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Gunfighters and Schoolrooms: At Shadows Edge by SandySha

Word Count 37, 309

*I don’t own them and make no money from the writing of the story.
*A/R Pre-Lancer -Johnny is 14 and his reputation is growing.
Warning: If you don’t like a younger Johnny, then please don’t read the story. 
**Thanks to Alice Marie for her help with the beta.  All mistakes are mine.


1st in the Series: Shadows of Another Time


La Joya, Texas – January 1865

Standing on the boardwalk outside the only saloon in the small border town, Val Crawford watched a southernly breeze lift the top layer of dirt at one end of the street.   Within seconds, the wind picked up, and a red cloud of dust hovered for a second before being pushed along the narrow thoroughfare.

People scurried into buildings and riders raced down the street, trying to outrun the wall dirt and sand.

Val pulled his bandana up over his face and turned his back, trying to avoid the worst of it.  Still, when the wind died down and the dust started to settle, everything was covered in a coat of fine red powder.  Coughing, Val lowered the bandana and spit, trying to clear his throat.  

Frustrated and cursing, he took his hat off and slapped it against his leg.  He hated La Joya and was more than anxious to put the town behind them.  Putting his hat on, Val placed his hands on his hips and, for the fourth time, scanned the street.  

He’d spent the better part of an hour searching for the boy and turned up nothing.  It shouldn’t be this hard to track him down.  The town wasn’t that big, and his young friend always drew attention.  Asking everyone he’d met, no one had seen the boy, or if they did, they weren’t telling.  

Cursing again and taking one last look at the street, Val decided he needed a break and a beer.  Turning, he pushed through the saloon’s batwing doors stepping into the dim, cool interior.  It took only a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the lower light.

The bartender threw him a passing glance and the few men sitting at tables playing cards ignored him completely.  Feeling no threat, he walked across the room, heading for a table in the back corner.  Like any man who hired out his gun, Val knew sitting with his back to the door was asking for a bullet. 

Approaching the table, he could see someone already sitting in the darkened corner, hidden from view.  Hesitating, Val took another step and then relaxed, releasing the breath he hadn’t know he’d been holding.  He’d found his lost sheep.   

“Hey, Amigo,” a disembodied voice called out from the shadows.

“Where have you been!?”  Val looked around, realizing he was drawing undue attention, he lowered his voice. “I’ve been looking high and low for you.”

“Guess you didn’t look low enough.”  Johnny leaned forward, but not enough so that his face was in the light.  “I’ve been right here.”

“Here?  Why?  We were supposed to meet up back at the room two hours ago.”

When Johnny didn’t answer right away, Val narrowed his eyes, trying to get a better look at the boy’s face.

Pulling out a chair, he threw his hat on the table and sat down.  As he leaned back, so did Johnny, once again settling into the shadows.  

“What’ll it be, mister?” 

Val jumped.  He’d been concentrating on Johnny and hadn’t heard the barman coming up on them.  Looking at the half-empty beer glass already on the table, he answered, “Same as my friend.”

The bartender nodded and walked away.  A few minutes later, returning with Val’s beer, he set it down and took a step back before looking at Johnny.

“Kid…uh…Mister…uh…You need anything else?”

 Johnny smiled faintly and answered in a soft drawl, “No.  I’m good.”

Val laughed as the bartender scurried away.

“How’d you get him to give you a beer?”

“Just asked for it.  Hell, he don’t care how old I am.”

“You threaten him?”

“No, I didn’t threaten him!” Johnny snapped, leaning forward ever so slightly before quickly moving back into the shadows. 

Picking up his drink, Val took a sip, grimacing at the taste.  It was hard to get a decent beer in border towns, but just once, he’d like it colder than the horse trough outside.

When Johnny didn’t say anything, Val had had enough.  Setting his beer down, he reached over, grabbed the arm of Johnny’s chair, and jerked it toward him.  When he did, Val got the first look at his young friend’s bruised and bloodied face. 

“What happened to you?” 

Straightening his chair and shifting it away from Val, Johnny answered sharply, “I got into a fight.”

“Guns or just fists?”

“Pfft…Fists.  I didn’t pull my gun on them.  If I had, I wouldn’t look like this.”

“Who was it?”   Then realized Johnny had said ‘them.’  “How many?”

Johnny dipped his head.  “Just leave it.   It’s over.”

“I asked how many.”  When Johnny didn’t say anything, Val’s temper flared. “You gonna answer me?”

Before Johnny could respond, the saloon doors flew open.  A heavyset man with a badge to stepped inside.  The lawman scanned the room and then stomped toward the corner.  Stopping near the table, he stared first at Johnny and then Val.

“Mister, is that your pup?”

Making the law wait for an answer, Val shifted his chair back and rested his right hand on the edge of the table. 

 “Who wants to know?” 

“Sheriff Jack Baker. I’m the law in La Joya.  I’ll ask you again, does he belong to you?”

Val gave the Sheriff a crooked smile, surprised the town even had a sheriff.  Rubbing his hand on the back of his neck, he glanced at Johnny and then looked back at the Sheriff.

“Yes… and no.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?  Either he’s your kid or not.”

“Well, you see, we ride together, but I wouldn’t say he’s mine exactly.  What’s this all about?”

The sheriff glared at Johnny.  “He beat the hell out of some of the local boys a couple of hours ago.”

Val wanted to laugh but held it in.

“Beat them you say?  He didn’t shoot ‘em?”

The sheriff’s brow furrowed.  “Shoot ‘em?  No, he didn’t shoot ‘em.”

“Well, then I’d say they got off lucky.  You want to tell me what started the fight?”

“The boys told their Pas that this one jumped them…”

“Now, wait just a minute!” Val held up a hand, cutting the sheriff off.  “Johnny don’t usually start fights unless he’s got a good reason.  Whatever you’ve been told, it was wrong.”

“I’ve seen those boys, Mister.  I’m not wrong.”

“You are if you’re saying Johnny started it.  Maybe you should go on back and see if they’ve got their stories straight.”

The sheriff drew himself up to his full 5 foot 9 inches.

“I want you and the kid out of my town.”

“We planned on leaving in the morning.  Is that alright with you?”

The sheriff gave Val a hardened look and then slowly nodded. 

“That’s fine, but until you leave town, you best keep him on a leash.  If he takes one step out a line again, I’ll throw him in jail.”

“Come on, amigo.”  Val pushed his chair back and stood up, “let’s go get you cleaned up.”

Turning, the sheriff started for the door.

Val called out, “Sheriff, just how many boys are you talking about?”

The sheriff stopped and looked back.  He started to answer when Johnny stood and walked around the table.  For the first time, Baker could clearly see the young man.  He blanched when he realized the ‘tough Mexican thug’ who’d beaten the town boys was a 5 foot 4, thin as a rail, teenager who weighed maybe a hundred and fifteen pounds soaking wet.  The only thing distinguishing him from dozens of other Mexican boys who ran the streets of La Joya was his blue eyes and the gun on his hip.

Hesitantly, Baker answered, “Three.” 

Val cocked his head and took a deep breath, trying to control his anger.


The sheriff nodded.

Val looked at Johnny’s battered face and torn shirt and then back at the sheriff.

“Yeah, I’d say they got off lucky.  If I’d been there, I’d have shot ‘em.”   

Val reached out and touched Johnny’s arm.  

“Let’s go.”

Walking past the sheriff, Johnny gave the man a slight smirk before exiting the saloon with Val right behind him.

The bartender leaned across the bar. 

“Baker, you know those boys are damn lucky.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know who just walked out of here?  Baker, that kid’s Johnny Madrid.”

Baker’s eyes narrowed as he tried to remember the name.  Suddenly it dawned on him where he’d heard it.  Word was spreading along the border and into Mexico of an up and coming pistolero with blue eyes named Madrid.  

“Madrid?   Yeah, I’ve heard of him.  Are you sure?  From what I heard, Madrid works over in Arizona and down in Mexico. He wouldn’t be in Texas.”

Hank nodded.  “That’s what I heard, too, but there was a fellow came through last week talking about Madrid.  It seems Madrid was in a gunfight in El Paso a few weeks ago and then again last week in Reynosa, just across the border.  That fellow said Madrid was the fastest draw he’d ever seen.”

“But Madrid’s older than that kid.”

“No, that was him all right. I’m sure of it.  Why do you think I gave him a beer when he asked for it?  I wasn’t gonna take a chance of making him mad.”

The Baker swallowed hard and looked at the still swinging saloon doors.  “You think I made him mad?” 

The bartender laughed.  “Well, Sheriff, I don’t think you made a friend of the kid.  You just told him to get out of town.  If I were you, I’d lay low until their gone.”


Val glanced at Johnny’s profile as they walked along the boardwalk.  The boy looked straight ahead; his jaw clenched in defiance.  He knew Johnny wouldn’t tell him about the fight until he was good and ready.

La Joya wasn’t large, and there weren’t many places to rent a room.  The two-story boarding house where they were staying was at the far edge of town and they were lucky to have found it.

When they first got to town and asked at the saloon, there hadn’t been any rooms available.  The small hotel in town had rooms, but they’d run into a problem.  They’d already signed the register when the manager got a good look at Johnny.

“You’re welcome to stay, Mister,” the hotel manager was quick enough to tell Val, “but we don’t rent to his kind.”

“What kind would that be?” Val ground out.

The manager looked nervous but didn’t back down.  “You know what kind.”

Val was ready to jump the desk and strangle the man when Johnny put a hand on his arm and shook his head.

“Let’s go.  I don’t like this place anyway.  I’d rather bed down with my horse than stay here.  Besides, the livery smells better.”

There had been only one other place in town and thankfully, the Mexican woman who ran the boarding house hadn’t turned them away.

They’d almost gotten to the boarding house when someone yelled, “Madrid.”

Johnny’s pivoted.  Midway of the street stood a man who looked to be in his late teens.  People hurried for cover much as they’d done when the wall of dust pushed its way along the street.

Val stayed where he was.  As much as he wanted to step in and take Johnny’s place, he knew he couldn’t.  It was a picture he’d seen repeated too many times in the last two years.  This was Madrid’s business, and Val was to stay out of it.

Val saw Sheriff Baker coming from the saloon.  Looking at the two men facing off, he turned without a word and walked back inside.  So much for the law in La Joya.

“I’ve been following you since El Paso. Saw you take down Al Singer.  I knew I could take you.”

“Is that so?  Guess you got a death wish.”

Johnny stood relaxed; eyes fixed on the other man.

“Not me.  You gonna draw?”

“You want this.  I’ll let you go first.”

Johnny saw the other man’s intent in a blink of an eye.  As his opponent’s hand started for his gun, Johnny had already drawn and fired.

The man’s knees buckled, a surprised look on his face. He was already dead when he hit the ground, face first.

Johnny still held his gun as he walked forward to check the man.  Making sure he was dead; he holstered the Colt.

The sheriff reappeared at the saloon doors and started towards Johnny. At the same time, Val stepped off the boardwalk and waited to see what would happen.

People were coming out of the buildings and edging closer to see the man on the ground.   Val started to hear murmurings from the crowd.   When he heard ‘Madrid,’ he walked to stand next to his friend.

“It was a fair fight.” Baker looked at the dead man and then at Johnny.  “I’ll take care of this one.  I still want you out of town in the morning.” 

Johnny didn’t say a word as he turned to Val.  The crowd, still whispering, separated and stepped back, allowing them to pass.


Once in their room, Johnny went straight to the washstand and looked at his reflection in the small mirror hanging on the wall.  Frowning, he rubbed the bruise on his right cheek and cocked his head to get a better look at the cut over his left eye and the split lower lip.

Val closed and locked the door, then turned to look at Johnny.  Shaking his head, he walked across the room, twisted Johnny around, and studied the young face.

Putting a hand on Johnny’s chin, Val turned the boy’s head to get a closer look.  The movement elicited a hiss.  Dipping a washcloth in a bowl of water on the washstand, he dabbed the cut over the eye. 

“It don’t look like it needs stitches.” 

Johnny didn’t say anything. 

Rewetting the washcloth, Val gently wiped the blood from the rest of Johnny’s face.  Running the cloth over the boy’s smooth skin, he absentmindedly thought it would be a couple of years yet before he’d start shaving.

“You alright?”

Again, there was no reply.

“You want to tell me why you got into a fight with three boys?”

When Johnny didn’t answer, Val reached and took Johnny’s right hand.  Examining the raw, scraped knuckles, he began to wash the blood away.

“You need to stop throwing punches with your gun hand.  You gotta hit someone, do it with your left.”  Val’s eyes drifted to Johnny’s face and then back to the hand. “I’m surprised you could draw your gun.”

Johnny glanced up at Val and then quickly lowered his head again.

“Make a fist.”

Johnny balled his hand and flinched.


Johnny nodded.

“You gonna be sick?”

Johnny took a deep breath and shook his head, trying to calm his stomach.

Val saw a slight change in pallor to the boy’s face. Killing a man hadn’t come easy to Johnny and Val was glad of it.  He’d seen too many young gunfighters killing for the sake of killing, just to build their reputations.  Johnny wasn’t like that.  He killed only when he had to.  Even then, it always made him sick. 

Fingering the torn sleeve of the shirt Johnny was wearing, Val sighed.

“You know you only got one other shirt and you shouldn’t be wearing it while we’re in town.  Every time you put it on, someone calls you out.”

His head still lowered; Johnny nodded.

“Well, take it off, and I’ll see if I can find someone who can mend it for you.” 

Johnny unbuttoned the tattered shirt and slipped it off his slim shoulders.  Bruises were already starting to form on his chest and back. 

“You think you got any cracked ribs?”

“No.” Johnny started to turn away when Val put out a hand and stopped him.  Seeing the expression on his friend’s face, Johnny sighed.  “No. They don’t feel broke, just sore.”

“You clean up. I’ll be back in a while.  We’ll get something to eat if you feel up to it.”

Val took the shirt and started for the door. 

“You ready to tell me why you got into that fistfight?”

Johnny shook his head, ‘No.’

“Alright then, you stay in the room.  We’ll talk when I get back.”    Hesitating, Val turned back. “You sure you’re alright?”

When he didn’t get an answer, Val left his friend alone.


Sitting on the edge of the bed, Johnny knew he was going to be sick.  Jumping up, he reached for the chamber pot under the bed, dropped to his knees and heaved.  When he finished, he covered the pot and shoved it aside. 

Dragging himself to his feet, he sat on the bed again, rubbing his already sore ribs.  Throwing up the remains of his breakfast made them hurt worse. Taking off his boots, he tossed them aside and then painfully laid on the bed.

Thinking back to a few hours earlier, it amazed him how much trouble he could find without even trying.  He’d been walking back to the boarding house to meet Val, minding his own business, when three of the town’s young bullies started following him.   He hadn’t wanted to fight the boys and tried to ignore their heckling; that was until he heard the words bastard and your mothers a whore.

The battle was on when, with a balled fist, he hit the self-proclaimed leader. The older boy flew backward, landing flat on his back, momentarily dazed, blood gushing from his mouth. 

Johnny grinned when he saw the look of surprise on the boy’s face.  

Almost immediately, the surprise was replaced by rage. Back on his feet, the boy ran at Johnny, fists clenched and arms swinging. 

Dodging the first punch and the second, the agile gunfighter landed another of his own on the boy’s right cheek.  The bully looked dumbfounded, realizing he was up against someone who was going to fight back.  

Johnny predicted the boy’s next actions. He’d seen bigger and better men react the same way. 

Lowering his head, looking like a bull on the prod, the heavyset boy let out a scream and then charged.  Sidestepping, Johnny landed a fist on the side of his opponent’s head. 

The boy went down, blood covering his face.    Lying stunned on the ground, he blinked and collapsed onto his back.

Anyone else would have thought it was over, but Johnny knew better.  He knew it wasn’t even close to being over.

The boy staggered to his feet.  Wiping blood from his nose, he looked at his friends.

“Don’t just stand there; get the little bastard!” 

The next thing Johnny knew, the four of them were wresting in the alley behind the boarding house.  With three boys pinning him to the ground and pounding away, they thought they had the upper hand. 

What the three older and bigger boys didn’t know was who they were up against.  Johnny had grown up on the streets and back alleys of some of the roughest towns along the border, learning street fighting from the best.

When it was over, he was still standing and the three town boys were lying in the dirt, bleeding, and unconscious.  He knew he’d catch hell from Val for fighting, but didn’t care. They’d called him a bastard.  He wasn’t born one but knew in the eyes of those in his world; that’s what he was. 

It had felt good to hit them; hit them over and over again until they didn’t get back up.  Each punch was a release of the anger he’d built up when it came to his mother and father, especially his father.  

Closing his eyes, Johnny rubbed his ribs again.  Maybe one of them was cracked, but it was worth the pain to have the memory of the three gringo boys lying at his feet.


Once outside the room, Val looked at the closed door.  He knew he was in over his head with the boy and didn’t know what to do.  Johnny was so very young and, at the same time, had the oldest soul of anyone he’d ever known. 

He needed to find a place for them to settle for a while; to put some stability in the young man’s life.  Moving from one job to the next, hiring their guns to the highest bidder, and killing for a living was no kind of life for a grown man, let alone a boy. 

Four months ago, they’d been working a job deep inside Mexico, below Nogales.  The next thing they knew, they were running for their lives after somehow wandering into in the middle of the war between the Mexican Army loyal to Benito Juarez and Emperor Maximillian’s French troops.

Hightailing it north, crossing into Arizona, they spent the next four weeks looking for work, only to find there wasn’t any.   After talking it over, they decided to head east into New Mexico.

The boy’s reputation was growing faster than he was.  There wasn’t a town in Sonora or along the Arizona border that didn’t know the name Madrid.  They’d discovered New Mexico was pretty much the same. 

After more discussion, Val talked Johnny into heading further east into Texas.  So here they were, trying to stay out of trouble and out of another war, this time between Union and Confederate troops.  It seemed in these unsettled times, there was no place an honest gunfighter could safely ply his trade. 

Looking at the torn shirt in his hand, Val went looking for someone to piece it back together…again.  Stopping in the kitchen, he found the woman who ran the boarding house.  Watching her stir a pot, he smiled when she started humming.


The stout woman turned away from the stove, giving the gunfighter a warm smile. 

“Si, Senor.”   Her eyes fell on the tattered shirt Val held and gave him a questioning look.

“Senora, do you know of anyone who can mend this for me?  It’s got a couple of tears in it.”

The woman wiped her hands on her apron and walked across the room.  Taking the shirt, she held it up; looking between Val and the shirt.

“No, ma’am, it ain’t mine.”

Her smile broadened.

“Si, Senor, I see it is too small for you.”  She looked closer at the tears and ran her fingers over the thin fabric.  “It has been mended many times, no?”

Val chuckled.  “Yeah…si, many times.”

“It belongs to the nino?”

“Nino?”  Val wasn’t sure what to expect.  He’d come to be less than trusting of people when it came to Johnny.  As the boy’s reputation grew, so did the chances of someone trying to harm him.

“Si, el nino pistolero de ojos azules, Juanito Madrid.”
(The boy gunfighter with blue eyes, Johnny Madrid.)

The woman knew the boy upstairs was Madrid.  Val reached for the shirt.

“No, Senor, está bien.  We know of him here.  He is most welcome.”  (It is alright)

Val gave her a suspicious look.  

“How do you know who he is?”

The smile on the woman’s face erased some of the wrinkles she bore. 

“Senor, word comes to us from Mexico of el nino pistolero.  They say he is muy bien, very good, with a gun.  They also say he has helped the people of our country.  He is most welcome here.”

Val relaxed slightly and took a breath. The last three jobs they’d had in Mexico was helping local villages, but that was in Sonora.  He didn’t know how word had gotten to Texas, and he didn’t care.  It felt good to hear someone say Johnny Madrid was welcome.

He turned his attention back to the matter at hand.  “The shirt Senora. Can you do anything?”

She looked at it once more and shook her head. 

“No, Senor, it is, delgado, thin…too thin to mend.”

 She looked at Val and then at some of the patched areas. 

“There have been many holes in the shirt, Senor.  Many bullet holes, I think.”

“Si, there have been.”  Val took the shirt back and stared at it.  “It’s the only one he has that he can wear and no one pays him any attention.”

“Si, he wears the camisa rojo when he fights.  I know. They say he wears the red shirt so that his blood will not show if he is wounded, so his enemies do not know he is hurt.  Is that so, Senor?”

Val laughed.  “No, Senora, but I guess it works.  He wears the camisa rojo, the red shirt, ‘cause he likes the damn thing.  Says it makes him feel bigger than he is.”  Val paused, wondering if she would understand.  “He feels …”

“I understand, Senor.  The camisa rojo makes him feel invincible.” 

“That’s right.  Well, I better see if I can find him something to wear.”  Val looked down at the shirt in his hands, fingering the tears.  “I should tan his hide for getting this one torn up.”

“Senor, you are not his Papa?”

“No. I’m not his father.  I wish I were, but …no.”

“Senor, I saw the fight.  Senor Madrid did not start it.  The tres gringo muchachos, the three gringo boys, called him bad names and he did nothing.  It was when they called him a… bastardo and his Mama una puta, a whore, that he hit the boy.  The other two jumped on top of Juanito and beat him.  I was going for help when Juanito kicked the first boy in los cojones.  Then he hit each of them until they no longer got up.” 

Val smiled.  It was just like Johnny to go for the boy’s family jewels.

“Un momento, Senor, I have a shirt that belonged to one of my guests.  He will not need it any longer.  It may fit Juanito.”

The woman went to another room and when she returned, she had two shirts, a pair of pants, and a pair of socks with her.  She handed them to Val with a smile. 

“Senora, I appreciate this and I know Johnny will too but are you sure this fellow won’t mind?

“No, Senor, está muerto.” 

“He’s dead. How?”

“Si.  El hombre was recently killed in a gunfight.”

“Killed?  Killed by who?”  Val wasn’t sure he wanted to know. Johnny had been in only one gunfight since coming into the area and that was this afternoon.

When the woman didn’t reply, he had his answer.

“Well, we just won’t tell Johnny that part of it.  Is that alright with you, Senora?”

“Si.  Now, take these to him.  I will fix something for you and Juanito to eat.  The Sheriff has asked that you leave town?”

“Yeah, tomorrow. Word sure does travel fast.  We were going to leave anyway.  I’m hoping we can find jobs further north, so we can rest up and maybe Johnny won’t be recognized so easy.”

“Perhaps you are right.  Madrid is not as well known in Texas.  I hope you find what you are looking for, Senor.  Go now.  I will fix something special for him for tonight.”  


Johnny opened his eyes.  Light streaming through the room’s window played across his face. Laying still, he started to drift off to sleep again, only to come fully awake when pain shot through his chest. 

Frowning, he tried to remember anything about the night before.   His last memory was of Val going to see about getting his shirt fixed.  He’d fallen asleep before his friend’s return and before any more questions.  He sure didn’t remember Val undressing him or putting him to bed.

Moving again, the pain in his ribs took his breath away.  Once he had the pain under control, he lifted the covers and slid off the bed.  

Stretching, he stood and looked around.  On a chair in the corner of the room, he saw his pants and a shirt he didn’t recognize.  He breathed a sigh of relief when he spotted his gun belt on the bedpost.

Wrapping the bedsheet around his waist, he stood up and started for the chair.  He’d only gone two steps when the door burst opened.

Johnny grabbed for his gun only to stop when he saw Val glaring at him.

“Good morning to you too, sunshine.”

