Word Count 4,043
Putting a horse down was never easy. Johnny Madrid hung his head and stared at the downed mare. The gun, still smoking, dangled from his hand. “Caballo, you gave your all. The ride that did you in almost finished me too.”
He gazed at the late-day shadows closing around him. The looming mountain range sucked the last ray of sun from the sky and seemed to release a belch of cold air. Rubbing his arms for warmth, he continued to talk to the dead horse. “I’m tired, sore as hell, and sure could use some feed.”
Reloading his gun, he slid it back in its holster. As empty as his belly was, he wanted water more. Food would have to wait. A full moon provided the light he needed to find a stream before his thirst worsened.
Hefting up his gear, he winced when the saddle bumped against his sore back. He should have headed to Texas or any other place to heal and rest until his head got straight. Three months in a Rurale prison had damn near ruined his health and his thinking. Now might not be the best time to introduce himself to his old man. Perhaps he shouldn’t meet him at all.
Johnny stumbled over and over under the weight of the saddle. The last time, when he fell to his knees, he didn’t try to stand. The pain in his back took him to the ground, and breathing was difficult because his ribs were either cracked or broken. Every part of him ached. But finding a more comfortable position wasn’t worth the energy. “I gotta find water.”
Not since he was ten had he felt this much like crying, but Johnny laughed instead. “Madrid, dammit, pull your legs up under you ’cause you ain’t crawling.” With that, he rolled up to his knees, swallowed hard with what moisture he had left, and made a stuttering stand.
Clouds partially covered the moon, making the night grow darker. The sounds of chirping and crooning of nightlife filled the air. Insects and frogs were everywhere… wait—frogs need water. Johnny stood still and cocked his head to listen. The croaking wasn’t far away. He could make it. Somewhere deep inside himself, he found the will to move toward the beautiful music of the water creatures.
A sip of water had never tasted so sweet. The lake was a decent size and full of wildlife. If Johnny had enough energy, he’d carve a gig and eat frog legs. Not now—he only wanted to close his eyes for a few minutes, and then he would find food. Damn, he couldn’t remember ever feeling this tired. His eyes drifted closed.
“Johnny, Johnny Madrid?”
Before Johnny found his bearings, he had the barrel of his gun in the face of whoever called his name. Where was he, and how had he let someone sneak up on him like this?
A blurry image floated near his feet, but Johnny’s concentration mainly focused on keeping the Colt steady. The man backed off with both hands up. He was saying something.
“Ain’t gonna hurt ya, Johnny. You all right? It’s me, Wes. ‘Member me?”
“Wes.” Lowering the pistol, Johnny gave in to his misery and let his body slump back to the ground.
“Man, what’s happened? You caught a bullet?” Wes squatted next to him and stretched his hand to Johnny’s hot forehead.
With a moan, Johnny knocked the hand away. “I ain’t been shot. Spent some time in a Mexican prison, and well, I’m played out.”
“Damn boy, yer hot as a stovetop.”
“I’ll be fine. All I need is some food ‘n rest.” Johnny rolled up and rubbed both hands down his face.
“Mexico. What you doin’ down there?” Wes sauntered over to his horse and got his rifle, bedroll, and gear. He dumped it all except the gun. Going down on a knee beside Johnny, he fished some hardtack and beef jerky out of his saddlebag and offered most of it to Johnny. “Ain’t much, but it should hold us ’till daylight. Then I can hunt for fresh meat.”
“Thanks.” If Wes only knew how hungry he was. It was all Johnny could do not to grab the offering out of the man’s hand and cram it into his mouth using fingers from both hands. Experience had taught him to eat slowly after going a while without food.
Wes gathered some kindling and a few small branches. “You ain’t expectin’ no trouble. Nothin’, we need to keep a cold camp for?” He held the match, ready to strike against his boot heel.
“Shouldn’t be problems this far north of the border.” Shifting his weight to his left side, relieving pressure on his back, Johnny shivered. He was cold, but thoughts of Rurales following and taking him back to Mexico sent chills down his back. He saw Wes eyeballing him over the flames of the fire.
