The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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

Winj

 

Life Lessons

 

 

 

With friends like that.......

Eighteen. Or was it nineteen. He couldn't remember. Never had really kept track of his age. It never seemed to matter. It sure as hell didn't now. For now, here he was at whatever young age, shuffling through the desert of southern Arizona and wondering.

Wondering how he had gotten here. Why he hadn't listened to his own head. He stopped and looked up at the blinding sun then sighed. All the sudden he was on his knees. Looking about, he searched for some cactus he could drain of its juices. He didn't think he'd ever been so thirsty. He'd never spent much time out here and certainly not on foot. It was no mans land. Barren, dusty and deadly.

But he knew a little. Enough to know which cactus were safe and which were poison. He recalled the old man who had taught him that lesson. Johnny listened and remembered though, at the time, he didn't figure he'd ever need that knowledge. Wrong again, Madrid.

He pulled his knife as he spied potential relief. Standing slowly, he grimaced at the pull in his back. Damn you to hell, Rodriquez. If I ever get outta here, you are a dead man!

He staggered over to the life-sustaining plant. Carefully, he reached in with his left hand to steady it, then used his knife to cut at the base. The needles pricked him and he swore again but never did he release his savior. The plant was tough but he persevered and finally, it gave way. He dropped it and sucked at the small sprinkles of blood on his hand. Reaching in his pocket, he produced a bandana and folded it over several times. Once more he assaulted the cactus.

Slicing a large piece, he relieved it of its prickly spine and popped it in his mouth. He sucked the juice like candy and relished in the moisture. As his body gained hydration, his eyes surveyed the land. In the distance, the dunes shimmered in the heat of the day. Johnny had refrained from removing his jacket. He wasn't so foolish as to think he could survive without protection. Even with his darker skin, he would burn to a crisp out here - and quickly. He also knew the desert got cold at night. Very cold.

He repositioned himself and crossed his legs as he took another slice of the cactus. Lousy tasting stuff but he couldn't exactly be choosy. He smiled sardonically to himself. When had he ever gotten to be choosy? Not often and not this morning. His anger returned as he thought of the betrayal.

Rodriguez. His supposed friend and now, his worst enemy. Johnny had sworn it as he lay there in the sand. He could still here Cedro laughing as they'd ridden away; leaving him there to die. No gun, no horse and a bullet in the back. Thanks a lot, amigo.

He knew the wound was not as bad as it could have been. In normal circumstances, it was not life threatening. But, out here in the barrens, he could easily die from the blood loss and thirst. Easily and pretty fast, he reckoned. But not before he suffered a little, Cedro had hoped.

He studied the sky once more and got his bearings. With a grunt and a curse, he made it to his feet and started heading south. Toward home.

Home, he snorted. What home? Just back to the border. Back to Mexico where he should have kept himself in the first place. Back to, hopefully, some help. He still had a few friends. People who would actually help him and hide him while he recovered. If he made it that far.

He knew he wasn't all that far away as the crow flies. But, he grinned, I ain't a crow. Laughing a little, Johnny set out on his seemingly lost journey. His goal for the moment was the Gila River. There, he would at least have the water he needed and, hopefully, some shelter.

It was a little past noon now and the heat was nearly unbearable. He decided the smart thing would be to find some shade and wait for nightfall. It would be easier to walk at night and it would keep him warm as well.

The desert was unforgiving and did not give up its prey easily. Blistering heat during the day and freezing air at night. She was a royal bitch and Johnny knew it. She could also be a haven in times of need. Those few times he had ventured into her bosom for refuge, she had accepted him then set him free. But, this time, he wasn't sure she'd be so willing to give him up.

He spotted a rock formation to his left and headed to it. The cliff jutted over enough to provide some shade and he scrambled in close. Pressing against the rock, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Soon enough, he drifted off.

Something was different now and he jolted awake as his senses cried out to him. Blinking and swiping his dusty face, he took stock. His back hurt and he could feel the stickiness when he moved. Still bleeding, he guessed. The sun was gone now and the half moon was bright in this open world. He scooted out of his spot and stood slowly, gauging his condition as he went.

His eyes went to the sky and he took in a sharp breath. It always made him do that. The night sky out here was incredibly intense. The stars so close, he could almost reach out and touch them. And they were draping the sky heavily tonight. He didn't think he'd have any trouble seeing as he walked.

So, he headed out again. Tired, hurting, hungry and very thirsty. As he walked, he searched for more cacti. He found another suitable one and cut up several pieces, gingerly sticking them in his jacket pockets.

Johnny walked all night. He was so very tired and wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep. But that was not an option if he wanted to live. And he did want to live. If for no other reason than to put a bullet in Cedro Rodriguez' brain.

As the sky lightened almost imperceptibly, he started down a steeper dune. Before he realized what was happening, he was falling and rolling. He pulled his arms in tight to his body as he fell. Sand ground against his face and he took in a breathful or two. He could feel it in his mouth as he kept falling; seemingly never to stop.

But stop he did; and hard. He slammed against a large rock, his back screaming in agony. His world turned as did his stomach. Then, the darkness fell on him.

*****

He felt a cool, wet cloth on his face and he smiled despite himself. It felt so wonderful, so refreshing. He could detect the scent of wood burning and food cooking. And something else. Something not altogether unfamiliar but he couldn't place the fragrance. It was pleasant, though, and another smile graced his lips.

Slowly and hesitantly, he opened his eyes. Looking up into the deep brown eyes of a lovely girl. Her hair was long and black and in pigtails. She couldn't be more than fifteen or sixteen, he reckoned. She smiled at him and he returned it. Then, he made to rise.

She began to speak to him in a tongue he didn't recognize. It was definitely not Spanish and he looked quizzically at her. She seemed very adamant about something and she pushed down on his chest. He understood she didn't want him to get up but he had to.

He placed a hand on one of hers and patted it then shook his head. She looked into his eyes and sat back resignedly. Johnny figured words weren't the only way to communicate and he laughed softly at her retreat.

But sitting up had not been such a good idea and his head swam for several seconds. He held it in one hand as the other steadied him against the ground. Finally, the dizziness subsided and he looked around tenuously. He was in some sort of structure made of ... mud maybe? And some kind of wood.

He looked back at the young maiden and smiled again. She was frowning in concern and she touched his back. He nodded and moved a little. Not bad. More sore than anything now. He wondered how long he'd been here and who had removed the bullet. For he was certain someone had; he could tell.

He made it to his feet somehow and stepped out of the hut. It was late morning judging from the sun. There were many people milling around. Going about their daily chores. Johnny took in the village in a few seconds. The girl was standing just behind him and he turned to look down at her. She was petite but he figured she hadn't stopped growing yet. Too young, he smiled. Wearing a simple short dress and sandals, she was actually quite beautiful.

He heard the water; smelled it and it beckoned him. She seemed to sense this and she handed him a jug made of deer hide. Water, he sighed and took a long drink of the cold liquid. He felt her hand on the jug and he lowered it then nodded his understanding.

Lento. Go slow, Madrid. Don't want to lose your lunch in front of a pretty girl. He almost laughed out loud at the thought. He doubted it would impress her one way or the other. Besides, there was nothing in there to lose. Dios, he was hungry!

"Habla Espanol?" he asked softly.

She frowned and shook her head and he sighed. She spoke again and took his arm, leading him somewhere. At the moment, he didn't care where she took him. He was just grateful, very grateful to her and her people.

Johnny had not known any Indians before. Oh, he'd seen plenty but they didn't bother him and he didn't bother them. He liked it just fine.

She stopped in front of a large hut and put her hand up to indicate he stay there. Then she went inside. A minute later, an old man stepped out. He was tall, his face leathered from the sun and labour. He wore only a breechcloth and headband. His graying hair was long down his back and his eyes held the wisdom of the ages, it seemed.

Johnny couldn't stop looking at him as he cut an impressive figure. Must be the chief, he naturally assumed. He found his voice and spoke. "Habla Espanol?" he asked.

The man looked oddly at him and shook his head.

Johnny sighed and tried again. "Do you speak English?"

"Yes."

The simple response surprised him for some reason. He had resigned himself to using hand gestures and body language to communicate with these people. But he was relieved that at least they could have a conversation.

The old man made a gesture toward the fire ring. "Sit."

Johnny nodded and did so, unsure how they viewed his presence here.

The old man joined him, spoke to the girl in his native tongue and she disappeared.

Johnny waited a minute and when the man did not speak, he grew a little uncomfortable. "Thank you," he said simply.

The man nodded and stared at him. "You are not white," he stated matter-of-factly.

Johnny smiled. "Half and half Mexican." The look on the man's face told him the chief did not approve. Johnny felt his anger rise but he quickly quelled it. These people had saved his life. He could deal with the disapproval.

