Word Count 8,902
That week of the southerly wind is something that will always be remembered. For it was a wind like no other in recent memory – hot, intense, forbidding. Unrelenting wind, from the south.
Bringing with it certain harsh evils.
Johnny Madrid Lancer arrived from the north.
He didn’t notice the wind; not much, not at first anyhow. A gunfighter would only pay attention to a breeze that might be strong enough to carry bad luck in a gunfight – sand in the eyes, the whipping of a coat tail, the miscalculation of an aim. A rancher would only pay attention to a wind that foretold a storm, perhaps blew fright into a herd. But Johnny Madrid Lancer was neither of these in this week of the southerly ill wind. He was merely a business traveler to Seco. His business concluded, he finally noticed the wind as he stepped out of the Seco Bank that fateful day.
Johnny headed to a local saloon for a late lunch. He sat at a table alone and engaged the barkeeper in conversation when his food was delivered. Once he identified himself as a rancher from the Morro Coyo area, the barkeeper mentioned that he might want to put off returning home for a few days. “The winds have started,” he said.
Johnny was familiar with the strong winds that came down from the foothills and brushed away the moisture from everything at this time of the year. He was unconcerned but the barkeeper continued, “This is the worst I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve lived here all my life.”
The man seemed interested and genuine. Or, on the other hand, he may have had a vested interest in keeping a stranger around for a few days to spend some money locally. There were few other patrons in the saloon and Johnny began to believe the second option. But the food was quite good, and the batwing doors of the saloon slammed back and forth with the wind. And there was no pressing business at home for Johnny to return to.
He made the innocuous decision to stick around for a couple days. Reserving, as always, the right to change his mind if he got bored. He missed his father and brother, but guessed they wouldn’t mind if he took a few days for himself. He made a mental note to telegraph Lancer after lunch.
Another patron walked in, a deputy sheriff. He and Johnny nodded to each other and the man went up to the bar. The barkeeper automatically poured him a beer.
“Gotta keep that moisture in on days like this, Sheriff,” he said.
“Hope they die down soon.” Johnny knew the deputy was referring to the winds and watched the man drink down his beer quickly before depositing a coin on the counter and leaving.
“Hotel here good?” Johnny yelled to the barkeeper.
“Comfortable enough,” came the answer. “More people there than usual. A few folks are sticking around, waiting.” For the winds to die down was implied.
“Thanks.” Johnny stood and flipped two bits to the bartender. He started for the doors at the same time that two other men entered. Johnny remembered them watching him from the hotel porch when he’d entered the bank an hour ago. They looked familiar but he couldn’t quite . . .
“I told you it was Madrid!” one of them said to the other. Johnny Madrid the gunfighter went into instant alert, but was confused because both of the men were smiling broadly.
The other man slapped him on the shoulder. “Johnny boy!” he cried. “Long time no see!” He reached for Johnny’s gun hand and began to pump it vigorously. The first man playfully punched him in the shoulder. “Madrid, you’re a sight for sore eyes! What brings an old shark like you to this Godforsaken hole?”
Shark. Only one man ever called him a shark. Johnny warmly remembered “Luke! And Clay!”
“It’s Luca now, Johnny. I got class now!”
“You do, huh?” All three of them laughed.
Clay pointed to the nearest table and the three of them sat down. Johnny called out to the bartender, “Beers for my friends here.”
“It’s no joke, Johnny,” said Clay. “We both quit gunhawking.”
“Too much danger?”
“Yeah,” said Luca. “I got winged last month. I’d be six under if it wasn’t for Clay backing me up.”
“Who was it?” Johnny asked seriously.
Johnny whistled low. “Yeah, I heard he bit it. Didn’t hear who did it, though. You got lucky, Luke. He was out of your league.”
Luca cleared his throat. “Well, maybe. Hey, I told you, Johnny, it’s ‘Luca’ now.”
The barkeeper brought three beers to the table. “How come?” asked Johnny.
Clay laughed. “Luke’s got some half-assed idea that ‘Luca’ sounds more toffee-nosed than ‘Luke’ does.”
Johnny laughed, too. “So you’re in high society now that you’re not a gunhawk, Luke?”
“Yeah. Well, maybe. Soon as we find jobs, anyhow.”
Johnny took a swig of his beer. “What kind of work are you fellas doing these days?”
“Well . . .”
“We’re looking for work is what we’re doing,” said Clay.
Luca agreed. “We’ll do anything, Johnny. Long as it’s not hawking.”
“And it’s got to be legal,” Clay quickly added. Luca looked at him and nodded briskly.
“Wellllll . . . “ Johnny said slyly. “It just so happens that I know of a ranch that’s hiring on right now. That is, if you two have ever done a day’s work in your sorry lives!”
“We’re not afraid of hard work. You know that, Johnny,” said Luca.
Johnny knew no such thing, but these were friends from his past. Gunfighters who weren’t afraid, and who apparently had finally come into some common sense. He was about to suggest that they return with him to Lancer when Clay interrupted his thoughts.
“But we’d rather be deputy sheriffs,” he said.
Johnny chuckled as he entered his hotel room a couple hours later. “Deputy sheriffs,” he whispered to himself. “Those renegades. We’d all be in trouble.”
He slapped his hat on his thigh to remove debris fastened to it when a gust of wind had stolen it, then threw the hat on the bureau. He crossed to the window and drew aside the flimsy curtain.
