Word count 30, 301
Storm Clouds: A Collaboration of Lancer Writers
Stretching, Johnny stood in his stirrups and looked around. There’s nothing more beautiful than the Arizona desert during the monsoon season. Each year between June and September, daily rains bring new life to a brown, desolate landscape, turning it into a sea of green and flowers.
He’d crossed the border into Arizona the day before and was making good time. He was bound and determined to make Tucson by nightfall. However, one look at the billowing clouds forming to the east told him he wasn’t going to outrun this afternoon storm.
Johnny sighed. Arizona rain at this time of year was torrential but thankfully moved fast. Sometimes too fast. Yet, his pinto was a fast little pony and had gotten him out of many a scrape, just like that latest fracas down in Sonora. He was always getting into scrapes, and he reckoned there was another one coming in Tucson. Still and all, he was glad when he got the call for help. It would be good to see Val again. Maybe ol’ Isham would be there as well. Isham was always good to have in a fight. But seeing Val, yeah, some friends were more. Val was about the only person other than his cousin Mateo that he trusted, actually trusted, with his life. Being a priest, Mateo wasn’t one to help in a fight, but he had provided him cover and escape many a day.
He nudged his pony into a canter as they started past the short, blooming beavertail cactus and the tall tree-like saguaros. Behind the storm clouds were others. Bright orange, like a fire in the sky. He knew the sun and dry weather was behind them. Kind of like the life he’d led for the last two years or so. Rain and shine, storm and clear, life and death. He’d been selling his gun and dealing in death, but he felt he’d helped people. Helped the way he wished someone could have helped his Mama before she was murdered.
Past can’t be changed, just gotta go with what is and move on and he reckoned Johnny Madrid was one of the best movers on there was. He felt older than his seventeen years, knew he was in life experiences, but he couldn’t say he had a bad life. Yeah, it was hard, but whose wasn’t? He met good people, had one true friend, a smattering of family, and others he could sometimes count on. He didn’t have his mama and he would miss her every day. He didn’t have his real father and that was one man he didn’t give a damn about. He didn’t want us, so I got no use for him or his name.
“Come on, Feliz, let’s go find us some shelter from this storm that’s a brewing.”
Urging his faithful Pinto on, Johnny soon realized that it was going to be a hard race between him and mother nature if they didn’t find shelter soon. Those dark, ominous clouds were moving in fast as the wind picked up. That and he could hear loud rumbling in the background, with an occasional crack. To make matters worse, the closer they got to those hills, old Ma nature would hurry along those clouds with a wave of her hand. Thus, the start of the race.
Now at a dead run, Johnny scanned the hillsides for any form of shelter, whether it’s a cave, overhang, anything. Finally, he noticed a black hole in the side of the mountain, and as they drew closer, the hole seemed to grow in size. Johnny sighed out in relief. With luck, he just might win this race and beat her at her own game. They were about half a mile within reach of the now welcoming cave when Mother Nature snapped her fingers, loudly, almost ear-shattering and released the rain with a burst of energy.
By the time they reached the cave, both man and horse were drenched from head to toe. Johnny made a beeline for the large entrance, dismounted, and quickly pulled his weary horse into the dark cave. He blew out a long breath, giving his amigo a loving pat on his neck.
“Whew! That was fun, right, boy? “
Feliz just snorted, shook his wet head and nudged Johnny’s shoulder. He laughed and lit a match, looked around, smiled, then proceeded to set up camp. Waiting out the storm that now raged outside.
“I reckon, old Mother Nature is none too happy, huh, boy.”
Suddenly Feliz bucked up and whinnied loudly. Johnny grabbed the reins and patted him in an attempt to calm him.
“What is it, boy? What’s got ya spooked?” The horse pulled away and turned to the cave entrance. “Whoa, boy.”
From deeper in the cave came a cry. Johnny knew it was the cry of a bobcat. Without letting go of the reins, Johnny was able to crane his neck and see two golden orbs staring back at him from a dark corner of the cave.
In a soft voice, he said, “Hey there, buddy. Looks like we both had the same idea. Bet this cave is big enough for all of us. What do you think?”
The cat responded with a soft mew.
Johnny returned his attention to the horse. Gentle pats to the horse’s neck and soft-spoken words of encouragement seemed to calm the horse.
“Don’t worry, Feliz. He’s not gonna bother us if we don’t bother him.”
Meanwhile, the storm had gained momentum. With his vast experience in the desert, Johnny knew the torrential rainfall would rapidly fill the streams and river running through the canyon. It could be days until he could reclaim the route to Tucson.
“Well, amigo, it don’t look too promising for us to get out of here anytime soon. Might as well make ourselves comfortable.”
Just as Johnny turned to resume making camp, a figure appeared in the cave opening. A man wearing a long oilskin duster and pulling a reluctant horse behind him stepped into the shelter of the cave.
Johnny instinctively drew his gun.
The man shook himself vigorously, sending a spray of water around him. With a tilt of his hat to allow him to view what was before him, he laughed robustly and said, “Holy Hell, is that you, Madrid?”
Johnny laughed softly and removed his hat, shaking the water off. “Well, if it isn’t Ringo. Johnny Ringo. What the hell are you doing here?”
Ringo motioned toward Madrid’s gun. “I think you can put that gun away. I’ve been tracking you for a bit. Heard you were headed to Tucson and figured you might need some help.”
Madrid holstered his gun. “Thanks, but I think I can manage on my own, Ringo.”
Ringo looked around the cave, hearing the soft mewing of the bobcat. He nodded his head toward the sound.
“Hear that? She’s got babies. She’ll mean to protect them, so we need to be careful. But it’s a big cave, so I think we can stay out of her way and bunk down for the night.”
“Wait, you’re staying? I told you, I don’t need your help.”
“Madrid, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a hell of a storm raging out there. And you don’t know it yet, but you’re gonna need my help. You see, there’s a much bigger storm of a different kind brewing in Tucson.”
Johnny’s right hand moved to the butt of his Colt. Ringo took a step back and raised both hands in mock surrender.
“All right. All right. Don’t get yourself in a pucker.” Ringo looked towards the cave entrance and shook his head. “Look, I can’t go out in that. What do you say I stay here until it lets up? I’m sure it’ll pass by morning.”
Johnny slowly nodded. “Morning, and then I want you riding on …. ahead of me.”
Ringo moved closer to the fire and was about to sit down when the sound of someone yelling brought him to his feet.
“Madrid, you hear that?”
“I hear it. Someone’s out ….”
He didn’t have the words out when a water-soaked figure staggered into the cave and collapsed.
The two gunhawks hesitated only a moment before rushing forward to help. Turning the new arrival over, they were surprised to discover a woman.
Johnny looked into the growing darkness outside the cave, wondering if she was alone and how she’d gotten into the middle of nowhere during a monsoon.
“Let’s move her closer to the fire and get her out of these wet things.”
Ringo took one arm while Johnny took the other, carrying the woman further into the cave. Hearing a whinny, they looked back to the cave entrance in time to see a horse limp inside, following his rider.
“What in the world is she doing out here alone?”
“I don’t know, but it sure is getting crowded in here. I hope the mama cat don’t mind having this much company.”
A low growl echoed off the walls of the cave in answer to Johnny’s statement.
Ringo looked into the back of the dark cave. “Yeah. Well, let’s hope mama stays put.”
Within minutes the woman was sitting up and wrapped in a dry blanket. Johnny handed her a cup of coffee and sat back waiting.
“Thank you.” The woman took a sip of the hot brew, closed her eyes, and sighed. “I needed that.” She looked at the two men who were helping her. “I didn’t think I was going to find shelter. Just lucky to have seen your fire.”
“A woman shouldn’t be riding out here alone.” Johnny poured himself a cup of coffee and took a sip.
“I had no choice. I just didn’t count on my horse going lame and the sky opening up at the same time.”
“Where were you headed?” Ringo asked.
“I’m from Tucson. I’m looking for someone.” She looked at both Ringo and Johnny. “Do either of you know a man by the name of Johnny Madrid?”
Johnny and Ringo eyed each other. A slow smile spread over Johnny’s face. “I’m Madrid.”
She turned brown eyes toward him and pushed her wet, limp hair behind an ear. “I thought I was looking for a man who could shave.”
A grin spread over his face. “Well, now, I do that maybe once a month.”
She took another sip of the coffee and pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders. “Val Crawford said you were bumptious.”
“Val sent ya looking for me?” His voice hid his worry. Sending a woman out alone wasn’t like Val. Unless….
“He doesn’t know I left town. He’s laid up. Was shot in the back by Skeet Wilkins.”
Johnny’s blue eyes narrowed. “How bad?”
“Doc Schaffer said he’ll be ok, but he’s out of commission for the fight coming up.”
Ringo snorted. “I heard Skeet was in Tucson. He’s a brass-plated coward but a mean sonofabitch. I know where Skeet is blood follows.”
“That why you were heading that way, Ringo?”
“Yeah. Well, usually there’s good money to be made.”
“What’s his play?” Johnny asked the girl.
“Skeet’s trying to take over the small ranches on the northeast side of town for a big rancher named Wade Stewart. My father owned the Aqua Caliente Ranch and Stewart wants it because of the hot springs there. Well, he wants all the ranches out that way.”
Johnny took another swallow of his coffee and savored the still warm liquid as it slid down his throat. Licking his lips, he looked at the girl. “Owned? He don’t own it no more?”
She shook her head. “He’s dead. Skeet killed him. Reckon I own it now.”
“And Val was organizing some help for you.”
“Yes. He’s been talking about you since he got there and saying you were who we need to change the odds of this fight. It is a fight, Mr. Madrid.”
“Well, I’ll answer the call for help. What about you, Ringo?”
“Well, reckon Skeet’s side might pay a bit more than the small ranches, but he’s a bastard and I don’t want to be on the wrong side of you, Madrid, when you’re on the prod. Skeet shooting Val in the back, yeah, that’s gonna put you on the prod. I’m in.”
Johnny nodded once at Ringo. “Ma’am, we’re at your service.”
She smiled at him, sipped her coffee, and replied. “Good. And it’s not ma’am, Mr. Madrid. It’s Kate. Kate Morgan.”
Johnny gave her a faint smile. “The name’s Johnny.”
Kate returned the smile. “Thank you, Johnny.”
Ringo huffed. “Well, if we have all the niceties out of the way, maybe we should be talking about the job and how much it pays.”
Kate looked up from her coffee at the two men as if realizing for the first time she was facing two famous gunfighters, both with reputations that rivaled John Wesley Hardin. Val hadn’t talked about money and she wasn’t prepared to answer Ringo’s question. Before she could answer, Johnny jumped to his feet and headed for the cave entrance.
“What is it?” Kate threw the blanket off her shoulders and stood up.
“Hear that?” Johnny had his head cocked, listening to a roaring sound that seemed to be getting louder and closer.
“Madrid….?” Ringo was on his feet now.
“Mierda,” Johnny cursed.
“What’s wrong? What’s that sound?” Kate couldn’t keep the fear out of her voice.
“I was wondering how so much driftwood ended up inside the cave.” Johnny hurried back to the center of the cave. Taking a piece of wood from the fire, he held it up like a torch. Walking over to the cave wall, he ran his hand along the surface.
“It’s smooth down near the bottom. The water doesn’t look like it gets real high in here, but you never know.”
Hurrying back to the fire, he tossed the wood down and started gathering his things. “Pack up. Saddle the horses. We’ve got to get out of here and fast.”
Ringo and Kate looked at each other and then back to the cave entrance. Both grabbed their things and had the horses saddled in record time.
Ringo led his horse toward the cave entrance.
“It’s too late.” The roar of fast-moving water threatened to drown out Johnny’s voice.
“Get back inside the cave as far as you can.”
“What about the cat?” Ringo stared into the darkness behind him.
“No help for it. She’s just gonna have to share a little more.”
Kate looked toward where she knew Johnny was standing. “What cat?”
Feeling his horse’s neck, Johnny grabbed his reins. “Kate, hand me your reins.”
Kate felt Johnny’s hand on her arm and handed him the reins to her horse.
“What cat?” Kate asked again.
“You’ll find out.” Johnny shoved her towards the back of the cave.
As Johnny led the horses to the cave’s rear, water started inches through the cave entrance. He’d moved as far back as he dared, knowing what else was sharing the cave with them.
The horses started to panic as the water began to rise. Soon dark muddy water followed by debris was pouring through the opening. A sudden gush of water extinguished the fire and threw the cave into complete darkness.
Kate screamed when the next surge of water knocked her from her feet and into the maelstrom of churning mud. Johnny let go of the horse’s reins and tried to catch her. Missing, he staggered to his feet, unsure what to do. He couldn’t see the woman and the only sound he could hear was the floodwaters.
When Kate screamed again, Johnny leaped forward, praying he wouldn’t miss this time. He grabbed hold of Kate’s arm as the raging water pulled her out of the cave.
Johnny fought to pull her back. It was then he felt someone take hold of the back of his shirt. Ringo pulled Johnny backward at the same time Johnny was dragging Kate.
“Can you get to your feet?” Johnny coughed, trying to clear the water from his throat.
All he could hear was Kate coughing.
“Ringo, I have one of her arms. See if you can feel the other one. We have to get her on her feet.”
Johnny could feel Ringo’s hand inch down his arm.
“I’ve got her, Madrid,” Ringo yelled. “Can you stand up?”
“Yeah, get her on her feet.”
Together the two men managed to get Kate to her feet and moved back toward the horses.
“Are you alright?” Johnny asked.
“I think so. Thank you,” Kate coughed. “If you hadn’t caught me….” She left the rest of the sentence unsaid. She didn’t want to think what would have happened had she been swept out of the cave and into the floodwaters.
“It’s still rising,” Kate cried out as water came up to her knees.
“I know.” Johnny held her close to him. “Just hold on.”
From behind them, they heard the Mama bobcat cry out.
Kate turned to look behind them. “I take it that’s the cat?”
“Yeah,” Ringo answered, “and she’s got babies with her. Don’t imagine she’s real happy right now.”
Concern quickly replaced Kate’s fear. “Poor thing. Will she be alright? What about the babies?”
“Poor thing?” Ringo snorted. “We’ll be lucky to get out of here without becoming her breakfast, and you’re worried ….”
“Shut up, Ringo.” Johnny snapped.
“Just sayin’.” There was a pause, and then they heard Ringo laugh. “Hell Madrid, you’re right. We’re gonna drown before she gets a chance to eat us.”
Johnny answered Kate’s question, “I wouldn’t worry about them. Most likely she’s up on a ledge back there, all nice and dry.”
Johnny didn’t sound convincing, but there was nothing they could do. No one in that cave was going anywhere.
It wasn’t long before the sound of rushing water diminished. The level of the water in the cave started going down.
Johnny reached for the matches he kept in a waterproof container in his jacket pocket. Striking the match, he held it up, trying to see the damage.
“Well, will you look at that?” Johnny took a step forward, extending his hand with the lite match.
The cave entrance was partially blocked by large pieces of wood and debris. In some ways, it was a blessing as the blockage had kept the water from gushing out and pulling them with it.
Leading his horse to the middle of the cave, Johnny patted his neck and spoke softly to calm him. “Easy boy. Easy.”
“Is it over?” Ringo asked, also striking a match.
“Looks like it, but it’s gonna be one cold night in here without a fire, and I’m not heading out there until I can see where I’m going. Kate, can you get to your bedroll? Wrap up in it.”
“I think so, but there’s no place to sit. There’s mud everywhere.”
Johnny laughed. “Guess we’ll have to sleep in our saddles tonight. Make sure there’s no debris around the horse’s legs and climb up on top. Wrap your bedrolls around you. It won’t be the first time I’ve slept in my saddle. We’ll head out at first light.”
“I’m all for that,” Ringo chimed in as he ran a hand over the muddy floor of the cave. Finding a piece of wood, he threw it towards the cave entrance.
Soon all three were sitting atop their horses and dozing as the storm moved off.
Johnny sat up straight up in the saddle and stretched his arms above his head.
“This ain’t no way to sleep,” he muttered to himself. He had dozed, but for how long, he did not know. It was still pitch black in the cave.
“Amen to that, Amigo,” Ringo replied.
Kate joined in, “I don’t think any of us are going to get much sleep tonight.”
“As soon as there’s some light, we can start clearing the entrance. In the meantime, I guess we just sit here. Are you warm enough, Kate?”
“Yes, I’m fine. But thanks for asking. So, are you two friends?” Kate asked.
Ringo responded first, “Sure, we’re amigos.”
Johnny countered with, “We’re acquaintances.”
“Well, in any regard, I’m happy to meet you both and grateful for your willingness to help. Johnny, Val said once you arrived, he’d turn things over to you,” she said.
Johnny laughed and said, “I’ll bet he did. That old fox will always find a way to get out of doing the real work. Kate, if Val doesn’t know you’re out here, I guess he didn’t send you to look for me. So why did you come looking for me instead of waiting for me to get to Tucson?”
“My foreman, Carlos, said he overheard a man talking in one of the saloons. He was buying everyone drinks, chatting up the place. The man said he heard Johnny Madrid was headed this way, and boy did he look forward to seeing that snot-nosed kid again. Carlos said the man said it in a menacing way, not like it would be some kind of reunion. I told Val about it. He seemed worried. I don’t know why, but I thought you should know what you were riding into.”
“Did your foreman get the guy’s name?”
“Yes. He goes by the name Jake Cutter.”
Johnny took in a deep breath. He was silent for a few moments, remembering the man he hadn’t seen in five years.
“Do you know him, Johnny?” Kate asked.
“Yeah, I know him,” he said softly. “Ringo, did you know about this? That’s why you’ve been trailing me?”
“I heard there was someone in Tucson gunning for you. I didn’t know his name. Just thought I’d ride along, should you need any backup. That’s what friends are for, right?”
“Ringo, you’re so full of it you’re starting to stink. Why can’t you ever just give me the full story?”
