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MargaretP

 

 

Intervention

Part 3 of the Johnny Madrid series

With thanks to my beta, Terri Derr

WARNING: For violence, including sexual violence.

Chapter One

Damn, was it morning already? Johnny raised his arm and squinted into the glare squeezing its way through the top edge of the stable door. He closed his eyes. Another half hour couldn’t hurt—he hadn’t enjoyed a bed this soft for weeks—but then again, last time he thought like that he ended up in a gunfight with Lucifer Harris and Silas Marks. It was safer to check out the lie of the land before anyone else woke up.

Rolling over in the straw, he got to his feet and kicked the noose free from his boot. Then he untied the other end of the rope from the door latch and wound it up before hanging it back on the hook where he’d found it.

“Sleep well, amigo?”

For a moment, his horse stretched its neck to stare at him; then, seemingly not in the mood to answer, turned back to the hay feeder. The dun sharing the same stall nuzzled the pinto’s neck and nickered softly.

“Made a friend, I see.”  Johnny brushed the straw off his clothes and stretched the kinks out of his back. Then he bent down to scoop a ladleful of water from the bucket by the door. Swilling his mouth out, he spat onto the dirt floor, and filled the ladle again. He drank deeply; his throat was as dry as the desert he’d ridden in from. Ladling more water over his face, he rubbed his eyes, picking grit out of the corners, and shook his hair dry like a dog. “I sure hope that mare’s owners are as glad to see me—ow.”

He rolled his right shoulder twice and touched the graze he’d got in Santa Fe two weeks earlier. It was nearly healed. Soon there wouldn’t even be a scab to remind him of the fracas and his five-days on the run.

Tucking his shirt back into his calzoneras, he adjusted his rig, and then with one hand resting on his gun, he pressed against the stable door and eased it open. Everything was quiet. The sun, rising up behind nearby buildings, painted dark shapes on the dried grass and trampled ground. Only the aging plum that had once been his hideout offered any greenery. The tree pressed against the fence closest to the alley, and a clothesline sagging from one of the lower branches stretched out to a pulley attached to another high fence along the opposite boundary, cutting the yard in half with a long thin shadow.

Johnny edged sideways into the open, keeping his back to adobe until he was sure no one was around. An old dog sat on the dusty road running between the back boundary and an empty lot. The crumbling pueblo beyond was too far away to worry about.

The mutt paused with one leg in the air, staring at him, but after a moment it went back to scratching. Johnny turned his eyes north. What part of the street he could see down the alley between the clapboard house and the adobe wall of the general store was deserted, and chirps of small birds told him it was still too early for townsfolk.

First things first: he ambled to the outhouse on the other side of the yard, looking left and right as he went, and when the necessities were taken care of, he checked for signs of life again. The dog had moved on, but everything else was the same.

Ducking under the empty clothesline, he quickened his pace to reach the shade of the house. As expected the back door was locked—the homeowners were still in bed— but if things hadn’t changed too much he should be able to get in through the washhouse.

Sure enough, undercover of the lean-to the window into the house had been left slightly open. With the help of a wooden stool, Johnny climbed on top of the copper and managed to slip a finger under the latch, flicking it free and pushing the sash wide. The opening was smaller than he remembered. Undoing his gun belt he removed his colt and lowered the belt as quietly as he could onto the bench on the pantry-side. Then using the lintel and sill as leverage, he squeezed and wriggled his way through, gun in hand. He took care to catch the window sash before it banged shut behind him; it wouldn’t do to wake up anyone just yet. He wasn’t sure how they’d take to him being there.

His stomach growled as he re-fastened the window latch. Damn. Crouching on the benchtop, he held his breath and listened for footsteps. Stupid, but his rumbling innards sounded loud enough to wake the dead.

Dropping lightly to the floor, he hurried to put on his gun belt again before looking about, for something immediately edible. He found chili preserve on the shelf next to the beaded doorway, and the meat safe on the end wall delivered a banquet: a chunk of cheese as big as his fist, cold brisket and—luxury of luxuries—a clay jug still half full of cow’s milk. He lifted the cloth and sniffed; yes, definitely cow. With luck there’d be bread in the bin in the kitchen to go with it. Laden down he crept out of the pantry, past the back stairs and into the kitchen.

He downed most of the milk as he made his sandwich; it soothed his throat much better than the lukewarm water in the stable had done. Mama always said cow’s milk was better than goat’s milk or water. “It will make you grow strong, mi hijo.” Maybe so, but Johnny had only drunk it because he liked the taste, and it filled his stomach. Now he guessed he had another reason, and he silently toasted his mamá.

He was halfway through eating his sandwich when he heard movement above. A minute after the first floorboard creaked, heavy footfalls tramped down the back stairs. Johnny tensed, ready to be discovered, but the man didn’t look into the kitchen.  He coughed a couple of times as he unbolted the back door and went straight out into the yard.

Johnny exhaled and opened his mouth to take another bite. At least he would get a chance to finish his breakfast.

Or maybe not.

A rifle hammer clicked behind him. “Do not move, señor.”

******

Chapter Two

“Keep your hands where we can see them.”

Johnny did as the man said; holding his arms high with the sandwich still in his left hand. He heard two people come into the room from the front hall, stepping from the carpet runner onto the bare floorboards of the kitchen.

A woman’s skirt brushed the cupboard by the doorway as she entered. “Who are you?”

Johnny risked a glance over his shoulder. His mother’s cousin, Luisa, hadn’t changed much: greyer, plumper, a few more wrinkles maybe. And if he wasn’t mistaken, it was her youngest boy, Alberto, holding the gun.

“Can I stand?”

Alberto nodded and hefted the rifle higher.

Johnny got up slowly and turned around to face them.

Alberto’s eyes narrowed. He cocked his head to one side and frowned.

But his mother’s eyes opened wide. “Juanito?”

Johnny grinned.

“Oh, Dios mío, eres tú! Juanito, you are alive. Gracias a Dios.” Cousin Luisa flung her arms around him. Then she pushed him back so she could look at him properly before pulling his head down and covering his face with kisses. After the sadness and trouble of the preceding weeks, Johnny felt like crying. It was going to be all right.

Putting the rifle down against the cupboard, Alberto relieved Johnny of the half-eaten sandwich, so he could return Luisa’s embrace.

“It is you. After so long. El jugador said you were alive, but still I did not know…Your poor mamá. I pray for her.”

“The gambler came here and told you what happened?” Johnny could barely believe it. One reason he’d come was to tell Luisa that his mother was dead. He’d been so certain his stepfather wouldn’t have bothered.

“No.” Luisa spat on the floor. “Thurstan Cole was as disrespectful to Maria in death as he was in life.”

She took Johnny’s hand. Eyes down she pressed it between hers, and he felt her sorrow. He hugged her again. Luisa was so much like Mama on a good day; he didn’t want to let her go.

But Luisa wiped a tear from her eye and pulled away. “He said it was an accident.”

Like hell it was. Johnny bit his tongue. “He killed her.”

Luisa shook her head sadly. “Ah, my poor muchacho, we suspected as much. A good friend saw him in Mesilla about two years ago with his arms around a whore. El jugador said your mamá died from a fall. He said you stayed at the mission San Andres, but when our padre made enquiries for us, you were gone.”

“Mama didn’t fall. She was pushed.”

“Sí, I believe you, Juanito.”

“But if that’s true—if Johnny saw it happen—Cole should be in jail.”

“Ah, Alberto, mi hijo, you are too young to remember. No one would accuse el jugador based on the word of a boy. Poor Maria. She was a bad judge of men. But now at least, Juanito, you are found and you will stay.”

“No, Luisa. He will not stay.”

Johnny turned towards the door, leading into the rear passage.

Luisa’s husband stood with his shotgun aimed at Johnny’s gut. “The mestizo will leave before anyone knows he is connected to this family.”

“Emilio, you don’t understand. This is Juanito, Maria’s boy.”

“I understand who he is. Better than you, mi esposa. We have not worked hard all these years to be dragged into the gutter by a pistolero.”

Luisa’s eyes dropped to Johnny’s gun belt, but then she turned on her husband. “So what if he has learned to be good with a gun. It does not mean he is a pistolero.”

Emilio looked grim. “Thurstan Cole is dead.”

“Judgement is mine sayeth the Lord.” Luisa’s eyes gleamed.

“The Lord had nothing to do with it. He was outgunned by a pistolero in Santa Fe; a gunfighter called Johnny Madrid.”

“So, what has that to do with Juanito?”

“Madrid was young and of mixed blood. I heard the news last week. I didn’t say anything before, because I wanted to be sure.”

“No, it was not Juanito. He is only fifteen. He could not…” Luisa’s words died in her throat as she looked at Johnny. “Oh, Santa Madre de Dios.” She kissed the rosary around her neck. “Juanito, it is true?”

“He killed Mama. I gave her justice.” Johnny was sure he was right, but the horror and disappointment in Luisa’s eyes made him feel like he had to make excuses.

“Juanito, she would not have wanted—”

“Him dead? Well, I did.”

“I was going to say she would not have wanted the life of a killer for her son.”

Johnny swallowed and lowered his eyes to his boots. It didn’t matter what Luisa thought. It was done. The bastard deserved to die. “I made Mama a promise.”

“Well, I think he should stay.” Alberto stepped forward, facing his father. “I heard those stories too. I didn’t know it was Johnny and his stepfather, but they all said Madrid shot in self-defence.”

“He called the gambler out and beat him to the draw. There is a difference.”

“Cole was a piece of shit,” Johnny snarled.

“Agreed, but is the pistolero who killed him any better?” Emilio’s words hit Johnny hard, even though he’d asked himself the same question. Emilio was among the few to show him kindness; it hurt to lose his good opinion. “His reputation is growing. We cannot take the risk.”

“Papá, years ago you welcomed Johnny into our family. We played as children. You cannot turn your back on him now.”

Luisa got in front of her son. “Stop, Alberto. Your father is right. Juanito must go, at least for now. Your brother is to marry the daughter of Don Ricardo next month. Do you think el gran ranchero will allow the marriage if he knew?”

“Your sister’s husband would not be happy either. He is a man of importance in this town.”

“I am sorry, Juanito.” Luisa squeezed Johnny’s hand. “We must put our own children first.”

Johnny nodded. He felt bruised inside, but he wasn’t really surprised. “It’s all right. I’ll leave, but I want something from you first.”

“For your mother’s sake, I will give you anything in my power.”

“I want to know my father’s name.”

Something dark flashed across Luisa’s face and she turned away. The room went quiet.

“I know his last name is Lancer, but Mama would never tell me the rest.”

“Then I cannot.” Luisa clutched at the rosary around her neck.

“Please, Luisa.”

She swung around and met Johnny’s eyes. “He was a bad man, and your mamá did not want you to know. She made me promise not to tell.”

“But that’s crazy. I have a right to know.”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Emilio?”

Emilio raised his eyebrows at Luisa, and for a moment Johnny thought he was going to go against her. But in the end Emilio shook his head.

“Okay, tell me where he lives. Is he still alive?” Johnny’s eyes darted between Luisa and Emilio as he willed at least one of them to give him an answer.

Emilio stayed silent.

But Luisa kissed her beads and then spoke, “Why, Juanito. So you can shoot him like you did Señor Cole?”

“I just want to know, is all.”

“I thought your mamá made me promise because she hated him and feared what he might do, but maybe I was wrong. Maybe she was afraid you would forsake your soul to take revenge.”

Johnny opened his mouth to speak, but she raised her hand to stop him. “I know you have already taken a life, but I will not help you do it again. I made a vow to your mamá, and I will keep it.”

“I want to know the bastard’s name.”

“Enough!” Emilio strode across the room and grabbed Johnny by the arm. He hauled him towards the back door. “I will stable your horse, but you will find a bed elsewhere, and then in the morning you will leave El Paso del Norte and not come back. I give you one day to do any business you have to do. You will say nothing about being related to this family.” He pushed Johnny stumbling over the stoop into the yard.

Johnny retrieved his hat from the ground and glared back at Emilio. “I need money. I’ll have to find work first.”

“Here.” Emilio rummaged in his pocket and tossed coins into the dirt at Johnny’s feet. “That should be enough for a room tonight and any supplies you can’t get from my stores.  Meet me around back of my shop at daybreak tomorrow for food. And take a bath.” He slammed the door shut, throwing the bolt with a force that made Johnny flinch.

Bending down, Johnny picked up the coins. He felt hollow inside, and it was nothing to do with being hungry.

His blood thrummed and his hands fisted as he headed to the stable to collect his belongings. He didn’t care he wasn’t wanted here; he hadn’t planned on staying anyway. They could all go to hell.

The horses had been fed and watered. Emilio must have done it before returning to the house to find out who owned the pinto. Johnny leaned his head against the stall post. At least Pícaro would be well-cared for.

Straightening, he blinked a few times and breathed in and out and in again. Then he went to his saddle, still resting on the side wall of the stall where he’d left it. He pulled his rifle from the scabbard. He was a gunfighter, a man on his own. Nothing has changed.

God dammit, nothing! Johnny slammed his palm into the post. “Mierda!”

******

Chapter Three

Johnny grabbed his things and slipped unseen through the side gate into the alley. With his saddle bags and rifle over his left shoulder and his right hand hanging casually near his Colt, he sauntered onto the street. There were a few people out and about now, and a wagon parked in front of Emilio and Luisa’s general store.

“Hey, kid, you seen Señor Flores?” A soldier leaning against the side of the empty wagon stood upright and stubbed out his cigarette. “He promised he would have our supplies ready.”

“Dunno Flores. I just cut through the alley.” Johnny pulled his hat down to shade his face and kept walking towards the centre of town. The soldier started banging on the shop door, shouting for Emilio to open up.

The street was busier than Johnny remembered it. Once upon a time businesses and houses were separated by empty lots along this end, but now the Flores place was one of the few houses not turned over to other purposes, and there was no unused land. The general store had expanded into what Johnny thought had once been a basket maker’s, and an extension with double doors had been built on at that end—probably storage. The gap between the carpenter and the blacksmith was filled by a saddlery shop, and another new building had an assayer’s shingle swinging outside.

Once he was clear of the general store no one took much notice of him, and he didn’t feel he had to try so hard. So what if people in town already knew about Johnny Madrid’s gunfight with Cole? No one knew his name. He looked like a hundred other saddle bums, and he hadn’t been to El Paso del Norte for what—four years at least? He’d get a few things and move on. Who needed family anyway? He’d done all right since Mama died. And he didn’t need Luisa to tell him his father’s first name either. There couldn’t be too many ranchers called Lancer.

“Madrid!”

Johnny turned swiftly with gun in hand. Maldita sea. So much for no one knowing his name.

“Whoa there. It’s only me.” Alberto raised his arms and waited for Johnny to holster his Colt.

Johnny shrugged. “Sorry.” The news about his reputation was making him a little edgy.

“You’re fast, amigo.” Alberto fell into step beside him.

“What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to have anything to do with me, remember?” Damn, that sounded like he cared.

“That’s why I called you Madrid. I can’t admit you’re a blood relative or someone I know well. But a man can have a drink with a stranger who asks directions, sí?”

Johnny ducked his head and smiled. He had always liked Alberto. He was the afterthought of Luisa and Emilio’s family, only two years older than Johnny, and they had had some good times together. “Sí. Gracias.”

Alberto took him to a cantina at the south end of the main street. “You are less likely to bump into my brother or sister here.”

It was still early and the cantina was almost deserted. The tabernero was washing glasses behind a bar made from barrels and planks. It was time he changed the water.

“Hola, dos cervezas, amigo.” Alberto tossed a coin on the bar, and the barkeeper began to pour beer from a large keg. “This fella here is new in town. He needs a cheap bed for tonight. Do you have anything?”

“Cuatro reales if he doesn’t mind sharing, and Manuel is willing to share with him.”

“Who’s Manuel?” Johnny looked about the room.

Alberto nodded towards a large youth sitting in the far corner fixing a stool. “He’s all right. We were at school together.”

“Fine by me.” Johnny took his beer to a table. As he sat down, he glanced over at the corner again and Manuel stood up. Hell, he was a big son of a bitch. Wasn’t wearing a gun though, and Alberto said he was harmless. “You ask him.”

Alberto set his beer down opposite Johnny and headed across the room. “Hola, Manuel. Long time —you’re doing a good job.” He slapped his friend on the back.

“Alberto!” Manuel stopped checking his repairs and grabbed Alberto in a bear hug, lifting him clear off the floor.

“Put me down, amigo. I have something for you.” Once his feet touched the ground, Alberto pulled a candy from his pocket. “Here.”

Manuel popped the barley sugar straight into his mouth. “Gracias, Alberto.”

Then Alberto ushered Manuel over to Johnny. “Manuel, this is Johnny Madrid. Are you okay if he shares your room tonight?”

“Sí, Alberto. I will look after him.” Manuel grinned broadly and offered a meaty hand, nearly shaking Johnny’s arm out of its socket. He showed him where to dump his stuff and then went back to work.

Johnny went back to his beer. “So is it Alejandro or Tomás getting married?”

“Alejandro. He is now part-owner and manager of a big, fancy hotel near the river. With my parents support he has gone up in the world. Even the great and powerful Don Ricardo Ortega thinks so.”

Ortega was the largest landowner in the area. Alejandro had achieved a lot for the son of a shopkeeper. Johnny tried to recall what his cousin was like, but he had been so much older, and when Johnny had visited as a child Alejandro had been out working most of the time. He was just a shadowy figure who wore a suit and smelled kind of flowery.

“Is she pretty?” Johnny grinned as his eyes followed a saloon girl to the bar. Damn, he wished he had more dinero.

Alberto laughed. “As pretty as respectable money can buy. She’s pleasant enough. Alejandro could do worse. Estefania married a fat businessman twice her age.”

“And Tomás?” Estefania was another face that was blurry, but Johnny remembered Tomás. Most clearly, he remembered him out the back of the livery. His cousin had just come home on leave. He dumped his knapsack on the ground, stood and watched for a while, and then hauled two bigger boys off Johnny’s back. Shoot, no one else Johnny knew at the time could fight like that; one kid probably couldn’t piss straight for a week. Tomás had shown Johnny some of his moves later—and taught him a few new words into the bargain.

“He is still in the army.”

“Which one?”

“Very funny, cousin. Don’t even joke about such things here. You must know El Paso del Norte supports the republic and Juárez.”

Johnny nodded, enjoying his beer and the conversation. “I remember how proud your father was when Tomás joined up.”

“Papa will always be a soldier at heart. You should have seen him earlier this year when Tomás made captain. He strutted around town like a rooster.”

Johnny smiled. It must be nice to have someone care so much. “And you help your parents?”

“Sí. I will take over the shop one day if I do not follow Tomás into the army.”

“Is Emperor Maximilian that bad? I heard he’d done some good things.”

“He could be worse, but the Mexican people don’t want to be ruled by European aristocrats anymore.”

Johnny shrugged. “Well, I’m not much for politics. Whoever’s in charge, I wish the Flores family good fortune.”

“I will drink to that, amigo.” Grinning, Alberto raised his glass, and then in a quieter voice he added, “I’m sorry my parents will not let you stay.”

“I’ll do fine. I’m not used to being cooped up in one place too long anyways. You know that.” Johnny sipped at his beer. A chance one day to find out what it was like would be nice, but hey, he’d half expected he wouldn’t be welcome now Mama was gone. Luisa’s first words and embrace had meant a lot. “I don’t suppose you know my father’s name?”

Alberto shook his head. It had been worth a try.

His cousin drained his glass and banged it down on the table. “I’m off. Take care of yourself.”

Johnny leaned back on his chair, lifting the front legs slightly off the floor as he watched Alberto bid the tabernero a casual goodbye and stroll out the door. What would it be like?

Shoot, he must be going soft in the head. He rocked forward again and got to his feet. He would never get a chance to find out, and who gave a shit anyway? He’d be bored to tears working in a shop. Downing his beer, he headed for his room to fetch his spare shirt.

He’d spotted a laundry on the way to the cantina. It was tucked down one of the side alleys. A young woman with shiny black hair tied tight back in a bun was scrubbing wet clothes against a washboard when he arrived. A girl no more than twelve stirred a steaming cauldron with a poss-stick, and an old woman hurled orders in Chinese as she pressed a nightdress with a flat iron. Her squawking stopped when she saw Johnny at the entrance to the shack.

The younger woman came to greet him, bowing low like he was someone important. “Can I help you, señor?”

“Ma’am.” Johnny tipped his hat and held out his shirt. “I’ve sewn up the hole, but I couldn’t get all the blood out.  Can you do it?” He couldn’t afford the price of a new one. “I need it done today.”

“Honourable gentleman leave shirt with Huan two hour.” She took the garment and bowed again.

Johnny bent awkwardly in reply, and then carried on to visit the gunsmith. He would need ammunition soon enough. Not to face Lancer; that was a long way off. The memory of how he’d felt after shooting Cole was still fresh; it hadn’t been what he’d expected, and it was too soon to feel like that again. He’d told Luisa the truth; for now, he just wanted to know more about the man he hated. But his reputation was growing. He needed to prepare for the idiots, and he needed to hire out his gun while people were still whispering his name. Not every job would provide bullets.

His belt refilled, and boxes of ammunition for the Colt and rifle in a brown paper bag under his arm, he crossed the street and waited while the cobbler repaired a hole in his boot. He’d have to buy a new pair soon; his toes were touching the ends.

When he got back to the cantina the aroma of tamales and beans drew him to the bar. After he offloaded his purchases, he slid a coin towards the barkeeper and started piling food onto a tin plate as another beer was poured. “Is there a bath house near here?” Two weeks in the saddle and sleeping rough could make a man ripe, and thanks to Emilio pointing it out, even Johnny was catching the odd whiff.

“Second left as you head towards the river.” The tabernero placed the beer down in front of him and picked up the coin. He bit it and then swapped it for two smaller ones from a box behind him.

“Gracias.” Johnny slipped the change into his pocket and sat down at the same table as before.

There were a lot more customers now. He dug into his meal and watched four young men play cards by the window. From their clothes and the snippets of conversation he overheard, Johnny guessed they didn’t do a lot of work for a living. They were the layabout sons of wealthy men; it was all right for some.

At the end of a round Manuel went to clear the empty glasses from the card table. Something was said that Johnny didn’t hear, and then a man referred to by the others earlier as Silva grabbed at Manuel’s apron string. The garment fell to the floor.

Manuel bent to pick it up. Another man in the group winked at his friends and put his boot into Manuel’s rear end, sending him staggering forward. The bastards slapped their knees and heehawed like mules.

“Hey, Manuel, watch you don’t fall over your big feet. You nearly spilled slops on me.”

“I am sorry, Señor Montero.” Manuel tried to get away, but Silva jumped up and blocked his path.

Montero, the clear leader of the little gang, stood up too and knocked a near empty glass onto the floor. Broken glass and dregs of beer splattered the timber boards. “Oops, that was clumsy of you, Manuel. Better clean it up fast before you lose your job.”

Chewing his last mouthful, Johnny looked towards the tabernero, but the barkeeper had turned his back. Gazing around, Johnny saw his fellow customers were also ignoring the ruckus. Who were these guys? They didn’t look more than a group of loud-mouths to Johnny, about the same age as Alberto and Manuel, maybe a little older, but they obviously had some kind of clout.

Manuel got down on one knee and tried to pick up the larger shards, but Montero booted him again, and Manuel fell hard on his right hand.

Johnny wiped his knife on his napkin and stuck it back in his boot. He began to push his chair out from the table. Nope, keep your head down, you fool. He made do with moving it around a little so he was facing what was going on. Then he leaned back and slid his left hand up his glass, fingering the top edge. With luck the game was over.

