Word count 38,561
**A/R- While the story refers to events in the show, it is not canon. If you prefer not to read alternate reality stories or a younger Johnny, then please avoid this one.
** I’ve tried to intertwine the historical accuracy of the time with the fiction of Lancer and a young Johnny. The dates, for the most part, surprisingly fell into place. While I’ve taken liberties with events and characters, much of the history referenced in the story actually happened in 1865.
**Thanks to Alice Marie for help with the beta.
2nd in the Series: Shadows of Another Time
Lancer, July 1870
A loud whistle pierced the heavy July air even as bellowing cows partially drowned it out; snorting, and throwing their heads. All around the pasture, bawling calves were being roped and dragged to branding pits where irons glowed orange and red.
Scott turned to see his brother motioning to one of the hands.
“That one,” Johnny called out and pointed at a calf running circles around his mother.
As the vaquero responded, Johnny spurred Barranca forward, setting off after his own target.
Scott stood ready with a hot iron as Walt wrestled a calf to the ground. He swiftly moved in
and, with now practiced ease, put the Lancer brand on the young heifer. The pungent odor of seared flesh and hair filled the air.
Stepping back, Scott wiped the sweat from his eyes with the back of his gloved hand and gave his handiwork a long, satisfying stare. There was something about seeing the ‘Lancer L’ that stirred an emotion inside him. It took him a moment to grasp the source of the feeling. It was pride in seeing the brand that represented his name, on his cattle, on his land.
“Turn her loose,” Scott called out.
Walt released the struggling baby and jumped back. They watched as she clambered to her feet, hesitated a moment and then ran back to the herd to find her mother.
Feeling as if someone was watching him, Scott looked around. He found his brother staring at him. Catching Johnny’s eyes, Scott nodded. Johnny smiled, returned the nod, then spun Barranca about and headed out to bring in another calf.
Burying the branding iron tip in the embers of the fire, Scott turned away from the heat and peered out over the pasture.
The late year round-up was a first for him. There’d been a lot of firsts for the 24-year-old blonde since leaving Boston. The trip to California to meet his father for the first time quickly turned into one life-changing event after another.
It had been four months since he’d stepped off the stage in Morro Coyo. Even before getting his bags unpacked, he found himself fighting side by side with his father in a last-ditch effort to save the ranch. It all seemed dreamlike now and in his wildest imaginings, he never thought of staying in California or of becoming a partner in one of the largest cattle ranches in the state, yet here he was.
None of that, however, compared to finding out he had a younger brother. Not just any brother, but a 19-year-old who made his living hiring out his gun.
Until coming to California, Scott’s limited knowledge of gunfighters came from what he’d read in dime novels and penny dreadfuls. In those books, the men written about were nothing more than fictional characters built into legends to entertain the masses. He quickly learned fact and fantasy were closer than he knew.
One of the paperbacks he’d read on the trip west was a thrilling tale of a young half Mexican pistolero with piercing blue eyes who rode the trails along the border with México. He’d been fascinated with the image of the dark-skinned, dark-haired Johnny Madrid, whose reputation rivaled the likes of Dallas Stoudenmire and John Wesley Hardin.
It came as a shock finding out his brother was the gunfighter depicted in the dime novel. However, it hadn’t taken long to come to terms with the reality of the situation. Once Madrid’s fictional image vanished, all that was left was Johnny, just Johnny.
Scott realized the boy was everything he’d hoped for in a brother.
Another shrill whistle broke through the sound of bawling calves. All heads turned to see Jose and Frank riding toward the branding pits.
Johnny, on the other side of the herd, raised an arm and waved to the men.
Waving back, Frank called out, “Johnny!”
Turning away from the herd, Johnny kicked Barranca into action and headed to the two men.
Sensing trouble, Scott mounted his horse and followed. Reaching the men first, Scott reined in next to the ranch hands.
“Something wrong, Frank?”
Johnny joined his brother in time to hear Jose’s response, “Juanito, el Patron wants you back at the hacienda, pronto.”
“Pronto, huh.” Johnny dipped his head, grinning. When he looked up, he could see Frank wasn’t smiling.
“A fancy black carriage came in a while back with a lot of men riding with it. Two of them went inside. Wasn’t five minutes before Mr. Lancer came out and told us to find you and bring you back.”
“What kind of men? How many?”
“From a distance, they looked like vaqueros, but up close, they’re not dressed like any vaquero I’ve ever seen. Must be close to a dozen men.”
“Hacendados, Johnny,” Pedro spoke up.
Scott cocked his head and looked from Pedro to Johnny.
“It’s what they call large landowners in México. The kind of places the Mexican Dons run. Wonder what one of them is doing here?”
“Frank, you and Pedro stay with the herd. We’re heading back.”
“Johnny, you might need some help. Maybe Pedro and me ought to go back with you.”
Johnny gave it some thought, but it was Scott who answered.
“There are men at the ranch if we need them.”
“Si, there are men at the ranch, but…”
Johnny raised a hand, cutting Pedro off.
“Scott’s right. You two stay here and help with the branding.”
Riding under the arch, Scott glanced at his brother. They hadn’t said a word on the ride back. Once close enough to the hacienda, they got their first real look at the coach in the yard and the men and horses standing around. One horse, in particular, caught their attention.
“Johnny is that…?”
“Yeah, Val’s here.”
As Scott and Johnny dismounted, Miguel, Cipriano’s grandson, ran from the barn to take their horses.
Glancing around the yard, the brothers noticed a few ranch hands standing nearby watching the visiting vaqueros. Johnny gave the men a quick nod, reassured they were ready in case of trouble.
Getting to the front door, Johnny hesitated. Looking over his shoulder, Johnny saw Scott shrug. “Might as well.”
Johnny nodded and opened the door. Stepping inside the cool room, his eyes quickly adjusted to the lower light.
Murdoch sat in one of the large chairs near the fireplace. Val stood across the room next to Murdoch’s desk.
Movement out of the corner of his eye drew Johnny’s attention. Seeing who it was, his blood ran cold.
He’d known who else was there even before seeing the wheelchair and the man in it.
Murdoch sat quietly, waiting for his sons.
It had been over an hour since their uninvited guest arrived and the underlying tension in the room made him wish the boys would hurry.
When the escorted black coach rolled under the arch, Frank had hurried in to notify him. Stepping outside the house, he greeted the entourage and was surprised when the vaqueros with the coach lowered a wheelchair.
The coach door opened, and a well-dressed, age-weathered Mexican man sat patiently while his men helped him out. The man stood for a moment on shaky legs before taking a seat in the chair. Then and only then did the stranger look at Murdoch and address him.
“I’m Murdoch Lancer. May I help you, Señor…?”
“Si.” The man smiled and looked around the yard and then at the hacienda. “Si, you may help. I am looking for someone. I understand he is here.”
“Who might that be, Señor?”
Murdoch noticed the Lancer vaqueros and a few of the ranch hands moving closer.
“Señor, I am here to see Johnny Madrid.”
Surprised and taken aback by the man’s use of the name Madrid, Murdoch hesitated. Glancing up, he saw a familiar figure standing to the side.
“Val, what’s this all about?”
“Murdoch, if Johnny’s not here, you better send someone to bring him back. Best have Scott come home too.”
Murdoch looked around. “Frank, Pedro, go out and tell the boys to come home.”
Turning back to the man in the wheelchair, Murdoch hesitated but only a moment before speaking.
“Would you like to come inside and wait?”
“Gracias, Señor Lancer. Your hospitality would be greatly appreciated.”
The man waved his hand. A uniformed man moved forward, pushing the wheelchair toward the French doors. Inside the Great Room, the seated man looked around, seeming to be impressed with his surroundings.
“Very nice, Señor. I’ve long wondered about you and your estancia.”
“I don’t understand, Señor….” When the man didn’t give his name for the second time, Murdoch looked again at Val, who was giving nothing away. “How do you know my son?”
“Aw, Juanito and I are …old friends.” The man looked at Val. “Señor Crawford is also an old friend.”
Val snorted. “I wouldn’t say we were friends exactly and you know he don’t like you calling him Juanito.”
The man laughed. “Si, I remember. The muchacho can be very… how do you say, obstinado.”
“Yes, Johnny can be stubborn, but you still haven’t answered my question. How do you know my son?”
The man cocked his head. “I think we wait for Jua…Johnny before I explain further. Now, Señor Lancer, do you have something cool to drink? It has been a long journey.”
Murdoch looked at the man and then again at Val.
Val cleared his throat. “Murdoch, I wouldn’t mind something myself.”
“Yes, of course.”
Murdoch was relieved to see Maria coming into the room carrying a tray. Leave it to Maria to know how to treat a quest, whether invited or not.
“De nada, Patron.”
Maria nodded and gave the man in the wheelchair a scathing look before returning to the kitchen. Murdoch wondered if she knew something he didn’t or if it was the motherly instincts in her towards his youngest son showing themselves.
Serving drinks to his guest, Murdoch sat down to an uneasy silence.
Finally, the sound of horses announced his son’s arrival.
When the front door opened, the sound of Johnny’s spurs announced his arrival. He stepped into the room first, quickly followed by Scott.
Murdoch stood. He’d seen Johnny size a room up before but had never seen the expression on the boy’s face he saw now.
Before Johnny made it fully into the room, the wheelchair-bound man called out, “Juanito, mijo, it has been too long.”
The man’s warm greeting was lost in a room that had suddenly turned to ice.
Johnny’s eyes turned dark, and the expression on his face froze as he glared at the man. Then in a voice that sent chills through everyone, Johnny retorted, “What the hell are you doing here?”
Rolling the chair forward, the man replied, “Hijo…”
“Stop calling me that! I’m not your son. I never was.”
“Ah, but you were for a time.”
Johnny didn’t respond.
“Juanito, I taught you better manners.”
Starting across the room, Johnny had only gone a few steps when Val spoke up, “Johnny!”
Johnny stopped and his eyes went to his friend.
Johnny looked back at the man he’d hoped never to see again.
Murdoch had had enough. “Johnny, who is this man?”
Johnny took a deep breath. He didn’t want Murdoch to know who the man was or how he’d been a part of his past, but hell, there were a lot of things he didn’t want his father to know.
“John, I want an answer.”
“Juanito, introduce me to your Papa.”
“Introduce yourself, old man, or have Estaban over there do it,” Johnny spat and turned away.
The vaquero standing to the side of the room moved forward to position himself next to his Patron.
“Señor Lancer, I am Coronel Estaban Vargas.” (Coronel – Colonel)
Johnny laughed. “Got yourself a promotion?”
Ignoring Johnny’s comment, Estaban straightened his shoulders out of habit and lifted his head. “May I present my Patron, his Excellency Antonio López de Santa Anna, former Presidente of México.”
Stunned, Murdoch and Scott stared at the man seated in front of them.
“Señor Lancer, it is a pleasure to meet you finally. I have known Juanito….”
“Don’t call me that!” Johnny spun around, glaring at Santa Anna.
Val laughed. “I warned you.”
“Perdóname. As I was saying, I have known…Johnny for many years. I also knew his mother, a beautiful and very charming woman.” (Perdóname- forgive me)
Murdoch stood speechless, his eyes darting from his youngest son to the man seated in front of him. He didn’t know which upset him more, the fact he had Santa Anna in his home or that the man had just admitted to knowing his wife.
It was Scott who broke the silence following the introductions.
“Señor…Is that how I’m supposed to address you?” Scott looked from their guest to Estaban.
“You are to address el Presidente as Excellency,” Estaban answered curtly.
Johnny mumbled, “Like hell.”
“Alright, Excellency, my name is Scott Lancer. I’m Johnny’s brother, and I believe you’ve already met our father. Now that all the niceties are out of the way, I believe my brother asked you a question. What are you doing here?”
“Señor Lancer, it is very nice to meet you. I did not know Jua…Johnny had a brother until recently. Maria never mentioned you when we…”
Hearing Maria’s name, Murdoch’s head snapped up.
“My sons…both of them have asked you what you want here…Señor.” Murdoch’s intentional lack of using ‘Excellency’ was evident.
“Very well.” Santa Anna turned to look at Johnny. “I have come to ask for your help.”
Johnny glared at the man and snapped, “You’ve wasted a trip.”
“The same Juanito,” Santa Anna laughed. “You have not changed, muchacho. Still so full of fire. Once you think about it, I believe you will help me. Before I explain more, I must rest. I’m an old man now and do not have the energy I once had.” Turning to look at Murdoch. “Señor Lancer, your hacienda is muy grande. We have traveled far, and I am sure you have room for myself and my men.”
Santa Anna looked at each of the Lancers before his eyes locked onto Murdoch’s.
Again, it was Scott who answered, “Of course we have room, but I’m not sure you’ll be staying.”
“No, he’s not staying.” Johnny stood like a statue in the center of the room. “Antonio, I can’t believe you’re asking for my help after what happened last time. You might as well get back in that fancy coach out there and head back to town.”
Santa Anna smiled again.
“You will not turn me out, Ju…Johnny. It is as it was five years ago. I need the help of Johnny Madrid.”
Unable to help himself, Johnny asked, “What kind of help?”
“I am again in negotiations with Benito. There is a possibility he will let me return to México. There are still those who would prevent me from going home, and for that reason, I need protection. I need your gun, muchacho.”
“You’ve tried that before, and it didn’t work out so well, did it? Well, you’re out of luck this time, old man. I can’t go back to México, or haven’t you heard.”
Bristling over being called ‘old man’ for the second time, Santa Anna replied, “Oh, but I have. I understand you had been a very naughty chico. You must know you cannot lead a revolt against the Dons and win.”
“I didn’t lead the revolt.”
Santa Anna laughed. “That is not what I heard. My contacts in México ….”
“I don’t give a damn what your contacts say!”
“Temper, Juanito. From what my contacts have told me, you were one of the leaders of the revolution, and you were to pay with your life.” He turned his chair to look at Murdoch. “I understand Juanito owes his life to you, Señor Lancer. Your Pinkerton agent arrived with only moments to spare.”
Johnny’s eyes went to Murdoch. He could see his father pale.
“That’s enough,” Val snapped. “Señor, you want Johnny’s protection, but you know he can’t go back into México.”
“My representative has Benito’s promise that Johnny Madrid can travel with me in México.”
Scott shook his head. “Benito? Who’s this Benito you keep talking about?”
Johnny laughed. “Benito Juárez, Scott. The current President of México.”
“Oh. Well, excuse me. I’ve not kept abreast of Mexican politics.”
“You trust Juárez?” Val spoke up. “I mean, after what happened the last time, after what he did to you, what happened to Johnny. I sure as hell don’t trust him.” And then he added, “Any more than I trust you.”
“Señor Crawford, it has been five years, and much has changed. The French are no longer involved in México, and Emperor Maximillian is no longer a threat to Juárez. I am now an old man who can do them no harm.”
Turning again, Santa Anna looked at Johnny.
“You need time to think, mijo, and I…I need to rest. A room?”
Murdoch stepped forward. “I’ll show you to a room. Your men can stay in the bunkhouse. What about …,” Murdoch looked at Santa Anna’s aide. “What was your name? Estaban?”
“I will stay close to His Excellency, Señor Lancer.”
“Very well, this way.” Murdoch led the two men toward the lower floor guest bedrooms. Turning back, he looked at Johnny. “I’ll be right back, and then we need to talk.”
Johnny didn’t say anything. Moving to the drink cart, he poured himself a healthy glass of tequila and downed it in one gulp.
When Murdoch returned to the Great Room, he found Johnny pacing while Scott and Val silently watching. He’d seen the look on his son’s face before and knew the boy was on the verge of bolting.
‘Well, not this time. I want answers.’
Murdoch walked to the drink cart, poured himself a Scotch, and then turned to his youngest son.
“Alright, John, tell us how you know this man and what happened the last time you met. From the conversation you had a few minutes ago, I take it you didn’t part on friendly terms.”
Johnny stopped pacing and took a deep breath.
“You’d better sit down and get comfortable. It’s a long story.”
Val tossed his hat on the table behind the sofa and helped himself to a drink before finding a comfortable chair.
Looking at the drink in his father’s hand, Johnny thought of topping off his glass and changed his mind.
Hesitantly, Johnny began talking. It wasn’t a story he wanted to tell, especially to the man he was just getting to know.
“I met him the first time in Corpus Christi. I guess it was around 1858.”
Murdoch leaned forward. “1858? You were only, what… six at the time?”
Johnny nodded. “Six… yeah, that’s about right.”
He stopped and looked at the expression on Murdoch’s face. Then he looked at Val. Should he mention the relationship he and Val had before coming to Lancer? Murdoch or Scott knew the two had ridden together but weren’t aware that Johnny and his mother lived with Val when he was a child. Maybe it was best to leave that bit of information for another time.
“We…Mama and me lived in a lot of towns and villages along the border. I lost track of the number or their names, if they even had one. When I was six, she took me to Matamoros. She said she had family near there. Turns out they’d moved away, or at least, that’s what Mama told me when we got there.
“She found a job in one of the cantinas. It wasn’t a bad place and the owner let us live in a room in the back. That’s where she…” Johnny stopped and looked toward the guest rooms. “That’s where she met Estaban.”
“Estaban!” Val asked with an edge to his voice, caught off guard by a piece of information he hadn’t known.
Johnny gave his friend s slight smile sensing what he was feeling, then just as quickly glanced at Murdoch. He could have laughed at the expression on the older man’s face. His Mother had left both these men and ended up in Estaban’s arms and bed. Of course, his Mama had ended up in a lot of men’s beds over the years.
“Yeah, Estaban.” Johnny acknowledged. “He was traveling from México to Corpus Christi and stopped over in Matamoros. He and Mama…”
Johnny looked at his father and blushed slightly. He’d never talked about his mother with Murdoch. The old man was going to get an ear full tonight.
“Look, Murdoch, Mama did what she had to do to survive; to put food in our bellies.”
“Johnny, I’m fully aware of what…who…damn it. I know what your mother…” Murdoch faltered. He already knew about his wife’s ‘occupation’ and the life she’d laid out for herself and their son. While having a hard time finding Johnny, the Pinkerton agents had no trouble piecing Maria’s life together over the years.
Johnny could see the hurt in his father’s eyes.
“Mama met Estaban and he took us to Corpus Christi. That’s where she met Antonio. Once he got a look at Mama, Estaban didn’t stand a chance.”
Murdoch jumped up, refilling his glass. With his back to Johnny, he asked, “How long were they together?”
Johnny shook his head. The old man didn’t need to know about any of that.
“It don’t matter.”
Murdoch spun around to face his son. “It matters…”
Johnny caught the glance Murdoch gave Val.
“No! It don’t matter. What was it you said that first day? It’s past. Right or wrong, good or bad, it’s past and gone. Leave it, old man.”
“Alright, go on with your story. We’ll discuss your mother later.”
Johnny moved to stand in front of the fireplace.
“Well, that’s how I first met Antonio. The last time I saw him was five years ago in México.”
Scott was doing the math in his head. “Fourteen? The last time you saw him, you were fourteen?”
Johnny stared at the near-empty glass in his hand.
“That’s right. I was 14 and using the name Madrid. He found us in Texas.”
Johnny nodded. “Val and me. We were in San Marcos….”
“What were you doing in San Marcos?” Murdoch interjected, vaguely remembering the location from the Pinkerton reports.
Johnny gave him a faint smile. “Going to school.”
“School?” Scott returned Johnny’s smile.
“Yeah, I went to school. It wasn’t long, but well, that’s where we were when Estaban found us. Antonio sent Estaban to find Johnny Madrid. Surprised the hell out of Estaban when he figured out I was Madrid. When Antonio found out…well, you can imagine his reaction, but that didn’t stop him from asking for my help.”
“And did you help him?” Scott asked.
“Yeah, but that’s where the long story comes in.”
Texas – Late March 1865
Val glanced around the arid landscape and then let his eyes come to rest on the back of the young man riding ahead of him.
They’d ridden north three months ago looking for a place to settle for a while, to escape the gunplay and killing. Finding work at Art Stoner’s Rock S was like a dream come true.
After working the roundup, Val had asked if they could stay on with one change. Val would work for Stoner while Johnny went to school. After a lot of wrangling on everyone’s part, the boy agreed to give school a chance.
There were times Val didn’t think it was going to work. Johnny could be as hard-headed as a Missouri mule at times, but when he put his mind to doing something…well, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do.
To his delight, Johnny began to relax and learn. Now and then, he even caught glimpses of a typical teenager, or as close as Johnny had ever been.
Everything changed when Estaban Vargas, Aide de Camp to the former President of México, and three of his men rode into San Marcos looking for Johnny Madrid.
Three days ago, Johnny was sitting in a schoolhouse in San Marcos, reading a book. His only worry was how to pronounce the next word on the page. Now behind them lay the relative peace and quiet of San Marcos and the Rocking S Ranch. Ahead lay Corpus Christi and a man from Johnny’s past.
For two days, they’d ridden in relative silence, talking only when necessary and then sparingly.
It was early in the morning on the third day when Johnny saw Estaban maneuver his horse to ride beside him. The man rode quietly for a long time.
Noticing Estaban glance over his shoulder, Johnny smiled. He knew Val was watching his back and had a full view of both him and Estaban.
Turning his head, Estaban looked at Madrid’s profile. The young man riding beside him looked very much like his mother.
Yes, he remembered Maria. The intoxicating Maria had been his… for a short time. That was until she’d meet… well, that was all in the past.
Estaban was a believer in fate. It was fate that took him to a cantina in Matamoros in 1858, where he met a fiery woman named Maria and her mestizo son. Now, that same son rode beside him summoned by his Patron.
“We will be in Corpus Christi tomorrow.”
Johnny didn’t respond.
“His Excellency will be surprised to discover you are Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny turned his head to look at Estaban.
“I bet.” Johnny looked forward again. “I’m surprised he’s still in Corpus Christi? Didn’t figure he would stay there.”
“We left Corpus Christi shortly after Maria left with you. We went first to New York and then to Cuba. We have spent the last few years in Havana.”
“Why not stay in Cuba?”
Estaban didn’t have to think about his answer. In 1855, when Benito Juárez became México’s President, Santa Anna was exiled. Estaban, Santa Anna’s Aide-de-Camp, stayed with his Patron.
For the next ten years, they’d lived in many places. The former president always seemed to have ample funds to continue the lifestyle he’d become accustomed to. But still, Santa Anna yearned to return home to México.
“His Excellency saw an opportunity to help Presidente Juárez and to return to México. He misses his country.”
“And you? You miss it too?”
“Si, I miss México. I still have familia, mi madre y dos hermanos. I want to go home, as well.” (family, my mother and two brothers)
“Where’s he staying in Corpus Christi?”
“The same hacienda as before. We were able to acquire it when we returned.” Estaban paused. “You will help him?”
Johnny gave him a slight smile, one that didn’t make it to his eyes.
“Don’t know. It depends on how much Antonio’s willing to pay.”
Estaban held his tongue. He didn’t appreciate the chico using His Excellency’s first name. It was a familiarity even he wasn’t granted.
“You would still have him pay you, knowing who he is?”
Johnny’s smile turned to a sneer and his voice hardened.
“He don’t mean nothing to me and I don’t owe him. You’re damn right he’s gonna’ pay.”
Johnny kicked his horse’s sides and rode ahead of the group. Val followed Johnny, giving Estaban a slight grin and a nod as he passed.
Startled by the sudden change in the boy’s mood, Estaban watched the young man ride away. He’d seen hints of Madrid before today, but nothing that came close to now. Blue eyes the color of sapphires turned dark, and the youthful features became hard and fixed. Hate emanated from the boy like ripples in the water. Estaban had no idea where those emotions were coming from.
