Word Count 4,685
Thunder boomed, rattling the windowpanes as the first spring thunderstorm hovered over Lancer. The deluge drove the robins from the air and made the first buds and green shoots tremble under the onslaught.
Dropping the curtain, Johnny turned back to the great room where Teresa sat, working on an embroidery square in a pool of lamplight while Murdoch read a book opposite her. Jelly looked up from his checkers game with Scott.
“Kinda,” Johnny admitted, running a hand through his hair. “Thought I might ride into town.”
“In this?” Scott raised his eyebrows.
Johnny shrugged. Lightning sizzled, lighting up the room with an unearthly blue glow that made them all jump. Thunder rolled, louder this time.
When the echo died away, Johnny’s keen ears caught the faint knocking.
Quick as a cat, he crossed the room, flinging open the door.
A bedraggled teenager stood there, swaying. Thin and undernourished, he raised a shaking hand.
“Please, sir…” was all he managed before his eyes rolled back in his head, and he collapsed at Johnny’s feet.
Boredom forgotten, Johnny spurred into action, leaned over, and swiftly scooped up the prone thin figure of the boy into his strong arms. Turning quickly, he carried him into the great room, laying him gently on the floor in front of the blazing fireplace.
Scott ran towards the door, forcefully shutting it, as the wind and rain viciously attacked him. Shaking off a cold shiver, he followed Teresa into the kitchen to help fetch blankets and towels.
Murdoch and Johnny quickly stripped off the boy’s sodding tattered clothes and covered him with an Indian blanket off the sofa.
“I wonder where he came from?” Murdoch sadly asked. “He can’t be more than fourteen,” added, taking in the boy’s haggard features.
“I know,” Johnny softly muttered. His eyes were glued to the boy lying before him. Gently stroking the wet, dark head.
Seeing the stricken expression on his boy’s face, Murdoch became alarmed. “What’s wrong, son? You know this boy?”
“Yeah,” Johnny sadly sighed, looking up at his father with pained blue eyes. “He’s me, or was at this age.”
Murdoch’s heart nearly stopped right then.
“I’m sorry, son, I didn’t realize it. I just saw the hurt in your face, so I thought you knew him,” Murdoch spoke.
“Now Murdoch, if he has blue eyes, then we’ll have a problem,” Johnny said.
“I am wondering how he found his way to our door,” Scott asked.
“It’s a shame he’s so skinny. You can see every rib,” Jelly said.
“Oh, Murdoch, what are we to do with this poor boy?” Teresa asked.
“The first thing we will do is warm him up and put him in a spare room,” Murdoch said.
“Put him in the one next to me, Murdoch. I want to keep an eye on him,” Johnny added.
“Alright, son. When he wakes up, we need to get some food into him. Teresa, will you go make a broth. We won’t give him anything solid until we see how he handles it. Scott, will you tell one of the hands that as soon as this storm is over to go and find Sam. I want him to look over this boy so we can find out what’s wrong,” Murdoch said.
Closing the door quietly behind him, Sam descended the stairs. Everyone looked up expectantly, concern on their faces.
The old doctor hurried to allay their fears. Sinking into a chair, he placed his bag on the floor before silently accepting the Scotch Murdoch handed him. Taking a sip, Sam leaned his head back, gathering his thoughts.
“He’ll be fine, no broken bones, no fever. I did find a number of old bruises. A large number.”
Sam looked down musingly into his glass, swirling the amber liquid.
“What’s his name?” Johnny asked softly.
“Where’s he from?” Scott added.
“South of here.”
Teresa entered, bearing a tray holding a bowl of soup, some toast and a glass of milk. Sam nodded approvingly. “He’s asleep, but you can leave it by the bed.”
Teresa smiled, then ascended the stairs. Lightning flashed and a fresh gust of rain lashed the house. It made Sam glad he’d be spending the night.
Murdoch spoke. “What’s he doing here, all alone?”
“Says he’s looking for someone.”
Sipping slowly on his drink while staring into the dancing flames, Johnny sighed loudly, “He must have been looking for that someone for a long time now, by his looks,” he said barely above a whisper.
Murdoch only nodded, his eyes traveling to his brooding youngest with concern. Johnny’s words of admission still troubled him, ‘he’s me, or was at that age.’ What his boy must of went through, that thought stabbed at his heart.
“Did he say who that someone was, Sam?” Scott asked the quiet doctor. Getting no response of any kind, Scott shared a quick stare with his father. “Sam?”
