Playing The Devil’s Hand by Sherry

Special thanks to my betas Chris Petrone and Terri Derr

Word count: 12,350

Chapter 1 : Ace in The Hole

New Mexico Territory

A shot fired from behind sent Johnny Madrid flying from his horse. He dove between two big rocks, scattering dirt and shale, and landed hard on his side. Scrambling for cover, he pulled his gun and looked for his attackers.

“Madrid! You’re dead.” Gunfire came with the call-out, and Johnny aimed toward the voice. A dull thud and a cry of pain sounded back. Three shots volleyed from behind the bushes to his left. More blasting came from guns on the other side of the boulders thirty feet out. Johnny’s Colt revolver heated as it bucked, spitting bullets at this worst kind of enemy—back shooters.

The glare from a long gun threw a flare of light, and Johnny glimpsed a blue-shirted man straight ahead. Yeah. Right. There. He aimed, squeezed the trigger, and the man rolled down the hill.

When he popped his head up, Johnny saw two men making their way to higher ground; then, a bullet caught his hat. “Damn.” He reloaded and weighed his options.

These pendejos held the winning cards in this game. Johnny pushed his back against the rough edge of the stone and searched for better cover. A natural fortress beckoned from ten yards to the left.

With eyes closed, he drew a deep breath. One…two…three! During his run, a hail of bullets rained down. And he grabbed onto the rock’s safety like a drunk clinging to a whore on Saturday night. The sharp sting of a ricochet clipped his back. Finally, the shooting slowed, and he leaned back to find the source of his worries. The trigger-happy climbers were high enough to be perfect targets. He fired twice, and the two men, now lifeless, rolled downward.

Johnny twisted toward his left and searched for the direction of the gunfire still coming his way. The rays of morning sunlight blinded his vision. As he stepped into the shade of a small shrub, the glare disappeared. He ended the attack with a bead on the last shooter and a squeeze of the trigger.

The silence sent chills down his back. No birds sang, no insects chirped, no horses snorted… He heard nothing but ringing in his ears—the echo of gunfire and the breath stuttering from his chest like the time his lung got nicked.

Dry mouth, pounding heart, and shaky hands—they were reactions he’d learned to hide. Three times he grabbed for a cartridge from his belt before he snagged one to reload.

Settled enough to take firm hold of the pistol, he took a careful look and slipped from behind the rocks. As he rushed to a boulder, no one fired a shot. Rolling his shoulders, he relaxed a little.

Before making sure his enemies were dead, he went to the bodies and kicked their weapons away. This lesson he learned early on, and he had a scar as a reminder. Going to each of them, he made his checks, leaving them as much dignity as he could. Finally, he closed the sightless eyes of the last man he shot. One by one, he dragged the bodies to where the land was level. Moving a short way off, he called to his horse and slumped to the ground, exhausted.

 As he sat in the continuing quiet, the awful reality of death crashed over him. He rubbed his face with both hands. These dead men reached the end of knowing today. They woke up this morning, laughing and talking, enjoying the sweet breath of life. Then his bullets cut them down.

Hot waves of nausea hit him. Sweat streamed from his face, and he grabbed his stomach. A clenching pain caught him off guard. Johnny made a run for the bushes, emptied his belly, retching and coughing, disgusted with himself.

Sounds of horses broke the silence. More sudden than a snake strike, the Colt filled Johnny’s hand, and he ran for cover behind the nearest boulder. Resting his head against its rough, lichen-covered surface, he listened. Not a soul stirred. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and followed the noise. Finding saddled ponies in the clearing, he realized he’d heard the dead men’s horses. Dead men. Ambushers. It had to be Guthrie’s men, trying to even the score by taking him out. He guessed being Foster’s ‘ace in the hole’ stirred things up a bit.

Without Madrid, Foster didn’t have a chance of hanging onto his place or water rights. Guthrie wanted the valley. Next, he’d try to cut off the river’s flow to all the ranches. Well, Val always said it’s easier to chop off a rattler’s head when it’s not coiled and ready to strike. Best handle him now, while he’s hurting for men. Scare him bad enough, and he’ll quit his scheming.

Johnny jerked the saddlebags off his horse. The pinto swung his head upwards and made a nervous sidestep. “Wisaka, settle down.” He leaned against his companion. “Sorry, boy.” With a gentle touch, he rubbed his buddy’s neck to make amends for his sudden movements. Nickered forgiveness and a nuzzle to his master earned him a carrot.

The heat from the rock burned against his back. Exhausted, he let his body slide down the shale to slump on the rocky ground. Using his forearm, he wiped the sweat from his brow and reached for water. The last time he could remember being this thirsty, he’d walked four miles in the desert. He tipped the canteen up for a long drink and splashed some over his head.

 What he needed now was tequila. He rifled through his saddlebags to find a flask; no, he didn’t NEED it, or anything else—or anyone for that matter. And that lesson came hard, with his Mama screaming and Lucky pounding away with his fists. Thoughts of his stepfather chasing cards and getting drunk on whiskey crowded his mind. The man was an evil bastard, quick to use his belt and worse. It was his violence that started it all and pushed Johnny into using a gun. Memories flooded in of anger, hard fists, and gunshots from that fatal night. Reliving the past only gave him nightmares. He needed to focus on finishing this job and move on.

“Dammit.” A stream of blood ran down his left arm, and he hadn’t even felt it. He ripped off the bullet-torn shirtsleeve and found a dark wound already black and blue, swollen and still bleeding. The area looked nasty; it didn’t hurt—not yet. But he hissed when the whiskey hit, and the pain grew as he forced his finger into the hole. The bullet was deeper than he thought and something gave way when he pushed past a bone. It was more than he could handle, and he fought to stay conscious. He couldn’t remove this one alone. He’d bind it up and see the doc in town after he finished what Foster had paid him to do.

Using his teeth to pull the bandanna tight, Johnny managed to bandage his injury. Now, to complete the dirty task of tying bodies onto horses. All to impress Old Man Guthrie, who’d never forget this day. Lining up the ponies, he secured a string-line. The mounts shied at first, kicking up dust, but soon he had them settled and mounted Wisaka to lead the way to Guthrie’s.

Johnny wiped the sweat from his face then shielded his eyes to gauge the time from the blazing sun that beat down on him. A lousy morning tumbled further downhill with the throbbing pain in his arm. The bandage tightened as his arm swelled. To relieve the discomfort, he pulled his coat-sleeve down. He tried to loosen the wrapping, but blood soaked the cloth. Best leave it till this was over.

A chill crawled over his body, and he shivered in response. Hot one minute, cold the next, he knew the signs of fever. That didn’t matter; the job did. He straightened his back, pressed the horses forward, and journeyed on.

Johnny’s gun-hand rested above the grip of his Colt as he rounded the bend to the ranch-house. When he signaled Wisaka to slow, he took in every motion, shadow, and speck of light in his field of vision. It stood to reason Old Man Guthrie felt safe; he probably thought his hired killers ambushed and murdered Madrid. He clicked up the horses, and the caravan started to move again at a comfortable pace. Wounded or not, he rode with confidence, made sure each action showed control. They halted about ten feet from the wrap-around porch.

“Hello, the house!” Johnny leaned forward and rested a hand on the saddle horn. With a flick of his finger, he dusted some bits of dirt off his pants and appeared bored as he waited for the old man to come out the door.

“Oh, hi, are you Albert Guthrie?” The soft-voiced, casual way he asked set a tone. Instead of a deadly hired gun paying a visit, he could have been a new neighbor who’d come to introduce himself. Although friendly on the surface, Johnny allowed something chilling to emerge from his eyes.

“Who’s asking?” Guthrie’s eyes traveled down the line of horses, then landed back on Johnny.

