The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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

Sandra

 

 

I See Fire

Part 12 of the It All Adds Up series

Thanks to my beta Lacy!
This story was inspired by the song, I See Fire by Ed Sheeran and the wildfires that erupted in East TN, Nov. 2016.


Prologue

California
The door squeaked open and a face peered into the darkened room.

“Don’t just stand there, come in”.  The command came from the tall man staring out the window behind the desk.

The door opened further and an older Mexican gentleman eased himself through the opening. He threw a glance behind him, nodded toward the shadows and shut the door behind him.  Worrying his hat with both hands, he walked hesitantly toward the desk.

“Is he coming?” his boss asked without turning around.

The Mexican stopped in his tracks. He started to speak but his first attempt came out as a croak.  Clearing his throat, he began again.  “Si, Señor. He’s on his way now.”

 A nod from the man at the window was the only acknowledgment of this news.  The silence and darkness of the room seemed to grow and the Mexican shifted nervously. 

“Well?” Ice couldn’t have been colder than the voice in the darkness.

“We,” the Mexican’s voice cracked. “We did as you asked.  You promised…”

“I know what I promised!” The man didn’t shout but his voice was hard and oh, so cold.  “You will get all you deserve. Now go.”

The Mexican gave a nervous bow to the other man’s back and quickly walked toward the door.  He opened the door and glanced back toward the window.  The patron was still staring out of the window, the window that faced south toward Mexico.  The Mexican raised his hand to his forehead as if to begin to cross himself. He shook his head then dropped his hand. It was too late for God to bless him now. He left the room and shut the door behind him.

 

Chapter 1

Crouched at the river’s edge, Johnny Madrid scooped up a handful of pebbles and worried them in his hand.  His eyes scanned up and down the fast moving current. The sound of the water flowing past didn’t hide the sounds of the impatient horses behind him. The snorts and stomping of feet indicated that they were tired of waiting for his decision.

Standing up, he threw the pebbles toward the river and settled his hat on his head. Grabbing the reins of his horse, he prepared to mount up.  “Guess this is as good a place to cross as any”, he said as he settled into the saddle.  “I’ll go first, then Toni.  Ruben and Sebastian, you follow.” He took off his gun belt and slung it around his neck.

Johnny nudged his horse and it slowly walked to the water’s edge.   He let his horse pick his way across the rocky ground and leaned forward as the animal slowly stepped into the fast moving water. 

He turned in his saddle and looked behind him. Now there seemed to be enough space between him and the shore.  “Come on, Toni!” he shouted.

Johnny was rocked and jolted as his horse went further into deeper water. A few times his horse slowed and Johnny whistled and kicked his horse’s flanks to encourage him to continue. The current was swift and all he could do was try to keep his horse headed at an angle toward the shore. He didn’t want to travel in a straight line where they would be fighting the current. Bit by bit the water crept up his legs as the river got deeper.

He settled his hat more firmly on his head and wrapped the reins once around the saddle horn when he felt the horse begin to swim.  He didn’t want to take any chances of losing his seat and the horse’s feet getting caught underwater in the loose reins.  He put his weight firmly in the stirrups and leaned far over the horse’s neck, holding the reins close to the horse’s head. 

The roar of the water drowned out most of the noise around him. He hoped the others were following the path he was taking but it was taking all of his concentration to keep seated on a swimming horse. He didn’t dare turn around too often to check on how Toni and the others were making it out.

Johnny was near spitting distance to the shore when he heard a scream.  He twisted and saw that while in the deepest part of the river, the current had pushed Ruben’s horse too close to Toni.  Their horses were swimming now and their inexperience in crossing white water showed. The horses collided and began to panic as the current pushed them downstream.

Johnny watched in horror as Toni and Rueben tumbled off their horses.  Ruben did his best to try to reach Toni but was slammed between the two horses.  He slipped underwater and Johnny saw him pop up a few feet away. Ruben must have been hollering for help, his mouth was open, but the sound of the rushing water covered his screams.  As much as the boy thrashed and hit the water with his arms, he was no match for the current that rushed him away from his friends.

Seeming oblivious to the drama behind him, Johnny’s horse continued his way to shore.  He heaved his way onto the rocky ground, almost upsetting Johnny. Once on firm ground, Johnny jumped off his horse and ran along the shore line, cupping his hands around his mouth, shouting Toni’s name.  He knew he couldn’t help her and had to watch helplessly on shore as she struggled to keep afloat.  Living in the Mexican desert most of the time didn’t make someone a good swimmer.

Somehow he was aware that Sebastian was trying to move his horse closer to her but the river didn’t seem to want to give up its next victim.  Every time Sebastian made progress, the current nudged his horse further away.

The force of the current was pushing her against her horse but she wasn’t able to climb back on. He held his breath as he watched her go under.  “No!” His words mocked him as the river seemed to get louder.

“Toni!” Johnny screamed.  He threw off his gun belt and hat and ran into the water. His legs felt like they weighed a hundred pounds as he tried to push against the water and move forward.  He stopped when he saw her pop up on the other side of her horse. Somehow she had managed to go under the horse and not been swept away.  His heart broke when he saw the terror on her face as she tried to gulp air.

“Grab her tail!  Toni!  Grab her tail!” Johnny frantically shouted.  He knew she couldn’t hear him but he had to do something! Dios, please help us!

He promised to light a candle when it finally seemed that at least one prayer in his life had been answered. He watched as Toni kept one hand on the saddle and stretched as far as she could to grab the horse’s tail.  Once she had her right hand wrapped around the tail, she let go of the saddle and let herself be pulled by the horse, holding on to that tail for dear life. 

Johnny grabbed Ruben’s horse as it made it to shore. Mechanically, he grabbed the reins and threw them around the saddle horn and slapped its rump. It slowly climbed its way further up the bank to rejoin Johnny’s horse.

As Toni’s horse drew nearer to shore, he watched as her head bobbed up and down in the water.  Her look of terror gone, her mouth was now drawn in a tight line, her jaw clenched and a determined look on her face.  His heart smiled as he saw his woman fighting the river.  He had no doubt now who would win.

Johnny ran as best he could toward her, the water now shallow enough for her horse to find its footing. When close enough, he ran behind her horse and grabbed her.  “Let go, sweetheart.  I’ve got you.” He helped her to her feet as she let go of her horse, and pulled her to him.  Arms wrapped around her, he helped her get to the shore and firm ground.  Breathing heavily, she leaned against his chest, too exhausted to do anything else.  Johnny laid his head against hers and promised that candle again.

Johnny looked up as Sebastian made it to shore. Sebastian slowly got down from his horse and dropped his head against the saddle, his shoulders shaking with his sobs. 

Supporting Toni, Johnny half carried her up to the bank and lowered her to the ground. She curled into herself and silently cried.  Johnny walked over to Sebastian and laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed.  “I’m sorry, amigo.” 

Sebastian looked up and wiped the tears from his eyes. “Do you think there is any chance Ruben made it?” His voice hitched. 

Slowly shaking his head, Johnny replied quietly, “No, but let me get Toni taken care of and we’ll look down shore.”

Sebastian searched Johnny’s face for any hope and lowered his eyes.
With a deep sigh, he nodded and began to grab the horses’ reins.  “Let’s find a place to camp, then we’ll look.”

Letting Sebastian keep busy, Johnny made his way back to Toni.  He crouched beside her and smoothed her hair back.  She had fallen asleep. He stood and bent over to gather her in his arms.  Carefully picking his way among the rocks, he carried her to the place Sebastian had picked out for their evening camp.  He would have liked to get her into some dry clothes but the only thing dry in that camp was his rig. 

The two men gathered wood and started a fire.  Once it had caught, Johnny woke Toni.  He smiled as she sat up, first blinking, then running her hands through her hair trying to tidy herself. 

“Can you stay awake and keep the fire going?” he asked.  He handed her his gun.  “Your stuff has to dry out, mine’s okay. You keep it while we go looking for Ruben.”

“You reckon you’ll find him?” she asked with tears in her eyes.

“Doubt it, but we gotta at least try, ya know?” He took his thumb and wiped the lone tear that fell from her eye.

“Be careful, Johnny Madrid.  I don’t intend to be a widow before I’m a wife.”

He smiled. “It wasn’t me that decided to take on a river today.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to let it win someone else. Besides, who would look after you if I wasn’t around?” She smiled and laid her hand against his cheek.

Johnny caught her hand, kissed her fingers and shuddered.  “I don’t even want to think about it.”

Toni leaned forward and placed her free hand against his heart. “I promise you this, I’ll never willingly leave you without a fight.”

Johnny leaned his head forward until his forehead touched hers. “I’m gonna hold you to that, querida.

********

The campfire crackled and popped. Johnny, Toni and Sebastian lay against their saddles in silence. The river that had claimed their friend no longer roared, the new mound of dirt at the edge of their camp a testament to their tithe.

Sebastian broke the silence.  “I don’t know how I’m going to tell mama. Ruben was her baby. The desert is harsh, but you know what to expect.” He waved his hand toward the river. “That cares for nothing, except to move on its way and take any and everything with it.”

“It teaches you something, don’t it?”  Johnny stood up and threw another log on the fire. “There’s always something out there stronger and faster than you, no matter how much you prepare. Some things you just can’t control.”

Johnny sat back down next to Toni.  She laid her head on his thigh and he rested his hand on her head. 

“You want to work with your gun. You can practice all you want, maybe even get as fast as me, but there is always a chance that just like that river out there, somebody is better, or you have a bit of bad luck like today and the odds are in their favor.” Johnny leaned forward and stared at Sebastian.

“You have a home, a place to go to. Cibuta isn’t much but you have something.  You have choices that we,” Johnny patted Toni’s arm, “Don’t have.”

“I hear you, Johnny, but I want more than what a little Mexican village can offer.  With this job, my uncle promises, I can send money home to momma. I can make her life easier!”

Johnny leaned back and put his arm around Toni’s shoulder as she sat up and leaned her head against his chest. “Inez would rather have her now only son home than money.”

Toni spoke up, “Sebastian, let’s go back to Mexico.  I have a bad feeling about this California. There’s no shame in changing your mind.”

“No!  You two go back if you want, I’m moving on.  I’m not letting this river beat me. Ruben would have understood.”

“Well, I promised I’d keep you company on this trip and I don’t break my word.” Johnny sighed.  “Look’s like there’s no talking you out of your trade. I’ve said my piece. It’s your decision and life.”

Johnny lifted his arm from Toni and stretched out. He pulled his hat over his eyes. “Let’s just hope there’s no more rivers we have to cross on this trip.”

 

 

Chapter 2

“You’re going to catch flies.” Johnny smiled as he saw Toni shoot him one of those looks. He noticed that she did close her mouth, though. 

“Have you ever seen the like?” Toni waved her free hand in front of her at the town before them.

Columbia, California was one of the biggest towns either one of them had seen.  A mining town, it was hard to believe that in its heyday, it had been twice the size as it was now. No thrown together shanty town, Columbia boasted brick buildings, churches, a freight office, a hotel with wrought iron railing on its second floor.  Johnny even saw a sign for something called a Masonic Lodge.

“Where are we supposed to meet your tio?” Johnny glanced at the young man riding on the other side of him. 

Sebastian Cruz shifted in his saddle and looked around. “Tio Diego said after we got the horses settled at the livery to check into the Fallon Hotel. I’m to tell the desk clerk we’re here and he’ll send someone for Tio. I tell you, amigos, I’m looking forward to seeing my uncle again.  It’s been awhile since he left Cíbuta.  His letters to my mother say that he is making good money! It is good that he wants to share his good fortune with his familia. Look!” Sebastian pointed to the right, “There’s the livery.”

Johnny, Toni and Sebastian dismounted at the livery and after taking care of their horses, they grabbed their gear and headed in the direction of the hotel. 

They stopped and waited as a loaded wagon drove past. Main Street was quite busy and they had to dodge people and horses in order to cross to the other side. They quickly walked to their hotel and Johnny paused at the door while Toni and Sebastian stood behind him. As he opened the door, he quickly scanned the room, nodded and walked on in.  Toni followed and Sebastian brought up the rear.  It was a pattern they had formed on the month long trip. 

The desk clerk met them at the counter, a short man who sported a large handle bar mustache.

“We need two rooms.” Johnny balanced his rifle against the counter and began pulling off his gloves.  He tensed as the clerk didn’t answer right away.  The man’s eyes flittered back and worth from Johnny to those behind him. Johnny glared and waited. He sighed inwardly when the clerk nodded and pushed the register toward him to sign. It wouldn’t have been the first time they were denied rooms because of who they were but quite frankly, he was too tired to fight that battle today.

As Johnny signed, then Sebastian, the clerk turned his back and got the keys from their slots.  “You three here for mining?” the clerk asked.

Sebastian put the pen down and looked up.  “No, I’m here to meet my uncle, Diego Cruz.  Why?”

The clerk turned around and handed Johnny and Sebastian each a key. “Well, I was going to tell you about the tax if you were.”

“The tax?” Toni moved next to Johnny at the counter. 

Although Johnny had wondered what the clerk meant by that tax remark, he knew exactly what the little slug’s looks toward Toni meant.
The noise from Johnny’s hand slapping the counter made the clerk jump and turn his eyes toward Johnny.

“Look at her face,” Johnny growled.

The clerk blushed but kept his eyes on Johnny.  “Any foreigners working the mines have to pay a monthly $20 tax to the town.”

