The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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The Buscaderos: Birth Of A Shadow
This is a Lancer Writers ‘Fifty Years of Lancer’ anniversary story. An episode tag for The Buscaderos

Scott: "She knew Johnny alright. Eight years ago. Let's see, that would make her about thirteen."

Violet: "I was fourteen. And Johnny was the first man to love me."

Scott: "The first man you ever loved. Now tonight she told me how it really was. A small girl, growing up in a backwater town. Needing something, or someone, to tie her heart to. And a gunfighter, just passing through, never realized how much he'd become an ideal. When he left, it was the only real thing in her dreams."

Drago: "He loved her and left her?"

Scott: "He barely looked at her."

Drago: "Then it's all been a pack of lies. He never even touched you."

Violet: "He could have. But he wouldn't. Because he cared for me. Why else would I remember him after all this time? Johnny's special. I'll always love him. Like the only doll I got for Christmas."


“Violet, you finished hanging out that washing yet?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“Well the twins are awake and crying. Come in here, child. It’s nearly time for breakfast.”

“I’m comin’.”

If you stood on the railing, second from the top, you could see all the way to the other side of the world. Well, that’s what she believed when she was a young’un.

Truth was, all you could see was acre after acre of dry, flat land and waaay in the distance was the start of the hills, rising like warm dough in the middle of nowhere.

And that’s where she was. Nowhere.

Her Pa had taken them out of town and told her they were going to be home-steaders. She thought that meant they’d have a fancy home but all it meant was day after day of breaking through the grass roots so that Pa could plant a crop that never seemed to find its way to amount to anything.

She leaned forward, letting the top rail hold her from falling and threw her arms wide. With the morning breeze on her face she could pretend she was on a black stallion, galloping across the cross the plains, with his long tail streaming out behind him.

“Violet, come in, child.”

She jumped down. “I’m coming, mama.” She picked up the wicker basket by her feet, stuck it on her hip and walked inside.

Mama had breakfast on the stove. The hens had stopped laying so that meant hotcakes made without eggs and fried potatoes. Mama said this land would bring them luck because it had a Box Elder tree. On a hot sunny day Mama could get two gallons of sap in the bucket, enough for quarter of a cup of syrup by the time she’d boiled it down.

She left the basket by the front door then went to Mama’s room, pushing aside the hessian sack to walk through the doorway. “Good morning, babies.” They both stretched out a chubby arm. It was no wonder Mama was so thin with nursing the two of them. Sophrona squealed. She liked to hear the sound of her own voice but Permilia just loved to snuggle. Their diapers were wet so she put them on Mama’s bed to change them. Funny how she never called it Papa’s bed. He didn’t talk much. Not like Mama. She loved to talk. She had learning.

Once the little ones were asleep at the end of the day, Mama and her would sit outside on the steps, watching the sun go down. Mama would brush her hair and tell her stories of the big cities and how rich folk lived with their china plates and silver cutlery that was so shiny you could see your face on the back of a spoon. And they’d both wonder what other folks were seeing as the sun turned to an orange glow that even made their dry land look like the streets of heaven. Maybe it was the sea? Or maybe they were looking down from the tallest mountain covered in the purest snow or maybe they were in a carriage, all dressed up in their finery and going to a ball? Mama said ladies wore satin dresses that sat off the shoulder, with ribbons and bows and lace. Violet only had two calico dresses and there was nothing fine about either of them.

Alexander and Frederick were already seated at the table when she got inside.

Alexander held up a mason jar of muddy water. “Look Violet, they’s growed in the night.”

She put the babies on the rug on the floor and gave each of them the calico doll Mama had made for them. Both dolls went straight into their mouths. Violet went to the table and peered in the jar. “Ooh, they’re so big. They’ll be frogs soon.”

Frederic rolled his eyes. “There ain’t nothin’ in there ‘cept dirt.”

“There is, too.” Alexander jiggled the jar. “They’re just so eenie weenie small you can’t see ‘em yet. But Ma says you can see them if you try hard enough.”

Frederic put a hand under the table and Alexander squealed. “Mama, he pinched me.”

Violet got behind Frederic and gave him a shove. “You leave him be or I’ll pull your hair so hard you’ll scream.”

“Violet, I’ve told you before, that isn’t how a young lady should talk.”

“She ain’t no young lady,” Frederic said under his breath.

She pinched him real hard and whispered with all the force she could in his ear. “You say anything more and I’ll tell Mary-Beth you want to kiss her.”

His face went red but he shut his mouth.

Mama came across with the plate of hotcakes so Violet went to the shelf and took down the syrup, then carefully poured it into the little white china pouring cup with the tiny red roses, just like the real ladies used.

“And Frederic behave yourself. It’s none of your business what Alexander has in his jar.” Mama doled out two hotcakes apiece and Violet poured a little of the syrup onto each one.

“Let me, let me,” Alexander chanted when she got to his plate but she pulled the cup away as he reached for it. It was far too special for a child his age to touch.

“No, you’ll break it.”

She poured a little on her own plate, making sure to leave enough for Mama and Papa when he came in.

Mama sat down and they all said grace with their heads bowed and hands resting on the table. She was meant to close her eyes but instead she looked at the letter ‘F’ Frederic had carved into the table when he was about six. Papa said he was looking for a horsetail plant to scrape it off but it was too dry for them to grow. It seemed to Violet you could scrape it off with a knife like she’d seen the undertaker in town do to smooth down the wood.

“Violet, I’ve arranged for Mr Peterson to take you and Frederic to town,” Mama said once she’d finished.

Violet looked up. Her eyes went wide. “Really, Mama?”

“Mrs Jackson has a pair of shoes she says will fit your brother. I want you to take him there and try them on. If they fit, you’re to give her the cheese I made yesterday.”

