading his pistol.

But the horseman was not charging them—he was racing out of town. Johnny watched with dismay. “It’s Salazar—he’s going to warn Varga!”

Grateful that his inattention had not cost them their lives, the pistolero said, “Surprise is only a small advantage. Let’s go and pay our respects, and then we can address the matter.”

At the priest’s small house, now somehow even smaller with its resident departed, they found the two parish women crying and the visiting priest placing his stole in his small bag. The priest acknowledged them. “The father had a peaceful passing,” he said. “He even returned to consciousness at the end. It was beautiful.” He nodded in gentle thought. “We’ll miss Father Mateo very much. He’s the reason I became a priest.”

El Halcón nodded with respect. “The father helped so many.” He glanced at Johnny, who was fighting his tears and losing. “Will you allow us to say our farewells?”

The priest gestured for them to proceed, and the gunman faced the disapproving glare of María Guadalupe, the steadfast guard in the hallway. As he approached the bedroom’s threshold, she said to him, in the tone of a rebuke, “His last words were for you. He wanted you and Juanito to attend his service tomorrow.” Her glare deepened. “When was the last time you saw the inside of a church?”

El Halcón replied, “To be in Father Mateo’s presence was to attend the highest mass.”

Taken aback, the woman challenged him no further, and the pair entered the sunlit bedroom.

The priest’s remains lay on the bed, awaiting the final journey. El Halcón had seen more than his share of corpses over the years, including those who passed away in peace and those who were butchered in battle, but he had never become accustomed to seeing what had once been a vibrant human now reduced to clay. Johnny sniffled, and when El Halcón put a comforting hand on his shoulder, the boy fled the room. He could understand why. Of all the remains he had encountered—and created—through the decades, he had never seen one that so obviously displayed the departure of the soul. He hardly recognized the features, even though he and Mateo had spoken mere hours earlier. Perhaps he had lost his mind, for he found himself saying to the withered flesh, “Thank you for giving my friend a home so he could live among us for a while.” He said the only prayer he could recall, then left the room.

María Guadalupe stood in the hallway, waiting for him. “What,” she challenged, “no tears for your ‘friend’?”

He smiled. “My dear woman, in his last moments, Mateo gave me a gift I shall strive to earn for the rest of my life. I am humbled by his trust.”

The woman frowned with confusion. She gathered herself and said, “And now you’ll go straight from this holy place to kill again and teach that little good-for-nothing to be just like you. To the Devil with both of you!”

He shook his head. “We shall honor the father’s last request, of course. What happens after, God alone knows.”

She scoffed and disappeared in a blaze of indignation.

El Halcón went outside, but instead of finding Johnny, he found a growing line of townspeople who had answered the call of the church bell to pay their respects. He nodded to them, then went in search of his young friend.

He finally found Johnny in the corral of the abandoned stable at the edge of town. Sitting on the dusty earth, leaning against the empty water trough, the inconsolable boy looked utterly alone in the world. Even his friends the cats had left him to his sorrow. By habit, the pistolero glanced around and, seeing no one, eased himself onto the ground and sat next to the crying child.

“Varga will get away,” Johnny muttered. “Even if we go to his ranch now, he’ll be gone by the time we get there.”

“That’s probably true.”

“And his trail will grow cold if we stay here until tomorrow like Father Mateo wanted.”

El Halcón knew the truth of his assessment, but he shook his head lightly. “I wouldn’t worry too much. A man like Varga will be easy to find,” he lied.

Johnny wiped his nose on his sleeve. “You think so?”

With great confidence, he replied, “he won’t be much of a challenge at all.”

The boy took comfort in his words, and the gunman took comfort in his acceptance of the lie. In truth, a coward like Varga would be a very difficult quarry to track down. Their quest would be made even harder with Mateo’s final gesture of insisting they stay for his mass. Varga would make excellent use of his head start, and the two of them would need months to find him, even a year or longer. The priest could not have given them a more perfect gift. Eternal blessings on you, Mateo.

The boy frowned again. “But you won’t want me to come with you. I’ll slow you down. I don’t even have a horse, or…anything.”

“We will find you what you need, don’t worry. Besides, we’re both leaving. We might as well go together.”

Johnny wiped his eyes.

The gunman continued, “I have had a solitary life for too many years. In this world, I always had one, true friend in Mateo, who, in spite of everything, never turned his back on me.” He began to blink, surprised as his emotions surfaced. “With him gone, I have no one now. You understand—better than I—the value of friendship. You stayed in this dirty little town not because you had prospects, or power, but because you had a true friend. You are fortunate to understand what that means at such a young age. Some of us learn it much older, or when it’s too late. I would be foolish to turn my back on someone as wise as you. If you would do me the honor, I think I would enjoy having a pupil.”

