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“Johnny!” His brother seldom got in this kind of hurry, hollering at him before his horse stopped.
“Everything all right?”
“I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“Yeah?” He clicked up Barranca and rode closer, pushing his hat back to see Scott’s face. “What’s going on?”
“Murdoch’s back from Stockton. Brought some visitors and wants you back early to meet them.”
Damn. He’d have to come all the way back out here tomorrow to finish running the fence line. “You think Murdoch would get too bent out of shape if I showed up for dessert and stayed to talk after dinner?”
“With Teresa using the good china? She wouldn’t talk to you for a week, much less feed you anything you like to eat.” He bumped Johnny’s arm with his fist. “They’re nice people, a man, and his wife. A rancher from south of here, Tom and Anna Elliott.”
Johnny went lightheaded. Turning toward his brother, he opened his mouth to find something to say. Words wouldn’t come. The breath left his body; a weakness overwhelmed him. Dismounting, he hung one arm over the saddle for a minute. Where to sit? His legs felt like a newborn colt’s.
He heard his brother as he left his horse, knew he was coming, didn’t want him to, didn’t want to deal with this history of Madrid with his family.
“What is it?”
A hand touched his back. Good old Scott—always there for him.
“Over here.” They walked a drunken stagger, like after tequila nights in Green River, two-stepping to the horses before a blurry ride home. But now, they headed to shade under an elm tree.
It was all Scott needed to say. The two of them had come that far in two years. So, Johnny leaned his head back against the rough bark of the tree and pulled up the memory—out of that dark place, where the old stuff stayed—most of it kindling for nightmares. Maybe that explained why he stored the darkest memories, wrapped tight, and buried deep inside himself.
Nogales changed everything. He rode into town, thought all he wanted was to be Johnny Madrid, good at his trade. And until that day, Johnny had only used his gun for a cause, a justifiable reason.
It all started when he decided to track Slug Reedman from San Diego to Nogales, planning to cash in on a bounty. Angry at being turned away from a decent hotel because of his Mexican blood, and losing out on a job for the same reason, he’d not minded too much being paid to hunt a man down. Reedman was good; it would build his reputation taking down a fast gun—that just iced the cake.
Johnny walked into the cantina; well, he might have come closer to strutting. Cocky and smart-mouthed, while the cocky got him noticed, the mouth got him called out. Yeah, well, that was what he had intended—but not by TWO top guns.
Reedman had a little rendezvous set up with Russ Bateman. Anyone toting a sixshooter knew Bateman skinned leather faster than any gunman west of Texas. But, just Johnny’s luck, when Reedman called him out, Bateman backed his play.
Call it stupid, foolish pride, or just plain showing off, Johnny found himself in the middle of a Nogales street, facing two of the best. That was when it hit him… harder than any bullet, the notion of the right and wrong of this gunfighting trade. How could he shoot a man down for nothing but cash and a name? It turned his belly inside out. But, at that moment, it was kill or be killed.
All the practice and raw talent ‘his cocky self’ possessed didn’t slow his fast-beating heart as he stood there—and facing Reedman took some big ones, especially when Bateman leaned against a street post with his hand resting on his sidearm.
Johnny shut everything out of his mind but Reedman. Having studied men most of his life to know when they’d strike, that hard-learned bit of knowledge tipped him off right before the man went for his gun. Johnny’s hand moved faster, and a bullet landed between Slug Reedman’s eyes. It was a given Bateman would draw; Johnny fanned his Colt and killed him too.
It’s funny the thoughts that run through a man’s head. Johnny wondered at how easy they dropped, like dead fruit from a tree. And though their shots never came close, it seemed to him a third man went down that day.
Johnny Madrid fell from grace—lost favor from heaven while he stood there and twirled his sixshooter, landing the weapon perfectly in his holster—showing off… cold as Wes Hardin while his victims were bleeding in the street.
A low murmur of voices followed him as he stepped his way toward the livery. He made his spurs sing while swallowing hard to keep from puking right there in town. His face tingled, and his arms and legs had gone numb. But Johnny Madrid worked his way through the parting crowd to the stables. He rode out of Nogales, never collecting the bounty on Reedman.
Johnny couldn’t remember saddling his horse or how he got out of town. A fellow he knew lost time like that; a horse kicked him in the head on a trail drive near Tucson. The kid walked around in a daze for hours. Later, said he didn’t recall a thing that happened the whole day.
The last thing Johnny knew was heading toward the livery. And like some dumb, thirsty animal drawn to water, he ended up by the Santa Cruz River with a mouth as dry as desert sand.
When he dismounted, his legs wobbled. Dammit, if he hadn’t hung there on the saddle horn, waiting for his legs to steady. He fumbled for the canteen and half-stumbled to the water’s edge.
Johnny’s shirt dripped with sweat—wet as a drenching from a hot summer rainstorm—how tempting to jump in and let the river cool him from head to toe. A canteen full poured over his head would have to do. The cool water helped, washing away the worst of the sweat and heat.
The shade called to him, a cool spot under a mesquite tree, partly hanging over the river. Kicking seedpods and a few thorns aside, Johnny slid down to sit between its roots and slumped back against the trunk.
As he gazed out over the river, Johnny caught the flicker of a floating leaf that tumbled over rocks and trickled toward him. It trembled on the water until a strong current took it on down the stream.
There was a time he’d floated along in life too, ’till Tex Jenkins rode into that tiny piss-ant border town, where Johnny studied every move he made as he swaggered through—his gun strapped low, walking through the streets like royalty. Sparks had gone off in Johnny’s head.
No more floating. Johnny grabbed onto one thing, the desire to become a gunfighter. And like a hungry man craving food, he ate up every morsel of knowledge to become the best. And now he was.
Tex. He hadn’t thought of him for years. Snorting a bit, Johnny shook his head and wondered if Tex ever got tired of gunfighting… if the man still lived.
Johnny grabbed for his Colt, too damn late; some asshole had the drop on him. Dammit, how had he let someone sneak up on him?
Time stands still when you’re looking down the barrel of a long gun. The fellow about to send him to his maker stood there calm and steady. He looked to be in his early thirties—tall, tough, and tired summed him up.
“So, how do you see this thing end? Count to three and shoot, or can we talk about it?” Johnny nodded at the rifle.
“We can talk. I just don’t want you pulling that cannon before the conversation gets started.” The stranger looked at Johnny’s pistol. “To be sure, I’ll hold on to it, till we come to an understanding.” The man moved closer and held his hand out.
Johnny grinned, eased the gun out with two fingers, and passed it over. “I’ll be wanting that back when we finish the discussion.”
“As long as we can see eye-to-eye on a thing or two.” The stranger stuck Johnny’s gun in the back of his pants, lowered his weapon, and walked a step closer. He pulled out a flask from his back pocket, squatted, and handed it to Johnny.
“I ain’t much on drinking with a man I don’t know.” Johnny studied the face, and beyond the weariness there, he found something he liked.
“Can’t say I’d feel any different—name’s Tom, Tom Elliott.” The beginning of a grin broke beneath the mustache, and he stretched out his hand.
“I go by Johnny Madrid. What do you want?” Johnny didn’t offer his hand yet, so Elliott withdrew his own.