Violet’s stomach was suddenly doing little flips. Instead of another dreary day on the farm she was going to town.

“Mr Peterson will be coming along right after breakfast, so eat up.”

“Is Pa going, too?” Frederic asked and she wanted to kick him under the table but all she could do was frown at him so Mama wouldn’t notice.

“No, your pa’s out planting the corn. It’s two weeks since we had the last spring frost. Now as soon as you’ve had your fill, go and get ready.”

“Yes, Mama.” She shoved down the last of her hotcakes, scooped up a morsel of potatoes, then asked to be excused. She ran into Mama’s room then picked up the brush on top of the bureau. They only had one broken piece of mirror but if she stood on tiptoe she could see herself.

“You’re a pretty girl, my Violet. You’ll be turning heads when you’re older. There’s no doubt of that.”She turned around to see Mama standing in the doorway, watching her.

She tilted her head. Was that a freckle on her nose? “I sure hope I’ll be pretty like you.”

Mama came and stood behind her. “I’ve got something for you.” She held out her hand and there was a bubble of excitement in her eyes.

“Oh, Mama.” It was a ribbon, a beautiful wide, violet ribbon to match her name. It was the brightest, most beautiful thing she’d ever owned.

“Come here and I’ll put it in your hair.”

Violet turned so that Ma could get to the back of her head. “Wherever did it come from?”

“I bought it the day I knew I was expecting. I just knew you were gonna be a girl.” Violet twisted her head a little to see Mama smiling her own secret smile. “I walked past the mercantile and in the window I saw this ribbon and it was so bright and shiny and beautiful that I said to myself I’m going to call my first born Violet and one day she’ll wear this ribbon in her hair and catch herself a handsome man.” She finished tying the bow then made Violet turn around to face her. “But don’t you try catching any men today, though, you hear?” She tweaked Violet’s cheek making her laugh. If she twisted this way and that she could look at the bow and how fetching it looked in her hair.

“Mr Peterson is here,” Frederic yelled from outside.

She gave Ma the biggest hug and kissed her cheek. “Of course I won’t try and catch a man. I don’t ever want to leave you, Mama.”


Mr Peterson didn’t talk much. A lot of the menfolk around these parts didn’t talk much.

He dropped them off at the end of town and told her he’d collect them at the same place at sundown. A whole day. They had a whole day in town.

If you could call it a town. But at least they had a general store full of just about anything you could think of and a saloon and a hotel with a restaurant where you sat at tables with white cloths. And the livery was always worth a visit. You never knew who you might find there.

Their side of town was mostly farming but the few ranchers on the other side, where the creek flowed, were prospering, or so she heard Papa say. What would it be like to be ‘prospering’? To wake up in a warm bed without a northerly blowing through the cracks in the wall?

She straightened her skirts after jumping down from the wagon, then put a hand to her hair. She must have checked six times to make sure her ribbon hadn’t fallen out as they bumped along the road. It was still there where Mama had tied it, pulling the hair from the sides and sweeping it back off her face. She put a hand under the hair on her neck and flicked it up some. Oh my, she felt like such a lady.

The first thing they had to do was visit Mrs Jackson. Violet stopped smiling and wondered if she should have worn her new ribbon when she saw the black bow on the front door. She wasn’t sure if she’d like to wear a dead boy’s shoes.

“Come on, Frederic.” She grabbed his jacket sleeve and pulled him along and up the two steps. Before she could knock the door opened.

“Violet, dear. And Frederic.” Mrs Jackson was dressed in black but even if she’d been in colours nothing could have hidden the scar that grief puts in a person’s eyes. “Come in, children.”

The house was dark inside and smelled like it needed a good fresh wind to blow through it. But Violet didn’t wrinkle her nose. That wouldn’t be polite.

Mrs Jackson took them into the parlour, and there on a small table, sat a pair of shiny, black boots.

“My George was a little older than you when he passed, Frederic—almost fifteen—so I’m hoping these will fit you for a few years. Young boys grow so fast.” She sized Frederic up as she spoke, putting a hand to his shoulder and making him turn around. “My, you’re going to grow into a fine young man.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.”Frederic took the boots she offered then sat down as she directed and tried them on, first pulling on the socks Mama had knitted for him over his bare feet. He did them up, then stood and took a few steps. “They fit just fine, ma’am. Thank you.”

Mrs Jackson looked like she was about to cry but she forced a smile instead and made them sit down and eat the cake she’d made. Violet sat on one of the velvet chairs but she couldn’t get the smell of death out of her nose. And that was silly because George Jackson had been thrown from his horse and never woke up again. It wasn’t cholera or typhoid. Mama would never have let them come if that was the case.

“And you need to be careful because there’s been some trouble in town,” Mrs Jackson was saying.

“What kind of trouble, Ma’am?” Frederic was looking interested now, instead of just staring out the window and leaving it to Violet to be polite.

“Well, I’m not quite sure but they say,” and she lowered her voice, “there’s a gunfighter in town.” And for the first time Violet saw something like a spark of something other than death and gloom in her eyes.

“A gunfighter?”

“Oh, boy,” Frederic almost shouted and Violet had to hush him. But they both looked towards the window as if they’d somehow see him walking past.

“It’s probably just talk. My Becky told me about him when she came to light the fires this morning.”

Mrs Jackson talked some more and at last it was time for them to go. She stood up and held out the cheese in the sack Mama had given her, then Mrs Jackson saw them to the door.

“Don’t get into any mischief while you’re in town, will you.” And she slipped a nickel into each of their hands.

Violet hesitated. She knew Mama wouldn’t like them to be accepting money but Mrs Jackson had been so sad and it seemed to make her happy to bless them with a little something. “Thank you, very much, ma’am.”