“Madrid, Johnny Madrid. Oh, and this… buzzard bait,” He swept his hand toward the corpses draped over the saddles, “Tried to ambush me a few miles down the road.” He straightened, lifted his hat, and tilted his head back before he continued. “Course I shot ’em like I would any bastard who tried to kill me, or,” he paused for effect, “Any pendejo who hired someone to shoot at me. And the darnedest thing, every damn one of them idiots, rode a mount with your brand. Now, Mr. Guthrie, let me ask you, did you hire these dead fools to execute me?”

Guthrie started to stammer, “I-I…”

“It’s a yes or no answer, Mr. Guthrie.”

“N-No.” The man paled, sweating enough to fill a bucket.

Johnny used his best smile but kept his eyes as cold as ice. “That’s good, Mr. Guthrie. Real good.” His grin became even broader. “Make sure you keep things that way. I’ll leave your ponies and the dead men on their backs.” He dropped the lines in the dirt and gestured toward the horses behind him. “Be nice if you can figure out who sent this carrion after me and deal with them. It’d be smart if you had a pow-wow with whoever used your brand and has been giving Mr. Foster problems. Anybody who causes him trouble won’t live long.” Johnny tipped his hat. “You spread the word. Madrid will send them back, dead and tied to a horse.”

Wyatt Foster had just played his ace in the hole.


Chapter 2 : Jack of Spades

Wyatt Foster gripped his Sharps rifle as he sat on his porch. Seven top hands worked close by, ready to back him with guns and their lives. A sharpshooter stood lookout from a windmill; the whining wind-pump moved water from the very headwaters that had begun Foster’s troubles. A breeze picked up and sped the turning blades to a pleasant whirl. This, and a few bawling calves, were the only sounds disturbing the evening.

The lookout’s ear-piercing whistle jolted every man to vigilance. A solitary rider approached the ranch, slow and steady.

Foster stood; the wooden ladder-back chair popped down from its backward tilt. Tightening his hold on the rifle, he stepped forward and leaned against a support post.

The horse and rider ambled ahead through the sharp rays of late-day sunlight. With dread, Foster aimed. When his target blurred, he wiped the sweat from his eyes and readjusted. His men moved to prearranged positions and raised rifles to their shoulders.

“Plenty of bullets pointed this way, boy,” Johnny whispered as he petted Wisaka’s neck. “Wonder if a man feels like this when he faces a firing squad?” An iciness crawled down his spine as he rode toward the arsenal and through the blinding, orange light of the sun. With his mouth gone dry as a day-old biscuit, he slowed and took a drink from his canteen. The water was hot but wet enough. Licking his lips, he called out, “Mr. Foster? It’s me, Johnny. Johnny Madrid.”

Foster shielded his eyes from the glare. The horse and rider eased out of the brightness into the shade, and he smiled. Quick motions signaled the men to lower their weapons as his rifle barrel tilted downward. He stepped off the porch and waited.

Wisaka brought them to the ranch house, and Johnny made a slow dismount. He dropped to legs that threatened to give way until he grabbed the saddle horn and leaned against his horse. Straightening, he took a step back. It was not a time to show weakness. And he said it, not even looking up. “Guthrie won’t give you any more problems.”

“What? How? You sure?” The older man ran fingers through his graying hair and sat back on the hitching rail.

“Sure as I can be.” Johnny gazed at the sun as it slipped behind the mountain range. He tried to sort through his thoughts and dropped his eyes to stare at his own deadly hands, now splayed against the saddle. With a soft voice, he kept it simple. “Guthrie sent five gun-hawks who ambushed me.” Aware that Foster’s eyes searched his, he continued. “I killed them… and delivered them to Guthrie’s front porch. Told him he’d wind up dead if he didn’t back off.” That summed up the hell of the day. And for what? Five hundred dollars. Cheers and shouts let him know the crew gathered nearby overheard his words.

Foster stepped forward and looked at him real close. “You alright, Son?”

Dammit, Johnny didn’t want the man feeling sorry for him. “I’m fine. Pay me the other two-fifty you owe, and I’ll be on my way.” His tone was harsher than he meant.

Foster rubbed a wrinkled forehead. “Come inside. I can pull your money.” Then he hesitated, “How about eating some supper? At least have a drink.” The man reached out an arm as if to help Johnny up the steps.

Both of Johnny’s hands went up, a reflex. He didn’t want Foster touching him. The day’s events left him dirty, and this man didn’t need the stain of Madrid.

“Son, have a drink with me. Eat a bite. Won’t take much of your time.” He still had his arm extended.

No polite way to refuse. “Sure, I’ll come in for a bit, but then I best be headed out.” The need to ride away alone, and hole up to heal somewhere, overwhelmed him.

Johnny tied Wisaka to follow Foster. But he hesitated because it wasn’t right for him to be here. There was too much blood on his hands.

It wasn’t Johnny’s first time inside the large stone house the Fosters called home. But he always felt out of place there. He wiped the dirt from his feet on the rug next to the door. The cooler temperature hit his over-warm body, making his head dizzy. Nevertheless, he dusted himself off and went toward the dining room.

“Johnny?” Foster stood beside a lace-covered table. Large windows backlit his wiry frame, and he motioned to a seat.

The chair started to spin, and the white table covering blurred and whirled around the space. Johnny forced his feet forward as his ears buzzed and the room turned dark. When he reached out to steady himself; there was nothing but air to grasp; Foster’s face floated toward him as the room turned black.

“When’s the last time you ate, son?” Foster’s hands held his head down low between his legs. Since he was sitting, he had somehow made it to the chair. Foster had to be wondering where his cold-blooded gunfighter was. If word got out he had fainted in the man’s dining room, he could forget his hard-as-nails reputation. Johnny snorted and rolled his eyes, then raised himself slowly until he could get his bearings. The buzzing in his ears receded some, and objects in the room cleared and sharpened into focus. “I didn’t eat much today. But I’m okay now.”

“Sure you are. Sit a minute. Here, drink this.” Foster pushed a glass of water into his hand.

The cold liquid tasted better than anything he’d had all day. Johnny nodded. “Thanks.”

“What you need is food and… Hey, there’s blood on your coat!” Foster slid a chair over and started pulling at the sleeve of Johnny’s jacket. 

Johnny grabbed hold of Foster’s wrist. “Whoa! I wrapped it up—it’s just a scratch.” Then he stood… too fast and pressed a hand to the table when the room lurched. Foster tried to steady him. “I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine. Sit down.” Guiding him back down, he gave a yell for his wife. “Peggy!”

Shoulders slumped in defeat; Johnny took the chair. Chances of staying upright and walking to the door were slim. “I don’t mean to be trouble for you or your wife.”

A bowl was balanced in the crook of Peggy’s arm, and her rapid stirring slowed as she came toward them from the kitchen. “Is everything alright?”

“See if Mason will go to town and bring Doc Baldwin back. Johnny needs him.”

“Oh, my.” She plopped the bowl down and ran out the door before Johnny could protest further.

Foster helped him take off the coat. The shifting of the sleeve unsettled the bandage Johnny applied hours ago. Even then, he expected the swelling and drainage—it looked like infection had set in. And the pain—it trailed from his ear to his fingertips. Damn, his arm had gone hot as a bowl of chili peppers, and he was sweating like he ate a washtub full.

“Mason should be back with the doctor soon. Oh, goodness.” Peggy caught sight of the ugly wound and placed a hand on her chest. “Shall I get some water? We need to clean that up.” She made to leave but stopped. “Johnny, you still need to eat. I’ll bring you a plate. Do you want anything, Wyatt?”

“No, dear. Oh, wait, a pint of that whiskey for Johnny. Well, and for me too.” Weary eyes met Johnny’s. “Son, I’m sorry for my part in this. It was me who hired you to do work that got you hurt.”