But the mongrels wouldn’t let up. Montero started throwing peanuts at Manuel as the others sniggered into their drinks. Dammit, don’t get involved. But he couldn’t walk away, and when Montero nearly took Manuel’s eye out with a nut, he couldn’t watch any longer either. “That’s enough.”

Montero turned. Stepping forward, he eyed Johnny as though he was something nasty on the bottom of his boot. Then he tossed a peanut up in the air and caught it in his mouth, smirking as he chewed. “You got something to say, muchacho?”

Still on his knees behind Montero, Manuel shook his head and mouthed the word ‘no’.

Johnny returned Montero’s gaze. After a few seconds, he sighed, finished his beer and got to his feet. Slouching slightly, he rested his hand on his gun and gave Montero and friends time to take in his appearance. “You’ve had your fun. Let him go.”

Montero grinned and adjusted his stance to match Johnny’s. “Do you hear that? This bad hombre says we should let the dummy go.”

The other men laughed, but one of them ambled around to whisper in Montero’s ear.

“My amigo wants to know where you got that fancy rig. I say you stole it.”

Johnny didn’t reply. He just smiled and kept on looking at Montero.

Sucking a cut on the side of his hand, Manuel started to get to his feet. “It’s all right, Johnny.”

Montero put his hand on Manuel’s shoulder and forced him to stay down. Then he looked back at Johnny and spat into the sawdust. “You heard him. He’s happy scrambling around on the floor.”

“He’s hurt. Let him up.”

“I think it’s time you learnt who’s in charge here, muchacho.” Montero went for his gun.

“And who might that be?” Johnny pointed his Colt at the Mexican’s belly; he had hardly moved. To be fair, neither had Montero, but his Remington hadn’t cleared its holster.

Montero stared down the barrel of Johnny’s gun and moistened his lips.

Relaxed and even—if he was truthful —enjoying the game, Johnny waited for Montero to answer.

But he was too slow.

Johnny got bored. “Let him up.”

Montero glanced left and right and then with a flick of his hand, backed off. He and his friends retreated, knocking over a few chairs on their way past. But when he got to the door Montero looked back. “I won’t forget this.”

Johnny touched his hat.

“Cabrón!” Montero broke eye contact and left.

The tabernero came out from behind the bar to close the door, and the other customers began talking again as if nothing had happened.

Holstering his gun, Johnny offered Manuel a hand up. “You okay?”

“Sí. Gracias, Johnny, but you shouldn’t have done that. Vicente Montero’s papá is a big man in El Paso del Norte. He owns this cantina.”

“You worry too much, amigo.” Johnny clapped his roommate on the shoulder, hoping he hadn’t lost Manuel his job. If he had forfeited his own bed for the night, so be it; he’d sneak back and sleep in the straw again next to Pícaro. “What’s Señor Montero going to do; run me out of town? I’m leaving tomorrow anyways.”

******

Chapter Four

Not feeling quite as cocky after the fracas as he made out, Johnny took a siesta. An hour later with no angry demands arriving from the landlord to have him or Manuel thrown out, he breathed easy again and set out back to the laundry. The shirt was spotless. Huan had even redone his repairs so the bullet hole was barely visible. Marvelling at the tiny stitches instead of watching where he was going, he nearly walked straight out in front of a passing cart, but he eventually made it to the bath house in one piece.

The proprietor exchanged his money for a towel and pointed him towards a bath. His cubicle was one of eight timber stalls filling the centre of a barn-like room, two rows of four, back to back. Being on the end, it only had wooden partitions on two sides. The other two sides were curtained. Glancing down at the openings along the bottom of the wooden screens, he could see a dirty pair of boots sticking out from the neighbouring cubicle nearest the door, but the other corner cubicle seemed empty.
 
Hanging his hat on one of two hooks provided, Johnny pulled the curtains closed while he stripped, throwing his shirt over the side of the tin bath. He shook the rest of his clothes free of dust and folded them, making a neat pile on the bench seat and placing his freshly laundered shirt on top. Ignoring the second hook, he arranged his gun belt between his clothes and an enamel tray of cleaning items sitting on the bath-side of the bench.  He wasn’t expecting trouble, but he’d learned to keep his Colt within reach.

Wrapping the towel around his middle, he stuck his head through the curtain. “Ready, señor.”

With their sleeves rolled up, the proprietor and a boy about his own age began hauling hot water from the large copper in the corner. When the bath tub was half full they added buckets of cold from an inside pump until the old guy was satisfied with the temperature. Johnny tested it with his foot and nodded. The proprietor and boy left, drawing the curtains closed behind them, and Johnny climbed in, dropping the towel on the floor and easing himself down into the steaming water. Dang, it felt good.

He slid under the water and re-emerged hair dripping. Grabbing the soap, he washed his hair first, and then used cloth, soap and pig bristle brush to scrub away the weeks of grime and stale sweat. He even scraped the razor over his chin and had the satisfaction of seeing a few short whiskers in the discarded soap. Finally, he reached for his dirty shirt and washed it in the bath water, wringing it out and hanging it back over the side. The bathroom assistant brought him fresh water half way through to rinse his hair and to warm up the cooling water, and for the last ten minutes, Johnny just lay back and soaked.

Eventually, muscles relaxed and water cooling, he decided it was time to go. Standing up, he retrieved the towel and stepped out of the tub onto the hessian sack that acted as a mat. He dried himself quickly, and put on his calzoneras and socks. Then he wrung out his shirt again, and rolled it tight in the towel to get rid of most of the water. He went to put the roll on the bench in place of his gun belt.

And his rig was gone.

Spinning around, he came face to face with a smirking Vicente Montero. “Looking for this Madrid?”

“I don’t want any trouble, Montero.” Johnny eyed his gun as it dangled in its holster from the Mexican’s hand. The bastard would have a bullet in him before he could touch it. 

“Well, ain’t that a pity.” Montero glanced sideways and the other curtain was pulled roughly open by Silva, their two friends at his elbow. “We’ve been finding out about you. Rumour has it a baby gunhawk called Johnny Madrid got the better of a wily old gambler who used to visit El Paso del Norte a few years back. No great loss, but you need to learn a little respect for your betters, Madrid. Seeing as you’re handy with a gun, we’ll teach you a lesson with our fists.” Montero nodded to his friends. They undid their gun belts and handed them to the bathhouse proprietor hovering in the background. Montero did the same. “Stay out of it, if you know what’s good for you.”

The proprietor backed away, and Montero and his pals closed in.

Johnny’s eyes darted, looking for a means of escape. Giving up, he feinted left and dived right. It won him an extra yard or two towards the exit before he was tackled, slammed against a partition, and held firm until Montero’s knuckles connected with his jaw and his stomach. Stumbling sideways, he could see his retreat was blocked so he stepped forward swinging. He bloodied Silva’s nose before the biggest of the other men punched him in the guts again. Doubled over, he was easy meat for the next man to break a broom over his back. A right cross sent him crashing into the tin bath his neighbour had hurriedly vacated and soapy water washed the floor.

Then Montero came at him with a knife, grinning like the cat that had trapped the mouse and twisting the five inch, double-edged blade in his hand as though he meant business. Johnny thought it was all over, but suddenly someone or something shoved Silva smack into Montero, sending him off balance. Johnny dove out of harm’s way, shimmying under a partition. Manuel was in the passageway between the wall and the stalls, chucking one of the other men onto the copper. Gracias a Dios, but where had he come from?

No time to work it out. As Johnny got to his feet, Montero entered the cubicle, followed by Silva.

“Take care of the dummy. Madrid is mine.”

Clutching at his middle, Johnny staggered, edging around the stall trying to keep distance between him and Montero. Maybe he’d broken a rib; it hurt like blazes. Montero had lost the knife, but with hardly a bruise, he would still pack a powerful punch.  Manuel had two men hanging off his back. He was trying to dislodge them, but the guy he’d flung onto the copper was coming up behind him with a bucket.

“Manuel! Watch out!”

There was a sickening crunch followed by the splintering of wood; the bucket connected with Manuel’s head as Montero’s fist sent Johnny crashing through the partition into the curtains on the other side of the next stall.

For a second or two, Johnny lay face down in a pool of water, tangled in the curtain. Then spitting blood, he raised his head. The door was in sight, but he had to blink several times to see it clearly. As his senses returned, he rolled onto his side.

His heart sank. Manuel was on his knees, a stunned look on his face, but their attackers were still on their feet.

Johnny groaned as Montero’s sneering face loomed above him.

“The mestizo gringo is not as tough as he thought.”  The Mexican put his boot into Johnny’s belly. “Now do you know who’s in charge?”

Gasping for air, Johnny rolled onto his back. And remembered something.

Montero stood over him, cleaning his finger nails. Damn—he’d got the knife back.

“One last thing, Madrid—so you never forget your place again.”

Montero stepped forward. As he did so, Johnny slid his hand down his spine and under his belt into the extra pocket he had sewn into the back of his calzoneras. The knife flashed as Montero reached out, but when he grabbed Johnny’s ear, Johnny drew the little Deringer and fired.

The blade clattered to the floor, and Montero snatched at his leg. Falling back, he screeched like a stuck pig, as Johnny escaped into the passage.

Johnny headed for the doorway. It took several seconds for the other men to realize what had happened and give chase, but it was all too late. Johnny’s spirits soared and then crashed as he and then his pursuers came face to face with the rifle barrels of the Guardia Rural, the bath house assistant grinning in the background.

“Drop your weapons.”

“They started it.” Johnny took a step back; one hand up as he placed the Deringer on the floor. He might as well save his breath; no prizes for knowing who the law in this town would believe.

But the Rurales let him rinse off the blood and put on his miraculously still-clean shirt and boots before taking him to jail. They confiscated all the guns and knives, and all six men involved in the fight were escorted to the lock-up, Montero half carried by two of his friends. Clearly, from his loud complaints his injuries weren’t life threatening.

The men were separated as soon as they arrived at the adobe jailhouse. As he was taken away, Johnny heard the sergeant ordering a doctor for Montero and messages to be sent to the families of those who admitted to having any. Johnny was put in a cell on his own, six feet by four with a barred window at one end, a worn blanket and a pot to piss in.

At nightfall a guard bought him water, beans and a lump of dry bread.

“When will I get out?”

“Juez Martinez will decide on Wednesday.”

That was what—five days away?

The guard re-locked the iron door, his face visible through the grille.

“Are the others still here?”

“The boy who used to work in the cantina is in the main corral.”

“What about Montero and friends?”

“No. Their papis have taken them home.” The sarcasm in the guard’s voice gave Johnny a glimmer of hope.

“Well, why can’t Manuel and I go too?” He knew it was a slim chance.

“Do you have dinero? No, I did not think so. But do not worry, muchacho; the sons of the wealthy must appear before the magistrate also. Perhaps you can persuade Juez Martinez that the pistolero, Johnny Madrid, was an innocent, and the bullet you put in the leg of his nephew got there by accident.” The guard slid the shutter on the grille shut and guffawed all the way back to his office.

Johnny swallowed hard. Shit.

******

Chapter Five

The novelty of cold beans, dry bread and lukewarm water wears thin after five days, but at least when Johnny was finally herded from his cell to the courthouse his stomach wasn’t rumbling. His ribs ached; not as bad as when he was locked up though so he figured they were only bruised.

“All right, I’m going.” He stumbled down the jailhouse steps, rubbing his eyes and squinting into the mid-morning sunlight. “Why are we going so early, if my case is last?”

“You ask too many questions.” Pedro, the guard, prodded him with the muzzle of his rifle and forced him to shuffle in leg irons and manacles towards the courthouse.

A surprising number of prisoners were already waiting under armed guard in the thin strip of shade offered by the back wall. Montero and friends weren’t there, but Johnny exchanged smiles with Manuel.

The big fella looked reasonably tidy, all things considered, but Johnny’s appearance sure wasn’t going to win him any favours. Sleeping on the floor hadn’t improved the state of his shirt any, and unusually, he felt in need of a shave. His jaw and the flesh above his left eye were tender and puffy to touch; he was almost glad he didn’t have a mirror.

In court, Johnny and Manuel stood on the opposite side of the room to Montero and his gang. Those bastards were well washed behind the ears, wearing clean clothes and holding their sombreros respectfully in front of them like butter wouldn’t melt. Johnny didn’t even know where his hat was and as far as he knew, Manuel didn’t own one.

“This court will come to order; Juez José Martinez presiding.”  The town clerk read the charges: disturbing the peace, assault, damage to private property, and in Johnny’s case, attempted murder.

“That ain’t true. If I’d wanted to kill him, he’d be dead.” Johnny tried to take a step forward, but Pedro stuck a rifle barrel across his chest and forced him back. 

“Silencio!” Judge Martinez glared over pince-nez spectacles. “Call the first witness.”

The town clerk referred to the document in his hand. “Ruben Padilla.”

Johnny twisted around to watch the bath house owner make his way to the stand. There were lots of other faces in the room: townsfolk, vaqueros and soldiers. Most he didn’t recognize and all of them were men; Mexican courts didn’t allow women to attend unless they were accused of a crime. Four grim-looking big bugs in suits sat along the front row; they were almost certainly the fathers of the other accused. Señor Montero was probably the one whispering instructions to their lawyer. Johnny and Manuel didn’t have a lawyer; just Pedro and Jorge, the Rurales guards, who stood like statues beside them, making it look like they were dangerous criminals.

What interested Johnny most was that Alberto was seated on the aisle three rows back. And then he spotted Emilio standing against the rear wall, half hidden by a pillar.

The bath house proprietor gave his evidence. It was a fair account.

Then his assistant was invited to speak. His version sounded more like a scene from a dime novel, but allowing for some exaggeration, it was still a reasonably accurate description of what had happened. Neither mentioned the knife though. Hadn’t they seen it?

Manuel recalled the knife, although he was interrupted several times by the lawyer with snide comments about his intelligence and observation skills.

Montero and his friends claimed they were only rough-housing. There was no threat to stab Johnny or harm him in any way with a knife. All men carried knives; that didn’t mean they intended to use them. It was a fist fight, pure and simple, to teach el Americano some manners. Their stories were remarkably alike.

Johnny could have spat; Montero stood up straight in the dock, looking like the model citizen. “We didn’t mean Madrid any serious harm.”

Yeah, right. Someone sharing Johnny’s opinion barked a laugh from the back of the courtroom.

“Silence in the court.” Judge Martinez scowled at the culprit and then turned back to Montero. “Madrid and the prisoner, Manuel Ruiz, say you pulled a knife and threatened to cut off Madrid’s ear.”

“It was a joke. He knew I wasn’t going to do it, but he shot me anyway. He is a pistolero. He tried to murder me like he did el jugador Cole in Santa Fe.” There were murmurs in the audience. Johnny knew some would remember Cole, and a few would remember how the gambler treated his stepson. It wouldn’t help Johnny’s cause if they put two and two together.

“I never murdered anyone.”

“No, so it seems. I have a telegram here to that effect.” Judge Martinez waved a piece of paper in the air, his top lip curling. The bastard had checked, even though the incident had happened across the border. Johnny knew it wasn’t done for his benefit. Likely Martinez was hoping some money could be made by handing Johnny Madrid over to the sheriff on the other side of the Rio Grande. He was disappointed, and disappointment clearly didn’t agree with him. “But you did shoot Vicente Montero.”

“He tried to cut me. I was defending myself. I could have killed him, but I didn’t.”

“He shot my son,” Señor Montero shouted, pointing at Johnny. “He’s a troublemaker, and I want him punished.”

“They shall all be punished, señor. Please sit down.” Judge Martinez didn’t look any more impressed with Señor Montero than he did with Johnny. Perhaps Pedro was mistaken about them being related. Nope. It was a nice thought, but odds were the judge was just playing to his audience.

Montero’s lawyer pressed his client to sit down and then politely begged the magistrate to be heard. “The fathers of these young men have compensated Señor Padilla for the damage done to his business, and they have already taken steps to punish their sons. The young men are sorry for what they have done. They have never stood in front of you before, and they will never do so again. Alas, the doctor says Vicente Montero may pay for his folly with a limp for the rest of his life. Surely that is punishment enough. I beg you to show mercy; they were driven to their foolhardy action by the taunting of this drifter. El Americano is to blame for all of this, and he is the one who should feel the full force of Mexican justice.”

Judge Martinez studied the prisoners before him and referred to some papers on his desk. Then he cleared his throat. “Vicente Montero, Luis Avila, Ramon Silva and Alonzo Hernandez, you are hereby released into the custody of your fathers for sixty days upon settlement of all damages in equal shares, and the payment of a good behaviour bond of one hundred escudos each.”

Two of the fathers stood up, protesting the amount of the bond, but the lawyer urged them to sit down and be quiet. After all, they would get most of the money back if their sons toed the line.

“Gracias, Juez Martinez.” He bowed to the judge while Vicente Montero and his friends struggled to look repentant. Their fathers sat stony-faced in behind.

Martinez turned his attention to the spectators in the courtroom. “There are far too many troublemakers coming across the border into this town.”

“Hear, hear!” Someone called out.

“I wish to send a message to other drifters and to any local men tempted to make things worse by supporting them.”

Johnny shut his eyes. This wasn’t going to be pretty.

“The accused, Manuel Ruiz, is sentenced to sixty days hard labour in the Chihuahua State Prison.”

State prison? Shocked, Johnny opened his eyes again and stared straight into the magistrate’s.

“The accused, Juan Madrid, is sentenced to one hundred and twenty days in the same facility.”

“No!”

It was Alberto who called out, but by the time Johnny looked around, his cousin was trying to sink down in his chair to avoid notice. Emilio had disappeared. Others in the court had plenty to say though. A few yelled, “Unfair”, but more jeered their support. Some, like Manuel’s tabernero, shook their heads and looked resigned. Johnny even saw two men exchange coins.

“Order!” Judge Martinez banged the desk with his gavel. “Order!”

Johnny bit his bottom lip hard and focused on the flag on the wall, a sandstorm whirling inside him.  Manuel didn’t look too upset, but maybe he didn’t understand where he was going.

Johnny had passed the Chihuahua State Prison on his way to El Paso del Norte. Shackled, half-starved prisoners had been working under armed guard in the surrounding fields, but it was the stench that had turned his stomach—sickly, like nothing he’d ever smelled before.

When he approached the side road leading to the fortress, he saw smoke. Instead of rising up into the sky it squeezed out under the iron gates and slithered into crops like a gigantic snake.

A peasant woman resting against a cart at the side of the road laughed at the look on his face.

“What makes the smoke run along the ground like that?”

“Fat.  Two men tried to escape last night. They went before the firing squad this morning. The guards are burning the bodies.” She had cackled like a witch.

Even four months in that hell hole could be a death sentence.

The courtroom was suddenly hot and airless. Johnny’s head started to swim. Maybe he staggered a little, because Pedro put out a hand to steady him.

Judge Martinez and members of the audience got up to leave.

“Wait!”

The judge hesitated and then lowered himself back into his chair. Johnny twisted around to see what was happening. Spectators were hurrying to sit down again as an army officer strode up the aisle followed by six armed soldiers.

“I need men, Juez Martinez.” The officer went right up to the bench. Even though his back was to the courtroom, everyone could hear him. “By the authority invested in me by President Benito Juárez, I request you give me all the men sentenced to the state prison today so that they may serve their time in the republican army instead.”

“Are you sure, capitán? I have sentenced seven such criminals today, but men like Madrid there surely cannot be trusted with weapons.”

The captain didn’t even glance at Johnny. “If it pleases you, Juez, let me worry about that. The army has ways to ensure obedience. I am short of men, and I have just received orders. My company must return south to defend against the French. I will take all I can get—those four as well if you are prepared to change their sentencing?”

Montero, Avila, Silva and Hernandez looked suddenly alarmed as the captain nodded in their direction.

“No—unless they wish to volunteer?” Martinez raised his eyebrows at the group, but he seemed unsurprised when they shook their heads. “I have given my ruling. If the conditions are met, they are free to go. If you are confident you can make good use of the others however, you may have them. I commute their sentences from imprisonment to military service of the same duration.”

The town clerk took his pen and made the changes in the court records, and on August 24th, 1864 Johnny joined the ranks of the Mexican army.

******

Chapter Six

“Listen up, muchachos; I am Sargento Jeraldo Lopez of the Third Company of Infantry, Fifth Battalion in the great and glorious army of the Republic of Mexico. And I am your worst nightmare.”

Judging by the way the ordinary soldiers steered clear of him, Johnny was prepared to take the sergeant at his word.

“You are scum,” Lopez shouted, addressing the seven men who had unexpectedly joined his squad. Johnny pulled at the collar of his new uniform, the trousers a size too big and the jacket a size too small, and cursed the stupidity of the upside down flower pot he was now obliged to wear as a hat. Even with the annoying flap at the back it wouldn’t give as much protection from the sun as a sombrero. “If I had my way you would rot in jail, but instead you will fight for your country, and if necessary, you will die for it.” Sergeant Lopez paced as he strode up and down the line, pausing occasionally to glare at one of the convict-soldiers. “For you, there will be no drinking, no smoking and no women. El capitán does not allow even ordinary enlisted men the privilege of soft arms and warm breasts while on campaign. You will have to jerk your own sausage, pretty boy.” Lopez leered into Johnny’s face, splattering it with spit.

Johnny tried hard not to flinch and said nothing—four months! The sergeant moved on, and Johnny relaxed the muscles in his jaw. He bet the captain and that stinking bastard didn’t go without.

“Soon you will be loaded onto wagons. Our camp is two miles south. Check your uniform and equipment while you ride. If you fail to maintain them, steal, or disobey orders you will be flogged. If your crime is serious enough, you will be shot and killed, and left for the flies to walk over your eyeballs.” The sergeant stopped his pacing and faced the line. “If you attack me or any other superior or try to escape, you will be shot but not killed.” What the hell did he mean by that? Lopez rocked on his heels and smiled like the devil smelling fresh souls. “If you are foolish enough to do one of those things, amigos, you will be left wounded to die a slow death in the desert. What is good for the Comanche is good for vermin of all types. Do we understand each other? Soldado Diego Cervantes, do you understand?” The sergeant went nose to nose with the prisoner at the far end of the line.

“Sí, Sargento Lopez.” Cervantes attempted a clumsy salute.

“Cabo Estrada.” Lopez turned towards the wagons and soldiers waiting on the far side of the jailhouse yard. A clean-shaven corporal in his mid-twenties stepped out from between a string of horses. “There is a rat on the roof of the building opposite. Demonstrate the skill of the republican infantry for our new recruits.”

Corporal Estrada aimed his rifle at the rat. Unfortunately for him, it started scuttling down the barge tiles from the ridge. He fired as it neared the bottom of the roof. The animal exploded, raining down in bloody pieces onto the tiles and dusty ground.

“Mierda.” The man next to Johnny looked spooked.

Johnny didn’t blame him; that was fancy shooting. It was one thing to hit a stationery target, and quite another to hit something so small on the run.

“You will remain fully shackled until we reach camp; then, if you cause no difficulties on the journey, those pretty bracelets will be removed. The leg irons stay on until morning. You will be re-shackled after each day’s march until we reach our destination. By that time you will have learned to obey or you will be dead. Do you understand me?”

“Sí, sargento.” The men chorused.

“I didn’t hear you. Do you understand?”

“Sí, sargento!” They bellowed.

“In a few days, you will be issued rifles and ammunition. You will keep the ammunition with you at all times, but you will hand in the weapons each night. You are part of this army now, but until you have served your sentence, you will not be trusted.” Sergeant Lopez signalled Corporal Estrada, and the soldiers who had brought them from the courthouse began herding them towards the three heavily laden wagons. The recruits squeezed into the back of the wagons in twos and threes, perched on top or in between sacks of rice, beans and flour.

The enlisted men shared a seat with the drivers up front or clambered onto the bare backs of the newly purchased animals. Only the sergeant had a horse with a saddle. The captain was nowhere to be seen.

