Word Count 10,747
I wrote this story to respond to a Lancer Writers 2021 challenge—picturing a Lancer character in a movie scene or situation that we might have seen. Each time I’ve watched Open Range, I imagine Johnny as Charley Waite.
If Johnny hadn’t come to Lancer, he might have done like Charley, taken up cattle herding with someone like Boss Spearman (I love Robert Duval), and I picture him as my Ace Beecham. But of course, Johnny is little more than a kid in my story where Charley was older. This story takes different turns than the one that inspired it, but I’m sure you might recognize a few similarities. Thank you for reading The Trail to El Pueblo.
Thank you, Chris Petrone, for the Beta
Rain blew sideways, cold and sharp as needles; it pelted the side of his face, along with every piece of skin left exposed. Johnny wondered again why he’d agreed to help Ace Beecham move a herd of unruly beasts through this rough and dangerous trail north.
Well, he knew why. Punching cows got him out of the game and away from living by his gun. Killing and being called out by fools who thought they could outdraw some bigger-than-life dime novel legend called Johnny Madrid tore chunks out of his heart. So, here he was, cold and wet, moving dumb animals from the Rio Grande up to Fort El Pueblo.
He’d first signed on the trail drive in El Paso, only planning to ride to Fort Sumner. But there he’d met Ace, a determined trail boss, standing in the middle of the stockyard telling everyone what to do and where to do it. The wiry man understood everything about herding cattle, and he haggled a bonus the size of the Rio Grande to move the beeves on up to Fort El Pueblo.
Right after the man finagled that jaw-dropping wage, he approached Johnny. Ace still had a grin on his face and the glint of pride in his eye. “Son, I’m a few drovers short. Pegram says you’re one of his best men. I’m paying top dollar if you’ll stay with the herd to Pueblo.”
“I ain’t your son.”
“Whoa there.” Ace put both hands up. “Didn’t mean nothing by it, son… I mean..”
“Name’s Johnny. Just Johnny.”
“Well, Johnny, ‘Just Johnny,’ and that name’s fine by me.” And the man wagged his head a bit, “I’m Ace Beecham and I’m still offering you a job––top-pay if you’re of a mind to accept it.”
There was something about the fellow that Johnny liked. “Yeah, saw you haggle that prize of a bonus. I reckon I’d come along for top-pay and a cut of that bonus.” Johnny threw him a grin, and when Ace laughed and started nodding, he reckoned he’d stay with the drive––for a sizable stack of cash.
Being a ‘few men short’ didn’t even begin to describe Ace Beecham’s rag-tag group. Since Comanches attacked the last move north, the promise of an additional bonus from the Army and a military escort through Indian country had done nothing to add numbers to the crew.
And ‘crew’ was a charitable description of Ace, Cookie who tended the chow wagon, Bear whose name said it all, Nate being a snot-nosed kid who might be thirteen, and finally the shaggy one––Dog. After one day on the trail, Johnny decided Dog knew more about herding cows than any of them or the cowhands Ace tried unsuccessfully to hire back in Fort Sumner.
So now Ace and his four drovers, plus Dog, were wet and dead tired. But, all day, they’d pushed ahead through the worst weather Johnny could remember.
Ace was hoping to meet the Army detail in four to five days. That was if they didn’t have to bed the herd down because of the rain. Stopping a day or two might be best. Let the escort come to them.
As far as knowing who he was, not even Ace had a clue, and Johnny aimed to keep it that way. Colorado was far enough north of the border towns; meeting someone who recognized Madrid wasn’t likely. And no one questioned him in the towns when he said, ‘Just Johnny’––not when he stared hard at the man askin’ while tapping his fingers on the Colt, strapped on his hip. His actions spoke danger clear as the reputation did down south.
“Damn this rain.” His belly growled for evening chow; he sure could use something hot. Ducking under the four-pole tent Nate and Ace put up to cover their bedrolls and gear, he shook some water off his hat, brushed off the oil slick, and wondered why wear it when streams of water still ran down his back.
He stashed his tack and saddlebags, then squinted through the downpour. Johnny could barely make out the chuck wagon. It wasn’t forty feet away, but in this rain, a fellow could miss it altogether if he didn’t remember where the old Conestoga was parked.
He prayed Cookie had kept some kindling dry for a fire and had some hot coffee made. Only one way to find out. Johnny put his head down, ran through the rain toward the wagon, and smacked hard into Bear Mason, all six and a half feet, two-hundred and eighty pounds of him. Damn, that hurt. He could remember fistfights that hadn’t jarred him as hard.
“Whoa, Mister Johnny. You all right?” Talking to Bear made Johnny think of conversing with an over-grown boy. But he had the strength of five men, and Johnny kept his feet only because Bear held onto him.
Ace moved in to check the damage. “Johnny, boy, that human wall you bounced off of, did it knock you for loop?” Ace’s mouth was twitching, but he grabbed onto Johnny’s arm to keep him steady. Still, it was easy to tell the man wanted to laugh.
“Go ahead, have your fun. I’ll laugh next time one of those dumb cows step on you.” Johnny managed a grin and brushed off the hold Ace had on him. “Cookie, you got any coffee?” His ears were ringing but damned if the rest of them would ever know it.
“No coffee. Got plenty of water.” Cookie tapped one of the rainwater barrels with his fist. “Wood was too wet to get more than smoke going.”
“Well, hell.” Johnny passed his canteen over for refilling. “Where’s Nate?”
“Took Dog and went out to check the herd. Reckon he’ll be back, wet, cold, and hungry right soon.”
“I’m wet, cold, and hungry, whatcha got for me?” Johnny walked over to Cookie.
“Beef jerky, hardtack, and water is all I can fix ya’ll in this weather.” Bear’s pout, Ace’s raised brow, not to mention the look Johnny threw his way, sent Cookie back a step, then he added, “Might rustle up something else.” And he hurriedly climbed into the wagon and, after a few minutes, reappeared with a large can of peaches. His grin made his missing tooth right noticeable. Holding the container high like a prize, he hollered, “Whoohoo!” When he lifted his hat with his other hand, he showed off a shiny bald head.
Now Cookie was one of those fellers who came across completely different when his hat was off. And well, no one would call it an improvement. The man needed the hat.
“Put that hat back on! You don’t look right with it off!” Bear’s reaction brought a laugh from Ace and Johnny, but Cookie without a hat spooked the boy.
“He’s right, you know. You need to keep that ugly mug covered up.” Ace grabbed the hat and playfully hit Cookie over the back with it, then dropped it back down on his head.
