Word Count 38,530
“You should have seen
The curse that flew right by you”
The Mars Volta
Everything was gray. Swirling darkness encompassed the land. His land, falsely black … wisps of smoke lingering. His feet crunched through the burned grass, leaving indentions as meaningless as this single moment. Crouching down, he let the scorched earth he grabbed sprinkle back to the ground. No, not just “the ground”, this mound of clay. Underneath was what mattered as this was no ordinary hill of clumped dust. No, she was never ordinary. How could she be? And the child she carried, he was part of this hallowed ground as well. It was only right that the infant was still inside, hidden away. He would have followed her anyway. No child would stay after witnessing this. No normal child, full of hope and blessings. With that thought, came another. Madrid.
Sol stood and pushed his lank blonde hair from his eyes. He used the sleeve of his buckskin jacket to smear the wetness from his face. With a last departing look at the small grave, Sol whispered his prayer, the one she had taught him. He looked to the sky and wondered at the glowing orange that seemed to paint the sky to the west, wrapping the land in flames. Yes, that was the direction he needed to go. The trail here was cold and useless, burned beyond recognition, beyond tracking. He’d follow the flamed sky west, to the ranch. Madrid was there, and perhaps, his salvation. With his brother of the heart at his side, vengeance would never be denied.
The big appaloosa loped on. The wind swept through the rider’s blond hair and blew the heat from his face. Sometimes as he rode he would feel the dampness again and wonder. He couldn’t remember crying and if asked if he had, he’d most likely say no. But when he reached up and pushed the feathered braid away from his face, he’d find his hand came away wet.
Maybe it was blood. He sometimes had to look at his hand to check. The pain was so intense; he’d swear he was bleeding all over the place. Sometimes the hurt was all he could feel. Then, he’d push the horse harder, making the pounding hooves and blowing wind force the thoughts and anguish further away. But when the pace slowed, it was back. Dark and sharp, it cut through him like a frozen blade, sending cold tendrils of agony into his backbone and throughout his exhausted body. He’d bear it for a while and then he’d put spurs to the horse and race the wind as if the minions of hell were at his heels. And in a sense, they were.
Sol knew from past experiences that he’d have to learn to live with this pain … embrace it. He knew how to do it. The best man he’d ever known had done it daily. So now, once the mentor, Sol would be the student. He’d follow the western sun and find the man who could show him how to make it. Long enough, at least, to kill the bastards who’d killed her and the child. Then, well, it wouldn’t matter. Afterwards, maybe he could return the favor. He’d show the friend who’d teach him how to live in pain what it meant to finally give in to it and let it go.
He rode until he thought he and the horse would drop. Finally, he relaxed as the view began to become familiar and he recognized some of the landscape that told him he was entering Lancer. He had good memories here. He’d liked working for Murdoch Lancer and was glad he could help when the man had been put in danger. Scott had also been a pleasant surprise. A cultured man, sure enough, but he was more than handy with a rifle. He was also as stubborn as his little brother. Sol smiled for the first time in a while at his thoughts. Johnny Madrid had himself a college educated brother. Who would’ve thought?
Sol trotted his horse up to a stand of trees not far from a little dirt road. It led to one of the line shacks in the south pasture, if memory served him correctly. Maybe he’d be lucky and somebody would come along who could tell Madrid to meet him. He knew that in his current condition and frame of mind it would be best to meet his old compadre alone. What he needed from Johnny was Madrid, or at least Madrid’s help. The rest of the family wouldn’t understand and he sure as hell didn’t want to put the old man or his eldest son on alert. They were as fiercely loyal to Johnny as he was to them and maybe even more protective.
Walking the horse past the trees he found the stream he thought he remembered. It wasn’t large, but plenty big enough to water the app and refill his canteen. He forced his mind to focus on the simple routines and only allowed it to wander with memories of Lancer and the newly formed family who lived there. It was the first time he’d been able to divert his thoughts of sadness and ultimately, revenge. This newfound calm told him he had chosen his destination wisely.
Now he and the horse could rest and maybe eat a little, although all he had was cold biscuits and jerky he’d picked up from a farmer who’d felt sorry for him as he passed through. Once he’d eaten, he might even manage to sleep a bit. He wasn’t sure why he felt he could shut down for a while, maybe it was the familiarity of his surroundings, or the knowledge that true friends were near. Regardless, he led his horse over to the trees, propped his back against the largest of them, meaning only to relax a moment, but quickly fell into the first real sleep he’d had in days.
The jangling of bits and creaking of leather awoke him. His hand reached for his pistol and for a moment, he couldn’t recall where he was. Looking about him, he spied two riders coming up the dusty trail headed his way. Recollection came back in a torrent. Funny how memory and pain could accompany one another so quickly. Standing away from the tree, Sol raised his hand in greeting, hoping to get the two vaqueros to ride over and spare him the walking. Sure enough, they moved their horses into a canter and were soon standing before him, horses snorting and sidling this way and that with impatience to be gone again.
Sol said, “Hola! I’m lookin’ for one of the Lancers by the name of Johnny. He’s an old friend of mine. Either of you know where I might find him?” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he had the sudden realization that Madrid might not be there at all. He could easily have gone to Sacramento or elsewhere, sent on some errand by his father.
The two vaqueros peered at him closely and then gave each other a glance. One of them, the eldest, finally spoke. “I know you. You worked here for a time. You are the amigo of Senor Johnny.”
Sol nodded, and hoped he’d get some good news. “Yes, that would be me. Name is Sol. Me and Johnny go way back.”
The vaqueros looked at each other somberly for a moment, and then both broke out in laughter.
“Si, senor. We know. You are a friend from the old days. The one he tells stories about sometimes.”
Shit. Sol could only imagine which stories. He managed a grin. “Oh, I’m sure they’re some good ones.”
The men laughed some more. “Si. They are some very fine stories and many vaqueros enjoy them.”
Sol sighed and looked down, trying to gather his thoughts. Perhaps, if times were different he’d be laughing along with these men. Now, he just felt uncomfortable and tired.
The eldest of the two seemed to take pity on him and pointed off toward the south pasture. “Senor Johnny is with the wild caballos. He and his brother are moving them from the canyon that is just beyond that rise. You ride there and you will see them. It is many horses and they’ll be making much dust and noise.”
Sol lifted his head and let his gaze follow the pointed finger. “Just over that hill. Yes, I think I know the area you are talking about. Gracias, amigos. I appreciate it.”
The men nodded and turned their horses back to the trail that led on out to the line shack. Sol walked back over to the tree where the app was tied and took some of the biscuits and jerky out of his saddlebags. He quickly ate a few bites and washed the dry food down with the tepid water from his canteen. Not much of a repast, but it’d have to do. He had a feeling he was in for a bit of a ride and once he found his friend, he’d need to lure him away from the others. What he initially needed to say would require privacy. Johnny could tell his family what he wanted later, but Sol had to get him away from the Lancers first. The man he must speak to did not go by that name. The man he needed was Madrid.
The horses in the canyon needed to be moved, and today was the only day allocated by the one who called the tune, amongst other things, to do the chore. Johnny rode on ahead, only the barest outline of his form visible due to the choking clouds of dust that rose from the dry ground as the horses’ hooves pounded the earth. Scott could hear his brother quite clearly, however. His piercing whistle, as well as his colorful Spanish phrasing, could be distinguished over the other men’s yells and shouts. As the herd began to gallop toward the small stream that ran down the center of the canyon, Scott lost sight of his younger brother, but the steady string of curses could be heard above the din.
“That’s right, run over my horse, damn it. Bolla de idiotas pendejos! Madre de Dios!”
In spite of the dirt, the heat, and the inherent danger of riding amongst a herd of galloping horses, Scott had to smile. If he were to gain eye contact with Cipriano or any of the other hands, they would be smiling too. Ranch chores were never quite as difficult or annoying when Johnny Madrid Lancer was on hand. Scott was also well aware that part of the reason they smiled was once the job was completed, a very enjoyable night on the town was anticipated by all. Johnny could be as much of a task master as his old man, but if he worked hard, he played hard, and all of the men who were lucky enough to ride alongside him would be the benefactors of that steadfast rule. As Scott spurred his horse over to the flowing water, he found he was looking forward to the downtime as much as any of them.
Upon reaching the stream, Scott pulled up his mount. Finally recognizing his brother, he watched as Johnny rode alongside some mares balking at crossing the water. The golden horse wheeled and charged ahead with Johnny riding low along the palomino’s neck. Suddenly, Barranca stumbled and almost completely lost his footing. Scott’s breath caught as time seemed to slow to a crawl. The palomino managed to regain his feet, but Johnny was thrown forward and nearly unseated. Somehow, through natural grace or pure luck, he was able to pull up the horse at the same time he regained the stirrups. Horse and rider came to a hopping stop and the jerky movements served to send the skittish mares on into the water, where they splashed across to the other side and rejoined the herd.
Scott could feel his heart pounding in his chest as he rode over to his younger brother. “Johnny! Hey, brother! Are you okay? How about Barranca?”
Johnny was riding in a large circle, his brow furrowed in concentration as he leaned over and watched his horse’s right leg. He finally looked up, shook his head, and lightly swung down from the palomino.
He said, “Watch him un momento, will ya, Scott? I think we might have a problem.”
Scott watched intently as Johnny led Barranca around in circles again. “No, no. I can’t see him limping or favoring anything. Doesn’t mean you can’t feel him giving into something, though.”
“Yep, that’s just it. I keep thinkin’ he’s favoring that right foreleg. Maybe I’m just buyin’ trouble, but I don’t want to risk him. He’s the best damned horse I ever owned, and besides that, Murdoch gave him to me. Ain’t no way I’m gonna put him under more than he can stand.”
Scott reached down to his brother and offered a hand up. “Jump on and we can lead him back to the house. I think Cipriano and the other hands have everything under control. We can meet back up when they come in for the evening.”
Johnny smiled up at his brother and moved to take his arm as Scott stopped his mount. Johnny would be behind him in one vaulting move, so Scott readied his horse for the additional rider. Waiting with his hand extended, Scott saw his brother suddenly freeze. His eyes were on the cliff above them. Scott followed his gaze and saw a flash of red and white and then nothing.
“Who was it, Johnny? Did you get a good look?”
Meeting his eyes, Johnny merely nodded. “Loan me your horse, brother. I’ll ride over and tell Cip to send someone to get you and Barranca.”
“And just where are you going, Johnny? You think you know who that was up there, don’t you?”
“Can’t say for sure. Come on, Scott. Please?”
Something about the pleading look in his brother’s eyes demanded compliance, even if Scott’s better judgment was sending warning signals he couldn’t ignore. He had a good idea who might have suddenly appeared on that ridge, but it didn’t make sense he’d just ride away. Something was wrong, and Johnny’s expression did nothing to dismiss that concern.
Sighing, Scott dismounted and handed over the reins to his little brother. He held onto them tightly for a moment and caught Johnny’s gaze. “Just one thing. Was the man up there on a red appaloosa?”
Johnny jerked the reins loose from Scott’s grasp and had already turned away before finally replying. “Yep.”
As soon as Johnny mounted, horse and rider wheeled as one and galloped over to the water, splashed quickly through it and on over to Cipriano, leaving Scott staring after them. Shaking his head, Scott gathered Barranca’s reins and walked over to a nearby boulder and settled against it. He just hoped he’d see his horse sometime soon, at least before he tracked his brother down in some seamy border town. Now that, that would piss him off, whether the man was Sol or not.
Sol rode through the vast grasslands of Lancer and on toward the craggy cliff that overlooked the canyon the vaqueros had pointed out to him. He halted his horse on a ledge and scanned the area below. Sure enough, clouds of dust and a cacophony of sound and movement alerted him to what he sought. He knew that he risked being seen by more than Madrid by standing there in plain sight, but something told him that his friend would see him before many others would take notice. Besides, it wasn’t as if he was hiding from the law or something. He mentally scoffed at that. Avoiding Scott and Murdoch Lancer did kind of have that feel to it. All he needed was a chance to see Juanito alone. He’d deal with the others afterwards. Fat chance his amigo would take off with him without at least giving his family some idea of his whereabouts.
As he viewed the controlled chaos below, Sol quickly spotted the segundo as he pushed the first wave of horses through the small stream. He glanced up once and Sol had the distinct impression that the wily man had spotted him. That was okay. He liked the foreman, and even though he’d be suspicious, Sol knew he’d leave Johnny alone long enough for a talk to take place. It would have to be short, however, because no doubt at least three men would come looking for them if it went on too long.
A flash of movement below and to his right caught Sol’s attention. A rider on a palomino was chasing a group of mares that had separated themselves from the rest of the herd. This particular rider was a marvel to watch as he and the horse moved together in harmony, working together as a team with a singular purpose. Suddenly the harmony faltered and grew hectic as the horse stumbled. Knowing full well who this particular pair was, Sol watched with his heart in his throat. It wouldn’t be good if that horse went down now. The terrain was rocky and the flash of horses’ hooves was a little too close for a fall to be anything but a bad one.
At the last moment, horse and rider regained their footing. Johnny fell heavily forward, but regained his stirrups immediately. The palomino pulled up and the rest of the horses swerved into the water and immediately crossed. Another movement, but this time to the left, caught Sol’s attention. He saw a rider quickly ride up to Johnny. The horsemanship and quick reaction to the near catastrophe told him this had to be Scott. Fascinated, Sol continued to watch, knowing the longer he stayed the more likely the wrong brother would spot him first. The two Lancers spoke as Johnny first rode his golden horse in a circle, then dismounted. There was more talk and more observation of the horse and then a decision was obviously made. Sol began to back his horse as he readied to leave his perch when his movement seemed to catch his quarry’s eye. For a moment, even at that distance, Sol felt a connection. Johnny had spotted him.
Sol turned the horse and moved him over the angled trail and on out to a large oak tree that stood alone in the vast expanse of pasture land. He dismounted and stood away from the horse a bit. When and if Johnny rode up, he’d be on the alert for a set-up or other form of danger. This setting provided a clear view of both rider and horse and gave Sol the opportunity to have a chance to spot his friend and call out to him. Whether considered an ex-gunfighter or a current one, it wasn’t a good idea to appear as if one was hiding something when dropping by for a visit.
He stood there for a while and then got the distinct feeling that he was being watched. The one thing he hadn’t taken into account was a direct path up the steep and rocky cliffs. There was a group of rather large boulders in front of the ledge that led to a graduated decline into the canyon. Sol immediately knew where his friend was lurking.
“Juanito! Come on over, mijo. I know you’re over there.” He took a few steps in the direction of the rocks and suddenly something flew by and hit the ground directly in front of him. Before he even had a chance to turn around, another object hit the side of his hat with a thud.
“Shit, Juanito! Come over here and quit trying to hit me with those damned rocks. I should’ve known to watch out for you skulking around on your belly at the edge of that gully.”
Johnny’s soft drawl laced with amusement came from the same direction as the thrown rocks. “If I was tryin to hit ya, Sol, I sure as hell would’ve.”
An arm extended from below the ledge and a third rock flew by and pegged him hard on the holster. Sol began to lose patience. He’d forgotten the downside of friendship with Johnny Madrid. He stopped in his tracks and threw up his arms. “Okay, okay. Climb out of that fuckin’ gully and get over here before I pull out my gun and start taking pot shots at you. One of us is going to end up dead over this game if you don’t cut it the fuck out!”
Johnny stood up then, or, he stood except for the fact he was bent over double, laughing his ass off.
As bad as life had been over the last few days, Sol found himself smiling. Even in the worst of times Johnny could find a way to screw around and cause people to cut loose a bit. It was why he’d been drawn here … or at least it was one of the less sinister reasons why. He’d deal with the other one soon enough.
“Don’t be mad, Sol!” Johnny shouted at him across the distance. “Lemme get my horse, ummm … Scott’s horse, and I’ll be right there. I’ll have to bring him around where it ain’t so steep. Just hang on.”
Sol strode over in the direction of the tree, then stopped and watched for the younger man’s approach. After a few minutes, Johnny climbed over the edge of the gulley, leading the horse. He waited a moment to ensure the horse had its footing and then walked over to his friend. Johnny’s vivid blue eyes sparked with happiness at seeing him and that was enough to give Sol a feeling of warm affection he hadn’t had in a while.
“Hey mi amigo, it’s good to see you. What brings you out this way, huh? Just passin’ through?”
Sol grabbed Johnny by the elbow and walked with him toward the tree. “No, no. I was looking for you, actually.”
“Oh, really?” Johnny stopped, tied the horse to a low-hanging branch, and then turned to closely appraise Sol. His gaze grew more critical as he looked into Sol’s face and he finally scowled up at him. “You pretty much look like shit, Sol. What’s goin’ on? How’s Neka? She doin’ okay?”
Without thinking, Sol roughly grabbed Johnny by the arm and led him underneath the big oak. He sat down with his back propped against the massive trunk and gave Johnny’s wrist a sharp tug to get him to do likewise. Once they were sitting side by side, Sol let himself sigh. This would be hard and for the first time, he realized he hadn’t even considered his young friend’s feelings. Neka had been special to him too and had helped him when he was going through some very tough times. For a brief moment, Sol felt able to put his own pain aside. He knew he was going to knock the breath out of a man he considered his little brother.
“Neka’s gone, Johnny.” Sol looked at his friend briefly, then swallowed and averted his eyes. This was too damned hard. He could sense Johnny’s gaze on him and knew of the puzzled expression that would haunt those eyes without seeing it.
“You finally pissed her off.” Johnny grabbed a stick on the ground beside him and broke it, tossing the halves off into the grass. “Damn it, man. You know she was the best thing that ever happened to you. Now you’ve run her off. Well, you just get your ass back …”
Sol reached around and grabbed Johnny by the back of the neck and forced him to meet his eyes. He knew the pain that Johnny could see there and he also knew that the younger man had immediately known what he meant when he’d uttered those words. Neka and he would never have split … no, it wouldn’t have ever happened and Johnny would know it as sure as he knew his own heart.
“No, mijo. She’s …” Suddenly, all of Sol’s strength flew from him and he just sat there, his hand on Johnny’s neck and his head down. He couldn’t talk, hell, he couldn’t even breathe. He felt Johnny’s head butt his shoulder, one time, twice, and over and over. He could hear the man whisper, but he couldn’t look at him.
“No, no, no. Oh, damn it, Sol. No.” Over and over, the quiet denial. Movement at his side told him Johnny was rocking slightly; his head continued its light hitting against Sol’s shoulder. They sat there a long time, each of them lost in grief, giving commiserating support to each other in the only way they knew how. Without real words or explanations, just a common bond born of long years of hard living and a struggle for survival.
Finally, his friend looked up and Sol managed to meet his eyes. He’d known who he’d see there after he told Johnny, and he was not mistaken. He quickly moved his hand from Johnny’s neck. The deep blue eyes had become cold and dead. Madrid was there and he was furious.
“Who killed her, Sol? That’s why you’re here, ain’t it? Somebody killed her. I need to know who and then we’re going to find the bastard and make him pay.”
Sol straightened and allowed his own inner strength to pull him together. “I don’t know, Johnny. I found her body at the place. She was beaten pretty badly and I think, well, I think that pinche ojete did some pretty horrible things to her.” Sol swallowed. “As damned bad as that is, it isn’t even the worst of it.” He stopped, unable to continue for a moment.
Madrid’s tone was ice. “What, Sol? What else?”
“She …” Sol hesitated, finding it so very hard to say the next words. “She was pregnant. We were going to have a child.”
Johnny stood abruptly. Sol could see the anger pouring off him and saw the hands that were normally so controlled, so lethal, begin to shake. Sol put his head on his bent knees and attempted to gather himself. He could hear Johnny moving off and knew they both realized some space was needed. As he sat there taking deep breaths and forcing back the wave of depression he could hear him. All the anguish and turmoil that Johnny Madrid kept coiled tightly inside was torn from him in a deep guttural moan. “No! Madre de Dios! No!”
Then all grew quiet.
Sol turned toward his friend, hoping to comfort him some. He opened his mouth to utter some pitiful attempt at sympathy, when he clamped it shut again. There wasn’t any need for foolish words. Madrid was staring into the distance, his blue eyes glittering with cold fury. There was no other expression. He suddenly faced Sol and strode over quickly, spurs ringing on the rocky terrain. He grabbed Sol by the arm and pulled him up to stand beside him.
The voice was quiet and low, the soft drawl that could charm any lady now sounded ominous and threatening. “Get the hell up from there, Sol. We’ve got some work to do and we ain’t gettin’ it done here.”
Sol jerked his arm free and stared. This is who he had wanted after all, wasn’t it? He shook his head, briefly worried at what demons he and poor Neka had let loose. No matter. It was the demons he needed, at least until she was avenged. He doubted he’d be around to ponder the aftermath. His own tone was chilled as he asked, “We ride to my place now?”
“No. We start at the hacienda. We get the only other man I trust to ride at our side.” Johnny looked away and his eyes grew distant. He nodded his head as if pondering something, and then he moved to untie the horse. “We’ll be gone by morning.”
Sol watched for a moment as Madrid mounted in one move and kicked the horse into motion while turning him tightly toward the Lancer hacienda. A flash of mane and tail and then man and beast were gone in a flurry of movement.
Sol took a deep breath, gathered the appaloosa, and leapt aboard. His own mount surged forward and for the first time since Neka’s death, he felt the deadly calm of El Solista pumping through his veins again.
Cipriano finally made his way over to Scott.
“Senor Juan told me someone needed to give you a ride back to the hacienda. Barranca is injured?”
Scott moved away from the boulder and smiled up at the segundo. “I don’t think so, Cip. You know how my little brother is with this horse. They had a stumble while moving some mares across the water and Johnny thinks Barranca might’ve pulled or twisted something. We both looked him over, but it couldn’t be a bad thing to let him rest a while.”
