The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Amigos Para La Vita
(Friends For Life)

 

The town wasn't much. Functional was a good word for it, he supposed. There was a store, a saloon with rooms, a barbershop and a livery. And, of course, a church. He smirked at that. It didn't matter where you went, there was always a church. The poorest, most rundown village in Mexico even had a church. He figured north of the border should be at least as 'upright'. A crooked grin pulled his mouth upward for two seconds before he stopped in front of the saloon.

As he dismounted, he looked down the street, wondering if everyone might just be inside that church. It was quiet as a Sunday. Must all be in there prayin they don't get caught in the crossfire, he thought sarcastically as he tied off the reins. Grabbing his saddlebags and rifle, he stepped up to the batwings and peered inside. Not a soul save the bartender. Good.

His spurs sounded incredibly loud as he walked across the planks loosely called a floor. Raising his left shoulder, he dropped the saddlebags on one end of the equally 'stable' bar and leaned his rifle against it. "Whiskey," he called to the man coming toward him with a towel in hand then, he turned half-way to take in the room fully.

He tapped his fingers on the long piece of wood that ran about four feet down the length. It was a fair sized room with several tables. A large mirror hung behind the bar. Another staple in these joints. The smell was all too familiar, as well. Stale beer, stale smoke and stale piss. He watched the man pour the drink and slide it in front of him.

"Got any rooms?"

The bartender looked to weigh about two hundred fifty pounds. All of it fat. He slung the towel over one meaty shoulder, his shirt unbuttoned once too often, revealing graying chest hair that was slick with sweat. The same sweat that plastered what little light hair he had left over his pate. His eyes were watery blue, looking as if he might cry at any second. Yet, there was a knowing in those eyes. The same knowing most bartenders possessed.

"Got plenty of rooms, mistah," he drawled.

Smiling a little, he tossed the whiskey down his dusty throat and sighed out. "Just need one. A single," he replied with a brow cocked, intended to imply that situation would not be changing no matter how many customers the man might suddenly find himself with.

"Pretty quiet around here," he added.

The bartender shrugged. "Reckon that won't be lastin long once the rest of the ..." he paused and looked at the man who seemed to be amused. "Soon as the others show up," he amended.

"Do you know how many?"

"From the way things have been goin round here, could be a whole lot of you fellas ridin in. The sun ain't the only thing heatin things up."

He thought to ask more but decided not. It wasn't wise to seem too interested in these things and he wasn't really. He was just looking for a job, after all. The word had been spread like wildfire around the border. This range war would be fierce by all accounts. The only thing he needed to know was who was paying the most.

"So, which one of 'em has the most money?"

The bartender's face remained impassive as he went back to cleaning his glasses. "Does it matter to you who's in the right?"

His eyes narrowed as he studied the big man behind the counter. "Nope."

With a barely discernible sigh, the bartender replied, "Pendleton," then reached into a drawer behind him and tossed the key. "Room 1 at the top of the stairs."

He nodded as he picked the key up then, his saddlebags and rifle and headed for the stairwell.

"There's no saloon girls here," the bartender called.

He paused on the first step and looked back, his face unreadable. He made no reply and continued on his way.

*****

He didn't stay in the room long and stepped out of the saloon, eyes searching the street for any sign of life. A wagon pulled up directly across from him and he leaned against a support beam, crossing his arms and watching closely. The man that climbed off the seat had to be the one he sought. The description fit at any rate.

He was six feet with a rugged tanned complexion that told of many hours out in the Texas sun. His dress was nothing outstanding. Simple work clothes of a beige color with a tan vest. He wore his gun up high, the handle pearl, he noted. It was the belt that gave it away. Was why he knew who this man was. It was very noticeable, the tooled leather specially made for him with a lone star of silver carved on each side.

He watched the man walk into the general store then crossed the street to follow.

There were no other customers and he was almost surprised to see the storekeeper. So far, this was only the third person he'd seen since arriving. A smirk crossed his face then he settled his eyes on the rancher standing at the counter.

Walking up, he didn't beat around the bush. "Mr. Pendleton?"

The man turned and warily studied him. "Yes?"

"Friend of mine said you were havin some trouble. Asked if I'd give a hand. Smiley White?"

A look of recognition crossed the rancher's face. "Oh, yes. I remember Smiley. A good drover."

"Yeah, he's a pretty good all around cowboy. Anyway, he thought I could help out."

Pendleton stared at him for a beat as he considered this. "Alright, since Smiley sent you but I have a particular gunfighter on his way and he'll be in charge. Until then, sit tight. We'll let you know when it's time."

He nodded once. "Good enough. I'll be at the saloon. I reckon that's where the rest will show up."

"I suppose I should know your name," Pendleton remarked.

His mouth quirked, more of a sneer than a smile. "Crawford. Val Crawford."

*****

His eyes scanned the yard as he rode up to the house. It was something to see. Huge white columns lined the large front porch, hanging flowers pots everywhere you looked. The grass was deep green so there had to be an underground water supply. It was too damned hot in Texas for anything to be that green without a lot of help. He should know, he'd swallowed a ton of dust riding up here.

As he dismounted, he noticed a few hands working near the house. They were all armed with pistols but no rifles. He frowned at that. If the man was having that much trouble, his men should be more prepared. Looking over at the garden beside the house, he raised one finger to the brim of his hat for the women weeding there. Nice garden, too.

He stepped onto the porch just as the door opened and a husky man stepped out. He was of average height but solid build. He was too well-dressed for a working rancher, though. He was pale complected and that was bit of a surprise.

"I'm glad you're here. They've all started arriving in town. It looks like you'll have plenty to choose from, Mr. Madrid."

Johnny shook hands with the man and nodded. "We'll see, Mr. Locke. I'll ride in and take a look. Right now, your men need to keep rifles at the ready when they're working in case Pendleton decides to make a run at you. Those women yours?"

The man stared for a moment, more in appreciation for the business-like demeanor. He knew he'd made the best choice for this job. Madrid was no-nonsense and he liked that. "They work for me. I'm not married."

"I'm gonna try to keep this away from your house but that might not be possible. You might want to think about keepin them someplace safe."

Locke snorted. "They're hired help."

Johnny's eyes narrowed as he stared the man down. "They need to go," he stated in an icy voice.

His jaw tightened, the argument on his lips for a second before he swallowed hard and relented. "Fine. I'll send them ... someplace. What else do you need from me?"

"Need a place to stay for one. You have two bunkhouses. Can you clear one out?"

"No problem."

Johnny nodded. "Good. I'll ride into town, stay there tonight and see what there is to pick from. We'll be back tomorrow sometime." He didn't wait for a reply, just turned and walked back to his stallion. 

*****

It sure didn't take long, he thought as he sat in the back of the saloon watching the gunhawks filter in. He'd only arrived yesterday himself. Some of them were known to him and simple nods were exchanged as those men wandered in. Others, he'd never seen before and he could almost say which of those he'd never see again when this was over. Kids, a lot of kids. He was sure some of them weren't old enough to shave. Yet, here they were, seeking their thrills.

He sighed heavily though it couldn't be heard over the din. There'd been a whole lot of grumbling each time a new group came in and found no women in sight. He had wondered about that, too. But, he'd figured it out. There were women, they were just hiding out until the shootin was over and the gunfighters were gone. He smirked at that.

Still, they all managed to find a way to enjoy themselves with poker games and wild stories of past adventures. The young ones kept their ears wide open listening to those bullshit stories and he could only shake his head. The laughter roared as the veterans called each other out, stating loudly and gregariously that these little tales were the stuff of dreams.

Suddenly, the room went still and his eyes immediately went to the door. On first glance, his thought was 'another kid'. Then, he saw the eyes. Eyes that raked over the crowd like a ravenous wolf, challenging them all without a word or a movement. As he stepped inside, the confidence with which he held himself had to be admired. He walked casually, slowly to the bar, making his way to the end where he could see the most patrons.

The whispering began so softly, he had to strain at first to hear them. Then, he did catch one word and he understood the reactions of these boys. It was the reaction of the old-timers that perplexed him. He knew the name, knew the reputation but he felt no fear, certainly. No man scared him yet, this man had many in the room sweating a little more than they had been. He almost snorted aloud, it was so ridiculous. Hell, he couldn't be more than eighteen!

*****

Madrid.

That was the name spoken with such reverence and fear; such respect. He understood the respect for the man had earned it. And maybe even the fear from many but, there were a few men in this room from which this feeling surprised him. He frowned in thought as he tried to recall some of the stories he'd heard of Madrid's exploits. Of course, those stories weren't usually completely true and some were just plain lies but, you never knew how much of it was which.

He watched as one group of boys stood in a corner, whispering frantically. It seemed they had elected a representative whom they were pushing out of their little circle and toward Madrid. The 'volunteer' didn't look as if this was such a good idea and he turned back to his comrades. But, they pushed him away again with nods and whispers of what he imagined was encouragement. He leaned back in his chair. He couldn't wait to see this.

The boy looked about fifteen and he walked hesitantly toward the gunhawk leaning on the end of the bar sipping tequila and staring at his hands. Slowly, the boy edged up until he was within a couple of feet then, he stopped and one could see his Adam's apple bobbing up and down. The room grew quieter as the customers began noticing the kid's long and arduous journey fifteen feet across the floor.

He cleared his throat but, before he could speak, Madrid raised his head slowly and found the boy's eyes. He held them for a long moment until the kid took two steps back then turned and fled the room followed by howls of laughter from those within.

Madrid watched after him for a few seconds longer then shook his head slowly and turned, his back against the bar as he watched the men enjoying the little show. His eyes roved to one lone man sitting behind him. The only man not laughing or smiling. He nodded and received the same then, he pushed off the rickety bar and sauntered over.

"Mind if I join you?"

The voice was surprisingly soft and he could only look at him for a beat before nodding his consent. Madrid slid into the chair with the least back exposure and sat his drink down. He extended his hand.

"Johnny Madrid," he introduced.

"Val Crawford," he responded while accepting the handshake.

*****

"Picked a side yet?" Madrid asked quietly.

"Pendleton. Said he hired a top gun. Is that you?"

He smiled a little. "Nope."

Val leaned back in his chair. "Too bad. I mean at least I know your reputation. Got any idea who it is?"

Johnny looked at him without expression. "Haven't heard. You could always change your mind." He surprised himself with that statement. It didn't matter to him who fought for which side as long as they were good with a gun. He didn't even know this man.

Val studied him then shrugged. "Wouldn't be polite to go back on my word."

A soft laugh emitted from the younger man. "No, that wouldn't be polite at all."

"Mind tellin me what the deal is between these two ranchers?"

"Water rights from what I hear. Pendleton's claimin the rights to the river and a couple of streams along the border of their ranches. Only, he hasn't been able to back it up with anything legal."

"Ain't been able to or ain't felt obliged to?" Val asked.

Shrugging one shoulder, Johnny answered. "Whichever. If the man has the papers, there's no reason not to show 'em. Anyways, does it matter?"

"Reckon not." Val frowned, wondering why Pendleton was being stubborn. It was like Madrid said, showin those papers might have made this whole thing go away. Still, he figured there was more to the story. There always was.

The noise level rose enough to be noticed and Val glanced across the room, shaking his head. "Was I ever that young?"

Johnny cast a glance in the direction of the small group of boys still hovering, still hoping for a job.

"Reckon that kid was gonna call you out?"

"Nah, he was just testin the waters."

Val chuckled. "Reckon they felt pretty damned cold."

Johnny laughed and Crawford thought again this was not the picture of Johnny Madrid that came to his mind whenever he'd heard the name. When he smiled, he looked as young as those stupid boys. He shook his head a little then took a drink.

"Well, it was nice meetin ya. I need to see some fellas about a job," Johnny smiled and stood up.

"Yeah, see ya around maybe."

Johnny smirked and doubted that but he didn't say so.

*****

He topped the rise and looked over the ranch. The house in the distance was big but then, everything in Texas was big. He smiled a little to himself then perused the landscape. Walking his horse slowly down the small hill, he took note of the hands working the cattle and horses. Seemed like a peaceful place. A nice place to live and work.

Looks were deceiving though. He made a wide circle of the house as he took in the outbuildings and corrals. He noted the doors in the front and sides of the house and figured he'd take a look at the back soon enough. Reining to a stop, he waited for the man coming toward him.

He was fairly tall and rugged. A hard-working man. As he neared, Johnny saw his jaw muscle twitching, his brown eyes hard as diamonds. He leaned forward, hands resting on the saddle horn, eyes fixed on the man.

"Who are you and what are doing on my ranch?"

He looked down, a small smile on his lips then raised his head to face the man. "Name's Madrid. Just takin a look."

Pendleton glared at him.

"If you want that man to stay alive, you'll tell him to holster that weapon," Johnny drawled.

Shock replaced the glare as Pendleton's eyes widened and he looked past Johnny to the man standing ten feet away near a tree. "There's no way you can take him," he spoke confidently.

"You willin to take that chance?"

Pendleton thought hard for a moment, his gaze measuring the distance. Remembering who this man was, he sighed defeatedly. "Put it away, Herman. He'll kill you."

"Smart man," Johnny smiled brightly.

"Locke hired you. Why are you on my land?"

"Like I said, takin a look see. And, givin you one chance to stop this before it goes any further. Back off, Mr. Pendleton, or you'll lose more than a little water."

The rancher reared up, shoulders straightening and he looked pointedly at Madrid. "I'll pay you well to side with me. Otherwise, get off my land, Mr. Madrid."

Johnny smiled a little and shook his head. "Your choice. See ya soon." He turned then and rode away, past the ranch hand who he tipped his hat to.

*****

They were all capable men, those he'd chosen to hire. None of them seemed to have a problem with him being in charge. He'd been through that too many times. Some jackass was always trying to 'put him in his place'. He knew some fairly well, some by reputation. What he didn't know was who Pendleton had hired. And would that someone be bothered by some of these peach-fuzz faced kids staring hopefully at him right now.

He remembered being that young. Hell, they were the same age in years but, in experience, he felt decades ahead. He thought back to last night, to the kid who'd been stupid enough to approach him. That boy wasn't in the group now. He idly wondered if he'd run home to his mama. He almost smiled then, he remembered people laughed at him once. Only once.

But there was a difference between the eagerness he saw in those boys and the need he'd had to be something more than, well, than the nothing he had been. He knew, were he to bother asking, he'd get ten different stories from ten different boys about why they wanted to be a gunfighter. It didn't matter. He wasn't out to save anyone, that was for sure. But, it did get to him, he couldn't deny that.

As he sat in the saloon waiting, he decided he must be pretty bored to be having these thoughts. A smile crept on his lips as he took a sip of tequila.Â

Johnny's crew gathered in the saloon then he looked over at the remainder. Some would hang around waiting for an opening but, he knew most would head out looking for work elsewhere. It was the ones staying he paid most attention to. These were the men they'd be working against and he knew some of them.

They weren't friends for he had none of those but, he did respect some of them and knew them to be good at their trade. As he sized them up, another figure loomed in the doorway. Johnny's eyes narrowed as he saw Pendleton's top gun. Johnny knew him, too, but there was no respect there.

Josiah Carson stood just inside the doors as if he were waiting for someone to approach him and wipe his boots off or something. Hands on hips, expectation and arrogance exuded from the man.

Carson saw him then and a wicked smile exposed his crooked teeth, one front tooth broken in half making any smile he attempted more of a snarl. He rolled his shoulders and hitched up his belt before swaggering toward Johnny. He wasn't much to look at even without the exposed teeth. Not quite six feet tall, his gut arrived everywhere a few seconds before the rest of him. To say he liked beer would be the understatement of the century. What he didn't seem to care much for was soap or Johnny Madrid.

"I heard an ugly rumor you were around here, Madrid. Seems it was true."

"I heard you were dead. Can't tell ya how happy that made me. Now, I'm just plain sad," Johnny retorted in a flat tone.

Carson laughed, his breath peeling the paint off the walls. "I surely do hate makin ya sad but there's not a thing I plan ta do about it. Except make ya dead."

Johnny's face lit up as a smile erupted. "Anytime you're ready, Carson."

"Soon enough. You ain't leavin this territory alive, Madrid," Carson threw out.

"Best thing you can do is stay out of my way. If you hang around here, you won't last long." A small smile came to his lips, his eyes sparkling with humor. "And you know it." He stood and walked out leaving Carson glaring at his back and counting the number of men following him.

*****

"Well, did Pendleton hire anyone?" Carson asked the room.

Val stepped up. "Just me so far. Reckon he figured you'd take care of the rest."

Gritting his teeth, Carson took in the rest and picked out nine more men. He paused and a grin came to his face.

"You two boys get over here."

The two young men scrambled through the small crowd, thrilled to be noticed.

"What's your names?"

"Steve Anderson and Billy James," Steve answered.

"Ya ever killed anybody?" Carson asked.

Both boys hesitated. "Not really."

"Well, reckon ya gotta start sometime. You're both hired only you ain't gettin but five dollars a day each. When ya earn more, you'll get more."

They both nodded their acceptance, eager to get a real job.

Val Crawford stepped forward and faced the man. "Lookin for pigeons, Carson? Cause that's all those two are gonna be good for."

Carson looked him up and down with a sneer. "Crawford, I'm in charge of this show. I ain't their mama and neither are you. If you're gonna work for me, just do what you're told when you're told."

Val considered him for a minute then nodded. If he'd known it was Carson ... well, he'd already accepted the job and he didn't go back on his word. He figured the kids wouldn't last long in this world anyway. Might as well get it over with.

*****

Madrid stood at the open bunkhouse door looking out over the land. The air had a sweet smell to it, the grass new with the spring. Though it never seemed to get cold in Texas, he could almost imagine a cripsness to the air; a newness to the world around him. A slight smirk stayed on his face as he thought about this.

This land was hard on a good day, unforgiving on a bad one. It seemed to him in most of Texas, the grass couldn't really be called grass. It was scrub brush mostly and he wondered how anything survived here. Cattle seemed to thrive, though. It was only where these good, healthy waters were located could a really decent living be made. He supposed that's why these men fought so hard to hold onto it.

Still, it was the way of most men. Land was the only thing worth owning. Land and men. The smirk grew as he thought of those who'd tried to own him.

He let out a quiet breath as his thoughts were intruded upon. Almost irritated, he didn't bother to turn around. "What?" he asked nearly too softly to be heard.