Riding in silence, Estaban’s tried to remember what little he knew of Madrid.
He’d first heard the name a little over a year ago when his brother, Roberto, wrote to him from México.
It was nothing more than a few lines mentioning a young blue-eyed pistolero making a name for himself along the border. It seemed after that, every time Roberto wrote, he relayed one tale after another of the young mestizo. Each story displayed the man as both a merciless, bloodthirsty pistolero who could make men quake in their boots and, at the same time, a man who cared about the people of México. A man who used his gun to help those in need.
At the time, Estaban remembered thinking such a man would be very useful to His Excellency should he decide to return to his homeland.
They were in Cuba, he and his Patron, on May 29, 1864, when the news reached them that Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian of Austria, the newly appointed Emperor of México, had landed in Veracruz. Along with the Emperor came a sizable force of French Expeditionary troops. It wasn’t long before the opposition party, led by the current President of México, Benito Juárez, took a stand, a forceful stand supported by the people of México.
Santa Anna knew word of the gathering war had spread north to the United States; however, at the time, the divided Union was dealing with its own problems and had no time for Mexican politics.
As a former General of the Armies and President, Santa Anna couldn’t wait to return to México and offer Juárez his services. To do that, he needed men around him who knew how to handle themselves, as well as a gun. Madrid instantly sprang to mind.
“We’re holding up here.”
So absorbed in his thoughts, Estaban jumped at the sound of Johnny’s voice.
Stopping, Johnny scanned the area before throwing his leg over the saddle horn and sliding to the ground. The small stream he’d found was the first they’d seen for close to thirty miles.
Val dismounted and led his horse to the water’s edge.
“We’re making good time.”
Val watched Johnny’s dark head nod.
“The way we’re going, we’ll get there early tomorrow.”
Johnny nodded again.
“You gonna’ talk to me?”
“Nothing to talk about,” Johnny snapped and turned away.
Val didn’t like the boy’s tone but didn’t say anything.
“Alright, so we won’t talk about Corpus Christi.”
Val squatted down. Cupping his hand, he dipped into the water and brought it to his lips. He dipped into the water three more times before shaking his wet hand and standing up.
“Noticed you didn’t do any reading last night or the night before.”
Val saw a slight frown on the younger man’s face.
“You know I’m not gonna’ let you backslide on your book work?”
Johnny started to shake his head.
“We set up camp tonight, and I want you to get that book out and read a chapter.”
When Johnny didn’t respond, Val growled.
“Alright, tonight after supper, I’ll read a chapter. Satisfied?”
Val smiled. “You’ll read it aloud. That way I’ll know you pronounced the words right.”
Johnny rolled his eyes. Leading his horse away from the water, he patted the black gelding’s neck before sitting down. The ride to Corpus Christi had been quiet so far, but Johnny knew that wouldn’t last once they reached their destination.
Suddenly feeling the hairs on his neck stand up, Johnny looked around, trying to find the source of his discomfort. Estaban and his men were talking together and laughing. Val was still near the stream with his horse. When the ears on his gelding flicked back, instincts honed from years of taking care of himself kicked in. Something wasn’t right.
Johnny’s right hand slid to his holster, his thumb flipping off the leather thong on the Colt’s hammer.
Val turned in time to see his partner’s subtle movement, and his hand moved to the butt of his gun.
Tying off his horse, Val casually walked toward where Johnny sat. Toeing the ground with his boot, he looked down.
“What is it?”
“Not sure.” Johnny didn’t look up. “It’s…just a feeling.”
Val casually scanned the surrounding area. Taking a few steps forward, he moved closer to Johnny.
Estaban was watching Val and Johnny. Seeing the look on the older gunfighter’s face, he wondered what was wrong.
Johnny stood. With a voice so soft only Val could hear, “It sure has gotten quiet.”
Val cocked his head, listening. Gone were the sounds of chirping birds that had only moments ago filled the trees near the stream.
Out of habit, Val took a few steps away from Johnny. They’d worked it out long ago as to what to do when danger presented itself. They needed to move apart so they wouldn’t hamper the other’s movements.
A covey of nesting quail flew out of the brush a few hundred yards away. At the same moment, the sound of a rifle shot pierced the air. One of Estaban’s men clutched his chest and fell to the ground.
Johnny pivoted in the direction of the shot, pulling his gun at the same time. Val mirrored his moves. Estaban and his two remaining men were drawing their weapons when two more shots rang out.
Seeing movement in the underbrush to his right, Johnny brought his Colt around and fired. Hearing a muffled scream and then the sound of a body hitting the ground, he was vaguely aware Val’s first shot had also hit its mark.
When a bullet whizzed by his head, Johnny threw himself to the ground and fired again, this time at the point he was sure another rifle shot had come from only a few moments earlier. The exchange of gunfire continued for another few seconds and then stopped.
Raising to his knees, Val looked to his left to see Johnny pushing himself to his feet. He breathed a sigh of relief, noting there was no sign of blood on the boy. Turning his head to the right, he saw Estaban going to his fallen man. It looked like the only casualty of the attack had been Estaban’s man, Rodrigo.
Starting to stand, Val felt for the first time a burning pain in his left upper arm. Looking down, he realized there was blood on his sleeve. He hadn’t even felt the bullet hit him. Sitting back down, he holstered his gun and took a closer look at the wound.
Johnny stood, taking a deep breath, and tried to calm his racing heart. Hearing horses racing away to the west, he knew whoever attacked them was gone. Holstering his gun, he turned. His attention went to Estaban and his men moving to the prone body on the ground. There was nothing they could do for the man and he knew it. He turned to look the other way.
Running to his friend’s side, Johnny slid to his knees.
“How bad?” Johnny’s voice caught slightly at the sight of blood on the older man’s arm.
“Ain’t bad, just a scratch.”
Johnny reached for the arm. Val pushed him away.
“I said it ain’t bad.”
Johnny pushed back.
“Let me see it.”
Johnny ripped Val’s shirt sleeve to get a better look at the wound.
“Hell, boy, you know I only got two shirts.”
“Shut up and be still.” Not liking what he saw, Johnny pulled out his boot knife and cut the sleeve off completely. Folding the material into a square, he covered the wound and applied pressure.
“Take it easy,” Val groaned. “That hurts.”
“Here, hold this.” Johnny grabbed Val’s hand and placed it over the makeshift bandage.
Standing, Johnny hurried to get his saddlebags. Taking the bags back to Val, he dropped them on the ground. Kneeling, Johnny opened one of the bags and reached in, grabbing a bottle of tequila.
Taking Val’s hand off the wound, Johnny pulled the cork from the bottle with his teeth, spit it out, and then poured the liquid over the bullet hole.
Val closed his eyes, cursing as the alcohol hit the open wound.
Hesitating, Johnny gave Val a thoughtful glance.
“I’m alright,” Val’s voice was calm and quiet. He knew he’d scared the boy. It was always the same when he was hurt. The soft side of Johnny Madrid came out for him, only him.
Johnny took a sharp breath. “Val….”
Looking to make sure no one was near, Val’s voice softened, “It’s alright, hijo. I’m alright. Now you know how I feel when you’re hurt.”
Johnny bent his head to get a better look at the wound.
“But it’s different when it’s me.”
“How’s it different? Val asked, looking at the top of Johnny’s head.
“Just is… now hold still.”
“Leave it, Val.”
“How’s it different?”
“It just is. I…” Johnny hesitated, his eyes lifting to meet Val’s. Then he changed his tone. “I’m younger than you, old man. I heal up faster.”
Val knew what Johnny was going to say. It was different because Johnny thought if it were him, it wouldn’t matter. In his mind, he wasn’t worth the effort of anyone caring about him. If he were killed, it wouldn’t be any great loss and no one would miss him. Knowing how little the boy thought of himself broke Val’s heart.
“Hijo, …,” Val started and stopped. Now wasn’t the time or the place to talk to his friend about his self-worth.
Johnny’s hands stilled for a moment and then he nodded as if reading Val’s mind. Wiping away the excess liquid and blood from Val’s arm, he looked at the wound. Reaching into his saddlebag again, he found a roll of bandages at the bottom and started wrapping the arm.
Trying for a lighter mood, Val said, “I ain’t an old man. Not that much older than you and don’t forget it.”
“How is he?”
Johnny was intent on tending Val and didn’t hear Estaban walk up behind him. He turned his head but kept working on the bandage.
“He’ll be alright. Bullet went through.”
“I told you it was a scratch.”
Johnny raised his eyes to look at his friend but didn’t say anything.
“How many did we get?”
“Dos,” Estaban responded. “At least one perhaps more got away.”
Finishing with the bandage, Johnny stood and took a deep breath. For the first time since the shooting stopped, he got a chance to get a good look around.
“Estaban, your man?”
Estaban shook his head. “Muerto.”
“Any idea who they were?”
Estaban shook his head. “No se.”
Johnny walked out to where the first man lay. Using his foot, he rolled the man over and turned to Estaban.
“You know him?”
Estaban took a good look at the dead Mexican and shook his head.
“No, I do not know who he is, but I fear I know what he his.”
“And just ‘what’ is he?”
Johnny stood back, understanding but not understanding.
“Why would the Juaristas want to bushwhack us?”
“Not us, Juanito. You. Word that His Excellency was seeking Johnny Madrid’s help must have leaked out. Many do not want El Presidente to return to México. They would stop at nothing to prevent Santa Anna from reaching Benito Juárez. By stopping you, they would be stopping His Excellency.”
Val had been listening and didn’t like what he was hearing. “Estaban, what the hell have you gotten us into?”
Johnny and Estaban spun around to see Val standing behind them.
Before Estaban could respond, Val ordered, “Madrid, get your gear. We’re getting out of here.”
“Por favor, Señor Crawford, my Patron needs your help. He needs ….”
“He needs a hell of a lot more than he’s going to get from us! You should have told us there would be men gunning for us even before meeting up with him.”
“How could I tell you what I wasn’t sure of until now?”
Val huffed and turned away. Then turning back, he looked at Johnny.
“Well, what? You’re doing one hell of a job telling Estaban off. You don’t need my help.” Johnny turned away, walking towards his horse. Val followed him.
“We’re leaving, right? Going back to…?”
Johnny turned on him; sparkling blue eyes turned dark with anger.
“Going back to where? There isn’t anywhere to go back to Val. San Marcos was nice, but it wasn’t real. This….” He pointed to the dead vaquero. “This is real, our…my reality.”
“No, Val, there is only one way to go and that’s to Corpus Christi; to Santa Anna.”
“Even if it gets you killed? Gets us killed?”
“Go back then. You can go back. I can’t!”
The sting of Johnny’s words lingered only a moment.
“Not without you. Never….”
Johnny stopped and looked at Val with now pleading eyes. Taking a breath, he calmed himself, the anger now gone.
Val took a step forward until he was directly in front of Johnny. “If this is what you want to do, then we’ll do it. I don’t like it, but…”
“It all I know how to do.”
Val paused, looked skyward for a moment and then sighed, “Then, we’ll do it together.”
Turning to Estaban, Val looked the man in the eye. “Any more surprises we should know about before we go on?”
Estaban stood quietly by watching and listening as the two pistoleros argued, knowing better than to get between them. Now they’d calmed, Estaban wondered if Santa Anna was going to be able to control either of them.
“Señor Crawford, ….”
“Don’t lie to us, Estaban,” Johnny snarled, interrupting Estaban’s response to Val.
“I am not lying, Señores. His Excellency received word from loyal followers in México that those who opposed his return would try to stop him. It was then he decided he needed to hire a pistolero. I swear to you, Juanito, he did not know you were Madrid. If he had….”
“If he had, what would he have done?”
Estaban stood silent for a moment. “I honestly do not know. I do know he needs you and your gun.”
“Looks like he needs you too. Why do you stay with him, Estaban?”
“It is who I am. I cannot turn my back on my Patron now. My family has served him since before he led the Armies of México into Texas.
“Mi padre, my father, was with Santa Anna when the Army marched on San Antonio de Béxar. He was there when your Alamo fell. My father was one of those who survived the Battle of San Jacinto and was captured along with Santa Anna by Sam Houston.
“I have served him since I was a boy of twenty. It was in 1845 I replaced my father as el Presidente’s Aide-de-Camp.
“Now, Santa Anna is growing old and wants very much to return home; to the country he served and loves. Truthfully, I also want to go home. I have been away for a long time, and I miss my country.”
Val looked at the two dead men again and then at Estaban and sighed.
“Well, if we’re gonna do this, we might as well get these men buried and get moving.”
There was no discussion as they buried the men or when they mounted up, heading for Corpus Christi.
Four days after leaving San Marcos, Estaban led the way into the small town of fewer than 400 residents.
Looking around, Val saw few able-bodied men. He suspected anyone who could handle a gun was back east fighting in the war. The people who stopped and stared were mostly women and children, older men, and those who had come home broken men.
Corpus Christi, known as the Sparkling City by the Sea, was one of Texas’s oldest settlements. Originally named The Old Indian Trading Grounds until 1847, it was the first to be included in the newly formed Republic of Texas in 1836.
In 1862, the town survived a United Stated Naval blockade and bombardment. In August of that year, the resulting land battle didn’t last long, and the Union forces were quickly forced back into the sea.
Corpus Christi’s allegiance lay firmly with the Confederacy, and for that reason, the residents looked on any stranger warily.
Mexicans were deemed neutral in the current conflict between the North and the South. No one would have given Estaban and his men or Johnny a second glance under normal circumstances, but this wasn’t a normal situation. The people of Corpus Christi knew who Estaban was and who paid his wages.
The attention didn’t seem to faze Estaban as he led the small band of riders to the southern edge of town.
“Aqui.” Estaban motioned for them to stop in front of a large hacienda surrounded by tall, white, sun-bleached adobe walls. In front of double wooden gates stood two armed guards.
Johnny hesitantly looked around but stayed where he was.
Val dismounted. Walking around his horse, he looked up at his partner, who hadn’t moved. “Well, you wanted to come and we’re here. You gonna get off that horse or not?”
Sighing, Johnny dismounted.
“This way, Señores.”
Estaban waved a hand toward the hacienda’s entrance. Guards pushed the gates open, allowing the three men to enter.
The hacienda’s courtyard was large and well-manicured. Clay paving stones covered the ground, while plants suitable to southern Texas and the Gulf coast filled flower beds. In the center of the yard was a three-tiered, circular water fountain.
Once the courtyard doors closed behind them, it was as if they were in a different world. A world of wealth that Val had never experienced. He glanced at Johnny, realizing that if he and Maria had lived with Santa Anna, the boy would have seen this type of luxury.
As they approached the main house entrance, Estaban stopped and turned to look at the two pistoleros.
“I will have someone show you to your rooms. You can freshen up and change your clothes before meeting His Excellency.”
Johnny looked down at his dust-covered shirt and pants, then glanced at Val. He knew Val was thinking the same thing. They only had one other change of clothes apiece, and they weren’t much better than what they had on.
Estaban must have read their thoughts.
“I will see if there are any more suitable clothes available for you to wear while what you have on is cleaned. I cannot present you to His Excellency looking as you are now.”
Johnny started to say something smart when Val put a hand on his arm and said, “That would be appreciated, Estaban. I’d like to get some of this trail dust off anyway.”
A servant appeared from a long hall to their right. Johnny recognized him immediately. The old man had been in Santa Anna’s service when his mother was here.
Estaban whispered something to the man before excusing himself and leaving them alone with the elderly Mexican.
“Señores, sígame, por favor.” (Gentlemen, follow me, please)
Hearing the gates open again, they turned to see Tomas, one of the men who had ridden with them, enter the courtyard carrying their saddlebags, bedrolls, and rifles.
“I have brought your things. The horses are in the stable.”
“Thanks,” Val replied as the three men followed the servant.
When they reached the bedrooms, Johnny paused in front of the one he had occupied all those years ago. Ironically, it was the very same room he would be staying in now. Tomas deposited Val and Johnny’s things in their rooms and left.
The servant turned to Johnny.
“Esta es su habitación, Señor Madrid. Señor Crawford, tu habitación está al lado.” (This is your room, Mr. Madrid. Mr. Crawford, your room is next door.)
“Gracias, Señor Sebastián,” Johnny replied quietly.
The older man, who had turned away, now turned back and looked closely at Johnny. It took a moment before his eyes lit up with recognition and then surprise.
“Si, Señor Sebastián.”
“Eres … eres Johnny Madrid?” (You…you are Johnny Madrid.)
Johnny nodded. “Si, soy Johnny Madrid” (Yes, I’m Johnny Madrid)
Taken aback, Sebastián switched to broken English.
“All these years…I have missed you, nino.”
“You were good to me, Sebastián. I’ve never forgotten.”
Sebastián smiled. “Nor, have I, Juanito.”
Johnny turned to Val. “Val, meet Sebastián. He’s the only person in the entire household that didn’t treat me like dirt. Sebastián…” Stopping, he turned to the man. “I don’t even know your last name.”
“Morales, Sebastián Morales.”
“Señor Sebastián Morales, this is mi compañero, my partner, Val Crawford.”
Val extended his hand. “It’s good to meet you, Señor Morales. I want to thank you for what you did for Johnny. I know he can be a handful.”
Sebastián chuckled. “Sí Señor, la mayoría de las veces dos puñados, pero fue un placer cuidarlo.” (Yes sir, most of the time two handfuls, but it was a pleasure looking after him.)
Sebastián quickly looked around, realizing he was neglecting his duties.
“Now, Señores, I will bring you water to bathe and clean clothes. His Excellency dines at 9:00. That will give you time to rest from your long journey.”
“Gracias, Sebastián. Oh, and Sebastián, Val was wounded yesterday. Can you bring some bandages?”
“Wounded? Señor Crawford, do you need el medico?”
“Don’t need a doctor, but thanks anyway. Just a clean bandage and any ointment you’ve got.”
“I will see to it.”
As the man shuffled away, Johnny opened the door to the bedroom and stepped inside. It was as he remembered it. Very little had changed, except for the size of the bed.
“It’s just like it was.”
“This was your room when you were here before?” Val asked, looking around.
“Yeah, this was my room. Mama had the room next door, the one you’ve got.”
Val went to the door to the adjoining room and opened it. The room was spacious and well decorated. A large window overlooked the courtyard and the sound of the fountain gave it a relaxed feel.
“And Maria left this? What the hell was she thinking?”
When Johnny didn’t answer, he turned to see Johnny standing near the window in his room. His hand was resting on the window sill. Val moved closer to see something etched in the wood.
Johnny traced the letters of his name and quietly said, “She always left. It’s what she did, who she was.”
Val walked over and put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze.
“You want to talk about it?”
Johnny shook his head. “No, it was a long time ago. There’s nothing to talk about anymore.”
Val knew that wasn’t the truth but also knew not to push.
“Look, let’s get cleaned up and get some rest. We’ll talk to ‘His Excellency’ tonight and see if you want to take the job. If not, we’ll head out in the morning. Deal?”
Johnny looked at Val with a smile. “Deal.”
The sun had long since set when Val walked into the adjoining room. It was 8:30, and Val wanted to make sure Johnny was dressed for dinner.
Stopping for a few moments, he leaned against the door jamb and watched Johnny sleep. The only thing the boy wore was a towel wrapped around his waist, and, of course, he held his Colt in his right hand.
It was unusual for Johnny to sleep soundly in an unfamiliar place, but this place wasn’t that strange to him. Val had to wonder what it had been like for the six-year-old boy.
A pang of jealousy hit him. Johnny should have been with him when he was that age, not here, not with Santa Anna. Not for the first time, he cursed Maria. He’d never say it aloud in front of Johnny, but to himself and the heavens above, he cursed her for leaving and taking the boy away from him.
He’d wondered many times about Johnny’s real father. Had Maria told the truth about him? Val knew the name Murdoch Lancer, had known it for years. Had the rancher kicked Maria out and told her to take Johnny? Val didn’t believe it, had never believed it, but whether it was true or not, didn’t matter. Johnny had listened to his Mama and took everything she said as gospel.
What if Maria had done to Lancer what she’d done to him? What if she’d stolen away in the night and taken the boy with her? Val shook his head with a shocking realization. If he felt this way about a boy who wasn’t even his blood, what had Murdoch Lancer been feeling for the last twelve years?
Pulling himself together, Val cleared his throat. It got the response he’d expected. Johnny jerked upright in the bed with his Colt pointed at the source of the noise.
“It’s only me,” Val said with a slight laugh. “You better get dressed. I don’t think anyone wants to see you like that.”
Johnny lowered his Colt and rubbed his hand over his face. Looking down at the towel around his waist, he blushed. “Yeah, I’d better put something on. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
Val started to go to his room, then stopped and turned back.
“Sebastián brought you some clothes. They’re hanging over there. Put them on and don’t forget to comb your hair. It’s standing straight up.”
Johnny slumped back on the bed as Val closed the door between the two rooms. He’d been sleeping soundly and it took a few minutes to wake up. He hadn’t realized he was so tired when he laid down, but the bed was soft and the sound of the fountain had lulled him to sleep.
Johnny went to the wardrobe where Sebastián hung the clothes he was supposed to wear. He found a white linen shirt with black embroidery down the front, a pair of pants made of light wool with silver braid running down the length of both legs, and a matching bolero jacket.
Once the jacket was on, he looked in the mirror. Smiling, he thought he looked every bit a Hacendados.
Johnny combed his long hair back with his fingers. Frowning when his hair still stood up, he put his hand in the water pitcher. He tried again using the wet hand and was satisfied when his unruly hair seemed to lay down.
He was still looking at himself in the mirror when the adjoining door opened and Val stepped into his room. Johnny could see Val’s reflection in the mirror. Turning around, he whistled.
“Boy, oh, boy, Amigo, you clean up good.”
Val’s clothes were almost identical to Johnny’s, except for the jacket. Val’s jacket was hip length and lacked the silver braiding.
Val tugged at the tie around his neck and huffed, “Don’t know why we’re dressing up just to eat.”
“It’s the way he does it every night. I remember how pretty Mama looked in the silk dresses he bought her.”
Val relaxed his shoulders and looked at Johnny.
“Well, turn around and let me get a good look at you.”
When Johnny did, it was Val’s turn to whistle.
“You clean up a hell of a lot better than I do, hijo.” Val stepped closer. “You got a tie?
“There’s one over there, but I ain’t wearing it.” Johnny pointed to the chair where Sebastián left his other clothes.
Val walked over to the chair, picking up a string tie. He held it up and motioned for Johnny to come to him.
“Ain’t wearing it.”
“If I have to wear one, then so do you.”
Johnny moved forward.
Val put the tie around Johnny’s neck. When he finished, he turned Johnny back to the mirror.
“Now then, you look just fine.”
There was a tap on the door.
“Come on it,” Val called out.
The door opened. Sebastián took one look at Johnny and stopped. “Eres muy guapo, Juanito. Very handsome.”
Johnny blushed. “Gracias, Sebastián.”
“Your clothes have been cleaned.”
Sebastián walked across the room and laid a stack of folded clothes on the dresser. Johnny’s red shirt was on top of the pile.
Sebastián walked back to the door. “La cena está lista. His Excellency will expect you in ten minutes.” (Dinner is ready)
“We’ll be there,” Val replied.
“Yeah, we’ll be there,” Johnny added with little enthusiasm.
After the door was closed, Val gave Johnny one more look. “I’ll be ready in a minute.”
Val went back to his room and Johnny turned to the mirror. Yes, he looked good. Sighing, he shook his head. He looked too good.