Johnny marveled. “You’d teach me?”

The man nodded. “I can instruct you in the art of the pistolero, and you can teach me about everything else. I think we will make an excellent team.” He gave him a discerning look. “Besides, after what I saw you do today, I want to keep you on my side. If we should ever face off….” He shook his head. “I would not enjoy that.” Johnny’s grateful smile warmed his tired heart. He added, with a hint of humor, “But would you want to travel with such an old fool as I?”

With complete sincerity, Johnny replied, “It would be an honor.”

El Halcón smiled, and extended his hand. The boy shook it with enthusiasm, their partnership sealed.

 

The next morning, as the town and surrounding countryfolk filled the small church to say farewell to their faithful shepherd, conspicuously absent was Diego Varga. His wife and three unmarried daughters attended, and Mrs. Varga’s lamentations were the loudest in the church. Perhaps she wept for her own woes more than for the priest who had caused her family’s great and sudden suffering.

The young priest who conducted the mass had grown up in Rio Seco, one of many boys Father Mateo had mentored through difficult childhoods in the rough and uncertain town. After the burial, he invited everyone to attend a supper at the church that evening and share their stories of the man who had meant so much to all of them; while he had purchased enough to get the feast started, he asked everyone to bring food to share in honor of Father Mateo’s generous spirit.

As the gathering began to buzz with excitement, El Halcón and Johnny found no pleasure in the idea of breaking bread with the people of this town, and they withdrew to organize their departure. Both were surprised when Constantia, the kinder of the two parish women, left the bustling crowd and sought them out. She regarded Johnny with fondness, then said, “Juanito, I have a small legacy for you from Father Mateo.” She gave the boy a tiny drawstring pouch. “It isn’t much, but he didn’t have much.” He thanked her and opened the pouch to find a collection of Mexican and American coins. To the cleaning boy who worked for room and board, the bag contained a fortune. He stared at her, and she returned a fond smile. “That should be enough to buy some clothes and a horse.” She glanced around and saw María Guadalupe occupied elsewhere. From a pocket in the hem of her skirt, she produced two pesos. She gave them to him, and her eyes began to fill with tears. “Father Mateo spoke of you with such affection, I know you are a good boy and you will grow to be a good man.” She wiped her eyes and turned away, disappearing into the crowd.

Johnny had too many emotions to express over this miracle, and El Halcón suggested they go buy his traveling gear while the stores had opened for people to prepare for the supper. The boy nodded and led the way.

 

An hour later, the pistolero and his apprentice were ready to leave Rio Seco. Wearing his first real men’s clothing including cotton duck trousers, a sturdy cloth jacket, and horseman’s boots, Johnny had bundled his péon whites to donate to the church for some other boy who might need them. El Halcón had at first considered this gesture too generous, because he might need those old clothes to go unnoticed in some town down the road, but he realized this young man—he could no longer call him a boy—wanted to leave all of his old life behind, and he made no objection. His saddle was used and his horse stubborn, but he had spent his money wisely, and the pistolero thought his young comrade presented a fine figure in these first moments of his new life.

The funeral crowd had dispersed for their supper preparations, and the two rode slowly to the churchyard. A wooden headstone marked the fresh grave, and the two dismounted for a final farewell. El Halcón regarded the simple marker and wondered how anyone believed a life could be summed up in five words and two dates: “Father Mateo Madrid, 1804-1864, ‘Our Shepherd.’” Someday he would arrange for a fine stone marker so the future generations of Rio Seco could know of the man who had done so much for so many.

His young friend’s thoughts had been focused on another matter. “How do you feel about the name ‘Johnny Madrid’?” He looked up at the gunman. “Do you think the father would be angry?”

 Surprised at his own rush of emotion, he said, “Not at all! It is a name of great honor. You could not have chosen better.”

“Juanito!”

They looked up to see a shy, sweet-looking girl of thirteen standing halfway between the edge of the graveyard and a wagon in the middle of the street containing a woman and two older girls. The haughty gaze of the wife of Diego Varga, the woman at the reins, stood in sharp contrast to the girl’s shy smile at Johnny. The young emissary had in her hands a small basket with a cloth across the top.

Johnny looked up to the pistolero for permission to go, and he nodded. He joined her, and they stood together, heads lowered, shyly trying to find just the right distance to stand from one another.