4:45 pm. Still plenty of light. The winds were whipping up little sandstorms on the street. Few people were out. Johnny saw a couple walking out of the mercantile, doing what they could to protect themselves from the swirling sand. Even once in their buggy, they had little protection. Home, he thought absently. They need to get home.
This naturally led to thoughts of his father and brother, so many hours away at their Lancer home. Johnny hated to admit it, but he tremendously missed them and the comforts of evenings with his family. After leaving Clay and Luca, he had sent a telegram to Lancer, informing them that the business was concluded successfully and he would be home a few days later than expected. Due to the winds, he’d said. He didn’t really tell the whole truth – that he relished a few days to himself in Seco or wherever he might wander.
Johnny hung his gunbelt on the bedpost and lay down on the bed, sinking into the relative comfort of the hotel mattress. Allowing his mind to wander, he began to question why he had wanted this time off. Like his old friends, he wasn’t a gunman anymore. The things that had been important to him in that life didn’t matter one little bit anymore.
Murdoch. Scott. That was what mattered to him now. His father and brother – his family. His family. Here he was, many miles from home in a strange town, and he was homesick for Lancer.
All those years he had wanted a family and then – magically – he suddenly had one. Before them, he had earned a living as a fast, accurate gunfighter, and he was well aware of his talent. He’d been proud of his trade but always knew there was something missing from his life. It took a while, but now he knew for certain – his family was what he really loved.
His thoughts drifted to Clay and Luca. Johnny never bragged, but he knew he was much better at “the trade” than either of them had been. It made sense to him that they’d finally decided to abandon it. He idly wondered if they’d ever been able to make any real money at it. He doubted it. They both looked a little threadbare when he’d seen them in the saloon. He’d noticed their guns looked well taken care of, but they themselves needed baths and new clothes. In that respect, he’d always differed from them.
They were older than him, been at it longer, but never amounted to much. He’d met them as part of a large group hired to show power for one side of a range war. He got to know all of the gunmen, but never called any of them ‘friend.’ Clay and Luca weren’t his friends, he realized suddenly. They were just acquaintances now, as they had been in the past. He had little in common with them. Perhaps he’d been happy to see them because he missed his family. He chuckled and closed his eyes in anticipation of a short nap before dinner.
But sleep would not come. Something was bothering Johnny, and he wasn’t sure what. This feeling of unease nagged at him and he knew from experience he would not be able to relax until he recognized the source.
When had this feeling started?
Somewhere around the time he saw Clay and Luke walk into the saloon.
Johnny opened his eyes suddenly. It was true – there was something about Clay and Luke, two old acquaintances from days he’d rather forget, that bothered him. But what?
He re-played their saloon meeting in his mind. Although he’d seen them in the street watching him when he’d headed for the bank, he hadn’t recognized them. But, now that he thought about it, they’d been watching him. They’d obviously recognized him. Was this when he’d first started feeling uneasy? Oddly, no.
Was it when they forced an encounter with him in the saloon? No, he remembered his first reaction to them had been appreciation of familiar faces because he missed his family. This time Johnny did not chuckle at that thought.
They had idly chatted for a while, discussing old times, times Johnny did not particularly want to re-live. Was this when he started feeling something was wrong? No.
They had spoken of some of their jobs since he’d seen them last, and he had recognized that they seemed to employ more force than he would have felt necessary. He remembered he had just started feeling a touch of disquiet when they’d described roping and dragging some gunman. They’d been proud of that, and he’d wondered why. At the time he’d dismissed it since they didn’t have anyone in their lives except each other – no families, no wives, no one to hold them accountable or to be there for them. He’d felt somewhat sorry for them. So this was the beginning of the nagging feeling, but . . .
We’d rather be deputy sheriffs.
That was it. Clay and Luke as deputy sheriffs. Two men who had never really respected the law. When Clay had said it, Johnny had laughed outright, thereby defusing his hidden anxiety at the idea. It was just plain wrong – Clay and Luke as lawmen.
So Johnny had asked them if there was anything else they wanted to do. Ranching? Blacksmithing? Selling? Railroading? Sheepherding? Nope to all, but they’d laughed at that last one.
“Maybe we’re going about this wrong,” Johnny had said. “Is there something you’re good at doing? Maybe you never did it as a job, but think about something you just might be good at anyhow.”
“I’m not good for much,” Luca said, “ but Clay is good at ciphering.”
Clay shook his head enthusiastically. “That’s right, Johnny. I was always good at ciphering. Before I met up with Luke and the rest of them, I worked in a bank.”
“As a bank teller,” Luca added.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Clay agreed. “As a bank teller.”
Johnny was a little suspicious. “You ever have any trouble there?”
“No, never!” Clay’s response was a little too eager.
“Why’d you quit?”
Clay and Luca looked at each other. “Well,” Clay said. “I guess I musta quit because I met Luke.”
“More money hawking than bank-telling?”
Johnny doubted it. A bank job was a regular paycheck.
While Johnny mulled it over, Clay said, “Hey, Johnny, we saw you coming out of that bank. You have business there?”
Without thinking at the time, Johnny said, “Yeah, ranch business. My father sent me there to finalize a contract with one of the local ranches.”
“You meet the bank guy? The owner? You think you could tell him about me?”
Johnny thought before answering. When he’d been at the bank, he’d visited with the president in his office, and there had also been a teller and one man sitting at a desk. He doubted the bank was hiring, but Clay seemed to sincerely want to change his life, so Johnny actually gave it thought. “You know, Clay, I don’t think they need any help there. They already have a teller.”