The old man had sent for Madrid, but that’s not who he was looking at in the mirror. Johnny Madrid would never be a hacendado or own a big estancia.
Glaring at himself, he grabbed the tie and pulled it off. Wadding it in his hand, he threw it aside. Looking at his clothes, he began to unbutton the white shirt he had on.
Within minutes, he’d changed into his red shirt and black calzoneras with the silver conchos. Strapping on his gun belt, he started for the door and stopped. The black bolero jacket was calling to him. Picking it up, he fingered the material and then the braiding. Deciding he would wear it, he put it on and then looked in the mirror again.
Now, this was Johnny Madrid.
The adjoining door opened. Val stopped, trying to take in what he was seeing.
“Yeah, that wasn’t me. This is me,” Johnny declared. “The old man wants Madrid. He’s gonna get Madrid, not someone dressed up in that monkey suit.”
“He’s not gonna like it.”
“I don’t care. Now, are you ready to go?”
Val took a deep breath. There was no use arguing with Johnny when he was like this.
“Alright, let’s get this over with.”
Val headed for the door, knowing Madrid would be right behind him.
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, former Presidente de México, walked into the Dining Room of his hacienda, more than pleased that Estaban had returned. As anxious as he was to see his Aide-de-Camp and old friend, Santa Anna was just as eager to meet Madrid.
When he’d returned to Corpus Christi a few months ago, he’d asked about pistoleros. He wanted only the best to guard him. One name kept coming up. Johnny Madrid. People who had heard of the pistolero sang his praises. He was allegedly both fast and deadly. Just the type of man needed to get him to his meeting in Linares with Juárez.
Once he’d decided on Madrid, he’d charged Estaban with tracking the man down and hiring him. Now, his wait was over. Madrid was in Corpus Christi and in his hacienda.
The sound of footsteps drew Santa Anna’s attention to the doorway. Estaban, dressed for dinner, entered the room with a smile on his face.
“Excellency.” Estaban snapped to attention, the heels of his boots clicking together, and gave a slight bow.
“Estaban, my old friend. It is good to see you. I take it the trip was successful?”
“Si, Excellency. Muy exitoso.” (Very successful)
“Señores Madrid and Crawford should be here shortly.” Estaban tried to control the expression on his face. He had no intention of telling his Patron who he had brought back with him.
“Crawford? I asked you to hire only one pistolero.”
“Senor Madrid would not come without Senor Crawford. They are compañeros. You will not hire one without the other.”
Santa Anna nodded his understanding.
“Excellency, I am sorry to tell you there was trouble on our return trip. Yesterday we were attacked and Rodrigo was killed.”
Estaban saw the surprise on his Patron’s face, but there was no grief or regret. From many years of service, he’d learned that Santa Anna did not feel for his men one way or the other, except for him, perhaps.
“Juaristas or agents of Maximillian?”
“No se, Excellency. I don’t know. Two will never bother us again. There was nothing on them to tell us who they worked for.”
“It was you who killed them, Estaban?”
“No, Señor, it was Señores Madrid and Crawford.”
“Bueno.” Santa Anna turned and walked away a few feet before turning around to face Estaban again. “He is rapido, Estaban? This Madrid, he is as fast as we have heard?”
“Si, Señor, es rapido, muy rapido.” (he is fast, very fast)
Before Santa Anna could ask another question, Sebastián entered the room.
“Excellency, este es el Señor Crawford.” (This is Mr. Crawford)
Sebastián stepped aside.
Estaban smiled at the expression on Val’s face as he walked into the Dining Room. It was obvious he was uncomfortable in the suit.
Moving forward, Estaban escorted Val further into the room.
“Señor Crawford…Val, this is his Excellency…”
Estaban’s introduction was cut short by the sound of jingling spurs. The three men turned to see Madrid standing in the doorway.
Johnny looked at Sebastián, giving the older man a slight smile. He could see a combination of amusement in the older man’s eyes as well as disappointment. Johnny knew Sebastián liked the way he looked in the suit he’d picked out for him.
With clean clothes and shined boots, Johnny stood fixed in the doorway, his right hand resting on the butt of his modified Colt. Val had to admit Johnny looked good. The bolero jacket fit him perfectly, covering up the fact he was too thin.
‘The only thing missing is a haircut.’ Val almost laughed at the thought.
Santa Anna frowned at the sight of the boy entering the Dining Room.
Estaban’s eyes widened at Johnny’s appearance, but quickly recovered and spoke up.
“Excellency, this is Señor Madrid, Señor Johnny Madrid.” Turning back to Val and Johnny. “Señores, may I present his Excellency Antonio de Lopez Santa Anna, former Presidente of México and General of the Armies.”
Val nodded. “Excellency.”
Johnny didn’t respond one way or the other.
Santa Anna turned to Estaban. “A joke, Estaban?”
“No, Excellency, it is no joke. This is who you sent me to bring back. This is Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny slowly walked forward; his spurs were the only sound in the room. He came to a stop in front of the man he’d known all those years ago.
“Estaban is right, old man.”
“Johnny!” Val snapped.
“You will show respect, young man,” Santa Anna glowered.
“Respect’s earned, Antonio. You never earned it, and I doubt you ever will.”
Santa Anna eyed Johnny carefully.
“There is something about you that is familiar. I know you, nino?”
“I’m no nino, Señor, and yeah, you know me, or at least you used to.”
“Arrogante,” Santa Anna stated and then laughed. “Si, you are arrogant, but…” His eyes fell to the gun on Johnny’s hip. “If you are Madrid, are you as good as your reputation?”
“Si, Antonio, I’m good.”
“That’s the second time you have addressed me as Antonio. Only a very few are allowed to use my nombre de pila and you …. Juanito?” Santa Anna’s eyes widened as recognition set in. “Maria’s Juanito?” (nombre de pila- first name//Christian name)
Johnny gave him a crooked smile.
“Si, Maria’s Juanito.”
Santa Anna looked at Johnny closely now. His eyes took in everything about him, from his head to the tip of his boots.
“You have grown into a handsome young man. Your Madre, where is she?”
“Muerta? Cuando?” (Dead? When?)
“It doesn’t matter. She’s dead and that’s all there is to it.” Johnny dipped his head heaved a sigh. “Now….”
“It matters to me. When Juanito? When did she die?’
Johnny thought the man truly was sorry. Perhaps he’d been wrong about Santa Anna. He’d started to release some of his anger towards the man until he heard the next words.
“So, Maria’s nino is the famous Johnny Madrid. It is hard to believe the skinny nino I knew would amount to anything.”
“Not so hard to believe.” Val jumped in. “Johnny’s worked hard to make a name for himself; he’s earned his reputation.”
Santa Anna focused on Val.
“Tu eres su compañero, Señor?” (You are his partner?)
“I’m his partner.”
Santa Anna nodded and then looked at the table behind him.
“Shall we eat, Señores? The hour is late and my digestion dictates I eat at a certain time.”
Johnny laughed. “Never could figure out how a man can set his stomach by his watch. It just ain’t natural.”
“Oh, but when you are an old man like myself, you will appreciate the benefits of a regular schedule.”
Val noted a slight limp as Santa Anna slowly walked to the head of the table.
“Doubt I’ll ever get that old,” Johnny mumbled under his breath.
Estaban waved Val and Johnny towards the table. Val started to sit when he saw Johnny shake his head. Standing behind their chairs, they waited for ‘His Excellency’ to take his seat. Val followed Johnny and Estaban’s lead and seated himself.
They ate in silence. Val noticed Johnny barely touched his meal. It wasn’t like the boy to pass up a meal and a good one at that, even if it was at the fanciest table he’d ever seen.
Finally, the meal ended. With the dishes cleared away, Santa Anna leaned back with a glass of wine in his hand and studied Johnny.
Johnny was aware of the man’s eyes on him.
Turning to face Santa Anna, Johnny said, “Alright, we’ve had dinner, now let’s get down to business. You went to a lot of trouble to have Estaban bring me here. Say what you’ve got to say.”
“Not tonight, Juanito. Talking business on a full stomach will certainly give me indigestion. We will talk manana, say around 10:00.”
“Fine. If we’re not talking tonight, then I’m going to bed. It’s been a long day.”
Johnny pushed back from the table and stood. Val did the same.
Santa Anna’s eyes blazed. No one left his table without his permission.
As Johnny started to turn to the door, he stopped and looked back. “Just for the record, your Excellency. I’m not a nino anymore, and I don’t like to be called Juanito. The name is Johnny.”
“Very well, Johnny. However, for the record, do not call me Antonio or old man. I am his Excellency or Señor to you.”
Johnny gave him a curt nod.
“Guess we got us an understanding. Buenas noches. Hasta mañana…Señor.” (Good night. Until tomorrow.)
As they walked back to their rooms, Val and Johnny met Sebastián in the hallway.
“Look, Sebastián, I’m sorry about the suit. I just couldn’t wear it.”
“I understand, Juanito, or should I say Johnny. I heard what you said at the table.”
Johnny smiled. “For you, I will tolerate Juanito, but not in front of Santa Anna or Estaban, convenido?” (agreed)
“Si. Now would you like something to eat? I noticed you did not eat much and you are too thin. You need to eat. You are a growing boy.”
“Gracias, but no, I’m not hungry. There is something about this place that brings back too many memories.”
“I understand, but not all your memories of the hacienda are bad, are they? I remember a few times you were happy here.”
“A few, but not nearly enough. I’m going to bed. Thank you, Sebastián.”
Sebastián turned to Val. “Señor Crawford, would you care for anything?”
“No, I appreciate the offer, but I think I’ll call it a night too. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Sebastián gave them a slight bow and walked down the hallway.
“Nice fellow,” Val said as they entered Johnny’s room.
“Yeah, he’s about the only thing that made this place bearable.
A knock at the door brought Johnny out of a deep sleep and upright in bed. It took a moment before he remembered where he was. He’d been dreaming. The dream was fading now, but he recalled just enough of it to know it was about his mother and Antonio.
The knock repeated.
Johnny threw his legs off the side of the bed and pulled the linen sheet around his waist.
“Yeah, come on in.”
The door opened and Sebastián stepped into the room. He stopped when he saw the Colt in Johnny’s hand.
“Buenos dias, Juanito.”
Johnny ran his fingers through his hair, yawned, and mumbled, “Mornin’.”
“Breakfast will be ready soon. Estaban asked that I wake you.”
Nodding, Johnny yawned again. “Is Val up yet?”
“Si. Señor Crawford is already at the table.”
“I’ll be there in a few minutes. Just need to get dressed.”
“Bueno.” Sebastián started to turn and then looked back. “You drink café?”
Johnny laughed. “Yeah, I drink coffee and I like it strong.”
Fifteen minutes later, Johnny walked into the Dining Room. The room was bright, with sunlight flooding through large windows that overlooked the courtyard.
Val sat at the far end of the table from where they’d sat the night before. Looking up as Johnny entered, he smiled. “Mornin’ sunshine. Forget to comb your hair?”
Ignoring the question of his hair, Johnny took a seat next to Val. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
“Figured you needed the sleep. I heard you tossing and turning last night. Nightmares?”
Johnny shrugged. “Can’t remember.”
Val didn’t pursue the matter. He knew all about Johnny’s nightmares. He’d listened to the boy call out in his sleep more times than he could count.
Val looked towards the door. Johnny knew who he was waiting on.
“Antonio don’t get up early unless ….”
Johnny didn’t finish his sentence when they heard voices coming from the hall. Santa Anna, followed by Estaban, entered the Dining Room.
“By all means, stay seated, Señores.”
Johnny smirked, having no intention of standing.
Santa Anna took his seat at the long table’s head, with Estaban sitting to his right. There was no discussion during the meal at either end of the table. Once Sebastián cleared away the breakfast dishes, Johnny was ready to talk and Santa Anna knew it.
Standing, Santa Anna waved a hand towards the room to their right. “Shall we go to the study?”
Santa Anna walked across the study and sat behind a desk, motioning to Val and Johnny.
Val sat in a chair in front of the desk while Johnny continued to stand next to Val.
Santa Anna laughed. “I still have a hard time seeing you as more than the small boy who lived here with your Madre.”
When Johnny didn’t respond, he continued.
“We came to talk about a job. Now get it said.”
“Very well.” Santa Anna leaned back in the chair. “Estaban has told you I have offered my services to Juárez in the fight against Emperor Maximillian.”
Santa Anna looked from Val to Johnny. Val nodded; however, Johnny stood fixed.
“Benito’s agents have agreed to a meeting.”
Val waited for Johnny to say something. When he didn’t, Val spoke up, “Alright, so Juárez has agreed to meet you.”
“Not Benito himself, but one of his Aides,” Santa Anna corrected.
Val nodded. “Alright, one of his Aides. And you need us…why?”
“We are to meet in Linares on the 30th day of April.”
Val glanced up at Johnny, needing clarification.
“Linares is in the Nuevo Leon province of México, about 350 miles southwest. We’d cross the Rio Grande at Reynosa.”
“No,” Santa Anna quickly spoke. “I must travel through Brownsville.”
Johnny cocked his head. “Why? The route’s longer that way.”
“It would delay us only a few days. I have business to attend to in Matamoros. Today is the 1st day of April. If we leave within the next four days, there will be ample time to get to Linares by the 30th.”
Val didn’t see but felt Johnny tense beside him. Matamoros. Why did everything in the boy’s life always come back to Matamoros?
After a pause, Santa Anna stood and walked to the window overlooking the courtyard and fountain.
“How much?” Johnny drawled.
His Excellency turned to look at Johnny. “Oh, yes, your fee. How much do you usually get for protecting someone?”
Val glanced up at Johnny. He knew what they normally got, but he had a feeling Johnny was about to raise the ante on this job.
“We need more information. You want protection just one way to Linares or back again to Corpus Christi?”
Santa Anna clasped his hands behind his back and paced across the room before turning to look at Johnny again.
“I am certain Benito will protect me once he accepts my offer of assistance against Maximillian’s forces.”
“You really think Juárez is gonna let you waltz back into the country and take up where you left off?”
“Of course not, but my military experience will be invaluable to him.”
“So, you’re asking for protection both ways?”
Santa Anna looked annoyed.
Estaban stepped forward.
“Should the need arise, of course, we would require protection on the return trip.”
Johnny lowered his head and slowly walked across the room, thinking. He turned to look at Val and saw his friend raise an eyebrow. Their eyes met and Johnny knew Val would leave the decision of whether they were accepting the job and the amount of payment to him.
Turning back to look at Santa Anna, Johnny finally spoke, “We’ll take the job, but on our terms.”
Santa Anna turned a shade of red Estaban recognized. It meant His Excellency’s temper would soon get the better of him. In the days when the man ruled as Supreme General of the Armies and President of México, Santa Anna’s temper resulted in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands.
Estaban started to interject when Santa Anna beat him to it.
“And what are your terms… Señor?”
Johnny sat on the arm of the nearest chair, his leg swinging. It was a habit Santa Anna had disciplined him for when he was young.
‘Sit in the chair, Juanito. Not on the arm.”
“First off, we call the tune. Your men take orders from either Val or me.”
Johnny waited to see if there would be a response. When there was none, he went on.
“Second, we determine the route. We’ll go through Matamoros. Other than that, we’ll tell you the details when we’re on the trail. I don’t trust anyone,” Johnny said, letting his eyes fall on Estaban. “Not after what happened getting here. The fewer people who know our business, the better.”
Again, Johnny hesitated.
Santa Anna moved to the sideboard where liquor bottles were lined up. He poured two fingers of tequila and turned to look back at Johnny.
“We’ll get you to Linares … and back if need be, for $500 apiece… in gold…in advance.”
Santa Anna had his drink to his lips and had taken one sip when he heard the price the pistolero was asking. The tequila went down the wrong way, and he spewed the fiery liquid across the room.
Val’s eyes went wide. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t keep the look of surprise off his face. They’d never, either one of them or together, gotten five hundred dollars for any job, let alone five hundred apiece. They weren’t in the league of men like Jack Slade. Their standard fee was ten dollars a day and bullets.
Val fought the urge to walk across the room, grab a bottle, and pour himself a drink. His eyebrow went up again as Johnny did just that.
Pushing himself off the chair’s arm, Johnny sauntered to the liquor cabinet and poured two glasses of tequila. Turning, he walked back to Val and handed the glass to him.
Johnny smiled when he saw the expression on his friend’s face. He knew Val wouldn’t say anything in front of Santa Anna or Estaban about him drinking. Yeah, he’d catch hell later, but that was later.
Turning, Johnny looked at his future employer.
Taking a sip of the tequila, Johnny let it burn its way down his throat and into his stomach without flinching. He really hadn’t wanted the drink, but it ticked him off when Santa Anna hadn’t bothered to offer any to Val.
There was complete silence in the room. Taking a second sip, Johnny glanced at Val and saw the scowl on his face. He gave his friend a brief smile.
Watching Santa Anna walk to the window and look out, Johnny knew there wouldn’t be a decision here and now.
He set his glass on the closest table.
“Well, while you’re thinking on it, I’m going for a walk.”
Startled by the sudden announcement, the former President of México puffed out his chest and started to open his mouth.
As Johnny walked out of the room, Val held up a hand to silence the man.
“I’m going with him. You figure out what you want, and we’ll talk it over later… when ‘we’ get back.”
Estaban stepped forward. “Señor Crawford….”
Val stopped long enough to stare Estaban in the eyes. “You either want to hire us, or you don’t. I’m not saying Johnny’s not open to negotiations, but …. well, His Excellency over there is asking a lot.”
Estaban looked over his shoulder at his Patron and then back at Val. “Does that mean, Señor, you are open to negotiations on your fee?”
Val gave Estaban a slight smile before turning and heading for the door. He found Johnny standing in the hallway, waiting for him.
“Where we going?”
Johnny looked toward their rooms.
“We need to talk.”
“Lead the way.”
Johnny walked down the hallway. Opening the bedroom door, he ushered Val inside. Once the door was closed, Johnny strode to the bed and flopped down on his back, his arms outstretched.
Val leaned against one of the posts on the four-poster bed.
“That was quite a show you put on in there.”
Johnny grinned at his friend.
“You really think he’s gonna pay a fourteen-year-old up and coming gunhawk five hundred dollars? Let alone throw in another five in for me?”
Johnny laughed. “Naw, I’m just playing with him. Antonio likes his games. Hell, Val, that man is a master at negotiation and intrigue.
“So how much do you think he’ll offer us, if he does?”
Johnny sat up. “Oh, Antonio will mull it over and come back somewhere around $150.00 for you and less for me. He’s still looking at me as the kid he used to know.”
Val shook his head. “No way, I’m riding that far into México and face down Maximillian’s Army for $150.00.”
“Wouldn’t expect you to, and I’m sure not gonna do it.”
Val smiled. “So, Señor Madrid, how much do you think we’re gonna settle on?”
“I don’t know. It’ll take us at least two weeks to get there and another two to get back. That is if nothing goes wrong. We usually get ten a day, but this ain’t a regular gun job. I got a feeling we’re gonna run into trouble.
“I need a drink,” Johnny suddenly announced and jumped to his feet. “You want to go to the cantina with me?”
“A little early, ain’t it?”
Johnny shook his head. “I need to get out of here.”
Johnny saw the scowl on Val’s face.
“Don’t give me that look.”
Val crossed his arms over his chest and planted his feet apart.
“You’re too young to drink. I done told you that more than once.”
Johnny humphed. “I’m too young for a lot of things.”
Turning and walking to the door, he called over his shoulder, “Well, you coming?”
“Alright, we’ll go to the cantina, but later. First, I want to see some of Corpus Christi. I ain’t never been here before.”
“Alright, then come on.” Johnny grinned. “I know where everything is.”
Smiling at the boy’s enthusiasm, Val put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Oh, and when we get to the cantina, you get one beer, nothing else. Don’t think I forgot about the tequila this morning.”
Johnny didn’t respond or slow down. Stepping into the courtyard, the guards at the gate opened it to allow them to pass. Once outside, Johnny stopped and looked back. Val was right behind him.
A slight breeze stirred the dust around their feet as they walked the dirt road. Suddenly Val stopped, taking a few moments to look around.
Once they cleared the hacienda, Val could see why Estaban chose the house for Santa Anna. Nestled in a small cove, it backed onto the Bay of Corpus Christi’s clear blue waters. The view of the Bay, with sailing ships lying at anchor, was breathtaking. The private beach behind the house provided not only seclusion but also made it easy to protect.
Johnny stopped and walked back to stand next to his friend. “Pretty, ain’t it?”
“It sure is.”
Johnny pointed to the beach. “I used to play down there. Loved the water. Mama didn’t like me going in, though. She was afraid I’d go out too far and drown.”
The sound of laughter from further along the beach drew their attention. Three young boys were running along the water’s edge, dodging in and out of waves as they swept ashore. All three were Mexican and looked to be Johnny’s age.
Val glanced down at Johnny. It was hard to imagine this boy running through the waves and laughing. He tried to remember the last time he’d seen Johnny that relaxed.
Thinking back to San Marcos, Val remembered the few times he’d seen Johnny outside the school during lunch or recess.
One day he’d been in town to get supplies and noticed the children in the schoolyard. Figuring it was their lunchtime, he looked hard to see if he could see Johnny. Finally, he’d spotted the boy sitting under a tree, watching the others laughing and playing. Johnny hadn’t joined them. Instead, he watched his classmates and scanned the yard and street just as he always did when he was expecting trouble.
A sudden sadness swept over the older man. Johnny hadn’t had a childhood to speak of, and what little he did have was always marred by pain and violence.
Johnny looked up at Val with a hopeful smile on his face.
“Think maybe we could go for a swim down there sometime before we leave?”
Val threw an arm around Johnny’s shoulder. “I’d like that. Been a long time since I got to swim in an ocean.”
The sound of the three young boy’s laughter still lingered in the air as Val and Johnny walked toward town.
Val and Johnny spent the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon exploring Corpus Christi’s streets and then the harbor. It was Val who finally declared he needed a beer.
That’s all Johnny needed to hear.
“It’s about time. It’s this way.”
“This cantina far?” Val asked, taking extra steps to catch up with Johnny.
“Not too far.” Johnny looked over his shoulder. “Come on, Val. Keep up.”
A fast five-minute walk brought them to a small alley. Johnny quickly turned left and cut through to another street that ran parallel to the first. From there, all they had to do was follow the sound of a Spanish guitar.
The small cantina was full of laughing men, the music lively and loud.
Val’s eyes were on the single woman in the center of the room who bobbed and spun, her dance tantalizing not only Val but every man in the room. When her eyes locked on Val, a smile spread across her face and she moved closer to him.
“Now, this is my kind of place.”
Johnny laughed. “Thought you’d like it.”
Val was still watching the dancer as Johnny grabbed his arm and pulled him across the room. The older man couldn’t take his eyes off the woman even as Johnny pushed him into a chair.
As the young woman twirled and swayed, it brought back memories to both Johnny and Val. In their mind’s eye, they each saw another young woman; a mother to one and a lover to the other. She’d been a woman who enchanted every man who saw her, from Presidents to peons, from ranchers to pistoleros. They all wanted her, and for a short time, she would allow them to have her.
But for Maria it was never about the men who loved her; it was all about the dance. Once the music stopped, the dance ended, she was as smoke, vanishing as quickly as she’d come. Always leaving and never once looking back or caring about the ones left behind or the pain she’d caused.
For now, they forgot about Maria as the dancing continued. The men in the cantina laughed and cheered, clapping their hands to the ever-increasing rhythm of the music.