When they got outside they looked at each other and grinned.

“Woo hoo, a whole nickel, Violet. What are you gonna do with yours?”

“Do you think we should take it home to Mama?”

Frederic screwed up his nose. “That’s a stoopid idea. Besides, she gave it to us and told us to enjoy ourselves.”

That was true and it would almost seem dishonest to sit on the steps all day and simply wait for Mr Peterson to come back. “I guess so.”

They started walking, heading towards the main part of town, past the houses with their picket fences and wilting gardens. Not even the flowers wanted to live in a backwater hole like this.

“You going to the livery?”

“And why would I do that?” she snapped.

“Just so as you can start smooching Willy Jenkins.”

And because that was exactly what she had in mind she slapped him, hard. “You mind your mouth.”

Frederic balled his hands into fists. “You do that again and I’ll tell Pa.”

“And I’ll tell him how you and Porky stole candy from Bateman’s…”

It was probably the horse that caught her attention first off. The pinto had a glossy coat and a graceful step, four white legs and a white star on its black face. Even she, who knew nothing about horses, could see it was a beauty.

“What? What are you looking at?” Frederic started looking around.

“Hush!” She grabbed his arm. “Behind us. The rider on the pinto. Do you think that’s him? He doesn’t look like a cowboy. Maybe it’s the gunfighter?” She sure hoped so.

Frederic turned around and looked down the street. “Well, you can tell a gunfighter by the way they wear their gun,” he told her in that annoying way as if he’d read ten books on the subject instead of just listening to the talk around town.

“Well I can’t even see his gun from here so how does that help?”

“You think that’s him? He looks like a Mex. Darn, I was hoping the man Mrs Jackson talked about was gonna be Wild Bill. I’d give anything to see him.”

“Oh Holy Moses, even I heard Pa tell you he was a lawman now.”

“Doesn’t mean I don’t still wanna meet him,” he shot back, like he was all ready to fight her over it. “Everyone knows Wild Bill is the deadliest shot around.”

Oh Lordy, she didn’t have time for Frederic’s fussing.

She looked across to the other side of the street. They weren’t the only ones who’d noticed him riding through town. She could see the old battle-axe Ma Grooper hustling her grandkids inside Fletcher’s General Store as if they might get contaminated by something on the wind.

The rider had his hat so low she couldn’t see his face too well but he was coming up closer now and soon they’d be even with him. He had one hand holding the reins and his other hand resting on his leg.

“Ow!”Frederic had walked into a barrel outside the hay and feed store and then she ran into Frederic and they both stumbled some more but she grabbed hold of him and stopped them both from hitting the ground.

“You two oughtta watch where you’re walking.” It was Matthew, pushing the broom with his right hand as he swept the boardwalk. He’d come back from the War of the States with a grim face and an arm that didn’t work. She hardly ever saw him smile and mostly stayed clear of him. Folks said he had a mean temper. Mama said he needed love and compassion.

“Yes sir,” she muttered, grabbing Frederic’s arm and pushing him on again.

“That sure is a pretty horse.” Matthew had stopped sweeping and was watching the rider, too.

“Is it the gunfighter?” Frederic asked him.

Matthew shrugged. “Maybe. Folks say he is. He looks awful young.”

“Wild Bill killed his first man at fifteen. He could shoot faster than anyone around; he even killed a bear with his bare hands. They say he’s killed hundreds of men. Outlaws mostly. And when he plays poker he...”

“Oh hush, Frederic.” She wanted to move on. She didn’t want to hear another word about Wild Bill and his goings on.

“It’s true. It’s true.”

Matthew started to grin. “Where’d you hear all this, son? Sounds like a lot of balderdash to me.”

“Bobby Bows told me. His pa gets Harper’s Monthly. He let Bobby read all about it and Bobby told me. See, so it must be true.”

Matthew opened his mouth like he wanted to argue so Violet pushed Frederic on. “We gotta go. Good morning, Matthew.”

If they didn’t hurry the gunfighter would go past them and she already had an idea in her head.

“Hold up, sis, my boots are too loose.”

“No, just keep goin’. You can fix ‘em up later.” She hustled him on some more steps. The rider was still behind them but only just.

He pulled away from her hand. “No, I wanna fix ‘em now.” And he stopped at the hitching post just before the saloon, holding onto it with one hand while he tugged at the lace.

“Frederic, get moving. Now,” she hissed at him, giving him another tug and making him almost overbalance. She just needed him to move up a little further outside the saloon. Surely that was where the rider was heading?

He shrugged her off fiercer this time. “Sheesh, Violet, what’s it to you?”

And even as he said that a shadow fell over the both of them and they stood there, kind of frozen in place, her with a hand on Frederic’s arm and him still with a hand on his boot. And all she could see was four white legs standing the other side of the hitching rail.

She pulled her hand away from Frederic like she’d burned it on hot coals. She surely didn’t want it to look like they’d been arguing. But she still had to stand there while Frederic finished tying his lace. “Can’t you hurry up,” she whispered as fierce as she could. It must have been stiff because it was taking him an age.

She could feel her face getting hot and her hands all sweaty.

Should she look up at him? She might never get this close again to a real gunfighter. She could risk just a quick glance.

Her eyes slid up the pinto’s legs, all the way to the man’s face. He wasn’t looking her way but across to the saloon further up the boardwalk, so she took in every part of him just as fast as she could. Frederic was wrong. He wasn’t a Mex. Well, maybe his ma or pa was. His pants were suede and so was his jacket; short, Mexican style. And he was…hell’s fire, he swung around like he knew she was watching – and his eyes looked straight down into hers.

Oh my. She was awful glad she was wearing her new ribbon. And maybe it was the ribbon that gave her courage but instead of looking away she smiled just like she’d seen Josephine Evans do to any cowboy that walked by. Well, she hoped she smiled that way but it was hard with her having the jitters so bad.