El Halcón kept his eye on the charming scene, as well as the incongruous image of her disapproving mother beyond them, as he said just above a whisper, “Mateo, don’t be angry at us for borrowing your honorable name. It’s a small price to pay for your trick of making us give Varga such a good head start. With your name, he will keep his soul. He might even survive to old age, if he doesn’t inherit your shepherding instincts on top of his own willingness to put himself between the wolves and the sheep.” As he watched the two young people modestly flirt, he added, “We may even be together long enough for your good-hearted Juanito to return me to the right path. Very clever, my friend.”

The future widow called sharply to her daughter, who glanced back at her and nodded, then, with an odd hesitation, gave the basket to Johnny. He accepted it and lingered, and she also stayed longer than their conversation.

El Halcón studied the mother and older daughters in the wagon. They appeared impatient, agitated, ready to leave. The one with Johnny, however, clearly had no urge to rush away. She said something else to him, but another sharp call from her mother made her apologize and hurry away to rejoin her family. She climbed into the wagon and looked back at Johnny with regret.

Johnny had a faint smile as he walked back to El Halcón. He looked up with a charming color in his cheeks.

“Who is she?” the man asked.

“Consuelo Varga Rey,” Johnny said, speaking her name with tenderness.

El Halcón glanced up at the women in the wagon. Despite their impatience to go, they had not left. They watched the men with a keen interest.

“What’s in the basket?”

Johnny pulled back the cloth. “Meat pastries. Mrs. Rey is from the south, and this is her specialty. Consuelo said they made a large batch for the supper, but when her mother heard we were leaving, she thought we should have some to take with us.”

He nodded, smelling the warm, heavily spiced pastries. He looked up at the women in the carriage, and Mrs. Rey nodded, a tight smile on her face. He gave her a cheerful salute and put his hand over his heart with a slight bow. The woman smiled more intensely, and then she slapped the horse’s reins, steering the wagon away.

“Consuelo said they were in a hurry so this batch wasn’t very good, but her mother makes the best pastries.” With a shy smile, he said, “Sometimes Consuelo came by the cantina and brought me food.” The boy reached into the basket to take a pastry, but El Halcón quickly slipped the cloth back over the top. “No, not yet.” He watched the wagon roll down the street. Only the youngest girl looked back, sadness on her face.

When the wagon turned the corner and disappeared, El Halcón returned his concentration to his young associate. “Does Mrs. Rey like you?”

Johnny shook his head. “She would scold Consuelo if she caught her talking with me. She said I wasn’t good enough for her.”

“And you do not like her.”

“No.”

But Consuelo likes you.”

He nodded.

“And you like her.”

He blushed.

“Why?”

He admitted, “She was the first girl who liked my eyes.”

El Halcón smiled. “Then she is worth cherishing.” The boy grinned. The man hated to do this, but the time had come. “Let’s go.”

As they rode at a slow pace to the edge of town, El Halcón asked, “Does it not strike you as odd that someone who doesn’t like you, and who knows my intentions, would go to the trouble of finding us to give us food—before we begin our journey to kill her husband?”

Hearing the details put together that way surprised Johnny. “Yes.”

El Halcón stopped his horse in front of the abandoned stable and dismounted, taking the basket with him. Johnny followed him into the barn, where they were greeted by a committee of cats. El Halcón knelt and pulled a pastry from the basket. He held it out to the hungry animals, although he kept a firm grip on it. The cats gathered around, but after giving the offering a sniff, they backed away and yowled with disappointment. He turned and offered the treat to another cat with kittens following her. The scrawny cat gave it several extra sniffs, then gave the crust a tentative tug—he did not let go—but she recoiled from the pastry and turned away.

El Halcón eyed his frowning friend. “Even a hungry mother with suckling babes will not eat this.” He stood and looked down at the confused boy. “As Consuelo said, not a good batch.” He put the pastry back in the basket. He would dispose of it later, depending on the answer of Johnny Madrid.

 

A mile outside of Rio Seco, three routes met at the crest of the hill. El Halcón stopped his golden sorrel and looked around. Johnny stopped, awaiting the man’s instructions. Instead, the pistolero asked, “Which way is the house of Varga?”

Surprised, Johnny pointed—then caught himself and indicated with his chin—the route southeast.

He then asked, “Have you thought about the pastries, my friend? There are many questions surrounding them.”

Johnny had been thinking of nothing else. “Mrs. Rey must have been hoping that if she gave you food, you’d reconsider killing her husband.”

“Anything else?”

“It’s funny about the cats. Sometimes I’d bring them stale tortillas with only beans, and they’d still eat them. I don’t know why they’d refuse meat.”