“Guthrie didn’t leave you much choice, and you don’t owe me anything but the two hundred fifty. This,” Johnny moved his hand over his injured arm, “I’ve had worse.”

“Let’s see what Doc Baldwin says. Regardless, why don’t you settle here for a while? With the workers we lost when the raids started, we need you.” Johnny protested, but Wyatt cut him off. “Stay tonight; decide when you feel better.”

“I’ll consider the offer. I ‘preciate it, I do.” Johnny eased back down and thought of how peaceful it would be to do some ranching and get out of the game.

“Okay, then.” Foster slapped his knees, got up, and turned toward the kitchen. “Peggy’s bringing some whiskey with your supper. Bet you could use a drink.” Peggy returned with beef and potatoes. Steam rose off the homemade meal, and the aromas caused Johnny’s belly to rumble out loud.

Peggy’s laughter filled the air, and she gave Wyatt a knowing look. “At least someone appreciates my cooking.” She poked her husband in the arm and headed toward the kitchen. “Be back with apple cake.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Now, you eat and see if you aren’t better.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Foster and his wife were easy people to be with. The food smelled great; he wasn’t sure he could eat much.

“No more of that, ma’am, either.” They heard her yell from the kitchen.

“No, ma’am… ah… No, Mrs. Foster.”

She returned with dessert and the whiskey. “Johnny, call me Peggy. Tell him, Honey, tell him to call us Wyatt and Peggy. My goodness, you make us feel old with all this mister and ma’am.” She scolded with a hand on her hip and a raised eyebrow directed at Johnny. Wyatt grinned and rolled his eyes.

Peggy cut pieces of cake and chattered about him not eating, getting hurt, and needing rest.

Having someone fuss over him was a distant memory. The dessert was damn good. The last time he remembered eating anything as tasty, he couldn’t have been more than seven or eight. Mama made a chocolate cake; they ate the whole thing in one day.

Ranch life pulled at him, even if he had to work with dumb cows. Lord, he wanted to do something besides hiring out his gun. Every damn day, he dealt with death, sleeping with one eye open, his pistol cocked and ready. Sometimes, he rode with an itch like a back-shooter was about to pull the trigger.

Bad luck had pushed him into some poor decisions. One thing he knew, killing was no way to live. He’d learned that soon after getting the reputation. That’s when his choices boiled down to two: kill or be killed. And some days, he found it hard to decide between the two.

A knock on the door brought Steve Mason and the town doc. “Johnny, this is Doctor Jackson Baldwin.” Wyatt ushered the man toward the upholstered chair where Johnny sat. “Jack, this is Johnny Madrid. He works for me.” Turning his back on the doctor, Foster pointed toward the injury. “Earlier today, he took a bullet, upper arm.”

Disgust, or anger, possibly both played across Baldwin’s face as he first hesitated, then back-stepped before following Wyatt to where Johnny sat. “Mister Madrid.” His tone was curt, and he didn’t extend a handshake in return to Johnny’s outstretched hand.

The doctor’s cold eyes never left Johnny’s as he went to the chair Wyatt provided. “Another gunfight, killing for sport.” Upon seeing the injury, he gave the arm a less than gentle lift and continued his tirade. “I suppose I’ll fix this up so you can kill again… or be killed.” He banged his doctor’s bag down on the side table.

“There’s no call…” Foster stepped forward, but Johnny cut him off.

“Don’t bother, sawbones.” Johnny dug a twenty-dollar gold piece out of his pocket and tossed it beside the bag. “That’s more than enough for your trouble coming here.” His abrupt stand had the doctor dancing for balance as his chair wobbled on two legs. Johnny picked up his jacket and threw it over his shoulder. The room took another spin, but he waited for the dizziness to pass. Somehow, one step at a time, he would walk to Wisaka and leave before he embarrassed himself or the Fosters any further.

“That’s Doctor Baldwin to you. I took an oath, and I WILL treat your wound. Now sit.” The doctor adjusted the upset chair and his clothing.

Wyatt eased Johnny to a seated position. Determined to make it to his feet, Johnny pulled his arm about in an attempt to stand. Before he could try, pain throbbed from his hand to his head, and the fevered drunkenness that had him mixed-up and lightheaded every time he stood worried him. Gun-hawks can’t be sick. He needed a place to heal. As much as he wanted to stay, there would be plenty of the Fosters’ friends who felt like the doctor. They were right, too, and it meant he must leave as soon as he got the bullet out.

“Madrid, you with us?” The doctor finished checking the wound.

Dammit, he’d passed out again. Not healthy for a hired gun, not at all. “Yeah, I’m right here.” Baldwin tugged down a lower eyelid and blew out a breath.

“You let this bleed too much.” He rummaged in his bag and pulled out some wicked-looking silver tools. “Mister Madrid, getting the bullet out will cause additional bleeding. You have no blood to spare.” Baldwin held a sharp-ended device to the light as he talked. “Peggy, he needs plenty of fluids.” He rinsed his hands in the bowl of water she’d provided. “Thank you, dear.”

“Sure, Jack.” Peggy moved to Johnny’s side and placed her hand on his cheek. “You’re starting a fever. Let me bring you a quilt.”

Baldwin paused the search through his bag and addressed Johnny, “Once we have the slug out, and if we manage the blood loss and fever, you will improve in a matter of days.” From a small bottle, he poured a measure of liquid into a glass of water. “Drink this for the pain.”

“I’ll be fine with nothing.”

“You’ll do better with the medicine.” He shoved the glass into Johnny’s hand. “Wyatt, he’ll need a bed.”

“No, cut the bullet out right here.” Johnny needed to take control of this situation. How’d this day run away, like a wild horse you can’t rope?

Foster placed a hand on his shoulder. “Son, you lost a lot of blood. Once Jack digs for that bullet, it sure won’t improve your chances of staying upright.”

“I’ll do fine, Mr. Foster.”

“Call me Wyatt, and Peggy’s already turned down a bed. Let’s go to that room before you pass out again. I’m too old to carry you.”

Johnny made a wobbly rise to his feet. With Wyatt’s and the doctor’s help, he began a clumsy walk to a room down the hall.

Fever, Jackson Baldwin’s elixir, and exhaustion combined to muddy his thoughts. Johnny’s pain grew as the doctor dug for the bullet.

Blue flowers danced on the wallpaper as Johnny tried to focus on something besides the grinding torture and the doctor with unforgiving eyes who bored into his arm. A wrenching pain darkened his vision, and the room faded, giving way to fevered dreams of bodies tied on horses and guns pointed at him.

Faces floated and mixed with the horrors of the day. The misty vision grew more real. Mama ignored him as she draped an arm around Lucky’s neck, kissed on the bastard, and fed him chocolate cake while he shuffled cards.

Then Lucky dealt a round; every hand Johnny drew came up short. The second time around, he finally pulled a decent hand. The gambler winked and turned his last card and placed it on top—the Jack of Spades. Johnny picked it up—damned if the face on it didn’t turn out to be Doctor Jackson Baldwin’s. He looked at his hold-card and grinned. It was the Ace of Hearts.

Lucky started laughing, that wicked cackle of his. “You never learn, boy; don’t you know this Jack will beat your Ace in the end?”


Chapter 3 : The Bluff

Johnny was in trouble. Not since that fracas with Tiny Biggs in Waco had he felt this bad. Chills made him crave an extra blanket, and that signaled a fever for sure. When he pulled the cover-up, his sore and swollen arm reminded his fuzzy head of the shootings and his dangerous situation.

A hurt gun hawk, like an animal in a snare, didn’t last long. Fools with hands still sore from practicing their fast-draw were predators and could sniff out any weakness. In April, three tried him in Sonora when he was healing from a shot in the leg. Well, some animals learned the hard way; a wounded enemy can be the deadliest.

