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Sandra

 

 

The Wrong Side Of Heaven

Part 13 of the It All Adds Up series

Thanks to my beta, Lacey and to Adrianna for helping with certain Spanish traditions.

Prologue
July 1867 
20 miles southwest of Tubac, AZ

The rider laid low against the neck of his horse and flew across the desert. Toward the mountains to the north, lightning lit up the sky. Water would soon fall and soak the ground in the arroyos, but he’d be long gone before the torrent reached him on the desert floor.

The rider wiped the moisture from his eyes then urged his horse to go faster. His heart hardened.  Get it out now because he would never cry again. Only one thing mattered. This time he was the hunter and his prey wouldn’t get away. Time and distance were of no consequence. Just yesterday he’d been in heaven. Tonight he was in hell and he planned to take the man responsible with him.

Tubac, AZ
The horses were ready and stood waiting. They stamped their feet, shook their heads, and whinnied. The animals could feel the tension in their humans.

Hurrying out the door of his office, the sheriff tromped to his horse. Slapping his hat on his head, he then put his foot in the stirrup. As he mounted his horse, he spoke to the man waiting on top of his own horse. “Let’s go before he gets to him before we do.”

The sheriff nodded to his newly appointed deputy and the older man standing next to him. “Jeff, I’ll keep in touch when I can. Doc, I’ll need to know what to tell him when we catch up.”

The deputy motioned his hand forward. “Go on before it’s too late. We’ll be fine here.”

The two men turned their mounts toward the southwest and spurred them hard into a run. Main street or not, they just had to stop their friend from descending further into hell.

 

Chapter 1
March 1867

Val Crawford quickly unfolded the telegram. He scanned the message and crushed it into his fist.  “Damn it!” The wadded up paper hit the back wall and dropped to the floor.

Val scanned the jail.  It had been home for a year. After a job, he and Johnny Madrid had split ways. Johnny still had the itch and although he sometimes felt closed in, Val knew that his own wandering days were over. 

At least he had thought they were.

“Damn it!”

Val strode out of his office, slamming the door so hard it rattled on its hinges. He stomped over to the telegraph office. He jerked open the door and let it swing back against the wall with a thud. The telegraph operator jerked his head up and watched as the sheriff stomped over to the counter.  
Val scribbled a message and shoved the paper into the other man’s hand. “Here.” He growled. 

Val tossed a coin on the counter. “Let me know as soon as you get an answer,” he called out as he walked back to the front door and jerked it opened.

The telegraph operator tensed and scrunched his head into his shoulders as he heard the door slam against the wall followed by the sound of glass shattering. 

*******

“Sheriff Crawford!”

Waving a telegram in the air, Gary, from the telegraph office breathlessly called out. “Your reply came, Sheriff!”

Val stopped and let Gary catch up. 

Val snatched the paper from the young man’s hand and stared intently at the message.  He handed it back to Gary. “Send another message. Tell him to meet me in El Paso in a week.  I’ll meet him in the regular place.”

Not waiting to see if Gary had anything else to say, Val walked away and made his way across the street toward Carson’s Mercantile.

He stopped at the door and taking a deep breath, gripped the door handle and pushed.  A tiny bell tinkled as the door opened. 

Carey Carson, Mayor of Brackett, paused from restocking cans of beans and looked up. “Sheriff Crawford! Good to see you. What can I do to help you?”

Val stood at the counter in front of Mayor Carson. He glanced around and saw that no one else was in the store. “Well, Mayor, I’m gotten some news from a friend and I’m going to have to leave. You being mayor, I thought you should know first.”

Carey Carson took off his glasses and began to wipe them on his apron. “I’m sorry to hear that, Sheriff. How long do you think you’ll be gone?”

Val pushed his hat back and put his hands on his hips.  “I reckon I won’t be coming back.  This has been a really good job, but I figure after this business is taken care of, I’ll be heading over to the Arizona Territories.”

The mayor stopped cleaning his glasses and hooked them back over his ears.  “I see.” He sighed. “Well, this town will be losing a good man. When are you planning on leaving?”

“That’s the thing, I gotta leave tomorrow. Sorry, it’s such short notice, but the telegram just came.” Val stuck his hands in his pockets. “I reckon Dale would do until you can get a replacement.  He’s been good at deputying.”

Carey nodded and stuck out his hand. “Good luck to you, Crawford.”

Val shook the man’s hand. “Thanks. I’ll be by later to pick up some trail supplies.”

Leaving the store, Val made his way back to the jail to pack for his
journey.

 

Chapter 2

It was late afternoon when Val Crawford rode into El Paso. He made his way to the livery stable and after taking care of his horse grabbed his rifle and saddlebags and made his way to the hotel. He nodded to a couple of officers from Fort Bliss as they passed by.

Once in the hotel, Val found a note waiting for him. He made short work of finding his room and grabbed his spare set of clothes from his saddlebags.  As he came back down the stairs, he asked the clerk for the directions to the bathhouse. By the time he was clean and made it to the saloon, he felt halfway human again.

Val saw him as soon as he pushed open the bat wings to the saloon. The man was sitting in the dark back corner nursing a drink. A chair was kicked out inviting him to take a seat.

Val lowered himself into the chair, took off his hat, placed it beside him and picked up the glass of tequila that had been already been poured.

“¡Salud!” He tossed the drink back and set the glass down hard on the table.

“Well, what has our boy done this time?” Jack Daumas settled back against his chair and got comfortable.

Val fished in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper.  He handed it to Jack. While Jack read the telegram, Val thought back to how they had all met. Val had met Johnny over a year ago during a job and when it had finished, the two had met up with Toni.  The three of them had decided to take a job in the silver mines of New Mexico and had met Jack and his brother Jean in Mesilla. Since Johnny and Toni were already friends with the two brothers, the five had traveled together awhile. Tragically, Jean didn’t make it out of New Mexico.

Someone who had pretended to be their friend had betrayed them all and Jean had paid the ultimate price.

Eventually, life on the road no longer interested Val and he had accepted a job as sheriff. Jack, too, decided to leave and return home to Louisiana to break the news of Jean’s death to his family. Johnny and Toni, having fewer options, continued life on the road. Even though the friends no longer rode together, each one knew that the friends would rally at the cry of one another. In their vagabond lives, a good friend and a good horse meant everything.

“This doesn’t tell anything!”

Val ceased his musings at the sound of disgust from Jack. He nodded to the telegram Jack had thrown on the table in frustration. “I know. All it says is that she needs both of us in Cibuta. Johnny is going to need both of us for support.”

Jack took a drink. “Help with what is what I want to know.”

Val nodded. “Me, too.  After my bath, I sent another telegram to say we were both here and would be starting out.  I figured you’d come along, too.”

Jack snorted. “Well, hell yeah! Of course, I’m going to come if they need us but I’d sure like to know what we’re riding into.”

Jack leaned over to read the telegram again. “It’s in English. She doesn’t know how to read or write in English. You suppose it could be a trap?”

Val rubbed his chin. He’d actually shaved and it felt strange. “Naw, who would want us except them?  Nope, I figure Johnny has gotten himself in a pickle and Toni’s gone behind his back to ask us for support even if the fool don’t think he needs it.”

“He won’t like that!” Jack replied.

Val leaned back. “Probably not, but he won’t stay mad at her long. Take a stick of dynamite to blow those two apart. Toni must think this is important though.”

Val stood up and picked up his hat. “Guess we better go get some supplies, I figure it’ll take us about two weeks to get there. We better skirt along the border in Mexico. I hear tell the Apaches are still raising a ruckus in New Mexico.”

Scraping his chair back as he stood, Jack nodded. “Sounds good to me.”

As the two men made their way to the door of the saloon, Val stopped when he heard his name called.

 A man came toward him with an outstretched hand. “Val Crawford!  Is that you?”

“Sam Fisher! What are you doing here?” Val shook the man’s hand. “Sam, this is Jack Daumas. Jack, Sam Fisher from Tubac.  I helped Sam with a problem in Brackett delivering his beef to the fort.”

“What are you doing here?” Val asked Sam.

“Oh, just passing through. Got to see about some contracts in Mesilla. What about you?” Sam asked.

“Well, going Nogales way for a bit to help out a friend,” Val answered.

“You quit sheriffing for Bracket?” Sam asked.

“Yep, not sure how long I’ll be gone and couldn’t leave them hanging, ya know?” Val moved back as someone tried to squeeze past him.

“Hey, when you finish helping your friend, why don’t you come up to Tubac?  Our sheriff has been making noises about leaving but we haven’t been able to find someone to replace him we like.  I could just about guarantee you a job.” Sam’s eyes gleamed with excitement.

Val scratched his jaw. “Well, now Sam, I’m fixin to be gone a bit. Not sure how long this will take.”

“That don’t matter, none.” Sam nodded. “You just consider it.”

Val clapped an arm on Sam’s shoulder. “Tell ya what, you finish your business in Mesilla and I’ll take care of mine. When it’s over, I’ll stop by your place in Tubac and just see where we all stand by then. Okay?”

Sam stuck out his hand and the two men shook. “Sounds like a plan to me. Good travels, Val.” Sam turned to Jack. “Good travels to you, too.”

With that, Val and Jack made their way out of the saloon. They both stood on the edge of the boardwalk to find the local mercantile. Val looked behind him when he heard his name called.

“Sheriff Crawford?”  A young boy ran up to them waving a piece of paper and shouting. “Ya got a telegram! Pa said you’d be over at the saloon.”

Val took the telegram. “Thanks, boy.” He fished a dime from his pocket and the kid shot off to the store with his tip.

He opened the missive and Jack leaned over as they both read.

DON’T WORRY STOP NOT AN EMERGENCY STOP WE STILL NEED YOU STOP TONI

“Well, that’s clear as mud.” Val balled up the telegram.

“Saw it was sent from Nogales. We going there or Cibuta?” Jack asked.

Val started walking to the store. “Cibuta. They don’t have a telegraph. She probably got someone to send it for her from Nogales.”

“That’s why it is in English, then. Wonder why she refuses to learn English? Johnny has enough to get by.” Jack walked beside Val.

“She writes fine in Spanish. I think she’s just being stubborn. Johnny told me once that she was given to an American couple at the orphanage and they didn’t treat her well. They didn’t speak Spanish and she didn’t speak English. They forced her to speak English only. I think not learning to read or write English is her way of rebelling.  Johnny did make her learn enough to read a Wanted Poster, though.”

Jack started laughing and Val soon joined in. The two men laughed all the way to the mercantile to get their supplies.

 

Chapter 3

Val eyed Jack as the man reached for the coffee pot on the fire. He snorted as Jack jerked his hand back. Val threw his handkerchief toward Jack. Jack took the caught rag and wrapping the cloth around the handle, poured himself a cup of coffee.  He held the pot up. “You want some, Val?”

“Sure.” Val scooted closer to the fire and stretched out his arm with the cup. 

Jack filled Val’s cup and both men quietly sipped their coffee.

“What?” asked Val when he heard Jack chuckle.

“You know, Val”, Jack began, “After drinking that poison you call coffee, you shouldn’t ever criticize Toni’s cooking ever again.”

Val snorted. “My pan coffee is just fine, thank you. You just don’t appreciate a good strong drink.”

Jack outright laughed. “Tequila is a good strong drink, Val. Coffee isn’t supposed to be strong enough to strip paint off a board.”

“Humph,” groused Val. “Still have a ways to go before it’s as bad as Toni’s biscuits.”

Jack gave a belly laugh.  “Told Johnny once that with Toni around, he’d never have to worry about running out of bullets!”

Val grinned and joined Jack in laughing at a good memory of their friends.

As the laughter died down, soon the only noise in the camp was the crackling of the fire. 

Val broke the silence. “What do you think of our boy and his doings the past month?”

Jack paused from taking a drink. “What doings?”

Val sat up and leaned forward. “What Slim Billings told us in the saloon before we left.”

“I wasn’t there with you and Slim. That must have been when I was upstairs with Goldie. What happened, Val?”

“Well, now,” Val poured himself another cup of coffee. “Seems Johnny has been nigh working himself to death. Slim said every time he turned around, Johnny was there working at some job.”

“Did he say why?” Jack took out a bottle of tequila and added some to his coffee.  He handed the bottle to Val.

“Nope, Slim just said he asked Johnny if he was trying to get rich and Johnny just smiled.”  Val took a swig out of the bottle before pouring a liberal amount in his own coffee.

“Slim said Johnny’s last job about done him in. Seems he had just finished a job with Day Pardee and,”

Jack interrupted, “Day Pardee? Johnny told me he had promised Toni to never ride with him again. Didn’t like his ways.”

Val nodded, “Told me the same thing. Something’s done happened for him to go back on his word, you mark my words. Anyway, they had finished this job and were getting supplies and such in town before splitting up when Miguel Santana called Johnny out.”

Jack grabbed the bottle and took a healthy swig himself. “Santana? He’s got a mean reputation and is about the fastest I’ve ever seen down Sonora way.”

“Not anymore.”

Jack stared. “Johnny?”

“Yep. Seems Santana felt slighted or something and called Johnny out. It was close, Johnny got winged, but Santana cashed his chips in.”  Val held his hand out for the bottle.

“Then what?” Jack handed the bottle to Val.

Val drained the last of the tequila and threw the bottle into the bushes. “Don’t know. Slim said Johnny left after that. You know he don’t stay around after dancing.”

Jack leaned back against his saddle. “Miguel Santana. Man oh, man. That’s going to put Johnny up quite a few notches. Everyone’s going to want to dance with the one who beat Miguel Santana.”

Val stood up and threw another log on the fire. He put his hands on his back and stretched. “That’s what I thought. That boy isn’t ever going to be able to get out of the game. Every time I think he’s ready to settle down, something like this happens.”

Val scratched his belly and went back to his saddle and blanket. “But what other choice did he have? Man gets called out, what else he gonna do? Johnny wouldn’t last two seconds out there if everyone thought he was yellow.”

Val lay down and wiggled to get comfortable. He covered his face with his hat. He heard Jack moving around the camp. He figured Jack had gotten settled when the only sounds he soon heard were the night noises that enveloped the night.

“Ya know, I ain’t ever had kids but I love those two like they were my own” Val’s voice broke the silence.  “I just wish I could have gotten to know them sooner. I don’t know, maybe I could have done something to help them on another path.”

“Val,” Jack replied. “You and me both. Course I’m younger than you but when them and my brother and I were running around, I just thought of them as another little brother and sister. It’s a damn shame most people don’t give them a chance.”

“I tell ya, Jack. If I ever meet that father of his, Mr. High and Mighty Lancer, I’ll jump on him so fast, he won’t know what hit him. Johnny shouldn’t ever been out there trying to keep himself and Toni safe.  That boy is the oldest kid I’ve ever met.”

“They both got sand, you got to give them that, Val.” Jack sat up. “Val!”

Val lifted his hat from his head and at Jack’s insistent call. “What?”

Jack sat up. “If you get that job in Tubac, maybe you could hire Johnny as deputy or something.”

Val covered his face again. “Maybe. It bares thinking about. Now let’s get some shut-eye. We got a long ride ahead and plenty of time to arrange Johnny’s life for him.”

Jack snorted and lay back down. “Hah! Like that’s going to happen. ‘Night Val.”

 

Chapter 4

The two men pushed hard and it took less time than they had first thought to reach Cibuta. It was mid-morning when Val and Jack rode into town. They could have pushed the horses and arrived late last night, but not knowing what they might be walking into, they both decided to camp one last evening.

Val noticed that it was a small village. A few shops, a saloon, a cantina, a livery and a church was about it. Probably less than 200 lived in the whole area.  A few people were stirring, most likely trying to get their errands done before the heat of the day.