“Bet you wish you was handsome like Johnny.” Bear was dead serious. “The women, their eyes always follow him when we go into town.”
Johnny ducked his head. “What are you talking about?”
“I see ’em, Johnny. I hear them too––saying how handsome you are, dark and dangerous is what Ruth Ann said. Angie told her you had the bluest eyes she’d ever seen.”
“Bear, you ought not be listening to what saloon girls say about men.” Johnny rolled his eyes at Bear’s discussion of looks and women. “Ace here is the one to worry about. I’ve seen him whispering and sweet-talking in the corner of every saloon since Sumner. They all have dreamy eyes for him.” Johnny wiggled his fingers over Bear’s eyes.
Ace grinned and guffawed. “It ain’t always looks that will win the heart of a woman.” Pulling and twisting on the ends of his mustache, anyone would notice his hesitating in talking about the fairer sex, but he finally rubbed the back of his neck and finished his speech. “Sweet words, kind deeds, and a true heart is what touches women.”
All three men nodded at the wisdom Ace Beecham showered onto them––he’d poured it out like raindrops, only his words were welcome––the drenching from heaven, not as much.
The rain, welcome or not, continued throughout the day and into the night. And the next day, with supplies running low, Ace sent Bear to Cranestown for staples.
Finally, the rain slowed, and the sun glowed some. Shined would be too strong a word to describe the yellow ball that hung overhead, but the weather improved enough that Johnny got a cup of coffee two mornings in a row. The second morning, he stared in the direction that Bear had gone while he sipped his steaming mug. Dog came up to him and whined. “Me too, Dog. He ought to be back by now.”
“You understand what that animal said?” Ace moved up next to Johnny and used his cup to point at the shaggy white cow dog.
“Yep.” Johnny took a bite of cold biscuit and another sip of coffee. “He said Bear oughta be back to camp by now.”
“Well, he’d be right.” Swirling the last of his coffee, Ace took the sip and threw out the grounds. “I expect we best go check on him. You reckon Nate and Cookie could handle the herd for a day?”
“With Dog to help, I expect so.” Then, Johnny headed to saddle the horses, and Ace went to talk to Cookie. It had been like that with the two of them from the beginning; they could communicate without speaking. Each of them knowing what the other needed to do.
The ride to Cranestown took about two hours. Neither man said a word ‘till the road widened and the town came into sight. Johnny pulled up first. Ace slowed and rode up beside him. For a minute, no one spoke; they both studied the town up ahead.
“You think we’re in for trouble?” Ace didn’t take his eyes off the rooftops of the small town.
“Feels that way.” Johnny took a breath and checked the bullets in his gun and belt.
Ace studied him for a beat and did the same, and when he was satisfied, nodded toward the town. They walked the horses slow and headed into Cranestown.
The livery was right past some houses on the north edge of town, where they entered. Ace glanced toward Johnny and motioned toward the oversized barn.
A short gray-bearded fellow limped out and leaned on a pitchfork. He looked both Ace and Johnny up and down. “You fellers looking to board yer horses?”
Ace leaned into the shade enough to check inside the barn as he handed off his reins. “Only until we find a fellow. I’m Ace Beecham, and this here’s my drover, Johnny.”
“Well, now, I’m Jeeter Jakes. I’d be acquainted with most everyone coming and going. And I reckon I’m familiar with ’bout all the folks what lives here.”
Johnny stepped down and handed his horse off as well. “You’d remember the boy we’re wanting, big fellow, so high.” Putting his hand up almost a foot higher than his head, Johnny continued, “He’s dark-headed and…” Then, glancing inside of the barn, he moved toward some gear. “His saddle is right over there!”
Ace and Johnny both stared at Jakes for an explanation. “I know him. The boy you’re looking for is in jail––got in a scuffle over at the general store. Sheriff broke it up, dang near broke the kid’s head. Or that’s the way I heard it.”
Johnny unstrapped the safety loop from his gun and started toward the street. Ace caught up with him and placed a hand on his arm. “Son, we need to go slow, keep cool heads till we find out what we’re dealing with.”
“I know what we’re dealing with.”
“That may be, but going off half-cocked will only put me and you in the same place as Bear.” Ace matched Johnny’s stride.
Johnny took about five more steps before he cooled off enough to make sense of what Ace was saying.
“Let’s go find Bear. Then we’ll make a plan.” Ace patted him on the back, and they headed together to find the sheriff’s office.
They opened the door to a dingy office and found the sheriff sitting on the corner of a desk while a man decked out in a back-east black suit leaned back in a leather chair behind the same large wooden desk. He wore some scruffy whiskers; the fancy clothes were a little rumpled, but it was plain to see he thought himself better than the commoners around him.
“Sheriff, I believe you might have one of my drovers locked in your jail. I’d like to pay his fine and we’ll be on our way.” Ace said it politely, on his best behavior. Johnny could tell he meant for them to go out of this town as peacefully as possible.
“Well now, I do believe it will be more than one fine you’ll be paying. If I recall, we have four or five and at, oh let’s say, fifty dollars per incident. How about two hundred, fifty. Nice round number, don’t you think?” The sheriff wagged his head, cocky, pleased with himself.
Ace didn’t react, pulled some bills from his pocket, counted out the cash, and placed it on the desk. “Now, if you’ll let us have Bear, we’ll ride out of your little town.”
“Hold on.” The man in the suit almost yelled the command.
Johnny had already turned his back on the sheriff and the ‘suit.’ He stood as still as stone when the man spoke––didn’t turn around or act like the man was important enough to face when he asked in a soft voice, “Who are you, and what business is this of yours?”
“I make it my business boy, when men run cattle and use up grass and water that my livestock need. Let me tell you about the misfortunes of the last crew that tried it; seems someone shot three of those cowpokes, dead––right out of the saddle.”
“Shot ’em in the back, did they?” Johnny turned and gave the man his best Madrid stare.
“I don’t know who you think you are, but I’m Col. Jackson Crane. I own this town, and no one, NO ONE comes through this valley unless I say so. You don’t graze cows here, and you don’t water cows here. Now take your man and ride out of here today!”
The sheriff grinned and swaggered back to the jail. He laughed when he unlocked the cell and pointed with the keys, “There’s your man.”
Bear sat on a cot, leaned back against the wall. Someone had beaten his face black and blue. The swelling around his eyes kept him from seeing Ace or Johnny. He sucked air into his open mouth with hard, labored breaths. When Ace laid his hand on his shoulder, the boy flinched. “It’s us, Bear. Ace, and Johnny. We’re going to take you out of here.”
“Ace, Johnny, Oh, God.” Bear had his hands out, feeling for either of his friends.