“You need me to find you a doctor?” Wes opened a leather pouch, sniffed it, and then poured what Johnny hoped was coffee into a pot with some water.
“I’ll be fine. I need some rest, and if you’re willing, I’ll share a camp with you, and the food, I ‘preciate it.”
“Happy to share, Johnny. If you’ll tell me where you’re hurt, I can do some doctoring on you.”
The grin Wes offered up along with the cup of coffee was welcome. He reminded Johnny of an old hound dog—lazy but loyal. The only thing the man liked to do was hunt, and Wes was as good with a rifle as any sharpshooter. Guess when it came down to it, the man was as fine a friend as he’d ever had, and yeah, he trusted him to guard his back. “Wes, I owe you. If I can ever help you, just say the word.”
“You got ‘er.” With that, Wes made his way to where Johnny left his saddle and returned to adjust it carefully against a log. Then he laid out his gear and bedrolls for both of them. Too tired to protest, Johnny let his friend help him onto the blankets and immediately drifted off to sleep.
Later, Wes’s hand closed over Johnny’s fingers when he grabbed for his pistol. “Johnny, it’s me, Wes” Then he spread the remaining blanket over Johnny. The last thing he remembered was seeing Wes lean back against his saddle with his rifle in hand, keeping guard over their camp. He was right to trust him.
“Johnny, slide over here in this overgrowth. No one can see you here.” Wes was tugging at him, and he felt like a horse had trampled him. Where the hell were they? His head was too muddled to figure.
“Wes? Who shot me, what happened?”
Ignoring his questions, Wes grabbed him under the arms and pulled him beneath a low-limbed tree. There he hid him with branches and leaves. “You ain’t shot. Mexican prison, remember. You need food. Drink this.” With that, Wes picked up a cup and helped him drink some awful tasting mess.
“What is this stuff?”
“Herbs for yer fever an’ it’ll help some with what’s hurtin’ too. Going huntin’. You’ll be safe here. There’s coffee, more hardtack and jerky. I’ll be back soon. Stay quiet and rest.” With that, he set down a coffee pot, a few supplies, and disappeared into the shadows of the woods.
Johnny leaned up on an elbow and took a look around. A fortress of greenery surrounded him. His friend had thought of everything he might need; water, food, even his gun lay at his fingertips. How would he ever repay him?
The coffee and hardtack would have to do to settle his hurting belly. A couple of bites and the queasy feeling returned. Whether the Rurales had poisoned him with lousy water or doing without food so long, he couldn’t say, but something had his stomach messed up. After some rest, surely he would work through some of this.
Startled awake, a grimy hand covered his mouth. Then Wes’s face came into view with a finger over his lips. Johnny nodded; he understood to be quiet. Slowly, he turned his head to peek through the leaves. It was Rurales. They were dressed in plainclothes, but he’d recognize their evil faces anywhere.
Wes tapped him on the shoulder, pointed at himself, and then toward the men. Once again, he placed a finger to his lips as he backed out of the hiding spot. The man didn’t make a sound. No wonder he was such a good hunter.
Johnny’s heart pounded as he watched his friend approach the Mexican devils who’d beaten and whipped him day after day. Wes casually pointed his rifle at the men. “Somethin’ I can do for you gents?” When one grabbed for a pistol, Wes cocked his weapon and grinned. “Now fellers, ya might wanna keep this friendly. I asked right nice-like if I might do somethin’ for you.”
The men cut their eyes at each other. The taller of the two put his hands out and away from his pistols. When he nodded toward his partner, the shorter man slowly moved his arms up in the air. “Senor, we track a bad hombre, an outlaw. We find the horse he stole, dead, back on the trail. He is a mucho dangerous man.”