The tired men rode to the livery and dismounted. After seeing to their horses, they grabbed their gear and headed to the saloon.  They had almost reached the building when a whirlwind flew out of the cantina next door and barreled straight toward them.

“Val! Jack!”

Val and Jack dropped their gear and first one, then the other returned Toni’s hug. 

Val held onto Toni’s arms and pushed her back from the bear hug she had around his waist. He and Jack looked her over. She looked fine, healthier than they ever remembered seeing her.

“You okay?” Val asked anxiously.

“Where’s Johnny?” questioned Jack.

“Oh, it’s so good to see you two!” Toni gave Val another hug and stepped back. She began to chase the wisps of curls away from her face and tried to tuck them behind her ears.

“Did you get your horses settled? I’ve got a room waiting for you over the saloon. There ain’t many so you’ll have to share.  It’s got two beds, though. Did you have a good trip? Jack, how’s your Madre’ and Papi? Val…”

“Toni!” Val shouted.

Toni stopped and looked down. She toed the ground with her boot. “What, Val?” She raised her eyes to Val and peered at him through her lashes.

“Don’t go making eyes at me girl.” Val snorted. “We come all this way because you said you needed us. What. Is. Going. On?”

Val and Jack turned to each other in surprise when Toni burst into tears. They stared helplessly at her as she stood in the middle of the street and began to cry her heart out.

Jack reached for her and stopped when a shout from the saloon stopped him.

“What the hell do you two think you’re doing?” shouted a very angry Johnny Madrid. “What did you say to her?”

Val and Jack stood still and stared in puzzlement as Johnny strode toward them. Toni turned around and ran into his arms. Val watched as Johnny spoke into Toni’s ear and she shook her head no. He rested his chin on her head as she clutched his shirt and watered it with her tears. Johnny patted her back and rocked her gently.

In a few minutes, her storm of tears quieted and she turned around in Johnny’s arms to face Val and Jack. Wiping the tracks of tears from her face with her hands, she smiled a trembly smile at the two men.

“You two okay?” Jack asked.

Johnny shrugged. “We’re fine. She cries at the drop of a hat now. Look, you two grab your stuff and let’s get you checked in to the saloon. We’ll fill you in there.”

Toni went ahead as Johnny picked up the men’s rifles. Val and Jack followed him into the saloon. Grabbing a key from the barkeep, he handed it to Val. “Second room on the left,” he motioned toward the stairs with his hand. “I’ll have your drinks waiting.”

Val and Jack took their rifles back from Johnny and slowly climbed the stairs. Val kept glancing down, watching as Johnny went over to the bar and after placing an order, joined Toni at a back table. The two travel-worn men looked at each other and shrugged. Climbing the stairs quickly, Val decided to get settled and return downstairs as quickly as possible. He didn’t want to miss this tale.

 

Chapter 5

As he looked from the landing to the saloon floor below, Val saw Johnny and Toni’s heads close together. Johnny looked up as he and Jack’s boots pounded the stairs as they rapidly descended to the main saloon floor.

The kids each kicked out a chair as their two friends joined them. Johnny poured everyone a glass of tequila and handed them around. He skipped Toni.

Johnny scooted his chair closer to Toni. “You want to explain or should I?”

Toni sighed. “I might I well, I guess.” She flashed Johnny a grin. “They won’t shoot me.”

“Ha!” Johnny snorted. “I wouldn’t bet on that.”

Val raised an eyebrow.  “Well, get it said. You both look healthy enough. Johnny, you look like the cat that swallowed the canary and Toni, you’re glowing.”

Val leaned forward.  “I don’t see any holes in either of you. You ain’t in jail. Now please explain to us why you asked us to travel hundreds of miles across the desert to visit.”

“Well,” Toni began twisting her braid. She looked over at Johnny.

“Uh-uh,” he told her.  “This was your idea to send for them. You explain.”

Toni shot Johnny an evil look and looked back to Val and Jack.

She dropped her hand from her braid and began to draw a circle on the sticky table. 

“Antonia Madrid!” Val spoke sternly. “Quit your playing around and just get it said.”

Toni swallowed and looked again at Johnny. “Can I have a drink?”

Johnny nodded and got up. He walked to the back of the saloon toward the kitchen and disappeared through the doorway.  In a minute he returned. He placed the glass in front of Toni.

Val looked at Toni with puzzlement as she gulped her drink, wiped the milk mustache from her face and set the glass back down.

“Val,” she began.  “You remember when we first met and you asked me why Johnny hadn’t married me and I said it was because he was still practicing?”

Val slowly nodded.

Johnny poured him and Jack another shot of tequila.

Toni smiled her biggest smile at the men. “Well, he finally got it right.”

Val just stared at Toni. He took a quick glance at Jack. Jack was staring also.

Suddenly, Jack began to laugh. It started out as a snicker but soon blossomed into a great big belly laugh.

Toni and Johnny smiled and began to laugh also.  Val looked from one to another. “What’s so funny?” he asked.

Val grabbed Jack by the arm.  “Do you have any idea what’s she talking about?”

Jack laughed harder. 

“Will you three quit braying like a couple of jackasses and tell me what is so funny?” Val groused.

Slowly the laughter died down and Toni began to explain to Val.

“Val, I’m going to have a baby.” Toni looked over at Johnny and he grabbed her hand. “We’re going to be married.”

Val stared at the couple then grabbed his glass.  He threw back the drink and slammed the glass on the table.  Jack reached over, grabbed the bottle and poured Val another drink.

“It’s true?” Val asked Johnny.

Johnny’s smile split his face. He nodded. “It’s true, Val. I’m going to be a papi!”

“Lord Almighty!” Val took another drink. “There’s going to be another one of you.”

Johnny grinned as Toni burst into laughter. “Val,” she laughed. “It could be worse. We could have another one of me or maybe one of each!”

Johnny’s face drained of color. “Two? We could have two?”

Jack and Toni both laughed as Johnny jumped up and ran back out the door to the kitchen.  Even Val joined in laughing at Johnny’s expense.

Toni reached across the table and clasped Val’s hands. “We need you two.  He’s as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. When we first found out, he left me here and went all over the place taking any job he could get to earn us some money for the coming months.”

Toni sighed. “He doesn’t want to be like his momma and papa. We want our baby to have it better than we did.”

Toni let go of Val’s hands and leaned back in her chair. “He’s scared. We don’t know what normal is.  I have our friend Inez to help me. He doesn’t have anyone.”

She took a drink of milk. “It ain’t like we can go asking around.  Word gets out that Johnny Madrid is giving up gunfighting, they’ll be coming out of the woodwork to come after him. You two are his only real friends. That’s why I said he needed your support.”

The three looked up as Johnny quietly came back and slid into his seat. He took his handkerchief and wiped his face. “Don’t tease me like that,” he frowned at Toni.

“So what did I miss?” Johnny asked as he settled back against the chair.

“Nothing,” replied Jack.

“Johnny. Toni.” Val raised his glass. “Congratulations, you two.  I can’t think of anyone who would make better parents. You two are going to be fine.”

“You think so?” Johnny questioned.

“Yes!” Jack and Val answered together.

The three men raised their glasses of tequila as Toni raised her glass of milk. “¡Salud!”

 

Chapter 6

Val waited on Jack to close the door to their room before heading down the stairs. He was anxious to meet with Johnny and find out more about the kids’ plans. After their big announcement, Johnny and Toni didn’t have much time to talk.  The four friends kept being interrupted by first one then another of the town’s folk coming by and greeting Jack and himself.  Seems word had gotten around that Johnny’s friends would be showing up for the wedding. Visitors were not a common occurrence in this small town.

Jack tapped him on his arm. “Didn’t Johnny say for us to meet him over at the cantina?”

Val nodded. “I’m pretty sure that’s what he said.  It was around the time the priest stopped by.”

Jack snickered. “In all my years of being Catholic, I don’t ever remember seeing a priest in a saloon.”

Val shot Jack a disgusted look. “Well, it was a dirty trick Johnny played on us, telling the priest if he wanted to ever meet us while we were here, the padre would have to visit us in the saloon.”

“Oh, Val,” Jack laughed, “you gotta admit, it was pretty funny. Father Miguel took it pretty well.”

“I ain’t that much of a heathen,” groused Val. “I would have made it outside at some point in our trip.” 

Val slapped Jack on the back and both men laughed as they headed to the cantina.

Only a side street separated the cantina from the saloon. Val noticed that nothing was far from anything in this small town. He saw that even though compact, the town seemed pretty busy this mid-morning as people hurried to get their daily business done before the heat of the afternoon hit.

As he entered the cantina, he saw that it was a small, but clean place. A few small, colorful rugs had been hung on the walls to cheer the place up. He saw Johnny waiting on them at a table near the back and he and Jack made their way over.  As he lowered himself into a chair and took off his hat, he motioned to the bottle on the table that held some flowers.

“What’s that?” he asked as he hung his hat on the back of the chair.

“Oh, that’s a lantana,” Johnny answered. “Toni told Inez it would spruce the place up.”

Val leaned over and sniffed at the small bright orange and red blossoms. “Don’t smell like much, but it is kinda pretty.”

“Toni likes them. ‘Bout the only flower that will grow around here in this heat.”  Johnny grabbed his glass of milk and took a drink.

“Where is Toni?” Jack asked.

“She’s coming. Alberto saw you two coming down the stairs in the saloon and hurried over to let us know you’d be on your way soon.” Johnny answered.

Val raised an eyebrow. “Small town telegraph, huh?”

Johnny grinned. “Yep, nothing gets by anyone here.” He ducked his head, “Even the priest.”

Jack let out a hoot of laughter. “Gotta do penance, Johnny?”

Val was surprised to see Johnny squirm a bit. He had to listen close to hear Johnny’s muttered response.

“Leastways not for last night.”

Val looked over at Jack and could tell from his expression that like him, his friend was surprised at that remark.  Val shrugged then looked back at Johnny. The kid’s head was still down and he was drawing circles in the salt he’d poured on the table.

All three men looked up as a tornado in the guise of two women swirled toward their table. The ladies carried platters of plates and food.

“Val! Jack!” Part of the tornado detached herself and placing the plates on the table, gave each man a hug as Val and Jack stood for Toni.

“Chica!” the other half of the tornado admonished Toni. “These men are hungry. You just saw them last night. Go get the rest of the things.”

Toni flashed a smile at the men as Val and Jack sat back down. She hurried away toward the kitchens.

“She’s in a good mood today,” Johnny observed.  He grabbed a plate from the older woman. “Gracias.”

“Sí, las náuseas matutinas is better,” the older woman answered while ironing her skirt with her hands.

“Bueno! Toni was getting to hate that ginger tea you kept pouring down her throat!” Johnny laughed and caught the woman’s hand and kissed it.

“Inez, I’d like you to meet our two friends. The scruffy one is Val and the tall one is Jack.” Johnny gave Inez’s hand a squeeze and let go.

Val and Jack both stood and each stuck out a hand. “Senora!”

To Val’s surprise, Inez ignored their hands and rushed over. She grabbed first Val, then Jack and gave each man a hug that took Val’s breath away.  She was saying something in Spanish but was going so fast and wiping tears away with her hand, Val had trouble following some of it.
He looked over at Johnny.  The boy was grinning like a jackass at them.

Johnny shrugged, “She’s happy to meet our friends.”

Toni returned from the kitchen carrying the last of the food. Jack met her halfway and helped her with her load.

As the four sat down, Inez looked sternly at them.  “No playing, chicos! You have much to do this week.”

All four of the friends solemnly answered, “Yes, ma’am.”

Seemingly satisfied, Inez nodded and walked back to the kitchen.

As the four began to fill their plates, Val spoke up. “So what’s the story with Senora Inez?”

“Well, see we met her a couple of years ago around Christmas. Picked this town to take a break. Good people here, Val. That’s why when we found out Toni was pregnant, we decided to stay here.” Johnny grabbed his fork.

Val and Jack looked up.

“Stay here?” Val asked.

Toni nodded. “Yep. I won’t be able to travel around much more and we want somewhere safe for our family and we figured this is the best place as any.”

Johnny stopped shoveling food into his mouth. “Besides, the priest here likes me so we figured he’d be the only one willing to marry us.”

“You mean you’re going to stay here? In one place? Be a regular family?” Val tried to keep the surprise he felt out of his voice. He looked at Jack and Jack shook his head a little. Val looked back at the two young kids sitting across from him. Johnny had put down his fork, a feat in and of itself, and had grabbed Toni’s hand. The two kids grinned at the two older men. Their eyes even sparkled.

Johnny nodded. “Yes, Val. I’ve been saving up. The town helped us get a small place of our own and there’s a couple of ranches around. I figure I can get work.”

Johnny let go of Toni’s hand and put his arm around her shoulder. “We’re going to be a regular family.”

Val had to swallow and dropped his eyes at the brilliant smiles shining from the kid’s faces. Never before had he seen such hope in either one of their eyes before.

He heard Jack next to him clear his throat and ask, “What do you need from us?”

Val lifted his head and looked at the two people he loved more than anything. “Just tell me and I’ll do whatever I can to help make this happen.”

 

Chapter 7

Val and Jack followed Johnny and Toni down a narrow street behind the cantina.  There were a few small shacks sitting among the cactus and mesquite.  The group stopped in front of the last one. Even if it hadn’t been the last one on the street, Val would have known it belonged to Johnny and Toni just by the grins on their faces.

“Well, this is it!” Johnny said as he stepped up the two steps to the door.  “Carlos had this empty shed over by the livery and wasn’t using it. I did some barter work for him and him and Pedro at the blacksmiths and Jesús over at the saloon and a bunch others helped me put it on rollers and moved it over here.” Johnny laughed. “We had our own town procession.”

Toni spoke up with pride. “You should have seen Johnny! He got it all settled on these blocks so we could have some air underneath. Our house is going to be cooler than the others. And see? He cut out a window and got me real glass panes!”

Johnny leaned down and gave her a quick kiss. “Can’t have my family in the dark, now can I?”

Val and Jack followed the couple into the tiny house. Val looked around the tiny one room. A small table sat underneath the window. Its surface was covered with a checkered tablecloth that he recognized that came from the cantina. A curtain covering the window was made of the same material.  Two chairs completed the dining room.

Against the other wall was the smallest cast iron stove Val had ever seen. He figured it had enough room on top for one pan at a time. A box of blacking was shoved underneath and a crate nailed to the wall of the house held a pot, a frying pan and a couple of utensils.  A coffee pot sat on top of the stove.

On the wall opposite the front door was a table that held a bucket and a big tin wash pan. More crates nailed to the wall held sacks of flour, salt, and coffee.  A coffee mill sat underneath. Another crate held what he recognized as the couple’s trail gear; tin plates and cups.  A broom leaned against the corner of the wall.

Against the final wall was the bed. Nails hung on the wall held Johnny’s spare set of clothes. A small rug added color to the room. A colorful Indian blanket was spread across the bed.

It was small. No, it was tiny. It was sparse. Val had been in bunkhouses that had more. But he looked again and saw the glass of flowers on the table, the curtains hanging clean and crisp at the window, the carefully made bed with the colorfully striped coverlet. And he saw the two empty saddlebags peeking out from under the bed. His glance fell on the two young people standing in front of him, holding hands, grins splitting their faces.

“It’s perfect,” Val told them.

“You’ve both done a wonderful job,” Jack replied.

“You really think so?” Toni asked.

Val walked over and gave her a hug. “Yeah, I do honey.”

Toni whispered against his chest. “Thanks, Val. I know it isn’t much, but it is our very own home. The first we’ve ever had.”

Val tightened his arms around her. “It’s going to be fine.”

Toni looked up at him. “You think?” she questioned.

Val nodded.