And it couldn’t have been too bad because he bowed his head to her, just like a real gentleman might and he didn’t look mean like Matthew, not when he smiled like that showing a row of white pearly teeth. If she was the swooning type she might have dropped to the ground right then and there. And maybe he would pick her up and fan her face with his hat?

She smiled back a little more, then watched him swing down from his horse and slide down to the ground. He had a rifle in a scabbard and a bed roll tied to the back and two canteens hanging from the saddle horn. That could only mean one thing.

He wasn’t planning on staying.

“Hurry up, Frederic,” she said in her most grown-up voice, just like Ma would say. But not really wanting him to hurry up at all. She pretended to be real interested in what Frederic was doing. After all, no matter how much she wanted to, she couldn’t gawk at the gunfighter like a barn owl at night.

Out the corner of her eye she could see his hands looping the reins over the hitching rail. They looked to be strong, tanned hands but not big enough to wrap around a log like her Pa’s hands could.

And finally Frederic finished messing with his bootlace and stood up. “Come on, Frederic. We should go.” And she flicked the back of her hair again. Maybe he’d notice her ribbon? Surely she looked as grown-up as Josephine Evans?

She risked another quick glance. He was loosening the girth and taking something out of his saddle bag and Lord Almighty, he looked her way and caught her looking at him again. Only this time he looked across at Frederic as he did up the strap on his saddlebag and she could have sworn he was looking amused. She could see it in his eyes.

“I hope you’re not giving your sister a hard time?”

Frederic’s eyes had gotten big. Bigger even than when Pa caught him drinking the whisky he kept at the back of the cupboard. “No, sir.”

“Good. I’m glad to hear it.” Then he came across and leaned against the awning post. After looking up and down the boardwalk, casual-like, he said to Frederic , “How’d you like to earn a dime?”

She could just about feel Frederic swelling-up next to her.

“Yes, sir, I’d love a dime.”

The gunfighter straightened up then opened up the drawstrings on the small leather purse he had in one of his hands. He fished out a dime then held it up for Frederic to see. “I’ll give you one now and another one when I come back if you’ll watch my horse.” Then he cocked his head. “Deal?”

Frederic nearly nodded his head off. “Yes, sir, you got a deal.” He held out his hand and her gunfighter flipped the dime neatly onto his palm.

“Thanks kid. And I’ll be seeing you when I come back.”

It wasn’t exactly a threat–not from a drawl so soft and buttery smooth– but she knew for a fact Frederic would make sure he was there waiting when her gunfighter returned.

Then the gunfighter tipped his hat to her, “Miss,” (and that set the fire in her cheeks again) before putting a hand on the hitching rail and jumping sideways across it. He landed cleanly on the other side and she smirked at Frederic. She bet Wild Bill couldn’t do that.

And that was when she noticed his gun – as he walked across to the saloon doors. That gun belt surely did sit low across his hips and it was well oiled and shiny and that made his gun look all the more dangerous. A little shiver ran through her.

He looked back at her and Frederic, just the once, then pushed the doors open and walked inside. They swung shut behind him and then she couldn’t see him anymore, just the doors swinging a little to show where he’d been.

And then she started to breathe.

Frederic and her looked at each other.

“Wow, did you hear that? He wants me to mind his horse.” And he sounded just as worked up if Wild Bill himself had asked him.

Well, yeah, she’d heard it all right. And seen. She would never have believed Frederic if he’d told her this morning what was gonna happen to the both of them this very day but Lordy, it was something special all right. She could feel it inside her.

“I got me a dime,” he was saying. “That makes fifteen cents. And then He’s gonna give me another dime. Do you really think that’s him? The gunfighter? He looks awful young.”

Frederic could be so stupid sometimes. He might as well ask if she was sure Alexander’s pollywogs would turn into frogs.

“I’ve got things to do,” she told Frederic, starting to edge away from him. “And you better mind you don’t move from this spot.”

But Frederic was already patting the Pinto’s nose. It nickered softly and breathed into his palm. “This one doesn’t seem fierce enough to be a gunfighter’s horse,” he was saying.

She let Frederic be, then, while he wasn’t looking, slipped down the alley that ran beside the saloon.

Ada would know about her gunfighter. Ada knew everything.


It was almost dinner time and that meant the girls would be heading down to the barroom—and if they’d gone down already then she had no hope of seeing Ada, except by peeking through the saloon doors.

Unlike Mrs Jackson’s, up here the world smelled of beer and lavender and cigarettes and rose water. Maybe this was how big cities smelled; like San Francisco or New York, maybe. Or even London?

She crept down the hall with its threadbare piece of carpet, then went along to the room where all the girls changed. The room was empty save for one girl sitting at the only mirror in the room, rubbing rouge onto her cheeks, watched by a fat tabby cat sitting on the bench top. Violet breathed a sigh of relief. “Ada.”

Ada turned around and said in her lazy way, “Violet, I didn’t know you were coming to town today,” before turning back to dab at her face.

Violet took a pile of clothing off a wooden chair and piled it onto another then sat down, watching Ada’s face in the mirror. “Ada did you see him?” she asked breathlessly

Ada turned her head this way and that to check her face powder. “See who, child?”

“The gunfighter. At least,” she gulped as a wave of uncertainty swept over her, “I think that’s who he is.”

Ada put the rouge pot down and looked at her. “Ah hah, so you’ve seen him.” Her green eyes were sparking, unlike their usual lazy gaze. “He was here yesterday.”

“He was?”

“Oh my, Lord.” She laughed in her husky, throaty way, “You should have seen the stir in town when he rode in.”

Oh, golly Moses, were they talking about the same person? “The gunfighter...what did he look like?”