Cipriano swung down from his mount and went over to the golden horse. He ran his hand up and down the horse’s legs. “I feel no sign of swelling. Did the horse have any trouble walking?”
“Not that we could see. Johnny admits he might be worried over nothing.”
Cipriano gave the palomino a pat and walked back over to Scott. “Yes, the nino does love this horse. It is a good horse and one that he should have care with. Not many men are lucky enough to have as fine an animal as that one.”
Scott nodded his head. “You’re right. And you know, he does say that it was the first thing our father ever gave him. I believe that horse will have a good life even when he is too old to ride.”
Cipriano laughed. “Yes, Senor Scott. I think you speak a truth there. But tell me, why does Juanito not take care of his horse himself? He only said you would be taking Barranca back to the house, but did not say why he was riding your horse somewhere else.”
“We spied a man over on that ledge.” Scott made a motion with his chin. “Johnny thinks he may know who it was, I believe. You know how he is; he’ll not rest easy until he finds out what’s going on.”
“Do you think you know this man, Senor Scott?” Cipriano was looking at him with a serious expression.
“I might. Why do you ask?”
“I saw a rider while we were moving the horses past the water. It was too far to see his face. But the horse … I saw it. It was a red spotted horse. There are not too many horses like that around here.”
Scott met the foreman’s eyes and nodded. “No, there aren’t. I think we can guess who that rider may be. I’m just curious why he rode off after Johnny spotted him.”
“I do not know. Somehow I cannot think of it being a good thing.”
Sighing, Scott said, “No. I don’t think it is.”
Cipriano mounted up and extended a hand to Scott. Scott blinked up at the man for a moment.
“You’re taking me back and not one of the other hands?”
Cipriano smiled. “Si. I believe Julio can handle it from here. I will take you to the hacienda myself.”
Scott met the man’s eyes and grinned, then handed him Barranca’s reins. “You want to know everything’s okay with Johnny too, don’t you? Well, let’s get going. Might as well get on back and clean up a bit. I just hope that boy sees his way clear to come home later. Otherwise, I might have a long night’s ride ahead of me.”
After securing the palomino and giving Scott an arm up to his horse,Cipriano turned a bit in the saddle.”Don’t forget your hermano is a grown man. Maybe you should not follow him?”
Scott shook his head and patted the man on the shoulder. “He’s got my horse, Cip, and I happen to be a bit partial to him too. Besides, you and I both know if Sol is back and talking to my brother about some crazy scheme, I want to find out about it. Otherwise, I might not see my horse or my brother for a long while.”
Cipriano nodded and turned back around and urged the horse forward. Scott could hear the soft words the man uttered over his shoulder. “It is good that you watch after him. He has had no one do that for too long. His amigo is good to him, but that one, I think he is as good at finding trouble as your hermano.”
Scott remained silent. It was true. The temporary loss of his horse was far from the only thing that had him worried. Sol was a good man, but he knew his brother first and foremost as Madrid. Scott would find them and ensure that he’d not only keep his horse, but Johnny Lancer, as well.
The trip back to the hacienda was a quick one, even riding double. After a nod of thanks to Cipriano, Scott led Barranca into the barn. He met Jelly, who immediately began asking questions, his expressive eyes full of worry.
“Hey, Scott. What’s goin’ on? Is Johnny okay? I swear, that boy can find trouble no matter how hard he tries to keep out of it. What’s he gone and done this time?”
Scott stopped and gave Jelly a reassuring pat on the arm. “I think he’s all right. Barranca had a bit of a stumble. No, no, they’re both okay. Johnny just wanted to be careful with him.”
Jelly, of course, was not to be that easily brushed off. “So why’s he not over here tendin’ to the horse hisself? And where’s yore cayuse? You’re pretty danged persnickety about that horse too.”
Scott laughed. “Well, Jelly, thank you. I’m glad somebody recognizes that I care about my mount as much as some other people I could name.” Scott shook his head and became more serious. “Johnny spied a man while we were over at the canyon. The man was riding a red appaloosa.”
Jelly whistled low. “It’s that fancy pants gunfighter come to call again. Can’t say I know how I feel about that, Scott. And Murdoch, you know he ain’t here right now, he’s gone to see about buyin’ some stock from a ranch outside Green River. But, he’ll be back before long and … well, I s’pose that fussy dressin’ gunfighter’ll be welcome enough.”
As he handed Barranca’s reins to the older man, Scott took a moment to meet his eyes. “After everything Sol did to help us, I think so. I think we’ll all welcome him here with open arms. It’s just they need to get here first.”
“So that’s what’s got ya riled a bit. I knew somethin’ t’weren’t sittin’ right with ya, boy.” Jelly stood straighter, seemingly to give off a more confident air. “They’ll be along d’rectly. Don’t you go worryin’ yerself over it. Just go on in and grab that tub first. You know Johnny’ll be comin’ along and hoggin’ it afore you know it. And then yer goin’ to be really in a dither ’cause I know yer lookin’ to headin’ to town and cuttin’ loose. With Sol here, that’s pretty much a guarantee.”
Scott reached over and clapped Jelly on the back. “I think you’re giving me some very good advice, Jelly. And I intend to take it as soon as possible.”
Scott left the barn and wandered over to the house. He spotted Cipriano talking to some hands by the corral. He smiled as he realized that Cipriano was taking up watch, waiting for the arrival of the rest of the crew and especially a certain absent young man. Scott rather doubted that Johnny was aware just how much everyone on the ranch respected and liked him. If there was ever a potential problem on the brew, more than one man would be looking out for Johnny Lancer. It took a crew to watch over him, but watch over him they did. It made Scott feel pretty good when he realized that the same protectiveness applied to him as well. With a smile he went on into the hacienda, realizing nothing sounded so good to him at the moment as a drink.
A little later, slouched in the large comfortable chair with the half-filled tumbler still in his hand, Scott felt his eyes begin to close. He’d just about fallen asleep when he heard a commotion outside. Having a very good idea who might be causing it, Scott downed the remaining liquor and strolled out to have a look. Jelly was talking loudly with Johnny. The older man’s arms went in the air and his voice began to grow loud with frustration. Johnny was unnervingly still, his expression aloof and his eyes cold.
“Dadblame it, Johnny. I ‘m tellin’ you there’s no way for me to know if that horse of yers is fit to ride. He’s only been in the barn a short time. You think I’m some kinda horse doctor along with everythin’ else you expect me to do?”
Johnny continued to wait silently beside Scott’s horse. As Scott gazed at his brother, expecting to see annoyance or even a downright petulant attitude, he realized there was something very different going on. Johnny’s demeanor had never changed. His remote gaze lingered on Jelly and then briefly shot over to where Scott stood. He shook his head, turned back to Jelly and said in a very soft drawl, “I’m not arguin’ with you, Jelly. I just wanted to know if my fuckin’ horse was able to go. I’m taking all this carryin’ on as a no. I’ll be riding that black filly I broke the other day, if you’d be kind enough to get her ready for me.”
Jelly was more than annoyed. “What? Boy that danged horse ain’t trustworthy for you to be takin’ off across the country on. Where’s yer head? She’ll sooner leave you on yer butt in some sticker patch as look at ya. Why don’t you two wait until Murdoch is here and give me and Cip over there a chance to check out Barranca?”
Scott glanced over at Sol who was as stone-faced as Johnny. Neither man would look him in the eye, their glances passing over him as if he was a piece of the landscape.
Sighing, Scott stepped forward, “Hi there, Sol. Looks like you made quite an entrance. Of course, around Johnny, that sort of thing tends to be somewhat expected.”
Sol nodded a greeting and Johnny actually seemed to relax a bit, but Jelly used Scott’s entrance into the conversation as fuel to his aggravation. “Scott, these two come up here, askin’ which horses can be ready fer a long ride without given’ no kind of greetin’ or explanation. How ‘n the hell would I begin to know which horses are up to some hard ridin’ by a couple of lamebrained youngsters that ain’t got sense God gave ’em? They might as well be askin’ me to pull off one of them prophetic miracles. You need to talk to yer brother, and if that means gettin’ him away from that fussy gunslinger, so be it.”
Scott grabbed Jelly by the arm and walked him away a few steps. “Jelly, I know what you’re saying here, and I appreciate it, but look at them.”
Jelly paused in his tirade and took a moment to give Sol and Johnny a critical eye. He looked back up at Scott with a question in his eyes.
Scott said, “I don’t know. Something’s wrong. Let me talk to them; let me speak with my brother. We’ll decide what’s best, but right now level heads need to prevail. Okay?”
Jelly reached over and patted Scott on his arm. “You’re right. I’ll get their horses and cool ’em down. They came ridin’ in here like their tails were on a fire a few minutes ago. You talk to ’em, boy, and get ’em to at least wait for Murdoch. He should be along later.”
Knowing Jelly was basically correct in his assessment, Scott nodded. “Let me see what I can do. Just give me a chance to see what’s up.”
Jelly patted him on the arm again and went over and gathered first Scott’s horse from Johnny and then held his hand out for the reins to Sol’s appaloosa. Sol seemed momentarily at a loss as to what to do and shot a glance over to Johnny, who simply nodded. Sol passed the reins over and went to stand by Johnny’s side.
Scott tried to make his voice sound cheerful and welcoming, “Come on in the house and get out of this heat. Looks like you both could use a drink.”
He was a little shocked when the two gunfighters followed him, quiet except for the ringing of Johnny’s spurs. Scott had to take a deep breath when he realized he’d just thought of the two men as gunfighters. Yes, something was very, very wrong and Scott was going to find out just what had the both of them reverting to something he hadn’t wanted to see again for a very long time, if ever.
Entering the great room, Scott walked over and poured them each two fingers of liquor and took one to Sol. “Sit down, boys, and tell me what’s going on. Sol, judging how you look right now, I’d say it’s something bad.”
Sol took the drink and simply stared at it a moment before taking a seat in one of the chairs. Scott appraised him swiftly. The normally impeccably dressed gunfighter was disheveled and appeared well on his way to exhaustion. His blond hair still had the braid and the feather, but another one had been added. Alongside the white feather customarily tied into the small strand was a black one. Scott’s misgivings about the situation became stronger.
Johnny stepped up and retrieved his own drink, and for the first time, met Scott’s eyes directly. The blue gaze glittered and seemed to hint of some barely controlled anger.
“It is bad, Scott. Sit down with us and let me tell you. I’m not in the mood for much discussion, but you need to know.” He walked over to the couch and sat with his arms leaning on his legs. He took a drink of the whiskey, closed his eyes as he swallowed, and then began talking again. “If you’ll ride with us, we’d be honored. You’ll have to make up your mind, ’cause I sure as shit know what Murdoch’ll say.”
“If I ride with you? Johnny, are you asking for my company or my rifle?”
“A little of both, my brother. First, you need to know who this is about. Sol here, well, he had himself a real nice girl. We mentioned her before. She was an Indian and her ways were of the land, but she knew more about some things than anybody I ever met, except you.”
Scott remained silent, but felt oddly complimented.
“Neka wasn’t just smart either, she was beautiful. One of those kinds of beauties that take your breath away because she wasn’t just pretty to look at, she had a soul that sorta shined through. You would’ve liked her. I think everyone did.”
Realizing that his brother referred to the young woman in the past tense, Scott shot a glance over at Sol. He was running his finger around the rim of his empty glass. He wouldn’t look up at all, not even to watch Johnny. Scott figured this was as hard to hear as anything the man had ever heard in his life.
“What happened to her, Johnny?” Scott could only speak just above a whisper. The sorrow in the room had become increasingly tangible and now as he looked at his brother, Scott saw that he was barely holding it together himself.
“Some bastard took her from him, Scott. He took her and killed her and then burned the place. Whoever did it is going straight to hell. I aim to assist the matter as much as possible. She was going to have their baby, Scott. She was pregnant.” Johnny’s voice broke on the last word and he turned away.
Sol finally moved. He got up from the chair and walked over to stand in front of the fireplace, his back to both of them.
It all became quite clear to Scott then. Johnny and Sol would ride to catch the man or men responsible for the crime. For some reason, probably known only to his brother, Scott was being asked to accompany them. There was no possibility that Johnny would be riding off with Sol alone, so it was a good thing he was being included. He’d hate to have to include himself by tracking along behind two gunfighters.
Scott moved over to Johnny’s side on the couch and began to speak softly. “This is horrible to have to hear. I can only imagine what Sol must be going through. You don’t seem to be handling it too well either.” He paused to gather his thoughts. “You asked me to go with you. You know you really didn’t even need to ask … all you had to do was give me the word and I’m at your side. But Johnny, that man over there is exhausted and in a state of grief. He needs to rest. We need to tell Murdoch. Don’t look at me like that! You know we do.”
Johnny looked at him defiantly and then in a surprise turn-around that would leave Scott wondering if he ever really would know this man he called brother, he agreed. “Okay. You’re right. You’re right about Sol and I agree we need to say something to Murdoch. But I’m going to tell you this right now.” Johnny’s eyes became very cold again. “I’m leaving at sun up and we’re hunting down the man or men who did it. Nothing you or Murdoch can say will stop me. And Sol over there, we’re going to have hell just gettin’ him to wait until mornin’. He was ready to ride as soon as he found me.”
Feeling somewhat relieved, Scott reached over and squeezed Johnny’s arm. Only months ago, Johnny would’ve torn out of Lancer without anything other than his horse and his guns, hell-bent on revenge. Scott knew certain events were responsible for the change, but he liked to think a new level of trust for both Murdoch and himself was also a reason.
Scott said, “I think we can convince him, if we stand firm on it. He’s about to fall over as we speak. Let me have a moment with him and see what concessions I can get. He’s fond of Murdoch, I think, maybe him wanting you two to remain on good speaking terms will be enough of a motive to stick around a night.”
Apparently liking the idea, Johnny nodded and handed his empty glass to Scott. “Talk to him and let me go set things straight with Jelly. I don’t like havin’ the man mad at me, and he’s owed some explanation too.”
“Sounds like a good plan. Of course, you might have company in a moment after I try to talk some reason into this one.” Scott nodded at Sol. “Just be prepared.”
“I’m always prepared, Scott.” Johnny sent him a small smile, and even though it lacked most of its usual brilliance, it did Scott’s heart good to see it.
He watched his brother as he stood and left the room, then Scott walked over to Sol. This was the part that would be hard, because Scott knew, deep down, that if the tables were turned, he’d feel the same as the man in front of him. It would take some pretty damned good reasoning to keep him from heading out immediately in a search for the killer of someone he loved. Problem was, Sol was ready to take his brother with him, and that made the situation Scott’s business. As bad as he felt for the man, he wasn’t about to start trusting his brother to him, especially when Sol’s judgment and reactions were so influenced by exhausting grief. Scott had no intentions of adding his own loss and grief to this very bad picture.
“This is the haunt of roulette dares
Ruse of metacarpi
Caveat emptor….to all that enter here”
The Mars Volta
He hadn’t expected to feel awkward when he’d ridden up to the ranch. He liked the place. It almost had a feeling of home, and now, since he had none, it was a place he remembered with fondness and longed to return to it. Once there, however, he was ill at ease. It took a while, what with his brain working at half its normal speed at best, but he finally grasped the reason. Lancer hadn’t changed at all. He had. And it was a change he hadn’t wanted. He deplored this change. The people who lived at Lancer, the ones that meant something to him, they’d know it right away. Even the old coot, Jelly, would figure it out damned fast. It was hard to feel so vulnerably transparent.
Now, with the story told and his amigo the one who had to do the telling, Sol stood at the fireplace looking at dead embers. Blackened cinders were akin to his life. Even the added feather to his braid gave the impression of one of them. As he stood contemplating, he became aware that Scott and Johnny seemed to come to some kind of decision. Without turning, he knew Madrid had left. Sol closed his eyes. Great. Now he would have to speak with Mr. Logical. No one, not even the shiftiest gunfighter alive, had much chance of overcoming this man in a conversation. Look what he’d managed to do to Johnny Madrid, after all. Sol braced himself. He was leaving as soon as he could rest up his horse. That was that. No calm discussions would change it.
Scott was pretty direct, and Sol had to give him credit for that. “Sol, I think you need to let yourself and your horse rest for the night. Stay here, Sol, and we’ll ride first thing in the morning.”
Sol shook his head. “Nope. I’ll either leave with y’all or without, makes no difference. But I’m leaving.”
Scott’s voice never changed, as if he’d expected that answer. “You aren’t being reasonable and you know it. You were always the reasonable one, weren’t you? Even I know that, and I’m pretty much in the dark when it comes to the lives you two had.”
That was hitting a little low, trying to remind him of the responsibility he felt for Johnny. The quiet voice continued. “We need to talk to Murdoch, Sol. We owe him an explanation as to why we’re leaving. Both of us being gone puts him in a spot, and that’s what he’ll hit us with, but the bottom line … he’s going to worry. We owe him, Sol.”
Now the man was starting to play dirty and Sol had a feeling Scott was only gathering steam. Sol shifted his stance and tried to give off a more stubborn appearance. He shook his head again, but said nothing.
Scott ignored it. “Johnny doesn’t deserve this from you. He’s recapturing something with his father that he never thought to have. It’s hard for him to walk the fence, Sol. He has to do it most days and he gets tired. You know what it’s like. I’m sure you experienced it with your wife. Leaving the gunfighter life behind is only part of the equation. What you did in those harsh days is part of who you are. Your new life was yanked out from under you.” Scott paused and shook his head a moment before continuing. “Don’t pull Johnny’s away from him too. He’ll follow you to hell, Sol, and I’ll follow him. Don’t make us go there ill-prepared, man.”
Sol couldn’t help it; he looked into the man’s eyes. Normally, Scott’s eyes were the calmest gray-blue, but now, now they were dark with emotion. Worry. Sol shook his head. He knew when this man walked over he had little hope of beating him with reasoning. All he had was his raw emotion. And with Scott’s words, his words about duty and family and new lives … Sol realized just how tired he was.
Of course Scott was right, that had never been in question. But could Sol relinquish his authority, allow Scott to convince him to follow a different plan? A part of Sol, El Solista, was ready to pop him a good one in the kisser, gather his horse and take off alone. Madrid would follow. Scott was right about that. And Scott would follow him. But then … the journey back to the place, the loneliness of the trip taken under his demands. No. Scott was right. Just like Sol knew he would be. He sighed and nodded slightly.
There was no evident relief on Scott’s face, or look of triumph for having gotten his way. Rather, the man seemed to look sadder than before and Sol was taken somewhat aback. When Scott spoke, Sol knew he’d made the right decision.
Scott said, “Thank you, Sol. I know I’d be feeling the same as you if I were in your shoes. I only can hope I would be as big a man. You have to understand, my biggest concern is for my brother … whether you want to call him Madrid or Lancer. I don’t want to lose him to rash actions when only a little patience could make all the difference.”
Of course, Scott’s concern would be for Johnny. Sol knew that was how it would be played. Madrid would ride at his side, but he had to remember that like it or not, his brother would be there too. Scott would follow them even if it meant skulking behind them in the shadows … he would be there. It was best to make some concessions to this man and let him in. The game would be Sol’s later, when it mattered. Scott held out his hand for Sol to shake. Sol took it in both of his, and then turned quickly away. His emotions threatened to take control so Sol stood there a long time, only vaguely aware that Scott had moved off to give him his space.
Not much time had passed when Sol heard a noise at the entryway and then a booming voice indicated the presence of Murdoch Lancer. Taking a deep breath, Sol managed a small smile in greeting. His respect for this man demanded he at least give the appearance of being under control. He stood in the background, allowing Scott to take the reins at this time. If anyone knew how to tell Murdoch in a calm and reasonable fashion just what was going down, it would be Scott.
“Sir, you’re back earlier than expected. Did you see Johnny out there?”
Murdoch glanced back toward the door. “No, no. He must be in the barn. I just rode up into the yard and Mario took my horse.” Murdoch walked over to Sol and extended his hand in greeting. “I’m guessing you arrived with Johnny, right Sol? How is everything with you?”
Sol shook the man’s hand, but then shot a glance at Scott, willing him to realize he needed to intercede.
Scott was up to the task, of course, and immediately walked over. “He’s not at his best right now, Murdoch. Why don’t you have a seat? I’ll get you a drink, refill ours, and then we’ll explain.”
Murdoch gave them both a puzzled expression and then took a seat on the couch. “A drink sounds good.”
Sol looked at Scott and shook his head, the last thing he needed right now was to start talking freely and he was well aware that drinking in his present state would very likely bring that on.
Scott took the drinks to the couch, handed one to Murdoch, and then sat next to his father. Sol watched as Scott related the situation as he knew it, explaining that Sol or Johnny would need to give any details he wanted. As Sol stood there he began to feel as if his thoughts weren’t in his own head. A peculiar buzzing filled his head and although he could see Scott’s lips moving, Sol’s perceptions were so confused by a haze he had no idea what was being said. He became aware of Murdoch asking him a question.
“Sol, what do you need, is there something we can do to help?”
He blinked to regain focus. He needed to be careful of his words. It would not be good to show the few cards he still owned. The last card to be played was his alone, to be shared with no one. He had to hold it together and answer this man sincerely and directly. He was, after all, going to tell Murdoch he needed the assistance of his sons in a kind of business for which no father should be forced to give consent.
“I’m asking Johnny to ride at my side. I want to find the bastard who did this, Mr. Lancer. And if I ask Johnny, I am, in truth, also asking for Scott to ride with us as well.”
Murdoch Lancer sighed and briefly closed his eyes. When he opened them, he looked directly at his elder son. “I know Johnny will go. That must mean you plan on leaving with them.”
