#7 in the Ghosts series | Episode 1 of 10
Word count: 361,145
The sun was sinking feebly in the west, having given up its fight against the heavy, grey clouds, as a young man riding a pinto crested a small rise. He gently pulled back on the reins, bringing the animal to a halt before sliding his feet from the stirrups. As he methodically scanned the flat, snow-dusted plains, he stretched out his legs and pressed his left fist into the hollow of his back. His dark blue eyes swept the surrounding area once more; then finding nothing to warrant his interest, he adjusted the hat on his head, sighed and ran his hand down the pinto’s neck.
“Pues bien. ¿qué hacemos, Charco?” he murmured. “It appears as if everything’s quiet here.” He slid the reins absently through his fingers, noting that they were getting worn and he needed to braid a new pair. “Guess we can head back. Harley’ll be lookin’ for us if we don’t.”
He gave a soft chuckle at the thought of his large friend pacing in anxiety if his absence was discovered. It was a firm rule at the Double S that no one was allowed to go out alone —a rule he had instigated and, to his friends’ dismay, exempted himself from following.
He gave the pinto another pat. “So, do you think Harley found out we left?”
The pinto snorted his opinion, which ended on a note of grim counsel and a stomped hoof. Chuckling at the definite ruling, Johnny turned the pinto around and nudged him into a slow lope toward the ranch.
Dusk was preparing to relinquish its tentative hold over to night when Johnny and Charco trotted into the yard. A few scattered lanterns hung from the porch of the two-story house, while a warm pool of light spilled out from the barn’s interior. Johnny slid off his horse’s back as he reined up.
“You’re in late.”
Johnny would have known without even hearing the voice who it was, just by the shadow cast from the doorway. Turning, he found Harley, his large frame blocking most of the light, his hands resting on his hips, and the expected expression of reproach on his face.
“Harl,” Johnny greeted before murmuring a, “You were right,” aside to Charco. He walked forward, shifting the reins from hand to hand as he pulled off his gloves. “You been back long?” he asked.
“At least an hour,” Harley answered, a frown working its way in among his beard as he continued. “See you went out alone. Again.”
Johnny pointedly ignored the reference and headed toward the barn. Harley, however, stepped in front of him, halting his progress.
“I know, I know,” Johnny interrupted, putting a hand up. “And I don’t want to hear it.”
“I know ya don’t want to hear it, but I feel better if I say it,” Harley growled. He then sighed in resignation, stepped out of the way, and gestured toward the house. “Cisco’s in with Stanton. Guess the boss is gonna be gone for a coupla days.”
“Oh?” Johnny replied, glancing over his shoulder. “What for?”
Harley shrugged. “No idea.”
A hint of a frown passed Johnny’s face. “Wes back yet?”
Harley nodded and thumbed vaguely across the yard toward the bunkhouse. “Just having supper.”
Johnny cocked his head to the side as he rested a hand on Charco’s neck. “You had supper, didn’t you?”
“Course I did!” Harley chuckled. “I worry ‘bout you, Johnny. But a man’s gotta have some priorities. Food comes first, you understand.”
“I’d expect nothing less,” Johnny replied, swallowing a smile. “Anything else goin’ on I should know about?”
“No, not really. Kinda quiet.” There was a slight pause, then Harley hooked his thumb in a vague gesture over his shoulder. “They’re getting set to play cards.”
“Oh?” Johnny arched an eyebrow. “And you’re not playing?”
“Well, I’m not of a mind to lose any money.”
Johnny’s minor surprise changed to incredulity. “Determined to save it up this time, huh?”
“That I am,” Harley agreed. “I’m gonna save my earnings up, get me a spread and a wife, have a whole passel of kids—”
“Oh-ho!” Johnny interrupted, taking a swipe at Harley with his gloves before pivoting away to lead Charco into the barn. “You’re thinkin’ on that Martha gal again, aren’t ya?”
“Mary,” Harley corrected as he followed.
“Mary,” Johnny echoed. “Yeah, she looked like she was tryin’ pretty hard to get that wedding noose around your neck.”
“Juanito,” Harley grumbled. “That’s not fair. She’s a really nice gal.”
“I’m sure she is,” Johnny conceded as he began to uncinch the saddle. “But I think a better idea would be to have you go along with Wes next time he heads into town. Bet he can find you someone to take care of those weddin’ urges real quick.”
“Juanito,” Harley shook his head, his face going crimson under the rough beard. “You know I ain’t gonna do that.”
“Yeah, but maybe if you did,” Johnny paused, gripping the saddle and sliding it off, “we wouldn’t have to keep talkin’ you out of getting married.”
There was a hesitant pause before Harley replied, “It’s not just gettin’ married, Juanito.”
“Then what is it?” Johnny grunted as he swung the saddle over the railing.
There was another slight hesitation. “Well, it’s all of this,” Harley said, his voice dropping to a murmur. “I’m…I’m startin’ to think maybe Cisco’s right.”
Johnny stopped and turned. “Right about what?” he demanded, regarding his friend with narrowed eyes.
Harley glanced down. “Well…that maybe it’s time to call it quits.” He took a quick breath before looking back up to face Johnny’s dark look. “I mean, I’m not really cut out for all of this. I’m thinkin’ more ‘n more that I’d like to do something else—anything else—where you don’t have to worry about someone takin’ shots at ya,” he replied, a finger subconsciously rubbing along the scar on his face, still visible under the rough beard.
“I ain’t like you, Juanito. I ain’t fast. I ain’t even that good. And maybe all this shootin’ don’t bother you none. But me—” He hesitated, eyes lowering apologetically. “I find myself thinkin’ more ‘n more that I’d like to get out of this while I can, while I’m still alive and there’s a chance I can have a normal life, with a wife and kids and a real job. Hell, I’m gettin’ so I don’t care what I do, as long as it don’t involve guns.”
“Like what?” Johnny scoffed. “A barber? Or how about a bartender?”
“Barber. Bartender. Makes no nevermind to me,” Harley replied. “Hell, I’d even try my hand as a blacksmith!”
“A blacksmith?” Johnny chuckled as he returned to removing the tack. “I can’t see you standing over a hot forge all day, Harl. You hate the heat.”
“Yeah, well, I hate being shot at even more,” Harley said, shaking his head. “And now there’s that bounty on me in Texas—”
“Fifty dollars, Harl,” Johnny interrupted with a sarcastic snort.
“May not be much to you,” Harley retorted with a hint of belligerence as he crossed his arms. “But it makes my blood run cold just knowing Forbes has it out for me enough to be willin’ to pay to have me dead.”
Johnny shook his head as he grabbed a hand-full of straw and began to rub Charco. “I wouldn’t go losing any sleep over it.”
Harley watched his friend quietly. After a moment, he ventured, “Don’t it bother you, Juanito? Don’t it make you nervous knowing Forbes is willing to pay money to see you dead?”
“Nope,” Johnny replied without emotion.
“It don’t bother you none at all?” Harley pressed.
“Five hundred dollars is a hell of a lot of money, Johnny.”
“And you still ain’t worried?”
Johnny turned around, sighed. “Harl, after all the problems we caused Forbes, I’d be more worried if he didn’t have a bounty out on me. It’s not state issued, anyway. You know that. And we’re a hell of a long way from Forbes’ territory. So let’s concentrate on the job we got here, okay? Then if you’re still that fired up about seeing that Mary again, we’ll see if we can’t find a job in California.”
“California? You’d be willing to go there?”
Johnny gave a shrug. “Harl, if you’d quit carrying on like this, I’d go to the moon.”
“Now, that I’d like to see,” a voice interrupted.
Harley and Johnny both turned to find Cisco standing in the doorway, a grin on his face. “You’re back late,” he said as he walked forward. “Any problems?”
Johnny shook his head. “Nope. All quiet.”
Cisco nodded his head. “That’s what I told Stanton.” He paused to watch as Johnny moved around to the other side of the pinto. “In fact, that’s what he wanted to see me about. He’s wondering if Mitchell may be content to let things stand as they are. ”
Johnny straightened up to glance over Charco’s back. “And what’d you tell him?”
Cisco shrugged. “I told him it’s possible.”
Johnny frowned as he stepped around the pinto, one hand resting on its rump. “You—what?”
Cisco glanced down. “Well, it has been quiet the last few weeks.”
“Ah, c’mon, Cisco,” Johnny countered sourly. “You know as well as I do, it won’t really be over ‘til it’s over. Mitchell is gonna push and push, ‘til either he gets everything he wants, or we stop him.”
“You mean kill him.”
Johnny took in a quick breath as he tried to keep the irritation from showing on his face. “That’s why we’re here, Cisco. That’s why we were hired. Not as wranglers or cooks, but as gunfighters.”
“I know that,” Cisco snapped, then shook his head, lips pursing in frustration.
“Then what’s your problem?”
For a moment Cisco didn’t reply. Then he gave a heavy sigh, all anger suddenly gone. “Nothing,” he said, shaking his head. “Nothing. I just wish…” He looked down and shook his head again. “It’s nothing.” Then before Johnny could respond, Cisco turned to Harley.
“What’s your opinion on Mitchell?”
Harley glanced uncomfortably from Cisco to Johnny and back. “Well,” he hesitated, shuffling his feet. “Maybe after Johnny took care of Mitchell’s gun last month, he’s realized Stanton’s damn serious about hanging on to his ranch, and he’s turned his attention elsewhere.”
“Oh, I’m not disputing that,” Johnny said as he moved to slip Charco’s bridle off. “But that gun he had working for him was little more’n a glorified cowpoke, and I think Mitchell knows that now.”
“And so,” Cisco sighed heavily, a disgusted expression settling on his face. “He gets another gun.”
“You know he will,” Johnny replied, keeping his voice calm. “That’s what they always do. And the next one will be better. And once our back is turned, he’ll come sneaking up from behind.”
Cisco closed his eyes, his head bowed as if admitting to a truth he was already painfully aware. “Yeah, yeah. I know.”
“So, did Stanton tell you why he’s gonna be gone?” Harl asked, hoping to divert the conversation.
Cisco looked at Harley and nodded, shaking off the tension. “He’s going up to Abilene.”
“What for?” Johnny asked.
“He didn’t say,” Cisco replied. “We started talking about Mitchell instead.”
“He didn’t ask for anybody to go along?” Johnny asked, a frown settling on his face.
Cisco shook his head.
The frown deepening, Johnny hung the bridle up on a peg. “I’m gonna find out what’s going on,” he said. “Check to see if there’s any other orders.” He rubbed his face, gave a tired sigh, a faint smile of reconciliation appearing on his face. “I think I’ll be glad when Mitchell finally makes his move. This waiting is getting old.”
“Yeah,” Harley agreed. “I kinda feel like we’ve gone to a lot of trouble to set up a really nice party, only the guest of honor’s not showin’ up.”
With a wry nod of agreement, Cisco looked at Johnny, a hint of an apology in the tilt of his head. “Yeah, I guess that’s how I’m feeling.” He let out a faint chuckle as he shook his head and stuffed his hands deep in his pockets. “That and this blasted cold weather.”
Johnny laughed. “Whose idea was it anyway, comin’ way up north here?”
“Yours,” Harley and Cisco intoned together.
“S’pose it’ll be the last time anyone ever listens to me.”
“Yeah, better if you stick to shootin’, Johnny, and leave the plannin’ to Cisco,” Harley replied.
“I can always count on you to put me in my place, Harl,” Johnny deadpanned.
“Oh, go on over and talk to Stanton,” Harley said, indicating the door with his thumb. “I’ll finish up with Charco here and see you back at the bunkhouse.”
“Thanks.” Johnny gave the pinto a quick pat and started for the door.
“I’ll have a shot of tequila waiting for you,” Cisco said.
Johnny turned and grinned. “Sounds good.”
With an offhanded thumbs-up, he headed out into the darkness, glancing casually about the yard as he headed toward the Stanton home. Time and resources, along with the added good fortune of being located just twenty-five miles to the south of the burgeoning cattletown of Abilene, had allowed Edward Stanton to furnish his home as befitting a successful cattleman who was still building his empire on the wind-beaten prairie.
Johnny was just stepping up on the wooden porch when the front door was yanked open by a young girl of about eleven, her mousy-brown hair escaping from the confines of two braids, only one of which still sported the yellow ribbon which had secured it that morning.
“Johnny!” she squealed enthusiastically as she bounced up and down on her toes. “I saw you coming up. I’ve been waiting for you! Did you hear? Isn’t it just great?!”
“Hold on!” Johnny pleaded with a chuckle as he came to a stop. “You’re going too fast. Give me a chance to catch up, would you, Chica-lyn. Now what are you talking about?”
The young girl laughed at the name, tossing one braid back behind her shoulder as her hazel eyes sparkled with excitement. “Oh, Johnny! It’s so wonderful!” She put a hand out and grabbed him by the arm, pulling him into the warmth of the house. “It’s Laura! She’s coming home for a visit.”
“Laura?” Johnny shook his head, puzzled. “Who’s Laura?”
“My other daughter.”
Johnny looked up to see Mr. Stanton approaching. Although in his late forties, Stanton was still well fit, attesting to the fact that he worked as hard as any of his hired hands. He was of average height and build, with weatherworn features.
“Now Carolyn,” he admonished, the indulgent smile on his face tempering his words, “you go on and get your schoolwork finished. Mister Madrid and I have business to discuss.”
Carolyn shot Johnny a look of resignation and sighed. “I’ll see you tomorrow after school, okay, Johnny? You haven’t forgotten, have you?”
Johnny shook his head. “Of course not.”
“Carolyn,” Mr. Stanton interrupted, his tone firm, but not sharp. “You need to quit taking up so much of Mister Madrid’s time. He has important work to do.”
“It’s okay, really,” Johnny assured with a grin and a dismissing wave of his hand. “I don’t mind. And I did promise.”
Carolyn smiled innocently at her father, who rolled his eyes with a sigh. “Go on,” he urged with a nod of his head toward the stairs. “And you’d better not come home with any more notes about being unprepared for your math lesson, or you won’t be going outside tomorrow, either.”
“Pa!” Carolyn groaned.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Chica-lyn,” Johnny said then added with a waggle of his finger, “And I expect to see a perfect report, okay?”
With a giggle, Carolyn turned and ran to the stairs, taking them two at a time.
“Better not laugh. I’m serious,” Johnny called to the retreating steps. Another round of giggles echoed from the top of the stairs.
“Oh, you spoil her,” Mr. Stanton admonished, but there was a smile on his face as he turned and walked through the door leading to his study, a large oak-trimmed room in the front corner of the house.
“If it doesn’t bother you, sir, I don’t mind,” Johnny assured as he closed the door. While Mr. Stanton walked across the room, Johnny’s eyes automatically drifted to the left, where a portrait of Mr. Stanton’s deceased wife hung over the fireplace. Light brown hair framed an oval face, and the painter had positioned her so that her head was slightly tilted, the faintest hint of a smile on her face. But it was her eyes that always caught Johnny—deep green eyes which appeared focused off in the distance, giving him the feeling that he ought to check over his shoulder whenever he glanced at the portrait.
He forced his attention away, briefly noting that the fire showed evidence of having been lit early, while the box of dried wood nearby showed that his employer had every intention of staying up late. For a moment he entertained the idea of taking off his heavy jacket.
“I know you don’t,” Mr. Stanton nodded before turning to lean back against his desk, his arms crossed. “But I just worry that—well…” He glanced down quickly before continuing, “She’s become quite attached to you.”