“Oh, come on, Johnny. Just go in with me and tell him about me. That’s all I’m asking. I can take it from there. Please, Johnny!”
“You just want an introduction, huh?” Johnny looked at Clay, who looked like he was trying not to cry, and Luke, who looked like he was trying not to laugh. Those two always confused him, he remembered.
“Yeah, that’s it – an introduction. Can you do this for me, Johnny? Please?”
Please. Try as he might, Johnny couldn’t remember either of those guys using that word before. He made a decision. “All right, Clay, I’ll introduce you as an old friend. But, like it or not, I’m going to tell Mr. Calhoun about your gunhawk past. He has a right to know.”
“Yeah, sure, Johnny. That’s fine.”
And that was it. They’d chatted innocuously for a while longer, until someone asked the bartender what time it was and he’d said it was coming up on 4:30. The three of them realized they’d better get to the bank before it closed for the day, and they’d headed over on foot through the wind. It was a slow time of day for the bank and there weren’t any customers. Johnny introduced Clay to Mr. Calhoun and said exactly what he’d promised he’d say. Mr. Calhoun seemed accepting of Clay and pointed out that they weren’t hiring at that time, but expected to shortly, right after the winds pass and business was expected to pick up. He invited Clay in to his office to speak with him in private.
Luca sat on a chair in the lobby and said, “Johnny, I’m going to sit right here and wait for Clay to come out. There ain’t no need for you to hang around.”
“All right,” Johnny remembered saying. “I’m going to rest for a while. I’ll meet you at the restaurant later for dinner. I’m buying.”
Luca smiled broadly and showed a couple missing teeth. “That’s my boy Johnny – always true-blue.”
Johnny remembered wondering what Luke had meant as he fought the windstorm on his way to the telegraph office to send his telegram home. And that was his last thought before he fell asleep.
Johnny woke suddenly and couldn’t at first understand what had awakened him. The room was dark and he could see some light from the streetlights out his window.
Bang bang bang! That was it – someone was knocking on the door. Johnny smiled. Clay must have gotten the job!
“Hold on, you guys!” he yelled. “I thought I told you I’d meet you at the restaurant.”
But when Johnny opened the door to admit Clay and Luca, they were not there. Instead, Johnny was met with the point of the sheriff’s gun, and the deputy sheriff was right behind him, gun also pointed at Johnny.
“All right, Madrid. Let’s go.”
“My name is Lancer,” said Johnny. But he knew he was the one they meant, and he went with them peacefully.
Being arrested just didn’t make sense, and Johnny used fairly colorful language to express his opinion about that to the Sheriff. But the Sheriff was a no-nonsense man, and he kept asking Johnny the same question repeatedly.
“Did you really think you’d get away with it?”
Johnny sat down on the bunk in his jail cell. “Stop, Sheriff; you’re not making any sense. Suppose you just calm down for a minute and tell me what the hell you’re talking about?”
“Stop playing dumb, Madrid.”
“I told you my name is Lancer.”
“And that’s another thing. In case you don’t know it, it’s against the law to impersonate someone else and sign their name to legal documents.”
“Legal documents? Now what the hell are you talking about?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about, Madrid!”
“Well, let’s just pretend I don’t, all right? Now, what documents do you think I signed wrong?”
“Anything you signed at the bank with Calhoun, that’s what.”
“At the bank today? That was nothing more than a contract with the Bar-Y to buy cattle that they’ll send us next spring. Calhoun was the proxy representing the Bar-Y. I was signing on behalf of Lancer.”
“I know all about the Lancer Ranch. Everybody does. It’s the biggest ranch by far in this part of the state. And I know it’s owned by Murdoch Lancer. Lancer, not Madrid!”
“Sheriff, for some reason you just don’t want to believe me. My name is Lancer. My name used to be Madrid. My father is Murdoch Lancer, and I’m part owner of the Lancer Ranch.”
“Your name is Johnny Madrid, and you’re a gunfighter.”
“Used to be, Sheriff. Used to be.”
“And your friends the gunfighters . . . “
“Clay and Luke? Is that what this is about?” As soon as he said it, Johnny got a sinking feeling that something was terribly wrong.
“You know damn well . . . “
“Sheriff, hold up! What did they do?”
“This’ll go a lot smoother if you stop playing dumb, Madrid. Now where are they hiding?”
“They’re hiding? Why are they hiding?”
“They’re either hiding or they’re running. Anyone robbing a bank should be smart enough to run away, but the three of you don’t seem too strong in the smarts department, so they could be hiding somewhere. Probably right here in town! Now, where are they?”
They robbed the bank! Johnny closed his eyes and let that idea sink in.
He didn’t get much chance to think about it, though, because the Sheriff was relentless. “It’ll go a lot better for you, Madrid, if you tell me what I want to know.”
Johnny opened his eyes and tried to concentrate on the sheriff. The man was standing right outside his cell door, holding a cup of coffee. Gun on hip, hat tilted, a big scowl; everything about him said he was sure of himself. The deputy sheriff had left, probably to send the telegram to Lancer that Johnny had requested. I’m in jail. Don’t know why. Tell sheriff who I am. Johnny wasn’t sure he needed his family’s help but he figured he owed it to them because they would be worrying about him.
“Sheriff, if Clay and Luke robbed the bank, what does that have to do with me? For that matter, what makes you think they’re the ones who robbed it?”