"We was wonderin what the plan is."

Johnny turned slowly and leaned against the door jamb, crossing his arms over his chest. His eyes took in the men standing there waiting for him. His face gave nothing away. Settling on the man who'd asked the question, he spoke with quiet authority.

"Tonight, we're gonna keep an eye on the river, a little stampede won't hurt things."

"They'll be expectin that."

A smile broke out so suddenly on his face, the man took half a step back before catching himself. "I know."

Another man, tall and husky, stepped up. "We ain't in this ta get killed."

"You're in this for the pay and you'll earn it. You've worked with me before, Mitch. You know how it is." His reply was harsher than he might have intended but he tired of the questions he always seemed to get. No matter how many times he proved himself, some of these men still saw him as just a kid.

"Yeah, I know, Johnny, but some of the fellas don't. That's all I'm sayin."

"Get somethin to eat and some rest. We'll talk it all out later. I need to talk to the man feedin us." He was out the door before anyone could finish taking in the orders.

*****

Val Crawford sat on the bunk and sized up the men around him. He knew they were all good at the trade but he wasn't real sure they were reliable to watch his back. When he worked with a crew, he liked to know he could depend on them. There were maybe two men here he felt pretty comfortable about. Not very good odds in his book.

Then there were the kids. Both of them huddled side by side in a corner, taking it all in and whispering to each other. They reminded him of boys in a schoolyard plotting and planning their pranks. He sighed quietly and shook his head then went back to cleaning his gun.

It was Carson that was really eating at him and he knew it. That man was just plain mean. Never had a good word for anyone. And, he never had any consideration, either. It wouldn't surprise Val if the man turned on all of them, should it suit his needs. He figured he was in for a long and tiring haul. Not only did he have to watch his back against the other side, he had to keep an eye on Carson, too.

Once again, he considered switching sides or simply riding out. But, he didn't have that bad feeling he got when he knew things were gonna turn ugly. So, he decided to stick it out as he'd promised.

His head came up as the door opened and Pendleton stepped inside. The rancher's eyes surveyed the room quickly as Carson walked up to him.

"I'm sure you men all know what's going to happen. I don't have any words of wisdom, I'll leave that to Mr. Carson. But, if anyone has any questions, now is the time."

There was a short silence before Val spoke up. "I got one. How come ya don't just show Locke you own the water rights?"

Pendleton stared at him curiously. "You know about this?"

With a shrug, Val said, "I like to know what I'm gettin into."

"Well, for your information, I have shown him and he's ignored it. He moved here six months ago and I welcomed him. I even sold him a bull and said nothing about him using the water. Then, he started building dams, leaving my stock without water. When I confronted him, he shot at me. That is the kind of man you're dealing with, gentleman. A cold easterner with no consideration for the land or his neighbors."

"Easterner, huh? Well, that's enough for me," Carson snorted and some of the others laughed.

Val ignored the quip, he was too busy watching Pendleton's eyes. He knew the man was telling the truth and it bothered him that Madrid didn't seem to know what was really going on here. The very thought perplexed him. Why should he care if the kid knew? Madrid sure didn't seem to.

"The point is, there's not much law in Texas right now what with all the political uproar. We're still not a state again so no one is too excited about two ranchers goin at each other." Pendleton paused and sighed out his frustration. "I don't like hirin guns but I won't have what's mine taken, either. I'm a man who believes in sayin what he thinks so there it is."

"We'll protect your land, Mr. Pendleton. Anybody who tries to stop us will end up dead," Carson said confidently.

Pendleton was not so confident, though. "Does that include Madrid? He was out here yesterday taking a look around, he said."

Carson's eyes narrowed and his face reddened in anger. "Especially Johnny Madrid."

Val snorted lightly but made no comment. He hadn't seen Madrid in action but he knew Carson. He may not look like much but he was a cunning cuss. Still, man to man, Crawford would place his money on Madrid. Then again, Carson wasn't known for doing things on the straight and narrow.

*****

Madrid sat in a comfortably over-stuffed chair as Locke lit a cigar, blowing the smoke out slowly. He was becoming impatient now as Locke took his time starting this conversation.

"I was a little surprised, Mr. Madrid. I thought you'd be older."

Johnny's eyes narrowed. "And?"

"And nothing," he shrugged then smiled. "Your reputation is all that matters. But, I want to be kept informed of all your plans."

"Of course. My plan is to make Pendleton back off, period."

Locke frowned and leaned forward in his chair opposite Johnny. "That's my concern. Even if you're successful, what happens when you leave?"

A smirk came across his lips. "There's only one way to make sure he never bothers you again. But, you said you wanted the water rights. That means legal papers. Now, we can keep him off your property and out of your hair as long as you want but, the rest is up to you."

Locked nodded and sat back again, slowly pulling on the cigar. "I'm working on that now but it will take some time. But, if Pendleton ends up dead beforehand, I wouldn't be upset."

The grin that spread across the man's face bothered Johnny a great deal. He knew exactly what Locke was saying and what he wanted. "I'm gonna be straight with you. I'm not gonna go gun that man down over some water. If that's what you really want, say so now and I'm gone."

"What do you mean? I thought you were a gunfighter."

"I am but I ain't no murderer. He's a rancher just like you. If the man's fool enough to come after me, he'll die. But, I won't go gunnin him. Not for this."

Locke nodded slowly, disappointment fleeting on his face before he grew pensive. "The legal system is Texas is strained at best right now. Still, land rights are always a priority. I can put some pressure on to get those papers sooner."

Johnny cocked his head to one side. "How come you didn't make sure you had those rights long before now?"

"It was never an issue until I needed to dam up some areas. That's when he started bellowing about how he owned the water."

Madrid only nodded but something didn't feel right here. He put it aside for now and stood up. "Me and the boys are gonna take a little ride to the river tonight. Make sure Pendleton's crew don't try anything."

*****

Val hunkered down in the bushes of his cold camp, eyes keen to sight any movement on the other side of the river. He hated this part of it. Being out here half the night, no coffee or fire, gritted at him. What truly pissed him off was his 'help'. Carson decided this would be a job for the newbies and Val was stuck with two children. He could feel the fear and excitement pouring off them both and it made him sick.

He looked across to a copse of trees where two more men were set up and wished they'd gotten babysitting duty. Carson didn't like him and this was how he'd decided to show it tonight. Val nearly growled as he thought once more of heading on out of here. If it was anybody but Carson. The thought left his mind when he heard a noise. He pulled his gun and stilled his breathing. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the two boys mimick him and he rolled his eyes.

"Don't do nothin unless I tell ya to," he whispered harshly.

After twenty minutes, Val reholstered his weapon and decided there was no one out there. It was probably an animal huntin, he decided and relaxed back into the brush.

*****

Johnny and his crew had tethered their horses a quarter of a mile from the river and moved toward the banks. He stopped, his shoulders tensing as he looked back at Mitch who had stepped on a twig. The noise sounded like canon fire in the still of the night and he scowled furiously at the man who could only shrug his apology.

He held up one finger to indicate they all wait and he hunkered down to listen to the night sounds. He heard the water running, the crickets and nightbirds. What he didn't hear was cattle. He sighed lightly and knew they'd moved the herd. Well, that was one for Carson, he reckoned. He should have known. As much as he hated the man, he was good at this. A little too good.

Carson's reputation included bushwhacking and backshooting but it was his strategizing that had earned him his name. Johnny reckoned that's all anybody cared about when it came down to it. The rest was simply ignored. He sat down properly and his men joined him, waiting for him to speak.

Slowly, his head came up and he grinned wide enough for it to be seen in the dark. He stood and walked back the way they'd come. He didn't speak until they'd reached the horses.

"They've moved the cattle but they got men at the river. I have a pretty good idea where Carson will have the rest of them spread out."

"So, what're we gonna do?" Mitch asked.

"We're gonna *****quietly***** ride out of here and find us some cattle to stampede. With any luck, they'll never know we were here tonight."

*****

Val was about to nod off when he heard it. He sprang to his feet and stepped out of the bushes with his two sidekicks on his heels. He saw the men on the other side of the clearing show themselves as well and they all headed for their horses.

"What's happenin?" one boy asked.

"Get on your horses and stay on 'em. Stampede's comin," Val growled and swung into the saddle.

No sooner had they all gotten settled, they felt the rumbling of the ground increase and all the horses begin to skitter and sidestep, bobbing their heads up and down and snorting.

"Head for higher ground!" Crawford shouted and spurred his horse across the river and up the steep hill opposite.Â

All five topped the hill and turned back. They could only watch as the cattle ran toward the river then turned and headed upstream. Dust clouds swirled all the way up to where they sat their horses and Crawford almost laughed at the sight. The laughter never came as he thought about telling Carson they'd been outmanuevered. He sighed and shook his head as the last of the small herd trampled the river bank, the sound of splashing water still echoing in the night.

*****

Carson clenched his fist as he glared at Val Crawford who dared the man with his eyes to just try hitting him. Carson turned and stalked away before looking back at the five of them.

"We'll have to find out from the hands where that herd was."

"Why? Ain't like Madrid would go back to the same spot again," Val stated.

Carson's lips twitched into an almost smile. "Yeah, he will. He's a cocky sonofabitch. He figures we'd never expect him to hit the same spot twice which is exactly why we're gonna find that herd and set up a trap!"

Val cocked a brow. It sounded good to him and he had to hand it to Carson for knowing how Madrid thinks. "What if he knows you know that?"

Carson puffed and blew then thought about the question.

"Seems ta me we oughta be doin a little stampedin of our own," Crawford shrugged. "Go on the defense."

"Yeah, that's a better idea. I ain't chasin his tail. We'll go out again tonight. All of us."

*****

Johnny sat outside the bunkhouse as the afternoon began to dwindle into evening. A slight smile stayed on his face as he thought about what he would do next. He thought it was more fun trying to out think the other side than really getting into the gunplay. That would come, he was sure. But, for him, planning and carrying out those plans was far better.

"I haven't seen you today."

He raised his eyes to look at Locke and shrugged. "Late night. I slept in. We all did."

"How did it go?"

Johnny grinned. "Reckon Pendleton's cowboys had a time of it today."

Locke smiled and leaned against the wall beside Johnny. "And tonight?"

Shrugging, he said indifferently, "reckon it'll be another long night for 'em."

"How long can you keep doing this without them catching you?"

He stood up then, laughing softly. "Long as I need to. You should know Carson will probably do some stampedin of his own tonight."

Locke straightened, his shoulders going up. "Can you stop him?"

"Maybe, but I ain't gonna. You could put some of your men on the herd but it probably won't do any good. You're gonna have to expect some losses, Mr. Locke. In the long run, you'll come out on top."

He sighed and nodded reluctantly. "I suppose it can't be helped."

*****

He was beginning to think he was a father. Once again, Carson had saddled him with the kids. Val figured it was his punishment for last night but, he hadn't been the only one out there and it grated on him. He knew these two were gonna die, he just knew it. And he reckoned he'd feel bad about that but he wasn't gonna mother them. He glanced over at the rest of the six man crew and none of them looked any happier about the situation.

Carson was leading the second group. He'd decided they'd stampede two herds tonight. Val wondered if he wasn't in some stupid contest with Madrid. They crossed onto Locke's land and rode slowly, almost casually across the valley.

"Are we gonna start a stampede?" Steve asked him.

"That's what the man said. Wasn't ya listenin?" Val replied with irritability.

"How come you're so grouchy all the time?"

Val reined to a stop and the two boys followed suit. He turned his head and looked at them. "You ain't got any idea what you're doin and you're both gonna get yourselves killed. Now, that's your right, I reckon but I thought I'd just point it out to ya all the same. Just do what you're told, that's all." He spurred his horse on without waiting for a reply.

The boys shared a surprised look then both got hot under the collar and followed him. "He don't even know us. Don't know what we can do," Steve said.

"Reckon we'll just have ta show 'im then."

Val heard them but he ignored it as they came across the small herd. "Now, just ride towards 'em shootin in the air and hollerin for all you're worth."

They both grinned and pulled their guns then spurred their horses on. Val shook his head then followed.

*****

Johnny pressed himself against the tree. This was the same spot where that cowhand had been the other day. He hadn't seen him at first so he figured it was a pretty good hideout. He smiled, recalling the bluff. A blind man could've cut him down before he had time to turn, draw and shoot. But, Pendleton had believed him and that's all he'd needed.

The ranch house was quiet, no lights seen. The bunhouses were dark, too, but he knew Carson could still have some men in there watching. He was confident enough that wasn't the case but he never took anything for granted. He turned to his men.

"We're gonna work our way to the barn and get inside." He turned to look at one group of five men. "The second you hear a shot, ride in with our horses and be ready to cover us. Slim, you and Pedro get in the corral. As soon as you see the first flame, cut the horses loose."

"Cut the horses loose? We ain't got time for that and they'll wake up the whole damned ranch!"

Johnny locked eyes with the man for a long beat. "We're gonna cut the horses loose so they can't come after us. Plus, it'll take 'em a week to run 'em all down again. The longer they're down, the better our odds are. Don't question me again, Slim." His voice was as cold and flat as his eyes.

Slim averted his gaze and only nodded then they moved out.

Johnny slipped into the barn first, two men following him. There were only four horses in the stalls but that wasn't unusual. Most of them would be in the pastures and corral. Johnny approached the stalls, quietly talking to the animals as he lifted each one's latch and opened the gate. Then, he nodded to his men and they grabbed the lanterns, opening them up and spilling the kerosene over the hay, floor and walls.

Once they were finished, Johnny motioned for them to leave. He fished a match out of his pocket then hesitated. Walking to the back of the barn, he opened the doors there as quietly as he could then returned to the front. With a flick of his wrist, he struck the match and tossed it as far from the horses as he could.

*****

Carson was grinning when he met up with the rest of his crew. "How'd it go?"

"Fine. They're all scattered to the four winds." Val bent to his left and spit on the ground.

"Yeah, us, too. Well, let's get back and see what's happenin." Carson dug his heels in and loped off, the rest of the men trailing him. When they topped the small rise overlooking the house, they all stopped and gawked.

Val's mouth twitched as he stared at what was left of the barn, which was nothing but ashes. He didn't know whether to laugh or cuss. One sidelong look at Carson told him to keep quiet.

"Goddam that sonofabitch!" the man growled and took off down the hill.

As they all arrived in front of the burned out hull, Pendleton walked towards them, his face, all of him, covered in smoke and ash. Putting his hands on his hips, he glared.

"Mr. Carson, you and me need to talk in the house. Now!" He turned on his heel and strode away.

Crawford did smile then, just a little as he dismounted and walked his horse to the empty corral.

*****

Pendleton paced the entirety of the living room as Carson simply stood there. Finally, the man spoke.

"I offered to match Locke but I should have offered Madrid double. It's obvious he's the man for the job! What the hell have you been doing all night?"

"Runnin off Locke's cattle. Look, Mr. Pendleton, this sort of thing happens in a range war. You gotta expect some losses. But, I swear to you Madrid won't live to see another day!"

The rancher pulled up short and glared at Carson. "I want this to stop. Do whatever is necessary to make that happen."

Carson gave a short nod of the head and turned to walk out.

"Wait."

He turned and stared at Pendleton whose eyes dipped before meeting his again.

"I'd rather not have anyone die."

A sneer distorted the gunfighter's face. "No problem. Madrid ain't nobody anyway." He turned and walked out of the house.

*****

Val sat on his bunk and waited to see what Carson would do. The man had a bad temper and it was a little surprising he'd lasted this long. Val had to begrudgingly admit it was because he was pretty good. The door swung open, banging against the wall as Carson stormed in. It closed of its own accord behind him.

His eyes roved over the group as he clenched and unclenched his jaw a few times. "Alright, you two kids are comin with me. The rest of ya stay here til I get back."

Val came off the bunk as Carson stepped out the door, two eager boys behind him. He followed, uneasiness settling in his gut. He heard the rest of the men come up behind him.

"What're you gonna do?"

Carson turned back to him, a strange look in his eyes. "I'm gonna take care of Madrid then we can get this settled."

"How?"

"Mind your own business, Crawford! I'm doin this my way." He jerked his head at Steve and Billy and the three of them mounted up and rode off.

"Boy, ain't no way he can take Madrid," one man said.

Yeah, he can - his way, Val thought and knew exactly what the man was going to do. The rest of the crew went back inside but he stood there and watched Carson. He felt someone just behind and to his right and he turned.

"This what you want, Mr. Pendleton? To bushwhack a man?"

Pendleton averted his gaze, looking back at what was his barn. "I told you I won't have what's mine taken."

Val sighed and walked to the corral. He swung into the saddle and rode off without another word.

*****

They stopped at the boundary line to the two ranches. "I want one of you boys to ride to Locke's ranch and tell Madrid to meet me in town right now. Tell 'im I wanna settle things between us man to man," Carson instructed.

Billy and Steve looked at each other then Billy rode toward Locke's house.

"What'ya want me to do?" Steve asked.

Carson grinned at him. "Just stick with me, kid. I'm gonna teach ya how this is done."

*****

"It's a trap," Mitch said as they rode along the trail to town.

"Yeah."

"So, why're ya goin?"

Johnny looked over at him and grinned. "I'd hate to disappoint the man. Just keep your eyes open."

Mitch sighed and shook his head. "You always were a crazy bastard."

Laughing softly, Johnny couldn't disagree. "I told ya to stay put."

"Yeah, well, I ain't one to sit around and watch fools at play. I reckon this'll be a might more interestin."

Johnny cocked a brow. "Well, it won't hold your interest too long if you don't keep your eyes and ears open. Should be along in here somewhere." He drew his gun and rested it along the top of his leg as he rode.

Mitch decided on his rifle and pulled it out, cocking it and holding it across his lap.

They moved slowly down the road, taking their time. When they emerged into wider spaces, Johnny frowned then smiled.

"He's slick. He'll settle somewhere along where the cliffs are on one side about a mile up."

"Lettin ya get comfortable, maybe let your guard down," Mitch agreed then laughed a little. "He ain't too smart, is he? I mean, you *****never***** let your guard down."

"Don't pay real well," Johnny noted then nodded toward the trail. "Just up here."

They approached an area with cliffs on the right, boulders strung along the roadside on the left and Johnny tensed his leg muscles, ready for whatever happened.

"Ya never know, though. He might just be waitin in town for..." Mitch never finished his sentence as he was thrown from the saddle by the force of a bullet to his chest.