“Why Johnny Madrid, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you have some real trust issues with me. I’m just here to help, that’s all.”
“When have you ever helped anyone without there being something in it for you?”
Kate interrupted, “Gentlemen, I don’t know what’s going on between the two of you, but I prefer that the men on my side not be at war with each other. If you can’t work amicably together, then we’ll need to make some adjustments.”
“Just some old history rearing its head. My apologies. Ringo and I will do just fine, won’t we?”
“No problem here, Ma’am,” Ringo said.
“Very well, and please call me Kate. Ma’am makes me feel like a matron,” she said with a laugh.
Everyone relaxed. Johnny pushed the memories aside and said, “Kate, you don’t need to worry about Jake Cutter. I can handle him if it comes to that. It won’t interfere with what we need to do to protect your ranch.”
“Do you think Cutter has hired on with Skeet Wilkins?” Kate asked.
“You can probably count on it,” Ringo said. “If he’s gunning for you, Madrid, no way he’s hired on with Val. By the way, we never got to the part about how much this job is gonna pay.”
Kate answered carefully. “Well, Mr. Ringo, those details haven’t been finalized yet. But don’t worry, you’ll be well compensated for your services.”
“If the job doesn’t meet your standards, Ringo, you can always leave.”
“Are ya trying to get rid of me?”
“No, we could use your help. We’ll work out the details when we see Val.” Johnny stretched again and looked towards the entrance. “Look there, I think I see a sliver of light over all that debris blocking the entrance. I guess we slept longer than I thought.”
“I’m all for getting off this horse and finding some wood for a fire. I need some coffee,” Kate said.
“We need more light to see what we’re doing. It won’t be long now,” Johnny said.
The conversation waned and they all sat with their own thoughts. Johnny dozed for a short time, knowing he’d need his strength for the day ahead. Sometime later, a loud cry from deep in the cave startled him awake. Kate and Ringo were already off of their horses. Johnny was on his feet in seconds. The morning light cast eerie shadows in the cave.
“It sounds like mama bobcat is on the move,” Ringo said as he drew his gun.
“Put that thing away,” Johnny said. “She’s not going to hurt us if we don’t get in her way.”
“No way. She could turn on us anytime.”
“You haven’t spent much time in the desert, have you, Ringo?”
“It’s morning. She’ll be wanting her breakfast,” Kate said.
“Then we better get that entrance cleared so she can get out. Come on.”
They all headed to the cave opening and started clearing rocks and branches from the entrance. They worked silently until the sound of a weak mew drew their attention to the back of the cave. A bobcat kitten was less than ten feet away, walking directly toward them.
Kate watched as Johnny approached the kitten and knelt down beside it and whispered, “It’s okay. Your mama’s gonna find you real soon.”
Ringo had been removing debris from the cave entrance and turned when he heard Kate let out a gasp. Johnny looked up to see the mother cat only a few feet from them.
The female cat inched closer to Johnny. He was still kneeling and made no effort to stand up.
“Look, little one, your mama’s here for you now. Everything’s going to be fine.”
Johnny looked into the eyes of the adult cat and said, “Hey, Mama. Your baby wandered off and I know you’re real worried. But I’ve got her right here, and she’s okay. You can come and get her.”
He heard Ringo exhale and whisper, “Madrid, what the hell?”
Kate stared in amazement at the scene before her. Was Johnny really inviting the mother cat to come close to him to get the kitten? He was.
As the cat slinked forward, both Kate and Ringo held their breath. Ringo’s hand went to the hilt of his gun. When she reached the kitten, she sniffed it and licked its face. Satisfied that it was indeed her baby, she looked up into Johnny’s eyes, picked the kitten up with her mouth, and turned to go back into the depths of the cave.
Ringo relaxed his arm and both he and Kate sighed in relief. Kate shook her head. “That was incredible, Johnny. How did you do that?”
Ringo laughed, “Yeah, how did you do that? Kate may be impressed and think you’re a hero, but I think it was pretty stupid. We could have all been mauled to death by an angry bobcat.”
Turning his back to Ringo, Johnny looked toward Kate. “I knew we were never in any danger. All she cared about was getting her baby back. You just have to stay calm and try to meet them on their terms. But for now, mama’s hungry and once she gets her kittens settled, she’s going to want to get out of this cave to find food. So, we need to act fast and get the opening cleared so we can get out of here before that happens.”
Because the rain had stopped, they were able to make quick work of clearing the cave entrance of all the debris. Once the entrance was cleared, they gathered the horses and made their way outside.
“Kate, last night you mentioned your horse as lame.”
“Yes, it’s his front forehoof.”
Johnny bent over and positioned the horse’s hoof between his knees to examine the foot. He quickly found the source of the horse’s pain, a stone wedged in the hoof. He carefully removed it. “That should ease his pain. I think he’ll be okay,” Johnny said.
“Thanks, Johnny,” Kate said. “You have experience working with horses?”
Johnny smiled and said, “Yeah, I worked in a few stables when I was a kid.”
They mounted their horses and set off at a slow pace. They weren’t too far from Tucson, maybe a few hours at most, but there was standing water and mud everywhere. They knew travel would be slow going. Like the mother bobcat, they were also hungry and dirty and in need of both food and a bath.
Kate was the first to speak. “I’m covered in mud. Do you think we could find a stream so we can get cleaned up?”
Ringo said, “That might be kinda hard since any stream or river is going to have rushing water from the flood. It won’t be safe.”
Kate nodded. “I know you’re right. Still, maybe we can find one that isn’t so bad.”
Johnny looked at Kate. “We also need to find some food, but there’s no way we’ll be able to start a fire anywhere with all the rain we’ve had.”
“Well, then, I might just be your best friend. I brought biscuits, hard-boiled eggs and a few other provisions with me from Tucson. It should at least be enough to tide us over until we get to Tucson.”
Johnny smiled, “Kate, you’re an angel!”
She smiled back at him as Ringo rolled his eyes. There were definitely sparks flying between Johnny and Kate and he was none too happy about it.
As they slowly picked their way down the hillside, Johnny breathed deeply, savoring the sweet petrichor that lingered in the air. He took in the lush green plants, some of them sporting tiny yellow blossoms. Johnny thought there was nothing prettier on this earth than the desert after a good soaking. The birdsong provided a reminder that they weren’t the only ones that had survived the storm. Johnny felt a sense of calm. He loved the desert.
They made slow progress, riding single file through the brush and carefully maneuvering their horses around slippery rocks. Ringo led the way, Kate rode in the middle, with Johnny at the rear. Eventually, they found a trail running beside a churning river. Just a day ago, this same arroyo had been hard, cracked earth. Today it was impassable.
They had ridden for about an hour when they came upon a calmer stretch of river with a smooth rock embankment. It was made additionally attractive by groves of small trees lining the river on either side of the large, flat rock.
Johnny called out, “Let’s stop here. It looks like a safe place to get washed up and I’m ready to devour whatever Kate has in those saddlebags.”
“Good plan, Madrid,” Ringo called back to Johnny.
They all dismounted and led their horses to the water, allowing them to drink before tethering them to some branches. Kate retrieved her saddlebags. She opened one side and removed a fresh blouse, then tossed the bags on the rock.
“Help yourselves to some food. I’m going to wash up before I eat. Save a few crumbs for me, if you don’t mind.” She turned and headed to a secluded section of the riverbank.
Johnny and Ringo washed up, then they settled around the saddlebags and pulled out the bundles of food.
“Almost seems like she was expecting company,” Ringo said, eyeing the quantity of food. “Our damsel in distress sure thinks ahead.”
“We should be grateful she does, or we’d be eating cactus fruit for breakfast,” Johnny said. “I’m going to look for some dried branches.”
Johnny returned a few minutes later and started a fire with some branches he’d found, already dried by the morning sun and heat. Coffee was brewing within minutes. He and Ringo each savored eggs and biscuits found in the saddlebags.
Ringo eyed Johnny as he stoked the fire. “So, Madrid, you seem kinda sweet on Miss Kate.”
“I’m not sweet on anybody. I’m treating her like I would any other lady.”
“Then, I guess you wouldn’t mind if I . . .”
“Yeah, Ringo, I would mind. Haven’t you learned you don’t mix business with pleasure? There’ll be plenty of pretty girls in Tucson to keep you entertained. Kate’s our boss. We’d best remember that.”
“Sure, Madrid, whatever you say. Look, Madrid, I know you’re still sore at me about that fracas down in El Paso. I know you think I turned on you and the others, but nobody’s ever asked me for my side of the story.”
“Never mind, Ringo. It’s over and done. Let’s forget it. I’m sure you had your reasons for going to the other side. I hope it was worth it to you. You probably made more money than the rest of us, but it cost you the respect of some other gunhawks. That’s hard good will to get back.”
“The way I saw it, both sides were to blame for the mess those ranchers were in. I know you think I don’t care about being on the right or the wrong side of a range war, but you’re wrong. When I can’t see the scales tipping on either side, I just look at the money.”
“Okay, I hear ya. Like I said, let’s forget it and focus on why we’re here.”
“Fine with me.”
Kate appeared from the grove of trees and said, “Is that coffee I smell?”
“Yes, it is,” Johnny said with a smile.
“Well, who’s the angel now?” Kate asked as she settled on the rock between Johnny and Ringo. Johnny poured and handed her a cup of coffee. She took a sip. “This just might be the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.”
“Well, I’m glad you like it. We can say the same thing about the food you brought. Were you expecting to be out here for a week? There’s enough here to feed us for days.”
“A girl needs to be prepared. Besides, I’m not a very good hunter. I like knowing where my next meal is coming from.”
Ringo stood and said, “That sure was a splendid breakfast, Kate. Thank you. Now, if you kind folks will excuse me, I’m going to stretch my legs and take care of some personal business.”
Kate and Johnny were quiet for a few minutes, savoring the food and drink. Kate looked in the direction Ringo had walked, then said, “He’s a peculiar one. I’m not quite sure what to think of him. How long have you known him?”
“About a year or so. He worked on the same job as me and Val a while back.”
“You seem to not trust him fully. I suppose there’s a reason for that. When I look into his eyes, they seem kind of empty. Does that make any sense?”
“Sure, it does. A man’s eyes can tell you a lot,” Johnny said. As he said those words, the voice of Val Crawford filled his head, and he was transported back to a night under the desert stars. It must have been two years ago now . . .
The campfire glowed and crackled, giving a sense of warmth and closeness to the small camp Val and Johnny shared. After riding together for several months, they had developed an easy camaraderie. The conversation had turned to how gunhawks survived, particularly if they were at the top of their trade.
“You gotta look in their eyes, Johnny Boy. The eyes will tell you everything you need to know about a man,” Val said.
“What if I don’t wanna get that close?” Johnny asked.
“His eyes will tell ya what you need to know even from a distance. Bore your eyes into him. If he turns or looks away, even for just a glance, you’ll know you’re dealing with a coward. If he returns the stare, you’ll know you’ve met your match. A man’s eyes can tell you if he’d help an old lady across the street or if he’s a cold-blooded killer.”
Val stopped talking and looked at Johnny. Usually, when he was delivering one of his “life as Val sees it” lessons, the boy would be whittling a piece of wood, braiding rawhide, or cleaning his gun. Tonight, he was rapt with attention.
“Now, don’t get me wrong, son. It’s not foolproof. Some men can fool ya. They’re rare, but they’re the ones that stay alive. They learn not to blink even when they’re afraid. But most men don’t know how to hide who they really are. But you’re gonna have to.”
“Yes, you. You can’t show them who you are, what’s in your heart, ‘cause that will get you killed. I know who you are, Johnny. What I don’t know is how you’ve managed to be who you are with the way you’ve been treated. But you have the heart of a doe and the fierceness of a mountain lion. It’s the lion you need to show the man staring you down. That’s how you’ll stay alive. Now, if you’re lucky, you’ll get ‘em to back off without saying a word. But if not, well, those are the ones you’ll have to face. ‘Cause once they see you’re not just an ordinary gunhawk, that you’re better than just about anybody out there, they’ll want to beat you by calling you out. They think they have something to prove. They wanna live just as much as you do, but they need to be the big dog. But you got the edge, Johnny. You’re in it to survive, not to earn braggin’ rights or to make a name for yourself. But in the end, it all comes down to who’s the fastest and most accurate. Always think twice before taking another man’s life, ‘cause it will weigh on our mind for some time. But always remember, the man facing you wants you dead. If there’s no other way out of it, do what you need to do. Don’t mourn for him. Walk away to live another day.”
“And one more thing. Be careful of the Bible quotin’, book totin’ ones. They’ll have a Bible in one hand, a gun in the other. And when the bullets start flying, that good book will be tossed away as fast as the gun is drawn. ‘Cause that’s the law they really live by.”
“Val, why are you telling me all this?”
“Because, son, you’re very close to being the best there is. And I don’t want to see ya getting yourself killed. It seems your fate was set long before I met you, but I’m gonna do my damnedest to help you stay alive. I like to think we can change our fate, but we have to stay alive to do it. But the main reason? It’s ‘cause I care about you. I like having you around.”
“Johnny, did you hear what I just said?” Kate asked.
The sound of her voice brought him back to the present. He looked at her and said, “Sorry, I got lost in a memory of what someone once told me.”
“Do you care to share?”
Johnny smiled. “No.” His thoughts lingered on Val, his teacher, mentor and friend, who was now laid up someplace with a bullet in his back. Somebody needed to pay for that. Ringo was right when he said you don’t want to get in front of Johnny Madrid when he is on the prod.
“Are you okay, Johnny?” Kate asked.
Johnny returned his attention to Kate. “Sure I am. I was just thinking about Val. I hope he’s gonna be all right.”
“The doctor seemed pretty certain he would be. He just needs time to heal.”
“Well, that’s good to hear.” He removed his gun from the holster and began the process of cleaning it. Kate did the same with hers. As they worked in companionable silence, Johnny surreptitiously watched Kate. She had made a remarkable transformation while at the riverbank. Her long brown hair, pulled back in a queue, was drying. A few stray gentle curls framed her face. She had put on a clean white blouse and brushed the dirt from her jacket.
“Johnny, you’re staring,” Kate said.
Johnny turned his head, mildly embarrassed he’d been caught. “Sorry. It’s just that this is the first time I’ve been able to see how pretty you are. I mean, when you’re not soaked to the bone and covered in mud,” he said with a grin.
Kate laughed. “Well, I’m not feeling particularly attractive at the moment,” she said, as she self- consciously brushed the stray hair from her face.
“You’re saying I have bad taste?” Johnny asked, still smiling.
“Well, no, but I hope I can improve on my appearance with a proper bath and fresh clothes.”
“You look fine to me, Kate.” Satisfied his gun was once again in working order, he holstered it. Realizing the direction the conversation was going, he changed the subject. “Where do you think Ringo’s gotten to?”
“He’s right here,” came a voice from behind a tree to their left. Johnny and Kate were on their feet in seconds, guns drawn. Johnny took a step forward just as the owner of the voice came out from behind the tree. Ringo preceded him, being prodded by a gun in the middle of his back.
Johnny let out a breath of exasperation. He shook his head at the tall, lean man and said, “Isham, what do you think you’re doing?”
“Just having some fun, Johnny Boy! Is this fella a friend of yours?” the man asked as he poked the gun deeper in the flesh of Ringo’s back.
Ringo glared at Johnny and said, “Call off your dog, Madrid.”
“He ain’t my dog. But I do know him. Ringo, meet Isham, gunhawk and player of stupid tricks. Isham, meet Johnny Ringo. And yes, he’s with me. So let him go.”
Isham put his gun away, shaking his head like all of his fun had been spoiled.
Ringo shook himself clear of Isham and said, “Nobody gets the drop on me and lives long to tell about it.”
“Now, calm down, everybody. Isham, what are you doing here?”
“I heard Val Crawford was hiring some guns for a brewing range war in Tucson. From the looks of it, I’m heading in the right direction.” He looked at Kate with interest. “And who might this be? Madrid, you traveling with a companion these days?”
“No. She’s our new boss, Kate Morgan.”
“Well, it seems I’ve got some catching up to do. But I sure would love some of that coffee if ya got any to spare.”
“Sure, help yourself. Then we need to get moving.”
It’s incredible how quickly the Sonoran Desert recovered after a rainstorm. Saguaro and pipe organ cactus seemed to swell as they drank in the last drops of water that hadn’t already disappeared into the earth. Off in the distance, wildflowers seemed to pop up out of nowhere, coloring the brown earth with bursts of color.
Even the birds and animals hurried to gather what they could before the desert reclaimed the bounty the heavens had bestowed on them.
They’d been riding for close to an hour when Johnny looked over his right shoulder. It didn’t sit well with him having the others riding behind him. While Ringo and Isham said they were on his side in the coming fight, Johnny knew you couldn’t trust anyone in his line of work, not even someone who claimed to be a friend, except for Val Crawford, of course.
That was the problem with being a gunhawk and hiring out to the highest bidder. One week you were working shoulder to shoulder with a man, saving his hide or him saving yours. The following week or month, you’re on the opposite side, doing all you can to kill each other.
He’d known Isham for close to a year now. They’d met when they both signed up for a range war down near El Paso. Johnny, who was sixteen at the time, was already a hardened gunhawk and on the payroll when Isham sauntered into the El Paso saloon where both sides were hiring.
The tall, nineteen-year-old sandy-haired boy had a grin plastered to his face and no clue as to what he was getting himself into. As luck would have it, Isham was hired by the same rancher as Madrid. Before he knew what was happening, the older boy became Johnny’s shadow.
It took everything Johnny had in him to keep Isham alive during that job, but the two boys were friends by the time it was over. Isham was one of the few friends Johnny Madrid had made since strapping on his gun.
They rode together for the next few months. One day they went their separate ways. Johnny had a hard time remembering why they’d split up, but today was the first time he’d seen Isham in six months.
Johnny Ringo was another matter. In the last two years, Madrid had worked with and against Ringo. Not once in that time had Johnny Ringo ever shown any signs of befriending Johnny Madrid.