The sheriff smiled. “How about this, Madrid? How about one of them pulling a gun on Calhoun and forcing him to give them the money in the bank safe while the other one held the rest of the folks in the bank at gunpoint? How about this? – the two of them tied and gagged Calhoun and the manager and the teller and made them lie down on the floor while they made their getaway with the money? And how about this? – the mine payroll of three thousand dollars had just been deposited in that safe this morning! Now, what have you got to say about that?”
Johnny had nothing to say about it. He couldn’t believe Clay and Luke had it in them to rob a bank, but there were apparently three witnesses who said they did. And one of them was Mr. Calhoun, the bank man he had done business with, a man who had seemed intelligent and sincere. “Why am I in jail, Sheriff?”
The sheriff sighed and sat in his desk chair. “All right, Madrid, we’ll play it your way. You spent the afternoon in one of our saloons kowtowing with the bank robbers. Jim the barkeeper served beer to the three of you. Even my deputy Ray saw you there.”
“I admit it, Sheriff. I drank beer with Clay and Luke. I’m guilty. Is that the death penalty in this town?”
“You talked with them for quite a while, according to Jim. Then you all left together. You made a beeline for the bank, where you introduced those boys to Calhoun. Calhoun told me you’d been in earlier that day to transact business. He felt you were trustworthy, so he listened when you said you wanted him to meet one of the robbers. Calhoun believed you when you said the guy was looking for a job.”
Now it was beginning to make sense. Johnny realized he was being grouped with the bank robbers as an accomplice. He was stunned into silence.
“Then you went out,” the sheriff continued. “You left the two of them there alone and you must’ve come back to your hotel room, so as to make it look like you weren’t associated with what they were going to do. That was stupid, Madrid. One of the stupidest things I’ve seen a lawbreaker do, and I thought I’d seen it all.”
At this point, Johnny was inclined to agree with the lawman, but for a different reason. It hit him hard that his old acquaintances had used him to gain a foothold in the bank, and then made sure he left so the fast law-abiding gunman wouldn’t be around to see them do something illegal. His anger with the sheriff began to find its way over to Clay and Luke. He was stunned with the whole idea and couldn’t for the moment think of a reply. He had been used.
Just then Ray the deputy returned to the sheriff’s office and a huge gust of wind tore the door from his hand, slamming it into the wall with a loud bang. Sand blew into the room. Ray struggled to close the door as quickly as possible. “Get anything out of him, Sheriff?” he asked when he could.
“Nope. Madrid would rather ask questions than answer them.”
“Well, Sheriff, I’ve got news for you. Cody . . .” the deputy turned toward Johnny. “You remember Cody, don’t you, Madrid? The telegrammer?”
“Telegrapher,” Johnny corrected. “And it’s Lancer.”
The deputy ignored the prisoner and turned back to the sheriff. “Well, Cody said Madrid had been in there just a couple hours earlier to send a telegraph.”
The sheriff seemed interested in this. “What did it say?”
“Cody gave it to me. It said . . . well, here, Sheriff, see for yourself.” Ray handed Johnny’s handwritten copy to the sheriff.
“’To Lancer Ranch, Morro Coyo,’” the sheriff read. “’Home in few days. Sandstorm. Johnny.’”
The sheriff looked to his deputy. “Did he say anything else to Cody?”
“Yeah. Cody said he laughed and said something about his family probably would think he found a woman he wanted to spend time with.”
Johnny ignored them both and said, “Deputy, did you send the telegram I asked you to send to my family about being in jail?”
“Yeah, I sent it all right.”
“Good. Uh . . . thank you.” Johnny didn’t understand why, but the relief he felt at that point was palpable. He was beginning to piece this puzzle together and a comfortable feeling of empowerment was finally coming his way.
“You see what I mean?” the sheriff said to his deputy. “He just keeps asking questions.”
Johnny stood suddenly. “You want answers? All right, you’ll get answers, Sheriff. You’ll get all the answers you want. In fact, let me tell you the whole story, and you won’t even have to ask any more questions.”
“That’s more like it,” said the sheriff. “Go ahead. We’re listening.”
“My name is Lancer, but I used to be known as Johnny Madrid. I was a hired gun. That was another lifetime ago. My father and brother are also Lancers and together we own the Lancer Ranch in Morro Coyo. My father started that ranch from scratch himself, many years ago. He didn’t raise me – I got raised in Mexico and started gunhawking down there – but he found me once I was grown up and brought me into his life. As part owner. Best thing that ever happened to me. I gave up any kind of gunning to be a rancher and I haven’t looked back. Oh! – And, by the way, Sheriff – I never broke the law as a gunfighter. Every single thing I did was within the law. You can look that up yourself. You won’t see any wanted posters on me.” Johnny stopped talking for a moment, surprised both by the interest his audience was taking in his speech and also by the emotions he was feeling.
“Go on, Madrid,” the sheriff encouraged.
“Those yahoos you say robbed the bank – Clay and Luke – they were two guys who hired on at the same time that I did way back when. We were all gunfighters then and a lot of us hired out to help end range wars . . . ”
“That’s one way of putting it,” the sheriff interrupted.
“That was a few years back and that was the first time I met them. They had minimal talent at gunning but thought they were pretty good, so I liked listening to them mouth off. But they weren’t friends, Sheriff. They were never my friends.”
Johnny stopped for a moment to re-compose himself. The idea that he had been used and betrayed by those two “yahoos” was making him angrier than he felt like being.
“Go on,” the sheriff urged.