*****

Carson grabbed Steve by the shirt front and shook him until his teeth rattled. "Damn you! Who told you ta fire?"

"It was a clean shot! I got him. Did ya see? I got 'im!" Steve defended, his voice shaking as he was throttled.

"What you did was warn Madrid. Now, he's gonna be harder ta take, ya little weasel!" Carson shoved him, sending him sprawling against a boulder as he turned back and searched for Madrid.

*****

Johnny flung himself to the left, tucking and rolling off the road. He scuttled behind a large boulder and cocked his gun. He figured Carson would take him first. Maybe his aim was off. He had to smirk at that.

He raised up, peeking over the boulder as the rock exploded inches from his face. Jerking his head away, he felt the sting as a chip of rock, sharp as a glass shard, cut his face just below the left eye. Johnny cussed and raised back up for a second to fire. It wasn't intended to hit anything, just to let Carson know he'd missed again.

He wished he'd grabbed his rifle like Mitch. Johnny felt a momentary regret about the man. They weren't friends but they worked well together and got along most of the time. He'd miss the man, he supposed. These thoughts were interrupted by another rifle shot that bounced off the top of the boulder harmlessly.

Johnny moved to the side and looked around, seeking his best route to get across the road and work his way up. He knew he'd never take Carson with a pistol from this range. Somethin was gonna have to give.

"Nice shot, Carson! I see you're as good as ever!" he shouted. He was rewarded a few seconds later with a barrage of rifle fire that had him crouching low, trying desperately to simply sink into the earth.

It grew quiet and he counted. Knowing Carson would have to reload, he got to his knees and positioned himself to move. Just as he was about to launch himself toward the road, another two shots skipped up dust too close to him.

Dammit! He must have another rifle. Or, he's not alone. He retreated quickly and began thinking through his options. Carson would have to come to him. He could stay right here, out of sight, longer than Carson could stay up there. Still, he didn't know how many men there were in those rocks. There'd only been one person firing each time, he knew that much. That had to mean Carson was either alone with more than one rifle or he didn't want anyone else taking the killing shot. Johnny couldn't begin to guess which.

He looked around and saw Mitch. His rifle lay close to the body and Johnny reckoned it to be about ten feet from him. Ten feet and out in the open. It was risky as hell but he couldn't chance Carson's whole crew being up there. He'd never make it if that were the case.

Well, what the hell, he thought and took off running. Bullets skipped about his feet, one - two - three, then he was diving for the rifle, scooping it up and rolling. Coming up on his feet, he made for the next boulder and threw himself behind it just as the burning began.

*****

Carson cussed a blue streak as he fired, each shot missing it's target by a mere inch or two. Damn, that boy can run! he thought. He could have sworn that last bullet struck home, though. He couldn't be sure but it seemed Madrid kind of twitched a little in that last second before he disappeared behind the rock.

His target now to his left, he scanned his surroundings, looking for a better spot. He spared not even a glance toward the boy sitting glumly behind him as he moved off.

Carson moved quietly for his size and situated himself behind another boulder. He grinned as he brought the rifle to bear, the top of Madrid's head easily visible now. He envisioned that head exploding, the scalp coming right off and he licked his lips as he applied pressure to the trigger.

In that second, the head disappeared and he growled a little as he slowly stood and found his mark again. Resetting his sites, he closed one eye and looked down the barrel of the rifle. Satisfied his aim was true, he once more began to squeeze the trigger.

It was a sincere look of surprise that exploded on his face in the same instant the bullet exploded in his heart. Carson lowered his arms and his eyes as he watched the small hole in his shirt turn red. He staggered backwards then, in an attempt to right himself, overcompensated and went careening down the side of the cliff silently.

*****

Johnny was as ready as he'd ever be, he reckoned and he moved. Scooting down a little, he used the rock as leverage to push himself to his feet quickly. Turning, rifle at the ready, he almost made his move. The report to his right startled him and he swung the rifle around. It was only his self-control that kept him from shooting the man on horseback.

He kept the rifle trained as Crawford lowered his own Winchester in his right hand and watched Carson fall. Then, he sheathed the weapon in its scabbard and turned to face Madrid.

Johnny spared a glance when he heard the sickening thud then refocused. He waited as Crawford stowed the rifle and walked his horse slowly forward.

Still aiming the weapon, Johnny allowed a slight smile. "How come?"

Val shrugged and looked back over at Carson's body sprawled across the road. "I don't like liars or bushwhackers but I hate a coward." After a second, he added, "might not wanna stand out here in the open too long. He brought both those kids with 'im."

"He sent one of 'em for me. Reckon the other one is still up there," Johnny told then scanned the top of the cliff.

Both men watched the lone figure scuttling over the rocks up top then disappear behind them. A few seconds later, they heard a horse being ridden fast.

"Well, wanna ride?" Val asked.

Johnny shook his head and whistled shrilly. A short time later, the stallion came loping back down the trail and stopped in front of him.

Crawford gave a chortle and shook his head. "Reckon I'm out of a job now."

"You could join up with us."Â

He chewed on his cheek for a minute, wondering if he should even try. Finally, he decided. "Ride inta town with me. I got something to tell ya. Might make a difference, might not but, I reckon you should know."

Johnny raised a brow at that cryptic message then nodded his head. "Soon as I bury Mitch over there."

"What about Carson?"

Eyes narrowing coldly, he gritted his teeth. "Let 'im rot."

Val nodded then pulled his bandana off his neck. "Might wanna wrap that up."

Johnny glanced at his arm and smiled a little, taking the bandana and winding it around the wound. He tugged with his teeth to tighten the knot then ignored the scratch.

*****

Val couldn't tell if it had indeed made a difference. There was no expression on Madrid's face as he stared at his beer mug, rocking back on the chair legs. Well, he'd told the man of Pendleton's claims. That's all he could do. If Madrid didn't care then he didn't care.

"Did you believe him?"

The voice was so soft yet it sounded like a canon after the long silence. There was no one else in the saloon now. As soon as the two of them had walked in, the five customers already there walked out - quickly.

"Yeah, I did."

Johnny sighed heavily and looked at the man across from him. He didn't know what to make of Crawford and now, he didn't know what to make of Locke. He glanced at the bartender and gave a jerk of his head. The man walked over still drying a glass.

"How long has Locke been around here?" Johnny asked the question as if he deserved and expected an answer.

The bartender eyed them both before holding the stare of his inquisitor. "Six or seven months, I reckon."

"And Pendleton?"

"Fifteen years." His tone flattened, his shoulders pulled back as he expected to be challenged by the gunhawk.

Johnny saw no fear and he almost smiled. Instead, he simply nodded his head and thanked the man. The barkeep turned half-way then stopped and turned back.

"Look, you probably don't care but Mr. Pendleton is a fine man, a fair man. He's owned that ranch all these years and if he says that water's his, then it's his." He didn't wait for a reaction but returned to his work.

Crawford saw a flicker of something in Madrid's eyes and he leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. "What?"

"I don't like bein lied to," Johnny hissed lowly then looked at the man with narrowed eyes. "Reckon, I got a decision to make."

Nodding, Val considered the young man once again. It wasn't his way to get in the middle of a man's thoughts but, for some reason, he felt a real need to do just that right now. "It ain't my business what ya do. I reckon I'll stick it out, though. I don't like seein a hard-workin and honest man took down. I don't sleep real well when that sorta thing happens."

Johnny's eyes lit with amusement and a slight grin turned his lips upward. "Must not ever get much sleep. The world's full of good men that lose, Crawford. See it all the time."

"I know but that don't mean I gotta watch it happen or not stand up when it does! Maybe it don't get to you."

The blue eyes darkened and flashed with anger. "You don't know me enough to say one way or the other."

"Reckon I don't. Just seems ya don't care. Well, that's alright. Maybe you just don't want folks knowing what you're thinkin or maybe ya don't care. Anyways, it's up to you. I just figured ya had the right to know what kind of man you're workin for, is all."

Johnny stared at him, slightly stunned at the backbone but admiring it more. He relaxed suddenly and leaned back in his chair, his eyes never leaving Crawford. "I want to talk to Pendleton."

*****

"Don't think I'm not gonna head for cover if they start shootin at ya on sight."

Johnny laughed softly as they neared the ranch house. "Wouldn't expect anything else."

"Ya done a job on that barn."

Johnny looked sidelong at him. "Barn?"

Val turned his head and stared, mouth open. He couldn't believe the innocence he'd just heard in that voice. Then, he saw the smirk and growled a little.

Johnny stepped onto the porch but that's as far as he got as the rancher barrelled outside. "What the hell are you doin here?"

"Ya might wanna talk to him, Mr. Pendleton. Might be more help than ya think," Val intervened.

"Where's Carson?"

"Hell, I imagine," Johnny drawled.

Pendleton glared at him, his face reddening with ire.

"I'd like ta see those papers Crawford here says you have. The ones that show you own that water," Johnny went on, ignoring the reaction.

"Why?"

"Might make a difference in whether I hang around here or not. Now, you can hire someone else, even him," he nodded his head at Val, "but, I have a feelin you'd just as soon stop this whole thing."

Pendleton seemed to consider this but he wasn't convinced. Johnny sighed irritably.

"If I was gonna kill you, I'd have done it by now. It'd save all this jawin."

Val nodded when Pendleton glanced at him for affirmation. "Alright, come inside."

He was loathe to have his enemy's hired gun in his home but if there was even a chance Madrid could make this all go away, he was willing to risk it. Besides, he was fairly sure Madrid was telling the truth about killing him. He didn't seem the type to loiter over a job. His mouth set in a grim, tight line, he opened the safe and pulled out the deeds.

Johnny read the document slowly. Mostly because it was a bunch of legal hooey but what his eyes fixed on most was the boundaries to the ranch and the date. He lowered his hand then tossed the papers on Pendleton's desk. He paced away before facing the two men again.

*****

"And Locke's been here less than a year?"

"That's right."

"Well? Does it matter to ya or not?" Val asked, his patience waning quickly.

Johnny shot him an aggravated look and wondered why he was putting up with the man's mouth. Then, he looked at Pendleton and saw the pride and courage in the man. He admired that. It wasn't something he'd seen in Locke and he already knew that man wasn't very interested in hard labor. Johnny may not be a rancher himself but he knew what it took to work the land. Most men he'd met who worked the earth - be it rancher or farmer - were honest, family men. He shook his head and sighed. More than any of that, he was pissed.

"You send Carson after me or was it his idea?" he finally asked.

Pendleton looked away from him for a second. "It was his idea but I didn't try all that hard to stop him."

He only nodded at the answer. "Why's Locke want all the water anyway?"

"I have no idea. I suppose he just wants to own all of this area. When he first came, it was fine. I shared with him, never had a problem with that until he started trying to take it all; building dams and running my cattle off."

Johnny frowned as he stared at the floor, his fingers tapping lightly against his holster. "Well, the man lied to me. Simple as that and I don't take too kindly to it. If you wanna hire me, I'll take the job. If not, I'll take care of my problem with Locke and leave. Up to you."

Val bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling then frowned as he wondered why this had him so blasted happy.

"You've been very effective against me, Mr. Madrid. I think it would be wise if I had you on my side."

"I'll ride over to Locke's place and grab my gear and my pay then, I'll be back."

Pendleton's eyes widened. "Do you think he's just going to let you do that?"

"He can't stop me," Johnny replied coldly then walked out the door.

"This, I gotta see," Val muttered and walked out after him.

"Need a hand?"

Johnny turned,the reins in his hand and smirked. "Not for a while now."

"Yeah, it's been what? Couple of hours?"

To Val's surprise, Madrid burst out laughing. "Has it been that long already?" He sobered and regarded the man. "What's it to you, anyway? I mean, I appreciate your help but, I don't get it."

"I told ya, I hate cowards."

Johnny's head cocked to one side. "Yeah, but why the rest? Why not just ride out and forget about all this?"

"I done told ya that, too. Pendleton's in the right and he needs someone really good ta help him. That'd be you for better or worse."

They stared at each other, neither man very sure of what was happening here. Finally, Johnny sighed. "Well, guess it never hurts to have some backup."

*****

Locke stood outside his front door and watched Johnny ride up with a stranger. Curious but not alarmed, he waited for the man to come to him.

"We need to talk inside," Madrid said and walked past him, Crawford on his heels.

"What is it and who is this?"

"Never mind who he is. I want my pay," Johnny said.

Frowning, Locke regarded him closely. "May I ask why?"

"Because, I need the money."

Locke nodded and went to his safe as Val gave Johnny a curious look. The other man just smiled at him so he figured Madrid had something up his sleeve.

Leaving the safe door open, Locke handed over the bills. "This is what you've earned so far. Did you need an advance?"

Johnny counted the money and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. "Nope, that'll do. Now, you got two choices. Find another gunfighter or drop this whole thing." He advanced on the shorter man. "I don't like bein lied to, Locke, and you lied to me. I've seen Pendleton's land title and I know he owns those water rights. Now, I'm workin for him."

"You can't do that!"

"I just did it and Carson is dead. So, do you wanna keep up this game or have the good sense to get out while ya can? What's it gonna be?"

The rancher's face turned beet red as he glared at Madrid. "What will it take to keep you on my side?"

Johnny smiled. "You got nothin I want, old man."

"Pendleton is playing you for a fool, Madrid."

"Yeah? Then show me something in writing that says so." His eyes went to the safe and he walked over, kneeling down and half-turned toward the man. "Well? Come over here and show me what ya got."

Locke just stood there, still fuming.

"Right. Come on, Crawford. Looks like we got some work to do."

Val turned and walked out and Johnny followed him. They made it to the yard before both men heard the familiar sound. Johnny turned while drawing and fanned the hammer back, squeezed the trigger and watched the plump man fall to the ground; his gun still clutched in his hand.

Soon, the rest of the hired guns were running toward them, gawking at Locke. Johnny turned to face them.

"Locke's a liar and a thief. He tried to shoot me in the back. This is over. Hank, go in the house to the safe and pay the boys off then you can all ride out of there." He waited to see how they'd react. None of them had any loyalty to Locke but he never knew how some men would react to a thing like this. He didn't care if they cleaned the place out, either. Locke didn't have any family. At least, that's what he'd told Johnny so he figured if it was another lie, too bad.

*****

Pendleton paid off the guns and sent them on their way. He tried to hand Johnny some money but the man just looked at him.

"I didn't do anything."

The rancher cocked a brow. "You did everything, Mr. Madrid."

Shaking his head, Johnny looked over at Val. "Give it to Crawford. He's the one that put the lid back on the pot."

"I got my pay," Val piped in.

"Then keep it to make repairs," Johnny retorted. He walked away and mounted up then rode out without another word.

"He's a strange man," Pendleton noted.

"Yeah, I reckon so. Anyways, that's what he wants ya to do so that's what ya should do. See ya." Val tipped his hat then hurried to catch Johnny up.

Val settled into an easy gait beside Johnny who took a few seconds before looking over.

"Where are you goin?"

Val shrugged. "Wherever the wind takes me, I reckon. You?"

"Same."

"Reckon it won't kill us to ride together for a spell, then."

Johnny grinned as he looked the man in the eye. "It might."

Val rolled his eyes and looked straight ahead, fighting back a smile.

*****

Neither wanted to go back to town so they camped out for the night. Once they argued for a while over who cooked, they settled by the fire and ate silently.Â

"Well," Val sighed, "reckon I'll clean up since you did such a fine job on the vittles."

"I have a feelin I should be glad I cooked," Johnny laughed.

"You got that right. Never did get the hang of it. Nobody can eat my cookin except me." He grinned then took Johnny's plate and went to the creek.

Once he returned and settled in his bedroll, he watched Johnny staring into the flames for a while.

"What?" Johnny asked.

"What, what? Nothing."

"You're starin a hole through me."

Val ground his teeth a little. "Just tryin to figure you out, is all. I didn't think you'd care at all who was in the right back there but you did."

"Sometimes, right and wrong ain't so clear."

"True enough. How old are you?"

Johnny looked at him then, surprised at the question. "What difference does that make?"

"Makes all the difference. How long ya've lived on this earth tells me how much ya know."

"What dream did you get that from? Listen, just because I'm young don't mean I ain't lived a passel."

Val nodded. "Maybe. Hard ta tell."

Johnny didn't say anything for a while. "Eighteen, I think."

"Ya think? Don't ya know how old ya are?" Val asked with surprise.

"If I knew for sure I wouldn't have said 'I think' now would I? How old are you?" he shot.

"Twenty-six."

"Damn, old man!" Johnny grinned then laughed aloud.

"Aw, shut up! Ain't all that old."

Johnny kept laughing, rolling back and forth on his bedroll. "Yeah, it is. How'd you make it so long in this business?"

Val glowered at him but the younger man couldn't seem to control his mirth. He watched Johnny and saw something he'd seen only briefly before. A kid. Just a kid. Val smiled then chuckled a little. "Lucky, I guess."Â

*****

Johnny finally settled down but the smile was still on his face. "When did you start?"

"Oh, reckon I was about twenty or so. Spent a little time in the hoosegow first. Just stupid kid stuff. Stealing for the fun of it or maybe just to piss my old man off."

"He hard on you?" Johnny asked quietly.

Val frowned at him and thought not to answer but, what the hell? "Yeah, he liked to exercise his arms by taking swings at me."

Johnny looked at him and saw nothing. It was as if the man had said it was a nice day. Well, he knew what it was like, sort of.

"What about you? Any family?"

"No, my mother died. Just me."

"No pa?"

"None to speak of."

Val sighed. "What's that mean?"

Shrugging, Johnny answered in much the same tone as Val had used when he confessed his father's abuse. "Tossed us to the curb when I was a baby. Reckon he decided he didn't want no half-breed kid hangin around."

"Where ya from?"

"I was born in California but I grew up in Mexico. Mostly on the border. You?"

"Born in Texas, come up in Arizona mostly. So, how come ya ain't got no accent?"

*****

Johnny sat up quickly and tossed his coffee in the fire then dropped the cup beside the ring of rocks. He stared at the ground, his brows drawn together in a scowl.

Val started to apologize but stopped himself. If he was gonna answer he would, if not, that was okay, too. Besides, he seemed to be thinkin on it. Seemed this one thought on things alot.