“If you’d rather I not spend time—”
Looking up, Stanton quickly raised his hand. “No, Johnny. That’s not what I mean at all. I’m trying to say that you’ll be missed…when this difficulty with Mitchell is resolved.”
Keeping his expression neutral, Johnny bowed his head. “You’ve been a fair employer, Mister Stanton,” he said, careful to keep his tone even. “There aren’t many men I can say that about.”
Stanton cocked his head to the side, hesitating a moment as his lips pursed in thoughtful silence. “You know, Johnny,” he said, beginning slowly. “You aren’t at all what I thought I would be getting when I decided to hire a gunfighter.”
Johnny glanced up, brows furrowing.
“I don’t mean that as any disrespect to your abilities or profession,” Stanton quickly added, raising his hand. “What I mean to say, is that I wasn’t prepared to actually like the man I hired to oversee this problem with Mitchell.” He paused to shake his head. “To be perfectly honest, I figured, in the long run, you were the lesser of two evils.” He stopped to smile, a hint of warm amusement touching his lips. “Instead, I find myself…well, I find myself wondering if I couldn’t persuade you to consider staying on.”
Johnny’s frown transformed to a look of guarded astonishment. “You’re asking me to stay after the job is done?”
“Now I’m fully aware,” Stanton said as he crossed his legs at the ankles and dipped his head, “that watching over a ranch is probably nowhere near as interesting as what you’re used to doing. Except for this recent problem, it can be down-right boring.” He smiled wryly before continuing. “But I could offer you the foreman job. You and Cisco have basically taken over the position anyway.”
Johnny hesitated. He knew Stanton was watching him for some reaction, but the offer had so completely taken him by surprise that he was at a loss for words.
“You’re offering me a permanent position here?” he asked, his tone conveying a certain amount of stunned disbelief.
“Yes,” Stanton nodded then quickly added, “And your friends, too, if they’d like.”
For another moment, Johnny didn’t react. Then slowly a faint smile replaced the look of incredulity. “Well, I’ll certainly discuss it with them.”
“I understand. It would be quite a change for you all.” He paused, “But even if the others aren’t interested, the offer is open for you.”
Johnny gave an amused shake of his head. “Let me think on it.”
Giving a slight nod, Stanton let his hands drop to his sides and straightened up. “In the meantime,” he said as he walked to the chair behind his desk, “I’d like to know your thoughts on how things are going with Mitchell. I talked to Cisco earlier, and he seems to think it’s a possibility that he’s given up. However, I’d like to hear your opinion.”
Johnny crossed his arms. “I know Cisco would like to think it’s all over, but—”
“But?” Stanton pressed.
Johnny shook his head, his tone almost apologetic. “I don’t think it is.”
“Why not?” Stanton prompted as he sat down. “The man he’d originally hired to stir things up, that gunfighter of his, is dead. There hasn’t been anything from Mitchell for two… almost three weeks now.”
“Yes, but Mitchell’s put too much time and effort into his plans to give up so easily,” Johnny replied grimly. “I think it’s just a matter of time before he’ll start pushing again.”
Stanton seemed to consider the information before nodding thoughtfully. “That’s what I was afraid you’d say.” He stopped to sigh and shake his head. “And while I’d like to believe it’s over, I have a feeling it’s not. At least not yet.” He sighed again. “But I doubt it’s going to be so easy the next time.” He was quiet a moment, a resigned expression on his face as he bowed his head. Then, taking a deep breath, he planted his palms on the desk top and the look of resignation was replaced with a quick smile. “In the meantime, you heard Carolyn say that Laura is coming to visit.”
“I detected a note of excitement in her announcement.”
Stanton chuckled. “Yes, well, it’s been quite a while since Laura was home—a year and a half now. She’s been living back east with my late wife’s sister and going to school, but she wanted to come home for the holidays this year. She’s taking the train into Abilene, so I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning to pick her up. I don’t expect to be back until the following evening, perhaps even the day after, if the train is running late.”
“Who are you planning to take along?”
“Just Harry,” Stanton replied.
“Harry?” Johnny countered. “Harry couldn’t hit the side of a barn if it was within arm’s reach.”
“Well, there’s no reason to expect any trouble,” Stanton said.
Johnny paused, his expression turning bleak. “Just because you don’t expect any trouble, doesn’t mean it isn’t looking for you.”
Stanton met the pronouncement with a thin-lipped nod. “I understand. However, I’d rather not alarm Laura,” he replied, shifting his attention to the papers on his desk.
“Oh, right, let Mitchell’s men alarm her instead,” Johnny argued, confused by Stanton’s reluctance. “That’s a much better idea.”
Stanton looked up sharply, a frown on his face. “Mister Madrid.”
“I’m sorry,” Johnny replied, waving his hand. “But I just think you aren’t making any sense.” He paused, his expression becoming firm. “Sir, this is something I’m going to fight you on.”
There was a pause as Stanton bowed his head and drew his hands in to fold in front of him. “You’re probably right,” he sighed. “It’s just that I know Laura’s going to be upset when she finds out what’s been going on.”
“Mister Stanton,” Johnny replied. “You’ve hired insurance. Make use of it.”
Stanton was silent a moment before reluctantly nodding. “Okay. I agree,” he consented.
“Good. I’ll be ready—”
“No.” Stanton shook his head, interrupting. “I’ll be more at ease knowing you’re here in case Mitchell does make a move in my absence.”
Johnny hesitated, glanced toward the front window. “Okay, then,” he said, turning back. “Take Wes. If nothing else, he should keep you both entertained with his stories.”
A slow smile appeared on Stanton’s face. “If it’ll keep you happy, I’ll take Wes.”
Johnny grinned, shaking his head in amusement as he added a soft chuckle. “Thrilled, sir. Just thrilled.”
Enjoying the shared amusement of Wes and his stories, Stanton rose to his feet, laughing.
“So, then, is there anything else I should be aware of while you’re gone?” Johnny asked.
Stanton shook his head. “Nothing more than the usual,” he said, walking around his desk. “I would like to get that corral by the northeast entrance fixed as soon as possible. Once the snow comes, it drifts rather heavily over there, and once that happens, it’s damn near impossible to get to and fix until the late spring.”
Johnny nodded. “I’ll see to it.”
“Oh, and there’s one more thing. We’re having a welcome home party for Laura on Saturday. I’d appreciate it if you would attend.”
A flash of discomfort crossed Johnny’s face and he winced. “I’m really not one for parties, sir.”
“So you’ve said before,” Stanton chuckled. “But it would be the perfect opportunity to introduce my new foreman around, don’t you think?” he said, clapping Johnny’s shoulder.
“I’ll think about it,” Johnny replied.
“You do that,” Stanton nodded firmly. “Oh, and maybe you could get some of the men to give the porch a new coat of white wash. Spruce it up a bit for Laura.”
“I’ll see to it,” Johnny replied, sending Stanton a half-smile as he turned and headed out of the office.
Once outside, he paused on the porch for a few moments. The full darkness of night had settled in, and the sounds of the evening hummed with warm familiarity. Suddenly, a burst of loud, raucous voices drew his attention, and with a smile on his face, he walked toward the larger of the two low, sandstone buildings used as bunkhouses. He was within a few steps of the door when he heard Harley’s unmistakable bark of delight followed by a mixture of good-natured hoots of objection and amused disbelief. Harley had been lured into the game after all. But at least, for the moment, it sounded as if he was coming out ahead.
With a smile of amusement, Johnny shook his head and stepped closer to the building. Instead of going in, though, he positioned himself near the window so that he could view the men gathered about the large, common table. Harley was sweeping a stash of coins, adding to the pile in front of him, while Wes, grinning widely and seated off to the side, a drink tipping precariously in one hand, leaned forward to give Harley a congratulatory pat on the back. With a wink, Harley flipped a coin to Wes in mock deference.
There was a comfort in the easy-going camaraderie, a warmth of familiarity which led Johnny to wonder if what Mr. Stanton had proposed was possible. Maybe they could have a future here—no more need to wander from job to job.
The smile of amusement changed to one of wonder and he settled his shoulder against the building. Arms crossing, his gaze drifted out toward the ranch yard.
Maybe there was something to what Harley had said, that it was time to do something which promised more than the exchange of bullets and bloodshed. Maybe this is where they found futures.
A movement caught his eye, and as he gave his attention to the scene within, he saw Cisco moving toward the table, a well-worn book in one hand. As his friend paused to view the progress of the game, Johnny could plainly see his expression, and the earlier sense of satisfaction evaporated. At first glance, Cisco seemed to be enjoying the diversion as much as anyone else. But Johnny knew him well and could see the heaviness in his eyes, an anxiety uncharacteristic in his otherwise composed and self-assured friend.
Taking a deep breath, Johnny stepped away from the window and leaned his shoulder against the rough-hewn wood. Glancing out toward the yard, the low-hanging clouds mirrored his leaden expression. With a sigh he lowered himself heavily onto the porch, leaned his back up against the wall, and drew his knees up.
It was all going to change. It was all going to change and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. His desire to bring everyone up to Kansas had been borne out of a desire to escape the inevitable. The end was coming; he just didn’t want to admit it, had hoped to stave it off, if for just a little while longer.
But it was just a matter of time.
Cisco hadn’t been himself ever since he had been forced to kill an old friend down in Texas in order to save Johnny’s life. The cool sureness, the incisiveness they had come to expect, was gone. Oh, he put on a good act, talked a good game, but there was an uncertainty in his eyes that had never been there before. And Johnny knew, without a doubt, that if Cisco didn’t exorcise his demon or get out of the business, he’d be dead before too long. Because the next time the ultimate decision of self-preservation arose – kill or be killed – Cisco would freeze… and the corpse at the end would be his own.
He’d known — hell, they’d all known for quite a while — that Harley wasn’t cut out for the business. His talk of a normal life, a wife and family and a small ranch of his own, had grown more and more frequent ever since they had spent those few weeks back in California, where he’d become reacquainted with a young gal he had known since childhood. The childhood friend had quite fully blossomed into a beautiful young lady, one who had won the large man’s heart. It was just a matter of time, a few months at most, before Harley followed his heart back to California.
And Wes… Johnny snorted, looked down at the ground. Heck, in all likelihood he would be the first to move on. Yeah, while Wes was by far the easiest to please, he was the first to get bored. They’d already stayed longer than usual, and they were just lucky the saloons were varied and the girls even more so. But, before too much longer, even the wiles of the redheads would lose their flavor, and Wes would be urging for a change of scenery.
Johnny shook his head, let his eyes travel along the ghostly shapes of the buildings huddled tightly against the unrelenting prairie winds. He could have done a good job here, found a way to fit in. But it wasn’t meant to be. He would move on with his friends after the job was done. Even though he knew the path led to an inevitable end, they were all the future he had. When he no longer had them, he didn’t know what he would do; it wasn’t something he even wanted to think about.
Startled, Johnny turned, his hand immediately at his hip. Seeing Cisco walking toward him, his face faintly lit by the moonlight, he shook off the movement with a wry grin. “Didn’t hear you come out.”
Cisco chuckled. “No need to worry. You haven’t lost your touch. I went out the back door. Thought maybe you’d be done talking to Stanton.” He stopped near Johnny, his tall, slight build a contrast to Johnny’s shorter one and drew a bottle of tequila out from behind his back. Then adding a rueful smile, he held out two glasses in the other hand. “I had hoped to… Well, I thought maybe I ought to apologize…you know…for earlier.”
“Well, there’s no need, but as long as you’re apologizing in style,” Johnny said, grinning as he took one of the glasses.
Cisco chuckled as he poured tequila into first Johnny’s glass, then his own. After setting the bottle down on the edge of the porch, he held out his glass. “In any case, I do apologize. It’d been a long day.”
“A long coupla months,” Johnny agreed with a nod, holding out his own glass.
Cisco sighed as he brought the glass to his lips. “Yeah. It has been.”
Johnny nodded and took his own sip. “And then this long waiting game with Mitchell, well…”
“We’re all a bit edgy,” Cisco finished.
Johnny nodded again, met Cisco’s eyes a moment before letting his attention wander toward the bunkhouse. “Sounds like Harley’s winning.”
Cisco glanced over his shoulder. “Yeah. As long as he doesn’t let Wes talk him into a few drinks, he’ll do fine. But as soon as he has a few, he always starts losing.”
“Yeah,” Johnny agreed. “He’s gotta learn when to stop.”
“Stopping can sometimes be difficult,” Cisco said, turning back to meet Johnny’s eyes. “Even when you know it’s good for you.”
Johnny managed to keep his gaze steady, nodded.
“So, how’d it go with Stanton?” Cisco asked after a brief silence.
“I found out why he’s going up to Abilene.”
Johnny shrugged, dragged the fingers of his free hand through his hair. “His older daughter’s coming home from out east somewhere. Guess she’ll be around for the holidays.”
“Ah,” Cisco nodded. “Are you going up with him?”
Johnny took another sip, enjoyed it for a second, then shook his head. “No. He’s gonna take Wes.”
Cisco sighed, glanced without interest about the darkened yard. “Too bad this isn’t all over with Mitchell.”
“I know.” Johnny hesitated. “We’ve been here quite a while. Everyone’s getting ready for a change, I think.”
“I heard you tell Harl you’d even go to California.” Cisco paused to grin over his glass. “That surprised me.”
“Well, if that’s what it takes to make Harley happy,” Johnny replied with a snort.
“California might be nice again,” Cisco nodded.
Johnny met Cisco’s look and ventured a cautious grin of his own. “Maybe we could even pick up a coupla jobs on the way,” he said.
Cisco gave a slight nod, his attention settling on the glass in his hand. “Maybe.”
However, Johnny noticed that his friend’s tone lacked conviction.
Squinting off into the distance, Johnny stopped on his path across the open yard and watched the slow approach of a buggy drawn by two horses as it bumped along the rutted road between two fenced pastures toward the ranch house. Carolyn was on her way home from school. Pivoting, he spied one of the ranch hands crossing the yard on his way to the workshop.
“Benj!” he called.
The young cowhand changed direction and loped toward him, an easy grin on his face. “Yeah?”
“Riley back yet?”
Benj shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“If you see him, let him know I’m looking for him, okay?”
Benj nodded, taking a swipe at his neck with a dusty bandana. “Yes, sir. I’ll be sure to let him know.”
“Thanks.” Johnny waited as the young man continued on his way to the workshop before turning and heading toward the main house where the buggy was slowing to a halt.
“Hey, Chica-lyn!” he greeted, raising a hand.
Carolyn, seated next to her brother, Mark, waved back enthusiastically. “Hey, Johnny!” she yelled, barely waiting until Mark had stopped the buggy before jumping out. “I’m all ready! Let’s go!”
“Oh-ho! Just wait a minute, little Chica-lyn!” Johnny countered as he crossed his arms and studied her sternly. “Let’s see your school report for the day.”
“Oh, Johnny,” Carolyn grumbled.
“Come on, turn it over,” Mark coaxed, sending Johnny a mischievous grin as he hopped out of the wagon.
With a deep sigh of resignation, Carolyn reached dismally into the fold of her wrap to produce a paper which she reluctantly handed over.
Johnny grimly accepted it and unfolded it to read the remarks. As his eyes reached the end, a smile crept onto his face and he shot Carolyn a look of playful amusement.
“Gotcha!” she crowed, pointing her finger.