“Foreigners?” Johnny asked softly.

The clerk’s blush deepened and he ducked his head and mumbled.

“What was that?  I didn’t hear you.” Toni asked.

The clerk lifted his head and stared into Toni’s eyes.  “I said, not white.”

Toni gave the clerk a sad smile, then nodded.  “Well, we’re just here visiting and he,” Toni waved a hand toward Sebastian, “Is here to see his uncle. We won’t be mining.”

Johnny broke in, “Can we go to our rooms now?”

“Yes.” The clerk looked down at the name on the register and swallowed, “Yes, Mr. Madrid.  You can go right on up.”

As they gathered their things and began to climb the stairs, Sebastian stopped. “Do you know how I can get word to my uncle that I’m here?”

The clerk nodded. “After you get settled, go over to the Douglass Saloon and wait.  I’ll get word for him to meet you there.  It’s right next to the Wells Fargo place. You passed it coming from the livery.”

“Gracias.” With that, Sebastian hurried and climbed the stairs behind Toni and Johnny.

********

It didn’t take long to unpack their saddlebags and in no time the three friends were sitting against the back wall of the saloon nursing some beers.  While Toni and Sebastian chatted, Johnny scanned the room.  The whole set-up made him feel itchy. The saloon was long and narrow and the bar took up half the room and almost ran the length of the building.  Big glass windows on either side of the bat wings formed one wall.  Along the back wall, another door opened up into the side street.  At the tail end of the saloon, were the stairs and shadowy passageways.

“Sebastian.” Johnny interrupted Toni and pointed with his chin toward the front of the saloon.  An older man, obviously Mexican, was hesitating just inside the bat wings.   He removed his hat and twisted the brim while he scanned the room. 

“Tio!” Sebastian stood up and waved his arm toward their table. 

The older man smiled in recognition and hurried over. He grabbed Sebastian in a bear hug and the two men tripped over their greetings.

“Good to see you, Sobrino!  How is your mother, my sister-in-law?”

“Tio! You are looking well. California must agree with you!”

Johnny and Toni shared a smile as they waited for their friend and his uncle to acknowledge their presence.  It took a few minutes but the beer was cold so they didn’t mind.

“Tio, I’d like for you to meet my friends. This is Johnny and Toni.” Sebastian clapped a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “This is my uncle, Diego Cruz.”

Diego held out his hand to Johnny and Johnny reached up and shook the man’s hand. There was some shuffling of chairs and Sebastian went to the bar to get his uncle a drink.

“So, Johnny Madrid decided to visit the California Gold Country.” Diego took the glass his nephew held out and took a deep draught of beer.

Johnny toyed with his glass then looked up and smiled. “Well, seems I was invited to come along and keep this cub in line.”

“Hey!” Sebastian sounded indignant.

Diego chuckled and slapped his nephew on the back.  “Even wolves begin as cubs, Sobrino.” He nodded toward Johnny. “A strong leader has much to teach the pack and its cubs.”

“So tell me Sebastian, where is your brother? I thought he would be coming with you. There is plenty of work here for everyone.” Diego took a drink then laughed.  “Don’t tell me your mother still keeps him tied to her apron strings!”

The table was silent and Toni bowed her head. Johnny ran his fingers over the rim of his now empty glass.

“Sebastian?” Diego asked.

Sebastian stood, his chair scrapping against the floor. “Tio, I think we need to talk outside.”

Diego Cruz sat his glass down carefully and slowly stood. He looked intently at Sebastian then nodded. He moved toward the door at the side of the saloon with Sebastian following.

Toni watched as Johnny got up and walked to the bar. He returned with a bottle of tequila and two glasses.  Filling the glasses, he gave one to Toni and took the other for himself.  “To Ruben,” he offered and they both threw back their drinks.

 

Chapter 3

A loud knock at the door caused Johnny to jerk up in bed and grab the gun hanging from the bed post.  Toni slipped from the bed and crouched down on the floor.  She peeked up over the side of the bed and Johnny released the hammer as they both heard a voice call out from the other side of the door.  “Johnny! Time to get up. Tio wants to meet us at the cantina for lunch.”

“All right, Sebastian. We’ll be there in a minute.”

Toni stood up and wrapped the sheet around her as Johnny replaced the gun in its holster.  “One of these days, I’m gonna shoot him.” Johnny stood and stretched. 

“I just might let you,” Toni replied as she walked to the washstand and poured water into the basin. 

Johnny walked behind her and kissed the back of her neck.  He reached around and tugged at the sheet.  “Stop that!” Toni slapped his hands away and continued to wash her face. She finished and moved to gather her clothes strewn on the floor from the night before.  She quickly got dressed and handed Johnny his clothes. She laid across the bed and watched him get dressed. As he sat on the edge of the bed to put on his boots, she sat on her knees and wrapped her arms around him and nuzzled his neck.  “Stop that!” he grinned as he caught her arms and turned around.  Giving her a kiss on her nose, he stood up.  “If I can’t play, you can’t either.”

Sighing, Toni stood up and took her hat which Johnny held out. “Why do we have to meet with Sebastian’s uncle anyway?  It ain’t us he asked to come up here.”

Johnny shooed her out into the hallway and shut the door behind him. After locking the door, he positioned a match next to the door jam on the floor.  Anyone opening the door would disturb the match.  He figured to be better safe than sorry.

“Sebastian seems to think he might have a job for me. We gotta make some money before heading back to Mexico.”

They both stood outside the hotel and blinked at the bright sun. “It’s too early,” groused Toni.

“Yep, close to noon, I figure,” Johnny grabbed her shoulders and turned her in the direction of the cantina. “Come on.”

They stopped at the corner in front of the Wells Fargo building. “Hey, let’s go in and see if they have any jobs here.” Johnny pointed inside.
Toni started to answer when they both heard shouts and watched as a wagon drew up to a small house across the street.

“Doc!” a man called frantically as he jumped down from the wagon and ran to the door of the house and pounded.  “Doc!” he yelled.

Johnny and Toni hurried over.  A crowd had gathered but everyone just stood there and pointed to the injured man in the back of the wagon. His friend ran back and struggled to get the man, who was moaning in pain, out. An older man opened the door of the house, “You there! Help him bring him in!”

Johnny was the only one who stepped forward and helped ease the hurt man out of the wagon.  Putting the injured man’s arms around their shoulders, Johnny and the other man each grabbed a leg and carried him ‘chair-style’ into the house.  Toni followed and shut the door behind them.

“Bring him in here and lay him down, gently.” The man Johnny assumed was the doctor tore the man’s shirt away from the bloodied arm.

Toni looked around and quietly gathered a basin of water.  “Go heat up some water, Johnny,” she directed as she began to gather bandages, scissors, and other things she knew the doctor would need.

The doctor looked up. “What happened?” 

The man looked from the doctor to Johnny.

“Que?”

Johnny repeated the doctor’s question in Spanish. He nodded as the man answered in kind. “This is Ramon, Doc,” Johnny nodded to the man laying on the table. “That there is Jorge. Seems Ramon was getting ready to hit a rock with his pick and the head flew off the handle and hit Jorge. Ramon swears the pick was brand new and it shouldn’t have happened.”

“I’m not surprised. I’ve been seeing all kinds of these ‘accidents’ here lately.”  The doctor never stopped picking cloth out of Jorge’s wound as he talked.

“I’ll go get that water, now.” Johnny walked out of the room.

When he returned, he handed the warm water to Toni and stood back against the wall.  Clapping his hand on Ramon’s shoulder, Johnny told Ramon that they should wait in the other room.

“You okay?” he asked Toni.

She looked up from helping the doctor.  “Yeah, I’ll be fine. Why don’t you go on to the cantina and I’ll join you when I’m finished here.”

Johnny nodded and walked out with Ramon.  Leaving Ramon waiting for news of his friend, Johnny left the doctor’s office and walked toward the cantina. 

He briefly thought about what the doctor had said. A tax on foreigners, brand new equipment breaking….he was beginning to wonder just what kind of job Diego Cruz had in mind.

********

It was sometime later when Toni joined Johnny and Sebastian at the cantina. Diego Cruz had already made his job pitch and left.  As she slid
into her seat, Johnny motioned for the waitress to come over. 

“You care?” asked Johnny.

Slipping her hat off and hanging it on the chair rail, Toni answered,
“Nah, I’ll have whatever you had.”

“Frijoles de la Olla, por favor.”

After giving the order, Johnny pushed an empty glass toward Toni and poured her a shot of tequila.

It didn’t take but a minute before the waitress returned. Toni breathed in the enticing aroma and said, “I love bean stew.  It smells wonderful!”

The two men waited while Toni dug in. After a bite or two, with a rolled tortilla dipped in the stew, Toni asked, “So what about the job?”

Sebastian, who had been antsy the whole time he waited for Toni to eat, jumped in, “It’s going to be great!”

Toni and Johnny shared an amused grin.

Sebastian continued. He spoke so fast, his words tripped over themselves.

“See, Tio works for the man who owns our hotel. Mr. Fallon is a big man in this town. He has interests in about everything!  Right now he’s got some miners working his claim and they are having trouble with getting enough water to blast out the dirt. They don’t dig here underground, ya know. They got to blast the dirt away with water. Only this town don’t got no water. Not enough for all these mines, that is.  Mr. Fallon is trying to start a new water works but there’s these people who like things the way it is and are causing trouble. Mr. Fallon wants things more modern, more, more…..”Sebastian looked to Johnny. “What was that word Tio said?”

“Efficient.”

“Yeah, that’s it, efficient.” Sebastian kept on. “Mr. Fallon wants things more efficient and there’s these people who ain’t liking it and causing trouble. Mr. Fallon wants me and Johnny to keep everyone in line so he can get his water works built.”

Out of breath, Sebastian stopped and took a drink.

Johnny and Toni looked at him.

“I’m finished,” Sebastian nodded.

Toni pushed the empty bowl to the side and rested her arms on the table.
“Well?”

Johnny circled a finger around the top of his glass. “I said I’d work awhile. Sebastian here, didn’t give no time limit.”

He looked up at Toni. “Seems Inez wrote Diego that I was coming with Sebastian so Mr. Fallon was ready for me with a job offer.”

Toni opened her mouth in surprise. “How did a letter get here quicker than us?”

“Telegraph.” Johnny answered.

Toni took her arms off the table and sat back in her chair. “But Cibuta don’t have a telegraph!”

“Momma had my cousin Raul go to Nogales for some supplies and he sent it from there! That’s why they were expecting all of us.” Sebastian couldn’t keep the excitement from his voice.

Toni saw a flicker in Johnny’s eyes and the question on her lips died.

She broke the sudden quiet that had fallen on the table. “Well, seems I have a job, too, and it ain’t doing laundry for once.”

Johnny smiled, “The doctor?”

“Yep.  His nurse is gone to visit her girl who just had a baby and won’t be back for a week. He liked the way I jumped in and helped Jorge, who is going to be fine by the way, so he’s going to pay me to do what I do for you for free!” She grinned at Johnny.

Johnny chuckled and Sebastian joined in.

Grabbing his hat, Johnny stood and the others followed. He threw money on the table. “Well, come on then Nurse Madrid. Let’s see what this town has to offer before we all have to go to work tomorrow.”

The three started laughing as they walked out the cantina.
 

 

Chapter 4

“What do you think you’re doing?” Johnny grabbed and stayed Sebastian’s hand that had reached for his gun.

Sebastian jerked away and waved a hand toward the Chinese man that stood trembling before him. “I’m going to teach this man a lesson his kind won’t soon forget!”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed and he spit his words out. “His kind?  His kind? Would you listen to yourself? What’s wrong with you? He wasn’t doing a thing except crossing the street!”

As Sebastian turned his gaze toward Johnny, the man in question slipped away. “You know he isn’t supposed to be in this part of town! Mr. Fallon said that after that fire that swept the town a few years back, law says no Chinese are supposed to be in this part of town. They have their own place in the back.”

Johnny gave Sebastian a disgusted look. “That’s just for their laundries!  It isn’t about them!” 

Sebastian squared his shoulders and looked Johnny in the eyes. “Mr. Fallon done hired me, us, to watch his interests and I aim to do my job. The sheriff is against him, he needs me, us. Tio said that if I do a good enough job here, I’ll get a good enough reputation to be hired somewhere else. Think of all the money I can make!”

Johnny folded his arms across his chest.  “You won’t get to spend that money if you’re dead!”

“I’ve been practicing. You don’t worry about me! Tio was right, you’re just afraid I might outshine the great Johnny Madrid.”  With that, Sebastian stomped away, leaving Johnny staring open mouthed at him.

Johnny shook his head and walked over to the doctor’s house. He knocked on the door and gave Toni a small smile when she answered the door.  “Got a minute?”

Toni looked behind her then nodded. She pulled the door closed and sat on the front steps. Johnny sat down heavily beside her.

He played with the bracelet on his wrist while they sat shoulder to shoulder. She waited for him to gather his thoughts.

He turned his head and looked at Toni. “Something ain’t right in this town.”

Toni nodded. “Your hunches are usually right. We going to leave then?”

Johnny turned his head to look out across the street.  “No,” he dragged the word.

He turned back to Toni and told her what had happened with Sebastian.

After listening to his story, she shook her head and patted Johnny on his arm. “Nothing you can do about it now. Sounds like his uncle is filling his head with nonsense. Is the man trying to get his nephew killed?”