“Child, have you seen a raven with black, shiny feathers? Have you seen the sky without a single cloud on a summer’s day?”

“Stop teasing, Ada. What does he look like?”

“I can tell you what he doesn’t look like. He’s not like any of the men in these parts. Maybe he’s not like any man I ever met. Oh, my…those eyes. ‘Course, he’s not much more than a boy. Still, men who carry a gun for a living grow up fast.”

She looked at Ada uncertainly. It was hard to tell when she was funning or not sometimes. “Do you know his name?”

Ada smiled this time, like she was savouring something real fine. “Johnny…”

Ooh, he looked like a Johnny.


“Johnny Madrid.” She just about breathed his name inside of her. “Ada, I’ve never seen anyone like him before. Not ever.”

“You and me both, honey. Some men are like that.” Her gaze drifted from Violet. “It’s as if...” Her voice was wispy, like she was trying to remember a forgotten dream. “It’s as if they carry the excitement of everything you wished your life could be.”

“Oh, yes,” Violet whispered.

Ada sighed and shook herself, turning back to Violet. “They tell me he’s downstairs. That’s why all the girls rushed down. But me…I like to make an entrance.”

And Ada would make an entrance with her flame red hair and white skin. She was the prettiest person Violet knew. Not that Mama was aware they were friends.

Ada leaned forward. “And look at you all dressed up in your finery.” She fingered the bow in Violet’s hair. “You must have known you were about to meet someone special.”

She shrugged. Her bow didn’t seem so special up here—and not nearly special enough for him. “It’s just a ribbon. It’s not fancy like the clothes you wear.” Ada’s ruffled skirt was emerald green and she had layers of coloured petticoats beneath it.

Ada arched her brows. “I suppose you’d like to meet Mr Johnny Madrid?”

“Oh, I already did. He talked to me and Frederic in the street. He paid Frederic a dime to mind his horse. The prettiest pinto you ever saw.”

“Yeah and I just bet he spends his days riding in and rescuing maidens locked in towers.”

She looked sharply at Ada. “Well, he just might. I bet he could if he wanted to.” She didn’t know why Ada had to be like that sometimes; one minute sweet as Mama’s syrup and the next minute her face would pinch up like she took a bite of rancid butter.

Ada laughed, then she tugged a lock of Violet’s hair. “Would you like him to rescue you, honey?” And now Ada’s voice was all soft again, just how Violet liked her best.

“I wouldn’t mind,” she breathed out. He’d swing her up behind him and together they’d ride across the dirt plain all the way to the cool of the mountains where the water ran sweet and clear and the sun’s rays warmed without shrivelling everything it touched.

Ada stood up and picked up the dress Violet had shoved onto the other chair. “Well, if he’s gonna rescue you, he needs to see you again.” And she held up the pink satin dress with its feathers and beading. “How’d you like to be a saloon gal for the day?”

“Me? Oh no, I could never. If Mama ever found out…”

“Well, I’m not gonna tell her. And I’ll keep you near the back so no-one will talk to you. Come on, Violet, you want to see Johnny Madrid again, don’t you? And he’ll probably ride out today and then you’ll never see him again.”

“Oh, Ada, don’t say that.” The thought stabbed at her like a dagger to the heart. She fingered the pink satin. It was so smooth. Just like his voice.

Johnny Madrid.

She closed her eyes.

Frederic told her the meanest of the mean live in the border towns. It had always sounded scary to her. Only now, seeing Johnny Madrid, it sounded exciting and wild and nothing like her little town with its dusty street and one saloon. Some day…

“You want to see him again, don’t you?” Ada was saying.

The tabby cat jumped down and pressed against her legs with a loud purr. Violet laughed at her but it came out more like a squeak. “Molly, are you trying to tell me something?”

She picked up Molly and hugged her tight. Oh my, she wanted to see Johnny Madrid again so badly her insides were twisting something fierce.


She stood at the top of the steps and looked down into the saloon but she was so flustered all she could see was a room full of cowhands and farmers, mostly sitting at the round, wooden tables, drinking beer and playing poker. It was the middle of the day but being Saturday the hands from the ranches hereabout were already filling the saloon. Some stood by the bar and it looked shiny and special from up here when you couldn’t see the barrels it sat on.

Oh blazes. If her insides were twisting before they must be bucking now. At least the powder and rouge on her cheeks would hide how white she must be.

She took a step, wobbling a little in the heels.

She should never have done this. What was she thinking? She might as well have had nothing on as this dress that barely covered her knees. That’s what Mama would say. But Mama hadn’t seen Johnny Madrid. Surely Mama would understand? Mama had told her how her heart had thundered in her chest when she first laid eyes on Papa.

But then she caught sight of herself in the mirror in the alcove. Why, if only Willy Jenkins could see her now. She pursed her lips and lifted her chin. She looked so fine and grown up with the way the bodice was cut low over her bosom. It had gaped when she first put it on but Ada fixed that by stuffing some handkerchiefs down her front and right now you’d never know. And when she turned this way and that the sequins caught the sunlight coming through the window.

Then Ada came behind her and gave her a push and this time her leg felt steadier on the step.

“You just come with me,” Ada said. “We’ll sit at the table in the corner where Sam and Rufus are sitting. I know those boys.”

It was so much bigger inside the saloon than she’d expected. Bigger and noisier and smellier—but where was he? What if, after all the time it took her to get dressed, he’d already up and gone?

Ada gave her another push and she started walking towards the table but all the while she scanned the room. A dreadful feeling of disappointment was swamping her.

He’d gone.

Johnny Madrid had gone.

Why hadn’t she looked at him properly when she had the chance instead of being too scared?

“Violet, over there,” Ada whispered in her ear, pointing across to a table towards the back.