Scott’s response was not surprising. “If my brother goes with Sol, I’ll need to go too, sir. I think I can help them, maybe not with my blazing fast draw, but I’ve been known to be pretty decent at tracking and I’m not too bad a hand at detective work when I’m on a roll.”
Murdoch simply looked down at his drink, apparently lost in thought. Sol felt as if he was asking the man for the biggest sacrifice of his life and he supposed perhaps in some ways he was, Murdoch having so recently found these sons in the first place.
The sound of ringing spurs announced Johnny’s arrival. His voice was subdued as he went to his father and placed a greeting hand on his arm. “Hey Murdoch,” he drawled softly. “I’m glad to see you made it back earlier than we first thought. I guess Scott and Sol here have filled you in on our bad news.”
Murdoch looked up at his son, his expression masked. “Yes, son, they did. And Sol says he’s asked you to ride with him to find those killers that murdered his wife. I am assuming you’ll be leaving in the morning.” Murdoch shot an almost hopeful looking glance over at Sol.
Sol replied for his friend, “Yes sir, Scott made me see that rushing out of here tonight would just be inviting more trouble. I think I’ve had enough of feeling responsible for injury to anyone … we’ll ride tomorrow when we’ve had the chance to get some rest.”
Murdoch abruptly stood and went over to Sol. “I can only ask that you watch out for them and make sure they come back to Lancer safely.”
Both Johnny and Scott looked uncomfortable, apparently realizing the kind of strength Murdoch was forced to display in not ordering them to stay at home while the local law took care of matters. The father had to know as well as his boys there really was no local law in remote areas, and his sons would give the only real effort made to find the monster that had done the awful deed.
Sol nodded solemnly. “I have an idea of what this is asking from you, Mr. Lancer. I’ll do everything in my power to make sure these two come back home to you, safe and sound.”
Murdoch looked Sol directly in the eyes for a long moment. It became very clear that the level of trust on this subject was not what it should be, and Sol regretted the man didn’t know him well enough to know he was good on his word. Nothing he could say would help that now. But the underlying message was apparent. The Lancer sons would return in one piece or he, Sol, should ride and keep riding, never to return to this place.
Sol nodded. He understood the unstated message very clearly. He ended the tense moment by asking, “Any chance one of those bunks out there is unused?”
“Yes, there are a couple of free beds out there, but Sol, why don’t you sleep in here in the main house tonight?”
Shaking his head, Sol replied, “No, no, you know me. I’m more comfortable out there. I want to check on my horse anyway. I’ll be seeing you in the morning.”
Johnny said, “I’ll be out there in a bit and look in on you, Sol.”
With a brief nod to his friend, Sol turned and left the hacienda, fully aware that he was to be the topic of conversation for the next long while. Murdoch might have appeared to go along with the plan and not put up a fight, but Sol knew the man was far from pleased. This father would not let go of his sons so easily, especially not when they were just now becoming a family. Sol felt the responsibility of that knowledge weighing heavily and renewed his conviction that he’d make sure they returned. Whatever it took from him, he’d gladly give it, even if it meant paying that ultimate price.
They were up very early the next morning, even before the sun’s first rose-colored streaks announced the day. Before going downstairs, Scott had stopped at Johnny’s room and was concerned when he realized his brother had already gone. He quickly made his way to the barn, worried that for some reason the two other men had taken off and left him. Trying to track a couple of idiots in the dark was not how he wanted to start his day.
He shouldn’t have worried. He could hear the voices in the barn, and soon realized Murdoch’s was among them. As he entered the doorway, he stood for a minute, sorting through the situation and trying to assess his stake in it.
“I don’t like it, John. She’s green. Why in the hell would you challenge me on this? At least let me feel that you are off on a dependable mount. Jelly thinks Barranca is fine. I’d feel better if you’d take him, son.”
“Murdoch, I’ve made up my mind. I’m not riding Barranca. He’s earned his rest from yesterday. Hell, he and I both could’ve been trampled to bits. That wasn’t his fault. Things happen on horseback and no matter how good the horse might be, a man can be hurt. You know that. I think the black mare has something in her that’ll see me through this. Call it unreasonable, call it whatever you want.”
“I want to call it being stubborn as a mule. I can see we’re at a deadlock on this. I don’t want these to be our parting words. I’ve kept that horse because of you all along. Maybe you’re right, maybe there’s something there. Just be careful, son. Just take care.” Murdoch quickly looked over at Scott. “I suppose you’re taking your usual mount, or maybe you’d like to take that bay out there that threw Rodriguez yesterday.”
Scott swallowed away the little smile he felt forming. “Ummm … no, I think I’ll take my own horse, Murdoch. One of us has to be logical and calm. I guess it’s my turn today.” He paused a moment and added, “I’ve seen Johnny work this horse, Murdoch. She’s got the makings of a good one and with Barranca worrying my little brother so much yesterday, I’d say she would be a worthy second choice. I know she’s spirited and hard-headed, sir, but so is the rider. They’ll make a decent matched team.”
He was aware of the small look of gratitude Johnny sent him.
Murdoch sighed loudly. “Look after them, Scott.” He looked directly at Johnny. “Boy, you better make this choice of horse be the last big risk you take, you hear me?”
Before Johnny had a chance to reply, Murdoch shot a look at Sol. He said, “Be careful.”
Murdoch walked over to Scott and squeezed his arm briefly as he passed. “I’m going on in. It’s going to be a long day. Hurry back, son. And stay safe … I hate to say it, but I’m depending on you.”
Scott met his eyes. “I understand, sir.”
He watched his father as he left and made his way quickly back to the house. Looking over at Johnny, Scott shook his head. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him more worried.”
Sol looked guilty and moved back to the appaloosa’s stall. Johnny’s gaze followed him and then he looked over and met Scott’s eyes. He simply shrugged. “You know how it is.”
Scott sighed. “I do.” And a familiar small feeling of resentment, one he hated to admit he had, gave him a nudge. “But it’s not something I can share, Johnny. You need to remember I’m here as a part of this life. Not that one. I’m saying this now, and I don’t intend on saying it again. Don’t forget who you are.”
Johnny looked away for a moment, and when he met Scott’s gaze again, his eyes were hard. “You really mean for me not to forget who you are. Not much chance of that, brother. But when you ride with me now, you’ll need to trust it, not test it.”
Huffing a small chuckle, Scott turned away to ready his horse. He looked back over his shoulder and said, “I have a feeling the only testing that will go on out there won’t be anything of my doing.”
He briefly saw Johnny’s eyes soften as he drawled very low, “Lo Siento, hermano mio. I know your situation is hard. You are my brother and I won’t be forgettin’ it.”
Scott turned to walk away and then stopped. He simply nodded, not knowing what else to say.
After saddling his horse, Scott led him out in front of the barn. Sol and Johnny were talking softly, presumably about provisions and necessities for their ride. For the first time that morning, Scott got a good look at Sol. He quickly realized that Sol had not been wearing his double holster and pearl-handled Colts when he saw him earlier, but now was decked out in full gunfighter regalia. The thought gave Scott a small shiver and he instinctively cut his eyes over to Johnny. That sight was not much better. Johnny was wearing his typical dark attire, including bolero jacket, but he was wearing an almost glaringly white shirt underneath, not unlike the one he’d worn when Scott had first met him.
As he watched Johnny and Sol, Scott realized the look of the gunfighter was on them both. The picture was complete as Johnny stood beside the elegant black mare. The horse had immediately captured the attention of all the horse lovers on the ranch, her solid black coat, arched neck, and long mane and tail told of a breeding not usually found in the area. Her only mark was a startling white crescent-shaped star that peaked from under her forelock. It suddenly hit Scott why Johnny had chosen a white shirt rather than his usual red. When his brother finally mounted the horse, she tossed her head and pranced. As Johnny sat her with his customary grace, Scott didn’t think he’d ever seen him look more daunting. For one of the first times in his life, Scott felt underdressed and out of place.
He watched as Sol mounted the appaloosa and finally felt compelled to ask Johnny, “We riding straight to Sol’s place or what?”
Johnny answered, “No, I think we’re going to go to the town nearest his little spread. We think we can find someone that heard about what happened and may have an idea about who might’ve done it. The trail’s cold anyway, and the fire burned most traces of anything we could’ve tracked.”
Sol added, “We’ll have one night of roughing it on the ground, but we’ll hit the town, Angels Camp, fairly early tomorrow morning. If everything goes like it should, anyway. That’ll give us some time to nose around a bit.”
Scott lightly swung up on his horse and tried to sound self-assured. “Sounds like a plan then. Lead the way, boys.”
Truthfully, he was experiencing some foreboding, and most of it he could lay at the feet of Johnny’s gunfighter friend. Johnny hinted Sol was out of the game, but he never would come right out and say it. This made Scott believe that even if Sol had made a new life for himself, it hadn’t been long, and now he was left with only remnants of it. Sol was not his usual talkative self, and that, Scott could well understand. But, there was also an edge to the man that made Scott uneasy. As usual, Johnny was next to impossible to read on the matter. So Scott would have to content himself with exploring the reasons behind his disquiet and try to investigate a little when and if he was ever given the chance.
As they left Lancer, Scott rode behind his brother and Sol. He remembered a time, not that long ago, when he’d ridden with them for an entirely different cause. Then, Murdoch’s life had been at stake and Johnny had been almost unapproachable, he’d been so immersed in his gunfighter self. It had been Sol, then, who’d brought Scott into the fold, making sure he understood what was going down and why. He’d learned a lot about his brother on that ride. As he watched the horses and riders ahead of him, he doubted there’d be much conversation with either of the men this time. The only thing that kept him dedicated to this particular cause was the concern and loyalty he felt toward his brother.
Resigned to a quiet and lonely ride, Scott was deep in thought and was surprised when suddenly a pounding of hooves and a flash of buckskin announced Sol’s arrival at his side.
“I want to thank you for what you’re doing, Scott. I know this isn’t easy.” He nodded toward Johnny. “He’s not much company in this state, and because of the situation, I’m not either. Then, of course you and me, we’re not exactly old pals. This is a lot to ask of a man. I do want you to know your assistance is needed and appreciated.”
Scott kept his eyes forward, unwilling to let Sol see his expression as he replied, “I don’t need tending, Sol. I’m aware of what’s going on. It’s not like I didn’t expect it.”
Sol sighed and shifted in his saddle. “Don’t mean you have to like it, though. Juanito and I’ve been on a similar job, just not quite as difficult as this one. He’ll stay to himself, but I’m not one to keep silent. You know that.” Sol laughed a little. “Just isn’t my way. I’ll tell you this, Johnny is the only person I’d ask to help me and I knew when I asked, you’d be coming along. One way or the other.”
Scott knew he was taking the bait, but he went for it anyway. “You said you’ve been on a similar ride? Meaning something happened to someone both of you cared about?”
Nodding his head, Sol spoke softly, “We were after some pendejos who killed an old friend of ours. He was a kind of mentor to me, and had taken Johnny under his wing. This is probably stirring up some memories for him, too. Don’t be surprised if you hear about it later.”
Finally turning to meet Sol’s eyes, Scott said, “Don’t tell me you brought tequila.”
“I didn’t. Can’t say what that man up there brought, but I’d imagine something is in his saddlebags. Scott …” Sol suddenly grew very quiet and his expression became remote.
They rode for a while before Sol’s quiet voice broke the silence again. “There’s stuff that goes on in his head that I don’t even know. You need to realize that. I’ll guarantee that at some point, in the damned mission from hell we’re on, you’re going to ask me questions. I’m not going to know the answers. Feel free to ask ’em, but don’t think I’m blowing you off when I say I don’t know.”
“What kind of questions, Sol?”
“I think you can guess. About his past, Scott. Why he’s like that.” He pointed with his chin at the silent rider ahead of them. “Some of it, I may know. Before you get crossways with him, ask. But if I tell you I don’t know, I will swear to you now, I don’t.”
Scott suddenly had an idea what the man was so cryptically talking about. Problem was, there was really no other way to talk about it. “In other words, before I knock him on his ass or chew a piece of it, I should consult you.”
Sol snorted. “Sounds stupid, I know. But you and I both know he can pretty well piss a man off when he’s in this kind of mood. Some of it’s typical for him on a job, some of it isn’t. Some of it’s different and I don’t know why. I’m even noticing that difference, and I’m not doing my best noticing right now.”
So that was it. Sol was letting him know that this ride was going to take its toll on all of them. Sol would help when he could, but besides being deep in his own sorrow, some of what this was exacting from Johnny wasn’t clear to him either. Could the situation possibly get more convoluted? No wonder he’d been feeling so worried around his brother. And now Sol was telling him this wasn’t a Madrid thing, or if it was, its roots were so deep he had no knowledge of it.
Scott turned abruptly and looked Sol straight in the eyes. “I understand. Maybe better than you know. Just don’t be so hell-bent on revenge you let him succumb to whatever this “unknown thing” is. You hear me, Sol? Don’t you even think about using my brother in that way. I know he’s dangerous, I’ve known it since I first laid eyes on him. But if you let him get reckless and use it to your advantage, so help me God …”
“Scott!” Sol’s voice rose enough that they both looked anxiously at the rider ahead, but he just kept the relentless pace, never looking back. Sol continued in a lower voice. “That’s why I’m telling you what I’m thinking, so you can keep your eye on him and buck him when he needs it. I’m not going to be in real good shape to do that, especially later. You ask me if you need to know something, otherwise, I don’t plan on speaking of it again.”
With that, Sol spurred his horse forward. Scott moved his horse on up too, realizing that keeping an eye on Johnny was what he needed to be doing … and if it meant pushing himself into a position to better do it, then that’s what he’d do. Sol’s warning was heeded. Scott would no longer hang back, but place himself where he needed to be. At his brother’s side.
They rode in silence for a very long while. Scott spent most of the time riding alongside his brother. Sol rode on Johnny’s other side and kept his vision on the landscape ahead. Scott had the impression he was lost in memories and was simply going through the motions on this ride, and would probably do so until he dropped. He doubted seriously that Sol was even aware when Johnny cut his eyes over to Scott and lifted the brim of his hat.
“It’ll be dusk soon. We should think about finding a decent place to camp. These horses could do with water.”
Scott nodded, ready to get out of the saddle, “Wasn’t Sol commenting earlier that we’d pass alongside a small stream on this trip? I’m thinking we should be seeing one soon.”
“Yep. We should see it when we start running into that area of rocky ledge up ahead. I’m thinking we’re pretty damned close.”
After a few more minutes of riding, Johnny said, “I’m going to ride up ahead a moment and look around. Seems to me there’s a decent spot over there and we can make camp sooner than later. Don’t want to be too tired tomorrow and Sol here’d keep ridin’ ’til he fell out of the saddle.”
Scott nodded and Johnny put his heels to the horse and galloped toward the ledge. Sol had to have been aware of the situation, but said nothing. Scott discretely watched him from under his hat brim and realized Sol was tracking Johnny’s progress carefully as he explored the area. His ice-blue gaze never wavered, although he made no comment. Scott knew that as remote as the man seemed, if the slightest signal came from the younger man, Sol would come alive as would a pearl-handled pistol.
Scott looked back over at his brother and watched as he disappeared into a small stand of trees as the rutted road they’d been following took a slight curve. He presently heard the shrill whistle that told him Johnny had dismounted and they were to follow him to the spot. He heard Sol respond with an answering whistle as he urged the tired appaloosa forward. Scott moved his horse on and soon they were in a shade covered glade with the sounds of water in a journey over rocks in the distance.
It was a beautiful spot really, and Scott couldn’t help but voice his appreciation. “This is an excellent camp site, Johnny. Couldn’t ask for much better. I guess the stream is right over there?”
Johnny nodded. “Yep. Just a short walk away. Only things this place is missin’ is a saloon and a bordello. Then it’d be just about perfect.”
Sol huffed a small chuckle and Scott smiled. It was good to see the man was tracking the conversation, little as it was. He’d been a bit worried for a while. He should’ve known better.
They dismounted and took care of the horses. Scott and Sol gathered wood for a fire and constructed a small ring while Johnny put out their provisions. He’d apparently persuaded Maria to leave him some sandwiches which he unpacked and placed on a small stone by the fire ring. Scott looked up at him from the kindling he was arranging to see Johnny smiling at him. Johnny was holding a package aloft as if it contained a small treasure.
“What do you have there, little brother? You win some kind of prize?”
“Maybe so. And if you don’t act like too big of a smart ass, I might even share some of them with you.” His eyes narrowed conspiratorially. “I made off with some of Maria’s cabrito tamales she was making for Teresa to take over to the Flores place.”
“Johnny! That seems rather low even for you, my brother. Didn’t Mrs. Flores just have a baby?”
Johnny smiled and his blue eyes regained some of their twinkle for a moment. “You know she ain’t gonna make tamales and not do up some extra for me. Don’t get all mad ’cause you don’t have that special touch around the most important woman on Lancer.”
Scott snorted, “That special touch is a load of bull she pretends to believe. You’re just lucky she thinks you’re underfed and under-loved.”
Sol actually grinned and shook his head as he began putting larger sticks on the small fire. “I think your brother has come to know you very well, mi amigo.”
“I think you need to shut the hell up, mi amigo. Don’t be encouraging that shit or I’ll have to go over there and whip his ass in front of God and everybody.”
Scott laughed outright. “Oh, really. Well, I wouldn’t be building God and everybody up for a huge disappointment if I were you, baby brother. Now quit fooling around and go get some water for coffee. It’s getting dark and I don’t want you stumbling around out there forcing Sol and me to come to your rescue. We’re way too tired for all that.”
Johnny reached in his saddlebags and took out a bottle of Murdoch’s good sipping whiskey. “I’ll go get some water, but here’s what we’re drinkin’ tonight, brother. Something to help keep the spirit warm and the body pain-free.”
Sol cut his eyes over at the new prize Johnny held and met Scott’s eyes. For a moment Scott even thought he saw amusement in that crystal blue gaze before Sol said, “See, I told ya.”
“I suppose you’re going to tell me Murdoch knows you have that, too. He probably gave it to you as a gift for your travels, right?”
“Shit no, brother. I stole this. Actually, I made sure I picked out one I can replace. I can get this easy enough in Green River. Don’t think that some of that stuff he hides in the back of the cabinet from us wasn’t callin’ my name though.”
Scott laughed and turned back to his fire-building. “Go on and get that water, if we drink that we’ll need it in the morning sure enough. You bring coffee too?”
Johnny pretended to be shocked at Scott’s question as he gathered canteens. “Of course I remembered coffee. You don’t think I actually thought we’d be sittin’ out here in the night air without it, do you, much less manage to get up come mornin’?”
“I know. Foolish question. Forgive me, my brother. Now please get your butt over there and get the water before it’s pitch black out here.”
With the jangling of spurs and clanging of canteens, Johnny left for the stream. Scott knew part of his brother’s actions were an effort to bring Sol around. His performance had been a good one and Scott could tell Sol was responding. He actually seemed less overwhelmed with events and a little more like himself, even though he remained much quieter than usual. Maybe Murdoch’s whiskey would help a bit with that, hopefully allowing the obviously exhausted man a chance to unwind.
After spreading the bedrolls, they sat down to eat. Their meal wasn’t hot, but it was good. They ate in relative silence with everyone seeming lost in his thoughts once more. After they’d made a pot of coffee and stoked the fire into a bigger blaze, Johnny reached for the whiskey and opened it. He took a small sip and smacked his lips in apparent approval.
“Yes sir, for whisky, this here’s pretty good stuff.” He passed the bottle on over to Sol, who surprisingly enough, took a rather large drink. He then reached over Johnny and handed the bottle to Scott.
Johnny’s eyes cut across to his friend as he leaned over him. Sol snickered as he said, “Nope, you aren’t doing that to us again, hijo. You sittin’ in the middle getting double shots only worked that once. I’m not up to playin’ that particular game tonight.”
Johnny laughed. “Yeah, but this here’s not that rot-gut that we drank that night. Shit, I ain’t been that drunk since.”
Scott replied, “For which we’re all exceedingly grateful.” He took a small sip, then a larger one. Yes, this whiskey was pretty good, at that.
Johnny looked over at Sol and then back to Scott as he received the bottle again. “So, after we left out this mornin’ you two were havin’ a pow-wow. Anything I need to know about, or not.”
Thankfully, Sol spoke up first. “No, not for the most part. Most of it wasn’t any of your business, mijo.” The man smiled a little, but quickly turned serious. “I did tell Scott here that this isn’t the first ride we’ve taken that had to do with something a little too close to the heart.” Sol took a rather large drink from the bottle and then held it a moment, as if gathering some courage from the cool glass.
Johnny’s voice grew quieter. “You told him about Old Hank?”
Sol took another drink and then passed the bottle on to Scott. “No, other than in passing. That’s a story for a campfire, not to be told quickly on the back of a horse.”
Scott watched as Johnny ducked his head and fingered the stitching on the bedroll, seemingly lost in thought. Just as Scott was about to give up hope and started to think that he’d actually miss out on hearing this particular tale, Johnny looked up and stared out into the darkness. He began talking, his voice low and tinged in a kind of sadness.
“Some of it, Sol would have to explain, and I don’t know that he’s up to it right now. So here’s my version, and if you need to add somethin’, Sol, just butt right in.”
Sol’s reply was so soft Scott barely heard it. “You know I’ll do that, mi amigo.”
Johnny reached over and took the bottle of whiskey from Scott’s hands and took a small drink before passing it to Sol. His voice was becoming the buttery soft drawl that Scott was beginning to recognize meant a story of some importance was being shared. “Back in Texas, Sol had a friend he’d met when I was still out gallivanting around as a gun for King Fisher. He’d stay at Hank’s place some, and I’d head out there too, when things would get a little intense for me. Old Hank was a good man. One of the very best.”
Sol added, “He’d helped me out some when I needed a friend, and then took our boy here under his wing when he thought Johnny needed some guidance. Which was most of the time, I have to say.”