She stood up, brushed the back of her pants and looked straight ahead.
Johnny heard her sigh then felt her fingers lightly touch the side of his face. He grabbed her hand and briefly pressed it against his cheek.

“I gotta go back in and check on Jorge. He’s still not doing well, infection.”

Johnny nodded and let go of her hand.  As he sat staring ahead, he heard her open the door behind him.

“Johnny?”

He twisted his head back to see her.

“Johnny, let’s not wait too long here for Sebastian to get any ideas about
being the best, okay? I don’t want Sebastian to become one of your ghosts.”

He nodded and turned his head to watch the busy street in front of him. The door behind him softly clicked shut.

Watching the townspeople scurry from shop to shop, Johnny noticed Diego Cruz going into the Douglass Saloon across the street.  Stampede string in his mouth, he stood up and dodging traffic, he crossed the street to the saloon.

Hesitating a moment at the batwings, he let his eyes adjust to the darkened room and saw Diego going through a curtained doorway at the back of the room.  Johnny saw an empty table near the doorway and made his way to it.

A pretty young saloon girl soon came over. “Why hello, sugar,” she trailed her hands across his shoulder. “Buy me a drink?”

He looked up and saw a young girl about Toni’s age. Her eyes, however, were very old. “Sure,” he said softly. “Go get what you want and bring me back a bottle of tequila.” He threw a coin on the table.

Johnny smiled as he watched the saloon girl quickly come back. The
girl set the drinks on the table and sat next to him. She scooted her chair so close, that when she sat down, her thigh touched his and she made sure he knew it.

“So what’s your name?” he asked.

“Lottie,” she answered coyly. She pressed up against his arm and reached an arm up to play with his ear. 

Johnny grinned and reached up to grab her hand.  He held on to her hand, gave her fingers a squeeze and leaned over to whisper in her ear.

“Lottie. I’m just letting you know that you can sit here and rest awhile, you’ll get paid.  But I’m also letting you know that I belong to someone who would chew you up and spit you out if she thought we were dallying with each other.”

Lottie drew back with a look of dismay. 

Johnny let go of her hand and poured himself a drink of tequila.  “And to tell you the truth, I don’t even want to think what she’d do to me. She’s awfully good with a knife, if you know what I mean.”

Lottie jumped up, her chair scraping across the floor. Johnny grabbed her arm and pulled her back down.  “I mean it, rest a spell.”  He took out another coin and set it in front of her.

“You mean it, Mister?” Lottie looked at him.

“Johnny and yes.”

Lottie picked up the coin and pocketed it down her ample cleavage.

She took a drink of beer.

“So what do you want to do, Johnny?”

Johnny gave her a crooked grin. “Oh, I don’t know. I’m new in town. Why don’t you tell me what I should know while I’m here.”

********

It was late when Johnny dragged himself up the stairs. He was frustrated. He never caught Diego leaving the saloon and although Lottie had been talkative, he just wasn’t sure if he learned anything important. He’d spent the rest of the evening currying his horse and thinking.

 The hallway was dimly lit but as he got closer to his room, he noticed something on the floor by the door.  A pillow and a blanket. He tried to turn the doorknob but it was locked. Softly he knocked on the door and called, “Toni?”

When he didn’t get an answer, he knocked and called out louder. The door across the hall slowly squeaked open then closed real fast when he put his hand on his gun.

“Toni!”

“Go away. You can go back to visit Lottie if you want.”

“Mierda!” Johnny scratched his cheek. How does she always find out these things?

He had just brought his fist up to the door again when he heard steps climbing the stairs. 

“Madrid!” Diego Cruz stood at the top of the stairs. “Come on. A fight broke out by the cantina at the end of town. Mr. Fallon wants to make sure it don’t turn into a mob. One guy is already at Doc’s, knifed. Sebastian is at the cantina and the kid’s gonna need help.”

The door opened and Toni scooped up the pillow and blanket.

“You heard?” Johnny asked.

“Yep.” She threw the pillow and blanket back into the room and shut and locked the door.

Johnny saw that she was still dressed.  “You weren’t even in bed when I called out,” he accused.

Toni walked beside him as they followed Diego down the steps.  “Aw, I was just teasing. Lottie told me what you said.  I was just going to make you squirm a bit.”

“Toni, you have a nasty side to you, ya know it?”

Johnny felt his insides clench when she turned her full smile on him.

“Come on, drop me off at Doc’s before you run off to Sebastian’s rescue. Seems both our skills will be needed tonight.”

 

Chapter 5

Diego, Johnny and the sheriff arrived at the cantina about the same time.  A fire had broken out. A large crowd of townspeople, and an even larger group of miners had gathered.  Several people had formed a bucket brigade and were attempting to put out the fire. 

“What’s going on here?” the sheriff shouted. The crowd seemed to swell toward the sheriff as if each person was determined to tell their side first.
Johnny watched as a small group of men stepped toward the back and quickly slipped away.  He felt someone brush against his shoulder and turned to see Mr. Fallon standing next to him.

Mr. Fallon spoke, “I have something I need you to attend to.  Tomorrow I need you to clear out some land squatters are sitting on.  It’s my land, I just bought it. I want them out by noon.”

“We just routed out a group the other day. You expanding your businesses, Mr. Fallon?”

“Water, Mr. Madrid, water.  The key to power in this town is water. Since there isn’t enough here in Columbia, I need land to build sluices to
carry the water here. These people are in my way.”

Johnny rested both hands in his belt and rocked back on his heels.
He chewed the inside of his cheek before he answered his boss.

“Alright, Mr. Fallon. I’ll get them off.” Johnny nodded his head toward the crowd. “But people don’t take kindly getting pushed off their place, even poor ones. Things can get ugly.”

Mr. Fallon straightened his hat. He turned and started to walk away. “And that, Mr. Madrid, is why I hired the likes of you and Mr. Cruz.”

********

It was early the next morning when Johnny and Sebastian arrived at the disputed land.  It was a hodge-podge of tents, shacks and wagons. 

Johnny rode near a tent and dismounted.

“Viktor,” Johnny acknowledged the man who was carrying things from tent to wagon.

“Hello, Johnny,” the man answered, never stopping his packing.

“How come some of these people are already packing?” Sebastian asked. His horse shied as someone carrying a box got too close.

Johnny grabbed a side of the tent, loosed the ropes and threw one half over the other. 

“Well, it’s like this, Sebastian. I figured it would be easier to let everyone know ahead of time they had to leave today. Give them more time to figure out what to do and pack.”

Sebastian looked around from atop his horse. “Looks like not everyone took your warning, Johnny.”

Johnny picked up the tent canvas and carried it over to the wagon. He and Viktor spread it over the top of the wagon and tied it down. As he made the final knot, Johnny finally answered Sebastian.

“Seems to be a lot of that going around here, people not taking my warnings seriously.”

Sebastian snorted and rode his horse to the area of the camp that had not been dismantled. Johnny and Viktor watched as he got off his horse and swaggered toward a group of men.

“I take it your friend don’t listen too good, either.” Viktor wiped the sweat from his forehead and replaced his hat.

“Yours neither,” Johnny replied.

A shot rang out and both Johnny and Viktor ran toward the sound.

Johnny saw a man lying on the ground and Sebastian holding the other men back with his gun.

“What happened?” he angrily asked Sebastian.

“I told them they had to leave and that one,” Sebastian pointed his gun to the fallen man, “That one came at me.”

Johnny knelt beside the man, then stood.

“You asshole! He didn’t have a gun.  You didn’t have to kill him!”

Sebastian looked hard at Johnny. “How was I to know? I ain’t going to
ask him to go through his pockets before he gets near me. He stepped towards me, I was protecting myself. It’s justified. My uncle explained it to me.”

Shaking his head in disgust, Johnny looked at the two men who were now kneeling by the fallen man. “You two, go bury your friend.”

“Yeah, put him in the ground quick and then get out of here.” Sebastian spoke arrogantly.

Johnny whirled around and got into Sebastian’s face. He spoke only loud enough for Sebastian to hear. “Shut up, kid. There’s more men here than we have bullets. For once, listen to me.”

“Look, men. Mr. Fallon bought this land legal. He wants you off. I’m sorry but that’s how it is.” Johnny shifted and moved his hand by his gun.
“Don’t make this complicated.”  Johnny stood calm and seemed to look each man in the eye.

“But we paid the fees!” A young man Johnny recognized stepped up.

“Ramon. Fees?” Johnny questioned.

“Yes, we got these papers that none of us could read. Most of us are new to America. We had filed papers on our claims and were told they were ours. Then we get these papers. Senor Cruz told us there was a problem with our claims and if we signed a paper giving him permission to fix it for a fee, the land would be ours!”

The crowd began to murmur, some in languages Johnny had never heard. 

“Do any of you still have these papers?” Johnny asked.

Ramon shook his head.

Johnny sighed and pushed his hat back. “Look, all I know is that this land now belongs to Fallon. I checked with the land office this morning before coming here. You’ve got to move.”

Ramon looked at Johnny and although no emotion showed on Johnny’s face, Ramon must have seen something because he sighed and looked down.  Then turning around, Ramon faced the crowd.

“Come on men. I know Madrid to be fair but we can only push so far. Let’s pack up and get out of here.”

Still murmuring, the men acquiesced and returned to their belongings. Johnny left the men and returned to his horse by Viktor’s wagon. Mounting, he looked at Viktor and putting a finger to the brim of his hat, he rode out of camp.  Riding to a small hill overlooking the men, he watched and waited.

Johnny only gave Sebastian a brief glance as he rode up and stopped beside him. 

“Did you learn anything, ‘Bastian?” he asked.

“Yeah,” spit Sebastian. “I learned that Johnny Madrid is a coward and backs down.”

Johnny’s Colt appeared in his hand before Sebastian could blink.  With a voice as cold and hard as ice, he replied to Sebastian’s accusations. “You might need to go back to school, kid, if that is what you learned.”

“That’s just it!” Sebastian answered angrily. “I ain’t a kid. I’m older than you!”

The colt continued to point at Sebastian’s chest. “Sebastian, you’ll never be older than me.  And if you keep insulting and irritating me, your future time on earth is gonna be real short.” Johnny cocked the hammer.

Sebastian gulped. “You wouldn’t shoot me, I ain’t drawn on ya!”

“Willing to bet on that, are you?” Johnny’s horse shifted but his hand that held the Colt, never moved.

“Damn it, amigo!” Sebastian lifted both hands in surrender. “All right, I went too far.  Guess momma would say I’ve gotten too big for my britches.”

Johnny eased the hammer back and holstered his gun. He saw that the camp below was now all but cleared out.  He checked his hat and adjusted his gun and turned his horse back toward town. Before spurring his horse, he looked at Sebastian.

“I would have to agree with your momma and we quit being amigos when you called me a coward.  I owe Inez and that is the only reason you are breathing.”

Johnny spurred his horse. He spoke to Sebastian one last time. “Walk small around me from now on, Sebastian Cruz. Walk small.”

 

Chapter 6

“Mr. Madrid.” Mr. Doug Fallon stood beside Johnny’s chair in the saloon.

“Mr. Fallon.” Johnny acknowledged his boss and kicked a chair out.

Mr. Fallon dusted the chair before sitting down. He looked at the barkeep and the man hurried over with a drink for him.  Johnny’s boss took a drink.

“I’m not paying you to mollycoddle those foreigners, Mr. Madrid.”

Johnny leaned back in his chair and hooked an arm over the back. “Most people who hire me tell me what they want and then leave me to it.  They don’t usually care what methods I use to get the job done.”

Johnny laid both arms on the table and leaned toward Doug Fallon.  “I got the job done today, didn’t I?”

Doug Fallon nodded.

“Then how I did it shouldn’t matter, should it?” Johnny narrowed his eyes and stared at the man next to him.

Mr. Fallon drained his glass and sat it down on the table. “The natives are getting restless, Mr. Madrid. You just make sure you do as I tell you and keep things under control.”

Johnny stood up and adjusted his rig. “I warned you that would happen. Legal or not, people don’t like loosing what little they got.” Picking up his hat, he squared it on his head. “Even if they ain’t white.” 

With that, Johnny walked out and left his boss sitting at the table alone.

********

Johnny and Toni were awakened by pounding at their door.  Johnny grabbed his gun and shouted, “What is it?”

“It’s Sebastian. The livery is on fire and spreading. They need everyone’s help.”

Both Johnny and Toni jumped up and dressed in record time. As they rushed out of the room, Johnny asked Sebastian, “Our horses?” 

“Tio moved them this evening, he heard rumors”

Johnny ran down the steps, two at a time. “You didn’t think to tell me?”

“I just found out myself!” Sebastian whined.

The three jostled out the door with the other hotel guests. Toni sprinted to the doctor’s house. “I’ll be here, Johnny. Be careful!” she called out.

Johnny could see the flames shooting up above the roofs. Smoke was filling the town. As he got closer to the livery, he could feel the heat.
The roar of the fire almost, almost drowned out the screams of the horses that hadn’t gotten out. The townspeople had formed a bucket brigade and were fighting the fire as best they could. Fortunately, there was no wind tonight.

 

Johnny grabbed a bucket of water and dumped the whole thing over his head. Sebastian did the same. Taking out his bandana, he tied it around his face and ran into the burning building.  There was one corner that was smoldering but hadn’t caught yet. 

