Word Count: 2300
He sat on the ground, in the Californian desert, with his shoulders propped against the wheel of a stationary wagon, his legs stretched out before him and with tired pain blurred blue eyes he was watching the new dawn break.
It had to be quite the most beautiful dawn he had ever seen, not the least because, in truth, he had never expected to see it, or any other dawn, ever again. So he watched, with intense satisfaction, as the sky began to lighten-from dark dark blue, through a tinge of gold, then crimson and through a myriad of wonderful tones that he couldn’t even give names too until the rays of the rising sun began to hurt his sore eyes and he had to drop his lashes and his head against the light and could instead, bask in the increasing warmth of the rising sun.
He shifted his position, which made him cough, and a sharp frission of pain brought his eyes open again. He glanced down, with a small frown, at the raw, sore chain burns about his ankles. His guardian angel had offered to bandage them but he had shaken his head. Every square inch of him craved the fresh air, even this torn flesh. He had to wear a shirt and pants-and a pair of moccasins (because he had not been able to cope with the agony of trying to pull on his boots over his chafed and bloody ankles) but no bandages. His guardian angel had seemed to understand and had not pressed the point.
He was there now, just off to his left, this guardian angel of his. The young man turned rather awkwardly–it was not only his raw and torn ankles and battered face that hurt him–to watch him and was quietly puzzled.
His mama had told him, in a rare moment of childhood togetherness, about his guardian angel, who would watch over him and would come to his aid, in the hour of his greatest need. He had once seen a picture of an angel–a bright white being with shining wings-and he had kept this image somewhere in the back of his mind but never, in all the hardships and dangers of his life had he ever come across any thing that matched up to that ideal. If he had, in later years, ever given the matter any thought at all it was that obviously his particular guardian angel had given him up as a bad job–as had so many others.
He had been quite wrong though.
His guardian angel was, in fact, an ordinary, looking gringo with mid brown hair and rather light eyes, some ten years his senior perhaps, wearing a dusty town suit, once well polished town shoes and who had come to his rescue (in the hour of his greatest need), not on shining wings but driving a wagon pulled by a plain brown horse. His name, he had said, was Kirk Allenby, and he was a Pinkerton Agent.
If it had seemed an odd guise for a guardian angel, it had scarcely made him any the less effective.
He had not actually recognized him as such at all, when he had been standing—only just standing–on legs that shook so badly that they were threatening to topple him into the already bloodstained dirt—in front of the four grubby Mexican soldiers that were his firing squad.
He had refused the blindfold, not out of bravado–there was no bravado left within him–but because of a desperate and fervent need to see the blue of the sky and the gold of the sun again, before his flesh was to be rent by bullets and–far more terrifying–his soul was sent to hell for the rest of eternity. There was an odd heavy feeling in his gut. Was it fear? His mind was reiterating odd phrases from some half-remembered prayer.
If the bullets that were going to tear into him, at any minute now, did not kill him outright then he would be left to lie, in his own draining blood and die there. “So—please, God” he had entreatingly added his own little line to the fragments of the prayer, “I know it’s a mite late to start asking favors of you now, but–at least –por favor–make it a clean end”. And because he had refused the blindfold (and was beginning to think that perhaps it had not been such a good idea after all), he had seen, but not recognized, his guardian angel–on his buckboard–come charging up the slope and through the prison gates, yelling at the soldiers-in poorly accented but comprehensible Spanish, to “Hold your fire”.
And the four threatening guns had not fired.
At which point his wayward legs and waning courage had given out and tipped him into the dirt.
He had rather lost track of exactly what had happened for a while after that. He remembered kneeling in the dust, scarcely daring to breathe in case he got something wrong and they all changed their minds, as they untied his hands.
Then the shackles he had worn for so long that they had flayed his ankles raw, right down to the bone, were knocked from his feet.
That had been an extremely painful proceeding but the pain had forced his befuddled brain back into some sort of use and when the guardian angel had helped him, sweating, shaking and confused, to his feet, he had scrambled unheroically into the back of the buckboard, pain and weakness momentarily forgotten, as if the hounds of hell were indeed still snapping at his heels.
Then the guardian angel had driven the wagon out of the prison courtyard and, at a speed which made it an uncomfortable ride, taken him away to this new freedom.
It had seemed like a lifetime since he had had the freedom to move as he wished. This wasn’t much right now, because it hurt even to breath or blink, both actions which seemed to bring on that damned painful hacking cough that wracked him almost as cruelly as any mistreatment by some sadistic prison guard.
It was in fact, only the cough and the pain that kept him believing that this actually WAS reality and not one of his vivid and life-like dreams. That he was not going to awaken to find himself still chained to the damp grimy wall of that hell-hole prison, to be kicked around and beaten-and worse, where he would be given barely enough poor food and disgusting water to keep him alive and where, one by one, he had would have to listen to the sounds of his friends and other prisoners, being taken away to be killed, always leaving him behind, wracked with guilt (it had been his plan and it had failed disastrously) and to his physical agony and spiritual anguish.