“It will be right, Bear; we’ll find you some help. Lean on us and we’ll leave this place. Come on now.” Johnny and Ace got him up and eased him out of the cell. Neither spoke to the laughing Crane and his sheriff. The important thing was to take Bear out of town and back to camp, alive.
“Bear, you with us?” Ace stumbled under the weight. “Gosh, a mighty he’s heavy.” They still had a way to go to reach the livery. “Crane’s hired men did a number on the boy.”
“I’d say the sheriff may have added to the damage.” Johnny shifted Bear’s weight and pulled his arm tighter over his shoulder.
“Whoa. I gotta stop a minute.” Ace panted, and the pitiful three stopped in the middle of the muddy street.
Bear moaned and mumbled something that neither of them could make out.
“Bear ain’t no fighter, they did this to send a message.” Johnny patted Bear’s back and stopped walking again, forcing Ace to pause too. “He needs some doctoring before we go back to camp. And that should give you and me time to come up with a plan for message sending of our own.”
“You got something in mind?” Ace tilted his head and squinted at Johnny. “You handle trouble like this before?”
“You’re awful young to be dealin’ with problems such as this.”
“Maybe.” Johnny studied the ground for a beat. And he decided to lay his cards on the table. “Ace, I know how this game is played, and I’m the best at it.”
Ace studied him for a minute. “I expect you are.” Then he repositioned Bear’s arm around his shoulders. Both men started moving toward the livery with their heavy, half-conscious load.
Jeeter stood behind the half-open barn door. “Here you go, saddled, fed, and watered.” But when he saw Bear, he stopped walking toward them. “Oh my. They shouldn’t a done such as that.” Then he shook his head. “Lordy, Lordy, what’s this town coming to? Ya’ll need to be out of here. You’ll be next. Mount your horses and ride.” The man sounded desperate to have them out of Cranestown.
“We’re taking Bear to a doctor. You got one in this hell hole of a town?” Johnny’s anger came out in his words and his voice. The old man had done nothing but helped them. “Sorry, not your fault what Crane’s done, but know this.” And Johnny pointed his finger toward the sheriff’s office. “He’ll not do it much longer.”
“Yeah, yeah, son, we got a first-rate doctor––last house on the left, as you head outa town––picket fence. You two watch your backs, you hear?” Jeeter hung and shook his head.
Johnny thought if worry could walk, Jeeter was what it would look like.
They had their hands full, getting Bear on his horse. “Hold him while I mount up, Johnny. Then I’ll steady him till you’re ready.”
“Bear, now don’t you fall off this horse.” Johnny wrapped his fingers around the back of the kid’s belt to steady him until Ace mounted. All the while, Bear groaned and tried to follow their commands.
“I got him, Johnny. You on?”
Once Johnny was on his horse, they headed to the doctor’s house. And as Jeeter had suggested, Johnny glanced behind him to check the rooftops for shooters. No sense getting back shot when he had gotten fair warning.
Sure enough, the last house had a picket fence and a small sign that read DOCTOR RANDALL. Ace got down and pounded on the door until a young man answered.
“You the doc?” Ace didn’t have much patience left, and neither did Johnny.
Bear was only half-conscious. Johnny’s arm ached with the strain of keeping the large man on his horse. Holding him in the saddle wasn’t easy. Holding onto his temper was harder.
“I’m Doctor Charles Randall. How can I help?” The man was young––late twenties, early thirties. He glanced toward Johnny, his eyes roved toward Bear, and stopped. “Oh my, is it the boy from the general store?” The doctor quickly walked to Bear’s side, with Ace following. “Let’s help him down.”
Once Ace had him steadied, Johnny dismounted and helped the men half carry, half drag Bear into the doctor’s house. They placed him on a cot in a small side room.
“I’ll check him over. You men sit out there.” Randall pointed to a small room next to where they’d put Bear. “I’ll see you shortly.”
Ace eased down in a ladder-back chair and fidgeted with his hat. Johnny paced a while and then went over and stood directly in front of him. “Crane will make his move tonight. Ace, we need to leave so we can move first. This is the only way.”
“What about Bear?” Ace nodded his head toward the room.
“If the Doc ain’t afraid, he needs to stay here, or if he’s able, he can ride with us. Whichever, we need to be going soon.” Johnny went to the door of the room where they had taken Bear and knocked.
Randall came out, wiping his hands on a cloth. “I was coming out to talk with you.”
“How is he, Doc?” Ace peered over the doctor’s shoulder into the room where Bear lay.
“He’ll live, barely. He’s badly concussed, has a broken nose, and broken ribs; I suspect some are cracked as well, contusions––that’s bruising––all over his body from the beating. He could have some internal bleeding, though I think any danger from that is past. I prefer that you leave him here for a few days as riding, or a fall from a horse or jostling in a wagon will further exacerbate his injuries.”
“We’d like to leave him here, Doc. That is unless you might have trouble from Crane over keeping the boy.” Ace propped a hand on the door frame and eyed Randall for his reaction.
“I’m not concerned with Crane. I place my patient’s needs first. He’ll also want to keep the only doctor in a hundred miles healthy.” Randall smiled.
Ace dug in his pocket, pulled out a wad of cash, and placed it on the table. “You do whatever the kid needs. This ought to cover it and then some.” He walked over to where Bear lay and bent over to whisper something in the boy’s ear. When he straightened up, he tapped him on the chest, gentle-like. Ace’s eyes were shiny. The man had a kind heart.
Johnny put his hat on. It was time to go. Tender moments like these were hard. He didn’t reckon anyone had ever cared enough to get shiny eyes when he got beat up or shot. Ace would have made someone a fine father.
“You two be careful. Crane doesn’t play fair. He’ll destroy your herd and you too. There’s history to prove it.” Doctor Randall stuck his hand out and shook Johnny’s first and then Ace’s. “I’ll take care of your man.”
They rode hard and made it back to the camp before sunset. Cookie had a fire going but no sign of Nate or Dog.
“Cookie, where’s Nate?” Ace didn’t make a habit of raising his voice unless things were going sideways. So Cookie jumped when Ace questioned him.
“Boss, we’ve had some trouble; men on horseback sittin’ over on the hill there.” Cookie threw his arm toward a rise in the south. “Four of ’em, still as can be––watching us. Had white bandannas on their faces. Creepy.” Cookie was banging pots, packing stuff up, and he wouldn’t look at Ace. “Nate took Dog, thought he ought to guard the herd. Them men left a bit ago.”
Ace grabbed Cookie’s arm. “You shoulda kept the boy here.”