“Gimme some of that coffee,” Johnny said. The sheriff nodded to the deputy, who poured Johnny a mug of coffee and handed it to him through the bars. Johnny wished he could enjoy this little moment of power.
“Go on, Lancer,” the sheriff said.
“That range war was the last time I saw them. Probably four, maybe five years ago. Never heard from them again. I guess I figured they . . . well, either quit gunning by choice or someone made the choice for them.” Johnny saw the corners of the sheriff’s mouth turn up. He couldn’t understand how the sheriff could see humor in the situation when he himself felt only anger.
“Who are they?” the sheriff asked.
“Names are Luke Heedy and Clay Michel. Although Luke goes by Luca now. Come to think of it, Sheriff, you might have a poster on Clay. I remember him saying once that he was wanted. Bragged a lot, though; it might not be true.”
The sheriff turned to his deputy and said, “Check it out, Ray,” and the deputy pulled a number of papers from a desk drawer and started pawing through them.
The sheriff turned back to Johnny. “All right, Lancer. How did you happen to hook up with them today?”
“I was having lunch in a saloon and they came in and saw me.”
“Just like that?”
“Yeah, just like that. Although . . . “ Johnny hesitated for a moment. “Now that I think about it, I saw them sitting in front of the hotel watching me when I went to my meeting with Calhoun.”
“Did you know who they were then?”
“No . . . They looked familiar but I couldn’t place them. Not until they came in and started talking to me. I guess that’s when I remembered who they were.”
“What did they want?”
“Well, I just thought they wanted to talk about old times. I mean, we didn’t have that many ‘old times’ together, but I went along with it. Clay said they’d given up gunning and were looking for . . . jobs . . .” Johnny slowly sat down. “Dios,” he said to himself.
“What’s the matter?”
“Dios, Sheriff. I’m the one who told him to try to get a job at the bank!”
“Now why would you do that, Lancer?”
Johnny shook his head. “Clay said he’d worked in a bank before. So I suggested . . . Damn them! They had this whole thing planned. As soon as they saw me go into the bank Clay must’ve come up with a plan.” He hung his head. “Damn them,” he whispered.
“Done, Sheriff,” the deputy said.
The sheriff studied Johnny for a moment, then turned back to his deputy. “Find anything, Ray?”
“Nope. No posters for anybody named Clay.”
“None on him, either.”
Johnny’s head snapped up. “You looked for a wanted poster on me? I told you, Sheriff. I never broke the law.”
“I’m inclined to believe you, Lancer.” The sheriff sighed and sat down in his desk chair. He seemed to be deeply in thought as Johnny and Ray quietly watched him.
The sheriff sighed again. “Like I said, Lancer, I’m inclined to believe you. For one thing, you were asleep in your hotel room when we found you and if you were guilty, that doesn’t seem likely to me. Also, Calhoun said you had left before the other two did anything; plus he said you brought papers with you earlier that introduced you and they were signed by Murdoch Lancer. I’m inclined to think you might have been set up by them, like you said. Ray sent a telegram to Lancer, and once we have an answer, we’ll know for sure.”
Johnny stood up. “You’re not likely to get that until morning, Sheriff. The telegraph is in Morro Coyo, and I don’t know if they’ll send anyone out to the ranch at night. It’s a ways. You know we can’t just sit around and wait for a telegram before we go after them.”
“Yeah, I know it, all right.” The sheriff turned to his deputy. “Ray, I’m going to round up a few of the men and get up a posse. The robbers have only had a couple hours’ head start. This wind is going to make trailing a problem, but we’ve got no choice. We’ll take lanterns. I want you to stay here because we’ve got a prisoner. Whenever you get a response to our telegram, if Lancer turns out to be who he says he is, as far as I’m concerned you can let him go.”
“Sheriff,” Johnny said from his cell, “let me go now. You believe I’m Lancer. I’m a good tracker. Let me be part of the posse.”
“You’re my prisoner now, Lancer, and you will continue to be my prisoner until I have proof from your family that you are who you say you are.”
“Sheriff . . .”
“And not until then!” The sheriff then grabbed his rifle and extra bullets and left with a lit lantern.
And that was the last Johnny saw of him.
Barranca was the best horse Johnny Madrid Lancer had ever owned. He was a perfect mount with an easy gait who responded well to commands and didn’t spook easily. And, best of all, he had been a gift from Murdoch.
Johnny patted Barranca’s neck as he searched the ground for signs of Clay and Luke. The sheriff had been absolutely correct when he’d predicted that following anyone’s trail would be a problem because of the wind. Johnny had found tracks of the five-man posse easily enough because of the multitude of horses’ hooves. But he was looking for only two men, and he wasn’t sure if the posse had actually been able to see the original tracks before their own horses had obliterated them.
Johnny knew he was riding in the right general direction – south – because Mr. Calhoun, although bound and gagged, had paid careful attention to the sound of the bank riders riding away. They’d gone south, he’d believed. Johnny’s opinion of Mr. Calhoun was high and he accepted this.
So he’d gone south in pursuit of Clay and Luke. South – where the wind was the fiercest. As if in answer to his thoughts, a sudden gust of wind blew his rifle scabbard up and slapped it down again against Barranca. “Easy, boy,” Johnny said to ease his mount. But Barranca did not spook.
Johnny turned his attention back to the ground, scouring for prints the posse might have missed. The sheriff had seemed competent and probably deputized capable men as well, but the wind had not slowed down, and that meant meager tracks in parched earth might have disappeared.