“Well now, ‘less you’re particular ’bout who stops this here hombre, I reckon your troubles are over. He tried to steal my horse last evening. I had to shoot him, or he’d o’ got clean away with my buddy there.” Wes nodded at the buckskin grazing in the thick grass near the lake.
“The body, you buried it?” The taller of the two men again spoke. He licked his lips as if enjoying the idea of digging up Johnny’s body.
“Naw. Too much work. An see, I didn’t want no trouble with the law, since it was a back shootin’. But you fellers understand, him being a horse thief and all.” Wes downed his head but kept his eyes on the men. “I tied him to a rock. Me and the horse swum him out to the middle of the lake and let him go. Ya’ll welcome to swim around and look for the body.” Wes threw his arm out toward the center of the body of water.
“Senor, you have this man’s belongings?” This time both men stepped toward Wes in a threatening way.
Johnny remained quiet, but his hand went to his Colt.
“What if I do got his stuff? It ended up on American soil and is staying that way, but you’re on this side of the border too. And the time for you to hightail it back to Mexico is now—unless you want to make this your forever home too.” Wes looked toward the lake. “Now, either swim with the fishes along with that horse thief, or leave.” Wes stood ready to shoot and had the rifle aimed directly at the tallest of the two men.
They seemed to hear the message and backed toward their horses. Neither of them took their eyes off of Wes as they mounted up. The men moved slow and cautiously out of camp until they were out of range of the long gun. Then the two couldn’t make tracks for the Rio Grande fast enough.
“Johnny, you all right?” Wes was pulling him upright.
“Dammit, Wes, I’ve got no right to mix you up in this.” Johnny grunted, trying to make himself comfortable against a tree. “And so you know, I ain’t no horse thief. I ‘borrowed’ that animal as a matter of life and death.”
Wes didn’t act as though he cared one way or another if Johnny took the horse. “Whooee. I thought I was gonna have to take them boys swimming.” Wes was looking closely at Johnny. “Listen, that fever ain’t gettin’ no better. You sure you don’t need some kind of doctorin‘?”
Johnny shook his head. “Need to rest some is all.”
“Need some food too. I never seen you so thin. I got a rabbit. Give me an hour, and I’ll have you a feast.”
His back was on fire, so they must have beaten and chained him again. Johnny’s mind was so fuzzy that he couldn’t remember. Food, that’s what it was, the guards eating in front of him—chained and starving. They set it out right next to him, something that would fill his empty belly so close. The sight of it made his gut tighten, and saliva filled his mouth. When the guard ran the plate under his nose, he tried to grab for his neck.
“Whoa, Johnny, it’s me. Hey, buddy. Are you with me?”
Wes’s words were coming through the fog that must have been a dream, but the reality of that prison still had him in its grip. “Wes, dammit, I’m sorry.” Johnny’s head rolled against the tree. “Ah god, I musta been dreaming. Did I hurt you?”
“Didn’t hurt me a bit. I was bringing you some chow.” Wes picked the tin plate up that he had dropped to the ground. “Eat this. See if you don’t feel better. I got coffee. Be right back.” Leaving the plate next to Johnny, he returned with coffee and more meat.
“Thanks.” Johnny looked closely at Wes and he acted the same as before, no change at all. The man was digging into his meal like he hadn’t a worry in the world. “Man, I’m sorry.”
Johnny thought for a minute. There was so much to be sorry for—maybe his whole damn life. He wrapped his arms around his sore body. “Hell, for everything.”
Wes laughed. “I’m mighty glad someone finely ‘pologized for ever’thing. Makes me feel a might better.” He laughed some more.
Johnny laughed too, so much that tears leaked out of his eyes, and then he wasn’t sure if he was laughing or crying. He hoped to goodness that Wes took it for laughter. The man had the decency to go make more coffee. It helped to have a few minutes alone. Stone cold Johnny Madrid, as emotional as a kid. Had the Rurales finally broken him?
He needed to eat. He picked up the plate. The first bite of rabbit was like the finest steak in San Francisco. “Damn fine meal, Wes.” Along with the rabbit, Wes had roasted wild onions and small potatoes in some kind of seasoning. “You always cook like this?”