He shivered, despite the increasing heat from the ever rising sun, and raised his face to the beneficent warmth in silent sorrow for those he had lost and left behind. But if this was a dream it was a very strange one, and he was quite content not to be awakened from it.
“You eating breakfast, son?”
His guardian angel was cooking breakfast? The irony of it brought the twitch of a smile to his bruised and broken face. The smell of fresh coffee made his stomach growl and he pushed his grim memories aside resolutely.
“Gracias.” He rolled onto his side and pushed himself to his feet, setting his teeth against the unexpected dizziness that the movement caused and walked, very carefully, to the fire.
The coffee was good and had been sweetened, and he gulped it down gratefully but he could do little more than pick at the beans and bacon he was offered. Not wishing to seem ungrateful he pushed the food around on the tin plate with his fork but his guardian angel didn’t seem to be offended.
“Got something here for you, son,” he said, and indicated an assortment of items that he had pulled down from the wagon.
“Johnny–call me Johnny.” For some reason he never had liked to be addressed as ‘son’. A son needed a father and HIS had abandoned him long, long ago. He lurched unsteadily to his feet again and peered at the something-and let out a gasp of disbelief. This guardian angel of his might not look the part but he sure knew his job. There lay not just the boots that he had not been able to pull on over his broken flesh but his saddle, his saddle bags and, unbelievably — he reached out a shaking hand to touch it — his only real friend in the whole world: his gun, still nestling in the cutaway holster on the old brown gun belt. Everything, in fact, in the world that he possessed. It hurt his battered and bruised face to grin but he couldn’t help it. He had never expected to see or need any of this again and his spirits lifted perceptively.
“Thank you,” he said softly, “it’s appreciated.”
The first night after the timely rescue they had put up at a grubby cantina just to the north of the border (the gunslinger had been too exhausted to take any more trouncing around in the buck-board) but it had provided at least a tub of hot water and a shave for his ‘client’ and Allenby had been shocked to find that from under the dark growth of dirty beard and the ragged overlong dark hair, there had emerged a mere boy. An exhausted, tight-lipped boy, controlling his emotions with visible effort and hardly able to eat or speak. Surprised at his own feelings, Allenby had all but put him to bed and let him sleep until he awoke of his own accord. He rather thought that the boy needed a doctor but he had been vehement in refusing and Allenby had no authority to insist.
So they had gone on, with the exhausted gunfighter more or less semi-conscious in the back of the buckboard until he had awakened again, seemingly much refreshed, to take his seat up front.
The following night they had made camp down by a stream and the ‘vicious cold-blooded killer’ of the reports had kept him awake with a series of nightmares that argued a very disturbed conscience indeed, until at last, whimpering with what seemed like terror, he had finally slept quietly for a couple of hours, awakening, just before dawn, to the cough that wracked him to further exhaustion. Allenby knew that someone had paid and was still paying, a lot of money, to track down this boy, but he was beginning to doubt whether he would be of any use to anyone, for some considerable time to come.
Kirk Allenby had not expected, at the beginning of this assignment, to find that he was going feel sorry for the man he was been sent to track down and find — no expenses spared, he had been told, and a fat bonus for success. He certainly had not expected to feel any liking for him. Expecting a coarse loud-mouth braggart, he was rather thrown by this tired, polite, softly spoken charmer. The trail of gunfights, violence and death that Allenby had followed to and fro across the California/Mexico border had not engendered within him any feelings of sympathy or kindness for the killer he had been sent to find, but what he had found had disturbed him more than he would have thought possible. The cruelty and brutality of the Mexican military prison system had sickened him and the state to which it had reduced this supposedly dangerous and allegedly tough young gunfighter had appalled him. He might well have saved him from the firing squad, but it could still be touch and go as to whether he might not succumb on the trail to some disease or sickness, the state he was in.
Kirk Allenby knew that he could not simply abandon this half-starved, sick and pain-weakened young man to fend for himself no matter how cold-blooded and dangerous he might once have been or even might be again. Orders or no orders, it looked like this assignment was going to take rather longer than he had anticipated.
So there they were, eating breakfast together. Allenby supposed that now might be as good a time as any to tell him why they were there.
“Aren’t you interested to know how come you’re still alive, son–er–Johnny?”
“I ain’t so sure, yet, that I am” came the rather whimsical response. “You left it kinda late, didn’t you?” He shivered at the thought of how close a call it really had been. Perhaps guardian angels didn’t get much practice at the sort of stuff they did.
“Someone has been looking for you for a long time.” Allenby looked him over judiciously. The very blue eyes met his over the rim of the mug, with a question in them. “Name of Lancer–Murdoch Lancer. Do you know him?”
The blue eyes chilled — suddenly as hard as diamond chips and so unexpectedly that Allenby jumped — and he realized that, after all, the bare facts of his information may have been right after all. Under the charm, this Madrid WAS as tough and dangerous as the reputation Allenby had been tracking. Then the dark lashes fell and the fierce emotion was veiled.
“No,” he said, in a rather strained voice, “I don’t know him.”
“Well, he must know some about you,” Allenby said, rather uneasily. “He’s willing to pay you a thousand dollars–for an hour of your time.”
(or is that the beginning?)