Sins Of The Past by Buckskin

Thanks to Cat for the beta, and to Rob for the great suggestions.
Warning – Violence against a woman

Word count: 30,550

Trembling hands gripped the message. The written words flooded his veins with icy dread. Low light from the lantern cast shadows that flickered across the floor and extended up the walls. The tick of the clock thundered in the stillness, mocking him as it counted off the seconds. Seconds he couldn’t call back. Seconds that screamed at him time was running out. 

“Dammit!” Val Crawford cursed in the empty room. He had no choice; he had to go. Grabbing an old wanted poster from the drawer, he turned it over to quickly scrawl a note, signed his name, and left it on his desk. He stood suddenly and knocked over the rickety chair. With a troubled sigh, he crumpled the wire, his fingers wrapped around the paper to crush it into a ball, to squeeze it to death. I can’t let this go! Hafta do somethin’ ‘bout it!”  And he would go alone; he had to.

Looking around the office one last time, he threw the ball into the opening of the potbelly stove and slammed the door without latching it closed. The door bounced wide as he turned and left the sheriff’s office and made his way out of town.

The wooden door hadn’t clicked shut when the crushed paper ball rolled out, escaping the flame, and landed on the floor, singed and smoldering. A wisp of smoke drifted up into the chill of the room like a tiny ghost, then vanished from sight as Val’s footsteps faded in the night.

It was cold! That’s all there was to it. Cold is cold! The ol’ man can say whatever he wants, but he ain’t about ta convince me it’s just chilly, or what the hell’s them other words? Oh, yeah, brisk an’ invigoratin’! Barranca looks like he’s snortin’ steam! Brisk, my achin’ ass!

Johnny Madrid argued with Johnny Lancer. Madrid had had it. The damp leeched through his clothes and into his bones, making him irritable and wishing for the hot, dry weather of the border. Then, Lancer would say he wasn’t going back there, that he would make the best of California if it killed him. And Madrid thought he could arrange it.

So, on this day, the internal battle waged between them ever since ‘they’ rolled out of bed. But when ‘they’ got down to breakfast, it boiled over. For them both.

“Johnny,” Murdoch began before Johnny’s butt had the chance to hit the chair. “I need for you to go into town right away and pick up the papers at Mr. Randall’s office for the meeting in Sacramento next week. It’s already Thursday, and I want to be there early to get a jump on things. If I can convince the right people to invest in that mining operation, the better chance it goes through. But I need those papers before I can leave. I’ll catch the stage at Cross Creek and on to the capitol as soon as you get home with them.”

“This more important than sendin’ me out for them strays up on Cutter’s Mountain? Seems like you were in a mighty big hurry last night ta get…”

“Johnny… please! For once, can you just do as I ask without arguing!” the Lancer patriarch sighed in annoyance.

The irritation in Murdoch’s tone crashed into Johnny’s head, and anger smoldered, then sparked into flame as Johnny fought for control of his temper. Had the question been out of line? Had the ol’ man changed his mind, or had he just forgotten their discussion of the previous evening?

Don’t fall into it again, Johnny. Call him on it. Johnny locked eyes with his father. He didn’t blink, didn’t break the contact. He held the stare for several seconds, then spoke, the soft tone belied the meaning behind them.

“Then, ya changed your mind, huh? That’s all ya had ta say, ol’ man.” Johnny turned and left the table without taking the morning meal.

The back kitchen door closed, without the anticipated slam, as Murdoch turned to Scott with a frown creasing his forehead.

“What has him on the wrong side of the bed this morning?” Murdoch contemplated aloud.

Scott stopped the cup halfway to his lips to openly stare at his father.

“You’re kidding, right?” Scott questioned in wide-eyed disbelief.

“No, I am not kidding! What just happened?” Murdoch asked and stubbornly refused to acknowledge the little voice in the back of his mind that told him exactly what happened.

“Johnny asked a perfectly legitimate question, Murdoch. You told him one thing last night, then jumped on him when he confirmed what you wanted him to do today. You treat him like a child. And you need to stop.” Scott glared at Murdoch, then left the table and went after his brother.

Halfway to the barn, Scott stopped in his tracks as Johnny rode out of the yard, kicked Barranca into a gallop, and was down under the Lancer arch, away from the ol’ man.

So, not only do ya have the cold ta deal with, ya got the ol’ man jumpin’ down your throat every time ya turn around. Are ya startin’ ta re-think goin’ back ta the border? And, in truth, Johnny had thought about it. Many times. But in the back of his mind, he knew neither Johnny Madrid nor Johnny Lancer would ever leave the ranch. Ever.

The ride into Green River began to clear his head. Volatile thoughts began to fade away with the cold temperature. The sun’s rays spread out over the terrain, washing the landscape in a warm glow. It chased the last remaining threads of chill and wove a comforting blanket to envelope all below.

Reining the fiery thoughts to a semblance of control, Johnny focused on the new task with their attorney. Just pick up the documents and bring them home. That was it. He would hand them over to Murdoch, then head out to Cutter’s Mountain. He would do his job, had been doing his job, and more around the ranch. But he wasn’t about to take any bullshit… from anyone. And that included the ‘tune-caller’, Murdoch Lancer.

“Thanks, Mr. Randall. Murdoch appreciates that ya got this done so fast.” Johnny tipped his hat to the attorney, and with a parting smile, left the office.

He tucked the papers into the inside jacket pocket, then headed for the sheriff’s office. Maybe he and Val would go to the café and get some breakfast. Johnny left the ranch without a cup of coffee in his belly, and he wanted one now.

Stepping up onto the boardwalk and through the door, Johnny let it slam against the wall behind. But there was no growl to indicate Val Crawford was there. Why, Johnny wasn’t really sure, but he took great pleasure in jarring Val out of a sound sleep. Maybe it was the string of cuss words that spewed out of Val’s mouth as he cursed Johnny, Madrid, and Lancer, for having the manners of a jackass and the brains of one, to boot. Johnny always laughed. Val Crawford could possibly be one of the crudest people Johnny ever knew, but that was Val, and Johnny loved him like a brother. That would never change.

Huh, chair’s knocked over. What made him knock over the damn chair? “Hey, Val!” Johnny yelled in the empty office. Going into the back, he checked the cells thinking Val spent the night here instead of going home; but no one was there. Val should have been in the office by now. Retracing his steps, Johnny went into the office and looked around. There was no fire in the stove. Hell, the door was still open. Mierda, looks like he was in a fit last night. Missed the stove throwin’ crap… Johnny bent to retrieve the crumpled piece of paper. Hidden in the creases, Johnny saw writing and began to smooth out the missive, thinking Val had finally put down in words the feelings he had carried around with him for months. Words of the heart, committed to paper that he couldn’t put to voice for the Widow Morgan?

But Johnny’s wicked smile vanished, and his heart went cold and pounded against his ribs as he read the singed wire.

Señor Crawford, it is not over. You have one week. If you are not here in seven days, Reyes will pay, along with his wife. Remember, seven days. Come alone.

Visions of those days three years ago ignited in his head, one after another as painful memories blasted, sending flares of white-hot fire that grew into an uncontrolled blaze. ‘Reyes will pay, along with his wife…’ A razor-sharp pain knifed through Johnny’s heart. Hadn’t Reyes already paid enough?  Reyes lost his son to Arturo de la Cruz; a bullet in the back ended the young life, the life of Johnny’s and Val’s friend. Rio Reyes was one of the reasons they committed themselves to the fight.

The kid was fearless, and that’s what got him killed. With more guts than brains, Johnny and Val took him under their wings and taught him the things he needed to know, things that would keep him alive. But, they failed in their teachings, and Rio was killed.

Johnny stood as his belly turned to ice, and it was then that he saw the paper with Val’s bold scrawl lying on the desk. It was a letter of resignation. Johnny’s heart dropped to his feet. He left the office at a run, ignoring the stares from those on the boardwalks as they started their day.

He charged through the telegraph office door, startling Billy as he sat drowsing in the stream of sunlight that flooded the interior of the office.

“Mornin’…” Billy began but was interrupted in an uncharacteristic frantic question by Johnny Lancer.

“Billy, the wire ta Sheriff Crawford… when did it come in? Last night?”

The sight of the young Lancer was unnerving, sending Billy’s thoughts careening in a wild spiral. There was only one other time that Billy had seen Johnny this out of control. It was the night that Scott had been ambushed and left for dead. Scott was at Doc Jenkins with a bullet in him, and Johnny left his brother’s side long enough to send a message to Murdoch in San Francisco to come home. That same look was in Johnny’s eyes now. And it had to do with the wire for Sheriff Crawford that came in last night.

“About six last night, Johnny. An’ I seen him ride out soon after, goin’ south,” Billy offered.

“Yeah, I know where he’s goin’. Could ya see that Murdoch gets these papers, Billy? It’s important! An’ make sure he gets this!” Johnny scribbled a brief note for his family, then handed it to Billy with the papers. The words came out in a rush, and as Billy assured Johnny he would take care of the matter, Johnny slapped several dollars on the countertop. “Thanks, Billy!” and he charged out the door.

“Johnny, wait! What should I…” The door slammed, leaving Billy to finish the question in the empty room. “…tell him?”

With a quick stop at the bank, where he withdrew several hundred dollars, Johnny vaulted onto Barranca and was out of town before the dust settled back onto the road.

You stubborn jackass! When I catch up with you, I gonna… I’m gonna… Mierda, don’t know what I’m gonna do other’n help get this resolved. I was there, too! This concerns me as much as it does you… But Johnny knew why Val left without him. And it wasn’t because the note said to come alone. Val was scared.

The incident three years ago was the beginning to an end, they thought, of hellacious acts of cruelties and violence committed against the innocent. Johnny, Val, and Rio attempted to take down Arturo de la Cruz before the bastardo could sell one more girl into slavery or raid the villages, stealing, plundering his own people, and all in the name of ugly greed.

They set a trap to catch de la Cruz in a web of his own making, but Rio was killed, and Johnny took a bullet to the chest. Val watched him struggle to stay alive, dragging the air into starved lungs and fight the demons that tormented his dreams. Johnny knew in his heart Val was trying to spare him the nightmares, the pain of reliving the hell of the next several weeks as he recovered. The blood loss and fever took their toll, leaving him weak and sick but hard to keep down.

With the delay caused by the need to get Johnny help, de la Cruz slipped through the cracks and out of sight, only to resurface now and continue his reign of terror on the innocent.

But this wasn’t Val’s call to make. And whether he liked it or not, Madrid was going to be there at his side. Madrid and Crawford. Crawford and Madrid. They fought together, always. And always would.

Johnny now regretted his decision to give Val the horse. Val had admired the gelding in the corral one day while visiting Lancer. After he left, Johnny worked with the horse, training him, breaking the steed as if for himself. It took several weeks, fitting the tedious training around his duties on the ranch. But soon, he was satisfied the horse was ready and gifted his amigo the animal. And Val was stunned speechless. That in itself had been worth it— seeing Val Crawford speechless, with his mouth gaping! Almost caught himself a fly ta boot! The horse was strong and spirited; he rivaled Barranca in every way. And he was just as fast.

The tracks in the dusty road screamed out to Johnny; this would be a race. Val was riding hard. It had been more than twelve hours, now, that he left Green River, and there was a lot of ground to cover. He’d picked up the trail south of town, not that he needed to follow it, but it helped to pull a plan together, a plan that wouldn’t get either one of them killed. Too many had already died, and Johnny knew it wouldn’t stop, not in his lifetime, but he and Val would do their damnedest to see it end.

Falling back into the role of strategizer, he knew what he had to do. If he caught up with Val along the way, fine, and ideally, he wanted to be there when Val got to Nogales. But time was critical, and where neither man would jeopardize their mount, Johnny had many miles to cover to catch up. He and Barranca settled in for the hard ride ahead of them. He was not going to let Val do this alone.

The horse raced under the arch and up to the hacienda as the rider jumped out of the saddle to pound on the front door.

Filled with apprehension by the intrusion, Murdoch jerked the massive portal open, hoping to see Johnny. But his face fell as fellow rancher, Clint Grayson, stood at the door holding a paper in his hand. “Murdoch! You know anything about this? Val resigned! He’s gone! Johnny left this for ya!”

And now he had an idea why Johnny hadn’t come home.

The light was fading, and Va knew he had to stop. There was no way on God’s green earth he would risk Amigo’s safety riding in the dark. Regalo de Amigo. Amigo’s Gift. He wasn’t telling Johnny the full name, just referred to the horse as Amigo. Good enough. No sense in gettin’ sappy… And Val knew Johnny would understand.

Stripping the saddle from the animal’s back, Val rubbed him down with dry grass, watered him, then let him graze. They traveled far today, covered many miles, but hadn’t come up with any kind of plan. Together, Val and Johnny planned many jobs to a favorable outcome, and now Val frowned. This wouldn’t be easy without Johnny alongside him, but it had to be this way.

How could he come up with a plan until he knew what he was up against? Would he even have time to find out exactly what was happening before he would announce his arrival? To say, ‘I’m here, pendejo, fight me like a man without standing behind innocent folks’ and getting those innocent folks killed?’ would go unheeded, ignored, and his words would drift on the wind.

Nogales. It seemed a lifetime ago, and yet like it was yesterday. He could see with perfect clarity as Rio went down, shot in the back by a cobarde’s bullet. Johnny left his cover to draw a bead on the assassin but fell, landing flat on his back with a slug in his chest, the horrific red stain flooding over his body. Even now, Val felt himself grow cold with fear he’d never felt before or since, and thinking now, he didn’t remember firing the last shot that took out the assailant.

He didn’t remember crawling to his amigo’s side, but he was there, stuffing the gaping hole with their bandanas, pressing down to stop the rush of blood. Johnny clutched his Colt in a death grip and wouldn’t relinquish the weapon even in near death. Val had to pry it loose, thinking he would have to break Johnny’s fingers to release it. And all the while, cold dread crushed him in a vile grip. They just lost Rio, their young amigo, and Val couldn’t bear it if he lost too.

And the pain didn’t stop when Johnny was shot. He grieved for Rio and grieved harder afterward with Johnny when he became aware enough to comprehend the loss of their friend, ambushed, shot in the back, and left for dead. After the fight, Val got Johnny to safety and did not go back for Rio’s body. The last time he’d seen their young friend, the boy rescued captives and was attempting to get them away, out of de la Cruz’ possession, when he fell to lie lifeless in the dirt. Val could only pray the boy crossed into the next world, finding peace, maybe find another amigo to lean on and help him stay out of trouble… even in the next world. Val had to laugh, remembering the trouble the young man had gotten himself into. He was worse than Johnny!

The hissing in Val’s ears blocked out any other sound, and his body went numb. Val Crawford knew he couldn’t repeat the nightmare of those terror-filled days as he watched his amigo bleed out, and until that day, the day Johnny opened his eyes, Val Crawford never believed in miracles. The sight of those fever-bright eyes open, and although barely coherent, sent Val into uncontrollable tears he didn’t bother to hold back but swore he could never shed again. He would die first. 

Val thought he’d lost two amigos that day. Two brothers, and he remembered vividly the pain that splintered his heart.

The fire chased away the chill as Val sat back and tried to relax. The memories, no, they were nightmares, were all too clear, as though it happened yesterday. And no matter how hard Val tried to block them out, they continued to plague his sleep, waking with a gasp and thundering heart. Dammit, Madrid, don’t ya do that ta me again!  

He slept then, much to his amazement. The morning had just begun to light the sky as Val rolled out of his blanket and started his coffee. He would make a stop in McFarland to pick up a few supplies, then head southeast. Hopefully, he would get into Nogales in a couple of days if there was no trouble. It was like walking into Hell, but he had to go back. He had to help Lucho Reyes. Reyes kept Val and Johnny hidden while Johnny mended until he could travel, and now Reyes and his wife were under threat. And that kind of friendship could not, would not be ignored.

You better have a damn good reason for takin’ off without me, Crawford! But Johnny knew Val felt he had no other choice. It was hard on Val as he nursed Johnny back to health those three years ago. Lucho Reyes and his wife, Isabella, sheltered them, fed them, and kept them safe, and if Johnny knew Val at all, that’s where Crawford would go. To Lucho. The friends that lost their son and risked their lives helping Madrid and Crawford. To his way of thinking, people like the Reyes’ were the heroes, not the fighters like himself and Val Crawford.

With any luck, Johnny would catch up with Val tomorrow, hash out why Val left Green River without alerting him of de la Cruz’s re-emergence; then, they would continue to Nogales and take care of the son-of-a-bitch once and for all. That is if Val lived past the trouncing Johnny was going to lay on him.

As he rode, Johnny recalled everything he could of that time, of de la Cruz and the circumstances surrounding the control he forced on the people who could not stand up to him. In his mind, Johnny saw the faces of the mothers weeping as their daughters were taken away, never to be seen again. Sold to the highest bidders to use as they pleased. The emptiness in fathers’ eyes, knowing there was nothing they could do to keep their family safe, but died trying regardless.

But it was the screams from those girls that echoed in his head as they were dragged from their homes, away from the only life they’d ever known, knowing what was to become of them. Those screams haunted Johnny every night, piercing his brain, and he woke covered in sweat, heart slamming against ribs and ready to explode. de la Cruz was going to pay with his life, and Johnny would gladly sacrifice himself to Hell and put a bullet between the cobarde’s eyes.

An’ you think you were gonna get outta town without tellin’ me what was goin’ on, huh, Crawford? Think again, amigo.

Sleep did not come that night, and when the pink of dawn broke over the mountains, Johnny had already covered several miles. He ran several plans through his head and discarded others, tweaking them, making them a better option for success. He would do nothing to endanger Lucho and Isabella; they had already paid far too much.

Johnny kept Barraca at a steady pace, eating up the miles and making good time. Though the spirited horse wanted to run, Johnny held him back. He would get to Nogales without risking Barranca.

The hills in the distance lost the green of their northern cousins. The air became arid and heavy, and the sky faded to a washed-out blue. Tucson was just ahead, and after that, the border and Nogales. And trouble. Johnny wondered if Val had arrived and thought to stay out of sight and only show himself after Val found out the particulars.

Briefly, Johnny wondered if Rosa was still in Tucson. She welcomed him before, but much could have happened in three, no, it was four years now that he’d seen her. And there was the possibility she wasn’t around anymore. Life around the border was hard, deadly, and cheap, but he would know more soon. For now, Johnny pushed Lancer behind and felt the mantle of Madrid settle over him, the mantle he relied on for the years spent as the gunfighter, Johnny Madrid, to protect him and see him through to the next sunrise.