Johnny nodded beside him. “Yeah, that’s right, sure enough. I was pretty damned confused even on a good day. I spent a lot of time hating. Even Sol and I had some pretty bad moments. Hank didn’t put up with that shit. He set me straight more than once and made me see I needed to start accepting people as friends ever once in a while.”
“It’s true,” Sol said. “Juanito and I had a couple of knock down, drag outs right over at Old Hank’s place. One time in particular was really bad. Hank was gone for some reason and we set in on each other. Hank’s missus was cussing at us and hitting us with a broom.”
Johnny laughed and his eyes twinkled in the firelight. “She could cuss with the best of ’em. I thought I was goin’ to have to yank that damned broom out of her hands. Reached over to do it, and a shot went right past my left ear. I just about peed myself right then and there.”
The very thought of that had Scott laughing. “I guess Hank had made it home.”
Sol chuckled. “Yep, and he was plenty mad. He took us up by the scruff of the neck and threatened to blister us both if we ever fought in front of his wife again. You know, I think he meant it, too.”
“Well, the truth is, compadre, we never thought to test him on it, did we?”
Sol’s smile widened for a moment. “Hell, no. We were smarter than that at least.”
Johnny resumed the story. “About that time he took me aside and explained some things to me. Told me that if I didn’t start lettin’ people in, I’d die a lonely man and at a young age. He said livin’ in a lawless territory meant I had to know my enemies, but it also meant I had to have friends, too. He was right about that. And then he said somethin’ that made me think for a long time afterwards. I still think about it sometimes, but for different reasons.”
Scott swallowed another sip of whiskey and asked, “What was that, Johnny?”
“He said not everybody owed me for what happened to me. I couldn’t go around pretending everybody was my father and taking out my anger on ’em. I told that man some things I ain’t never told nobody else, not before or since. He understood what was going on in my estupido cabeza and took it for what it was. I should’ve acted on his advice more often, but I was young and a sabelotodo.”
Sol looked over at Johnny with almost brotherly affection, “You were so damned young, Juanito. You can be forgiven a lot of things for that reason alone. You were too young to be living that life, making those decisions.”
Scott felt uncomfortable, but sat silently, hoping the story would continue to unfold.
“You always say that, Sol, but the bottom line is I was pretty much a hard-headed smart ass that didn’t respect much of anybody. Hank taught me some manners. And in the short time he was around me, taught me to respect myself a little more. He knew what to say, and how to say it, how to make an idiot like me listen. I think he did the same for Sol, who’d been living with his own demons.”
Sol looked out into the darkness. “True enough.” He didn’t elaborate.
Johnny reached over and took the bottle and had another drink of whiskey. After taking a deep breath as if to steel his nerves, he continued the story. “One day, I rode over to see Sol. It was just before my time with Fisher was coming to an end. Anyway, when I got to Hank’s place there was a lot of confusion. Hank’s old lady was crying. I hadn’t ever seen her cry. And Sol, he was cussin’ under his breath, readying his horse for a ride. I couldn’t figure out what was goin’ on.”
Sol caught Johnny’s eyes and continued the story. “Hank’s horse had come home. Hank’s wife said he’d been over near the border, quite a ways off, and that horse had made his way to their place. Hank’s body was in the saddle, but he was no longer there. The man had been dead a while. Shot in the back.”
There was a long pause and everyone took another drink of whiskey. Then Sol took the bottle and put it away. Whatever was going on between the gunfighters had reached an intensity that made Scott keep very quiet. This story was exacting a price from both of them.
Sol finally continued his story. “That gray horse had managed to keep Hank on his back all that way. He must’ve realized something was wrong, but he was determined to make it back home. Anyway, Johnny and I saddled up immediately and went on a hunt. The ride was hard and we didn’t do much talking, but we found those bastards and avenged our friend.”
Scott asked, “Why’d they kill him, Sol?”
He could see the pain in Sol’s eyes even in the firelight. “They were just banditos, Scott. They killed Hank for the little bit of money he had. Sad thing is, he’d have given it to them if they’d asked.”
Johnny added in the cold, hard voice that always served to chill Scott’s blood, “They met their end, Scott. We were merciful, and every one of those stupid bastards drew first. It was over fast.”
Scott swallowed and remained silent, not even wanting to know the grisly details.
Thankfully, Johnny seemed to sense that feeling from his brother and spoke again of Hank’s horse. “Like Sol said, that horse he had was something special. He made sure Old Hank got home, even if he had to do it as a last service to his master. Hank’s missus kept that horse and treated him like royalty. I suppose that big gray horse is living out his days in style.”
Sol nodded. “Yeah, old son, he’s probably livin’ better than most people now. Hank loved him like kin. He’d be proud that palomino is the gray’s namesake.”
Suddenly, the significance of the horse became very clear to Scott. “So that’s how Barranca got his name. I knew what it meant, but for the life of me, I couldn’t understand how you chose that for him. It makes sense to me now. It’s a heartbreaking story, true enough, but a testament to a horse’s love of his master. I guess I’ll always remember it when you say your Barranca’s name.”
Johnny’s eyes were smiling as he met Scott’s gaze. All three men sat quietly for a time, each seemingly lost in their own memories. Finally growing uncomfortable with the lingering silence, Scott asked, “Your horses’ names always have some sort of obscure meaning … something not clear to everybody else?”
“I know what obscure means, Scott. And I suppose. Maybe. Yep.”
Sol snorted and Scott found himself chuckling. They were indeed a little tipsy. Not blinding drunk like that time they’d ridden out to clear the creek, but definitely feeling the effects of the whiskey.
Scott asked, “Have you named the mare over there, Johnny? She seems to be rather special to you.”
Johnny looked up at him in that unblinking manner that always made Scott feel a little disconcerted. “She’s got a name.”
The whiskey had brought Sol back enough for him to come to Scott’s rescue. “So we gotta make a formal request, mijo? What’s that black she-devil’s name?”
Johnny looked down at the ground for a long while, and slowly, oh so slowly, a smile began to appear. “Her name is Alma.” Then he got up from his bedroll and walked over to the horses, hand resting lightly on his pistol.
Scott was totally confused, and expected Sol to be equally befuddled. Instead, when Scott looked over at him, the man was smiling as he sat there shaking his head.
“So, do I have to wait until the cryptic one over there explains it, or can you tell me the significance of Alma? I suppose it’s the name of some beautiful girl he loved and left?”
Sol looked up at him and his smile softened. “No Scott, that’s not it at all. Alma is the Spanish word for soul.” He grew somber and then laid down on his bedroll, apparently turning his back away from everything but his thoughts.
Sol was the first one up in the morning, and he made his way down to the little stream in the near-dark to splash the cold water in his face and clean off the dust from the trail. He hadn’t slept well at all, his mind filled with ghostly images and morose thoughts that seemed to constantly spiral out of control. He was finding it difficult to spend much time alone and soon felt the urge to return to the company of the others. As he neared the camp, he wasn’t surprised to spy Johnny up and about. His shirt was off and his back to him, but he knew that the younger man was fully aware of his presence.
As Sol went about making the morning coffee, he forced his thoughts on the mundane. He’d had enough of the other type last night, and knew they’d once again force themselves on him once they began the ride. Looking over at his friend, he was struck by the image of the man. He was over at his horse, brushing her down and talking in Spanish. His bare back was tanned and muscular, and his black pants rode low on his hips. His carefully placed gun belt accentuated his slim build.
Johnny’s whole appearance was sleek and deadly, perhaps now even more than when Sol rode with him not so very long ago. The growing deathly aspect of his friend had to be due to the only thing about him that was new. Along Johnny’s back, between the shoulder blades, was a discernible crescent-shaped scar. This mark seemed to define a Johnny Madrid in transition, a birth mark of sorts. Sol shook his head and finished up the coffee preparations. As he turned he found Scott’s eyes on him, studying him intently. The observer being observed. Sol had to smile a little at that.
The reasons behind the observation were probably not very amusing, however. Sol knew Scott was suspicious of him, and really couldn’t blame the man at all. There was something else, and Sol knew it had to do with his and Madrid’s mutual pasts, but he’d be hard-pressed to identify it exactly. Anyway, as the saying went, best to let sleeping dogs lie. Sol nodded at Scott, glad the man couldn’t read his thoughts. In truth, Sol quickly realized, it was most likely a good thing he couldn’t read Scott’s either.
Little was said as they readied for the morning ride. Scott gave both Sol and Johnny a wide berth, but Sol noticed his attention never strayed far from his brother. It was becoming more and more difficult for Sol to focus on anything other than the mission at hand. The camaraderie from last night seemed a distant memory. The sooner they were mounted and headed out toward Angels Camp the better.
The ride into the town was completed in silence. Sol often rode ahead of the brothers, but was aware they never conversed. The little black mare Johnny rode had become sedate and well-mannered; almost seeming aware she was on a serious task. As they approached civilization, Sol reined in and waited for the Lancers to pull up beside him.
“We’re almost to Angels Camp.” He looked at Scott and added, “My little spread is on the outskirts of a place called Grizzly Ridge, but this would be where anyone that knows anything would end up. All of the other towns around here are nothing but little shit holes.”
Johnny nodded, but Scott seemed concerned. “Wait. Hey Sol, you actually live near a place called Grizzly Ridge?”
Sol blinked at him. “Yeah.” He waited a beat. “Oh, don’t worry. I haven’t seen a grizzly in about a month. Too hot. They usually stay on up in the mountains for now.”
He watched as Johnny’s eyes began to sparkle in spite of the circumstances. Scott cut his eyes over at his brother and sighed. “Great. Just great. Lead on, Sol.”
With a glance at Johnny, Sol turned his horse and continued on up the dirt road to the little town. Flashes of memory began to accost him as he neared the first buildings and he found himself realizing just how tired and full of unresolved anger he really was. It was good he hadn’t ridden straight in, but had sought Madrid first. He was beginning to remember just how grief-stricken he’d been and that disjointed feeling was once more weighing him down.
Sol and Scott rode up to the saloon, figuring that perhaps the bartender there might have some news. Johnny made his way to what seemed to serve as a jail with some hopes of speaking with whoever passed for law in that area.
The saloon was mostly vacant. A man sat at a table in the back of the darkened room and a bartender was drying glasses with a stained towel. Scott and Sol ambled over and struck up an inane conversation. After commenting on the dry weather, the hot temperatures, and whether business was what it used to be, Sol got to the point.
He asked the bartender in a voice loud enough the man at the table could hear, “Anyone you know heard of a killing that took place a short time back? A woman died and the house was burned to the ground.”
The bartender shook his head, but he looked over at the man sitting at the table, pondering an empty glass. “Hey, Parker, did you hear him? You know as much about the goin’s on around here as anybody. You hear about any killing that took place in these parts lately? They say it was a woman and the house was burned down, too.”
The man named Parker looked over at them. “I might’ve heard somethin’. Why?”
Sol stepped forward. “You know anything about who could’ve done such a thing?”
Parker looked over at Scott and then back at Sol. “Well, sonny, suppose I do. Just who the hell are you and why should I tell you anythin’?”
“Because I’m asking. Is there a reason you don’t want to talk, or are you just an asshole?”
Parker rose from the table. “Who the hell do you think you are?” He shot a look at the bartender. “Marcus, do you hear this shit? These boys come in here and act like they own the place. They might find they have another thought comin’.”
“I need to know what you’ve heard, old man! I’m not here to fuck around. I’ve got my reasons for needing to know.”
Parker just looked at him and sneered. Sol began to see red and what little reason he still retained was quickly taking flight. He moved toward the stranger in a threatening manner, determined to find out what this man knew even if it meant coming to blows.
As Sol began his advance on the man, he could see Scott quietly step over to a position in front of him. “Move, Scott. You need to get the hell back. “
“That’s right, sonny boy. You might want to get your ass out from between him and me. I may jest have to teach this pretty boy a lesson. Ha. Wearing double pistols. I’m betting that’s to make people scared so he don’t have to prove he can’t use ’em worth a damn.”
The bartender spoke up. “Kid, I’d take care now. It’s true Parker here ain’t a spring chicken, but he knows how to use a gun. And if you’re thinking about giving it a go with the fists, well, I’ll let you try that one. Long as you don’t damage my saloon. Gotta tell ya though, he’s not bad with them either. You don’t live as long as we have out in this hellhole and not know how to survive.”
Sol stood his ground, knowing he’d never go for his pistol, but the thought of pounding the man until he said what he knew did cross his mind. “Stand back, Scott. I’d be more than happy to settle this the old-fashioned way, but if he goes for his weapon, I’m not going to sit back and let him get me at that game.”
“Talk big, sonny boy, and act big if you dare. What’ll it get ya, huh? You want to get information from me. It’s going to be damned hard while we’re dodgin’ bullets. And worse yet, if your buddy here gets shot up and he’s layin’ there bleeding to death, you might not feel like talkin’ at all.”
Rather than step back, Scott continued to walk toward Sol and Parker, but his eyes never left Sol’s. “You need to get a hold of yourself, man. This isn’t the way to do what we need to do. You know that.” Scott’s voice never rose and he remained the picture of calm assurance. That presence ignited further agitation in Sol, for what reason, he’d never know, but instead of allowing his better judgment to guide him, he continued his advance, effectively putting Scott completely between him and the stranger.
As he moved forward, Sol suddenly felt something grip him around the back of his buckskin jacket and jerk him backward. Whirling around, he came face to face with the furious visage of Johnny Madrid. The younger man had the advantage, catching Sol unaware and off balance. The grip changed into some semblance of a headlock and both were propelled out of the batwing doors and into the street. Johnny maneuvered himself so that he was between Sol and the doors. He growled at him in a low drawl that signaled he meant business.
“You need to calm the fuck down. Stay out here and let my brother talk to the man. I’m tellin’ you right now, damn it, if you go back in there, I’ll take you out. I ain’t fuckin’ around with you, Sol, I mean it.”
Sol caught his breath and bent over with hands on his thighs, trying to avoid the sudden whirlwind that was Madrid. Anger pulsed out of the younger man and his eyes flashed with the kind of intense emotion Sol hadn’t seen from him in a very long time. This was the Madrid of old and he was thoroughly pissed. Sol began to feel his own frustration and wrath start to mount, and memories of knocking this kid on his ass surfaced. He’d never taken kindly to Madrid’s tantrums, and now with so much on the line, he wasn’t about to change.
“Get out of my way, John, before I go through you. I need to know what’s happened to Neka and who did it. Didn’t you hear, damn it? This man knows!”
Sol began to move forward, intent on his destination. Johnny slammed into him, forcing his arms up and out of the way. They landed on the dirt and rolled on the ground. Sol realized for the first time he was fighting a force that could possibly take him out. The protective streak that ran through this man was giving him a strength that couldn’t be denied. Sol struck out at Madrid in a final desperate act. He caught the younger man on the cheekbone and knocked him back, but as he regained his feet, Johnny was driving toward his legs. The ground rushed up and then all was still.
Getting up on his knees, Sol struggled to regain his breath. He saw a few people look at them and then hurry on. Two cowboys brawling in the early afternoon sun was unusual, but nothing to get too excited about, apparently. Sol’s gaze moved toward his adversary and in a sudden moment of clarity it hit him just what had taken place. This had been a bad one, much worse than when one of them had knocked the other about to keep things from getting out of hand. No, this had been real. Mostly, because of the man inside who was doing his best to stay in there and find out information for Sol. Sol ducked his head, no longer able to look at Madrid’s face.
Johnny, however, was still ready to go at it. His eyes were cold and he was standing with his hands clenched at his sides. It wouldn’t take much, Sol knew, to take this situation to a whole other level and Sol felt a regret pulse through him that magnified the grief and frustration he was already feeling. It might be fine to let everything just end here, he caught himself thinking. Standing, he relaxed his hands at his holsters and waited for Madrid’s answer, if he chose to give one.
A hint of confusion, only discernible by someone who knew him well, flitted across Madrid’s face. It was gone in a heartbeat and the remaining deadly cold expression seemed to cut right through Sol. Johnny asked in his emotionless soft drawl, “What the fuck are you wanting, Sol? Is this what you really needed from me?”
Although Sol’s gunfighter instincts were singing, confusion reigned. He had no idea how to answer that low question, but stood his ground, waiting.
For the second time that day, Sol had his jacket jerked from behind as he was spun around and came eye to eye with the slate-blue gaze of Scott Lancer. “Knock it off, Sol. You both need to stop it now. I’ve got that man in there willing to talk, but if he sees you two carrying on like a couple of idiots he won’t be talking to anybody but his horse as he tears the hell out of here. Johnny! Stand down. I need you two to sober up and clean up. I mean it!”
Scott went to his brother’s side and grabbed his arm, a move only he would ever dare attempt. Johnny’s eyes slanted over at him and his mouth curled in a familiar foreboding smile before the reality of the situation seemed to slam into him. A look of incredible pain flashed in the sapphire gaze and Johnny pulled his arm away from Scott’s grasp. Grabbing his hat from the ground, Johnny then turned on his heel and walked over to the horse trough by the general store. He splashed water over his head with his back turned, leaving Sol and Scott to watch him in silence.
Scott glanced over at Sol and said very quietly, “Sol, I told you before, if you put Johnny in danger, or get him so agitated he can’t see reason, you can expect me to come after you. Don’t think I didn’t mean it. I did and I do. I’ll help you however I can, but you must always remember getting my brother home safe and healthy is my first and foremost concern.”
Sol shook his head. “I understand, Scott. You know how it is with us. It just went too far this time. I’m sorry.”
“I really don’t want to hear apologies from either of you. That’s between you both, not me. Right now, you just need to get in there and find out what you can from that man. He’s feeling bad about what happened to your wife and willing to tell you what he knows, but I doubt he’s going to stick around much longer to explain it.”
Sol met Scott’s eyes. “Okay. I’m going inside. Gather up Johnny and get him in there, too. He needs to hear it so we’re all on the same page. I’m guessing he came up blank with his try at the jail, or one of us would’ve heard about it. We need to start this hunt so you boys can move on and I can do what I need to do.”
Scott gave him a hard look and then moved off toward his brother. Sol collected himself and took a deep breath. It was time to appear contrite, and in fact, he did regret his earlier actions. Thank God for Scott or there would be no telling where events would’ve taken them. He walked through the batwing doors and on into the saloon. Parker was waiting at a table with a bottle of whiskey apparently supplied by Scott. No wonder the man had the patience to wait.
Standing at the table, Sol made his next apology. “I’m sorry, sir. I’m not really doing so well with all this. My wife, umm …, well as you can imagine, she meant a lot to me. We were going to have a child.” Sol swallowed and took a deep breath, afraid his voice would break any minute.
Parker pointed to a chair at the table. “Sit down before you fall down, boy. That other kid told me about your situation. He said you were not yourself, riding all this way and now trying to find out about who might’ve killed that girl. He told me not to hold your behavior against you.”
Sol took the chair and nodded his agreement. He’d have to thank Scott for his astute assessments later, he supposed. “That about sums it up. My friend’s a pretty good judge of things and he’s got it nailed this time. I think I’ve got myself under control now.” He looked up and spied Johnny and Scott entering the saloon and motioned them on over.
As the Lancers made their way to the table, Sol asked, “You might have some information that could help us? Scott here said you might.”
Scott and Johnny grabbed a couple of chairs next to Sol and sat down.
Parker took a gulp of the whiskey and appeared to think a minute. “Well, sir, this is how it is. There’s a man that lives in these parts. Rumor is he’s got a run-down shack between here and Grizzly Ridge. That man, he’s not all there.” He pointed to his head and made a circling motion with his index finger.
Johnny looked over at Sol. “You ever hear of this crazy man, Sol?”
“No, can’t say I have, but then again, I didn’t spend much time any place where I would’ve.”
Parker continued, “You wouldn’t unless you hung out with some of the old-timers, most likely. He’s kind of what you’d call a mystery, or somethin’ like that. Kids tell stories about him, tryin’ to spook each other at night and so forth.”
Scott spoke up. “So why does this man come to mind as being a possible suspect? I mean, the world’s full of crazy folks, but not many of them are killers.”
Parker barked a laugh. “True enough, sonny. Take ol’ Miss Krenshaw, for instance. She’s crazy as a loon and always has been. People see her walkin’ in town, talkin’ to herself, sometimes even carrying on a reg’lar conversation, that woman does. No, Richard Edmund, he ain’t like that. I’m talkin’ about a whole different kind of crazy with that man. He even tried to kill hisself once and some riders happened by and helped cut him down. Saved his sick ass.”
“Richard Edmund’s his name?” Sol asked. At Parker’s nod, Sol said, “He seems like a violent man then. He could kill somebody, even a woman.”
“Hell yeah, he could kill a woman. Stories go around that he’s killed more ‘n one. And he’s got a kid that helps him do it. Kid’s crazy too, they say.”
“So there’s possibly two killers, you think?” Johnny was looking at Parker closely, his eyes glittering with barely restrained intensity.
“It’s how some tell it, can’t say it’s for sure, but that’s how the story goes.”
Sol waited until Parker took another slug of whiskey and then asked further, “You say he has a place between here and Grizzly Ridge. You know how to get to it?”
Parker looked around as if to see if anyone was listening and then lowered his voice conspiratorially. “Don’t know if it’s true, but I hear tell it’s that cabin a little off the main road, right before you get to the smaller road that takes you into Grizzly. You can see it back off into the woods. I’ve stomped around there a time or two, mostly bein’ nosy. Appears the place is abandoned unless you look real close. If he does live there, he don’t stick around much. I heard once he was a trapper and keeps on the move. That’d make some sense.”
Sol stood and held out his hand. Beside him, Scott and Johnny also stood. Parker grasped Sol’s hand, but held onto it for a moment. “Somethin’ else you might want to know before you go chasin’ off after monsters.”