A knock at the bedroom door interrupted his thoughts. “Yeah.”

“I brought coffee with honey and biscuits if you feel like eating.” Peggy backed into the room. “Did I wake you?”

“No, I’ve been up a while.” With a slow slide upward, he managed to sit. “Thanks. I need coffee to start my day.” He sipped the steaming liquid but bit off a piece of the still-warm sweet bread with caution. His fever-churned stomach settled as he ate more.

She opened the trunk at the end of the bed and brought out an extra pillow, which she tucked behind his back. He flinched at her touch and looked into her eyes; she was searching his. “It’s me—I ain’t used to all this fussing and caring. People who hire me would usually rather see my back as I head out once the job’s over.”

“Oh, Johnny, we don’t think that way—not at all. Why, we were hoping you would stay on and work here with us.” She tapped his shoulder. “We’ve gotten to know you these last couple of months. We think of you like family.”

“Listen, that means something to me. But do you know the problems I’d bring to your door?” He saw concern cloud her eyes. “Hey, don’t look so sad. Do you have some more of that cake?” With a squeeze to her fingers, he gave her a smile, one that warmed the hearts of most girls he met.

“My, my. If I was twenty years younger, I guess you might give Wyatt some competition.” She laughed and patted his knee on her way out of the room.

“I told you I was fine.” Johnny buckled and adjusted his rig; not easy to do with one arm in a sling.

Folding her arms, Peggy fussed. “Take that gun belt off and go back to bed. Or if you won’t do that…” While she talked, he fiddled with his gun and then pulled at the material holding his arm in place. Raising her voice to a louder pitch, she continued. “Johnny, if you won’t rest, please come to the kitchen and join me for coffee.” She shook her head and smoothed the blue patterned quilt she had laundered and folded should Johnny need it later. “Johnny, did you hear me?”

“Sorry, what did you say?” The fever must be making his mind wander. Quickly he rubbed his face with both hands and looked her way to focus on her words.

“I said,” she sounded impatient, “If you won’t stay in bed, come to the kitchen and keep me company.” Then she moved closer and made a quick touch on his head, “Still feverish.”

Instinct sent him a step backward. “I ‘preciate you taking care of me, but I do all right.”

“Sure you do.” Peggy rolled her eyes.

“I just need to move around some, maybe check on Wisaka.”

“So you think Wyatt can’t figure out how to feed and water him?” With a lifted eyebrow, Peggy tapped her foot.

“Oh, boy, you don’t give much.” Johnny lowered his head, partially hiding his grin.

“At least sit for a few minutes and drink some more coffee.” She placed a hand on his arm. “Jack said you should have plenty of fluids.”

“Yeah, he sure is concerned about my health. You know the man would rather stick me with his pointy knife as have chicken on Sunday.”

“Visit with me in the kitchen, won’t you?” Peggy didn’t comment on Dr. Baldwin but shook her head as she left the room.

“So you do have some cake?” He hollered good naturedly after her.

“If I didn’t, I’d bake you another one.” The response came from down the hall, and he grinned at the way she petted him.

The rest of his payment was on the dresser where Wyatt put it night before last. Johnny stuffed the money inside a hand-sewn pocket in his boot. Then he double-checked his saddlebags and hung them on the chair—it never hurt to be ready.

The kitchen was larger than any house he remembered living in. He wondered if his old man’s place was like this. Once, some vaqueros were bragging about big ranches and where they’d worked. One said Lancer was the biggest; he bragged the hacienda was bigger than the hotels in San Francisco. Johnny got so tired of hearing the man run his mouth, he picked a fight with him.

It stood to reason he must have lived there some time or other but hard as he tried, he couldn’t remember. Wouldn’t it be something to own a ranch like that?

“Over here.” Peggy stared at him, then motioned him to sit at a table big enough for four or five people. The kitchen table wasn’t as dressed up as the one in the next room but still uptown nice.

While Peggy made coffee, he fiddled with a small salt shaker, eyeing the tiny pattern—a barnyard scene with a couple of kids, animals, and a stream. When he set the piece back down, he told her, “I like this house.”

“Thanks to you, we can keep it.” Standing on her tip-toes, she got three dishes down from a shelf.

Restless, he stood, pulled back a lacy white curtain, and gazed out the window beside the table. Mason ran his hand up and down the leg of a sorrel filly while Wyatt squatted next to him. They still had a guard on the windmill; smart not to take chances. Sitting back down, Johnny ran his hand over the white table cloth.

As he searched for a back door, he noticed almost everything in the kitchen was blue and white. Patterned dishes that matched the little salt and pepper shakers lined the shelves. A similar container sat in the center of the table filled with daisies and wild flowers. He reached across the table and turned the vase. “Pretty. Wyatt pick ’em for you?”

“Goodness no, Wyatt Foster’s as colorblind as a dog in the dark. Why, he can’t tell red from green or a bloom from a weed.” She put her hand up to her mouth as a young girl would. Then her eyes went dreamy, and she fixed them on the ceiling, “That man would bring me the moon on a string if I asked him to, but if it turned red and floated in a green sky, he’d never find it.” She shook her head and looked back at him.

Johnny laughed, surprised at how natural and comfortable it was to sit at a table, talk with this nice lady, and enjoy her easy way.

Wyatt burst through the door with a stern look on his face. “What are you telling this boy ’bout me?”

Trying to read Wyatt’s face, Johnny couldn’t tell, was he angry with Peggy? Perhaps he should explain, and he rose from the seat to do so. But then Wyatt planted a kiss on his wife’s cheek and joined his forehead to hers for an instant. Easing back down in the seat, Johnny came to a realization. The back and forth between these two was evidence of real love. His mother had never been this way with a man. These two overlooked faults and mistakes like they weren’t there.

“Sit.” With a tap of the table, she had Wyatt in the chair opposite Johnny. “We were about to have coffee–some cake too.” Carrying three blue and white cups, Peggy brought coffee to the table. “Johnny, you sure you don’t want cream?”

“Black, please.” He blew on the hot brew before sipping and savoring the first taste.

As soon as the desserts were on the table, Peggy joined them. “Johnny, how’s your arm feeling? And tell me the truth, none of that ‘fine’ nonsense.”

Johnny’s fork stilled midway to his mouth. “Nonsense, huh?” He shook his head and grinned. “Bet I’ll be ready to dance an Irish jig by tomorrow.”

“Dancing. And you with a fever, sitting there white as my Mama’s bed-sheets.” Peggy mashed some crumbs with the tines of her fork. “You just had a bullet dug out after darn near bleeding to death; doesn’t seem like you’ll even be doing the two-step, much less dancing a jig.”

“Listen, I need…”

Wyatt held a hand up. “I know you might be restless, but give it a few days.”

“I’ll do alright, and I do need to move around some, so I can be ready to ride soon.”

Johnny ate another bite of his cake, and Peggy squeezed his shoulder as she warmed up his coffee. “Listen to him.”

He glanced up and was shocked that there were tears in her eyes.

Wyatt reached over and grasped her on the arm, then wagged his forefinger. “Son, I don’t need Peggy worrying over you—and we want you to stay. Work here at the ranch and be a part of this place.”

Johnny dropped his head to the heel of his hand. Shaking his head, he finally agreed. “I could hang around long enough to let this arm heal some.” He closed and opened his hand. “How can you want… I should see to my horse.” Rising from the table, he thanked Peggy for the food and left by way of the side door.

Stepping into the fresh air, Johnny let out a breath. How could they want him to stay? The Fosters knew who he was, knew what he was. In the past, he’d even been run off when jobs were done. Once, the man that hired him tried to avoid paying him; had him beat up, and left for dead. The man paid up in the end. But the kind of people he had dealt with, no one had ever been like the Fosters. He wanted to stay, but… his presence could place them in danger.