He couldn’t recall if he’d had a more difficult time tracking someone or something. He considered it for a minute. Mountain lions had been the easiest. They were not concerned about anyone tracking them and made no effort to hide their trail. Men – they weren’t so easy. Men usually attempted to hide their tracks when they knew Johnny Madrid might be looking for them. The smarter the men, the harder they were to find. His brother Scott had presented the biggest challenge when Johnny had once followed him. Scott was plenty smart and knew exactly the things to do to make sure Johnny could not find him. But Johnny had known the lives of many people – including his brother – were at stake if he failed to get to them in time, and that provided plenty of incentive for him to concentrate as hard as he possibly could as he’d scoured the ground.
That kind of incentive was not present now. Johnny, the sheriff, and the deputized posse all wanted to find Clay and Luke. This time it was not a matter of life and death. The lawmen merely wanted to do their job – find the lawbreakers and return the money to the bank. Johnny considered this.
Why was he so eager to assist in this search? He was a good twelve hours behind the posse because he’d been forced to spend the night in jail since the emancipating telegram did not arrive until morning. Johnny Madrid Lancer is my son. Part owner Lancer Ranch. Release immediately. I will arrive tomorrow. Murdoch Lancer.
Of course Murdoch would want to be in Seco. Scott would probably come, too. Johnny chuckled. He hoped he’d be able to round up Clay and Luke and have them in jail by the time his family arrived. He wanted to be the one to find them. Him, not the posse.
He reined Barranca to a stop. Why did he want to be the one to find them? Did it really matter either way who found them? Why was it so personal to him?
Because Clay and Luke had used him. They’d betrayed him and implicated him in their crime. And that was very very personal to Johnny Lancer.
A sudden gust of wind blew a loose small branch from a nearby tree to the ground. Barranca sidestepped to avoid it.
Johnny dismounted and checked Barranca’s eyes. He had considered tying his neckerchief around his mount’s eyes to protect them from the wind, but Barranca seemed to be doing all right. He stroked Barranca’s head to comfort him. “You’re a good fella,” he said soothingly.
They’d been traveling for hours. A little rest stop was good for both of them. Johnny checked the area while he re-tied the bandanna around his head. He saw the tracks of the posse. They’d been trotting, heading in a southeasterly direction. Occasionally they’d had to slow to a walk when the ground got rough. Or maybe when they’d lost the tracks.
Little whirlwinds of sand and leaves graced the ground in the wind. In another situation, Johnny might have appreciated their beauty. But he’d been used, and that was impossible to forget. He frowned.
There was a small clearing in the woods to the right of the trail. This is where the small branch had fallen in the wind. He went over to investigate.
The posse had continued on the trail. But here – on the edge of the trail, right where the branch had fallen – there were the very faint tracks of two horses riding off the trail and into the brush. Johnny got down on his knees to look closer.
A couple of stones had been turned over. Someone or something had done this very recently. Johnny walked a little further off the trail in the direction these stones indicated. Sure enough, he found more traces that two horses had left the trail and headed into the brush. They had probably loosened the branch that had very opportunely fallen right when Johnny had approached. For a moment, he valued the gusty winds.
He looked back at the path. The posse had gone on ahead. They’d missed this sign completely! Johnny didn’t hesitate. Let the posse go where they wanted; he would follow this trail.
He mounted Barranca and urged him off the normal path into the brush. Clay and Luke obviously figured they had to do this to elude the posse. Johnny moved forward slowly and appreciated the signs of two recent riders he was now able to detect. They couldn’t have been too far ahead of him.
It wasn’t long at all before the trees thinned out and the landscape became more barren. Fewer trees and more scrub brush like chapparal took over. This was good and also bad, Johnny figured. The tracks would be even easier to follow, but he and his horse would have little cover should they be spotted. He dismounted and walked Barranca.
After about an hour, the tracks stopped. Clay and Luke had decided to rest, apparently. But Johnny was confused because the two men had not dismounted. It seemed they had stayed in one spot for a few minutes, and then the tracks had advanced forward again.
Johnny stopped as well. Why had they done that? Once they had left the main trail, they had slowed to a walk. Certainly they had not needed to rest if only walking. And if they had in fact decided to rest, why had they not dismounted?
Johnny felt an odd feeling. Unsure what to make of it, he allowed his Madrid persona to take over.
Later he would say he sensed it even before Barranca did. Johnny Madrid, as always, had all senses intact. He knew someone was nearby. There were no clues, but he knew it.
Barranca shook his head and snorted. A twig snapped nearby. Johnny dropped to the ground just before a bullet pinged the earth behind him. Barranca bolted and took off but Johnny paid no attention. He scrambled quickly for cover, pulled his gun, and waited.
“Johnny!” It was Luke. Johnny detested the fact that they’d seen him before he’d seen them.
Had the voice and the bullet come from the same direction? He wasn’t entirely sure. He waited, unmoving, and he didn’t have long to wait.
“Johnny! Go back, Johnny, or we’ll kill you!” Luke again. Was Clay with him or not?
“Don’t do this, Luke. The posse’s right behind me. You don’t have a chance.”
“No, they’re not, Johnny. Me and Clay pulled off the path and waited for them and watched them go by. They got no idea where we are.” By the volume of his voice, it didn’t seem like Luke was all that far from Johnny’s location. Johnny plastered himself to the ground and began to crawl in the direction of Luke’s voice. He knew Luke wouldn’t be able to see him – but where was Clay?