Toni stepped back and wiped her eyes.  She gave both men a smile. “All I need now is one of those knick knack things like Maggie had and it will be a regular house!”

“Ah, Cariño. Don’t be getting a lot of clutter. You know you hated dusting those things.” Johnny walked over to the table and picked up a small wooden box. “You’ll have this to sit around.”

Toni moved to stand next to Johnny and took the box from him. “It’s going to be beautiful.”

“What is that?” Val was curious.

Toni handed him the box. Val turned it over and examined it. It was a small wooden box with a lid. Someone, Johnny he supposed, was making intricate carvings on the box.

“You did this?” He held the box up to Johnny.

“Yep! Got to have something to do late at night.” Johnny frowned at Toni. “She’s been staying at Inez’s until after the wedding.”

“Ah, Johnny. You know that Inez said it wasn’t proper for me to stay here with you.” Toni explained.

“I don’t know why the hell not!  It’s too late to worry about putting the cart before the horse,” Johnny fussed.

“Johnny!” Three voices silenced him as Johnny pouted.

“So what is this going to be, honey?” Val asked as he handed the box to Toni.

“It’s for the arras!” Toni answered. She sat the box back on the table.

“Huh?” Val hadn’t heard that Spanish word before.

“Arras,” Johnny explained, “is part of the wedding ceremony. The groom gives the bride thirteen coins to show that he can provide for her. It’s usually in a fancy box.” Johnny shrugged. “Couldn’t find anything fancy around here so I’m making one.”

Toni wrapped her arm around Johnny’s. “It’s going to be the prettiest box in all of Cíbuta.”

Johnny looked at Toni and raised an eyebrow. He leaned over and gave her a quick kiss on her nose. Toni nodded and the couple faced Val and Jack.

“About the wedding ceremony.” Johnny paused. “Uh, we have something to ask you two.”

Val watched as Johnny drummed his free hand on his leg and took a deep breath.  Toni tightened her grip on Johnny’s arm.

“Well, you two are the only family we got, besides Inez. Jack, I’ve always looked up to you as a friend and you’re the closest thing to a big brother I’ve got.  I was wondering if you would be my best man?”
Johnny dropped his head.

Jack cleared his throat. “Johnny, I’d be proud to be your best man. I’m honored.”

Johnny unwrapped his arm from Toni’s and moved in front of Jack. He held out his hand and Jack grabbed it and pulled Johnny into a bear hug. “I’ve always thought of you as my little brother.”

Val was happy for Jack but he couldn’t help but feel a tiny spark of jealousy. He knew Johnny could only have one best man, but still…..

The older man looked as Toni gave him a shy smile and walked to him. She put her hand on his arm.

“Val?” she spoke softly. “You know I don’t have anybody but Johnny. You’ve been such a good friend to us.”

Toni dropped her eyes and studied her boots.

“To tell you the truth, I’ve always thought of you more than a friend.”

Val watched as she took a deep breath.

“You’re the closest thing to a father I’ve ever had. Would you…?”

Val leaned down to her lowered voice. “What, Honey?” he asked.

“Would you be my papa at my wedding and walk me down the aisle?” she whispered.

Val had to blink. Darn dust. He took his free hand and lifted Toni’s head. Tears pooled in her big blue eyes. He took his fingers and wiped them from her eyes.

“Antonia Madrid, I’d be happy to be your papa. I couldn’t think of anything I’d like more.”

“Antonia Crawford Madrid”

“Huh?” Val was confused.

“If you’re my papa, my name is Antonia Crawford Madrid. When we marry,” Toni nodded toward Johnny, “My name will be Antonia Crawford Madrid de Lancer. When the baby is born she will be Maria Lancer Crawford.”

Val was confused.

“Legally, the father’s name goes in the middle, it’s the mother’s name at the end,” Johnny tried to clear up the confusion.

“You going to go by Lancer?” Jack asked in amazement.

Johnny shrugged. “It’s safer and if anything happens to me, I want her protected. Toni will have the marriage certificate as proof and she can look up Lancer if she has to.”

“And you?” Val asked.

“Hell, no! The Lancer name is for protection against Madrid, nothing else. The bastard didn’t need me when I was little, my family doesn’t need him now. I’ve done fine without him all these years. He doesn’t get me now when I can be of some use.” 1

Toni hurried over to Johnny, gave him a hug and rested her head against his chest. Johnny wrapped his arms around her and sighed.

“Maria?” Jack broke the silence.

Toni lifted her head from Johnny’s chest, turned and faced Val and Jack. She grinned at both men.

“Like it?  It’s Johnny’s momma’s name. Now that he’s grown, Johnny is able to keep both of us safe now.”

“You sure it’s going to be a girl?” Val grinned.

“That’s what the lady has decided.” Johnny laughed.  “I know better than to argue with Toni when she has her mind made up.”

Johnny nodded to Toni. “It’s late, you better get back to Inez. Jack?” Johnny looked at his friend. “Would you mind going with her? I need to talk to Val a minute.”

“Sure, Johnny.” Jack opened the door and bowed to Toni. “May I escort mademoiselle to the cantina?”

Toni giggled. “Oh, you.”  She walked to the door. “Don’t be late you, two!” she admonished Val and Johnny.

“We won’t, Cariño.”

 

Chapter 8

Val sat at a back table in the saloon, nursing a glass of tequila. He looked up as Jack joined him. Jack took off his hat and as he started to slide into his seat, stopped.

“What’s that?” Jack asked, motioning to the rig that sat in the middle of the table.

Jack got comfortable in his seat and reached over for the bottle and an empty glass.

Val lifted his glass of tequila and pointed it toward the gun and holster. “That is Johnny’s gun,” he answered then threw back the shot of tequila. The sound of the glass hitting the table sounded loud in the otherwise quiet saloon.

Jack raised his eyebrows. “His gun? His gun?” Jack poured himself a drink and quickly threw one back. “Is the boy crazy?”

“Nope. The boy’s in love.” Val poured himself another drink.

“So what are you doing with it?” Jack asked.

Val quickly tossed off another drink. “Gave it to me.”

Val didn’t think Jack’s eyes could get any bigger.

“Yep,” Val continued. “The boy wants to make sure his kid is legal and do for him, or her since Toni insists it will be a girl, what his parents didn’t do for him….have a stable life. This town seems the safest place. That means a church wedding. That means….”

Jack interrupted. “That means he had to go to confession.”

Val sighed. “Yeah.”

Jack stared at the gun. “So that’s his penance. He has to prove to the priest that he ‘fully intends’ to not sin again.”

Both men stared at the gun and well-worn holster. Val didn’t know what Jack was thinking but all he could think of was how in the world was ‘Madrid’ going to fade into the woodwork.

“He can’t go unarmed,” Jack spoke up.

“He’s not. He got a plain everyday gun and holster to wear. He just ain’t going to keep his ‘working’ gun.” Val frowned as his mind raced thinking of all the things that could go wrong.

“But…” Jack’s voice trailed off before finishing his sentence.

“I know, I know. You probably haven’t thought anything I haven’t.” Val leaned forward so his voice wouldn’t carry. “He and Toni are so giddy with this baby coming, the new house, and the wedding. They think this is their only chance at being ordinary. He’s even going to go by ‘Lancer’.”  Val leaned back and slapped the table. “That right there should tell you how serious he is.”

“But Val! Supposing someone comes looking for him?  I know it seems that most everyone in town is helping them out but if the word gets around? Who’s going to back him up? The priest? Inez? Toni with a baby strapped to her back? There’s no one here Val that can have his back on this.”

Val shook his head and rubbed his hand over his eyes. He sighed deeply. “I know, Jack. I’ve had the same thoughts. But what is the boy going to do? Keeping Toni and that baby safe is everything to him. He can’t be Madrid and not expect that life to bite him in the butt. He knows that. She knows that. Madrid can’t have a family. But Johnny is about to have a family whether it’s wise or not.”

Val poured himself another drink.  “Ever since he gave that to me, I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of something else. The only thing I can think of is if I get that job in Tubac, they could move up there and at least I’d be there to watch his back.”

“That’s a great idea, Val!” Jack exclaimed. “And I’m in that area more than down here.”

“Yeah, but our boy is a stubborn cuss. Both of them are too independent for their own good. Guess they’ve had to be but damn it!” Val hit the table. “He’s got us, as close of a family as he’s going to get. He don’t get it that family looks after each other.”

Jack got up and went to the bar. He returned with a glass of beer. “Here,” he said as he pushed one toward Val. “We keep throwing those shots back and we won’t be no good to solve the kids’ problems.”

“So what are we going to do?” Jack asked.

“Nothing for the moment. He’s bound and determined to do this himself. He’s worried about Toni.” Val took a gulp of his beer.

“What about?”

Val sat the glass down. “Well, seems some doctor told them that because of something that happened when she was young and all the traveling they’ve done, trail rations, not regular meals, stuff like that…well, they were worried there weren’t going to be any babies. I told Johnny my idea and he said after the baby comes, they’d think about it. Toni really relies on Inez and I think Johnny feels better about her staying put until that baby gets born.”

Jack nodded his head in agreement. “Well, that does make sense. How much longer they got?”

“Johnny said near as they could tell, about six more months.”

Val sat his glass down. He stood up and grabbed Johnny’s rig from the table. “I’m going to put this up in our room then I think I’m going to stroll over to that church.”

Jack laughed. “You ain’t Catholic, are you Val?”

Val narrowed his eyes. “No, what of it?”

Jack stood and slapped Val on the back. “Good luck getting anything out of the priest.”

“I’m not stupid. I know the priest won’t tell me nothing.” Val picked his hat up and jammed it on his head. “But I’m going to tell that priest a few things.”

Jack laughed and with a ‘good luck’ thrown Val’s way, the two men parted.

It was late when Val got back to his and Jack’s room. Jack was already in bed.

Val thought he was being considerate but he had a sneaking suspicion Jack was waiting for him. He was proved right when just as he lay down, he heard a creak from the other bed.

“Didn’t work, did it?” 

Damn him. Val could hear the smirk in Jack’s voice.

“No!” Val fussed.

“So what happened?” Jack asked.

Val was silent.

The other bed creaked and groaned. By the moonlight from the window, Val could see Jack sitting up on the side of the bed.

“Come on, Val,” Jack insisted. “What happened?

“I had to go to confession myself.”

“You’re not Catholic!”

“That’s what I told Father Miguel but he said God was willing to listen to anyone, even an obvious heathen like me.”

Jack snorted. “So then what?”

Val put his arms up over his head and cushioned his hands under his head. “Well, seems I gotta go to Mass every morning until the wedding. Father said since I’m older and standing in as Toni’s papa, I got to set a good example.”

“Merde!” exclaimed Jack. “But you can’t take communion since you aren’t Catholic, you figure the Padre hopes some of this sticks?”

“Exactly,” Val.

Val turned over, his back to Jack. “Oh, by the way, the good Father was pleased to know that you were Catholic. He said to tell you that he’d take your confession before Mass tomorrow morning.”

Val grinned to himself. “I told him he’d better give you extra time so you got to get there an hour before.”

“Val!” Jack exclaimed. “You didn’t!”

“Yep. That example thing ya know. Big brothers got to show their younger brothers the straight and narrow way.”

Val pulled the cover up over his shoulder and punched his pillow.

“Besides, if Johnny and I have to go to Mass every morning this week as penance, you do too. Only fair to my way of thinking.”

Val closed his eyes and grinned at Jack’s colorful mutterings.

 

Chapter 9

It had been a crazy week as far as Val was concerned. He’d never seen the like. Although it was the women folk who were planning this shindig, they sure seemed to find plenty of things for the men to do. Hell, he wasn’t the one getting married! Jack, Johnny and he had nary the time to even wet their whistle over a beer what with all the running around they had to do.
When Jack and he had mentioned that they needed to go to Nogales for something they couldn’t get in Cíbuta, the two men had to take a wagon just to be able to get all the things home the women insisted they needed. Johnny had shown up later, claimed Inez had told him he needed new clothes to get married in and to tell him and Jack that they needed new clothes, also.

If ever he needed a reason to not get married, the wedding part was a good one. Now that it was the big day, Val thoroughly intended to enjoy the fiesta tonight after the wedding. He figured he deserved it.

Val looked down at Toni, she was beautiful. She was wearing a new muslin skirt and blouse. The sleeves had these ruffle things at the bottom and the skirt had a big ruffle at the bottom, too.  A bright yellow sash was tied at her waist. Her hair was in a knot at the back of her neck and she wore this fancy comb in her hair that held up this lacy thing, a mantilla she called it.

“Here,” she held out her bouquet of flowers for Val to take.

He studied it while she adjusted her clothes, picked at her mantilla, and smoothed her skirt.

“What kind of flowers are these?” He sniffed the blossoms. “They smell pretty.”

“Well, the big yellow ones like the one in my hair,” she pointed to the ones over her left ear, “Are called Esperanza.”

She took the flowers back and pointed to some red flowers. “These are yucca roja and the red and yellow flowers are lantanas. Johnny took Alberto and they combed the desert at dawn looking for flowers for me to carry. Said a pretty bride needed pretty flowers.”

Val’s eyes softened as he watched Toni blush and drop her eyes. She fiddled with the shiny yellow ribbon that held the flowers together.

Val cleared his throat. “He’s right, you know.”

Toni peeked back up at him.

“You’re about the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. Johnny is a lucky man.” With that, Val leaned over and kissed her cheek. “I’m proud of both of you.”

Toni seemed to about to say something when Inez burst into the room.

“Hurry you two. It is time to go to the church! The whole town is waiting!” As the wedding planner, Inez was not going to let sentiment slow things down.

The three quickly walked down the stairs and out the door of the cantina. Val was surprised to see half the town milling around outside.

Toni must have seen the confusion on his face. “It’s a small village, Val. Everyone joins in. Since we really don’t have family here, half the town took Johnny’s side and walked with him and Jack from the saloon, where he’s been staying, to the church. The other half of the town is following us. The whole town is doing what aunts, uncles, and cousins would have done if we’d had them.”

“Go!” Inez insisted.

Val held out his arm and Toni slipped her arm through his. As they began to walk, the town’s musicians started playing. Slowly, Val escorted Toni to the church, her ‘family’ following.

Once they reached the church, Toni, Inez, and Val stopped. The rest of the group entered the church and found their places. The musicians slipped inside and sat in the back.

“Ready, chica?” Inez asked.

Val took a minute and fussed with his own clothes. He, Jack and Johnny had all bought brand new clothes. No one could afford fancy wedding stuff, but at least today their clothes would be new and clean. He would not, ever, wear the string tie again, though.

The musicians began to play softly and Val knew that was their cue to go in.  The priest led the way behind the processional cross carried by the altar servers. Inez followed as Toni’s sponsor, then Val and Toni walked in. A nudge in his rib cage from Toni reminded him to take off his hat.

As they walked down the aisle, Val looked around. He had thought he’d be nervous, but actually, he was interested in seeing a Mexican wedding for the first time.

His eyes swept the church and he was pleased to see that it was full. It gave his heart a smile to know that here, Johnny and Toni were accepted and they and their baby would be welcomed.

Val looked down at Toni and saw that she only looked straight ahead, a smile was on her face and her eyes sparkled. He saw him then. Johnny.
The boy was standing next to Jack at the front of the church. Toni’s smile couldn’t have been any bigger than Johnny’s. Val figured he needn’t had paid out for new clothes, Johnny was looking only at one person coming down the aisle and it wasn’t him.

Johnny looked good in his new duds. The silver conchos on his new black calzones gleamed bright and the black bolero jacket had silver thread.

Val frowned. Johnny had obviously ditched the string tie. True, Johnny’s white shirt with black embroidery was fancy, but the kid should have stuck to the agreement about the tie. He and Jack had.