Johnny Madrid knew Ringo was in it for the money and only the money. No matter which side was right or which wrong, Ringo would always go for the bag of gold. That made the man dangerous in Madrid’s eyes. No way was he going to trust Johnny Ringo.
Johnny eased his horse back so that he was riding beside Kate.
“You doing alright?”
“I’m fine,” Kate smiled at him.
“Good. It was a rough night. I know we’re all tired. How much further do you think we have to go?”
Kate glanced at the sun, noting it was almost noon. “We should be in Tucson in a couple of hours.”
“Tell me more about what’s happening there,” Johnny said.
Kate sighed. “It all started when Wade Stewart moved into the area and bought Jim Spangler’s ranch. At least that’s what Stewart said. One day Spangler was there, and the next, he was gone. No one has seen or heard from Spangler, and he’d never said a word to anyone about selling his place.”
“How long ago was that?”
“It was in March. Five months ago.”
“Go on.” Once more, Johnny glanced over his shoulder, reassuring himself that Ringo was behind him and Isham was with him.
“Things were quiet for a while. No one paid much attention when Stewart started hiring men. Skeet Wilkins was one of them. We thought they were ranch hands, but it turns out they were hired guns. God, I can’t believe we were so blind.” Kate wiped a tear from her cheek. “No one even noticed at first when the smaller ranchers started selling out.
“A month ago, Skeet Wilkins rode into our ranch with a dozen men. He said he was there to make an offer on the place for Stewart. Dad told them Aqua Caliente, our ranch, wasn’t for sale. Wilkins just laughed and said it was only a matter of time. The offer wouldn’t be on the table for long. He came back two more times, but Dad always told them the same thing, the ranch wasn’t for sale.
“Last week…,” Kate sniffled. “Last week, Dad was riding home from Tucson when he was ambushed. The Sheriff wouldn’t do anything even though everyone knows it was Wilkins. The next day Val Crawford came out to the ranch. He said he didn’t like Stewart’s methods and offered his help. I was so happy I took him up on the offer.
“Val started organizing the remaining rancher. He told all of us about you.” Kate turned to look at Johnny, a smile on her face. “The way he talked, you were ten feet tall and faster than a flash of lightning. He never said a word about how young you are.”
“I’m not that young.”
Kate laughed. “No, I guess you aren’t, not in experience.” The smile left her face. “Two days ago, Val walked out of the ranch house and started to mount his horse when he was shot in the back. The doctor said he would be alright, but that’s when I knew I needed to find you and get you there as soon as possible. Plus, I thought you should know Cutter was waiting for you in Tucson.”
“Where is Val?”
“In town, at the doctor’s office. I was afraid to leave him alone at the ranch. All but our most loyal hands ran off after Val was shot.”
Johnny nodded. It figured there was no one left at the ranch.
“Is that why you said you figured Stewart owned Aqua Caliente now?”
“Did you sign it over to him?”
Johnny smiled. “Then he don’t own it.”
“Legally, I suppose he doesn’t, but the law hasn’t been too willing to help,” Kate said with a sigh.
“Well, it’s still yours and I aim to make sure you keep it.”
She nodded. She trusted this young gunman more than the two behind her.
“What about your fight with Jake Cutter?”
“Been a long time coming, ma’am. I’d like to say it won’t get in the way of my business for you, but …,” Johnny dipped his head, “it’s been a long time coming.”
“Why does he hate you so?”
Raising his head, Johnny gave her a faint smile. “I gave him that scar on his face and … well … since then I’ve killed his two brothers. Now it’s just him and me to finish it … finish what we started five years ago.”
“Five years? You would have only been a child.”
“Twelve. Weren’t no child, not after that night. Not after the Cutters killed my mama. No, ma’am, I weren’t no child.” He looked over and saw shock and pity in her green eyes. Johnny Madrid didn’t need anyone’s pity, not anymore. He spurred his pinto into a lope and moved off to check the trail ahead.
Jake Cutter …. Johnny’s mind went back to his time in Pinos Altos, New Mexico Territory. Johnny and his mother had lived in the mining town about a year, his stepfather long gone. He had been eleven when Captain Mastin had pulled him into service during the Battle of Pinos Altos, where Mastin’s Arizona Guards held off the Apache raiders. Johnny had learned fast how to shoot, load, and arm a cannon with rusty nails and buckshot. Lessons learned, the first of a long line.
He learned he could be lethal even though he was young. He remembered hearing his mama’s screams as he was coming back from the livery. He could still feel his heart trying to ram through his chest as he ran. He was too late; she was lying in a bloody lump on the floor. Mac Cutter was still astride her. Jake Cutter laughed at him, grabbing at his arm, but Johnny had sidestepped the man. If he’d only had a gun then, he would have killed them all. As it was, he grabbed the knife laying on the roughhewn table and ran its blade down the side of Jake Cutter’s face as he made his escape back out the door.
Johnny had to bide his time. He was too young, too outnumbered, that fateful night. Johnny Lancer had died along with his mother, and Johnny Madrid had been born. Madrid had patience. Patience to learn, to practice, and to get his revenge. He killed Mac Cutter first, in a Santa Fe saloon; it had only taken three years. Last year he had killed Luke Cutter in Las Cruces. He knew then that Jake Cutter was hunting him as much as he was hunting Jake Cutter.
Yes, killing him was a long time coming. Still and all, Kate needed his help, and he wouldn’t leave her defenseless. He looked behind him to see Kate and behind her Isham and Ringo. Both were good guns, but Isham could be reckless, and Ringo was a wildcard he did not trust to stay on their side, on Kate’s side.
Another hour of riding had Sentinel Peak and the Tucson Mountains were in sight. Tucson sat at the foot of the mountains. Kate’s ranch was northeast of Tucson, but Val was in town, so to town they would go. Johnny twisted in the saddle, the creak of leather a comforting sound.
“Kate, you doing alright, or you need to stop?”
She rode up beside him, swept some loose strands of brown hair behind her ear, and took a deep breath. “I think we ride on. We’re close.”
Johnny looked over the mountains. The sun was hidden by gathering storm clouds, orange and red peaking around the edges of swirling gray. Johnny knew the sun would be setting around the time they made it to town, whether he could see it or not.
“What are you thinking, Johnny?” Kate asked.
“Oh, just wondering what kind of storm we’ll be running into, Kate.”
“Maybe, maybe it’ll be raining blood, but don’t you worry none, Val Crawford and me have weathered many a storm together and we’ll weather this one too. You’ll see. Let’s get on into town and see what he’s up to.”
Johnny spurred his horse into a gallop. It was time to get into Tucson.
The ragtag group arrived in town as the sun was setting. Johnny held up his right hand and the group stopped. “Let’s go the back way to the Doc’s. Isham, Ringo, keep your eyes open. Kate, ride in the middle.”
The two other gunmen flanked the young woman in a protective detail as they all quietly skirted the edge of town to the two-story white clapboard house of Doctor James Schaffer. All three men had used Schaffer’s services at one time or another and were familiar with the place.
Stepping down from the saddle, Johnny stretched, then moved over to help Kate down. “Y’all keep a watch,” he said as he followed Kate up the back steps. Johnny stopped her from knocking, opened the door and moved them both inside. He looked around and then grinned at the sound coming from the back bedroom.
“I ain’t got time to laze around in this here bed, Doc! I got work ta do!” Val fussed as the doctor checked his bandage.
A grinning Johnny leaned into the door jamb, “Ya know Doc, I’ve been known to shoot a grouse now and again. Quiets ‘em right down.”
Val moved and attempted to get up from the bed. “Well, if it ain’t Johnny Madrid, in the flesh. It’s about damn time. Where the hell have you been, boy?”
“Calm down, Val. We got delayed by one hell of a storm and had to take shelter in a cave for a bit. We picked up a couple of strays on the way. In fact, they’re outside waiting for me now.”
“Isham and Johnny Ringo.”
“Ringo? That no-good son of a bitch. I sure don’t trust that guy any further than I could throw him. What the hell is he doing here?”
“Said he had to find me to warn me about the big storm brewing here in Tucson. Said he wanted to help.”
Val shook his head. “Nope, don’t trust him a bit. There is always an ulterior motive with that guy. You be careful around him, Johnny. Watch your back.”
“I know. I know not to trust Ringo. Isham’s okay, though. He’ll be a good help to us.”
Val waved his hand. “I hope so. Course, I don’t have the same mistrust issues with him as I do Ringo, so there’s that.” Val turned to Kate. “Miss Morgan, I am so sorry about my manners. Thank you so much for finding Johnny and bringing him here. I’m sorry you had to deal with that storm and those two extras who showed up. Johnny take good care of you, did he?”
Kate glanced over at Johnny and smiled warmly. “He did, Mr. Crawford, and I’m very grateful.”
“Please, It’s Val. Friends don’t call me Mr. Crawford, ain’t that right, Johnny?”
Johnny smiled. “That’s right. But sometimes they call him things other than Val, ain’t that right, Val?”
Val laughed. “It is indeed. And it ain’t always a name you want to be called. But enough of all this. We got work to do and I need to get out of this bed.” He turned to Dr. Shaffer. “Now, Doc, when is that going to happen?”
“Soon, Val, but not yet. You need to rest and take it easy for a bit longer. I know you’re itching to get out of here, but I just can’t let you go yet.”
“That ain’t good enough. I need to get out of here now!”
Johnny approached the bed. “Come on, Val, listen to the doctor. He knows better than you do what you need. I’m here now and I’m perfectly capable of handling the situation at hand.”
“I know you are. That’s why I sent for you. Things are fixing to blow up like a powder keg here soon, so we need to act quick.”
“It sure would be easier if you were able to help out, but we’ll just have to make do. Now, tell me about Cutter. Do you know where he is?”
Kate stepped back toward the door. “I’m going to leave you two alone to discuss business. I’ll just be outside.”
Johnny turned to Kate and put his hand on her elbow. “I’ll just be a few minutes. And don’t worry, Kate, we’re gonna make sure you don’t lose your ranch.” He moved his hand to her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze as he said, “That’s a promise.”
Kate looked at Johnny, her eyes gleaming. “Thank you, Johnny.” She and the doctor excused themselves from the room.
Val noticed the lingering look that passed between them. He motioned toward the door after she and the doctor left the room. “Shut that door, Johnny. I need to talk to you in private.”
Johnny closed the door and turned back to Val. He ran his hand through his hair and looked down. “Go ahead, Val. I know what you’re gonna say. Just go ahead and get it off your chest.”
“Well, ya know, Johnny, I got some issues here from getting shot in the back, but I sure as hell ain’t blind, and any fool can see you got it bad for that girl. And she for you, I’d reckon. You gotta let it go, son. Now just isn’t the time.”
“I know, I know. I’m good, Val. Really.”
“Are you? We have a hard job to do and that has to be your focus right now. We get it all done, we get that girl her ranch back, take care of Cutter, and we get out. No distractions. You understand?”
“I got it, Val. I’m good.” Johnny looked away for a minute and then back at Val, a huge smile on his face. “But she sure is pretty, isn’t she, Val?”
Val shook his head, rolled his eyes. “I give up with you! You’re hopeless!”
Johnny laughed, “Just stating the obvious!” When he spoke again, he was more serious. “So, Cutter. What do you know?”
“I know he’s gunnin’ for you. He’s got revenge on his mind ever since you killed his brothers.”
“They killed my mother, Val! They deserved to die. But let’s not forget I killed them both in self-defense. And that’s how I want it with Cutter. I don’t plan on just killing the guy. He needs to threaten me or call me out. It’s the only way I’m going to pull a gun on him. I have to be smart and practical. I’m not about to do anything that’s going to get me in prison or worse, get me hung.”
“All right, all right. I guess that’s wise. I’d hate to see that happen, too. Now, we need to figure out our next step. Have Ringo and Isham step inside here and we can discuss strategy while we keep an eye on Ringo and try to figure out his real motive.”
“Sure, but before we do that, I need some answers,” Johnny said. He grabbed the small wooden side chair beside the bed and sat to face Val.
Val gave Johnny a serious look, seemingly trying to size up where Johnny was taking the conversation. “What are the questions?”
“First, how did Wilkins get the jump on you?”
Val got a pained look on his face. “Well, Johnny, I guess I just wasn’t smart enough to figure he’d be hanging out in the barn loft with a rifle first thing in the morning.”
“Whoa, no need to get testy. I’m just trying to figure out what and who we’re dealing with here. So did anybody see Wilkins coming or going?”
“Nobody saw nothin’, or they aren’t willing to say so.”
“So, you’re only guessing it was Wilkins.”
“Well, Johnny, he’s Stewart’s henchman, so it adds up.”
Johnny nodded and said, “Sure. But it could have been someone else.”
“Yeah, it could have been, but I doubt it.”
“And did anyone see Wilkins ambush Kate’s father?”
“That’s a yes. Morgan’s foreman, Carlos, was with him. Carlos recognized Wilkins up on the rise where he was shooting from. Carlos was able to get out of the way, but then again, Wilkins was gunning for Morgan.”
“Okay, so he ambushed Mr. Morgan, he tried to kill you, and he probably killed Spencer. Kate told me Spencer just up and sold his ranch to Stewart and disappeared. Sounds like Stewart has given Wilkins free rein to murder at will. This isn’t going to be a fair fight.”
“It sure hasn’t been one so far. I agree Stewart probably had Spencer whacked to get him out of the way and grab his land. When I heard about Spencer, I knew he’d be after Morgan’s place next. And you know how I hate hombres who don’t play fair. So, I rode out there to offer my services to his daughter.”
“Did you know Morgan?”
“Yeah. I worked for Gabe a long time ago. Long before I met you and before I started selling my gun. I worked for him prodding cattle for a summer. I learned a valuable lesson that summer.”
“What was that?”
Val got a gleam in his eyes. “I learned I ain’t no good at prodding cattle! I hated every minute of it. Kate was just a little girl then. Now she’s a grown woman and owner of one of the biggest spreads in these parts.” Val shifted his weight in the bed, wincing as he took pressure off his wounded side. He grimaced and said, “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna sit back and let those murdering bastards take it away from her.”
Johnny stood up and repositioned the pillow behind Val’s back. “Okay, just calm down. We’re gonna make this right for her.”
Val said, “Yes, we are, so I need to get out of this bed and do my job!”
“You heard what the doc said. You’ll be out of here soon. In the meantime, you’ve got me,” Johnny said as he stood back and gave Val his most charming smile.
“And I’m countin’ on ya, son. Now, what else do you need to know?”
“One more thing. The first thing Ringo’s gonna ask is how much he’s getting paid for this job. We need to be ready to tell him when I bring him and Isham in here.”
“Sure. Go get Kate. It’s her money, so she needs to make the decision.”
Johnny stepped out in the hallway and saw Kate standing against the wall a few feet away. She was polishing the barrel of her gun with a handkerchief.
“You looking to shoot somebody with that?” Johnny asked, humor in his voice.
Kate looked up at him and said, “Maybe.” Her serious tone not matching Johnny’s light banter.
“We need you back in here. Val and I have a question for you.”
She followed him into Val’s room, closing the door behind her. Before they could start the conversation, there was a knock on the door. Kate opened the door and Dr. Schaffer stepped into the room.
Schaffer looked at Johnny and said, “My patient needs his rest. I think it’s time for you to leave him to it.”
“Just a few more minutes, Doc, and we’ll be out of here.”
“Well, make it quick,” he said as he left the room, pulling the door closed.
Val started. “Kate, we need to talk about money. How much are you willing to pay these gunhawks?”
Kate looked puzzled. “I have no idea. What do you suggest?”
Val looked at Johnny and nodded. Johnny took his cue and offered, “The current going rate for an average gunhawk is ten dollars a day and you provide the ammunition.”
She raised her eyebrows and gave each man a look of acknowledgment, and asked, “And for an above average gunhawk?”
Johnny grinned and answered, “Val and I will accept the same wages.”
Kate smiled, “How many men will we be hiring?”
Val responded, “I figure twenty to twenty-five to start. We’ll need some men to guard your stock since most of your crew skedaddled after I was shot. Maybe more if we learn Stewart has a small army. Can you afford that many, Kate?”
“Yes. I’ll pay as many as it takes.”
“Good. Now, there are about fifteen fellas over at the Silver Spur wanting to sign up with us. They’re just waiting for me to tell them where to go. The only one who knows I’m laid up here is Dean Webster. Everybody knows him as Web, and he’s pretty respected by other gunfighters. I told him to just have those guys sit tight until I got word to them. The only person who knew you were coming, Johnny, is Kate. I don’t know how Cutter got word, other than it’s common knowledge that we usually work together.”
Johnny pursed his lips and considered what Val had told him. After a few moments, he looked at Kate, then Val. “I don’t want Cutter to know I’m here. So, Kate and I will leave the way we came, keeping out of sight. I’ll send Isham to the saloon to gather the men wanting to work with us. And, Val, I don’t want any argument about this. I’m leaving Ringo here to protect you.”
Val sat up straight, wincing again, and said, “Now, Johnny, I don’t need no protection. I got my own right here,” he added as he pulled his gun out from under the covers.
Johnny suppressed a laugh and said, seriously, “And what if you’re sleeping? I know you can sleep like the dead. And that’s what you’ll be if somebody gets to you. No, Val, we’re doing this my way. You put me in charge; you follow my orders. You get the privilege of having the infamous Johnny Ringo as your personal bodyguard.”
Val groaned in exasperation as Johnny and Kate enjoyed a laugh at Val’s expense.
“You’re quite a rascal, aren’t you, Johnny boy? You think I don’t know what you’re doing? While you got Ringo watching me, you also got me watching Ringo and keeping him out of your hair. And don’t you get too used to calling the shots ‘cause I’m gonna be out of here before you know it! Now bring those other yahoos in here so I can get the lot of ya out of here.”