The sling had to go. Johnny winced as he removed the cloth from around his neck and stuffed it in his shirt. Staying alive depended on at least appearing to be on top of his game.

Inside the barn, there was a welcoming nicker. “Wisaka?” He had no trouble finding his best friend. “You miss me, boy? They give you some oats, rub you down?” As he petted him along his flanks and inspected the silky coat, he saw that all was well.

Spying a brush, Johnny bent to lift it from a bucket. When he stood, the barn swayed and pitched. He grabbed the wooden partition and held on until the interior stilled. Gentle nuzzles against his chest brought his attention back to Wisaka. “Easy, boy. Not you too.” Loosening his grip, he began running the brush along his neck. Long strokes calmed him and the horse.

“Looks like we might be here a day or so. That would suit you, wouldn’t it?” He scratched behind the horse’s ears. “Good feed, soft hay, a better place to sleep, right?”

“A better place to sleep—suppose that would be all I want too. But that ‘better place’ won’t be here, not for long. Not where I shot and killed five men, and where men like Jackson Baldwin are judging me.”

He groomed his amigo until he was too tired to continue. His left arm throbbed as it dangled by his side. Weakness and a bone-chilling ache signaled a fast-rising fever. A final pat and toss of the brush let Wisaka know the session was over.

The sound of a buggy arriving alerted him when he headed out. Walking toward it, his hand automatically went to his pistol grip and rested there. Ah, hell, it’s Judging Jack Baldwin; come to tell him how he hates lowlife gunfighters.

The ‘good doctor’ jumped out before the wheels stopped turning and stomped toward Johnny. Hell, Baldwin was faster at confronting a man than Wes Hardin.

“Madrid! You shouldn’t be out of bed.”

Johnny grabbed the finger that Baldwin pointed at his chest. “Back off!” The anger and energy needed to push the man back drained him of the stamina that had kept him upright. Swaying, he reached for the hitching rail.

Baldwin threw a hand out and caught him before he tumbled to the dirt. “Sorry, here I was supposed to be helping. Let’s go inside, quick.”

Johnny tried to move Baldwin back but could do no more than hold on as they started for the front door, which opened before the two made the porch steps. Wyatt came to meet them. “What happened?”

“He has no business being out of bed. Certainly, his arm needs to remain immobilized.” He continued with Johnny, who was only just making the steps necessary to move his body forward. Shuffling and grunting, they made their way to the living room. Peggy followed them, wringing her hands.

“Leave me alone. I’ll be fine.” Johnny’s mumble did not convince anyone. When the doctor held out the water, he took it and drank it down.

“… didn’t realize. Next thing, I see them in the cafe. They were making plans.” Baldwin’s voice entered the haze of pain and fever. Johnny looked around and realized he’d passed out again and was laid out somewhere in the Foster’s home. Wyatt’s voice brought his thoughts back to the words he had heard upon waking.

“Just what didn’t you realize and what plans?” Johnny’s voice cracked, sounded strange to his own ears. “Water. I need some water, please.”

Wyatt helped him sit up from where he had landed on the living-room sofa. The glass came from Baldwin’s hand. Being too thirsty for it to matter who gave it to him, he reached for it, but the doctor hung on to the glass while he drank. Johnny made sure the man got his best Madrid stare, even as he swallowed the liquid down. When he had killed over half the glass, the Doc took it away.

At least his voice was better when he spoke. “Now, tell me, what plans.” He sat with his forearms resting on his thighs, and though he rubbed the back of his neck, he stared toward Baldwin for a straight answer.

“As I told Wyatt, I didn’t realize I shouldn’t mention your wound.”

Johnny went as still as a statue. After a beat, he said, “Go on.”

“I was in the general store, restocking bandages and supplies. I told Austin Hastings, he’s the owner, that I’d used my last bandage on Johnny Madrid.” Baldwin rubbed nervous fingers through his hair, paced over to the window, and looked out. “That was early this morning. Later, I went over to Lena’s Cafe to eat breakfast. That’s where I heard them.” He turned back from the window and stared at the floor.

Wyatt turned on the man. “Tell him the rest.” Then he walked to the fireplace and hit the wooden mantle with his fist. His back was to both men, and he didn’t hear when Johnny called his name.

Johnny stood on weak legs. “Tell me. I got a right to know.”

When the doctor didn’t respond, Wyatt came to Johnny’s side. “Jackson overhead two men plotting to come to the ranch. They plan to try to take you. It seems you being injured makes them brave enough to call you out.”

“Told you I couldn’t stay.” Johnny looked at Baldwin. The man wouldn’t meet his eyes, and it didn’t matter. What he needed to think about now was getting away from the ranch. These good people didn’t need to deal with this. Peggy, where was she?

“Wyatt, I gotta leave. I need to say bye to Peggy.”

“Leave! You can barely walk.” Wyatt had both hands on his arms, trying to push him to sit back down.

“No, I know what needs to happen. Now, I need to see Peggy. Where can I find her?”

“She ran in the kitchen after she found out…”

Johnny brushed Wyatt’s hands away and went to talk with Peggy.

She sat at the table, both hands over her eyes, her shoulders shaking. Johnny walked up behind her and wrapped his fingers around her upper arms. “Don’t cry. I can lead them away from you, I promise. But I’ve got to go now.”

She shook harder, but she stood, turned, and hugged him, hanging on tightly. “I’m scared for you, not us. We want you here. I knew as soon as he told Wyatt…, I knew you would go.” She stroked his cheek. “Oh, Johnny. Please keep yourself safe. Hide or run or do whatever it takes. But be careful. Live and come back to us. Can you do that?”

With a gentle squeeze and kiss on her forehead, Johnny nodded. “I’m gonna try. Now, I gotta go. You and Wyatt, be careful. If they come for me, tell them I left yesterday after the Doc fixed me up. Have you ever played poker?” When she nodded, he grabbed her upper arms. “Sometimes, a player runs a good bluff to stay in the game. And Peggy, I need to stay in the game. I don’t want to, but I guess it’s the only way for now.” He gave her a peck on the cheek and left her there as he went to pick up his saddlebags.

Lord, this was hard. He mounted up on Wisaka. Wyatt was standing there trying to comfort Peggy. The Doc had headed off to make rounds; everyone agreed that would be better than him going back to town. Mason and the men were once again on guard, ready with lies to cover his sorry butt. Here he was, sick and miserable, on the run and needing to find a hole where he could stay alive long enough to heal. But Johnny sometimes wondered, what difference. What difference did it make if he lived or died?


Chapter 4 : Staying in the Game

Why hadn’t he stuck to the plan? All he had to do was collect the money, tell Wyatt that Guthrie wouldn’t bother him again, and move on. Now the Fosters were in danger because he had stayed.

Johnny pulled back on the reins. “Whoa, Wisaka.” There was only one way to make sure Wyatt and Peggy were safe. He glanced up; not a cloud in the sky. “Well, it’s a good day for it.” Patting the pony’s neck, he turned and headed toward town.

Near as he could figure, a slow ride would have him in Frontera inside an hour. A grain field waved and shimmered with the same gentle wind that cooled the heat building inside his body. Lifting his hat, he rubbed the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. Damn this fever and the dizziness coming from losing so much blood.

Water helped before, so he tugged the reins to the right, taking Wisaka off the road to a side path leading to a stream. Johnny felt the coolness from the wooded shade, and the very sound of the water running over rocks and boulders below made him thirsty.

A few cottonwood trees stood between him and the road above the creek–taking a minute, he studied the surroundings. The water babbled on at him worse than Peggy would, demanding he come down for a drink. Snorting at the craziness of his thoughts, he eased from the saddle; guess he’d been alone too long—or this fever had turned him crazy. He hung to the saddle horn until the trees quit spinning.