Val kicked the door closed.  Carrying a pot of coffee and two cups across the room, he sat them on a small table near the window.  Sitting, he watched Johnny put the Colt back in his holster and gather the sheet around his waist again.

“You hurting?”  

Val could see the myriad of bruises on the boy’s chest and back.  The one that concerned him the most over the right rib cage.


Johnny nodded.  Making his way to the chair, he picked up his pants and slipped them on.  Reaching for the shirt, he held it up and looked at Val. 

“This ain’t my shirt.”

“It is now.  The other one was so thin it couldn’t be fixed.  We’ll use it for bandages.  The Senora who runs this place gave you that one.”

Johnny gave Val a questioning look.  “Why would she do that?”

Val sipped his coffee and smiled.  “I think she likes you.”

“I don’t think I’ve said two words to the woman since we got here.  What makes you think she likes me?”

Val laughed and shook his head.  “Hell, I don’t know, just get dressed.  There’s breakfast waiting for us downstairs.  I know you’re hungry.  You fell asleep last night without eating and what you did have in your stomach… well, just get dressed.”

“I’m ….,” Johnny started to say he wasn’t hungry when his stomach growled.   “I guess I could eat.  Give me a few minutes and I’ll be ready.”

Val stood up.  Going to the door, he glanced over his shoulder, watching Johnny buttoning up the shirt and noting it was slightly too large. 

Before Johnny could say anything, Val spoke up, “You’ll grow into it.”

Nodding, Johnny stuffed the shirttail into his pants.

Leaving Johnny to finish dressing, Val went downstairs to the kitchen.  The Senora looked up from the dishes she was washing when he into the room.

“He’ll be down in a minute.”

“And the shirt?”

Val smiled.  “It fit him well enough.  Gracias.”

The woman went back to her work. 

Once Johnny seated himself next to Val, a plate of huevos rancheros and a glass of milk appeared in front of him.  When he looked up, there was a smile on the woman’s face.   

Watching her turn back to her chores, the woman reminded Johnny of an Abuela in one of the villages where he’d lived.  There weren’t many who’d shown him kindness, but there were a few like this woman who’d given him food and shelter when he desperately needed it.

Johnny looked at Val, who shrugged, and then at the food in front of him.  Picking up a fork, he began shoveling the eggs into his mouth.

After another helping, Johnny pushed back from the table.  He found the woman looking at him.

“Gracias, Senora, fue muy bueno.”   (It was real good)

“De nada, Senor Madrid.”   The woman looked at Johnny’s blue eyes and smiled. “It has been an honor to have met you. You are becoming famoso in Mexico.” (famous)

“I am?” Johnny replied, surprised by the comment. 

“Si, our people call you el nino pistolero.”  (the boy gunfighter)

“Johnny, I think it’s time for us to pack up and move on.” 


Val stood and moved across the room, dragging Johnny with him.  He didn’t want the boy to ask more questions.  

Fame was like a shadow that hovered around a gunhawk, a shadow that eventually settled over him until there was nothing left, nothing but the blinding darkness.

Val had seen fame go to the heads of more than one gunhawk, fame built on their reputations.  The bigger the reputation, the more famous they became and soon they believed no one could outdraw them.  Blinded by that belief, those men made mistakes, mistakes that got them killed.

Johnny’s reputation and fame were just beginning to build.  The boy stood at the shadow’s edge.  If there was a way, Val wanted to keep the shadow at bay as long as he could.

No, Johnny wasn’t ready for the type of fame Val knew was coming his way.

“Gracias, Senora, for the shirt and breakfast.  We’ll be leaving as soon as we get our things together.”

“I will prepare food for you to take with you.  This one,” she motioned to Johnny, “he is too thin.  You will make sure he eats more?”

“Senora, trust me, it takes almost every cent we earn to keep him feed.”

“If that is so Senor, you are not being paid enough.”

Turning to leave the kitchen, Johnny looked at Val.  “You know, she’s right.  We don’t get paid enough.”

They laughed at the statement, but Val caught Johnny’s meaning.  They’d talked about it enough.  The boy dreamed of being the fastest and highest-paid gun in the southwest.  Val didn’t doubt it would happen, given time, and Val wanted him to have that time.

Johnny needed to grow and mature, not just physically but also emotionally.  Too much had happened to him in his short life.    To make it happen, they needed to find a safe place to settle down for a while.


While Val went for the horses, Johnny gathered their gear.  Taking one last look around the room and satisfied nothing was left behind, he headed for the door.  He’d just stepped outside the boarding house when he saw Val tying the horses to the hitching rail. 

Handing Val his saddlebags and rifle, Johnny was on his way to his horse when someone called out.

“There he is, Pa!”

The two gunfighters turned to see three men heading their way. Behind the men were three boys whose faces looked like they’d been in a meat grinder.

Val stepped away from his horse to face the men, giving Johnny time to finish getting their gear tied down. 

“Can I do something for you fellows?”

The men stopped, standing shoulder to shoulder.  One of them took a step forward, obviously acting as spokesmen for the others.  He gave Johnny a disapproving glare and then addressed Val.

“Is that your son?”

Val glanced over his shoulder, seeing that Johnny was almost finished.

“No,” Val answered, drawing out his response, “he’s not my son, but I’d be proud if he were.  Now, what do you want?”

“We want him to pay for what he did to our boys.”

Looking closely at the three boys Johnny fought, Val asked, “How old are those three?” 

The man hesitated.  Obviously, not expecting the question.


“My boy’s sixteen.”

“Sixteen?  And the others?  Are they …?”  Val raised both hands and took a deep breath.  “You don’t have to answer.  Mister, those boys are older than Johnny and outweigh him by at least 50 pounds each.  I’d say he’s paid enough.”

Johnny finished with their gear. Turning from the horses, he sauntered the short distance to stand next to Val.

“Mister, if your boy wants a rematch, I’m game.”

The man who had been doing the talking looked at Johnny’s thin build and bruised face before turning to his son. 

“Jeb, you’re sure this is the boy you fought with?”

“I’m sure, Pa, ” Jeb hissed.  “That’s him.”

The man shook his head, then took his hat off and slapped his son over the head with it.

“I’ll take this up with you at home,” he mumbled. “Three of you and you couldn’t take a mestizo.”

The man turned to go when Val spoke up, “You gonna apologize?”

Turning to look at Val, the man smirked. “I’m sorry, Mister.”

Val huffed.  “It isn’t me you need to be apologizing to, Mister.  It’s Johnny.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not apologizing to a mestizo cur.  He got what was due him.  I still don’t know how he bested my boy.”

Johnny took a step forward, laughing, “It wasn’t hard. Your boy’s a cobarde.  A coward. Anyone who has to have his friends help him beat on another man isn’t worth…..”

“Johnny,” Val growled. 

“You’re a liar.”  The Jeb lunged past his father, taking a swing at Johnny.

Ducking, Johnny drew back his fist and threw a right uppercut on the boy’s chin.  Val reached out, grabbed the back of Johnny’s shirt, and pulled him back, while Jeb’s father took hold of him.

Holding Johnny tight, he leaned into the boy’s ear and snapped, “Damn it, boy, not with your gun hand.”

Johnny tried to pull away.

“Calm down. We need to get out of here.”

“Let me go, Val.  I’ll beat the ….”

“No, you calm down.  I’ll take care of this.”

Releasing Johnny, Val stepped forward.

“You stay away from my son!”  Jeb’s father yelled. 

“Val, stop.” Johnny put a hand on his partner’s arm.  “You’re right. Let’s get out of here before I take a notion to shoot someone.”

Val stepped back.   “Alright, I’ll let it go.  You know, the hotel isn’t the only thing in this town that stinks.”

Walking back to his horse, Johnny swung into the saddle, spurred his horse, and not waiting for Val, headed out of town.

Val wasn’t going to let it go that easily.  Stepping into the saddle, he reined his horse around.  Looking down at the men, he ground out, “Count yourself lucky, Mister.  Them boys of yours, too.   Someday you can tell your grandkids Johnny Madrid’s was in a forgiving mood.  If he hadn’t been, this town would be burying you today.  If it were up to me…”   He didn’t finish the sentence.


“That’s right. That cur as you called him, was Johnny Madrid.  He just let you live and for the life of me I don’t know why.  Don’t many men get a second chance when dealing with Madrid. Ask the sheriff, he’s burying the last man who called Madrid out.  Like I said, you’re damn lucky.”


Val caught up with Johnny just outside of town.   

Reining up beside him, Val glanced over as Johnny shook his right hand and rubbed his knuckles.

“You alright?”


“I told you…”

Johnny sighed.  “I know, don’t hit with my gun hand.” 

“How are the ribs?”

“I’ll live.”

“I’m serious.”

Johnny reined his horse to a halt.  

“Look…,” he started and then saw the expression on Val’s face.  “I’m fine.  A little sore, but…”

“You’ll tell me if we need to stop.”  It wasn’t a question.

“Yeah.”  Johnny smiled.  “So where to?”


“North?  Where north?”

“You ever been to San Antonio?”

Johnny shook his head.  “No.  Why there?”

“Figure we get away from the border.  Maybe if we head north, there’ll be fewer people who know what you look like.”

“Val, San Antonio isn’t that far north.  It’s what…about 260 miles from here?”

“That’s right.”

“And you think no one up there is going to recognize me?”

“You’ve just started to build your reputation, and usually work further west and below the border.  No one in Texas is going to be looking to meet up with Johnny Madrid.  I bet they’ve never even heard of you up there.”

“San Antone it is then.” Johnny reined his horse around and headed north.  Looking over his shoulder, he called back, “Val, what happens if someone does recognize me?”

“We keep going north.  There’s a place up there somewhere we can settle down.”

Johnny didn’t say anything.  He knew Val wanted him out of the game.  The trouble was Johnny Madrid wasn’t ready to give it up.  He’d worked too hard for the reputation he was getting.

Johnny heard what the Senora at the boarding house said.  He was famous.  There was no way he was ready to settle down. Not yet. 


Four days after riding out of La Joya, the two gunfighters were on the outskirts of San Antonio. Although only a few hundred miles from the Mexican border, for Johnny, it was like another world. 

“Sure is big.” Johnny leaned forward, resting his arms over the saddle horn.  He was getting his first look at San Antonio.  With a population of over 15,000, the sprawling Texas city was the largest Johnny had seen north of the border.

“Val, are you sure about this?”

“It’s not as big as Mexico City and you did alright there.”

“Yeah, but…”

“I know, that was last year and you weren’t known down there.  It’s gonna be alright.  We talked this out already.  The further north we go, the less chance of someone recognizing you.  We won’t be here long.  We get a lead on work further north, and we’ll ride on.” 

Johnny sighed, knowing it was useless arguing with Val.   He’d tried and failed already.  Leaving Arizona and coming to Texas was Val’s way of trying to get him away from gunfighting.  Well, that hadn’t worked so far.  There’d been in three gunfights since leaving Arizona, all along the border, one in New Mexico and two in Texas.  

Weeding their way through the noisy, crowded streets, they’d found a livery stable right away.  When the owner told them how much it was going to cost to stable the horses, they moved on.  Thirty minutes later and asking twice for directions to the least expensive livery in town, they saw the sign ‘Hank’s Livery’ off a side street.   Dismounting, one look at the old building had them wondering if they were making the right decision.

“Take a look around inside and see what you think.”

Val held the reins of both horses while Johnny went inside.

A gunfighter relied on two things to survive, his gun and his horse.   The price may have been right, but if the stalls weren’t clean, then they’d move on and look somewhere else.

There were times Val and Johnny had gone without to ensure their horses were feed and watered.   They weren’t taking a chance of stalling the horses someplace they’d get sick.

A few minutes passed before the young man walked back out with a smile on his face.

“Didn’t see anyone in there, but I looked around.  There’s clean straw in the stalls, and the hay and water are fresh.”

“So, this is the place?”

“Yeah, it’s clean enough for me to sleep in if need be.”

Val didn’t say anything, but there was no way the boy was sleeping with the horses if he could help it.

Scanning the busy street, Val spotted a hotel across the street. 

“How about you take care of the horses?  I’ll find us a room.”

Starting to say something, Johnny changed his mind.  He knew Val would have a better chance of getting them a room either at the hotel or over the saloon than he would.  As they’d found out many times, most places wouldn’t rent a room to someone his age, and if they did, there was always the chance they wouldn’t rent to a mestizo.

Val looked at Johnny’s downturned head.  “You alright?”

“Val, I meant it.  I can sleep with the horses if you have trouble finding a place for both of us.”

“No, you won’t.  I’ll find a place.  Go on now, get the horses settled.”

 “Someday, I’ll be able to get the rooms. No one will turn me away.”

Val smiled.  “Yeah, someday that’s gonna be true, but not today.  Today, I’ve got a better chance.  I’m going over to the hotel first and see what they got.  I’ll be back to let you know where we’re staying.”

As Johnny watched Val walk across the street, he picked up the reins and walked the horses into the livery.   Still not seeing anyone, he started to call out when he heard the back door open and then close.

“Help you, young fellow?” 

Straining to see in the darkened livery stable, Johnny waited for the man to come closer.   Stopping a few feet in front of him, the tall blond-haired man looked to be in his 60’s and stood slightly taller than Val’s six-foot height.

“Si…Yes, sir.  I need to stall these two for the night.  We may need longer.  We’re going to be looking for work in the area.”

Peering over a pair of wire-framed reading glasses, the man first looked at Johnny’s face and then the gun on his hip.

“You know how to use that thing? You looking for gun work?”

Giving the man a cold gaze, Johnny answered, “I know how to use it, and no, we’re looking for ranch work.”


The man looked past Johnny to the open livery door.

“My partner and me.  Now, what about the stalls?” 

The man nodded.  “Take the last stalls on the right.  It’ll be two bits a night… each,… in advance.”

Johnny reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a fifty-cent piece, and started to toss it to the man.  At the last second, he pulled his hand back.

“That includes hay and oats, right?”

“When I dicker with a man, I like to know his name.  Mine’s Hank.”


“Alright now, Johnny,  it’s mighty nice to meet you.”

Johnny accepted Hank’s hand.

“Now, back to business.  I usually charge extra for feed.”

“And we don’t usually pay for feed. It’s included in the stall fee.  So… ”

“So, you expect me to stall and feed your horses for two bits a piece?”

“That’s right.  We can find someplace else to stall them, but I like it here.  I’d like to give you our business, that is if we can come to an understanding.”

When Hank didn’t respond, Johnny gave the man a thoughtful look then picked up the reins as if he planned to leave. 

Hank gave Johnny a long look before continuing.  “You sure drive a hard bargain.   I tell you what, Johnny, I’ll throw in the hay and grain for an extra two bits each.  That’s a dollar.”

“No, I don’t think so.”  Johnny turned and began to lead the horses away.

“Hold up there.  Dang it, don’t be in such an all-fired hurry.”

Johnny stopped and turned back.  “Well…?”

“Alright, seeing it’s getting late in the day and I need the business, I could throw the hay and grain in for an extra two bits.  That’s seventy-five cents.”

Johnny kept his eyes fixed on the man and slowly shook his head. 

“How about two bits each, and that includes the hay and oats.”

“Now, I don’t know about that.”  Thinking for a second, the man gave Johnny a toothy smile.      “You drive a hard bargain, young fellow.  Alright, I’ll throw in the hay and oats.  Now, go on and put ‘em up.  I’ll unsaddle and rub ‘em down for you.”

“How much?”

The man laughed.  “No extra charge.”

Johnny grinned.  “Deal.”

“In advance.”

Laughing, Johnny reached into his pocket again, pulled out the fifty-cent piece, and handed it to Hank.

Johnny led the horses to their stalls, noting the man was following.

“You’re not from around these parts, are you?”

“No, we’re from further south.”

“Thought so.  You look Mexican and got a bit of an accent, too.”

Johnny stopped pulling the saddlebags off his horse and looked at the man. 

 “I do?” Johnny frowned.  “I’ve been trying to lose it.  Guess I’m going to have to work harder.”

“You’re almost there.  It ain’t much, but I’m from El Paso and I’ve got an ear for the accent.  You ever been to El Paso?”

Johnny turned to face the man.  “Yeah, I’ve been to El Paso and a lot of other places.”

Hank stood with his arms folded over the stall wall, watching Johnny pull the saddle off his horse. 

“You got ‘em settled?” Val asked as he strolled” into the darkened livery.

“They’re settled,” Johnny answered, draping the saddle over the wall.  “ Val, this is Hank.  Hank my partner Val Crawford.”

The two men shook hands.

“Nice to meet you, Crawford.”

Johnny moved to Val’s horse and started removing the tack.  “Hank and me worked out a good price for stalling the horses.”  Smiling, Johnny looked at the liveryman.  “Isn’t that right?”

Hank laughed.  “Yeah, the boy’s good.  Made sure I threw in the hay and oats.”

“And just how good a price is it?”

“Two bits a night, each.”   Johnny looked at Val with the same smile.

“Good.  I got us a room at the hotel.”   Turning to the liveryman, Val asked, “Is there a bathhouse around where we can get cleaned up?”

“Sure is.  Go left out the door and down a block.  The bathhouse is on the right.  If you’re hungry for the best Mexican food in town, go another block and turn left.  Lupe has the best tamales I’ve tasted since I left El Paso.  Tell her Hank sent you.  She’ll give you the house rate.”


Val started to turn when he heard the man say, “And don’t worry, young fellow, I won’t say a word to anyone about who you are.”

Val stared at the man.  “And just who do you think he is, old man?”

Hank smiled.  “I may live in San Antonio now, but I visit El Paso regularly.  I saw the boy in a gunfight a few months ago.”

“Maybe we should keep heading north, Val.”  Johnny sighed with a slump to his shoulders.

“No need for that.  Like I said, I was in El Paso when I saw you.  Not many of the folks around here go that close to the border or that far from home.  You get a bath and something to eat.  I’ll take care of the horses for you.  No one is going to hear the name Madrid from me.”

As Val and Johnny stepped out of the livery, Hank caught up with them.

“Mister… Johnny, you said you’re looking for work?”

“That’s right.”

“There’s a ranch a good two hours ride north of here near San Marcos.  They’re hiring for the roundup and branding.  I know you can get a job there.  Just tell Art Stoner…”

Val and Johnny both said it at the same time, “That Hank sent us.”

Hank laughed.  “That’s right.  Art will treat you right.”


San Marcos, Texas, fifty miles northeast of San Antonio, was an easy two-hour ride.   The land around the small town was green, laced with streams and rivers making it perfect for cattle.

By the time they rode into town, Val was convinced he’d made the right decision in bringing Johnny north.   They’d spent two days in San Antonio.  The boy hadn’t relaxed once during that time.  

For a small town of fewer than 700 people, San Marcos was unusually friendly.   People greeted them on the streets with a smile, and it wasn’t hard getting directions to Art Stoner’s Rocking S Ranch.  More importantly, no one gave Johnny a second look.

By noon, the two hopeful ranch hands were headed out of San Marcos and riding toward the Rocking S.  Shortly before reaching the ranch, Val pulled up and motioned Johnny to the side of the road.  

His hand going to his gun, Johnny looked around for the trouble he was sure Val had seen. 

“What’s wrong?”

Val shook his head.  “Nothing, I just want to talk to you before we get there.”

Relaxing, Johnny shifted his hand back to the saddle horn.

“Alright, talk.”

Val rubbed the back of his neck and looked away.  Then looking back, he hesitated.

“Just get is said, Papi.  What’s wrong?”

“Johnny, we’re gonna ride in there and the first thing Stoner’s gonna see is what everyone sees when they look at you and me.  He’s gonna look at our guns and figure out what we are before we open our mouths.  Now, me, I might get away with wearing my gun low.  I don’t wear it as low as you, but …you advertise you’re a gunhawk.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed.   “I hope you’re not saying what I think you are.  Val, you know there’s no way I can take my gun off.  What if someone recognizes me and calls me out?  What the hell am I supposed to do, ask them to hold up while I go get my gun?”

“Johnny, all I know is you can’t wear your holster that low, maybe if you raise it on your hip.  You’ve got a backup piece in your saddlebag; trade it out for your working gun.”

Johnny crossed his arms over the pommel and leaned forward.  He sat like that for a full minute before reaching for his gun and pulling it from the holster.   Holding it up, he sighed. 

He’d paid a lot for his working gun, used every cent he could scratch together to have a gunsmith in Abilene make the gun belt and Colt to his specifications.    The gun fit his hand like an extension of his arm.   But he knew Val was right.  One look at the gun and the way he wore it, and they’d never get the job. 

When Johnny dismounted, so did Val.  He walked around his horse to watch Johnny open his saddlebag and pull out a spare rig and gun.

“Here, hold this.”   Johnny handed the backup rig to Val.

Johnny unbuckled his working gun belt, wrapped it around the holster, and placed in his saddlebag.  Taking the gun belt Val was holding, Johnny put the belt around his waist and tightened it down.


Johnny frowned.

“Any higher and I might as well not be wearing one at all. I’ll never be able to draw.”

Seeing the expression on Val’s face, Johnny huffed, but reset the gun on his hip so that it was higher than before.

“There, now you satisfied?”

Val grinned.

“That looks fine. Now make sure you don’t wear that red shirt or show your working gun to anyone while we’re here, and you’ll do just fine.”

“So, what’s our story going to be?” 

Val thought for a moment.  As much as he’d like to have Johnny as a son, the boy had made it plain from the beginning he didn’t need a Pa.  What Johnny wanted was a friend, and that’s what he’d been to the boy.  Sure, there had been times when he acted like a father and Johnny let him, but more times than not, Johnny would remind him with either words or actions that Val wasn’t his father.

“What do you think we should do?”

“Easier to tell the truth than cover up a lie.  We’re going to be lying to these people enough as it is.  You found me in Tucson two years ago and couldn’t get shed of me.  We’ve been together ever since.”

Val nodded.  It was the truth, mostly.  He’d found Johnny facing a man down in a Tucson street.  Shocked the hell out him when he realized the gunfighter in the red shirt, was the kid he’d been trying to find for six years.

When Johnny was five, Val moved in with the boy’s mother in a small village in Mexico.  They’d lived together for almost a year, before he got a job north of the border.  When he returned, Maria and Johnny were gone.  He spent the next six years working gun jobs all over Mexico and along the border looking for them.  He’d come close to finding them a few times, but each time they’d disappear only to show up a few months later in another town. 

It wasn’t until that day in Tucson, he discovered the twelve-year-old blue-eyed boy he’d been searching for had become a gunfighter.  Not just any gunfighter, but an up and coming fast gun with a reputation.  After Tucson, Val had latched on to the boy and hadn’t let him out of his sight since. 

“Alright, that’s the story then.  Easy enough to remember, but we can’t tell anyone your name’s Madrid.”

“I’ll say my name is Johnny, just Johnny.  If anyone pushes, we’ll think of something else.”

 “You know you could use my last name.” Val hesitated. “That is if you wanted.” 

Thinking for a moment, Johnny said it aloud, “Johnny Crawford.”   Then shook his head.  “I’m sorry, Papi, but well, …”

“Smartass,” Val grumbled.  “All right, just tell them you aren’t sure what your last name is.  That’ll be the truth, too.”

Johnny’s shoulders straightened and his head shot up.

“I know what my real last name is Val. Not likely to forget it.  The man kicked Mama and me out.  There’s no way I want to use his name.  If I did, I’d be hiring out as Johnny Lancer instead of Madrid.”