The young maiden returned with two bowls which she handed to the men. Johnny could hear his stomach rumble but he waited. The chief hesitated for a full minute, then began to eat. When he did, Johnny joined him and received a nod of approval for his manners.

Well, I reckon that's one point in my favour, he thought.

He inhaled the deer meat and beans gratefully. Once more he thanked the man.

"We are Aatam," the old man spoke.

Johnny nodded, unsure if this was his name or the tribes.

"The white man calls us Pima," he continued.

Johnny smiled. This was a name he'd at least heard. He remembered hearing these were nonviolent people. That they had scouted for the army and were friendly to the whites. He wondered how friendly they'd be to him.

"I'm Johnny," he replied.

"Our hunters found you in the desert. They brought you here." The man spoke in near monotones as he made his sentences short. Johnny realized that, while he spoke English, it wasn't fluently.

"I'm grateful for everything you've done," Johnny answered softly. A frown crossed his face as he realized something. He had not seen one horse. His heart dropped as he wondered how far from the border he was now. "I wonder, do you have any horses?"

The old man shook his head. "We do not."

Johnny sighed and bowed his head, staring into the flames.

"You have enemy."

Johnny looked up and smiled. "One or two. You mean who did this? Yeah, he's an enemy," his voice turned cold and hard at the last.

"White?" the chief asked.

"No, Mexican. Does it matter?" he asked, suddenly curious and a little worried at how friendly these people felt toward Mexicans.

"Our enemy is Apache. You know Apache?"

Johnny shook his head. "I've never really met any Indians before."

The man nodded in approval.

"How far is Mexico from here?" Johnny asked.

"Two days walk."

"Are there any towns nearby? Maybe a stage stop?"

"Town is half day walk," the man answered flatly.

Better than nothin, he thought and smiled. "I'd like to repay you for your kindness."

"Help another. That is payment," the chief said.

Before Johnny could respond to that, the man stood up. Johnny turned to see another old man approaching. This one was more colourful. He wore the same type breechcloth and a buckskin shirt. His hair flowed about his head as the slight breeze created from walking lifted it. He wore some sort of necklace made of willow, Johnny though, with various coloured beads decorating it.

Johnny couldn't tell if he was older than the first but he looked ancient. His stride was that of a youth, however, and confidence practically exuded from the man. Johnny found himself on his feet without realizing he had stood.

The two men spoke for a moment and the chief walked away, leaving Johnny with this new man. One that eyed him with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion.

"Sit," he instructed and Johnny did so. "Why was this done to you?"

Johnny was a bit surprised by the question and the fact that this man seemed to be more fluent in English. "Just a disagreement," he said simply.

"This man wanted you dead but he did not kill you," the old man stated.

"Si. Yes, he thought it would be fun for me to die in the desert." The anger was evident in his voice as was the vengeance he sought.

The old man only nodded. "You have asked about horses and the town. You are not well enough to travel. You will stay here until your strength returns." With that he stood to leave.

"Just a minute. Look, I appreciate everything you've done but I'm fine. I'll be leavin in the morning," Johnny stated as he rose as well.

The old man took a deep breath and studied him. A smile crossed his face fleetingly. "As you wish."

****

When he awoke the next morning, Johnny felt like he'd been run over by a stampede. His entire body ached. He tried to move but that just made things worse. He heard movement and turned his head to see an older woman busying herself with something on his left. His eyes sought out the young maiden from yesterday but she wasn't there.

The woman turned and moved beside him. She began washing his face and speaking softly. He didn't understand the words but the tone was easy enough. She sounded like his mother whenever she was comforting him. Johnny smiled at her and closed his eyes for a second.

Taking a breath to steel himself, he tried to sit up. She held his shoulders as he swayed and dropped right back down again.

The flap to the hut opened and the old man walked in. "You will be leaving today?" he asked with some humour.

Johnny opened one eye and peered at him through the hand covering his face. "Reckon not."

The old man chuckled. "The whites, they would say you are pigheaded."

Johnny laughed himself. "I've been called worse, I suppose."

"You have a fever. My woman will help you. She is good with the medicine. I have taught her well," he explained.

The medicine man, Johnny thought. Well, that makes sense. He was old as dirt, might as well be the smartest one around. He nodded his understanding and closed his eyes again. He was so tired.

*****

Johnny slept most of the next two days before the fever broke. The medicine man had bathed him in tepid water twice now. With the herbs and plants he'd given Johnny, his wound was healing and the infection was gone.

He took Johnny out for his first few walks to rebuild his strength. He explained the importance of not staying idle. Of keeping his heart and spirit strong. He told Johnny that medicine was good but a man's spirit was what truly healed him. If a man's spirit was dark, he would not heal.

Johnny did not see the young maiden again during this time and he asked about her. The old man told him she was working but his tone left no doubt. Any interest in the girl would not be tolerated.

He spent most evenings with the chief and the medicine man by the fire ring. They talked for long hours, explaining the people and their beliefs to Johnny. He was mesmerized by their culture and traditions. Some of the stories were pretty outrageous, he thought. But, he reckoned it was no crazier than believing in God. Something that no one ever saw, just believed in anyway. He learned a great deal about healing and the spirit. It gave him a sense of peace, for some reason.

During the day he watched the women work. Their burden seemed daunting. He watched in fascination as they weaved the baskets. One old woman, when finished, took Johnny to the river's edge. She dipped the basket in and filled it with water. Not a single drop leaked through. Johnny was impressed and he smiled at her. She poured the water out and gave him the basket.

He thought to not accept it for he knew it took a long time and was very difficult to weave. But he realized it would be an insult to reject such a gift.

He began to help as they would allow. He farmed the fields with them and was fascinated by the intricate irrigation system they had developed. The chief told him their ancestors had dug the canals; had cultivated the land so it flourished. This desert wasteland had become a harvest rich in corn, squash, melons and pumpkins.

He found himself becoming more and more comfortable with these people. They accepted him into their lives easily. What he had learned here would stay with him forever, he knew. Even though he could only speak with the chief and medicine man in words, he had adapted to 'talking' with the others in gesture.

As they sat by the fire ring this night, music began to play. Johnny's eyes rested on the brave who played the flute. The music was haunted and lonely yet beautiful and soothing as well.

"It is his farewell gift to you," the medicine man explained.

Johnny looked questioningly at him.

"It is time for you to leave now. You are healed in body and spirit," he said.

Johnny started to protest but stopped himself. He knew he didn't belong here; not really. He wanted to stay forever but it couldn't be. One thing he had learned about the people was that they kept their bloodlines pure. Staying here would mean living a life alone forever. Johnny knew he could not do that. He only nodded in response. The sadness on his face spoke for him.

"We have enjoyed having you here. You are always welcome to visit," the old man said with a smile.

"I'll never be able to repay your kindness. You've taught me so much," Johnny said softly.

"If you want to repay us, help another in need."

Johnny remembered the chief telling him that very thing his first full day here. He nodded at the old man and dropped his eyes.

Just trying to buy a horse ......

The next morning, Johnny set out for the nearest town. He was sent off by the whole tribe. He felt their good wishes in his heart and hoped he would see them again someday.

As he walked, he thought about his life. What he had become and why. Now, after being with these spiritual people, he no longer felt the need for revenge. That wasn't to say he would hesitate to put Rodriguez out of his misery; but he would not actively seek the man out. Johnny reckoned their paths would cross again someday.

He reached the town at noon, just as the old man said he would. He smiled as he remembered the ancient one. It was funny how people who were so basically different could get along so well. And other times, a person couldn't get along with his own kind for a second. Not that he had an 'own kind'. He figured that would be gunhawks. So, no, there was never much 'getting along' in that profession.

His first stop was the gunsmith where he purchased a new Colt and finally found out where he was. He smiled to himself. Rodriguez didn't know about the stash he kept in his boot. It was a good thing, too. At least he still had his own gunbelt. He knew he'd have to get used to the new pistol. As he walked to the hotel, he thought about buying a horse. That would be a little more difficult. He didn't have that kind of money.

Well, he sighed softly, he'd just have to find some work. Must be some ranches around the area. He wished he was further south but it couldn't be helped. Tucson would be much better for him. He knew people there. He knew no one in Phoenix. Well, I've been in this situation before.

He walked into the hotel and signed his name in the register. The clerk's hand was trembling when he handed over the key and Johnny looked at him for the first time. He smiled warmly and the man relaxed a measure.

"Any work around here?" he asked.

The man's eyes widened again. "Whh...what kind of work, sir?"

"Anything that'll earn me enough to buy a horse," he replied with some amusement.