Johnny pulled the stopper from a canteen, squatted at the water’s edge, and filled it to the brim. Turning it up, he drank his fill and topped the container off. After splashing his head, neck, and shoulders, the fever seemed to leave, dripping from his body and flowing away. “Yeah, you were right.” He nodded to the stream and shook the moisture from his hair.

With renewed energy, Johnny threw a leg over his horse, pulled the slack from the stampede string, and adjusted the hat over his damp hair. Letting Wisaka take one last slurp, he signaled him to go. “Ready, boy?” He couldn’t resist a two-finger tap goodbye as they left. The water twinkled with a starry response and slushy babble. “Yeah, I’ve lost my mind. Let’s head to town.” And he clicked them to the path.

As they walked the narrow way up to the road, Johnny’s guard was up. Keep your mind sharp and think about the task at hand—something Val taught him. There was a threat to Peggy and Wyatt; he had the skills to remove it, and he would.

Count the cards, know what they’re dealing, and how to play the hand. Johnny’s step-father had used him and his card-counting skills to cheat his sleazy way through a town or two. But it was a talent that served in other ways.

He’d learned to read people. And like he knew cards, he knew the braggarts would head to the ranch sooner, not later, looking to take him down. Johnny cocked his head and listened. Yeah; an ‘understanding’ of what a man would and wouldn’t do might serve him well today.

The sounds of horses headed his way had his blood singing with an alert response he seemed to have been born with. Soon he heard bits of laughter and guffaws but by then he was ready. Along with shouts and rowdy noise, he heard one word. “Madrid.” It was enough to be sure; these were the cabrones thinking it would be easy to take out a wounded gunfighter and gain a reputation.

Johnny backed Wisaka into the shadows and waited. A breeze stirred and kissed his face like approval on his next play. A grin formed, starting at the corner of his mouth. He kicked Wisaka forward to block the way of two startled men whose horses pranced and bumped together. The riders cussed and slapped reins to gain control. The ponies settled some, and then the men noticed the real cause of their distress.

“What the hell you think you’re doing, mister?” Sitting back in his saddle and spitting, the roughest of the two moved his mount closer to the bank, farther from his partner, who still worked the bit to keep his horse under control.

“Saving you curly wolves a little time.” Johnny began crowding them and kneed Wisaka forward, right toward the nervous horses. ‘Rough’ went for his gun. Johnny’s Colt appeared in his face. “I wouldn’t.” Johnny’s draw had been so fast; the man hadn’t cleared his holster. He slowly moved both hands straight out from his sides.

A blur of motion to his side and Johnny fired, hitting the rider high in the chest. The man fired a shot that whizzed by Johnny’s cheek before he tumbled to the dust beneath his mare’s hooves. Then, wouldn’t you know— ‘Rough,’ thinking he saw a chance, went for his gun.

Heat spread across Johnny’s shoulder, but he ignored the burn, fired, dropped to the ground, returned two more shots, and finished the play. The smell of cordite entered his nostrils as he rolled back toward Wisaka to avoid prancing hooves. He groaned as injuries hit rocks and sand. Coming to a stop beside his mount, he righted himself, and, sitting there, he turned his weapon over in his hand.

Two more men were dead, and his body bore additional wounds of battle. He told Peggy he needed to stay in the game. For what reason—to kill more? That point had been made clear enough by the ‘Good Doctor’ Jackson Baldwin. And no matter how low-down and self-righteous the fool could be, the man was right on this one point. The longer Madrid stayed in the game, the more business he made for the undertaker.

What to do with the bodies—leave them for the buzzards? They deserved no better, and his arm sure wasn’t in any shape to lift. “Wisaka. Here boy.” What Johnny couldn’t do, his buddy could handle. With his rope, he and Wisaka managed to drag both bodies and tie them across their mounts.

Riding into town was the last thing Johnny felt like doing. The burning in his shoulder had grown from aggravation to a distraction he couldn’t afford. Being around people meant he had to be on alert. A distraction could mean his life. But no man deserved to rot by the side of the road.

The trip into Frontera took about twenty minutes. Though the settlement was busy, the town had no local law. A lack of lawmen suited him just fine. No Sheriff, no explanation needed. He scanned the dusty street for trouble and saw none.

Noticing the cemetery between two buildings, he grinned to himself. Kinda handy for funerals, having the burying place between the church and the undertakers.

A simple cross formed of two small logs hung beside the undertaker’s sign. The name MURPHY AND SON – UNDERTAKERS covered a three-high plank board screeching as it swung back and forth with the stirring of the air. Johnny guessed the Murphys had seen an uptick in business since he rolled into town. He tied up in front, checked up and down the street, then stepped inside the depressing door of death.

“You Murphy?” When he didn’t get an answer, Johnny slapped his hand on the oily wood counter to catch the attention of a man edging a piece of wood in the back. The large hand-tool clattered to the floor when the fellow jumped at the sound.

“Lord-a-mighty boy, don’t you know I got five bodies back here? Whew-whee! I thought you was a ghost.” The guy had to be six feet, six at least. And he was skinny as a string-bean; had a spooked look around his eyes. Wiping his hands down the front of an apron which had seen cleaner days, he sauntered toward the front.

“Well, your business might be looking up. I got two more for you.” Johnny went to the entrance, grabbed the door frame, and looked outside at the bodies. Then he turned and lowered his head to look beneath his outstretched arm. “They’re tied to the ponies out front. Keep them and the saddles to pay for the burying.”

“Two more! Son, are you from Guthrie’s place? He brung in these first five. Said Johnny Madrid killed ever’ one of ’em.”

“Nah. I’m Madrid.” Johnny grinned at Murphy and waved over his shoulder as he walked out of the shop, leaving the man with his mouth still hanging open.

The search for Baldwin’s office didn’t take long. Johnny rode past the cantina and Hastings Haberdashery and Merchandise to a frame house with stairs to the side. “Jackson F. Baldwin, MD”; the letters stood out in stark white on a board above the stairs. An arrow pointing upward had been added with the hasty stroke of a paintbrush, making the doctor’s location clear.

A young, dark-haired girl swept dust from the uneven boardwalk in front of the house. She paused in her cleaning and watched him approach. Johnny tipped his hat after dismounting and started up the steps.

“You looking for Doc?” She was pretty and had a smile that brightened her face and his day.

“This your place?” Returning her smile with a grin, he nodded at the neat dwelling below the doctor’s office. The girl followed him with dreamy eyes, leaned the broom against the wall, and walked to where he stood.

“No. My Mama has me cook and ah-a-clean for Doc Baldwin.”

“Is the Doctor in?” Johnny took his hat off. The girl seemed even younger than he first thought. He wasn’t too sure the arrangement Baldwin had with the girl’s mother was exactly proper.

“Doc left early this morning; he must’ve had a sick call. You can wait here in the house for him to come back.” A show of white even teeth and batting of eyelashes as she gestured toward the doorway made Johnny uncomfortable. The girl was too young to behave this way. Or maybe he was reading this wrong.

“Is your Mama here?” Walking to the door, he hesitated before going inside.

“You and me got the place to ourselves.”

Johnny backed out of the doorway. “Well now, I best wait out here, ma’am. It wouldn’t be right, you and me without a chaperone. A young lady like you shouldn’t be alone with a man.”

The girl leaned back against the planked wall of the house. “Oh my.”

“I forgot my manners. My name is Johnny. Johnny Madrid.” He stuck his hand out, picked hers up, and brought it to his lips.

“Oh my.” She said again, this time, her voice was a few notes higher. She slid a few planks downward to a bench outside the door.

“Ma’am, are you alright?” He squatted down beside her. Damn, he wasn’t sure if she was lightheaded or wanted his attention.

“Oh, don’t call me ma’am. My name is Violet.” She smiled and placed her hands around his.