Tucson hadn’t changed since he was there last. Dusty, wild and rowdy and had one of the best cafés around the border. Rosita’s stood at the end of town with the same dingy curtains dressing the windows and the same peeling coat of paint on the adobe structure’s thick wooden door. He could only hope that everything else was ‘the same’ inside the building. He wondered idly if the sassy camarera was there tending to the tables and flashing her pretty ankles with a sparkle in her large, dark eyes. The swing of her hips sent her shirt to rustle about those trim ankles, showing off a bit more than what was proper. And Johnny remembered Rosa chastising her for her boldness.

The tamales were some of the best he ever had, and he pulled Barranca to a stop at the hitchrail. Wrapping the reins with a lazy flip around the wobbly rail, he stepped onto the boardwalk and into the dim interior as anticipation for a good meal filled him. Relief flooded through him, finding the place empty of patrons. He looked around. The old worn bar with the same scuffs, bullet holes, and a few newer marks stretched along the far wall. Rosa stood behind it, washing cups in a basin of water and setting them on a shelf.

Johnny sauntered to the bar and leaned onto the scarred top before speaking in a soft drawl. “Buenas tardes, Señora,” as a slow smile crawled across his face.

Rosa Hernandez went pale, and her eyes flared; then, she exploded into a mixture of surprised greetings and scoldings for letting her believe the rumors of his death. Tears streamed down her face as she hurried around the bar to throw her arms around his neck. Johnny Madrid had been a favorite customer, and she loved him as a dear friend, then grieved over him when she heard of his death.

As the shock began to wear off, Rosa pulled back and held him at arm’s length, looking him over as if expecting to find a hurt and to make sure he was in one piece. She sighed and wiped at her tears.

“Juanito! I thought… it was bad news I hear! But how…? Never mind! You are here and well! That is all that matters!” She took his arm and steered him into the back, toward her modest living quarters behind the kitchen.

Seating Johnny at her table, Rosa brought out food and piled a plate high with the delicious meals she served to her customers in the café.

“Comer!” she ordered, refilling the plate as soon as he cleared a spot.

Soon, he had to quit or risk getting stuck in the chair! “Detener! Por favor! I’m gonna bust open if I eat any more!” He laughed. “Gracias, Rosa! Still the best food I ever had!” Johnny grabbed her arm and gently pulled her into the chair next to him. “I need ta talk, Rosa.”

Her blush at the compliments faded, and her eyes took on a serious stare. “¿Que? What is wrong, Juanito?”

“Don’t know yet. I just need ta ask a few questions.” He offered her a grin, hoping to calm the rising concern he saw in her eyes. “First off, has Val been through here?”

“No… will he be coming?” Her smiled stretched from one side of her face to the other. “If he is, then I need to start cooking…” she rose from her chair, hoping to get ready for Val and his legendary appetite, but Johnny caught her arm.

“Wait, Rosa, wait. I need ta tell ya something. If Val does come here, he can’t know ya seen me. It’s important that ya act surprised. I don’t want him ta know I was already through here. Rosa, it’s important— Don’t tell him ya seen me. I need ta check out some things before he gets ta Mexico. He left without me, but I followed him, just stayin’ away, but don’t want him ta know I’m here yet. An’, I don’t want anyone else ta know about me. So don’t say anything ta anyone, por favor.”

Rosa nodded her head in understanding. She had helped Johnny and Val in the past, and she would do so again; whatever they asked of her, she would be there for them.

“Have ya heard about anything in Nogales? Any trouble goin’ on?”

“Sí, there is trouble. De la Cruz, he is stealing from our people again. Stealing the mujer joven (young women) to sell, he is stealing everything.”

Johnny read the rage in the woman’s eyes, and he felt her anger, but now was not the time to let that rage out of control. He had to be thinking with a clear mind, shoving aside the fact the man was responsible for the murder of Rio Reyes and countless others.

Though the visit was brief, Johnny felt rested and well-fed by the time he rode away from Rosita’s Café. He didn’t gain any new information, only confirmation of things he suspected were happening. His only consolation was that he and Val would put a stop to it, one way or another. And as he rode, the thought occurred to him that Madrid would live on and fight for those who needed him. Johnny couldn’t let Madrid fade away, not as long as pendejoes like de la Cruz lived. And Madrid would continue to give what protection he could.

Val knew Johnny would be ready to shoot him. Leaving as he did, not bothering with an explanation, with no reason for the quick departure, would no doubt set off that famous Madrid hair-trigger temper. Val wondered if he would get out of this alive. Oh, hell, ‘ll prob’ly get killed before he gets a holda me! In truth, Val did have regrets about leaving the way he did, but he also knew the nightmares plagued Johnny from that time in his life. Scott told Val he sat with Johnny through a long night as the torment gripped him in a brutal hold. Along with the fever from illness, the dreams sent Johnny struggling with demons ordered by de la Cruz to kill him. For hours he fought, desperately trying to stay alive until exhaustion took over and his body stilled.

Did Val have the right to reopen those old wounds if they had begun to heal? He didn’t think he did. Johnny would have to understand. And he, Val, would have to deal with the consequences.

The morning had barely begun when Regalo de Amigo tossed his head, then stumbled. Val dismounted and picked up the hoof to find the horse had a thrown shoe. The next place to get help was miles down the road, and he began to walk.

That boy had better start taking this seriously! He’s a rancher now! He can’t be traipsing off every time he feels like it! There’s work to be done and not enough hands here to do it! But, in truth, that wasn’t the issue, and Murdoch knew it. He was worried. Worried and scared. He just wouldn’t admit it.

They had exchanged harsh words when Johnny left for town. Well, Murdoch had a few harsh words, Johnny asked a legitimate question, and it had taken Scott to point that out to him. And after he thought about it, he knew he was wrong. And now, Murdoch held the note that said he’d gone after Val. But the fact remained that Johnny couldn’t ride out whenever the urge hit him, and it irritated Murdoch, knowing there wasn’t much control over his younger son. It was a sore spot that wasn’t healing. When he returns, we’ll have to talk. And Murdoch began to pray Johnny would return… in one piece.

It was too easy. Madrid took the reins and slipped into place as if the time spent at Lancer had never existed. As if he’d never strayed away from the border. And Johnny considered it a good thing. This mission would require everything in Madrid’s arsenal to stop de la Cruz and end the destruction of human life and property forever.

He settled on the ridge above the dusty town, watching the people in their coming and going. Johnny hoped the situation had changed, but, in his heart he knew it was not any better. Nogales hadn’t changed much either. Without proper resources and money, how could it change? The story was always the same.

But this time, the evil that governed would be rooted out and destroyed. De la Cruz would suffer defeat. Johnny swore it to his amigo, the amigo that had died for the cause.

He waited until after dark before he descended the ridgeline and headed toward town. Johnny wondered if Val made it yet. It wouldn’t matter either way. Knowing he needed to keep a low profile, Johnny would stay out of sight and not make contact with Val until he had a few more details and a better handle of the situation. But time was of the essence in that Val might be walking into a nest of vipers. If de la Cruz had Reyes and his wife watched, Val wouldn’t know until he walked into a trap. And there was no way of knowing if he had beaten Val to town.

Keeping to the same deep shadows that served him well in the past, Johnny snuck through the back alleyways avoiding the chance of detection. Lucho Reyes’ little adobe was up ahead and to the right. So far, luck was on his side until the startled dog began to bark and growl and interrupted the still of the night.

Arturo de la Cruz stuffed himself in a gluttonous frenzy. Greasy fingers grabbed the roast pork, tearing it from the piglet carcass on the platter. A loud belch echoed in the dining room of the hacienda. The hacienda of the late Señor Javier Mendosa.

Mendosa’s refusal to give up his holdings authorized his demise and that of his wife. However, the sixteen-year-old daughter, Amaya, was allowed to reside in the home to keep Arturo’s bed warm and his perversions satisfied. Oh, he loved the feel of her struggling under his body! Until her belly swelled with the child growing there, conceived in lust and wanton urges, prevented the activities. Then she would be replaced, discarded for another.

Arturo smiled, pleased with his fortunes. His luck was holding, and he would soon own a large part of Sonora. It had taken two years to build up what he had nearly lost because of three men. Madrid, Crawford, and Reyes. But two of them were shot down, and the other would soon follow.

Reyes was the first. De la Cruz thought as he watched both the boy, then Madrid fall into the dirt. Crawford was able to drag Madrid away, and the pursuit to bring him, de la Cruz, to their justice was halted.

Arturo kept out of sight, slowly rebuilding his small army and gaining back the power he’d lost. And now he was ready to pick up where the attempt to overthrow his power left off. He would capture Sonora. And, he would kill Val Crawford, lured back across the border to his death. Without that miserable halfbreed, Madrid, to back him up, Crawford would fall when Arturo fired his gun, and the bullet tore the gringo’s brain in two.

But there had been problems. Highjacked wagons carrying young girls to sell into prostitution interrupted his business dealings, and the same held true with the men kidnapped into slavery.  It was going on for some time now, and money was in short supply; he had to wonder if Crawford was already here and didn’t know it. His cozy business dealings with Sonora’s crooked Rurales provided him a degree of protection that turned a blind eye to his ventures. In turn, he supplied them with the spoils of his looting, thefts, and murders. And he supplied them with women, lots of women.

But determined to get his problems resolved, Arturo de la Cruz took all precautions possible to him. Alerting the Rurales to watch for the gringo and sending out his men to stay vigilant and guard his growing domain was critical. But, the letter to Green River to lure Crawford into a trap was the guarantee he needed. The perro Crawford was an honorable man. Ha! That honor was going to get him killed! But he would be caught, and with that capture, the rest of the plan would fall into place.

Gulping down a glass of rich red wine, he stood, wiped his hands on the tablecloth, then mounted the stairs. Another belch followed in his wake as he unlocked the chamber door where the girl waited. She was terrified as he approached her and showing no tenderness, no consideration, he threw her on the bed. Arturo silenced her screams as he grunted with his pleasure.

No starving mongrel dog ever turned down a piece of aromatic jerky. Johnny threw the meat past the dog, and the mutt turned to chase it down. The barking stopped, and it ran away with the treasure tucked in its jaws; the salivating mouth left a dotted trail in the dirt as the dog anticipated the meal.

Johnny stayed where he was and listened to the night. Nothing stirred; nothing seemed amiss. But he knew better than to rely on how things ‘seemed to be’. He waited, silent and still, then left the security of the hiding place. He was now looking across a cluttered alleyway and the back of the Reyes home. Johnny wondered how many times he, along with Val and Rio, had walked through that door into the kitchen filled with the delicacies cooked by Isabella Reyes. Though she was of the Yaqui Indian nation from southern Sonora, she adapted, with every success, to the Mexican way of life with her beloved Lucho.

Their union produced only one child, Rio. Johnny could remember the Señora’s recounting her first sight of the Rio Grande. Never had she seen so much water in one spot, and the beauty of it took her breath away. Tel-e-ka asked her husband the name of this wondrous place. ‘Rio Grande,’ he told her. And it was then she knew the name of the baby she carried. Rio, a strong name for either a son or a daughter.

Tel-e-ka changed her name to honor Lucho’s mother. If she were to live in the Mexican world and raise her child as a Mexican, she, too, would adapt and be Mexican. She chose Isabella, a beautiful name for a beautiful woman.

And she learned to cook like a Mexican. She had served Johnny and Val at her table many times and was fond of her son’s amigos and treated them like her own. With a bit of jealousy, Johnny remembered that he learned to push aside as he watched her fuss over Rio, and it reminded him of his mother. And he smiled as the remembrances flooded through him.

Time for that later, Madrid. Johnny shook himself free of those long-ago days as he prepared to walk back into the house filled with cherished recollections. Sliding along the outside wall, Johnny stopped at the first window he came to. The room inside was dark, with no visible sign of danger to raise a concern. The next window, covered with a thin curtain, was another story altogether. The room behind the veil was awash with light, and in that light, Johnny made out Lucho and Isabella sitting at the table. That in itself was not unusual, but it was the two armed men with them that told Johnny what he needed to know. They were waiting for Val.

Alright, amigo, where the hell are ya? Silently retracing his steps, Johnny mounted Barranca and headed out of town. The spot was only three miles to the west of Nogales. There in the hills was a camp he and Val used many times. It was one of the few places with water. A small stream ran down from the mountains and provided fresh water that, along with the rocky outcroppings and overhanging ledges, allowed for an ideal spot to spend the night.

In his mind, Johnny kept going over what he would say to Val when the sheriff finally showed his face. Johnny wanted to knock some sense into that scruffy head. Val set off without him and didn’t leave him a note, nothing to indicate an issue. What the hell was Johnny to think when he was told of Val’s resignation? What could he say to Val? No words would suffice. Only the signed resignation and the wadded-up piece of paper told Johnny what he needed to know. I oughta just punch him!  And the thought brought a smile, but that smile quickly faded when Johnny saw the camp was already occupied.

He left Barranca tied in the trees. Johnny knew he would need a different horse. The palomino was like a torch, bright, even in the moonlight. The horse was an attractive animal, a head-turner, and that’s one thing he did not need. Attention.

Johnny hunkered down behind the cover of rocks and watched the intruder. It was with some humor that he launched the rock to the other side of the camp as the man, in one smooth motion, crouched and drew his pistol, then started to investigate the sudden noise.

With footsteps that would make an Indian proud, Johnny walked into camp, stood by the fire, then announced his presence.

“I oughta haul off an’ slug ya senseless, pendejo!”

Val nearly jumped out of his skin. He spun around with wide eyes that would have made Johnny laugh if the mad hadn’t already consumed his mind and body.

“What the hell, Val, what right do ya have ta leave without me? Huh? What right? Explain it ta me cuz I don’t know!” He advanced on his amigo as the fire blazed in his eyes with mounting rage and his hands fisted of their own accord. Blood pounded through him as his mad got the best of him and exploded. Johnny drew back and landed the punch to Val’s jaw that sent him flat on his back.

“Son-of-a-bitch! I oughta just shoot ya!” Then, as suddenly as it started, it was over. But Johnny did not extend his hand in an offer to help Val to his feet. With one last glare, Johnny turned, walked out of camp, and retrieved Barranca from his cover.

The fire danced in the circle of stones sending tiny sparks to float upward into the midnight velvet sky. The stars glittered like thousands of fireflies that flickered their greeting in the darkness. But even that usually welcoming gesture did not quell the conflict that battled in Johnny’s head. Val should have known better. Then volleyed to, Val was trying to protect me.

He had not said a word when he brought Barranca into camp to settle him beside Amigo. After dragging his saddle by the fire, Johnny helped himself to the coffee brewing on a rock next to the flames. It was strong and bitter, much like his thoughts. But Madrid knew he had to let it go. It would eat him up inside and possibly hamper his abilities if he didn’t get it under control. A mental hamstring that had the potential to prove fatal, and not just for himself.

Val waited. Nothing he could say would ease the tension until Johnny was ready for that to happen. And it did.

Staring into the flames, Johnny took a deep breath. “What’d ya think you were gonna do comin’ down here alone?” The words held an edge, though spoken in Madrid’s deceptively soft tone.

Val took his time answering; he knew why Johnny was angry; hell, he would be too if Johnny took off on a mission such as this without him. But that didn’t change what was.

“Couldn’t risk the Reyes’ gettin’ hurt. They paid enough. You got yer own troubles with yer ol’ man ta be traipsin’ off…”

Johnny turned to face Val, his eyes blazing. “Wasn’t your call ta make, Val.” Then he yanked his blanket over him and pulled his hat down to cover his eyes.

That was it. The confrontation was over and now settled. And they slept.

The sun was just rising above the mountain peaks when Val finally rolled out of his blankets. The smell of the coffee pulled him to consciousness, but the fog in his brain would linger until he had a second cup. He growled out a yawn, then struggled to his feet, legs stiff from a night on the ground. Getting’ too old for this. And he made his way to the brushes.

Johnny sat on a rock, looking down onto the plains below. There was no sign of trouble; there was no movement at all, and he watched, trying to come up with a workable plan. How would they deal with de la Cruz this time? Their failure to take the bastard out three years ago served as a blatant reminder they had to succeed in this attempt. They could not allow defeat this time.

Madrid left his place on the rock to refill his cup as Val shuffled back into camp. With a wide grin, Johnny motioned to the deep purple-blue bruise on Val’s face. “It’s an improvement.” Then chuckled at Val’s descriptive words, telling Johnny what he could do to relieve any sexual urgings… by himself.

They wasted no more time and began to put together a plan that would not get them or the Reyes killed.

“De la Cruz has two men guardin’ Lucho and Isabella. We gotta get them outta there without causin’ any ruckus. Them guards hafta have some instructions from their boss for when you get there.” 

A look of surprise covered Val’s face wondering how Johnny had that information. “Jus’ how long you been here?” he asked incredulously.

Johnny smirked. “Long enough ta check things out. How were you thinkin’ on doin’ this?”

Val shrugged. “Got no idea. Guess I needed ta know what was happenin’ when I got there, see what I was up against. But you just did that for me. So, I guess we take out them guards an’ get Lucho an’ Isabella outta that house. I ain’t about ta let ‘em get hurt cuz of me.”

“Won’t be cuz a you, Val. Whatever happens, is cuz a de la Cruz. First thing I gotta do is get another horse. Hate ta do it, but ridin’ Barranca’s not gonna make me blend in. Ya got any idea where we can hide the Reyes’?”

“No, I ain’t, but we gotta think of somethin’, an’ fast. We got until the day after tamorrow before the time de la Cruz gave me is up. I got a sneakin’ suspicion that pendejo is in cahoots with the Rurales around here, otherwise, he wouldn’t still be raisin’ all this hell. Them Rurales is crooked as the Widow Hargis’ little finger with alla her artheritis!”

“Hey, Val, think Fernando Santos might still have his place south of town? Maybe he’s got a horse I can use…” More voicing the wanderings of his mind than asking Val’s opinion, Johnny began to break camp and saddle Barranca.

Val followed, knowing his answer wasn’t needed. Besides, a visit to Santos might give them more information. In the past, the man had a good grasp of the happenings in and around the border town. 