“That’s what you think,” Johnny said as he playfully flicked one of her braids.
“You thought I’d gotten bad marks,” Carolyn taunted with a smirk.
“Says you,” Johnny contradicted. “I had no doubt that you could be the perfect student. And now I have the proof.”
“Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah!” Johnny laughed, holding the paper over his head as he carefully refolded it. “This is important information.”
Carolyn took a couple of futile jumps, then put her hands on her hips and pursed her lips. “Johnny Madrid. You’re not playing fair.”
“Maybe not,” Johnny agreed with a chuckle as he slipped the paper into his jacket pocket. “Now you run on in quick and change, and I’ll meet you in the barn.”
Carolyn’s face broke into a wide grin. “I’ll just be a minute!” She turned and dashed into the house.
“I still can’t believe how she’s changed,” Mark said, leaning his tall frame against the side of the buggy.
“It just takes time and patience,” Johnny said.
“Yeah, well, we all tried for years and got nowhere.” Mark sighed then straightened up. He glanced toward the house and shook his head. “Getting thrown like that, when she was only six, and breaking both legs, really scared her away from horses. She wouldn’t even go near them. And now—” He turned back to Johnny and shook his head. “You have her leading that pinto of yours around, even helping groom him.”
“Charco’s a good horse.”
“That may be,” Mark agreed, climbing back up into the buggy. “But I think it has just as much to do with you as with that horse of yours. It just seems like she trusts you more.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Johnny replied. “I think maybe she was too used to all of you trying to coax her onto a horse, trick her into liking them again. I didn’t do a thing. I simply let her take control.”
Mark shrugged as he gathered the reins in his hands. “So, when do you think you’ll get her up on one?”
“When she does,” Johnny answered simply as he started toward the barn.
Johnny turned back.
“Would you be free to help me with my shooting after you’re done with Carolyn? I’ve been practicing.”
Johnny cocked his head to the side, hesitating. “Practicing?”
“You know, everything you showed us. I’ve been working on it.”
Johnny pursed his lips thoughtfully before allowing one quick nod. “We’ll see. If it hasn’t gotten too dark.”
With a pleased grin, Mark turned, slapped the reins and guided the buggy toward the barn.
A short while later, Johnny was checking Charco’s hooves while Carolyn was sweeping out the stall. They’d been working together for some time in companionable silence, though Johnny deduced from the way that Carolyn seemed to sweep and re-sweep the same area, that her thoughts were somewhere else. He noticed her glancing at him, her mouth screwed up in thoughtful contemplation. But it was a full fifteen minutes before she finally spoke what was on her mind.
“Laura can ride really well,” she said, a hint of envy in the statement. “Papa says she was born on a horse.”
“Oh, I got some real doubts about that,” Johnny laughed as he lowered the last hoof to the floor and straightened up.
“You know what I mean,” Carolyn giggled as she walked out of the stall. “But I sure do wish I could ride like she does.”
“Maybe someday you will,” Johnny replied as he led Charco a few paces down the length of the barn.
“I don’t think so.”
“Hmmm,” Johnny murmured to himself as he leaned over to study the pinto’s legs.
“What’s wrong?” Carolyn asked, cocking her head to the side.
“I’m not sure. Seemed to me earlier that something was wrong with Charco’s gait. But it’s hard to tell. The hooves looked fine. Here, do you notice anything?” he said as he led the horse down the aisle again.
“No, I don’t think so,” Carolyn said, squatting down, her eyes narrowing as she studied the animal’s walk. She looked up. “Maybe it’d be better if I lead him while you look.”
Johnny nodded. “Good idea.” He turned and walked back, holding out the reins to Carolyn. “Just walk him down that way, so I can get a good look.”
As Carolyn led the horse down the aisle, Johnny studied the gait with intense interest. He then had her make a couple more passes before announcing his satisfaction. “I think it must have been that pebble. Everything looks fine now,” he said, taking the reins back. “Thanks for the help, Chica-lyn.”
Carolyn smiled. “Charco’s such a nice pony,” she said as she reached up to rub his nose. “I wish all the horses were like him. Most of the horses around here are kind of wild.”
“Well, they’re cowponies,” Johnny explained as he hauled his saddle off the railing near the stall. “They have to be a bit high-strung for the kind of work they do.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” she said, her tone clearly conveying her dissatisfaction with cowponies as a whole. “How old is Charco?”
Johnny shrugged. “’Bout four or five, I guess.” He turned to grin at Carolyn. “I caught and tamed him myself.”
Johnny nodded as he settled the saddle on Charco’s back.
“Is that why you don’t ride any of the other horses?”
“We’ve been together quite a while. He understands me and I understand him,” Johnny said, giving the arched neck a pat.
“Laura wouldn’t be afraid of any horse,” she stated softly after a long pause.
Johnny raised an eyebrow before bending over to grab the cinch. “Laura’s that great, huh?”
“Oh, yes,” Carolyn nodded. “I wish I were more like her.”
Johnny cocked his head and chuckled. “What? Less perfect?”
“Oh, Johnny,” Carolyn laughed. “You’ll see when she gets here. She’s much more beautiful, and she’s really smart and…and, well, she isn’t afraid of horses.”
Johnny turned and crossed his arms as he fixed Carolyn with a doubtful look. “More beautiful …and smarter than you?” He shook his head. “I highly doubt that. After all, who got perfect marks in school today?”
Carolyn laughed. “But she can ride.”
“And so can you, once you’ve decided to.”
Carolyn expression grew somber. “What if I never decide to?”
Johnny shrugged as he went back to tightening the cinch. “Just means you decided not to. Not that you can’t.”
Carolyn was quiet a moment. “Johnny?”
“Have you ever been afraid of anything?”
Johnny blinked, a frown momentarily crossing his face. Then cocking his head, he regarded Carolyn out of the corner of his eyes a moment before straightening up to give her his full attention. “Well,” he said carefully. “I guess I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t.”
Carolyn studied him in mild surprise. “Really? I didn’t think you were afraid of anything.”
“Everyone’s afraid of something, Chica-lyn.”
“So, what are you afraid of?”
Johnny hesitated then shook his head. “That’s kinda hard to explain.”
A pursed lip frown was punctuated with crossed arms. “That means you’re not gonna tell me, are you?” Carolyn grumbled.
“Nope,” Johnny replied with a firm nod.
“Why not?” Carolyn pressed.
Johnny took a deep breath. “’Cuz it’s like I said, Chica, it’s kind of hard to explain.”
“That’s hardly fair,” Carolyn said, shaking her head so that her braids flipped over her shoulder. “You know what I’m afraid of.”
“No, it isn’t fair,” Johnny agreed without apology. “But then, a lot of things aren’t.”
“You’re always saying that,” Carolyn pouted, hanging her head dejectedly.
Johnny nodded. “I only say it, ‘cuz it’s true,” he said, giving her a sympathetic smile as he reached out to flip one braid.
Carolyn sighed loudly, arms still crossed, and regarded Johnny thoughtfully as he turned back to finish with Charco.
“You know, Johnny,” she said after a moment. “It’d be really fine if I could show Laura that I can ride.”
“Yup,” Johnny agreed with a simple nod. “That would be something.”
“I—I think I’d like to try it.”
“What?” Carolyn asked, brows knitting in surprise.
Johnny paused to rub Charco’s nose. “I said, nope.”
Carolyn hesitated, perplexed. “Why?”
“Well,” Johnny turned, his expression serious. “For one thing, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. You’re doing it for your sister, not for yourself. Second, you just think you want to try it. When you know you want to do it,” he paused, holding his finger up for emphasis, “then you’re ready.”
Carolyn watched silently as Johnny turned back to Charco. After a moment, a smile slowly spread across her face. “Johnny,” she said. “I know I want to do it.”
Johnny glanced back over his shoulder and smiled. “What say we compromise, then. You just sit up on Charco for a few minutes while I lead you around. It’d give me an extra chance to check his gait.”
Carolyn grinned. “I like that idea, Johnny.”
In the back room of the main bunkhouse, Johnny bent over a map laid out on a rough square table and planted one open palm to its side, while with the forefinger of his other hand he absently traced along the red line outlining the border between the Double S property and Mitchell’s Circle M. Near the boundary line, red x’s marked areas of downed fence lines, poisoned wells or other altercations with Mitchell’s men.
“Odd there’s been nothing along here,” Cisco said, leaning in next to Johnny to sweep a hand up along the northwestern edge of the property.
“I know,” Johnny replied, shaking his head. “It’s got me a—“”
“Heard you were looking for me.”
Johnny looked up from the map and regarded the man who had spoken. Chet Riley was roughly ten years older and a good half-foot taller with dark blond hair and mustache offset by grey eyes so pale they appeared almost sightless.
Without expression, Johnny held the cold gaze until the other gunfighter shifted his attention to the table.
“You were out with TJ this afternoon,” Johnny said.
Riley nodded. “Yeah,” he said, walking up to the table. He swept a hand toward the bottom of the map. “Down over here, like you said.”
“Even he has the sense not to go out alone,” Cisco muttered.
Johnny shot his friend a quick glare before turning back to the other gunfighter and straightening up. “Come across any sign of Mitchell at all?”
Riley shook his head. “Nope. All quiet. Shot a jackrabbit just for the practice.”
Johnny paused a beat, then sighed and straightened up. “Damn,” he said, rubbing his temple. “It sure would make things easier if he’d show himself.”
“It’d make things easier if Stanton would let us do our job,” Riley said sourly.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he fixed his attention fully on the other gunfighter. “You know what the orders are.”
“Yes. I know what the orders are,” Riley replied, crossing his arms. “Doesn’t mean I have to agree with them.” He looked down and shrugged, arms dropping to his side as he gave a soft hiss of irritation. “But I guess, if he wants to keep payin’ us our fee just to nursemaid his cows and watch his fences, who am I to argue?”
“I’m sure the weather has a lot to do with how quiet Mitchell has been of late,” Cisco said, attempting to ease the growing tension.
“Oh, I don’t doubt that,” Riley agreed. He paused to offer a grin aimed in Johnny’s direction. “Though Madrid introducing that breeze through his gunfighter’s guts most likely had more to do with it.”
Cisco opened his mouth then closed it, looking down. Noting the reaction, Johnny quickly interrupted, tapping the map with a forefinger to draw attention. “Let’s get back to the original discussion, okay?”
“Fine by me,” Riley replied.
“Okay, then,” Johnny said, leaning his hip against the table. “Stanton’s going to be gone for a couple of days.”
“Where’s he going?” Riley asked, moving in closer.
“Abilene,” Cisco said, turning away and walking toward the small wood stove where he grabbed a coffee cup off the back shelf.
Riley turned to Johnny. “You goin’ with him?”
“No. Wes is.”
“Wes?” Riley asked, dubiously.
Johnny nodded, his expression set. “Wes knows the routine. He can handle himself.”
Riley put both hands up in faint apology. “Didn’t mean to sound like I was questioning his ability—or your decision. Just can’t understand why Stanton won’t make use of what he paid for.”
Crossing his arms, Johnny allowed his irritation to show. “He’s picking his daughter up. She’s coming in by train from the east. And he doesn’t want her upset by what’s been going on before he’s had a chance to explain.”
“A daughter, huh?” Riley chuckled, sending a wink across the room to Cisco. “How old?”
“How should I know?” Johnny retorted.
Johnny narrowed his eyes and glared before shaking his head in disgust. “Absolutely gorgeous. According to Carolyn, anyway.”
Riley suddenly chuckled. “So now we go from nursemaidin’ cows to nursemaidin’ kids. This job just keeps getting’ better.”
Johnny cocked his head to the side. “Oh, I have a much more important job for you.”
Riley raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”
“There’s a porch and a fence in need of some whitewash.”
The following day found Johnny leisurely guiding Charco along the western edge of the Double S property. In the back of his mind he knew he shouldn’t have gone out alone. After all, it was against the rules he had so strictly put in place for the rest of the crew. Besides which, he knew it irritated Cisco, leading his friend into long lectures about independent attitudes and the irrationality of courting danger, while Harley would frown and quietly stew about the risk. But what really gnawed at him was that Wes had come closest to the truth. He accused Johnny of trying to hog all the fun by drawing Mitchell out into a fight he couldn’t resist. And while Johnny wasn’t actually trying to start trouble, there was some truth to what Wes said. Knowing he was out by himself, without anyone to back him up, brought an intensity to his rides, a tangible feeling of danger which energized him. He thrived on it — needed it. So often, it seemed, he went through the motions of his job with no real connection to the reality of the risk involved, but these excursions by himself, with the exposure he allowed— in fact, purposely tempted — made him feel more alive than anything.
As he rode, his eyes scanning the countryside, he thought back on the previous evening’s events. He’d been quite pleased with the progress Carolyn had suddenly made. He hadn’t let her ride for long, hoping that by keeping it a short, positive experience, she would be eager to continue. And she had been quite pleased with herself, too, going so far as to ask him to keep the whole thing a secret, in order that she could surprise Laura.
But what had continued to nag at him today was Carolyn’s innocent question, her desire to know what he was afraid of. She would have been surprised to hear the reason he hadn’t told her.
He hadn’t told her simply because he truly didn’t know where the root of his fear was.
He knew he was afraid of the future, the impending disbandment of friendships he had come to rely on. But there was something deeper, hiding behind that desire to stave off the inevitable breakup. It loomed on his horizon like a formless cloud, sending a tight panic deep into his chest that showed up at the most random times: while walking down a street or playing a game of cards, in the middle of a meal or a conversation — never at the predictable moments. Not before a gunfight, or while riding into a strange town, or even while riding out in the open like this when he was quite literally goading Mitchell’s men into taking a shot at him. But it was real, and it was a fear. Only he couldn’t seem to discover what the source of that fear was.
As he drew Charco up, he swiveled in his saddle to make a full sweep of the area, planning to turn back toward the ranch, when he spied a rider approaching. At first he took it to be Cisco, from the tall, lean figure in the saddle, but within seconds he could tell that it wasn’t Cisco but Mark. He clicked Charco around and started toward the approaching figure, unconcerned as Mark’s pace didn’t indicate any urgency.
“Johnny!” Mark greeted when he was within distance.
“You’re out alone,” Johnny observed curtly.
Mark raised an eyebrow, opened his mouth to protest that he wasn’t the only one, but he quickly thought better of it and gave a shake of his head. “Benj is waiting for me. I saw you from the rise back there.”
“Ah, no,” Mark murmured.
Mark shifted awkwardly in the saddle. “Well, uh, I was wondering, after you’re done, if you’d help me with my shooting like you promised. It got too late last night, remember?”
Realizing his earlier morose thoughts had probably not only colored his mood, but his expression, Johnny forced a relaxed smile on his face as he rested his crossed wrists on the pummel. “So, you think you’re getting good?”
“I sure do,” Mark replied enthusiastically. “Not as good as you, of course, but I’ve practiced everything you told me.”
Mark grinned. “I’d like to show you. It’s been dang near three weeks now.”
“Three whole weeks?” Johnny replied dryly. “Hmmm. Okay. I tell you what. I first need to go check on that fence line your father asked me to look into, then I’ll meet you at the target range after lunch.”
Mark smiled. “That’d be great, Johnny. You’ll be surprised how much I’ve improved.”
“That so?” Johnny replied without humor. “Well, I don’t surprise easy.” His eyes flickered across the landscape before settling once more on Mark. “You get on back to the ranch, now. And next time you decide to go wandering about, you’d better have a playmate.”