Sol looked at him quizzically before asking, “What’s that?”
The pause lingered as if the man was weighing his words. Finally he continued, “I always heard he had a wife. A real nice lady, from what they say. We used to see her in town, or so that’s who I was told she was. Then one day, she came in and got a shit load of medical supplies. It was about the time people said Edmund tried to off himself. Some people seen her a short while after that at the General Store, looked like somebody beat the stuffin’ outta her. After that she just quit coming. Nobody’s seen her since.”
Scott looked shocked and asked, “No one rode out to check on her? I mean, nobody made sure she was okay?”
“Sonny,” Parker looked at Scott with an amused expression. “I don’t know where you’re from, but in these parts, people stay out of each other’s business. It’s the best way to keep livin’ if ya know what I mean.”
Scott just stared at the man. Sol quickly shook Parker’s hand again and thanked him for the information.
As they turned to leave, Parker called after them, “Good luck, boys. I hope I ain’t sent you on a wild goose chase. But if it were me that lost my missus, that’s where I’d be ridin’. You can count on it.”
Scott touched his finger to the brim of his hat and gave the man a nod as they left Parker to finish communing with his bottle.
Each of the men mounted their horses in silence. Sol supposed they were all deep in thought. His own thinking seemed hazy and he was having trouble focusing. His mind jumped from one detail to another. Lack of sleep, hunger, and his guilt over the confrontation with Johnny were weighing heavily on him. Realizing he could do something about at least one of those things immediately, he spurred his horse over to ride by Madrid’s side.
“Juanito, hey, slow down a minute and let me talk to you.”
Johnny slowed his horse, even though she tossed her head and indicated she’d rather be on her way at a faster pace.
Sol continued, “Listen. I don’t know how things got so out of hand over there. You know what you mean to me, mijo. I don’t want that stupid stuff to get between us.”
Johnny’s eyes stayed on the road ahead as he answered, “Sol, I understand you aren’t yourself. I also know what we’re going through ain’t like anythin’ we ever been through before. To be honest, some of what went on back there, I consider my fault. I never should have left you with Scott. It was a fuck-up on my part and can’t be changed now.”
Johnny was silent for a moment and then continued. “You know I cared about Neka and I want to see her killer or killers hang. But, I’m tellin’ you somethin’ right now, mi amigo, you need to keep it together. Don’t be startin’ shit you don’t intend to continue.”
Sol sighed. “I know, Johnny, I know. I’ve just got to get through this and make sure you get through it okay, too. That’s all that matters.”
Turning in his saddle, Johnny pegged him with that cold blue gaze. “You know what I think about you, Sol. You were my brother before I ever knew I had a real one, and that hasn’t changed. But I’ll tell you this. If you ever put Scott in that kind of danger again, I’ll beat the shit out of you.” Madrid gave him one of those smiles that meant he wasn’t really smiling at you at all.
Sol chose to ignore the menacing glare and answered, “Remember Juanito, I’m the one who came for you. I know the score on this … I’ve got to keep a lid on my anger and do this right. I understand all that. Because if I don’t, along with all my other problems, I’ll have both of you Lancers on my ass right now and another one on it as soon as he catches up with me. I get that message better than you can imagine.”
Johnny’s eyes finally lost some of their hard edge, but it was replaced by a barely disguised anguish that worried Sol just as much. Johnny sighed. “Glad to see you got it straight. Now, let’s go get this show underway.”
Riding up alongside them, Scott shot a glance over at his brother and nodded. He said, “You know boys, if you put as much energy into finding the men we’re after as you did into almost killing each other, we’d be a lot further down this road. As you both are so fond of saying, this isn’t the usual game and you can’t carry on like you would normally.”
Johnny shook his head, smiled a little at Scott, and then commented over to Sol, “I think my brother’s just said everything that needs to be said. Let’s put some road behind us and do this.”
The three horsemen spurred their horses on, riding together, side by side.
The ride took longer than they hoped, as they were forced to concentrate on the countryside as they traveled, always hoping to spot some trace of the man they sought. Eventually, they approached the crossroads Parker had described. From the road, it was hard to identify anything that might pass for a house or even a shack. Trees, vines and dense undergrowth grew so thickly it was difficult to tell if any signs of life lurked nearby. An occasional small animal could be heard scurrying through the leaves and brambles and all three men would reach for their pistols.
The whole situation was beginning to get on Scott’s nerves. It was difficult to keep from getting trigger happy, with vision being so obscured by the abundant plant life. It didn’t help that Johnny also appeared to be feeling edgy as well. Making matters worse, his brother had become progressively more withdrawn as they rode out of Angels Camp. After watching the disturbing brawl in front of the saloon, Scott began to worry even more about potential rash actions from both of the men. Sol had taken to riding in front, with little regard for the possibility of ambush. Johnny kept himself between Scott and Sol, and the probable reasons for that did nothing to ease Scott’s fraying nerves.
Scott’s sense of foreboding continued to increase as he realized that the area would get nothing but worse as the shadows of the afternoon gave way to the darkness of evening. If given a vote, he’d have chosen to leave as soon as they arrived, in fact. But there was little chance either of his fellow riders would listen to reason. Both gunfighters were withdrawn and preoccupied, the only thing keeping them focused seemed to be the task of finding Edmund. Scott kept his eye out for any unwanted company and helped search the area for signs of life or at least some indication that a home of some sort was nearby.
At one point, Scott looked up and realized Sol and Johnny had split up and were off searching the area beyond the small road in opposite directions. The shadows were getting longer, but neither man showed signs of stopping their hunt. Scott was about to go approach his brother with the demand that they find a place for a camp when he heard a shrill whistle deep in the woods to his left. Sighing, he dismounted and led his horse through the underbrush. Eventually, he spotted a small shack. Trees surrounded the place and as Parker had said, it didn’t look as if anyone had inhabited it in a very long time. Johnny was already on the decrepit porch and Sol was quietly searching through the leaves and debris for any evidence of a trail. Scott took guard outside the house while Johnny made his way inside.
Much to Scott’s relief, Johnny reappeared after only a few minutes. Scott went over to find out what Johnny had learned, but Sol continued to doggedly search for signs of a path or trail that would give them some idea where the occasional inhabitants might go.
Scott asked, “So did you see any signs of life at all or does it look as bad on the inside as it does out here?”
Johnny made an impatient noise before he answered. “It looks like hell in there. This pendejo is not in his right mind, Scott. It would be best if we found him before he finds us, that’s for damn sure.”
“That bad, huh?” At Johnny’s nod, Scott continued. “Well from what Parker told us, I didn’t expect much more. You see Sol up there? He doesn’t seem to care who or what he stumbles across. I just hope he doesn’t get his foolish head blown off for his trouble.”
Johnny said nothing in response, but his eyes narrowed as he watched his friend. Finally, he shook his head and went over to his horse and leaned on the saddle. His eyes never quit following Sol’s progress, however.
Scott felt compelled to ask a question that had been plaguing him since the confrontation in Angels Camp. He touched Johnny’s arm to gain his attention and spoke quietly. “Brother, what happened outside that saloon today? What in the hell was going on between you and Sol? I’ve seen you work off steam before, but I really don’t think that was what was happening. You two looked like you were going to …”
Johnny’s blue eyes blazed as he looked at him and cut him off. “Leave it, brother.”
Scott had expected a confidence shared when he’d brought the matter up, but instead Johnny turned away. “Don’t be buttin’ in on shit you ain’t got no business in, Scott.”
Scott saw red. “What? Johnny, this whole damnable situation has become my business. And don’t go telling me it’s my choice, because as your brother, I really didn’t feel as if I had one. I think you owe me better than this, I really do.”
A whistle sounded from beyond the shack a ways. Johnny shot a hard glance at Scott and simply said, “Later, Scott. We don’t have time for bullshit right now.” The ominous small smile and abrupt nod of the head signaled the end to any talk as Johnny turned and walked away.
This was so unlike his brother Scott knew he had to be standing there with his mouth open as Johnny took off to join Sol. He wanted to be angry, but something told him that the situation was not one to inspire his temper, but his concern. The Johnny Lancer he regarded as his brother seemed to be slipping away. Even more worrisome, this aspect of the man wasn’t even what Scott usually regarded as the survivalist Johnny Madrid. No, this Madrid was dangerous, remote, and unknown to him. Whatever had happened between the two gunfighters had taken his brother to a place that was not good. Not good at all.
Scott followed his brother and found him talking with Sol who was pointing at a barely visible path leading from the area of the house and on into the wooded cliffs. As Scott arrived, Sol began making his way up the trail. Scott sighed and went back for the horses. Johnny was waiting for him and took the black mare. They followed Sol, who could be heard as he traversed the steady incline as the path wound its way through the cliffs.
It was slow going and somewhat nerve-wracking as the trees and undergrowth continued to make vision difficult. The path made a sharp turn and they had to take some time with the horses as they found their footing. As they topped the ledge the rocky tree-lined landscape gave way to a small clearing. Beyond this grassy area was another line of trees. Looking about, all three men quickly determined that this particular spot under a smaller stand of trees would not only make a suitable campsite for them, it had apparently served as one many times before. No one would sleep well this night and a guard would definitely be needed.
Although the tree line in the distance gave a hint of a stream or creek, they decided to rely on their canteens for a source of water for the evening. Even Sol seemed unwilling to go traipsing about the area in the gloom of the evening. A small campfire was made, and what meager provisions they had passed for a cold supper. It seemed best to stay as hidden away as possible, and no one entertained the thought of firing a gun to obtain food. Whoever stayed here on a somewhat regular basis would have considerable more knowledge of the rough terrain while any stranger to the area would be at a distinct disadvantage. These were not the kind of circumstances that made one eager to attract attention.
Bedrolls were placed carefully by the campfire and the horses were tied in close walking distance. The small meal was eaten quietly, with only short comments about the terrain or the task at hand breaking the silence. After a while, Sol got up and went over and began working with his horse.
Scott seized the opportunity to speak with his brother again. “Johnny, you need to talk to me. We can’t go on like this. I won’t. You need to explain some things to me, and the sooner the better.”
Johnny just looked at him, blue eyes glittering in the firelight. Then he simply looked away.
Scott began to feel his anger rise again. He knew that this wasn’t his game, as the gunfighters liked to call it, but he sure as hell had anted up. It was about time someone showed his cards.
Taking an immense gamble of another kind, Scott reached over and grabbed his brother’s arm. “I mean it, Johnny. You need to let me in. If I’m to be any use at all, you’ve got to tell me what’s going on. I have a feeling even Sol doesn’t comprehend fully what’s going on with you.” Scott shook the arm in his grasp for emphasis and was somewhat surprised when it wasn’t yanked back.
Finally, Johnny looked at him. The pain in those familiar eyes was distinguishable and almost took Scott’s breath away. “Scott, I’m telling you, you need to leave it. For now. Maybe forever. What do you want me to tell you that you haven’t already seen for yourself? Did I put you in a position that I should’ve known would be bad for your health? Did I almost draw down on my best friend? Am I capable of returning to the gunfighter, to Johnny Madrid, so fast it would make anyone’s head spin, even Sol’s? I think you know the answers to all of that shit.”
Scott looked intently at his brother. “Tell me what I need to do to help, Johnny. Anything that I can do to help you.”
Johnny turned his head, but Scott could clearly see the small bitter smile that made his face seem older and harder. “Don’t you get it, Scott? There ain’t nothin’ you can do. The only person that can help me … that fucker ain’t here right now. Might not be back for a while, if ever.” Johnny broke Scott’s hold on him, rose suddenly, and stalked off to the horses.
Scott leaned over and put his head in his hands, anger dissipating into grief. He barely heard Sol as he returned and was shocked when he heard his quiet voice right beside him.
“Hold on, Scott. Don’t you go shutting down on us. I told you, old son. I told you this shit would happen. Now you hang on. Tough it out. This is where it gets hard and you knew it would. We really had no right putting you through this and given a choice, wouldn’t have. That man over there is going through some hell that neither you nor I can fully understand. No more than you can relate to mine.”
Sol was silent for a moment, his eyes growing distant, and then he took a deep breath and continued. “For now, all you can do is what you know is right. Do what you’ve always done, Scott. That’s what we need from you … what he needs from you. Comprende?
Scott looked at Sol and gave him a cold stare. The words were appreciated, but the timing was bad. Hell, any time would be bad, he realized. The resentment he felt toward the man was growing and Sol’s hell-bent for revenge attitude was doing nothing to dispel that. But his words were worth hearing, true enough. Scott just shook his head and laid down on his bedroll, knowing Johnny would see to his horse. His brother might be mostly gone from him now, but he knew some things could be guaranteed.
Scott abruptly awoke deep into the night. He thought he heard movement nearby, and a momentary confusion had his hand on his rifle. Beside him, Johnny appeared asleep, although experience told him that probably wasn’t the case. Sure enough, as he watched his brother for a moment, the whites of his eyes could be seen in the moonlight as he blinked back at him. Scott peered beyond Johnny, looking for Sol. That bed roll was empty. Well, it explained the noise, but something seemed ominous about that and knowing the facts didn’t make him feel the slightest bit better. He rolled over and stared out at the trees for a very long time before dropping off into an exhausted sleep.
Dawn had barely broken when Scott awoke again. This time his brother really did seem to be asleep, but it wasn’t a peaceful one. The light blanket was twisted around his body and his uncovered hand could be seen grasping his pistol. Scott quietly covered him with his own blanket and went off to look for Sol. He found him at the outer edge of their campsite, staring at the trees a short distance away.
Sol looked over at Scott as he approached and nodded a greeting. “I keep getting the feeling someone’s out there, Scott. I think Johnny felt it, too, when he was on watch.”
Scott sighed. “One of you should have gotten me to take my turn. You haven’t had much sleep, Sol. You know how that can cause a man to think he’s hearing and seeing things that aren’t there.”
Sol actually smiled at him. “Hell, that’s the truth. Nah, the problem is me and Juanito over there weren’t sleeping worth a damn anyway. Kinda seemed silly to rouse you up to join us. He sleeping some now?”
“Yes. I think he’s slept for a little while anyway. Some of us need to, Sol, or we’re in for a world of hurt out here in this Godforsaken place.”
Sol’s attention was back on the trees across the clearing. It was quiet for a short while before he said, “I’m telling you, there’s somebody out there.” He paused and looked up at Scott. “You saying you don’t feel it?”
Truth was, he did. But his own experiences had taught him not to get too involved with feelings. Facts were always a better path to follow. About that time, Johnny appeared silently at his side, his spurs gone and stealth seeming to be the order of the day. He, too, was peering out at the trees, but made no comment.
Finally, Scott broke the tense silence. “You know, there’s probably a dozen or so of those damned grizzlies out there and that’s what has you both so nerved up this morning.”
Johnny’s shining eyes cut over at him in amusement. “A dozen grizzlies?”
“Any place named Grizzly Ridge is bound to be full of them, Johnny. And I’m sure they don’t spend too much time on the actual ridge. Seems to me they’d be hanging around those trees for most of the day. Considering we’re just a short distance away, well … that’s enough to make the calmest man nervous.”
Sol snorted a response and Johnny laughed. “You know, that’s what I like about you, brother. For all your fancy talk and educated ways, you’re as full of shit as the next hombre.”
Scott finally allowed a smile, happy to see some of the gunfighters’ edginess lessen for a moment, even if it was at his own expense. Then he saw it.
It was just a flash of color. The smallest of movements, but that’s all it took. Both gunfighters instantly had pistols in their hands and Johnny told Scott under his breath, “Why don’t you go get our horses, brother. Sol and me will sit here a spell. Best not be rushing in where angels fear to tread.”
Scott shot a quick look at Johnny and raised his eyebrows at the quote, but saved his question for some other time. Instead, he nodded his agreement to get their mounts. He’d feel much better with his rifle in his hands anyway.
All remained calm while Scott quickly saddled the horses and led them over to the gunfighters and tied them to branches of the nearest trees. Scott was just about to suggest that someone build up the fire and make coffee when more movement accompanied by the noise of a horse could be distinguished from the trees beyond. Tensions swung to a new height and both gunfighters began scrambling for their horses. Scott kept hidden back in the trees and brought his rifle up to cover Sol and Johnny.
His brother and Sol rode across the small expanse of grassland and over to an outcropping of boulders that edged the far tree line. Scott was thankful that even Sol seemed to be using some judgment about showing himself to a potential enemy.
Johnny’s voice sounded from across the small distance. “In the trees! Come out and show yourselves. We know you’re skulking about in there, watching us. If you want to talk, come on out.”
The answering gunshot almost took Johnny’s head off. Scott’s heartbeat began pounding in his ears as he watched Johnny move around behind the rock. A quick signal showed him that his brother was okay.
Another gunshot sounded and this one hit very close to Sol. Whoever lurked in the trees was definitely no stranger to a rifle. Too far away to be of any help, Scott ran to his horse and readied to circle his way around on the other side from where he’d last heard the shots. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Johnny rise and take a shot, which drew more fire from the tree line. It was becoming clear that more than one person was shooting, but there only seemed to be one true marksman.
A flurry of gunfire came from the behind the boulders and Scott pulled up his horse for a moment, realizing the gunfighters were trying to draw out the hidden enemy. Sure enough, some movement appeared from the trees closer to the rocks and Johnny stood and took aim. About that time, a rifle report sounded from further down the tree line. They were on the move and advancing closer to his brother and Sol. Johnny hunched down and moved toward the shots. Scott wheeled his horse to add his rifle to the fray when he spotted it. The early morning sun glinted off the rifle and even from across the distance, Scott could tell the shooter was drawing a bead on his brother.
Eyes on Johnny and Sol, Scott kept in the trees but moved his horse closer as quickly as he dared. Afraid to warn his brother and give away his position, he watched in horror as the rifle seemed to bear down on its prey. A flash of caramel colored buckskin indicated Sol was also on the move. Scott neared the rocks as another flurry of pistol fire erupted. Sol used the momentary distraction to knock Johnny back. He began firing where the rifle had appeared. Scott stilled his horse and raised his rifle. He sent a few shots into the woods where the pistol had sounded. He could hear a string of Spanish curses and looked back toward his brother. He was sitting on his butt where Sol had knocked him away from the rifle fire. But Sol, seeming to fear nothing, was moving across the clearing, running in a zigzag pattern to avoid a clear shot.
The rifle showed again, and Johnny released a few rounds, cursing the whole while. Sol suddenly halted and fired in quick succession. An agonized scream tailed the gunshots. Scott added his rifle to Johnny’s covering gunfire. The stranger’s rifle sounded several times more, but the shots went wide. Sol was crouched over, slowly making his way to the tree line. A sudden sound of retreating hooves could be heard from the point closest to the boulders. Then there was silence.
Scott saw Johnny stand and continue to cover Sol. He nodded at Scott to show he was aware of his position. The silence continued until Sol called over to them. “I can hear someone over here. Sounds like he’s been shot. I’m going in.”
Johnny’s answer was abrupt. “Dios mio, Sol! Would you wait a fuckin’ minute? Give Scott a chance to get over there.”
Scott moved his horse on over to Sol and dismounted. They both made their way to the refuge of the closest trees, aware that Johnny was covering them and would soon be following. Looking through the trees, Scott caught a brief glimpse of the downed shooter.
As soon as they got to some semblance of protection, Scott reached over and grabbed Sol’s arm and spun him around. “What in the hell were you doing, man, taking a chance like that?” He stared at Sol only to have the ice-blue gaze glare at him back. He released Sol’s arm and moved to mount his horse, and then overcome with annoyance, he turned back to him. “You go over to the wounded man and stay with Johnny. Don’t you dare compromise him, Sol. Stay here!”
Scott mounted his horse as Johnny came running up. His brother grabbed the reins at the bridle and gave Scott a look that meant business. “Damn it, Scott, track him and then come back and tell us which way he’s gone. I think he’s our man, and the weasel over there moaning is most likely the kid. Don’t confront that bastard alone! Do you fuckin’ understand me?”
Scott gave Johnny a sharp nod. “I understand.” He wheeled his horse and took off through the underbrush to the grasslands beyond.
It took some searching through the trees, but Scott eventually found the hoof prints of a horse ridden in a hurry and followed them. They took him beyond the outcrop of boulders and then seemed to circle around. It hit him in a flash of awareness. This man knew the area like the proverbial back of his hand. He would take him on a merry chase and then double back on his brother and Sol. Worried that he’d already been beaten at the game, Scott pulled up his horse and muttered a curse. Sharply turning his mount, he rode back toward the others at a gallop.
They’d found him just beyond the first trees. He wasn’t old at all, probably not long past his fifteenth year. He appeared to have been shot through the shoulder and was bleeding profusely from a graze on his leg. More than anything, he was scared to death.
Sol and Johnny surveyed the situation and then moved the kid over and propped him against a large tree. While Johnny checked for other damage, Sol patrolled the area, making sure there were no unknown assailants readying to take down a couple of unsuspecting cowboys attending a wounded man. Content that they were alone, he made his way back over to where Johnny was examining the boy.
Johnny looked up as Sol approached. Sol asked, “So the asshole that got away is Edmund?”
Johnny nodded. “Appears so.”
The kid was suffering, yet he wanted to talk. A confession of sorts, perhaps. “I was forced to help him, mister. I never took part in any of his shit. I swear to God. As I lay here dying, I swear to you and God.”
Sol took a moment to draw a breath.
Johnny laid his hand on the kid’s chest. His voice was soft as he spoke, “You ain’t dyin’ yet, kid. This here’s the man that was married to one of the women he killed. She was pregnant. Can you tell us what happened? Can you help us understand?”
The kid released a moan and looked away, but his gaze slowly swung back to Johnny. “Maybe I won’t be damned if I tell, right?”