He felt, rather than saw, Sebastian through the smoke. Together they went to the group of horses that were huddled in the end stalls.  Throwing open the gates, the two men shouted and waved their arms to encourage the horses to run out the now open stalls.  Scared, the horses whinnied and rolled their eyes in terror.

Johnny felt something burn his shoulder and looked up. Bits of burning hay was falling from the loft above. The choking smoke kept him from calling out to Sebastian. He elbowed him and pointed up.

Johnny pointed Sebastian to one of the stalls then he ran to the other one and grabbed a horse by its halter. Pulling and tugging, Johnny dragged the horse out of the stall and toward the open double doors to the outside.

Giving the horse a whack on the rump, the horse, smelling the fresher air, leaped forward and out into the clear.  Johnny passed by Sebastian doing the same as he ran back into the burning building.

The burning hay was raining down and the loose hay on the dirt floor was catching fire. Eyes burning and his lungs bursting, Johnny grabbed two horses at once by the halter and dragged them forward.  As he got nearer to the outside, someone broke from the crowd and grabbed a horse.  Eyes steaming, he saw Sebastian come out of the building, holding the last two horses. The horses jumped and pulled against Sebastian in terror as the roof collapsed.

 More people surrounded Johnny and Sebastian and relieving them of their rescues, led the men across the street and doused the men with buckets of water to put out the smoldering burns on their clothes.

Exhausted, Johnny and Sebastian watched as Diego and the sheriff organized the crowd into groups.  Aggressively attacking the burning timbers with shovelfuls of dirt, they worked to keep the fire from spreading.

Fortunately for the town, the livery took up one whole side of the block with pens at one end. Other than watching for burning embers, the townspeople only had to concentrate on one side of the livery to keep the fire from spreading. 

Diego walked over to Johnny and Sebastian and stood by as they rested on the steps of the store across the street. 

“Didn’t have time to tell you, but I’d heard rumors about Ramon and some of his men getting even with Mr. Fallon. I moved our horses over to the stable that houses the stage coach’s horses.” Diego spat. 

“Who told you about Ramon?” The simple sentence caused Johnny to break into a coughing fit.

Diego ladled a drink of water for Johnny from the pail left by someone in the crowd. “Don’t matter where, it was him. I’m sure of it.”

Johnny was prevented from answering when a shout came from the back of the crowd.

“Johnny!” 

Johnny stood as he saw Toni jump up and down in order to see over the tall shoulders of the men in the crowd.

“Toni!” he croaked.

“Toni!” Diego bellowed.  “Over here by the dress shop!”

The three men saw her head pop up then disappear again.  They watched as the men in the crowd began to stumble, shift and scoot over.
It wasn’t long before they saw an arm, then a shoulder, then a head squeeze between two solidly built men at the front.

“Move!” a roar came from the disembodied person pushing their way through the crowd.  The man closest to the front wasn’t budging from the best seat in the house. Suddenly he bent over and grabbed his privates. His high pitched squeal caused the other men near him to back away.

Johnny’s grin split his face as he watched Toni walk past the man who was still bent over. His yelp of pain rang out as Toni stepped on his foot.

“Sorry!” she called out in a sing song voice, her eyes never leaving Johnny.

“Are you okay?” she asked anxiously when she got near.

Johnny nodded and coughed.

“Toni, some salve and rest and they should be good as new. Why don’t you take Johnny here and Sebastian over to Doc’s?” Diego held out a hand to pull the two pistoleros up.

“Boys, don’t worry about our horses. You two get some rest.  I’ll see you in the morning.”

Johnny and Sebastian nodded and walking with a slight wobble, allowed Toni to lead them to the doctors.

 

Chapter 7

It was late the next day before Johnny and Toni stirred. After a trip to the bathhouse to rid themselves of the smoke from the night before, they ambled over to the saloon for a late lunch. While there, they were joined by Diego and Sebastian. 

“How are you feeling today, Johnny?” Diego asked as he sat down at their table.

Johnny paused mid bite. “I’m fine.”

“Well, I’m sore,” complained Sebastian as he settled in-between Toni and his uncle. He looked over toward the bar. “Hey barkeep! Bring two bowls of this slop over and two beers.”

Diego frowned at his nephew then sighed and shook his head. He then turned back to Johnny. “When you’re finished, Madrid, I need you to go over to the sheriff’s office. He wants you to help track Ramon and his men and bring them in.”

Diego looked back at his nephew. “Sebastian, I need you to talk to Carl Miller. He owns the mercantile next to the dress shop.” 

Diego thanked the girl who brought his stew over then continued his orders.  “Carl is supplying Ramon and the other men going up against Mr. Fallon.  He needs convincing to move along.  Tell him Mr. Fallon will give him a good price for his store.”

While finishing his lunch, Johnny had watched Diego. He put down his spoon and wiped his mouth.  “So what if Mr. Miller don’t want to sell?”

Diego raised an eyebrow. “Well, then, you’ll just have to convince him to change his mind.” He nodded to Sebastian. “You can take care of that, can’t you, Sobrino?”

“Si, Tio. I can do the job,” Sebastian replied after stuffing his mouth with some stew.

“Bueno. You’ll make me proud, yet, Sobrino.” Diego resumed eating.

Johnny snorted and shoved his chair back. Putting his hat on his head, he walked away from the table. Toni stood and reached out a hand to scoot Johnny’s chair back under the table. She pushed hers in also and turned to leave.

“What’s wrong with Johnny?” Sebastian asked, his mouth still full of his lunch.

Toni winced and turned away to look at Diego instead. “Maybe your uncle can explain, I have a feeling he knows exactly what is going on, Sebastian.”

Diego calmly looked up. Not taking his eyes off Toni, he continued eating.

“I thought so.” With that, Toni hurried to catch up with Johnny.

She found him leaning against the post in front of the saloon, his hands resting in his belt.

“You going to track for the sheriff?” she asked Johnny.

“Yep. You know me, I hired on, I’ll finish the job.”

Toni worried her lip then sighed. “I hate California.”

Johnny chuckled and straightening up, put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a hug.  “No you don’t.  You just hate this job.”

She looked up into his eyes and smiled. “Well…”

Moving his arm, he gave her rear a slap.

“Hey!” She gave him the look.

“See you tonight.” Johnny grinned and walked away in the direction of the jail.

“Men!” Toni said to herself and shook her head. 

********

Sheriff Johnson’s horse had been one of the unfortunate ones who didn’t make it out of the livery in time so the sheriff was on a borrowed one. Johnny wished the man just hadn’t come along if he couldn’t control his mount any better. New horse or not, the man didn’t seem to be much of a horseman. Johnny chewed on his stampede string.  Come to think of it, he don’t seem to be much of a sheriff neither.

“You see anything?” the sheriff asked after spitting.

Johnny studied the ground below him. The land was rock hard and only the dry bent grass here and there gave any clues that someone had come through the area.

He walked his horse around, stopped, then jumped off.  Bending down, he ran his fingers through the grass. He straightened back up, put his hands on his hips and turned around. He sighed then dropped his arms to his side and mounted his horse.

“You going to answer me?” Sheriff Johnson called out. “We’ve been out here for a couple of hours. Haven’t you found anything, yet?”

Johnny rode next to the sheriff.  “Nope.”

“No! Why not?  I thought you were pretty good at this.” A vein pulsed at the sheriff’s forehead.

“Hard to track something that ain’t there and never was.”

“What do you mean, Madrid?”

Johnny crossed his arms on top of the saddle horn and leaned forward. “I mean that this was a wild goose chase. The tracks we’ve been following turned around up there and came back down. If it was Ramon, he went back down toward town, not into the hills.”

The sheriff pushed his hat back on his head. “Now why would the man do a fool thing like that?  He’d have to know I’m coming to look for him.”

“You’re right, Sheriff. It would be a dang fool thing to do…if it were him.”

“Well of course it is!  Diego told me he heard it was Ramon who set that fire last night.”

Johnny straightened up and grabbing the reins, turned his horse toward town. “So he says.”

The sheriff opened his mouth in surprise. “You don’t think Diego was mistaken, do you?”

Johnny looked back. “No, I don’t.”

It didn’t take the two men long to return to town now that they weren’t searching for anyone.  With no livery now, Johnny and the sheriff had to leave their horses at the edge of town with a local miner. The man was making more a day converting his claim into a livery than he had finding placer gold.

Striding into town, Johnny and the sheriff could hear shouts and screams. Both men broke into a run. The commotion seemed to be coming from Miller’s Mercantile.

As the sheriff pushed his way through the crowd, Johnny followed in his wake. They both saw Sebastian holding a gun on an old man. A young man lay crumpled on the ground beside him.  An older woman, kneeling beside the dead man, was screaming, “No!  No!”

“Lower your gun, boy,” shouted Sheriff Johnson.

Sebastian slowly lowered and holstered his gun. “All right, Sheriff. Just protecting myself.  Young Miller there pulled a gun on me. Seems he took exception to my conversation with his father.”

Carl Miller went to his wife and holding her shoulders helped her stand. The sobbing woman continued to weep against her husband’s chest.
Sheriff Johnson stepped around the body of Carl, Jr. and kicked the scatter gun away. 

“Carl?” The old man looked up at the sheriff’s question. “Did Carl, Jr. pull your old gun on Sebastian here?”

The grieving father slowly nodded. “Yes, sheriff. This man told me I needed to take Mr. Fallon’s offer to buy my store since I was supplying those renegades who’ve been terrorizing the town with guns and ammo.” The old man wiped his eyes and looked down at his son. “My boy always did have a temper.”

Carl Miller looked up at the sheriff and scanned the crowd that had gathered. He raised his voice, “But I wasn’t supplying those men! If Ramon Garcia ever bought anything here, it was food and mining supplies.” Carl nodded his head toward Sebastian. “He said Mr. Fallon heard I was in cohoots with those men.  I lost my horse last night in the fire. Why would I help someone like that?”

Carl shook his head and whispered, “It isn’t true and my son knew it.”

Sheriff Johnson cleared his throat.  “Okay, Carl. Why don’t you take your wife upstairs? We’ll take care of Carl, Jr. here.”

The defeated man nodded and helping his wife, the two shuffled behind the counter and back toward their own quarters.

“Okay, everyone go on home. Nothing to see here anymore. Go get the undertaker. Go on now!” The sheriff waved his arms to shoo everyone out of the store. 

Sheriff Johnson moved in front of Sebastian. “Looks like you’re clear. That was Carl’s only son. Him and his wife are getting too old to run this store by themselves.  Guess you can tell Mr. Fallon he’ll probably be hearing from the Millers about selling their store soon.”

The sheriff looked at Johnny who was leaning against the wall by the front door.  “Madrid, take your friend here and get out,” spat Sheriff Johnson.

Johnny straightened up and adjusted his hat. “I’m leaving Sheriff. Not too sure who you’re referring to as ‘friend’, though.  Without a glance at Sebastian, he walked out of Miller’s Mercantile.

 

Chapter 8

The next morning found Johnny at the Miner’s Livery, as it now was being called.  Always cautious, Johnny faced the road as he brushed his horse, his back against a pile of rock. From this position Johnny had plenty of time to observe Diego walking toward him while the older man stepped around the piles of horse apples left in the yard.

“Madrid, got a job for you,” Diego stopped on the other side of Johnny’s horse.

Johnny paid no mind to Diego and kept brushing his horse, Sombra.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you, boy!”

The brushing halted for a moment then resumed. Without looking up, Johnny spoke quietly.  “My ears work fine. Didn’t reckon I needed to use my eyes to do my hearing.” 

“Why you,” Diego spluttered and took a step forward. 

Johnny’s horse reached around and tried to bite the riled man and Diego stepped back. Johnny’s mouth twitched as he patted his four-legged friend’s neck. “So what’s the job?” Johnny asked.

Diego eyed Johnny’s horse and stepped to one side. “Go collect the tax over at the Irish camp.  It’s gone up to twenty-five dollars now. Make sure you get it all.”

Johnny threw the brush down. “I ain’t no tax collector. I thought they had to come in and pay each month.”

Diego raised an eyebrow.  “Your job is to do whatever needs to be done. The price went up and Mr. Fallon doesn’t want any trouble in town when they find out.”

Diego turned to walk away. He called out over his shoulder, “Take Sebastian with you.”

Johnny spun around and kicked the horse brush as hard as he could.  “Hell!”

Sighing, he grabbed his horse’s reins. “I’m sorry, Sombra.  You probably don’t like being with that idiot anymore than I do.”  His horse shook his head up and down.  Johnny laughed and scratched the horse between it’s eyes.  “Come on, boy. Maybe Sebastian won’t be so bad today.”

Sombra snorted and jerked his head.  Johnny laughed and went to get his saddle and other gear. 

********

 “Well, now, me boy-o. And just what makes you think we’re going to go by your say-so that we’ve got to pay more?”  The leader of the rough group of men stood before Sebastian and Johnny.  The man was short in stature but with his legs spread and muscled arms crossed, he didn’t seem quailed by the two young pistoleros.

Sebastian grabbed his gun and lifted it into the air. “If you don’t watch out, I’ll let this do my talking for me.”

An angry murmuring broke out among the men and Johnny watched atop Sombra as several men bent down to pick up shovels and picks.  
Sombra stomped a restless foot.  Johnny absentmindedly patted the horse as his eyes flickered back from Sebastian to the crowd.

Sebastian moved his horse forward a step. 