“Sam?” Murdoch prompted. The man’s silence was making him very nervous. “Did the boy tell you who he was looking for?”
Sam nodded, slightly glancing at Johnny, who was lost in the dancing flames, in his thoughts.
“Well, who, Sam?” Murdoch demanded a little too loudly.
The doctor looked up then and said one word.
‘Why would someone so young be needing me? And you know Murdoch, we’ve been home for three years. I was only 19 when I came home. I’m too young to be his daddy. He sure looks like me, though. If I didn’t know better, he could be mine. He looks so much like me at his age.
I wonder if Mama had any other children I don’t know about. Or if she had any sisters or brother where this kid could be a cousin,” Johnny said.
“Johnny, I believe she had a brother and a sister. I never met them, but I remember her talking about them. You said she could have had another child. Why did you say that?” Murdoch questioned.
Beneath snowy sheets, the stranger slept uneasily, eyes moving rapidly behind closed lids as the dream flickered through his mind. Thunder growled, pricking his subconscious. Trembling, he burrowed deeper into the downy softness smelling of sunshine and clean wind.
“Get rid of the brat,” the mercenary demanded.
A nervous hand clutching the bodice at her neck, Serine raised shocked eyes to the man’s face.
“But I have no one else to tend him,” she replied softly, feeling the little body trembling against her knees, tiny hands clutching her skirt. “And the storm.”
The man advanced, an ugly look on his dark visage. A hard fist lashed out across her face, rapping the girl’s head against the doorframe. Serine saw stars, then shook her head to clear it.
“Do it,” the man demanded. “Now.”
A mother’s instinct reasserted itself. Quick as a striking snake, the girl grabbed for the butcher knife on the table. But the man was faster.
With contemptuous ease, he twisted the knife from her grasp, tossing it across the room.
“Mama!” a small voice echoed her smothered cry of pain.
It drew the man’s attention, and he stripped off his belt, looping it around his wrist.
“No!” Serine cried out. “Don’t hurt him!”. Long black hair covered her face as her delicate neck drooped, hiding her shame.
“If that brat isn’t gone in ten seconds, I’m taking you…right in front of him. Maybe he can even join us!”
Sickened, the girl raised her head, hair falling back to reveal the livid welt across one fragile
cheekbone and a bleeding lip. Their eyes met. The monster before her meant what he said.
Controlling her shaking voice with an effort, Serine knelt before the boy. Grasping his elbows, she forced her lips into a painful smile as she looked into her son’s eyes.
“Pobrecito,” she murmured, one hand rising to stroke the little one’s soft cheek.
Thunder rolled, shaking the miserable hut and causing the boy to glance fearfully at the window.
With an impatient snort, the man stepped between them. Grasping the girl’s wrist, he flung her across the room before grabbing the child by the seat of his pants and the nape of his neck and kicking the door open.
Jeremy saw his mother go down in a boneless, rolling heap and heard her cry out, “Johnny, no!” Then he was flying, a tiny human projectile, out into the blackness, wind and rain.
It was the last time he ever saw his mother.
While Jeremy was caught in a nightmarish dream, silence lurked as they waited for Johnny to answer his father’s question. For one, he really didn’t have an answer, not one that made sense anyway.
This was very unsettling for him; for once, he couldn’t think straight.
He was about to open his mouth to speak when suddenly the shrill scream of the boy broke through, shattering the calm of the room. Heads turned in utter shock at the sight of Jeremy staggering through the door, sweat running down his thin brow, wide-eyed in terror.
“My God, what’s he doing out of bed?” Sam shouted as he ran to the boy. “Johnny, help me get him back to bed.”
The mention of the name Johnny seemed to have gotten through to the boy’s fear-stricken mind, and he froze, clinging to the door frame to keep from falling. Hatred now filling his heart.
As Sam and Johnny neared, he angrily shouted, “stay away from me! Where’s Madrid? I….I heard he was in these parts!. “ He snarled, looking around the room. “I want him now!”
“Easy son, let us get you back to bed. Then we can talk,” Sam gently said as he raised a helping hand. But the boy only slapped it away.
“Hey now, that’s no way to treat someone trying to help you!” Johnny scolded the distraught youth. “Let us just help you,” he added a little softer
“NO!. You can only help me by telling me where Madrid is!” He yelled, backing away from them, his legs barely holding him up.
Slowly Scott stood up from his seat and cautiously approached the trio. “What do you want Madrid for? What has he done to you?” He asked in a firm military voice.