Laughing softly, Johnny left to find Ringo and Isham. He was surprised to see them behind the office, showing each other their best gun tricks. He half expected to find them in the middle of a fistfight. It appeared they had found some common ground, which was a relief. The last thing Johnny wanted to deal with was having to fire one of them before they even got started.
“Come in and see Val, then we’re getting out of here.” The two gunhawks followed Johnny to Val’s room.
“Hey, Val,” Isham said, “how are ya feeling? I was sorry to hear ya got shot.”
“Well, thanks, Isham. And thanks for answering the call. We sure can use you.” Val turned his attention to Johnny Ringo. “Hello, Ringo. I hear you came to give Johnny a hand.”
“That’s right. Whatever Madrid needs. But there is the question of payment for this job. I keep asking, but I haven’t gotten any answers.”
Johnny turned his head away from Ringo in an attempt to shield the grin on his face.
“Well, I have an answer for you. The pay is ten dollars a day and Miss Morgan will be providing the ammunition. You brought your own horse and guns, right?” Val asked, outwardly goading the man.
Johnny cleared his throat and gave Val a look of warning before adding, “What Val means, Ringo, is we all have to bring everything we need except for bullets. Kate will supply us with those.”
“And meals,” Kate said. “Fortunately, one of my loyal employees who didn’t run off is the bunkhouse cook.”
Johnny didn’t miss, or like, the look on Ringo’s face as he gazed at Kate, something between a leer and a smile.
“Okay then,” Val said. “Johnny is in charge until I can get out of here, so what he says goes. Go ahead, Johnny, give them their assignments.”
“Isham, I want you to go to the Silver Spur Saloon and round up the men who came to hire up with Val. Don’t mention my name. Kate and I will meet you out at her ranch. Kate can tell you how to get there.”
Kate nodded and said, “Follow the main road out of town going east. About ten miles out of town you’ll come to a fork in the road marked with a sign pointing left for Aqua Caliente. That road will take you to the ranch, about five more miles.”
The rumble of distant thunder reminded them that the storm was getting closer.
“Got it. I better get going if we’re gonna beat that storm,” Isham said.
“Yeah, take off,” Johnny said.
Kate lightly touched Isham’s arm as he headed for the door. “Isham, if the storm catches up with you before you reach the ranch, there’s an outbuilding about a mile from where the road splits. You can take shelter there if you need to.”
“Okay, thanks, Miss Morgan. But I’ll try to get them to the ranch.” He tipped his hat to Kate and left, clearly a man with a purpose.
Johnny turned to Ringo. “You’re staying here to make sure no one gets to Val. They tried to kill him once, but nothing says they won’t try to finish the job.” He raised his hand as he saw Ringo on the verge of protesting his assignment. “Doc says he’ll be out of here soon, then you’ll join the crew. We need Val alive, and I’m putting you in charge of keeping him that way.”
Ringo appeared to relax and said, “Sure, Madrid. Like I said, whatever you need.” He settled his gaze on Val and said, “You okay with this arrangement?”
“I’m okay with stayin’ alive, so yeah, I’m okay with it. I think we can tolerate each other’s company for a day or two,” Val said.
Johnny looked pointedly at Ringo and said, “Doc Schaffer’s the only person you let in here, got it? If somebody brings in food, you take it and give it to Val.”
“Got it. Don’t worry, Madrid, nobody gets past me. Can’t say I’m sorry to not be riding in another storm,” he said, a smug look on his face.
“Right,” Johnny said. “Val, your job is to do what the doc says, got it?”
“Yeah, Johnny, I got it. Now you two get out of here. If you ride hard, maybe you can beat that storm. From the sound of the thunder, it’s still a ways off. And be careful. These men we’re up against have no honor. And they’re playing for keeps.”
Johnny signaled his understanding with a slight nod of his head, the seriousness of the situation resting heavily on him.
The darkening storm clouds made the hour seem later than it was. The sun had set, but there was still some light in the sky. As Johnny and Kate made their way east, following back trails, they occasionally glanced behind them to watch the progression of the storm. Fortunately, the storm appeared to be moving slower than the one the previous day. Johnny hoped they had better luck at beating Mother Nature on this day, as there were no caves or buildings in sight should they need to seek shelter.
They chose to stay off the main roads to keep Johnny out of sight and hope they would get to the ranch before Isham and the crew. The terrain was mostly flat, but they were surrounded by rolling foothills and rock formations, providing good cover for anyone staging a surprise attack. Johnny hoped that the darkening sky would reduce the risk of an ambush. He hoped Isham and the others wouldn’t lose their way as night fell and the storm approached the east.
Kate had been away from the ranch for three days and she wasn’t sure in what state she would find it. Only a few hands had stayed, in addition to her foreman, Carlos, and her housekeeper and cook, Rosa. She was anxious to get home, but her current anxiety related to riding in open county with a storm approaching.
They had made it to about the halfway mark to the ranch when the rain clouds opened up. At precisely that time, Kate’s horse once again showed signs of lameness. The pair stopped and dismounted and quickly donned their rain gear.
Johnny looked to the sky. “Looks like our luck just ran out. At least the rain reduces the chance of an ambush.”
“Johnny, I think my horse is lame again. It’s the same hoof.”
Johnny did a quick assessment of the horse’s right forefoot. “Is this your horse, Kate?”
“No, I borrowed him from the livery in town. I rode with Val in the wagon when I took him to the doctor’s office, so I didn’t have my horse with me.”
“Well, it’s kind of hard to see in this light, but I think he’s got a bad bruise that was probably there before he caught that stone I took out this morning. He shouldn’t be ridden until it heals. Come on, let’s put your gear on my horse. You’re gonna have to ride with me the rest of the way.”
“We’re just going to leave him here?”
“You can’t ride him, Kate. I’ll get the saddle off of him. He’ll be fine out here for a day.” Johnny removed the saddle and sheltered it the best he could beneath some low shrubs while Kate secured her saddlebags on Johnny’s horse. As he removed the horse’s bridle, Johnny silently rehearsed in his head the conversation he would have with the owner of the livery stables for loaning out a lame horse.
“Okay, let’s get going,” Johnny said as he flung himself back in the saddle. He offered Kate his arm and helped her settle on the horse behind him. Kate put her arms around his waist and he felt her leaning her head against his back. Johnny smiled before yelling, “Hold on tight,” and setting off at a gallop.
Joining the rain was a strong wind and the lightning strikes were getting closer.
Despite the additional weight, Johnny’s horse performed admirably. In less than an hour, they were approaching the ranch house and the surrounding buildings. They were soaked, hungry and tired, so the ranch looked like a welcome oasis. Johnny was eager to get into the barn and out of the storm.
There were no signs of Isham and the new crew. Johnny slowed the horse to a trot as they entered the yard. As they approached the barn entrance, a man stepped out. Kate whispered in Johnny’s ear, “Carlos.” Carlos was closely followed by Skeet Wilkins, who had the end of a rifle in Carlos’ back.
“That’s far enough,” Wilkins said, looking up at Johnny and Kate. “Now, throw down your weapons and get down.”
Johnny could feel Kate’s hold on his waist tighten. Johnny placed his hand over hers.
“Don’t worry, Kate. He’s not going to hurt you. Just do as he says.” Then turning away from Wilkins to help Kate down, their eyes met. Johnny whispered, “Isham’s on his way.”
Kate gave him a slight nod.
“Now, you, mister. Undo the gun belt and toss it down.”
Johnny started to unbuckle the belt with his right hand when Wilkins stopped him.
Johnny moved his right hand away from his gun and used the left to loosen his gun belt. He let it drop to the ground next to his horse.
“Step on down and don’t make any sudden moves.”
Johnny threw his leg over the saddle horn and slid effortlessly to the ground.
Wilkins smiled. “Now then, Miss Morgan, I’m glad you’re home. I was getting a little tired of waiting for you.”
“What do you want here, Wilkins?”
“The same as the last time I came by. Mr. Stewart wants to buy your ranch.”
“I’ve already told you and Wade Stewart that Aqua Caliente isn’t for sale at any price.”
Wilkins’s smile turned into a grin. “Now, ma’am, you know Mr. Stewart is getting impatient. You’ve already lost your father and all you’re ranch hands. You don’t want to be losing your life as well.”
“The lady said the ranch ain’t for sale. Why don’t you go on back to your boss and tell him that’s her final say in the matter.”
Wilkins turned his attention to Johnny and gave him his undivided attention for the first time.
“Who are you, mister?”
Johnny let a slight smile cross his face. “No one you’ve probably heard of. I’m just here to help the lady out.”
“You know it’s dangerous helping out around here. It could get you killed.”
Johnny shook his head. “No. I don’t think so.”
“You don’t do you?”
“No. From what I hear, the only way someone gets shot around here is to turn their back. I don’t plan to do that.”
Wilkins’s face reddened. He turned the rifle barrel towards Johnny. “Why, you little….”
The sound of approaching horses cut him off.
Johnny cocked his head. “Sounds like a few of Miss Morgan’s friends are riding in, Wilkins. You might want to high tail it through the barn and out the back way.”
Wilkins backed away. “You ain’t seen the last of me, mister.”
“I’m counting on it,” Johnny answered as Wilkins disappeared into the darkened barn.
Within seconds the yard in front of the barn was filled with horses. Isham’s horse pranced as he tried to get it under control. Seeing Johnny, Kate, and Carlos standing in front of the barn and Johnny’s rig on the ground, the young gunhawk jumped down.
“What’s going on?”
Johnny leaned over and picked up his gun belt from the muddy ground, wiping the holster off with his sleeve.
“We had company. Wilkins was waiting for us when we rode in.”
Isham’s hand went to the butt of his Colt.
“He’s gone,” Johnny stated. “Your timing couldn’t have been better.”
The men were still sitting their horses waiting for orders. Johnny sighed. If he’d wanted to keep his presence a secret, that was shot all to hell now.
“Isham, have the men bed their horses down in the barn and then I want everyone in the bunkhouse in thirty minutes.
Isham nodded. He knew how Madrid worked. Now was the time for the men he’d hired to learn from the best.
“Oh, and Isham, keep a lookout for Wilkins. He went out through the barn and out the back way.”
Isham placed a hand on the butt of his gun. “I’ll check it out now. Don’t like surprises.”
As Isham headed for the barn, Johnny turned to look at his boss.
“Kate, go on in the house and dry off. I need to get the men settled and issue their orders.”
Kate placed a hand on Johnny’s arm. “Don’t you need to get dry, also? Why don’t you come into the house?”
Johnny smiled at the prospect then remembered what Val had said. “No, I’d better change in the bunkhouse. Go on now. I’ll come in later and let you know what’s going on.”
The bunkhouse filled up quickly. It appeared the men didn’t spend much time getting their horses settled in. When Isham walked in, he was assaulted by questions.
“Isham, what’s Madrid doing here?” One of the older gunhawks asked.
“Madrid? You mean Johnny Madrid?” a younger man chimed in.
The chatter in the room drowned Isham out when he held up a hand and yelled, “Hold on.” When he didn’t get a response, he tried again. “All right, quiet down.” That didn’t work either.
What did work was the door to the bunkhouse opening. Framed in the doorway stood Johnny Madrid, water still dripping from his hat but a face set in stone. The room quieted immediately.
Johnny stepped into the room and kicked the door shut with his foot, never taking his eyes off the men in front of him.
“Any of you have a problem with me being here?” Johnny asked as he took off his hat and slapped it against his leg. Water sprayed in all directions.
The older man who’d spoken earlier took a step forward. “Madrid, you buying into this fracas?”
“And if I am, Blanton?” Johnny kept eye contact with the man he’d worked with a few times.
Blanton gave him a crooked smile and nodded. “I’d say we got us a good chance of coming out of this alive.”
Johnny nodded. “All right. For those of you who don’t know me, the names Madrid, Johnny Madrid. You have a problem with me running this operation, come see me outside when we’re done in here. I’ll be glad to… settle the matter with you.”
A few chuckles could be heard.
Johnny waited a moment before speaking again. “I’m handling things until Val Crawford is back on his feet. Our boss is Kate Morgan. If you haven’t figured it out yet, this is her ranch. I report to Miss Morgan. You report to me. When Val’s back, he’ll take over. Any questions?”
“Mr. Madrid,” the young man who’d spoken earlier raised his hand.
“You don’t have to raise your hand, kid. Just ask your question. What’s your name?”
“Poteet, Jake Poteet.”
“All right, Poteet, what’s your question?”
“Can you tell us the situation here? From what I heard in town, Skeet Wilkins is working for the other rancher.”
A low murmur ran through the group of men.
“Yeah, Skeet Wilkins is here. The other rancher is Wade Stewart. Stewart is after Miss Morgan’s ranch. A few days ago, Miss Morgan’s father was bushwhacked, shot in the back.”
“You figure Wilkins did it?”
“Yeah. He’s probably the one who shot Val Crawford, too.” Johnny quieted the group again by raising a hand. “There’s something else you need to know. Word is Jake Cutter’s in town and there’s a good chance he’s working for Wilkins.”
“I heard there was bad blood between you and Cutter.”
Johnny slowly nodded. “You can say that. I’ll take care of Cutter. None of you needs to worry about him.”
“Anything else we need to know?” Blanton seemed to have become the group’s spokesman.
“Only one other thing. We have another man working with us. I have him standing guard on Crawford right now.”
“Who is it?” Blanton asked.
“The hell you say?” A man stomped forward from the back of the group. “Madrid, you know me and you know I’ll work with any man, but not Ringo. He’s good at turning on the men he works with. We all know what you’re paying for this job. Ringo doesn’t work for ten dollars a day and bullets. You can’t trust him.”
“Yeah, I know you Barton, and I know you’re a good man to have around. Trust me, I know Ringo, too.” Johnny locked eyes with Frank Barton, hoping to tell him with just those four words ‘I know Ringo, too’ that he was well aware of who and what Johnny Ringo was. “For now, I’m asking you to stick with me.”
Barton cocked his head slightly, trying to read Madrid’s message. He smiled faintly and nodded. “I’ll stick around, Madrid, but you keep your eyes on Ringo.”
“I plan to.”
Johnny turned his attention to the rest of the men in the room. “Get cleaned up and get some rest. I’ll be back in an hour or two. We’ll talk about how to deal with Stewart and his hired guns.”
Johnny walked outside and took a deep breath. He was tired, not just physically but mentally. There were times he wanted to grab Val up and ride someplace where they’d never heard of Johnny Madrid.
Johnny stood in the rain for a few moments, taking deep breaths. He looked toward the low adobe blockhouse, the house where Kate lived. From the ride out from Tucson, he sensed the ranch was substantial. He’d have to ask Kate. Regardless of its size, it was a big responsibility for a young woman. But from what he had seen of her so far, he believed she was up to the challenge. And now, her ownership of the ranch was in jeopardy. Johnny walked the distance from the bunkhouse to the main house with a renewed sense of purpose. Kate needed him.
He stepped under the awning and knocked on the front door. After a few moments, the door opened and Kate stood there, illuminated in the soft light of the lamps and candles inside the house. She was wearing a dress of blue calico, a sharp contrast to the rugged clothes she had been wearing. A welcoming warmth emanating from the house and the smile on Kate’s face drew him in. He silently acknowledged that the promise he had made to Val was getting increasingly difficult to keep.
“You sure look pretty, Kate,” he said as he stepped into the foyer.
“Thank you, Johnny. You look a bit bedraggled,” she said, a sympathetic grin on her face. “Come in here and take those wet things off. You can hang your coat and hat over here,” she said, pointing to a hall coat tree that stood next to the door. “I thought you were going to change in the bunkhouse.”
“I was, but I said what I needed to say and got out of there. I knew they had more questions than I had answers.” He shed his coat and hat, dripping water on the tiled floor. “Sorry to bring all of this water in here.”
“Oh, that doesn’t matter. Do you have any dry clothes?”
“I did, but I’m pretty sure the things in these saddlebags are as damp as the clothes I’m wearing.”
“Follow me,” Kate said. She led Johnny to the back of the house and into the kitchen. A short, rotund woman stood at the stove, stirring the contents of a steaming pot. “Rosa, this is Mr. Madrid. He’s the man Mr. Crawford has put in charge of helping us. Johnny, this is Rosa, my housekeeper and cook.”
With a nod of his head, Johnny said, “Pleased to meet you, Ma’am.”
“Hola, Senor Madrid,” Rosa said as her eyes scrutinized the man standing before her. Her wizened eyes made her wonder if this young man was capable of facing what they were up against.
Kate added, “Carlos told Pedro to feed the men in the bunkhouse, but I’m hoping you’ll join me for dinner.”
“From the smell coming from that pot, I won’t refuse that invitation,” Johnny said, smiling at Rosa.
“There’s a washstand in the side room,” Kate said. “You go get cleaned up and I’ll bring you some of Daddy’s clothes to wear until yours are dry. Give your clean clothes to Rosa. She can iron the dampness out of them.”
“No, I don’t want to give her any extra work on my account.”
Rosa was quick to respond, “Oh, it is of no trouble, Senor Madrid. I will dry your clothes while you and the senorita eat dinner. It will be ready shortly, so go make yourself presentable for the dinner table.” Rosa relinquished the spoon in her hand just long enough to turn Johnny in the direction of the washroom.
With a soft laugh, Johnny acquiesced, “All right. It’s been a long time since anyone made a fuss over me.”
“You’d better get used to it. Rosa’s been making a fuss over me since the day I was born,” Kate said. “I’ll go get you a clean shirt.”
“That stew sure was delicious. Thanks for dinner, Kate,” Johnny said as he settled into the back of his chair at the dinner table. “You make a man feel spoiled,” he said.
“You deserve it. It’s been a long day. And I appreciate the help you’ve given me.”
“Can’t see how I’ve done much so far,” he said, crossing his arms across his chest as the relaxation following the satisfying meal took hold. He felt the drowsiness start to sweep through him. He suddenly sat straight up and shook his head to clear the oncoming fatigue. “But tomorrow, I’ll try to make up for it. I need to get back over to the bunkhouse and give the men the plan for tomorrow.”