Johnny rode in the last wagon with a bandit called Gonzalez, followed by soldiers on horseback. Gonzalez had been sentenced to a year.

“It is what I expected. It is you, amigo, who drew the short straw. It is usually seven days in the town jail for fighting and drunkenness, up to thirty if damage is done that cannot be paid for or if someone is seriously injured.  A man usually only gets sent to the state prison for theft or killing.”

“I figured as much.” Johnny undid one of the straps holding his bedroll to his knapsack and began rooting inside the bag. “The fella I wounded calls the judge ‘Tío’.”

“Yeah? Well, that would do it.” Gonzalez also had his knapsack open. He pulled his mess kit out and frowned. “The bastards have taken the cutlery. Look for something else that could break a lock.”

“You fixing to escape? You heard what the sergeant said?”

“I heard.” Gonzalez grinned with tobacco stained teeth and spat over the backboard into the dirt. “But Valdez is also short of men, and el capitán de bandidos does not deprive a man of the little pleasures in life.” Gonzalez winked and continued rummaging in his knapsack. “Is it true what I heard? Did you kill el jugador Cole?”

“What if I did?” Johnny examined a flattish tin full of boot polish. “You a friend of his?”

“Sí, I lost money to him and did not try to shoot him. I am as close to a friend as el gringo ever had.”  Gonzalez snorted at his own joke and grasped the sideboard as they went over a pothole. The contents of the wagon rocked, and a cage containing chickens threatened to slide forward off the top of the flour sacks. “El jugador had a way of leaving a man with hope; tomorrow he would have better luck—always tomorrow.” The bandit chuckled. “And then there was his lady. It was worth losing a few reales to gaze upon the many virtues of Señora Maria. Ah, to rub up against that warm, succulent body when Señor Cole wasn’t looking…My, my, my, what a beauty. Maybe I will seek her out when I am free and give her a taste of Mexico.”

Shut up! Johnny rammed everything back into his knapsack. It wasn’t news to him that men lusted after his mother, but he hated to hear it.

Gonzalez’s prick hardened, pressing against the cloth of his trousers, as he closed his eyes and licked his lips. “Oh, amigo, what a man would not give to tap that sweet honey.”

“Cállate!” Johnny kicked out with his clumsy boots, chains clanking, and glared at Gonzalez.

The bandit stared back in surprise, and a soldier following them pointed his rifle. “Muchachos?”

Damn, damn, damn! Now he had done it. Johnny raised a hand to indicate there would be no more trouble. Then, throwing Gonzalez another dirty look, he changed position so he didn’t have to see the bastard.

For a minute or two they travelled in silence. Then Gonzalez started to laugh. “Oh, amigo, now I understand. You are the boy, the son of the señora. Of course; it all makes sense.”

Johnny gritted his teeth and didn’t answer. 

“Where is your mamá?” Gonzalez kept chuckling. “In bed with another gringo, or free for the tasting?”

Cabrón! Johnny turned his head, but it was a mistake. Gonzalez waggled his tongue and jiggled his crotch.

It took all Johnny’s self-control to look away again and shut his ears to Gonzalez’s chortling and lewd comments. He tried to concentrate on the soldiers riding a few yards behind them. Their mounts had clearly been bought as pack horses or for hauling wagons. The other horses in the string were similar, and there was at least one mule. They weren’t dog meat, but if they were to pull wagons of this weight, some would be buzzard bait before the company reached the battle lines five hundred miles south near the Chihuahua-Durango border.

The mare on the left was a pinto. Johnny wondered how Pícaro was getting on. Thank goodness he had left him with Emilio. If Judge Martinez had known the gelding existed, he would have ordered him sold to pay for damages, and a liveryman would certainly sell rather than pay to keep a horse for four months. There was a chance that Emilio would too, but with luck he would just use him and agree to give him back.

“Halt!” Sergeant Lopez gave the order from the front of the wagon train. The sun was now only a warm, yellow line on the horizon, and in front of them were the campfires of the Third Infantry.

Keeping his back to Gonzalez, Johnny clambered off the wagon, and looked around. At the far end of the encampment a long line of wagons and carts created a dark wall; there must have been near on two dozen, most of them packed high like the ones they had just brought from El Paso del Norte.

A soldier nudged Johnny forward with his rifle, and he had no choice but to line up next to Gonzalez.

“You must be fast, Johnny Madrid. I have seen el jugador draw. Come with me when I go. Valdez would pay you well.”

“No.” Johnny stared straight ahead. He was no bandit, and if he was going to run it would not be with a load of shit like Gonzalez.

The bandit shrugged and turned his eyes forward as the three wagons were driven off to join the others and an officer approached. It was their troop’s lieutenant, Herrera. He was wet behind the ears and seemed intimidated by Sergeant Lopez. No prizes for guessing who would rule their world for the next few months—if they stayed.

Sergeant Lopez called out each man’s name as Lieutenant Herrera inspected them. Then after a few more threats from the sergeant, the lieutenant gave the order for the manacles to be removed and departed to his tent. The leg irons stayed on, but at least they weren’t chained together as they had been behind the courthouse. Johnny could put some distance between him and Gonzalez. He rubbed his chafed wrists, reunited with Manuel and joined the line for supper. He was famished.

Once they got their food, Johnny and Manuel approached a nearby campfire, hoping they’d be welcome. The two privates sitting next to it eyed the leg irons warily, but after a moment’s consideration the older man held up the coffee pot. “Want some?”

“Sí, gracias.” Slipping off his knapsack and bedroll, Johnny sat down on top of them and held out his tin mug. Manuel did the same.

As the coffee was poured, the younger private got to his feet. “I’m off.”

The first soldier put the pot back on the fire. “Don’t take it personal. We’ve got jobs to do.” Gulping his last mouthful, he threw the dregs on the ground and followed his friend.

A minute later, Gonzalez and the other four recruits sat down uninvited. Johnny cursed, but there was nothing he could do. At least Gonzalez didn’t sit next to him.

The man who did was Cervantes, a slick looking fella with smooth hands and clean fingernails. “I heard you shot the judge’s nephew, Madrid.”

“So I’m told.” Johnny shifted around slightly on his pack. He should never have said anything to Gonzalez. They probably all knew his business now.

“I worked in the office of an investment company.”

Johnny glanced at the other men; the tall one—Rodriguez—gave in to curiosity. “Okay, I’ll bite. How does a clerk get sent to the state prison?”

“I cooked the books for nearly two years. They think I spent it all, but I stashed some in a safe place—money will wait.” Cervantes took a mouthful of chilli and smirked as he chewed. “My boss was as thick as two short planks.”

“And you were greedy, muchacho.” Perez, a sun-wrinkled bandit, gazed at Cervantes with fox-like eyes. “Tell me I’m wrong.”

The younger man looked away. “Well, perhaps I should have stopped when the new manager arrived.”

“Pendejo,” Rodriguez coughed out the word, and the others sniggered. Cervantes reddened. “Take heart; you are not the only fool.” Rodriguez threw his arm over the clerk’s shoulder and gave him a friendly hug. “I killed a man over a woman—gutted him like a fish—but she will not be waiting for me when I get out.”

Cervantes wriggled free from Rodriguez’s arm. “But it was self-defence?”

“Sí, amigo, Juez Martinez himself declared it was not murder.”

“How much did that cost you?” Perez smiled, knowingly, wiping his plate with the last of his tortilla.

Rodriguez winked.

Looking between the two of them, Cervantes shunted closer to Johnny. Maybe Gonzalez hadn’t spilled the beans—well, not all of them. Johnny shifted in his seat; it might be fun to see Cervantes’ face when someone told him the rest.

But the conversation didn’t go that way. Perez went on to his own introduction instead. “I worked for Valdez herding Ortega cattle.”

“Me too.” Sitting next to him, Gonzalez reached for the coffee pot. “It wasn’t our day.”

“Not mine either.” All eyes turned to Leon. He sat in Manuel’s shadow; a stocky man with a bushy handlebar moustache. Sighing loudly, he shook his head in sorrow. “Take my advice, amigos; if you ever plan to hold up a stagecoach, make sure there are no Rurales on board.”

There was a pause, and then the seven men burst out laughing.

“I swear it could happen to anyone.” Leon happily filled in the details. Then he kept them in stitches with other stories until the regular soldiers began to find places to sleep. Licking fingers and tin plates clean, the new recruits followed their example. Only officers had tents; the ordinary soldiers spread their bedrolls on the ground under the stars.

Johnny and Manuel chose a spot together a few yards apart from the rest.

“You got folks, Manuel?”

“No, amigo. You?”

“Nope.” Absentmindedly, Johnny scratched the letter ‘L’ in the dust with a stick and then scrubbed it out quickly before Manuel could see. “What happened to yours?”

“I don’t remember my papa. Mama died of cholera when I was nine.”

“That’s young to be on your own. Did you live at the mission?” Johnny had stayed at the San Andrés mission for a short time after his mamá died.

“Sí, until Padre Jeremias found me work in the cantina.”

“How long have you been there?”

Manuel shrugged. “I don’t know. Eight years, maybe.”

Johnny stared at his friend. He couldn’t be more than nineteen at most. Poor devil.

“It was okay. What happened to your mamá and papá?”

“Dead.” Johnny didn’t know why he’d brought the subject up. Silly really; he didn’t want to talk about Mama or his bastard father or stepfather. And he’d have to be careful not to mention his cousins. Still, it was good to talk to a friend after so long alone in a cell. Joking with the other men around the campfire didn’t seem to count. “When I was small I used to visit El Paso del Norte. Sometimes I went to the mission school.”

“Me too, but I wasn’t good at learning. I’m sorry I don’t remember you, Johnny.”

“That’s all right. I wasn’t there long, and I think you’re older than me.” Johnny made a circle with the stick in the sandy soil, and wondered if it would be possible to find one strong enough to pick a lock. Not much good if he did; if he managed to undo his chains and run, he’d be easy meat in this terrain. He wouldn’t get far on foot, and the horses were well guarded. No, let Gonzalez take the risk if he wanted, Johnny would bide his time. If worst came to worst, four months in the army had to be an improvement on four months in the Chihuahua State Prison.

“Can you write your name, Johnny?”

“Yeah, can you?”

“I write it real pretty.” Manuel puffed up with pride. “I learned by copying Padre Jeremias’s handwriting from the school register. That’s where I found out my papa’s name was the same as mine.”

“Is that right?” Johnny was suddenly interested. “Are the names of fathers recorded?”

“In the back. My papi was called Manuel Ignacio Ruiz.”

“That’s a fine name.”

Manuel smiled and lay down on his bedroll. It was a clear night and the stars were bright in the sky. “I think he is watching over me from heaven.”

Johnny was damn sure his father wouldn’t be—if he was dead, that is. Why change the habit of a lifetime. Johnny pulled his blanket up over his shoulders. Time to sleep; it had been a long day, and tomorrow would be even longer.

******

Chapter Seven

Johnny’s first full day in the Mexican army started at sun up with a bugle call. Five minutes later sergeants were bellowing orders for soldiers to line up. Lieutenant Herrera walked up and down the rows of soldiers under his command, and then Sergeant Lopez and another sergeant barked more orders for them to disperse.

The men pissed in the bushes, and those that could be bothered washed in the nearby stream. A shackled soldier had to go to the stream with an ordinary enlisted man, one on one to reduce the chances of an attempted escape.

“The company has three troops—now about one hundred and thirty men in total, including officers,” Corporal Estrada said as he and Johnny washed together in the stream. “Each troop used to have two squads of twenty-five, but we suffered heavy losses at Durango. We were sent here for supplies and more men.”

“Volunteers hard to come by, huh?”

Estrada shrugged. “We got a few, but we must re-join the rest of our battalion now and stop the bastards advancing north.”

“How many men is Lopez in charge of?”

“Twenty with you lot—including the best corporal in the company.” Corporal Estrada grinned. “Sargento Moya has less, but I think that will be rectified soon.” Drying himself off with a small towel, he put the top half of his uniform back on as Johnny did the same and a loud clanging rang out from the campsite. “Breakfast. Best be quick Madrid. We won’t get long.”

Even if it was only tortillas and rice, at least it was hot and there was plenty of it. Johnny sat down with his fellow recruits and ploughed in. “Definitely better than prison.” He must be growing again; there was no filling him at the moment. Old Jésus manning the chuck wagon grinned toothlessly, and tossed him the last tortilla.

“Attention!” Sergeant Lopez hollered at the top of his voice. All the men in the vicinity jumped to their feet and saluted where they stood.

The captain had followed his lieutenants out of his tent and was coming their way. He had ridden into camp the night before after everyone had settled down to sleep. Johnny had been woken by the sentry’s challenge.

“At ease.” The captain returned the salute and surveyed the men in front of him. Then he strolled about, talking to some of the regular soldiers, and thankfully steering well clear of Johnny and his companions.

Rodriguez scratched the stubble on his jaw. “Young for a captain, don’t you think?”

“Hard to tell from this distance.” Leon stuffed his mess kit into his knapsack and buckled the straps. “Don’t matter as long as he doesn’t use us as cannon fodder.”

That didn’t seem likely if the easy manner of the other soldiers was anything to go by. After five minutes, the captain left them to have a word with Lieutenant Herrera and the two sergeants, and then headed back to his tent.

With Estrada at his heels, Sergeant Lopez strode over to where Johnny and the other shackled men were killing time. “Unlock the rest and get them ready to move. We march as soon as the horses are hitched to the wagons. Madrid, you come with me.”

Johnny hesitated and looked at the corporal for reassurance. He didn’t like the idea of being alone with Lopez.

But Estrada nodded for him to follow. “Capitán Flores wants to see you in his tent.”

Flores? Johnny blinked and stared at Estrada. It couldn’t…

“March, you bastard!” Lopez rounded on him from where he’d stopped a few yards away. Johnny thrust his gear into Manuel’s arms and hurried after the sergeant as best he could in irons. Lopez swiped him across the legs with the flat of his sword as he passed. “Pick up your feet, Madrid, or I’ll have you flogged.”

Johnny nearly fell flat on his face. Cabrón!

The canvas flap was open when they reached the captain’s tent, but Johnny wasn’t sure of the rules so he stopped outside.

“Get in there.” Lopez shoved him past the sentry.

The interior was surprisingly spacious. A cot stood along the right hand wall with a trunk and a washstand at its foot and an unlit lantern sitting on a box beside it. Captain Flores was writing at his desk, half hidden from view by a corporal standing to attention.

“I expect a reply.” Flores sealed his letter and handed it to the corporal. Placing the message in a satchel slung across his chest, the corporal saluted, about-turned and marched briskly outside.

Flores watched him go and then turned his eyes to the sergeant. “Thank you, Sargento Lopez. That will be all.”

“But, sir…”

“Leave us.”

Lopez threw Johnny a dirty look and did as he was ordered.

Without meeting Johnny’s eye, Flores got up from his chair and walked past him. He said something to the sentry and then closed the tent flap.

Johnny held his breath. It could be, but he wasn’t sure. The moustache and beard…it was hard to tell.

“You have grown, Juanito. I hardly recognized you.”

Johnny exhaled with relief. “Tomás?”

“Sí, cousin, but here you will address me as Capitán Flores—if you address me at all. For the most part, I will leave you in the care of Sargento Lopez and Teniente Herrera. No one must know we are related. Agreed?”

“Sí…and muchas gracias.”

“It is not me you should thank.” Tomás went and stood behind his desk. “I do this for my father. Juez Martinez is right. I would not normally take a known pistolero into my ranks, no matter how desperate I was for men.”

“Your father asked you to help me? Your mother must have begged him.”

Tomás laughed. “You have a lot to learn about your own family, Johnny Madrid. My mother knows nothing about your arrest.”

“But your father threw me out.”

“You are a pistolero whose reputation spread to El Paso del Norte before you even set foot in town. He had no choice.”

“He had a choice.” Johnny bit his tongue hard. This wasn’t the time or the place, but the memory of Emilio chucking him out still made him mad. Damn right the old man had a choice.

Tomás met Johnny’s glare full on and frowned like he was looking at a hot-headed kid not a pistolero or a soldier in the Mexican army. “Grow up.”

Johnny gritted his teeth and kept glowering. He’d grown up years ago. Tomás and Emilio knew nothing. “So why help me when I get in trouble with the law?” It didn’t make any sense.

“Because Papá still remembers the boy who hid in the plum tree—as do I.” Tomás broke eye contact and started sorting papers on his desk.

Johnny bowed his head and smiled down at his boots.

Three hours he’d hidden in that tree. Thurstan Cole had come back to fetch Mama after a whole month away in New Orleans. He wanted to leave on the afternoon stage, but Johnny didn’t want to go. He liked staying with his cousins. He even enjoyed going to school after he got through the first few days. As soon as Mama tightened the strap on her trunk, he hightailed it into hiding. He knew she wouldn’t leave without him, no matter what his stepfather said, and he knew Cole wouldn’t do anything to harm her when Emilio and his older sons were around. The gambler searched everywhere for Johnny. The Flores family pretended to help, but Johnny was almost sure most of them spotted him in the tree at some point. They didn’t say a word, and the gambler only found him an hour after the stagecoach left.

The memory drained the hot air right out of him. “I must have been about eight or nine.”

“Your stepfather was fit to be tied.” Tomás chuckled and offered Johnny water from the jug on his desk.

“Yeah, I kinda deserved that whopping.” Johnny accepted the beaker of water. He wasn’t really thirsty, but he’d be marching soon; he might not get another chance. “It bought me two extra days in El Paso del Norte though, didn’t it?”

“I’m glad you think it was worth the trade.”

Johnny shrugged. “So what happens now?”

“You serve your time and then leave or enlist by your own choice—if I can trust you. If I let you have a rifle like the rest, do you promise me you will use it only to fight for the Republic of Mexico?”

“I promise.” Johnny looked Tomás straight in the eye.

“And do you promise you will not try to desert?”

“That too.” Johnny ducked his head. “I owe you. I won’t let you down.”

“Good. I would not like to order your execution.”

Johnny smiled and put his cup back on the desk. He knew his cousin wasn’t joking, but he offered his hand. “Tomás.”

“Capitán Flores.” Tomás turned to put the folder he’d been filling into the field cabinet behind him.

Johnny got the message and straightened. “Sí, Capitán Flores.”

Tomás nodded his approval and continued to gather up documents. “You may go now and have those chains removed. The company must march at least twenty miles today.”

For a moment Johnny hesitated; he felt like he should say something more. He didn’t know how to explain how he felt though, and Tomás didn’t invite further conversation. He started putting ink and pens away in the cabinet, and his mind seemed to have switched back to army business. Johnny saluted and headed for the exit.

He was about to lift the flap when Tomás spoke again. “Watch your back, Johnny, and for God’s sake control your temper. I cannot be seen to be your protector. Lopez is an experienced sergeant—I need him— but he’s a brute, and he doesn’t like that you are here.”

******

Chapter Eight

They marched nearly twenty-five miles before making camp late in the afternoon. Johnny’s legs and back ached; he wasn’t used to walking so far, and the straps of his pack cut into his shoulders. The thick leather boots on his feet stood up to the ground, but he and the other new men were all nursing blisters by the end of the day. As the lines dispersed they collapsed in exhausted heaps, oblivious to the taunting of the more experienced soldiers.

“Lárguense!” Gonzalez snarled at Corporal Estrada and Private Alvarado as they approached with the leg irons barely ten minutes later.

“Sorry, amigos, but orders are orders.” Estrada glanced over to where Sergeant Lopez was barking more orders at a pair of regulars. “Cheer up; today you get to play with guns.”

Re-shackled, the seven men lined up facing makeshift targets. Each man was issued with a Minié rifle, percussion caps and a box of cartridges. Then Alvarado took up a guard position, and Sergeant Lopez joined Corporal Estrada at the camp-end of the line.

“Load your weapons.” Lopez scowled as he watched the recruits attempt to load their rifles without instruction.

Johnny checked the Minié over and set to work. His own rifle was a lever-action Spencer, but he’d handled muzzle-loaded guns before. This was very like a Springfield. The conical shape lead ball was the same, and it fit snugly into the barrel, which was a good sign.

Once he was done he looked down the line. Gonzalez, Perez and Leon had also finished. Rodriguez and Cervantes were getting there. Manual hadn’t even started; he just stood there, looking dumbly at a cartridge in his hand.

“Bite the end off and pour the powder down the muzzle,” Johnny whispered out of the side of his mouth, unsure whether he was allowed to help. “Good, now put the ball in and ram it home with the rod.”

Manuel fumbled at each stage, but he managed to fully load before Lopez drew level with him.

“Faster, Ruiz, or you’ll be dead.”

“Sí, sargento.” Manuel gave a shaky salute.

Lopez spat into the dirt. “Right, you bastards, let’s see you shoot.”

The next hour was spent firing and reloading.

“Speed will keep you alive, muchachos. Practice loading your rifle whenever you can.” Sergeant Lopez stalked the line, snapping at any man who tried to rest between firing and reloading.

Johnny was pleased to discover that the Minié didn’t clog up like some muzzle-loaded rifles; in fact, it was almost exactly the same as the Springfield a Union soldier had once let him try out in Santa Fe. He was soon firing and reloading and firing again to a steady rhythm.

“I see the rumours are true, Madrid,” Estrada said as he helped Manuel adjust his aim. “Learn to use your sights, muchacho.” Poor Manuel had never used a firearm before. “Bravo, Ruiz! You hit it.”

“Less of the mothering, Cabo Estrada.” But despite his words the sergeant seemed satisfied with the afternoon’s practice. He signalled its end and ordered Estrada and Alvarado to collect in the weapons.

“What’s its range?” Johnny asked as he handed the rifle back to Estrada.

“It’s accurate to about six hundred yards, but I would not feel safe until I was at least one thousand yards away from an enemy who had one.”

“Not if he could shoot like you, cabo.”

Corporal Estrada nodded. “Sí, and not if he could shoot like you, Johnny Madrid.”

“Don’t you get any ideas, Madrid.” Lopez came up from behind and grabbed Johnny’s newly returned rifle out of Estrada’s hands. He checked the gun was operational and the bayonet and ramrod were still attached; then gave it back. “Watch the bandidos.”

As Lopez strode away, Estrada double checked the other rifles, and then he and Alvarado escorted the men back to camp.

Manuel sat down on a rock next to his gear. “You’d think Sargento Lopez would be glad you and the bandidos can shoot.”

“I guess he’s not sure who we’ll aim at.” Johnny stuffed his bandana into the gap between his left leg and leg iron. Maybe that would stop the rubbing. He hated to give Lopez credit for anything, but he wouldn’t trust the bandits either.

The following morning the company rose at daybreak and marched on. This time the recruits carried rifles. The company had gone about five miles when the dark shape of the state prison came into view. They were east of it. Johnny had come at the fortress from the west before so he hadn’t realized they were approaching it.

Perez spat into the dirt. He and Gonzalez were marching in front of Johnny and Manuel. “There it is, amigos: hell’s dungeon.”

“What’s that stink?” Gonzalez pulled his bandana up over his nose, and the others followed suit. It wasn’t the same smell Johnny remembered.

“The shit hole lies just over that rise. Gallons of crap, piss and a few dead bodies.” Perez laughed at the horrified look on Manuel’s face. “It’s true, amigo. Fuck with the guards, and they’ll drown you in it. The army is heaven compared to that place.”

“Where’s the captain going?” Johnny pointed as Tomás rode west with his private guard.

“I’ll give you three guesses,” Gonzalez growled. “Look, Sargento Moya is following with a cart and soldiers.”

Two hours later, as the company rested in an olive grove in fresh air, Johnny and the others saw the cart return laden with bedraggled men.

Perez shaded his eyes from the sun. “It would seem we are no longer the company’s newest recruits.”