Sol was surprised to see Johnny quickly nod his head. In a soft drawl, devoid of judgmental tones, he told the kid, “I’m no expert, that’s the fuckin’ truth, but I’ll tell you it has to stand for somethin’ if you repent and confess. Can you tell us how it went down?”
Drawing a shaky breath, the kid said, “My stepfather’s crazy. He drinks a lot and one day, after he’d drank so much it’d knock out most men, he tried to kill hisself. Tried to hang hisself with a rope in the barn. Mama shoulda let him go.” The kid shuddered and Sol put his hand on the thin arm and squeezed. “She was the first, ya know. He’d come back to life, but crazier than he ever was. He never liked womenfolk and he used to do things, I think, even before then. But it’s worse now.”
The kid grimaced and closed his eyes in pain. “You sure I ain’t dyin’, mister? I’m hurtin’ bad.”
Johnny’s eyes lost some of their sympathy. “Gettin’ shot feels like that. You’ve got a long road, but if you fight, you can do it.” Then, in an obvious attempt to pump information, he added, “It might help to get some of the bad shit off your chest. Sometimes that kinda thing can bring a man down and make him real vulnerable.”
The kid’s eyes moved up again to meet Johnny’s. “He’d make me go with him, told me I was somethin’ he called a decoy. I’d act like I was real hungry, which weren’t hard to do, or maybe hurt. Them women would feel sorry for me and start talkin’. They’d drop their guard. Then he’d show up. I can’t say exactly what he’d do after that, but it weren’t good. More than one of those women would be found dead later when their men would come home.”
Sol finally spoke, “So he went after women who were alone?”
The kid wheezed a derisive laugh. “Hell, yeah. He was crazy, but he weren’t stupid. He knew he couldn’t stand up to no pissed off husband or son.”
Johnny’s voice began to take on a shaky quality, and briefly Sol had a flash of something. Perhaps Neka’s death wasn’t the only thing his young friend was avenging. He tried to meet Madrid’s eyes, but Johnny would have none of it. “So it’s true. There were more women besides Sol’s wife. Lots more?”
The kid nodded and then continued, “The one yer talkin’ about. That one was bad. That woman put up a fight; even though I could tell she was goin’ to have a baby … she was like a hell cat. Maybe that made her fight harder. That and she was an Injun. She messed him up pretty good.”
Sol swallowed hard and stood, but was unable to walk away. He had to hear this, even though he could feel his blood begin to simmer with renewed fury.
“Later, he told me that she fought so hard, the lantern she was usin’ to see who was at the door got knocked over. She was able to run some. He caught her and killed her out back a ways, but the house was on fire. When we left it was burnin’ good. I guess the fire went on down the hill after it burnt the house.”
Sol knew he was trembling with barely contained anger and when he looked over expecting a warning glance from Madrid, he realized the younger man was shaking too. Suddenly he wished Scott hadn’t been the one to leave. Sol knew he should’ve gone, but he’d let himself get too overwrought … not thinking. Johnny needed his brother, and Sol found himself wishing for the quiet calm of the man as well. Maybe he’d be able to concentrate, work as his old self. This was no good. No good at all.
The kid was obviously nearing the end of his rope. “Mister.” Sol looked over into the kid’s pain-filled eyes. “If it means anythin’ to ya … and ya might even want to kill me for bringin’ it up, but … well, he never got to her. She fought too hard and hurt him.”
Sol took a deep breath and knew Johnny’s eyes were on him, watching intensely. “It does mean something. I guess I’m glad to know it.” Without waiting for a reply, Sol turned and went over to the stand of trees and stared in the distance. He let his mind go blank and was only vaguely aware of Johnny moving about and working on the kid’s wound.
It was almost over. They’d find that prick Edmund and kill him. Scott would return and take care of his brother. Then, at last, Sol would be free to find his peace.
As he stared into the emptiness of the landscape, Sol saw a burst of movement near the trees lining the jagged cliffs. Clarity returned to him so quickly he found it almost startling. Edmund had come to them. He’d doubled back on them and was no doubt planning an iron cold surprise. Sol sneered at the man over the distance. Yes, there would be a surprise, but he doubted very much it would be Edmund enjoying that party.
Sol ran over to Johnny and pulled him from the kid’s side. “Juanito, he’s back. He doubled around and is in the trees by the cliffs. That pinche pendejo must think we’re a couple of wet behind the ears cowpokes … or two of the biggest dumb asses he’s ever met.”
Johnny tensed and stared off toward the cliffs. “He’s over in the trees there?”
“You stay here with this kid. I’m going over there and taking care of some business. No Sol, you stay here like I say. We’re going to do this the right way. We’re taking him into trial so he’ll hang and all the people he’s made suffer for what he did to their wives and mothers will know his name. If we kill him here, he doesn’t get to experience the hell of a slow death he deserves.”
Put like that, it was difficult for Sol to refuse. Every fiber of his being demanded Sol take that man out himself, but there was something to what Johnny was saying. All the women and their families that had been destroyed … that monster would know their names and watch the survivors from the gallows before they choked him dead.
“The kid’ll be fine here without me, Madrid. I need to cover you at least. I’m not about to let you take off and go after that asshole by yourself. I can’t be losing you too.”
Johnny looked sharply at him, closed his eyes briefly, and admitted, “You need to realize something. I’ve got my own demons to bury here, Sol. No need to explain, now or probably ever, but that hijo de puta is going to pay my price too. You’re a loose cannon, man. I don’t think you’re up to this particular game right now. You showed me that earlier.”
Sol made a derisive noise and went to grab Johnny by the arm, intent on making him understand this was something he must do.
Johnny simply pulled his arm away and shook his head again. “Listen to me, Sol. I’m not taking out after him like some fool. Don’t underestimate Scott. If you know Edmund is over there, so will he, soon enough. I know Scott will do this right. I trust him more than I trust myself on that.”
Sol took a deep breath and nodded. Fine, if Johnny wanted him to sit around tending that kid, let him think he’d do it. No way was he going to sit over there and mollycoddle that poor bastard when his friend was out there risking his life. Let Johnny think what he wanted, but when the time came, Sol’s gun would ensure that no other man would mourn a loved one over that pervert.
A capillary hint of red
Only this manupod
Crescent in shape has escaped”
The Mars Volta
Scott made his way back to where he’d left his brother, Sol, and the wounded man, as fast as possible, picking his way through the trees along the edge of the clearing. He only had one thing on his mind and that was warning the others of Edmund’s intentions of ambush. When he finally approached where he’d left the others, he found Sol anxiously pacing and looking toward the trees lining the rocky cliffs. The injured kid was sitting propped against the tree, but had blessedly passed out. There would be no warning shouts to Edmund from this one.
Scott felt a momentary panic when he realized there was no sign of his brother, and pulled up his horse abruptly. “Where’s Johnny, Sol? Edmund is out there, spoiling for an ambush.”
“I know! I know! Your brother took off that way.” Sol pointed to the stand of trees and the cliffs beyond. “He said you’d figure out Edmund’s plan and he was right, but you need to go over there and help him, Scott. That crazy pendejo has the advantage of knowing this place, and Johnny might be over his head. This sure as hell isn’t the usual game going on. The kid told us about Edmund. He killed Neka and he murdered others too. You need to get over there and fast.”
Scott’s horse was nervous, picking up on the tension, and kept circling as he reined him in. Scott asked, “You saw the bastard?”
Sol had stopped pacing and seemed to suddenly make up his mind. “Yes. We saw him. Get over there and help your brother. I’m right behind you.”
Something told Scott that this wasn’t in Johnny’s plan, but with the kid passed out, there didn’t seem much point in Sol’s sticking around. Besides, a shooter as keen as Sol would always come in handy. The sound of gunfire tore into Scott’s thoughts. He heard the report of the now familiar rifle which was quickly followed by the distinctive sound of Johnny’s modified Colt.
Following the noise of the guns, Scott finally spied his brother on the other side of the trees, hiding behind the trunk of a large oak. Movement in Scott’s peripheral vision told him Sol had arrived. He looked over at Scott and then urged his mount forward. Scott did the same and they rode swiftly to the area they’d last seen Johnny. Both riders dismounted and secured their horses before crouching low and getting a sense of Edmund’s location.
Two more rifle shots echoed throughout the cliffs. Scott spotted Johnny again. He had moved up and was just on the edge of the cliffs. He appeared to be reloading his pistol. Sol was quiet at Scott’s side, eyes glued on the scene before them. As one, the two advanced, knowing that there was a good possibility that Johnny would soon need their help. Enough gunfire had taken place it seemed quite likely that Edmund would soon be running low on ammunition and would begin taking desperate chances. Seeing Johnny reload only reinforced that opinion.
Another round of gunfire told Scott Johnny was on the move. Scott moved up too, trying desperately to keep his brother in his sight. Sol had proceeded ahead, never making a sound, and in fact, not acknowledging Scott’s presence at all. As Scott watched from behind a large tree, he saw his brother weave quickly to one side, drawing gunfire. He moved again and there was an ominous silence. It was a good bet that Edmund’s rifle was finished.
Sol pushed on ahead of him, using his sudden movement to draw potential gunfire, but the silence remained. They’d moved up close enough that Scott could now see and hear his brother.
“You’re done, cabron. Throw down that rifle and put your hands up and I’ll consider not blowing your huevos off one at a time.”
Scott only heard an answering guttural laugh. Looking through the trees, he finally got a glimpse of the man they were pursuing. Edmund was a short, stocky man with unkempt hair and an unshaven, disheveled appearance. His clothes were worn and dirty and Scott had a sudden flash of grief that Sol’s wife had been forced to see this man as her last sight on earth. Looking over at Sol, Scott could tell Sol was quietly watching. His silence was unnerving and Scott had a suspicion he was not really with them at this point. That thought alone was enough to make Scott proceed with extreme caution.
Scott then looked at his brother, and he got the distinct impression both gunfighters were sharing the same agonizing thought about Neka. Johnny waited for Edmund’s response, but receiving none, he continued on his measured approach. Scott and Sol moved forward as well.
Richard Edmund backed up as far as the rocky ledge would allow. When he finally spoke it was with a snarl of hatred, “Only reason you caught me, you sneaky little son of a bitch, is I let that idiot kid use my other firearm. Otherwise your carcass would be down there in the gulch waitin’ fer the buzzards to pick it clean.”
Johnny Madrid’s mouth curled into a slow smile and the expression in his unblinking eyes was aloof and calculating. Scott watched in a kind of horrible fascination, unable to move as the scene before him unfolded. Johnny spoke again, his voice always in the incredibly soft drawl that was more unnerving than the loud and harsh tones Scott had heard from any other man.
“Asshole, you killed a friend of mine. I’ll avenge her and every other mother that had to feel the pain of looking into your ugly face. You can’t get it up without hurtin’ ’em, right? It felt good to see ’em scared. You disgusting piece of shit, if I’d met you just a few years ago I would’ve blown your head off without a second thought and celebrated by cuttin’ off your … “
Realizing Johnny’s anger was escalating rapidly as he moved increasingly closer to Edmund, Scott finally came alive. He quickly stepped from behind the trees, yelling, “Johnny! Back off, brother! You need to let him meet his justice the lawful way. Come on, John. Don’t do this.”
Johnny didn’t move. His gun was unwaveringly aimed at a spot right between Edmund’s eyes. Sol’s voice came from the other side. “Johnny, he’s yours. Do what you want, but remember, you’ll have to live with it. I’ll take him out. If he needs ending here, let me take him out.” Sol brought up one of those deadly pistols and drew a bead on the man’s chest. Edmund just sneered at them both.
Scott swore and tried to reach his brother again. “Johnny. This isn’t you. Not anymore. And you know that it never was. Not really. Let him go to trial, brother. It’s like you said; he needs to account for them all. Look at him, Johnny, if you end him now it’s too easy. Make him pay for them all, but do it right.”
Johnny’s eyes cut over to Scott and for the briefest of moments, Johnny Lancer was there. “Don’t worry, Scott, he’ll get his chance to tell everyone about all the mothers he killed. He’ll have to confess to every last one of ’em or I’ll kill him right in front of God and …”
Scott raised his hands in a placating gesture. “That’s right. Let’s take him into Angels Camp. He’ll meet his justice. If you kill him here, he’s taken you with him. Don’t let that happen, brother.”
Johnny slowly began to lower his weapon. Sol’s sidelong glance showed that he would follow Johnny’s lead on this. He said, “You caught the bastard. We’ll do it how you want. Just make sure you know what that is.”
Scott moved up to his brother’s side and he heard him uncock the gun. Sol simply nodded, but never took his eyes from Edmund, for a moment seeming unsure he was ready to comply.
“Come on, Sol. Scott’s right. Let’s do it the way Neka would’ve wanted. She wouldn’t want more blood on your hands. You know that. Let’s gather him up and take him to jail. We’ll make sure he gets the kind of trial he deserves.” Johnny’s eyes flashed derisively.
Sol seemed to make his choice and began to lower his own weapon.
Scott gave Johnny’s elbow a brief squeeze, acknowledging some kind of sacrifice had been made.
Johnny looked at him, blue eyes smoldering. “Don’t go thanking me yet, brother. We haven’t gotten this son of a bitch to trial. Lotta stuff can happen ‘tween now and then, right, Sol?”
Sol smirked and moved to take Edmund’s arm. The man jerked away. Scott and Johnny looked over, expecting to help contain him. Rather than struggle, Edmund took a step back. His eyes glittered in manic glee as he bared his yellowed teeth and growled, “Fuck you all!” He moved back another step and was gone.
Where Edmund had once stood, there was nothing. Ridiculous confusion clouded Scott’s mind. Finally, Scott’s taxed brain focused. Edmund had jumped. Running over to the ledge, accompanied by Sol, Scott looked down. Richard Edmund lay in a growing pool of blood, his head settled on that roughest of pillows. Sol continued to look down on the broken man as if he could see his very soul departing the body. Scott heard Johnny move away.
“Johnny!” He moved quickly to his brother’s side. “I know what you’re thinking, brother, but you’re wrong. You were doing the right thing. You know it was the right thing!” Scott felt as if he was pleading with Johnny, appealing to the part of him that was his brother.
Johnny wheeled around and turned on him. “I don’t know jack shit, Scott! I should’ve taken that asshole down. Shot him right between the eyes. He’s had the last laugh, brother. That crazy bastard had the last say.”
“No, Johnny. You would have lost a part of yourself then. It would’ve preyed on your mind. You know that’s true. And if you don’t, I do!”
Johnny met his eyes in a cold stare. “You have no fuckin’ idea. You think you know me, Boston? You think you know what I want? There’s no way someone like you should ever know me. Not that part of me that wanted to shoot the man in the head and watch his blood spew all over this ground. You don’t want to know that man, brother.”
Scott reached for Johnny, holding him still, wanting to contain the anger that threatened to steal his brother from him. Surprisingly, Johnny allowed it, calming somewhat at his touch. He looked away from Scott, the expression on his face slowly changing from outrage to sadness. Scott called Johnny’s name in a desperate attempt to gain his attention.
Johnny froze in his grasp. Following his brother’s line of vision, Scott saw what had brought him up short. Sol was standing perilously close to the edge of the cliff. He was staring down as if he was drawn to the grisly scene before him. Then, he began to sway back and forth. It looked to Scott, as far as his awareness would allow him to grasp it, as if the man was in the midst of a catastrophic decision.
Images swirled behind Sol’s eyes. In front of them was the very real scene of Edmund lying on the ground surrounded in his own blood, his skull shattered and body broken. But in his mind, Sol could only see flashes of Neka. She was there, telling him his job was done. It had finally ended. There would be no trial, no bringing the sick bastard to justice, no making him stand in front of others who’d lost loved ones. Edmund had robbed Sol of that too. Now what did he have? It even seemed as if Neka was moving farther away. Down there. Calling to him amongst the beckoning stones.
He moved closer still to the edge. God, he was tired. More tired than he’d ever been before and Lord knows he’d had some rough days. Very bad days. He’d seen terrible things. Some of those things flashed at him now. His father. Jesus, he tried not to think of that. He took a deep breath and looked down, searching for Neka again. But now, he couldn’t find her. A curious noise was accosting his ears, buzzing into his mind and taking root. He felt like he’d been dosed with laudanum. Maybe something more powerful. A glimpse again. Was it Neka, calling across the distance of time? The voice grew louder, stronger, deeper.
Madrid was at his side. Damn it, Johnny, couldn’t you ever leave anything alone? Always pulling and questioning, moving and feinting. Never content to let sleeping dogs lie. And this dog, this perro wanted to lie down so bad. Lie down and never get up again. The rocks were calling and he could feel the movement of the wind in his bones. Pushing him with an ebb and flow. Madrid again. A sharp pain like someone was jerking his arm out of the socket. Feeling began to slowly reenter his body. The pain from his arm radiated into his chest, making it hard to breathe. Johnny’s voice. Shit, he was angry. He didn’t think he’d ever heard the man that mad. Maybe once. Maybe not too many hours ago. He didn’t want to think about it either. The guilt was bad on that and it made him go ahead and listen to Madrid when all he wanted to do was join Neka in the rocks.
His head was swung around and it was as if he could actually feel the air swoop by his face. Damn. Whatever he’d drank was strong. Too strong. But then, no. Johnny’s voice again. Cursing low in that dangerous drawl of his. Finally, Sol allowed himself to hear the words.
“Sol, move back from the fuckin’ ledge.” Another yank on his arm brought further awareness. Johnny’s voice returned. “Look at yourself. What you’re doing. Is this how you pay tribute to Neka and all she was? If you do this, you’re as bad as that bastard down there, Sol.”
Sol began to feel some anger toward his friend. He’d been staring toward the rocks and the crescent shaped corpse that lay amongst them. He hadn’t wanted to look at Madrid. Madrid was life, and right now, a life that was too damned painful. But Madrid kept talking, talking, talking. Saying all kinds of fucked-up crap. Trying to make him mad. Well, he had to admit, it was working. Sol moved closer to the air, so as to see it better and escape the maddening noise that was Madrid. But he could hear him anyway.
“You know this isn’t the way to do this. You have her legacy to keep, pendejo. You aren’t going to ruin everything with this. You aren’t going to make me watch this.” Suddenly, Johnny jammed his body along side Sol’s and grabbed him around the arms. Sol felt as if someone had doused him with cold water. Awareness came pouring in. Johnny was still talking, but now, off to the side, he heard another voice. This one was soft and pleading. Saying Johnny’s name over and over. Scott. Shit, he’d forgotten about Scott. And what the hell was Johnny doing anyway?
“I’m tellin’ you, you fucker, if you jump, I’m goin’ down with you. We’ve been to hell and back before, but this time, Sol, we ain’t comin’ back. Your soul will be as black as that asshole’s down there because you’ll be carrying me with you.”
Johnny’s face was mere inches from his. Sol felt his awareness swing wide open. All he could see were the cold as death eyes of Johnny Madrid. Those malevolent depths daring him to go for it, to plunge them both to their deaths. Sol began to shake uncontrollably. He could feel Madrid holding onto him and Sol pushed slightly away from the younger man. The sneer that curled Johnny’s lip made him recoil further. At his side, he could hear Scott trying to gain his footing on the rocky terrain. Trying to figure out how to reach them both without sending them all over the ledge.
Sol spoke. Saving them with words. “What the hell am I doing? Oh shit. Shit, Johnny. Get away from me. Scott, keep back. Make your brother get away from me.”
Finding strength from somewhere, Sol twisted his body so hard he took Johnny with him. Johnny was thrown off to the side and Sol scrambled backwards from the brink. The last sight he had of Edmund was the white arc of his corpse against stone gray and brilliant red.
Sol pushed further away and reached for his friend, pulling them both back from the death and destruction and depravity that had marked Richard Edmund’s life. It was over and that lunatic had nearly succeeded in taking Sol and Johnny with him. Yet just as Johnny Madrid had known Sol would never draw on him, he’d also known Sol would never send them both into those deadly rocks. Fucked up as Sol was, he’d never have died with that sin on his soul.
Beside him, he could hear Scott’s harsh breath. Glancing over, he could see him swaying on his feet, his arms on his thighs, his face pale and sweating. He looked very much like he was going to puke right there. Off to the other side, he heard Madrid.
Johnny was pacing, cussing, working off whatever agony he was going through at the moment. Sol knew it wasn’t fear. No, more like anger, complete and total fury. Directed at him. And God knew, and Neka too, they knew he deserved it.
Suddenly, it seemed very hot, very hard to breathe. He could hear Scott gagging beside him. He wasn’t feeling so great himself. That swaying motion had returned. Sol made sure he was away from the edge and let his body have its way. Finally. He landed unceremoniously on his butt and let his head fall to his knees. He’d completely lost it and the shame was almost unbearable.
Naturally, the first person to confront him had to be Scott. Johnny was still lost in some sort of personal battle. The cursing had stopped, but the quiet pacing that took him further and further away from them was worse in some ways. Sol would glimpse him as he angled toward Scott, as if to check on him without actually drawing near. Johnny would peer over at his brother and then stalk away. He finally came to a stop back toward the trees, breathing heavily in exhaustion, turned so neither he nor Scott could see his face.
Scott regained his composure quite nicely. Well enough to stride over on those long legs of his and glare down at him. Sol forced himself to meet his eyes. “What were you doing over there, Sol? What were you thinking, man? No, don’t answer that. I don’t think there’s anything you can say right now that would make me feel one iota better about what happened. You’re in no shape to be out here. We need to get you and that kid back to our camp so we can ride out.” Scott paused a moment and glanced over at Johnny. “I don’t even know if I can get my brother to help me. I might have to depend on you. Do you think you can hold it together enough to help me with the kid?”
Sol merely nodded. He had nothing to say. He’d taken everything to the limit this time. What can you tell someone after doing something like that? He didn’t even know what to tell himself, much less this man who could see through any lame statement or apology he could possibly make.