"Well, Mr. Lattimer is hiring drovers," he suggested.

That got Johnny's interest. "Yeah? Where can I find Mr. Lattimer?"

"At the moment, he's in the saloon, I believe."

Johnny nodded thoughtfully. "Is he a fair man?"

"Oh, yes, Mr. Madrid. Why he's highly respected in these parts," the clerk answered quickly.

Johnny leaned his elbows on the counter and looked into the man's eyes. "You ain't gotta be so nervous. I ain't gonna shoot ya." With that, he grinned and tipped his hat then headed for the saloon.

******

Johnny surveyed the saloon quickly and found the man he wanted. He walked over to the table and stood in front of Cal Lattimer.

"Mr. Lattimer, I heard you were hiring drovers," he said.

"I am, young man. Do you have any experience?"

The man was middle-aged with dark brown hair and eyes to match. Johnny couldn't be certain of his height but he seemed on the tall side. He was lean and work-roughened.

"Oh yeah, I've been on a few drives," he answered.

"Well, this isn't a big drive. Just taking two hundred head to Tucson to sell to a rancher there. I only need one more man."

Johnny smiled. "No, you don't need anymore men. You just hired me, right?"

Lattimer laughed at his audacity. "Well, you're sure of yourself all right. Well, it pays ten dollars a week plus your horse and tack and all the trail food you can keep down, Mr.????"

"Madrid. Johnny Madrid."

The rancher's face fell then hardened. "I'm not hiring gunhawks, Madrid," he said stonily.

"And I ain't offerin to be one. I need a job and a horse. I'm a good drover and I know cattle. All I want is a job, mister. Period," he said, his tone matching the man sitting before him.

Lattimer seemed to consider this and the boy standing before him. "Sit down, Madrid. Why do you need this job?"

Johnny sat across from him and sighed. "To be honest, I got myself shot and robbed. I got no money and no horse and all I want to do is get back to the border."

Lattimer raised a brow. "Maybe you're not as good as they say then."

Johnny's eyes turned cold. "Maybe I'm just bad at pickin partners," he replied in a low voice.

Latimmer sighed. "Well, I haven't had any luck getting that last man. But, the first sign of trouble and you're gone. Understood?"

"Understood," Johnny agreed and offered his hand.

Lattimer shook it then stood. "Be at my ranch tomorrow morning at sun up. We start the drive then."

Johnny stayed where he was and ordered a tequila, trying to figure out how he was going to get to Lattimer's ranch in the morning.

*****

When he came downstairs the next morning, his dilemma was solved. The clerk informed him Mr. Lattimer had a horse waiting for him at the livery. He also gave directions to the ranch. Johnny thanked the man and smiled as he walked outside.

It was still two hours before dawn but he wanted to be early. The Bar L was only an hour ride so he ambled to the livery and found the horse by its brand. He saddled it quickly and led it outside. One thing he hadn't thought of was breakfast. Well, he sighed, ain't the first meal I've missed.

He mounted up and rode south out of Phoenix.

When he arrived at the ranch, he was impressed. It was fairly large and the house, though moderate in size, was beautiful. Well, on the outside at least. Johnny rode right up to the corral and dismounted among glaring stares.

"Where's the trail boss?" he asked the first man he saw.

"Mr. Lattimer's trail boss this drive. But, you'd be wantin George. He's up to the house. Be right back," the cowboy said.

"Thanks. I'm Johnny," he said.

"I know who ya are. Everybody knows who ya are. What we can't figure is what you're doin here," the man said.

Johnny smiled. "Well, I need a job. Simple as that."

"Uh huh. How come a famous gunhawk like you needs a drovers job?"

"You sure are a straight shooter, ain't ya?" Johnny asked with humour. "Well, I tell ya. Even us gunhawks mess up sometimes. I got in with a bad crowd." The smile was gone and there was no expression on his face as he waited.

The cowboy burst out laughing and leaned over, slapping his knee. "Bad crowd? That's rich! My name's Shane," he said as he offered his hand. He was still chuckling when George walked up.

Shane introduced them and Johnny could see the man was not pleased with his presence. It didn't bother him in the least. He knew what he was doing and he was sure he'd prove himself soon enough.

Without much further ado, the drive began in a thunder of hooves and clouds of dust. Johnny pulled his bandana over his mouth and smiled as he was assigned to ride drag.

Lattimer took up a position near the back. Johnny knew it was so he could keep an eye on him. He wasn't familiar with the path they were taking but he knew there were no heavy rivers to cross. The only problem around here was the Apache. This made him think of his friends, the Pima. He hoped they would have no trouble.

*****

The first night, he was assigned night herd duty. He reckoned Lattimer was going to push him hard to see if he had the right stuff. He didn't mind. He was used to staying up late. But he wasn't used to being up so early in the morning though he'd never complain.

He guessed he'd get some decent sleep eventually. Laughing softly, he rode along the perimeter of the herd.

At two o'clock, his relief showed up. Johnny headed straight for the coffee. The cook had left out some food for the watchers and he dug in with fervor.

"Hungry?"

Johnny looked up at Lattimer and smiled. "A little."

The rancher sat on a log near the fire and poured a cup of bitter brew. "God! Cookie can't make coffee worth a damn!"

Johnny laughed but he had to agree. It was the worst stuff he'd ever drank. "Outta be walking right out of the pot anytime now."

Lattimer laughed as well then fell quiet. "I can't figure you out, Madrid."

"Nothin to figure," Johnny shrugged.

"How old are you, boy?"

Johnny looked up at him, his eyes narrowing. "What difference does it make?"

"Dunno. You just seem too young to be a gunfighter," he shrugged. "Well?"

"Eighteen or nineteen. Can't remember," he clipped.

Lattimer's eyebrows rose. "You don't know how old you are? Don't your mama know?"

Johnny shrugged once more. "Maybe but she's dead."

"What about your pa?"

The tension in his shoulders was easy to see. Johnny's eyes smoldered as he glared at the rancher. "You need to know all this for me to work here?"

"No, boy. Just curious is all. You just don't seem .... well, I've seen a few gunhawks in my day. You don't fit the picture, is all."

"Guess that gives me an advantage then, don't it?" he spat and stood up. Tossing his plate on the ground, Johnny turned on his heel and stalked off.

****

The next day was much like the first. Johnny rode drag and remembered why he didn't like cattle. Stupid! He kept his eyes peeled at the hills when they surrounded the herd. Looking for any sign of Apache or any other threat.

That night he was spared night duty and he ate with the rest of the crew. They were quiet, which was unusual. Johnny sensed the tension in the air and knew it was because of him. Well, so be it. If they want to be jackasses the whole way, it wasn't his problem.

He finished eating and walked away from the fire, into the darkness near the remuda.

A twig snapped and he whirled around, drawing his gun and crouching.

"Easy, son. It's just me."

"Don't sneak up on me like that, Lattimer!" he hissed.

"Trust me, I won't," the man said. His voice was calm though and Johnny wondered if anything spooked the man. Lattimer walked up beside him and looked out into the night.

"Did you need me for something?" Johnny asked.

"No, no. Just figured you'd know where the quiet place was. I was right, too," he smiled.

Johnny watched his profile in the pale light of the moon. He couldn't figure this one out. What did he want? Why was he hounding him?

They heard the raucous laughter from the campfire and Johnny snorted.

"Guess they can relax now."

"Well, they are curious and, I guess, a little rattled. We've never had a gunfighter working with us before," Lattimer explained.

"Then you're lucky. That you've never needed one," Johnny clarified.

"I don't know that I'd hire one no matter what. Just seems to me violence is never the answer. Oh, I'll fight for what's mine, don't get me wrong. But, if there's blood to be spilled, it will be of a man's own free will to spill it. I'd never ask any man to stay and fight for something if he doesn't believe in it."

"And if they didn't stay and fight? If there was nobody else to help?" Johnny asked.

"Then I've failed already, son. If a man doesn't have the loyalty of the people who work for him, what does he have?"

Johnny thought about that for a moment. "What about your family?"

Lattimer tensed, Johnny could feel it and was suddenly sorry he'd asked.

"Small Pox five years ago. Took my wife and daughter."

"I'm sorry," Johnny said and Lattimer turned to look at him.

"Yes, I believe you are. Thank you. What about you? Any brothers or sisters?"

Johnny shook his head. "No, no one," he mumbled.

"Last night I asked about your father and you got angry. He's alive, isn't he?"

Johnny turned his back and stared at the stars. "I don't really know."

"I take it his name is not Madrid," Lattimer half-asked.

Johnny laughed softly. "No, it's not."

"I guess you think I'm being nosy."

Johnny turned back and looked the man in the eye. "Yeah, I do."