“Nah, once a week or so. I like a tasty meal when I can hunt, and if I have a chance to buy some supplies. How about you, do you cook?”
“Some. A man learns to if he wants to eat decent food.” Johnny was glad to find his belly settled. “You cooked; I’ll clean up.” He started a wavering stand. The trees spun around him. Pressing his hand against the tree to steady himself, Johnny blinked his eyes to clear up the darkness that was closing in around him. It wasn’t working, and neither was his effort to stiffen his rubbery legs.
“Whoa, there.” Wes had him by the elbow, helping him to ease back down to the ground. “Better leave that clean-up to old Wes.” After Johnny was comfortable, the clean-up took no time at all.
“I hate this, not pulling my weight.” Johnny made a face as he sipped the concoction Wes had brought him to drink. “What’s in this?”
“I don’t have a clue.” Wes laughed behind his forearm.
“What do you mean?!” Johnny held the cup out from him as if it was full of skunk oil. “What the hell you givin’ it to me for?”
“‘Cause this’ll help you. My granny gives me healing herbs, some to cook with too. Anyway, Granny’s part Indian, Mojave—lived with her tribe till she married my Pawpaw. I promise it will make you better.” He pushed the cup back toward Johnny’s mouth. “Drink it.”
Johnny took another sip, grimaced, and shook his head. “You best be right. If I’m not feeling better tomorrow, you can drink the rest of this stuff.”
But he was, knew as soon as he opened his eyes, something was different. For one thing, his belly didn’t hurt, and the horrible hunger that had plagued him for more than two months was gone. His back still hurt but not as bad and, the feverish haze that sent pains behind his eyes and chills through his body seemed to have vanished.
Johnny stood up. No dizziness, so he made a trip to the bushes and walked to the lake to wash up a bit. A fire was burning. Wes must be hunting again. The sound of a gunshot close by told him that food was on its way. But to be safe, he slipped the loop off the trigger of his gun.
“Johnny!” Wes came out of the trees with a small doe draped over his shoulders. “We’re gonna eat high tonight, venison steaks. We’ll make some jerky too.”
The man sure was happy when he was hunting, never came back empty-handed either. “Hand that over; I’ll skin it out. I’ve been useless long enough.”
“I’ll skin it, and cut some steaks, you cut some pieces for jerky.” Wes dropped the deer down on the ground and started working on it. When he finished, he made a drying rack next to the fire.
“Where you headed from here?” Johnny’s sharp knife slid through the meat quickly. He placed the strips across a sturdy stick Wes had given him.
“Headin’ back to Arizona. I moved Mom and my brother to a little ranch north of Tucson. I check on ’em, take a few dollars to help out here and there.” He wiped his knife on his britches and stood up to stretch. “What about you, where you going?”
“Morro Coyo. I was hoping you’d let me ride up that way with you.” It was hard to ask. Johnny stared out at the lake. It still hurt that he’d run that horse so hard; it was him or the horse, but this whole mess was tearing him up inside.
“Weell, I can take you near there. But the word I hear is that Coley Quinn and a bunch of roughnecks is tearing up the place.” Wes placed his hands on his hips. “Me and Coley have some bad blood between us. I’d as soon stay out of his gun sights.”
“Yeah? Can’t say I want to go looking for trouble myself.” This little visit got more complicated by the minute. “Feller owns a ranch up there—owes me some money and I aim to collect.” It might be Coley and his gang was tearing up more than the town. Reckon that was why the Pinkerton hunted him down. It would take more than a thousand dollars if his old man wanted his gun. Wes’s voice brought his attention back.
“Shouldn’t be but twenty or thirty miles from here to the road that the stage runs.” He checked the surrounding area. “We can build a travois and haul your gear and mine—take turns riding.”
“That’s a lot of trouble for you. Why are you doing this for me?”