El Halcón turned his horse so he could see Rio Seco, and then he sat with a thoughtful lean on the saddle’s pommel. “I wanted you to see the cats, because if I simply told you, you might not believe me.”

Johnny had an unsettled feeling as the man chose his words.

“This is the first lesson in the life of Johnny Madrid. Women can be as untrustworthy as men, and they fight their battles in much more subtle ways. Do not trust them merely because you find them appealing.” He paused. “My young apprentice, the pies are not merely bad. They are poisoned.”

Johnny shuddered.

“To her credit, Consuelo did her best to warn you by saying they were not good. If her mother knew she said as much as she did, the poor girl would probably earn a beating.”

Johnny stared at the basket, which hung around the horn of El Halcón’s saddle. He knew the man had to be wrong about this, but he could not explain everything he had seen.

El Halcón continued, “Mrs. Rey, married to a braggart who shot a priest, would have no objections to solving her husband’s dilemma by murdering the man who promised to kill him, and for good measure also the cantina boy who had the audacity to talk to her daughter.”

Johnny’s sad realization grew into anger. Yes, with her family threatened, Mrs. Rey could do that.

“So,” the gunman asked, “what should we do about this? Should we return their gift? With them in town at the supper, it would be very easy for us to drop these pastries into their well. It would be a fitting repayment for their generosity. It would also solve the problem of their trying again. With their own pastries as the culprits, only ‘the will of God’ could be blamed for such a mystery. What is more important, in our line of work, forgiveness is a bad policy. You are seen as weak, and it encourages your enemies to try again.”

Johnny said nothing. He hated everything the man had said. He hated even more that it was true.

“Well, my little pistolerito, what shall we do with these?”

With great sadness, Johnny shook his head. “Burn them.”

El Halcón regarded his apprentice. “Consuelo?”

He nodded.

“She will never know the value of her kindness.”

All Johnny could think of was how oddly his heart had pounded when she smiled at him and told him she thought he had beautiful eyes.

El Halcón glanced around at the crossroads. “This is where you choose your future, my friend.” He nodded to the road heading southwest. “That will take you to half a dozen villages and eventually San Antonio del Monte. You can sell your horse and your saddle, and be Juanito Morales, or Juanito Sánchez, or even Juanito Smith if you like.” He added with a small smile and a touch to his heart, “However, if you choose to be Juanito Gutiérrez, I will feel most honored. You can find a job in a store, or learn to be a blacksmith, or become a soldier, or get some more education and become a teacher.” Next, he indicated the road to the east. “Nogales is where I am going to look for Diego Varga. That is the world of Johnny Madrid. Looking over your shoulder. Doubting every act of kindness. Being smiled at by people who want to kill you, and then killing them before they can try. At dawn not knowing if you will be alive at sunset.”

Johnny didn’t like either future. He cast a sad gaze back at dusty Rio Seco.

“No,” El Halcón said, “you cannot go back there. Everyone in town knows you are the ally of the dangerous man who promised to shoot one of their neighbors. Very soon they’ll forget why. They’ll think only of their poor, hunted friend and hate you. You will have all the notoriety of helping me, with none of my protection. And do you think for one moment Mrs. Rey will allow you to live, when you know the truth about what she tried to do?” He shook his head. “No. You are dead to those people. You can never go back.”

Johnny sat in a cloud of thought for a long time. He liked none of the futures this man had laid out for him. The pleasant options of San Antonio del Monte were a fantasy. How would he find a job? He could read and write fairly well in both Spanish and English, but not well enough to be a clerk or a teacher. No blacksmith would hire a scrawny boy, and being a soldier meant all the tasks of a pistolero with none of the freedom. More likely he would find himself a cantina boy again, probably in an even worse place than before.

Could he really be a hired gunman? Some people deserved to die, but he disliked the idea of killing innocent people. What would happen if a ranchero wanted to suppress his péons and ordered him to kill their leaders to make an example of them? Having lived the life of a helpless péon himself, how could he take the side of the all-powerful ranchero? The idea of killing Diego Varga seemed easy when he thought only of avenging Father Mateo, but he had forgotten how it would hurt Consuelo. He shook his head. Being an adult was more complicated than he thought.

“Well,” El Halcón asked, “what will it be, Juanito Johnny? Do you go on your own, and hope for the best? Or do you go with me, and know the worst is waiting for you?”

He let out a breath. That simplified his decision. He had been on his own for years. But, no, he hadn’t been alone all of that time. For the last year, Father Mateo had been there for him. And Father Mateo had sent him to this man. Obey him, he had said. Stay with him. My confidence in you is complete.

