With thanks to & appreciation of my fine beta, Karen

Accepting

She had been getting used to the idea of being alone for the rest of her life.

Her marriage had not turned out to be as fulfilling as she had hoped. She'd felt isolated for most of it, first as she had grieved for her parents and later…well, recognizing the limitations of her relationship with her husband had engendered its own form of mourning. She worked hard to learn to love him after a fashion. She had found herself truly alone in an unfamiliar world after he was killed.

Just as she was resigning herself to the emptiness, just as she was figuring out how to cope with it, she met this soft-spoken, intense, complicated man who made her feel more like herself than she had in a very long time. Being with Johnny restored the joy she hadn't realized was gone from her life.

She had never known Johnny Madrid. Johnny had left that way of life behind before she'd met him. His former life as a gunfighter wasn't a secret; she just hadn't given it much thought.

But late one afternoon, after a quiet supper together, they relaxed in the rocking chairs on her front porch and he said hesitantly, "I need to talk to you about something."

Her heart sank. "You're scaring me," she said. "That's what people say before they tell really bad news."

"Well, it's not news." She could tell he was nervous-his legs were jiggling and his fingers worried at the strings of the hat he held in his lap. "You and me have been spending a lot of time together, and I think it's time you know the kind of man I am."

She laughed softly, temporarily relieved. "I already know the kind of man you are."

He looked apprehensive. "You do?"

"Of course I do! You're a good man, a kind man, a capable man, an honorable man, a gentle man, an intelligent man, a charming man, a handsome man…shall I go on?"

He gave her a rueful smile. "You know you're making this harder for me, don't you?"

She smiled back but he had dipped his head and didn't see. "I mean, I'm glad you think that of me. But I haven't always…" He stopped to gather his courage. "Ooh, boy, this is harder than I thought!" He gave a short laugh to cover his discomfiture.

"My life has changed a whole lot in the last year or so. I'm Johnny Lancer now." He shook his head as if he didn't believe it himself. "I have a home, a family, and a real special lady in my life. Boy, I never even dreamed…" He stopped. His smile became sad before it faded away. "Before I was Johnny Lancer, I was Johnny Madrid. And Johnny Madrid is who I need to talk to you about."

He focused on the wooden planks of the porch floor. He suddenly appeared older, harder. For an instant she barely recognized him. "Since I was 15 I made my living with my gun. That's a pretty way of sayin' I killed men for money."

She had never thought of it that way. The realization dismayed her.

He was a smart-mouthed kid with no fear and nothing to lose, and he wasn't going to take any more shit from anybody. No one jumped into a fight faster than Johnny. His natural coordination and quickness came in real handy. He fought hard and dirty with fists, knives-it didn't matter. He took beatings and came back for more. He learned fast and he rarely made the same mistake twice; if he did, he healed quickly. He used his anger to overcome the pain. It worked well.

He hooked up with a group of small time banditos, acting as a lookout and a messenger. The banditos fed him, and when they paid him he bought bullets and disappeared. He practiced with his gun for hours on end until he was out of ammunition. Then he came back to town and waited for the banditos to offer him another job.

When a pistolero joined the bandits, Johnny couldn't take his eyes off the man. He drank in his confidence, his way of dressing, how he sat his horse, how he cared for his guns.

And how no one messed with the guy.

He began tending the man's horse each evening at camp, making sure the animal had the best of everything. The pistolero noticed. He knew what the boy wanted. Late one afternoon he waved Johnny over.

"Show me," the pistolero said.

"Show you what?" Johnny replied.

"Take your gun and show me how good you are."

Johnny dropped his eyes. "I don't have no bullets."

The pistolero barked out a laugh. "What the hell? You wanna be a pistolero? You think you can be a pistolero without bullets? You just gonna point your gun and say 'Bang'? What kind of idiot are you, anyway?" He began to walk away. "Stay away from my horse, asshole," he shot back over his shoulder.

Johnny felt the whole camp laughing at him. He left that night.