“Ace, settle down. You and me, we’ll move around behind these bushwhackers and end this mess.” Johnny was adding bullets to the slots in his belt from a box out of his saddlebags. “You got plenty of ammo?”
“Enough to handle them four men Cookie told us about.” Ace checked his sidearm and grabbed extra ammo from beneath the seat of the chuck wagon. He stuck a handful of cartridges in his pocket. “Hand me that rifle from the back of the wagon.”
“Cookie, you still got that ol’ long-barrel you showed me?” Johnny mounted his horse. “Find it and keep it handy.”
Nate came pounding into the camp and was off his horse before it came to a halt; he hit the ground and ran toward Ace. “There’s six of ’em now, they rode off the hill and into the woods! Where’s Bear? Ace? What’s going on?”
“Nate, calm down.” Ace grabbed Nate’s shoulders and pushed him toward the wagon. “You and Cookie stay with the wagon. Keep your eyes open, and shoot before you ask questions. You got that?”
“Yes sir, I got it.” Nate’s eyes were as big as saucers.
“Ace, come on!” Johnny was already in motion and headed toward the hill where Nate had seen the six men. Ace hurried after him.
They found no sign of the men. “Ace, we’ll move around behind that grove of trees. See that flicker? Bet you a five-dollar gold piece they’re in there, waiting till dark to ambush the herd or us, maybe both.”
“What’s the plan?” Ace stood up in his stirrups, staring toward the trees.
“You any good with that long-gun?” Johnny nodded toward the rifle Ace carried in the scabbard attached to his saddle.
“I’m damn good in the daylight. Ain’t no man gonna be able to shoot anything once it gets dark.” Ace waved toward the last glow of light in the western sky, getting a little agitated.
Johnny grinned. “Yeah. But those pendejos have a fire going; see the flicker? You’ll have plenty of firelight to shoot by. I’ll sneak around behind and get the drop on them. No matter how they’re sitting or standing—sneak in from the other side—shoot two on your left. I’ll start in on the other side. The center man will talk, and tell us Crane’s plans.”
“Shoot ’em in cold blood?”
“Yeah, Ace, if you have to––you gotta do it to them before they do it to you.” Johnny’s voice, usually soft, took on a hard edge. “Listen, you think those assholes will just be sitting there. You won’t take down anyone in cold blood, you’ll be dodging bullets while you shoot back trying to defend yourself.”
Ace nodded. “You’re right. Let’s get this done.”
Neither said a word as they silently picked their way toward the wooded area. Johnny pointed through the trees. The flicker of a campfire was easier to make out. They decided to go on foot once they caught a whiff of the smoke from the campfire. Johnny slid off his horse first and didn’t make a sound when he dropped to the ground. They ground-tied the horses and slipped into the edge of the woods.
After he checked for look-outs, Johnny nodded in the direction Ace needed to move and headed for the north side of the grove. It was colder and damp in the more densely wooded area. Night sounds of insects, coyotes, and few birds filled the air; then, a murmur of voices could be heard above the crackle of a fire.
Stepping carefully, Johnny didn’t make a sound––getting so close he could feel the heat from the fire. Peeping through the limbs and leaves, he made out six shadowy figures huddled around a campfire getting warm.
Well, well, there were no professionals here. He could remember freezing his gonads off many a night to make sure the element of surprise stayed on his side.
One loudmouth was bragging about how he’d forced some gunfighter to turn tail when he gave him a little demonstration of his draw. Likely story. Professionals didn’t boast. The reputation followed them––or haunted them.
There was an owl call from the other side of the camp. It had to be Ace. Time to begin this dance. “If you men want to live, drop your guns now.” Every damn one of them started shooting in his direction, but not before he dove behind a log.
While Ace made his play, Johnny used the cover fire to take down three of them. “Ace?” Ace had taken his two out.
“I’m good. You?” Ace walked toward the camp; his gun still pointed toward the shooters, all but one lying in the dirt.
“I’m fine.” Johnny kept his Colt in his hand while he made his way to the only one of Crane’s men to remain on his feet.
When the smoke cleared, the lone man took one look at Johnny and raised his hands. “Don’t shoot, I ain’t armed.”
Johnny booted the man’s weapon away in anger. While Ace checked the fallen bodies for signs of life, he paced back and forth where the men lay in the dirt.
Finally, his pacing stopped right in front of the man whose hands still reached toward the treetops. Johnny stared at the ground for a beat and kicked the dirt hard, some of it going toward the still-burning campfire. And then he went at the man.
“Five men.” Grabbing the front of the man’s shirt, jerking on it, then pushing back hard, Johnny shouted, “They’re dead! Ask Crane if a few blades of grass is worth five lives. The damn range don’t even belong to him!”
Ace made quick strides to Johnny. “We can send this asshole back to Crane with a message. Right now, we need to head back to the wagon.”
Johnny gave a short nod and headed toward the edge of camp. He untied a big bay from the rope line beyond the campfire. After walking the horse over to Ace, he handed over the reins.
The captive backed up when Johnny started toward him. “You tell Crane he bullied the wrong crew this time.” And this time, when Johnny went at him, his anger was so powerful that it made him shaky inside. His Colt went from his holster to the man’s face so quickly; he didn’t think he’d ever drawn his sidearm as fast.
Ace whistled between his teeth, and the man before him started begging. “Please, mister, I ain’t nothing but a cowpuncher. Don’t kill me. I’m beggin’ you.”
“Don’t do it, Ace.” Johnny cut his eyes at Ace, and Ace dropped the hand meant to stop any cruelty.
Turning back to the captive, Johnny nudged the barrel of his gun under the man’s chin. “Okay, ‘Cowpuncher,’ what else does Crane have planned?”
“Y-you better check your wagon. Honest, I-I don’t know nothing else.”
Ace grabbed Johnny for a second time, only this time his eyes showed a different worry. Johnny’s belly clenched with concern for Cookie and Nate, knowing that Crane’s plans included hitting the wagon.
“Like I said, you tell Crane he picked the wrong men to mess with. He’s got two choices. Leave us be or leave this life.” Johnny jerked the trembling man toward the waiting horse, knowing he would run straight to Crane with the message.
Grabbing a couple of the bushwhacker’s horses, Johnny wanted to make quick time down the path to where their own mounts were ground-tied. The reins almost hit Ace in the face when Johnny threw them his way as he mounted up. “We need to get back to Nate and Cookie.”
Both men were on edge. A glance said enough when they re-mounted at the edge of the grove. Johnny pulled the saddles off Crane’s horses before letting them go.