Lattimer chuckled at this. "Well, I have been accused of that before. I do like to know something about the men who work for me."

"I ain't gonna be around long enough to worry about it."

"You could be. You handle yourself very well with the herd, Johnny. If you want it, there's a job for you at my ranch."

Suspicion took hold of the young man as it always did when someone was nice to him. "Why?"

"I just told you," Lattimer shrugged.

"Uh uh. You only hired drovers for this drive. You got all the hands you need."

"I can always use another good one. Look, I'm just offering. I have a funny feeling about you, son. I can't explain it but you just don't strike me as a killer for hire."

"Well, that's what I am and I'm very good at it! I ain't lookin for no hand out, mister. All I want is a way back south. That's all!" Johnny hissed.

"Hey, take it easy. I wasn't offering charity, boy. A man works for me, he works and hard. You're a real rattlesnake, aren't you? Ready to strike out for any reason. I don't know what or who caused all this hate but I can tell you this. It will eat you alive, Johnny. From the inside out until there's nothing left but a shell of bitterness and regret."

Once more, Johnny turned his back. He knew Lattimer had hit the nail on the head. Even if he didn't know the why of it, he knew the what. Pretty good for a rancher, he thought. How is he able to read me so well? Nobody else has ever been able to do that. Nobody else has ever tried, either.

"Whatever it is, Johnny, let it go or face it head on. If you can face a man down in the street, you can face this demon."

"Why do you care?" he asked in a strangled voice.

Lattimer hesitated before answering. "I honestly don't know. I just do for some reason."  

*****

Two days passed by routinely. Johnny had stayed away from Lattimer. He didn't need this old man telling him what he already knew. That until he faced the man who had thrown him away, he would never have any peace. What kept him from doing just that was fear. Fear that, even if he did face Murdoch Lancer, he still would have no peace. And peace was something Johnny Madrid was desperate to have.

The men were still cold toward him. All but Shane who was friendly but not terribly so. He kept to himself and liked it just fine.

It was almost dusk and they were ready to stop for the night when something caught Johnny's attention. There was a small hill to his right and he knew he'd seen movement up there. He casually reined his horse in that direction, moving slowly. When he was at the foot of the incline, he reared and headed up. Gun drawn and ready for anything.

Lattimer saw him and followed, knowing something was amiss. He didn't know this young man well but he'd seen enough. He knew Johnny wouldn't just take off for no reason.

As he topped the hill, Johnny saw the small band of Indians headed away from him. He stopped and watched them as Lattimer caught up.

"Great! Just what I need," Lattimer sighed.

"They'll be back and with more braves. Apache, I think. Best put some extra guards on tonight. They like to attack at dawn," Johnny replied.

"Do you know much about them?"

Johnny shook his head. "No, just that they ain't nice people." His thoughts went to the Pima and he remembered this was their enemy. That meant they were Johnny's enemy as well.

Lattimer informed his men and they set up a perimeter that night. Johnny pulled night herd duty again but he hadn't planned on sleeping anyway. The Apache might change their method of attack and he didn't want to wake up with an arrow in him.

Just before dawn Johnny disappeared. Lattimer searched high and low but couldn't find him.

"Figures. Guess he ain't gettin paid enough to risk his hide," George spat.

Lattimer didn't want to believe that but he had to wonder. While he was pondering the thought, an arrow landed at his feet. An explosion of gunfire and chaos ensued.

******

Johnny slipped between two boulders high above the base camp and settled in. It was chilly but the heat from the rocks kept him warm enough. Rifle in hand, he sat perfectly still and listened to the night sounds.

He heard it then. What one would think was a night bird and its answering call. But Johnny knew it for what it was and he moved silently into the night.

The hands used whatever was available for cover. They still couldn't see the Indians but they could hear them. They made a lot of noise, yelling and screeching as they attacked.

Suddenly, they were in the camp and the men began fighting hand to hand and gun to knife. Lattimer pressed against a boulder and took aim as they came into view. He didn't see the one behind him.

Johnny stood on the boulder and took aim, hitting his mark each time. Anytime an Apache was getting the upper hand with one of the men, he would fire. There had to be about forty of them, he figured. This was his best bet at getting the most leverage.

He saw Lattimer making good use of the position he was in. Then he saw what the rancher didn't. Johnny couldn't get a clear shot so he fired a round at Lattimer's feet.

He turned just in time to grab the arm holding the knife and he struggled with the brave. The two men fell to the ground and wrestled for control, neither gaining an advantage.

Johnny climbed down from his spot and approached stealthily. But as he drew near, the fight stopped. He held his breath as both men lay still, eyes locked onto each other. Both surprised at the outcome of the battle.

Lattimer pushed away and Johnny saw the blade protruding from the Indian's chest. He sighed loudly and Lattimer turned to him. The look on his face told Johnny he'd made a mistake. He started to turn when he felt the arrow impale his left side. He dropped the rifle and drew his gun, firing twice as he felled the brave.

Johnny went to his knees as the fire grew in his side. Lattimer was beside him suddenly, holding him up. Their eyes held onto each other's for a beat, then Johnny pushed away and stood up. He grabbed the rifle as he rose and moved around the older man to rejoin the fight.

No words were spoken between them and they once more fought, this time, side by side.

****

As the smoke cleared and the sun shone down, the ranch hands surveyed the damage. Five men dead before the Indians had retreated. Many more Apache lay dead. Lattimer searched the camp for Johnny, frantic to find the injured young man.

Then, he spotted him sitting alone on a rock. He was bent over and leaning to his right, the arrow still in him. Lattimer walked up and knelt in front of him, easily seeing the lines of pain and fatigue.

"Come on, son. Let's get you taken care of," he said gently. He helped Johnny to his feet and guided him toward the cook's wagon.

"Well, guess he decided to show up after all," George sneered.

"Shut up, you fool! Can't you see he's hurt?" Lattimer spat back.

Shane was there and helped ease him to the blanket. Johnny groaned loudly as he was settled.

"It's got to come out, son," Lattimer said with remorse.

"I know. Do what you have to," Johnny said through gritted teeth. A laugh escaped him and he shook his head in disbelief. "Reckon my luck ain't been too good lately."

A bottle was pressed to his lips and he drank the fiery liquid gratefully. He clenched his teeth as Lattimer took firm hold of the arrow near the head. He pulled it out quickly but Johnny couldn't stop the cry of pain. Then, he fell silent.

Lattimer went to work and cleaned and sewed the wound closed once Johnny passed out. He didn't know how long he'd have before the young man regained consciousness. He figured Johnny didn't need anymore pain. His comment about being unlucky lately struck Lattimer as odd but he dismissed it as he worked.

Shane helped him and they had Johnny swathed in bandages, satisfied they'd done their best. Now, all they could do was wait and hope infection didn't set in.

"When do ya want to start moving the herd?" George asked.

Lattimer looked up at him and sighed. The last thing he wanted to think about right now was the herd. He stood up and looked around the camp. It had been broken down, the men ready to travel, the dead buried.

"Have the men eaten?"

"Yessir. We're ready to go," George replied. He cast a surly look at Johnny.

"Alright. Go ahead and move them out then. We'll put Johnny in Cookie's wagon. Should be in Tucson day after tomorrow."

George snorted at this. "Should've been. Be more like three days now," he grumbled and walked away.

Lattimer stared after him. He couldn't remember George having a kind word for anyone but he was a damned good foreman. He was also right. They'd lost more than half a day now. He looked to the heavens. Lord, I'm gettin too old for this nonsense, he thought.  

With Johnny out of commission and the loss of five men, he figured they might be even later. Knowing there was nothing he could do about it, Lattimer began strategizing.

*****

Johnny awoke to a jolt that sent pain down his left side. He groaned and looked at the interior of the wagon, confused. His memory came back and he gingerly sat up, leaning on his right side. Craning his neck back, he yelled at Cookie for the time. The old timer called back to let him know they'd be stopping for the night soon.

Johnny sighed and lay back down. He stared at the canvass above him and wondered what he'd ever done to deserve all this bad luck. His eyes fell on a small barrel next to him and raised up to see what it held. A smile lit his face as he grabbed a couple of the sugar cookies. He hadn't eaten since last night and he was starved.

As he finished off the cookies, the wagon stopped and he sighed in relief. Cookie's head appeared above him and he gave a toothless grin that fell away quickly.

"You been in my cookies?"

"Listen, old man, I was about to starve ta death. Between that and you making sure you hit every pothole in the road, it's a wonder I'm still breathin!"

Cookie guffawed at the young man and disappeared from view. Johnny allowed himself a smile.