He thought the Army would have regular meals, but he was wrong. He was expected to follow orders even if they were stupid; Johnny wasn't very good at that. Like many of the peasants he served with, he soon deserted. To avoid the patrols he headed north across the border. He waylaid travelers with his empty gun, stealing their food and their money to keep from starving.

He was sentenced to three months in a gringo prison. Meals weren't tasty but they were regular. He didn't have to search for a safe place to sleep. If he kept his mouth shut he didn't get beat up much.

The irony that prison was better than his life outside was not lost on him.

He met a third rate gunhawk in prison. The guy was flattered to have someone listen to him. He went on endlessly about his trade. Johnny learned a lot from that guy. He learned that this was something he could do; he already knew it was something he wanted to do. He wanted to be the man that nobody messed with.

Once he got out he found a job at a livery. He slept with the horses and didn't eat much so he'd have more money for ammunition. He bought a gunbelt. He practiced what he had learned from the man in jail using the bullets he bought with his earnings. He was naturally accurate, and he knew he was getting fast. He practiced moving as he shot-running, diving, rolling, crouching. He practiced until his hands were sore.

He knew that smiling at bullies really pissed them off, so he perfected a smile to look like he didn't have a care in the world. He added an air of total relaxation no matter how tense he was. He topped it off with a soft Anglo drawl pitched low so men had to strain to hear him. He created Madrid. He practiced until he thought he was ready.

The first man he called out was just a guy in a bar who looked at him the wrong way and made a crack about him being too young to drink with the men. Johnny was a pistolero now, and he wasn't going to take any shit from anybody. He challenged the man to a gun fight. The guy seemed eager to teach the cocky kid a lesson.

The time had come. He was plenty scared. He wasn't even able to maintain his façade-the smile melted and his whole body trembled. He forgot to crouch when he drew and fired. But he ended up standing and the other guy ended up dead.

Johnny looked down at the dead man's face and wished it was one of his mama's men.

Maybe it was.

He felt big. He felt powerful. He thought nothing bad could ever happen to him again.

Ten minutes later he was puking in an alleyway. The rush was gone, leaving behind flop sweat and a hollowness in his gut. It could have been him laying there in the dirt, dying. Instead it was someone else, dead, because of him. There was no going back. He was 15 years old.

Her mind reeled. She sorted through a flood of questions trying to find one that didn't sound like an accusation. She couldn't. All she could think to ask was "Why?"

"I was so damn tired of being hungry. I was tired of being treated like I didn't count for shit." He drew in a deep breath. "I was good with my gun…and it was the only way I could see to make them leave me the hell alone."

She sat still in her rocker with that ugly old dog in her lap; she absently petted his ears. Johnny chanced a look at her and saw sadness. Damn, he hadn't expected that. Disgust, maybe, or pity…

Her voice was low when she asked, "Did it work?"

"I guess so. It wasn't long before people were trying real hard to stay out of my way." A look of something-regret?-crossed his face and he was silent for a moment. "I started getting a few jobs. Not many, at first, for not much money. At the time I pretty much did whatever anybody would pay me to do."

He hesitated before pressing on. "Some of the things they paid me to do I'm not proud of. "

"Like what?" she asked quietly, afraid of the answer.

He answered to the air in front of him, as if putting the words out there would make them less painful. "One time I got paid to scare a shopkeeper out of town. I shot up the front of his store. When he ran out… I shot him, too. His kids were in the store, watching me kill their old man."

"Oh dear God," she whispered.

"God wasn't there that day. God wasn't ever there," he said flatly.

"I can't imagine you doing that, Johnny. I just can't…"

He interrupted her impatiently. "I did it. It's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be good at it, and I was good at it. I took the money and once I wasn't hungry any more I went drinking and whoring and gambling…" He rose to his feet and leaned heavily against the wooden beam supporting the roof of the porch, his back to her. His eyes gazed, unseeing, at the fading light of early evening. "I thought I was living the good life. I didn't know until later on that what I was really doing was killing my own future."

"How could you have known? You were so young then."

His reply broke her heart. "I was never young."

"You were! You just didn't know it. You were by yourself with no one to guide you or help you know right from wrong."