It broke Val’s heart to hear the pain in Johnny’s voice when he talked about his father.  He knew good and well what Maria told the boy; told both of them.  He just didn’t know if it was all true.


Nestled in a shallow valley along the Blanco River, Art Stoner’s Rocking S Ranch was ten miles east of San Marcos.

An oversize wooden entry gate, with the ranch name on it, loomed over the road leading to the ranch house.   The white two-story building with a porch wrapping around the front and two sides of the structure stood out against the beauty of the valley.   Well maintained outbuildings on the property; a large barn,  bunkhouse, and three corrals all spoke of a man who took pride in his ranch.

As Val and Johnny made their way to the house, a tall man with blonde hair and a graying mustache opened the front door and stepped onto the porch.

Waiting until the riders came to a halt, the man called out, “Morning. Can I help you?”

Val dismounted.  Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Johnny still mounted, scanning the yard for any signs of a threat.   Only after assuring himself there was no danger, did the young gunhawk throw a leg over the pommel and slid to the ground.   

Val took a few steps forward.  “We’re looking for Mr. Stoner.”

“I’m Art Stoner.”

“We’re looking for work.  Hank at the livery stable in San Antone said you were hiring.”

“Hank sent you?”

If Stoner was surprised, he didn’t show it.  Maybe, Hank sent a lot of men looking for work to the ranch.

“Yeah, he did.  Nice fellow.  He said to be sure and tell you that he sent us out here.  He said you needed extra hands for the roundup and branding.”

Stoner looked at Val and then gave Johnny an appraising look.

“Is the boy your son?”

It was Johnny who answered, “No, he ain’t my Pa.”  Then giving Val a brief smile. “He treats me like his cub at times, but I’m not.”

Stoner nodded.

“So, have you got a job for the two of us?” Val asked.

“I can use the help, but I need men, not boys.”

Johnny moved forward, blue eyes flashing.  “Mister, I can do a man’s work. I might look young and I guess I am, but I stopped being a boy a long time ago.”

Stoner smiled faintly and gave Johnny a second look as if seeing him for the first time.

“Hold on, don’t get your dander up, young fellow.”  Stoner laughed and looked at Val.  “Alright, I can use you both. With most of the men from around here away, fighting in the war, it’s been hard getting help. I’m glad to have you.”

It wasn’t the first time Val and Johnny had gotten ranch work because most of the able-bodied men in the southwest were back east fighting.   Four years earlier, when the War Between the States started, Val was in Mexico.  He’d given thought to joining the Confederate cause but didn’t want to give up the search for Maria and Johnny.  He’d never regretted his decision.

“Thanks, Mr. Stoner,” Val replied with a grin.  “Just tell us where we can bed down and stall our horses.”

“The bunkhouse is over there.  There should be a couple of empty bunks.”   Stoner frowned. “On second thought, I don’t fancy having someone as young as…. You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

“I’m Val Crawford.  This is Johnny.”

“Johnny?  Johnny what?”

“Just Johnny.  No need for a last name, Mr. Stone.”  Johnny answered.

“I don’t fancy someone as young as Johnny in the bunkhouse with the older men.  I’ve got a storage shed out back of the house.  We can fix it up for him.  Crawford, you can stay in the bunkhouse.”

Val looked at Johnny for a decision.  “That alright with you?”

Johnny nodded.  “Sounds alright, but I’m used to sleeping in the bunkhouse with the other men.”

Stoner gave Johnny a stern look.  “It’s either the shed or you can move on.  I’ll not have you in the bunkhouse with the men.”

“That’s settled then,” Val jumped in before Johnny could say any more and ruin the chance at getting the job.  “Once we get our gear stowed, we’ll be ready to start work.”

“You can start tomorrow.  I’ll have my foreman get what Johnny needs and then you can take a look around.  My wife’s inside getting lunch ready. You both can eat with us today.”

Stoner turned and walked back inside without a backward glance.

Val shrugged.  “I guess we’re eating with the family.  Come on, let’s get the horses stalled and take a look at where you’re gonna be sleeping.”

Johnny followed Val to the barn, thinking he’d seen Stoner somewhere before.  Unable to pinpoint where exactly, he put it out of his mind.



“How much are we getting paid?”

Val stopped, shook his head, and laughed.  “Hell, if I know.  We’ll find out later.  Right now, we got a place to bed down and something to eat.  Come on.”


Sarah Stoner was smiling as she placed a second helping of fried chicken on the young man’s plate.  

When her husband announced he’d hired two new men, she thought nothing of it.  When he said one of them was young, again she brushed it off.  But when she saw the boy, she’d stopped and stared.

The slender, dark-haired young man who walked into her kitchen had the most beautiful blue eyes she’d ever seen.   Smiling as she greeted them, she couldn’t take her eyes off of the boy’s handsome face.

“Hello, I’m Sarah Stoner. I understand Art hired you.”

“Yes, ma’am, he said for us to come in here to eat.  I’m Val Crawford and this is Johnny.  We don’t want to be a bother.” 

“It’s no bother.  Please have a seat.  You can put your hats on the rack by the door.”

After the men sat down, Sarah looked at Johnny. “I hope you like fried chicken.”

The boy looked at her with a smile that would have melted the heart of any woman.

“Si, Senora…. I mean, yes, ma’am, I like it fine.”

She hadn’t stopped smiling since he’d spoken those words.

“Johnny…Johnny, isn’t it?”

The boy swallowed hard and nodded.  “Yes, ma’am.”

“Art told me you’d be staying in that tiny storage shed behind the house.  It’s a mess right now, but I’ll have some of the men clean it out and move a bed in for you.  If you need anything, let me know.”

She’d caught him again with a mouth full.  He mumbled, “Yes, ma’am.  Right kind of you, ma’am.”

“My, aren’t you polite.  Would you like another piece of chicken?”  As an afterthought, she looked at Val.  “How about  you, Mr. Crawford?”

Val chuckled.  “No, ma’am, I’m full.  Johnny, you want some more?”

“No, ma’am, I’ve had enough.  If I eat any more, I think I’ll bust.  It was real good, Mrs. Stoner.”

Val laid his napkin down and pushed back from the table.

“Come on, Johnny, let’s get the lay of the land.  I figure work starts early around here and we need to know what to do tomorrow.  Thank you, Mrs. Stoner.”

As Val and Johnny were leaving the kitchen, Art walked in.

“My Misses get you fed?”

“Yes, sir,” Johnny answered, “and it sure was good.  Val and I are going to take a look around the spread.  We’ll be ready to start work in the morning.”

“That’s fine.  I’ll be around if you have any questions.  My foreman will be back in a couple of hours.  His name is Joel Nash.”

Johnny took both his hat and Val’s from the hat rack.  Handing Val his hat, he turned once again to face Sarah.

“Thank you again, ma’am.  Come on, Val.”

Johnny led the way out of the house.

Once outside, Val put a hand at the back of Johnny’s neck and gave him a gentle squeeze.

“Well, hijo, I think we’re gonna like it here.”

“Papi, we get a few more meals like that and I’m gonna gain ten pounds.  It sure was good and Mrs. Stoner is real nice.”

“You could stand to gain some weight, and yes, she is nice.”

They were almost to the bunkhouse when Johnny stopped and looked at Val.

“We still don’t know how much we’re getting paid.”

Val laughed.  “That meal was worth a day’s wages in my book.  We’ll figure it out, but as long as we eat and have a place to sleep, I’m happy.”

“Me, too.”  Johnny started walking again.  “Wonder what they’re gonna have at the bunkhouse tonight for supper?”

Val rolled his eyes, thinking ‘bottomless pit’ and ‘wooden leg.’


“Well, Sarah, what did you think of our new hands?”

“Art, I know we’re short-handed, but the boy’s so young.  Are you sure he can do the work?”

Art sat at the table, accepting a cup of coffee from his wife.

“Honey, I don’t know.  There’s something about him that’s different from other boys his age… whatever age that is.  I get the feeling he’s seen a lot in his few years.  We’ll see how he is at taking orders.”


The next morning, the men in the bunkhouse were stirring long before the sun came up.

Val turned over, opening his eyes and looked around.  It took him a moment to remember where he was and another moment to remember why Johnny wasn’t with him.

The day before, they’d helped the ranch hands clean out the storage shed Johnny was going to use.  By supper time, Mrs. Stone made sure a bed and a side table were in the small building.

Val remembered the smile on Johnny’s face as he stood in the doorway of the shed. 

“Well, what do you think?”  Val stood next to him.

Making sure no one was listening, Johnny nodded.  “Papi, I got my own room.”

When it came time to turn in, Val went to the bunkhouse and Johnny to his room.  It was the first time in almost a year they’d been separated at night, except when a job required it.  

Stretching and yawning, Val quickly dressed and stomped on his boots.  As he headed for the door, Joel Nash called out, “Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes.”

“I’ll be right back.  Got to make sure Johnny’s awake.  He’s not used to getting up this early.”

Barney Darnell, one of the ranch hands, mumbled, “None of us is.”

For the next week, they worked side by side with the ranch hands of the Rocking S and other ranches in the area, rounding up the herds.   To Johnny’s relief, no one paid him any undue attention. 

Johnny had limited experience with cattle but caught on quickly.  It was when the branding started that he figured hiring out his gun was a hell of a lot easier.   By the end of each day, he was too tired to do anything but eat and fall into bed.

Most nights, Val and Johnny ate with the hands in the bunkhouse. However, Sarah Stoner had taken a liking to the boy and decided bunkhouse food wasn’t good enough for him.  On those nights, they ate in the main house with the Stoners.

Val was happy.  Five weeks after hiring on with the Rocking S, they had fallen into a healthy routine and neither he nor Johnny was complaining.  Johnny was filling out, putting on weight from regular meals, and building muscle from hard work.

Still, there was something Val had been thinking about for a while and decided it was time to talk to Art Stoner.  After coming in from the range one afternoon, he left Johnny to take care of the horses and went to find the boss. 

Walking up to the house, Val was almost to the porch when the door opened and Art stepped out.

“Mr. Stoner, have you got a minute to talk?”

Art nodded.  “Is there a problem, Val?  I hope you aren’t going to tell me you’re drawing your wages and moving on.”

Val laughed and shook his head.  “No, sir, everything’s fine.  Things are working out good for us here.  It’s Johnny I want to talk to you about.”

Art moved to one of the chairs on the front porch and motioned for Val to take the one next to him.

“Have a seat. What’s on your mind?”

“Mr. Stoner, Johnny and me have been moving around for some time now.  We like it here and we’re wondering if there was a chance we could stay on now that the roundup and brandings finished?”

Art didn’t have to think long. 

“You’re both good workers.  I have to admit, in the beginning, I had doubts about Johnny, but he’s carried his weight.  Staying on won’t be a problem.  I know Sarah has taken a shine to the boy and would hate to see him leave.”

Val smiled.  “Most folks take a shine to Johnny if they give him a half a chance.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

Val looked away and then back at Art.  “Well, it’s like this.  Johnny hasn’t had much schoolin’.  He can read some, mostly in Spanish and can do sums, but he needs more.”

Art understood the problem.  “How much can he read?”

“I’m not really sure.”

“Val, how long have you known Johnny?”

Val hesitated, remembering the story they’d planned to tell.

“I’ve known him off and on since he was five, but we’ve only been riding together a couple of years.”

“And he hasn’t gone to school in that year?”

“No.  Like I said, we move around a lot.  There hasn’t been time for him to go.”

Giving it some thought, Art said, “There’s a school in San Marcos.  He can go there.”

Val shook his head.  “I don’t think I’d get him to go to a proper school.  I can’t imagine Johnny M… I can’t imagine Johnny sitting in a classroom with a bunch of younger kids.  I was thinking more on the lines of someone who could school him here at the ranch, or he could go to them.  I can pay for it.”

Art laughed and took a deep breath.  “Yes, I would imagine it would be awkward if anyone knew Johnny Madrid was attending school.”

Val shot out of the chair, giving Art a suspicious look.

“Sit down, Val.  Don’t worry. I’ve not told anyone who he is.”

“How did you know?”

“I recognized him that first day.  Granted, I had my doubts about him being here, but like I said, he’s a hard worker and, more importantly,  hasn’t caused any trouble.”

“I mean…?”

“How did I know who he is? My brother and I were in El Paso at the end of last year.  We saw him in a gunfight.”

“Your brother?”

Art smiled.  “Yes, Hank’s my older brother.”

Val laughed.  “You know Johnny said something about you reminding him of someone.”   Heaving a sigh, Val asked, “So, you see the problem with the boy attending a public school?”

“I don’t see another choice if you want him to get an education from someone who knows what they’re doing.  To my knowledge, there aren’t any private tutors in the area. What do you say I talk to the teacher in San Marcos and see what she has to say?  You talk to Johnny about it.”

“Thanks, Mr. Stoner.  I’ll do that, but Mr. Stoner….”

“Don’t worry.  I won’t tell the teacher who Johnny is.”


“Are you out of your mind!? There ain’t no way in hell, I’m going to go to school!  Can you see me sitting in a schoolroom with kids who know more than I’ll ever know!?” 

Johnny stomped around the living room, yelling at Val, while Art and Sarah Stoner sat quietly, letting the young man wear off his mad.

“Did you know about this, Mr. Stoner?” 

Johnny saw the expression on his boss’s face.

“Sure, you did.  Bet you got a chuckle out of it too.  Well, it ain’t happening.  You can forget it.”

“Johnny, you need more schoolin’ than I can give you.  You’re smart.  You know you are.  Once someone tells you something or shows you, you remember it.  I’ve talked it over with Mr. Stoner and he’s gonna let us stay on.  You can go to school during the day and do some work in the evenings and weekends… after you get your homework done.”

“HOMEWORK?  Crawford, you are out of your mind?  NO!  Absolutely, no!”

Sarah sat for a moment longer, watching Johnny pace.  Finally, she’d had enough and stood up.

“John, stop.”

Johnny stopped pacing and looked at the woman. 

“I know you’re scared….”

“I ain’t scared of nothing.”

“You’re not scared of anything,” she corrected him.

“That’s what I said.”

“No. You don’t understand.  You said, ‘I ain’t scared of nothing.’  The correct way to say it is, ‘I’m not scared of anything.’  Do you see the difference?”

Frustrated, Johnny huffed, “It means the same thing.  It’s just a fancier way of saying it.” 

“It may mean the same, but there’s a proper way of speaking and an improper way.  That’s something you can learn in school.”

Johnny opened his mouth, but before he could speak,  Sarah raised her hand. 

“John, I think the thought of going to school and sitting in a classroom frightens you.  Being with other people your age and younger who have no idea what your life has been or what you’ve been through.”

Johnny’s brow furrowed. 

“What do you mean by what my life has been?”

“Johnny, we know who you are.  We also know your life has been anything but easy, but …”

Val was on his feet when he saw Johnny bolting for the door, but Sarah stopped him.

“Stop right there, young man!”

Johnny shook his head and kept going.

“I said stop!”

Johnny had his hand on the doorknob when her voice brought him to a standstill.

“Good, now come back here.  We need to talk.  You running away isn’t going to solve anything.”

Johnny turned to look at her.  “No need.  There’s nothing to talk about.”

Sarah stood up and walked to stand in front of Johnny.  Reaching out a hand, she laid it lightly on his shoulder.

“There’s everything to talk over. Please, come back and sit down.”

Johnny started to shake his head when he looked up to see the expression on Val’s face.  His friend wanted so much for him, more than he wanted for himself.   Val’s eyes were pleading for him to listen.

“I can’t do it!  I can’t …”

“No, you listen to me.  You’re going to settle down and hear me out.  It’s the perfect opportunity for you.  I’m sure you can do some sums; otherwise, you wouldn’t know how much someone was paying you for a job.  I know you can read.  However, I hope it’s more than being able to read a wanted poster.”

Johnny stood with his mouth open.

“Close your mouth, young man, and sit down.  We need to discuss this quietly.”

Val hid a smile as Johnny stomped back across the room and plopped into a chair.

“How do you know who I am?”

“I’m afraid I told her,” Art confessed. “I was in El Paso with my brother late last year and saw you in a gunfight.  Never seen anyone so fast.”

Johnny smiled.  “Your Hank’s brother?”


“Mrs. Stoner, I know I haven’t had much learning, but I get by alright.  I just can’t see myself sitting with a bunch of kids who have no idea what it’s like in the real world.”

“Johnny, I’ve spoken to Miss Havens.  She the school teacher.”  Art waited to see what Johnny’s reaction would be.  When he didn’t get a response, he continued.  “She’s willing to meet with you and give you a test to see your grade level is.  Will you at least do that much?”

“Mr. Stoner…”

Val cut him off.

“Hijo, just try it.  Meet with the lady and see what she says.”

“You aren’t gonna let it go, are you?” Johnny snapped.  Looking at the people in the room, he sighed.  “Alright!  I’ll take the test and see what she says, but I’ll be damned…excuse me, ma’am.”

“That’s alright, Johnny, go ahead.”

“I ain’t making no promises.  I’ll see what the teacher has to say, but…don’t expect me to sit on the front row with a bunch of six-year-old kids.”

Val was the first to smile, followed by Art and Sarah.


“Val, would you sit down?  You’re making me nervous.”

Val looked at Sarah Stoner, shook his head, and kept pacing.  The day had come for Johnny to meet the school teacher and take the tests.  Val didn’t know who was more anxious that morning, him or Johnny. 

It took all three of them, the Stoners and Val, to get Johnny to the schoolhouse.  They had the expected battle over him wearing a gun.  Sarah winning out with her reasoning that Johnny would have the three of them to watch his back, and there was no need to wear it.  Still, it took an extra fifteen minutes of discussion to get Johnny out the door and on his horse.

 Now, they were waiting to find out the test results. 

“Never thought I’d be worried about him going to school.  Worried about him catching a bullet, yes, but never thought I’d be worried about him failing a test.”

“He isn’t going to fail,” Sarah reassured him.  “There is no fail.  It’s only going to tell Miss Havens what grade he should be in or if he should go to school at all.”

Art Stoner wondered what would happen if Johnny didn’t do well on the test.  He knew the young man would never set foot in the schoolroom if placed with smaller children.  If he did well and ended up with the older students, would he fit in with them?   Knowing the boy’s background and reputation, he held his concerns, wondering whether it was wise to put him in this environment at all.   

Art was brought out of his musings when the door to the schoolhouse opened.  Johnny stomped down the steps.  Without looking at any of them, he went straight to his horse, swung into the saddle, and rode away.

Val and the Stoners turned to see Lorna Havens come out of the schoolhouse door and stand at the top of the stairs.

Looking at the three apprehensive people, she waved them forward.

“Come in.  I need to talk to you.” 

Val hung back, letting Art and Sarah go up the stairs ahead of him.

“Please, sit down.”

Once everyone was seated, Lorna Havens turned to look at Val.  The petite 5-foot 4-inch hazel-eyed blond smiled, saw the look of panic on the man’s face.

“You’re John’s …what?  I know you’re not his father.  Are you his guardian?”

“No, ma’am, I’m not his guardian.  Let’s just say we look out for each other and leave it at that.”

“Very well.”  The young lady placed her hands on the desk and took a deep breath. “Before we begin, I have a question.  How old is John?”

Val dipped his head.  “I’m not real sure.  I think he’s fourteen, at least that’s what we tell folks when they ask.”

“And he’s had no formal education?”

Val gave her a puzzled look.

“What I mean is, has he gone to school?”

“He’s gone some, but I don’t know for how long or when it was.  I know he hasn’t been to school in the last…five or six years for sure.  He can read, but he’s better in Spanish than  English.”

Miss Haven’s hesitated, before proceeding.

“Mr. Crawford, John completed the tests I assigned him.  He had difficulty reading some of the questions, but once I helped him, he didn’t have a problem.  John grasped the meaning of the questions, analyzed them, and provided answers almost immediately. He has a quick mind, quicker than anyone his age I’ve ever met.   Frankly, I was amazed at how astute he is. 

“Now, to the basics.  John can add and subtract quite well.  It appears he has a firm understanding of finances.  His handwriting is excellent, although he does have difficulty with the correct spelling of many words.  Reading is his weakest area and where we need to concentrate.”

Miss Havens put her hand to her chin.  “You said he reads better in Spanish.  That makes sense.  He’s from Mexico, am I right?”

“Yeah, … I mean, yes, ma’am, he grew up in Mexico, down along the border, mostly.”

“I can see now that he’ll have to concentrate on his English.”

Val gave Miss Havens a questioning look.

“Ma’am, what did you say to Johnny that had him storming out of here and riding away mad?”

The teacher shook her head.  “I honestly don’t know.  I told him what I told you, that he’d done well and that I was putting him in the 6th grade.  I explained he would learn reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history.  He can start school on Monday.”

Val relaxed.  “He passed?”

“That’s what I said.” She smiled at the expression on Val’s face, the face of a proud parent.  “I’ll start him out slowly, but I don’t believe it will take long for him to catch up to the other 6th graders.”

“Did he say anything?”

“He said, ‘I’ll think about it’ and then stormed out.”

Art and Sarah looked at Val.

“Don’t worry.  I’ll talk to him.  Johnny has to do things in his own time.  Give him some time to think about it and he’ll come around.  We’ll see you Monday morning, ma’am, and thank you.”

“You’re welcome.  I look forward to seeing him excel.  As I said, he is quite bright.”

Once outside the schoolhouse, Val shook his head. 

“Can’t believe he’s gonna go to school.”


Val found Johnny sitting under a large oak at the back of the house.  Walking to stand in front of the boy, Val started to speak when Johnny beat him to it.

“I changed my mind.  I ain’t going.”

Val smiled.  “Sure, you are.  You just got to get it straight in your head.  Mrs. Stoner has already picked you up some new clothes to wear.”

Johnny’s head shot up.  “She did? She shouldn’t have done that.”

“Look, Johnny, go for a while and see how it goes.  You might like it.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then all you’ve wasted is some time and who knows, you might learn something.”

Resigned to his fate, Johnny nodded. 


Val pounded on the storage shed door.  

“Hurry up, Johnny, you’re going to be late for school.” 

Looking at Sarah Stoner, he shook his head.  “I never thought I’d ever say those words, especially to him.”

She laughed, almost as anxious as Val was to get Johnny off to his first day of school.

The door to the shed opened. 

Val and Sarah stepped back and waited.

Johnny walked out, dressed in a new shirt and pants, hair combed, and boots polished. 

Val smiled.  No one would ever recognize the young man standing in front of him as Johnny Madrid.  His eyes fell to the gun on Johnny’s hip, and the smile slid away.

“You can’t wear a gun to school.”

Johnny’s eyes blazed.  “Then, I ain’t going!”

Val put his hands on his hips but didn’t say anything.

Johnny shook his head and paced away, then turned back.  “I don’t know if I can do this.”

Val moved forward and put a hand on his shoulder.

“There are only four people around here who know who you are.  I’m one of them, Mr. and Mrs. Stoner, and Hank Stoner are the other three.  We sure aren’t going to be telling anyone.  Besides, no one is ever gonna recognize you dressed like that.”

Johnny looked down at his clothes.  “I look like a gringo.”

“Exactly.  No one would recognize you as Johnny Madrid.”

“Johnny, you’re so handsome,” Sarah stepped forward and pushed Johnny’s hair back from his forehead.   “Now, are you ready?”

Val looked at Johnny and smiled, knowing the boy’s resolve was melting.

“As ready as I’m ever gonna be.   Look, I’ll take my gun off and stow it in my saddlebag, but I won’t leave it behind.  I want it close in case I need it.”