The next face he saw was Lattimer's. He started in giving directions to move Johnny out of the wagon and set him up near the designated campfire sight. He was all business and Johnny watched him closely. All the sudden he wasn't so friendly. Johnny wondered if he was mad at him for something.

Shane settled him in and sat next to him, helping him drink and checking his wound. "Boss done a real good job fixin you up. Shouldn't have no problems with that."

"Yeah, where is he? I wanted to thank him," Johnny asked.

"He's bein the boss, I reckon. Ain't too happy with all the men and time we lost," Shane said.

"Can't blame 'im for that," Johnny sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. "Is he always so nosy bout other folk's business?" he asked after a time.

"Nosy? Well, now, I ain't never know'd 'im ta be nosy. Why?"

Johnny shrugged. "Just been askin me about myself. Offered me a job," he glanced up to see Shane's reaction. It was as he expected; surprised. Then Johnny saw something else. Understanding?

"I ain't one ta talk about a man, but Lattimer's had a rough time of it," he said quietly.

Johnny nodded. "He told me about losin his wife and daughter."

"Did he tell ya about his son?"

Johnny raised up on his right side and studied the man. "No."

Shane sighed and picked at his hand. "Boy left home after his mama died. He was all tore up about it. Went off and joined the army."

"Surely he don't blame the old man?" Johnny asked.

"Oh no. Just that Adam was real close to his mama. Abby, the girl, came along late. She was ten when she died. Adam was seventeen then. Reckon he'd be about twenty-one, twenty-two now."

Johnny nodded. He chewed his lip for a minute as he thought of how to ask. "What did Adam look like?"

Shane looked at him sadly. "A lot like you, Johnny. Taller and a might thinner but dark hair and blue eyes. His mama was Mexican, too."

Johnny lay back down and stared at the sky. Anger began to seethe in him. Shane excused himself then and Johnny lay there alone, thinking about all of it. Knowing what Lattimer was doing and ready to tell him exactly what he thought about it.

He had to wait a while before Lattimer showed. He walked over and sat beside Johnny who was now propped up against a saddle, eating his supper.

"How're you feelin?" Lattimer asked.

"Better," he clipped.

"Soon as we get to Tucson, I'll get you to a doctor."

"No need. I'll be fine," Johnny remarked. His tone remained sharp.

Lattimer frowned and watched his face. "Is something wrong, son?"

Johnny's eyes flashed with anger. "I ain't your son, Lattimer. Best you remember that. Stop tryin to replace the one you lost."

The look of surprise on the man's face was genuine. "Is that what you think I'm tryin to do?"

"Makes sense. All this bein nice, offerin me a job, tryin to be my friend. All because I remind you of your kid. Well, I ain't your kid or anybody else's!" he spat.

"That's not true, Johnny. You are someone's son. For whatever reason, you don't want to accept that you have a father. That's your choice. When Adam left, it about destroyed me. But, I understood. It's not like he doesn't write to me. I know where he is and what he's doing. We aren't at odds and I love my boy. In fact, he's coming home after his tour is done. So, you see, I'm not trying to replace my son."

Johnny dropped his eyes and was silent for a long time. "That's good. It's good you two are okay," he said softly.

"And you? What did your father do that was so terrible, Johnny?"

The anger was back as was the bitterness. "Nothin much. Just threw me and my mother out!"

Lattimer dropped his head and shook it sadly. "I'm sorry. I don't know what else to say."

"Nothin to say. At least now you know why I ain't got no use for him."

They sat quietly for about half an hour before the rancher spoke again. "When's the last time you saw him?"

"Don't remember. I was just a baby, my mother said. I don't remember him at all."

There was a sadness; a regret in the young man's voice. And something else Lattimer couldn't quite name. Was it doubt?

"Did your mother say why?"

Johnny shrugged. "Why do you think? Guess he wasn't as happy with a Mexican wife and half-breed kid as you."

Lattimer didn't know what to say to this. He could see the pain the boy tried so hard to hide. He was beginning to understand the choices Johnny had made for his life. But, he still didn't like those choices. Somewhere deep inside, Lattimer knew that, if he stayed on this path, Johnny wouldn't live much longer. For some reason, that caused an ache in the older man's heart.

He was pretty sure Johnny would balk if he pointed this out to him. In fact, he knew it. The boy was full of hate and hurt but also bravado and pride. Too much pride to ever ask for or accept help.

"We'll be in Tucson in a couple of days. I'd like you to think about my offer some more, Johnny. If you want to change your life, there's a job for you at my ranch." He made sure there was no sympathy in his voice; no sadness for the boy's plight. He made it a simple statement then stood and walked away.

Johnny thought about Lattimer's words. Could he change his life? Could he just walk away? He snorted softly at the thought and knew it was impossible. From the time he had made a name for himself, he had known he could never walk away. He was embroiled in the life and there was no escape for him. No escape except the sure one; death.

****

Johnny walked up to the cook's wagon and waited his turn for his pay. He was the last one and when Lattimer handed him the money, he softly thanked the man.

"Have you thought about my offer?" the rancher asked.

Johnny looked him in the eye. "Yeah, I thought about it. Thanks just the same."

"What will you do now?"

Johnny sighed and looked around the dusty town. A slight smile lifted his mouth. "Hot bath, hot meal and soft bed. Sounds good to me."

Lattimer smiled as well but it was a sad one. "And tomorrow?"

Shrugging, he simply said, "will take care of itself."

"Johnny, if you ever need .... anything, you know where to find me. I'd really like you to meet my son, too," he smiled.

"Thanks for tryin, Mr. Lattimer, but you can't save me." He shook his head and looked away. "Nothin worth savin," he mumbled so low, Lattimer couldn't hear him. "Well, see ya," he said as he turned and flashed the man a smile.

Lattimer laughed. "Boy, how much trouble has that smile gotten you into?"

Johnny laughed as well and shook the man's hand. "Too much." Then, somberly, he said, "goodbye" and walked away.

Cal Lattimer watched him amble toward the livery. His mind worked furiously for a way to make Johnny change his mind. Sadly, he knew there was nothing he could say to this boy. Life had dealt him too many blows. Maybe. Maybe if someone had gotten to him sooner. He felt real anger for whoever this man was that fathered Johnny Madrid.

His thoughts were interrupted as he heard his name. He turned and smiled at his old friend. "John Cannon, you old grizzly," he laughed as he walked toward the man.

Nice people.....

Johnny picked out a horse and haggled with the livery owner until the other man was ready to pull his hair out. Satisfied with the price he'd paid, Johnny walked to the cantina and made good on his plans. The next morning, he rode out of Tucson and returned to Mexico.

When he crossed the Rio Grande, he stopped and turned back, staring across to the other side. With a sardonic grin, he thought he should never cross that river again. Laughing to himself, he knew he would should the opportunity or need arise.

He spurred his new mount on to Nogales, just east of him. It was time to let folks know Johnny Madrid was back in business. With a little luck, he might even run into his old friend, Cedro Rodriguez.

The thought of that man set his blood to boil. Then, he realized something. If not for Cedro, he would never have met the Pima or Lattimer. Maybe ole Cedro did me a favor. Nah, that bastard owed him and he intended to collect should their paths ever cross again. He knew in his heart they would and he set his mind on what he would do.

Johnny dismounted at the livery and called out for the old man who ran the place. Jose said not a word but took the animal inside as Johnny watched him and shook his head. Someday, that old man is gonna actually speak. Might fall over from the shock when he does. He laughed a little and headed for his favorite cantina.

As he stood in the doorway taking in the scene, Johnny smiled crookedly. He waited for her to notice him. When she did, he thought his ears would start bleeding.

"Johnny!" she cried and threw herself into his arms.

He laughed and lifted her, swirling her around a couple of times before setting her to the floor again. "Rosalita, mi amor," he grinned.

Her smile faded and she smacked his chest. "Mi amor! Hah! If I am your love, why have I not seen you in so long?" she asked, hands on hips, black eyes afire.

Johnny's grinned widened. "Well, miel, I've been a little busy."

"Hmmph! Come in and sit. I will show you busy," she snapped then smiled seductively.

He heard his name and turned to find a familiar face. He changed direction, taking Rosalita with him, and sat at the table, pulling her onto his lap.

"Day. How are ya?"

"Good, Johnny. Real good. Where ya been, boy?" Pardee asked amiably.

"Oh, takin care of business," Johnny grinned and removed his hat, tossing it on the empty chair beside him. "Rosalita, tequila, por favor."

She smiled and gave him a kiss then went to get his drink.

"Hot day," Pardee commented.

Johnny laughed. "Not as hot as the desert, amigo."

"You been in the desert? That ain't too smart, Johnny," Day grinned.

"Wasn't my idea. Haven't seen Cedro around, have ya?" he asked, his mood darkening.