The young woman dipped and turned in circles, her heels tapping against the floor, hands snapping castanets together over her head. The skirt she wore was bright red with yellow and green trim, and as she twisted and turned, it arched higher and higher, showing her legs and then her thighs.
Johnny turned his head to look at Val.
A grin on the older man’s face made him look younger than he was, not that Val was that old.
Johnny thought for a moment, wondering just how old his friend was. He tried to remember what Val told his Mama when they lived together, but the memory wouldn’t come.
It made Johnny feel good to see the smile on Val’s face. Johnny could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen Val happy, really happy.
Since they’d been reunited in Tucson almost two years ago, Val seemed to spend all his time watching out for him. That sure wasn’t anything to make him smile.
Turning to look at the woman again, Johnny wondered if he should give his friend some time alone tonight. Time just for himself while not having to worry about watching out for a fourteen-year-old boy who seemed to find trouble around every corner.
Finally, the dance ended, and the dark-haired woman bowed before retreating behind a beaded curtain. The spell she’d held over the room faded.
Val was laughing when he looked at Johnny.
“Yes, sir, I like this place. These folks know how to have a good time.”
The bartender approached the table, asking what they wanted.
“Dos cervezas,” Val answered, trying to be heard over the sounds of the cantina. (dos cervezas- two beers)
The bartender looked at Val and nodded, then took a good look at Johnny.
“Señor, the nino….”
“It’s alright, Amigo. Just bring the beers.”
Hesitantly, the man glanced at the guns on his customer’s hips and nodded. “Si, Señor, dos cervezas.”
Johnny took his hat off and put it on the table. Once the beers arrived, Val and Johnny sat back and relaxed.
“Thanks for the beer.”
“You’re welcome.” Val cut his eyes toward Johnny as he took a quick sip of the cool liquid. “Enjoy that one cause that’s all you’re getting. I still ain’t forgot about that drink back at the hacienda.”
“Come on, Val, I said one’s enough, and I meant it.”
Val leaned back in his chair. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something. I noticed last night His Excellency had a slight limp and earlier in the study, it looked like he was dragging his left foot a bit.”
“He’s got a fake leg.”
“Sebastián told me Antonio lost his leg back in ‘38 when a cannonball exploded close to him. They had to take it off below the knee. He had a replacement leg carved out of wood and cork and then fitted with a leather boot to match the one he lost. There aren’t many who’ve seen him without it.”
“You ever seen it?”
“Once.” Johnny blushed and cleared his throat. “I walked in on Mama and him while they … well, the only thing I really saw was the leg. It was leaning against a chair. Trust me, that was the last time I went in his room looking for her.”
It was Val’s turn to blush. “I remember you had a habit of walking in when you weren’t supposed to.”
Johnny dipped his head at the memory. “Yeah, I remember. Never did it again, did I?”
Val shook his head and laughed.
“Val, can I ask you something?”
“Sure, don’t mean I’m gonna’ answer, but you can ask.”
Johnny nodded. “Fair enough.”
When Johnny went back to his beer, Val growled, “Well, what’s your question?”
“How old are you?”
Val leaned forward, caught off guard.
“What brought that on?”
Johnny shrugged. “Just wanted to know. You know how old I am.”
“True. Guess it’s only fair you know how old I am too. I’m 27 last July.”
“The 2nd. July 2nd.”
Johnny frowned. “I missed your birthday. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Val laughed. “I’ve never been one for celebrating birthdays.”
“You celebrated mine last June.” Johnny frowned. “Course wasn’t real sure it was my birthday anyway.”
“I know, but it’s the only date I knew. You’re Mama wasn’t forthright on telling me your real birthday or even how old you were.”
No matter how many times Val asked, Maria always refused to tell him how old the boy was or what day he was born. Val decided he’d celebrate it on June 3rd, the day he’d met the kid for the first time.
“That’s right.” Val went back to his drink but kept glancing at Johnny. The boy was deep in thought.
“I’m 14 and you’re 27.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Yeah, so what’s bothering you?”
Johnny was afraid to voice what he was thinking. Val was 27 years old. In gunfighter years, he was ancient. The sudden realization that the man he called Papi was only 13 or 14 years older than him gave him pause. Val wasn’t old enough to be his father, more like a big brother. He started to push the thought away and stopped himself. Yes, Val was like a big brother, but he was also the only father he’d ever known. It didn’t matter how old Val was. All that mattered was he was there for him now, and Johnny knew he always would be.
“Nothing.” Johnny smiled. “It’s just you’re really old.”
Val laughed, then slapped the back of Johnny’s head with his hat. “Smart ass. I’m not too old to lay you over my knee if I need to.”
Johnny laughed, “Like that’s ever gonna happen.”
“Keep it up and you’ll find out.”
Johnny raised his hands in surrender. “Alright, I give. I won’t say anything about how old you are again.”
Relaxing, they went back to their drinks. Johnny was still thinking about the age difference when Val’s voice startled him.
“Well, what are we going to do?”
Johnny gave him a confused look.
“About the job? What are we going to do?” Val leaned back in his chair again.
“Depends on how much we finally agree on.” Johnny mimicked Val’s movement.
“Yeah, about that…” Val took another sip. “Sounds like it’ll be an easy enough job. All we have to do is get the man to his meeting, and then we’re done.”
Johnny nodded. “Sounds easy, but I don’t like the idea of going the long way around through Brownsville and Matamoros. Wonder what that’s about anyway?”
Val didn’t respond.
“And I ain’t forgot about that ambush the other day. If Juaristas are trying to stop Antonio from meeting Juárez, then how do we know they won’t try again?”
They were silent for several minutes, each in their own thoughts, enjoying the beer. The guitar player started playing again. This time it was a soft melody. The noise inside the cantina quieted a bit, making it easier to think and to talk.
“You want to take the job then?”
“No, not really. Damn.” Johnny cursed and stared at his beer. “I wish I knew what to do. It just goes to prove you can never get away from your past. It follows you around like a shadow. Who would have thought after all this time, Santa Anna would come back into my life?”
“He acts like you owe him something. Do you?”
Johnny shook his head. “No, I don’t owe him anything. He might think so because of Mama, but …”
“I don’t remember much about the night we left Corpus Christi, but Mama was sure Antonio was going to send Estaban after us. We hid out for a long time, but he never came.”
“Why’d she think he’d come after her?”
“Because of what she took.”
“What’d she take?”
“Money. Lots of money and a whole lot of jewelry. I guess she thought they meant more to Antonio than they did.”
Johnny scanned the room, trying to look at the faces of the men still laughing and drinking. His eyes fell on three men sitting at a table on the far side. They kept glancing his way.
Going back to his beer, Johnny kept his eyes on the men while he and Val talked.
“You think you can work for him? I mean, after what he put you through when you were a kid.”
“I didn’t like him then, and I don’t now, but business is business. You taught me that. He’d be paying us to do a job, and that’s all.”
“True, but still…”
He stopped as one of the men from the table across the room stood up and started towards them.
“You been watching them?”
Johnny gave him a slight nod. “Yeah, I’ve been watching them. Wonder what they want?”
“They don’t look like gunhawks.”
“No, that’s for sure.”
As the man got closer, Johnny could see he was a middle-aged Mexican with a mustache, wearing a traditional loose-fitting white cotton shirt and pants. A multi-colored serape covered his upper torso. On his feet were sandals that were usually worn by peons.
Stopping a few feet from the table, the man lowered his eyes and spoke softly, “Señores.”
Val looked at Johnny, wondering which of them was going to answer. Finally, Val spoke up, “Can we help you, Señor?”
The man raised his eyes and looked at Val and then turned his head to Johnny.
“Señores, mi amigos, have been talking and …well, we wanted to know if….”
The man hesitated and looked over his shoulder at his friends. Val could see them motioning for him to go on.
“Señores, mi compadres want to know if you are…?”
“Are who?” Johnny asked.
“If you are Johnny Madrid?”
Johnny kept a straight face. “Quién quiere saber?” (Who wants to know?)
“No one of importance, Señor. We have heard Señor Madrid is in Corpus Christi.” The man’s eyes fell to the gun on Johnny’s hip.
Johnny looked at Val and shrugged. “Si, soy Johnny Madrid.” (Yes, I’m Johnny Madrid)
The man looked over his shoulder again and nodded to his friends. Val and Johnny could see the other two men smiling.
“What do you want?”
“Señor Madrid, it is said you are working for Presidente Santa Anna. Es verdad?” (Is it true?)
Johnny glanced at Val, not sure which answer to give the man.
“I haven’t made up my mind.”
Seeing the man didn’t understand, Johnny said, “No, todavía no he aceptado el trabajo.” (I have not taken the job yet)
“Por qué no?” (Why not)
Johnny sighed. “It isn’t that easy, Señor. There’s much to consider.”
“Si no has dicho que no, entonces todavía hay esperanza. Aún hay esperanza. Nuestro país necesita al Presidente Santa Anna. México lo necesita.”
(If you haven’t said no, then there is still hope. Our people need President Santa Anna. México needs him.)
Johnny looked at Val.
“You understood what he said?”
“Señor….” Johnny stopped, lowering his head, not knowing what to say. Obviously, there were strong feelings about Santa Anna returning to México from both sides. “Señor, I have to do what is best.”
“Si, Señor Madrid, pero mejor para quién?” (but best for who?)
The man turned around and went back to his friends.
Johnny pushed back from the table; the remainder of his beer forgotten. Standing, he grabbed his hat and started for the door. Low murmurs swept over the room, all eyes on him. It wasn’t until he was at the door that he heard his name spoken ever so softly in the whispers. He stopped and turned to glare at the patrons of the cantina. There was instant silence.
When Val joined him at the door, Johnny turned and stepped into the street. Putting his hat on, he pulled it down over his eyes and started walking back to the hacienda.
They had gotten as far as the alley before Val said anything.
“I…,” Johnny stopped and took a deep breath. “Damn, all I wanted was one beer.”
“You got a beer.”
“I didn’t get to finish it.” He kicked a rock with the toe of his boot.
“Still, you got a beer.” Val chuckled at the frown on the boy’s face. “Come on, let’s get back.”
Strolling through the alley to the main street, they retraced their steps back to the hacienda. They were within a few hundred feet of the main gate when Johnny changed direction and cut between two houses. Val followed him down to the beach.
The young gunfighter picked up a stone and skipped it across the water before sitting in the sand to watch the waves. Val sat next to Johnny and stretched out his legs. They could see Santa Anna’s armed guards watching them from atop the walls surrounding the hacienda to their right.
“What am I going to do?” It wasn’t unusual for Johnny to ask for his advice, but Val had never seen the young man so undecided.
Not answering right away, Val knew his answer would guide Johnny’s decision and their fate in the coming days. It was a responsibility he didn’t take lightly.
Looking out over the Bay, it was hard to believe just across the peaceful waters was another country at war with itself. On one side of the conflict were the French invaders under Emperor Maximillian; on the other, the citizens of México under President Benito Juárez. In the middle, at the moment, was Antonio de Lopez Santa Anna. A man who was loved by many, hated by most, and trusted by none.
When Val spoke, his voice was soft and calming, “Have you ever wondered what it would be like if we just get on our horses and ride away? Head west?”
Johnny followed Val’s eyes to the sight of a rapidly setting sun. The blazing glow of the golden orb seemed to sink into an ocean that was now bright red and orange.
“We could go west to California, settle down, hang up our guns.”
“What would we do?” Johnny’s reply was just as soft, his eyes still on to the intricate beauty of nature.
“I don’t know.” Val tossed a pebble into the waves and shrugged. “Maybe find a piece of land and start a horse ranch. You’re good with horses.”
“You’d make a good rancher.”
Val nodded. “Yeah. It’d be nice not to have to look over our shoulders anymore. You could go back to school.”
Johnny pulled his legs close to his chest and wrapped his arms around them.
“I liked going to school.”
Val smiled. “I know you did. Looking at Johnny again. “I want to see you grow up, get married someday, and have a bunch of kids.”
“That sounds real nice.” Johnny turned his head to look at Val. “They’d call you Abuelo.”
Val laughed. “Imagine me a Grandpa.”
“Yeah, that would be nice.” Johnny sighed. “It’s a nice dream, isn’t it?”
Silence followed as the sun dipped below the horizon.
Johnny broke the silence. “It’s never gonna happen, is it?”
“We could make it happen.”
“No, we can’t and you know it. There’s always going to be a shadow of one kind or another following me. An old bruja told me once I had the Devil following me. That when I looked over my shoulder, it’d be the Devil’s shadow I was seeing. I’ll spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, trying to get away from it.”
“You don’t believe that, do you?” Val put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.
“I don’t know, but it sure seems like whatever’s following me ain’t gonna let me go and live in peace anywhere.”
Taking a deep breath, he ran a hand over his face. “So, what do we do?”
“Can you walk away?”
“From Santa Anna?”
“I don’t think so. It’s not Santa Anna I’d be doing it for this time. It’d be for the people in México. The people who believe in him. If there’s even a chance he could make a difference against Maximillian, then he needs to be there.”
“Then you’ve answered your own question.”
Johnny nodded. “Guess so.”
“We could head to California after this is over. You’re still building a reputation. It’s not too late to give it up.”
“I’ve worked hard, Val. I’m good.”
“I know you are, and that’s the sad truth of it. You’re fast and getting faster all the time. There aren’t many who can stand up to you right now. I can only imagine how fast you’ll be with a few years and more experience under your belt. That doesn’t mean…”
“I’m not ready to give it up.” Johnny cut him off.
Val hesitated. “You like the power the gun gives you?”
“That and the respect that comes with it.”
“Hijo, there’s a difference between respect and fear.”
“I know there is,” Johnny snapped, then lowered his voice. “I know, but I’ve spent my whole life being treated like dirt. I’ve been spit on and beaten up all because…because I have blue eyes. I’m a mistake…”
“You aren’t a mistake. I don’t….”
“The hell I’m not. I’m a result of ….” Johnny took a deep breath. “Murdoch Lancer and my Mama should never ….” Burying his head in his folded arms, Johnny shook his head. “I’m tired of being a punching bag because I had a gringo father and a Mexican mother. Tired of being called a mestizo. If my gun keeps people from treating me that way, then so be it.”
Everything Johnny said was true; there was no way to respond to him.
From behind them, they heard the sound of men coming down from the hacienda—each of them carrying torches. Val gave Johnny a questioning look.
“They light up the beach at night. It makes it easier for the guards to see if anyone is out here.”
“Did you used to swim out here at night?”
Johnny smiled. “Yeah, I did. I’d sneak out here and swim in the dark. It was scary as hell, but that was part of the fun.”
They were quiet for a few minutes.
“So, we’re taking the job?”
Johnny slowly nodded. “Yeah.”
“So, how much are we going to ask?”
“We’ll work it out, but I’m telling you right now it won’t be ten dollars a day. He came looking for me. He’s going to pay.”
“Yeah, he’ll pay,” Val laughed, “but we’re still taking the job.”
Johnny turned his head and looked at Val, his face now lit by the glowing light of the torches the servants carried.
“I guess we are.”
“Alright, you ready to go in and talk to el jefe?”
“Not yet. I think I’ll sit here a while longer. You go ahead. I’ll be in soon.”
Val stood up and brushed the sand from his pants.
“I’d feel better if you’d come with me.”
Johnny shook his head. “I’ll be alright. You go on. I’ll come inside in time to change for dinner.”
Val laughed. “You really gonna dress up tonight?”
“I might. Now go on.”
The servants planted their torches in the sand and turned back to the patio. As the beach came alive with light, Val reluctantly walked up the slope towards the hacienda.
Johnny looked over his shoulder, making sure Val was still going. With a grin on his face, he toed off his boots and rolled up his pants, then unbuttoned his shirt, pulled it off, and laid it on the sand next to his hat. Standing, he unstrapped his gun belt, put it on the shirt, and waded into the waves.
Santa Anna stood on the hacienda’s rear portico overlooking the Bay, a drink in his hand. He’d been watching the two pistoleros sitting on the beach since he was alerted of their return. Estaban stepped out of the house and moved to stand next to him.
“Will he help us, Estaban?”
“I can’t answer that, Excellency. He is muy obstinado. I have never met anyone as stubborn as he.”
“Si. You would expect it, no? He has grown into a handsome young man.”
“He looks like his Madre. In every way except his eyes.”
Santa Anna turned to face Estaban.
“Our men were in the cantina?”
Estaban smiled. “Si, Mateo did as we said.”
“How did Juanito respond?”
“He said he would do what was best.”
“Que? Best for who?”
“That is what Mateo asked. Jua…Johnny did not answer him.”
Santa Anna laughed. “Si, I must remember to call him Johnny.”
“They are coming in,” Estaban remarked when Val turned and started walking toward the house.
Waiting for Val to reach him, Santa Anna continued to watch Johnny sitting on the beach.
“Look,” Estaban pointed as a barefoot Johnny walked into the water. “I think there is still a little of the nino in him.”
Santa Anna smiled. He had vivid memories of the small raven-haired boy running into the waves and darting out again. The child’s laughter had made it all the way to the hacienda. Maria would rush out and yell for the young one to come away from the water. Still, the boy would bravely dash back into the waves, ignoring his mother.
Val had almost reached the portico when sounds of laughter and singing lilted from the east end of the beach.
“Estaban!” Santa Anna turned to his aide.
“I see them, Patron.”
“Send some men to make sure they stay off the beach.”
“Me haré cargo de ello.” (I’ll take care of it)
Johnny enjoyed the peace that came with the sound of the waves lapping on the shore. He’d always liked this beach. Some of his happiest times in Corpus Christi were on the beach. Now, wiggling his toes in the wet sand and feeling the warm salt water against his legs, those happy memories rushed at him like the waves.
Upon hearing the sound of the approaching men, his hand went to his hip. He was hit by a sudden sinking feeling realizing he’d left his gun belt on the beach.
Four men staggered along the water’s edge, laughing and singing. It was obvious they’d had too much to drink. As they came closer, Johnny thought it best he head back to the hacienda. Coming out of the water, he hurried to where he’d left his things.
“Señor,” one of the four men called out to him in a drunken voice. “Señor, wait.”
Johnny stopped and turned to look at the men, who kept stumbling along, barely keeping themselves on their feet. As they got closer, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up.
Glancing toward the hacienda, Johnny wondered if the guards had seen the men.
The light from the torches and now the rising moon helped him to see the men’s faces. Reaching down, Johnny picked up his gun belt and strapped it on.
“Señor, you’ve had too much to drink. This here’s a private beach. You need to go back.”
The men looked around as if confused as to where they were.
“Que?” the question was slurred.
There was something about the man’s voice that sent warning signals to Johnny’s brain. The four men weren’t Mexican. They looked like gringos, but the man’s accent wasn’t Mexican or Texican.
Johnny picked up his shirt, hat, and boots in his left hand and backed away. When the men didn’t move forward, he started to relax.
The sudden impact of someone ramming him from the back took his breath away. Landing face-first in the sand, the things in his hand went flying.
Stunned only for a moment, Johnny struggled to his feet, only to be tackled again. The new assault came from the front by one of the four men who’d walked along the beach.
A knife blade flashed in the light of the torches. Johnny kicked at the man holding the knife and heard a grunt of pain. His satisfaction was short-lived when a second man jumped on top of him, throwing a bunch.
Kicking out again, Johnny managed to get to his feet as the man brandishing the knife took another swipe at him. Johnny ducked and weaved away but not before the blade sliced through the skin on his left arm.
Finally, able to reach his gun, he pulled it and fired. The knife-wielding man fell face down at the water’s edge.
Turning, Johnny aimed at the next man starting towards him. Breathlessly he yelled, “Stay where you are.”
The man took no heed and kept coming.
Johnny fired again, his shot going wide as someone tackled him, his Colt knocked from his hand. Another man was on top of him before he had a chance to recover.
Shots rang out. The four remaining men saw Val and the sentries rushing toward them from the hacienda.
“Laissez le,” one of the men ordered. “Courir.” (Leave him. Run)
The others started to run when the man giving the orders delivered one final punch to Johnny’s jaw.
Feeling like a sledgehammer had hit him, Johnny crashed backward into the water. Floundering in the ever-increasing waves, he came up sputtering, trying to catch his breath. Black spots danced in front of his eyes as another wave rushed over his head. The waves rolled out and Johnny felt his body pulled down and away from the shore.
Fighting to come to the surface, Johnny opened his mouth, gasping for air to have it filled again with water. Another wave hit, knocking him down, the undertow pulling him further from the shore.
Unable to catch his breath, Johnny’s world went dark. He never felt the hand grabbing the back of his shirt.
Val saw Santa Anna and Estaban waiting for him as he approached the hacienda’s back patio area. He didn’t want to talk to ‘His Excellency’ until Johnny was with him.
He could understand Johnny’s internal conflict about working for Santa Anna. His earlier experiences with the man would shadow them as they made their way south to meet Juárez. Taking a deep breath, he wondered whether they were doing the right thing by taking the job.
Val was ready to step onto the patio’s paved surface when the sound of drunken voices caused him to turn around. His eyes went to Johnny. The sight of the boy wading into the water made him smile. Maybe they would go swimming tomorrow.
Hearing the men talking to Johnny, he couldn’t make out the words. It was only when Johnny left the water and started back to get his boots that Val realized his friend had taken off his gun.
Slowly, he started retracing his steps back to the beach, breaking into a run when he saw a man come out of the shadows and plow into Johnny, knocking him to the ground.
Cursing the sand slowing him down, all Val could think about was getting to the boy as fast as possible. Behind him, he could hear Estaban yelling orders to his men.
Several of Santa Anna’s guards fired at the retreating attackers.
By the time Val got to the water’s edge, he could see Johnny struggling to get to his feet as one wave after another knocked him down and pulled him further from the shore.
Stripping off his gun belt, Val dropped it on the sandy beach before splashing into the water. It only took four long strides before reaching the floundering boy.
Grabbing for Johnny, he missed as a wave crashed over them both, knocking him backward and pulling Johnny further away and then down. Val regained his footing and launched himself into the waves. Reaching out with his right hand, he was able to grab Johnny by the back of his shirt and then lift his head out of the water.
Estaban was only a few steps behind Val as he too hit the water on a run.
Val lifted Johnny’s left arm while Estaban grabbed his right. Together they fought the waves, dragging the limp body to the shore.
While the guards chased after the four men, Val and Estaban laid Johnny on the sand.
“Johnny!” Val slapped ice-cold cheeks. “Come on, boy.”
When he got no response, he looked toward the house.
As if reading Val’s mind, Santa Anna turned to Sebastián. “Send one of the men for Doctor Cardenas.”
Sebastián hurried away, leaving his Patron standing at the edge of the patio.
Shoots range out from the darkness.
A bullet skidded along the wet sand at Val’s feet. Trying to protect his friend, Val threw himself over Johnny. Another shot whizzed past Val’s head.
As quickly as it had started, it was over. Val raised his head and looked around. Santa Anna’s guards were returning empty-handed, having lost the four men in the darkness. Half of the guards went to the hacienda to protect their employer; the other half encircled Val and Estaban as they tended Johnny.
Val lifted Johnny’s arms above his head and lowered them, pumping air into his lungs. He repeated the procedure twice more before being rewarded with a gurgling cough. Val rolled Johnny onto his side, holding his head and allowing water to spill from his mouth.
Coughing, Johnny struggled to sit up while Val pushed him back down.
“It’s alright. We’re going to get you to the house.”
“I…,” Johnny coughed.
“Val…” Johnny collapsed in his friend’s arms.
“Señor Crawford, we need to get him inside.” Estaban stood and looked toward Santa Anna, still standing on the patio.