She was so anxious her eyes kept skipping around the room like fireflies in the light but finally she found him.

Johnny Madrid.

She almost couldn’t believe it.

He was sitting at a table with three men from the Bar B Ranch; their foreman, who she didn’t really know, and Chuck and Wally.

Ada gave her a nudge. “Your Johnny Madrid had better be careful or he’ll be leaving town with empty pockets. Chuck’s one of the best players in town.”

She’d seen Wally and Chuck in town before. Wally was okay but Chuck had a straggly beard and long stringy hair that fell over his piggy eyes. She gripped a handful of her dress. Why did Johnny have to play with him?

Johnny was looking at the five cards he held in his hands, then he drew out two cards and placed them face down on the table. Wally said something to him and his eyes crinkled into a smile as he picked up another two cards.

Ada forced her to sit down. “She’s off limits,” Violet heard her say to the two cowboys at their table. She gave them just a quick look, just to be polite but didn’t want to catch their eye. What if they knew her Pa? And besides, they were old and stinky and she had a good view of Johnny Madrid two and a half tables away.

He still wore his hat but he’d pushed it back further on his head and she could see his dark hair. He was the only one in the room wearing a Mexican style jacket. Then again, he was the only one who was Mexican or anything else other than the regular white folk they saw here. She couldn’t make out the detail but his shirt was white with fancy embroidering all down the front. She’d never seen anything like it, not on the cowhands around here at any rate, whose clothing mostly blended in with the dirt and the cows they tended.

She could see some of the other men in the saloon trying to take a sneaky look at him, then turn away, a few with a curling lip, a few with no expression at all—or maybe just a little curious—as they went back to their beer and cards. Some of the men had girls sitting on their knees. She saw Fran slap George O’Dowd when his hand drifted too high. Ada told her one time you had to keep ’em in line. “And don’t you ever let a man know how much you care about ’em, honey, or they’ll run a mile.”

Her eyes went back to Johnny. She bet Fran wouldn’t mind if it was Johnny Madrid’s hands circling her waist and making their way up to her breast.

But he wouldn’t be like that. Her Johnny would be a gentleman.

She could vaguely hear Ada talking to the two hands at her table but she blocked most of it out and every other noise around trying to hear what Johnny was saying. Sometimes he’d finger a card in his hand like he was about to put it down and then he’d sit back some and run a finger along his top lip. ‘Deliberating’ Pa would have explained it. Then his eyes would slowly flicker to the faces of the three other men at the table. She didn’t know much about poker. Frederic tried to teach her one time but playing for dried beans wasn’t all that exciting.

Johnny had two stacks of coins in front of him. He pushed both his piles of coins into the middle – the pot Frederic had called it – then he sat back and looked at Chuck like he didn’t have a care in the world. One thing she did remember was Frederic telling her you had to hide what you were thinking and that was why girls were no good at poker. (Frederic got a heck of a surprise when she punched him - ‘cause she didn’t show on her face how mad he just made her.)

It seemed to be down to Johnny and Chuck. That meant the other two were out. Oh golly, that pile of coins made her feel sick. You had to be making a lot of money gunfighting to risk losing all that.

Johnny picked up his glass and drained it in two big gulps then he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He grinned at Chuck and seemed to be saying, ‘Well, whatcha got, Chuck?’

Chuck grinned back but she couldn’t make out what he said. Then he kind of snapped each of his cards as he laid them on the table, like he was a card sharp or something.

Johnny scratched the back of his head as he looked at Chuck’s cards face up on the table.

Oh dear. She held her breath. It was such an awful big amount of money in the middle of the table. Not just coins, but notes as well.

“That’s a good hand,” Johnny said and Wally and the foreman were nodding like they agreed.

And then Johnny laid his cards down, slowly, one by one. She couldn’t see what they were but she could clearly see Chuck’s face blanch like a piece of old calico and she wanted to clap her hands she was so happy.

“Yeah, a good hand but not good enough,” Wally chortled, thumping Chuck on the arm like it was the best joke he’d made all year.

Johnny reached across to the middle of the table and scooped all the money towards his chest with both hands. “You done?” he asked the other three.

Wally and the foreman threw their hands up then stood and walked away.

“That kid has the devil’s own luck,” the foreman said as they passed by.

Johnny put all the coins in the drawstring bag but she could see he had half an eye on Chuck who’d pushed his chair back as he stood. He looked none too happy the way he was clenching and unclenching his fists. Johnny seemed to notice as well by the wary look that flashed in his eyes. Not worried, just guarded, like he was ready for trouble. Chuck was glaring down at Johnny and she didn’t like it one bit. She could run across and warn him? Should she? Why didn’t he notice what Chuck was up to? He just kept putting the money in his purse like he didn’t care what Chuck was doing. She could sashay across like she’d seen Fran do and get Chuck’s attention maybe? Oh gracious, Chuck took a step closer towards Johnny and she took a step, too. But no sooner had she moved when Wally came back and threw an arm about Chuck’s shoulders and dragged him off to the bar.

Violet started breathing again. For a moment she thought...

“We don’t serve your type around here,” a voice somewhere in the saloon called out, loud and strident enough to dim the hubbub in the room. Everyone started looking around.

Two men had come in and were standing at the bar. They were dressed like cowhands in checked shirts and leather vests, only both had black skin, as black as a moonless night. Mama told her they’d be seeing folks like that in their parts now, with the war being over and all the slaves freed. One was taller than the other, both broad shouldered, maybe in their twenties. She could see their close cropped hair beneath their hats.

“You feeling thirsty, Lewis?” the taller one said.