That evening they found out the newly released prisoners would stay under Sargento Moya’s command. There were six of them, shackled with leg irons, and ravenously hungry. Johnny and Manuel stepped aside and let them go first for their supper. A couple shovelled their food into their mouths with their fingers so fast that they brought it all up again.

“Eat slow and little to start with, amigos.” Perez handed his plate over for the two men to share. “I know. I have been where you have been.”

The ex-prisoners nodded gratefully and did as he suggested.

“I had no idea,” Manuel said later that evening as he and Johnny settled down for the night, apart from the others.

“Bet next time you think twice before helping a friend.” Johnny winked, but then he turned solemn. “You know, I never thanked you, Manuel. You risked a lot for me—a fella you hardly knew. Thank you, amigo, I won’t forget it.”

Manuel waved away his thanks. “You stood up for me. We are even.”

Johnny wasn’t too sure about that, but sleep soon overtook both of them and by morning only the day ahead was in his thoughts.

And so they continued as the days turned into weeks: rising at dawn to march fifteen to thirty miles, depending on the terrain; rifle or bayonet practice; and then blessed sleep. They had covered nearly three hundred miles, and Manuel was hitting the target with almost every shot by the time there was any real excitement.

Foot-sore and unbelievably weary they marched longer than usual to fully cross a patch of badlands, but there were still rugged mountains to the left and to the right of them. They made camp in a small oasis surrounding a spring-fed pool.

“Cheer up, amigos. I grew up near here. There is pleasanter land ahead.” Gonzalez dumped his pack on the ground and stretched.

“Don’t see why we didn’t follow the river instead of crossing badlands,” Cervantes grouched, tipping sand out of his boot. “What if one of the wagons had broken an axle? We’d be stuck out there in the dark. No water, no shelter, nothing.”

“You should thank Capitán Flores for his decision, amigo. Going around those mountains would have added a hundred miles to our journey.”

Throughout the day, Tomás had ridden ahead with one of his lieutenants surveying the route, marking the trail and testing the water holes—only one had been useable. Now and again, he would choose a high point, a rocky outcrop usually; from there he would watch as his company and wagons slowly moved forward.

“Capitán Flores does not make many mistakes,” Corporal Estrada said later as the leg irons were put back on. “He is young, but he is the best commander I’ve ever served under. And he cares about the men. Juárez will honour him as a general one day, you mark my words.”

Johnny smiled at the corporal’s conviction, and laughed at himself, because he felt kind of proud. Tomás was about the closest thing he had to a brother. It was too bad neither of them could admit it.

Tomás was not seen as a particularly kind man, but he was recognised as a good officer by more than just Corporal Estrada. Even Sargento Lopez respected him, and common opinion was that he was fair. In El Paso del Norte the enlisted men had been allowed certain freedoms and leave, but on campaign Tomás demanded discipline. He had inspected the entire company on the second day out and made that very clear. “There will be no looting unless authorised. No stealing or fighting among the ranks. No rapes if you are sent into villages. Any man caught sneaking out to fraternize or entertaining secret guests will be flogged.”

The camp followers that dogged them for the first few days gave up and went home. True, by the time the company reached the badlands more than one man had earned his stripes, but it was for getting on the wrong side of their corporals or sergeants in some way. No one disobeyed Tomás’ orders.

Estrada put it best. “The Third Infantry owes its allegiance in equal measure to God, country and Captain Flores, and don’t you bad hombres forget it.”

It had taken a full day to cross the badlands, and the company bedded down early; there was no breath left for the usual talking and singing. But nerves were frayed and a few tempers flared. Gonzalez and Perez argued, and instead of sleeping next to each other Gonzalez took himself off to settle down alone nearer the horses.

It was the sound of agitated horses that woke Johnny in the morning as the sun began to creep over the mountain tops. The light was still dull and shadowy, too early for the bugle let alone harnessing horses.

“Halt or I’ll shoot!”

A horse thundered past where Johnny and Manuel were lying, heading back into the badlands.

Seconds later, Private Morales ran out into the open. “Mierda!” Kneeling, he took aim and fired.

The rider jerked in the saddle about seven hundred yards away from camp. He fell backwards and was dragged by the horse a few yards further before his boot worked free. By that time half the company was awake and gawking in his direction.

“Out of our way, Madrid.” Sergeant Lopez and a half-dressed Lieutenant Herrera ran past him. Johnny tried to follow, but one of the sentries forced him back.

When Lopez and Herrera reached the untidy heap lying in the desert, Lopez crouched down. He exchanged words with the lieutenant, and then went to retrieve the horse that had stopped a few yards on. Herrera walked back a stride or two and bent down to pick up a rifle. Examining the gun, he waited for Sergeant Lopez, and they returned to camp together.

All the blood seemed to have drained out of Lieutenant Herrera’s face, but Lopez looked like it was Christmas. Sergeant Moya strode out from camp to meet them on the outskirts. Johnny strained his ears to hear what was being said, but he only caught the last part. “Find out, Sargento Moya. Sargento Lopez, assemble the men serving sentences.”

The sergeants saluted and Herrera hastened towards the captain’s tent.

Johnny and the other convict-soldiers from both squads were lined up. Without speaking, Corporal Estrada, Private Rivera and Private Diaz removed the leg irons and marched them towards the dead man.

Only he wasn’t dead.

It was Gonzalez—or what was left of him. Still shaking from the shock, he moaned as they approached. His right arm was gone; shreds of muscles and bone leaked blood six inches down from his shoulder. His detached hand was lying halfway between him and where Johnny finally stopped. It looked like it was clawing its way up from beneath the earth.

The twelve men were lined up on three sides around him, about six yards back. Estrada and the two privates took the fourth side.

Gonzalez pissed himself as they got in position, and when his head flopped to one side, a weekly shaver from the other squad lurched violently and threw up in the dust. Evidently, even Duran’s time in the state prison hadn’t prepared him for this.

Johnny swallowed hard. He couldn’t talk; he wasn’t far off puking himself. Manuel had his eyes shut.

Lieutenant Herrera joined them just as Duran emptied the contents of his stomach. There was a little more colour to his cheeks, and he was now fully dressed. Marching straight past Gonzalez without a glance, he took his place next to Sergeant Lopez at one corner of the square and fixed his eyes on the surrounding hills.

The sergeant stepped forward. “Soldado Rivera, teach Soldado Diaz how it’s done. Quick march!”

Private Rivera, half-Mexican and half-Indian, broke ranks. He had rope and wooden stakes with him. Private Diaz followed, carrying a mallet. Looping the rope around Gonzalez’s injured upper arm, Rivera pulled it tight, slowing the loss of blood. He tied the other end of the rope to a stake, and positioned the spike so the rope was taut. Then he held it steady until Diaz hammered the stake securely into the ground. They did the same to the arm and legs that were still whole. The deserter laid spread eagle on his back, gazing up at the sky as the sun rose higher and higher.

Sweat trickled down Johnny’s spine, one ridge at a time. He licked his lips and prayed for a speedy end to this nightmare.

God seemed to be listening for once; his cousin appeared soon after Diaz and Rivera stood back from ramming the last stake in place. Johnny breathed a little easier. Tomás approached slowly on horseback, followed by his guard. The two soldiers reined in their horses before they reached the square, leaving the captain to ride into it alone. He circled the dying man, paused and then dismounted.

Tomás was a compassionate man. Johnny was sure he wouldn’t let even a deserter die like this. He would grant mercy. He would…

The thought died in Johnny’s head. Tomás whispered a few words in Gonzalez’s ear, and then he spat in the man’s face. The loathing in his eyes was unmistakable. Mercy was not on the table.

Remounting, Captain Flores, now a stranger to Johnny, walked his horse to join Lieutenant Herrera and Sergeant Lopez.

The soldiers stood in silence around the dying man for what seemed like an eternity. A large bird appeared in the sky, a black mass against the blue. It began to circle. After a time it was joined by another.

When a third buzzard cast shadows on the ground, the lieutenant ordered Rivera to check the prisoner.

The private got down on one knee, looking for signs of life. He shook his head. “He’s still alive.”

Words were exchanged by the officers. Lieutenant Herrera and Sergeant Lopez saluted, and Captain Flores rode back to camp.

God help them, the vigil lasted another eternity, and a fourth bird joined the slow square dance above. The ground shimmered and moved beneath Johnny’s boots. He could taste salt from his own sweat and bile, held down by sheer determination. He needed water; they all did.

Then, in the distance the bugle sounded; the rest of the company and wagons were moving out.

Lieutenant Herrera called to Rivera again. The private knelt down, sending a cloud of flies up into the air, and another man vomited.

Johnny’s guts gave a nasty jolt, but with muscles tense he managed to keep everything inside. Holding his breath, he willed Rivera to nod.

But again Private Rivera shook his head.

Johnny nearly cried. Tears dripped onto the dry ground between Manuel’s boots—why should Johnny be any different? But he still fought the sensation. Die, you bastard! Please. He didn’t think he could control his innards much longer.

“Attention!”

Gracias a Dios.

Sergeant Lopez stepped into the square. “About turn. From the left—march!”

Shaky and stumbling, the men returned to the near abandoned campsite and joined the end of the company lines.

Gonzalez, the deserter, was left to die alone on the edge of the badlands in his own time—or at the whim of nature—and the rest of them were left with the memory.

******

Chapter Nine

“Squad halt!” Sergeant Lopez shouted for his men to stop marching almost as soon as Johnny and the others re-joined their troop. Sergeant Moya did the same with his squad further up the line. “Those that need it have ten minutes to get a drink and take a piss. The rest of you stay put. Fall out.”

The men who witnessed Gonzalez’s punishment hurried to take advantage of the order amongst scrubby bushes on either side of the trail. Most of the infantrymen hunkered down to wait, watching as the rest of the company continued south without them and knowing they would have to march faster to catch up.

Among the last to return to the line, Perez spat into the dirt. “The bastards have promised Morales a day’s leave when we get where we’re going.”  He took his place next to Rodriguez. “I overheard him telling Diaz.”

Cervantes frowned. “It doesn’t seem right to reward a man for shooting a fella on your own side.”

“Gets the message across though, don’t it?” Johnny took a bite of hardtack and tried to blink the image of Gonzalez’s severed arm out of his head so he could swallow without puking. He needed something besides water inside him. God knows, even without breakfast, his normally unfillable stomach wasn’t hungry.

“Sí, Madrid, you are right. Soldado Morales has done what Sargento Lopez promised.” For once Leon wasn’t laughing. He sounded as bitter as Perez. “El capítan must be pleased—only a fool would desert now.”

“And who says we’re on the same side anyway?” Perez nodded towards men giving them a wide berth as they walked past. Under orders from Sergeant Lopez, regular soldiers were moving to the rear. The convict-recruits were usually hemmed in by the others, but the dirty looks and the muttering was something new. “Haven’t you noticed: our fellow Juaristas aren’t looking too friendly?”

As if to prove the point, Corporal Estrada appeared out of nowhere with Private Rivera at his heels. “Empty your knapsacks.”

“Why?”

Estrada grabbed Leon by the neck. “Because, you no-good piece of shit, I said so. Shut the hell up and do as you’re told.” He shoved him staggering back, and Leon started unpacking in a hurry.

Shocked, the others followed suit. Further up the line, Moya’s ex-prisoners were getting the same treatment. The enlisted men in between seemed to approve. What was going on?

Estrada and Rivera made them empty their knapsacks and haversacks, and untie their bedrolls. They even had them turn out their pockets and open their ammunition pouches.

“Now you’ve searched our stuff, are you going to tell us what this is all about?” Rodriguez fastened the last strap on his knapsack. “I hate this goddamn army. So Gonzalez deserted. What difference does it make to the rest of you?” He stood up and heaved the pack onto his back. “Fucking Capitán Flores; he’s as big a son of a bitch as …”

Estrada punched Rodriguez in the jaw, sending him into the dirt. “Capitán Flores offered you bastards a chance to fight for your country with honour instead of rotting in a hell hole. And how did your friend, Gonzalez, repay him?” Estrada glared down at Rodriguez, fists at his side and breathing heavily. “By murdering one of his best men.”

Shit! Johnny and the others looked at Estrada in stunned silence.

Eventually Perez spoke for all of them. “Gonzalez had no friends. Who did he kill?”

Estrada didn’t seem to hear him.

Glancing at the corporal, Rivera gave Johnny back his haversack. “Private Alvarado.” The second guard for the horses. “Sergeant Moya found him in the bushes with a horseshoe nail rammed into his throat. Gonzalez’s leg irons were nearby.”

It didn’t take much working out. The company farrier must have dropped the nail when he replaced a horseshoe. Being on the lookout for something long enough to pick a lock from day one, Gonzalez would have snapped it up as soon as he saw it.

“Moya says there were signs….” Rivera trailed off. Even he was upset, and Johnny had an idea why. “Alvarado must have surprised Gonzalez just as he got free.” Rivera put his hand on Estrada’s shoulder. “Go, amigo. I will finish here.”

Corporal Estrada stepped back from Rodriguez and let him get to his feet. He blinked up at the sky and seemed to say a silent prayer. The steam had gone out of him. “Get back into line, all of you.”

He walked away, leaving them to Rivera as Sergeant Moya shouted the order to march.

The route took the troop past a mesquite tree on the outer edge of the oasis where it merged into cacti-strewn desert. Beneath the tree was a mound of freshly dug earth and rocks. A cross made of wood from an old crate stood at its head with what looked like a St Christopher wound around the crossbar. The infantrymen saluted the grave and marched on.

By evening, they were dog-tired, but the troop had recovered some of its good-humour. They had reached pleasanter land, and Corporal Estrada seemed more his old self. After supper he joined Johnny, Manuel and Perez by one of the campfires.

“We’re sorry about Private Alvarado, cabo,” Johnny said, noticing the chain Estrada normally wore around his neck was gone. He poured him some coffee. “Was he a friend?”

“Sí, we joined up together. He was a good man.”

“Searching our things makes sense now. I guess the other men won’t trust any of us for a while.”

“That scum didn’t even have the decency to kill him quick.” Estrada spat out the words and then clamped his mouth shut, glowering into the fire. He held his coffee mug like he was trying to crush it.

Johnny looked at Manuel; neither of them knew what to say.

Perez coughed. He poked at the fire with a lump of wood and then tossed it on top. “A hole in the throat is a bad way to die.”

Johnny didn’t even want to think about it. He had seen a man shot in the throat once; the gunhawk would have suffocated, except that he’d drowned in his own blood first.

“Now you understand why Capitán Flores did not show mercy.” Estrada still sounded tense, but more sad now than angry.  “Private Alvarado was a man of honour. Every soldier here wanted his death avenged. If I had known at the time, I would have made that bastard, Gonzalez, suffer even more.”

Johnny wasn’t sure that was possible.

“He took Alvarado’s rifle. The lieutenant picked it up.” Manuel gaped at Johnny. So much stuff passed him by, but now it seemed even he was working out the full story. “The bayonet—it was clean.”

“Sí, amigo.” Johnny bowed his head.  The recruits had bayonet practice almost every day; stabbing sacks of horse feed didn’t waste bullets. Hell, Private Alvarado himself had shown them how to end a man’s suffering quickly and silently, and yet Gonzalez had left him gasping for air. Who knew how long it took him to die?

Corporal Estrada sipped his coffee and stared into the flames. Then he sighed. “I do not expect anyone to admit they knew of Gonzalez’s plans, but I would be grateful if no more of you tried to desert. Even without the loss of a friend, it upsets my digestion.”

“You’re going soft, cabo.” Perez gave Estrada a friendly nudge, and the corporal smiled weakly. “Tell us more about the road ahead.”

Johnny wasn’t surprised Perez wanted to change the subject; odds were he had known Gonzalez was going to run. They had worked for the same bandit chief; they tolerated each other and shared an understanding, but they weren’t friends. Johnny would lay money on it Perez had refused to go with Gonzalez; that’s why they had argued. Just as Johnny had, Perez had refused to be Gonzalez’s decoy.

A small fire burned in Johnny’s chest. He realized now why Gonzalez invited a stranger to desert with him. It was a similar tactic to one Thurstan Cole used as soon as Johnny was old enough to sit on a horse. If things got nasty at the card table, the gambler would hand him a gun to hold on angry players while he pocketed his winnings; then they’d make their escape together. Cole would mount a horse Mama had saddled and waiting outside, hauling Johnny up onto its back behind him. Lying flat, he could use Johnny as a shield.

His gamble usually paid off. Only a few men were riled up enough to shoot at a child.

The situation with Gonzalez and Perez was different but the same; what mattered most was that Perez refused to go. As a result Morales had only one target to aim at. He was a top marksman. He could hardly miss.

Less than two weeks later, just inside the state of Durango, there were more targets to aim a rifle at than Johnny could count. They were still a long way off, but as the company joined the rest of the battalion, Morales and the other old hands plotted revenge for a defeat they had suffered months earlier.

“This time the emperor’s army will retreat—not us.” Private Garza glared across the plain towards foothills dotted with imperial flags: French as well as Mexican. He pointed out republican forces scattered along the ridge, boasting about their skill, and then left the new recruits to join his friends.

Stirred up for battle, Johnny and the others aped Garza’s confidence for most of the afternoon, but then they learned Monterrey had fallen to the enemy at the end of August, and Matamoros on the east coast was under threat.

“I visited those towns when I was a kid.” Johnny sat beside Manuel on an outcrop at the top of the ridge, legs dangling, watching the opposing armies. He had misty memories of Matamoros, playing in the sand by the sea and sitting in a taberna being fed buñuelos by a señora he didn’t know. “I hope none of the people I met get hurt.”

“Look there.” Manuel scrambled to his feet, pointing along the hillside as cannon fired and smoke blasted from behind trees. Others ran up to join them. An iron ball soared through the air towards the river on the nearside of the plain. It smashed into the opposite bank, narrowly missing a band of horsemen. The enemy spurred their horses and rode out of range.

“Imperial cavalry scouting the river.” Private Diaz shaded his eyes with his hand. “It was just a warning shot.”

“No, look west. The artillery is trying to drive the Imperialists into a trap,” Cervantes shouted excitedly.  

Republican cavalry rode out from a grove of trees. When the Imperialists spotted them, they veered south and galloped back towards their own lines; for a minute or two it looked like they wouldn’t make it.

Then suddenly, more imperial cavalrymen rode out of a hidden valley to join them, and the original band turned to fight. The two groups clashed on the plain, fast and furious, before parting. A man and his horse were left on the ground.

“One of theirs. Take that, you mongrels.” Diaz punched the air and grinned with satisfaction.

It was a small victory, but one that cheered the members of the Third Company. Even better was the news that they were allowed to rest a day or two, pending new orders. Morales, Diaz, Rivera, Estrada and some men from other troops were granted twenty-four hours leave in a village three miles north east of the line.

They departed together at noon the following day, and the men left behind were put to work reorganizing wagons.

“A layer of ammunition in each one, muchachos, and then pile the ordinary supplies on top.” Sergeant Moya checked his list. He was in charge of both squads that day; Sergeant Lopez had also been given leave.

Johnny and Manuel worked alongside Private Duran and another ex-prisoner called Quiroz.

“We will be expected to fight soon, muchachos. Do you have family to mourn your loss?” Quiroz took one end of a crate of Minié balls that Johnny had pushed to the rear of the wagon. Manuel took the other end, and they carried it to a second wagon standing alongside. They lifted the crate onto the tailgate and Duran pushed it into place.

“No. Do you, Señor Quiroz?”

“Señor Quiroz? I like that Ruiz. You and me are going to get on fine.” He reached up and clapped Manuel on the shoulder, and they grinned at each other. Johnny said nothing; a gut-feeling told him Quiroz wasn’t a hombre he wanted to get along with. “Duran is alone. His papi was shot when we were arrested two months ago. I have a brother.”

Johnny threw Duran a look of sympathy. “You were bandidos?”

The boy blinked at him like an owl. Hollow eyed and edgy, he had barely spoken a word since they started work.

Quiroz filled in the silence. “We rode with El Lobo.”

Johnny had heard of El Lobo. The bandit chief had been around even longer than Valdez, but Chihuahua was full of bandits, and Johnny didn’t want to give the idea he was interested in the profession. He changed the subject to horses, and they continued to haul crates, sacks and barrels until Sergeant Moya ordered them to gather firewood instead.

Johnny and Manuel parted company with Quiroz and Duran at suppertime, but later when Johnny went for a piss, he came across Duran on his own, gazing out over the plain. Shoot, the kid was jumpy. A twig cracked under Johnny’s boot, and Duran swung around crouched and ready to fight like he was being bushwhacked.

When he saw Johnny, he didn’t speak or laugh it off; he just straightened up and turned to face the lanterns of the enemy army again. Legs slightly apart and hands in his pockets, he stood like a statue in the moonlight while Johnny watered a creosote bush.

“Does it hurt to be shot, do you think, Madrid?” The question came out of nothing.

Johnny shook himself dry and did up his fly. “Yep.”

“I mean if you’re shot dead.”

Ambling over, Johnny stopped beside Duran, matching his stance. The river crossing the plain below them sparkled blue-white against the darkness. “A clean shot to the heart or head, and you probably wouldn’t know what hit you.”

“You know about guns?”

“Some. Handguns mostly, but I’ve used rifles before. Haven’t you?”

Duran shrugged. “My father and I were only bandidos for a week before…I’ve never been shot.”

“Most bullets hurt like hell, but they don’t make much of a mess. Minié balls are something else though.”

“Imperialists carry Minié.” Duran shuddered. “I wouldn’t want to die like Gonzalez. Better to face lots of guns at one time so there is no chance of staying alive, even for a short time.”

“Better to avoid being shot at all if you ask me.”  Johnny grinned, but Duran didn’t smile back. He was a strange one, no mistake. “You okay?”

Duran stared at him. “How old are you?”

“Eighteen.” It didn’t pay to admit your real age when you were only fifteen; some fellas treated it as an invitation to take advantage.

“Same as me. You get on okay with the other men in your squad?”

“Well enough. Didn’t like Gonzalez much, but he’s gone. You?”

Duran turned away from the ridge. “Buenas noches, Madrid.” 

Johnny watched him disappear into bushes. He wasn’t sure what was up with him, but if Duran was only going to talk in riddles there wasn’t anything Johnny could do. With a final glance towards the imperial army’s distant campfires, he wandered back to his own. Damn, it was good to be able to walk instead of shuffle. The best thing about joining the battalion was Lopez keeping another promise: no more leg irons at night.

******

Chapter Ten

The next morning the company received its orders, and by noon it was preparing to leave with four supply wagons and a few extra horses and mules. The Third was to travel south west away from the main fighting, along back roads hugging the foothills of the range between Durango and Sinaloa. They were to dispose of any enemy that happened to cross their path, but their main purpose was to gather information and to supply ammunition to any friendly militia.

“We head for a pass through those hills. It is the main transport route from the Pacific coast.” Tomás stood with his hands resting behind his back as he addressed the lines of infantrymen before him. Johnny knew the city of Durango had fallen to imperial forces in July, and the situation in the port of Mazatlán was dicey, because rebel factions were squabbling. The talk was that the port would fall to the French soon, and when it did, the pass could become too dangerous for them to cross. “Emperor Maximilian has appointed a commander of military affairs for Sinaloa, but rebel militia and republican forces prevent him from reaching the capital of Culiacán. Once we are through the pass, we are ordered to resupply and reinforce those troops.”

The company was divided up for this journey. Lieutenant Garcia’s troop would be the rear guard to prevent any attack from behind. Tomás and Lieutenant Vasquez’s troop would accompany the wagons, and Lieutenant Herrera’s troop would be the forward guard, travelling a day or two ahead of the transport.

Johnny listened to Tomás without enthusiasm and cursed the need to march again so soon, but he started to smile when he learned the details of this new duty.