Val nodded. Pushing himself up, he reached down and lifted Johnny into his arms. Carrying him close to his chest, he whispered, “You’re going to be alright, hijo. Just relax.”
“Papi,” Johnny mumbled.
Johnny nodded into Val’s chest and went limp.
Water dripped from Estaban’s clothes and puddled around his feet. He’d helped Crawford get Madrid into the house and to his room. When His Excellency’s doctor arrived, he’d ushered him into the room. He’d wanted to stay, but the doctor insisted he leave. When the doctor made the same request of Crawford, the gunfighter made it plain he would not leave his partner for even a minute.
Sebastián entered and exited the room several times carrying pans of hot water and clean cloth. During those brief times the door was open, Estaban could hear Madrid retching.
Every time Sebastián passed Estaban tried to question the older man and each time received the same answer, “El medico terminará pronto.” (The doctor will be finished shortly.)
On the next pass, Sebastián stopped and looked at him.
“Señor Estaban, perhaps you should change your clothes. The doctor will finish when he finishes. Dripping water on my clean floors will not make the time go faster.”
“He is awake, Señor, but very sick. The doctor will tell you more. Now, go. I am sure His Excellency will want a report and you cannot present yourself to him as you are.”
Reluctantly, Estaban turned away and went to his room. He knew his Patron would be waiting for a report, but he had nothing to tell him. The guards had not captured the men who attacked Madrid, and Madrid himself was in no condition to give him any information. He feared it would be a long night.
Needing to see his young patient, Doctor Eduardo Cardena strolled along the path leading to his employer’s hacienda. He’d had little sleep the night before and was looking forward to a cup of Sebastián’s coffee.
Hours earlier, readying himself for bed, the 53-year-old doctor heard the sound of gunshots coming from the beach behind his home. Knowing who was guarding the area and the hacienda next to his, Eduardo expected his services would be needed.
He was already dressed and reaching for his medical bag when he heard someone pounding on his door.
“Doctor, por favor venga. Te necesitan en la casa,” one of Estaban’s men heaved, trying to catch his breath. (Doctor, please come. They need you in the house.)
Cardena didn’t need to ask which house. He, like Estaban Vargas, owed his existence and livelihood to the former President of México.
Eduardo Cardena began his career in 1836 at the age of 24 when he assumed his father’s position as the exclusive physician to then Presidente and General of the Armies of México, Antonio de Lopez Santa Anna.
Francisco Cardenas, Eduardo’s father, had been the physician of El Presidente for several years before accompanying His Excellency across the Rio Bravo into Texas.
Young and impressionable, the tall, handsome Eduardo was excited to be with his father on the trip. He remembered the Mexican Army’s impressive sight; thousands of men stretching out for miles, marching in formation.
The army advanced on the small Mission of San Antonio de Bexar on February 23, 1836. Reports from scouts told the General that the old Mission had less than 200 men inside its walls.
On the second day of the siege, a stray bullet from the Mission’s defenders ended Francisco’s life. Eduardo was immediately appointed to take his father’s place.
The events that followed were as if a dream. The General’s words were as clear today as they were then.
“We show no mercy, give no quarter, take no prisoners. An example must be made. No one will ever again dare question México’s rule; my rule.”
Eduardo hadn’t known the full extent of Santa Anna’s words but was soon to find out.
On the morning of the thirteenth day, the buglers and drummers began playing the battle song El Deguello. * Eduardo, like everyone else, knew this would be the end of the men in the Mission. Santa Anna declared no quarter, and after today no one would question his authority.
When the battle ended, all but a handful of the men, one woman, and one child inside the small Mission were dead. Except for one negro slave, all the men who survived were executed on Santa Anna’s orders and their bodies burned. While shocked, Eduardo couldn’t condone Santa Anna’s decision to kill the surviving men; he’d held his peace for fear he’d be among those to be shot.
Eduardo was relieved when the woman and her child, along with the slave, were released. Those who were allowed to live were sent back to Sam Houston with a warning that it was futile to stand against the Armies of México.
Spirits were high within the ranks of the Army after San Antonio de Bexar. They were still high on March 27, when at Goliad, another 300 prisoners were taken. As he had done in San Antonio, Santa Anna was merciless and ordered everyone put to death.
Days later, on April 21, the Armies of México met defeat at Sam Houston’s hands at San Jacinto. The General, along with Eduardo and Estaban’s father, Colonel Alejandro Vargas, and 730 men, were taken prisoner.
The first time he’d heard the name ‘Alamo,’ Eduardo was standing along side Alejandro, watching Santa Anna reluctantly sign a treaty recognizing Texas independence and promising never to fight in Texas again. That same day he learned that the campaign referred to by Mexican troops as the Battle of San Antonio de Bexar was known in Texas as The Battle of the Alamo. There was no doubt Santa Anna’s ‘take no prisoners’ approach was the reason he’d lost the war.
When Alejandro Vargas died in 1845, his son Estaban took his father’s place as Aide-de-Camp of the President.
All of their lives changed the next year, 1855, when the political tides of México changed. Benito Juárez replaced Santa Anna as Presidente and ordered him out of México and into exile.
Eduardo, Estaban, Sebastián, and a dozen men followed their Patron, leaving their beloved country behind.
Walking into the hacienda, Eduardo looked around. Seeing no one, he made his way down the hallway. As he neared Juanito’s room, he heard raised voices.
“I’m alright. I told you that. Now leave me alone.”
Eduard smiled. His patient must be feeling better.
When he’d arrived the night before, Sabastian pushed him into the young pistoleros room. At the same time, the old servant explained what had happened. He’d found Estaban and the gringo pistolero, still in wet clothes, trying to get the boy into bed.
“He was attacked on the beach.” Estaban looked up from the young man.
“Si, I know. Sebastián told me, now por favor, stand aside and let me see to him.”
Eduardo moved closer, trying to ease the gringo out of his way. Thankfully the man stepped back.
For over an hour, he tended the boy’s injuries and held his head while he retched over and over, expelling water from his stomach and lungs. Finally, the young man collapsed on the bed, exhausted.
The entire time the gringo stood silently to the side, watching his every move.
Eduardo spent another hour sitting by the boy’s bedside, watching his chest rise and fall.
“Is he gonna be alright?”
It was the first time the gringo had spoken.
Eduardo nodded. “Si. It is not the first time Juanito has tried to drink the water of the Bay.”
Val looked at the doctor and his brow furrowed.
“You knew him from before, didn’t you?”
“Si, I knew him. I treated his cuts and bruises many times.”
Val smiled at the thought. They sat quietly for a time before Val spoke again.
“You said he’d swallowed water from the Bay before.”
Eduardo nodded. “I remember the small boy who played in the waves while his mother stood on the shore, yelling for him to get out of the water. Juanito started laughing and lost his footing. A wave washed over him and pulled him under. One of the guards waded in and pulled him out.”
Eduardo looked at the expression on the gringo’s face. It was one of… he wasn’t sure, but he thought it was one of concern and love.
“He was alright, though?”
Eduardo smiled. “Si, he was alright. Well, until his mother and His Excellency disciplined him.”
The look on the gringo’s face changed to one of anger.
“Señor, you need to change clothes before you also become my patient. I will sit with Juanito.”
Looking down at his still wet pants, Val shrugged. “I guess you’re right.”
Standing, Val stood and walked to his bedroom, leaving the door between the rooms open so he could see Johnny’s bed.
Eduardo leaned back in his chair and looked again at the young man. Maria’s hijo. Yes, he looked like her. Sebastián had told him of Ju…Johnny’s return. He must remember to call him Johnny, Sebastián warned. He was also told the young man was now known as Madrid. That news had surprised him. He’d heard of the pistolero. It was hard to believe the little boy he’d known had grown into a pistolero.
He’d stayed only a while longer, making sure Johnny was sleeping before going back to his home and bed.
Now in the light of day, Eduardo stepped into the room and stopped. He took in the sight of the gringo trying to keep Johnny in bed.
“I told you…”
“I see nothing has changed, chico,” Eduardo said with a smile on his face.
Johnny and Val turned to look at the newcomer to the room.
“Doc!” Johnny grinned. “It’s about time you got here. Tell him I’m alright. There’s no need for me to stay in bed.”
The night before was still vivid in Val’s memory. By the time he’d gotten back to the hacienda with Johnny in his arms, the boy was semi-conscious. Blacking out completely the moment he was in bed, Johnny hadn’t regained consciousness until the doctor arrived.
“Dang it, boy, you almost drowned last night,” Val grouched.
“Yeah, I did, but that was last night. I’m alright now.”
Eduardo started to the side of the bed when he heard someone enter the room. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Sebastián carrying a tray. Following close behind was Estaban.
“I have broth for you, Johnny.” Sebastián set the tray on the nightstand.
“Oh, no. No broth. I want real food.”
“Hell, boy, less than six hours ago you were puking your guts out.” Val shook his head and put his hands on his hips.
Eduardo knew it was time he stepped in.
“Your friend is right. You were violently ill only a few hours ago. Your stomach will not tolerate any more than broth now. Drink it and if it stays down, I will have Sebastián get you something more. Now, let me see your arm.”
Not waiting for the protest he knew was coming, Eduardo sat on the edge of the bed and took Johnny’s arm. Unwrapping the bandage, he could see the fresh wound was only slightly red. Eduardo put his hand on Johnny’s forehead and nodded.
“No fever, but if my memory has not failed me, you tend to get a fever when you are hurt.”
“He still does.” Val piped up. “The boy can’t stub his toe that he don’t get a fever.”
Eduardo looked up at the gringo and saw the same concern he’d noticed the night before. Rewrapping the arm, the doctor reached for the cup of broth and handed it to Johnny.
“When can I get out of this bed?”
“What is all this noise?” The voice from the doorway caused everyone to jump. There was instant silence.
Eduardo stood, Estaban snapped to attention and Sebastián bowed slightly at the waist as Santa Anna strode into the room.
Stopping at the foot of Johnny’s bed. “I have asked a question.”
“I want…,” Johnny started.
“I know. You want out of bed. You never did as you were told. No matter how many times you were told to do something, you always wanted to do it your way.”
Santa Anna turned to look at the doctor. “How is he?”
“Much better than last night. The wound in his arm will need watching, but with care it will heal.”
Turning to Estaban, Santa Anna asked, “Do you know any more about who it was that attacked him last night?”
Estaban shook his head. “No, Excellency. We lost them in the darkness.”
“I know who they were.”
Everyone turned to look at Johnny.
“You know who it was?” Val asked.
“Yeah, I know and, Antonio, you got more problems than you thought.”
Everyone kept silent for a moment before Santa Anna asked, “Quién?” (Who?)
“What do you mean the French?” Val asked, frowning.
“Just what I said. The men who attacked me last night were French. I heard them talking.” Johnny stared at Santa Anna and let a faint smile ghost across his face. “You know that fee we were talking about yesterday? Well, it’s just gone up.”
Val gave Johnny a scathing glare. “Johnny, we need to talk about this. We’ve been attacked two days in a row. The first time the men were probably Juaristas and now the French. This job ain’t healthy.”
“How much do you want?” Everyone in the room turned to look at Santa Anna.
Johnny sat straight up in the bed. “What?”
“You heard me! How much do you want? I must get to Linares. Name your price, but I warn you, chico, I will pay only half up front. The rest will be paid when and if you have earned it.”
The challenge was clear.
Johnny nodded and threw back the sheet covering his legs. “Fair enough…Excellency, but I ain’t talking about this with me lying here. Let me get dressed and Val and me will meet you in the study.”
The challenge was accepted and His Excellency knew when he’d been dismissed.
“I’m gonna scout on ahead,” Johnny abruptly announced and, not waiting for a reply, spurred his horse. He was out of sight in less than a minute.
Val shook his head, wondering not for the first time or the tenth why the hell they were in México with what looked like a circus troupe strung out behind them.
Looking over his shoulder, Val took in the procession of horsemen and coaches. When they’d agreed to take the job of escorting Santa Anna to Linares, he hadn’t imagined it was going to be like this.
Behind him rode a cadre of six heavily armed vaqueros with Estaban in the lead. A black coach carrying Santa Anna and Eduardo came next. A wagon with everything Santa Anna would need for the trip followed the coach with a younger version of Sebastián sitting on the seat with another of the armed escort. Santa Anna had left Sebastián behind to tend to the hacienda in his absence. Bringing up the rear, six more of Estaban’s men, also heavily armed, rode two abreast.
Chuckling to himself, Val had to admit Johnny had pulled it off. He’d walked into the library of the hacienda fully clothed and armed.
When the final negotiations of payment were being discussed, Val let Johnny handle it. It wasn’t a long discussion. In the end, Johnny convinced His Excellency to up the ante to $750.00 U.S dollars, apiece, in gold. Half to be paid upfront.
When they got the first payment of $750.00, Johnny didn’t say a word until they were alone in Val’s room. With the door closed and the curtains drawn, Johnny turned to Val, eyes wide and a grin on his face.
“Can you believe it?” Johnny crowed.
“Damn, boy. No, I can’t believe you did it.”
Val marched across the room. Grabbing Johnny by the shoulders, he pulled him in for a brief hug. The two pulled back, still grinning but with a slight blush that ran up their necks to their faces.
Johnny cleared his throat. “Well, where are we gonna put this until we get back. There ain’t no way I’m taking it into México with us.”
Val smiled. “Ever hear of a bank?”
“Val, banks are alright, but I don’t trust any of them. Not in Texas with the war still going on. No, we need to figure something else out.”
They’d both sat on the bed, staring at the bag of gold coins in Johnny’s hand. Johnny turned his head to look at Val and then turned sideways and poured the coins out on the bed between them. Neither of them had ever seen so much gold at one time unless they were riding guard on a shipment.
They counted the coins twice, just to make sure they were all there. The way they figured it, even if they didn’t get the rest of their pay, this was more than either of them had ever seen at one time.
After bagging the coins again, Johnny suggested finding a safe place to bury the gold until they returned to Corpus Christi. Interestingly enough, Sebastián provided the answer—reminding Johnny of how he played near the courtyard’s outside wall.
“I’ve got the perfect place,” Johnny quietly announced.
That night after everyone was asleep, Val and Johnny eased out the front door.
“Where is this ‘perfect’ place?” Val asked, looking around the courtyard, lighted only by a few torches near the fountain.
“Over there.” Johnny pointed to a section of the wall covered with overhanging plants.
Kneeling on the red colored tiles, Johnny slipped a knife from his boot. While Val stood guard, Johnny pried a paving tile loose and then lifted it. Under the tile covered with a thin layer of dirt was a tin box.
Val glanced down, wondering what the box held. Johnny slowly opened it revealing his long-forgotten treasures – three cat’s eye marbles, a few seashells, a medallion given to him by the Priest at the Mission, and a faded picture of the Lady of Guadalupe he’d gotten when he was still with Val.
“I’d forgotten about these.” Johnny fingered them gently. He showed the box to Val with a faint smile on his face.
After a minute, Val whispered, “Hurry up!”
“You sure a hundred dollars is enough to keep out?” Johnny looked up at Val.
“Yeah, it’s enough. Now, hurry up before someone shows up out here.”
Johnny nodded. Taking one more look inside the box, Johnny left the items where they lay and put the gold inside. He put the box back into its hiding place and then replaced the tile and filled the cracks around it with dirt.
Standing, Johnny brushed the dirt off his pants and glanced around the courtyard.
“You’re sure about this?” Val asked.
“I’m sure. It’ll be safe until we get back.”
Three days later, they set out for México, going through Brownsville and crossing the border at Matamoros.
Santa Anna’s mysterious stopover in Matamoros delayed them only one day. Although they’d wondered about the layover, the two gunfighters didn’t question it.
After leaving Matamoros, they traveled to Reynosa and then cut south towards Linares. The two-hundred-mile trip would have taken them less than five days if it had just been him and Johnny. With the carriage and extra wagon, Val figured the trip would take at least ten days.
Santa Anna told them he was to meet with Juárez’s representative on April 30th. It was now April 13th. They had sixteen days to get to their destination—plenty of time.
Val turned forward, straining to see any sign of Johnny. The boy had been as prickly as a cactus since leaving Matamoros yesterday and Val wasn’t sure what the problem was.
Tonight, after they camped, Val planned to pull Johnny aside. It was time for a talk, not only about what was bothering him but also about his reading. Johnny hadn’t touched his books since before Corpus Christi.
“Señor,” one of the vaqueros called out and pointed ahead.
Val sighed in relief. Johnny was headed back.
Reining his horse in, Johnny fell in beside Val.
“There’s a place about five miles ahead we can set up camp. I marked it.”
Val turned in the saddle and motioned for Estaban. When Estaban joined them, Val pointed ahead. “Five miles and we set up camp. Johnny’s marked the place.”
Estaban looked at the position of the sun and nodded his agreement. “I’ll inform His Excellency and send the supply wagon ahead to make camp.”
Pulling his horse around, Estaban rode back to the coach, leaving Val and Johnny alone. A few minutes passed before the supply wagon pulled out of line with two vaqueros riding guard and moved ahead of the column.
Val looked at Johnny’s profile. Yep, he was still in a mood. Deciding not to wait until nightfall, Val asked, “You wanta tell me what’s wrong?”
Johnny didn’t say anything.
“I know something’s bothering you. You gonna tell me now, or do we pull over and let everyone pass and then we talk it out.”
Johnny shifted uneasily in the saddle. He knew Val wouldn’t let it go.
“Hell, I don’t know. Somethings not right. I just can’t put my finger on it.”
“Talk to me. Maybe we can figure it out.”
Making sure Estaban had taken his place in front of the carriage, Johnny reined his horse closer to Val’s.
“I heard something when I was in Brownsville yesterday.”
“Whoa.” Val pulled up suddenly on his reins. Moving to the side of the road, he waved the column to pass them. “Come on over here.”
Once they were alone, Val turned to Johnny. “Brownsville? Don’t you mean Matamoros?”
Johnny cleared his throat and looked away.
“Let me get this straight. You rode back to Brownsville? Do I want to know where you went?”
Johnny rolled his eyes. Val hated it when the boy rolled his eyes.
“Do you want to hear this or not?”
“It don’t look like the gringo war is going too good right now.”
“We already knew that.”
“Yeah, but I heard some men talking. They said there’s a rumor some Confederate General in Virginia surrendered about a week ago.”
“They say which General?” Val’s interest was piqued.
“Lee. They said it was Lee.”
Val was quiet. They hadn’t kept up with the war news over the years, but he’d heard of Robert E. Lee. If it was true and Lee had surrendered, then this war was coming to an end sooner than anyone thought.
“Val, I don’t know nothing about the war back east, but well… if it ends, do you think it will make a difference ….”
“Santa Anna’s going to talk to Juárez about helping against the French. From everything we’ve heard, the gringos in the North didn’t want to get involved in México’s war ‘cause they had their own war to worry about. If their war ends, do you think Juárez will still want Santa Anna around?”
“Why wouldn’t he?” Val asked.
“Hell, Juárez hates Santa Anna. I’m surprised he’s even considering letting him back in the country. Juárez might decide not to deal with Santa Anna if there’s a chance he can get help from someplace else. If the war is over in the North, maybe México can get help against the French from the Americans.”
Thinking for a moment, Johnny asked, “Did you ever find out who Antonio met with yesterday?”
“No. Wasn’t none of my business.”
“Don’t you think it’s strange….”
“Look, none of that’s our business. We need to get to Linares and see what Juárez has to say. All I want is the rest of our pay and get shed of His Excellency.” Val started to catch up with the wagons and stopped. Looking at Johnny, he said, “Don’t think we’re done talking about Brownsville.”
“You know I can take care of myself.”
Val huffed, “Right, and I’ve heard that before.”
“Don’t go there with me, boy.
Val strode back and forth, then stopped. Looking toward the jail and seeing no one headed his way, he went back to pacing.
The words ‘I can take care of myself’ kept repeating over and over in his mind.
For close to two hours, he’d waited for Estaban to get back with Johnny and Santa Anna’s guards. He wasn’t sure how much longer he was going to wait before going himself. Stopping for a moment, he lifted his gun from his holster, checked the chamber then holstered it. Another five minutes, that’s all the time he was giving them.
Today was the 30th of April. They’d made the deadline—a fat lot of good it did. The image of an unconscious Johnny being dragged away, while he stood helplessly by, was still vivid.
They’d ridden into Linares like they owned the damn town. Estaban led the procession with six of his vaqueros following, two abreast. Next came the black carriage with Santa Anna, acting as if he was still the ultimate ruler of México.
Val rode on the coach’s right side while Johnny stayed on the left, both gunfighters watching for trouble. Following behind were the other six vaqueros.
The crowds along the street were quiet at first, too quiet, Val thought. As more and more people realized who was in the carriage, they started cheering. The further they rode into town, Val relaxed, thinking maybe it would be alright after all.
The procession stopped in the town’s center. The crowd became quiet as the carriage door opened and Santa Anna stepped out with Estaban helping the former President to the ground.
Dressed in his best uniform, complete with medals, Santa Anna was all smiles. He raised a hand and waved to the people. They heard a few cheers and then the crowd grew quiet again.
Santa Anna’s smile vanished, and the expression on his face became pensive as he waited for Juárez’s representatives to greet him.
Val glanced at Johnny’s face and knew something was wrong or was about to be. He watched Johnny rein his horse so that he could see the crowd in front of their employer. Val stayed back, scanning the people on the other side of the coach. Estaban and his men dismounted, taking positions on either side of the former President.
It wasn’t long before the crowd parted, allowing several men to march forward. The man who appeared to be in charge stopped in front of Santa Anna and presented a hasty salute.
The first word out of the representative’s mouth didn’t bode well for the outcome of their visit.
“Señor, I am Coronel Sanchez.”
Val glanced at Johnny. Neither of them missed the fact Sanchez had addressed Santa Anna as Señor versus Excellency. He could see Santa Anna wanted to lash out and put the man in his place but decided otherwise.
That’s when Johnny dismounted.
Santa Anna hesitated a moment, stood straight and braced his shoulders.
“Coronel Sanchez. I expected….”
“Señor, I know you expected to be greeted by someone of higher rank, however….”
Sanchez didn’t finish when someone broke out of the crowd screaming, “Go back where you came from, Bastard. No one wants you here. Juárez does not want you here. We do not want you here. Down with Santa Anna.”
Soon a mantra began and was picked up by the crowd. “Abajo con Santa Anna. Desterrar a Santa Anna.” (Down with Santa Anna… Banish Santa Anna)
The woman, children, and meek eased away as the more aggressive protesters streamed forward, picking up the chant.
Val saw Johnny hurry forward, putting himself between Santa Anna and the growing angry mob. For that’s what it had become, a mob.
A man rushed forward with a club in his hand, raising it high over his head. Johnny’s left hand went up to block the downward blow. With his right hand, he shoved the man back.
A second man charged forward, throwing a punch at Johnny, who dodged the move. Spinning around, a moment of recognition registered on Johnny’s face before he threw his own punch.
As if on a signal, the crowd surged forward as the two men who’d started the fight retreated. Santa Anna’s vaqueros jumped into the fray.
Only Johnny noticed one of Estaban’s men, Lorenzo, speaking with the same two men now watching the fracas from the sidelines.
Val jumped from his horse, circled the carriage and moved to Santa Anna’s side. Taking the former President’s elbow, he pulled him back toward the coach.
Val turned in time to see the first man who had attacked raise his club again and then bring it down on the back of his friend’s head.
The maddening screams of the mob drowned out Val’s voice.