Mark dipped his head in chastised concession before urging his horse about. “I’ll see you in a little while, though, right, Johnny?” he added over his shoulder.
“I said I’d be there,” Johnny said, adding with a flicker of a smile, “Now, go on.”
Mark caught the faint smile, returned it in force, and urged his horse into a gallop.
Facing the back drop of hay bales which served as a buffer to catch stray bullets, he allowed his eyes to settle briefly on each of the various targets:assorted posts, logs and even a crude scarecrow, before stopping to scrutinize the line of cans positioned along the top of a wooden railing. Taking a deep and calming breath, he adjusted his stance, and with eyes still focused on the row of cans, he suddenly drew, firing off six rounds. Every single one missed its target, though the last shot managed to set a can to wobbling.
Johnny issued an inaudible sigh as he shook his head and adjusted a piece of straw from one side of his mouth to the other.
“See!” Mark turned around, a proud grin on his face which immediately began to fade in the face of Johnny’s unimpressed expression. “I’m getting fast.”
“What the hell was that?”
“What’d ya mean?” Mark asked, the question losing its faint optimistic tone at the sight of Johnny’s unconcealed amusement.
“What’s with the fast-draw?”
“The fast-draw,” Johnny repeated with a gesture toward the gun in Mark’s hand. “What are you doin’ that for?”
“Well,” Mark glanced over his shoulder at the line of cans, “I was practicing like you told me.”
“Like I told you?” Johnny echoed with a snort. “When’d I ever tell you to practice a fast-draw?”
“That’s how you shoot,” Mark countered.
“Yeah, that’s how I shoot. But I usually got people drawing on me,” Johnny countered, walking forward and gesturing toward the target range. “You’re shootin’ at cans! And unless I’m mistaken, not a one of them is shootin’ back.”
Mark frowned. “But I want to be fast, too. I—”
Johnny raised a hand, cutting off any further protestations. “Gotta crawl before you can walk.”
Johnny waved his hand and shook his head, expression grim. “Listen, Mark. It’s not gonna do you a damn bit of good to be able to outdraw someone if you can’t hit ‘em.”
Mark sighed. “Well, I can do better if I just aim.”
“Then show me,” Johnny ordered.
Mark quickly refilled the chamber. Then with a deep breath he took careful aim and fired off the six rounds. This time one can flipped through the air to land in the dirt.
Johnny pointed toward the fallen can. “That’s what I need you doing. Now when you can get all six, you let me know, and I’ll show you what to work on next.”
“All—six?” Mark sent a crestfallen look toward the remaining cans.
“At least five of them.”
Mark nodded dismally as he studied the gun in his hand. “Do you think I’ll ever be good?”
“Well, you’re already better than you were,” Johnny said, a smile of encouragement softening the harshness of his words. “The only way you’d have been able to knock over a can when I first met you was with a stick.”
Mark laughed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Still chuckling, he slid the gun back into its holster. “But can I ever be really good? Good like you are?”
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you just worry about being able to hit all six cans. That’s good enough.”
Mark gave a lop-sided grin. “Did it take you long to get really good?”
Johnny glanced at Mark with a faint smile before turning toward the shooting range. “It took me longer than a coupla weeks.”
“So, you weren’t perfect right away, huh?” Mark asked.
Johnny shook his head. “No, I had to learn.”
“People say you’re a natural-born gunfighter.”
Johnny turned to regard Mark with surprise. “Natural-born?” He shook his head, laughing grimly. “Being a gunfighter ain’t natural.” He shook his head again. “You learn to become a gunfighter. You gotta learn andyou better have a damn good reason. And if you don’t then you better get outta the business, ‘cuz the only name you’re gonna make for yourself’ll be scrawled on a tombstone.”
Mark nodded slowly, his expression subdued.
“But you’re a rancher’s son; you don’t have to worry about none of that. All you need to worry about is holdin’ your own.” Johnny paused, gesturing out past the shooting range. “There’s more than rattlesnakes hidin’ in those plains out there, and you need to be ready for ‘em. Leave the gunfightin’ to the professionals — that’s why we were hired.”
Mark looked down at the gun and sighed. “Guess I’d better get practicing, huh?”
Johnny chuckled as he clapped Mark on the shoulder. “And don’t try to outdraw the cans anymore, okay?”
With a nod and a swallowed chuckle, Johnny turned away, gathering up Charco’s reins before mounting.
Johnny paused, one boot in the stirrup. “Yeah?”
“What’s your reason?”
“Your reason for being a gunfighter.”
Johnny blinked, surprised as the odd feeling of panic shot through his belly. “None of your damn business.” Without another word, he swung up in the saddle and urged Charco into a gallop.
“Well, he’s starting up his old tactics,” Harley said the next day, crossing his arms over his large chest and shaking his head.
“Obviously,” Johnny muttered. He glanced around the table as Harley, Cisco and Riley looked up at him. “The question is why? Why start up with the same old thing?”
“Boredom?” Riley chuckled.
“Maybe he knows the boss is gone,” Harley added.
Johnny turned to Cisco. “It was your group that found the downed fence lines this morning.”
Cisco nodded, then shrugged. “And it looked like it was done fresh. Grass hadn’t recovered…so we caught it early. No cattle got through.”
“Good idea you had us continue to do a constant patrol. I think we spooked a group—just the one post was pulled out,” Harley said.
Johnny looked at Riley again. “And nothing for your group so far?”
Riley shook his head. “Believe me. I sure as hell wishwe’d find something. I’m gettin’ damn tired of just ridin’ around in circles.”
Johnny cocked his head, held the other man’s gaze. “You rather white-wash somethin’ else?”
Riley scowled. “You know what I mean.”
Johnny rubbed his forehead tiredly and stood up. “I don’t think a few more downed fence lines are going to be enough to get Stanton to let us take the fight to Mitchell.”
Riley let out a loud snort and crossed his arms in an open show of disgust.
Johnny sent him a dark glare. “You do what I tell you.”
Riley abruptly rose, hands up in defeat. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“As long as it’s clear,” Johnny replied. He turned to Cisco and Harley. “All we can do is continue as is. Not much else to do at this point until I get a chance to talk to Stanton.”
“I’m getting tired of fixing lines,” Harley grumbled.
“Better than ducking,” Cisco countered, rising to his feet.
“Yeah,” Harley nodded wryly. “You’re right.”
Rolling his eyes and sighing, Johnny turned and left the bunkhouse, letting the door bang shut. He was stepping off the porch just as he heard the sound of an approaching buggy. Glancing toward the entrance gate to the north, he recognized Stanton guiding his surrey into the yard while another figure, who could only be the mysterious and enigmatic Laura, sat beside him, a buffalo hide fur tucked around her legs.
Wes, with a nonchalant tip of his hat, rode ahead through the yard toward Johnny. As he drew close, he leaned over and muttered dryly, “Never again.”
Perplexed, Johnny watched Wes continue on toward the barn before walking toward the buggy as it slowed to a halt in front of the house.
“Johnny!” Stanton called with a wave as he reined up and set the brake. “Come over here! I want you to meet my daughter, Laura.” He turned and gestured. “Laura, this is Mister Madrid.”
With a proper expression of welcome on his face, Johnny approached the side of the buggy. “Miss Stanton,” he greeted with a nod, his gaze rising to meet eyes of such a deep green that he was reminded of coastal waters. He allowed a half-grin to form on his face. “Welcome home. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
The smile, however, was not returned as the emerald eyes frosted several degrees lower than that of the already frigid outside temperature. “And I, you,” she returned, her chin rising in an attitude of defiance. “So, you’re the hired killer my father felt it was necessary to engage.”
“Laura!” Mr. Stanton hastily reproached. “That was uncalled for.”
Laura pursed her lips, her eyes leveling another cold glare in Johnny’s direction before turning to her father. “Perhaps. But isn’t that just what you were telling me?”
“I explained the situation to you clearly, Laura,” Stanton said with a terse shake of his head as he stepped down from the buggy. “Now I’d appreciate it if you kept such comments to yourself.”
The expression on her face changing to one of obligated remorse, she gave a curt nod of greeting to Johnny as she pushed the fur off her lap.
“It’s okay, Mister Stanton,” Johnny assured, his expression now carefully neutral as he gave a nod of assent. “It is why I’m here.”
Laura shot him a sharp look, which wavered distractedly for a second. Then she rose, pointedly ignoring the outstretched hand Johnny offered.
With a wry smile, Johnny stepped back allowing Mr. Stanton to come around to help his daughter down from the buggy. Once on the ground, she automatically smoothed her skirt and wordlessly brushed past Johnny and up the steps to the house.
After the door closed, Stanton shook his head and turned to face Johnny. “I’m sorry. Really,” he sighed. “It’s my fault. I’ve been trying to explain to her what’s been happening.”
“So she had no idea about what’s been going on with Mitchell?” Johnny asked, drawing his gaze back from the front door.
Stanton shook his head. “The real problems started right after she left. I’m sure she suspected something was amiss, but I didn’t get too detailed, as I knew she’d be worried and would probably insist on returning.” He shrugged apologetically. “I also had no idea it would go on this long or become this involved. It just became easier not to say anything.” He added absently. “ I’m afraid she took her irritation with me out on you.”
Crossing his arms, Johnny glanced wryly at the house. “Irritation? I hate to see what she’s like when she gets in a real fury.”
With a sudden laugh, Stanton put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Just like her mother.” The laugh quickly dissolved as Stanton dropped his gaze to the ground. He seemed to take a moment to compose himself, then looked up, a rueful smile on his face as he forced a chuckle. “I’ll probably get an earful about it later on.”
Johnny grinned in response. “No envy here.”
Stanton managed another faint smile, then lowered his voice. “Any trouble while I was gone?”
“Nothing of significance,” Johnny replied. “But he’s starting up his old tricks again.”
Stanton glanced toward the house before turning back. “Give me an hour or so, then come on over and we can discuss it.”
Johnny nodded. “I’ll take care of the buggy.”
“Thanks.” Stanton smiled, then his expression sobered. “And Johnny?”
“I do apologize for Laura. This wasn’t quite the homecoming she was expecting.”
Johnny glanced toward the house before giving a dismissive shake of his head. “Range wars can be an ugly bit of business.”
“Something I’d like to avoid, if at all possible.”
Johnny looked at Stanton, his expression grim. “There may not be any way to avoid it,” he said. He pulled himself up into the buggy and picked up the reins. “I’ll be over in an hour.”
Stanton nodded, watched as Johnny headed the buggy toward the barn. Then with a heavy sigh, he turned back toward the house.
The drone and clatter of the dining car provided a steady backdrop for the occasional fragment of a conversation from one of the other two occupied tables. For a full minute Scott waited, unsure at first what had precipitated his brother’s sudden termination of the narrative. That Johnny had even begun to relate the events that had taken place in Kansas had come as an unexpected surprise.
They had left Sacramento that morning on the east bound train, having come up the day before. It had been a strained parting at best, made only worse by the fact that the entire ranch knew of the impending trip.
The morning they had left the ranch, an unusual number of cowhands seemed to be hanging around in the yard and Jelly had been more than his normal blustery self, huffing into his beard, mumbling to himself, trying hard to appear as if he were tending to something important. Trying too hard.
And then Maria. She didn’t even try to hide her concern or apprehension. Her worry and fears were displayed in her dark eyes which followed Johnny’s every movement, her fingers worrying a string of Rosary beads which she held tightly clasped in her hands.
At first Johnny seemed to ignore her. But then, as they were getting in the buggy, Scott saw Johnny glance at her, sending her a small, encouraging smile. And with a quivering chin, she blew him a kiss.
Scott had quickly glanced down. The whole thing had felt oddly funereal, and it was making him increasingly uncomfortable. Subconsciously a thumb and forefinger began to rub along the sharp concave edges of a Saint Francis medallion that had taken up permanent residence in his pocket. He would have felt as naked without it as Johnny did without his gun.
In the buggy, Teresa had sat beside Johnny on the back bench and attempted a number of different times to begin a conversation. But after a few failed attempts, she gave up, her head bowing to study her hands, threading and clasping in worry.
For the duration of the trip, Murdoch had sat rigidly, jaw firm, lips a tight line, as he guided the horses along the northern road. Scott knew what was going through his thoughts, as just the previous evening, Murdoch had been open with him about his doubts regarding the wisdom of allowing Johnny to return to the source of his bounty. He had even gone so far as to suggest that maybe he had been wrong in his decision not to go along.
But Scott knew that having their father along would only serve to keep Johnny on the defensive. Getting this Kansas business out in the open and taken care of had to be a top priority. Besides, as Scott had gone on to point out, a lawyer had been contacted, details and documents tracked down. There was nothing left to do but return to Kansas and have Johnny’s name cleared. Murdoch had acquiesced, though reluctantly.
It was late when they reached Sacramento, and by the time the horses had been boarded, supper ordered and eaten and they had checked into their rooms, it had been time to turn in.
They were up early the next morning, grabbing a quick breakfast in the hotel diner and checking over luggage and papers. Johnny had been withdrawn, only minimally acknowledging Murdoch’s questions or Teresa’s well-wishes. Scott, meanwhile, had done his best to be reassuring, especially for Teresa’s benefit, as he could see that their leaving was deeply affecting her. And for each encouraging smile he sent her, she returned it with an appreciative, valiant smile of her own. One which Scott was well aware would melt into tears once they were out of sight.
Once aboard, it hadn’t taken long for Scott to see that travel by train was not going to be his brother’s favorite mode of transportation. After the initial excitement of speed and novelty had worn off, Johnny had begun to pace. The only problem was, in a train there’s only so much pacing which can take place before the pacer begins to be an irritation to the other passengers.
Scott, however, enjoyed train travel, and had brought an assortment of books and newspapers to read along with plenty of paperwork to keep him busy. He had tried to interest his brother in settling down with some of the reading materials, but Johnny merely flipped through them without any real interest.
It was at lunch while the train chugged slowly up the western side of the Sierras, and Scott had dragged Johnny to the dining car despite his brother’s protestation that he wasn’t hungry, when the dam broke.
It happened as they were waiting for their food to be served. Scott had been deep in the thick of a detailed Roman battle when he heard a barely audible, murmured hiss. Looking up from his book, he saw Johnny glaring down at his tightly folded hands while gnawing uncharacteristically on his bottom lip.
That’s when he knew. He knew what was coming, and his brows drew into a frown of concerned expectation. And he waited, afraid to make either a move or a sound, lest the interruption kill the long-awaited story. And as it unfolded in tentative, faltering phrases, Scott found himself holding his breath, afraid even the action of breathing would bring the story to a premature end. He never uttered a sound, not a word or a question of clarification; instead he let his brother’s terminology, expressions, tone and gestures tell the story, willing himself to absorb every detail in even the merest flicker of eye contact.
Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it stopped—the waiter had shown up with their food, leaving Scott with an overwhelming desire to send the clueless man headlong out the window.
After all the attempts in the past few months that Scott had made to broach the subject of the reason for the Kansas trip, to now have it thwarted by a ham sandwich and pickle, was just too much.
Teeth on edge, he fought to keep his expression genial while he thanked the server and assured him they desired nothing else. Once the intrusion had left, he glanced across the table to see his brother grinning, clearly amused. At that point he knew Johnny had read his thoughts.
“Am I that obvious?”