Jeremy looked at everyone in the room, strangers to him, but what did he care. He gulped down his fear and blurted out, “HE KILLED MY MAMA!”
Everyone in the room turned to look at Johnny, who was slack jawed with total confusion. Flabbergasted. No, no, no, he was shaking his head in disbelief. Johnny took a deep breath and slowly moved toward the boy. ‘This is not right’ he thought.
“You got that wrong, kid. I never killed any woman, least your mama.” He assured with sheer conviction.
The boy’s eyes widened, taken by complete surprise. “Your….your…Madrid?”
“No…no, you’re…not him. I….I…saw…..him hit mama, she cried his name, before…he killed…” suddenly, Jeremy’s rolled back and collapsed in Johnny’s arms.
Johnny carried the boy back to his room. He looked down at him and softly said, “Jeremy, what has happened in your life. I feel you have had as much hurt as I have, and I promise you that we will find out who your mother’s killer is. You are so young.” He turned and went out the door.
Scott looked at Johnny with a puzzled look. “Are you alright, Johnny? Jeremy thinking you killed his mother. It has to make you wonder if you knew her.”
“I will question him, and I promise we will find her killer.”
“Johnny, you don’t know the boy and you have no idea who his mother was or who killed her,” Murdoch said.
“I may not have known her Murdoch, but then again, I may have. When Jeremy is more alert, we will find out everything he was talking about. I might have known his mother. I have to find out her name first.
“For him to bring up my name, like he thought I was her killer, and then finding out I am not, has to be upsetting to the boy. How he even found me makes me wonder how long ago his mother died,” Johnny said.
“I do know one thing, Johnny. That boy wasn’t just physically hurt. He was also traumatized by whomever that man was who killed his father,” Sam said.
The next morning Jeremy found Johnny sitting by the bed.
“Are you really Johnny Madrid?”
“Yes, I am Jeremy. Why your mother used my name, I don’t understand. I have never hit or killed a woman in my whole life. The man who killed my mother was a stranger,” Johnny answered.
“My mama, she called your name. I ran off because this man was coming after me, and I had to hide until I could think of what I should do. I asked several people where they thought you might be. One lady told me you would be in the Moro Coyo area. When I made it there, the liveryman told me how to come here.
“So here I am, and you are not the man I saw kill my mother. Now, what do I do?”
“First off, Jeremy, we will sort this all out. If at all possible, we will find your mother’s killer. But first I must know your mother’s name,” Johnny asked.
Jeremy answered, “It’s Serine Rodriguez Martinez.”
Johnny has the biggest looking shock since his mother’s death.
“Por Dios, no..not Serine.” Johnny’s eyes darkened as he remembered the laughing girl he’d once had such a childish crush on. He looked away, one hand rubbing his beard-stubbled chin as memories assailed him.
Jeremy watched him curiously, seeing the real pain in Johnny’s eyes. It put to rest any lingering doubts he might have had about the gunslinger’s involvement.
With an effort, Johnny wrenched his thoughts back to the present and the boy watching him intently. He owed him an explanation.
“Your mother was older than I was,” he began, “but not much, and she looked like a girl still. She was always very kind to me, shared what little food she had, let me stay with her on the nights my own mama was..busy.”
Fresh pain assailed him as it all came back.
“She ground her own corn for tortillas, singing to herself as she worked. They were so good! The best I’ve ever had, even better than Maria’s, although we better not let her know that,” Johnny told the boy. He didn’t add that even better than the meager food had been the sense of acceptance and belonging that he had in Serine’s presence.
“Serine was an orphan. I think she liked having someone to take care of. Soon I was spending most of my time at her place. I’d do odd jobs for her in return or work elsewhere to get money for our food.
Serine taught me about the world outside our small village, that it was nothing to be feared, as the elders said, not full of temptation and evil like the padre preached in his hellfire and brimstone sermons. Serine had seen the world, you see. She traveled to California from France, where she was born, with her parents. They were killed in the Indian uprising of ’57, leaving her to make her own way in the world.
“And she did. She was never a prostitute, like so many orphaned girls, selling her body for survival. Being educated, she worked as a translator at Fort Ore, took in sewing, did washing. She wasn’t the type of girl who could separate the two aspects of her life and so she lived alone. Her life was hard, she was poor, but still, she had it better than some.”