“Sebastian,” Johnny warned. 

Sebastian ignored Johnny as he had done this whole trip. He kicked and his horse leaped forward into the crowd, knocking the leader down. The crowd parted to get out of the way, then swelled on either side of Sebastian and Johnny.

Sombra nervously shied away and Johnny had to work to control his mount.  Hands reached out to grab Johnny out of his saddle and he kicked and swore at the men. Johnny pulled out his gun and shot over the men’s heads. The hands that had been trying to tear him off his horse let go and the men took a step back.
 
“The next man who touches me,” ice dripped from Johnny’s voice, “It will be the last thing he does.”

Several shots rang out and Johnny and the men surrounding him turned to look at the part of the crowd that encircled Sebastian.  Johnny saw the group step away from Sebastian and the two bodies that now lay on the ground. 

“I got four bullets left. Who wants to question me now?” Sebastian called out.

“You!” Johnny pointed his gun at the man who had taken a stand earlier. “Talk off your hat.”

The man slowly took off his hat, ignoring Johnny, his eyes bored into Sebastian.

“The rest of you toss what you owe in that hat.” Johnny swung his horse around in a tight circle. Sombra wasn’t easily settling down.

Everyone in the camp was still at first until one by one, they broke away and began digging in their pockets for their coins.  Several walked to their tents and returned with money in hand.  After tossing the tax into the hat, several went to their fallen friends and carried them away.  There hadn’t been any reason to check for a pulse, each one of them had been shot between the eyes.

Tax finally collected, the Irishman started to walk to Johnny, hat in hand.

“I don’t want it,” Johnny’s words stopped the man. “Give it to him.”
With that, Johnny nodded toward Sebastian.

The miner stared at Johnny. He broke eye contact first and gave a slight nod to Johnny.  Turning to his left, he walked over to Sebastian and held up his flat cap filled with money. Sebastian holstered his gun and grabbed the cap. Folding it up, he placed it inside his shirt.  “About time you saw some sense,” Sebastian taunted the man.

“Sebastian!” Johnny barked.  “Come on. You’ve done enough today.”

Giving the Irishman a nod, Johnny swung his horse away from the camp and rode back toward town.  He really didn’t care if Sebastian followed or not.

He heard Sebastian trying to catch up with him.  Johnny spurred Sombra and stayed ahead.  He made sure he didn’t ride with Sebastian the whole way back to the livery.

Once there, he was in the process of loosening the front cinch of Sombra’s saddle when Sebastian finally rode up and jumped from his horse. Johnny ignored the man and continued to unbuckle the flank cinch.

“Why did you leave me in your dust? What was that all about?” Sebastian shouted as he strode toward Johnny.

Johnny spun around and slammed his fist into Sebastian’s jaw. “Dios! You have to be the stupidest bastardo I’ve ever seen!”

Sebastian looked up from the ground and rubbed his jaw. “What the hell was that for?”

Johnny bent down and held up two fingers in Sebastian’s face. “Two!  Two!  There were two of us and about thirty of them.”  Johnny straightened up, grabbed his gun and shook it in Sebastian’s face.  “Didn’t your momma ever teach you math? This has six bullets. That’s twelve bullets against thirty very angry men.”

Johnny slammed his Colt back into the holster and turned to walk away.
He saw the earth come up to smack him in the face when he was hit from behind.  He twisted around and kicked as Sebastian tried to grab his hair. Scrambling back to his feet, Johnny plowed into Sebastian just as the boy was getting his feet back under him. The two pistaleros traded blows and rolled over in the dirt. Their horses squealed and backed up.

Suddenly, Johnny felt someone grab the back of his shirt and haul him off of Sebastian. 

“What the hell do you two think you’re doing?” shouted Diego. He gave Johnny a shake.  “Well?”

Johnny looked over at Sebastian being helped up by Mick, the livery miner. Johnny wiped his torn sleeve under his bloody nose.

Sebastian was doubled over, hands on his knees, breathing heavily.
“He started it,” Sebastian pointed toward Johnny.

The livery miner let go of Sebastian and began to pick up the money that had fallen out of Sebastian’s shirt.

Johnny jerked out of Diego’s grasp. “Your nephew almost got us killed!”
He pointed at Sebastian. “We were outnumbered and he decides to act as if he’s got the whole damn army to back him up.”
Johnny swung back around to face Diego. “We only got out of there by the skin of our teeth.”

Johnny turned and took a step toward Sebastian and shouted, “You ain’t no Tiburcio Vásquez!”

Sebastian ran toward Johnny and Johnny stepped forward to meet him, fists up.

“Stop it!” Diego stepped in between the two angry young men.

“I see you got the money,” Diego nodded at the sight of the miner still gathering up the spilled coins.

“Of course I did,” Sebastian answered smugly.

“And you killed two men in the process!” Johnny growled.

“Sebastian?” Diego looked at his nephew.

Sebastian shrugged. “It was nothing.  I got the money, that’s what counts.”

Johnny shook his head in disgust and wiped the blood from his nose again.  “Yeah, you got the money.  All it would have taken was a little extra time and we could have gotten the money with no blood shed.

Now you got even more people riled up and it wasn’t necessary.  Being a good gun for hire don’t mean you got to shoot at everything. Sometimes you got to take your time and work out a plan. This town is a powder keg waiting to blow up and you keep lighting the fuse!”

Diego looked at both young men, his brow furrowed. He looked at Johnny.  “Madrid, I’m letting you go.”

Johnny’s mouth dropped opened. Sebastian let out a crow of delight.

“You’re firing me?” Johnny asked in disbelief.

“No, I’m letting you go.” Diego walked a few steps and picked up Johnny’s hat. “You’re costing Mr. Fallon too much money.  Sebastian seems to be able to handle everything. Why keep two pistaleros on payroll when one will do just as well?” 

Diego handed Johnny his hat and walked over to the livery miner. The man handed Diego the coins he had picked up. Diego grabbed a few and strode back to Johnny. “Here,” he said as he handed Johnny the money. “Consider that your payment.”

Johnny stood there, hat and money in hand. His eyes narrowed as he watched Diego put an arm around his sobrino and the two men walked toward town. Diego called over his shoulder to the livery miner. “Take care of his horse, Mick.”

Johnny shook his head in disgust. He put the money in his pocket and jammed his hat on his head.  He walked over to his horse and finished unsaddling him. After putting the saddle in the shed the miner had provided, he grabbed the reins of Sombra and let the horse loose in the makeshift corral. 

The miner joined him after taking care of Sebastian’s horse.

Johnny leaned against the fence and watched Sombra shake his head, enjoying his freedom from the restricting tack. He glanced to his right as Mick joined him.

“You’re right about this town being a powder keg,” Mick propped one foot on a fence rail. “If that boy keeps on, he’ll light the match and blow up with it if he don’t watch it!”

Johnny nodded and crossed his arms on the top rail.

The two men watched the horses play in the corral.

Mick was the first to break the silence, “You going to leave?”

Johnny pushed off the corral and looked at Mick with narrowed eyes.

“Hell, no, I’m not leaving. They aren’t getting rid of me so easily.” Johnny straightened his hat and checked his gun belt. 

Mick looked with surprised eyes at Johnny Madrid. “What are you going to do now?”

Johnny reloaded his gun and slid the gun into the holster several times until he was satisfied with the feel. He looked up at Mick.  “Well, guess I go find another job and then I’m going to have a drink or two. After that, who knows?”  He smiled at Mick and began the walk back to town.

 

Chapter 9

Johnny knocked on the door of the doctor’s office and Toni answered. She was wearing her fancy clothes, a cotton skirt, blouse and sandals.  Toni had told him that the doctor told her his patients were uncomfortable being taken care of by a woman dressed as a vaquero.

Enjoying a job that didn’t involve doing laundry for once, Toni had agreed to wear her spare set of clothes even if she said it did make her feel like it was Sunday.  She usually only wore those clothes when she could sweet talk Johnny into taking her to Mass.

“What ‘cha wearing your good shirt for?” she asked.

“Got a minute?” Johnny countered.

Toni shut the door behind her and leaned against the door. She crossed her arms and stared at Johnny. “Okay, what happened? 

“What do you mean ‘what happened’? Can’t a fella visit his girl without having some reason?” Johnny dropped his head and toed the ground with his boot.

“Johnny Madrid! You’re wearing your spare shirt.” Toni leaned over and sniffed. “You’ve taken a bath in the middle of the day ‘cause you smell like my good soap and you’ve got bruises coming up on your face.”

“Well….,” Johnny looked up and gave her his crooked grin. “How about we go for a ride this afternoon? I’ll get us something for supper and we can find a place to eat outside. We’ve been stuck in this town and I’m getting tired of it.”

“Okaaay,” Toni replied. “It will be awhile. My replacement won’t be here until later and I’ve got to change.”

Johnny started down the steps. “I’ve got a few things to do first anyway. I’ll see you at the hotel in a couple of hours.”

“Wait!” Toni called out to his retreating back. “You ain’t even gonna give me a clue?”

“Nope,” Johnny called back as he crossed the street.

“Oh, that man!” Toni huffed then went back inside.

********

He saw her through the plate glass window of the hotel as she came down the stairs.  He hated being cooped up, even in a hotel lobby so he had waited outside for her.  He smiled when she realized he was watching her.  She stopped and smoothed her shirt with her hands, straightened her belt and brushed a stray curl behind her ear that had slipped her braid.  She looked at him and smiled and he felt that familiar flutter in his heart.

“Why thank you, kind sir,” she purred as he opened the hotel door for her.

He held up a gunny sack. “Got supper! The horses are waiting over there.” He nodded his head toward a stand of trees across the street.

Toni handed him his saddlebags and slung her own over her shoulders. Just as they began to step off the boardwalk, a man called out from the corner.

“Madrid!” Doug Fallon hurried to meet up with Johnny.

“Mr. Fallon,” Johnny acknowledged his former boss.

Doug Fallon tipped his hat to Toni. “Ma’am.” He eyed the gunny sack and saddlebags.  “Are you leaving, Mr. Madrid?”

“Not today, just thought we’d see some of the countryside this afternoon,” Johnny answered.

“I’m sorry about not needing you anymore, Mr. Madrid.  It’s all a matter of money, you understand.  I hope there’s no hard feelings?” Mr. Fallon raised an eyebrow.

Johnny glanced down at Toni.  Some people had told him that his ‘Madrid’ stare scared the shit out of them.  Toni had one all her own and she was wearing it now. No icy stare for her, she could stare at someone without a trace of emotion on her face or in her eyes.  Used to drive the nuns at the orphanage crazy.  A minute or two of that and the nuns would get so uncomfortable, they’d fall all over themselves trying to fix whatever was wrong.

“Ah, Mr. Madrid, you know….,” Mr. Fallon’s eye began to twitch. “You know I might have need of your services again.  Revenue is going up and you are so good at what you do, I’m sure I could use you again.”

Johnny got tickled at the silence that followed Mr. Fallon’s speech.

“I’m sure Diego didn’t mean …,” Mr. Fallon cleared his throat, his eyes darting between Johnny and Toni.

Johnny cut in. “That’s okay, Mr. Fallon. I’ve got a new job with security at the Wells Fargo place for the next week. I’m sure Sebastian is more in line of what you’re looking for.”

“Well, if you say so.  Umm, if you will excuse me, I need to take care of some business in the hotel.”  Mr. Fallon tipped his hat to Toni before walking into the hotel.  “Ma’am.”

 Once the hotel door closed, Toni walked toward the horses.  Johnny followed and neither said a word.  Johnny knew there would be plenty of talking once they got away from town.  He hoped that the strawberry tart he’d asked the woman from the diner to include in their supper would be enough to sweeten Toni’s temper. He should have told her right off the bat what had happened. She didn’t like finding out stuff from other people.

He was beginning to think he should have gotten her two strawberry tarts when she finally acknowledged someone else was riding with her. She turned her head and actually looked at him.  Not the look that caused his heart to flutter, nope, her ‘Madrid’ look.  Damn. This was probably gonna cost him big, like maybe taking her to Mass.

“That looks like a nice place to stop,” Johnny pointed to a small stand of trees. He led the way and Toni followed.

Reaching the spot, Johnny dismounted and grabbed the gunny sack and his saddle bag. He hurried over to Toni to help but she had already hopped down and grabbed her own bags.

He followed her as she selected a place to unpack their picnic.  “Well?” she asked as she reached into the gunny sack for the last things. She pulled out the strawberry tart and cracked a little smile.

“Okay, tell me all about it.” Toni set the tart to the side.

Johnny spent the next few minutes telling her about his morning. She had plenty of choice words to describe Sebastian.  When he got to the part about being fired, she got up and sat next to him and clasped his hand in hers.

“I know it shouldn’t bother me, but it does,” he looked into her eyes, “Ya know?”

She nodded and brought his hand up to hers and kissed it.  “I know.”

He brought their hands down to his lap and opened her hand. He rubbed the callouses on her work roughened hands.  “I got another job right away,” he quietly spoke. “You can quit your job, if you want.”

Toni laid her head on his shoulder. “I know you’ll always take of me.”
She lifted her eyes to his.  “But we’re partners, aren’t we?”

Johnny shook his head yes.  “You’re more than that to me, you know that.”

Toni sat up, “That was why I was in a snit, Johnny.  I thought you were shutting me out.” She bowed her head. “It hurt,” she whispered.