Ace shook his head. “Them horses will head straight back to Crane.”
“I ain’t no horse thief.” Johnny kicked his own horse, and they rushed up the hill toward the wagon.
Something wasn’t right––there wasn’t a soul in sight. “Nate! Cookie!”
Even before he heard Ace’s calls turn to a wail, he’d felt it in his bones.
“Oh god, they’re both gone, Johnny. Only a boy.” Ace held Nate’s head in his lap. With a shaky hand, he smoothed back the kid’s unruly bangs. “Why kill an old cook and a kid? They wouldn’t hurt nobody.” Tears streaked down his face as he looked to Johnny for answers.
“This is my fault––shoulda known better than to leave them here alone.” Johnny shook his head. Somehow, death seemed to follow him.
Johnny went still. “Dog. Where’s Dog?”
He whistled. There was no returning bark. As he turned back toward Ace, something white caught his eye.
His heart sank as he made his way to what had to be the body of the faithful cow dog. “No, no, no. Not you too, Dog.” Johnny gathered the shaggy body up in his arms, and he cried––for Nate, Cookie, and poor innocent Dog.” All this death happened because of a fool’s greed.
But one thing was for sure; he intended to avenge these innocent souls.
A full moon rose as Johnny placed Dog’s body on the ridge. Dog would have liked that. But, thinking of him sitting on this hill, staring at the moon, brought tears to his eyes. Johnny wiped them away with his forearm and went to the wagon for a shovel.
The bodies of Nate and Cookie lay side by side, and Ace stood over them with his head bowed. Not knowing if Ace was a religious man, Johnny waited until he raised his head before saying anything. But he looked up when he heard Johnny.
“Ace, I’m sorry. I shoulda handled it different.”
“This ain’t nobody’s fault but Crane’s.”
“I’m going to dig three graves. They shot Dog too. The ridge up there? That okay?” Johnny leaned on the shovel and nodded to where he’d left Dog’s body.
“Yeah, that hilltop will do fine.” Ace pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his face. “Saw Dog sitting up there more ‘n once. Nate, Cookie, they’d sit on that hill, converse a little late in the day, when it wasn’t raining.”
“Reckon they called the range home as much as anywhere. Guess Dog did too.” Johnny headed up the hill.
His anger built with each shovel full of dirt. Ace joined him, and they dug together by moonlight. Soon the three dirt holes were ready.
“I’ll bring the bodies up on horseback.” Johnny walked back to the wagon, and Ace followed.
“I’ll help you, son.”
Ace’s lips trembled when he pulled Nate’s body up to help Johnny put him across the little sorrel he always rode. “Take your last ride, kid.” Ace rubbed the boy’s back as if he could somehow comfort the dead.
“Dammit, Ace, you sure make this hard.” Johnny went to Cookie’s body. The cook’s hat had fallen off, and Johnny put it back on him, remembering when Bear had gotten so spooked to see it off. Guess he’d make sure Cookie got buried with his hat on for Bear.
“You ready?” Ace stood there while Johnny messed with the hat.
“Yeah. Let’s do this.”
Johnny grabbed Cookie under his arms, Ace got his feet, and they put him on Ace’s horse. Once they made it to the rise, the two men buried their friends.
Ace and Johnny rolled three large rocks to mark their resting places. Finally, Ace stood and bowed his head.
Johnny sat down and leaned against a lone pine tree. Images of Nate, Cookie, and Dog started rolling through his head. Why was it that death seemed to follow him? Hadn’t he come on this drive to be away from all the killing and the pain it caused him?
“You want to say some words?” Johnny stared at the three lonely graves.
Ace took his hat off and bowed his head. “Lord, we ask you to help me and Johnny, the way you used to help men in the Good Book––like David when he went up against Goliath. Ain’t no justice in this place. We guess you might have to use us to bring some for the wrongs done to Nate and Cookie here, and Bear too. So take care of these boys and help us take care of this evil man. Amen.”
Johnny had never heard a prayer quite like the one Ace said. It sounded like Ace was talking to a friend. All the praying he’d ever listened to came from priests, and God seemed so high up and important that an ordinary person couldn’t speak to him. Maybe it was okay to ask for good to overcome evil. He wasn’t sure Madrid always stacked up as good, but Crane, sure enough, landed on the side of evil.
“We best bed down for a few hours sleep. We’ll need to ride at first light.” Johnny slapped his leg with his hat and left Ace standing at the three graves. He figured they both needed time alone.
Johnny tried everything to go to sleep. Then, almost drifting off, the face of Nate or Cookie appeared, jolting him awake. He must have spread the bedroll across rocks and roots––every time he rolled over, something hard poked him in the side. Ace bedded down late. He thrashed and tumbled around nearly as much as Johnny.
They both must have finally drifted off right before dawn. First light woke Johnny up, along with Ace’s snoring. Stumbling to the water barrel, he grabbed one of Cookie’s basins and filled it. The cool water didn’t do much to ease the grittiness from his eyes, but it woke him up. He built a small fire and made coffee. As soon as he got Ace up, they’d need to be on their way.
“Ace, you awake?” Johnny nudged his arm. It was a shame to wake him up. There was always that instant when you open your eyes, thinking everything’s fine, and then the pain washes over you. He saw it in Ace’s face the moment he remembered there were three graves up on the ridge.
“I’ve got coffee.” Johnny left him for a minute and returned with a steaming cup. “Drink it up. I’ll get the horses ready. Crane won’t waste any time getting ready for us. Bear’s in town. The way I figure it, Crane knows it too.”
“So you think he’ll use Bear as bait?”
“And if we wait here?”
“Better if we take the fight to him. He won’t expect us in town today, not with Nate and Cookie dead.” Johnny emptied the coffee pot, kicked dirt over the fire, and headed to the remuda. Glancing back, he saw Ace pouring water over his head.
Johnny held the reins. Ace had walked up to the ridge. He probably wanted to say his last respects—might be thinking he could join them up there before this thing ended. But that wasn’t what he had in mind. Might be more graves dug, but Ace Beecham and Johnny Madrid wouldn’t be filling ’em.
Ace came down slow. “You think the two of us can make this thing right?”
“We can. Won’t be easy.” Johnny handed off Ace’s horse, and they mounted up. “We’ll leave the horses with Jeeter. Use the alleyways to pay a visit to the sheriff. The back door to his office, to my way of thinking, it won’t be locked as he’s got no reason to worry ’bout anyone going against him in a town his boss owns.”
They made good time. The town was mostly sleeping when Ace and Johnny dismounted and walked the horses to Jeeter’s livery.