“I reckon my approach wasn’t exactly friendly. But I need your help.” Standing up, he looked out across the river and sighed. “A particular kind of help.” Reaching back, he produced Johnny’s Colt and hefted it in his hand. “This kind of help.” He kept his eyes on Johnny for a minute, maybe sizing up his reaction.
“You ambush me, take my gun, wave it in the air, and stand over me asking for my help?” Johnny had started with his quiet voice, but the thought of this man holding a rifle on him and asking for his help while he sat there with no way to defend himself fired his temper. So, in the end, Johnny’s voice was not so soft.
Elliott stared at the ground. “You’re right. I wasn’t sure how to do this.” He handed the gun back to Johnny.
Johnny looked at the firearm in his hand. “Why would I want to help you?”
“I watched you saddle your horse in the livery.” Tom took his hat off, turned his back on Johnny, and gazed out toward the water.
“So, you liked my saddle? Or, maybe it’s my horse you want?” Johnny had a notion the man had seen how torn up he got over the shootout in Nogales. Hell, no gunfighter worth his salt left town weak-kneed and shaken like he had.
“Dammit, I ain’t talking about your gear or horseflesh!” Didn’t take much to get the fellow worked up. Elliott glanced back at Johnny; he had that out of patience look about him that Mama sometimes had. But after he slapped his hat against his leg a couple of times, he lowered his voice a bit. “Perhaps I thought I saw a decent human being. You’d taken down the best, cold as ice out on the street. But… your face when you were trying to tack up your horse, taking a man’s life made you sick.”
“What makes you the expert?” Johnny stood up. This fellow needed to back off his business.
“Could be I don’t have you pegged, not for sure. And so I’m here, trying to find out if you’re decent enough to help me.”
“Help you how?”
“I ain’t too fond of gunfighters, but I need help, a fast gun, who is still a good man.” Lowering his voice a bit, he added, “And I don’t have any money to pay.” He glanced back toward Johnny.
Elliot seemed to be sizing him up—that no-money-thing—probably trying to figure how he’d react to that. Johnny shook his head. Dammit, if this man was ever going to make his point. “You ever going to tell me what you want from me?”
“I need you to help me track and kill the vermin who raided my ranch.” Elliott’s back and shoulders slumped; his voice broke when he continued. “And kidnapped my wife.”
“Your wife.” The man could say no more, and Johnny figured he needed a minute to pull himself together. It was hard seeing someone break like this. So, he opened his canteen, took a drink, made sure he was a little louder than usual. A few minutes passed, and Johnny asked him, “How long?”
Elliott still didn’t look at him, but his voice was more potent when he did answer. “Three days. Followed them down here. I checked around town. Two of them bought trail supplies this morning in the mercantile. I figure the other two are holding Anna somewhere close by.”
“There’s four of them?” Johnny added some bullets to his gun from his belt.
“The Dawson brothers and two more.”
“Bart and Clay Dawson?”
“You acquainted with them?” Elliott turned back toward him, searched his face like he might be changing his mind.
“We ain’t friendly if that’s what you’re getting at.” Johnny slid the pistol in his holster. “How about the other two, any idea who they are?”
“Not their names, guns hired by Mason Rawlings, a land grabber, moved out here from back east, plenty of money. He inherited some property in our area, bought small properties to expand his holdings. Wasn’t long before he decided to buy up larger ranches like mine.” Elliott walked over to the tree and leaned the rifle against the trunk. “Ranchers that didn’t want to sell, well, let’s just say bad things started happening to their property. Things got uglier and went downhill from there.”
“So this Rawlings, he hired guns to persuade you to sell? Why did he take your wife?” Johnny had been in a few range wars. Running off with a man’s wife didn’t make much sense.
“I killed Rawlings, so no payday for the guns. A-n-n-d, it was me who shot Bart Dawson’s gun hand, so he’s out for revenge.” Elliott closed his eyes.
Johnny figured the man could still see images of bad things that had happened. “How did they take her?”
“They raided the ranch, middle of the night, knocked me on the head, and took Anna—left a note for me to have five thousand dollars deposited to a bank account in Nogales. I-I couldn’t come up with the money.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“I’m going to find Anna, and the only way I’m sure to bring her back is by killing them. With four of them, the odds aren’t on my side.”
“So, why me? Not five minutes ago, you told me I had no stomach for killing. Why pick me to send the kidnapping bastards to Hell?”
“Dammit, men like the Dawson brothers, they’ll do anything for money, even hurt a woman. You can’t imagine what evil they did for Rawlings.” Elliott paced off a few steps. “I refuse to ask for help from savages like that.” He looked at Johnny, eye to eye. “I want someone I can trust enough to take care of my wife, saying I don’t make it.”
A chill went down Johnny’s back. He wrapped his arms around himself. “And you think I’m the man for the job?” Did he really measure up much better than the Dawsons? A flash of things, he’d done, some done to him, jolted his mind. If he wasn’t the kind of man Tom Elliott was looking for, he needed to make some changes.
Tom Elliott walked toward Johnny. “I do, I think you’re the man to help me bring Anna home. Will you do this with me?”
“You been tracking them. Do you think they’re camped around here?” Johnny didn’t answer his question.
“Yeah, they’ll have to check the bank for the money.”
“How long you got to come up with the ransom?” Johnny started walking toward his horse.
“Hey, where are you going?” Elliott overtook him and grabbed his arm.
“I wouldn’t do that.” Johnny aimed a hard stare first at the hand that restrained his arm and then at Elliott’s face.
Elliott dropped his fingers from Johnny’s arm as if he held burning firewood.
“Let’s try this again. When are you supposed to deposit the money?” Johnny once more started toward his horse, and Elliott followed.
“Today, I’ve run out of time. All the ranch money is tied up in stock. The bank won’t lend to me on account of that damned range war. I can’t deliver the herd to market on time.”
Elliott’s bloodshot eyes and weary face showed his hard days in the saddle. Johnny had ridden like that before, tracking or running from Rurales.
“Suppose I come up with most of the money. You reckon it would keep the Dawsons from hurting your missus ’till we track ’em down?” Johnny pulled his saddlebags and turned his back on Elliot. “You mind?” He gestured for him to turn around with a twirl of his finger.
Elliott shook his head but gave him his back. “How would you come by that much money?”
“How do you think?” Johnny glanced over his shoulder, not wanting the man to look while he undid the false lining. It was all there, his stash, earned from high-dollar poker games, a short trail drive, breaking a few horses, and yeah… from killing. Hell, it was mostly hard-earned money.
After placing his spare shirt and a leather sack of medicinals back inside, he tossed the worn leather bags over his saddle and spoke to Elliott’s back. “You can turn around now.”
“Over here.” Johnny took the sizable double handful of bills and gold-pieces over toward some large boulders. “Sit. Give me your hand.” Making himself comfortable on a flat rock, he patted a space beside him.
Tom’s eyes got big when Johnny started counting out the stack of bills. He pulled his hand back and took off his hat. “Put it in here.”
Nodding, Johnny started again taking time to straighten every folded bill, turning each one in the same direction and face-up. When all of it lay in Tom’s hat, Johnny picked the bills up, lined the edges on his thigh, and handed the neat stack and handful of coins over to Tom. “We’re close. Four thousand, eight hundred, sixty-two dollars. And I got bounty money coming for Reedman. So that ought to make up the rest with some left over.”