Johnny asked, “Is it possible to be a pistolero and still be a man of honor?”

The hint of a smile touched the man’s lips. “It will require great care. But, yes, it is possible.”

As Johnny studied El Halcón, he knew he was looking at a man of honor. “I would like to be your apprentice, if you still want one.”

The man’s eyes glistened as a radiant smile lit his face. “I have at least a hundred more lessons for you!” He turned his sorrel to the east and gave the animal a click.

Johnny turned his fat and surly roan to follow, then rethought. He had help now, real help. He didn’t need to wait years to repay his “debt” to his stepfather. Would El Halcón understand?

The pistolero glanced over his shoulder, then laughed when he saw Johnny hadn’t moved. “Your horse needs more persuasion!”

When Johnny didn’t reply, the man’s smile faded and he halted. “What’s the matter, my friend?”

He hated to ask such a large favor at the very beginning of their partnership. “I want to go to Paso del Norte.”

El Halcón directed his horse back. “What about Diego Varga?”

“He can wait. You said he’d be easy to find, didn’t you?”

The man took in and let out a thoughtful breath. “Is Paso del Norte where your mother is?”

The apprentice pistolero nodded.

“It’s been how long—three years?”

“Please. I have to make sure she’s safe. With your help, I can save her.”

In a serious tone, the man said, “And do what? Will you stay with her? Will you bring her with us? And what shall we do about your stepfather?”

“We can take my mother anywhere she wants, just so she’s safe. My stepfather won’t argue with your gun.” Johnny’s bright blue eyes pleaded. “Please.”

El Halcón admitted defeat. “Then we shall go.”

With a smile that he hoped hid his fears about what they would find, Johnny nodded as his friend directed his elegant sorrel to the east. It took considerably more effort to coerce his stubborn roan to follow.

 

Paso del Norte looked the same as El Halcón remembered it from his previous visit four years earlier, when he had been hired to convince a fugitive brother-in-law to surrender funds he had taken without permission. The terrified man had handed over every last peso, plus a few extra as a request for safety, making the pistolero’s journey both short and profitable. He held out no such hopes for this excursion.

Johnny had trouble identifying the building his family had called home. The tenements in this part of town had suffered a major fire two years ago, leading to new structures and a new street layout. However, the poverty of the residents appeared constant. As they rode through the neighborhood, ragged and undernourished children appeared from dusty doorways and filthy alleys to mark the strangers’ progress. Some children still had the spark of youth in their eyes, but many had the dead gaze of hunger and poverty. El Halcón held no fond memories of Monte Blanco, but at least a small place like his home village did not produce this much grinding hopelessness.

Finally, Johnny spotted a familiar courtyard, and he stopped his horse before two older men chatting in the sizzling shade opposite a grubby public fountain. Johnny said to one of the men, “Mr. Alvarado?”

The older of the pair, a graying man with an acerbic gaze, eyed the young man up and down. “Do I know you?”

“I’m looking for María Delgado and her husband, Rodrigo Sánchez.”

Mr. Alvarado thought for a moment and then nodded with a faint knowing smile. His companion cupped his hand behind his ear and asked, “What did he say, Alonzo?”

He said to his friend, “Sánchez. You remember, that couple that fought all the time.” Mr. Alvarado squinted at Johnny. “You must be her son.”

Johnny nodded.

Mr. Alvarado said casually to his friend, “Too bad Pedro didn’t live long enough to see this. He would’ve owed me twenty centavos. He was convinced Sánchez murdered her boy.”

The friend nodded, ignoring the two horsemen. “Now I remember,” he said in a voice a little too loud. “We were lucky to have peace one day a week. And when they weren’t fighting, Pedro and Clara were gossiping about them. Not a moment of peace for us until they left.”

Johnny shuddered. “They left? When? Where did they go?”

Mr. Alvarado thought for a long moment, looking at his friend. “Ángel, can you remember the date?”

“Of what?” his hard-of-hearing friend asked.

“Sánchez,” Alvarado replied, his voice raised. “When they left.”

Johnny shifted impatiently as Ángel recollected with a complete lack of urgency.

“Before the cantina fire. Two, three years, perhaps.”

El Halcón felt a pang at Johnny’s wince of helplessness.

“I don’t recall the month,” Ángel said to Alvarado. “Do you need to know?”

Johnny’s frustration got the better of him. “What happened?” he asked the two. “Why did they leave? Where did they go?”