“During the day we divide into four sections so we can move quickly and cover a larger area. We will change out of our uniforms so we can go into villages without causing alarm. Our job is to make contact with friendly militia and to ensure the way is clear.” Lieutenant Herrera paced up and down the lines of his troop as he talked. “I will lead one band of men with Cabo Fernandez to assist me. Sargento Moya, Sargento Lopez and Cabo Estrada will lead the others. We reunite each night. Sargentos, divide up your men.”

Much to Johnny’s surprise, he was placed with Corporal Estrada along with Manuel and Cervantes. It appeared Sergeant Lopez had decided Johnny Madrid and the other younger convicts had learned their lesson well enough to be left in the care of his junior. He kept the older ones with him.

“Perez, Rodriguez and Leon did not flinch as Gonzalez died. Men so hardened to death cannot be trusted.” Diaz handed Johnny some peasant clothing from a large canvas bag. “Sargento Lopez is a fair reader of men, even if he is a bastard.”

It irked Johnny to think he was among those Lopez could read so easily, but he wasn’t complaining about the outcome.

The four sections cast a wide net, moving forward at a steady pace. Lieutenant Herrera’s men stayed on the same route as the transport, travelling with a horse needed for dispatches and two mules carrying their knapsacks and bedrolls under canvas. Sergeant Lopez’s section took the hill side of the trail, and Sergeant Moya covered the rolling land closest to it on the opposite side. Estrada took his men further out into farmland where they would be most at risk of encountering the enemy.

This was no slow march behind wagons. With only their weapons to weigh them down, they moved quickly, trying to stay out of sight, checking for any sign of enemy soldiers, and meddling with milestones and markers. Johnny learned to make more use of his bayonet than his bullets, and he learned that this kind of warfare was rather like a range war—a ruthless one.

“No prisoners,” Estrada stated without emotion on their third day as Johnny, Manuel and Cervantes watched him search the saddle bags of a dispatch rider whose throat he’d just cut. Diaz, Soto and Garza were digging a shallow grave to bury the evidence while Sanchez and Rivera guarded the road.

“But we could have tied him up and left him,” Cervantes protested, looking at Manuel and Johnny for support.

“So he could alert his friends when he gets free or they find him? The Imperialists aren’t stupid, Cervantes. They might not catch us, but they’d soon find the transport.” Estrada hauled the saddle off the horse’s back and shoved it into Manuel’s chest. “Hide this.”

“I thought there were rules about prisoners of war,” Cervantes persisted. He was a clerk. He read things.

“There are. That’s why we don’t take any.” Estrada slapped the reins of the horse into Cervantes’s hand. “Stop your bleating and tie this horse to a tree out of sight of the road. We’ll tell the next militiaman we meet where to find it. Madrid, get the bastard’s feet.” Estrada bent down and lifted the dead man’s shoulders as Johnny grabbed his legs. “There are only two rules worth remembering on this duty, muchachos: obey orders and do it to them before they do it to us.”

Johnny didn’t much like the new rules either, but shoot, even Manuel understood why they were necessary.  Cervantes didn’t live in the real world. As the days passed though, Johnny noticed something interesting; Estrada never asked him, Manuel, Cervantes, Garza or Sanchez to do more than defend themselves and help clean up. Only the older, more experienced soldiers made sure that there were no prisoners to take.

Corporal Estrada led his men to farmhouses and villages, making discrete enquiries and arranging meetings between militiamen and Tomás. Every evening they camped with the others somewhere near the road, and Herrera sent a report back to the transport. After a week, almost every day saw information being exchanged for ammunition.  Mexico was largely under the official control of the Imperialists, but the majority of local people favoured liberty.

About two weeks into this new routine, as they neared the pass, Johnny and his companions entered a small village. It was on one side of a crossroads about two miles south east of the wagon train. Estrada ordered Rivera, Soto, Cervantes, Manuel, Garza and Sanchez to spread out around the half-dozen buildings while he, Johnny and Diaz went into the cantina.

The three men bought beer and took a seat at a table that gave easy access to the door. There was only one other customer and he appeared to be asleep.

“I like this job,” Johnny murmured, savouring the cool ale.

“Just remember it is a job, amigo.” Estrada leaned back on the bench seat, and pulled out the pack of cards needed to play Cunquián. Militiamen friendly to the republic would recognize strangers playing this game as possible allies. If no one joined them after three rounds, the soldiers would move on.

They were starting the second round when the sleeping man awoke and left without making any attempt to talk to them.

They were in the middle of the second round when a door opened at the top of the staircase.

“Au revoir, ma chérie.” A French officer emerged, straightening his jacket. He banged on the door further along the balcony. “Caporal Dupont, venez. Les autres seront bientôt là.”

“Mierda!” Diaz reached under his poncho for the Bowie knife belted to his waist.

“Keep playing, muchachos.” Estrada melded the card on the table and discarded one from his hand. “He is a cavalry officer. Their horses must be out back. When they go to collect them we shall follow.”

“Did you understand what he said?” whispered Johnny, wishing he had his Colt or Deringer or even his knife instead of just a rifle. The Minié, resting against the bench below the height of the table, was loaded, but in such close confines, it would be little use to him. Johnny could see the revolver on the officer’s belt. If the Frenchman cottoned on, he could kill all three of them before they had a chance to aim.

“He ordered his corporal to come immediately and said others would arrive soon.” Corporal Estrada smiled. “Pick up the card or pass, Madrid. You do not want to leave a hand unfinished if you are about to die.”

A tousle-haired Corporal Dupont appeared above, hurriedly doing up his fly. He stood to attention and saluted. “Prêt, Lieutenant Moreau.”

The two Imperialists descended the stairs and paused at the bottom to survey the room. The lieutenant looked straight at the table where the Juaristas were playing cards.

Johnny forced himself not to make eye contact. “Paso.”

Lieutenant Moreau tossed a coin on the bar. “Gracias, señor. We will be back.”

The tabernero bit the coin and nodded. As Moreau turned, Johnny saw the tabernero glance in their direction, but he said nothing. Was he on their side? If so, why hadn’t he warned them? Perhaps he hadn’t recognized them for what they were in time. Maybe even now, he wasn’t sure.

As Estrada predicted, the Frenchmen headed for the rear entrance. Sweeping up the cards, he put them back in his pocket and stood up. “Time for us to leave too, amigos.”

Picking up their rifles, they followed the enemy. As they passed the bar, Estrada held a finger to his lips and then slashed his thumb across his throat—be quiet or be dead. The tabernero stumbled back against the wall; he’d got the message all right.

Through the beads at the end of a short hallway, they saw Lieutenant Moreau lighting a cigarillo a few yards ahead of them. Dupont was on his way to fetch the horses from a tumbled-down stable on the far side of the yard. Estrada waved Johnny and Diaz into position either side of the hall. They crouched and aimed their rifles. As soon as Dupont disappeared into the stable, Estrada slipped into the yard. The stranded beads knocked together as he exited.

Moreau turned, but not fast enough.

Estrada grabbed him in a stranglehold and pressed a knife to his throat. “Bonjour, Lieutenant. Welcome to Mexico.”

Diaz ran forward, and Johnny followed.

“Madrid—his weapons.” Corporal Estrada adjusted his grip on the struggling Frenchman. Then he nodded at Diaz, and the private kept on going to the stable as Johnny threw the lieutenant’s sword aside, lifted his revolver from its holster and searched for any other firearms or blades.

Moreau’s gun was a LeMat like the one Holy Moses had owned back in Santa Fe. Johnny checked the loading and spun it on the trigger guard, enjoying the feel of a handgun after so long without one. He threw a questioning look at Estrada.

“Sí, keep it.”

Johnny grinned and stuck the gun into the front of his belt.

“Go with Diaz. Only shoot if you have to.”

Johnny swung wide so he couldn’t be seen from inside the stable and crossed the yard to where Diaz was waiting. He came up on the opposite side of the doorway. Diaz held up his hand, and Johnny watched for the signal.

Corporal Dupont was bending over scraping a stone out of a horse’s hoof when they entered. Diaz stabbed him from behind with his bayonet, twisting the blade and pulling it out to stab down again and then a third time upward into the nape of the Frenchman’s neck. Dupont’s agony was bloody but short-lived.

Johnny guarded the doorway while Diaz scavenged ammunition and checked Dupont’s pockets for anything of value. All he found were a few reales. He gave Johnny a third share and pocketed the rest. Then he snatched up Dupont’s rifle, and they returned to where Estrada was disposing of the lieutenant’s body in a hayrick.

“Here.” Estrada shoved an ammunition belt into Johnny’s chest. “We haven’t much time. A whole cavalry troop is coming.”

Johnny was still buckling the belt when gunfire began out on the street.

“Maldita sea! Back inside, muchachos.” Estrada led the way, barring the door behind them.

When they ran into the main room, it was deserted.

“Secure upstairs, Madrid, and then guard the window at the front.” Estrada threw his back against the wall next to one of the windows downstairs, and Diaz did the same against the other. Both were shooting through the partially-open wooden shutters before Johnny reached the balcony.

He entered the first bedroom carefully with revolver high, but there was no one inside. The barkeeper and whores were in the second room, huddled together in a corner behind the bed. The trembling tabernero pointed a shotgun, and Johnny ducked back onto the balcony.

“Please, amigo, we are for Juárez.” The tabernero placed the gun on the bed and held his hands in the air as Johnny peeked in and then re-entered. He would have to trust that the tabernero was telling the truth.

“Stay here. Guard the window and shoot at any enemy you see.”

“I am not a good shot, amigo.”

“Don’t matter. Just shoot.” Johnny waited for the tabernero to nod before pulling the door shut. If it opened again, he would know the old man had changed sides, but otherwise a shot fired would warn him of men approaching from the rear.

Johnny went to the window overlooking the street front.

Below him was mayhem. Horses were snorting and twisting, kicking up dust, and the cavalrymen were firing rifles and handguns. Most were still on their horses, but some had taken cover. Two lay dead on the ground. The men from his squad were spread out along the street; he couldn’t see them all, but he could tell roughly where bullets were coming from.

Suddenly, diagonally opposite, Cervantes stood up by a trough in clear view, fumbling to reload his rifle.

“Get down, idiota!” Rivera shouted from somewhere Johnny couldn’t see, but it was too late. A Frenchman sliced down with his sabre, cutting Cervantes across the back.

Then Manuel jumped out from a recess and fired, blasting the man from his saddle.

“Battre en retraite!”  An officer raised his sword and led his remaining men past Manuel and beyond Johnny’s sight. They would regroup out of range and come again; Johnny was sure of it. The Imperialists had been caught by surprise. The next time they rode into the village, they would be prepared, and from what he had seen, they outnumbered the Republicans by at least three to one.

There wasn’t much time. He could see Manuel struggling to lift the wounded Cervantes. Why was no one helping him? Johnny dashed down the stairs and out the back door sidling around to the front of the building, his back to the adobe walls, his eyes searching and the LeMat in his hand.

When he reached the street corner he whistled to get Manuel’s attention. “Over here!”

Edging further out, he saw Rivera and Soto trying to stay undercover as they moved towards the front door of the cantina. Where were Garza and Sanchez?

Suddenly, a rifle fired from the east, and he ducked back into the alley. The bullet had come from carts overturned in the street about fifty yards down.

How? Johnny looked desperately about him as Manuel crouched behind a rainwater barrel, supporting Cervantes. They wouldn’t have a chance out in the open if the cavalry charged again.

Another rifle fired; this time from further along the barricade. Peering around the corner, Johnny saw Rivera get to his feet and make a second attempt to cross open ground. This time he made it to the safety of a door way. No shot was fired. Johnny squinted at the barrier, and then turned his eyes to a horse standing over its owner. It was the only way, and if he was wrong, he would be dead.

Taking a deep breath, he made a dash for it, shooting once on the cross. He got a foot into the stirrup as a bullet bit the dust. The horse panicked forward, and Johnny steered it into an alley on the other side of the street.

“Help me get Cervantes into the saddle.” He pulled and Manuel pushed the wounded man until he hung over the saddle, groaning, blood flowing from the great gash across his back. “There are only two at the barricade, and no handguns. We need to get to the cantina. You lead the horse. Give me the rifles.”

Johnny loaded all three rifles. He had to empty Cervantes’s one first; the fool must have forgotten to use a percussion cap, misfired and double-loaded. “Ready?”

“Sí.”

“When I say ‘go’, you go.”

Manuel nodded.

Johnny leaned out twice in quick succession from the corner of the alley, first firing Manuel’s rifle towards the left of the barricade and then Cervantes’s towards the right. There was a response, but only from one rifle. That’s what he’d been afraid of. Johnny thrust the empty rifles at Manuel, and this time stepped out in full view of the enemy to fire his own. He dodged back fast. The second Frenchman’s bullet sent a large chunk of plaster spinning out from the corner of the wall three inches from his head.

“Go!”

Counting the seconds, Johnny fire the LeMat towards the carts as he sidestepped, keeping pace with the horse. He left it as long as he dared and sent another bullet towards the first Frenchman. Then another and another towards the second, and gracias a Dios, they made the cross before the imperial soldiers had time to reload their Minié. The first man fired just as they reached safety. Bullets replied from the front of the cantina. Now there was no chance of shooting the wrong person, their friends joined in the fight, and almost certainly, the enemy would stay behind cover.

Johnny and Manuel dragged the frightened horse around to the rear of the cantina and unloaded Cervantes. Rivera was waiting for them. He and Soto must have made it inside as Johnny and Manuel crossed the street with Cervantes. He threw the bolt and barred the door behind them while they carried Cervantes and lowered him face down by the fireplace.

Blood flowed from the two foot slash across his back. Johnny pulled Cervantes’s poncho over his head, rolled it up and pressed it hard against the cut. “Go upstairs, Manuel. Ask the señoritas in the second bedroom to come down.” They would need to make themselves useful.

When the women took over, he and Manuel went to Estrada. Diaz now manned the upstairs front window, Soto had gone to fight alongside the tabernero, and Rivera was guarding the rear entrance.

“Ruiz, help Rivera. Madrid, you stay here.”

“Where are Garza and Sanchez?” Johnny hadn’t seen their bodies, but they would soon be dead if they were outside. Maybe they had taken cover in one of the other buildings, but he hadn’t noticed anyone shooting from them.

“Garza is dead. Somewhere behind the well where we can’t see him, Rivera says.” Estrada pointed with the barrel of his rifle. “Sanchez was wounded, but with luck he got away. When Rivera saw how many there were he grabbed a horse and sent him for help.”

Diaz shouted from above, “Soldados!”

The French came from all sides. Men approached on foot over the adobe walls at the back while riders and men on foot attacked from both ends of the street. Johnny and the other Republicans kept them at bay as best they could, but it would only be a matter of time.

“Mierda!” Estrada fell back against the wall as a bullet grazed him. He tore his bandana from his neck and wrapped it roughly around his upper arm, pulling it tight with his teeth.

Then suddenly something heavy collided with the door. The Imperialists had somehow got under the windows and were trying to break it down. Johnny sent a rifle bullet into their midst, but a barrage of lead forced him to yank the shutter to. He dived as shots at short range blasted the timber, sending splinters flying.

“Where’s Lopez when you need him?” It was a joke, but seconds later as Johnny lay on his back to reload, he heard gunfire from further out, and the enemy stopped battering the door.

“It’s Sargento Moya…I think there are militia as well,” Diaz shouted excitedly from above. “Viva la Républica!”

Republican soldiers and militia appeared in every direction, shooting as they ran. The Frenchmen and their horses were trapped between buildings barred against entry. Someone shouted and the imperial soldiers formed four lines, one behind the other across the width of the street. Two lines faced west as the troop moved rapidly east, shooting with well-trained precision.

“There are more horses down there.” Diaz fired and fell back to reload as his bullet found its mark. “They’re trying to reach tethered horses.”

The Republicans took cover and fired their bullets from the safety of barrels and carts. A few of the enemy had handguns, but most on both sides only carried Minié and had to reload after every shot.

“What the hell?” Diaz shouted in time for Johnny to see Duran walk straight out in front of the French line. He was mown down before he got off a shot. Johnny wasn’t even sure he attempted to shoot.

The other Republicans responded the only way they could. The fighting got faster and more frenzied until most of the French troops were dead on the ground.

But a handful reached the horses tied to rails just behind what was left of the cart barricade. They threw themselves into the saddle and took flight.

“Stop them!” Estrada darted out of the door with Johnny close behind. “Kill them!”

Estrada and Johnny fired their rifles together. One fleeing soldier jerked in the saddle and fell sideways, another was brought down by someone else, but two Frenchmen urged their horses to a gallop and barged their way through, knocking over a militia man as they passed.

“Maldita sea, they’ll bring others,” Estrada cursed. “We need to warn the transport.”

Johnny caught the words, but he had a different idea. As soon as he fired his rifle, he dropped it to the ground and ran. Grabbing the nearest horse, he swung himself up and dug in his heels.

“Madrid, stop!”

Shit! Johnny heard the corporal shout, but it was a full second before he realized what he must look like. Urging the horse to a gallop, he rode as low as he could, praying Estrada would understand. He was gaining on the enemy soldiers. Once clear of the village they slowed, but glancing back they saw him chasing and spurred their horses again.

One cavalryman twisted in his saddle and fired his handgun. He missed Johnny by a mile, and the horse slowed. He was an idiot. It would have been a miracle to hit anyone at that distance with anything except a rifle.

Estrada had a rifle.

Johnny didn’t dare look back. He was still in range of a Minié in the hands of the best marksman in the company. Focusing on what was ahead he kept galloping and bided his time. The horse responded to his touch. They were getting closer. Nearly there, girl. Nearly there. Now!

Johnny clicked the hammer back on the Le Matt, aimed and fired. The Frenchman that had shot at him toppled from his saddle. His foot caught in the stirrup, and he was dragged into the field bordering the road, maybe a thousand yards from the village.

The other cavalryman rode on. He and Johnny exchanged bullets. This time Johnny felt the shot pass. This second soldier knew what he was doing; he rode low, hugging his horse’s neck, and firing back without breaking stride. A bullet sent Johnny’s hat flying. There were trees ahead. If the Frenchman got to them he could take cover.  There was no other choice. Johnny aimed the LeMat and sent a bullet into the biggest target. The enemy’s horse stumbled forward, screaming, its legs buckling beneath it. Johnny fired again and again before the Frenchman could do anything to save himself as the horse came down sideways on top of him. Any life left was crushed by eight hundred pounds of horse flesh.

All the same, without dismounting, Johnny put another bullet into both man and beast to make sure they were dead.

Ahead of him was the grove; a chance at freedom for more than just the imperial soldier now lying in the dirt. Johnny looked back along the road. A single rider was leaving the village. Johnny knew who it would be. He would have to go now if he was going.

Damn it! With a sigh, he raised his arm to the on-coming rider, signalling everything was okay. Then he got down from his horse. He hadn’t thought of deserting when he began the chase, and he wouldn’t change his mind now.

Tying a rope to the horn of his saddle, he dragged the dead animal off the French cavalryman. Then he tried to heave the man’s body over the back of his horse.

Estrada only rode up as Johnny made his second attempt. The corporal had stopped on the way to collect the body in the field.

“All right, cabo?” Johnny panted under the cavalryman’s dead weight.

“Sí, Madrid.” Estrada dismounted and watched him struggle. He lit a cigarillo and gazed around. “I ordered you to stop.”

“I’d have lost them.” Johnny let the body slide back. It was just too heavy for him to lift on his own. He lowered the Frenchman to the ground.

“You need to learn to follow orders. Someone might get the wrong idea.”

Johnny ducked his head. “Thanks for not shooting me.”

“You’re welcome.” Estrada exhaled smoke and looked Johnny straight in the eye. “I did think about it.”

“I’m glad that’s all you did.”

“I’m glad you did not try to desert.” Estrada walked over. He hauled the dead man up and together they finished the job.

“I thought about it, but I decided one good turn deserved another.” Johnny winked.

Estrada snorted. “You’re a cocky bastard.”

“Well, I also figured if I did get away, you’d tell the militia to be on the lookout. The odds weren’t good.” That wasn’t the whole story—or even the most important part —but it would do.

“I’m glad I’ve taught you something, muchacho.” Estrada cuffed Johnny around the ear. “Maybe you’ve a chance of staying alive until Navidad.” He remounted. “Come; the militia can deal with the Frenchman’s horse. Our amigos are waiting for us.”

The first of their amigos, Diaz, slapped Johnny on the back as soon as they got back to the village. “Bravo, Madrid. I hate to say it, but when you enlist for real you should join the cavalry.”

Johnny laughed and tied his horse to a hitching post.

Leaving others to deal with the body, he went to find Manuel, his laughter fading fast as he looked around. French cavalrymen and dead horses littered the street. A shot rang out as someone put another poor beast out of its misery near the west end of the village. At one corner of the cantina Rivera and Moya’s men were creating a row of republican dead: Duran, Garza, Ramos and Castillo as well as two militia men. Johnny breathed deep. Six compared to what must have been twenty-six and more could not be considered a defeat, and he wasn’t close to any of the fallen men, but they were comrades-in-arms. He felt their loss.

The leader of the local militia stood looking down at the row of bodies. Hat in hand, Corporal Estrada approached him. “Gracias, amigo. Here is money. Take care of the dead, por favor. Hide all trace of the French if you can, and bury our men well.”

The militiaman nodded. “We keep the horses?”

“Sí, they will be more use to you than to us. There are three more behind the cantina.”

The men of the Third Company gathered their weapons. They borrowed a mule and cart to carry Cervantes and the other injured, and trudged or limped towards the hills.

******

Chapter Eleven

The troop made camp for two nights. Estrada and Moya reported to Herrera and the lieutenant sent word and documents back to Tomás. The French also had a transport: approaching through the pass, headed for Durango.

“Lieutenant Moreau refused to answer my questions, but he took great pleasure in telling me his entire troop was about to arrive.” Estrada sat bare chested by the campfire as Johnny cleaned the graze on his arm. “According to him, I would hardly have time to tie him up before his men would come to his rescue.”

“Pendejo!” Rivera snapped a small branch in half and tossed the pieces onto the fire. “He must be new to Mexico.”

They all knew Estrada wouldn’t mess around once he heard they would be outnumbered. He cut Moreau’s throat and searched his pockets for orders.

“His troop was on its way to El Salto to take over the escort of a delivery from Mazatlán.”

“What do you think they’re carrying?” Diaz asked, eyes gleaming. “Weapons or gold?”

“I don’t think his orders said, amigo—they were in French—but we shall find out soon enough.” Estrada stretched his legs and winced as Johnny pressed aloe vera pulp onto the wound, wrapping it tightly with a bandage soaked in the plants’ juice. “Gracias, Madrid. You have hidden talents. I will live to fight another day.”

“Only the good die young.” Johnny grinned. “But now your arm won’t drop off.”

Estrada made a swipe for him, and Johnny ducked.

 

He had washed the graze, checked it for debris and used the aloe vera in the same way an old Indian woman had done for him once. His wound had healed like magic.

“I wonder how Cervantes is getting on.” Rivera poured more coffee for those that wanted it. Cervantes had been sent back to the republican transport for medical attention. Manuel had gone with him, along with two more injured men and an escort of soldiers not involved in the day’s fighting.

“We’ll find out tomorrow.” Estrada raised his mug. “A toast to Garza, Ramos, Castillo and…what was the kid’s name?”

“Duran,” Johnny said eventually when no one else answered.

“To fallen friends.”

The men around the campfire toasted the day’s dead and then changed the subject to more cheering topics, like the many virtues of the two señoritas. It was a pity they couldn’t stay to enjoy them.