“Why would you do this?” Elliott stared at the cash in his hand.
Johnny stood up and wished Elliott would just take the damn money, not ask any questions. What could he say? “Say you did see something in that livery. You ever feel a need for redemption? Could be, saving your wife might go a ways toward it.” Johnny found it hard to meet Tom Elliott’s eyes, but he did—figured they best build some trust to ride shoulder to shoulder. Well, he would give him this much honesty before they risked their lives for each other.
Elliott stared at him. And he just had to ask the dreaded question. “Redemption for what, Johnny?”
“Killing for no good reason.”
Tilting his head and arching an eyebrow at Johnny, Elliott walked over next to where he stood. “You want to tell me what happened?”
“We ought to deposit some money in the bank first, try to find your wife. You can ask questions later, not saying I’ll answer ’em.”
Elliott folded the money and started to put it in his saddlebags. “You want to hang onto it?”
“Take it to the bank while I visit the sheriff, collect the bounty on Reedman.”
“I raised over a thousand dollars. Keep your bounty money.” Tom pulled some cash from his inside vest pocket.
“You best hang on to some of that.” Johnny pointed toward the paper bills. “It’s enough to keep your ranch going.”
“Johnny, I’ll pay you back as soon as the herd’s sold.” Tom found something mighty interesting between his boots.
“There’ll be time for talking and dickering later. Right now, we need to head back into town.”
When he slipped his boot into the stirrup to mount up, a mountain of tired struck Johnny. The leg he threw over the saddle weighed as much as one of those prize bulls he remembered seeing up in Stockton. The return trip to Nogales weighed heavy on him.
Neither man spoke until they stopped at the crossroads right outside of town. The sun heated the back of his jacket, so Johnny slipped it off and tied it to the back of his saddle wondering if this trip back into town might be a bad mistake.
“You okay?” Tom Elliot pulled up next to him.
“Yeah, needed a drink of water, is all.” Johnny’s mouth had gotten drier the closer they came to town—must be the heat.
“I can do this alone, meet you back here.” Elliott lifted the saddlebag that had the cash in it.
“No. One of them will keep watch on the bank. We need eyes on them. I’m the best one for that job. You ride ahead. I’ll follow, pick up the bounty, and see if I can spot anyone.” Johnny nodded toward town.
“I’ll be helping you track ’em.” Elliott spun his horse and sat up straighter in his saddle. Johnny guessed the man had withstood more than most could without breaking, but he still had plenty of fire in him.
“They’ll keep an eye on you after you drop the money—maybe try to kill you. You asked me to help, let me.”
“Johnny, you can’t do this alone.”
“Hear me out. Deposit the cash. Sit in the cantina, drink a beer, play some cards. Stay a couple of hours, then slip out back to the outhouse. Your horse will be ground tied behind Rosa’s Cafe.” Johnny pushed his hat back, made sure Tom saw he meant what he said. “Be sure and watch your back.”
“And where will you be?”
“If they pick up the money, most likely they’ll leave a trail to your wife that I can follow. Meet me back here, say around dusk?”
“And suppose they kill Anna, hightail it to Mexico, then what?”
Elliott didn’t seem happy with his plan. He needed to calm the man down. “Tom.” It was the only time Johnny had used his given name, and it caught his attention.
“If Anna is still alive, most likely they’ll keep her that way. I told you I’m acquainted with the Dawsons, and their ways. It’s harsh, but they’re aware your wife is worth a lot of money in Mexico.”
“No!” Elliott didn’t want to hear this awful truth. “We can’t let that happen!”
“You’re right. We can’t. Now, trust me to find out where they are, and how their camp is set up. We meet here and under the cover of dark, we’ll find your wife.” Johnny brought his horse closer and placed his hand on Tom’s arm. “You gonna listen to me? This will work ’cause it makes sense for them to stay put after getting the money this late in the day.”
“Seems to be one problem with your plan. I need to be with you helping you, not sitting on my butt in Nogales.” Tom pointed his finger first at Johnny, then toward town.
“Thing is, if you’re in the cantina, they’ll be sure you aren’t following them. Might be they won’t be so careful.”
Tom’s buckskin danced on the dusty road when his master tightened up on the reins. Johnny figured the horse was as jumpy as Elliott. His pinto was like that, picked up on his feelings. “So they get sloppy; how will you find Anna?”
“I have my ways. For now, we need to make this first part work, head to the bank. Let me worry about the Dawsons.” Johnny saw him consider the words. He liked that Elliott thought enough of his horse that he patted his neck and got him settled down before pulling around in the direction of town. Master and mount made no effort to move.
“WE WILL go together once you find her location, and WE will do whatever is needed to save Anna.” Tom gave Johnny his one demand before surrendering to the plan.
Johnny gave him a quick nod toward Nogales. “You head on in. I’ll follow shortly—meet you back here around dusk.”
Tom gazed at him, hesitated, then stared toward the road they were about to take. “Be careful. I’m counting on you; Anna is too.” Looking down, he shook his head before continuing. “I don’t know how I’ll make this up to you.”
“You…” Johnny wanted to tell Tom that he didn’t owe him anything, but the man kicked his horse and headed down the road before any words came out of his mouth. A trail of dust danced where Elliott had been.
Glancing at the sun, he figured it must be noon or after. Finding where the Dawsons held Tom’s wife and meeting him back here would take skill and luck. Still, it made sense for them to keep her close by. Someone would be watching that bank to find out if Tom dropped the money. Johnny reluctantly clicked his pony toward Nogales.
Johnny pulled up at the livery. A young Mexican boy ran to him, ready to help before he even dismounted.
“I care for the horse. Extra feed, rub him down. You pay?”
Johnny laughed. “Sure kid. Frotar mi caballo y darle de comer bien.” He threw the kid some coins for the food and rub-down.
As a kid, he did the same thing himself—charged a little more than the livery took, saved the owner a few steps, did all the work, and pocketed a peso or two.
After asking the boy to make sure his mount was ready to ride in an hour, he paid extra to tie his ‘friend’s horse behind the cafe later. Then he headed to the sheriff’s office to collect the bounty.
Johnny opened the door to a small room that smelled of old paper. And no wonder as stacks and stacks of old newspapers and wanted posters filled the space behind the sheriff’s desk.
Two men playing cards looked up when he walked in. The one wearing a badge placed his cards face down and stood, his eyes darted from Johnny’s rig to the position of his right hand.
“What are you doing back in town?”
“Sheriff… Townsend? Did I get the name right?” Johnny strolled over to the desk, picked the edge of the sheriff’s cards up, raised his brows, and winked at him. “Checking on a bounty—Reedman’s. You probably heard about this morning—believe he had eight hundred on his head. That was alive or dead. Oh, and he’s dead. You can check with the undertaker if you don’t wanna take my word for it.” Johnny hopped up to sit on the edge of the over-long desk.
“Gill, I got some folks coming in for a meeting.” Townsend’s buddy, a skinny dude, wore a gray suit that had seen better days, and had a gold pocket-watch in his hand. Most likely a lawyer. His brow was sweaty, and he rushed to head out of the office. Before Townsend could reply, the door closed—his poker partner gone.