Surprisingly, Scott reached his hand down and helped haul Sol to his feet. He stood by for a moment to make sure Sol didn’t fall over once he was up. Apparently satisfied he’d remain standing, Scott went off to gather the horses.
As Scott walked away from him, Sol experienced some regret. He wished he had the strength to go over there with him because, sure enough, Madrid was on his way. Sol closed his eyes.
When he opened them, Madrid’s face was in his for the second time that day. “I want to know, Sol. Just let me know one thing. Were you stalking the ground the entire time we were after her killer? Was this hunt always about you?” Johnny’s eyes were narrowed and hard, challenging Sol to attempt any sort of excuse that could be construed as a lie. “Just tell me, right here and right now. Were you planning to join her all along?”
Sol took a deep breath and then offered the only thing he could to this brother of the heart. He offered the truth. “Johnny, all along I knew I wasn’t right. I don’t know what I was thinking. Did the thought of ending all the pain enter my mind, yeah. It did. But was I planning a specific thing, did I have some sort of method I’d devised to put myself out of this misery? No, mijo, no.”
Johnny looked away for a moment and his eyes seemed less hard, yet perhaps more agonized when he turned back.
Sol continued, needing to explain, at least to this man. “The longer we went on, the worse it got. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. I’ve never lost it like that. When I saw Edmund lying there, it was like an impulse I couldn’t ignore. I was seeing things, hearing shit … I’ve never experienced such hell. Johnny. When they say there’s a hell on earth, they aren’t lying and I hope you, hermano mio, never experience such a thing.”
Johnny looked at him with that unblinking stare. “Sol, how the fuck do you know I haven’t already?” For a moment the mask dropped, and Sol saw all the pain and suffering that this man carried appear on his face.
Sol reached a shaky hand to his friend and was shocked when it was briefly grasped. Then Johnny grabbed him by the arm and silently pulled him over to Scott and the horses.
By the time they got back to the kid, he was coming around. Johnny had little to say to him, in fact, Johnny had little to say to anybody. However, he did help Scott find the kid’s bedraggled looking horse and get him mounted so they could get him into Angels Camp. About half way there, the kid started showing signs of passing out again, so Scott stopped and with Johnny’s help, managed to get the kid onto Scott’s horse.
Sol was remote again, but Scott supposed it had something to do with shame rather than being unaware. He seemed to be having an especially hard time meeting Johnny’s eyes. Scott wondered if the two gunfighters would be able to rebuild their old friendship at all. He found himself hoping they could, oddly enough. Sol was a bridge from Johnny’s past to his future when things were working right. Scott hated for his brother to lose that entirely. He seemed to have lost so much in his life already.
It was somewhat surprising how easily they found a doctor for the kid. Who’d think you could find such a person by asking the blacksmith? Well, Scott himself would never consider him a doctor, but the man known as Doc Shelby functioned as such for the remote area. Apparently he worked on horses and people, but at that point, Scott didn’t feel they could be too particular. The kid seemed happy enough to get off the horse and have some relief from his pain. Shelby’s wife was a pleasant woman and immediately felt great pity for the kid. The three men were more than happy to leave him under the couple’s care. Truthfully, Scott imagined all of them hoped they never had to see him again.
The next order of business was to report the situation to what passed for the local law. They met with a man called Dickens who seemed more interested in their story of Edmund’s death than actually investigating it. As Scott figured, no one was too worried that Edmund had met his death by three strangers. According to Dickens, the man truly had been a source of fear for the town and the surrounding area, never staying around long. He was rumored to commit his horrible acts on people who lived in outlying areas where there was little chance for evidence or proof. Often he preyed on the ignorant and poor or people who had a checkered past with the law themselves.
Neka had obviously been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dickens said the kid could be held responsible if that’s what Sol wanted to do. Sol just shook his head. There was mention of temporary placement in an orphanage. At that, Johnny left the premises.
Scott’s eyes followed his brother, knowing there was a reason for the abrupt departure, but also knowing it was useless to question it. Quickly realizing he’d been left with the unsavory task of dealing with Edmund’s stepson, Scott told Dickens he considered the kid the law’s responsibility. The boy’s life couldn’t possibly get worse than it already was. Dickens said the doctor and his wife seemed interested in helping him out. Grateful to get that particular situation handled, Scott agreed it was a good option and headed out for the saloon, with Sol trailing quietly behind.
The saloon was quiet, much to Scott’s relief. He was also glad to see there was no sign of Parker. Scott nodded to the bartender as they went in and ordered a couple of beers. He watched as Sol gave the saloon a quick once-over and then drifted over to the nearest chairs.
The bartender brought the beers to the table. “These are on the house, boys. Where’s that other youngster you had with you the other day?”
Sol spoke for what seemed to be the first time in hours. “He should be along. He had some business he said he needed to take care of.”
The bartender nodded and said, “I’ll bring him a beer when he comes in. You boys look tuckered out. If there’s anything you need, just shout. I figure this little town owes you a pretty big thanks for what you done.”
Scott said, “News travels fast here, I gather.”
“You got that right. Ain’t much else to do here other than drink and gossip, that’s a fact. Truth is, Doc Shelby was around getting supplies for that kid you brought in. I figure durn near everybody in town knows what happened by now.”
Thankfully, the man then made his way back to the bar.
Scott looked over at Sol. “Johnny has business?”
Sol just shrugged.
They drank their beers in silence and were about half-way finished when Johnny appeared. He stopped at the bar and received his beer before sauntering over to the table. He sank exhaustedly in the chair beside Scott as he performed his customary survey of the saloon. It was apparently as uninteresting as Sol had deemed it, so he slouched over and propped his head on his arms, only raising it to take a drink of the beer.
Scott asked, “You take care of whatever needed taking care of?”
“Yep,” Johnny said and sat up to lean back in his chair. “And as soon as we finish having all the fun here we can stand, I think we need to take a ride.”
Sol and Scott both gave Johnny a look that suggested he may have grown simple. Scott said, “We’re all pretty worn out, brother. Maybe we should just find a place to bed down for the night and get some rest?”
Johnny drained his mug and stood. “You can do what you want. I’m going to ride out and find Sol’s place and take care of some unfinished business.” He turned and went out of the saloon, acknowledging the bartender with a nod and a touch to the brim of his hat.
Scott shot a quick look at Sol. “You know anything about this?”
Sol looked confused. “I don’t have a clue. But I guess I’m headed that way.” Sol stood to follow Johnny. “He doesn’t have the slightest idea how to get there from here, and I’d rather not have to look for him in the woods somewhere tomorrow. Might take a while and there’s grizzlies, you know.” He quickly took out after Johnny.
Scott sighed again as he rose from the table. “So I’ve heard.” He gave the bartender a smile and a nod and went outside to join the others at the horses.
Johnny was securing his saddlebags when Scott arrived. The little black mare pawed the ground, ready to be off. The appaloosa and Scott’s horse both seemed annoyed at being taken out so soon again. Scott gave his horse a pat and sent him a silent apology.
Scott regarded Johnny with what he knew was an irritated look. “You have provisions, Johnny? I don’t imagine we’ll have time to head back this way before dark.”
Johnny propped his arms on his saddle and leaned against them while he watched Sol as he mounted his horse. “I’ve got it covered, brother. We’re just going to go do somethin’ that needs doin’ and I don’t plan on hangin’ around these parts any longer than I have to tomorrow. Comprende?”
Scott began to grasp the idea that Johnny was on a mission for his friend. He smiled at his brother, relieved to see this aspect of him again. “Okay, my brother. I’m with you.”
Johnny’s tired blue eyes met his. “I know you are. I never doubt it.” He gave him a small smile as he turned and mounted.
The trip to Sol’s place, or what was left of it, took far less time than the previous rides since Sol knew the direct route and there was no hurt kid to contend with. However, shadows were growing long as they arrived. Sol had become increasingly withdrawn. Of course, that was what Scott expected. This had to be extremely hard on the man, but it was something that needed to be done. Johnny was right about that.
As the scorched land came into view, Sol reined in and the Lancers rode to his side. “This is it, boys. Over there, up from where you can see the remains of the house, that’s where I found her.” He pointed back up a little hill to an area that remained unburned. “I buried her there. Under those trees. That was one of her favorite spots. We had a few picnics there.” Sol swallowed and moved his horse on.
Johnny and Scott followed and first kept a distance as Sol dismounted and went over and knelt at the small grave. It had been hastily constructed of course, so there was no marker or any other way of knowing that all the hopes and dreams of a man lay there, in silent testimony to a life destroyed.
Eventually, the Lancers dismounted. Johnny reached in his saddlebag and pulled out a large object wrapped in cloth. He unwrapped it to reveal an ornate cross; the kind one might see gracing an abuela’s yard. Scott was at his side as he walked over to the grave, bent down, and placed it there, a look of quiet reverence on his face. Sol looked shocked and there was a question in his eyes.
Johnny shrugged. “I had to make a pretty good donation to their church in Neka’s name to get it, but when I told them why, they were happy for you to have it. I think she’d like it.” Then, as if something suddenly occurred to him, he looked sharply at Sol. “You don’t mind, do you, Sol? I should’ve asked. I’m sorry.”
Sol dipped his head for a moment before he reached over and grasped Johnny’s arm. “I don’t think I know what to say, Juanito. It’s perfect.” He rose and stood there a moment, his face showing the emotions he was trying to control.
Johnny stood up beside his friend. “We’ll come back with a proper marker, Sol. But she deserved something that would’ve had meaning to her. And it’s pretty. Neka loved pretty things.”
Sol nodded, quiet tears forming at the corner of his eyes. Johnny patted his arm and then walked back over to his horse, obviously seeking to gather himself in solitude for a moment.
Scott gave him some time and then went over to him. He waited and Johnny finally looked up and met his gaze. Johnny said, “There’s a good place to camp back just down from this hill. He’s got a pretty nice stream that cuts through and there’s a stand of trees for shelter.”
Reaching over to gently squeeze his brother’s shoulder, Scott nodded. “Are you all right, brother?”
“I’m fine, Scott. Or I will be. It might take some time, but I will be. Not everything’s over yet, you know.”
Scott looked a question at him and felt a brief twinge of concern. “What’s not over, Johnny?”
Johnny just looked at him for a moment then shook his head. “You know.” He glanced back over at Sol. “And he does, too.” Johnny turned his back to him and mounted up. “I’m going over where I showed you and setting up a camp. It might be a while before he feels like joining us. I’ll see you there.”
Scott watched as his brother rode down the slight incline and over to the trees he’d indicated earlier.
Scott gave Sol a little more time and then walked over to check on him. He seemed more in control and even gave Scott a small smile as he approached. “Your brother. That man’s something else.”
“He is that, Sol. It’s a beautiful cross, and from everything I heard, she was a beautiful woman.”
Sol swallowed and looked down on the grave again. “Yes. Yes, she was. Too good for me, most would say.”
Scott reached over and touched Sol’s arm to get his attention. “Johnny’s gone down the hill toward the stream. He said we should make camp there. Why don’t you ride over with me and let’s rest ourselves and these horses.”
Sol nodded. “Yes, that’s a good idea. We all could do with some rest, that’s for sure.”
They walked to the horses together. Watching Sol from the corner of his eye, Scott had to wonder about the man’s frame of mind. At some point, and knowing Johnny it would be sooner than later, Sol would have another very difficult task at hand. Scott could only hope neither would push the other too far.
That evening was spent in silence. Sol didn’t feel much like talking and Scott seemed preoccupied as well. Johnny actually separated himself from the others, placing his bedroll on the other side of their little fire. He seemed to be gathering himself for something, reminding Sol of the way he was as they readied for a job. Sol was too immersed in his own considerable problems to give it much thought, but a silent and withdrawn Madrid always exuded an air of danger. It wasn’t something to take lightly, so Sol left him alone.
They bedded down early, after tending the horses. All were exhausted. Sol slept somewhat easier; there was something to be said about being on familiar terrain. He awoke very early, however, and laid there a long time before deciding to get up and ready for the morning ride. His tossing and turning was bound to be annoying everyone and it certainly wasn’t helping him feel better rested.
He fetched his canteen and walked quietly down to the small stream. The water was cool and fresh and a small breeze drifting across the land was reviving without being cold. After kneeling at the edge of the water and dousing his face, Sol stood and watched the water flow on its tumbling course downstream. His thoughts soon turned to Neka. He missed her more than he thought possible.
Sometimes, now that the need for action had ceased, he would even forget for a brief moment that she was gone. No, not just gone. She was dead. Dead and buried along with the child she carried. He needed to be able to realize that, to accept it. Maybe even cry a little over it when he was alone. He really wanted to talk to her, tell her how much he loved her. Tell her how much he’d looked forward to raising their children together. If one thing bothered him more than anything, it was the not getting to tell her that. Sol sighed and pushed those particular thoughts away for now. There was so much to think about. So much pain.
Thinking of that pain made him focus on what had happened at the edge of the cliff. Even now he couldn’t believe he’d come so close. What had been pushing him to that end? He knew he was mourning her death, but that was apart from the risks he’d been taking and that momentous event on the cliff. Johnny was right. Sol knew he’d been plotting his own death in his mind all along. He’d buried the overwhelming pain by turning in on himself, secretly knowing he’d put an end to that pain when there were no more monsters to pursue. She would never have forgiven him for doing something as stupid as that. The whole shameful, perverted mess had come about from a failed attempt at that horrible act. If only. If only those well-meaning people who cut Edmund from his hanging noose had just let the man die like he wanted … if they had, Neka and all the others would still be alive.
Sol found himself taking a huge gulp of air to keep back a wave of nausea that threatened to take him down. No, it did absolutely no good to think about what ifs and how comes. Those thoughts as well as what had happened on that cliff, well, those damning plots and actions were a result of something else. Most likely the same thing that caused him to dwell morbidly on thoughts of bloody revenge or sent him disjointed memories of the woman he loved. He knew how exhaustion and lack of food could bring down the strongest of men. He’d almost done to himself what no man had ever succeeded in doing. He’d almost hunted down and killed El Solista and the shame of that was hard to bear. He owed more than his life to Johnny Madrid and his brother. He owed them his dignity and most likely … his soul.
A sound behind him brought his head up. He was wearing his spurs and for some reason Sol did not find that surprising. He watched as Madrid made his way to the water’s edge and sluiced the cold water over his face and hair. He stood and shook his head, scattering droplets of water about him, and then looked over at Sol as if seeing him for the first time. Of course, his question was direct.
“You sleep at all?”
Sol nodded, finding it hard to meet his friend’s cold gaze.
“How about eating? You eat anything last night?”
Sol nodded his head again. Apparently, Madrid was doing some inventory of the situation. Knowing the man as he did, Sol didn’t find that very reassuring. “Yeah, I ate some of the beans and biscuits Scott fixed. I noticed you weren’t eating much.”
Johnny gave him one of those aggravatingly patronizing smiles. “No, didn’t feel much like eating, I have to admit.” He looked away briefly, as if hiding something. “It’s good that you did, though. Not eating for too long can bring you down as sure as a bullet. Or help a bullet find you, if you’re doing that kind of a job.”
Sol watched him, fully aware that Johnny had the reins in this conversation. “Yes, yes it can. And you’re right; not taking care of yourself can have some pretty mean consequences, especially when there are lives at stake.”
“A man has to be a pretty big fool to let somethin’ like that happen to himself and the men he rides with, don’t you think? Seems to me there’s enough other ways to conduct business without resorting to stupid shit like that. And Neka, well, you know she never did abide stupid very much.”
Sol could feel his temper begin to rise at the bait. He wasn’t at his best and Madrid knew it. Tamping his emotions down, he kept his voice even. “No, she didn’t. You’re right again.”
Johnny just gave him one of those smart-assed smiles and shook his head. “I’m not feelin’ much pleasure at bein’ right, Sol. Nope, it don’t do much for me at all.”
Sol finally rose to the challenge. “Madrid, if there’s something you need to say, it’s best you go ahead and say it. You’ve been spoiling for a chance to take me on for a while now and God knows, I deserve it. Go ahead and get it said, man. Take care of whatever it is you need to do and get it over.”
Johnny walked the few steps over to him and sneered into his face. “Everything is easy, right, Sol? It’s all supposed to be neat and tidy and fall into that little box of bullshit that gets your approval. Fuck you, Sol. I don’t have to give you some sort of Johnny Madrid brand of sermon then let you call it fixed. Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.”
Sol met Madrid’s eyes and matched his quiet tone with one of his own. “What do you want from me, Juan-ito? You want me to kiss your ass now, is that what you want?”
It came from nowhere. Later, Sol knew he should’ve expected it. It was almost a roundhouse punch. There was so much force behind the blow, it lifted him off his feet and deposited him in a heap on the ground. To say he saw stars would’ve been putting it mildly. It was more like he saw an explosion behind his eyes.
Before he could blink or shake some sense into his head, Johnny’s face was in his. “You can’t do anything simple to make it better, Solista. I don’t even think you realize what all you’ve done. That’s my bone to pick with you. You have no idea the damage you’ve done, do you? You don’t even know.”
Sol scrambled back to his feet, rage threatening to take over. “I know I can’t do or say anything to make it better, Madrid. That’s all I know.” He pushed his face back in Johnny’s. “If it makes you feel better to pound the shit out of me, then do it. Take another shot. Beat the crap out of me if it’ll make you satisfied and finally willing to leave it be.”
Johnny grabbed him by the jacket in a white-knuckled grip. Sol just glared at him. Johnny’s voice became even quieter, but his eyes were on fire, blazing with anger. “Beating you within an inch of your life isn’t going to make me feel better, Solista. This isn’t about my feelings. We both know I don’t give a shit about that. It’s about you knowin’ just what you did over these last few days. It’s about you ownin’ up to it all and takin’ some of this damned burden.” Suddenly, Johnny broke eye contact. He looked away but kept his hands wrapped tightly in Sol’s shirt and jacket.
So that was it. Sol had done something unspeakable. He’d put another chink in Madrid’s dark armor, forcing him to carry one more intolerable scar around with him. Sol felt most of his anger dissipate into the air. He took a deep breath and straightened, bringing Johnny’s clenched fists with him. He knew now what he must do, and it would exact a huge price from them both. But for Madrid, he would do it.
He waited for Madrid to look at him again. Once that cold gaze was matching his, he said, “You need to say what you’re thinking, Madrid. Right now, say it, you little bastard, don’t mince words. Get it said.” God, he was taking a gamble and he knew it. Likely as not, Madrid would punch his lights out and ride off, not even stopping until he reached Lancer, if that was even where he’d end up. And it was that horrible possibility that made Sol put it on the line. It had to be done.
Johnny threw him off, his lip curled in a sneer, and his voice grew deadly. “Out in front of that saloon, Sol. You were going to use me. You played me because we’d ridden together and we knew each other. You never should’ve done that. And if I’d been anyone but Madrid you wouldn’t have. You played that part of me, you son of a bitch. You played it like a fuckin’ song.”
So there it was. It wasn’t just that Sol had tried to rid himself of his pain, no, that was bad enough. But he’d used his friend, and that friend’s darkest side, to go about it. No wonder Johnny hated him right now. And that’s what it was, after all, wasn’t it? Johnny Lancer wasn’t just angry, or furious, he was carrying the enormous burden of hate. Hatred for someone he’d previously trusted. Sol had abused Johnny Lancer to get a turn with Johnny Madrid. That was something he never should’ve done and he’d carry that burden his entire life, just as Johnny would carry his. Sol didn’t think he’d ever experienced such shame, and he’d led a life full of that too.
The only thing Sol could do was get Johnny to talk. Make him say it. That way they could at least share in the hell they were living. “Get it all said, Johnny. Say what needs to be said and don’t hold anything back.”
Johnny’s eyes flickered in anger. “You’re the only person I ever did hold back on, Sol. Nobody ever got away with the shit you’ve pulled.”
Sol met him stare for stare. “Likewise.”
Johnny smirked at him. “So why, Sol? Why’d you try to use me to get to yourself? Did you think I was so fucked up I’d go ahead and do somethin’ without thinkin’? Or maybe you think that bad of me. Maybe you think I wouldn’t regret anything at all.”
“I wasn’t thinking, Johnny. I was being selfish. Disgusting, huh? Yeah, I didn’t even think of ol’ John Madrid at all. That’s the rub, isn’t it? I pushed you and you responded. You didn’t think for a moment out there either, did you? In your own way, you were as fucked up as me. That’s what’s got you scared, isn’t it? You’re not really pissed at me. No. You’re so fucking scared you can’t see straight.”
Sol forced himself not to move. He had said words that would bring Johnny’s hand back to his side if there ever were any that could do it. He kept his own hands away from his pistols. If there was any shooting to be done, he wouldn’t be adding to it. Of course, Johnny packed a mean punch, and that was likely as well. But, the man just stood there. Finally, Sol realized something he said must’ve gotten through, because Madrid’s eyes had grown distant. Sol had pegged him pretty true and Johnny was man enough to see it.
Johnny’s voice was less angry when he asked, “Do you know why it even entered your mind?” He seemed to genuinely want to know because the threatening tone had all but disappeared.
Sol laughed bitterly. “It crossed my mind because you’d do it right. You’re the one man I know who’d carry it off the way I wanted it. I wouldn’t have to lie somewhere suffering with a shot in the gut or worse. I wouldn’t have trusted anyone else.”
That brought Johnny up short momentarily. He looked at him sideways, as if measuring something very weighty in his mind. “You did it because it was easy. You were scared you might not be able to do it yourself. I was convenient and good.”
Sol said, “You would make it painless. I was such a shameless bastard, for a moment I just wanted it over and I knew you’d do it right. I had the same feeling at the cliffs. Only then, I was hearing shit and seeing stuff. The end would have been quick and merciful there too. I wasn’t really thinking, Johnny. No more than you were when you almost fell for it.”