The corners of Johnny’s mouth twitched. “Just a tad.”
“Hey, I did allow him to walk away unscathed.”
“True,” Johnny acceded with a nod. “But it was close.”
Scott chuckled again. “I don’t suppose you’d care to continue the story.”
“While eating?” Johnny scoffed, picking up the pickle and biting into it with a loud crunch. “You know how Teresa carries on about talking with a mouth full of food.”
“I won’t complain.”
“Ah, you say that now,” Johnny said. Then with the half-eaten pickle in his hand, he motioned toward Scott’s plate. “Gonna eat yours?” he asked, reaching out.
“Yes, I’m going to eat mine,” Scott replied, giving the hand a swat. He then hesitated. “Unless it’ll buy me more of the story.”
Johnny shook his head, took another bite, his expression losing some of its playfulness. “No. Later maybe. I’m not in a party mood right now.”
“Party mood?” Scott asked.
“Later,” Johnny reiterated, picking up his sandwich.
So Scott left the subject alone.
It was later in the evening, after they had finished their meal and were relaxing in the dining car, watching the view of the snow-covered Sierras speed past, the shadows lengthening in the spring sunset, that Scott decided to try to open up the subject once again.
“I’m sure you found yourself having to work for some difficult men at times,” he said conversationally, his attention focused out the window.
Out of the corner of his vision he saw his brother cock his head to the side to study him. He waited a moment, hoping Johnny would take the bait. But when he seemed reluctant, Scott ventured again. “But you said Stanton was a good man to work for.”
There was another long pause, before he heard Johnny murmur, “Yeah. He was.”
Scott heard the dark finality in his brother’s tone and knew that if he hoped to learn more, he would need to press on. “Sounds like Stanton wasn’t the type to normally hire gunfighters.”
“Yeah, well, it was either that or else fold and let Mitchell take over his ranch.”
Scott carefully nodded, keeping his expression one of mild interest. “Mitchell must have really wanted Stanton’s land.”
“Mitchell wanted everyone’s land,” Johnny scoffed with a snort. “He had it in mind to take over that entire area of Kansas.”
“How long had Stanton been having problems with Mitchell?”
“Oh, ‘bout a year before we were hired. He got a foothold on some land next to Stanton’s from the war.”
“The war? How?” Scott cocked his head to the side, curious.
Johnny shrugged off-handedly. “When the war broke out, Stanton was in his forties with three kids to raise, so he was exempted. Instead he helped take care of some of the neighboring ranches, from what I was told, places with only the women and young children left to care for them. The ranch to his west was owned by two brothers. When they went off to fight, Stanton offered to watch over their place.” He paused to shake his head, then continued, “One was killed and the other was captured—” Johnny glanced down uncomfortably. “He was sent to a Confederate prison.”
Scott accepted the information with a subdued nod. “Do you know which one?” he asked.
Johnny glanced up and shrugged apologetically. “No, I don’t.”
Scott nodded again and worried his bottom lip as he glanced quickly out the window. Shaking off his own memories, he looked back. “So, how does Mitchell figure into this?”
“Well, after the war, Mitchell and some men moved onto that ranch. Stanton and a sheriff went out there, but Mitchell produced a deed and told Stanton to get off his property. Said everything within the ranch boundaries was his, which wouldn’t have normally been an issue. However, Stanton had allowed the two herds to mix.” Johnny paused to shrug. “It was enough to get tempers flaring.”
“So how’d the war figure into Mitchell getting the land?” Scott asked with a frown.
“Yeah, well,” Johnny added a soft snort of contempt, “seems Mitchell had been a guard at the prison where the one brother was held.”
“Ah,” Scott sighed knowingly. He then shook his head. “Those guards could…” He stopped, shook his head again, managing a weak smile.
“Nothing,” Scott replied.
Johnny raised an eyebrow but remained silent.
With a grim shake of his head, Scott motioned with his hand as if to wipe away his earlier words. “There’ll be another time to tell you about my stay in Chez Cahaba.”
“Chez Cahaba?” Johnny’s brows furrowed. “What the hell’s that?”
Scott chuckled dryly. “That was a joke.”
Johnny frowned. “I don’t get it.”
“Nevermind,” Scott said, making another quick motion with his hand. “So, Mitchell got title to the land.”
Johnny nodded, eyeing Scott with a fair amount of suspicion before shrugging. “Not much else to tell, really. He had big plans to take over the area. There had been a lot of casualties among the men from the unit in that area, a lot of widows and such, so he quickly gobbled up a few more ranches. Then with throwing his weight around, pushing, hiring some thug types, he scared a lot of people off or into submission.”
“A real gentleman,” Scott observed.
Johnny gave an appreciate snort. “Yeah, that was Mitchell.” He sighed heavily and rubbed the back of his neck as he allowed the passing scenery to capture his full attention. For a moment he was silent, until Scott wondered if that was all the information he was going to get. Then with another sigh, Johnny hazarded a tentative glance at his brother. “Mitchell didn’t like to play by the rules. A back shooter.” He paused again, pursed his lips as if fighting over the decision whether to continue or not.
Scott held his breath.
“Our next run-in with Mitchell came during Laura’s party…
Johnny walked up to the porch and paused, the sounds of the social already spilling out into the late afternoon. He had tried to avoid attending, but his intentions were quickly thwarted once his friends learned of Johnny’s special invitation. Cisco, especially, had taken quite an interest in getting him to attend, even to the point of producing a new vest and string tie for him to wear to the event.
Over the two days since Stanton had returned with his daughter, Johnny had stayed busy with overseeing the border between the Double S and the Circle M. Thankfully his chores had kept him from running across his boss’s daughter again. Carolyn, however, was so happy to have her sister home, that during her daily riding lesson, she managed to turn all conversation to a recitation of her sister’s amazing virtues and abilities.
With a glance over his shoulder toward the bunkhouse, Johnny took another hesitant step toward the door. If he had any chance of getting away without being seen, he would have made a quick retreat, but he knew Harley, Wes and Cisco were watching from the window.
With a less than thrilled expression on his face, he was still considering a possible plan of escape when the door swung open and he found himself face to face with his boss.
Mr. Stanton smiled warmly and with a welcoming motion, held the door open. “Come on in! Come on in! I was starting to wonder if I was going to have to go drag you out of the bunkhouse myself.”
Johnny’s expression turned wry. “Well, to be honest, I was practically pushed over here.”
“Couldn’t stand up against Harley, huh?” Stanton laughed.
Johnny chuckled. “Not hardly.” He stepped into the entry, attention drawn to the room on his left as Stanton closed the door. This time the large double doors, which were usually closed, were now open, revealing well-dressed men and women circulating and chatting as they made their way among a group of tables laden with food.
“Come on in and have something to drink,” Stanton urged, motioning Johnny in.
As Johnny followed Mr. Stanton, he took a moment to survey his surroundings. The room was spacious, long and open. A lady was playing a piano at the far end where the room turned to form an ‘L’. And it was there that he could see younger people, most probably Laura’s friends, dancing and laughing.
“Here, have some punch,” Stanton said as he offered up a crystal punch glass filled with a dark pink liquid.
Johnny smiled amiably as he accepted the proffered drink, glancing about the milling crowd as he took a quick sip. “Looks like everyone’s having a good time.”
Stanton chuckled as he did his own survey of the crowd. “Yes. Laura’s pleased to see so many of her friends after so long.”
At that moment a tall gentleman of roughly Stanton’s age approached, smiling affably, a cup of punch in his hands. “Nice turn-out, Stanton,” he said, his gaze settling on the far end of the room. “Looks like the East agrees with Laura. She’s turning into a fine young lady.”
“Quite true,” Stanton agreed. “Though I dare say, I miss her, and so does Carolyn. But I think it’s good for her to get out and see more than cattle and the unending prairie of Kansas.”
“Oh, I couldn’t agree more, couldn’t agree more.” The man turned toward Johnny. “And who is this young man?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Stanton apologized, raising a hand in introduction. “Mister Garson, this is Mister Madrid.”
“Madrid?” the man echoed, turning toward Stanton. “Your gun—” He stopped, his discomfort apparent.
“Yes,” Stanton replied with a calm nod. “I invited him to stop by.”
“Of course,” the man quickly agreed, turning back to incline his head politely. “Nice to meet you, Mister Madrid. I heard about you when I was in town a couple weeks ago.”
Johnny took in the man’s well-groomed dark hair, manicured moustache, the overly-polite manner, and found he couldn’t resist. He chose to favor the man with a slow smile. “Can’t imagine why.”
“Mister Garson owns the ranch just north of Lost Springs,” Stanton explained.
“Must say, I’m glad you’re here, Mister Madrid,” Mr. Garson said, his expression carefully courteous.
Johnny kept his smile cool, aware that he was being appraised. “Is that a fact?”
Mr. Garson nodded. “It is. This business with Mitchell has quite a few people worried. He used to be just a nuisance, but he’s becoming downright bold in the trouble he’s been causing, giving the area around here a rough reputation. So far I’ve been lucky, as he hasn’t shown any interest in bothering me, but then I’m quite a distance from him.” He paused to put a conversational smile on his face, yet the eyes still flickered nervously, never stopping to meet Johnny’s own gaze. “So, what do you make of him, Mister Madrid?”
Johnny gave a studied shrug of indifference. “I figure he’s like most bullies. When the prey starts fighting back, the fun kind of goes out of it. But I don’t think he’s going to back down, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“Yeah, damned law’s been useless,” another man suddenly interjected as he stepped up between Stanton and Garson. Stocky, with thinning blond hair, the new-comer’s cheeks were flushed from drink and warmth of the room. He turned his attention on Johnny and nodded. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mister Madrid,” he said as he offered his hand.
Stanton quickly put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Johnny, this is William Ballin. He owns the mercantile in Lost Springs.”
His expression professionally detached, Johnny nodded as he accepted Ballin’s outstretched hand.
“I saw you take care of that gunhawk of Mitchell’s a few weeks ago,” Ballin said, his tone indicating his approval. “Got what he had comin’ to him, I say.”
Garson added, “Yes, there’s been nothing but trouble since Mitchell showed up.”
Ballin nodded in agreement. “And all these hired guns, well, they make people nervous.” He glanced at Johnny, inclining his head with an apologetic smile. “Yourself excluded.”
Johnny returned the smile with a faint nod, well aware that he was, indeed, included.
Ballin continued with a genial gesture toward the crowd. “My, Stanton, looks like most everyone from the Lost Springs and Diamond City area is here. In fact, isn’t that Mister Moore?” he asked, indicating a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman.
“Haven’t seen him in almost a year,” Garson added. “Doesn’t get out much, ever since his oldest was killed at Shenandoah.”
“Mister Garson, Mister Stanton, Mister Ballin,” a young man, of no more than twenty, greeted. Handsome and well built, he included Johnny with a faint nod before turning to Stanton. “A fine party, sir,” he said, sweeping a strand of pale hair out of his eyes with his free hand, the other occupied with a glass of punch.
“Why, thank you, Peter.” Stanton smiled. “It’s wonderful to see you here. I know Laura’s pleased.” He turned and gestured toward Johnny. “Allow me to introduce Mister Madrid. Mister Madrid, this is Peter White, from the—”
“Three Oaks Ranch to the east,” Johnny finished, turning his attention on the young man.
While Peter acknowledged the introduction with a nod, there was no hint of surprise on his face. Instead an appreciative smile crossed his lips. “Ah, so you’re the gunfighter. Mark has been telling me all about you, Mister Madrid. He says you’ve been showing him some of the tricks of the trade.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “Don’t know about any tricks of the trade. I’ve just been showing him what he needs to be able to defend himself—just as I have the rest of Mister Stanton’s crew.”
“Of course,” Peter smiled, unperturbed. “I’ve no doubt we could all benefit from your—” he paused just enough to give the next word extra emphasis, “—expertise.”
“As a matter of fact,” Mr. Stanton interrupted, “I’ve asked Mister Madrid to consider staying on here, after the difficulties with Mitchell are resolved.”
Furtive glances of apprehension passed between the men.
“Stay on?” Garson asked.
“Yes, as foreman,” Stanton replied, smiling at Johnny. “He and his associates have already taken over the responsibilities anyway.”
“Foreman, huh?” Ballin seemed to consider the idea as he turned to Johnny. “That’d be a bit of a change for you, wouldn’t it?” he asked, turning to Johnny.
“I might be willing to give it a try.”
“So, you haven’t decided, yet?” Peter asked.
“I’m considering it,” Johnny replied vaguely.
“Wouldn’t be quite the excitement you’re used to,” Garson observed.
“Yes, I’m sure you would find the monotony of regular ranch living not to your liking,” Peter added, taking a nonchalant sip of his punch. “Wait until you’ve had to go through one of our winters. I can’t imagine a man of your background choosing to be bored to death.”
“There are worse ways to die,” Johnny replied dryly, meeting Peter’s nonchalance with just a hint of amusement.
Ballin chuckled and took a sip of his drink. “Not counting this business with Mitchell, not much other than the weather and the rattlesnakes to keep a man on his toes.”
“Well, we do get our share of both of those,” Garson acknowledged with a tip of his head.
“You can’t seriously be considering adding notches for rattlesnake hides?” Peter scoffed.
“Interesting thing about rattlesnakes,” Johnny replied coolly. “There’s always plenty of them around—and not all of them have their belly to the ground.”
Though Peter chuckled appreciatively along with the rest of the men, Johnny noticed the young man’s expression lacked humor.
Eyes flitting between Peter and Johnny, Ballin lifted his now empty punch glass and smiled in veiled amusement. “I think I’ll get a refill. Anyone else?”
“I should be getting over to the Missus,” Garson said. “I see her over there, giving me that look.”
“And I think I’ll head back to the dance floor,” Peter replied, shooting a smug look at Johnny as he added, “Laura promised me a dance.”
Johnny took the opportunity to allow a faint smirk to touch his lips. “Be sure to give Miss Stanton my regards.”
Peter returned the comment with a mocking bow. “Of course.” Then with a more congenial nod to Mr. Stanton, Peter turned and walked away.
Stanton waited until they were all out of earshot before turning to Johnny and chuckling. “There’s a little bit of the fox in you, isn’t there, Madrid?”
Johnny dragged his attention away from Peter, who had stopped along the edge of the dance floor to watch as Laura finished a dance with another young man. “Better a fox than a rabbit,” he replied as he took a quick drink.
Stanton chuckled again. “Come on, then, Mister Fox. Enjoy yourself. Have some cake.” He guided Johnny toward a table laden with assorted desserts and a large cut-glass bowl filled with the frothy, pink punch.
As they passed through the parting crowd, Johnny knew his employer had to be aware of the furtive looks and the hidden whispers which followed them. But while Stanton seemed to take no notice, it was quite apparent that everyone in the room knew just who and what he was.
Already feeling half-naked without his sidearm, Johnny decided it was useless to ignore the stir his presence had created and felt he might as well give his audience the full effect of what they were expecting. Picking up a small plate with a square of frosted cake perched in its middle, he leisurely pivoted, sweeping his audience with a cool, penetrating gaze.
And, as usual, people either quickly looked away or froze, like a startled animal about to be pounced upon.