Val stopped when they reached the altar. He took Toni’s hand and placed it in Johnny’s. He knew he probably should say something, but they wouldn’t have paid any mind to him anyhow. The couple was too busy looking at each other.  Val gave their clasped hands a squeeze and Toni and Johnny looked at him startled. He wouldn’t have been surprised if they just then realized that he was there. He gave the two a smile and stepped away and sat down in the seat reserved for him.

Val Crawford watched and listened as the two people he loved most in the world, got married. He didn’t understand most of the Mass since it was all in Latin, but he couldn’t help but grin when he heard the young ones quietly but firmly, say their vows in Spanish. If they were nervous, they didn’t show it now that they were side by side. They both knew what they wanted and their voices rang true.

Jack did his part well, handing over the box of coins to Johnny. It pleased Val that he and Jack had been able to help contribute some coins to Johnny.  Johnny had worked hard to earn them but was still a few short of the 13 gold coins he needed for the arras part of the wedding.  Val craned his neck to get a look at the box Johnny had made. Even from where he was sitting, Val could tell that Johnny had done a bang-up job on the carving. The older man smiled at the seriousness of Johnny’s voice as he handed the arras to Toni as a token of being able to provide for her.

He had to bite his lip, though during the lazos part. Jack had told him about it the night before. Seems a lazo was this double rosary or rope that would show that Johnny and Toni were united before God. Johnny said, silk or not, he wasn’t having a rope around his neck. Inez gave them the lazo she used at her wedding, the double rosary.

Inez breezed through putting her half over Toni. Jack kept getting his part twisted and had the cross dangling over Johnny’s nose instead of in the middle of the couple. Jack’s face got all red when everyone in the church twittered as the priest sighed and reached out a hand to straighten it out.

Even though he wasn’t really religious, Val took the time after the wedding ceremony and during the Mass that followed to say a prayer for the young couple. He knew that this is what Johnny and Toni had always wanted; a family, acceptance and a chance to be ordinary. Whatever guardian angels were out there, he hoped that they would work overtime, if need be, to make this a reality for Johnny and Toni. Val couldn’t think of anyone who deserved it more.

His musings were interrupted when Johnny and Toni got up and walked over to a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Toni laid her wedding bouquet at the feet of the Lady and both her and Johnny prayed. After crossing themselves, Johnny clasped Toni’s hand and the newly married couple walked back to the front of the church. They beamed as the priest introduced them as Johnny and Antonia Lancer. Val joined in as the church erupted in claps and whistles.

The musicians quickly slipped out the back of the church and began to play at the church door. Johnny and Toni walked down the aisle hand in hand, el pistolero y su corazón.

 

Chapter 10

“I’ll say this, this town sure knows how to throw a party!” Jack made that observation after drinking deeply of the cool beer.  Johnny had told the two older men that Ricardo at the saloon had dug a pit in the ground, wrapped the beer barrel in wet gunny sacks and covered the top with sawdust a few days ago.  Surprisingly, although not cold, the beer was pretty cool.

Val nursed his beer and looked with approval at the town’s idea of a party. Rope had been strung over the side street that ran between the cantina and the saloon. Canvas had been hung over the ropes making a giant tent to keep the sun off the party goers. Brightly colored squares of calico were hung from the ropes above them. The flags gently flapped in the breeze that blew through the makeshift tent.  Tables were placed on the boardwalk of each of the buildings. Their mismatched look indicated that they had been donated by the townspeople from their homes.  Val recognized some of the tables he’d sat in while at the saloon. He knew the chair he and Jack were sitting in had come from there.

“He looks happy, don’t you think?” Jack’s voice broke in on Val’s musings. Val looked at the front of the tent where Johnny and Toni had their own small table.

“Happier than I’ve ever seen him.” Val watched as Johnny leaned over and whispered into Toni’s ear, his hand resting on her belly. He saw Toni laugh and place her hand on top of his. She smiled up at Johnny and leaned forward as Johnny gave her a kiss.

Val leaned back in his chair and stretched out his legs. Now that his wedding duties were done, he aimed to just enjoy himself. That hated string tie had disappeared quick. 

“That was right smart of you to offer that traveling tintype guy a bonus if he came down here from Nogales.” Val patted his shirt pocket. “Two for ten cents was a pretty good deal.”

“I thought so,” replied Jack. “I don’t think this town has ever had a traveling tintype man come by here.  I know times are tough, but there were enough people buying pictures to have made his trip worthwhile.”

Val took the small tintype from his pocket and studied it. It was a picture of the four of them in their wedding finery. Johnny sat beside Toni and the two were holding hands. Standing behind them were Jack and Val. The men were somber but Toni had a tiny smile on her face as if she had a wonderful secret.

Jack leaned over to look at the picture.  “Man, they look so young.”

Val laughed. “Johnny would probably say that’s because we look so old!”

The two men laughed and Val placed the picture back in his shirt pocket. He gave the pocket a little pat before reaching for his beer.

Val sniffed the air. The blacksmith and some other men had cooked carnitas in big copper plated pots earlier that morning. Once the pork and spices had finished cooking, the men had used cleavers to chop the meat into pieces. Inez and the women had then taken over and used the meat to make tamales, tortas, and tortillas. Another group of women was in charge of the rice and beans.

“I’m getting hungry.” Val rubbed his belly.

“Well, you’re just going to have to wait,” Jack answered as he stood up. “Come on, they’re giving the couple the wedding gifts. I’ll go get ours.”

Val stood and watched as Jack left the party and go into the saloon. They had gotten the gift when they had gone to Nogales. Good thing it had been wrapped in a blanket and already in the wagon when Johnny had joined them to buy clothes.

Several people were in line in front of the newlywed’s table when Val and Jack joined them. Val watched as several of the townsfolk gave the couple household goods as gifts.

Everyone in line parted to let Father Miguel through. The slight padre struggled with a heavy rocking chair. He placed it in front of Johnny and Toni.

“The saloon chairs not comfortable enough, Padre?” asked Johnny.

Father Miguel waited until the laughter had died down before speaking.
“My son, when you’ve been on your knees hours praying for cheeky ninos to see the error of their ways, even saloon chairs are a comfort.”

Val joined in with the rest of the town as everyone laughed at the priest’s reply. Even Toni laughed as Johnny Madrid, the feared pistolero, blushed, grinned, then dropped his head.

“No, Johnny.  I am giving this rocking chair as my gift to you for your new home. Everyone should have such a chair to rock in the evenings before the fire after a hard day’s work. A chair to rock your babies to sleep. A chair to rock as you ponder the good fortune you have now.”

Johnny lifted his head and looked the priest in the eyes as he shook the Father’s hand. “Thank you, Father,” he said simply.

Giving Johnny a nod, the priest moved on to find a seat at one of the tables. Toni sat in the chair and squealed. “It’s so comfortable! Thank you, Father Miguel!”

Val and Jack were next. Jack placed the bundle on the ground in front of Toni in the chair.

“Val! Jack! You didn’t have to do anything else! You’ve done too much already!” Johnny exclaimed.

“We figured we wouldn’t be here when the baby was born so we thought we’d get something for her now,” Val grinned at Toni.

Toni leaned forward in the chair and reaching down, pulled the covering off the gift. What she revealed was a hand decorated cradle. 

“It’s beautiful!” Toni gasped. She jumped up and with tears in her eyes, hugged Val and Jack.

Johnny reached out his hand and pulled first Val and then Jack into a hug, slapping their backs.  “Thanks, amigos.”

Val and Jack made their way back to their table. By the time they had maneuvered their way through the milling crowd, the gifts had all been received and the musicians began to play again.

Inez clanged a triangle dinner bell to get everyone’s attention and the music stopped momentarily.  “The food is ready in the cantina. I hope everyone brought their own plates? Bueno. Go in a table at a time, please.  Let the newlyweds go first, por favor.”

Toni and Johnny stopped by Val’s and Jack’s table on the way to head the line.  “Come on,” Johnny motioned for the two men to join them in line. “Toni got our and your plates out of our trail kits and already put them in the cantina.”

The friends went into the cantina and after Toni had gotten their plates, the amigos began to serve themselves. Rarely did Val get to eat such good food and he, like the other three, loaded up his plate. Once done, the four made their way back to their tables. Val was surprised when Toni and Johnny sat down beside him and Jack instead of returning to their private table.  

Val raised an eyebrow and Johnny shrugged. “We have plenty of time to be alone when all this is over. We want to enjoy being with you two.” Johnny explained.

The small group enjoyed their meal and talked of future plans.  Val noticed that for once, Johnny was thinking ahead. Usually, unless on a job, the boy lived one day at a time.

“Will you think about joining me in Tubac?” Val asked.

“I said I would,” Johnny paused between bites. “You sure you got the job?”

“Yep, sent a telegram from Nogales to Sam Fisher the other day. That Sanchez guy brought it back with him last night.” Val took a long drink of beer. “I got the job if I want it.”

“That’s wonderful, Val! Tubac is only about forty-five miles from here,” Toni exclaimed happily. “That’s much better than being all the way over in Texas!”

“What about you?” Toni turned to Jack.

“I’ll probably stay in that area awhile, maybe go on to Tuscan,” Jack replied.

Toni grabbed Johnny’s hand. “Oh, Johnny! We’re all going to be in spitting distance! Isn’t that the best news?”

Johnny raised their clasped hands to his lips and kissed her wedding ring. “Good, but I wouldn’t say the best.” He turned his head and gave the older men his cocky smile.

Val’s gaze was caught by the sight of the shiny new silver bands each of the kids wore. Again, he marveled at how these kids were willing to change their whole life for this dream of theirs.

People began getting up and clearing their plates of scraps at a table provided in the back of the awning. Val watched as they washed their dishes they had brought and packed them in baskets they later placed under the tables.  A woman Val didn’t recognize grabbed his and Jack’s plates while Inez took Johnny’s and Toni’s.

The musicians began to tune up their guitars and fiddles. Toni grabbed Johnny and pulled him into the street. Jack turned and gave Val a surprised look.

“Yep,” Val answered the unasked question. “She likes to dance and right now, I think he would lasso the moon if she asked.”

The two men sat down. Ricardo and the boy Alberto brought them a bottle of tequila and two glasses. “Fiesta time,” Ricardo explained.

The man had barely moved to the next table before Val had poured himself and Jack a drink. As he watched the young couple on the dance floor, he had to admit that Johnny was a pretty good dancer.

Toni did her best to get Val to dance with her throughout the evening, but he denied her each time she asked. Even that sassy smile of hers wasn’t enough to get him to make a fool of himself in public. Fluttering her eyelashes at him didn’t change his mind either.

She didn’t have to twist Jack’s arm too much. Once he danced with Toni, Jack stayed on the dance floor and danced with several pretty senoritas. Val was content watching his friends and drinking his tequila.

“Come on Val! I need your help.” Val didn’t trust the little miss one bit and told her so.

“No, really. We’re about to start the La Vibora de la Mar!” Toni tugged at Val’s arm.

“The what?” Val tried shaking her off but she stuck closer than a burr.

Grabbing his hand, she pulled Val to the center of the street. Johnny was standing on a chair and an empty chair stood a couple of feet across from him.

“Jack! Come help Val!” Johnny called out.

Jack made his way to Val.

“Help me up,” Toni ordered.

“Should you be doing this in your condition?” Val asked as he held her arm as she stepped up onto the chair.

Toni stood in the chair. Inez hurried over and after picking up Toni’s veil from their private table returned to Toni’s side and gave her one end of the veil. She handed the other end to Johnny.

Shaking a finger in Val’s face she admonished him, “Now you two don’t let her fall.”

“So what are we doing?” Val moved on one side of Toni as Jack took the other side.

“The Sea Snake Dance,” Toni answered. “Johnny and I hold my veil and the women get in one line and dance around and the men get in another line. They have to go under the veil. You two make sure I don’t fall.”

Although he didn’t participate, Val had to admit that he had fun watching the lines swirl, twist and turn under the arch faster and faster. Of course, it could also be the many drinks of sangria someone kept bringing him. Val took seriously his responsibility in keeping Toni steady on the chair. But that took only one hand.

The fiesta lingered long into the night. Darkness didn’t stop the revelry. Lanterns were just brought out and hung from the ropes of the awning and on the sides of the buildings.

At some point in time, Johnny picked up his bride and carried her to their new home amid the well wishes and catcalls of the townsfolk.
As Val watched his two best friends enter their own home together, he smiled.

 

Chapter 11

Val heard the rumble of the stagecoach pulling up to the express office located across the street from the jail. Setting his cup of coffee down on the worn table, he walked to the front, opened the door and looked out. He saw Ted, the driver, wrap the reins around the brake while Rufus, who rode shotgun, leaned back and began handing down the passenger’s baggage.

As sheriff, he always liked to see who was coming into his town. Not that he expected any trouble, but he always liked to see who was coming into his town. Val didn’t like surprises, so he stepped outside and scanned the crowd of people who had also stopped to watch the incoming stage. There really wasn’t much that happened in this town, so the daily stage was a way to kill the monotony. Val chuckled to himself. Besides, most people were just damned nosey.

“Sheriff!”

He was jerked out of his musings when Ted called to him. He saw the driver of the stage beckon him to come over. Curious, he pushed himself off the wall of his jail and walked over. Old Mrs. Cates waved hello as her family gathered her bags. Looked like she had had a good time visiting her sister in Nogales.

“Ted.” Val put a hand on the wheel of the stagecoach and looked up at the driver.

Ted reached into his coat pocket. “Got something for you, Sheriff Crawford.”

Val took the letter that the grizzled driver handed him. He flipped it over. No stamp, no return address, just ‘Sheriff Crawford’ written across the front.

Ted leaned over and whispered, “He said I was to put this in your hands only.”

Val looked up in surprise. “Since when are you delivering mail on the sly, Ted?” he asked. He wondered who would have written him.

That was soon answered when Ted leaned over so far, Val was afraid the man would tumble off the seat.

“Since Johnny Madrid asked me to,” Ted spoke low.

“Madrid? Are you sure?” Val asked.

“That’s who the man said he was and I reckon I knowed him anyways. Saw him once take a man out in Nogales. Cool son of a bitch, those icy blue eyes gave me the shivers.” Ted shuddered.

“Anyways, he comes up to me before we leave out and asked if I would give this to you. Said he’d count it as a favor.” Ted sat back up. “My momma didn’t raise no fool so there you are.” Ted pointed to the letter with his chin.

Val looked down at the letter. “Anyone with him?”

“Nope. Seemed to be all by his lonesome.” Ted scooted over as Rufus settled beside him. Ted unwound the reins and before slapping them gave Val one more piece of information. “The man seemed a mite edgy though.”

“Frazzled,” Rufus spoke up.

“Huh?” Val and Ted both looked at Ted’s partner.

Rufus leaned over and spit over the side of the stage. He shifted the plug of tobacco to the other side of his mouth. “Frazzled,” Rufus answered. “The boy looked frazzled. Don’t get me wrong, I still wouldn’t want to tangle with him but the boy looked like he had something else on his mind he weren’t sure what to do with.”

Val lifted the letter. “Well, I thank you, fellas. How long before you come back?”

Rufus spit again. “Well, now. We go to Tucson tomorrow so we’ll be back day after. Nogales the day after that.”

Val nodded. “Okay, then. I’ll have something to give you to pass on when you get to Nogales.”

“Sheriff! I ain’t no delivery boy!” Ted was incensed.

Val narrowed his eyes. “You want to be the one to tell Madrid that you won’t pass along a message?”

Ted lowered his eyes.

“I thought so,” Val retorted. “And don’t go blabbing this to anyone either!” he shouted to the two men on the stagecoach.

Val backed away as Ted slapped the reins to start the horses moving toward the stable.