Johnny’s eyes returned to Jeremy, still hanging on his every word. Rising, he strode restlessly about the room, running a hand through his hair. “You better eat some of that breakfast. It’s a long story.”
He waited until the boy drank his milk and nibbled at the toast before going on. The kid was still so young, so thin and frail. But he had guts. It had taken those to come all this way alone to find his mother’s killer.
“At night, after dinner, we’d sit in front of the fireplace and she’d read to me. I still remember her voice, so soft and sweet. Sometimes she’d put her arm around me and we’d just sit, watching the flames, saying nothing. We were just happy to be together.
“I was young, younger than you are now. And Serine was still little more than a child herself. We went on this way for a long time. At first, my mama was happy to have me out of her hair. One less mouth to feed, one less problem for Maria.”
Johnny’s lips twisted down, bitterness filling his mouth. But it had to be said. Even now, it was hard to call Maria his mother.
“Maria..my mama..became jealous. She didn’t want me, but she didn’t want anyone else to have me either. She began whispering to one of her lovers, Manuel Rodriquez Martinez about how the girl was so young, so pretty, she gave herself airs. Always so aloof…was she better than the rest of the village? Too good for the likes of him?
“Together, they planned it. Knowing his weakness, Maria took the padre two bottles of wine. A storm was coming, they could see it over the mountains.
“Maria called me home, insisting she was afraid that I must stay with her. I was reluctant, but Serine told me I must. It was my duty as her son.
“That night, Manuel came to your mother’s house. He attacked her viciously. When she went to the padre the next day, bruised and battered, it was clear she was now a fallen woman. Padre insisted she marry her attacker and become an honest woman. Serine refused but gave in when it was soon obvious that she was pregnant. All doors closed to her. It was then I began practicing with a gun.”
Out in the hall, Scott and Murdoch looked at each other, mesmerized by Johnny’s tale. Grief rose in their own hearts as his soft voice resumed.
“Having had her, Manuel lost interest in Serine and preferred women whose depravity matched his own. Once again, it was just the two of us against the world. Serine had changed, though. She no longer sang as she made the tortillas. The bigger she grew, the quieter she became until she was a ghost of her former self.”
Johnny looked at the boy, still watching him closely, a telltale sheen of tears in his eyes.
“The night you were born, she smiled for the first time in months. Soon you were a part of our lives. Martinez had disappeared; no one knew where. No one cared. We were just glad he was gone.”
Johnny looked at the boy. “If you don’t take anything else away from this talk, remember this: your mother loved you. She would not have traded a minute of her life if it meant not having you.” He reached out a hand, covering one of Jeremy’s. Suddenly, the boy was in his arms, sobbing against Johnny’s chest, all of his rage, pain and loneliness pouring out.
When at last the tears had dried up, Johnny resumed his story.
“I was there when you took your first steps, said your first word. I was good with a gun by then, and I began hiring out for short money. Sometimes I was gone for weeks and I’d wire money back to your mama.”
Johnny blew out a deep breath, looking out the window. He returned his attention to the boy, smiling faintly.
“We were happy for a long time. Then Martinez came back. It was his bad luck I came back on the same day. I found him attacking your mother and we fought.”
In spite of himself, Jeremy shivered. The Johnny Madrid who’d just soothed his tears had gone and it was a soft-voiced, cold-eyed gunfighter now sitting on his bed.
“I wanted to kill him with my bare hands, but Serine got between us, said it had to be a fair fight out in the open so no one could later say it was something it wasn’t. She didn’t want it coming back on us. Martinez just laughed, thought I was a green kid, easily done away with. So we took our places in the street with most of the village watching.”
The soft, uninflected voice sent a chill down the spines of Jeremy and the two listeners in the hall as Scott and Murdoch exchanged glances.
“I remember it like it was yesterday, the lightning, the thunder, the mud in the street. It was raining by then, hard, I could barely see him. I expected him to cheat and he did, fired early.”
A mirthless smile lifted the corners of Johnny’s lips.
“But I was faster.”
Jeremy listened, rapt.
Johnny’s eyes came back to him, still cold and faraway.
“Martinez was lying in the street, dead and she ran out and threw herself into my arms. We stood there in the rain, soaking wet, holding each other and she raised her lips to mine and I kissed her for the first and last time. Her lips were so soft, so warm and sweet. It was like entering heaven after being in hell.
Then we turned to look for you and she put a hand to her head, said it hurt. She collapsed and I ran with her in my arms to the curandero. He said it was most likely from a blow to the head when that scum beat her.