“You men still in one piece.” Jeeter took the horses. Wasting no time, he took them into the barn and motioned for Johnny and Ace to follow. “Better lay low. Crane sees you here, he’ll have his gunfighter on you. He’s a mean lookin’ dude too.”
“So Crane hired himself a gunman? What’s his name?” Johnny eased his gun out and checked his ammo.
“Whitman, Blaze Whitman––an’ he’s a fast bastard. Feller was drawing fast, twirling his six-shooter, showing off in the saloon last night.” Jeeter laid a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “An’ Johnny, he was bragging ’bout how he’d finished cleaning up the range. I figured he killed you and Ace.”
Ace came in closer to them. “Had to be him that murdered Nate and Cookie.”
“Sounds about right. Jeeter, you have any idea where this Whitman guy might be?” Johnny put his gun back in his holster. “And Crane, when’s he usually show?”
“Crane usually comes into town ’round ten––eats breakfast up at Carly’s, little cafe across from the jail. And Whitman, way he was acting last night, most likely stayed upstairs with Nadine.”
“And where’s upstairs with Nadine?” Johnny asked him.
“Uh that would be at The Thirsty Spur.”
“And how drunk was Whitman?”
“It was after midnight when I left, and he’s still throwing back shots of rye.” Jeeter threw his hand back as if drinking a shot. “I’d bet on him sleeping a hangover off if that’s what yer gettin’ at.”
“Yeah, well, Ace and I need to see the sheriff first thing… being the gunfighter’s not likely to bother us for a bit.” Johnny turned to Ace. “You up to making a citizens arrest? On account of the sheriff’s aiding and abetting murder.”
Ace grinned and pulled at his mustache. “I figure those charges might stick.” He pulled his long gun from the scabbard and checked his sidearm.
Johnny and Ace slipped down the side streets of Cranestown. Doors slammed shut. Johnny could see folks pull their kids back into stores and houses.
A shutter and a curtain or two closed as they went by. Scared townsfolk were nothing new to Johnny, but Ace nervously glanced his way, and Johnny threw him a cocky grin. Ace’s shoulders relaxed.
“You used to all this?” Ace nodded at a door that closed.
“Kinda. Can’t blame reg’lar folks for being careful. I do get riled about people that let someone like Crane take over their town.” Johnny nodded toward the back door of the sheriff’s office. “We’ll go in fast. You cover him; I’ll clear the place, lock the doors. Then we wait for Crane.”
Ace opened the door and had the sheriff in his sights in one easy move. Johnny cleared the back and closed the shades.
“Well now, Mr. Sheriff. Don’t believe we got a proper introduction yesterday.” Johnny walked over to the desk, turned his head sideways at the lawman, and patted his cheek. “No problem. You’ll have plenty of time to get acquainted with me and Ace here. You know, like you got friendly with our friend, Bear.” Then he gave him a light tap on the chin with his fist.
“Now Johnny, first we gotta make a citizens arrest.” Ace grinned.
“No, No. I’m swearing you in, Ace. We’ll make a bon-a-fide official arrest.” Johnny jerked the star off of the sheriff and tossed it to Ace. “Put that on and swear you’ll uphold the law better than this bastard did.”
“You can’t do that! Crane will kill you both!” The now ex-sheriff jerked away from Johnny.
Ace grinned and hooked the star on his vest. “I swear on the graves of my friends and the best cow dog I ever had that I’ll be a better sheriff than that asshole sittin’ there.”
“Then arrest this pendejo for assault on an unarmed man, aiding and abetting murder, and add breaking and entering––being we found him here in your office, going through official papers.” Johnny jerked him up by the collar, pulled the gun out of his holster, and threw it on the floor. He kicked the man in the seat of his pants toward the jail.
Johnny tied and gagged the man before throwing him on the cot Bear had suffered on the day before.
Johnny tossed the keys on the desk. “Well, Sheriff Beecham, I reckon we wait for Crane. You’ll have another arrest to make if Jeeter is right about him coming into town.”
“Sheriff Beecham, huh, kinda has a nice ring to it. Mighty fine chair.” Ace wriggled his backside into the leather chair behind the desk; the same one Crane was sitting in when they came to find Bear.
“Yeah, keep talking, and we’ll change places.” Johnny raised a brow at Ace as he shifted his butt, then leaned against the wall in a rough, wooden chair, its seat nothing more than a couple of planks.
They both got quiet when footsteps thumped on the board walkway, pounding louder until they were right outside the door. Johnny stood and eased his Colt out of its holster.
“Hayden! Get off your ass and git over to the saloon…NOW!” Crane busted the door open––he didn’t even look up.
“Well now, the name ain’t Hayden, but if you’re buying, I think my sheriffing duties allow time for a drink.” Ace drawled as he pushed himself up to head to the saloon. “Uh Johnny, you wanna join us?”
Crane spun around. “What do you think you’re doing? You’ll regret this.” His eyes fired as much hate as his mouth was spitting. “I’ll have you both bleeding on the ground before the day’s over.”
“Awe now, don’t make promises you can’t keep. Me, I can put you in the ground.” Johnny placed the barrel of his gun right between Crane’s eyes. “Sooo easy.” And he grinned at the man as he cocked the gun very slowly. “What do you think Ace, kill him or arrest him?”
“I thought to collect on a free drink, but arrest him for murder. Put his ass in jail, and we’ll have the pleasure of watching him hang.” Ace pulled a drawer open and got out the keys.
“You’re the sheriff.” Johnny uncocked the Colt but kept it on Crane as Ace marched him back to the cell. Once he was secured and gagged next to ex-sheriff Hayden, they headed to the saloon.
It was still too early for much business. Johnny peeped over the doors to check for threats. A saloon girl drank coffee at a table near the back. Two old men argued loudly at a table near the door.
When they stepped in, a fellow raised from behind the bar where he must have been putting up stock. His eyes went straight to the star on Ace’s chest. “You the owner?” Ace asked him.
“No. No. Col. Crane owns this place. Fact is he owns most of the businesses in town.” The man glanced over at Johnny, then he asked Ace, “Who are you two?”
“I’m the new sheriff here in Cranestown. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” Ace stuck out his hand.
The man’s mouth hung open, wide enough to catch a few flies. When Ace slapped the bar, he finally stuttered out some words. “W-Where’s Sheriff Hayden?”
Johnny crossed his arms, leaned against the wall, and waited while Ace bellied up and placed both elbows on the shiny wood surface of the bar. “Sheriff Hayden is tied up right now. I been appointed to serve ‘till a judge gets here.”
“Judge? What do we need a judge for?”