Mr. Alvarado said, “It was within a week of her son running away.” He rethought. “When you ran away. Or so Sánchez said.” He shook his head. “I never did trust that man. You know, he once told me—”

Putting a well-practiced edge into his voice, El Halcón cut him off. “Gentlemen, while I regret interrupting your pleasant reminiscences, perhaps you could take pity on my companion and answer his questions.”

Mr. Alvarado scrutinized El Halcón, and then his eyes came to rest on the pistol slung low on the man’s leg. He seemed to gain a bit of respect at the unspoken, dark promise of the gunman’s splendid weapon. “Yes, sir. Of course. After the boy disappeared, she was like a hellcat. She accused Sánchez of killing her son and ruining her life. That lasted for two, three days.”

“No,” Ángel said to his friend, “you’re forgetting. He left for a few days. Then he returned.”

Mr. Alvarado nodded, “Yes, my friend, you’re correct. He left after a day of fighting. He returned a few days later, and she continued with her arguing. He had no rest, day or night.” He shook his head. “No one liked him, I assure you, but he earned a little sympathy with all that abuse.”

Ángel scowled. “No, she didn’t earn sympathy. He did.”

El Halcón sighed with frustration as the gossipy neighbor and his hard-of-hearing friend disagreed over the misunderstanding. He could only imagine what tides of anger were roiling through young Johnny. Once again, the fourteen-year-old displayed a maturity beyond his years as he glared at the men with their callous lack of regard and yet remained silent.

The two neighbors disagreed over unimportant details of the couple’s arguments. Ángel spoke up, “No, Alonzo, I specifically recall her saying, ‘How dare you take away my legado!’”

The men agreed on that but continued to argue about other overheard details. El Halcón noticed Johnny perk up at the word the men agreed she had used. He knew that Johnny, with his child’s heart, generously interpreted “legacy” as her child, her contribution to the world. He, however, had developed a very different opinion of this woman. The details from Johnny’s stories portrayed a woman more mercurial than maternal, someone whose life revolved around herself, and, to her, others had value equal only to their usefulness. Unencumbered by a child’s memories and wishes, he believed she used “legacy” to mean money. He needed no effort to imagine her contacting the boy’s real father someday when it suited her and for all intents and purposes selling the child back to him. No wonder the woman berated her louse of a new husband over throwing away a possible fortune.

Johnny finally interrupted the bickering friends. “Sirs, please, tell me what happened next.”

Mr. Alvarado took command of the conversation. “My deaf friend is mostly correct. They fought, he left for a few days, perhaps looking for the child—I mean, you—and then he returned, and they fought even more. Then they disappeared.”

The two visitors sat in silence. Johnny’s face betrayed painful regret. Had he not mentioned to the pistolero the night before Mateo’s death that he had fled the village where his stepfather had left him in fear of his returning? Perhaps, if he had stayed, his years of lonely wandering could have been avoided.

His voice cracking with emotion, Johnny asked them, “Where did they go?”

The men shrugged. Mr. Alvarado responded, “Who knows?”

Ángel said, “Many people think he killed her and left town.”

Johnny shuddered, and El Halcón wanted to knock the unfeeling gossiper to the ground. He refrained only because the oblivious man may not have understood that they spoke of this boy’s mother.

Mr. Alvarado shook his head. “There are too many stories. Some neighbors think he killed her. Some say she killed him. But with so many places to hide bodies, and witnesses who say they saw him after, and others who believe they saw her after, we will never know.”

With a devilish smile, Ángel added, “But it has certainly made for many interesting conversations, I can tell you!”

El Halcón had had enough. In a quiet voice, he said to Johnny, “Let’s go. I think they’ve given us all the ‘help’ they can.” Shaken, the boy nodded. They offered their thanks and left.

Two streets over, they found a wretched little cantina and spent a few hours in the place, talking with all those who followed the rumors about strangers and came to share their own recollections of the volatile couple. This time the two mentioned no connection to the woman, although a few people recognized Johnny.

Their tales were more of the same. Everyone remembered the contentious husband and wife, especially his loathing of her son. One woman recalled hearing him beat the boy when the mother was away and then threaten to murder him if he told her. The pistolero regarded his apprentice as the woman told her story, and Johnny’s grim expression confirmed her tale. Everyone remembered how their stormy marriage exploded after the boy disappeared. Opinions were divided over if the boy had run away, if the stepfather had kicked him out, or if the boy had been murdered by his stepfather. As to what had become of the couple after the boy’s disappearance, everyone recalled a final, violent row, and the next morning all that remained were empty rooms and unpaid debts. Most people believed he had killed her, while a handful thought she had killed him. However, no bodies and no relatives meant people could only wonder.