“Uh huh,” the other one grinned, like he didn’t know the whole saloon was eyeing the two of them. “I got enough dust in my mouth to cover a prairie.” He looked at the bartender who was staring at them like they had two heads. “My brother, Tandy, and myself, would be mighty obliged if you’d serve us two beers.” He had a voice so deep if could have come from the bottom of the Mississippi itself.

She knew the bartender. It was Frank, who sat opposite them in church every Sunday. Frank nodded, a bit nervously, and got two glasses out.

“Don’t you serve ’em, Frank.” This time Jess Roberts walked forward. “There’s a horse trough outside if they’re thirsty.”

Violet’s insides squirmed. There was a bit of murmuring and a few laughs. She felt awful bad for the black men, being talked to like that.

There was a painful silence in the saloon now but no-one else said anything. No-one stood up to Jess Roberts. She saw him once at the Fourth of July picnic and he’d looked real fine then with his blond hair and strong arms. He’d even winked at her when he caught her watching. But he looked like an awful small man now. Mama said all folks were the same in the sight of the Lord.

Frank rubbed his mouth like he wasn’t sure what to do, then he shrugged and looked at the two men in a helpless way.

She had a quick look at the table where Johnny Madrid was sitting. For a moment she’d almost forgotten why she was there. Oh golly, he was draining his glass like he was ready to go. Not yet. She didn’t want him to go already. She stood up but her feet didn’t move. That darn Jess Roberts. And darn those two cowboys for walking in and spoiling everything. She felt suddenly mad at them, too.

Oh wait, maybe they were leaving?

They’d turned from the bar but she saw a look pass between Lewis and Tandy that stung her something awful. She felt like she did when the reverend thundered about loving your brother ‘cause she wasn’t real sure she loved Frederic.

“Wait a minute.”

A voice had cut through all the other voices. That sort drawl wasn’t especially loud but it was loud enough to be heard.

She turned around. And there he was. Johnny Madrid. He wasn’t wearing his hat now but what she noticed more than anything was the gun on his hip. It looked bigger than it had before. No, maybe it was Johnny that looked bigger, or taller somehow?

He spurs jingled as he moved through the tables. A few men stood aside to let him through as he made his way right up to the bar next to Lewis.

“Frank, it seems to me like they got…money.” He smiled on that last word. “What else do they need to buy a beer?” He could cajole a mountain lion to give up its young with a voice as gentle as that.

Frank was under his spell at any rate.  He started nodding and he had his eyes on Johnny’s face like they were stuck there.

Jess Roberts smiled at Johnny like there was some simple misunderstanding. “You don’t understand. We just don’t serve their kind. They got no place here.”

This time a few other men nodded and someone said, “Here, here.”

The black men had their backs to the bar now. “It’s okay, friend. We don’t want no trouble,” Tandy said to Johnny, putting a hand on his shoulder. And the caring in his voice made her heart start to ache.

Johnny shrugged. “Seems to me if a man wants a beer, he’s not asking for trouble.” Then he flipped a few coins onto the bar. “Two beers, Frank.” The room became awful quiet. The only noise was the rattle of the coins as they spun on the polished wood then finally came to a stop and lay flat. “And it’s me who’s asking.”

Frank looked at Jess, then he looked at that gun low on Johnny’s hip.

“Frank, you pour those beers and I’ll break both your arms.” Jess moved up further, looming over Johnny.

Johnny seemed to be thinking on what Jess said as he itched under his nose with the back of his finger. “Yeah, but you do that and you’re liable to have an awful thirsty town on your hands.” A few people snickered but Johnny just kept his eyes on Jess.

Jess threw both arms up, away from the gun at his side. “I fight fair, Madrid. That’s your name, ain’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s Madrid.” A small smile played on his lips. “Johnny Madrid.”

A sudden murmur went up all around. Some of the girls gasped like they knew trouble was coming.

“We don’t want any shooting here,” Miles Watson called out. He was one of the ranchers and most everyone around town said he was a fair man.

Johnny looked around. “Who said anything about shooting? I’m just wanting to buy a beer for my two friends.”

Jess took another step forward, as did a few of his friends behind him. They were big men. Bigger than Johnny. “And I said they can go some place else.”

The next second Johnny’s fist flew out and Jess’s head snapped back and he went flying backwards and crashed onto a table sending glasses of beer and cards everywhere. The men sitting there only just jumped up in time as the table collapsed under his weight.

Violet jumped forward as men got in her way. The whole saloon had turned into one big writhing pack of brawling men. She tried to make out who was who but other men had stood up and she couldn’t see past them.

She ran forward and sheltered behind a post. Where was Johnny?

Now more folk had joined the fight and girls were screaming and every so often she’d catch sight of his dark shiny hair before someone else would get in her way. But he was small and fast compared to anyone else and he ducked and weaved with a speed no-one else had.  He didn’t even seem to care how big the men he was fighting were.

Oh no. A fist crashed into the side of his head and he went down beneath a tangle of legs and chairs and out of sight.

She jumped up on a chair, trying to see where he was but it was no good, there were too many legs and arms and bodies and hats and...

“Hold it.”

She could have sworn she heard the click of a gun but that was silly when there was so much noise--but everyone who was fighting near the bar just stopped and turned around like it was magic.

She got down from the chair and ran forward and pushed her way through.

Johnny Madrid was standing there, a silver gun in his right hand. It wasn’t Jess Roberts Johnny was aiming at, though. It was Jess’s friend, Todd, whose gun was aimed at Lewis.

“Put it down,” Johnny was saying. “Unless you’d like to step outside?” He could have been offering a walk in the sunshine if you didn’t know any better, if you somehow missed that extra something in his voice that set a thrill down the back of her neck.

Todd shook his head and put his gun down on the bar like it was a rattlesnake about to bite him.

Everyone was picking themselves up and Johnny grinned at Frank.  “I think I’d like those drinks, now. You wanna pick up those chairs?” he added to Todd.