Johnny joined in for a while, but his heart wasn’t in it. He went for a walk around the campsite, wishing Manuel was there. Duran had lived to be eighteen, if he was telling the truth, and yet no one cared he was dead. Hell, the other soldiers didn’t even remember his name.

Johnny knew he wasn’t being fair. Duran was part of Moya’s squad, and he didn’t talk much. The men under Sergeant Lopez hadn’t had a great deal to do with him, but Duran’s own squad would miss him.

Johnny wandered into their part of camp. Quiroz was seated against a tree, rubbing aloe vera sap into his feet.

“All right?”

“Sí, Madrid, and you?”

Johnny nodded. “I’m sorry about Duran. Why do you think he did it?”

“Who knows, muchacho?” Quiroz looked up at Johnny and smiled. “But all is not lost. Others can take his place.”

It wasn’t quite the response Johnny was hoping for. Quiroz invited him to sit awhile, but Johnny didn’t want to stick around. He didn’t really know why. He said good night, wended his way back to the other side of the camp, and turned in early.

In the morning, he collected his rifle and the LeMat from the weapons pile. He was allowed to keep the revolver, but even after being congratulated by Lieutenant Herrera for his part in the day’s excitement, he still had to hand in the weapons at suppertime. Now, as they waited for orders from Tomás, he stripped both guns down and cleaned and oiled them. It was almost like old times.

The orders didn’t come until after he had returned the guns to the pile that evening. Manuel came with them.

“How’s Cervantes?” Johnny shunted over to make room on the log where he was sitting. He was manning the cooking fire. On this duty they had to cook their own food; Jésus and his big pots and pans had stayed with the transport.

“Corporal Luna says he’ll live if there is no infection.” Manuel rested his rifle against the end of the log and sat down. “He was still weak when I left.”

“He lost a lot of blood.” Johnny served up his friend’s supper.

Manuel started scooping beans and rice into his mouth as soon as he had the plate in his hands. “I’m starving.”

“Where’d you get the knife?”

“It belonged to Garza. Rivera gave it to me.”

“Don’t you have to hand it in with…?” Johnny looked past Manuel. “How come you still have your rifle?”

Manuel reddened a little. “I’ve served my sentence. My two months are up.”

“They are?” Damn, they probably were. Johnny had been trying to keep track of the days by making scratches on his boot polish tin, but he’d missed the last few days, and he’d kind of forgotten that Manuel’s sentence was shorter than his. “Well, dang, what are you doing here? You’re a free man.” Johnny’s grin faltered for a second as he realized that he’d be on his own from now on, but hey, this was good news. His grin widened. “Amigo, you can go back to El Paso del Norte, or anywhere you want.”

“Sí. Capitán Flores told me. He said I could choose to stay or go. I chose to stay.”

Johnny stared. “No, I won’t let you do this. Not for me.”

“I did not enlist for you, amigo…well, not only for you. There is nothing for me in El Paso del Norte. Here I have family.”

It was true. Manuel was popular with the other soldiers. The officers treated him with unusual tolerance, and even Lopez didn’t seem to mind him too much. Not that the feeling was mutual; the sergeant scared the shit out of Manuel.

All in all, even though he wasn’t very bright, the big fella was an asset to the Third. He followed orders, he was reliable and friendly, and now he could even shoot straight. Despite the size of him, the regular soldiers treated him like their little brother, and when Estrada, Diaz and the rest heard the news, they celebrated his enlistment well into the night. Sergeant Lopez had to remind them that it was back to work in the morning.

Word was they had time to spare before the French transport was expected, but their wagons needed to be into the pass and well-hidden before they intercepted it. The company continued as before but at a faster pace.

They checked out El Salto and found nothing alarming, but all the same, the republican transport skirted the town at dusk. It entered the pass without being seen by the locals, and the company camped together down by a stream as soon as they were a safe distance away.

The next day Johnny was part of a scouting party to locate the French wagon train as the rest of the company marched further into the pass at a slower pace. They found it with an escort of forty men on horseback, a forward and rear guard with the wagons travelling in between. The opposing forces were less than thirty miles apart, but the terrain was rugged —rocks, sheer cliffs, white water streams and tall trees—and the French transport moved slowly, even though there were only two wagons.

“Gold,” whispered Diaz. “To pay their army. There would be more wagons if it was anything else.”

That was probably true, especially as Tomás himself issued the warning that night, “Any man caught stealing from the transport will be shot.” Whatever the spoils of war, they belonged to the republic.

“On the bright side, muchachos, those of us who get paid for being here might see our wages on time for once.” Rivera grinned broadly and spat what was left of his tobacco into the dirt. “And what we find on the enemy is always finders, keepers.”

“Only after the work is done, Rivera,” Estrada growled. “You leave my back open to rob a Frenchie, and I promise you, you’ll never get a chance to spend what you find.”

The next day the Third stayed where it was while Tomás took lieutenants Herrera and Garcia with him on horseback to survey the route. Upon their return the whole company was ordered to assemble.

“There is a causeway crossing white water about three miles up ahead. It has steep banks above and below on either side. Lieutenant Herrera’s troop will hide in the trees of the upper bank on the western side, and Lieutenant Garcia’s men will do the same on the eastern side. We attack as soon as the wagons are on the causeway.” Tomás paused for breath and appeared to take stock of the troops in front of him. Every man stood to attention, listening with growing excitement. Johnny could almost taste their eagerness for battle. “Lieutenant Vasquez’s troop will guard our wagons. I will watch the battle from an outcrop above where they will be hidden. If the men fighting need reinforcement, they will get it. Viva la República!”

The chosen troops got into position early the next morning. Corporal Fernandez from Sergeant Moya’s squad acted as lookout so they knew in advance when the imperial transport approached.

Lieutenant Herrera gave the signal, and Sergeant Lopez and Sergeant Moya waved their men down behind bushes and trees. Clutching his rifle to his chest, Johnny pressed his back against a pine tree about ten yards above the road, rifle and revolver loaded and ready.

At first all he could hear was his own breathing. All he could see above were rocks and trees, but he knew men were hidden, just as they were below him and on either side. A burst of distant laughter broke the silence; then the sound of horses and the scrunch of wagon wheels on the steep, stony road. The imperial soldiers had no idea they were entering a trap. They came like lambs to the slaughter.

And it was a slaughter. As soon as the back wheel of the second wagon touched the causeway, Herrera gave the call, “Viva la República!”

Rifles fired from the hills and as the men higher up reloaded to shoot again, the men lower down flooded the road, dragging Imperialists from their horses, using bayonets, handguns or knives to dispose of them. The wagons couldn’t go backwards or forwards. Some of the enemy fell or jumped to their deaths; there was no means of escape.

“It’s like I said, Madrid. Capitán Flores is a man of planning and strategy. He rarely makes a mistake.” Estrada finished searching the dead soldier at his feet and rolled him over the bank to join the others.

The Republicans had lost four men so far. Rodriguez was shot and then bayoneted before Rivera could return the favour. The rest were from Lieutenant Garcia’s troop. Two men, one from each troop, were seriously injured, their futures doubtful. They had joined Cervantes and one other in what was now referred to as the hospital wagon. This travelling dispensary of medical attention and its patients were under the sole care of Corporal Luna, the closest thing the company boasted to a doctor.

“That feels a lot better. Gracias.” Johnny pulled his shirt back on after Luna dressed a cut just below his ribs on his right side. An imperial soldier had been in mid-slash when Johnny shot him with the LeMat; the blade had still connected. It wasn’t serious, but it was oozing blood until the corporal put a stitch in it.

“Two years of medical training has its uses.” Luna pulled a box sitting on the tailgate towards him and dropped the leftover bandage inside.

“How come you’re here?”

“My father died of pneumonia and the money ran out. One day, if I stay alive long enough, I will go back to my studies.”

“Are you ready, Madrid?” Estrada came up behind them. “It’s time to pay our respects.” He led the way to where the company, now all in uniform, were assembled.

The republican dead were buried together just off the road near where the wagons had been hidden.

“Rodriguez won’t be happy,” muttered Leon as they lined up. “He wanted to be buried in sight of a brothel and downwind of a cantina.”

Johnny smiled. That was probably true. He opened his mouth to say so, but the officers appeared and everyone fell silent.

The service was a short one. Tomás read a passage from the bible and said a few words, and then he ordered the company onward. They would have to grieve as they marched.

Tomás had inspected the imperial wagons earlier. Johnny had paused from clearing the road to watch his cousin walk away after he was done. There was energy and purpose in his stride. One thing for sure, those wagons didn’t contain sacks of flour.

The wagons were turned around, and the republican wagons brought up behind. Any horses not run off or killed were ridden by Juaristas or tied to the end of the wagon train. Lieutenant Vasquez’s troop took the forward guard, allowing Johnny’s battle-worn comrades to fall back and drive, ride or walk alongside the wagons. Johnny wasn’t allowed to ride a horse or drive, but for the last mile or two that day he took his turn on a seat next to one of the men who were.

The company made camp where the Imperialists had camped the night before, a patch of mostly level ground close to a waterfall. Manuel had drawn guard duty so after Johnny handed in his weapons, they chose a place to dump their gear before going for something to eat. When Manuel left, Johnny turned in.

As usual, they had selected a spot on the outskirts of the encampment as far away from others as they could get. A large boulder and bushes gave a little privacy and distance and the sound of water cascading over rocks meant he could only just hear the laughter around the campfires. Johnny spread his bedroll and was careful not to lie on his injured side. He was tired, and he fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit the rolled-up jacket he used as a pillow.

A hand over his mouth woke him up.

Almost at the same time a huge weight crushed him, forcing air from his lungs. The hand left his mouth as another grabbed his hair, smashing his head down into the gravelly soil. He tasted dirt, and the world spun in blackness. Then his head was yanked up. Fingernails scraped as a cloth was stuffed into his mouth, forcing blood from his nose down his throat.

Johnny gagged. His arms were wrenched back, and leather was pulled tight around his wrists.

He jerked and writhed, snorting his nostrils clear so he could breathe. But it was no good; his attacker was too strong and too heavy.

The man ground Johnny’s face into the dirt. “Lie still, Madrid, and you might live.”

Johnny knew that voice—Quiroz.

The bandit let go of Johnny’s hair and pressed down on the centre of his spine instead, shuffling back to sit on his legs. Johnny kicked and squirmed, but he only seemed to make it easier for Quiroz to get a hand under his belly.

Por favor—no!

Quiroz undid Johnny’s belt and hauled down his trousers. Then leaning forward, using more pressure to keep him still, he whispered in Johnny’s ear. “Listen carefully, muchacho. I could snap your neck like a twig, but I don’t want to do that.” Something firm but fleshy flopped onto Johnny’s bare skin. “Now Duran is gone, you are the next best thing to a señorita. Play nice, and I let you live to play again.”

Eyes wide, Johnny shouted into his gag. He could hardly breathe and the only sounds he could make were muffled grunts. He threw all his energy into bucking. He tried to roll. Desperately, he did everything he could to unseat Quiroz, but the bastard just laughed and repositioned his weight. Could no one hear them? Johnny howled his frustration and fear into the bandana filling his mouth.

Then suddenly Quiroz gasped. Without warning, he slumped forward; squashing Johnny with his body. Something thumped down from above, pressing Quiroz’s weight into him, and what little air Johnny had left was forced out of his lungs. He was suffocating, and one kind of panic was replaced by another.

Then, merciful heaven, Quiroz rolled off.

Through blood, grit and snot Johnny saw Quiroz, lying on his side, bleeding from his lower back and another wound higher up. A soldier stood over him holding a gun with its bayonet shining wet in the moonlight.

Lopez.

Never in a million years… Johnny wouldn’t say a bad thing against him ever again.

But he still couldn’t breathe properly, and bile was choking him.

Sergeant Lopez stepped over Quiroz. Kneeling down, he removed the bandana, and mopped away the snot as Johnny gulped air, coughing and spitting vomit.

“Untie me”. The words came out raspy and faint. Lopez was looking away. He didn’t seem to hear him. Johnny tried to get up, but he didn’t have the strength to do it without using his hands. A cool breeze tickled his bare buttocks. “Untie me.”

Lopez got to his feet. He glanced at Quiroz and looked about him. Then he locked eyes with Johnny and smiled.

The sergeant’s hand dropped to his crotch.

No!

Johnny tried again to shout, but Lopez was too quick. He shoved the bandana back into Johnny’s mouth. “Only a fool lets a pretty ass go to waste.”

Struggling to free his hands, Johnny twisted and kicked as Lopez straddled him—high at first—clamping him between his legs to stop him from wriggling away.  Johnny kept bucking and thrashing, but as Lopez shunted back, he cut what was left of Corporal Luna’s bandage and pressed a blade into the open wound. “Shut up and lie still, Madrid, or I gut you.”

Almost crying now, Johnny knew he should follow orders and get it over with, but his body wouldn’t obey. He jerked as his stomach lurched. His legs flailed, his boots gouging the dirt but making no difference to the weight on top of him. Lopez forced Johnny’s bound wrists into his backbone. He must have returned the knife to his boot, because with the other hand he brought his prick to full erection, prodding Johnny’s tail bone with its tip over and over again. Then edging back, the sergeant fingered the thing into position. Johnny squeezed his eyes shut, every muscle tense, bracing against what was to come.

“Halt!”

Manuel?

The swollen cock slid forward above its target, immobile but not lessening in size on the base of Johnny’s spine. He tried to squirm free, but again the sharp point of the knife jabbed into his belly, forcing him to lie still.

“Halt or I shoot.”

“Go back to your post, Ruiz. That’s an order. This doesn’t concern you.”

“No. Get off him.” Manuel’s voice was high and shaky. Johnny shut his eyes again; his friend had been terrified of Lopez from the very beginning. “Get off him or I’ll shoot.”

“Go ahead, muchacho—if you want to die like Gonzalez.” The sergeant stowed his knife and pressed Johnny’s buttocks wide. “Lárgate!”

He rocked back to thrust forward.

Behind the gag Johnny roared.

But Manuel fired.

Dirt sprayed up, peppering bare skin like buckshot.

“You stupid, dummy bastard!” Lopez jumped to his feet, and Johnny rolled.

He ended up face down again, but straining his neck, he saw the sergeant hurrying to do up his fly. The relief! It washed through him like a river in flood.

Manuel crouched down next to him and began to ease the bandana out of his mouth.

Lopez grabbed his rifle. “Say nothing, you hear me. I do the talking.”

Men were coming, running and yelling. Manuel was trying to pull Johnny’s trousers up when the first of them arrived.

“It’s all right. It’s all right. Go back to your beds.” Sergeant Lopez raised his hands and tried to herd the soldiers away.

“What happened, Sargento?” Lieutenant Herrera pushed his way through the crowd and stared at the dead man on the ground as Manuel sawed through the belt binding Johnny’s wrists.

“It’s Private Quiroz, sir, one of the convicts from the prison. He attacked Private Madrid while he was sleeping.” Lopez stood to attention as if nothing unusual had happened, as if he was completely innocent. “Private Ruiz and I came upon them almost at the same time. Ruiz fired, and I used my bayonet.” The bastard was going to make himself out to be a hero. Johnny wanted to scream the truth, but he was shaking and numb and the words wouldn’t come. “Quiroz was trying…”

“Save it, sargento.” The men parted and the lieutenant stood aside as Tomás strode forward. He surveyed the scene in front of him. “I will want a full report, but in private. Wait for me by Teniente Herrera’s tent.”

“I should stay with my men, sir.”

“You should do as you are ordered, sargento.” Tomás looked Lopez straight in the eye.

“At once, Capitán Flores.” The sergeant saluted and left. 

Tomás watched him go. Then he stepped forward. He checked Quiroz’s body and looked down at Johnny. Manuel held him, arms crisscrossed over his chest. Johnny was like a rag doll. He met Tomás’ gaze for a moment and then closed his eyes. He was hovering in warm, damp mist. “Private Ruiz, take Madrid to my tent.”

Manuel picked Johnny up like a child. He carried him without help and laid him down gently on the captain’s cot, covering him with a blanket. When Corporal Luna came to care for Johnny’s wounds, Manuel helped strip his clothes, wash him and dress him again. Johnny could do nothing for himself. It was as if all strength had been sapped from him, but he would let Manuel do it for him. He trusted Manuel, and all he wanted to do was sleep.

“Was he…?” Johnny woke to the sound of Tomás’ voice.

It was still night, and the lantern cast shadows on the tent wall. His cousin spoke in hushed tones, and Johnny faced the canvas. He shut his eyes again.

“No.” Corporal Luna stood somewhere near Johnny’s feet. “Sergeant Lopez and Private Ruiz stopped Quiroz in time.”

“You heard Sargento Lopez’s account, Ruiz. Do you have anything more to add?”

Manuel didn’t answer. Johnny sensed rather than saw his friend shake his head. It was the word of an ex-convict against an experienced sergeant. Who would the captain believe? Manuel wasn’t to know any different; Johnny didn’t blame him for staying silent.

“Go. Get some sleep now, both of you. I’ll call if you are needed.”

Johnny heard the tent flap lift and drop as Manuel and Luna left, and he heard his cousin settle himself down on a bedroll by the desk. Then he fell back asleep.

“Get off!” He woke again, panting with sweat pouring off him and most of the blanket on the ground.

Tomás was already at his side with a beaker of water. “Drink this, Juanito. It was a nightmare. They will pass.”

Johnny drank the water and lay down again. Every inch of his body ached. The muscles in his arms felt like they had been stretched like bow strings. He pulled the blanket up over his shoulders. Turning his face to the canvas, he listened until the sound of steady breathing told him Tomás had fallen asleep. Then, imagining he was in his mother’s arms, Johnny let the tears flow.

******

Chapter Twelve

In the morning Johnny was moved to the hospital wagon. He went under his own steam, attended by Manuel and Corporal Luna. He didn’t see Tomás.

“You get to ride with the wounded today, Madrid, but your injuries are superficial. You can march tomorrow.” Luna frowned as he lifted the dressing on an injured soldier’s leg. Johnny glimpsed yellow and black. Poor devil—odds were he would lose the leg today and still probably die.

Johnny’s stomach clenched. His bruises and abrasions were nothing compared to the injuries suffered by other men in the ambush of the French transport, but he balked at the idea of re-joining his troop. If the outcome had been different, could he have ended up like Duran? He didn’t want to think so, but maybe. As it was, once his body and mind started to work together again and he truly slept, all he felt was anger. He didn’t know how he could bear to see Sergeant Lopez without taking his rifle and shooting the bastard right between the eyes.

“You will not get the chance, amigo,” Manuel said the following morning over breakfast. “Sargento Lopez is now with Teniente Garcia’s troop.”

“How come?”

“One of Garcia’s sergeants was killed in the battle. Capitán Flores told Teniente Herrera that he was replacing him with Sargento Lopez.”

Johnny mulled over the information. “I could still do it.”

“Please, Johnny, stay away from him. Capitán Flores would have you shot.”

And Manuel might draw stake-out duty afterwards. Not exactly how Johnny envisaged dying and maybe not the best way to thank his friend or cousin. Johnny chewed on a stick and mulled it over. “So Moya is in charge of both squads now?”

“No, Madrid. Hasn’t Ruiz told you?” Coming from behind, Estrada clapped Johnny on the shoulder and sat down. “You have a new sargento. And let me introduce your new corporal.”

Standing nearby, Diaz swept a bow. “El capitán has had too much sun. Never have I been good at taking orders, and now I must dish them out too.”

Johnny laughed. He had an idea Diaz would do just fine.

But it was Lopez’s re-assignment and Estrada’s promotion to sergeant that boosted him most. As the transport continued its journey, he considered telling Tomás the truth, but the more he thought about it, the more those two changes convinced him his cousin already knew.  Tomás had a company to run and a war to fight. He needed experienced sergeants, and the fact was these things happened among men when there were no señoritas available. Johnny wasn’t wet-behind-the-ears; he knew some men gave comfort to each other, and there were always a few who took their pleasure or relief without asking. The night of the ambush he was sleeping alone, and he didn’t have a gun or a knife by his side to ward them off. Tomás had done what he could to protect him from being attacked like that again. Best not appear ungrateful.

His spirits rose with every day. Sergeant Estrada ran the squad very differently from Lopez, and even though Johnny’s face looked like a horse had trampled on it, and he had more bruises than he could count, he began to enjoy life again.

“Have you ever been to Sinaloa before, Madrid?” Estrada asked as he marched alongside Johnny and Manuel. They were emerging from the pass, and fields and orchards spread out in front of them, all the way to the horizon.

“Not that I remember. I’ve been to Sonora.”

“We cannot see it, but where the sky meets the land will be the sea.”

 “Do we go there?” Manuel stretched his neck as if he could see further by doing so. “I’ve never seen the sea.”

“Maybe but not yet. We turn north at a place called Concordia.”

The road from Concordia took them through foothills, and then they turned west. They zigzagged on back roads, north then west then north again until they had by-passed the city and port of Mazatlán. Then they marched north along the main road towards the capital of Culiacán. It had taken a week to come through the pass and it took them another to reach their destination, south of the city.  The last day or two Johnny and the others knew their progress was being watched, but messengers came and went; the eyes were friendly.

Eventually, the transport entered an encampment almost as large as the one in Durango, but cavalry and artillery outnumbered infantry.

“Make camp in the orange grove, muchachos. This will be home for a while.” Estrada waved his squad towards trees laden with ripening fruit as the wagons trundled on to a depot.

“Where’s el capitán going?” Perez asked as he lowered his pack to the ground.

“Off to see the man in charge,” Estrada replied examining the fruit. Another couple of weeks, and the grove would provide them with a feast. “Let’s hope Colonel Rosales knows what he’s doing.”

The colonel’s orders were good as far as Johnny was concerned—no more marching. After helping to unload the remaining cargo and the French gold, the Third Company took a share of duty watching the main road between Mazatlán and Culiacán, checking those who came or went and preventing any communication between imperial sympathizers and the Emperor Maximilian. It was routine guard duty, broken up by drills and rifle practise; just what the doctor ordered to begin with, and before anyone got too bored, the officers started issuing forty-eight hour passes to the regular soldiers. Even the ex-convicts were rewarded for their efforts; they didn’t get leave, but they were given permission to smoke.

The soldiers still serving sentences were fewer in number now. Manuel was the only one to have done his time. Gonzalez, Quiroz, Duran and Rodriguez were dead. Cervantes was much improved, but still unfit for soldiering. Corporal Luna wangled for him to assist with the hospital wagon instead.

Under Sergeant Estrada that left Johnny, Perez and Leon to do small jobs as needed when the rest of their squad was on leave: they scavenged parts from one broken gun to fix another, fed horses, mended or cleaned clothes and equipment, helped with food preparation, collected firewood or hauled supplies. In their spare time they maintained their own gear, talked and enjoyed fruit picked straight from the trees.

“I wonder how the big fella is getting on,” Perez chuckled, nudging Johnny in the ribs, as the three men repaired tack under an orange tree. “You remember your first time, kid?”

“Maybe.” Johnny smirked. He’d been bedded at fourteen. The vaqueros and gunhawks he’d been working with at the time had ponied up and paid for a night with the lovely Carlotta as a birthday present. Now it was Manuel’s turn. When the other men had discovered he hadn’t done it yet, they’d all put in a coin, and Sergeant Estrada undertook to arrange things. “I hope Estrada finds him a gal as pretty.”

“Pretty be damned. What he wants is a señorita with meat on her bones and good hands.”  Leon’s eyes gleamed as he took another puff of his cigarillo.

“And good other parts.” Perez pretended to lift a pair of big breasts.

They all laughed, but soon went quiet. To a man they fidgeted where they sat and changed the subject. Johnny only had a month to go, but the other two had been sentenced to a year. They still had seven months of doing without ahead of them.

“It ain’t natural,” grumbled Leon later. “I don’t know how them padres survive.”