After the crowd of neighbors drifted out of the cantina, no doubt returning home to gossip about the strangers or to rehash stories of the unhappy family, El Halcón had only sad respect for Johnny. His young companion had remained silent throughout the interviews, except when someone recognized him and greeted him, and then he merely nodded with a small smile or a few words. However, the weight of the conversations had taken its toll on the young man. Even if his mother had not been murdered, she was lost to him forever. The pistolero did not know which would have been worse—receiving final confirmation of her death, or meeting her again and discovering that his memories were much rosier than the truth. At least now it was over, and the gunman could begin his unlikely career as a substitute father.

With the weariness of an old man, Johnny said, “I want to go to Matamoros. That’s where she’s from.”

El Halcón took a deep breath. So, it was not over. “Did she ever talk about her family?”

“She said her brother was still alive.”

The sooner they faced this, the better. The gunman stood. “Let’s go.”

With unspoken gratitude in his eyes, the boy followed him out to the street.

 

“My friends, I wish I could help you. But I cannot.”

Standing in the parlor of his attractive hacienda outside Matamoros, Manuel Delgado offered his two visitors a compassionate shrug. At ease in his pleasant home, and yet uncomfortable with the strangers who had traveled so far, the handsome and well-dressed man of forty shook his head with regret. To Johnny he said, “While I would be very pleased to have you be my nephew, I’m afraid my sister never sent me any photographic portraits or even sketches of her child. Without some sort of concrete proof, I can only give you my best wishes and pray for your happiness.”

Manuel felt awkward and full of regret as the well-behaved young man studied his face, looking for some resemblance with his mother. Alas, Manuel favored their father’s family, while his sister, at least in face and figure, was a nearly perfect replica of their mother’s mother. He, however, knew the child from the moment he walked through the door.

The young man regarded him with an earnest intensity. In a soft, gentle voice so very like his sister’s when she was in a gentle frame of mind, he asked, “Do you know what happened to her after she lived in Paso del Norte?”

Manuel gave him a sad, sympathetic smile. “I wish I could give you information that would ease your mind. I do not know where my sister might have gone after the last time you saw her.”

A grimness spread across his young face. “Do you think my stepfather killed her?”

Manuel thought for a few moments before he responded. “I have not seen Rodrigo since he came here on business six years ago, shortly before he married her. While I did not like him, I….” He thought a moment longer, then shook his head. “He was prone to a great many sins, but not murderous rage. I cannot imagine him killing her.”

“Then, what happened to her?” the young man pleaded.

Manuel closed his eyes and shook his head. “My kindhearted young fellow, I wish I could tell you.”

Johnny cast his gaze down to the carpet and said to no one in particular, “She must be dead.” With the briefest of glances at Manuel, he muttered his thanks and left.

Feeling helpless, Manuel turned to the man who had identified himself as Rafael Gutiérrez. Despite his air of danger, he had been the very image of a gentleman during the visit. Manuel did not understand who this man was and what his connection could be to his nephew, but he respected that the man had stood by and said very little during the conversation, allowing the artless boy to do all the talking. If the stranger had found the boy in hopes of receiving some sort of compensation from a grateful relative, he had to be the most subtle trickster alive. “I’m sorry.”

The man nodded. “So am I. I hoped Juanito would be able to find peace, if not his mother.”

The distinctive sound of a petticoat’s brief rustle carried from the hallway behind Manuel. He blinked but did not turn to look. He noticed the man respond to the sound, becoming alert and still, his hands tensing at his sides. Manuel wondered if he usually wore a pistol as so many Westerners did. The man looked behind Manuel, waiting for someone to appear. When the silence continued, the visitor focused on Manuel a steady, piercing gaze.

“It must be our cook,” Manuel said. “Lupe.”

The man returned the slightest of nods. “I know how inquisitive cooks can be.” His gaze softened to regret. “Mr. Delgado, I thank you again for welcoming us into your comfortable home. I apologize for my young companion. He has had few advantages in his life. But he has a good heart.” With the slightest of gestures with his chin, he indicated the collection of small family portraits on the wall separating them from the hallway. “Your family would be proud to claim him as one of their own.”

Manuel wondered if the stranger had meant his statement as an insult, or if he had noticed the small portrait of his grandfather who had shared his handsome features with the visiting boy. But when the man said nothing further, Manuel felt a terrible shame that this man knew the truth but would not dishonor him by admitting it. Perhaps his nephew had finally found an adult worthy of him. “Mr. Gutiérrez, it is I who must thank you for honoring us by bringing this young man to our home. I can see in him a hope for the future.”