Val nodded. “Alright then, but we need to get going.”


Walking up to the steps of the school, Johnny hesitated.  Val, like a doting parent, was right beside him.

Miss Havens meet them at the door.

“You look very handsome, John.  I forgot to ask for your last name.  I need it for our school records.”

“It’s just John, ma’am.”

“Just ‘John’ isn’t going to work.  I do need a last name.”

Johnny looked at Val and lowered his head.  He couldn’t give her the name Madrid and he’d already told Val he wasn’t going to use Crawford.  There was only one other name he could use.

“Lancer, the name’s Lancer.  John Lancer.”

Val stood fixed, staring and wondering why Johnny had changed his mind about using the Lancer name.

“Well, it’s time for class to start.  Mr. Crawford, are you coming in or are you just dropping John off?”

“Just rode in with him.  I’ll be going to work now.”  Val turned to go and looked back, giving Johnny a smile and a wink.  “I’ll see you at the ranch later.”

Johnny looked at Val, then the school, and back at Val again.   Val could tell the boy was ready to bolt. 

“I’ll put your horse in the corral.  Do you want to take your saddlebags with you?  Mrs. Stoner put lunch in there for you.”

The moment Johnny took the bags, he felt the weight of his gun inside.

“Thanks.  I’ll see you this afternoon.”

Val mounted his horse and started to ride away from the school.  He looked around the peaceful street and prayed it stayed that way.  For once in the boy’s life, Johnny wasn’t fighting to stay alive.


Once inside the 20’ x 30’ one-room schoolhouse, Johnny let his eyes adjust to the lower light and scanned the room as he always did.   He immediately caught himself.  These were kids and not a threat to him.  He kept his place at the back of the room, unsure what he was supposed to do.

Children were talking and laughing among themselves as Miss Havens walked to the front of the classroom.

“Children…children, come to order.”  The teacher cleared her throat and looked around the room as everyone quieted.   “Today, we have a new student.   He’s not only new to our school but also San Marcos.   John, would you come to the front of the class?”

Johnny was nervous, more so than when he’d faced his first man in a gunfight.  Licking his lips, he glanced left and right as he sauntered to the front of the room and stopped next to the teacher.

“Children, I want to introduce John Lancer.  I believe he prefers being called Johnny.  Now, everyone, please say hello to Johnny and make him feel welcome.”

Everyone chimed, “Hello, Johnny.”

Johnny gave them a ghost of a smile and raised his left hand.  “Hello.”

He realized his right hand was glued to his right hip, trying to find somewhere he could rest it.

“Johnny, I’ve set your desk and chair in the back near the window with the other 6th-grade students.”

Johnny looked at where the teacher was pointing.  The door and window were going to be at his back, something he hadn’t allowed to happen since the day he’d picked up a gun. 

Reluctantly, he moved to his assigned seat.  He sat his saddlebag down next to his right foot, unbuckled the flap, and reached inside. Touching the butt of his Colt made him feel better.

Miss Havens handed him a slate, chalk, and two school books.

“I won’t be asking you to participate today, Johnny, but I do want you to do the work assigned.  Shall we begin?”

Taking a few minutes to look around, Johnny recognized the room was much like others he’d seen.  Students of all ages sat in rows in the single room, separated into classes not by age, but by what they knew.  

Johnny’s 6th-grade class had three other students, two boys and a girl; all three were 16 years old.  Johnny knew that this would be there last year.   Most children who attended school, and not all did, only went until the age of 16, regardless of their grade.

The morning went faster than Johnny thought possible.  Sitting quietly, he watched and listened as the teacher worked with each grade. Finally, Miss Havens came to the 6th-grade section.   

“Becky, will you read the math problem aloud, work it out on your slate, and give me the answer.”

Becky Stevens nodded, read the problem, and immediately began to scribble on the tablet.  When she finished, the blond girl started to reveal her answer when Miss Havens stopped her.   

“Boys, would you work out the problem and hold your answer until everyone finishes.  Then I’ll see which of you got the correct answer.”

Johnny looked at the other two boys as they bent over their tablets and began to write.  Moments later, they raised their heads.

Lorna Havens watched Johnny as the other boys worked on the problem.  She didn’t say anything but was concerned he hadn’t attempted to solve the problem.

When it looked like the two boys and girl had an answer, she said, “Now, write only your answer on the tablet and show it to me.”

Johnny reached for the chalk, wrote his answer, and turned the tablet so she could see it.

Lorna Havens smiled; her concerns evaporated. ‘I told them he was bright.’

“Becky, your answer is correct and so is yours, Johnny.”

When Johnny smiled at her, the first real smile she’d seen from him, she was amazed.  His face lit up and his blue eyes sparkled.

“Now, let’s do one more and then you’ll start reading silently, chapter 4 of your 6th-grade reader.  Johnny, I want you to start you with the 1st-grade reader today.”

Johnny ignored the snicker from the other two boys.  Miss Havens gave them a stern look and continued.

“If you finish it, you can go to the 2nd-grade reader.  You’ll move up as you become more comfortable with reading English.  Tomorrow, you’ll read aloud.”

Once again, she gave them the problem, and the 6th graders worked on the answer.  Again, Johnny worked it out in his head.   It wasn’t hard. Figures were easy for him and always had been.    

Johnny read through the thin 1st-grade reader quickly.  Within an hour, he’d finished it and Miss Havens started him on the 2nd– grade book.  By the time the lunch bell rang, he had a headache and enough of reading.  

So far, except for reading, going to school wasn’t as bad as he imagined.  More than once, he’d called Miss Haven over to pronounce or define a word.  When she bent over to help him, Johnny got a whiff of lavender.  He was beginning to like the teacher and the attention she was paying him. 

Johnny only had one bit of trouble that day and it came during the morning recess.   The two boys in his grade, Billy Harmon and Jerry Collins, spotted Johnny leaning against a tree in the schoolyard. 

Johnny saw them coming and expected they’d either ask questions or start trouble. In the few seconds it took for them to reach him, Johnny sized them up as he would someone he was facing in a gunfight.  

Billy Harmon,  5’ 6” with brown hair, seemed to be the leader of the two boys.  Whatever Billy did, Jerry Collins was right there on his coattails. 

Billy stopped in front of Johnny, his feet slightly apart, arms folded across his chest.   Jerry, 5’ 7” with blond hair, stood on Johnny’s other side.   

Johnny took it for what it was, an attempt at intimidation. 

“Hey, Lancer, Miss Havens said you’re new to San Marcos.  So, where are you staying?”   Harmon lead with the first question.

Johnny and Val talked the night before about what would happen if anyone questioned him, and they’d agreed to the truth as long as it didn’t involve Madrid or gunfighting.

“I’m staying at the Rocking S.   I work for Art Stoner.”

“You worked the roundup?”

Johnny nodded.

“My Pa said Mr. Stoner had two new men working for him.  Said one of them was Mex.  I guess that was you.”

“Guess so.”

Collins shifted slightly and leaned in toward Johnny.   “So, where’d you live before San Marcos?”

“A lot of places,” Johnny answered without emotion.

Before the two could ask any more, Miss Havens rang the bell, calling them back to class.

Lunch came and went without incident, and the afternoon went as fast as the morning.  At 3:00, Miss Havens dismissed the class. 

Johnny’s first day at school was over.  He sat at his desk while the others filed out of the schoolhouse.  It hadn’t been bad at all.

Everyone had cleared the schoolyard by the time Johnny saddled his horse.  Tying down his saddlebags, he looked around before quickly taking his gun belt out and strapping it on.  He didn’t see the Billy Harmon and Jerry Collins standing around the corner of the school watching him.

When he got back to the Rocking S, Johnny went straight to his room, changed clothes, and went inside the house to see Mrs. Stoner.

The moment he walked in the door, she was on him.  “Oh, Johnny, you’re home. Sit down. I’ll get you something to eat.” 

“Thank you, ma’am, but there’s no need.  I’ll wait for Val to have supper.”

“Nonsense.  I baked cookies today, just for you.”

The next thing he knew, she had him in a chair with cookies and milk in front of him. 

Johnny gave her a smile of thanks and while he ate, wondered if this was the way it was supposed to be.  Go to school, come home, have cookies and milk, and have a woman fuss over you.   It was something he’d never experienced before and wondered if this was the way it was going to be every day when he got home.

“Do you have homework?”

“Yes, ma’am.  I have to read a chapter in my Reader.  Miss Havens wants me to read it aloud tomorrow.”

“If you want, I’ll help you with it tonight.”

Johnny thought for a moment and then decided that Val would be too tired to help him with the words he didn’t know.

“Yes, ma’am, I’d like that.”


Val spent his day mending fences and worrying about Johnny.  When it was time to quit, he wasted no time getting back to the ranch.  Seeing Johnny’s horse already bedded down, he relaxed for the first time since he’d ridden away from the school that morning.

After cleaning up, Val checked Johnny’s room.  When the boy wasn’t there, he headed for the ranch house.  He found Johnny sitting in the kitchen with a book open in front of him.  Val stood in the doorway a few moments before stepping into the room, already knowing Johnny was aware he was there. 

“Have a good day?”

Johnny looked up and sighed.

“I guess.” He shrugged.  “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”

Val sat in the chair next to Johnny and looked down at the papers and books on the table.

“Learn anything?”

Johnny nodded.  “Some.  Learned I’m better at ‘rithmatic than the other two boys in my grade.  They had to use them slate tablets Miss Havens gave them to figure the problems.  I did it in my head.”

“You’ve always had a way with numbers.  Don’t surprise me you did good. What else?”

“Miss Havens gave me a book. It’s called a McGuffey Reader.”  Johnny held the book up.  “She wants me to read a chapter tonight and then read aloud in front of the class tomorrow.”

“You have any problems with the words?”

“Some, but Mrs. Stoner helped me out.  You want me to read it to you tonight after supper…you know… so I can practice.”

Val smiled.  “Yeah, I’d like that. You have any problems with anyone?”

Johnny hesitated.


 “Those two boys in my grade, Billy and Jerry.  They’re gonna give me some trouble down the line, but not today.”

“What kind of trouble?”  Val sat up straight and leaned in across the table.

“Nothing I can’t handle.”

“Johnny, I don’t want you getting into any fights.  You beat those kids up like you did the boys back in La Joya and someone might figure out who you are.  We’ve got it good here.  I’d like to stay put for a while longer.”

Johnny stared at Val but didn’t say anything.  He knew Val only wanted the best for him, but he wasn’t going to back down from a fight with the boys if they started something.

“Look, Val, I’ll do my best, but I’m not promising anything.  They start something…”

“I know.  You’ll finish it.  What do you think they’ll do?”

“Hell, Val, I don’t know.  They’re both bullies.  I saw them today picking on a little kid at recess and…”  Johnny stopped and shook his head.  “Dios, listen to me.  Johnny Madrid talking about bullies and recess.  I’ve got to be out of my mind to be doing this.”

Sarah Stoner walked into the kitchen.  She’d heard most of the conversation.

“Johnny, are you talking about Billy Harmon and Jerry Collins?”

Johnny nodded.  “Yes, ma’am, that’s them.”

“I know their parents.  Billy’s father owns the ranch next to ours and Jerry’s father runs the General Store.  I’m afraid Billy’s father doesn’t care for Mexicans and won’t hire them.  His views will most probably carry down to his son.  He’ll be the one who’ll give you the most trouble if you let him.”

Johnny’s eyes went cold and his voice soft.  “Mrs. Stoner, I’ve been dealing with boys like Billy Harmon my whole life.  There was a time when I ran scared from them.  I don’t run from anyone anymore.  If Billy Harmon wants trouble, I’ll give him trouble.”

Inhaling, Sarah Stoner pulled back.  There were times she didn’t see the boy as more than a 14-year-old who worked at the ranch.  Then she’d catch a glimpse of Madrid, and it frightened her to know who and what he was.

“Of course, Johnny, I know you can handle yourself.  All I’m saying is Val’s right. If there is trouble, someone could find out who you are. I don’t want you to have to leave.”

Val watched Johnny transform into Madrid and just as quickly relax and become the young boy he was.

“Like I said, ma’am, I’ll do my best to avoid trouble with them.  I like it here, too.”

“Well then, young man, get back to your homework.  I’ll have supper ready in an hour.  I expect you both to eat with us tonight.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Val stood up. “Johnny, you get your work done outside?”

Johnny nodded.  “Got the barn mucked and the stock feed before I started on my schoolwork.  Is there anything else I need to do?”

“No, guess that’s it.  We’ll have to talk to Mr. Stoner and find out what work you’re supposed to be doing after school.”   Looking at Sarah, Val said, “Mrs. Stoner, I’ll let the cook in the bunkhouse know so he don’t fix nothing for Johnny or me.”

Sarah went to the stove to start dinner.  

“Johnny, if you have problems with a word, let me know.  I’ll help you sound it out.”

Val looked at Johnny and smiled.  Ranch work wasn’t something he liked to do, but it was worth it to see the boy actually reading a book.


The week seemed to pass in a blur.  

Johnny didn’t mind the school work or sitting all day at a desk.  There was satisfaction in learning something other than how to handle a gun. 

The last time he remembered going to school was when he was seven and he and his Mama were living in Corpus Christi.  His Mama had a rich, important man that kept her happy and to keep the man happy, she sent Johnny to school during the day.  He hadn’t liked the man his mother was with, but he loved going to the Mission school.  The old Priest there taught him well, and Johnny soaked up every bit of knowledge the man was willing to give. 

On his first day at school in San Marcos, Johnny found a tree, away from the others, where he could sit during recesses and lunch.  From his seat at the tree, he could see the front of the school as well as San Marcos’ main street.  He hadn’t shared anything of himself with the others, and after the first day, no one bothered him.

Johnny waited for Billy Harmon and Jerry Collins to cause trouble for him, but it hadn’t come.  The same couldn’t be said for the others at the school.  During recesses and lunchtimes, Johnny watched the two older boys make their rounds. Leaving Johnny alone, the bullies, like all who got pleasure from intimidation, picked on the youngest and weakest. 

One day three smaller boys were playing marbles.  Johnny watched Billy walk up to the game and kick the marbles aside.  Laughing, Jerry rushed forward and picked them up.  

“Well, will you look at what I found?”

“Give ‘em back, Jerry.  They’re mine.”  Eight-year-old Frank Salazar reached for the marbles in Jerry’s hand.

“Not anymore, kid.  They’re mine now.”  Jerry laughed harder as he pushed Frank aside and strolled off with the smaller boy’s treasured marbles.

While Johnny’s blood boiled, he didn’t intervene.  He’d promised Val and Mrs. Stoner he’d stay out of trouble.   That all changed at lunch on Friday.

“Leave me alone, Billy.” 

Johnny heard a small boy yelling and then the peal of laughter; he’d come to recognize as Billy Harmon.

“Leave me alone,” Billy mocked.   “What are you going to do about it?”

“Yeah, Joeeey, what are you going to do?” Jerry Collins laughed.  “Now hand over your lunch.”

“Jerry, leave my brother alone!” Johnny heard Becky Stevens yell.   “You pick on him again and I’m telling Miss Havens.”

The two older boys laughed.

Johnny had seen a pattern when it came to Billy and Jerry.  They never brought lunch and always bullied one of the younger boys out of theirs.

Maybe it was because Becky was involved, or perhaps it was because he’d had a belly full of Harmon and Collins, either way, he was about to break his promise to Val.  Slowly Johnny stood and walked toward Billy.  The children who were watching saw him coming and moved out of the way.

“Hand it over, Joey.”  Billy reached for the lunch pail in the smaller boy’s hand.

“Joey,” The sound of a soft, low voice stilled Billy’s hand, “go eat your lunch.  Billy and Jerry aren’t going to bother you again.  Isn’t that right, boys?”

Joey stared at Johnny for a moment and then started to move away. 

Billy reached for Joey’s shoulder, pulling him back.

Johnny took another step forward, his right hand tapping his leg where his gun would have sat.  “I wouldn’t do that, Harmon.”

“Stay out of it, Lancer.  It’s none of your business.”  Billy once again reached for the lunch pail.

“I’m making it my business.”   Johnny’s eyes went dark; a faint smile graced his face.

“You want trouble, Lancer?”

With a slight smile on his face, Johnny slowly shook his head.

“No.  I don’t want trouble, but you know trouble has a way of finding me.  It always has.  I’ve known bullies like you two my whole life, and they never sat well with me.  You and Jerry are the oldest boys here.  You should be setting an example for the others, but all you do is throw your weight around.  That stops now.”

Billy started to take a step closer to Johnny when Miss Havens stepped out of the schoolhouse.  Seeing the face-off, she hurried down the steps and across the playground.

“I’m not sure what’s going on out here, but I plan to find out.  Who wants to tell me?”

No one responded.


“Miss Havens.” Joey stepped forward. “Billy and Jerry tried to take my lunch away from me.  Johnny stopped them.”

“I see.”  She turned to the two older boys. “Is that right?  Did you try to take Joey’s lunch?”

Billy smiled.  “No ma’am, we were just funnin’ with Joey.  It’s Lancer who started the trouble.”

“That’s not true, Miss Havens.” Becky moved to stand next to her brother.  “Billy and Jerry tried to take Joey’s lunch.  They always take the lunches of the younger boys.”

“Joey, have you had a chance to eat?”

Joey shook his head.  “No, ma’am.”

Looking around, she could see the other children had finished their lunches. 

“I believe we’ll start class early.  Everyone back inside, except Joey.  Joey, go eat and come inside when you’re finished.”

“Yes, ma’am.” 

As everyone else filed back inside the schoolhouse, Joey looked up at his sister.  “Becky, you didn’t need to help.”

“Yes, I did.  You’re my brother.  That’s what a big sister does.  It’s my job to take care of my little brother.”  Becky hugged the 7-year-old boy.  “I’m going inside.  You eat your lunch and come in.”  

Becky turned to Johnny.  “Thank you.”

Johnny nodded but hadn’t moved or taken his eyes off Billy and Jerry.  Finally, the two older boys turned and walked away.  Johnny followed a short distance behind.

For the rest of the day, Billy and Jerry spent their time with their heads together, whispering.  Johnny spent his time trying to read from the 3rd grade McGuffey Reader Miss Havens gave him that morning. 

It had only been four days. Johnny hadn’t mastered the 2nd-grade textbook yet and wasn’t happy with being moved into the advanced book.   He knew a word when he heard it but not when he saw it written, and the 3rd-grade reader was full of words he didn’t know.  

Lorna Havens stood to the side of Johnny’s desk and watched his face as he tried to decipher the book’s text.  Leaning close to Johnny’s shoulder, she started to speak.  Surprised, Johnny’s hand went to his right hip.  Catching himself, he put his hand back on the desk.

“I’m sorry I startled you.”

“Just concentrating too hard, ma’am.  Didn’t hear you come up behind me.”

“That’s alright.  I see you’re having some trouble with the 3rd-grade reader.” 

Johnny let out a heavy sigh.

“Yes, ma’am, I can’t sound out the words as good as I did in the other book. You sure I’m ready for this one?”

It was apparent the young man was struggling and frustrated. She knew pushing would only result in him giving up altogether.

“For now, go back to the 2nd-grade reader.  We’ll give it a little more time before moving to this one.”

Johnny let out another sigh, this time of relief.  He closed the reader and picked up the 2nd-grade reader. 

By afternoon recess, Johnny was ready for a break.  They’d had an hour of American History and another on Geography.   He couldn’t wait to get away from the books and needed to put distance between him and the four walls of the schoolroom.

In the schoolyard, Johnny separated himself from the others and went to his tree.  A few minutes later, he saw Billy and Jerry coming down the schoolhouse steps.  Johnny bolted to his feet and crossed the schoolyard when he saw what Billy had in his hand.

“Hand it over, Harmon.”  Johnny’s menacing voice caused the grin on Billy’s face to falter.

Billy held the object in his hand up and yelled out, “Look what I found!” 

The children in the yard turned to look at the gun belt and Colt in Billy’s hand.

Miss Havens hurried outside when she heard Billy yelling.  Standing at the top of the steps, she saw Johnny stomping across the yard.  When she saw the gun belt, she didn’t waste time getting to Billy herself.

“Billy, where did you get that?”  Miss Havens reached for the gun belt.

“I found it in Johnny Lancer’s saddlebags, Miss Havens.  He’s not supposed to have a gun in school.  It’s against the rules, isn’t it?”  

Billy smirked as he handed over the stolen price to the teacher.

“That’s mine.”  Johnny’s eyes never left his gun. “I like it back now.”

“Johnny, why do you have a gun?”

“I don’t wear it in school.”

“I didn’t ask you that.  Where did you get it?”

“I bet he stole it, Miss Havens.” Jerry Collins was grinning.

“I bought it a few years ago.  I’ll ask again, ma’am.  Can I have my gun back?”

Johnny held out his hand.

Miss Havens shook her head.  “I can’t believe Mr. Crawford would allow you to own, let alone wear a gun, young man.”

Johnny’s eyes went from his gun to the school teacher.

“Val Crawford is my friend, not my Papa.  He can’t stop me from doing what I want.  Now, ma’am, I’ll ask again.  I’d like my gun back.”

“I think I’ll hold onto it…for now.  I’ll send someone to the ranch to ask Mr. Crawford to come to school to take you home today.  I’ll give the gun to him when he gets here.”


Val rode alongside the buggy Art Stoner was driving.  Beside the rancher, his wife sat wringing her hands.

He’d been working horses in the corral when he saw a rider coming toward the ranch house.  Mrs. Stoner went out to meet him.   They talked for a moment. Looking around the yard, she saw Val and waved him over.

“Val, this is Mr. Baskin.  Miss Havens sent him out.  There’s trouble at the school.  She wants to see you.”

Val’s senses went on alert.  “What kind of trouble?”

“I’m not sure,” Baskin answered.  “Miss Havens just sent me to get you.  She said she wanted you to come right away.”

Val nodded.  “I’ll get my horse and be right with you.”

“Art and I are coming with you.  I’ll get my shawl.”

As Sarah Stoner went back inside, Val could hear her calling out to her husband.

The ride into town took less than twenty minutes, but it seemed a lot longer.  When they got to the schoolhouse, Val stepped down from his horse and waited for Art and Sarah before going inside.

Stopping just inside the doorway, Val scanned the room.  Johnny was sitting at his desk at the back of the room.  He saw Johnny’s shoulders straighten. Although Johnny didn’t look around, Val knew the boy was aware he was there.

Lorna Havens looked up from the papers she was grading.  Standing, she walked to the back of the room to greet Val and the Stoners.

“If you wait a few moments, I’ll dismiss class, and then we can talk.”

Five minutes later, the only people left in the room were Johnny, Val, Art, Sarah, and Lorna Havens.

Val glanced at Johnny, who was still seated and hadn’t said a word.

“Mr. Crawford,” Miss Havens went to her desk and opened a drawer, “this was found in John’s saddlebags.”

She lifted the gun belt and walked back to Val.  

“What do you mean, ‘found’?  Ma’am, I don’t mean no disrespect, but what were you doing going through his saddlebags?”

Lorna Havens blinked twice and braced her shoulders.

“Mr. Crawford, I assure you I did not go through his saddlebags.  One of the other children did, but that’s not the point.”

“That’s exactly the point, ma’am.”

“No, Mr. Crawford, Johnny said the gun was his.”


“Yes?  Surely you don’t condone him having a gun.”