Skirting around Nogales, Johnny and Val took the little-used trail toward the Santos Rancho. It, too, was the same. Barely more than a path, no wider, or narrower, than the last time Johnny traveled it, taking the same meander through the hills as if time had stood still. Old Mexico, Johnny thought, the same. But now, more corrupt than ever.

The lone man watched from a safe distance. He would follow the two men and find out what brought them to Nogales, but he had things to do and places to be for now. But he would find out in his own time. He vanished behind the rise and escaped detection.

Below them lay Rancho Santos. They’d spent many a night with the friends that resided there. The meals taken together with amigos and their families were some of the best times Johnny could remember, and though the Santos’ and the Reyes’ were not blood kin, Johnny and Val couldn’t have loved them more.

The place looked in need of repair, making Johnny wonder what condition they would find those behind the thick walls. But he didn’t have to wonder long. As he and Val rode through the gate and into the yard, the heavy wooden door swung open, and Fernando Santos hobbled out, leaning heavily on a crutch. His leg, wrapped tightly in bandages, could not take his weight.

Juanito? You… you are alive? We thought you were dead!” His eyes were not deceiving him, and his heart hammered in his chest. Nando hurried forward as fast as he could. How was this possible? Juanito was dead! “Val?  Amigos, what brings you to my door? It has been many years!” Tucking the crutch under his arm, he embraced the visitors, then turned toward the house. “Por favor, this way! We have much to celebrate, mi amigos!”

Fernando Santos pushed his way into the house. “Lucas! Come see; old amigos have come home!”

A tall boy of about fourteen hurried out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on his pant legs.

“Sí, Papa!” His eyes widened when he realized who it was standing in the house. “Señors! It is good to see you again!” Relief and gladness flooded the youthful features as he rushed forward, extending his hand.

Both Johnny and Val offered the kid a broad grin as the boy pumped their hands with an enthusiastic grip. The smile on the boy’s face nearly split it in two.

“This can’t be that skinny niño that was here three years ago… can it?” Val teased.

Lucas, pleased Val remembered him, responded, “Sí, it is me!”

Val then turned to Fernando. “What’re you feedin’ this boy ta make ‘im grow like that?”

Fernando grinned proudly.

Johnny smiled at the boy. “Good ta see ya, kid! Grown some.”

Lucas pulled his shoulders back, standing as tall as he was able.

“Mi amigos, what brings you here? It is not good you come back. De la Cruz…” Santos began.

“Yeah, we know, Nando. He’s why we’re here. But we need some help.” Johnny hesitated, not wanting to involve any innocent people and possibly get them hurt… or killed.

“Anything for you, amigos! Anything,”  There was no doubt about it. Fernando Santos would be happy to help, asking no questions and expecting no answers.

 Johnny took a step forward. “Well, I need a horse, somethin’ that won’t be seen at night, if ya have one, an’ I need ta leave mine here if you can hide him.”

“I have many caballos. Good animals. Lucas will take you, and you will pick one, then leave your horse to run with the others in that pasture. It will be safe for you to do that.” Nando grinned, anxious to do more for these brave men. The brave men that had laid their lives on the line for the people of Mexico.

“Gracias, amigo, appreciate it,” Johnny smiled his thanks, then sighed.

Fernando, with a sparkle in his eyes, made them an offer. “I think you will need a place to sleep, no?”

“We ain’t stayin’ here, Nando. It’s too dangerous,” Val began.

“I am not asking you to stay here, but there is a small cabin up by the horses. It is out of the way, and you will not be found. No one knows it is there…” and he watched their eyes. Then he grinned. “Bueno! It is settled. I will get you food, and Lucas will show you the way!” Fernando Santos was proud, proud to help these men, and would do everything he could for the cause.

“Carina!” Santos bellowed, and a short round woman hurried from the kitchen. “¡Empaca algo de comida pare ellos, por favor!” (Pack some food for them, please!)

The woman bobbed her head, “Sí, señor,” and she disappeared into the kitchen.

“Come, mi amigos, sit! While we wait, I can tell you about that cerdo (pig) de la Cruz!”

For the next hour, Fernando filled them in with vivid detail of Arturo de la Cruz’s exploits. The man was, indeed, a pig, meaning no disrespect to the four-legged animal.

“He has taken over the hacienda of Javier Mendosa and even now has used young Amaya Mendosa shamelessly. It is said, if you pass near there in the night, you can hear her screaming.” Fernando stopped the words out of respect for Mendosa and deep sympathy for the girl, knowing she was not likely to survive.

Val sighed in disgust. Johnny, with a promise on his lips, sat looking into the fire with blazing eyes.

Fernando watched the two men that sat at his table. He didn’t know the exact thoughts they had swirling in their minds, but he took great pleasure and pride to help them in whatever they planned.

Then Johnny and Val gathered their stampeding emotions and tucked them away… for now. The time would come to let those feelings loose. The end of de la Cruz’s reign was fast approaching.

Johnny turned to Santos with a raised brow, then asked. “What happened ta your leg, Nando?”

Santos turned red. The blush crawled up his neck, over his face, and colored the top of the balding pate. He looked down at his hands folded in his lap, and a chagrined expression shrouded his face, dreading the explanation. Wishing he could ignore the question, he bravely took a large breath and told the truth.

“The milk cow, she kicked me…” He wanted to hide under the table. Here he sat, with Madrid and Crawford telling them he’d been kicked by a cow. These men faced death over and over when he, Fernando, had faced… a cow.

They both fought it down. Fernando was a good man and did not deserve the humiliation of getting laughed at by friends. Truth was, both Johnny and Val knew a milk cow could be damned ornery.

“Well, Nando, ya take care a that leg an’ do what Carina tells ya ta do!” Val chastised as he pushed himself to his feet. Johnny followed him to the door.

“The bruja, she does not know when to keep quiet!” Fernando groused with a glance at the kitchen door, fearful the woman was listening. “Lucas! It is time to go!”

“Watch yourself, Nando, an’ gracias! We’re gonna try an’ keep the fight away from your door. With any luck, they won’t find out we’re here until it’s too late, amigo,” Johnny held out a hand. Fernando Santos grabbed it in a tight grasp, then turned to Val and did the same.

“Vaya con Dios, mi amigos! You need anything, you come to see me!”

With the goodbyes said, Johnny and Val followed young Lucas into the hills above the rancho.

They traveled through a narrow, winding passageway only to have it suddenly widen out into a green, grassy valley. Lucas jumped off his horse, opened the gate, then closed it when Johnny and Val passed through. The three of them sat, two awed and one proud as they took in the scene before them.

Lucas sighed. “It’s not much, but it is ours.”

Johnny and Val exchanged surprised looks, then Johnny spoke. “Not much? This’s a little bit of Heaven, kid!”

Lucas beamed at the compliment.

The canyon, with its high walls, formed an enclosed pasture. It was large enough to support the horses that grazed on the sweet grass and, at the far end, lay a small lake fed by a waterfall that cascaded down out of the mountains. It was an oasis made by ethereal hands sitting in the middle of barren rock.

A cabin stood next to the lake and would be home for Johnny and Val for the time they were here. And it would be an excellent hideout for the Reyes’.

“The horses, they are over this way. They have been up here grazing for many weeks and will not want you to ride them,” Lucas warned.

“Oh, that’s alright, Lucas. Ol’ Johnny here needs ta get tossed on his head a time or two, jus’ ta keep him workin’ all proper like!” Val laughed.

Johnny was impressed. Fernando had done well for himself. These horses were good quality stock. He watched the animals grazing on the lush grass, tails flicking away the biting insects, with an occasional glance in their direction; they were the picture of calm, serenity. A few caught his eye; he studied how they moved and their temperaments as they mingled and teased with their herd mates. One particular horse stood out as Johnny observed the interactions of the steeds. That’s the one. And he introduced himself.

While Val slipped his rope around Barranca’s neck, Johnny took his gear from the horse’s back and walked toward the small herd. He dropped the saddle and bridle in the grass, then stood still, watching the horse, and the horse watched him. Blue eyes met brown and held. Then the horse tossed his head, sending his long mane in a dark flurry around him. Johnny began the gentle murmurings, then moved forward, and the animal didn’t move.

Lucas watched in amazement. Val heard the sharp intake of breath from the boy as Johnny reached out a hand, and the horse nuzzled his palm. Val smiled and turned to the boy.

“It’s somethin’, ain’t it?”

Lucas didn’t answer; he’d never seen anything like it, and he wanted to know more. He wanted to knowwhat Madrid already knew.

Knowing there wasn’t a lot of time to invest in the introductions, Johnny did need some time to gentle him, make friends, and perhaps gain a bit of trust. The horse had been running wild and a few things needed to be addressed. The eyes of the animal were bright, like fire. Fuego. Fire. Good name, Johnny thought.

He did not fight the bit and stood to allow the saddle on his back. Johnny smiled, but he wasn’t fool enough to think Fuego wouldn’t object to having a man sitting on him. And he was right.

The second Fuego felt the man settle on his back, he let loose, bucking as any self-respecting half-wild horse would. But the man stayed with him, and after his efforts to dislodge the human failed him, Fuego gave up the fight. He’d been through this before.

Johnny rode him through the pasture and took him through a series of maneuvers, then satisfied the horse understood which one was in charge, he stopped and dismounted next to Val and Lucas.

Lucas stared with an open mouth. “Can… can you show me how to do that?”

Johnny chuckled. “If there’s enough time, Lucas, I can show ya a few things. But for now, we need to get movin’; we got a lotta things ta do, kid.”

“Sí, I understand. I have to get back to Papa.” Lucas turned and mounted his horse. “Let us know if you need anything more. Adiós!”

“Hey, Lucas!” Johnny called out, stopping the boy before he could leave them.

“We don’t want anyone knowin’ we’re here, alright? You ain’t seen us. ¿Comprendo?” Johnny watched the boy’s eyes and knew Lucas did understand.

A wide smile slid across the boy’s face knowing these men trusted him. “Sí, I understand! Adiós!” Then, with a wave of his hand, Lucas Santos was gone, leaving Madrid and Crawford alone in the protected valley.

The cabin was well stocked and comfortable. Neither Johnny nor Val were concerned for themselves but knew that the Reyes’ would be fine here for the time being. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be for long.

Turning Barranca loose in the pasture with the others, Johnny smiled as he watched the creamy-white mane toss as the horse sensed his freedom. Then, Johnny sobered. “Hope there ain’t any mares in season out there.”

Val smirked. “Well, by the time he’s done with ‘em, they won’t be no more!”

Mounting the horses, Johnny Madrid and Val Crawford left the quiet and comfort of the little valley. They had work to do.

The man kept to the shadows as he marked the passage of the two strangers into town. They were the same two he’d watched from the ridge as they skirted around Nogales and continued south. And now, here they were, sneaking into town. He had to admit, the men were good. No one paid them any mind, but he did, and he would make sure they did not cause any trouble. The man tied his horse behind the stable, then followed on foot. Damn! They are good! They’re gone!

“How you wanna do this, amigo?” Val whispered as they hunkered down in the alley. Johnny didn’t answer. “Somethin’ wrong?”

He took his time. “Huh? Dunno if anything’s wrong. Had a feelin’ we’re bein’ watched, though.” With one last glance around, Johnny then focused on the back door of the little house. “Here, take this,” and handed Val an empty bottle he’d picked out of the dirt.

Val looked at the empty in his hand, and a frown creased his forehead. “Now what’m I gonna do with this?” he asked in disgust.

Johnny snorted. “Ya drank it all, act like it,” he laughed.

“Well, I didn’t drink it!” Val barked.

“Shhh! No, ya didn’t; all ya gotta do is act like it! Now go on! Oh, wait a minute!” Johnny leaned over, grabbed a handful of Val’s shirt, and pulled the left side out of his pants to hang, creating a sloppy appearance, well, more than Val’s usual sloppy appearance. “If you’re gonna act like you’re drunk, might as well look the part.” Again, Johnny chuckled as Val leveled a scathing glare his way.

With the empty bottle in hand, Val started down the alley behind Reyes’ house, making noise as he went. It didn’t take long before he heard a hammer of a pistol snick into place behind him, secretly sending a chill down his spine. But Val didn’t show it. Instead, he stumbled and held out his bottle, offering to share the tasty libation.

Val never was fluent in Spanish, oh, he could carry on a conversation, but to actually speak as if he were a drunken Mexican trying to find his way home on a dark night, well, Johnny could only cringe.

“Lo s-siento-to! ¡No que hacer ruido, tomar una copa, amigo!” (Didn’t mean ta make noise, have a drink, amigo!) and Val stumbled, getting closer.

Johnny smiled, waiting for the right time to step in. It was getting close.

The man that had been guarding the Reyes’ wanted to shoot but knew he could not. “¡Fuer de aquí, borracho!” (Get out of here, drunk!)

It was then Val drew back to land a powerful left hook that sent the guard flying back into Johnny’s arms. Dragged into the shadows and secured, the guard lay unconscious and helpless.

They entered the kitchen by way of the back door. Looking into the dim light cast by the lamp lit in the other room, Johnny and Val could see the second guard nervously pacing and wondering what to do. Aiming his pistol at the couple in the room, he gave them an order to stay where they were. People tend to say stupid things when they’re stressed, and the guard seemed very stressed. He checked the bindings, satisfied the Reyes’ were tied to their chairs and couldn’t move had they wanted.

Slipping through the kitchen, he almost made it to the door when he fell in a heap after the butt of the Colt slammed into his head. Catching the body before it landed on the floor, Val tied the man as Johnny cautiously scoped out the room at the front of the house. No one else was there.

Stepping silently into the room where Lucho and Isabella sat at the small table, he put his finger to his lips, signaling for quiet; however, the gasp from Isabella and the tears that streamed down her face warmed his heart. But there would be time for this later, and Johnny offered her the smile she recognized from years ago.

No, this was no spirit! It was him! And though overjoyed to see him again, this man was a connection to her beloved son!  Lucho blinked his eyes, but he, too, found he could not clear the water as it trickled down his face.

Johnny silently pointed to the front of the house, asking if there were guards outside.

“I do not think so, Juanito!” Lucho whispered.

Before Lucho could get all the words spoken, Johnny was at their side, cutting through the rough bindings that tore the skin on their wrists. The second he released Isabella, she threw her arms around his shoulders, hugging him close, and sobbed into his chest.

Val finished with the guard and entered the small room to free Lucho. Though brief, they exchanged a heartfelt greeting, then Johnny brought it to an end.

“There’ll be time enough for this later; we gotta get outta here, now!” Expecting questions but relieved when there weren’t any, Johnny and Val hustled the Reyes out the back door.

“Hey, I found the guard’s horses. We can use ‘em for Lucho an’ Isabella!” Val announced. “We can hide these two idiotas behind the church!”

They left the guards tied face to face to the roof support in the rear of the abandoned church. It would be a while before anyone discovered them, giving Johnny and Val enough time to smuggle the Reyes out of town.

“’ Kay, Val, I’m gonna make sure no one’s following. You get goin’ an’ I’ll catch up ta ya, amigo!” Not waiting for an answer, Johnny left the three mounted on horses as they turned, keeping to the shadows, and rode inconspicuously to the southwest.

Johnny watched for a few minutes from the alley across from the old church. He had the feeling someone was watching again.

They were up to something, of that he was sure, especially now that he could see only one of them. Where had the other man got off to? Well, he had this one in his sights, and the time had come to find out what the man had on his mind. He circled and would come in behind…

There! Johnny saw a figure duck out of sight. He’s gonna try an’ get behind me… Good luck with that, pendejo! Johnny stood still and waited. Four minutes later, a man sneaked into the alley and walked within feet of him. Johnny let him pass, then pounced. With the speed of a mountain lion attacking its prey, Johnny landed the first punch, but the man was no novice to street fighting and dished out as good as he got. They rolled in the dirt, exchanging blows, and Johnny knew it had to stop before someone heard the commotion and saw them. Then he caught a flash of the man’s face in the dim light of the moon.

Something was familiar, familiar, and not right. This shouldn’t be happening!

Both men stopped in mid-swing, and both said the other’s name in disbelief.



Then simultaneously, “I thought you were dead!”

Johnny recovered first. “What happened, amigo?”

“Get offa me! Don’t want anyone ta see us like this! I ain’t that kind of guy, an’ you know how people gossip!” Rio said around a smirk as he tried to catch his breath.

Johnny wanted to laugh! Rio ain’t dead! But he knew there was no time for talk.

“Where’s your horse?” Johnny asked, out of breath.

“Down that way,” Rio gestured to the outskirts of town.

Together, they melted into the night and headed for the mountains.

Once out of town and sure no one followed, Johnny turned to his amigo thought long dead. The sight of the kid brought happiness to his heart, a profound and pure relief that seemed to wrap him in unbelievable joy. Three brothers, though only one of blood. “So, what happened, Rio? Both me an’ Val saw ya take that bullet an’ go down.”

Rio shrugged. “Guess some folks we were helpin’ dragged me outta there. Wanted ta bury me proper, but I wasn’t dead!” Rio flashed him a smile, but it wasn’t returned, and he knew then Johnny was deeply affected, thinking he was dead.

“Anyway, it took a while ta get back on my feet. Hell, it was two months before I could sit a horse again. Then gettin’ back ta bein’ able ta do anythin’ about de la Cruz, well, it took a while.”

Johnny paused as he mulled over the words ‘before I was able ta do anythin’ about de la Cruz.’ He was still working against the pendejo, causing trouble?

“Wait a minute, what do ya mean, ‘doin’ somethin’ about de la Cruz’? You workin’ alone?”

Rio chuckled. “Not alone exactly. There’s a few others, but, yeah, I’m causin’ the bastard some problems. Was able ta waylay a shipment of girls he sellin’ in Chihuahua just two weeks ago.”

In the dark, Johnny could see the shiver crawl down Rio’s spine.

“Johnny, some a them girls were only twelve an’ fourteen years old! I couldn’t sit back an’ let that happen! He’s sellin’ the men an’ boys as slaves ta work in the silver mines; I have ta do what I can ta stop it.”

“We’ll get it stopped, Rio. You, me an’ Val, we’ll stop it, amigo.”

“I shoulda known! Val’s here, too! That was you two I saw ride over to Fernando Santos’. Didn’t know it was you at the time. Hell, I thought you were dead! But then I saw ya in town tonight; I needed ta check on my folks. Ain’t seen ‘em yet. They still think I’m dead. I need ta get back ta town, Johnny…”

“Hey, I’m takin’ ya ta your folks, Rio. Me an’ Val just got them outta there. We’re hidin’ ‘em on Nando’s place up in the mountains.”