"When my mother died, I took off on my own. Couldn't stand the thought of goin to an orphanage. I grew up on the streets, stealing and workin when I could. When I got old enough and decided to be a gunfighter, I started watchin 'em all along the border. Seemed to me, the white men had more money, could afford to hire guns more often. And they didn't exactly swarm around the Mexican gunfighters.

"So, I figured since I was half and half, I'd be white. Thought I'd get more work that way. While I was workin on gettin good with a gun, I also worked on gettin rid of my accent. I stopped speakin Spanish for a year and, before I knew it, the accent was gone. Didn't seem too hard but, I was just a kid then."

"Then?" Val snorted. "You're still a kid."

Johnny turned those icy blue eyes on him and Val just smiled.

"You ain't a bit afraid of me, are you?"

He laughed at that and got up, pouring himself more coffee. "Nope, I ain't. If that makes me a fool, that's alright, I reckon. I ain't afraid of no man, Johnny."

"Me neither," he answered softly. "So, what happened to your old man?"

Val settled back and took a sip of the brew then shrugged. "Don't know. Reckon he's still in Arizona. He was a farmer or, at least, that's what he called himself. Never did do a lick of work that I can recall. Unless you wanna call raisin a whiskey bottle to your mouth work."

Johnny smiled a little. "I think I know him."

Val gave him a sidelong look.

"Or his brother or cousin. Hell, I figure they must all come from the same tree cause there ain't a bit of difference in 'em. Call 'em a rancher, farmer, gambler - it's all the same when they curl that fist up."

"I reckon so."

"What about your ma?"

"Died when I was born."

Johnny just nodded. "I was twelve when mama died."

"Do ya know anything about your pa?"

"Sure. I know exactly who he is and where he is."

Val frowned at that. "Why don't ya go see 'im?"

Johnny leaned back against his saddle and stretched out then sighed. "I will one of these days when I get around to it. Then," he stopped and pulled his hat over his eyes, "I'm gonna put a bullet right between his eyes."

*****

It just seemed to work out that way. Somehow, neither Johnny or Val had an inclination to part ways and they rode into Purgatory together.

"What a shit hole," Val growled.

"Never been here?" Johnny laughed.

"Oh, yeah, I've been here. It's still a shit hole."

"That it is."

"MInd tellin me why we're here?"

Johnny looked over and grinned. "Need to see a man."

"I need to see a drink," he retorted as they tied off their mounts. "I'll keep an eye on the horses. Liable to come out and have nothin left but the hocks."

Johnny laughed but he'd been watching the streets the entire time. Several men were looking him over like he was today's lunch. Most of them needed killin so he didn't mind if they wanted to give it a go. He left Val to his drink and walked over to the livery stable.

"Hola, Miguel."

The liveryman didn't even look up as he pounded the horseshoe into shape.

"Did you get the brand off the horse or did it have one?" Johnny grinned.

"It was tough meat," the man sneered. "No word."

Johnny's smile left and he sighed. "Well, I reckon I'd fall over dead if there was."

Miguel lowered his hammer and looked at the man. "If you stay here, you surely will."

Johnny only nodded then walked away, headed to the cantina. He didn't get very far when he heard the gunfire. It was a normal sound in Purgatory, an aptly named town, so he didn't think much of it as long as he didn't hear or see any bullets flyin at him. But, when he got to the cantina, he groaned.

Val stood beside his mount, gun in hand and watching three ugly hombres who were eyeing him just as hard. He shook his head and walked into the fray.

"Problem?"

"Oh, no, no problem. These gentleman just wanted to buy my horse for free," Val sneered.

Johnny laughed then looked at the three men. Yep, this could get ugly. "Man's horse ain't for sale, fellas. Matter of fact, we were just leavin. Now, why don't you all go have a drink while we do that?"

The three looked at each other then shrugged and started to turn. Johnny drew his gun as they turned back and he and Val started shooting. As the three fell to the ground, they vaulted on their steeds and tore out of town as bullets flew all around them.

*****

Five miles out and now across the border, Val finally spoke. "Lousy shots, all three of 'em."

Johnny burst out laughing. "Reckon ya didn't need my help."

"Reckon not but I didn't mind it neither! Did ya get what ya went there for?"

He grew somber and sighed. "No."

"Great!"

Johnny reined to the east and said nothing. They camped out again and Val figured this was talk time since they didn't seem to do much of that during the day.

"Somethin I can help with?"

Johnny looked at him quizzically. "Huh?"

"Purgatory. Whatever you were lookin for."

"Oh, no. No, thanks. Just lookin for a man. You wouldn't know him, believe me."

Val nodded. "Well, it ain't your old man."

"You just hafta know everything, don't ya?"

Val grinned and nodded.

"He killed my mother and I've been lookin for him for six years."

Val sobered. "Hope ya find him."

"Thanks but it don't seem likely. Might be dead. No one has seen him for five years."

"Well, all I know is I ain't in no hurry to find another job."

"No? What do you do? Wait until you're broke again to work?" Johnny teased.

"Usually and it works out just fine, too."

Johnny shook his head then grew solemn. "Ever think about the future, Val?"

The older man looked at his profile, took in the sadness in his voice. "No, but you should. You're still young, Johnny. You should find another line of work."

"Like what?" he snorted.

"Don't know. What else are ya good at?"

"Nothin."

"Find that hard ta believe."

*****

Johnny looked over at him. "Why's that?"

"I don't know. You're smart, think things out and ya do strategy real well. Bet you can track, too."

"I can."

"Could work for the army, trackin."

Johnny made a noise to indicate his disbelief in that idea. "Ain't workin for no army. I did that."

"What? When?"

"I was in the Mexican Army when I was fifteen or so. That was plenty."

Val shook his head. "You were right. Age ain't got nothin to do with it. What the hell else have ya done? Been governor?"

Johnny laughed at that. "I picked things up here and there. Pretty good with horses."

"There ya go. You could work horses or, hell, be a cowboy."

"A cowboy? I ain't no damned cowboy!"

"What, ain't that good enough for you?"

Johnny rolled his eyes. "I worked a couple of drives last year. No, thanks."

"Yeah, I've done that, too, when work was scarce."

They grew quiet for a while then turned in. Johnny stared at the stars for a while and smiled widely at Val. Cowboy! No way in hell he'd ever work on a ranch!

Just before he fell asleep, he heard Val's hushed voice.

"Thanks for today."

Smiling still, he answered, "de nada."

*****

El Paso hadn't changed a lick since either of them had been there before. But, Johnny was weary of the trail and wanted to sleep in a bed for a couple of nights. Val had no problem with that, either. He wouldn't mind a proper bath himself. So, they checked into a hotel and went to the bathhouse together.

Lying in the tubs with half a wall between them, both men relaxed in the steaming water, drink in hand.

"Should find some work soon," Johnny said.

"Yeah, I reckon so. Shouldn't be too hard."

"Nah, I'll ask around tonight. There's always something goin on."

"Funny how most of the time it's these ranchers goin at each other," Val commented.

"Yeah, it's the land. They all have to have as much land as they can get their hands on. Like it's gold or somethin."

"Reckon it's the next best thing. I wouldn't mind havin a little piece of land myself. Maybe a few cattle and horses."

Johnny raised up and looked around the wall at him, grinning. "Val Crawford, are you gettin all respectable on me?"

"Aw, hush. Ain't nothin wrong with thinkin about settlin down."

"Yeah? You thinkin of gettin married, too?"

Val nearly strangled on his own throat. "Married?! Hell, no, I don't wanna get married!"

Johnny laughed and fell back in his tub.

"What about you?" Came the question a few minutes later. "Ever think of gettin married?"

There was a long silence and Val sighed. Thinkin again.

"Don't reckon too many gals would want to marry a gunhawk."

"Then, don't be a gunhawk."

"Sure, Val. No problem, I'll just quit."

Now, Val leaned forward to look at him. "It ain't impossible."

"It is for me."

"Why?"

Johnny looked at him, his eyes full of longing for some other life he couldn't even imagine. "Like I said, it's all I know. All I'm good for."

"Johnny..."

"I don't wanna talk about this no more."

Val snarled at him then leaned back. He knew that tone by now. Still, he wasn't done, either.

*****

It didn't take long to find out there was a range war brewing in Arizona. Val wasn't so sure he wanted to go at first but, Johnny talked him into it. He figured it was far enough away from where he'd last seen his old man so he wasn't going to worry about it. The only worry he ever had about seeing his father again was killin the old bastard. Something he had in common with Johnny, for sure.

"This really okay with you?" Johnny asked as they rode along.

"Yeah, I ain't worry about that. He's up in the north part anyways."

"Sounds like it's gonna be a real war."

"Mind if we stay on the same side this time? I mean, I'd hate ta have ta shoot ya."

Johnny grinned. "Yeah, I'd hate that, too."

It took three days to get there and, by the time they arrived, things were heating up. But, their timing was good since both sides were hiring more guns. Johnny never minded not being top dog on a job as long as that top dog knew what he was doin. This one did and, after figuring out that's who they wanted to work for, he and Val signed up.

It was a daily battle, it seemed. They were worn out by the end of the day or night, whichever time required their services. Johnny and Val partnered up and the boss didn't care. He saw how well they worked together and had said it was an additional bonus for him. So many times in these battles, the men only had a passing acquaintance with each other. Gunfighters didn't have many friends or, they didn't last long. Sooner or later, they died or ended up on the opposite side.

By the end of the week, it seemed they were winning this fight. There was a palpable relief amongst the war-torn men. Still, no one relaxed and they all knew things could change quickly.

Mike Ford was a smart man and a good fighter. He'd been in the army and brought his skills to his career as a gunfighter. Johnny had worked with him once before and respected the man's talents. He may not be the fastest draw, but he used his head and that won him the day most times. Today, as he walked into their camp, Johnny saw the look on his face. He leaned into Val.

"This don't look good."

"Listen up, boys!" Ford said as he called them all around. "Boss wants to make a big push at dawn. We're goin at the ranch so get ready and get some sleep. Madrid, you and Crawford take first watch."

*****

As dawn broke, the men topped a rise just above the ranch house. It was still quiet and Ford looked at the men to his right and left. He dismounted and called Johnny and Val aside.

"I'm countin on you, both. You've got a lot of experience with this. Madrid, I need you to take charge of the right flank. Crawford, you take the left."

Both men glanced at each other then nodded. Ford smiled.

"Now, you two can be separated, can't ya? I mean it ain't gonna hurt or nothin?"

Johnny smacked him on the arm and grinned. "Reckon I can handle the pain. You, Val?"

"I don't know but I'll try to suck it up for the cause," Val snorted sarcastically.

Once back in the saddle, Ford broke the men into three groups and gave them instructions. Johnny looked over at Val and winked. "See ya on the other side." Then, he pressed his spurs to his stallion and moved off.

Firefights he'd been in, plenty of them, but Val decided this was the worst of all. There was so much gunsmoke in the air, it was hard to see. Surprise had been theirs but, the other side had heeded the call. Val had to give them credit for reacting so fast. Now, they were on foot mostly, having abandoned the horses for better cover.

As he fired his Colt, Val's eyes swept the field. He spotted Johnny across the yard and smiled as the young man fired for all he was worth, hitting his target almost every time.

They were gaining the advantage after two hours. Exhausted from the constant tension, Val sucked in a breath as he reloaded. Lord, I'm gettin too damned old for this, he thought with chagrin. Then, he remembered Johnny's reaction when he'd told his age and he laughed.

"Somethin funny, Crawford?" one of his men asked in dismay.

"Just thinkin about something is all, Fred. Get back to it."

The man shook his head, awed anyone found time to think about much of anything right now, especially something funny. He turned back to fire and fell to the ground dead.

Val sighed and went back to it. He sure hoped this would be over soon. He could really go for a cold beer. He saw Johnny moving and had to watch for a second. That boy must be part cat, he thought. Then, he saw the man Johnny didn't see.

Val stopped breathing as he saw his friend fall to the ground and go still. Fighting down the urge to run out in the open, Val looked around and mapped out a path then headed to Johnny.

*****

It took entirely too long in Crawford's estimation to make it across that damned yard. But, finally, he was ten feet from his friend and he called out. Johnny didn't answer, didn't move and Val felt rare panic surge in him. Then, he felt the sting as a splinter off the wagon he was crouched behind hit him on the neck. Growling in anger, Val returned fire and downed the pest keeping him from his friend.

Taking a deep breath then, taking off at a run, Val dove to the ground and rolled to a stop behind the wall where Johnny lay. He grabbed his friend's shirt collar and dragged him completely behind the wall. Rolling him onto his back, Val grimaced at the large blood stain.

"Don't you do this to me, Johnny. Damn you, don't do it!" He removed his kerchief and pressed it against the wound on his left side but got no response. Val looked around, trying to figure how to get Johnny out of here and to help.

Suddenly, it went quiet all around him. He raised up and peeked over the wall then saw his comrades walking toward the house. Val figured it was over enough so he could move now and he picked Johnny up, slung him over his shoulder then headed out to the field where a lone horse still stood seemingly oblivious to the war around it.

Val gave a quick thought to how strange that was until he noticed the horse was Johnny's black stallion. He's "pretty good" with horses, huh? How come his is standin there waitin on him, then? Pretty good, my eye!

Val slung him onto the saddle, holding onto the waistband of his pants while he mounted behind Johnny and wrapped an arm around him, pulling the man back against himself. He turned and looked once more toward the house and saw they still had things in hand so, he headed for town.

It was a long journey as he couldn't go very fast. It was tiring, too, as the horse had other ideas and seemed to want to run full out. Val cursed the animal most of the way under his breath. Frustration finally caused him to increase his tone.

"You lousy bag of bones, will ya cut it out? He can't take ya running like your mane's on fire, ya know!?"

"Ain't no damned bag of bones and he's tryin to get us there quick cause he knows I'm hurt."

"How long you been awake?"

Johnny's head lolled toward Val's face. "Long enough to hear you insult my horse."

"Yeah, well, he's a handful."

Johnny grinned a little. "That he is." He cleared his throat and raised his voice. "Lento, Furia!"

Val narrowed his eyes. "Fury? Ya named your horse Fury?"

"Well, it's really Furia del Infierno."

"Oh, well, that's so much better. So, he's Hell's Fury and your Hell's messenger, that it?" Val grinned.

Johnny laughed softly then sucked in a breath. Through gritted teeth, he replied, "yeah, exactly."

"Hang on, amigo. We're almost there," Val said softly and tightened his grasp.

*****

Val stayed during the operation to make sure the doctor's hands didn't shake too much. He'd found the physician passed out after an apparently hard night of drinking. Val figured it was just their luck to find the town drunk and doctor one in the same. He wasn't a squeamish man but, Val could have done without this. At least, Johnny was still alive and the stitches didn't look too crooked.

He refused the offer to keep his friend at the doctor's 'office'. He figured even sleeping outside would be cleaner so he carried Johnny to the hotel. As he sat there and watched the unconscious man, he thought back over the past few months.

He was more surprised than anyone that he and Johnny hit it off so well. The difference in their ages was the least of it. They couldn't be more different in style, any style. Life, clothes, food, drink. The one thing they agreed on was the very reason they'd come together. How to do the job.

He found it strange they'd sort of fallen in together after that whole thing was over. They just started riding and neither had said a word about splitting up. Val had never had a partner and he knew Johnny was a loner which is why he was so surprised the young man didn't balk at the idea of sticking with their unspoken arrangement.

But, Johnny seemed at ease with him even if they did get on each other's nerves at times. He smiled and knew he got on the boy's last nerve some days. Hell, Madrid wasn't no prize, neither. The sad thing was, Val knew he could be a prize. He could be so much more than he let himself be.

He recalled that night Johnny had asked him if he ever thought of the future. Somehow, they hadn't really gotten too deep into that talk. He realized it was because of his answer. No, he didn't. And maybe Johnny was looking for someone to tell him yes. Someone to show him the way, maybe. Only Val didn't know the way to whatever place that was and he hated that.

He wished he could show Johnny the way out but he didn't know it himself. After six years, he still didn't know a way out and had never really thought about it. He looked over at his friend. Friend. There was somethin he'd never had before. Not since he was a boy and that wasn't real. Just a couple of kids he played with, got into scrapes with. One was dead and the other in prison last time he'd heard. He sure didn't want either of those choices for this one because he understood Johnny was special.

He watched the young man in sleep and thought how incredibly innocent he looked when he was this relaxed. Val frowned as he realized this was the first time he had ever seen Johnny so relaxed so ... peaceful. So damned young!

He sighed lightly then stood up and stretched his back. He grabbed Johnny's Colt and checked it. After reloading the gun, he eased it into Johnny's right hand. He quietly left the room, locking it, to find some food.

*****

After having a quick meal and checking on Furia, Val walked back toward the hotel only to stop short when he saw Ford riding in, leading a roan horse. He waited for the man to approach him.

"How is he?"

"He'll live," Val said shortly.

Ford nodded then handed Val a roll of bills. "Your pay and Johnny's and your horse. Tell him he did a real good job and I look forward to workin with you both again."

"It was a pleasure, Mike. Thanks," Val said and shook hands.

Ford started to walk off then turned back. "Don't need to tell you if word gets out Madrid is down, there'll be cockroaches comin out from under every rock."

Val nodded grimly. No, he didn't need to be told that. He also couldn't move Johnny yet but as soon as the kid was able, they'd head out to safer ground. Where that might be, Val didn't know yet but he figured Johnny might. He turned and led his horse to the livery. The animal tossed its head and whinnied and Val was overcome with guilt.

"Sorry, horse, but I was a might busy." After a beat, he added, "I reckon you'll be wantin a name now, too. Well, 'horse' has worked all this time so it can keep right on workin!"

Once the roan gelding was secured, Val made his way back to the hotel. He wondered briefly if Johnny would be awake yet. He hoped not. He hoped the man would sleep until morning at least. He sure needed it. As he slid the key in the lock, he heard the unmistakeable sound of a hammer being pulled back.

"It's me," he called then slowly opened the door, sticking his head through. "Who'd ya think it was?"

"Didn't know. That's why the gun," Johnny said in a slightly slurred voice.

Val walked over and turned the lamp wick up. "How ya feelin?" he asked as he felt Johnny's forehead and nodded approval.

"Lousy. Hurts like hell. What did that doc do to me?"

Val winced and rubbed his jaw. "Well, he wasn't much, Johnny, but he was all there was. I watched him close. Made sure he didn't leave anything inside or nothin. The stitches are almost straight."

