Word Count 1,533
April 1, 1870:
Warmth from the sun cut through Johnny Madrid’s white shirt despite the fact that noon was still two hours away. However, it wasn’t the heat that caused beads of moisture to soak into the light-weight cotton garment. The temperature could have been cold enough for his breath to form a frosty fog and he still would have been covered in sweat. In a few moments at the most, his life would be over.
Life. Now that was a joke, if there ever was one. Johnny wondered if that was what came of being born on a day that was reserved for fools. Well you’ve lived up to that often enough in the past twenty-one years, he silently chided himself, thinking of the fix he was in all because he had wanted to help out some nice people, who were being treated like dogs. Had he stuck to demanding pay for his services, he wouldn’t be sitting on his knees in the burning sun on his birthday while waiting his turn to stand before four men with rifles aimed at his heart.
With head bowed so that the broad brim of his sombrero shielded his eyes, he heard the man to his left rise and step away. “Adios, Amigo,” Johnny whispered, his throat tight and mouth dry.
Unable to watch the death of the older man, whose brother had taken him in two days before Christmas a little over three months ago, Johnny closed his eyes and waited for the dreaded sound of the rifles. Still he shuddered, shoulders drawn toward his ears at the blasts of gun fire and dull thumps of bullets tearing through flesh.
Salty moisture stung Johnny’s eyes, but he blinked it away. He wasn’t about to give his captors the satisfaction of seeing his grief. Any mourning that needed doing would be done in silence in the few seconds he had left before he joined his friends in the land of the dead.
Loudly spoken words probed into Johnny thoughts. His time had come. The impatience in the voice of the leader of his executioners grated on his nerves. “Don’t shout,” he muttered, leaning forward and shifting his weight to his left knee.
The wide-brimmed sombrero slipped from his head. Johnny let the hat lay where it had landed in front of his knees on the ground and brought his right foot under him. Struggling to his feet was no easy chore considering that his wrists were bound together behind his back.
Bitterness welled up inside of Johnny and he tensed his jaw. Some twenty-first birthday present he was getting. Today he was legally a man and in less than five seconds he would be lying in the dirt, his blood mixing with the dust to form a dark red mud. He would never see his twenty-second birthday.
Johnny started to take the first step toward his final destiny when the rattle of wagon wheels bouncing and clattering along the rocky ridge caught his attention. He turned to watch the team of horses racing toward him, their dark manes streaming out behind them as the driver whipped them on to greater speed and shouted what sounded like “wait.”
The interruption brought a touch of fury rising from somewhere deep inside Johnny. His nerves were already stretched to the limit, and he wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep up the masquerade of indifference. If his execution was postponed much longer, he feared he would give in to the desire to beg for his life despite the fact that he knew that his captors would only laugh at him.
The newcomer, who was neatly dressed in a style of suit that was common of a well-to-do gringo businessman, announced that he was seeking Johnny Madrid.
Johnny’s irritation immediately changed to curiosity. “I’m Madrid,” he said, his brows knitting together as he wondered why this stranger would be looking for him.
“Finally found you.” The man’s shoulders visibly slumped in relief.
While Johnny puzzled over what was happening, he heard snatches of the conversation between the new man and the leader of the firing squad. He heard the mention of his being worth ‘mui dinero’ and then he saw money exchange hands. Even from where he stood, he could tell that the sum was no small amount.
What followed was like a dream, and Johnny kept expecting to wake up and find that he was back in his tiny cell within the stone walls of the compound run by the Nogales’ Rurales. Still, the hands working to loosen the knot of the rope that bound him felt real. “Why are you doin’ this?” Johnny asked.
“I’m a Pinkerton Agent. Your father wants to see you.”
Staggered by the unexpected answer, Johnny twisted his neck to cast a doubtful glance at his rescuer. “Lancer?”
Johnny found the agent’s next words even more surprising. The very thought of his father paying him a thousand dollars for one hour of his time was too good to be true. He was even surer that he was dreaming. Murdoch Lancer had thrown him out along with his mother over nineteen years ago. There didn’t seem to be any reason that the man would want him now. Unless–
Something didn’t seem right about the way the Rurales had huddled together, and Johnny cut his thoughts short. When they started to move apart, his instincts warned him of impending danger just as he felt the rope fall from his hands.
Without thinking, Johnny shoved the Pinkerton Agent while snatching the man’s gun. He fired at the leader of the firing squad and then, while racing to the remaining prisoner’s side, he sent off another quick shot at one of the other rurales. In a matter of seconds, Johnny had the young man on his feet and together they raced to the agent’s wagon as the rest of the Rurales scattered.
Bullets flew harmlessly past as Johnny practically tossed the young Mexican peasant into the wagon, grabbed the reins of one of the Rurales’ frightened mounts, and vaulted into the saddle. As he kicked the horse into a run, he heard the Pinkerton man shout, “What shall I tell your father?”
Johnny wasn’t even sure if the agent had heard his reply in the commotion of more shooting. He didn’t really care. Murdoch Lancer would know soon enough that Johnny Madrid would go anywhere for a thousand dollars–even to hell.
December 23, 1870:
“It’s getting late. Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
The concerned tone in which the words were spoken brought a smile to the face of the young man, who had been lounging on the sofa and staring into the bright flames licking at the log in the fireplace that was no more than ten feet in front of him. If anyone had told him eight months and twenty-three days ago that he would take pleasure in the sound of that deep voice, he would have told them they were crazy. He had hated the man then.
Since then, though, so much had changed. Murdoch Lancer had given him a chance to begin a new life as part owner of a sizeable ranch. More than that, the man had been responsible for rescuing him from death on that fated day so many months ago.
Johnny Lancer’s smile broadened, and he chuckled.
Looking up into the eyes of the tall man, who had stepped in front of the fireplace and was now regarding him with an unsettling intensity, Johnny shrugged. “I was just thinkin’.”
“Anything you care to let me in on?”
“I was thinkin’ about . . . my last birthday.” Johnny paused to draw in a breath, finding the floor with his eyes as a lump crept into his throat. “It really could’ve been my last,” he said in a hushed tone.
His father’s voice, unusually quiet and cracking with emotion, touched the younger man to the depth of his soul. So much had happened over the course of the past year, and most everything good was due to Murdoch Lancer’s relentless search for one lost son. “Thanks for not givin’ up. You made my birthday the best day of my life,” Johnny said in a hoarse whisper.
Murdoch’s next words were muffled by the hand in front of his mouth, but Johnny thought he heard his father say it had been his, too, just before the big man quickly excused himself and left the room.
Alone again, Johnny took a few more minutes to dwell on the gift he had received for the birthday that he sincerely hoped would be the first of many more to come. Life was sweet. In two days he and his family would be celebrating their first Christmas together. He had the father he had always wanted, a brother he had never even dreamed existed, and a sister who loved him in spite of his past. Never again would he regret the day of his birth. As far as he was concerned, it was the best day of the year.
First Posted December 23, 2003
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