Rio turned to Johnny. “Why?”

“Cuz de la Cruz wanted Val ta come down here. He had ta use your folks as bait. Think about it, he thinks you’re dead, an’ he thinks I’m dead. With Val outta the way, that’ll tie up a few loose ends,” Johnny explained.

“Are they alright, Johnny?” Rio was now worried. He knew what de la Cruz was capable of doing.

“Yeah, they’re fine. A little shook up but fine,” Johnny reassured him.

Thinking back on the things Johnny told him, Rio said, ”Well, that would make sense ta get Val down here, except, Johnny, he knows I’m still alive. He knows it’s me that’s been interruptin’ his ‘shipments’. The only one he thinks is dead is you. So he’s usin’ Val an’ my folks ta lure me in an’ take care a us both. Then he’ll think he’s got his biggest threats outta the way. We got us a bunch of trouble, amigo!”

Thinking back to their meeting, Johnny had to smile. Rio Reyes was a scrappy kid, always fighting, sporting black eyes and bloody noses. But there was something about the kid Johnny couldn’t help but admire. If he thought he was right, Rio never backed down. And he reminded Johnny of a young Madrid.

They had formed an alliance, Johnny, Val, and Rio, eventually working together, fighting side by side. Rio learned from them. And he learned how to win.

Johnny thought back to when Rio began to adopt their ways. Both Rio and Johnny preferred the leather calzoneras and the bolero jackets often worn by men in Mexico; he lost the sombrero in favor of the hats worn by gringos, and learned the way of guns.

Johnny taught him what he could but held back, hoping to discourage any interest in gunfighting. But he needn’t have worried. From the beginning, Rio only wanted to help right the wrongs, the crimes committed on his people.

It was two-thirty in the morning when Johnny and Rio arrived at the little cabin in the mountains on the Santos Rancho.

“Hey,” Johnny snickered, “when ya see Val, say somethin’ about that pretty bruise he’s got growin’ across his face!”

Knowing Johnny the way he did, Rio could only imagine the story behind the request and made it a point to question Val.

They smelled the smoke coming from the chimney and knew Val had gotten Lucho and Isabella safely tucked away. Whistling softly in a signal only Johnny and Val knew, he announced their arrival, and Johnny quietly stepped into the cabin.

“Val?” Then he heard the hammer ease back into place.

“Val, I got someone with me. Light the lamp; Lucho an’ Isabella are gonna wanna see.”

Val could hear the smile in Johnny’s voice. Just what the hell was he up to now?

Val struck a match and lit the lamp, illuminating the cabin’s interior as the two newcomers stepped into the soft glow.

Isabella gasped, then her eyes rolled back in her head, and she started to fall. Rio rushed forward to catch his mother.

Johnny and Val stepped out onto the porch leaving the Reyes’ alone to celebrate a reunion of the most private and precious kind.

Val struggled to clear his throat and chase away the lump that refused to leave. When that lump was manageable, he was able to croak out his first question, and the gravelly voice touched Johnny. Val had a huge soft heart underneath all the Crawford bluff and bluster.

“How’d he make it out alive, amigo?” He lowered himself to the steps before the weakened knees gave way, then Johnny sat beside him.

“He told me some of the folks he was rescuin’ dragged him outta there an’ nursed him till he was better. Said it took a long time ta get back on his feet. But since then, he’s doin’ his best ta cause de la Cruz a few nightmares. Rio’s responsible for disruptin’ the transportin’ of prisoners. The girls get sold down in Chihuahua, an’ the men an’ boys get sold ta work in the silver mines. He’s got a few that help him.” Johnny paused as a light-colored ghostly form walked slowly out of the dark, and Barranca came to nuzzle his pocket, searching for a treat. Johnny scratched his ears and regretted he had nothing to give the animal.

Val smiled in the dark. He felt immense pride in Rio. He was a few years younger than Johnny, and Val had always felt he had two younger brothers. Yes, he was proud of both of them.

Her eyes fluttered in the dim lamplight. She had the most beautiful dream! Her Rio came to visit… and she burst into tears.

“Shhh, Mama, it’s alright! I’m here!” Rio whispered as he held her in his arms.

With gentle fingers, he brushed the long hair from her face as he waited for her to gather her scattered senses.

Isabella gazed into the eyes she thought lost to her forever. Her breath caught in her throat, and she could not speak. Tearing her eyes away from this most magical sight, Isabella sought out Lucho. Her husband sat close and kept wiping at the water that flowed uncontrolled from his eyes. He is real! she thought. Sitting up, she pulled her only child into her arms and continued to weep.

Lucho reached out a hand to lay on Rio’s shoulder.

Clutching his mother to his chest, he sought his father’s hand and pulled him into the embrace. Rio was home.

She couldn’t stop. Isabella had to pause as she stirred the kettle on the stove. Her eyes refused to cease their watering. It must be the spices! She told herself and smiled. It would soon be time to feed her family. The four men sat around the table, talking over plans. Plans that scared Isabella. Dangerous plans, but she kept that to herself, not wanting to interrupt them. She knew these desperate times called for desperate plans.

Rio turned to face his father. “Do you understand why I couldn’t let you know I was alive, Papa?” He did not mince words and did not make any excuses.

Their eyes locked. Lucho reluctantly nodded. “Sí, my son, I know. I cannot say it was easy, but I know now why it is important to have de la Cruz believe you were gone. But, he knows now that you are very much alive. What will you do?” Lucho Reyes looked around the table at the three of them.

“If we can cut off his dealings with the Rurales and keep finding ways to rescue the people he sells, we will eventually get to him. He is a cobarde and won’t take chances himself. But he will face us; in the end, he will face us.” Rio looked around the table with resolve in his eyes.

Johnny couldn’t help but smile as he watched Isabella watching Rio. Gone was the stoicism generally associated with her people and, in its place, was raw emotion, the love of a mother for her son. And Johnny had to wonder if his mother ever felt that love for him?

And for the first time, Johnny saw Isabella’s features in Rio. His face wasn’t flat and wide as with most Indian tribes, but he had his mother’s large black eyes under arched brows. High cheekbones spoke of a proud Yaqui heritage, strong and fearless. Mixed in were Lucho’s Mexican traits, broad shoulders, muscular and lean, capable of protecting that which was his and keeping it safe. And there was a stubborn streak from them both that put Val to shame.

A sturdy jaw that withstood attacks from heavy fists framed the lower part of his face and would flex in stubborn resolve when he knew he was in the right. Ravens-wing black hair, thick and shaggy from both mother and father, topped his tall frame, and Johnny had yet to figure which side, mother’s or father’s, gave Rio the six-foot, three-inch height.

Johnny looked around the table at his friends, proud to call them his extended family and family they were, blood or not.

“So, where we headed, Rio?” Val asked, looking around the rocky terrain as they rode.

“We need to make contact with the people I’m workin’ with. They been keepin’ an eye on the comings an’ goings of the wagons carryin’ the captives. We think we know where de la Cruz is hidin’ ‘em. The mountains southwest of here are far enough away where no one would find ‘em. We were thinkin’ on stealin’ the guard’s horses an’ if we could find where they’re keepin’ any ammunition an’ extra guns, we were gonna blow ‘em up. With no horses or bullets ta fight with, they oughta be more apt ta listen.”

Val laughed. “Boy, you seem ta know what you’re doin’!” Once again, he felt pride in Rio bubble to the surface.

Now, it was Rio’s turn to laugh as he shifted his sight back and forth between his amigos and recalled their times together. “Hey, I learned from the best!” Then, they fell silent and concentrated on their surroundings watching for Rurales or de la Cruz’s men.

Rio signaled for Johnny and Val to stop. Then he brought his hands to his mouth and whistled a three-toned signal, then waited for an answer. The response came quickly, and they climbed up a steep, narrow path that led to a small camp in the rocks. Once at the top, Rio smiled. “Welcome to base camp.”

Six men gathered, leaving their cover, and greeted Rio but made no effort to hide their suspicions of Johnny and Val.

“Amigos! Good news I bring, this is Johnny Madrid and Val Crawford!”

To say there was doubt on the faces of the men before them was an understatement. But Johnny and Val had seen it before. Many people still did not know that Madrid lived. The men were, at best, suspicious and hesitant.

Rio dismounted and read the faces of the men before him. He knew they had their reservations and saw it in their eyes. “Amigos, it’s true, Madrid lives, an’ he’s here to help us!”

The statement sunk in, and the realization set in motion a collective barrage of questions. Rio couldn’t help but smile. He knew what they were feeling— the same emotion he felt after he and Johnny fought in the alley and realized the other was alive.

Johnny and Val stood silently observing the interaction between Rio Reyes and his men… and they were proud of him. Though their time together was not long, Rio took what he learned from them and used those tactics for good.

The men standing before them looked to Rio for guidance, and though he was younger, much younger than most of them, they relied on his strength and knowledge to lead them in rescue attempts for those who lived now in captivity and would die without their help. And they would help in the fight to bring de la Cruz down, permanently. The man didn’t know it yet, but his days were swiftly coming to an end. And Johnny and Val were only too happy to lend a hand in that venture.

Arturo de la Cruz wanted to shoot someone, and he knew who that someone was. Damn Crawford had better get here quick. He knows I will make Reyes pay if he doesn’t show his face. Maybe I will have some fun with Reyes for making me wait! Then I will make Crawford watch when I butcher them… Once Arturo captured Crawford, the Reyes brat would be easy! And de la Cruz laughed to himself, secretly relieved that Madrid was already dead.

Tomorrow he would gather his men to be ready when Crawford finally decided to show. The wicked grin snaked across his broad face, and satisfied his plans were going to work, he climbed the stairs to the sleeping chamber. The young girl would earn her keep tonight.

But his lust quickly faded as César Ortiz raced into the room.

“Arturo! The Reyes’! They are gone!”

“Johnny, I never asked how you made it outta that fight alive. It was days before I even knew you were shot.” Rio questioned over the fire. It was past sundown, the air was getting cold, and the heat radiating from the flames warmed their hides.

Johnny shrugged. “Ask Val. I didn’t know anything till days later.”

Rio turned to Val and raised his brow, questioning, asking without words.

“Oh, took some doin’, had ta carry his ass over my shoulder outta there. He’s heavier’n he looks, ya know!” Val chuckled as the others joined in. “Had no choice but ta throw ‘im on a horse an’ get outta there fast as we could. Just rode like hell; there weren’t too many of them Rurales that followed us. Guess we lost ‘em somewhere along the way cuz when I looked behind us, couldn’t see no one there, but it was gettin’ dark. Went as far as we could with him bleedin’ like he was, then laid low for a while. Other’n that, ain’t much ta tell.”

But Val held back with all the details. It would serve no purpose to tell Rio of his parents’ grief while nursing Johnny and keeping him and Val sheltered and safe from those that searched for them.

Rio watched the blaze flicker in the circle of stones. The yellow-orange light reflected in his eyes as relief flooded his body. The thought of losing Johnny had weighed heavily on his mind. And the knowledge that the man responsible for his death and the atrocities forced on innocents was still in power, killing and tearing families apart made him sick. He lowered his head and squeezed his eyes shut, hoping it would wash the ugliness out of his mind.

Johnny read the thoughts. He knew them well. They were the same haunting images that swept him along as he recovered from the chest wound. The same ugly nightmares that shredded his heart every time he closed his eyes. He’d seen Rio go down a split second before a bullet slammed into his chest, and they lay stagnant and rotting in his mind knowing their amigo was killed in the fight. Shot in the back— and the coward responsible for it all was still living, breathing, and continuing to rape the land and the people who lived there… but not for long.

“Hey, Rio,” Johnny whispered, “We’ll get him, you, me an’ Val an’ your men. We’ll get him, amigo.”

Rio raised his eyes to Johnny and Val and held their stares. This was a horrific fight, and there was a strong possibility they could be killed, but they’d been in this position before. And if they were to die, he was in good company. But they would be taking de la Cruz along with them. And Rio smiled.

“Alright, let’s make some plans!”

Murdoch paced in front of the fireplace, then the length of the great room. It was the same since Johnny left Lancer. Scott and Teresa avoided him. His short temper and sharp remarks drove them to seek solace in the safety of their rooms. And that left Murdoch alone to mull over the situation caused by his inability to control his vexation. And why was he vexed? Thinking back, he had no reason to snap at Johnny. He asked a legitimate question. What am I doing? I can’t blame him for the things his mother did. But when I look at him, I see her…      

Arturo de la Cruz was ready to explode. His men failed in their job. All that was required was to stay with the Reyes and be there when that mangy dog, Crawford, arrived to save them. It was bad enough that pequeño bastardo (little bastard), Rio, wasn’t dead. What happened that the hijo de puta bastardo escaped the death ordered by de la Cruz himself?

Arturo refilled his glass and gulped it down; wine trickled from the corners of his mouth to wet his shirt, leaving a red stain. Whirling around, he launched the glass into the massive fireplace. It shattered against the stone in a spray of sparkling shards.

“¡César! César! ¡Entra aquí ahora! (Get in here now!)” De la Cruz lifted the bottle to his mouth, letting the liquid courage bolster his bravery. He would need it in dealing with Crawford and Rio Reyes.

Ortiz came at his jefe’s call. “Sí, Patrón?”

“Get the men ready and find that perro, Crawford!”

“Sí, Patrón!” Ortiz ran from the room, relieved to be away from the jefe.

Well, there was one he had no problem controlling, dominating, and she was waiting for him upstairs. As he climbed the stone steps to the master sleeping chamber, he smiled. He would look for another to warm his bed. Amaya was too far along; her bulging shape was interfering with his pleasure. Tomorrow— he would get rid of her tomorrow and find someone new. A virgin to keep him occupied while he waited.

They spent the rest of the evening talking over the plans that would defeat Arturo de la Cruz and his gang of cutthroats. Johnny observed Rio as he conversed with his men. They respected him, and he listened to them, listened to what they had to say. It made Madrid smile as he thought back to the youngster he’d seen those years ago. Now he was in charge of men willing to take his orders, and from the things Johnny heard, those orders would end the control over innocents.

“Johnny, I need ta talk with you about somethin’.” Rio turned to him, and with no hesitation, he presented his ideas. “De la Cruz already thinks you’re dead. How about you comin’ at him from behind. We’ll,” Rio gestured to himself, Val and the six men around the fire, “stop that load of prisoners an’ take out the guards, an’ you scout out around the hacienda, then we’ll meet up with you. Dependin’ on what you find there will dictate how we take de la Cruz. If we can get the timing down, we should be able ta get control over the guards an’ take the hacienda.

“He’s expectin’ me an’ Val, but with you blockin’ him in from the other side, we got a better chance of makin’ certain he won’t get away.” Rio waited for an answer but didn’t get one. 

“Johnny? We need ta do this the right way. That’s another thing I learned from you. If you’re gonna do a job, do it right. If de la Cruz’ finds out you’re here, he’ll either run or get more men ta fight us. An’, I’ll tell ya somethin’, Johnny, I won’t take that chance. I’ve watched that murderer sell the last girl inta prostitution an’ men an’ boys ta that stinkin’ silver mine— I ain’t gonna let this chance ta bring him down slip away. We’re too close, amigo.”

Val was holding his breath. Was it only two days ago he was the victim of Johnny’s wrath when he decided to leave without Johnny? Hell, the bruise was still growing on his face. And now Rio was stirring the embers of that same fire, and it was about to lignite.

But it didn’t.

Johnny listened to Rio’s plan. He concentrated on the cup of hot coffee in his hands and sighed. He knew the kid was right. A smile tugged the corners of his mouth, and he raised his eyes to Rio’s. “Alright. What’d ya want me ta do?” he asked softly.

Val was dumbfounded. Subconsciously he touched the swelling on the side of his face as he stared from one man to the other. What had just happened?

Rio wiped away the beginnings of a returned smile. Relief flooded through him. They accepted him as a leader— acceptance from the two men he admired most. Outside of his father, Johnny Madrid and Val Crawford were the finest men he’d ever known, and now he had their respect. Validation. But he pushed those thoughts to the back of his mind. Now was not the time.

Rio sat forward and looked around the fire at his men. There were only six, not counting Johnny and Val. The element of surprise was on their side. Nine men could raise a whole lot of hell if they worked together to defeat an enemy. And raise hell they would.

“What we were doin’ before ya got here was ta ambush the wagons full of prisoners an’ captives when the guards were transportin’ them. We have someone on the inside givin’ us information with times an’ places. Don’t worry. He’s one of us. His two sisters were sold in Chihuahua. They died before we could get them out. So Chuy Vega is workin’ on gettin’ us the details we need so we can steal everyone back. So far, it’s worked.

“Everyone here has a stake in this. Most of these men have lost a family member ta that bastard, so that makes it personal. We hit de la Cruz hard and fast. We’ve been successful, an’ he’s havin’ trouble keepin’ the men he has. He can always get more, but when they find out their job ain’t as easy as ol’ Arturo tells ‘em, an’ they fight us, some of ‘em leave, not willin’ to take their chances against us. Ain’t proud of killin’ them outright, but it’s the only way we can save our families. We’ll do whatever we can, however we can. You’ve been there, you know.”

Both Johnny and Val nodded.

“So, what’s next? When’s the next shipment of prisoners?” Johnny asked.

“Tomorrow night.”

“Does de la Cruz go with ‘em?”

Rio smiled, his white teeth bright in the firelight. “Nope. He stays in that grand hacienda he stole. There’ll be plenty of time for you ta drop in on him for a little visit.” Rio’s eyes danced, thinking about the look on Arturo’s face when he realized it was the ‘ghost’ of Johnny Madrid coming after him. “Wish I could be there ta see that!”

And now, Johnny grinned. “I think you should be. I think all three of us should drop in, you know, just ta say hi an’ be sociable.”

He swore Rio’s eyes widened as the thought tickled the kid’s brain. “You men,” Johnny said to the six listening to the conversation. As one, they turned to Johnny. “You know the risks; you know what to do. Can you get it done tomorrow night without Rio?”  

“Johnny, I need ta be there.” Rio met Johnny’s eyes across the fire. “It’s personal. But I gotta be there when we rescue those people. De la Cruz has torn a lot of families apart, an’ I made a promise ta someone.”