“Didn’t mean to run off your company.” Johnny smiled innocent-like. “Now about that reward…”
“Follow me to the bank.” The sheriff cut him off. “The quicker we handle this, the sooner I’ll see the last of you.”
Johnny hopped off the desk with a lightness he didn’t feel—even opened the door and held it for Townsend. “After you.” With a sweep of his hand and a grin that didn’t reach his eyes, they crossed the street to the bank.
Keeping his movements easy, no one noticed him looking for the Dawsons.
As the sheriff stood by a teller’s window, signing some papers, Johnny kept his head down as though he was watching out for his money. When Tom walked out of a back office, Johnny caught a glimpse of movement behind the glassed office door near the front of the bank. Sure enough, when Tom left, Bart Dawson came out of the small room.
Dawson must have an inside man, a relative, or someone that worked at the bank. Yep, an older fellow walked out behind him, placed a hand on his arm, and whispered to him. Old Bart jerked his hand away and rounded on the old man like he was going to say something. When he took note of his surroundings, Dawson shook his head and must have decided not to have a family squabble in the middle of the bank. Johnny couldn’t help but laugh a little.
“Madrid, here’s your bounty.” Townsend’s timing was perfect.
“Well, now, I thank you. Glad to rid your town of vermin like Reedman.” Johnny took the cash and headed toward the door and Dawson.
“My best advice to you is to quit living by your gun. As the Good Book says, “live by the sword, die by the sword.” The sheriff turned his back and started flirting with the teller.
Bart Dawson stood between Johnny and the door to the street. No one could place the man in a better position for the plan he now had in mind.
“Bart. Bart Dawson!” Surprising himself at how easy it was to act like he never expected to run into this unfriendly face again. Johnny slapped the man on his obviously sore arm before he forced a friendly chat with him. “What are you doing in Nogales?”
Bart always had a habit of licking his lips when he was nervous. That, and squinting at whatever bothered him. And Dawson started both his bad habits right at Johnny.
“Madrid. Ah, visiting my uncle. Uh, Madrid, you working?” Dawson squinted and licked his lips some more.
“Just finished a job.” Johnny waved the bills he received from the sheriff. “Though, collecting bounty on a man ain’t my usual hire.”
“How’d you like to make an easy five hundred?” Dawson lowered his voice.
“Me? We ain’t been on speaking terms since that mess in Kade’s Crossing.” Johnny didn’t want to bring up the fight over Bart beating up a rancher’s kid. But, on the other hand, he didn’t intend to walk into an ambush over it.
“Water under the bridge, Madrid. And ‘sides, I need you. I got a bum arm, two lazy cowpokes that can’t hit a bed when they’re sleepy; don’t even know how to load a sixshooter proper.” some of the customers in the bank stared at Bart as his voice got louder. Townsend had turned around as well.
“Why don’t we talk outside.” Johnny motioned toward the door.
Dawson stretched his neck around, hunched his shoulders, like a kid caught stealing peppermint sticks. Once outside, Johnny motioned to the ally.
Bart continued making his case for hiring Johnny. “You remember how Clay is, he’s got that temper. And If’n I had your cool head and fast gun working for me, I’d pay off them two cowboys. The three of us might strike a partnership.”
Johnny didn’t want to jump on an offer too quick, but the conversation had headed in the direction he hoped. “Easy money, huh? Bart, one thing I’ve learned, pay without work is like one of those visions of water in the desert. By the time you get there, the waterhole’s dried up.” He turned as if to walk away.
“Wait, meet me for a drink. I’ll explain what you’d be paid to do. I got to make a withdrawal. Won’t take but a minute.” He licked his lips a couple times and added, “You won’t be sorry.”
Johnny nodded, but he wondered about that—figured he might be sorrier yet that he ever stepped foot in the town of Nogales.
When he entered the saloon, Bart went straight to the bar. Johnny couldn’t be sure, but there seemed to be a conversation going on between him and a cowboy standing to his left. The over-loud attempt at flirting with a girl, and the way Dawson kept turning back toward the fellow gave him away. After a few minutes, he headed to where Johnny sat in the back.
“I’m listening.” Johnny angled a chair out with his boot when Bart walked over to his table. Waiting for Bart had not been easy. Customers kept cutting their eyes toward him, and the name, Madrid, blew from gossipy mouths as often as puffs of stale smoke from tobacco. “Make it quick.” He needed to leave this town.
Dawson motioned for a girl dressed in a red and black dress that showed a bit more skin than most would dare. He simply pointed to Johnny’s beer. “Bring us a couple more of those.” He tapped her backside as she turned to go.
“Get on with it. I ain’t got all day.” Johnny killed the rest of his beer and pushed the empty glass away.
“Like I told you in the bank. There’s five hundred in it for you. But I need you to get rid of a rancher.”
“Nope. I don’t kill ranchers unless they’re shootin’ back. What you got against this fellow anyway?” Johnny leaned forward to take the beer from the girl coming toward the table. She set Bart’s drink down and moved close to Johnny’s side to deliver his. She placed a hand on his shoulder and slowly traced it over his neck; after giving him a smile that promised more; the girl finally left the table.
“Damn, you always had a way with the women.” Bart shook his head.
“Never-mind that—the rancher, why you got trouble with him?”
“We come from a range war up near San Diego. This fellow’s out for revenge cause things didn’t end up his way. He’s been dogging our trail, threatening us, shot my arm.” Bart held his bandaged hand up, checked around to see if anyone was listening. He lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “Clay and me finally took his wife to make him back off.”
“You what?!” Johnny acted shocked. “Well, that ought to slow him down. What do you need me for?”
“The man’s still on our trail. I need a real fast gun to take him out while Clay and I head to Mexico.”
“What about the woman?” Johnny tried to keep from sounding too concerned.
“Oh, well, we had planned to take her to along Mexico. Unfortunately, she ain’t in ridin’ shape right now.” Dawson looked around and then back at Johnny to gauge his reaction.
“She hurt?” Pushing the anger down, Johnny never let it loose unless it served his purpose. And when he did, those on the receiving end didn’t forget it. Not so long ago, Bart had seen his anger in full display.
“No. Nothing you need to be upset about. Johnny, boy, I remember how you are about women and kids. She just got roughed up a little, and you know, she ain’t the friendly type. Not like these girls.” Bart nodded over his shoulder.
Damn, damn, things didn’t sound good for Tom’s wife. “She might feel different toward the right man.” A plan formed that might keep them all alive. “Is she pretty?”
“The rancher’s wife? She’s a damn fine-looking woman. Why?” Dawson tilted his head at Johnny. “What are you getting at?”
“Suppose I handle this job for you. Five is a little low. An offer of a thousand dollars is waiting for me up north. Of course, I gotta go there, and once I do, they’ll be shootin’ back.” Johnny moved a bit closer, and he grinned. “But say you throw in the lady, it’s been a while since I relaxed, took my time, enjoyed myself. If I like her, I’ll take care of your rancher.”
“Alright then.” Bart banged his good hand down on the table. “Don’t know if he’s still in there, but one of my men,” and he gave a quick nod at the guy still standing at the bar, “said Elliott went to the cantina after he followed me to the bank.”
“Who’s Elliott?” Johnny figured he best play dumb concerning Tom’s name.