Val dipped his head and again glanced sideways at Johnny.


Johnny stood and sauntered forward to stand next to his friend.

Val reached out and took the gun belt.  Holding it a moment, he turned and handed the rig to Johnny.

“But, Mr. Crawford…”

“Miss Havens, the gun belongs to Johnny.  I didn’t give it to him and I ain’t got no say so in whether he wears it or not.   It’s his choice.”

Johnny took the gun belt.  “I told you, ma’am.  I don’t lie.”

“Mr. Crawford, this is highly irregular.”

Sarah Stoner stepped forward.

“Miss Havens, does it make a difference if he owns a gun?  Every man in town owns a gun and most of them carry it.” 

“You used the operative word, Mrs. Stoner, ‘man.’  Johnny isn’t a man. He’s a fourteen year old boy.”

Johnny shook his head.  “No, ma’am, I’m a man. I may not be full grown, but I’m a man.”  His voice dropped.  “Have been for a long time now.”

“I won’t have a gun in my classroom. Surely, you can understand my concerns.”

“Are you saying Johnny can’t come to school no more?” Val asked, noting Johnny had lowered his head and was staring at his boots. 

Val knew Johnny had enjoyed the routine of the last week.  He’d go to school, come home to Mrs. Stoner fussing over him, work in the afternoons, and then in the evenings, the two of them would sit in Johnny’s room while the boy read aloud. 

Miss Havens hesitated before answering.

“Well… as long as the gun stays out of the classroom, I don’t see a problem.”

Johnny shook his head.  “I’m not going anywhere without my gun.  He looked at Val.  “You know I can’t.”

“I’m afraid that’s the way it has to be.”  Miss Havens stared at Johnny. “Why do you need a gun in the first place?”

Johnny paused.

Val spoke up, “Ma’am, can we talk about it?  I mean over the weekend.”

“I suppose it will be alright.  John, I’ll see you on Monday if you leave the gun at home.”

“Come on, let’s go.”  Val put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and turned him toward the door.

Johnny put the gun belt over his shoulder, reached down and picked up his saddlebag and hat, and walked away. 


Children still stood outside the school, anxious to see what was going to happen.  A few parents had joined the gathering.

They watched as Johnny Lancer stopped at the bottom of the steps and looked behind him.  The man they’d come to know as Val Crawford was behind him.

Johnny wrapped his gun belt around his waist and tightened it down.

“I’ll get my horse.” 

No one said anything as Johnny went to the corral, saddled his horse, and led him out. Swinging into the saddle, he waited for Val to join him.  Looking around the schoolyard, he could see everyone staring at him.  He was used to people staring, but for some reason, this was different.  He cared what these people thought.

Art helped his wife into the buggy and flicked the reins.  He set out toward the Rocking S with Val and Johnny silently following.


When they arrived at the ranch, Johnny went straight to the barn, unsaddled his horse, and started brushing him.  Val didn’t say anything as he did the same.  After the bedding the horses down, they turned almost as one and started to the barn door.

“Mrs. Stoner is expecting us for supper.”

Johnny nodded and kept walking.

“We need to talk about this.”

Johnny continued to walk.

Val reached out a hand and grabbed Johnny’s arm pulling him around.  

Johnny’s hand fell to his gun and just as quickly moved it away.   


“Watch your tone.  Now, we need to talk.”

“What do you want me to say?  That I’ll go back to that school without my gun?  It’s not gonna happen.”

Pivoting, Johnny pivoted started for the door again.

“Johnny, you don’t need your gun there.”

Johnny stopped, whirled around, and exploded.

“The hell I don’t!  You may have forgotten who I am, but I haven’t!”  

 Taking a deep breath, he looked at his friend.

“This,” he swept his arm around. “This isn’t real.  None of this is real!  We’ve been living quiet for a while and it’s been nice, but Val, it’s not real.

“You know as well as I do that one of these days someone is going to ride into San Marcos, see me, and it’ll all be over.   He’ll call me out and then what are the fine, upstanding folks of San Marco gonna think?”

“You’re wrong.  You’re not as known as well up here as you are along the border.”

“Is that right?” Johnny huffed.  “You know what I saw the other day?  A couple of the smaller boys at school were playing at recess.  They had wooden guns and were having a shootout.   One of them was pretending to be Johnny Madrid.  So, you think they don’t know about me up here?”   

“It doesn’t have to be like that, Johnny.”

The woman’s voice startled them both.  Turning, they saw Sarah Stoner standing a few feet away.

“I know you like it here.  Stay with us…stay as long as you want to, both of you.  Johnny, make the Rocking S your home.  You’ve been using the name Lancer for a week, and no one has thought anything of it.   Keep using it and forget about Johnny Madrid.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking.”  Johnny’s voice was taut, his eyes dark with anger.  “Miss Havens had to have a last name.  That’s the only reason I used the name Lancer.  Every time someone calls me that I want to throw up.  The man who gave me that name didn’t want a Mexican wife and a mestizo son.  He threw us…threw me away like a piece of trash.”

“I’m sorry, Johnny.  If that’s what happened, then I pity the man.  You’re a fine boy and I can see the man you’re going to become.”

“No, ma’am, you can’t see the man I’ll become, because I can’t see him. You don’t live long in my line of work.”

“Can’t you just try a little longer?  What if we talk to Miss Havens and explain…?”

“Explain!?  Explain what?  Explain that she has a gunfighter, a hired gun, sitting in her classroom.  What do you think she’ll do when she finds out she has someone who kills for money sitting in the same room with all those innocent kids?  What do you think the people of San Marcos will do?”

Johnny saw her face blanch.   His eyes narrowed and his voice was cold when he spoke again.

“You didn’t think of that, did you, Mrs. Stoner?  All those nights, you’ve let a mestizo sit down to eat at your respectable table.  You never once gave a thought to what I’ve done?  Never thought about the blood I have on my hands.  Does it make you sick?  Does it make you want to go inside and take a bath to wash away…?”

“Stop it, Johnny!”  

Johnny’s chest was heaving as he spun around to look at Val.

“Stop!  Stop telling the truth?  Look at her, Val.  You saw the look on her face just now.  She’s as disgusted with me as all the others will be when they find out.”

Looking back at Sarah, Johnny took a deep breath and swallowed hard. 

“That’s right, I’ve got blood on my hands that’ll never…”

“I said stop, and I meant it.  Mrs. Stoner’s been nothing but good to us.  She don’t deserve to being talked to like that.  Now, you pull yourself together and apologize, and I mean right now.”

Johnny glared at Val.

“Don’t you dare give me that look.  You know it don’t scare me and it’ll get you tanned faster than you can say Johnny Madrid.  Now, apologize.”

Johnny didn’t move; his eyes still filled with anger.

“I ain’t asking you again.”  Val took a step forward, his eye flared.  “John, don’t push me.”

Johnny started to turn away when Val grabbed his arm and spun him around.

Johnny’s hand went to his gun again.  Val cocked his head.

“You gonna shoot me…Madrid?  You gonna pull that hog leg and shoot me?”  Val’s voice softened, “Is that what you want to do, Johnny? You want to put a bullet in me?”    

Johnny held his eyes on Val another heartbeat and then shook his head and lowered his hand.

“Alright, then, apologize to the lady.”

Johnny took his hat off and looked down at his boots.  Turning to Sarah, he raised his head, his blue eyes glistening.

“I’m … I’m sorry.  Val’s right, I had no call to talk to you like that. You’ve been good to us…to me. I’m sorry I talked to you like I did.  Can you see your way to forgiving me?  If you can’t, I’ll understand.”

Sarah moved forward, putting a hand on Johnny’s arm. 

“Oh, Johnny, I’m sorry you’re going through this.  I understand you’re angry at what happened today.  I took no offense.  It’s true I’ve never thought about what you’ve done, but it doesn’t make a difference.  I wish I could make it go away.”

“Nothing can make it go away.  Nothing will ever make it go away.  I am who I am and I always will be. There’s no turning back for me… not now.”  Johnny took a breath and continued.  “It’s been nice here with you and Mr. Stoner, but I …”

“Johnny, if you decide you don’t want to go back to the school, I’ll teach you here at the ranch.  I was a schoolteacher before I married.  I can get the lessons from Miss Havens.  You don’t have to go back if you don’t want to.”

Johnny closed his eyes and took a deep breath.  His emotions were too close to the surface.  Opening his eyes, he looked at the woman who wanted to help him.

“I can’t think straight right now. I need some time.  I’ll let you know by Monday.”

“Very well.”  She turned to go back to the house.  “You two wash up.  Supper will be ready in an hour.”

“Ma’am.” Val moved to stand next to Johnny.

She stopped and turned. “Yes, Val.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t eat with you folks tonight.  I think Johnny and me need some time alone …you know, to talk.”

She thought about it a moment and then nodded.  “If that’s what you want, but you still have to eat.  I’ll fix you each a plate.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

Val turned to look at Johnny, who was still standing with his hat in his hand.  

“You want to take a walk?  You haven’t practiced all week.  If you plan to get back on the trail, you’ll be wanting to do that.”

Johnny nodded.  “Let me get out of these clothes and get my working gun.  I’ll be ready in a few minutes.”

Watching Johnny walk to the storage shed behind the house, Val knew he needed to find a way to convince the boy to stay, at least for a while longer.  

Val wasn’t ready to leave the Rocking S or the Stoners.  It had been good for both of them to get out of the saddle and away from hiring out.  The problem Val had was, no one forced Johnny Madrid into anything.


The sound of gunfire echoed through the grove of trees a half-mile from the ranch house.  Johnny had been practicing for almost an hour while Val sat close by watching.

Sighing, Val’s heart ached for the boy.

Johnny had been happy going to school and being at the Rocking S, but if there was one thing Val knew, Johnny never trusted happiness.  For whatever reason, it never lasted and for that, Johnny always blamed himself.

Johnny lived with ‘what ifs’ and guilt.  He believed that if he hadn’t been born, his father wouldn’t have kicked his mother out.  If he hadn’t been a half breed, his mother would have loved him.  If he wasn’t born with blue eyes… well, the list went on.  

None of it made sense, except in the boy’s mind.  The life he’d lead, the things he’d done filled him with guilt.  Maybe that’s why he took the risks he did.  Val had seen it time and again.  Johnny valuing the lives of others over his own, as if he wasn’t worthy of living.  

Val knew someday the happiness Johnny knew here would come to an end, but this one time, he was determined to do whatever was necessary to make it last.

When Johnny stopped to reload, Val spoke up for the first time, “You’re not relaxing your shoulders.”

Johnny turned and gave him a scathing look.  

“Just saying.”

Johnny turned back to his targets, drew, and fired again.  When it didn’t feel right, he cursed aloud.   Blowing out a breath, Johnny closed his eyes, relaxed, and focused on the target.  

He drew and fired in a fluid motion, not the blur he was used to but better than he’d done in the last hour.

“That’s better.”  Val watched Johnny reload and holster his gun.  “Why don’t you take a break? Come over and sit down.  Rest your arm for a bit.”

“I gotta practice more.  Can’t believe how slow I’ve gotten in just the last couple of weeks.”

Val looked at Johnny’s profile.  He could tell the boy was wound as tight as a watch spring. 

“You want to talk it out?”

Johnny sighed and shook his head.   “Not sure there’s anything to talk out.  I can’t go back there without my gun.”

Val slowly nodded as he picked at a blade of grass.  

When he didn’t say anything, Johnny frowned.  “You can see that, can’t you?  What if someone figures out who I am?   I’d be sitting in that schoolroom with no way to ….”   Johnny turned to look at Val.   “Are you listening to what I’m saying?”

“Yeah, I am.  You’d be sittin’ in that schoolroom, just like you’ve done all week.  The only difference would be you wouldn’t have a gun with you.” 

“That’s right, but I knew it was in my saddlebag.  I could get to it if I needed it.”

Val nodded, still picking at the blade of grass and not looking at Johnny.

“So, what do you want to do?  I know you’ve liked going to school.  You’ve been learning too.  I’ve heard you reading with Mrs. Stoner at night.  You’re getting better every day.”

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I like it.  I learned some about your country’s history, too.  Did you know Texas use to be part of Mexico?” 

“Yeah, I knew that, and it’s your country too.  You were born in California.  It’s as much your country as it is mine.”

“Miss Havens said Texas won its independence back in ’36.”  Johnny frowned.  “She told us about the Alamo, too.”

“A lot of good men lost their lives at the Alamo.  She tell you about Santa Anna?”

“Yeah.” Johnny looked away.  “She told us. What she said isn’t what they told us in Mexico.”

“I guess it depends on which side you were on as to how history’s records what happened.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

 They were quiet for a few more minutes.

“Val, I can’t go back to school.  Maybe I should stay at the ranch and let Mrs. Stoner teach me.”

“Or, you could go back on Monday and sit there like the others and learn from Miss Havens.  It sounds like she knows about a lot of things that could come in handy.”

Johnny smiled.  “She’s smart, alright, and she smells good.”

“Smells good?”

Johnny blushed.  “Smells like lavender.”

Val laughed.  “You got a crush on her?”


They sat quietly for a few minutes before Val spoke up again. 

“Hijo, forget about your gun for once and concentrate on you.”

“It … won’t … work!”

Val didn’t say anything as he watched Johnny mull the problem over in his head and calm down after his outburst.  He knew the boy would come to the right decision once he had time to think about it.

“You getting’ hungry?  Cause I gotta’ tell you, I am.”

Johnny took a deep breath and let it out.  This was getting him nowhere.  He still had two days to make a decision.   

“Yeah, I’m hungry.  Didn’t eat much lunch. I swear I’m gonna have to shoot Billy and Jerry.  Those two are causing me more trouble than a whole division of Rurales.”

“Well, come on then.  Mrs. Stoner said she would save us something.  I know she was baking pies today.”

Johnny’s head shot up. “What kind?”

“Apple.  When she was settin’ one out to cool, I heard her tell the Boss that she was baking an extra one for you.”  Val threw his arm around Johnny’s shoulder.  “I think the lady’s sweet on you, boy.”

Johnny laughed. “Yeah, I have that effect on women.  They just love fussing over me.”

“Oh, don’t I know it!  It’s that smile of yours and your boyish charms.  I think you could talk the wings off a butterfly with that sweet voice and smile.”


It was Saturday, and the hands only worked until 11:00.

Johnny was perched on the top rail of the corral fence, watching one of the men trying his hand at breaking a mustang.  The wrangler had been at it for over an hour and still hadn’t done much except eating dirt.

Johnny laughed when the man once again got dusted.

“Quit cackling, boy,” Barney Darnell growled, picking himself off the ground and swatting his hat against his leg.

“Can’t, Barney.  Never did see anyone fly higher or land harder than you have today,” Johnny laughed.

“Alright, if you think you can do better, give it a try.”

Standing next to Johnny, Val smiled.  Darnell was about to be dusted again and didn’t even know it.  

Johnny hopped down from the fence, landing on both feet as light as a cat.  

The men gathered around the corral laughed, and started making bets.  

Darnell called out, “Crawford, you want in?”

Johnny looked over his shoulder at Val and nodded.  When he saw Val smile, he turned back to the horse.

“Sure, Darnell, I’m in.  How much?”

“I got two dollars, says that crowbait cleans the kid’s plow, and he ends up in the dirt.”

“Well, I tell you, Darnell, I got five that says Johnny breaks him in, let’s say…”

Val hesitated and glanced at Johnny again.  With his back to Val, Johnny raised his right hand and held up four fingers. 

“Let’s say Johnny breaks that fine-looking filly and gets thrown four times or less.”

Darnell laughed.  “I’ll take it.”  Then looking around, he called out, “Anyone else want a piece of the action?”

When all the bets were in, ranch hands took their places to watch the action.

Johnny walked up to the horse, speaking in a soft sing-song voice, a mixture of Spanish and another language none of them understood.  The horse had been fighting riders all morning and it took several minutes for Johnny to calm the animal down.

Two vaqueros working for the Rocking S were originally from Sonora.  They’d been working with Val and Johnny since their first day at the ranch.  To them, there had always been something familiar about the young man, but neither could figure out what.  

Now, watching the dark-haired mestizo, they leaned on the fence, waiting to see what the boy would do.  

Johnny unbuckled his gun belt and backed his way to the fence.  Handing it to Val, he once again eased to the center of the corral.   Keeping eye contact with the mustang, Johnny reached out a hand and touched the horse’s nose.  The ever-present sound of his soft voice lulling the animal and quieting him down.

Art joined the men around the corral.

“Val, are you going to let him do this?”

Val smiled.  “Don’t worry, Boss, he knows what he’s doing.  Johnny’s one of the best I’ve ever seen when it comes to breaking horses.”

Stoner looked at him unconvinced.  

“Johnny worked on a ranch a few years back and learned from one of the best bronc busters in Mexico.  Trust me, he can break any horse he has a mind to, and he’ll have this one eating out of his hand in no time.”

Ten minutes after entering the corral, Johnny ran his hand over the quivering body of the horse.  Fifteen minutes after that, he stood beside the horse and slowly adjusted the right stirrup and then the left.  Easing into the saddle, he hung on and waited.

The mustang, realizing that once again someone had mounted him, began to buck.  The twists and turns of the frantic animal sent Johnny flying through the air.  He tucked his body and rolled to the fence.

Val winced when Johnny hit the ground with a thud.  He was ready to jump the fence when Johnny picked himself up and walked back to the horse.

First calming the animal and then mounting, horse and rider repeated the same routine. For the second time in less than five minutes, Johnny flew through the air, coming down hard.  When he got up and dusted himself off, he looked at Val, who held up two fingers, meaning two down and two to go. 

This time when Johnny approached the mustang, the horse stood still, waiting for the young man to touch him.   Johnny rubbed the velvety muzzle of the horse and then turned his back on the animal. 

The men started to laugh and exchange money.

“He ain’t done yet,” Val called out.  “Hold onto your money.”

Ranch hands turned their attention to Johnny and the horse that was now following him around the enclosure.   Johnny stopped walking and the mustang bumped into him and then pushed with his nose.

Turning, Johnny rubbed the horse’s neck.  “You’re a good boy, aren’t you?  You gonna let me ride you now?”

Johnny looked into the horse’s eyes and saw he wasn’t ready.  Raising his arm, Johnny waved the horse away only to have him come back again.

This time when Johnny mounted, the mustang gave a token buck and settled down.  He took three turns around the corral before yelling out, “Open the gate.”

Val moved to the gate, opening it, and stepped aside.  Johnny galloped out of the corral and across the yard heading for the road.

Val was grinning when he turned back to see the faces of the men.  There wasn’t any laughing or joking. They stood like statues watching the boy gallop down the road, turn, and ride back.

Once back at the corral, Johnny swung out of the saddle and patted the horse’s neck.  Turning to Val, he smiled and asked, “How much did we win?”

“We? I was doing the bettin’.”

Laughing, Johnny slapped Val’s stomach with the back of his hand. 

“Yeah, and I was doing the breakin’.”

Barney Darnell walked up to Johnny shaking his head.  “I’d never have thought it.  Must have worn him out more than I thought.  You rode as slick as anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Johnny dipped his head.  “Thanks.”

Val patted Johnny on the back and handed him his gun belt.   

“Go put him up.  I’ll settle up with the fellows.”   

Johnny took his rig from Val and strapped it on without thinking.  It settled low on his hip as he tightened it down.   As Johnny started for the barn, the two vaqueros approached him.   Taking off their hats, they gave a slight bow to their head before speaking.

“Senor, it is you, is it not? We have heard that you are as good with horses as you are with a gun. We were not sure until today, but now we know.”

Johnny stiffened and looked around to make sure no one else was listening.  “Know what?”

Their eyes moved to look at the gun on Johnny’s hip.

“Senor, we know who you are.”

“Look, I don’t know who you think I am, but…

“Do not worry, Senor. We will tell no one.”

“Yeah, well, I’d just as soon you forget who you think I am.”

“Si, we understand.  As we have said, no one will hear your name from us.”

The two men nodded once more before heading toward the bunkhouse.  Val caught up with Johnny and frowned when he saw the expression on the young man’s face.

“What was that all about?”

“They recognized me.  Said they knew who I was but wasn’t going to tell anyone.”

“You believe them?”

Johnny looked at Val and then at the two men.  “Have to, I guess.”

Starting to lead the horse to the barn, Johnny stopped and looked at Val.

“So, how much did we win?”

“Twenty-five dollars.” Val grinned. “I’ll hold onto your share.”

Johnny laughed.  “Yeah, hold onto it until we get to town.  I plan on doing some shopping today.”

“What you gonna buy?”

Johnny looked down at the torn sleeve on his shirt.

“I need a new shirt if I’m going back to school on Monday.  I’ve been wearing the same two all week and now this one’s torn.  I can’t wear my red shirt so, that means…”

Val threw an arm around Johnny’s shoulders.   “That means you have to buy a new shirt.  So, you gonna give it a try without your gun?”

“Yeah, I’ll give it a try.  Now come on, let’s get this fellow taken care of, and then I’m cleaning up and heading to town.”

Johnny brushed his pants off, and a cloud of dust engulfed him.  “Achoo….”  Reaching into his pants pocket, he brought out a handkerchief and blew his nose.

“You alright?”

“Too much dust.  I think I swallowed some of it too.  I need something to wash it down.  You gonna buy me a beer?”

Val laughed but didn’t answer.


For a small town, San Marcos was lively on a Saturday afternoon.  The men from the Rocking S rode in together, talking and laughing.   

Val and Johnny rode behind the group listening to the men joking with Darnell about taking lessons from Johnny on how to break a horse.  Darnell gave them a scathing look before laughing and saying he just might do that.

Although Johnny rested his hand on the butt of his Colt, it had been a long time since he’d been able to ride into a town and felt at ease. 

“Where to?” Johnny asked. 

“We’re gonna be in town a while.  Let’s take them to the livery.

Johnny looked surprised.  “We gonna pay to stall them while we’re in town?”

Val grinned.  “Why not?  We won some money, and I aim to spend a good bit of it today and tonight.”

“You are planning to go back to the ranch tonight?”


Johnny knew what that meant.  It wasn’t often Val went looking for a woman to cozy up to, but when he did, it could turn into an all-night event.

After unsaddling their horses, Val and Johnny stood in front of the livery.

“Where to first?”

“Best get my shopping done first.  Then I wouldn’t mind that beer.”

Val laughed.  “You think they’ll let you have a beer?”

“Ain’t had a problem before.”

“Hell, boy, they don’t know you from Adam around here.  No one else says no to you ‘cause they know you’d probably shoot em’.”

Johnny laughed and knew it was the truth.  There weren’t many saloons anywhere along the border or cantinas in Mexico that refused him a drink.  But that was Johnny Madrid and not Johnny Lancer. 

The General Store was busy as Johnny edged his way through the crowd doing their Saturday shopping.  Val stayed close, wanting to know what the boy was going to buy.  There’d been more than once he’d had to rein Johnny in when it came to buying a shirt that was too fancy or too bright.

Johnny stood at a table with the few ready-made shirts the store carried.  Holding up a pale blue shirt, he shook his head and laid it back down.  Picking up another and still not satisfied, he started to turn away when he heard a small voice behind him.

“Hey, Johnny.”

Turning around, Johnny found Joey Stevens walking toward him.

“Hey, Joey. How you doing?”

“I’m alright.” Achoo. 

“You got a cold?”

“Naw, it’s just dusty in here.”

“Who’s here with you?”