“I told you my momma didn’t raise a fool!” Ted got the last word in as the stagecoach moved down the street toward the livery.

Johnny’s friend looked at the envelope and wondered what in the world the boy could want. It worried him that Johnny was still using ‘Madrid’. He slapped the envelope against his leg. Well, this was getting him nowhere. Guess he’d have to go in and read it. Val started toward his office but thought better of it. He turned toward the saloon instead.

“Bill!” Val called out to the barkeep as he walked through the batwings of the saloon. He walked over to the scarred bar and laid a coin down.

“Bottle of tequila,” he ordered.

“You celebrating?” Bill asked.

“Medicine,” Val answered.

Bill set a bottle on the bar. “You sick, Sheriff?”

Val grabbed the bottle. “Might be, don’t know yet.”

In answer to Bill’s troubled look, Val continued. “It’s fine, Bill. Just figured when I get off duty tonight, I might like a drink. Don’t look too good for a Sheriff to be hanging around a saloon, drinking, even if he is off duty.”

The bartender’s face cleared and he nodded. “That makes sense.”

“See ya!” Val grabbed the bottle and left the saloon. He walked back across the street to the jail. Once inside, he opened the bottom drawer of his desk. Feeling around, he moved Johnny’s working gun to the back of the drawer and put the booze in front. Making sure his letter was still safe in his shirt pocket, he went back outside. He really wanted to know what Johnny had to say, but to tell the truth, he was scared. It wasn’t like the boy to write him a letter. Oh, he knew Johnny could read and write some, but to write him a letter? Whatever was in the letter, Val couldn’t do nothing about it today. He would wait until tonight when all was quiet and he was off duty to read the thing. If he needed to have a drink to get him through it, no would question him being on his own time.

Satisfied that he had a sound plan, Val began to make his rounds of the town. His heart wasn’t in it, though. He kept thinking about that damn letter!

 

Chapter 12

It was late. The town was quiet and Val was finally off duty.
He poured himself a shot of tequila just in case and settled down to solve the mystery of Johnny’s letter. He wished Jack was here with him. Jack was a good man if back-up was needed.

Taking the letter out of his shirt pocket, he carefully tore it open. He took a drink of liquid courage and began to read.

Dear Val,

Things are good. I’m getting work. I don’t like cows.

I lurned something. Don’t agre with a womun if she says she is gitting fat. She is but she don’t like it. I think I wuz suposed to lie. I’ve got soft Val. Sleeping on the floor don’t feel so good enymore.

We’re happy. I like watching her rocking in that chair. Toni’s making these little clothes things. They are so tiny, Val. I ain’t ever seen a baby up close before. Sumthing that little might break easy. What if I do? Toni wouldn’t be happy.

I think she’s nervus. I see her rub her belly and get all quiet like. Then she starts cleaning. If you come to visit you better not get mud on her floor. She gets right mad at that. She didn’t care about things like that on the trail.

She still can’t cook. I sneek over to the saloon and get a good meel now and then. Good thing the baby won’t have to eat anything she cooks for a bit. I tell you Val, being hit by Moose Mike ain’t nothing like being hit with a frying pan. I swear I won’t say nothing again about her cooking.

Write back, Val. Still gonna do it but staying in one place is hard.

Did I tell you I hate cows?

Johnny

Val chuckled and took another drink. Not that he would be much help, but man, that boy had some things to learn about women. Women were also a puzzle to Val, but he’d heard that pregnant ones were even worse. More skittish than a fancy racing mare.

He smiled. That was it. Johnny always liked horses. If he could just get Johnny to think about Toni as a fancy horse in foal, Johnny would know how to gentle her.

Rummaging in his desk, he found some paper and a pencil. He thought for a moment, licked the end of the pencil, then began to scratch on the paper.

Dear Johnny,
I was surprised to get a letter from Madrid. Thought you had done with that.

Glad to hear you getting work. I don’t like cows either. When the baby gets here, if you get tired of cows, you can work for me here in Tubac. My deputy is leaving in a few months for El Paso. Got family there.

Johnny, you knucklehead. Of course, Toni is nervous. All females get that way if a baby is coming. Remember that horse of Dave Wilkens, that fancy mare of his? That horse was skittish as all get out. Once she dropped her foal, she was back to normal. Toni is the same way. Just treat her like a pregnant mare and you’ll be okay. They just want some soothing. Just whatever you do, don’t tell her! As touchy as she seems to be, I’m betting she wouldn’t like being told she’s like a horse.

Take care,
Val

Val reread what he’d wrote and smiled in satisfaction, certain his advice would help his friend. Grabbing the envelope that lay on his desk, Val folded the letter and placed it inside. Not sure why Johnny was going by Madrid in Nogales, he decided to play along and addressed the letter to Johnny Madrid.

Happy with his evening’s work, he placed the finished letter in the top drawer of his desk. He’d pass it along to Ted when the stage got into town from their run to Tucson. Now all he had to do was figure how to get it from Nogales to Cibuta. He didn’t think for one minute, Johnny would leave Toni alone to hang around Nogales waiting for a reply.

Blowing out the lamp, Val headed to his quarters in the back of the jailhouse. He was pretty tired. This writing letters thing wore him out.

********

The stage rode in and Val watched from his spot by the jail. In the three months since Johnny first wrote, Ted had passed letters between the friends, regular-like. Val had even gotten one from Toni. His written Spanish wasn’t that great but he laughed aloud when he’d read her letter. Seems Johnny had taken his advice.

Hola Val,
Estoy preocupado por Johnny. El sigue acariciando mi cabeza , diciéndome " Esa es mi chica". Es como si él creyera que soy un caballo o algo parecido.
Toni

Of course, he had no intention of relieving Toni’s worry about Johnny on why the boy kept patting her on the head, saying ‘that’s my girl’ and treating her like a horse.

The kids seemed to be doing well. As long as the world left them alone, they were determined to give this baby a regular life. Toni was keeping busy trying to learn how to cook and making baby clothes. Johnny was picking up odd jobs where he could. Johnny thought Toni was going to be a good momma. Toni thought Johnny was going to be a good papi. Now just to get those youngsters through the final three months!

“Sheriff!” Ted began shouting before he’d even fully stopped the stage.

Val quickly stepped off the boardwalk and hurried over to the stage. Ted had the letter out and pointed to him before Val even reached the stage. Val grabbed the letter and looked at the writing.

“Ya gotta read it now, Sheriff. Some Mexican fella gave it to me and said Madrid said you were to read it right away.” Ted took off his hat and wiped his forehead with his arm.

Rufus leaned across Ted. “Yep,” he added. “Said it was moo
im-por-tontoe.”

“You mean muy importante”? Val asked.

“That’s what I said,” answered Rufus.

“Said we were to get someone named Jack from Tucson when we get up there,” Ted added.

Val jerked his head up and swallowed his heart back into his chest. He tore opened the letter and began to read while Rufus began handing down the bags as the passengers on the stage began spilling out.

Val,
Someone’s looking for me. I’ve got friends in Nogales and they sent back word that someone’s ben asking around four Madrid. We ain’t safe here. Good people in Cibuto but they can’t have my back. Will be there soon wen I get wagon together to bring Toni and are stuff. Have place for us. It’s Russ, Val.
Johnny

Val stumbled back and took his hat off his head and hit it against his leg. “Damn!”

“You okay, Sheriff?” Ted asked.

Val slammed his hat back on his head. “No.” His answer was terse as he folded the letter and stuffed it into his shirt pocket.

He put his hand on Ted’s boot. “When you get to Tucson tomorrow, I want you to look for Jack Daumas. Tell him to get here pronto.”

“What if this Jack asks why?” Ted asked.

“Just tell him his brother needs him.” Val walked away leaving two very confused stage drivers.

Val walked back to the jail and slammed the door behind him. He sat heavily on his chair and reached into the bottom drawer of his desk. He pulled out a bottle of whiskey and left the glass in the drawer.

Popping off the cork, he drank deeply from the bottle. He sat the bottle down firmly on the desk and reached into his pocket for the letter.

“Damn.” He’d hoped he had read it wrong the first time. As Val’s hands and the letter dropped in his lap, he leaned back in his chair.

Russell Brown.

Now there was a name he hadn’t expected to hear.

Russell Brown had been sent to prison for twenty years for supplying the Apache with weapons. It was Toni’s testimony that helped put him away. Russ had ridden with Johnny, Toni, Jack, Jack’s brother Jean, and himself from Mesilla to the silver mines in New Mexico. Johnny had once counted on him as a friend. That ‘friend’ had almost gotten them killed by the Apache. Jack’s brother had died.

Val replayed that last day in court. Russ had gone after Toni when he realized that he would be going to jail. During the Apache attack, Russ had taken an arrow to his cheek. That and the jail time had made the man snap. Too bad there had been witnesses. Johnny should have killed the man anyway.

Val sighed. Russ still had time left to serve so he must have broken out of the Missouri Federal Prison. A wanted man, Russ didn’t have much to lose. Obviously, if he was trying to find Johnny, he would find Toni. Val didn’t figure the man would stop at anything to get revenge on who he thought had ruined his life.

This wasn’t good. Val took another drink from the bottle and replacing the cork, filed it away in the bottom drawer.

He needed to get busy. He wouldn’t send a letter or wire to Johnny, too many ways of it getting into the wrong hands. Johnny would know that he’d get things ready for the couple. Besides getting them a place to live, he’d send out telegrams to the other sheriffs in the area. If at all possible, he wanted to know where Russell Brown was. If they were lucky, the man would get bucked off his horse and break his neck.

 

Chapter 13

“Reckon one of us should try to meet them on the trail?” Jack asked.

Val sighed. “We already talked about this, Jack. We don’t know when they left and we don’t know what trail they took. They got a wagon, but if I know Johnny, he’s trying to do some backtracking to cover up their trail.”

Jack rested his elbow on the desk, his closed fist holding up his chin. “Long way from Cibuto to here in a wagon.”

“Yep, about forty-five miles,” Val stared out the window and watched the daylight begin to fade.

“Sheriff! Sheriff!” A shout outside startled Val out of his musings. He and Jack stood up as the door slung open. Ben, from the mercantile, stood in the doorway, his chest heaving. “You gotta come, Sheriff. They’re at the Doc’s.”

Val ran out the door and Jack followed. Ben ran behind and tried to keep up. “It’s bad, Sheriff,” he panted.

The three men stopped in front of the doctor’s house. A wagon was parked in front, Johnny’s and Toni’s horses tied to the back. A crowd had begun to gather.

“Ben! Take these horse tied in the back to the livery and see to them.” Val ordered.

“Ken?” Val sought out the owner of the small house he had rented for Johnny and Toni.

“Yes?” Ken stepped forward.

“Take the stuff from the wagon and put it in the house. Then see to these horses.” Val turned to the gathering crowd. “The rest of you go on home.”

Val didn’t wait to see if his orders were being followed. He and Jack walked to the door of the doctor’s office and stepped inside. Jack firmly closed the door behind him.

As the two men stood in the front parlor, they could hear voices being raised in the back rooms. Suddenly, the door to the doctor’s surgery opened and an arm pushed Johnny Madrid out of the room.

“And stay out until I call you!” a voice hollered as the door behind Johnny was slammed. All three men heard the click of the door being locked.

“Johnny!” Val called out.

The frantic husband spun around and stared at Val and Jack. He blinked his eyes and passed a shaky hand over his eyes.

Val hurried over and grabbed the boy as Johnny’s knees began to buckle. He half carried Johnny to a chair.

Jack went to a tray by the window and poured Johnny a glass of water. He pressed the glass into his hands. “Drink up, kid,” Jack ordered.

After a few shaky tries, Jack helped hold the glass steady so Johnny could get some water down his throat instead of down his shirt.

Val squatted down and put his hand on Johnny’s knee. He looked the boy over carefully. Johnny was covered in blood but didn’t seem to have any wounds. The boy seemed dazed, his eyes unfocused. Val had never seen his friend this way before, not even when an Apache arrow had caught Toni.

Jack took the glass from Johnny as Val began to question him.

“Johnny. Look at me, son. What happened?”

Slowly Johnny raised his eyes to Val. His blue eyes swam with tears.

“He shot her, Val. He shot her!”

Val put his hand on Johnny’s knee and squeezed. Jack knelt beside Val.

“I had heard that Russ was looking for us. You got that letter, right?”

Val and Jack shook their heads yes.

“I knew I couldn’t keep her safe in Cibuto. I borrowed a wagon and team, loaded up our stuff and we left during the night. Thought that might would be something he wouldn’t suspect.” Johnny squeezed his eyes shut.

“I rode behind at first on my horse, trying to clean up the trail. When it got light we picked up speed and I drove. Pushed as long as I could. Finally had to stop. Toni and the horses were exhausted.”

Johnny jumped up and began to pace. “Started up early this morning. Things were going pretty good. We thought we’d given Russ the slip. I knew if I got her here, I could keep her safe.”

Johnny stopped and looked at Val. “You would have been proud of her, Val. She didn’t complain once, even with a cold camp last night. She just would give me her smile, wrap her arm around mine and tell me what a good papa I was going to be.”

He gazed behind Val at the closed door. “She’d rub her belly and tell the baby all these nice things about me.”

Johnny turned his gaze back to Val and Jack. “She told the baby about you two, also.”

Johnny’s voice lowered to a whisper. “I know she was scared, but she never let on, not once!”

“Then what happened?” Val asked.

Johnny’s head snapped up and his eyes blazed. “He ambushed us, Val. The bastard somehow got ahead of us and was waiting for us. You know that rocky place not far from here?”

Val nodded.

“It’s all my fault, Val. We were almost here and the baby moved and she took my hand and put it on her belly so I could feel the baby jump. I dropped my guard for a minute. I saw the flash of light bounce off his gun too late! I hadn’t no more than shouted when I heard the shot and Toni fell off the wagon. She didn’t even have time to make a sound!”

“I jumped down and covered her best I could and returned fire. Russ fired a few more shots but they just hit stuff in the wagon.”

“Are you sure it was Russ?” Jack asked.

“Yeah, I’m sure.” Johnny Madrid’s voice dripped with ice. “The bastardo yelled at me. Told me that he had promised we would pay for messing up his face and putting him in jail. Said he always kept his promises.”

Johnny’s fists clenched as he paced first one way then another. Val could feel the anger pouring off the boy.

“Johnny?” Val called out several times before he got the gunfighter’s attention.

“I guess Russ decided he’d done what he came to do ‘cause he didn’t shoot no more. I threw some things out of the wagon and made room for Toni. Slapped those reins and got out of there as fast as I could. I drove a ways then stopped to see about her. He got her in the back, low. Left a hole half the size of a man’s fist where it came out.”

All three men jumped when the door to the Doc’s examination rooms opened. The doctor walked out followed by his nurse. She was carrying a small bundle about the size of a newborn pup.

The nurse made her way to Johnny’s side. She pulled the blanket back to reveal the tiniest baby anyone could ever imagine. Johnny stared at the small bundle.

“Johnny,” the doctor called his name several times. Val moved beside Johnny and grabbed his elbow.

“Huh?” Johnny finally acknowledged the doctor.

“Son, I’m sorry. All of this caused your baby to come early. She’s alive for the moment but it won’t be for long. I thought you’d want some time with her while you could.”

“Toni?” Johnny’s voice cracked.

“She’s hurt bad, son. She’s holding on and I’m trying, but….” The doctor’s voice trailed off.

The nurse held up the baby for Johnny to take. “Go on, hold your daughter. She won’t have long on this earth, but show her that her papa loves her while she’s here.”

Johnny slowly shook his head yes and took his baby from the nurse. Val had seen other people and how they held their babies in the crook of their arms. Johnny’s baby girl fit in the palm of his hand.