“Is there a plan, Johnny?” Kate asked.
“Well, if you don’t mind, I’d like to see more of the ranch, so I have a sense of what we’re defending. How big is Aqua Caliente?”
“Just under 6,000 acres.”
“That’s a good-sized spread. How long since anyone has tended to the herd?”
“It’s been three days since Val was shot and most of the men took off.”
“I’ll ask for volunteers in the morning for a crew to work with Carlos to work the herd. I’ll bet with all this rain they’ll want to move them to higher grazing ground. And no doubt some watering holes will need to be cleaned out after these storms.”
“You sound like an experienced vaquero, Johnny. Have you worked on a ranch before?”
“Sure, the odd job here and there. But I’d rather work with horses. At least they pretend to do what you tell them,” Johnny said with a smile. “I’ll put Dean Webster in charge of the crew. He knows his way around a cattle ranch.”
“Okay. I’d be happy to show you around the ranch. There are a few places I think you should see,” Kate said.
“And, if we can borrow a wagon, I want to send Isham into town to get Val. I’ll feel better when he’s here with us. If that’s okay with you.”
“Of course, Val’s welcome here. That means Ringo will be joining us again, too.”
“Yeah. Some of the men ain’t too keen on working with him. But I’ll just have to let them work that out unless somebody starts throwing punches.”
Johnny stood and said, “Thanks again for dinner. I better get going before I’m asleep on my feet.”
Joined by Kate, he walked to the door.
“Johnny, you’re welcome to sleep here. We have the room.”
Hands on his hips, Johnny took a deep breath. He dared not look at her. “Thanks, Kate, but I think I better stay with the crew. But I don’t want you alone here in the house. I don’t think Wilkins is stupid enough to come back knowing there are twenty pistoleros here, but I don’t want to take any chances. I’ll send one of the men over to keep watch. I’ll come back over after I’ve had a few hours of sleep.”
“Okay, whatever you think is best, Johnny,” Kate said, the trace of disappointment obvious in her voice.
Johnny donned his rain duster and hat and opened the door. “Looks like the rain has let up a bit.” He turned back to face Kate and said, “Well, goodnight. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Kate stepped close to him and kissed him softly on the cheek, then quickly stepped back. “I’m glad you’re here, Johnny,” she said.
Johnny looked at her for a moment and started to move toward her, then quickly stepped back to the door. He smiled and said softly, “Me too.”
Johnny woke early, having slept fitfully, worrying about Val, the situation with Cutter, and of course, Kate. He dressed and slipped out of the bunkhouse in the early morning hours and rode out to retrieve the horse and saddle they’d left about five miles out from the ranch. He would give the horse a few days to recover and have one of the men return it to the livery in town. And when it was safe for Johnny to go to town again, he would give the livery owner a piece of his mind for renting Kate a horse that was lame. He hoped it wasn’t intentional, but of course, there was no way of knowing who in town was in on the takeover.
The rain had stopped overnight, so it was an easy ride to pick up the horse. When he returned to the bunkhouse, the smell of bacon and coffee made Johnny realize he was hungry. The men were all waking up, so he got their attention after filling a cup with coffee. “Grab a plate, everyone, and eat up. We have a long day ahead of us. I think you all know your assignments.”
Several gunhawks who had experience working on a ranch were tasked with guarding and taking care of the horses. Others were tasked with taking positions around the perimeter of the ranch as guards.
When he was finished addressing the men, he motioned for Isham to follow him outside. Once away from the other men, he spoke. “When you go to get Val, make sure no one sees you taking him from the doctor’s office. Take him out the back way and hide him in the wagon. I’m going to get Kate and have her show me the grounds of the ranch. I need to know what we’re dealing with. The men will be posted all over the ranch, but I need to know which places are the most vulnerable for Stewart’s men to get in.”
Isham nodded, “I’ll make sure no one sees me getting Val out of town. Does Miss Morgan have room for him?”
“Yeah, she has several extra bedrooms. Starting tonight, I’ll be staying in the house to guard Kate and Val. I don’t want anything to happen to either of them. Or anyone else, for that matter.”
“I’m going to get started in a few minutes. I’ll take Poteet with me. I’ll see you when we get back.’
“Thanks, Isham.” Isham returned to the bunkhouse and Johnny headed for the house.
Kate looked like she had been up for a while when she answered the door. “Good morning, Johnny.”
“Kate.” He stepped inside.
Kate closed the door and searched his face, her hand on his arm. “Did you sleep at all?”
Johnny laughed softly, “No, not much. You?”
“A little. But not well,”
“You’re safe here, Kate. My men are keeping a close watch and I don’t think Stewart would risk an attack knowing there are so many gunhawks here.”
“I appreciate that, but I can’t help but worry. There’s a lot to lose here. I’m going to show you today what I think is behind this whole takeover. Before we get started, Rosa has fixed breakfast. Maybe that will help wake you up.”
“Thanks, but I grabbed some food at the bunkhouse. Taking nothing away from Rosa, the bunkhouse cook is pretty good.”
“That’s Pedro. He’s Rosa’s son, so he learned from the best.”
“That he did. Have you eaten?”
“Yes. Rosa left your dry clothes in the washroom off the kitchen, so you can change there. Give me a few minutes and I’ll be ready to leave.”
Johnny nodded as Kate disappeared into one of the bedrooms and he headed for the washroom. When they met up at the front door, Kate was wearing riding clothes and carrying a saddlebag. “I had Rosa pack us a few things for lunch for later. It will take most of the day to see the ranch.”
Johnny smiled and held her gaze for a long moment. “You think of everything.”
They rode for several hours and Kate showed him what she considered the highlights of the ranch and the entry points that she considered vulnerable. Johnny was pleased to note that the men he had posted on the ranch had chosen those spots to stand guard. Just before lunchtime they arrived at a section of the ranch he sensed was different from the rest of the grounds. For one thing, it smelled different and was much warmer, and he could see a group of Apache Indians in the distance gathered around an area of land with steam rising from the ground.
Kate motioned for Johnny to stop his horse and turned to him. “This is what my father suspected is behind the ranch takeover.”
Johnny’s eyes swept the landscape before them and nodded. “Aqua Caliente. The hot springs.”
“Yes. Have you seen one before? Or been in one?”
“Sure, I’ve seen hot springs. They’re all over this area, but I’ve never been in one,” Johnny said.
“My father has an agreement with the local Apache and they had open access to the springs to use for their ceremonies and rituals. You know, they feel that the Great Spirit lives in the springs and he’s the one who warms the water and gives it the healing properties. It’s very sacred to them, and it is also considered a neutral ground where they can rest and not be bothered by other tribes. There are countless other hot springs in the area, but ours is the largest one, therefore the most coveted by Stewart.”
Johnny thought for a moment and said, “I know they have a great reverence for water. So why do you think Stewart wants to buy this land and all the land around it?”
“My father told me that hot springs are common in European countries and they’ve developed some of the lands around them into spas. Places for people to come and stay and use the hot springs for healing purposes. He thought that was the purpose of buying up all the land, to build a spa community of sorts.”
“And he was against it, of course.”
Kate nodded. “As am I. I want to protect the agreement with the Apache and, of course, the ranch that my father worked so hard to establish. I won’t let any of it go down without a fight.”
Johnny smiled. “That’s where I come in. I won’t leave here until I know the ranch and the agreement are safe. I’m committed to it, Kate.”
For a long moment, they looked at each other, their eyes locked. Johnny removed his hat, then quickly set it back on his head, lowering the brim over his eyes. He looked away and said, “I’m getting a bit hungry. Let’s leave here, so we don’t disturb the Apache and find a place to eat.”
Kate led them to a place away from the springs with trees and a small stream. “This is a peaceful place to stop and rest for a bit.”
They dismounted their horses and headed for a small grassy area near the water. After eating the lunch Rosa had packed for them, Johnny turned to Kate and said, “So, Kate, do you believe in the healing properties of the hot springs?”
She thought for a moment before saying, “I do, yes, to some extent. I believe that the warm waters can give relief to some ailments. I’ve been in the springs myself and have benefited greatly at times from the soothing waters. I’m not sure that the springs can provide relief or healing from all things, but I’m open to learning more. I do, however, respect the Apache beliefs and I don’t want them to lose access to the springs.”
“I can see that you also have a reverence for the springs and feel it’s something worth saving.”
Kate nodded, “I’m glad you understand the fight we’re up against.” She waited a few moments before asking, “So, how did you become a gunhawk?”
“Well, I’ve been on my own for a long time. My mother was killed by Jake Cutter when I was ten.”
“And you’ve been on your own since then?”
He nodded. “I didn’t have anyone else, so I had to grow up fast and learn how to take care of myself. I also vowed that one day I would kill Cutter and his two brothers. It wasn’t long before I got my hands on a gun and taught myself how to shoot. It was my main focus. I practiced every day…, every day, Kate. I wanted – no, needed – to be the best. By the time I was fourteen, I started hiring myself out.”
“It sounds like a very lonely life, Johnny.”
He nodded. “It can be, but I like being on my own. I get by.”
“What about Cutter’s brothers? Have you found them yet?”
“They’re both dead.”
“You killed them?”
Johnny took a deep breath, “Yes, but in self-defense. I want you to know that I’m not a murderer. I only kill in self-defense.”
Kate laid her hand gently on his arm and said, “I never thought you were. So, when did you meet Val?”
“A few years ago. He took me under his wing and he’s the one person in this world that I trust. I would do anything for him, and I believe he would do the same for me.”
“So, he’s a father figure of sorts?”
Johnny shook his head. “No. No. I don’t need a father figure. I don’t remember my own father and from what I’ve heard of him, I don’t have any interest in ever meeting him. So, Val is more like a big brother.” He looked down and said softly, “I always wanted a brother. So, yeah, Val is like my brother.”
“You’re lucky to have him.”
“Yes, I am. What about you? Have you always lived on this ranch?”
“Yes. My mother also died when I was ten, so it’s just been my father and me for the past nine years.”
Johnny looked surprised. “So, you’re a little older than me.”
“Not that much. I was also engaged for a short time, but he passed away unexpectedly. I’ll always miss all of them.” She waved her hand, “I’m sorry, Johnny. I didn’t mean to get so emotional.”
Johnny reached out and put his hand gently on the side of her face and said, “It’s all right, Kate. You’ve had a lot of loss in your life. I’m so sorry.”
Kate looked down and took Johnny’s other hand in hers before making eye contact with him. “Thank you, Johnny.” A few moments of silence passed between them before she spoke again. “But I want you to know that I’ll always be grateful to you.”
Johnny shook his head, “You don’t have to be grateful. I’m just doing my job.”
“A very dangerous job, Johnny. I’m not blind to that fact.”
“It’s what I do. It’s my trade.”
“Okay. But I can still be grateful.”
He nodded. “Okay. Yes, you can.”
Johnny stood up and put his hand out. “Let’s take a walk before we head back.”
Kate smiled and took his hand, and he helped her up. “An excellent idea.”
They walked on the rocky bank by the stream for a few moments, Johnny still holding her hand. She made no effort to pull it away. “This is one of my favorite spots on the ranch.” She pointed to a hill in the distance. “Up on that hill is where I used to come when I was younger to read or just think.” She had turned to point to the hill, and when she turned back to face Johnny, she tripped and nearly fell. Johnny was there to catch her, his arms around her waist.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Thanks for catching me. I might have fallen in the water if you hadn’t been here.”
Johnny smiled. “I would never let that happen.” They looked at each other for a long moment before Johnny put his arms tighter around her waist, his face close to hers. “Kate,” he whispered, then dropped his arms and abruptly turned away.
Kate, with a look of bemusement on her face, said, “Johnny, sometimes you act like you’re afraid of me. Every time I think you’re going to kiss me, you turn away or change the subject. Am I that intimidating?”
“It’s not you I’m afraid of. It’s me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m afraid if I kiss you, I won’t want to stop.”
“Well, you won’t find out unless you give it a try.”
Johnny stepped close to her again. He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her on the lips.
“It’s just as I thought,” he said softly, then kissed her again.
When they parted, Kate smiled, “That was certainly worth the wait. Are you still scared?”
“Sure, but now it’s Val I’m afraid of.”
Kate laughed. “Why would you be afraid of Val? He thinks you’re the fastest gun he’s ever seen, and you’re afraid of him?”
“He could pull me off the job. He’s against mixing business with pleasure. To tell the truth, so am I. But I can’t help how I feel about you, Kate.”
“I don’t think Val is going to take you off the job just for kissing me. Besides, he doesn’t need to know, does he?”
“Kate, one thing you gotta know about Val, nothing gets past him. He’ll know just by looking at me. I’m an open book when it comes to him.”
“Well, I’m not afraid of him. Now stop talking and kiss me again.”
It was late afternoon when Johnny and Kate returned to the ranch house. Johnny noticed the wagon sitting in front of the house, so he hoped that meant Val was inside. Rosa greeted them at the door.
“Hey, Rosa, it sure smells good in here. So, is our patient here?”
Rosa looked at Johnny, rolled her eyes, crossed herself, and walked toward the kitchen, mumbling in Spanish.
Johnny smiled at Kate. “Uh oh. Not a good sign. Can you show me which room he’s in?”
Kate nodded and led Johnny to a back bedroom where Val was sitting in a chair. “Val, what are you doing out of bed?”
“Doc said I could sit in a chair for a few hours a day. Says I’m doing a lot better. So, tell me what’s happening.”
“First of all, you need to be nice to Rosa. I could tell she’s a bit upset by you being here. Don’t be giving her any trouble.”
“Okay, Johnny. I’ll be on my best behavior.’
“We’re guests in Kate’s house and we need to be respectful.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I sort of bossed her around a bit when I first got here, telling her what I needed. I’ll do better.”
“Promise,” Johnny grinned.
“Yeah, I promise,” Val rolled his eyes.
Johnny filled Val in on the assignments he’d given everyone, the tour of the ranch, and Kate’s father’s theory about Stewart’s motives.
Val looked at Kate and said, “You really think the hot springs are what he’s after?”
“I do. Based on what my father told me, there’s big money to be made from promoting the hot springs as a healing attraction. I’m certain that’s why Stewart wants to buy up all this land, with no regard for the people who own the land and have worked hard to keep it. We have to stop them.”
“Well, Miss Morgan, that’s what we aim to do.”
Johnny looked around the room. “So, how did you and Ringo get along? At least it seems you didn’t kill each other. Or did you kill him? Where is he?”
Val ran his hand over his face and sighed. “Well, Johnny, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Ringo’s not here. He took off this morning.”
Johnny looked at Val, exasperated. “What do you mean, took off?”
“Just that, Johnny. He said he was going outside to get some fresh air and he never came back.”
Johnny took a deep breath. “Now, why am I not surprised?”
Johnny Ringo sat alone at a table in The Maverick Saloon in Tucson, occasionally taking a sip from the beer in front of him. Hoping to avoid being recognized, he had removed his long coat and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, and tied a bandana around his neck before entering the saloon. His hat brim sat low on his head, shading his eyes. His gaze focused on the two men standing at the bar, their heads lowered in muted conversation. It was early afternoon, so the saloon was relatively quiet. With strained ears and concentration, Ringo was able to track the conversation.
As Jake Cutter listened to Skeet Wilkins describe Wade Stewart’s plan to acquire land around several hot springs in the area, he eyed the man with suspicion out of the corner of his eye. Cutter trusted few men. In fact, he’d put his trust in no man since the death of his brothers. The brothers killed by Johnny Madrid. Sure, Madrid would argue he killed them in self-defense. Technically and legally speaking, that was probably right. But Cutter knew Madrid had hunted his brothers and set them each up for their final showdowns. Just as he was now doing to Madrid. He would make Madrid pay for what he did or die trying. But he was tired of hanging around this dusty town waiting for Madrid to show. It had been several days since he heard the rumor that Val Crawford was in town. Usually, where you found Crawford, Madrid wasn’t far behind. So he would listen to what Wilkins had to say. Maybe pick up some extra money while waiting for Madrid to show up.
Wilkins had gotten to the job offering part of the discussion.
“Jake, we could use a few extra men, particularly fast guns like you. It appears Miss Morgan has hired herself an army of gunslingers. I encountered the bunch yesterday at her ranch. I went there alone, just to try to sweet-talk the gal, if you know what I mean. Well, she showed up with some cocky hombre who seemed to be in charge. Nobody I’ve ever seen before. He wouldn’t give me his name. But he sure was full of himself. Real cool, not ruffled at all that I had a gun pointed at him. Then the whole crew showed up and I skedaddled out of there. I told Stewart he wasn’t going to get the Morgan land by gentle persuasion.”
“So, killing Morgan is your idea of gentle persuasion?” Cutter asked.
Wilkins’ lips turned up in a twisted grin. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jake. Anyway, will you come work with us? The pay is fifteen dollars a day. I’m sure Mr. Stewart would be happy to have you on our side.”
“So, tell me more about this guy who seems to be in charge over at the Morgan place.”
“Oh, he was medium height, slender. It was dark and raining, so I didn’t get a real close look at him. From what I could see, I’d guess he has some Mexican blood, probably a half breed.”
Cutter stood up straight, his attention fully on what Wilkins was saying.
“How old would you say he is?” Cutter asked.
“Really just a kid, probably hasn’t reached twenty yet. But I wouldn’t discount him just ‘cause he’s young. The kid had a fierceness about him. Like he’s ready for a fight.”
Cutter grinned as he welcomed the warm hope of revenge flooding through him. He raised his hand to his left cheek in an uncontrolled reflex and rubbed the poorly healed welt of a scar. He looked Wilkins in the eyes and said resolutely, “Sure, Wilkins, I’ll join your side. When do I start?”
“Val, what are ya doing out here?” Johnny asked as he and Isham approached the veranda at the front of the house. They had just left the bunkhouse after sorting out the assignments for the day. “Being up for breakfast is one thing, but aren’t ya pushing your luck a bit?”