“Me neither.” Johnny sure as hell would never become a priest. He’d been hot to play the game ever since he was introduced to it. Up until now, he had made do for short periods when there was no other choice, but shoot it had been nearly four months. He hadn’t visited a brothel for at least two weeks before leaving Santa Fe, because he’d been saving for his Deringer. He’d had no money when he’d reached El Paso del Norte, and then he’d ended up serving time in the army. But now he had a few coins in his pocket. “I know what I’m doin’ as soon as I get out of here.”

That happy event was drawing nearer and nearer. Johnny had lost count of the number of days he had served, but he knew his time would be up before Nochebuena. When the posadas began in the village nearby, he was hopeful every day he’d be summoned to the captain’s tent, but before that happened things began to get exciting again.

“Fall in,” Sergeant Estrada and Sergeant Moya hollered, almost in unison. The men stopped what they were doing and ran to take their positions. Then they were marched to join the rest of the company.

“Prepare for battle.” Tomás stood in front of them with a look of pride on his face. “Domingo Cortés, commander of the empire’s military, has reached Navolato to the west of here. He is trying to get to Culiacán so he can take control of Sinaloa. Our job is to stop him. The Imperialists will attempt to cross the Humaya River in the morning, and we shall be ready for them.”

The Third Company spent the late afternoon and evening fortifying the front houses of the village of San Pedro just outside the city. It was already home to cavalry that had harassed the rear guard of the enemy earlier in the day, and then retreated. The company worked hard to ensure streets were blocked with carts and barrels, houses boarded up and the villagers evacuated. Two pieces of artillery were installed on the south side of the village. Word was Colonel Rosales had ordered a half battalion and four more artillery pieces to stand in reserve within the walls of Culiacán, and in between his work Johnny saw cavalry take their positions behind the city’s hedges.

Then the infantrymen waited, catching what sleep they could with the prospect of a battle filling their thoughts.

“Just my luck if I’m killed now when I’ve nearly done my time,” Johnny half-joked as he settled down between Manuel and Perez.

“Look on the bright side, amigo. It would be very easy to take revenge on someone in the heat of battle and not get caught.” Perez nodded in the direction of a building where Sergeant Lopez and his men had been setting up defences.

At first Johnny just grunted. He didn’t bother asking Perez how he knew the truth. Manuel swore he had never told anyone, but several men in the squad seemed to have worked it out. Nothing was ever said, but during the weeks following the attack, they did all they could to keep Johnny and Lopez apart. Gradually Johnny’s hunger for revenge lessened. He was damn sure now he wasn’t going to blow his chances of getting out of the army alive for the sake of hunting down that scum. “Maybe the Frenchies will do the job for me.”

The Imperialists crossed the river and launched their assault early the next morning. The cannon blasts were deafening, and for the first time Johnny and the other new men really put their shooting practise to good use. It was firing and reloading and firing again, two to three times a minute; sometimes he couldn’t even see what he was shooting at the smoke was so thick.

“Protect the guns. They’re after the guns!” Estrada yelled at the top of his voice as the enemy swarmed towards the cannons, ignoring the bullets coming from the village buildings in their eagerness to take control of the artillery.

The Republicans kept up a constant barrage of bullets, but it was no use; the cannons were captured and turned against them at short range. The first balls blasted through the adobe walls protecting Johnny and his comrades, spraying mortar and timber. The eight men in the great room of the mayor’s house with Johnny dived for cover, and only six got up again.

Manuel was injured. A jagged piece of broken wood stuck out of his leg. “I’ll be okay.”

“Lean on me.” Johnny got him to a recess behind the staircase seconds before enemy soldiers began scrambling over the broken wall. “Reload and sit tight.”

Johnny ran back to join the fighting. Smoke and dust hung in the air like the thickest fog. It was hand to hand combat now, bayonet, knife or handgun. There was no time to reload a musket-rifle after the first shot was fired.

But then, gracias a Dios, he heard the fusillade and the bugles. The republican reserve force attacked. Within minutes no more imperial soldiers came over the damaged walls, and he had time to catch his breath.

“The Third to me!”

He heard the shout in the distance. Checking first to see if Manuel was still okay, Johnny ran towards the voice. Others were ahead of him, but he couldn’t see who.

Then he tripped.

He came down hard. Looking back to see what had caused him to fall, he wished he hadn’t. His stomach rolled like the ocean, and he threw up in the rubble.

“Kill…me, Madrid.” The words gurgled out of Sergeant Lopez in bubbles of blood. Propped up against a pillar, he looked down at his own guts, surrounded by pulverized flesh; they spewed from a gaping hole in his belly like huge red and white maggots, blanketed in dust. “Mer—cy.”

Johnny spat and swallowed. Getting to his feet, his eyes locked on the gore. His nerves drummed. A direct hit by a Minié ball—maybe some artillery fire as well. Lopez had gotten what he deserved. The bullet and the shock hadn’t killed him outright so now he would die real slow like Gonzalez. Suffer, you bastard.

Backing away, Johnny stumbled on a fallen beam. When he got up, he forced himself to face the other direction and gulped air as he clambered over it.

“Worth…try,” Lopez wheezed. “I’d do…”

Johnny couldn’t believe it: the devil was laughing.

“Same.”

Johnny stopped cold.

Chest cramped and a strange buzzing between his ears, he fought the urge to piss and slowly turned around.

Lopez’s face was white, twisted in pain—bloodless except for black-red trickles draining from his scalp.

Cabrón! Johnny clung to his hate, every muscle pulled tight. The bastard tried to rape me.

But as if they had a will of their own, his fingers wrapped around the LeMat. Taking it from his belt, he weighed the revolver in his hand; the lever on the hammer was down.

The bastard tried to rape me. He would have stuck that oversized prick up my ass and raped me. He deserves to die hard. He deserves it.

Smashing a tear with the heel of his hand, Johnny heaved air into his lungs.

“Lopez!”

The sergeant strained his neck to look at him.

“I’m not like you.”

The sound of cannon fire masked mercy, but Johnny heard none of it. For a full minute he just stared at the hole in Lopez’s forehead.

“The Third to me!”

Snapping back to life, he holstered his gun. The pressure building up inside him had gone, and he ran to answer the call.

He found Tomás and about thirty other men gathered together in ruins on the edge of the village. Estrada, Rivera, Diaz, Perez and Morales were among them. Two more soldiers from another troop joined the group as Johnny arrived. Was this all that was left of more than one hundred men?

He could see the same question in Tomás’ eyes, but the fighting was on-going, artillery was blaring. The rest could be anywhere in this ruckus.

“Follow me.” With two rifles slung over his shoulder and a sword in hand, Tomás led his men wide of the fighting through groves of trees. They crossed open fields to the river and then ran along its banks to the bridge. “Take your positions. The enemy will try to retreat via this road and bridge. You will not let them. Viva la República!”

“Viva la República!” Johnny yelled with the rest, and then ran to line up in front. The infantrymen filled the width of the stone bridge, three deep, and waited.

They didn’t have to wait long. Soon the Republican cavalry had the Imperialists on the run, and they ran straight for the bridge.

“Hold,” Tomás cautioned. “Wait for the command. One line at a time now. Hold…hold…FIRE!”

The first line fired and dropped to their knees. The second line aimed and fired, and then the third. By the time they dropped, the front line had reloaded and was on its feet again. Johnny saw Tomás join the back line; his cousin shot and reloaded like the best of them. Who knows how long the barrage lasted, but the enemy got the message. The Imperialists veered off left and right looking for other ways to cross the river.

Sergeant Estrada jumped to his feet. Tapping the best marksmen on the shoulder, he sent them to the sides. As desperate men attempted to swim the river, Johnny picked them off one by one. Out of range he saw a large group trying to retreat across a shallow ford, but it only got them as far as an island in the centre of the Humaya. There they were trapped by the pursuing cavalry.

“You should have seen it, amigo,” Johnny said later as he helped Manuel sit down by the campfire. “When the Frenchmen surrendered, we all cheered.”

Manuel rested his crutch against the empty crate Johnny had scavenged for him to sit on. His leg was firmly bound and splinted; Corporal Luna was confident it would mend. “I wish I had been there. I’m glad the enemy soldiers were taken prisoner.”

Johnny had spent most of the afternoon rounding them up, and by the time he got back to where he had left Manuel, his friend was gone. Others had rescued him along with Lieutenant Herrera and a few more injured men from their troop.

The Republicans had lost men of course. Sadly, Leon was among the dead to join Sergeant Lopez in the large communal grave.

“I was telling him about my Juanita. Then all hell let loose.” Diaz bowed his head, and Johnny looked away while the corporal got the dust out of his eyes. “That crazy bandido took a bullet for me.”

Johnny focused his mind on Leon and the other good men he had fought alongside as Colonel Rosales himself read the eulogy. At least their friend had died honourably—Leon would have thought that was hilarious.

He would have approved of what followed too. After paying their respects to fallen comrades, most of the Juaristas were too drunk with their success to grieve for long. Guards were posted, and the rest were allowed to celebrate long into the night. Two battles elsewhere the previous month had ended in defeat. The Battle of San Pedro was a much needed victory.

The next morning, many of the regulars awoke bleary eyed, their heads aching.

“Shush.” Rivera winced as the coffee pot clinked against his mug.

“Should have shared the tequila last night, pendejo,” Perez scoffed with a grin. “The kid and me earned a mouthful at least.”

“If it was up to me, amigo, but you know it is not.” Rivera shrugged and sipped his coffee. The surrounding orange grove was littered with empty glass bottles and earthenware jugs.

“Madrid, front and centre!” Estrada strode towards them.

“What’s up?” Johnny got to his feet, expecting Estrada to tell him, but instead the sergeant walked away, signalling for Johnny to follow.

Once they were out of earshot, Estrada turned and offered his hand. “I think the time has come, amigo. If I don’t get another chance, it’s been good knowing you. Capitán Flores wants to see you.”

Johnny shook hands with a grin. “I wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye.”

He headed towards Tomás’s tent, breaking into a jog when he thought Estrada had stopped watching. But he had to wait when he reached it.

Tomás emerged with officers Johnny didn’t recognize, laughing and joking, and seeing them on their way. Winning the battle had raised everybody’s spirits. “Go on in, Madrid.”

Tomás accepted a light from an artillery major and had a word with the sentry before following, closing the tent flap behind him. A bottle of tequila was on his desk with several glasses. He gave one of them a quick wipe with a cloth and pour out two good measures. “Will you toast our victory, Johnny, now that you have served your time and are free to go?”

“Don’t mind if I do.” Johnny accepted the tequila and raised his glass before taking a decent swig. The alcohol hit his stomach like a bullet, and he gasped, eyes watering. “Out of practice.”

Tomás laughed. “My mother would say you’re too young to drink hard liquor anyway.”

“I won’t let her see me.” Johnny winked.

“That would be easy if you stayed in the army.” Tomás picked up slices of tomato, chorizo and cheese from a platter on the desk and sandwiched them together. He pointed Johnny to do the same. “Enlist, Johnny. It’s not such a bad life.”

“I’m no good at taking orders, Tomás. You know that.”

“From what I hear, you’ve improved.”

“Well, it depends on who gives them, don’t it? And if they make sense. All that marching and saluting—it ain’t for me. Besides I’ve got a good horse in El Paso del Norte if your pa hasn’t sold him.”

“And a growing reputation.”

“Yep, that too. But is that so bad? I aim to get real good at my trade. In another year or two, I’ll shave regular and look the part, and then no man will mess with me.”

“I wouldn’t count on that, but if you’ve made up your mind, I wish you luck.”

“Thanks.” Johnny shook Tomás’ hand, and felt a piece of paper pressed into his palm. “What’s this?”

“Instructions where to find a Señor Mendoza. He is travelling from Culiacán to El Paso del Norte the day after Navidad, and he wants a guard.” Tomás put an arm around Johnny’s shoulder and escorted him to the opening of the tent. “I have also written down the address of a local establishment. A señorita is waiting for you, cousin. My treat.”

“Yeah?” Johnny’s eyes brightened.

Tomás laughed. “Your release date kept ringing bells with me. Damned if I could work out why. Then three days ago I saw some kids break open a piñata.” He pulled back the tent flap. “Happy birthday, Johnny.”

******

Chapter Thirteen

After saying adios to Manuel and the rest of his troop Johnny felt a little lost, but Felicita lived up to her name, and when his time was up he headed for a taberna that Estrada had recommended. He found the sergeant and Manuel waiting for him.

“Capitán Flores gave me two passes.” Manuel grinned. “He said no man should celebrate his birthday alone.”

“Why didn’t you tell us, amigo?”

Johnny shrugged and accepted the beer Estrada pushed towards him. His friend paid for his drinks with reales collected from the whole squad and presented him with what was left at the end of the evening before returning to camp.

Estrada even persuaded the tabernero to let Johnny sleep in the attic in exchange for working in the kitchen until the holidays were over. It meant Johnny had enough money to visit the lovely Felicita again on Navidad. He was her last customer for the night, and she allowed him to fall asleep in her bed.

“Wake up, Johnny. You must leave now or the señora will make you pay extra.” Felicita’s long black hair tickled his hand as he opened his eyes to the sight of her breasts hanging loose beneath a silk robe.

“You like it?” She hugged the robe to her and did a twirl. “It was a gift— from an officer. He will be a great man one day, and I will be his lady.”

Johnny wondered if the officer was Tomás, but surely Felicita would have said; she must know who paid for his first visit. No, it wasn’t likely; he couldn’t see Tomás making a promise he would never keep.

Johnny made a grab for the girl—she couldn’t be too much older than him—but she skittered away.

“It is already ten o’clock. I am going for my breakfast. Unless you can afford another hour, you must go. I will have new customers soon.” She closed the door behind her.

Johnny heard bare feet on the floorboards and then the creak of timber and laughter as she descended the staircase with one of the other whores. Rolling over under the tangled sheets, he pulled his trousers towards him from a nearby chair and checked the pockets. Nope, not enough—not if he wanted money left over for the journey north. Sighing, he got up and washed in the basin by the window. The water was warm from sitting in the sun, luxury compared to the cold streams he was used to.

Borrowing Felicita’s comb, he tried to tidy his hair. Best look halfway respectable for this Señor Mendoza. His clothes weren’t going to impress him. Hopefully, the Rurales in El Paso del Norte hadn’t given away his old things. They shouldn’t have, but he wouldn’t put it past them. All he had at the moment were the trousers and heavy boots that were part of his army uniform and a shirt, poncho and sombrero from the company’s supply of peasant clothing.

“Sure hope Mendoza ain’t expecting a snappy dresser.”

A tabby cat sunning itself on the window sill blinked; then it opened its mouth and yawned. Yeah, well, that was probably about right; since Mama died, no one and nothing except him cared what he wore.

Johnny dressed and headed downstairs, tipping his hat to the señora at the bottom. “Adios and gracias.” He gave her a cheeky grin and nipped out the front door before she could scold or ask for more money.

Strolling back to the taberna in the next street, he scrounged breakfast and set out to locate Señor Mendoza. The address on the now crumpled piece of paper was easy to read, but he wasn’t a hundred percent sure what the rest said. The time twelve o’clock was mentioned so he figured that was when he was expected. Tomás had hired him on as a private guard to escort this big bug to El Paso del Norte, and the destination was all that really mattered. He’d find out the details soon enough.

“Excuse me, señorita. I’m looking for la calle del jardín sagrado.”

The flower seller pointed towards a tower he could see over the roof tops. “That street runs off the other side of the church square.”

He found the house five minutes later. Its whitewashed walls and wrought iron gate faced a beautiful public garden with a fountain and a statue of the Holy Mother at its centre. Señor Mendoza was not short an escudo or two.

Pulling the rope attached to a brass bell on the wall, Johnny waited until a well-groomed manservant came to let him in.

“I’m here to see Señor Mendoza.”

The servant looked Johnny up and down. “Your name?”

“Madrid. Johnny Madrid.”

“You are expected.” The servant wrinkled his nose as if obliged to pick up something nasty from the gutter, but he let Johnny in and locked the gate behind him. “Follow me.”

Cabrón. Johnny glared into the back of the man’s head.

Crossing the paved courtyard, they entered the coolness of a spacious reception room, ceramic pots with exotic plants guarding the corners. Tapestries, mirrors and paintings covered the walls, and a huge candle-filled chandelier hung from the centre of the ceiling. Johnny gazed around him, stepping onto a carpet rug so plush the pile topped the soles of his boots. He sidestepped quickly off it again, nearly bumping into a marquetry table.

“Don’t touch.”

Johnny withdrew his hand. The rearing bronze horse beside him reminded him of a wild stallion; he could almost imagine it leaping from the table and galloping to freedom. “What does Señor Mendoza do?”

“He is a merchant. He imports fine goods from all over the world. Wait here.” The servant disappeared through an archway at the other end of the room, and Johnny waited, keeping his hands in his pockets and his feet on the terracotta tiles.

“You’re late.” A middle-aged businessman strode through the archway, his beard and moustache trimmed and oiled. “Capitán Flores assured me you would be here before noon.”

“I had trouble finding the street, señor.” Johnny held his hat respectfully in front of him, trying to look apologetic. It couldn’t be much after midday; the church bells had rung as he crossed the square.

“You look too young to be a pistolero. Where’s your gun?”

Okay, so Tomás had told the merchant who he was. Johnny hadn’t been sure. He lifted his poncho slightly so that Mendoza could see his revolver, but not the ammunition belt he wore across his chest. He had hardly any bullets left.

“Is that all?” Señor Mendoza eyed Johnny and the LeMat without enthusiasm.

“I was told you would supply a rifle and any other weapons and ammunition needed.” Employers often did, but Johnny was pretty sure Tomás’ note didn’t mention firearms at all. “I know how to use them, señor.”

“So el capitán said.” Mendoza drew on the fat cigar he held between his fingers and studied his would-be hired gun.

Damn it, Johnny needed this job, but he was getting tired of being looked at like shit; he’d had enough of that with Lopez. Without even thinking, he slouched into his gunfighter pose and stared back.

Mendoza broke eye contact. “I suppose you’ll have to do. Go to the stables and tell the coachman to bring the carriage around to the front entrance. I’ll meet you there.” The merchant hurried away, calling for his wife and issuing orders to unseen servants.

Johnny went out the way he came in. He found the stables without too much difficulty, and introduced himself to Julio, the coachman. Within ten minutes they were waiting outside as ordered, and Johnny was examining the firearms: a carbine rifle, a double-barrelled shotgun and an old Colt. He had loaded all three by the time Señor Mendoza appeared with his lacy butter-ball wife. The servants and Julio packed the luggage into the racks on the roof and at the back, tying down the canvas covers securely, and then they were off.

The coach travelled north for five days, crossing into Sonora, and then east to the city of Chihuahua. There was no real trouble. Occasionally, when they stopped, some saddle tramps would pay the carriage more attention than Johnny liked, but he’d casually show the LeMat on his belt and pretend to check the loading of the shot gun. Usually they moved on.

The Mendozas were going to visit relatives at one of the haciendas near El Paso del Norte. Señor Mendoza planned a little business while he was in the area, but from what Johnny overheard, the main reason for the visit was so that Señora Mendoza could show off her fine clothes and jewellery to her sister-in-law.
One morning as they were preparing to leave he had a quiet word with his employer. “Señor, I don’t mean no disrespect, but hiding the señora’s jewellery box in a carpet bag is no good if she is going to talk about it in front of folks. And maybe she shouldn’t wear the good stuff while we’re travelling.” He checked over his shoulder. There were a couple of fellas he didn’t like the look of a few doors down. “Don’t want to draw the wrong kind of attention.”

Señor Mendoza puffed importantly on his cigar, but he followed Johnny’s gaze. “I’ll see what I can do.”

He went back into the hotel lobby and drew his wife aside. Ear bobs dangling and a real fancy gold and pearl locket resting amongst the lace, the señora glared through the open door. Straightening, Johnny touched his hat, and she turned abruptly away. Five minutes later she stalked past him minus the locket and boarded the carriage.

The stretch between Chihuahua and El Paso del Norte was always going to be the most dangerous leg of their journey. Johnny checked his weapons before they left the city of Chihuahua, even firing them to make absolutely sure they all worked. The state of Chihuahua was full of bandits. Mostly they stole cattle, but they would not ignore a stagecoach or private carriage if they thought there was a prize worth having.

“You’d be wise to hire extra gunmen, señor.”

“Capitán Flores assured me you could handle it.”

“Maybe I can, but maybe I wouldn’t have to if there were more men. Just the driver and me will look like easy pickings.”

But Mendoza was not willing to part with more cash. They hadn’t been harassed so far, and he rejected the idea that the rest of the trip would be any different.

“Pendejo. Does he have to rub noses with danger to see it?” Johnny grouched to Julio as they headed north.

“I think Señor Mendoza sees your years and not your wisdom, amigo.”

Johnny frowned. Even though Mendoza probably had no notion of him only being sixteen, the dark line Johnny was cultivating over his top lip wasn’t doing its job; he still didn’t look more than eighteen at most.

Mendoza’s self-satisfaction and Johnny’s anxiety grew as the first three days went without a hitch. Most evenings they made camp, setting up a tent for the Mendozas as there was no better accommodation on offer. Johnny and Julio slept outside by the fire, taking turns to keep guard. They saw virtually no one on the road, even though they passed through a few small settlements. For Johnny the uneventful journey was just too good to be true.

On the fourth and final day, when they hoped to reach El Paso del Norte by evening, he spotted the skeleton of a horse. Several wagon horses had died on his way south with the army, and he had an idea this was what was left of one of them. He squinted along the road into the sun.

“If I remember right, the land ahead isn’t as flat as it looks. There’s a drop down to a dry creek bed coming up. If I was a bandit I’d block the road where it dips down so I couldn’t be seen by a coach until it was right on top of me.”

“What should I do?”

“Slow the carriage when we get to that clump of cactus. I think the creek is just past it. If you see riders, go like hell.”

Johnny leaned around and banged on the side of the carriage. Mendoza stuck his head out and Johnny warned him of the possible danger. “Lower the curtains just in case.”

“You worry too much, Madrid.” The merchant disappeared back inside, leaving the leather curtains untouched.

Perhaps he was right, but Johnny had a gut feeling and it just wouldn’t go away.

The coach reached the cacti and slowed. They could now see the road slope away in front of them. Johnny held his breath.

“Ya! Ya!” Julio lashed the reins hard and whipped the horses. “Ya!” The road dropped down between sandstone. There was no way to veer off into the desert, even if the axles could stand it, and in front of them were four horsemen with rifles pointed.

Johnny and the bandits fired at the same time. Bullets slammed into the timber of the box and cab, but the carriage ploughed through the line of horses, across the trickle of a steam, and up the rise on the other side. Johnny turned as soon as they were through the blockade to shoot back at the bandits. Regaining control of their horses, they gave chase within seconds.

“Ya!” Julio urged the horses on as Johnny loosed bullets over the roof of the coach. Down but not tied at the bottom, the curtains flapped through the windows, and more lead smashed into the polished veneer.

“They’re gaining. Faster!” Johnny dropped the shotgun on the seat and began emptying the rifle. The bandit closest to them jerked and toppled from his saddle. The others kept coming.

Julio whipped the horses again. “Ya!” But it was no good; the animals were tiring.

Johnny switched to the Colt and fired as a bandit passed on the right. He missed both times. Damn! Swivelling around, he used the last bullets on the men coming up behind.

The man who had passed leaned out, trying to grab the bridle of the nearest horse.

“Don’t argue with them.” As lead zinged, Johnny tossed the empty Colt aside and dived left. His hat tumbled away behind them, but out of sight from Julio and the bandits, he clung to the ropes tying the luggage to the rack. His boots found purchase on a decorative timber trim below, and he pulled his body hard to the side of the carriage.