Johnny lifted the blanket covering her. “Was she….” His voice trailed off.

“She’s perfect, son. How the bullet missed her, I’ll never know. She’s just too small, Johnny. It was just too soon for her to be born.” The doctor patted Johnny on the shoulder. “Take as much time as you need. I’ve got to go back to your wife.”

Johnny snapped his head up. “Does she know about our baby?”

“No, son. I’m afraid she’s hurt too bad to know about anything right now.”

Sweeping the room with a sad glance, the doctor and nurse left.

Jack and Val moved to stand on either side of Johnny. They watched as Johnny touched each part of the little girl with his finger. Val could see Johnny counting her fingers and toes. He was doing the same thing.

Johnny rubbed his finger over her chest. The tiny chest barely moved.

“She’s beautiful, Johnny. I’m so sorry.” Jack whispered.

Val bent over and kissed the tiny head. “Grandpa loves you, little one.”

Val wiped his face. “Johnny, we’re going to step outside and give you some time with your little girl. Call us when you need us.”

Jack grabbed Johnny’s shoulders and led him to the sofa. “Sit here, Johnny.”

Val and Jack walked to the front door. Before closing the door behind him, Val took a final look at Johnny. The boy held his baby girl against his chest and rocked as he cried.

 

Chapter 14

It was after dawn. Val sat up and looked around. The doctor’s tiny parlor was crowded. Johnny had finally fallen asleep. When Val and Jack had left Johnny alone with the baby, Val had walked over to the Catholic church and woken up the padre at the rectory. It had taken some talking, but Johnny had realized that Toni would have wanted the baby baptized. After consulting with the doctor, the priest had also given Toni the last rites. The doctor wasn’t holding out much hope there either.

Maria Lancer Crawford hadn’t lived long afterward. Her papa made sure that she knew she was loved during her short life. It took some doing for Val and Jack to get Johnny to relinquish the baby to the undertaker. The priest was a kindly old man and had stayed just in case.

They were all there, Jack, Johnny, the priest, the doctor and himself. No one had gotten much more than a nap, especially while spread out on the couch and in chairs.

Val watched as one by one, the men woke up. The nurse opened the door and walked in. Johnny noticed and jumped up.

“Still the same, Johnny. Why don’t you men go get some coffee and something to eat?” the nurse spoke kindly.

“I’m not hungry,” mumbled Johnny.

“No, my son. I’m sure you’re not,” replied the priest. “But you have things to do today, I’m afraid. You need to keep up your strength.”

“Things?” asked Johnny.

“The funeral,” the priest reminded him.

“Oh.” Johnny bowed his head.

Val grabbed Johnny’s hat and his own. “Come on, Johnny. At least drink some coffee.”

“I want to see Toni first,” Johnny demanded.

“All right. Follow me,” replied the nurse.

“You men go on to the cantina. I’ll wait here for Johnny,” Val told the others.

They all agreed and left.

Val walked around the room and played with the doc’s knick-knacks. He wanted to keep busy and not think for a minute of what had happened.

Johnny wasn’t gone long and soon returned to the parlor. Although his eyes were red, the man was subdued. Val felt sure it hadn’t all hit him yet.

The priest tried to explain at breakfast what Johnny needed to do today. The funeral Mass would be held late in the afternoon. Val watched as Johnny nodded in the right places. He didn’t add any more to the conversation.

After breakfast, the doctor and the priest went their own way.

“I need to get her something to wear.”

Val was surprised when Johnny actually spoke.

“Where’s our stuff?” Johnny asked.

“I had the men unload it at the house I got you,” Val replied. “It’s this way.”

The two friends followed Val off a side street to a small, well-kept house. Val entered and the other two followed. Johnny and Toni’s things had been placed in the middle of the room. Johnny walked over to the cradle. He bent down and rubbed his hand over the sides.

Picking through the little things that filled the cradle, Johnny picked out a tiny white dress with pink embroidered flowers. He also picked out a matching blanket.

“Toni worked hard on these things,” Johnny reflected. “She wanted our baby to have the best.”

Val nodded. “You were good parents, Johnny. Even if it was a short time.”

Johnny stood up. “Was I?” His voice was cold and detached.

He bent over and after taking out the other things in the cradle, he picked the cradle up. He stood at the door. “Do you mind?” Johnny gestured to the door.

Jack hurried over and opened the door for him. “Why are you taking the cradle?” Jack asked.

Johnny turned and looked at Jack with the deadest eyes Val had ever seen. “It’s her coffin.”

Val’s jaw dropped and Jack looked wide-eyed at him. Johnny walked out of the small house without a backward glance.

“Johnny, are you sure?” Val caught up with Johnny.

“I’m sure. You got a problem with that?” Johnny retorted.

Val shook his head no and led Johnny to the undertakers.

The undertaker raised his eyebrows when he saw Johnny carrying in a cradle. Johnny set the cradle on the floor with a thud.

“I want her buried in this,” the young father demanded.

“Well, uh,” the undertaker seemed lost for words. “Sir, it isn’t usual.”

“I don’t care if it is usual or not. Burying my newborn daughter isn’t usual. Wondering if I’m going to have to bury my wife anytime now isn’t usual. None of this is usual to me so I don’t care what you normally do. I. Want. Her. Buried. In. Her. Cradle. She didn’t get to use it while she was living and it is hers, damn it!” Johnny stood with his hands on his hips and was breathing hard.

“Uh, Mr. Pope. Couldn’t you fit it with a top?” Val asked.

Mr. Pope looked at the distraught father. “Yes, that would work.” He swallowed. “Is there anything else, sir?”

Johnny reached down and took out the clothes he’d put in the cradle. “Where is she? Her mother and I want her to wear this. Her mother made it for her Christening gown.”

The undertaker looked at Val and Jack for help. They both just shrugged at the man.

“Well, she’s right in here,” Mr. Pope walked to a back room. Val picked up the cradle and the three men followed the undertaker.

Val hated visiting the undertaker’s room. Knowing his grandbaby was there made it worse. He set the cradle down beside the table. 

“Would you like for me to do this, sir?” Mr. Pope asked hesitantly.

Johnny took a deep breath. “No, I’ll do it. Just leave us alone. Please.”

“We’ll just be outside the door, Johnny. Call us if you need us,” Val spoke low.

Johnny nodded and the three men walked to the door.

They both turned back around at Johnny’s yell.

“What is it?” Val asked frantically.

“Where’s her diaper?” Johnny asked furiously.

“Well, sir, uh,” the undertaker fumbled for the right words. “We don’t usually dress people in their underwear for burying. No one is going to see anything and it isn’t like anyone…”

The man gulped and stopped talking when Johnny’s gun appeared in his face.

“Johnny!” Val and Jack shouted.

“You get my daughter a diaper, right now. My daughter is not some poor peon whose family can’t afford proper clothes for her to wear. She might not know but I do!” Johnny hit his chest with his gun.

“She’s my little girl. I’m her papa and the only thing I can do for her is to see that she gets buried proper.” Johnny’s voice broke. “Now get me a damn diaper!”

“Yes, sir.” The undertaker’s voice shook and he hurried away.

Johnny lowered his gun and placed it back in its holster. He ignored Val and Jack and walked back over to his little girl. He began to take off the gown the undertaker had dressed her in and put the one Toni had made on instead.

The undertaker hurried back into the room, a small piece of cloth and a pin in his hand. “A regular diaper would be too big so I got this fancy handkerchief, my wife, bless her soul, gave me years ago. I never used it.” He handed the makeshift diaper to Johnny.

Johnny laid it on the table and looked puzzled. He raised red eyes to Val, Jack and Mr. Pope. “I don’t know how,” he whispered. “Toni was going to get a doll for me to practice on later.”

Jack stepped forward. “Here, I know how if that’s okay, Johnny.”

Johnny nodded.

Jack stood by Johnny and folded the handkerchief into a passable diaper. He talked as he put it on the baby. “I used to help my ma out with Jean. Teased him about it when he got older. Always could get a rise out of the boy whenever I mentioned it.”

Finished, Jack stepped back.

Lifting his little nina, Johnny wrapped her in the new blanket Toni had made for her daughter. Val moved the casket off the table and placed the cradle in its place. Gently, Johnny kissed his baby girl on the top of her head and placed her in her cradle. 

The undertaker stepped forward. “I’ll see to the rest, Mr. Madrid. I believe Father George said that the service would be at 3:00? I’ll bring her to the church.”

Mr. Pope threw a look at Val and Jack.

Val placed his arm on Johnny’s. “Come on, amigo. Let’s go check on Toni.”

Johnny gave one last look at his tiny baby girl and allowed Val to lead him away. 

 

Chapter 15

The three friends hung around the doctor’s office until finally, the man ran them off.  Toni still had not woken. She was holding her own but that wasn’t saying much.

Val had a few things to take care of over at the jail so Jack and Johnny had tagged along. Mrs. Alvarez, over at the cantina had tried to get them to eat the fine meal she had made them for lunch, but all three had just picked at it.  She did remind Val that all three of them were filthy, Johnny was still covered in blood!  All three of them needed baths and clean clothes before the funeral.

After having her point it out, Val figured she was right. Funny how women thought of things like that in a crisis.  Johnny didn’t seem to care, but he went along with the idea since Jack and he was.  Val did have to admit, that a bath, shave and clean clothes did seem to make him feel somewhat better. Johnny, the poor kid, didn’t seem to care one way or the other.

Three o’clock saw the men sitting in the church.  To Val’s surprise, most of the town joined them. Word had gotten around and the town seemed to want to show their support and sympathy for the young father.

Val kept an anxious eye on Johnny. He knew the boy was hurting. He was just waiting until Johnny got mad.  It wasn’t a matter of if, just a matter of when.  He hoped for the sake of honoring his daughter’s memory, it would be after the funeral. Val and Jack both kept careful notice of the service and how everything looked. They both prayed that Toni would be well enough someday for them to tell her about her daughter’s funeral.

They didn’t need pallbearers.  After the funeral, Johnny bowed before the altar and picked up the small cradle. He followed the priest and carried his daughter’s coffin out the church and over to the graveyard. Val, Jack and the rest of the town followed behind. 

Val stood on one side of Johnny, Jack on the other, in support of their friend and family. Johnny stood still and stared straight ahead all through the service. He flinched the first couple of times the handfuls of dirt hit the top of the wooden casket. By the time all the people who had come to the service had grabbed a handful of dirt and thrown it into the grave, the young father didn’t flinch anymore. He just stood there like a statue; feet apart, hands folded and hanging below his belt, his hat shielding his eyes. Val thought it just goes to show what a body can get used to, even something as horrible as that sound.

At last, the graveyard was cleared. Val and Jack moved away to give Johnny some private time. Neither man spoke, but Val was sure Jack was as worried about Johnny as he was.

Uncharacteristically, Johnny made the sign of the cross and moved away from the gravesite. He walked over to his two friends.

“I want to see Toni,” he announced.

“Okay, Johnny,” Jack replied.

The three men walked back to the doctor’s house. The doctor met them and gave them the news that nothing had changed. If anything, Toni was getting worse. A fever was beginning to take hold.

The doctor let Val and Jack visit for a minute with Toni. The two men hadn’t seen her yet and Val was shocked at her condition. Her skin was pale and her eyes sunk in. Her lips had a bluish tint. There was an ugly bruise beginning to come out on one side of her face. Val figured it was where she landed when she fell off the wagon. And she was still, oh so still. Val had to stare at the covers hard to even catch her chest going up and down with breathing.

Johnny sat in a chair beside the bed and held her hand. He seemed to forget that anyone else was in the room as he began to speak softly in Spanish. “Lo siento, es mi culpa.” 

Val heard him apologize over and over and his heart broke for his two kids. He and Jack quietly left the young husband and father alone.

It was some time before Johnny left Toni’s side. As he walked out of the back rooms, he jammed on his hat.  “I need to get some things for her.” He strode to the door and jerked it opened. Val and Jack followed behind.

Val couldn’t read Johnny. He wasn’t acting in any way Val recognized. The young man didn’t say a word as he made his way to the little house. He opened the front door and stopped as he looked inside. Val and Jack almost barreled into him.

Johnny stepped into the room and Val and Jack cautiously followed. Some of the women in the town must have thought they would help the young couple by setting up house for them. Val thought it was right thoughtful of them.

Johnny didn’t. Val could tell by the set of his jaw as he slowly walked around the house while Val and Jack stayed by the door. The room eerily reminded Val of the home he had seen in Cibuto.

Val watched as Johnny trailed his hand across the table, the carved las arras box, the flower vase.  Moving over to the kitchen area and touched the pots and pans, his mouth twitched as he touched the frying pan.

He finally made his way past the stove and he gave the rocking chair a little push. Johnny watched, seemingly mesmerized by the slow back and forth motion of the rocking chair.

Quietly Johnny began to speak, “Everyone should have such a chair to rock in the evenings before the fire after a hard day’s work. A chair to rock your babies to sleep. A chair to rock as you ponder the good fortune you have now.”

Johnny stopped the chair from moving and looked up. His eyes were dark and hard. His jaw was clenched and he gripped the top of the rocking chair so hard, his knuckles were turning white.

“That’s what the priest said when he gave us this chair.” Johnny picked up the chair and threw it across the room toward the bed. “A chair to ponder my good fortune.”  He strode over to the bed and picked the chair back up.  “A chair to rock your babies to sleep.” Johnny slammed the chair against the kitchen counter. The tin plates and cups fell from their shelves with a clatter. 

“I don’t have any babies anymore!” Johnny picked up what was left of the chair and slammed it against the wall. It splintered into a dozen pieces.

Johnny ran to the stove and grabbed the kindling ax. He knocked the stove pipe down then moved on to the kitchen table. Using the ax he began to hack at the table. Val reached over and grabbed the las arras box then backed away.

“Good fortune? When has my life had good fortune except for my wife and baby? All my life I’ve had to fight for any good thing to come my way.  Why? Am I so bad? Is being two bloods so wrong? What in God’s name did I ever do to deserve this?”

“And if it is me, why take my innocent baby? Why punish her? Why punish Toni?”

Johnny threw down the ax and grabbed a kitchen chair.  Each time he hit the chair against the wall, he cried out, “It isn’t fair!”

Finally exhausted, Johnny sunk to his knees. He lifted his head and looked at Val and Jack. Tears ran down his face which was twisted with hurt.  “All I ever wanted was to keep my family safe and be left alone to have a regular life. I even went to church and gave up my gun.”

Johnny’s eyes pleaded with Val’s.  “Why Val? Why?”

Val rushed over to the boy he loved as a son and knelt down beside him. He grabbed Johnny and hugged him.  “I don’t know, son. I don’t know. You tried. This isn’t your fault.  It isn’t!”

Johnny cried his heart out and Val cried along with him. Jack stood guard at the door and wiped his own eyes. Gradually, his sobs quieted. Val reached for his handkerchief and gave it to Johnny. He slowly got to his feet and held out a hand to the younger man.

“I’ve got to make my rounds, Johnny. I’ll be back in about an hour. Why don’t you meet over at the jail? I have a bottle of good whiskey packed away and a drink right now sounds like a good idea.” Val looked at Jack.
“You, too, Jack. Might even feel like a hand of poker by then.”

Jack agreed. ”Sure, that’s a good idea. What do you say, Johnny?”

Johnny gave a little twisted smile. “Sure fellows. You two go on, I’ll be there in a minute. Just have a few things to get for Toni.”

The three men looked at the utter destruction of the room.

“You sure?” Val asked.

“Yeah, go on.  I’ll be right behind you,” replied Johnny.

“Well, okay. See you two in an hour.” Val straightened his hat and started out the door.