Johnny nodded. Promises. He’d made a few promises himself and knew they couldn’t be ignored. Ignored by someone with a conscience, at least. “How many men does he have guardin’ the hacienda?” Johnny asked.

“Not sure. An’ I didn’t mean for you ta try an’ take him by yourself. Just watch, so he don’t escape. Can’t risk you gettin’ caught; he’ll kill you on sight. We’ll get there as soon as we can.” Rio would never admit to anyone, but his heart was thundering in his chest. Dare he hope this would end at least a part of the reign of terror over the people of Mexico? Could it be his promise was about to be fulfilled? Dark, shining eyes flashed in his mind. Would she know he was keeping that promise?

Pulling his thoughts back to the present, Rio concentrated on the strategies to interrupt de la Cruz’s shipment and rescue the victims. Chuy Vega informed them of the route they were to travel through the hills. The surrounding terrain would benefit the rescue attempt and provide the cover to stay hidden until they were safe. It worked before, and, God willing, it would again.

De la Cruz lounged in the comfortable chair, thinking of the trip he would take tomorrow into Nogales. His need for another to warm his bed grew as the girl, Amaya, now refused to fight him, her spirit broken. His lust fed on the conquest, the defeat in the eyes of one that could not fight back. Yes, there were many doncellas (maidens) in Nogales he could take to his bed.

The lascivious wanderings were interrupted as César Ortiz hurried into the room.

“Patrón! I have some news! We have found a traitor working for you!”

Arturo jumped to his feet. “What do you mean, a traitor? Who is this dog?” he demanded.

Ortiz pulled himself to his full height, knowing he was responsible for bringing this critical information that needed the immediate attention of the Patrón. “We followed him! He let his guard down and met with Rio Reyes! They were far away, but I knew it was him! We have him tied up in the stable, Patrón!”

Arturo de la Cruz brushed past Ortiz and headed out into the twilight.

He could hear the commotion in the barn, angry voices arguing, some challenging, one pleading. De la Cruz charged into the brightly lit interior and pushed his way through his men to the center of the crowd. Tied to the beam and helpless stood Chuy Vega.

Reaching out, Arturo grabbed Vega’s throat and began to squeeze; his fingertips disappeared into the flesh of Vega’s neck, and the man gasped for precious breath.

“Why do you meet with that pecqueño bastardo? Tell me, and maybe I won’t kill you! If you do not talk, you will die!” de la Cruz hissed through clenched teeth. “What did you tell him?” and only then did he decrease the grip on the man’s neck.

The cough erupted as Arturo took his hand away, and Vega gasped, sucking in huge amounts of air.

“Why did you meet? What did you tell him? Tell me, or you will die!”

Vega knew he would die this night. There was no way that de la Cruz would let him live. But he would never betray those he loved. He would go to his death gladly to protect his amigo, Rio Reyes.

Chuy Vega regained a degree of composure and met de la Cruz’s eyes. Defiance slid over his face, and he stood as tall as his shaking legs would let him. “I have nothing to tell you.” The words were calm as he made peace with God. Then he whispered,”¡Dios, protégeos!” (God, protect them!)

Rage filled Arturo, and spittle flew from his mouth as he screamed, “Kill him!” And then, there was nothing except the sound of blood dripping into puddles on the floor.


“Sí, Patrón?” the man responded, as he wiped the blade of his knife on Vega’s clothes.

“Has the wagon left with the prisoners yet?”

“No, Patrón!”

“Good! Change the route and the time; leave at midnight! Cabrera, go with them! Vega told them which trail the wagon would take! Send extra guards with the wagon! ¡Prisa! ¡Muévanse!” (Hurry! Get moving!)

Rio Reyes, Val Crawford, and Rio’s men waited. They would let the wagon, scheduled to pass through the narrow gap in the rocks sometime in the early evening, enter the passageway, then ambush the guards. Safely ensconced out of sight, they waited to pounce and release innocent people to freedom. Val wondered how many of them had a home left to return to.

“Should be anytime now, Val,” Rio whispered. “Chuy said de la Cruz is getting’ kinda sloppy sendin’ out guards. Let’s hope he don’t start gettin’ suspicious, ‘specially tanight!”

“Yeah…” but Val said no more.

Rio turned to study Val’s face; he was troubled. “What’s wrong, amigo?”

Val met Rio’s puzzled eyes but said nothing.

And Rio put the pieces together. “Johnny…”

Val nodded.

“He’s gonna try an’ get inta the hacienda by himself, ain’t he?”

“Don’t know for sure what he’s got on his mind, Rio, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I got the wire from de la Cruz tellin’ me he had your folks, an’ that I had one week ta get down here before he was gonna make ‘em pay. They’d already lost you; I figured that was enough an’ I better get down here. Didn’t know that he knew you was alive.

“I left without tellin’ Johnny. He’s settled now, an’ it was pretty hard on him when he thought you was dead. I didn’t want ta stir up any bad memories for ‘im. I knew he’d wanna come along an’, well, I’ll let him tell ya ‘bout it, but his ol’ man and him…”

Rio’s body jolted. “Wait, wait… his what? Did you say ol’ man?!”

Val sighed. “Yeah, long story, but sometimes they butt heads. Didn’t want him gettin’ in any more trouble, so I left without him. Besides, it took a while for him ta come ta terms thinkin’ you was dead an’ them nightmares are something awful. He’s got enough of those. An’, well, he ain’t too happy with me about it.”

Rio smirked. “Ahh! That’s why he told me ta ask about that bruise ya got blossomin’ on your face!” Rio shook his head in amazement. “Livin’ with his ol’ man! Boy, ain’t that somethin’? Guess he got over the hate?”

“Yeah, but that’s his story ta tell, not mine.”

Val blushed in the dark at the bruise comment, glad Rio couldn’t see his embarrassment. Dang Madrid! He thought with a smile. Then, “We best be watchin’ for that wagon now. Pay attention, boy!”

Johnny pulled the sarape onto his shoulders and picked up the sombrero that had fallen to the ground. If the man had followed the simple order of ‘No te des vuelta’ (don’t turn around), he would still be alive. Johnny covered him with straw in the stable corner, then retrieved the hat and set it on his head. Well, if no one looks too close, they’ll never know. He then settled Fuego out of sight to wait for his return. Johnny wonderedwhether Rio and Val had any luck and if they were on their way to join him. They split up hours ago, giving Rio, Val, and the others time to get into place and ready to take over the wagon from the guards.

In the meantime, Johnny took up his position on the Mendosa Rancho, gradually working his way into the stable as the darkness settled. He watched as the guards made their rounds, and making a rough tally, he figured that with the help of the others, they would be able to finish this tonight. Justice is comin’, you bastardo!

At one time, the Mendosa Rancho was prosperous and meticulously maintained, but now in the hands of de la Cruz, the place no longer resembled the elegant hacienda it had once been. The grounds were in shambles; weeds had taken over the beautiful gardens, and empty liquor bottles and other refuse littered the yard looking much like back alleyways of the villages where Johnny lived as a boy. Alleyways filled with trash, garbage, rot, and filth. The inside of the stable wasn’t fit for pigs as if it were a bother to care for their horses, and if it were any indication, the hacienda would be chaos as well.

Keeping to the shadows, Johnny scouted around the grounds. The guards he saw were more interested in the bottle they shared than watching for intruders. It made Johnny think prowlers had not been an issue before. Guess I’ll hafta see to it that they have enough ta drink for their party.

Retrieving an empty bottle from the ground, Johnny held it in plain sight, fingers wrapped around the neck, then adopting the drunken stagger of those under his surveillance, he made his way past the festivities, with the sombrero hiding his features. He pretended to drink should any of them be watching. His unsteady footsteps continued around the corner of the house, and he stopped outside the kitchen door.

Light spilled out of the opening, and the chatter of women’s voices reached his ears. Inside, the owners of the two voices bemoaned the sad circumstances of the poor doncella, held prisoner by that cerdo (pig) de la Cruz.

“It is good her Mama and Papa are gone! They could not bear it if they knew their only daughter had been taken to satisfy his lust! But I wish we could do something about it!”

Johnny could imagine the woman making the sign of the cross on her chest.

“I wonder if she will live? She no longer speaks when I see her; she sits and stares at nothing! With her parents dead, she has no one!”

The lid slammed on a kettle, and Johnny could visualize the woman taking her temper out on the helpless cooking utensils. He listened a few minutes longer, then let his presence be known, and he stepped into the kitchen, finger at his lips, hoping they wouldn’t betray his presence.

But to their credit, they held their shocked silence. Johnny fixed them with his best Johnny Madrid Lancer smile.

“Señoras, Buenos noches, por favor, I mean you no harm. I am here to help.”

“Why do you sneak like the dog begging for scraps?”

“I told you, I’m here to help, and there’s more coming to rid you of de la Cruz. Are there any of his men in the house?”

Estella, the older of the two, scrutinized the man standing before them. She did not feel threatened, and there was something familiar about him; she couldn’t put her finger on it. But she had no fear of this man. What was it about him? And she felt the need to help. If any of what he said was the truth, she knew, without a doubt, she would do for him what she could.

Estella took a deep breath and glanced at the younger woman, then smiled. “Sí, there are men here, but not many, three, I think are here. What are you going to do, Señor?” she asked, her eyes searched his face.

“Not sure yet. There any more liquor that you can give them?” he nodded to the front of the hacienda. “If they drink enough, they’ll be easier ta handle when help gets here.”

A wide grin covered Estella’s face. “Una momento, por favor!” She disappeared into the pantry, returning a few seconds later with a bottle clutched in her fingers.

“My Abuela, she was a bruja! She taught me things! Bonita, get more bottles of tequila!” The young woman hurried out of the kitchen. Carefully opening the bottle, Estella put it on the table as she waited for Bonita to return with the alcohol.

Angry voices sounded from the front of the hacienda, a man berated the young woman, but she bravely stood her ground and, in no uncertain terms, told him to mind his own business. Estella smirked.

“That Bonita, she has a bad mouth on her, no?” She winked at Johnny.

He chuckled aloud at the remark, grateful it wasn’t him on the receiving end of the directions that he ‘satisfy’ himself. Hmmm, that’s what Val told me a few days ago! Then he stood in the corner and waited to ensure the man would not enter the kitchen, but his knife was in his hand should the need arise.

Bonita scurried into the room with the tequila and a smug smile on her face.

“The idiota, he thinks he can order us around! ¡Estupido!” And putting the bottles on the table, she helped Estella to open them.   

Johnny watched as the older woman added the drug, then she grinned wickedly and poured more to each bottle. “This drug, taken with the tequila, will be potente! They will not wake until late mañana! Do you need more time, señor?”

Now it was Johnny that grinned. “I sure hope not!”

It was that grin! Estella stared; it couldn’t be… could it? He was dead!

Johnny allowed a bit of a chuckle. “You’re good with doctorin’? Cuz de la Cruz might need your talents when he sees me. He thinks I’m dead.”

That statement confirmed her suspicions. “Señor Madrid?” she whispered.

Johnny shrugged. “Sí, it’s me. But I hafta hurry, señoras! Can you see those guards get that tequila, por favor?”

Estella squared her shoulders. “It will be an honor, Señor Madrid!” Grabbing the bottles, she left by way of the back door to deliver the libations to the guards, thinking of Madrid’s words, ‘de la Cruz might need your talents’. Over my dead body! She thought to herself. She would never consent to help the demonio! The bottles delivered, they heard the shouts of grateful guards as they accepted the gift.

One minute later, Estella returned to the kitchen. The sentries out front continued to celebrate their good fortune, but soon the noise level began to diminish.

Johnny raised a brow, and a smirk twitched at his mouth. “It works that fast, does it?”

Estella could only smile, but her humor faded as they heard the inside guard grumbling on his way to the kitchen.

Johnny stepped back into the shadows as Pedro Garcia charged in with a vicious glare.

“You stupid woman! What did you do? Those men are drunk! They cannot even stand!” he screamed as he advanced on Bonita. The young woman scurried around to put the table between them, keeping a safe distance from the beast and effectively putting his back to Johnny.

Behind the man, Johnny stepped out of the corner with Colt in hand and crashed the butt down onto Garcia’s balding pate. The man fell to his knees, then sideways onto the floor, and was still. Holstering the revolver, Johnny dragged the man into the pantry and tied him securely, then stacked crates and sacks of flour, potatoes, and cornmeal around the unconscious guard.

Returning to the kitchen and the women, Johnny asked where de la Cruz would most likely be, then with a quick “Gracias!” and a disarming smile, he promised to see them before he left.

It wasn’t until after he crossed the large dining room that he heard the words he knew would, sooner or later, spell the end of his life.

“Stop where you are, señor, or I will put a bullet in your back!”

“Damn, Rio, this’s takin’ longer’n we thought! Ya sure Vega told ya right?” Val couldn’t help it. He was worried. The wagon of prisoners should have been through here long ago. And where he wanted to help rescue the prisoners, he also knew that Johnny’s time could be running out at the hacienda. Madrid would not stop at merely checking things out. Val knew what his amigo would do. And if he was honest about it, it was the same thing Val, himself, would do. He would get control of de la Cruz.

Rio bowed his head and shut his eyes. He knew what happened, and Chuy Vega paid the ultimate price. How many amigos does it make? Would it ever end? Sí! It ends tonight! Her eyes flashed again in his mind, and he would make her proud. Or die trying.

“Chuy has never let us down before.” Rio’s quiet words filled Val with dread. “I think he is dead. They must have found out he was helpin’ us.”

“Just cuz he’s late don’t mean that anything happened.”

“You know what it’s like, Val, that feelin’ ya get in your gut when somethin’s wrong. Well, trust me. Somethin’s wrong,” Rio sighed.

Val could only shrug. “What’dya wanna do now?”

“Dunno. There ain’t enough of us ta leave a man here ta watch. Guess we go see how Johnny’s doin’. I got a notion he could get himself in a buncha trouble if we ain’t there ta help him.”

“You got no idea, Rio, no idea!”

Rio signaled his men to mount; then, they headed east toward Nogales and Johnny.

The words were the same every time he looked at the paper.

Val’s in trouble. Have to help. Be home as soon as I can.


He’d been a father for a long time. But he’d only been a father that knew his sons for two years. Anyone can father a child, but it’s something else entirely to be one. Especially to grown sons. Sons who’d become adults before he ever got to know them. And men who did not need his guidance now. They had guided themselves for most of their lives.

And he knew Johnny would have gone after Val regardless of anything he said. Johnny had known Val longer than he knew Murdoch. And Murdoch was reluctantly coming to terms with precisely what that meant. Loyalty. And to be honest, he was proud Johnny committed himself to that friendship. But it did not lessen the parental worry.

The lives Johnny and Val led in the years before Lancer were perilous. Staring death in the face was a daily challenge; the potential for serious injury was a shadow that followed them every second of every day. And Murdoch secretly trembled when he listened the few times the two reminisced on the old days. And he watched them laugh over their escapades and wondered what could be so humorous, thinking back to how close they came to never see the next sunrise. But, thank God, those days were behind them, or so Murdoch thought. And now, all he could do was to wait and wonder. Oh, son, what are you doing? Are you safe?

Johnny raised his hands and listened, sensing only one man behind him. Could he play his cards right and get out of this before he felt a bullet tear its way through his body? Could he bluff his way out?

He had about three seconds to figure out a plan. Johnny quickly took in all that was around him— the door to the patio was on his right; straight ahead, a hallway led to another wing of the impressive hacienda, and to his left, a set of double doors marked the entrance to a grand sitting room.  

César Ortiz pulled back the trigger of the gun in his hand. He would take care of this intruder and not bother the Patrón. The Patrón, he is muy busy! He thought as the beginnings of a smile crept across his face.

Not taking his eyes off Johnny, Ortiz called out. “Pedro! ¡Entra aqui!” (Get in here!) But no response was forthcoming. “¡Un movimiento en falso y me veré obligado a mataré, señore!” (One wrong move, and I will be forced to kill you, señor!).

Johnny turned slowly, steadily to face Ortiz. Hands held up, posing no threat, he leveled the Madrid stare and captured César’s edgy and anxious attention. He had to end this, and now or the man would lose control, pull the trigger and alert de la Cruz. So, Johnny took his chance.

“We can help each other, amigo,” What’d I got ta lose? Johnny thought. So he pressed on.

You are not my amigo, señor!” Ortiz insisted.

“Maybe not now, but I could be,” Johnny drawled with a confidence he didn’t particularly feel. But he was encouraged when Ortiz cocked his head as he waited for the next words that just perhaps might be of some benefit. Never let it be said that César Ortiz was foolish enough to pass up an opportunity.

“What do you have in mind, señor? Let me hear it before I decide to kill you or not.”

Johnny smiled. He had the man’s attention, for now. Make it good, Madrid! He told himself.

“I wonder if you know that de la Cruz is holdin’ out on alla you? I mean, he’s the boss, but that don’t make it right that he’s cheatin’ you men…” Hooks are set…

“Cheating? How?” And that was it as he crumpled to the floor.

The bellow for Pedro brought Estella racing from the kitchen. Something was wrong! But what could she do? Ortiz had his pistol aimed at Madrid’s back!

Johnny had a conversation going, garnering the attention of the man with the gun. He watched as Estella came silently up behind Ortiz then picked up a large candelabra to bring it down across the back of the man’s head. César Ortiz fell in a heap at her feet.

Johnny let his grin slide into place, and with a “Gracias, Señora,” he acknowledged his appreciation. Then, retrieving the gun Ortiz dropped, he continued his search for de la Cruz.

A filthy path on the carpet of the wide and once elegant stairway and hall of the second floor marked the way to the suite of rooms used by de la Cruz. A large, open sitting area flanked by bedrooms occupied the upper level, and at the end of the corridor were double doors, closed now, no doubt hiding the cobarde… and the unfortunate young girl held there against her will.

Johnny went to the door and listened. There was a voice, but no distinct words, mumbles, and whimpers; sounds of fright and distress; the girl was suffering abuse. And he could stand it no more. Pushing down on the massive handle, Johnny Madrid silently walked into the bedroom.

The girl lay wide-eyed, staring at the ceiling. Tiny animal cries went ignored as de la Cruz pinned her to the bed, taking his pleasure like an animal in rut. Amaya did not know enough to realize she would never have to suffer this again. Amaya did not know… anything.