“I’m telling you, Johnny, you got to go back or we’ll kill you.”
Johnny was noiseless as he slithered ever nearer to Luke’s voice. He was sure any small noise he might make would be covered by the wind. Little by little, he moved closer to the source of the voice, until he finally could see Luke. The man was mere feet from him.
Luke had found cover behind a Joshua tree and some rocks. He was still looking toward the spot Johnny had just left, obviously unaware that Johnny had moved.
“Johnny, you listening to me?” Luke yelled.
“Yeah, I’m listening,” Johnny said quietly. Luke was startled at the close proximity of the voice. He turned quickly to see Johnny’s pistol pointed right at his head. He raised his gun, but Johnny knocked the gun away with his other hand.
“I’ve been listening, Luke, but you haven’t made any sense,” Johnny said. “Now lie face down.”
Luke was still too startled to think clearly. Johnny saw something in his eyes that could only be identified as fear. But Luke did as Johnny demanded, lying down on the hard ground.
“Give me your hands,” Johnny commanded. He used his own neckerchief to tie Luke’s hands behind his back. Then he helped him into a standing position.
“Don’t do this. We’ll kill you, Johnny,” Luke said softly.
Johnny kept his gun leveled on Luke as he removed the rope from Luke’s horse’s saddle. “Yeah, I’m beginning to believe you.” He motioned for Luke to stand next to the Joshua tree. He used the rope to tie Luke securely to the tree before he felt safe holstering his gun. “I’m thinking killing is all the two of you would ever be able to do. No matter what you told me or the banker.”
Luke’s fear was turning to anger. “You better let me go, Johnny. You know Clay will kill you. He’s close by.”
“No, he’s not, Luke. He rode on ahead and left you here to watch for me. Or for the posse. The bank money’s not on your horse, so that means Clay took it. When was he planning on splitting it with you?”
“When we got to a safe place. Maybe Sacramento.”
“Well, I wouldn’t waste my time waiting, Luke. Clay’s long gone, and so is the money. And that shot you fired is going to bring the posse right back here. You’re going to jail, Luke, and that’s probably just how Clay planned it.”
“Damn you, Johnny Madrid! That ain’t . . .” But Luke couldn’t finish his sentence because Johnny had taken off Luke’s neckerchief and gagged him with it.
Johnny tied Luke’s horse to the same tree and then whistled for Barranca. The last thing he said before he rode away in the direction Clay’s tracks had gone was, “Sorry. Meant to call you ‘Luca.’”
Both the posse and Clay had no doubt heard the gunshot. The posse would circle back, find the tracks leading off the path, and follow them to Luke.
But what would Clay think? Johnny calculated in his head how much farther ahead Clay would be. Would Clay think that Luke had managed to ambush Johnny and was now on his way to meet up with his partner? If so, Clay would either wait up for Luke, or, more likely, keep going in the direction he was headed to avoid a meeting. That direction was clearly not Sacramento, so it seemed to Johnny that Clay was most likely planning on stiffing his partner out of his share of the money.
There had been only one gunshot. Clay would either think Johnny had killed Luke, or Luke had killed Johnny. Either way, Johnny figured, Clay would know someone was coming after him. He would be on his guard. And, since it might be Johnny, Clay would think back to the time they had worked together and try to remember how Johnny operated in order to outsmart him.
But Clay, as the sheriff had hinted, was not strong in the “smarts” department. Johnny smiled a little. He figured he had some time to think up a plan before he encountered his adversary. He continued to watch the ground carefully for clues as Barranca plodded along.
Johnny Madrid was tired. He had not slept well on the jail cot and had now spent the better part of the day staring at the ground closely for clues. He was weary and he was hungry, and he was tired of buffering himself against the relentless wind. Barranca seemed to be doing well, which he appreciated, but nevertheless he wished he could stop and give both he and his mount a rest.
“After we find this joker,” he said to Barranca. The wind whipped the words back into his mouth. He spit out some sand. Sitting high up on his horse put him squarely in the path of the windstorm. It also made him visible for quite a long way, he figured. But he wasn’t concerned, because Johnny Madrid had a plan, and that plan included Clay being at least two or three miles ahead of him.
But Johnny Madrid was wrong.
He felt the pain before he heard the shot. In an instant he knew the bullet had exited the top of his left shoulder, and he knew from the sound where the shot had come from and how far away the shooter was. He knew all this before he hit the ground.
And he also knew the shooter was Clay Michel.
Johnny fell from his horse and landed on the injured arm, which hurt like hell. He yelped without meaning to. He immediately turned on his stomach. To a gunman a number of yards away, he knew, it would look like one smooth move – he was shot, he fell from his horse to the ground, face-down, pinning his arms under his body. He didn’t move.
But Johnny Madrid’s senses were very acute. He could feel the blood on the front and on the back of his shoulder. There would be a red stain on his back that would be visible to Clay if he came closer. And of course the man would come closer. He would want to make sure Johnny was dead, for more than one reason. He would be able to relax the rest of his trip, knowing he had thrown off a posse and also eliminated the one man he knew would relentlessly dog him. And he would have the satisfaction of knowing that he was the one who had downed the great Johnny Madrid. Johnny lay very still, hoping that, in fact, Clay Michel would not be the one to claim he had killed Johnny Madrid.
His shoulder was paining him something awful, but Johnny lay perfectly still. He kept his eyes and ears open. It wasn’t long before he heard stealthy footsteps approaching from his front. He closed his eyes and waited.