“You’re the only friend I got, Johnny. You’d do the same for me. Hell, you saved my life down in Waco.”
Johnny shook his head, plucked a piece of long grass, and started chewing on it. “Why don’t you get out of the game—settle on that little ranch with your family?”
“Too much work! Hell, Johnny, I’d go crazy tied to one place—working from daylight till dark. Nah, I like my freedom. Riding from place to place not knowing what I’ll see next. I’ll leave the ranching to my little brother. You and me, we’re made for adventure.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Johnny got up, hooked his thumbs in the back of his belt, and kicked at the roots of the tall tree he’d been sitting beneath. He blew out some air before continuing. “Can’t help wondering if four walls and a steady diet might be nice.”
“You’re John Madrid! You can name your price for a job. Why would you want to settle down?”
“Being Madrid gets old sometimes.”
“You’re just tired. That Mexican prison got your mind twisted up.”
Johnny laughed. “My mind’s always been twisted up. How ’bout those steaks. You cooking, or am I?”
Wes rummaged through his saddlebags until he found some herbs and a frying pan. “I’ll start the meat if you’ll heat water for coffee.” Johnny headed to the lake for water.
Wes had the frying pan cooking over hot coals he’d placed inside a circle of rocks. The jerky strips were off to the side drying. Johnny saw more coals readied for the coffee pot. His mouth watered, thinking about the steaks sizzling over the fire. They smelled delicious. He fixed the coffee and set it on the coals.
“Here, I’ll eat out of the pan.” Wes passed him a tin plate. He also handed him a cup of coffee and poured a small measure of whiskey into it. “I got more if ya want it.”
“I’ll be fat if I hang with you very long.” Johnny laughed. The steak was cooked exactly right. The whiskey made the coffee strong and sweet, and it was what he needed to take the edge off his nerves. “You’re a fine man, Wes.”
“Here’s to Johnny Madrid.” Wes raised his cup. He hadn’t noticed when Johnny didn’t lift his cup in return.
Instead, Johnny merely stared out at the lake and sipped the brew that had suddenly turned bitter. Yeah, he thought, here’s to Johnny Madrid. Perhaps the best thing for Madrid would be to tie him to a rock and send him to the bottom of the lake like Wes told those Rurales.
“Johnny, you with me?”
“I was thinking how I wish I could send the name of Madrid to the bottom of that lake.” Johnny shook his head.
“If that’s what you want, I’ll tell…”
Johnny cut him off. “No, Wes. Someone, somewhere would recognize me. Forget I said anything. Give me another shot of that whiskey.” Johnny held out his cup, and Wes grinned as he held the bottle over the cup and poured a generous amount into Johnny’s coffee.
Wes knew a hundred ways to fix venison, and they must have eaten it at least half of those ways. Both men were ready for something else besides wild meat and campfires.
They built the travois and talked about old times, good ones and bad. When Wes drunk the last of the whiskey, he started getting itchy to move on. Johnny wanted to leave too. He needed to put his long-overdue meeting with his father behind him.
Wes nodded at the embankment. “The road to Morro Coyo is right up there. Ought to be a stage or wagon by soon.” He looked back toward his horse. “I’m taking off to Green River; find me a purty girl and some fine whiskey.” Grinning, he tipped his hat to Johnny.
“You watch your back. I’ll send a telegraph to Tucson, let you know where I land.” Words were hard to come by to thank this friend. “Man, I owe you.”
“Don’t owe me nothin’, Johnny. I’ll look you up after I see my mama. First, I need to have me a little fun.” Then Wes mounted and waved. He was gone.
Johnny wondered if he’d ever see him again. The life they lived held no guarantees. A sadness weighed on him, but he shook it off as he had so many times in the past.
All he had was the saddle, gun, and a few personal items in his saddlebags. By best estimate, he was eight to ten miles from Morro Coyo. Hefting up his gear, he headed up toward the road. The sound of horses pulling a stage hurried his effort to climb the embankment to the road to Morro Coyo.
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