His eyes lifted, still icy and distant.
“Martinez was my first kill. And I never regretted it. Only sorry I can’t do it again. The neighbors surrounded me, pushed me onto a horse and shoved a gun in my hand, said I had to go before the Federales came. We could see the lights on at Fort Ore.
“When I came back a few days later, all they told me was that you were both gone, my mother, also. I looked everywhere for months, never saw a sign of either of you. I thought Serine had abandoned me, too. It made me bitter, lost. That’s when I became Johnny Madrid.”
11 Epilogue: Marilyn
Scott and Murdoch, quietly slipped away to the great room. Their hearts heavy with sorrow after hearing Johnny’s painful confession of his love, though innocent as it was, of the boy’s mother. And how he was there when Jeremy was born, and how he had become Madrid. It was no wonder Johnny felt such an strong connection to the boy.
The only thing now, was what to do about Jeremy?
Both Johnny and Jeremy, sat there with darks heads hung, unable to speak, lost in their own thoughts. One with clarity, the other troubled about who was impersonating him, stealing his identity, if that was the case.
Johnny looked up, and sucked in a breath, “Jeremy, you said you saw the man who.. killed…your mama?”
The boy slowly raised his head and wipes his eyes, smiling sadly, “Yeah, but it wasn’t you, Johnny. I know that now.”
“I know, I know, but what I want to know is, has your mama ever called him by Madrid?” Johnny asked with dread.” or anybody else had called him that?”
Jeremy screwed his thin face in thought. After a few long moments, the boy sighed and shook his head. “No Johnny, she hasn’t, not once. And nobody else, that I know of.”
Johnny nodded, letting out the breath he was holding in. Then he frowned as another thought came to him.
“Well, where did you get the name Madrid then? Thinking it was me who had killed her?”
The boy, looked into Johnny deep blue troubled eyes. “As I said before she called your name, before, he…..” He stopped, trying to hold back more tears that wanted to spill over. “Well, she used to tell me of a young man, who she loved once, and I think she still did. Though she knew they could never be together. Then one day she had to leave, with me, and she never saw him again.”
Johnny could only nod.
“But she knew who he had become, Johnny Madrid, and it didn’t matter to her. But she never did tell me what you looked like. I guess it was to protect you in her own way from those who come looking.”
“Come to think of it, mama was half…. dead when I guess she called your name, her mind not thinking right. So I just assumed it was you, the Johnny she once cared about. What hurt the most was how….you….He, could be so…..cruel.”
Johnny reached over and pulled the boy into his arms, gently stroking his hair. “Well, at least you know the truth now, and that man was not using my name. That would have brought big trouble for me and my family if he did something very wrong.”
“I won’t tell anybody, I promise, Johnny.”
Johnny smiled and laid his cheek on the boy’s head. “I know. But no need, it ain’t a secret who I am around here. Thing is now what to with you?”
Jeremy pulled away and looked up with sad, lost eyes. “I got no one, Johnny. Mama’s family is so far away. If she had any left. She never talked about them much.”
Being an orphan once himself and knowing what those orphanages can be like, he didn’t have the heart to think of sending the boy to one. Johnny’s own handsome face screwed up in thought. He sighed out and said. Hoping this is the right move.
“I know of a family, real good people, that would be happy to take you in until we can find your folks. Or maybe they would keep you on, adopt you if we can’t find your family. We’ll have to see how it goes.” He smiled, “Look, I don’t want you out there on your own. What do you say?”
The boy’s eyes lit up like candles, a wide grin beaming. “A real, honest family? On the true?”
“On the true. I’m sure Murdoch and Scott will go for it.” Johnny leaned closer and whispered, sneaky like. “I know for a fact that they were listening, so we can…. Talk them into it.”
Jeremy laughed, then grew sullen. “What about the man who killed my mama? He can’t get away with that !”
Johnny blew out a sigh, “There is nothing I can do. Not much law down there either, but I would bet that one day he’ll meet up with the wrong hombre and he’ll take care of him for us,” he said bitterly. “All you can do is go on and remember your mama the way she was and how much she loved you….and me.”
Jeremy leaned closer to Johnny and rested his dark head on the young Lancer’s chest. Closed his eyes and smiled.
“Will I be close to you?”
“Then ok, a new start it is.”
Johnny closed his own eyes and thought of Serine. “Yep, a new start.”
April 2015/ archived August 2022
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment. Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here. You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email the Authors directly. Addresses listed above.