Someone was approaching him very cautiously. He knew it was Clay. He opened his eyes just a crack and saw Clay was holding a rifle, not a handgun. The gun was aimed at the ground as Clay approached slowly. Johnny held his breath.
When Clay was only a couple feet away, Johnny heard him chuckle. “You were good, Madrid, but I’m better.” He laughed outright. “Thanks for getting me in the bank, friend!”
Johnny had a shadowy vision of the rifle being raised. Clay was going in for another shot. The killing shot. Just in case.
Just then a sudden gust of hot wind blew some leaves and distracted Clay. It was only for an second, but it was all Johnny needed.
Johnny rolled very quickly onto his injured arm. Feeling but ignoring the pain, he took only an instant to aim the gun he’d been holding in his right hand. He fired.
Johnny knew even then that he would never forget the look on Clay’s face as he realized he’d been tricked. Clay fell backward, hitting the dry ground hard. There was very little blood – Johnny’s aim had been true and he’d aimed to kill. Clay had died instantly.
Johnny sat up as quickly as he could and cradled his left arm. The pain shot through him and he spent a moment trying to will it away. He’d had worse, he knew, but this one was tough. Perhaps it was because he had been betrayed by someone he’d once trusted. Perhaps it was because he’d been forced to kill when this wasn’t really the outcome he’d desired.
He whimpered. In a moment he felt Barranca nuzzling him. He looked at his horse. Johnny Madrid chuckled.
And then the wind died down.
A good night’s sleep was what Johnny needed. A night without locked jail cells or following tracks. A night in the hotel bed, the first night he would be able to use that bed.
Johnny had been planning on spending time in Seco until the winds had slowed down enough to make traveling home feasible. But the winds had suddenly and unexpectedly died down and life in Seco and the surrounding area was returning to normal.
He slept as late as he wanted, ordered a bath for himself before heading to the café for some breakfast, and then got a shave from the barber. He stopped in to see the town doctor, who took another look at his wound and changed the dressing. Then he stopped over at the sheriff’s office to see what was new.
Luke Heedy was behind bars. Johnny went over to him before doing anything else. He wanted to get a good look at one of the men who’d betrayed him.
“You OK, Johnny?” Luke said.
“Yeah, I’ll be OK.” Johnny was surprised that he did not feel what he had expected to feel – anger. His desire for revenge had, if it had ever existed, been satisfied. He wasn’t sure what he was feeling now and decided to think about it later. But he was glad he was no longer angry.
“No hard feelings, huh, Johnny? I mean – that’s how it goes sometimes.” Luke stuck his hand through the bars for Johnny to shake it.
“Yeah, that’s how it goes sometimes, Luca.” Johnny just shook his head and walked away. Luke withdrew his hand back into his cell. He understood.
Johnny spent a few minutes conversing with the deputy sheriff. The sheriff and the posse had not yet returned. Apparently they had been quite a bit farther ahead than Johnny had realized. Perhaps they had not even heard the initial shot. They had actually ridden all night and finally stopped when they reached a town with a telegraph office. The deputy told them to come on back – Johnny Lancer had confronted both robbers, killed one and returned the other one unharmed. Along with the stolen money. “They’ll be back later today,” the deputy said.
Johnny shook his head. He was weary. That comfortable hotel bed sounded mighty good. He wasn’t sleepy anymore, but the idea of spending the rest of the day sitting up in bed reading was attractive.
As he approached the hotel, a couple of familiar faces were just dismounting in front of it. Johnny smiled widely at the sight of his father and brother. They were ‘a sight for sore eyes,’ as the saying went. The best thing about going home would have been to see them, and now they were here!
“Welcome to Seco,” Johnny called out as he approached them.
Scott and Murdoch turned at the same time. “Johnny! What happened to your arm?” asked Murdoch. Always the concerned father. Johnny smiled even wider.
“Brother! Good to see you,” said Scott. He patted Johnny on his good arm.
“Well, I tell you, it’s a long story. I’ve got a room upstairs with a couple of chairs and a table and a nice soft bed for myself and if we all go up there, I’ll tell you the whole story.”
“That sounds good,” said Murdoch.
Scott reached in his saddlebag and pulled out a bottle of tequila. “In case your story bores us,” he said with a smile. Johnny mussed his brother’s hair and led them toward the hotel.
Just then a lone gust of wind came up out of nowhere and blew a tumbleweed down the street. They stopped to watch it.
Murdoch put his arm around his son. “Sometimes, Johnny,” he said wistfully. But he didn’t say any more.
Johnny looked at him. “Sometimes what, Murdoch?”
Murdoch pulled him close. “Sometimes I think of you as a tumbleweed.” They all watched it roll until the wind died down.
“You’re right, Murdoch,” Johnny said softly. “Tumbling in to Lancer. To stay.”
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8 thoughts on “Ill Wind by goldieasj”
Enjoyed this. Very moody and atmospheric.
Thanks, Eleanor. Appreciate you taking the time to read and comment!
Boy, with friends like those, who needs enemies? But Clay and Luke… oh, excuse me… Luca, got what they had coming.
Thanks for sharing this story! It was a fun read.
Thanks for the comment. I’m so glad you enjoyed!
Another great story. Loved the sinister atmosphere. Thank you.
How kind of you! Glad you enjoyed; thanks so much for letting me know.
Great love reading it. Thank you for taking the time to write.
Thank you so much for the comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the story.