"Nope. You lookin for 'im hard?" Day grinned knowingly.

"Not hard, just lookin. What've you got cookin?"

Pardee sighed and poured himself a drink. "Oh, I got somethin I've been plannin for a while. Might be a bit before it takes off though. Hey, you want in? It's in California."

Johnny took the shot of tequila placed before him and shook his head. "No, thanks. Think I'll stay down here for a good long while," he smiled.

Pardee shrugged. "Suit yourself. Got anything goin on?"

"Not yet. Thought Rosalita here could keep me company until somethin comes along," he grinned wickedly.

She smiled and wrapped her arms around his chest, leaning over and nuzzling his neck.

Pardee laughed. "I'll bet. Well, I do have some business in El Paso. Leavin in the mornin. I'll see ya, John."

"Sure, Day. See ya," he smiled as Rosalita drew his attention.

"I hope you do not trust that snake, querido. He would shoot you in the back," Rosalita spat.

"Day? He's alright, honey," Johnny smiled at her unconvinced glare.

Johnny spent the night with Rosalita and slept til noon, luxuriating in the soft bed and softer female next to him. He lay staring at the ceiling, idly stroking her hair as she slept in his arms. Sighing softly, he thought he could stay like this forever.

He wasn't in love with her but she was a sweet girl and knew how to make a man feel good. Right now, that was all he figured he needed. She sure had a temper though, he almost laughed aloud. Then, what self-respecting Mexican female didn't?

****

That afternoon, Johnny sat in the cantina playing poker with some locals when he saw them walk in. There were three of them and they looked completely lost in the saloon. Hats in hands, they gripped the sombreros nervously as their eyes darted around the room.

Johnny shook his head and turned his attention back to the game.

Soon, he felt them standing beside him and sighed. He finished the hand then looked up at them. "What?"

"Senor Madrid, por favor. May we speak with you privately?" one of them asked.

Johnny thought about saying no then shrugged. What the hell? The game was getting boring anyway. "Sure," he said and stood up. He walked to the back and sat at an empty table as the three men joined him.

He'd grabbed his bottle and glass as he went and poured himself a drink. He didn't offer them any. He knew they wouldn't take it. He leaned back in his chair until the front legs were off the floor and rocked a little.

"Well?" he asked.

They looked at each other and had a silent argument about who would speak. Johnny watched with some amusement.

"Senor, we would like to hire you," one of them finally said.

Johnny nodded. "For what?"

"Our village is overrun with rurales."

Johnny shrugged. "Whose isn't?"

"Si, Senor. That is why we have decided it is time to reclaim our property. To stop living under the boot of the rurales. To revolt!" the farmer's voice had raised at the end and he quickly and sheepishly looked around him.

"Revolt. You want to start a revolution. Just your village?" Johnny asked a bit surprised.

"No, Senor. Many of the villages have come together. We have discussed it at some length. But we are not soldiers. We are farmers, Senor. That is why we need you. To teach us to fight."

Johnny dropped the chair back down on all four legs and leaned his elbows on the table. "So, you want to hire me to teach you how to fight? With what?"

"We have guns, Senor. We have been saving our pecos, hiding it from the rurales. We have bought some guns and, in time, will have more."

Johnny sat there for a minute. "How much?"

"Name your price, Senor."

Johnny smiled at them. "Senors, you cannot afford me."

"Por favor, Senor Madrid, we will pay whatever you ask. We will get the money. We need someone to teach us. Will you come to our village and see with your own eyes what is happening?"

"Why me?" Johnny asked.

They all seemed surprised by the question. "We have heard you are the best, Senor. And that you are willing to help those less fortunate."

"Who told you that?" he asked, a bit stunned.

"Many people, Senor. Many stories have been told of el corazon y alma de Johnny Madrid."

He stared in wonder at them. The heart and soul of Johnny Madrid? What the hell is going on here? He shook his head as if to clear his mind.

"Look, I don't know who you been talkin to but I ain't no hero. I'm just a gunfighter, that's all."

The three men exchanged knowing looks.

"Now, what's that about?" Johnny asked.

"The people say you do not even know how much you have helped others. That you do not believe you are especial."

"Ain't nothin special about me, gentlemen," he said flatly.

"Will you help us?" one asked.

Johnny sighed and studied on it for a while. He had nothing better to do and he hated the rurales. "All you want me to do is teach the villagers how to fight. That's all," he said for clarification.

"Si, Senor. Once we are ready, the fight will be ours."

"Well, I'll ride along with ya. No harm in takin a look. We'll leave in the mornin," he said.

The smiles that flew onto the faces of the three men almost made Johnny burst out laughing.

*****

It was a small village but Johnny had assumed that. All eyes were on him as they rode into the center of town. He stopped at the well, a common site in these places, and dismounted. Immediately, someone took his horse.

The three men invited him into the home of the oldest man and he was seated at the table. Food appeared from seemingly nowhere and they all stood and watched him anxiously.

Johnny shook his head and ate. It was delicious and he thanked the senora graciously.

"Tonight, we will meet in the church with the rest of the men," one of them explained.

"Where are the rurales now?" Johnny asked.

"This week they raid the villages to the south. Next week, the east. Then, it will be our turn."

Johnny nearly choked on the water he was drinking. "They have a schedule?"

"Si, Senor. We always know when they are coming."

"That ain't too smart," he mumbled then figured the rurales hardly had anything to worry about here.

"Is there anything you will need, Senor?"

Johnny looked up. "Yeah, when we meet tonight, I want to know how many men, women and children are in each village."

"Por que?"

"So I know what I'm up against," he sighed tiredly.

"Si, Senor. We will have the numbers for you. You will rest now, tal vez?"

"Si. I am tired. Gracias," he smiled once more at the older woman who had served him.

****

Johnny spent the next two weeks teaching the men how to use a pistol and rifle. He set up targets and had them build barricades, which were kept hidden for now. He ran drills from morning to night until the men thought they would collapse in exhaustion. Through it all, Johnny kept thinking this was futile. A disaster waiting to happen.

He had to hand it to them. They were determined and committed. He had to wonder, though, how much courage they would have when it was real.

He awoke one morning to a bustle of activity. More so than usual. He dressed quickly and went into the kitchen of the home where he was staying.

"No, Senor. You must hide. The rurales are here," the old woman told him as she pushed him back into the bedroom.

"No, is there somewhere I can see without being seen?" he asked.

She thought for a moment then nodded her head. She went to the middle of the kitchen and started to move the table. Johnny helped her and she pulled back a throw rug, revealing a door. She opened it and he felt a blast of cool air.

Smiling, Johnny nodded and climbed into the root cellar. He could hear her move the table back in place and he allowed himself a minute to adjust to near darkness.

Slivers light were spilling through slats near the roof of the cellar and he moved silently to them. He could see the main street well and he waited.

The rurales rode into town and straight to the church. El Capitan dismounted and stood on the steps of the holy place. Almost immediately, a small table and chair were produced and he sat down.

One by one, the men of the village came up and paid him. He made a note of each man and how much he had 'contributed' to the cause.

They all stood near the church and waited as he figured the sums. El Capitan finally stood up and placed his hands on his hips.

"For two months, your taxes have become less and less. Why is this?" he asked anyone.

The priest came forward. "Por favor, El Capitan. The crops have not been so good lately. There has been a drought," he explained.

"Drought? I do not want to hear about droughts! When next I come, you will pay three times as much as usual. This will make up for your foolishness! If you do not, you will all be jailed." He waved his hand, dismissing them and strode to his horse.

Johnny aimed his pistol straight at the man, knowing he could take him out right then. With a soft "bang" he smiled and watched the rurales ride out.

****

He only had three more weeks before the rurales were due to return. There were a few men here who had learned quickly and were good shots. These, he had sent to the neighboring villages to teach them what had been learned from the pistolero.

The rest were a sorry sight. Johnny was certain that when the time came, they would all turn to sheep. Cowering in front of El Capitan. A man he hated without ever having met.

He knew of the man. Had heard the stories of his ruthlessness and cruelty. He had a decision to make and it would not be easy. He had come to like these people very much. They were honest, hardworking families just trying to get by. Just trying to make a better life for their kids.

Johnny smiled as he thought of the children. Yet, he worried incessantly about them as well. What would happen to them when the dust settled? Some, if not all, would become orphans. He was quite sure of that.

He had spent many hours speaking with the priest about this privately. He voiced his concerns and fears for the people. The padre understood his reservations but he also knew these people had had enough. That they truly would rather die than live as slaves any longer.

Johnny didn't know exactly when it happened but, somehow, the padre had gotten him to open up about himself. They talked about his mother, his life and even his father. Padre Philippe was saddened with Johnny's life but he was also adamant about one point. He nearly begged Johnny to seek out his father. To talk with him and try to come to some understanding with the man.