The local police waded in, pushing people back and hitting others with gun butts. Before Val could reach him, Johnny, along with Santa Anna’s guards, was being dragged away.
He and Estaban were the only ones left to provide Santa Anna protection. Juárez’s representatives made it to the sidelines and watched on with smiles on their faces.
That was two hours ago. Val had no idea where the boy was, only that he was anxious to have him back by his side.
The sound of voices drew Val’s attention. Spinning around, he spotted Estaban leading his twelve disheveled men. Craning his neck, Val looked past the men, eager to see Johnny’s face. There was no sign of him.
When Estaban didn’t respond, Val didn’t bother trying to calm his temper before shouting, “Estaban, where the hell’s Madrid?”
Estaban raised his eyes to look at the anguish in Val’s eyes.
“They would not let him go, Señor Crawford. They….”
“What do you mean they wouldn’t let him go? You got your men out. Why….”
Estaban raised a hand, silencing Val’s rant.
“What is going on here?”
Both men turned to see Santa Anna approaching. When neither man responded, Santa Anna spoke again, “Estaban, Qué está pasando?” (What is happening)
It was Val who answered, “Estaban got your men out of jail. He left Johnny there.”
Santa Anna turned on his Aide-de-camp.
“Is this true, Estaban, you left Juanito a prisionero?”
“Si, Excellency. El Comandante de la Policia granted the release of my… your men, but refused to release the pistolero.”
“He gave a reason?”
“He…” Estaban looked at Val and then back to Santa Anna. “He stated the pistolero assaulted several men and refused to release such a man. Señor Madrid will stand trial for his actions.”
“Trial?” Val’s voice boomed. “What kind of trial would he get here?”
Santa Anna turned his back on the two men thinking hard as to what he could do. Turning again, he looked at first at Val and then Estaban.
“Estaban, you will go with Señor Crawford to la cárcel (jail) and speak with el Comandante again. Explain that Señor Madrid is needed to protect my person.” As an added comment, Santa said, “I trust you to do what is necessary.”
Estaban snapped to attention. “Si, Excellency.”
With that, Santa Anna pivoted on his heels and walked away.
“Come, Señor Crawford, we will speak with el Comandante and get Señor Madrid out of that place.”
Twenty minutes later, Val and Estaban pushed their way through the crowded outer office of the jail. Dozens of voices, both men and women, were trying to be heard above other’s shouts.
Estaban tapped Val’s arm and pointed to a tall man dressed in a blue uniform standing at the back of the room surrounded by women, some with children clutching at their skirts, crying and begging for the release of their husbands and sons.
The Commandant saw Estaban motion to him. He nodded but stayed where he was, giving Val a chance to look around the room.
In one corner, Val spotted a mound of clothing. A red sleeve peeked out of the pile, catching his attention. Leaving Estaban’s side, pushing people aside, he marched across the room.
Bending down, Val uncovered Johnny’s red shirt. Picking it up, he pushed through the discarded clothing until he found a pair of black calzoneras with conchos.
Holding Johnny’s shirt and pants, he stood up and closed his eyes. Taking a deep breath, Val wondered if they’d changed him into prison clothes while he was still unconscious.
Starting to turn back to Estaban, Val’s eyes fell on another heap. This time it was a pile of shoes with one pair of well-worn boots tossed on top. Stooping down, he picked them up, adding the boots to the other items in his hands, thinking the entire time Johnny needed a new pair.
Estaban moved to see what Val was doing. On seeing what the gunfighter held, he knew they belonged to Madrid and that the guards had already changed the young pistolero into prison clothing.
Stepping forward, the Commandant looked at the items in Val’s hands and then at Estaban.
“Señor, you have your men and I have…”
“I want Madrid released. Now!” Val commanded.
The Commandant smiled. “I am Comandante Estrada and you are…?”
“Name’s Crawford. You have my partner in here and I want him released. You let the others go. Why keep Madrid?
“Señor Madrid is being charged with disturbing the peace and assault.”
“Assault. He’s the one who got assaulted.”
Estrada nodded slowly. “I can see your point of view, Señor, but the fact remains that Señor Madrid is a pistolero who used force against a citizen of Linares.”
“He was protecting himself and Santa Anna.”
“Perhaps you can testify at his trial and point that out, Señor Crawford. Until then, Madrid remains in la cárcel.” Estrada glanced at the items in Val’s hands. “I see you found his belongings. They will remain here until his release.”
“I’m taking his things with me to make sure he gets them back. I also want his gun and gun belt. It has… sentimental value and I want to make sure it stays safe.”
“Ah, si, his gun,” Estrada gave Val a slight smile. “It is an interesting weapon. I do not think I’ve ever seen one quite like it. It seems it was to made fit his hand perfectly.”
“That’s right, Comandante Estrada, his hand and no one else’s.”
Val glanced down at Estrada’s hand, knowing that’s where the gun would end up if left behind. There was no way he was going to leave without Madrid’s working gun.
The Commandant must have seen something in Val’s eyes, making him think twice because he walked over to his desk, opened a drawer, and picked up a gun belt. Examining the rig, Estrada held it out.
“Now, Señores, I believe our business is finished. I have other matters to tend to at this time.”
Estrada started to turn.
“I want to see him.”
Estrada looked back. “I think not,” he hesitated. “It is my understanding he is still…. how do you say…inconsciente, unconscious.”
Starting for the door, Val was mad, so mad he’d almost missed it. A man stood just inside the door wearing a hat he knew all too well. Stomping across the room, he reached up, jerked the hat from the man’s head, and gave him a look that dared him to say a word.
Outside the jail, Val stopped, trying to calm himself.
Estaban put a hand on his arm. “Señor…Val, we will continue to try to get him out, but I must attend to His Excellency.”
Val nodded. “I understand. You go ahead, Estaban, and…thank you.”
“You will find a place in town to stay until the trial?”
“Yeah, until the trial. You think I need to get Johnny a lawyer?”
“Si, he will need un abogado. I know of no one here who can help you.”
“That’s alright. I’ll find someone. You go ahead and see to His Excellency. I’ll be here for Johnny.”
Estaban nodded and started to walk away.
“Oh, and Estaban, I want the rest of our pay before Santa Anna goes anywhere. You understand?”
“Si, I understand.”
Val stared at the items clutched in his hands, then turned to look at the building where he knew his friend still lay unconscious, unaware of what was happening to him. Determined to find an attorney and get Johnny out of jail, he walked down the street, vaguely registering a passing carriage containing the man who’d gotten them into this mess in the first place.
Whispers. Whispers filtered through the cold fog surrounding his brain.
Johnny woke slowly, keeping his eyes closed, trying to figure out what his body was trying to tell him. Opening his eyes, the first thing that slammed into his consciousness was pain shooting through his head. Trying to focus, he registered both low light and odors that threatened to overwhelm his roiling stomach.
“Muchacho, you are awake.”
Johnny didn’t recognize the voice or the face of the older man who bent over him.
Slowly sitting up, he looked around, recognizing a jail cell when he saw it. He quickly laid back down, taking a deep breath and once again becoming overwhelmed by the smells of body odors and urine.
The older man laid a wet cloth on his forehead.
“Who are you?” Johnny slowly ground out. “What happened?”
“Ignacio. Mi nombre es Ignacio,” the man answered. “I’m not sure what happened to you.”
“We’re in jail, en la carcel?”
“Si, en la carcel.”
Shivering in the cool air, Johnny looked around the dingy confined space. It looked and smelled like others he’d been in over the years. There were at least nine men in the overcrowded cell.
“How long…have I been here?”
“Ayer.” The man sat back, watching the boy’s face.
Yesterday? Johnny’s hand went to the lump on the back of his head. He’d been in jail since the day before.
Johnny tried to remember what happened. He recalled riding into Linares with Val and Santa Anna’s entourage, remembered the fight, vaguely, remembered someone calling out his name, and then…nothing.
“What town are we in? Que pueblo?”
“Linares. Esto es Linares.” (This is Linares)
Well, at least he was still in the same town.
“What is your name, muchacho?”
Johnny took his time in answering.
“Madrid. Mi nombre es Johnny Madrid.”
There was a murmur of voices as the men recognized the name.
“Madrid, el pistolero?”
Johnny could see the surprise on the man’s face. Slowly he nodded, trying to keep the top of his head from coming off. Whoever hit him had done one hell of a good job.
“You got any water, agua, in here?” He looked around, hoping there was clean water somewhere in the cell. He’d been in Mexican jails before and knew that nine times out of ten, they only got water once a day if they were lucky.
“No aqua.” Ignacio shook his head. “It is not time.”
Scooting against the adobe wall, he leaned his aching head against the cool stone and realized for the first time he wasn’t in his clothes. Of course, they’d put him in prison clothes. A brief moment of panic overwhelmed him. He lifted his waistband and breathed a sigh of relief, seeing he was still wearing his cut off long johns.
“Muchac…Señor Madrid,” Ignacio opted for a more formal way of addressing him now that he knew who he was, “we heard the guards talking. They say you were with Presidente Santa Anna. Is that true?”
Again, Johnny took his time. He had no idea which side of the fence these men sat. Were they supporters of Juárez or Santa Anna, or worse, Maximillian? They’d already heard he was with Santa Anna; there was no sense in denying it.
“Si, I was with President Santa Anna. We, my partner and me, were hired to escort Santa Anna to meet with President Juárez.”
Johnny ran a hand over his face and through his hair, waiting to see which way the wind was blowing.
“Why would Presidente Juárez want to meet with Santa Anna?” someone asked as the other in the cell moved closer to listen.
Johnny looked at their faces. The men were all Mexican, ranging in ages from a young boy of around 12 or 13 to an older man Johnny guessed was close to 60. He wasn’t sure he should be talking about Santa Anna’s plans, but after what happened, he figured it didn’t matter anymore.
“Santa Anna offered to help Juárez against Maximillian.”
The men laughed. One or two of them spit on the ground in disgust.
“What’s so funny?”
The man shook his head. “We laugh because Presidente Juárez refused Santa Anna’s help.”
Johnny sat forward, surprised at the answer. Santa Anna was so sure Juárez would accept.
“How do you know that?”
“The Policia were sent by Presidente Juárez’s men. It was under their orders you were brought here yesterday along with Santa Anna’s personal guard.”
“Santa Anna’s men are here also?”
“No.” Ignacio shook his head. “They are no longer here. The head of Santa Anna’s guard came yesterday and his men were released. Juárez has ordered Santa Anna back across the border to el Estados Unidos.”
So, Juárez turned the old man down. That still didn’t explain why he was in a jail cell. He should be riding back to the border.
“Do you know if he’s gone back yet? I was supposed to stay with him until either Juárez accepted Santa Anna’s help or we got back to the United States.”
The men laughed again, and Johnny couldn’t help but wonder how anyone locked inside a jail cell could know what was happening on the outside.
Ignacio must have known what Johnny was thinking.
“My nephew, Diego, is a guard here. He told me Santa Anna and his men left Linares late yesterday, but he did not go to the north. No, Santa Anna went south toward San Carlos. Juárez has sent men to find him.”
“San Carlos? But why….?”
“No se.” Ignacio shook his head.
“What’s in San Carlos?”
Ignacio sighed and then looked at the other men in the cell before answering, “The Armies of Maximillian.”
Johnny leaned back again. Why the hell would Santa Anna knowingly go into French territory? Where was Val? Was he alright? Maybe he was in a cell here as well. He had too many questions and, again, no answers.
For the next two days, Johnny waited for someone to come to their senses and let him out. He’d done nothing illegal. Hiring out as a bodyguard wasn’t against the law on either side of the border.
Sitting with his back to the wall, his head resting on his knees, Johnny heard the outer doors open. The sound of footsteps brought his head up. A feeling of relief flooded over him when he saw Val standing on the other side of the bars.
Johnny was on his feet and across the cell in a heartbeat. His hands grabbed the bars and were instantly covered by Val’s.
“It’s good to see you, boy.”
Johnny nodded, swallowing hard.
“You don’t know, Val.”
Val gave Johnny a quick once over, not seeing any visible injury.
“Yeah, I do. You alright?”
Johnny’s hand automatically went to the back of his head.
“Got a lump on my head and a headache that don’t want to quit, but yeah, I’m alright. Val, what the hell’s going on? Why am I in here?”
When Val’s hand tightened over Johnny’s, he saw the boy smile.
Lowering his voice, Val glanced around the cell.
“I’ve tried to get you out, but they….” Val looked away and then back at Johnny. “They’re charging you with assault and disturbing the peace. The best I can figure is they’re pissed off at Santa Anna and anyone who was with him. The only reason I’m not in here is I didn’t throw any punches. Estaban got his men out, but they want someone to blame, to punish for Santa Anna coming.”
“So…what’s that mean? They’re charging me for defending myself?”
“There’s more….” Val lowered his head so that he was sure only Johnny could hear. “You know Santa Anna met with Juárez’s representative?”
“Yeah, before all hell broke loose.”
“After that, too. Juárez made it plain he wanted nothing to do with ‘His Excellency’ and ordered him back across the border.”
Johnny frowned. “Santa Anna was so sure Juárez would accept his help.”
“Well, that was before Juárez got word the war up North is all but over. You were right about Lee surrendering. After Lee, every General in the Confederacy started surrendering, too. It looks like Juárez is gonna get help from the United States, so he don’t need Santa Anna.”
“Just like we figured.”
Johnny stared down at the floor and then his head jerked up. “Where’s Antonio now?”
Val sighed, “Gone. After he got his men out of jail, he took off.”
Johnny shook his head. He should have expected it.
“He took off and left me to the wolves. Is that what you’re telling me?”
“I heard he went to San Carlos. I just don’t know why.”
Val cocked his head and gave Johnny a questioning look.
“You can get more information in here than you think,” Johnny answered with a slight smile.
“When Juárez turned him down, Santa Anna went straight to Maximillian. Word is he’s offered the Emperor the same deal he did Juárez.”
“You’re joking.” Johnny gave him a skeptical look. “So, you think Santa Anna’s been in touch with the French?”
“I don’t know. Santa Anna may be making it up as he goes.”
“Antonio never makes it up as he goes. He plans and schemes. I can see him playing both ends against the middle.” Closing his eyes, he remembered something.
“What is it?”
“One of the men that jumped me the square the other day… I’ve seen him before.”
“The beach behind Santa Anna’s hacienda in Corpus Christi.”
“One of the men who attacked you on the beach.”
“He was French?”
“There’s something else. I saw Lorenzo talking to them.”
“Lorenzo? You mean the vaquero who works for Estaban?”
“They followed us here. Why?”
“Hell if I know.” Then Johnny laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“I wonder what Antonio’s gonna say when he finds out one of his men is loyal to Maximillian?”
“Hell, I can’t keep up with who’s working for who. This is one hell of a mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.”
“Don’t you mean I’ve gotten us into?”
“I agreed with you.”
“Yeah, you did.” Johnny smiled. “I wonder what Maximillian said to Santa Anna?”
“Maximillian’s representative turned him down flat.”
“Juárez’s men caught up with him. They got orders to escort him back across the border.”
Johnny sighed. “So, he’s gone?”
“And me? What about…?”
“I don’t know. They’re telling me you go before the judge on Tuesday.”
“Tuesday? That’s what two more days?”
“Johnny, you’re sure about that man the other day being the one who was on the beach?”
“Someone’s gone through a lot of trouble to get you out of the way.”
“And you, too.”
“With me in here, whoever’s behind this, figures you’d stay close to me.”
“And leave Santa Anna unprotected.”
Nodding, Johnny repeated. “And leave Santa Anna unprotected.”
“Well, there’s no hope for it now. He’s gone, and I sure as hell ain’t leaving you. Santa Anna’s on his own. I guess that’s what both sides wanted from the beginning.”
From the doorway, they saw the guard staring at them. Val knew he didn’t have much time.
“They feeding you in here?” Val asked, changing the subject. Johnny had only been in jail for three days but already looked like he could stand a decent meal.
Recognizing the mother hen in Val, Johnny smiled. “Not so you’d notice. You couldn’t sneak something in, could you?”
“I would if I could, amigo. I was lucky to get in here myself. I tried to get you an attorney, but no one wants to take the case. They all know you were riding for Santa Anna.”
“Val, ….” Johnny started and then stopped, knowing there was nothing he could say.
“Gringo,” the jailer stepped through the outer door.
“Se acabó el tiempo.” (times up)
Val nodded. Looking back at Johnny, he said, “I’ll see you Tuesday. You behave yourself until then, amigo.”
“I’ll do my best. You stay out of trouble. We don’t want both of us in here.”
Johnny watched Val walk away. He’d been in jail before. How bad could it be? It wasn’t like he killed anyone.
The men in the small cell had nothing more to do than talk to each other. Johnny learned why each man was there. Most were jailed on simple charges of assault, intoxication, or disturbing the peace.
The youngest, 12-year-old Bernardo, was arrested for stealing food. Johnny could relate to the boy as he had spent more than one night in jail for doing the same thing.
The oldest man, in his sixties, had killed a storekeeper while trying to rob him.
He’d tried to find out what kind of verdicts the local magistrate handed down. Johnny figured there would be a fine and some jail time but was disturbed to hear the judge wasn’t consistent in his rulings. Bottom line, it was a crapshoot.
At first, it was nothing more than a slight rumble. Soon the rumbling grew louder and the men in the cell could feel the ground shake.
Johnny stood up and strained to see out of the small window high on the wall. Ignacio came to his side.
“Señor, I will lift you. Perhaps you can see what is happening.”
Ignacio interlaced his fingers and held them for Johnny to step up. Johnny placed his left foot in the cupped hands and grasped the man’s shoulder. Ignacio raised him high enough to see out.
Outside, people were running down the dusty street heading for the North end of town. Other than that, he couldn’t see anything.
Another rumbling caused the cell to shake. Ignacio stumbled back, and Johnny jumped to the floor.
“What did you see?”
“Nothing. Everyone is running, but I don’t know why.”
The door to the cellblock opened and a jailer ran inside. It was Ignacio’s nephew.
“Sobrino, ¿qué está pasando?” (Nephew, what is happening?)
“Los Franceses avanzan sobre Linares.” (The French are advancing on Linares)
“Let us out of here!” Johnny yelled.
The guard started to fumble with the keys to the cell door when the Commandant rushed into the room.
“Comandante, he is my Tio.”
The Commandant glared at Johnny.
“Leave them. The French will do as they will with these criminals.”
Ignacio’s nephew dropped his head and took a deep breath. Doing as he was ordered, the guard turned and followed the Commandant out the door. Giving his uncle a quick look, he flipped the keys back toward the cell.
Val tossed aside the thin sheet covering his legs and sat on the edge of the narrow bed. He looked around the dingy room and sighed. It had been five days since he’d arrived in Linares.
He’d spent the better part of the first day searching for a room. Finally, he’d convinced the owner of the boarding house to rent him a room. More than once, he was glad he’d held out some of the gold from the first half of their pay. Now, he wished he’d kept more of it.
Damn, Santa Anna anyway. The man was nothing more than a plague in their lives. The former President had convinced Madrid to help him, and then when Madrid needed help, His Excellency rode away without giving the boy a second thought. Worse, he’d left without paying them the rest of their money.
Standing, Val grabbed his pants and pulled them on. Running a hand through his hair, he looked around, wishing he’d filled the water pitcher the night before.
Stomping into his boots, Val took a deep breath before reaching for his rig. Wrapping it around his hips, he was just buckling it on when he heard the first rumbling sound. Walking outside, Val found people running through the street, running from the rumbling sounds of cannon fire on the outskirts south of town.
Reaching out, Val grabbed the first man who ran past him. “What’s going on?”
The man tried to pull away. “No Inglés. Déjame ir.” (No English. Let me go.)
“Qué esta pasando?” (What’s happening)
The man pointed to the South. “Maximillian…. El ejército de Maximillian se acerca.”
(Maximillian…Maximillian’s Army is coming.)
Releasing the man, Val looked toward the town center and took off running. Almost at the jail, he skidded to a stop and ducked into an alley. Juarista and Imperial forces were in a running gun battle. There was no way he would get near the jail, which was now overrun by French troops.
Val stared at the building, trying to figure a way in when he saw someone’s head pop up in a window high on the outside wall. Although the dark-hair was visible only a moment, Val knew it was Johnny.
He desperately wanted, no needed to get to Johnny, to get him out of Linares and out of México. All Val could think was if they ever got out of Linares, they’d never come back.
The fighting was getting closer. Val had no choice but to fall back and find a place to hide until he could get to the jail and free Johnny.
Val jumped, feeling a hand on his arm. Reaching for his gun and turning, he saw a man he recognized as one of the jail guards.
“I mean no harm, Señor.” The man pushed himself closer to the wall so as not to be seen.
“You’re one of the jail guards?”
“Si. I am Diego.”
“How do we get in there?”
“There is no way. No way as long as the French control the jail.”
“Where can we go?”
Val followed the man down the alley and around to the rear of the next building. Quickly stepping inside, Diego closed the door.
“We can stay here.”
Val walked to the front of the building and peered around the curtains. They had a clear view of the front of the jail.
Turning to look at Diego, Val asked, “Why are you doing this?”
“Mi Tio…My uncle is in el cárcel. The Comandante would not let me release him.”
They heard gunshots in the town square. Val peered out one window while Diego looked out another.
“They’re searching the houses.” Val stepped back and looked around.
“We go up to the roof. No one will not find us there.”
Diego went up the stairs to the second floor. Once there, he looked up. Overhead was a trap door leading to the roof. Diego moved a chair under the door and stepped onto it. Reaching up, he pushed the door open. Jumping up, he grabbed hold of the edge and pulled himself up. Once on the roof, Diego threw a rope down for Val to climb.
“Move the chair back to the wall.”
Val did as Diego instructed, then took hold of the rope and started to climb. Once on the roof, Diego pulled the rope up after them and closed the hatch.
Lying flat on the roof, Val crawled to the edge and looked over.
From the rooftop, they could see the town center and the street in both directions.
“What are they looking for?” Val whispered.
“It is a raiding party. They go from village to village looking for boys and men who can serve in their army,” Diego answered. “They have come through Linares before, as have the Juaristas.”
“They just take whoever they want?”
“Si, they just take them. Few have returned to us.”
Val didn’t say anything.
Diego looked at Val’s profile. “You are Madrid’s compadre?
“Yes. I’m his friend.”
“You were with Santa Anna? You and Madrid were with Santa Anna?”
Val turned over on his back and looked up at the sky. “We worked for him. He hired us to get him to Linares and back to Corpus Christi.”
Diego gave Val a funny look.
“But el Presidente Santa Anna did not go back to los Estados Unidos.”
“I know he didn’t go back to the United States.” Val turned his head so he could see Diego. “And no, I don’t know why.”
Shouting from the street drew their attention. Looking down, Val and Diego watched the men from the jail being pushed into the plaza.
Val almost jumped up when he saw Johnny in the middle of the group. Diego grabbed his arm and pulled him back down.
“No. You cannot help him.”
Val sank back down, watching what was happening below.
The keys were right there in front of them. All they had to do was reach out and …. well, that would have been what they should be able to do. The problem was, Diego’s toss was less than perfect, and the keys weren’t within reach of any of the men in the cell.
“No puedo alcanzarlos,” declared the tallest man in the cell, with the longest arms, admitting defeat. “No puedo alcanzarlos.” (I can’t reach them)
Sounds of gunfire had everyone jumping to their feet. They could hear screams and yells out in the street. Not knowing what to expect, they waited. A few minutes later, the outer door to the cellblock opened, and three men in uniform rushed in, rifles pointing at the jailed prisoners.