Johnny stared at him, appalled then, he sighed and closed his eyes. "Damned sawbones. Ain't good for nothin but takin your money. Ain't never met one worth a dime."

"Somethin ta hope for," Val snorted. "Listen, buddy, soon as you're able, we need to light outta here. Ford stopped by with our pay and my horse so we're set soon as you can."

Johnny nodded even as he drifted back to sleep.

*****

Two days later, the now-sober doctor examined Johnny who was ready to shoot him. He poked around the wound haplessly until the young man could stand no more.

"You gettin paid by the hour, mister? Cut it out!"

"I'm trying to be thorough."

"You're tryin to cover your ass. I done heard how hungover you were when you cut inta me. Val here coulda done a better job."

Val stood aside and said nothing but he agreed, he probably could have done just as well.

"If that's how you thank people for saving your life..."

"Thanks, now get out," Johnny sneered.

The doctor stood and straightened his jacket indignantly before turning to Val. "That will be ten dollars."

Val reached in his pocket and pulled out a bill. "Since ya did a half-ass job, here's five."

The man's face reddened and he snatched the bill then stormed out. Val looked at Johnny then burst out laughing. Johnny held his side and laughed along with him.

"We need to get goin."

Val settled down. "Sure you're ready?"

"Yeah, it wasn't that bad to begin with."

"Right. Not bad at all. Well, got any ideas of where we can hole up?"

Johnny cocked a brow but didn't bother mentioning Val should know better than he since it was his home state. "Got an idea or two. Help me up."

*****

The further north they rode, the more apprehensive Val got. One day from his home town, he spoke out. "Where we goin?"

"Kirkland Junction. Should be there tonight."

"Yeah, I know."

Johnny looked over at the tight mouth and firm jaw. "You okay? Is that where you're from?"

Val shook his head. "Prescott but that's as close as I wanna get."

"You shoulda told me."

"Reckon so but, I didn't. What's in Kirkland Junction?"

Johnny smiled. "A lady friend."

Chuckling, Val shook his head. "I hope she's a good friend."

"Oh, she is, Val. She is."

They headed straight for the east side of town and Johnny reined to a stop in front of a large white clapboard house. He swung down, grunting a little.

Val watched him, had been watching him for days now. He seemed to be doing alright and the wound was clean but he still didn't like Johnny riding so far or sleeping out at night. Hell, I ain't his old man, he grumbled to himself.

They walked up to the door and Johnny walked right in. Val paid attention now, pushing his concern for his friend aside for the moment and realized they were in a brothel. He grinned widely.

"Johnny! You handsome devil! Get on in here."

*****

Val looked at the staircase where she stood. Blonde hair fell in curls around her shoulders. Her blue dress, revealing ample bosom and hugging her tiny waist and admirable hips, flowed as she descended the last few steps.

"Marty, how are ya, honey?" Johnny grinned as she stepped into his waiting arms and planted a long, passionate kiss on his lips.

"Much better now, miel."

Val cocked a brow at it all. Hell, the woman was purring!

Johnny laughed then turned, his arm still around her waist and introduced them. Val grabbed his hat off his head and nodded respectfully to her. His eyes caught Johnny's and he thought he saw appreciation in there. This perplexed him but he wasn't going to question it in that moment.

"Well, Mr. Val, it's a real pleasure. You boys come on in to the sitting room and I'll get you a drink," Marty smiled.

"Oh, I should take care of the horses, ma'am," Val said.

"Nah, George will do that. How is George, Marty?" Johnny enquired.

"He's fine, honey. Gettin along in years but don't try and tell him that. He won't have it. Won't give up workin even though I've told him he don't have to." She prattled on about her handyman as she guided Johnny into the living room, Val on their heels.

Once they were seated and drinks in hand, she settled beside Johnny, nearly sitting on his lap. "Now, what have you been up to?"

"Well, got a little bullet wound in my side and I was hopin I could stay here a few days."

She was up immediately and plucked his shirttail out, examining the bandage. "Dang it, Johnny. Get yourself up to my room and inta bed this minute!"

Johnny's grin was slow and easy. "Ya ain't gotta tell me twice."

She laughed and swatted his shoulder as he stood up. "You just sit tight, Val. I'll have one of the girls come take care of ya. Do you have a preference?"

Val, thoroughly enjoying the show, looked confusedly at her. "Preference, ma'am?"

"Yes, honey. Dark, light, redheaded."

"Oh, uh, no ma'am. No preference."

Johnny was still grinning, now at Val's discomfort. "Give him Angel." He looked back at Val and winked. "She sure is one, too."

*****

Val descended the stairs the next morning feeling like a new man. He would have to thank Johnny. Angel sure had lived up to her name, he grinned. He'd been told to go to the kitchen and he'd be fed. He was thinking this was a sweet set up alright and wondered how he'd never heard of the place before. Maybe Marty hadn't been around here long. He might have asked if he'd cared but he didn't.

As he entered the kitchen, he saw Johnny at the table and slid into a chair next to him.

"Mornin. Have a good night?" Johnny smiled.

Val growled at him, suddenly unwilling to give the man his due for some reason. Most likely, he thought, just to aggravate Johnny.

"You didn't like Angel?" Johnny was frowning now and looking a little protective.

"Liked her just fine. Just ain't none of your business, Mr. Smarty-pants."

Johnny laughed a little then went back to his meal. Soon, Val had his own plate sitting before him and he nodded his thanks to the Indian girl who served him. He watched her go back to the stove with an admiring twinkle in his eye.

"She's just the cook. Marty don't want her sullied," Johnny said.

"She's a pretty little thing. That's nice of Marty, protectin her."

"Marty's a fine woman. Real fine. Won't meet none better."

"She sure likes you!" Val grinned.

Johnny laughed again and shook his head. "Ain't much else to do around here. A little gamblin and drinkin, maybe. It's a pretty quiet town."

"Good."

"That's what I thought when I came here," Marty said as she walked into the room. Both men stood until she seated herself with Johnny's hand on her chair.

Val looked at the woman and thought she was glowing. He looked over at Johnny and cocked a brow. Reckon the boy has other talents, too, he, mused.

"Well, thought I'd walk around and stretch my legs."

"You sure you're up to that, honey? Don't want that wound painin you any," Marty said, concern all over her face.

Val snickered and Johnny shot him a look. "I'm fine, miel. Especially now," he grinned.

*****

As they meandered down the main and only street in the town, Val thought Johnny had been right. Not much doin here. He stopped and looked in the general store window and Johnny walked on a few paces before noticing. He came back and looked to see what had captured Val's interest.

"Not a bad piece," he remarked of the Colt.

Val looked over at him and shrugged. "Mine's just as good but I was lookin at that necklace. Thought I'd buy it for Miss Marty. Sort of a thank you." He suddenly felt embarrassed and straighened up, looking across the street.

Johnny smiled softly. "I think that's a fine idea, Val. I know she'd appreciate that."

"I ain't tryin to steal her away!"

He laughed a little. "She ain't my girl, Val. She's a friend. If ya want to spend time with her, I don't mind."

"Ain't that at all. Just didn't want ya gettin any wrong ideas, is all. Anyways, I'll buy it. Maybe I'll give it to her." He turned and walked quickly into the store.

Johnny stood there, shaking his head. Val was a wonder to him. Usually, he was the orneriest man Johnny ever had met. Not a kind word to be had. Then, there were times like this when he showed a gentler side. Like now and other times when they'd been campin out and talkin and Johnny told him some stupid thing about his past. Val would get kind of quiet and his voice would go soft when he spoke.

He didn't know why he told Val those things, why he opened up to this man but there was something about him Johnny trusted. Some 'thing' that told him Val Crawford could keep his mouth shut and would never betray him. The thought really shocked him to the core. There had never been anyone in his life he trusted that completely before. And he wasn't even sure the why of it. There was just something there, between them. Some kind of connection.

Johnny smiled. If he'd had a brother, he would've wanted it to be Val Crawford or someone exactly like him.

Val came back out, interrupting Johnny's thoughts and stuffing a small package into his pocket.

"I could use a beer," Johnny said, trying not to laugh.

*****

They walked into the saloon side by side, each sweeping one side and meeting in the middle. The inspection never went any further for either man. If one didn't spot a problem, the other sure wasn't going to. They headed to the bar and ordered then found a table off to the side.

The saloon wasn't anything to brag about. It was a big enough room with plenty of tables and plenty of smells; like any other. No one ever seemed to notice the stench. It was almost a mandatory thing in these places. Another requirement was sleeping off the previous night or maybe this morning with his head on the table snoring loudly. A few other men were sitting quietly playing a game of poker on the other side of the room. No one was too chatty.

Johnny nudged Val's arm. "I hope that ain't the doc," he grinned as he nodded toward the drunk.

Val chuckled and sipped his beer. "Got anything in mind? Plans, I mean."

"Nah, we're pretty well set for a while."

Val glanced over at him before taking another drink. "How's California sound?"

Johnny stared at the table and didn't answer at first.

Val sighed lightly. Thinkin again.

"Where?" he finally asked.

"Anywhere. Hear San Diego's nice. Or Los Angeles."

"I don't like big cities," Johnny answered quickly.

"Someplace smaller then. Stockton, Modesto. Bound to be somethin happenin somewhere."

Johnny twirled his beer mug around a few times. "I'd rather head back south, closer to the border."

"Sure, that's where you're comfortable. Ain't like I care where we go. Course, we ain't goin nowhere til them stitches are ready ta come out."

Johnny smiled a little. "Yes, daddy."

*****

They fell quiet and watched the room, both nearly bored to tears. The bartender came out and walked over to the drunk, kicking him lightly on the leg a few times before the man started to rouse.

"Come on, Hap. Time ta get goin," the barkeep said loudly.

Johnny smiled a little and glanced over at Val who had gone pale. He reached out and put a hand on his friend's arm but Val didn't seem to notice. He was watching the drunk.

The man belched loudly then pushed on the table. His arms gave out and he sat back down hard then tried it again. The bartender was patient with him for a few minutes.

"Come on, old man. I need ta clean up this table. Be lunch time soon."

"Alright!" the man shouted then pushed up again, making it to his feet and staggering out the door.

Val was up and out the door before Johnny knew what was happening. He moved quickly, tossing a few coins on the table then following.

Val watched the man stumble to the horse trough and dunked his head. A look of pure disgust was on his face as he watched the drunk.

"What's wrong, Val?"

He glanced over, irritation and anger coloring his cheeks. "Nothin!"

Johnny was unconvinced as Val went back to watching the drunk. "Who is he?" As soon as he asked the question, a deep feeling of dread hit his gut, clenching painfully with the truth.

"He ain't nobody. Never been nobody and ain't never gonna be nobody."

The man shook the water from his hair then swiped his face with his sleeve before looking up. His eyes were clearer now and he squinted in the noon day sun at the two men watching him so closely. His face suddenly lit with recognition and he pulled himself up, swaggering as he came nearer.

"Well, come ta see me, have ya?"

"Nope. Just my bad luck," Val deadpanned.

Hap's eyes went to Johnny. "Who's your friend? Another gunhawk?" he sneered.

"That's right."

"Hmmph! Figures. Well, what're ya lookin at, boy?"

If Johnny had any doubts, hearing this man's voice, seeing his face and taking in his demeanor shook those doubts right out of his head.

"Not much of nothin," Val was saying flatly.

"Leave me alone, then!"

"With pleasure!" Val spat then turned on his heel and stormed down the street.

*****

Johnny stood there, unsure what if anything he should do. It wasn't his business but, despite the anger in Val's words, he'd also heard the pain. That tore at him and he glared at the drunk who was smirking.

"What are you lookin at?"

"Same thing as he was, I reckon. A piece of shit."

"Oh, you think you're so much better'n me? You think he is? He ain't nothin. He's a worthless waste of time and the pain his mama went through birthin 'im."

Johnny stepped down into the street to face him. "I reckon all that whiskey makes you such a good judge of character. In spite of you, Val is the most decent man I've ever met. Whatever it is you think he's done to you, you did to him a hundred times worse, you bastard. If I had an inkling he would even give a damn, I'd blow your brains all over this street."

"Go ahead. You'd be doin me a favor. Least I wouldn't have to know he was still breathin!"

Johnny pulled his arm back and punched the man in the mouth then watched as he tumbled head over ass into the dusty street. He walked over and knelt beside Hap. "You just lay right there, old man. This is where you belong. God must've been lookin over Val's mama when she had him; lookin over Val so's he didn't turn out like you."

"Oh, yeah, He was lookin out alright," he spat as he wiped the blood from his mouth. "He was lookin out so good, he took her away and left me with that bawlin kid. He should've taken the boy and left her with me!"

Johnny sat back on his heels and stared at the man in shock. So, that's why the old man hated his own son. He closed his eyes as he lowered his head for a minute then sighed and looked back. "That wasn't his fault. You got her pregnant. Maybe you should be lookin at yourself! Just stay away from him, you sonofabitch!"

He stood up and turned to walk away then stopped at the words.

"What? He your girlfriend?"

Johnny turned in a second, the Colt in his hand and cocked before he even really knew it. He walked back over and went to his knees beside the man then shoved the barrel in his mouth. "You want me to pull this trigger?"

Hap stared wild-eyed at him and shook his head fiercely.

"Reckon you ain't as ready to die as you say. Well, you say one more bad word against my best friend and you *****will***** die, old man. And it'll be a long and painful death. I know how to do that real well." Madrid locked onto the panicked eyes until he saw his words had registered. Slowly, he pulled the gun out of Hap's mouth then lowered the barrel and pressed it to the man's gut, giving a sharp poke.

"You understand me?" he asked through gritted teeth.

Hap only swallowed hard and nodded his head and Johnny stood up and walked away, the gun still in his hand.

*****

He went back to Marty's but Val wasn't there so Johnny headed to the livery. The owner informed him Val had taken off on his horse like a wild man, headed east. Johnny sighed and saddled Furio then went after the man. It took him an hour to find Val though his tracks were easy to follow. He'd ridden the horse so hard, Johnny knew he'd have to either stop or the horse would drop dead under him pretty soon.

He found where Val turned off the road and heard the sound of water. Johnny followed and sucked in a breath, not knowing what he might find. He dismounted and let Furio wander. The horse headed straight for the water and Johnny saw the roan there, too. But, he didn't see Val and he walked along the water's edge.

"Don't want no company."

Johnny looked into the trees, squinting to try and make out the man. He couldn't see him and he almost smiled. Val was good at blending into the landscape. "Okay. Just wanted to make sure you didn't kill that horse."

He waited for a reply but received none. He sighed heavily and loudly then walked over to Furio, grabbing up the reins. He heard the footsteps but he didn't turn around, just stood there and waited.

"Reckon ya can see now why I hate that bastard."

Johnny closed his eyes for a second. "Yeah."

"Bet you're wonderin why I don't just kill 'im."

"Nope. Let 'im suffer, I say." He heard Val move closer but he stayed still.

"Did ya talk to 'im?"

"Yeah, a little. Then, I punched him in the mouth and stuck my gun in it."

There was silence for a while before Val spoke again. His voice was a little shaky and Johnny didn't think he could stand this.

"How come?"

Finally, he turned to face his friend who was looking at the ground. "Because I didn't like what he had to say. He blames you for your mama dyin."

"Yeah, I know."

"He's wrong, Val."

The man only nodded his head and still wouldn't look up.

"I told him I'd kill him real slow if he ever said another word against you and I meant it."

*****

Val finally, slowly raised his head and Johnny almost sucked in a breath at the torment he saw there. He grabbed Val, sure the man was about to fall on his face and they both went to their knees. Val grabbed his shirt sleeve and knotted it in his fist as he hung on, breathing heavily and rapidly as he fought to control himself.

"It's just us, Val. You can do whatever ya feel like doin. I'll never speak of it to a soul," Johnny promised in a whisper.

He nodded, his entire body shaking. Johnny kept his arms on the man's shoulders and waited for Val to get control.Â

"I hate that sonofabitch! I wish you had killed him!"

"I will if you really want me to. But, forget about him for now. Just let it all out, Val. Finally let it out."

They sat there a while longer but Val only stared at the ground while his mind worked through it all. He refused to shed a tear for that old man or himself. He was done with that sort of thing years ago. FInally, he staggered to his feet, not meeting Johnny's eyes, and went to the creek. As he splashed water on his face, Johnny got himself straightened up. His shirt was askew from Val holding on and the sleeve was nearly torn. A fleeting smile flew across his face as he tried to iron it out a little with his hand.

Val cupped his hand and took several handsful of water, trying to ease his dry throat before splashing more water on his face. Johnny left him alone and waited until he stood up.

Slowly, Val turned and only glanced at him. "I'll kill you if you ever ..."

"I won't. I swear it on my mother's grave," Johnny interrupted.

Val nodded. "Thanks, Johnny."

"You're welcome." He hesitated in asking but finally, he did. "You want me to kill him?"

Val met his eyes then and knew Johnny would do it. All he had to do was nod his head and his friend would commit murder for him. The very thought churned his heart painfully and he damned near lost what he'd fought so hard against moments earlier. He swallowed and shook his head.

"Not for him, for you."

"I can do it, Val. I won't get caught."

"No, Johnny. Gettin caught ain't what I'm worried as much about. You ain't no murderer. I can't tell ya what it means for you to offer but, no. Like you said, let him suffer. He's miserable and that suits me just fine."

Johnny only nodded then waited for Val to make a move to leave. He did a minute later and they rode back to Marty's together.

*****

Three days later, they headed out of town. Since Val refused to leave until Johnny's stitches were ready to come out, the younger man became aggravated and took them out himself. It was a neat trick but he'd had some practice in the past. Val was still growling about it if only to himself. Again, he wondered what it would take to get Johnny out of this business.

Why he cared so much, he could not fathom. Yes, Johnny was a friend; his only friend but still, the man had a right to live his life as he saw fit. Val's problem was, he couldn't get past the fact that Johnny wasn't quite a man. He'd seen the boy still growing within. There had been times when they'd horsed around, lazed around and plain laid around when he'd seen the youth inside the gunfighter.

It was the times when Madrid was at his top form when Val knew it was Johnny's choice and he couldn't talk him into quitting. Sometimes, he felt dizzy about it all and promised himself he'd stop all his worrying.