As Jack began to leave, Johnny called out. “Hey Jack, go to the cantina and order some food, will ya? Val will probably be hungry after his rounds.”

Jack called out to Val. “That right, Val? You want me to order up some food and bring it to the jail?”

Val stopped and nodded.  “Sounds like a plan to me. I’ll see you two later.”

Johnny stood at the front door of this house and waved to his two friends. “Bye Val, bye Jack. See you two later.”

*****

Val had finished his rounds and made his way back to the jail. He stopped first by the doctors to check on Toni. No better but no worse.

Val sighed. He hoped that Johnny had gotten some of that out of his system at the house. He didn’t figure he’d ever get over it but it sure didn’t help the boy holding it in.

He stepped through the door and saw Jack placing plates of food on the desk. Val’s stomach rumbled as he smelled the good food.  He hung up his hat and sat down. “Where’s Johnny?”

Jack got out three glasses. “I don’t know, I haven’t seen him since we were all at the house. I just figured he was at the Doctor’s.”

Jack pulled opened the bottom drawer of Val’s desk. “Didn’t you say you had a bottle of whiskey in the drawer?”

Val leaned back. “He wasn’t at the doc’s and yes, I do have a bottle of whiskey in that drawer.”

Jack straightened up. “Not anymore.”

Val leaned over and pulled the drawer out. There wasn’t any whiskey. He reached in back of the drawer.  “It’s gone,” he said as he slowly pulled his hand out.

“Well don’t look so upset about it, Val. I can run over to the saloon and get us another bottle.” Jack sounded surprised at how upset Val sounded.

“It’s not just the bottle of whiskey that’s gone, Jack. Johnny’s working gun is gone, too.  Remember when he gave it to me in Cibuto? It’s gone.”

Val stood and grabbed his hat. “I’m going to the livery. You go back to the house.”

Both men went their separate ways.

Val took his hat off his head and slapped the stable wall with it when he saw the Johnny’s horse was gone. “Almighty!”

He hurried back to the center of town and saw Jack running toward him. “His saddlebags and gear are gone,” Jack reported.

“He’s gone after Russ, hasn’t he?” Jack asked.

Val shook his head yes. “I’m afraid so.  I’m afraid that Johnny Lancer is gone and Madrid is back.”

 

Chapter 16

Val and Jack settled in for the night. A thousand stars put on a show above them but went unnoticed. The crackling fire was the only thing that received any attention. Both men, tin cups full of hot coffee in their hands, watched the flames dance in front of them.

Val was the first to break the silence. “How far you reckon we’re behind?”

Jack turned his gaze from the campfire and looked at his friend. “A day, maybe less. He’s been riding hard, careless even.”

Val snorted. “Johnny’s got only one thing on his mind, revenge. He’s going to push that horse as close as he can without killing it.”

Val took off his badge and put it in his shirt pocket. “No need of this since we’ve crossed into Mexico.”

“How far do you think he’ll go?” asked Jack.

“To catch Russ?” Val leaned forward and grabbed the coffee pot. He held it up to Jack. Jack held his cup out and Val gave each of them a refill.  Setting the coffee pot back on the fire, he leaned back on his upturned saddle.

“Well?” Jack prodded.

“I think Johnny will go to the ends of the earth to catch Russ.” Val took a sip of his coffee. 

“Toni, that baby and his dream of living like the rest of us was the only good thing that boy has ever had.  Russ killed two of the three things with one shot.”
Val shook his head. “That boy is in hell now. I don’t see him turning Russ over to the authorities.”

“But Val!” Jack interrupted. “He still has Toni! They can still make a go of it!”

Val shook his head. “Hell, Jack. Think about it. He’s too mad right now.”

“So what are we doing out here then?” Jack grumped.

Val was silent for a moment. “I want to catch up with him before he goes so far over the line he can’t get back.”

Jack nodded and silence returned to the campsite, the crackling of the fire, the only sound heard.

*****

It was late afternoon when they realized that they were getting close. Johnny hadn’t even tried to hide his tracks. Either the boy was in too much of a hurry or didn’t really care. Val had a sneakin’ suspicion it was the latter.

Val looked around. Johnny and he had been in this area once before on their way to a job. 

“Jack, we got about another hour to go and I’m betting we’ll catch up with them.”

“How do you figure that?” asked Jack.

“Up ahead, the land starts to change. For the first time in days, there’s some cover. Since Johnny seems pretty sure this is the way Russ came, it makes sense Russ would take a stand there. He’s got to know Johnny is following him by now.” Val stretched and twisted his back. He had gotten soft while being a sheriff.

“You don’t think Russell would push on? Man’s gotta to be running low on trail supplies.”

Val was silent for a minute, then answered. “Nope. Johnny’s been pushing too hard. Russ has to know he has to make a stand somewhere.” Val pointed ahead. “That’s where I’m betting on.”

The two friends continued to ride towards the sinking sun. They didn’t bother to talk, Val didn’t figure there was anything else to say until they found Johnny, or Russ, or both.

As the blood red sun touched the earth, they approached the rocky rise.  Wood smoke filled the air and standing next to a cluster of spindly trees, a horse nickered and stamped his foot.

Val’s eyes narrowed as he scanned the camp. The horse was Johnny’s, but where was the boy and why would he be so careless as to have a fire while on a chase?

A rifle cracked and both Val and Jack reached for their guns. The answer to one question stepped from behind the rocks, rifle in one hand, rabbit in the other.

Johnny held up the rabbit. “Supper.”

Letting out his breath, Val holstered his gun. “Boy!” Val grumped as he dismounted.

“Got a line over there,” Johnny waved the rabbit toward his horse. “You can tie yours next to Sombra.  I’ll get this ready to cook.”

Val scanned the camp. There was no other horse but tossed on the edge of the camp amid some scrub brush, was an old worn out saddle. A moth-eaten horse blanket and a ratty bedroll lay in a heap. An extra rifle was propped next to a tree, two
saddlebags lay next to the campfire.

Val caught Jack’s eye and jerked his head toward the saddlebags by the fire. The two men walked their horses over to Johnny’s. After taking care of their four-footed amigos, Val and Jack carried their gear beside the fire.  Neither man spoke while setting up their camp.

Johnny strode over the pile of rubbish by the edge of the camp and cleaned the rabbit. He turned his back to his friends and took a piss on the old blankets, saddle and now rabbit fur and guts.

He walked over the fire and grabbing a metal rod laying carefully by the circle of stones, he speared the rabbit and fitted the rod on two others that stood on either side of the fire. He rummaged through a shabby saddlebag and laid out the contents. After setting aside the few things worth saving, Johnny stood and shoved the rejected items back into the saddle bags. Val watched as Johnny then walked back to the rubbish heap and threw the bags on top of the growing pile. He noticed that Johnny had a bandana wrapped around his upper left arm.

Val finished making coffee and narrowed his eyes. He knew Johnny too well and the boy was acting as if nothing had just happened. Val glanced at Jack and raised an eyebrow. Jack shrugged and shook his head. Val guessed Jack was as puzzled as he was.

Johnny drew closer to the fire and crouched, turning the spit.

“Toni was doing better when we left.” Val decided it was time to recognize the bull in the room.

A nod of his head and a pause in the turning of the spit was the only indication that Johnny had heard.

“So where is he?” Jack asked.

Johnny grew very still.

“You got two of everything excepting a horse, Johnny. You got a fire and I’m betting you were waiting on us.” Val’s voice left no doubt that he wasn’t going to let Johnny skirt around the question.

“Wasn’t waiting on you,” mumbled Johnny.

Val stood and put his hands on his hips. He looked down at Johnny.

“Then just who were you waiting on?” Val ground the words out. He was getting a bad feeling about this.

“Him,” Johnny pointed to the rubbish pile.

Val looked at Jack and both men hurried over to the pile of trash on the edge of the camp. At first, both men just stared then Jack reached out a hand and pulled the saddle away. His hand jerked back when a moan sounded at the bottom of the pile.  Watching where they placed their feet, both men grabbed the saddle bags, blankets and what not and pulled them away. There on the ground in a heap lay Russell Brown.

 

Chapter 17

“He still ain’t dead?” Val was startled at Johnny’s voice. He hadn’t even noticed the boy standing next to him.

Jack knelt down and rolled Russ onto his back. He had been lying curled up, his knees drawn up, his hands on his belly. Once straightened out, it was evident why Russ had moaned.

“Johnny!” Val knelt down next to Jack and the two men grabbed their bandanas and pressed them against the gaping hole in Russ’s belly.

“Jack, go get a canteen,” Val ordered.

The sound of a gun being cocked caused both men to look up.

“Leave the trash alone.” Val didn’t even recognize the voice of his friend.

Slowly, both Val and Jack raised their hands.

“Go on back over to the fire, supper’s ready.” Johnny waved his empty hand in the direction of the campfire.

Slowly, Jack and Val got up. Val had heard Johnny speak in this soft, icy cold, calm, hard voice before. He just never had dreamed it would be directed at him. Knowing that the pistolero meant business, Val decided to go along with Johnny’s order. He’d seen the Madrid side of the boy before, but this…this was so much worse.

The two older men backed up and walked cautiously over to the fire. Johnny grabbed the horse blanket and flicked it over Russ.  He took the old saddle with his free hand and dropped it smack in the middle of Russell Brown’s gut.  A scream filled the night air.

Johnny holstered his gun, walked back over to the fire and knelt.  He picked up a plate and held it out for his share of the rabbit.

Val’s mouth dropped opened.

“What kind of game are you playing, Johnny?” Val demanded.

Johnny put the plate down and took out a knife. He began to carve off a piece of meat.  “No game, Val. I came riding toward the rocks, Russ took a shot and winged me. I shot him back. Man’s got a right to defend himself.”

Johnny scooped up some beans then settled down to eat.

“You gut shot him, Johnny and you got him laying over there by himself!” Jack was shocked.

Johnny paused eating.  “I missed.” Johnny lifted his left arm up. “This threw my aim off.”

“You ain’t a lefty!” Val yelled.

Johnny just shrugged and continued eating.

Val took off his hat and slapped in on his thigh. “Almighty, Johnny! What happened to his horse? Why aren’t you helping him?”

Johnny paused and slowly put his fork and plate down. He stood and walked over to Val and faced him. Val took a step back as a wave of rage rolled off the boy.

“I let his horse go, he ain’t needing it. Russ is over there with the rest of the trash because that is what he is. He’s gutshot, Val.  Nothing anyone can do will help him.”

Johnny stepped closer and stood toe to toe with Val. “No one is going to lift a hand to ease his way into the next life.” 

Johnny stared down his hands. He began to speak softly. “Because of him, these two hands had to comfort my baby girl into heaven. They had to hold my wife possibly one last time.”

Madrid looked up, his mouth tight, jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed. “He’ll get no mercy from me or from anyone else,” he ground out.

“But Johnny! The man could live for hours like that! If he was a horse, you’d put him out of his misery or at least give him a gun so he can do it himself!” Jack was having trouble accepting this new Madrid.

Johnny gave Jack a little grin. “I’m surprised at you, Jack. You’re Catholic. What you’re suggesting is a mortal sin no matter how you look at it.” Johnny raised his eyebrows. “I can’t believe you’d even suggest such a thing.”

Jack let out a growl of frustration and walked away. Johnny turned his gaze back to Val.  “He killed an innocent baby, Val, just as surely as if he’d pulled the trigger.  My baby, your grandbaby.  My wife, the woman you walked down the aisle as your daughter, has a hole in her back and gut and who knows how that is going to turn out. You still want to show mercy?”

Val blinked. Johnny stepped away. He sat back down in front of the fire. “It was a fair fight, Val. I made sure of that.”

Val slowly nodded. What Johnny said was true, all of it. It still didn’t sit well with him, though. Val thought like that man in that Bible story he heard a preacher holler about one time. What was that man’s name?
Ponchus Pile or something like that. There was no way he’d choose Russ over Johnny.  Val thought Johnny was wrong, but dang it, to tell the truth, he really didn’t feel like lifting a hand to help the outlaw. It didn’t sit easily on his conscience, but Val decided to wash his hands of the whole affair. Let this be on Johnny’s head.  He wished Russ would just hurry up and die.

Jack must have been of the same mind because he skipped dinner and went on to bed.  Val settled his blanket between him and Johnny. Johnny cleaned up the camp and Val watched as Johnny then lay down and pulled the blanket over his shoulders.

It was late when something woke Val. His eyes glanced around to see what disturbed his slumber. Johnny was missing. Val lifted himself up on one arm and searched the camp.  The fire was dying but the moon was out and Val could see pretty good. 

There he was. Johnny was crouched down beside Russ.  He’d taken the things off that had covered Russ.  Alone and quiet, Johnny kept watch as the man who killed his dreams slowly and agonizingly died.

 

Chapter 18

As Val and Jack rode back into Tubac, Val cast an appraising look over his town. Things seemed to be okay. Val was tired and judging from the way Jack was sitting in the saddle, his friend was about done in as him. He was glad to see the town was pretty quiet.

It had been a tough week; chasing after Johnny, all that mess at the camp, riding back.  When Val and Jack had woken the next morning, Johnny was gone. Val had seen Johnny’s death watch for Russ until he’d drifted back off.  He figured once Russ had died, Johnny had moved on. It must have been close to dawn because Johnny had left a pot of coffee on the fire for his two friends. 

Since Johnny wasn’t there to protest, Val and Jack had done the decent Christian thing to do and had buried Russ.  Now that he was dead, Val didn’t figure Johnny cared what happened to Russ now. Neither man said any words over Russ’s grave. Jack told Val that Russ was lucky they didn’t leave him for the coyotes. Besides, what Jack had to say wouldn’t have been fitting for a burial anyway.  Val agreed.  Neither man said anything about how shallow they dug the grave. Val was only willing to be decent so far and he had to admit, he wasn’t much of a Christian when it came to the likes of Russell Brown.

While taking care of their horses at the livery, Val was relieved to see Johnny’s horse there.  He figured Johnny had headed back but the kid was so dad-blamed ornery sometimes, Val wasn’t quite sure.

By mutual consent, Val and Jack headed first for the doctor’s office.  They both wanted to see how Toni was doing and hopefully find Johnny there, also.

“How’s she doing, Doc?” Val asked as the man opened the door.

The doctor stood back and let Val and Jack enter. “She’s better. I think I can say now that she’s going to make it.”
Val smiled and nodded. “That’s good, Doc. Is Johnny here?”

The smile the doctor had on his face faded. “Yes, he’s here. He’s with her now.”

“What’s wrong?” Jack asked.

The doctor sighed and shut the door. He indicated with a wave of his hand for Val and Jack to sit down on the horsehair sofa he had in his waiting room. 

After Val and Jack got settled, the doctor pulled over a chair and sat in front of them. “I’m worried about those two.”

Val’s mouth dropped opened. “But why? You just said she’s going to get well!”

“Ah, come one, Val,” Jack spoke. “Look what they just went through. You think you could snap back quick from something like that?”

The doctor nodded. “They aren’t speaking. She was awake when he got here and he told her about the baby. They haven’t spoken to each other since. Toni cried then but not a tear now.”

Val raised an eyebrow. “That’s not good.”

Jack laughed. “Val, you do have a concise way of talking.”

Val shot Jack a frown then turned back to the doctor.  “Well, Doc. There is more to it than the loss of the baby.”

Doc nodded. “I had a hunch. I’ve seen how he wears his gun and knew he was planning on settling here to be your deputy.  He might have been calling himself Johnny Lancer, but several around here have seen him in action elsewhere as Johnny Madrid.  They made sure they passed that news around the town.”

“You got a problem with that, Doc?”

Val and Jack both jumped and turned at that voice.