He was in the process of panning back over the crowd, enjoying the varied reactions probably a bit more than usual, when his attention was arrested by a figure at the end of the room. It was Laura. She was talking to an elderly lady, her face and eyes warmed with the deep green of her gown. And for a heartbeat he found himself captured. Then the moment was lost when he saw her turn her eyes toward him, the sparkle they’d so recently displayed darkening to a smoky emerald. He immediately turned his attention to his dessert, but was dismayed to find that it no longer seemed appetizing.
“Well, I should mingle with some of the other guests,” Stanton said, unaware of Johnny’s sudden preoccupation with his dessert. “I hope you’ll stick around, enjoy the food and the music…talk to some of the men.”
Murmuring his thanks, Johnny stepped off to the side and watched as Stanton threaded his way through the crowd, pausing here and there to shake hands or convey a greeting.
With a mental sigh, Johnny turned his attention back to the small square of cake. Stabbing it with his fork, he popped the whole thing in his mouth. As he was placing the empty plate on the end of the table along with the other used plates, his thoughts turned to the possibility of making a quick and unobtrusive exit. The plan was just taking form when he turned to find himself face to face with Laura, her eyes mockingly studying him over the brim of her punch glass. After taking a small sip, she lowered the glass and cocked her head to the side, her amusement filtering down to the corners of her mouth.
“So, Mister Madrid,” she said, her eyes flicking to his empty hip. “I’m relieved to see that you aren’t planning on killing any of my guests.”
He met her taunt with a half-smile of his own. “Oh, your guests have nothing to worry about, as long as they behave themselves. However, if anyone decides to start something, I’ll be more than happy to finish it.”
“Is that so, Mister Madrid,” she replied coolly, taking a small sip.
“It is, Miss Stanton. Don’t doubt it for a minute.” Johnny paused to favor her with the lazy half-smile he had perfected for his part. Then leaning in, he lowered his voice and added, “I never go anywhere unarmed.”
Laura’s eyes widened, dropping to survey both hips before looking back up in suspicion.
He met the look with a soft chuckle and resumed his earlier posture. “So, is anyone giving you trouble?” he asked, letting his gaze flick over her head toward the mingling guests before returning to meet her eyes, his expression kept carefully neutral. “Technically I don’t work for you. But I’d be willing to make an exception.”
Laura’s eyes narrowed, her lips pursing in irritation. “You enjoy your work, don’t you?” she hissed. “Killing’s just a game to you.”
Arching an eyebrow, Johnny resumed his earlier cool smile. “No, it’s a job. As you just pointed out, Miss Stanton.”
Laura bit her lip, eyes flashing with a retort Johnny found himself wishing she’d let loose. But instead she turned on her heel and strode back into the crowd, leaving Johnny watching her retreat, the cool smile replaced by amusement.
“So, when you gonna ask her to dance?”
Startled, Johnny glanced down to find Carolyn looking up at him.
“Dance,” Carolyn said with a nod of her head. “You do want to dance with her, don’t you? All the boys do.”
“The boys?” Johnny asked, stifling a laugh.
“Yeah,” Carolyn replied, eyes on Laura. “But I think she likes you.”
“Likes me?” Johnny raised an eyebrow, the chuckle now escaping, though he managed to keep it soft. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
Carolyn turned to him and shrugged. “Well, she’s always looking at you.”
“Yeah, well,” Johnny said. “I don’t think it’s because she likes me.”
“You don’t?” Carolyn cocked her head thoughtfully. “Hmmm. I think she’d like you a lot. I mean…” She hesitated, looking down. “I mean… I do.”
Johnny put a hand on Carolyn’s shoulder and bent down. “That’s ‘cuz you have better taste, Chica-lyn,” he chuckled.
Carolyn laughed. “So, you want to dance with me, instead?”
Johnny shook his head. “I don’t dance.”
“How come?” Carolyn frowned in surprise.
“I just don’t.”
“Don’t you know how?”
Johnny’s answer was cut off by the sound of the front door banging open followed immediately by raised voices in the entry. Abruptly, he moved Carolyn to the side and made his way across the room, reaching the entry at the same time that he heard his name spoken.
“What is it, Torq?” Johnny demanded.
“There you are,” the cowboy said in relief, stepping around one of the guests who had reached the entry first. “Johnny…it’s Benj.”
The way it was said, and the look in the other man’s eyes, told Johnny all he needed to know. Pushing his way through the small crowd, Johnny made his way out the door into the darkness.
A group of men were milling about a horse in the yard, the dark, ominous shape of a body draped over its back.
As he made his way toward them, he noticed Harley and Ram, another hand from the ranch, untying the cords which had secured the body to the back of the horse.
“Johnny,” Cisco stepped out of the crowd and put a hand on his arm, slowing him.
“Torq said it’s Benj.”
Cisco nodded somberly.
Without a word, Johnny pulled his arm out of Cisco’s grip. He reached the body just as Harley and Ram were lowering it to the ground. With gritted teeth, he knelt beside it.
The face of the young cowhand, eyes now closed, was visible in the pool of light from the lanterns. He looked peaceful, one could almost believe asleep, if not for the gaping hole in his chest.
“What happened?” Johnny demanded tersely, his eyes not leaving the body.
Ram moved closer. “He—he was shot.”
“I can see that,” Johnny snapped, his eyes flashing. “Who?” The word was spoken as low, guttural, an oath
The man hesitated a second. “Mitchell’s new gun.”
Stanton suddenly appeared, dropping to one knee beside Johnny. “What happened?”
The rustle of movement and the murmur of voices caused Johnny to glance back toward the house. A number of the party guests had moved outside, now forming a second ring of spectators beyond the tighter ring of cowhands. This outer ring, however, was split into tight, whispering groups, curiosity their main objective.
“Mitchell,” Johnny replied tersely, getting to his feet, Stanton joining him. “It’d be better if you got your guests back in the house. I’ll handle this.”
Stanton hesitated. Then with a nod he turned and raised his hands. “Okay, everyone. Let’s get back to the party. Everything’s under control.”
Johnny waited until the party guests had dispersed back into the house before he rounded on Ram. “How the hell’d this happen? Didn’t I make it clear that no one was to go out alone?”
“He didn’t—I mean, we didn’t. I was with him.”
“You were with him?” Johnny snapped.
Ram nodded. “We were in town for Mister Stanton.”
“We’d stopped in the saloon. This guy came up to us—told us we weren’t welcome. We told him we weren’t botherin’ nobody and had just as much right to be there. He then knocked Benj’s drink out of his hands. Benj—well, Benj really got riled. I—I tried to stop him, but he drew on the fella.” Ram stopped, shook his head. “It was a slaughter. Benj didn’t stand a chance, never even knew what hit him. When—after it was over—the fella, he says…he says, I’m to give you a message.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed, his lips thinning. “Let’s have it.”
Ram looked uncomfortable. “He said—he said, ‘Tell Madrid that Marcus Black’s waitin’ for him. And I don’t care if I have to kill every simpering mama’s boy around ‘til he decides to come out of hiding.’”
For a long moment Johnny didn’t move. No expression, no visible movement of any kind. He didn’t even appear to be breathing.
“Get him into the bunkhouse,” he finally ordered.
Two men quickly came forward, lifting Benj’s body and making their way to the low, stone building, the other hands trailing behind. Soon only Harley, Wes and Cisco remained.
“Damn!” Johnny muttered, pivoting to pace. “He was just a kid.”
“You didn’t have no way of knowin’,” Harley said.
“Yeah, well, I knew it’d get to this point,” Johnny snapped, running his fingers through his hair in irritation as he turned and paced back. “I knew it and saw it comin’.”
“C’mon, Johnny. Don’t go beatin’ yourself up over it,” Wes urged, trying to walk alongside.
Johnny turned, eyes flashing. “He was just a kid, Wes.” He glared across the yard toward the bunkhouse. “I shoulda sent him on his way.”
“It was his choice to stay, Juanito,” Harley stressed.
“Harley’s right,” Cisco added.
Face still averted, Johnny sighed as his hands went to his hips.
“What’cha gonna do, Johnny?” Wes asked.
The response was barely audible, yet the brittleness sent a chill up their spines.
Harley glanced at Cisco who gave him a nod. “We can be ready to leave first thing—”
“I’m gonna meet him,” Johnny emphasized, turning around.
“He’ll be lookin’ for you,” Harley warned.
Johnny’s expression darkened to a tight glare. “I’m countin’ on it.”
“Juanito—” Cisco put a hand on Johnny’s arm, “that doesn’t make any sense.”
“Yeah,” Wes agreed. “You’d be walkin’ into his set-up.”
“He killed a man, just to send me a message. I ain’t ignorin’ it!”
“You don’t have to ignore it, Juanito, just use some common sense!”
“Black. Black,” Harley murmured. “Haven’t we run into him before?”
Johnny gave a curt nod. “Once.”
“Yeah, I remember him,” Wes murmured, his eyes suddenly going wide. “He was one sneaky son-of-a-bitch. Didn’t you leave him with a bullet in the leg?”
“Oh, he’s gonna be gunnin’ for you, Johnny-boy!” Wes exclaimed.
“Big time,” Harley added.
Johnny hissed sarcastically, “I wasn’t thinkin’ the invite was to a poker game.”
“Juanito,” Cisco cut in sharply. “Aren’t you getting tired of this? All this—all this death?”
“Not now, Cisco!” Johnny snapped. “Just let the preaching go for once, would you?”
“I would, if I just thought you were listening!” Cisco shot back, motioning widely. “Don’t you see? It’s just like I’ve been saying. You shoot Black, he shoots Benj, now you—what? You shoot Black again?”
“Yeah,” Johnny hissed, jabbing the air with a forefinger. “Only this time I make sure he’s dead!”
“Damn it, Juanito!” Cisco swore. “Can’t you see how pointless this all is? Can’t you see all this leads to is killing and more killing? Is this all you really want to look forward to? Death and more death? Your survival is contingent on the death of others! And you’re going to have to go on killing until the day comes when you inevitably lose. And it’s going to happen, Juanito!” he added, raising his finger to point toward the bunkhouse. “It’s going to happen! Someday you’re going to be the one lying dead in the street somewhere, with only a string of corpses left to show for your existence!”
Wes and Harley stood frozen in stunned silence as Cisco and Johnny rounded on each other with tightly reined, volatile expressions. For a moment no one dared breathe. Then Harley was the first to thaw.
“Come now, Cisco. No need to—”
“To what?” Cisco snapped, turning on Harley. “Tell him the truth?” He pointed at Johnny, his gaze narrowing. “And you know I’m telling you the truth, Juanito. You know I am. Leave this now. Leave it before it’s too late.”
“Whose soul are you worried about, Cisco?” Johnny spat back, meeting Cisco’s anger with the fire of guilt and frustration. “Mine or yours?”
Cisco’s lips thinned into a bloodless line. Then without even a response, he curtly turned and stormed toward the smaller bunkhouse.
For a moment, all was quiet. Then Wes cleared his throat with a weak chuckle. “Don’t worry ‘bout him, Johnny. You know Cisco. He ain’t happy ‘less he’s preachin’ or teachin’.” He smiled, reached out to give Johnny’s arm a bolstering jab, then nodded to Harley. “I’ll go check on things, get a couple of men together to go in for the undertaker in the morning.” With a smile of reassurance shot Johnny’s way, he turned and walked toward the larger bunkhouse.
After Wes had left, Harley sighed loudly then cast a furtive gaze toward Johnny who still stood, riveted to his spot, his eyes fixed on the direction Cisco had taken.
“Hey, Juanito. You gonna be okay?”
Johnny blinked, nodded slowly. With a soft sigh, his nod turned into a dismal shake as he tiredly rubbed his forehead.
“Cisco’s right. Just like he always is—”
“No, Harl.” Johnny held his hand up and shook his head. “It’s okay. Problem is, there is no other choice. This is what I am. What I do…” He sighed tiredly, tilted his head to stare up at the stars. “I do know he’s right, Harl. But where the truth seems to bother him, I’ve long since come to accept it.”
Harley’s expression clouded. “You don’t need to continue, Juanito. Not if you don’t want to. There’s nothin’ or no one forcin’ you to meet this Black. Nothin’ or no one holdin’ you here.”
“There’s a dead body in the bunkhouse keepin’ me here, Harl,” Johnny said, turning toward the larger man. “A kid now dead ‘cuz I didn’t send him on his way when we took this job. Just a kid. And you know just as well as I do what’ll happen if I leave. Mitchell will take over. He’ll take over and stomp on these people; he’ll bully and terrorize them into submission. ‘Cuz that’s the type of man he is.
“We were hired to get a job done and I plan to see it through,” Johnny continued. “If you and Wes and Cisco want to leave, then go. But I’m going to see this finished—I’m gonna see that Mitchell pays for every death he’s responsible for!”
Harley shook his head with a grim look. “You know I couldn’t leave you, Juanito. I’ll stay ‘till the job is done.”
Johnny nodded, managed a faint smile. “Thanks, Harl.”
“But you gotta promise me something.”
“You gotta promise me you’ll be careful. You watch that Black, Juanito. I got a bad feelin’ ‘bout him.”
“Caution’s my middle name,” Johnny replied with a sudden crooked grin.
Harley paused, dark eyes shooting a look of incredulity as a smile worked through his bushy beard. “I know you’re middle name, and it sure as hell ain’t caution.”
“I’m still alive, ain’t I?” Johnny quipped.
“Yeah, and let’s keep it that way, okay?”
Johnny snorted a short laugh before clapping the larger man’s back. Then he turned and headed for the bunkhouse leaving Harley watching him.
Scott looked up from the empty wine glass in front of him, his long fingers threaded to encircle the base. He studied his brother’s bowed head a moment, waiting until Johnny looked up before softly asking, “You were saying you left Harley outside.”
Johnny nodded, shifted back in his seat and took a deep breath. “Yeah. The next day Harl told me Laura had been out there. She’d heard our whole conversation.”
Scott nodded as he attempted to absorb all the information that had suddenly spilled out over the last half hour. “Did that change things between you? You and Laura, I mean.”
Johnny gave a soft snort. “Not so’s you’d notice.”
Scott raised an eyebrow. “What happened with Black then? I’m guessing you met up with him.”
Johnny’s look darkened and he turned his attention to his own wine goblet, tapping the stem sharply with a forefinger before bringing it to his lips to down the last swallow. “Yeah, I eventually met up with him.”
Scott hesitated, sensed the tension in his brother’s manner and wondered if this was a moment to pursue or retreat. A year earlier, he knew he would have decided knowledge wasn’t worth the possibility of dragging Johnny—and himself—into an uncomfortable subject. But a lot had happened since then. And Scott had learned the hard way that letting sleeping dogs lay was not always the best course of action, as they often woke to bite you in the butt when your back was turned.
“So what happened?” Scott ventured.
Johnny’s dark look became bitter, and he set the goblet on the table, slid his fingers to its base and began to move it in a tight circle.
“What happened?” he muttered, then leaned back, pushing the goblet to the center of the table and fixing Scott with a hard look. “I’ll tell you what happened. I went into town the next day, expecting to take him on—no planning to take him on—only he wasn’t there! He didn’t show!” Johnny hissed, emphasizing each word, his expression sending an uncomfortable chill up Scott’s spine.
God, he looks just like Madrid.
“No!” Johnny continued, his voice rising, drawing Scott back to the present. “Instead while I was in town, he was out on the range and picked off another of my men! Another kid gone, just like that!” He snapped his fingers then turned to glare out the dark window for a moment. “For two weeks he played the shadow, refusing to come out,” he continued, his voice once more restrained. “At one point, I was ready to ride into Mitchell’s place, and would have if Harley—” He stopped, his expression, though still dismal, took on a wry hint. “Let’s just say, I never made it.”