“My Ma and Becky,” the boy answered with a gravelly voice, then sneezed and wiped his nose with his sleeve.  “Sorry.  Been sneezing since I came in here.”

Becky Stevens walked up beside her brother.  “There you are, Joey.”  Her eyes lit up when she saw Johnny.  “Oh, hello, Johnny, it’s good to see you.”

“Hello, Becky.”

Val cleared his throat.  

“Becky, this is my friend, Val Crawford.  Val, this is Becky Stevens and her brother Joey.  Becky’s in my grade at school.”

Val tipped his hat. “Pleased to meet you, young lady.”

“Hello, Mr. Crawford.  I saw you yesterday when you came to school.”  Becky turned back to Johnny.  “Johnny, you are coming back on Monday, aren’t you?”

Johnny lowered his head and toed the floor with his boot.

Val hid a smile at the boy’s flushed face. 

“I’ve been thinking about it.”


“Well, I suppose I’ll be back.”

“That’s wonderful.  I’m glad.  I’m sorry we have to put up with Billy and Jerry, but maybe now that you’ve said something to them, they’ll leave the smaller children alone.”

“Bullies aren’t hard to deal with Becky.  You just have to stand up to them.”  

Val put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “Come on, let’s get that shirt picked out.”

“I gotta’ go, Becky.  I’ll see you Monday.”

Becky and her brother moved toward a woman Johnny thought must have been their mother.  The lady took a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped Joey’s nose.

“I’m taking you home, young man, and you’re going straight to bed.  Let me get my shopping done.  Go stand next to the counter and wait for me.”

“Aw, Ma.”


Val and Johnny turned back to the shirts.  Val picked up the light blue shirt.  Johnny shook his head, Val nodded, and Johnny shrugged.   From behind them, they heard Joey yell out to his sister.

“Look, Becky, it’s Johnny Madrid!”

Both Johnny and Val went for their guns and spun around.   Everyone was looking at Joey and missed their move; everyone except Jerry Collins.

“Joey, keep your voice down.”  Becky walked over to her brother.  “What are you yelling about?”

Joey picked up a dime novel from the rack at the end of the counter and held it up.  

“It’s about Johnny Madrid, Becky.  Can I have one?”

Mrs. Stevens walked over, snatching the book from her son’s hand.  Opening it, she scanned the pages and shook her head.

“No, young man, you cannot have it.  I’m not having you read this filth.   Imagine a boy that age killing men and …. worse.   No.” 

She put the book back where her son found it and pulled him away.

Johnny looked at Val a second before walking over to the book rack.   Before Johnny could reach out and pick up one of the paperback books, Jerry Collins walked up beside him.

“Those dime novels just came in yesterday.  I can’t wait to read it.”  

He picked the book up and held it so Johnny could see it. 

On the cover was a color drawing of a boy with dark hair and blue eyes, an evil sneer on his face.  The pistolero wore a red shirt and black concho pants.  In his right hand was a smoking gun and sprawled at his feet was the body of a man, blood covering his chest.  The title of the book was ‘Johnny Madrid: The Pistolero – Guns Along the Border.’

“You want to read one, Lancer?”

Johnny shook his head.  “No, thanks.  I know all I need to know about Madrid.”

Jerry looked at the picture on the cover and then at Johnny. 

“You know he looks a little like you.  Put you in one of those red shirts over there, lower the gun on your hip, and you could pass for Madrid.”

Johnny stared at Jerry.

“Yeah, he looks a little like me, but I can tell you, that’s not me.”

“You ever kill anyone with that gun of yours, Lancer?”

Val stepped forward, holding the blue shirt.  “We’ll take this one.  You want to take the money, or should we see your Pa over there?”

Jerry looked at the dime novel cover again and then at Johnny.  Putting the book back on the rack, he turned to the counter.  “I’ll handle it for you, Mr. Crawford.”

“I’ll wait outside.”  Johnny strolled away while Val took care of buying the shirt.

“I’ll handle this, Jerry.  Go over and help Mrs. Stevens with the yard goods.” 

Larry Collins, Jerry’s father, moved behind the counter.   Jerry nodded and left it to his father to take care of Val.  

“Will this be all, Mr.… Crawford, isn’t it?  I’ve heard you and the boy are new to town.”

“Yeah, it’s Crawford.  We’re new to the area.”

“You’re working for Art Stoner?  Fine man.  Real fine.”

“Yeah, he is.”

“Will this be all?  We just got in the latest edition of the San Antonio Express.  There’s a lot of news about the war.”

“That right?  Anything we should know about?” Val wasn’t really interested, but he could tell Collins was busting to tell him what the paper said.  

“Things aren’t looking good for our southern boys.  The paper says Union troops are pushing south through Kentucky and Tennessee.  Sherman’s moving into North Carolina.  You know he took Savannah back in December?”  

“I heard.”  He actually hadn’t heard.  He and Johnny spent too much time trying to stay alive to keep track of what was happening with the war north of the border.  “Sounds like the war might be ending soon.”

“Yeah, it does.  It’s a shame the North is winning, but folks around here will be glad to have our Texas boys’ home again.” 

Collins looked at Val’s purchase and asked again, “So you need anything else, or will this be it?”

Val looked at the jar of peppermint sticks on the counter. 

“I’ll take half a dozen peppermints and…”  Val turned and looked at the book rack.  Glancing at the door, making sure Johnny was still outside, he reached over, picked up the dime novel about Madrid, and placed it on top of the shirt.

Paying for the items, Mr. Collins started bundling the purchases.  Val grabbed the book and bag of peppermints, allowing him to wrap the new shirt. 

Unbuttoning his shirt, Val slid the paper back inside and rebuttoned it before picking up the candy and Johnny’s shirt.

Once outside, he found Johnny on the boardwalk, sitting in a rocking chair.

“You ready for that beer?”

Johnny gave him a nod and started to get up.  Val shoved the bag of candy under Johnny’s nose.

“What’s this?”

“Peppermint sticks.  Thought you might like some to sweeten your disposition.”

“My disposition, as you call it, is just fine.”

“Sure, it is.”

“You see that book?”

Val nodded.  “I saw it.”

“Still think no one this far north knows who I am?”

“Alright, so they know about you up here.  They don’t know what you look like, and that picture on the front of the book ain’t even close.”

“Close enough.”   Johnny started walking toward the cantina.

Val put out a hand and stopped him.  “Maybe we should go to the saloon instead.”

Johnny frowned.  “Why?”

Val hesitated.

“You think someone in the cantina will recognize me, like the two vaqueros at the ranch this morning?”

Val nodded. 

“Alright, the saloon it is, but I’m getting a beer.”

Val stepped into the saloon and went to the bar.  Behind him, he heard the batwing doors open but didn’t turn around.  He knew Johnny had stepped in and was looking the room over before coming any further.

“Two beers.”

The bartender reached for the glasses and started to fill them when he caught a glimpse of Johnny moving to stand next to his customer.

“Mister, I don’t have a problem giving you a beer, but him…” He nodded toward Johnny.  “He’s too young.”

Val was about to say something when Barney Darnell stepped up to the bar. 

“Go ahead, Frank, they’re with us.”   He put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “This fellow is one of the best bronc busters I’ve ever seen.”

The bartender nodded, filled the glasses and handed them over.

“You two come on over to the table.” Darnell dropped some coins on the bar and waved Val and Johnny to a table where the Rocking S hands were seated.

While Val pulled up an open chair, Johnny circled the table and grabbed a chair so that his back would be to the wall.   Val could talk all he wanted about no one recognizing him, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

They spent the rest of the afternoon and well into the night at the saloon talking and playing poker.   Val kept an eye Johnny to make sure he had only one beer, and Johnny kept an eye on the ladies circling his friend.

One red-haired girl, in particular, couldn’t keep her hands to herself and dropped into Val’s lap, nuzzling his ear. 

“Hey, handsome, you gonna play poker all night?”

Val smiled, knowing how to play the game.  “You got any better ideas?”

“I think I can come up with one or two,” she laughed, running her hand over his chest. “Why don’t you come upstairs and we’ll talk it over.”

She glanced at Johnny.  “He’s a little young, but I can find someone for him to talk to if you want.”  She laughed, “Jenny over there is a real good teacher and can carry on one hell of a conversation.”

Val straightened in his chair, lifting the woman slightly, but she still clung to his neck. 

“You’re right. He’s a mite too young to be talking to any of you gals and trust me he don’t need no schooling when it comes to women.  Jenny can find someone else tonight.”

Val caught the smile on Johnny’s face.    

‘The boy got his schooling from his Mama.  Could probably show these gals a thing or two.’

“Suit yourself, but what about you and me….?” She put her mouth close to Val’s ear and whispered.

As the night went on and it looked like Val’s, resolve was failing, Johnny gave him a knowing look.  It was time to go back to the ranch and leave his friend to his fun.

Johnny sniffled and cleared his throat.  “I’m calling it a night and heading back to the ranch,”

Val cocked his head, trying to look past the woman in his lap.  “You feel alright?”

“Yeah, just dusty in here.” Johnny cleared his throat again.  “I’ll see you in the morning. Have a good time.” 

Val glanced at Johnny and then at the lady whispering into his ear.  “Oh, I plan too.”

Barney Darnell nodded to Johnny as he stood.

“Come on, boy.  I’ll ride back with you.  It looks like Val’s got other plans for the rest of the night.”

Smiling, Johnny followed Darnell out of the saloon. 


Snores and grunts woke Val from the dream he was having.   He didn’t remember riding home the night before, but he sure remembered the little redhead who’d led him to her room.  The hours he’d spent with her made him feel like a new man.

It was Sunday and there wasn’t any work today. Turning over in his bunk, he pulled the blanket over his head and went back to sleep, trying to recapture the dream.

Not knowing how much longer he’d slept, Val felt a hand shaking him awake.


“Go away.”

“Val, wake up.”

Val pushed the covers down and peeked out, seeing Art Stoner.  Sitting up, he wiped a hand over his face.

“Mr. Stoner?”

“Val, Sarah sent me to get you.  She needs you up to the house.”

Art looked around the bunkhouse, making sure he wasn’t disturbing anyone else. 

“Yes, sir.  Is there trouble?”     

“You better come to the house.  I’m going back and let Sarah know you’re coming.”

Val swung his legs off the bed and frowned.   Looking at the bunkhouse door closing, he wondered what his boss wanted.  As his muddled brain cleared, he shook his head and thought, ‘Johnny.’

Pulling up his pants and stomping into his boots, Val tucked his shirt in as he hurried out the door and across the yard to the main house.   He was almost to the front porch when he detoured to the shed Johnny was using.

Pushing the shed door open, Val found the bed empty and covers thrown on the floor.  Running to the back door of the main house, he found the kitchen empty and kept going.

Art Stoner was coming down the stairs when he saw Val rush into the living room in a near panic.

“Calm down, Val.  He’s alright.”

“Where …?”

“Upstairs.  Sarah’s seeing to him.”

“He’s been shot?”

Art shook his head.  “No, he’s not been shot.  He has a cold.”

Val slumped against the wall, head down, chest heaving.   Raising his head, he looked at Stoner.

“A cold? Is that all?”  

“That’s not quite all, Val,” Sarah Stoner said as she came down the stairs.  “He’s also running a fever.   I don’t know if it’s more than that.  I’ve sent for the doctor.”

“Can I go up and see him?”

“Certainly.  Johnny’s in the spare bedroom.  Go up the stairs, first room on the left.  He’s awake.”

Val nodded his thanks as he passed her on the stairs.  Walking down the hall, it didn’t take him more than a few seconds to get to the bedroom door and open it.   Lying on the full-sized bed, covered with a clean white sheet and a thick comforter, Johnny sniffled and gave Val a faint smile.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Val reached out and put his hand on Johnny’s forehead. 

“You have a fever.”

Johnny nodded and coughed.  “I know,” his voice breaking up.

“When did it start?”

“Yesterday, I guess.  Throat was scratchy last night.  Mrs. Stoner came to check on me this morning when I didn’t show up for breakfast.  She said I had a fever.”  He shrugged. “So, here I am.”

“Does anything else hurt?”

“Having a little trouble breathing, but other than that….”  Johnny started coughing again.

Hearing footsteps coming up the stairs, Val stood up and looked at the door.  A man entered the room behind Sarah.

“Good morning, I’m Doctor Johnson.”  The doctor set his bag on the nightstand and turned to Johnny. “Well, now, young man, I understand you’re not feeling well.”

Johnny started to say something but started coughing.

“That’s alright.  Don’t talk.  Let me take a look at you.” 

Doctor Johnson sat his bag down and took out a stethoscope.  

“Lean forward, Johnny.  It is Johnny, isn’t it?”

Raising the nightshirt Sarah had insisted Johnny wear, Steven Johnson’s eyes narrowed when he saw the scars on the boys back. 

Johnny nodded and coughed.

“Breath as deeply as you can.”

Trying to take a deep breath resulted in more coughing.

“You’re congested.”  The doctor stood back.  “You’re not the only one.  It appears that almost every student at the school is sick.  Right now, I think it’s nothing more than bad colds, but the symptoms are the same as a number of other diseases when they start.

“Miss Havens has canceled school for the next week so as not to spread the illness further.”

“No school on Monday?” Johnny croaked.

Doctor Johnson smiled.  “That’s right.  Now, I want you to stay in bed and rest as much as you can.”  Turning to Sarah. “Give him plenty of liquids and keep him warm.  If he takes a turn for the worse or his fever goes any higher, send for me.”

“Doc, he always runs a fever when he’s sick or hurt,” Val volunteered. 

“Well, we’d better start treating that now.  Sarah, I would think white willow bark tea and peppermint tea would be a good start.  You can try apple water, too.  We want to starve a fever, so broth only, no solid foods.  We’ll let it run its course. Do you have any questions?”

“So, you think he caught whatever this is from the children at school?”

“Yes, most probably.  One of the smaller children started getting sick on Friday.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they all aren’t sick by now.”

Johnny closed his eyes and tried to take a deep breath.  “Figures.”  

Doctor Johnson smiled and patted Johnny’s leg.  “Get some rest, son.  Mr. Crawford, can I speak to you in the hall?”

“Thank you, Steven,” Sarah said as she led the doctor and Val from the room.  “Johnny, I’ll be back in a few minutes with some tea.”    

Once in the hallway, Doctor Johnson stopped and turned to Val.

“Mr. Crawford, I’d like an explanation regarding the injuries I saw on that young man’s back.”

Val shook his head.  “All I can say Doc is that he’s had a hard life.”

“A hard life!?  That doesn’t explain the scars from bullet and knife wounds, not to mention what I’m sure were belt marks.”

Val didn’t know what to say.  The truth wasn’t an option, or was it?  He looked at Sarah, hoping to see something in the woman’s face that would give him the answer.

“Robert,” Sarah interjected, “is it necessary that you know the why of it.  Johnny’s ill and needs…”

“Sarah, I don’t just treat a part of my patients.  I treat the whole body.  His past medical history could determine what treatment is needed.”   Turning back to Val, “Mr. Crawford?”

“Doc, it’s Johnny’s story to tell, not mine and he ain’t never gonna tell you.  Hell, he won’t tell me all of it and I’ve known him for years.”


“Doc, leave it.  If you need to know something, I’ll talk to Johnny about it.  Trust don’t come easy to him and he just met you.”

Doctor Johnson thought for a moment and then conceded.

“Alright.  I’ll be back tomorrow.  If you need me before then, you know where to find me.  I’ve got at least a dozen sick children to tend to right now.”

Val waited for Sarah to lead the doctor down the stairs before turning back to the bedroom.

Johnny was still sitting up in bed when Val went back into the room.

“You need to get under them covers.”

Johnny scooted down in bed and pulled the covers over his shoulders.

“Still think it was a good idea, me going to school?”

“I do and so do you.  Now, lay back there and try to get some sleep.  I’ll check on the horses and be back up to sit with you later.  You do what Mrs. Stoner tells you.”

“Ain’t got much choice,” Johnny responded with a cough and sneeze.  “Val, where’s my gun?”

“You….”  Val started to say Johnny didn’t need his gun and caught himself.  Looking around the bedroom, he didn’t see the gun belt.  “I figure it’s still in your room.  I’ll go get it.”


Johnny had just dozed off when he heard someone enter the room.  Opening his eyes, he saw Sarah carrying a tray.  He didn’t even remember Val leaving.

“Good, you’re not asleep yet. I want you to drink the peppermint tea I’ve made.  I have apples boiling and when the apple water’s ready, I’ll bring you some.  You can drink it hot or cold.”

Johnny inhaled.  The aroma of peppermint opened his sinus and relieved his breathing.  Sipping the tea, he felt a warm, soothing burn on his raw throat. 

“Finish that and try to sleep.”

“Gracias…Thank you, ma’am, I appreciate it.”

“Your welcome.” Sarah smiled.  “How do you say that in Spanish?”

“De nada,” Johnny replied, taking another sip of his drink.

Then…de nada, Johnny.”

 “I’ll be back in a little while.” Stepping outside the door, she closed it behind her.       

Finishing the drink, Johnny sat the cup on the nightstand and slid down in the bed.  The sheet felt cool and crisp against his warm skin.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept in a bed as soft as this one. 

All he could remember were hard beds and dirty sheets in rooms above saloons.  Sure, he and Val would sometimes get a hotel room, but they were few and far between.  The boarding house in La Joya was alright, but nothing compared to the bed he was in now. 

The door opened again and Val walked into the room, holding Johnny’s rig.  Hanging the belt on the corner post of the bed, he handed Johnny the Colt.

“Thanks.”  Johnny put the gun under his pillow and settled down again.

“Sleep.  I’ll check on you later.”

Turning to go and not hearing a response, Val looked back.  Johnny was already asleep.


Val sat next to the bed as Sarah wiped Johnny’s forehead.   It had only been a day, and even with the teas and apple water, the fever came on quickly.

“Val.”  Sarah rewet the washrag.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Hesitantly she asked, “Where did Johnny get the marks on his back?”

Val didn’t answer right away.  It would do no good for this lady to hear about the boy’s past and it was Johnny’s story, not his. Still, the Stoners had been kind to both of them.

“Don’t know about all of the scars.  Some are from knife wounds, and he’s caught a few bullets over the years.”

“I saw those, but what about the older ones, the ones that look like someone used a belt?”

Val swallowed.  “Some were there when I first met him.”    

“How old was he?”

“Five…I think maybe six, but I couldn’t tell you for sure.  Johnny’s Mama never did tell him exactly how old he was.  Live along the border for a mixed breed isn’t easy.  No one takes to them.  With Johnny’s blue eyes…well, he took a lot of beatings.”

Sarah inhaled sharply.  Her hand went to Johnny’s forehead.  Gently she caressed it, pushing his damp hair aside. 

“My God, who would beat a child like that?”

“His … his Mama had a few men friends that didn’t take to a boy who was half Mexican, half white.  All I know is that he’s had a hard time of it.”

“Is that why he took to the gun?”

“Yes, that’s part of it.”  Val sighed.  “Now, Mrs. Stoner, I know you mean well, but Johnny’s set a path for himself that even I can’t change.  All I can do is try to be there to watch his back.”

“What about his real father?   Is he still alive?”

“Yeah, he’s alive.” She could hear the bitterness in Val’s voice.  “The man has a big ranch in California.”

“Why doesn’t Johnny go to him? Surely, living with his father would be better than…,” she paused, seeing the expression on Val’s face. 

“Better than living with me?”

“Oh, Val, that’s not what I meant.  It’s obvious you care about Johnny, and he thinks the world of you.  I just think … Well, can’t he go to his father?  Wouldn’t living on a ranch in California be preferable to living by his gun?” 

“I don’t know about that.  From what Johnny’s Mama told him, Lancer didn’t want him.” 

“Lancer? In California?” Val and Sarah turned at the sound of Art’s voice.  “Murdoch Lancer?”

 “That’s the name Maria told him.  She said Lancer didn’t want a Mexican wife or a mestizo son. Lancer kicked them out when the boy was about two years old.”

“That doesn’t sound like the Murdoch Lancer I’ve heard of, Val.  I’ve done business with him over the years.  Lancer’s a hard man, but a fair one.  He’s got mostly Mexican vaqueros working for him.”

“Mr. Stoner, all I know is what Maria told Johnny and me.”

“Val, I’ve heard Lancer has been looking for his son for over a decade.  I don’t know why I just thought of that.  When I heard Johnny use the name Lancer at school, I should have remembered.”

“Remembered what?”

“There have been Pinkerton agents through San Marcos a couple of times searching for information on John Lancer.”

Val paled.  “Mr. Stoner, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention that to Johnny.  He’s got a hate for his father that burns real deep.  His Mama warned him to stay away from Lancer.”

“Val, think about it.  If Murdoch Lancer threw his wife and son out, why in God’s name, would he hire Pinkerton agents to find the boy?   It doesn’t make sense.  There’s more to the story than his mother told him.”

“Maybe so, but Johnny’s not in a place where he wants to hear it.  Someday, maybe his hate will burn itself out, but until then, I think it’s part of what keeps him alive.”

“So, he’ll keep living by his gun?” Sarah remarked.

“I’m afraid so.”

“And die by it?  Is that what you’re saying?”  Sarah choked back a sob.  “You’re saying a fourteen-year-old boy will keep on the track he’s on until he dies in some dirty border town with a bullet in him?”

“That’s what I’m saying.  I can’t change it; Lord knows I’ve tried.  I lost track of him for a lot of years.  I found him again in Tucson two years ago, and he wasn’t the little boy I knew anymore.  He’s set his feet on a path now that he has to follow until…well until he’s ready to admit he’s done with it or it’s done with him.”

Art Stoner moved across the room and put his hand on Sarah’s shoulder.

“Val, from what I saw in El Paso, it will be a long time before that happens.  When he stood in the street and faced that man down, it gave me chills.  He has the fastest draw I’ve ever seen.  I saw the dime novels at the General Store.  He’s becoming almost as famous as John Wesley Hardin.”

“Yeah, he is.  That’s why I wanted to head north and give him a chance at something better.  He needs some time to grow without a gun in his hand.  Thanks to you two, he’s getting it.”

A moan drew their attention to the bed.

Smiling, Sarah wiped Johnny’s face again.  “His fever’s coming down.”  

Art patted her shoulder and turned to the door.   “I’ve got work to do.  Val, stay with him as long as you want.  I’ll have Barney Darnell put someone else on the job you had today.”

Val stood up.  “I’ll go with you and get my work done.  Johnny’s in good hands with your Misses.”

Val ran his hand over Johnny’s forehead, relieved it felt cooler.


Watching his nephew ride away, Art Stoner looked again at the letter in his hand.  It had been good seeing Hank’s son, but the news the young man delivered wasn’t good.

Turning back to the house, he knew he needed to talk to Val.  Going upstairs, he tapped on the spare bedroom door and then pushed it open.   He found Val sitting beside the bed.

Johnny was doing better. The fever was all but gone and the boy was sleeping soundly.

“Val, can I see you downstairs?”Art whispered so as not to wake Johnny.

“Be right down.”  Val gave Johnny a last look before following his boss out of the room and down the stairs.

“Art?” Sarah joined her husband in the living room, wondering about their nephew’s brief visit.

“We need to wait for Val.”

“I’m here. What’s going on?” Val said, walking into the room.

“My brother sent this.” Art held out the letter. “His boy, Lonnie, brought it.”

“Hank sent his son all the way from San Antonio?”  Val took the letter and began to read it.

Art nodded.  “That’s right. He didn’t want to take a chance of wiring the information to me.”