“Oh, sorry, that’s the rancher—Elliott, Tom Elliott—and his wife is Anna.” Bart turned his beer up and wiped his mouth on his shirt sleeve.
“Fellow’s kinda bold, staying on your trail out in the open, walking into a public building like that?”
“Ain’t it the truth? I’ll go in the cantina and confront him, and you can follow, not acting like you know me. That way, you’ll recognize your target.” Bart was licking his lips again. All this planning was making him nervous.
“First things first, Bart, how do I find my payment, uh the lady? Remember, if this woman isn’t to my liking, no deal.”
“Oh, you’ll like her. Meet me at the livery when you leave the cantina. We got a cabin right outside of town.” Dawson stood. “Give me a couple minutes before you come in.” Bart gave the nod to the cowpoke.
That cowboy, there was something familiar about the way that kid carried himself. Johnny tried to see his face as he left, but the fellow had pulled his hat down over his eyes to cover his face. With no easy way to check him out, he continued outside through the swinging doors.
Johnny looked around the street and swiped his hand down his face. This trip to Nogales got messier by the minute. Those two beers rested heavy in his belly, maybe because he hadn’t eaten since yesterday. There it was, the perfect excuse to go to the cantina. He planned to find out if the cook would wrap up some trail food. Meanwhile, if he could pass a message to Tom, all the better.
Dawson already had Tom cornered by the time Johnny walked in. And Elliott was pushing back hard.
“Either you back off my trail or you know what will happen.” Bart made his point loudly as he bent over Tom’s table, his face not six inches from Elliott’s.
Tom glanced around the room before answering—his teeth gritted together. “You have what you asked for. Now keep your end of the bargain.”
“I’ve hired a man who’ll be our go-between. Meet him at sunset tomorrow at the old Dayton place. Ask around for directions.” Johnny could barely hear the instructions. And when Dawson’s voice went lower, he figured he threatened death for Anna if Tom showed early.
So it appeared that the Dawsons planned to leave for Mexico expecting him to kill Tom. One thing was clear. Johnny couldn’t let Bart or Clay ride out of Nogales alive if the Elliotts ever wanted any peace. And if he wanted to be able to quit looking over his shoulder for back shooters, Nogales needed to be the end of this game. Once again, his belly started churning.
It was at that moment that Tom looked straight at him, not a friendly gaze. What had Dawson said? Or had he misread Elliott? Johnny tipped his hat to Tom to reassure him. But he had no idea if it did or didn’t.
Johnny turned to the young girl who greeted him when he entered the cantina and asked about some food for the trail. The girl smiled; her innocence and sweetness made his world seem so much blacker. He wondered about life for everyday folks as she took his request to the kitchen.
Johnny didn’t turn when Bart left, but when he glanced toward Tom’s table, he still had that death stare on Johnny. So, he walked over to him. “You got a problem with me, mister?”
“What’s your game?” Elliott’s anger when he asked worried Johnny.
“No game.” Johnny leaned on the table and lowered his voice so only Tom could hear him. “Just trying to make sure all of us make it out of this alive. Follow Dawson’s instructions. Trust me, Tom.”
“Why should I?” Elliott was giving him that stare again.
“What is it with you?” Johnny had raised his voice. He needed to get out of here before he blew this whole thing up. Once again, he lowered his voice. “I give you almost five thousand dollars, and you question if you can trust me. Think what you like. I’m going to try to save your wife.”
Johnny turned and walked out of the cantina. Not only did he not pick up his food, but he didn’t notice the cowboy watching from the table next to the doorway.
The livery was dark inside. Dawson stood just inside, waiting, holding the reins of a sorrel, cussing the poor animal. “Damn you!” Bart never had the good sense to treat his horse right. The horse snorted and bobbed her head, as agitated as Johnny felt. Perhaps she was newly broke, or more likely, disliked her master.
Johnny rubbed the horse’s neck while going to his pinto. She settled right out. “You got some food at this cabin?” It had been a mistake to let Tom get under his skin. Leaving the cantina without the food, drawing people’s attention, he shouldn’t have gone to his table.
“Some. Jerky, coffee, makins’ for biscuits if you know how. We don’t have no cook.” Bart gave him a look like he might be expecting too much.
“Yeah, yeah, I can manage.” Johnny forced a grin and grabbed the reins of his pinto. The boy had brushed him and saddled him too. “Let’s ride.”
Johnny noticed how the way darkened, and narrowed with the trees and overgrowth closing in around them as they made their way to the cabin. Feeling a heaviness wrap around him like a blanket of doom, he wondered if his instincts warned of danger or if all that had happened left him feeling this way. Still, sure as drawing four-of-a-kind, trouble lay ahead.
“What did I tell ya? Sturdy little cabin, not too far from town, purty well hidden too.” Bart spread an arm wide and dismounted.
“How’d you find this?” Johnny noticed the position of everything while he talked. The woods, the campfire, even the number of porch steps, every detail might be necessary.
“My uncle, his wife’s sister and her husband lived here till he died a few months back. Makes for a good hide-out.”
“So where is this ‘payment?’ I told you, if I don’t like the goods, I won’t take the job.”
“Oh, you’ll like the goods. Come on.”
Taking his time, getting off his horse, Johnny noticed only one other gun, besides Bart and his bum arm; he was dozing near the campfire. Chances were good that Clay was inside. So that left the cowboy in town to deal with. Easy for Madrid alone, not so simple while protecting a man’s wife. “I’m ready to do this thing.” Yeah, but not like you’re thinking, Dawson.
When the cabin door opened, Clayton Dawson jumped up from a bed in a dark corner. A woman whimpered and tossed on the rumpled bedding. Johnny could make out the words please and no, but the rest sounded garbled in sobs.
“Dammit, I told you to leave her alone! What the Hell is wrong with you, Clay?” Bart crossed the room, grabbed his brother by the arm, and pulled him around.
Clay started fumbling with his pants. “Turn loose of me!” He jerked his arm out of Bart’s hold.
Johnny knew this was his best chance. Catching one brother with his britches down, the other with a bum arm, and neither having a clue of the danger Madrid presented.
“Both of you step away from the lady.” The cabin turned quiet as soon as Johnny spoke.
“Mind if I pull my britches up?” Clay stooped a little and reached for his belt.
“I do mind. Let ’em drop to the floor.” Johnny made a downward motion with his Colt.
“Naw. I ain’t doing that.” Clay made the deadly mistake of grabbing his gun. A loud blast sounded, and instantly a dark hole appeared in the center of his forehead.
Bart flung himself toward a table, knocked it over, and hid behind it. When he started firing wildly, Johnny threw himself over Elliott’s wife. Her thrashing and screams turned his attention from Dawson’s shooting until a sharp burn hit his side.
“Damn! Tightening his hold, he whispered. “Mrs. Elliot, I ain’t gonna hurt you.” She still fought him as he sent another round toward Bart. Her body jumped every time a gun fired. “Ouch!” The poor woman scratched his face—must think he wanted to hurt her. After all, here he was on top of her in a bed. “I’m sorry. But I don’t want one of these bullets hitting you.”
Johnny fired a well-placed shot at the table and heard Bart grunt.
“Listen, Ma’am, I’m here to help you—take you to Tom.”