He fought the bile that rose in his throat, and he wanted to puke. Johnny jammed the barrel of his pistol in the back of Arturo’s neck. “You fuckin’ bastard!” Johnny spat.

Arturo de la Cruz went flaccid. His mind scrambled to grasp what happened to interrupt his perverse pleasure, but the cold steel at the back of his head was unmistakable. Then rage began to explode in a futile blast.

“I will kill you!” Arturo sneered through clenched teeth, and he attempted to call for his guards.

Pushing harder into the skull, Johnny seethed. “Don’t bother callin’ for help, bastard! Ain’t no one comin’. Get up,” he ordered with disregard for the man’s state of undress. He backed away and released the pressure on Arturo’s head as the man crawled out of bed.

Rio rode in silence. Although he knew there was nothing he could have done to make any difference, he felt he’d let her down. His promise broken with yet another wagonload of defenseless, innocent people to be sold into slavery. But he was bound and determined to do what he could to stop it. If not tonight, tomorrow, or the next day. Rio had lost too many in Arturo de la Cruz’s ruthless pursuit of riches. Riches that he didn’t work for, riches that the cobarde stole from others.

And Rio made his promise as Valeria lay dead in his arms those many years ago, a victim of the raids de la Cruz ordered that killed as many lives as he stole. Valeria was gone. Wrapped in Rio’s love and unmoving in his embrace. And it was then he made his promise, a promise he would honor until de la Cruz was dead.

Pulling his wanderings under control, Rio brought himself back to the present. He needed all his senses alert to be ready to do whatever the situation dictated.

No sentries were posted around the estancia. The rooftop appeared clear, and Val wondered what happened. Surely de la Cruz wasn’t that arrogant to not post guards around? But Val had seen bizarre behavior before when it came to men like him. Jus’ hafta get closer… then Val knew. Madrid happened. The spyglass Val held brought it all together and told the tale. Lying in the yard in front of the estancia lay the bodies of eight men, presumably the guards, all in drunken repose. And Val smiled.

He turned to Rio. “C’mon, amigo, let’s go find Johnny.”

The dark of night served them well, providing the shadows that covered their advance onto the grounds. As they moved toward the front door, no threat came to greet them and confirmed the opinion that Johnny was already at work inside the hacienda. Both Val and Rio wondered what they would find after gaining access and invading what was once the grand Mendosa estancia.

The massive front doors were locked. Not unusual under the circumstances, and they continued around to the back using the same precautions they had upon entering the property.

Light from the kitchen spilled out in a yellow glow from the open door. Val, with back to the adobe wall, eased around to look into the room. Two women stood as if waiting for something or someone and faced the hacienda’s interior, watching intently into other rooms. There was no one else around.

He straightened, then walked into the kitchen and announced himself. “Excúrenme, señoras,” (Excuse me, ladies) he said softly. Rio hung back, watching behind them.

Whirling around, a gasp from Estella and a squeal from Bonita prompted Val to put a finger to his lips, asking for quiet. With wide eyes on Val, the women moved closer together, not knowing what would come next. First was the shock of the notorious Johnny Madrid in their kitchen and now strangers, but strangers that did not have the look of Arturo de la Cruz’s men about them. Could these two be trusted?

The continued silence brought Val and Rio into the light. Val spoke softly, hoping the women were not part of the scourge brought in by de la Cruz. Then he took the chance.

“Rio, ask ‘em if they work for de la Cruz,” Val said, keeping them in sight on the chance they turned out to be the enemy.

“We speak English, señors,” Estella said. “We are forced to work here!” With the vehement declaration, the woman spat on the floor. The passion in her voice made Val close to crossing himself.

“Was there a man here earlier? Like us, he was ta meet us here…” But Val didn’t finish the questioning as the enraged bellow echoed down from the second floor, and Val had his answer. Charging through the hacienda, Val and Rio, guns in hand, with Estella and Bonita on their heels, took the stairs and followed the angry roar to the door at the end of the hall.

Johnny backed away as de la Cruz climbed naked from the bed, then waited for him to turn around.

White is one of those colors that takes on many shades. There’s the white of flour, but it wasn’t really white. And then, there was the white of paper, and that, too, was an off shade. But de la Cruz’s face turned the color of snow when he saw who it was that burst uninvited into the room.

“Yo-you’re dead! I saw you die!

Johnny would have laughed if the situation had not been so sickening. “I look dead ta you? But you’re gonna be!”

“I’ll kill you!” Arturo screamed.

“Ya had your chance, pendejo, an’ ya didn’t do it! An’ I’m gonna see this finished now, tonight!”

At that moment, Johnny wanted nothing more than to put a bullet in the brain of the man before him. For a split second, his eyes went to the girl lying still, staring into nothing, her eyes unfocused and unaware. Her distended belly confirmed the abuse she suffered, but no longer. It ended tonight.

Johnny held the Colt and fought himself to keep from pulling the trigger. But his attention was suddenly drawn to the door as Val and Rio burst into the room. His breath left him in a rush as he shook himself free of the barely contained fury that coursed through his blood and churned in his belly.

De la Cruz lost his last shred of bravado as he stood naked in front of the foes before him. The three men he longed to kill, he wanted to murder them in cold blood! He could not control the shaking he felt inside for long. There wasn’t anything he could do to change his situation now. Where were his guards? Ortiz?

Johnny shook his head and swallowed down the bile that refused to settle. He holstered his Colt and turned to the bed. Grabbing a blanket, he gently wrapped the girl, pulled her into his arms, and then carried her from the room. But he stopped at the door. Johnny Madrid Lancer took a deep breath, then spoke softly.

“Don’t care what ya do with him, but I don’t think he’s got any right ta live.” The weight in his arms sealed his thoughts. The depravity of de la Cruz could not be allowed to go on. If Val or Rio didn’t do the job, Johnny swore to the helpless girl he held that he would see it through. Walking out into the hall, Estella and Bonita took him to a room on the hacienda’s far end, where they would care for Amaya.

Val kept de la Cruz in his sight. There was no way in hell that the cobarde would escape. They’d come too far to let that happen now. Johnny was right. They would finish it tonight.

Val spoke, never taking his eyes from the naked man before them, letting the revulsion he felt color his words. “You wanna do it, Rio, or ya want me ta take care of him?”

Loathing did not begin to cover the blackness that washed over Rio and wrapped him in a shroud of hate. Before him stood the man responsible for the deaths of countless innocent lives, including that of Valeria. Although it wasn’t this man who had raped and murdered her, he gave the orders, and his men obeyed. And Rio made his promise and would show no mercy. The man was going to die for his heinous and depraved crimes committed on the innocent.

“I’ll do it. Wait for me downstairs; an’… don’t mind any screamin’ ya hear.”

Inwardly Val cringed and could only imagine what was going to happen. He would trust that Rio would be walking out of the room soon and in one piece. Val nodded. “If ya need us, we’ll be here,” and with that said, he threw one last scathing glare at de la Cruz and left the room.

Once they were alone, Rio, with pistol aimed at Arturo’s chest, kicked at the pile of clothes on the floor. His foot connected with the gun carelessly discarded with the last assault on the girl. And it was then that Rio noticed the smell of sex and de la Cruz’s unwashed body that hung heavy in the air, and his stomach rolled and threatened to explode.

Rio picked up the gun, spun the cylinder, then emptied all but one bullet, letting the rest fall to the floor. They thumped on the carpet, sounding like the fast beat of a small funeral drum. The noise was not lost on Arturo, and without his knowledge, a mewl escaped his throat.

Rio stared out of cold eyes. He knew the things de la Cruz had done, and it was time for the bastardo, conceived in hell, to pay for his crimes. The black heart was beyond redemption, and Rio was judge, jury, and willing executioner.

He placed the pistol on a table. “I’m givin’ you a chance, bastardo, an’ why, I don’t know, but there it is. You shoot me first, ya got a chance ta fight your way outta here. But we both know you ain’t gonna win. Make your move…” Rio’s voice, though soft, sent shivers down Arturo’s spine.

There was no way out, and de la Cruz lunged for the gun. The shot echoed in the confines of the room, and the naked body fell to the floor.

Hands clutched at his belly as he writhed in pain. Tears streamed down his face and mixed with the mucus running from his nose. And he begged.

“No! Don’t… kill m-me!” He tried to move, tried to get away, but the fire in his gut burned him to the floor. All he could do was watch, knowing nothing he did now could save him from death; Rio advanced, closing the distance between them as blood began to flood around him in a massive pool on the carpeted floor.

“Why shouldn‘t I kill you after all the murders you’re responsible for? After the lives you’ve ruined? Maybe I’ll just put a bullet in your brain,” and Rio leveled his pistol at Arturo’s head, waited a few seconds, and watched the man squirm. Then a cold grin crawled across Rio’s face. “You’re already dead, pendejo! You’re just too stupid ta know it! But how about I letcha live a few minutes more, huh? I think ya got somethin’ more comin’. See, I believe ya need ta pay for all the crimes ya committed, an’ since I’m here, I’ll get the job done.” Hurry up, do it before the bastard bleeds out! “This is for all them women ya raped! Their screams are gonna follow ya inta Hell!”

Rio slowly drew the knife out of his boot, and Arturo de la Cruz again tried frantically to get away, his eyes wild and glazing.

No! Nooooo!” he screamed.

 Rio’s hand shot out and made the slash between the naked man’s legs.

Downstairs, Johnny and Val exchanged glances and waited. Rio deserved that respect. But it took every ounce of willpower not to interfere. Val went to the stairs, climbing just far enough to watch the door at the end of the corridor. There was no movement, no sound until an unearthly scream rent the air. Both Johnny and Val started at the distressed call.

Then the door opened as Rio slowly walked to them; his head was bowed, and his shoulders slumped, looking to all the world like he was going to collapse.

But he didn’t. Instead, he pulled himself together and met their eyes.

“It’s done.” On his way out of the room, Rio stopped at the dining table, then picked up a dinner napkin to wipe the blood off his knife.

“Señors! In the kitchen, the guard in the pantry, he is waking!” Estella warned as she made her way past them with medical supplies to tend the girl, Amaya.

Johnny knew the man he left tied and covered with bags of supplies would have information. The three men raced to the storage area, dragging the limp body of Ortiz with them.

Pedro struggled with the ropes. Semi-conscious, with pain stampeding through his skull and confused, the man knew he was in trouble, but until he saw the three men dragging Ortiz behind them, he had no idea how much trouble he was in. They stopped just outside the pantry and let Ortiz drop to the floor. Val got Pedro to his feet and shoved him to a chair at the table.

Standing close to Pedro, Val leaned down and pointed his Colt in the man’s trembling face. “I’m gonna ask you one time, ya murderin’ scum, where’s de la Cruz keepin’ them prisoners?” he growled.

Pedro visibly shook, but his eyes came near to bulging out of his head when Val pulled the hammer back.

“Val,” Johnny taunted, “not in the kitchen! Remember the mess ya made last time this happened?”

Pedro paled; he turned a sickly shade of gray and imagined the kitchen covered in gore.

Rio watched the masters at work. Yup, they’re the best… he thought as he nudged Ortiz with his boot.

The unfocused eyes flickered, then forced themselves open, only to realize he was on the losing side of the volatile situation. Any questions he had stuck in his throat were thick and threatened to choke him. He quickly assessed the men standing over him and Pedro and wisely decided neither of them stood a chance of escaping, much less living through the next few minutes. Add that to the knowledge they had failed in their duty to keep de la Cruz safe, and he sighed in defeat. The only thing left to do was not say a word. They would have to kill him to get any information out of him.

Val shrugged and holstered his Colt. But the gleam in his eyes held bright, and he reached for the knife in his boot. The long blade reflected the lamplight as he caressed the steel as he spoke.

“Ya gotta know we’re gonna get the answers outta you two, so’s ya don’t hafta make it hard on yourselves. All ya gotta do is tell us what we wanna know.”

Ortiz kept silent. He glanced at Pedro, hoping to see the same resolve he felt. No, he wasn’t going to tell them anything!

“Why should we tell you anything? You will kill us after you get what you want!” Ortiz spat.

Val leaned in and pressed the blade to the man’s neck. “I’ll kill ya if ya don’t talk!”

They wouldn’t kill us! We’re tied and defenseless— they will not… The knife pressed harder against his neck, and he felt the first sting of the blade as it pierced his skin. Ortiz swallowed hard. His resolve crumbled. De la Cruz would kill him anyway for not protecting him; what would he lose if he told the three men what they wanted to know?

The knife’s edge bit deeper, allowing a slow trickle of blood that stained the collar of his dirty shirt. His eyes began to water, and the face before him grinned with maniacal delight. And the knife cut deeper.

“Talk!” Val bellowed in César’s ear.

But César did not talk… yet.

Rio had enough. He wasn’t wasting any more time with this cabrón! Two knives were better than one, and Rio slipped his out of his boot, the same knife he used on de la Cruz. Holding it carelessly, he brought the point to rest on Ortiz’s crotch, and the man instantly made up his mind to cooperate. “Wait! Wait…, I’ll talk!” he sucked in gulps of air as sweat formed in beads on his face.

Val smirked. “Well, ain’t that a surprise?” Then, he turned cold again. “Talk! Where’s de la Cruz keepin’ them people he kidnapped? We wanna know now!”

“La Fortalesa! (The Fortress) South of Nogales! They are there now! The time to leave was changed; they found out Chuy Vega was giving him information,” and Ortiz nodded at Rio, “then they changed the time and route so you would miss them! They will leave tomorrow after sunup! They go east, to Cananea,” César gasped. “I have told you what you want to know! Now let us go!”

Estella entered the kitchen, going to the pantry for medicine, but she stopped to listen as justice was served.

Val laughed. “Let you go? We ain’t lettin’ ya go! I said we wouldn’t kill ya! Never said nothin’ ‘bout lettin’ ya go!”

Johnny turned to Estella. “There someplace we can lock these two up? A cellar, maybe?”

Estella stood, rooted to the floor. Like everyone, she had lost loved ones during de la Cruz’s reign of greed and cruelty. And these men were part of it. She walked over to Ortiz and Pedro and stared. Then, she spat at their feet and turned away.

“This way, Señor,” she said, suddenly tired, drained.

She led Johnny to a door in the back of the pantry and down a flight of stairs. The temperature dropped as they reached the bottom. The room, filled with barrels of supplies and old furniture, also housed a cell. Estella reached for the key that hung on a hook by the door and gave it to Johnny.

“Gracias, Señora.” He tested the bars and found them solid. The place would do fine.

Johnny held Estella’s arm going up the stairs and released her when they reached the pantry. She nodded her thanks, then left the men to see that Ortiz and Pedro were locked below in the cell.

Johnny looked at Rio. “Do we need ta get de la Cruz down here?”

At the name of their patrón, the prisoners tensed but didn’t say a word.

Rio shook his head. “No need.”

Ortiz and Pedro sighed in relief. But that relief was short-lived when they realized Johnny, Val, and Rio were leaving them alone. The cries for help were silenced as the door to the pantry closed, and they were left in the dark.

Rio caught Estella’s attention and waved her to his side. “The girl, how is she?” he asked, hoping for the best.

A hitch in her voice prevented her from speaking. Then she gathered herself and looked into the kind eyes. “No bueno, señor. I do not know if she will live.”

If de la Cruz weren’t already dead, Rio would have gutted him and hung his guts on a fence all the way to Mexico City.

As they crossed the yard, Johnny took the key to the cell out of his pocket and tossed it down the well.

The ride to La Fortalesa would only take a few hours. They didn’t want to miss the wagon, but if they did, they wouldn’t be that far behind. But, no matter, they would catch up with it, and it would be the last shipment the guards attempted.

Rio’s men waited at the designated spot. With the confirmation of the prisoners locked safely away at the Mendosa hacienda, they headed south to The Fortress. Along the way, Rio described in detail the surrounding terrain, where he’d seen guards posted in the past and the trail out of the mountains. Indeed, it was a fortress, and the odds of getting out of this alive were those no gambler in his right mind would take.

“Let’s give the horses a rest before we go scoutin’ around there,” Rio called over his shoulder. His men, Johnny and Val, dismounted, allowing the animals to forage what they could on the dry, late summer graze.

Pouring water from his canteen into his hat, Johnny gave Fuego a drink. It could be a while before he got the chance again. Then he joined the others and decided on a plan.

Rio sketched a map of sorts in the dirt, marking where he’d seen guards, their store of ammunition, and supplies. Keeping their comments to themselves, both Johnny and Val knew it was a well-thought arrangement. It was simple yet efficient, it had to be; the fortress was almost impenetrable. Almost.

“I think we oughta let the wagon head out while we take care of the guards they leave at the camp. That way, they can’t come ta help if they hear somethin’. If we can take out the guard here,” Rio made an ‘X’ in the sandy soil, “I figure we can get in there without ‘em knowin’ what’s goin’ on.” Rio looked at the men around him. “Anyone got a better idea?”

No one spoke up, had any questions or conflicting opinions, and Johnny felt like a proud older brother. Rio had a good head on his shoulders. He’d worked and fought with these men and earned their respect. During the time they spent together, Johnny watched Rio interact with the men he led. They seemed equals; they laughed together and talked, joked as close friends, but there was mutual respect among them, and Johnny knew Rio was a born leader. Hell, he was glad to take Rio’s orders.

They mounted up, then continued on their way. It wasn’t far now, and they were anxious to get this done.

Johnny pulled the telescope from his saddlebags. Tucked into the cover of the boulders, he took his time observing the camp in the distance. Guards surrounded the wagon of captives, and ready to ride, they moved out. He handed the telescope to Val.

“That all the guards they’re using? There’s only three of ’em! Rio, there any other place they can pick up more guards?” Val was shocked but pleased with the slipshod security.

“Yeah. The camp extends beyond that rock. There’s always a few more over there. Any livestock they steal they keep over there. Not many guards, though. I figure de la Cruz never wanted ta pay for more than necessary. His cut would be bigger that way. We’ll give ‘em half an hour, then go down an’ take over the camp. Wanna let the men they got escortin’ that wagon get outta earshot just in case things get rowdy an’ we hafta use a gun.”

 “When we’re ready ta move, how ‘bout I go an’ get that first guard, then we can get the rest,” Val suggested.

Rio smirked. “Think ya can handle it, ol’ man?”

Johnny laughed out loud, making Val color had anyone seen it in the low light.

“Ol’ man? Who’re you talkin’ ta, ya smart mouth kid?”