Johnny lifted her head and lightly kissed her lips. It was awhile before supper was eaten.

********

The next morning after Mass, Toni and Johnny were stopped by Jorge.  The man had recovered from his injury and had been released by the doctor a few days earlier. 

“Senor Madrid?” the man worried his hat brim. “Could I speak to you a minute?” Jorge looked around the crowd. “Privately?”

Toni moved to say hello to some townspeople and Johnny and Jorge slipped away.  Johnny led the man back behind the doctor’s office.

“Ramon asked me to see you,” Jorge spoke in a low voice. “It isn’t safe for him in town.”

Johnny leaned his back against a wall and nodded. “Go on.”

“It isn’t him doing this stuff, Senor Madrid.  He is being…how do you say the English word?”

“Framed?” asked Johnny.

“Si, he is being framed.  He is unhappy that he lost his place but he doesn’t cause this trouble.”  Jorge lifted worried eyes to Johnny. “The townspeople are angry at the miners, the Mexican miners are mad at the Russians, the other day someone beat up a Chinaman and Diego said he heard it was done by this Italian fellow.” Jorge sighed.  “Everyone is mad at Mr. Fallon.  He’s already started on his new water works.”

Johnny worried his stampede string in his mouth and his fingers tapped a dance on his thigh.

“What about Sebastian?” he asked.

Jorge spit on the ground. “I am ashamed to say that he is Mexican. All the boy does is egg everyone on.”

Jorge leaned closer to Johnny.  “Someone is going to get killed, Senor Madrid.  Ramon is afraid it will be him.”

Johnny pushed off from the wall.  “You tell Ramon to keep out of sight. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Gracias, Senor Madrid,” Jorge shook Johnny’s hand. “Gracias!”

Looking around and seeing no one, Jorge turned and left the back way.

 

Chapter 10

It was late when Johnny slipped up the back way to his hotel room.
He tried to be as quiet as possible but as he was easing the door closed, he stopped when he heard the click of a gun hammer being pulled.

“Toni! It’s me!” he said to the door.

Only when he heard the hammer click again, did he turn around.  He saw Toni slip her gun under her pillow and bury her face in her arms.
He quickly shucked out of his clothes and climbed into bed.  After getting settled, he reached out and pulled her to him. 

“Find out anything?” she mumbled sleepily.

“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” he said softly.

********

They never did get to talk the next morning. When Johnny awoke, Toni had already left for work.  A plate of biscuits and bacon was waiting for him by the washstand. He hurriedly ate his breakfast and then headed to the Wells Fargo building around the corner from the hotel. 

“Where we going today, Quincy?” Johnny asked the stagecoach driver.

“Boy!” The old-timer aimed his spit at the spittoon. He missed. “You asked me that when I hired you and it’s still the same…we’re going to Sonora today. You reckon that gun belt of yours is too tight and cutting off the circulation to your brain?”

Gerald, the assayer, looked up from the gold he was weighing. “Now Quincy, you know young men don’t worry about the circulation to their brains.” Gerald looked over his glasses at Johnny. “But looking at how low you wear that belt, you might want to let it out a notch iffen you don’t want to worry about the circulation to your other parts.”

Johnny grinned. “Now Gerald, I’ve been told that the tightness of my gun belt doesn’t bother a thing.”

The room erupted in a roar of laughter as the men laughed at Gerald’s and Johnny’s joke.

Quincy slapped Gerald’s back as he passed by him.  “Good one, Gerald.”

Quincy grabbed the bags of gold Mr. Braur handed him.  “Come on, young ‘un. Let’s get this delivered.  Some workers want to be paid.”

With a nod to the men in the office, Johnny followed Quincy out the door.  He scrambled up the stage coach and reached for the bags of gold Quincy handed him. He locked it in the strong box as Quincy hefted himself onto the driver’s seat. 

They waited as two men got into the stage. Kenny, the stage line attendant shut the door behind them and banged on the frame by the stage door.  “All set!” he shouted to Quincy.

Quincy gave a nod and released the brake. He slapped the reins and the stage began to pull out.

Johnny rocked and swayed with the stage, his eyes peeled for any danger, rifle in his hand.  They hit a rough spot in the road and Johnny had to grab the side rail to steady himself.

“Quincy!  You need to go back.”

The driver looked over at Johnny. “Huh?” he asked.

“You missed a hole, old timer.”

Quincy shot Johnny a look of disgust and slapped the reins harder.

They finally reached a relatively smooth patch of road and Johnny was able to let go of the rail and settle his hat tighter on his head. He glanced around to make sure the iron box was still there.

“Quincy, what do you know about Doug Fallon?”

“Well, Johnny, he’s a business man.  And I reckon he does whatever it takes to make his business grow.” Quincy leaned over to spit.

“Whatever, huh?” Johnny mused.

“Well, not him of course. Man like that has higher ambitions. He wants to be a pillar of the community.  Pillar of the community doesn’t ‘do’ whatever.  Doesn’t stop him from having it done, though.”

Quincy looked at Johnny’s gun belt. “Doubt if I’m telling you anything you don’t know already.  In your trade, I’m sure you’ve been the one doing the ‘whatever’ more times than not.”

Johnny slowly nodded. “He won’t leave much of a trail either. Pillar of the community can’t have something biting him in the ass later.”

Quincy cackled. “You got that right.  Now look at you and me. We’re the kind that have nothing to hide. We aim to earn a living best we can in this old world.  We want to be good at our trade but we’ll do it ourselves. What you see is what you get.”

Johnny lowered his head. “Yeah, well, sometimes what you get isn’t all that great.”

Quincy transferred the reins to one hand and reached up and bopped Johnny on top of his head.

“Hey! What did you do that for?” Johnny groused.

Taking the reins in both hands, Quincy looked at Johnny. “If you hadn’t been sitting, I’d have kicked you in the ass. There’s all kinds of trades out there, boy. Some we get to choose, some choose us. Hell, I don’t know why some people like Fallon have more choices than others. But that’s just life.  You do the best you can with what you got.”

Quincy’s eyes softened as he looked at Johnny. “You got a hard trade, no denying that. If you had more choices, maybe you’d have been a rancher or a horse breeder.  I’ve watched you. I’ve seen how good you are with animals. But without backing, that’s a dream not many mestizo’s have.”

Quincy stared forward and set his jaw. “Nope, you gotta decide what you going to do with what you got.  Draw you a line, Johnny Madrid and don’t never cross it. You gotta make money, but,“ Quincy looked again at Johnny’s gun, “Use that to help the weak when you can.”

Johnny stared at the old man. Nobody had ever taken the time to talk to him like this before, except a friend from long ago, Tomas Madrid.

He shook his head. “You’re wrong, I ain’t nothing like you, Quincy. You’re a good man.”

Quincy freed his right hand again, and again hit Johnny on top of the head.

“Would you stop doing that, ‘ol man?” Johnny rubbed his head.

Quincy went back to holding the reins in both hands.  “I’m trying to knock some sense in your head, boy! You and me got something men like Fallon, Diego Cruz and that nephew of his, Sebastian, don’t have. We got a conscience and follow it. That’s the difference in us and them.  It ain’t money, power, or being the best. They never drew that line.  And you know what? In the end, that’s what will save us, Johnny.”

Johnny beat a tune against his thigh. “And what if you cross that line you draw, what then?”

“A line’s got two sides, now don’t it? You mess up and cross over, then just step back on the other side and try harder next time. That’s all any of us on this earth can do, Johnny.  You just gotta pick yourself up and try harder next time.”

Quincy freed his hand again. Johnny scrunched back when he saw Quincy reach out for him. It surprised him when this time Quincy patted his knee instead of whacking him in the head.

Quincy smiled at Johnny’s surprise. “You’re a good boy, Johnny Madrid. One day you’ll be a great man.  I’d have been proud to call you son,” Quincy gave Johnny’s leg a final pat. “No matter what you call your trade.”

Johnny’s mouth dropped opened and Quincy laughed.  A wheel hit another pothole and the stage bucked.  Johnny grabbed the rail but just continued to stare at the older man.  He felt an emotion fire up in his belly that he hadn’t felt in a long time. He thought for a moment to give it a name.  Acceptance. Yep. Except for a trusted few friends, it was an emotion he didn’t have come his way often. Johnny sat up straighter. Quincy had given him some powerful words to think about.

 

Chapter 11

The stagecoach made its run to Sonora and back.

“Johnny! Johnny!” He had just begun to climb down from his perch when he heard Toni frantically calling to him.  He jumped down from the stage and raced to meet her.

“What is it?  What’s wrong?” he demanded as he held Toni by her arms and looked her over.  There didn’t seem to be anything wrong that he could see, but she was upset.

“Oh, Johnny. I didn’t find out until after you left, but some men raided Ji Wu’s place last night and rounded up all the men in his family and cut off their braids!” Toni rushed to further explain. “You know what that means to them!” 

“What else?” Johnny clinched his jaw. 

Toni bowed her head. “They raped the women,” she whispered.

Johnny enfolded Toni in his arms and rested his head atop hers.

“Ji Wu and his family packed up their things and left this morning. He stopped by Doc’s and asked us to look at two of the girls.”
Toni’s voice caught on a sob. “Oh, Johnny.  One was only ten.”

She buried her face in his shirt and cried. With one arm still encircling her, he led her inside the Wells Fargo building.

Kenny hurried over.  “Johnny? Is there anything I can do?” he asked worriedly.

Johnny waved his free arm toward the door.  “Give us some privacy, okay?  I’d appreciate it.”

Kenny stood still and stared as Johnny led the sobbing Toni to the chairs lining the back wall.

“Come on, kid.” Quincy stood in the doorway.

“What?”  Kenny turned and looked at Quincy, his puzzlement evident on his face.

Quincy waved an arm beckoning Kenny to follow him.  “Come on, kid. Johnny will take care of her.  Ain’t nothing you can do.”

Quincy draped an arm around Kenny’s shoulder.  “The world’s a shitty place sometimes, Kenny. You need to learn that, boy.” Quincy led Kenny out the door.

Johnny threw a grateful look toward Quincy’s back and let Toni cry it out.  He tucked her head under his chin and rubbed her back to comfort her.

As he slowly rocked her on his lap, he closed his eyes. They both had some bad memories. Most days they were able to tuck the dark times away in the back corner of their minds.  He grimaced.  They usually stayed there, too, except at night or when something like this came up to slap them across the face.

When Toni quieted down, with an occasional sob and a hitch to her breath, Johnny let go and untied his handkerchief from his neck. He gave it a snap to get rid of the dust before handing it to her.  This area was so dry and dusty; he and Quincy had laughed about how they looked like outlaws driving the stage.

“Better?” Johnny asked as he took the handkerchief from Toni’s hands and patted a few places on her face she’d missed.

“Yes,” her voice gave a hitch.

She sat up and fumbled with her skirt. “Here.” She gave him a piece of paper she pulled from the pocket.

Johnny opened the paper and read. It was pretty straight forward. 

“You know what this says?” he asked.

Toni shook her head no.  “You know I can’t read much and Ji Wu didn’t tell me. They left before the land office opened and he asked me to give it to the agent.”  She peered at the paper in his hand.  “What’s it say?”

“Well, it’s got some big words in it I can’t make out, but it basically says that Ji Wu is turning his claim over to Doug Fallon.”

Johnny refolded the paper and stared at it.  He looked up at Toni, “Wasn’t his claim on the other side of Viktors?”

“Yeah, not too far from it.  I think Ji Wu was the only Chinaman who was mining here.  Everyone else went into the laundry business on the other side of town,” Toni replied.

“Makes sense. Fallon is already building his sluices to the river for his water project. I saw the plans and the route he’s going to take went right through Viktor’s camp.  Guess Fallon is ready to build on the next claim now.” Johnny nodded as he spoke.

“Was Sebastian there?” Johnny asked sharply.

“Oh, yes,” Toni sighed. “Ji Wu said that although most of the men had their faces covered, Sebastian sat atop his horse brazen as could be. He didn’t actually do anything expect hand Ji Wu this paper and told him to leave, but he didn’t even try to control his men.  Ji Wu said that when they went after the women, he ran to Sebastian and begged him for mercy.”  Toni’s eyes pooled with tears. “Sebastian just laughed.”

Johnny gave her another hug. “Come on,” he said as Toni jumped off his lap.

“You going to see Sebastian?” Toni asked as they both walked to the door.

“Nope, might just have to kill him right now the way I’m feeling and it wouldn’t be a fair fight. They’d hang me for sure.”

 

“I won’t be in until late tonight. Got some watching to do.” Johnny opened the door for Toni. “Go on back to Doc’s. I don’t want you wandering around. Reckon the doc’s is the safest place in town. I’ll see you tonight.” He gave her a nudge forward and watched as she crossed the street.

Johnny looked at Quincy and Kenny who were holding up the front of the building. They moved away from the wall they’d been leaning on and moved toward Johnny. 

“All right, now Johnny?” Kenny asked.

“No, but it will be.” Johnny looked at both men. “Thanks.”

Quincy nodded and slapped Johnny’s shoulder as he moved toward the stage. “The line, son.  Remember the line.”

 

Chapter 12

Johnny peeked from the shadows of the alley.  He drew back when he heard voices.  Once the two drunks had weaved their way past the back of the saloon, Johnny slowly made his way to the back stairs. 