“I don’t believe I got your name, I’m Ace Beecham, your new sheriff.” Ace stuck out his hand a second time.
“Uh, sorry ’bout that, Mack Langston.” He wiped his hand on a towel before shaking Ace’s hand.
“Pleased to meet you, Mack. I don’t suppose you’d spare a cup of that for me and my assistant Johnny here?” Ace nodded at the coffee pot sitting on a small stove behind the bar.
“I-I’ll be glad to give you some.” Mack nervously wiped the wooden bar top. But mister, both of you best leave out of here soon as you drink it. That is unless you work for Crane, and I’m thinking you don’t.”
“And why would we need to leave this fine place?” Johnny spoke softly, but Langston jumped.
“Blaze Whitman is up there. He’ll kill you both. That’s why.” He grabbed up the coffee pot and two cups.
Johnny went to a table, pulled out a chair that faced the steps, and sat down. The perch gave him a complete view of the room, and he watched the stairs as Ace walked with Langston to join him.
The place worked hard at being citified, but the folks buying drinks in a nowhere saloon like this had taken the shine off in a hurry. Dirty floors, scratched tabletops with repaired legs, velvet curtains heavy with dust–– the establishment reminded Johnny of a fancy dress his Mama held onto for years. Dirt and moths finally destroyed it, like the roughnecks would destroy all this. Johnny would bet his last dollar, Crane fixed it up, and like his rumpled, fancy suit, it showed out of place here in cow country.
Ace’s eyes slid over toward Johnny almost as often as they glanced around the room. If he seemed to be asleep, nothing could be further from the truth. All of Johnny’s senses were on alert so that he kicked Ace on the leg and silently pointed upward when a door opened upstairs. His chair swung down from its lean against the wall to land quietly on all four legs.
Boots pounded down the steps. Legs appeared first; hands buckling on a rig came into view next. It was a fancy piece, bought and worn for show. Could be he was good, or perhaps he was like his gear, all show, and no stuff. Johnny had faced a few like that; men who wore their shiny guns––practiced a few tricks and thought they were fast. They both would find out today.
The man finished gearing up and walked straight to the bar, never checking his surroundings, a sure sign of a greenhorn.
“Langston! Give me some coffee! Now!” The gunfighter pounded the bar with his fist. “Where is ever’body?”
“Here, Mister Whitman. It’s hot, just like you like it.” Langston’s hand trembled a bit as he handed the steaming brew over.”
Whitman grabbed it so quickly that it spilled onto his hand. “Dammit Langston, you gone and burnt me!” And he grabbed the scared barkeep by the collar but then pushed him back in disgust.
“No need to be rude to Langston ’cause you’re hungover and all thumbs.” Johnny used his soft voice, the one that hid his mad and rattled most men who heard it; more than a few were pushing up daisies now.
“And who would you be?” Whitman turned from the bar, shoved his hat up a notch, and stalked toward the table where Johnny and Ace sat.
The two old-timers slipped out of the swinging doors, leaving them flapping. The girl sitting toward the back disappeared through a back door so that the only ones left were Langston, Whitman, Ace, and Johnny.
“Name’s Madrid, Johnny Madrid. And you’d be?” Johnny grinned at the fellow. He saw Ace stare at him and knew he should have told him his last name before now.
“Uh Madrid, huh. I don’t think so. Madrid’s older than you, works the border towns.”
“That’s right. And I plan to head back that way soon as I clean this town out of vermin like you. I hear they call you Blaze. Huh, they name you after a horse––ah… perhaps for being a horse’s ass.” Johnny threw the man another grin.
“I’ll kill you, you smart mouthed chili bean.”
“You like killin’ do you?” Johnny leaned toward the table. “You do any lately?”
“Matter o’ fact, I killed some mangy cowpunchers yesterday, and I liked it.” Before he finished his words, Whitman went for his gun.
Johnny stood and fired. The man was dead before he had his gun more than halfway out of its holster. A door in back of the saloon opened; Johnny spun and took out a second shooter.
Johnny knew better. He should have made a sweep of the room instead of checking on Ace.
Because it was a third gunman, that damn cowpuncher they’d sent back to Crane, he must have slipped down from a room upstairs. The coward took his shot while Johnny’s back was turned.
Ace yelled, “Johnny!” And then blasted the back shooting cabron with his rifle. It’s what saved him because it threw the asshole’s shot. But he felt the bullet pop him in the back, spinning him around. That’s when Johnny fired the kill-shot. At least he took the bastard out before he went down.
Ace grabbed for him but not before he hit the floor.
“Johnny! Johnny? Look at me, boy.”
Johnny tried, but Ace’s features faded away as darkness filled his vision, and the ringing in his ears grew unbearably louder until—suddenly—there was nothing.
Ace’s voice was the first sound that came to him. All he wanted to do was to stay very still and listen to it. Then a jolt of pain ran through his upper body. There was a red-hot poker driving into his back. He tried to struggle away, but strong hands pressed down on him. Ace kept talking, and the pain of someone digging in his back made his face go hot. The room was spinning.
“Ace.” He couldn’t move, but he was going to puke.
“It’s okay; I got you. Doc’s fixin’ you up.”
“Sick.” The digging stopped, and a basin appeared. He puked his guts out. When he finally had nothing else to bring up, Johnny felt a jab in his hip. For a second, the agony disappeared, and a blanket of darkness wrapped around him.
Johnny awoke to snores in a strange room. It was dark other than a single lamp on a table to his right. In the dim light, he searched for the source of what now sounded like snorts and grunts. A stab of pain ran from the left side of his back down his arm as he twisted, and Ace’s image came into view.
“Ace.” His voice sounded like the croak of a frog, but the man was by his side in an instant.
“Hey there.” Ace patted his shoulder. “About time you woke up. I been worried.”
“Have I been out long?”
“Best part of two days. I accused Doc of givin’ you too much medicine.” Ace laughed, nervous-like.
“Yeah, Doc said you needed it for the pain, and so he could dig the bullet out.”
“Yeah, well, me and morphine don’t do so well. Don’t take much to kick my butt.”
Randall walked into the room as Johnny tried to roll onto his back. “Whoa, slow down. You’ll want to stay on your side, keep pressure off that wound for another day at least.”
“Tell that to my shoulder, I can’t feel it.”
“Here.” The doctor lifted him and scooted an extra pillow under his back while rolling him part-way over, keeping the wound from touching the bed.