A uniformed man who was apparently in charge marched into the room, looked at the prisoners and smiled. Johnny was surprised the man was Mexican and not French.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Johnny started to relax, thinking the French had been pushed out of town and Juaristas were back in control. The relief was short-lived when he heard the sound of heavy boots on the tile floor. Looking to the doorway, a French Captain holding a riding crop entered the cellblock.
The officer scanned the men in the cell. Looking into each face, Johnny could see the man give a slight nod. When his eyes fell on Bernardo and Johnny, his smile was broader than the first man’s.
“Sergeant,” he turned to the man. “Bring them.”
The Sergeant bent down, picked up the key and opened the cell door. Throwing it back, while another soldier waved his rifle at them.
Single file, the barefoot, thinly clad prisoners left the cell and started towards the door.
Blinking against the glare of the midday sun, Johnny looked around. Young men, dragged from their homes, were huddled in the middle of the plaza.
“Line them up!” the French officer ordered.
Pushed forward, Johnny stumbled. Still looking for a way out, he scanned the plaza and the surrounding buildings. Seeing no way to escape, Johnny looked up to the rooftops. He saw movement to his left, but he felt a push from behind before he could focus.
The Captain advanced on the group. Walking down the line, he nodded and tapped the first boy on his chest with the riding crop.
Two soldiers moved forward, took hold of the struggling boy, and pulled him to the other side of the plaza.
Stopping in front of Johnny, the officer seemed surprised by the blue eyes staring back at him.
“Mestizo.” It wasn’t a question.
The Captain gave a quick nod. The same two soldiers stepped forward and grabbed Johnny’s arms, taking him across the plaza to stand with the others selected.
Johnny looked at his bare feet, wishing he had his boots, wondering where they were. He hadn’t asked Val about his clothes… or his gun. Damn! Where was his gun? Why hadn’t he asked Val?
Val? Where was Val? If he knew what was going on, Johnny knew Val would be close.
Taking his eyes off the French officer, Johnny looked to the rooftops. There it was again, a slight movement. The sight of Val’s head peering over the edge of the building caused his heart to skip a beat. He knew everything was going to be alright. Val was here and had his back.
The voice he recognized as Bernardo’s drew Johnny’s attention back to the plaza.
“NO, no iré!” (No. I won’t go)
Bernardo fought against the soldiers trying to drag him across the plaza. As the boy lashed out at anyone nearby, his foot caught the Captain’s shin. The action brought immediate retaliation.
The Captain’s riding crop crashed down on Bernardo’s shoulder. The boy went to his knees as another strike hit him across his back.
Ignacio jumped forward, trying to protect Bernardo. The Captain lashed out. When Ignacio crumpled to the ground, Johnny tore across the plaza.
Grabbing the Captain’s arm as he drew back to strike the boy or Ignacio again, Johnny wrestled for the short whip.
The Captain grasped Johnny by the hair and threw him to the ground. Using the crop, he redirected his assault.
As blow after blow landed on his shoulders and back, Johnny fought to get to his feet. He was almost up when the riding crop slammed against his head, knocking him to the ground again.
The sound of gunshots echoed off the surrounding buildings. Pandemonium broke loose. The prisoners turned on their captors.
Johnny lay on the ground, blood dripping from a cut on his head, expecting another blow, but it didn’t come. Chancing to look around, he saw the Captain lying next to him, the man’s dead eyes staring at him.
The only sound in the Lancer Great Room was the ticking of the Grandfather clock.
“So that’s how the French got their army?”
Johnny’s head shot up. So lost in the story and his memories, he hadn’t realized he’d stopped speaking. He blinked at Scott’s question.
“That’s how Maximillian got his army, by raiding villages and towns?”
“Pretty much. See, this was the beginning of May. A few weeks earlier, a Belgian brigade of French troops went up against Juárez at the Battle of Tacambaro in central México. The French won, but they’d used all the Mexicans they had with them as cannon fodder. They needed more bodies.” Seeing the expression on Murdoch’s face, he added, “It turns out Juárez wasn’t much better.”
Johnny dipped his head when he saw Murdoch and Scott visibly shudder.
Walking to the drink cart, Johnny reached for the tequila. Stilling his hand, he thought better of it. If he were going to finish the story, he’d need his wits about him. Instead of the liquor, he poured a glass of water and downed it.
“Where was Santa Anna when this happened?” Scott hissed.
“Hell, I don’t know,” Johnny snapped. “Headed back to Corpus Christi, I guess. I didn’t see him again until today.”
“What happened after the Captain was dead?” Murdoch leaned forward in his chair.
Johnny shrugged. “Val can tell you better than me. I was on the ground by that time.”
Everyone was looking at Val, who took up the tale.
“Well, things got crazy after we opened fire.”
“We?” Murdoch asked. “You and Diego?”
Val laughed. “By then, I had a little more help than just Diego.”
Linares, México May 1865
Val peered over the roof’s edge and down at the men and boys gathered in the plaza. He was watching Johnny closely. Drawing his pistol, he was ready to fire if anyone showed the boy any harm.
Seeing Johnny glance up at the rooftop, Val raised his head just enough so the boy could see him. A faint smile rewarded his effort. Val quickly ducked down.
Motion across the street caught Val’s eye. Several men were scurrying onto the rooftops of the other buildings surrounding the center of town.
Val looked at Diego.
“I see them. Juaristas, come to reclaim the town.”
Val looked again. At least twenty men now covered the area with rifles.
From down below, Val heard a young voice screaming, “NO, no iré!” (No. I won’t go)
His eyes went to Johnny, who was still on the far side of the plaza. Knowing Johnny’s temper, he expected the boy to do something. Unfortunately, he wasn’t disappointed.
When Johnny ran across the plaza and grabbed the Captain’s arm, Val raised his Colt, ready to fire.
Diego looked to his right, seeing the police Commandant motioning to him from an adjoining rooftop.
“No, Señor, not yet. We must wait for everyone to get into place.”
Val hesitated, giving the others a minute. When he saw the French Captain raise his riding crop against Johnny, Val took a deep breath. When the fourth blow went down, Val squeezed off the trigger. The Captain fell.
After that, everyone on the rooftops opened fire. French troops scattered. The boys and men who’d been dragged into the plaza fell to the ground, covering their heads.
As the smoke cleared, people raised their heads to look around.
Val ran back to the trap door and jumped to the floor below. Taking the stairs two at a time, he tore through the door and into the plaza. Kneeling next to Johnny, Val put a hand on the side of the boy’s face, wiping away the blood.
“Johnny, you with me, Amigo?”
When Val saw Johnny’s eye flutter open, he took a deep breath and exhaled.
“You get him?”
“I got him.”
“Can we get out of here now?”
Val looked around the body strewn plaza. “I don’t know, but I’m sure as hell gonna try to get you out of here. Can you walk?”
A thought flashed through Val’s mind. ‘Get him up and out NOW.’
Reaching for Johnny’s arm, Val pulled.
It didn’t take Johnny more than a second to understand what Val was saying. Grunting, he grabbed Val’s arm and was pulled to his feet.
“Come on,” Val hissed.
They were almost at the edge of the plaza when someone yelled.
“¡Detener! Detenlo.” (Stop! Stop him.)
Val kept moving, his hand firmly on Johnny’s arm. “Keep moving.”
When an armed jail guard stepped in front of them, Val came to an abrupt stop. Johnny stumbled against him.
Turning around, Val saw Commandant Estrada marching toward them.
Stopping in front of the gunfighters, Estrada glared at Johnny.
“I think not, pistolero. You will go back to el cárcel.”
“No! He’s not going back in there. I’m putting him on a horse and we’re heading for the border. If anyone tries to stop us, I’ll blow their heads off. Comprende?” (understand?)
Estrada’s sneered. “Si, entiendo. Now, Señor, you understand. I will have you and…” he stared at Johnny, “him shot if you do not step away. Comprende?”
Johnny stepped out from behind Val, placing himself between his friend and Estrada.
“Val, it’s alright. I’ll go with him.”
“No, you won’t. You didn’t do anything wrong in the first place. You shouldn’t be in there.”
Johnny put a hand on his friend’s arm. “Val, it’s alright.”
“No, it’s not alright.” Val’s eyes met Johnny’s. “No. It’s not alright.”
“Yeah, it is. I don’t want you….”
Johnny turned to stare at Estrada. “I’ll go with you.”
Estrada waved a hand. Diego stepped forward, giving Val and Johnny a sympathetic look before taking hold of Johnny’s arm. They had only taken a few steps when the plaza started filling with troops, Mexican troops.
As the troops surrounded the village square, a man strode forward. There was no doubt he was in charge. Scanning the men’s faces in front of him, the Mexican officer took one more step forward to address the Commandant.
“Comandante Estrada, I am Coronel Roberto Vargas.”
Vargas looked around again, his eyes briefly falling on Val and then Johnny. Looking at Estrada, Vargas smiled.
“I see you have successfully pushed the French back. Bueno, muy bueno.”
“Now, Comandante, I understand you have several men who are to be sentenced for various crimes.”
“Bueno, I must speak with your Magistrado.” (magistrate)
“El Magistrado? Pero por qué?” (The magistrate? But why?”)
Colonel Vargas smiled. “The Army of the Republic needs men, Comandante. You have men and they will serve our purpose. These men will serve in the Army for the time they would spend in jails and prisons.”
Val stepped forward. “What the hell.”
A soldier stepped forward, blocking Val’s way.
Vargas answered, “Señor, you are?”
Val answered but somehow knew the Colonel already knew who he was. “Crawford. The name’s Crawford.”
“Your business here, Señor?”
Val looked at Johnny. “My partner is being held on bogus charges. I want him released.”
“Bogus? I don’t know this word.”
Val growled, “Made up, false, trumped-up, whatever you want to call it. The Comandante is holding him for something that didn’t happen.”
“That will be for the magistrate to determine.”
“And when will this magistrate make a decision?”
“Today, Señor.” Colonel Vargas started to turn away and then turned back. “Come with me now, Señor.”
Val hesitated. Before he could say anything, the Colonel looked at Estrada.
“Take your prisoner back to his cell, Comandante. Take them all back to their cells. I will come for them later today. Oh, and Comandante Estrada, you will have a medico see to the boy.”
Estrada didn’t look happy but nodded his agreement.
Vargas strolled away with Val following. Once out of sight of the plaza, the Colonel stopped and turned to face the gunfighter.
Colonel Vargas held up a hand and glanced over Val’s shoulder.
“Señor Crawford, do not speak. Listen. I am here to help.”
“Si, my hermano has told me what is happening. While Estaban and I don’t see eye to eye on our loyalties, he is, after all, familia.”
“Hermano? Estaban’s your brother?”
“If he sent you to help, then get Johnny out of jail and we’ll head north.”
“I cannot do it that way.”
“Alright, what can you do?”
“I was telling the truth when I said Juárez needed men. I will take all of the prisoners into the army.”
“Señor Crawford. I will speak with the magistrate. The sentence will be thirty days. I will make sure Señor Madrid is kept out of the fighting.”
Val interrupted. “You know who he is?”
“Si, I know of Madrid. He is becoming well known in my country. I must admit it was a surprise to see how young he is. As I was saying, I will make sure Señor Madrid is kept out of the fighting. In thirty days, I will release him from the army, and the sentence will be satisfied.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Señor, cállate y escucha!” Vargas snapped. “There is more happening than one pistolero confined for something he did not do.” (Be quiet and listen)
Val stared at the Colonel. Deciding to go on a little faith, he asked, “Like what?”
Vargas relaxed his shoulders. “You know the war in los Estados Unidos está terminado … finished?”
“I knew Lee surrendered. I didn’t know it was over.”
“It is acabó, over. A week after your General Lee surrendered, your Presidente Lincoln was asesinado… assassinated. Your country has a new Presidente now. Presidente Johnson is attempting to unite your country again. Presidente Johnson is sympathetic to the Republican cause; to Juárez as Presidente of México.”
Val stood motionless, stunned at the news.
“The last battle of your war was fought in Texas near Brownsville. After the battle Coronel Ford….”
“Si,” Vargas hesitated. “You know this Coronel Ford.”
“I know of him. Go on.”
“What do you know of Coronel Ford?”
“Only what most Texans know. His full name’s Colonel John Salmon Ford, but he goes by the nickname Rip. The last I heard, he’s commanding Confederate troops along the Rio Grande. The man has done just about everything. Before the war, he was a Ranger, served a term in the Texas State Senator, and was in the Texas Republican Army.”
“Si. Did you know he also met with Santa Anna in Matamoros?”
“No. We never found out who Santa Anna was meeting with. Do you know what it was about?”
“Si. Santa Anna knew your war was ending and was trying to get Coronel Ford’s support for Presidente Juárez against Maximillian.”
“His support. What could Ford do?”
“He is muy influyente, very influential, in Texas. Maximillian has offered sanctuary to any man who fought for the Confederacy. Many men have already crossed the border to fight for the Emperor.
“Presidente Santa Anna wanted some of those men to fight with Juárez under his command. That is something the French cannot allow to happen. The French will do anything to stop Santa Anna from returning to power.”
“I thought Santa Anna offered his services to Maximillian?”
“Si, he had. When he left Linares, el Presidente went to meet with the representatives of Maximillian. Maximillian rejected him as well.”
“Yeah, I heard that.” Val chewed his lower lip, wondering how much he should tell Colonel Vargas. ‘What the hell.’
“You should know something. It looks like one of Santa Anna’s men is loyal to Maximillian.”
Alarmed, Roberto asked, “How do you know this, Senor?”
Val told Colonel Vargas what Johnny told him about Lorenzo and the French.
“Lorenzo? Do you know this man’s nombre de familia…family name?”
“I think it’s Ortiz.”
“Lorenzo? Lorenzo Ortiz. I know this man. He is one of Estrada’s men and Estrada isloyal to Maximillian.”
Turning away, Vargas clasped his hands behind his back and nodded his head several times.
“Yes, it makes sense now.”
“What makes sense?”
“My hermano could not understand why Estrada detained Madrid. It appears the French want you and Señor Madrid away from Presidente Santa Anna.”
“We already figured that out. Well, Estrada got what he wanted. What I don’t understand is why?”
“Without the protection of Senor Madrid, there is nothing to stop the assassination of Santa Anna.”
“Why bother assassinating the man?”
“Presidente Santa Anna schemes to ensure his return to México. He is still considered influential and a threat to the French.”
“So, let Johnny go. We’ll go after Santa Anna.”
Vargas smiled. “Senor, Presidente Juárez doesn’t want Santa Anna in México either.”
“So, now neither Juárez or Maximillian wants Santa Anna’s help, and both are going out of their way to make sure he gets out of the country one way or the other.”
“In the meantime, Johnny has to serve time in the Army?” Val growled.
“Si, for a time, he does.”
“Wait a minute.” Scott was on his feet. “Do you mean to tell us Juárez conscripted Johnny into the Mexican Army at the age of 14?”
Val nodded. “That’s right.”
“And Colonel Vargas…?”
“Roberto Vargas was Estaban’s brother. Estaban got him to step in.”
“Step in? How is the man drafting my brother into the army…?”
“Hold on, Scott.” Johnny held up a hand. “I didn’t know it at the time, but Estrada was close to sending me to the Chihuahua State Prison at Nuevo Casa Granda. The Army was Estaban’s way of keeping me alive.”
The room was silent.
Johnny took a deep breath and let it out. The telling of it all had worn him out. The things that happened to him while he was away from Val… well, he’d never even told Val the whole of it.
“I need some air.”
Turning, Johnny picked up his hat and headed the front door. It wasn’t long before they heard a horse galloping away from the house.
Scott stood and walked to the massive window behind Murdoch’s desk. His eyes went to the arch and the road beyond. All he could see was a dust cloud marking his brother’s exit.
Turning around, Scott saw Val with his head bowed.
Their friend looked up.
“What happened after…?”
“After …,” Val paused. “After they took him away?” He sighed. “Thirty days. That’s all it was supposed to be; thirty days and no fighting. That’s not the way it ended up.”
“What changed?” Scott asked.
“Estaban’s brother, Roberto Vargas, was killed. No one else seemed to know anything about the agreement.”
“So….?” Murdoch leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees.
Val took a deep breath. He’d never expected to relive those days and definitely never thought he’d be telling Murdoch Lancer about them.
Looking at Murdoch and Scott, he saw the expectation in their faces. There was no turning back now.
México June 1865
Standing in the plaza in Linares, Val’s stomach was in knots. He was doing something he seldom did, told Johnny never to do, and that was to put his trust in someone else. They trusted each other, but no one else, never anyone else.
But wasn’t it Estaban who sent Roberto? Hell, he knew nothing about this man except it was his brother who got them into this mess. There was nothing he could do.
A noise from across the plaza drew his attention. Looking up, he saw the prisoners being pushed single file from the jail into the courtyard. The knot in his stomach tightened at the sight of Johnny’s downturned dark head.
Val approached Colonel Vargas. “I need to talk to him.”
Vargas locked eyes with the gunfighter, unsure for a moment.
“Look, I can’t send him away without explaining.”
Val was on the verge of saying ‘please’ when Vargas nodded and called out, “Madrid, por aquí.” (Madrid, over here.)
Johnny’s head snapped at the sound of his name.
“Agui!” Vargas ordered.
Johnny hesitantly walked the short distance to the Colonel. It wasn’t until he was a few feet from the tall man that he noticed Val. A smile spread across his young face.
Vargas walked away, leaving the two alone.
“You alright?” Val asked, seeing the blood was gone from Johnny’s face, but the doctor hadn’t bandaged the cut.
“Yeah.” Johnny’s hand went to his forehead. “Val, you’re getting me out of here? Right?”
Val, couldn’t miss the hope and expectation in the boy’s voice. Johnny’s smile slid away when he saw the expression on his friend’s face.
“Listen to me,” Val snapped. With only a few minutes to talk to Johnny, he didn’t want to waste time. “Look, Estaban sent the Colonel. He’s Estaban’s brother, and he’s talked to the magistrate. You’ll serve thirty days in the army and stay out of the fighting until your time’s up.”
Johnny almost smiled. “He can do that?”
Val nodded. “He runs this outfit. You just stick to him. Don’t do anything foolish, and for God’s sake, hijo, keep your head down.”
“Nosotros vamos ahora!” one of the guards yelled. (We go now)
Val held out Johnny’s boots. “You’re gonna need these.”
Johnny took the boots and gave his friend a faint smile. “Thanks, but …” Johnny looked at the feet of the other men who were going with Colonel Vargas. A few wore sandals, but most were barefoot. “If I take those, someone’s gonna try and take them away from me. They’ll give me shoes. You hold onto my boots for me, amigo. I’ll need them when I get back.”
Val nodded his understanding and took the boots back. “You’re right. I’ll hold onto them with the rest of your gear.”
“I got it.”
“Val, my horse…. What?”
“Don’t worry. He’ll be here waiting for you too. I’ll see he’s taken care of.”
Johnny looked toward the wagon, waiting to transport him and then back at his friend.
Val could see a moment of panic, indecision, and even fear in the boy’s eyes.
Putting a hand on the young man’s shoulder, he squeezed it tightly. As much as he wanted to bring Johnny into a hug, he knew the boy would never allow it in front of others. Madrid would never allow it.
“You go on. I’ll be waiting for you.” Val stabbed a finger at the ground. “I’ll be right here when you get back.”
Johnny nodded, turned, and walked to the wagon. Climbing into the back with the other prisoners, he called back. “Don’t forget about Corpus Christi.”
Val smiled. As the wagon moved away, the smile vanished. Johnny looked so young. Hell, he was young. Someone was going to pay for this. He didn’t know who yet, but someone was going to pay.
After making arrangements for Johnny’s horse to be stabled, Val reluctantly saddled up and rode back to Corpus Christi. He didn’t want to leave México or Johnny. Deep down, Val knew something would go wrong. The closer he got to Corpus Christi, the angrier he got. He wanted answers from Santa Anna, and by God, he was going to get them.
It took him three days of hard riding, and he didn’t start to relax until the coastal city came into view.
Val’s nerves were tingling as he turned into the almost deserted street in front of Santa Anna’s compound. Seeing the partially open gates of the hacienda, he knew his instincts were right. The guards were gone and no one challenged him when he walked into the courtyard. It took him only five minutes to hurriedly walk through the unoccupied building.
Walking outside, Val stopped to think. Running his hand over his stubbled chin, he wasn’t sure what to do next. Finally making a decision, he mounted his horse and made his way into the city proper.
Inquiring around Corpus Christi, it didn’t take him long to find out his former employer was no longer in town.
It seemed that everyone knew what happened in México. Val also learned there were two attempts on Santa Anna’s life during his trip back to the United States. With nothing holding him in Corpus Christi, the former President packed up and left town.
For the first time, Val heard the name Gilbert Thompson. Thompson was the son-in-law of a former Governor of New York and Vice President of the United States. His schooner was anchored in Corpus Christi Bay when Santa Anna returned from México.
Word all over Corpus Christi was that Thompson smuggled Santa Anna and his entourage onto his schooner one night only a few days ago and set sail for Staten Island, New York.
Standing in the middle of town, Val wondered what to do next when he remembered the hidden gold.
Getting back to the hacienda as fast as he could, Val entered the courtyard. With no guards to bar his way, he went directly to where Johnny had hidden the gold. Holding his breath as he pried up the tile paver, Val exhaled with relief when he saw the tin box was still there.
When he lifted the box, Val’s heart sank. It was too light. Opening the container, he found the few keepsakes that belonged to Johnny, but the gold… the gold was gone. He sat on the ground, with his eyes closed.
Val Crawford had lost a lot in the last week. It was bad enough they’d taken Johnny from him, but to also take their pay slammed into his gut like a fist.
A voice from the gateway caused him to jump. Val’s eyes snapped open, his hand reaching for his gun
“No, Señor. I mean no harm.” A boy of around thirteen years old walked to the center of the courtyard.
“Who are you?”
“Vicente. My name is Vicente Morales. My Abuelo told me you would come.”
“Sebastián’s your grandfather?” Val instinctively looked around. “Where is he?”
The young man looked sad when he replied, “Gone. Gone with el Presidente Santa Anna.”
“I did not want him to go away again, but he said it was his duty to go with el Presidente. You are not Señor Madrid, who are you?”
“I’m Val Crawford. Señor Ma… Johnny’s my partner.”
The boy hesitated a moment. Val could tell he was thinking.
“My Abuelo… he said if Señor Madrid or Señor Crawford came, I was to give you this.”
The boy stepped forward, bringing his hand up.
Val looked at the bag in Vicenti’s hand and prayed it was what he thought it was. Pushing himself to his feet, Val walked over to the boy and took the bag. Feeling its weight, he knew he was right.
“Why didn’t Sebastián leave it where we buried it?”
“Abuelo was afraid someone would find the bag and steal it. He wanted to make sure Señor Madrid got his money.” The boy smiled. “You will make sure he gets it, won’t you, Señor Crawford?”
“I’ll make sure he gets it. Right now, I need to find someplace to keep it safe for the next month.”
“I do not understand.”
“Johnny’s spending the next thirty-days in the Mexican Army.”
Vicenti’s eyes widened.
“My Abuelo did not know, or he would have told me.”
“No one knew. It just happened last week. Now I need to make sure this stays safe until I can get Johnny back across the border.”
“I can keep it, Señor Crawford. Come, I will show you my hiding place.”
Before leaving the hacienda courtyard, Val reset the paver and pushed dirt around it. He held Johnny’s box in his hand. He didn’t know if Johnny would want it, but he wasn’t leaving it behind.