Johnny’s eyes closed very briefly and when he opened them he stared off toward the morning horizon.
Sol felt himself relax a little. He waited for the question he knew would be coming.
“You thought I’d react that way, didn’t you? You figured I’d be tempted to draw on you, if only for a heartbeat.” Johnny looked at him through narrowed eyes. “But that’s all it takes, isn’t it? How did you know?”
Sol sighed. “I know it because I know it about myself. I know how we managed to survive when so many others didn’t. Instinct, Juanito. Our instincts are too finely honed to just disappear because one of us got married and the other found his father. As bad as things are between us, truth is we stand here talking because we know the other one is the only person alive who can relate.”
“I want to hate you, Solista.”
“And for a while, you will. I understand about hate. Better than most.”
Johnny abruptly looked over toward their camp and was quiet for a moment. When he finally met Sol’s gaze again his eyes were very blue with the intensity of the pain he was feeling.
Sol felt like he’d lost his friend as well as himself, but knew in his heart this was how it had to be.
Johnny said, “You put too much on the line. I don’t do too well with that part of me and you know it. You know there’s shit that I don’t take to other people. Mala mierda. So bad no one knows. Not even you.”
Sol nodded. “I do know that. And it’s something no one else understands like I do. You give up on our friendship, and you give up on that. I’ve fucked you over and you’ll never think of me the same way. I realize that. I don’t think about myself the same way after the shit I’ve done. But I also realize this, Madrid. I know you better than anyone. Better than your father or your brother. I doubt any other person alive will ever know you better than me. Even with the bad shit we can’t share. Even with that.”
Johnny looked down at the ground. His voice had become so soft Sol had to strain to hear it. “That’s shit that isn’t to be shared. Those memories that came back with Neka’s death … they’re going back where they came from. Some things I remember are like those ugly pale creatures that live under rocks. They really weren’t meant to see the light of day. They disgust normal folks and make them realize there’s life underground that shouldn’t be seen.”
He seemed to catch himself and looked back at Sol. “I’m not sure I can forget what happened in Angels Camp, Sol. And then on those cliffs with Edmund.” Johnny paused and took a deep breath. “I don’t know if I can just leave this behind.”
Sol looked at him with as much conviction as he could muster. “I know that already, Juanito. I’ve known it for a while now. The question is can you forgive me? That’s the thing you’ll have to grapple with.”
Johnny just looked at him and shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t even know if I can forgive myself.” He turned away and walked back toward the camp.
As Sol turned and tracked Johnny’s movements up the path, he nodded at Scott, who briefly met his eyes and then moved off to follow his brother.
Scott watched Johnny as he made his way over to the campfire. His brother stood there a while, gaze fixed on the dying flames. After giving him his space, Scott walked over and poured some of the strong coffee into one of the battered cups. He handed it to Johnny and said, “Here. Drink this. You look like you could use it.”
Johnny nodded his thanks and took a sip of the hot liquid and then grimaced.
Scott bit back his smile. “I didn’t say it was good.”
“No, no. You didn’t. I’ve never known you to be one much for lyin’, brother. That’s for sure.” Johnny looked up at him solemnly. “I’ve been thinkin’ about somethin’, Scott. There’s not a damned thing I’d do differently, but it’s botherin’ me anyway.”
Scott met his brother’s eyes. “Well, what is it? I can only think of about a dozen or so things that might have you contemplating the events of the last few days. Which one in particular has been preying on you?”
“That kid. Maybe we should’ve let him die.” Scott knew his expression appeared shocked because Johnny responded quickly. “Now hold on. I don’t mean I could out and out kill the sad bastard. You know I couldn’t do that. But maybe … well, what if he turns out crazy like his stepfather? What if he’s seen so much shit he isn’t right in the head anymore? What if he grows up to be …”
Johnny’s eyes showed so much pain, it was difficult for Scott to look in them. Thankfully, his brother sighed and looked away. “I know you don’t have answers either, Scott.”
“No, I don’t think anyone has answers to that question. We did what we had to do. Maybe if that kid gets a better life, he’ll do what he can to make the most of it. All we can do is hope. You know that.”
Johnny kept staring off toward the burned out remains of Sol’s house. “I didn’t have a real good childhood. It was hard most of the time. But I’m tellin’ you right now, that kid’s life was nothin’ but a nightmare. I can’t imagine a life as horrible as that.”
It occurred to Scott that Johnny’s words meant that Edmund’s stepson had lived a life of pure hell then, but he kept his thoughts to himself. Instead he said, “I don’t think any of us could. Those people that took him in, they seem like nice folks. He’s got a really good chance at a fresh start, Johnny. I think maybe it would be best to be happy for him and expect the best rather than the worst.”
Without looking at him, Johnny replied, “You’re right. It’s just been in my experience kids tend to grow up to be what they were raised around.”
Scott stared at his brother and waited until he finally brought his eyes up to meet his. “You didn’t, Johnny. Don’t you forget it. For all the bad in life you saw, you’re a good man. That kid can be too.”
“Not everybody would think that, Scott. I’ve done things, you know.” Johnny’s eyes flashed with something Scott couldn’t name. “You heard down there at the water. Some of the things I’ve seen and done dog me to this day.”
Scott knew he was being nudged a little. “And that kid will have his struggles too, Johnny. But just like you, he was thrown into circumstances beyond his control. All we can do is give him a chance. But you’re right. He’ll have to recognize it and take advantage of it. That’s all any of us can do, don’t you think? Take the chances we’re given to do the right thing?”
A small smile finally played on Johnny’s lips. “Yeah. It’s the truth. You’re a smart man, Boston. I just hope we did what was best.”
“We did what we could, Johnny. That’s all I know.”
Johnny took a last sip and then threw the remaining coffee on the fire and set the cup down on a nearby stone. He gave Scott a brief nod and went over to his horse. Apparently the conversation was over, but something told Scott his brother would remember and think about that kid for a long time to come.
Scott got his canteen and headed toward the stream. He passed by Sol who was packing his saddlebags and looked as if he would be riding out immediately. Scott veered over to stand by the man while glancing briefly at Johnny who was still communing with his horse.
Scott spoke quietly. “Looks like you’re about ready to leave, Sol. Don’t much feel like riding with company this morning? The ride to Lancer can be a lonely one, but you know that already.”
Sol looked up from gathering his provisions and shook his head. “I’m not going with you to Lancer, Scott. I’ll be heading back over to Angels Camp. Don’t really know where I’ll go from there, but I’m sure something will occur to me. It always does.” He went over to his horse and began readying him for the ride.
Scott let his canteen slip to the ground. He went around to the other side of the appaloosa and looked intently at Sol across the horse’s back. “No, Sol. This time you don’t just disappear. I know about you and your ways, but not this time.”
Sol’s expression showed he was growing irritated. Scott knew he was fighting the man’s natural inclinations, but there was more on the line than Sol’s feelings of discomfort. “Johnny expects you to come back with us. I think he needs you to come to Lancer, Sol. I’m not going to let you skip out on him this time. You owe him. You owe me.”
Sol walked around to the head of his horse and Scott followed. Sol asked, “Just why do you think it’s a good idea for me to go tagging along with you now? He needs to get back to the ranch. Once he’s there, he’ll be okay. You’ll be there, his father will be there. It might take some time, but he’ll make it.”
“Sol, don’t give me that line of shit. You know as well as I do that he’s struggling. You’ve known all along this would be hard on him. And after what’s happened between you, some of it is up to you to remedy. No one else can do it, Sol.”
“I’m not sure he even wants me around. Scott, can’t you see I’ve let him down? I’ve let everyone down with what I’ve done back there at the cliffs and in Angels Camp.”
Scott let his growing annoyance show. “So taking the easy way out redeems you? What about him?” Scott threw a glance at his brother. “How is that going to help him? Don’t be a selfish bastard on top of everything else, Sol. It’s time you stuck around somewhere and took the responsibility for a friendship. That’s what he needs, and if you could think clearly, you’d see you need it too.”
“There’s no way Murdoch Lancer would welcome me right now, Scott. Not with what I’ve done to myself and because of that, what I’ve done to his sons.”
Scott snorted. “Murdoch Lancer doesn’t have any idea about what went on back there. Seems to me that might be something you’ll need to tell him one day. I don’t really see the need to bring it up and Johnny over there … well, he isn’t one to small talk about things such as that, now is he?”
Sol sighed and looked away. Scott could see he was getting through to the man. There was no way this friend from Johnny’s past was just going to ride off and leave him to sort through the events of the last few days on his own. Down by the stream, Scott had heard Sol tell his brother how he understood. Well, damn it, he’d best get to working on bringing Johnny Lancer back from the brink of whatever ledge he was on. His brother would need all of them and if Sol had some of the answers, then he’d be there for him too.
“You need to come to Lancer, Sol, unless you feel like fighting me,” Scott nodded his head at the bruise on Sol’s cheekbone, “and it looks like you’ve already been one round this morning. He’ll go off looking for you at some point if you don’t, and we’re not going to go through that. Murdoch’s already given you what he has to give. Now you need to come back and repay a debt or two. In the process, you might get some of that redemption you think you need.”
He could tell Sol wanted to fight him on it, but Sol knew Scott was right. He saw Sol’s eyes cut over to watch Johnny a moment. He said, “You’re always the logical one, aren’t you? Maybe it is time I took some responsibility for Johnny Lancer. Most of the time, it was Madrid that was in the game with me, Scott. That’s the side of him I know best. I’m not sure I can even get you what you want.”
“I’m not asking for guarantees. I’m just telling you that he’s putting himself through his own hell. I heard you say down there that you know about that particular hell better than anyone. If I grant you that, as much as it might pain me, then you have to see that it’s you I need. You’ve got to help get that part of Johnny back that Murdoch and I know. The part of himself he was finding at Lancer.”
With that, Sol was done. Scott could see it in his eyes. Sol looked off toward the hill and the burned grassland around it. He finally met Scott’s gaze again. “Like you say, I can’t make any promises. But if I can help, then you’re right, I need to do what I can.”
Scott gave him a nod and gathered his canteen to continue his preparations for the ride. He had a feeling the trip back to Lancer would be a quiet one.
They rarely stopped to rest. Each of them was eager to get the ride done for their own particular reasons. Johnny led the way most of the time. The little mare was already prancing again, as if she was aware they’d soon be back at her home. Johnny mostly let her cavort with only slight touches to keep her under control. The scene captured Scott’s attention and he silently watched the pair as they rode along. Glancing over at Sol, he saw the blond gunfighter was doing the same.
After several hours, Johnny raised his hand and motioned for Sol to join him. Sol glanced at Scott and shrugged, then moved his horse up. Johnny said something to his friend and then amazingly enough, Sol answered him back with a smile. Scott watched them and felt that twinge of something close to envy that he always regretted, but would also deny to anyone who asked. He convinced himself that this was good, Johnny had relaxed enough to share some humorous observation with Sol and Sol had responded well. In order for things to work at Lancer, the two had much to air. Still, there was that twinge.
As if sensing Scott’s growing unease, Johnny turned in his saddle. “You goin’ to ride back there the whole damned trip, brother? Why don’t you move on up here and tell me what you think.”
Somewhat taken aback, Scott urged his horse to a faster pace.
Johnny glanced over at him and gave him a tired grin. Scott shook his head. His younger brother was one of the most perplexing people he had ever met. “Brother, I was just telling Sol here that someday we need to go back to Angels Camp. We need to pay us a little visit to that kid we deposited on those folks’ door.”
Sol smirked a little. “He thinks we ought to check on the situation and let that boy know just who’ll be looking over his shoulder.”
For some reason, Scott felt a welcome sense of relief at Sol’s words. These were the men he knew. Maybe they had a chance. Scott said, “Sounds like a good idea to me. Let him know that Johnny Madrid and El Solista will be looking over his shoulder.”
Johnny’s smile was fleeting, but at least it had a hint of his old self in it. “Hell, we got Boston, too. Don’t you go forgettin’ about him. He’s the fastest man with a lecture this side of the border, not takin’ Murdoch Lancer into account, of course.”
Scott couldn’t help the small laugh that escaped. “I do believe he could outdraw me if put to the test, boys. That’s a fact.”
They rode the rest of the way in silence, but this time they were side by side, their demons temporarily put to rest.
They arrived at the hacienda well into the afternoon. Murdoch made his way to them before they could dismount. His large hand was warm and comforting on Scott’s leg and he looked up at him with worry in his eyes, “Are you okay, son? Anybody injured?”
Scott smiled down at his father, so thankful to see him, so grateful to read the concern in his face. “No. No, sir. No one was injured.” And then more quietly, for Murdoch’s ears only. “At least not that you could see, sir.”
Murdoch gave his leg a gentle pat. “I understand. We’ll have a talk later. Why don’t you get on down from there and go inside and get something to eat. We just finished supper and there’s plenty left. All you boys look like a stiff wind could blow you away.”
His father left his side and slowly walked over to his younger son, who had dismounted and was leaning wearily against his horse. Scott lingered a moment to listen, not caring a bit if he was caught eavesdropping.
“This here’s a good horse, Murdoch. I missed Barranca, but this little girl, she made me proud.” Johnny looked up and gave his father a tremulous smile.
“I’m glad to hear it, son. You always said she was worth keeping. All I know is she got you home safe, and that’s enough for me.” Murdoch reached over and wrapped a long arm around Johnny’s tired shoulders and pulled him to his side. “Let’s get you inside, before you drop. Sol, you come along too. All of you need food and rest.”
A hand came over to gather their horses and Murdoch led the way into the cool shadows of the Lancer hacienda.
They ate as much as their meager appetites would allow and then retreated to the great room. Murdoch followed and handed out whiskeys which they drank in virtual silence. Finally, on the pretext of needing to check on a crew that was due in from the north pasture, Murdoch left them.
Johnny sidled down on the couch a bit and closed his eyes. “I imagine I’ll be here a while. If someone needs a seat, just shove me off on the floor. I don’t think I’ll even notice.”
Sol stood. “Well, I’m going to go see if I can reclaim my old spot in the bunkhouse. I kinda got partial to it last time I was here.”
Johnny opened his eyes and made a move to rise as he said, “Sol, there’s plenty of rooms in the house. Let me ask Maria to show you which …”
Sol was adamant. “No, Johnny. I’m okay. I actually would prefer to be out there right now. Just seems like the place I need to be. Comprende?”
Sighing, Johnny lay back again as he relented. “Mierda, Sol. ‘Course I understand. There’s still times I go out there and spend a night or two, right Scott?”
Scott smiled tiredly and said, “More than we probably know. He says it gets too stuffy and fussy in here. I think he’s just too drunk to make it back inside after a late night at the cards, or too embarrassed, whichever the case might be.”
“Now, don’t go tellin’ all my secrets, brother. You’re about to ruin my stellar reputation as a first rate gambler.”
Scott rolled his eyes and Sol said, “On that note, I’m headin’ out. I’ll see you two whenever you can gather up enough steam to venture outside.”
Johnny’s eyes only slid open a crack, but the challenge in them was still easy to read. “I don’t much care where you decide to sleep, Sol, just don’t think about cuttin’ out. I’m not in the mood for games, and if you don’t want a pissed off ex-gunfighter trackin’ you down, you’d better be here.”
Sol straightened a little and he gave the man on the couch a belligerent look. As he opened his mouth to reply he looked over at Scott. Knowing their last real conversation was still fresh in both their minds, Scott purposely met Sol’s eyes with a glare. The message was very, very clear. Sol sighed and silently nodded at Scott. He said, “Don’t worry, Johnny. I’ll be where you can find me. I’m not going anywhere.”
When Sol’s statement met only silence, Scott looked down at his brother to find that he’d truly dropped off. A minute twitch of the gun hand showed Johnny was only in a light sleep. The slightest unusual noise would have that hand at his side in a split second.
Scott glanced back over at Sol. “I didn’t think you’d need reminding.”
“Don’t worry. I generally mean what I say, Scott. You’ll find that out.”
“Good, then go get some sleep too. You wait very long and the hands will be coming in for the night and you’ll miss laying your claim on that bunk.”
With a slight humorless smile, Sol turned and was off.
Scott watched his little brother sleep for a minute. He knew appearances were very misleading. All of them had a long way to go to get things back to where they’d been just a few short days ago. But they’d work at it. He suddenly found himself missing his father and went outside to search for him. He didn’t have to look far. He seemed to be purposely occupying himself nearby, somehow realizing one or both of his sons might need him.
As Scott walked up to him, Murdoch smiled in greeting. “You boys seem awful quiet. Are you sure everything’s all right?”
Scott shrugged. “Considering our mission and what could have happened, yes, I think we’re as okay as we can be. It was difficult, sir. Something I hope I never have to do again.”
Murdoch patted him gently on the arm. “I hope you never have to either, son. And Sol. He’s doing okay?
“It was rough, but I think eventually he’ll come through everything all right. It took some convincing, but we got him to stay here for a while.”
Finally the question that Scott knew was on his father’s mind as soon as he saw him. “And Johnny?”
“This situation was hard on him. He seems to be struggling and he needs some time. He’s asleep on the couch right now. As you can imagine, we’re pretty worn out. Getting home was the best thing that could happen for both of us.”
Giving him another small smile, Murdoch nodded. “I understand. It’s good to have you both back. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t worried.”
Grateful that his father seemed to know not to seek details for now, Scott met his eyes. “I know, Murdoch. And I thank you for understanding. It means something, sir. I know I’m speaking for Johnny on that, too.”
Murdoch’s hand moved up to his shoulder and gave it a small squeeze. “I’ll be over in the barn. We’ve got a mare foaling I need to check on and Jelly’s going to want to know that you boys are back and doing okay. Gather your brother up and both of you get on to bed. The best thing for both of you is to get some sleep right now.”
“I think you’re right. I’ll see you in the morning.” Scott gave Murdoch what he hoped was a reassuring grin and went back into the house.
As he entered the great room, the first thing he realized was Johnny had left and he was willing to bet it wasn’t to go to his room. Naturally. The boy could never do anything the easy way it seemed. Not wanting to meet with his father again, Scott slipped around the back and on out to the corral. His luck was with him. Cipriano was just returning from one of the pastures and was in the process of leading his horse to the barn.
“Hey Cip, can I borrow your horse for a minute? I need to check on something real fast and I don’t have time to saddle up my own mount. I’ll put him up for you as soon as I’m back.”
Cipriano smiled at him. “Welcome home, Senor. I’m glad to see you. I just saw Johnny, too. I’m glad you both made it home safely.”
“You saw Johnny? He’s the one I’m trying to find. You see which way he was going?”
“He will not have gone far, Senor Scott. I saw him only a short while ago. He was riding the palomino bareback and headed off toward those far corrals he goes to sometimes.”
Just as he thought. Sometimes his brother was all too predictable, even though he’d certainly hate to hear it. Cipriano handed him the reins to his horse. “Don’t worry about putting him up. If you aren’t gone long, I’ll still be around. I have some things I was going to do before I worked with him anyway.”
Scott smiled at the segundo. “Thanks, Cipriano. I shouldn’t be long at all.”
He found Johnny exactly where he knew he’d be. And he was doing exactly what he knew he’d be doing. Taking great care to line up several bottles along the fence, Johnny didn’t even look up as he approached.
“Getting kind of late for all that, isn’t it?”
Johnny shrugged. “We’ve got a few minutes of daylight left. Enough to do what I’ve got to do anyway.”
Scott sighed. His brother’s compulsion toward practice was a source of worry for the rest of the household, but it seemed necessary given his situation. It was hard to bear, though, and sometimes hearing him at it before he retired for the evening would set Scott’s teeth on edge. He could only imagine what it did to Murdoch.
Johnny seemed more particular than usual about the placement of the bottles. Watching him go through the motions reminded Scott of a question that had nagged at him for a while. Since Amador, actually. And now the experience at Angels Camp brought the thought on even stronger. Building up the considerable nerve it took to ask it, Scott finally took a chance. “Johnny, do you know who’s faster? I mean, if you and Sol really did go at it. Who would win?”
As he expected, his brother’s first answer was a withering look from eyes that shown brightly in the late afternoon sun. After waiting a bit because that’s what a person had to do when asking this man about really important matters, he got more.
“Where the fuck do you come up with this shit, Scott?”
Scott held his ground, purposely disregarding the intimidation tactics. “I don’t know, brother. Maybe it’s a fascination I have. Yes. I’m fascinated about certain aspects of my brother’s life that he tries to keep a mystery. Problem is, I’m intrigued by mysteries.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed and he gave him a look that told him that he really was verging on going too far. “You been reading those dime rags again? I already told you what those are good for and you’re in the wrong place for that.”
Scott couldn’t stop the grin that showed briefly. This was the Johnny Madrid he recognized. Angry, a survivor, but well-grounded and almost, almost approachable. This was a part of his brother he knew.
The motion was sudden. Johnny’s draw was blindingly fast, and the neck of the bottle blew cleanly away from the body, leaving it standing without even a wobble. Scott started with the report, in spite of himself. As he turned toward his brother, Scott wasn’t surprised to see those glittering blue eyes meet his.
“Why do you think Sol thought about throwin’ down on me, Scott? It ain’t just about speed, brother.” Johnny paused for a moment and looked back at the bottle. “Sometimes it’s about hittin’ exactly what you aim for.”
And Scott, being a smart man, let it stand.
Trinidad de Guerreros
*** Notes: I must acknowledge the band, The Mars Volta, for the use of their words, both in quotes and as the title. Their concept-driven music is quite inspiring as well. As a further note, Richard Edmund derives his name from two of William Shakespeare’s most evil villains, although neither of them have a resemblance to the character portrayed in this fanfic.
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