“I couldn’t help overhearing your comment about morphine. Your system did seem to overreact to the drug. The slow pulse rate, shallow breathing, exacerbated by blood loss as well gave us quite a scare.” Randall picked up Johnny’s arm and pulled out a timepiece. After a minute, he pulled up the edge of the bandage and nodded. “Pulse is better, but Johnny, you should advise anyone who treats you in the future that you have an allergy to morphine.”
“Well, Doc, I wasn’t in much shape to do any ‘advising.’”
“I guess not, Johnny. But you will be all right in a few days. You’re healing up fine.”
“Doc, how’s Bear?” Johnny moved too much and closed his eyes for a moment to come to terms with the pain.
“Son, You okay?” Ace stood again from his chair, squatted at the bedside, and placed a hand on Johnny’s arm.
“Bear’s fine. A site better than you are.”
Johnny started to tell Ace he was fine too. But, when he looked up into the man’s face, all he could see was his eyes, all shiny from unshed tears. His throat got tight, and for some reason, the words wouldn’t come, so he just nodded.
Yeah, Ace Beecham would have made someone a good Daddy. Because his own father had thrown him away, he’d never liked being called son by anyone. But it set just fine when Ace said it. For some time now, he only smiled when Ace would slip up and call him son.
Ace got closer to his ear. “Son, I got to meet that escort. Some men from town are watching the herd. Said they would help drive the cattle on up to Pueblo.” He squeezed Johnny’s upper arm. “You rest up and by the time I’m ridin’ back this way, you’ll be ready to ride too.” Ace stood, ran his shirt sleeve over his eyes, and started for the door.
“Wait, Ace, you be careful. Come back here in one piece.”
“Ought’n to be more’n a week or so. So do what Doc says.”
And Johnny tried to push down his restlessness and follow all Doc Randall’s instructions. He’d never liked taking orders. It only took about ten months in the Mexican Army to find that out. And Doctor Charles Randall sure liked being in charge, barking out what to do and what not to do. Whew! It made a man tired of listening to him.
Still, the Doc meant well. At least Bear could play checkers with him now that he could sit up. The breeze on Randall’s small porch felt cool and welcomed after being cooped up in a sick-room. Someone had planted yellow flowers that bloomed solid to the picket fence. They smelled like the expensive perfumes that the wives of the ranchera owners wore.
“Your move.” Bear rubbed his hands together.
After giving the board a quick study, he could tell that Bear had left himself open for a triple jump. Johnny didn’t have the heart. “You sure it’s the move you want to make?”
Bear’s face fell. “Awe Johnny, hold it, hold it, I take it back.” And he popped his forefinger back on the piece. And once again, the studying of the board began.
After about ten minutes, Johnny wished he had made the jumps and brought the game closer to its end. His back hurt, and he was tired. The sound of a horse saved him. Out of habit, his hand brushed the top of his Colt. The rider was Ace. “Bear! Look who it is!”
Bear took off running toward the horse, and Johnny almost wanted to do the same, but he figured a slow walk might keep Doc from yelling at him. He did raise his good arm in greeting and ignored the pull to his stitches––Doc be damned.
“Bear! Johnny!” Ace slid from his horse and tied it to the fence post. How are you two doing?”
“Ace! You made it back!” Bear grabbed him up in a tight hug.
“Whoa! You’re gonna crack my ribs, son.” Ace was laughing and trying to catch his breath.
Johnny rubbed the neck of Ace’s horse. “How was the trip?” There was more he wanted to say, but, well words were tough to find sometimes.
Ace tilted his head and checked him over. “Easier than it was gettin’ here. How are you? Sure look better than last time I saw you.”
“Yeah, well, I’m gettin’ there. If that sawbones you left me with would leave me alone, I’d do fine.”
“Awe, he ain’t so bad, Johnny.” Bear was looking behind him.
Johnny figured Randall was coming up the path from the garden, back of the house. “He’s worse than a drill sergeant ––telling me when to spit and when to polish. Someone’s gonna have to set him straight. Hope you can, I’d hate for Bear to have to handle this.” Saying it loud enough to carry back to Doc, he winked and grinned at Ace.
The doctor grabbed Johnny by the back of the neck. “This one is trouble. And as far as Bear handling anyone, it might be YOU that he’ll need to handle, young man. Welcome back, Ace.” He stuck his hand out in welcome.
“Good to be back, I think.” Ace looked tired.
“Bear, why don’t you take Ace’s horse over to Jeeter’s. It’s getting close to suppertime.” Johnny handed Bear the reins to Ace’s horse. “I’ll buy supper down at the cafe. We’ll celebrate Ace coming back safe and sound.”
“I’d like that, only I’ll buy. And you got some pay coming, bonus money too!” Ace grabbed his saddlebags before Bear left with the horse.
Johnny ducked his head. “Only what’s coming to me, no bonus. Couldn’t help ride the herd through to the fort.”
“There’d be no herd without you. None of us would be here if we hadn’t had you along.”
“Ace, you woulda done fine without me.” Johnny flexed his arm and opened and closed his hand to still feel the pull in his back.
Randall rubbed his hand down Johnny’s back. “Wound feel okay?”
“Everything’s fine, Doc, just stings and itches sometimes. So don’t start riding on your high-horse.”
“Glad you are up and around, Johnny.” Ace wrapped an arm around him, even gave him a squeeze as they walked with Doc down the street.
“Town council’s getting together next week. They’re planning to change the name of the town.” Randall walked a little slower. “Jace’s Junction, is Jeeter’s suggestion. Cranestown used to be the connecting point for drives headed north, whether they were coming from the south or west. It could be that junction again.”
“What? Why Jace?” Johnny stopped walking.
“The J is Johnny and then a-c-e, well, it has a ring to it. Better than being named for a scoundrel like Crane.” The doctor’s grin was getting wider as he talked.
Ace laughed. “Never had a town named after me. You Johnny?”
“I hear there’s one in a place called Spain named for me. Pretty impressive place too, they say.” Johnny just couldn’t help himself.
Randall wrinkled his forehead. “Spain. A place in Spain named Johnny?”
“Naw, Doc, don’t you ever read? Madrid. Madrid, Spain.” Johnny laughed out loud.
“Madrid! You’re Johnny Madrid! The gunfighter in the dime novels? The Johnny Madrid?” Doc was shaking his head. “Yes, I read, and I can’t believe this! Why didn’t you tell me?” Doc Randall hit his forehead with the palm of his hand.
“Doc, we thought you knew!” Ace laughed. “Do you think two ordinary men could have cleaned Crane and his men up like we did?”
“Well, if he’s Madrid? Who are you?”
“I’m Ace Beecham. The man who’ll back Johnny Madrid anytime, anyplace. And that, my friend is a promise.”
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