“Tom… Tom’s alive?” She stopped crying, didn’t move a muscle.
“He is. Now. We. Have. To. Stay. That. Way.” He fired more shots between words of assurance, and reloaded to keep Bart busy.
“Madrid. You can have the woman, let me take my brother’s body and go.” Bart must be hurt and out of bullets.
“Come out from behind that table. Call your man that’s outside.” Johnny couldn’t be sure, but he thought he heard a horse ride away when the gunfire started. Could be the cowboy was a coward.
“Hank’s just a kid—don’t even fire a gun. Most likely, he lit out to find his brother when he heard us shootin’.” Dawson peeked his head out the left side of the overturned table.
“Come on out. Slow.” Johnny stood, kept his wound turned away from Bart.
Johnny could read it in Dawson’s eyes, knew it before he raised his gun. They all had to try. Even this fool with his bad arm still believed he could surprise Johnny with a bullet while he talked of surrender. Bart’s gun was only half drawn when his chest turned scarlet.
Johnny’s arm went limp. He shook his head at the uselessness of all the death. Then he sat down hard on the bed. “Ma’am, let me help you.”
She didn’t respond.
“Ma’am.” Johnny didn’t want to scare her. “Are you hurt?”
As he came closer, she scooted backward on the bed.
“I promise not to hurt you. I won’t touch you unless you say I can.” Johnny held his hands out from his body. Standing as still as possible, he waited. She deserved that much after all she’d been through.
After what seemed like forever, Anna met his eyes. “Take me out of this bed. Please.”
“Can you put your arms around my neck?” Once she gave a half-nod, Johnny helped her sit. “Easy now.” Her face turned white. “Ma’am.” With his own head spinning from blood loss, and no food, and, well, this whole damn day. He sure hoped she wouldn’t pass out on him.
“Not Ma’am, call me Anna.” She mumbled. “Tom. Where’d you say Tom was?”
“Tom will be right along. In the meantime, how can I help you be comfortable? And Anna, call me Johnny.”
Johnny carried Anna to the porch and did his best to make her comfortable. After he grabbed his saddlebags and bedroll, he stuffed a makeshift bandage under his shirt, figuring the wound would be fine if the bleeding slowed.
It was cool in the shade of the porch where Johnny spread his bedding over the small feather mattress he found in the house. “Anna, you need to rest. Let me help you.” She allowed him move her to the soft bed he made.
“Johnny, water. I need to wash.” Her green eyes met his. Even with the light-colored hair matted and tangled, and dirt smudged on her face, it was easy to see some pretty shine through.
“Okay. The creek’s right over there. Johnny pointed over toward the left of the cabin. You think you can make it ’bout ten yards if I help?” He wrapped an arm around her waist to help her.
“Johnny, I, I…” Anna couldn’t walk.
Whatever they’d done, it had been brutal. Any remorse Johnny had for the deaths of the Dawson brothers left him.
“I’ll be right back.” As dizzy as he felt, Johnny committed himself to do this for Anna. Two buckets hung on the corner post of the porch. Taking both, he filled them with creek water, and returned to sit beside her with some soap and cloth from his saddlebags.
Taking a clean rag, Johnny wet it and began washing her face. Next, he wet a smaller piece and cleaned her hair the best he could, using his comb to remove the tangles. All the while, Anna leaned against him and never said a word.
“Anna. I’ll help you all you want. But I can go wash up myself a bit, give you some privacy to finish if that’s what you want.”
“Johnny, don’t leave me. C-could you turn around? Stay right here, or at least within talking distance?” She gripped his hand.
“Sure. How about this; you wash, I’ll sit at the edge of the porch with my back turned. Do you want me to tell you how Tom and I met, and you tell me when you finish?” Johnny was glad when she nodded because sitting helped with his head spinning.
The bandage was getting wetter. Johnny pressed on it while telling Anna how Tom had gotten the drop on him at the river. “You know, Anna, no one ever sneaks up on Johnny Madrid.”
“Wait, Y-you’re Johnny Madrid?”
“I don’t make a secret of it. Tom saw me in Nogales, then followed me out of town. Well, I’d just been in a gunfight. Your husband took advantage of that.” Johnny reckoned he was rambling a lot, but Anna needed to take her mind off of everything that happened.
“Johnny.” Anna sounded out of breath and frightened.
“Yes. I mean no. Johnny. Tom isn’t going to want me back. You can’t let him find me. Please, will you hide me, so he never finds me, never sees me again? Oh god.”
“Anna, slow down. Shh.” Johnny turned, wrapping her in the bedroll before he could see anything. Then turning her toward him, he whispered, “Tom loves you, and came for you knowing what those men could do.”
“No man would want me now. Would you?” Anna stared into his eyes, waiting for his answer. He tried to answer; the porch began to sway. “Oh, Johnny! You’re wounded! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I-it, it’s nothing.” He glanced down at his bloody shirt. Even Johnny had to admit there was a lot of blood.
“Sit down, let me help.” Anna touched the space beside her. “Oh, this water is dirty. She tried to rise and couldn’t.
“Whoa, where do you think you’re trying to go?” Johnny touched a hand to her shoulder.
“I need some clean water to take care of your wound. Johnny, you lost a lot of blood.”
“I’m fine. Give me a minute. I’ll fetch some water and wash it myself, that is if you are okay by yourself.” When she gave a slight nod, Johnny stood slowly and emptied the buckets; then he took them and a couple canteens to the creek.
He sure would be glad to see Tom. If he ever did lie down, Johnny feared he would pass out in a matter of seconds. The two missing cowboys didn’t present much danger as long as he could stay awake.
The simple work of filling the buckets and the canteens with water made his ears ring, and darkness almost took him down when he stood. Thirst was overwhelming. It must be blood loss, so he turned one of the canteens up to drink, then poured a little water on his head to clear it some. He refilled it and headed back to the porch. Somehow Johnny managed to get as far as the steps before everything started bucking, going dark.
Grabbing the support post kept him standing only long enough to slide down beside Anna.
“Jooohnnny! Please, please!” Anna’s voice came from far away.
The mess they were in came charging toward him like a mad bull. “I’m here. I’m awake.” Damn, his voice didn’t sound right. “Anna.” Reaching out and finding her arm, she stopped crying.
“Anna, do you know how to use this?” Johnny had his gun, holding it between them. When she nodded, he continued. “If I pass out, and trouble shows up, use it—has a hair trigger, and you can protect yourself if I can’t.”
“You can protect us. Let me help you.” Reaching to unbutton his shirt, Anna saw the blood-soaked bandage. “You should have told me. You’ve lost too much blood.” Peeling back the shirt revealed a deep graze. “You should see a doctor and have stitches.” She helped him ease out of the ruined shirt. “And you need another shirt.”
“Saddlebags, I have another shirt. Bandages are in there too. Some whiskey might help, in more ways than one.” Johnny grinned.
“Tom says alcohol is good for cuts and such—helps with pain too. She smiled a tiny bit—the first hint of a smile he’d seen. “How much whiskey do you have? We might need a lot.”
“Probably as much as we ought to drink.” Johnny looked around. What a mess of a day. Maybe Tom would show up soon.
“Is this everything we need?” Anna emptied Johnny’s saddlebags and found the supplies and whiskey they needed.