Scott did a quick assessment and decided, in the interest of the greater picture, to let it go. “So, what did happen?”
Johnny sighed, rubbed his face tiredly. “It was the day before Christmas. I was going into a town for a present—”
“A present?” Scott cut in. “For who? Laura?”
Johnny let his hand drop back to the table, a sour expression on his face. “No, Scott. We still weren’t even speaking. She avoided me and I avoided her. I was going in to pick up a pony—”
“A pony?” Scott cocked his head in surprise.
“Yes, a pony,” Johnny replied dryly. “For Chica—I mean, Carolyn. I’d found another rancher whose children had outgrown their pony, and I bought it for—” Johnny stopped and grimaced. “Oh, c’mon, Scott. Lay off.”
“What?” Scott asked innocently.
“That look you’re givin’ me.” Johnny’s eyes narrowed sourly.
“What look?” Scott raised his hand in feigned innocence.
“You know what I mean,” Johnny hissed, sending a quick kick under the table.
“Oh, you mean the look that says I just knew my brother was really an old softy?” Scott smirked as he managed to barely dodge the booted toe.
“Yeah, that’s the one,” Johnny muttered.
Scott chuckled, gesturing with a wave. “Go on. Tell me about the pony.”
Johnny shook his head in defeat. “Well, Carolyn deserved it. No one else would get her a pony and she’d worked so hard. I mean, you shoulda seen her at first, Scott. She was terrified, really terrified, of horses.”
“I understand,” Scott nodded.
“She’d come so far already. All she needed was something her size, something of her own that she could get comfortable with.”
“Of course,” Scott nodded, a slow grin spreading on his face.
Johnny sighed and grimaced. “You’re enjoyin’ this way too much.”
Scott smiled, picked up his wine glass and nodded. “I just enjoy seeing that Madrid had a warm side.”
Johnny scowled. “You may want to reserve that opinion until you’ve heard the whole story.”
Scott reached out to the wine bottle on the table and poured what was left into the two goblets. He sighed dramatically as he set it back down on the table. “Not much,” he murmured apologetically as he indicated the now filled goblets. “But it ought to be worth another chapter.”
Johnny picked up the goblet and studied his brother over its rim. Then, slowly, he nodded. But there was no humor in his expression, no playfulness.
“I’d gone into Lost Springs…”
The wind was bitterly cold, blowing straight out of the north from Canada and blasting unimpeded through the Dakota Territory. It was a dry, biting cold that found furs and leathers but a minor obstacle. In fact, Johnny had heard the ranchers talk about the dry winter they were having so far. They had only had a few minor snowfalls—no more than dustings, really— and those had been quickly blown into the Indian Territory and Texas, leaving only small rivulets of white along the sides of buildings and in the ruts of the roads.
But today, the day before Christmas, Johnny, other than uttering his customary curse against any temperature lower than sixty degrees, was focused on a task that for once brought a smile to his lips.
As he rode into Lost Springs, he immediately spied the object of his desire standing outside the Brown Dog Saloon. Short, petite, perhaps not as young as she used to be, but still the object which had brought Johnny all the way into town. A small black mare—Carolyn’s present. Something he knew she’d never expect and no one else would think of getting her.
While the pony had already been paid for two weeks earlier, Johnny had asked Mr. Whitting, the previous owner of the pony, to keep her until just before Christmas.
Under the assumption that Mr. Whitting had retreated into the saloon to warm his insides as well as his outsides, Johnny dismounted next to the little mare, giving both her and Charco a friendly pat on the neck before entering. He’d been around the Lost Springs area long enough and had dispatched Mitchell’s first hired gun in front of most of its inhabitants, so everyone knew who he was. Consequently, they immediately moved out of his way, the reactions a mixture of respectful nods, lowered eyes and a few bolder ones grinning and raising their glasses in salute.
At his entrance, Mr. Whitting slid down to make room while the bartender placed a steaming mug of some local brew on the bar in front of him.
Johnny wasn’t particularly fond of the warm drink, but had decided anything that would generate a bit of heat would be welcome today.
He was reaching under his leather coat for a coin when Mr. Whitting held up his own mug and smiled. “On me, Mister Madrid.”
“Thanks,” Johnny replied, reaching out to grasp his drink, enjoying the warmth transferring through the clay mug. “Hope you didn’t have to wait long.”
“Oh, no,” Mr. Whitting shook his head. “I’m just starting to get some feeling back in my fingers.” He chuckled. “Damn, it’s cold!” He took a healthy swallow of his drink before turning to nod toward the doors. “Sure you saw her out there. Had my boys polish up the bridle and saddle, too. Nice to know she’ll be getting a good home since my own kids have grown.”
Johnny nodded. “It’s gonna make one little girl very happy.”
Whitting raised an eyebrow and looked down at his mug uncomfortably. “You know, Madrid, I’m thinkin’ you’re payin’ five—maybe ten dollars mor’n that mare is worth. I mean, she’s sixteen years old and all and—”
Johnny smiled. “Maybe I’m payin’ more than she’s worth to you, but not to me. She’s just what I was looking for.”
“I mean, I just wouldn’t want you to be feelin’ I was gyppin’ you in some way,” Whitting added.
Suddenly understanding the man’s hidden worry, Johnny chuckled amiably. “I’m quite content with the deal, Mister Whitting.”
“I bought her a new blanket,” the man said, returning the smile hesitantly.
“Why, thank you,” Johnny said then took a long drought of the drink and set it on the counter. “I’d best be getting back.”
Whitting nodded, adding as Johnny turned to leave, “Merry Christmas, Mister Madrid.”
Johnny turned back, a slightly quizzical expression on his face. Then he smiled and nodded. “Merry Christmas to you, too, Mister Whitting.” Walking out onto the boardwalk, he brought his coat tight about him and ducked under the railing between Charco and the mare.
“Si. You’re just what I need,” he murmured softly as he ran his hand along the mare’s neck. It was as he was bending to untie her from the hitching post that he heard the familiar call.
Johnny paused, and for a second he did nothing but close his eyes and shake his head with a sigh.
“Later, girl,” he whispered as he rubbed the mare’s frosted muzzle. Turning, he raised his hands high enough to trail along the two horses’ backs as he walked between them and out to the windblown street. Keeping his gaze fixed forward, he walked out to the center. But in the corner of his vision he could see the dark figure of Marcus Black. It wasn’t until he’d reached the middle of the road that he pivoted slowly, his gaze finally coming to rest on the figure, a sardonic smile playing across his lips as he gave his challenger a mocking nod of acknowledgement.
“How’s the leg, Marcus?” he drawled.
The gunfighter met the question with a snort. “I don’t shoot with my leg, Madrid.”
Johnny smiled coldly, acknowledging the line, noting that Marcus had taken the northern position, gaining the advantage of the cold prairie wind, which was gusting miserably straight into Johnny’s face.
“So, how’d you like my messages, Madrid?” Marcus called, a smirk on his face.
“Oh, the meaning was quite clear. Only I kept showing up for the fiesta, and the host would never arrive.”
“What, and spoil the anticipation, Madrid?” Marcus shot back. “Well, you don’t need to wait any longer. I’m here.” He theatrically spread his hands to his side, flipping his jacket behind to reveal a double holster.
Johnny chuckled. “Oh, Marcus. You got a lot to learn. If you couldn’t outdraw me with one gun, what makes you think two’s gonna make any difference?”
“Don’t be so sure, Madrid.”
Johnny gave a slight shake of his head. “Well, then, Marcus. Since I wasn’t expecting an invite today, I didn’t come properly dressed.” He took off his gloves and threw them off to the side. Then slowly he unbuttoned his coat and let it slide off his shoulders to fall behind him, where he gave it a kick with his boot, pushing it off to lie in a heap near the gloves.
The cold wind now bit through his red flannel shirt, and he flexed his fingers to bring them some warmth. He was at a disadvantage, but wasn’t surprised. This was how Marcus Black worked. He was dressed more appropriately, had the wind at his back, and had probably been sitting indoors somewhere, warmed through, while Johnny was still stiff from the cold, two hour ride to town.
But the adrenaline was already flowing, the cold becoming a minor nuisance; the only thing that truly put him at a disadvantage was the wind. It stung his eyes, making them water.
“So, are you gonna draw, Madrid, or are you just gonna stand there ‘til you freeze to death?”
Johnny took only a second to process the information. Marcus was clearly going out of his way to let Johnny make the first move. But why? Certainly not because he was trying to prove how fair he could be. No. There had to be another reason, a hidden motive to his behavior. Because both of them knew he was no match for Johnny’s speed.
Which meant it could only be a set-up.
In the next second, Johnny made a quick study of every movement in his field of vision. And was rewarded with the glint of a revolver from the shadows of a window in the second story of a barn just behind and to Marcus’ right.
In the next second, he noted the shadow of a figure behind a whiskey barrel on the second story porch of the saloon behind and to Marcus’ left.
The double holster made sense now. Marcus didn’t really care whether he actually shot them both, he just needed them for show, to help conceal the fact that two other guns were going to be firing.
And that’s why he was being so generous. Two other weapons were already drawn and aimed. What did it matter if Johnny got to make the first move? He was already dead. Marcus had made sure that the deck was stacked in his favor, and now it was up to Johnny to discover how to even the odds once more.
“Hey, Madrid! The cold freeze your nerve?” Marcus called.
Johnny smiled wryly, hands still open and to his side. “No, just thought I’d let the wind freeze your ass a little while longer.”
“While I might have a cold ass when this is over and done with, you’re gonna just be stone, cold dead,” Marcus sneered. “Now, draw!”
Johnny’s grin spread slightly and he slowly pivoted, gesturing toward the townsfolk gathering on the boardwalk. There weren’t many, maybe a dozen or so, but Johnny wasn’t really interested in them—they were simply a part of the setting—his audience.
He wasn’t afraid of turning around, knew Marcus and his men didn’t dare shoot him in the back, not with so many witnesses. And as he turned, he gestured with his left hand. “I’m surprised you want to have so many witnesses to your unbelievable lack of skill,” Johnny called out as he turned his head to let the gusting wind catch the brim of his hat and push it back off his head.
The extra movement was what he needed, knew it would draw his opponent’s attention for that split second. With his gun side away from Marcus, he drew while finishing his pivot. And in rapid fire precision he sent a bullet toward the shadow behind the barrel and another toward the dark opening of the barn. By the time he had his gun leveled at Marcus, his opponent had drawn.
With his attention fixed on his opponent’s eyes—for they wouldn’t lie like hands could—Johnny gave Marcus that extra split-second to back down. But in that extra second he saw the flash of hatred and anger take over reasoning, and knew the game wasn’t over—yet. Then as Marcus pulled the trigger, Johnny propelled himself off to the side to land in the dirt, but not before he got off his own shot.
Marcus screamed, struggled and fell, clutching at what had been his good leg.
Johnny gave a grunt as he pushed up from the cold, hard ground, pausing for a moment as his eyes flicked from Marcus rolling about in agony, to a crumpled shape slumped against the second story railing, to the sprawled form of a man face down on the ground in front of the barn, then back again to Marcus.
As the rush of adrenaline began subsiding, he became conscious of the excited, yet strangely hushed voices of the crowd and the slow return of movement along the street.
He slid his revolver back into its holster and began to walk forward. As he did so, Marcus quit his rolling, though he still clutched at his leg, blood seeping between his fingers.
“Told you it wouldn’t make no difference,” Johnny stated.
Marcus’ eyes narrowed, and even though Johnny saw the flash of unchecked rage, he was almost caught off guard as the hand that had been clutching the underside of the leg suddenly appeared, a revolver in its grip.
“Oh, you think so!” Marcus yelled, firing.
Johnny heard the crack and the whine of the bullet as he once again threw himself to the ground, his revolver back in his hand and smoke dissipating in a gust of chill wind.
Marcus lay still, sprawled on his back, a gaping hole where his jaw had been, a pool of blood oozing under his head, melting the frost.
“Yeah, I think so,” Johnny muttered as he rolled back to his feet.
The noise from the crowd increased as another dozen or so people came out of the safety of the buildings to gape at the aftermath.
Johnny took a step back as Doc Patterson ran first to Marcus, where he took one look and shook his head before running toward the other man sprawled on the ground. There, two other men were already kneeling by the prone figure, one of whom stood as the doctor approached.
“This one’s dead.”
The doctor knelt beside the man and turned his face, sighing as the blank eyes of death stared back at him.
“Up here!” came a shout from the porch. And the doctor, clutching his black medical bag to his chest, ran across the street.
Johnny shivered, a chill settling on him, and he quickly reholstered his weapon and bent down to retrieve his coat just as Mr. Greyson, the undertaker, stomped up to regard Marcus’ body with mild interest. “Yeah, I guess he be pretty damn dead,” he stated tonelessly as he flicked the ashes from a cigar onto the ground and shoved it between his teeth before turning to make his way toward the men gathered about the body in front of the barn.
Johnny shrugged into his coat and was stuffing his hands into his pocket for warmth when he noticed the sheriff walking toward him. He wanted to go into the saloon, get away from the cold sucking at him from both inside and out, but he knew talking to the sheriff was a necessary formality, an understood agreement between the law and the one who barely skirted its borders. He and the sheriff had been through it all before with the first gunfight, the one with the young hotshot gunfighter Mitchell had on his payroll—a young pup who had talked a better game than he played—if he had ever really played it before.
What was that guy’s name…damn…you’d think I’d remember … Johnny shook his head, irritated that the name eluded him while the face, unfortunately, did not.
He turned at the sound of his name being called, and was surprised to see Harley loping in his direction. His friend, beard stiff and frosted from the cold, reached him just as the sheriff did. Harley, however, gave the lawman a deferential nod and stepped back, waiting until Johnny was finished with the obligatory ritual.
“Never saw nothin’ like that,” the sheriff commented. “How’d you know that Marcus had back-up?”
Johnny shrugged. “Just felt it, I guess.”
The sheriff shook his head, turning as he brought cupped hands to his mouth, blowing on them for warmth. He did a quick survey of the scene, the barn, Marcus’s body, the small crowd of people on the porch and shook his head. “Damn,” he muttered before turning back. “Well, I guess I saw just as much as anyone else.” He paused. “Think he was hired by Mitchell. He’s kept to himself, naturally, but I could swear the fella over there,” he nodded toward the barn, “was on Mitchell’s payroll.” He sighed. “Hope your luck holds, Madrid. If Mitchell takes over, I’ll lose my job fer sure. Nothin’ to do about it though, as I ain’t in no hurry to be dead.” He paused again, shook his head as he eyed Johnny. “Damn, you’re fast, Madrid. But I’d sure as hell hate to be you.” He turned and headed toward Marcus’ body.
Johnny shifted his attention to Harley, but as he did, his eyes caught sight of a cloak-wrapped figure standing a few yards away on the boardwalk. Though the hood almost obscured the face, the dark green eyes were still visible. And for a moment the parting words of the sheriff seemed to echo around him, and he grew even colder.
Annoyed, he turned to Harley. “What are you doing here?”
Harley glanced uncomfortably over his shoulder. “Mister Stanton asked me to take Miss Stanton into town. I guess he’d tried to catch you before you left, but—” Harley shrugged.