Like he’d told Toni, he’d been watching the town and certain people for several days. He’d already broken into the land office. Doug Fallon had a file an inch thick filled with land transfer papers.  Comparing the map and the transfers, it looked like with Ji Wu gone, Fallon now had a clear shot to the river to bring in water for the mines.

All the papers at the land office seemed to be on the up and up.  Of course, having someone like Sebastian ‘encouraging’ people to sell made acquiring the land easier.  There was still something that didn’t sit right with Johnny.

What about the extra fees Viktor and Ramon had mentioned? No sign of anything like that at the land office. Johnny had even broken into city hall. He found the ledgers that recorded the ‘foreign’ tax.  Of course, Johnny knew that ledgers could be made to lie, but his gut told him not this time. 

That’s why he was now sneaking around the back of the saloon. As far as the town was concerned, everything Fallon had done was legal.  Maybe he had seen too much in the world, but Johnny figured that everyone had something to hide. So what would Fallon be hiding?

From his digging around, Johnny had found out that Doug Fallon was a silent partner of the Douglass saloon. Fallon had an office in his hotel that everyone knew about.  He also had an office on the second floor of the saloon. Johnny had been watching and had seen Doug Fallon heading back to his hotel a while ago.

Creeping stealthily up the back stairs, Johnny quietly opened the door to the second floor.  After looking at the outside windows and having quite a bit of practical knowledge of the upstairs of a saloon, Johnny was pretty sure he knew which room was Fallon’s secret office.

Laying an ear to the door, Johnny listened for any sound.  Hearing none, he drew his gun and opened the door with his left hand.  He slid into the room and made his way to the desk.  He’d chosen this night because of the full moon.  Although the room was dark, the desk was right beside the window and the full moon gave off plenty of light.

Johnny wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking for, but he was hoping he’d find something to help him with the puzzle of this town.

There were lots of papers, but Fallon was a methodical man. Everything was labeled and in its place.  To Johnny, it spoke of the man’s arrogance that he didn’t even have these things hidden in a safe.  Not that Johnny was a safe cracker, wasn’t his trade, but he could make do if need be.

Nothing there at all to answer the question about the fees.  Damn.

Johnny did find a separate map of the town that had everything shaded that now belonged to Fallon.  Several places weren’t shaded, but circled. Maybe Doug Fallon wasn’t finished acquiring land?

He picked up one last folder.  Telegrams and letters.  As he rifled through mostly personal correspondence, he saw a copy of a letter to Mexico from Diego.  It was the one Diego had written to Inez requesting his nephews, Sebastian and Ruben, join him in Columbia.  There was no mention of Madrid. 

Johnny also found the telegram Inez had sent to Diego telling him that four were coming.  No mention of Madrid, just that Ruben, Sebastian and two friends would be coming to Columbia. Johnny was a little disappointed. He’d always thought Fallon and Diego had lied about not knowing specifically he was coming.  

I guess Madrid showing up and willing to train their own personal gunfighter was a gift that fell in their lap.

Suddenly, Johnny set down the papers he’d been holding and grabbed his gun. He hurried to the door and pressed himself against the wall.  There was someone coming down the hall.  He listened, and after a moment, lowered the hammer of his gun and slid it back into the holster.  Seems someone was going to have fun tonight with one of the saloon girls.  Johnny grinned.

When the hall was quiet again, Johnny cracked the door and peeked out.  All clear.  He slowly opened the door, then made his way to the back stairs.

He had almost made it when he heard a shout. Not looking back, he flew down the stairs. He had just reached the corner of the building when he heard the clamoring of boots running down the wooden stairs.

“There he is!” shouted someone from the top of the steps.

Johnny slipped across the side street and ran along the side of the Wells Fargo building. He sidestepped a packing barrel that had been left outside.  Turning the corner, he heard a thunk, curses and the sound of a barrel rolling. Johnny made his way to the back of the hotel and the hotel’s back stairs. 

Taking the steps two at a time, he reached the second floor and then his room. He urgently called out Toni’s name as he opened the door.

Locking the door behind him, he began to throw off his clothes. “Hurry up! Get undressed,” he commanded.
 
“What?” Toni questioned as she frantically began to shed her clothes. “I’ve been waiting on you to tell me what you found out!”

Johnny sat on the side of the bed and pulled off his boots.  He then stood up and unbuckled first his gun belt, then his belt.  He hurriedly draped the gun belt on the bed post and began to undo the top buttons of his pants.

Once naked, he slid into bed.  “Unbraid your hair,” he spoke fast and low.

Toni quickly did as she was told and then slid into bed. Johnny pulled her to him and began kissing her.

“Johnny?” Toni tried to push back.

“Hush, we’ve got to hurry. We might have company.” He mouthed against her cheek before grinding his mouth onto hers.

Johnny knew Toni didn’t understand the urgency for this romp but he was counting on her trust for him. She quickly stopped resisting him and began to respond.

Johnny reached out a hand to cup her breast and heard her moan. He had just bent his head down when the door to their room slammed opened and bounced against the wall.

Toni let out a screech, sat up and covered herself with the sheet. Johnny grabbed his gun and stood up.

Stepping inside the room was Sebastian, Diego, the sheriff and Doug Fallon. 

“What’s going on?” shouted an outraged Johnny Madrid.

“Johnny?” Toni’s voice quivered.

Sheriff Johnson stepped further into the room.  Johnny watched as the sheriff’s eyes took in his and Toni’s disheveled appearance, the clothes thrown around the room.  Johnny glanced first at Toni’s face and then dropped his eyes lower. There could be no doubt what they had been doing.

“Um, sorry Madrid, Ma’am,” the sheriff stammered. “Someone broke into Mr. Fallon’s office tonight and Sebastian here thought it might have been you.  He caught a glimpse of someone running this way.”

“Sheriff, do I look like I’ve been running outside anytime lately?” Johnny’s voice was calm and cold.

His eyes flickered to the other three men behind. “This ain’t no peep show, so you can all leave now.”

Johnny snorted with disgust. “Although I doubt if she will let me pick up where I left off, thanks to you.” 

“It was you, Johnny Madrid.  I know it was,” Sebastian growled as he stepped forward.

“Nephew!” Diego warned.

Sebastian pulled his gun and leveled it at Johnny

“Go on, boy. Here’s your chance,” Mr. Fallon chimed in. His eyes watched Johnny as he taunted Sebastian. “You’ve been preaching to everyone how you’re just as good as the great Johnny Madrid. Now’s your chance, Sebastian.”

Johnny watched Sebastian and saw his eyes flicker

Diego shouted and grabbed Sebastian’s arm.  “No, Sobrino!”
 
“Put your guns down, both of you.” The sheriff tried to calm the situation.

Doug Fallon squeezed behind the sheriff and slipped out of the room.

Slowly Sebastian eased his gun back into its holster. He shot a look of pure hate toward Johnny and swiftly turned and stalked out the door.

“Madrid!” the sheriff spoke kindly. “You might want to get some clothes on.”

The sheriff nodded to the people trying to peer in the doorway. Again, he tried to shoo them away.

Johnny reached down and grabbed his pants. As he pulled them up, he spoke to Diego. “This is all your fault, old man.” 

He began to do up the buttons and continued berating Sebastian’s tio.  “You sent for him, you knew what all Fallon wants him to do. Hell, you’re encouraging him!”

Johnny finished the last button.  “You’re. Setting. Him. Up.” 

Diego slowly nodded as Johnny turned his back on the older man and tended to Toni. Cruz stood and with bowed shoulders, left the room.

********

 “Will you stop fussing?” Toni’s voice softened, “If you want to do something, braid my hair for me, please.”

Johnny scooted himself back on the bed and Toni sat between his legs on the edge. “None of this is your fault, Johnny.” She handed him the brush.

Johnny stilled the brush for a moment and then began brushing her hair in earnest.  “Sebastian wasn’t like this in Cibuta. He ain’t showing any sense! He thinks he’s this big, bad pistolero just because he can shoot a gun. I told him at the river that there’s always someone better out there and I’m afraid if he keeps pushing me, it’s going to be me who has to teach him that lesson.”

Toni caught his hand and stilled the brush. “Johnny, you don’t ever need to go to confession. You give yourself harsher penances than any priest would.”

She dropped her arm. “Sebastian is a big boy. You’ve warned him enough. He’s making his own choices. You aren’t responsible for the choices other people make, Johnny.”

She handed him her hair string. “You’re a good man, Johnny Madrid and you take care of me. That’s just part of the reason I love you.”

She stood up and looked at him. “Now come on, do this girl a favor and let her out of this stinking room. The walls are closing in on me. We’ve been here all morning.”

Johnny looked up and saw her give him her special smile.  He felt the burden on his heart lift a little.

“All right,” he said as he scooted off the bed.  He picked up her hat and set it on her head.  “But only to see Quincy.  You can sit there and chew the fat with boys. I don’t trust Sebastian not to use you to come after me.”

Johnny followed her as they walked out of the room. “Besides, the boys will bug the hell out of me, if you don’t stop by to say hi,” he told her as he shut the door behind them.

 

Chapter 13

It had been a few days since the latest incident with Sebastian and since Johnny no longer trusted Sebastian, he didn’t like leaving Toni alone in town while he made his security runs to Sonora. The Doc’s regular nurse had returned and Toni was at loose ends. The ride to Sonora was an easy one and both he and Quincy thought Toni would enjoy a treat.

The stage coach lurched as it hit a pothole.  “You okay back there?” Johnny leaned over his perch and called out to Toni inside the stagecoach.

She stuck her head out the window. “I’m fine!”

“Hey, Quincy. Pull up a minute,” Johnny tapped the old man on the knee.

Quincy shouted ‘Whoa’ and pulled back on the reins. They were ahead of time from their run to Sonora and hadn’t been running the horses too hard.  It only took a few seconds for the stage coach to stop.

Toni stuck her head out of the window again. “What’s up, Johnny?”

“Look ahead.” Johnny swept the scene in front of him with his rifle.

Toni got out of the stage coach and slammed the door shut. Johnny climbed down, and after setting the brake and wrapping the reins around the brake, Quincy jumped down also.

“Fire?” asked Toni.

“Fire,” answered Quincy. “See that glow and flicker? All that smoke?”

Quincy spat. “It’s behind that ridge, right where we’re headed.

“Looks like it’s coming from Columbia,“ mused Johnny.

“Well, there abouts,” replied Quincy.

Johnny looked at Toni. “Looks like your outing to Sonora to pick up medical supplies just got a tad bit more interesting, miel.”

Toni played with her braid. “Glad we got Ms. Gault to Sonora before this happened.”

Quincy spit. “Yeah, Elmira is a tough old bird in spirit, but her body isn’t so strong. That’s why she wanted you to ride with her to Sonora so she could visit her family, Toni. Doc just used picking up the medical supplies as an excuse.”

“Yeah, I know.” Toni smiled. The woman was crotchety, but Toni had liked her.

“Well, what do you think we need to do, Quincy?” Johnny pushed his hat back.  “We can’t go forward. We could by-pass Columbia and head to the river, but we don’t know if the fire started there or closer to Columbia.”

“You remember our talk about sometimes not having very many choices?” Quincy reminded Johnny. “Well, this would be one of them.”

Quincy began to climb the stage. “Get in Toni and hold on. Reckon we got to go back the way we came. We know the fire ain’t been there. Pray the wind shifts it away from us, Toni. I think we might just be able to outrun this thing.”

Johnny shut the door after Toni climbed back in and then he scrambled back on top. He kept an eye out for the fire that had now broken over the top of the ridge.

“We ain’t going to be able to outrun this thing, Johnny.” Quincy said as he turned the horses around. “I just said that for Toni’s sake. Women seem to find comfort clinging to hope longer than a man would.”

“See that hill over there?” Quincy pointed to a hill strewn with rocks and shale quite a bit away.

Johnny squinted. “Yeah, I see it.” 

“Almost to the top are some big boulders that form a small cave. Little vegetation around, just rocks.  If we can get to that, we might have a chance.”

Johnny looked behind him.  All he could see was a wall of fire rushing towards them.  He looked down toward the open passenger window of the stage. He could see Toni moving her mouth, her eyes were closed.  Straightening back up, he questioned, “A chance?”

Quincy nodded. “The only one we’re going to get, boy.” He slapped the reins and urged the horse to run faster.

To Johnny, it seemed like forever before they reached the hill. The fire was almost upon them. The stage had barely stopped before both men jumped down.  Quincy ran to open the door for Toni and helped her out.

Johnny ran to the horses and began to unhitch them.  Ashes and sparks fell from the sky. The heat from the fire was already burning him, the thick smoke choking him. 

The horses were frantic. They threw their heads, reared and screamed as bits of fire dropped from the sky. Johnny couldn’t see to undo the traces, his fingers fumbled, his mind going fuzzy from the smoke.

“Johnny!” screamed Toni.

Quincy pushed her up the hill and ran over to Johnny.  “Leave them!” The old man grabbed Johnny’s arm. “There’s no time, think of Toni! We’ve got to get her to safety!”

Johnny jerked his arm from Quincy’s hold and looked behind him.  He nodded and pointed up the hill. “Go,” he commanded as he reached for his gun.

He couldn’t let anyone or anything suffer a death like the one that was to come. He grabbed the first horse in the back by it’s bridle and putting the gun to it’s forehead, fired.  Three more shots rang out before Johnny scrambled up the hill after Toni and Quincy.