He pushed off the post and turned to her angrily. "Oh, come on, Emily, I knew killing was wrong! " He made a gesture with his fist as if throwing something to the ground. The old dog jumped off her lap and looked at him warily.

"I don't understand. You knew it was wrong, but you kept doing it? Even after you realized you were killing your own future? Why didn't you stop?"

Anguish mixed with the anger in his voice. "I couldn't! Once I started getting a name, I started getting called out because of that name. Every time I walked away my name got bigger. I hadn't thought it all the way through, you know." He scoffed at himself. "The only way to stop the train I was on was to get dead. And every time the other guy died instead of me that old train just kept going faster and faster and pretty soon my whole entire existence was a runaway train."

"But you did get off that train. You don't do that anymore."

"But I did it then," he insisted.

"Oh, Johnny, I know you wish you never had to kill for a living."

"Do I?" He glared at her defiantly.

"Don't you?" she shot back in disbelief.

"A lot of the men I killed needed killin'. I'm not sorry about that."

She matched the intensity of his gaze with a fierceness of her own. "Did that shopkeeper need it?"

Her question brought him up short. His anger evaporated, leaving behind a familiar dull emptiness. "No," he said, dropping his eyes.

She kept pushing. "Do you regret having killed him?"

"Of course I do." He sounded defeated. "But I can't undo it. I can regret it all I want but he's still just as dead. They're all just as dead."

A silence grew between them filled with unspoken words, unfinished thoughts. Johnny seemed smaller somehow. His expression was somber as he stared once again at the floor, where the old dog had placed himself between them. The dog regarded him with suspicion and edged closer to Emily.

She didn't want to reawaken Johnny's anger. She phrased her next question carefully, hoping it would offer some kind of solace. "If you were hired now to run that shopkeeper off, would you do it differently?"

He looked up slowly to meet her eyes. She was shocked when he smiled at her; she felt like the sun had broken through the clouds. The tension between them dissipated. "Oh, Emily, you're trying to let me off the hook!"

He held out his hands; she rose from her chair to take them in hers. "Come here, honey," he said as he pulled her close. He turned her around, her back to him, crossing her arms in front of her as he held her from behind.

He hugged her close while he continued, "I could tell you that I became too expensive a gun to deal with penny-ante jobs like that. I could tell you that I learned better ways to run people off without killing 'em. I could tell you I reached a point where I wouldn't take a job like that no matter how much money they offered me. And each answer would be true, but each would be a lie, because I can never go back and change what I did. Just because I wouldn't do it today doesn't absolve me of what I did in the past."

"What does absolve you?"

Johnny sighed as he gently rested his chin on the top of her head. "I don't know. Is there really such a thing as absolution?"

She leaned back into him, relishing the closeness. "There has to be. People make mistakes. They regret them. They learn from them, and in time they forgive themselves. I think that's absolution. It comes from inside. You can't forget the bad things you did. You can't change them or take them back. But you can forgive yourself."

"I need to know if you can live with the things that I did. Can you forgive me?"

She answered thoughtfully. "I think there's a difference between living with what you did and thinking you need my forgiveness. I hate what you did, Johnny, and it hurts me…it hurts to know how you grew up with violence all around you. I hate what you needed to do to survive. But I'm so very glad you did survive! And I'm glad when you got the chance to leave the killing behind, you did."

"Answer me straight. I killed a lot of men, Emily. Can you live with that?"

She turned in his embrace to look steadily up at him. "Yes, I can. Nothing you have told me changes what I feel about you." She smiled at him. "You need to forgive yourself for the things you did-learn from them and move on. Allow yourself to be the good man I believe you always have been."

He hugged her tightly with relief and gave her a lopsided grin. "When did you get so smart, pretty lady?"

"When I baked those cookies the first time you came over. Smartest thing I ever did."

He pulled back in surprise. "Wait a minute! How did you…? I wasn't even supposed to come to your place that day!"

"And yet…" She grinned wickedly.

He feigned indignity. "And here I am telling everybody you don't play games!"

"Oh, I don't play games. I win games."

They laughed together. The old dog had fallen asleep. Their laughter entered his dreams, and he wagged his tail.