Johnny grimaced as his eyes flicked over Harley’s shoulder where Laura was stepping off the boardwalk, headed in their direction.
“Damn,” he muttered, his expression turning to one of open annoyance.
Laura stopped at Harley’s side. “Well, I guess I now know, firsthand, how you conduct business, Mister Madrid,” she stated coldly.
“Why don’t you get on home, where you belong,” Johnny responded sourly.
“While your business appears to be finished,” she replied archly, adding a pointed glance over Johnny’s shoulder toward Marcus’ body, “I still have mine to attend to.”
Harley turned. “Why don’t you go on ahead, Miss Stanton. I’ll meet you at Ballin’s.”
“I’ll need help. I have a couple of packages—” Laura stopped at the sound of terse voices approaching.
The three of them turned to see four men carrying the injured man along the boardwalk, his moans attesting to the fact that while he was alive, he was in a lot of pain. The doctor was following closely, trying to monitor and give orders at the same time.
“Oh,” Laura murmured as the group stepped onto the street and headed toward the doctor’s office, the direction of which would take them right in her path. As they drew closer, Laura stepped back out of the way, Harley following her. For a second Johnny hesitated, drawn to the face of his would be assassin; a young man no more than Benj’s age, his hand clutching at his bloodied right shoulder, his shirt and the hastily applied bandaging already stained a deep red.
Johnny stepped back to allow the men to pass. But as the doctor drew abreast, he paused and fixed Johnny with a look of irritation. “I wish all you damn gunfighters would just leave. Maybe Greyson likes the extra business, but I don’t,” he said. “While those two,” he motioned with his hand, “get a tombstone for Christmas, I’m hoping this one won’t mind if all I can give him is his life, if not his arm.” Without waiting for a response, the doctor curtly turned away to hurry after the men making their way to his office.
Johnny watched their retreat until he felt a hand on his arm.
“Hey, Johnny.” Harley’s voice dropped to barely a whisper. “Juanito.”
“I’m fine,” Johnny responded curtly, his expression void of emotion. But when Harley’s gaze didn’t waver, he found himself unable to maintain the façade and lowered his eyes.
Acutely aware of Laura’s presence, he pulled his arm out of his friend’s grasp. “Harl,” he said, his tone heavy with warning.
“C’mon, Juanito. I know—”
“Go help Miss Stanton,” Johnny hissed tersely, turning away.
Harley reached out again to grab Johnny ’s arm, only releasing his hold when he was met with an icy glare.
“You’re not gonna—” Harley whispered, his eyes flicking toward the saloon.
Johnny’s glare turned sour. “Go do your job,” he enunciated. “As Miss Stanton has already pointed out, mine is finished.”
Turning away, Johnny headed into the saloon he had just been in not fifteen minutes earlier. Although his entrance was met with murmurs of congratulations and nods of approval, he ignored them all and went straight to the bar.
“What can I get you, Madrid?” the bartender asked. “On the house, of course.”
“A shot of whatever you’ve got handy,” he replied.
As the bartender quickly reached for a glass and a bottle, Johnny noted gloomily that two men were making their way toward him.
He turned his shoulder and lowered his head, accepting the drink the bartender offered without so much as a nod. He hoped the men had enough sense to take a hint.
“Quite a show out there, Madrid.”
Sense was obviously not one of their attributes.
“If you enjoy watching someone die,” Johnny answered curtly, gulped his drink, and pushed away from the bar. “Thanks,” he said as he slid a coin across the bar, turned and left.
Outside he glanced about quickly, but was relieved to see no sign of Harley. After a shoot-out, while Cisco would feel a need to lecture and moralize, Harley would become his shadow, seeming to sense that in those first twenty-four hours after a gunfight, Johnny was at his most vulnerable. Johnny didn’t know how his friend seemed to innately understand that while the inevitable burden and guilt settled around him, those were the rare but real moments when he could make a mistake—a deadly mistake. And it had been more than once when Harley had needed to intervene in Johnny’s attempt at finding his own absolution, sometimes at the bottom of a bottle, but more often than not by joining in some bar room brawl where he stood the real possibility of having the pulp beaten out of him.
Normally Johnny would have accepted Harley’s comforting presence, but not today. Not with Laura Stanton studying him through those dark green, accusing eyes.
Besides, he knew he had a bottle of tequila back at the bunkhouse.
He untied the horses, and with the mare’s reins in his hands, was ready to swing up on Charco when he noticed two men walking in his direction. He gave a tired sigh and wondered pessimistically whether common sense was one of their attributes. Something told him it probably wasn’t.
Damn, sometimes he hated being right.
Johnny shot a frosty glare of warning at the man who had spoken. But intelligence didn’t seem to be an attribute either.
“A word, sir,” the other one said.
Johnny gave them a quick once-over, but found nothing threatening in either their tone or manner to indicate trouble, though they both packed the requisite hardware and looked hardened enough to know how to use it.
“I’m in a hurry,” he said, making no attempt to hide his irritation.
“Mister Mitchell would like to speak to you,” the first man said.
Johnny eyed the two men with some amusement. “I’m sure he knows where to find me.”
“He’d like to speak to you in private,” the man continued. “He’s waiting at Mister Jacobson’s office, down at the next block.”
“Well, then he’ll just have to keep waiting, as I’m not meeting him inside, private or not.”
“But Mister Mitchell—”
“Look. I’ll tell you what,” Johnny interrupted, leaning an arm across his saddle. “If Mitchell wants to see me so bad, I’ll meet him down this alley. I’ll wait five minutes, not a second longer. Go tell him that.”
“And you.” Johnny turned toward the second man. “Go out and see if you can’t find me a cup of coffee. Somebody ought to have some brewing, somewhere.” Johnny paused expectantly, but when neither man moved, he flicked his hand, “Now go. Shoo!”
The men gave each other a quick look and took off, while Johnny waited a moment before sighing and heading toward the alley, the two horses in tow. At the rate things were going, he wondered if he’d even make it back to the ranch before nightfall.
He turned into the alley, made a quick assessment of it, and leaned wearily against a wall. If nothing else, he was at least out of the wind.
It really hadn’t come as any surprise that Mitchell wanted to talk to him. He knew he would get contacted eventually. It always worked that way. Once the opposition had tried him, and found he was just as good as the stories said, they always came calling, hoping to buy him off with either money or power, and sometimes both.
But prudence—and the game—required that he never meet on their turf. And the alley, while not totally secluded, had one great advantage. It was the only alley in town that had no windows looking down on it, and therefore no possibility of a man hiding in ambush.
Then there was the timing. Five minutes. Just enough time to deliver the message and get to the appointed spot. Not enough to put together a plan of attack.
And the coffee? Well, he was damn cold, but mostly by sending the extra man off on a chore, he was keeping him from being a source of trouble.
It was nearing five minutes before Mitchell arrived, attempting rather gamely to appear unperturbed at the change of plans, the man Johnny had sent back with the message flanking him.
“Mitchell,” Johnny nodded.
Mitchell adopted a congenial manner, rubbed his hands to warm them and smiled. “I’ve been wanting to make your acquaintance for quite some time, Mister Madrid.”
“You mean, at least since I took care of your gunfighter—again.”
Before Mitchell could respond, the sound of approaching steps were heard and the man Johnny had sent for coffee came around the corner, two mugs in his hands. “Here’s your coffee,” he said, handing one to Johnny and the other to Mitchell, who buried his bewilderment and accepted the cup with preoccupied indifference.
Johnny blew on his then took a sip, mentally applauding his decision to send the man for something warm.
“If you’re referring to Marcus Black, that had nothing to do with me,” Mitchell protested.
“Oh, please, Mitchell. We both know he was on your payroll, so let’s quit playing games. There’s no sheriff about. Now what do you want?”
“As I said,” Mitchell replied, “I wanted a chance to talk to you. I saw what happened earlier, how you handled Marcus.” He smiled meaningfully. “That was a tidy piece of work.”
Johnny looked up from his coffee. “Wouldn’t exactly call two men dead and another wounded a clean gunfight.”
“I didn’t know anything about the planted men,” Mitchell protested.
“No?” Johnny paused long enough to take another sip. “Somehow I find that hard to believe.”
A flash of irritation washed across Mitchell’s face, and he shot a quick glare at the cup of unwanted coffee in his hand. “Regardless, Mister Madrid. The little show you put on out there made me realize something—”
“What?” Johnny interrupted, a slow, sardonic smile spreading across his face as he lowered the cup to regard Mitchell with amusement. “That you’re obviously not getting what you paid for? I mean, here I still stand, while two of your gunfighters are dead. Bet that irritates the hell out of you.”
“It would, if I didn’t know how to remedy the situation,” Mitchell countered, the timbre of his voice reminding Johnny of a cat’s purr. “But I do.”
“Well, I don’t plan to oblige you by dyin’,” Johnny replied, almost bored by the predictability of the conversation.
“That’s not what I had in mind. Rather, I’d prefer to have you come work for me.”
“For you?” Johnny feigned the requisite surprise as he brought the cup to his lips.
“What’s Stanton paying you, Madrid?” Mitchell continued, smiling confidently. “Whatever it is, it can’t be near what you’re worth.”
“He’s paying me enough.”
“Come on. How much? I’m thinking it’s…what? Maybe two hundred? Two hundred fifty?” Mitchell paused, waiting for some reaction, however Johnny made no reply. “What would you say to four hundred a month?”
“I’d say that’s four thousand eight hundred a year,” Johnny replied smoothly before taking a long sip.
Mitchell looked pleased. “That it is. And if you come work for me, that’s what I’ll pay you.”
“That’s a lot of money,” Johnny acknowledged, hiding his smile.
“I think you’ve proved you’re more than worth it.”
Johnny swirled the last dregs of the coffee and nodded slowly as he seemed to consider the offer. “Must be a lot of people you want dead for money like that.”
“Oh, not just dead, Madrid. I want to own, not just this town, but this part of Kansas. And with someone like you working for me, well, let’s just say I have a feeling there’d be a lot less opposition to my plans.”
Taking his time, Johnny nodded thoughtfully as he rubbed his chin. “Hmmm. I got a question first.”
“What is it?” Mitchell asked, still smiling, confident that things were going his way.
“Is there a quota?”
“Huh?” Mitchell’s brows slowly furrowed in confusion.
“You know, on bodies. If I go over my quota, do I get extra?”
“And Sundays. Do I get them off?”
“Sundays?” Mitchell frowned.
“Yeah,” Johnny nodded, straightening up. “’Cuz I’m thinking, with all these killings you’ll want me to take care of for you, well, I’m gonna be needin’ to get to church real bad, you know.”
Mitchell’s eyes narrowed and he scowled, hand tightening on the cup. “You’re playing with me, Madrid.”
“Oh, I’ve been playin’ with you for a long time—at least a coupla months now. And we can keep on playin’ as long as you’d like. But there’s no way in hell I’m gonna go work for you.”
Mitchell, hands clenched tightly, growled, “Stanton can’t possibly be paying you more than I offered.”
Chuckling, Johnny gave Mitchell a cool half-smile as he tossed the last dregs of coffee to the ground, turned and gathered up the reins to the horses. “Mitchell, I’ll tell you this. Stanton’s paying me exactly what I asked for, which is a hell of a lot more ‘n you could afford. Now, if you don’t mind.” He handed the cup to one of Mitchell’s men, swung up on Charco and tipped his hat. “It’s been interesting. Not altogether unexpected, but interesting nonetheless.”
With a look of unconcealed amusement, he urged his mount down the alley and out of town. “Waited too long; coffee’s cold,” he called as he disappeared around the corner.
Mitchell growled, low and throaty, a shudder of unbridled anger on the verge of erupting. “Damn him!” he spat. The coffee splattered around the rim of the cup and over his hand. “Damn him to hell!” he swore, throwing the cup to the ground. Mitchell’s men hopped quickly out of the way as the remaining coffee splattered up against the side of the building and over the bottom of Mitchell’s pants. “I-want-him-dead!”
Once again, Johnny’s narration stopped as suddenly as it began as the train abruptly lurched, the wheels screeching as it curved downward along the rim of a steep mountainside. Scott watched silently as his brother shook his head, blinking, as if he had just realized that he was staring at his own reflection. Outside, night had fallen, blotting out the scene outside, the glass now catching the light from inside the railcar, mirroring their images.
“I later found out that Laura had over-heard the conversation with Mitchell.”
“Yeah.” Johnny slowly turned to face Scott, a drained expression on his face. He smiled without much feeling and nodded toward the exit. “Ready to head for bed?”
Attempting to keep his disappointment from showing, Scott nodded back. “Yeah. It’s been a long day.” He glanced about the dining car. “I suppose they’d like to get us out of here so that they can clean up.”
Standing up, Johnny lead the way as Scott followed him out of the dining car and through three coaches until they reached their own Pullman sleeper. Many of the small compartments were already occupied, the hour being late, though a faint whispering of hushed voices carried into the aisle. Murdoch, in his need to do something practical, had purchased a private berth for both of them. There, in the darkened passageway, they studied each other, one with a look of sympathetic appreciation, the other with a look of apologetic regret.
Reaching toward his brother, Scott started to speak, but was cut off when Johnny raised both hands and stepped back.
“Let it go for tonight, Scott,” he said with a shake of his head. “There’s only so much hell anyone should have to revisit at one time.”
The warning caught Scott momentarily off guard, and he frowned, his brows furrowing as he fought the urge to repudiate the reprimand. With a forced smile and a nod of his head, he watched as Johnny climbed into his berth. For a second he stood in the darkened aisle. Then he reached into his pocket and took out the misshapen medallion. The irregular contour caught the light from the lanterns at either end of the car. He stared at it sadly before replacing it in his pocket. Then with a heart heavy with the knowledge of partially disclosed information, he parted the curtains to his own sleeper and climbed in, his thoughts already turning to the next day and the possibilities of unearthing more of the story of Madrid—an explanation for what had brought his brother down to the lowest point in his life, where his choices turned self-destructive, and he started on that downward spiral meant to bring about the eventual escape from the brutal and hopeless life of a gunfighter.
In the adjoining berth, Johnny lay in the darkness, his thoughts returning to the events which he had recently recounted to Scott, his chest tight with the dread of what was yet to come.
Clenching his jaw, he hissed in irritation. Partially at himself for having waited so long to tell Scott the story, and partially at the ghosts which now ran through his thoughts. For relating the events had brought a steep price. He had tried hard, over the course of the last few years, to bury and forget this time of his life. But now, though he had mentally prepared himself, and had known for quite some time that it needed to be done, he had found he was totally unprepared for the toll it was taking on him. While he had tried to remain dispassionate and detached, he had found himself thrust back to that time, to that period in his life where he had gone from hope to hopelessness.
But his irritation was nothing compared to the respect he felt for Scott. For while he had continued to evade the issue, even after promising Cisco he’d tend to it, Scott had shown his unyielding faith and steadfastness in committing his support before ever hearing all the details. Despite all that had happened, despite all they had been through, and even with the prospect of the Kansas trip looming before them, never once had Scott tried to force the subject. He had been content to bide his time, allowing Johnny the opportunity to initiate the account when he felt ready.
And now the story was opened, a tragic tale for all players—and an ending yet to be written. He hadn’t originally planned to go into such detail. But for some reason, once he had begun, it seemed important to relay the events accurately. He had found himself wanting his brother to understand all of what had happened, why and how he had found himself in the position he had.
And why Hell had seemed like an escape.
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