********

She slipped and hit hard, her chin slamming into the rock-strewn hill.  Johnny looked for something to grab and braced his feet as best he could on the slippery shale.  “Get up, Toni! We have to make it to the cave.”  His shout ended in a fit of coughing as the smoke from the fire did it’s best to smother him and his words.

She lifted her head, wiped the blood off her face, and then pressed her arms into the ground as she tried to get her legs underneath her body.  Loose rocks cascaded down and tumbled toward the man behind her.  A gnarled hand reached up from below and grabbed her left foot to hold it steady. 

Quincy, the stagecoach driver, gave her leg a push that allowed her to get her momentum and she began to scramble up the slippery shale.  “Johnny!  Grab her and go!” the old man shouted to make himself heard over the roar of the forest fire.  He spared a glance behind him and saw the fire below, holding back as if waiting for some sign from its prey to pounce. 

Johnny stretched out his hand and his fingers almost touched Toni’s when her boot dislodged a rock and she fell again.  This time she went sliding backwards on her stomach down the mountain, frantically trying to stop her rapid descent.  Through the yellow haze, Johnny watched, horrified, as she slammed feet first into Quincy.  The old man, who had finally been able to stand, fell backwards and tumbled down the mountain.  The waiting fire below flared up as it accepted his body.

“Toni!” Johnny’s shouts mingled with her screams. 

He crouched and stepped sideways, slipping and sliding back down the path he’d just climbed.  He coughed and choked on the thick smoke that enveloped him as he traveled to make his way to Toni.  He stopped when the smoke thinned and he could see her tenuously holding onto a small boulder.

Grabbing a bush, he crouched and stretched out his arm as far as possible.  “Toni!  Grab my hand now.”

She lifted frightened eyes toward him and hugged the boulder tighter. 

“Antonia Madrid! I said for you to grab my hand, right now.” He forced himself to wipe away any emotion from his voice.  “Do it, Antonia, now!” 

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Giving a little nod, she opened her eyes again and focused on Johnny. Pushing her weight onto her left arm, she let go of the boulder and scrunching her legs underneath her body, she lurched toward Johnny with outstretched hand. Arms straining, their fingers briefly touched.  Taking another deep breath, Toni made another effort to hoist herself up toward Johnny.  Leaning as far as he could, Johnny caught her hand and pulled.  As she moved upward, he reached his hand further down and clasped his hand around her wrist.  Digging his feet into the ground, bits of shale falling around him, he pulled as hard as he could. 

Take a step, pull, take a step, pull. Slowly he pulled the two of them up toward the one place that offered their only possible hope of surviving the fire that had begun to creep up their backside. 

Finally reaching the cave, a crevasse created by huge boulders precariously stacked on top of one another, Johnny shoved Toni inside as far away from the entrance as possible.  She crouched down and Johnny kneeled, covering her body as best he could.  He pulled his gun out and held it ready.  If this didn’t work, he wouldn’t let her be burned alive; he loved her too much to let that happen. 

Time seemed to stand still for the two.  Johnny, while covering her body with his, kissed the back of her neck. She grabbed hold of his free hand and brought it up to her lips.

Within seconds, the roar and heat of the flames made itself known.  Their tiny sanctuary filled with smoke that tried its best to choke the life out of them.  The fire covered the boulders that formed their safe haven and burned anything that it could touch.  It licked the front of the crevasse and only the lack of fuel kept it from entering.  The intensity of the fire caused its own windstorm and blew sparks and hot air over the couple, the heat searing any exposed skin.

“Hold your breath, Toni!  Don’t breathe the hot air!” Johnny spoke into her ear.  She nodded and squeezed her eyes shut.

Unsuccessful at gaining a new victim, the fire gave up and swept over the boulders and up toward the ridge.  The roar of the fire became muffled as it crossed the ridge and began its descent down the other side of the mountain. 

Johnny straightened up on his knees, lowered the hammer of the Colt and shakily returned it to its holster. He sat down against the wall of the cave, took off his hat and wiped his arm against his forehead. Toni uncurled herself and sat beside him. Together they sat there, coughing, eyes streaming from the smoke.

Slowly Johnny stood and reached out toward Toni.  He pulled her up after she grabbed his hand.  He put his arm around her shoulders to steady her as she stumbled against him. They walked toward the entrance and looked over the black, smoking desolation before them.  The fire had devoured every living thing in its path.  Blackened poles stood where once green trees had covered the mountainside. They stood there, the only two survivors left in this holocaust.

 

Chapter 14

It was a long, weary journey to Columbia. They didn’t go back to Sonora, Johnny wasn’t sure how far the fire had continued to travel. He knew that it should be burned out ahead of them, toward Columbia.

They had no water and the ground was too hot to stop and rest.  Johnny was so tired, he was only aware of two things; putting one foot in front of the other and making sure Toni kept up.

It was late evening before they finally reached an area that hadn’t burned.  Toni collapsed on the first bit of grass they’d seen for miles. Johnny sank down beside her. He straightened her body out to a more comfortable position and slipped her hat under her head for a pillow. Using his own hat for a pillow, he curled on his left side around her. The last thing he remembered was taking her hand in his.

The sound of gunfire jerked Johnny awake. He grabbed his gun and stood up. He heard it again but realized that although close, it was too far away to be any danger to him and Toni.  He looked up and saw that the moon had risen. They’d slept for a couple of hours by his figuring.

“Come on, Toni. Wake up.” He bent down and shook her shoulder.

“I’m sorry, miel but we’ve got to go.” Johnny looked at her with concern.

She gave him a tired smile. “That’s okay.”

She sighed and her eyes pooled with tears. Her voice gave a hitch. “I just can’t believe….”

“Don’t cry, Toni. Please don’t cry.  Not now.”  He crouched down and looked into her eyes. “I promise, let me get you back to Columbia and then you can cry all you want. I just need you to be strong just a little bit longer. Please?”

Toni sniffed, wiped her nose and nodded. She held out her arm. “Help me up.”

Johnny stood and pulled her up. They both stumbled a bit. The rest would allow them to go on, but it wasn’t near what they needed.

Toni bent over, grabbed her and Johnny’s hat and handed his to him. Putting hers on, she asked, “How much further do you think?”

“Not much further.” He put on his hat and checked his gun. “You ready?”

“Ready as I will be,” Toni answered. She gave him a shaky smile and reaching out a hand, grabbed his. For the first time all day, Johnny was beginning to believe that they would be okay.

They hadn’t walked far before they began to hear the noise of a crowd.

They picked up speed as fast as their sore feet would allow. As they got closer to the noise, they could see the glow of torches. A huge crowd had gathered at the jail. The dark night was lit by so many torches it was easy for Johnny to see that the crowd consisted of almost every nationality that inhabited Columbia.  Mexicans, Russians, Chinese, Italians, townspeople and miners alike all stood together surrounding the jail.

A rifle shot sounded out over the noise of the crowd. “It’s the sheriff,” Toni shouted.

Johnny saw Sheriff Johnson standing in front of the jail, rifle in hand. “Y’all go on home. The circuit judge will be here in two days.” The sheriff nodded to the jail behind him. “He ain’t going anywhere.”

His words did nothing to appease the crowd. Johnny could hear voices from the crowd. “We lost our claim because of him.” “My son was killed.” “He swindled us.” “He upped the tax and kept part.” “He’s been terrorizing us!” The sheriff raised his hands. “I know, I know and I promise you he’ll get what he deserves.” The sheriff was beginning to sound desperate. “Let the law take care of this, please!”

A man stepped beside the sheriff. Johnny’s eyes opened wide when he saw Doug Fallon standing there.

“People of Columbia, I understand your frustrations. We all have been plagued by this man, even me. Why this morning, the great water works that I had begun, to make life easier for this fair city was blown up by this very man. It caused a wildfire that even now, we don’t know the extent of the damage it did.”

Doug Fallon continued even though the crowd began to murmur.
“People have been killed by this man.  I trusted him to help keep this town secure. I found out that he overcharged you and pocketed the money himself.  He pitted neighbor against neighbor in our fair town. As the sheriff said, the judge will be here in two days. You will be this man’s jury. It will be up to you to give him what he deserves.”

Someone called out from the crowd, “I say we give him what he deserves now!”

“Yeah, we’ll be the judge and jury now!”

“Hang him!”
 
The crowd swelled forward and overran the sheriff. Doug Fallon stepped back and got out of the way.  Johnny could see his smile from where he stood.  The crowd cheered as several men emerged from the jail with their prisoner, Sebastian Cruz.

“No!” Johnny struggled to get through the crowd. “You don’t understand. It wasn’t just him! Doug Fallon set this whole thing up!”

Johnny’s words were drowned out by the cheers of the crowd as Sebastian was led away from the jail. Doug Fallon followed slowly behind, laughing and talking politics to some of the local business owners. Sebastian was led to a boom used in mining. He struggled but each arm was held tightly by several men. The crowd was looking for someone to blame and Sebastian was good enough for them. He wouldn’t be getting away.

Johnny and Toni pushed their way to the front in time to see the rope being placed around his neck. The many torches made it possible for Sebastian to see his accusers’ faces.

“Fallon!”

The shout, followed by a gun firing, quieted the crowd. 

Diego Cruz stepped in front of his nephew and faced the crowd.
“Let him go! You’re stringing up the wrong man!” Diego shouted to make his voice heard to the far reaches of the crowd.
“Doug Fallon is behind all of this!  He had me send for my nephew to be his bully.  He had us stir everyone up so that you wouldn’t notice how he’s buying up this town. I admit, I let greed get the better of me. Fallon said he didn’t care if I upped the tax as part of my salary.

He addressed his next words to the two people who were not crying out for blood. “Johnny. Toni. Tell Inez I’m sorry about everything.”

Diego looked up into the sky and swallowed. “I tried to use you, too, Madrid.”

Diego lowered his head and looked Johnny in the eyes. “You were the better man, Johnny Madrid.”

Diego looked over to Toni. “Light a candle for me, Chica. For all of us.”

Toni, her eyes pooling with tears, nodded.

Diego turned to face Doug Fallon. He strode to the townsman. The look on his face and the gun in his hand cleared his path in the crowd. He was only a few feet from Doug Fallon when a shot rang out from the roof of the saloon. The shot made the older man stumble and he fell back. His gun fell from his hand as he hit the ground.

Doug Fallon moved forward and kicked the gun away. He bent down and looked into the empty eyes of his former Segundo. “Always have a backup plan, Mr. Cruz.”

 Fallon stood and took a final look at the dead man. “I promised you’d get what you deserved.”

Doug Fallon looked across the crowd.  “See?  This was the uncle of the pistolero! He came after an unarmed man.  Good thing the deputy was keeping a watch.”

Fallon pointed to Sebastian. “There is his nephew, another killer!”

The crowd roared and the men holding Sebastian threw a rope around his neck and tied the rope to one end of the boom. Several men pushed down on the other end of the boom like a child’s seesaw.

Sebastian’s body jerked as he was lifted into the air. A crowd of men added weight with their own bodies to help lift the boom. Sebastian swung on the lifted end.

A woman screamed and the crowd began to shout.

“You bastards!” Johnny’s voice rang out. “You forgot to tie his hands!”

Unable to help himself, Sebastian grabbed at the rope around his neck and stretched to grab the top of the boom. His hands, slick with sweat slid off the rope and he dangled. He grabbed the top of the boom again and again. His legs danced like a child’s jumping jack.

The crowd slowly grew silent as they watched the macabre dance with death. Toni threw herself against Johnny and buried her head in his chest.

He reached for his gun. Anything was better than this torture. Sebastian might deserve to die but no one deserved to die like this.

A hand grabbed his wrist before the gun cleared leather.

“Don’t,” the sheriff shook his head. “They’ll turn their anger on you and her.”

Johnny slowly nodded and moved his hand from his gun.

“Let go, Sebastian,” Johnny shouted. “Please let go!”

Sebastian continued to fight his fate. His face was swelling and his tongue stuck out. His eyes were protruding from his face. The man was tiring and wasn’t so quick as before to relieve the pressure by grabbing onto to the top of the boom. His movements were slowing, but still he fought.

“Let go,” Johnny whispered.

Finally, Sebastian Cruz no longer had the strength to hoist himself up. His arms dropped to his sides and the rope slowly finished what should have been a quick job. 

A silent crowd watched and waited. When sure their brand of justice had been served, the men holding the boom stood up. The lifted end fell to the ground with a loud thump. Sebastian’s body bounced as it hit the ground.

Slowly the crowd began to disperse until the only ones left were Johnny, Toni, the sheriff and the undertaker.

The sheriff looked at Johnny and Toni. “I’m sure there is a story about why you’re back without the stage.” Sheriff Johnson ran a hand over his face. “Frankly, right now I don’t care.” The older man turned to walk away. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll care again.”

Taking one last look at the near empty street, Johnny watched the undertaker and his helper pick up the bodies of Sebastian and Diego and load them into the wagon. Putting an arm around Toni, he led her to the hotel.

“Get started packing.”

Toni looked up. “Mexico?”

Johnny nodded, “Sí, mañana.”

 

Epilogue

Johnny and Toni rested their horses on top of a hill. It had been a hard month of traveling. They were about to cross the border into Mexico.

Toni looked behind her and shuddered.

Johnny moved his horse closer to her and reached out and touched her knee. “Come on, let’s go home.”

 

 

~end~
July 2017

Want to comment? Email Sandra