Yet, he owed Johnny a lot and he'd spend the rest of his life trying to repay the man.

*****

At some point, they'd crossed into California. Val wasn't sure when but here they were in Los Angeles and Johnny had grown quiet.

"He live near here?" Val asked quietly.

"North but, like I told ya, I don't like big cities."

He shrugged and smiled. "Then, let's turn south." And so they did and skirted the City of Angels.

After a quiet half hour, Val's curiosity got the better of him. "How come ya don't like big cities?"

"Too noisy. Too many people. I don't like to be crowded."

Val snorted at that and grinned. "No kiddin."

"Let's camp on the beach tonight."

A smile lit his face and Val had to return it. This was one of those times when he seemed so young. It astounded him sometimes how Johnny could go from so serious to so easy going in a split second.

*****

They sat on the sand and watched the sun go down over the ocean, the wind light on their faces. Silence was their companion and both liked it just fine. Taking in the sunset was an awe-inspiring experience that neither man ever wearied of seeing. Being at the ocean only magnified the treat.

The fire was kept low as the wind licked the flames, sometimes pushing them nearly flat to the ground and dancing out toward the men as if in invitation.

Val was unusually quiet that night as they sat by the campfire. Johnny couldn't see his face clearly but he didn't have to. He pondered bringing it up but Val decided to speak.

"Well, you know about my old man. What about yours?"

"What about him?"

"Don't get prickly with me, Johnny. Ya said ya knew who he is."

"Yeah, and I also said he threw us out."

"So, you don't wanna at least meet the man?"

Johnny looked up slowly but his expression was not what Val expected. The hate and anger wasn't there, just a deep sadness.

"What for? So he can tell me to my face he don't want me?"

Val sucked in a breath. "You said you wanted to kill him."

"I do."

"Are ya gonna or just somethin to keep ya mad about."

Johnny cocked his head to the side. "Keep me mad? What're you talkin about?"

"Well, seems to me that hate ya got for him is what keeps you goin every day. Keeps ya mean."

Surprisingly, Johnny laughed softly at that. "Well, if I didn't hate him, I still got plenty to be pissed about, I reckon. Don't change nothin but, yeah, I guess it's a reason to get up."

"Guess you've had a pretty tough go of it at that. I still think ya need to find somethin else to do with your life."

"I don't need nobody feelin sorry for me, Val."

"I don't feel sorry for ya. But, it's a sorry state that ya just give up."

*****

Johnny stood suddenly and paced away into the dark. "Nothin to give up on."

The soft voice came from the pitch black in a trembling tone. Val had to fight himself not to go over there but he'd had as much togetherness as he could stand with Johnny. He figured it was enough to last a solid year, anyways. It was selfish, he knew, because the kid needed someone. Only problem was, Johnny wouldn't allow it. Anger rose up in him.

"You're right. Nobody needs ta feel sorry for you. You're doin a fine job of it your own self!" Before he could even see a shadow move, Val felt the force as Johnny landed on top of him and punched him in the jaw.

They scrappled on the ground for a few seconds, rolling almost into the fire before Val shouted in his ear. "Cut it out, ya damned fool!" He gave a mighty shove and knocked Johnny off him.

Johnny rolled away then moved quickly onto his knees. Breathing heavily, he pointed a finger at Val. "You got no call sayin that. No call at all! Don't you ever say that again!"

Val watched, shocked by the trembling rage possessing this young man. Rage and something else all too easily seen in this rare moment. Johnny's defenses were completely down and Val had never seen it before. It was breathtakingly painful to watch. He raised a hand.

"Okay, okay. Just take it easy, Johnny. I won't never say it again, okay?"

Johnny let his hand drop then struggled to his feet and disappeared into the night.

Val sat there not knowing what the hell just happened or what he should do about it. He berated himself for being such a coward. Johnny had been there for him, had offered everything he had to Val when he needed it and what was he doing? Sitting here with his mouth hanging open. He got up and walked toward the sand dune where Johnny had disappeared. It didn't take him long to hear it.

He approached with trepidation but he'd seen Johnny's head move slightly and knew the young man knew he was there. He closed in and put a hand on his friend's shoulder then knelt down beside where Johnny sat. His hand went around Johnny's shoulders and he felt the heat and the shaking.

"I hate him! If it wasn't for him, she never woulda died. She never woulda had to bed every man that came her way. They never woulda gotten a chance to put their hands on me over and over. She never woulda ended up hatin me."

"Johnny, your mama didn't hate you."

"Yes, she did. She told me so. She said she couldn't stand to look at me cause of my gringo eyes. Cause I was stubborn and just like him!" He hitched in a breath, fighting with everything he had not to make a total and complete fool of himself.

"She said I always felt sorry for myself when I should be feelin sorry for her havin to carry me along everywhere she went. If it wasn't for me, she coulda had a good life."

Val closed his eyes and wondered which of Johnny's parents was worse. He had to think it was his mother at the moment. Sayin somethin like that to a little kid. What the hell was wrong with her? He sure didn't know because he didn't know what the hell was wrong with his old man, either. Should be against the law for some folks to have kids.

"Can ya come back to camp with me? I wanna tell you some things."

Johnny sucked in a deep breath and nodded his head. "Be right there."

*****

Val poured more coffee for them both and added whiskey to the cups. This was gonna be hard for him but Johnny needed to hear this. He only hoped his friend believed it. He wasn't sure of that. Not at all.

Johnny came back a few minutes later and accepted the laced coffee with a nod. He settled on his bedroll and didn't speak; nor would he look at Val.

"I've been on this earth a few years longer than you and I know you've seen and done a whole lot in a short time. But, I reckon I might have one or two longer teeth floatin around." He stopped and saw Johnny's mouth twitch. He smiled a little then went on.

"Thing is, I've seen a lotta gunfighters and a lot of other real mean hombres and I've spent more time with 'em than I cared to. But, I swear on my own life, I ain't never met nobody like you. Fastest thing there is with a gun and a sharp mouth. Cocky as hell but you can back it up. The difference is that you care bout folks. You care if the wrong man wins and you respect women no matter what sort they are. You care about that horse and I'd wager any animal. Johnny, you've got to get out of this game. If you don't, it'll kill ya.

"I know you done said you don't care but I think ya do. I think ya care more than you want to admit, even to yourself. You don't think much of yourself but everybody else can see it. You're a damned good man and, in this line of work, that's a disadvantage. I care what happens to ya and I don't wanna see ya die. You're the best friend I ever had and that's the truth of it. I trust you with my life and I can't say that about any other man. FInd a way out, amigo. Find it quick."

Johnny listened to his friend closely and heard the sincerity in his voice. It touched him deeply and he nearly lost control of himself. Everything Val had just said to him, he found himself attaching to the man, too.

"I heard ya, Val. I understand everything you said and I can say the exact same things about you. But, it's too late for me. I know you don't wanna believe that but it's true. I don't have anything else. I ain't anything else. No matter what kind of garbage I'm carryin around inside, I am a gunfighter and a good one. There's no way for me to walk away from this life."

"Do you want to?"

Johnny looked up at him, eyes full of tainted hope. "Maybe."

*****

No more was said the rest of the night. Each man kept his own council and the next morning, they headed south, through San Diego and on to Chula Vista. The further south they rode, the more Johnny relaxed. It seemed strange to Val, who knew Mexico was a pretty dangerous place for anyone let alone a man of Johnny's reputation. But, he was more at home there than anywhere so, who was Val to question it?

As they rode along the tree-lined trail, a low smile came across Johnny's face. "Nice day."

Val blinked out of his thoughts and looked over at the smile. "Guess so."

"Come on, Val. It's a beautiful day, a nice breeze and all these trees to keep the sun off our backs. Enjoy it!" He slapped at his friends arm and laughed.

"That an order, Mr. Madrid, Sir?" Val snorted. "Besides, it ain't so perfect. Look at that river ragin."

Johnny rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. "Nothin's perfect, Val. Can't you just appreciate what ya got?"

Val glared at him for effect but it didn't work. It hardly ever did unless he was really serious. Somehow, Johnny always knew the difference. A quirky half-grin came on his lips. "Ya know, with all this appreciatin you're doin, why don't ya write one of them pretty poems about it?"

Johnny's smile widened and he laughed softly. "What do you know about poems?"

"I read!" He proclaimed with an indignant voice. "Sometimes," he muttered as a follow up.

Johnny shook his head at the man then something caught his attention from the corner of his eye. Johnny reined to a stop then quickly saw the problem. "Val."

"I see," the man answered and both headed to the river's edge.

Johnny dismounted, quickly removed his rig and dove into the river without a second's hesitation. Val grabbed his rope and rode along the side of the torrent, watching Johnny with his heart in his throat.

Johnny wasn't swimming so much as he was being driven through the water. He didn't fight it until he was ready to make his move, then he used his arms and legs to kick himself over to the boy. As he wrapped an arm around the boy's chest from behind, he felt the rope slap around his head and grabbed hold.

Val stopped his horse then began backing up slowly as he pulled both sodden forms nearer the bank. Finally, they were on solid ground and he stopped, unwrapped the rope from his saddle horn and ran to his friend.

Johnny had made it to his knees and turned the boy onto his back. He pushed down on the boy's chest a few times until he started to cough and choke. Quickly, Johnny turned him on his side as he expelled the water and whatever he'd had for lunch, Johnny imagined.

Rubbing the kid's back slowly, he spoke soft nonsensical words as the child fought for and finally won control. Taking heaping lungsful of air, the boy started shaking badly.

Val grabbed his bedroll and, with deft fingers, untied it and shook the blanket out, covering the youngster. He then retrieved Johnny's horse and gunbelt and offered his friend a blanket as well.

*****

Johnny nodded his thanks to Val who knelt in front of the boy who was still shivering. "What's your name, son?"

"Jjjj...ason W..Wwwwillaims."

Johnny fought down a laugh and put his arm around the boy, pulling him in to try and warm him quicker. "Well, Jason Williams, you are one cold kid. Can you show us where you live?"

The boy nodded and Val helped him to his feet, holding on as the boy was shaking so hard, his legs didn't seem to want to move. "Want me to take him?"

Johnny rolled his blanket up haphazardly and tied it off then vaulted into the saddle. "I got him if you'll throw him up here."

Val nodded and lifted the boy onto the saddle in front of Johnny then mounted his own steed. Jason pointed with a shaking arm in the direction of his home.

Johnny wrapped both arms around him, holding the reins up high but Furio didn't seem to mind. "Just lean back against me, kid. You'll warm up soon."

It didn't take long to reach the small farm and Jason seemed to have relaxed quite a bit upon seeing his home. His shaking was down to some slight trembling and Johnny smiled at the top of his head. He reckoned home cured about anything to a scared little boy.

Just as Val dismounted and came over to take the boy, the front door opened and an audible gasp was heard. Both men looked at the woman with her hands to her mouth and the color drained from her face. They also noticed the small blond head peek out from behind her skirts.

"He's alright, ma'am. Just a little wet," Val reassurred quickly as he carried the boy to the porch then set him on his feet.

"Jason, my Lord, what happened?" she asked but the tears welled in the child's eyes and his lower lip began to tremble as he buried his head into her bosom.

Johnny had dismounted but he didn't step onto the porch. He was still dripping a little and figured he'd do better right where he was, out in the sun.

"We seen him flounderin in the river, ma'am. My friend here went in after 'im and I pulled 'em both out with a rope. He's scared ta death but I don't think he's hurt." Val explained, hat in hand and admiring the woman's plain beauty.

Before she could truly absorb what she'd been told, Seth Williams walked around the side of the house. He'd just returned from hunting and immediately pulled his rifle up, cocking it.

Johnny and Val never flinched but simply turned slowly toward the man moving toward them.

"Seth, no! They saved Jason's life!" the woman proclaimed. She quickly recounted Val's story and the man visibly relaxed his aggressive stance then stared at his son.

"Maybe the boy could go get dried off now," Johnny drawled, amusement lighting his eyes.

"Yes, yes. Come on, Jason. Gentlemen, please come in," she offered.

"No, ma'am. If you don't mind, I'll go in the barn and get dried off myself. Don't wanna drip on your floor." Johnny's smiled brightened her dismayed countenance. He didn't wait for an answer but led his horse toward the barn. Val nodded to her and followed his friend, biting the inside of his cheek.

"Come into the house when ya get fixed up and your horses bedded down."

Both men stopped and turned toward the masculine voice, soft with a slight drawl of his own, and nodded.

"Reckon we've been invited to supper," Val surmised.

Johnny shrugged. "Can't be any worse than your beans."

*****

Val opened the door slowly and poked his head through the opening. She looked up and smiled then waved him inside.

"Please, sit down, gentlemen. Supper is ready. I'm Mary Williams and this is my husband, Seth." She reached out an arm and the youngest boy stepped up to her. "This is my other son, Carl."

"Val Crawford and this is Johnny Madrid."

The men shook hands then settled at the table, Seth casting furtive looks at Johnny.

"How's Jason?" Johnny asked.

"Better. He's warmed up but still pretty badly shaken," Mary replied.

"If he wasn't so shook up, his behind would be a lot warmer," Seth grumbled.

Johnny laughed a little at that. "Did he say what happened?"

Mary put the big pot of stew on the table and took her own seat as Carl clambered up beside her. "He was frogging, he says."

Brow cocked, Val remarked, "water was pretty high for froggin."

"That's what I thought. That boy was up to somethin else," Seth said.

A back door opened and Jason appeared, his head down as he silently took his seat on his father's right. Seth cleared his throat loudly.

The boy looked up at his father quickly then stared at the table. Seth sighed. "This is Mr. Crawford and Mr. Madrid, Jason. What'ya got to say?"

His wide eyes came up quickly as he looked at the two men. "Thank you for saving my life." His voice cracked and Johnny knew it wasn't from fear of his punishment or shame at his actions. The kid was reaching manhood. He grimaced a little as he remembered that awkward time in his own life. He'd hated it and had been eternally grateful when it ended.

"You're welcome. Maybe, as a real thank you, you could tell your folks what you were really doin out there." Johnny's voice was soft but firm in intent. He expected his 'request' to be granted and he looked steadily at the boy.

Jason blushed and lowered his eyes again. "I was huntin."

Everyone looked to Seth whose face reddened as he looked hard at his son. Val was impressed with the man's ability to rein it in. He spoke in a level tone. "You lost your rifle?"

Jason only nodded.

"I just got that rifle for his fourteenth birthday. I reckon I was rushin things a bit. Thought he was responsible enough to handle it and do as I say with it. That ain't true though, is it, son?"

"No, Sir," came the whispered answer.

Seth sighed out through his nose. "We'll talk about your punishment later. Eat your supper."

*****

"We can't thank you both enough," Mary said after a quiet few moments.

"Just glad we came along when we did, ma'am," Val said.

"Where are you fellas headed?" Seth asked and neither man missed the underlying question.

"Mexico."

Jason looked up at Johnny. He hadn't been sure at first which of them it was but he figured it out quickly enough from the stories he'd heard. "That where you're from?" he asked softly, afraid his father would hush him.

"No, I was born in California but spent most of my growin up in Mexico or near it."

Jason smiled back at the kind face. "Are ya really as fast as they say?"

"Jason!" Mary Williams gawked at her son. "I'm sorry, Mr. Madrid. It seems his manners were what got drowned."

Johnny laughed. "It's okay, ma'am. And it's Johnny." He turned his attention back to Jason. "I don't know what *****they***** say or even who *****they***** are, Jason. I do alright, I guess."

Val snorted then lowered his head and focused on his meal. "Mighty fine, stew, ma'am. Mighty fine."

"I'm glad you like it, Mr. Crawford."

"It's Val. Just plain ole Val, ma'am," he smiled at her.

"And it's Mary and Seth," she smiled back.

"If you don't mind, we'll bunk in your barn tonight and head out in the mornin."

"Make yourselves ta home. Sorry we ain't got much room in the house," Seth replied.

"No bother. We're used to sleepin out. Havin a roof over our heads is more than good enough. And havin something this good to eat is a real treat. Val ain't too good a cook."

"You ain't exactly the best chef in the world, either, Johnny," Val retorted.

The Williams' found themselves relaxing in these men's company. Seth was a little surprised they both seemed so ... normal. He'd never heard of Val but any man who rode with Madrid must be as dangerous. What surprised him most was how young Johnny was. He couldn't be much older than his own son. Goosebumps ran down his arms at the thought of what would have happened if Johnny and Val hadn't happened by. He owed them both more than he could ever repay and he was a little ashamed of his skepticism.

"If you fellas ain't in a big hurry, you can stay here a while. Get out of the saddle, if ya like," he offered.

"We couldn't put ya out like that," Val said.

"Please, it's the very least we can do. We can't offer much but home cooked meals and a dry place to sleep. You saved our son's life. We can never repay you," Mary said emphatically.

They looked at each other then both shrugged. "Reckon we got no place special to be. Thanks," Johnny said and smiled warmly.

*****

For a week, Val and Johnny stayed at the Williams farm and got to know the family. Carl was quiet as a mouse but he began to open up to the men much to his parents astonishment and relief. The boy was just too quiet for Seth's liking. Mary always said he was just slow to warm up to people but Seth wasn't so sure about that. The only two people in the world he was truly at ease with were his mother and brother. Seth couldn't even say the boy was settled around his own father. He had no idea why.

Sunday came and the family decided to have a picnic by the stream nearby. It was calmer now that the river was no longer swollen and the run off that threatened to flood the fields had receded.

Johnny stood by the bank beside Jason as the boy fished. He kept skimming rocks and Jason was becoming more and more annoyed. He knew Johnny was just messing around with him but he wanted to catch a fish.

"Dang, Johnny. Could ya cut it out? You're scarin all the fish away!"

"Watch your mouth, boy," Johnny reprimanded then grinned at him and skimmed another stone.

Jason sighed and dropped the pole. Johnny laughed and reached down to pick up another rock. The next thing he knew, he was going headlong into the water.

Jsaon stood on the bank and howled in laughter. Soon, everyone was laughing at him as he swam to the edge and hauled himself out of the stream. He stood up, water pouring from him and gave the boy a poor excuse for his deadliest stare. Then, he took off and Jason yelped then ran through the field into the trees.

Val kept laughing as he dropped back down on the ground. "Reckon Jason'll let 'im catch up?"