“Art what does it say?” Sarah moved closer.

“Hank says there are men in San Antone looking for Johnny Madrid.  Four vaqueros rode in yesterday afternoon.  They’ve been asking all over town.   When they asked Hank, he told them he didn’t know anything.  He figures it won’t take long for them to find out Johnny was in town.”

Val looked up from the letter. “We were only in San Antonio a couple of days.  I don’t think anyone recognized him.”

“I don’t know, Val.  All I know is Hank wanted to warn you.”

“What are you going to do?” Sarah asked.

Val glanced up toward the room where Johnny was sleeping.

“Nothing.  We’re not doing anything.  Johnny’s too sick to go anywhere right now.  If someone did recognize him in San Antonio, they wouldn’t know we headed to San Marcos.”

Art hesitantly asked, “Do we tell Johnny?”

“No.  I don’t want him to know.  We’ll deal with it when and if someone shows up.”


For the next three days, Johnny enjoyed the comforts of the soft bed, and Sarah Stoner hovering over him.  The fever had come, but with the teas and apple water, quickly broke.  On day four, Johnny was anxious to get out of bed and start moving around.   Five days after the cold began, Johnny was back on his feet and ready to get to work. 

That afternoon, Sarah sat at the kitchen table with Johnny and the 2nd grader Reader, listening to him read.

“Frosty is the morning; But the sun is bright, Flooding all the landscape With its golden light. Hark the sounds of laughter And the voices …sh..r..ill!”  Johnny looked at Sarah. 

“Shrill. It means a high-pitched sound or a scream.”

Johnny nodded.  

“And the voices shrill! See the happy children Coasting down the hill. There are Tom and Charley, And their sister Nell; There are John and Willie, Kate and Isabel,– Eyes with pleasure beaming, Cheeks with health aglow; Bless the merry children, Trudging through the snow!” *

“That was excellent, Johnny.”

“I wonder what it’s like to see all that snow.  Never seen snow before.”

“It’s cold, but playing in the snow can be fun.”

Johnny shivered. “Don’t want to go nowhere where it’s cold.”

Sarah laughed.  “Miss Havens sent over your homework this morning.  We’ll go over your math and writing lessons and then you can do the next reading assignment. She says everyone will catch up on geography and history when you go back to school.”

“Reading’s getting easier.  I still have trouble with some of the words, but it’s some better.”  Johnny stated proudly.  “What’d you think, Val?”

Sarah turned, seeing Val standing in the doorway for the first time.  

“How did you know he was there?”

Johnny smiled.  “Heard him when he came in.”

“You have exceptional hearing, Johnny,” Sarah said with a smile.

“Yes, ma’am.  It’s kept me alive for a long time now.”

The smile fell from Sarah’s face.  She still forgot on occasion who the young man was.

Val strolled across the room.  “You feeling better?”

“Yeah, I am.”  Johnny closed the reader. “You need me outside?”

“No, just letting you know I’m headed out with the men to move the cattle to the east range.  I’ll be back later.”

Johnny stood up.  “Can I come with you?”

“Getting tired of being inside?”

“Yeah, I could stand some fresh air.  What’d you say?”

“Johnny, you’re just getting over your cold.  I ….” Sarah started to protest.

“I’m feeling alright now.  Look, if I start to feel bad again, I’ll come back.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll keep him on a tight rein.  I know the boy and if you don’t let him out soon, he’s gonna balk on you.”

Sarah nodded.  There was nothing she could do.  Johnny wasn’t her son to tell what he could and couldn’t do.

“Will you be eating with us tonight or with the hands in the bunkhouse?”

“The bunkhouse, Mrs. Stoner.  We’ve imposed on you enough.”

She started to objection but accepted their decision. “Do you want to complete your homework tonight?”

“If it’s alright with you, could we do it tomorrow?  I need to help with the horses tonight and then spend some time with Val.  I’ll do it tomorrow and be ready to go back on Monday.”

Johnny followed Val out of the house and towards the barn.  When they got to the corral, they overheard part of a conversation, two of the hands were having.

“…. Madrid.  I’d sure hate to meet up with him.”

The two men laughed.

Johnny stopped short at the sound of his name.

“What are two talking about?” Val moved closer to the men.

Jed Bracken raised his hand, showing them a book.  “Found this in the bunkhouse the other day.  It’s about Johnny Madrid.  Sounds like he’s one mean son of a bitch.”

Val cringed. Bracken was most probably holding up the copy of the dime novel he’d bought and then discarded.  He’d read the piece of fiction shortly after buying it and hoped Johnny never knew what it said.  The book was full of lies and exaggerations.

Johnny dropped his head.  “Mean you say?  In what way?”

“Book says he killed a man for snoring.”

Val laughed.  “Hell, Bracken, that was Wes Hardin that done that.”

Bracken laughed.  “That so?  Why this book says it was Madrid.  It also says he’s real fast with a gun.”

Val huffed and glanced at Johnny.  “Says he’s fast, does it?  I heard that, too.”

“What else does it say about Madrid?”  Johnny leaned against the corral fence, anxious to hear what someone he didn’t know wrote about him.

“Haven’t finished it yet, but the boy has already had three gunfights.”

“Does it say who he was up against?”  Johnny’s interest was piqued. 

“One of the gunfights was with two brothers by the name of Hayes in Nogales.  The brothers were after Madrid for gunning their Pa.

“It says Madrid hired out to kill the old man.  He gunned the man down in cold blood and when he did, he wounded the man’s wife.  The brothers set out for revenge.  They met up with Madrid in Nogales and called him out.  Madrid killed both brothers.”

“Gunned a man down and wounded his wife?  That’s a bunch of bull…” 

“Johnny, come help me saddle the horses.”  Val grabbed Johnny’s arm and pulled him away.  As he turned, Val looked at the two hands.  “Don’t believe everything you read, Jed, especially if it’s in a dime novel.”

Bracken watched Val follow Johnny into the barn and shrugged.  Looking at the book cover and the illustration of the young pistolero, Bracken looked up at Johnny again.

“You know, Bill, Johnny could pass for Madrid if he wore his gun lower and had a red shirt on.”

Bill Larkin laughed.  “No way, our Johnny’s too nice a fellow to be Madrid.  Sounds like Madrid was born bad.”

Inside the darkened barn, Val found Johnny leaning against the wall. 

“You alright?”

“Yeah.”   Johnny pushed off the wall and started toward his horse.  Stopping, he turned and looked at Val.  “Val, you know what that book said is a lie.  Why do you think they print things like that?”

“I don’t know.  Guess it sells books.  One thing for sure, whoever wrote it is going to make you famous.”

Johnny thought about what Val said.  Maybe the book wasn’t so bad after all.  A book like that would help build his reputation.   He wanted to be famous, didn’t he? 


People stopped and stared as the Mexicans rode slowly along San Marcos’ main street.  The residents were used to seeing vaqueros, but these four were different. 

Traveling to San Marcos was Estaban Vargas’ last lead in finding the man his Patron wanted to hire.  Three weeks earlier, he’d tried to tell the Patron that hiring a pistolero was unwise, but still, it was ordered he find the man, give him the message and pay him to come.  It was made clear he wasn’t to return without the hired gunman.

Estaban and his three companions followed a trail of rumor and blood that led them out of the Arizona territory,  across New Mexico and into Texas.  In Texas, they moved quickly from El Paso through Del Rio, Laredo, La Joya, then north to San Antonio and now into San Marcos. 

Everywhere they went, Estaban soon learned people were reluctant to talk about Madrid.  He had two names, Johnny Madrid and Val Crawford.  It was often easier asking about Crawford.

Walking into the General Store, Estaban looked around.  There was nothing to distinguish it from other such gringo stores he’d been in except the book rack.  His eyes caught the word Madrid.  He was about to step forward to take a closer look when he heard the store owner speak to him.

“Can I help you, mister?”  

Taking off his hat, Estaban responded, “Si, Senor, I am looking for someone.  I believe he is in the area.”

“Who are you looking for?”  Larry Collins continued putting stock away as he waited for the Mexican to answer.

“His name is Madrid.  Johnny Madrid.”

Collins almost dropped the box he was holding.  Turning to face the vaquero, he thought he’d heard wrong.

“Madrid?  The gunfighter?”  Collins walked around the counter and picked up one of the dime novels from the book rack.  Pointing to the cover, he said, “This Johnny Madrid?”

Estaban looked at the book cover and shrugged.   “Si, I’m looking for the pistolero.”

“Mister, I’ve not seen Madrid in these parts or heard of him being here.  This is a little too far from the border for him, isn’t it?”

“Si, it is, but we heard in San Antonio that Madrid was coming this way.”

Collins shook his head.

“Perhaps you know of another man?  The man who rides with Madrid.  His name is Crawford, Val Crawford.”

Larry Collins blanched.  “Yeah, I know, Val Crawford.  He works for Art Stoner at the Rocking S about ten miles out of town. You say he rides with Madrid?”

“Si.  Senor Madrid and Senor Crawford are amigos.  They work together.”

“I know Crawford is here, but Madrid?  I…I don’t think so.”

“You can give us directions to the rancho?”

Collins nodded, stunned with the possibility that Johnny Madrid was living in or near San Marcos.

When the vaquero left his store, Larry Collins looked at the book cover and shook his head.  It couldn’t be.  Thumbing through the pages of the book, he searched for a description of the gunfighter.  

As the four vaqueros rode out of San Marcos, Larry Collins was closing his store and scurrying across the street, heading for the Sheriff’s office. 


Dave Gibbons had been Sheriff of San Marcos for four years.  It was a quiet little town and he liked it that way.  Sure, he locked up a few drunks on Saturday night, but on the whole, there was little for him to do. 

That all changed when a wide-eyed, out of breath, Larry Collins tore through his office door.

“Dave….,” Collins choked out the words while trying to catch his breath.

“What’s wrong, Collins?” Gibbons was on his feet.  “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Collins shook his head.  “No, Dave.  We’ve got bigger problems than ghosts.  You know who we’ve got in town?”

Gibbons waited.  “Who?”

“Johnny Madrid, Dave.  Johnny Madrid is working at the Rocking S.”

Gibbons collapsed back into his chair.  His eyes went to his desk, where he’d laid a copy of the dime novel he’d bought at the General Store.

 “Can’t be.”

“He is.  There were four Mexicans in town looking for him.  When I told them Madrid wasn’t in San Marcos, they asked for Val Crawford.”

“Crawford?  Doesn’t he one of Art Stoner’s ranch hands?”

“That’s right. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.  They said Madrid rode with Crawford.  That’s when I took a look at this?”   Collins held up the dime novel he’d picked up from the rack in his store.   “Listen to this.”

Collins opened the book. 

“The dark-haired, blue-eyed pistolero was nothing more than a boy, but the gun on his hip made him a man.  The half Mexican smiled at the man he was facing, a smile that didn’t make it to the boy’s sapphire blue eyes.”

Gibbons shook his head.  “So?”

“So?  Don’t you know who this book is talking about?”

“The book… yeah, it’s about Johnny Madrid.  What’s that got to do with Crawford?”

“Crawford hired on with a boy.  A boy who’s been going to school with my Jerry.  That boy’s sitting over there right now in the schoolhouse and goes by the name of Johnny Lancer.”

Gibbons stood and walked to his office window, looking at the schoolhouse.   Turning back to Collins, he asked, “You’re sure?”

“It all adds up.   And that’s not all. Jerry told me the Lancer kid had a gun in his saddlebags last week.”

“That means Johnny Lancer is Johnny Madrid.  What are we going to do?”

“Do?  Dave, you’ve got to get them to leave town.  If those four Mexicans are looking for him now, there’s no telling when gunfighters will come looking.  It’s too dangerous having him here.”

“I’ll ride out to the Rocking S this afternoon, but I’m going to need some men to go with me.  I’m not facing Johnny Madrid by myself.”


“Did you see them?  There were four of them.”

“Children, quiet now.  We need to get back to work.”

“But Miss Havens, we were just talking about the four men that rode into town.”

The mention of four strangers in town got Johnny’s attention.  “What men, Joey?”

Turning in his seat, he looked at Johnny. 

“Johnny, Joey.  No talking.  Now, back to your lessons.  We have a lot of time to make up.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  Joey turned around to face forward. 

While Miss Havens was working with the 3rd -graders, Johnny stretched forward and tapped Joey’s shoulder. 

“What four strangers?” he whispered.

Joey glanced toward the teacher and seeing she wasn’t paying attention, he leaned back to answer Johnny, “There were four vaqueros who rode into town this morning.”

Johnny frowned.  “So.  You’ve seen vaqueros before.”

“Not like these, Johnny.” Joey’s eyes were wide with excitement.  “These were dressed real fancy in clothes like I heard rich ranchers down south of the border wear.  They even had fancy Mexican saddles on their horses.”

“Where’d they go?”

Joey shook his head.  “Don’t know.  I was headed to school and didn’t….”

“Joey!  I’ll not ask again.  Please turn forward and go back to your assignment.”

Johnny picked up his book and started reading to himself, but his mind was on the strangers. They didn’t sound like gunhawks, so maybe it was nothing.   Still, he wished he hadn’t relented and left his gun at the ranch.


Shortly after 11:00, Val was coming out of the barn when he saw the four men riding up to the house. 

His heart fell, already knowing who they were looking for.  He edged back into the shadows waiting to hear what they said.

Estaban Vargas sat his horse and looked around.  It wasn’t until Art Stoner walked out of the house, that he stepped down from the saddle.  Taking off his had, he addressed the rancher.

“Senor, my name is Estaban Vargas.”

“Senor Vargas, can I help you?”

“Si, Senor, we are looking for a man.  His name is Crawford, Senor Val Crawford.  In town, they say he works for you.”

Val dropped his head, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.  There was no use hiding in the shadows any longer.    

“Val, he’s…” Art started to reply when he saw Val walking across the yard towards him.

“I’m Val Crawford,” Val said as Stoner’s foreman, Joel Nash, along with Jed Bracken and Barney Darnell, came out of the bunkhouse and moved to stand behind their boss. 

“Senor Crawford, bueno.  We have been searching for you for many weeks.”

“Do I know you?”

“No, Senor, you do not know me.  It is Senor Madrid we want to see.   We knew if we found you, we would find Johnny Madrid.   He is here, no?”

Val braced his shoulders and his right hand shifted to rest on the butt of his gun.  He knew Joel Nash and the two ranch hands had heard Vargas.

Seeing Val’s movement, Estaban quickly spoke up, “We are not here for trouble, Senor.  Our Patron has sent us to find Senor Madrid.  Our Patron wants to hire him.”

“Go away and tell whoever your Patron is that you couldn’t find him.”

“Sadly, Senor, we cannot do that.  Our orders are not to return without him.  Is he here?  If he is not, you can tell us where to find him?”

“You’ve been asking about us in town?”

“Si, the gringo at the General Store, told us where to find you.  We knew that if we found you, we would find Senor Madrid.”

“Who’s your Patron?”

Estaban reached into his jacket and brought out a piece of paper.  Unfolding it, he held it out.

Val took the letter, unfolded it, and looked it over..  His eyebrow shot up when he read the name at the bottom.  “Is this for real?”

Estaban nodded.  “Si, Senor.  Now, you will take us to Senor Madrid?”

Val handed the letter back to Estaban.  Looking past the vaquero, he saw Art Stoner waiting.   Walking over to his boss, Val took his hat off.

“Mr. Stoner, I don’t know how this is gonna play out, but I need to go get Johnny.  I don’t know these men, and I’m not sure they’re telling the truth about why they’re here. I wonder…”

“Do you want some of the men to ride in with you?” Art looked suspiciously at the four vaqueros.  “Just in case you need some help.”

Val smiled. “Yeah, I’d appreciate it.”

Val turned to Estaban.  “I need to get something.  I’ll be ready to go in a few minutes.”

“You’re taking us to Senor Madrid?”

Val nodded.  “Yeah, I’m taking you to Senor Madrid.”


Johnny stood at his desk, a McGuffey Reader in hand.  

“Johnny, we’ll start with the 1st-grade reader.  Turn to page 25, lesson 20.” *

Johnny thumbed the pages until he got to 25.

“Read aloud to the class.”

“Ma’am, it’s the one with the man and little girl on the horse?”

“That’s correct.”

Johnny cleared his throat. Stealing himself, he took a deep breath.

“Papa, will you let me ride with you on Prince?  I will sit still in your arm…arms.  See, mamma!

We are both on Prince.  How large is he…”  Johnny stopped and looked up.  “I mean…How large he is!  Get up, Prince!  You are not so fat to trot as far as the barn.”

The children in the room giggled.  Johnny exhaled and grinned.

“Excellent, Johnny.  Now go to the 2nd-grader reader and turn to page 121, lesson 56. Read the first two chapters aloud.”

Johnny gave Miss Havens a frustrated look.  He hadn’t read aloud from the 2nd-grade reader, although he’d been reading to Mrs. Stoner from the book over the weekend.

Again, Johnny took a deep breath.

A Good Old Man.  Chapter 1. There once lived an old man in, little cottage.  It has two rooms and only two windows.  A small gar..”  Johnny looked up at the teacher. 

“Sound it out. Gar and then den.”

“Garden,” Johnny smiled.   “A small garden lay just behind it.   Chapter 2.  Old as the poor man was, he used to work in the fields.  Often he…”

Stopping when he heard a noise behind him, Johnny turned to see Val standing in the doorway.

Val gave Johnny a faint smile.  The boy had come a long way in a short time.  He’d heard Johnny reading aloud with Mrs. Stoner and knew with just a little more time…, well, their time had run out.

“Miss Havens, excuse me, but I need to talk to Johnny.”

“Mr. Crawford, it’s almost lunchtime, can’t you wait a few more minutes?”

“Ma’am, I wish I could, but this can’t wait.  There are some people here Johnny needing to see.”

Johnny closed the book and sighed.  Nodding, he ran his hand gently over the book cover before laying it down.  Stepping into the aisle, he turned to look at Val.

“I’m sorry, hijo.”

“This couldn’t have waited until tonight?”

From the expression on Val’s face, Johnny knew it couldn’t.

“It was either this way or their way.  They’ve already been asking for you in town.  That’s how they found me.  It won’t be long before word starts to spread.”

“They?”  Johnny understood.  “The four vaqueros seen riding into town this morning?”

Val brought his hand from behind his back, holding Johnny’s rig. 

Johnny didn’t slow his step as he moved passed Val.  Taking the gun belt, he swung it around his hips and kept walking while at the same time buckling and tightened it down.

Lorna Havens stood fixed to the spot in the front of the class as she watched Johnny buckle on the gun and step out the door with Val behind him.   She rushed down the aisle to the doorway.

“Stay in your seats, children.”

The teacher stopped when she saw Johnny and Val still standing at the top of the steps looking out over the yard.

Johnny waited a few moments, sizing up the men waiting for him. Recognizing Art Stoner and the men from the Rocking S made him feel some better about moving down the steps. 

In the yard, standing side by side, holding their horse’s reins were the four vaqueros.  Although not showing it, Johnny was surprised when he recognized one of the men. 

Slowly walking down the steps, Johnny saw Estaban take a step toward him.   He could see a look of confusion on the man’s face. 

Estaban watched the muchacho walk out of the schoolhouse, expecting to see a man following.  When only Crawford appeared, Estaban let his eyes fall the boy’s right hip. He couldn’t hide his surprise when he recognized the gun of a professional pistolero. 

“You are…Johnny Madrid?” A hint of disbelief evident in his voice.

It wasn’t like Johnny hadn’t seen the same reaction in the past.

“That right, I’m Madrid.  What do you want?”

A murmur started first with Stoner’s men and spread to the crowd that had formed from townspeople who came to see what was going on.  From behind Johnny, he heard Miss Havens inhale and the excited chatter of the children from the school who were standing at the windows overlooking the yard.

“I knew it!”  Johnny heard Jerry Collins say.

Johnny closed his eyes.  It’d been too good to be true, but he’d hoped it could have lasted a little longer.  Now that everyone knew who he was, he’d never be able to stay in San Marcos.  

Cocking his head, Estaban looked at the chico who’d just confirmed he was the pistolero his Patron wanted to hire.  It was hard to believe someone so young had such a formidable reputation.

Looking at the young face, Estaban realized there was something familiar about him. 

“I asked you a question.”  Johnny’s voice was low and menacing.   “What do you want?” 

Looking again at the muchacho, Estaban snapped out of his musings.

“My Patron has sent me to find you.  He sends this.”  Estaban pulled out the same letter he’d shown Val.

Johnny took the paper, opened it, and read the message.

Turning to Val, Johnny’s blue eyes shot daggers.  

“Did you read this?”

“Yeah, I did.”

Johnny nodded and turned back to Estaban.

“What makes him think I’ll come?”

“It is said you help those in need.  My Patron needs your help.  He is willing to pay you handsomely for your services.”

“Pay me?  The old man is willing to pay me?  That’s rich,” Johnny laughed.  “I bet he don’t have any idea who he’s trying to hire.”

“No entiendo.”  Estaban looked at Johnny, again confused.  (I don’t understand.)

“You don’t remember me, do you,… Estaban?”

Estaban shook his head, not knowing what the muchacho was talking about.

Johnny laughed again.  “Think back seven years… Corpus Christi.  Remember now …”

Peering into the blue eyes of the mestizo, Estaban’s eyes widened. 


“So, you do remember?”

“Si, I remember.  I remember well.” 

Estaban remembered the young mestizo; always underfoot, always looking at the Patron with hate in his ajos azules. (blue eyes)

“Still think he wants to see me?”

Estaban shook his head slowly.  “I don’t know if he would want to see the boy he knew as Juanito, but I am sure he wants to see the pistolero Johnny Madrid.”


Johnny turned to look at Val. 

“I don’t know, Val.”

Estaban could see the indecision on the young man’s face.

“He asks for your help.  If the Patron knew who you were, he would expect you to come. You would deny him?”

“Why not?  He doesn’t mean anything to me.”

“There was a time you meant something to him.”

Johnny laughed and shook his head.  “I didn’t mean mierda to him.  All he ever wanted was my Mama.”

“Still, would Johnny Madrid refuse him?”

The crowd surrounding them was getting louder.

Estaban looked around.  Whatever reason Madrid had for being in San Marcos was done now.  He’d been surprised when they got to town and Crawford had gone straight to the schoolhouse. 

He’d been even more surprised when he saw Madrid come down the steps looking like the boy he was.  The allusion vanished when his eyes fell on the gun on the boy’s hip.

“Where is he?”

Estaban jumped when he was spoken to again.

“El Patron is in Corpus Christi.”

“That figures.  He’s been there all this time?”

“No, he has only returned to Los Estados Unidos a few weeks ago.”  (United States)

Val took a step closer to Johnny. “You’re not thinking about going down there, are you?” 

Johnny gave him a faint smile.

“Why not?”  Johnny looked at the faces of the men, women, and children standing around the schoolyard.  “Things here are shot to hell.”

“From what you just said, you don’t owe him anything.”

“You’re right, I don’t owe him a thing, but I’m going anyway.”  Johnny turned back to Estaban. 

“Tell him we’ll be in Corpus Christi in a week.”

“Senor, my men and I are to ride with you.  El Patron wants to make sure you there are no delays.”

Johnny took a deep breath. 

“Val, would you saddle my horse, I need to get my things from inside.”

Johnny turned to face his teacher.  Without a word, he slipped past her and went back up the steps to the schoolhouse.  Gathering up his books and papers, Johnny took one last look around the room.  He was going to miss this place.  