“Here, I can do this. You need to rest. I’m doing better now.” At least things had quit spinning since sitting down and drinking some water. “We got soap, a bag of medicinals…” Johnny held up a bit of folded cloth. “For bandages, looks small, but a strip or two from this ruined shirt to tie things off, this will do fine.”
“Anna.” She was crying again. Not out loud, but tears were streaming down her cheeks. “What can I do to help?” Johnny could remember his Mama crying. Sometimes for days and often after being with some man who’d hit her, or him. Seeing Anna like this made him understand his mother’s pain even more.
“I’m sorry, Johnny.” But she began to cry more.
“Hey, you’ve got nothing to be sorry about.” He squeezed her shoulder easy-like, not sure if she might shy away from any man touching her. “Anna, you’re safe with me. You may never trust a man again, and I don’t blame you. But please don’t be afraid of me.”
She looked at him, with her eyes running over. For a minute, he didn’t think she was going to say a word. But snuffling some, almost starting the crying backup, Anna searched the cleanest part of her dress and wiped her eyes and face.
“Johnny, I’m not afraid of you. Somehow, you’re like a younger brother to me. I hardly know you. But… ” Anna couldn’t continue but pulled toward him and sought comfort in his arms.
“Shh. Anna, the bad is behind you. I don’t understand what you been through. But I’ve been helpless before, and hurt bad. I guess that’s partly why I wear this.” He patted his gun.
Awful memories started boiling up, churning like a storm stirs mud in a clear stream. Hints of a black night too close to Anna’s for him to deal with and still help her. Mama’s tears weren’t always for herself. An image of her crying and bathing him after that attack, a time he swore to forget, surfaced.
“Anna, I…” Johnny buried his face in her hair, and his voice broke. He felt ashamed that some of his sorrow centered not on this broken woman but on the kid he’d been about a hundred years ago. Pull yourself together, Madrid. Leaning back, he took a minute and a deep breath.
“You and Tom have a future together. I saw in him the kind of man who’ll stay with you through the hurt.”
“Every time he touches me, he’ll think of what they did.”
“He’ll thank God he has you.” Johnny took hold of her arms, gently rubbing them. “Mourn this time together, like it was a death. Tell Tom all about it. Then grieve, but bury this horrible memory. Anna, you’re alive. And you gotta grab onto the life you planned to live if you hadn’t come across all this.”
“If Tom still wants me, I’ll try.” She popped a hand over her mouth when he moaned without thinking. “Oh, Johnny, you need this cleaned and a bandage. What am I thinking?” Anna started washing his wound, pulling back when he jumped. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Here, pour this over it.” Handing her the whiskey, he braced himself for what came next.
Nodding and grunting through gritted teeth when the burning liquid hit his wound. “Enough!” Damn, that was all he could take. The darkness was closing in again.
“Johnny? Johnny!” He heard the voice from far away and knew he had to fight his way back for her sake.
“I’m here. Give me a minute.” The darkness receded, and though the sweat ran down his face, he hoped with a bandage, some water, and a bite to eat, he’d be back on his feet.
A small hand placed a cloth on his side. It hurt, but the pressure improved the pain from the burning whiskey. “Here, take a drink.” Anna held the bottle to his lips.
Anna smiled, took a tiny sip, and brought it back to his mouth. “That wasn’t enough to wet your throat.” Turning the bottle up, he drank a good portion and handed it back. Throwing back a sizeable amount, she coughed a little, and her eyes watered a bit. “More like it.”
They managed to tie a decent bandage around him. After a bit, Anna drifted off, and he stood up to head inside the cabin. The dizziness caught him, making Johnny grab for the doorframe but it didn’t seem too bad.
They needed food, and he intended to drag the two bodies into the outhouse, figuring it would be a fitting resting place for the Dawsons after all the crap they’d stirred up and the pain dealt by their evil plots.
Bart had been right about not having much there to eat. Johnny found a can of beans and goods to make biscuits. He stuffed everything inside an empty meal sack he saw in an old cupboard that held everything from horseshoes to hair ribbons. Johnny tucked a blue one in his pocket. Some folded blankets smelled clean, like lavender, so he added a couple to the stack of goods to take to the porch.
Now, how to ‘bury’ the bodies. Johnny whistled out the backdoor. When his pinto showed up a moment later, he used some rope and horse-help to tie and drag the bodies to their final resting place.
When he returned to the porch, Anna still slept. Johnny put the blankets near the makeshift bed. Something pretty might push the ugly back a little. Or perhaps it would remind Anna that gifts and beauty still exist, that she was worthy of both. He placed the ribbon in her open hand.
“No, NO!” Anna tossed and turned on the small feather mattress. Johnny warmed some beans while his biscuit’s edges turned golden baking over a small campfire near the porch. Moments before he was ready to wake Anna up, she began crying out. He dropped the spoon and ran to her.
“Anna, it’s me, Johnny.” Her eyes opened, but she stared straight ahead and started fighting. “It’s Johnny. I won’t hurt you.”
She screamed, and Johnny took hold of her arms to help her, but hard hands grabbed him from behind and jerked him back. Then, someone drove their fist into his face, and a boot rammed his belly.
“You double-crossing son of a bitch!” Tom Elliott’s voice came to him from far away. Johnny didn’t even try to hit back as the blows kept coming. The killings, his past, what did it matter?
Barely aware of anything but fists pounding his body, Johnny thought two men pulled Tom off of him. But his brain couldn’t make them out because his world flooded with pain. He tried to talk; words wouldn’t come. Darkness wrapped around him.
Johnny opened one eye at a time, the left one didn’t feel right. Someone must have brought him in the cabin, as he seemed to be lying in the same bed where he’d found Anna. Familiar voices filled the small space, but his brain couldn’t place who. One thing, he didn’t hear Tom Elliott and right now, that suited him just fine.
“Johnny, you awake?”
His gun, someone had taken his Colt.
“It’s right here.” And the gun appeared. “We were afraid you might shoot us. You had a high fever.”
“Luke and Ray Stallings. Remember you saved our butts in that set-to at Peterman’s Station.” The kid placed a dipper of cold water to his lips. “How you feeling?”
Johnny snorted out a laugh. “Great,” he mumbled. “How you think?” A groan escaped during the process of sitting up. “How’d you two find me?”
“I was in the cantina when you talked with Tom. Figured we’s on the wrong side of things.” The boy looked at the floorboards, then at something behind Johnny’s head—seeming unable to meet his eyes as he talked. “Me and Ray been looking for a way to help the lady without gettin’ killed.”
Ray walked over. “Luke and me told Tom where to find you and the woman. Sorry it got you beat up. We got him off you as quick as we could.”
“Thanks for that. I reckon that evens us up some.”
Sometime later, Johnny opened his eyes again. This time, he gingerly slipped down off the bed. Damn, that hurts—have to move some. What the hell got into Tom?
“Need some help?” Luke was at his side with an arm of support around his sore ribs. “Uh, if you’re needin’ to go, I don’t recommend the outhouse. It, uh stinks to high heaven in there. Seems like it’s permanently occupied and I’m thinking that’s your fault.”
“There’s plenty that’s my fault.”
“So how bad were you hurt?” Scott’s silvery eyes bored into his.