"No way. That boy is quick as a jackrabbit." Seth's smile faded as he thought about the man he couldn't quite reconcile with the legend. "Johnny ain't what I'd a thought he was."

Val's face fell. "No, he ain't."

"He's so young and all. Seems like he's just a kid, hisself."

Val looked over at the man and nodded. "Sometimes, when he's relaxed like this and around good folks, he is a kid. Other times, he ain't."

"You known him a long time?"

"About a year now, I reckon."

"How old is he?"

Val sat up and rested his forearms on his bent knees. "Nineteen or twenty. He ain't real sure but I figure he's had a birthday in there some time since we been ridin together. He ain't had what ya'd call a normal upbringin."

Mary listened to it all and her eyes welled up. She turned and tended to the food with acute focus.

*****

Johnny appeared from the woods with Jason in tow. He had his hands on the boy's shoulders, leading him and both were laughing.

"I've decided if I stay around here much longer, I'm gonna turn into a fish. Seems I'm always ended up in the water." He flopped on the ground next to Val and winked at him.

Carl walked up to him and studied him closely. "You okay, Johnny?"

The man smiled and pulled the boy closer. "I'm fine, Carl. Thanks for askin, though."

Carl smiled and sat between Johnny's legs, leaning against the man's chest. He picked a blade if grass and began shredding it, his face scrunched in thought.

"Ain't ya got no ma or pa, Johnny?"

"No, little one, I don't. Me and Val, we're kind of orphans, I reckon."

Carl rolled his head to the right and looked at Val who smiled at the child.

"I'm sorry."

Both men nearly sucked in a breath at the sincerity of those two small words coming from such a small child. Johnny hugged him tighter and rested his chin on Carl's head for a moment. He lifted his head but kept hold of the boy as he looked at Val who nodded.

"We'll be leavin in the mornin."

"No, you can't!" Jason decried as Carl struggled from Johnny's hold and moved away from him.

"We wish ya'd stay," Seth said.

"We appreciate that, Seth, but it's time we was movin on. We need to find some work," Val explained.

"You can work here like ya been. Pa can pay ya," Jason countered.

"Jason, I can't pay them and I can't promise nothin about that." Seth's cheeks flamed a little at the admission.

"We ain't farmers no way, boy. Me and Johnny ... well, we're kinda drifters. Ain't ready ta settle down noplace."

Jason looked between the two of them then walked away to the edge of the stream.

"Guess we should've waited to say anything."

"We'll miss you both terribly," Mary said. She didn't want them to leave but she knew as much as the rest of the adults, this could never be a permanent arrangement for men such as these. "The boys will be alright but they'll miss you most."

*****

Johnny didn't look back. He couldn't and keep that stony facade going. It had been pure hell saying goodbye to these people. He hoped he'd see them again but it didn't seem likely. Nothing was likely in his life. It was all just pure chance anyway, wasn't it?

Val didn't look back either but, his face could not hold the same flat affect as Johnny was so adept with. He used anger and scowling as his weapons of choice and this was no different. Neither had anything to say so they didn't.

After two hours, Val couldn't take the silence any longer. "Where to?"

Johnny's head turned slowly as he gawked at the man beside him. "Where to? Where the hell we been tryin to go for weeks?"

Val chuckled and shook his head. "Don't know why you got such an itch for Mexico."

"Well, I'll tell ya, Val. If I don't get some decent food pretty soon, I'm liable to just melt right into the dust." Johnny grinned at him and spurred his horse into a slightly faster gait.

"Sure, amigo. That's the reason," Val muttered, knowing it was hogwash. Whatever drew Johnny to Mexico, he was sure it wasn't food. He remembered then the trip to Purgatory. Had it been so long ago? And they'd not been back that way since. Yep, he sighed lightly, he's still lookin for that bastard. Reckon it's never far from his mind. And if he finds him, that'll just leave one bastard to keep his hate goin. Would Johnny go after his old man then? Val didn't think so. Didn't believe Johnny would ever seek out his sire. He wasn't sure if it was simply a matter of really not being able to kill his own father or maybe, Johnny didn't know the whole truth and didn't want to.

Seemed to Val, Johnny's mama wasn't no innocent in all this. The way she'd treated him was testament to her ability to lie to her own son. Maybe Johnny really was afraid to find out she'd lied about something that could have quite literally saved his life.

His thoughts were dispelled at the sound of a horse riding up behind them hard. Both men turned their mounts and readied for whatever they were about to face. RIght hands on guns, they waited for the rider to appear.

They relaxed their hands but not their faces as they gave each other a wary look. Seth Williams slowed to a trot ten yards away then stopped in front of them.

"No need for this, Seth. We already said goodbye," Johnny smiled.

"Sorry but there's trouble," he said between heaving breaths.

"Mary and the boys?" Val asked, ready to bolt.

"No," he waved a hand.

"Okay, let's get down and settle down then talk this through." Johnny didn't wait for agreement, just dismounted and walked his steed to the side of the road.

*****

Seth took a few minutes to gather himself before beginning. "Not an hour after you left, a friend of mine rode in lookin like he'd been dragged through a hellstorm. He lives in Temecula up north of us. He said five men rode in three days ago and killed the sherrif then took over the town. They been burnin, stealin and rapin. He managed to sneak off to San Diego but the law there is out with a posse after some bank robbers. Don't know when they'll be back."

Johnny leaned against a tree with his arms folded across his chest, unimpressed. "Why you tellin us?"

Seth looked hopefully at him. "I didn't know what else to do. Nobody there can stop 'em. Johnny, I was hopin you and Val could do somethin. Maybe get some of your friends together and run 'em off?"

A smirk flew across Johnny's face. "Only friend I got is right here. What makes you think we could do anything, Seth? Matter of fact, what makes you think we'd care to?"

Val said nothing though he wanted to smack Johnny for being so damned callous.

Seth took a step back and gawked at the man for a moment. "Because the men who just spent a week with my family would do something. The men who saved my son's life for no reasons of their own would do somethin."

"He's got ya there," Val mumbled.

Johnny shot him a sidelong look before turning back to Seth. "Do you know what you're askin? Five against two? Do you have any names?"

"I didn't ask but Henry's still at the farm. You can ask him. And I figured Johnny Madrid wasn't afraid of no body!"

A cocked brow and amused look answered the brave affront. Johnny fought back a smile from his lips but his eyes were dancing. Seth was a good man he knew, but he had no idea how much backbone the man had until now. He was impressed but not satisfied. He didn't need to look at Val who was always ready for a fight. He pushed away from the tree and noticed Seth take another step back. He lowered his head and smiled then walked away from them both.

"I got business in Mexico," he said quietly.

"It'll still be there if it's there at all," Val replied knowingly.

Johnny sighed and shook his head. "Reckon it won't hurt to hear the man out but that's all I'm promisin."

*****

Val was still smiling when they rode back into the yard of the Williams farm. Carl and Jason ran out to greet their friends with huge smiles. Mary stood in the doorway with a mixture of welcome and worry on her pretty face.

"Didn't we just do this?" Val teased as he grabbed Carl up and swung him on his shoulders.

Henry Jacobs sat despondently at the kitchen table as the men walked in. Val lowered Carl from his shoulders and Seth sent his sons out of the room so they could talk. Once settled around the table, Seth quietly urged his friend to trust these men.

"They're gunfighters far as we can tell. Rode into town three days ago and headed to the saloon. The sheriff went to talk to 'em, see what they were up to. Before you knew it, one of 'em had shot him dead. Since then, they been runnin the town, takin what they want includin women. Good, decent, married women!"

"Well, I guess it woulda been alright if they were saloon girls," Johnny said snidely.

Henry looked at him with wide eyes then blushed. "No, I don't reckon it would be. My wife ..." he trailed off and buried his face in his hands. Seth put a hand on his shoulder for support.

"Got any names?" Val asked softly.

Henry got himself under control and swiped his face before answering. "Just first names except for the one; the leader. His name is Jack Rawlings."

Val cocked a brow and looked over to see Johnny's reaction. It wasn't good. Iron was the word that popped into Val's mind. Solid iron.

"How far is this town?" The temperature dropped substantially, it seemed to the room's occupants, when those words were asked.

"A day and a half ridin hard. North, northeast of here."

Johnny drummed his fingers on the table top for a few seconds. "Reckon we can make some miles before nightfall." He looked over at Val and shrugged. "If you wanna?"

"Oh, I wanna."

"Thank you! I'll go with you."

"No, you won't. Stay here until we send word. You'll only slow us down," Johnny ordered.

"But, I can show you were everything is; how the town is laid out."

"You draw us up a quick map while we have a little pow wow outside," Val said and stood up. "You want us to do this, you gotta let us do it our way."

*****

As they headed north, Val sighed loudly. "You realize we didn't ask for no pay for this."

Johnny smiled a little. "Yeah, I know. Maybe, they'll feel generous once we kick Rawlings ass."

"Sure they will. Don't they always?" Val snorted.

"Every single time, Val. Every single time. Come on, there's a good lookin camp site up here."

As they settled in for the night, Val turned thoughtful. "Could be makin a mistake. Rawlings ain't no two-bit gunhawk."

"I can take him."

"I believe I can take him, too, but that don't mean we *****will***** take 'im."

"Wanna back out?"

Val glared at him. "I wanna do this smart. Get the lay of the land. Check everything out before ridin in there. I figure if we can lower the odds right off, our chances will improve a might."

Johnny rolled his head and looked at the man. "What'ya got in mind?"

"Well, if Henry's map is right, there's some real good spots we can slip in and out from unnoticed-like."

Johnny raised up and scooted over to sit next to Val as he laid the map out and started telling his plan.

*****

Johnny laughed suddenly as they rode toward town.

"What?"

"I was just thinkin how sly you are, amigo. That plan of yours should work real well."

Val smiled a little. "Impressed?"

"Yeah, I am," Johnny answered soberly as he looked at his friend.

Val averted his eyes and simply nodded, unable to take the compliment well. "We should be there before nightfall."

They fell into quiet contemplation until they saw the sign indicating Temecula was five miles north. Both men reined to a stop.

"Well, let's see just how smart you are, Crawford." Johnny grinned mischieviously.

Val reached over and smacked his arm then turned east, off the road. They settled atop the rise overlooking the town and Val compared the layout to the map. It was accurate and he was satisfied.

"Seems pretty noisy down there," Johnny noted.

"Yeah, reckon it's party time. Well, might as well get comfortable. I figure just before dawn they'll all be passed out."

"Not all. Rawlings ain't stupid. He'll have a guard."

"Yeah, but it beats five."

Johnny turned on his side and regarded his friend. "Ya know, I think we could take all five of 'em."

Val raised a brow as he considered. "You're probably right but gettin all of 'em to stand out in the street like sittin ducks is the problem."

"Yeah, reckon so. Still, it'd be fun."

"Ya know, your ideas of fun are ... real different, Johnny."

He laughed softly at that and tapped Val's arm. "Come on. You know you'd love it."

"Can't deny that but since, as you pointed out, Rawlings ain't stupid, I got high doubts of it happenin that way. Come on, best get a little rest while we can."

*****

The man was diligent in his duty. No one would deny that and they'd probably put something like that on his tombstone - if he got one at all. Johnny walked up behind him quiet as church on Monday and stuck his gun in the man's back. Leaning in, he whispered to the man to come with him and the guard did so, all the while thinking of a way out.

Down the alley to the end they walked until the guard saw a second man waiting for them. He squinted in the pre-dawn light. "Crawford?"

"Well, Amos, how the hell are ya?" Val greeted with a friendly smile.

Amos relaxed and shrugged. "Been better." He heard the soft laugh from behind him then his captor walked around to face him. Amos groaned aloud. "Been a helluva lot better. Madrid," he nodded in greeting.

"Do I know you?"

"Sure ya know 'im, Johnny? Remember down in Los Palmos?" Val prodded.

A light went on in Johnny's head. "Oh, yeah. Well, I'll be. So, tell me, how is ole Jack?"

Amos smiled and swallowed hard. "He's good, Johnny. You wantin to join us?" he asked with so much hope, Johnny almost laughed in his face. Instead, he simply shook his head slowly back and forth and smiled.

"Well, I can light outta here, boys. No trouble atall," Amos bartered.

"Sorry, mister, that ain't gonna happen. Now, we ain't gonna kill ya yet. Just tie ya up and stick ya somewhere. If you cooperate and don't try nothin stupid, we might let ya go when this is over." Johnny smiled.

Amos didn't argue or try to fight them. He had no idea why they were interfering in this but he didn't care to ask, either. Madrid had that look and Amos had seen it before. Once had been enough to last a lifetime. Twice made him think about giving up this profession altogether - if he managed to stay alive. So, he went along and found himself hogtied two miles outside town in an abandoned shack.

*****

"That was easy."

Val frowned and sighed. "Wish you hadn't said that."

Johnny gave him an incredulous look. "Don't tell me you're superstitious, Val."

Embarrassed, Val hemmed and hawed a little. "Just cautious," he finally muttered.

Johnny snickered then fell quiet as they made their way up the outside stairs of the hotel. Easing through an open window leading to the hallway, Johnny made his way downstairs and found the clerk fast asleep. He smiled then opened the guest book, more than a little surprised Jack had signed in. Thinking on it, he decided he shouldn't be so surprised, really. Jack was a braggard of the highest order.

He frowned then as he noted Jack had simply listed all the rooms as his. They'd have no way of knowing which one he actually occupied. He sighed lightly and went back upstairs to tell Val.

"Figures," was all Val said for a second. "Reckon we can sneak a peek from the balcony."

Johnny nodded and they slipped back outside then went about tom-peeping through the windows. They finally spied Jack snoring up a storm in a room facing the main street and eased away.

"We can just go right in and take him real easy-like," Johnny said.

Val smiled and nodded and just as they were about to do that very thing, one of the doors opened and a man stepped outside in his longjohns directly beside them. The three of them just stared at each other for a few seconds before the man's surprise left him and recognition dawned.

Johnny stepped toward him but not before the man shouted in a thundering voice. "Madrid!"

Johnny walked up and punched him in the mouth and he went head long over the side, landing in a horse trough. He turned and looked at Val with a devlish smile. "So much for your plan."

They heard the ruckus the alarm raised and hightailed it off the balcony and down into an alleyway. Johnny pulled up short and grabbed Val's arm. "I ain't runnin."

"Johnny!"

"No, Val! We can take 'em."

Val sighed and rolled his eyes heavenward. He said a quick sort-of prayer. Lord, help us, was the extent of it but he figured God knew what he meant and he didn't have time to elaborate. Three men poured out of the hotel in varying stages of dress. Every one of them was wearing his gunbelt, though.

Johnny peeked around the corner and smiled then stepped into the light of a brand new day.

*****

Val stepped out and stood beside his friend in the street, facing three sleep rough men looking frantically for the enemy.

"Hey, Jack," Johnny called softly and all three turned to see them.

Jack Rawlings eyes cleared instantly as he looked at Madrid then swept Crawford. He had to smile. "Good mornin, Johnny. Was that you disturbin my sleep?"

"Fraid so, Jack. Sorry bout that."

"Yeah, I can hear the sincerity from here," he scoffed.

Johnny laughed and shrugged.

"What'ya doin here, Johnny? Hello, Val."

"Jack," Val nodded politely.

"Well, we heard you'd taken over this town and I just had to come and tell ya something."

Rawlings waited a second before speaking. "So, say it."

"This is my town, Jack. You need to leave."

Val might have choked on that pronouncement if he weren't trying so hard not to laugh.

"Your town? Since when?"

"Since you killed the sheriff and started rapin women. You know how I feel about mistreatin women, Jack. I can't hold with it and I won't allow it."

Rawlings reared back, puffing his chest out as he glanced at his two remaining men, both of whom nodded they were ready.

"I don't give a rat's ass what you allow, Madrid. You're a dead man."

"Well, that comes to us all, don't it? Some just a little sooner than others, is all. Like you, for instance."

It grew quiet then as all five men regarded each other. Val sized up the other two figuring he'd leave Rawlings to Johnny who would take him down easy. Val knew this because he knew he could take Rawlings himself. It was a no brainer for Johnny.

Madrid waited for the sign Rawlings had found his balls. He smiled as he envisioned them scurryng around the man's feet, trying to climb back up his legs. He paid no attention to the other two, knowing Val had them.

Rawlings stared at Madrid, saw the smile and felt his temper flare. He drew then sucked in a breath as the air left his lungs. He fell to his knees then forward onto his face.

Val fired four times as he dove to the ground simultaneously and rolled once. The two men seemed to be trying to find him but they never got the chance. They crumbled to the ground and stilled.

Johnny looked over at Val and grinned then turned in a split second and fired at the man in the trough. He'd managed to come around and pull his revolver. Unfortunately for him, it was wet and wouldn't fire.

As Val got his feet under himself and dusted his clothes, Johnny sauntered over. "See? Told ya we could take 'em."

Val only growled at him.

*****

The townspeople slowly began venturing out of their homes, hesitantly walking toward the two men talking in the street. One man took a tentative step forward only to be shoved more forcefully by those around him.

Val looked up and noticed all this as Johnny turned to see what was happening. The tall, overly thin, bespeckled man straightened himself and tugged at his suit coat as he slowly walked toward them. Clearing his throat and glancing back at the townspeople, he stopped ten feet away.

"Gentlemen."

"What'ya want?" Val asked gruffly.

He took a step back then seemed to find some guts. "I'm Mayor Blevins and I wanted to, that is, on behalf of the town, I wanted to thank you for ridding our fair town of these violent ruffians."

Johnny never could resist poking a little fun. He stepped forward with a warm smile and extended his hand. Shaking the mayor's hand vigorously, he kept the smile. "You're very welcome, Mr. Mayor. We were glad to help out in any way we can. We heard about your misfortune and felt we just had to step in. We hope you don't mind us not consulting with you first."

"Oh, no, not at all. We are most grateful, Mister ...."

Johnny's smile grew even bigger. "Madrid. Johnny Madrid and this here is Val Crawford."

The mayor tried to pull his hand back but Johnny wasn't about to let go. His face paled and he swallowed dryly.

"Is something wrong, Mr. Mayor? Do you need to sit down? Maybe you need a drink? I know it's early but sometimes that just isn't a factor, is it?"

"I ...um, I don't drink ... spirits, that is to say."

"Really? Well, I do and I sure could use some about now." Johnny finally released the man's hand only to throw an arm around his thin shoulders and turn him toward the saloon. He walked and talked to the man about nonsense until they reached the saloon then he pushed the man through the doors.