“Oh, quit being such a mother hen, Johnny,” Val said. “The doc said I should be movin’ around more. Keep me from getting pneumonia, he said.”
Johnny saw Jake Poteet crossing the yard to the barn. Johnny yelled out, “Hey, Poteet, come over here for a minute.”
Poteet ran over to where Johnny was standing. “What do ya need, Mr. Madrid?”
“Did you hear what the doc said to Val about being out of bed?”
Poteet nodded. He looked over at Val, who gave him a conspiratorial wink. “I sure did. He said Mr. Crawford could be up as long as he feels good but rest when he gets tired. He said it was important for him to get his strength back and he wasn’t gonna do that laying in bed.”
Johnny looked at Val and was treated to Val’s smug grin of vindication. “All right,” he said. “Thanks, Poteet, you can get back to what you were doing. And next time you see me, call me Johnny or Madrid. Just drop the ‘Mister.’ I ain’t nobody’s Senor.”
Just then, the man standing guard in the water tower called out, “Rider coming!” Johnny and Isham turned to see a rider approaching on the main road to the house. Both recognized the horse and its rider. Johnny stood still, hands on his hips, his stony glare greeting the rider.
Isham laughed and said, “Well, well, our wayward boy has found his way home.”
Johnny Ringo reached the house and dismounted. As he walked toward Johnny, he had to admit that Madrid could have a menacing air about him between the stare and his stance. Ringo was relieved to see that Madrid’s right hand was still on his hip and not on the hilt of his gun.
“Now, before you go haywire, Madrid, I can explain,” Ringo said, his hands raised in mock surrender.
Isham couldn’t resist another jab at Ringo and said, “Oh, boy, Ringo, you’re in some kind of trouble.”
In unison, Ringo and Johnny said, “Shut up, Isham.”
Johnny looked directly at Ringo and said, “This better be good. I gave you one simple job, and you blew it.”
“Now, Madrid, Val didn’t really need me. He’s quite capable of taking care of himself. He knows it, I know it, and you know it, so don’t go getting hot under the collar because I left him unprotected. Besides, something came up that was more important than sitting and playing cards with Val.”
“And what would that be?”
“The whereabouts of a certain man sporting a pretty nasty scar on his face,” Ringo said.
Johnny dropped his hands from his hips and stepped closer to Ringo. “Jake Cutter?”
“That’s right. I was out behind the Doc’s place and heard somebody on the street yell Cutter’s name. So, I went to have a look. Found him at a meet-up with Skeet Wilkins in the Maverick. So, I sort of stuck around to see what I could learn.”
“And what did you learn?” Johnny asked.
“Cutter hired on with Wilkins. He didn’t seem all that interested in the job until Skeet described you to him. Skeet doesn’t know your name, but he gave Cutter enough of a description of you for him to suspect it’s you. I think Cutter probably signed on just to get closer to you.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Val said. “Ringo, I’ve never known you to be so useful other than shooting off your mouth or your gun. That’s some good information. I think I can give ya a pass on puttin’ my life at risk.” His sardonic smile revealed his amusement.
Johnny relaxed his shoulders and looked at Ringo. “All right, Ringo, I agree with Val. That’s good information. I’ll give you a pass, too, this time. But don’t you ever go off on your own like that again, understand?”
“Sure, Madrid, I got it.”
“Good. You’re working with Isham today. He signed on five more men when he was in town yesterday. You can help him with target practice with the new men and find out how good they are.”
Isham protested, “But, Johnny, I thought I was working with you today to map out the relay system.”
“I changed my mind. You don’t need me to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Ringo has as good an eye for that as I do. We’ll work on the map later.”
Ringo looked surprised by the compliment. Isham quietly accepted his assignment and headed off in the direction of the barn.
“Come on, Ringo, help me set up the firing range.”
Johnny watched as the two men walked away, hoping they could temper their animosity towards each other to work for a common goal.
Val interrupted Johnny’s thoughts. “What’s that you were talking about? A relay system?”
Johnny turned to Val. “It’s a big ranch with lots of ways Wilkins and his men can come at us. I’ve got men posted at key places, but we need a way for them to communicate with us to warn us if trouble is headed this way. You can hear a gunshot about a mile away, so I figure if we post men a mile apart, like points on the spoke of a wheel, three rapid gunshots could be the warning. Each man in turn fires the shots until we hear them. I’ve asked Kate to get us a map of the ranch.”
Val looked impressed. “Damn, Johnny, that’s good thinking.”
Johnny took the seat next to Val. “Cutter’s coming for me. I was hoping I’d face him away from all this. I don’t like mixing the two. Cutter’s my problem, but now he could be a real problem for the whole crew. He won’t care who gets hurt in tryin’ to get to me.”
“You gotta play the hand you’ve been dealt, Johnny. Look on the bright side. At least now you know where he is,” Val said.
“Yeah, but he could show up anywhere, anytime.”
Only a few men were stirring at Aqua Caliente when the first rays of the sun began to peek over the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Johnny stood on the front porch with a cup of coffee in his hand, listening to Val ‘behaving himself’ with Rosa. He smiled when he heard the woman light into his friend in Spanish.
“Speak English! You know I can’t understand you when you’re speaking that fast.”
“You should be in bed,” Rosa shouted in English.
“Oh, that’s what you said. Well, I told you I was alright, woman. Are you going to feed me, or you gonna let me starve to death?”
“Hombres. All you think about are your stomachs. If you will not go back to bed, then sit down…before you fall down.”
“I ain’t gonna fall down.”
“We shall see. Now, I will start breakfast.”
Johnny stepped off the porch and walked out a ways to get away from the bickering.
“Mornin’ Johnny,” Isham mumbled through a yawn as he crossed the yard.
“Isham. Sleep well?”
“I always sleep well.”
Johnny laughed. It was something he would probably have said.
“Looks like Wilkins is gonna wait another few days before he makes his move.”
Johnny rubbed the short hairs at the back of his neck. “I don’t know about that. Just have a feeling it’s coming sooner than later.”
“Well, I hope he waits until after breakfast. I’m hungry enough….”
Three shots echoed off the surrounding hills.
“Which way?” Isham spun around, trying to figure out which way the shots came from.
“East!” Johnny yelled. “Everyone, get ready. They’re coming in with the sun behind them.”
“Johnny!” Kate yelled from the front porch.
“Get back inside and stay down.”
“Do it. Now!”
Johnny turned to take his position calling over his shoulder, “And keep Val in there.”
“Like hell.” Val stormed out of the house, a gun in one hand and his gun belt in the other.
Johnny shook his head and kept going, knowing it was no use in arguing with the man.
Everyone was in their place when the lookouts who’d been east of the ranch raced into the yard.
Throwing himself out of the saddle, young Frank Brice yelled, “They’re right behind us. They’ll be here any minute.”
Johnny nodded. “Take cover.”
Standing in the middle of the yard, Johnny slowly turned. Everyone had taken cover. He’d put two men in the hayloft covering the corrals. Another three were on the house’s roof, while four more were inside the house.
He took a step toward the water trough he would crouch behind when three shots rang out from the North.
“Damn, they’ve split up. You on the roof, watch your backs. Ringo, take Brice and cover the back of the house.”
Kate and Rosa were huddled in the corner of the Living Room as Ringo and Brice raced through the front door. Ringo stopped and shook his head.
“What’s wrong,” Brice asked, skidding to a stop next to Ringo.
Looking around, Ringo tried to find something that would provide cover for the women. Finally, spotting a sideboard, ran to it and started pushing it across the room.
“Brice, give me a hand.”
The two men jerked the large piece of furniture across the room and placed it in front of the women.
“Keep your heads down.”
“I can help,” Kate said.
“You can help by not getting in the way.”
“At least give me a gun.”
“Brice, grab one of those rifles.” Ringo motioned to the rifle rack.
Brice took a rifle down and a box of shells and handed it to Kate.
“Thank you,” Kate responded as she began loading the rifle.
Outside, two more lookouts rode in. This time there wasn’t time for more than Johnny to wave for them to take cover.
When the raiders hit, it was hard and fast. Two dozen men rode in, guns blazing and carrying torches. Johnny knew right away their intent was to burn Kate out.
“Fire!” Johnny ordered, his voice barely heard over Wilkins’ men shooting and yelling.
The first wave of men started falling as Johnny and his men opened fire. It wasn’t long before the air surrounding the house filled with an acrid smokey haze.
Just as it looked like Wilkins’ men were retreating, the second wave of men rode in from the North. The defenders of Aqua Caliente redirected their fire.
One of Wilkins’ riders threw a torch into the open barn door. Fire spread across the hay-covered floor. The men who were in the hayloft abandoned their positions to stamp out the blaze. It was what Wilkins gunhawks were waiting for. They took out the two men before they had time to do anything about the fire.
The sound of horses screaming inside the burning barn spurred Johnny to break cover. He ran across the yard into the blazing structure.
“Johnny!” Val screamed. “Don’t….” Val knew he was wasting his breath. “Damn fool.”
Within a few minutes, horses raced out the door. It wasn’t long before Johnny came out, covering his mouth with his arm and coughing.
“Cover him!” Val called out.
Between the gunsmoke and the smoke from the burning barn, it was hard to see anything. Wilkins’ men realized they were on the losing end of the battle.
“Let’s get out of here,” one of the gunhawks on horseback yelled.
Within a few moments, the yard was clear. Only the bodies of Wilkins’ men and the burning barn were left to tell the story of the battle that had taken place.
Val stood up, grabbing the corral fence post to support himself. He looked around for Johnny. Spotting the boy lying face down near the barn, Val took a breath and hurried to Johnny’s side.
Val went down on one knee and rolled Johnny over.
When he got no response, Val gave Johnny a gentle slap. Still, there was no response.
Kate ventured out of the house, taking in the devastation surrounding her. It wasn’t until she saw Val kneeling beside Johnny that she took off at a run.
“Val, is he alright?” Kate went down on both knees on the other side of Johnny.
“I think he’s just passed out. Probably swallowed a gullet full of that smoke.”
Johnny started coughing.
“He’s coming around now. Help me sit him up.”
Together Val and Kate raised Johnny to a sitting position. Isham worked the pump handle at the water trough until fresh water poured out. He grabbed a dipper and filled it before taking it to Johnny.
“Here. This should help.” Isham put the dipper to Johnny’s lips. Johnny took a sip and then started coughing. “Easy, Madrid.”
Isham lifted the dipper again only to have Johnny push it away.
“I’m alright. Just give me a minute.”
Val leaned back, giving Johnny the room he needed. After a few seconds, Johnny grabbed hold of Val and Isham and pulled himself to his feet. Standing, he wavered a moment before taking a breath. He coughed as he looked around the yard.
His men were throwing water on what remained of the barn, trying to keep it from spreading to the house and the other outbuildings.
“How many did we lose?” Johnny asked, bending over and picking up his hat.
“Two dead, four wounded,” Ringo responded as he walked up. “The wounded are in the bunkhouse.”
Johnny scanned the yard. “How many of Wilkins’ men did we take out?”
Ringo grinned, “I counted twelve bodies. Don’t know how many were wounded.”
“They won’t come back, will they?” Kate asked, seeing the expression on Johnny’s face.
Johnny sighed. “Yeah, they’ll be back. We didn’t cut the head off the snake. Until Stewart and Wilkins are gone, they’ll keep coming back.”
“What are we going to do?”
Storm clouds were building to the east again, and the daily rains that came during the monsoon season were a welcome sight. The first drops could be heard sizzling on the burnt wood of the barn. It wasn’t long before the skies opened and a downpour followed.
Johnny took a deep breath and raised his face to the sky. Then looking from Val to Isham, and finally Ringo, he could tell they were all thinking the same thing.
Jake Cutter sat his horse overlooking Aqua Caliente. Water poured off the brim of his hat and down his back, but he didn’t care.
He’d ridden in with the raiders until they reached the outbuildings and then broke off. He rode up to the ridge overlooking the ranch to watch the gun battle. He’d told Skeet Wilkins he’d join in the fight even though he’d never intended to.
A bolt of lightning struck a nearby tree. It exploded. Debris showed down in all directions. To Jake Cutter, it was as if nature was channeling his feelings. He wasn’t interested in Kate Morgan, her property, or the money Wilkins promised him. There was only one thing he wanted, and he was willing to wait for the right time to get it.
He smiled when he saw Madrid walking away from the barn and towards the house.
“Good. You’re still alive,” Cutter said aloud. “Your times coming, Madrid.”
Yes, Johnny Madrid was his and his alone. When the showdown between them came, his bullet would tear through the half-breed leaving only death in its wake. He was going to enjoy watching the light in Johnny Madrid’s blue eyes go out.
Johnny headed toward the ranch house, Val on his heels. “Kate, can you map out for us the way to Stewart’s and the land around the ranch?”
“Yes, I can. Do you think this is a good idea?”
“Yep. They ain’t gonna be expecting it. Not this soon.” Turning mid-stride, he yelled, “Isham, Ringo, come in here with us. Bushrod, take a few men and get those horses back, we’re going to be riding hard soon. Brice, you take a crew and move these bodies somewhere.”
Val shook his head as he limped up the stairs behind his friend. Stewart and Wilkins didn’t know what was coming for them. Johnny on the prod, and he was most definitely on the prod, was like one of them Kansas twisters tearing through everything in sight.
The gunmen followed Kate into the house and to her father’s study. “Rosa, can you get us some coffee, please?”
“Si, Senorita,” the older woman replied and moved off toward the kitchen.
Kate pulled down some maps off the bookcase and started going through them. “Here, this one.” She spread it out on the round table by the window as the four men joined her. Johnny grabbed two brass inkwells off the desk and used them to hold down two of the sides. Kate pointed. “Stewart’s ranch is here. There’s a bunkhouse here, well here, and a barn here.”
Johnny watched her as much as the directions she gave them. The way her hands moved as she drew on the map, the way she stuck a strand of caramel-colored hair behind her ear, the way her mouth moved as she spoke.
Val bumped into him, and Johnny turned to glare. Val winked. “Sorry, I’m still unsteady on my feet.”
Johnny rolled his eyes. “Best if we attack right after sundown. They won’t be expecting that.”
“Might be a good enough moon,” Ringo replied.
Johnny grinned. “Kate, you got any dynamite?”
“Thirteen men gone, four wounded, Mr. Stewart.”
“And did you accomplish a damn thing?” Stewart groused as he leaned back in his leather desk chair.
Skeet Wilkins folded the brim of his hat in his hand. He hated being dressed down. Hated worse that the man was right. “We burned the barn.”
Stewart stood, his hand pounding on the desk. “Burned the damn barn. A lot of good that did us. You lost half the men. Did you even kill anyone?”
“Well … Maybe … I’m not sure. I think we got a few, but we didn’t get to stay long enough to find out.”
“What about the girl? Did you manage to kill the girl?”
“Didn’t see her. Figured she was in the house.”
“And you set fire to the barn and not the house! Fool! Well, what are you going to do now? I need that blasted girl’s land for the consortium back East. I’m tired of waiting for it. If she’s dead, I can buy it on the auction block for pennies on the dollar.”
Wilkins was starting to hate Stewart the more the man talked. If he had a way to get his money, he’d take it and leave the man in the lurch. “I figure Madrid will strike at us next. Probably tomorrow. He might try cutting your fence tonight.”
“Then set up guards. Tomorrow I want you to take out the girl and then men protecting her.”
Johnny watched Kate from the back door as she walked toward the garden, basket in hand. He had left Val and Ringo talking about the attack over a bottle of Kate’s father’s best brandy. It wasn’t to his taste, so he had followed Kate out. Now Kate. She was certainly a girl of his taste. She was the boss, and he knew better; yet and still. He sighed and started down the steps, following her.
Kate smiled at him. “Picking peppers. Rosa is going to make you all a feast before you head out tonight.”
Johnny grinned. “I do love some good food with spicy peppers.” He started picking red chilis with her, dropping them in her basket. “Who planted these? You or Rosa?”
“I did,” Kate said as he picked some of the queen poblanos.
“I guess I’ll find out what kind of temper you have, Miss Kate.” When she looked at him askance, he continued. “Mama used to say that the hotter the temper of the planter, the hotter the pepper. Mama’s peppers were hot enough to melt snow on a mountain.”
“She had a temper, did she?”
“Yes, ma’am, she did.”
“Well, people have been known to say I have a temper,” she smiled at him.
He smiled back. “I don’t doubt that at all. A girl like you has a lot of life … temper’s just part of it. You’ve got a passion … for life.”
“For love. For … you. I think you know how I feel, Johnny.”
“Yeah? Kate, I … damn. I ain’t supposed to be feeling nothing. It ain’t professional.”
She took his hand and held it to her heart. “But you do feel it too, don’t you?” Their eyes locked and she moved closer to him. “Kiss me, Johnny.”
And he did.
His lips took hers. They were sweet and exciting and full of promise.
High on the hill behind the house, Jake Cutter watched them through a spyglass. A malevolent grin grew across his face. So, this was more than a job for Madrid. Madrid had feelings for the girl. That was a weakness, and Jake Cutter knew how to exploit a man’s weakness.
Riders galloped toward the Stewart ranch under the light of the full moon. The ranch set in Sabino Canyon nestled among saguaro cacti, palo verde and mesquite trees, none of which would provide a lot of cover. Johnny whistled, throwing his right arm up, calling the riders to a halt.
“They’ve got to have sentries out. Isham take three men and go left, come up behind the house. Ringo …”
“I’ve got the dynamite. I’ll take Bushrod and Andrews and set off the dynamite near the bunkhouse and the well.”
Johnny nodded, grabbing his hat, which had fallen on his back during his ride and was only hanging on by his storm straps and pulling it on his head.
“The rest of the men will come in a full-frontal assault when you blow the well. Let the men start out of the bunkhouse before you blow it. The guns are fair game, the cowboys … well if they don’t fight, leave ‘em be.”