It was like pulling teeth with cotton; talking to Johnny about his father. But Padre Philippe was an obstinate man and he eventually won. Johnny ended up promising the priest that, once this was over, he would indeed pay his father a visit. What he didn't promise was that Murdoch Lancer would still be alive afterward.

It was almost time and Johnny realized he had done all he could to prepare them for the battle they were about to wage. He had decided to stay and fight with them. Something that surprised some but not all.

As the day grew nearer, Johnny sought out the priest once more. He needed to confide the feeling of dread that had consumed him for days now.

"I just have a bad feeling, Padre. Like maybe this is the last fight for me. I've never felt that way before," he explained as they sat in a pew Monday morning.

"You believe you will die in this battle?" the priest asked.

Johnny nodded his head then looked up at the man. "I ain't afraid, ya know. I've always known this would come sooner rather than later. It's just that I don't want to let the villagers down. I worry I won't last long enough to make a difference."

"Juanito, you have already made such a difference in their lives. Do you not see? My son, if this feeling is so strong, perhaps you should leave us now."

Johnny's eyes flared. "I ain't no coward!"

Padre Philippe laid a hand on his arm. "No, you are not. But, what of all we have discussed. What of your father?"

"What about him? Look, I know I promised I'd talk to him, Padre. But, well, it don't look like that's gonna happen now," he spoke softly.

"It will if you make the effort, Juanito. Go to him, my son. This very day. Ride away from here and seek out your familia," he urged.

Johnny shook his head. "I can't. I promised I would stay and fight and that's what I'm gonna do. I'll see him after."

Padre Philippe sighed and smiled at the young man. "Will you, nino? If this feeling of impending death is so strong, how will that happen?"

Johnny snorted softly. "Reckon I'll see him in hell, Padre. Look, this is all just crazy talk anyway. I'll be fine." Lowering his voice and swallowing hard, he added, "I'm always fine."

Johnny walked out of the church and Padre Philippe fell to his knees in prayer for the young man. He decided that, should Johnny not survive this battle, he would seek out this father himself.

Then, he realized something. Johnny had never told him the man's name. Padre Philippe scrambled to his feet and headed outside only to be stopped by gunfire.

*****

Johnny ran through the streets, dodging bullets and horses as he went. Someone must have tipped them off, he thought as he scrambled for cover. The rurales were two days early and they weren't ready. Dammit! he swore.

But they were fighting back. It hadn't taken long for them to jump into action. Johnny watched as the men took up their positions and began shooting. He had to smile as they fought so bravely. He was surprised, pleasantly so. He would not have believed it had he not seen it for himself.

As he weaved between the buildings, he thought of the padre and hoped he had enough sense to stay inside. Then, he heard a scream. He saw one of the rurales dragging his senora into the street by her hair.

His senora. The one who had fed him, sheltered him and hid him. Johnny felt a knot in his stomach as the man lowered his pistol to her head. He bolted from the side of the building, running toward them. He fired and the man fell. As he reached her, he felt fire explode in his left shoulder and he stumbled then went down beside her.

She grabbed him and tried to pull him of the street but Johnny resisted.

"No! Get out of here now!" he ordered.

"I will not leave you to be killed," she insisted.

Johnny looked into her eyes and smiled. "I'm already dead," he whispered and shoved her as hard as he could into an alley.

He turned and began firing again. Fighting with all he had as he made himself ignore the pain once more. It was his talent to push all else away when he fought. No matter how badly he was injured; if he was alive, he would fight.

Darkness edged his periphery and black spots danced before his eyes. He couldn't see what he was shooting at but still, he kept firing and reloading. He had managed to scoot over to the well which provided a small amount of cover. Leaning heavily against the rock wall, he reloaded once more.

A shadow fell across him and he looked up in time to see a rifle butt come smashing down on his head. Then, he knew no more.

*****

Johnny felt the pounding in his brain as he regained consciousness. He realized he was very cold. Slowly, his eyes opened but he couldn't see. Something was in his eyes. His right hand came up and wiped his face. He stared at the blood left on his palm. Gingerly, he felt the wound to his head and sighed.

Taking stock, he felt the pain in his left shoulder again. It all came back to him then. The battle, the rurales, the senora. He prayed she had survived.

A jangling sound sought his attention along with heavy footsteps. A key turned in a lock and the cell door swung open. A short man carrying a black bag entered the room followed by an armed guard.

Johnny watched him suspiciously out of the one eye he could use. The doctor went silently about setting up his equipment. A more grim expression Johnny couldn't recall seeing. He wasn't sure if it was because he was dying or the man didn't want to be there. He figured it was the latter. A small smile tugged at his lips.

"Buenos dias, doctor," he whispered.

"I doubt that, Senor," the man said flatly.

Johnny laughed a little. "No, I don't guess it is. Have you come to heal me or finish me off?"

"I am not in the business of killing people, Senor. That would be his job," he said as he nodded toward the guard. "I have been instructed to care for your wounds and keep you alive until you face a firing squad."

Johnny swallowed hard and sighed. He cast a look at the guard who was grinning wickedly. Johnny reciprocated and the man's face changed to one of anger and disgust.

"Just fix the mestizo's head and arm," he spat at the doctor.

"Si, si," the man sighed. "Though, I do not know why I bother," he added with some bitterness.

"Don't worry about it, Doc. Do what you have to do," Johnny said, feeling some sympathy for the position the man was in.

The doctor looked oddly at him, staring into the blue depths. For some reason, he found himself smiling at the young man.

*****

For two months, Johnny stayed in the cell. Never did he see the light of day or feel the fresh air. They fed him some type of gruel twice a day but other than that, they let him be.

This day, he was awakened early. He was taken from his cell and he knew this was it. This was the day he would die. They had no other reason for bringing him out of his prison.

He was led into another windowless room where two buckets of water sat on the floor.

"Quite sus ropas," the guard ordered.

Johnny frowned and looked at him. "Que?"

"Quite sus ropas. Ahora!"

Johnny sighed and began removing his clothes. As he laid them in a pile, he felt ice-cold water thrown over him. He couldn't help but gasp at the temperature. The guard either didn't notice of didn't care. He threw a towel at Johnny.

"Sequese apagado," the guard ordered.

Johnny dried himself as instructed and was handed clean clothes. He put them on without being told, he was freezing. When he finished, he turned to the man. "Ahora que?" he asked.

The man pointed the chair. There was a small table with a mirror standing on it, along with a razor and scissors.

"No soap?" Johnny said sarcastically.

"Afeitado," the guard replied dully.

Johnny sighed and sat down. He began the arduous task of shaving the long beard. When he'd finished, it wasn't the best shave he'd ever had but he did feel much better. The damned thing had been itching him to death! He held the scissors to his head and looked questioningly at the guard who only nodded. Johnny cut his hair as best he could.

He laid the scissors down and stood, turning to face the guard. "Well, I'm all pretty now. Time to die?" he asked with a grin.

The guard jerked his head toward the door and Johnny walked out only to be taken back to his cell.

"Manana," the guard said as he slammed the door closed and the lock struck home.

"Manana," Johnny repeated in a whisper. He sighed and sat down on his thin blanket. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, I die. Well, so be it then. Beats the hell outta this dump, he laughed softly.

A Promise Kept ......

Johnny dismounted and tied the horse to a shrub. No one had followed him so he figured that was a good sign. He quietly climbed the small hill and dropped to his stomach as he approached the rise. He watched for several long moments until he was satisfied.

Stealthily, he approached the bodies, gun at the ready. He kicked at each one as he passed. Then, he reached his goal. Kneeling down, he tossed the pistol away from the lifeless hand. Experience had taught him to never assume anything.

He reached inside the jacket pocket and pulled out the wad of cash. He didn't know how that Pinkerton agent expected him to get to California without decent clothes and food. He figured El Capitan sure didn't have any use for it now. A smile crossed his face. He was no more sorry this man was dead than he would be a bug.

Standing up, he allowed himself a brief moment to feel the sun on his face. Then, he lit out. It wouldn't be long before someone came looking; wondering what was taking so long.

He vaulted onto the horse once more and headed north at a gallop.

Johnny crossed the Rio Grande and thought about the last time. He'd swore he was staying on the other side for a good long while. Well, he reckoned it had been long enough. Smiling, he headed to El Paso.

Once in the border town, he made himself invisible. Watching and waiting until the sun began to lower and the stores were locking up. He made his way to the general store just as the owner was closing the door.

"One more customer?" he asked with a smile.

The man looked him up and down, noting the peasant clothes with a scowl.