Val chuckled as he watched the show then looked over at the rest of the townsfolk gawking in horror. His smile faded as he regarded them. "Well?" he growled. No one spoke and he sighed and removed his hat, taking a slight bow. "You're welcome!" he spat then walked to the saloon.

By the time he entered, Johnny had taken pity on the mayor and explained their presence to a much more relaxed and happy man.

*****

"Gentlemen, I really can't express our gratitude enough," the mayor started now that he knew he wasn't in mortal danger. "Sadly, we must find a new sheriff for our town." He glanced at Val then Johnny and grimaced.

"I'm afraid someone with a reputation such as yours wouldn't be ..."

"I'd bring more cockroaches out of the woodwork?" Johnny asked in amusement.

"Something like that," the man smiled. "But, and I hope I don't offend, I've never heard of you, Mr. Crawford."

Val glanced at him then took a sip of beer. "Like ta keep it that way, too."

"I saw you both out there today and it was a sight to behold. Would you consider?"

Val looked at him and shook his head. "Consider what?"

"Being our sheriff."

Johnny choked on his beer and wiped his mouth on his sleeve as his eyes danced in amusement. He watched Val's face and the smile slid off as his gut cramped. Suddenly, his beer didn't taste so good.

"Val?"

Crawford looked over at him quickly then turned back to the mayor. "Mind if I think on it?"

"Not at all, Sir! Please, take your time. You can find me at the general store. Well, good day, gentlemen. I really should see to helping clean up." He was out of his chair and the door in two seconds.

There wasn't a sound in the saloon. Even the bartender sensed he should make no noise. He sat at the far end of the room with his morning coffee and looked anywhere but at the two gunhawks.

"You said yourself I was old. Gettin too old for this line of work, for sure." Val's voice was softer than Johnny had ever heard it, even in the worst of times.

"I didn't mean it. You ain't old. It was just teasin."

"Maybe but it's true, just the same."

Johnny stared into his beer mug, still and quiet. This disturbed Val more than if he ranted and raved. Johnny was never still unless he was deathly ill.

"Reckon I should go cut Amos loose," Val sighed.

"Don't ya mean bring him in? Take him to jail, Sheriff?" Johnny sneered.

Val grimaced and stood up. "Yeah, that's what I mean." He left then and Johnny never looked up.

*****

As Val rode to the shack to retrieve Amos, he wondered if he should be doing this. Never would he have seen himself as a lawman yet, it had a certain appeal. The town seemed alright. Sure, none of them stood up against Rawlings, well, except for the man who should have. But, he couldn't blame them. Rawlings was plain mean on a good day and Val could see where the town would be scared pissless.

It was Johnny's face he kept seeing. The look of surprise then what? Hurt? He guessed that was it. But, hadn't they talked and talked about this very thing? Hadn't they spent many nights under the stars wondering where life would lead them and if they shouldn't get the hell out? Well, Val had anyway. Johnny was certain his life would never change and Val reckoned that was true but only because Johnny wouldn't try. Maybe. Maybe, if he got out, Johnny would, too?

Val snorted to himself. Ain't likely. Johnny never did anything because someone else thought he should. He lived life on his own terms or so the kid thought. Val figured he was scared but he damned sure wasn't gonna say that to Johnny. He knew this wasn't going to be easy on him. Leaving Johnny would be the hardest thing he'd ever done. He didn't want to do it either but, he couldn't go on like this. He'd been right when he told Johnny he was getting too old for this life. Too many nights sleeping out on the trail, too many uncertainties. Never knowing where they were going really, and never having a solid job to depend on.

Oh, yeah, Crawford. You *****are***** gettin old if you're thinking about security. He smiled a little but it quickly subsided. Johnny. He wasn't gonna make it. He just wasn't and Val was positive he wouldn't be able to stand being there when it did happen. He wouldn't be able to watch his friend die. He sure as hell wouldn't be able to bury him. He got choked up just thinking about it.

Johnny Madrid knew all about death and he wasn't a bit afraid of it. Val knew that. Had seen it time and again. He had no fear other than the fear of the unknown. Of trying to change his life. Of facing his demon - his father. That was what Johnny Madrid was afraid of. Hell, Val knew every man had some fear. It just killed him that Johnny's was so easily faced, if he'd only try.

Okay, maybe not easy but damned sure not impossible. He reckoned he'd have to have a long talk with Johnny when he got back. If, Johnny was still even there. It'd be just like him to mount up and just ride off. Val sighed heavily as he reined to a stop.

*****

Johnny stared at the table, now with a cup of coffee in front of him. Which was what he'd wanted in the first place but he couldn't resist having a little fun with the fine mayor of this shit hole town. Okay, it wasn't so bad a place, he guessed. In fact, he reckoned it was a real fine place to settle down if a body was of a mind. And he supposed Val was of the mind. He could see it, the wheels turnin in the man's head. Thinking on it like he surely was right now.

And he knew Val was going to take this job, too. He'd be a damned good lawman, Johnny knew. He was damned good at whatever he did. But, he was going to miss his friend badly. He wasn't sure he could do this. Say goodbye to Val. He always figured he'd get himself killed before Val did just because he was more reckless. He knew that, too, about himself and he didn't care. The only thing he'd ever cared about was getting to the next job and a little revenge on the man who'd killed his mother. And maybe, facing Murdoch Lancer someday. Maybe.

He thought he should go. Just get up, walk out of here, mount up and go. But, he couldn't do that to Val. Anyone else, no problem but, not Val. His best friend. His only friend. And that's what hurt. Yes, he could admit to himself that it hurt like hell to lose Val. He reckoned he should be happy for his friend and he was but, still, it was gonna be tough. It had been so long since he'd rode alone he wasn't sure he remembered how. A slight smile came over his face momentarily.

Dammit! He knew it was a mistake to come here and help these people. He'd known it as surely as he knew his own name. But, he'd done it and he couldn't take it back. And did they offer any payment? Hell, no! Instead, they'd taken his only friend from him. Johnny would rather have been shot than have that happen.

There wasn't a thing he could do about it. He couldn't even ask Val not to take the job. That wasn't fair. He knew Val wanted out. Maybe he wasn't real desperate about it but he'd talked about it often enough. But, Johnny figured if the man so much as looked like he was gonna ask him to stay on here, he'd have to punch him in the mouth.

He sighed and sipped the coffee. It was over then. This time in his life. Whatever happened from now on, would happen to him alone. He reckoned that was just as well. If he'd ever done something to get Val killed, he wouldn't be able to live with himself anyway. Now, Val had the chance he wanted and Johnny was glad for it. Even if it meant losing his friend, at least Val would be safer.

Of course, he'd keep an ear out for any trouble in these parts and be there to back his friend up if he could. He only hoped Val didn't start lecturing him again on getting out of the business.

*****

Val walked into the sheriff's office and thought it wasn't so bad. His eyes quickly scanned the interior and found the keys to the cells then he put Amos away and locked him in. The man said not a word, too perplexed by this turn of events. He figured his whole crew was dead since he was the only prisoner. Besides, Val looked mad as hell and he wasn't a man to trifle with. Amos knew that well.

Val didn't even give him a backwards look as he walked out and headed for the general store. When he walked in, the mayor was pale again and Johnny was standing there scowling at him. Val figured he'd just lost any chance at that job and he sighed.

"What's goin on in here?"

Johnny smiled a little. "I was just tellin the mayor here he'd better treat you right, is all."

Mayor Blevins smiled nervously. "I took that to mean you were accepting the job?" he asked, then cleared his throat.

Val looked at him then settled his gaze back on Johnny. "Yeah, I reckon it does." He saw the brief flash of disappointment.

"Wonderful! Why don't we go into my office and discuss the particulars?"

"Not now. I need to talk to Mr. Madrid. I'll be back." Val stepped aside to allow Johnny access to the door. The younger man nodded then walked out, settling his hat on his head.

"Let's take a ride."

Johnny didn't move for a few seconds. Long enough for Val to stop and turn back to him.

"Runnin me outta town already, Sheriff?"

Val rolled his eyes. "Just come on, will ya?"

Johnny laughed and walked to his horse, mounted up and waited for Val to lead the way.

They rode for half an hour before Val found a suitable spot. Off the road, across a small field and to a babbling brook they went until Val stopped and dismounted. Johnny followed suit then stood there and waited.

*****

"Ya know I've always talked about gettin out of this business."

"And talked, and talked, and talked."

"I'd like to be serious for a minute, Johnny." He turned sad eyes on his friend and Johnny sobered.

"Yeah, okay."

Val sighed and took his hat off, slapping it against his thigh. "You and me have rode together a long time. Over a year. We've had us some times and it's been the best, really. But, I am gettin too old for this life. Driftin from town to town is just wearin on me, I reckon. I want to settle down someplace and this is a good a place as any."

"Val, I know all that and I understand. I ain't sayin this is easy on me. I hate it, ta tell the truth. But, you gotta do what's right for you. You can't live your life for anyone else and I wouldn't want you to." With a cheeky grin, he added, "not even me."

Val smiled at him a little. "Thanks, Johnny. It's just that I don't know who's gonna harp at ya now. Who's gonna keep at ya to get out. And before you say it, you *****can***** you just won't."

Johnny's sigh was of frustration and irritation but he managed to curb his tongue for once. "I appreciate everything you've said to me, Val. I've heard everything, too. And, yeah, I listened. I just don't happen to agree with ya, is all. That's okay, ain't it?"

"Yeah, it's okay long as ya know you're wrong." A sly smile came on Val's face.

Johnny laughed softly and bowed his head. "I'll miss you. Amigos para la vida," he whispered.

Val swallowed hard. "Listen, ya know where I am so there ain't no reason ya can't come to visit once in a while."

Johnny's head came up and he smiled. "Yeah, I know. I'll be around so much, you'll think I moved on in."

"Reckon I could stand that, too."

Johnny's brows drew together as if he'd just felt pain and he turned away. "Think I'll just head out from here. I'll go back and let ole Henry know he can come home and that there's a new sheriff in town."

"And then?"

He turned back and smiled. "Then, I reckon I'll finally make it back down to Mexico."

"Take care of yourself."

"Always. You take care, too. Those people may be nice but they ain't too handy when trouble comes aknockin." Johnny grinned slyly. He gave Val a tap on the arm, walked over and grabbed Furio's reins then vaulted into the saddle. Looking back down, he grinned and winked at Val. "Find a pretty lady and settle yourself down, Val Crawford. I'll see ya."

Before Val could reply, Johnny rode away. He blinked several times and swiped an agitated hand over his face. He had a gutwrenching feeling he would never see his friend again and his chest hurt.

"Amigos para la vida," he whispered.

*****

TWO YEARS LATER

Val Crawford read the telegram again and frowned. He walked into the saloon and hailed the barkeep. "You know where Green River, California is?"

"Sure, Sheriff. That's in the San Joaquin Valley."

Val frowned as memory tickled his brain. Suddenly, it came to him and his mouth fell open. Surely not! He read the wire once more. The Cattlemen's Association wanted to hire him. Had been told he was one of the best lawmen in the state. How would they know? Temecula wasn't exactly a thriving big city. Nothing much ever happened here. And, to tell the truth, he was bored out of his mind.

He had to reply within the week. They needed a sheriff quick, it seemed. Wonder why the rush? Was there trouble? He almost smiled. He could use some excitement. And, if his memory served and his instincts were right, he knew what his answer would be.

He left the saloon and headed to the general store where he found the mayor. Taking a deep breath, Val removed the badge and plunked it on the counter. "I quit. Danny can take over. He'll be a good sheriff for ya."

Mayor Blevins gawked at him. "Just like that? You're leaving?"

"Just like that. Got a better offer." Val turned and walked out thinking, I hope it's a better offer.

He headed out the next day after wiring his intentions of accepting the interview with his heart in his throat. Had the rumors been wrong? Five months had it been, since he'd heard? Johnny Madrid was dead; killed by a Mexican firing squad. Val had grieved heavily. Had not left his small house for a week. His deputy had taken over his duties and done a fine job. Finally, Val had emerged and tried to throw himself into his work.

But, they were only rumors and those were more abundant than sand in the desert. If it wasn't true then how had this come about? Had Johnny finally come to his senses and left that life behind? Maybe even faked his own death to be free? Sounded just like something he'd do. God, he prayed it was so. Prayed hard his friend was still alive. Of course, if he was, Val was gonna kill 'im for lettin him think he was dead!

He spurred his horse into a faster gait, anxious to find out the truth one way or the other. Even if Johnny was dead - he swallowed hard - maybe he'd take the job. Couldn't be any worse than the mundane job he had now. Well, he didn't have it anymore.

Val arrived in Green River four days later. His interview was the next day so he had plenty of time to scope out the town and find out about Murdoch Lancer, too. Oh, he remembered the name. Johnny had cussed it enough times. Johnny. Damn! Are you here? And should he even ask around? Maybe not right away. He'd have to get the lay of the land, meet with these cattlemen and see what was what. Then, he'd see about his friend.

*****

The next morning, Val walked into the sheriff's office and looked around. It was bigger than the one in Temecula, for sure. The cells were in a separate room which was good. He never liked having to look at his prisoners all the time. Got on his nerves, especially if they were whiners. He hated whiners.

Satisfied with the place, he sucked in a breath and walked over to the hotel where he was to meet with these cattlemen in the dining room. What he'd found out about Murdoch Lancer was that he was the richest and most important man in the valley. Val's blood had boiled with that information and he'd not wanted to hear anymore. While Lancer was livin the high life, his son was dirt poor and livin by the gun.

He walked into the hotel restaurant and scanned the men sitting or standing around. Would he be able to pick Lancer out? Probably not unless Johnny was a dead ringer for his old man. Val would never forget his friend's face, his personality or anything else about Johnny Madrid.

A tall, imposing man approached him and Val squared his shoulders.

"Sheriff Crawford?"

"I don't reckon that's been decided yet."

The man looked puzzled then smiled a little. "I'm Murdoch Lancer. Please, come in and have a seat. Everyone is here so we can get started."

Val stared openly at the man, taking in his features and finding nothing of his friend there. Not one damned thing, he thought sadly.

After an hour, Val was ready to kill someone. He reckon he'd answered enough questions to land him a job as governor at this rate. Now, he was sitting off by himself waiting for them to decide if he was good enough for them. At one point, he heard Lancer raise his voice but couldn't make out what he'd said. Finally, the man approached him and Val stood up.

"We'd like to offer you the job of sheriff of Green River. Will you accept?"

Well, he don't beat around the bush, does he? Val was still angry with this man but, he'd already decided if they offered, he'd take it. Not one to go back on his word even to himself, he shook the man's hand. "I will, Mr. Lancer. Thanks."

The rancher smiled at him. There was something in that look Val couldn't quite read. "If you'll stay here, someone will fill you in on the particulars in a moment. I'm afraid the rest of us have other business to attend."

He hesitated a minute, deciding if he should ask the man if he knew where the hell his son was or even who his son was. In the end, he thought better of it just now. "Yeah, sure. I ain't in no hurry."

"Good! He'll be right along." Murdoch smiled widely and Val felt itchy. Something was up. Were they gonna test him already?

He walked around the empty room for a few minutes, growing more annoyed. If this is how they treat their sheriff, the hell with 'em.

"You never was the patient sort."

*****

Val froze, his heart hammering in his chest as he closed his eyes for second. He turned slowly toward the owner of the voice, his face splitting into a wide smile even before he laid eyes.

"Johnny!" He moved swiftly across the room and grabbed the man in a bear hug. "Goddamn you! I thought you were dead!"

Johnny was taken aback by the show of affection until Val's assertion of his beliefs. Then, he understood and returned the hug fiercely. Finally, they pulled back, still holding each other by the arms. Both smiling like idiots.

"What happened?" Val asked.

Johnny laughed softly. "Let's sit down and talk. It's a long story."

Val gave him a doubtful look.

"The restaurant's closed til supper. We have plenty of time."

Val listened to every word of the story intently. He didn't miss one pause, one painful glancing look, one smile as Johnny relayed all that had happened since the Pinkerton agent literally snatched him from the jaws of death.Â

As Johnny finished his tale and sat back, seemingly exhausted from the telling, Val studied him even closer. One thing he'd heard had his heart clutching just a little and he thought himself a selfish man, indeed. Brightening, pressing to appear all was more than well, he tapped Johnny's arm.

"A dandy brother, huh?"

Johnny laughed and nodded. "He's not a cityslicker, though. He's more than capable. We're all still gettin to know each other but Scott is really working hard at it. Murdoch ..." he stopped and sighed heavily.

"I hafta tell ya, when I met him earlier, I wanted to bash his face in. Part of me was hopin maybe you were here, maybe you'd come home. But, I didn't let myself believe it, ya know? Anyways, he seems like a good man."

"He is," Johnny answered quickly. "It's just hard with us. We butt heads a lot, Val. It's like we can't agree on anything. I left about three months ago with Wes. You remember Wes?" When Val nodded, he went on, not missing the grimace of distaste from his friend.

"Well, me and him lit out only I came back. Wes got himself killed tryin to break a wild horse. Anyway, the details ain't important. Thing is, Murdoch tried real hard when I came back. He tried to make it up to me and we did good for a while. Then, something else happens and we go at it again."

"He listened to you about me, though. I know they didn't just hear what a wonderful person I am!"

Johnny grinned wickedly. "Yeah, he listened this time. I don't know, it gives me a headache sometimes. He hates my past. I can't ask him about her, either. He says the past is the past but every time he looks at me, I know he's thinkin about Madrid."

"How long you been here, four, five months? Give it time, Johnny. Ya can't make an instant family. Ya gotta get to know each other. Maybe you'll always argue but, long as he don't put his hands on you, that's okay. I mean, you and me used to fight all the time but it never meant we didn't trust each other, weren't friends."

Johnny frowned in thought then nodded his head. "Yeah, that's true. You got on my nerves sometimes." A grin lit his face.

Val snorted at that but said nothing, knowing it was true.

"Well, let me show ya where you're stayin. If ya don't like it, we'll find something else. I'm just real glad you're here, amigo."

Val stood and smiled earnestly at him. "You have no idea how good it is to be here, Johnny."

 

 

 

~end~ or the beginning - or the continuation of a beautiful friendship. {vbg}
2007

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