“Whoa.” Julio drew the horses to a halt less than a minute later. Johnny kept as still as possible. He couldn’t see what was going on, but he guessed Julio had his hands in the air.

“Throw down your weapons, muchacho.” The bandit leader sounded almost directly opposite Johnny on the other side of the carriage. The empty guns hit the dirt one at a time, and someone gathered them up. “Now get down.” The carriage creaked as Julio jumped from the box, stumbling on his gimpy leg. “Your friend put up a good fight, but now he is lying somewhere back there in the dust. It is time to obey, si?”

Julio didn’t say anything.

“Out!” A different voice gave the order as the carriage door was yanked open. Johnny risked lifting a corner of the leather curtain with his finger as the Mendozas disembarked. Left arm straining to keep in place, he saw the leader on horseback and one bandit on the ground.

 Señora Mendoza sobbed into her handkerchief.

“Search them,” the leader snarled. “Search the carriage.”

Johnny let the leather flap back against the window frame, and as a man scrambled inside and started rummaging he dropped to the ground.

“Take your hands off my wife.” Finally Mendoza was showing some backbone. It sounded like he got hit for his gallantry, but his protest told Johnny the third bandit had dismounted. All three were now level with the coach.

One bandit was still ransacking the interior. Johnny flexed his rope burnt hands and took the LeMat from his belt. Creeping to the rear of the carriage, he edged his way carefully around.

“Look what I found.” The bandit who had been searching tossed the carpet bag onto the ground and took the fancy ebony and enamel jewellery box to his leader. Half crouching and back pressed against the rear canvas, Johnny could just see them.

“No, no, you can’t have those. They’re mine.”

“Shut up, you stupid woman.” The third bandit backhanded the señora hard, and followed up by sticking a gun barrel in Señor Mendoza’s face. The señor got the message and instead of fighting, knelt down to comfort his wife. The bandit spat on them and went to inspect the contents of the miniature cabinet with the others.

Flicking up the lever on the LeMat, Johnny waited until all eyes were on the jewels. Then he stepped clear. He fired the lower barrel into the huddle of bandits, peppering them and the horse with grapeshot. Rolling, he came up with the lever down again to shoot from the cylinder at the only man left standing.

Julio hobbled forward, grabbed the rifle of one injured bandit and used the butt to bash his head in.

Thrown from his horse, the leader of the group was wounded. Before he could recover and shoot, Johnny put a second bullet from the LeMat’s revolving cylinder into his chest.

As quickly as it had begun, it was over.

Almost.

The bandit leader’s horse stood shivering, blood running down its withers and rump. Lead shot went everywhere with smooth-bore short barrels; that was the advantage and the trouble with using the LeMat’s special feature. The horse stumbled one step forward. Ignoring necklaces and rings sparkling in the dust, Johnny went to its side. He patted the gelding’s neck and made small shushing noises to calm it. There was no hope. Cupping its ear with his hand, he pressed the muzzle of his gun to its head, just out of the animal’s line of sight. “I am sorry, muchacho.”  The shot was muffled, and the horse fell to the ground.

******

Chapter Fourteen

They arrived in El Paso del Norte at dusk, trailing two horses with four bodies draped over their backs. Johnny had ridden back to recover his hat and the fourth bandit. It was hard to tell if the bullet had killed the man or he had just broken his neck when he fell. Either way, his horse was long gone, and Johnny didn’t have time to look for it.

The weary travellers went straight to the office of the Guardia Rural. Johnny accompanied Señor Mendoza inside, but he left most of the explaining to him.  Only Señor Mendoza gave a written statement, and afterwards the sergeant on duty sent a guard out to deal with the bodies.

“Oh, I nearly forgot. I was asked to give you this.” Mendoza extracted a letter from his inside pocket.

The sergeant opened the envelope and checked the signature. “From Capitán Flores. Is he well?”

“Sí, last I saw of him.”

“Hmm, so the prisoners Gonzalez, Rodriguez and Leon are dead. No great loss.” The sergeant finished reading the first page and turned it over. “And Manuel Ruiz has enlisted.” Dropping the letter onto the blotter on his desk, he pulled a file from the cabinet behind him before looking over at Johnny.  “You Madrid?”

“Sí.” Johnny straightened.

“I want you out of town by tomorrow evening.”

What was it with sergeants? Were they all jerks? “You have my things.”

The sergeant smiled. “I don’t think so. You just get on your way.”

“I ain’t going nowhere without my guns and clothes.” Johnny stepped forward ready to fight for what was his, but Señor Mendoza got between him and the desk.

He held up a hand. “Leave this to me.” And then turned towards the sergeant. “Capitán Flores asked me to make sure Madrid’s belongings were returned to him. He said they would be here.”

The sergeant cut the end of a panatela and lit it. Leaning back in his chair, he put his feet up on an open drawer, and blew smoke into the air. “Well, maybe el capitán was mistaken.”

Señor Mendoza removed his wallet. Taking out some money, he placed it down on the desk. “Perhaps you could check.”

The sergeant sat up. He glanced at the banknote and then looked calmly at Mendoza. “Perhaps.” The merchant placed another note next to the first. The sergeant picked up the money and stuffed it into his shirt pocket. “Wait here.” He disappeared through the door to the cells and storage areas.

Cabrón! Hands on hips, Johnny scowled at his boots.

“It is the way of the world, Madrid.” Mendoza took out his cigar case and snipped the end of a fresh cigar while they waited. He didn’t offer Johnny one, but Johnny gave him a small smile to acknowledge his help. He was grateful even though he was pretty sure the money would come out of his wages.

“You’re in luck, gringo.” The sergeant came back into the office, holding a calico bag high.

Johnny snatched it from him and emptied the contents onto the desk. His rig and the clothes he had worn to the bath house were there, even his boots and spurs. The few reales he’d had left were gone. “Where’s my rifle and saddle bags?”

“Where did you leave them?” The sergeant sneered and pulled open the door to the street. “That’s all we have here. Now get out.” Johnny and Mendoza moved towards the door. “Remember, Madrid, you’re gone from this town by dusk tomorrow or I throw you back in jail.” He locked the door behind them.

“I think the sargento is overdue for his supper, and it’s making him fractious, Madrid. Either that or he doesn’t like you very much. Shame; I was hoping to keep you around for a little longer.” Señor Mendoza reached for the carriage door. “Never mind, you can see us to our hotel and stay in my employ until morning.”

Johnny touched his hat. Well, it could be worse.

He and Julio unloaded what the Mendozas wanted for their evening in town at the Hotel Rio Grande while Señor Mendoza sent a message to his relatives at the Estancia Vargas. “I have asked my wife’s brother to send men to escort us out to the rancho in the morning. Bring the carriage back here at eleven o’clock.”

Johnny and Julio drove down the street to the livery and then found a boarding house nearby. The housekeeper offered them supper, and Johnny went to bed tired but happy, a large serving of cabrito en salsa inside him.

In the morning, he woke to the sound of the bedroom door opening.

“I didn’t mean to wake you, muchacho.” Julio stood in his stocking feet, holding his boots. “Go back to sleep. I will clean the carriage on my own this morning. I’ll see you at breakfast.” He closed the door behind him.

Never turn down a good offer; Johnny shut his eyes again, but the sun was streaming through the thin cotton curtains, and his limbs ached from hanging off the side of the coach the day before. With a grunt, he gave up and swung his legs out of bed.

After brushing his calzoneras and boots he squeezed into them. Shoot, they were tight. Shifting the Derringer to his jacket pocket helped, but he’d have to buy new pants before he split a seam. His belt and gun belt had to be let out a notch. He sniffed the shirt he’d washed at the bath house. Crumpled, but the best of a bad lot; he put it on and stuffed the others back into the calico bag. Boy, it felt good to be dressed in his own clothes again, even if his hat was the only thing that still fit like it did before.

“Guess that means my head hasn’t got any bigger.” He leaned back and pulled the hat over his eyes to shut out the sun as Julio drove the carriage back to the hotel. “Mind you, some folks might disagree.”

Julio laughed and hopped down from the box. He went to tell the desk clerk they were there.

Johnny waited outside, leaning against a post near the rear of the carriage, turning his hat in his hands, trying to get it back into shape. It had been soaked and flattened at the bath house during the fight, but even battered and water stained, it was better than the straw sombrero he’d been wearing. Maybe he’d replace it after his next job. He couldn’t afford to do it now even if Señor Mendoza paid up in full, and thanks to the Rurales sergeant that wasn’t likely.

Within a few minutes of this not-so-happy thought, Mendoza emerged from the hotel lobby, followed by Julio, and dropped a small pouch into Johnny’s hand. “Your money, Madrid.” He’d paid him in coin; that was a bonus. “Thank you for your service. You turned out to be all right in the end.”

Johnny tipped the money into his hand—a twenty dollar American gold piece and as much again in Mexican coins. Not a lot for three weeks riding shotgun, but exactly what Tomás had written down. “Gracias.”

“My wife wishes me to extend her thanks for saving her jewels. I thank you for saving our lives.” Mendoza offered his hand. “If you are in Culiacán again look me up. I’m sure I could find a use for your skills.”

Astounded, Johnny gripped the man’s hand. “I’ll do that.”

“Good luck.” Señor Mendoza nodded and went back into the hotel.

“Whooee, I didn’t expect that.”

“Señor Mendoza can be a stiff shirt, but he is a fair employer.” Julio smiled and shook hands with Johnny too. Then the escort from the Estancia Vargas arrived, and he went inside to fetch the Mendozas.

Johnny strolled south along the main street, relieved that he hadn’t bumped into ‘Sr. A. Flores, Manager’. He’d seen the name written in fancy gold lettering on a polished wooden plaque on a door off the lobby when he and Julio unloaded the luggage the night before. Chances were his cousin wouldn’t recognize him after so many years, but it was better not to test the theory. Johnny stayed on the boardwalk away from the entrance until he got paid, and fortunately, Alejandro didn’t come out.

Johnny didn’t want to risk trouble at the cantina where he had left his gear either. It looked peaceful, but he stood in the shadows of the alleyway opposite and watched the comings and goings for a good half an hour. Then he entered with caution, sidestepping as soon as he got through the door. Keeping his back to the wall, he looked around the room, and only went up to the bar when he was sure there was no danger of another fracas with the likes of Vicente Montero and friends.
 
“Remember me?”

“Sí.” The tabernero put down the cloth he was using to polish glasses and glanced between Johnny and the door.

“Manuel says you can keep anything he left here—he’s stayin’ with the army—but I left a rifle and saddle bags, and I want them back.”

“I do not have them. Alberto Flores said he would look after them for you until you returned. I let him take them.”

“Fair enough. In that case I’ll just have a beer.” Johnny tossed a coin onto the counter. The barkeeper hesitated, and Johnny raised an eyebrow. The man moistened his lips, his eyes flickering to Johnny’s guns before he turned a glass upright, uncorked a bottle, and began to pour.

Amused, Johnny took his drink and some food from the other end of the counter and sat down. He needed to weigh up what to do next. He had always intended to go back to his cousins, but there was something else he wanted to do before he left town. He was too early though so he decided to check on Pícaro and his other belongings first.

An hour later he strode along the street feeling much more his old self, but passers-by seemed to be giving him a wide berth. Maybe it was the LeMat stuck into his belt as well as the Colt on his hip, or maybe his reputation had grown in his absence. Clearly the townsfolk knew what he was, even if they weren’t sure who he was.

“Señorita.” He touched his hat politely as he gave way to a young woman, who walked straight out of a drapery store without looking.

“Oh” The young woman backed away. The draper opened the door behind her, and she escaped into the shop again.

Dang, Johnny scratched his head as the door shut; he didn’t want to be that scary.

He carried on to the general store, not feeling quite as cheerful. He slipped inside and pretended to examine peaches in a basket near the door until his eyes got used to the dimmer light. Alberto was serving a vaquero at the counter. Emilio was refilling shelves with cookware along the back wall. Both stopped what they were doing as soon as they saw him. Casting a nervous glance over his shoulder, the customer snatched up his tobacco and left.

“Johnny, you’re back.” Alberto grinned broadly. He went first to lock the door and then came to greet him. “How is my big brother? Did he treat you well?”

“Sí, gracias. You would both be very proud.” Johnny let Alberto embrace him, but kept his eyes on Emilio.

“Your horse and gear are in the stable. Some supplies too.” Emilio turned his back and continued restocking.

“I owe you for Pícaro’s keep. And I’d like to speak with Luisa again.”

“No.”

“I want…”

“I know what you want, and she will not give it to you.” Emilio put another pot on the shelf and faced Johnny again. “She made a promise to your mamá, and she is determined to keep it. I will not have you upset her.”

“You tell me then.”

Emilio’s lips formed a thin, firm line. He stared back at Johnny—no give at all.

“I still need to pay you. I have money now.”

“I don’t want your money.”

“I earned it honestly.”

“You earned it by killing. I have eyes and ears in this town. Four bandidos against one pistolero, a lame driver and a man who wouldn’t know one end of a gun from another. Your reputation again precedes you, Johnny Madrid, and I do not want my family tarnished by it.”

“I must pay. I owe you money from before and for the supplies.” Johnny dug in his toes. He felt sick inside to be arguing with Emilio again, but the old man was being unfair and pig-headed. “I won’t try to see Luisa, but I have my pride. I’m not going anywhere until I pay my debts.”

“I’ll take the LeMat.” Emilio nodded towards the weapon stuck in Johnny’s belt.

“What? You’ve just bad-mouthed me, because I shot some bandidos, and now you want the gun I used to do it.”

“It would be a useful weapon to have under the counter here in the shop. I know what it can do, so I will take the LeMat in payment for your debts.”

Johnny had intended to keep the French firearm. “It’s a pig to use. The sight keeps coming loose.”

“I can remove the sight. I will not need it.”

Johnny took the gun from his belt and weighed it in his hand. “I’m out of bullets.”

“I can get ammunition.”

Probably more easily than Johnny could and that was a fact.

“Okay, it’s a deal.” Johnny held out the LeMat, but Emilio didn’t move or break eye contact. Eventually, Alberto took it.

“Now leave El Paso del Norte.” Emilio picked up a pot from the crate at his feet.

“Soon. I have another job to do first.”

“Make sure you are away before dusk. I do not want trouble with the Rurales again.”

Johnny nodded and backed away. Emilio’s grapevine was impressive.

Alberto followed him to the door. “I’m sorry, amigo. Good luck.” They shook hands, and Johnny escaped into the sunshine.

He headed towards the bell tower, but it was still too early and he had to wait. At last, the heavy timber door in the side of the mission wall opened. School children came out laughing and chatting until some boys spotted Johnny leaning against a tree in the shade. With excited whispers and slightly scared eyes, they pointed and gawked and then ran away.

When the last one turned the corner, Johnny entered the school yard. He hovered on the threshold of the classroom, remembering its whitewashed walls, bench seats and slates. Very little had changed; there was still a carved wooden cross above the blackboard at the front and a big map of the world to one side. He took a closer look at the map. Curling at the edges now, it had always fascinated him; there were so many countries and places in the world. He touched the spot in the middle of Spain marked Madrid.

“Can I help you, young man?” A priest at the other end of the classroom rested his broom against a desk and came towards him.

Johnny blinked, unused to the sound of English. How had he known? “I hope so, padre. I want to see the school register.”

The priest raised his eyebrows.

“I used to go to this school.” Johnny hesitated. He felt a little embarrassed, but there seemed no way around admitting the truth. “I’m told the register would have my father’s name in it.”

The priest didn’t seem surprised by the statement. “It may do. I am Padre Simón. Please, come with me.”

He led Johnny into a room off the main classroom with walls lined with bookcases and cabinets, and a large timber table and chairs positioned in front of a glazed window. “Please sit down.”

Padre Simón took a heavy leather-bound book from one of the shelves. “We recently started a new register, but looking at you, I think this will be the one you want.”

Johnny turned immediately to the back where Manuel had said the admissions were recorded. It was divided up by years. “I came and went. Would there be an entry each time?”

“Yes, but one might be copied from another.”

Johnny ran his eye down the page for 1859. He would have been ten for most of that year. He was sure he had attended the mission school when he was ten, because the priest who taught school at the time gave punishment according to age. Johnny always got ten strokes of the cane.

There. He put his finger on his name: Lancer, Juan Tomás. Well, that surprised him. He didn’t know he had a second name let alone it being the same as his cousin’s. He held his breath and ran his finger across the page. Apart from the names, everything was in Latin.

“You were baptised at the chapel of San Benito de Nursia on February 18th, 1849,” Padre Simón said, looking over Johnny’s shoulder.

“Where’s that?” Mama had never wanted to go to California, and Johnny had always wondered if his father was the reason.

“I cannot say. There are several churches and missions by that name.”

“Does it give my father’s name? I can’t see it.”

Padre Simón examined the entry more closely. “Ah, this is Padre Rafael’s writing. He writes so large. He has run out of room. See he has squeezed it in at the end ‘Filii M. Lancer’ or perhaps it is an ‘N’ or ‘W’. It is definitely one of them.”

Johnny’s disappointment must have shown on his face.

“You said you came and went. There will be other entries.”

They looked and found five between 1855 and 1860, but only one had more than ‘M’. It was definitely ‘M’, but the fates were against him. The one entry that had more than that was the first, but it had been badly smudged as though ink had been dropped on top of the finished writing and then carelessly blotted. All they could read was a possible ‘a’ or ‘u’ at the start and a possible ‘h’ or ‘n’ at the end.

“I’m sorry, my son.”

“It’s all right, padre. It’s more than I had before.”

Johnny wandered back towards his cousins’ place. He’d discovered a middle name he didn’t know he had, but as it didn’t start with ‘M’ it wasn’t a lot of use to him. He wondered whether he should risk sneaking up to the house to speak with Luisa, but the store was closed, and even if he didn’t walk smack into Emilio, he didn’t fancy his chances with Luisa. She was as stubborn as Mama.

In the end, he decided against it, and went down the side alley and through the gate to the stable instead. Pícaro was waiting for him as promised, well fed and exercised. His saddle, bedroll, rifle and saddle bags were in a pile on the straw where he had slept his first night in town. The bags had ammunition and food inside them.

Johnny picked up the saddle and hefted it onto the pinto’s back. “I could go to California. See if there is a chapel of San Benito. Its records would tell me if I was in the right place.”

Pícaro turned his head and studied Johnny with sad eyes.

“No, you’re right. If I found it, and he was there, I could get myself into another fight before I’m ready. I know nothing about him. Best wait until I’m really good at my trade.”

“That would be wise.”

Johnny stood completely still. It was Emilio’s voice. Why was he here?

“You went to the school.” Emilio emerged from the shadows in a corner of the stable. He cradled a rifle in his arms.

“So?”

“Did you find what you were looking for?”

“What do you think?” Johnny sparked. The old man knew damn well he hadn’t; he could tell. What was Emilio up to? Did he get a kick out of twisting the knife? As soon as the idea struck him, Johnny heard Tomás’ voice in his head. ‘Grow up’. If it wasn’t for Emilio, Johnny would have ended up in the state prison. “Emilio, I don’t want to leave here on bad terms. I owe you a lot.”

Emilio grunted and stepped forward, handing Johnny an old scroll of parchment, tied with a red ribbon. “This belongs to you.”

“What is it?”

“Open it and find out.”

Johnny slipped the scroll from the ribbon and unrolled it. The writing was real fancy and like the school register it was mostly in Latin. Testimonium Baptismi. It took Johnny a second to realize what he was holding, but there was the date he’d seen in the school register and the name of the church—it was in California—and his name, not Juan but John.

Johnny blinked and bit his bottom lip hard. At the very bottom of the page, clearly written, were the names of his parents.

“Mucho gracias, Emilio.”

“Your mamá left it here for safe keeping. Luisa will not be happy that I have given it to you.”

“Then why?”

“Because a man does have a right to know his father’s name.”

Emilio and Johnny studied each other. If he lived to be a hundred, Johnny would never understand how that old man’s mind worked. Why now and not when he first asked four months ago?

“I want something in exchange.”

“Anything, but I’ll always be in your debt.”

Emilio waved his words away. “If there is a debt, it is not to me.” He transferred the rifle to one hand and let the barrel point down. “All men make mistakes, Johnny. All men must make hard choices. You’ve made a few of both, and now you must live with them. I owe your father nothing, but I am a father. I believe he is still alive, and I want you to hear him out before you decide whether he should live or die by his son’s hand.”

Johnny stared at Emilio. Whatever he had expected it wasn’t this. “Ain’t likely to make no difference.”

Emilio didn’t reply. He just locked eyes with Johnny and waited for the response he was after.

Johnny mulled over the idea; he hadn’t thought that far ahead. “Guess it don’t hurt to listen to him dig his own grave.”

Emilio nodded and offered his hand. “Good luck, Johnny. I hope we meet again in better times.”

Johnny shook hands. Maybe a man didn’t need to understand everything. He watched Emilio leave the stable, pleased there were no longer any hard feelings between them.

Leading Pícaro outside and through the gate in the fence, he mounted in the alley and rode north along the main street of El Paso del Norte, across the bridge into the American town of El Paso, and then on towards Mesilla. There was at least an hour’s riding before nightfall.  He would make camp when dusk drew near.

A cowpuncher at the boarding house had told him a fella was hiring guns near Mesilla. He didn’t know why, but it didn’t much matter. It was work, and Johnny could practise his trade. He’d hire out for a year or two, maybe ask a few questions here and there—wherever the jobs took him. One day when he knew more and he was fast enough—when the time felt right—he’d track down the big time rancher who fathered him. Odds were he’d kill him, but he’d hear the bastard out first. Emilio would never know one way or the other, but a man wasn’t worth shit if he didn’t keep his word.

His father had a strange name—spelled funny—but somehow Johnny knew how to pronounce it. Did that mean he’d heard it before?

He settled down under the night sky, wondering as he gazed up at the North Star.

Then he gave in to temptation and spoke the words out loud. “Murdoch Lancer.”

Johnny’s father—the man he hated—had a name.

 

 

~end~

Notes:
1. This story is the sequel to Hate. Like Hate, it has its roots in The Beginning and From Highlands to Homecoming. All of these stories are back stories for characters created by Samuel A. Peeples for the TV series Lancer. See Warburton’s Edge, Series 1, Episode 17 for the comment by Johnny that particularly inspired this story.

2. El Paso del Norte is the old name for Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

3. Several Spanish swear words appear in this story. You will recognize them from their context, but for those who want to know their precise meaning, here is a list in no particular order: cállate (shut up); pendejo (coward/dickhead/idiot); lárgate/lárguense (fuck off); mierda (fuck/shit); cabrón/bastardo (bastard/asshole); maldita sea (damn).

4. In Chapter Five I say that Mexican courts don’t allow women unless they are accused of a crime. I have no idea whether this was true or not at the time. I simply wanted a reason for Luisa not being there.

5. For more information about the French Intervention in Mexico, 1861-1867, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_intervention_in_Mexico and for a list of battles see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_battles_of_the_French_intervention_in_Mexico

6. For more information on the Minié rifle and the Minié ball see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mini%C3%A9_rifle and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spvI-95Goe0 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBjJS42VnyE

7. In this story the soldiers of the Republic of Mexico are referred to as ‘Republicans’ and ‘Juaristas’. The term ‘Juarista’ means a follower of Benito Juárez, President of Mexico, during the period of resistance to the French occupation of Mexico.

8. For more information about the card game Cunquián (Conquian) see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conquian

9. For more information about the LeMat revolver see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LeMat_Revolver and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5M-QQIOc5k

10. Aloe Vera (Sábila) is an interesting plant, long used for its healing properties. There is lots of information online including: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aloe_vera and https://survivingmexico.com/tag/use-of-aloe-vera-as-medicine/ .

11. For more information about the Battle of San Pedro see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_San_Pedro

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