Rio reined in his levity, then, “Yeah, sure, Val. I was gonna ask ya ta do it anyway.”

“Yeah, I bet!”

“Truth, Val, told ya before, I learned from the best, amigo, an’ I meant what I said.” Rio gently slapped Val’s shoulder, and Val couldn’t help but smile.

Rio walked away to stand alone, his back to the others to watch the sky.

But not before Johnny caught the mien that enveloped Rio’s entire body. What had he seen in those dark eyes and wrapped him in what? Grief and sorrow?

Johnny and Val exchanged glances. Something was wrong, and if they could help, they would, but Rio would have to ask; neither would interfere, trespass where perhaps they wouldn’t be welcome. Both found it difficult not to offer support. The kid was family, and he was hurting.

Rio took a deep breath. Would it be enough to clear his thoughts, take away the pain? No, ain’t stupid enough ta think breathin’s gonna make everything better… He collected his wanderings and tucked them away. Time for that later. Need ta keep my wits about me now. He walked back to the others.

“Ready?” he asked. As one, they stood, tightened the cinches, and mounted up. Val moved out, the first step to ensuring a successful rescue. At his signal, the rest would infiltrate the camp below.

He supposed it was a matter of overconfidence on the part of the guard. So sure no one would chance to penetrate the perimeters of the fortress, and the camp was secure, that he sat slumped against the rock wall dozing.

Val sighed. Don’t make bad guys like they used ta! He thought as he picked up a rock and tossed it to the side. The guard snapped to attention and drew his pistol, then quietly got to his feet, crouched, and moved in the direction where he heard the thump.

Val was there behind him and delivered a blow to the back of the man’s head as he fell in a boneless heap on the ground. Val picked the gun out of the dirt, stuffed it into the waistband of his pants, then securely tied and gagged the unconscious guard. If he regained consciousness, Val knew they would be long gone for it to be of concern. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he called out the signal.

“What the hell was that?” Jorge Alvarado asked in disbelief.

“Val imitatin’ an owl, let’s get on down there before one a them idiotas gets suspicious.” Johnny made a mental note to talk with Val about that signal call. It needed some work.

There was always one that wouldn’t cooperate. The guard woke to find Johnny Madrid standing over him, gun drawn and holding all the cards. And he reached for his pistol. What made these pendejos think they could win a fight or get away with a gun stuck in their face? It never ceased to amaze him.

“Don’t even think about it, or you’ll be joinin’ your amigo that was stupid enough ta think the same thing. See, he can’t talk too good anymore, not with his throat slit, so ya might wanna give that some thought.” The man backed off, and Johnny didn’t bother to hide his smile.

Rio’s men quickly and silently gained control of the camp. The four guards left were easily subdued. In scouting the area, they found the stores containing the ammunition and supplies.

“We need ta destroy this so if somethin’ bad happens an’ we don’t get this stopped, they can’t come back here. Ain’t a fuse long enough for us ta blow it up.” Rio looked around, frustration building but not giving up just yet.

“How long ya figure we need?” Johnny asked with a raised brow.

The raised brow got Rio’s attention. He remembered that look and knew his amigo had an answer to the problem. “I’d like ta give it an hour anyway… Why? Got any ideas?”

Johnny just smiled. “This’s as good as we can do without wastin’ a lotta time.” Prying the cork out of a barrel of gunpowder, he left a trail from the ammunition cache four feet into the middle of the supply tent. He emptied the last of the gunpowder around the pile. Then, he grabbed a candle, more of a stub than a candle, lit the wick, and set it in the powder trail.

“Don’t figure we got any time ta lose! Let’s get the hell outta here!”

The tracks from the wagon blazed a trail a blind man could follow. Judging by the hoof prints, Johnny figured there to be about ten guards, not counting how many were in the wagon. Enough to go around no matter how you cut it. But it didn’t matter. They had a job to do, and they would get it done.

It was an effort to keep emotions under control. Now that he had a family, people to love and who loved him in return, Johnny fought hard to push aside thoughts of Murdoch, Scott, and Teresa and focus on those families grieving for their daughters, knowing the girls were to be sold and used by depraved men to ease their lustful urges. And the sons and young men put to work in mines and used for slave labor, to die alone and be kicked aside for the next strong back to take their place.

What would he do if it were Teresa or Scott? Taken against their will, kidnapped, and never to be seen again. Johnny shook his head and took a deep breath. Focus, Johnny-boy! Focus!

Though Val didn’t know for sure, he could guess at the trouble he saw on his amigo’s face. Truth be told, Val had worried about Johnny for a long time. Worried that he would wait too long before getting out of the game. He’d been at Lancer a couple of years now, and it was good to see him as part of a family. Johnny was always a decent, caring man with a heart as big as Texas, and he’d grown into his place as a member of a caring family. The good jus’ got better! And Val smiled to himself.

Now, if Val could figure out what was bothering Rio, he’d have his ‘older brother’ obligations completed. The kid tended to lapse into a state of— what? Val thought. It wasn’t confusion, unsure of the next move, more like being lost and unable to find his way back. Well, maybe, sadness fit.

Val looked from one to the other; his brothers needed him. They jus’ don’t know it yet!

If Johnny didn’t know any better, he would have sworn there was an earthquake. A tremor shook the ground, and a sound like distant thunder rolled and rumbled.

Val laughed. “Seems like your timin’ worked jus’ fine, amigo!”

Thirty minutes later, Rio pulled his horse to a stop. There, ahead, dust hung in the air, no doubt churned up from the passage of many horses. “From here on out, there ain’t any way ta get around ‘em. It’s a narrow trail ahead, with rock walls for about a mile. Once through there, it’s about eight miles inta Cananea. An’ we hafta get that wagon before they reach the town. They’ll have help there, and probably the Rurales are there already waitin’ for their cut.”

Johnny knew the only way to stop that wagon could get them all killed. “We just come up behind ‘em, fast an’ hit ‘em hard?”

“It’s risky, I know, but there ain’t anything else we can do. From here, there’s no way ta get around. This ain’t the trail they usually take.”

Rio looked around at his men. “You know what ta expect. Anyone that wants ta leave go now an’ no hard feelin’s.”

No one moved.

“We know, Rio. We are staying.”

Johnny didn’t know the man who spoke, but Rio seemed to have support from all of them; he should be proud of their loyalty— Johnny was.

“Alright, let’s go get us some banditos!” Rio called out.

Nine men kicked their horses into a gallop; it was now a matter of time. They had to come up behind the guards and take them out without endangering the captives.

José Cabrera sat with a smug grin on his face. They found the traitor in their ranks and disposed of him, then changed the time and route that the wagon would take to Cananea. The horses they’d taken from the Mendosa Rancho would line his pockets and that of the men with him. Arturo de la Cruz was a greedy thief, and if Cabrera found ways to cheat the man, he would, and boast about it, too. The steeds were magnificent and would bring top dollar from Captain Ramos.

Ah, Capitan Ramos! The man was a fool! He’s a little man with a big attitude, and I will step on him like the cucaracha he is! He would not let the Captain belittle him again!

Murdoch Lancer could not settle down. The Glenlivet, in his hand, did nothing to calm the jagged nerves. What the devil is wrong with me? The comfortable leather desk chair suddenly wasn’t comfortable anymore. He paced, then went out onto the patio to watch the stars. That lasted for three minutes before he was back in the house to pace once again. He passed his desk and picked up the ink blotter, only to put it down and pick up something else.

He paced like Johnny— couldn’t sit still like Johnny— picked things up and put them down, again, like Johnny. Where are you, son? Are you all alright?

Murdoch braced his hands on the massive wood mantle of the fireplace and drummed his fingers as he stared into the flames— just like he’d seen Johnny do a thousand times before.

Steep sides of the mountains formed a narrow pass, curving through the rock like the trail of a sidewinder. Etched into the stone from thousands of years of rushing water and the shifting of tectonic plates deep below the earth’s crust, the passage allowed access to the far side of the mountain.

The thunder of hooves echoed like cannon fire, rolling louder and louder, closing the gap between the riders and the wagon of captives until the final explosion as the factions clashed in a fight to the death.

Johnny, Val, and Rio rode in front, with six men behind them, and recklessly navigated the twists and turns with one thing on their minds. They had to stop that wagon and defeat de la Cruz’s men. Cananea was not that far ahead; they had to stop them, whatever the cost.

And then, the target came into sight. They saw riders ahead through the billows of dust as they turned in their saddles and began to fire revolvers aimed in haste as the bullets missed their mark.

As one, the rescuers crouched low, leaning over the necks of their mounts as they returned fire. The attack forced the men ahead and the wagon into a faster pace. But speed was impossible without risking the wagon to crash and kill or maim the captives that would bring many dollars to line the bandits’ pockets. What good would the prisoners do them if they were hurt or dead? So the only thing to do was fight.

Cabrera heard the rumble behind them; he knew trouble followed. If they could go another two hundred yards, they would be out of the pass and head either north or south. A steep cliff prevented further eastern travel, but the other two directions would curve around and take them to the valley below and into Cananea.

“Keep moving! Get that wagon moving!” he bellowed out. A bullet whistled by his ear, and he ducked low. Firing blindly behind him, Cabrera fought to stay in the saddle as his horse stumbled and threatened to throw him to the ground. If the fall didn’t kill him, the men gaining ground on him would. Faster! They had to move faster!

Through the flurry of mane, Johnny caught sight of the captives as they crouched in the wagon bed. Huddled together and lying as flat as they could, it appeared no one suffered injuries… yet. They disappeared around another bend, lost from sight, only to reappear the next second later as his horse cleared the rock corner coming ever closer.

But the fact was not lost on Johnny only seven guards were escorting the wagon. He grinned; the odds were in their favor. A string of three horses galloped recklessly, eyes wild and rolling. They were of fine blood and breeding, probably stolen to sell to the Rurales.

Then, as if by magic, the mountainsides backed away, but the relief was short-lived when he saw the edge of the cliff straight ahead. The wagon made a sharp left turn, the right side wheels came up off the ground, then slammed square on all four again, bucking over the uneven trail. The captives bounced in the wagon bed like sacks of potatoes, searching for a hand-hold, anything to anchor them from being ejected and tossed to the ground. The bandits followed the wagon, and the rescuers followed the bandits; if they were to overtake them, it had to happen now.

Free of the confines of the narrow passage, Rio nudged his horse and gained on the wagon. “Val!” he called, getting Crawford’s attention; he waved his arm, motioning for help to get it stopped. A bullet creased his arm, but he shook it off, no time for scratches.

Val rode alongside and jumped from his saddle into the back of the wagon and lunged forward, overpowering the driver as he snapped the neck, then viciously threw him off the wagon seat to the ground. Scrambling to find the loose reins, Val suddenly found himself struggling to stay on the seat when a bullet tore into his back, propelling him forward. The blackness threatened to plunge him into oblivion, to fall under the stampeding hooves and be trampled by galloping horses behind.

Rio could do nothing but watch as Val teetered dangerously until a pair of strong hands grabbed his shirt and pulled him safely onto the seat. A stocky man from the wagon bed held Val and kept him from falling, then clambered over the seat to secure him as Rio rode close to the team and grabbed the reins close to the bit, slowing the horses.

Rio’s men fought fearlessly, engaging the enemy however they could. As the wagon slowed, so did the mounts; guns fired, men fell, and others fought hand to hand, throwing fierce punches, bloodying noses, and splitting lips.

A guard drew a bead on Johnny’s back, leaving Rio no choice but to fire. Then, he threw himself out of the saddle and climbed onto the wagon seat next to Val. They wrestled Val into the bed with the newly liberated captives to help tend him as best they could. The three men climbed out of the wagon, leaving the five women to see to Val. They helped catch the riderless horses and overpower any of de la Cruz’s men who weren’t yet dead. And they were winning the fight.  

One of Cabrera’s men made to run, but Jorge Alvarado launched himself off the ground, after subduing the guard he pulled out of the wagon and caught the deserter around the waist. They crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust. The guard made the last mistake he would ever make in this life and lunged at Jorge’s throat with a knife. The blast of a Colt signaled the end to the fight, and the guard fell dead in a heap.

Rio took stock of the scene that played out in front of him. His men secured the guards with only one injury, other than Val. Those guards foolish enough to pursue the fight now lay dead; their bodies littered the ground, broken and bleeding, and would be left to rot in the sun. He anxiously looked around for Johnny and froze at the sight playing out before him.

The fighting exploded, dust billowed, making it difficult to see. Johnny squinted through the brown haze and watched as Val fell forward, and a second later, he dispatched the shooter. Val! He kicked Fuego forward, but he saw Cabrera ride for freedom from the corner of his eye.

Son-of-a-bitch! Turning the horse from Val, Johnny charged his mount, closing the distance on the fleeing horse and rider, then, just behind the bandit, he leaned out of the saddle and caught the man around his shoulders, and rode him to the ground,  effectively throwing him into the dirt. Cabrera landed with a grunt, unfortunately on top of Johnny.

Stars blazed in Johnny’s head, and though momentarily stunned, he fought against the need to take time and gather himself. Move!  And the huge, meaty fist slammed into his jaw, igniting another shower of silvery sparkles behind his eyes.

It was one thing to argue with Johnny Madrid, but it was a whole different story to piss him off. And he was pissed off. He shook his head, then shot off the ground, landing an uppercut to Cabrera’s chin. Yellow, crooked teeth snapped shut as they bit through the lip, and blood streamed down the whiskered chin. His howl of pain echoed off the mountains. Encouraged, Johnny threw a punch to the unprotected ribs, then a savage blow to the kidneys.

And, now it was Cabrera that exploded with rage. Almost six inches taller and out-weighing Johnny by more than fifty pounds, Cabrera’s massive arms wrapped Johnny in a ruthless crush.

Desperate for air but unable to draw a breath, his vision grayed around the edges, and his ribs began to crack. He opened his palms and simultaneously struck them on Cabreras ears with all the strength he could pull together; the stunned man yelped with pain as the vacuum sent pressure to detonate in the canals, and tiny bones inside those canals broke. Blood began to trickle from both ears, and the beefy arms loosened their grip from around him. Johnny stumbled backward, then continued his attack, but Cabrera was waiting.

Ignoring his aching head, Cabrera again grabbed Johnny, and they fell, rolling, trading punches. Johnny held his own, and although Cabrera was larger and stronger, he was slower.

A punch to Johnny’s ribs produced a snap, sending fire through his body, but he kept up the fight. He would die before he’d let Cabrera win.

They wrestled for control. Cabrera drew back and landed a brutal punch to the side of Johnny’s head, and again, they turned over, and then there was nothing as the cliff fell away, and there was nothing but air beneath them.

At that exact moment, Murdoch jolted, his eyes wide, and confusion took over his brain. What happened? He frantically looked about him. He was safe in the great room at Lancer. Why was he sleeping in the great room? What happened to make him wake so suddenly? Then it hit him. Johnny. Was Johnny safe? Was Johnny alive?

Rio Reyes tackled the guard, landing on the man’s back, he disabled him quickly, snapping the vertebrae in the neck. Then he looked up just as Johnny and Cabrera disappeared over the ledge.

JOHNNY!”  he screamed, garnering the attention of all those still alive. He charged to the edge— could he look down? He knew he had to and forced himself to do it.

Rafael Cabrera lay on a ledge twenty feet below, neck bent at an impossible angle, eyes open and staring at nothing. Where’s Johnny? No, he can’t be gone!

“JOHNNY!”  he screamed again. There was nothing, no sound, no body, no Johnny. Rio could only stare. Amigo, I’m sorry! His eyes misted. He hadn’t felt such a loss since…

He felt the ground fall away beneath him and knew he was going to die. But reflexes kicked in, and as he brushed past an outcropping of rock, he latched onto it as his body jerked to a bone-jarring stop. He gasped as the searing pain knifed through him as he dangled helplessly, a fire burned in his chest, and he waited to plunge to his death below.

Above, Rio stood searching for Johnny but finding nothing. Suddenly, Valeria’s vision swam before him. Beautiful eyes twinkling with mischief and love. She was gone forever… and so, it seemed, was Johnny.

Rio, need a rope! “Rope!”

Above, Rio snapped to attention. “Johnny?” Could it be? Then he heard it again.

Johnny did the only thing he could. He drew in as deep a breath as possible and called for help, hoping someone would hear. “Rope! Hurry!”

Rio whirled around with frantic orders. “Get a rope!” Then he turned back, trying to find where the voice was coming from. “Johnny, hang on, amigo, I’m comin’ down!”

Jorge Alvarado thrust a rope into his hands, and another was thrown around his body and snugged under his arms, the end of one rope tied to the saddle horn of his horse. The other rope in Alvarado’s capable control. Rio stood with his back to the edge, then dropped over the side and rappelled below.

Johnny’s strength was fading. The fight with Cabrera cost him much, his whole body was strained, and muscles were snagging across the splintered rib.  He fought back the blackness that threatened to pull him under and struggled to keep hold of the rock that prevented his descent into the valley below.

Slipping, he was slipping! He pinioned his fingers into the rock, bending back fingernails and gouging his flesh as he fought against the fall. But blood leaking from the gashes on his hands made the rock slippery and forced him to change handholds. His vision was blurring, and he fought to say conscious; he fought for purchase as he dangled like a leaf in the wind.

Fuck! Where are they? Then the end of a rope struck his shoulder as a loop dropped over his head, and he felt a presence at his side.

“Johnny, grab the rope!” commanded a voice at his ear.

Rio! Johnny felt Rio’s legs wrap around him, and he took the chance. One hand let go of the rock, and he grabbed the line that would haul him to safety.

The rope tightened, nearly unbearable pain shot through his chest, but he would live. He would live. And then they were inching upward.

It seemed to take forever before Johnny felt the grip of many hands as they hauled him onto stable ground. He lay panting, struggling to draw in enough breath to satisfy his starved lungs.

The pain in his chest flared and intensified, and his head was ready to explode off his shoulders; he would have welcomed the inviting black void that beckoned him. But not yet. He needed to check on the captives. Were they alright? Were Rio and his men alright? And what about Val? Johnny had to get to his feet. He rolled to his side and pushed off the ground.

“Hey, Johnny, just take it slow, amigo, take it slow.”

Strong hands steadied him and kept him upright. Someone handed Johnny a canteen; he took a drink and let the quenching water wash away the dust in his throat.  