Val was mounted when he got back outside. 

Johnny put his things in the saddlebags and swung into the saddle.   Looking at Estaban, he said, “We’re heading back to the ranch.  You stay in town.  We’ll be back in the morning.”

Before Estaban could object, Johnny kicked the horse’s sides.  With Val at his side and the Rocking S men following, they headed back to the ranch.


Sarah Stoner had paced for more than an hour and worried herself sick.  When she saw the four vaqueros earlier, she knew there would be trouble.   Art told her to stay inside while he talked to them.  She listened through the opened door. When they asked to speak to Val, she held her breath, and when they asked for Johnny, her heart sank.

Standing on the front porch, she saw the riders coming into the yard.  Her husband stopped in front of the house while the other men went to the barn and dismounted.  Sarah stepped off the porch.


“Sarah…,” he paused, “Johnny and Val are leaving.”

“No!  He can’t leave.”

Art stepped down from his horse and put his arms around his wife. 

“Honey, there’s nothing we can do.  The whole town knows who he is now.  They won’t stand for him being here any longer, and there’s no way he’ll be able to go back to school.”

“I can teach him, Art.”

“No, ma’am.”

Art and Sarah turned to see Johnny standing behind them.

“Johnny…”   Sarah started.

“No, ma’am,” Johnny’s voice was soft. “You’ve been good to me.  It’s been a long time since anyone treated me like I was someone other than…”   Johnny sighed.  “Mrs. Stoner, you don’t know how much I appreciate what you’ve done for me, but I can’t stay.  Now that people know who I am, it isn’t safe for you with me here.”

Sarah moved to Johnny and put a hand on his now downturned face.

“Johnny, if Art and I had children, I’d have wanted them to be just like you.”

Johnny placed his hand over Sarah’s.  Raising his eyes, he could see tears pooling in her eyes, mirroring his own.

“Oh, Johnny.”  Sarah threw her arms around the young man she’d come to love.  When he put his arms around her and returned the hug, her tears started falling. 

Val stood back, watching and listening. 

Johnny pulled back and wiped his face, blushing when he saw Val was watching. 

“You’ll stay the night?” Art asked as he took his place next to his wife.

Johnny nodded.  “If you’ll let us.  We’ll ride out in the morning.”

“Where are you going, Johnny?” 

“Corpus Christi.  There’s a job waiting for me.” 

“What kind of job?”

Johnny cocked his head.  “I think you know.”

“You don’t have to go back to using your gun.”

“Yes, ma’am, I do.  It’s all I know, all I’m good at.”

“That’s not true.  You’re just fourteen. There’s still time…”

“No, ma’am, my path’s set. There’s only one direction I can go.”

“And there’s nothing Art, or I could say that would change that?”

Johnny shook his head.

Swallowing hard and taking a deep breath, Sarah nodded.  “Alright, but you’ll eat with us tonight, and I’ll not take no for an answer, young man.”

“No, ma’am… I mean, yes, ma’am.”  Johnny smiled.  “We’d be pleased to eat with you.”

Sarah turned back to the house, leaving the men to watch her go.

“I’d better get packed up.”

Johnny headed for the storage shed he’d called his room for the past two months.


Art and Sarah Stoner sat at the dinner table watching Johnny and Val push food around their plates.  No one had eaten much.  Finally, Sarah spoke up.

“If you’d like something else, I can fix it.”

Val shook his head.  “No, ma’am, I guess we just aren’t that hungry.”

“It’s good, Mrs. Stoner, but like Val said, I’m not that hungry.”

“Johnny Lancer, or should I call you Madrid.”

“Madrid,” Johnny answered firmly.

“Well, then, Johnny Madrid, I can’t believe you’re not hungry.  You’re a growing boy.  I have cake for dessert.”

Johnny smiled.  “What kind?”

“Chocolate. Would you like a piece?”

 “I’d like that.”

Sarah brought the cake to the table and cut a slice for everyone.  After Johnny’s second piece, he turned her town on a third.

Sarah cleared the table of dishes and excused herself.  When she came back, a few minutes later, she held a package in her hands.”

“Johnny, I have something for you.  I finished it the other day and was planning to give it to you at the end of the week.  But now that’s your leaving…”  

Johnny took the gift and opened it. 

“I hope it fits.”

Johnny held up a light green shirt.

“Go try it on.” Val urged with a smile.

Johnny jumped up from the table and headed for the door.  “I’ll be right back.” 

Val turned to the Stoners.

“That was kind of you, Mrs. Stoner.   He hasn’t had many presents in his life.”

“Val, I wish you’d reconsider.  You know you’re both welcome to stay.”

“I know, but Johnny’s right.  It wouldn’t be safe for you with him here.  With Johnny’s reputation, it won’t take long before others find out he’s here, and gunhawks will start coming.   Besides, he’s not ready to settle down.  Someday, but not yet.”

“What about his father?”

Val frowned.   “I only know what Maria told him and me.  I told you what she said.  I think there’s more to the story, but that’s all he knows.  I think his hate for Murdoch Lancer is part of what keeps him alive.”

They heard the back door open and a smiling Johnny walk in wearing the new shirt.   The green color accented his complexion perfectly. 

“It fits.”  Johnny grinned.

“It looks very nice on you, Johnny.”

Johnny ran his hand up and down the sleeve, feeling the softness of the material.  “It’s the nicest shirt I’ve ever had.  Thank you.”   

“You’re welcome.”

Val pushed back from the table.  “We need to turn in.  We’ll be leaving early in the morning and I want to say goodbye to the ranch hands tonight.”

“Val, wait.”  Art put a hand on Val’s arm. “Tell us about this job in Corpus Christi.”

“There ain’t much to tell right now.”

Val glanced at Johnny.

“There’s a man I used to know… a long time ago.  He sent the vaqueros to find a gunhawk named Madrid.”

“A long time ago?  You must have been no more than a child.” Art commented.  “Does he know…?” 

“Know that the gunhawk he sent for is Johnny…?” Val began.

“Or that he’s only…”    Sarah continued.

“A boy?”  Art finished. 

All three looked at Johnny.  He gave them one of his famous faint smiles.  “I wish everyone would stop that.  I’m a gunfighter and a damn good one.  Guess he’ll be in for a surprise.”

“Who is this man and how do you know him, Johnny?”

“It’s not important right now.  Look, we’ve got to get going.  We’ll see you in the morning.”

Johnny turned to the door.

“You’ll be here for breakfast?”

“Yes, ma’am, we’ll be here.” 

Val stood up and looked at Johnny.  “Come on, hijo, let’s get this over with and get some sleep.”

Johnny hesitated and then followed Val out the door.


Sarah slumped back into her chair when the kitchen door closed.  Looking at her husband, tears formed in her eyes.  “I’m going to miss him.”

“I know, dear, I am too.  It’s been nice having the young man around the house.”

The sound of horses entering the yard drew their attention. 

“I wonder who that could be?”

Art moved to the front of the house and walked onto the porch.  Sheriff Dave Gibbons and four men from San Marcos were riding into the yard.

Reining to a stop, Gibbons waited for Art to step off the porch.


“Dave, what are you doing out here?”

“You know why.  You’ve got Johnny Madrid living at the Rocking S.  I want him gone.”

“Johnny hasn’t caused any trouble, Dave.”

“That’s right and I plan to keep it that way.”

“You don’t have to worry, Sheriff.”  Johnny sauntered from the side of the house. 

The Sheriff nervously moved his hand so that it rested on his gun.

“You’re Madrid?”  

“That’s right.”

“I want you out of San Marcos.”

“I planned to leave in the morning.”

When the sheriff hesitated, Art spoke up, “Dave, surely one more night won’t matter.  Johnny’s been here for almost two months.  He’s not caused trouble once.”

“You knew who he was and let him stay on here?  You let him go to school with the children of the town?”

“That’s right.  I knew who Johnny was.  He wanted a job working on the ranch. I decided to give him a chance to prove himself, and he’s done it.”

“You’ll be gone tomorrow?” Gibbons stared at Johnny.


Gibbons nodded and relaxed.  It was easier than he thought he would be. 

“That’s fine.”

Johnny gave the Sheriff a lop-sided smile.  “Not a problem, Sheriff.”

Gibbons and his men reined their horses around and headed back to town.

Sarah walked onto the porch.  “That was uncalled for.  Dave Gibbons had no right…”

“Mrs. Stoner,” Johnny stopped her, “he’s your law.  He has a right to protect you.  It’s not the first time the law’s asked me to leave town, and it won’t be the last.”

Sarah watched Johnny turn and walk away, her heart breaking for the young man. 


The Rocking S hands stopped what they were doing when the bunkhouse door opened. Val walked in with Johnny following close behind.

Joel Nash stood up but didn’t say anything.

It was Johnny who spoke up.  “Val and me are heading out in the morning.  We wanted to say goodbye before we left.”

Nash looked around the bunkhouse at his men and then back to Johnny and Val.

“We know the Boss and his misses don’t want you to go.  I think I can speak for everyone here…well, we’d like you to stay, too.”

Val nodded.  “We’d like to stay on here a while longer, but ….”

“Are you really Johnny Madrid?” Jed Bracken asked, holding the dime novel in his hand.

Johnny’s eyes went from the book to Bracken’s face.

“Yeah, I’m Madrid, but Jed don’t believe what’s in that book.  I’ve never shot a man who wasn’t trying to shoot me first, and I swear I’ve never hurt a woman or a kid.”

“You as fast as they say you are?”  Bill Larkin joined in the conversation.

“Maybe.” Johnny gave him a slight smile. “Depends on how fast they say I am.”

The men laughed at that. 

“You going with those vaqueros?”  Barney Darnell asked with concern in his voice.

“Yeah,” Johnny nodded, “we’re going with them.  There’s someone in Corpus Christi waiting to see me.  Not sure yet if I’m going to work for him or shoot him.  I guess I’ll know when I get there.”

“Johnny, you know you’re welcome here?  The boys and me don’t care who you are.”

“That’s good to know, Barney.  Look, I’m going to call it a night.  If I don’t see you fellows in the morning, it’s been good knowing you.  I’d be glad to ride the river with any of you.”

Johnny hurriedly turned and walked out of the bunkhouse.  Val looked at the men and smiled.  “I’d better go tuck him in.  I’ll be back in a few minutes, and then I’m turning in too.”

Val hurried outside and took a deep breath.  He was going to miss this place.


Johnny hadn’t slept much and was up long before the sun.  He was anxious to get moving.  Knowing that saying goodbye to the Art and Sarah was the first thing he had to do, gave him pause.  He’d liked being at the Rocking S, and he’d liked having the woman fuss over him even if he’d never admit it to anyone. 

He had his saddlebags almost packed when Val tapped on the door and pushed it open.

“You about ready.  Mrs. Stoner has breakfast waiting for us.”

“Another minute.”  Placing his new shirt in his saddlebags, Johnny looked around to see if he’d missed anything.   Starting for the door, he spotted his school books.  Picking them up, he slid them into the saddlebags.

Walking out of the old building he’d called home, Johnny looked back and smiled.  He’d never had a room to himself, and even though it was nothing more than a shed, he’d like having a place he could be alone.

Dressed in his red shirt and black calzoneras, Johnny looked up to see the ranch hands watching him.   Barney Darnell raised a hand and waved.  Returning the wave, he hurried to the backdoor of the house.  Knocking once, he pulled the door open and stepped into the warm kitchen where the Stoners and Val were waiting for him.

Rushing through breakfast, Johnny wanted to get away as soon as he could.  Saying goodbye was going to be hard.

Sarah watched as the boy she’d grown to love tied his saddlebags onto the horse and stow his rifle.  When he turned back to face her, she rushed forward.  Throwing her arms around the young man one last time, she placed a kiss on his cheek.

“Johnny, if you’re ever this way again, you’ll stop and see us.  If I find you haven’t, I’ll come looking for you myself.”

“Yes, ma’am.  I promise, if I’m close, I’ll stop in.”

Art Stoner moved forward and extended his hand.  “It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Johnny.”

“Same here, Mr. Stoner.  You take care of yourself.   If you ever have any problems, you send for me.  I’m sure someone will know where to find me.”

Val climbed into the saddle and waited for Johnny to mount up.  As they rode away from the Rocking S, Val glanced at Johnny and saw him wipe his eyes with the back of his hand.

“Nice folks.”

“Yeah,” Johnny swallowed the lump in his throat, “real nice folks.  I’m gonna miss them.”

“Yeah, me, too.”

“Val, I need to stop by the school on the way through town.”

Val didn’t say anything, knowing there was one more person who the boy needed to say goodbye.


Estaban Vargas stood outside the hotel watching the two riders coming towards him.  He and his men had been up and ready since early morning, wanting to be on their way back to Corpus Christi.  

Estaban’s eyes focused on the shorter of the two riders, the one dressed in a red shirt. 

He remembered the muchacho’s mother.  She was a dark-haired beauty who, for a short time, had stolen his Patron’s heart.  It was too bad the woman wasn’t as faithful to the Patron as he was to her.  Estaban had personally dispatched the woman’s other lover.  It was that same night she stole away, taking not only her mestizo but also the Patron’s property.

Estaban had been pleased to see the end of the woman and her son.  Now, it was hard to believe the mestizo from Corpus Christi had become a pistolero.  Estaban wondered what his Patron’s reaction would be when he saw the muchacho again.

Johnny stared hard at the vaquero and then slowly turned his head to look at Val.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Walking his horse to the schoolhouse, Johnny paused a moment before dismounting.  After tying the horse at the hitching rail, he reached inside his saddlebags and took out the school books.  He held them for a moment before turning to the stairs.

Lorna Havens was writing the morning assignment on the blackboard when she heard the sound of spurs ringing.  Turning, she and the children in the room looked at the opening door.

Halting in the doorway, Johnny took his hat off.  He took a deep breath and began walking to the front of the room.  Coming to a stop, he looked once more at the books in his hand and then laid them on the desk.

“I brought back your books, Miss Havens.  I wanted to thank you for all your help while I was here.  I learned a lot from you.”

Johnny turned back to the door.

“Johnny, wait a minute.”

Johnny stopped, looking back over his shoulder.

“Johnny, I want you to take the 2nd-grade book and these as well.”   Miss Havens picked up four other books.  “These are the 3rd through 6th-grade readers.  You can work your way through them.  You’ve progressed very quickly in such a short time.  I know that with a little more time, you would have been in the more progressive readers.”

Johnny turned to face the young blond and looked at the books.  “Ma’am, I appreciate it, but I don’t really have room in my saddlebags for that many books and besides…”

“I’ll carry some of them.”

The sound of Val’s voice drew their attention to the door.

Val walked across the room and took three of the books.

“I’ll hold onto these.  Johnny, stow the others in your saddlebags.  Thank you, Miss Havens.  I’ll work with him and make sure he gets through these.  Is there anything else he needs to work on?”

Lorna Havens smiled.  She hurried around her desk and picked up some papers and handed them to Val. 

“These are some math problems.  The answer sheet is on the bottom.  Johnny doesn’t need much work in arithmetic.  He’s weakest in reading and writing in English.  If he works on that, he should be fine.” 

“Yes, ma’am.  I’ll see to it he works on these and, thank you.” 

Johnny picked up the other two books and nodded.  Giving Miss Havens one more glance, he turned again and headed for the door.

 “Johnny.”  Becky Stevens stood up and moved to the aisle.  “I’m going to miss you, Johnny.”

“I’ll miss you too, Becky.”

“Me, too, Johnny.” Joey Stevens moved to stand in front of Johnny.  “I’m going to miss you, too.” 

Johnny ruffled the smaller boy’s hair.

“Take care of your sister,” Johnny looked at Jerry Collins and Billy Harmon, “and, Joey, if you have any problems with Billy or Jerry, you let Mr. Stoner know.  He’ll know how to get ahold of me.  I hear they’ve been bothering you; I’ll ride back to San Marcos and take care of them.”

“You will?” Joey’s eyes lit up.

“Yeah, I will.”

“I’ll do that,” Joey replied, looking at Billy and Jerry with a smirk.  “Johnny, are you really Johnny Madrid, like in the dime novel?”

Johnny shook his head.

“Joey, I’m Johnny Madrid, but …well, Miss Havens is teaching you,” he looked around the room, “all of you, to read.  Believe me, when I tell you knowing how to read is important, but you can’t believe everything that’s written.  There have been a lot of stories written about me in newspapers, and now in that book.  Not all of them are true.  Don’t judge a man by what’s written about him, but by what you know, he’s done.” 

Johnny turned and walked out of the school with the sounds of children calling out their goodbyes.  At the bottom of the steps, Johnny stowed the books and swung into the saddle.  He rode out of San Marcos with Val at his side and Estaban and his men trailing behind.


As they rode along, Val glanced at Johnny.

“Did you learn anything back there at that school?”

Johnny nodded.

“Yeah, I did.  I learned a lot, but mostly I learned gunfighters and schoolrooms don’t mix.”

“You sorry you went?”

“No, I’m not sorry.”  Johnny was silent for a few minutes before speaking again. “Thanks, Val.”

“For what?”

“For caring enough to see that I got some learning under my belt. You’re the only one who’s ever given a damn about me.”

Val didn’t respond.  He knew Johnny had enjoyed his time in San Marcos.  It had given them both time to settle for a while and for Johnny to live without his gun.

“How far is Corpus Christi?” Johnny asked.

“About 170 miles.  We can be there in three days if we hurry.”  Val leaned back in the saddle, letting his horse go at an easy trot.

“And if we don’t hurry?” Johnny smiled, giving Val a sideways glance.

“Four, maybe five days, if we take our time.”

“You think Estaban’s gonna let us take our time?”

“He won’t have much choice, now will he?  If he wants you to listen to the man when we get there.”

“Yeah, about the man, Val, I’m not sure about helping him.”

“Sure, surprised the hell out of me when I saw whose name was on that letter.  And I sure didn’t know you knew him.”

“Well, Mama knew him.”  Johnny dipped his head and glanced at Val.  “It was after she took off from you.  I didn’t like him much, and he tolerated me because of her.”  Shaking his head, he snorted, “Image him wanting my help.”

“I bet Maria was living high on the hog with him.  Why…?”

“Hell, Val, you knew Mama.  She couldn’t be happy with one man.  She was two-timing him, and he found out.  He had the man killed, and she picked up in the middle of the night, and we lit out.  I thought he’d come after us, especially since she took some of his money and jewelry, but he didn’t.  Mama sold the jewelry and spent all the money on tequila and living it up until we ended up in another two-bit town living in another one room shack.”

“How’d he treat you?”

Johnny snorted.  “Same as all her men who wanted me to call them Papi.  Thought he could teach me manners and didn’t mind using the back of his hand when I didn’t give him the respect he thought he deserved.”

“And you’re still gonna help him?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Don’t know and I won’t until I come face to face with him.”

“Fair enough. 

They rode until the sun was setting before making camp.  Val and Johnny took care of the horses while the vaqueros set up camp and fixed supper.   As they settled down for the night, Johnny fished out the 2nd-grade reader and started scanning the pages.

“Read that part you were reading in school yesterday when I walked in.”

Johnny flipped the pages until he found the right one.  Clearing his throat, he began,


There once lived an old man in a snug, little cottage. It had two rooms and only two windows. A small garden lay just behind it.
Old as the poor man was, he used to work in the fields. Often, he would come home very tired and weak, with his hoe or spade on his shoulder.
And who do you think met him at the door! Mary and Lorna, his two little grandchildren.”

Johnny looked at Val and grinned.

“Go on. You’re doing just fine.”

Val listened as Johnny continued to read.   Gunfighters and schoolrooms might not mix, but in this case, they’d mixed long enough.  The past seven weeks had given Johnny some time to grow and learn.

“Every night he prayed God to bless them, and to bring back their father in safety.”

Val thought about Corpus Christi and what awaited them.  The man they were going to see was rich and powerful.  He could hire anyone he wanted, but he’d asked for Johnny Madrid.  Val had to wonder what the man would do when he found out the pistolero he wanted to hire was someone he already knew and that he was only fourteen years old.  No matter.  Val would be there to watch Johnny’s back.

There was a rumble of thunder off in the distance bringing Val out of his musings.

“After this the old man did not have to work. His son worked for him, and his grandchildren took care of him. Many happy days they spent together.”

“So, what’d you think?”

Val nodded.  “That was good. You’re getting better.  Now, put that away and turn in.  We’ve got a long ride ahead of us tomorrow.”

As Johnny put the book in his saddlebags and stretched out on his bedroll, lightning lit up the sky.

Val pushed himself up on one elbow and looked to the southwest.  “There’s a storm coming.” 

As if an omen of what was to come, the night suddenly grew darker and the shadows gathered in around them.

“Looks like it’s coming out of Mexico.”

When he didn’t get a response, Val laid back down, pulling his blanket up over his shoulders.

Johnny’s thoughts went to the friends he’d made in San Marcos.  He didn’t have a lot of good memories, but he’d made some in the last few weeks.  Maybe someday he’d go back to San Marcos, and then again… maybe not.  His path lay in a different direction now, directly to Corpus Christi and to a man he thought never to see again.

June 2020

To Enemy At The Door: The Devil’s Shadow


* McGuffey Readers actual excerpts.  All readings from the McGuffey reader came from the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd McGuffey Eclectic Readers.



GOOD OLD MAN. Page 121 lesson 56

1. There once lived an old man in a snug, little cottage. It had two rooms and only two windows. A small garden lay just behind it.
2. Old as the poor man was, he used to work in the fields. Often he would come home very tired and weak, with his hoe or spade on his shoulder.
3. And who do you think met him at the door! Mary and Lorna, his two little grandchildren.
4. They were too young to work, except to weed in the garden, or bring water from the spring.
5. In winter, as they were too poor to buy much wood or coal, they had little fire; so they used to sit close together to keep warm. Mary would sit on one of the old man’s knees, and Lorna on the other.
6. Sometimes their grandfather would tell them a droll story. Sometimes he would teach them a hymn.
7. He would often talk to them of their father, who had gone to sea, or of their good, kind mother, who was in her grave. Every night he prayed God to bless them, and to bring back their father in safety.



8. The old man grew weaker every year; but the little girls were glad to work for him, who had been so good to them.
9. One cold, windy night, they heard a knock at the door. The little girls ran and opened it. Oh, joy to them! There stood their father.
10. He had been at sea a long time. He had saved some money, and had now come home to stay. 11. After this the old man did not have to work. His son worked for him, and his grandchildren took care of him. Many happy days they spent together.


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11 thoughts on “Gunfighters and Schoolrooms: At Shadows Edge by SandySha

  1. Thank you Victoria. I have two more stories in this series to get done. I too like the young Johnny and Scott.


  2. Sandy, your stories and depiction of JM are amazing as always, you really have a gift of storytelling. I have read all your stories several times and never get bored. I look forward to reading the continuation of this series.


  3. This was so good. I could hear Val’s voice in my head. Sweet Johnny. Loved how he enjoyed just being a boy, his relationship with the Stoners and his crush on his teacher. Reminiscent of Measure of a Man. If this had been his back story he would have thought a lot of San Marcos when he was helping Catha. I love your writing.


  4. I just re-read this and had to comment again on how good it was. It was so nice seeing Johnny at 14 settled with Val and a nice family if only for 2 months or so. It was good for him. I hope the Stoners contact Murdoch …. but then we know Murdoch doesn’t get his boy for another 4 years or so.


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