The question brought Johnny back to the present. He had to hand it to his big brother; after hearing all that, his main concern was how bad HE got hurt.
“What Tom did? The scrape from Bart’s bullet? They healed in a week or so.” Johnny didn’t dare tell him of the month or more spent hiding while he got his body and his head straightened out. He didn’t tell a complete lie as the Stallings boys did leave about a week after he came to—once he could walk and care for himself.
Johnny looked out toward the mountains. It’s funny how everything appeared the same as it had before all this mess came up—it sure seemed different. “Nogales, all that happened there, it changed me. Never again did I pull this without cause.” Taking the Colt out, he held it toward Scott for a beat, then returned it to its holster and stood.
“Did you ever talk to Tom or Anna? Clear the air?” Scott sounded hopeful.
“They left, most likely went back to their ranch. Luke said Anna calmed Tom down some. By the time I had my feet under me, they were long gone.” Walking over to Barranca, he gained some comfort in rubbing the horse’s neck.
“Johnny.” Scott once again stood beside him.
“You need to ride back and do it now. Settle things once and for all.” Scott grabbed his neck and pulled Johnny toward him.
“I know.” Johnny kicked at the ground beneath his feet. It wasn’t easy to look at Scott when he asked about his father. “What about Murdoch? What you think he’ll say if this goes sideways?”
“He’ll worry. About you.” Scott rubbed him on the back. “Come on, brother. Let’s go face this ghost from your past… together.”
It was strange how long the ride back to the hacienda seemed. With Scott glancing over at him and his thoughts running faster than wild horses at Black Mesa. Time no longer made sense. What would he say to Tom—or to Anna? Hi, remember me? It’s Johnny Madrid in the flesh, thought I’d drop in to remind you of your worst nightmare. Or, Welcome to Lancer! You wanna go another round?
Johnny stopped as they went under the Lancer Arch. Lord, how tempting it was to ride off to a line shack, come back home in a week or two.
“Brother.” Scott turned, came back to where he waited.
And it was that word that made him click Barranca toward the barn. “I’m coming.” It reminded him that he had a family behind him, no matter how this thing went. “We have time to clean up a bit?”
“I’ll tell Jelly to send some hot water up to your room.” Teresa’s laid out some clothes. Go up the back steps. I’ll meet you up there in a few.”
Jelly grumbled, and Frank grinned as they carried hot steaming water to fill a large tub into his room. “Thanks!”
“Ain’t no reason a man gotta have this much suds in the middle of the week. You been hanging around your brother too long.” Jelly stomped out the door.
“Anything else you need, Johnny?” Frank put his hands in his back pockets and laughed at Jelly’s complaining.
“Unless you can talk Jelly into helping empty it in a bit.”
“Oh, that’s just Jelly for ya, grumble, grumble, but he’ll be up here with or without me, fussing all the way.” Frank headed toward the door. “Have a good evening, Johnny.”
“Yeah, and thanks again, Frank.”
It wasn’t one of those baths to enjoy, not where the warm water soaked his tired muscles and left him relaxed at the end of the day. No, this time, Johnny managed to soap-up and rinse-off in ten minutes. Dried and dressed, other than his damp hair, he was trying to fix the uneven ends of the string tie when his brother walked in.
“Here, let me do that.” Scott took the ends, pulled this way and that, and worked his magic.
But when he started messing with his hair, Johnny slapped his hand away. “I got it,” and went to the small mirror on the washstand. Since his hair kinda went this way and that, he poured some water in the basin, wet his hands, and rubbed them through the unruly parts before running his comb through. He checked the white shirt one more time, making sure it was clean. It was time.
“Ready?” Scott clapped a hand around his neck and squeezed. Then, together they walked down the steps.
Johnny heard the voices from years ago. Their familiar pitch opened him up, made him somehow unstable, a target for all takers. He thought all this was behind him. Being at Lancer made him stronger, happier. Could this ghost from his past take that from him?
When he stopped on the landing, Scott watched him but didn’t push to continue. Murdoch’s voice carried above the rest. “…some horses for the army… mostly cattle.”
Scott moved in front of him when they entered the great room. Murdoch came toward them. “Boys, about time you made an appearance. Tom, Anna, you met Scott earlier. This is my youngest son, Johnny.” With his father’s hand at his back, he came into Tom’s view first and then Anna’s.
“Johnny? Johnny Madrid?” Tom turned his back on him and grabbed the back of the blue chair nearest to him.
“Johnny!” Anna ran to him and placed her hands on his chest. “Oh, Johnny.” She hugged him. And he had no choice but to take her in his arms. Murdoch’s eyes met his over Anna’s head. Scott’s hand squeezed his shoulder.
Tom finally turned and came toward him. For a minute, he wondered if the man would try to pull his wife out of his arms. But there was something in Tom’s face, remorse, maybe?
“My God, kid. I thought you were dead. We stayed till I was sure I hadn’t killed you myself. But I had to find help. You know I did.” Tom looked toward Anna.
“I know.” Johnny smiled.
“The money! I owe you five thousand dollars! Luke gave me the cash off Bart’s body. Did he tell you ‘bout fishing it out of that outhouse? It was your money, but at the time…” Tom shook his head.
Johnny laughed. “Forget it.” He HAD forgotten all about the money.
“Now, you’re so rich now that the thought of five thousand dollars is nothing to you?” Tom teased him. “I’ll wire it to your account as soon as we return home.”
“I take it the three of you are already acquainted.” Murdoch stepped forward, brought Johnny a drink. And then under his breath only to him, “he owes you FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS!”
Johnny grinned at his father and shook his head a bit.
“We were partners for a short time in Nogales.” Johnny took the glass of Murdoch’s best whiskey. How could he tell this so as not to embarrass anyone? “I met Anna there too. There was some confusion back at the ranch. She’d gotten separated from Tom.” Trying to stay close to the truth and still protect Anna, he looked to them for agreement. Both were smiling. “Me and Tom being partners and all, I had to help her stay safe till he could get freed up.”
Tom interrupted. “Johnny invested five thousand dollars in my ranch during a crucial time, Murdoch. I would have lost everything if not for him.”
Anna turned from Johnny to her husband. “We both would have lost it all.” Tears filled her eyes when she glanced back at Johnny.
Anna came up to him and took his hand in hers. “Johnny, you saved me. You saved us. How can we ever thank you enough?”
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am for misunderstanding down at the cabin. Anna set me straight on everything that happened.” Tom looked at Johnny.
“Murdoch, I never repaid Johnny. First, he ended up hurt during a scuffle outside of Nogales—my fault.” Tom walked to Johnny. “Then, Anna fell sick, and I lost contact with him. We’ve tried to find him over the years, but rumors were that Johnny Madrid had been killed in Mexico.”
Johnny set his drink down. “It dawned on me later that Bart died with the cash. I didn’t even think about going back to search for it. Nogales held some bad memories for me.”
“Yeah, well, Nogales held bad memories for us too. But you can be sure of this, meeting Johnny Madrid wasn’t one of them.” Tom met Johnny’s eyes.
Johnny smiled for the first time since Scott came out to find him this afternoon. “I’ve always regretted Nogales. Maybe after tonight, I can find some peace in those regrets.”
Tom lifted his glass. “Me too, Johnny. Me too. Here’s to regretting Nogales.”
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