Johnny pulled out the wad of bills and the man's attitude improved instantly. He bought trail provisions, clothes, a gunbelt, boots, a hat and a decent Colt. He felt human again and thanked the smiling man then slipped out the back door.

He went to the livery next and bought a saddle. The horse was decent enough, he reckoned. He could easily make it to California.

Once this was done, he mounted up and headed north again. He kept away from the towns on the way. He had every intention of collecting that thousand dollars and no more bad luck was gonna get in his way.

So, he kept to himself, riding through the hills and staying off the main roads.

*****

He found a suitable campsite that first night and started a fire. He sat back and savored the coffee he hadn't tasted in two months. God, it was good!

Once he'd eaten and cleaned up, he settled back against his saddle and watched the night sky.

Unbelievable. That's what it was. One minute? Less probably, and he would have been dead. Just another gunhawk thrown in the ground. No one would notice, he was sure.

Now, he was on his way to come face to face with the man he had hated all his life. He remembered Padre Philippeâ€ôs words. Give him a chance, he'd said. Sure, I'll give him a chance. One chance and that's all. Just long enough to get my thousand and maybe hear him out.

Johnny couldn't imagine what the man could want from him now. It had to be important to pay that much money. He probably wants my gun. Well, that was all fine and well and he might even give it. But it was gonna cost the old man more than a thousand dollars.

He smiled as he thought no one had ever thought an hour of his time worth so much. Lancer must be really desperate. Part of him enjoyed that thought. Part of him hoped the old man was in real trouble. Trouble Johnny could help him out of or walk away from. His choice this time, not Lancer's.

Closing his eyes, he thought of his mother. The life she had led and the way she had died. He sat up, suddenly unable to be still. Taking to his feet, Johnny began to pace, trying to quell the anger and pain. Damn that old man to hell! he thought. It would be such a pleasure to watch his face as Johnny put a bullet through his heart.

Well, where his heart should be, anyway. He didn't reckon Lancer had a heart. Even if he didn't love her, how could any man throw a young mother and child out in the dirt? No real man would have, he surmised. Which meant Murdoch Lancer was not worth his time. Probably one more reason he'd never bothered with the man.

He took a deep breath and worked at calming himself. He had a lot of miles to make and he needed to get some sleep. Something else he hadn't had in a long time. A decent night's sleep. Sure couldn't get any in prison.

He wondered what the old man would think about that. His son in prison. Hell, he doesn't care. Johnny was still baffled, though. He doesn't care so why did he send for him? There were plenty of gunfighters out there. Why would he need Johnny specifically?

He grinned. Well, I am one of the best. It wasn't ego that made him think that. It was simply the truth and he knew it. It wasn't something he bragged about or flaunted. He didn't need to. Only those who weren't the best wagged their tongues. Trying to convince everyone and themselves of what they said.

No, there were a lot of gunfighters out there all right but not that many truly good ones. Being good meant being professional. Never bragging, never showin off. It wasn't a game, it was deadly serious business. Not many understood that. Just a handful really.

Those were the men Johnny respected. A lot of men could be good with a gun, but they weren't respectable. They killed for the fun of it. Were often cruel just because they could be. They wanted everyone to fear them and they wanted to walk all over the rest of the world.

That wasn't him. All he wanted was the respect he had earned. And he got it, too. From the people who most mattered. His colleagues. He chuckled at that.

Wonder how ole Day or Isham would like being referred to as colleagues, he laughed at himself. Johnny, you been locked up too long. Goin a little stir crazy, I reckon.

God! It felt so good to be outside again! To be free. To go where he wanted, do what he wanted. It occurred to him that was exactly what was happening. He wanted to meet his father. Lay eyes on the man for the first time in his life. See for himself what kind of snake Lancer really was.

Johnny sighed and settled back down into his bedroll. He pulled his Colt and rested it in his right hand then closed his eyes. One way or another, he reckoned, it would all be settled soon enough.

He drifted off then, actually anticipating this 'reunion'.

When he awoke, it was late morning. Johnny cursed and made a quick breakfast then broke camp. He had wanted to get an early start. He guessed he needed the sleep though because he felt better than he had in months. As he saddled his horse, he thought again about what was to come.

If he were honest, he'd admit he was scared. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he had doubts. Doubts about his mother and her story. It had never seemed quite right to him. If, as she said, Lancer threw them out, then why did he hire the Pinks all those years ago?

They could never settle anywhere for very long before she was packing up again. She would tell him his father was hounding them again. Johnny had asked a couple of times but she refused to answer him.

But she wouldn't lie to him, would she? There was no reason for that. Johnny had loved his mother and would never have left her. She knew that. Didn't she? Sure she did. Had to. After all he'd done for her. How he'd tried to protect her. Yeah, she had to know how much he loved her.

Still, a lot of things just didn't fit. It was like something was missing. Some piece of information he didn't have. It seemed to him, she wouldn't have married Lancer if she didn't love him. And, if he felt that way about Mexicans, why would he marry her?

He sighed and pressed the horse into a faster gait. Maybe Lancer had the answers he needed. That was the best reason to see the man he supposed.

*****

For three days he stayed off the trails, taking the often rougher route through the hills and woods as the landscape became more lush. He had no problem finding good campsites and water. He counted himself pretty lucky on this trip. There were times when it was hard to find a decent place to bed down at night. Let alone clean water.

He'd spent little time this far north and never had he been so close to his father's ranch. Oh, he knew exactly where it was. Had made it his business to know. But he had never quite gotten up the gumption to take a look at the place.

Oh hell, Madrid. Just admit it. You never got up the nerve.

He knew he was close now. He should be in Morro Coyo tonight. That would give him some time to prepare. Get a room and plan out his meeting with the old man. Too, he could sure use a shot of tequila.

He headed down a slight incline when he felt the horse loose its footing. He reined in and changed direction but when they reached the bottom, the horse was limping.

Johnny sighed and dismounted. He picked up the front right leg and rubbed his hand expertly along the length. Tendon. Damnation! Couldn't you have waited a few more hours?

He considered his options. He could tend the horse but that would take time. If he let him go, Johnny knew the injury would heal on its own. The animal would give it the proper rest. There was plenty of good grass and water so the horse would manage.

Resignedly, he removed the saddle and looked around. So much for town tonight. He'd be lucky to get there tomorrow before the sun set. Sighing heavily and cursing the heavens, he started walking.

He set up camp one more time, hoping it would be the last for a while. Can't seem to keep hold of a horse lately, he chuckled.

Lately. Had it really been all those months ago he'd met the Pima? Then there was Lattimer. He wondered how the man was doing and if his son had made it home yet. He smiled a little. He had liked the man. Had almost taken that job but he knew he couldn't.

He cleaned up from his small supper and laid down in his bedroll. Taking the Colt in hand, he drifted off to sleep hoping his journey would end tomorrow.

He was pleasantly surprised when he awoke just after sun up. Taking care of his basic needs and enjoying the last of his coffee, Johnny contemplated his arrival. Bet the old man will be real impressed. Showin up without a horse with only the clothes on my back and a saddle. Nice saddle though, he smiled.

He shaved and bathed in the stream. Might as well look half-way decent, he thought. Though he didn't know why he bothered. It wasn't like he was trying to impress anyone.

As he extinguished the fire, he had a thought. The road wasn't far from here. Maybe luck would decide to give him a break and he could catch a stage. Maybe someone riding by in a wagon. Stranger things had happened, especially to him.

He started walking again, figuring he might just time this right after all. Stages had pretty routine schedules. He reckoned that was why they were so easy to rob. He laughed at this.

Other thoughts occupied his mind. Thoughts of the Pima and all they had taught him. Lattimer trying so hard to help him. Why, he hadn't a clue. The people in the village who had taken such good care of him. Worth more than any money he could have earned from them. He had known going into that one there would be no payday. Not that it mattered so much. What was money but something to use to put food in your belly and a roof over your head? Which is exactly what he'd gotten plus some good friends ta boot.

So, why was this money so important to him? Well, he was broke for one thing. But, he knew it wasn't really the money. More the thought of taking it from Lancer. Causing him some inconvenience, maybe. And maybe, he figured the old man just might owe him something. Or, maybe he'd find something else. What, he didn't know. But, the thought intrigued him enough to bother at all.

He thought of Padre Philippe and his words of wisdom. Smart man. He was kind of glad he was keeping his promise to the priest. With a grin, he figured it wasn't good to lie to a man of the cloth.

He heard the stage and ran up the hill to the road. Not an easy task with a saddle slung over his shoulder. But he made it just in time to wave the driver to a stop.

"Goin to Morro Coyo?" he asked breathlessly.

 

 

~end~
2004

Want to comment? Email Winj