Todd looked real embarrassed as he shuffled over and set a table and chair to rights.

“I’d like to drink with you, too, Madrid,” a voice called out. And then another. And another.

Miles Watson walked up to the bar. He slapped his hand down on a pile of dollar bills. “This one’s on me, gentlemen.”

Men were picking themselves up and straightening chairs and tables and most of them were grinning like they’d just had the time of their lives. Ada’s girls had come out from where they were hiding and were doing their best to get the beer flowing again.

Jess Roberts got up off the floor and wiped the blood from his nose but before he could even open his mouth Mr Watson told him, “I don’t like your type, Roberts.” The saloon went quiet. “If I hear you talk like that again, I’ll be telling your boss you oughtta find another town.”

Then the hubbub started rising as Jess and Todd walked out. Violet could hear snippets of conversation and it seemed like every second word was, ‘Madrid.’

“Did you see that?” she heard someone say. “I swear I blinked and that gun was in his hands.”

“Suddenest thing I ever saw.”

“He’s a mean kid, all right.”

Violet looked around. It was amazing how fast the saloon had gone from brawling men to the laughing and talking that had filled it before.

Johnny was drinking a beer with Mr Watson and Lewis and Tandy.

“You sure can pick’em,” Ada breathed in her ear.

“Did you ever see anyone like him?”

It sounded like Mr Watson was offering them a job. Lewis and Tandy were nodding their heads but Johnny had his hand out.

No. No, he couldn’t leave yet. She hadn’t even talked to him.

It was true. Johnny shook hands with the others then turned around and he was clearly looking for something.

“I’ve gotta go,” she told Ada.

Violet moved. She only had one chance. One chance.

By the time he’d reached the table, she was holding it in her hands.

“I believe this is your hat, Mr Madrid.” She could scarce get the words out her heart was thumping so hard. And this time she looked at him, right full into those eyes that had looked at her so kindly out on the street. But she didn’t want them to be kind. Could he see it? She’d kissed boys before. She knew what her Mama and Papa did in the night. She’d even let Willie Jenkins touch her breast three times. But would he see it in her eyes? Would he see she wasn’t just a kid?

His hand reached out for his hat.

“Here.” She said the word then stopped breathing. Would he know what she was offering?

He took the hat then looked down at it while his fingers ran around the brim. And oh, how she wanted those fingers touching her. She was close enough to breathe him in. It was like she could feel every part of him.

And then he looked up and she could see he didn’t think of her as a stupid kid.

She didn’t dare move as he reached out and rubbed his fingers along the ribbon Mama had tied in her hair. Ada was right, he was younger than she’d thought. And that made everything more possible.

He tilted his head then took a step back but his smile held the sweetest regret. “I think your brother’ll be waiting for you outside.”

She could feel the burn of tears at the corner of her eyes.

She knew what his words meant.

And she knew what type of man he was.

He gave her another smile before he tipped his head back a little then dropped his hat on his head.

Then with a jingle of spurs, he was gone.


A year later, her whole world changed.

Mama and her and the three young’uns had gone to Little Rock, Arkansas to visit Mama’s sister. The twins took sick first, their little bodies grew limp and frail almost overnight. She could see the life and warmth in them slipping away as she peeped in the door. Mama wouldn’t let her in the room to nurse them.

First they lost Sophrona, then Permilia went to be with the angels.

Violet thought she’d cried every tear she had—but then Mama became ill.


Violet was the only one in the wagon when it rumbled along the ruts in the road that led to their farm. Pa hugged her the once when she got off the stage, tossed her bag into the back, then took up the reins. He never spoke of Mama or the twins. Not then. Not ever.

Her aunt kept Alexander and took him to St Louis and that left Violet with only Pa and Frederic to cook and clean for at home. Pa talked even less now that Mama was gone and Frederic spent his days drinking whisky behind the school house in his black boots that were fast becoming too small.

Then Ada said she was going to Nogales and did Violet want to come? She could make something of herself there. Ada would make sure she only worked in the best saloons. Maybe even a dance hall?


Border towns.

She’d dreamed of him every night for the past year. When she stood on the fence with her arms outstretched and the wind in her face it was a pinto she was riding and Johnny Madrid had his arms wrapped about her as they galloped across the plains, all the way to the mountains and the other side of the world.

She didn’t tell Pa she was leaving.

Once he was asleep, she wrapped up the white china cup with its tiny roses in her other dress. She put it and her only doll into a bag, tied Mama’s ribbon in her hair, and walked outside into the dark.

She didn’t look back. There was nothing there to see.


The air was cold after the warmth of the hacienda as their only horse thundered through the night.

Drago pushed the horse on, over the pastures, through the forests. South, he’d said, to Mexico.

Mexico...where she’d dreamed, night after night, of finding Johnny Madrid.

When he walked in tonight, she was suddenly fourteen years old again. She could swear the world shifted and she was back in the saloon, wearing Ada’s dress, with Mama’s ribbon in her hair.

He was older of course, like her, but that air of danger still clung to him. Even more so. Oh my, he could still walk into a saloon and have the whole room stop and look at him.

She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms more tightly around Drago’s waist as they galloped across the plain. And she smiled as she hugged her man. Everything between her and Drago felt so right now, like it never had before. It felt so good to think she never had to worry about Drago leaving her for someone else.

It wasn’t how Ada said it was after all.

Drago slowed the horse and looked at her over his shoulder. “You doing okay, Violet?”

“Sure, Drago.”

She hugged Drago that little bit tighter and rested her cheek against his back.

She loved Drago. She could say that now. Tell the whole world even.

And then she smiled her secret smile.

Yes, Drago was her man.

But she’d still always love Johnny Madrid.




January 2019

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