“Violet, uh, how old are you?”

“I’ll be fourteen on my birthday next month.”

“Do you live here at Doc’s house or stay with your Mama?”

The girl lowered her head, and he could tell she was embarrassed. “I stay with Doc, but please… don’t think bad of me. Mama and me, we have to eat somehow.”

“Hey, I don’t think bad of you. Still, Violet, you don’t want to find yourself trapped doing something you never intended to do.”

The clatter of buggy wheels caught their attention. “It’s Doc!” Her eyes went to the street.

“Madrid! What do you think you’re doing?” Doc Baldwin was out of his buggy and beside the two in an instant. Once again, the man had judgment written all over his face.

Standing slowly, Johnny ignored his attitude. “I’m looking for you.” He couldn’t help but say it like he was calling the man out.

“I thought you left this country. Let’s go in the house and away from the street; they might see you.” Jackson pulled at his elbow to usher him into the house until Johnny jerked his arm back.

“Who might see me?”

“Those men—the two planning to shoot you. And they could be at the Fosters’ now. What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to see a doctor: you. And those men are on the two horses up the street.” Johnny moved the doctor around until he could see the undertakers and the bodies still draped over horses. “Right. Up. There.” Johnny squinted along his arm and finger and helped Baldwin look in the same direction to see the two dead men.

“My God, you killed them.” The doctor stared back at Johnny. “The Fosters, are they hurt?”

“Wyatt and Peggy should be fine. I rode toward town and headed those men off before they got to the ranch.”

“Is killing the only way you know?” Jackson was judging him again.

“Now, wait a minute here. They drew first. But we can discuss morality till the rooster crows in the morning.” Johnny moved closer, lowered his voice so only Jackson could hear, “We’ll talk about which is worse, shooting a man in self-defense or taking advantage of an innocent young girl.”

Baldwin’s face blanched and then turned red. “What do you want from me?” The doctor put his hands up and backed up a couple of steps. “This is none of your concern. I’m asking you to leave.” The man’s voice quivered.

“Yeah, well, I’ll be out of here soon enough, but first, you owe me.” Johnny closed the distance between them. “I need a doctor, and I’ll pay for your services. But then, I want you to send word to Wyatt and Peggy to let them know not to worry.” Taking hold of Jackson’s coat lapels, he pulled the man closer. “You created this mess; two men are dead because you ran your mouth. The least you can do is a little doctoring and deliver a message.”

The doctor nervously nodded. Violet’s eyes were big, but she laughed when Johnny patted the man’s coat and pushed him back. “Now, we can go inside.”

“My-my office is upstairs.” Baldwin adjusted his clothing and headed shakily toward the steps.

As Johnny started after him, Violet grabbed his arm, and he winced. “You’re hurt. I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s nothing. I just need a fresh bandage.” His arm slid from her hold as he followed Baldwin to his office. Looking back at her longing expression, he gave her his best smile, the one he used to charm the ladies. “Violet, I’ll be back. I promise we’ll talk.” He left her there and headed up the steps.

Baldwin washed his hands, then dried them on a snowy white cloth. “So, what do you need?” The man avoided looking at Johnny but carefully folded the towel, creasing each fold, and perfectly aligned each edge.

Every item in the room had a place, organized and spotless. Wandering around, Johnny picked up a book and read the title out loud “‘PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICE OF MODERN SURGERY’. You used this Robert Druitt’s ideas when you took that bullet out of me?”

“Put the book down. Do you need the bandage changed? Laudanum? What exactly do you want from me?” Placing the folded cloth beside the porcelain washbasin, he opened a drawer and pulled out some folded bandages.

“I need you to clean and bandage a bullet graze on my shoulder and back.” Johnny removed the jacket he’d placed over the shirt to hide his wounds and gritted his teeth against the pain as cloth slid over raw skin.

The doctor went to a shelf and grabbed a brown bottle labeled ‘carbolic.’ “Some of those injuries may become infected if we don’t use the carbolic. And I can tell by your reaction; you’ve experienced this regimen before.”

“That book teach you to pour liquid fire over bullet wounds and hurt places?”

“This ‘liquid fire,’ as you call it, might save your life.” Baldwin poured the solution on a cloth and peeled the shirt away from places stuck to wounds while Johnny hissed through gritted teeth. “There’s laudanum if you’ll take it.”

“No. Just hurry and do what you have to do.” It took nearly an hour for the doctor to soak the crusted shirt free and treat his wounds. With his face sweaty and pale, Johnny wished more than once he’d taken the laudanum.

“You holding up, all right?”

“I’m fine.” Johnny hissed the words through gritted teeth. “You about done?” His arms cramped from the tight grip he had on the table.

“All done except for bandages. This last wound is only a deep scrape, but you need to keep the area clean and wrapped. Keep drinking a lot of water as you still haven’t replaced the blood you lost.” The doctor finished dressing his arm and shoulder. “Uh, Madrid. No matter what you think of me, I didn’t mean to cause trouble. Not for you and certainly not for the Fosters.”

“Too late for apologies. You set things in motion, and you can’t rewind it all like a clock. Two men are dead, and contrary to what you think of me, that don’t set well.” Johnny slowly got up and steadied himself. Digging into his pants pocket, he produced some coins. “This cover what I owe you?” He threw some money on the desk.

“There’s no charge for today.” He dried his hands and made to give the payment back, but Johnny held his hand up.

“Keep it. And Baldwin, be sure you send word to the Fosters and let them know their worries with the two gunmen are over. Tell Peggy I’m fine and thank ’em both for me. Will you do that?”

“I… I will. And I am sorry. I understand about being too late to apologize. But I’m saying it anyway.” He handed Johnny his bullet-riddled shirt. “You need a new shirt.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll darn the holes up. The shirt’s got a few more gunfights left in it.” Putting the shirt on, Johnny tucked it in his pants. “Baldwin, you need to leave the girl downstairs alone. She’s a kid. I think you know that.”

Baldwin stood dead still. “You’re butting in where you aren’t welcome. Violet isn’t any of your business.”

“I’m making the girl my business. She’s only thirteen years old.”

“Violet’s mother sent her here. You have to admit I’ve provided a better situation than a saloon.” The doctor’s voice had gotten higher.

“Maybe. But you didn’t have to take the kid to your bed.” Out of habit, Johnny tapped the grip of his gun. “Housekeeping and help with your doctoring would have been the ‘better situation.’ If you got an itch to scratch, why don’t you go to the saloon?”

“You made your point, Madrid. But the girl will do better here than out on her own.”

“She won’t be on her own, and if she needs decent work, I’m counting on you to make sure she finds a job.” Johnny tipped his hat and left.

“Violet.” The girl was sitting on the bench outside of the Doc’s house. She stood and ran to him. “Whoa.” She had her arms around his waist and her head on his chest.

“Are you alright?” Once again, she was staring at him with those dreamy eyes. He didn’t need the girl falling for him.

“I’m fine.” Using both hands, he pushed her back to arm’s length away from him. “Listen, Violet. As long as you work here with the Doc, you’ll be trapped. Life’s no good when you can’t find a way out.”

“But what can I do? I tried to find work. They all look down on me, call me bad names, you don’t understand…” The girl turned Johnny loose and began backing away.

“Hey now, I do understand, and I’ll help you. Come over here.” Sitting down on the bench, he patted a space beside him. Then he reached inside his boot, brought out some cash, and counted out two hundred and fifty dollars. “This’ll be enough cash to give you some choices. Help you out of here anyway.”

When Johnny stood to leave, she grabbed his hand. “Please, take me with you.”

Sitting back down, he took both her hands. “Violet, it isn’t safe to be with me. Being a gunfighter, going from place to place, that’s no life for a girl.” She started to protest, but he cut her off. “Listen, someday the right man will come along. You’ll fall in love with him.”