Though bruised and badly shaken, the eight captives did not seem to be suffering any injuries, none that could be seen, and wanted to help in any way they could. Some tended Val, treating him as best they could with the limited supplies at their disposal. Whatever medicine and bandages they had, their rescuers brought in the saddlebags. Dosed with laudanum, Val was resting as well as could be expected and settled in the wagon bed for the trip back. Johnny watched the rise and fall of Val’s chest, reassuring himself Crawford still lived.

Two of the male captives clambered onto the wagon seat and volunteered to drive it back to Nogales. The women huddled in the back with Val. Some sat withdrawn and pulled in on themselves, apprehensive about returning home after the harrowing ordeal they’d gone through. Would their husbands want them anymore? Would it haunt them for the rest of their lives? They wondered.

“Let’s get outta here before them Rurales grow a brain an’ figure out somethin’s wrong!” Then Rio swung into his saddle, and the band started toward Nogales.

The two men rode behind the wagon. Johnny stubbornly refused to ride with Val but relinquished the role of protector to Rio. The kid was capable of the position, and at the moment, Johnny was glad to let him have it. All he wanted to do was sleep. Yes, Rio Reyes was calling the shots and doing a damn fine job of it.

Rio knew he could never repay his amigos for their sacrifice, for their loyalty, or their friendship. He would be indebted to them for the rest of his life, but it was worth that debt. Valeria was now at rest.

Isabella stood with her hands on her hips, and a frown creased her forehead. The gesture made Val slide down in the bed and offer her the smile meant to bribe her out of her nursing duty.

“I’m fine, honest, Mamacita! I got no pain an’ ‘m feelin’ a lot better!” But the grin wasn’t doing the job Val hoped it would. He shrugged and bowed his head, then with his last hope, he gazed up through his lashes with a shy little boy plea.

That didn’t work, either. He had no choice but to acquiesce and take the medicine.

Isabella Reyes was a busy woman. She continued to dote on her son; her fingers often pet the soft, thick hair and never passed the opportunity to caress his cheek. Her son, thought lost to her forever, was now back.

The prominent high cheekbones and strong jaw declared his proud parentage, his strength of character bespoke of a solid, stable upbringing, and his association with good friends. And Señora Reyes loved them all, was proud of them all. Yes, she had taken Madrid and Crawford into her heart years ago.

The night was quiet and peaceful as Rio stared over the mountains. He stared but didn’t see them. His eyes only saw the visions drifting in his mind. She was there, laughing, teasing with her eyes. Her silken touch traced the lines of his face, and sweet voice promised…

“Ya alright, amigo?” Johnny’s smooth tone interrupted Rio’s wanderings.

Rio didn’t turn and didn’t answer until he took a deep breath and reined in the emotion and imaginings. Then he glanced sideways at Johnny. “I will be,” he whispered, then looked out into the night searching for solace.

“Ain’t my business, Rio, but if ya ever wanna talk about that promise, I’ll listen. But I hafta tell ya that once ya keep that promise an’ see it through, let it go. I can only hope that you can see your way through without any more hurt.”

What else could he say? Rio would talk when the time was right. Johnny turned to leave.


The word anchored him to the spot.

“I’d like ta tell ya about her.”

Her. Johnny felt the emotions roll from Rio’s heart in a flood. He nudged him in the side and motioned to the porch steps. They sat together, and it was then Johnny lifted the bottle of tequila he held in his hand.

Gratefully, Rio accepted the offering and took a healthy swallow. “Hey, that’s the good stuff!” he said with a chuckle.

Johnny smiled. “Never travel without it! Ask Val!”

Rio sobered, then began putting a voice to the story he kept locked in his heart.

“I met her right after I got back on my feet. Val was gone; I thought you were dead. I was filled with so much hate. And she was there; she helped me get through those first dark days, an’ she was kind an’ beautiful, like a breath of fresh, clean air after fightin’ all that filth for so long. She was everything that we fought for.” Rio reached for the bottle and was suddenly grateful his amigo had the foresight to bring it with while they talked, and he bared his heart.

Johnny listened to the words as they were wrenched from Rio’s soul and could guess where they were leading. The tone of Rio’s voice went softer as he spoke, and though his words were not those spoken in love, they were of love.

“We were out trackin’ a wagonload of captives one night, an’ we found them an’ got them rescued. But what we didn’t know was while we were rescuin’ them, de la Cruz organized another raid. This time, they hit the village where she was an’ they tried ta take her with them, but she fought an’, I guess they figured she needed ta be taught ta obey, an’ not fight…” the hitch in Rio’s throat prevented the next few words and Johnny knew what those words were without Rio having to speak them.

He instinctively touched Rio’s shoulder.

“I found her when I got back. They… she was… then they slit her throat an’ I made her a promise that de la Cruz would pay.

“I even gave the bastard a chance, Johnny. I gave him a gun with one bullet an’ told him if he could take me, he’d go free. But I beat him, though. I gut-shot him an’ even if he hadn’t died, he woulda never raped another woman again.”

Johnny remembered watching Rio come into the dining room after he and Val waited for him to deal with de la Cruz. He had stopped to wipe the blood from the knife in his hand.

Rio turned, expecting to see revulsion in Johnny’s eyes.

But there wasn’t. There was only understanding.

 “Ya did what ya had ta do, amigo. An’ ya kept your promise. It’s gonna take a while ta get past this, but you’ll do it.”

Johnny brought the tequila bottle to his lips and swallowed, then handed it to Rio. No other words were needed. Neither spoke, but both took comfort in the presence of the other.

Four weeks. Four weeks, and not a word from Johnny or Val. Every hour of every day, Murdoch Lancer stood and looked down at the adobe Lancer arch expecting to see that palomino with the unmistakable form of Johnny riding on his back, galloping up to the hacienda. Breaking the rules and galloping up to the house. But he was never there. Would he ever come home?

“What about it, Val? Ya ready ta roll your sorry ass outta that bed an’ head back tamorrow?” Johnny nudged Val’s leg with his toe. Relaxing in the chair with socked feet propped on the bed, Johnny laughed when Val came near to jumping up, wanting to leave that minute.

“Yeah, I sure do! Say, we got a coupla hours of daylight, we can leave now!”

Johnny couldn’t hold back another laugh. “Tamorrow’ll be soon enough! Don’t know about you, but I’d like one more night sleepin’ in a bed!”

And, the morning did, indeed, come soon enough. The horses were saddled and waiting as Johnny and Val finished their breakfast. Isabella and Lucho sat enjoying the last few minutes with their extended family. With Rio alive and now home, their world had gotten much brighter, especially with the company of their ‘adopted’ sons. But those sons were now going home.

Rio stood as he watched Johnny and Val say their goodbyes to his folks, then, as Johnny was going to shake his hand, Rio pulled back and crossed his arms over his chest. Johnny looked puzzled.

“What?” he asked, not understanding Rio’s gesture.

“Don’t cha think ya have somethin’ ta tell me?”

“Like what?”

“Like where you’re goin’.”

“Me an’ Val are goin’ home.” What the hell’s got inta Rio?

“An’ where’s home?”

And it hit Johnny what was happening. “Morro Coyo, Rio. I live with my ol’ man. Surprise, huh?”

Rio smiled. “I’m glad, Johnny. I’m really glad for you, amigo.”

Johnny shrugged and looked at the toes of his boots. Then he met Rio’s eyes. “Let’s just say I didn’t have the whole story before. It ain’t what I thought it was. But, I’d like for ya ta meet him, Rio. I got a brother, too. Ya ever get up that way, I expect ya ta stop an’ see us.”

Goodbye was something that Johnny always struggled to say. The words caught in his throat, and more times than not, he didn’t say anything. But today was different. Goodbye didn’t feel right— instead, something else altogether seemed appropriate.

Going to Lucho, Johnny offered his hand, then thought better of it, brushed Lucho’s aside, then took the man in a bearhug. “Gracias, Lucho!” Then he moved to Isabella. He wrapped her in his arms and hugged her tightly. Kissing her cheek, he whispered in her ear, “Gracias, Mamacita!” He started to back away, but she put her hands to his face and pulled him down to her. Placing a kiss on each cheek, she murmured, ‘Vaya con Dios, Juanito!”

Uncomfortable with such sentiment, Val satisfied himself with a handshake with Lucho and a quick kiss on Isabella’s cheek. He shook Rio’s hand, then mounted Regalo de Amigo.

Johnny turned back to Rio and didn’t wait for the outstretched hand. He pulled Rio into his arms, the powerful hug of a brother to his brother. Then he stood back and gently slapped Rio’s cheek.

“Don’t forget, ya ever get up that way, ya better stop.” He looked to Lucho and Isabella. “California’s mighty pretty; I’d like ta show it to ya!”

With that said, Johnny swung onto Barranca’s back, and with one last wave and a tip of their hats, Johnny Madrid Lancer and Val Crawford started for home.

“C’mon, Val, let’s go get your job back.”

He was at his wit’s end. The second telegram he received was one week ago, and nothing since. At least he knew Johnny and Val were alive and on their way home. Alright, Murdoch. Just settle down. Johnny will be home when he gets here, he kept telling himself. So, why wasn’t he settling?

Noise at the corral drew his attention outside. Going to the window, he saw Cipriano returning with horses they caught at Black Mesa. Taking his hat from the rack by the door, Murdoch headed outside, anxious to check out the new stock.

He was impressed. These animals would bring top dollar from the Army. They never seemed to have enough horses and bought all that Lancer could supply. When Johnny got home, he could start breaking them. When Johnny got home…

“Señor Lancer! They are good, these horses, sí?” Cipriano asked through a wide grin. He yanked his sombrero from his head and slapped it against his thigh, raising a cloud of dust.

“Yes, Cip, they look fine! How many head are there?”

“Thirty-three and many more are still out at Black Mesa. Juanito will be busy when he gets home!”

When Johnny gets home… home! “Yes, very busy! Good job, Cip; the horses look to be in great shape.” And Murdoch turned and walked back to the house.

It was dark; the sun had snuggled down behind the mountains an hour ago. He took dinner at the usual time but didn’t remember what he ate. Couldn’t remember tasting anything, and now here he stood, staring into the flames. Like Johnny always did. He sighed and wanted a drink. Yes, Scotch was what he needed.

The alcohol slid down his throat, smooth and satisfying. Maybe he would indulge in another.

As he poured the second drink, Murdoch’s thoughts drifted to Maria. Oh, she had taken his heart before he knew what happened! She held him captive under her spell. A witch, she was! But a beautiful witch! Maria threaded him around her fingers and wove him into a secure, protective cloak; she’d seduced him with her wiles, and he could not refuse her. And she broke his heart.

But Maria gave him Johnny. And, now, he realized exactly how precious that gift was. A gift of love, made in love, and the thought slammed him between his eyes, knowing he hadn’t treated Johnny with love. Johnny was not his mother. Yes, he looked like her, painfully so, but his heart was not hers. It was much better. It was his alone, and it was good.

And Murdoch resolved, from that moment on, things would change. His son was a good man, and Murdoch would treat him like one. As the bitterness of Maria faded, a warmth grew as he contemplated Johnny. Yes, things were going to change! All he needed was Johnny to come home…

Murdoch stood alone in the house. He’d sent Scott to escort Teresa home from a visit with Patty McIntyre and didn’t expect them until tomorrow. So, here he was, alone and needing the company of his family. All of his family. He needed them all, and at the moment, none of them were with him.

They pulled their horses to a stop on the hill. Down below, the hacienda sat like a majestic diamond; lights sparkled from within, releasing a soft glow. Johnny suddenly felt the pull and his throat tightened. Home… ‘m home!

Slowly they rode toward the warmth. Home.

The silence was deafening, and Murdoch could stand no more. For years there had been Paul and little Teresa. Now Teresa was almost a grown woman, and his sons were finally with him. And here Murdoch was alone.

Jelly’s grumble and Dewdrop’s sudden honk startled him. What the devil is going on? And he reached for the door handle just as the door swung open. In the dimly lit foyer, Murdoch drew in his breath.

Johnny stepped through the door. He wore a tentative grin, not sure of his reception. His father’s last words spoken to him did not leave any doubt of Murdoch’s feelings toward him. Would there be trouble because Johnny was gone so long? He would soon find out. He stepped into the great room with Val behind him.

“Murdoch…” and he waited.

Was it shock that kept him rooted to the spot? Murdoch blinked, and Johnny was still there… waiting. Say something! Then he was moving forward and pulled Johnny into an embrace.

And Johnny froze. But the warm arms did not release him, then his brain began to work, and he slowly wrapped his arms around Murdoch’s waist.

“Son! I’m glad you’re home!” Then as an afterthought, “Val, come in, Sheriff!”

Now it was Val who stood in shock. “Ah, I ah, kinda resigned, Mr. Lancer.” Uncertain where he stood with the Cattle Growers Association president, Val dragged his hat off his head and twisted it in his fingers.

“Your job is still there, Val. I know why you boys left. It was unavoidable. Come in and get comfortable you two. Have you eaten?” They look tired.

“No, we haven’t had anything since this mornin’.” Am I in the right house? Is this my ol’ man? Johnny thought with relief. “So, how’d ya find out what we were doin’? That kind of news don’t travel this far north.”

“When Clint Grayson brought out the note you left, I talked with Billy at the telegraph office, and he said that Val received a wire then rode out of town going south. With a little persuasion, I found out where the wire came from. Then I wired a friend in Tucson, and he filled me in on some of the trouble down there. Son, what happened?” Murdoch’s eyes were troubled; he should wait until Johnny had a chance to rest. Johnny was home, safe. That was all that really mattered.

“Murdoch, can we talk about this tamorrow? Val was hurt an’ I think he should get some sleep.”

“Yes, yes, of course! Val, are you alright?” Murdoch asked, suddenly the gracious host. “Should I send for Sam?”

Val huffed. “Yeah, ‘m fine, thanks. An’, no, don’t send for Sam!” Then he turned to Johnny and mouthed, ‘You got a big mouth!’ Then in retaliation, Val spoke up. “Yeah, Johnny’s got a coupla busted ribs, so’s he ain’t doin’ so good neither!”

Murdoch turned to his son. ‘Do I need to get Sam for you?” But he knew what the answer was going to be.

“’M fine,” and Johnny smiled while Val huffed and snorted.

“Take him upstairs to a guest room, Johnny.”

“C’mon, Sheriff. Let’s get ya all tucked in, nice an’ safe. Hey, I’ll even stick around, so the boogyman don’t get ya. Maybe, read ya a story!”

“Fuck you, Johnny!” Val said under his breath, making Johnny chuckle out loud.

The easy laughter reassured Murdoch’s rambling thoughts. Then he settled himself on the couch and waited for Johnny’s return.

Seventeen minutes later, Johnny came down the stairs and, with a tired sigh, sprawled next to Murdoch on the couch and kicked off his boots. One leg stretched out in front, and the other propped on the coffee table. Then he yawned and scrubbed his face with his hands.

“Johnny,” Murdoch said, drawing out the name. “Go to bed, son, you’re making me tired!” His concern overrode his anxiousness to hear what happened.

Johnny smiled, then rolled his head on the back of the sofa to face his father. “I’m fine.” He hesitated, then, “Murdoch, I’m sorry I…”

“No, Johnny, I’m the one who’s sorry. I had no call to talk the way I did. I’ve had a chance… no, I’ve had many, many chances before and never used them the way I should have. Let me say that I took the time to do some serious thinking.”

Johnny’s belly flipped over. Took the time ta decide what? That he don’t want ta put up with me anymore?

“Son, I’m ashamed that it took something like this to happen to make me see things as they really are. Every time I looked at you, I saw her. I made the mistake of seeing Maria instead of my son.”

“Murdoch, she can’t hurt us anymore, an’ even if she was alive, I wouldn’t let that happen. She lied, Murdoch, not you, an’ it’s over. She did us both wrong, but we’re here an’ she’s not. So, how about we just get on with our lives. Remember the good about her, an’ there was good,” Johnny smiled, remembering Mama’s hugs, her singing, her love… until she began to deteriorate.

Murdoch watched his son through new eyes. Why hadn’t he seen it before? Had Maria blinded him so badly that he couldn’t see the man that was Johnny? Well, no more!

“Go to bed, son, but tomorrow, I want to hear about it, all of it!”

“’ Kay, we’ll talk. I’d like ta tell ya about a friend of mine. An’ Val’s. We worked tagether on the border a few years ago, an’ he was involved with all this trouble these last few weeks.”

Murdoch, though curious about this ‘friend’, did not question any further. Johnny needed sleep, and Murdoch would see to it that he got it.

With another sigh, Johnny pulled his legs under him and gathered his boots off the floor. He took only a few steps when Murdoch stopped him.

“What’s your friend’s name, Johnny?”

Johnny turned to face his father. “Rio.”

Murdoch nodded. “Will I ever get to meet him?”

The smile that grew on Johnny’s face seemed to brighten the room. “I sure hope so, ol’ man, I sure hope so!” Then Johnny turned and went up the stairs, leaving a smiling Murdoch to stare at the flames.


September 2020
Edited July 2021



Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment.  Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here.  You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email Buckskin directly.


8 thoughts on “Sins Of The Past by Buckskin

  1. Spectacular! Rio is a marvelous character and a perfect hero to walk in Madrid’s shoes. The story is rich with detail and emotion, and it flows beautifully. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Sis Chris! Thank you for the feedback, I appreciate it. When this story began, there was no intention of making Rio a main character, but he took on a life of his own. With no outline, the story goes wherever it goes and this one rolled with Rio. I’m very happy you felt the emotion here as it flowed from my heart to my fingers as this tale progressed. Thank you again for reading!



    2. Hey Buckskin,

      What an amazing job, love the story line. Who doesn’t love a Val/Johnny story? So, now, when will Rio and family be up for a visit?

      Looking for a sequel-HINT.

      Wonderful story,

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi, Elin! Yes, Johnny and Val together is always a great time! Trouble is their steady companion always waiting to pounce on them! As far as Rio goes, he might be coming around, who knows?

        Thanks for reading and the sending feedback!



    1. Thank you, Crystle, for reading and commenting! Rio turned out to be an interesting character to write and it wasn’t long before he began to call the shots making both Johnny and Val proud. He is a good friend of Johnny and Val- maybe he’ll show up again for a visit. You never know!



  2. Thank you for commenting and I’m glad you liked this story. Yes, I agree, Johnny and Val together is a great combination and very hard to resist! Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate it!



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