“If he can survive a very difficult present.”

Manuel nodded. “I wish I could do something.”

“So do I.”

They regarded each other for a long moment as they shared a sad understanding. Wrestling against his helplessness, Manuel went to his small desk. “Mr. Gutiérrez, I hope you would consider this offer in the best possible light if I made a contribution to the boy’s care.” He pulled open a desk drawer, but he stopped when he saw the man shake his head.

“You are very kind, Mr. Delgado, but no. We will be on our way. Perhaps we shall meet again.”

Humbled to the point of grief, Manuel shook the hand of his visitor. “I shall pray for both of you, Mr. Gutiérrez, and I will ask the Virgin to watch over you.”

The visitor gave him a small, reassuring nod. “Thank you. There are not enough good men like you in the world.”

The man’s compliment stung as Manuel escorted his visitor to the door and wished them both a safe journey. He studied his nephew as he sat on a sleepy-eyed roan while the stranger climbed into the glistening saddle on his magnificent sorrel. The young man watched his mentor with the sad eyes of someone whose last dream had been crushed. Manuel’s heart ached for him, but, as they turned to go, he only smiled and waved farewell. He watched his nephew struggle with his stubborn steed, finally succeeding in convincing it to move. Manuel stood in the doorway until they disappeared down the street. He hated himself and what he had done. Giving his word to remain silent would punish him until his dying day.

With a deep sigh, he returned to the parlor, knowing what awaited him.

“‘Rafael Gutiérrez’—pah! I have seen him before. He is a pistolero known as El Halcón. Now I know Rodrigo wants me dead, too.”

Manuel knew any attempt to douse his younger sister’s fire would be useless, so he let her vent her anger at him, her “husband” Rodrigo, the visitors, and even her true husband in America. Self-reproach and living with the consequences of poor choices had burned away the lively girl and left behind a volatile, beautiful woman with a heart full of ashes. He loved her, and he knew her frustration could make her say things she did not believe, but for the moment his exasperation had gotten the better of him.

When her anger spent itself, he said, “María, the boy has our grandfather’s aquamarine eyes you mentioned so often.”

She bemoaned, “After the war with the Americans, there were a thousand boys with blue eyes.”

With heat of his own, he replied, “He also looks like our grandfather, and you cannot say there are a thousand boys who look like him!”

She exclaimed, “He cannot be my Juanito. Rodrigo killed him. Otherwise, my son would have come back to me. The only reason for a pistolero to call on you using as bait a boy who resembles Juanito is because Rodrigo hired him to track me down and kill me.”

“Where would Rodrigo get that much money? He married you because he thought you were wealthy!” His sister refused to listen, and he slapped his palm on his forehead. “My dear, beloved, idiotic sister, that was your son. And you made me promise to send him away. For keeping this foolish promise, I will never forgive myself.”

“My son is dead. This is my punishment.”

He could not argue with her stubbornness. But if she wanted to chastise herself by believing something that wasn’t true, he saw no reason for her to punish her child as well. Then again, perhaps she was doing the boy a favor. “Come to think of it,” he lamented with a heavy sigh, “I’m grateful you sent him away. Because all you would have done is turn around and give him to Murdoch in exchange for money. This way, you get exactly what you deserve. Which is nothing!”

The Delgado pride flared bright in her dark eyes, and she railed against him for even thinking she could be so evil. He regretted his peevish moment of anger, but he did not try to stop her as she stormed out of the room.

Manuel stepped out onto the house’s front porch to escape her soliloquy of indignation as it echoed from the back of the house. It was just as well for María to get this fire out of her belly before his wife came back. He loved his sister, but her intensity tested his wife’s saintly patience. He was just as glad that María refused his offers to stay with them. She would leave again, pursued by the demons that she alone could see. Perhaps she would ensnare another wealthy gringo and find something like happiness. It should be easy in bustling Matamoros, with so many foreign businessmen gathered in that richest of all border towns while the Americans fought each other.

Manuel hoped someday she would end her self-recriminations—and her steadfast refusal to undo the damage she had done to the husband who had loved her and the innocent son who could not understand her mysterious self-flagellation. Even he could not comprehend it. Some strange, secret ghoul tortured her. He could only pray that she might find a way out of her purgatory that would leave all of them in peace.

The memory of his nephew’s haunted eyes rose up in Manuel’s mind. Well, perhaps most of them would find peace.

 

 

~ end ~

Continued in The Late Johnny Lancer, the second of the series------>

 

Want to comment? Email M.E.