“What if that’s already happened?” She touched his cheek. Her eyes filled with tears.

“Well, then, you tell the other ‘right man’ you once loved Johnny Madrid.” And laughing, Johnny kissed her on the forehead. “That’ll keep him on his toes.”

“Oh Johnny, if you’re gonna leave, you can do better than that.” She came in close and started a gentle kiss on his lips. Johnny pulled away. “Kid, you are trouble.” He placed a tender kiss on her cheek and turned to go.

Johnny mounted Wisaka before Violet could say or do more. Adjusting his hat, he gave her his best grin. “Go away from this place. You decide what to do with this game of life. Don’t let the game decide your life.” And he thought about the wisdom of that as he rode out of town.

The character of Violet and ‘last week’s event’ that worries Johnny so in chapter five appears in the episode, Buscaderos. If you don’t remember it well, you’ll find a script on the Lancer Lovers site here.


Chapter 5 : The Winning Hand

Lancer Ranch
Eight Years Later

The game of life finally dealt a winning hand to Johnny Madrid Lancer. Having found a home, family, and a father who wanted him, he left gun fighting behind. But the past had a way of nudging at him sometimes, and last week it did more than nudge. Kickback from mistakes made years ago blew through town and the ranch like a cyclone, threatening those he loved most. It frightened him when ghosts from years ago came creeping back to haunt his new life.

At first, he’d not put the name with her face. The girl looked familiar, alright. Then this morning, Scott gave his statement in town, “Drago and the girl, Violet,” he said, “They must have taken the rest of the money. The citizens, I’m sure, and we are grateful you recovered the majority of it.” Her name had rolled off Scott’s tongue, triggering memories best forgotten–the ambush, killing for hire, Guthrie, the Fosters, Baldwin, and the girl… Violet.

Faces and events from all those years ago tore through his head all day long, distracting him to the point that he forgot to pick up the feed order, which pissed off Murdoch. “The feed, Johnny. This is a ranch. The horses need to eat.” His old man had shaken his head, turned, and walked away. No sooner had he left than Scott jumped out of the buckboard and ran to catch him, probably playing big brother again, soothing their father’s ruffled feathers. Still, no one said a word at the evening meal. Well, “Pass this…” and “Pass that…”, “Good potatoes,” but his past had ruined the day again.

Lightning split the dark sky in the distance. The fear of losing it all sliced through Johnny the same way—rattled his bones as deep as the rumbling thunder. He pressed his head to his forearm and leaned forward against one of the estancia’s thick adobe columns. As his thoughts and memories continued to churn, he unclenched his fingers and slapped the wall hard.

“You okay, Brother?” The question startled him, interrupting the fracas in his head. When he turned toward the voice, an arm stretched toward him, offering a drink.

Snorting, he took what he hoped was tequila and sat between the adobe columns. “Ain’t that something I ought to be asking you? You’re the one who got beat up and shot at on account of me.”

“I hope you’re not blaming yourself for Drago’s actions. Besides, he and I came to an understanding of sorts.” Tipping his drink toward Johnny, Scott continued. “Other than what happened with Chapel, there was nothing too outlandish; the rest, we’ve handled with some extra cleanup.”

“That right?” Johnny took a sip and stood to watch the horses stirring in the corral. “Scott… “He looked at the tiled patio floor and then met his brother’s eyes. “Do you think I don’t understand what happened here? There’s a back trail to violence. It has a stink all its own, one that’s familiar to me.”

“Just because you’re familiar with a trail doesn’t make you responsible for another man riding on it.” Taking another sip of Murdoch’s whiskey, Scott’s eyes still studied Johnny.

“What if… what if something I said or did set this whole thing in motion?”

“How, Johnny? An impressionable, young girl idolized a boy who, what, rescued her?” Standing, Scott closed some distance between them and gave him a soft slap on the shoulder.

“Wasn’t nothin’ to idolize.”

“Seems she disagrees. That boy became her larger-than-life standard. One she expected another man to live up to.” Scott set his glass down, stared for a beat before he continued. “You aren’t responsible for her feelings.”

“Violet was just a kid and thought she loved me. I told her the right man would come along one day.” Johnny laughed at the memory. “But she had stars in her eyes, worshiped the image, I reckon. Violet said I was the ‘right man,’ that it was me she loved. Hell, we only knew each other for an afternoon. We never even, well, you know…”

He killed the rest of his drink and faced off right in front of Scott, thumbs hooked in his belt. Confessing was worse than a gunfight, so he might as well take the stance. “That’s when I think I set this up. The thing I told her to do when the ‘other right man’ came along… didn’t give much thought to it; But I told her to tell him she once loved Johnny Madrid, that it would keep him on his toes.”

After spilling it all out, he couldn’t continue to face his brother but gave him his back. The distant mountain range blurred, whether from dry air or the emotion welling up from his gut, he couldn’t say.

“And you think because you said those words, this entire event lands on your shoulders? I mean, we are talking about a stolen Gatling gun, robbery, hostage-taking, shooting up a town, ransacking a home, kidnapping, and a few other crimes…” Scott’s voice trailed off, and he placed a hand on Johnny’s arm.

Spreading both hands, Johnny thought of all the death they’d dealt and wondered if he couldn’t have spared his family and others a lot of pain had he used them differently. “Sometimes, I think of how much better your lives would be if there’d been no Johnny Madrid.”

Grabbing hold of his brother’s arm, Scott whipped him around to face him. “Madrid or Lancer–you’ve made a positive difference in countless lives. Brother, we all set good and bad things in motion. We can’t be responsible for how the cards play out. You’re not God.”

Scott’s fingers held steady on both of Johnny’s shoulders, and he searched his brother’s face. But it was the man standing behind Scott who drew Johnny’s complete attention. The French doors were open, and Murdoch stood there. His expression said he’d heard their conversation.

Was it disappointment in his father’s eyes? Pity? Murdoch surely had to wish Madrid had never darkened these doors. Johnny moved away from his brother and brushed by his father, heading to his room.


The name slipped softly from Murdoch’s lips. Johnny rushed on by but paused before heading up the staircase. Could he talk with his father about his past? He owed the man. Was now the time to quit sidestepping and face this thing that always stood between them?

His father hadn’t moved an inch, stood there, still as stone, staring out at the ranch he’d built.

“Murdoch.” Though Johnny’s voice was soft, it cut through the silence like the old clock chime jarring him at night.

Glenlivet splashed on Murdoch’s checked shirt when he jumped in surprise. He didn’t even bother to brush it off. “Son.” The distance between the two men closed as his father stretched out his hand to bring Johnny to his side.

Maybe this was the winning hand after all.





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16 thoughts on “Playing The Devil’s Hand by Sherry

  1. This was fabulous! Well-written, with lots of little gems sprinkled throughout: sitting at the Fosters’ “uptown” table, Johnny’s past “ruining his day again.” Etc. etc. Young Johnny killed and suffered for it, over and over. Gratified that he was finally able to find some peace with his true family. Lovely writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good story – Poor Johnny could never catch a break during his Madrid days. I have to admit – I never liked the Character Violet and I’ve never been able to get into lengthy stories about her.. But you pulled her in ever so slightly – just enough to provide a back story for the Buscaderos episode.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for your encouraging feedback. Yes, Johnny suffered when he was a gunfighter. His talent with a gun placed him in a dangerous position both physically and mentally.


  4. I really enjoyed this. It was well written and a great insight into Johnny’s past as Madrid and how he really wanted to get out of the game but was thwarted by the actions of others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tina, thank you for the feedback. Yes, I see Johnny wanting out of the game. Otherwise he would have been hiring out at more lucrative and strategy building jobs than the revolution where the Pinkerton agent found him. Thank you for reading my story.


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