“Ringo, do it my way!”
“Where are you gonna be?”
“Inside.” Johnny handed Feliz’s reins to one of his men as he slid from the saddle, “I’m gonna take out any guards by the gate.”
Ringo nodded and headed right with Bushrod Smith and Rod Andrews. Johnny pulled his gun and started a zig-zag run toward the gate, taking cover first behind a cactus, then moving tree to tree. He watched the guard walking from post to post of the wide arch. He grinned, realizing Wilkins had been lazy. He would have had wagons blocking the entryway. Johnny decided he’d thank ol’ Skeet when he saw him.
Silently, he snuck up to the fence and walked behind the guard until he brought his gun down on the man’s head. Johnny rolled the man out of the entryway and continued to move silently into the ranch yard. He was almost at the main house when the well blew up. Johnny grinned.
Men started pouring from the bunkhouse as the rest of Johnny’s forces rode hard into the yard. Shouting and gunfire from all sides broke through the silence of the night. Skeet Wilkins came out of the main house followed by Stewart, who quickly ducked back into the house, slamming the door.
Skeet saw Johnny near the horse trough and fired. Wood splintered, hitting Johnny in the face. He dropped down on one knee using the trough as cover and fired, missing Wilkins, who was on the move. Johnny started after him.
The bunkhouse exploded. Wood shrapnel flew everywhere as the fireball rose into the night sky. Johnny dropped to the ground and rolled under the porch. He lost Skeet in the process. “Dammit!” He took a moment to reload his pistol before rolling out from under the porch and sprinting off in the direction Wilkins ran, firing and ducking as he did.
Wade Stewart ran into his study when the melee began. He grabbed a rifle from his gun rack and turned to see a man standing in his doorway. “Who the hell are you?”
“I’ve heard of you.”
“That’s good. Reckon you know why I’m here.”
Beads of sweat formed on Stewart’s forehead and he looked around the suddenly too small room. “I’ll double what that girl is paying you.”
Ringo smiled. “Well now, that is tempting, but ya see … I got my pride in my trade. A gunman who turns on his side, well … you don’t get hired too much. So, you ready to die?”
Stewart swung the rifle wildly toward Ringo, who fired a bullet right into the man’s heart. He walked over, looking down at the body. “Val Crawford said to tell you goodbye.”
Johnny saw Wilkins heading toward the barn and ran after him. “Skeet!”
Wilkins turned, fired, and headed around the side of the barn.
Johnny followed. He pressed himself against the front of the barn and eased to look around the corner. The flames from the burning bunkhouse threw enough light that he saw Wilkins’ shadow moving around the back of the barn. Johnny grinned, moved back to the barn door, and slipped inside. He saw the back door to the barn open. Wilkins was making a move to get a horse and escape the losing battle. The man grabbed a saddle and headed toward the stall when Johnny stepped out of the darkness.
“I don’t think you’re going anywhere, Skeet.”
Wilkins dropped the saddle and looked at the young gunman. “Lemme go Madrid. Y’all done won. Lemme go.”
“To shoot me in the back. I don’t think so. That ain’t how the game is played. I’ll give ya a fair chance. You and me. Right now. Make your move.” Johnny’s right hand hovered beside his gun. His hand perfectly still. He studied Wilkins in the soft light of the barn, waiting for the man to make his move.
Wilkins looked right, then left and then back at Johnny. “Go to hell,” he growled and went for his gun. He had just cleared leather when Johnny’s bullet tore a gaping hole into his brain.
Madrid walked over and picked up Wilkins’ gun and put it in his belt. He started ejecting spent cartridges and reloading his own gun before he walked out into the night to finish the job. He saw Ringo coming out of the ranch house and moved over, noting that most of the fighting had died down. “Ringo?”
“You get Wilkins?”
“Yeah. What’dya doing in the house?”
“Finishing the game.”
“You killed Stewart?”
“I didn’t ask ya to. I would’ve …. “
“Maybe, maybe not. It’s done. We all had our parts to play. Game is done.”
“Yeah,” Johnny looked at the house and wondered if Ringo had played the game fair. He turned and stepped onto the porch and gave one of his ear-splitting whistles. “Jobs done. Let’s head for home.”
Rosa entered the parlor, where Kate sat with Val. “Senorita, would you and the Senor like some more churros while you wait?”
Kate smiled. “I don’t think I can eat a thing. Val?”
Val grinned. “Well, reckon I could eat one or two. Reckon Brice could too.”
Rosa took the platter to Val and watched him take three churros. “I will take to the chico,” she said and headed to the front door.
Val took a bite and smiled. “This is right fitting. Johnny’ll eat some when he gets back. Fights always make that boy hungry. Hell, he’s always hungry. Begging your pardon Miss Kate for cussing.”
“It’s quite alright, Val. I grew up on a ranch. I’ve heard plenty.”
Val nodded. He looked at his propped-up leg and cursed his luck silently. “Wish I was with him. Hate having to depend on Ringo to watch his back.”
“Mr. Ringo has seemed dependable.”
“Yeah, just hope he is in a pinch. I asked him to take care of something. Hope he did. Johnny’ll be madder than a wet hen about it but needed doing my way. Anyway, I hate anyone watching his back but for me, dependable or not.”
“You two are quite close.”
“Yeah, been that way for a good while. He’s …”
“He’s a deadman,” Cutter said as he entered the room, his left arm around a terrified Rosa, his right arm holding his gun out.
Kate stood. Val clumsily did the same on his unsteady leg. “Let the woman go, you sonovabitch!”
“I plan to Crawford. When I exchange her for the pretty one.” He leered at Kate. “So, you’re Madrid’s woman. I seen ya carrying on earlier today. You’ll be good bait.”
Val was looking behind Cutter, wondering where Brice was. Cutter saw Val and laughed. “That shavetail’s dead. I gutted him like a fish and waited until this woman came out.”
“Cutter, you’re a damn fool. Johnny’ll kill ya like he did your brothers.”
“Well, reckon you’re as close to him as a brother,” Cutter said as he raised his arm and fired a shot. Rosa pushed into him and caused his shot to go wide, hitting Val in the shoulder rather than the chest. Val went down as Rosa screamed. Cutter pushed the screaming woman on top of Val’s prone body, grabbed Kate and headed out the door. “Tell Madrid we’ll be waiting!”
Heavy clouds drifted in from the west, obscuring the moonlight. The road back to Aqua Caliente was dark, but Johnny rode fast, confident his horse could navigate the way. A quick assessment of the aftermath of the battle at Stewart’s ranch had revealed the absence of Jake Cutter. No one had seen the man with the scar across his left cheek. Grasping Cutter’s play too late, Johnny knew he was in a race against time to reach the ranch before Cutter. In fact, he knew he was already too late. Ringo and Isham kept pace with Johnny, ready to aid in Jake Cutter’s demise, if necessary.
“Kate!” Johnny yelled as he ran into the house, unable to keep the fear out of his voice. “Val! Where are you?”
“In the kitchen, Johnny!”
Johnny ran to the back of the house. Val was seated at the kitchen table as Rosa tended to his injured shoulder. Her eyes were wet and she was murmuring a prayer in Spanish.
“Where’s Kate?” Johnny asked, already knowing the answer.
“Cutter took her. I’m sorry, Johnny, he got the drop on us. He tried to kill me, but this brave senora saved my life,” Val said as he patted Rosa’s arm.
“How long ago?”
“About a half-hour, I’d guess,” Val said. “I couldn’t see, but it sounded like he rode off to the north.”
Without another word, Johnny turned and ran back to the front of the house.
Val turned his head to Rosa and said in a calm voice, “Johnny will bring your girl home. But it won’t hurt if you want to keep praying.”
Ringo and Isham had ridden up behind Johnny and were waiting as Johnny reached the veranda.
“He took Kate. Go saddle us some fresh horses. You’re coming with me.”
“Madrid, how are we gonna track him? It’s pitch black out here. We barely found our way back,” Ringo asked.
“He’s right, Johnny,” Isham said. “We could ride around in circles in the dark. Let’s wait till sunup. Cutter’s not gonna be able to see his way any better than we could.”
Johnny knew they were right, but his gut churned, knowing what Cutter was capable of doing in the hours before they could find him.
“All right, we’ll wait for first light. Go get some rest. I’ll get you when it’s time to go.”
As Isham and Ringo walked to the bunkhouse, Johnny took one of the chairs from the veranda and placed it in the yard facing east. He sat and waited for the morning.
They had been riding for about an hour. At the first glimmer of light, Johnny had woken Isham and Ringo. As they prepared to leave the ranch, Rosa had met them in the yard with extra canteens, some food and a bundle of bandages. She looked at Johnny with pleading eyes. He leaned down from the saddle and put his hand on her shoulder and said, “I’ll bring her home, Rosa. That’s a promise.”
Before heading out, Johnny turned to Isham and Ringo and said, “When we catch up with them, Jake Cutter is mine. And you know what to do if . . .”
Isham interrupted, “You don’t need to say it, Madrid.”
The flat terrain was behind them and they were beginning to ascend the rocky hillside north of the ranch house. Isham called out, “Johnny, take a look at that.”
Johnny turned in the saddle to see Isham pointing to something flapping from the branch of a saguaro on the trail ahead of them. Johnny jumped down and ran to the cactus for a closer inspection. He felt like he’d been gut-punched as he recognized the item.
“Hey, isn’t that the kerchief Kate was wearing?” Ringo asked. “Do you think she put it there?”
Johnny found it difficult to speak through his seething anger. He untied the scarf and put it in his saddlebag. Back on his horse, he said, “Maybe, maybe not. But we’re on the right trail.” He pushed his horse forward.
As they climbed further into the hills they were forced to ride single file. The trail was a narrow strand, running between closely knitted boulders and rocks. The slowness of the pace only fed Johnny’s agitation. He stopped when he saw another marker tied to a tree branch. It was Kate’s jacket. He knew then that the items were being placed by Cutter, not Kate. He was marking the trail while taunting Johnny in the process. Johnny removed the jacket and put it in his saddlebag.
“Let’s keep going.”
Progress was slow as they maneuvered the path. All three riders dismounted when they came upon the third marker. It was Kate’s blouse, blowing like a windsock, tied to the branch of a young ironwood tree.
“Jesus, what kind of man would do that?” Isham asked.
“The worst possible kind,” Johnny said, venom in his voice. He added the blouse to the collection in his saddlebag and leaped back into the saddle. Images of his mother lying on the floor of their cabin in Pinos Altos flashed before him. He removed his hat and ran his hands through his hair. He shook the memories away and quelled the panic welling up inside of him. Stay calm, Madrid. Kate’s counting on you.
They eventually reached a clearing. A small cabin was visible to the east. A saddled horse was grazing in a small patch of vegetation. They were facing the western side of the cabin and could not see the front.
“This is it,” Johnny said. He took a deep breath and cleared his mind of everything but Kate. He had to get her to safety, then he would take care of Cutter.
“Stay here,” he said to Isham and Ringo. “I’ll let you know if I need you.”
Johnny handed the reins of this horse to Ringo and started walking toward the cabin. He noted that the wind was much stronger here than on the trail and it had picked up some dust from the desert floor. The easterly direction would work in his favor, that is, if he could keep Cutter’s back to the east. He kept walking, his right hand poised on the hilt of his Colt. When he was about 50 yards from the cabin, he came within view of the front. There was a small porch on which he saw two people seated. Kate’s legs were tied to the legs of the chair, her arms tied down as well. Her mouth was gagged. She wore only her trousers and a thin camisole. He could see her shaking, whether from the cool morning air or from fear, it didn’t matter. Jake Cutter was responsible.
Cutter stood up and stepped down from the porch, his gun drawn and pointed at Kate.
“That’s close enough, Madrid.”
Johnny stopped. His eyes were on Kate. She looked back at him with a brief nod of her head. But the signal of hope wasn’t enough to hide the fear in her eyes.
“Let her go, Cutter. You don’t need her anymore. You’ve got me where you want me.”
Cutter eyed Johnny from head to toe. “Well, Madrid, it’s been a long time. You’ve grown up, kid.”
“Yeah, Cutter, I’m not the defenseless boy you remember. Just let the girl go and we can get on with our business.” Johnny wanted to give Kate a reassuring glance, but he couldn’t take his focus off of Cutter.
“Nah, she’s not goin’ anyplace, except with me when you’re dead. They say you’re pretty good with that gun.”
Johnny breathed in deeply. Cutter wasn’t going to let Kate go, that was clear. He had to finish the job quickly. He calmed himself and relaxed his shoulders. He answered Cutter matter of factly, “They’re right. I am good. As you’re about to find out, just like your brothers did.”
“You don’t look so tough to me,” Cutter said, eyeing Johnny as a nuisance rather than a threat. “You couldn’t save your mama, but you think you can save this pretty young thing? I gotta give it to ya, Madrid, you got good taste. She’s a ripe one, all right.”
“Shut up, Cutter. Let’s get this over with.”
Cutter holstered his gun and ran his hand over his face, wiping the dust from his eyes. His hand quickly returned to his weapon. “Okay, Madrid, you’re so anxious to be the hero, let’s see what you’ve got.”
Both men drew and fired their guns, a choreographed dance each had played out in their heads over and over again. Kate jolted and gasped at the sound of gunfire. Johnny ran to the prone figure on the ground. He kicked the gun that was next to him out of the man’s reach. It was an unnecessary action. The man was dead, shot through the heart. Johnny bolted to the porch. He removed the gag from Kate’s mouth. He cupped her face in his hands and wiped away her tears while brushing her hair back from her face. His voice was raw as he asked, “Are you okay?”
“I am now,” she said, then began sobbing.
Johnny caressed her face and said, “Let me get these ropes off of you.” He pulled his knife out of his boot and started cutting at the ropes. His quick work had her released in seconds. He pulled her into his arms and held her while she cried.
“Kate, I’m so sorry. This is all my fault.” He let her go just long enough to pull his jacket off and help her into it.
“No, Johnny, you can’t blame yourself. We’re both okay. I just want to go home.”
Isham and Ringo approached the porch. “Johnny, what do you need from us?” Isham asked.
Johnny asked Kate, “Are we still on your property?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding her head against his chest.
“Do you need this cabin?”
“I never knew it was here. I don’t need it.”
Johnny looked at Isham and Ringo, his eyes dark, his voice grave, and said, “Drag his body inside. Then burn it to the ground. I’m taking Kate home.”
Johnny gathered Kate into his arms and carried her to his waiting horse. Once in the saddle, he positioned her across his lap and cradled her against his chest. He pointed his horse south under the swirling storm clouds.
“There you are. Rosa said I might find you here,” Johnny said.
Kate was standing against the fence encircling the remuda, facing west. As he approached her, he saw her wipe her eyes with the sleeve of her blouse. He went to her and put his arms around her and held her close.
“Aw, Katie,” he said softly, “I wish I could do all of this over.”
“That’s not why I’m crying,” she said. “I used to come out here with Daddy to watch the sunset. I miss him so much, Johnny.” He continued to hold her until the tears had stopped and she stepped away. She wiped a final tear from her cheek. “After all of this, I wonder if I’ll be able to keep the ranch going.”
“You’re going to do just fine. And you have Carlos to help you.”
“Sure, I know.”
The western sky demanded their attention. Neither of them said anything for a few moments. They stood side by side, Johnny with his arm around her shoulders, and they took in the splendor of the desert sunset. As the sun neared the mountains on the horizon, the gradations of colors, yellow, orange, and red, radiated in all directions. Nearing its nadir, the sun spread a ribbon of deep red across the ground. Cacti and trees rising up from the desert floor appeared as silhouettes against the bluish-purple sky.
“Isn’t it spectacular, Johnny?”
“Yes, it is,” he said, giving her shoulder a gentle squeeze. Johnny had seen hundreds of desert sunsets, but none matched the brilliance of this one. Not because of the uniqueness of this particular light show, but because of the woman standing next to him.
After the sun had taken its final plunge into the horizon, Johnny asked, “Did you get some rest?”
“I tried, but everything kept running through my head. I overheard you and Val talking. You’re leaving tomorrow?”
“Maybe. Val says we should move on. He thinks it’s time we get out of your hair and leave you to get on with the business of running the ranch. I told him I won’t leave until I know you’re okay.”
A slight smile appeared on Kate’s face. “I rather like having you in my hair. Besides, you need to stay at least another day. There’s something I want you to do.”
“Build you a new barn?” Johnny asked teasingly.
“No, Carlos will get that done. I want you to take Val to the hot springs. He needs to sit in the healing waters. It will help his wounds heal.”
“You really believe they can heal a person?”
“All I know is that my father had a bad wound on his leg from a fall onto a pitchfork. It was slow to heal until he started soaking in the hot springs. And what’s the downside? It certainly wouldn’t hurt. Now, of course, he has to take off all of his clothes to derive any benefit from the water.”
Johnny couldn’t suppress a laugh at the image of Val sitting buck naked in a desert pool of hot water. “Right, I’ll just tell him it’s like an outdoor bathtub.”
“That’s exactly right,” Kate said. “Will you do it?”
“Sure, I’ll do it. Anything you want, I’ll do it.”
“And you know, the Apache believe the waters can heal the wounds we can’t see as well as those we can. I’m not sending you there just for Val’s benefit. I want you to experience it too.”
Johnny looked at her with wonderment, astounded by how a person he had known for less than a week could be able to see into his soul the way she did. It made him feel stripped of all defenses. There was nothing he could hide from her. He collected his emotions and said, “It seems important to you that we go there. Like I said, anything you want, I’ll do it. Will you come with us?”
“No, that wouldn’t be appropriate. I’ll go soon. I have some wounds that need tending to as well.”
“And not just the ones you can see?”
“Right.” Kate took a few steps, gathering her thoughts. She turned back to face Johnny and said, “When I saw you with Cutter this morning, I was terrified. I was so afraid he was going to kill you. I didn’t care what happened to me because if you were dead, nothing else mattered.”