Val pushed the tin box into his saddlebags, then gathering his horse’s reins, he followed the boy through Corpus Christi’s streets to Vicenti’s house. Once there, the boy skirted the building and went to a small family cemetery at the rear. A stone altar holding a picture of the Virgin Mary was at the head of one of the graves. The marker read:
Ana Lucia Morales
18 Mayo 1862
de su Esposo, hijos
y demás Familiares
(Translation: In Memory from your Husband, children and other Family)
Vicenti lowered his head and sighed, “Es mi Abuela. Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe vela por ella. (She is my Grandmother. Our Lady of Guadalupe watches over her).”
Val took his hat off. “Son, I don’t want to disturb your Grand Ma’s grave.
“Está bien, Señor. My Abuela looks after my most treasured possessions. She will not mind looking after Señor Madrid’s as well.”
With that, the boy went to his knees near the altar and pulled out two stones at the back. Inside was a cavity containing a tin box, not unlike the one Johnny’s things were in. Vicenti opened the box, fingered the small items inside and then reached up to Val.
Val hesitated before handing the leather pouch to Vicenti. Looking around to make sure no one was watching, he trustingly handed over the gold coins. Just before releasing the bag, Val pulled it back and opened it. He took out a hundred dollars for himself and another twenty for Vicenti. Closing the bag again, he handed it to the boy.
Vicenti placed the bag inside the box, closed it, and returned it to its resting place. Resetting the stones, he stood up, bowed his head and crossed himself.
Vicenti turned to Val. “It will be safe here.”
“Here, this is for you.” Val handed the boy the twenty-dollar gold piece.
“Señor, I cannot take this. If someone saw me with this much dinero, they would question where I got it. No, you keep it.”
Val took the money back and put it in his pocket. The boy had a point. Reaching into his pants, he pulled out what coins he had in Mexican and American money. Handing the coins to the boy, he saw him smile. Val looked at what was in the boy’s hand. It was only five dollars, but to the boy, it was a fortune.
“I’ll give you more when I come back, Vicenti.”
“Gracias, Señor. I will see you in a few weeks.”
For the next two weeks, Val spent time in Corpus Christi and Brownsville. Both cities were busy with ex-Confederate soldiers passing through and heading to México.
As the time got closer to Johnny’s release date, Val saddled his horse and rode south.
Figuring the boy would be released where he was taken, Val headed for Linares. Each town he passed through had stories of battles and skirmishes between Juárez’s Republican Army and the French troops of Maximillian.
When he entered Linares, Val went straight to the boarding house he’d stayed at before. The same woman greeted him but with a puzzled look on her face.
“Señor, you are back?”
“That’s right. My partner should be coming back tomorrow or the next day.”
“But Señor, Madrid will not come back to Linares if he is to be released from the Army, he will go to El Paso del Norte.”
There was no way to hide the surprise on Val’s face.
“El Paso del Norte? Why there?”
“Presidente Juárez has moved his sede…his headquarters to El Paso del Norte.”
“That don’t make no sense. Why take him to the border?”
The woman shrugged. “I know of none of these things, Señor. I only know what Comandante Estrada has told the families of those taken from Linares.”
Val cursed. Why the hell didn’t he ask someone before he left Linares in the first place?
“I guess I’ll be riding north in the morning.”
The woman was quiet for a minute. Val had a bad feeling.
“Señor, are you sure Señor Madrid will be released…so soon?”
“That’s what we were told. Johnny’s sentence was thirty days.”
“Señor, no one spends only thirty days in the Army of Benito Juárez. No one unless he is wounded or… muerto.”
“Colonel Vargas guaranteed us thirty days.”
The look on the woman’s face had Val holding his breath.
“Señora, please, what aren’t you telling me?”
“Lo siento, Señor. Coronel Vargas es muerto.”
Val’s heart raced. This couldn’t be happening. Vargas dead? If that was true, then what would happen to Johnny? He needed to know where Johnny was and when he was going to be released. As much as he hated it, Val knew he needed to talk to Commandant Estrada.
Storming into the police station, Val instantly found the man he was looking for.
Estrada looked at Val’s face and smiled.
“Señor Crawford, what brings you back to Linares?”
“I have a feeling you know why I’m here.”
Estrada smirked. “I have no idea ….”
“The hell you don’t.”
“Señor, if you are speaking of Señor Madrid…”
“Damn right, I’m talking about Madrid. Where is he?”
“Señor, you know he is in the army.”
“For how long? His sentence was thirty days.”
Estrada laughed. “It would seem the Republican Army requires Madrid’s serves for some time yet.”
While Estrada took his time in answering, Val tapped his fingers on the side of his holster.
“Solo seis meses.” (Only six months)
“Six months!” Val’s thundering voice drew everyone in the building’s attention to him.
“What happened to thirty days?”
“As I said, Señor, the Republican Army requires ….”
“The hell with what the Army requires. Where is he now?”
Estrada shrugged. “No se.” Estrada laughed. “I don’t know. Perhaps someone who knows more about the Army’s movements can help you, someone in El Paso Del Norte. Now, Señor, I must ask you to leave.”
“Can you at least tell me where I can go to find out?”
Val didn’t know if it was his pleading voice or not, but Estrada answered, “El Paso del Norte.”
“El Paso del Norte? Why there?”
“It is where Juárez…”
“I know Juárez set up his headquarters there, but…”
Turning to leave, Val stopped and looked back.
“Can you tell me one more thing? Why did you have him arrested in the first place? You know the charges were bullshit.”
Estrada didn’t hesitate. “It is nothing more than a mestizo deserves. Especialmente un pistolero mestizo.” (Especially, a half-breed gunfighter.)
With no hesitation, Val retorted, “Is that the reason, or did it have something to do with your loyalty to Emperor Maximillian?”
Estrada glanced around the room, wondering if anyone understood the gringo. He quickly recovered but didn’t respond right away. When he did, Estrada took a few steps closer before speaking in a hushed voice.
“Señor, I would be careful with what you say aloud.” Estrada started to turn away and then back again. “If you are looking for answers, Señor Crawford, I would look closer at the hombres, or should I say hombre you think you trust. Enemies are not always so obvious.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Estrada smiled. “It means Señor…,” Estrada paused. “I have said enough. It is not my place to tell you who to trust and who not to. But think of this, Señor. It was not I who brought Madrid to Linares. It was not I who rode away and left him. Is it not convenient Coronel Vasquez was in Linares when he was? No, Señor, you must decide who knocks at your door. Be careful who you let in. It may be the enemy.”
Val’s eyes narrowed. He wasn’t sure what Estrada was saying, but he had questions and no answers once again.
The next morning, Val rode north to El Paso Del Norte, this time leading Johnny’s horse.
While Maximillian’s forces established their northern base of operations along the United States border in Matamoros in early April, Benito Juárez was forced north by the French Army, finally setting up his headquarters in El Paso del Norte.
El Paso del Norte, the small border town south of El Paso, Texas, grew with each passing day.
With the end of the War Between the States, ex-Confederate soldiers and their families seeking new lives crossed the border heading south. Maximillian’s offer of land and new homes in all gringo settlements was enough to entice men who’d lost their homes to travel south and fight with the Imperial Army. Unfortunately, along with those men and women, flocked the dregs of both armies, mercenaries who were only interested in killing and the money they could get from Maximillian.
Juárez, now unofficially backed by the United States government, was making headway fighting the French forces. Fortunately for Juárez, the United States Army was making a habit of ‘losing’ arms depots along the border. With the influx of guns and ammunition, Juárez went on the offensive.
The fighting between Juárez’s Republican Army and the Imperial Army of Maximillian became fierce. News of the battles spread north into Texas.
Val was out of his mind with worry. Spending several days trying to get answers, he was finally able to get someone to tell him where they ‘thought’ Johnny was and what division he was with. With that information, he kept track of the boy the best he could, the whole time praying his name didn’t show up on a dead or missing list or, worse, disappear like so many others had done.
With nothing but time on his hands, Val decided to find work. Taking a gun job was out of the question. The last thing he wanted was to get himself killed and not be there for Johnny when he returned.
It hadn’t been hard to find work herding cattle on the Texas side of the border. He made sure his boss at the Bar W knew why he was there. He also explained why he needed to have time off twice a week to go to El Paso del Norte.
Val was careful not to tell any of the men at the ranch who he was waiting for. He only said it was a boy who was like a son to him. Soon it became a running joke when, like clockwork, Val made his twice-weekly trips across the border.
Every Wednesday, he’d fight the crowds of people seeking information about their loved ones. Standing on the boardwalk near Juárez’s headquarters, Val scanned the posted lists of names, names of men who’d been wounded or killed.
Each bulletin was divided into three separate lists – killed, wounded, and missing. The unsettling part of each announcement was the numbers. On this particular day, two hundred and forty-one were reported dead. Of those, only eighty were listed with a full name; others had only a first or last name, one hundred and twenty were represented by a simple number under the title ‘Unknown Name.’
Relieved in not seeing Johnny’s name on the board, he’d ride back to the ranch and go back to work.
On Friday of each week, wagon loads of men, young and old, were brought to El Paso del Norte and released from the Army. Even though it wasn’t time for Johnny’s release, Val made sure he was there when the wagons arrived and watched until the last man or boy clambered down. They all had the same lost, dazed looked to them.
In August, three months into his vigil, Val watched the wagons roll into town and stop in the center of town. As usual, he waited until everyone was on the ground before starting to leave. Glancing back at the new arrivals, a boy caught his eye. It wasn’t Johnny, but there was something familiar about the young man.
Val crossed the plaza and tapped the boy on the shoulder. The young man jumped and turned to face Val, a look of panic on his face.
“It alright, son, I’m not gonna hurt you. It’s just that you look…well, I know you from somewhere.”
Finally, Val saw recognition in the young man’s eyes.
“Si…,” the boy responded hesitantly. “I remember you, Señor. You are Juanito’s compadre, Si?”
Val took a deep breath. “Yeah, I’m Johnn…Juanito’s compadre. You were in Linares?”
“Si, Señor, I am Bernardo.”
“They released you?”
Bernardo nodded. “Si, but …”
“They have brought me here. I do not know this place.” The confusion was evident in the boy’s voice.
“This is El Paso del Norte, on the border with Texas.”
“No, this cannot be.” The boy was near tears. “I must go home. How far is Linares?”
“I hate to tell you this, but it’s a good 800 miles south of here.”
Val could tell Bernardo didn’t understand.
“A good ten days riding.”
The boy lowered his head. Val had seen this same reaction from hundreds of those transported to El Paso del Norte. He’d asked once why everyone was brought to the border for discharge. The answer wasn’t surprising. An officer told him with a smile, “If they have no place else to go, many will join again.”
“Bernardo, why don’t you come with me? I have a job across the border at a ranch. You can rest up there and decide what you want to do. Can you tell me how Johnny’s doing?”
“Si, Juanito está bien ahora.” (Yes, Johnny is alright now.)
“Now? What do you mean now?”
“Juanito was wounded. Here in the arm.” Bernardo pointed to his left upper arm. “He is well now.”
Bernardo smiled. “Si.” Then the smile faded and he sighed. “The wound it heals but … in here and here,” Bernardo tapped his chest and then his head. “He has changed.” Bernardo dropped his head. “We all changed.”
“How has he changed?”
“I cannot tell you, Señor. You must see for yourself… when he comes.”
Val and the boy turned at the sound.
“Bernardo!” A man ran toward them.
“Tio? Señor it is mi Tio, Jorge.”
Bernardo met the man in the middle of the road.
Val watched as Bernardo threw his arms around his uncle and melted into Jorge’s large chest. Tears were flowing down both their faces. When they finally broke apart, Bernardo pulled Diego toward Val.
Bernardo introduced Val to his uncle and explained who he was.
“Si,” Jorge replied, “I remember you from Linares.” Jorge looked around. “Is Juanito not with you, Bernardo?”
“No, Tio. Juanito has not finished his time.”
Jorge gave Val a sympathetic look.
“Don’t you worry none, Señor. I’ll be here when Johnny comes.”
“Bueno.” Jorge turned back to Bernardo. “Are you ready to go home, sobrino?”
Bernardo was smiling broadly. “Si, Tio.”
Val watched the two walk away. Looking down the street, he wished more than anything that there was another wagon rolling his way, one with Johnny on it.
“Hey, Val,” Ken Price, the foreman of the Bar W, yelled across the barnyard.
Val looked up from the bale of hay he was breaking apart. His job today was to feed the stock in the corral and barn.
“Val, you planning to go across the border today?”
Val nodded. “Sure, I am. It’s Friday, ain’t it?”
“Sure, it’s Friday, but you’re running late. If you’re going, you better get moving.”
Val looked up at the position of the sun. Absorbed in his work, he’d lost track of time.
Pulling his gloves off, Val saddled his horse and took off at a gallop. He always made sure he was there a little ahead of time to get a good look at everyone coming and going. He knew today he’d be lucky to get there to see anyone at all.
It had been a month since he’d seen Bernardo and his uncle off. If they hadn’t run into trouble, they were back in Linares by now.
Arriving in the center of town, Val’s heart sank at the sight of empty wagons. He scanned the few men standing around. As the wagons pulled away, he caught a glimpse of one man, shorter and thinner than the others. He had hair down to his shoulders and wore a dirty white shirt and pants at least two sizes too big.
Taking a step forward, Val waited for the man to turn around.
There was no reaction.
The figure slowly turned and looked around, searching for the source of the voice. Then their eyes met. Recognition registered on the boy’s face. Hesitantly at first, Johnny started walking toward Val. It wasn’t long before he was running.
Val started to close the gap between them and then stopped. Watching Johnny coming toward him with a slight limp, Val could see how thin and pale he was. It was obvious he wasn’t well.
Johnny stopped two feet from his friend.
Val tried to read the expressions crossing the boy’s face; surprise, happiness, relief, and something Val treasured most, love.
When Val outstretched his arms, Johnny threw himself into them.
They stood holding each other for a long time before Val pushed Johnny back at arm’s length and looked him up and down. The boy was too thin.
“Damn, boy, didn’t they feed you?” Val laughed, fighting the emotions threatening to spill out of him.
Johnny didn’t say anything, just moved back against Val and held onto him for dear life. This time Val could feel and hear the rumbling in Johnny’s chest.
“You alright, hijo?”
Johnny didn’t respond.
Johnny didn’t pull away, only nodded again.
Val felt a small damp spot on the front of his shirt where Johnny’s face was buried.
Putting his hand to the back of the boy’s head, Val pulled it closer. Lowering his head so that his lips were next to Johnny’s ear, he whispered, “It’ll be alright. I got you now. It’ll be alright.”
Johnny’s response was another nod.
Glancing around, Val saw people stopping to stare at them. He knew he needed to get Johnny away from town.
“I hear you got yourself shot a while back. You all healed up now?”
Without taking his head off of Val’s chest, Johnny asked, “How’d you hear about that?”
“A friend of yours was through here about a month ago. Bernardo told me.”
Johnny raised his head and wiped his eyes with his shirt sleeve.
“Bernardo was alright, wasn’t he? I mean, I didn’t get to see him before he left. I was away from camp for a few days. When I got back, they said they’d sent him home.”
“He was just fine. His uncle came from Linares to collect him.”
Johnny turned his head and coughed. When he turned back to face Val, he dropped his head before speaking, “It sure is good to see you, amigo.”
Val laughed, noting Johnny’s Mexican accent was stronger than it had been the last time he saw him.
“What’s so funny?”
“Did you speak any English at all in the last four months? You sound like one of the natives again.”
“No one down there spoke English,” Johnny answered. “I guess I sound like I did when we first met.”
“Almost. What do you say I get you back to the ranch and cleaned up?”
Johnny coughed. “Ranch?”
“I hired on at a ranch on the American side of the border. I’ve been there close to four months waiting for you. Let’s go. I bet you could handle a good meal.”
“I sure could.” Looking around, Johnny asked, “Where’s my horse?”
“At the ranch. I wasn’t sure you were going to be here.” Val led Johnny to his horse. “I’ve been here every week for four months waiting for you. They told me you were going to be in for six months. Why’d they let you go now?”
Johnny stopped. “After Coronel Vargas was killed, I tried to tell them I was only supposed to be there for thirty days, but no one would listen or believe me. A little over a week ago, someone found the Coronel’s papers. He’d written down everything. They decided to honor the agreement, especially since I got sick and wasn’t no good to them anymore.”
Val mounted and kicked out of the stirrup. Reaching down, he gave his hand to Johnny and pulled the boy up behind him.
Giving the horse a gentle kick, Val reined his horse around and headed north. Johnny wrapped his arms around Val’s waist and leaned into his back.
As they rode, Val talked and Johnny listened. By the time they’d reached the ranch, Val had filled Johnny in on what had happened since they’d last seen each other. It wasn’t until he’d stopped in front of the bunkhouse that Val realized Johnny probably hadn’t heard a word he’d said. The boy was sound asleep.
Ken Price was the first to see them when they rode back to the Bar W.
“You found him.”
“Yeah, but he’s not doing too good. Can you give me a hand getting him down and into the bunkhouse?”
Val reached around and shook Johnny’s shoulder, waking him up.
“Johnny, we’re here.”
Johnny raised his head and looked around. Seeing the man standing next to the horse, he shrank back against Val.
“It’s alright. This here is Mr. Price, he’s the foreman. He’s gonna help you down. Then we’ll get you to bed.”
Too tired to argue, Johnny let go of Val and slid off the horse into Ken Price’s arms. Price put him on his feet and held him steady while Val dismounted and tied his horse off. Then Val started guiding Johnny into the bunkhouse. They’d only gone a few feet before Johnny started coughing and slumped to the ground.
Val picked him up and carried him the rest of the way.
Val walked over to the drink cart and poured another glass of whiskey from the almost empty bottle.
Turning back to look at Murdoch and Scott, he said, “So, that’s it. I almost didn’t recognize him. He looked like he’d grown about six inches, his hair was down past his shoulders, and he had a shadow of a beard. He’d also lost so much weight he looked like a bean pole.”
“You said he was sick?” Murdoch asked, concerned.
“Yeah, he was. He told me almost everyone in the army was sick. They’d caught something from the French prisoners they’d captured.
“I took him back to the ranch and got him cleaned up. The Doc took a look at him and said he had pneumonia. We stayed at the Bar W for another three weeks letting him get well enough to ride and put on some weight. When he was well enough, we headed back to Corpus Christi.”
“You went back for your money?” Scott asked.
“That’s right. Vicenti was true to his word. He made sure it was there when we went back to get it.”
“Val, Bernardo said Johnny had changed. Just how much had he changed?”
Val paused a moment before answering.
“Johnny never talks about what happened to him during those four months. Before Linares, you could still see some of the boy in him. After…well, after the army, the boy was gone and all that was left was a hardened gunfighter. I’ll tell you those were some dark days. It took a long time for him to work his way through it.”
“But he did work his way through?” Murdoch wanted to know.
Val nodded. “Yeah, but not before he’d raised hell over half of México and all of the Southwest. Those were the days you read about in those dime novels, the ones that talk about Madrid’s black heart. He went out of his way to pick a fight with every gunhawk that crossed his path. Hell, he even wanted to take me on one day.”
Scott’s eyes widened. “What did you do?”
Val laughed. “Let’s just say I gave him something to think about besides his anger at the world.”
“Saddled up and took off. He headed off for México to help a village that wanted to hire him, but that’s another story. Right now, we have Santa Anna to worry about. That man almost destroyed Johnny five years ago. I ain’t gonna let him do it again.”
From the doorway, they heard Johnny’s spurs ringing.
“Don’t you think that’s my choice, Val?”
Johnny sauntered into the room and stopped in front of Val.
“It’s my choice.”
“Hell, boy, you remember how it was the last time he came into your life. You want that again?”
“No, I don’t want to go back to the place I was in, but ….”
Scott jumped to his feet. “There is no ‘but’ about it, Johnny. Santa Anna’s already proven he can’t be trusted. Why would you want to go out of your way to help him, to give him the chance of hurting you again?”
From the hallway leading to the downstairs guest rooms, a new voice joined the conversation.
With Estaban pushing the wheelchair, Santa Anna entered the room. When he stopped, Santa Anna waited before speaking again.
“I have come for your help, hijo. Do I have it?”
“I told you I’m not your son. As for having my help…”
Johnny looked from his father to Scott and then at Val. He knew the three men didn’t want him involved in anything to do with Santa Anna.
“As for having my help, Dios, I don’t know.”
Murdoch was on his feet. Moving across the room, he put himself between his youngest son and Santa Anna. “You don’t owe him anything, Johnny. Not one damn thing.”
Johnny smiled at the protective stance Murdoch took.
“It was my understanding you no longer, how do you say it… hired out; however, I am willing to pay you well.”
Val huffed, “Still waiting for the rest of our pay from the last time.”
“I was forced to leave México and then Corpus Christi before seeing you again. Estaban….”
Santa Anna motioned to his aide.
Estaban reached into his jacket and pulled out a money bag. Stepping forward, he handed it to Val.
Val untied the leather string on top of the bag and poured a few gold coins into his hand. Raising his eyes, he looked at Johnny and smiled.
“A little late, but ….”
“You are now paid in full, Señor Crawford.”
Val dumped the coins back in the bag, tied the top, and handed it to Johnny.
Hefting the bag, Johnny said, “This sure would have come in handy five years ago.”
“My apologies for the delay in your payment. Now can we discuss the future?” Turning his chair to face Johnny directly, Antonio pushed himself to his feet.
Standing and straightening his shoulders, the former President of México waved off Estaban’s offered hand.
“Now, Señor Madrid, will you help me?”
Johnny turned to look at those in the room, his eyes finally falling on Murdoch. The man had no idea what he was getting into when he’d asked Madrid to sign on as a partner. Johnny knew it was time to rid himself and the old man of the shadows that followed him.
“Antonio, I’ll help you, but there’s one thing I want to make clear. Whatever debit you thought I owed you is paid in full. When this is over, don’t ever come looking for me again. I don’t want to keep looking over my shoulder and seeing your shadow.”
Santa Anna gave Johnny a knowing smile.
“Juanito, you must know by now the shadow a man casts is always his own. Whatever he sees in it is of his own making.”
Note: For the story of Johnny’s time in the Mexican Army, please read Intervention. Part of The Johnny Madrid Series by Margaret P. https://lancerloverslo.wordpress.com/margaret-p/intervention-by-margaret-p/
* Antonio López de Santa Anna- 11 times President of Mexico was exiled in 1855 by Benito Juarez. In 1865, he attempted to return and offer his services during the French invasion by posing once again as the country’s defender and savior, only to be refused by Juárez, who was well aware of Santa Anna’s character.
That same year, he negotiated with the French and Emperor Maximilian in a bid to come back and join Maximilian’s court but was arrested and sent back into exile.
*On May 15, 1867, Juárez’s Republican Army captured Mexico City, ending Emperor Maximillian’s rule. Arrested the same day, Maximillian was sentenced to death by Benito Juarez. A firing squad executed him on June 19, 1867. He spoke only in Spanish and gave each of his executioners a gold coin not to shoot him in the head so that his mother could see his face. His last words were, “I forgive everyone, and I ask everyone to forgive me. May my blood, which is about to be shed, be for the good of the country. Viva Mexico, viva la independencia!”
After his execution, the body was embalmed and displayed in Mexico City. Early the following year, his younger brother Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria sent Austrian Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff to Mexico aboard SMS Novara to take the former Emperor’s body back to Austria. After arriving in Trieste, the coffin was taken to Vienna and placed within the Imperial Crypt on 18 January 1868, where it can be viewed today.
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