“Damn your hide, Johnny! Quit sneaking up on a fellow like that,” Val groused.

Johnny pushed himself from the doorway he’d been leaning on and walked further into the room.  His hand trailed over the what-nots the doctor had sitting on a shelf. He stopped next to the sofa.

The doctor stood and looked Johnny in the eye. “No, son. I don’t have any problem with whatever you call yourself. I’m more than willing to have you stay here with Toni while she heals.”

Johnny bowed his head and gave a nod. “Thanks, Doc,” he said softly.

He raised his head and looked at Val. For a moment, Val saw the saddest eyes he’d ever seen. That quickly passed as Johnny’s eyes grew hard and icy.  “I shouldn’t have fooled myself that this would have worked,” Johnny spit out.

“Now, Johnny.” Jack tried to calm the young man as Johnny began to pace the room, his hand tapping his gun all the while.

“Johnny, this isn’t your fault. You two can still stay here. I’m still going to need a deputy,” Val spoke firmly.

Johnny stopped on a dime.  “Not my fault? Really? Oh, yeah. Every young couple expecting their first baby gets shot at on the way to town by someone trying to kill them.” The sarcasm dripped from Johnny’s voice.

“Why did I ever think I could have a normal life with a normal job? I used to think the only thing I was good at was killing but now I’m not so sure about even that!  Seems if I was that good at taking out a man, I would have killed Russ back in New Mexico. Then this whole mess wouldn’t have happened. Seems I can’t even get that right!”

With that, Johnny pushed past the other three men in the room and wrenching the door opened, slammed it behind him as he left the doctor’s office.

The doctor wiped a hand over his face. “See what I mean? It’s been like a powder keg here since he got back. I like those two kids but I’m afraid what’s going to happen when it blows.”

 

Chapter 19

Val raised his arms and stretched as he looked out over his town. He looked behind him and shouted through the open door of his office. “If the coffee’s ready, bring me a cup.”

He accepted the cup of coffee Jack brought outside to him and both men sipped their early morning libation as they looked over the town. 

“Sheriff!”

Val lowered his cup and pushed it into Jack’s hand. His hand automatically went to his gun.

Young Bobby Wells continued to call out to Val as he ran down the boardwalk.  The youngster dodged and ducked out of the way of the early morning shoppers.

“Sheriff! You gotta come quickly to Doc’s.” The boy’s chest rose and fell with the effort of catching his breath.

“What’s wrong, Bobby?” Val put both hands on the boy’s shoulders.

“Those two friends of yours are tearing the place apart. Doc said for you to come, pronto!”

Val took off in a run and Jack followed. As he got closer to the doctor’s office, he could hear shouting and an occasional crash. Val had hoped the doc wouldn’t be right about the young couple. But in the week the men had returned from finding Russ, things had remained tense between Toni and Johnny.

Val burst into the reception area of the doctor’s office, Jack followed.
They were met by the doctor. One look at the skewed waistcoat, the hair that stood on end, mismatched shoes on his feet and Val knew that the doctor was frazzled more than he’d ever seen him.

“Sheriff! You’ve got to do something!”

All three men instinctively ducked at the sound of glass shattering on the other side of the door to Toni’s room.

“That does it!” Val squared his hat on his head and handed his gun to the doctor. “Take it. That way I won’t be tempted to shoot both of them and put us all out of their misery!”

Jack did the same and both men walked toward the door. Val paused before turning the doorknob. “Johnny! Toni!  I’m coming in and I better not get hit by anything.”

The quiet that followed gave Val hope that they had listened to him so he carefully opened the door. His boots crunched on the broken glass scattered by the door.  From the color, it seemed the doc would be getting a new porcelain washbowl and pitcher. As Val scanned the room, it looked like a new mirror would need to be ordered also.

Toni sat on the side of the bed and Johnny stood across the room. Neither of them looked up as Val and Jack walked further into the room.

Val stood in the middle of the room, hands on his hips.  “Well, now. You two finish with your hissy fit?” he asked.

“We were just talking,” Johnny mumbled.

Val raised an eyebrow and swept the room with his arm. “Oh, so this is called talking now, is it?

Val stepped over the broken chair and stood by the bed. “What’s wrong with you two? I ain’t never seen you two act like this before.”

Toni lifted her head, her eyes narrowed and her face hardened, “He’s leaving.”

Val swung his head around to look at Johnny. “Leaving?”

Toni put one hand on the bed and held onto to the bedpost with the other. Val reached out to steady her as she shakily tried to stand but she batted his hand away.

“Go on, tell ‘em,” she spat at Johnny.

Johnny wrapped his arms around his middle but didn’t say a word.

“Fine. I’ll tell our friends how you plan to abandon me.”

“It isn’t safe for you to be with me anymore!”

“Russ was after me! It was my fault our baby was killed!”

“And it was my fault I couldn’t keep you and baby Maria safe!”

“And you think leaving me on my own would be better for me?”

A shrill whistle interrupted their arguing and everyone turned to look at Jack.

“You two just stop it!” Jack shouted. “Quit blaming yourselves for what happened.  It was Russ who killed the baby and he’s dead.”

Toni walked slowly to stand in front of Johnny. She just stood there until he lifted his head to look at her. 

“Johnny Lancer, I am the best thing that ever happened to you. I love you more than you could ever know. I can live without you but I don’t want to. You’re my world, Johnny. How can you throw what we have away?”

“What we have?” Johnny asked.  “We have nothing. There is no Johnny Lancer. We were stupid to even pretend. I ain’t ever going to be anything more than a hired gun. So what if we do stay together and have another baby?  We going to lose that one, too? I’m not taking that chance.  I don’t ever want to feel again like I did the day I buried our daughter. If I can’t be a man and keep my family safe, then I don’t deserve a family.”

Toni took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “I’ve never begged for anything before in my life and I ain’t going to start now. I need you as much as I need the air to breathe. If you can’t see that we belong together, then you’re a fool, Johnny Madrid.”

Val decided it was time to step in.  “Johnny, think about this for a few days. It’s too big of a decision to make quickly. Give me and Jack time to think about this and let’s all talk it over.”

Val walked over toward Johnny and laid his hand on the young man’s shoulder.  “Will you at least promise that?”

Johnny looked Val in the eyes and slowly nodded.

Jack let out a sigh of relief. “Well, then. Toni, you get back into bed. Val, take Johnny over to the cantina and order up some grub for lunch. I’ll get the broom and let Doc know that he doesn’t have to duck anymore in his own house.”

Val nodded and ushered Johnny out the door. He frowned and his mind raced a mile a minute as he turned over first one idea and then another on how to keep Johnny in Tubac.

 

Chapter 20

Val was sleepy and grouchy. For a week now, he and Jack had stayed up late at night, tossing ideas back and forth on how to convince Johnny to stay. The couple had moved into their small place since Toni was doing so much better.  They didn’t have much anymore since Johnny had pretty much trashed everything when the baby died. Still, it was more than what they would have had if they were on the trail.

He thought that they had made a pretty good case for Johnny to stay in Tubac as his deputy. That mule-headed kid finally seemed ready to listen to reason. He hated to think what would happen to both Toni and Johnny if they went their own way.

Speak of the devil!  Val looked up as Johnny shouted at him from across the street. He smiled as Johnny pointed to the saloon. He shook his head no and tapped his badge. It was still some time before he was off-duty. Johnny was going to have to drink solo this afternoon.

Val’s grin died as he heard the call to dance from the cantina located next to the saloon. An older man stepped from under the porch and sauntered out into the street. From where he was standing, Val didn’t recognize the man who had called out “Madrid”.

The sheriff didn’t know if Johnny recognized the stranger either, but it was obvious that his friend knew what the man wanted. Val watched as Johnny tried to talk to the man but from the way the stranger was shaking his head ‘no’, Val figured he didn’t like what Johnny had to say.

“Hey, Val!” Jack spoke as he walked up to Val.

Shaking his head and pointing with his finger toward Johnny, Val warned Jack to stay quiet. Both men watched as Johnny walked to the middle of the street and slipped on his leather glove. They couldn’t see Johnny’s face as his back was to them, but they did see the look of surprise that crossed the stranger’s face as he looked down and saw the red stain that spread across his chest. His pistol fell from lifeless fingers and hit the ground before its owner did.

A scream broke the quiet as a crowd gathered at the door of the mercantile. Seems the stranger’s shot, although too wide to touch Johnny, was accurate enough to hit someone with the bad luck to be leaving the store just at the time of the shooting.

A gasp alerted Val that someone was behind him. He turned and realized that Toni had been with Jack the whole time and she had seen the entire thing. “Take care of them,” he told Jack as he hurriedly ran to the mercantile.

Val pushed through the crowd and saw that old man Sawyer had been hit.  A puff of wind would have knocked the man over, Sawyer didn’t stand a chance against the stray bullet from the stranger.

“Tell Pope to come get Sawyer first,” Val told Bill Haney. Val figured Sawyer deserved the undertaker’s care before the stranger that started this whole mess.

After trying to get the crowd to disperse, Val walked to the middle of the street.  “You okay?” he asked Johnny as the gunfighter handed him the stranger’s gun.

“I saw you trying to talk him out of it,” Val talked as he bent over the man to search his pockets. He paused, “You know him?”

“No. You need me for anything else?” Val recognized the defiant, yet sad tone of Johnny’s voice. It took a lot out of a man, killing someone.

“No. Why don’t you go see about Toni. She saw you know. I expect she’s worried about you.” Val stood up and motioned for the undertaker’s helper to come on over.

“Yeah, well, again, I came out okay. Looks like one of your townspeople didn’t.” Johnny’s voice sounded bitter.

“I don’t have time for this right now,” Val replied. “Go on home. We’ll talk later.”

Johnny flashed Val an icy look but he did turn around and walk in the direction of his house. Val sighed. This was not good timing. He looked down at the stranger.  He had a great desire to kick the fire out of the dead man. That would probably come under the title of ‘abusing a corpse’ so he didn’t go through with his first inclination. Val rubbed his chin as he walked back to his office. It sure would be most satisfying, though.

Val didn’t get a chance to see Johnny or Toni for the rest of the evening. Between paperwork, talking to the undertaker about what to do with the stranger, trying to soothe nervous townsfolk, paying his respects to Rod Sawyer’s family, there just wasn’t no time to check on the troubled couple.  He hadn’t heard any reports of disturbances coming from their home so he couldn’t justify visiting with all else he had to do.  He’d send Jack over but the man had gotten hold of some bad food or something ‘cause he was curled up, knees drawn against his belly and stinking up his hotel room according to Doc.  Val shook his head. Thank God, he hadn’t had the stew at the saloon for lunch!

He slept hard that night and woke up with lines on his face from his pillow. He didn’t really care, just gave him another excuse to leave off shaving for another day. It wasn’t that he was lazy, he just couldn’t be bothered half the time.

He was on his second cup of coffee when Jack strode in. Normally, Val would have considered Jack a half-way decent looking man. He snorted, not today!  Jack had been hanging around his office too long because the man was able to grab a cup and pour his own coffee all without ever opening his eyes. Val snagged a chair and positioned it under Jack. He wasn’t too sure Jack wouldn’t miss the chair and end up on the floor.
A floor, mind you, he didn’t need to be coated in sugared coffee.

The two men were sitting quietly drinking their morning brew when Val heard the sound of spurs jingling at his front door. Both he and Jack watched as the door opened and Johnny stepped into his office.

“Want some coffee?” Val asked.

Johnny shook his head no. “Just thought I’d stop by and say good-bye.”

Val lowered the chair he’d been sitting in on two legs with a thud.  “You going by yourself?”

Johnny nodded yes. “She’ll be fine here or in Cibuta. There’s plenty that will keep an eye out for her.”

Val stood and sat his cup down. “It ain’t others that she wants to be with.”

“Don’t make no difference. You saw what happened yesterday. I can’t be deputy here, Val. She and I talked last night. I’m going to look around for something to do. When I find a place that I feel that is safe, I’ll send for her.” Johnny’s eyes flashed. “She agreed so you can quit looking at me like that!”

“Did she agree, boy, or did she just stop arguing with you?” Val put his hands on his hips and looked Johnny straight in the eye.

“Don’t matter,” Johnny mumbled. “It’s for the best.”

Jack made a rude noise.

Johnny threw an angry look at Jack. “It ain’t either one of your business. This is between my wife and me.”

“Oh, so now you remember she’s your wife. Well, you made vows Johnny. Remember the part ‘until death do you part’?” Jack stood up.

“Yeah, well, that’s the whole point, ain’t it? I intend to make sure that part don’t happen so until I can figure out something else, we won’t be riding together.” Johnny turned and walked back toward the door.

His hand on the doorknob, Johnny stopped and looked down. “I don’t know where I’ll be but if you need me, send word to Cibuta. It will get to me somehow.”

“All right, Johnny. Just...take care, will ya?” Val spoke with real regret over the choice his friend was making.

Johnny nodded and walked out the door. Both Val and Jack stared at the closed door as they heard their friend ride away.

 

Epilogue

The stagecoach rolled in from Nogales and Val stepped onto the porch to watch who was arriving in his town. He walked to the stage after Ted motioned him over.

“She ain’t there,” Ted announced.

Rufus leaned over to spit. “We asked around and Manuel over at the saloon has a cousin in Cibuta. The cousin said she rode through to visit Inez one night but they ain’t seen her since.”

Val frowned. “Thanks, men. Just keep your ears open on your route.”
He turned to walk away.

“We heard about him, though.”

Val stopped and turned to face the two older men.

Rufus spit again. “They said he was in a gunfight in San Diego, killed two brothers that called him out and tried to back shoot him.”

Ted shut the stage door and made sure it was locked. “Yep, Manuel said he came into Nogales, said he was on his way to New Mexico for a range war. He was limping some and looked pretty rough. Told Manuel that some man in New Mexico tracked him down in Tuscan and sent a telegram offering him the job. He’s getting well known. Getting pretty good pay.”

The grizzled old-timer climbed back up onto the stage and began to release the brake. “Madrid’s name is growing. They’re starting to come out of the woodwork to either hire him or kill him.”

Val bit the inside of his cheek and nodded. He waved his hand in thanks to the two stagecoach drivers and walked back to his office.  Once there, he sat down heavily in his chair and opened a drawer to his desk.  He pulled out a bottle of whiskey and a letter. Not even bothering to pour himself a drink, he took a slug from the bottle itself.

He looked at the letter in his hand. He’d read it several times in the past few months since they’d both gone.  Jack had been so mad at Johnny, he’d left for Texas. Toni had healed up physically, but it had been a bad day when she went missing. He’d found her in the cemetery, stretched out across the baby’s grave. She’d been out there all night and caught a cold. Val knew though, it wasn’t just the cold that had dulled her eyes and her spirit.

Being so hurt and then with Johnny leaving, seems Toni had put off grieving for what she had lost. Val really wasn’t surprised when a few days later the priest had given him this letter. The letter, written in Spanish, told him that she needed to get away for awhile and to not worry, she still had the arras coins from the wedding. The priest told him that it was his opinion that she couldn’t face what had happened and was running away. Whether from God, memories or the loss of a dream, the priest couldn’t begin to guess.

Val sighed and took another drink of whiskey. Once, he had thought that those two were finally in Heaven. Seems like it turned out to be on the wrong side.

 

 

~end~

 

Footnote
1   in Chapter 7 :I want to express my gratitude to Ros Hutchison for allowing me to use her explanation of Johnny using “Lancer” when he marries while still going as Madrid. Two years ago, when I first thought this story out, I wasn’t sure how to make sense of that part.  After reading Ros’s story “Promises”, this explanation was perfect.  After contacting her, she graciously allowed me to use her idea. I also want to thank Adriana Maffei for checking the correctness of my Spanish name order.

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