“I’m sorry you had to watch it. It’s an unfortunate part of my life. With Cutter, it was personal. But there will always be someone who wants to build his reputation by putting a bullet in me. Kate, I’ve lived by the gun since the day I picked one up to defend myself. And I’m pretty sure I’ll die by the gun. It’s too late for me to be anything other than what I am.”
“It’s never too late if you really want something different.”
“I can’t just wake up some morning and decide I’m not a gunfighter anymore. That’s not the way it works, particularly for someone . . .”
“With your reputation?”
“Well, one thing I learned today is that I could never have a life with you. Not as long as you’re a gunfighter. I would live in fear every day of losing you. I know I can’t live that way.”
“I care about you, Kate. That’s why I can’t stay. I would only bring you more pain.”
“I know, Johnny.” She walked to him and put her arms around him. “I can dream all I want, but I would never want you to be anyone other than who you are.” She looked up, kissed him on the cheek and said, “Thank you.”
“What are you thanking me for?”
“Because I now have a sunset memory with you.”
After a fair amount of cajoling and physical force, Johnny eventually got Val, sans clothing, settled in the waters of the hot spring. Johnny found himself a remote corner of the springs to soak in while he left his friend to brood about how he’d been hoodwinked into some voodoo medicine water. Val finally quieted down when he realized he didn’t have an audience. Johnny was left with his thoughts, mostly of Kate. After about fifteen minutes, his contemplation was interrupted when Val made his way over to Johnny’s corner of the springs.
“You want some company? I can hear your brain cranking about something,” Val said.
“I should have taken care of Cutter when I first got here. Instead, I let him get control.”
“There’s no sense second guessing yourself. There was a lot going on when you got here. The job was the main thing, and that’s what you were thinking about.”
“Then I broke the rule.”
“Yeah, you sure did.”
“Did I do anything right?”
“Sure you did. Kate still has her ranch. Cutter’s dead. So you must’ve done something right. I mean, other than breaking rule numero uno, you did good, Johnny.”
“Then why do I feel like I failed?”
“It’s a broken heart that’s making you feel that way. Yours and Kate’s. Cheer up, amigo, you’re not the first gunhawk to fall for the pretty girl.”
One side of Johnny’s mouth turned up, a look of mild surprise on his face. “You, Val?”
“Yes, me, Johnny. Even I had a soft heart once upon a time.”
“Who was she?”
“Her name was Molly. Her daddy owned a big spread down near Laredo, Texas. I wasn’t much older than you are now. She was the prettiest gal I’d ever seen. I fell fast and hard. Nearly didn’t get outta there unhitched. Meaning, she wanted to marry me! Can you believe it? Well, that told me she didn’t have very good taste, so I told her I needed to skedaddle.”
“You sure can spin a tale, Val. The only part of that I believe is that you fell fast and hard. I’ll bet the real story is that you wanted to marry her and her daddy said no way, here’s your pay, vamoose!”
Val looked impressed. “Ya know, Johnny, I don’t give you nearly enough credit for how smart-alecky you can be. But yeah, I wanted her all right. But I wouldn’t have been any good for her. Same problem you got with Kate. No amount of love in the world can keep them safe.”
Johnny expressed his agreement with a deep sigh.
“Val, I want to ask you something. What do you know about Ringo taking care of Stewart?”
“I pulled rank on ya, Johnny. I figured Stewart, being a businessman and all, would let others do his fighting for him. He would run and hide when the bullets started to fly. I sent a special envoy to deal with him.”
“Yeah. Sad as it is, he’s got the stomach for that kind of action. He’s not as worried about it being a fair fight as you are. I didn’t want you to have to make that decision.”
“You don’t have to protect me, Val.”
“I wasn’t protecting you. I was making sure a job got done. And Ringo was the best man for the job. Like it or not, the man can be useful sometimes. If it makes ya feel any better, Ringo told me Stewart had a gun.”
“All right, thanks for telling me. Well, amigo, are you feeling all healed yet? ‘Cause I’ve done all of the healing I can take.”
“Listen to you, where’d all that “Oh, it’ll do ya good, Val, give it a try” go? Ya know, this wasn’t all that bad. I think I do feel better. I can move my back without getting a hitch in my side,” Val said as he twisted his torso side to side.
“Be sure to tell Kate that. She’ll be thrilled! Come on, we don’t want to be late for dinner. Kate said she invited Isham and Ringo to join us to thank them for helping me rescue her.”
“She’s a good woman, Johnny. I can’t fault ya for fallin’ for her. That rule number one has always been the hardest for me, too.”
“Sure. Now move that healed body out of here.”
Later that evening, after a celebration of sorts at dinner, Kate had retired to her room and was prepared for bed. She felt tired, still drained from the ordeal of the last couple of days, but she dreaded the onset of sleep. For when she woke it would be the morning when Johnny would leave. As she moved to extinguish the lamp next to her bed, there was a soft knock on her door.
“Come in,” she said.
The door opened and Johnny stepped into her room. He held a neatly folded pile of clothing in his hands. He quietly closed the door behind him.
“I forgot I had these in my saddlebags. I didn’t know what to do with them.”
Kate smiled. “Thank you, but I’m not sure I want them back.”
“Sure,” Johnny said apologetically. “I can give them to Rosa or throw them away. Whatever you want.”
Kate walked over to him and took the clothes from him. “No, it’s fine. It was very sweet of you to keep them for me. I’ll just put them on the dresser for now and deal with them later.”
Johnny turned and put his hand on the door handle, then quickly dropped his hand and turned back to face Kate. He dropped all pretense.
“The clothes were just an excuse. I know I shouldn’t be in here with you, Kate, but . . .”
“I don’t mind that you’re here, and it is my house,” Kate said with a smile.
“The thing is, I need to talk to you. I can’t leave here not knowing what happened when you were with Cutter. I know you haven’t wanted to talk about it and I’ve respected that, but I need to know. I don’t want you keeping anything from me.”
“I’m not keeping anything from you, Johnny. It just wasn’t a pleasant time. I’d rather forget about it and move on. And I know you feel guilty about him taking me. I don’t want to do anything to feed that guilt. And it wouldn’t change anything. It’s not like you can kill him again.”
Johnny took a few paces in the small area by the bed. He rubbed his hands on his thighs to settle the involuntary twitching of his fingers. He took a deep, cleansing breath and said, “It is my fault that Cutter kidnapped you. I deserve to feel guilty. You don’t need to protect me. I can still see what he did to my mother. I’m going crazy imagining what he did to you. Please tell me.”
Kate felt a clutch in her heart hearing the emotion in his voice. He was pleading with her. She walked over to him and took his hand.
“All right, Johnny, I’ll tell you. Come sit with me.” She guided him to the low chest at the foot of her bed and they sat down. “I want you to let me tell you everything, then I’ll answer any questions you have. Just let me get through it, okay?”
Johnny nodded his understanding.
Kate took a deep breath and began.
“I knew if I was going to survive I would have to be compliant. And I knew that wouldn’t be easy. I felt humiliated each time he forced me to remove an item of clothing to leave for you to find, which was what he wanted. But his main goal was to torture you. I knew you’d be searching for me and would eventually find me and it was all that was keeping me from falling apart.
“Cutter stopped and made camp when it got too dark to continue. By this time, I was down to my blouse and trousers and I was freezing. He tied me to a tree and made no attempt to provide me with any warmth. He ate some jerky and drank coffee, but he didn’t offer me anything. Not even water. I knew it was going to be a long night. I passed the time by imagining I was bathing in the hot springs and remembering the way you held me when you kissed me. Those thoughts gave me some relief from the cold.
“Cutter was quiet and didn’t say anything to me all night. In the morning, he said this was the day Johnny Madrid would die. I started to cry and he told me to stop whimpering. He said my tears weren’t going to do you any good. We only had one horse. He made me sit behind him. I had no choice but to hold on to him to keep from falling off. The trail was so rocky, it wouldn’t have taken much for me to fall. I imagined finding a way to knock him off the horse, but I knew I wasn’t strong enough to do that.
“We got to the cabin midmorning. The cabin was small, only one room, with an old bed and a fireplace. The place was dirty and probably hadn’t been used for a long time. How Cutter knew it was there, I’ll never know.
“By the time we got to the cabin, I had held my tongue long enough.
“I said to him, ‘You know Johnny’s going to kill you when he finds you.’
“He said, ‘We’ll see about that.’
“It probably wasn’t my smartest move, but after the way he’d treated me, I couldn’t resist taunting him. I said, ‘Word has it, he’s the best gunfighter around.’
“He laughed at that and said, “I doubt it. He’s just a kid.’
“I was really pressing my luck when I said, ‘He bested your two brothers, didn’t he?’
“That provoked him. He got right up in my face and put his hand around my neck. He screamed at me, ‘Don’t you talk about my brothers. Madrid will pay for what he did to them.’
“He let go of my neck and I was coughing hard, then I must have lost my mind because I croaked out, ‘What about his mother? What about what you did to her?’
Kate paused and took a deep breath. She had not looked at Johnny while she was talking. Her mouth was getting dry and she forced a hard swallow. She looked at her hands in her lap and continued.
“He really was a despicable man, Johnny. After asking him about what he did to your mother, he said, ‘She was nothing. Just a worthless Mexican. She was expendable.’
“I was livid. I screamed back at him, ‘She was his mother! No one deserves what you did to her.’
“He actually seemed to enjoy my outburst. He said, ‘Well, aren’t you the feisty one? Is that why Madrid likes you so much? You get fiery like this with him?’
“I was so upset that I started to cry. I hated myself for letting him get to me, but I hated him more. I told him, ‘Johnny may be young, but he’s already more of a man than you have ever been. And you’ll die a weak and pathetic man when he kills you.’
“I really thought he’d kill me after that, but he said if I didn’t shut up, he’d shut me up. That’s when he put the gag in my mouth. I had to force myself to stop crying. I was afraid I’d choke to death. Then he dragged me out to the porch and tied me to the chair. When he finished tying me down, he gave me the most disgusting smile and said, ‘There, now, you’ve got your own front-row seat to watch the killing of Johnny Madrid.’
I had to choke back my tears. I kept repeating to myself, ‘Johnny’s on his way, stay strong, Johnny’s on his way.’ We’d been out there for about half an hour when I looked up and saw you. I was so relieved but also terrified about what might happen to you. I wanted to shut my eyes and block it all out, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of you. And you know the rest.”
She sighed deeply, feeling the toll of reliving the experience. She felt his arms around her, then the tears came. His tears mixed with hers as he held her tight. She felt and heard his ragged breathing, her head pressed against his chest.
The story had taken its toll on him as well. After a few minutes, their tears spent, they relaxed in each other’s arms. Johnny took her hand and said, “I see what it cost you to tell me. Thank you, Kate.”
Kate looked at him, “You’re welcome. I always knew you would find me. He kidnapped me, he held me hostage, he humiliated me, he tried to choke me, he deprived me of food and warmth, but he didn’t break me, Johnny. I just had to survive.”
“You are an incredibly brave woman,” Johnny said.
“It was thinking of you that gave me the strength to endure it. Like I said before, we both survived. Nothing else matters. I don’t have any physical scars, and the memory of what happened will fade over time. I hope you can let go of the guilt because I will be fine. I don’t blame you, so you shouldn’t blame yourself. No one can control what another person does.”
Johnny caressed her face with his hand. “I’ll work on it.”
Kate knew that it had been difficult for Johnny to hear her account of what occurred with Cutter, particularly what the man had said about his mother. She thought he could use a happier story.
“I had a visit from the Apache chief today while you and Val were at the hot springs. I told him about Stewart’s attempt to take over the ranch and the springs. He said he had heard about what was going on here. He also heard about you and all that you and your men did to save the ranch.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I would have liked to have met him.”
“He said the same thing. So I’m the messenger of his thanks. He’s very grateful for what you’ve done to save the hot springs, just as I am. I told him you were at the springs for some healing, which was why you weren’t here when he arrived. He seemed pleased about that. You not only saved my ranch, but you preserved the peace with our Apache friends that my father worked so hard to achieve.”
“If you’re happy and he’s happy, then I’m happy,” Johnny said, a wide smile on his face. “I know I’ve kept you up too late. Will you be able to sleep?”
“I doubt it.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to ruin . . .”
Kate placed her finger against his lips. “It’s not that. I don’t want you to go.”
“Kate, we’ve talked about that . . .”
“I’m not talking about tomorrow. I mean now, tonight. I want you to stay with me tonight.”
“You know what you’re saying?”
Kate laughed softly, “Of course I know what I’m saying. I’m sure you’re ready to tell me all of the reasons why it’s a bad idea. Well, I know all of those reasons, and they don’t matter to me. They probably should, but they don’t. If I have to spend the rest of my life without you in it, I’d rather have the memory of one beautiful night than a lifetime of regret. If you have to leave me with anything, leave me with that.”
“You’re sure? Because if I kiss you, there’ll be no turning back.”
She put her hand on his face and drew his lips to hers. “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”
The sun burned hot and bright on the clear September morning. After being paid and saying their farewells, most of the hired guns had left Aqua Caliente shortly after breakfast.
Kate stepped out on the front veranda just as Johnny and Val walked up from the barn, their horse’s reins in their hands. Ringo and Isham rode up behind them. She walked a few steps to them and said, “Ringo, Isham, thank you for everything you’ve done to help me save my ranch. I’m very grateful.”
Isham nodded and said, “Our pleasure, ma’am.”
She looked up at Ringo, smiled and said, “Watch out for bobcats that like to sleep in caves.”
Ringo laughed, tipped his hat. “Yes, ma’am. I won’t always have a man who can talk to cats with me.”
Kate turned to face Val. “And you, Mr. Crawford. I will forever be in your debt.”
“Oh, now, that ain’t true. You paid us fair and square. The slate is clear,” Val said with an enormous smile on his face.
“You know what I mean. Now, promise me you’ll take care of yourself. Those wounds aren’t completely healed yet.”
“Sure, I promise I’ll take it easy for a few days,” Val said, a twinkle in his eyes.
Kate leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, then whispered in his ear, “And please take care of Johnny.”
Val involuntarily touched his cheek where she had kissed him, and said, “It’s been a real pleasure working for you, Miss Kate. If you ever need my help again, just put the word out.”
“Thanks, Val. I will.”
Val mounted his horse and looked to Isham and Ringo, “Come on boys, let’s head out. Johnny, we’ll wait for you at the gate.”
Johnny nodded, then turned to Kate. She spoke first. “I’ve been dreading this moment. I almost went riding this morning so I wouldn’t have to watch you go.”
“Well, I’m glad you didn’t, cause I would have had to come looking for you, and then Val would have been mad cause I made us late in leaving.” They both laughed, knowing Johnny was right.
The moment of levity passed quickly. Kate stepped close to Johnny and said, “I’ll never forget you, Johnny Madrid.”
“I won’t forget you either, Kate.”
“Johnny, I need to tell you something. I don’t say it to try to make you stay. I just need to say the words, even though I think you already know. I love you. Whatever happens, wherever you go, I want you to know that there’s someone in the world who loves you.”
Johnny struggled to control his emotions. How many people had said those words to him? Only one other that he could recall. “Katie, I . . .”
Kate rested her hand on his chest over his heart. “You don’t need to say anything. I don’t need to hear you say it back to me. But please remember, if you ever tire of roaming and you need a place to come home to, I’ll be here.”
Johnny pulled her close and held her tight. After a few moments, he stepped back and said, “Kate Morgan, you are an exceptional woman. I am a lucky man to have met you. And just so you know, I love you, too.” His kiss was warm and gentle and longer than he had intended. Then he knew it was time to leave. “So long, Kate,” he said, his voice soft and low.
“Goodbye, Johnny,” Kate said.
She watched as he quickly mounted his horse and set off for the road. Several yards out, he turned his horse to face the house, removed his hat and waved it in the air. She smiled and raised her hand high and waved back. Kate hoped that from that distance he wasn’t able to see her tears. Then he turned and vanished down the road taking him away from her life.
Rosa watched from the garden as Kate said her goodbyes. When Kate and Johnny were finally alone, she lowered her head and glanced their way only occasionally. She looked up as Johnny mounted his horse and turned to the road. She gave Kate a few minutes to be alone with her thoughts, then she joined her on the veranda.
“Lo siento, Katie. I know it hurts to see him go. The storm clouds may be gone from the sky above us, but a storm is still raging inside that young man. In time you will see it is for the best that he goes his own way.”
“I know, Rosa, but I miss him already.”
“You will miss him always, si?”
Kate nodded. “I suppose I will.” She leaned into the comfort of Rosa’s arms and said, “He might come back. One day. Maybe the storm will settle.”
Rosa hugged the girl and said, “Si, mi hija, todo es posible.”
Four Years Later – Central California
The time it took the brothers to ride from the Lancer ranch to Cross Creek went by quickly with Johnny’s telling of the story. They were within sight of their destination as Johnny reined in his horse and stopped next to Scott.
“So, Scott, that’s the long answer to your question, was there anyone I cared about that I left behind in my old life. The short answer is, yes.”
“That’s quite a story. I can understand why you didn’t stay with her at the time, but a lot has changed since then. I can tell you still have feelings for her. I can hear it in your voice when you talk about her.”
“I’ll always have feelings for her. I loved her. The time just wasn’t right for us.”
“So, what about now? Do you think there’s still a chance?”
“I don’t know,” Johnny said, adjusting his hat as he contemplated the question. “My life has changed. There’s no reason to believe that hers hasn’t changed, too.”
Scott removed his hat and slapped it against Johnny’s arm. “Well, brother, there’s only one way to find out!”
“Scott, you really are the ultimate optimist, aren’t you?” Johnny said as he nudged his horse forward.
“I just think it would be a shame if two people were living separate lives, each still caring about the other, that’s all,” Scott said.
Johnny shot his brother a mischievous grin and asked, “Scott, have you ever been to Tucson?”
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